Originally created 06/14/06

Adapted recipes for fast food favorites



CONCORD, N.H. - I'm not a big fan of fast food.

Of course, we're talking about the Mc-Whopper-Mac-Filet-do-you-want-fries-and-a-shake-with-that? genre, rather than good food that happens to be quick to prepare.

It's not just that fast food is salty, fatty and of questionable nutritional value. I also dislike it for its role in undermining family meals.

While we can't entirely blame the fast food-ification of the American meal for the many pressures that pull families away from the dinner table, it certainly has made it easier for people to not push back.

Which isn't to say I don't enjoy the taste of franchise-style fast food. And we all should. Legions of food scientists have spent decades refining the flavors and textures of America's favorite burgers, fries and tacos. The food was designed to be loved.

So what's a healthy eater to do? Devin Alexander thinks she has the fix. Specifically, she has "Fast Food Fix" (Rodale, 2006, $14.95), a collection of more than 75 recipes for creating slimmed-down versions of ripped-from-the-menu fast foods.

For example, she has a version of KFC's Popcorn Chicken that saves 306 calories and 39 grams of fat per serving from the restaurant's version (which packs 660 calories and 44 grams of fat).

Or you could whip up a Taco Bell Mexican Pizza that sheds 105 calories and 25 grams of fat from the real thing.

Alexander's goal is to make it healthier - or at least slightly less guilt-inducing - to give in to fast food cravings. But she is unwilling to sacrifice flavor or the satisfaction of the fast food experience to do so.

And so she makes three promises: the serving sizes of her versions will be at least as large as the restaurant versions, the recipes will be easy to make and use common ingredients, and no fake meats (soy or otherwise) would make the cut.

Mind you, few of Alexander's recipes quite qualify as health food. But then, that's not the point. The goal really is "healthier," rather than healthy. And since you are cooking instead of cruising the drive-thru, the recipes also aren't quite as fast as the real thing.

But many of her recipes can be prepped in under 30 minutes (she flags those that can). Many also includes tips on steps that can be done the day before, as well as suggestions for trimming additional fat and calories.

For the burgers, many of her fat and calorie trimmings are thanks to leaner ground beef (she often uses 96 percent lean). She also exercises restraint on condiments. Sometimes too much so. Her version of Wendy's Big Bacon Classic calls for ¼ teaspoon of ketchup.

The chicken recipes cut calories and fat by turning to virtually fat-free skinless, boneless chicken breasts, and baking instead of frying. She uses a similar bread-and-bake technique on seafood, including shrimp that typically would have been fried.

I'll confess to initially dismissing Alexander's book. Recipes for replicating junk food generally make me roll my eyes (and bring to mind all those Web sites dedicated to helping cooks whip up batches of Twinkies at home).

But after a more careful examination, I started to appreciate her book for what it really is - recipes for tasty, all-American comfort food that's at least a little better for you than what you'd get if you bought the real thing.

When I recently tested the Big Bacon Classic, I was impressed by the finished product. The burger was great (though I admit I've never had Wendy's version, so I can't say how it compares).

The recipe was mostly clear, but her cooking time for the burger (1 to 2 minutes per side in a skillet set over medium-high heat) seemed off. I let them cook about 4 minutes per side and they still were pretty rare.

And I take issue with her ¼ teaspoon of ketchup. Why bother? I'll splurge for the extra calories and go wild with a whole teaspoon.

I also tried her recipe for McDonald's french fries, which calls for parboiling sliced potatoes for 2½ minutes before baking. The result was good, but I'm not sure the parboiling step made such a difference that I'd bother next time.

Her cooking time on the fries also seemed off. She calls for baking 20 to 25 minutes at 400 F, and turning the fries every five minutes. You might find once or twice is enough. I also found that after 35 minutes my fries remained pale, but a few minutes under the broiler nicely crisped the tops.

One final note: each recipe makes only one serving. For the burgers and other sandwiches, increasing the yield is easy. With the fries, this was more problematic, as the greater volume of potatoes throws off the parboiling time.

Wendy's Big Bacon Classic

(Start to finish 25 minutes)

3 ounces (about 1/3 cup) 96 percent lean ground beef

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 slices center-cut bacon

1 Kaiser-style hamburger bun (about 4 inches round)

1 slices yellow American cheese

1 large leaf iceberg lettuce

¼-inch slice tomato

¼-inch slice small white onion

1 teaspoon light mayonnaise

¼ teaspoon ketchup

5 rounds dill pickle

On a sheet of wax paper, shape the beef into a 4½-inch square patty. Lightly season both sides with salt. Transfer the waxed paper to a plate and place the patty, uncovered, in the freezer for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the bacon slices in a small, nonstick skillet set over a medium heat. Cook, flipping occasionally, for 4 to 6 minutes, or until cooked but not crisp. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Cover to keep warm.

Discard the bacon fat from the skillet and carefully wipe the skillet clean. Preheat the pan over a medium-high flame until drops of water sizzle when splashed on the pan. Place the patty in the pan and cook 1 to 2 minutes per side, or until no longer pink (see cooking note above).

Place the bun bottom on a plate. Top with the burger, then the cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato and onion, in that order. Spread the mayonnaise on the top half of the bun. Dollop on the ketchup, then place the pickles over it. Flip onto the burger.

Makes 1 serving.

Nutrition information per serving: 404 cal., 31 g pro., 42 g carbo., 14 g total fat, 4 g fiber (Original: 580 cal., 35 g pro., 46 g carbo., 29 g total fat, 3 g fiber).

(Recipe from Devin Alexander's "Fast Food Fix," Rodale, 2006, $14.95.)

McDonald's French Fries

(Start to finish 45 minutes)

1¾ teaspoons salt, divided

2 russet potatoes (about 1 pound)

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1 teaspoon salt.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 F.

Make straight cuts along the four sides of each potato to remove the peel (and cut the potato into a rectangle with rounded ends). With a vegetable peeler or small knife, peel the ends of the potatoes. Cut the potato ¼-inch-thick lengths.

Measure out about 2 cups (9 ounces) of fries and add them to the boiling water. Cook them for 2½ minutes (but no longer, as they will break). Drain and set aside to cool for 5 minutes.

Transfer the potatoes to a mixing bowl. Add the oil and ½ teaspoon salt. Carefully toss to coat. Place the potatoes, not touching, in a single layer on a nonstick baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, turning the fries every 5 minutes until crisp and golden. Sprinkle with remaining salt.

Makes 1 serving.

Nutrition information per serving: 244 cal., 5 g pro., 46 g carbo., 5 g total fat, 4 g fiber (Original: 350 cal., 5 g pro., 47 g carbo., 17 g total fat, 4 g fiber).

(Recipe from Devin Alexander's "Fast Food Fix," Rodale, 2006, $14.95.)