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Updating the Classics

updated macaroni and cheese

— Maryellen Baker/Getty Images

It's easy to imagine that today's health-conscious chefs grew up eating gourmet foods, prepared simply, with loads of fruits and vegetables and only the leanest cuts of meat. But that would be, well, a big fat lie. “I was a little butterball until I was about nine,” admits Sara Moulton, executive chef at Gourmet magazine. “Hot dogs, ice cream, and French fries were my favorite foods, much to my mom's chagrin.”

Growing up in Austria, legendary chef Wolfgang Puck wasn't exposed to American fast food, but he did develop a love for traditional goulash and desserts like Salzburger Nockerln (a luscious meringue).

Then there is Food Network star Michael Chiarello, who was just five years old when his father had a stroke. “I was always aware of the correlation between his unhealthy diet and his poor health,” Chiarello says.

All three chefs now promote a healthier way of cooking, in many cases by re-creating favorite dishes from their childhoods. Read on for more ways to update your classic recipes.

Lighten Up Your Faves

These simple tricks will make your childhood favorites a little healthier. Your mom (and your kids) will never know the difference.

Macaroni and Cheese Most mac-and-cheese recipes are based on a flour- and butter-thickened cream sauce. Instead of using cream or whole milk, use skim milk or a mixture of skim milk and chicken broth, and thicken the sauce by whisking in a slurry of flour mixed with water (1 tablespoon flour whisked with 2 tablespoons water for each cup of liquid in the sauce). Purée some 1 percent cottage cheese and stir it in with the other cheeses to add extra creaminess.

Meat Loaf Choose lean beef or a mixture of lean beef, turkey, and pork as the meat. You can “beef up” the moisture (since lean meats tend to be very dry) by adding vegetables—mushrooms, onions, and shredded carrots—sautéed in a nonstick pan with a little oil. Shredded napa cabbage and raw spinach stirred in before shaping and baking will also make the meat loaf moist. Use egg white as a binder in place of a whole egg.

Tuna Noodle Casserole Instead of reaching for a can of full-fat mushroom or celery soup, substitute a lower-fat variety. Or make your own by soaking dried mushrooms in water or chicken broth. Strain the liquid, then combine it with an equal amount of 1 percent milk and thicken with a slurry of flour and water (see Macaroni and Cheese note, above). Use reduced-fat Cheddar and water-packed tuna. For the crunch on top, combine panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs) and a little oil; sprinkle on top before you bake the casserole.

Apple Pie For a lean twist on apple pie, make individual phyllo shells. Very lightly butter and layer 3 sheets. Cut into squares; ease them into muffin tins. Bake until crisp, then fill each with sautéed sliced apples (tossed with a little sugar and cooked until soft).

Online Extra...
Healthy Cooking Tips from Sara Moulton, Executive Chef atGourmetMagazine

  • Thicken soups and stews by puréeing some of the vegetables cooked in them.
  • Use yogurt in place of sour cream or crème fraîche. Even in their low-fat versions, the new Greek-style yogurts are very thick and satisfying.
  • Make your own homemade ranch dressing out of buttermilk mixed with a little low-fat mayonnaise, minced garlic, and chopped fresh herbs.
  • Top the fish, meat, or chicken with a vinaigrette instead of a cream sauce or a flour-thickened gravy. It may seem strange to put a room-temperature sauce on top of a hot entrée, but the contrast between the protein and the sharp vinaigrette is pleasing.
  • Use balsamic vinegar. The usual ratio for a vinaigrette is 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, but you won’t need that much oil when you use balsamic vinegar. And any vinaigrette can be stretched with a little water to lower the fat content per portion.
  • Try horseradish, mustard, and tomato salsa as low-fat sauces.
  • Roast cut-up vegetables in a hot oven to concentrate their flavors and bring out their natural sugars. They will not need any butter.
  • Use chicken broth in place of cream or whole milk when making mashed potatoes.

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