Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Book Report and Random Thinkiness

Michael Pollan - Paula Poundstone was pretty rude to him (but funny) when he was a guest on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." I decided to finally check his book "In Defense of Food" out of the library.

It's an extraordinary book. It's written in everyday (not overly-scientific) language that isn't preachy, it's just uncommon common sense. He points out that we're in an odd state of affairs when we're turning to him, a journalist, for nutrition advice, and that no other culture at any other time has had a hard time figuring out what to feed themselves and how. True enough.

I highly recommend the book if you haven't read it. If you want a quick summary, it's this - "Food is more than a lump of protein, fats, carbs, and vitamins. It's FOOD. Cook your own as much as you can. Eat food as it was intended - orange juice doesn't naturally have calcium, so don't drink it that way. There are lots of ways to eat a really healthful diet, and vending machines and food that never rots isn't part of any of them. Science doesn't know everything."

The anti-inflammatory diet - Also at the library, since it's in the same part of the Dewey Decimal System, was Dr. Barry Sears' "The Anti-Inflammatory Zone." Dr. Sears is the creator of the Zone diet, and I took the book out to see what he had to say.

After getting about one-third of the way through I decided it was quacky and brought it back to the library. Any book that talks about the Secrets Mainstream Medicine Doesn't Want You To Know is, in my opinion, trying to sell something. Like, say, Dr. Sears Zone Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (it's on Amazon). I haven't ruled out the idea that there is something to an anti-inflammatory diet, only that this book reads too SHAMWOW for me to take it seriously.

That said, I'm a little over two weeks into my three-week experiment and I'm feelin' pretty good, even if I don't know conclusively why. There is little agreement on what exactly an anti-inflammatory diet really is. I've removed a lot of simple carbs (bread, pasta), sugar, and nightshades (alas, tomatoes and potatoes), from my daily consumption. I've also let go of cheese, which I generally eat too much of. I'm eating more fish and vegetables. My new gym has a pool and I've been pretty regular in attendance.

So is it the anti-inflammatory component of what I'm doing that's helping? Or the overall health-supporting diet and exercise? Or both? I have no idea. But what drove me to this - wanting relief from constant achiness - is apparently a stronger motivator than "I want to lose weight." Good to know.

It's pretty unlikely that this Italian girl is going to permanently give up tomatoes and cheese. In fact, Sweetie and I went out for pizza this weekend because neither of us had the energy to scrape together something in our own kitchen (and I was REALLY craving pizza). And it's just hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that millions of earth's tomato-eating people are "secretly" battling some sort of painful malady, you know?

Pool Fitness - For crying out loud, if you get in the pool expect to get your hair wet. Seriously. You don't have to go underwater during most pool fitness classes, but you really should expect to be splashed.

Pool Fitness II - When someone with a 4-prong cane enters the pool area, GIVE THEM THE LANE NEAREST THE STEPS. She was elderly, in her skirted swimsuit and floweredy bathing cap and determined to get her workout. She really needed to be in an outside lane to hold onto the side as she power-walked up and down the length of the pool - and good for her, I say. Her reaction when I vacated the outside lane for her let me know that she can't assume folks will make simple accommodations for her. Sad.

New Tag - My blog project right now is adding a "Health Conscious" tag to the selections on the right, which will take you to all the yummy recipes I have from various healthful-cooking sources. Basically, I eat what tastes good and some of it has really healthful qualities and some of it (hellllllooooo, brownies!) not so much. Clicking on "Health Conscious" will take you to those recipes that are, as they say, more of an "everyday" food and not a "special occasion" food.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Seriously Underpaid

Working with disability as I do, I know that one of the biggest issues in the field is the shockingly low pay that aides and attendants get for the work they do in caring for the elderly and disabled.

Today my grandmother made me realize a whoooole part of the picture I hadn't seen before. She's 85-ish years old, but really hasn't seemed "old" until the past year or two. If you have a traditional Italian or Jewish grandmother, you've pretty much met her. If not, here's the deal - she passionately loves her family, was a terrific cook, talks a lot, and believes that the Youth of Today ("youth" being anyone under 45) really needs a good finger-wagging and talking-to. Finger-wagging will make someone realize that they really don't need heroin, that they nobody's getting any younger so they might as well marry that nice boy, and that only members of the Clean Plate Club go to heaven.

Our weekly chat this morning, which focused on her somewhat-recent move into Assisted Living, went like this....

Me: So you're still happy in the new apartment?
Grandmother: Oh, yes. Everyone here is so nice. All you have to do is call and ask for something, and they take care of it.
Me: Wonderful!
Grandmother: The aides are all young, you know. They really like having older folks around, with our wisdom and experience. They love my advice.
Me: Oh?
Grandmother: Oh, yes! They used to ask me for it, but now I just go ahead and give it to them instead of playing that little game where I wait for them to ask, which I know they're going to do. Like yesterday, one of the young ladies came in and she had been tanning. I showed her all the spots I have from being out in the sun too much and told her she needs to wear a hat. And since we were talking anyway, I told her, "you have on too much makeup."
Me: Really????
Grandmother: Well, someone had to tell her. She thanked me several times.

Methinks someone has stopped recognizing sarcasm, or doesn't realize there are angels in her midst. I hope it's the latter, and God bless them.

Years ago my grandmother sent me home with a loaf of her pumpkin bread. Living alone at the time, I brought it into the office to share. My manager wasn't willing to wait for the mail for the recipe (this was before e-mail); she made me call that afternoon, from the office, and write down the recipe as read by my grandmother.

A full cup of oil ("NOT olive", she specified in the recipe) is a LOT, even though this makes three loaves. I cut it down to 3/4 cup with no ill effect. In her own words, here 'tis.

Irene's Famous Pumpkin Bread
3 cups sugar
1 cup oil
2/3 cup water
4 eggs
3 1/3 cups flour
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg
3 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups pumpkin
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. PAM three loaf pans. Bake 350 degrees, 45 minutes to one hour.

There it is. That's the whole thing. It really is terrific and it freezes well. And if I'd found this in a cookbook I would never have made it, given the 4 eggs and 3 cups of sugar. But then again, my grandmother has been in specactularly good health for most of her life so what do I know?

Maybe I need a good finger-wagging.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Making Changes

She didn't mean to be funny (I think), but one of the women in water aerobics last night said she liked the class because there's no shame in leaving early.

Honey, please. Wiggling my way out of PE was the first thing I did in kindergarten and the last thing I did before high school graduation. I am impervious to shame on the matter. Believe it or not, I was an incredibly fit kid from ballet, gymnastics, and swimming. Oh, and if I wanted to go anywhere I had to ride my bike (which also accounts for the pocky scar where I gravelled-up my leg... the elbow and face healed better).

But note that in those activities no one is throwing stuff at me. Tennis, volleyball, softball, basketball, soccer - all involve a spherical object at high speed (that HURTS) that must be struck and dodged at the same time. Not for cash, not for cookies, just for having done it. Ummm, no. Dance is an art and swimming is a survival skill. If dodgeball is a survival skill you need to carefully examine the choices you've made in life. In college I fulfilled the PE requirement with one semester of dance, and another of fencing, which I knew full well no one would ever ask me to participate in after work.

Were I a mother, I think I'd give Mary a run - or, more likely, a mosey - for the title of Worst Soccer Mom (her hilarious post on this can be found on her hilarious blog, here)*. As it stands, I'm a soccer aunt and that's WAY easier than being a soccer mom (although without politicians pandering to me which, frankly, I could use more of). Basically, if I show up I'm a hero.

Where was I? Ah yes, water aerobics. I LOVED the class, but I should've met it for drinks first before going all in on an hour-long class. The very fit, heavily-accented German instructor paced the edge of the pool, yelling "HAAAAAAAR FLUFFLE!" and heads would bob up and down. Then "FASTER!!!" and sure enough, everyone would bob double-time. Dutifully, I got twice as confused as I had been before. "Waaaaagggg rummin!" was next, and everyone scooted down to one end of the pool. I swear I'm not making this up.

But once she added the pantomime - and once my glasses-less self got close enough to see her - I was golden. And sore. But that's fine, because I'm envisioning my tushie toning and my legs sleeking. You do too know what I mean.

And as part of the Staring Down The Barrel of 40 program, I'm branching out on the vegetable recipes. It's been years since I made cauliflower - Sweetie doesn't care for it, and it's not one of those veggies that comes in a good one-person serving size. So with dinner over the weekend I made this yummy roasted cauliflower and some steamed green beans, so that we both had a vegetable.

The recipe calls for Parmesan, but I had Asiago and went with that. It was really good, although I didn't so much care for the leftovers.

*Mary and I went to high school together and re-connected on Facebook. She is a self-proclaimed "kitchentard", so I'm guessing she's not a stinkycheeser...
Roasted Cauliflower

1 head of cauliflower
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and coarsely minced
1 lemon (I used bottled lemon juice)
Olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Parmesan cheese (I used Asiago - no snobby culinary reason, it's just what I had in the cheese drawer)

1 Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut cauliflower into florets and put in a single layer in an oven-proof baking dish. Add garlic. Squeeze a lemon over cauliflower and drizzle each piece with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. If the oven hasn't reached 400°F yet, set aside until it has.

2 Place casserole in the hot oven, uncovered, for 15-25 minutes, until the top is lightly brown. Test with a fork for desired doneness. Remove from oven and sprinkle generously with Parmesan cheese.

Serves 4.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Power of Three

I'm supposed to eat more ginger. Long story, but I'm trying out this "anti-inflammatory" way of eating (yup, no more flamethrowing serving utensils) and ginger is one of the foods at the top of the list.

Some of my favorite foods have ginger - gingersnaps, gingersnap gelato, pumpkin cheesecake... shall I go on? Alas, that's not really what they meant, and also not helpful in banishing the 15 pounds that I want lost and never found.

I wish I knew who to credit with this dessert, because it's amazing. And this sauce would go really, really well with chocolate or vanilla ice cream, too.

Honeydew Melon with Strawberry Ginger Sauce

Puree 2 tablespoons fresh gingerroot (peeled) with one pint of hulled strawberries. Adjust to taste (add more ginger or more strawberries as you see fit). Drizzle over sliced or cubed honeydew.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Unseasonably Chilli

Girltime is important. One of my favorite things about Sweetie is that he knows that I occasionally have a need to talk about my hair, Target, birth control, window treatments, Natalie Portman's hair, my friend's hair, my friend's daughter and her dating adventures, Being A Woman In The Workplace, and where to find a good mani/pedi where you see people really clean the footbowls. That's Girl Night, usually a la mode. Not only does Sweetie recognize my need to have these, he's well aware of his own need to not spend 3 hours discussing said topics. Win/win.

So my friend TechGirl decided to host a Girl Night to celebrate her birthday a few weeks ago. Remember on the Flintstones, when Fred would smell something yummy in the kitchen and would float in there to see what smelled so good? I nearly did that. She had a pot of chilli going that smelled amazing on that unseasonably cold evening.

And yet. I haven't eaten red meat for literally twenty years. Sigh and inwardly pout.

[Aside - My mama taught me that when you are invited to dinner there are two and only two acceptable responses. They are "Love to, thanks - what can I bring?" and "I'm so sorry, but I have another commitment that evening. Let's get together soon." Mom was right. I make an exception for food allergies and religious restrictions. A good host does not want to kill you or send you to Hell.

Please note that the following were NOT on the Acceptable Response List -
"Dinner? Is it organic vegan? No? Do you mind if I bring a pot of clean dirt to snack on while everyone else eats the creature who sacrificed its life for you?"

"Is it Atkins-compliant? Oh, all you have to do is leave the breading off the fish, skip the French fries and make it a salad instead from this list of approved vegetables, and..."

"You know I hate pork chops, right?"]

Back to the story. So I was in the presence of this wonderful-smelling chilli, catching up with my friend and her daughter before everyone else got there, and I was getting hungry. When everyone got their food and I had a bowl with rice and cheese, TechGirl said, "You know this is turkey chilli, right?"

Obviously not! Oh, happy day and thoughtful hostess!

I asked her for the recipe and, since she happened to be having a life instead of clinging to her e-mail, she got it to me within a few days. By then I had already tracked down another recipe and made it - such was the power of her dinner.

Both were excellent, so I'm posting them both. TechGirl's is in her own words. Both freeze very well.

TechGirl's Crockpot Turkey Chilli
The 'recipe' is really simple. The chili works best in the crockpot. The ingredients are:
1 packet of McCormick's Chili Mix
1 packet of McCormick's Hot Chili mix
1 diced onion
2 lbs of lean ground beef or ground turkey
2 cans of whole or diced tomatoes
1 can of tomato sauce
1 can of kidney beans.

First, put the tomatoes, tomato sauce, and kidney beans in the crockpot with the Hot chili mix, stir and set crockpot to high. While that is heating, put a little vegetable oil in a skillet and brown the diced onion. When done, add the onion to the crockpot.

Next, crumble and brown the meat with the regular chili mix. Once done through, add to crockpot, stir and turn crockpot down to low. Simmer for at least 2 hours for extra flava.

Serve with rice or chips, cheese, sour cream, whatever extras you like.

This other recipe is from the Food Network - we don't have cable so I haven't seen any of their shows, but the recipe was terrific. I didn't have beer onhand so I substituted chicken broth. If you're using ground beef you can substitute beef broth for the beer.

Thirty-Minute Turkey Chilli
Food Network

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (kind of a lot - you can easily go to two)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, chopped (I used a garlic press)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 chipotle chile en adobo, coarsely chopped, with 1 tablespoon sauce (scrape out the seeds to cut the heat)
1 pound ground turkey
1 (12-ounce) Mexican lager-style beer (or substitute broth)
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, with their juice
1 (15 1/2-ounce) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
Sliced scallions, cilantro sprigs, avocado, sour cream, grated Monterey jack cheese, and/or tortilla chips, for garnish, optional

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, salt, chili powder, and oregano and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 3 minutes.

Stir in the tomato paste and the chipotle chile and sauce; cook 1 minute more.

Add the turkey, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, and cook until the meat loses its raw color, about 3 minutes.

Add the beer and simmer until reduced by about half, about 8 minutes.

Add the tomatoes--crushing them through your fingers into the skillet--along with their juices and the beans; bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 10 minutes.

Ladle the chili into bowls and serve with the garnishes of your choice.

Cook's Note: A skillet's larger surface area reduces sauces faster than simmering in a saucepan.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

What Part of "This Is My Life Source" Did You Not Understand?

I adore NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" radio news quiz. This week's celebrity guest was Michael Pollan, known food/health writer who is all about natural, whole foods (who isn't?). I believe he wrote "Eat This, Not That", which I keep meaning to get from the library and never do. Comedian/contestant Paula Poundstone brought her A game this week, paraphrased below.

Poundstone: Look, I try to get my kids to eat vegetables and all that, but I gotta tell ya. One of the things that makes my life worth living is Ring-Dings.

Pollan: Well, there's certainly room in the diet for special occasion foods.

Poundstone: Did you hear me? They make life worth living. And you want me to have them one day a year? What the hell is wrong with you?

Pollan: One good way to tell if a food is a good everyday food is to count the number of ingredents. The fewer the ingredients, the closer to a whole food it is.

Poundstone: Three. Devil's food cake - one. Creamy filling - two. Chocolate shell - three.

There you have it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mixing It Up

Loyal stinkycheesers know that most of my cooking decisions are based on two criteria: what's already in my fridge and pantry, and what's on sale. Since we hadn't had Caribbean Chicken for a while - and chicken was on sale - it was time to make some.

Two changes to the standard version (found here):

1. When I went up to Maryland and made & froze meals for my sister, she became a big fan of this recipe. When she didn't have enough left for a full entree she used it to top a green salad.

Right now that's my dinner, too, and I'm glad to have stolen the idea. I used about 1/3 of a cooked chicken breast, diced it, and it tops a salad of fresh spinach, cucumber, and navel orange slices. It's fabulous and I feel like I might one day drop that 15 pounds if I keep eating like this.

A little goat cheese, which I don't happen to have right now, would really balance out the salad well.

2. Since I forgot to pick up jalapeno peppers I had to use what I had onhand, which was a nice, plump chipotle pepper in adobo sauce. And I absolutely should've pulled the heat-throwing seeds out, but lesson learned. This is a really rich, smoky variation that I'm enjoying just as much as the original.