Rocco DiSpirito's Secrets to Healthier Italian Cooking
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Award-winning chef and bestselling author Rocco DiSpirito returns to his Italian roots with his newest cookbook, Now Eat This! Italian, which features more than 100 healthier versions of Italian-American favorites, from caprese salad to pasta bolognese to cannolis. The stats on DiSpirito’s slimmed-down meals are staggering: Every dish is less than 350 calories and low in fat, so you can indulge in delicious Italian cuisine without wrecking your diet.

To create these recipes, DiSpirito traveled all over Italy, cooking side-by-side with the best chefs: Italian mamas. In this exclusive Q&A with SHAPE, he shares his top tricks for making mouthwatering Italian food that has all the flavor without the fat.

SHAPE: What was the most surprising cooking secret you learned in your travels?
Rocco DiSpirito (RD): To make sofrito, the base for most Italian pasta dishes, they sauté garlic, oil, and pepperoncino—crushed red pepper flakes—which is basically the Italian holy trinity of pasta. If basil is called for, they add the herb to the hot oil in the beginning. Like other American chefs, I had been been taught to add herbs at the end of the cooking process, but I found out that molecules of basil are lipophilic, meaning that they stick to fat molecules. Since there's fat in the oil of the sofrito, the basil flavor clings to it, perfuming the pasta sauce throughout the whole process.

RELATED: The Fastest Way to Chop Herbs

Award-winning chef and bestselling author Rocco DiSpirito returns to his Italian roots with his newest cookbook, Now Eat This! Italian, which features more than 100 healthier versions of Italian-American favorites, from caprese salad to pasta bolognese to cannolis. The stats on DiSpirito’s slimmed-down meals are staggering: every dish is less than 350 calories and low in fat, so you can indulge in delicious Italian cuisine without wrecking your diet.

To create these recipes, DiSpirito traveled all over Italy, cooking side-by-side with the best chefs: Italian mamas. In this exclusive Q&A with SHAPE, he shares his top tricks for making mouthwatering Italian food that has all the flavor without the fat.

SHAPE: What was the most surprising cooking secret you learned in your travels?
Rocco DiSpirito (RD): To make sofrito, the base for most Italian pasta dishes, they sauté garlic, oil, and pepperoncino—crushed red pepper flakes—which is basically the Italian holy trinity of pasta. If basil is called for, they add the herb to the hot oil in the beginning. Like other American chefs, I had been been taught to add herbs at the end of the cooking process, but I found out that molecules of basil are lipophilic, meaning that they stick to fat molecules. Since there's fat in the oil of the sofrito, the basil flavor clings to it, perfuming the pasta sauce throughout the whole process.

I also found out why Italians are so obsessive about how garlic is cut. Garlic has a low burning point: It goes from dark brown with a sweet and nutty flavor to carbonized and bitter in about a split second. So Italian chefs are extremely careful to garlic cloves in even slices so that each piece cooks at the same rate. While it can be time-consuming to peel and chop garlic, you can slice it pretty quickly with a mandolin, and it’s definitely worth the huge returns you’ll get in flavor.

SHAPE: What's your number-one healthy swap to lighten up recipes?

RD: Remove sugar completely from your diet. I replace it with all-natural monk fruit extract, which is available in granulated or powder form. It’s extremely sweet and has very little aftertaste.

When it comes to Italian cooking, a great healthy swap is to use fresh mozzarella instead of processed. Because there’s a lot of water in the fresh cheese, it’s only 60 calories per ounce—for cheese, that’s nothing, and you can save a ton of calories.

SHAPE: How about a no-fail Italian meal for a beginner home cook to make?
RD: The easiest Italian dish to make is a caprese salad. If you can slice a mozzarella and tomato, you can make caprese salad. (Check out his recipe here).

SHAPE: What’s your favorite healthy Italian dessert?
RD: Peaches and prosecco. It’s really simple: fresh peaches, a glass of prosecco, and an almond-flavored liquor.

SHAPE: Our Twitter followers have some questions for you about healthy cooking. Michie8 wants to know: Is it better to leave the skin on or take it off when making mashed potatoes?
RD: It depends entirely on what kind of person you are. If you’re smooth and refined, you’ll want the skins off. If you’re more adventurous, leave them on. However I would recommend you don’t eat mashed potatoes at all—bake a sweet potato instead or at replace half the mashed potatoes with pureed cauliflower.

SHAPE: Rathbor asked: What kinds of Italian-inspired physical activity do you do to work off all of this delicious food?
RD: Walking. Italians walk all over the place, up and down hills, all day long. You can burn thousands of calories every day just by walking, so that’s something I try to do a lot in New York City, too. I also love riding my bike—I definitely have the Italian bike gene in me.

SHAPE: AliciaR0326 asked: What happened to the Now Eat This! truck serving great lunches around NYC?
RD: It’s morphed into more of an education program rather than a lunch truck. It supports the Now Eat This Foundation, which we created to provide nutrition education and hot, nutritious, free food to kids in need, and when it comes to nutrition education, every kid is a kid in need. One in four children will be obese by the end of this decade, and 67 percent of Americans have weight issues. I believe it’s really important to enlighten children about the possibility of food that is both healthy and delicious at the time.

- See more at: http://www.shape.com/blogs/fit-foodies/rocco-dispirito-shares-his-secret...

I also found out why Italians are so obsessive about how garlic is cut. Garlic has a low burning point: It goes from dark brown with a sweet and nutty flavor to carbonized and bitter in about a split second. So Italian chefs are extremely careful to garlic cloves in even slices so that each piece cooks at the same rate. While it can be time-consuming to peel and chop garlic, you can slice it pretty quickly with a mandolin, and it’s definitely worth the huge returns you’ll get in flavor.

SHAPE: What's your number-one healthy swap to lighten up recipes?

RD: Remove sugar completely from your diet. I replace it with all-natural monk fruit extract, which is available in granulated or powder form. It’s extremely sweet and has very little aftertaste.

When it comes to Italian cooking, a great healthy swap is to use fresh mozzarella instead of processed. Because there’s a lot of water in the fresh cheese, it’s only 60 calories per ounce—for cheese, that’s nothing, and you can save a ton of calories.

SHAPE: How about a no-fail Italian meal for a beginner home cook to make?
RD: The easiest Italian dish to make is a caprese salad. If you can slice a mozzarella and tomato, you can make caprese salad. (Check out his recipe here).

SHAPE: What’s your favorite healthy Italian dessert?
RD: Peaches and prosecco. It’s really simple: fresh peaches, a glass of prosecco, and an almond-flavored syrup.

RELATED: 5 Desserts You Won't Believe Are Sugar-Free

SHAPE: Our Twitter followers have some questions for you about healthy cooking. Michie8 wants to know: Is it better to leave the skin on or take it off when making mashed potatoes?
RD: It depends entirely on what kind of person you are. If you’re smooth and refined, you’ll want the skins off. If you’re more adventurous, leave them on. However I would recommend you don’t eat mashed potatoes at all—bake a sweet potato instead or at replace half the mashed potatoes with pureed cauliflower.

SHAPE: Rathbor asked: What kinds of Italian-inspired physical activity do you do to work off all of this delicious food?
RD: Walking. Italians walk all over the place, up and down hills, all day long. You can burn thousands of calories every day just by walking, so that’s something I try to do a lot in New York City, too. I also love riding my bike—I definitely have the Italian bike gene in me.

SHAPE: AliciaR0326 asked: What happened to the Now Eat This! truck serving great lunches around NYC?
RD: It’s morphed into more of an education program rather than a lunch truck. It supports the Now Eat This Foundation, which we created to provide nutrition education and hot, nutritious, free food to kids in need, and when it comes to nutrition education, every kid is a kid in need. One in four children will be obese by the end of this decade, and 67 percent of Americans have weight issues. I believe it’s really important to enlighten children about the possibility of food that is both healthy and delicious at the time.

RELATED: 11 Guilt-Free Italian Menu Items

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