If it is January, it must be time for broccoli, broiled cod and pears for dessert. In other words, no more Mr. Fat Guy.
Yes, during these dark days, many of us vow to eat lighter. We tell ourselves we are going to make amends for the growth in girth that occurred during the holidays.
It is a familiar pattern. While battling the bulge is supposed to be a year-round endeavor, the start of each new year sees a surge in better-person initiatives. I am as porky and guilty as the next January reformer. However, long ago I abandoned the goal of becoming a good person and have settled for trying to become less bad.
With that in mind, I recently plowed through a stack of cookbooks that had the words "healthy" or " diet" on the cover, terms that at other times of the year I find repellent. There were two new books, "Light & Healthy 2010" from America's Test Kitchen, " Whole Foods Diet Cookbook" by Ivy Ingram Larson and Andrew Larson, and an oldie, "The South Beach Diet" by Arthur Agatston. I looked for dishes that could be satisfying without contributing to a spreading midsection.
I started with my old friend, broccoli. Actually "friend" is too strong a term; "acquaintance" would be more accurate. Like a lot of things in life that are good for you, broccoli can be deadly dull. It needs the company of a little "vice" to make it interesting. Usually I cloak steamed broccoli in hollandaise sauce, a frightfully decadent and fattening companion. Now, in the throes of January reformation, broccoli's new companion was leaner. I coated florets with a mixture of salt, pepper, sugar and olive oil, then subjected them to intense heat - 500 degrees in a preheated oven. This gave the bland vegetable both vivid taste and crunchy texture. As I tossed the spicy florets down, I couldn't believe they were broccoli. Moreover, they were a mere 70 calories per serving.
Carrots and parsnips, two other winter stalwarts, got a similar enhancement. To liven them up, I sliced them and coated them with small amounts of salt, pepper, sugar and canola oil, then gave them a "tan," cooking them in a skillet with a little water until they turned as brown as an Ocean City lifeguard in August. Once again, the transformation in flavor was impressive, from tepid to toothsome.
I had a harder time deciding on a main dish that would deliver flavor without automatically adding "love handles" to anyone who ate them. Over the holidays, I ate so much and so well that an indicator light on my car's dashboard flashed telling me I had to immediately add more air to the car's tires. Yikes!
A broiled cod topped with hummus and olive tapenade, from the "Whole Foods Diet Cookbook," looked promising. However the recipe called for a dab of flax oil. Ordinarily I would have substituted olive oil, but since I had vowed to starting my life anew, I chased down a bottle of flax oil at the Whole Foods market in Mount Washington. I applied the prescribed 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon to a green olive tapenade that went on top of the broiled cod. I am not sure the flax oil affected the taste, but it made me feel virtuous.
(Initially, I was also attracted to a recipe in this cookbook for a salad made with winter greens, blackberries and goat cheese medallions sliced with dental floss. This salad presented a rare opportunity: a new use for dental floss. But the recipe insisted on using pistachio oil in the accompanying vinaigrette. After a long search, I found pistachio oil at Whole Foods. But it cost $26 for an 8-ounce bottle. I recognize that becoming a better person has its price, but this one was too high for me.)
I had better luck with an America's Test Kitchen recipe for chicken breasts topped with a mustard-apricot glaze. Ordinarily, I prefer my chicken breasts with the bone in and the skin on. But in the name of attempted svelteness, I was willing to go skinless and boneless. On a freezing January evening, I cooked the breasts on my charcoal grill, but they could easily have been broiled in the oven.
The touch that made these skinless, boneless slabs extraordinary was coating them with a tangy apricot and mustard glaze. The glaze, made with a little apricot preserves, a lot of mustard, a shallot, plus salt and pepper, had a pleasing bite and faint sweetness.
For dessert, I fell back on a recipe from the South Beach Diet. Once upon a time, when I was temporarily slim, I was on that diet. The peeled, halved pears are topped with 2 tablespoons of walnuts, along with ground gingersnaps and some butter and orange juice. The whole thing baked in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. It was pretty good. Unlike most diet desserts, it did not taste like punishment.
The biggest surprise in my no-more-Mr.-Fat-Guy cooking adventure was the Philly cheesesteak. The memory of the two cheesesteaks that my older son and I had devoured during a recent trip to Tony Luke's restaurant in Philadelphia was still strong as I followed the recipe for a "light and healthy" version.