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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ready, Set, Blog! (Why The Svelte Gourmet is The Next Food Blog Star!)

The freedom to choose is a wonderful thing. For all intents and purposes, the world is my oyster (literally, as I live in Charleston, South Carolina where oysters abound!). I am fortunate to be in a time and place where I can choose who I want to be, where I want to go, and what I want to eat.

Choosing what I want to eat is the tough one. I like to try everything, and I like everything I try. I suppose being a picky eater would be worse, but my situation is not without issues. Let's put it this way -- no one has ever accused me of eating "like a bird." I'm not proud of this, but I'm over it. It is what it is. I love to eat.

Food is trendy. It's a good time for us! Eaters rejoice! Then repent. Because it seems to me that in our world of choices, the hardest decision we have to make is between eating "healthy" and eating "tasty." My life used to be in a perpetual state of turmoil. I was eating out, enjoying my social life and on a culinary adventure. Or I was on a diet, bored and deprived -- but thrilled with the results! I would work really hard to look fabulous in that dress so I could go out and....eat. Vicious cycle.

But we're not really eating that badly, are we? We grab lunch at the deli or eat out on weekends. We have a milkshake, but we'll skip lunch to make up for it. Not too bad, right? That's what I used to think, but now I know better. There's an obesity epidemic in this country, and it's no wonder. And we're drawn to a good deal, but guess what? We don't need to eat all we can eat! A little digging elucidated that the milkshake with all fresh ingredients I was having "as lunch" had 2,000 calories -- more than I should be eating in an entire day! During my diet phases, I'd stick with a salad that I later learned had 1,200 calories in the lunch portion. Wow. Who knew? More digging proved it -- eating out was a losing battle in my battle to lose.

I'm tired of choosing. I want both. Healthy and delicious. The Svelte Gourmet was an experiment -- a challenge. Could I create food that was both figure friendly and foodie-approved? Could I come up with recipes that were special enough for a dinner party but simple enough for a Wednesday? Could I publish a cookbook that would give us a month of variety without cheating on our diets? I don't want to choose anymore -- and I'm sharing my successes, failures and follies with you so you don't have to either.

So why should I be The Next Food Blog Star? Because I'm having a blast. And I've learned that I'm not alone in this. Many of us struggle with this every day. You've told me your stories, you've inspired me to keep writing and you've challenged me to recreate your favorites so you can eat them more often. I'm happy because I'm making you happy. I've loved every minute of it, good and bad. I'm putting myself out there and I've had my share of ridicule. Maybe I'm not "authentic" in my cuisine or educated on the "proper" ways to prepare dishes, but that's ok. Thai Tuesdays at the Foxes satisfy our cravings despite the substitution of whole grain pasta and bean sprouts for rice noodles in my Pad Thai (and if you're like me, you'll understand why finally finding seedless tamarind paste in Charleston raised my heart rate more than any sweat session at the gym!). "Unfried" Fridays rival our old nights out on the town (and the "Faux"jitos don't hurt, either). Make-your-own-pizza night is a family favorite, and the fact that it's healthy gets lost in the fun.

I write for the "every day cook." Those of us who love to (have to) put meals on the table every night -- after we get home from work. Those of us who want great food without having to spend hours in the kitchen followed by hours at the gym. Those of us who don't want to choose between healthy and tasty.

I'll keep writing whether I win Project Food Blog or not. I've tried to make changes so my life didn't revolve around food, but it didn't work. This blog is my outlet and you're my muse. If you enjoy what I write and love what I cook, please vote for The Svelte Gourmet. Thank you for reading!

To vote for The Svelte Gourmet, please click the Project Food Blog Official Contestant box to the top left of this post. Voting on this first challenge is open September 20-23. Thank you!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Raising the (salad) bar!

I've heard from many of you that the biggest problem with The Svelte Gourmet recipes is portion control. I'm flattered that you enjoy my recipes so much! I'm as guilty of portion uncontrol as anyone -- and with the ridiculous portion sizes in most restaurants, it's no wonder that we don't know when to stop.

Sometimes I just need a system reset. A few days of calorie reduced meals to shed the extra pounds of overindulgence. Enter the mighty salad! Salads for lunch and dinner for a few days cut out a ton of carbs from your normal diet and still keep your metabolism moving (unlike skipping meals, which will backfire!). Filling up on mostly veggies really means that you're cutting down on the rest of your portions.

Now here's the kicker. You can bore yourself to death with veggies and store-bought diet dressings, leaving you unsatisfied and with the propensity to overeat later. Or you can completely sabotage your efforts by ordering a salad right off the menu in a restaurant -- sadly, many are WORSE than ordering that cheeseburger. Check out this recent article from Men's Health, titled "Worst Salads In America." Frightening!

So how do we choose between complete boredom and diet sabotage? We don't! If you're having a salad with your meal, try The Svelte Gourmet Signature Salad. At under 100 calories, it's a great way to fill yourself up before digging into that main course and overeating. We have this salad virtually every night with dinner, and it remains Keith's favorite part of the meal. Try it!

So what about the main course? Well, my philosophy is that you can take any type of cuisine and make it into a satisfying, low calorie salad. Again, if you're a purist in your approach to cooking (Greeks wouldn't consider this Greek, or this veggie isn't found in Asia), then you probably won't be a fan of my interpretations. But to me, they taste great, help me to lose weight, and are completely boredom-free. I can have a different salad for each meal and not feel like I'm eating the same thing over and over!

Start with the basics -- lettuce, mixed greens, or spinach. Add cucumbers, tomato and any other raw veggie you like (I avoid potatoes and corn because they're starchy). Then you need a lean protein. If you have a favorite chicken or beef marinade that's calorie and fat conscious, then by all means, use it. For grilled chicken, I like to marinate it for 30 minutes in 2 tbsp melted butter, 1/4 cup vinegar and 1/4 cup water, then baste it with a fresh batch of the mixture. Delicious! This is pretty much "Dad's Chicken on the Grill" from the cookbook. For this purpose, London broil or sirloin (both lean cuts!) are great grilled with just salt, pepper and garlic powder.

Now it's time to mix it up! Start with the base of veggies and the protein of your choice (try to stick to 4 ounces cooked and sliced on top). Now add the flavor:

Asian Salad
Sliced green onions
A few chopped peanuts
Red pepper flakes
No sugar added Mandarin orange segments
Dressing of rice vinegar, a few drops of sesame oil and minced ginger to taste

Mexican Salad
Onions (cooked until somewhat soft and browned in just a touch of olive oil)
Sliced jalapenos (you can cook these with the onions, leave them raw, or use the pickled kind)
Less than one ounce finely shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese
Dressing is simply the tomato-based salsa of your choice -- as much as you want!

Greek Salad
Red onion
Less than one ounce crumbled feta cheese
One tablespoon sliced or chopped calamata olives
Dressing of red wine vinegar, lemon juice and dried oregano

See? Easy, right? And trust me, you'll feel like you're eating a different meal every night. No more boring salads!

For more variations, try different proteins -- shrimp, fish like salmon, or tuna mixed with 1 tbsp light mayo and chopped pickles/celery/onions. I often use whatever protein I have left from a meal for a salad the next day. Just watch your portions -- try to stick to 4 ounces. If you follow these rules, each of these salads has between 250 and 350 calories -- in the whole meal!

My rule of thumb for dressings is simple. If the traditional version is vinegar- and oil-based, just skip the oil or replace the oil with water to cut down on the harshness of the vinegar. If it's a creamy dressing, use plain yogurt or fat-free buttermilk (or a combination of both) instead of sour cream or mayonnaise. Using fresh herbs, vinegar and garlic will work great for a ton of flavor. If you're not that motivated, even those powder dressing packets work great in a pinch! The Italian dressing packet that comes with the glass carafe is great if you fill the vinegar to the V line, then use water to both the W (water) and O (oil) lines. If you're making ranch with the dressing/dip mix, simply replace the sour cream/mayo with the yogurt/buttermilk as aforementioned. Using these tricks will make your vinegar-based dressings have virtually no calories and your creamy dressings will have about 10 calories per tablespoon. Can't beat that! Just watch the salt and be on the lookout for MSG if you're using a store bought "packet" of anything!

If you're eating out, order mixed greens and veggies with grilled chicken or fish. Skip the bacon, cheese, and whatever else comes on that salad -- if you see something on the ingredient list that wouldn't fit into a diet at home, don't order it on your salad! The lettuce does not automatically make it healthy! Skip the prepared dressing and ask for the oil and vinegar carafes -- and just use the vinegar!

I challenge you to raise the (salad) bar. I promise it doesn't have to be boring. Mix it up and you'll see results without the traditional "salad diet" boredom. Enjoy, and please let me know what versions you use! I would love some new ideas!

The Svelte Gourmet: A Month of Main Courses cookbook is available at www.thesveltegourmet.com/products.html.