If preparing dinner means peeling back the top of a frozen prepackaged meal or opening a brand-new box of cereal, it's time for a change. You don't have to be an accomplished cook to create low-fat, healthful cuisine that tastes great. The main challenge to eating well while watching calories is to choose nutrient-dense food and avoid excess dietary fat without giving up flavor.
Following are five supereasy, low-fat cooking techniques you can master in about the time it takes to nuke a Lean Cuisine. Whether you choose to broil, microwave, pressure cook, steam or stir-fry, you'll be pleased to know that each method is not only naturally low in fat (because they require little or no oil) but brings out the zest in foods. One caveat: Because these are quick-cooking techniques, you'll need to ignore that well-known adage and become a cook who does watch the pot -- to help keep it from boiling (or burning, sticking or charring).
1. STEAMINGSteaming is, simply, cooking food in an enclosed environment infused with steam. You can steam in a variety of ways: with a covered, perforated basket that rests above a pot of boiling water; with a parchment wrapper or foil; with Chinese bamboo steamers that stack on top of a wok; and with convenient electric steamers. Steaming cooks and seals in flavor, eliminating the need for added fats during preparation. It also preserves nutrients better than any other cooking method except microwaving. It's perfect for fish and shellfish because it doesn't dry out the delicate flesh. Halibut, cod and snapper steam particularly well.
Best candidates: Vegetables such as asparagus, zucchini and green beans, pears, chicken breasts, fish fillets and shellfish.
Equipment: A large pot in which to place collapsible basket steamers, Chinese bamboo steamers to stack on top of a wok (these steamers range from $10-$40), or electric steamers. The Black & Decker FlavorScenter steamer is a new electric model to which features a built-in flavor-scenter screen that you can add herbs and spices. It comes with a large 3.5-quart bowl and a 7-cup rice bowl and a handy timer with a signal bell and automatic shut-off ($35).
- To steam on top of the stove, simply bring water to a boil in your selected stove-top steamer, reduce heat so that a strong simmer sends steam escaping, add food to the steaming compartment, cover with a lid, and begin timing.
- A makeshift steamer can be easily created with everyday cooking utensils. Use any deep-frying pan or pot, such as a 6-quart Dutch oven, and place a rack inside balanced on two identical pieces of wood wedged into the bottom. (Make sure the lid is tight-fitting.) Spaghetti pots that come with separate smaller baskets that sit up high and fit snugly under the lid make good steamers as well.
- A 3/4- to 1-inch fish fillet takes anywhere from 6-15 minutes to steam, depending upon the fish; vegetables and fruit (such as a bunch of medium-stalked asparagus, a pound of green beans or two pears cut up) take from 10-25 minutes; a boneless chicken breast, 20 minutes.
Hold the salt: Don't bother salting foods during steaming, as it just washes off.
Try this: Flavoring is as simple as a twist of lemon. Steam one fish fillet by wrapping it in foil with a few garlic cloves, grated fresh ginger, onion and basil leaves. After squeezing fresh lemon juice over the fish, wrap it closed and place in a steamer basket. Bring 2 inches of water to a boil in a pot, put basket over water and cover. Steam for about 6 minutes.
2. STIR-FRYINGCooking at a very high heat for a very short time is the essence of stir-frying. Because food is cooked so quickly, it should be cut into small, uniform pieces to ensure every ingredient is cooked thoroughly. This is another method that requires your full attention, as continuous stirring and sometimes tossing of the ingredients are necessary to prevent food from sticking to the pan.