The Spreadsheet Diet

Wheat berry and chick pea salad with olives and feta cheese.
Wheat berry and chick pea salad with olives and feta cheese. (Renee Comet - For The Washington Post)
By Ed Bruske
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A friend at a local catering company called one day with an intriguing offer: How would I like to prepare meals for a successful Washington businessman eager to lose weight?

My hours would be my own, the friend said. No haggling over menus: The Client had no time or inclination for that. Besides delivering the food on time each week, all I had to do was present a bill for time spent planning menus, shopping and cooking. Oh, and receipts for the cost of groceries.

The details, I assumed, would be hashed out with The Client. Instead, there was coffee with one of his assistants, who gave me a copy of some dietary guidelines The Client expected me to follow. Give it a good read, the aide said.

And a few other things: no cucumbers, no beets, no spicy foods.

Years of catering and testing recipes as a food writer had taught me a few things about food and health. But after studying the paperwork closely, I realized that it outlined a new culinary world: good carbs, meaning whole grains, as well as lean meats and lots of vegetables.

Goodbye , baked potatoes! Adios, white rice! Adieu , French baguette. Ciao, refined pasta.

One year later, The Client's aides tell me he is satisfied and they send regular, generous checks. My style of cooking has changed forever. I've not only embraced whole grains, I have a system for turning them into healthful dishes that also taste good.

Picture a spreadsheet, a kitchen Excel, with grains on one axis and a variety of companion ingredients -- vegetables, herbs, nuts, marinated foods, vinegars, olive oil -- on the other. By moving across the spreadsheet, picking ingredients as you go, you can create pilafs and salads that put once-scorned nutritious foods within easy reach.

But last January, standing in the bulk section of the local Whole Foods, staring at bins full of wheat berries and barley and brown rice, my reaction was something along the lines of: What the heck do you do with this stuff?

And, more importantly, would The Client eat it?

It is a bit of a handicap for cook not knowing what, exactly, The Client likes and doesn't like to eat.

Occasionally, I got phone calls.

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