When you dine out, you may not realize the person preparing your meal often has your back when it comes to healthy eating.

For instance, when Brian Annapolen - chef at The Reserve at Bally's Atlantic City - plans what dishes will be served from his kitchen on a nightly basis, there's always a nod toward healthy eating that informs his thinking.

"If you pay attention to your ingredients, there's really a lot you can accomplish at the cooking stage that will determine how healthy a dish can be," Annapolen, a 39-year-old who splits his time between Seaville and Pittsburgh, said recently at The Reserve. "People tend to make a lot of mistakes. For instance, not all fat is bad for you. You definitely need it in your diet. You just have to incorporate it in moderation."

Whether you're dining at a local eatery or shopping for meals at home, Annapolen says there are steps anyone can take to eat healthier.

"It starts in the grocery store by paying attention to the ingredients," he says. "For example, it can really be a boon to a meal to use fresh herbs. They're aromatic and flavorful, but also very good for you. It's just a matter of educating yourself and putting it into practice."

Over at McGettigan's 19th Hole in Galloway Township, executive chef Carrie Smith eagerly incorporates a healthy agenda into the food she offers customers.

"If you don't do it these days, you'll find you're behind the times," the 37-year-old Absecon resident said. "For instance, as a chef you can always try to use fresh vegetables. They not only have flavor, but they have nutrients and antioxidants that can be utilized by the body. There's a method to our madness sometimes."

These local food professionals have caught on to the fact that today's diners are very health conscious, and many of them will ask before an entree is prepared if better ingredients can be substituted. That sort of awareness helps chefs become even more accommodating to their customers.

"Look at me - I'm a lemon freak; I put lemon on everything," Annapolen says proudly while working in his kitchen at The Reserve. "That's just one healthy way you can raise the flavor factor in a dish. There are so many other ways. For instance, a mustard such as Dijon makes a great binding agent instead of using an egg. When you're making salad dressings or emulsions, it's good to use a light olive oil. All of these types of things, added up, can make a big difference."

Smith agrees.

"I like to use olive oil when I saute instead of using butter, and people can do that at home, too," she says. "I also like to use Parmesan cheese to thicken a sauce instead of a roux, which is a butter-and-flour combination. It's also a good idea to use multigrain pasta or brown rice when you can. They add a lot of nutritional value to whatever meal you're eating."

Annapolen says one way you can cut your intake of high amounts of fat and cholesterol is to consider the kinds of eggs you eat.

"Eggs raised on a free-range farm are significantly more healthy for you than the usual eggs you can buy in a store," he says. "And, when you eat out, you may not realize how many eggs you actually are eating. If you have a breaded item, chances are you've eaten an egg or two."

Annapolen likes to employ what he calls "retro cuisine" in the kitchen, and it pays big dividends when it comes to the overall health of a dish.

"Basically, what that is is breaking down the entree and putting it back together again," he says. "That process allows me to take a look at the ingredients and decide what can better serve the meal - and the body - and making sure that's an approach we can take. Part of that is just staying simple in the kitchen. When you overcomplicate the process, that can lead down a lot of bad roads."

Smith is on the same wavelength.

"It doesn't take a lot of effort to use a splash of white wine or fat-free chicken stock when you're cooking for yourself or your family," she says. "You can take matters into your own hands."

Annapolen is a fan of his boss' mantra at Bally's Atlantic City. Executive Chef/Director of Food Services Rolf Weithofer is always preaching the culinary gospel of food that accentuates your body's capability rather than inhibits it. In Annapolen, he has found a willing disciple.

"Chef Weithofer makes his way around the different Bally's properties and stresses how we can make healthier food," Annapolen says. "It's something that really comes from the top down here, but a lot of food personnel already had that mindset even before we came here."

Contact James Clark:

609-272-7262

Farm-Raised Striped Bass with Wild Rice and Simple Vinaigrette

Ingredients:

2 farm-raised striped-bass filets

2 cups prepared wild-rice blend,

such as kasha

1 pint grape tomatoes, cut in half

1 cup shelled fava beans or edamame

1 cup chicken broth

Olive oil for sauteeing the vegetables

1/4 cup very good olive oil or light

olive oil for vinaigrette

1/4 cup good-quality red-wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:

Clean the bass filets and place on paper towel. Prepare the rice mix and retain for plating. For the vinaigrette, place the Dijon in a bowl and add 1 tablespoon water and half of the vinegar. Slowly mix with a whisk, adding the olive oil in a steady stream. Season to taste and keep in refrigerator until ready for use. In a nonstick pan over medium-high heat, season the skin side of the fish and add just enough oil to bead up on the middle of the pan. Add the striped-bass filets. Turn down heat and cover (6 to 8 minutes will do). Transfer the fish to paper towels on a plate in keep in a warm place. In the same pan, saute the favas and the tomatoes in some of the oil. Season, and add the other half of the vinegar and, if needed, some of the chicken stock to moisten. Place some of the wild rice on each plate, then the bass. Top with the vegetables and drizzle with the vinaigrette.

Brian Annapolen