Flavor, Organization, Focus and Creativity:
LOW FAT Cooking to Beat the Clock is based on four principles, which will enable you not just to pick out a recipe here and there, but to develop a lifelong strategy for fast meals, regardless of how long they take. They are flavor, organization, focus and creativity.
Flavor means a pantry-which also includes the refrigerator and freezer-well stocked with flavorful ingredients. Flavorful ingredients are even more important when making low-fat meals in fifteen minutes. Fats provide a great deal of the sensory satisfaction we get from food. If we reduce the amount of fat in our diet, we need to compensate with other ingredients that provide an alternative to the "mouthfeel" that fats give us. And when we do use fat-laden ingredients, they must be sufficiently flavorful so that we can use less of them.
For example, in my Penne with Pesto, Potatoes, and Tomatoes, I use one tablespoon of olive oil for my pesto sauce instead of the normal 1/3 to 1/2 cup. But that olive oil is absolutely the most flavorful oil I can afford. And isn't it better to spend money on good food than on cockamamie diet plans?
Fresh herbs and spices
also add flavor. The most vital seasoning, however, is salt. In many instances
when my recipe
testers said a dish was a bit bland, it was inadequately salted.
With the exception of specific amounts of salt for cooking pasta, rice,
and some vegetables, recipes tell readers to "season to taste" with
salt because everyone's tolerance for salt is different. But unless you're
on a sodium-restricted diet, don't stint on the salt. Salting at the table
isn't always a good solution because the salt doesn't get fully integrated
into the dish.
In both of my books, Cooking to Beat the Clock and Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock, I use fresh ingredients whenever possible. Canned or frozen ingredients, including those that are reduced in fat or fat-free, are used judiciously. As with my previous book, I use fresh ingredients whenever possible, though I do use canned and frozen items when the quality is good. I've used the same logic when it comes to low-fat ingredients. For example, oil sprays can reduce the amount of cooking fat significantly without affecting the quality of the final dish. Part-skim ricotta is a very acceptable substitute for whole milk ricotta.
Low-fat and especially nonfat ingredients should be purchased with care. For example, with a few exceptions, such as nonfat yogurt, my general rule of thumb with dairy products is to avoid any in which the fat is cut by more than 50 percent because the loss of flavor and texture isn't worth the reduction in fat.
Tailor your pantry to the way you eat, whether that means more Asian or vegetarian ingredients or just foods that you like. However your pantry is stocked, read labels for fat content. Use my book's pantry suggestions as a guide to setting up your own personal pantry.
Organization means the right equipment for fast meal preparation and having it easily accessible. A twelve-inch nonstick skillet is ideal for sautéing meat, fish, and poultry for four people without using much oil. A twelve-inch nonstick sauté pan does all a skillet does, but its straight sides (as opposed to the sloping sides of a skillet) give it more capacity (four quarts or more) that enables you to make quick soups and stews. Store these pans carefully-put paper towels on the surface of the pans if they're going to be stacked-and use nonstick utensils to avoid scratching.
Well-seasoned cast iron skillets don't need much cooking fat, and they last forever. Cast iron pans also come with ridges (and nonstick surfaces) to simulate grilling. In addition to sautéing, braising, steaming, and stir-frying, a wok can be used as a mixing bowl. While classic woks are made of rolled steel, which should be treated like cast iron skillets, they also come with nonstick surfaces.
Most folks think a food processor is about as necessary in the kitchen as an espresso machine. But when volunteer recipe tester Tami Thiesenhusen used hers to test Vegetable Biryani, she said: "I haven't used my food processor in a while and dragging it out for this recipe made me remember how easy it makes chopping and how much I love using it." I use the stainless steel cutting or chopping blade ninety percent of the time for purees, salsas, dressings, and chopping. Assume this blade is to be used unless the shredding or slicing discs are specified.
Having equipment within easy reach saves time. Whatever you use frequently should be immediately accessible and not require a foot stool or deep knee bends to find.
Focus means being single-minded about getting the meal out in a hurry. If there are two of you coming home at roughly the same time, one can cook while the other takes care of the kids and sets the table. The beauty of the recipes in this book is that they are designed for one person to cook. All the recipes have been tested to assure they can be completed in about fifteen minutes.
You may not be as experienced a cook as I am, or as familiar with the recipes. So on your first try a recipe may take fifteen to twenty minutes, maybe longer. However, once you get the hang of the concept, your speed will improve, sometimes dramatically. Pat Sinclair, one of my more ambitious testers, kept lowering her time with each of the recipes she tested. "I think I'm starting to get used to Sam's ways of doing things," she says.
Incidentally, the timing of these recipes begins when all ingredients and equipment are laid out and ready to go, what the French call mis en place. The buzzer sounds when the meal is ready to be dished out. It is assumed that all vegetables are washed except salad greens, which are cleaned within the fifteen minutes.
You'll notice that recipes will frequently say, "Meanwhile " or "While the cooks " This lets you know that at the same time you are actively performing a task, something else is taking care of itself. For example, in the Beef and Beet Salad with Horseradish Cream Dressing four things are going on at once. While the potatoes are boiling and the beef frying, the escarole is drying, and the beets are draining.
You may be unaccustomed to managing such "multitasking" in the kitchen. However, soon you'll feel comfortable with the rhythm, which will make meal preparation more efficient and faster.
The concept of focus also has a low-fat benefit I hadn't initially intended. Not having a glass of wine while cooking dinner eliminates those calories from alcohol. And without alcohol to stimulate the appetite, you're less likely to snack on fatty foods like nuts and cheese while you wait for dinner to be ready.
Creativity involves strategies for preparing meals in minutes, thinking beyond recipes so you don't always have to follow a specific formula. To do this, you need to think about concepts, rather than specific formulas. For example, Spicy Chicken Stir-Fry is a meat and vegetable stir-fry when you break it down. If the meat isn't chicken, it could be turkey or pork tenderloin. Seafood might be shrimp, scallops, or cubes of tuna or swordfish. Vegetables might include string beans, broccoli, or several varieties of summer squash in lieu of asparagus. Obviously cooking times will vary, but you get the picture.
Creativity is especially important for low-fat cooking because you don't have the luxury of falling back on oils, butter, and other fatty ingredients to carry the day. You can't just throw the usual three parts oil to one part vinegar into a bowl for a salad vinaigrette because it blows your fat allotment sky high. That's where creativity comes in. To replace some of the oil, try fruit juices like lime, lemon, even orange. There are a plethora of vinegars from which to choose. There is also white wine, chicken or vegetable stock, and soy sauce. Or you could go creamy with nonfat yogurt, low-fat sour cream, or low-fat buttermilk. Don't think of it as an insurmountable obstacle but a welcome challenge, one you can more easily face with a well-stocked pantry and an organized kitchen.