By Jim Romanoff
Sure, you know that your microwave oven is good for nuking popcorn and Hot Pockets. But home-style meatloaf? Yep, that magic box in your kitchen is a lot more versatile than you think. In fact, microwaving preserves more flavor and nutrients than other cooking methods, says Barbara Kafka, one of America’s leading authorities on food and cooking, and the author of Microwave Gourmet Healthstyle Cookbook. It turns out that your microwave may just be one of your best tools for healthy cooking … that is, if you can master the machine. Here’s what you need to know to do so:
How it heats your food First of all, “nuking” has nothing to do with how a microwave works. The oven actually heats with electromagnetic energy more akin to radio waves than X-rays. Microwaves jiggle all the molecules in the food, causing friction, which results in heat. So really, the food is steaming itself from within. This moist cooking heat means you can prepare foods without adding lots of unhealthy fats, but it also means your food won’t get browned and crispy -- so if you want a great steak or a burger, go with a grill or broiler.
What the microwave is good at The microwave is best at zapping water, fat and sugar molecules, which are primarily what comprise most proteins and vegetables. This explains why it is “brilliant” at cooking fish, poultry, vegetables and most carbs like rice and pasta, says Kafka. Also important: Microwaves only penetrate about an inch and a half into foods, so they’ll cook from the outside in. Thus, Kafka says, the ideal “nuke” foods are uniform in thickness and shape, like cubed chunks of chicken breast, pork, beef or fish.
How powerful your oven is There are plenty of great microwave recipes out there -- but unless you know how much muscle your oven has, the given cooking times will be worthless. This is because all microwaves are not created equal. Most microwaves range from 750 to 1,100 watts (find out your wattage by looking on the back or inside the door of the oven), and most good recipes give a range of cooking times, so the more powerful your oven is, the shorter the zapping time. Still, there’s no harm in checking your food often (opening the door won’t affect cooking times). Cook a juicy piece of chicken too long, and you’ll get a hockey puck.
Incidentally, for meats and poultry it’s important to make sure they’re cooked to a safe temperature. Insert an instant-read thermometer (available at any supermarket) into the center of each piece: Beef, pork and lamb should be at last 160 F while poultry should reach at least 165 F.
Where to put the food Before delving into nuke cuisine, make sure you have a variety of microwave-safe dishes (no metal -- it makes microwaves bounce all over, potentially causing a nasty fire). Once you’re armed and ready, take special care in placing your food on the dish, since how you arrange foods inside the microwave is key. Food will cook from the outer edge of the dish to the center, so always have the thicker end of, say, a chicken breast or fish fillet, pointing outwards, and space foods evenly apart. If your microwave doesn’t have a spinning carousel (for even cooking), buy one where microwave ovens are sold -- otherwise, you’ll need to rotate your food every couple of minutes.
How to Make Salsa-smothered Turkey Meatloaf
One thing your microwave is not equipped to do is spit out a homemade turkey meatloaf. That’s where we (and you) come in. The great thing about this recipe is that you only need a few ingredients, since the salsa alone adds so many flavors.
And by the way, cooking up a tasty meal is a surefire way to get in good with the folks or impress a date.
Start to finish: 25 minutes
1 large egg
3/4 teaspoon garlic salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/4 pounds 93 percent lean ground turkey
1 1/2 cups mild or medium chunky tomato salsa (divided)
3/4 cup bread crumbs
2 teaspoons vegetable or olive oil
1. Spray a 9-inch microwave-safe pie dish with cooking spray or lightly coat it with oil.
2. In a mixing bowl, beat egg, garlic salt and pepper with a fork.
3. Add ground turkey, 1 cup of salsa and bread crumbs. Mix together thoroughly.
4. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish and form a flat, round loaf about 1 1/2 inches thick.
5. In a small bowl, stir together oil and the remaining 1/2 cup of salsa.
6. Cover the meatloaf loosely with wax paper, and microwave on high for 15 to 20 minutes, rotating the dish a quarter turn every 5 minutes, until the meatloaf is no longer pink in the center and an instant-read thermometer registers 160 F in the middle of the loaf (to make sure the meat is fully cooked and safe to eat).
7. Spread the remaining salsa on top of the meatloaf and let it sit for 5 minutes before slicing.
8. Serve this spicy dish with a green salad and a few warm flour tortillas.
Jim Romanoff writes the weekly “Healthy Plate” and “Budget Cooking” columns for The Associated Press. Romanoff dabbles in nuclear physics in his spare time.