Photo Courtesy of Nigel Barker

We always enjoy Q&As for the opportunity to interview people we truly admire – people who are doing great things with food, for the community, and for health – and learn how their work intertwines with ours. Recently we spoke with Ellie Krieger, and it was such a pleasure.  Ellie is not only a registered dietitian, she is a Food Network chef, author of the new book, Comfort Food Fix, AND she is also a Culinary Advisor to the Whole Grains Council. As an R.D., Ellie has such a unique culinary perspective. Her nutrition background, mixed with her kitchen wisdom, produces recipes that pair amazing flavors with healthy ingredients to inspire anyone to get cooking!  With the launch of her new book, we thought it would be the perfect time for a Q&A to share with everyone her food philosophy and, of course, one of her recipes.

OLDWAYS:  Can you share with our readers a bit about yourself and the idea behind your book, “Comfort Food Fix”? ELLIE:  I was born with a passion for food and once I became a nutritionist my mother said, “This is like a pyromaniac becoming a firefighter!”  I know that food is supposed to be comforting and I refuse to give up that satisfying part of life.  Often we have this internal struggle because many of the foods we identify as being comfort foods tend to be unhealthy.  So the idea behind Comfort Food Fix is the opportunity to put on both my chef and nutritionist hats and create the foods we love but in healthier forms.

OLDWAYS:  We love your “Usually-Sometimes-Rarely” food philosophy.  Can you talk with us about how you came up with this philosophy and how it pertains to comfort food — and to our overall, everyday diet?
ELLIE:  “Usually-Sometimes-Rarely” has been the cornerstone of all my work and how I live my life. This philosophy is not just about comfort food but also translates to the way you look at the food in your shopping cart, in the cupboard and on your table.  For me, there is no such thing as “never” foods—this type of thinking can set you up for failure—it’s like the forbidden fruit. There is a place for everything; you just need to realize when and where it belongs. If you love something that isn’t healthy it goes in the rarely category.  When you eat it, on that special occasion, savor every last bite and enjoy.  These choices are decisions to live by and part of a lifestyle and not a diet.

OLDWAYS:  In the book you talk about the 15 Fix Factors, which offer a terrific overall guide to lightening up traditional comfort foods!  What would you say are the three tips that readers should keep at the top of their “fix list?”
ELLIE:  For me it always comes back to foods that satisfy. My “Fix Factors” are techniques and swap-outs that still give you the delicious fix but without all the downsides.  A big mistake that people make when cooking is thinking they have to go all or nothing. They end up with dishes that are less than satisfying and they give up.  That’s why I love to help, and that’s what this book is about: teaching that you can still have it all — the taste, the health, and the satisfaction.  It is not easy to narrow down my list but if I must I would go with boost veggies and beans; add whole grains; keep it real; and go halfsies.

Boost Veggies and Beans:  Adding extra beans and veggies to dishes helps cut back on higher-cal starches and meat without skimping on portions.  It also provides volumes of important nutrients, color, taste, and texture.  That’s why I stir ribbons of zucchini into my fettuccine Alfredo, and add mushrooms to my meatloaf and beans to my beef tacos.

Add Whole Grains:  Simply using whole-grain pasta, brown rice, or whole-grain bread instead of their refined white counterparts dramatically boosts the fiber, antioxidants, and minerals in a dish. Plus, since they are digested more slowly, whole grains make you feel fuller longer. For baking I use whole-wheat pastry flour, which is extra-soft and tender so it provides whole-grain goodness but keeps things light and mild tasting.

Keep it Real: Sometimes a little of the real thing goes a long way.  That’s why I would rather use two slices of real bacon in my BLT than four slices of turkey or tofu “bacon.” And I believe there is no acceptable substitute for real dairy, full-fat whipped cram. I use these and other “Rarely” ingredients in minimum amounts for maximum impact.

Go Halfsies:  Substituting all egg whites in an egg dish robs it of its sunny yellow richness, and using only whole-wheat flour in brownies and cookies can sometimes make them too heavy and “healthy” tasting.  Same goes for other substitutions.  That’s why I split the difference for most of my fixes. By using half whole eggs and half egg whites, or half whole-grain and half all-purpose flour, and so on, you get the taste and texture you yearn for while still improving the nutrition profile.

OLDWAYS:  You’re a Culinary Advisor to Oldways’ Whole Grains Council — thank you so much! What are a few of your favorite whole grains that you think most people would really love once they taste them?
ELLIE:  I do love my whole grains! One grain close to my heart is buckwheat; it has such a wonderful nutty aroma, is protein rich and it reminds me of my great grandmother who was known to make a dish called Kasha Varnishkas or Buckwheat and Bow Ties.  I actually have my “fixed” version of this recipe in my book; I switch out the traditional chicken fat for olive oil and use whole wheat bowties instead of my grandmother’s regular noodles. Another grain that may not be so novel but should be given great merits for its versatility would be the oat.  It is a grain that is approachable and familiar but has so much more to offer. I encourage people to think of the oat beyond breakfast.  Oats are a great source of soluble fiber; add them to meatloaf in place of breadcrumbs for a moist, nutrient-rich and delicious dinner, and include them in your crumb topping mixture for a mean apple crisp.

OLDWAYS:  There are more than 150 recipes in your book so this might be a tough question — but we could not walk away from this conversation without asking:  Is there a favorite recipe from the book you could share with our readers?
ELLIE:  Since it is the holiday season and we were just talking about it, I think my recipe for apple crisp is perfect.  I think that the aroma of apples and cinnamon baking in the oven is pure bliss. And, by switching out a few ingredients, you still have all those wonderful flavors, you’re increasing the nutrition profile and you’re cutting the calories almost in half!

Apple Crisp
(Recipe & photo courtesy of Comfort Food Fix: Feel Good Favorites Made Healthy (Wiley Hardcover; October 17, 2011; $29.99)

Topping: ⅓ cup old-fashioned rolled oats
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup whole wheat pastry flour or whole wheat flour
¼ cup sliced almonds
2 tablespoons toasted wheat germ
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon canola oil
1-2 tablespoons cold water

Filling: 3 large Rome or Empire apples (about 1 ½ pounds)
3 medium Golden Delicious apples (about 1 pound)
3 medium Granny Smith apples (about 1 pound)
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

To make the topping, place the oats, flours, almonds, wheat germ, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a food processor and process until well combined.  Add the butter and oil and pulse until lumps form.  Add the water 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough just holds together when you press it between your fingers.

Transfer to a bowl and using your fingers press the dough to create several pea-size lumps for texture.  Chill until ready to use.

To make the filling, leaving the peels on, core and cut the apples into ¼ inch-thick wedges.  Toss the wedges with lemon juice and maple syrup until well coated.  Sprinkle with the flour and toss until well combined. 

Spoon the apple mixture into a 3- to 3 ½-quart shallow baking dish and sprinkle the dough evenly over the top. Bake in the middle of the oven until it bubbles, the apples are tender and the topping is golden brown, 45-50 minutes. 

Serve with Vanilla Cream Topping, if desired. Makes 8 servings.

Vanilla Cream Topping

¼ cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
¼ cup plain Greek-style yogurt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Using an electric mixer, whip the cream until it is thickened.  Add the sugar and continue to whip until it forms soft peaks.  Gently fold in the yogurt and vanilla. 

The cream will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for 2 days.

You can learn more about Ellie by visiting her website or following her on Facebook and Twitter. —Rachel

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