Thursday, December 2, 2010

On Dry Aging Meat at Home: A Photo Essay

This past Thanksgiving weekend, I was subjected to an unexpected visit from parents who live in another country, and whom I hadn't seen in four years.  

The merits or liabilities of such an event aside, part of the visit involved, of course, feasting in a grand manner.  

On their last evening in NYC, my parents took my brother and his wife and daughter, Husband, and me to The Post House for a farewell dinner.  This is one of New York City's most renowned steakhouses, and, as far as my father is concerned, a dining Mecca.  They specialize in dry aged steaks, and they charge a serious price for them.

"Dry aged beef."  What a buzzword.  We see it bandied about everywhere, from medium to top-priced restaurants, often worn as a badge of honor.  

But do we really known what dry aging really means?

These steakhouses would have us believe that dry aging is some arcane secret, only available to those who have received extensive training, have complicated equipment, and therefore are allowed to charge mere mortals outrageous prices for the privilege of feasting on the product of their sorcery.  They want you to believe that if you were to try doing it at home, it would kill you.

If that were the case, Husband and I would have been dead a year ago.

The reality is that dry aging is easy.  You need meat, a rack, and a fridge.  And patience.

Dry aging is the art of turning an ordinary piece of meat into a sublime experience by putting it in the fridge and ignoring it for a minimum of three weeks. The meat will lose some moisture, which will concentrate and intensify the flavor. Also, the enzymes inside the meat will begin to break down the fibers, and tenderize the meat. The less polite definition is that dry aged meat is just meat that is in the early stages of decomposition, but it is controlled decomposition.

Here is what I do:

1. Make room in the refrigerator for a large rectangular rack. Mine is a double-tier 11" x 17" cookie cooling rack. It MUST be a rack, because you want the meat to have air around it all the time.
I can fit a slab of strip loin and a slab of ribeye on this rack and age them simultaneously.

2. Get a full slab of beef from your local meat provider. Costco carries some lovely varieties. I have aged ribeye, strip (top loin) and sirloin.  It can be bone-in or boneless.  If you want to make prime rib for Christmas, then bone-in is nicer. Prime grade is nice, but Choice grade turns out just as delicious after the aging process. You want the WHOLE piece in the cryovac plastic wrapper. It will be about 15 pounds. Bring it home.

3. Unwrap the meat in your sink, and dry it off completely with paper towels.

4. Place the meat on the rack in the refrigerator, bone-side down if bone-in.  I do fat-side down if boneless.  It drips less into the bottom of the fridge, or the meat that's in the bottom rack.

5. Here comes the hard part: Ignore the meat for a minimum of 3 weeks (the longest I've had a steak aging was 9-1/2 weeks, but that was the end of a slab that we started cutting into after four weeks). It will get ugly on the outside, really ugly: dark, dry, even a bit moldy. Do not fear. This is nature creating a wrapper of beef jerky to protect the tender steak inside.

6. When you are ready to eat the meat, slice off from the end however much you need. It can be a single steak, or it can be the whole slab for a big party.  The inside of the meat will have turned a lovely deep burgundy.  


Here you can see the contrast between the scary outside and the succulent inside:

7. Trim off the leathery outside from the meat.

The scraps look like this:

If you have a dog, feed him the scraps, and he will love you forever.


8. Now you are ready to cook the steaks. This takes some experimentation, until you get the hang of it. Dry aged meat has less water than fresh meat, so it will cook faster. You will need to play with the temperature of your oven or stove, or the setting on your grill. For a prime rib roast, I would say to sear the outside at 500º F for 15 minutes, and then roast slowly at 325º or 300º until it reaches an internal temperature of about 125. If you don't have a meat thermometer, get one. IKEA sells a lovely (if fragile) one for about seven bucks. Don't do the usual 135º F recommended for non dry aged meat.  Your roast will dry out and you will be very upset.

Here is a trimmed 2-bone, bone-in ribeye roast.  It can feed anywhere from 2-5 people, depending on appetite levels and how much other food you are serving.
Here is the roast, cooked:
Here is the roast, sliced:
Dinner is served:
Bon appétit!

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.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Cornish Game Hens in Wine Sauce: A Video Recipe

Here is a recipe I produced 4 years ago, and which I may make again soon, because it is so yummy.  If you can't find the little cans of wine, you can use the small-size cans of V-8 or clam juice, rinsed thoroughly and filled with wine.

In Defense of Comfort Food

Last night, I ended up not going to bed until 2 a.m.  This morning, I had to get up and trudge to work, sit in a horrid office with out of control AC and cantankerous software, and curse out the stupid database writers who have no comprehension of what a classical music lover needs when organizing a large CD collection. I had very little sleep, woke up late and in a hurry, and was generally unsettled most of the day.  I knew it would be a short day at work, so I didn't bother with lunch.  Plus, I had a slight tickle in my throat.

Last night's blog entry, Food Is Not Your Dog, was all about how it's not a good idea to turn to food to address emotional issues.  I am of the firm opinion that the only time when it's really appropriate to eat is when your body is in need of fuel, although I'm not above engaging in my occasional bouts of inappropriateness in this and other areas of life.

"Don't comfort yourself with food" is one of the maxims by which I am endeavoring to live.  "Eat only when hungry," as expounded on another entry.  But although I am firmly against comforting oneself with food, this does not mean at all that I am against the concept of comfort food.

There are those times when we are both emotionally or situationally unsettled AND in need of food.  A household move.  Exam time.  A family bereavement.  A fight with your spouse.  At times such as these is when what we think as "comfort food" comes in.

Chicken soup, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches with cream of tomato.  Chicken pot pie, beef stew, scrambled eggs and toast, or even a bowl of plain white rice or mashed potatoes.  When our minds and hearts are feeling too taxed by life, that is what we crave as fuel.  Food that is undemanding of our senses or effort.  Easy to eat, easy to digest, without much complication in the way of flavor, texture, or even color.  Food that is easy on the mind as well as on the gut.  Food that will gently nourish your body when you are hungry, so that you can get on with the business of facing whatever troubles you when you are not.

Food is Not Your Dog

I've had a seriously crappy evening.  Even though it wasn't necessarily up there vying for first place with some other craptacular days of my life, it's the kind of day that makes you want to run for the hills and never come back.

For starters, I seem to have misplaced a crucial piece of paperwork, which would have apprised me of a very important deadline--which I may or may not have missed.  Then, Husband came home in a foul mood, which was compounded by the issue of the missing paperwork and the uncertainty over the deadline.  I got a repeat invoice for some home repair work I already paid, and it looks like it's going to rain for the next three days, which will cut into my dog walking time...

To top it all off, I was made aware of the fact that I had become the object of unprovoked vitriol and personal attacks by people with whom I had parted ways some time ago...

How can so many crappy things come crashing down in such a short time?

I was actually quite upset and rattled, especially when I learned of the attacks against me.  Who made them and what they said is frankly immaterial, and relevant only insofar as it upset me.

In the past, I would have considered this kind of a day as a valid reason to order a large pizza, and eat it by myself, washed down with a bottle of wine.  I would have used my emotional upset as an excuse to eat a whole bag of cookies and at least two quarts of milk.  Or, at the very least, I would have made myself one very large, strong, and sugary girly drink to "settle my nerves."

I did nothing of the sort.  Not that the thought of the bottle of wine or the strong girly drink didn't cross my mind, but I got distracted and never got around to it.  As for eating?  Well, I wasn't hungry.  I had already had dinner.  Yes, all this crap came down in the space of about an hour, after I had already had a long and frustrating day dealing with poorly designed, glitchy data editing software.

I chatted with friends, I worked on this blog, I folded laundry and listened to a book on my iPod, I made peace with Husband, and I hugged my dog.  After a while, I felt much better.  If I had followed through on the pizza or the cookies or a myriad other similar options, I would have been just as upset as before, plus I'd be feeling the effects of abusing my body with an excess of unnecessary food.  I am so done with that.

Food is not your friend to listen to you.  That pizza will not join you in being angry at those who wronged you.  That gallon of ice cream won't tell you that stupid joke that's sure to make you smile.  Those cookies will not put their arms around you and let you cry it out, nor will that bag of chocolate candies lick the tears off your face.

Food is not your dog.  And I bet your dog is glad that he is not your food.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Eat Only When Hungry

So, at the start of this summer (2010, for the record), I lifted all eating restrictions on myself.  I would from this moment forward face all food as equally valuable in its nourishing qualities.  I would remove the judgments of "good for me" or "bad for me."  I would eat when I liked, what I liked, however much I liked.

This isn't the first time I've attempted this.  Between 1995 and 2001, I adopted a "fat-accepting" and "no-diet" stance on life.  It netted me a gain of 10 pounds per year (that's 60 pounds of pure fat, for those of you who are math challenged).  I was sure fat-accepting.  I was accepting fat to settle itself upon my hips and belly like there was no tomorrow.  I became a firm supporter of the plus-size store cause... to the tune of a new, larger size every single year.  I would try to tell myself that this was "natural fallout" from "quitting dieting."  But I knew deep down that something was seriously wrong if I was doing that to myself when I wasn't restricting what I ate.

Enter low-carb in 2001.  It did help me shed most of the gains from the previous 6 years, but I sure as heck ain't skinny from it.  Upping the ante and going all the way down to zero carb did NOTHING to help me in the size reduction department, as I already mentioned.  To preserve my sanity, I was going to have to do something else, and I decided that this time, it would involve embracing all foods as worthy partners in my self-care efforts.

But, this time, I realized I needed to approach the no-diet mindset with caution if I wanted to avoid ending up in disaster like the last time.  At first, the only logical answer seemed to be to keep tabs on my eating, using a nutritional tracking website.  Of course, it's impossible to keep track of such matters if you don't use a kitchen scale and measuring tools.  At first it seemed like I was working on a puzzle, where I could fit whatever kind of piece (food) I wanted, as long as I stayed within a certain range.  I was having fun.  But it quickly turned into an exercise in OCD, where I fixated on the numbers more and more, and was feeling hungrier and more deprived, regardless of what or how much I actually ate.

So, I ditched the measuring tools and tracking website.  I was going to have to learn to trust myself.


Seriously, the prospect of this had me cowering in fear.  The notion that I would have to learn to navigate the world of eating without training wheels made me shake in my Converse hi-tops. But I also realized that learning to balance was PRECISELY about moving forward without the training wheels.  And I also realized that I was not entirely without tools.

One of the good things I got from my time as a zero carber was the habit of eating only when hungry, and of being genuinely disinterested in food when I wasn't hungry.  When you're eating only meat, this is actually easy.  You have to be goddamn hungry in order to be willing to eat a naked steak with no sides.  Still, I noticed that this habit carried over, even as I added more variety to my daily menu.

There is the common-sense dictum: "eat when hungry, stop when full."  Seems simple enough, no?  Not really.  A large number of people (and a number of large people) have NO CLUE what hunger is, much less fullness. I felt that I had an advantage having learned genuine hunger during my year as an exclusive carnivore.

Fullness?  A bit trickier.  When I ate only meat, I would keep eating until the next bite seemed a disgusting impossibility.  This never left me feeling uncomfortably stuffed.  Only unable to face another bite (of meat).  However, it is now obvious to me that this was an inadequate way to gauge when it was time to stop eating.

The only logical thing to do was to stop eating when I was no longer hungry.  Note that this doesn't mean "full."  It simply means "not hungry."  In a hunger scale of 1-10, in which 1 is "passed out from low blood glucose" and 10 means "can't breathe or I'll puke," "not hungry" is right there between 5 and 6.  It's that neutral state between meals, in which you wouldn't stop what you are doing in order to stuff your face.

Most of us don't stop eating until we've reached a 7 or 8.  When I was a kid, I'd push it all the way to 10.5 if I could get away with it...

But it struck me that, if I was no longer hungry, I shouldn't continue eating.

Shit.  I don't want to stop eating when I'm just "not hungry."

"But it tastes so good."  Get over it, there'll be something just as awesome if not better in front of you next time you actually ARE hungry.

"But what if I get hungry again?"  Then eat again when you are hungry.  It's that simple.

"But I've already paid for it, and if I don't eat it it will go to waste."  It can go to waste, or it can go to waist.  Your choice.  Or would you prefer to do the job of the trash can?

So, here is what I have been practicing recently: eat until no longer hungry (5 or 6 on the hunger scale), and wait 10-15 minutes.  If, during that time, hunger returns. eat some more.  If it doesn't return, then I don't eat again.   Usually, I remain satiated for at least 6 hours after I do this.

If hunger returns an hour or two after dinner, then it's time for dessert.

I have to admit that the hardest part of this for me is to cease the consumption of delicious food (because I make sure everything I eat is fucking awesome) while I am still capable of enjoying it.  The only thing that helps me is the knowledge that, if I get hungry again, I can eat again, whatever I like, without feeling any fear or guilt.

And, I can say that it is working.  I can eat when I am hungry, and I can eat whatever I like.  In the few months that I have been doing this, I have been slowly digging clothes out of the "too small" box, rather than enduring the misery of ever tighter clothing, holding out until the blubber was spilling over my waistband, like the last time I tried "not dieting."

A freakin' miracle.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Life's Too Short to Live Without Chocolate

The little box below my Facebook profile photo says:
I've been down many a culinary and dietary road, and, in the final analysis, I've decided that life's too short to live without chocolate.
It would appear as if chocolate itself was my gateway drug back into the world of carbohydrate consumption.  Actually, it was sushi.  But, I digress.

Life IS too short to live without chocolate.  

There are people who claim not to like chocolate.  Generally, I think they are total freaks, but I try not to say it to their face.  All I can say is that they are missing out in some seriously delicious stuff.  Their loss.

I used to be all about sweet, creamy, milk chocolate, and I would gobble it in very large quantities.  Somehow, the older I get, the darker I like it.  My preference right now runs in the 72-75% range.  I think it has much to do with the fact that I no longer eat chocolate in large amounts, but rather I take the time to savor one small piece at a time.  When I do this, the sweeter confections taste excessively sugary, with not enough of the important stuff: chocolate.

Since my return to omnivory in late May of 2010, I have explored many varieties of chocolate: bars, truffles, dipped Oreo cookies, peanut butter cups, flourless chocolate torte, ice cream, even a Snickers bar after a strenuous hike up Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park.  Hot chocolate, brownies, pain au chocolat, and, most recently, dulce de leche brownies.  Oh, yeah, and Nutella.  

Contrary to what one may be led to believe from the above list, I do not consume chocolate every day.  But when I do, I make sure it's worth the experience.  Actually, I do that with 95% of the food I choose to eat these days (I estimate that 5% of the time, I will settle for a less-than-stellar gastronomic experience in favor of not passing out).  

Since chocolate, indispensable as it is, usually does not find its way into my body as primary fuel, I can afford to be picky about it 100% of the time.  If the first bite doesn't meet my standards for awesomeness,  the second bite usually doesn't happen.  Even if that means throwing away 9/10 of a $6 pastry.  I'd rather throw out five bucks in the trash than have my body do the job of the trash can.  I don't even see it as throwing money out.  I see it as a $6 lesson in which pastry not to buy again.  And, as lessons go, that's a pretty inexpensive one.

A month ago, Husband and I went to an Argentinian restaurant, where I bought a jar of authentic dulce de leche.  For a month, the jar sat in the cupboard, waiting for me to get inspired to use it in something.  So, I decided to use it in brownies.  For the brownie base, I used an adaptation of the Ghirardelli brownie recipe that I developed in grad school, when I was out of Ghirardelli powder and had only plain Hershey's cocoa. You can use any kind of cocoa powder.  If you use Dutch cocoa, such as Droste, you will have a deeper, richer flavor, but plain Hershey's cocoa will yield a perfectly scrumptious brownie.

I use a round pan for more even cooking.  

Here is the recipe:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 4 oz butter, melted (I use salted butter.  If using unsalted butter, add a pinch of salt)
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour (DO NOT SIFT)
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1 cup dulce de leche

Preheat oven to 350º Fahrenheit.

Line a the bottom of a 9" pan (round or square, whatever you have) with nonstick foil or parchment

In a large bowl, mix eggs, sugar and vanilla.  Add melted butter.  In a separate bowl, mix flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder.  Slowly add dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, mixing thoroughly.  Add the chocolate chips and mix well.  Pour half the batter into pan.  Scatter spoonfuls of dulce de leche into the batter, until you have used about half a cup.  Use a knife to swirl the dulce slightly into the batter.  Pour the second half of the batter, and repeat the dulce de leche application.  

Put pan in the oven and bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes, until it is slightly set in the center.  Cool thoroughly before serving.

This is a very rich dessert, best consumed in small quantities, alongside a glass of cold milk.  I tried it with vanilla ice cream.  Too much.

And, because I'm a picture ho:

Welcome Back to the World of the Eating

After 15 months eating only meat, occasional eggs, a bit of butter, and altogether too much coffee with heavy whipping cream, the large majority of my friends were most delighted when I announced that I was returning to the world of omnivory.

But this wasn't even a "return."  I NEVER was allowed (or allowed myself) to consume all foods without judgment.  Food was always "good" or "bad."  If it tasted too good, it couldn't possibly be good for you.  So, whenever I was "off my diet," I was indiscriminately inhaling anything that crossed my path, as long as I could breathe.  Whether I was hungry didn't matter.  Whether it was what I really wanted was of no import.  Whether it even tasted any good was no concern of mine.  If I wasn't "on my diet" and it was in front of me, I ate it.  Furthermore, there was never a bite eaten that wasn't judged for its value in contributing to or detracting from my "health" (read = assfatness).  Enjoyment was less a part of the equation than playing the role of obedient soldier or recalcitrant rebel by my eating choices.  Jekyll/Hyde.  And who was which depended on whether I was "on" or "off" whatever "eating plan" I was pursuing or not.

I see this period of my life as my initial entry into the world of guilt-free gastronomic delectation.  Because never before in my life have I approached food, all food, as a vehicle for nourishing myself in an integral fashion.

As a housewarming gift into my new "home" of culinary and gastronomic freedom, my friend Dorene sent me a lovely collection of cookbooks.  The centerpiece of this most awesome gift is the 1973 printing of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1."  Seeing as Julie Powell already did the blogging about Julia thing, I'll let that one lie on its own merits.  All I can say about Julia is that any recipe of hers that I have ever tried actually worked very well.

I am looking forward to puttering around in this new playground that is the marvelous world of freedom in feeding myself.

Not Just Another Foodie Blog

Foodie blogs abound all over the Internet.  There are blogs about cooking, about restaurants, about gross packaged scary foods.  If you can eat it, someone's written about it.  So, why do another one?  Why am I so special?

I'm a fat girl.  I've been a fat girl since puberty.  I've been an overeater since I can remember.  There doesn't seem to have been a time in my life in which I haven't fought with my weight and my size and my eating.

Until now.

After a 15-month stint on a very strict, all-meat regimen, which, when I am honest with myself, I was following in a desperate hope to become magically lean, I was still just as fat when I started.  In that year and a quarter of eschewing all carbohydrate consumption, my net loss of body fat was a big fat zero.  I lost a bit at first, and then it all came back when I tried to speed things up by eating only one meal a day.  Craziness.

Zero carb had promised me the miracle of absolution from calorie math.  It did not deliver on this promise.

I realized one very simple fact that I was refusing to see: if you eat too much, it has to go somewhere.  In my case, that somewhere was my gut, thighs, and ass.  If you want those bulky appendages to become more streamlined, you have to reduce the sheer volume of what you stuff down your gullet.

Despite the fact that I did have tons of fun eating assloads of meat at a sitting, I stared with dismay at the simple reality of life.  I was not one of the lucky ones who can be absolved from calorie math simply by restricting intake to only one kind of substance.

And, since keeping tabs on the volume of food I was snarfing was now a requirement, choosing my food from only 0.0005% of edible matter completely ceased to make any sense whatsoever.  If I have to manage the amounts I eat anyway, I might as well eat what I like.

But this is not another diet blog.  Quite the opposite.  After the year-plus on zero carb, the last thing I want to do is diet.

Neither do I want to abuse myself with gratuitous excess.

And here is where I am at: seeking to find internal balance while acknowledging and embracing my consuming passion for food (or is that my passion for consuming food?).  In fact, I am seeking this internal balance BY MEANS of my enjoyment in food, cooking, and eating.

In her most recent book, "Women, Food, and God," Geneen Roth says that basically everything about how you relate to the Universe can be elucidated from the way you relate to the food on your plate.  It seems a little simplistic at first glance, but, when you examine the statement, she hits the nail right on the head.  Eating is the most basic way in which we avail ourselves of the resources from the Universe.  When this relationship is out of balance, we find ourselves out of balance, too.

In this blog, I will be writing primarily about food and eating, but this, of course, relates to everything else I do in life.  Recipes, restaurants, reflections, ponderings, and a bit of this and that thrown in.

One bite at a time.