by Susan Hamilton

Futurists predicted it, nutritionists recommend it and consumers are requesting it. Yes, diners want healthy food, but they don't want to sacrifice flavor. From olive oil instead of butter to seafood instead of red meat, diners are becoming more savvy about their menu choices. Health-conscious Americans are requesting menu items that regain nutrition, retain flavor and are low-fat as well.

We know that diets high in fat can contribute to the risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension, various cancers, diabetes, osteoporosis and obesity. We're trying to cut out excess fat in our food, especially the saturated kind. But we don't want to feel deprived when we eat. And if we're like most Americans, we go out to eat at least four times a week. So if we want our food to be healthful and delicious, what's a diner to do?

Victor Gielisse, dean of Culinary, Baking and Pastry at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., states in Restaurants USA magazine that he slowly introduced healthier entrees in response to customer demand at a restaurant he operated in Dallas. He moved from rich, starchy sauces to lighter fruit and vegetable purees as well as demi-glaces that were anything but bland. He also featured flavorful ethnic cuisines, such as Asian and Mediterranean foods, with their emphasis on vegetables, grains and fish.

The renowned Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., has lightened up its cuisine in recent years, with many of its customers happily choosing from among its lighter offerings. Chefs at the restaurant observe that when a low-fat dish is served, unsuspecting diners don't notice the difference. Moosewood cooks use embellishments like herbs, spices, fruit or vegetable purees, sun-dried tomatoes, dried mushrooms, soy sauce and garlic when fashioning their acclaimed low-fat recipes.

What is low-fat, heart-healthy food?

Menus now cater to consumer demands for low-fat, low-calorie items. Diners can look for menu items designated as light, healthy and heart-healthy. Light means that the item has fewer calories and less fat than a comparable menu item. A "healthy" item is low in fat and saturated fat, and has limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. Heart-healthy can mean that the item is low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. It may be fortified with one or more of six key nutrients and soluble fiber.

In lieu of designated menu items, diners can also skip heavy appetizers like deep-fried foods, cheese-stuffed items and cream-based soups. Broiled or grilled items, fresh vegetables, salads with small amounts of light dressings and toppings, or broth-based soups like minestrone, chicken or tomato are all healthy alternatives.

French fries are big offenders, but baked, boiled or roasted potatoes can be just as satisfying. Flavored with salsa, pepper or chives rather than lots of butter, cheese and sour cream, your heart will thank you.

Lower-fat entrees, such as fish, skinless poultry and leaner cuts of meat, can be grilled, broiled, steamed, poached or baked. Request that rich gravies, sauces and butter be served on the side. And if you can't pass on dessert, share it with your dining companion or order sorbet or sherbet, which are lower in fat.

There's just no getting around the fact that fat provides satisfying substance and creamy texture to foods. But there are alternatives that won't leave you feeling deprived.

Olive oil is healthy, flavorful and versatile. Flavored with fresh herbs and roasted garlic for dipping with bread, the Mediterranean oil is served at trendy dining spots as an alternative to butter.

Chef/owner Michael Waliser of South Hill's Cafe 5-Ten often uses homemade infused and blended oils as garnishes, sauces and accents in many of his dishes. Truffle mashed potatoes with chive-infused oil is one of his creations. He also makes an infused shrimp oil to flavor his recipes.

Flavor boosters, like herbs, spices and other seasonings, can make up for the absence of fat. Karla Graves of Paprika on the South Hill likes to explore these natural flavors. "My customers bring me herbs and I incorporate those into what I'm cooking," she says.

The sweet and nutty flavor of balsamic vinegar imparts a rich, flavorful taste without many calories or fat. "Vinegars can add enormous flavor when splashed over vegetables," says Chef Brett Fontana of the Hayden Lake Country Club. "Or mix balsamic vinegar and a little olive oil as a dipping for bread."

Adding sun-dried tomatoes to a dish can give it a deep tomato flavor. Slow cooking vegetables with an oven-roasting technique requires very little fat and allows the veggies to caramelize, releasing their natural sugars and broadening the flavors of a dish. Caramelizing vegetables as they are sauteed in a small amount of olive oil, then adding a dollop of tomato paste, is a secret that renowned chef and author Graham Kerr shared with the audience at his appearance at the Fox Theater earlier this year.

"When you caramelize garlic and then add tomato paste, you bring out incredible sweet and savory flavors without the fat," says Executive Chef Colleen Steele of Spokane's Europa Pizzaria and Dewey, Cheatam & amp; Howe. Garlic is also purported to help maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

Informed dining

Here in the Inland Northwest, area chefs and restaurants have made dining out a part of the healthy lifestyle so many Americans are trying to obtain. Through a program called Lite 'n' Hearty, 20 local restaurants work with the Heart Institute of Spokane to create dining choices that are low in fat and high in flavor.

Restaurant entrees are reviewed by Heart Institute dieticians to find tasty and satisfying choices that contain the 30 percent fat or less recommended by the American Heart Association. A red heart marks each Lite 'n Hearty item on restaurant menus. Nutrition notes for each item can also be provided, giving the calories and fat grams.

Steele keeps two Spokane restaurants heart-healthy with Lite 'n Hearty menu items. At Europa Pizzaria and Dewey, Cheatam & amp; Howe, she uses lots of flavor profiles with fresh herbs, infused olive oils, balsamic vinegar and wines to enhance and bring out flavors.

"I like to go with what nature's given us to bring out flavors," Steele says. "Going out to eat doesn't have to be an indulgence."

The harvest pear salad with citrus served at both restaurants is low-calorie. An assortment of gourmet greens get a flavor boost from grilled pears, candied pecans, goat cheese, sun-dried cranberries and poached salmon drizzled with raspberry vinaigrette. Poaching the salmon in citrus and white wine stock infuses it with a sweet yet tannic flavor.

Dewey, Cheatam & amp; Howe's king salmon fillet, grilled with lemon-caper wine sauce or sauteed with Cajun spices and topped with a medley of peppers and onions, is also heart-healthy. The black tiger prawns served scampi-style with roasted garlic mesquite are made with fresh herbs and olive oil to keep them light.

At Europa, the champagne blueberry garden salad is a Lite 'n' Hearty item, featuring sweet red peppers, avocado, black olives, fresh tomatoes, garbanzo beans and crisp romaine topped with champagne blueberry dressing. Both spaghetti Europa and spaghetti Italia sport the heart-healthy sign. One is topped with a delicious meat sauce, the other with a tasty mushroom and tomato sauce.

Pizza is normally thought of as high-fat, but Europa offers four types of pizza -- Hawaiian, vegetarian, the house favorite and cheese -- that are Lite 'n' Hearty approved. So you can have your bacon, three-cheese topping and black olives and still eat low-fat.

Most diners are blissfully unaware that by the time they leave a fine restaurant, they've probably consumed the equivalent of a stick of butter, or 192 grams of fat. That luscious Caesar salad, prime rib au jus, buttered French bread and decadent chocolate dessert all added up, but diners didn't have the numbers to tell them so.

However, this summer it was a different story in Spokane, as we became the first city to test Menu2, designed by Graham Kerr. For one month, four area restaurants (working in conjunction with the Heart Institute) offered menus noting the nutritional values of each item. Fat, calories and carbohydrates were listed, giving diners the option of making informed choices. Restaurant selections for Menu2 equaled no more than 1,000 calories and 29 to 32 grams of fat for appetizer, entree and dessert selections totaled together (which are American Heart Association guidelines).

Chefs at Beverly's, Cafe 5-Ten, Fugazzi and Paprika learned how to balance good taste with good nutrition without having to give up flavor. They sauteed with smaller amounts of oil rather than butter, used splashy low-fat sauces drizzled artfully to add bursts of color, sprinkled fresh herbs, used cooking-reduction sauces, broiled and oven roasted meats, and pan-seared rather than sauteing.

"Everyone is talking about health, and how you get there is with food," says Rod Jessick, executive chef at Beverly's in the Coeur d'Alene Resort. "Menu2 is a positive change that people will come to rely on."

Jessick says that working with Menu2 was exciting for him as a chef. He analyzed menu items and worked to make them appetizing without the fat. Jessick says he had a positive experience with Menu2, knowing that he was contributing to people's good health.

Asked how his escargot Rockefeller with spinach, gruyere, bacon and puff pastry came in at only 271 calories, he explains: "We used a small piece of puff pastry, which can be just a satisfying as a larger, higher-fat portion."

The herb-crusted chicken medallions with tagliatelle pasta and a fennel-infused cream on Beverly's Menu2 were kept low-fat by using half-and-half. It's lower in fat than cream, yet it produces a luscious, creamy texture and taste. Fennel carried the flavor of the dish.

"Menu2 is how I've always cooked," says Chef Karla Graves of Paprika. "I use natural foods and ingredients that are healthy to enhance flavors."

For Menu2, Graves served a first plate of smoked salmon over a cornmeal pancake with fresh corn salsa that was only 109 calories. She spiced up a roasted rack of lamb with a fig-red wine sauce and served it with goat-cheese mashed potatoes and roasted garlic for another savory, low-fat dish.

This fall, Graves continues her healthy outlook by offering rabbit on her new seasonal menu as well as escolar (a fish that is high in healthy Omega-3 fatty acids) sauteed with chanterelle mushrooms.

For Cafe 5-Ten's Waliser, Menu2 "increased my awareness of what I'm putting into dishes. I focused on good ingredients and using techniques to perfect the dishes."

He vitalized vegetables served with Menu2 items with a squirt of herb oil or reduced red-wine sauce. These were a tasty addition to the halibut and shrimp cakes with lemon-dill sauce for a mere 370 calories.

Waliser's black bean cakes with corn and red-pepper coulis served for Menu2 was a flavorful first plate. A main plate of prawns bathed in olive oil and tomatoes with fresh basil pasta was so delicious, it was hard to believe it wasn't high-calorie.

"Menu2 was extremely successful in Spokane," says Patty Seebeck, nutrition services coordinator for the Heart Institute. "We got a 97 percent positive response on what motivated diners to look at Menu2," she adds. "Eighty-eight percent changed their menu choice after seeing Menu2. What's more, 88.9 percent said they would tell a friend about their Menu2 experience."

After Kerr met with the National Restaurant Association on September 5, he was pleased to report that they fully endorsed Menu2 as a viable option for restaurants. Seebeck thinks that this was due in large part to the effect Menu2 had in Spokane.

"Menu2 has the potential to revolutionize the way we order our meals," says Kerr. And the comments on the survey cards presented with Menu2 concurred. Most diners felt that every restaurant should present the nutritional information on their menus.

Menu2 and the Lite 'n' Hearty program have shown Inland Northwest diners that food can be tasty and satisfying by using flavorings instead of fat. Dining can be a part of our life that is enjoyable, satisfying and healthy.

Northwest Winterfest @ Mirabeau Park Hotel

Through Jan. 2, 2021
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