Posts tagged ‘creative cooking’

Please Do Try This At Home

ducks_207635April 20, 2014, was as close to perfect as a day could be. Having recently read the sad news that some pastors in our sister congregations in India have been viciously attacked at their own doorsteps by militant Hindu activists, we were blessed to gather, unmolested, with our church family to celebrate Christ’s astounding victory over death, and His promise to comfort those persecuted in His name.

Once back at home, the sunny day waxed glorious, reaching upper-70s temperatures we haven’t seen for many cold and gloomy months. A leisurely dog walk; a relaxed late breakfast with my hubby; the luxury of a brief, restorative early afternoon nap.

Post-nap, I bustled to prep my contributions to this year’s Easter dinner. To accompany our niece’s baked ham dinner, I would make the roasted asparagus and sweet peppers sprinkled with feta cheese and chopped pistachios I’ve described here before. (With pine nuts now up to $64.00 a pound, the pistachios were a serendipitous and delicious adaptation to the original dish. I may never do the pignolis version again!)

Next, I had volunteered roasted, glazed carrots. I didn’t want anything too rich or sweet. But this wasn’t a time to skimp on the taste factor, either. There was some good quality, organic, 100% apple juice languishing in the back of my refrigerator. Mixed with a number of on-hand ingredients that grabbed my attention as I trolled through the pantry, it translated to a crowd-pleasing, rave-inducing side which I had actually had the foresight to jot down the recipe for as I was concocting it. Here, I offer this successful experiment for your eating pleasure in your own home kitchen.

Our Easter Sunday wrapped up with a relaxed gathering of dear ones for a great meal at the home of an amazing young woman – wife, mother of two, fulltime senior paralegal, and final-year law school student – who still manages to be one of the most poised and gracious hostesses I’ve ever encountered.

Sitting on a sunny deck, watching “the guys” play their version of backyard baseball, with the family dog tirelessly chasing after the batted wiffle ball and the toddler making frequent passes through left field towing his little red wagon. How perfect is that?

For the family-friendly roasted carrots you’ll need…

For each two-pound bag of peeled carrots, cut into 2″ chunks:

1 TB butter 1/2 C apple juice or cider
1/2 red onion, sliced thin 1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice 1/2 tsp dried dill flakes

In a glass measuring cup, combine the apple juice and butter. Microwave just until butter is melted. Stir the garlic powder and spice into the butter/juice mixture. Arrange carrots in a foil-lined sheet cake pan and pour liquid over all, tossing to distribute. Sprinkle with dill flakes. Bake at 400˚ for 30-40 minutes, or until fork tender.

With gray skies and a 48˚ wind-rattled atmosphere, today’s weather has dipped back into yucky territory – a “change for the wetter’ as our local weather pundit puts it. But if I close my eyes, I can recapture the feel of that sun-soaked deck with its view of two ducks landing in the neighbor’s backyard pond. Ah, Minnesota. It’s good for the imagination, if not the arthritis.

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April 23, 2014 at 6:18 pm 1 comment

Winter Redux

winter reduxI’m about to repeat myself. Forgive me. I know I’ve nattered on in the past about the unfortunate confluence of the cold weather appetite bump and the human hibernation instinct.

But when day after day, the sky forms a dome of grey flannel capping a blanket of white velvet below, with only the stark silhouettes of bare trees to break up the monochrome landscape; and when the local climatologist declares this the ninth coldest winter since 1888; and when you’ve been off your feet with flu and cold symptoms more in the past two months than in the past five years; and when it’s more appealing to confine yourself to a warm kitchen than to venture outside and risk literal frostbite…

Well, as I said, forgive me. But my dog won’t even get out and exercise her little legs in this stuff.

I must say I did learn a lot about minimalist living while staring at the ceiling with a case of H1N1 that left me too dizzy to even prop myself up in chair. Helpful survivalist junk like…it’s possible to make a simple chicken and rice soup with one eye open and one hand on the counter top for balance; cats make great lap warmers and dogs will join you for a nap absolutely any time, day or night; the household and the world go limping along just fine without my input; virtually anything on a to-do list can be rescheduled; and my fingernails grow and my grocery bill shrinks when I’m not prepping and cleaning up after meals three times a day, every day. You know. Essentials like that.

But once you’re upright again and the food cravings come raging back, some creative if simplified menus based on what’s already on hand help keep a person distracted from the stretch of the Yukon just outside her living room window. Marinate and roast. That’s been my theme for evening meals lately. Marinades can infuse a richness without a lot of fat and minus the fussiness and excess of bread crumbs or cheesy toppings. Appetite appeased, conscience clear.

Then there are the must-eats of stew, soup, or chili. There’s no feeling sorry for yourself with a tummy full of warm turkey soup made from the frozen carcass of the Christmas turkey. Throw some chopped onion, celery, and fresh sage in with that homemade turkey stock and the meat scraps gleaned from the simmering bones. And finally, some brown rice and sliced carrots for the last hour or so of cooking, plus a splash of evaporated skim milk stirred in at the very end. A sure-fire cabin fever cure-all.

My pauper’s pantry chicken chili came about when I grabbed two 14.5 ounce cans of diced tomatoes with celery and bell peppers, a tablespoon of dehydrated onion, a teaspoon of Jamaican jerk seasoning, a 13 ounce can of chicken breast with juices, and a 15 ounce can of beans – kidney, white beans, cannellini; whatever is handy and appealing. Salt and pepper to taste, simmer for one or two hours, and dig in.

The oh-so-simple marinades follow below. And for today’s final offering, a tasty “crabmeat” pizza which makes excellent use of the lumpy imitation crustacean-esque product that comes vacuum-packed and refrigerated at your local grocery store. Don’t mock it ’til you’ve fried it. Or something like that.

And do at least try to keep your stomach preoccupied and your body well nourished until this national disaster of a winter has given way to more reasonable trends. (Anybody know when the next Global Warming Summit is scheduled? We could use the hot air about now.)

For one pound of roasted chicken thighs, you might try one of these marinades before baking the boneless, skinless pieces for 45 minutes at 350°F, or until the internal temperature reads 170°. Turn them at the mid-way point to keep them moistened, and cover baking pans with foil for most of the baking time, if your oven tends to run hot, like mine.

I always mix my marinade right in the pan, then turn the chicken or chops a few times if I’ve planned far enough ahead to refrigerate them for several hours before roasting. (One less dish to wash is never a bad thing.) More likely scenario: toss meat in marinade right before baking. I understand that it’s always a good idea to let cold meat come to room temperature before roasting or cooking, Makes for more predictable cooking times.

Marinade I
2 TB soy sauce 2 TB red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp garlic powder 1/2 tsp coriander
1/4 C water, as needed tiny pinch of sugar

Marinade II
1 TB olive oil 1 TB soy sauce
4 tsp tahini 1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp ginger 2 TB chicken broth

For four easy weeknight baked pork chops, before you bake the bone-in meat at 350° for 30 minutes or until registering 145° on a meat thermometer, mix together and slather over them…

1 TB dry sherry 1 TB soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil 1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/8 tsp Chinese five spice 1/4 C chicken or vegetable broth

For the pseudo seafood pizza I used a packaged whole grain pizza crust and topped it – in the following order, reading left-to-right – with…

3 TB yellow curry paste, smeared 6 large green olives, thinly sliced
1 pkg imitation crab meat, chopped 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
2-1/2 oz shredded colby-jack cheese 1/2 oz crumbled cotija cheese

Bake according to crust instructions, cut yourself a slab for lunch, then sit back and imagine a tropical coastline vista. They do exist out there. Really.

February 28, 2014 at 10:03 pm Leave a comment

October Creeps

16155286-autumn-trees-in-kensington-metro-park-michiganNo. I’m not referring to the misguided juveniles who egged our van a few years ago at about this time. Or the insecure punks who taped a naughty magazine fold-out to our front door a few Octobers before that. I am talking verb, not noun – as in the nature of this month of transition here in Paul Bunyan territory.

Junetober. That’s how our favorite local weather wag summed up the early, sun-blessed, 78 degree days of this tenth month of 2013. But with the calendar edging toward month eleven, the cold seeps in like frigid Lake Superior lapping at your timid bare toes.

Occember. That’s what I’m calling these current conditions, as the greedy, winterish nighttime hours begin to nibble at either end of the shortening days. It’s that skulking darkness that robs us of light both morning and evening that most affects my sense of emotional equilibrium. That, and the temperature bottoming out at 28 on yesterday’s morning walk.

With my energy level waning, the scale seems to have caught the creeping disease, as well. “Up three pounds since Monday? No way,” I argue with the frustratingly mute digital readout that stares back at me unblinkingly.

I blame a few things for this latter example of October creep. Weeks’ worth of feeding the tension born of caring for an ailing loved one, with altered routines and delayed mealtimes. Taco Bell’s introduction of the humongous Cantina Double Steak Quesadilla with chips and salsa.

But whatever the cause, the red flags are a-flappin’ in the cold autumn winds: It’s time to look to hearty, satisfying soups to stave off the cold weather appetite-ignition that can take over anybody’s best intentions – family health crises and ill-timed, 960 calorie fast food temptations aside.

With this in mind, last week I concocted from on-hand ingredients what turned out to be a lovely, stomach-filling, activity-fueling, body-warming pot of Lentil and Vegetable Soup with Organic Chicken and Apple Sausage.

I don’t go out of my way to buy organic. The jury seems to be locked in perpetual debate over the merits vs. the extra expense, and I am a penny-pincher by necessity, if not by nature. But those conservative spending habits led me to a discount grocery where bargains on almond milk and “casein-free chicken sausage with no fillers” can often be had for a good price. I think I have eight packages of it in my freezer right now. And a four pound bag of lentils on my cupboard shelf from the same shopping trip.

Ah, the wonder of the accidental recipe. Add some on-sale Chinese Five Spice for a sweet/savory nuance, some end-of-season summer squash, a few more always-on-hand ingredients, and I end up with a huge pot of dense, nutrient-rich soup which I’ll have to devour all by myself before it gets past its own “use by” date. Tough assignment, but I believe I can rise to the task. If you’d like to join me in this mission, the recipe follows.

Meanwhile, I am trying to resist a second steaming bowl of lentilly goodness, since that would likely push me right back up into double steak quesadilla calorie range – a risk I may just be willing to take if the sun doesn’t peek through those gray flannel clouds pretty darned soon here.

For the quick and easy soup assembly, line up:

2 C lentils
6 C water
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
2 yellow summer squash, chopped
2 large stalks celery, sliced thin
2 carrots, peeled and sliced thin
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp Chinese five spice*
1 C chicken broth
12 oz chicken and apple sausage, sliced
salt to taste

Place lentils and water in a soup kettle and bring water to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add onion, squash, carrots, celery, broth (or 1 cup water and 1 teaspoon or cube chicken bouillon), seasonings, and chicken sausage. Bring mixture back to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for at least another 30-45 minutes, or until carrots are tender.

This soup pairs quite nicely with a pan of homemade corn bread, corn muffins, or corn sticks, fresh and hot from the oven. My gang likes my reduced sugar version of the Quaker White Corn Meal recipe, baked in corn stick pans for the maximum in crispy, crunchy surfaces and edges:

1-1/4 C flour
3/4 C corn meal
2 TB sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 C skim milk
1/4 C canola oil
1 beaten egg

Heat oven to 400 and grease your preferred pan. Whisk dry ingredients together, beating out any lumps, then stir in milk, oil, and egg just until dry mixture is evenly moistened. Pour into prepared pan and bake to a golden brown – 20-25 minutes for 8-9″ square or round cake pan; 15-20 minutes for 12 muffins or 18 corn sticks.

Happy sloshing and noshing. And do stay warm out there.

*My bottle of Chinese Five Spice lists anise, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and ginger as ingredients. I figure a small pinch each of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and perhaps crushed fennel seed would do nicely as a substitute.

October 24, 2013 at 4:46 pm 2 comments

Of Politics and Poached Fish

cooked fish filletA thought came to me on my morning walk: From a material perspective, we are only as free as we are self-sufficient – individually or as a nation. The example of a parent-dependent teenager comes to mind. Or the 2010 Census report that 48.5% of U.S. households now receive some type of government benefit.

Of course the huge federal bureaucracy that distributes this largesse relies, in turn, on loans from potentially fickle sister nations to fund its ever-expanding and redundant social programs with their bloated official departments, gargantuan staffing demands, massively costly opportunities for fraud, and vote-buying rebate schemes. Not much peace of mind in trusting such a behemoth of snowballing debt as it teeters on the edge of the fiscal cliff. But I’m exhausted from screeching at that runaway train, so let’s switch rails right here.

A second thought came to me on the heels of that first, rather obvious deduction: Individuals can be very quirky when it comes to the source of their personal sense of security and well-being. I once knew an elderly woman who really needed to have a large stockpile of toilet paper on hand, or she wasn’t entirely comfortable with her situation. For me, it’s an overstuffed freezer and some good leftovers in the refrigerator. Or at the very least, the makings for several good, nutritious dishes that I can plan the week’s menus around.

Not all security blankets are created equal, of course. The tale of the addicted smoker who makes a pajama-clad midnight run to the nearest 7-Eleven because he can’t get through his morning coffee without a nicotine fix does not make for an amusing water cooler anecdote. I also believe that my need for a well-stocked larder makes more sense than my former acquaintance’s tissue fetish. After all, you can get creative with substitutes for Cottonelle, but you won’t have the energy to hunt for that old Sears catalogue without some means of supplying nutrition to your body.

So that takes me back to the self-sufficiency theme. Another progressive proposal popped up in a May 10th New York Times Op Ed Piece titled, “Pay People to Cook at Home.” The concerned writer claims it’s virtually impossible to find time to cook healthful, from-scratch meals, so half of We the People should be paying the other half of We the People to stay home and do just that. Of course this would further require subsidized classes on nutrition and meal planning, not to mention courses in basic cooking skills.

It always tickles my sense of irony that Big Government’s idea of helping people take care of themselves is not to just get out of their way and let them do what they have done for millennia – i.e., hand down traditions and skills from generation to generation – but to establish yet another public assistance program indoctrinating citizens on what they should do and how they should do it. So why am I not laughing?

As for me and my house, we happen to think that even having a garden is within most family’s capabilities and time limitations. If ol’ Black Thumb Girl here is able to raise green beans and tomatoes, then anyone can. The planting and harvesting takes no more time than a trip to the store every few days. You could make it a family activity – something to replace game night when the weather turns warm. But an equally essential piece of the autonomy and well-being scenario for me is food prep. Maybe that’s why I obsess over my own hoard of collected and improvised recipes.

And you certainly don’t have to spend hours cooking to come up with delights from the kitchen. So that brings me to thought number three for the day: a sampling of my experiments with the ample contents of my freezer and refrigerator over the past few weeks. Some ideas for low-effort meals: Oven-Poached Tilapia Fillets with Olives; Honey Balsamic Baked Chicken Thighs; Stir-Fry Beef Strips on Cardamom-Infused Basmati; Baked Salmon “Hash”; and a quick, easy, vegetarian-night meal of Baked Sweet Potato with Black Beans and Tomatoes.

For the tilapia to serve two, round up…

1/2 C thickly sliced shallots 1 tsp olive oil, plus cooking spray
1-14 oz can diced tomatoes 3/4 C dry white wine
1/4 tsp dried thyme salt and lemon pepper to taste
5 small to medium tilapia fillets 20 large green olives, halved

Preheat oven to 400. Coat a large cast iron skillet with cooking spray, add olive oil, and place over medium heat. Sauté shallots until softened, stirring often. Add tomatoes, wine, thyme, salt, and pepper. Cook over medium another five minutes; stir in halved olives.

Immerse the fillets in the sauce, then bake for 20 minutes. Serve with cooked orzo, lightly glazed with garlic butter, and a spinach salad.

And for the chicken to serve three-to-four, you’ll need just…

2 TB honey balsamic vinegar 1 TB sesame oil 1 tsp garlic powder 1/2 C chicken broth
1# boneless, skinless thighs

Combine first four ingredients, pour over chicken, and bake at 350 for 40 minutes. Serve with steamed Chinese pea pods and cardamom rice (see below).

The simple stir-fry for four requires…

1/2 tsp onion powder 2 lge cloves garlic, minced
1 TB shredded ginger root 2 TB soy sauce
2 TB rice vinegar 1# sirloin in 1/4 ” strips sliced against grain
2 C sweet pepper strips 1 can water chestnuts, drained
1 bunch green onion, sliced 1 can bamboo shoots, drained
2 C bean sprouts chopped peanuts for garnish

Mix first five ingredients in large bowl. Toss in thinly sliced beef and marinate for 15-30 minutes. Coat a skillet with cooking spray, place over medium heat, and sauté meat for 2-3 minutes, stirring often. Add next four ingredients, and continue to stir-fry until peppers are crisp-tender. Add sprouts and cover; cook for another 2-3 minutes

At the beginning of this process, start one cup basmati rice to cook in three cups water along with 1/2 tsp salt and 4 cracked whole cardamom pods. Cook at a simmer for 15 minutes, or until water is absorbed. Pick out cardamom before serving rice topped with stir-fry andsprinkled with chopped nuts.

Then there’s the simple salmon…

1 salmon fillet fresh lime
1 tsp Old Bay seasoning* 1 large red potato, cut in 1/2″ cubes
1 TB olive oil, separated 1 bunch scallions 1 sweet red pepper 1 med zucchini

Place salmon in a glass pie plate and douse with a generous squeeze of lime – about two tablespoons. Sprinkle with Old bay seasoning (*or use 1/2 teaspoon each garlic powder and paprika). Bake salmon at 375 for 20 minutes (or wait, and nuke it for three minutes when the vegetables are almost done). Meanwhile, put potato in a small bowl, drizzle with one teaspoon of oil, and microwave for three-four minutes, or until almost fork-tender.

Heat a skillet over medium, add remaining oil to skillet, toss in potatoes, onion, pepper, and zucchini, and sauté until potatoes are lightly browned, stirring often. Serve salmon on vegetables.

Now, to wrap things up, a humble but tasty meatless meal for one…

1 large sweet potato, scrubbed 1 tsp good olive oil
1 small onion, coarsely chopped 2 lge tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/4 tsp garlic powder 1/4 – 1/2 tsp cumin, as per taste
1/4 tsp powdered coriander 1 C black beans

To really speed things up, you can zap the potato in the microwave for 4-6 minutes, or until tender to a fork-poke, then nuke the topping ingredients until heated through, but if you have time, heat the oven to 275, combine the seven topping ingredients in a small casserole, and bake for 60-75 minutes, along-side the sweet potato. Then slit open the steaming potato and heap on the goodies. Salt and pepper to taste.

Okay. That’s enough thinking for one day. But do have a blessed, well-nourished, safe and secure Memorial Day weekend.

May 24, 2013 at 5:36 pm 1 comment

Lessons From a Cleanse: Part Last

Front Yrd 3-23-11 IIEntering weeks two and three. “I needed to be reminded of the importance of variety and balance that this past week has taught me,” reads my journal entry for day 8. I focus on flavor vs. plate-filling bulk, and learn more about the satiating attributes of omega-3 oils and the metabolism-boosting, immunity-bolstering benefits of exotic spices.

I connect with the Creator through prayer, not meditation, so while I don’t “practice” yoga, I do yoga-style limbering exercises from a dusty tome I discovered in my book collection, and rid myself of stress headaches and neck tension in the process. My four mile morning walk had become less than relaxing, upper body muscles contracting against sub-zero wind-chills and lower body tensing against the frosty uncertainty underfoot. In its place, I reintroduce some weight training and intensify the indoor aerobics sessions.

Week two also allows for hot breakfasts – cardamom quinoa porridge with toasted almonds, and luscious banana, oat flour pancakes smeared with honey. One day I go crazy and sub in a bowl of brown rice with vanilla almond milk, nutmeg, and chopped gala apple. Severely sublime.

Lunch and dinner recipes include the one and only clunker in the batch, sesame kale salad, but that is more than compensated for by mouth-watering baked salmon in coconut broth; earthy, nutty black bean-brown rice patties; paprika-warmed roasted squash and brussels sprouts on quinoa with tahini sauce; a Dijon, lemon, olive oil-dressed broccoli and chick pea salad for the gods; baked sweet potato with Swiss chard and creamy avocado; and a lemon-herb sardine salad that is way, way better than it sounds.

I never even got around to baking cherry-date bars or making creamy mango pops. I was too busy experimenting with my new favorite snack – fruit smoothies. My proudest serendipitous find: a whole, small, fresh pineapple trimmed, cored, and whirred to a pulp with a splash of light coconut milk and a generous cup of frozen raspberries. No stomach rumblings going on that night as I lay me down to sleep.

On day 10 I write, “Even better energy, body-ache, mood, and flexibility-wise than days 1-9. I am loving this. My only complaint about the menu is that it is too rich; I cut back on the oil-heavy sauces, and still have lip-smackingly good results. And what a revelation: Vegetarian doesn’t suck, or suck you dry of energy.”

On day 12, “I think the euphoria is wearing off a bit. Maybe it’s being stuck inside, trapped by the frigid weather day after day; maybe I’m craving some good ol’ lean beef chili or a baked chicken breast. It’s not a terrible crash, but anticipating week three’s prescribed tofu-heavy menus doesn’t help. We’ll see how it goes.”

Well. That’s how it goes. Very well. I should have known that if you marinate almost anything edible in enough soy sauce, olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roast it until it bubbles, it’s going to turn out pretty darned tasty. Firm tofu – basically soy bean curd formed into spongy blocks – is quite, uh, sponge-like. It absorbs whatever good, flavorful stuff you expose it to. Serve it thusly infused, on a bed of shredded fresh baby spinach leaves and warm brown rice, and it is, dare I say, beefy – in both texture and flavor.

Add in lunch and dinner recipes for roasted red pepper and kale frittatas; garlic and lime-dressed avocado and black bean tacos sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds; baked acorn squash stuffed with shimmering sautéed onion, cannellini beans, quinoa, and kale; poached egg on a bed of brown rice, shredded red cabbage, and edamame beans; and a roasted slab of halibut with diced beets and lemon dressing, and you have another seven day’s worth of epicurean delights.

And I haven’t even mentioned week three’s bodacious recipe for banana-apple buckwheat muffins. I didn’t have buckwheat, so I used millet flour – also gluten free. The results were, like the old Mounds candy bar commercial claim, indescribably delicious. But you know me; I’ll have a go at it anyway. The dense, moist, honey-sweetened little breakfast cakes that tumbled out of my oiled muffin tins were rich with cinnamon, mellow with diced sweet apple chunks, and satisfyingly crunchy with coarse-chopped walnuts. I wanted to eat all four in one sitting, but reined myself in to the recommended two per serving. With a cup of hot tea, these would make a tantalizing treat for any day of the year. Morning, noon, or night.

By week’s end, I’m feeling fabulous again, if a tad hungry on the small portions. The added exercise inspires me to note, “Perhaps this will be the week I prove to myself that I need them pork chops!”

But as I count down the last three days of “clean” eating, I don’t feel deprived at all. I chow down on those delectable muffins, revisit my favorite aoili-dressed broccoli and garbanzo salad lunch, and find that I am not even remotely straining at the bit to get back to “normal” eating.

So what is my bottom-line take-away from this little experiment? For a type-A perfectionist, there’s the reinforced message that slowing down, focusing with heightened intention on what you put into your mouth and what you expect of your body, and seeking out ways to feel lighter and less sluggish after a meal are legitimate steps on the ladder to overall wellness. Even if you think, as I did, that you have it all figured out, opening the mind to new input can nudge you up and over your seasonal lethargy like nothing else I’ve stumbled upon.

Seven weeks post-cleanse, I am still feeling good; still benefitting from a varied exercise routine, the occasional vegetarian meal, and the creamy, high-calcium, low-calorie goodness of unsweetened almond milk on my morning oatmeal. Although the regimen I’ve described hardly requires sacrifice – a word with such poignant meaning for large portions of the world’s population – it does demonstrate that even voluntarily giving up indulgences can buttress a sagging disposition.

As we Minnesotans tiptoe cautiously toward the Ides of April, today’s weather forecast reads like an Almanac page from February: Storm warnings blanket half the state, with predictions for up to eight inches of new snow and a feels-like temperature of 20-something. Now there’s a Real World trial for a reinforced spirit. You may just see me careening back to the shelter of the three week challenge, desperately seeking serenity. The perpetual grayness of an interminable winter does have a way of punching a big fat hole in even the most determinedly readjusted attitude.

Note: To find the recipes I’ve gushed about above, pop on over to http://www.wholeliving.com/action-plan.

April 11, 2013 at 4:57 pm 2 comments

Lessons From a Cleanse: Part II

cashews in a glass bowlSo here we are. Day One of Week One. I’ve shopped for the requisite lemons, limes, pineapple, oranges, mangos, and other fresh fruits; stocked up on lentils, vegetables, nuts, and seeds; indulged in an array of fresh herbs and a bottle of dried turmeric. I tentatively accept the proposition that combinations of these foods will “tune up the liver by supplying it with the things it needs most.” Now I look forward to the promised result of increased energy and sounder sleep.

The plan directs me to skip weight training and focus on stretching for ten minutes, five days this week, with 30 minutes of mellow cardio on three days. I will increase that to daily half-hour elliptical workouts on six days. I know my well-being requires this. I’ll also expand the stretching sessions to 20-30 minutes each, and add a 20 minute midday yoga session every day but Sunday.

My meals for days one through seven are tasty, if sparser than the mounded platters I usually dish up. French lentil salad, creamy broccoli soup, cauliflower “rice” stir-fry, roasted portabellas with kale, red lentil and sweet potato stew, roasted beets on greens.

Breakfasts this week are smoothies. Rejecting juicers because they waste so much nutritious fiber, I’ve printed out alternative blender recipes from wholeliving.com, and soon learn that puréed green apple and kale gives no comfort on a frigid winter morning. But the mango-tahini blend is luscious, the blueberry-mint refreshing, and the carrot-beet-pear combination gives my taste buds a happy surprise.

I enjoy an evening snack every day but Tuesday, when I ironically fall into bed too hungry to schlep my bod back into the kitchen and whip something up. End of the day munchables include strawberry-coconut-banana smoothies, sweet potato chips, raisins and pumpkin seeds, or an apple with homemade cashew cream.

With all the initial food prep required, some days I don’t eat lunch until 2:30 or 3:00, and am stunned to be neither swooning with hunger nor shaky and irritable from dips in my blood sugar. Bottom line: mood and energy levels, a-okay, and tummy just empty enough to really appreciate the good stuff coming its way. “When you know you’re locked in to a prescribed menu, you are freed to focus on other things,” I write in my journal.

My usual sleep patterns are pretty good, but I find that I’m sleeping well and long consistently, rather than sporadically. It’s just plain easier to get out of bed in the morning. By Wednesday, I have a distinct sense of benefit from the stretching and yoga. My mind doesn’t race as much, with thoughts tumbling and tripping over each other and bouncing off the walls of my cranium. And by Thursday, I feel reprogrammed somehow. Softer around the edges, but not weak or depleted. I fully expected to be hallucinating by now, instead of enjoying a sense of calm and well-being.

Except for that one night. I haven’t had a handful of Lay’s or Pringles in years, but my subconscious must be totally confused by what’s happening inside the body cavities below because I awaken in a panic from a gustatory nightmare: I dreamt I’d eaten a whole, family-size bag of cool ranch potato chips, ruined the whole effort, and had to start all over again. Maybe losing a quick three or four pounds from these radical alterations to my diet is doing weird things to the brain.

Getting ready to enter week two, I am astounded at how fabulous I feel. My energy levels remain high and this sense of peace is an unexpected gift. When our (new) computer crashes and I have to recreate an entire blog piece plus three laboriously produced pages of the memoir I’m working on, it is unfortunate, but not devastating. My temper never even flirts with a meltdown. At this point, I decide that my rage center has put up the “Gone Fishing” sign. Let’s make that an extended vacation, please.

If my senses are being distorted by chemical changes in my system, then the transformation must be for the good. Sitting across from my nacho-noshing husband at Taco Bell, as I nibble on the sugar snap peas I bagged up and brought along from home, something sinks in hard: Boldly embracing the discarded concept of will power and reconnecting with one’s sense of self-control feels pretty darned good.

I’ll put my halo away for now, and get this posted. Notes on weeks two and three will follow shortly. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you about this whole subject of cleanses, detoxing, or simply revamping and tweaking your routine. What has worked for you?

March 27, 2013 at 6:02 pm 1 comment

Lessons From a Cleanse: Part I

Green Apple SmoothieAs I start this, it’s a cold Sunday in February and the final day of a three-week “whole body detox” for this former skeptic.  It’s also sneeting* outside, which doesn’t seem as depressing as it would have in mid-January.  But let me back up just a bit. 

I’ve yammered on before about battling the Winter Blues.  By the amount of media coverage it gets, this must be a common struggle among people who deal with freezing temperatures and grey skies for months in a row.  When I had made it to 1/13/13 with no symptoms, I was primed to sit down and pound out a declaration that I’d dodged that psychological bullet this year – ta-dah, and hip-hip hooray.   Of course, sitting atop that cocky attitude, I was doomed for a fall. 

Sure enough, no sooner had I decided to share my “secrets” for skipping right past this year’s seasonal mood slump, than it whacked me right in the ego.  I had stuck with my pre-breakfast walks, refusing to let the weather cage me in; switched my radio station from tedious newstalk to calming classical; tackled and conquered a dreaded organizing chore; and kept my eating habits balanced to the healthy side.  But obviously that scheme had not enough curative powers to boost me over the familiar old hurdle:  coming out of the glitter of the Christmas season into the raw reality of long, dark nights and snow-cloud-dimmed days, with no flurry of baking and wrapping and carol-singing and card-writing for diversion. 

Sliding back into my regular routine, as the experts suggest, seemed to compound the problem – a case of the same old, lame old starting to feel like a tire-spinning rut.  I was flat-out bored.  And cranky.  My walks started to feel like banishment to Siberia, with mile after mile of unchanging whiteness.  (Please trust me when I tell you that those big, glossy “PED XING” pavement diagrams are the last place a ped wants to x in sleety, icy conditions.) 

Then we learn that we’re facing weeks of wind chill advisories.  It could be done; the mail carriers manage to dress for that kind of weather nonsense.  But I was feeling supremely unmotivated to risk it myself. 

Enter my final issue of Whole Living magazine, a gift from friends for Christmas 2011. A committed pooh-pooher of radical dietary gimmicks, I had every intention of skipping over what looked like another sleek set of false promises for a fresh start in the New Year via their “21-Day Challenge.”  But those color photos of steaming red lentil and sweet potato stew and broccoli and garbanzo bean salad glistening with Dijon dressing were irresistible.  They grabbed me by my foodie instincts and led me straight through every word of the 13-page article – and on to a light bulb moment:  Could this timely double-dog dare be an answer to prayer?    

Truly, I got excited just reading the recipes and the upbeat narrative.  This approach was so far removed from those scary $300.00 commercial kits sold by health food outlets, with their mysterious bottled concoctions conjuring up images of intestinal Sani-Flush.  No references to “corrective colon-clearing” or gentle liver-cleansing teas and capsules” here.  Strictly items I could buy at my local super market. 

And what a perfect excuse to mix up the ol’ exercise routine for a while. That really appealed to my jaded, already-sick-of-winter self.  I had become superstitiously wedded to a thrice-daily regimen of cardio and resistance training, each followed by piles of fruits and vegetables and lots of animal protein, convinced that this was the one magic formula for dealing with low-blood sugar.  But I’d also been hitting the Burrito Supremes and Diet Pepsi pretty hard at Taco Bell on weekends.  Then when stevia prices shot through the roof last year, I switched to Splenda for my double-serving of oatmeal – more chemical garbage to gunk up my system. 

I certainly know better.  I learned the truth about artificial sweeteners from the Bernstein book I tout here often – the real calorie count and same-as-sugar effect on the body that is hidden behind manufacturers’ zero-calorie claims for a 1/16th of a teaspoon serving.  You develop a tolerance for this stuff that makes you want more, and I was up to a disgusting three tablespoons every morning, just to get the sweetness that my tongue had come to crave. 

Here’s a translation that may be news to you:  Those three tablespoons of Splenda actually add up to 18 calories, with no nutritional benefit and some concern for side effects over time.  One tablespoon of honey adds 64 calories, but it’s real food.  And local honey carries the benefit of reducing allergy symptoms, once all this snow melts off and the world turns green again. 

The overall cleanse plan had restrictions, most of which I thought I could live with.  No processed foods, including sugars; no dairy, no gluten, no alcohol; no coffee.  Oh, and no real meat.  I figured I’d give it a shot, and if I should swoon from lack of animal protein by day two, I would call it a nice try and look for another way to reinvigorate my luster-lacking day-to-day. 

So week one, straight vegan.  The thought was a little scary.  But week two, you add back some fish, legumes, and gluten-free grains like quinoa and brown rice.  Week three, more add-backs, like eggs and soy products.  Even with my whole physical activity schedule turned on its head, I still did more huffing and puffing than the plan calls for.  Call it residual caution.  But what a refreshing thought, to open my mind to yoga and stretching, which I know to be beneficial but don’t make time for in my magic formula for eating a lot and exercising like crazy. 

Time for a breather from the craziness.  “Substitute another brand of insanity,” you may be thinking.  But wait until next week, when you get to hear the results.  You may end up calling yourself a former skeptic, too. 
   
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*For those of you in the Sunbelt, this is not a typo.  In states with radical seasonal fluctuations, “sneet” is a common form of precipitation which occurs when snow turns to sleet as it moves through the atmosphere.  Of course, this logic demands that sleet turning to snow be labeled “slow,” but that seems unnecessarily confusing, wouldn’t you say?

March 11, 2013 at 6:50 pm Leave a comment

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