Healthy doesn't have to mean boring
October 26, 2017 • By Seamus Mullen
I’m a firm believer that food, first and foremost, needs to be delicious. There is simply nothing very inspiring about a bland, lipid bowl of flavorless quinoa. Yeah, perhaps it might be “healthy” but who really wants to eat it? Where is the joy? Where is the pleasure? As a professional chef, I’ve watched from afar as the internet has exploded with endless recipes of healthy food. And while there are a lot of great ideas and great dishes circulating, I find that the little tricks of the trade that we chefs learn, growing up in kitchens that are based on generations of tradition are often overlooked. Armed with a little bit of savvy, a few specialty tools and a well-tuned palate, you can turn the ordinary, into the extraordinary.
1. Season, season, season
I find that one of the most common mistakes the home cook makes is not being assertive enough when it comes to seasoning. Often a little extra salt and pepper or even some lightly chopped herbs will go a long way to bringing out the natural flavors of a dish. Just imagine a roast chicken without salt and pepper. Blech! Now add some coarse sea salt, cracked pepper, crushed thyme and rosemary, lemon zest, maybe even some coriander seed and sesame seed and suddenly that pedestrian bird has become a middle-eastern masterpiece!
2. Embrace the four points
of the compass
Salty, sweet, sour, spicey, these are the compass points of our palate. Playing spicey off sweet (think mango and chiles) or sour off salty (why else would salt and vinegar potato chips be addictive?) can make a dish really feel balanced and craveable. I don’t always have these elements in equal parts, sometimes you want one flavor profile to dominate the others, but having a balance makes for a successful and exciting dish.
3. Embrace the microplane
This tool is the best secret flavor weapon in the kitchen arsenal. Originally developed as a woodworking tool called a wood-rasp (you can actually get one for a fraction of the price from the hardware store), Italian chefs learned a long time ago that it makes the perfect tool for grating hard, aged Parmesan cheese. As it turns out, there are a million and one other applications for the microplane in the kitchen. My favorite use is to finish a dish with a quick zest of some citrus—a little lemon makes a salad come to life, a quick zip of a lime gives a bright, floral and unexpected tropical jolt of flavor, even grapefruit and orange are brilliant. Imagine a roasted beet salad with grapefruit segments, pistachios and a little grapefruit zest as a garnish. The most important thing to remember when zesting citrus is to ideally choose organic and always wash the fruit before zesting, particularly with conventional citrus which may have pesticide residue. When it comes to making vinaigrettes, I use the microplane to grate a little garlic, just enough to get the delicate flavor and essential oils (garlic is an important food for feeding a healthy Microbiome). I like how the microplane lets the garlic melt into the vinaigrette or even into some gently steamed or sauteed greens, without having the overly intense flavor that chopped garlic can have.
4. Blanch isn't just one of the Golden Girls
One thing we learn early on in our first apprenticeships in the kitchen is the value of shocking vegetables. Blanching just means bringing a large pot of well-salted water (think sea water, and I mean the Dead Sea!) to a boil and quickly cooking vegetables until they are about 70% cooked. This allows you to then assemble the veggies back together in the final dish so that everything is evenly cooked. It’s really important to blanch your veggies in small batches and allow the water time to recover and come back up to a boil. If the water isn’t at a strong rolling boil, you won’t be able to quickly cook and “set” the veggies. I also like to keep blanched vegetables in the fridge for a quick breakfast. Have you ever sauteed some eggplant, asparagus and broccoli rabe together and found that by the time the eggplant is cooked through, the asparagus looks a drab, army-green rather than bright and vibrant? Well you’ve actually lost a lot of the nutrients from the asparagus in addition to most of the flavor. If you cook each vegetable briefly in a large pot of boiling water and then add them at different stages of cooking into a saute pan with olive oil, you can make sure that everything comes out cooked to perfection! Much healthier and much, much tastier.
5. Operation “shock and... ahhhhhhhh!”
The second part of the trick with blanching vegetables is stopping the cooking process. With any form of cooking there is something we call “carry-over cooking.” The cooking process doesn’t actually stop when you turn off the stove, whatever you are cooking still retains residual heat and will continue to cook, even off the heat. So what to do? Make an ice-bath!!!! The proper ration for a successful ice-bath is 60/40 ice to cold water. Efficiency is important in the kitchen so if I’m blanching and shocking vegetables this is how I do it: first, put on my big pot of water (it’s important to have a lot of water as the temperature of the water with drop when you add the vegetables), next, prep my vegetables. Then, prepare a large ice-bath. Simply running cold water over the vegetables won’t cool them down quickly enough, it’s important to have a really cold bowl of ice-water if you want to properly stop the cooking. Strain and pat-dry your veggies and either cook them straight away, or set them aside in the fridge for later.
6. Under pressure
There is probably no kitchen tool as underappreciated in this country as the pressure cooker. Go anywhere else in the world and no kitchen is complete without a pressure cooker, but for some reason we’ve developed a pathological fear of the tool here in the States. Maybe its the thought that it’s going to explode, or simply that we don’t know what to do with it, but whatever the reason, it’s time America falls in love with the pressure cooker! My mom always had one for cooking beans when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until I competing on Iron Chef that I realized just how much of time-saver the pressure cooker can be. Dried beans in 20 minutes, braised lamb shanks in 35 minutes! It’s an amazing way to cook a quick meal. One thing I like to do is set up all my ingredients in the morning in the pressure cooker, then when I come home, in 15 mintes dinner is ready. These days, there are a ton of fancy, electric pressure cookers that double as slow-cookers or even as rice cookers. As we head towards the colder months, it’s the ideal tool for making hearty Winter stews.
7. Be wise and spiralize!
My dear friends, Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley of www.hemsleyandhemsley.com are all about the Spiralizer, a Japanese vegetable lathe that turns zucchini into pasta-like strips and makes sheets out of carrots and cucumbers. It’s an amazing way to prepare vegetables into unusual and interesting shapes that add a whole new dimension of texture and shape to our food. I love using it to make ribbons of Summer squash that can be blanched and shocked for a cold Summer salad with some crab and avocado, a little chile action and some fresh herbs. Add a squeeze and zest of some citrus and you’ve got an amazing, healthy and delicious weekend lunch!
8. Low and gentle
I love cooking vegetables in the Summer with just a little heat in some infused olive oil. Maybe I’ll throw in a dried chile, some thyme and lemon peel into the olive oil and heat it over medium low before adding some cherry tomatoes and Summer squash and snap peas. Gently sweating the vegetables without actually getting any color keeps the colors bright and the flavor and texture super light and delicate. Crack a few fresh eggs into the pan and delicately scramble and you’ve got a perfect lunch or breakfast. Keep it low, keep it slow!