By ALEX WITCHEL
Published: January 27, 2010
I’M not a regular consumer of fast food, but I’ve always liked the idea behind the “Eat This, Not That” series by the editor of Men’s Health, David Zinczenko. These books give menu guidance to the angels and devils perched on the shoulders of the millions of Americans who eat at chain restaurants. For example, at Arby’s, they recommend you eat the evil-sounding Bacon Cheddar Roastburger, a roast beef sandwich with 440 calories, 18 grams of fat and 1,427 milligrams of sodium and not the more benign-sounding Ultimate BLT Market Fresh Sandwich with 779 calories, 45 grams of fat and 1,571 milligrams sodium.
Is either choice perfect? No. And neither are you, especially if you’re stuck in an airport or a small town on a weeknight when Main Street rolls up the sidewalk at 8 p.m. and you’re still working. The books, including one for parents and another on “supermarket survival,” have hit a nerve since the series began in 2007; more than six million copies are in print. The concept is so popular you can now get an “Eat This, Not That!” iPhone app that suggests food swaps both at restaurant chains and supermarkets.
Last month brought the publication of “Cook This, Not That! Kitchen Survival Guide” (Rodale, $19.99), written, like the others, by Mr. Zinczenko with Matt Goulding, a contributing nutrition editor at Men’s Health. In its first week on sale, according to Nielsen BookScan, it became the best-selling cookbook in the country, providing recipes for healthier home-cooked versions of dishes from restaurants like P. F. Chang’s, the Cheesecake Factory and California Pizza Kitchen.
Leafing through the book made me curious to try a restaurant dish, then the home-cooked alternative. As this age of burger madness yields to meatball madness, I opted for that suddenly trendy yet time-honored standby, spaghetti and meatballs. This version is from Olive Garden, where it clocks in at 1,110 calories, 50 grams of fat and 2,180 milligrams of sodium per serving.
There are two Olive Gardens in Manhattan and I went to the one at 2 Times Square (47th Street at Seventh Avenue) on a Wednesday afternoon, matinee day in the theater district, just to see the lunch crowd. The restaurant has three levels and it was packed, with a heavy tourist quotient. I snagged the last seat at the bar on the top floor, and when I left, exactly 30 minutes later, people were still lined up for tables.
At the bar, every customer was a woman, some alone, some in pairs. The price of entrees includes a salad or soup, so $13.25 bought a good deal of food. The spaghetti was bland and overcooked, though the marinara sauce was brightly flavored. The meatballs were a travesty, with the consistency of an eraser and a distinct taste of stale cooking oil. The cooler they got the worse they got; the aftertaste of salt was downright acrid, and the filler had an opaque, chalky quality that was as unpleasant as it was unidentifiable.
The experience put a damper on my enthusiasm for making the home-cooked version that night, though a Milky Way bar (270 calories, 11 grams of fat, 95 milligrams of sodium) set my mouth right, and by my count, kept me under where I would have been had I finished my meal.
I persevered, though my hopes for making meatballs with any taste were tempered by the ingredient list, which calls for ground turkey and ground sirloin, 85 percent lean. It also calls for two pieces of bread soaked in milk, but after that lunch, something in the back of my throat rebelled. A friend suggested chicken broth as a substitute, and God love him, it was a stroke of genius. The meatballs were light with a fresh, clean finish. But here’s the thing: the nutritional count for the recipe (510 calories, 12.5 grams of fat, 740 milligrams of sodium) was based on six servings from one pound of whole wheat pasta and one and a half pounds of meat. Maybe that’s enough if you’re serving children – or swimsuit models – but for hungry adults, it might serve only four.
Also, the recipe did not take 30 minutes as claimed. I let it cook for almost twice that long, because personally, I don’t want to eat a meatball that’s half poultry and sporting a pink center.
Still, the dish was easy to prepare and tasty, if somewhat one dimensional, even compared with the 1950s style meat sauce with dried spices and Del Monte tomato sauce I learned to make from my mother. So while it is not particularly Italian, it is certainly a respectable weeknight dinner. I thought the meatballs benefited enormously from a night in the fridge; they were much better the next day and the leftovers made a lunch far superior to the Olive Garden version, to be sure.
But when it comes to the home cooking event that is spaghetti and meatballs, that toothsome duet of comfort and luxe, I’ve got my eye on this month’s Bon Appétit. Its Spaghetti and Meatballs All’Amatriciana calls for ground beef, white wine and applewood smoked bacon. It serves eight.
Which means next time, I will be cooking that, not this.
Recipe: Spaghetti and Meatballs Adapted from “Cook This, Not That!” by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding (Rodale, 2010) Time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Adapted from “Cook This, Not That!” by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding (Rodale, 2010)
Time: 1 hour 10 minutes
2 slices bread, any kind, with crust
2 to 4 tablespoons chicken broth or milk
12 ounces ground turkey
12 ounces lean ground beef, preferably 85 percent lean
1 large egg
1/2 cup chopped parsley, more for garnish
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, more for garnish
3/4 teaspoon salt, more for pasta water
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 onion, minced
7 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 pound whole wheat spaghetti.
1. Place bread in a large bowl and sprinkle with broth or milk until soaked. Allow to sit 5 minutes, then squeeze out and discard most of the liquid; crumble bread. Add turkey, beef, egg, 1/2 cup parsley, 2 tablespoons Parmesan, salt, pepper, half the onion and a third of the minced garlic. Mix well and form into golf-ball-size balls ( about 24).
2. In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon oil. Sauté meatballs until browned, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, set aside.
3. In a large saucepan, combine remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, remaining minced onion and remaining minced garlic. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, bring to a simmer, and cook uncovered for about 10 minutes, breaking up tomatoes with a wooden spoon.
4. Add meatballs to pan of sauce. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil, and cook pasta until al dente. To serve, drain pasta and divide among four to six bowls. Top with meatballs and sauce, and garnish with parsley and Parmesan.