Back to Reality… and Committing to Whole30 in 2017!

Over the break, Husband and I talked about some big picture changes – things like giving up cheese, dairy in general, sugar, and grains for a month! The very idea of that change grew when I saw how our fridge is, and listened to myself acquiesce to a take-out pizza just so easily yesterday. Sure, we had an 8.5 hour drive, sure, it was cold and we were tired and we just wanted to watch a goofy movie and veg out, but it sure does remind me: Whole30 for a month would be such a huge commitment.

The idea of trying Whole30 strikes me the way that our garden struck me this spring: I don’t (and didn’t) know what I was getting into, I don’t (and didn’t) quite prepare perfectly, and I won’t (and didn’t) get everything out of it that I could. Still, I could never regret starting to garden, despite our crazy tangled tomatoes and the non-starter onions and those insanely bitter tiny bell peppers there at the end of the season. Sure, I can see how parts of Whole30 are going to give me literal and metaphorical headaches, and I’m going to hate some of the foods on the “compliant” list because I eat them so often, and I’m going to roll my eyes a little when I aim for the higher-quality, organic, or grass-fed version of something I normally get at the cheapest, bargain-basement rate. Husband and I are especially vexed about breakfast: our investment normally involves one push of the toaster button. We’re going to have to prep ahead or we’re going to fall into our old bad habits whenever 6 AM rolls around.

Still, I am reading this cool book that gives me some solace, despite the impending cheeseless January. The book is called Daring Greatly, and it’s all about how being vulnerable and taking risks lead to the most valuable experiences of most people’s lives, even if they also open us up to some of the greatest hurt. Not doing the Whole30 is certainly a more guarded way to go – incremental change in our eating habits, after all, would be ideal and not dramatic at all. Still, I’ve lived enough years of my adult life thinking I was making incremental change to healthy eating only to still find myself watching movies with take-out pizza whenever I’m tired… I’ve changed less than I think. Why not dare greatly about food and see if I can develop some totally new habits? The worst thing that could happen would be a few furious days and a return to my old ways in February, and the best is a wonderful vision: not craving quite so many unhealthy foods! I think I’m ready to give it a shot… after the holidays, anyway. 😛

A Foodie Thanksgiving

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Normally, there are a variety of Thanksgiving foods that I feel “meh” about – I’m not crazy about the jellied cranberry sauce, wobbling gently on its plate, or plain corn or beans. However, this year, the family outdid themselves, and all kinds of food perfection made it to my plate:

  • The turkey was good, juicy and flavorful, but also had a crispy coat of bacon put on it before being set in the grill to cook.
  • The salad was all picked fresh from my brother-in-law’s garden, and those carrots, radishes, and greens were life-giving in an otherwise heavy meal.
  • The mashed potatoes, stuffing, and green bean casserole got mixed up on my plate, and I have no regrets: everything was creamy and delicious and spiced with simple pepper, salt, and garlic.
  • The sweet potatoes didn’t have extra sugar on them, but they had butter and cinnamon which brought out all the best flavors of sweet potatoes.
  • The pecan pie was almost entirely pecans, with just enough of the sugary binder to hold it all together, and a homemade crust that just tasted like flaky layers of butter… mmmm. We ate at 3pm and so this was also my “dinner” at 9.
  • Treats like homemade chex mix, chocolate toffee, and thumbprint cookies abounded.

One of the cousins, K, talked about how much she’s enjoyed eating on Whole30, a program I’ve heard about and have considered trying. Husband and I are now resolved that January will be our Whole30 month, which will not be particularly easy but we think it could be good for some of our least healthy cravings to die down (many friends have said they just don’t want cheese and grains as much after the experience). Anyone know and like Whole30? Anyone know it and think it isn’t so great? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

The Refreshment of Gratitude

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Last Friday, Husband and I helped out with a friend’s pop-up fundraiser; he’s hoping to open his own business and he turned a cool loft space into a real party atmosphere, complete with band. Husband and I were mostly there to be at the party, but we volunteered for one chore: helping to wash out glasses after people finished their drinks. We ran into the back, scrubbed up the glasses, and got them ready to be used again. It was a nice break from socializing with a bunch of people we didn’t know well, but it was also so nice to see R’s face when the whole place was packed and people were enjoying the atmosphere so much.

I remember thinking that rather than being tired, I was enlivened: so energized by the feeling of gratitude we got from having friends like this, from knowing a few folks in town and feeling included. This is how I feel this Thanksgiving: like my gratitude to the world, to friends and family and the school that employs me, propels me forward and keeps me grounded. Gratitude reminds me that everyday problems are solveable, and that by almost any comparison I care to come up with, I have so much more love in my life than I could imagine.

The propelling makes me want others to share the riches of having a growing community, of knowing others deeply and connecting in spite of differences. I am not outgoing every day of the week… or even any day, if it gets bad. I think that so much of what our nation and our world need are people finding ways to connect to each other, finding the common ground they have or, failing that, building some common ground through sharing activities, experiences, and food. A lot of people are getting together with family today who don’t agree with them on much, but hopefully they can agree on the deliciousness of cranberry relish and the satisfaction of a tummy full of turkey. I hope that ground can build some gratitude in a year when we all haven’t been behaving that well; that gratitude can carry us, I hope, into 2017.

Playing with your Food

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This past weekend, two friends came to visit me, K and K. They both have had rough months – family tragedies and romantic trouble, not to mention that they both have demanding jobs that keep them almost constantly working. They made time to come see me, which I was thrilled about, but I could tell that what we all wanted and needed was a little bit of going back in time, to when we all spent a summer living in a house in our college town, working jobs with far less responsibility than we have now, having dance parties most nights in our living room, and never quite knowing where we were going to end up as “adults.”

We didn’t end up cooking together – too much, I think, like regular life – but we did end up at a sushi restaurant, because K mentioned how ravenous for sushi she was. We sat in a booth on a rooftop patio, and ordered food with nice presentation made from high-quality ingredients (I think? I guess it just tasted fresh and good). K, however, cracked us all up by stealing a toothpick and everyone’s wasabi cubes and making a little creation out of it. I was a little embarassed, but in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t hurting anyone, and our server was already a bit amused with our silliness… Grown women shouldn’t act this way all the time, but… sometimes we need it.

It got me thinking about how much adults benefit from being around kids – we claim, usually, that we ‘play’ in order to benefit the child, but often adults get severely burnt out from lack of play. The night before sushi, we all wanted to go out dancing in the city near where I live, but when we all ended up in our pajamas, playing a crazy game of charades, I think we had a better time. K is a doctor, for goodness sake, and saves lives every day, but she can act goofy for pictures and play hang-man on the chalkboard when we’re waiting for dinner. I think it’s part of a balanced life, both playing in general and maybe also playing with our food.

Thinking about Hospitality

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In the wake of the Presidential election, I’m even more thoughtful about community building and neighborliness than before. It’s easy to assume the country is close and united when we have two moderate candidates in the running, but throughout this election cycle, I’ve been stunned by the differences in mindsets among the candidates, and by the closeness of the races: the country is divided.

I know that there are some disagreements that getting to know each other cannot solve. I know that being political is not a good way to run a food blog or host a dinner party or any of the things I claim. But I do think that talking to each other, knowing people whose experiences are different from our own, seems to be one of the only chances for getting out of this mess. Half of America is a stranger to the other half; they need to have each other over for dinner.

For this reason, part of my upcoming thoughts on the blog are going to shift toward discussing modern hospitality and how people talk to strangers around them. I want to keep talking about food, because I think we are all so united when it comes to food and wanting to belong. However, I think that the ability to be isolated and self-reliant but miserable is higher than it ever has been in the United States, and I want to be a part of figuring out where we need to come together. So many books talk about how we are desperate to connect to each other, that disconnection causes so much pain and ruin. I would submit there has to be a place where people are brought together who disagree with each other, who can eat together and maybe let down some of their most emotionally-held beliefs for a little while.

This blog has always been about forming community with my friends and family; I just think that this election cycle shows that I need to move beyond that, to strangers and political opponents and people I don’t understand. We all have to live together, after all.

Secret Family Recipes… Shhhh.

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One of the recipes I received last year I have yet to try. It’s time intensive, has a lot of ingredients, and requires constant vigilance in its creation. Thus, I had put it off until I realized that I really had to try it, but I had been asked, a long long time ago, not to put it on the blog. I was told that even though it was no secret within the family, it was special, a special part of the family.

I was honored, because I was receiving a recipe that was only for the close family members, and I was excited because it meant I was part of this close family, the people that Husband’s relatives trusted the most. Though I knew it would be hard, and Husband would inevitably think my version didn’t measure up, I tackled it this week. I cannot tell you what the food was, or what the recipe entailed, but suffice it to say that 1. it took a long time. 2. it was a blast keeping everything together and 3. my version was good,  but not as good as another family member’s.

I write not to tantalize you about a recipe I’m never going to share, but to advocate that you develop your own. Sure, you might originally have found your apple pie recipe on pinterest, but with your own flare, and a missing ingredient you had to substitute, and time and experience and memories of apple pie, it might become yours. Keeping that apple pie recipe secret, even if you actually share it with millions of other people via the internet, is one way to make it special, make it part of your family’s traditions. By doing that, joining a tradition, you make new additions to your family – kids, in-laws – feel like they’ve really “made it” when you pass on the well-worn card to them and they get to hang it proudly on the refrigerator. I love sharing recipes and stories that my friends and family give me, but once in a while, it’s nice to have a little secret. 🙂

Halloween and Community

On Halloween, Husband and I have started a tradition – we pull a table out on our front porch, set up Yahtzee, and put on some kind of costume. Last year he was a tourist and I was a ninja; this year, I was some kind of greek princess (wrapped in a sheet) and he was a mad scientist (using a costume he used when he was 12 years old! It fits him better now, haha).

From there, we are able to greet every family that stops by, which to me is a little different from just popping up and down to answer the doorbell all evening. It’s nice to say hi to the parents down on the sidewalk, and to get to ooh and ahh over the kids costumes as they are coming up the walk. I especially like costumes that were clearly a labor of love for someone; no problem with store-bought costumes, but I think it’s way more exciting to design and build your own halloween costume; much more like a big, crazy craft festival than just buying costumes.

I also love that we get to see and chat with our neighbors, who also seem to enjoy the evening outdoors: one neighbor smokes his cigar and talks to us about recent updates on his house, and another posts up ornate pumpkins for us to admire. There are a lot of quiet houses too, because our neighborhood isn’t inundated with trick-or-treaters, but the ones who do come come in little packs, excited and ready to hold their bags open wide for us to give them candy.

Our tradition concludes when it gets too dark and we’ve run out of candy so we adjourn to the couch for a spooky movie or TV show – I don’t normally do horror, but it’s fun to watch something at least a little thrilling on Halloween night. I don’t yet have a Halloween “meal” – happened to eat tomato soup and grilled cheese last night, no tradition to it – but I’d love suggestions for a good Halloween party dish or just a nice tradition to start as far as Halloween dinner goes!

Pumpkins and Togetherness

This weekend, I joined Husband, his grandmother, and his grandmother’s next door neighbors for a pumpkin preparation extravaganza. We scooped and scraped, with my role being to pick out pumpkin seeds from within the slimy orange mess so that we could rinse them, season them, and cook them up for a light snack. Husband made a lovely pumpkin with an upside down bat carved into it. Makes me think of the bats that we think have taken up residence in our attic… sigh, new neighbors.

I enjoy the tradition of pumpkin carving less because it has to do with my family – we never did it growing up – but because it really has so many nice components. It celebrates produce, it really isn’t a very expensive activity, it yields (at least sometimes) a snack, it includes creativity and artistic expression but has a low barrier for entry (I’m a terrible artist and I can still poke the holes necessary for a grin or a spooky cat). Pumpkin carving often takes advantage of the nice autumn weather; it was a beautiful, unseasonably warm day and we did everything outdoors. However, we’ve had just as many delightful carving nights with the dining room table covered in newspapers and the whole place reeking of squash smell. It’s a joyful feeling.

As I envision what my family might be like in a world where there is so much screen time and isolated activity, I enjoy the dependent but autonomous fun of a pumpkin carving night. I think that it’d be fun to get neighborhood kids over, have their own pumpkins to carve, but with older kids helping younger kids and everyone contributing to clean-up and brainstorming and of course to eating the pumpkin seeds. I don’t have kids, but it seems wise to keep a thought to the kinds of wonderful ways to celebrate harvest season with kids that brings them together and lets them express themselves.

Forgetting to Eat!

Does it ever happen to you that your day is so busy and there are so many tasks to be done in a very set amount of time that you just don’t eat at all? That has been today for me – my body has figured that my levels of stress hormones, I guess, mean that appetite isn’t worth having.

It does occur to me that one way to prevent unnecessary snacking is to stay busy (too busy to be hungry!) but for the most part, I think this is a bad habit on my part. For one thing, when my appetite does return, it returns without any rules or reason: it wants all the food, right now, and in massive quantities.

I do have some pretty amazing memories on when my body was running on coffee and fumes, though: in college, A and I sat together in a coffee house for 7 or 8 hours finishing our enormous final projects for a class; people we knew stopped by here and there to chat with us and commiserate about final projects in general, and it felt like the whole world was trying to learn with us. While we realized all of a sudden that we needed to eat at some point that day, and had to take a break, the memory stuck with me.

Perhaps I don’t want a lifestyle that makes me forget to eat regularly, but I do want, once in a while, to encounter projects or challenges so consuming that I don’t need food to focus on them. I like sometimes wondering if something is just outside of my abilities, and trying to push myself. It’s a bit like Julie from Julie and Julia trying to make her final recipe, which involved boning a duck; sometimes, we just want to try something so difficult that our body needs all its attention right there. Hopefully, though, my appetite will return tonight and I can whip up something tasty.

How I Changed my Food Formula

It was pretty easy to predict how my meals went when I was living in Spain or when I lived alone in the States. My volume formula, if I’m honest with myself, went like this:

  • 50 percent carbohydrates (pasta or bread, usually)
  • 20 percent meat or meat substitute like lentils, tofu, or chickpeas.
  • 20 percent sauce/flavorings (often creamy or cheesy!)
  • 10 percent veggies/other plant-based foods.

It’s not the world’s worst proportion, but whenever the sauce/cheese crept up, or the carbs held steady, my meals might look small on the plate but were actually calorie packed. The formula that I’m aiming for these days is more like this:

  • 40 percent veggies – salad as a base, or roasted tomatoes.
  • 30 percent meat substitutes like lentils, tofu, or chickpeas, with maybe 10 percent of that coming from meats used as flavorings, like a few pepperoni on top of a dish.
  • 20 percent carbs (often in combo with the protein, like farro or quinoa)
  • 10 percent sauce (still creamy or cheesy, but in the smallest quantity possible while still being delicious!)

This means I’m getting similar volume to my meals, but I’ve subbed in more nutrient rich foods. Sauces like the butternut squash and gouda pasta sauce  allow me to actually replace sauce volume (which would have been butter or more gouda!) with a vitamin rich veggie. When this affects flavor negatively, I try to keep my sauce “pure” and just use very little of it.

I’ve been amazed, now that I think with this formula, at how a lot of the foods I crave most are actually equal proportions fat-laden sauce, meat, and carbohydrates: almost no veggie, and not even lean meats and whole grains! My transition, when I can, is to eat the flavors I love but not in the quantity I love – spreading those flavors out over a big baked potato or a tasty pan of farro has been helping me to realize that there are some healthy foods that are also craveable (see kale chips!).

It’s not a perfect system, but this is how I tend to behave when I’m not following a recipe at all; some combination of a small amount of sauce, a big pile of veggies, and small amounts of meat and carbs for texture and flavor, yields a regular-sized meal that doesn’t sacrifice flavor.