Posts tagged ‘foodie’

Pray, Walk, Cook

roast with potatoesI have a new addiction. I discovered this on a recent Saturday at the lunch table. To be precisely accurate,  it’s really an old addiction, revisited and revised, but the awakened sense of craving is undeniable, and it reminds me of how comforting a simple, satisfying meal can be. This comes at a time when I could use the positive distraction of experimenting in the kitchen.

So what’s with that title? Like many of us, my mind is heavy with concern for those being  victimized by terrorists and corrupt rulers. Throw in concern for dear ones who face cancer, the plight of neighbors making the difficult transition to widowhood, and the daily struggle to meet the challenge of my husband’s gastroparesis – a complication of diabetes that baffles even the specialists.

To cap it all, the same entertainment industry which has done more to reduce lovemaking to a rude, crude, meaningless act than any other force on earth starts lecturing the rest of us about our responsibility to stem the tide of sexual assaults. Kinda’ like a swelling, hurricane-churned ocean belittling the meek, quavering levy for not holding it back.

I know I’ve addressed this subject here before, but I’ll be danged if the battle against anxiety never gets won for good. Not if you have half a brain and half a heart. Sometimes life just gets too loud. Taking a giant step back from news reports once in a while to sift out those problems we can actually do something about is a start. Beyond that, I have developed a formula that hasn’t failed me yet.

ACTION STEP NUMBER ONE: Pray. And by this I do not mean contemplate the universe to fortify your aura. Nor do I mean meditatively conjure positive mental images in order to suck good things into your spiritual vortex or cast hopeful wishes skyward toward “The Unknown Source” and hope She’s out there with her catcher’s mitt on, paying attention.

Not any of that. Just true, humbling, turn it all over in faith and beg for guidance and endurance from your Creator prayer. I appeal to the Lord to use me in combating evil and in offering comfort to the burdened. I plead for the stamina to hold onto Joy and Peace in a sin-mired world. And I ask for an emboldened will to fend off my quavering, as news of wars, and rumors of impending wars, bombard from all sides.

To quote one Pastor David Fuerstenau, “God answers with encouragement and strength, but not without our participation in the battle.”

ACTION STEP NUMBER TWO: Walk. Prevention magazine has recommended this cure for decades. Pumping the limbs and soaking up sunshine is incredibly therapeutic, both physically and psychologically. In crummy weather, pounding out a few miles on a treadmill or elliptical trainer fills the prescription. And for us multi-taskers, steps one and two often overlap. If my mind should stray to unpleasant thoughts while I’m puffing through a power hike, I mentally list all the things I am grateful for. Counted blessings add up to attitude adjustment, guaranteed. No anxiety drug could cover all these bases in a million years, and with only pleasant side-effects.

ACTION STEP NUMBER THREE: Cook. A friend and I once tried to pin down why cooking can be such an enriching endeavor. It’s not just that a growling stomach gets tamed and a primal need satisfied, because I get a sense of fulfillment whether I am cooking for myself or for a tableful of family members.

The chopping and sautéing. The alchemy of transforming unappealing raw ingredients into aromatic, fresh-from-the-oven offerings. The artistry of arranging avocado and orange slices on a bed of romaine with slices of red onion. Each has its own reward.

I suppose this is because food is so basic to life. A human essential, like the hunger for nurturing we all harbor. Caringly prepared, nutritionally-dense fare acknowledges both needs. I can buy a box of chocolates churned out in some factory somewhere. Or I can spend a few hours shopping for quality ingredients and forming them into dozens of homemade truffles for a treasured friend’s birthday. Both acts are thoughtful. But for the cooking-minded foodie, only one is an option.

So that’s my formula. The prayer part is easy, and some form of physical exertion can be adapted for virtually everyone.

As for the cooking, anyone I know can scramble a soft, fluffy egg and sprinkle it with grated cheddar, or slide a beef roast into a pan with a bit of wine and broth, along with a few potatoes and onions to slowly caramelize over the next few hours, perfuming the air with their magnificence.

And that rediscovered addiction? Peanut butter and braunschweiger. When my daring big brother insisted I try this combination as a child, I almost gagged in disbelief. Here he was, trying to punk me again. It was that Christmas tin of chocolate-covered ants all over again.

But eventually I accepted the challenge, and while it’s not a frequent indulgence, I haven’t ever regretted it. I had only gluten-free cinnamon raisin bread on hand last weekend to pair with a leftover chunk of liverwurst. So, in my own spurt of daring, I toasted two slices of that heavenly redolent stuff, gopped on some chunky peanut butter as a base, then layered on a few ounces of the creamy, mauve-colored meat paste. Soon I was issuing Homer Simpson-like gargles in my private moment of bliss. I’m still at a loss to describe the umami-ness of it.

Hey, I once scoffed myself, if you’ll recall. But accept the dare and you just might get a few satisfied sighs out of it. You can always prayer-walk off the calories later.

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October 23, 2014 at 3:11 am Leave a comment

Susi’s Mexican Adventure – Day Four

placita veggiesMy first name is Sue Anne – two words, no hyphen, no middle name; a challenge to computer forms world-wide. But when I was eight, some younger neighborhood kids dubbed me Susie, a nickname I loved. It was softer, more genial. And it resolved the problem of people calling me “Sue.”

When daughter-in-law Esther translated my English given name to “Susi” – pronounced with double sibilance, like Dr. Seuss, except with a “y” sound at the end – I was charmed by the sound of it whistling off the tip of her tongue. Here in Mexico, it is how I am introduced, and how I introduce myself to others. If only I could slough off this angst and recapture the child-like openness the Spanish version of my name suggests.

I have fallen into a new morning schedule here, with the indoor walking DVD and a few household and personal care routines evolving as necessary. Jason and Esther have moved into the second upstairs bedroom, since her long-vacated, inherited house is in need of repair. I do my bustling before others are about, and then settle into vacation mode with a book or glass of iced lemon water on the patio. This morning, we set out to walk to Esther’s favorite juice bar and land there about 11:30, not yet having eaten and craving a good brunch.

But this is a busy place, literally humming with activity and chatter. The menus, of course, are in Spanish. The wait staff, logically, speaks their native tongue, not mine. I am so hungry I can’t think straight, and the complicated business of having Esther translate my every question and the waiter’s every response makes me dizzy with confusion.

Jason speaks Spanish, as does Jack. They are also less neurotic about what they put into their stomachs, and easily find a menu item that appeals. This is a sandwich shop which specializes in custom-blended drinks of whatever combination the diner selects. More decisions, more anxiety, more need for translation.

I finally blurt out a selection, because everyone else is waiting, then realize I have misspoken. More embarrassment and stomach-clenching tension, as Esther scrambles to cancel my order, and I surrender to the role of famished martyrdom rather than trying to join the group in their enjoyment of a meal.

What a fool I feel. It is the language thing. It is the being off-schedule and not having eaten breakfast thing. It is my torment over being the only one in the party who cannot envision myself living happily in remote San Miguel, with its low taxes, laid-back lifestyle, and virtually perfect climate. It is the cacophonous level of noise surrounding us. All these things come together like a tornado in my gut. I could sob out loud if I weren’t so self-conscious about making even more of a scene than I already have.

Down the stairs. Step outside. Gulp in a few breaths of fresh air, as cars rattle by on the busy thoroughfare outside the restaurant. Dear God, what is wrong with me? Am I four years old, for Pete’s sake? Do other adults have this breath-robbing reaction to alien environments, like a flopping fish having been yanked from familiar waters? I need to eat, and I need not to cause stress for my fellow travelers. Get a grip.

Back inside, I finally sort out my swirling thoughts and manage to convey, through Esther, a new, well-thought-out order to our saintly waiter, who patiently jots down my wishes as if I were a perfectly sane and reasonable new arrival whom he has just set eyes on for the first time.

Within minutes, I am again a part of the chatty group, and my bad behavior has been rewarded with a plate of hot and oozy ham and Swiss quesadilla with avocado and tomato on the side and a blenderful (really; brought right to the table with a tall milkshake glass which it will fill twice) of orange, papaya, strawberry, carrot, and guava fruit, swirled into the most heavenly of smoothies one could imagine. From internal chaos, to blissful ecstasy. The transformative power of panic-driven prayer and a good meal.

La Placita: plaza; piazza; public square; marketplace; shopping area. A fifteen-minute cab ride deposits us across the street from this weekly extravaganza of buying and selling. “Placita Grande” says it better. The place is enormous, and shoppers can fill almost every need here, as they mill around in a scene reminiscent of a Marrakesh Market or Istanbul Bazaar.

It is 80˚ and windy. Dusty air and the smell of frying fish waft in gusty bursts, taunting the nostrils, as a steady din of rapid-fire Spanish, a megaphone-wielding evangelist, and roving musicians compete for the available sound waves. Amidst it all, cheery vendors serve up plates of oil-puddled pizza slices topped with mounds of French fries, accompanied by the ultra-sweet Mexican version of Coke and soon to be followed by a slab of the milky dessert called Pastel de Tres Leches, or perhaps a pillowy, deep-fried sopapilla. It is no wonder that this population, like my own, is experiencing a diabetes epidemic.

As we elbow our way through the dense clusters of humanity, we pass a guitar-playing father and his singing daughter, her eyes, liquid chocolate; her hand timidly offering a Styrofoam cup to receive tokens of appreciation in the form of peso coins, or perhaps even paper, from a “rich” American tourist. More heart-rending is the stooped beggar with one crippled foot splayed out in a brace, his sad, weary stare vacantly searching the distance as he hobbles past mostly unmoved shoppers, eager to get something more tangible than the satisfaction of a generous heart from their next expenditure.

And there is such an abundance of opportunities to expend. Canopied stalls stretch for blocks in both directions, table after table of caps, jewelry, clothing, leather goods, boots and shoes; dietary supplements and folk remedies; fresh fruit, fish, meat, beans, peppers, handmade candies, seasoned roasted nuts, cookies and cakes, farm-grown vegetables, breads, and fruit-laden pastries. Esther buys a baggie of six pickled pig’s feet floating eerily in clear brine along with spices and raw onion rings, and tucks it away from Jason’s view. “He doesn’t like,” she says. (How do we say “simpatico” in Spanish?)

Back to our casita to unpack the day’s purchases, then it’s off on foot to explore the sprawling, ancient Parqué Guadiana. All this walking is good, once you learn to watch your step very carefully and to seek out the most civilized routes. Dinner is a taco salad at a restaurant operated by one of the many Canadian transplants in this ten percent expatriate community, and then back to our rental house to unwind in the flower-scented peace of the courtyard and watch the sun drop beyond the wall into a saffron-colored strata of clouds.

Around 9:00 p.m. my husband and I are puzzled to hear a plaintive voice crying out in the darkened street. “He is selling grilled corn on the cob,” says Esther. “This is very common here.” The mournful sound becomes enchanting with her explanation, a perfect metaphor for this enigmatic place.

June 22, 2014 at 5:12 pm Leave a comment

Susi’s Mexican Adventure – Day One

The challenging sidewalk outside our rental house.

The challenging sidewalk outside our rental house.

For over a year now, I’ve been enthusing to anyone who would stand still long enough that my husband and I were considering a move to Mexico. San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico, to be specific.

A number of factors figured into this announcement. Our daughter-in-law grew up in that area, for one. She first extolled its virtues as a retirement destination during a Christmas visit in 2011, causing a wary twinge in my gut at the initial suggestion. But then we started trolling the internet.

Over the next year we watched dozens of glowing YouTube videos – testimonials from transplanted ex-patriots; clips of Doc Severinsen and the San Miguel Five playing local clubs; an interview with singer/talk show host John Davidson about building a home in SMA; an Anglo professor reading his poetic ode to San Miguel, as the cameras capture romantic glimpses of the city’s historic cathedrals and quaint cobblestone streets; constant references to the vibrant arts and culture of the place.

Having invested decades of active participation, we are also weary of Minnesota’s climate – both political and atmospheric. The weather in San Miguel is as perfect as it gets. Lows in the 50s at night. Highs in the mid-70s to mid-80s during the day. Virtually year-round, day after day. Boring to some, as one interviewee admitted, but sounding like heaven on earth to us after yet another brutal winter, 2,000 miles north of SMA in MSP.

And my husband retired this spring, after several years of underemployment and a forced early sign-on to Social Security for me. Finances will be an issue for us. With San Miguel property taxes one-tenth of the Minnesota rate, heating and cooling expenses minimal, and the cost of fresh meat, seafood, eggs, and produce at the weekly outdoor market more than reasonable, it seemed sensible to take a serious look at the possibility of transplanting our household.

So…two weeks after my husband’s last day of work, we climb on a plane, San Miguel bound, hoping to confirm that we have discovered the retirement haven of our dreams. My journal entries and general impressions follow.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

We are up past midnight with last minute preparations, sleep restlessly, and then the alarm sounds at 4:00 a.m. for early arrival at the airport before our 7:00 a.m. departure. About two-and-a-half hours sleep, I estimate.

My “food bag” stuffed to the brim, I forage for the container of sliced bananas and strawberries to go with my complimentary hot tea. Jack’s blood sugar soars sky-high along with the plane, so he skips the morning meal, sips black coffee instead. We both gaze glassy-eyed out the plane window through much of the flawless flight to Dallas.

Transfer to a smaller plane for the last hop into Queretaro means a choppier ascent and descent, but compensation comes when boarding, deplaning, and customs take a fraction of the time as in the huge stateside airports we’ve just left.

Munching on a homemade turkey wrap and raw broccoli from my stash, I pass the two-plus hours reading “A Year in Provence,” by Peter Mayle, chuckling over his witty and affectionate observations on life in a foreign environment. Could this be a good omen for what lies in store for us?

Mini-panic as the flight attendant passes out a brochure on what one can and cannot carry into Mexico, and I learn that I will have to throw away all fresh fruit and meat items – most of what I brought along. I rush to gobble down one of the grapefruits, eye the second one, then decide against the foolishness of overeating, just to avoid throwing food into the trash bin.

A second bout of panic as we travel in a hired van from the airport to San Miguel. I had long justified the radical notion of moving south of the border by telling myself, this will be such a scenic and appealing setting that everyone will want to visit us there. Now, as I pass mile after mile of graffiti-marred, ramshackle, deserted roadside buildings and rickety wooden sheds selling everything from tires to tacos, I can only think, oh…my…gosh; I could never ask friends and loved ones to endure this depressing scene.

The automatic-weapon-yielding Federales, pulling over suspect vehicles as we travel the highway route into town, etch even more negatives into my first impression.

Praying that the scene will brighten as we coil our way through carved out mountainsides and begin our final sloped entry into Wonderland, I wait for the long-anticipated breathtaking view of the baroque colonial city itself.

From our elevated perspective I see a mass of buildings, crammed into a small area, punctuated by towering salmon-colored spires here and there. I squint to recreate the hazy scenes from the internet videos. I strain my neck to close in on the central town square and block out the surrounding third-world images. But the magical moment does not happen for me.

My husband is less dismayed, more optimistic. Passing through a framework of decaying infrastructure which others might more charitably describe as historically correct, we find our way to our rental home, unlock the security gate, and gratefully envelop ourselves in the lush greenery of the courtyard.

I am tired and hungry. A good night’s sleep might refresh my attitude. Utterly depleted, we stumble upon a little restaurant just around the corner from our lodgings, apparently carved – as so many establishments here are – into a block-long chunk of concrete and stone. Here my husband has two carne asada-style beef tacos and I tuck into a wonderful chili-soup of ground beef, “Jalisco style,” with condiments of raw chopped onion and parsley, and a small side salad of jicama and carrot sticks.

We pay our 200 pesos and step back into the seclusion of our rented digs. Such a welcoming sight, the beautiful purple-pink of blooming…bougainvillea? Jacaranda? Not sure. But as we shut the gates on the narrow, uneven sidewalks and aging house fronts along this street, the blooms do much to sweeten the bitter taste of disappointment.

We fall into bed around 8:30, are sawing logs by 9:00. Under tomorrow’s sunny skies, we will surely discover the hidden charms of this place they call The Heart of Mexico.

May 6, 2014 at 8:20 pm 2 comments

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.

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

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

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Recipe. According to Encarta, "a list of ingredients and instructions for making something." The thesaurus offers the alternate terms, "formula, guidelines, directions, steps, technique."

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