By JASON EPSTEIN June 1, 2003
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My apologies to readers who may have been seduced by my euphoric example when I announced my conversion to Atkinsism in these pages nearly a year ago. The diet worked. My conversion failed. In half the time it took to lose 20 pounds, I gained 12 back, not because my will is weak but because my temptations are strong, especially for my daughter-in-law Susie Norris's homemade chocolates, hamburgers at the Corner Bistro, Maida Heatter's ginger biscotti and long, slow dinners accompanied by Leslie Rudd's smoothly complex cabernet/merlot blend.
Since born-again Atkinsites may eat all the fat they want but only if they strictly regulate satanic carbohydrates, a backslider who eats a permitted hamburger on a forbidden roll with ketchup, tomato and onion, as I did on the icy February night when I fell from grace at the Corner Bistro, is twice condemned. In my penitent dismay that night, I set out to atone by walking the mile or so home along Bleecker Street through the frozen night. But with each miserable block, my faith oozed away.
As I crossed Seventh Avenue, a bitter gust tore at my breath. In the moment of clarity that followed I saw the hopelessness of my situation, accepted my deconversion, hailed a cab, climbed in and waited numbly for the Muppet to shut up. As I gave the driver my address, Atkins's mantra mocked me: ''Lose weight! Increase energy! Look great! . . . Change your life once and for all.'' Who wouldn't be tempted by this offer of rebirth? But having been born once and having acquired a definite form and character, I knew I could never undergo those traumas a second time. I consoled myself with the thought that gluttony is a crime only against oneself, not against one's neighbor, much less humanity, while Atkinsism, with its promise of a long, sleek, healthy life, is idolatry, so to speak, of the self. But this was small comfort over the next few weeks as my former dimensions began to re-emerge.
Not the fruits of experience, but experience itself is the goal, a long-forgotten minor philosopher once said. So in this sense, my brief conversion was not quite a failure. In my hapless quest I learned, for example, the limits of my devotion to self-improvement. I also learned that while Dr. Atkins insisted that regular exercise is ''non-negotiable,'' I am unshakably sedentary. I discovered that a hamburger without a bun is unnatural, but that life without muffins, croissants or the almond brioche at Ceci-Cela on Spring Street is possible. Moreover, despite my loss of faith, I have yet to revert to sushi, pasta or the excellent noodle soup and congee at Chao Chow on Mott Street, though since that February night at the Corner Bistro I have often revisited my repertory of potato dishes: pommes de terre allumettes, pommes pailles, pommes Anna, even on one occasion pommes soufflees, to say nothing of hash browns in several versions, chips and various galettes. Since that night I have several times served steamed halibut or fried cod fillet with a parsnip puree. I have become reconciled to carbohydrates in various, but by no means all, other forms. For dessert I have served, guiltlessly, chilled pears poached in port-wine syrup with crumbled walnuts and mountain Gorgonzola, or Stilton and a tarte tatin of pears, even though a medium pear has more than three times as many carbohydrates as a tangerine, almost as many as a sweet potato. I have seamlessly reverted to chocolate souffles, ricotta cheesecake, fresh orange juice (16.3 grams of carbs per orange!) and guacamole with blue-corn tortilla chips.
In all cultures, priesthoods assert their authority by regulating sex and diet, the easily abused preconditions for survival. In our culture, where both diet and sexuality are increasingly, perhaps hopelessly, problematic, as a five-minute visit to TV-land attests, these priestly functions have been secularized, or conversely, secular authorities like Dr. Atkins and Dr. Phil (to say nothing of Jerry Springer and Emeril Lagasse) have assumed priestly status. Amid the blizzard of exhortation and advice, the voice of the late Dr. Atkins had been reasonable and persuasive. But like all innate puritans, Atkins never grasped the incurable waywardness of human beings: the desire to have both this and that, rather than choose one and renounce the other, especially when the popular culture celebrates polymorphous excess. His attack on the sugars and starch that Americans eat to excess is admirable and has probably saved lives, but carbohydrates are an insidious addiction. A bad oyster can strangle desire for years, but carbohydrates reside in multitudes of delightful forms contrived over centuries by subtle cooks and bakers. The damage they may do is inseparable from the pleasure they give.
Thanks to Dr. Atkins, I am sufficiently chastened never to follow what a plump friend has called the Orson Welles diet, in which one eats and drinks as much as one wants and grows enormously fat. I have fallen from grace -- but I hope I have stopped halfway down.
Codfish Fillet With Parsnip Puree
This dish is, in effect, a deconstructed New England codfish cake but made with fresh, not salt, cod and with parsnip puree rather than mashed potato. The flavorings, however, are the same.
For the parsnip puree:
1 1/2 pounds parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 to 1/2 cup half and half
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
For the cod:
2 pounds cod fillet, thickest part, at least 1 inch thick
Flour for dusting
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or peanut oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter.
1. Heat 2 quarts of water to boiling in a 6-quart stockpot. Add the parsnips and cook until tender, 10 minutes or so. Do not overcook. Drain, and in 2 batches pulse in a food processor with the butter and enough half and half to make a smooth consistency. Season carefully. The ginger taste should be subtle, not forceful. Keep warm.
2. Cut the cod into four equal portions. Season flour with salt and pepper and dust fish lightly.
3. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high flame. Add oil and butter and when shimmering carefully place cod, skinned side down, in the pan. Adjust flame, and when underside has begun to brown (about 3 minutes) turn each piece with wide spatula and wooden tongs. Be careful that cod doesn't crumble or break apart. When cod is cooked through (after 6 or 7 minutes altogether, depending upon thickness), remove from heat.
4. To serve, mound a portion of parnsip puree on each warm plate and carefully place cod atop puree. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve with boiled sweet peas or spinach sauteed in oil and garlic.
Yield: 4 servings.
Steamed Halibut With Rosemary Served With Parsnip Puree
(Adapted from ''Cooking With Daniel Boulud'')
In this case do not add ginger to the parsnip puree since the halibut steamed with rosemary will have its own flavoring.
2 pounds boneless halibut fillet or steaks, at least 1 1/2 inches thick
4 cabbage leaves, preferably Savoy
2 large rosemary sprigs
1 lemon, halved
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cracked pink peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon cracked white peppercorns
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Parsnip puree, warm.
1. Cut the halibut into four equal pieces. In a wok or 8-quart stockpot bring water to a boil and boil cabbage leaves until soft and pliable, about 3 minutes. Carefully remove with tongs to a colander and refresh under cold water.
2. Add 1 rosemary sprig, half a lemon and 1 teaspoon salt to the still boiling cabbage-cooking water and place a bamboo or other steamer basket on top. Finely chop the leaves from the remaining rosemary sprig and mix with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and the cracked pink and white peppercorns in a custard cup. Sprinkle the cabbage leaves with some of the rosemary mixture and place 1 piece of halibut on each leaf. Brush the fish pieces with half of the olive oil and sprinkle with the remaining rosemary mixture.
3. Place the cabbage leaves and fish in the steamer basket. Cover and steam until the halibut is cooked though, 6 or 7 minutes. Serve the halibut on the cabbage leaves and drizzle sparingly with the juice from the remaining lemon half and the remaining olive oil. Serve with parsnip puree made without ginger.
Yield: 4 servings.
3 medium russet potatoes (about 5 ounces each), peeled
1 quart vegetable oil
Salt to taste.
1. If you have a mandoline (preferably the heavy-duty version by Bron), square the sides and trim the ends of the potatoes, set the shredding blade and adjust the cutting blade to just under 1/8 inch and cut the potatoes into matchsticks. Otherwise use a knife with a long, thin blade. Cut each potato first lengthwise into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Then stack the slices, square the edges and cut the slices into long, thin strips.
2. Place the matchsticks in cold water and rinse a couple of times to remove the starch. (You can leave them in the bowl of water in the refrigerator for an hour or so.)
3. Heat the oven to warm, about 200 degrees. Drain potatoes, spin them in a salad spinner and then dry them thoroughly in batches on paper towels. Add the oil to a deep pan or kettle, preferably one with a frying basket. Heat the oil over medium-high heat, and when the oil reaches 325 degrees (or when a single matchstick spins slowly on the surface), add a handful of the potatoes using tongs. The oil may bubble up slightly but will soon subside. With tongs or a wooden spoon, swirl the matchsticks to separate them. Within a few minutes they will begin to brown and become crisp. Remove with tongs or a slotted spoon and drain on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Sprinkle lightly with salt and keep warm in the oven while frying the remainder.
Yield: 3 to 4 servings.
Note: You can fry a double batch and serve the leftovers as snacks. They keep crisp at room temperature for 2 days, but will probably be eaten before then.