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A food critic figures out how to lose weight without eating diet food at home

Over the last few months, I went from the worst shape of my life to the best while continuing to eat like a food critic. Don't punch me in the face; instead, read how I did it in part eight of this series:

"Just hope you got your dad's metabolism," my grandmother whispered in a tone full of foreboding as she strapped me into the back seat of the family minivan. "Then you won't get fat like the rest of us."

Over two decades later, it's clear that I didn't get whatever my dad has that keeps him skinny, but I can't blame some genetic shortcoming from my mom's side of the family for my condition. It's really a difference in attitude: My dad is an eat-to-live type of dude, who's enjoyed the same nutritious breakfast and lunch for as long as I can remember, and orders the entree he think confers the most heart-healthy advantage when he goes out to eat, even if that means forsaking the duck confit for the boneless, skinless chicken breast.

I, on the other hand, am not just a live-to-eat kind of person -- I'm a my-whole-life-revolves-around-my-plans-for-my-next-meal kind of person. My metabolism, which I think is on the fast side of average, would have to burn as intensely as 1,000 blazing suns to keep up with my rate of consumption.

But when I'm trying to un-fat my ass, it's not quantity of food that kills me. My biggest problem with staying on the weight-loss wagon is that most foods that are diet-friendly taste like cardboard sprinkled with a little salt and pepper. In the past, I've quit most diets in a blaze of glory, reversing the effects of eating white meat and steamed vegetables for six weeks straight with a multi-day binge-fest in which I defiantly eat enough pork fat and ice cream to stop up every artery in my body.

This is why the experts agree that permanent weight-loss is a lifestyle change. And since I'm never going to succumb to a lifestyle of eating boringly, I knew I'd have to figure out a way to make the protein-and-vegetable meals approved by Jamie Atlas, the personal trainer at Bonza Bodies I'd asked to help me turn the cholesterol-ridden tide of my life, appeal to my discriminating palate.

I'm not into diet food. But the mindset that comes from these tips? This I can do:   1. Tackle the high-protein breakfast. For all the whining I just did about boring meals, I have one particularly boring tendency: I could eat eggs with Sriracha every day for the rest of my life and be more or less okay with it. Okay, so long as sometimes I could have eggs, black beans, jalapeños, chopped cilantro and a jar of salsa, a la breakfast nachos. Or peppered steak with a couple of overeasies. Or softly scrambled eggs topped with mushrooms sauteed in garlic and onions. Or curried chickpea and tomato stew crowned with poached eggs. Or... you get the point. Because I love eggs, I'm generally of the opinion that most things are better topped with a poached egg. This basically makes every dish on the planet part of my breakfast canon. If you abhor eggs, though, you could still take a protein-packd approach to breakfast. I ate cold meatballs this morning: They were delicious. Day-old steak crisps up pretty nicely in a saute pan, as does any meat that was grilled or roasted. And I can't think of many better ways to start the day than a bowl full of braised pork, left over from a feast from the night before. Breakfast of pig-loving champions.

2. Spice. I'm throwing my mother under the bus here (sorry, Mom), but her spice cabinet drives me crazy: She has every spice you can purchase at your local Whole Foods Market crammed onto several shelves of her pantry... and she never uses a single one. She purchased most because some recipe called for a teaspoon of this or a pinch of that, and after said teaspoon or pinch was stirred into the pot, she had no idea what to do with the rest of the jar. So onto the shelf it went.

If you're looking for ways to make your life a lot more interesting, a really simple trick is to cook the same dish over and over and over again using vastly different spices. Chicken stir-fried with curry tastes a lot different than chicken stir-fried with ginger or saffron or tons of garlic or red chiles. Think along the lines of cuisines, and experimentation is a lot less intimidating. Stew lamb in curry, and it'll taste Indian. Rub it with cumin, and it becomes vaguely Middle Eastern. Encrust it with rosemary and mint, and you've got fancy North American.

I harp on proper salting a lot in my reviews, and it applies here, too. When used correctly, salt doesn't just taste salty -- it's a flavor carrier. It makes the tomatoes taste more like tomatoes, the beef taste more like beef, the bacon taste more like bacon (more bacon? MMMM). Salt in layers: every time you add something new to your pot or pan, be it an ingredient or a spice, add a bit of salt. Then when your concoction is finished, you'll be able to taste everything -- from the finishing squeeze of lemon to the garlic and onion you started with -- a little more intensely. Also, tossing a little garlic and shallot into a pan before you start cooking gives just about everything a shot of depth; finishing just about everything with a squeeze of lemon or a couple of drops of vinegar gives it a nice lift.

3. Go for satisfaction. If you, like me, know you hate boneless, skinless chicken breast, then, for the love of God, don't eat it. That is the fastest way to get sick of a diet, and furthermore, you're prone to OVEReating it because you're never going to be satisfied. So stop it. Put it down. Move on to tuna, scallops, salmon, duck, lamb, beef, pork tenderloin, kangaroo or pretty much any other meat on the planet, so long as it isn't ribboned with fat (a la bacon, unless, like Jamie says, you want to be on the slow train), processed (yes, that means deli meats are out) or injected full of chemicals in the raising process (okay, that's a selfish one for me).

Cooking with meats you like also means you've probably ordered them at restaurants before -- so coming up with happy flavor combos is much easier. You've tried lamb and rosemary, for instance. And salmon and dill. and beef and a chili rub. Want more? Check out The Flavor Bible, my favorite reference book ever -- look up an ingredient and find a list of other ingredients that match. I guarantee you'll come up with plenty of non-boring ways to enjoy just about anything.   4. Soup! In the great soup or salad debate, I am wholeheartedly a soup person -- which is lucky. For the home cook who's weight loss-conscious, soup can make justabout anything taste damn good. Basic technique: saute a little onion and garlic in a stock pot, add the rest of your ingredients in layers -- starting with the ones that take longest to cook -- salt each layer and dump in your spices, add stock at the end and simmer until the thing tastes good, adjusting spices and salt as needed. Apply to steak or elk chili, pork and white bean stew, tortilla soup minus the tortilla. Most soup recipes, by the way, are forgiving enough that you can cut out dairy and grains and still have a solid final product. Jamie Oliver's recipe for Spanish chickpea and chorizo soup is totally on the plan -- and it's also a good party trick, if you're trying to impress a crowd.

5. Don't take on too much, and figure out where you can eat out. Here's a fun fact: most of us have a rotation of eleven meals. Those are the things we make or pick up when we're trying to figure out what to have for dinner on a commitment-less night. When left to my own devices, I frequently eat a pot of mussels. Or I saute shrimp with white pepper and chili flakes and dump it over arugula, or make meatballs and marinara, or mow through a feast of cured meat, or -- um -- pick up Chipotle.

I really love to cook, but I'd be lying if I said that I feel like making some elaborate feast for every single meal. I've got a sneaking suspicion even chefs like Thomas Keller and Rene Redzepi feel this way sometimes. And if you're not a cook at all? Well, that's probably not going to change just because you've jumped on the weight-loss plan. What you really want is a handful of easy staples that you can turn to without thinking about it too hard -- you want your eleven meals to be part of the plan.

It's totally cool to have restaurant meals in that rotation, by the way, so long as they serve your purposes. Best way to do that? Become a regular somewhere. That makes it way easier to ask for modifications without feeling that you're too annoying. Most menus have a solid meat and vegetable option on the list. And sashimi at your favorite sushi restaurant is always a safe no-modification-necessary bet.

Following the plan? The step-by-step:

- Step one: turning the corner with a high protein breakfast

- Step two: cutting the trash

- Step three: getting a handle on the booze

- Step four: the short workout key

- Step five: eat more like a food critic

- Step six: surviving a multi-course feast plus a re-feed workout video

- Step seven: staying on the wagon for the long haul

Watch for the next installment of Bar Belle next Monday.


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