Simple techniques for no-fuss, no-stress, and delicious healthy cooking.
Why do it: Because it doesn't require cooking oil, broiling is a great way to cook healthfully. It works particularly well with thin, lean cuts of meat like chicken cutlets, thin cuts of pork, and fish, which cook through before they dry out. Low-fat cuts sometimes lack flavor, so you may want to compensate by using a marinade, a glaze, or a spice paste (try hoisin sauce or rice vinegar). A plus: Less than 10 minutes of a broiler's intense heat creates something that's too often lacking in low-fat cooking―a crispy crust.
What you need: A broiler pan. It has two parts: a slotted tray and a pan the tray rests on. The slots siphon off any fat that drips off the food. If you don't have a broiler pan, you can place a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet. To avoid hours of soaking and scrubbing, line the pan or sheet with foil.
Tip: To reinforce the flavor of the marinade or glaze, baste the food frequently during broiling using a pastry brush or a paintbrush (a new one, of course). If you're serving the liquid with the meal, be sure to set some aside before you baste so you don't contaminate the cooked food with bacteria from the raw meat.
Why do it: Steaming has a nutritional advantage besides requiring no fat. "It retains among the highest amounts of nutrients of any cooking technique," nutrition specialist Wendy Bazilian, R.D., says. Steaming creates a closed environment that envelops the ingredients in moisture. It's the ideal technique for fish and vegetables, ingredients that tend to dry out easily. "Usually the paler and whiter the fish, the lower the fat," says Bazilian, who cites halibut, cod, snapper, and sole as examples. The trick is not to let the pan run dry. As a reminder of when to add more water, toss a few marbles or coins into the pan before you add the steamer. The force of the boiling water causes them to jangle; they'll quiet down when the pan dries out.
What you need: The standard steaming setup consists of a collapsible metal basket in a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. For a makeshift version, place a small heatproof bowl upside down in a deep pot, add ½ inch of water, and balance a small heatproof plate on top. Place the food on the plate, then cover the pot with its lid. If you steam often and in large amounts, consider a bamboo steamer; its large, stackable trays allow you to steam fish on one layer, vegetables on another.
Tip: Drizzling a few drops of olive oil over steamed food just before serving will impart far more flavor than sautéing the ingredients in an entire tablespoon of fat.
Why do it: When you poach, the liquid gives food an exceptionally tender texture, which in turn infuses the liquid with its own flavor. To poach, place chicken or fish in a large, shallow pan, add just enough water or broth to cover it, simmer gently so that only a stray bubble breaks the surface. (If you're making chicken, remove the skin before you poach it: "You immediately cut the fat grams by more than half," says Bazilian)
What you need: A saucepan that's deep enough to submerge the ingredients and a watchful eye, so that only an occasional bubble breaks the surface (otherwise, the meat may become tough).
Tip: Instead of pouring the cooking liquid down the drain, turn it into soup by adding vegetables and perhaps some pasta for substance. Recent research indicates that when people eat soup, they tend to fill up quickly due to the volume of liquid. As a result, they consume fewer calories overall without feeling deprived. "That psychological satisfaction," Bazilian says, "is very, very important."
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Why do it: A combination of steaming and baking, this cooking method works splendidly with fish and chicken, which dry out easily, because the paper pouch traps the moisture and the juices. Just place food on a piece of paper, wrap it up, and put it in the oven. When it's ready, as you pull away the crinkly, slightly burnished edges of the parcels, you'll feel almost as if you're unwrapping a healthy gift.
What you need: Waterproof and oven-safe, parchment paper is the perfect packaging for this cooking method (look for it near the plastic wrap). Don't substitute wax paper, which shouldn't be directly exposed to heat. If the seams start to unfold as soon as you let go, use a lemon half or a carrot as a paperweight.
Tip: The ingredients for a parchment package are limited only by your imagination. Use a different fish. Add some olives. Try asparagus instead of fennel, potatoes in place of beans. Whatever your creation, include a variety of colors as well as some fresh herbs, finely chopped garlic, or thinly sliced fresh ginger.
Why do it: When you puree vegetables, they go from ordinary to velvety with the touch of a button. Pureeing involves two basic steps: simmering the vegetables (say, squash or broccoli, sweet potatoes or cauliflower) until they're tender, and blending them with broth until they're smooth. Adjusting the amount of broth determines whether you end up with a soup or a side dish. If you want to put a little olive oil in your puree, fine. Bazilian explains that eating low-fat isn't just about avoiding fat. "It's about choosing fats intelligently," she says.
What you need: Food processors are terrific for chopping, but for a really smooth puree you'll need to pull out the blender. If you're using a traditional countertop model, whir hot vegetables in batches, filling the jar only halfway―unless you want to spend the night cleaning the ceiling. A time-saving alternative is an immersion blender. Basically a blender on a stick, it can be placed directly into a pot of hot liquid.
Tip: Add a garnish―choose something with a contrasting texture and color, like pumpkin seeds or fresh herbs. Chopping the seeds distributes the crunch and makes a small sprinkle seem like an abundance; heating the seeds brings out their flavor and aroma.