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Eight Ways to Healthful Dishes

I write the Nourish column for Food. It’s nutritionally PC, which means I have to pay attention to how much the ingredients add up in terms of calories, carbs, cholesterol and more.

In my kitchen, I go easy on the fats and sodium, in whatever form they appear. But here’s what I try very hard not to do: I don’t develop recipes that appeal only to health-food zealots. I don’t eliminate so much of the fat that the food can’t cook properly. And I don’t cut out so much salt that the food has no taste.

How the heck do I manage that? I have my ways….

Citrus. I use lots and lots of lemon, orange and lime. Their flavors are bright and strong, and they blend well with fish, poultry and many vegetables.

Herbs. Fresh when I can get them, dried when I can’t. Either way, they add lots of flavor. They also change the essence of every dish they touch. The same recipe made with basil changes dramatically in a version that uses tarragon instead.

Spices. My spice cabinet is filled with mixes from around the world. Most dried and ground spices need a little fat to carry their goodness, but the results are worth it.

Fruit. I use it as both a main ingredient and a seasoning. Tropical fruits are especially effective as they come with plenty of natural sugars. But berries, apples, melons and many other fruits have a lot to offer.

Salsas instead of sauces. Fruits, onions, herbs and vinegars can be combined to make perfect condiments for grilled, broiled or roasted meats and fish.

Grains and beans. I love them: black beans, buckwheat, barley, lentils, navy beans, brown rice. The list goes on and on. Each brings a texture and taste that is unique.

Sugar. Just a pinch can bring a flat-tasting dish to life.

Heat. Whether it’s from a grill, an oven or stovetop, heat can help develop the natural flavors of fruits, vegetables, meats and grains. That’s why I roast fruits, toast couscous, caramelize onions and grill vegetables.

Those are my ways. What are some of yours?

-- Stephanie Witt Sedgwick

By The Food Section  |  July 29, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Tales of the Testers  | Tags: Stephanie Witt Sedgwick  
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On the fat side, I do try to use "good" fats. My favorite trick is substituting ground flax seed for the oil in baked goods; otherwise, I use olive or canola oil where possible. I do not use shortening; most of my recipes do fine with flax seed or oil, and on those rare occasions when that won't work (like pie crust), I'm going to use butter and savor the taste.

But for me, it's more about sugar and refined white flour -- which is hard, as I really like to bake! Where it works, I substitute some oat bran or very finely ground pecans for some of the white flour -- both tend to make things a little heavier, but the oat bran also keeps it moister, and the pecans add a great flavor edge (besides, I prefer dense/moist over light/cakey). :-) I will also substitute bananas/applesauce for some of the sugar (adjust liquid amounts, of course).

One of my favorite tricks is to cut back on the overall sweetness of a recipe, but then add a little back in as an unexpected hit. I.e., for muffins, I cut the sugar at least in half, but then add a few dark chocolate chips (raisins would obviously be better; I just don't like them). The variation makes you notice the sweet more. Contrasting flavors do the same thing -- I don't normally like cake at all, but a buttermilk cake with very little sugar and a few chocolate chips had this amazing the sweet/tangy contrast.

Finally, I just tend to add more of the "good" stuff. My banana muffins start with double the bananas; carrot cake has extra carrots; pot roast and soups have double the veggies; etc. My husband really loves meat at every meal. If I serve him pasta with plain tomato sauce, he's disappointed. But if I make a bolognese and throw in extra grated carrots, celery, and onions, he's happy as a clam.

Posted by: laura33 | July 29, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

all good ideas.
Buttermilk (or yogurt) and herbs and/or pureed cucumber can also work as a dressing.

And then, grilling, poaching, parchment baking can all be ways to avoid fats if that is your goal.

not that I recommend avoiding fats altogether, our bodies need them to function properly - just to be careful and to choose them carefully.

Posted by: rowandk | July 29, 2009 7:11 PM | Report abuse

All great ideas. I'm a huge fan of buttermilk and I'm also guilty of sneaking extra vegetables and whole grains into things. Amazing what people will eat with a little meat!

Many moons ago, we experimented with cutting the fat and sugar in a pound cake. At a certain point the structure of the cake suffers but you can safely reduce the sugar, a few tablespoons at a time.
-Stephanie Sedgwick

Posted by: thesedgwicks | July 29, 2009 7:44 PM | Report abuse

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