I cringed when I first read the title of the new cookbook by Erica Gragg and Melissa Perlman, owners and founders of the Amansala Spa on the Mexican Riviera. Based on their popular fitness program, it's called Bikini Bootcamp: Two Weeks to Your Ultimate Beach Body. It sounded like some type of regimen involving grapefruit and cabbage (possibly in tandem) and rounds of push-ups.
Despite initial hesitation, I was intrigued by the story of two best friends relocating from Manhattan to Mexico to open a resort — next thing I knew, I had read the book cover to cover. The premise is simple: It's a guide for spa clients who wanted to live like Amansala guests even after returning home. Though the book includes workout advice and a 14-day get-in-shape plan, I focused on the cookbook section, which features about 80 Asian- and Mexican-inspired recipes. I was impressed that a "diet" book wove in flavor-boosters such as avocado, white wine, sesame oil, and brown sugar, and also that nearly every dish contained some kind of fat to keep you sated. I tried a few of them, and the recipes tasted as good as they looked.
After taking one bite of the Amansala Salad with Ginger-Sesame Dressing, my husband — who does most of the cooking in our household — said, "You're going to have to make this salad three times a week. No less."
Gragg and Perlman's overall eating philosophy is sensible: Buy organic when possible, eat lots of fruits and veggies, choose foods that are only one step removed from their natural state, and mix in whole grains and good fats (nuts, avocados, olive oil) judiciously. Since not all of us can travel to the sleepy beach town of Tulum, where resort recruits snack on fresh mango and strength-train with fallen coconuts (no joke!), I asked Gragg for more healthy eating advice. Here are her tips.
Eat Mindfully: Raise your hand if dinner often means chowing down while zoning out to Idol (or whatever happens to be on TiVo backlog). To encourage readers to focus on their food and how it tastes, the authors suggest setting a pretty table (even if you're dining alone), turning off the television and iPod, and even ditching those books and magazines. "Being mindful of not only why you are eating but also what you are eating means not only will you only eat when you are truly hungry, but you will begin to value and enjoy your meals so much more," says Gragg.
Low-Fat, Not Nonfat: Gragg and Perlman love a smoothie (their ginger-pineapple, which is made with plain low-fat yogurt, was my favorite). And since I can't stand the insipid mouth-feel of nonfat yogurt, I was thrilled that all the recipes call for low-fat dairy products. Here's Gragg's take: "The human body needs some fat to properly absorb vitamins and minerals. Remember, it's about portion and balance."
Focus on Fiber: When purchasing cereal or bread, the authors suggest choosing products that have four grams of fiber or more per serving. "Fiber is very filling, which means that you will eat less, yet feel fuller," explains Gragg. "Beyond that, fiber aids in digestion, flushing through your body very quickly, and soluble fiber binds to cholesterol and helps the body eliminate it." Okay, okay. I'll eat more fiber.
A Is for Amaranth: I was skeptical about this indigenous Mexican grain that the authors suggest as a morning cereal. (It can also be used to increase the fiber content of bread or pancakes.) It took much longer to cook than the package indicated, and its stubborn bits clung to the saucepan, bowl, and stove, even after repeated scrubbing. But I do love a toothsome grain, and I've become fond of its nutty flavor. (Oatmeal now seems bland in comparison.) It also packs a nutritious punch: Gragg points out that amaranth has three times the fiber content of wheat and a healthy amount of calcium.
Start with Soup: Having soup before dinner fills you up, and it's an easy way to sneak in a few extra servings of vegetables.
Mixing Up the Salads: So their guests don't tire of the same old greens, chefs at Amansala create salads using beans (black, garbanzo, and cannellini), whole wheat couscous, soba noodles, and raisins with apples (for a chicken salad). My favorite "green" is Napa cabbage, because the hearty heads stay fresh for up to a week in the fridge.
Sprinkle, Sprinkle: Many recipes call for a teaspoon or two of healthy mix-ins such as flax seeds, sesame seeds, and slivered almonds, all of which add fiber and protein and keep you satisfied until the next meal.
Spice It Up: "Too much salt leads to water retention and an energy slump," warns Gragg. I'm a bit of a saltaholic, but I found I needed less of the white stuff with these recipes because their flavor was pumped up with herbs and spices. I was digging through my pantry and fridge to bring out ingredients I don't use nearly enough, including curry and ginger powders, turmeric, and jarred jalapeños.
Befriend the Blender: With all the soups and smoothies I was eating on the Bikini Bootcamp diet, I used this do-it-all appliance more over the last month than I have since receiving it as a wedding gift. Blended salad dressing has been my personal revelation, and I don't think I'll be able to go back to making it with a whisk. It emulsified better, so the flavors seemed more cohesive, and it stayed blended, making it a cinch to grab and pour without having to remix.
Follow Your Fist: If you're craving a snack, try to eat something about the size of your fist, suggests Gragg. Of course, this shouldn't be, say, four chocolate truffles. The authors' snack suggestions were mostly the usual diet suspects (fruit, yogurt, veggies, air-popped popcorn), though the jicama sticks sound interesting; they're dusted with chili powder and finished with a squeeze of lime. If spas served bar snacks, that one would certainly be on the menu.
Try these recipes from Bikini Bootcamp:
• Amansala Salad with Ginger-Sesame Dressing
• Chicken Curry with Veggies on Whole-Grain Couscous
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