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March 8, 2017
Breaking In: Oprah Winfrey’s Food, Health, and Happiness

Crack open any cookbook and you are confronted with a dizzying collection of recipes. If you are actually going to make something for dinner (and it’s OK if you’re not!), choices need to be made. In BREAKING IN, we prepare a few interesting recipes to get a feel for the book. This is not a review, but rather a firsthand experience of cracking the spine of a new cookbook.

Oprah will be the first to tell you to embrace life’s wholesome indulgences: silk pajamas, Josh Groban Christmas albums, New Agey books about how to be happier. Oprah has always been an unflinching advocate for things that make you feel good. She wants us all to own rose-scented foot treatment sets and to mash away at inspirational puzzle games on our phones. She is a spokesperson (and sometimes a very handsomely compensated one) for not feeling guilty about guilty pleasures. So why shouldn’t this apply to food, too?

In her new cookbook, Food, Health, and Happiness, Oprah looks at food (healthy food in particular) as something fun, indulgent, and most importantly, worth sharing. She writes, with Lisa Kogan (a longtime columnist for O), about her evolving and very personal relationship with food—and the ways in which TV personalities are often encouraged to abuse or renounce food. She documents misguided moments of weight loss, like the time in the ’90s when she put herself through four months of a liquid diet. At the end of four months, she walked onstage to applause, victoriously pulling a wagon full of fat, representing the fat she’d lost during her extreme diet.

The happy medium, it turns out, is not to consume only liquids—or to stress-eat potato chips with abandon—but to eat well and thoughtfully. “When I manage to nourish myself with the stuff that really matters, food tends to be much less complicated,” Oprah writes. When I heard that the book would contain Weight Watchers points for each recipe, I wondered if it would feel cold and corporate, or if too many concessions toward calorie cutting would leave the book dry and unsatisfying. But that’s balanced out by the stories and cooking wisdom that feel undeniably Oprah. You get the sense that these recipes really are the things she loves to cook and eat. That is, it’s far from a slickly produced ad for Weight Watchers. She writes about the tomato-and-cheddar pie (11 points) that she loves to make for her boyfriend, Stedman, and the crab cakes (2 points) she cooks for girls from her South African leadership academy. And the barbecued chicken (11 points) she makes when her longtime friend and collaborator Gayle King comes over with the family.

Perhaps most excitingly, we get to hear about some of Oprah’s lovably weird eating habits. She loves naan and sprinkles truffle salt onto almost everything. She’s obsessed with peas and potatoes. In the headnotes for a recipe for spring pea soup with grilled shrimp, she writes, “I looove peas! The only vegetable I love even more is the potato. I love potatoes so much that I once attempted to make a potato cocktail.” In the margin, she continues in handwriting. “What can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it turns out the only way to drink a potato is when it’s distilled into vodka.”

What is it like to eat, and cook, like the most influential woman in the world? Fortunately, she provides recipes. Here’s what happened when I got a little taste of the good life:

I was drawn to this recipe as a punchy Sunday night dinner that would create leftovers to get me through the week. The chicken looked warm and inviting, lacquered with dark brown, spice-flecked sauce and made effortlessly colorful by the scattered apricots and cilantro. The sweetness of the dried apricots, light acidity from the tomatoes and vinegar, and the warmth of the cinnamon and garam masala seemed like a perfectly balanced dish. Also, talk about a great-smelling apartment.

The technique was also familiar. After a little bit of busy work, chopping and peeling garlic and ginger and measuring out spices, you rub the chicken parts in the spice mixture, brown it in some oil, and then braise it in a Dutch oven for about 40 minutes. Once the chicken is cooked through, you reserve and boil down the juices until they create a concentrated, spicy syrup. All you need is a little steamed rice, a bit of cilantro, and you have a dinner that will extend all week, getting better every day as the spices open up and blend together.

Make again? I’m not sure I would make this again. Like many stews and braises, this got better with time, but the spices tasted a little bit flat straight out of the oven. I’ll probably pick a chicken dinner that offers more immediate gratification the next time I need a Sunday night menu.

When a group of friends came over for martinis on a recent Sunday afternoon, I made Oprah’s favorite potato chips. They were an enormous hit. There is nothing quite like an icy cold martini and some warm, freshly made potato chips to help you cosplay as an oil baron lounging around a four-star hotel lobby.

And who knew that you could make potato chips without a vat of hot oil? With this method, you mandoline or knife slice a few potatoes, rinse them, and pat them dry between paper towels. Then you stick them in the oven with no more than a spritz of olive oil cooking spray, sandwiched between two Silpats or sheets of parchment paper.

My only gripe with this recipe is that it took many, many cookie sheets full of potato slices to produce a relatively small bowl of chips. (Possibly use a knife). As guests began to arrive, and I continued to load the chips into the oven, one pan at a time, I started to wonder why I hadn’t just bought a bag of Ruffles. The recipe has obvious appeal to anyone who wants to control the amount of oil and salt that goes into their potato chips. A serving has only three Weight Watchers points, and as Oprah mentions in the headnotes, a small, healthy snack like this “staves off serious hunger.”

Make again? This was a cool technique to try, but it took a meal-amount of time to prepare a snack-amount of food. From a taste perspective, I would have been just as happy dumping some truffle salt onto store-bought potato chips, and that just might be what I do next time.

Unlike her potato chips, Oprah’s crab cakes are an unbelievable breeze to throw together, and you probably have all of the ingredients in your pantry right now, aside from the crab, unless you are a real-life oil baron. The cakes are low on filler, but punched up with lots of garlic, Old Bay, and paprika, and the lump crab makes them feel decadent and hearty (even though each cake only has 99 calories). If you’re making these for guests, you can mix the crab cakes and form them into patties a few hours beforehand and toss them in the fridge between some sheets of wax paper. When your guests arrive, you just stick the cakes in the broiler for five to eight minutes, and then plop them on a plate with some lemon wedges, and sprinkle them with parsley.

Make again?  My crab cakes turned out quite crumbly compared to other crab cakes I’ve had, but the flavor and texture was good nevertheless, and broiling them instead of frying cut down on both grease and work. I would love to try these someday squished between slices of white bread with some mayo and arugula.

Anna Hezel

Anna Hezel is the former senior editor of TASTE.