Chefs' Secrets for Healthier Cooking

4 top chefs share tips and recipes for lighter dishes that don't scrimp on taste and style.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

You want to cook healthier. But where do you start, what do you buy, and how do you keep it from tasting like cardboard?

WebMD posed these questions to four top chefs, some of whom not only gave up high-calorie ways, but changed their lives in the process.

What follows are their tips -- and a few recipes - aimed at helping you cook lighter while still enjoying every mouthful.

An Eye-Opening Diagnosis

Although he'd long been committed to a dinner table loaded with veggies, chef Michel Nischan admits he was a butterfat junkie, too.

"My mom was a farmer and I was raised on vegetables, but when it came to using butters and oils and processed fats in my cooking, well, the sky was the limit," says Nischan, author of several award-winning cookbooks including Homegrown Pure and Simple.

But when Nischan's young son, Chris, was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, it changed everything.

"As I researched the kinds of foods my son needed to eat -- and why -- my eyes opened and I began to see my responsibility as a chef from a different perspective," says Nischan, who will share his insights in a healthy eating show titled Pure and Simple, starting this summer on the new LIME TV network.

Among the healthy bylaws that govern Nischan's kitchen: Buy seasonal, local fruits and vegetables.

"If you buy local, you not only get the most nutrients and the best prices, but you add a natural variety to your diet that is extremely healthy," he says.

Another tip: Use the right oil or fat at the right time.

Olive oil is healthy for your heart, but degrades when used to saute foods at high temperatures, he says. Instead, he suggests sauteing at high temperatures using flavorless grapeseed oil, then finishing your dish with a drizzle of olive oil before serving.

"All you'll taste is the olive oil," he says.

If it's the rich flavor of fried fish you crave, Nischan says, sear it in grapeseed oil till golden brown, then dip a pastry brush in room-temperature butter and coat the fish before serving.

"Because the butter will be the first thing you taste, the entire meal will taste butter-drenched, but with just a fraction of the calories than if it was butter cooked," he says.

Another of Nischan's tricks is to bypass nonstick pans in favor of cast iron.

"Heat the pan for about 3 minutes over a medium flame, then coat whatever you're going to fry in a thin layer of oil and drop it in the pan," he says.

The temperature exchange between the hot pan and the cool food protects the oil, says Nischan, and you end up using less oil while still searing flavor into the food.

'Such a Pretty Face'

From the time she was old enough to stand on a chair and touch a bowl, Devin Alexander knew she loved to cook. She also knew she loved to eat. And by the time she was teenager, she was packing on the pounds.

"I was the one who always heard 'You have such a pretty face - if only you weren't so fat,' ", says Alexander, now a slim and celebrated Los Angeles healthy eating chef and author of the new book Fast Food Fix.

It wasn't until she became an adult that healthy cooking entered her life. "I decided there had to be a way I could enjoy food and not keep gaining," she says.

After a stint in culinary school, she found it: A style of low-fat cooking that not only helped her shed 55 pounds and keep it off for 12 years, but, as executive chef of Cafe Renee Catering in Los Angeles, help others do the same.

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