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A cook with arthritis adapts to kitchen, writes a book

ZEPHYRHILLS — Melinda Winner was in her 20s when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Born with the use of one arm, and now battling pain, Winner sank into depression. She gained 100 pounds and thought her dreams of being a chef were fading.

Winner, now 48, took control and lost the extra weight through walking and smarter eating. Through a series of adaptations, she rediscovered her love of cooking and regained her independence. She has written a book to help others do the same: A Complete Illustrated Guide to Cooking With Arthritis.

Winner has appeared on the Food Network and local newscasts. She conducts cooking seminars, where she demonstrates how to use everyday objects to overcome different physical limitations. She says her successes stem from sheer determination.

"I'm not one of these people that give up," she said. "I'm a true survivor."

While there are cooking tools made specifically for the disabled, Winner uses everyday items creatively, like using an apple corer to chop potatoes and using rubber-backed rugs to make standing for long periods of time easier.

Winner also organizes her working space to keep pain at a minimum. She hangs pots from a rack and keeps spices out where she can reach for them easily.

"It's always in the way you arrange your kitchen," Winner said. "You don't have to give up your life. You just have to reinvent your life."

While many cookbooks for people with arthritis focus on cooking foods to help control the disease, Winner's cookbook has recipes for everyone. She said the secret to keeping pain and inflammation down is buying fresh ingredients and staying away from convenience foods.

"Any time anything is precooked or prechopped, it has to have preservatives in it," Winner said. "When you have an autoimmune system disease, when you put extra chemicals in your body, you get sicker."

The cookbook includes recipes for people with diabetes and high blood pressure. Asked about her favorite recipes, Winner mentioned a couple of innovative cakes that use unusual ingredients.

There is the grapefruit cake. A purple cake made with Jamaican yams. And a red cabbage cake.

"If you like carrot cake, you'll absolutely love it," Winner said of the cabbage cake. "It is incredibly moist, and it's an awesome cake."

Winner says her cooking style is "Southern Yankee," which has been influenced by her family's deep roots in Zephyrhills and the years she lived up North, where she attended culinary school in Pennsylvania and worked at the Sheraton Inn in Uniontown.

She also volunteered in the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina. She has three grown children and five grandchildren and enjoys horseback riding, swimming, traveling and hiking.

When she first found out about her arthritis, Winner thought the end of her cooking days was near. Now, even when it takes a day or more to prepare a recipe, the act of living her passion keeps her going.

Winner said it is important to keep things in perspective, even on hard days.

"It's okay if you have a really bad day, because there are some days it's almost impossible to get out of bed," Winner said.

Moroccan Sweet Potato Salad

Yield: 5 servings

4 sweet potatoes washed, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. fresh ginger, grated

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

1/8 tsp. ground cloves

1/2 tsp. chili powder

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 lemon, juiced

1/2 tsp. lemon zest

1/4 cup raisins

1 T. olive oil

Prepare sweet potatoes by washing well and cubing. Place potatoes in a medium saucepan. Cover with about 3 cups of water — more if needed — and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are just tender. Water will be reduced by more than half. Add the ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, chili powder, brown sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest, raisins and olive oil to the boiling water. Stir well and allow the liquid to thicken. Pour mixture into a serving bowl and serve hot.

• Chopping: Use an apple corer to chop potatoes (you may need to cut potatoes in half first). If you have difficulty using your fingers, place your forearms on the handles of the apple cutter and press down, using your body weight.

• Skinning: To remove the potato skins, use a fork to stabilize a chopped piece of potato, and with the other hand slice off the skin with a paring knife. Same method can be used to cut the chopped pieces to the right size.

• Juicing: Place a lemon on a hard, flat surface (such as a cutting board), put your forearm on top of the lemon, and roll your forearm back and forth to get the juices flowing. If you have difficulty cutting the lemon in half, make a small slice with the knife, then hold the knife still and use your free hand to move the lemon back and forth. Use an electric juicer to juice the lemon halves.

• Zesting: Prop your elbow and forearm on a stack of thick books to provide stability for the hand holding the grater/zester. Holding your elbow against your body provides more leverage. Place the bottom of the grater in a cereal bowl that is held in place by a rubber jar opener. Using your free hand, lightly run the lemon in a downward motion. If you have already juiced the lemon, you can hold the fruit by putting your fingers inside the lemon peel.

• Boiling a pot of water: Filling a large pot with water and carrying it across the kitchen can be a challenge, so try this approach: Leave the empty pot on the stove. Next to the sink, put another container on an inexpensive plant stand with wheels. Use a cup to fill the container with water. Roll the container across the counter to the stove, then use the cup to transfer water from the container into the pot on the stove.

Source: A Complete Illustrated Guide to Cooking With Arthritis by Melinda Winner

The cookbook

For tips and information on the book, go online to

A cook with arthritis adapts to kitchen, writes a book 11/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 26, 2009 9:22pm]
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