Comfort food lightens up in time for summer

Cookbook remakes heavy, fatty dishes with healthier options

The term “comfort food” brings heavy associations. We typically think of rich, indulgent, fattening fare that leaves us more comatose than comfortable. And more often than not, we think of those foods in fall and winter.

But lately, “summer comfort food” has surfaced as a trendy term bandied on food blogs and websites that feature lighter, airy dishes still capable of soothing and satiating.

“Comfort food is needed even when we aren’t all bundled up in sweaters,” says California-based food writer Amy Powell in her online column for Powell, a French Culinary Institute grad who has appeared on Food Network, offers a few ways to prepare summer comfort foods that don’t involve sweating over a hot stove. Her tips include transforming winter heavy meatloaf into summer appropriate meatloaf patties or slicing, or parboiling and grilling potatoes instead of mashing them.

“I think [summer comfort food] is sort of a new trend,” said Janine Whiteson, nutritionist and contributing editor of “Cooking Light Comfort Food” (Oxmoor House, $24.95). Each day, readers send in e-mails seeking ways to lighten up their favorite dishes for seasonal and health reasons.

“On a weekly basis, people crave these kinds of foods,” she said.

“Cooking Light Comfort Food” offers lighter versions of more than 200 old favorites. Fried chicken, mac and cheese and red velvet cupcakes all get healthy, but flavorful, makeovers.

“Cooking Light has lightened it up in a way you couldn’t tell there is a difference. Some readers have written in that they taste better than the originals,” Whiteson said.

At a huge test kitchen in Alabama, food experts work on recipes then sit down to lunch on 15 to 20 of the dishes, Whiteson said.

“They go through each and say, ‘Oh, this is too gummy or this is too salty.’ Five days a week they are in the test kitchen to make sure recipes taste exactly the same, if not better.”

They also pay attention to the availability and cost of ingredients.

In general, recipes in the book still use staple ingredients of comfort food.

“You don’t always have to use low fat. We use butter, salt, bacon and cream cheese — sometimes lower fat versions, but a lot of times we use the regular version and we just reduce the amount,” Whiteson said.

Each recipe highlights the features that make it light, such as the “Potato Salad 101” recipe, which uses lower fat mayonnaise and canola oil.

“When you have things like potato salad with reduced-fat mayo and canola oil, you don’t have that stuffed feeling like you had three bricks for lunch,” Whiteson said.

The book also includes “Recipe Makeover,” a popular column from the magazine that remakes a reader-submitted recipe into a healthier version, such as the butter, cream and bacon heavy recipe for Spinach Fettuccine submitted by reader Kathy Gordon. Gordon’s mom would make the dish whenever company came to the house, but Gordon put it on the shelf 10 years ago when she and her husband started eating better. A few substitutions cut almost 200 calories per serving from the original recipe, and Gordon said the lighter version earned her mother’s approval.

For a twist, some classic recipes are given a five-way update. Standard mac and cheese, for example, becomes Bacon, Ranch, or Chicken Mac and Cheese, Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese with Roasted Tomatoes or Stovetop Sausage Mac and Cheese.

The goal, said Whiteson, is to empower readers to learn how to lighten up comfort-food favorites on their own.

“It is so easy to do, but people just need a little help doing it,” Whiteson said. “We are really teachers and we are trying to teach readers around the country how to experiment and do this themselves.”


Sausage Mac and Cheese

Makes: 4 servings (serving size: about 11/4 cups).

4 ounces chicken and sun-dried tomato sausage (such as Gerhard’s), chopped

11/4 cups fat-free milk

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3/4 cup (3 ounces) shredded reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese

1/3 cup (about 11/3 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1/4 cup (2 ounces) 1/3 less-fat cream cheese

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/4 teaspoon garlic salt

5 cups hot cooked elbow macaroni (about 8 ounces uncooked pasta)

Chopped fresh parsley (optional)

Heat a large nonstick saucepan over medium-high heat. Add sausage; sauté 4 minutes or until browned. Combine milk and flour in a small bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Add milk mixture to pan; bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium. Stir in cheeses, onion powder and garlic salt; cook 3 minutes or until cheeses melt, stirring constantly. Stir in pasta. Garnish with parsley, if desired. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 433 calories; 13.9 grams fat; 23.6 grams protein; 53.1 grams carbohydrates; 2.7 grams fiber; 56 milligrams cholesterol; 2.4 milligrams iron; 538 milligrams sodium; 340 milligrams calcium.

Oven-Fried Chicken

Makes: 4 servings (serving size: 1 chicken breast half, or 1 drumstick and 1 thigh).

1 cup low-fat buttermilk

2 large egg whites, beaten

4.5 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1 cup)

1/3 cup cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt, divided

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper

2 chicken breast halves, skinned (about 1 pound)

2 chicken thighs, skinned (about 1/2 pound)

2 chicken drumsticks, skinned (about 1/2 pound)

2 tablespoons canola oil

Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Cover a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine buttermilk and egg whites in a shallow dish; stir well with a whisk. Combine flour, cornmeal, 1/2 teaspoon salt, black pepper and red pepper in a separate shallow dish; stir well. Sprinkle chicken evenly with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Dip chicken in buttermilk mixture; dredge in flour mixture.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken to pan; cook 4 minutes on each side or until lightly browned. Place chicken on prepared baking sheet; lightly coat chicken with cooking spray. Bake at 425 degrees for 30 minutes or until chicken is done.

Per serving: 450 calories; 13.8 grams fat; 43.5 grams protein; 35.3 grams carbohydrates; 1.7 grams fiber; 109 milligrams cholesterol; 3.2 milligrams iron; 803 milligrams sodium; 88 milligrams calcium.