There are, it seems, two kinds of cookbooks in the world: One kind provides a thrilling sense of alchemy to cooking, opens new doors in the cook's mind, introduces new ingredients, and explores unknown techniques.
The other kind makes promises of a different kind: enjoy the foods you love, but more healthfully. The problem is that along the journey to healthful eating, a lot of the flavor seems to drop off, the joy of the kitchen is dulled, and the end result is uninspiring, resulting in the death of yet another diet.
"Substitution" cookbooks tend to focus on very granular, ingredient-by-ingredient switches that ignore the Gestalt, and the end result is never (or very rarely) as satisfying as the original. As an example, just about every diet cookbook ever published calls for the replacement of fatty pork sausage with chicken or turkey sausage. The reason is obvious--chicken sausage has vastly fewer calories than pork sausage, and very little fat--but cookbook authors all seem blissfully unaware that chicken sausage is also markedly drier than pork sausage, that all the pork fat has a powerful lubricating effect on the dish, and that moisture must be added to the recipe.
The issue then becomes one of taste; even people whose palates have been poisoned by chain-restaurant food that caters to the most basic of taste buds know when they have been tricked, and so the recipes get altered, and then altered again, until the resulting Franken-recipe tastes good but has returned to the calorically dense unhealthfulness from which it came.
Cook This, Not That, then, may be the first diet cookbook ever to succeed at some of its recipes. This week's Recipe of the Week (stay tuned!) is a riff on their lasagna rolls, a surprising success in that it tastes great despite packing 790 fewer calories, 57 fewer grams of fat (35.5 of which are saturated--ugh!) and costing $10 less than its Olive Garden counterpart.
The most striking thing about the cookbook is, as with everything in the "Eat This, Not That" brand, the shocking profligacy with which restaurants add calories to meals that don't need them. As an example, the CPK grilled vegetable salad contains grilled vegetables, romaine lettuce and Dijon vinaigrette--so why is it 810 calories and 2,104 mg of sodium? The substitute recipe lacks corn and lettuce, and replaces the dressing with pesto, red wine vinegar, pine nuts and Parmigiano cheese--yet three servings of it would have the same caloric load and still have nearly a gram less sodium. Similarly, Cheesecake Factory's white chicken chili has 847 calories and nearly 2 grams of sodium, yet the recipe offered is very similar (it would need to be cooked down a bit) and causes less than half the diet damage.
Not all of the recipe substitutions are as smooth; in some, it's patently obvious that the portion sizes have been tweaked heavily, which could lead to charges of unfair comparisons, both on the nutritional front and the economic front.
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Other substitutions are simply maladroit; while stuffed dates wrapped in bacon are delicious in their own right, they are no kind of alternative for stuffed, deep-fried mushrooms, and no one in his or her right mind would swap Friday's loaded potato skins for deviled eggs, even if they are sprinkled with bacon bits.
Occasionally, the switches are confusing, such as for the blackened tilapia with garlic-lime butter, used in place of Denny's lemon pepper grilled tilapia. Why not substitute with tilapia that has been grilled and finished with lemon and pepper? Why blacken the fish, an unnecessary step? The smoked salmon sandwich that's meant to replace a multigrain bagel with lox-flavored cream cheese is 30 percent more expensive.
Overall, however, the book has more hits than misses; the recipes are easy enough to do and require only occasional forays into scary aisles of the grocery store where esoterica like fish sauce and Cotija cheese are kept. As a whole work, it's well-written, and the recipes are interesting enough to keep people cooking.
Cook This, Not That was written by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding and is published by Rodale, Inc.