Jane Kennedy doesn’t look like a woman who’s ever had to worry about her weight. If you’ve seen her on television in The Late Show, Funky Squad or Frontline you’ll know her as glossy-haired, clear-skinned and svelte. But from a young age she’s struggled to keep her weight down, trying every fad diet that came along then seeking solace in buttery crumpets and fatty dips when the diets inevitably failed.
After the birth of her fifth child, with husband and Working Dog colleague Rob Sitch, Jane, 45, decided to make some significant changes to the way she lived. She started exercising, shrunk the portion sizes on her plate, and opted for low-fat flavoursome food. ‘Because of the rapid pace at which our children arrived, my body was going in and out like a balloon,’ she says. ‘After the twins were born I really tried to knuckle down and eat smaller, healthier meals.’ The recipes that helped her regain her health and energy have been collected into her first cookbook, Fabulous Food, Minus the Boombah.
‘I love to cook and I love to eat. But I needed to find a way to make the food I like without the boombah,’ she says. She started by recreating the dishes she most enjoyed using different ingredients. ‘I wanted my meals to taste good without being unhealthy.’ That meant taking familiar fare like chicken breasts and lamb and finding ways to cook them using chilli, garlic, lime, lemon, ginger, and a myriad of fresh herbs.
Jane loves Indian curries, which are notorious for their inclusion of ghee and oil; some also contain high quantities of salt, sugar and cream. These ingredients are diabolical for your arteries, moods and waistline, but they can make meals taste wonderful, which is why fast-food outlets and processed food manufacturers make such liberal use of them. Jane set about deconstructing the curries she enjoyed to see what was in them, and to find a way of cooking them minus the nasties. ‘I spent quite a few nights experimenting with how to put together a tasty beef vindaloo without the boombah and I think I’ve cracked it!’ she says. ‘It’s one of the recipes I had tested at a food lab and found it had half the fat, half the cholesterol, and about forty percent fewer calories than a store-bought one.’
She also learned there is no takeaway that’s any good if you want to lose weight. ‘Maybe tandoori chicken or sashimi,’ she says. ‘But they’re expensive and not practical every-night dishes. I had to come up with my own versions of the takeaway I used to eat, like chicken san choy bau and tacos.’ It’s not the only unfortunate news she feels duty-bound to share, writing in Fabulous Food that none of the standard excuses for staying unhappily overweight hold water: we can make time to exercise, we’re not big-boned, and anyone can learn to cook. In response to the statement that ‘People should just accept me for who I am’, she writes: ‘We do. But do you? … You know damn well you’d love yourself more if you just committed to losing some of those unwanted kilos.’ Remember as you read this that she’s walking the talk.
No matter how good your meals taste, she says it’s important not to overload your plate. Jane’s keenly aware that obesity is an issue for adults and for kids, and worries we might be sending the next generation the wrong message about how much food we actually need. ‘In September, we went on a family holiday and everywhere we went the kids’ servings would completely fill the plate, the schnitzels were falling over the edges! I think we’ve gone a bit crazy with our serves – we’re not going to starve if we eat smaller portions. You don’t want to finish a meal feeling stuffed and bloated.’
Eating too much of the wrong things is a temptation she’s succumbed to in the past. For someone in the public eye, she is remarkably candid about how her weight affected her. ‘I can go on a downhill spiral when I feel overweight,’ she says. ‘One of the things I used to turn to was what I thought was comfort food – lots of fatty, creamy, cheesy food, pizza and pasta – things that would make me feel good while I was eating them but worse almost immediately afterwards. Once I realised that they weren’t really bringing me any comfort at all I just stopped.’
Jane had a passion for food long before a career in the media or motherhood came into her life. She has memories of cooking from the age of five or six and was, she says, always encouraged to be in the kitchen. She recalls that she and her sister often cooked the meals for their parents’ dinner parties. ‘I wonder now how Mum and Dad felt about a 12-year-old and nine-year-old serving food to their friends. At least we were using amazing recipes. Mum did a Cordon Bleu cooking course back then and I was so envious! It was French and so fancy! I asked her to teach me how to cook the recipes she was writing into her exercise book, which she did, and those were the meals we served up to the adults.’
Jane’s own brood isn’t quite ready to pull off a dinner party yet, but she does involve them in the preparation of meals. ‘I let them taste things along the way, to teach them about different foods. I’ll say ‘that’s a wasabi pea, it’s going to be spicy, don’t do it’, but they’ll eat it anyway so I’ll have milk standing by.’
Teaching kids about food is, of course, a delicate exercise since rigid insistence on anything is bound to backfire, and making certain foods contraband can make them even more intriguing and enticing. Jane says she tries to be relaxed when cooking for her kids. ‘My daughter loves Japanese food, but she also love salt and vinegar chips. I try to be positive about food and not get too stressed about what they eat. They’ll happily chow down on a platter of raw carrots, celery and cucumber dipped in hummus with a bit of chicken or a chop on the side. They don’t know they’re eating a ‘healthy’ meal – they just like the way it all tastes. I let them have treats, and parties are a free-for-all, but we try to balance it out.’
Her family, like that of many other Australians, is accustomed to enjoying food from across the globe. While Jane’s childhood meals included chops with fried rice, vol au vents filled with cream of oyster soup, jaffles, and endless variations of rice and pasta salads, her own children have the cuisines of the world at their doorstep. ‘Kids are so much more knowledgeable about different foods than when we were growing up. They know about Lebanese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Moroccan, French and Greek food – and I think that’s great. Mediterranean and Asian diets are so healthy. If a good mix of flavours helps kids enjoy beautiful vegetables that has to be good.’ She does struggle with making Italian dishes minus the boombah, since Italy has a longstanding love of pasta, rice and bread. ‘But the way they cook their veggies is stunning: sun-ripened tomatoes with fresh basil and pepper, eggplant and zucchinis grilled to perfection – fantastic!’, she says. ‘I look to other countries for inspiration all the time. I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of travelling and I read cookbooks from everywhere.’
In fact, she reads cookbooks the way other people read novels, and has accumulated close to 150 of them. Her love of cookbooks made the task of creating one of her own both thrilling and intimidating. Jane is a fan of Jamie Oliver, for reminding us of the pleasures of simple meals made with the freshest produce, and for his work in educating children and men about why it’s so important to pay attention to what they eat. She also admires Nigella Lawson’s writing and television shows, ‘though a lot of her recipes are very boombah so I can’t eat them’, and Australian foodie Jill Dupleix. ‘I have every book Jill Dupleix has written,’ she says, ‘and I feel an affinity with her because, like me, she didn’t train as a chef. It was an evolution for her as well, a passion.’
Jane didn’t set out to write a cookbook when she started on her new eating regime, but once people noticed her weight loss they were curious to know how she was doing it. She says that food became a frequent topic for her in the schoolyard when talking with other parents. When asked her secret, she says she always answered that there is no quick or easy fix, and that the desire to lose weight must be a personal one, not something imposed by someone else. ‘Then they’d ask me what we ate at home,’ she says. ‘So I started writing recipes down on scraps of paper and sharing them. It got a bit full on and one day someone said to me that I should save myself all the trouble and put the recipes into a book, which seemed like a good idea.’
But managing children, a relationship, a career (she works as the Casting Director for Thank God You’re Here and The Hollowmen), and all else that a busy life holds, left little time for writing a book. She grabbed her moments when she could. ‘Fabulous Food was written when I had teething twins and was getting up a lot in the middle of the night. I’d settle one and know the other one would wake up any minute so I’d sit down and write a few recipes in the gap.’
Her recipes are simple and short, and intentionally steer clear of obscure ingredients, so people who might not have a lot of confidence in the kitchen needn’t be intimidated. ‘I went to my local convenience store to see how many ingredients I could get for a meal there. I got everything I needed except for kaffir lime leaves. I was thrilled that nothing would be too hard to source. Even kaffir lime leaves are on the shelves of most supermarkets and green grocers now – and they freeze beautifully so you shouldn’t have to shop for them too often.’ Which is not to say the recipes lack inspiring flavour combinations, since retaining taste without the boombah is crucial. ‘I’ve tried so many diets that say you should eat a piece of meat and unlimited steamed vegetables and repeat that night after night. That’s boring! I love to cook so I always think, give me something I can work with! I want to look forward to my meals.’
The photographs for Fabulous Food were all shot in Jane’s home kitchen since it wasn’t an option to spend days shooting elsewhere. ‘I still had to run a household and fit the book around the rest of my life.’ In any case, this was the place where she cooked every day, and where many of the recipes had originated. ‘I was nervous when people from the publishing house came over and tried out some of my recipes. I’ve never had anyone cook from my recipes before but they’d see me looking anxious and say ‘they’re working, it’s all good’. I watched to see what tricks they’d use when they photographed the dishes but they didn’t do any of that. They just shot the food as it was. I was very happy about that.’
She says it troubles her that so many magazines show women immediately thin after childbirth or magically transformed into a waif after being overweight for a while. ‘I think if girls are feeling a bit flat – especially if they’ve had babies and are struggling with the way their body looks – they see the Hollywood stereotype and it’s depressing. Just know that those people are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives. And they also have a team of people helping them to get thin and stay that way. Normal people don’t have that. If you’re feeling hopeless remember you can change your weight and the way you eat and how you feel, it just takes time. And don’t punish yourself too much – let yourself have a glass of wine every now and then!’
Recipes from Fabulous Food, Minus the Boombah
Fennel, orange and parsley salad
This has crunch, tang and colour – everything you’re after in a salad. The aniseedy fennel adds a point of difference.
1 fennel bulb, top trimmed and outer layers removed
1 orange, peeled and pith removed, thinly sliced
10 black olives
1 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Cut the fennel crosswise into thin slices.
Place in a bowl with the orange slices, olives and parsley, and drizzle with the oil and lemon juice. Toss gently and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
Thai fish cakes
A great way to get a spicy Thai hit. These fish cakes make a great starter or can easily be turned into a canapé to serve with drinks if you make them bite-sized.
200g rockling fillets (or similar firm white fish), cut into chunks
½ tablespoon fish sauce
½ tablespoon red curry paste
1 kaffir lime leaf, finely shredded
½ tablespoon coriander leaves
½ tablespoon sea salt
10 green beans, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil
extra coriander leaves
Place all the ingredients, except for the beans and oil, into a food processor and whiz to a smooth paste. Stir in the beans evenly. Roll the mixture into even-sized balls and flatten them to form cakes.
Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Fry the fish cakes in batches for around 2 ½ minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Serve with a crisp green salad and scatter over coriander leaves.