With consumers craving pandemic comfort foods, offer them some healthier options during the colder months.
As the temperatures drop, tastes shift to richer and homier comfort foods. The problem is after months of quarantine I’ve already put on 15 of my COVID-19 and, like so many others, have little desire to put on those final four pounds. The good news is there are lots of exciting ways to reduce the fat and calories in traditional comfort food dishes that people are already familiar with which helps to avoid skepticism.
Butternut SquashBéchamel, one of the more versatile of the mother sauces, is the base for many popular comfort food dishes found in cuisines from around the world, from lasagna to chicken pot pie. It’s also the source of a lot of the calories and fat in those dishes.
Making a béchamel with puréed butternut, or most any fall/winter squash, can bring the thick richness and mouthfeel desired for those dishes with less bad stuff included. For a purely vegan sauce, use vegan butter or olive oil to make your roux. The flavor and look of the sauce can also be customized for the dish with a little soy milk.
The purée can also be used to reduce calories in rich, winter chowders and soups or even to add creaminess to a mac ‘n’ cheese. Meanwhile, for brunch, you can use the purée for a hearty biscuits and gravy — keeping it healthy by subbing out the sausage for wild mushrooms.
CauliflowerUsing cauliflower as a pizza crust is a well-entrenched way to lower carbs and calories. Cauliflower mash makes a great substitute for mashed potatoes and can even be used as a healthy topper for that savory shepherd’s pie. Crispy pieces of flattened cauliflower can also be the base for the ultimate comfort food — the grilled cheese sandwich.
Like butternut squash, puréed cauliflower can also be the replacement for heavy cream or milk in what would normally be a cream-based soup. Or just go full on decadent, but healthy, by using the purée to make an amazing spaghetti alla carbonara that won’t leave you feeling sluggish afterward.
Meat SubstitutesFrom beyond meat to a plethora of seitans and tempeh, removing meat from dishes has never been easier. Beyond meat can make a great meatloaf or Salisbury steak — just use vegetable stock and olive oil for the roux to avoid adding all the fat and calories back in. Tempeh perfectly replaces chicken for that pot pie while seitan will simmer beautifully in a spicy chili.
Even old standbys like tofu are more likely to be ordered than they used to with the added benefit of deeply absorbing whatever flavors you’re brining to the dish.
Butter ReplacementsMost vegan, lower fat butters break out into two varieties — oil-based or nut-based. Each one acts a little differently when used in recipes. The oil-based are great for making a thickening roux as mentioned but not always a good choice for grilled sandwiches ̶̶— leaving them more like a fried bread crouton. Nut-based are great for grilled sandwiches but can bring allergy concerns. Make sure you choose the right one for the dish and update allergy information accordingly.
Air FryingIt’s a hot new household gadget but there are also commercial air fryers that range from small and affordable to huge industrial machines for high-volume restaurants. It only takes a fraction of the oil to make crispy fries or juicy fried chicken and it is perfect to make those zucchini fries into an actual healthy item instead of pretending they aren’t still fat laden. Using an air fryer would give you the tool you need to create a healthier fried food menu to perfectly sate the national obsession for crispy goodness.
Cold weather and comfort food go together — well, like peas and carrots — but the lingering effects of those rich and savory foods often bring regret when spring weather starts to approach. You can appeal to the increasing number of health-conscious diners with just a few simple adjustments to familiar favorites and maybe pick up a few new vegan and vegetarian diners in the process.