By Carolyn O’Neil, for the AJC
The notion of healthy cooking usually conjures up a menu of something grilled and something steamed and probably nothing all that exciting to talk about.
That’s why I am so thankful for the inspiration restaurant chefs provide on the plates they serve.
When taking a bite of a simple green salad at Miller Union, I savored the crunch of an ingredient I first thought was bacon; but these savory bits turned out to be crispy oyster mushrooms. Executive chef Steven Satterfield revealed that he seasoned them lightly and crisped them up in his convection oven before tossing them into the salad. What a great idea.
Season with herbs
Chefs are trained to coax flavor from foods and create memorable pairings to maximize palate pleasure. This prevents having to add extra salt, butter or cream to make something taste good.
Executive chef Gerry Klaskala’s menu at Aria reads like an open cookbook of ideas to turn basic into brilliant. Tarragon adds herbal notes to red snapper. Thyme and lemon add elegance to mountain trout.
Executive chef Nick Oltarsh of Stats and Max’s says he often looks around the globe for lighter ideas.
“I find Mexican cooking is pretty lean on fat and bold on flavor,” Oltarsh said. “Pico de gallo [tomato, onion, cilantro, jalapeños and lime juice] bursts with flavor and yet is very low in calories. Grilling a piece of fish and garnishing it with pico de gallo doesn’t feel like I am depriving myself — it is wonderfully delicious and also good for me.”
Slow and low
Sometimes finding more intense flavor boils down to old-fashioned good cooking. A good example is braising meats, such as Aria’s Berkshire pork shoulder served with sautéed baby spinach. From pot roast to veal shanks, slow cooking in liquids is a great method for tenderizing tough cuts of lean meat so they fall apart in deliciously satisfying bites.
It’s also a good choice for lean cuts because the slow cooking tenderizes protein fibers by gently breaking them down. From a nutritional standpoint, these dishes are generally low in fat content because the fats are skimmed off and the flavor comes from the braising liquid.
Field to table
If there’s one lesson to learn from chefs, it is that great-tasting dishes start with great-tasting ingredients. And they often don’t require a lot of fancy sauces or technical wizardry in the kitchen. Executive sous chef Stephen Toevs recently served chicken to 620 guests gathered for the Emory Enlightenment Luncheon at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. But this lunch was definitely not on the rubber chicken circuit. The tender and juicy all-natural pan-seared chicken was from Tanglewood Farm and served with organic braised collard greens and sweet potato mash from Destiny Organics.
Toevs said: “Simplicity is key since the products were so fresh and vibrant. I baked the sweet potatoes in the jacket, and the mash had so much flavor and natural sweetness, I added a little salt, that’s it.”
Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at carolyn@carolynoneil .com.