There isn't a meal that can't be made skinnier with the help of a wire rack, a hand blender and nonstick cookware -- holiday dinners included, says chef Juan-Carlos Cruz, the TV Food Network's Calorie Commando. He should know: Cruz lost more than 100 pounds reinventing his favorite foods, cutting empty calories but keeping all the flavor. To help you do the same, we reveal the cooking secrets of some of the country's top calorie-cutting gurus and offer three festive recipes that show just how easy it is to put these tricks to use. Master these techniques and you won't need to make any weight-loss resolutions in January!
1. Skinny Cooking Secret:
What it does "Roasting vegetables brings out their natural sweetness as the carbohydrates in them caramelize," explains Connie Guttersen, R.D., Ph.D., a consulting nutritionist who teaches chefs how to cook healthfully at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif. Roasted vegetables can be served on their own, tossed with pasta or used as a base for soups and sauces.
How to do it
Peel and cut your favorite veggies into 2-inch pieces and roast in a deep pan at 350° F for 45 minutes or until tender. "You don't really need to use oil, just coat the bottom of the pan with cooking spray so things don't stick," notes New York City-based nutritionist Gayle Reichler, M.S., R.D.
2. Skinny Cooking Secret:
What it does Using herbs and spices in the cooking process turns up the taste without adding calories.
How to do it
There are a variety of ways to embolden your cooking.
Toast spices (such as curry powder or cumin seeds) to intensify their flavor before adding to a dish. Place them in a heavy, dry skillet over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until fragrant.
Add aromatic herbs and seasonings to cooking liquid when you prepare lentils, beans, couscous or rice (try fresh thyme for a taste of Provence or lemongrass for an Asian accent).
Splash herb-infused vinegars on roasted veggies, grilled fish, grains and salads, as chef and healthy cooking instructor Bill Wavrin does at Miraval Life in Balance in Catalina, Ariz. Simply steep fresh herbs (such as dill and tarragon) in your favorite vinegar in a glass jar or bottle for 2-3 days.
3. Skinny Cooking Secret:
What it does Pureeing veggies is a great way to make a rich-tasting, ultra-lowfat gravy or create a creamy soup sans fat. "The hand blender is my samurai sword in the kitchen!" says Cruz.
How to do it
Roast root vegetables such as carrots, celery root, fennel and leeks with garlic, put them in a pot with some canned low-sodium broth and puree it all into a delicious gravy for meats or poultry, Cruz advises.
Chef Kevin Graham of El Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa in Taos, N.M., tricks the palate into believing there's cream in his tomato and carrot soups by pureeing them with a little cooked rice or potato.
4. Skinny Cooking Secret:
What it does Cutting butter or oil from cake, muffin or quick-bread recipes saves you loads of calories and saturated fat. But fat also makes things moist. The trick to retaining moist reduced-fat baked goods, Reichler explains, is to replace that fat with something healthier. You can use applesauce in white cakes and pureed prunes in chocolate cakes. But Cruz prefers the subtle flavor pureed pears (from the baby-food aisle!) give pound cake, and Reichler likes the added carotene pureed sweet potato adds to chocolate cake.
How to do it Each recipe is different, so you may have to experiment. Reichler's rule of thumb: Cut the butter by half, reduce the sugar by a fourth and add 1/4 cup of fruit puree.
To make your own sweet potato puree, boil peeled potatoes until tender, drain and toss into a blender.
5. Skinny Cooking Secret:
What it does Cooking with fruit adds a sophisticated complexity to dishes, so they need less fat. Larry Maiman, founder of Maeni's Bakery Cafe, a top Los Angeles destination for slimmed-down sweets, explains, "We eliminate some of the fat and we don't use refined white sugar. Instead we use a fruit juice reduction in most of our products." You can also liven up savory dishes with fruit flavors, Wavrin says. He uses a pear reduction over roasted leeks or grilled fish. But don't limit yourself to fresh produce. "Reconstitute dried fruits with wine and make a sweet, savory sauce. This is always nice with pork tenderloin," Guttersen notes.
How to do it
Wavrin cooks organic, unfiltered apple or pear juice until it's reduced by three-fourths. Bring 4 cups of juice to a rapid boil in a saucepan over high heat and continue boiling uncovered until it cooks down to just 1 cup. The result will be thick, syrupy and intensely flavorful.
6. Skinny Cooking Secret:
Rack It Up
What it does A wire rack elevates meat or poultry to keep it out of its juices (and grease), and allows air circulation for even cooking and browning. Placing some liquid, such as water or chicken broth, in the pan below the rack adds humidity to your oven, so meats come out tender and moist. Cruz also uses a wire rack to cook crispy "oven-fried" chicken.
How to do it
Center meat, such as pork loin or whole chicken, on a rack that you've placed inside a roasting pan. Add 1-2 cups of broth to the roasting pan and cook according to recipe. To make oven-fried chicken, dip skinless chicken breast (bone in) in Egg Beaters and roll it in seasoned breadcrumbs or finely chopped nuts. Place a wire rack in a roasting pan. Coat rack with cooking spray and place breaded chicken on it in a single layer. Lightly spray chicken, and bake at 375-400* F for about 40 minutes, until crispy. Cruz notes, "It doesn't get mushy or soggy since it cooks all the way around, and since you sprayed it with the cooking spray, it will have a fried texture."
7. Skinny Cooking Secret: fry (almost) fearless
What it does Reducing the amount of fat used in frying is good for your thighs and your kitchen -- using less butter or oil saves you calories and splatter. Here's Cruz's equation for trimming fry pan fat: "Say you'd need 2 tablespoons of oil to coat the bottom of a 12-inch pan. That's 200 calories of oil to coat it. If you coat it with spray oil, it may take a three-second spray. One second worth of spray is about 7 calories, so that's 21 calories -- a 179-calorie savings!"
How to do it
Have a heavy, well-made nonstick frying pan on hand and always stock cooking spray in your pantry. Or create your own cooking spray by using aromatic oils such as peanut, sesame and extra-virgin olive oil in a pressurized mister can such as a Misto. But it's possible to saute without even as much as a mist of oil, Reichler explains. "You can use broth, juice, wine or any other liquid that will help spread the heat around the pan."