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Makeovers of all kinds have been big entertainment recently. Women’s magazines have been doing beauty and wardrobe makeovers for decades. Television has jumped on the bandwagon with those, plus plastic surgery makeovers, extreme home makeovers-you name it!

We decided to make over some classic Midwestern recipes to give them a healthier spin using whole grains, fresh produce and other delicious “real” foods-no cream of whatever soup or artificial whipped toppings necessary. Food makeovers done with whole foods are inherently healthier and fresher tasting. They tend to be lower in fat and higher in fiber and nutrients than their convenience food counterparts and these are just the things that nutrition experts tell us we should be paying attention to.

Most experts agree that we should eat a wide variety of things, in a rainbow of colors. We should eat a diet that is heavily plant-based. We need to include whole grains and legumes daily for fiber. If we eat meat, we should choose lean, unprocessed cuts. It’s best to avoid trans-fats and reduce or eliminate refined starches like white flour and sugar—the list of recommendations seems to go on forever!

Part of the challenge we face in trying to eat healthily is that we all have favorite foods—comfort foods—that often are not very healthy. The good news is that, with a little tweaking, the nutritional profile of most of those meals can be improved, often significantly. Now, if your favorite food is deep-fried Twinkies smothered in cheese sauce, we probably can’t do too much to make it a better nutritional bet, but let’s give it a try for some other home-style specialties.

Reducing saturated fats
Many people are trying to increase the amount of fiber in their diets; likewise, reducing sugar or sodium is important for others. But if we were to conduct a survey, I would bet that the vast majority of respondents would cite “fat” as the biggest problem in their meals. Many of us equate calories with fat, so a low-fat recipe is also a low-calorie recipe, right? Not necessarily, but reducing the amount of saturated fat we eat is an important way to reduce our risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as the excess calories that contribute to weight. Saturated fats are found mostly in animal products and the worst culprits are meats like heavily marbled beef, fatty cuts like bacon and sausage, and full-fat dairy products like butter, whole milk, and cream. Some of our favorite comfort foods contain all these ingredients.

Lighter Meatloaf
One popular meatloaf recipe that makes six servings includes one and a half pounds of ground beef, one cup of sour cream, two eggs, one cup of shredded cheese, and one-half cup sliced stuffed olives, as well as seasonings. It weighs in at a hefty 366 calories per serving, with 22.1 grams total fat and 11.6 grams saturated fat, or more the half the recommended daily amount for a 2000-calorie diet. This recipe is also high in sodium with 750mg per serving and has almost no dietary fiber. A healthier meatloaf can be easily made with just a few substitutions.

1/2 pound lean ground beef
1 pound ground turkey breast
8 ounces mushrooms, chopped
1 large egg
1 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup shredded carrots
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons finely chopped red bell pepper
1/2 cup skim milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

Directions: Lightly oil a 9x5 loaf pan, set aside. Preheat oven to 350°. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except cheese, mixing thoroughly. Transfer mixture to prepared loaf pan and smooth the top. Bake in preheated oven 40 minutes or until internal temperature measures 170°. Sprinkle top of meatloaf with cheese and return to oven for another five minutes to melt. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing.

The revised meatloaf recipe has 312 calories per serving, but only 10.6 grams total fat and 3.5 grams saturated fat. The sodium content has been cut by half, to 312 milligrams and the recipe now contains nine percent of the recommended daily allowance of fiber.

Changing methods
Other favorite meat dishes can also be made over easily. Sometimes the easiest make over is to change the cooking method. Baking, grilling, broiling or roasting meat will almost always result in a lower fat product. Many people enjoy breaded fried chicken and fish and these are notoriously high in fat. A better solution is to dip skinless pieces of chicken or fish in buttermilk and then roll them in dry breadcrumbs. If you choose a product like Ian’s whole-wheat breadcrumbs, available in Aisle 5, you’ve also increased the fiber value of your recipe. You can season the breadcrumbs any way you like—try adding Cajun, Italian or Mexican style spices to taste. Once you’ve dipped and crumbed your chicken or fish, place it on a lightly oiled rack over a baking sheet. Spray lightly with olive oil and bake at 375° until done (chicken will take longer than fish).

If you crave some fries to go with your chicken or fish they can be lightened up in a similar way. Start with organic baking potatoes or sweet potatoes; scrub them well, but do not peel. Cut each potato into several long wedges and toss with one tablespoon oil and a little salt; add chili powder to taste if you like. Spread potatoes in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 375° for 20 to 30 minutes, or until tender and golden brown, stirring once or twice while baking. (The oven temperature is flexible up to about 425°, to match another dish you may be baking, but adjust the timing accordingly.) Oven fries are much lower in fat than traditional fries and leaving the peels on adds some fiber and retains nutrients. If you use sweet potatoes, you get a healthy dose of vitamin A as well as additional fiber.

Crust-less Broccoli Pie
Quiche is a popular meal choice for any time of the day. One recipe I found on Allrecipes.com called for a healthy three cups of broccoli florets, but then added five eggs, a pint of heavy cream and a cup of shredded provolone cheese in a standard deep-dish piecrust. When sliced into eight portions, each serving was rated at 486 calories and 42.2 grams of fat. Many cooks would augment this recipe with bacon or ham, adding even more calories and saturated fat. Here’s an improved version, adapted from Eating Well magazine:

2 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs
4 large eggs
1 1/4 cups skim milk
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cups broccoli florets, chopped
2 cups sliced mushrooms
2 1/2 ounces Canadian bacon, diced (optional)
1/2 cup shredded provolone cheese

Directions: Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly oil a pie pan and sprinkle evenly with breadcrumbs. In a large bowl, whisk eggs, and then stir in milk, hot sauce, salt and pepper. Heat oil in large skillet and add onion. Cook, stirring often, until onion has softened, then add broccoli and mushrooms and cook until just tender, three to five minutes. Cool vegetables slightly and then add to egg mixture. Stir in cheese and pour into prepared pie pan. Bake until set, about 25-30 minutes. Cool slightly before cutting.

When prepared this way, the quiche has only 150 calories per serving and 8.7 grams of total fat, but still retains a great quiche flavor and texture. If you want to add a real crust, choose a reduced fat crust made with whole-wheat flour like this one also adapted from Eating Well magazine:

Whole Wheat Pastry
3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
3/4 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons Earth Balance non-hydrogenated shortening
1/4 cup ice water plus more as needed

Directions: Stir flours and salt together in a medium bowl. Cut in shortening with a pastry blender, or rub in with your fingers until it looks like coarse crumbs with a few bigger pieces. Sprinkle in the water a tablespoon at a time, mixing lightly until all the flour is moistened and dough comes together in a ball. Wrap dough and refrigerate one hour. Roll out to fit a nine- or ten-inch pie pan.

Cut into eight pieces, this pastry adds 128 calories per serving to the crust-less broccoli pie. It contributes five grams of fat and one-half gram of fiber to each slice. A typical white-flour pie shell made with hydrogenated shortening has about 135 calories and 8.8 grams of fat per serving, but it has no fiber and may contain trans-fats. You can use this pastry for your favorite dessert pie, too, to improve its fat and fiber profile.

Better Green Bean Casserole
A comforting side dish is the infamous green bean casserole. When this dish is made with canned green beans, condensed cream of mushroom soup and commercial French-fried onions it has 177 calories and 11.1 grams of fat per half-cup serving and the sodium content is very high at 943 milligrams. The condensed soup and the fried onions contain an assortment of stabilizers and preservatives. An easy, healthier version can be made with pantry ingredients. This combination has 83 calories per serving and only 3.6 grams of fat when divided into eight portions. The sodium is reduced to 55 milligrams and there are no artificial ingredients.

1 pound green beans, trimmed and lightly steamed
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
2 cups mushrooms, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 cup sherry
1 cup skim milk, or use rice or soy milk
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, sliced

Directions: Preheat oven to 375°. Heat one tablespoon oil in large heavy skillet; add onions and reduce heat to low. Let onions cook slowly until golden brown, stirring occasionally to keep from scorching. This will take about 20 minutes. In separate skillet heat remaining tablespoon oil over medium heat; add mushrooms and sauté until they release their juices. Stir in garlic and cook one minute. Sprinkle flour over vegetables and stir until evenly coated. Add sherry and stir until absorbed. Reduce heat to low and add milk, stirring constantly until mixture has thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste and remove from heat. Stir in steamed green beans and turn mixture into a baking dish. Bake in preheated oven until hot and bubbly, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven, spread onions over the top and bake an additional five to seven minutes.

Almost any casserole, soup, or salad can be made healthier by adding extra vegetables or cooked beans. These will all contribute vitamins and minerals and beans add good amounts of protein as well as a significant shot of fiber. Serving stir-fries or stew over brown rice or other whole grains instead of white rice is another good way to increase your fiber consumption. Adding vegetables or beans to a dish often allows you to reduce the amount of meat a recipe contains, improving the fat profile of the dish.

Revamped Broccoli Salad
Many favorite salad recipes are not as healthy as fresh fruits and vegetables should be. We’ve all had fruit salad smothered in whipped topping and miniature marshmallows and tossed salads floating in oily dressing. Broccoli salad is an old favorite in many families. When this recipe first started making the rounds a few decades ago, most versions contained a pound of bacon, a cup each of mayonnaise and sour cream, half a cup or more of sugar and only three or four cups of broccoli. That mix has 699 calories per serving, 48.9 grams fat with 15.1 grams saturated fat and almost a whole day’s allowance of sodium–1771 milligrams! Most bacon also contains nitrates, used as to preserve the meat and retain color. In the body nitrates are converted to nitrosamines, which may greatly increase the risk for cancer. Here’s the broccoli salad version that I prefer:

2 slices nitrate-free bacon
6 cups fresh broccoli florets cut into very small bits
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup walnuts or sunflower seeds
2 tablespoons shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 cup low or non-fat yogurt
2-4 tablespoons cane sugar (to taste)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Directions: Cook bacon until crisp, drain very well on paper towels and set aside. In a separate heavy, dry skillet or 350° oven, toast walnuts or sunflower seeds until fragrant, stirring often to prevent scorching. In a large bowl, combine broccoli, onion, raisins, walnuts or sunnies and cheese. Whisk together the mayonnaise, yogurt, sugar and vinegar until smooth. Pour over broccoli mixture and mix gently. Crumble in the bacon and serve.

My variation of broccoli salad, when divided into eight servings, provides 179 calories and 8.2 grams of fat with 2.2 grams being saturated. The sodium is reduced to 246 milligrams and there are no nitrates. For a meatless version, I like to substitute crisp-cooked Fakin Bacon tempeh strips for the bacon.

Spinach Lasagna
One of the many Moosewood Restaurant cookbooks features an incredibly rich and delicious spinach lasagna, made with six cups of béchamel sauce, a pound of ricotta cheese and two cups each of mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. When analyzed for the suggested eight servings, their recipe contains 903 calories per serving, 974 milligrams sodium and 53.8 grams fat, half of which is saturated fat! This variation, adapted from Recipezaar.com is still delicious, but a healthier choice.

1 pound whole-wheat lasagna noodles
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 large onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
8 ounces fresh mushrooms, chopped
8 ounces baby spinach, rinsed and well drained
8 ounces part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded
16 ounces part-skim ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup flour
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons dried basil
Salt and pepper
2 cups skim milk
2-3 cups marinara sauce

Directions: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook lasagna noodles in boiling water until just tender; drain and rinse under cold water and then set aside to drain on a clean kitchen towel. Meanwhile, heat two tablespoons olive oil in skillet; add red pepper flakes and onion and sauté until translucent. Add bell pepper, garlic and mushrooms to skillet and cook until mushrooms begin to brown.

Make the white sauce: In a saucepan melt butter over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle the flour over the surface. Stir to form a paste and cook about two minutes. Slowly add in milk and cook sauce, stirring constantly, until thickened. Remove from heat and add Parmesan, basil, salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly oil a deep 10x13-inch baking pan. Spread a thin layer of marinara sauce in bottom of prepared pan; follow with a layer of noodles. Top the noodles with one third of the ricotta cheese and half a cup of the mozzarella; then layer in one-third of the mushroom mixture and one third of the spinach leaves. Drizzle evenly with one-third of the white sauce and half a cup of the remaining marinara. Repeat layers twice more, ending with a layer of noodles topped with the last of the marinara. Cover the pan and bake 45 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Remove from oven and sprinkle with remaining half cup of mozzarella cheese. Return pan to oven and bake an additional 10-15 minutes, uncovered, until cheese has melted and lasagna is nicely browned. Let stand ten minutes before serving.

Note: the spinach wilts nicely while lasagna is baking—no need to precook, but it can be wilted at the end of cooking the mushroom mixture if desired.
Each serving of this lighter spinach lasagna contains 536 calories, 24.5 grams fat with 10.3 grams being saturated fat, and 661 milligrams of sodium. While this is still a very substantial entrée, you won’t have to feel quite as guilty about that slice of garlic bread on the side. To lighten it even more, replace the white sauce with an additional two cups of marinara and stir the Parmesan and basil into the ricotta cheese. Now you have 481 calories per serving, 19.5 grams of total fat and only 8.5 grams saturated fat.

Other tips
You can adapt some of these same principles to baking as well. In most recipes for breads and cookies, whole-grain flour can be substituted for unbleached flour. Swap the refined white sugar with Sucanat or raw cane sugar. Replace some of the fat in these recipes with prune puree, applesauce or fruit butter. Nuts and seeds can be added for crunch and nutrients. Lowfat or nonfat dairy products can take the place of full-fat ingredients.

Experiment with your favorite comfort foods—it’s only a matter of time until you create a new classic!

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