Even a healthful cook gets to backslide a little

Even when the author wasn't trying, her pasta with bacon and onion fell within healthful guidelines.
Even when the author wasn't trying, her pasta with bacon and onion fell within healthful guidelines. (Dayna Smith for The Washington Post; tableware from Crate and Barrel)
By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

For my weekly Nourish column, I spend a lot of time testing recipes in my kitchen at home, trying to reduce their calories, sodium and fat. But more often than not, in the days after my deadline is met, my cooking takes a slightly unhealthful turn.

It took me a while to connect the dots. A few months ago, I developed a modern, Asian-inspired dish of Gingered Chicken With Snow Peas. It was subtle and even a little elegant, with just the right amount of soy sauce and toasted sesame oil to add flavor without busting the nutritional guidelines we use for Nourish recipes. Freshly grated ginger made up for the restrained use of sodium and fat. The thin chicken cutlets were sauteed in a nonstick pan with a minimal amount of oil rather than stir-fried in a lot of it.

The next night, I had a craving for good old-fashioned messy stir-fry. So that's just what I made. I cooked chicken in a sea of hot oil. I built sauce with a heavy hand, adding liberal amounts of soy sauce and toasted sesame oil. I added a little hoisin sauce just to make sure the flavor was rich enough.

My husband was in heaven. This, he declared, is delicious.

Then again, he had expected it; seems he and my two boys had noticed a pattern. My Spaghetti With Garlicky Shrimp and Broccoli perked up considerably with additions of fresh tomato sauce and a half-pound of crumbled feta cheese.

You go a little nuts after you hand in your columns, he said -- not that he was complaining.

Bingo. It was no accident that I served panko-coated fried chicken cutlets shortly after I came up with Grilled Chicken With Sugar Snap Peas and Strawberries.

Truth is, I don't just write a column about healthful eating. The recipe research and development I do becomes part of our family's lifestyle. I'd say my cooking style is more careful than health-conscious. I push fruit, substitute olive oil for butter, trim fat from meats and find new ways to add flavor without relying on the all-too-familiar American triad of cheese, fat and salt.

But there are some fatty and processed foods in the house. I keep potato chips, corn chips and ice cream sandwiches around. The kids like pizza bagels, and my husband is partial to cheeseburgers. I'll admit right up front that I love sour cream; I really don't think yogurt works as well in its place. My picnic-style egg, chicken and tuna salads all boast healthy doses of both sour cream and mayonnaise.

Although I have a bagful of tricks to make low-fat food taste better -- additions such as citrus, fresh herbs, spices and fruit -- nothing beats an extra shot of olive oil. There are few dishes that can't be improved with a slightly heavier dose of it. Still, I've grown used to the taste of less fat, particularly the non-saturated kind. I even prefer my eggs cooked in olive oil.

We have been eating consciously long enough that the nights I fall off the wagon are considered treats. But I still use fresh ingredients and keep my "rebound" ingredients in moderation. I don't go from sprinkling salt to laying it on with a trowel. I salt at the beginning for maximum effect and then, if I happened to undersalt, I sprinkle on a pinch of coarse salt right before serving. It gives that salt hit without overdoing it.

Fatty cuts of meat such as short ribs and over-marbled steaks just don't interest me anymore; the kids aren't used to them, anyway. Nobody's missing cream sauces as long as they get to enjoy an occasional helping of my homemade mac and cheese.

Now that I'm aware of what happens to our post-Nourish family meals, I admit I look forward to them. Sausage goes into my favorite Escarole and Beans; no guilt. To me, such dishes are proof that when you focus too much on what you can't have, there's bound to be some backlash.

Then again, my Nourish sensibilities might be more ingrained than I thought. I used bacon and a generous glug of olive oil to transform a lean Penne With Zucchini and Sweet Onion into something richer and more luscious. But when the Food section staff ran the nutritional analysis, the dish still fell within healthful numbers.

I can live with that.


Escarole With White Beans and Sausage

Shells With Bacon, Zucchini and Sweet Onion

Shrimp With Fresh Tomato Sauce and Feta

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