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Healthy Eating Strategies: How Wonderful Meals Made Me Thinner

A formerly overweight food writer tells how he lost 25 pounds through his own healthy eating strategies: by thinking more—not less—about what he was putting in his mouth and figuring out how to eat "wonderfully but not fat-fully."

As a food writer and cookbook author, I'm faced with an occupational hazard: eating. That explains why, when I re-applied for life insurance, the rejection notice came at me faster than a fierce tennis serve. My blood sugar was too high. My doctor told me I had to lose 20 pounds, so I did. In fact, in less than a year, I lost 25. Taking off the weight was surprisingly easy. It is now five years later, and I have not surrendered even one precious notch on my belt.

The way I did it, however, was by focusing more—not less—on food. I know this is an unorthodox approach, as most diets try to take your mind off eating with formulaic meals or meal substitutes, like protein shakes. But at the outset, I knew that the only long-term eating plan that had a prayer of succeeding for me was one that worked with my love of food. So, rather than putting food out of my mind, I worked hard to raise what I call my Culinary Intelligence (CI): my ability to choose food with so much flavor that I wasn't left seeking satisfaction in sugary sauces, deep-fried crusts and melty cheeses. In the course of writing my upcoming book, Culinary Intelligence, I figured out how to eat wonderfully but not fat-fully. Here, my key healthy eating strategies:

Healthy Eating Strategies: Umami rules

Steak is one of my favorite foods. But not the kinds of steak served at chain restaurants, which are often covered in barbecue flavoring or melted blue cheese. These calorie-laden sauces disguise the bland meat, usually mass-produced from feedlot, grain-fed cattle. I could eat a pound of it and still feel unsatisfied. Grass-fed beef is a whole different matter. I speak from experience, having spent a lot of time in Argentina and Uruguay enjoying the world's best grass-fed steaks.

But, I asked myself, What kind of grass-fed beef really delivers the most flavor? To find out, I asked my chef friends Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, co-owners of the super-popular Frankies Spuntino and Prime Meats in Brooklyn, New York, to join me in a blind tasting. We collected samples of beef from different producers, specifying the more marbled cuts (rib eyes and strip steaks), since the leaner cuts of grass-fed cattle can be tough. All the cattle were grass-fed and free-range, but some were finished—fattened—on grain. Most were aged.

The winner was clear: a grass-finished rib eye from Rosenkrans farm in New York's Finger Lakes that had been aged for around three weeks. It had deep beefy flavor, a lush, juicy texture and a pleasant funk. The runner-up was a grain-finished rib eye, dry-aged for 38 days by DeBragga and Spitler. Three slices of either had such powerful flavor that I didn't feel compelled to eat more.

I credit umami—the "fifth taste." The aged, grass-fed beef we sampled had lots of savory umami flavor. Just as aging does with wine, cheese and cured meats, aging also concentrates umami in steak. After this experiment, I kept the umami idea at the top of my mind. It is the best guarantor of satisfaction I know. Nearly every ingredient that I now find indispensable is what I call an Umami Bomb: ripe tomatoes, aged cheese, all kinds of poultry and seafood (particularly cured anchovies) and long-cured ham.

Healthy Eating Strategies: Farmers' Market Taste Tests

Too many people think that simply by shopping at a farmers' market, or buying organic, they have cast their vote for good health, environmentalism and top-quality ingredients. Alas, good intentions have very little to do with flavor. I now know that to find the most flavorful ingredients, I must thoroughly explore the market before I buy, instead of stocking up at the first stand. That's because—generally speaking for me, living in the Northeast—fruits and vegetables from the southern part of the food shed are the first to ripen, while produce from further north or higher in the mountains achieves peak flavor later. I know, for example, that if I see peaches from southern New Jersey in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens Greenmarket in early August, upstate peaches won't be as sweet and juicy. In two weeks, the south Jersey peaches will be over the hill and the upstate ones will be at their peak.

I also know which areas in my region produce fruits and vegetables with the most flavor. I'll never buy corn that isn't from New Jersey or Long Island, for instance. But before I buy anything, I look, touch and, finally, ask for a taste. Smart farmers are happy to allow shoppers a sample that costs them a nickel in the well-founded belief that once you try the good stuff, you'll pay $10 for a bagful. All that tasting may seem like a lot of work, but a ripe, almost smoky-tasting tomato with flesh as smooth as great steak tartare leaves me wanting little else on my ham sandwich.

Healthy Eating Strategies: Beware of Phony Trade-offs

Like many people seeking to lose weight, I took it on faith that low-cal, low-fat versions of foods were always the right choice. Case in point: skim-milk cappuccino. A few years ago, I began to include cappuccino in my morning routine. I had been given a marvelous import from Italy called the Aerolatte, which foams milk without all that messy steaming. It was so easy that I quickly upped my daily consumption from one cappuccino to three and never gave the calories a second thought. But skim milk has 90 calories per cup. I was consuming nearly three hundred calories a day just from my coffee—the equivalent of two glasses of wine. I'd rather save my calories for the wine, so I went back to regular coffee with about an ounce of two-percent milk.

Healthy Eating Strategies: Make Time To Cook

Cooking, which I regard as one of life's great pleasures, is viewed by many as an onerous chore. Any recipe that takes more than 30 minutes implies that you are being robbed of time to watch television/friend new people on Facebook/do yoga. But I can think of no better way to put the principles of CI into action than to cook your own meals. This puts you in control of your food, rather than leaving it to restaurants. Even the best restaurants are famous—make that infamous—for loading up on salt and butter and serving portions that would've fed two people a few decades ago.

One pillar of CI that I always apply in the kitchen is what I call GDWB (Get Down With Brown). Apart from the addition of a little butter or oil in the pan to prevent burning, browning savory foods—caramelizing vegetables or giving meat a good crust, for example—adds enormous flavor and aroma without contributing calories the way that rich sauces would. In what scientists refer to as the Maillard reaction, thousands of flavor compounds are produced when sugars and proteins are heated. Browning is one reason that cooked food tastes and smells so good.

Whichever way you choose to add more flavor per calorie, cooking for yourself doesn't have to mean making complicated recipes, nor does it require the knife skills of a finalist on Top Chef. Start with good ingredients, and anyone who can chop, slice and heat can make delicious meals. As the great chef Thomas Keller said to me one afternoon at Manhattan's Per Se restaurant, "Cooking is a simple equation—it's about ingredients and technique, and that's it. If it's hard, you're probably doing something wrong, because cooking is not hard; it really isn't."

That is a sentiment worth remembering. Cooking forces you to think about what you are eating before you buy ingredients. It makes you think while you are preparing a recipe. And developing your CI will surely help you utilize one of the most valuable, if underused, tools in the kitchen—your brain.

Peter Kaminsky is a longtime Food & Wine contributor. His forthcoming book, Culinary Intelligence, will be published by Knopf this year.

Published March 2011
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