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A&E >  Food

Comforting casseroles without as much fat

By Lorie Hutson Staff writer

There’s just something about Mom’s casserole.

It’s comforting to tuck into the food we enjoyed as a child. And many cooks want to share the feeling of love and comfort they get from eating it with their children, by making the same dish.

Unfortunately, whipping up those casseroles just the way Mom did can also mean a whole heap of calories and fat that many people don’t want or need.

“When it comes to making comfort foods as a health-conscious adult you really have to make some decisions,” says Lisa Randall, a registered dietitian who is the coordinator of the diabetes education program at Inland Northwest Health Services.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Do I want the comfort of this food made the way Mom made it? Or, can I make some modifications?’

“When it comes to comfort foods it can be really tricky,” Randall says.

Any casserole can be doctored with different ingredients to make it more healthful, she says. The trick is in deciding whether the finished dish hits the spot.

Randall tells her students in a healthy-eating class to start by modifying the recipe as much as they can and seeing if they can live with the result.

“Try some recipes that are lower-calorie and then think about, ‘What am I eating this for?’ If I’m eating it for the comfort and the memories that I have doing it as a kid, then do so occasionally, and in moderation,” she says.

Lightening those traditional casseroles is easier than ever. Soup makers are offering reduced-fat, reduced-sodium versions that can easily substitute for the originals without much difference in flavor or texture.

Using lower-fat or nonfat substitutions for things such as cream cheese and sour cream can be downright stealthy.

If you’re substituting lower-fat or nonfat milk for whole, consider using a bit of flour to thicken the sauce. Randall says she uses chickpea flour to thicken her fettuccine sauce. The intense flavors of garlic, onion and other spices make it hard to detect the difference.

The added bonus is that the chickpea flour (Bob’s Red Mill makes one found at many grocery stores) increases the fiber in the dish.

Substituting more flavorful cheeses, such as sharp cheddar and cheeses that are aged longer, may mean cooks can cut back on the overall amount of cheese in the dish.

Cooks who don’t mind tinkering with ingredients to make casseroles more healthful should consider substituting whole grains and adding vegetables to improve the nutrition profile.

The results can be dramatic. Randall shared a traditional recipe for macaroni and cheese and then her “healthified” version. The healthier casserole contained just 340 calories per 1-cup serving, while the traditional dish weighed in at 810 calories.

The changes – which included substituting whole-wheat pasta, swapping the whole milk with skim thickened by flour, leaving off the bread crumb topping and reducing the amount of cheese – slashed the fat in each serving from 43 grams down to nine, and bumped up the fiber by two grams.

Randall also shared recipes for a lighter lasagna. For cooks who like the convenience of a casserole but would like to try something new, we’ve also included two highly rated recipes from the Cooking Light magazine Web site.

Inland Northwest Health Services dietitians offer classes to the community through Community Health Education and Resources (CHER) that can help those who want to eat more healthful diets.

There’s a pre-diabetes class, for those at risk for developing diabetes, which includes ideas for healthier eating. CHER also offers heart health classes and classes for those who have been diagnosed with diabetes.

For more information, go to

‘Healthified’ Macaroni and Cheese

2 cups uncooked regular or whole-wheat elbow macaroni (8 ounces)

2 cups fat-free (skim) milk

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)

2 cups shredded reduced-fat sharp Cheddar cheese (8 ounces)

In 3-quart saucepan, cook and drain macaroni as directed on package. Return to saucepan and cover to keep warm.

Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 8-inch square (2-quart) glass baking dish with cooking spray.

In 2-quart saucepan, stir milk, flour, mustard, salt, black pepper and red pepper with whisk until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture boils and thickens.

Remove from heat. Stir in cheese until melted. Add cheese sauce to cooked macaroni. Mix well.

Spoon into baking dish. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until edges are bubbly.

High altitude (3,500-6,500 feet): Bake 25 to 30 minutes.

Yield: 6 (1-cup) servings

Nutrition information per serving: 340 calories, 9 grams fat (5 grams saturated, 24 percent fat calories), 19 grams protein, 44 grams carbohydrate, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams dietary fiber, 640 milligrams sodium.

Italian Sausage Lasagna Done Light

1 pound bulk reduced-fat Italian sausage

1 medium onion, chopped (1/2 cup)

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, divided

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon sugar

2 cups diced tomatoes (from 28-ounce can), undrained

1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce

12 uncooked lasagna noodles (12 ounces)

1 (15-ounce) container reduced-fat ricotta cheese or small-curd creamed cottage cheese (2 cups)

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

2 cups shredded reduced-fat mozzarella cheese (8 ounces)

Cook sausage, onion and garlic in 10-inch skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sausage is no longer pink; drain.

Stir in 2 tablespoons of the parsley, the basil, sugar, tomatoes and tomato sauce. Heat to boiling, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low. Simmer uncovered about 45 minutes or until slightly thickened.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cook and drain noodles as directed on package.

Mix ricotta cheese, 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, remaining parsley and the oregano.

Spread 1 cup of the sauce mixture in ungreased 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking dish. Top with 4 noodles. Spread 1 cup of the cheese mixture over noodles and then spread 1 cup of the sauce mixture. Sprinkle with 2/3 cup of the mozzarella cheese.

Repeat with 4 noodles, the remaining cheese mixture, 1 cup of the sauce mixture and 2/3 cup of the mozzarella cheese. Top with remaining noodles and sauce mixture. Sprinkle with remaining mozzarella cheese and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese.

Cover and bake 30 minutes. Uncover and bake about 15 minutes longer or until hot and bubbly. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting.

Yield: 8 servings

Nutrition information per serving: 385 calories, 13 grams fat (7 grams saturated, 31 percent fat calories), 32 grams protein, 38 grams carbohydrate, 65 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Enchilada Casser-Ole!

From Taste of Home, Healthy Cooking magazine February/March 2009

1 pound lean ground beef

1 large onion, chopped

2 cups salsa

1 (15 ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained

1/4 cup reduced fat Italian salad dressing

2 tablespoons reduced sodium taco seasoning

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

6 flour tortillas, 8 inch

3/4 cup reduced-fat sour cream

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded reduced-fat Mexican cheese blend

1 cup shredded lettuce

1 medium tomato, chopped

1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro

In a large skillet, cook beef and onion over medium heat until meat is no longer pink; drain. Stir in salsa, beans, dressing, taco seasoning and cumin. Place three tortillas in a 2-quart baking dish coated with cooking spray. Layer with half the meat mixture, sour cream and cheese. Repeat layers.

Cover and bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes. Uncover; bake 5 to 10 minutes longer or until heated through. Let stand for 5 minutes before topping with lettuce, tomato and cilantro

Yield: 8 servings

Nutrition per serving: 357 calories, 12 grams fat (5 grams saturated, 30 percent fat calories), 23 grams protein, 37 grams carbohydrate, 45 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams dietary fiber, 864 milligrams sodium.

Zucchini Casserole With Red Pepper Aioli

From Cooking Light magazine.

“With all the liquid that’s added, this ends up being a rather soupy casserole. It’s a heartier French onion soup that’s packed with vegetables and makes a meal on its own. We’ve added red peppers to the typical mayonnaise and garlic of a traditional French aioli. You’ll have some left over; refrigerate it for later uses, such as for a sandwich spread.”

2 teaspoons olive oil

3 cups sliced onion

6 (1/2-inch-thick) slices diagonally cut Italian bread (about 6 ounces), toasted

2 (14.5-ounce) cans no-salt-added diced tomatoes, undrained

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

3 garlic cloves, minced

Cooking spray

1 pound zucchini, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 3 cups)

2 cups (8 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese

1 (15.75-ounce) can fat-free, reduced-sodium chicken broth

1/4 cup Red Pepper Aioli (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; sauté 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Cut 2 bread slices into 1-inch cubes; set aside. Drain tomatoes in a colander over a bowl, reserving 1/2 cup liquid; discard remaining liquid. Place tomatoes in a medium bowl. Stir in basil, thyme, pepper and garlic.

Place 1/2 cup onion in the bottom of a 3-quart casserole dish coated with cooking spray. Arrange 2 bread slices, half of the remaining onion, half of the tomato mixture, half of the zucchini, and half of the cheese over onion in dish. Repeat layer; top with bread cubes.

Pour 1/2 cup reserved tomato liquid and broth over casserole. Cover and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional 25 minutes or until top begins to brown.

Spoon 2 cups casserole into each of 4 shallow bowls; top each serving with 1 tablespoon Red-Pepper Aioli.

Yield: 4 servings

Nutrition information per serving, including Red-Pepper Aioli: 397 calories, 21.5 grams fat (6.3 grams saturated, 28 percent fat calories), 23.6 grams protein, 49.1 grams carbohydrate, 33 milligrams cholesterol, 3.6 grams dietary fiber, 959 milligrams sodium.

Red Pepper Aioli

3 garlic cloves, peeled

1/2 cup fat-free mayonnaise

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 (7-ounce) bottle roasted red bell peppers, drained

Drop garlic through food chute with food processor on. Process until finely minced. Add the remaining ingredients, and process until well-combined.

Yield: 1 cup

Nutrition information per 1-tablespoon serving: 10 calories, 1 gram fat, less than 1 gram protein, 2.3 grams carbohydrate, no cholesterol, less than 1 gram dietary fiber, 173 milligrams sodium.

Black Bean Burrito Bake

From Cooking Light magazine.

Half of the beans are finely chopped to give the filling a thick, creamy consistency. This dish can be made up to 8 hours in advance and chilled; just bring it back to room temperature before baking.

1 (7-ounce) can chipotle chilies in adobo sauce

1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream

1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed, drained, and divided

1 cup frozen whole-kernel corn, thawed

4 (8-inch) flour tortillas

Cooking spray

1 cup bottled salsa

1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove one chili from can and chop; reserve remaining adobo sauce and chilies for another use. Combine sour cream and chili in a medium bowl; let stand 10 minutes.

Place half of beans in a food processor; process until finely chopped. Add chopped beans, remaining beans and corn to sour cream mixture.

Spoon 1/2 cup bean mixture down the center of each tortilla. Roll up tortillas; place, seam side down, in an 11-by-7-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray.

Spread salsa over tortillas; sprinkle with cheese. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until thoroughly heated.

Yield: 4 servings

Nutrition information per serving: 365 calories, 11.7 grams fat (5.8 grams saturated, 29 percent fat calories), 16 grams protein, 55 grams carbohydrate, 28 milligrams cholesterol, 7 grams dietary fiber, 893 milligrams sodium.

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