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.