By Dana Cowin
Burgers. Fried chicken. French fries. Steak. On menus worthy of dozens of passionate reviews by bloggers and Yelpers, these are the dishes that generate the buzz. I love these foods. Love.
Some people will travel to France to eat at a Michelin three-star restaurant—and I’m not saying that I wouldn’t—but I’ve always been just as happy to travel anyplace I’m promised great fried chicken. In Manhattan, I’ve cracked the crust on the spicy Korean-style wings at Mad for Chicken on 32nd Street, and I’ve rhapsodized about the delicate version at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry St., where his son, Cedric, is chef; I’ve also gorged on splendid fried chicken all around Nashville. So it’s with tremendous respect for these marvelous dishes that, as editor-in-chief of F&W, I pose this challenge: Chefs, can you please lighten your food?
While dishes like fried chicken and their buttery or carb-loaded counterparts are super-popular and well-priced, I actually don’t want to eat three days’ worth of calories in one sitting. I’ve gradually lost a taste for too much of that kind of food, and I believe other people eventually will, too. Yes, most restaurants offer a green salad (which, depending on the dressing or mix-ins, still might not make Dr. Oz happy) or a simple vegetable side dish (which often comes with liberal amounts of cheese or pancetta, or both). And yes, there’s usually some kind of fish, but eating it generally feels like a compromise when everyone else at the table is poking their hand-cut, twice-fried chips into house-made ketchup and figuring out how to get their mouths around an unusually large lamb slider. Why can’t foods that are good for you be as cravable as the deep-fried, bacon-wrapped hot dog at Manhattan’s PDT?
One common reply to that question is that fat equals flavor. But what about Thai food? That’s got a lot of flavor—bitter, salty, sweet, sour—and, in general, relatively little fat (just look at Su-Mei Yu’s recipes). Or Japanese food: It’s clean, and its flavors are bright. But, of course, those aren’t iconic American cuisines, which brings us to the second-most-common answer: People yearn for the foods of their childhood, and for many Americans, that means the hot dogs and hamburgers their parents grilled on the Weber in the backyard. Still, I don’t buy it. My favorite fried chicken is the kind I ate at home growing up, but I’m not thinking about that when I reach for the fourth wing at Mad for Chicken. I want it because it tastes fantastic.
Can’t something taste sublime without a burdensome amount of fat and calories? To find out, I went to some of my favorite chefs, the ones who have a cult following for their super-indulgent dishes, and asked them to create recipes that even a sausage fetishist would lust after. What I discovered at first isn’t exactly breaking news, but I’ll share it here anyway: Chefs don’t have a particularly good sense of fat grams or calorie counts. One chef suggested a recipe for a ravioli stuffed with parsnip and bone marrow (bone marrow is mainly fat). But one lovable quality of chefs is that they’re creative and solution-oriented. After some back-and-forth, F&W senior editor Kate Heddings had gathered a collection of six healthy recipes with that wow factor.
“I think chowder is the way to go,” said chef Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman and Finch Public House in Atlanta. “The very word chowder makes your mouth water.” This from a guy who adorned the entry of Holeman and Finch with a custom-made glass curing case full of pig legs. He came up with two ways to get a chowder’s creamy consistency without fat: adding cubed potatoes and using buttermilk. In Chicago, the Publican’s Paul Kahan chose spelt flour as his secret weapon (spelt is a grain that’s high in protein and fiber) after watching Chris Bianco of Phoenix’s Pizzeria Bianco—”a yeast-and-flour genius,” says Kahan—make spelt bread. Kahan’s spelt focaccia topped with squash, kale and just a few shavings of nutty pecorino is so good, I’d eat it like a pizza or as an appetizer/side dish combination.
At Gautreau’s in New Orleans, Sue Zemanick cooks indulgent dishes, but in her off-hours, she has a distinctly lighter approach. And in fact, when I spoke to her, she was just coming off a 13-day cleanse, vowing to do it four times a year. That disparity was so extreme that I was particularly impressed she was able to retain the essence of the food at Gautreau’s when coming up with a lightened recipe for grilled pork tenderloin with vegetable curry. In place of coconut milk (one cup of which has 552 calories, 479 of them from fat), she chose coconut water (more often thought of as a drink than a cooking ingredient) and combined it with two tablespoons of full-fat sour cream to get that luscious feeling. It’s a trick the F&W Test Kitchen is sure to remember and use in the future.
What I discovered from this group of recipes, perhaps not surprisingly, was that these talented chefs could make amazing healthy food. And some of them even had healthy dishes on their menus. For a while, Laurent Tourondel, who serves incredible beef and addictive onion rings and popovers at 11 BLT Steak restaurants around the world, offered a Thai green mango–crab salad. Did customers like it? I asked him. “It didn’t move,” he replied. “When people go to a steak house, they want steak. I love the crab salad, but they want steak.” Chris Cosentino of San Francisco’s offal-centric Incanto, though, had a different experience: His sardines are hugely popular. But perhaps that’s because bony, whole-fishy, charred sardines fit into the offal-lover ethos.
And this is the crux of the dilemma. When a healthy recipe matches the mood of the restaurant, it works. But right now, at most of the popular foodie establishments in America, light foods don’t make sense. What we need is a new paradigm: hip, affordable restaurants with a great vibe that reinvent healthy food and make it as cravable as a cheeseburger. I believe that change will come eventually, but until then, I’m going to be picking out the stealthily healthy dishes at restaurants—and making these phenomenal recipes at home.
Roasted Sardines with Olives, Capers and Parsley
Recipe by Chris Cosentino
Chris Cosentino of San Francisco’s Incanto is known for his offal dishes but a hearty fish like sardine, served whole, can also appeal to the nose-to-tail crowd. Cosentino pan-fries the omega-3-rich fish with an exhilarating mix of olives, capers, lemon zest, parsley and chiles. To make this more of a main course, he prepares a crunchy salad of artichokes and sunchokes to eat alongside.
Pairing SuggestionFish rich in omega-3s go best with unoaked wines with few tannins. For Cosentino’s tangy roasted sardines, try pouring a bright New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, like the citrusy 2009 Brancott Marlborough, or a very light red, like the cherry-scented 2008 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages.
Roasted Sardines with Olives, Capers and Parsley
TOTAL TIME: 45 MIN SERVINGS: 6
FAST HEALTHY STAFF FAVORITE
1 lemon, halved, plus 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest and 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
6 baby artichokes
3/4 pound sunchokes, scrubbed but not peeled
3 tablespoons canola oil
18 fresh sardines (about 2 ounces each), cleaned and scaled
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3/4 cup green olives, such as Cerignola, pitted and chopped
3 cups loosely packed flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 tablespoons chopped oregano
2 tablespoons capers, drained
2 serrano chiles, seeded and minced
4 cups baby arugula (4 ounces)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400°. Fill a large bowl with water and squeeze the lemon into it. Snap off the green outer leaves of the artichokes until you reach the yellow leaves. Cut off the top third of each artichoke. Using a mandoline or a food processor fitted with the slicing blade, thinly shave the artichokes. Add them to the lemon water. Shave the sunchokes into the lemon water.
In a very large ovenproof skillet, heat the canola oil until nearly smoking. Season the sardines lightly with salt and pepper and add them to the skillet. Cook for 3 minutes, then flip the sardines and add the garlic, olives, parsley, oregano, capers, chiles and lemon zest. Transfer the skillet to the oven and roast the sardines for about 5 minutes, or until cooked through.
Drain the artichokes and sunchokes and pat dry. Return them to the bowl and add the arugula, olive oil and lemon juice. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Transfer the sardines and salad to plates and serve.
One Serving 330 cal, 22 gm fat, 3 gm sat fat, 17 gm carb, 3 gm fiber, 19 gm protein, 810 mg sodium.
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