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Winning the weight wars with spa cuisine created by the chef in a Maui hotel

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The typical holiday weight gain is riding on your hips or cruising around your middle. All that heavy eating has prompted yet another New Year's resolution to lose weight, but the word "diet" makes you wince. So what do you do this time in the battle of the bulge?

The answer may come from Hawaii, where a transplanted, Michigan-raised chef lost 65 pounds over a little more than two years while creating -- and eating -- her own kind of "country spa cuisine."

"I'd been on a million diets, but I had never seen spa cuisine," says Kathleen Daelemans, referring to the elegant rabbit food served in expensive spas and fat farms. "What I did [to create my own] was find out what people can eat in large quantities and what you can eat with abandon, like whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. To me, eating is all about having a big bowl."

Ms. Daelemans opened Cafe Kula (which means "open country" in Hawaiian) in the Grand Wailea Resort, Hotel & Spa on Maui more than two years ago after a stint at San Francisco's Zuni Cafe.

Perhaps the 5-foot-2-inch chef, who weighed 195 pounds at the time, appeared to be an odd choice for the spa-theme cafe. But when she got cooking, she made the small terrace cafe one of the most popular in the resort's lineup of five eateries, drew a following that included hotel guests Sharon Stone and Paula Abdul, and showed that what she had to offer was right on the money.

Not only did she feature quantity in her cooking, but she also sought to satisfy her own gourmet taste buds. The result was a few delicious sins rationed into her virtuous low-fat and high-fiber menu, which ends up with 20 to 25 percent calories from fat, which is 5 to 10 percent lower than the U.S. Surgeon General's guideline.

"I have a realistic approach because I lived it," she says, adding that everything had to taste so good that she wouldn't miss the fat.

Technicolor ingredients

Another appealing aspect is that this trompe l'oeil (fool the eye) approach to dieting avoids the bland look of high-fiber food by featuring Technicolor ingredients and beautiful presentation. Likewise, her food fools the palate. One healthy, high-fiber bean dish, for example, becomes a zingy hot and sweet Pacific Rim-inspired salad with the addition of Vietnamese chili paste, Japanese rice vinegar, cilantro and sweet tropical fruit.

For dieters, the biggest relief here is that the 30-year-old chef doesn't believe in eliminating beloved foods. If fried chicken and chocolate cookies are a part of your eating patterns, you can still have them if you take certain steps to make them lower in fat. Her "fried" chicken recipe has a bit of olive oil and Parmesan cheese; and her chocolate cookies substitute prunes for part of the fat and have an unexpected hint of mocha because they include coffee. Grind real Kona coffee beans for a true Hawaiian touch.

Ms. Daelemans' country spa cuisine is so innovative, in fact, that three publishers immediately said "yes" to her cookbook proposal based on this approach. The cookbook won't be out until later this year, but the now-trim 130-pound chef is willing to share a few notes beforehand.

In examining Ms. Daelemans' approach, NIH research scientist Pamela Peeke says she's pleased with the level of carbohydrates (about 55 percent), protein (about 20 percent) and fat (20 percent to 25 percent). The average American diet is 35 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein and 40-45 percent fat.

"They're in tune with the standards I'd adhere to," Ms. Peeke says, adding, "Kathleen is able to show one thing I've stressed time and time again: If you substitute carbohydrate calories for fat calories, you can eat twice as much. The catch is that people can never eat this much. You put it in front of them and they say, 'I can't eat all that.' It eliminates the psychological deprivation that precedes bingeing."

Loads of fruit

Ms. Daelemans forgoes the artery-threatening American breakfast of bacon and fried eggs in favor of loads of fresh fruit, granola, turkey hash, low-fat breads or fruit smoothies.

Mounds of scrambled egg whites are made tasty with a teaspoon of tangy pesto sauce and savory dried tomatoes. To roughly approximate her appealing, custardy yogurt, people can use home yogurt makers, available in appliance stores. (One model by Salton is available in appliance stores for about $16.)

The no-oil granola served in Cafe Kula is a homemade recipe first concocted by the cafe's resident nutritionist, Elaine Willis: Two cups rolled oats; 1 cup chopped pecans, walnuts, almonds or other nuts; and 1/2 cup pure, real maple syrup (blends or imitations will burn) are tossed together, spread 1/2 inch thick on baking sheets lined with parchment paper and toasted at 350 degrees, with occasional stirring, for 25 minutes.

Healthy snacks of fruit, juice, yogurt or whole wheat bagels are encouraged mid-morning and late afternoon. In preparing lunch or dinner, Ms. Daelemans suggests focusing on staples -- lentils, couscous, basmati or brown rice, pastas, vegetables and nonfat dairy products. She cooks rice and grains in chicken stock and onion soup for flavor and dresses up dishes with large quantities of whatever fresh herbs and vegetables are on hand. Meat is used in side-dish quantities.

In preparing meals, she follows several rules: Use no fake fats or sweeteners, substitute egg whites for eggs and switch whole milk to nonfat. Surprisingly, she never poaches, because she believes everything should be browned to be satisfying. She sautes chicken or vegetables for pasta in a bubbly, caramely reduction of 1 ounce chicken stock and 2 roasted cloves of garlic.

In adapting her approach to home cooking, she recommends taking one's own eating pattern and looking for ways to make it more healthful and less fatty. Using only the freshest ingredients gives you an immediate advantage, she says, because they have more flavor, and you avoid the common diet trap of adding salt, fat or sugar to satisfy taste buds.

When extra flavor is necessary, she relies on fresh garlic, roasted garlic, freshly ground cracked pepper, fresh herbs, (with the exception of thyme and oregano, which can be dry), coarse-grain salt (which has more flavor than regular salt, she says, so you use less), and freshly shaved or grated authentic Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

She also uses strong flavors like vanilla, lemon or almond extracts, a splash of wine or liquor, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, cloves, dried chili peppers, cumin, curry and cilantro.

"You have to keep asking -- what can I eat the most of and how can I make it taste better," she says, repeating her diet mantra. "It's all about satisfying the mind and the palate."

Spicy black bean salad served in papaya

Makes 6 servings

3 large papayas, peeled, seeded and cut in half

1 quart black beans, cooked in chicken or vegetable stock with whole mirepoix and drained (see note)

2 large sweet red tomatoes, diced into 1/2 -inch chunks

2 large sweet yellow tomatoes, diced into 1/2 -inch chunks

1/2 cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped, plus extra leaves for garnish

2 ripened papayas, peeled, seeded and diced into 1/2 -inch chunks

1 tablespoon Vietnamese chili paste (or 1 chopped and seeded jalapeno pepper, or to taste)

1 cup rice vinegar

edible flowers for garnish, optional

Set aside papayas that are cut in half.

Combine black beans, red and yellow tomatoes, chopped cilantro and diced papayas in large bowl. Mix together chili paste and rice vinegar in separate dish, then add to bowl. Toss ingredients gently but well. Scoop mounds of salad into each papaya half. Garnish with whole cilantro leaves and colorful edible flowers.

Note: Ms. Daelemans's mirepoix is a mixture of 1 celery stick cut in half, 1 carrot cut in half (end removed), 1 whole onion, skin removed, cut in half.

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Serve this chicken with a salad of fresh tomatoes and herbs or your favorite freshly harvested vegetables.

Cafe Kula fried chicken

Makes 4 servings

1 1/2 cups whole wheat sourdough bread crumbs

1 tablespoon loosely packed fresh oregano, chopped

1 tablespoon loosely packed fresh thyme, chopped

1 tablespoon grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

salt, freshly cracked black pepper

4 (3-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breasts, trimmed of fat and lightly pounded

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

3 egg whites, slightly beaten

1 tablespoon olive oil

Combine bread crumbs, oregano, thyme, cheese and salt and pepper to taste in shallow dish.

Evenly coat chicken breasts with whole wheat flour, shaking off excess. Dip chicken in egg whites, then press chicken into seasoned bread-crumb mixture to coat both sides evenly.

Heat cast-iron or stainless-steel skillet until very hot. Add olive oil and saute chicken breasts, in batches if necessary, 2 to 3 minutes per side until done and golden brown.

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This chutney makes a good accompaniment to chicken, turkey sandwiches or fresh fish.

Pineapple and plum chutney

Makes about 3 cups

6 plums, pitted and cut into eighths

1 small pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into chunks; or 1 can (8 ounces) pineapple in its own juice, drained.

1 cup apple juice

1 jalapeno chili pepper, seeded and chopped, or -- crushed red chili flakes

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves or parsley

Combine plums, pineapple, apple juice and chili pepper in heavy-bottomed pan. Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat and let simmer until caramely and thickened to desired consistency. Cool. Add cilantro just before serving.

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This salsa is great with tacos, grilled fish or chicken.

Papaya-cilantro-chili salsa

Makes 2 cups

1 medium papaya, peeled, seeded and cut into cubes

1 medium tomato, diced

1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1/2 teaspoon hot chili paste (or substitute 1 seeded and chopped jalapeno)

Combine papaya, tomato and cilantro in bowl. Mix together rice vinegar and hot chili paste in separate dish, then add to bowl. Toss ingredients gently but well. Let stand 10 minutes. (This salsa does not keep well overnight.)

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Cafe Kula chocolate cookies

Makes 3 dozen cookies

1/2 cup pitted prunes, soaked in 1 cup hot brandy or hot apple cider 15 minutes, or until rehydrated and plump, then pureed, without draining, in food processor until smooth

1 1/2 cups date sugar (see note) or white granulated sugar

1/2 cup nonfat plain yogurt

1/4 cup oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 egg whites, lightly whipped

1 cup cake flour

1/2 cup whole-wheat pastry flour (see note)

1 cup good quality unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon finely ground good quality dry coffee

Mix prune puree, sugar, yogurt, oil, vanilla and egg whites in large bowl and set aside. Sift together cake and whole wheat flours, cocoa, baking soda, salt and ground coffee in separate bowl.

Add dry ingredients to wet and mix just until incorporated. Drop rounded tablespoons of batter, 2 inches apart, onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees 12 minutes. Cool cookies on baking sheets on wire racks.

(Note: Date sugar and whole wheat pastry flour are available in health food stores.)

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