Friday, December 3, 2010

Cook This, Not That! Easy & Awesome 350 Calorie Meals (©2010)

The enormously popular restaurant guidebook Eat This, Not That! has branched out into a number of related books, including this cookbook, which advocates for eating at-home ~350 calorie versions of popular dining out favourites, in order to save you calories and cash (and time) instead of going out for meals.

The authors assert that more weight loss occurs from getting into the kitchen than getting into the gym, and does a reasonable job of suggesting why that's the case: cutting calories rather than burning them, the psychology of workout/indulgence, time savings, and the simple fact that exercise need not take place in a fitness facility to count as exercise.

So, what does it look like?

In a Nutshell
This does not sell itself as a diet program (a separate book in the series may do that, although it describes itself as "The No-Diet Weight Loss Solution), but offers short, simple recipes designed to appeal in content to people who tend to frequent casual dining restaurants and national family restaurant chains.

The Good
The ingredients are real food. The authors outright and specifically reject what they call "scary food anomalies like fat-free half and half" and call for real butter, olive-oil based mayonnaise, and real cheese. In an effort to moderate portions of richer ingredients, real-food substitutions (such as whipped cream cheese instead of the dense brick style) are indicated, along with a brief explanation. I do note the appearance of low-fat swiss cheese and reduced-fat, all-beef hot dogs (in different recipes), but these are definitely in the minority, and most recipes do not depend on "diet" foods.

The recipes are also short in terms of both numbers of ingredients and steps to prepare, and are not complicated; therefore probably quite good for someone who wants to transition to spending more time in the kitchen. There's also quite a bit of variety in terms of cuisine-of-origin, and both meat and vegetarian options.

The Bad
"Meal" is apparently a relative term. A number of the dishes in this book require side dishes to be adequately considered a meal, at least in the lunch and dinner areas. I don't know about you, but I don't consider a small burger with nothing on the side a meal. Add some fries or a salad, and we're talking. The recipe may be fine, but maybe a "make it a meal" callout suggesting sides, such as the sweet potato fries (for which a recipe also included in the book) and including those calories for a meal total would be helpful.

The thing of it is, if you are going to encourage someone to cook instead of eating at these franchise-type restaurants, you need to be giving them something that looks like a meal once it's on the plate. Otherwise, it just feels like dieting. Now, it is true that you could eat two of the (recipe-version) Jalapeño Cheeseburgers (each at 360 calories for a total of 720 caloires) for less than the caloric payload of one of the cited Applebee's Southwest Jalapeño Burgers (1,110 calories), but adding a serving of the yam fries (@ 80 calories) instead of a second burger gives you a total of 440 calories, and feels like you're not being ripped off in terms of how much you get to eat.

The Scary
The comparisons cause me quite a bit of concern. While some of the recipes are straight-up comparisons (e.g. breakfast sandwich you make vs. breakfast sandwich you buy), and the comparison between calorie savings and financial savings can then reasonably be based on the numbers given. Unfortunately, not all of the "meals" in the book offer an equal comparison. For example, the recipe for Beef Stroganoff (260 calories) instructs you to serve the recipe over buttered noodles or steamed rice, but does not include the caloric payload of those items (although you can see them in the picture), nor does it suggest an appropriate serving size of pasta or rice. To therefore compare it against Bob Evans Pot Roast Stroganoff (813 calories), which includes noodles, seems a little disingenuous. Given the addition of a modest amount of noodles to the recipe (say, a cup of cooked pasta or basmati rice per serving, adding approximately 200 calories to a total of 460 for the recipe) still comes in substantially lower than the compared restaurant product. Why not include that information, then, so we can compare apples to apples?

Similarly, the Chicken Pizzaioli recipe does not include (or show) any pasta, and compares its 360 calories against Olive Garden's Chicken Parmigiana at 1,090 calories (and which includes a motherlode of pasta, going from the picture shown). This goes back to my previous complaint (see: The Bad). Who, realistically, is going to have a piece of chicken breast and sauce and consider that an entire meal? Again, adding a sensible serving of noodles or rice to the recipe brings it up to around 560 calories - which is still close to half that of the commercial product.

I do recognize that the goal of the book is to produce meals that are in the 350 calorie range, but that fails if you do not include everything needed to constitute the "meal". This problem only seems to affect a small percentage of the overall recipes, but it is one you definitely want to note, especially if you are counting calories to help you strategize your meals.

Test Recipes

I tried two entirely unrelated recipes from this book (three, if you count the sweet potato fries).

First, the aforementioned Jalapeño Cheeseburgers.

Serves 4 / Makes 4 burgers
1 pound ground sirloin
1 cup shredded Pepper Jack cheese
1 cup caramelized onions (recipe provided in book)
1/4 cup pickled jalapeños (recipe provided in book)
4 potato buns, split
salt & pepper
2 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons green relish
1 tablespoon olive oil mayonnaise

The last three ingredients there are combined to make a "burger sauce" analog (of the Thousand Island-y variety). I didn't have green relish, and couldn't locate one nearby that wasn't full of high fructose corn syrup, so I substituted finely chopped cornichons. It worked well - the sauce was tasty.

I did follow the directions to make the caramelized onions, but I used pre-sliced pickled jalapeño slices. I used extra lean ground prime rib, which was on special at my local grocery store.

I cooked the burger patties on a grill pan, topping them with shredded cheese after flipping them, as directed. I toasted the buns under the broiler. We used less than the allowable amount of sauce, because neither of us particularly loves "burger sauce", but the amount we used was plenty to keep the burgers moist and tasty. Next time, I would probably use a spicy mustard, or even a salsa instead. As you can see, the burgers were topped with the caramelized onions and the peppers. Next time, taking my cue from a totally different recipe, I plan to chop the jalapeños into tiny bits and mix them into the beef. That would be tasty!

The burgers were good enough to be considered repeatable (albeit with tweaks), which is something of an accomplishment in our house.

As you can see from the picture, we served them with Sweet Potato Fries.

Essentially, slice a medium sweet potato into wedges (for two servings), toss with a half-tablespoon of olive oil, some cayenne and some smoked paprika, salt and pepper, and bake at 425℉ for 25 minutes. We had already done this recipe previously, but we also include cumin in ours - highly recommended. You only need about a half-teaspoon of smoked paprika and the same of cumin (we like ours spicier than the recipe in the book. For reviewing purposes, we make these ones exactly per the recipe, but next time I would bump up the spices to our usual level.

The next recipe we tried was Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Turkey Sausage.

That's four servings you see up there, each at a payload of only 345 calories (including the pasta, thank goodness!)

10 oz. orecchiette pasta
1 bunch broccoli rabe / rapini
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
2 links uncooked turkey sausage, casing removed
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3/4 cup low sodium chicken stock
Freshly grated parmesan cheese

Boil up some water in a big pot. Once it is boiling, drop in the broccoli rabe and cook for 3 minutes. Remove the rabe with tongs (or a spider), and set them aside to be chopped into pieces.

Add the pasta and cook until just al dente (the book recommends a minute or so less than package directions). While the pasta cooks, heat the oil in a large skillet, and add the olive oil. Add the sausage and stir, breaking it up into chunks, cooking until lightly browned. Add the garlic and pepper flakes and saute for another five minutes. Add the chicken stock and the chopped rabe, and lower heat to low. Drain the pasta and toss immediately into the skillet with the sausage and greens. Toss the pasta with the sauce ingredients, adding a little reserved pasta water if necessary to loosen it up. Serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

I would recommend reducing the initial cooking time of the rabe to 2 minutes - it's so thin, that it can easily get overcooked. We found it on the edge of overcooked the first night, and the second day, simply heating up our leftovers pushed it over the edge. So, go easy on the initial cooking stage.

Further Thoughts
Despite the big complaints I have about the way information is presented, specifically in the areas discussed above regarding comparisons and inaccurate description of main dishes as entire meals, I like this book.

I like it as a cookbook - it's got loads of other recipes that I want to try, and I'm capable of doing the math if I need to add something to a dish to round it out into a meal. For the recipes that I tried, each one was simple to make, tasted good, and made me comfortably full for the balance of the evening on the first night (albeit with the addition of the sweet potato fries in the case of the burger), and in case of the pasta - on the second day, when I had the leftovers for lunch I was comfortably fed until dinnertime.

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