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When You’re Trying To Reduce Fat…How Low Can You Go? Does A Low-Fat Diet Have To Mean Bad Food? The Author Was Determined To Find Good Tasting Food That Was Good For Her

I took a cruise last summer that held all the usual perils of the sea the sumptuous buffets, seductive desserts and general nonstop eating that can turn into a test of gastric endurance.

It was obvious I was sailing straight into trouble, and when I returned home, the computer printout from the hospital lab confirmed my suspicions.

Only one of the readings on my cholesterol test was in the desirable range. The rest were: Cholesterol: HI. Triglycerides: HI. LDL: HI. Cholesterol HDL ratio: HI.

Those HI’s were not cheery greetings from the hospital staff. Instead, they were a signal for me to get serious about changing my lifestyle. Researchers have linked a high-fat diet to strokes, heart attacks, cancer and other diseases. My doctor’s directives, in plain English, were: “Decrease fat. Increase exercise.”

I began with the easy stuff. I added two extra laps to my walking program, took my stationary bike out of storage and attended a class on cholesterol recommended by my physician. (Among the more fascinating tidbits: the average American consumes 135 pounds of fat a year.)

The toughest part of the program was facing the “forbidden foods,” a hit list of killer dishes that included such favorites as hamburgers, corned beef, hot dogs, fried foods, creamy and buttery dishes, pancakes, cobblers and luscious chocolate desserts - all pleasures too good to abandon.

OK, I was willing to make some changes, but did good diet mean bad food? Would I have to give up my favorite dishes, or was there a way to reduce fat without canceling flavor?

The answer was not going to come from my own creative impulses. I tend to cook like a chemist, meticulously following the printed recipe, so I went to the professionals, picking up as many low-fat cookbooks as I could find.

They made quite a stack. These titles, the hottest thing to hit the publishing circuit in recent years, have increased in number as rapidly as my low-density lipoproteins.

I thought I’d begin with the simplest recipe I could find, from “Get the Fat Out: 501 Simple Ways to Cut the Fat in Any Diet” by Victoria Moran (Crown Trade Paperbacks). It combined two flavors I love, and it’s so simple I can give it to you in one sentence: Impale a small, peeled banana on an ice cream stick, roll it in roasted carob powder and freeze overnight.

It was easy. It was tasty. It was a huge success, and encouraged me to tackle what I thought would be the most challenging recipe.

Since I was determined to eat well while learning the rules of the game, I thumbed through the indexes until I hit the B’s. Bingo! Brownies, Chewy. I figured if I could succeed in making a low-fat version of those, nothing would be impossible.

As promised by the author, the brownies were rich-tasting and chocolatey. But “chewy?” They were so dense and dry they had to be pried off the roof of my mouth with a butter knife.

I had better luck with a second version that used pureed prunes. Don’t laugh; baby food is big business in the low-fat sweet-tooth department. Applesauce, prune, pear, apricot and other purees contribute rich, creamy textures to cakes, muffins and cookies.

According to Moran, the puree replaces the oil or shortening with “a 75 percent reduction in fat, and most people can’t tell the difference in the finished product.”

Maybe combining the two recipes would have done the trick. Or maybe some butter- and egg-enriched desserts just don’t translate well, and I shouldn’t have expected them to. Anyway, although the pureed prune brownies were better, the best choice was a blueberry cobbler. It was delicious.

I went on to make Herbed Turkey Burgers, Baked French Wedge Potatoes and Garlic, Chile, Corn and Summer Squash.

Now, would I serve this particular menu to royalty? I think I could. The burgers were moist, with flavor heightened by a judicious use of garlic, mustard and thyme. The potatoes were crisp and spicy, the vegetables nicely seasoned, and the cobbler juicy and packed with flavor.

And so it went. I tackled a variety of items on the forbidden list week by week, making blueberry muffins and light pancakes for breakfast that were fragrant with ginger, cloves and cinnamon. I was quite happy with the transition from fatty to less fatty, though some dishes I made tasted a bit different from what I was used to.

And not everything was inspired cooking. One particular concoction reminded me of my friend’s little girl who began to say grace before dinner one night in the usual way: “Thank you, Jesus, for this food.” Then, with eyes open so she could see what was on her plate, she continued: “Thank you for this chicken, for the mashed potatoes and peas, and thank you for … Yuck, what’s this?”

Yet most of my kitchen adventures turned out rather well. In the process I discovered some strategies that cooks are using to trim fat from menus. The obvious one is to substitute low-fat or nonfat cheese, milk, sour cream, cream cheese and mayonnaise for the fatty version.

Other ideas: Saute onions and garlic or other vegetables in water, broth or wine instead of oil. Use herbs - especially fresh ones - as flavor boosters. Substitute two egg whites for one whole egg. Use nonstick vegetable cooking spray instead of butter for greasing pans and griddles. Thicken sauces with arrowroot instead of flour and butter. Use nonfat evaporated milk in place of cream.

The recipes that follow incorporate some of these ideas to help you reduce fat - but not flavor - in dishes that can no longer be considered “forbidden.”

Herbed Turkey Burgers

To be sure of getting the leanest possible ground turkey, have the butcher grind a piece of skinless turkey breast for you. Or, chop the turkey at home in a food processor. Preground turkey may contain dark meat, which is fattier than white. I added a bit of salt and made six patties instead of four.

From “The Wellness Lowfat Cookbook,” by the editors of The Wellness Cooking School and The University of California at Berkeley (Rebus Inc.)

3 medium green onions

2 cloves garlic

1/4 cup packed parsley sprigs

1 pound ground skinless turkey breast

1/2 cup fine, unseasoned bread crumbs

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 egg white

1 teaspoon dried thyme


1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

Mince green onions, garlic and parsley in food processor.

Combine minced vegetables with turkey, bread crumbs, mustard, Worcestershire, egg white, thyme, salt to taste and pepper in medium bowl. Mix to blend well. Divide mixture into 6 equal portions and form them into patties 1/2 inch thick.

In large nonstick skillet, warm oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add turkey patties and cook until well browned on both sides, 3 to 5 minutes for first side and 2 to 4 minutes for second side.

Yield: 6 patties.

Baked French Wedge Potatoes

From “Rose Reisman Brings Home Light Cooking” (MCM Books)

4 medium potatoes, unpeeled

2 tablespoons margarine, melted

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon crushed garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

Scrub potatoes. Cut each into 8 wedges. Place on baking sheet sprayed with nonstick vegetable spray.

Combine margarine, chili powder, basil, garlic and parsley in small bowl. Brush half over potatoes. Sprinkle with half of cheese. Bake at 375 degrees 30 minutes. Turn wedges over. Brush with remaining mixture and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake 30 minutes longer.

Yield: 6 servings.

Garlic, Chile, Corn And Summer Squash

From “500 Fat-Free Recipes,” by Sarah Schlesinger (Villard Books)

1/4 cup water, nonfat chicken broth, vegetable broth or wine

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 1/2 cups diced yellow summer squash

1/4 cup canned mild or hot green chiles, drained and minced

1 1/2 cups cooked fresh, frozen or canned corn kernels

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Heat water in large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and garlic. Cook and stir 5 minutes over low heat. Add squash and chiles. Cook and stir 8 minutes, adding more liquid if necessary. Add corn, parsley and pepper. Cook and stir 2 minutes longer.

Yield: 4 servings.

Ginger-Molasses Pancakes

These pancakes have the flavor of gingerbread. Try serving them topped with spiced applesauce.

From “500 Fat-Free Recipes,” by Sarah Schlesinger (Villard Books)

1 cup unbleached flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Dash ground cloves

1/2 cup nonfat milk

1 tablespoon apple butter

3 tablespoons molasses

2 egg whites, at room temperature

Sift flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and cloves into large bowl. Stir in milk, apple butter and molasses.

Beat egg whites in separate bowl with electric mixer on high until stiff. Gently fold egg whites into pancake batter.

Spoon 1/4 cup batter for each pancake on nonstick griddle or skillet, or griddle or skillet lightly sprayed with vegetable cooking spray. Turn pancakes when tops are covered with bubbles and edges are lightly browned. Cook on second side 2 minutes or until browned.

Yield: 4 servings (2 pancakes each).

Blueberry Muffins

From “Baking Without Fat,” by George Mateljan (Health Valley Foods)

1 3/4 cups rolled oats

1/2 cup oat bran

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 cup unsweetened applesauce

1/2 cup honey

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup nonfat milk

3 egg whites, beaten until white and frothy

1 cup frozen blueberries, defrosted and well drained

Pulse rolled oats and oat bran in food processor 10 seconds. Reserve 2 tablespoons oat mixture. Combine remaining oat mixture with baking soda and cinnamon in medium bowl. Mix well. Set aside.

Combine applesauce, honey, vanilla and milk in small bowl. Pour into oat mixture. Stir until just blended. Gently mix in egg whites. Do not overmix.

Dust well-drained and dried blueberries with 2 tablespoons reserved oat mixture. Gently fold blueberries into batter. Divide mixture evenly into cups of nonstick muffin pan. Bake at 350 degrees 20 to 25 minutes, or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack 10 minutes. Remove muffins from pan.

Yield: 12 muffins.

Blueberry Cobbler

Cobbler is a warm fruit dessert that is topped with a rich, sweet biscuit dough and is often served with cream. If you like, garnish each serving with a spoonful of low-fat vanilla yogurt.

I found the filling skimpy and increased blueberries to 3 cups and maple syrup to 4 tablespoons.

From “The Wellness Lowfat Cookbook,” by the editors of The Wellness Cooking School and The University of California at Berkeley (Rebus Inc.)

2 to 3 cups fresh or frozen unsweetened blueberries, thawed

3 tablespoons (or more) maple syrup

1/2 cup (about) unbleached flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons margarine, melted

1 tablespoon nonfat milk

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Lightly spray 9-inch pie plate with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

If using fresh berries, wash, dry, stem and pick over. Combine blueberries and maple syrup in small saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes or until berries are very soft. Remove from heat and set aside.

Combine 1/2 cup flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in medium bowl. Stir to combine. Stir in margarine, milk and lemon zest and mix until soft dough forms. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and roll it out with floured rolling pin to 9-inch disk about 1/8 inch thick.

Stir berry mixture. Pour into prepared pie plate and place crust on top. Bake cobbler at 400 degrees 25 minutes. Let it cool 5 minutes before serving, then cut into quarters and serve warm.

Yield: 4 servings.

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