March 28, 2007 - Comfort food. Creamy, buttery, silky, salty and down-home greasy all come to mind.
With a little culinary know-how, you can whittle down some of the fat, salt and other unhealthful ingredients found in traditional comfort-food classics.
Interestingly enough, meatloaf was originally a product that contained very little meat. Minced vegetables such as carrots, onions, celery and potatoes along with fresh bread crumbs and oats constituted most of the meatloaf mixture, with a small amount of meat for flavor, and eggs as the “glue.”
However, as the country prospered, the vegetable and starch components of the loaf decreased, and the meat and eggs, along with milk or cream, and grated cheese or sour cream moved center stage. Mom's meatloaf evolved from a relatively high-fiber, low-fat product to a high-fat, low-fiber menu item.
The loaf recipe presented here sticks to the original intention of meatloaf: to feed many people with as little meat and eggs as possible. It's moist, colorful, flavorful, and higher in fiber and lower in fat, with a variety of traditional meatloaf vegetables and ketchup. The meat is “extended” with fresh bread and oats, which contribute to the texture and help to hold in the moisture. To be truly “healthful,” you could use a low-sodium ketchup to lower the salt content.
What's meatloaf, or mashed potatoes or biscuits or roast beef or bread stuffing without large puddles of gravy? Traditional gravy means fat. Loads of fat, with some saturated fat and cholesterol and lots of salt thrown in for good measure.
To many people, champion gravy means flavor and moistness. Traditionally, these gravy characteristics were achieved with butter, cream, meat drippings and salt, with a little buttermilk, sour cream or bacon on the side.
Flavor and moistness can be easily achieved without the fat and salt. Don't believe it? Try this savory gravy. The mushrooms give a “beefy” flavor and color, and the onion and celery add texture and flavor. This recipe has two thickeners: dry bread crumbs and fat-free half-and-half. The bread crumbs give a rough, thick texture, and the half-and-half contributes smoothness and creaminess. Fat-free half-and-half is truly a miracle of modern food technology.
If you wanted to sneak in even more nutrition, you could add several tablespoons of prepared salsa, minced carrots or chopped bell peppers.
The secret to the new classic gravy is the stirring. You may be taking out the fat, but you can't eliminate the love. Allot a bit of time to stir your gravy into a creamy pot of m-m-mmmmmm.
Macaroni and cheese
We can hear it now: Get your cheddar-pickin' hands off our mac and cheese!
No matter how your family prepared it, traditional macaroni and cheese was a high-fat, high-sodium, low-fiber, soul-warming meal. Good for the mood, but not so great for the arteries.
How about swapping whole-wheat pasta for the traditional macaroni, or adding in peas, broccoli florets, chopped cauliflower or chopped tomatoes to up the fiber content.
When it comes to keeping the cheesy creaminess but eliminating most of the fat, there are many tricks of the trade, including puréeing cottage cheese, fiddling with cornstarch mixtures and toying with soy.
However, the middle ground is a recipe that's no higher in fiber than the traditional but that's much lower in fat and a little lower in sodium.
Mac and cheese should still be in the “celebratory” column of the menu, rather than the “daily staple” column, unless you're willing to consider whole-wheat rotini and some broccoli.
We all know that chocolate has natural ingredients that may help with heart health and other health conditions. The downside to chocolate cake has always been lots of calories with limited or no nutrient value. In other words, a bite of chocolate cake was a mouthful of refined sugar, saturated fat and other empty calories. If the cake was frosted, it was the equivalent of applying cholesterol and sugar to a pile of empty calories (makes chocolate cake sound really attractive, doesn't it?).
In its defense, traditional chocolate cake got some B vitamins and iron from enriched white flour and some vitamins from the egg yolk. If prepared with milk, you could count a smidgen of calcium and vitamins A and D, but not enough to write home about.
Actually, creating a moist cake with a bit more nutritional value than the traditional was not difficult at all. For years, bakers have worked with fruit purées, applesauce, fruit juice concentrates and whole-wheat flours while eliminating eggs, saturated fats and dairy to concoct flavorful, tender chocolate cakes.
You'll note that this makeover cake contains no eggs or dairy, so the saturated-fat content has gone way down. The Dutch cocoa has an intense chocolate-y taste, and the applesauce adds moisture and helps with the tenderness. Yes, there is still refined sugar in the recipe, but it is balanced by increased fiber from the apples and whole-wheat flour, the lowered fat content and great flavor.
Yield: Six servings
Vegetable oil spray
1/2 cup grated sweet onion (such as Maui or Vidalia)
1 cup fresh bread crumbs; see cook's notes
2 large egg whites or 3 tablespoons silken tofu
1 pound lean ground sirloin; see cook's notes
1/2 cup ketchup; divided use
2 tablespoons diced red bell pepper
2 tablespoons diced green bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1/2 cup unflavored quick oats (uncooked)
1/2 cup water or nonfat milk or low sodium vegetable broth
For a vegetarian version, use veggie ground round and soymilk. The veggie version will be a bit more crumbly, so make individual servings in mini pans or muffin tin. Depending on the vegetarian product used, fat content will be lower and sodium content higher than the meat version.
Fresh bread crumbs can be made by removing the crust and tearing whole wheat, sourdough, potato bread or any soft bread into tiny bits (no bigger than dime-sized).
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-by-8-inch baking dish with nonstick vegetable oil spray.
In large bowl, combine onion and bread crumbs. Add egg whites, ground beef, 1/4 cup of ketchup, red and green peppers, parsley, pepper, garlic and oats; mix to combine. Add just enough water, milk or broth to moisten mixture. Mixture should be just moist enough to hold together, not crumbly, sticky or goopy.
Form mixture into oval loaf and place in baking dish. With your hand, lightly coat top loaf with remaining ketchup. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and place in oven. Bake 30 minutes. Remove cover and bake 15 more minutes or until thoroughly cooked. Allow to stand 10 to 15 minutes before slicing. Cooked meatloaf freezes well. Cook and cool it, then place in airtight container.
Yield: Two cups
Vegetable oil spray
1/4 pound (about 2 cups) sliced fresh mushrooms
1/2 cup minced sweet onions (such as Maui or Vidalia)
2 tablespoons minced celery
1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth or low-sodium vegetable juice cocktail
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons white pepper
3 tablespoons dry bread crumbs
About 1 cup fat-free half-and-half, divided use; see cook's notes
If you would like to make this gravy very, very smooth, you can purée the onion, celery and parsley in a food processor or blender before adding it to the pot. The more you stir, the smoother and creamier gravy will become. If it's not as thick as you like, you can add more bread crumbs, or allow it to cook down, stirring, until it is thickened.
Liberally spray saucepan with vegetable oil spray and allow to heat on medium-high. Add mushrooms and brown, stirring constantly. Add onions and celery, stirring and tossing until onions are soft. Stir in broth, parsley and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid is hot, about five minutes.
In bowl, whisk bread crumbs with 1/2 cup of the half-and-half until well-combined. Stir and whisk into simmering broth-vegetable mixture until well-mixed. Bring to a boil. Immediately reduce to low and simmer until thickened, about eight to 10 minutes.
If mixture is too thick, slowly stir in a bit more half-and-half and save any leftover half-and-half for your coffee!.
Yield: Six to eight servings
Vegetable oil spray
2 cups cooked, warm elbow macaroni (start with about 3/4 cup uncooked macaroni); see cook's notes
1/2 cup canned evaporated skim milk
1/4 cup low-fat sour cream; see cook's notes
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 cup finely shredded low-fat sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
2 teaspoons paprika
If you'd like more “zing,” you can add 1/4 cup minced onions, or use seasoned bread crumbs. Elbow macaroni is traditional, but rotini, ditalini or your favorite short macaroni will work as well.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-by- 8-inch baking dish with vegetable oil spray.
Place macaroni in large bowl. In a smaller bowl, combine remaining ingredients, except bread crumbs and paprika. Combine macaroni with cheese mixture and toss until well mixed. Spread mixture evenly into prepared baking dish.
In small bowl mix bread crumbs and paprika. Top macaroni evenly with bread crumbs. Bake, uncovered, 15 minutes. Spray bread crumbs lightly with vegetable spray. Bake five to 10 additional minutes, until bread crumbs are lightly browned and mixture is bubbly.
Yield: Ten to 12 servings
Vegetable oil spray
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole-wheat pastry flour; see cook's notes
1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa; see cook's notes
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup cold water
1/4 cup applesauce
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon white vinegar; see
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Optional: 2 teaspoons Kirshwasser (cherry liqueur); see cook's notes
Although vinegar sounds a bit odd in a baking recipe, don't omit it. The acid in the vinegar helps the leavening to work correctly.
Kirshwasser is traditionally used by pastry chefs in chocolate baking. It heightens the chocolate flavor without adding any fat.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-inch square baking pan with vegetable oil spray. In large bowl, sift both flours, cocoa and baking soda together. Mix in sugar and salt.
In small bowl, combine water, applesauce, oil, vinegar and vanilla. Combine moist and dry ingredients and mix by hand or with an electric mixer until the batter is smooth. Pour into prepared pan. If using, sprinkle Kirshwasser over mixture.
Bake 30 to 40 minutes or until a knife inserted into center comes out clean. Cool cake in pan for 10 minutes. Turn onto a baking rack, and cool completely. If you don't have a rack, tilt the cake pan at 45 degrees, so air can flow around it. Serve cake warm, or wrap in waxed paper and store at room temperature. Cake will last this way for two days. If desired, cut into squares, wrap and freeze for later. This cake is very moist and can stand on its own without frosting. If you would like a topping, you can use a dusting of powdered sugar combined with a small amount of cocoa, dot the top of the cake with Swiss-style vanilla, peach or coffee yogurt or sliced bananas tossed with a bit of the Kirshwasser. This recipe will also make approximately 12 cupcakes, baked in standard muffin tins.