Cultivating Healthier Roots

April 10, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

Thou shalt not eat pasta with meat sauce. Or refried beans and tacos. Or chicken livers with schmaltz. Or roux-laced gumbo.

It's downright disheartening. Some of the most popular ethnic foods are forbidden foods. They are rich in fat, cholesterol and sodium, making them major items on the miss list for those who are trying to lose weight or to reduce the ingredients that increase our chances of getting heart disease or some cancers.

But these days we want it all: Good taste, health and the excitement that comes from pursuing the culinary travelogue available in American markets and eateries. And more and more cookbook and diet book authors are learning how to give us just that, figuring out ways to make roux with no fat, tacos without sour cream and Asian dishes made with low-fat yogurt instead of coconut milk.

During the past few years, the book stores have been stocking nutrition-conscious cookbooks for almost every kind of food -- from the just-off-the-press "Enola Prudhomme's Low-Calorie Cajun Cooking" to Jacqueline Higuera McMahan's 9-month-old "Fiesta Cookbook" (The Olive Press, $12.95) and the locally published "Life After Schmaltz: Heart-Healthy Jewish Holiday Cooking" by Roz Trieber, Ann Sussman and Janet Brigham.

Even diet guru Martin Katahn of the Rotation Diet and T-Factor Diet fame recognizes the emotional pull of good ethnic food and has included guidelines for cuisines from Italian to Middle Eastern-Greek in his new book, "One Meal At a Time."

Some cuisines may be lower fat than others, he said on a recent book tour to Baltimore, but they also can be misleading.

Chinese food can be misleading," he says, "because every Chinese restaurant prepares food differently. Some of the sauces are loaded with oil and they don't have to be. Don't assume anything. You must ask the specifics of how a dish is prepared."

Good Chinese choices include steamed dumplings, won ton soup, steamed rice and stir-fried dishes (ask for as little oil as possible). Bad Chinese choices include fried rice, "crispy" beef, egg foo yong and chow mein noodles.

Whether you are eating out or cooking at home, the key to the new Katahn method is something he calls SAM -- switch, avoid and modify.

Switch from higher fat to lower fat. Instead of cooking with heavy cream, use low-fat yogurt.

Avoid foods that are high in fat and cholesterol such as chopped liver with schmaltz.

Modify high-fat foods like refried beans by pulling out the lard and extra oil.

Mexican cookbook author McMahan says fat adds a certain something to the foods we crave.

Authentic Mexican food is better for us than the Americanized version, which is often embellished with sour cream, high fat cheeses and a lot of lard and oil.

And she says good Mexican food is exemplified by the food served at a marvelous little taco stand in Santa Barbara that is nicknamed "Julia Child's taco stand" because the culinary icon eats there. What Julia Child and others love about the place, Mrs. McMahan says, is the grilled meat with poblano chilies wrapped in a soft homemade corn taco.

Good Mexican food, according to Mrs. McMahon also means:

* Making a cilantro pesto with only 2 tablespoons of olive oil rather than the 1/2 -cup required for a traditional pesto. The flavor comes from 1 cup of cilantro and 2 cloves of garlic.

* Using corn rather than flour tortillas and using them soft rather than fried.

Another killer cuisine is Cajun. The double punch of a weight and a health problem convinced Enola Prudhomme, sister of Cajun cooking star Paul Prudhomme of blackened redfish fame, to switch to what she calls "unleaded" food. The result: She cured her ulcers and lost 23 1/2 pounds and kept it off despite being around food all day at her Cajun Cafe in Carencro, La.

Another monumental challenge is to make an authentic Jewish meal without chicken fat, but Baltimoreans Roz Trieber, Ann Sussman and Janet Brigham have done just that with "Life After Schmaltz: Heart-Healthy Jewish Holiday Cooking."

"In most traditional Jewish kitchens, you use schmaltz or chicken fat in everything," says Ms. Trieber, a nutritionist with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "It's important that we reduce the fat content and train the taste buds to like less grease. A lot of Jewish cooking is also heavily laden with salt. You have to cut back according to your needs."

The book attempts to show that kosher cooking can be healthy as well as tasty. The authors have taken traditional holiday fare -- from brisket and cheese blintzes to tzimmes -- and either reduced or eliminated the fat, eggs and cholesterol-producing ingredients.

Dr. Katahn raves about this spaghetti sauce recipe, claiming it is the greatest red clam sauce ever. He says you can make the sauce almost fat free by removing the oil and using only the water for sauteing.

Red clam sauce

(From "One Meal at a Time" by Martin Katahn, Norton, $19.95.)

Makes about 10 servings.

2 cups chopped onions

1 large green pepper, chopped

8 cloves garlic, minced

12 ounces mushrooms, sliced

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