Last night, I threw the “Perfect Summer Dinner Party,” but I threw in something else: The chefs had to coax maximum flavor from a minimum of calories and fat. Each dish had to be under 350 calories and under 10 grams of fat.
Although calorie-light meals are a great lure for dieting customers, not all chefs are crazy about the concept. After all, they have at their fingertips all the ingredients from which highly caloric masterpieces are made -- butter, cream, eggs, sugar, chocolate, foie gras, and liqueurs are untouchables when a chef attempts low-calorie, low-fat dishes.
All that fattening stuff was off limits to the chefs who created last night’s dinner party. I didn’t leave them in the lurch though. I armed them with my latest book, The Now Eat This! Diet – part of my series of books on healthy, delicious, low-calorie, low-carb, low-fat recipes. Because of my own weight battles (I was once popping buttons at 30 pounds too heavy) and cardiovascular issues (a doctor asked me to draw up a will on the spot), I’ve spent the last several years devoted to healthy cooking that tastes amazing and helps you stay absurdly fit. My secret has been to rework America’s favorite (and fattening) comfort foods into flavorful, low-calorie, low-fat renditions that taste as good, if not better. Think fried chicken, pizza, macaroni and cheese, and chocolate ice cream. Yes, you can eat all that if you prepare it using the techniques and recipes in my books. OK, enough of the plug … let me introduce last night’s chefs.
Fabio Capparelli – Executive Chef at Park Central Hotel in New York City. Amazing, Fabio was only 20 years old and already an executive chef! I was impressed by his youth and accomplishments. His dad is a chef and Fabio wanted to make him proud.
Jen De Palma – Owner of Jen De Palma Catering in New York City. She’s an Italian-Colombian chef in constant motion in the kitchen. Jen reminded me of Julia Child; she was drinking her wine and pouring it into whatever she was making.
Ryan Poli – Executive Chef at Tavernita Restaurant in Chicago. He started cooking in restaurants at the age of 17!Right away, there was heat and friction in the kitchen when these three got down to cooking. Jen thought Fabio and Ryan were cocky. Fabio was having trouble concentrating because Jen and Ryan were chattering like jackhammers tearing up Broadway. I admit I loved the atmosphere. The energy was raw and edgy. All was creativity and chaos. Food flew everywhere, especially from Jen. The sound of kitchen equipment was pervasive, along with knives chopping ingredients on cutting boards, flames searing ingredients, and sauté pans clanging. It bordered on insanity, but the energy was addictive. It’s what I’ve known from a very young age, and I love all of it.
On to the Signature Dish Challenge: Fabio prepared Miso Glazed Chilean Sea Bass with Vermicelli Noodles and Lemongrass Shitake Broth. Although he was proud of his intense flavors, because of a careless mistake the broth was flavorless and barely passable. Now I tasted it in the pan, and it was amazing. He simply diluted it when straining the noodles into it -- a very big sign that he wasn’t ready for the details that come with the responsibility of a dinner party. To his credit the fish was properly cooked and seasoned well.
Ryan did something unusual. He made fish tacos that swam onto the plate without the tacos. How did he do it? By creating corn-nut foam. The tacos were served with a mango-papaya salsa, which was tasty. But not tasty enough to offset a BIG problem and a BIG mistake: the tacos were salty as seawater. Ryan didn’t taste his food as he was preparing it. At this point in the blog, I should regale you with tales of how I, a trained professional, taste my food at every step along the way, and I should finish with the phrase “do try this at home.” Instead, I’ll ‘fess up that when I was a very young chef, sometimes I didn’t always taste what I was cooking. Now I do, always. You’ll learn much faster how flavors come together and how to build layers of flavor when you taste as you cook.
Jen brought her Chicken Amore to the table, although a few seconds late. I forgave her tardiness (and the fact she made a huge smoky mess in my kitchen) after I tasted her dish. In a word: Spectacular. More words: The wonderfully flavorful chicken breasts were sautéed accompanied by spaghetti in a delicious red sauce. It’s a dish I have had a million times, and I know they say familiarity breed’s contempt, but not this time. Against all odds her dish was heart warming and delicious.
Having a great dinner party with friends is all about getting a nice bunch of people together, having a good laugh, a great time, and great food. The choices I make during the Signature Challenge affect my guests’ happiness at the party. Based on what I tasted and observed, I selected Jen and Ryan to serve my guests. Fabio showed some passion, but when it came down to the wire, he was surpassed on several levels. I just didn’t think he could do a dinner party that would be up to my standards. Jen, by the way, won the Signature Dish Challenge.
Then I announced to Jen and Ryan the biggest challenge of all: your appetizer, entrée, dessert, and summer cocktail each had to be under 350 calories and 10 grams of fat with a note that, “My guests better not taste what they’re missing.”
The two chefs were shocked. Ryan said, “I’ve taken bites of food with more than 350 calories.”
I gave them a quick lesson and pep talk in how to develop the recipes and how to think in terms of low fat and low calorie. I emphasized aromatics like garlic and onion: Greek yogurt instead of sour cream, low-calorie seasonings, chicken stock that stands in for high-calorie oil, and more. Sure, making salmon with Béarnaise sauce and chocolate mousse is satisfying to a chef, but creating something equally wonderful and low in calories is an even greater achievement. I actually showed them how to make delicious low calorie fried chicken.
Successful dinner parties are all about the little touches. Guests notice the attention to detail and are wowed by them. Jen picked my Terrace Room for her dinner party and had it decorated in a South Beach theme with white sofas, a tented dining table, tiki torches – a real Miami vibe. Ryan brought the beach to the table: shells, message in a bottle, candles, surfboards, a cabana-type feel.
Getting the right mix of people at a dinner party is important too. Last night, I hosted a cool group:
Chazz Palminteri. Chazz is an actor with a long list of film, TV, and stage credits. You’ve seen him in movies, including Analyze This, The Usual Subjects, A Bronx Tale, Mulholland Falls, and Diabolique.
Betty Wong. Betty is the editor in chief of Fitness Magazine and a good friend. She is also a great athlete; she just ran a half marathon!
Joe Dowdell. Joe is a celebrity fitness trainer and owner of one of the top gyms in the country, Peak Performance, in New York City.Damaris Lewis. Damaris is a Brooklyn-born swimsuit model that has appeared in Sports Illustrated and Victoria’s Secret, among others.
Jung Lee. Jung is the co-owner and co-founder of Fête, a full-service event planning and design production firm
Jeffrey Ross. Also known as the Roastmaster General, Jeff is a comedian with a lot of TV and media credits, and has entertained U.S. troops in Iraq. I met Jeff when we both competed on the 7th season of Dancing with the Stars. Jeff got booted off first; I followed a few shows afterward.
When they arrived I served them a glass of Torre Oria Rosado Cava and told them what I had up my sleeve. Everybody was super-fitness conscious, but Jeff didn’t want to eat healthy food. He was proud of his “smorgasbord abs” and wanted to keep them that way. Not only that, he wasn’t much of a fish eater. I took Jeff back to the kitchen; we asked the chefs to fix a few of Jeff’s favorite foods, but to downsize them to fit the healthy theme of the party. Ryan, who is a big fan, said, “Anything for Jeff Ross.” I loved his attitude.
When I heard that Jen was attempting her recipes for the first time, I turned into a quivering mass of Jell-O. I mean, who does that at a dinner party? It isn’t an experiment. With the exception of re-working the calories and fat, she should have stuck to recipes she’s perfected, rather than exploring the world of culinary dishes she’d never tried before. I didn’t want any unexpected surprises on the night of this event.
Well, anyway, here was her menu: Grilled Sea Scallops with Tequila Lime Agave Sauce, paired with Avocado Mousse; BBQ Pork Tenderloin with Rice and Beans; and a Passion Fruit Mousse Trifle. Her cocktail was a Coco Loco Spritzer. I will give Jen this: she tasted her scallops and they tasted like rubber. She did a brilliant course-correction and substituted shrimp instead. I didn’t even know it until later. Jen is a kick in the kitchen. Her Avocado Mousse, which she put in the freezer, froze in its piping bag. Disaster, but she recovered. Good chefs have to improvise on the fly. And since Jeff doesn’t eat scallops this decision worked out perfectly.
Ryan’s menu was: Grilled Sea Scallops with Tomato and Watermelon Salad (good thing Jen had to switch to shrimp or I think we would have all OD’d on scallops); Poached Cod with Cucumber Edamame Puree; and Strawberry Balsamic Parfait with Greek Yogurt, vanilla beans and fresh strawberries. He made Margaritas for our cocktail.Ryan’s party went first. Ryan whipped up a chicken salad appetizer for Jeff, made with zero mayonnaise. Jeff loved it; he couldn’t tell it was sans mayonnaise. With that move, Ryan started to score points with me. But the cod got mixed reviews, and the dessert was uninspired in presentation and taste. Low-calorie food does not have to taste boring. Ryan’s did, unfortunately. Luckily, we were able to wash it all down with Ryan’s tangy, low-sugar margs. I’ve had never had a margarita I didn’t like.
When everyone walked in Jen’s party, they fell so in love with the stylish Miami-South Beach décor that I thought I was going to have overnight guests. Jen started us out with her Coco Loco Spritzer, made with vodka and coconut water. Everyone loved it too, and Joe said that if you want to drink alcohol and still diet, vodka is your best bet because it is the lowest of the low in sugar and carbs.
Jen’s Pork Tenderloin was a good choice. Pork tenderloin is moist and lower in calories and fat than other cuts of pork. But too much ketchup in the sauce can ruin the perfectly good taste of the meat, and in the opinion of a couple of my guests that’s what happened here. I loved the dish. Jen put her heart and soul into that trifle. It looked and tasted like a high-end gourmet dessert - proving that you can be on a diet and you don’t have to abandon dessert. Jeff thought it tasted like baby food. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. Some people like baby food. They even put it in soups and cakes. I ate Gerber’s vanilla custard pudding till I was… well...I am not going to say.
But the best dish of the night was what she prepared to accommodate Jeff: Matzoh Brei. This traditional Passover dish is an omelet-like mixture of eggs and pieces of matzoh fried together. You can put other ingredients in it, like vegetables. It’s open to interpretation, and Jen’s was as Jeff put it: “Matzoh brei’s greatest moment!” It can be fattening too, but Jen brought hers in at 190 calories and 8 grams of fat.
Ryan and Jen both rose to the occasion and proved that eating “diet food” doesn’t have to taste like you’re chewing on a rubber tire. They’re great chefs, and this competition was razors-edge close. Ultimately I chose Jen, and I think I made the right choice.
Thank you to all my amazing guests: Chazz, Betty, Joe, Damaris, Jung, and Jeff. You created a lively evening with great conversations and great stories.
See you on the treadmill.