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This is it. Now is your chance.
Thanksgiving is over and mostly forgotten. The Christmas craziness hasn’t started yet — at least not the craziest part of the Christmas craziness.
If you are looking to eat healthfully by the end of the year, and maybe even lose a little weight, this is it. Now is your chance.
Obviously, you are not going to be able to make up for a month’s worth of excesses in one short week. But, as they say, every little bit helps. And that is where we come in. We tried out some recipes that can bring a brief respite of healthfulness in this most unhealthful of months.
For recipes that are as good for you as they are delicious, I first turned to the country of Japan, where cooking and dining are ways of life, a vital part of the national fabric. When it comes to food, the culture traditionally thrives on simplicity, elegance, and balance. The Japanese palate shuns big and overpowering flavors, preferring instead exquisite degrees of nuance and subtlety.
And for the most part, the food is also very good for you. It uses just enough fat — a certain, small amount is required to maintain good health — and relatively little sugar, though it is an important ingredient in many dishes.
For my two Japanese dishes, I looked at one of my favorite cookbooks, Japanese Country Cookbook, by Russ Rudzinski. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Mr. Rudzinski was one of the owners of Mingei-Ya Country Style Restaurant in San Francisco. It was quite famous in its time, and to this day may be the best Japanese food I have ever eaten. As far as I can tell, the book faithfully reproduced the restaurant’s rustic recipes. Each is a mini-masterpiece of elegance and taste.
For instance, the Ebi Dango — shrimp meatballs — should not be able to be as healthful as they are while tasting so great. Essentially, they are shrimp dumplings, light as air, served over rice with the flavored broth in which they have been cooked. Adding heaps of flavor and nutrients, but essentially no calories, are an entire chopped-up head of Napa cabbage (also called Chinese cabbage) and several meaty mushrooms.
The dish is perfectly balanced, perfectly proportioned, and perfectly awesome.
Along the same lines, I made a Tori Donburi — bowl with chicken — that, although it shares the same humble, rustic roots, is somewhat heartier fare. A chicken breast is thinly sliced and simmered in a small amount of broth made with chicken stock, soy sauce, and sake (I used a dry white wine). Then it is simmered for a bit longer with sliced scallions and mushrooms.
Beaten eggs — a common Japanese ingredient — are added at the end, as in egg drop soup, giving the meal its flavor, opacity, and heft. It is served, of course, with rice. If you want to be extra healthy and eat more fiber, you can always use brown rice. But white is traditional, and Japanese food, more than anything, is about tradition.
The eggs make the chicken silken, while the wine gives the dish a deep undertone that helps cut through the low-calorie richness.
For my final two examples of light cooking, I turned to Cooking Light magazine. They have a way of maximizing flavor while minimizing calories, which is important in this week before the impending tsunami of cookies.
A Greek-Style Scampi dish sounded great, and it ended up tasting even better (the photographer who took pictures of it tried some and declared it the best food she had ever had, but maybe she was just hungry).
The dish is a garlicky mix of shrimp, tomatoes, lemon juice, and feta cheese. It is so irresistible because it is built in stages, and the flavors are layered. First comes the garlic sautéed in olive oil, and then the tomatoes and parsley. When those flavors are blended it is time for the shrimp, which simmers just long enough to be cooked. Then this mixture is sprinkled with the feta cheese, and baked. And when it comes out of the oven, it gets popped with a bright splash of lemon juice, more parsley, and pepper.
It is a perfect blend of flavors and textures, and even with the cheese it only comes in at an astonishing 301 calories per serving.
I was also intrigued by a recipe for Barbecue Roasted Salmon, which is a little sweet, a little spicy, and has just enough acidity to bring the flavors together. This dish takes a little time, just because the fish is first marinated for an hour in a mixture of pineapple juice and lemon juice.
The rest is a breeze. The distinguishing feature of this entree is the spice rub that accounts for the “barbecue” part of the name: Simply rub the fillet with a mixture of brown sugar, chili powder, grated lemon rind (be sure to grate the rind before squeezing the lemon for its juice to use in the marinade), cumin, salt, and cinnamon. Then into the oven it goes, and when it comes out again it has transformed into something better than ordinary salmon.
It has become salmon so flavorful you will think you are eating rich foods again.
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- 1 pound shrimp, cleaned and ground or minced fine
- 2 scallions, chopped fine
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon PLUS 2 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
- 1 beaten egg
- 4 cups soup stock
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 head Chinese (or Napa) cabbage, about
- 1½ pounds, cut in 1-inch dice
- 8 mushrooms, sliced (I used 4 white mushrooms and 4 shiitake)
Ebi Dango (Shrimp Meatballs)
Blend shrimp, scallions, cornstarch, 1 teaspoon of soy sauce, and egg. In a large pot over medium-high heat, boil the stock with the sugar and the remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce. Drop spoonfuls of the mixture into the stock and they will cook into dumplings. When they rise to the surface, they are done. Add cabbage and mushrooms. Cook 7-8 minutes, covered, and serve with hot rice.
Yield: 4-6 servings; Source: Japanese Country Cookbook, by Russ Rudzinski
- 1 uncooked chicken breast, boned
- ½ cup chicken stock
- 6 tablespoons soy sauce
- 6 tablespoons sake or dry white wine
- 8 large mushrooms (I used 4 white mushrooms and 4 shiitakes), quartered
- 6 scallions, chopped in ¼-inch lengths
- 4 eggs
- Cooked rice for 4
Tori Donburi (Bowl with Chicken)
Slice chicken breast thinly (putting it into the freezer until almost frozen makes it easier to slice). Boil stock, soy sauce, and sake. Add chicken. After 3-4 minutes, add mushrooms and scallions. Cook for 3-4 minutes more. Beat eggs and add. Stir once or twice until eggs are done. Put hot rice in 4 bowls and top with this mixture.
Yield: 4 servings; Source: Japanese Country Cookbook, by Russ Rudzinski
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) chopped fresh parsley, divided
- 1/ 8 teaspoon salt
- 4 (14½-ounce) cans no-salt-added whole peeled tomatoes, drained and chopped
- 1¼ pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- ¾ cup (3 ounces) crumbled feta cheese
- 1½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
Preheat oven to 400°.
Heat a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add garlic; cook 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add 2 tablespoons of the parsley, salt, and tomatoes. Reduce heat, and simmer 7 minutes. Add shrimp; cook 5 minutes. Pour mixture into an 11-by-7-inch glass or ceramic baking sheet; sprinkle with cheese. Bake for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons parsley, lemon juice, and pepper.
Yield: 4 servings; Source: Cooking Light
- ¼ cup pineapple juice
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (see cook's note)
- 4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 4 teaspoons chili powder
- 2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
- ¾ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Cooking spray
- Lemon wedges, optional
Barbecue Roasted Salmon
Cook's note: Grate 2 teaspoons of zest from a lemon and set aside before squeezing lemon for the juice.
Combine pineapple juice, lemon juice, and salmon fillets in a zip-top plastic bag; seal and marinate in refrigerator 1 hour, turning occasionally.
Preheat oven to 400°.
Remove fish from bag; discard marinade. Combine sugar, chili powder, grated lemon rind, cumin, salt, and cinnamon; rub over fish. Place fish in an 11-by-7 inch glass or ceramic baking dish coated with cooking spray. Bake 12 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Serve with lemon slices, if desired.
Yield: 4 servings; Source: Cooking Light