Lighten Up Already!
February 26th, 2011 - By Lari Robling
We borrow some tips from a spa chef to make our home cooking lighter, but tasty and filling too.
Imagine you are the chef at a luxury hotel and you're assigned to cook a menu with no animal fats or starch, and a calorie restriction of less than 550 for a three course meal. "First reaction was how having no butter, no oil, everything that a chef cooks with, was quite a daunting proposition to me," that's Kevin Levett, Executive Chef of the Sofitel Hotel in Philadelphia. So you see, even chef's are grappling with this idea of lightening up dishes! Levett is offering a menu to serve in partnership with a neighboring spa.
He was inspired by visiting chefs from the Sofitel Thalassa spa in France. They soon had him thinking, and cooking, in a whole new way. Take this dessert for instance, "traditional panacotta has lots of milk, lots of cream, and lots of sugar. However, here we use soy milk, which is low-fat, you're using natural sugars from the fruits instead of additional sugars. You're still using vanilla, you're still using a gelling agent to thicken it a bit. When you look at as a whole, and break it down, yes it's the same. There's no real difference in the process, it's just different commodities really."
The ingredient Chef Levett uses for thickening is called agar agar. No, that's not an echo! Agar agar is a natural seaweed and you can find it in most health food stores. Chef Levett says it is also used where you would use butter, cream, eggs or cornstarch to thicken sauces, "we make a very flavored stock, obviously again with no oils and no butters. We don't thicken it with obviously a roux, or cornstarch or anything. We use agar agar, but you only use very, very minimal, but you have to boil it. It's not like gelatin where you soften it in water and then melt it and add it to your product. You actually bring the product that you want to thicken to boil, and then just sprinkle it in like you would be using it for salt. Make sure you are boiling it and whisking it at the same time and you will see the product thicken within seconds. It's quite remarkable really considering it is a product from the ocean that you wouldn’t think would be able to thicken anything. So…"
Another product Chef Levett uses to lighten up his dishes is fromage blanc, white cheese. "It's sort of a cross between sour cream and crème fraiche, again, low-fat to make dressings the sabayon is still the same principle, but we just don't use butter, we use fromage blanc. It's a versatile substitute for cream."
Chef Stephane LeNorcy, one of the visiting chefs offers to show me how to make a delicious mayonnaise alternative, "you need mustard from Dijion, 250 grams of low-fat fromage blanc." It's surprising how simple this is, finely chop a hard boiled egg, add Dijon mustard, and the low-fat fromage blanc. To that you can get creative and season with chives, curry, even a little saffron, or that hot sauce you crave.