WAILUKU, Maui — One of the reasons I love visiting my mom is visiting her stuff. Especially things that used to populate the homes of my childhood — well-worn kitchen tools, the little creamer that came from a restaurant we once owned, my Grandma’s blue ceramic candle holder that says Boa Noite (“Good Night”). And Mom’s books, many of which came from me.
Yesterday, bored a bit by writing restaurant reports, I paged through a book I gave her when Dad was told he had high cholesterol and she had to alter his diet. It’s a book called “Fast & Low” (Little, Brown, 1985) by Joan Stillman, a dedicated home cook, aficionado of Julia Child and Elizabeth David, who got the same news about her husband’s health.
Stillman read the 1984 National Institutes of Health report linking our animal fat-based diet to blood cholesterol and artery-blocking “sludge.” Though much has been revealed since 1984, and the tie between cholesterol in the diet and cholesterol in the blood may not be quite as direct as was first thought, much of what Stillman preaches is still good advice.
She and her husband first adopted the then-highly recommended Pritikin dietary plan. But they weren’t happy: “We have never known such sensory deprivation,” she writes.
So she began to “hack away” at the fat in beloved classics. And she found ways to incorporate flavor through the use of herbs, spices and, especially, condiments from the Near and Far East.
Much of what Stillman “discovered” — techniques and ingredients considered “exotic” then — are standard now: the food processor and the zesting rasp, shoyu, fresh ginger, toasted sesame seeds, sesame and chili oils, unconventional vinegars, Szechuan pepper, fresh-ground black pepper, sweet-to-hot peppers, crispbreads, flatbreads, olives other than the canned black kind.
But many of us have not yet incorporated the principles she learned:
Bake your own simple, country-style breads very little fat and eat them fresh, without butter.
Cook fresh fruits and vegetables as soon after acquiring them as possible. It’s preferable to serve these at room temperature or chilled than to overcook them or hold them while the nutrients degrade. Foods to be served cold take a lot more seasoning.
Sauces are where the trouble begins. Instead of sauces, employ acidic ingredients (drizzle a chicken with fresh,squeezed lemon juice instead of rubbing it with butter or oil), vinaigrette (in place of mayonnaise-based dressings), reduced and defatted pan juices or stock, aromatics (shallots, ginger, garlic, green onion, chives).
In place of eggs and dairy, learn to cook with lowfat buttermilk, homemade lowfat yogurt, ricotta and mozarella cheeses (naturally lowfat), just-grated hard cheeses. Some tricks: blend cottage cheese with yogurt so it’s not so dry and takes on a tangy flavor. Make “cream” soups with buttermilk. Use grated mozzarella to add cheesy texture to cornmeal, grits or polenta. Combine yogurt 50/50 with lowfat mayonnaise for a dip or spread.
Most of Stillman’s then-fresh recipes are widely known now (hummous, tabbouli, baba ganoush, marinated tofu). But one that hasn’t jumped from “gourmet circles only” to “everybody knows that one” is taramsalata, a salty, fishy dip or spread made with Mediterranean carp roe paste. (Find it at specialty food shops or online.) To make it, soak 6 slices of thinly sliced white bread in 3/4 cup skim milk 10 minutes. Drain and squeeze dry in a clean towel. Place in a food processor with 2-3 small cloves minced garlic, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, 2 tablespoons corn, safflower or canola oil and 1 tablespoons carp roe paste and process 1-2 minutes until perfectly smooth.
I felt good just reading Stillman’s recipes:
Tender roasted beets tossed with fresh basil and sliced scallions, drizzled with lemon juice and dressed with a 50/50 puree of cottage cheese and yogurt.
Pureed peas made with steamed cucumber, frozen peas, minced shallots, pureed with a little fresh-ground pepper, a pinch of sugar and a tablespoon of ricotta.
A revival of an old-fashioned dessert called a fluff: dried apricots cooked in honeyed water, pureed with a splash of lemon juice and some brandy, then folded into stiff-whipped egg whites.
Now for some gratuitious “to come” photos from my dining adventures on Maui Monday. Today: Off to Lahaina after eating Maui Home Maid Bakery coconut manju and apple turnovers, as well as leftover dark chocolate pie from Monkeypod Kitchen for breakfast!