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.

The most important lesson she learned: That how you cook is as important as what you cook.

"If you sprinkle a chicken breast with herbs and sear it in a pan on medium heat, it's going to taste blah; take that same chicken breast and cook it at high heat, and you'll seal in the flavors and bring out the spices, and you'll end up with a dish that tastes entirely different and very enjoyable," says Alexander.

She has a similar rule about cooking burgers: "People always say that extra-lean burgers taste dry - so they don't eat them," she says. The mistake here: "Squishing" the burger with a spatula to push out the fat.

"You think you are squishing out the excess fat, but what you are really squishing out is all the flavor and juices -- that's why it's dry and tasteless," she says. Instead, let the burger cook naturally, and leave the juices inside.

And yes, she says, buying extra-lean instead of lean makes a difference.

"One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is buying lean ground turkey instead of extra lean -- the packages say 7% fat vs. 1% and they think 6% can't be all that much difference, but it is," says Alexander. Flip the package over, she says, and you'll see that extra-lean turkey has 15 calories from fat, while the lean has 90 calories from fat. That's almost half the calories in a serving.

Another tip: Get the right tools for the best healthy cooking job.

"Invest in an ultrafine shredder and you'll find you can cover more surface with less cheese. You'll get flavor in every bite, but far fewer calories," she says.

Other healthy kitchen essentials, she says, include a food scale (so you know how big your portions really are); an olive oil sprayer, to add flavor with minimum calories; and a mallet to tenderize low-fat meats.

The Go-To Chefs

As one of the Culinary Institute of America's top instructors, Michael Garnero is the go-to chef many turn to when they want to learn healthy cooking.

He says he's turned away from "no fat" cooking to what he calls "smart fat" eating.

"No-fat cooking tastes terrible, but if you exchange the bad saturated fats for healthy monounsaturated fats, the food tastes better, and you're doing something good for your body," he says.

Still, even with healthy fats, it's possible to get too much of a good thing. And Garnero has some tricks up his sleeve for cutting back on fat without cutting back on flavor.

Among his favorite tips: Substitute low-fat yogurt for some of the high-fat ingredients in salad dressings.

"The trick is to strain it through a fine mesh colander or cheesecloth overnight, which allows all the whey and liquids to separate," he says. The result is a thicker, full-bodied and flavorful yogurt that more easily binds to other ingredients, including spices.

He also suggests using fruit purees or reduced fruit juices to pique the flavors of dressings or side dishes.

The concept of pumping up the flavor is also embraced by culinary instructor Toby Amidor, MS, RD, at the Art Institute of New York City, where she teaches restaurant chefs to change their high-fat ways.

"The most famous chef quote is fat equals flavor, but I am teaching them to turn towards adding more flavor with more flavors: spices, herbs, fruits, purees, sauces -- and the more exotic, the better," says Amidor.

Among her favorite healthy fat substitutions: Using fruit purees instead of butter and fat in baked goods, and using tofu as the basis for everything from chocolate cream pie to soybean smoothies.

"The rule of thumb in my kitchen is that you can't make a face until you've tried it!" says Amidor.

Healthy Chefs' Recipes

In her book Fast Food Fix, Alexander offers healthy alternatives to name-brand, fast-food dishes. Here is one of her favorites:

Devin Alexander's Version of Starbucks Pumpkin Pound Cake

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal one serving as 1 medium dessert + 4 ounces yogurt, plain or with artificial sweetener.

Alexander's version will save you 64 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 1.5 grams of saturated fat over the original.

Butter-flavored cooking spray
1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup fat-free vanilla yogurt (not artificially sweetened)
3 egg whites
1 cup canned pumpkin

  • Preheat oven to 350 F degrees. Mist an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 inch nonstick loaf pan with cooking spray; set aside.
  • Sift flour, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cloves and nutmeg into a mixing bowl; set aside.
  • In a large mixing bowl, combine sugar, yogurt, and egg whites. Using a sturdy whisk, mix until thoroughly blended. Stir in the pumpkin. Add the dry ingredients to the pumpkin mixture. Stir until no flour is visible. Pour into the reserved pan; bake for 55-60 minutes or until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
  • Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove cake to the rack to cool completely. When cool, cut into 8 slices.

Yield: 8 servings

Per serving: 246 calories, 5 g protein, 57 g carbohydrates, trace fat, trace sat fat, 2 g fiber.

From Fast Food Fix: 75 Amazing Recipe Makeovers of your Fast Food Restaurant Favorites (Rodale Books, April 2006) by Devin Alexander; © 2006. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Sweet Corn and Vegetable Chowder

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 cup hearty stew, chili or bean soup + 1/4 cup starchy food without fat + 1/2 cup vegetables without fat.

From his award-winning cookbook Taste: Pure and Simple, Nischan offers this hearty creamed soup -- without the cream or the fat. He says it's an Oprah Winfrey favorite!

About 24 fresh ears corn, shucked
1 Yukon Gold potato
1/2 split vanilla bean, or 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 pounds fresh or frozen edamame, fava, or lima beans (about 1 cup shelled)
1 to 2 tablespoons water
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup shredded spinach, sorrel, or arugula
1 tablespoon julienned lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

  • Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Place 2 ears of corn directly on the oven rack and roast, turning occasionally, until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool. When cool, cut the roasted corn kernels off the cob. You should have about 1 1/2 cups.
  • Meanwhile, cook potato in salted boiling water until tender in the center when pierced, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain and let cool to the touch. Slip off the skin and cut the potato into 1/4-inch dice.
  • With a large, sharp knife, cut the kernels off the remaining ears of corn. Run the kernels through a vegetable juicer. You should have about 4 cups of juice. Combine the corn juice and vanilla bean (or vanilla) in a medium, nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring constantly so liquid doesn't curdle. The natural starch in the juice will thicken it to the consistency of a sauce. If the soup is too thick, thin it with a little water or lemon juice. Remove from heat.
  • Fish out the vanilla bean (if using) and, with the tip of a small knife, scrape the seeds from the bean into the soup; discard the pod. Blend the soup in a blender at medium speed for a silky-smooth consistency. Return soup to the pot.
  • Put the roasted corn kernels, beans, and potato in a medium saute pan or skillet with the water. Bring to a simmer over a medium heat and season with salt and pepper. Simmer for a few minutes until the vegetables are hot. Pour off the water and add the vegetables to the soup. Stir in the shredded spinach or other greens, the lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.


Which is one of the few drinks to be considered a superfood? See Answer

Note: If the corn juice curdles during cooking, don't worry. Beat the curdled liquid with an electric mixer set on medium speed until smooth before you add the rest of the vegetables.

Yield: 8 servings

Our Advice: Journal single serving as a meal

Per serving: 305 calories, 10 g protein, 70 g carbohydrate, 3 g fat, 0.5g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 19 g fiber, 53 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 8%.

From Taste Pure and Simple: Irresistible Recipes for Good Food and Good Health (Chronicle Books, 2003) by Michel Nischan with Mary Goodbody. © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Tofu Strawberry-Banana Smoothie

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Members: Journal as replacement shake/smoothie.

You'll never miss the fat or the calories with this smoothie recipe from Amidor. You can add a spoonful or two of peanut butter and/or a teaspoon of chocolate syrup for a stronger flavor. Just be mindful of your portion sizes.

3/4 cup silken tofu
1 cup frozen strawberries
1 frozen banana, cut into pieces
1/2 cup soymilk
2 tablespoons peanut butter (optional, for more flavor and protein)
2-3 ice cubes

• Place all ingredients in blender; blend until mixture is smooth.

Yield: 1 serving

Per serving: 338 calories, 20 g protein, 46 g carbohydrate, 12 g fat, 1.7 g saturated fat, 8.5 g fiber, 0 mg cholesterol, 31 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 29%.

Recipe provided by Toby Amidor, MS, RD, nutrition instructor, Art Institute of New York City; © 2006 Toby Amidor.

Shrimp and Brown Rice Wontons

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Members: Journal 3 wontons as 4 ounce lean fish or seafood without fat + 1/2 cup starchy foods and legumes without fat.

Garnero offers this lower-fat, full-flavor recipe for Asian shrimp and wontons.

1 packet square Wonton wrappers

12 ounces shrimp, veins removed
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons ginger, chopped
3 tablespoons carrots, minced, blanched
3 tablespoons celery, minced, blanched
1 to 2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup brown rice, completely cooked

Scallion Oil:
2 bunches scallions, green only
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons peanut oil
4 tablespoons neutral-flavored vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt

Garnish: Large bamboo steamer basket (if available)
Banana leaves, cut into triangles (1 piece per plate)
Scallions, sliced (if desired)
Toasted sesame seeds (if desired)
Lite soy or ponzu sauce for dipping

  • First, make Scallion Oil: Blanch scallions briefly in boiling water. Then place scallions and vinegar into a blender and puree until very smooth. Add the oil while the blender is running to form an emulsion. Season to taste with salt.
  • Next, prepare filling: Place shrimp, oil, sugar, parsley, garlic, ginger, salt and pepper into food processor and quickly pulse to make a coarse and chunky paste. Remove puree, put cooked rice into processor, and quickly puree just to break up the grains. Combine the rice, shrimp, and diced vegetables and mix.
  • Fill the wonton wrappers with shrimp filling as directed on wonton package. (If making ahead, transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment; refrigerate or freeze until ready to cook.)
  • To cook wontons, heat a small amount of oil in large saute pan and cook filled wontons lightly golden brown. Turn on side; add just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover; steam until centers are cooked, 4-5 minutes.
  • To serve, place banana leaves (if using) in the bottom of steamer basket or dish, then place the wontons on top of the leaves. Top each wonton with scallion oil, sesame seeds, and sliced scallions as desired. Place sets of chopsticks around the basket and serve individual containers of dipping sauce on the side.

Yield: approximately 20, 1-ounce wontons (about 6 servings of 3 wontons each)

Per serving: 245 calories, 8.8 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 0.93 g fiber, 65 mg cholesterol, 22 g fat, 2.1 g saturated fat, 225 mg sodium.

Please see our entire collection of healthy recipes.

Recipe provided by Michael Garnero, CHE, associate professor of culinary arts, The Culinary Institute of America; head chef, St. Andrew's Cafe, Hyde Park, N.Y.; © 2006 Michael Garnero.

Published June 02, 2006.

SOURCES: Michel Nischan, chef; host, Pure and Simple culinary series, LIME TV; author, Homegrown: Pure and Simple; co-owner, The Dressing Room-Newman's Own®, A Homegrown Restaurant, Westport, Conn. (opening July 2006). Devin Alexander, executive chef, Cafe Renee Catering, Los Angeles; author, Fast Food Fix: 75 Amazing Recipe Makeovers of your Fast Food Restaurant Favorites. Michael Garnero, CHE, associate professor of culinary Arts at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y; head chef, St. Andrew's Cafe, Hyde Park, N.Y. Toby Amidor, MS, RD, nutrition instructor, Art Institute of New York City.

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors