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AppetizersIf you only have one chance to make a good first impression, then a meal only has one chance to start off right. Appetizers, the broad name used to refer to the first course of a meal, are a dinner's equivalent of the first handshake. Like tapas in Spain, antipasti in Italy, and mezze in the Mediterranean, appetizers whet the appetite for the main event and are excellent when paired with a good drink and a few friends. Unfortunately for the health-conscious eater, adding a first course before the entrees means adding calories to a dinner's overall tally. And in the case of many American mainstream restaurants, particularly franchises, appetizers are loaded with fat, trans fat, calories and cholesterol - a typical order of mozzarella sticks packs 700 calories and almost 50 grams of fat! Luckily, there are techniques to avoiding the pitfalls of appetizer dining, and many ways for the home cook to serve healthy, delicious, and artful first courses that impress before the entrees arrive.

The FIRST First Course

The practice of serving smaller items before a meal to stimulate appetite and conversation has been part of dining for centuries. Historically speaking, the ancient Greeks are given credit for first implementing appetizers as part of their large banquets. Their food was designed around aperitifs, alcohols (vermouth, wine, champagne, amaretto, and Campari are some modern examples) served before the meal to assist in digestion and prepare guests for dining (and socializing). The Greeks favored a communal bowl for aperitifs, which was passed around the table from guest to guest; the logic was that sharing stirred up feelings of unity and friendship amongst those in attendance. The accompanying food items varied depending on region and host, but often included olives, vegetables, oysters, marinated seafood, garlic, and egg based dishes. Many of these items are still considered "starters" on the bill of fare around the world today, oysters on the half shell are one of the few appetizer items mentioned in early American cookbooks and menus, olives and vegetables appear as staples on antipasti listings, and egg-based dishes, like deviled eggs or quiche, are still widespread BBQ and banquet favorites.

Modern Appetizers and Healthy Choices

If the typical first course still was centered around olives, vegetables, and marinated seafood, there would be little to worry about. The issue is that many mainstream offerings have evolved from popular pub and bar menu items, i.e. greasy foods that go well with alcohol: spring rolls, dumplings, potato skins, Buffalo wings, mozzarella sticks. We also have a love of cheese-based dips, popular at informal home gatherings as well as restaurants, and given enticing names like "queso fundido". These items are fun to eat and share, but can wreak havoc on your waistline, sometimes containing an entire day's allotment of fat and/or calories in a single serving.

Of course these are generalizations, based on the menu offerings of some of the country's most trafficked restaurant chains. Many dining establishments do list an array of healthful, artistic, and satisfying appetizer items, and these are the items you should seek out to start your meal, whether out on the town or entertaining at home:

Soups. Most cultures encourage soup as a prelude to a meal, and so should you. Studies have shown that diners given a small serving of hot, clear broth soup before a meal consume fewer overall calories in a sitting than those who go right to the entree. Be sure to avoid cream-based varieties like bisque that can be loaded with fat; stick with clear broths, and look for varieties that contain nutrient and fiber rich vegetables that help to satiate your appetite. Also beware of the restaurant staples like French onion or broccoli and cheese, the damage the cheese does far outweighs the benefits of the veggies. Try consomme, won ton, hot and sour, gazpacho, chicken vegetable, or bouillabaisse instead.

Baked or poached items. Frying and deep frying add tons of fat to what would otherwise be healthy choices. Fried calamari, dumplings, cheese, potatoes, and even veggies are a definite no. Stick with appetizers that are baked, poached, grilled, steamed or lightly sauteed instead, like baked asparagus, sauteed squid, shish kebabs, or grilled chicken satays.

Crudites. Plates of fresh vegetables are always a colorful way to start a meal, but fatty spreads like Ranch dressing or cheese fondue can gum things up.  Try salsa, bean spread, garlic spreads, or hummus as healthy and flavorful alternatives.

Go Mediterranean. The Greeks, Italians, and Turks have healthy starters right. Olives, marinated seafood, grilled or marinated vegetables, roasted red peppers, small portions (1 oz. or under) of cheese, and spreads like hummus or tatziki with whole-grain pita/chips are tasty treats.

Good fats. Fats like lard, mayonnaise, and butter are main ingredients in appetizers. Use very sparingly in home recipes, and look for healthy options like olive or walnut oils.

Good sweets. Sauces like sweet and sour sauce can be loaded with corn syrup. Marinate in fruit juices or puree fruits and nuts for a better sweet.

And never underestimate the power of presentation : part of what makes appetizers so, well, appetizing is how they look on the plate. Serve fresh fruit and salads in halved, hollowed out melons or coconuts, and utilize garnishes like edible flowers, chopped nuts, or fresh herbs.
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