By: Tom Natan
A lot of TV food and cooking shows focus on comfort foods these days, with new and not-so-new ways to make your old favorites. Some of them have an Italian twist, some French, and some Southern. But when you get down to it, there's plenty of meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and spaghetti on TV everywhere you turn.
What you don't hear, though, is that a lot of these comfort foods are incredibly fattening and high in calories. Occasionally there's a TV show that looks to lighten them up, like Healthy Appetite with Ellie Krieger on the Food Network. The latest show to take on healthier eating is Recipe Rehab, (weekends on ABC) and a new book -- Recipe Rehab: 80 Delicious Recipes that Slash the Fat, Not the Flavor. On the show each week, a family asks two Recipe Rehab chefs to remake a favorite family recipe. Inevitably, these recipes weigh in at or over 1,000 calories per serving and with impressive amounts of fat, and sometimes salt and sugar. The chefs take on the challenge of making over the recipe. Then the family makes both of the chefs' recipes and decides which one they like best.
What makes the show entertaining for me is that the families' recipes look delicious and they all use good ingredients, caloric though they are. These people aren't bringing home fast food for dinner: they can cook. So the chefs' challenge is a real one in terms of making something that tastes good.
Watching the chefs and the families make the food, plus knowing that the families have health-related reasons for wanting a change to their recipes, gets the viewer invested in the outcome. The book, unfortunately, doesn't have that kind of hook. In fact, 31 of the 80 recipes in the book don't come from the show's recipe challenges and celebrity chefs, but from JoAnn Cianciulli, who is listed as the book's main author. (Not surprising, since the show hasn't been on too long and the book has to cover more ground than what's on TV, but it's not really a "companion" book to the show. Cianciulli's name doesn't even appear on the recipes themselves the way the other chefs' names do, you only find out that she created these recipes on an acknowledgement page near the end of the book.) So I had to mentally divorce the book from the show and read it as a stand-alone cookbook.
Here's the rundown.
On the plus side: Most of the recipes look good, use readily-available ingredients, and aren't too complicated to make. Decreasing the fat means the dishes have a fair number of ingredients since they have to be more flavorful in order to be satisfying, but there aren't any recipes that go on for pages and pages. I'd happily make Jaden Hair's Prosciutto-Stuffed Pork Tenderloin with Smoky Tomatoes, both Laura Vitale and Scott Liebriend's takes on Chicken Parmesan, Jill Davies's Better-than-Takeout Orange Chicken, and Jet Tila's Tofu Thai Curry even if I weren't looking for lower-fat recipes.
On the minus side: While there's a lot of substitution of lower-fat for high-fat ingredients, in the end this book is mostly about eating less. Obviously there's nothing wrong with that. While the recipes in the book are designed to have less fat and calories than their full-fat/over rice/over pasta counterparts, there's only so much you can do to keep many of these dishes under 500 calories without simply eating less of them and cutting way back on ingredients like pasta and rice. So the made-over tuna-noodle casserole has six ounces of spinach fettuccine for six servings (which is why the word "noodle" doesn't appear in the title), and the book's versions of take-out Chinese food recipes are served without rice. The turkey and cheese enchiladas have so little of either ingredient that I'd consider renaming the recipe. In any case, you're only allowed two of them. Not that a small serving size means that the lower-fat recipe isn't better for you than the original. But if you're going to go down the road of eating less, you can probably just reduce the portion sizes of the recipes you already know and love and get most of the way there in terms of lowering calories.
As someone who likes to bake, I was most disappointed in the dessert section of Recipe Rehab. While a couple of the recipes are straightforward and don't use modified ingredients (like fat-free sour cream or Splenda baking blend), the rest seem like imitation desserts to me. Since I don't have a compelling health reason or dietary restriction, I would rather have a sliver of my mom's sour cream coffee cake once a week than the not-terribly-large-anyway portions of the desserts in the book more often. (If frequent desserts are a must, check out Alice Medrich's book Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts, which doesn't use fat-free sour cream or Splenda baking blend in a single recipe.)
The other drawback is that while many of the recipes list a hint or technique that you can use to lighten up your own recipes, the tips aren't as useful as they could be if they were better organized. I'm sure the authors were looking to keep the book from becoming too chef-fy, but a couple of well-written pages could have taken the place of all those scattered tips and provided more information.
The bottom line:
I wouldn't call this a definitive book on low-fat and lower-calorie cooking. And if I were a regular viewer of the TV show I'd feel a little cheated that nearly half the recipes in the book aren't from the show at all. However, there are more than a few good recipes in the book. It will also make you very aware of portion sizes when you serve the recipes as written. And given that the recipes have less fat, they can help you reset your palate toward less-rich versions of comfort food, which is also worthwhile. Be sure to have a big salad with these dishes, though, or you'll be hungry soon after dinner.
Here's a recipe from the Recipe Rehab cookbook that's simple and very tasty. Jaden Hair took on a family's traditional pork recipe that had chorizo sausage stuffing and was wrapped in bacon. This version is considerably lighter and the roasted tomatoes with smoked paprika add some of the flavor of the bacon.
Prosciutto-Stuffed Pork Tenderloin with Smoky Tomatoes
Recipe by Chef Jaden Hair
From Recipe Rehab: 80 Delicious Recipes that Slash the Fat, Not the Flavor
Nonstick cooking spray
1 (1-pound) pork tenderloin, rinsed and patted dry
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 thin slices prosciutto
6 plum (Roma) tomatoes
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/4 lemon (about half a tablespoon)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (hot or sweet)
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a grill pan or cast-iron skillet with nonstick cooking spray and place over medium-high heat.
Make a 1-inch deep incision down the length of the tenderloin; do not cut all the way through. Open the meat like a book so the tenderloin lies flat. Season with pepper. Spread the tomato paste over the pork with the back of a spoon and arrange the prosciutto in one layer over the top. Roll the pork into a cylinder shape, encasing the stuffing. Using butcher's twine, wrap and tie the stuffed tenderloin evenly, securing the stuffing.
Put the stuffed pork in the hot pan and cook until the meat is browned on all sides, turning with tongs, about 6-8 minutes. Transfer the tenderloin to a baking pan, put the tomatoes around it, and place in the oven. Roast until the tomatoes soften and char, about 15 minutes. Remove the roasted tomatoes to a mixing bowl. Continue to roast the tenderloin for an additional 8 to 10 minutes, or until the thickest part reaches 145 degrees F.
Using a fork, mash the grilled tomatoes into a chunky sauce. Add the oil, lemon juice, basil, garlic, paprika, and pepper. Mix thoroughly and set aside.
To serve, cut the kitchen twine from the pork and discard. Slice the tenderloin into 1/4-inch slices. Divide among dinner plates and spoon the smoky tomatoes on top. Serve immediately.