Yo-yo dieting leads cook to moderation

A new cookbook introduces a way of eating that doesn't separate foods into those that are 'good' or 'bad' for you

As a chef in kitchens all over Europe and the US, Sally Schneider acquired a love for rich, sumptuous foods. But were all those cream sauces, heavy meat dishes, and sugary desserts just too much of a good thing?

For Ms. Schneider, unhappy with her ballooning shape, the first answer was dieting – and she tried more diets than Hollywood has even heard of. Alas, none worked.

Then it dawned on Schneider, who comes from a family of good cooks, that giving up butter, cream, or even sugar isn't the answer. Nor is counting calories or grams of fat. She craved a less rigid, more balanced approach to eating – and she realized that all diet plans lack something profound.

"They ignore the other hungers that good food satisfies," she says, "hungers for the connection it can forge to friends and nature; for its sensual beauty – its colors, aromas, flavors, and textures; for the cultural and historical meaning it expresses; and most important, for comfort and well-being."

For the past decade, the svelte Schneider has committed herself to developing a lean yet flavorful approach to eating, largely influenced by Mediterranean cooking, that nourishes all these connections. Not wanting to keep her findings to herself, she published them in "A New Way to Cook" (Artisan, 739 pp., $40).

The hefty cookbook includes more than 600 recipes for dishes enhanced by components such as flavored oils, broths, and fresh sauces, as well as useful sections on basic techniques, menu suggestions, and resources for eating in this "new way." It reflects her 25 years of experience in professional kitchens as well as countless hours of research on diet and nutrition. Called "revolutionary" by many, it has received much acclaim, including the food industry's highest honors: cookbook awards from the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the James Beard Foundation.

"What I am especially happy about," says Schneider from her home in New York, "is that the book won in general categories. I have never viewed it as a diet book, but rather as a guide to integrating a moderate path of eating into one's life."

During a series of snags that delayed publication of her book, she fretted that it might be released too late. "But now," she says, "I realize the timing is perfect. People are seeing that a myopic focus on calories and fat grams doesn't work. They are bored with low-fat foods, which have no flavor.

"And they have been so confused about what to eat. One day, watermelon is good for you, the next day it's not. The point of my book is to take a middle-path approach without separating foods into those that are 'good' or 'bad' for you."

Schneider grew up watching her Greek mother make filo-dough pastries, but it is not only this heritage that attracts her to Mediterranean cuisines. It is the emphasis in Italy, France, Greece, and Spain on eating mostly plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, and grains, as well as moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and nuts, and small amounts of red meat, dairy products, and sugar. "These cuisines," she says, "most closely mirror the way I like to eat and cook: simply and deliciously, in tune with the seasons."

She is also drawn to the Mediterranean way of lingering with family and friends over a lovingly prepared meal – a custom that often seems worlds away from America's drive-through culture.

At the same time, she doesn't overlook the American home cook's desire for quick and easy recipes. The key to speedy dinner prep, she suggests, is to keep a well-stocked pantry. And don't be too rigid with recipes. In "A New Way to Cook," she offers tips for stocking essential staples and encourages a spirit of improvisation by suggesting substitutions.

But whether dinner is on the table in 20 minutes or in two hours, and savored at a leisurely pace or slam-dunked, what's most important, Schneider says, is to experience the pleasure of cooking well and the joy of sharing a good meal.

Roasted Asparagus With Brown Butter and Pecorino

Roasting asparagus spears rather than steaming them is an easy way to achieve an appealingly rustic effect – and a more concentrated flavor. With Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese shaved over them, they make an effortless, instant hors d'oeuvre or first course. The asparagus is especially good if brushed with brown butter, whose roasted-nut flavor plays off the sharp cheese, but you can also use a fruity extra virgin olive oil.

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter

2 pounds medium-thick asparagus

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1-1/4 ounces Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

To make brown butter: In a small saucepan, cook the butter over moderately low heat until the solids that fall to the bottom are medium brown and the butter smells like roasted nuts. Remove from the heat. With a teaspoon, skim the foam off the top and discard.

Break the tough ends off the asparagus and discard. If you wish, peel the bottom third of each spear with a vegetable peeler. (This gives them a nice look but is not necessary.) Using a lightly dampened brush, brush a baking sheet large enough to hold the spears in one layer with a little of the brown butter, taking care not to include any brown solids. Spread the asparagus on the sheet and paint with the remaining butter. Sprinkle lightly with the salt.

Roast until the asparagus is tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Shave or grate the cheese over the asparagus, sprinkle with pepper, and serve warm.

If you would like to prepare this dish in advance, you may do so. Up to 6 hours ahead, trim the asparagus and make the brown butter. Brush the sheet with butter, arrange the asparagus on the baking sheet, and brush with the remaining butter. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to roast.

Serves 4.

Mussels in Curry Broth

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup minced shallots

4 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1 small chili pepper, seeded and minced

1 tablespoon curry powder

4 cups bottled clam juice

1 (2-inch) strip of lime zest

3-1/2 pounds mussels

3/4 cup coconut milk

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup of fresh cilantro, chopped

Lime wedges, for garnish

In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots, ginger, and chili pepper. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the shallots are soft (or about 7 minutes). Add the curry powder and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.

Increase the heat to high, add the clam juice and lime zest, and bring to a boil. Boil until reduced to 2 cups, about 5 minutes.

Add the mussels, cover, and cook, shaking the pan frequently, until all the shells have opened, 5 to 7 minutes. Scoop the mussels into large bowls.

Stir the coconut milk and sugar into the broth and adjust the seasoning. Add cilantro. Spoon the broth over the shellfish and garnish with fresh lime wedges. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as an appetizer.

- Adapted from 'A New Way to Cook' (Artisan)

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