Lighten up!

Over the years, I have been collecting tips on how to make food faster, simpler and leaner.

After all the Pessah entertaining – the multicourse meals of braised meats, matza kugels and rich desserts, most of us want to relax and take a break from calorie-laden foods. With the weather warming up and beach days around the corner, there are plenty of reasons to lighten up meals.
Over the years, I have been collecting tips on how to make food faster, simpler and leaner. One source for ideas has been the course I planned on cuisine minceur, or slimming cooking, for La Varenne cooking school in Paris. During my chef training, with dishes rich in butter and heavy cream came the inevitable weight gain, and I was thrilled about the project of developing lighter versions of traditional dishes.
Inspired by the delicious food we ate at the restaurant of one of the country’s top chefs, Michel Guerard, author of La Grande Cuisine Minceur, we prepared sauces of cooked vegetables, sometimes adding low-fat or nonfat white cheese or a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to enrich them. Guerard, who was at the forefront of France’s creative cuisine in the late 1970s, sauced grilled veal with a puree of artichokes blended with chicken stock, then garnished the dish with lightly poached baby carrots, baby turnips and baby cucumbers. He even sauced vegetables with more vegetables, like a molded carrot “gateau” with asparagus sauce.
For this course we learned to use vinaigrette not just as a salad dressing, but warm as a sauce, and even to cook fish and vegetables in it. When we prepared poultry, meat and fish, we gave priority to the cooking techniques of poaching, steaming and grilling, thus minimizing the fat. Instead of adding cream by the cupful, as we used to do, we learned to appreciate its contribution when we added it by the spoonful.
With our enthusiasm, at first we hoped to come up with new, light creations that were as tasty as the time-honored French dishes. As we proceeded, we became more realistic, recognizing that cutting the fat and calories involved compromising. Still, we were pleased with the results. As we tested the recipes, even the chefs who worked with us and who had been schooled in the tenets of classic cuisine found they too enjoyed the lighter fare.
Then the question came up of how to make such fine dishes easily at home; after all, not everyone has time to trim artichokes to make a sauce, like chefs of elegant restaurants. One solution is to use prepared vegetables – frozen and even canned. In a puree their texture is less noticeable. Even Guerard allowed for canned asparagus as an alternative to fresh for preparing his sauce.
For the following light and fresh springtime menu, begin with asparagus with a citrus-flavored dressing. Asparagus with orange is a classic French combination, and the extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice give the dressing Mediterranean flair.
As a main course, serve lightly sauteed sole fillets covered with garlic-scented sliced mushrooms. The sauce is a warm vinaigrette made right in the pan – tarragon vinegar is added to the skillet to blend with any oil left from sauteing the fish and mushrooms. This sauce moistens the mushroom-topped fish and the colorful baby lettuce mixture that accompanies it. Serve the fish with cooked broccoli, steamed new potatoes, cooked basmati or brown rice or just some crusty French bread.
• Asparagus with orange and lemon dressing
• Sauteed sole with mushrooms, lettuce and warm vinaigrette
• Chocolate-dipped strawberries
Asparagus has a rich flavor and needs only a drizzle of dressing. For quick cooking, choose thin asparagus, which does not require peeling and can be cooked in only 3 minutes.
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp. fresh orange juice
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly ground pepper
cayenne pepper to taste
550 gr. thin asparagus
Combine olive oil, orange juice, lemon juice, salt, pepper and cayenne in a bowl. Whisk to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning. Dressing will be tangy.
Cut asparagus spears in three pieces, discarding tough ends. Boil asparagus pieces uncovered in medium saucepan of boiling salted water until just tender when pierced with a small sharp knife, about 3 minutes. Drain, rinse briefly with cold water, and drain well.
Put asparagus in shallow serving dish and toss with dressing. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 4 servings.
Sole is a fast-cooking fish; choose relatively thick pieces so they don’t fall apart. If you don’t have sole, choose other white fish, such as cod or sea bass. If you use a heavy nonstick skillet, you can saute the sole in just a small amount of oil.
1 large garlic clove, peeled
1⁄3 cup firmly packed parsley sprigs
550 gr. sole fillets
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
3 cups sliced mushrooms
4 cups mixed baby lettuces or any tender lettuce
2 Tbsp. tarragon vinegar mixed with 1 Tbsp. water
1 to 2 tsp. chopped fresh tarragon (optional)
Mince garlic in a mini food processor if you like, then the parsley; there is no need to rinse the processor in between. Alternatively, mince them with a knife.
Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper. Heat 11⁄2 tablespoons oil in a large heavy nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add fillets. Saute them 2 minutes on each side or until color changes throughout; if oil begins to brown, reduce heat to medium. Put fish pieces on four plates.
Add remaining 1⁄2 tablespoon oil to pan and heat it over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, salt, pepper and garlic and saute, tossing often, until just tender, about 2 minutes. Add parsley and mix well. Spoon mushroom mixture over fish. Add lettuce to plates.
Pour vinegar mixture into hot pan off heat, swirl it around pan, and pour it evenly over fish and lettuce. Sprinkle with tarragon and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
You may be wondering what this treat is doing in a low-fat dinner. Yet this popular sweet is right at home in a nutrition-conscious meal. Only a thin layer of chocolate adheres to the strawberry, and you’re eating mostly fruit.
Be sure the chocolate is warm enough so that each berry receives only a thin coating. If you like, you can make this a tabletop dessert: Melt chocolate during dinner. Bring melted chocolate to the table, and each person can dip his or her own strawberries.
12 large strawberries with stems and leaves, or 20 small or medium strawberries
70 gr. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
Rinse strawberries, leaving stems on. Pat dry with paper towels. Line a tray with foil or waxed paper.
Melt chocolate in a small deep bowl over hot water over low heat, stirring often. Remove from pan of water. Cool chocolate, stirring often, until it still flows but is thick enough to stick to berries. Chocolate should feel slightly cooler than body temperature.
Pat a strawberry dry again with paper towels. Dip pointed end of berryin chocolate, so that 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 the berry is coated. Gently shakeberry and let excess chocolate drip back into bowl. Set berry onprepared tray. Dip remaining berries. If chocolate thickens, set itbriefly over hot water so it becomes fluid. Refrigerate berries 15minutes or until chocolate sets. Carefully lift berries from foil tounstick them; replace on tray. Serve cold.
Makes 4 servings.

Faye Levy is the author of 30 Lowfat Meals in 30 Minutes and Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.