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We've been shivering in sweaters since October. But suddenly, swimsuit season is here. Yikes!

For help in losing that winter weight, look no further than your kitchen.

That's right. Cooking can help you get fat, but it can also help you get thin, if you can make low-calorie versions of your favorite foods, such as pasta, burgers or cheesecake, said Devin Alexander, author of a new cookbook, "The Most Decadent Diet Ever" (Broadway Books, $19.95).

"Twenty minutes in your kitchen can save you three hours on your Stairmaster," she said in a telephone interview from her office in Los Angeles. "My Italian grandmother taught me how to cook. I got fat because of her, and I got thin because of her. If I couldn't cook, I would weigh 300 pounds, because restaurants use a lot of butter and oil."

Alexander struggled with weight as a teen but has maintained a 55-pound weight loss for more than 16 years by learning how to cook healthy. She worked in Hollywood as a personal chef to actors who wanted to drop pounds without feeling deprived.

After hundreds of TV appearances on shows such as "The Biggest Loser," "Good Morning America" and "The View," she now has her own series, "Healthy Decadence" on the Discovery Health channel. She's also written "The Biggest Loser Cookbook," "Fast Food Fix" and numerous magazine articles.

By cooking healthful meals, you're expending positive energy toward food, "instead of making it the enemy," she said.

Although her book has a diet plan, the recipes in it can be used with other diets, she said. "If you're on Weight Watchers or South Beach, you can find recipes that will work," she said. "You can eat a ton of good food for 1,400 calories. And if you don't tell your family, they won't know you're cooking from a diet book."

The trick to giving dishes a healthful makeover is balancing ingredients, Alexander said. "If you just do a straight substitution, you usually are disappointed. If you take your favorite meatloaf recipe and just substitute turkey burger, you'll find out it's too dry. You've got to add some moisture to balance it."

It's not just a matter of switching applesauce for butter or oil in cake recipes, either. "You have to compensate and add more cocoa so it's richer and you don't taste the applesauce. And the cocoa powder also increases the fiber. Then I add a little coffee powder because it increases the cocoa flavor even more. Then I pull out some of the flour so it's not too dry."

The recipes aren't complicated, she said, although you do have to make the effort of following a recipe and dirtying a mixing bowl or a few pans.

"Hey, I started out writing articles for Muscle & Fitness magazine, where my editor told me to 'Think dumb guy.' I've made the book so that you can use it even if you don't cook a lot."

Her recipes often call for low-fat cheeses, and Alexander advises trying different brands before putting them in recipes. "Some are rubbery, plastic and taste awful," she said. "In Mexican dishes I use Cabot light cheddar, because their cheese doesn't taste low-fat."

Her saucy pasta shells are stuffed with Precious brand fat-free ricotta, so they weigh in at just 100 calories each.

For a juicy barbecue bacon cheeseburger that's just 304 calories and 10 fat grams, use center-cut bacon because it's 40 percent leaner than regular bacon, she advises. Use 96 percent lean beef, but don't smash it down while cooking so it retains the juices.

Although her recipes are generally low in sugar, she's not a fan of low-carb diets. "It works short-term, but I know people who gained weight on it in the end. It was so easy to eat two pork chops for breakfast, but long-term it's not good for you."

Alexander's is one of several recently published cookbooks of healthful recipes that don't scream "DIET."

"The Food You Crave," by Ellie Krieger (Taunton, $28), offers 100-plus recipes that are both healthful and delicious.

"Most people think the words 'luscious' and 'healthy' can't be used in the same sentence," writes Krieger, host of the Food Network's "Healthy Appetite" series. "Like you, I crave food that is bursting with flavor and aroma. Food that draws you in and leaves you satisfied. Guess what? That kind of food can be healthy."

Recipes include Garlic Fries that contain 270 calories per 3/4-cup serving and Carrot Cupcakes that are 230 calories each. Besides the usual list of "bad" nutrients, such as calories, fat, carbohydrates and sodium, each recipe also lists the vitamins, minerals and fiber content.

"WeightWatchers All-Time Favorites" (Wiley, $29.95) offers 225 recipes considered the "best-ever" from the company's test kitchens, and that work with the company's "Flex" and "Core" plans.

The book "transforms many classic, must-make dishes into recipes that work for your busy lifestyle," according to the introduction.

Some of these include Coleslaw-Chicken Salad with Peppery Dressing, totaling 214 calories for a 1 1/2-cup serving; and Fettuccine With Gorgonzola and Toasted Walnuts, which is 208 calories and six fat grams, and has a Weight Watchers points value of four. The meatless Italian Bean Soup is a budget-wise choice that is brimming with vegetables, for three points.

Sure, dieters can settle for a grilled chicken breast and celery sticks. But why, if you can have your low-fat cheesecake and eat it, too?

SKINNY-MINI CHERRY-TOPPED CHEESECAKES

Prep time: Less than 20 minutes

Butter-flavored cooking spray

10 reduced-fat vanilla wafers

12 ounces fat-free cream cheese, at room temperature

1/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons fat-free, artificially sweetened vanilla yogurt

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon unbleached all-purpose flour

2 large egg whites

10 tablespoons cherry pie filling

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line 10 cups of a standard muffin tin with cupcake liners. Lightly mist them with spray. Place one vanilla wafer, flat side down, in the center of each cup. They will be slightly smaller than the diameter of the cup.

Use an electric mixer to beat the cream cheese and sugar in a medium mixing bowl until well combined. Add yogurt, vanilla and flour and mix on low until just combined (do not overmix).

Use an electric mixer fitted with a whisk to beat the egg whites in a small mixing bowl on high speed until soft peaks form. Use a spatula to gently fold egg mixture in two additions into the cream cheese mixture until just combined. Divide mixture among muffin cups. Bake 18-20 minutes, or until set. They will puff up and the tops will crack, but this is OK.

Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate for at least 5 hours or overnight.

Top each cake with 1 tablespoon cherry pie filling. Serve immediately, or refrigerate. Makes 10 cheesecakes.

Nutrition per 1 cheesecake cup: 99 calories, 6 grams protein, 17 grams carbs, 1 gram fat, trace saturated fat, 3 mg cholesterol, 215 mg sodium. — "The Most Decadent Diet Ever," (Broadway Books, $19.95)

ZUCCHINI BOATS WITH GOAT CHEESE AND SUN-DRIED TOMATOES

4 small zucchini

Olive oil spray

2 pinches of salt

2 pinches black pepper

2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic

3 1/4 ounces (scant 1/2 cup) crumbled goat cheese

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons rehydrated chopped sun-dried tomatoes (not packed in oil)

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh basil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut zucchini in half lengthwise. Run the tip of a tablespoon down the center of each half, scraping out a shallow layer of the seeds. Lay the zucchini side by side, skin side down, on a small nonstick baking sheet and lightly mist each shell with spray.

Sprinkle each zucchini half evenly with salt and pepper. Next, sprinkle garlic evenly among them. Bake 16-19 minutes, until tender. Sprinkle goat cheese crumbles evenly over the zucchini, followed by sun-dried tomatoes. Bake another 4-6 minutes, or until cheese just starts to melt. Sprinkle tops evenly with the basil, about 1/2 teaspoons each. Serve immediately.

Nutrition per 2 boats: 102 calories, 7 grams protein, 9 grams carbs, 5 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 11 mg cholesterol, 3 grams fiber, 188 mg sodium. — "The Most Decadent Diet Ever," (Broadway Books, $19.95)

ITALIAN BEAN SOUP

3/4 cup dried cannellini (white kidney) beans, picked over, rinsed and drained

2 32-ounce cartons reduced-sodium chicken broth

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

4 teaspoons olive oil

2 onions, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 28-ounce can Italian-style peeled tomatoes, drained and chopped, reserving 1 cup juice

3 zucchini, chopped

1 9-ounce box frozen cut green beans

3 ounces ditalini or other small pasta (about 2/3 cup)

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Soak beans according to package directions. Drain. Combine beans, broth, salt and pepper in a large pot; bring just to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until the beans are barely tender, about 1 hour.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrots, celery and garlic; cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir the vegetable mixture into the bean mixture; add tomatoes with their juice, zucchini and green beans. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the ditalini and cook until barely tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in basil. Serve sprinkled with Parmesan.

Nutrition per 1 1/2 cups soup with 1/2 tablespoon Parmesan: 196 calories, 1 gram fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 0 grams trans fat, 2 mg. cholesterol, 877 mg sodium, 35 grams carbs, 8 gram fiber, 13 grams protein, 142 mg calcium. Weight Watchers points value: 3. — "WeightWatchers All-Time Favorites"

COLESLAW-CHICKEN SALAD WITH PEPPERY DRESSING

6 tablespoons fat-free mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon apple-cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon whole peppercorns, lightly crushed

2 teaspoons sugar

1 1-pound bag coleslaw mix

3/4 pound cooked chicken breast, shredded (about 2 cups)

1 tomato, chopped

4 slices bacon, crisp-cooked, drained and crumbled

Whisk together mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, caraway seeds, peppercorns and sugar in a small bowl until blended; set aside.

Combine coleslaw mix, chicken and tomato in a large bowl. Drizzle with the dressing. Toss well to coat. Divide the mixture evenly among 4 plates and sprinkle with bacon.

Nutrition per 1 1/2 cups slaw and 1 slice crumbled bacon: 214 calories, 7 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, no trans fat, 63 mg cholesterol, 448 mg sodium, 14 grams carbs, 3 grams fiber, 25 grams protein, 77 mg calcium. Weight Watchers points value: 3 — "WeightWatchers All-Time Favorites"

FETTUCCINE WITH GORGONZOLA AND TOASTED WALNUTS

1/2 of a 16-ounce box fettuccine

1/4 cup low-fat (1 percent) milk

1/2 cup fat-free ricotta cheese

1/4 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts, toasted

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 3-inch long strip lemon zest, removed with a vegetable peeler and very thinly sliced on the diagonal

Cook fettuccine according to the package directions, omitting the salt if desired. Drain pasta, then transfer to a serving bowl and keep warm.

Meanwhile, in a microwavable cup, heat the milk on high until warm, about 30 seconds. Combine the ricotta and Gorgonzola in a medium bowl; stir in the warm milk until almost smooth. Spoon cheese mixture over the fettuccine and toss well; sprinkle with walnuts, parsley and lemon zest.

Nutrition per 2/3 cup: 208 calories, 6 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, no trans fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 93 mg sodium, 31 grams carbs, 2 grams fiber, 9 grams protein, 85 mg calcium. — "WeightWatchers All-Time Favorites"

MOSTLY MOM'S MARINARA SAUCE

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 cups finely chopped onions

2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic

2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes

1 tablespoon dried oregano

2 teaspoons sugar, plus extra if desired

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Place a large nonstick saucepan over medium heat. Add the olive oil, onions and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender but not brown, 7-10 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes, oregano, sugar, red pepper flakes, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir until well-combined. Turn heat to low. Cook, covered, at least 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Season with additional salt, if needed. Makes 6 1/2-7 cups.

Nutrition per 1/2-cup serving: 55 calories, 2 grams protein, 12 grams carbs, 1 gram fat, trace saturated fat, no cholesterol, 3 grams fiber, 252 mg sodium. — "The Most Decadent Diet Ever," (Broadway Books, $19.95)

BETTER-THAN-CLASSIC STUFFED SHELLS

12 dried jumbo pasta shells

1 cup fat-free ricotta cheese

4 ounces (about 1 1/4 cups) finely shredded low-fat mozzarella (2 1/2 grams of fat or less per ounce)

5 tablespoons grated reduced-fat Parmesan, divided

1 large egg white

1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh parsley

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Salt and pepper

2 cups Mostly Mom's Marinara Sauce (recipe above) or other low-fat, low-sodium marinara sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook pasta according to package directions, to al dente. Drain and reserve. Place a sheet of wax paper large enough to hold 12 filled shells on a flat work surface.

Mix ricotta, mozzarella, 2 tablespoons Parmesan, egg white, parsley and garlic powder in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place cooked shells open-side up on the wax paper. Spoon ricotta mixture evenly among them, about 2 heaping tablespoons each.

Evenly spread about 1/2 cup marinara sauce in a 10-inch round or an 11-by-7-inch ovenproof glass baking dish, or a casserole dish large enough to hold the stuffed shells in a single layer. Lay the shells side by side, open side up, in the dish. Spoon remaining marinara sauce over top. Sprinkle remaining Parmesan evenly over the marinara sauce. Cover with foil and bake 20-25 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. Makes 12 shells.

Nutrition per shell with sauce: 99 calories, 7 grams protein, 14 grams carbs, 2 grams fat, trace saturated fat, 9 mg cholesterol, 2 grams fiber, 205 mg sodium. — "The Most Decadent Diet Ever," (Broadway Books, $19.95)

CARROT CUPCAKES WITH LEMONY CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour or regular whole-wheat flour

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 cup canola oil

3/4 cup light brown sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 cup natural unsweetened applesauce

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups finely shredded carrots (about 2 carrots)

1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts

Frosting:

4 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese, softened

3/4 cup confectioner's sugar

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Garnish:

2 tablespoon finely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners. In a medium bowl, sift together flours, baking soda, salt and spices. In a large bowl, whisk together oil, brown sugar and eggs until well-combined. Whisk in applesauce, vanilla and carrots. Add dry ingredients; mix until just combined. Stir in the walnuts.

Divide the batter between the muffin cups. Bake until a toothpick inserted in a cupcake comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Frosting: With an electric mixer, beat together cream cheese, confectioner's sugar and lemon zest until smooth and creamy. Frost the cooled cupcakes and sprinkle with the walnuts. Store in refrigerator, they will keep about 3 days. Makes 12 cupcakes.

Nutrition per cupcake: 230 calories, 10 grams total fat, 3.5 grams monounsaturated fat, 2 grams saturated fat; 4 grams protein, 32 grams carbs, 1.5 grams fiber, 42 mg. cholesterol, 220 mg sodium. Excellent source of vitamin A; good source of manganese and vitamin E. — "The Food You Crave," by Ellie Krieger (Taunton Books, $28)

GARLIC FRIES

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons canola oil

3 large baking potatoes

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

Cooking spray

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Heat garlic and oil in a small saucepan over medium heat for 2 minutes. Strain garlic from oil with a small mesh strainer. Set both garlic and oil aside. Cut the potatoes into 1/4-inch-thick matchsticks. In a large bowl, toss together the reserved oil, potatoes and salt. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray and spread the potatoes on it in a single layer. Bake until golden and crisp, about 35 minutes.

Remove potatoes from the baking sheet with a metal spatula. In a serving bowl, toss potatoes with parsley, reserved garlic and salt to taste.

Nutrition per 3/4 cup: 270 calories, 7 grams total fat, 4 grams monounsaturated fat, 6 grams protein, 47 grams carbs, 3.5 grams fiber, no cholesterol, 304 mg cholesterol. Excellent source of manganese, potassium, vitamins B-6, C and K; good source of copper, fiber, folate, iron, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, protein, thiamin. — "The Food You Crave," by Ellie Krieger (Taunton Books, $28)


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com