The pleasures of casual cooking

Get back into your cooking groove by following these tips.

bowl 521 (photo credit: 'Comfort Food Fix' by Ellie Krieger)
bowl 521
(photo credit: 'Comfort Food Fix' by Ellie Krieger)
It might seem paradoxical, since holidays are intended to be days of rest, but going back to everyday cooking can actually be more relaxing. After the holidays, with so much shopping, cooking and cleaning up, there’s a certain comfort in returning to our routine.
With a more casual schedule and no need to plan several festive dinners within a short period, this is a good time to enjoy the family’s usual pattern of healthier eating. It is also an ideal occasion to improve eating habits or work out new ones. This is especially true if you or others in your family have to take off some extra weight from all the feasting.
Instead of going on a temporary diet, it’s better to make everyday meals more nutritious yet still enjoyable.
For fresh ideas for adapting family favorites to healthier eating, I turned to Ellie Krieger’s new book, Comfort Food Fix. To redesign comfort foods so that they are healthier, she categorizes ingredients into three types:
• “Usually” ingredients – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, nuts, seeds, beans and healthy oils • “Sometimes” foods like white flour or dark chocolate
• “Rarely” foods like cream and butter “By amplifying the healthiest ‘usually’ ingredients... and strategically using ‘sometimes’ foods... and even ‘rarely’ foods,” you can create flavorful recipes that are more balanced and healthier, wrote Krieger.
She gives specific tips to making comfort foods healthier but still tasty:
• “Go Halfsies: Substituting all egg whites in an egg dish robs it of its sunny yellow richness, and using only whole wheat flour in brownies and cookies makes them too heavy and “healthy” tasting... That’s why I split the difference... By using half whole eggs and half egg whites, or half whole-grain and half allpurpose flour... you get the taste and texture you yearn for while still improving the nutrition profile.”
• “Un-Fry: You can achieve that craveable crisp texture that makes foods like fried chips, cutlets and fish fingers so good by lightly breading if necessary, then tossing or spraying with oil and baking until crispy brown.”
ANOTHER TRICK Krieger uses is adding extra beans and vegetables to dishes to add nutrients and cut back on high-calorie starches and meats without skimping on portions. For sauteing, she advises measuring the oil instead of pouring it from the bottle. “It takes only 2 teaspoons of oil to cook one onion.” When baking muffins, she recommends substituting fruit or vegetable purees like applesauce or carrot puree for up to half the fat typically used.
However, for Krieger there are no substitutes when it comes to cheese. When using cheeses like cheddar, Parmesan and blue, she recommends using the real thing for full flavor and meltability but to use less and use it strategically.
She buys the best-quality, most flavorful cheese and puts it on top of the dish.
In her recipes Krieger shows how to apply these principles. She transforms an old-fashioned family skillet meal of hamburger meat and macaroni into an easy dish she calls “hamburger healthier,” sauteing lean ground beef with chopped onion, adding garlic, frozen chopped broccoli, canned tomatoes, tomato sauce and water, and cooks macaroni directly in the mixture.
Instead of fried fish sticks, a children’s favorite, she makes baked fish fingers by dipping tilapia (amnun in Hebrew) or other white fish fillet strips in whole-wheat flour, then in an egg mixture (an egg beaten with an egg white) and in seasoned whole-wheat bread crumbs, using olive oil cooking spray to grease the baking sheet and to moisten the fish sticks before baking.
Janice Newell Bissex and Liz Weiss, authors of The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers, emphasize being realistic in improving meals. They advise taking small steps to “help you gradually improve your family’s eating habits over the long haul. Giant leaps... often end in frustration and failure.”
Bissex and Weiss suggest making one basic change every week, over several weeks. In the first week add an extra serving of fruit to children’s meals every day. For example, as an after-school snack instead of milk and cookies, make a naturally sweet fruit smoothie by combining 100% fruit juice in the blender with some banana, a few pieces of frozen fruit and low-fat vanilla or fruit yogurt, and serve it with a few whole-grain crackers. In the second week, add an extra vegetable serving each day, for example by starting supper with the evening’s vegetable, such as “a few bites of broccoli, sweet potatoes or crunchy raw vegetables with a salad dressing dip.”
TO MAKE healthy meals fast and easy to cook, they emphasize having a well stocked pantry “brimming with foods that help to weave super nutrition into everything you eat....
Today’s busy moms have to compete with the convenience of fast food, frozen meals and takeout.... That’s why we believe it’s essential to fill your pantry with shortcut ingredients such as canned beans, salsa, frozen vegetables, pasta, canned tuna, pre-shredded carrots and other staples.”
A motto of Bissex and Weiss’s is “If you can boil water... you can make dinner.” For hectic days they advocate “throw it together” meals that start with a pot of boiling water... “put that pot of water on the stove and crank up the heat the minute you walk in the door.” To make creamy macaroni and salmon, they warm drained, hot cooked macaroni in its pan with canned salmon, thawed frozen peas, reduced-fat sour cream, reduced-fat shredded Cheddar cheese and grated Parmesan cheese.
For their chicken stew with baby carrots, they saute skinless boneless chicken breasts in a small amount of olive oil and add ready-to-eat baby carrots, packaged sliced mushrooms, canned tomato sauce, canned chicken broth and black olives, as well as garlic and Italian seasoning. Served over pasta, couscous or polenta, this makes a hearty, healthy dinner.
Using the guidelines above can make everyday meals easier and more wholesome. “In addition to the immediate pleasure of taste, wrote Krieger, “you get the lasting sense of well-being, knowing the food you and your loved ones are enjoying” is good for you.
Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home and 30 Low-Fat Meals in 30 Minutes.