Ready-Made Meals

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My lifelong block against making vegetable stock dissolved the day a personal chef came to my house. Come to think of it, a lifelong block against hiring a personal chef—which I may have wanted to do but never thought was within the reach of anyone but the super-rich—also dissolved when I met Beth Baker, a chef who's the principal retreat cook at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.

Accolades from clients included praise for her delicious meals and the boast that some had lost weight and saved money to boot. Clearly, this was the kind of personal cheffing I needed to know more about.

So one fine morning, Beth, who is a longtime meditator and yogini, lugged groceries, gadgets, and herself into my funky Berkeley, California, kitchen and started preparing heaps of vegetables for the half dozen dishes she planned to cook that day. As she worked, she threw the scraps—carrot peels, celery leaves, onion and leek tops, mushroom and parsley stems, plus a few garlic cloves—into a pot filled with boiling water. An hour later, she strained out the vegetable bits, looked at me, and said, "Vegetable stock."

"It can't be this easy," I said, tasting the delicious broth.

"It is," she replied.

While Beth often makes a week's worth of food for a family while they're off doing something else, I had asked that we spend a day together in the kitchen. I told her my goal was to learn to lighten up my cooking and add some lower-fat foods to my repertoire. I'm pretty generous when it comes to dressing up my food with butter, honey, maple syrup, and other kinds of high-calorie flavors. I've yet to meet a triple-cream cheese I wasn't willing to get intimate with. And if I'm hungry, watch out, because I'll devour just about anything in my path. As I cross that Rubicon smack into middle age, these habits serve neither my vanity—I could stand to shed a few pounds—nor my health.

Happily for me, Beth not only got me past my stock block but also taught me how to use the broth, instead of oil, to sauté vegetables. She schooled me in the art of creating big flavors with little fat by getting generous with spices and herbs. And she showed me how to prepare enough food in a few hours to feed my family of four for a week. (Now when I come home feeling starved, I can grab something that's good for me.) She even inspired me to keep a guitar within reach for those moments when I just have to break into a Beatles tune.

When I'd first called, Beth asked what my favorite dish was. I told her that I love eggplant Parmesan, but since eggplant soaks up oil like a sponge, we should skip it. "Let's not skip it," she said, promising a lower-fat version. The week's menu we decided on also included enchiladas, an Asian noodle soup, a classic Indian curry, a pilaf, and a nectarine crisp.

Beth showed me how to make a zesty homemade tomato sauce, to dip the eggplant rounds in egg white and breadcrumbs, and to bake rather than fry them, using a scant teaspoon of oil. She must have seen the horror on my face as I watched her layering nonfat cheese onto the eggplant because she said, "When you are using a flavorful sauce, you can cut back on fat. The depth of flavor in the sauce makes up for the lack of fat in the cheese." Happily, at taste-testing time, I realized she was right.

She eased me over a long-standing tofu prejudice by showing me that what I dislike most about tofu, its innate blandness, can be turned into an advantage. By mixing a block of soft tofu with avocado and just a bit of low-fat cheese she created a delicious filling for enchiladas.

Finally, she taught me that one way to have my cake and eat it too is to make fruit desserts using only the freshest, ripest produce. With a modicum of sugar and butter she made a sweet and satisfying nectarine crisp.

These low-fat, low-sugar techniques are the bread and butter of many personal chefs. Carlin Greenstein, who chefs for a vegan family in New York, said she often makes Asian or Mexican foods to keep the flavor quotient high without using butter, cheese, or any other animal products. "I might cook a curried split pea soup or a hominy, tomatillo, and squash stew," she said, adding that the distinctive aromas of herbs and spices like cumin, turmeric, oregano, basil, and cinnamon can bring a vegetable-based diet to a whole new level of sophistication. She, too, often bases her desserts on fruit. "I might make a ginger fruit stew with dried apricots, plums, and cherries in a base of apple juice."

And Carlin has her own tricks to amp up flavor and reduce fat. "I often use a juice reduction to make a concentrated flavor. When I make a vinaigrette, I sometimes take fresh-squeezed tangerine juice and make a reduction by boiling a cup of the fresh juice, uncovered, until it's reduced to a quarter cup. Then, I whisk in one tablespoon of good oil until it's emulsified, and season with salt and pepper. It's packed with flavor and low in fat."

She also toasts some spices in a dry frying pan—lightly browning a teaspoon or so of cumin, mustard, or fennel seeds, for instance—to give a robust finish to soups and other savory dishes. "This eliminates the need for extra fat but still tastes deeply satisfying."

The Joys of Cooking

Carlin suggests that a commitment to more healthful eating is easier to stick to when you create several enticing meals at once. "Every Sunday, my boyfriend and I go to the farmers' market, pick up what's seasonal and looks great, and spend a few hours cooking a meal with lots of components that are basic enough to be turned into other things."

She might make braised chard, quinoa pilaf with pine nuts, roasted butternut squash soup, and roasted chicken, and from that make a variety of meals over the next few days. Leftover chard could go into a frittata or into broth with pasta and beans for a variation on minestrone. The butternut squash soup can be served with an easy-to-prepare salad or sandwich to make a hearty meal. "Not only is cooking for a few hours on a Sunday a nice ritual," she says, "we enjoy what we've done for days after."

Kitchen Wisdom

Five hours after Beth arrived, our work was done. Personal chefs may mostly be in the province of the rich, but I was surprised at how reasonable the afternoon was. (Chefs charge a wide range of fees, from $25 an hour on up.) I spent just shy of $300 for Beth's time and all the groceries, which I figured was close to what I'd spend if I fed my family of four on takeout for five nights. But, unlike most takeout, Beth's food was deeply satisfying and nutritious, so I really could serve it every night (and I didn't even have to pick it up).

As we began labeling the copious amounts of food we'd cooked to put in the freezer (all in single-serving portions), we talked about mental blocks to attempting certain kitchen feats, or to spending time on something that is so central to our health and well-being. "We all have perceptions about ourselves, and we weave them into stories: I have time to cook; I don't have time. I can make stock; I can't," she said. "The bottom line is, if you really want to do something, you find a way to do it. You may let go of one thing to make room for another, but you make it work."

That bit of wisdom was nearly as satisfying as having those neat packages of food lined up in my freezer—an army of foot soldiers waiting to report to dinner duty. Now, when I get home from work and don't have time to cook from scratch, those packages are there, waiting to do service. One less thing to worry about.

After all, food shouldn't be something to fret over. Food is nourishment. Food is joy. And good food, honestly prepared, feels a lot like love. Which is why, after tasting the transcendent nectarine crisp, I couldn't hold back. My heart suddenly felt so full that I picked up my guitar and started strumming that old Beatles great, "All You Need Is Love."

Or maybe just crisp.

Dayna Macy, a writer and musician who can be found atwww.daynamacy.com, is the communications director of Yoga Journal.

Visit Beth Baker and Conscious Cuisine at www.bakercooks.com