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Scale back with these healthful dishes

Scale back with these healthful dishes

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My bathroom scale and I have come to an understanding. I won't stand on it and hurt it anymore if it will stop telling me my weight.

The last couple of months have been brutal on my waistline: Valentine's Day, a birthday. Um, Groundhog Day. Uh, leftovers from New Year's Eve/Christmas/Thanksgiving/Halloween. Last Groundhog Day.

I needed a break. My scale needed a break.

So I decided to devote a week to healthful eating. I wanted to make food that wasn't just deleterious to my health; I wanted to make food that was actively good for me. Or at least food that was not awash in calories.

The trick, though, was to create dishes that had a heap of flavor and were not just bland and blah.

The first part of the equation, the part about the food being low in calories, was relatively easy. I started out with main ingredients that are relatively low-cal to begin with — fish, chicken, shrimp and a vegetarian dish featuring lentils. I am uncommonly fond of lentils, and they do not take long to cook.

I cooked these ingredients with as little fat as I could get away with, and no added sugar. I baked the fish, poached the chicken and boiled the lentils and the shrimp; each method helps keep the weight off.

Though the presentations are simple — no fancy sauces, except on the chicken — they are deceptively full of flavor. How I achieved this is no secret; I simply cooked them with powerful aromatics and other ingredients that transferred their taste to the other items.

A case in point is my fish dish, Asian Baked Salmon. All I did for this meal was to marinate a salmon fillet in generic Asian ingredients. When I baked the fish at a high temperature, the top, which had been in the marinade, developed a rich mahogany color and a lovely crunch.

For my marinade, I threw together soy sauce, garlic, minced ginger and fresh lemon juice. I allowed the fish to soak in this mixture for just a half-hour; any longer and the fish's texture would begin to break down and become mushy.

It didn't take long to cook, and when it was done I only needed to top it with sesame seeds and sliced green onions to complete an elegant, healthful meal.

My chicken dish gained flavor from the liquid I used to poach it in. After I thickened it with a cornstarch slurry, that same liquid became a surprisingly excellent sauce. I mean, I thought it would be good, but I wasn't prepared for just how sprightly it would be.

I used chicken broth for the liquid, which is a vast improvement over the more common water. I flavored it with fennel — I love the lively, fresh licorice taste of fennel with chicken — a slug of white wine, thin slices of lemon and not too many onions.

Chicken has a tendency to dry out when it poaches, but I used a method that was new to me to keep it nice and moist. I only simmered the meat for five minutes before taking it off the heat, covering the pan and allowing the liquid's residual heat to finish cooking the chicken.

By itself, the chicken is fine. But when you add the thickened sauce, it transforms into something superb. What I'm saying is: Don't neglect to make the sauce.

Like the chicken, the secret to adding flavor to lentils is to simmer them in a liquid that is bursting with flavor.

I wanted my dish to be vegetarian, so I began with vegetable stock (I usually use chicken stock, which has more depth). This I enhanced with all the usual suspects — onion, carrots, garlic, fresh ginger, curry powder and cumin. I added a sliced serrano pepper, because I like it hot, and I used hot curry powder because I like it very hot.

Serve this dish on plain white rice. Not only is white rice the perfect accompaniment for lentils, it also helps to temper the spice in case you make it too hot.

For my last dish, I turned to Scandinavia, apparently, for Scandinavian Shrimp Salad. The recipe comes to us courtesy of Martha Stewart, and no one does elegant sophistication better than she.

It is a simple dish to make, but beautiful on the plate. You begin with a foundation of buttery, dark-green lettuce; I used Boston lettuce, which tastes like lettuce and not like water. On top of that is a mélange of complementary items: curled pink shrimp, strips of vibrant fennel, soft baby potatoes, tangy cornichons and halved hard-cooked eggs.

All that remains is the dressing. I used a simplified version of my favorite vinaigrette, which is easy to make and low in calories, for a salad dressing.

The vinaigrette that Martha Stewart recommends has more oil in it. I'm sure it tastes great, but if I used it, my scale would never talk to me again.

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