A Spicy Cookbook

Janet Taylor's healthy recipes aren't fully Southwestern, but they come close enough

"Healthy." "Southwest." "Table."

Are we talking about an oxymoron? Well, yes. For the cook who's searching for that unobtainable holy grail--authentic low-fat Sonoran food--The Healthy Southwest Table will be a disappointment. Author Janet Taylor's recipes are Southwestern more in terms of seasonings (chile powder, cayenne, garlic, cilantro, oregano, citrus) than main ingredients or type of dish: No cookbook with 10 recipes for salmon, five for hummus, 15 involving tofu and zero for beef can be Southwestern in any way but a very particular sense of the word. Taylor cleverly deploys the most healthful components of Mexican cuisine--salsas, enchilada sauce, corn tortillas--in many dishes, but the final result never resembles anything you'd find at Micha's.

In other words, "healthy" wins out here, which isn't a bad thing, as long as you recognize that this is a hybrid, dietetically oriented collection.

Taylor's style of highly flavored, ultra-lean, vitamin-packed fusion cooking was born of necessity, as she writes in her introduction. Her husband is of Mexican heritage, with a strong family history of cardiovascular disease, and three of the couple's four children were born with elevated cholesterol levels. Their pediatrician told Taylor that diet and exercise would make a big difference in decreasing their risk for developing heart disease, and she took his words fervently to heart, reading up on nutritional research and adapting/developing ultra-low-fat recipes. She's written a truly crusading book, with 25 pages of highlights from nutritional studies in the back and a recipe for a decadent chocolate pudding that calls for a cup and a half of organic silken tofu.

The recipes in The Healthy Southwest Table are varied, clear and dependable, if occasionally fussy. (Must I use only key limes? Can you really sauté a pound of ground turkey in one teaspoon of olive oil? And how am I supposed to measure 1/40th of a teaspoon of stevia? I can imagine this sort of thing driving a more obedient cook around the bend.) As is usually the case with this type of cooking, many of the recipes have long ingredient lists--one for black bean soup has 25 items. It takes work and ingenuity--dabs of umeboshi pickled plum paste and macadamia-nut butter are listed everywhere--to make up for the eating satisfaction you lose when you eliminate meat, butter, most cheeses and big glugs of olive oil from your kitchen vocabulary.

The recipes I tried were tasty and fantastically healthy. Taylor gives a breakdown of per-serving calories, fat, saturated fat, calories from fat, protein, carbohydrates, fiber and sugars for each one. Leone's fiesta coleslaw, for instance--a basic, vinegar-dressed slaw with the addition of apple, red bell pepper and jicama--would be a wonderful thing to always have in your fridge. At 59 calories per serving, it's loaded with vitamins and fiber.

Taylor offers good-looking recipes for a number of staff-of-life dishes, including salsas, pesto and a delicious-sounding corn chowder. She teaches as she goes, painlessly imparting the principles of cooking for optimal nutrition and flavor. In the introduction to her recipe for chicken barley soup, for example, she explains that you can put the spinach and crookneck squash called for directly into your serving bowls, and pour the hot broth over them just before serving.

Her recipes involving beans always call for black beans, which strikes this pinto-lover as odd; of course, they're never refried. So the black-bean tostadas I made one night were marvelously flavorful--plywood would be edible topped with salsa, cilantro, marinated onions, radishes, tomatoes and avocado--but, with just 4 grams of fat per serving, vaguely unsatisfying.

Augustin's skillet, on the other hand--a Spanish-rice-like fry-up of ground turkey, peppers and many vegetables nicely seasoned with chili powder and cilantro--made for a comforting and delicious meal over rice, in part because I used a splash of olive oil, not a teaspoon. Olive oil is good for you, as Taylor herself emphasizes. Why be stingy? (I know, the calories. But calories aren't everything.)

Pistachio-crusted salmon was another clear winner, and a glance at the nutrition facts shows why: Nearly half its 500 calories per serving come from fat (in the fish and the nuts, in asiago cheese used in the coating, and from olive oil). Taylor calls this "a special occasion dish," and it is, in terms of flavor as well as calories. It's easy and spectacularly good, and would make a terrific centerpiece for a dinner party.

The Healthy Southwest Table is an informative and attractive collection of recipes that will be of great use to people who like to cook, like the flavors of Mexico and are concerned about their health.

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