Well, really, what does “healthy” mean when we say it about food and cooking? It’s one of those words that makes many of us cringe, fraught with associations of impossibly impalatable imbroglios at the childhood dinner table—the overcooked Brussels sprouts, the leaden loaf of homemade bread, the cookies made without refined sugar that seemed to belong at the end of a hockey stick. “Healthy” is a word that no upstanding citizen should feel conflicted about, but many do. Let’s look at what can be done to remedy this in the kitchen.
Back in my mother’s day, there wasn’t a lot of thought given to what was healthy in the way we now know it. If there was food on the table, that was healthy and it was a kind of health not everyone could take for granted. For many, the sins of overprocessing and overrefining that now typify “fast food” and caloric overconsumption just weren’t available. My parents were farmers and lived about 90 minutes from the Kentucky line, so fried food, dairy and sugar were no strangers and no enemies. That said, much of the food they ate was grown or raised within 30 yards of the back door and received no more processing than trimming and washing. And, needless to say, exercise was not hard to come by in the form of work and play.
Now, of course, we all know that Americans, in particular, have access to more food than anyone else in the world and have eaten ourselves into a national state of panic over various body issues, some cosmetic and some substantive. Obesity has become a full-blown panic button, reaching across social and financial strata and, increasingly, down the age ladder as well. We’re supposed to have the tightest controls on food safety of anyone in the game, and yet our faith in our dietary practices is, to say the least, shaken. As an omnivore and occasional outright glutton, I have a vested interest in staying alive as long as possible so I can eat as much buttered popcorn, fried chicken and German chocolate cake as time will allow. So I’m here to tell you how I think you can do the same.
# 1: Cook with unprocessed organic food
This is the single most important trick there is and cannot be underestimated. It is the key to the “mystery” of the famous French inability to get fat—although some of them do anyway. It is because they devote serious effort to it. Without going too deeply into it, I posit that the fewer “interruptions” there are to the body’s perception of food, the less likely it is that said food will be misused by the body, i.e., not metabolized properly or stored as fat when fat was not present. By “interruptions,” I mean additives, preservatives and chemical structures resulting from processing and refinement, things that do not occur in nature, as did the earlier preservatives—alcohol, salt and fat (ironic, isn’t it?). While it is certainly possible to simply overeat oneself into a state of poor health, it’s my belief that doing so while maintaining a diet comprised mainly of unprocessed food would involve more physical discomfort than most people are up for. So that’s step #1.
# 2: Learn how to cook
More unnecessary fat ends up in food due to poor cooking technique than for almost any other reason. If you look at the great classical cuisines, you’ll see that dishes that are meant to contain fat contain plenty of it and usually for a good reason—again, often as a preservative, as is the case in terrines or fat added to rich bread doughs that helps retain moisture and extends their shelf life. But often people end up putting fat in their food by doing things like putting meat or fish into a pan of oil that isn’t quite hot enough, thus failing to caramelize the natural sugars and seal the hot fat out. Another trick that chefs often use that home cooks don’t usually know about is skimming and “defatting” soups, stocks and sauces. This entails using a spoon or ladle to skim off the froth that accumulates on a slowly simmering stock or soup and also skimming the fat that rises to the surface of a stew or broth after cooling it. This is how you end up with an incredibly rich and satisfying broth or sauce full of flavor without ending up with a lot (or sometimes even any) fat in it—indeed, fat in such a broth often emulsifies and clouds both the appearance and flavor and is a sign of poor technique or neglect. Needless to say, commercially available organic broths contain very low percentages of fat, in case you don’t feel like making your own.
#3: Use the best ingredients you can afford
A subset of #1. It’s a simple fact that really good, wholesome food is more satisfying than cheap food and satisfying on a deeper level. It’s also quite a bit more expensive. This should, properly applied, have the dual effect of making you eat less and also making you feel better after you eat. Good sea salt seasons more effectively and has a deeper flavor than cheap table salt, so you’ll use and absorb less salt by making a habit of using it. Use organic unsalted butter and your favorite extra-virgin olive oil; they are pure fat but they will add depth and flavor to your food far beyond what is to be expected from less expensive substitutes. Cheap food is like anything else that’s cheap—you get used to it, you don’t expect any better for yourself, and because it isn’t satisfying you end up using more and more of it—which you think you can justify because it didn’t cost very much. It’s a vicious cycle. Pay what it costs for really good food and enjoy it in moderation with the occasional celebratory binge thrown in. That formula is a thousand years old and still works today.
#4: Don’t follow miracle diets
Here’s the secret: there are no secrets. There’s no magical combination of ingredients, techniques or supplements that will allow anyone to stay slim and healthy over the long haul. If you eat a balanced diet of high-quality food, get some exercise and don’t fret yourself into an early grave (my personal weakness), you may not look like someone out of the pages of InStyle magazine, but you’ll be healthy. The effects of drastically varying your diet and/or being monomaniacal about one food or group of foods can range from mild delusions of grandeur to full-blown apoplectic evangelism. Just realize that the generations preceding you didn’t know it all (any more than you do) but they probably didn’t have it all wrong (any more than you do). Don’t try to reinvent the wheel or fall for plays to your vanity. Cultivating good habits that make room for a “normal” range of foods is much better for you.
#5: Yeah, don’t buy the fry-daddy
This is my one concession to dogma and it isn’t even because I think deep-frying itself is especially problematic, health-wise. It’s because people buy the things on a whim and never change the oil—which breaks down viscosity, which speeds the transfer of heat, which encourages both burning of food and also dirty oil getting in your food. They’re also incredibly dangerous, all things considered, so I think this legitimately falls under the heading of healthy cooking. Besides, you should be buying doughnuts at a donut shop.
So, in sum, the best way to cook healthy is to make more out of less. Invest in yourself and your health by spending what it costs to buy the best and enjoy it. Steam food if you like to; it’s great for texture and color—but don’t worry that a good stew or rich casserole every now and then is going to do you in. The main thing is to approach food in the spirit of enjoyment and reverence and eat what satisfies you—but no more than is satisfying.