There's no question that eating healthy is good for your body. But let's face it: Butternut squash just isn't mac and cheese, and spinach isn't the same as a brownie -- or is it? A new way of preparing diet foods pairs unlikely culinary partners -- like spinach and brownies, or squash and mac and cheese -- into taste-tempting recipes that cut the calories, reduce the fat and sugar, and increase the nutrition of foods we love -- all without altering the taste.
That's the concept behind two new recipe guides that are taking the cookbook world by storm: The Sneaky Chef by Missy Chase Lapine and Deliciously Deceptive by Jessica Seinfeld (wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld).
Both books center around the not-so-new food prep technique known as pureeing, in which fruits and veggies are blended to a sauce-like consistency. The genius in their systems came in figuring how out to add these purees into a variety of unexpected recipes -- like fried chicken, French toast, brownies, and pizza -- without altering the taste.
"Not only does this method dramatically increase the nutrient density of whatever dish you are preparing, but it also makes it healthier in other ways, by lowering the fat content, reducing the glycemic index, and often reducing the calories -- all without sacrificing taste," says Lapine, whose Sneaky Chef started it all when it hit the New York Times best-seller list earlier this year.
Being a Sneaky Chef: Not Just for Kids
Both authors say the idea began not as a weight loss brainstorm, but as a way to get their own kids to eat more vegetables. In Lapine's case, her daughter was such a picky eater there were almost no vegetables she could put on her plate without starting a world war. Jessica Seinfeld says her experiences were similar.
"I tried everything, and yet all my efforts to feed my family were being undermined by a powerful force: vegetables," Seinfeld writes in the forward to her book. Mealtime was a war zone as she struggled to get her kids to eat healthier, she says.
Both authors say they achieved dinner table serenity once they hit on the concept of pureeing.
"Suddenly my kids were eating healthy -- and enjoying every bite," says Lapine, a culinary professor at The New School and former publisher of Eating Well magazine. Still, the idea of hiding veggies in kids' food has been criticized by some experts who argue that this won't help them learn to love produce on its own terms. (Seinfeld also promotes the importance of serving vegetables on the plate to encourage kids to try the real thing.)
But getting kids to eat their veggies, it seems, was just the tip of the iceberg (lettuce) when it came to the versatility of this cooking style. It wasn't long before adults trying to lose weight and eat healthier caught on to the concept, and a whole new way of preparing diet foods was born.
"Essentially, when you add the vegetable purees, you are 'stretching' the main ingredient, like you do when you add water to soup," says Lapine.
So, for example, if you have a half-pound of lean ground beef to which you add some vegetable puree and wheat germ, suddenly each meatball has fewer fat calories and more fiber and nutrients.
"In this respect, it almost automatically cuts the calories and fat, [and] helps with weight control," she says.
Lapine says her techniques works the same way with sweets. By adding vegetable purees to a brownie recipe, for example, you reduce fat, sugar, and calories in each bite, while adding vitamins, fiber, and nutrients that normally wouldn't be there.
"The end result is not only a lower-calorie brownie, but one that is actually good for you," she says.
Diet Foods Disguised: Chemistry 101
Now if you're thinking that all you need do is grind up any old veggie and add it to your peach cobbler or meatball recipe, the experts tell WebMD that you'll be disappointed.
"What you discover pretty early on is that there is not just cooking going on here, but a little bit of food chemistry, too, because you can't just take a bunch of vegetables, puree them, and add them to a dish and expect no one to notice," says Lapine. "If you do, you frequently end up with tomato sauce that looks and tastes like an old shoe, or brownies that even the most devoted chocolate lover wouldn't touch."
Lapine tells WebMD it took her five years -- during which she burned out four food processors -- before she hit upon recipes that not only had the right combinations of tastes and textures, but that wouldn't alter the flavor of the original dish.
It's true that your prep time will increase a bit when using this cooking method. Both Lapine and Seinfeld say they start by lightly steaming the vegetables -- and sometimes certain fruits -- and then add them to a food processor to puree. In Lapine's case, the purees are then blended into four distinct combinations.
To save time, the purees can be made ahead and frozen for up to three months, or kept in the refrigerator for up to three days, Lapine says. When mealtime rolls around, you simply add the purees according to the recipes provided.
But do these twice-cooked vegetables retain the nutrient power of fresh-cooked foods? For the most part, they do, says Samantha Heller, RD.
"Certain nutrients are heat sensitive, so you are going to lose some of the goodness, but the loss should not be that much greater than if you were cooking them and eating them, or reheating leftovers the next day," she says.
Lapine adds that because pureeing concentrates the nutrients -- a cup of broccoli, for example, is processed down to a half-cup of puree -- you actually get more by eating less. "This kind of makes up for what little you might lose in the double-cooking process," she says.
Heller says this is true, and tells WebMD: "Anything that gets more fruits and vegetables in your diet is a good thing. It's good for people trying to lose weight and just generally good for your health."
'Healthy Decadence': Another New Twist on Diet Foods
If, no matter how hard you try, you simply can't stand the thought of eating a brownie packed with spinach or a pizza peppered with carrots, there's yet another way to disguise your diet foods.
The "Healthy Decadence" system, developed by Los Angeles caterer and chef Devin Alexander, occasionally uses pureed fruits and vegetables, but also concentrates on reducing fats and sugars and replacing what's removed with other ingredients that won't alter the taste.
"For example, I figured out a way to replace chocolate chips or chocolate chunks with cocoa, so you get the chocolate flavor without the fat, and at the same time increase the fiber and add antioxidant protection --all without changing the taste," says Alexander, whose cooking show Healthy Decadence is broadcast on the Discovery Health Channel.
But chocolate is only one example.
"In brownies I'll add in applesauce; for cakes I'll include yogurt, while reducing the fat and the sugar -- along with a few other tricks," she says. The end result: a brownie with just 88 calories and 1 gram of fat, and a flourless chocolate cake with just 200 calories and 2 grams of fat per serving.
"When you can get numbers this low, and still have the great taste, you can enjoy the treats that would otherwise blow your diet -- and really enjoy decadent eating again," says Alexander, who devised her cooking method as a way to take herself from obese to slim.
"I just could not do the diets where all you ate was fruits and vegetables," she says. "I don't believe in deprivation, I believe in healthy decadence -- and that's what my recipes are all about."
Another longtime believer in tweaking recipes to make them healthier without sacrificing taste is Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, "The Recipe Doctor" for WebMD and its Weight Loss Clinic.
"After lightening recipes for 20 years, I’ve found the key is finding the magical minimum -- the amount of fat that you need to really pull off the recipe -- and using the ideal fat replacement for that particular recipe," says Magee, author of several books on eating healthy, including Comfort Food Makeovers.
Magee also has begun "making over" recipes to increase the good stuff like fiber, phytochemicals, and omega-3s while also bringing down the sugar and sodium whenever possible. But none of this is worthwhile, she adds, if the food isn't tasty.
"Healthful food isn’t going to do anyone any good if no one is eating it -- it has to taste great!" Magee says.
Diet Food in Disguise: 3 Healthy Brownie Recipes
Dying to give these new cooking methods a try? Lapine, Seinfeld, and Alexander offered up their recipes for reduced-calorie, reduced-fat, nutrient-dense chocolate brownies. Try your own taste test!
Sneaky Chef Brainy Brownies by Missy Chase Lapine
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 portion fruit or 1 portion light dessert.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup Purple Puree (see Make-Ahead Puree Recipe below)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Flour Blend (mix equal parts white flour, whole wheat flour, and wheat germ)
1/4 cup rolled oats, ground in a food processor
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Butter or nonstick cooking spray
Optional nutrition boost: 1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Butter or spray only the bottom (not the sides) of a 13-by-9-inch or 9-inch square baking pan.
- Melt the butter and chocolate chips together in a double boiler or metal bowl over simmering water (or in a microwave, checking every 15 seconds). Remove from heat and allow mixture to cool a bit. Meanwhile, in another bowl, stir together the eggs, vanilla, sugar, and Purple Puree. Combine this purple egg mixture with the cooled chocolate mixture.
- In a mixing bowl, stir together Flour Blend, cocoa powder, oats, and salt. Add this to the chocolate mixture and blend thoroughly. Mix in the chopped walnuts, if using, then pour the entire mixture into the baking pan.
- Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool completely in pan before cutting the brownies; use a plastic or butter knife. Dust with powdered sugar, if desired. These keep for a week in the refrigerator, covered tightly.
Yield: About 30 kid-sized brownies
Sneaky Chef Purple Puree
3 cups raw baby spinach leaves (or 1 cup frozen chopped spinach, or frozen chopped collard greens)
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries (no syrup or sugar added)
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoons water
- If using raw spinach, thoroughly wash, even if the package says "prewashed." Bring spinach or collards and water to a boil in a medium pot. Turn heat to low and allow to simmer for 10 minutes. If using frozen blueberries, quickly rinse them under cold water to thaw a little, and then drain.
- Fill the bowl of your food processor with the blueberries and cooked spinach (or collards), along with the lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of water, and puree on high until as smooth as possible. Stop occasionally to push top contents to bottom. If necessary, use a second tablespoon of water to make a fairly smooth puree.
- This amount of spinach and blueberries makes about 1 cup of puree. You can double the recipe if you want to store another cup of the puree. It will store in the refrigerator up to 2 days, or you can freeze 1/4 cup portions in sealed plastic bags or small plastic containers.
Recipes from The Sneaky Chef, by Missy Chase Lapine, Running Press, 2007. Republished with permission of the author.
Jessica Seinfeld's Deceptively Delicious Brownies
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal one brownie as 1 portion light dessert + 1 portion vegetables without added fat.
These brownies are low in calories (only 133 per brownie) and saturated fat. They’re also packed with 3 grams of fiber (which is just crazy for a brownie!), while spinach and carrots provide two powerful antioxidants.
Nonstick cooking spray
3 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1⁄2 cup carrot puree (After peeling and trimming the ends, steam carrots for 10-12 minutes and then puree in a food processor for 2 minutes)
1⁄2 cup spinach puree (Steam for 30 seconds, then puree in a food processor for 2 minutes)
1⁄2 cup firmly packed light or dark brown sugar
1⁄4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons trans-fat-free soft tub margarine spread
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 large egg whites
3⁄4 cup oat flour, or all-purpose flour
1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8x8-inch baking pan with cooking spray.
- Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or over a very low flame.
- In a large bowl, combine the melted chocolate, vegetable purees, sugar, cocoa powder, margarine, and vanilla, and whisk until smooth and creamy, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Whisk in egg whites. Stir in the flour, baking powder, and salt with a wooden spoon.
- Pour the batter into the pan and bake 35 to 40 minutes. Cool completely in the pan before cutting into 12 bars.
Yield: 12 brownies
Per brownie: 120 calories, 2 g fiber, 2.5 g protein, 19 g carbohydrate, 4.4 g fat, 1.7 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 149 mg sodium, 31% of calories from fat.
Recipe from Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food by Jessica Seinfeld, Harper Collins, 2007. Republished with permission of the publisher.
Devin Alexander's Healthy Decadence Double Chocolate Brownies
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal one brownie as one light dessert.
One of these brownies has 172 fewer calories and 11 fewer fat grams than traditional double chocolate brownies.
1/4cup unsweetened applesauce
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 egg whites
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup mini chocolate chips (semi-sweet)
Butter-flavored cooking spray
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8x8 inch non-stick cake pan with spray.
- In a medium mixing bowl, using a sturdy whisk or spatula, mix the applesauce, vanilla, egg whites, and sugar until they are well combined. Add the flour, cocoa powder, espresso powder, baking powder, and salt. Stir the mixture until it is just combined and no lumps remain. Pour it into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the chips evenly over the top. Bake the brownies for 20-22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry (a few crumbs are OK).
- Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and allow them to cool 5 minutes. Cut into 12 equal brownies.
Yield: 12 servings.
Per brownie: 88 calories, 2 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat, <1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 g fiber, 133 mg sodium.
Recipe from Devin Alexander; republished with permission of the author.