I recently had the good fortune to be able to "pick the brain" of Barry Bluestein, one of the country's more creative cooking talents -- especially in the low-fat arena. Barry and partner Kevin Morrissey are familiar to svelte cooks everywhere for their fabulous 99% Fat-Free series of books. But these authors don't limit themselves and they're nothing if not diverse. On the heels of Fat-Free cooking came The Complete Cookie, a comprehensive encyclopedia of everyone's favorite treats and The Bountiful Kitchen, which was nominated for a 1998 Julia Child Cookbook Award.
Barry comes from a long line of bakers, so his love of food and cooking is in the genes. Before beginning his prolific career as an author, he and Kevin were the owners of Seasoned To Taste, a Chicago store specializing in cookbooks.
On the phone from his Chicago home, Barry was animated and enthusiastic, displaying a natural good humor. Not only was he fun to talk to, he generously gave a lot of practical information that our readers will immediately be able to put to use in their own kitchens. So, enough of my rambling and on to the conversation with Barry Bluestein.
Cheri Sicard: I see that your recipes are really diverse. You went from The Complete Cookie to 99% Fat-Free Cooking. Was that born out of a need?
Barry Bluestein: It was born out of a need, but it was in reverse. The fat-free cooking and the healthy cooking came about because of health needs and concerns of customers. Back in the dark ages of the early 1990s and late 1980s, Kevin and I owned a cook book store here in Chicago called Seasoned to Taste, which is now defunct. We noticed that what people were coming into the store for at the time, and no one was truly addressing, was really upscale good food. Real food, healthy cooking. That's where the Fat-Free healthy series came out of.
The cookie book came out of my lifelong love with baking. I am a trained baker by family. My grandfather was an old world baker. He actually was a bread baker for the Waldorf Astoria for 40 years from the turn of the century until he retired in the early 1940s. My grandmother also was a baker and had her own bakery and restaurant in New York City. So I was taught by them. The cookie book came out of that love for baking, especially baking cookies. At the time, there hadn't been a really big comprehensive cookie book for at least 10 years.
Cheri Sicard: Back to the Fat-Free books for a moment -- they really deliver on the promise of a lot of flavor without the fat, which so many fat-free books don't.
Barry Bluestein: The only time we use phony food is for what I think they were truly invented for. In other words, as far as I'm concerned, fat-free cream cheese is only good to be used as a gum. It's something to hold something together. Our whole intent is to use real food and real taste. The problem you come up with when you do low fat cooking is, it's the fat and the oil that carries flavor. So you have to be very heavy handed on the flavor to really taste and to have the flavor carry through.
Cheri Sicard: Would you share your favorite fat-saving tip with our readers?
Barry Bluestein: It's actually not a new tip. It is a product that I fall in love with every time for low-fat cooking and that is buttermilk. Buttermilk, which is just a cultured skimmed milk, is very low in fat. It has properties that in some baking can replace butter. In our new book, Guilt Free Frying, it does something absolutely fabulous. If you go the old southern, black route of marinating chicken in buttermilk you are always told to do it for about two hours with a little salt. I learned if you do it for 36 hours with mustard, and you put skinless chicken on the bone into it with mashed garlic, and let it sit for 36 hours, the buttermilk actually creates a new skin. It creates a coating on the chicken! Then when you coat it in breadcrumbs and flour to create the crumb and then bake it at a high temperature in the oven, and you bite into it, you get that...you know when you bite into that "just-fried" fried chicken, there is that burst of liquid in your mouth, which is really the fat underneath the skin that gushes. In this case, what gushes in your mouth is the buttermilk. Because it has the garlic and the mustard, it does not have that tangy-ness of the buttermilk. It truly tricks you into thinking it's real fried chicken. Buttermilk, I have also learned, can be used in sauces to give a little buttery consistency on the tongue. It truly is one of my favorite all-time products.
Cheri Sicard: How about a favorite tool that you use in the kitchen to cut fat?
Barry Bluestein: For low fat/fat-free cooking, I have two favorite tools. One is the new pump bottle for olive oil. Quick Mister ? they have thousands of names. Some genius has made it in plastic and it is now less than $5, as opposed to the metal ones that were close to $20. By using those pumps and the vacuum, you control the quality of the oil. For a change, you could use really good olive oils. Most of the oils in the cans, the pre-made stuff, is not the highest of quality, let's say. The second problem is those cans have propellants and preservatives and all sorts of other stuff in them. When you use the vacuum misters, you are getting pure oil and you are controlling the quality of that oil.
Cheri Sicard: And the quantity.
Barry Bluestein: The other wonderful thing about it is that sprays equal about one teaspoon, depending on which kind of mister you are using. You are getting a fraction of a gram of fat. If you use high-quality olive oil, you can get a lot of flavor with very little fat.
Cheri Sicard: And your other favorite tool?
Barry Bluestein: There is a brand new set of inexpensive fry pans that are now produced with something from Dupont called "Scratch Guard." They are impossible to scratch. I have succeeded in cutting one, but I had to work real hard. Most pans are aluminum and are gauged by number, the lower the number the better the pan - 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 gauge. Calphalon is like an 8 or a 10 gauge. The weight is in the handle not in the pan. There are two brands that are 6 gauge, so they are very heavy pans. With the Scratch Guard on it, it really reduces the amount of the fat you have to use. You can use just a little butter and it will go a long way.