Physique athletes consume the blandest, most boring foods on the planet. Their core diet seems dominated by cans of plain tuna and cottage cheese consumed by people who don’t even like the stuff, and boiled chicken breasts limply tossed into some Tupperware and choked down several times a day.
Sure, bodybuilders might attain their goal of bursting the seams of their Men’s Wearhouse blue pinstripes with this diet, but something is missing. Good food is universally considered one of the great pleasures of life. While this great pleasure may also be the dirty secret of America’s obesity epidemic, there are limitless ways to have your skinless chicken breasts and enjoy them too. The truth is, you can build the body you want without having to gag down foods that don’t taste very good. And besides, if your food tastes good, then you’ll be more likely to stick to your eating plan and avoid going on an all-out buffet binge!
So how can we eat great tasting meals, build mass, and maintain that ripped physique? The easiest method by far would be to hire me as an in-house chef and nutritional consultant. My salary would be a reasonable $45,000 per annum, plus transportation and living expenses (so I can deliver to your work or gym), and lodging (I’d even pull a Kato Kaelin and live in your pool cabana). What, no takers? Well, okay, I tried. Here are some simple rules for quick cooking that will make the dullest bodybuilder meal a delight for the senses.
The Marinade: Women Will Love to Eat Your Meat!
News flash for those whose only exposure to bodybuilding nutrition was the last “Arnold Spectacular” edition of Muscle & Fitness – the core of our diet is protein, generally meat. But meat comes with two factors that most of us need to control – fat and cost. For both of these reasons, muscular would-be cooks, after ironing their signature Lee Labrada kitchen aprons, tend to purchase meats which are innately lacking in flavor – extra-lean beef, skinless white-meat chicken and turkey, the occasional pork tenderloin, and, most frequently due to budget constraints, canned or otherwise less appetizing types of fish. Sound familiar?
For this article, I’ll skip the canned tuna and 99¢ pink salmon, and focus on plain ol’ animal flesh. With a few simple steps, soaking that slab of meat in some juices and spices will transform the tolerable into the tasty. The password is marinade.
The base of almost every marinade is something acidic, usually mixed with a little bit of oil. Now for those of you freaking out about the uncontrolled fat (and carbs, as some marinades involve one form of complex carbohydrate or simple sugar), don’t worry. After you soak your meat (pun not intended), almost all the marinade is drained off and the caloric increase is negligible; generally no more than a gram or so of any given macronutrient. Once you add these ingredients, everything else – salt, pepper, chili powder, cumin, paprika, etc. – is an essentially non-caloric flavor bonus.
Immediately, even over the vast, chaotic din of the internet, I hear innumerable muscular men and women screaming, “What about quantity? How many cups and tablespoons of everything do I put in?” The answer is simple – don’t sweat it. The great thing about a marinade is that it’s very difficult to screw up, even for those of us that consider opening one of those new-fangled aluminum tuna packets a skill test worthy of MacGyver.
The first thing you do is start with some form of container.
My favorites are the freezer-grade zip-lock bags, Tupperware containers or similar, and for those of you with a bit more money, a jar that fits to a vacuum sealing device (available at many department stores and especially useful because it allows you to marinade in a fraction of the time). But if you’re in a rush, any container will do, preferably one with some sort of top, like an old used jar and lid (washed first, please), or even a bowl with plastic wrap or foil over the top. The idea is to create an environment where the flavors can mix with the food.
In terms of price and versatility, watertight freezer zip-locks are great for this job. Not only can you throw a bunch of ingredients into one bag, but you can also freeze them, allowing you to marinade some meats and thaw them for a meal a month later! But don’t forget, avoid heating your food in the plastic itself, as carcinogens and estrogen-like chemicals may leech into your dinner and cause you to purchase a CD by Celine Dion. That would be tragic.
Below is a list of some sample ingredients for a marinade. I’ve divided them into three tiers, from essentials to “advanced” options.
Tier One: Stuff You Gotta Have
- Vinegar – Apple cider, red wine, rice, and balsamic are all potentials, each with their own flavor. Stick with a more neutral apple cider or plain rice vinegar (careful, some “season” with sugar) if you’re not certain what you like. If you’re especially concerned with simple sugar intake, use less balsamic or sugar-seasoned rice vinegar and stick with malt and apple cider varieties.
- Wine – Dry cherry, chianti, vermouth, and a dry chardonay are some of my favorites, but it’s a matter of taste. If you like a sweet background flavor or you’re marinating something like carne asada which often has a hint of sweetness, go for something like sherry or zinfandel. Just stay cheap; you don’t need to buy a collector’s bottle of 1992 Merlot to soak some round steak. For these purposes, there’s generally nothing wrong with any of the “wino” wines, or wines-in-a-box, if you’re on a budget. Remember when you had to bring a bottle of wine to that party hosted by those people you really didn’t like? That kind of cheap wine will do fine. Just don’t get some Boone’s Farm with extra flavoring – you want the wine to flavor the food, not turn it into raspberry syrup.
- Citrus – Lemon, lime, and oranges all have their place in marinades. If I were to pick only one, I’d say lime, but that’s just a personal choice. Lime is more versatile in that it tastes good with all meats, while lemon enhances the flavor of poultry and fish especially well. Orange, again, is for when you’re going for something to satisfy a sweet tooth. Lemon and lime juice can be purchased inexpensively. Any citrus juice will suffice, but no, Gatorade doesn’t count.
- Oil – Virgin olive oil is my personal favorite, simply because it has more flavor than most other oils, as well as a good essential fat profile. Other nice choices are sesame oil and rice bran oil, but they tend to be more expensive.
- Soy Sauce – No, it won’t increase estrogen levels, but if you really don’t like it, substitute with Southeast Asian-style fish sauce, available in the Asian or ethnic food aisles in most grocery stores.
Tier Two: Spice it Up!
While a mixture of some or all of the above will get you started, herbs and spices are critical for variety. Here are the most commonly used – pick as many as you like. They can all be purchased dry:
- Garlic (fresh, chopped in a jar, or dry)
- Onion (fresh or dehydrated)
- Chili powder, including the mixes with black and red pepper, cumin, paprika, and the stand-alone varieties like the “fire flakes” people add to pizzas. Not that T-men eat pizza. No sir, not us.
- Thai or Vietnamese style fish sauce
- Honey (great addition for grilling, mixes well with lemon)
- Italian Seasoning (a mixture usually of rosemary, oregano, basil, thyme, and/or other herbs, often inexpensive and available in bulk)
Tier Three: Extra Goodies, or Stuff to Use When Trying to Impress the Ladies
All the above ingredients can be mixed according to taste to improve any meat. But when you’re ready to expand your spice cabinet or you want to try your hand at something more exotic, here’s a little guideline on more advanced flavorings. The first two recipes are for 1/3 lb. of meat, which is approximately one average hamburger patty, small round steak, or breast of chicken, while the third is for a pound of chicken.
To a base of citrus juice (one or two fruits or 2-4 tablespoons if you’re using juice), add about half a teaspoon each of coriander (or a few sprigs of fresh cilantro), oregano, cumin, and one teaspoon of basic chili powder, plus hot peppers (fresh, dried, or powdered) to taste. In regards to spiciness, you can skip the last ingredient if that’s not your style (sissy!).
If you think you like spicy flavors, but aren’t experienced with cooking, start small with just one or two jalapeños or a pinch of cayenne or similar powdered hot red pepper. You can always add hot spice later in the cooking, but it’s rather difficult to take it away.
Lemon or lime juice mixed with two tablespoons each of olive oil and dry wine or vermouth. Again, there’s little need to be precise, so don’t worry about using too much or too little. Add a few shakes of black pepper, a pinch of turmeric, a pinch of garlic powder or teaspoon of chopped garlic (two or three cloves), and a teaspoon or two of dry oregano or Italian spice mixture. Other variations on this theme include adding all or any one of the following: cumin, onion (fresh chopped or powder), paprika, and bay leaves (around one to two teaspoons each).
Tandoori is one of my favorite forms of cooking and is much easier than the high prices in Indian restaurants would indicate. In many big cities, ordinary grocery stores will have pre-mixed tandoori seasoning, which I’ve found to be not only adequate but generally quite delicious and reasonably priced. However, if you can’t find anything pre-made, here’s a basic recipe that’s not only healthy and delicious, but exotic enough to impress your significant other when you invite her over for dinner. For about one pound of chicken, add:
- 3 Tbs. plain yogurt
- 2 Tbs. lemon juice
- 1 Tbs. oil (optional, it doesn’t affect the flavor that much either way)
- 1 tsp masala (in the spice section of the supermarket; if you can’t find it, curry powder is an adequate substitute)
- 1 tsp. crushed ginger or half tsp. ginger powder
- 1 tsp crushed garlic, or about two or three chopped or crushed garlic cloves, or half tsp garlic powder
Toss it all together in your covered bowl or sealed container/zip-lock bag, and refrigerate for at least four hours, preferably overnight, or freeze and thaw whenever you’re ready to cook. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees, or fire up your BBQ or grill pan, and cook for approximately 30 to 40 minutes. Flip them over once halfway through the cooking time. To be sure they’re cooked, take the biggest piece of chicken and cut into its thickest area. If it looks like you’d want to eat it, great. If it’s still squishy or pinkish, give it another few minutes, testing again if needed.
As you can see, none of these recipes are very precise. Sure, some books will tell you to pre-mix certain ingredients, using a blender or food processor. Of course you can do this, but I’ve found it to be, for the most part, unnecessary. I say toss everything together, seal it, shake it like crazy, and throw it in the refrigerator.
One final tip: since you’re going to be getting messy, make as much marinade in advance as you can. Divide meal portions into separate containers (zip-lock bags, Tupperware, or whatever you have available), and refrigerate or freeze as you see fit. If you’re going to eat what you marinade within three days, just refrigerate, otherwise freeze. Thaw by placing the portion you’re going to eat in the refrigerator the night before, placing it in a glass bowl in the microwave on low power for a few minutes, or running the frozen food under hot tap water. You can also keep it in your shorts on squat day, but this isn’t recommended unless you like that “gamey” flavor.
You’ve made a perfect marinade, you’re hungry, now what do you do? Since we’re trying to keep things simple, here are the basic rules for the three most common methods of bodybuilder cooking: bake, stir-fry, and stew.
This is going to be so easy you’ll start getting suspicious. Get a cookie or baking sheet. Build a raging fire in your backyard or preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drain the excess marinade and arrange the meat in a single layer on the baking sheet. Put the baking sheet in the oven. Bake 15 minutes for fish, 20 minutes for boneless chicken and veal, and 15 to 40 minutes for red meat (depending on if you like it rare, medium, or well-done). Halfway through the expected cooking time, open the oven and flip the meat over. Around the expected finish time, slice open the thickest piece of meat about mid-way and if it looks hot and cooked, eat it. Well, take it out of the oven first, then eat it, otherwise you’ll catch your hair on fire and people will point and stare.
Stir-frying is such a fantastic and simple method of cooking that I think every household should have a pan by law. Then again, I’m kinda geeky about these things. There are plenty of options for kitchenware, and if you want to closely regulate your fat intake, buy a non-stick stir-fry pan, which will allow you to fry without any extra oil. Otherwise, any frying pan with rounded sides will work.
To cook your marinade, take the pan and give it a light layer of oil. You can do this either with a pre-packaged oil spray like Pam, your own oil in a pump-spray (available at most cookware stores and department stores), or just by dabbing some oil on a paper towel and greasing down the pan’s surface. If fat intake isn’t a big concern, use up to one tablespoon of oil (any more and you’re closer to deep-frying) and tilt the pan back and forth until the entire bottom is oily, just like you do with your girlfriend.
Turn on the burner, medium-high is often the best, and let the pan heat up. Test it by taking a tiny piece of meat and dropping it in the pan – if it starts immediately sizzling, you’re ready to cook. Drain the excess marinade, and slice the meat into thin strips or cubes no wider than your thumb. Toss the meat in the pan, give it about a minute to cook, then with a wooden spoon stir it around the pan until every side is browned. Once the meat is evenly browned, you can add whatever vegetables you like.
Stir regularly (but not obsessively) for two to three minutes, until the vegetables look nearly cooked, then add any extra flavorings you want. One of my favorite tricks is to add a tablespoon or two of the leftover marinade, which makes a simple pre-made sauce. Let it heat to the point of sizzling, don’t overcook the vegetables, and serve hot.
Ah, the one pot slow-cooked wonder, another no-brainer. Give a light coating of oil to the pot or pan and heat, as above. Add the drained meat first, brown on all sides, then add some liquid – water or a can of broth, just enough to cover your ingredients. As with stir-frying, a small amount of the marinade can add a lot of extra flavor.
Bring it to a boil, then drop the stove temperature down to low. If you like something soupier, or you aren’t using that much liquid, keep covered; if you like it thicker, leave uncovered. Feel free to experiment and you’ll probably end up doing something in between, like starting it off covered and then uncovering for the remaining time.
If you’re adding something thick like potatoes, throw those in as soon as the meat is browned. Add in uncooked rice or grains about 15 to 20 minutes before you plan on serving the food, with no more than one cup of grain per two cups of liquid, otherwise you’ll get a solid mass of rice with some meat suspended within. For green vegetables, add no more than six minutes before serving time, depending on thickness.
Here’s an easy way to cook vegetables in stew: when everything else is cooked, raise the temperature to medium, throw in the vegetables and stir constantly until the mixture starts to boil, which is a good indication that everything is uniformly hot. Cut open or taste any vegetables or pieces of potato that you suspect might be undercooked.
Assume about 30 minutes for chicken, and 30 to 60 minutes for red meats, depending on their thickness. You’ll know it’s done when you can pull apart the meat easily with a fork. Seafood is a bit trickier. Fish, even thicker pieces, and large scallops should be cooked for no more than 20 minutes and taken off the heat when the meat flakes under your fork. Thin seafood, like small scallops, calamari rings, and shrimp, take even less time, sometimes no more than 5 to 10 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when the scallops and calamari are solid (no longer translucent) in appearance, and the shrimp is thoroughly pink and starts curling.
So there you have it, a basic start to any amateur cooking career. Just remember that most food is ruined when the chef tries too hard. Keep it simple, taste your food as you’re cooking, don’t be afraid to experiment, and soon you’ll be improvising healthy recipes that taste great and keep you looking good naked.