Eating healthy doesn't mean there isn't room for occasional treats like Chinese takeout or a drive-thru for our favorite one-of-a-kind cheeseburger. As long as we keep these kinds of meals reserved for true cravings, not convenience, then I can probably keep our healthy eating in check.
For regular weeknights, building up a repertoire of fast, tasty and healthy versions of the family's favorite dishes is the best strategy to avoid ordering fast food simply because I'm so hungry I no longer care what you eat as long as it's quick. (Nothing worse than scarfing down a pizza that I didn't truly enjoy.)
What if there was a way to incorporate some of these drool-worthy indulgences into a normal weeknight menu? Kung Pao Cod scratches the itch of the Chinese takeout craving, but for a fraction of the calories, fat and cost. I keep the main flavors of traditional Kung Pao, but swap out fried chicken or shrimp for pan-seared cod, which means lots of protein comes with healthier fat. I keep the cod in whole fillet form, which means the fish stays together better, and no time is lost on cubing meat. I pan-sear the fillets and then pour the sauce over the fish just before serving. The mild fish takes on the complex flavors readily, even without the typical marinating of Kung Pao.
To add even more nutrients, I bulk up the dish with quick-cooking and healthy mushrooms and peppers. And the sauce is simplified to save time: I whisk all the ingredients into one bowl and dump it all at once into the pan, and cook it only for a minute or so. Small tweaks make this recipe weeknight-speedy and weeknight-healthy, too.
KUNG PAO COD
Start to finish: 25 minutes
6 fillets of cod, or other firm fish about 2 pounds total
1 tablespoon reduced sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons neutral oil, like grapeseed oil
2 teaspoons sesame oil
8 ounces white mushrooms, sliced
¾ cup thinly sliced bell pepper (red, orange or yellow preferred)
½ cup unsalted peanuts, shelled
½ cup chopped green onion
cilantro leaves for garnish, optional
⅓ cup reduced sodium soy sauce
⅔ cup water
3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic, minced
¼-½ teaspoon (to taste) red pepper flakes (or Szechuan seasoning, or chili paste)
Heat a large nonstick saute pan on medium high heat. On a cutting board or plate, drizzle the tablespoon of soy sauce over both sides of the cod fillets, and gently pat away the excess with a paper towel. Sprinkle the cornstarch over both sides of the fish, and gently pat away or brush away any excess. (They should barely be dusted with cornstarch.) Place the neutral oil in the pan, and once hot, cook the cod just until golden brown and cooked through, turning once, about 4 minutes per side.
Meanwhile, whisk all the sauce ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside. Remove cod from heat and set aside on a warm plate. Add the sesame oil, mushrooms and sliced peppers to the pan and cook a minute or two until vegetables begin to soften. Add the peanuts and half of the green onion and cook another minute.
Pour all of the sauce ingredients from the bowl into the pan. It will thicken almost immediately. Stir and remove from heat. Spoon the Kung Pao sauce over the fish to serve, and sprinkle with remaining green onion and cilantro, if using.
Nutrition information per serving: 202 calories; 47 calories from fat; 5 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 65 mg cholesterol; 318 mg sodium; 8 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 31 g protein.
Food Network star Melissa d'Arabian is an expert on healthy eating on a budget. She is the author of the cookbook, "Supermarket Healthy."