So, here it is March and a good time to ask, have you stuck to those resolutions? It is hoped that we’re still determinedly working toward those lofty 2010 goals we set for ourselves:

Not only has daily exercise become part of our routine, but we love it. We’re being kinder to our co-workers. We never yell at children, especially our own. The garden will be mulched seasonally and weeded weekly. Of course, we’ll eat better.

I won’t try to guide your gardening, parenting, work or exercise routine, but I can certainly help with that eat-better goal by sharing my favorite tips for cooking lighter. These evolved over time; I never set out to make my family’s food more healthful. Like all permanent changes, it was a slow process. Now, I can’t think of cooking any other way.

My five simple, inexpensive additions to your dishes will help cut down on unnecessary fatty and salty flavor boosters, and they should make your food taste better than ever.

• Add citrus, and lots of it. Lemons, oranges and limes bring so much flavor and balance to dishes of all kinds, and not just with their juice. The real punch is in the zest. Use a mixture of juice and zest in marinades for chicken and shellfish and for salad dressings that go easy on the oil.

The zest, mixed with a little olive oil and a pinch of salt, also dresses green vegetables nicely. Try orange zest with steamed broccoli and julienned Brussels sprouts, lemon and/or lime zest with green beans or grilled asparagus. Lemon or orange zest mixed with ricotta and some brown sugar and then topped with sliced strawberries makes a quick breakfast or dessert.

• Use herbs of all kinds, alone or in combinations. Use the dried variety in dishes that cook for a long time, such as spaghetti sauce and stews; then when the dish is done, add fresh herbs for color and to brighten the flavors.

Add fresh herbs to quick-cooking dishes. Chopped herbs can go into dressings, and whole leaves into the salad itself. Pasta dishes come alive with the last-minute addition of basil or fresh oregano. Simple bean salads take on a new dimension when you toss in dill, parsley, chives and/or cilantro. Salsas change their character depending on the herbs you choose. And simple sauces can be made pesto-style, taking the herb of your choosing and blending with olive oil and seasonings.

• Go global with spices that inject flavor fast. I add cumin to marinades, chili powder to burgers, cinnamon and cloves to meat dishes. I make rubs that use combinations of spices for pork tenderloins and roast chicken. I love curry powder mixed with chickpeas, garam masala on oven-braised chicken. Keep the spices handy, and buy in small amounts so you know they’re fresh. If you heat with some oil, the dried spices will more fully release their flavors.

• Toss together fruit salsas. They add flavor, moisture and texture to grilled, broiled or roasted meats and fish. I wasn’t a huge fan until I started making my own, but now I love these various combinations of diced fruits, herbs, a flavorful liquid and perhaps some vegetables.

I make them out of diced avocado, tropical fruits, citrus (see ingredient No. 1 above) and, of course, the most popular salsa fruit of all, tomatoes. Flavor with lots of citrus and/or vinegar and just enough oil to marry the ingredients, and use spices or herbs that match the seasoning of the protein. Citrus-marinated chicken, then, gets a citrus-based salsa.

• Stir in a pinch of sugar, my secret ingredient of choice. When a dressing or a cooking liquid tastes flat but I’ve already added salt, I bypass the salt shaker and use a pinch of sugar instead. Sugar mellows the tartness of lemon juice or vinegar, rounds out the flavor of a cooking broth and gives some depth to tomato sauces.

Go easy: You don’t want to taste sweetness, nor do you want to add much to the calorie count, although at 16 calories a teaspoonful, you have a little wiggle room here. White sugar is good for dressings, brown sugar’s great in stews, and molasses or honey can be just the ticket for a barbecue sauce.

These ingredients let me ease up on the butter, oil and salt, but note that I don’t eliminate them completely. Butter can be the finishing touch in a sauce that draws most of its flavor from fruit or spices. Oil can balance a dressing already well flavored with herbs and citrus. Salt can be an essential ingredient — but not the defining one.

Consider it a delicious shift in priorities.


6 to 8 servings

To me, “primavera style” means lots of vegetables and herbs. In this salad, two kinds of beans are combined with a barely cooked mixture of carrots, onions, bell pepper, zucchini and peas, then tossed with a light dressing of sherry vinegar and olive oil. Every bite has a delicious combination of herbs, beans and vegetables.

Mix and match your own favorite vegetables. You can use any combination of herbs, but don’t leave them out. They add bright flavor that completes the dish.

MAKE AHEAD: The salad can be made up to three days in advance (and, ideally, brought to room temperature before serving) and goes with grilled or broiled meats, seafood and poultry. To make it work as an entree for lunch or a light supper, add bite-size pieces of cooked chicken, shrimp or pork.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small (2 ounces) onion, finely chopped (1/2 cup)

1/2 large red, yellow or orange bell pepper, cut into small dice (1/2 cup)

1 medium (about 2 ounces) carrot, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces

1 medium zucchini or yellow squash, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup frozen petite or small peas, defrosted

1 1/2 cups cooked, no-salt-added black beans

1 1/2 cups cooked, no-salt-added small white beans or navy beans

1/4 cup finely chopped combination of fresh herbs, such as parsley, dill and chives

3 tablespoons sherry vinegar or mild red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and bell pepper; reduce the heat to medium and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring so the vegetables start to soften but do not brown.

Add the carrot and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the zucchini or yellow squash and 1/8 teaspoon of the salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until the zucchini or yellow squash and carrot lose their raw look and are just tender.

Then add the peas and cook for 2 minutes, stirring to incorporate and heat through. Transfer to a large bowl.

While the vegetable mixture is still warm, add the cooked beans and the herbs; mix well.

Whisk together the vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, pepper to taste, sugar and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon of salt. Add the dressing to the salad and stir to combine. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Nutrition per serving: 165 calories, 7 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 94 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar


4 servings

When grilling’s not an option, try these marinated chicken breasts done under the broiler. They are dressed up with a fresh fruit salsa and made easy thanks to time-saving freshly squeezed orange juice and thinly sliced chicken cutlets, both available at most groceries.

MAKE AHEAD: The chicken needs to marinate for at least 20 minutes at room temperature or up to 2 hours in the refrigerator. The salsa should be assembled shortly before serving.


3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (see note)

Finely grated zest of 1 orange (1 to 11/2 tablespoons)

Finely grated zest and juice of 2 limes (about 2 teaspoons zest and 2 or 3 tablespoons juice)

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon (about 1 tablespoon zest and 3 to 4 tablespoons juice)

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, trimmed of excess fat, then cut in half horizontally to create a total of 8 thin cutlets (may substitute 1 1/2 pounds thin chicken cutlets)


3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (see note)

Freshly squeezed juice from 1 or 2 limes (2 tablespoons)

Finely grated zest and segments from 1 orange (see note), segments cut into 1/4-1/2-inch dice

Flesh of 1 ripe avocado, cut into 1/4-1/2-inch dice

4 scallions, white and light-green parts, cut crosswise into thin slices (1/3 cup)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

FOR THE CHICKEN: Whisk together the orange juice, orange zest, the zest and juice from the limes and the lemon, cumin, salt, pepper and oil in a shallow dish.

Add the chicken cutlets one at a time, making sure to coat each one thoroughly in the marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes, or refrigerate for up to 2 hours.

FOR THE SALSA: Combine the orange juice, lime juice, orange zest, diced orange, avocado, scallions, salt, sugar, pepper to taste and oil in a mixing bowl, tossing gently to combine. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Position the top oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler; preheat the broiler. Have a broiler pan ready, or line a rimmed baking sheet with heavy-duty aluminum foil.

Discard the marinade. Arrange the drained chicken cutlets on the pan or lined baking sheet in a single layer. Broil for about 5 minutes, until the tops are lightly browned, then use tongs to turn over the cutlets and broil for 4 to 5 minutes or until cooked through. Transfer to the stove top (off the heat); let rest for 5 minutes.

Place 2 chicken cutlets on each plate. Top with equal amounts of the avocado-orange salsa. Serve immediately.

NOTE: To section citrus fruit, use a large chef’s knife to slice off both ends of the fruit. Stand the fruit on 1 end and slice downward along the curve of the fruit, cutting away both the peel and pith but leaving as much of the flesh as possible. Using a paring knife, cut between the sections to detach each section of fruit from its surrounding membrane.

Nutrition per serving (with salsa): 349 calories, 41 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 99 mg cholesterol, 263 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar


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