The Classics Revisited

I spent hours over the stove cooking luxurious, calorie-laden meals for my dinner parties. Then I found a way to magically cut the calories with vegetable purees and other low-fat substitutions.

By Moira Hodgson
Photograph: iStock

I tried making risotto with just one tablespoon of olive oil (enough to coat the rice at the beginning) and skipping the mantecatura altogether. “Tastes a bit flat,” said my husband. So I tried it with one tablespoon of butter at the beginning and another at the end. “Still flat,” came the verdict. Butter makes the rice silky and unctuous, and even the earthy dried porcini I added didn’t make up for the lack of it. So I scuttled the recipe.

I was more successful with spaghetti carbonara, even though it is one of the richest dishes in the pasta repertoire, made with eggs, cheese and bacon tossed together at the last minute to create a luscious, gooey sauce. Judging by the number of weird low-calorie recipes offered online, many people can’t live without their carbonara and will make do with such dubious substitutions as turkey bacon, fat-free evaporated milk and even bottled mayonnaise. I used lean pancetta, pouring off the fat instead of using it to coat the pasta, and I tossed the strands of spaghetti with two eggs instead of four. Not fat-free, but close, and also rich-tasting.

The warm chocolate soufflés that often used to wind up my dinner parties are a legacy from my mother. With trembling hands, I would use a spatula to help her fold the egg whites into the glossy pool of melted chocolate, butter and egg yolks and pour the mixture into a soufflé dish lined with waxed paper. Minutes later, puffed up to nearly twice its height, soft in the center, the soufflé would emerge from the oven, to be served with whipped cream.

When I was older, I was lucky enough to dine at La Côte Basque and La Caravelle, two of New York’s last bastions of old-school classic haute cuisine. The waiter, in black tie, napkin over his arm, would cut a hole in the top of my soufflé with a spoon and pour in a sauce, often a fruit puree or a custard. So when the final experiment on my list, chocolate soufflé made without butter or egg yolks, “needed something,” I thought back to the dinners at those fancy French restaurants. Raspberry sauce. It did the trick. No one missed the whipped cream, the eggs or the butter. I hope Julia would have approved.

More tricks for lowering fat
  Instead of using cream or butter, thicken your sauce with vegetable puree (such as cauliflower, carrot or mushroom).
  Instead of roasting potatoes in oil or
fat, steam them until done, then brown them on a grill, using no fat.
  Bake fish in a very low-temperature oven instead of sautéeing
it in butter or oil.
  A little starchy pasta cooking water can be used to dilute rich sauces.
  Use fat-free ricotta mixed with plain,
fat-free yogurt as a substitute for heavy cream. For a smooth blend, the ricotta must be very fresh. Check the sell-by date on the bottom of the container and make sure it’s a good month away.
  Steam or boil a whole duck before roasting it. This is only necessary with Pekin duck, which is served well done; Mal-lard duck, best served rare, is
nowhere near as fatty.
  Use fruit purees instead of heavy cream to top desserts. Process fresh or frozen unsweetened berries with a little sugar and a few drops of lemon juice in a blender until smooth.

View recipes here.

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Moira Hodgson is the author of It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, a memoir.

Originally published in More, February 2010.

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