Alison Sweeney, former host of the popular TV show, The Biggest Loser, weighs in on three breezy, cheesy recipes perfect for these warm summer days.
It’s a long, windy—and sometimes challenging—ride up to Alison Sweeney’s beautiful Colonial-style home nestled in the Hollywood Hills above Los Angeles. But once you reach the top and get a gander at the panoramic view Ali and her family, husband Dave and kids Ben and Megan, wake up to every morning, you realize it’s well worth the effort. Looking out over the infinity pool that sits in the middle of the well-manicured backyard, all you see for miles and miles below is the City of Angels, and from this vantage point, it looks like heaven.
Standing in her huge open kitchen that also has sprawling views of LA, Ali, 37, rolls up the sleeves of her blue-and-white stripe T-shirt and starts preparing the fruit and cheese plate she plans to share with guests arriving later in the afternoon. Her gorgeous blue eyes light up over the delicious spread before her. “Look at the size of these,” she marvels, holding up a big, juicy blueberry, then popping it into her mouth. “That’s the best berry I’ve ever tasted!”
With her trim figure causally clad in cornflower blue jeans, you’d never guess that Ali once struggled with her weight. But after years of eating too much sugar and processed foods, the actress, best known for playing Sami Brady on NBC’s daytime drama Days of Our Lives, switched to a cleaner, more nutritious diet, successfully dropped twenty pounds, and has kept them off for twelve years. These days, the bourgeoning author—her newest novel, Scared Scriptless, hits bookstores this month—sticks to a low-carb regimen that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, complex-carbs like quinoa, and lean proteins such as free-range chicken and organic beef. “It’s true that we are what we eat,” she says. “And I like to eat healthy.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the woman doesn’t love to indulge in tasty fare! In fact, Ali considers herself a foodie who has learned to consciously consume everything she desires, from mouthwatering cheeses to exquisite wines, without gaining a pound (more on her stay-slim tricks later). She also loves to entertain, especially on gorgeous summer days like today. So when Ali invited Cheese Connoisseur to her beautiful home for a lovely three-course lunch alfresco, of course we said yes! Over succulent salads and deliciously rummy mojitos, the conversation flowed, covering everything from her latest career move to the art of throwing the perfect party.
Cheese Connoisseur: Your house is amazing. It’s like it was made for entertaining.
Alison Sweeney: (Laughs) Well, actually it was! My husband and I picked a style and created a floor plan that was geared toward having people at our house. We love to entertain—it’s a big part of who we are and what we enjoy doing.
CC: Even the kitchen looks ready for a party.
AS: We designed the kitchen for a crowd of people to be in there while we’re working on the meal. I specifically chose to put the sink facing into the room so I could prep, wash dishes and clean up while talking to guests. We have stools set up just for that. It was all really geared toward the idea of having people over.
CC: The backyard area is breathtaking and the cooking area is huge.
AS: Dave has a grill outside that also has a bar top so you can sit and talk to him while he’s grilling and be a part of the conversation. We love the indoor/outdoor feel of the house so we have three sets of doors that open up onto our patio. I mean, it’s LA; we have a lot of warm nights here, so we take advantage of that. We love having people hanging out by our fire pit and we’ve been known to enjoy a little wine while we’re in the hot tub (laughs). We just wanted it to all feed toward enjoying our house and using it.
CC: Obviously, you love to throw parties!
AS: We do, and our kids are totally down for it, too. We even have parties just with our family. We could have a party under any circumstances. For me, it’s the grouping of people; that’s what inspires me. If my best friend Carrie is coming over, I know her tastes so I let that guide me in terms of food and music or where we’re going to sit, inside or outside.
CC: Is it a group effort in terms of preparing?
AS: Oh yeah. We love the whole process. Oftentimes, Dave is at the barbecue slow-roasting chickens for hours before people even get here. But I’m not someone who usually prepares everything in advance. I like sitting in my kitchen and making it up as we go. I like including my friends and even my kids in helping me get everything ready.
CC: Do you have theme parties?
AS: We like all kinds of entertaining. Sometimes it’s just a group of people who want to take off their shoes, hang out in the kitchen and eat good food. Sometimes it’s more complicated. One friend of mine, who’s a winemaker, and I decided to do Top Chef night and it was the most fun! A bunch of us went to the farmers market, bought all this crazy stuff and then spent the entire afternoon at my house creating dishes. Everyone was in charge of one course. You had to pick from the ingredients we had gotten, and then you would make your thing. After each dish was made, we’d all sit and critique it, and then the next person would go and make their course. It literally took hours to get through, to make a dish and then serve it, and then be judged. Of course, everything has to be competitive with me, and, just for the record, I won (laughs). I’m only bringing up the story because I did win! I made a dessert crepe. And because of my lack of ingredients, I had to wing it a little bit, so I got bonus points for creativity. But when you have great ingredients, you don’t need a ton of fancy fixings.
CC: Your parents were big entertainers, too, right?
AS: Yeah, my parents are very much entertainers. My mother played for an orchestra when I was young, and she’d have people over every night afterward. I was brought up with people around all the time.
CC: What do you remember about those parties?
AS: Even as a young child, I remember my mom having beautiful hors d’oeuvres at her parties and being introduced to caviar and pâté at a very early age. She loved fancy cheeses, too! We definitely grew up with the sensibility that if people are coming to your house, you have a cheese plate ready for them.
CC: Do you credit your mother with your adventurous tastes?
AS: Definitely. My mom loves fancy foods. She’s definitely a gourmet and a very talented cook. She really encouraged us to be open-minded with the way that we ate. She forged that love. But I also grew up in a time when people really started getting hooked on processed foods. We weren’t allowed to eat fast food. Our family was really bucking the system with my mom making us stick to the natural foods. She made sure we ate a lot of home-cooked meals. We were also getting used to thinking of fruit as a dessert.
CC: Are you encouraging Ben and Megan to try new foods the way your mother did?
AS: I do, but I’ve caught myself assuming that they won’t like the taste of foods that I don’t enjoy myself. I did that at a cheese store a few years ago with Ben. I was picking out cheeses, and my favorite part, of course, is sampling all the different types in the shop. The lady behind the counter asked my son, who was four at the time, if he would like to try some blue cheese, which I’ve never liked very much. Of course he said yes, and he loved it. I was really surprised but it reminded me, who am I to assume what he likes?
CC: Does he still like cheese?
AS: Oh yes, in fact one of my favorite stories about Ben is the time we went shopping and we were near the cheese shop and a Pinkberry was right across the street. I told him we were going to have a treat that day and he could choose to share a frozen yogurt or we could go to the cheese shop and have some cheese. My kid says, “Yeah! Let’s go get cheese, Mommy!” And I was like, “Good call, Ben!”
CC: And Megan?
AS: She likes a good Cheddar. It’s a classic. They are also into the more creamy cheeses and goat cheeses are always a winner.
CC: What kinds of cheeses do you love?
AS: Who doesn’t love a triple-cream? But when I have a party and make a cheese spread, I like to mix it up with a variety of choices. First, I want them to taste interesting. Sometimes a simple Brie just isn’t enough. I want the goat double-cream, or something with a little more edge to it, that has a tic or a flavor, or something that kind of makes it an experience. I don’t want to eat cheese just to eat cheese. I want to enjoy the whole process.
“I don’t want to just eat cheese… I want to enjoy the whole process.”
CC: Where do you shop for cheese in Los Angeles?
AS: There’s a place in the city called The Artisan Cheese Gallery in Studio City. Then there’s a great place, The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, which is very famous. But Gelson’s Market also does a great job with its selection.
CC: When you cook, what kinds of cheese do you use?
AS: I do cook with cheese. Obviously, I like Parmesan cheese and I love Feta. I make a quinoa risotto with Feta and spinach that’s delicious.
CC: I’d never heard of a quinoa risotto.
AS: It’s not naturally creamy—the Feta makes it that way. I cook the quinoa and add white wine the same way you would with risotto, then I add in Feta cheese, chopped up spinach or kale, cherry tomatoes and avocado. I put avocado in everything.
CC: I know you like to travel. What’s a favorite foodie travel story?
AS: I always remember the places we’ve visited by the restaurants we ate in. I can’t recall the name of the city or the famous architecture, but I never forget what I had for dinner! I think the important part of travel is experiencing the culture and discovering what the locals eat. Dave’s favorite question to a cab driver in a new city is, “Where do you eat?” That way you end up experiencing the real culture rather than what they provide to tourists. So, we were in Italy a few years ago, and we went to this amazing restaurant, literally in a cave that must have been where they stored wine casks years ago. We ordered the Caprese Salad for the table. It was beautiful, with this delicious Burrata cheese and heirloom tomatoes, but instead of basil, they had drizzled caramel over it with shaved lemon rind. I never would have paired Mozzarella cheese with sweet, but it was decadent and amazing.
CC: You’ve spoken about losing twenty pounds over ten years ago. How do you indulge in fancy foods and yet maintain your weight?
AS: It’s about priorities. I’m not someone who wastes my calories. I pick them wisely. I try to eat really healthy throughout the day so when I’m offered the opportunity to splurge, I can do it without feeling bad about myself. It’s also having a sense of how many calories are in your food. A little education goes a long way. For example, I love a nice glass of wine. But it’s 120 calories, and I know that going in, so I’d better really like it. If I taste it and it’s not great, then I’d rather not waste the calories, because that’s an hour on the treadmill. Or, if it’s really lovely wine, I’m going to relish every sip, cherish it, and enjoy it to the last drop. That’s way more nurturing to your body and soul than a 120-calorie artificial diet bar, isn’t it?
“Being healthy and fit doesn’t mean I have to be terrified of food.”
CC: Cheese is challenging, though, when it comes to your diet.
AS: I don’t eat it every night (laughs). But in terms of my enjoyment of life, cheese is definitely a part of it. Being healthy and fit doesn’t mean I have to count every calorie and be terrified of food. You can be a foodie, you just have to pick the right ingredients, enjoy the whole process, and enjoy every bite. Cheese is for special occasions, like when I have friends over. There’s something about preparing it, slicing it and putting it on the table. Then there’s enjoying the taste and texture of it, the way it makes your mouth feel. It’s the whole experience of making a cheese plate, entertaining your friends, having great conversations, a nice glass of wine, and the next thing you know, two hours have gone by and you’ve had a wonderful evening. It’s a fun reward for all the hard work I put in and a lovely treat. CC
Begin With A Cocktail
6 oz light rum
8 mint sprigs, leaves roughly torn, plus 4 sprigs for garnish
6 Tbsp fresh lime juice
4 Tbsp sugar club soda
8 slices lime
Place ice in beverage shaker then add in the rum, lime juice, sugar and torn mint leaves. Shake well and serve over ice in a highball glass. Top off each glass with a splash of club soda. Garnish each with slices of lime and a sprig of mint.
Burrata, Tomato & Basil Salad
4 medium to large heirloom tomatoes (about 21/2 pounds)
1 cup baby heirloom tomatoes Maldon
Sea Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup torn fresh basil leaves plus additional whole leaves for garnish
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
11/2 Tbsp aged balsamic vinegar
4 rounds Belgioioso Burrata cheese, torn
Cut tomatoes into wedges and place in large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, whisk olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Tear Burrata into bite-size pieces and toss with tomatoes. Drizzle with dressing from bowl. Garnish with basil leaves and serve.
Chicken & Aged Gouda Salad
4 (6-oz) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
1/4 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp rosemary, chopped
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
5 oz mixed green lettuces
1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup grape tomatoes, sliced in half
Beemster Aged Gouda, shaved
White Balsamic Vinaigrette:
1 Tbsp white balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp honey
1 crushed garlic clove
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Place chicken breasts in a resealable plastic bag with olive oil and chopped rosemary. Let marinate for 1 hour. Remove chicken from marinade, wiping off excess rosemary, but keeping breasts still well oiled. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place chicken on the grill; grill 6 minutes on each side or until done. Let stand 10 minutes; slice and set aside.
In a separate bowl slowly whisk olive oil into white balsamic vinegar, honey and garlic. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Divide mixed greens, onions, tomatoes onto four plates. Top with the chicken and drizzle balsamic dressing over each. Shave aged Gouda on top.
Perfect Summer Tasting
- Goat Bijou from Vermont Creamery
- Beemster Aged Gouda
- Bermuda Triangle Goat Cheese from Cypress Grove Chèvre
- Oak Smoked Cheddar
- Naturipe strawberries
Watermelon, Blueberry & Feta Salad
Serves 4 to 6
1 (5-pound) seedless watermelon
2 cups Naturipe blueberries
4 oz Klondike Feta cheese, crumbled
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp torn fresh mint leaves, plus whole leaves for garnish
Salt to taste
Cut the flesh from the melon and cut into 1-inch cubes.
In a small bowl, whisk the lemon juice and olive oil. Add in the chopped mint and salt to taste, and adjust seasonings.
In a large bowl, combine the melon, blueberries, mint, and feta. Pour the dressing over the melon mixture and toss gently until everything is coated and evenly mixed.
To serve, divide salad among individual cups and garnish with whole mint leaves.