When you think of spa food, you might envision wheatgrass-heavy green elixirs and dainty handfuls of unsweetened granola on a bed of berries. Think again. Far from bland soups and grilled planks of salmon, the best spa cuisine seeks to elevate tantalizing food into more nutritious versions—without compromising flavor.
1. Think creatively about replacing salt.
Reducing salt when cooking may be a boon for heart health and weight management, but cutting it altogether can also sacrifice taste and the brightness of some ingredients. Chef Benjamin Sommerfeldt, the sous chef at Lola’s on the Lake at The Osthoff Resort, explains: “If you’re going to reduce salt, the most important thing you can do is replace it with an ingredient that is very strong.” Examples: adding fresh herbs to a salad for fragrant, aromatic notes; red chile pepper flakes for heat; and grated horseradish or mustard to sauces for a kick. Along with the twist on flavor, it can be really fun to experiment and see what you like best. “For instance, to reduce salt in a chicken salad, I add more whole grain mustard and increase the amount of lemon juice. This reduces the amount of salt needed in the recipe and increases the chicken salad’s flavor,” says Chef Benjamin.
A similar idea: Try using citrus fruits and vinegars as a substitute for sodium, suggests Destination Kohler’s Banquet Chef, Lucas Oppeneer, who works closely on the Kohler Waters Spa menu. At home, try using sherry or brown rice vinegar to add acid to marinades for chicken, fish or tofu, or squeeze a tablespoon or two of orange juice into vinaigrettes for added freshness.
2. When in doubt, turn to cauliflower.
All hail this cruciferous veggie: It’s got Vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants that fight free radicals. Plus, it’s both tasty and trendy—it’s been popping up on restaurant menus across the country nationwide as an entree “steak.” Chef Benjamin gets creative by using it to thicken soups and sauces. Cauliflower béchamel or alfredo, anyone? “For soups, replace the cream with some milk and cauliflower. It is an easy way to maintain that silky, creamy consistency while lightening up on the fat and calories,” he says.
3. Explore alternative cooking methods.
Sauteing, pan frying and deep frying can involve a lot of butter or oil. “Grilling or poaching foods is an excellent, low-fat way of cooking meats,” explains Chef Lucas. Poached chicken may have a blah reputation, but it actually leaves you with a much more tender result. To try it at home, poach chicken in wine that’s sprinkled with aromatics like cilantro and parsley, and then throw in spices like whole peppercorns.
Want to try the sous vide at home? The water-based, low-and-slow method might not be your go-to method for cooking….yet. But trust us, once you realize how easy it is, you’ll gladly take a break from the regular shuffle of sheet trays, olive oil, sea salt, pepper and roasted veggies. Pro chefs have been doing it for years, but by using a vacuum-sealer product like FoodSaver, you can simmer everything from steak and salmon to radishes and asparagus to tender perfection. All you need is a pot (bigger is better because temperature will hold more steadily), thermometer and vacuum-sealed food. Individual cooking times vary (consult with a recipe), but don’t expect this to be a fast fix; very thin cuts of meat and fish filets can be finished in about an hour and a half, but some dishes call for 24-72 hours of cooking time (think tough meats or spare ribs). “With the sous vide method of cooking vegetables, nutrients don’t have a chance of leaching,” adds Chef Lucas.
4. Squeeze in at least one juice each day.
Channel that spa mentality and do good for your body with a freshly pressed juice. Whether it’s a green juice or just a simple orange juice, striving to sip something at least one a day can ensure you’re getting a good amount of nutrients and vitamins. Chef Benjamin is a fan of tomato juice, explaining, “We use our own garden for certain juices. During the peak of summer in Wisconsin it’s great to make a tomato juice that comes from plants that we planted just a few yards from the restaurant!” Create an invigorating spa-worthy virgin Bloody Mary with tomato juice, freshly-squeezed lime and lemon juice and grated horseradish to taste. Garnish with celery stalks, pickles, lime and lemon wedges. And if you’re in a busy-weekday kind of mood, the long line of bottled cold-pressed juice options out on shelves should make it even easier to grab a juice while on the run.
5. Be a smarter baker.
If spa food meant nixing chocolate, sorbets and tasty pastries, what fun would that be? Instead of forgoing a sweet finish all together, spa chefs tweak standard baking practices to lighten up their treats. “Try swapping canola oil for butter in dessert, or use unsweetened applesauce for half of the fat that’s called for in some baked goods,” offers Matt Bauer, Manager of Food and Beverage Operations at The American Club. Craving more decadent delights like a sour cream cheesecake? Swap non-fat yogurt for sour cream, suggests Bauer.
Meanwhile, Scott Baker, Food and Beverage Director at The Osthoff Resort has a surprising secret ingredient in his arsenal to replace butter and oil when baking: pureed chickpeas or avocados.
6. Give soups and stock a tiny bit more attention.
File this under brilliant: Make soups and stocks the night before you plan on using them. “This way, when you take it out of the fridge you can skim the solidified fat off the top before heating and serving,” says Bauer. “Also, reducing homemade stocks and broths until concentrated [just turn your heat on to medium on your stove and let simmer until the volume of the liquid goes down], eliminates the need for salt when cooking because it imbues intense flavor,” says Scott.
Inspired yet? Making better-for-you, flavorful meals definitely doesn’t have to taste bland. It just takes a little effort and creativity.