1) Learn the right way to cook lean meat.
People often complain that lean meat is dry and unpalatable. Alexander points out that it's not
the meat that's to blame — it's the preparation. When you're cooking them on a stovetop,
lean cuts of beef and chicken need to be added to a pan heated to high heat. "You want to sear the
juice in immediately. It should absolutely sizzle," she says. "Burgers, unless they're really thick
and you need them well done, can be cooked to desired doneness on high heat. When cooking chicken,
the temperature should be lowered after the juices are sealed in to cook all the way through."
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But won't that ruin your nonstick pan? It will over time, which is why Alexander recommends using inexpensive ones. "I buy cheap nonstick pans and then in a year or so when they're no longer nonstick, you throw them away and buy new ones. You can do that for ten years, as opposed to buying the really expensive ones that are also going to get ruined when you cook things on high heat."
2) Use lots of spices.
"On talk shows sometimes, they'll say, 'Well, we all want fat,' and it's not true!" Alexander insists. "We all want flavor and we want texture." Alexander mixes up her own combinations of spices for rubs and sausages, but she notes that are "a million spice rubs" at the market — "if it's something you smell and you really like it, you'll really like the finished product." You don't have to rub it on meat, either — you can make meatballs or sausage.
If you want to try blending your own spices, or add to a store-bought blend, Alexander has some suggestions: "Garlic [powder or salt] and rosemary always go well together. The key ingredient in an Italian sausage is fennel, and Italian herbs in meatballs. You can put cayenne pepper with thyme and garlic always. I love garlic and thyme on potatoes." She admits to using a lot of garlic salt. "That's the one area that I do kind of cheat a little bit in the health realm," she confesses. "I know a lot of people want to cut down on sodium, but the difference between cooking a burger or a piece of chicken with salt and without salt on the outside is like night and day in how tender it will be."
And how do you know exactly how much spice to add to a meat mixture? Alexander shares a tip she learned in cooking school: Put a little spice in, mix it around and then cook a tiny bit in a hot frying pan. If you want it spicier, add a little more seasoning and test it again until it tastes the way you want it. This keeps you from potentially ruining a whole batch of meat mixture.
3) Dress up low-fat mayonnaise.
A lot of people find that low-fat mayonnaise is somehow lacking. Alexander suggests mixing it with a stronger ingredient such as Dijon mustard, chili sauce (or even better, chili garlic sauce), wasabi, relish or anything else flavorful. "Strong flavors will overpower the mayonnaise and give you a really good texture on your sandwich without a lot of fat."
4) Simplicity doesn't have to be boring.
Fish is an easy quick dish, and if the fresh counter intimidates you, you can always buy it frozen. "Before you go to work, pull a piece out and stick it in the refrigerator," says Alexander. "When you get home it's defrosted and ready to throw on the grill or on your indoor grill with a little bit of blackened redfish seasoning and a little bit of Parmesan cheese." She also likes to bake fish — 4 to 6 ounces at 400 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes (the fish should be moist and flake in the middle). "I put a piece of foil in the pan and spray the foil with a little olive oil spray." She uses whatever seasoning or rub that suits her fancy. One favorite is Chilean sea bass with ginger Tamari sauce. "It's really easy, two ingredients, and there's no clean-up involved because you're just going to throw the foil away when you're done."
5) Cook enough meat to create several meals over a few days.
"I'm working on an article right now for a magazine where you take a turkey roast and then you make it into a soup, a salad and a sandwich," Alexander says. "You cook the turkey — it takes literally 5 minutes to make the rub you put on the turkey and throw it in the oven for an hour. You could walk in from the gym, do that, go take your shower and by the time you're done and made the side dish, the meal's ready. And then the next day you throw together a turkey sandwich in two minutes and for dinner the next night you take the turkey and throw it in a salad made from one of those bags of lettuce, some cherry tomatoes and one of those broccoli mixes with some light balsamic vinaigrette. You don't have to eat the same thing every day."
6) Learn the right way to store fresh herbs and vegetables.
Does your lettuce soften and wilt before you get around to using most of it? Are your salads soggy? You need to get the water out after you wash it. Alexander recommends using a salad spinner and then dry the leaves in paper towels. She also adds, "They have these salad bags, like cloth bags you put salad in to store in your refrigerator." If you get your lettuce dry enough you can even prepare salads a few days in advance. Just get 4 or 6 takeout containers and throw in a lot of cut-up, low-moisture veggies — peppers, broccoli, asparagus. "If you want tomatoes," says Alexander, "use cherry tomatoes or put them in just before you're going to eat them. Cucumbers, you should scrape the seeds out, cause that'll take the moisture out, or use English cucumbers." You'll have salads waiting for you in the fridge, already prepared.
As for herbs, if your cilantro, Italian parsley or basil is going bad on you right away, again, it's moisture that's to blame. The best way to store fresh herbs is to dry them thoroughly, then wrap a paper towel around them and store them in a plastic bag. "It just sucks out the moisture so you don't have a soggy mess," says Alexander.
7) Stock your kitchen with the proper utensils.
You don't really need a lot to make healthy meals. Along with inexpensive, nonstick pans, a salad spinner and some takeout containers, it's a good idea to have a plastic knife to cut lettuce (metal will oxidize it and make it turn brown), a flat wooden, Chinese-style spoon for cutting through ground turkey or lean beef while you're sauteing it, and some heat-resistant spatulas, which are also good for cooking. These can all be obtained very reasonably and make the cooking and preparing process easier.
8) Learn how to use your cooking oil.
Did you know that olive oil has a low smoke point of just 374 degrees Fahrenheit? So if you're cooking with olive oil, you'll want to add it to the already-heated pan at the same time as you're putting in your food — otherwise you risk burning it. An even better idea, if you like stir-fry, is using avocado oil, which has a smoke point of over 500 degrees F. "It's as low in saturated fat as olive oil," says Alexander, "and it has a lot of good fat in it — but it has virtually no taste, if you don't want stuff to taste like avocado."
9) Divide up your cereals and snacks.
If you're the type of person who'll eat the whole bag of chips, or who just fills the cereal bowl without measuring (that's probably most of you), then you might want to start practicing portion control the moment you bring the bag or box home. Alexander suggests taking plastic Baggies, filling them with individual servings (the nutritional info on the package will tell you how much a real serving is), and placing the filled Baggies back in the box or bag. "When I want them, I'll take out an individual bag," she says. "There's something gratifying to me about finishing a whole bag of anything!"
10) Play around with presentation.
Alexander enjoys presenting dishes creatively. "I serve a lot of healthy food in champagne glasses, martini glasses, wine glasses. It makes it feel like it's a treat." She did this during a Good Morning America segment, in which she made a confetti salad and served it in martini glasses, and a Kahlua parfait in champagne flutes. Recently, when she was preparing a meal for the producers of Extreme Makeover, Wedding Edition, she stuck kebabs in Styrofoam base inside a vase, like a flower arrangement, and arranged vegetables on toothpicks in a shorter vase with the dip in a martini glass. "Then I made what I called 'Sweetheart Sushi,'" she continues. "I took spicy tuna and baked salmon rolls and, instead of rolling the sushi all the way, I did them halfway so they looked like hearts when you sliced them." These are simple, decorative ideas for parties and special occasions, but they also can be used to brighten up any day. "You can even do applesauce with a little cinnamon in it — it looks pretty in a champagne glass. It just adds a little touch to it so that you don't feel like it's diet food!"
Chef Alexander 's techniques are a revelation to those who believe that healthy food has to be bland and unappetizing. "They think it has to be bad food and it really doesn't," she insists. "That's the mindset that needs to be adjusted. It can be completely delicious food that you love!"
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