The Joy of Nuking

If your stove’s a stranger to you, fear not -- you can make quick and healthy meals -- such as salsa-smothered turkey meatloaf -- with that old counter standby: the microwave.

Sure, you know that your microwave oven is good for nuking popcorn and Hot Pockets. But home-style meatloaf? Yep, that magic box in your kitchen is a lot more versatile than you think. In fact, microwaving preserves more flavor and nutrients than other cooking methods, says Barbara Kafka, one of America’s leading authorities on food and cooking, and the author of Microwave Gourmet Healthstyle Cookbook. It turns out that your microwave may just be one of your best tools for healthy cooking … that is, if you can master the machine. Here’s what you need to know to do so:

How it heats your food First of all, “nuking” has nothing to do with how a microwave works. The oven actually heats with electromagnetic energy more akin to radio waves than X-rays. Microwaves jiggle all the molecules in the food, causing friction, which results in heat. So really, the food is steaming itself from within. This moist cooking heat means you can prepare foods without adding lots of unhealthy fats, but it also means your food won’t get browned and crispy -- so if you want a great steak or a burger, go with a grill or broiler.

What the microwave is good at The microwave is best at zapping water, fat and sugar molecules, which are primarily what comprise most proteins and vegetables. This explains why it is “brilliant” at cooking fish, poultry, vegetables and most carbs like rice and pasta, says Kafka. Also important: Microwaves only penetrate about an inch and a half into foods, so they’ll cook from the outside in. Thus, Kafka says, the ideal “nuke” foods are uniform in thickness and shape, like cubed chunks of chicken breast, pork, beef or fish.

How powerful your oven is There are plenty of great microwave recipes out there -- but unless you know how much muscle your oven has, the given cooking times will be worthless. This is because all microwaves are not created equal. Most microwaves range from 750 to 1,100 watts (find out your wattage by looking on the back or inside the door of the oven), and most good recipes give a range of cooking times, so the more powerful your oven is, the shorter the zapping time. Still, there’s no harm in checking your food often (opening the door won’t affect cooking times). Cook a juicy piece of chicken too long, and you’ll get a hockey puck.

Incidentally, for meats and poultry it’s important to make sure they’re cooked to a safe temperature. Insert an instant-read thermometer (available at any supermarket) into the center of each piece: Beef, pork and lamb should be at last 160 F while poultry should reach at least 165 F.

Where to put the food Before delving into nuke cuisine, make sure you have a variety of microwave-safe dishes (no metal -- it makes microwaves bounce all over, potentially causing a nasty fire). Once you’re armed and ready, take special care in placing your food on the dish, since how you arrange foods inside the microwave is key. Food will cook from the outer edge of the dish to the center, so always have the thicker end of, say, a chicken breast or fish fillet, pointing outwards, and space foods evenly apart. If your microwave doesn’t have a spinning carousel (for even cooking), buy one where microwave ovens are sold -- otherwise, you’ll need to rotate your food every couple of minutes.

How to Make Salsa-smothered Turkey Meatloaf
One thing your microwave is not equipped to do is spit out a homemade turkey meatloaf. That’s where we (and you) come in. The great thing about this recipe is that you only need a few ingredients, since the salsa alone adds so many flavors.

And by the way, cooking up a tasty meal is a surefire way to get in good with the folks or impress a date.

Start to finish: 25 minutes

Servings: 4

1 large egg
3/4 teaspoon garlic salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/4 pounds 93 percent lean ground turkey
1 1/2 cups mild or medium chunky tomato salsa (divided)
3/4 cup bread crumbs
2 teaspoons vegetable or olive oil

1. Spray a 9-inch microwave-safe pie dish with cooking spray or lightly coat it with oil.

2. In a mixing bowl, beat egg, garlic salt and pepper with a fork.

3. Add ground turkey, 1 cup of salsa and bread crumbs. Mix together thoroughly.

4. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish and form a flat, round loaf about 1 1/2 inches thick.

5. In a small bowl, stir together oil and the remaining 1/2 cup of salsa.

6. Cover the meatloaf loosely with wax paper, and microwave on high for 15 to 20 minutes, rotating the dish a quarter turn every 5 minutes, until the meatloaf is no longer pink in the center and an instant-read thermometer registers 160 F in the middle of the loaf (to make sure the meat is fully cooked and safe to eat).

7. Spread the remaining salsa on top of the meatloaf and let it sit for 5 minutes before slicing.

8. Serve this spicy dish with a green salad and a few warm flour tortillas.

Live Healthy Now -- Have More Sex Later

Think what you do today has no bearing on your sex life tomorrow, or the day after? Think again.

The plight of the typical young man isn’t the inability to have sex; it's usually the inability to find someone to have sex with.

Fact is, though, if you think you don’t have to worry about erectile dysfunction (ED) until your hair starts to turn gray, think again. Even in your early 20s, chances are your arteries are already undergoing changes that may culminate years from now in ED.

Fundamentally, erection depends on blood flow into the penis. The more blood, the more reliable and firm your erection. But when arteries become narrowed by cholesterol-rich atherosclerotic plaque deposits, less blood flows into the penis and erections wilt. This becomes apparent by the time a man hits 50.

Harvard researchers tracked 31,742 middle-aged men for 14 years and found that ED is strongly linked to lifestyle factors that spur the growth of atherosclerotic plaques: smoking, obesity, heavy drinking and lack of exercise.

But plaques don’t pop up out of nowhere when you hit 50. They start to develop in childhood. Autopsies of American males killed in their late teens and 20s in accidents or in war consistently show the beginnings of atherosclerotic plaques, which means the beginning of ED.

Meanwhile, a healthy lifestyle keeps blood flowing freely through the arteries and preserves erection function. Healthy living doesn’t mean you’ll have the ability of legends at 90. But if you want to function sexually on Social Security, you’d be smart to adopt a healthy lifestyle now. Here’s how:

Get Regular, Moderate Exercise
Exercise is crucial for arterial health and blood flow into the penis. Exercise lowers cholesterol, which minimizes the deposits (plaques) on artery walls that narrow them and reduce blood flow. A study of middle-aged men at the University of California, San Diego, shows that as regular, moderate exercise increased, erections become more reliable. ED-preventive exercise doesn’t require extreme sports, but rather the equivalent of brisk walking for about an hour a day. “No question about it,” says Hank Wuh, M.D., author of Sexual Fitness. “Regular exercise improves erection function and sex.”

Eat Less Meat, Cheese and Junk Food, and More fruits and Vegetables
Meat, cheese and junk food are high in saturated (animal) fat. Like cholesterol, this fat narrows the arteries, limiting blood flow to the penis. Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, contain antioxidant nutrients that minimize plaques and improve arterial blood flow. Italian researchers identified 65 men with incipient ED and asked half of them to eat less meat and cheese, and more fruits and vegetables. After two years, those who maintained a high-fat diet continued to have erection difficulties. But those who increased their fruit and vegetable consumption reported significantly less ED.

Lose Excess Weight
According to the Harvard study of middle-aged men, obesity is strongly associated with ED, and weight loss improves erection function. That’s not surprising. As we’ve seen, exercise and a diet low in saturated fat improve erections. They are also cornerstones of weight control. Studies at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center show that as men lose weight and become more physically active, they report better erections.

Stop Smoking
Cigarettes greatly accelerate the growth of artery-narrowing plaques. A study at the New England Research Institute in Watertown, Mass., shows that smoking almost doubles risk of ED. Australian epidemiologist Christopher Millett, Ph.D., says, “Health promotion programs should use the link between tobacco and ED to help convince men to quit smoking.”

Manage Your Stress
Many young men feel like they have heavy weights on their shoulders. In one recent survey, 60 percent of Americans said they feel they’re “under significant stress” at least once a week. And since the stock market crash last fall, ComPsych, the nation’s largest employee-assistance program, reports that requests for psychotherapy have surged 40 percent.

The biological result of this emotional stress: the release of two hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) that constrict arteries, reducing blood flow into the genitals.

The erection-firming antidote is an ongoing stress-management program. Proven stress relievers include exercise -- aerobic or non-aerobic (e.g., yoga) -- meditation, music (playing or listening to), massage, laughter, hot baths, gardening, caring for a pet, visualization (of relaxing scenes) and quality time with friends, family or a lover. Incorporate one or more into your daily life, or even better, combine them: Exercise with friends or bathe with your girlfriend, for instance.

Bottom line: Couch potatoes are on a one-way trip to ED. But if you get off the sofa, work out and switch from Big Macs to big salads -- with low-fat dressing, of course -- you’re much more likely to maintain firm, reliable erections as you get older and to enjoy satisfying sex.