Published on 03/03/97

St. Patrick's Day Tradition Hardly Heart-Healthy Fare

On St. Patrick's Day, Irish descendents around the world come together to celebrate their heritage. The festivities usually center around the traditional feast.

In America, a typical St. Patrick's Day menu includes corned beef and cabbage, champ (mashed potatoes with cream and scallions) and brown bread.

It may be a nostalgic meal for the Irish at heart, but not for the heart-conscious.

"Corned beef isn't one of the most nutritious beef cuts," said Connie Crawley, a nutrition and health specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

A 3.5-ounce serving, she said, has 251 calories, 19 grams of fat, 6 grams of saturated fat, 98 mg. of cholesterol and 1134 mg. of sodium.

The cabbage, however, has no cholesterol and is low in fat, calories and sodium. Well, it is until it's cooked for hours with the corned beef.

"How much fat and sodium are transferred is hard to say," Crawley said. "Of course, if a person only has corned beef on St. Patrick's Day and eats a low-fat, low-sodium diet the rest of the time, the traditional meal is no big deal."

If you want to minimize the damage, Crawley suggests cooking the beef ahead without the cabbage. Then chill it so some of the fat comes to the surface and can be lifted off before reheating. Pouring off the cooking water and reheating in fresh water will cut out some of the sodium.

Cook the cabbage separately in low-sodium beef broth with peppercorns.

To prepare champ, just peel and cube enough potatoes to feed your family. Add them to a boiler of water with sliced scallions (just the bulb). Boil until tender. Drain well.

Put the potatoes in a bowl, add butter, cream or the water the potatoes were cooked in, and mash well. Add the green tips of the scallions, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir until smooth. Serve hot.

To cut the fat from the potatoes, cook them in the skin, then cool slightly and peel. Mash them with warmed skim or evaporated skim milk and a little diet margarine or a butter-flavored substitute.

You can keep the traditional flavor of the St. Patrick's Day meal by substituting salmon, another traditional Irish dish, for corned beef.

"Salmon is one of the fattier fish," Crawley said. "However, the fat can range, depending on the type of salmon, from 3 to 9 grams per 3-ounce serving. It's very low in saturated fat, with only 1-2 grams. Some of the fat is the polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids that may reduce the risk of heart attack."

Salmon has 40-50 mg. of cholesterol and 40-50 mg. of sodium unless you add ingredients like soy sauce or salt that raise the sodium level. It can be grilled or baked without added fat. If the fat is needed, brush the salmon with a little olive oil.

"Certainly this is a better choice for someone concerned about cardiovascular disease," Crawley said. "Plus, salmon is more economical. It has less shrinkage than the corned beef and often is a very good price."

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.