July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:55 PM
"In this column a few weeks ago, I included a recipe for extra rich ice cream, so I thought I should balance things out with a few lighter, healthier recipes. For about three years, while it lasted, I was a member of a group called Project LEAN, (Low Fat Eating for America). Funded by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, the project was a national public education campaign designed to encourage Americans to reduce their daily consumption of fat. As a working member of the project, I was involved with a group of 30 prominent chefs, television personalities, food writers and nutritionists from across the country. Members included now famous Emeril Lagasse (who at the time was much thinner than he is now), Jacques Pepin, Martin Yan, CNN's Carolyn O'Neil, and many other big names. Our job was to develop great tasting, low-fat recipes that were later featured in a Project LEAN cookbook and a special edition of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. As recently as 50 years ago, most Americans were not familiar with words like saturated fat, heart disease and cholesterol. Fortunately, times have changed and many of us are more health conscious. I have a cookbook called America Cooks, written by Cora, Rose and Bob Brown in 1941. In it, they describe an all-American practice of hanging a hunk of bacon fat from a rafter over the dining room table. It served as a handy lubricant for bread and swung within reach of every diner, who reached for it in turn, and sometimes snapped of a juicy chunk with bare teeth, they wrote. No thanks. Cookbooks published in the mid-1900s recommended serving butter at every meal. And cooks did not hesitate to use ample supplies of other fats and oils. We fried chicken and chittlins, baked buttery biscuits and spread them with more butter, baked crisp pie crusts filled with lard or Crisco. It is hard to imagine that Americans now consume a greater percentage of calories from fat than we did back then, but it's true. In the early to mid-1900s, the dietary fat intake of most Americans dietary was at a 30 percent level, exactly the level currently recommended by major health organizations across the nation. Unfortunately, most Americans now consume 40 percent or more of their daily calories as fat (much in the form of fast-food or junk food). As science has shown, too much fat and cholesterol in our systems can lead to heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and some types of cancer. Coincidentally, at the time I was involved with Project LEAN my stepfather suffered a heart attack. He and my mother both learned that they had super-high levels of bad cholesterol, and immediately went on a healthy low-fat diet I was fortunate to be able to share with them the wonderful recipes developed by the inspired chefs of Project LEAN. The good news is that, after following their new diet for a few years, my parents reduced their bad cholesterol levels dramatically and are both healthy and happy. These are two of my favorite recipes developed during my involvement with Project LEAN: Black bean pate This makes a delicious dip for raw vegetables, and a great spread for crackers. Covered and stored in the refrigerator it will keep up to a week and a half. If you prefer, you can substitute 4 cups of canned, precooked black beans. Rinse and drain the canned beans before pureeing. Makes about 5 cups 1 pound black beans (2 1/2 cups) 2 tablespoons salt 1 onion, chopped 1/2 cup chicken broth 2 tablespoons lime juice, freshly squeezed 1 tablespoon dry sherry 2 garlic cloves, minced 2 teaspoons cumin salt and black pepper to taste Rinse the beans and place them in a large kettle. Add enough hot water to cover the beans. Bring to a boil for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat and let the beans steep 1 hour. Drain the beans, return to the kettle and add more water to cover. Add 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the beans are tender. Drain and cool. In the bowl of a food processor, puree the beans with the onion, chicken broth, lime juice, sherry, garlic and cumin (working in batches if necessary). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Three bean chili Susie Heller, a wonderful chef who, at the time was working on a low-fat cookbook with Jacques Pepin, developed this recipe. Served with a crusty loaf of bread, it makes a great, quick one-dish meal. Serves 6 1 tablespoon olive oil 3 garlic cloves, minced 1 28-ounce can Italian-style tomatoes, diced, reserving liquid 1 cup water 1 6-ounce can tomato paste 1 tablespoon chili powder 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard 1 teaspoon dried basil, crushed 1 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed 1 15-ounce can red kidney beans, drained 1 15-ounce can Great Northern beans, drained 1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained 2 carrots, diced 1 cup fresh or frozen whole kernel corn 1 small zucchini, diced salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste a few dashes hot red pepper sauce 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese Heat a large soup kettle over medium heat. Add the olive oil and, when hot, stir in the garlic. Cook until garlic is lightly browned, then stir in the tomatoes, water, tomato paste, chili powder, mustard, basil, oregano, pepper, and cumin. Stir to combine. Add the beans, carrots, corn, and zucchini, and bring the chili to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Top each serving with a few dashes of hot pepper sauce and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. "