For many heart and diabetes patients, lean proteins in the form of poultry and fish are one of the main components of a healthy food plan. Doctors and dietitians have suggested making these lean meats the centerpiece of our eating lifestyle, so our recipes and cooking strategies revolve around them.
For heart patients, chicken is one of the most-recommended proteins. This is primarily because of the low amount of saturated fat it contains: with skin and fat removed, chicken is a remarkably healthy source of protein. This is also helped by the fact that the fat it does have is not “marbled” throughout the meat, as is often the case with beef.
If chicken is going to be a staple of your new lifestyle, it will be important to have multiple strategies for making delicious dishes for it, especially if carry-out fried chicken was your go-to chicken dish in your former life.
There are so many ways to make chicken, but many ways to ruin it as well. Chicken that is cooked to perfection without being overdone can be one of the healthiest and most enjoyable parts of your new lifestyle.
White meat: Chicken breast, or white meat, is easy to find, cooks quickly, and is incredibly versatile. Cooked just to doneness, it’s outstanding on its own as chicken tenders (cook in olive oil and use your favorite salt-free seasonings). It can also be cut horizontally, pounded out and sautéed as cutlets.
If you want to make a couple of exceptions, you can coat it first with a little panko for crunch, add some no-sodium Italian sauce on top and a little parmesan cheese for chicken parmesan.
The important thing to know with chicken breast is that it is easy to overcook, so you’ll want to watch it closely until you have the cooking method down pat. Overcooked chicken breast is chewy, dry, and will NOT inspire you to want to continue this lifestyle. But cooked just right, paired with a healthy fat (like olive oil) and some favorite vegetables and seasonings, it can and should become a favorite.
Dark meat: Chicken thighs are much more forgiving than chicken breast. You can sauté them in olive oil on the stovetop, bake them in foil packets in the oven with vegetables, or whatever your favorite style is, and if they’re cooked a little too long, they will still taste great.
Skin and fat: even chicken has fat, but it tends to be in clumps instead of marbled. If you’re in a hurry, you’ll want to buy skinless, boneless parts, but even those will have some fat. Most of it will cook off, but if you’re saving the juices you will need to deglaze the meat and any vegetables you cooked it with.
Roasting it whole: if you have a recipe (adaptable to low sodium, of course) with the right timing and temperature to roast a whole chicken without over cooking the white meat, go for it. We have found that roasting a whole, uncut chicken leads to either undercooked legs and thighs or overcooked white meat. Dry, chewy white chicken meat is not our favorite.
Spatchcock: It’s more than just a fun word that is not recognized by your spellchecker. YouTube has multiple videos that show how to essentially cut out the backbone of a whole chicken and trim at the front of the breastbone to make it lie flat. This makes the thickness of the chicken more even throughout, so that it’s easier to roast without anything being overcooked or undercooked.
Sautéing: sautéing individual skinless and boneless chicken pieces on the stovetop allows you to keep an eye on how done the meat is and stop the cooking process as soon as it’s done. Your next BFF might be skinless, boneless thighs sautéed in some olive oil, slathered with your favorite toppers and/or salt-free seasoning.
Slow cooker: Slow cooked chicken in the slow cooker is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the meat will be deliciously tender after simmering all day. However, fat will cook off of if you’re cooking pieces that still have skin and/or fat (rather than skinless/boneless trimmed pieces). Skinless, boneless chicken can be cooked in the slow cooker, but remember that the undesirable characteristics of overcooked chicken breast can develop no matter what the cooking style.
Rotisserie chicken: as a time saver, a quick healthy dinner and a source of bones and scraps for making broth, a great rotisserie chicken is hard to beat. We look for organic chicken without added sodium.
Whatever method you choose for cooking, chicken offers more than just a healthy dinner. Leftovers can become chicken salad, and bones and scraps can become the base for an exquisite homemade broth. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Much of what we say above about chicken is also true of turkey. The dark meat is much more forgiving, and the light meat requires special care to avoid making it overcook and dry out. Dark meat in turkey drumsticks might still have a pinkish tone even when it is completely well done, so it might be helpful to use a meat thermometer if you’d like an extra comfort level that it is fully done.
In some stores, turkey is not even available year-round; apparently, some merchants think it is in demand only at Thanksgiving. But, if you are limiting yourself to poultry and fish, turkey provides a nice variation from even the most varied range of chicken dishes.
Turkey drumsticks are an easy slow cooker dinner, and the leftovers are great for a Skillet Hash. The all-day cooking strategy can assure that they’re well done, and the most cooking method helps keep them from drying out. Paired with some steamed vegetables, a topper or sauce and a bit of whole grain bread, it makes a healthy meal without using up any salt or fat allowances.
Turkey burgers, when made with a little extra TLC, are an excellent alternative to hamburgers. The key is to mix olive oil (or another healthy oil) into the meat, and ideally some finely chopped and sautéed vegetables as well, to put moisture into the burgers. Top them with a mushroom or peppers and onions mixture and you won’t even miss the saturated fat, the bun, or the cheese.
Ground turkey is also great in chili and meat loaf. With our Turkey Chili and Turkey Meat Loaf recipes, you won’t miss the hamburger or salt in the traditional products.
Seafood has long been a favorite at our house (especially for Allison), so buying and preparing fresh, gleaming white fish filets of all sorts was already a habit. Wayne’s preferences lean toward mild white fish, and he avoids contact with shellfish at all costs, so we have focused primarily on white fish filets:
- Cod is a favorite and usually not expensive. The loin pieces tend to be thicker and less likely to have bones than the filets, but both are easy to find bone-free and fresh;
- Halibut and Haddock and Flounder are a little harder to find, slightly more expensive, and a little more firm. They are good for grilling or other dishes where you don’t want the fish to fall apart;
- Sea bass is among the most expensive white fish, very rich in oil and therefore with a silky smooth flavor.
With any fish, we have a practice of eating it within 24 hours of purchase, and using up (or discarding) any leftovers within 24 hours of cooking. When we plan fish for dinner, we generally have it the day we buy it. Yes, you can freeze fish, but often the fish you buy fresh from the butcher was already frozen before and has been thawed for your convenience. We generally don’t like to buy any fresh fish that we’re not going to use right away, but we don’t object to buying unprocessed fish filets frozen and thawing them later for a meal.
When thawing fish, you will want to thaw it gently overnight, in the refrigerator. If you get to dinnertime and failed to do so, it’s probably better to make other plans than to try to thaw it quickly. The ice crystals in fish will damage the flesh if they are thawed too quickly, making it mushy. After it has thawed overnight, rinse it gently in cold water and pat dry before cooking.
Easy meals with fish: There are few meals easier or healthier than a fresh filet of mild white Sautéed Fish, cooked in a little olive oil, seasoned with your favorite flavors and accompanied by some Steamed Vegetables with your favorite sauce or topping. We keep saying “your favorite” because we realize there are many taste preferences. We love garlic/herb type seasonings, such as the Mrs. Dash variety, or Penzeys’ blend “Sunny Paris.” But we also love salt-free Cajun seasoning, Benson’s Table Tasty, and numerous other excellent salt free seasonings.
Another delicious way to cook fish filets is with an indoor (or outdoor) grill, which can create a crispy sear on the outside that you simply won’t get in a pan on a home stove. We like to brush them with some flavored olive oil or some trans-fat free tub margarine (or butter, if we’re using a saturated fat allowance) and a little lemon.
If you want another alternative to eating fish filets the traditional way, consider Fish Tacos; the tender filet in a crunchy corn shell with some Pico de Gallo and a little lettuce and onion makes a great combination.
Why no mention of beef? We have not focused on beef since the diagnosis of heart disease, because even though some doctors doubt that it needs to be off limits entirely, it is clear that beef fat is a major source of saturated fat. We no longer cook with hamburger for that reason. On the few occasions that we do prepare beef, we look for a very lean round or shoulder roast that is not marbled, and that has fat only in isolated spots where we can easily remove all of it. For the sake of convenience, we have included our method of preparing Slow Cooked Roast Beef, but we do suggest making sure it is completely lean.