Fat-conscious cuisine is less stingy with flavor

THE SENSIBLE NEW SPA FOOD

January 23, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi | Charlyne Varkonyi,THE SUN

When Edward J. Safdie's "Spa Food" hit the bookstores i 1985, the culinary world learned that food didn't have to be bad for you to taste good.

Between a revolutionary menu that was introduced two years earlier at the Four Seasons in Manhattan and introduction of Mr. Safdie's book, spa food skyrocketed out of the fat farm and into the kitchens of upper-crust restaurants nationwide.

The image of low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-calorie food was transformed from rabbit feed like carrot sticks and celery to dishes that tasted as good as they sounded. Suddenly, diet-

-crazed America could sit down to a meal of spinach salad with enoki mushrooms, grilled swordfish with green beans and new potatoes, fresh peach shortcake a la creme and still consume fewer than 400 calories.

Good food entered the guilt-free zone. And spa food fever soon spread from coast to coast. Michael and Cindy Dalesio, former owners of Dalesio's in Little Italy, introduced spa food to Baltimore during 1986 after enjoying a couple of meals at Mr. Safdie's Sonoma Mission Inn. The local spa menu offered tempting dishes such as a 97-calorie curried zucchini soup and a 387-calorie whole wheat linguine tossed with chicken tenderloins, shiitake mushrooms, sun- dried tomatoes and scallions in a veal demi-glace.

Six years after Mr. Safdie's first book, the Dalesios have taken some of their spa food ideas and integrated them into the Mediterranean menu at their new Michael's Riviera Grill in the Brookshire Hotel -- typical of how the spa food craze has become a natural part of restaurant menus.

And now Edward Safdie is back with "New Spa Food" (Clarkson N. Potter, $27.50). This time he takes a slightly different look at his brand of elegant, sophisticated good-for-you food. "New Spa Food" is a collection of nearly 200 recipes from Mr. Safdie's Norwich Inn and Spa in Norwich, Conn., that are hearty, healthy and slightly higher in calories than his first book. The original "Spa Food" offered menus from 850 calories to 1,200 calories a day. This time the menus are based on a 1,250 calorie weight loss menu and 1,500 calories a day maintenance menu.

What has changed? People no longer are willing to deny themselves the pleasure of hearty, homey food. And even the experts -- from the committee who put together the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans to the spa nutrition directors -- are giving us permission to weigh more without feeling so guilty. Likewise, this is a more moderate approach.

"People are no longer into suffering," says Priscilla Martel, wh has been promoting "New Spa Food" on a national book tour. Former owner/chef at the Restaurant du Village in Chester, Conn., she now is executive chef at the Prince of Wales restaurant at the Norwich Inn and Spa.

"We are dieting for what we eat, not for weight loss. The idea is a couple of pounds above the ideal is now OK. You want to enjoy life and you can do it by reducing fat and increasing complex carbohydrates."

Whether you need to lose a few pounds after the holiday food frenzy or just try to maintain your weight, the Norwich spa formula is the same. Here are the essentials, according to Chef Martel:

*Most Americans get about 35 to 40 percent of calories from fat the spa reduces fat content 25 to 30 percent. For example, olive oil or butter is used as a flavoring agent rather than a cooking medium. Vegetable sprays are used for cooking in non-stick pans.

*Desserts are allowed because if you eliminate all desserts people are more likely to go off their diet and overindulge. But these treats are specially designed to cut fat and white sugar. For example, the spa vanilla ice cream is made with skim milk, part-skim ricotta, 1 percent fat cottage cheese and fructose. Or an apple is baked and drizzled with ground cinnamon and maple sugar granules that are available in health food stores.

*Protein is limited to 4-ounce uncooked servings each meal. An although fish, seafood and poultry are mainstays of the diet, lean cuts of beef, such as flank steak, are permitted once a week. And one vegetarian meal is served daily.

*Many of the inspirations for pumping up the flavor in recipe come from Mediterranean cuisine -- using garlic, tomatoes and fresh herbs for seasoning rather than relying on butter and heavy cream.

*Whole grains and complex carbohydrates are emphasized. Every meal includes potatoes, bran and oat muffins, whole wheat and buckwheat pastas, bulgur, couscous or whole wheat bread.

New England boiled dinner

Makes 4 servings.

This is an adaptation of a New England classic. Instead of the typical brisket of beef, lower fat chicken breasts help make this a spa meal.

2 garlic cloves

2 leeks, white part only

3 celery stalks

2 carrots

1/4 head green cabbage

1/4 head red cabbage

4 medium Red Bliss potatoes

2 tomatoes

4 chicken breast halves, skin removed

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon or 1 teaspoon dried

1 bay leaf

6 cups low sodium chicken stock

chopped Italian parsley

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