A warm, toasted bagel spread with something tasty works for breakfast, lunch or dinner, not to mention as a snack.
The spread adds punch to an otherwise bland canvas of bread. But some toppings -- cream cheese, peanut butter, pimiento cheese -- quickly compromise the health virtue of a low-fat bagel or other bread.
But packaged no-fat spreads are hardly the answer. Some have an aftertaste akin to the way latex paint smells, and leave an almost grainy texture on your tongue.
The secret to creating tasty toppers is to think lower-fat, rather than no-fat. A dab of fat adds the smooth mouth feel that we miss so much when all fat is absent.
"You can definitely tell when you aren't eating fat just by the feel in your mouth," says Dr. Dorice Czajka-Narins, professor of nutrition and food sciences at Texas Woman's University in Denton.
"Most protein molecules are elongated, and fat molecules are round," she says. "They create a sensation that we call 'mouth feel,' and it's this smooth feeling that makes fat so appealing to our taste buds."
Let's put it in street terms. Imagine that you have just put a teaspoon of butter-flavored jimmies in your mouth. As they hit your tongue, they spread through your mouth, hiding in every nook and cranny. You swallow; they glide down your throat.
Now imagine you have put a teaspoon of butter-flavored wood chips in your mouth. They just sit there. They go nowhere. You swallow -- not a pleasant experience. Even the taste is altered by what you feel.
So, a sandwich spread made with fat-free mayonnaise gets a dollop of the real thing. Neufchatel -- a reduced-fat alternative to cream cheese -- is flavored with fat-free preserves, herbs or even leftover cappuccino.
A 3-ounce package of Neufchatel has about 20 grams of fat, compared to 30 grams for cream cheese.
What follows are not recipes per se. They are bases for spreads and some suggestions for flavorful additions. Adjust them to suit yourself.
Whip 2 (8-ounce) packages of Neufchatel cheese until creamy. Mix in any of the following:
* Fruit: 1 (6- to 8-ounce) jar unsweetened fruit preserves, any flavor
* Strawberry: strawberry preserves and 1 teaspoon or so balsamic vinegar
* Raspberry: raspberry preserves and grated orange peel to taste
* Blueberry: blueberry preserves, 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel and a sprinkling of mace
* Cappuccino: 1/4 to 1/3 cup espresso or strong coffee and 1/4 cup sugar
* Boursin style: chopped fresh herbs -- basil, oregano, dill, thyme and parsley -- chopped garlic, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
To a base of 1 cup fat-free mayonnaise blended with 1/4 cup mayonnaise, add:
* chopped fresh herb and onion
* chili paste and jalapenos
* tomato paste, pickle relish, garlic
* mashed roasted garlic
* shallots and chopped tarragon
Makes 2 cups
1 (16- to 19-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and liquid reserved
1 teaspoon fresh chopped garlic
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons chopped fresh herbs, or to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Puree all ingredients in a food processor until smooth. if the puree is a bit too pasty, smooth it out with a little bean liquid or water. Use on sandwiches.