A happy lifestyle change

I am not dieting. Rather, in the words of Nora Roberts, I am undergoing a lifestyle change.

As I declared at the start of the year, I want to get back in shape. That desire has several components to it: lose weight, regain flexibility and endurance, eat balanced meals, drink lots of water. The holy trinity of activity, hydration and good food. Easy to say. Not so easy to do, as I’ve discovered.

I could plead the heavy workload on my job, a lack of time to regularly cook, the faint metallic taste of my local water supply. But excuses don’t solve anything — they just perpetuate the problem. So I make no excuses, and have instead embarked upon a lifestyle change.

“Her love of the quick and the greasy had sent her on an odyssey of fad diets, unsatisfying supplements, and miracle workout tapes through her late teens and early twenties. Until she’d finally slapped herself silly, tossed out all her diet books, her diet articles, her I LOST TWENTY POUNDS IN TWO WEEKS — AND YOU CAN, TOO! ads, and put herself on the path to sensible eating and exercising.”Blood Brothers, by Nora Roberts

That’s me, in one short and concise paragraph, both past version and determined present tense.

Growing up, my food choices, as established by my family, were not always the greatest. My mom cooked meals for us almsot every day, but looking back, they were in part a product of our heritage.

Ethnically, I’m a hodgepodge, as we discovered when my family traced our ancestry back to practically the Stone Age. On my Dad’s side, I’m a combination of Slovak, a bit of German, Russian and Lithuanian (maybe). I’m largely Polish on my mother’s side — but she came from a very old family, which has ancestors who are Ukranian, and more Russian, Cossack, Transylvanian and just about every Baltic ethinic group you can name.

In essence, my family inherited a cuisine that’s heavy on the well, heaviness. Lots of butter and cream, bread and potatoes, doughs and sweets, not to mention supersized portions long before Mickey D’s thought of the term. Dinners regularly featured a large serving of meat (beef, pork, occasionally chicken or fish), usually pan-friend or topped with some kind of sauce. A mountain of mashed or fried potatoes on the side, and a dessert, usually sweet cookies or a slice of cake or a Tastycake pie, to finish it off. We enjoyed pierogies, beef stroganoff, and mac-and-cheese, casseroles and breaded cutlets and large, juicy burgers topped with a load of cheese.

Oh, we ate vegetables too — after all, we had a garden. Peas, green and wax beans, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers. Depending on the year, we might be trying to grow brussel sprouts or beets (successfully), broccoli (not so successfully) or corn (which fed the deer). But the vegies were additions to the meal, not equal partners.

Not to mention that my family motto could be “No food left behind.” Second helpings (and thirds) were definitely encouraged. And for those occasions when my mom or gran didn’t have time to cook, there was always a trip to the Golden Arches for a Big Mac and fries and a nice chocolate shake.

Let me put it in perspective for you. Our traditional Easter breakfast consists of cold ham, bread and butter, eggs, hrutka (egg cheese), poppyseed and nut breads, and kielbasa. Oh, and a side of redbeets and horseradish. If that isn’t a heart-attack lying in wait, I don’t know what is.

Now, those menus were balanced by activity — long bike rides or walks to get anywhere, after-school band and sports practices, just plain playtime. Still, my taste buds and eating habits were formed early, and their training was to eat a lot of fatty foods.

Which brings me to the lifestyle change.

Over time, I gradually re=trained myself to cook healthier, and to eat a lot more vegies, more fowl and fish than red meat. But I’ve fallen back into old eating habits, and coupled with the lack of exercise (and an ankle injury a few years ago that sidelined me for a year), I’m no longer in fighting trim. At the start of the year, I tried ‘dieting’ – no-carbs, and then when that didn’t work, blood-sugar balancing. But there’s a problem with diets — it’s very easy to slip off the regimented eating schedules (a meeting that runs long, an unexpected business trip). And once you’ve slipped, you can easily make excuses to slip again. Because a diet is a temporary thing, something you go on, and go off when you finish losing the weight.

But a lifestyle change is just that – a permanent change. You are, in essence, re-educating your palate and re-training your brain about what foods you want to eat, and when. At the same time, you get your body used to steady doses of activity.

And that’s what I’ve been doing the last few weeks. I’ve stocked my kitchen with fish, fowl, lean cuts of meat. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a wide variety of farmers’ markets in the area, and I’ve gradually been working my way through them, learning which stalls offer the best and freshest and most unique vegies (Chinese long-beans anyone?). I’ve gathered together a plethora of recipes I’ve always wanted to try, dishes that are light on the sauces and place more of an emphasis on herb dressings.

I’ll still eat potatoes, rices, breads, but in sensible and occasional amounts. Oddly enough, desserts won’t be that big of an issue for me. I actually don’t like most cakes — the icing is a different story, but since you can’t get icing without cake, I’m safe. I do like cheesecake, but not enough to buy an entire cake and let it go to waste.

And soda’s also not an issue – I discovered years ago that I like the bubbles, not necessarily the taste. And so my fridge has a nice selection of sparkling mineral waters. I just have to commit to actually drinking the water, at least eight glasses a day.

That just leaves the activity portion of the program, which I’ll update on tomorrow.

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Erotically Delicious

It’s erotic! And delicious! It’s Fifty Shades of — Chicken!?!

If you haven’t already bought it, I strongly recommend you get Fifty Shades of Chicken, by F.L. Fowler (even the author’s pseudonym is a parody). It came out just before Christmas last year, but somehow, I missed seeing it in the stores. And that’s a shame, because I have never laughed so much while reading a cookbook in my life.

Mr. (?) Fowler’s work is both a cookbook (with fifty recipes for chicken dishes) and an homage/parody of, obviously, Fifty Shades of Grey. In this tribute, we are treated to the story of Shifty Blades, a successful and restless chef, and Miss Chicken, a naive, organically-raised fowl who literally falls out of the refrigerator and lands at Shifty’s feet, tempting him with her firm, ripe flesh. After some confusion on the part of Miss Chicken, and Shifty’s avowal that Miss Chicken is too good for him, Shifty and his hen end up engaging in an elaborate dance of food porn.

Fowler perfectly mirrors the Grey books with a breathless, tongue-in-cheek tone to the narrative, slyly poking fun at our obsession with the sexual exploration themes of the Grey trilogy. Shifty ties, stuffs, massages and so on his Miss Chicken, all while conducting a running commentary on his actions. Miss Chicken, in turn, engages in internal monologues about Shifty’s intentions toward her and her reactions to his ‘handling.’ Just like the characters in the Grey series — only one’s a chicken and the other an inventive chef.

The book is structured so that each recipe is introduced by a short passage describing the, ahem, ‘interaction’ between chef and bird. Some of these passages are brief, others a full page long, but all are ridiculously funny. Picture a roasting chicken screaming her ‘safe word’ because she’s overheating.

It would have been so easy for this book to have slipped into over-the-top absurdity; instead, it’s carefully balanced — hilarious without being too ridiculous.

And it’s not just the story that’s good, the recipes appear to be quite tempting as well. (Literally tempting — Fowler carries the double entendres into the cooking intructions.) I’ve tried out two so far — a horseradish-marinaded roast and chicken chili. They were both quite tasty (there was no left-over chili, which considering I made a double batch to feed only four people is pretty astounding). Since I’m eating healthier, I can see I’ll be trying out most of these recipes over the coming months.

Throughout their ‘relationship,’ developed over the course of fifty recipes, Shifty and Miss Chicken must deal with some speed bumps in the form of a snooping, blackmailing cookbook publisher and Shifty’s unhealthy obsession with that hussy, Julia Childs. In the end, though, bird and cook are united in deliciousness and cookbook fame. And because of both the interesting recipes and the screamingly-funny story, this cookbook earned rare praise from me — it’s become only the eighth cookbook that I actually own. I can foresee a long, and hopefully satisfying, partnership with it.

Now this is getting ridiculous . . .

I said I liked purple vegetables, but this is getting ridiculous.

Purple artichokes. Baby purple artichokes.

I can’t even find them listed in my gardening books. Nevertheless, there they were at Whole Foods. Artichokes no larger than a San Marino tomato, covered in deep purple-black leaves. Sitting in their bin staring at me, just daring me to buy them.

Waiting for me to chicken out.

You see, I can’t cook artichokes. I can cook just about anything else, but I fail at artichokes.

Your boat has just two burners in the galley? No problem, I can whip up a five-course meal. Forgot you were hosting a holiday party for 50 people? Don’t worry, I can create a buffet with at least a dozen different offerings. The holidays roll around, and I set up an assembly-line and solo-bake batches of ten different cookies in less than one day. I collect cookbooks and recipes, and when I get bored, I’ll pull them out and try something new. I have yet to meet a cuisine I didn’t like and couldn’t cook.

But I flunk Artichoke 101. I have literally stood in my little kitchen, watching a Youtube instructional video on how to cook artichokes, only to have them turn out either teeth-breaking hard or a spongy, soggy mess.

However, I am nothing if not persistent, and so I bought the baby purple artichokes. I clipped the leaves, simmered and steamed and — well, they weren’t a soggy mess, but they weren’t the most appetizing things I’ve ever eaten.

I take heart from the fact that at least this time, they were edible. I think I’m getting better at this artichoke-cooking thing. Or maybe it’s just that baby artichokes are a little easier to prepare. Either way, I plan on trying again, to see if maybe, with more intense practice, I’ll actually be able to cook tasty vegies instead of soggy mush.

Oh, and like just about every other purple vegetable — the baby purple artichokes turned green when cooked.

Pretty Little Quail Eggs

It’s amazing what you can find at farmers’ markets in the spring.  Scapes.  Fiddlehead ferns.  And — surprise to me — quail eggs.

But just what do you do with those tiny little eggs besides boiling them?

I spent Saturday exploring new farmers’ markets, driving from Bucks County down into Montgomery and then over into Chester County by back roads.  Some markets were disappointing — the stands had the same vegetables I can find in regular markets.  Or else the markets overall featured more crafts, antiques and/or prepared-foods, and offered only a meager supply of fresh vegetables and meats.

But some of them were definitely worth the trip, and the roadside stands I passed along the back roads made it even more enjoyable.  My haul was fairly impressive for so early in the spring.

First off, I located the one food I’d set off to look for — fiddlehead ferns.  I see them occasionally at food markets like Whole Foods and Wegman’s in the spring, but not in any great quantity or with any regularity.  I picked up an entire paper bag of them at a stand in far-Chester.  Fiddleheads are just delicious when they’re simply sautéed with a bit of butter, a nut and then topped with a touch of cheese.  My favorite combination involves pine nuts, a bit of pepper and parmesan — and in fact, that’s what was served for dinner tonight.

At the same stand, I found one small bunch of scapes.  Have you ever seen scapes?  They’re basically the tender flower sprout of a hard-neck garlic plant, topped with the ‘flower’ itself, containing tiny little pearls of baby garlic ‘seeds.’  You can chop them up and use them in stir-fries, soups, omelets — the flavor (to me) is much milder than garlic bulbs, but still adds that garlicy tang to your food.

I added the little pearls into the brunch potatoes — in one of the regular farmers’ markets I found what should properly have been called infant, not baby, potatoes.  The average size was that of a marble, and the stand had both white and red potato varieties.  Mixed with the pearl garlic and sautéed with some morel mushrooms and cauliflower, they made a nice lunch dish on an unusually cold day.  And yes, I found yet more purple cauliflower, and morels, a type of spongy mushroom, which I have never seen at a market before.

But the top find was the quail eggs.  Tiny little quarter-sized eggs, speckled in individual patterns of brown and black and tan and what looks like a bluey-grey.  They’ve been on my list to try for a long time, so I grabbed a dozen.  On the way home, I began searching for recipes.

Oddly enough, at least three-quarters of the recipes I found simply had me hard-boil the eggs, and then use them as garnishes in dishes.  There are a couple of recipes where I would poach or pickle them — but then, again, they’d just be used as garnishes to the main dish of vegetables or breads.

For some reason, in my head, I built up quail eggs as something unique, that I would cook them in exotic ways.  And don’t get me wrong — I definitely like them, they’re a milder taste, a softer texture, with a lot more yolk compared to the usual chicken egg.   I can see where that flavor would provide a nice contrast to various dishes, and I’ll be trying out some of the pickling recipes as well.  But most everything I read suggested that their flavor was best eaten in a simple manner, not combined into a dish with a lot of other ingredients that would smother the taste of the eggs.

I ended up at Whole Foods to pick up some fish and — ran into a wall of purple vegetables once inside — more asparagus, Brussel sprouts, carrots, potatoes and this time, the purple peppers, were there, along with white ones.  I’m planning on taking pictures and posting them tomorrow.

Meanwhile I’m going to see just how a quail egg pickled in soy sauce tastes.  Despite its small size, it takes just as long to pickle one of the quail eggs as it does its larger chicken cousin.

Purple food

Eating healthy has turned into a bit of a scavenger hunt — for purple vegetables.

No, I’m not joking.  Over the last five weeks, I’ve become somewhat consumed with finding — and eating — purple vegies, all courtesy of my neighborhood food markets.

It started innocently enough.  I wandered into a Whole Foods at lunchtime, and discovered purple brussel sprouts from a local farm.  Really purple brussel sprouts.  The outer leaves were a deep, dark, eggplanty black-purple, and it wasn’t until I peeled to the middle section of these mini-cabbages that I found unusually-bright green leaves.  I’d read about purple brussel sprouts — I obsessively read books about kitchen gardening — so I promptly bought a large bagful to try.

Sadly, the beautiful coloring didn’t survive steaming, although, a touch of it did remain — I like my vegies a bit crunchy, so I don’t steam them until they’re soggy.  They tasted sweeter than the usual brussel sprouts, or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that they lacked the sometimes-bitter taste of their green counterparts.  I liked them, and returned to that Whole Foods to get more.

And found purple carrots, another vegetable I’d read about but never seen.  These were very different from my usual carrots — a deep reddy-purple exterior, and a clearly-defined ringed yellow inner core.   Unlike the brussels sprouts, the coloring survived cooking, and the taste was again sweeter to my taste buds.  I also learned that, unlike orange carrots, my purple ones had a thinner skin that cooked up nicely in soups and stews.

Just like that, I started hunting purple vegetables.  Obviously, I’ve eaten a variety of eggplants and turnips and I’ve grown purple cabbage, but what else was out there beside my yummy brussel sprouts and carrots?

Giant supplied me with purple cauliflower (which also turn green when steamed) and hothouse-grown purple peppers (which honestly looked more brown than purple to me, but that was the name, so they count for my tally).    Whole Foods pitched in with purple potatoes.  These are a deep purple outside, and a lighter purple with white specks inside.  However, once you cut them, they bleed a purple juice, and can stain your clothes if you’re not careful.  Whole Foods also provideda lovely bunch of purple asparagus that had a wonderful crispy texture even after being cooked.   Another specialty market provided purple French green beans (again, they turned green when cooked, and honestly tasted just like other ‘string’ beans).

It was the bi-monthly farmer’s market last weekend that provided the ultimate prizes.  Purple kohlrabi and purple sprouting broccoli.  Kohlrabi does not, contrary to rumor, taste like a sour apple, but it does have a wonderful nutty-sweet flavor and blends nicely with other root vegetables in a stir fry.  And the little sprouts of broccoli were perfect served raw in a mixed vegie salad topped with a light pomegranate dressing.

I haven’t yet found purple tomatoes, although several farmers at the market assured me that I’ll find them there, around July.  The pictures online at various garden centers show them as more brown than purple, much like the peppers.  I’ve also seen references to purple popping corn — little ears of corn, with a spectrum of color from eggplant-dark to pale violet, but no one at the market grew any corn except the larger ears for steaming at picnics.

Purple vegetables do, according to some sources, provide a wider spectrum of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients than their paler, mass-produced brethren.  But they have another side-effect that is useful to anyone trying to re-adjust their eating habits to a healthier menu — they distract you from snacks.

I was so interested in what these vegetables would taste like, what recipes I could create around them, that I ate lots of vegetables, and then didn’t feel the need for snacks.  End result?  I lost weight, without even trying, and without going to the gym or working out regularly.

We have many farmer’s markets in the Philadelphia area, and I’ve added to my to-do list a goal of hitting at least one a week.  Who knows what other gems I might find out there?