Saturday, June 30, 2012

Slimmer: The New Mediterranean Way to Lose Weight by Harry Papas (©2012)

This book has "The International Bestselling Diet Plan" emblazoned across the top of the cover, although I'm not sure if it has been previously published (or best-selling) anywhere other than Greece, where the author is located. Still, when I was asked if I would be interested in a review copy, and advised that it "doubles as a fantastic cookbook", it seemed worth a go. I like Greek food rather a lot, and Mediterranean cooking in general.

So, what does it look like?

In a Nutshell
The recipe section of this book is 87 pages out of a total of 234, which is a respectable number of recipes for something that isn't foremost a cookbook. The diet structure appears as three cycles of 21 days each, A, B, and C, although it was not easily discernible as to the differences between the cycles, the author promises that the cycles are calibrated to progress sequentially, increasing the amount of fat burning ingredients. This is not further specified. The meal plan part of the diet gives highly detailed menus to be followed for each day of each cycle, with a "free" day as the last day of each cycle. The "free" days are somewhat prescriptive, but generally gives a break from the strict cycle. This is not a calorie-restriction diet (or even a calorie-counting diet), it's more of an "eat these things and it will work itself out" diet.

In addition to the recipe section, the introductory portion discusses the various highlighted foods of the Mediterranean - olive oil, vinegar, dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables, along with the author's own story of weight loss and general enthusiasm to encourage for the reader.

There's not a huge emphasis on exercise, but that's fine with me. The introduction discusses the merits of walking (one of my favourite forms of exercise, in any event), but it doesn't blather on at you about needing to go to the gym.

The Good
The recipe ingredients are real food (mostly - see below). Snacks are included. Most of the recipes look quite tasty, and serving sizes are quite generous, although occasionally ambiguous. For the most part, while the diet has inherent limitations in that you follow the menus strictly, the recipes and menus tend to focus on those items that you can have abundantly, rather than those to be avoided.

The recipes aren't entirely fat-phobic, and even go as far as to indicate that certain vegetables are better for you when ingested with a little (healthy) fat, such as the olive oil indicated for salad dressings.

There are a lot of classical Greek items here, generally streamlined at least slightly in terms of calories and ease of preparation: Greek Chicken with Roast Potatoes, Mediterranean Chickpea Salad, Greek-Style Phyllo Calzone, Meatballs with Rice, Chicken with Orzo, and Greek-style Grilled Fish and Vegetables, to name a few. There are also Provençal recipes, Italian-inspired recipes, and lots of simple, fruit-based desserts that sound very nice.

The Bad
The extremely precise sixty-day plan (63 days if you count the "free" days) has a lot of repetition. The breakfasts are somewhat generously sized, but rather rigid, with the exception of one item that rotates - today cheese, tomorrow jam, the next day turkey sausage, etc. While I have been known to go an entire month eating sliced tomatoes on toast for breakfast (in tomato season, of course), the sameness of the breakfast menu gets a bit wearing looking forward through the next 59 days. I did try the breakfast (cheese version), but was starving by nine thirty and had to get into my scheduled snacks early, so it doesn't seem quite geared for my particular metabolism.

There's a lot of salad. My very first thought as I started to read the daily menus was that he should have called this "60 days of salad" since "large tossed salad" appears on the menu every single day. In the post-recipe section FAQ, it allows that a couple of times per week this can be substituted for two cups of steamed vegetables, lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar. Still, that's a lot of tossed salad. The "large tossed salad" is not the only type of salad on the menu, either, so often you would be having two salads in a single day - not the end of the world, of course, and some of the offerings are quite creative, but there's a certain amount of repetitiveness, all the same. The reliance on salads also leads to a large number of meals that are cold. Easily done in the summer, even preferable, perhaps, but harder to work up the enthusiasm for in the winter.

The daily reliance on large quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables means that this program may be quite expensive to follow, especially out of season, when many fruits and vegetables are going to be a) imported from far away, b) significantly more expensive, and c) not generally at their best, for flavour, texture, or nutritional value. So. Timing is crucial unless you have year round access to in-season produce.

Portions are one-size fits all, which seems a little problematic: a two hundred pound person who wants to shed extra pounds is going to have very different intake requirements from a two-fifty or three hundred pound person, for example. The recipe servings are relatively generous, which leaves your appetite as the only modifying tool to decide how much you should be eating, and if your appetite mechanism is damaged or broken, that can be an additional challenge. Some additional guidance might be helpful here.

The Scary
Despite the fact that most of the recipes use "real food" as opposed to "diet foods", there are certainly some instances of reduced-fat mayonnaise, reduced fat cheese, yoghurt is *always* non-fat, and the preamble suggests that you can have three diet sodas per week, which is just baffling to me. I've been to Greece, and I get that Coca-cola and Fanta are everywhere, there, but damn! Diet soda is not food, and has no place in a healthy eating program. My general rule of thumb for reduced-fat mayonnaise, and other similar situations, is to use half the amount of the real, full-fat item if you're going to taste it, and to find something else entirely (if possible) if it is buried somewhere (e.g. in a baked dish where the flavour isn't prominent). Reduced-fat is often reduced-satisfaction. I'd rather have less of the real deal.

The rigid nature of the diet itself seems to me to be doomed to failure. Even hardened dieters who have weighed everything in their kitchens and know calorie counts off the top of their heads are likely to balk at having every meal, every snack, every aspect of their food accounted for. Now, in a setting where the food and snacks were all provided, it could be quite manageable, I suppose, but I think setting up 60 days of complete adherence is going to be a challenge for most people.

There's a sort of breathless tonal quality to the narrative as it relates to the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle that I found slightly irritating, but after that I was too busy cringing over the demand that the reader/dieter spend days or even weeks preparing for the diet by keeping a food journal (not a bad idea for other reasons, but not so much as "preparation"), getting lots of sleep, and removing stressors from one's life. It's not that any of the recommendations are bad per se, but they really have nothing to do with starting to eat more sensibly, and in the worst case scenario simply leads into putting off ever getting started.

One particularly awful paragraph explaining how to eat a serving of apple pie (in phyllo, recipe provided) which involves putting it on a pretty plate and looking at it for a while before over analyzing every painfully slow bite. I was immediately put in mind of a dog balancing a biscuit on its nose. I cannot imagine a less fun way to eat pie, and while I'm no fan of the "snarf it down in front of the telly, barely noticing what you're eating" mode, I can't imagine that this overly-conscious mode is any better. Although, I do admit that I like the pretty plate idea, and a lot of us could do with slowing down our eating pace a little.

Then there's the small section at the back entitled "The Psychology of Slimmer" which I knew pretty much right away was not for me. For one thing, much of it is written in the second person, assuming that the reader suffers from each and every mental roadblock described, and diagnosing the reader's anticipated failures up to this point, which is shockingly negative and unlikely (I hope) to be accurate. It harkens back to the old snake-oil sales-pitch that assumes you've tried all the rest, now try the best, and it leaves me feeling...icky, and somewhat depressed, although not about the things it supposes I should be depressed about.

Moving on to the food, however, which is much more appealing:

Test Recipes
What better to test than one of the salads, since there are so very many of them? The Lentil Walnut Salad caught my eye as soon as I thumbed past it, and I knew right away that this would be the first recipe I would make.

Lentil Walnut Salad
When I talk about generous servings, this salad comes to mind. It starts with a cup and a half of cooked lentils, and that's for only one person (for lunch).

1 1/2 cups cooked lentils (I chose brown lentils, but it didn't specify)
1 green onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 walnuts, chopped
1 tablespoon walnut oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, crushed
salt & pepper to taste

Combine the first five ingredients in a medium bowl. Mix the remaining ingredients in a small dish and fold into the lentil mixture. Chill (covered) for an hour, or overnight.

Serve over lettuce leaves, in a bowl, and top with grape or cherry tomatoes and a few croutons.

I've made this twice, now, and I can firmly attest to the following things:

1) It is a very nice salad
2) It is better the second day, so make it ahead
3) It can take at least a quarter cup of parsley
4) For the best flavour, toast your walnuts before chopping them
5) Croutons are not really necessary
6) I will happily make this again


The next test recipe I decided to make was the Slimmer Chicken Á La Crème

This chicken dish is the very first dinner on the first cycle of the diet, so I figured it was likely to be pretty good - start with one of your best recipes, or risk putting people off of the program right away. On the confusion front, however, the menu for the dinner on Day 1, Cycle A is "Slimmer Chicken A La Creme; Large Tossed Salad", but it does not mention how the chicken is served. In the recipe itself, it suggests serving it over rice (how much?) for dinner, and to fill a half-pita for lunch the next day (the recipe makes two portions).

I am going to assume that the menu for Day 1 therefore includes rice over which to serve the chicken. In the picture below, you sharp-eyed folks will note that I chose to serve it over a small amount of egg noodles instead, because we had been having rather a lot of rice dishes lately. I also took the option from the book of substituting steamed broccoli for the Large Tossed Salad. The chicken recipe actually made four servings, as the two chicken breasts I had amounted to 420 grams, which seemed like rather a lot of chicken for two servings. The recipe in the book indicates only to use two chicken breasts, and not how much chicken is needed overall. These were large chicken breasts, and we are accustomed to getting four meals out of a pound of meat, so that's what we went for.
Slimmer Chicken Á La Crème
Serves 2 (or four, in our case)

1 teaspoon olive oil
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 cup thinly sliced white mushrooms (we used creminis)
3 Tablespoons dry white wine (we used vermouth)
1 cup low sodium chicken broth (or water)
1/2 cup low-fat evaporated milk
2 teaspoons prepared mustard (we used Dijon)
1 teaspoon cornstarch

In a large skillet, over medium heat, heat the olive oil and saute the chicken pieces until just barely golden. Set chicken aside. In the emptied skillet, saute the onion and mushrooms until slightly browned. Add the chicken back, along with the wine, and stir through. Add the chicken broth (or water), and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until chicken pieces are cooked through. In a small bowl, combine the evaporated milk, mustard, and cornstarch, and stir until smooth. Add to the simmered chicken, and stir through, continuing to cook until the sauce is thickened. Taste, and adjust seasoning as you like.

I note that we accidentally added a clove of garlic along with the onion. I genuinely thought that it had been on the list. No matter, it didn't seem to harm anything, and a little extra garlic flavour is always welcome in our house.

The dish was fairly good - not a show-stopper by any means, but it certainly didn't feel or taste like "diet food" in the sense of being a lame, deprivation version of something you actually like. There are some similarities between this dish and a smothered pork chops dish that I make, and I have to say that I like mine better - it's made with sour cream or Greek yoghurt in place of the evaporated milk, and has a tang to it that I enjoy. While we both enjoyed this dish, it won't replace our pork chop dish any time soon. I think that anyone who currently uses a can of mushroom soup to sauce up their chicken or pork would probably like this a great deal. Personally, I thought it could use a little more seasoning - a little fresh thyme, or some smoked paprika to finish it, perhaps, and if I were to make this again, I would certainly do that. Possibly more garlic, too.

Further Thoughts
The primary reason to read this book is for the recipes; the philosophy is both somewhat thin and at times oddly condescending, but the food looks wonderful and the first test recipe is an unqualified success. There are still a lot of recipes in this book that I want to make, and I plan to do so. It would be great if the recipe section had included some pictures of the finished dishes - I think recipes are more inspiring when you can see how it's supposed to turn out, especially for people who are new to cooking.

Overall, for me the strength of this book is simply as a cookbook - a tool for incorporating new, yummy, and healthy Mediterranean recipes.

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