Lite Reading : So Many Cookbooks, So Little Fat

Advocates of low-fat diets can sound impossibly smug, so at the outset I want to go on record as an all-American fat lover. In the 1960s, my favorite folks-are-going-out convenience meal was a rib-eye steak, tater tots and a salad smothered in bottled Thousand Island. Maybe a cupcake for dessert. With a nice frosty glass of cold--whole--milk.

Certain of my friends consider me a pious healthie because I have an honest affection for most vegetables, but really: I've never met a gelato I didn't like. My husband and 5-year-old daughter occasionally make irresistible scrambled eggs smothered in butter. And I love the tell-tale silkiness of traditional pesto, the kind that clings to each piece of fettuccine like a slinky dress on an oh-so-thin socialite.

But these are the lean '90s. If the '80s were the decade of excess, of towering pastries and junk bonds, then this is the era of nonfat Parmesan cheese and a sensible mutual fund. Fat is politically incorrect. Feeding fat to your family is a social felony. The only problem is, nobody knows how to cook without it.

The publishing industry, quick to sense an audience in need of guidance, has clogged the arteries of the marketplace with a flood of cookbooks aimed at the re-education of the American public. We've got nonfat recipes, low-fat recipes, "light" recipes (usually a euphemism for not quite so low-fat), celebrity cookbooks and gimmicks. "In the Kitchen With Rosie," an appropriately slim volume from Oprah Winfrey's in-house chef, Rosie Daley, has sold more copies than any cookbook in the history of record-keeping, with a reported 4.2 million copies in print. It's almost impossible to avoid: even if you never set foot in bookstores, you'll find it at the checkout counter of your local upscale market right next to the National Enquirer.

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Like CD-ROM, low-fat cooking is in its gold-rush phase. Eventually it will shake out--but for now there's too much opportunistic product to make much sense. How can you grasp, or trust, a category that includes everything from the American Heart Assn.'s cookbook to Richard Simmons' "Dial-A-Meal"?

The answer is, with great trepidation. I've examined almost two dozen books and can report that they fall into three fairly distinct categories. First, there are the books that want to help you change the way you eat, written by visionaries who can imagine a brave new world where not every green bean is swathed in butter, not every strawberry cloaked in cream. Next, a step down the morality ladder, are the books that want to help you eat all the bad stuff you've always eaten, but in a low-fat kind of way. Last, there are the gimmick books, usually tied into a product or a marketing concept, like Simmons' flash cards, video and guide to junk food, or the "Butter Busters" cookbook, which relies on products such as Butter Buds, Egg Beaters and both original and brown Sweet 'N' Low.

All the cookbooks offer revised versions of your favorite forbidden treats--wisely, since even the most motivated among us are hardly going to switch cold turkey (so to speak) from Western foods to a rural Chinese peasant diet. What makes the difference, as with any kind of writing, is imagination. The best cookbook writers rethink food and teach us tricks we can use in our own repertoire of dishes. The worst writers plug in low-fat substitutes for fatty ingredients and expect us to like a literal imitation that only succeeds in reminding us of just what we're missing.

Your taste buds are not stupid. They know that chocolate tofu cheesecake, or pasta stuffed with three nonfat cheeses, is not the real thing.

What's a responsible eater to do? Change your flavor and texture expectations. Having tried three pestos and their Provencal cousin, pistou , I can attest that low-fat pesto does not taste or feel like the real thing. It's chunkier, harsher, brighter; it's a pushy dish. But if you unhinge your memory--to borrow from Southern California therapy-speak, if you can live in the moment--you may find that some of this neo-pesto is, in fact, quite good. The trick about low-fat food is not to compare it to what you're used to, but to take it on its own terms.

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That's probably why the vegetable dishes and entrees are the best thing about "In the Kitchen With Rosie," the leader of the low-fat pack. Rosie Daley reinvents dishes. She retools a few bad foods, in deference to her boss's love of anything fried, but for the most part these are clean new ideas. Fair warning: Many of them are labor-intensive, and some call for costly ingredients. There are only 50 recipes in the book, so it hardly qualifies as a comprehensive instruction manual for a new life. But it's a great start.

Although Daley calls her tomato-based topping for grilled bread " bruschetta ," it is a distant cousin to the standard combination of olive oil, garlic and tomatoes. Daley's version is completely oil-free, but you hardly feel deprived eating it. The juice from the tomatoes plays the olive oil's part, soaking and flavoring the bread, and frankly, as we head into fresh tomato season, it's nice to give that crimson fruit the leading role. The addition of balsamic vinegar gives the acid mix a smooth note, as oil would have. It's my favorite of all the dishes I tried.

The oil-free pesto, moistened instead with lemon juice, is a tougher go, though one woman I know says she loves it so much she eats it with a spoon. It's not just a matter of texture here. Pesto seems to need a little olive oil to balance the flavors, and there really is no room for imaginative substitutions. Pesto is pesto. So I cheated and added a single teaspoon of oil, which made a huge difference and was still way on the healthy side of the half-cup that traditional recipes call for.

While I was at it, I took a side trip into a couple of other pestos and learned a valuable lesson. There is such a thing as going overboard. Julee Rosso's "Great Good Food" pesto suffers from too much garlic, though I usually think that there is no such thing; her broccoli pesto, soothed with chicken broth, is much better. Try instead the pistou in "Provencal Light," where a chopped tomato lightens the basil paste.

If you're going to eat pesto at all, perhaps moderation is success enough: You can't fit a Size 10 foot into a Size 5 shoe and pesto, the original recipe of which gets something like 90% of its calories from fat, is the definitive Size 10 foot. The American Heart Assn. cookbook's pesto--which uses olive oil, Parmesan and pine nuts--can, with a little tinkering, taste great, feel right and still come in at a fairly reasonable 16 grams of fat. Some people need to give up oil entirely, for health reasons, but the vast majority of us just need to use less of it. If I can make pesto with a little oil, and still come in near 30% fat, that's plenty of virtue for me. I'll serve my family fresh peaches for dessert.

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Daley works her real magic making fake fried foods: The unfried chicken is so crisp that one paranoid diner kept lifting up the breading to make sure no skin lurked beneath it. It does seem a little silly to be using dried basil in a Mediterranean climate, where the fresh stuff grows as easily as weeds, but the breading mix relies on a careful balance of dried herbs and spices to trick the palate. The compromise is worth it to anyone who hankers for fried chicken, but since merely removing the skin from roast chicken makes it just as low-fat as chicken cooked without skin, I wonder if the effort is worth it on a regular basis. Daley coats French fries in egg whites and spices and then bakes them, turning the coating into wispy, crispy--and grease-free--meringue. While I busily apologized for the way they looked, my husband and daughter devoured them.

If Daley's oatmeal muffins look like hockey pucks and have the consistency of old foam rubber, well, nobody's perfect. Baked goods are the bete noire of low-fat cookers. The only one who seems to have them licked, consistently, is Sarah Schlesinger, whose "500 Fat-Free Recipes" offers plenty of delicious nonfat desserts. Honest. Schlesinger, a practitioner of fruit puree replacement, makes a strawberry and orange cake that I've yet to sample the morning after: It simply doesn't last that long. It looks absolutely frightening in the raw--a globby dough outtake from "The Blob" sunk under a thin mix of orange juice, sugar, orange peel and strawberries. But once in the oven, the dough puffs and gets porous, the fruit seeps in, and the result is something like a guilt-free clafouti .

Schlesinger's gingerbread, which uses prune puree, made a lifelong gingerbread fan think there was hope for the future. And corn muffins made with applesauce were reward enough for not making a recipe full of butter.

Some of Schlesinger's pasta dishes and sauces are not as successful, which brings me to the crux of the whole low-fat craze. If you want to eat less fat, there are two ways to do it: Make dishes that require less fat, or make fatty recipes with nonfat replacements. The former is more difficult, but the tastes are truer. The latter is as easy as technology, but substitutions don't always taste great. I can hide a little nonfat ricotta in a pasta sauce, but I don't want Schlesinger's stuffed pasta shells with three nonfat cheeses--and when I asked the clerk at Mrs. Gooch if there even was such a thing as a nonfat Parmesan, she shuddered, pointed to a greenish-yellow soy substitute and whispered that it tastes terrible.

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A smarter, but slightly more treacherous book is Martha Rose Schulman's "Provencal Light." Schulman is more of a moderate than Schlesinger; she tries to compromise between the need to lower fat and her desire to preserve flavor, and some of the dishes are delicious--like the chicken with tomatoes, garlic and olives, whose fat content (10 grams, almost 30% of the dish) would diminish a bit if you increased the proportion of pasta or rice. But the white bean " brandade ," a garlic-spiked puree, is surprisingly bland--while the zucchini gratin with goat cheese is as predictably tasty as it is high in fat. What is a side dish with 13 grams of fat doing, lurking in a "light" cookbook? The author suggests we serve it with dishes that are much lower in fat, to compensate. Decent advice for the cook who can afford a little leeway. But people tend to use these books as bibles; they're afraid to stray from the path. So buyer and eater, beware. There are as many definitions of low-fat as there are book contracts being signed.

There are also plenty of ethnic books, happy news for the home cook who doesn't want to abandon a native cuisine, or for the serious cook hoping for variety. One of the best is "Indian Light Cooking," by Ruth Law. Her skinless tandoori chicken doesn't have the dark, chewy texture of the real thing, but it's a perfectly tender, cleanly spiced dish. And the aloo matar tamatar , a mix of potatoes, tomatoes and peas, makes a truly low-fat meal--5 grams total, for the two dishes.

I'd rather hunt through any of these for a tasty recipe than resort to what I call the consolation books--those that assume you're suffering without fat and try to offer comfort by feeding all your old bad habits. Richard Simmons may believe in offering a junk food crib sheet because real people eat lots of junk food and need to know when to stop, but it seems like a lot of wasted energy. Don't eat a pound of Mrs. Fields cookies, no matter what; there, now that's over with. George Mateljan, the founder of Health Valley Foods, has come up with "Baking Without Fat," a worthy enough endeavor (yes, the no-fatters deserve their own dessert book just like the followers of cake queen Rose Levy Beranbaum do) if you still need that nightly sweet.

But here's a subversive thought. Maybe you can't have your cake and eat it too. We live in Southern California, land of bounty, land of farmers markets, land, I would argue, of some of the most gorgeous fruit anywhere. You want variety for dessert? Try buying whatever's fresh, week to week. And then read Daley's book again--not for the specific recipes, but for the way she works with food. Try coating pasta with chicken broth and leaving out most of the olive oil. Try any steamed vegetable with the yogurt mustard she serves with artichokes, a truly splendid, subtle sauce. Or borrow a trick from "500 Fat-Free Recipes" and drain the yogurt for two hours before mixing it, which will give the sauce the consistency of mayonnaise.

The real low-fat future rests in our ability to cook it, not to follow single recipes. Who wants to live the extended life a healthy diet is supposed to buy us, but tied to the printed page?

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OK, these French fries from "In the Kitchen With Rosie: Oprah's Favorite Recipes" by Rosie Daley (Alfred Knopf: 1994, $14.95) look a little funny sometimes, when the egg whites turn into wispy little feathers that trail off the spuds. But they're suitably crisp outside and soft inside, and the spices distract your taste buds from the oil-lessness of the endeavor. Children, the toughest of judges, inhale them.

UN-FRIED FRENCH FRIES

5 large baking potatoes, to equal 2 3/4 pounds

2 large egg whites

1 tablespoon bottled Cajun spice powder

Light vegetable oil cooking spray

Slice each potato lengthwise into 1/4-inch ovals, then slice each oval lengthwise into matchsticks.

Beat egg whites and Cajun spice in bowl. Add potato matchsticks and mix to coat.

Place coated potatoes in single layer on baking sheet coated with 3 sprays of vegetable oil, leaving little space between matchsticks.

Place baking sheet on bottom shelf of oven and bake at 400 degrees, turning every 6 to 8 minutes with spatula to ensure even browning, until fries are crisp, 40 to 45 minutes. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

258 calories; 44 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 57 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 1.66 grams fiber.

Note: Cajun spice mixtures, which can be found in most supermarkets, are usually made from paprika, garlic, onion, black pepper, lemon, thyme, allspice, chile pepper, cayenne, cloves, mace and bay.

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This mixture of potatoes, peas and tomatoes--sure, it's the middle of tomato season, so why not throw in a little extra?--is surprisingly bright and refreshing. From Ruth Law's "Indian Light Cooking" (Donald I. Fine: 1994, $25).

POTATOES, PEAS AND TOMATOES

(Aloo Matar Tamatar)

3 medium baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1 tablespoon oil

1 tablespoon minced ginger root

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 to 2 dried chiles

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed

1 cup chopped ripe tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 lemon, cut into wedges

In bowl soak potatoes in water 15 minutes. Drain potatoes and pat dry on paper towels. Heat oil in non-stick saucepan over medium heat. Add ginger, garlic, cumin and chiles. Cook until garlic and ginger are fragrant and chiles have slightly darkened, about 10 seconds. Add potatoes and turmeric. Stir-fry until potatoes are lightly browned, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add 1/2 cup boiling water and bring mixture to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer over low heat until potatoes are almost cooked, about 10 minutes. Add peas and tomatoes and continue cooking 2 to 4 minutes or until heated throughout, stirring very gently. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve with lemon wedges. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

103 calories; 334 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 1.34 grams fiber.

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A yogurt marinade makes the chicken wonderfully tender. It's also from Ruth Law's "Indian Light Cooking."

CHICKEN TANDOORI

(Murgh Tandoori)

8 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon chopped ginger root

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon red pepper powder

2 tablespoons ground paprika

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

3/4 cup nonfat plain yogurt

Canola oil spray

Lemon slices

With sharp knife, make short slashes in chicken about 1/2-inch deep and 1 inch apart. Rub chicken with lemon juice and salt. Place chicken in shallow dish.

In mini food processor or blender, combine ginger and garlic and puree, adding 1 tablespoon water to make smooth paste. Add cumin, red pepper powder, paprika, coriander and cardamom. Add yogurt and blend to smooth paste. Place chicken in shallow dish. Rub marinade thoroughly into chicken. Cover and marinate 4 hours or overnight in refrigerator.

Remove chicken from refrigerator. Lightly spray chicken with oil and place on wire rack in large, shallow roasting pan. Cook chicken at 500 degrees 15 to 20 minutes or until cooked through. Garnish with lemon slices. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

95 calories; 208 mg sodium; 40 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 17 grams protein; 0.47 gram fiber.

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This cake, from Sarah Schlesinger's "500 Fat-Free Recipes" (Times Books: 1994, $23), is a perfect alternative to artery-clogging shortcake. It's sweet and tart, dense but not leaden. It doesn't taste like a low-fat consolation prize; it's a lovely summertime dessert that just happens to be healthful.

ORANGE-STRAWBERRY CAKE

3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen strawberries (thawed)

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

1 3/4 cups orange juice

1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt, optional

1/2 cup skim milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Place 1/4 cup brown sugar, strawberries, orange zest and orange juice in saucepan. Bring to boil. Simmer 5 minutes.

Combine remaining 1/2 cup brown sugar, flour, baking powder and salt in bowl.

Add milk and vanilla to dry ingredients. Stir until just moistened.

Transfer batter to 8-inch-square baking dish, lined with baking pan liner or lightly sprayed with vegetable cooking spray. Pour strawberry mixture over cake batter.

Bake at 350 degrees 40 minutes or until lightly browned. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

169 calories; 95 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 40 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.25 gram fiber.

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My family preferred the taste of the American Heart Association pesto, although 33% of its calories come from fat, but we could live--theoretically, a lot longer--with Rosie's Pesto, with the addition of a teaspoon of olive oil.

SPAGHETTI WITH PERFECT PESTO

2 cups firmly packed fresh spinach leaves, stems removed

1/2 cup firmly packed fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup firmly packed fresh parsley, stems removed

2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup olive oil

1/3 cup unsalted dry-roasted pine nuts

Freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons freshly grated Romano cheese

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 1/2 pounds uncooked thin spaghetti

In blender or work bowl of food processor fitted with metal blade, process spinach, basil, parsley, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, pepper to taste and cheeses until almost pureed. If mixture is too thick, add 1 to 2 tablespoons water. Set aside.

Cook spaghetti according to package directions, omitting salt. Drain and toss with sauce while spaghetti is hot. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

435 calories; 131 mg sodium; 5 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 60 grams carbohydrates; 14 grams protein; 0.53 gram fiber.

ROSIE'S PESTO

1 1/2 cups fresh basil leaves

2 to 5 garlic cloves, peeled

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 pound uncooked thin spaghetti

In blender or work bowl of food processor fitted with metal blade, process basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and olive oil. With machine running, drizzle in lemon juice. Continue to puree until smooth paste is formed.

Cook spaghetti according to package directions, omitting salt. Drain and toss with sauce while spaghetti is hot. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

528 calories; 118 mg sodium; 5 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 92 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 0.49 gram fiber.

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Food styling by Donna Deane and Mayi Brady.

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