Comfort Foods

Make healthier choices when you just want to hunker-down.
By Ellen Swandiak

Michael Smolensky, Ph.D., is acknowledged as one of the leading authorities in chronobiology, the science of how the body’s rhythms change throughout the course of the day, month, year, and lifetime. In his book The Body Clock Guide To Better Health, with co-writer Lynne Lamberg, he tracks the body’s rhythms, recommending the best times to eat, work out, take medicine, and even the best time to conceive a child.
 
“There are basically four factors that affect our eating habits in the colder months,” Smolensky explains. First, as humans migrated north from the equator to more seasonal climates, their biology responded to the progressively shorter daylight of autumn, signaling subsequent food scarcities. Then there’s the effect of SAD (seasonal affective disorder). “Each person differs in his/her sensitivity to the waning hours of light during the fall and winter,” says Smolensky, “which can range from mild melancholy to fullblown depression.” As opposed to normal depression, SAD has an opposite effect on appetite. “Those affected by SAD tend to crave certain types of foods, being especially attracted to carbohydrate and fat-rich foods, often causing or contributing to weight gain during the winter,” he says.
 
Combine these two factors with a natural tendency to socialize and share delightful sweets and fatty foods during the holidays, or the loneliness of some who are not socializing and need to literally “fill” their life with food. Smolensky recommends eating in moderation and balancing the greater intake of calories with greater levels of exercise. If your drive for carbohydrates is associated with melancholy, speak to your doctor about light therapy, and if you find yourself eating to fill a feeling of emptiness seek opportunities to spend time with friends and volunteer work.
 
Registered dietitian Jackie Mills, who develops healthy and low-cal recipes for books, magazines, and heath organizations says, “Dishes that are fried to a perfect crunch, swimming in cream sauce, or covered in a blanket of cheese are tops on everyone’s list of comfort foods. Focus on making your favorites better for you, rather than denying yourself. Reducing fat means reducing calories. Use low-fat milk for sauces, low-fat cheese when you indulge in macaroni and cheese, cook with lean meats, and skim the fat off the drippings before making gravy.”
 
Boost the nutrition of your favorite comfort dishes by adding lots of vegetables. Jackie suggests, “Toss extra green beans, turnips, and onions into gravy-rich stews; add chopped bits of broccoli, bell peppers, or zucchini to macaroni and cheese. Make “fried” chicken in the oven, and bake some sweet potatoes or baby carrots at the same time.”
 
Here are some suggestions to manage your appetite with healthier comfort foods, that will satisfy both your daily vitamin quota and those primeval yearnings.
 
Home Sweet Smelling Home
One of the best accessories you can adorn your home with this winter is the smell of fresh bread. Whether it’s by the loaf or by the homemade pizza. Instead of reaching in the cabinet for the bleached, white flour, open the fridge and grab the zucchini. Zucchini bread makes for a wonderful breakfast treat, midday snack, or light dessert; and goes great on top of pizza, too. Save calories by substituting Xagave (a natural sweetener from the agave plant) instead of sugar. With a texture similar to maple syrup, this blend also  includes a water-soluble fiber called inulin, a natural  part of the plant. Unlike some low calorie sugars, Xagave doesn’t have an artificial aftertaste, but tastes more like a combination of maple syrup and honey. Check out the recipe for Zucchini Bread on page 25. And if you don’t have the time to make a pizza from scratch, try Kashi Caribbean Carniva l Frozen Pizza (12.7 oz., $6, kashi.com) at about 120 calories per slice.
 
Those who’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease and miss eating all their favorite cookies, breads, and cakes, shall jump for joy at Elizabeth Barbone’s Easy Gluten- Free Baking. The author, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, does eat wheat, so was able to test, re-test, and taste her recipes until they closely matched the originals. Her use of rice, sourghum flours, and xanthan gum turned out to be a winning combination in matching the texture and moistness of baked goods with gluten. The muffin recipe on page 24 has a graham cracker taste, and freezes well.
 
Oodles of Noodles
Just the thought of a bowl of pasta is enough to make you feel warm and cozy. Make a better choice in pasta by skipping the white-flour varieties, and choose ones made from quinoa, whole wheat, or rice. For the pasta topping, I managed to snag a unique and hearty recipe from one of my favorite chefs, Patti Jackson. Whenever I have a chance, I like to treat myself to one of her pasta specialties at iTrulli, a cozy escape from the New York City urban scene, which happens to have one of the prettiest rooms with a fireplace in the city.
 
When I mentioned comfort food to Patti, she immediately thought—mushrooms— as the perfect nutrient-packed  low calorie ingredient. She recommends using locally foraged specimens as a first choice. Her sauce on page 24 uses a combination of fresh and dried varieties, whose flavors combine to create the ultimate mushroom taste-sensation. Pick s: Jov ial Food s Penne Rigat e, 12 com; Eden Foods Kamut & Quinoa Twisted Pa ir, 12 oz., $4, edenfoods.com.
 
For pasta that’s not a pasta, grab a bag of NoOodle (noOodle.com). They’re comprised of only high-fiber yam flour and water, creating a transparent noodle, similar to Asian rice noodles. These noodles come pre-cooked, so you need only rinse and heat in a pan to remove traces of the water before adding a sauce. Since this food contains no calories, you can go all-out on the sauces and still remain guilt-free. I love any pasta with garlic and oil, and this one was no exception. While testing, I heated the noodles to remove excess moisture, then cut the noodles before putting them in the pan—they are difficult to cut after cooking. I then added chopped garlic, red pepper flakes, and olive oil to the side of the pan. While this was heating up, I chopped up a handful of fresh herbs from my windowsill: parsley, oregano, and basil. For a little extra nutrition, I threw in some chopped frozen spinach, mixed it all together, and had a delicious, satisfying meal in only minutes. Since yam flour has mostly been used as a thickener in baking, eating this pasta will make you full in seconds and fulfill your comfort food craving.
 
Mary had a little Meatball
Meatballs can be a luscious treat—with all the spices and other goodies mixed in—but if you want to cut down on fat and calories, consider substituting lamb for beef. Lamb is naturally high in zinc, known to boost immune systems. Good to know when everyone around you is sneezing. It also contains tryptophan, which will have you feeling relaxed and sleepy in no time. American lamb is known for its milder, less gamey taste, and travels a lot fewer miles to the supermarket. We can thank the sheep that are properly grazed to control invasive plants and weeds—thus eliminating the need for pesticides.
 
Who better to turn to for an unusually tasty lamb meatball recipe than Chef Daniel Holzman of The Meatball Shop in New York City, which opened this year to rave reviews. Whether served swathed in a classic tomato sauce, or served as a slider, the recipe on page 25 will really hit the spot, even if you’re not a fan of lamb. To me, the extra ingredients downplay the smell of the meat that can sometimes make people shy away. The addition of raisins provides a perfect, sweet accompaniment to the lamb, while the mint nods to the classic flavor coupling.
 
Awww, Nuts
To add a bit of ancient seasoning to a savory snack, reach for Ohsawa Gluten- Free Tamari—the only raw, organic, unpasturized soy sauce made from Japanese mountain spring water. The live probiotics produced as a result of this aging help to aid in digestion, and the enzymes are believed to help promote oral, urinary and gastrointestinal health. The recipe pairs tamari with your favorite nut, heated to maximize the flavors. Available at Whole Foods and select natural food stores across the country. Try the recipe on page 24 for Tamari Roasted Pumpkin Seeds for a quick snack.
 
Warm Swedish Comfort
Sometimes the day just calls for a cocktail to help unwind. When this happens, be ready with a healthier solution. Purity Vodka’s recipe has been in the making for ten years by master blender Thomas Kuuttanen, using a secret family recipe and the special ingredients from the lands of his family’s castle in Southern Sweden. Small batches are distilled with estate-grown malted wheat and barley, and iron- and mineral-rich spring water. The cocktail recipe comes from mixologist John Pomeroy who has a passion for experimentation, and is a true believer in organic ingredients. He developed the Purity Holiday H20 with the season’s flavors in mind: cranberries, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and all-spice. Serve this hot drink for a merry way to end the day.
 
Picks: Purity Vodka, 750ml, $40, purityvodka.com.
 
Ellen Swandiak, a.k.a. Hip Hostess NYC loves throwing parties and writes about healthy entertaining. See hiphostessnyc.blogspot.com for more recipes, ingredients, and green accessories