The South Beach Diet Quick and Easy Cookbook
by Arthur Agatston
Published by Rodale
338 pages, 2005
The Low-Carb Gourmet
by Karen Barnaby
Published by Rodale
328 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Monica Stark
No matter how good your intentions, as the holidays approach it gets increasingly difficult to keep all the vows you've been making to yourself all year. You know the ones: I will take better care of myself. I'm going to watch what I eat. I have to look great for all those holiday parties. The only problem, of course, is the food. At this time of year -- more than any other -- there's so much around that's terrific to eat. And why, you might ask yourself, should you leave the party feeling deprived when everyone else is happily stuffing their face?
I'm not going to stand up and shout here for a diet that's free of carbohydrates. Though someone close to me has had great success with the South Beach Diet and has been very successful in incorporating it into her life, diet -- beyond one for basic health -- has never been something I've had to think about. However, a lot of people have gotten pretty serious about eliminating or reducing carbs from their diet. And the fact is -- as I've discovered from experience -- it's possible to cook for one or two non-carbers while still making food that everyone else will enjoy.
You can, as I did in the early days, experiment with various non- and low-carb combinations on your own. This far into the low-carb revolution, however, there is no real need to do that. There have been a spate of really great cookbooks with a low carb focus. In my opinion, two of the best are the brand new The South Beach Diet: Quick and Easy Cookbook and Karen Barnaby's wonderful The Low-Carb Gourmet from last year.
The South Beach Diet: Quick and Easy Cookbook is more than just South Beach Diet creator Arthur Agatston going back to the very deep well he's created. With a focus on meals that can come to table quickly and with a minimum of fuss, there aren't many people that wouldn't enjoy quite a few of the recipes in this book.
Of course, there aren't many carbs to be found here, but what is included is more than just cutting out bread and pasta. For some people, it represents a whole new way of looking at food. Low-carb, sure. But also, low fat, low sodium. The "right carbohydrates," in the form of nutrient- and fiber-rich vegetables, whole fruits and whole grains. The "right fats" including the olive oil, flaxseed oil, omega-3 fish oil and the fats found in most nuts.
The South Beach Diet: Quick and Easy Cookbook reflects this healthy approach and though I'm no expert on diet, it strikes me that almost any health-conscious home chef would appreciate what's on offer here. The food under discussion makes this apparent: Baked Pesto Chicken; Spicy Mussels with Tomato and Basil; Fresh Tuna Salad with Simple Lemon Dijon; Creamy Cauliflower Soup; Warm Artichoke Dip and yes, even South Beach Macaroni and Cheese with actual (albeit whole wheat or spelt) macaroni and actual (OK, it's reduced fat) cheese.
South Beach dieters will understand that the phase of the diet that each recipe is appropriate for is indicated on each recipe page. But there's much that is good here and each phase is well represented by very yummy and easy to prepare dishes.
The Low-Carb Gourmet is a very different sort of animal. It's wonderful, but those adhering to a very particular diet will have to find their own way.
Author Karen Barnaby is one of the top chefs in Vancouver, Canada, a city known for great restaurants. Barnaby also used to have a much more substantial presence. A talented chef and the author of five previous cookbooks, she seemed sometimes to be enjoying her creations a little too much. Then Barnaby discovered low-carb cooking and, perhaps more importantly for her, low-carb living. She says she lost 70 pounds on a low-carb diet. And, along the way, she hatched this brilliant book.
What's brilliant here comes, I think, from Barnaby's status, not only as executive chef at a top restaurant, but as an experienced and respected author of cookbooks. Put it this way: Barnaby knows food and she knows how to share her knowledge. So in Low-Carb Gourmet you have a professional foodie's know how and experience applied to a low-carb world and you end up with food yummy enough to satisfy anyone. But would Barnaby's book satisfy Agatson's insistence on absolute health? I'm not sure. But, again, Barnaby is a chef. She knows that, in this life, some substitutions are simply not meant to be made.
I'm not advising you to eat high-carb foods -- far from it -- but I am suggesting that you shouldn't become so rigid that you are paranoid about the food you eat. To me, not eating a tomato or a lobster because it contains carbohydrates is a form of insanity. If you take that approach, the enjoyment of food will continue to elude you.
A random tasting from Low-Carb Gourmet: Sesame, Snow Pea and Daikon Radish Salad; Prawns with Peppery Garlic Vinaigrette; Parmesan-Stuffed Eggs with Toasted Almonds; Moroccan-Style Lamb Stew; Keema; Albacore Tuna Melt; and -- because every low-carb cookbook seems to need a version of the comfort food classic -- Tofu-Roni and Cheese. Interestingly, though, Barnaby's version doesn't add any kind of pasta. Here firm tofu stands in for the pasta. Writes Barnaby, "Suspend judgment and you'll find this to be a cheesy dream of a dish." I didn't go there myself: the whipping cream and cream cheese put me off. There are, however, lots of recipes in Low-Carb Gourmet that are low-fat and low-carb as well as more than a few that are tasty and exceedingly innovative.
Basic Cauli-Flied "Rice" would be an example of Barnaby's low-carbolicous innovation. Intended, I gather, to go into the meal in the place where a starch would otherwise have gone, cauliflower is grated, then sautéed in garlic and butter, and finally seasoned with green onions, salt and pepper. "This goes with almost anything saucy," Barnaby writes. Though I would add it goes just fine on its own, as well.
If you're low-carb oriented, you'd look a long way to find books to help you eat as well as these two. | November 2005
Monica Stark is a January Magazine contributing editor.