Chef Carla Hall of ABC's The Chew shares her secrets for making healthy versions of homey classics that feed both body and soul.
Sure, images of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes or biscuits smothered in gravy set off our diet no-no warning bells. But according to co-host of ABC’s The Chew chef Carla Hall, in the context of a normal, balanced diet, there’s nothing wrong with occasionally indulging in your “naughty” childhood favorites—especially if you make them yourself with fresh, nutritious ingredients. Hall’s personal favorites reflect her Southern upbringing: baked macaroni smothered with cheese; slow-cooked beans simmered with fat and salt; pies with flaky, buttery crust. Her cravings usually hit after days or weeks of traveling for her job. And she doesn’t try to resist them. When she gets home, to help ground her and bring a sense of balance, Hall, a Bikram Yoga practitioner, takes to the kitchen with her husband, Matthew, to re-create some of their comfort-food favorites.
“What comfort food means to me is, ‘I’m home,’” explains Hall. “Comfort food is about emotions and the soul. When we eat goo ey, starchy, sugary dishes, we feel like we’re treating ourselves. The comfort goes to our taste buds, but the satisfaction goes to our soul.”
Hall is on to something, suggests a recent paper by Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, New York. In it, Wansink notes that what makes comfort foods so satisfying is not their rich ingredients but rather “the psychological comfort they provide.” In other words, it’s not the caloric and fat content of your mom’s chicken and dumplings soup that makes you crave it when you’re tired or sick; it’s that it reminds you of being cared for by your mother. And in fact, Wansink continues, 4o percent of classic comfort foods could be “classified as being relatively natural, homemade, or as even healthy.”
For those recipes that don’t qualify, a few smart tweaks to the ingredients list and prep methods can help keep the fat, salt, and refined carbs in check while still satisfying your hankerings. “It doesn’t have to be as rich as your childhood memories suggest,” says Hall. “I might make a version of a green-bean casserole with béchamel sauce, but I cook the beans lightly, so they’re still green and crunchy, and prepare them so they’re not swimming in buttery sauce.” Her sage advice: Don’t fall into a guilt cycle when you long for homey dishes; just make sure you indulge moderately and mindfully. “I try to remember to slow down and enjoy my food,” says Hall. “I put down my fork between bites, take a few breaths, and see if I still want to eat more.”
Comfort food the world over shares certain traits. Here, Hall shares her tips for re-creating the crave-worthy flavors and textures with a little less of the (dangerously) good stuff.
Rich and creamy
No matter the flavors, one universal food craving is for a rich and creamy mouthfeel, a term that refers to the texture and density of each bite as you’re chewing it. This smooth and soothing texture is usually the result of a binding fat. And in Hall’s beloved Southern dishes, the fat is almost always heavy cream. Rather than totally deny herself, Hall replaces some of the cream and butter with something a little lighter. “Cutting down the fat is different than cutting out the fat,” says Hall. “If you cut it out all together, it won’t be satisfying and you’ll end up eating twice as much.” She suggests replacing half of any called-for cream with pureed silken tofu in recipes like custard pies, vegetable mashes, and scalloped vegetables. For many desserts, swap in sweetly flavored light coconut milk for cream (see recipe, Banana Bread Pudding with Dark Chocolate Chips).
Purees of vegetables or cooked beans are another smart way to add that desired smooth, rich mouthfeel. For creamed spinach, puree half of the cooked leaves with a splash of cream, and add it back to the pan with the rest. In creamy vegetable soups, Hall suggests thickening them up with pureed cooked lentils and a little olive oil.
As for cheese, choose a flavorful hard cheese like Parmesan or feta, and you can cut back on quantity. For mac & cheese, one of Hall’s favorites, she uses Parmesan, browned onions, and mustard powder to build rich flavor. “I don’t rely on a lot of cheese to make it good,” she says.
Fried and crunchy
To get the flavor and charred texture of pan-fried food with less oil, Hall recommends using a non-stick enamel skillet, because the pan does a lot of the lubricating work oil normally provides. Instead of putting olive oil directly into the pan (a little splash can inadvertently become a big one), toss the oil with veggies first so they’re evenly coated; the excess will stay in the bowl.
Yearning for the satisfying crunch of deep-fried food? Hall recommends oven-frying. It’s good with organic chicken, fish, or thickly sliced vegetables like cauliflower or eggplant (see recipe, Baked Eggplant Rounds). Dip the foods you want to “fry” in egg and breadcrumbs, lightly dress with oil, and bake them on a cooling rack stacked on a baking sheet, on the rack closest to the heat source. Raising the food slightly off the baking surface allows more air to circulate around it, creating that desired crispy coating minus the excess oil.
Many traditional recipes rely on salt to bring the flavor, but Hall spares the shaker and uses cooking techniques to bring out the naturally wonderful flavors in her ingredients. For example, she squeezes extra water from washed vegetables to avoid diluting the dish, or oven-roasts them on high heat to carmelize them and bring out sweet and savory flavors and a hint of char.
Spices and herbs can also help reduce your use of salt: Mix up a few you like (try an Indian blend: turmeric, black pepper, ginger, and coriander), with just a pinch of salt. Sprinkle the mix liberally on starchy veggies or grain dishes. Or make a fragrant, fresh herb or citrus salt by rubbing 1 tsp minced fresh herbs or citrus zest with 1 tbsp salt; the flavor is so powerful, you can cut the amount of salt called for in a recipe while still delivering plenty of kick to meats or vegetables. Popcorn sprinkled with citrus salt has become Hall’s new go-to snack for kicking back and watching TV with her husband. “We probably have it five times a week,” she says. “It’s our new version of comfort food.”
Sweet and starchy
Nothing soothes quite like carbs, whether they come in the form of sugar or starch— or both. For starters, they’re delicious. Plus, researchers at MIT found that eating carbohydrates helps your brain regulate serotonin, a chemical that elevates mood. To get more nutrition bang for your bite, replace low-nutrient starches (white flour and rice) with whole grains like whole-wheat flour and quinoa. Mix up anything that calls for white potatoes with other roots like sweet potato, turnip, and rutabaga, which are still pleasantly starchy but offer betacarotenes and more minerals.
To replace some of the refined sugar in desserts, Hall uses pureed cooked fruits like apple. She also makes treats with naturally sweet veggies that call for less added sweetener, such as a sweet corn pudding. And for carrot cake, she’ll swap half the carrot with (sweeter) grated sweet potato. Finally, to fend off the urge to go back for seconds, Hall focuses on savoring the sweetness of each bite. “Half- way through a good dessert,” says Hall, “and I’m done. I don’t really need any more ... ish.”