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The healthy side of gourmet in Vail

Cassie Pence
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the DailyFor the first time the Taste of Vail will host a dietitian at the festival " guest chef Diane Heneriks.
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VAIL, Colorado ” Counting calories at a food and wine festival seems sacrilegious. Die hard foodies might consider it a downright sin. The whole point of events like Taste of Vail is to indulge, right?

So it’s an interesting choice inviting dietitian Diane Henderiks to cook and host a seminar as one of Taste of Vail’s special guests. It sparks the question: Can healthy cooking really be gourmet?

“It always cracks me up. It’s so crazy that healthy cooking is a category in of itself, like ethnic cooking. I just don’t get it,” Henderiks said. “I cook with wholesome, natural ingredients. I use fresh herbs and spices, good quality fats, like nuts and avocado. I use salt and sugar minimally, and I allow the natural flavor of wholesome foods to come through.”

Henderiks is a nutritionist, culinary educator, fitness expert, television personality, and she has authored two cookbooks, “Dietitian In The Kitchen” and “Shaken and Stirred,” about cooking with spirits. She counsels people on disease prevention and weight management. Henderiks even ambushes client’s kitchens, personally replacing cookies and ice cream with trail mix and nuts.

For Henderiks, there is no debate. Healthy cooking is gourmet cooking. Personally, she prefers less-rich, calorie-stripped meals, and when she conducts blind taste tests across the country, most people agree with her, consistently choosing the healthier version.

“When you say healthy cooking, people immediately think tofu and beans ” rabbit food. It’s not. I use great lean proteins, grains and vegetables that any other chef would use,” she said.

At Friday nights Taste of Vail’s winemaker dinner at Game Creek Restaurant, working elbow to elbow with four accomplished chefs, Henderiks prepared the first course ” jicama and orange salad with jumbo lump crabmeat and citrus-mint vinaigrette. It’s her signature salad, and she chose it because it’s light, yet flavorful, and showcases the possibilities of healthy cooking.

Today Henderiks will show you how to prepare healthy meals during a cooking seminar this morning at the Vail Marriott. She’ll teach attendees how to make good-for-you versions of cream of wild mushroom soup and Caesar salad. She’ll reveal her culinary bag of tricks, which almost always includes her own line of spices. Henderiks believes spices and fresh herbs are the key to healthy cooking.

“Who wants a piece of bland chicken, flounder or tilapia from the grill? It’s going to feel like you’re missing something, your senses won’t be satiated,” she said. “You get what you’re really expecting when you infuse those proteins with a marinade or spice. Your mouth is awakened.”

Terra Bistro’s Executive Chef Kevin Nelson doesn’t think it’s unusual at all that Taste of Vail is hosting a dietitian. He believes it can be quite an eye opener for food lovers to experience what a good cook can do with healthy ingredients.

“She’s also a chef, in addition to being a dietitian. She brings expertise from several angles to produce food that pairs well with wine and fits in with an elegant menu,” he said.

Nelson thinks it’s just a sign of the times that Henderiks was invited to the festival this year. There is a growing number of people with food aversions and food preferences. Vegetarians and people who can’t tolerate gluten or dairy, for example, are no longer the misfit diners of the fine dining world. Chefs are accommodating those dietary needs, Nelson said, and in a very gourmet way.

“It’s a testament to the direction that cuisine is going. People in general are becoming more health conscience,” Nelson said, who prepared Moroccan spiced Colorado lamb short loin at the winemaker dinner Friday night with Henderiks. “It only makes sense that creative cuisine would collide with dietary needs. They almost have to go hand in hand.”

Longtime Taste of Vail attendee and volunteer Amy Phillips thinks a dietitian fits right in at a gourmet food and wine festival. It’s not the recipes in magazines like Bon Appetit that are making America obese and disease ridden, she said, “it’s the fast food.”

Still, Phillips said she tries to show some restraint during the four-day affair.

“I suspend any thoughts of a real diet during Taste of Vail, otherwise you can’t enjoy yourself,” Phillips said. “However, I do pick and choose. I won’t eat something that’s wasted calories.”

Chocolate, for example, is not Phillips favorite. So she’ll pass on the decadent moose and cakes that pastry chefs are bound to serve at tonights Grand Tasting for an opportunity to eat expensive cheeses, she said, a culinary weakness of hers.

Henderiks would say that Phillips has a “healthy” attitude about Taste of Vail.

Henderiks teaches her clients to make educated food choices, and the goal is to get them to change what they want to eat. But she also encourages them to taste everything, especially at special events and during holidays.

“Taste of Vail is a tasting, and there’s nothing wrong with tasting. Deprivation leads to over indulgence,” Henderiks said. “These events are a wonderful time to taste masterful food these culinary personalities put out. It’s not a glutinous thing, I’ve never really seen it that way.”


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