Weight loss isn’t purely a numbers game. In losing weight, we learned how to manage structured, measured eating. Learning that organized eating at all — and then finding ways to practice that skill long term — are two different skillsets.
Even if you use low-fat, low-carb, paleo-friendly, etc. ingredients, if you’re still thinking about the same foods that got you fat in the first place, you have more growing to do as a cook and a maintainer. The key to both involves breaking through outdated assumptions about food to create something even better.
Equally important to nutritional metrics is outsmarting your own preconceived notions of food. Psychologists call these “schemas.” Neurologists have their own terminology. Chefs call it “cooking style.” Integrated Medicine refers to this a “mindful eating.” Blah blah blah. WKIO calls it fun.
My first cooking teacher was former pastry chef and bodybuilder Kevin DeMarco. Ten years ago, his first dish was a whole wheat crab meat panini with roasted garlic aioli, fontina cheese, mixed greens and caramelized balsamic glazed red onion. (Years later, I skip the fontina and use pureed roasted garlic spike with vinegar in lieu of cheese and a homemade aioli).
After months of hot dogs with no bun and roughly-torn spinach tossed into a bowl, Kevin’s cooking left me dumbstruck. I didn’t expect my reaction to be anger: “Why didn’t anyone tell me food, or even life, could be like this? How could no one tell me?”
He did more than teach me healthy eating; he taught me a new way to understand food, and how to make that new understanding your plaything. Rather than force myself to be “mindful,” I was genuinely interested in what I was cooking.
In this example, I took some classic principles of New Orleans po-boy construction and turned them on their ear, all without resorting to low-fat replications. For ingredients not as carb-laden, processed (looking at you, paleos) or calorie-laden as whole wheat bread, the same can be accomplished in wraps.
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced thinly
1/4 cup Mexican vanilla
2 tablespoons tarragon
2 tablespoons cardamom
2 large red onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon black truffle vinegar (or balsamic vinegar)
1/2 cup roasted garlic cloves
2 tablespoons Creole seasoning, plus more to taste
1/2 cup fresh spinach leaves, chiffonaded
one loaf high-quality whole wheat bread (look for bakery, Whole Foods or high-end grocery stores)
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided, for satueeing
1 teaspoon thickener (cornstarch, arrowroot) mixed in water in a small bowl (optional)
In a large mixing bowl, combine chicken, vanilla, tarragon and cardamom and let marinate. Heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and stir, cooking over high heat until onions release their water.
Reduce heat to medium-low and stir occasionally. When onions begin to form a deep reddish-brown color, add vinegar, increase heat to medium high until the vinegar disappears on the pan and the onions for a marmalade-like appearance.
Clean skillet (or not — it just adds more flavor) and heat the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil. Add chicken, stirring occasionally, and cook until tender. While chicken cooks, heat oven to 350 F, cut loaf in half and toast lightly.
In a food processor, mortar and pestle or with a bowl and a fork, mash garlic cloves into a mayonnaise-like consistency, adding Creole Seasoning to desired heat. If desired, add thickener until liquid in the skillet disappears and clings to the chicken.
To assemble, spread roasted garlic across both sides of bread, sprinkle Creole Seasoning if desire, add onions to one half, spinach to the other, and chicken. Combine and cut using a bread knife.