Love to cook? Read on for professional tips on building flavor without all the calories!

Posts tagged ‘Flavor Secrets’

Fat’s Bad Rap: Getting a grip

We all want to eat healthy but have our food taste great. We all want to have soft skin and beautiful hair. We all want to feel full. We all want to digest and benefit from our vitamins. We all want to be thin but to have energy and not cravings. So how can we accomplish it? By using one element of food properly and that element is fat – an absolutely essential component of every diet. When used wisely, fat provides us with all of the above.

Current guidelines say that 25 to 35% of your diet should come from fat, with less than 7% from saturated fat (from meat and dairy). The rest should be from mono and polyunsaturated fats like olive oil. So how can we keep the amount of saturated fat down in our diets but still benefit from its wonderful flavor and other benefits? There are some tricks to using fat wisely.

1. You need to stop listening to the marketing (like bake it, don’t fry it) and pay attention to how much fat is really in your food. Did you ever notice that you never see the word FRY in recipes anymore? That’s because when fat started getting a bad rap, we thought we could just stop frying and not have to worry about it. Now we say sauté, but honestly, that’s just semantics. If you fry/sauté in 1 Tablespoon of fat or brush on 1 T of fat and bake it, you get the same nutrition results – exactly the same amount of fat in the food you prepare. OK, you baked it instead of frying it, but did you really make healthier food? Frying is actually a great way to prepare food quickly and it can be done with very little fat. Just pay attention to the amount you use. Heat it up, swirls it around and slide your fish or meat into the pan. This coats the bottom and helps to prevent sticking. If it does stick, don’t add more fat. Just loosen it by pouring in a little liquid – something that will complement the dish – like stock or juice and tip the pan so the liquid works it’s way underneath.

2. Instead of topping hot dishes (like steak or chicken or baked goods) with a pat of butter, use a pastry brush to brush on olive oil or melted butter. Because it’s applied last, the fat will coat your tongue and give you the mouth watering feeling that you are eating something very rich, yet you can use a minuscule amount. Your food will also have the added benefit of looking moist and delicious!

3. Mounting butter: This is exactly the same idea as brushing oil on solid food but it applies to soups and gravies. Stir a small amount of fat into the hot mixture last so it will sit on the top and make it glisten. Once again, the fat will be forward and give you the feeling that you are eating something very rich even though you are not.

4. One last example of the power of adding just a small amount of last minute fat is risotto. When it’s completely cooked, just stir a little through and serve immediately. You will immediately see what I mean!

Obviously, use olive oil as much as you can, but with these simple tricks you can use a little butter too. They will help you include the much needed fat in your diet in amounts that are satisfying but reasonable. You can enjoy a little indulgence and actually feel good about it!

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Saucy Secrets

As you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about “diet food” lately and how to make it as fun and appealing as “regular” food. I’ve noticed that when my friends go on a diet, the first thing they throw out the window is sauces. Sauces have gotten a bad rap because traditional sauces that taste great are full of thickeners, cream, carbohydrates, butter and of course, calories.

Sauces, however, play an important role in a dish.  They finish off its look and can dramatize it with contrasting color. They can spice it up. They add flavor and nutrition. They can soothe a piece of meat that might be a little overcooked.  Their eye appeal is important and satisfying. Half the battle of dieting is not feeling like you are and having sauce on your plate helps you accomplish that. Knowing a few tricks can help you include them with very few added calories.

The first trick is reduction. Reducing the liquid in a product intensifies its taste. It also thickens it. As I mentioned earlier, if you boil a gallon of cider down to 1 cup (over about 2 hours) and then cool it, you end up with a delicious tasting jam that can be used on toast, as an ingredient in cabbage dishes, as a glaze on a pork roast, or even re-heated as a sauce. You can do the same thing with broth. Simply boil it down until it’s thick enough to be used as a sauce. If it doesn’t get thick enough, you can add a small piece of meat or a few vegetables like carrot, onion and celery and simply purée it. Make sure to add any spices or especially salt at the very end – after it’s totally reduced, because they will also intensify and you could unwittingly overdo it. The result will be a delicious and nutritious sauce with no butter, cream or thickeners. You only need a few Tablespoons of a flavorful sauce for it to work its magic.

The second trick is to look for canned and bottled items that you keep on hand in your refrigerator that can double as sauces. Specialty mustards can be thinned with a very small amount of chicken broth and quickly heated. Chutney is also a great one. Just purée it, heat it (which will thin it out slightly) and use it as a sauce for poultry or fish. Jams and jellies can work the same way. Colorful leftover vegetables can be heated, pureéd and if necessary thinned with chicken or vegetable broth. Add the broth sparingly – just literally a Tablespoon at a time because you truly do not need much.

The third trick is to take advantage of fat free mayonnaise. Thin with a tiny bit of fat free milk and add taste with herbs, spices or horseradish sauce. You can even thin it with other fat free salad dressings or use those dressings by themselves. Lately, I’ve seen some bottled in chef’s squeeze bottles, so all you have to do is take the cap off and zig zag it across your food or plate for a pretty and tasty garnish. Thicker pastes and sauces can be positioned under your meat or vegetables for a different look. The point is to use contrasting colors and tastes that complement – and you can turn even a diet dish into a work of art.

And don’t forget your herbs. Pestos (like the one made with basil at the left) are highly flavorful sauces that are simply chopped herbs and spices with a very small amount of oil. The more taste you can get into a dish, the more it will fill you up. So also use hot sauces liberally.

To check to see if your sauce is the right consistency, put a little on a plate and tip it slightly. If it runs all over, it’s too thin. It should generally stay where you put it.

Before you serve any sauce, or any dish for that matter, TASTE IT. This is a crucial step for anyone who wants to be a good cook. Don’t ever skip it. Salt and citric acid (like lemon, lime, wine or vinegar) can brighten up flavors in a nano second and make all the difference in your dish. Add a little at a time, taste and adjust until it’s just right. You will be so glad you did!

 

Pasta! Pasta!

Those who know me well know that (more than occasionally and especially in the kitchen) I can start a small project and passion will quickly turn it into a large one. Yesterday, its name was pasta! My cooking philosophy is that if you can buy a great product inexpensively, then buy it. It’s only worth spending your precious time making something from scratch if it’s distinctly yours, something special or different or saves you a lot of money. This way, you can include purchased products with yours and have the best of everything. In the case of simple pasta, Barilla and others have been there done that, but sometimes it’s fun to get creative and make your own flavor combinations – not to mention using up leftovers in the process and getting some spices into your diet. What you see here started out with, “Let’s make some spaghetti noodles for dinner!” and ended up being (counterclockwise from the front) Spinach Spirelli, Turmeric Penne, Beet Amori, Basil Pesto Spaghetti, Tomato Macaroni, and Turmeric Fettuccini with bits of fresh red bell pepper running through it. As you can see, pasta provides unlimited opportunities for creation! I can just imagine how much fun I’m going to have inventing colorful sauces to go along with these! And to me, that’s what’s fun about cooking… Imagining, creating and presenting something fun that looks beautiful on your plate.

Homemade pasta is great because it can accomodate any dietary needs – even gluten free. To make it, you have lots of choices. You just need flour and liquid. Your flour can be any type – semolina, whole wheat, or rice – just to name a few – or any combination thereof. Your liquid can be eggs or water or also a mix. The ratio is 500 grams of flour to about 6 eggs for extruded pasta like I made (using a machine) or if you are making it by hand, I like to use a mix – 12 ounces semolina and 4 ounces unbleached white flour with about 1 cup of eggs. (You can add a Tablespoon of oil to make the hand rolled dough a little softer if you like.) Add the liquid in gradually until your dough feels right. That’s all that’s in it. Think about how inexpensive that is. Each one of those piles in my picture uses about one pound of flour. Next time you want to support a local restaurant, order their pasta dish!

Coloring your pasta is easy. You can either add a few Tablespoons of vegetable powder or a small amount of cooked vegetables puréed in your food processor or blender. (If they are juicy, include them in your liquid amount.) Spices can be chopped very tiny if fresh or they can be dried. Realize, though, that vegetable powders don’t change the taste much. They are added primarily for color. Things that do change the taste are the things that change the taste of anything the most – garlic, hot peppers and ground pepper to name a few. The Basil pesto spaghetti I made was great because it used up some leftover fresh pesto and made the pasta a flavor creation by itself. Usually with a pasta dish, it’s all about the sauce, but this time the spaghetti stood on its own. I could heat a can of diced tomatoes with jalapeños for a sauce and it would be a beautiful dish. It would be enough.

The best way to eat pasta is fresh. It just needs to rest a half an hour and then you can cook it up. The taste is really tender and lovely – quite different than dried. However, another great thing about it is that it can keep a long, long time, so you can make a lot and use it as you need it. You can freeze it or in the case of plain pastas or those colored with vegetable powder, simply dry it and store it in the pantry – just like the pasta you buy at the store. If you dry it, just make sure you dry it quickly. (My pasta is piled up for the picture, but afterward, I moved some of it to other screened trays and spread it out so it dried out in a matter of hours.) So… there are a few reasons to give homemade pasta a try. Have fun and PS… It’s low fat!

Think like a chef.

You’re sitting in a restaurant and your dinner entrée has just been delivered. Your plate is simple but beautiful. Why? Because back in the kitchen, the chef has bins of many different items to choose from for your plate. A little bit of this and a little bit of that are what provide color and taste and make that plate special – not to mention economical and the fact that if you eat several different little things, it’s more interesting than if you eat a lot of one thing (even if it’s good). With more variety, your plate looks full, but if you think about it, in restaurants, often there is not that much on it. It just looks like it. So never forget that you eat with your eyes first. Especially when you are in diet mode, you want to present a plate that looks loaded so you feel like you are eating a lot and filling up. Making a plate that looks inviting and has interest is also really simple at home. Just learn to use your leftovers wisely. 

Here’s a perfect example. Yesterday, I picked up a fresh trout filet for dinner. At the moment, my husband doesn’t want any starch, so I headed for the vegetable bin. I found one ripe tomato, one baby cucumber, four baked cipollini onions, one scallion, and one cooked corn on the cob. These are all things I could easily have thrown out, but didn’t. And that’s what you see in the photo – all sliced thinly and set on two plates in a matter of ten minutes. The fish? Split in two, dipped in a whisked egg, sprinkled with a couple of Tablespoons of Parmesan cheese and baked at 425º F just until it flaked – about 10 minutes in this case. Verdict? Easy. Colorful. Delicious. Filling. What more could anyone ask for? Ahhhh… One more thing. Something like 1/3 the price of the same meal in a restaurant and without any butter. Now that’s a winner.

Sugar Baby, Sugar!

Like most people I know, I’m trying to diet. The minute I hear the dreaded D-word though, all I want is sugar. It pursues me through my dreams and tortures me until I submit.I realized I had to call a halt last night when I looked in the mirror and saw myself eating a dish of chocolate chips smothered in some Sanders caramel sauce I found hiding in a back corner of the refrigerater. (It was all I could find after the diet cupboard cleanout.) So what’s a girl to do? GET BACK TO THE BASICS.

One of the very best ways to increase flavor is to reduce a liquid. It strengthens and concentrates what is left and  lets us take total advantage of nature’s goodness. So try this. I took a gallon of cider and boiled it down to a cup. Add nothing. Just refrigerate it until you want to use it. Apples have a lot of pectin, so this process turns it into a delicious jam that is incredibly sweet, flavorful and filling – not to mention handy! Put it on your toast instead of sugary jam, brush it on pork chops, pork roasts, chicken or duck after cooking, stir it into your cinnamon tea, etc. etc. Have fun with it. I know you will really enjoy it.

NOTE: It can take as long as two hours over high heat to boil the cider down to a cup, so you want to do it when you will be around. Keep a close eye on it especially at the end because it will reduce faster and faster. It will froth at the end and then it’s done.

Spiral to Beet Heaven!

What a presentation! As promised, last night I put two yellow beets through my spiral machine. The pile that emerged was huge – enough for four people to feel well satisfied. Each one got something like 125 grams or 80 calories of vegetable.  This time, I also sliced and cooked the greens in a little vegetable broth, then drained them and sprinkled them lightly with balsamic vinegar. One cup of greens gives you 39 more calories as well as some protein, Phosphorus, zinc, some fiber and vitamins A, C, E, K, and B6. Shall I go on? Add Thiamin, Riboflavin, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Potassium, Copper and Manganese. If you’re watching your sodium, you may not want to include them, but for the rest of us they make a lot of sense. The best part is that after you finish eating this huge portion you are full. Oh, that would be plus whatever calories were in the vegetable broth they retained, but that can’t be much. If I can fill up on 119+ calories, I’m going for it!

Just because it’s diet food doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be fun. So here’s what the spiral machine looks like. I bought this one in Germany ages ago, but now you can find them online.  Whatever you put through there comes out looking like colored spaghetti. Another favorite way I use it is for cucumber. A little pile of cucumber “noodles” dressed with a light vinaigrette – or nothing at all – makes for a lot of interest. Many people won’t even be able to figure out what it is. If we have to diet, let’s at least make it fun.

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