Do you long to eat favorite foods from your youth without a side order of guilt? With creative tweaking, chocolaty brownies, creamy scalloped potatoes, hearty meatloaf, green bean-mushroom casserole with fried onions and other comfort foods can return from the list of no-nos. The key is determining which diet-wrecking ingredients you’re willing to compromise on and how much you're willing to cut back on them. But the choices aren’t black or white: I think of them as existing on a sliding scale of decadence.
Leaving a little indulgence in foods helps us to eat better because we end up feeling more satisfied. Think about it: If your revisions are super-healthy but tasteless, you’ll probably do something at least twice as unhealthy later, like diving into a bag of chips or having a date with Ben & Jerry.
Getting Down With Brownies
Take brownies. It is possible to create rich, soul-stirring chocolate squares with just a few modifications. Here’s a baker’s secret: In most recipes you can replace semi-sweet chocolate with cocoa — you lose little in taste but plenty in fat, namely 75 percent. I prefer the more robust, complex-tasting Dutch-process variety of cocoa to the fruitier American version. They work equally well, but the one thing that does make a difference is the quality of the cocoa, so use the highest grade you can afford.
In many desserts you can remove up to a third of the sugar without a perceptible difference in sweetness. Some recipes actually call for you to replace some of the sugar with applesauce or prune purée.
When it comes to butter, I do love its taste. I’m no fan of spreadable versions or margarines because they generally have questionable additives and are hydrogenated (unhealthy trans fats). Here is where the sliding scale of decadence comes into play. In the past I have used oils, including olive and walnut, with great results in pumpkin muffins and lemon bundt cake. For brownies, I substitute half the amount of butter called for with some combination of coconut oil (now the darling of the healthy oils) and a lower-fat sour cream.
Speaking of the sliding scale of decadence, low- and non-fat sour cream both work quite effectively in adding richness to the flavor and giving a satisfying mouthfeel and deep, rich flavor. Unsaturated oils have about the same amount of calories as low- and nonfat sour cream but are healthier.
A Born-Again Green Bean Casserole
To update that holiday classic that we once considered the height of gourmet — the green bean casserole with mushroom soup and fried onion rings — I first upgraded the vegetables with fresh thin green beans, or haricot verts, which are readily available almost everywhere, and cremini mushroom, a more flavorful variety than the white ones in the canned soup. (High-quality flash-frozen baby green beans also work.) To replace the “crème de champignon” soup, I made a velvety white sauce with low-fat milk and sour cream and added a little sherry. Result: no chemicals, less sodium and a rich, smooth taste.
Even after testing several versions of oven-baked onion strings for the topping, however, I was disappointed to discover that none of them had the crunchiness and flavor of the original. My solution was to fry my own in healthy oil — making sure the temperature was 375ºF. When foods hit oil this hot, the exterior is sealed. After frying, I blot the onion strings well and add just enough to amply garnish the top. The ratings on my enjoyment scale were far higher with this slightly more indulgent version.
Note: Since you’ll be creating your own sliding scale of decadence, you can blend whole, low- and nonfat milk in whatever proportions you want for this dish or others (like the scalloped potatoes discussed below). You can even replace some of the dairy with chicken or vegetable stock. Blending stock with milk will add flavor and make mashed potatoes healthier, as well. The only caveat is that most commercial stocks are high in salt, so look for those marked low sodium.
Healthier Scalloped Potatoes
Although reduced-fat milk and even nonfat cream play a big role in whittling down fat and calories, as a chef I feel there are limits. On my sliding scale of decadence, when it comes to cheese for scalloped potatoes, I’d rather use less of really flavorful ones — in this case aged Gruyère and Parmigiano Reggiano — than a plastic-tasting, low-fat substitute. Result: a bigger, more flavorful bang for your caloric buck.
Moist and Flavorful Turkey Meatloaf
When I make a meatloaf with lean turkey, I enhance the taste by exchanging 6 ounces with a mixture of reduced-fat pork and chicken sausage. (If you choose to avoid pork, you won't have a problem finding numerous tasty alternatives.) The sausage ups the total calorie count by only about 50, yet yields a huge bump in flavor.
When replacing richer ingredients, herbs and vegetables become invaluable tools in your flavor arsenal. They also add color and texture — two other methods of enhancement. In the turkey meatloaf, chopped cilantro and toothsome flecks of carrots and red bell peppers make the slices both more visually appealing as well as tastier.
Coating a pan with cooking spray instead of butter is a great and easy way to cut fat and calories. You can also use spray to replace some of the fat when frying eggs or sautéing fish, meat and vegetables. When modifying recipes, the goal is to find a happy medium between healthy dietary choices and preserving enough flavor, texture and appearance. These recipes strike that balance.
Today’s Green Bean-Mushroom Casserole
Serves 4 to 6
That green bean-mushroom casserole from years gone by is probably no longer your idea of gourmet cooking. In this updated version, cooked fresh beans or haricots verts are combined with sautéed cremini mushrooms and onions. Canned mushroom soup is replaced with thickened low-fat milk and reduced-fat sour cream flavored with sherry and fresh thyme.
Onion strings (recipe below)
12 ounces fresh haricot verts or thin fresh green beans, with ends cut off
Olive oil cooking spray
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 medium yellow onion (reserved from Onion Strings), finely chopped
6 ounces cremini or other flavorful mushrooms, wiped, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup low-fat milk
3 tablespoons medium sherry
1/4 cup reduced-fat sour cream
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Few drops fresh lemon juice
- Prepare the Onion Strings, if using (below). Note 45-minute soaking time.
- Preheat the oven to 400º F. Spray a 2-quart casserole or oven-safe glass baking dish with olive oil cooking spray.
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the green beans and cook until tender (approx. 20 minutes). Drain, shock under cold water, and drain again. Set aside.
- In a large saucepan, heat 2 teaspoons of the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until wilted and lightly colored, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often. Add the remaining oil and stir in the mushrooms. Cook until the mushrooms have given up their liquid, about 4 minutes, then sprinkle on the flour, turning the mushrooms once or twice, and cook for 1 minute.
- Pour in the milk and sherry and bring to just below a boil, stirring until the mixture is smooth. Stir in the sour cream and thyme; season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice.
- Return the green beans to the saucepan, stir and cook over medium heat until warmed through. Scrape the mixture into the prepared casserole, cover and bake for 10 minutes.
- Uncover, add the onion strings to the top and return to the oven for 10 minutes longer. Remove, let stand for 5 minutes and serve.
Onion Strings (or use purchased fried onions)
1/2 medium yellow onion, cut in half horizontally, peeled, very thinly sliced and separated into rings (reserve other half for green beans)
3/4 cup buttermilk or low-fat milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1 scant teaspoon salt
1/2 cup canola oil
- Combine the onion rings and buttermilk in a resealable plastic bag and soak for 45 minutes. Line a plate or baking pan with paper towels.
- In a shallow dish, combine the flour, cornmeal and salt.
- Pour the oil into a small skillet and heat to 375º F over medium-high heat.
- Working in small batches, dredge the rings in the flour mixture, patting to remove excess flour. Immediately drop them into the oil and cook until golden, about 2 minutes, turning if necessary. Remove to the paper towels and continue until all of the onions are cooked.
Updated Scalloped Potatoes
Serves 4 to 6
In the bad old days, I’d put mounds of cheese on top of the potatoes in this classic side dish. In this enlightened version, flavor once again wins out: Using less of very flavorful aged Gruyère and real Parmigiano-Reggiano adds a lot more flavor with a smaller amount. To make it lighter still, you could substitute chicken or vegetable stock for the low-fat milk. Adding half of the Gruyère to the sauce helps carry the rich cheesy flavor throughout the dish.
Olive oil cooking spray
1 1/2 pounds red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup each whole and low-fat milk or stock
Scant 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 cup finely grated Gruyère cheese, preferably aged
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 teaspoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Spray a 1 1/2-quart gratin dish or shallow casserole with cooking spray. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes and cook until the tip of a knife easily goes into the flesh and the slices are just tender, 9 to 10 minutes. Drain and return the potatoes to the pan.
- While the potatoes boil, in a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Once the bubbles subside, stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Whisk in both milks or the milk and stock, and cook until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes, whisking continuously. Stir in half of the Gruyère, 1/2 teaspoon salt, the nutmeg and cayenne and scrape into the pan with the potatoes, stirring to coat evenly.
- Spoon the potatoes into the prepared dish, arranging the slices evenly in layers, if desired. Sprinkle on the remaining Gruyère and the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses and bake until hot and bubbling, about 12 minutes. Turn on the broiler and continue cooking until the top is nicely browned, 4 to 5 minutes, watching that it doesn’t burn.
- Remove, let stand for 10 minutes, sprinkle on the parsley and serve.
Tasty Turkey Meatloaf
Serves 4 to 6
Adding reduced-fat chicken and pork to this turkey meatloaf enhances the meat’s bland taste. Toothsome flecks of carrots and red bell pepper add visual and textural appeal, and Thai sweet chili sauce lends a unique taste. When adding onions, I sauté them first in a little olive oil to enrich their flavor. Enjoy leftovers in a sandwich the next day. This is easily made in a food processor, but pulse the ingredients to keep the texture light.
Olive oil cooking spray
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onions
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
1 medium carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and membranes removed, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
12 ounces ground turkey
6 ounces of 50 percent reduced-fat pork and chicken sausages, removed from casing and broken into pieces or any other flavorful reduced-fat sausage
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons, plus 1 1/2 tablespoon sweet Thai chili sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350º F. Spray a 5-x9-inch loaf pan with cooking spray.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until wilted and lightly browned, 4 to 5 minutes, stirring often. Set aside.
- Pulse the garlic, carrot and red bell pepper in a food processor until finely chopped. Add the cilantro, pulse to blend. Scape in the reserved onions along with the turkey and sausage meats, the egg, breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons of the Thai chili sauce, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Pulse until just blended. Do not overmix.
- Transfer the mixture to the loaf pan, patting lightly to smooth. Spread the remaining Thai chili sauce over the top and bake until the juices run clear and an instant read thermometer measures 160º F when inserted toward the center, about 55 minutes.
- Remove, let stand 5 to 10 minutes, then cut into slices and serve. Or serve at room temperature.
Dense Chewy Brownies
Makes 8 to 16 squares (depending on how you cut them)
These dark, chewy brownies will satisfy your longing for a rich-tasting chocolate dessert without wrecking your efforts to eat more healthfully. Using cocoa takes away 75 percent of the fat in chocolate, and butter mixed with a little oil and low-fat sour cream further cuts back the calories and saturated fat. When replacing chocolate, substitute three tablespoons of cocoa for each ounce of solid chocolate.
Nonstick vegetable cooking spray
1/2 cup high quality cocoa powder
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons canola or walnut oil
2 tablespoons low-fat sour cream
1/2 tablespoon water
1 large egg, beaten
Confectioners’ sugar, to garnish, if desired
- Position the rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350º F. Line an 8-inch square pan with a piece of aluminum foil long enough to hang over two opposing edges by at least an inch, and lightly coat with nonstick vegetable spray.
- Sift the cocoa, flour, baking powder and salt together into a medium bowl.
- Melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat. Cook until small browned bits form on the bottom of the pan, about 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the oil, sour cream, water and egg.
- Scrape the mixture into the dry ingredients and stir until well blended. Scrape the batter into the pan, smooth with a metal spatula and transfer to the oven. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out almost clean with only a few moist crumbs attached, 20 to 25 minutes. Do not overcook.
- Remove and cool on a rack. Lift the brownies from the pan using the foil and cut into squares. Store in a covered container or tightly wrap and freeze for up to a month. Serve dusted with confectioners’ sugar, if desired.
Joanna Pruess, Cordon Bleu-‐trained chef, award-‐winning writer of numerous cookbooks and newspaper/magazine articles, and consultant to the food industry.