Some “Light” Reading?

2011.May.31 Tuesday · 3 comments

in Books & Other Media

Cooking Light is America’s recipe for healthy living, dedicated to helping readers eat better, feel better and look their best. Each issue celebrates light cuisine via more than 75 kitchen tested, beautifully photographed recipes. Our editorial focus is to provide fitness from a common sense angle as well as a reachable/user friendly exploration of delicious better-for-you food. Our mission is to be embraced by readers as a part of their daily rhythm; our goal is to help each individual reader keep a better lifestyle balance. (Eat smart. Be fit. Live well.)”

– Mission Statement from Cooking Light magazine

Through a very round-a-bout process (which took them from Alabama to New York to Oregon to California to Uruguay and then I picked them up there while visiting the friend who’d snagged them in California), I recently received a couple of cookbooks from the publishers of Cooking Light magazine with the intent on their and my part to give them a test drive and review. The two books are, I gather, collections of recipes that have been published over the years in the magazine, plus, perhaps some additional ones specifically for the books – I’m not sure, there’s no indication in either book one way or the other on the latter.

Let’s start with my “problem” with Cooking Light and just get it out of the way with, because on a practical level, it’s irrelevant. The recipes that the magazine and books offer up have always relied much more heavily than I would like on canned and jarred goods – particularly sauces – and frozen vegetables. That’s it. The reality of daily life, however, is that that’s a step up from how most people cook – which consists of mixing prepackaged ingredients together or heating up something premade and frozen, or more likely, giving it up as a bad move anyway and ordering out Chinese or picking up fast food drive-through. I realize Cooking Light is focused on the food aspects of things, but really, “cooking spray” instead of just a little rub of oil on something? Part of living healthy is keeping the environment healthy too.

While from my personal perspective, I’d much rather have a stalk of fresh broccoli sitting in my kitchen than a bag of cut, blanched and shocked florets sitting in the freezer, I have the skewed viewpoint of someone whose workplace is in the kitchen. It’s not the place I’m forced to head to after putting in an 8 hour day at the office, or running kids around to all their after school events, or whatever it is that takes up the majority of people’s lives day in and day out. I actually enjoy cutting up the broccoli and doing the whole process to get it ready. And, it doesn’t cut into my day.

Nine times out of ten I’d rather chop up tomatoes and onions and garlic and peppers and all the rest to make myself some salsa that will only keep in the refrigerator for a few days instead of a jarred one that is preservative laden and will last for months, or even, buying a fresh one made by someone else. But that’s my passion – most people just want to get dinner on the table without exhausting themselves. So in the end, on a practical level, I am content that the books and magazine push people to use some fresh ingredients and actually spend time learning how they go together.

Cooking Light: Complete Meals in MinutesI don’t use cookbooks as recipe books directly in the kitchen. By that I mean that it’s rare that I would ever have a cookbook sitting on the kitchen counter, open to a page, with, likely, something holding down each side of the book so it stayed open while I refer to it back and forth. It’s just not the way I cook, but that gets back to what I do for a living and how I approach it. So it took me a moment to realize that the design of this book as a ring binder had multiple positive things about it as opposed to just taking up extra space over a normally bound book. You can open it and the pages lay flat, you can remove a single page and just have that in the kitchen with you, you can add to it with additional pages if you want, though the last, with 700+ recipes already in the binder, might be a bit of overstuffing. It’s eminently practical.

Cooking Light: complete meals in minutes is a straightforward recipe book. There’s no text, no prose, no reasons given for any of the recipes. In the context of the magazine there would be reasons given for certain choices, here the assumption is, just trust us, we’ve done the work. And that’s fine. It’s like the laboratory workbook that accompanies the textbook – when you’re in the lab, in this case the kitchen, you don’t need all the extraneous detail. A bit is provided – at the bottom of each recipe is a nutritional analysis of the key things people on a healthy eating kick might be concerned about – calories, fat, protein and carbohydrate content, cholesterol, iron, sodium….

As to the implied purpose of the book, it’s hard to say – “complete meals” are certainly possible out of this book, it covers everything from appetizers to desserts – but what was missing for me were any kind of suggestions like “hey, if you’re making this here on page 273, it goes really well with such and such on page 419.” (Those are random numbers, I don’t necessarily think that you should pair Country Captain Chicken and Grilled Nectarines with Blue Cheese.) You still have to do the menu planning yourself and figure out what you already have around the house and what you need to buy. The recipes are well thought out, easy to follow, and each includes an estimation of how much time it will take to complete them, the “in minutes” part of the subtitle, and they’re pretty accurate – if you decide to go the route of fresh vegetables rather than frozen in some, you’ll add in the few minutes to prepare them, that’s about it.

I tried out a good handful of the recipes, more or less selected at random and all turned out tasty. None was complicated to make. Here and there I have some quibbles about the choices of ingredients – for example, Chicken Paprikash, a favorite dish, is traditionally made with sour cream – what was behind the decision to use whipping cream in the recipe which not only takes away that nice tartness, but doesn’t lower the calories, fat or cholesterol in the dish? Why not light cream, or half and half, or better yet, yogurt? No doubt there was some sort of explanation in the original magazine article, but it isn’t here in the book. And a few things are probably well-known to the average norteamericano homemaker but that I haven’t a clue what they contain – “1 16-ounce package frozen bell pepper stir-fry” – is that just bell peppers? Does that have other stuff in the mix? What is actually in a “24-ounce package refrigerated sour cream and chives mashed potatoes”? I didn’t even know they made such a thing and really wish I didn’t now – and of course, the pushing of particular brands – I assume they’re advertisers – is a little annoying, and probably irrelevant to anyone outside of the U.S.

Overall, if you’re looking for a good, solid recipe book with lots of quick (I think every dish is 30 minutes or less) and easy to make dishes that are healthier than that frozen pizza (really? you have one of those in your freezer?) or snagging takeout from some fast food joint, this is a great choice.

Cooking Light: VegetarianThe second book from the same publishers I both like more and less than the first. The book itself – Cooking Light: way to cook vegetarian is a straightforward hardcover. Now that I’m enamored of the ring binder that is the first book, this one loses points, but only in comparison. On the other hand, it’s not just a recipe book. It’s a book to sit down and read, because it’s got some good material in there – so it gets those points back.

Many of the same things could be said about the recipes that are in the book – the ease, the frozen, canned and jarred thing, the advertiser pimping (do I really want to know what “1 12-ounce package meatless fat-free crumbles” are?). The recipes here are more of a mix, some simple and some more complicated, and they don’t have that helpful “in minutes” part for the harried homemaker. Many of them require a bit more planning, but it’s all well spelled out. Visually, it’s a quite beautiful book, with not just great photos of the dishes, but also step-by-step how to sections on various topics like making ricotta, preparing certain specialty vegetables and making omelets; sidebars that explain the differences between grains, tofus, tempehs, and many of the other things that a budding vegetarian might want to read about. It’s like a really cool, well illustrated “for Dummies” book. But better.

It falls down in a couple of places. I found myself searching the index with no luck for many of our current fall vegetables – cauliflower, brussels sprouts, parsnips and cabbage, somehow or other not one of these make it into the book, or at least aren’t listed – yet at the same time, it delves into things like celeriac, lemongrass, jicama and quinoa, with gusto. Even broccoli gets short shrift with only three recipes, two of which are variations on “in cheese sauce”. The focus seems to be on grain based dishes – whether the grains themselves in one guise or another, or things like pastas, sandwiches (or other similar dishes like bruschettas and pizzas), and a whole lotta stir-fries on rice. And why tout seitan as a great protein alternative and then only offer one page and two recipes using it while tofu warrants a 25 page section and tempeh, which is probably harder to find, a 10 pager with lots of recipe options each?

Although the index parses out the vegan recipes, and they’re marked in the text as well, there’s no explanation of the differences between vegetarian eating and a vegan lifestyle, or even that the latter isn’t, generally, just a diet. And even in some of the vegan marked dishes they use honey, which for the majority of vegans is a no-no.

Overall – visually a great book, and well, well worth it for the techniques and sidebars – some of which will likely clear up all sorts of mysteries for the kitchen novice, particularly someone exploring a vegetarian alternative, or who just wants to expand their repertoire of vegetable recipes. It’s not, as the subtitle asserts, “the complete visual guide to healthy vegetarian & vegan cooking” – it’s far from complete, but it would be an excellent library addition to anyone with those goals in mind.



{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken Sternberg June 4, 2011 at 11:29

Hmm. Dan, I don’t know what those bell pepper or sour cream packaged things are, either, and I’m an avid cook in the the U.S. The first book sounds pretty good, especially for people who cook more out of necessity or occasional desire. There are tons of better books about cooking good meals in a short time, though. The vegetarian book seemed like a mixed bag, though a worthy enough entry to the field.

About olive oil spray, Cooking Light magazine has to sell ads, of course. Cooking sprays are a competitive segment in the market place. Same thing with frozen melanges of vegetables. I’d much rather take a whole vegetable and cut it up, but to many people (esp. Americans), if you can save 7.289 seconds of total meal prep, it’s worth it.

dan June 4, 2011 at 16:02

Oh, no doubt it’s advertiser driven. Virtually every one of those recommendations for a frozen bag of this, or a box of that, or a can of another thing has a “suggested brand” attached to it.

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