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Rocco DiSpirito on Cooking an Italian Feast and the Secret to Yummy (and Healthy) Dessert

Rocco DiSpirito on Cooking an Italian Feast and the Secret to Yummy (and Healthy) Dessert

Courtesy of Rocco DiSpirito

How does celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito enjoy classic mouthwatering Italian sweets without packing on the pounds? His secret is giving these beloved recipes a modern twist.

“For Italian dishes that may call for mascarpone, I use Greek yogurt to replace some or all of the cheese,” says the 46-year-old, whose passion for fine cuisine has prompted nine books, including the best-selling “Now Eat This!” series. His latest collection of recipes, “Now Eat This! Italian: Favorite Dishes from the Real Mamas of Italy — All Under 350 Calories” is implied, except his delectable creations have been made healthier with the help of velvety Greek yogurt.

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“I like to use 0 percent Greek yogurt mixed with skim milk to create a rich texture that can replace heavy cream without the fat,” says DiSpirito. “I base my vanilla panna cotta on the smooth, creamy texture of yogurt and use just a fraction of the cream of the original version.”

And he doesn’t just use this kitchen staple for dessert.

“I like to make creamy salad dressing with yogurt as a base,” he explains. “It’s as easy as 1/4 cup of 0 percent Greek yogurt, 1-1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and some fresh herbs, like dill.

"The probiotics in the yogurt are super healthy,” he adds.

Speaking of tantalizing treats with a healthy spin, we had to ask DiSpirito how he plans an Italian feast for any day of the week without indulging on excess calories.

His response? Well, despite keeping it traditional with at least four courses, DiSpirito says he can help make the process super speedy with healthy options, all of which can be easily found at your local supermarket.

“Us Italians like to keep things simple, which works well when cooking on a time budget,” explains DiSpirito. “I like to serve a simple caprese salad to preface any meal. It is classic, easy to make, and totally divine! You can also serve a simple spread of bresola (a lean cured beef), some jarred Italian pickled vegetables, and some walnuts as an alternative.”

After the antipasti comes the pasta, which he reveals is actually the easiest step of all.

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“Boil your favorite whole wheat, oat bran, or quinoa pasta, and when it is almost done, throw some of your vegetables in the water to cook with the noodles,” he says. “Then, strain it and add some fat free, no-added-sugar marinara to the same pot, and then add some parmigiano reggiano.”

No Italian dinner would be complete without a main dish, which DiSpirito claims doesn’t require laborious hours breaking a sweat in the kitchen. Simply look for ready-made chicken cutlets with the fat trimmed. And if you’ve worked up an appetite after a long day at the office, consider buying steamed brown rice from your favorite Chinese restaurant as a side, minus the salty soy condiments.

Finally, dessert is here and can be enjoyed without busting out of your jeans.

“I like the simple flavor of a great strawberry,” says DiSpirito. “Use frozen, no-sugar-added strawberries, which get picked at their peak before freezing. Make my instant Italian ice, which is prepared in a blender and takes about two minutes.”

As an alternative, try warming up your strawberries with some balsamic vinegar, vanilla bean, and agave nectar for a guilt-free ending.

But for those days when only something luscious will do, there’s always Greek yogurt.

For some inspiration, DiSpirito shares two of his favorite desserts from “Eat This! Italian.” Check them out below and get ready to grab the plates:

(From "Eat This! Italian")
Vanilla Panna Cotta

The lip-smacking Italian custard made from cooked cream is prepared until thick and soft, but according to DiSpirito, it’s also “exactly how your belly will look if you made a habit out of eating it!” His take is served with gelatin, which helps mimic the texture of cream, along with natural sweeteners and filling Greek yogurt. “This softly-set and creamy pudding is so silky smooth that it will slip down beautifully at the end of your meal,” he states. “It’s perfectly served with fresh berries or other seasonal fruits.”

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1-3/4 teaspoons powdered unflavored gelatin
  • 1/4 cup skim milk
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 3 packets stevia, such as Stevia in The Raw
  • 3 tablespoons raw agave nectar
  • 1-1/2 cups fat-free Greek yogurt, such as Fage Total 0%
  • Olive oil cooking spray
  • 4 tablespoons sugar-free caramel syrup, such as Smucker’s

Preparation

Place the cream in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Pour the milk into a small saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean with the tip of a small knife, landing them directly in the pan. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat. Add the cream and gelatin mixture, the stevia and the agave nectar, and whisk until everything is dissolved. Whisk in the yogurt but do not aerate — it will sacrifice the texture and stability of the dessert. Coat the inside of four 6-ounce plastic molds (DiSpirito likes to use cleaned-out individual yogurt containers) with one second of cooking spray each. Divide the cream and yogurt mixture among the molds and place them in the freezer for 5 minutes to start to set. Remove the molds from the freezer and transfer them to the refrigerator to finish setting, about 20 minutes. Invert each mold onto a small plate. Poke a tiny hole in the top of each mold and lift it off the panna cotta. Pour 1 tablespoon of caramel sauce on and around each panna cotta.

(From "Eat This! Italian")
Fat-Free Ricotta Cheesecake

Eating cheesecake on a diet? It’s possible, as long as you make a few minor tweaks to your dish. “Traditionally, it is usually made from whole milk ricotta and cream cheese with a little whole milk mascarpone thrown in for added richness,” he says. Instead, cut down on the excess calories by using ripe figs, fat-free ricotta and Greek yogurt for a light, fluffy finish bursting with fresh flavors.

Ingredients

  • 6 large fresh figs, stems removed and cut into quarters
  • 2 tablespoons Marsala wine
  • 1/2 cup liquid substitute
  • 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon tapioca starch
  • 4 cups fat-free ricotta
  • 1/2 cup fat-free Greek yogurt, such as Fage Total 0%
  • 6 tablespoons raw agave nectar
  • 2 packets stevia, such as Stevia In The Raw
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • Olive oil cooking spray

Preparation

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the figs and Marsala in a small bowl and set aside at room temperature until the cake is ready. Whisk the egg substitute with the tapioca starch in a large bowl until fully incorporated. Add the ricotta, yogurt, agave nectar, stevia, vanilla, and lemon zest. Whisk together until the ingredients are fully mixed. Coat a non-stick 9-inch cake pan with 4 seconds of cooking spray and place the pan in a baking dish — one that's a little larger than the pan. Pour hot water in the baking dish until it reaches halfway up the sides of the cake pan. Place in the oven and bake until the cheesecake is cooked through and set, about 60 minutes. Remove the cake pan from the water bath and cool completely on a wire rack. Cover and refrigerate until fully chilled. To serve, remove the cheesecake from the pan and carefully cut into 10 slices. Place on serving plates and spoon the figs alongside, topping them with any Marsala remaining in the bowl.

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