What prompted the change to low-fat foods?
A. My husband's cholesterol level was out of sight. I felt partially
responsible because through the years he had been my main taste-tester,
and as a result he developed an educated palate and became accustomed
to highly flavored, rich foods. I knew I needed to change my
method of preparation, but I also knew that if I didn't create
food that tasted good he would only cheat, which would defeat
the whole purpose. My goal was to try to transform my family's
favorite foods into low-fat/high-taste versions while keeping
them the family favorites.
Q. For many
of us, a low-fat diet means deprivation. Does this have to be
A. Definitely not. Around the time I was transforming my own
family's diet, I was approached by a colleague who was undergoing
treatment at the cardiac center of Greenwich Hospital. She asked
me if I could teach a heart-healthy cooking class in conjunction
with the hospital dietitian, for people undergoing rehab after
a cardiac incident. The class consisted of 30-40 people, typically
half of whom were the recovering patients. You could distinguish
the patients immediately because of their despondent expressions.
They were dreading the imposed dietary changes, and were already
feeling deprived of the foods they loved most. Most people are
under the misconception that low-fat means bland and boring.
Why write a cookbook?
A. While teaching classes, I would talk about all the recipes
and conversions that I had developed. I would hand out sheets
of recipes and food product guidelines. Students would routinely
ask me for more recipes, and the question of whether I would
write a cookbook was raised frequently.
Before I knew it, I had a book in hand. I wanted to give people
helpful hints as to how they could transform their own recipes.
It's important to give people the tools they need to convert
their own favorites, so that they are less likely to revert
back to their old standbys. I wanted this book to be an inspiration
to start a new lifestyle, for preventative as well as rehabilitative
Q. Have you
found any helpful diet paradigms?
A. Through much research I discovered the "Mediterranean Style
Diet," which is a great model for healthy cooking and eating.
The originator of the Mediterranean Style Diet, Ansel Key, determined
that many people who lived in the Mediterranean regions had
very low incidences of heart disease. As most people are aware,
fat in the diet can raise the level of cholesterol in the blood,
which in turn can increase the risk of heart disease. Saturated
fats are the main culprits. The traditional diet in the Mediterranean
region consists of pasta and grains, fish, vegetables in season,
green salads, cheese, fruit, and occasionally meat. Unlike the
typical American diet, which is high in the saturated fats found
in meats and dairy products, fat is almost entirely from olive
oil, a monounsaturated fat. Adopting the Mediterranean style
diet does not feel at all like dieting.
Which fats are "good" and which are "bad?"
A. Monounsaturated fats, the kind found in extra virgin olive
oil, canola oil, and nut oils, are the "good" fats. They will
actually lower potentially harmful cholesterol and raise beneficial
cholesterol, and are less likely to clog the arteries. Polyunsaturated
fats, which are derived from plants, are good because they contain
no cholesterol. There are exceptions to this rule, though; coconut
and palm oils can raise cholesterol levels. Recent preliminary
research has also indicated that polyunsaturated fats that are
artificially saturated to become hydrogenated oils will raise
blood cholesterol and may be more likely to promote cancer than
unaltered fats. This would include margarine and peanut butter.
"Bad" fats are the saturated ones, found in meat and dairy products.
What is the essential element in successful low-fat cooking?
A. High flavor. Unfortunately, fat tastes good. Anyone can take
out the fat; it's what you put back in during the cooking process
that maintains, retains or increases the flavor. Fresh herbs,
spices, dried and fresh fruits, and wild mushrooms are successful
substitutes. To successfully lower the quantity of meat in a
veal or chicken dish, you can replace a portion of the meat
with wild mushrooms, succulent fresh vegetables, or dried fruit.
Just cut all ingredients into the same size cubes, and cook
in a low-fat sauce. The object is to use meat as an accent rather
than the main focus of the dish. A good example would be a stir-fry
or pasta-vegetable dish. I have also gradually diminished the
number of meals with meat, starting with one less a month, then
one less per week. One of my favorite alternatives to mayonnaise
or butter is flavorful roasted garlic, which I incorporate into
salad dressings and sauces and also use as a spread on breads.
A bonus to using garlic is that it is a food that naturally
What other factors contribute to the success of a low-fat meal?
A. Eye appeal and texture are almost as important as taste.
Sauces, soups, and particularly desserts need to be prepared
so that the consistency feels the same in the mouth as their
high-fat counterparts. Tofu or evaporated skim milk thickened
with corn starch are great texture substitutes.
Q. Can we
keep red meat in our low-fat diet?
A. Red meat is full of saturated fats, so I make a Mediterranean
meatloaf by substituting turkey breast for 75% of the ground
beef. The turkey breast, with skin removed, can be ground along
with low-fat ground sirloin in a food processor, or can be purchased
commercially prepared. In order to give this combination a more
piquant flavor, I add grilled vegetables and a small amount
of flavorful cheese.
How does one replace fat in desserts?
A. Although cooking low-fat desserts takes longer, it's worth
the effort. Initially, cut the butter or oil by one-half, substituting
fruit purees such as applesauce or apple butter. Substitute
good quality, Dutch processed cocoa for chocolate. For cheesecakes,
replace cream cheese with light ricotta, low- fat cream cheese,
tofu, or nonfat yogurt cheese, and add apricot or almond flavoring.
Use the same principle in baking as you do in cooking: add extra
flavor when you remove the fat.
Q. What are
the best low-fat cooking methods?
A. Roasting, poaching, steaming, broiling, stove-top grilling
and outdoor grilling. Enhance each dish by using fresh herbs
and spices; it is the best way to bring out the flavors we are
used to in traditional foods.
Q. Can cookware
or other tools actually help reduce fat in our foods?
A. High quality nonstick copper-bottomed
stainless steel or anodized aluminum cookware is essential.
With either of these products, you can cook on a medium-high
heat with a small amount of oil and get a good browning effect,
which greatly enhances the flavor of the food. A good food
processor is also a great aid. One of my favorite cookware
pieces is a heavy-gauge anodized aluminum nonstick grill pan
with ridges on the bottom and a stay-cool handle. A good- sized
round grill pan is ideal because you can quickly cook an entire
meal in one pan with little or no fat. Place the chicken or
fish in the center and the vegetables around the perimeter.
Another favorite is a large anodized aluminum nonstick stir-fry
pan with stay-cool handles, which is ideal for everything from
healthy stir-fry to wonderful pasta dishes.
Q. What in
particular makes newer non-stick cookware better than the old?
A. The cookware I recommend is new heavy
commercial-quality. It conducts heat so well that you can
brown food in it. Other non-stick pans, especially older ones,
are so thin that you cannot get the pan hot enough and will
only steam the food and produce less flavorful meals. The new
pans have triple- layer non-stick coatings with stainless steel
reinforcement, making the coating much more durable so the non-stick
quality lasts longer.
Q. Can you
offer any strategies for introducing low-fat foods into the
A. When you are trying to make the transition with your family,
it is important not to announce that what you are about to serve
is a low-fat rendition. It's the kiss of death; your family
is predisposed to be negative. This is essentially where the
title of my book was born. I would be entertaining at home,
making my substitutions, while my unsuspecting guests were praising
the food. I finally said, "Guess what? This meal is completely
low fat!" Their response invariably was "I can't believe
this is low fat, it tastes so good!"
Is the low-fat diet here to stay?
A. A low-fat style of eating is not just a fad. People are increasingly
health conscious. Although they are very busy and concerned
with convenience, they are also concerned with maintaining fitness
and health. Cooking fast, healthy meals will be a requirement
for the next millennium.