Remaking 'comfort food' for the health-conscious
May 24, 1999
By CNN Interactive Writer Sue Hoye
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Cookbook author and food columnist Jeanne Jones saw an untapped market and wasn't afraid to make it her own.
Her talent? Taking those fat-laden recipes that have been handed down generation to generation and making them lower in fat, cholesterol and sodium while still retaining the great tastes that made them family favorites in the first place.
"I've been called the 'Dear Abby' of the food world," she says. "You don't send me your personal problems; you send me your recipes that are in trouble."
Since her first book in 1971, "The Calculating Cook," she has written more than 30 low-fat cookbooks. Her 15-year-old nationally syndicated food column is read in more than 100 newspapers by more than 30 million people.
Jones is also a contributing editor to "Cooking Light" magazine and writes occasional columns for "San Diego Magazine" and "Prevention." Her "Canyon Ranch Cooking" cookbook, released last year, reflects her work on menu development with the famous Canyon Ranch Health Spas since their beginnings almost 20 years ago.
Jones believes her new book, "Homestyle Cooking Made Healthy," responds to Americans' nostalgia for the food their grandmothers made.
"I had so much fun writing this," Jones says. She got her focus for this latest work from the thousands of letters she receives each month for her column.
"I can keep my finger on the pulse of what people really want. Right now it is nostalgia, it is the food of the '50s and '60s. It's what we had at Grandma's house, it is comfort food, things like meat loaf and mashed potatoes, stroganoff," she says.
Each recipe contains a chart telling how much fat and how many calories each serving contained before Jones' makeover, and how much it contains in her revised recipe. There is also a breakdown of calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates and protein at the bottom of each recipe.
Some of the most useful information in the book is called "How to Revise a Recipe." This chapter walks readers through how to remake their own recipe collections. There are three basic steps.
Jones says first you look at each ingredient in the original recipe and decide whether there are any nutritional concerns. "If there is nothing wrong with it, there's no need to change it," she says.
Next you figure out what function the ingredient has. Usually things are in a recipe for two reasons, according to Jones: taste or texture. Finally you come up with solutions or improvements. In the end, you have a whole new recipe.
Sounds easy, right? Even Jones admits it isn't always easy to remake a recipe. It can take her up to 10 tries to get the right balance of ingredients. When she is working on a revision, she makes the original recipe first.
"Without making the original, you really can't know exactly where you are going as far as taste and texture is concerned," Jones says.
There are those times a recipe just can't be revised. "Sometimes you realize you are never ever going to be able to revise that particular dish to have anything close to the integrity of the original," Jones says. "I really stand behind every revision in this book as being a truly delicious dish. If I didn't think it was, it just didn't go in."
The coffee cake challenge
We decided to give Jones a family recipe for cinnamon swirl coffee cake and see what she could do with it. She wasn't able to test this one by making the original first, but she was more than up to the challenge. She began furiously scratching notes on our recipe and in less than five minutes had a revision.
"Well, I've been doing this for 25 years," she says.
In a recipe that originally contained 13 tablespoons of butter, she cut that almost in half. She changed the whole milk to buttermilk, upped the amount of vanilla, suggested toasting the nuts, and added baking soda.
The final result was tested informally by six people. Everyone liked both versions of the cake, and all agreed that if you were concerned about lowering your fat intake, the revised version was a good match to the original.
Some even liked the revision better because the toasted nuts gave it a richer flavor. Others were gluttons for butter and said they still preferred all the fat, but in the end, the low-fat version was gone before the original.
While living in Mexico City in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she started Kilo Kounters, a company that functioned a lot like Weight Watchers. Jones wrote all the recipes and menus for the group, and eventually she had a collection of recipes she considered the makings of a book. During a visit with her mother in California, she started looking for a publisher.
Her search consisted of visiting bookstores and gourmet shops, looking at books until she found some she liked. She chose a publisher whose books she considered "upbeat and fun." Jones called the company, 101 Productions, pitched her book and arranged a meeting at the yearly conference of the American Booksellers Association.
Publisher Charles Scribner, of Charles Scribner's Sons, met Jones at her pitch meeting and according to Jones said, "'Jeanne, I don't know if you can write a book, but you can sure as hell sell one, and that's what we're always looking for.'"
The result was "The Calculating Cook" -- the first book approved by the American Diabetes Association for use by diabetics. Her second book, containing low-cholesterol, low-saturated fat recipes, "Diet for a Happy Heart," was recommended by the American Heart Association.
"If you can believe that long ago, in the early '70s, food editors all asked me what saturated fat was. They really didn't even know what cholesterol was; they knew you weren't supposed to have a lot of it.... I was the only author at that time in the world who had a nutritional outline at the bottom of every recipe," Jones says.
The food world has changed a lot since then. Publishing sees a lot more low-fat cookbooks. Jones says she's considering a change of pace for book number 33.
"After writing 32 cookbooks, I'm seriously considering doing a lifestyle-type book as my next book, with the same kind of focus I have in my cookbooks," she says. "That is that common sense and moderation are the key to life and certainly the key to weight maintenance and to health."
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