Basics of Healthy Cooking

Cooking in modern kitchenHealthy cooking is easy when you have the basics down, and making it tasty is easier than you think.

Learn a few basic cooking techniques that anyone can master, then build a healthy fridge and pantry, gather the recipes you love and you’re off to the races! With a little help from your “friends” like healthy cooking sauces, herbs, spices and other flavorings, you can whip up seriously lip-smacking meals that are also body-beautiful, filled with vitamins and minerals, everything you need to feel good and look amazing. So set your kitchen up for cooking success by starting with the best ingredients that you’ll use each and every day.

Healthy Fats and Cooking Oils

Olive Oil For Healthy CookingOlive oil is your new best friend when it comes to healthy cooking. Extra virgin is great for salads and baked meals or skillet meals cooked at low temperatures. Coconut oil, grapeseed, or light olive oil are better for higher heat cooking. Canola is also great for searing lean meats, and no — it’s not a man-made oil though sadly most US canola oil is GMO.

Looking to dazzle your meal with a drizzle of something special? Walnut, pumpkin, hazelnut, flax seed (high in plant-based omega-3s), and avocado oil are a gourmet way to flavor salads or dress crostini, but too delicate for the skillet cooking. Healthy fats are great for brain health, glowing skin, and vitamin absorption — but remember that they are calorie-dense, and calories still count! Aim for 2 teaspoons of any oil per person, per dish.

Searing — A Cook’s Best Kept Secret

allclad-healthy-cookingIf I could teach you only one cooking technique, this would be it! But first, let’s talk skillet — since all skillets are certainly not created equal.

A good quality skillet can be expensive, but if you plan on cooking fairly often, it’s worth it! Purchase just one small and one large to start. Avoid non-stick pans because studies show that teflon particles can be harmful if ingested and don’t do well at high temperatures.

For searing, pick high-smoke-points oils like canola, coconut and light olive oil. Season your meat, fish, drained tofu with salt and pepper. If you’re searing veggies like kale or broccoli, you can sprinkle the salt after the vegetables are added to the skillet.

Add 2 teaspoons of oil to your skillet for 2 small pieces of protein in a small skillet or 1 tablespoon for a large skillet and 4 small pieces of protein. Sear your protein at least 90 seconds per side. If you try to lift the meat and it sticks, leave it in the pan longer. It means that the proteins are still coagulating — and only when the meat releases easily then the proteins have seized up properly. In the case of fish, choose fish with its skin on (if you can, it peels off easily after cooking). Score the fish skin and add it to the skillet, skin-side down. Depending on the thickness of your fish, you can sear 30 seconds to 1 minute for each side. For veggies, as soon as they brown, turn them and season with salt.

After you’ve seared both sides, slide the skillet into a 400°F preheated oven and bake 2 to 10 additional minutes (less for fish, longer for meats) — depending on the protein and its size (not necessary for veggies). Just to give you a very rough idea — a 1-inch-thick fish fillets like salmon bakes within 3 to 4 minutes, skinless boneless chicken breasts bake in around 6 to 8 minutes and a beef fillet takes around 8 to 10 minutes for medium pink inside.

Pick Plenty of Superfoods

asparagus2Superfoods such as broccoli, kale, spinach, red bell pepper, lean proteins (such as mussels, shrimp) and whole grains, seeds and nuts like quinoa, flax, and almonds are the staple ingredients of delicious meals that have optimal nutrition.

Superfoods come with much higher nutrition compared to other foods in their class, so that’s just one of the reasons you want to center your meals around them. They also contain magical molecules that protect your health in many ways. You’ve certainly heard about them in the news, compounds like flavanoids, anti-oxidants, sulforaphane, and plant sterols that come from plant pigments, cells, and fibers — and that have been proven to fight a wide range of ailments from cancer, depression, diabetes and heart disease.

Get the ultimate superfood grocery list, or simply start with my fab four superfoods that you can eat and enjoy every day: spinach, broccoli, kale, and carrots. If you’re lucky enough to have a farmer’s market close by, it’s the best place to get the freshest and tastiest produce around. Check out my produce shopping and storage guide to learn more about how to pick a pepper, choose a melon and much more.

Fresh VS Frozen

frozen-blueberriesIf you want to make fast, amazing-tasting meals that are healthy too, then plenty of fresh foods are key. Frozen is fine when in a pinch, but tastewise it can’t compare to fresh. Mixing the two, however, can be a tasty and budget-friendly way to achieve your goals and there are several foods that are tasty even frozen (and they also happen to be cheaper):

For example, frozen artichokes (that contain far less salt compared to canned) are wonderful topped on homemade pizza, in my super-popular spinach artichoke dip, and tossed in salads and pastas. Great for your heart, artichokes are a high fiber winner, and #7 on the USDA’s top 20 antioxidant-rich foods list.

Frozen shrimp are a delicious, mild-tasting protein and it’s also a superfood (high in vitamin B-12, omega-3, and iron just to name a few of its beneficial nutrients). And no — the dietary cholesterol in shrimp does not raise blood serum cholesterol according to this thorough study from Harvard University. Shrimp also contains a magic molecule, the anti-inflammatory nutrient called astaxanthin — important for immune function.

Organic frozen berries — such as raspberries, blueberries, frozen acai puree, dark cherries, and black berries — are stocked year-round in my fridge and are very handy whenever I crave a fast and healthy smoothie.

Good quality frozen whole wheat pizza dough can turn any night into a pizza party.

Fresh veggies are a must, but some frozen veggies are great add-ins for yummy stir-frys, soups, chili, and stews. Stock frozen edamame, lima beans, corn, peas to stir a cup into any of the dishes already mentioned during the last 5 minutes of cooking, so no need to defrost.

Practical Pantry

When stocking a healthy pantry, it’s best to be practical and choose only canned and jarred items that you really use. No use in dusting off that random can of lychees hiding in the back. Do a quick recipe round-up of your 10 favorite, most-used recipes and create a pantry list from there. Make a big shopping run just for pantry items (a great opportunity to do some couponing or hit the bulk food clubs). My healthy pantry items always include these items: canned low sodium beans and broth, canned diced tomatoes, tomato paste, canned chili chipotle en abobo, my favorite marinara sauce, soy sauce, local honey, short grain brown rice, quinoa, and nut butters.

The Perfect Plate

eggs-n-kale1-610x406The perfect plate also looks delicious, fills you up and contains plenty of superfoods — aim for at least 1 cup to start.

If you don’t have them already, purchase an inexpensive set of measuring cups. Then pick your favorite dish, like enchiladas and add a cup of spinach per person to the filing or serve one enchilada over a bed of cooked greens or romaine salad.

I make a simple kale salad (2 cups of super-charged nutrition) then top it with 1/2 cup of protein — for example with my favorite chili, chicken dish, or if I’m in a vegetarian mood I top it with nuts, dried fruits, and seeds or with a freshly cooked egg. If you’re a seafood fan, fish or shrimp will be your go-to protein. No matter which protein you like best, add plenty of fresh veggies to every meal from breakfast, lunch and dinner to feel full with less calories, have more energy, feed your brain, and boost your mood.

To balance out your plate, sprinkle on some whole grains: start with 1/2 cup cooked quinoa or your favorite canned beans (which are also high in fiber and contain a surprising amount of anti-oxidants to boot). Ready to take it a step further? Check out my post on cooking meals for one and my Skinny Chef Store for equipment suggestions.

Bare Bones Cooking Equipment

If you’re new to cooking, keep it simple! Here are the basics you need to make simple, delicious healthy meals that you can whip up in less then 30 minutes: Chef’s knife, pairing knife, plastic cutting board, medium skillet, spatula, tongs, and a mini blender are a great way to outfit your kitchen with everything you need to make health meals on the fly.

Workhorse Knives

Great, strong knives that I used in culinary school and during my time working in restaurants. They last forever and are definitely worth the extra investment. I suggest the 8-Inch Cook’s Knife, depending on the size of your hands, as well as the 10-Inch Bread Knife and the Paring Knife.

Several Plastic Cutting Board

Wooden cutting boards are great because wood has natural anti-bacterial, anti-fungal properties — but you can’t put them in a dishwasher, so plastic is best for faster clean-up.

I suggest buying several plastic boards so you don’t have to hand wash in between uses. Get an inexpensive set of three, that you can pop into the dishwasher after you make your tasty, fast meals.

Best Tongs

Having a few pairs of tongs on hand can be a life saver when you’re cooking a big meal or ready for summer time cook-outs. These stainless steel tongs are light, easy to handle, and so incredibly inexpensive. They’re also dishwasher-safe for easy clean-up.

Best Super Sharp Peeler

I’m coocoo over this Swissmar Peeler that never seems to wear out! If you’ve had a bad vegetable peeler, then you know the frustration and hard work it makes of taking the peel off a carrot or potato! This gem comes in different colors and is the perfect gift for anyone, from the occasional home cook to the seasoned chef. Buy at Amazon »

Best Pint-sized Blender

Want to make mess-free healthy smoothies (or chocolate avocado milkshake) to get into better shape? This is the best tool and it’s geared for one perfect portion since you make your blended drink or meal right in the cup.

Check out the Magic Bullet Blender! After you use it once, it will find a permanent home on your countertop, because it has powerful blades that can even chop ice. Place the cups and the blade into the dishwasher for easy cleanup, and it comes with a collection of cups so you can have several smoothies weekly without hand washing. Buy at Amazon »

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