Menu Mastery: A Guide to Healthy Options at Restaurants
Welcome to the course! Some people seem to have the idea that leading a healthier lifestyle means giving up certain cuisines.
That turns out not to be the case. You can still eat at nearly any kind of establishment and still stick to the five basics of healthy eating:
Eat foods that are high in protein. Protein boosts your metabolism and provides energy for your body to build and repair muscles, bones and other tissue.
Choose carbohydrates that maximize your intake of fiber and nutrient content and minimize the impact on your blood sugar level.
Select foods to maximize your intake of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Dark, leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower are all good choices; and remember that in general, the less a vegetable has been cooked or processed, the more it retains its favorable characteristics. It usually looks and tastes a lot better, too.
Avoid refined sugars--no matter what they're called--and emphasize fruits and vegetables that have a low glycemic impact.
Avoid trans fats--also called hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Trans fats have been linked to heart disease, diabetes, as well as other illnesses. Trans fats are most likely to show up in products that have been deep fried, but they also appear in many packaged goods.
If you keep these five basic points in mind, you can still enjoy a wide selection of foods at nearly any restaurant and maintain your healthy eating habits. How to do that is what this course is all about.
Nearly every cuisine in the world has some kind of starch as what may seem to be an essential component. Mexican food and its regional American variations, which we'll get to a bit later in this lesson, all lean heavily on beans, rice, and corn, for example. The cuisines of Italy are all seemingly impossible to eat without a plate of pasta. But you definitely can find healthy fare, so don't despair!
As we explore American, Chinese, French, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Thai restaurants in this course, you'll see that there's a lot more to all these cuisines than the starchy components. As we go through the lessons, you'll get specific recommendations for each of them that will allow you to enjoy the essential flavors of foods from around the world while maintaining your healthy dining habits.
It's helpful to remember that what gives any cuisine its identity is due at least as much to the spices, seasonings and cooking methods as anything else. The good news is that all of those elements can be found in a wide variety of protein sources and healthy vegetables, and is not always necessary to rely heavily on pasta, rice, noodles, or tortillas.
A Few General Hints About Restaurants
The restaurants we will explore may all have different menus based on different cuisines, but they all have some things in common, too:
Restaurants are in the service business. Some wait people are more knowledgeable about what comes out of the kitchen than others, but in any case, do not hesitate to ask them for specific information about what goes into a dish you're interested in. If they don't know, ask them to please go check. You don't need to go into detail about why you're interested if you don't want to. Remember, servers rely heavily on tips for their income; when they're at your table, they're working for you. Be polite, but don't hesitate to ask any questions you may have, or to specify any changes you want in presentation, like asking for the sauce on the side or to leave the white potatoes off of your plate.
Restaurants are all in business to make money. One of the things mass market restaurants do to try to ensure enough traffic to keep the doors open is to offer some dishes that will appeal to the largest number of people. These will inevitably involve whatever starch is part of the foundation of a nation's cuisine. That doesn't mean, however, that you have to order it or eat it.
Many restaurants use prepared food products. There is a huge industry built around supplying restaurants with pre-prepared food elements, and many sauces, salad dressings, appetizers and garnishes may have come out of a freezer pack, jar or can. That's why it's always a good idea to get your sauce on the side, no matter what your waitperson tells you. That way, you control the amount you eat.
Overall, the trend is toward healthier food. Many restaurants, from major chains to mom-and-pop establishments, are aware of the movement toward healthier, eating, and will have at least some smarter-carbohydrate options on the menu. While many of these offerings are very good and healthy as well, there is no universal standard restaurant definition of "healthy." So just because something appears in a special section of the menu, you don't necessarily have to accept it at face value. If a dish seems unlikely to really be suited to smart-carbohydrate dining, it probably is. At the very least, don't hesitate to question your waitperson about it, and pass it up if you aren't satisfied with the explanation.
Finally, as we eat our way around the world during these four lessons, each foreign cuisine we look at will have a section called "Try This Instead." There, you'll find some suggested specialties that still offer the essential flavor of that nation's cuisine. You can substitute them for dishes that are high in empty carbohydrates may affect your blood sugar level, and/or are relatively empty of fiber, protein and other nutrients.
Let's go out to dinner!
We'll start right here at home with what, for the sake of convenience, we'll call American Cuisine.
American cuisine is built around meat--primarily chicken, beef or pork with seafood trailing behind--and it seems like every meal is dominated by a big chunk of protein of some kind.
For the person who's concerned with eating smart carbohydrates (veggies that are loaded with fiber, nutrients and vitamins) this is a positive advantage.
The plate is also laden with some kind of starch, usually white potatoes that are baked, fried or mashed; and almost as an afterthought, a green vegetable is added, too. Often it's a dinner salad.
Restaurants that are wise to the healthy dining trend will readily substitute a vegetable for the starch. Sometimes it'll be green beans or if you're lucky, steamed broccoli. Don't hesitate to ask for a substitution for the starchy component of the meal, and remember that steamed broccoli or cauliflower can be readily dressed up with a squeeze of lemon, a bit of salt and a pat of butter.
Fast Food Restaurants
America is where the idea of fast food became institutionalized, and now it's even more American than apple pie. From pizza to burgers to fried chicken, it can take you longer to decide what you want than it does for the people behind the counter to serve it, ring it up and take your money.
The problem, of course, is that fast doesn't always equate with healthy, and typical fast food offerings are laden with empty carbohydrates: in the bun, the breading, the condiments, and of course the ubiquitous fries that seem to come with everything.
But there are options if you take the time to seek them out. Some fried chicken chains now offer grilled, broiled, roasted or "broasted" chicken. It's not breaded or battered, so it's better for you than fried. You should, however, be cautious about some of the sauces, which may be made with high amounts of sugar. If you have any doubts, ask. In a pinch, you can always peel off the battered skin on a piece of regular fried chicken and just eat the meat. It's much better to get something that hasn't been battered in the first place.
Burger chains seem to have picked up on the "better for you" smart-carbohydrate trend more quickly than other national chains. Many now offer salads with ham or chicken and options for healthier salad dressing. If you ask, some will serve you a complete cheeseburger with a knife and fork, without the bun. Or you can ask for whole-grain toasted bread.
That's right, we said "cuisines," plural.
What most of us think of as "Mexican food" is probably one of these three Americanized versions of Mexican food:
Tex-Mex, which, not surprisingly, originated in South Texas. It's heavy on enchiladas, yellow cheese, chili and tamales. The primary flavor is hot and the heat comes mainly from jalapeño peppers.
New Mexico-style Mexican fare can be similar to Tex-Mex, although the outstanding feature is the unique flavor gained from roasted Hatch green chiles. Flavors of New Mexican dishes tend to be richer, although not necessarily hotter, than Tex-Mex.
Cal-Mex is California's take on Mexican food. It relies heavily on seafood, with California's typical emphasis on fresh vegetables. The flavors are bright and strong.
But there's a great deal more to the cuisines of Mexico than that. Metropolitan Mexican food shows the strong French influence that still lingers from the brief period of French rule of Mexico under Maximillian and Carlotta.
The East and West coastal regions feature some outstanding seafood, typified by dishes that originated in places like Vera Cruz and Oaxaca. And there are a number of other cuisines from other regions of the nation, including dishes with a native heritage.
If you want to go beyond border-style Mexican cooking, look for the names of the various regions of Mexico in a restaurant's name or description. Or just keep an eye out for the terms "Interior Mexican cooking" or "cuisines of Interior Mexico."
Put simply, there's a lot more to Mexican food than tortillas, beans and rice. If you're willing to make the effort to avoid the empty carbohydrates that come along with those starchy foods, you're in for a real adventure of discovery.
It's important to remember that the primary flavor elements of Mexican food are garlic, chiles, cilantro, and cumin (among others), that these spices and seasonings can be found in any number of dishes which are carb-smart, and they taste just as "Mexican" as enchiladas do.
So pass on the chips and salsa, and look for the regional specialties which more and more Mexican restaurants are offering.
Try This Instead!
For starters, guacamole is terrific. It's based on avocado, which is rich in fiber, nutrients and flavor. See if you can get it with jicama sticks for dipping instead of the chips.
Jicama is a root vegetable. Bland, just a bit sweet and very crunchy, its crisp bite and flavor complement the rich texture of the avocado wonderfully.
If you're a huge fan of enchiladas verdes--green enchiladas, so called because they're filled with spiced chicken and covered with a tangy green sauce of tomatillos and cilantro--everything about them is fine except the tortillas they're wrapped in. See if the restaurant will serve the chicken filling, minus the tortillas and topped with the sauce. It's wonderful.
And there are always fajitas. There's hardly a Mexican restaurant north of the border that doesn't serve beef fajitas--usually made with marinated skirt steak--and many offer chicken and shrimp fajitas as well. Proper fajitas will come to your table sizzling, having been dumped into an extremely hot skillet along with sliced onions, bell peppers, and sometimes slivers of one of the milder chile peppers as well.
Here are some other suggestions:
Instead of stuffed jalepeño poppers or chiles rellenos, try grilled chicken wings.
Instead of quesadillas, order sopa de albondigas, which is a meatball and vegetable soup.
Substitute a jicama salad for nachos.
Replace any of the taco, tamale or enchilada platters with whatever grilled fish (pescado) is the special of the day.
Try pollo asado--grilled chicken--instead of chimichangas or flautas.
Shrimp are even better in camarones al ajili--shrimp in a garlic sauce--than they are in shrimp enchiladas.
A stunning substitute for any chicken-in-tortillas dish is turkey or chicken in a complex, dark, mole sauce.
Once you begin to explore the territory of true Mexican food, you'll never miss those cheese enchiladas again. In fact, you may begin to wonder what you ever saw in them in the first place.
In this lesson, we've discussed some of the reasons why restaurant food offerings are the way they are, and different ways of coping with them. After exploring American restaurants we moved on to the cuisines of Mexico.
In the next lesson, we'll discuss the cuisines of the Far East when we visit Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean restaurants.
Until then, do the assignment, take the quiz, and join your instructors and fellow diners on the Message Board to share questions, answers, tips and experiences.
Welcome to Lesson 2 of the course! In our last lesson, we discussed some generalities about restaurants and explored healthy options when dining at American and Mexican restaurants.
In this lesson, we'll look into the cuisines of Asia. Many of the basic principles we covered in the first lesson hold true for this one, too, as they will in all the lessons of this course.
We'll be covering some of the most popular cuisines from Asia: Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean. Let's start with China.
The Cuisines of China
China is an immense nation, home to over 1.3 billion people. In terms of population it's the largest country in the world.
Rice is a staple in all Chinese cuisines, and while there are exceptions, most Chinese dishes use meat as an addition rather than as the central focus. In many dishes, fresh vegetables, minimally cooked, form the bulk of the preparation, and various sauces hold everything together.
While China probably has a richer culinary history and more different cuisines than any other nation in the world, four regional cuisines dominate, and three are well-known in the United States:
Cantonese: Until just a few decades ago, when you said "Chinese," you meant Cantonese. Cantonese food was the first cuisine to be adapted to American tastes and agriculture, and it's still highly popular just about everywhere. Cantonese food is typified by light, delicate sauces, some roasted meats, and steamed and stir-fried vegetables and meats chosen for their eye appeal and textural compatibility as well as the way the flavors blend and play off of each other.
Szechwan: Szechwan cuisine is best known for its extremely hot dishes like Kung Pao Chicken and Double Cooked Spicy Pork. It comes from the landlocked, mountainous, part of Central China, and gets most of its heat from tiny but very potent chilies--usually in the form of an incendiary chili paste--although garlic and ginger are major contributors, too. There are other, more subtle and complex dishes from this region, but it's the fiery ones that get all the attention.
Hunan : Hunan is the best-known regional cuisine from the Zheijiang region. It is known for its thick, rich, sauces, and complex and sometimes biting flavors. Hunan is growing in popularity in this country. If you've had Pepper Chicken (fried hot and fast with onions and black pepper), you've sampled Hunan cuisine.
Shangdong: Still hard to find in most parts of the United States, Shangdong cuisine is marked by its emphasis on fresh ingredients, which are selected to complement each other while retaining their individuality. Flavors are generally delicate, sometimes brightened by the addition of garlic and scallions. The light, clear, soups are good if you're sticking to healthy carbohydrates, although the thick, pungent, soups may derive some of their texture from corn starch. Perhaps the most famous dish from Shandong is Bird's Nest Soup, although very few people in this hemisphere have ever tasted it.
It's generally best to proceed with caution with Chinese buffets, because most of the dishes rely on a sauce--generally thickened with corn starch--to help keep the ingredients hot on a steam table.
Often, you can request that a dish be prepared with the sauce on the side, so you can choose how much or how little sauce you eat. Wor Shu Duck, for example, is duck meat, usually dusted with almond flour, fried, and served with a dark brown sauce. The sauce is sweetened, but happily, the duck itself is delicious without it.
Certainly you'll want to avoid any of the sweet and sour dishes, and dishes that are breaded or battered with starchy flours. Also, watch out for noodle dishes.
Some dishes like Peking Duck and Moo Shu Pork are fine in themselves, as long as you don't eat all the pancakes that come with them.
Try This Instead
Here are some substitutions to help you get started:
For an appetizer, try egg drop soup instead of fried wontons or eggroll. This is especially good if the soup is clear and thin, rather than thickened with cornstarch.
Instead of shrimp, pork, beef or chicken fried rice, have a sizzling shrimp platter. You'll never go back to fried rice again.
Substitute steamed tofu with vegetables, or beef with Chinese mushrooms, for any of the noodle-based dishes. If it comes with a sauce, request that it be served on the side.
Rather than any of the sweet and sour dishes, try stir-fried pork with garlic sauce (with the sauce on the side, of course).
As with all the other cuisines we'll discuss, these substitutions still offer the cooking styles and essential flavors that give Chinese foods their unique characteristics, while avoiding the sugars and empty carbohydrates you don't want to eat.
Let's go to Japan.
Whether you're following a healthy eating plan or not, there is one problem with Japanese food: When properly prepared, it's almost too beautiful to eat, but it's too delicious not to. Happily, the dilemma is easily solved by simply enjoying it both for its beauty and its artfully matched flavors and textures.
Like every other Asian cuisine, rice is a significant factor. And like every other Asian cuisine, there's plenty to eat without rice, too.
It should come as no surprise that Japan, being an island nation, has a great many seafood dishes, prepared in a huge variety of ways. But a number of other protein sources have found their way into Japanese cuisine, all delicious and many of which work well for those who are concerned about eating healthy foods.
Flavors typical of Japanese cuisine include:
Shoyu is Japanese soy sauce, which tends to be milder and sweeter than that from China.
Mirin is a sweet rice wine.
Dashi is a broth made from dried bonito flakes (bonito is a fish); it's used for flavoring and as a sauce base.
Ponzu is a dipping sauce made from soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, dashi and seaweed.
Wasabi is Japanese horseradish. Proceed with caution! Even if you're used to American horseradish, this is ferocious.
Pickled ginger adds a distinctive, surprising, somewhat un-gingery flavor.
Miso is a paste made from soybeans.
Sesame flavors come from both sesame seeds and sesame oil. Toasted sesame seeds have a nutty flavor and the oil made from them is golden brown and very flavorful.
Don't hesitate to try miso soup. It's a rich, flavorful, clear soup made with dashi broth (made with dried bonito flakes) and soybean paste. Frequently you'll find it served with a few cubes of tofu and perhaps some spinach, along with a garnish of green onions.
Use this opportunity to try some new vegetables. They're almost always served crisp; except for tempura, which you'll want to avoid because of the batter, they will either be uncooked or grilled or blanched briefly. Try burdock (a relative of the artichoke), daikon (a delicious radish), lotus root and Japanese eggplant. And if you have the opportunity, sample the pickled vegetables that are most often served as a snack or a light appetizer.
You'll want to avoid eating sushi because of the white rice, but sashimi offers the same wonderful flavors, and the chances are that the fish will be the very best the chef has available because there's nothing to disguise any flaws in appearance.
And for a wonderful, fun and satisfying main course, try shabu-shabu, which consists of thin slices of beef and vegetables that you cook at the table in a broth; it's something like fondue.
Try This Instead
Instead of edamame (whole steamed soybeans), whet your appetite with pickled vegetables.
Replace the fried vegetable dumplings (called gyoza) with steamed vegetables or grilled Japanese eggplant.
Instead of sukiyaki, enjoy shabu-shabu.
If you've always been fond of shrimp tempura, try the broiled fish of the day with soy or ginger sauce.
For any of the seafood noodle dishes, substitute grilled squid.
Try negamiki, which is green onions wrapped in paper-thin slices of beef and dipped in plain soy sauce, instead of beef teriyaki to avoid the corn syrup or sugar used to sweeten teriyaki sauce.
The powerful flavors of Korean cuisine.
Korea has always been a geographic crossroads, so its cuisine is something of a blend of Mongolian, Japanese and Chinese. And since the country has a lot of coastline, seafood makes up a large part of the typical diet.
Fish, crab, shrimp, clams, oysters and squid are prominent in Korean cuisine, and seafood is often dried, pickled or used to make a paste. Fish is usually grilled or stewed in a sauce of some sort.
Soups are popular in Korean cuisine, but they're almost inevitably noodle-based.
Pork, beef and chicken are also found in Korean dishes; they're often marinated and grilled, then served with rice or noodles.
The defining flavors of Korean foods are garlic, ginger, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil and pastes made from fermented soybeans or chilies, which can give Korean food considerable fire on your palate.
Korean chefs are experts at blending sweet, salty, bitter, sour and hot flavors. A good example of combined flavors is kimchi, which is an assortment of vegetables like cabbage, turnips, radishes and cucumbers. They're seasoned with hot chilies, salt, garlic, onions, ginger and oyster or fish sauce, then pickled. Kimchi is one of the best-known Korean specialties and it's well worth trying.
Beef plays a significant role in Korean cuisine, so it's a good choice for those who are controlling their carbohydrates for health reasons. Some dishes, like kal bi tang--which is a marinated beef rib stew--are served with rice. The meat is delicious; you just need to pass on the white rice.
Korea is known for its barbecue (bulgogi). Thin slices of a premium cut of beef like rib eye, prime rib or sirloin are dipped in sauce and cooked over charcoal at your table. You take a piece of meat, add just a bit of sauce and eat it rolled up in a lettuce leaf. Many Korean restaurants also offer barbecue chicken and pork, and you might even find fish and squid bulgogi on the menu. Don't get carried away with the sauce, though; it's heavily sweetened with sugar.
A carbohydrate-smart meal might start with a bowl of soup, an entrée of beef or pork, and an assortment of tiny dishes-- often 10 or more--containing an assortment of sauces, pickles, preserved fish and other flavorings so you can create your own dish to your own liking.
Try This Instead
Tofu, either cold or fried, instead of the scallion pancake called pa jon
Twoenjangguk, the soup made with fermented soy bean paste and baby clams, to replace Korean dumplings
Shinsollo--meat, fish, vegetables and tofu--rather than any of the rice dishes
Any of the delicious barbecue dishes instead of any of the rice noodle dishes
The lovely, delicate, sometimes fiery tastes of Thailand.
Thai food is probably the most popular new cuisine to come to America in decades. It's a remarkable blending of some of the Chinese and Indian culinary traditions, with the brightness of tropical colors and flavors as well as unique seasonings and condiments.
Thailand shares the coastline of the Gulf of Thailand with Cambodia and Vietnam, with a slender arm projecting south with the Gulf on the west and the Andamen Sea to the east, so seafood is plentiful.
Like most other countries in that part of the world, however, meat is scarce and costly, so the cuisine has been built up around rice and noodles. But there is such a variety to Thai cooking that you'll still be able to eat well at any good Thai restaurant.
Perhaps the most famous typical Thai dish is pad thai, a noodle-based dish with shrimp, green onions, eggs, dried tofu, bean sprouts and chopped peanuts. The noodles may eliminate such dishes from your available choices, but the flavors and combinations that make Thai food distinctive--coconut milk, lemongrass, tamarind, cilantro, turmeric, cumin, chilies, lime juice and kaffir lime leaves--can be found in plenty of other dishes that aren't based on noodles or rice, so there's still a wide selection well worth exploring.
For example, Thai chefs prepare a dish that is something like a salad. It might be made of pork, beef or other protein and dressed with a fish-flavored sauce along with salt, lemon or lime juice, garlic or shallots, and chilies. Nuuryungnamtok is sliced steak marinated in lime juice and mixed with chilies, onion, tomato, cucumber, coriander leaves and lettuce. And you can find the same combination of flavors applied to sliced squid for yum plamuk.
Thai diners are fond of frog legs prepared in a number of ways. They may be difficult to find in Thai restaurants in America, but they're well worth a try if you're in the mood to expand your culinary range.
Thai soups are notable for their blend of unusual flavors. Try tom yum goong, a shrimp soup with straw mushrooms, seasoned with lime juice, lemongrass and hot peppers; or gai tom kha, which is made with chicken slices in coconut milk.
In general, it's best to stick to dishes that are quickly sautéed with lemongrass, basil and other aromatic Thai herbs and vegetables.
Try This Instead
Tom yum goog instead of dumplings or spring rolls
Sautéed shrimp or beef with basil, chiles and onion as a replacement for pad thai
Sautéed scallops and shrimp with mushrooms, zucchini and chili paste instead of a curry, since Thai curry dishes frequently contain white potatoes
Sautéed beef, chicken or pork with shrimp paste and green beans rather than sautéed meat with ginger, black bean sauce and green onion
Sautéed mixed vegetables instead of fried rice
That completes this lesson and our quick tour of Asian cuisines. You can certainly see that even if rice and noodles are a basic part of each nation's cuisine, there are still plenty of delicious, healthy alternatives that allow you to eat well, no matter what type of food you try.
In the next lesson, we'll move west and explore the foods of India, the Middle East and Greece.
In the meantime, take the quiz, do the assignment, and go out to dinner and enjoy yourself! And be sure to stop by the course Message Board to find out what your instructors and fellow students are talking about.
In our last lesson, we ate our way through the Asian cuisines from China, Japan, Thailand and Korea.
Now we'll look into the cuisines of India, the Middle East and Greece. Many of the basic principles we've covered before hold true for this lesson, too, so don't hesitate to ask your waitperson about the ingredients in any dish you're not familiar with, and don't be afraid to request a substitution or to get your sauce on the side.
Remember, restaurants are there to please their customers, and as long as your requests aren't unreasonable, the good ones will be happy to comply.
Now, let's go to one of the most intriguing nations in the world. Its cuisines are intriguing as well.
The Cuisines of India
India is a huge nation with at least seven regional cuisines, and each region has its own style of cooking. For example, cooks in Northern India usually grind spices before adding them to a dish, and you'll find many dishes that rely on wheat, basmati or jasmine rice and other grains.
In Southern India, the spices are likely to be added whole, then ground with other ingredients into a paste. As you might expect, the seasonings and flavors become somewhat more tropical in nature as you move south--sometimes relying on coconut milk, for example.
Because it was a keystone of the British Empire, India was a crossroads for trade between the Far East and Europe, so the cuisines are likely to be more eclectic than you might expect. You'll see a Persian influence in lamb and mutton dishes that may feature dried fruit and nuts; due to the Portuguese influence in the southwest part of the nation, you'll find duck, pork and goat on the menu.
In many parts of India, cattle are still not slaughtered because of religious beliefs, so beef is somewhat rarer than it is in the cuisines of many other nations. This has resulted in an extensive choice of vegetarian preparations, many of them based on rice, wheat or legumes. Even so, there's still plenty on the typical menu of an Indian restaurant to choose from while still maintaining a good balance of protein and healthy carbohydrates.
Legumes are seeds that come in pods. They include beans, peas and peanuts.
In the United States, the most popular Indian dishes are the tandooris. The name itself refers both to the dish and to the clay oven in which it's baked. A tandoori oven gets very hot, so the food can cook quickly. Perhaps better known--certainly in Great Britain--are curries: dishes seasoned with curry powder, which is a blend of several spices and seasonings. You'll also find kebabs, which are skewered pieces of meat that are grilled; and dals, which are lentil, chickpea or bean dishes. Chutneys are the traditional accompaniment for many dishes. They have a sweet and sour flavor and inevitably contain sugar of one kind or another.
Because Indian cuisines are complex and contain such a wide variety of ingredients, it's a very good idea to ask about what goes into any dish you're not familiar with. In fact, it may be easier to ask whether a dish contain high-carbohydrate ingredients like sugar, flour or starches than to wait while your waitperson reels through a staggering list of what a dish contains.
In general, healthy options include kebabs, tandoori, and meat curries. Try raita, which is yogurt with cucumbers, to ease the heat of some of the more powerful curries.
Try This Instead
Instead of vegetable samosas--which are pastries--try shahipaneer, a homemade cheese in a creamy tomato sauce.
Substitute roasted eggplant with onions and spices for any of the fritters, which are called pakora.
Instead of the typical lentil or mulligatawny soup, order a bowl of chicken shorba soup, made with chicken, garlic, ginger, cinnamon and cumin.
Order a tandoori instead of a vindaloo, which almost always contains white potatoes.
Enjoy a korma, which is meat in a cream sauce, as a replacement for any biryani, which is a rice dish.
Substitute any curried meat dish for any of the dals, which are lentil or bean dishes.
Order any of the meat or shrimp kebabs rather than any of the meat saags, which contain spinach and spices and are heavily thickened with flour or starch and pureed, sauteed onions.
Learn more about Middle Eastern cuisine.
Many of the dishes that are mainstays of Middle Eastern cuisine stem from nomadic roots. The predominant flavors of Middle Eastern dishes come from garlic, onions, cardamom, coriander, sesame, cumin, thyme, marjoram and sumac--all of which travel well and are easily preserved in dry climates.
Popular dishes in Middle Eastern restaurants include those based on rice, chickpeas and lentils. But they also include a number of meat dishes, with lamb predominating, and babaganoosh, which is roasted eggplant that's mashed and mixed with garlic and a paste made from sesame seeds called tahini.
Traditionally, babaganoosh is eaten by dipping flatbread into it, but it's equally delicious when the flatbread is replaced with celery sticks, green pepper chunks or--if you're bold--chunks of onion slices.
Dishes you'll want to enjoy in smaller serving sizes include:
Hummus: a dip made from chickpeas and tahini
Falafel: a deep-fried chickpea patty
Tabbouoleh: a salad made from bulgur (pre-cooked, ground whole wheat)
Fattoush: a bread, cucumber and tomato salad
Kibbe: a ground lamb and bulgur patty
B'steeya: Moroccan chicken pie with almonds
Try This Instead
Here are some substitutions you can make that will still give you the essence of Middle Eastern foods:
Instead of hummus, try just a tablespoon or two of labnee--a thickened yogurt flavored with mint.
Replace tabbouleh with loubieh, a dish of green beans cooked with tomatoes.
In place of fattoush, try eggplant with garlic, tomatoes and peppers.
Try lamb shish kebab instead of kibbe.
Rather than falafel, order the skewered and grilled balls of ground lamb and onions called kofta.
Try shish taouk--skewered pieces of marinated chicken grilled over charcoal--instead of b'steeya.
The joyous gusto of Greek cuisine.
You would have to look long and hard to find a cuisine that's fresher and more flavorful than Greek food.
Because of the emphasis on freshness and Greece's history as a seafaring nation, fresh fish is always a good choice.
The predominant meat in Greece is lamb, and few nations prepare it better or in more different ways. Whether it's a roasted, vegetable-stuffed, wonderfully seasoned leg of lamb or the tender lamb chunks--called souvlaki--that are marinated, skewered and broiled hot and fast over charcoal or wood, you can't go wrong with properly prepared lamb at a Greek restaurant.
Greek chefs make extensive use of olives, aromatic Greek olive oil, and lemons, and Greek oregano is richer and more complex than that grown elsewhere. Eggplant, zucchini, spinach, fennel, grape leaves, yogurt, garlic, mint, dill, rosemary and tahini in various combinations also form the basis of many dishes.
Greek desserts like the world-renowned baklava almost inevitably start with filo--paper-thin sheets of pastry dough--in dozens of multiple layers that enclose nuts and are drowned in honey. Consider a sampling of some of the splendid Greek goat-milk or sheep-milk cheeses to wrap up your dinner instead.
Filo is also used for savory appetizers like spanikopita, which are triangles of filo enfolding spinach and feta, and tyropita, traditionally filled with kaseri cheese. Try a selection of marvelous Greek olives and cut vegetables instead, and dip the vegetables in tzatziki, a refreshing cucumber, yogurt and garlic dip.
Another famous appetizer is dolmades, which are grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice.
You will also often find delicious gyro meat platters, which may consist of both lamb and beef. Request another vegetable instead of the rice and flatbread, or pita bread, that frequently accompany the meat.
And of course, Greek salads are full of things that are good for you: feta cheese, olives, olive oil, ripe tomatoes and lots of fresh basil. As long as you stick to the basics, it's nearly impossible to go wrong at a Greek restaurant; it's easy to find out what goes into any given dish.
Try This Instead
Rather than the thick, garlicky spread made with potatoes, called skordalia, try tzatziki.
Instead of spanakopita for an appetizer, try avgolemono--a marvelous chicken soup made with egg and lemon.
Order teramosalato--a wonderful creamy spread made with fish roe--instead of dolmades, and ask for fresh vegetables to use for dipping.
Rather than moussaka, order beef or lamb souvlaki.
Instead of pastitsio with its pasta, sample Greek lamb--either roast leg of lamb, grilled lamb chops, or braised lamb shanks.
Substitute chicken grilled with lemon, garlic and oregano or rosemary for chicken pilaf.
Replace any pasta dish with pork loin braised with fennel and lemon.
Order grilled prawns, octopus or swordfish instead of fried kalamari.
That's it for India, the Middle East and Greece. You should feel comfortable now ordering at any restaurant that specializes in those cuisines.
Take the quiz, do the assignment, and check in on the Message Board to let everyone know about your dining experiences.
Next time, we'll wrap up our tour around the world with some of the leading cuisines of Europe. Until then, eat hearty, eat well and eat healthy!
Welcome to the final lesson of the course. So far, we've gone from the United States and Mexico to the Orient, and then west from India through the Middle East and Greece.
In this lesson, we'll explore the two European cuisine groups that are most popular in the United States: those of France and Italy. Certainly in any city of any size at all, you'll also find German and Spanish restaurants as well, but the basic principles we're covering here will hold true for other cuisines, too, so keep them in mind as you read through this lesson and whenever you go out to eat. Briefly, let's review thpse healthy dining principles now:
Seek out foods that are high in protein. Protein boosts your metabolism and provides energy for your body to build and repair muscles, bones and other tissue.
Make carbohydrate selections that will maximize your fiber and nutrient intake and minimize the impact on your blood sugar level.
Select foods with the greatest amounts of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Put emphasis on dark, leafy-green vegetables and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. Look for preparation methods that involve minimal cooking; the less most vegetables are cooked or processed, the more they retain their favorable and healthy characteristics. And they retain their flavors better, too.
Avoid excess sugars wherever possible.
Avoid trans fats, which are also called hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These have been linked to heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, asthma and other diseases.
Don't hesitate to ask your waitperson what goes into a dish you may be thinking about ordering; if he or she doesn't seem to know for sure, ask him or her to go check. Remember that the waitperson is working for you when he or she is attending to your table, and that servers depend in large part on tips for their income. As their employer--at least for the moment--you have every right to ask them to find out what they might be bringing to your table. Be polite, but be firm if necessary.
Don't hesitate to request a substitution, or to request a dish without sauce or with the sauce or dressing on the side.
Now, with all that in mind, let's go to that French restaurant you've been meaning to try.
The haute and not-so-haute cuisines of France.
Because the first waves of immigrants to this country came from Europe, and because for centuries French chefs have been considered by Europeans to be the best and most talented in the world, it's no wonder that French food has always been looked at almost with reverence in this country. And because the climate and soil of much of France are so favorable to growing everything from wine grapes to asparagus, that attitude isn't wholly unjustified.
As with most large nations, the national cuisine is actually a collection of regional ones that are determined by climate, the land itself and proximity to the sea. So you'll find fish, herbs and olives in Provence; butter and apples in Normandy; wine-simmered stews in Burgundy and Bordeaux; and sausages and beers in Alsace. Everywhere there's a huge variety of cheeses.
But predominating over all of those regional cuisines are the haute cuisine dishes that have earned France's reputation as the fine dining mecca of the world. These dishes tend to be complex, multi-sauced and incredibly rich, with absolutely no shortcuts allowed in their preparation. Traditionally, a haute cuisine meal is served in distinct courses, preceded by an aperitif to put a fine edge on the appetite and followed by a "digestive" to aid digestion of the rich foods that made up the meal. In between there will be hors d'oeuvres, soup, an entrée, salad, cheese and dessert, with perhaps a fish course in there, too. Wines are carefully matched to each course, and a classic French meal can take hours from beginning to end. To a classically trained French chef, "fast food" is an oxymoron.
That doesn't mean that you have to partake of a six- or seven-course meal when you go to a French restaurant. Even relatively few French do that on a regular basis. You can enjoy many of the same marvelous flavors prepared with the same care and deft touch by dining on bistro fare instead. Bistro-style food is heartier and considerably less pretentious. It generally costs a good deal less, too.
If you're committed to eating healthy carbohydrates and avoiding the carbohydrates that are low in nutrients and make your blood sugar level fluctuate, you'll be happy to know that many French sauces are perfectly acceptable because they're based on butter or olive oil and thickened with egg yolks rather than flour. Asparagus with Hollandaise is perfectly acceptable and remarkably delicious, for example.
Consider the Classics
Consider classic dishes like French onion soup. While it's traditionally prepared topped with a large crouton of toasted bread under a layer of melted Gruyere cheese, you can request it without the crouton. The flavor will still be remarkable.
Here are three more classics:
Coq au vin is chicken slowly simmered in a wine sauce. It's fine as long as you pass on the white potatoes that may be included.
French leg of lamb, usually prepared by inserting slivers of garlic and rosemary before it's roasted, is fragrant and delicious.
Boeuf bourguignon, one of the towering classics of French cuisine, is cubes of beef that are slowly simmered in red wine, beef stock, onions, garlic and herbs. It fits a healthy dining regimen and the flavor is just about as French as you can get.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about French cuisine--whether haute or bistro-style--is that it's still made of the same ingredients that go into food around the world. The quality may be higher than usual and there may be more care taken with preparation and presentation, but in the end, it's still a combination of protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates, and you can still choose how much of each of those elements ends up on your plate and in your body.
Try This Instead
Rather than the bacon, onion and egg pie called an Alsatian tart, try a frisée salad with thin strips of bacon and a poached egg.
Enjoy coquilles St. Jacques--scallops in a cream sauce topped with cheese--instead of lobster in puff pastry.
For vichyssoise--the famous French cream of potato soup--substitute mussels in a white wine sauce or the equally famous fish stew called bouillabaisse.
Instead of duck al'orange or aux cerises, substitute coq au vin.
Order entrecôte or tournedos Bordelaise--steak in reduced shallot and red-wine sauce--instead of the egg-dipped, fried ham-and-cheese sandwich called a croque monsieur.
Rather than veal Prince Orloff, which is veal roast stuffed with rice, onions and mushrooms, have the veal stew with tomatoes and mushrooms called veal Marengo.
Instead of any potato dish, order buttered French green beans.
For dessert, have a plate of some of the stunning French cheeses instead of something like crêpes Suzette.
The often underrated cuisines of Italy.
For all too many people, Italian food is a green salad followed by big plate of spaghetti and meatballs in a garlicky tomato sauce, or a pizza piled high with all sorts of toppings.
That does one of the world's greatest collections of cuisines an enormous injustice because Italy has a rich and varied culinary heritage that goes far beyond the Southern Italian food we're generally used to.
Northern Italian food is reminiscent of French cuisine without the pretensions. It features rich butter and cream sauces, highly developed flavors, and extreme care given to the preparation of only the freshest ingredients.
Tuscan foods are carefully chosen and prepared to emphasize the essential bright flavors of individual ingredients. The signature element in Florentine dishes is spinach, and from the French border to Venice, you're not likely to find any pasta on the menu at all! Instead, for starches you'll encounter rice dishes called risottos or cornmeal dishes called polenta.
No matter where you go in Italy, the emphasis is on freshness and enhancing the power of each ingredient, whether it's tomatoes or shrimp; conscientious chefs in fine Italian restaurants in the United States do exactly the same.
Smart Dining Strategies
The two secrets to enjoying the food at an Italian restaurant are first, simply to avoid the ubiquitous side of spaghetti and any dishes that are cornmeal- or rice-based. And second, don't let the waitperson bring the basket of either hot garlic bread or crusty Italian bread and a plate of olive oil to dip it in.
That's not as hard as you might think. You'll find a great many dishes featuring chicken, veal, seafood or pork--or a combination of them--that still carry the essential flavorings that mark Italian food from all regions. but without the starches. You simply need to read the entire menu to see what's available and ask about anything you're not sure of.
Italian chefs probably do more wonderful dishes featuring veal than anyone else in the world. The only thing you need to be wary of is that the veal in some dishes is breaded, battered or floured before it's pan-fried. Ask if you aren't sure or it doesn't say on the menu, and don't generalize from restaurant to restaurant because some chefs bread everything in sight, while some limit breading to only a few dishes. So at one establishment you might find the veal in veal Marsala or veal Florentine breaded, while at another one it won't be. Ask to be sure.
Some don't-miss foods include prosciutto, which is one of the most delicious variations of ham there is. It's usually sliced very thin. You may see it offered with melon or wrapped around fresh asparagus and served with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese as an appetizer, or layered with veal medallions in veal Saltimbocca, which roughly translates as “jump in the mouth” because the flavor combination is so astonishingly good.
And don't hesitate to try seafood. Italian chefs have always had an affinity for it and you'll find some delicious dishes made with fish, shrimp and shellfish.
Try This Instead
Have a seafood salad instead of fried (and battered) calamari.
Rather than an appetizer of fried mozzarella sticks, order mixed grilled vegetables or grilled portabella mushrooms.
Instead of garlic bread, enjoy a salad of arugula and fennel with shaved Parmesan cheese.
Order an antipasto platter instead of baked, bread-stuffed clams.
Have an escarole or stracciatella soup--an Italian version of egg drop soup--instead of fettuccine Alfredo.
Enjoy one of the roasted or grilled seafood dishes instead of linguine with clam sauce.
Have a grilled, pounded chicken breast or pork loin in place of any risotto dish.
Order veal or chicken piccata or scaloppini--veal or chicken scaloppini with lemon and capers--instead of veal, chicken or eggplant Parmesan.
Goodbye and Good Luck
That's it. We've gone around the world, exploring 10 foreign cuisines plus American restaurants in four lessons. By now you should know that there are smart, healthy choices you can make no matter what restaurant you go to--choices that will let you enjoy the essential culinary elements of each country and still eat healthy foods in high style.
There's a whole world of delicious food out there, prepared in myriad wonderful ways. If you remember the basic principles we stated at the beginning of the course and again at the first of this lesson, you can enjoy a great deal of it and still maintain your health and well-being.
Thanks for taking this course. Before you rush out to the nearest restaurant, take the quiz, do the assignment, and please check in at the Message Board to share your thoughts and discoveries with your fellow diners.
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How to Follow Phase Two, Part 2
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