I am, once again, a tad overweight. I am also, as ever, a hedonist. So while I realize that my eating habits need a shake-up, I refuse to consume certain foods often recommended in diet books, such as protein drinks, Canadian bacon, and egg-white omelets—a mortal insult to actual omelets. (I do, however, love egg whites in certain sugared incarnations, like meringues.) What's more: I reject the whole notion that pleasure is beside the point in losing weight. If I can't find the sensuality in a healthy lunch, then I'll chase it all afternoon with handfuls of pretzels and chunks of cheddar cheese.
Clearly, Lean Cuisine meals are not for me, so I shopped around for a healthy-minded cookbook compatible with my anti-puritanical approach to food. Over the last month I tested several recipes, evaluating them purely from a gustatory standpoint. Herewith, the results:
Substitute Yourself Skinny Susan Irby
The gist: Irby bills herself as the Bikini Chef, and her book offers reduced calorie versions of favorite middlebrow fare with punning recipe titles: "hottie-tottie manicotti," "teriyummy beef," and "everything's bloomin' with delicious onions and bacon."
Recurring ingredients: Turkey bacon, nonfat dairy, egg whites, sugar substitutes, reduced-calorie tortillas.
The verdict: Irby's simulations of indulgent dishes just don't click. A V8-fortified tomato soup, made with skim milk and nonfat sour cream, was wan; French toast made with skim milk and egg whites was a sodden mess; "cinch-an-inch" beef enchiladas, leaned up Irby-style with low-fat cheese, extra-lean ground beef, and low-fat tortillas, had a sad, waxen quality. Most morose of all was a carrot "cake" made of a strange puree of bread, carrots, dried milk, oil, eggs, pineapple, and applesauce. Charitably, it resembled a steamed pudding: sweet, moist, and verging on gummy. It might have been passable with a slather of brandied hard sauce, but I'd hate to see that made with reduced-fat buttery spread. At least portion control wasn't an issue.
Slim and Scrumptious Joy Bauer
The gist:Like Substitute Yourself Skinny, Slim and Scrumptious offers low-fat, lower-sugar, and low-sodium remixes of American standards (mac 'n' cheese, pancakes), but tosses in a few dishes with a more cosmopolitan air—some Indian spices or Brazilian fish stew here, a little chimichurri there. (Oddly enough, some version of chimichurri appears in most of the books I selected for review.)
Recurring ingredients: Egg whites, whole grains, reduced-fat condiments such as cream cheese and mayo, chicken stock (to reduce fat in sauces), chicken breasts, celery, and red pepper.
The verdict: Although Bauer has a more curious palate than Irby, most of the recipes I tried fell flat in terms of flavor—the spices were off balance, which is an especially noticeable problem when you're trying to reduce salt levels. A turkey burger with "Indian spices" had too much cayenne powder in proportion to savory spices like cumin and coriander. (P.S. : No fair showing a burger on a fluffy bun but suggesting that readers serve it on a bed of shredded lettuce instead.)
Bauer slips high-protein, low-fat egg whites in everywhere, including an egg salad seasoned with Parmesan and black pepper. This was, despite my preference for whole eggs, texturally appealing, but dogged by the sweetness of reduced-fat mayonnaise. A pumpkin pancake recipe (bound with egg whites, natch) called for a sneeze-errific tablespoon of cinnamon and produced such a thick batter that it was hard to cook the pancakes all the way through. I did find one great recipe: Bauer's crackly, dark-cocoa-coated almonds are quite delicious and satisfying. You could serve these, without apology, even to non-dieting friends.
Grade: C+ (the plus is for the almonds)
The French Women Don't Get Fat Cookbook Mireille Guiliano
The gist: Guiliano sniffs Gallicly at the supersized dishes we Americans eat and recommends keeping an eye on portions as part of weight maintenance, without actually counting calories. (The book contains no nutritional breakdowns). She also suggests the occasional use of "cleanse" dieting—replacing breakfast with a yogurt concoction (see below) or, more radically, sipping on leek broth for a weekend purgative. Guiliano's advice can be frustratingly vague, but her actual food recommendations bear the refreshingly odd stamp of personal preferences.
Recurring ingredients: Eggs, yogurt, oily fish, soups, fennel, beets, celeriac, leeks, layered parfaits called "verrines," open-faced sandwiches (tartines), reasonable amounts of butter.
The verdict:Guiliano's quirkiness sometimes fails spectacularly: she may like a "gazpacho" of endive, avocado, curry powder, and capers, but I found this combination bitter and confusing. I got the same pursed and quizzical expression on my face that Parisians sport when listening to my reheated college French. And as much as I love leeks, I'm not sure I could make it through a weekend sipping only on a leek tisane, chasing away hunger pangs with the occasional leek-stem salad.
On the other hand, Guiliano's Magical Breakfast Cream, noxiously named as it is, is the kind of health food I can deal with—a mixture of pulverized nuts, shredded wheat, yogurt, honey, and flaxseed oil, it tastes perfectly good in a muesli sort of way. I also liked Guiliano's affection for steaming chicken or fish en papillote—in little parcels of parchment paper—alongside a tasty pile of aromatics and vegetables. (I made cod with the no-fail combination of slivered fennel and orange, which was quite flavorful.) And who knew that cooked rhubarb could be a snazzy addition to a smoothie?
The Master Your Metabolism Cookbook Jillian Michaels
The gist: The Biggest Loser and Losing It star Jillian Michaels asserts that one of the keys to dieting is eating ingredients that keep your hormones—insulin, thyroid, and others—in balance. There is lots of medicalized language here, and the list of discouraged foods is not entirely instinctual: non-fermented soy products, strawberries, peaches, and pine nuts all reputedly mess with thyroid health.
Recurring ingredients: Whole grains; legumes; garlic; blueberries; nuts; avocadoes; yogurt; cooked dark, leafy greens; fresh herbs; pomegranates; Omega-3 rich fish like sardines.
The verdict: The recipes in this cookbook are worldly, with Michaels conversant in diverse flavorings from sumac to fish sauce. Such adventurousness is welcome, as is the emphasis on fresh herbs to boost flavor in a low-fat, reduced-sodium environment. I especially liked the tasty tarragon scented goddess sauce made with yogurt instead of mayonnaise. Another fairly appealing recipe: the poached eggs on greens with turkey bacon. I liked that the simple greens were elevated with a touch of orange juice and sherry vinegar—a bit of flavor fine-tuning that's rare in diet books. But too bad turkey bacon, a nutritionist favorite, has such an off-putting, wannabe quality. If I'm not allowed to use real bacon, I'll gladly do without, upping the onions and adding a whiff of smoked paprika for muskiness.
In general, Michaels gets that diet food should be enticing in its own way, and she works a lot of interesting brothy dishes into her book, including a tasty take on the lemongrass-y Malaysian soup called laksa (trim the recommended shrimp-poaching time, though, for better texture). If only there weren't so many sidebars touting individual ingredients as cure-alls, which have the whiff of pseudo-science
Flat Belly Diet Family Cookbook Liz Vaccariello and Sally Kuzemchak
The gist: The Flat-Belly Diet stresses modest calorie consumption—four 400-calorie meals per day for an average middle-aged woman—and emphasizes monounsaturated fats (aka MUFAs), which supposedly help to reduce belly fat (hence the title).
Recurring ingredients: Various MUFAs including walnuts, pumpkin seeds, chocolate, sesame, avocadoes, and olives; also whole grains, lean proteins, vegetables.
The verdict: The good thing is that MUFAs are particularly tasty ingredients to incorporate into meals, and the recipes are generally a lot more appealing than the diet's cringe-worthy name would suggest: a pistachio cheese spread made with feta; halibut with chopped olive salad; tandoori chicken thighs. At last! Something other than boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a diet book!
For breakfast, I tried the peanut butter scones with dried berries—I am a sucker for peanut butter, and though these weren't scones in the classic sense (they were sweeter, less soda-y, and butter-free), they were endearing and satisfying. I built a lunch around collard greens in a sweet, slightly spicy tahini sauce. Collards are pretty aggressive in flavor, and the tahini sauce needed a little more oomph—garlic, lemon, chili, or maybe just less honey—to really contend with them. But I liked the general concept. And I really enjoyed a simple chicken recipe based around a sort-of Indian cooked pesto of cashews and cilantro: The ingredient list was short, and the flavor long. It was a truly approachable dish for weeknight cooking.
I'm glad that, for the most part, the newer crop of diet books makes the connection between slimming down and cooking whole, unprocessed foods. Nevertheless, having worked my way through the five titles mentioned above, it seems clear that it's worth looking beyond the world of diet cookbooks for inspiration at the crossroads of pleasure and discipline. So I leafed through some of the new non-diet cookbooks I have around, including Yotam Ottolenghi's vegetable cookbook, Plenty. Nearly every recipe beckons me into the kitchen: Swiss chard, chickpea, and tamarind stew? Soba noodles with aubergine and mango, or roasted butternut squash with sweet spices, lime, and green chili? Yes, please. All big on veggies, low-ish in saturated fat, and adaptable to many weight loss schemes. (You can run the numbers through an online diet calculator.) And Ottolenghi never suggests turkey bacon, which has now joined egg-white omelets on my no-cook list. If I have to eat more modestly, every bite should count.