When my friend Sharon and I were in our early twenties, she lived with my family for a summer. There was no work in Ashland, where she was living between her freshman and sophomore years in college. She has always been the sister I never had. My family feels the same. So, she moved into our spare room and we found work together in my town. We worked as waitresses at a brunch and wedding restaurant, run by a crazy family that threw pots and pans at each other in the kitchen. Woefully understaffed, the restaurant brought in demanding brides and impatient diners who had to wait far too long for their eggs benedict. Sharon and I both ran the entire time we were at work, covering 20 tables each, afraid to talk to our boss for fear she might yell at us.
It’s no wonder, then, that the little time we had off we spent on the couch. I seem to remember that Sharon had us watching VH1 nearly all the time, hoping we could see Whitney Houston’s video for “Want to Dance with Somebody.” (Remember those days? Before the internet existed? When MTV and VH1 still played videos? And Whitney’s amazing crimped hair?) Sharon was obsessed with that song, plus she loved the dance moves. So we sat on the couch, our puffy Reeboks propped up on the coffee table, watching “Sledgehammer” and “Papa Don’t Preach,” U2 and Janet Jackson, George Michael’s wiggling ass and the Bangles walking like an Egyptian.
Most of the time, we were drinking diet milkshakes.
Sharon and I are were laughing about this the other day. What were we thinking of?
For breakfast (and sometimes for lunch), we took packets of Instant Breakfast, ice cubes, and skim milk, and blended them up into a thin, watery imitation of milkshakes. (This was long before smoothies became ubiquitous.) And every day, we’d say to each other, “Mmm. This is delicious.” (It wasn’t. At all.)
“It kind of tastes like a milkshake.” (It tasted like a milkshake the way dirt tastes like chocolate.) Mostly, though, we felt satisfied in our minds that we were being healthy. With whole-wheat crackers for lunch, with a thin skim of hummus or cottage cheese, some fresh fruit, and lots of salads with no oil, we were convinced we were doing the best thing possible for our bodies.
Of course, after all day of starving ourselves on rice cakes, we usually tumbled into the kitchen after 10 and frantically stirred up dough for chocolate chip cookies. We ate them, warm from the oven, standing by the stove, talking and laughing so hard that no one else could understand what we were saying.
And the next day we felt contrite and started it all over again.
Sharon didn’t need to lose any weight. She has always been in great shape. Looking back at photos of myself, I didn’t need to lose any either. (There’s nothing like having a baby to make you appreciate your 21-year-old body. Ay.) However, as two young American women in the late 1980s, we were convinced there was something wrong with us. We deprived ourselves, all day, and tried to feel the holiness of health.
If only I had known then that coffee and chocolate, good cheese and sometimes beef are considered healthy. I would have enjoyed myself so much more then.
Now that the holidays are over, Danny and I are back to our cookbook regime. For an entire week, we cook out of one book, then we share our impressions here. (We’ll be giving you a new review and doing a giveway every other Monday.) At the start of the new year, we began cooking out of Ellie Krieger’s So Easy: Luscious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Week.
I’ll tell you the truth. I expected this book to be boring. Stamp healthy on the cover and I think beige. I think about those diet milkshakes and deprivation, the feeling that we’re not good enough. No butter. I have my own feelings about a healthy diet now, and it’s far different than the typical picture. Certainly, my idea of healthy is worlds away from the nibbling on cardboard I did in my early 20s. So I didn’t expect much from the book before I opened it.
However, so many people have aspirations of “eating healthier” around the new year, and I wanted to see if this book could help anyone.
To my surprise, I like this book. Enormously. Danny does too. Now, how is that?
Krieger’s book shows, in simple recipes and lovely photographs, that real food is what’s healthy. As she wrote: “My golden rule: no food is ever off limits. Rather, I categorize food as Usually, Sometimes, or Rarely….The idea is that there is no need to deprive yourself or go to extremes to be healthy. In fact, extremes are usually unhealthy and trap us into a diet mentality. Rather, balance is key. If you are eating mostly nutrient-rich whole foods, there is room for some butter in your mashed potatoes, some sugar on your strawberries, or even a slice of rich chocolate cake.”
Well, where was she when I was 21?
What Danny and I like most about this book is Krieger knows food and how to make it. So many “healthy” programs seem written by people who think of food as fuel, or a prescription. There’s no care to create good taste or enjoy those bites you are taking. It’s all about efficiency and raw carrots. Krieger’s book celebrates food instead of decrying it. She’s a nutritionist and a food lover both.
The first recipe we made was sirloin steak with grainy mustard sauce and parmesan steak fries. Danny and I both thought this would be a good litmus test. If the steak tasted too “healthy,” the sauce thin and bland, the potatoes a pale imitation of the real thing, we wouldn’t bother making anything else out of the book. To our pleasant shock, this dish tasted rich in our mouths. The mustard sauce, with its short-cut reduction, reminded us both of the classic French mustard sauce Danny has been making for years. And the potatoes? Well, look at the bottom of this post. You’ll see we loved them.
And so, we made almost every meal we ate out of this book, for a solid week. We drank smoothies (that’s a mocha java smoothie on top. oh yeah.) and ate smoked salmon sandwiches, and cinnamon raisin toast with honey-walnut spread. (I wanted to try her version of the Dutch Baby, but gluten-free, but we ran out of breakfast time.) I poached chicken breasts for Waldorf salad, made the grilled beef, jicama, and apple salad, and wished it was summer so I could eat the fresh strawberry and mozzarella salad. We enjoyed the salmon with chickpea ragu (replacing the zucchini and basil with turnips and thyme) and just about lost our minds for the baked beans with applewood-smoked ham. That tasted of molasses and slow cooking, beans and back-of-the-stove simmering, a cold afternoon and an evening together. We’ll be making those again. And again.
Do you hear it? These are recipes for real food. Mussels Provencal. Pork piccata. Burger with green olives. Lemon broccolini. Green apple and cabbage salad. Ratatouille with red snapper. Balsamic strawberries with ricotta cream.
I think we enjoyed the book much more than we thought we would because Krieger makes food the way we do. Local, in season, and organic (when possible). When I was in my early 20s, I had no idea which fruits and vegetables were in season that summer. I just ate what I thought had the least calories. Now, Danny and I grow excited when we pull up to the farmstand down the road from our house and see that they have white acorn squash in their baskets, or leeks just pulled from the ground. We plan our meals around the produce first, because that’s the part of our plate that keeps changing.
I have to say, however, that my only hesitation about Krieger’s book is her use of nonfat yogurt and dairy products. Nonfat milk looks veiny-blue nothingness to me. And I’m not even sure how they make full, rich yogurt into something nonfat. I like to use a little of the good stuff.
I know I’ll receive some mean letters from people about this, saying, “Who are you to say you’re healthy now? You could use a little non-fat yogurt.” We all have to decide for ourselves. Have you noticed how strident we have become in this country about what we think is healthy? Use agave instead of honey! Skip carbohydrates! Dairy is evil! So many people, publicly, insist they have the answer for the rest of us. (And there’s a whiff of self-righteousness, of pointing fingers, of insisting that their way is the only way.) When did we become such twerps about health?
In the end, that’s why we enjoyed Krieger’s book so much. There was no wagging of fingers, no insitence on her way or heading down the wrong way, no deprivation. This woman has the glowiest skin I have ever seen. She also has a recipe for porcini-crusted filet mignon with creamed spinach and herbed mashed potatoes in her book.
The recipes work. They work well. So many of them are naturally gluten-free; the others can easily be adapted. Cooking out of this book was a gentle way for me to find balance in my diet again, after an entire holiday season of testing recipes for cinnamon rolls. Krieger helped me to think about food, and health, and how we see it, even more deeply.
And Danny approves. That’s pretty unusual for a cookbook with the word healthy on it. Take his word for it. You’d like this food.
It’s sure a hell of a lot better than diet milkshakes.
We’re giving away a copy of this book (published by Wiley, who are our publishers, and who sent us the copy of this book). Just leave us a comment sharing your definition of a healthy diet. I think it will be a fascinating conversation. However, any comment that insults another commenter’s diet will not be published. We’ll choose a winner at random next Monday by using random.org.
Crumbled Goat Cheese Steak “Fries,” adapted from So Easy: Luscious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Week by Ellie Krieger
We love potatoes in this house. As much as I love perfect roasted potatoes (like the ones Clotilde wrote about today) for breakfast and mashed potatoes on special occasions, I love finding new ways to eat our favorite tuber without added butter.
These are great. I had my doubts. That little oil? Such a simple recipe? Danny and I both love french fries. Could these be anything close?
Well, let’s be honest. These aren’t the golden, hot-out-of-the-fryer potatoes of your dreams. However, those have to be occasional indulgences. (And particularly for us gluten-free folks, since the truly safe ones can be hard to find. Did you know that celiacs can get sick from eating french fries that have been fried in the same oil as gluten food? Think about the onion rings and french fries mingling, bubbling away. Do you know how infrequently most restaurants change their fry oil?) French fries are sometimes.
These potatoes golden at the edges, fluffy soft inside could be anytime. The original recipe called for Parmesan, which we loved. One night, after we fell in love with these, I made them with goat cheese dashed haphazardly on the hot, baking potatoes. Oh yes. Either way, you’re going to feel healthy, and satisfied, when you eat these.
3 large russet potatoes, unpeeled
2 tablespoons canola oil
3 ounces soft chevre (also known as goat cheese)
salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 450°.
Cut the potatoes in half, lengthwise. Then, cut each half into four long slices. Cut the rounded edge off the outside slices so you will have flat pieces. Put the potatoes into a bowl and toss them with the oil.
Toss the potatoes onto a baking sheet (we lined ours with parchment paper), untangle the overlapping potatoes from each other and place each one flat. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and crumble a bit of goat cheese on each potato slice. Put the baking sheet back into the oven and bake for another 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are golden brown and the goat cheese starting to melt a bit.
(If you want the goat cheese browned, turn on the broiler and put the baking sheet under it for 1 minute.)
Take the potatoes out of the oven, hit them with salt, and serve immediately.