How Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi Stays Slim
Discipline amidst all the deliciousness
-Francine Segan, Betty Food+Home Editor
A bite of Hung’s black chicken, a forkful of Marcel’s sea urchins, a taste of Ilan’s chocolate ganache with (gasp!) liver – Padma Lakshmi, now in her fifth season as co-host of Bravo’s Top Chef, has eaten it all, along with alligator, boar, chicken feet, frog legs, squab, and pork belly! She and the other judges evaluate the contestants’ culinary creations, and that means sometimes munching multiple helpings of dozens of rich and exotic foods.
So how does Lakshmi manage to stay so slim when her job is to eat (usually) delicious foods?
“Because I know I’ll be eating so many different foods during each episode of Top Chef, I try to limit what I eat off set, unless it’s a day off,” says Lakshmi, who was voted one of the 100 most beautiful people by People magazine. “In addition, when a season of Top Chef ends or when I finished writing my cookbook (Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet, Weinstein Books, 2007) I go into a food detox. I eat very simple foods for awhile.”
“I cut out as much fat and sugar as possible and eat only complex carbohydrates and lean protein,” she continued. “I try to eat as many fruits and veggies as I can per day, plus at least two to three liters of water.”
She says she tries to limit intake of fried foods, alcohol and sugar and to snack on healthy foods. “Coming from the east I love to graze on dry fruit and nuts and crudités with Middle Eastern yogurt dip made with za ‘ater powder (a spice blend). Other snacks I like are an apple with low-fat peanut butter or non-fat cottage cheese with rye crackers or celery.”
But eating well is only part of her fitness secret. “I don’t think you can lose weight or stay slim without exercising,” says Lakshmi, who exercises 12 to 15 hours a week, which includes boxing, lifting weights, cardio or roller-skating.
For a taste of some of Lakshmi’s favorite dishes, here are a few recipes from her cookbook, Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet. Each introduces several interesting ingredients you may not have tried, all of which are available online or at gourmet shops.
TEA SANDWICHES WITH LEMON, HONEY AND GINGER
The happy marriage of lemon and ginger gives a lovely, gentle flavor to these sandwiches. The peppery taste of pecorino is balanced nicely by the sweet taste of honey.
2 preserved lemon halves*
2 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon crushed dried red peppers or red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon freshly minced ginger
10 slices of good white bread, toasted
10 thin slices of a hard Italian cheese like pecorino or caciotta
Chop the preserved lemons, being sure to remove any seeds first. Place them in a processor or blender with the honey, red pepper, and ginger; make a smooth paste.
Arrange the toast on a platter.
Spread the paste on the toast and top with a slice of cheese. Diagonally cut each slice to make equal triangles from each slice. You can serve as is or heat in a 350°F oven for a few minutes, just until the cheese melts. Either way, these are wonderful with tea or, even better, a glass of sherry.
Any left over lemon-honey paste will keep in the fridge in an airtight jar for weeks.
RECIPE NOTE: Preserved lemons* are lemons that have been pickled in salt and their own juices, and are often used in North African cuisine. Available in specialty stores or online.
BASIL AND BLOOD ORANGE SALAD
The salad is not only glorious to eat but beautiful to look at. The glistening oranges, jeweled with dried cranberries, sit regally in a luxurious bed of dark green spinach that’s laced with the spiky fragrance of basil.
The nuttiness of the pepitas (pumpkin seeds) completes the odyssey of taste and texture. It never fails to be a hit.
1⁄4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon yuzu* or lime juice
1 teaspoon crushed Sichuan peppercorns *
Coarsely ground rock salt
4 blood or naval oranges, peeled, seeded, pith removed,
and sliced into semicircles
1 small red onion sliced into thin rings
5 ounces spinach leaves
3 cups fresh basil leaves, stems removed
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds), roasted and salted
Mix all the dressing ingredients in a large bowl.
Toss the oranges, onions, and cranberries in the dressing, and stir to coat well.
In a large salad bowl, mix together the basil and spinach. Just before serving, toss in the
orange and onion mixture, and mix well (adding the onion mixture too soon will make the salad soggy).
Sprinkle pepitas on top and serve immediately.
RECIPE NOTES: Yuzu* is a Japanese citrus fruit.
Sichuan peppercorns* have a smoky flavor that gives a distinct aroma to dishes but you may substitute regular peppercorns.
CARROT AND CILANTRO SALAD
Orange oil gives this salad a luxurious taste and the aroma of a thousand tangerines.
A great alternative to cole slaw, it is delicious summer or winter.
1⁄4 cup olive oil
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1⁄4 teaspoon pure orange oil*
2 pounds carrots, shredded
2 1⁄2 cups cilantro leaves
1⁄4 cup white-hulled sesame seeds, dry-toasted
in a frying pan until golden brown
4 hot green chilies, minced
1⁄3 cup dried cranberries
1⁄4 teaspoon za’atar powder*
1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt
Combine all the ingredients for the dressing together in the bottom of a salad bowl.
In the same bowl, toss together all the salad ingredients except the za’atar powder and salt.
Sprinkle the za’atar powder and salt on top of the salad just before serving.
RECIPE NOTES: * Orange oil, a by-product of orange juice production, is an essential oil from the rind of an orange.
*Za’atar an aromatic mix of herbs and spices used in the Middle East to flavor meats, salads, and vegetables.