Braised and Stir-Fried dishes
In many cases it's not just what you eat, but how you prepare it. Building a balanced diet around plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains is an excellent start, but to continue on the road to healthy eating and living proper cooking techniques need to be applied as well, green beans and spinach are obviously healthier than a candy bar, but if you deep-fry them, they'll provide an equal amount of saturated fat and lose a good deal of their healthful vitamins. Luckily, there are plenty of healthy cooking techniques that are easily utilized, and can lend plenty of flavor and tenderness to healthy ingredients.
Braising is the practice of cooking an item in liquid in a closed vessel, such as a pot or Dutch oven. The technique is most often used in preparing meats and fish, but can also be applied to vegetables. The most well-known examples of braised dishes would be pot-roast, stew, or the famed French dish Coq a Vin (chicken cooked in wine). The term probably originated in the late 1800's, but the practice has been used for centuries; it was a central technique in the colonial era cooking of Europe and America, when many homes had a single fire, rather than a range of burners like in modern kitchens, to cook on.
As food scientist Harold McGee explains, braising is effective largely because water is such an excellent distributor of heat: it transmits heat quickly and evenly, and its own temperature can be adjusted easily. Additionally, it carries flavors well and allows them to be absorbed into the items being braised, which is good, since braised dishes pack a one-two punch of flavor - the meat is cooked in a broth of added aromatics and essences as well as its own natural juice. The slow, moist process also transforms tough, stubborn cuts into mouthwateringly tender and palatable meal items. The method can be used on both small and large cuts of meat.
Braising begins, generally, by browning items like chicken, pork, beef, or fish in fat (butter or oil), then finishing the cooking process in a closed pot with a water based liquid that is brought to a boil, usually on the stovetop or in an oven. Health-minded chefs can skip the first step, or use healthier fats like olive oil for browning.
Wine, meat stock, vegetable stock, beer, and pureed vegetables are excellent liquids for braising, as they add plenty of flavors with negligible fat and calories. Smaller, tender cuts of meat, like chicken breasts and fish, will typically cook quickly; larger cuts, like whole chickens, beef, or pork, will take more time, but will be exceptionally tender and moist. Look for recipes that utilize veggies and herbs for extra flavor, and that omit the addition of butter or milk to the braising liquid. Serve with brown rice, whole grain bread, or salad.
Despite the word "frying" in its title, stir-frying is actually a healthful alternative to its original namesake. Frying, aka sauteing, is an effective cooking method because oils (or fats) heat relatively quickly, conduct heat well, and coat food items so they do not stick and become burned. Frying also quickly browns the outside of meats, giving them plenty of flavor and visual appeal.
Stir-frying, a staple of Asian cuisine, involves a wok (a round bottomed pan with high, sloped sides), oil, and very high heat. The wok is generally first heated over a high flame. A small amount of oil is then added to the pan by being poured down the side, and is followed by seasonings like garlic, ginger, or onion. Once the seasonings have grown aromatic, meat is added and stirred rapidly, followed by vegetables, and then cooked rice. Additional flavor enhancers, like soy sauce or wine, are finally added and stirred with the ingredients before transferring the dish from the wok to your plate. Despite the presence of oil, stir-frying is still a healthy means of preparation as it utilizes less oil than traditional frying and deep-frying, and because food items are cooked in combination very quickly (sometimes no more than a minute or two) and do not absorb as much of the oil. Stir-frying also uses healthier fats, like sunflower or nut oils, rather than butter, margarine, or lard. The technique can also be used to quickly sear meats, vegetables, and seasonings for flavor before adding a quantity of liquid, like wine or water, to the wok; the wok can then be covered, which steams the items until they are done.
Stir-frying is a quick and surprisingly easy way to produce a complete and balanced meal in just minutes. Try heating 2 tablespoons of sunflower oil; add ginger and/or garlic, stir, then toss in cut chicken or salmon. Stir until slightly browned, then add veggies like broccoli, carrot, mushroom, peppers, and baby bok choy. Agitate until veggies begin softening. Throw in a cup of pre-cooked brown rice, followed by a splash of rice vinegar or soy sauce. Stir rapidly until items are cooked through, and serve immediately. You'll have a healthy, flavorful meal with plenty of lean protein, nutrient-dense vegetables, and hearty whole grains.