The head chef of wildly popular Italian hotspot Lilia (in Brooklyn's Williamsburg 'hood) is proof that the two aren't mutually exclusive. After honing her craft in Italy and across the U.S., Robbins has learned how to supercharge flavor through genius techniques—a feat inspired by the new Weight Watchers Freestyle program.
"[Using Freestyle] has taught me...how to eliminate a lot of fat from my cooking and still make it really flavorful and robust," Robbins says. "When you focus on how to make something more flavorful using citrus and herbs and other things, you stop focusing on what you’re missing. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything when I eat this way."
“When you focus on how to make something more flavorful using citrus and herbs, you stop focusing on what you’re missing."
When cooking at home, Robbins combines healthy bases—favoring zero-Points® foods like turkey, fish, scallops, and beans—with old-school chef skills, using WW Freestyle as her guide. And trust: You totally need her methods for zesting citrus (a serious boost in almost every recipe), slicing garlic (ditto), and blanching and shocking veggies (an easy technique for ridiculously tasting greens, every time). You'll never do these the old way again.
Scroll down for 3 simple chef-verified techniques you need to add to your at-home cooking repertoire.
Technique #1: Blanch and shock
You know how restaurant veggies always come out that perfect level of al dente (while your home-cooked ones are more like al soggy)? Robbins knows the secret.
"Blanching is when you cook a vegetable in very heavily salted water to your desired tenderness," she explains. "Shocking it is putting it in ice water that’s also salted, which will stop the cooking and also keep the color." (Because Instagram matters.)
Robbins likes this method for meal prep because it doesn't require cooking with fat like sautéeing, but also keeps the veggies somewhat crisp, unlike steaming. Use the technique on springy green vegetables like broccoli rabe, Tuscan kale, asparagus, and peas—and never eat mushy veggies again. [Ed. note: W+G got a taste test at this photo shoot, and can confirm that it made at least one editor a broccoli rabe convert.]
How to do it: Place your veggies into a pot of salted, boiling water for one to three minutes (depending on how tender you want them). Then, add the veggies directly to a bowl of salted ice water to stop the cooking and seal in the flavors and colors. Season as desired and serve!
Technique #2: Garlic slicing
The biggest faux pas Robbins sees people make with garlic is over-pulverizing it. "People just chop it haphazardly," she says. "You release so much of the oil and it becomes this sticky mess."
Instead, she advocates for slicing garlic on a mandolin (and yes, she counts the tool as a must-have for home cooks) and then julienning it, AKA chopping into thin lengths.
"It gives you a much more uniform end result," she says. "If you just start chopping, you end up with big pieces and small pieces, and it cooks unevenly. This allows a cleaner result in both taste and texture."
How to do it: Soak the garlic in a bowl of warm water (to make it easier to peel, #genius) for three to 15 minutes. Remove the skin, then run each peeled clove over the mandolin. Next, use a sharp six- or eight-inch chef's knife to chop the slices into tiny strips. Sautée the evenly sliced pieces in a pan with a bit of olive oil to enhance the flavor, and you're ready to get cooking!
Technique #3: Hand-cut lemon zest
This method is a bit more time consuming, but Robbins promises the result is so worth it (she goes through a quart a day of the stuff in her restaurant).
"I’ve always hand-cut lemon zest," she says. "When you use a microplane, if you’re not careful, you end up cutting down to the pith and getting this bitter flavor. You get this very wet texture." Wet zest = bad.
Robbins elevates the approach by making it a multi-step process: peel, de-pith, julienne, and dice. "This way, you don’t release all the oils, so it retains its flavor and perfume. It’s very fine and dry, almost like a dust."
How to do it: Peel your lemon, lime, or orange ("Orange zest makes everything better," Robbins says) using a peeler or paring knife. Very carefully separate the pith (the white part) from the colorful exterior. Once all the pith is cut away, julienne the remaining skin into long, thin slices. Finally, dice up the slices until you're left with a powder-light pile of zest. Sprinkle it into any dish to go from blah to brilliant. Bon appétit.
Photos: Tim Gibson for Well+Good
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