Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Of Prime Importance

If it is true that we are what we eat, doesn't it stand to reason that we should eat what we are?

I have been craving meat over the past couple of weeks.

Now, this shouldn't be surprising, seeing as I was able to sustain a 15-month stint where I ate mostly meat and little else.  Carnivory is an essential part of how I choose to nourish myself and live my life.  But I realized that, in recent months, I had been letting my quota of deceased fauna fall below 50% of my overall intake.

There are varied reasons for this.  One of them is that, after such a long time of just meat and nothing else, I've been wanting to experience the taste, texture, and general aura of non-animal foods, especially such delicacies as baked goods, fresh pastas, or fine chocolate.  Seeing as I have limited capacity, these foods have been taking up a greater percentage of my daily fare and edging out the meat.  Another reason is that oftentimes meat takes a lot more work to prepare than other alternatives.  It's easy to grab a couple of slices of bread and slap some PB and jelly on them, but there are many times when I feel as if I have to overcome a huge hurdle of mental laziness in order to make myself cook a steak.  

But, if I do that for too many days in a row, I find myself feeling draggy, moody, sluggish, and overall unwell.  Even though I am not plagued by hunger and cravings like I used to be, I feel a general lowering of my energy levels and motivation.  I go around feeling like it's a rainy day when the sun is shining brightly.  In short, I feel like crap.

The physiological reasons for this are obvious: when I neglect to eat meat, I run on a protein deficit.  The word "protein" is derived from the Greek word "Protos" which means "of prime importance."  Second only to water, it is the most plentiful substance in our bodies.  It is the primary building block of our anatomy, and as such it really needs to be the mainstay of our nutritional profile.  A protein deficit means that you're living in a house made of straw or sticks,  instead of one made of brick.  Eat one of those three little piggies and you'll be good to go.

And the most efficient and effective way to get that protein in is by consuming meat.  Steak, sausage, bacon, pork chops, lamb, chicken, fish, shrimp.  If it once had a face, it's probably good for you.  Yes, yes, it is possible to construct a nutritionally complete meat-free diet, but it's too much work and I'm too damn lazy.  And, even though I sometimes find myself feeling too lazy too cook meat, I'm way more lazy about trying to do vegetarianism with any sort of nutritional thoroughness.  When I think of it this way, cooking meat feels like a walk in the park.

Getting enough meat into my diet doesn't mean at all that I have to exclude other foods.  Other foods aren't the enemy, if they're not undermining my meat quota.  But I have to remember to choose my meals based on meat first, sides second, treats last.  If I get full on the meat, oh, well, the other stuff will have to wait until I'm hungry again... if there's room left after the meat portion of the next meal.

Instead of a salad with pieces of chicken, it is preferable to have a substantial serving of chicken with a side salad.  Sausage and eggs instead of that very tempting chocolate croissant for breakfast.  A portion of meat with a small side of pasta, instead of a large bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and a sprinkling of ground beef.  Or, if the mood strikes, just one big steak with a glass of wine on the side.

Part of my new approach to eating is about pure, unadulterated, hedonistic enjoyment.  But, if I am feeling physically undermined because I'm not feeding my body an adequate proportion of the primary fuel, then nothing is as enjoyable as it could be.

That being said, there's steak for dinner.  

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Zen of Eating

I have been quiet for the past few weeks.  It's not that I've stopped eating, or thinking about food, or enjoying it to the greatest extent possible.  It isn't even my general laziness about everything in life that's keeping me from writing on here.

It's really that I'm having difficulty articulating this next, and extremely important concept of the new mindset I am endeavoring to embrace for the rest of my life.  

The concept is the zen of eating.  

New-Age culture is full of yoga, meditation, tree-hugging, and Zen.  Zen is essentially a philosophy of living in the moment, focusing fully on the here and now, without attaching excessive significance to those things beyond our immediate reach, physically, temporally, or emotionally.  It is not about disregarding circumstances or consequences or living in a la-la-land where what is outside of what we are doing immediately doesn't exist.  But it is about devoting the greater part of our senses and mental energy into whatever we are doing immediately at any given time.  Focus.  Presence.  

In our fast-paced society, where we are doing three or four things at once, focus and presence are forgotten practices, quaint throwbacks to a time in the past when dividing our attention between the television, computer, conversation, and dinner was neither a temptation nor a requirement.  Heck, it wasn't even an option.  But these days, multitasking is the default setting for most of us.  Talking on the phone while driving, texting while out at lunch with a friend, browsing the Web while we run back and forth to the stove to stir the dinner stew, listening to audiobooks to double up "reading" with household chores, and eating in front of the television.  

I am not saying that all of these practices are in themselves bad.  I cannot emphasize the value that audiobooks have in my life, as they allow me to read AND clean at the same time, and they entertain me when I have to drive a long distance.  And, when you have five whole minutes of pure waiting while the stew simmers, connecting with your friends on Facebook or reading your favorite blog is a good use of time.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm not likely to give up multitasking any more than I'm likely to give up eating meat.  But the truth is that dividing our attention does end up not allowing us to delve in full depth into any of the activities that we are attempting to combine into a single chunk of time.  

It is also an unfortunate reality of our time that eating has fallen so far below other "priorities" that many of us seldom do more than take a few minutes to put some food in front of us, and proceed to shove it in our faces to quell hunger pangs while we tend to other "more important" activities, such as driving to the office, working at our desk, checking kids' homework at suppertime, or catching up with our favorite TV shows.  Eating has been relegated to some place below putting on makeup or making sure that Bobby didn't forget his soccer cleats.  

Think of how dumb that is.  Aside from breathing, eating is the most important thing we do.  If you don't breathe, you die.  If you don't eat, you die.  It may take you longer to die from not eating than to die from not breathing, but the ultimate outcome is the same: you die.  

By relegating eating to the role of a background chore, we are downplaying the real importance it has to our lives, and to life in general.  I believe that this is one of the reasons our society is plagued with eating disorders (and overeating IS an eating disorder).  We are not allowing ourselves to notice when we are hungry, what or how much we are eating, and when we have had enough.  

In an effort to enjoy freedom from dieting while avoiding careening out of control like I did between 1995 and 2001 (during which period I gained 60 pounds), I am beginning to understand the importance of bringing eating into its proper place in my life.  I already discussed eating only when hungry in a previous blog entry.  But eating for hunger isn't enough.  I'm discovering how important it is to bring eating into the foreground of my consciousness, every single time.  And the best way I have found to accomplish this is to be Zen while I eat.  

What exactly does this mean?  To me, it means to focus all my senses into the activity of eating, as soon as I decide to do it.  Which usually is as soon as I feel hungry enough to interrupt what I am doing to prepare and consume a meal.  It means that I take a few moments before deciding WHAT to eat, to check in with my body and consult as to the nature and size of my upcoming meal, and sometimes that steak dinner I had thought I wanted actually gets pushed back in favor of the leftover soup.  It involves creating an environment that allows me to focus on my meal without other major impositions on my attention, such as the computer (not eating in front of the TV would require getting a divorce, so I modify that practice).  It means that, when a bite enters my mouth, my job is to pay my full attention to that bite, chewing, tasting, savoring, and swallowing it completely before I proceed to the next bite.  It means being fully present with my food, every time I eat. It means that I make sure that the moment is between me and my food.  Other things and other people fade into the background, other concerns become unimportant to the moment, and eating and enjoying my food is the only thing of any significance right then and there.

It is also a royal pain in the ass.

There are times when I seriously can't be bothered with paying attention to what my body wants, and I am all too ready to just grab what's in front of me, out of sheer laziness.  Separating myself from my laptop for the short time it takes to fuel my body often feels like a feat of superhuman willpower.  And why do I have to wait until I've swallowed this bite before I can put the next one in my mouth? Why can't I have a continuous flow of food from lips to gullet, like I have done my entire life?  

To be honest, there are times when I surrender to my baser impulses and lifelong habits, and I rebel against Zen eating.  But I am always reminded of why I pursue it.  Every single time.  The reminders take the form of indigestion, brain fog, headaches, bloating, and a host of other forms of physical as well as emotional discomfort.  And this form of retribution is much more immediately apparent, since I have been cultivating the habit of being present and aware with my body, when I am eating, and when I am not.

For anyone who has spent decades eating mindlessly, Zen eating takes practice.  One doesn't go from unconscious gobbling to full sensory focus in one day, or even one year.  It takes stumbling and getting back up.  It takes learning to negotiate the balance between a busy life and the need to take time to focus on nourishing yourself.  To someone like me, this is hard work.

But, oh, so worth it.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fall is here: Curry Pumpkin Soup with Kielbasa!

Tonight, I made an awesome curried pumpkin soup with kielbasa. It was embarrassingly easy and oh so awesome.

For two hearty main-course servings:

1 medium onion
2 large shallots
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 15-oz can pumpkin puree (NOT PIE FILLING)
2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 pound fully-cooked kielbasa, diced

In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, sauté onions and shallots in butter until they are soft and golden. Add curry powder and mix thoroughly. Add broth, pumpkin, tomato paste, and soy sauce. Heat thoroughly. Place in blender or food processor, or blend with a stick blender. Add half-and-half and diced kielbasa and warm through.

No photos, alas.  It didn't last long enough for pictures.  It was that good.

One Bite At A Time

Cupcakes are all the rage these days.  Sophisticated urbanites will line up at chi-chi boutique bakeries, for the privilege of paying several dollars to indulge in a single-serving revisitation of an ordinary childhood delight.  Cupcakes have the one-portion pastry appeal without the pretentiousness of a chocolate ganache bombe or a passion-fruit-mousse tartlet on pâte brisée...  Pure, uncomplicated sweet comfort, and you don't even have to open the box of cake mix.  And the best part: no leftovers.

Cupcakes have become so popular that a whole industry has sprung up around them.  Chains such as Crumbs have popped up all over the place.  It is nearly impossible to walk 10 Manhattan blocks without coming across either a franchise or an independently-owned "original" cupcake shop.  Everyone wants a flash back to the third grade.

Except me.

Don't get me wrong.  I enjoy a sweet treat as much as the next person.  I, too,  enjoy the appeal of being transported back to a more carefree time in my life by simply biting into a hand-sized mound of frosted, moist, crumbly goodness.  And I do happen to like cupcakes.  

But, because in recent times I have been operating on limited capacity, I find most cupcakes to be way too big.  I usually start a meal with the more substantial meat-and-veggies dishes.  By the time I'm interested in eating sweets, I rarely have room for more than a few bites.  Modern-trend cupcakes indulge in using oversized mega-muffin tins, are formulated to peak in super-tall mounds, and are frosted with thick layers of a mixture comprising of 100% butter and 100% sugar.  So, appealing as they may seem in theory, the mere thought of having to face such a large dessert is off-putting from the start.  Most of the major cupcake retailers have a few miniature versions of their more popular flavors, but in order to acquire them, you must purchase at least a 6-pack.  Fail on two counts: I resent being strong-armed into settling for the more ordinary flavors just because I don't want to commit to a behemoth cupcake, and if I wanted to buy six goddamn mini-cupcakes, I would have bought a big one instead.

Enter Barrington Bites in Great Barrington, MA.  They specialize EXCLUSIVELY in bite-sized cupcakes.  They do NOT make "full-sized" cakes.  They offer more than 50 flavors, available on order.  When you walk into their location and want a cupcake, you only need to buy one.  Each one is two bites for me, or one modest gobble for Husband.  We had a vanilla chai-spice one and a double chocolate one.  They were both outstanding.  One of the dangers of miniature baked goods is that you have to be very precise about ratios and baking time and temperature, or you will end up with a dry and overbaked cake.  Barrington Bites have a very moist cake that's not excessively dense, the frosting is sweet and fatty, but whipped enough that it doesn't squash the cake, and an ideal balance of cake to frosting.  The flavorings in the batter and frosting were fragrant and intense without being overwhelming.  And they were small enough to eat the whole thing without exceeding my ability to enjoy it.

Here is a small picture I lifted from their website.

Barrington Bites is currently located inside The Chef's Shop in Great Barrington.  I look forward to seeing their business grow enough that I can find them in Boston or Manhattan.

I think the two-bite dessert concept is right on target.  Two-bite brownies have great appeal, but I balk at paying $5 for a box of 25 two-bite brownies.  I'd be happier paying a dollar for a single one.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Joy of Baking With Julia

In the fall of 2001, I stopped baking bread.  Which wouldn't be such a remarkable event, had I not spent the previous 5 years exploring and perfecting the art of bread-baking, until such challenges as sourdough and bagels were a cinch, and a daily event.

But, as I mentioned before, in the fall of 2001, I entered the realm of low-carb eating.  Even when I wasn't "on-plan," I still did not indulge in the earthy pleasure of mixing, kneading, rising, baking, cooling, slicing, and eating yeast-dough based concoctions.  For the better part of a decade, I deprived myself and my loved ones of the exquisite aroma that can only be achieved by baking fresh bread at home.

Still, it was not without trepidation that I re-entered the world of bread-baking.  Kind of silly, actually, since bread baking is EASY.  I guess my general mental laziness was raising pre-emptive objections to the time-consuming, detail-oriented nature of the task, not to mention having to clean up the floured counter more than once.

I had read somewhere on the Internet about a "no-knead bread" recipe.  Although it seemed like an ideal way to reacquaint myself with the wonders of bread-baking, I was skeptical at first.  I believed that kneading was necessary in order to achieve any sort of edible texture.  But the general consensus in the recipe reviews was that this recipe was a winner.  I figured that if it sucked, all I lost was 3 cups of flour and a pinch of salt and yeast.   The biggest part of the process is waiting 12-18 hours for the first rise, and 2 hours for the second rise, so it does take quite a bit of advance planning if you want to have fresh bread for breakfast.

The bread was simply awesome.  Crusty, chewy, rustic like those loaves you get at overpriced artisanal bakeries.  It has a hearty crumb, and a sourdough-like flavor that belies the simplicity of the preparation.  Heavenly with fresh butter, and even better dipped in olive oil.  Husband and I devoured half a loaf immediately.  It also serves well to make sandwiches, French toast, or bread pudding.  It's great as an accompaniment to a warm bowl of soup on a chilly evening.  Spread a thin layer of Nutella on it and you're transported back to Paris, whether you've ever been there or not.


Here's a couple of pictures of my first finished loaf:

Still, lovely as this bread is, it doesn't replace the square slices we are used to when it comes to making lunchbox sandwiches.  For that, I was going to have to use a traditional, kneaded-bread recipe.  I did a lot of searching on the internet for the best white sandwich bread recipe.  There are literally millons of recipes out there.  I needed something that didn't have oats, or rye, or potato flour, or anything that I didn't already have in my kitchen.

Luck would have it that I had all the ingredients for JULIA CHILD'S WHITE BREAD recipe, from the book "Baking with Julia."  Good old Julia.  I know from experience that, if you follow her recipes to the letter, you will not be disappointed in the results.  Seriously.  The first Julia Child recipe I ever tried was her hand-beaten Hollandaise, on a lovely Easter Sunday after having survived the wringer of Holy Week services at an Episcopal church.  Julia came through with her Hollandaise.  Seriously, her recipes cannot fail.

Back to the bread.  This recipe, like most typical kneaded loaves, takes upwards of three hours to make from start to finish.  And, unlike the no-knead bread, ignoring it for a long time isn't part of the process.  Yes, there is waiting involved, but you can't walk away from home or go to sleep while the bread rises.

The final result was worthy of Saint Julia.  Soft texture, even crumb, delicate flavor that carries fillings without overwhelming them.  It made an awesome chicken salad sandwich for me, and some really really lovely toast for Husband's fried eggs and bacon.

Here is a picture:
The only downside to this recipe is that it turns out two large loaves.  This is good if you have a large family taking sandwiches to work and school on a daily basis.  Husband and I don't eat enough bread to finish even one loaf in the space of a week.  Next time, I'll halve the recipe.  Fortunately, we have a houseguest coming to visit this week, and we can send him home with the excess.

Both of these recipes are total keepers.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Boundless Possibilities, Limited Capacity

Today was the first nice day in a while.  Or, at least it seemed so, because the last time the sun was out, I had to be at work.  But today was a Saturday, and it was that sunny, cool autumn weather, perfect for a drive out in the country, especially with the top down--one of the rare advantages of living out in the middle of nowhere.  Our original destination was eastern CT, but we took a detour through Newtown, to visit the recently open branch of The Meat House.  "Your Neighborhood Butcher," they call themselves.  But they are that and so much more.  Although their main focus is the butcher counter, they also carry a broad array of fresh local vegetables, artisanal cheeses, locally produced homemade soups, pasta sauces, dips, baked goods, dairy products, and much more.  Their staff is knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and their prices are, surprisingly, not unreasonable considering the quality they offer.

Husband and I, foodies that we are, were thrilled to have discovered this gem in our backyard.  We were tempted to buy pretty much one of everything.  The tomatoes were so red and fragrant.  The soups looked custom-made for a chilly fall evening.  Spices, brownies, ice cream...  and, of course, the meats.

It took all our self-restraint to walk away with only one pound of bacon, a bag of baby brussels sprouts, and one miniature apple pie.  Oh, and they gifted us with a sample of their marinated steak tips.

After a lifetime of restricted eating, and the recent entry into a world of unlimited choices, it is easy to go a bit crazy buying all of those foods that you have been meaning to try for years.  Husband and I went through a phase during which we were overwhelmed with a backlog of food ideas that we wanted to implement.  You name it, we wanted (and still want) to make it.  Our fridge was fast filling up with all sorts of foods, many of which shamefully ended up tossed because we didn't get around to them.  Others are still cluttering the freezer.

Not to mention the myriad restaurants that are now open to me.

However, since I am endeavoring to eat only when hungry, the reality is that my opportunities to realize all of these culinary and gastronomic concepts is seriously curtailed.  I experience hunger twice, or perhaps three times a day.  And this hunger is usually satisfied with a small to moderate amount of food.  The idea of a dinner consisting of an appetizer, main dish with sides, and dessert is, frankly, not very appealing most days.

The upshot of this is that I have to be very particular when choosing the foods I eat.  I am a realist, and acknowledge that, if hunger is the primary criterion I consider when eating, there will be times when hunger and scheduling will trump preference, and I'll end up eating at McDonald's.  And that's okay.  The majority of the time, I make sure that every bite I eat is a worthwhile experience.  I choose high-quality ingredients, prepare them with care and respect, and try to focus fully on what's on my plate when I do sit down to a meal.

It doesn't have to be complicated or hifalutin.  It simply has to be fucking awesome.  A plain ham and butter sandwich can be perfection itself when the elements are of the best quality, and when it is consumed with total attention.  Just as the fanciest meal can be a waste of time and energy when it's prepared without attention to detail and eaten in a hurry, because we are focused on the next thing that's cluttering up our minds, or are multitasking and eating in front of the TV or computer.

Since the opportunities and capacity are limited, I might as well experience boundless enjoyment from the few things I can chose at one time.