After giving birth to her second child in 2008, Sara Dickerman struggled to get back to her pre-baby weight. So the freelance journalist — who had worked with food, whether as a cook, a restaurant reviewer or a recipe developer, since 1997 — did the one thing she never wanted to do: go on a radical diet.
For nine weeks she followed a strict routine that limited her caloric intake to between 1, 000 and 1, 200 a day — and while she lost 20 pounds, it wasn’t without its difficulties.
“I did find the really strict calorie counting tough, ” says Dickerman, now 44 and living in Seattle with her husband and two children. “It is effective, but it can make you feel almost too obsessed with what you consume.”
The diet, though extreme, taught Dickerman which foods made her feel sated enough to resist mindless snacking — an act she describes as “much more dangerous” than a one-off holiday meal. It also taught her that flavorful meals full of fiber and quality protein could make her feel comfortably full without consuming an abundance of calories.
Those lessons became the building blocks for an online-only nutrition program she launched for Bon Appétit in 2010. Now her recipes have been compiled for her first cookbook, “Bon Appétit: The Food Lover’s Cleanse” (William Morrow, $35).
“I thought that you could eat very well for yourself without having to resort to more ‘diet-y’ food, ” reveals Dickerman, who promises you won’t find protein shakes, turkey sausage or egg-white omelets in this book.
The principles of the diet are simple. There is no calorie counting; instead, you eat three home-cooked meals a day, with an optional snack and dessert, according to the book’s meal plan.
“We say yes, not no, ” says Dickerman. This includes saying yes to flavorful ingredients such as chilies, citrus, garlic and herbs; wholesome grains, including quinoa, bulgur and barley; quality meats in small quantities (the average portion size is 4 to 6 ounces); and filling half your plate with seasonal produce (beets, Brussels sprouts, leeks, parsnips, grapefruit and pomegranate are wintertime favorites).
Even snacks are encouraged. Dickerman’s suggestions include an apple with almond butter, a sliced peach with toasted coconut flakes, or all-rye crackers with avocado, lemon, salt and chili flakes.
And because the book is arranged by season, you can start a cleanse at any time of year.
Of course, you do have to say no to a few things. “We cut out a lot of [foods] that can spur cravings, ” says Dickerman. “Refined flours and sugars can get you in a cycle of not feeling satisfied, so we find produce-rich meals great because they curb some of those cravings.” The diet does allow moderate consumption of both alcohol (up to four drinks per week) and coffee (go light on milk and sugar).
After doing her two-week cleanse five times herself, Dickerman says that typical results include losing a few pounds, reduced sugar cravings and more energy — not to mention a whole repertoire of new recipes that can be worked into your regular rotation. Working with NYC-based nutritionist Marissa Lippert, Dickerman has constructed adventurous meals with a variety of flavors in the hopes that readers will continue to use the recipes long after their cleanse is over.
“It’s important to me to use pleasure within this program to motivate good habits, ” says Dickerman. “What is it that will make you eat broccoli? Is it a garlicky black-bean condiment, or is it a bright, lemony zest? If that helps you choose broccoli as a side more often than white potatoes, then that’s a great thing.”
Apples and pomegranate with yogurt and toasted quinoa
In a dry skillet, toast 1 ½ tbsp. red quinoa over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it darkens a bit and begins to pop intermittently, about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in ½ tsp. honey; the quinoa will clump into clusters. Spoon ½ cup sheep’s milk or other plain yogurt into a bowl. Top with 2 tbsp. pomegranate seeds, ¾ cup yellow-skin apple slices and the toasted quinoa. Serves 1.
Leftover salmon with grated carrots, celery root, mint, Belgian endive, toasted sesame seeds and creamy tahini dressing
No lunch “recipes” are provided in the “Food Lover’s Cleanse.” Instead, you’ll find salad suggestions based off of leftover protein from the previous night’s dinner and an abundance of seasonal produce. Here are Dickerman’s guidelines for a perfect salad.
• 3 to 6 oz. protein
• 3 to 4 cups greens or green vegetables
• ¹/₂ cup to 1 ¹/₂ cups grains, starchy vegetables, beans or fruit
• 1 to 2 tbsp. textural garnish (such as walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds or flaxseeds)
• 1 to 2 tbsp. dressing (see recipe below)
Creamy tahini dressing
Whisk or blend ¹/₂ cup tahini with ¹/₂ cup boiling water to create a smooth puree. Stir in 1 grated garlic clove, 2 tbsp. plain yogurt, 1 tbsp. toasted sesame oil, 1 tsp. agave syrup and 2 tbsp. lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and additional lemon juice to taste. This dressing will keep for 1 week in the refrigerator. Makes 1 ¹/₃ cups.
Tunisian-style poached eggs in red pepper sauce
• 2 tbsp. olive oil
• 1 medium red onion, chopped
• 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
• 4 red bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut lengthwise into ½-inch-wide strips
• Fine sea salt, to taste
• 1 large tomato, cored, seeded and grated using the large holes on a box grater
• 1 tbsp. (or more) harissa paste
• 1 tsp. white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
• 4 large eggs
• Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
• Red pepper flakes, preferably Aleppo or Marash, to taste
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the peppers, season with fine sea salt and cook, stirring often, until the peppers are wilted, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the tomato, harissa and 1 cup water; reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring often and adding more water as needed, until the peppers are soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Season with fine sea salt and more harissa, if desired. Keep warm.