Cheese, If You Please

Not a day goes by that I don't enjoy a morsel or two of cheese. Maybe it's my 100% Dutch genetics (Holland is a big cheese producer); maybe it's my body craving calcium, since I'm not a big milk drinker.

Whatever the case, I always have several types of cheese in my refrigerator. I keep reduced-fat Jack and reduced-fat sharp cheddar in the cheese drawer of my fridge (because I make Mexican meals often). And I invariably have part-skim mozzarella and Parmesan shredded and ready to go (because I cook quick Italian cuisine even more often than Mexican).

Yes, it's true; cheese is a source of fat, cholesterol, and, more important, saturated fat. While the biggest source of saturated fat and cholesterol in the American diet is the meat food group (including beef, processed meats, eggs, poultry, and other meats), the milk group (including cream and cheese) is No. 2.

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But on the plus side, cheese is a great source of protein and calcium -- two nutrients many of us need more of. Just 2 ounces of reduced-fat cheese will give you 40% to 50% of the recommended daily value for calcium and some 15 grams of protein, all for an investment of just 160 to 180 calories.

Two ounces of regular cheese will give you about the same amount of calcium and protein, but the calorie and fat price tag will be steeper:

  • 228 calories
  • 19 grams of fat (compared with 10 grams to 12 grams)
  • 12 grams of saturated fat (compared with 8 grams)
  • 50 to 60 milligrams of cholesterol (compared with 30-40 milligrams)

6 Tips for Cooking With Cheese

What about using cheese in recipes when you're trying to eat less fat and saturated fat? You've got lots of choices here, folks. Here are 6 "Recipe Doctor" tips for cooking with cheese:

1. Cut fat and calories one of two ways: Use regular (full-fat) cheese, but just half the amount called for in the recipe (note that the protein and calcium will also be cut in half). Or, use the same amount of cheese the recipe calls for, but switch to a reduced-fat variety that tastes good and melts well. The calories go down by 30%, fat grams by about 40%, and saturated fat by a third. But the calcium and protein will still be high.

2. Sometimes real cheese counts. There are situations in which a particular type of cheese is needed for a recipe, and there's no reduced-fat version available -- as with Parmesan or Brie. In these recipes, I tend to use the "real" cheese. But sometimes I use less, and I try to cut back on fat and saturated fat in other steps and ingredients of the recipe.

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3. High-flavor cheese to the rescue! When you switch to a high-flavor cheese, you can use less. I follow this strategy when I can't use a reduced-fat cheese in a particular recipe. Some high-flavor cheeses that come to mind are:

  • Parmesan and Romano
  • Any smoked cheese
  • Bleu cheese, gorgonzola, or other pungent cheeses
  • Extra-sharp cheddar
  • Goat or feta cheese

4. Sprinkle, don't smother. Often, recipes for casseroles or other mixed dishes call for a blanket of cheese over the top. Yet a sprinkling is enough to do the trick. I'm talking about a cup and a half of shredded cheese to cover a 9 x 13- inch baking dish, instead of 3 cups.

5. Pair cheese with healthy partners. Since cheese is a source of saturated fat, pair it with lower-fat and higher-fiber foods. Think pears, pasta, whole grains, beans, and vegetables instead of butter, high-fat crackers and pastries, and high-fat meats like salami or sausage.

6. Fat-free cheese may not please. I've personally never tasted a fat-free cheese I've liked, so if you're looking to find one, proceed with caution. It isn't going to melt like real cheese or taste like real cheese -- it just isn't. I've learned that manufacturers sometimes go too far when taking the fat out of food ingredients. When that happens, the fat-free food has very little in common -- chemically or aesthetically -- with the original food. Fat-free margarine, anyone?

Cheese Comparisons

There are lots of types of cheese out there in supermarket-land. You can even buy cheese made from soy milk or goats' milk. And if your grocery store has a deli cheese section, you'll find all sorts of imported and domestic cheese, from feta and farmers to Gouda and Gruyere.

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Here are how a few of the more common options measure up nutritionally:

Fat (gm)

Cheese Recipes

Ready to try some healthy cheese cookery? Here are a couple of recipes to get you started.

  • Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cover a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with foil; coat the foil with canola cooking spray.
  • Add parsley, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, pepper, and lemon zest to medium bowl and blend well.
  • Press both sides of each chicken breast in breadcrumb mixture, and place in prepared pan. Coat the top of each crusted breast lightly with cooking spray.
  • Bake until the chicken is completely cooked through, and the tops and bottoms are lightly browned (about 25 minutes).

Yield: 4 servings

One of the most common ways to enjoy cheese is as a grilled cheese sandwich. Here's a deluxe and healthful rendition of the old favorite.

  • Begin heating a nonstick griddle pan (or similar) over medium heat. Coat one side of all 4 slices with the less-fat margarine.
  • Place two bread slices, buttered side down, on griddle. Top with cheese, then sliced tomato, pepper (and salt if desired), and fresh basil leaves. Top with the remaining two bread slices (buttered side up).
  • When bottom side is golden (2-3 minutes), flip sandwiches over and grill until other side until golden (2-3 minutes). Cut each sandwich diagonally and serve.

Yield: 2 sandwiches

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