If preparing dinner means peeling back the top of a frozen prepackaged meal or opening a brand-new box of cereal, it's time for a change. You don't have to be an accomplished cook to create low-fat, healthful cuisine that tastes great. The main challenge to eating well while watching calories is to choose nutrient-dense food and avoid excess dietary fat without giving up flavor.
Following are five supereasy, low-fat cooking techniques you can master in about the time it takes to nuke a Lean Cuisine. Whether you choose to broil, microwave, pressure cook, steam or stir-fry, you'll be pleased to know that each method is not only naturally low in fat (because they require little or no oil) but brings out the zest in foods. One caveat: Because these are quick-cooking techniques, you'll need to ignore that well-known adage and become a cook who does watch the pot -- to help keep it from boiling (or burning, sticking or charring).
Steaming is, simply, cooking food in an enclosed environment infused with steam. You can steam in a variety of ways: with a covered, perforated basket that rests above a pot of boiling water; with a parchment wrapper or foil; with Chinese bamboo steamers that stack on top of a wok; and with convenient electric steamers. Steaming cooks and seals in flavor, eliminating the need for added fats during preparation. It also preserves nutrients better than any other cooking method except microwaving. It's perfect for fish and shellfish because it doesn't dry out the delicate flesh. Halibut, cod and snapper steam particularly well.
Best candidates: Vegetables such as asparagus, zucchini and green beans, pears, chicken breasts, fish fillets and shellfish.
Equipment: A large pot in which to place collapsible basket steamers, Chinese bamboo steamers to stack on top of a wok (these steamers range from $10-$40), or electric steamers. The Black & Decker FlavorScenter steamer is a new electric model to which features a built-in flavor-scenter screen that you can add herbs and spices. It comes with a large 3.5-quart bowl and a 7-cup rice bowl and a handy timer with a signal bell and automatic shut-off ($35).
* To steam on top of the stove, simply bring water to a boil in your selected stove-top steamer, reduce heat so that a strong simmer sends steam escaping, add food to the steaming compartment, cover with a lid, and begin timing.
* A makeshift steamer can be easily created with everyday cooking utensils. Use any deep-frying pan or pot, such as a 6-quart Dutch oven, and place a rack inside balanced on two identical pieces of wood wedged into the bottom. (Make sure the lid is tight-fitting.) Spaghetti pots that come with separate smaller baskets that sit up high and fit snugly under the lid make good steamers as well.
* A 3/4- to 1-inch fish fillet takes anywhere from 6-15 minutes to steam, depending upon the fish; vegetables and fruit (such as a bunch of medium-stalked asparagus, a pound of green beans or two pears cut up) take from 10-25 minutes; a boneless chicken breast, 20 minutes.
Hold the salt: Don't bother salting foods during steaming, as it just washes off.
Try this: Flavoring is as simple as a twist of lemon. Steam one fish fillet by wrapping it in foil with a few garlic cloves, grated fresh ginger, onion and basil leaves. After squeezing fresh lemon juice over the fish, wrap it closed and place in a steamer basket. Bring 2 inches of water to a boil in a pot, put basket over water and cover. Steam for about 6 minutes.
Cooking at a very high heat for a very short time is the essence of stir-frying. Because food is cooked so quickly, it should be cut into small, uniform pieces to ensure every ingredient is cooked thoroughly. This is another method that requires your full attention, as continuous stirring and sometimes tossing of the ingredients are necessary to prevent food from sticking to the pan.
The best way to stir-fry is in a wok. The sloping sides and rounded bottom are specially designed so food can be quickly browned in the "belly" of the pan and then moved up to the sides, where it finishes cooking more slowly. Traditionally, Chinese woks are cast iron and take a while to heat up. Most woks today are made of carbon steel, which heats up and cools down more quickly. The wok is placed on a metal ring which sits over the burner. When it's very hot, oil is added, followed by the food.
Best candidates: Broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, bell peppers, mushrooms, pork, chicken, shrimp, scallops and tofu.
Equipment: Wok or a large heavy-gauge skillet (from $20-$200, depending on brand). Calphalon's flat-bottomed wok (model C155) features a hard anodized exterior, cool handles, a nonstick finish and a lifetime warranty ($100).
* Be prepared: Vegetables should be properly diced or chopped; meats should be trimmed of fat and sliced. Spices should be laid out on a plate and ready to go.
* If cooking a meat and vegetable dish, brown meat first, then push it to the sides of the wok before adding veggies.
* Use extra-virgin olive oil from a spray pump to coat your wok.
Try this: Heat a nonstick wok over high heat; spray with oil. Add 1/2 cup chopped onions, 1 minced garlic clove and a dash of red pepper flakes; stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Add 1/2 cup chicken broth and 1/2 cup white wine; simmer for about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 pound of medium-size shrimp; cover and cook for 5 minutes.
One of the simplest of all cooking methods, broiling cooks by exposing food to direct heat in an electric or gas stove, usually in the bottom drawer of the oven. It renders the same results as grilling, but in grilling the heat comes from below, while in broiling it comes from above. Because the heat is constant, all you really need to do is move the food closer to or farther from the flame depending on how you like your food cooked. That means the thinner the cut of food, the closer the heat source should be so it quickly sears the surface of the food, leaving the interior less done. Because broiling is a dry-heat method of cooking (which means no additional oil), lean cuts of beef and chicken work best when marinated first or basted during cooking.
Chef Will Elliott, executive chef at the Regent Grand Spa, The Resort at Summerlin in Las Vegas, relies on broiling to create dishes that satisfy the palates of his health-conscious guests. "Some of the best foods to broil are beef and salmon," Elliott says. "Salmon is an oilier fish and won't dry out as easily as others." Here are the broiling basics.
Best candidates: Salmon, chicken, Cornish game hen, bell pepper, summer squash, zucchini and onion.
Equipment: Gas or electric stove.
* Always preheat the broiler for 30 minutes with the rack in place so foods can be seared quickly.
* For a 1/2-inch-thick piece of meat, allow 6 minutes of cooking time for rare, 9 minutes for medium and 12 minutes for well-done.
* For bone-in chicken, allow about 15 minutes per pound.
* Turn all foods halfway through cooking time.
* To sear food, place it 1 inch below a preheated broiler for 1-2 minutes per side.
* For easy clean-up, line your broiler pan with foil.
Try this: For extra flavor and to keep food from drying out, marinate lean cuts (and even vegetables) an hour beforehand. Try this on chicken breasts: Combine three cloves minced garlic, 1 tablespoon olive oil, juice and zest of one lemon, 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil, 1 cup white wine, salt and pepper to taste.
"Microwaving cooks essentially by steaming," says Victoria Wise, chef and author of The Well-Filled Microwave (Workman Publishing, 1996). "And like steaming, it lends itself to low-fat or no-fat cooking. The foods that do well this way are vegetables, which retain their color along with their nutrients, and fish and chicken, which plump up well compared to beef and pork." Wise uses a 750-watt Panasonic model with a carousel that turns food, helping to cook it more evenly. The power of the microwave depends on the wattage per square foot of internal oven space: the higher the wattage and smaller the oven, the more powerful.
Best candidates: Beets, broccoli, fish, chicken, potatoes, spinach, carrots, cauliflower and apples.
Equipment: A medium-size, 750-plus-watt model with either a carousel to turn the food or a convection system that disperses the waves evenly throughout the oven will suit most needs. (A good one to try: Amana Radarange F1340 with 1,000 watts, 10 power levels and a 12.6-inch turntable for even heating, $209.)
Remember to use microwave-safe glass, ceramic or plastic cooking vessels. Most glass bowls and baking dishes are safe, Wise says, and ceramic and plastic items will say on the bottom and in the packaging if they are microwave safe. Never put metal, Styrofoam or plastic deli containers in the microwave.
* Cover food to contain the steam and moisture, which gives food its succulence. Although some manuals suggest using plastic wrap to cover, some studies show that molecules from the wrap can travel into the food. Use covered casserole dishes or cover with a flat, glass plate.
* You can cook two dishes at once by stacking them.
* Flash cook veggies to retain nutrients: 6 medium beets, cut up (12 minutes), 2 large sweet potatoes or yams (14 minutes), medium to large cauliflower or broccoli, cut into florets (6 minutes), 2 large bunches of spinach (3 minutes).
Try this: Wise recommends this basic fish recipe: Place 1 3/4-2 pounds of fish fillet (such as halibut, cod or snapper) in a large microwave-safe dish. Prepare a marinade of your preference (or try a combo of olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, salt and crumbled bay leaf). Add marinade to fish and set aside for 20 minutes. Cover the dish and microwave on high for 4-9 minutes (depending on thickness of fillet) until juices are clear and fish flakes in center. Remove and let cool for 2 minutes.
For quick, homemade applesauce, Wise cuts two pounds of peeled apples into 1/2-inch chunks, puts them in a large bowl and sprinkles them with sugar, cinnamon and a splash of lime juice. Microwave on high for 10 minutes.
5. PRESSURE COOKING
Food cooked in a pressure cooker requires very little water and time, which means that vitamins and minerals are kept intact. The cooker seals in steam created by the boiling liquid, which intensifies the flavors. This means that you won't need to add any oil or fat for taste or richness. You barely need to season the food either. Soups and stews that would usually take hours to simmer on the stove or a whole chicken can be ready in 15 minutes, rice in five and most vegetables in about three.
Best candidates: Artichokes, potatoes, beans, beef, chicken, lamb, risotto, soups and stews.
Equipment: There are three types of pressure cookers: the old-fashioned "jiggler" or weight-valve; the developed weight-valve; and the spring-valve. All of these valves serve as a pressure regulator and tell you when it's time to adjust the heat. (They all feature safety valves that allow excess pressure to escape, and most have safety locks that make them impossible to open until the pressure has fully dropped.) The spring-valve is the most precise and easiest for beginners to use. Pressure cookers range in price from $30-$300. (The Duromatic Non-Stick Pressure Cooker Frypan from Kuhn Rikon doubles as a conventional frying pan. It holds 2.1 quarts and is 9 inches wide. Made of stainless steel, this spring-valve model has a unique titanium nonstick system and a "helper handle" for easy lifting, and comes with a cookbook. $156; call 800-662-5882 for info.)
* Use a timer when pressure cooking. This method cooks so quickly that every second really counts.
* Don't fill your cooker more than two-thirds full. When cooking foods that expand, such as beans or rice, fill only halfway to allow for the buildup of steam and pressure.
* Be very careful when opening the lid. Never put your face over the pot because of the heat of the steam.
Try this: Beef Stew With Orange and Rosemary: In a 5-quart pressure cooker, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil on high heat. Add 1 1/2 pounds lean beef cut up into 1-inch cubes and cook until well browned on all sides. Remove and set aside. Reduce heat and add 1 chopped onion, 1 clove garlic and 2 tablespoons beef broth. Cook about 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup more of beef broth, 1/2 cup dry red wine, 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary leaves, 1 teaspoon finely grated orange peel, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, one bay leaf and black pepper to taste. Stir well to dissolve tomato paste. Add beef. Close lid and bring pressure to high. Reduce heat as needed. Cook for 15 minutes.