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.