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Is healthy comfort food an oxymoron?

Ellie Krieger is the samurai of healthy cooking that tastes good.

Ellie Krieger is the samurai of healthy cooking that tastes good. Why? She won’t sacrifice flavor for anything. Low-fat cheeses, be damned. She won’t go there. And in her latest book “Comfort Food Fix: Feel-Good Favorites Made Healthy,” Krieger conquers what most chefs would deem impossible. We spoke to the Food Network star about her making of miracles.

What are the hallmarks of comfort food?

It’s all so cheesy or fried. Research shows that the No. 1 comfort food is chips. I think that’s because people associate chips with parties and relaxing. One of the things I say in the forward is that comfort food is different things for different people, and so it depends on your memories and personal experiences.

How can you make comfort food healthy?

There’s this whole section on noshes and nibbles. It’s sort of like bar food. A lot of those foods are fried chips, fried wings, nachos, cheesy fried stuff. What I did there was really use my oven — making all kinds of chips in the oven, getting that crisp and flavorful punch — not relying on salt only, but using other kinds of spices and then with things like the wings, finding ways to keep the essence of it but lose the fat. That’s why I render the fat off the chicken wings by boiling them first. That eliminates most of the fat from the skin.

One common ingredient in comfort food is a cheesy sauce. How do you make that healthy?

You thicken a low fat milk with flour and then you add the cheese. I’m still using the real cheese and that’s giving you the flavor. Rather than using cream, I’m just thickening milk. It doesn’t compromise the texture and you still get the cheesy flavor.

Comfort foods are often slow-cooking concoctions. Are these doable?

These are totally pared-down and doable for the average cook. You don’t need to be a chef to do these recipes by any stretch, but they’re a little bit more like slow food. There are definitely some recipes that you might make for the holidays or that you might make for the weekend or that you might make for the week and freeze it.

Recipe

Skillet mac and cheese

Serving mac and cheese in the skillet it’s baked in amps up the homey comfort factor. The secret ingredient in this bread crumb-topped beauty is the finely chopped cauliflower that blends in subtly with the pasta. Using three different cheeses guarantees maximum flavor and meltability.

Ingredients:

2 cups 1-inch-wide cauliflower florets

1¼ cups Light-and-Crisp Whole-Wheat Bread Crumbs

3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 teaspoons olive oil

3 cups cold low-fat (1%) milk

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1¼ cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese (5 ounces)

¼ cup shredded Gruyere cheese (1 ounce)

2 teaspoons mustard powder

¾ teaspoon paprika

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

6 ounces (1 1/2 cups) whole-grain elbow macaroni, cooked for 3 minutes less than the package directions (about 3 cups cooked)

Nonstick cooking spray

Preparation:

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

2. Place the cauliflower into a steamer basket fitted over the pot, cover, and steam until just tender, about 5 minutes. Finely chop the steamed cauliflower.

3. In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan and oil.

4. In a large saucepan, whisk together the milk and flour until the flour is dissolved. Whisking constantly, bring the mixture to a gentle boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer until the mixture thickens slightly, two to three minutes. Stir in the cheddar, Gruyere, mustard powder, paprika, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Whisk until the cheeses are melted and the mixture is smooth, one to two minutes. Add the chopped cauliflower and macaroni and stir until well coated.

5. Spray an ovenproof 10-inch high-sided skillet with cooking spray. Pour the mixture into the prepared skillet. Sprinkle with the bread crumb mixture, place on a baking sheet, and bake until the top is browned and the cheese is bubbly, 35 to 40 minutes.

 
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