Healthy Sidekicks

My Rouses Everyday, July/August 2017

Here’s a little secret: It’s easy to make healthier dishes.

My daddy didn’t want lower-sodium bacon or low-fat mayonnaise or healthy anything, really. Mama simply served the would-be offenders to him anyway and hid the containers. If you don’t make a big deal out of it, nobody will even know you are improving their diet. Some simple changes can get you to that point. Here are some of my favorites.

For years, I made a blue cheese coleslaw that had been featured at a long-closed restaurant in another state. Recently, I’ve been making it with feta cheese instead. Like blue cheese, feta has a ton of tang, but with about 25 percent fewer calories and a bit less fat.

Another thing that makes it better for you is using Greek yogurt in place of most of the mayonnaise. This miracle ingredient can be substituted for at least half the mayonnaise and/or sour cream in a variety of recipes. In general, you only need a couple of tablespoons of full-fat mayonnaise, sour cream or even low-fat sour cream to give the dish smoothness and the expected flavor, while substituting yogurt for the rest of the fattening ingredient. I’ve had great luck with plain Greek yogurt and even nonfat yogurt.

Another favorite coleslaw is my adjusted version of my Granny Trower’s old-fashioned staple. Into about a third of a cup of mayonnaise, I stir an equal amount of plain Greek yogurt, a tablespoon or so of seasoned rice wine vinegar, a pinch of Splenda (or sugar or other sugar substitute) to balance the flavor and a generous amount of celery seeds (the old-school ingredient). Pour this over a bag or two of shredded cabbage, shredded carrots, and maybe julienned red and green bell peppers.

The lesson from these two dishes is that the feta and the celery seed provide big flavors that make up for the underlying improvements in calorie and fat counts.

For years, writers of healthy recipes have preached the virtues of using fresh herbs as seasonings. A tablespoon or three of fresh chopped parsley, basil, cilantro, dill or whatever is growing in your herb patch (in my case, garlic chives that survive everything) add so much fresh flavor that they are worth the effort to buy and/or grow. A platter of thick Creole tomato slices generously sprinkled with fresh herbs, then drizzled with two tablespoons of olive oil and a couple of teaspoons of wine vinegar, plus fancy salt (like pink Himalayan) and freshly ground pepper, is always a good addition to the menu at casual gatherings. Pretty, too.

If fresh herbs have the bad habit of turning black in the refrigerator before you get to them, try this: Trim the stems a bit and put them in a small glass of water, then cover the glass with the plastic produce bag the herbs came home in. Put this mini-terrarium back in the fridge in a prominent place, to remind you to use the herbs.

Or try chopping twice as many fresh herbs as you need, and package half in a zip-top sandwich bag, pressing out all the air before closing. When you make guacamole two days later, the cilantro is ready to add.

The Greek yogurt trick works well with deviled eggs, by the way. And try it with your favorite potato salad recipe and tell me what you think. You can also use Greek yogurt as a substitute for richer dairy products in desserts, as well as to replace heavy cream in pasta recipes.

We should also talk about the latest ragingly popular healthy vegetable: cauliflower. My husband hasn’t eaten carbohydrates for more than a decade. If I had kept track of how much cauliflower I’ve cooked in that time, it would fill a semi truck — or maybe two.

And the past couple of paleo-centric years have ramped up cauliflower appreciation to a whole new level. I love that I can now buy riced cauliflower — already cut into the shape of rice! How convenient! Any time we need a little bit of faux “rice” under a stir-fry, I just put a cup or so into a small dish with a tablespoon of water, cover it and microwave it for a couple minutes. So easy and so good.

Of course, Pinterest is all over the cauliflower hacks. Cauliflower pizza crust. Cauliflower breadsticks. I’m not immune to the craze, as a photograph of a cauliflower “grilled cheese sandwich” on my iPhone attests. (Honestly? It was just okay.)

Another tasty yet healthy dish is cauliflower “tots” —shredded cauliflower, combined with egg and cheese and packed into mini-muffin tins, then baked. However, they’re hard to get out of the tin when cooled, so they need to be reheated before serving.

Forget that. In Pelican Publishing’s new Skinny Louisiana … in the Kitchen by registered dietitian Shelly Marie Redmond, there is a recipe for Cajun Parmesan cauliflower bites that’s become one of my new family favorites. It coats small florets with Parmesan, panko bread crumbs and crushed Fiber One® cereal.

Redmond finds Fiber One cereal a great way to reduce the net carbohydrate count in many of her recipes, due to its high fiber count, she writes. “Use in your own recipes by replacing half the all-purpose flour or bread crumbs with crushed Fiber One.” This particular recipe would be a great healthy side to serve with burgers.

The recipe produces nuggets with a crisp exterior and soft centers, and it’s an easy way to get the crunchy texture of fried food without frying. The second time I made it, I just put the Fiber One cereal in the food processor with half the panko, shredded Parmesan and the seasoning. (My version of her recipe accompanies this story.)

One thing that cauliflower doesn’t do well is imitate potatoes in traditional potato salad, as I learned when attempting to try it with a favorite Cajun potato salad recipe. Cooked potatoes will absorb a dressing, which I couldn’t coax steamed cauliflower nuggets to do.

Then I had a brainstorm. A friend in Oklahoma used to make potato salad with mashed potatoes, similar to the New Orleans Creole style of potato salad.

After a most satisfying lunch at the newly reopened Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine, the excellent potato salad I enjoyed inspired me to make a similar mustardy version using cauliflower. If you want to try this, there are a few little tricks to know. The cauliflower must be thoroughly cooked until it’s easily pierced with a fork. And drain it very well; excess liquid makes “fauxtato” salad too loose and soupy.

For the same reason, don’t overdo the dressing. I mixed teaspoonfuls of yellow ballpark-style mustard, Greek yogurt and mayonnaise with a generous amount of Creole seasoning and garlic powder, to be mixed with the mashed cauliflower. Finely chopped red onion, bell pepper, celery and parsley gave it crunch and color. Then I added more mustard, a half teaspoon at a time, until I had the flavor I wanted.

“This doesn’t have potatoes?” I was happy to hear at dinner.

My recipes for baked onion rings and the cauliflower tots are prepared, like most fried things, with a dip in eggs to help the panko bread crumbs and seasonings adhere to the vegetables and for a crispy batter. Here, I found tools purchased long ago for candy making were useful. A long, skinny, two-pronged fork and a loop on a long handle were very helpful to fish vegetables out of the egg and plop them into the panko mixture.

Those are my healthy-eating hacks. You’re welcome.


My Rouses Everyday writer and Rouses website recipe editor Judy Walker, long-time food editor of The Times-Picayune, was recently included in Epicurious’ list of The 100 Greatest Home Cooks of All Time. Walker co-authored Cooking up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, with another My Rouse Everyday contributor, Marcelle Bienvenu.