By the book 

click to enlarge food-pyramid_220jpg
Source: USDA

Making a communal USDA-approved meal proves tasty and healthy

The United States Department of Agriculture, in collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services, released new federal dietary guidelines in January. Since 1980, the USDA has been required by law to review evolving scientific data on how American diets can be healthier, and publish its findings every five years. Forget expanding waistlines, super-sized portions, and sedentary lifestyles; conscientious diners need to follow the USDA's rigorous and broad directives. The revamped guidelines incorporate the latest science-based research advocating that we make smart choices from every food group, find a balance between food intake and physical activity (a minimum of 30 minutes a day), and get the most nutrition out of our calories.

I decided to build a meal around the USDA food pyramid, the visual aid for the five food groups, which is scheduled for release this spring to dovetail with the guidelines. I needed to create a meal emphasizing fruits, vegetables, fat-free or low-fat milk products, lean meats, and other items low in saturated fats and trans fats, with little cholesterol and minimal sugar and salt. Carbs are OK, as long as they come in the form of whole grains.

I needed someplace to start, and it didn't take me long to find Wegmans, a grocery based in Rochester, New York with stores scattered across the mid-Atlantic. Their website offers numerous recipes in the "Eat Well, Live Well" section that are easy, quick, and follow the new recommendations. I browsed a few for inspiration and guidance, planning a loose menu around a theme. Now all I needed was a little help from my friends.

I informed my cooking buddies that we were preparing a "USDA meal," and must strictly adhere to the new rules. I advised each person to bring an unprepared vegetable or fruit, enough for six people; I would supply the remaining ingredients. This vagueness didn't fly with a couple of folks, so I enticed them further with a hint that we were preparing something Eastern-inspired. With that hook, the evening unfolded with provisions of spinach, endive, curries, feta, pine nuts, dried currants, pita, tomatoes, and mint crowding the kitchen. I printed the new guidelines and posted them throughout the kitchen as a helpful reminder that we had to follow the rules.

The meal we had in mind was nutrient-dense, with nay a nutritionist or bureaucrat in the house. Surveying the goods, we began assigning duties and determining appetizers. Liz stood at the sink, triple-washing the fine spinach she brought from a friend's garden. Katy washed, trimmed, and separated the sturdy leaves of her endive. Lindsey polished her stout cherry tomatoes. Someone noted that the slab of low-fat feta and tomatoes would be nice to munch. After seasoning both with a little pepper, Italian spices, and only one tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, we placed the feta in a Pyrex dish with the tomatoes and baked at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes. We cut the pita into triangles and baked it, and paired the crisp endive with the smooth feta. The appetizer tasted sinfully good and shockingly healthy.

On to the main course. I decided on boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Charlie trimmed the excess fat, mindful, as he pointed at the posted USDA diagram, of the safety tips for working with raw meats. We paused and applauded.

After we finished prepping the veggies and eyeballing the ingredients, including some cinnamon sticks and whole cloves someone pulled from the dark recesses of my pantry, cooking commenced. We blanched and shocked the spinach, reserving it for later. We browned the thighs with a tablespoon of olive oil and added onions. Once the onions were translucent, we threw in cloves, cinnamon, cumin seeds, and the currants, which had been reconstituted with warm water to plump them to their former glory. The dish, heavily caramelized at this point, prompted some final ingredients of red curry sauce, minced ginger, and mint. Reducing the heat and simmering for another 8 to 10 minutes produced thighs at the recommended 165 degrees. We added the reserved spinach to the pan and heated it through, while cinnamon sticks and whole cloves were removed. A nice chiffonade of mint atop each dish looked bright and enticing.

Nutritional value for the entire evening breaks down into about 2 cups of vegetables, 1/2 cup fruit, 1/2-ounce low-fat milk product, 1-2 ounces of whole grains, and a 5-ounce serving of lean meat. Each serving of the main course - one chicken thigh and 1/2 cup spinach with sauce - contains about 300 calories, 10 grams of carbohydrates, 6 grams of fiber, 25 grams of protein, 12 grams of fat (4 saturated), 85 milligrams of cholesterol, and 430 milligrams of sodium. All of which fell within USDA recommendations.

It can distract from the pleasure of cooking to count calories but the lesson is to make sure calories count in nutrition and satisfaction. We got plenty of both that night.

P.S. Don't forget the gym.

By Melissa Sutherland-Amado

USDA guidelines: healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines
Wegmans: wegmans.com/eatwelllivewell/


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