Kathy Brown wasn't always much of a chef — but she was an educator.
When Brown, the former head of Grace Christian School, was diagnosed with amyloidosis of the heart in April 2008, she began experimenting with recipes to suit her new low-fat, low-salt, low-sugar diet.
Compelled to share what she'd learned, Brown started compiling a heart-friendly cookbook for other patients. While Brown later received a successful heart transplant, the 62-year-old died in December 2010 before she could finish the book.
Brown's daughter-in-law, Dr. Jennifer Brown, a cardiology fellow at the University of Maryland Medical Center, didn't want her work to be in vain. She teamed up with three of her colleagues at the medical center to publish "Kathy's Cookbook," which will be available for $20 online and by direct mail. It will be given free to cardiology and heart surgery patients at the hospital this month, which is American Heart Month.
"By trade, she was a teacher and she wanted to show people that heart-healthy living wasn't intimidating," Jennifer Brown said. "I'm so excited about this book, because it's an amazing gift to patients, and it's something that's going to provide incredible closure for my husband and my father-in-law and my family. This is something I wanted to do for them."
"Kathy's Cookbook" focuses on common substitutions and research about which store brands best fit the dietary restrictions of heart disease and post-transplant recovery. In it, Brown suggests fresh herbs and salt substitutes, and explains how to comply with aheart-healthy diet when ordering in restaurants. There are about 100 recipes, ranging from venison tenderloin with sherry mushroom sauce to creamy red pepper soup.
Not all of Brown's initial experiments were immediate successes, though. Her son, Kevin, said that her first attempt at a low-fat, low-calorie lasagna was poorly received.
"She tried to use venison, and that's a much, much leaner meat, but the recipe, it wasn't quite there," said Kevin, Kathy's son and Jennifer's husband, a Navy lieutenant and the general surgeon from the USS Eisenhower.
That was before Kathy discovered spaghetti squash as a pasta substitute and adjusted the seasonings to make the dish more palatable. Kevin now describes her baked spaghetti dish as "one of those recipes you would have had no idea that you were eating something good for you."
To make sure the book reached publication, Jennifer Brown collaborated with Kathy Brown's doctor, Erika Feller, an assistant professor of medicine at the UM center and medical director of heart transplants. They recruited Elaine Pelc, the center's clinical dietitian for heart and lung transplant patients, to analyze the recipes. And Betty Gingras, a "transplant ambassador" at the center who worked with Kathy as a peer mentor, served as copy editor.
The four met monthly to prepare Brown's manuscript, which Jennifer Brown said was about 90 percent complete at the time of he mother-in-law's death, for publication. Feller and Kathy Brown's husband, Terry, paid the costs of self-publishing the initial run of 200 copies.
Decades ago, when Kathy Brown was working at Grace Christian School and helping raise two children, she was prone to using pre-made shortcuts in the kitchen. That went out the window when her husband suffered a stroke in 2001. She swept through the house, tossing processed food into the trash, and began looking up healthier recipes.
"You really have to make an effort, which she realized when her family was at stake," her son said. "Frankly, I think in the end, she was a better cook for it, too."
Jennifer Brown still works every day in the unit at the medical center where Kathy Brown died. (She received her heart transplant at the hospital in November 2008 and later died as a result of the amyloidosis, an overproduction of protein that eventually affected other organs.) The experience of Kathy Brown's illness profoundly affected her as a physician, she said.
"Even as her illness was progressing, my father-in-law would sort of wheel her over to the computer, and she'd have to get that writing done," Jennifer Brown said.
Kathy Brown viewed dietary restrictions as a challenge instead of a punishment. To have a patient who was an advocate of healthful living was a helpful resource for Feller and Pelc.
"Every time I meet a patient, I tell them that changing how you eat is not the end of the world," Pelc said. "It will be so nice to just hand them something and say, 'It can be done. See what this person did?'"
Creamy red pepper soup
From "Kathy's Cookbook"
Makes 4-5 servings