When Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking hit the top of the charts last fall (thanks to the movie Julie & Julia), I felt a wave of nostalgia. Years ago, I’d taught myself to cook from that book, as its spattered pages and broken spine can testify. But I wondered how many of its new readers are actually tackling those recipes. All that butter, cream, bacon—and egg yolks! Did I really eat like that?
I did. I spent hours over the stove cooking luxurious, calorie-laden meals for my dinner parties: a creamy veal blanquette with pearl onions and mushrooms; coq au vin in a rich, dark red sauce laced with chunks of bacon; warm chocolate soufflé topped with whipped cream. I even experimented with a suckling pig. Julia recommended soaking it in cold water for several hours. I put mine in the bathtub overnight, and the next day it looked like a bloated corpse. The pig was too big for the oven and I had to cut it in half with a saw.
I’ve had no desire to roast a suckling pig since, but I do miss the days when my friends and I cooked without a thought for our waistlines or our cholesterol. So I decided to revisit some of those classic dishes and see whether I could lighten them up without compromising their taste and integrity. I wasn’t going to use horrible substitutions (such as the ones I found for a “healthy” shepherd’s pie: instant potatoes, frozen soy protein crumbles and fat-free Cheddar cheese). I simply wanted to create versions that would be easier on the conscience (and the heart) and more in tune with the way we eat today [see all the recipes here].
I began with a veal blanquette. Child’s recipe uses four tablespoons of butter, five tablespoons of flour, three egg yolks and nearly three quarters of a cup of heavy cream. So much for “French women don’t get fat,” I thought to myself as I read the list of ingredients—how about “a French woman digs her grave with a fork”? Looking through my cookbooks, I found a well-used copy of Michel Guérard’s Cuisine Minceur. When it was first published back in 1976, it caused a sensation: Butter and cream were the backbone of French sauces, but this famous French chef had magically cut the calories with vegetable purees and other low-fat substitutions. Instead of heavy cream, he used a blend of ricotta cheese and plain yogurt. I tried this in my veal blanquette and it was every bit as delicious as the fattening dish I used to make.
So was the coq au vin, which didn’t suffer from having all the bacon fat poured off (I used lean pancetta, unsmoked Italian bacon) or from skipping the butter entirely. Instead of button mushrooms, I used cremini mushrooms because they have more flavor.
Next came a real test: sole à la Normande, one of the most glorious overindulgences of French cuisine. It gets its name, of course, from the part of the country known for its butter, cream and cheese. It took me a couple of tries to get the sauce right for my simplified version. Guérard’s blended ricotta was too much for the delicate fish, so I gave in and used a small amount of cream with white wine. Not exactly a diet dish, but much lighter than the usual recipe, which calls for flour and loads of butter.
French food wasn’t my only challenge. One day I watched a chef in an Italian restaurant kitchen put his finishing touches on an order of risotto. He took the pan off the heat and, using a ladle, scooped up at least a quarter of a pound of butter and dumped it onto the rice. “It’s the butter that makes it good!” he said, stirring vigorously in the last step, called the mantecatura. He grated Parmesan cheese on top, spooned the risotto into a shallow bowl and handed it to me. I must admit that risotto was one of the best I’ve ever had.
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.