Here are examples of recipes we tested, along with their problems, and what we think could be done to help improve their flavor.
* Crispy Oven-Fried Chicken (from "Keep the Beat: Heart Healthy Recipes"): It was chicken, all right, and it was cooked in the oven, but it wasn't crispy. The coating (dipping the chicken in seasoned nonfat milk or buttermilk, then in seasoned cornflakes) was like a batter. The recipe called for covering the chicken with foil while it was baking. It had little fat, which kept the chicken from getting browned. And the chicken didn't have much taste.
Solution: Find a different recipe. Making oven-fried chicken low-fat has been done and done well. Look for recipes that use yogurt; it's thick enough not to turn the coating to mush. Instead of cornflakes as a coating, try panko (Japanese-style) bread crumbs. Use a vegetable oil spray to judiciously add a light coating of oil to the breaded chicken pieces. Oven-fried chicken should be cooked uncovered so the coating has a chance to get crispy.
* Rigatoni (from mypyramid.gov/tips_resources/index.html): Our tester said this classic pasta, meat, tomato sauce and cheese dish looked good but tasted like cardboard. There was no seasoning of any kind.
Solution: If your diet permits, add a dash of salt and a pinch of sugar to the sauce in addition to dried herbs such as oregano and basil (if you have fresh herbs, so much the better). Half of a cup of red wine, if allowed on your diet, could round out the sauce and add flavor. Roasted garlic could also boost the flavor.
* Spinach Salad (from the same Web site): This consisted of 1 cup of baby spinach leaves tossed with 1/2 cup of tangerines and topped with 1 tablespoon of chopped walnuts. The dressing was sunflower oil and red wine vinegar. The nuts added a nice crunch, our tester said, but the citrus dominated.
Solution: In addition to tangerines, use dried cranberries, cherries or blueberries for a contrast of flavors. Better still, use grapefruit instead of tangerine for a less assertive fruit.
* Mango Shake (from "Keep the Beat: Heart Healthy Recipes"): Our tester thought that this was not bad for a "healthy" version of a shake but that it wasn't thick enough. It called for blending milk, frozen mango juice (or a pitted fresh mango), a small banana and ice.
Solution: Use the fresh mango. Cut it and the banana into chunks and freeze them before blending.
* 1-2-3 Peach Cobbler (from "Keep the Beat: Heart Healthy Recipes"): This also was considered "not bad for a low-fat dessert," though our tester thought it was "a bit bland" (her husband, however, cleaned his plate). In addition, the batter was undercooked. (It was baked at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.)
Solution: Reduce heat to 350 degrees and cook for 25 to 30 minutes. And to boost the flavor, add 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract.
* Bulgur Nut Salad (from www.5aday.gov/recipes/index.html): This called for mixing the bulgur with sweet onion, tomato puree, mint, cumin, allspice, walnuts and lemon juice and suggested including fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers or sweet peppers. Yet our tester said it was bland.
Solution: This recipe is dead in the water without a little salt. The peppers should be mandatory, not optional, and should be roasted to bring flavor to the dish. Dried fruit would help here as well. Adding diced radishes would provide another taste point. Instead of tomato puree, try sherry vinegar. Double the mint and add chopped parsley.
In short, look for innovative ways to add flavor without adding unnecessary or empty calories. Herbs are effective, as well as lemon or lime juice, roasted aromatic vegetables. Or try garlic, onions and carrots, dried fruits or toasted nuts.
Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, was the recipe editor of The Washington Post from 1994 to 2002.