Sharing his life story and his struggle with food was the inspiration behind Judson Todd Allen’s recently released “The Spice Diet: Use Powerhouse Flavor to Fight Cravings and Win the Weight-Loss Battle” (Grand Central Life & Style 2018; $27). Indeed, when Steve Harvey wanted to lose weight he turned to Allen, who helped him drop 30 pounds. Even more impressively, Judson himself shed more than 100 pounds and has managed to keep it off.
“Since I was little, I struggled with weight and telling people about my journey is very empowering for me,” says Allen, a finalist in Season 8 on the “Food Network Star” and executive chef of Taste 222 restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop. “It’s something that many people go through and this book allows me to help others.”
Allen graduated from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences and then earned a bachelor’s in food science and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana. This background gave him a unique perspective on food and later, studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and then traveling throughout Europe sampling a myriad of cuisine, solidified his perspective that the use of spices can create foods so compelling and flavorful that they can overcome our need for sugar and salt.
Citrus such as lime and lemon or lemons zest produce a taste effect that’s similar to salt says Allen, the CEO and Executive Chef of Healthy Infused Cuisine, LLC., a premium cuisine company that provides customized personal, private and event chef services and catering to clients who desire healthier food choices that don’t compromise taste.
“It’s all about balancing,” he says, noting that using spices, herbs, fresh ingredients, cutting out things and using alternatives works when it comes to creating tasty food that doesn’t have unnecessary and unhealthy ingredients. “I balance vinegar’s acidity with sweetness using honey or agave. It all gives a level of flavor that keeps you from cravings for salt. One of the things about most diets is you have these cravings and we all know cravings are hard to overcome. If we want to have a healthy life-style change we need foods that we will always want to eat.”
One of the cravings Allen, who was born and raised in Chicago, remembered and wanted to re-imagine was the marvelous food his grandfather, a New Orleans native, cooked.
“One of his favorite dishes is fried fish and grits,” says Allen. “It is only fitting that I re-create the delectable taste of his favorite dish in a healthier version, because he is my inspiration for being a chef. Early on in my attempts to change my eating habits, I figured out the best way to achieve the fried fish effect without the deep-frying and calories. By incorporating healthy nuts with the perfect spice blend and other flavor enhancements, I cracked the code with this recipe.”
I learned so much from him writes Steve Harvey in the book’s introduction.
“Being able to make a lifetime commitment to healthy eating depended on getting to the root of my issues with food. He showed me how to ‘cheat on my favorite foods by substituting healthy ingredients and spice combinations without sacrificing any of the flavor or texture. He was a stickler for portion control,” he continues. “After a while, I didn’t notice that I was eating less, because my food was so delicious and satisfying.
“A few outstanding dishes left a lasting impression on me. His Special Fried Chicken, which was organic chicken marinated in a crazy blend of spices and crusted with pecans and fresh parsley, looked just like pieces of dark golden fried chicken, but it was baked in the oven in a healthy way. I also appreciated his creativity when he made a healthier version of cornbread, one of my favorites, by using cauliflower, jalapeño, and other ingredients for a comparable yet brand-new experience that was totally satisfying. Given my long days, I really appreciated the snacks, especially his health bars. The recipes are all in The Spice Diet.”
Judson Todd Allen will be cooking and talking about his cookbook at Read It and Eat on Thursday, April 5 from 6:30 to 8:30 CT. 2142 North Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. (773) 661-6158; readitandeatstore.com
The following recipes are courtesy of Chef Judson Todd Allen
New Orleans Pecan-Crusted Catfish
Serving size: 1 fillet
Calories per serving: 292
This recipe works with just about any type of fish. If catfish is not your cup of tea, then swap it out for halibut, cod, red snapper, sword fish or salmon.
3/4 cup finely chopped pecans
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
4 tablespoons Bayou Cajun Spice Blend, divided (recipe below; you can reduce this amount if you have sensitivity to heat)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
6 (5-ounce) catfish fillets or almost any other kind of fish, deboned
Lemon wedges, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 400° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine the pecans, cheese, 3 tablespoons Bayou Cajun Spice Blend, parsley, lemon zest, and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.
Place catfish fillets on the lined baking sheet. Brush the fillets with the remaining teaspoon of olive oil and rub in 1 tablespoon of the Bayou Cajun Spice Blend. Massage the oil and spice on both sides of the fish.
Spread the pecan crust liberally over the top of each piece of fish.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until the crust is dark golden and the fish is flaky and moist. Serve with lemon wedges.
Bayou Cajun Spice Blend
Yield: 1/4 cup
“Cajun cuisine is the food of my ancestors,” says Allen. “I love it. Let the good times roll! When I think about catfish now, I think about this blend. It works well with any white- fleshed fish, shrimp, or poultry, and brings vegetables to life.”
2 teaspoons freshly ground white pepper
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons paprika
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
Mix together all the ingredients in an airtight container and store in a cool, dry place away from heat and light.
The Ultimate Tuna Salad
Serving Size: 1 Cup
Calories Per Serving: 257
3 (5-ounce) cans albacore tuna in water, drained
1/2 English cucumber, diced
1 teaspoon capers, drained
2 avocados, pitted, peeled, and cut into 1/2” cubes
1 small red onion, thinly sliced into half moons
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
3/4 cup sliced cherry tomatoes
2 teaspoons Bayou Cajun Spice Blend (recipe follows)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
In a large serving bowl, combine the tuna, cucumber, capers, avocado, onion, fresh herbs, tomatoes and Cajun Spice Blend. Add the lemon juice and olive oil and toss the salad.
Chef Judson’s Sweet and Sour Dill Pickle Cashews
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon Sour Dill Pickle Spice Blend (see recipe below)
2 cups raw unsalted cashews
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a bowl, mix the honey, lime juice, olive oil, and Sour Dill Pickle Spice Blend together. Add the nuts and coat them fully.
Spread the nuts on the lined baking sheet and bake for 10 to 15 minutes.
Serve warm or at room temperature. Nuts can be stored in an air – tight container in the pantry for 6 to 9 months, in the refrigerator away from strong smelling food up to a year, and in the freezer for 2 years.
Sour Dill Pickle Spice Blend
Yield: about 1⁄3 cup
Dill and lemon is a familiar combination, and the garlic in this blend adds another layer of flavor. I use it on salmon and delicate fish like sole or flounder. This blend is not overpowering. It’s great in a broth – based soup. It also pairs well with shellfish.
2 tablespoons dried dill
3 tablespoons lemon pepper
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
Mix all the ingredients in an airtight container and store in a cool, dry place away from heat and light.
Recipes excerpted from “The Spice Diet” Copyright © 2018 by Judson Todd Allen. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.