"Perhaps the most impressive of all the cookbook blogs are the three devoted to the 2004 edition of Gourmet magazine's "The Gourmet Cookbook" -- all 5¼ pounds and 1,300-odd recipes of it. Befitting this culinary Everest, all three writers are overachievers in their professional lives."

--Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2008
"I should have told you before how much I've been enjoying reading your thoughts. You seem like such a great cook."

--Ruth Reichl, Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet Magazine, June 8 2008, comment on "Chocolate Velvet Ice Cream".

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Homemade Sausage Patties

Take that, Jimmy Dean

I've finally learned how they make the sausage. 

Okay, not in the sense that they use it at work, when engineers start talking about code (I'll never learn how to make THAT sausage), but in the full-on breakfast kind of way, with eggs and bacon and maybe some sliced tomatoes on the side. 

Why don't more people make their own sausage? Maybe it's because there seems to be some technical stuff involved (grinders, sausage casing, and a big hand crank maybe?) and I suppose that's true if you want to make that kind of sausage...but Homemade Sausage Patties are just as simple as making mix-in hamburgers. 

What's involved? It's the same idea as a good meatloaf--some breadcrumbs soaked in milk, some chopped onion, some egg yolks. What makes it sausage is the spice profile--salt, white pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cayenne, cloves, thyme and sage. 

Mix it up, fry it in a pan, and you've got a breakfast to be proud of.

Sausages have been around FOREVER. They show up in pretty much every country, in various guises--fresh, smoked, cured, canned. And if you've ever been to a farmer's market or butchery where they sell their own, you know they lend themselves to flavor experimentation. 

In a parallel universe, I'm a food diva extraordinaire, having mastered all artisan food and beverage groups: chocolate, cheese, wine, beer, smoked and cured meats, even salt. Sausage falls into this fantasy. But since I'm here (and not in the parallel universe...at least I don't think), I'll settle for this fairly simple hack.

Crossing this recipe off the list brings another gratification--Homemade Sausage Patties is a recipe from the Yellow Book, The Gourmet Cookbook. That means I've been flipping past it for about five years now. It's sort of like a neglected child that FINALLY got some attention for once. 

Oh, and let me give some love to Tendercrop Farm, where I got the ground pork! This place raises grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free animals, bakes a lot of good food, and grows fabulous veggies. They have a store that's open year-round and sells everything an aspiring locavore might be looking for. If you're in or around Newbury, MA, check them out. 

Thanks to Yesterday on Tuesday: Field Trip  for the great sausage pic.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Apricot Chicken with Almonds

Gone in 60 seconds

One of those days when you're feeling uninspired and don't want to go to the store for dinner food? Cheer up, you probably have the ingredients for Apricot Chicken with Almonds kicking around in your kitchen.

Continuing with my theme of quick and easy dinners for lazy but slightly ambitious people (a theme, by the way, that Gourmet Today champions), here's how to put this meal together. Start with the breast meat (thaw it out first, if frozen). Rinse tenderly, pat dry, and snuggle into a baking dish after salting and peppering both sides. Put in a preheated 400 oven for 10 minutes.

The recipe tells you at the same time to bake sliced almonds in this same 400 oven for about 8 minutes, stirring a few times. Ha! This is a recipe for burnt almonds in about 6, which is exactly what I did. Ironically, I was standing right over the stove reading a book called The Gift of Fear, which is all about how you should trust your intuition when it's telling you something bad is happening. And while I was reading this book, I was smelling the almonds burning (remember, I was standing RIGHT OVER THE STOVE) thinking, Geez, something's burning off in there. Does this mean I have to clean the oven? I hate cleaning the oven. 

So much for intuition. I can only hope I never get attacked by a tray of burning almonds.

Assuming YOU don't burn your almonds, forge onward, but if you do--hey, really any kind of nut will be tasty with this dish! I went for a Plan B of whole almonds and chopped hazelnuts.

At the same time (maybe you should put the book down at this point) in a small saucepan combine about half a cup of apricot preserves (I used peach), a tablespoon of whole grain mustard (I scraped out the tail end of a jar of brown deli mustard), one and a half tablespoons of soy sauce, and a tablespoon of butter. Let it all simmer for a bit in the pan, and when the chicken has cooked for its 10 minutes, pour the glaze over it and throw back in for another 10.

At this point I looked ahead in the recipe and saw that these little 6 oz chicken breasts were cooking for 20 minutes in a 400 oven and then another 3 minutes under the broiler. I was a little worried, I confess. But, you know, I do have a category in this blog called Stupid Recipes--if this one qualified I could always file it there.

Worry, that useless emotion! All for naught--this chicken was just fine--tasty and a smash hit with the guys. If I were doing it again, I might pay a little more attention to the broiler part--I didn't baste anything or try to get a nice browned glaze--we were too hungry and wanted to eat.

And I think I would make this again--we always seem to have chicken breasts in the freezer, and lord knows we always have mustard (we're like collectors) and odds and ends of jellies and jams. Cherry preserves would work just as well, so would red currant jelly. And don't worry this will be too sweet--the mustard provides a nice balance.


I don't know why I waited so long to read this book. For the five years I trained at the Mahaney's Karate Academy, Deb Mahaney recommended it at every women's self defense seminar. And Sensei Quimby has it on his list of recommended reading at the Authentic Karate Training Center. Gavin de Becker survived a violent and tumultuous childhood to create a firm dedicated to helping people recognize the signs and signals of the violent and potentially violent--predators, stalkers, workplace time bombs, spouses and lovers, even children.

Learn common techniques of would-be attackers: forced teaming ("We're in a tight fix, aren't we?"), loan sharking (insisting on helping or giving when nothing was wanted or requested), too many details (because their words sound false to them, they add extraneous info).

Assess the potential for a persistant lunatic to actually turn to violence: justification (they feel this is right and just); alternatives (they've exhausted all other means); consequences (violence is seen as bringing about positive consequences--love, fame, attention); ability (they've purchased or have a weapon and feel they can use it effectively).

And most importantly, learn about your tools, highly tuned after centuries of species survival. The messengers of intuition:

Nagging feelings
Persistant thoughts
Gut Feelings

This book is packed with practical advice and anecdotes from de Becker's firm. He was called in to testify at the O.J. Simpson trial, and has helped protect countless celebrities and even presidents. They fund a battered women's shelter and hotline in Los Angeles, and advise employers on HR issues.

And here's the second gift inside this book--it helps you understand the difference between fear, anxiety and worry, what's real and what isn't.

Get this book, read it, and pass it on.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Veal Scallops with Lemons and Capers

I'm not sure, but I think this picture is in 3-D

Hi folks, and Happy New Year from Rockport, MA, where it's raining. Very strange for 12/31 in New England! But I'll take it over snow. 

I've decided to take a vow of internet moderation when I'm at home, which hopefully means I'll be doing more things like cooking, blogging about cooking, writing, reading, and maybe even a little housework from time to time. Kind of crazy!! And doing less things like swimming in the river of Facebook, shopping on ideeli and Fab, reading the news on the NYT and Slate (and Google Reader and popurls) and downloading porn. KIDDING. Just checking to see if you were still paying attention. 

Anyway, I actually cooked a dinner last night, which involved planning and stuff. Well done me! Since I had some veal scallopine in the freezer, I settled on Veal Scallops with Lemons and Capers, which since it also involves butter and white wine makes it pretty much the perfect flavor combo. Why don't they have gum with these flavors? Or at least popcorn? COME ON AMERICA GET IT RIGHT.

If you're feeling kind of ambitious but are really actually sort of lazy at heart this is the perfect dinner for you! Here's how you do it. Melt butter in a pan with some olive oil, and fry two or three pieces of veal scallopine that you've dredged in flour. Don't wander off to watch TV--these cook fast. Cook on both sides, and put them on a plate or something in a warm oven. Warm means like 135 degrees.

When you've cooked all the veal and it's staying warm in the oven, pour the white wine and chicken broth in the pan to deglaze and let it reduce for a bit, to about 1/3 cup. Then add butter, 3 tbsp, and let it melt. MMM BUTTER. Then throw in some drained capers, sliced lemons, and chopped parsley and swirl it all around together, and admire your mad mad culinary skillz. 

Time to eat! Pour the sauce on top of the veal! Add some salt and even pepper! Glory in the deliciousness that you've created! By the way, the lemons are actually not really edible unless you're super drunk or stoned. If you are, go for it! Don thought they were yellow summer squash and nibbled at one, but since he wasn't drunk or stoned, he figured it out pretty quick. 

Hey, what's up with the possibly 3-D picture above? Well, I got a new camera for Christmas (thanks Maddi and Don!!) and IT TAKES PICTURES IN 3-D. Now I just have to figure out how to view them in 3-D! Do I need special glasses? A new computer? Will it make me want to lick my monitor? 

Stay tuned, dear and lovely readers! And have a great effing year! 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Songs of 2011: music to cook (and do other things) by

I will be eternally grateful for my brother-in-law, John Waters, for introducing me to Radio Paradise. This internet radio station is lovingly curated by a California couple, and I've found some great stuff through their eclectic sets. 

So in the spirit of "Best of 2011" as we slouch towards the end of the year, here are some of my musical favorites from the past 11 months, discovered on Radio Paradise. And (as you'll discover)--this music wasn't necessarily released in 2011, but 2011 is when I found it. So now, in no particular order, 28 of my faves of the songs I've sung, danced, worked, cooked, driven and memorized the words to this year. 

1. Tropicalia by Beck
I know, it came out in 1998 but it counts (to me anyway). Fun, upbeat and quirky.

2. That Man by Caro Emerald
Sexy and so stylish, this neo-forties tune is totally danceable.

3. Ride by Liz Phair
I used to say this prayer when I was a kid and it scared the hell out of me. Of course, I didn't say it exactly like this, but maybe I should have.

4. Sticks and Stones by The Pierces
All I can say is: Girl Power.

5. Days Go On by Greg Laswell
This song is perfect for driving at night, on a dark highway.

6. Fishies by Cat Empire
Stand-up bass, castenets, piano, horn section and a reference to Homer's Odyssey, all wrapped around a song about a beautiful woman on a dance floor. Seriously, what's not to love here?

7. Mixed Bizness by Beck
Beck, where have you been all my life? How did I miss you? This retro-70s tune could not be more perfectly crafted for the dance floor.

8. Oh My My by Jill Barber
For some reason this reminds me of The Lime and The Coconut song, but 10K times better. Catchy.

9. Senegal Fast Food by Amadou and Mariam
I like to listen to songs in French even though I can only understand random phrases and words. But it makes me optimistic that I'll actually be fluent someday if I can sing along.

10. The Devil's Paintbrush Road by The Wailin' Jennys
Mandolin? Uke? Not sure exactly, but this song is easy to sing along to. Okay, it's not the cheeriest song, but who cares?

11. Unsquare Dance by Dave Brubeck
Brilliantly mesmerizing in 7/8 time, whatever that is. Well, I guess it's this song. YOU figure it out.

12. Gone Man by The Eels
A lot of these songs are linked in my mind to moving to a new dojo. This song was how I felt after my first real sparring lesson.

13. Build a Wall by Burlap to Cashmere
Some songs I like for their dance or kissing potential, some I like for workout potential. This is one of the latter.

14. Long Time Traveler by The Wailin Jennies
I can carry a tune, but it's one of my fantasies to be able to sing tight harmony like this performance, which is hauntingly beautiful.

15. Supermassive Black Hole by Muse
I was crushed when I found out this was in the credits somewhere in the Twilight movie series (I feel so cheap!) but this is still a kick-ass song.

16. Shooby Shooby Do Ya by Mocean Worker
Another fun workout song with a retro feel.

17. Feel Good Inc. by Gorillaz
I liked this tune until I saw the official video (linked here) and then I loved it. Need a little upbeat dystopia with a hip-hop groove? You got it.

18. Seven Nation Army by Ben L'oncle Soul
Great beat, fun retro album cover (I think this is a trend) and apparently a cover of something by the White Stripes?

19. Destiny by Zero 7
Mellow groove--this is the second song of theirs from this album that I've really liked (In the Waiting Line is the other one). It's a decade old, but new to me.

20. Painting Pictures by Adele
She's got kind of an Amy Winehouse thing going on. Great voice.

21. Machu Picchu by The Strokes
This guy sounds just like the lead singer of Franz Ferdinand. Is he? Somebody tell me.

22. Starlight by Rachael Yamagata
Catchy. Sexy.

23. The Sea by Morcheeba
For chilling. Nice and mellow.

24. Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen
This is an old one but it fits our times so precisely that it raises the hair on the back of my neck. If you're feeling bitter and disillusioned, you're in good company with Leonard.

25. Once Around the Block by Badly Drawn Boy
Ten years old but new to me. Such a great tune!

26. In Amsterdam by Katzenjammer
I have no idea how to categorize this song with the manic trumpet riff. Sort of half carnival, half calvary. It elevates my heart rate just listening to it (in a good way).

27. Options by Gomez
You've probably heard this on the radio. Did they steal the chorus from Dr. Seuss? Love the bari sax.

28. Without You by Eddie Vedder
And to finish, a love song on the uke by Eddie Vedder. Sweet and beautiful.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Roast Pumpkin with Cheese "Fondue"

Happy Thanksgiving, people! I hope your day was filled with excellent food, lively conversations and lots of hugs from people you love. Mine was!

I've had my eye on this whole roast pumpkin for a while now--it's one of Ruth Reichl's favorite party dishes. What an extravagance! Shredded Gruyere and Emmantal, layered with toasted baguette rounds and soaked in nutmeg-scented heavy cream and chicken stock, baked inside a scooped-out pumpkin for an hour and a half until it's all melted together.

It sounds glorious, and well, it is. My only problem making this pumpkin dish was actually procuring the pumpkin--I went from store to store--even tried a landscaper--only to be told that the hurricane had devastated the New England pumpkin crop and even before Halloween markets were importing them from other parts of the country.

Oh no! It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to find a pumpkin. I spent a few days resigned to finding a less glorious vegetable dish to bring and wondering what I was going to do with all that Gruyere and Emmental in the fridge.

But then! I went to the annual Santa Parade party at my sister's house:

And my eagle-eyed mom said she had noticed some pumpkins at a farm stand on the way into Bradford! I guess the hurricane took a detour around the Haverhill area? On the way back home we pulled over to the unmanned but pumpkin-bedecked farmstand and I took a look. Most of the pumpkins were actually rotten, or on the way to it, but there was one that was sound, and just the right size. So I loaded it into the car and drove all around the barn and house looking for somebody to give some money to--farmstand people, whoever you are, I'll give you some money next season!

Pumpkin score! Except...there were two teeny little places where the pumpkin was a little soft. That's nice language for starting to go rotten. One was on the bottom and one was on the side sort of close to the top.

Yes, I did wake up Thanksgiving morning mulling this problem over. And let me tell you how thankful I am that of all the potential problems in the world one can have that can wake you up, mine was wondering about how to maintain the integrity of a pumpkin wall so cream and cheese wouldn't leak out. Problems like this are a blessing!

Here's how I solved it. When I scooped out the pumpkin innards, I took out all of the rotten pumpkin flesh that I could from those two spots, but kept the outer skin intact. Then I crumpled up some parchment paper and stuffed it into the gaps. I thought about foil, but didn't want the metal to conduct extra heat to those areas.

I also didn't want the paper plugs to come loose and float around--or worse, to get scooped up into somebody's plate, so I pinned a small square of parchment paper over each plug with toothpicks, and since I didn't see anybody choking on a toothpick last night I can assume they stayed in place. Yay for no choking!

The only thing that was kind of a pain in the ass about this dish is that it TOTALLY hogs the oven space. And it takes a long time. With all those side dishes that needed to be heated, we ended up firing up the grill and relocating the pumpkin for the last half hour or so (oh, and let's not forget the small propane oven we tried next door that is uh leaking gas or something? And set off an alarm? I guess we should also be thankful the house didn't blow up.)

So make this dish if a) you have two or more ovens b) you have alternative cooking options c) this is the only thing you're eating. Oh, and d) you're not on a diet. This is not on any diet known to man, unless you're on the see-food diet. (Haha, get it? I see food, I eat it? I think we're all on that diet this time of year.)

Thanks to the Christian Science Monitor and Haverhill Events for pics!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Charred Tomatillo Guacamole

Is there anybody in America who doesn't like guacamole? It's the perfect example of America as culinary catch-all. Hey, Mexico--we may not like your illegal immigrants and all that drug gang stuff but we damn sure like this avocado dip, and we're going to serve it at every Superbowl party from now until the end of time. Frankly, I don't even think of guac as Mexican anymore--if you'd like an example of how it's become Americanized, get a load of some of the variations The Gourmet Cookbook offers after their base Guacamole recipe:

Guacamole with Tomato
Radish and Cilantro Guacamole
Fall-Winter Fruit Guacamole (with Fuji apple, red grapes and pomegranate seeds)
Summer Fruit Guacamole (with green grapes and ripe peach or red raspberry)

Fruit in Guacamole! I don't know about you but to me that sounds completely disgusting, like a toddler's kitchen experiment that I would pretend to eat and make encouraging sounds about.

But I've been wrong before (once I think) so I'm willing to suspend judgement almost completely until I try it.

ANYWAY. This recipe here has no fruit in it--it features tomatillos. What are tomatillos, you cry? They look like this:

Don't be afraid! They're like sort of sweet-tart tomatoes. More tart than sweet. Once you peel the husks off and rinse them (they're kind of sticky for some reason) you spread them on a baking sheet and throw them in the oven.

I forgot to take a post-charring-in-the-broiler pic but they get kind of soft and smooshy and cooked. Then you stir together onions, chilies, cilantro, salt and pepper with the charred tomatillos, and here's problem number one: skins of the tomatillos don't really mush, do they? I had to do a lot of tomatillo-skin extracting.

Then you peel and chunk the avocados, throw them in the mix, and mira! Charred Tomatillo Guacamole.

How was it? Well, it has avocados in it so of course it was freakin AWESOME, but aside from that it was a bit watery from the tomatillos. My suggestion, if you're going to branch out from good old Guac into tomatillo territory is to peel the skins after charring and before smooshing (they should slip off easily), and then to drain the tomatillos in a fine mesh sieve before adding them in. Easy fixes, but I'm surprised they didn't get caught before the recipe was included in the book.

Gracias to Mexican Foodie for tomatillo pic!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jicama and Cucumber Chile Spears

If you're looking for a summer appetizer that is refreshing, dead simple and will fit into anybody's diet, here it is. The only problem you might potentially have is locating jicama, but that will only be if you're like at a campground or something, at the mercy of one of those campground stores. Well, the other problem might be that you've never HAD jicama and you're a naturally suspicious person, but if you haven't and you are, don't be afraid! Jicama is cool and crunchy and little bit sweet. It's DELICIOUS and you'll love it. It's even white, so there's no off-putting vegetabley color to deal with, like green or orange! Go on, give it a try.

Jicama and Cucumber Chili Spears take a mere 10 minutes--just toss your vegetable spears in a bowl with fresh lime juice, chili powder, a pinch of cayenne and salt. Done! It takes even LESS time if you can get somebody else to cut up the spears and mix them for you, like one of those college or high school students hanging around the house doing hardly anything productive. Just make sure they take off the peel on the jicama.

Helpful hint! I'm willing to bet, unless you live in Texas, that your chili powder is WAY PAST its freshness window. Do yourself a flavor favor--toss it and replace with a fresh bottle. Come on, don't be cheap--would you eat stale crackers just because you want to get your money's worth? Well, maybe you would and in that case just hang on to your stale chili powder too--everybody else, get a new bottle and ENJOY.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Limoncello and Mint Sparkler from Gourmet Today

Summer is here, really here this time! Now is the moment to enjoy the summery foods and drinks you've been waiting for all year. Cold soups! Awesome salads! Grilled stuff! And of course--summery cocktails!

My friend Ben has more wonderful attributes than I can count. He loves to bake sourdough. He has a beautiful tenor voice. He's a genius. Also, he makes limoncello that he shares with his friend Melissa.

Ben makes limoncello because it's a family thing. His grandmother (lucky grandmother!) has a lemon tree in her back yard. Her limoncello is of course superior to all others, but Ben tries to replicate it--and since I've never had his grandmother's limoncello, I can't tell the difference and think his is awesome.

What is limoncello? How do you make it? It's one of those delayed gratification things--the best limoncello takes the better part of a year. Simply put, it's vodka + lemon peels + sugar + time.

What can you do with this lovely nectar? Here's one idea: Limoncello and Mint Sparklers!

Take 2 cups of fresh mint leaves and two cups of limoncello

and put them together

Encourage their relationship by mooshing them around a bit with a wooden spoon and leave them in peace for an hour.

Then strain out the mint leaves and add a cup of fresh lemon juice. At this point you can put the whole thing in a pitcher and add soda water (for these proportions, 6 cups) or you can do what I did and pack up the limoncello/mint/lemon juice concoction and take it to work to share with friends.

Wait! Before you think I'm one of those people who drink at work I will say actually you're right but only on Beer Friday, which is a company-sanctioned party every Friday at 4:30! What a clever way to keep your employees from leaving at noon on Friday, no?

So I served Limoncello and Mint Sparklers at my desk, complete with lemon and mint garnishes. They did not look like that pretty picture up top because all we had was paper coffee cups.

They were delicious! A note: if you are one of those folks who likes to taste and feel the alcohol you're drinking, you will be suspicious of this drink. It's a stealth cocktail, but trust me, the booze is in there. If you're at work I don't suggest drinking more than one, unless you are doing something with the potential for amusement, like giving a powerpoint presentation.

Thanks to Grey Goose Vodka for the image grab.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Flank Steak Pinwheels with Arugula Salad, and Melissa Spreads Some Happiness

Summer is here (kind of) and that means it's GRILLING WEATHER! Yes, I know you can grill year-round. Yes, I know that my dad especially grills year-round. But I! I like to be warm and carefree when I grill, and even though that sounds like I grill with hardly no clothes on, what it really means is that I wait until it's in the 70's!

Flank Steak Pinwheels with Arugula Salad is a fine, fine way to open the grilling season.

1) Flank steak is cheap! Yay!
2) The whole thing tastes great!

BUT--this recipe requires a little bit of finesse with a sharp knife so don't drink too much Memorial Day beer before you try this at your home. Unless you're better with a knife when you're drunk? Maybe you are, what do I know. Undoubtedly you THINK you are.

This recipe requires you to butterfly a flank steak, which is really just opening it up like a book (if you had to cut a book open with a knife to read it) except that it's not really like a book because flank steak is thinner and more like the September issue of Vogue. About that thick. Pretend you need to use your knife to get to the feature about pearls and fur.

Jimmy Choo, where are you?

Once you're opened it up, lay thinly sliced provolone and proscuitto on top. It's kind of like layering a lasagne, except you leave a little room at the edges.

Not my flank steak.

After you roll it up, you secure it with strings or toothpicks

Then cut it into rounds and throw it on the grill!

Not me. Also not flank steak.

This is the second grilled stuffed flank steak recipe the Gourmet team has presented--the other is in the yellow book. To tell you the truth, I liked the other one a little better--the spinach and carrots make for a prettier cross-cut, and the veggies round out the cheese-meat thing. Also, the recipe in the yellow book asks you to grill the stuffed flank steak BEFORE cutting it--and although it takes longer to cook, it's not quite as messy on the grill.

Still--this is a worthy way to cook an inexpensive cut of meat (check out Cook-Italian for an even better way, if you ask my husband.) And as with many recipes, this one should be considered a primer. Stuff it with whatever floats your boat!


Hey, Rob Vlack!

I want to say hi to my Salem readers, foremost among them Rob and Angie Vlack. Rob used to work with me at Eliza, and one day (for reasons I can't remember, probably because I was attempting to bribe the IT department) I made Inside-Out German Chocolate Cake.

Folks, this is a good cake. And it made a deep impression on Rob, who left Eliza shortly thereafter for reasons unrelated to cake.

So I wasn't entirely surprised, when he emailed me last month to say hi, to read that he wondered if I could make him an Inside-Out German Chocolate Cake sometime (anytime!) before September--he would come pick it up and he wanted to give it to his brother to celebrate his birthday, because his brother's a great guy and deserves a great cake.


SUPER NICE, and how could I say no to that?

Also, out of the whole entire universe, my largest readership is in Salem, MA! (Do you hear that, Mom (who lives in Gloucester?))

Yay Salem! In my totally biased opinion, you guys are the best!

And HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Rob Vlack's brother!! As Rob said, that cake is richer than Bill Gates, and I hope you loved it. Rock on!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Melissa Solves the Mystery and Gets Indexy

Setting the Stage

Readers, unless you've been living in a cave (without wireless) you know that obesity in America is on the rise. And if you've been paying attention even a little, you also know that obesity is connected with serious, complicated medical conditions-- like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

It's a problem, and it makes people bonkers. Health insurance companies are freaked out, diet books fly off the shelves, and pundits expound--but nobody seems to be able to solve this mystery.

Why? Why are Westerners fat and getting fatter?

More alarming--why, when our diet is introduced to other cultures, do they start exhibiting our diseases--like obesity, diabetes and cancer?

Is it chemicals? Fat? Corn syrup? White bread? Sugar? All of it all together, like....Twinkies? Is it a slothful lifestyle, too much screen time and not enough exercise?

Most desperate perhaps are the overweight and obese, who are flooded with conflicting information on an almost daily basis. Look at our very own food pyramid--at first ballasted with "healthy grains" like pasta, bread and cereal, and recently revised. Our own government can't quite get it straight, nobody can, and meanwhile different ingredients are demonized with clockwork regularity--butter or margarine? Sugar or high-fructose corn syrup? What can you abstain from that will give you the magic solution?

Setting the Scene

My own history with diets, dieting and dieters has been life-long. My mother has been deeply involved with food (partaking or abstaining) all my life. Various family members, close and far, have gained and lost weight (or sometimes just gained) and agonized over it. And once I hit my 4th decade of life it became a concern for me as well--my weight at the top of "healthy" began to creep undeniably into "overweight" territory. This, even though I am active and always have been--give me a class, activity, sport and I fall in love with it. My current and most passionate love: karate. Which is some serious calorie burn.

For the record, this is my lifelong food philosophy, up til now:

bread--good if multigrain
what about white bread?--bad
oh? what about artisan bread?--(sigh) delicious but in moderation
cheese/butter--ok in moderation
dairy--good if lowfat
nuts--good in moderation
candy--bad unless chocolate
chocolate--if dark, both delicious and healthy
coffee--good if black
beer--ok occasionally
wine--good in moderation
booze--good without caloric mixers
ok, straight booze--good in moderation
meat--good if lean
tofu etc--good though mysterious
grains--good but a pain in the ass
what about white rice?--bad
fast food--evil
really? All fast food?--ok maybe not pizza
desserts--not good but so delicious
salty snacks--ok if lowfat. Or, lower in fat. And in moderation.

So, that's it in a nutshell--how I've eaten for decades. I don't eat for emotional reasons, and if I'm hungry in the middle of the night, I drink water. Lots of it. How did I land in the food industry? Why keep a cook-through gourmet blog? Because I have a restless mind that loves adventure and loves to be delighted.

The Mystery

Because I have a restless mind, I'm constantly trying new food philosophies on for size, but in the dieting department I've tended to stick with Weight Watchers. It always made sense to me--a balanced diet in moderation. I like their online tracker, and their mysterious Points (now Points Plus) system.

But I'm impressionable, and something I read by Mark Bittman convinced me to try his system of "vegan until 6". It's pretty easy--veggies, fruits, nuts and grains until dinner time, when you eat what you want (for me usually protein, veggies and a cocktail or two).

This was a challenge! This was fun! Did you know that you can get vegan sushi? You can!

For five weeks my day typically went like this:

oatmeal with fruit or
cooked squash with a little honey

steamed veggies, alone or with brown rice or
salad with grains/beans or
miso soup

snacks, usually about 3 or 4 of the following during a workday. Less on weekends:
baked sweet potato
boca burger
multigrain thins with a little honey
dark chocolate
instant oatmeal
multigrain crackers
frozen fruit

lean protein
alcohol (2 drinks, no mixers)

That's it. Pretty healthy, right? No gigantic portions--I'm not a volume eater. I was tracking all this on the WW points tracker, and my life was pretty much the same--except due to a light travel schedule, more karate classes than usual--and that's three classes a week, 1.5 hours each. Yes, the occasional special food event--a family gathering or meetings with the various groups I belong to--but my life is remarkably consistent. For WW folks, I'll add that in no week did I ever "eat" all my points. Even if I ate the extra ones, I never got close to touching the ones that karate burned.

Readers, I gained weight. For me, a lot--so much that I was scared to step on the scale. But I was keeping track of my waist measurement and couldn't believe my eyes when 31.5 inches turned into 34.

Worse, I was growing out of my wardrobe. For me, this is bad news because I put a lot of thought into getting dressed in the morning.

This is me going to work on a normal work day.

To say I was upset is an understatement. I freaked out. I actually spent a day or two researching liposuction and that weird new treatment that "melts fat" by aiming heat lamps at you (don't waste your money... and bad news, lipo folks--that fat's coming back.) In addition to karate, I started getting up earlier and walking two miles. Every morning.

Then the penny dropped.

Enter Gary Taubes, and his 4/13/11 New York Times Magazine article, Is Sugar Toxic?

The Culprit

I urge you to read the Taubes article, then read it again. There's a lot of stuff in there and it takes a while to absorb it.

But here are the essentials.

Sugar = Liver Fat
Liver Fat = Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic Syndrome = Diabetes/Heart Disease/High Cholesterol/ Body Fat
Sugar = Insulin
Insulin = Food for Tumors

In other words, our sugar-heavy diet is not only making us fat, it's making us sick and then it's killing us. Thin, young people, you are not immune.

During the Korean War, pathologists doing autopsies on American soldiers killed in battle noticed that many had significant plaques in their arteries, even those who were still teenagers, while the Koreans killed in battle did not. The atherosclerotic plaques in the Americans were attributed to the fact that they ate high-fat diets and the Koreans ate low-fat. But the Americans were also eating high-sugar diets, while the Koreans, like the Japanese, were not.

It's also worth noting that carbs = sugar. And that's where I had my "aha!" moment. My vegan diet of five weeks had been carb heavy--brown rice, beans, multi-grain bread, "sweet" vegetables, fruit.

The Recovery

I tried the South Beach Diet once for a few weeks (in a moment of post-holiday desperation) and had great results with it--4.5 lbs lost in one week, 7 lbs in two. That was Phase One of the diet, which is zero carbs--no sweet veggies, no beans, no fruits, no booze and certainly no grain products. Lean meats, low fat dairy. This diet has you eventually re-introduce wine, fruits, multigrain carbs and the forbidden veggies--the idea is to keep it low fat and to break you of a carb-heavy habit.

I've also watched the waistlines of others (all men) expand and contract according to how many carbs they were eating. My darling husband, Don (who is emotionally attached to all kinds of carbs) exercises more than I do--he takes a 1.5 hour Bikram yoga class (that's hot yoga) at least four times a week. Low carbs? Slender. High carbs? Love handles. And he can go from one to the other--and back--in two weeks or less. My brother-in-law and my friend Pat have both lost significant amounts of weight on low-carb diets.

I did a little more exploring and found Gary Taubes' blog. It's more personal and his most recent post featured his blood work lab results (a challenge from Dr. Oz). His blood work is a doctor's dream--pretty near perfect, and this from a guy who subsists mainly on meat, cheese, nuts and eggs. The comments from his readers are perhaps predictable but illuminating.

The sum total of this is I've changed my eating philosophy--completely. This is what I eat now:

Low-fat dairy
All veggies except winter squashes, sweet/white potatoes, corn, peas, carrots
Low-carb protein drinks
dark chocolate
For alcohol: dry vermouth (8 carbs/oz) or wine

above-mentioned veggies
fruit (except tomatoes)
gluten products
products/recipes with added sugar (except for dark chocolate)

I've been eating like this for 4 weeks, and please note I've been eating the same amount of food (still tracking on WW--still not eating those activity points).

I can't tell you how many pounds I've lost because I never stepped on the scale at my peak. But when I measured my waist this morning it was 30.5 inches.

That's right, in four weeks I took 3.5 inches off my waistline. I didn't change how much I was eating calorically, I changed what I was eating.

Here's a typical food day:

2 eggs on top of
3 strips center cut bacon on top of
big pile of fresh arugula
2 cups black coffee

steamed sliced zucchini (from freezer aisle) with
leftover sliced lamb
nuts pack from Trader Joes
1/2 cup part-skim ricotta
square of dark chocolate
low sodium V-8
mini light babybel cheese
dill pickle
black coffee until noon. Herbal tea after.

roasted chicken
steamed broccoli with lemon mayo
celery sticks
sliced cukes
2 drinks--dry vermouth or wine

Am I a rigorous Nazi about this? Nope. I've made gluten-free fruit-based desserts for my meditation group, and I had a beer last week (it gave me a stomach ache.) I've eaten a few veggie mixes that have carrots in them. And some of the nut packs Don brings back from Trader Joe's have dried cranberries in them. And yes, I'm well aware that dark chocolate has sugar in it.

But my angle is to make carbs and sugar the exception to the rule. Now that I understand what's going on inside...and with such a dramatic example of what amping up carbs can do to my own body...I'm calling this mystery solved.

Your mileage may vary. But I dare you--I double dog dare you--to try this way of eating for a few weeks or a month and see where it gets you. Read the Taubes article. Post your results here.


In the spirit of eating well while eating well, I've gone back and indexed these posts to include labels you might be looking for when you're thinking about your diet. I'm about halfway through and expect to fully index within a week or so. Still to come--in my posts where I combine a lot of recipes, I'll add a note at the bottom indicating which recipes go with which labels.

New labels:


That last one might give you pause. Paleolithic is a recently popular eating trend, and it is what it sounds like--eating the way our cave-dwelling ancestors most likely did, to the end of avoiding our modern-day ailments. That means, basically, meats, fish and veggies. Very little fruit, no sugar, no dairy, nothing fermented. Certainly no processed foods, and nothing that requires grains. And believe it or not, some recipes here qualify, or at least the way I understand it (if cavemen could use spices.) I know some karate folks who eat this way and hey, even karate folks throw fancy dinner parties every once in a while (I know I do.)

EDIT 5/25/11: I've removed some incorrect stats (like WW points) about dry vermouth that appeared in the original post. Dry vermouth is slightly higher in alcohol than white wine and has a similar points count.

Thanks to Polls Boutique, Fitness Guru Sam and Beaumont Holidays for image grabs.