Chef on Call

Feasting on Flavor, Not on Fat

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 18, 2007

A typical grocery list for a Thanksgiving feast could start like this: "One 22-pound turkey; 4 pounds butter; 2 quarts heavy cream. . . ." But what if you are few for dinner and determined to keep the calorie count down? Such was the dilemma facing Alicia Jones.

Jones, 36, refers to Food Network stars by their first names and, as it turns out, has won a cookbook or two from the Food section's weekly online chats. So it was only natural that she turn to Chef on Call for help. "I will be cooking a really small Thanksgiving meal this year," she wrote in an e-mail. "I am also on Weight Watchers. I'd like a tasty, scaled-down meal that is figure-friendly yet traditional."

This was an easy one; we recruited Ethan McKee and Roger Potter, executive chef and pastry chef, respectively, of Rock Creek at Mazza in Northwest Washington. The Mazza Gallerie restaurant, whose menu includes a separate page listing the nutritional breakdown of each dish, is known for its mission of offering healthful, lower-calorie, flavorful cuisine to its guests.

The chefs were running behind on the Saturday afternoon when the lesson took place, giving Jones a chance to play host in her Alexandria condominium to her first wave of guests. Her ebullience and welcoming spirit were immediately evident, as were her challenges with food. The freshly baked, butter-rich treat she offered -- and characterized as a muffin -- revealed itself on first bite to be a cupcake. When called on it, she confessed that she doesn't have a sweet tooth, because that would imply there's only one: "They're all sweet."

Jones, an acquisitions specialist for George Washington University's law library, comes by her appreciation of food naturally: Her father was a cook in the Navy. One aunt makes wedding cakes; another is renowned for her yeast rolls. As for Jones, she started baking around age 11 because "the cheapest and fastest way to get cookies was to learn to make my own." Her repertoire soon expanded to include the rich mainstays of Southern cooking: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, red velvet and carrot cakes, and all things pork.

"One of our neighbors had a pet pig," she says. "She called her Jenny; we called her Pork Chop."

Over the years, Jones's recipe collection increased, but so did her weight and blood pressure. That prompted her doctor to put her on medication she did not like to take. Fine, he told her last summer: "Then pick a weight-loss plan."

Jones chose Weight Watchers, figuring its emphasis on portion control would allow her to keep eating her favorite foods, and has lost about 10 pounds since September.

She lives with her husband, Michael, 36, and her sister, Tammy Yates, 37. The sisters grew up in a close and loving family in Blackstone, a small town in Southside Virginia. Their mother and father died within the past three years, and the loss is still keenly felt: "I just didn't want to go to my husband's family this year," she said. "It's hard to be around someone else's family at Thanksgiving."

The chefs and their boxes of gear arrived not a moment too soon; the "muffins" were disappearing fast. McKee settled in quickly alongside the cook, in front of the small plane of counter space in her galley kitchen. He and Jones had an instant rapport, perhaps due to the 30-year-old chef's own Southern roots; slight, mannerly and soft-spoken, McKee hails from Austin.

The holiday menu he chose for Jones reflected his low-fat style of restaurant cooking. First course: a vegetable broth-based soup thickened with nothing more than its main ingredient -- butternut squash -- and garnished with slivers of tart apple and spiced pumpkin seeds that had been toasted without oil. It exemplified McKee's approach of exhorting natural flavors from fresh foods by employing healthful methods of preparation, such as roasting, braising and poaching, and then enriching them with a generous use of herbs, spices and textural garnishes rather than relying on fat.

"You put the curry powder in the hot pan as the onions and garlic sweat in a little olive oil . . .," McKee started to explain as he began making the soup.

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