Heart-Healthy Cooking

In Honor of Heart Month, Chef Emilie Berner shows us how to make flavorful Chicken Tinga Tacos.

Cardiologists agree: A healthy diet and lifestyle are the keys to a healthy heart. For Heart Month, Health Matters asked Emilie Berner, chef and coordinator at the Chef Peter X. Kelly Teaching Kitchen at NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital, to share some heart-healthy cooking tips and other advice on healthy eating.

As part of her role at the teaching kitchen, Berner, who grew up in Cold Spring, New York, spends her time teaching heart-healthy cooking classes for the community, as well as simmering batches of soup for patients undergoing chemotherapy, showing middle and high schoolers how to read food labels and make healthy meals, and donating extra food to the local food pantry. In the warmer months, she and a group of volunteers harvest vegetables and herbs directly from the organic garden outside the teaching kitchen to use in her recipes.

No matter the recipe she is making or class she is teaching, her focus is on mindful, healthful eating and what it means to be healthy.

“What does ‘healthy’ look like in our families and communities?” Berner asks. “And when we’re thinking about the food on our plates, how do we cultivate a relationship with all the ingredients and understand what they are bringing to our bodies and to our health?”

For Berner, who loved to cook as a child and remembers making French toast for her dad, fruit salads for her mom, and cookies for her brother, food is a way to express love and care. She describes her path to cooking as a profession as a “really lucky, beautiful evolution and progression of interest.” She studied English and psychology at Barnard College, and in her final year took a class on the history of food in Europe. “I realized that there is a world in which food is more than just something you have to eat in order to survive,” she says.

“A healthy approach to food is more than just what you eat, but how you eat, and your company and state of mind while eating.”

— Chef Emilie Berner

After college, she spent a year in France, her mother’s home country, to teach English to children, and found herself teaching her young students cooking as a way to help them with their language skills. “There are a lot of little French kids that know all the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies,” she says, laughing. The experience led her both to pursue a master’s degree in food studies and to attend culinary school. “It got me thinking more deeply about how food, wellness, and education all intersect,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do something in that space.” In 2016, she found that role at NewYork-Presbyterian. “I love what I do here.”

One of her favorite parts of the job is connecting more deeply with the hospital’s local community and patients. Many people who have taken her classes come back to tell her their blood pressure or cholesterol has dropped, or that they feel more empowered to take care of their health.

“I’m really moved when people share with me that our programming has in some way inspired them, motivated them, and given them action steps when it comes to their health,” says Berner.

Berner encourages mindful eating, and suggests taking a few deep breaths before digging into a meal. “Even just taking a moment to connect with your senses and look at the food: How does it look, and what does it feel like when you pick it up? What does it smell like?” she says. “Engaging the senses brings us more into the present moment and can prevent overeating, because when we’re more connected to our food, we tend to feel more satisfied.” It also cultivates a sense of gratitude, she says, which is good for mental health and well-being.

photo of heart-healthy recipe Chicken Tinga Tacos

Chicken Tinga Tacos

Serves 4-6 

Ingredients

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, minced (about 1 cup)
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp fresh oregano, chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 cup canned tomato puree
1⁄4 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1⁄2 tsp salt (or less if you prefer)
3 cups cooked chicken breast, shredded
Optional: 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper, if you like spicy food

For Serving:
10 (6-inch) corn or flour tortillas
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
1/2 cup red onion, sliced
crumbled cotija cheese, or another low-fat cheese you like
1 lime, cut into wedges

Directions

  1. Heat a large pan over medium. Once warm, add the oil and onion. Sauté for 4 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds more. Stir in the oregano, cumin, and cayenne if using, and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomato puree, chicken stock, and salt. Bring to a simmer and cook for 7 minutes.
  2. Place the mixture in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. If you do not have a blender or food processor, you can skip this step and have a chunkier sauce.
  3. Return the sauce to the pan over low heat.
  4. Add the chicken and cook for 5 minutes. Taste, and add more salt if necessary.
  5. To serve, top the tortillas with the chicken mixture, cilantro, red onion, and cheese. Serve with a squeeze of lime juice.

Without tortillas, dish keeps for 5 days in an airtight container in the refrigerator and can be used over a salad, combined with rice and beans, or enjoyed in a sandwich.

She also emphasizes getting back to the basics with whole foods and minimally processed foods, and limiting added sugars. “If you’re going to have something sweet, try dates as a sweetener, or a splash of maple syrup, or a few spoons of honey,” she says. The same goes for salt, which can contribute to high blood pressure. Instead, Berner suggests using more herbs, spices, nuts, or seeds to heighten the natural flavors in a dish. “This way, you’re allowing the true flavors of the food to shine,” she says.

Like most cardiologists, Berner is an advocate of the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruit, vegetables, legumes, fish, and nuts, and has been shown by several studies to support heart health. “I don’t like to think of it as a diet; it’s more of a lifestyle,” says Berner. “There’s more exercise and movement, more connecting with neighbors and loved ones, and less social isolation and loneliness — all of those things matter.

“A healthy approach to food is more than just what you eat, but how you eat, and your company and state of mind while eating,” says Berner. “It’s how all those things tie together on the plate that really supports your health.”

Additional Resources

  • Learn more about heart health at NewYork-Presbyterian

  • Register for free virtual cooking classes at NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital Chef Peter X. Kelly Teaching Kitchen