Get Me Away From the Nut Dish

It’s the first quarter of the year and much of the world is dieting. Our hostess with the mostess—herself a frequent partygoer—discusses what to serve guests who are watching their girlish figures.

On being told how thin she looks, the Emily Blunt character in The Devil Wears Prada exults that she is just one stomach flu away from her goal weight.

It’s probably the most quoted line in the film because it sends up the daily battle we fight with the scale—well, most of us, anyway. The struggle becomes even more difficult when one has a social life. We go to brunches, cocktail parties, dinner parties in people’s homes. Who wants to be that cheerless guest who is starving herself—or himself, as the case may be? The battle becomes so much easier when we are offered healthy options. As hosts, this becomes our challenge. Any half-wit can make something delicious using unlimited quantities of butter, heavy cream and cheese. It takes finesse to serve fare that is healthy, yet special enough to qualify as party food.

As we head into swimsuit season, that finesse is particularly appreciated. Here are some ideas, course by course, for healthy dinner-party menu selections.

First, Cocktails

Booze is so fun. And so fattening. Even an innocent-looking shot of vodka has a hundred calories. Certain mixers, such as tonic or orange juice (both loaded with sugar), send the tally through the roof. I personally believe that a cocktail or two at a party is worth the splurge, especially when made less heinous by the use of low-cal mixers, like club soda and diet soft drinks. Always have them on hand in your bar. My new favorite adult beverage consists of the best mixer of all—water, about three fingers—combined with a bracing shot of Templeton Rye whiskey (the bottle is so handsome!), no ice.

Here’s a refreshing party drink, relatively low in calories: mix one part grapefruit juice, one part Fresca and one part white rum. Pour over ice with sprigs of mint and basil.

When serving a special drink, it’s thoughtful to have options for calorie-conscious guests. If you’re making a pitcher of ‘ritas, have a bottle of Skinnygirl Margaritas on hand. Skinnygirl also makes Mojito, Cosmopolitan and Pina Colada products, none as good as the real thing, but not half bad. Stay away from the Skinnygirl Wine, though—not good. Speaking thereof, wine has lots of calories, too, but this fact is simply too painful to discuss.

No Thanks, Trying to Quit

It’s so easy to go sideways when confronted with the classic snacks we serve and get served during drinks. People love mixed nuts and Goldfish, and they shouldn’t be denied them. But a little platter of crudités is deeply appreciated by certain of us who mindlessly munch while we sip and chat. I want to hug the host when I see jicama sticks, kale chips or a bowl of SkinnyPop.

Salad Goes with Everything

“Let things taste of what they are,” says organic-food activist Alice Waters, who probably would agree that a simple green salad is an endlessly interesting first course, especially when lightly dressed with a good vinaigrette. No one will miss the croutons or fattening “mix-ins” if you use a superlative combination of lettuces. Romaine, radicchio, arugula and endive look and taste glorious together, and all are available in the organic produce section of most supermarkets.

Life is too short to use cheap vinegar or olive oil in a vinaigrette.The good stuff makes all the difference. A tablespoon of minced shallots takes any vinaigrette right over the top.

Nothing More Adaptable Than Soup

Soup, the dieter’s hero, can be a terrific first course for a dinner party or—with a hearty enough recipe—an inspired main course. The diet-conscious will appreciate not being tempted by bisques and other cream-based soups. Do you have an immersion blender? Mine has become my new bff while I’ve gone on a mad jag of making wholesome, broth-based vegetable soups and pureeing them, as they sit in their pots, into little oceans of creaminess that taste decadent but are not. That reed-thin bee-otch, Gwyneth Paltrow, has a recipe in My Father’s Daughter for broccoli-cheese soup that tastes sinful but is mostly broccoli and vegetable stock with a little bit of Stilton tossed in. It is a nice first course for a big-deal dinner party or a satisfying main course for a casual one, especially if feeding vegetarians.

The Main Thang

For a dinner party, I am wont to do idiot-proof one-dish main courses, like Boeuf Bourguignon or Lasagna Bolognese. Delicious, but a million calories a bite. I have been trying alternatives.

Giada De Laurentiis, in Giada’s Feel Good Food, thoughtfully provides the calorie counts for all of her recipes. Her Noodle Paella, made with whole-wheat spaghetti, is authentic-tasting, easy to make, and only 350 calories for a good-sized serving.

Mark Bittman’s Braised Fish, Pot-Roast Style is scrumptious made with halibut. He does want you to fling some chopped potatoes into it. You could substitute parsnips I suppose, although that seems a little draconian. You don’t want to become known as the host who serves rabbit food.

My friend Brian Justice, he of the famous pot roast (and he who illustrates this column) tells me he has found the Paleo eating system website (paleoplan.com) an excellent source for genuinely tasty and healthy recipes. “And they’re all very simple and use very few ingredients,” he says. “In fact I just made a pork tenderloin with blueberry sauce that was delicious!”

And Speaking of Blueberries

Healthy desserts are easy to figure out in the summer and early fall, when we have an abundance of fresh berries, cherries and peaches, which need little or no adornment. This time of year is a little trickier. Ina Garten, who seldom disappoints, in Barefoot Contessa Parties gives us a stellar recipe, Perfect Poached Fruit, just right for a late winter/early spring party, with Bosc pears, dried figs, apricots and prunes. You can make it the day before; it only gets better as it sits.

Almost any fruit is delicious when it is sliced or chopped, placed on a half-sheet, dusted cut-side up with sugar, popped into a 450 degree oven until caramelized, then spritzed with a little orange juice. You even can do this with frozen fruit, providing you thaw it first.

Meringue is another gift to the weight conscious. In her aforementioned book, Miz Paltrow’s recipe for Blueberry Pavlova, using medallions of meringue, is fabulous, especially if you substitute vanilla yogurt for the whipping cream.

The recipes mentioned herein can be found online with a little clicking around. But if you’d rather, email me and I will send you any recipe you want. I love hearing from readers!

Crudités: Not forever on the hips

Guilt-free finger food, to the diet-conscious party guest, is a thrilling sight. Show ‘em the love by providing a platter of interesting veggies accompanied by a low-fat dip or two. Here are some suggestions for exceptional crudités. Note: avoid broccoli. It funks up the room, and no one ever touches it.

  • Blanched Haricot Verts
  • Asparagus (should be lightly blanched if thick)
  • Jicama Sticks
  • Belgian Endive Leaves (natural scoops!)
  • Steamed Radishes
  • Sugar Snap Peas, trimmed
  • Tiny Purple or Yellow Carrots, scrubbed but not peeled, blanched if tough
  • Kohlrabi, cut into very thin rounds
  • Fennel Bulbs, thinly sliced lengthwise with core intact
  • Mushrooms
  • Turnips, peeled, each cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges
  • Cherry Tomatoes

Accompany with raita, pico de gallo, black bean dip, or cannellini bean spread. Email me for recipes!

Questions About Entertaining?

Merrily would love to answer them. Email them to her at: essentialentertaining@spaceskc.com.