Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday Rant - The fat tax

Back in August, Alabama released their plan to impose a fat tax on state employees. Basically, each employee will get a medical screening, which includes a BMI test (and we know my feelings about that) and medication screenings. Those considered obese or who have high blood pressure, high glucose, or high cholesterol will have to pay an extra $25/month starting in 2011.

Now, Alabama is the second highest in obesity in the United States, so there's obviously something that needs to be done. And obesity does put a strain on our healthcare system, so it does seem logical that the people who are asking more of the system put more into it (just like I think that people who make a ton more money should pay a proportionally higher rate of taxes).
My problem with this is in determining the line. I mean, sure, there are plenty of people out there who are obese because they eat too much unhealthy food in too-large servings and who don't exercise enough. But there's more of a gray area.

What about the people who are obese because they eat fattening food because it's cheaper? They don't have a lot of money, so they buy what they can afford. The WHO proposed a fat tax on unhealthy foods a few years ago (foods like potato chips, butter, cheese, meat and whole milk). And while I would be a hypocrite in saying that this isn't a good idea (because I think higher taxes on cigarettes is a good idea), it also isn't going to solve the problem. Because the fatty food is going to get more expensive, but the healthy food isn't going to be less expensive, and it will end up leaving poor people with even less ability to buy any food.

Then there are the people who do legitimately have health issues which push them over the edge into obesity. I know this is often an overused excuse, but there are times when it is valid. And on top of whatever other medical issues they're having, they're going to be charged extra?

Now, you might be saying, $300/year really isn't that much money, especially if you're disproportionally impacting the health care system. But I think that, in Alabama especially, a good proportion of those who are obese have gotten that way because of the economic issues and the lack of nutrition education. So making them pay more is just going to make the problem worse (it's all fine and good to say that they'll be motivated to eat healthier so they don't have to pay that extra assessment every time, but honestly I think it'll just make them mad). And trying to get them to change their ways with a fee isn't going to help if they haven't been taught a more healthy way to eat. It's like turning someone out into a field, telling them to grow food, saying you'll charge them rent every month on the land, but not teaching them the process of farming. It's rather silly.

Sure, there are plenty of people who know they aren't eating healthy. It doesn't take a course in nutrition to know that hamburgers and fries aren't the best choice for your arteries. But learning how to cook tasty recipes that make you want to eat healthy (rather than plain grilled chicken or constant salads), that's another thing all together.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

You ate WHAT with that?

When I was in elementary school, we went through a phase where we'd put together two foods that didn't normally go together and eat them. It was the great lunchtime competition - who could create the best (and wackiest) mixture. I know we had a name for it, but can't for the life of me remember what it was, more than 20 years later (though I did just email a bunch of my old classmates to ask...go Facebook!).

One of my favorites (though not terribly wacky) was apple slices and brownies together. Maybe I should take that inspiration and make some brownies with apple slices in it (or maybe someone's already tried it, if so, give a shout out).

This evolved into playing spoons, where at sleepover parties, we'd raid the fridge and squirt a random array of various stuff from the fridge onto a spoon and then make someone eat it. And since honor was involved, we almost always did eat it. I don't remember exactly what went into it, since it was a rather random, grab-the-bottles-and-squirt kind of thing. But, for example, it might be a mixture of jam, capers, oil, tabasco, and mustard. One time we even subjected a friend's father to this, and put toothpaste as one of the ingredients in his spoon. He was a good sport and played along, with a minimum of face-pulling at what had to have been a disgusting flavor, though he wasn't happy when he found out there was toothepaste in it.

I also recall a birthday party of mine where the main order of business once the parents went to sleep was the playing of spoons. And come morning, there was stuff spilled all over the bottom of the closet and the sink was entirely clogged. I have no idea what caused all the mess, but let me tell you, my parents were not happy with that one!

Back to the not-quite-so-gross-but-still-strange combo foods. When I was little (I'm talking 4 years old) I used to love mayonnaise and mustard sandwiches. Just bread, mayo and mustard. I then grew out of that and didn't eat mustard for another 20 years, and am still very picky about it (dijon only). Mayo I will only eat as an ingredient (like in deviled eggs) but will never spread it on sandwiches. I guess I used up my mayo and mustard quotient when I was 4.

I was a very picky eater, especially as a teen. I could have listed on my fingers what veggies I would eat (salad veggies, but not the funky ones, just lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and then peas and corn and green beans. I'm not kidding, that's it). But one of the quirks I had was that when we had mashed potatoes and peas with dinner, I'd make a volcano shape with the potatoes, put all the peas in, and then mix it evenly together. I never ate them separately.

Even now, I'm all about the mixing of foods. When I have a protein, a carb, and a veggie on my plate, I'll take small bites of each in my mouth at the same time, to get a full complex spectrum of dinner, rather than just eating one regular-sized bite of each. The food seems more interesting that way.

What kinds of foods have you mixed in strange and different ways? Did you even play spoons?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Goodbye 20s, Hello 30s!

I figure this is the perfect opportunity to look back on the last 10 years and give thanks for the awesome stuff that's happened. That way I ring in the next 10 on a positive note! So I'm going to list 10 awesome things from this last decade - events which were important to me and made a difference in my life.

So here they are (and they're in order of what occurred to me, the numbering isn't some sort of David Letterman-style ranking system):

1. Board game parties with my friends - we've shared lots o' food, drink, and laughs over the last couple years. Whenever a party's over, it leaves me wanting to schedule another one for the very next week. I love all my awesome friends! :)

2. Walking my Dad down the aisle when he and Steph got married last year.

3. Living in France - I left for Calais to teach English about two weeks after 9-11. The French welcomed me in to their school and their lives. Being able to speak French on a daily basis energizes me like an endless battery, and the fact that the French system has awesomely built in so much vacation time meant that I could travel all around Europe during the 7 weeks of vacation (in 8 months) and all the long weekends I had during my time there.

4. Traveling - I've had the wonderful opportunity in the past few years to go to Toronto for a wedding, Paris twice on vacation, and Cairo just this year on vacation. Cairo especially was fascinating, just because it's the most exotic place I've ever been. It's full of places you see in books and movies, but don't seem quite real until you're standing beside them with your mouth open. I even got to walk down into a pyramid. Bartering at the market has to be one of the highlights.

5. Moving back to Boston - What I really appreciated about St Louis is that living there exposed me to people with a lot of different viewpoints than my own (especially politically speaking). Having grown up in liberal-land (and being very liberal myself), I feel like my sense of the world was enriched by being able to understand the perspectives of a completely different group. That said, I love Boston so much more! The colors are more vibrant here, I'm closer to my family, and the activities just seem so much more prevalent and interesting.

6. Teaching group fitness - If you'd asked me 10 years ago whether I'd ever get up on a microphone in front of a group of people and led an exercise class, I would've thought you were seriously smoking something. When I started learning how to teach, I thought my heart would pop right out of my chest, it was beating so hard. But eventually, I learned that the anticipation of teaching class was so much more nerve-wracking than actually teaching. Now that I'm used to it, I think nothing of grabbing that mic and spouting out aerobics jargon. I think that I was already headed towards a higher sense of self-confidence anyway, but teaching fitness definitely kick-started it. I'm no longer the quiet girl in class!

7. My friends - this kind of goes along with #1, but just in general, I've found an amazing group of friends, and whether we're hanging out over dinner, or movies, or whatever, I always enjoy their company.

8. My family - love 'em all, for their support with everything, from emotional support to helping me buy my condo, to just being their awesome selves.

9. Buying my condo - it may be a shoebox, but it's my shoebox, and I managed to avoid all that predatory lending rigamarole. The first awesome thing about having my own place was being able to build (with my father's help) floor to ceiling book shelves. Damn it if they're not full to overflowing! Off to IKEA for more bookshelves...

10. Food! - ok, so this probably seemed like a given on this, my food blog. But now that I've learned how to cook, and I cook often and with local tasty ingredients, food has become a big part of my life. Whether it's discussing it with you guys on my blog, filling my freezer with homemade frozen dinners, cooking for a party, eating out at restaurants, finding out healthy alternatives, making seasonal recipes, or what have you, it's been a journey.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fun New Foods: Stevia

I don't know about you, but I have a major sweet tooth. As evidenced by the fact that I just downed three mint chocolate cookies and some sweetened hot tea (we're having cookie mondays at work, and a batch of cookies just came in today instead). But then, I want to be healthy. So I'm always looking for ways to give something the appearance of sweet without the calories of sugar.

For my daily cup of tea, I normally use Splenda (made out of Sucralose). Splenda has no (or very little) calories, and doesn't have as many negative effects that saccharin and aspartame have (digression: one of my favorite sodas growing up was Tab (aspartame), especially drunk while eating a ham and cheese sub with lettuce, toasted. I once gave a friend in college a Tab to try (my mother sent them out to me), and was accused of trying to poison him).

Back to topic, Splenda. I like Splenda because it blends better than sugar (which just sits at the bottom, so when you start drinking it's not sweet and then it makes your teeth hurt at the bottom). But the part of me that likes all natural foods and ingredients (farmer's market anyone?) doesn't like it so much. It's made from real sugar, so it's a bit better, in my mind, than Sweet n' Low or Equal. But it's still not all natural.

In walks Stevia. I found this at Trader Joe's and figured I'd try it. It does, after all, say "100% Natural" right on the package, and it's calorie free and sugar free.

Wait wait, what? Sugar free? What the hell is it then?

It's made of rice maltodextrin, stevia extract and silica. Stevia extract is actually an herb native to Paraguay. It's not technically a sweetener, it can only be sold in the US as a dietary supplement. Its extracts have about 300 times the sweetness of sugar.

So why isn't it mainstream, if it's all natural and so very very sweet? Well, it seems there's a bit of a health controversy. Some studies have shown that it serves as a liver mutagen, others have proven that it's harmless. Some studies have shown that it increases insulin sensitivity in rats, and promotes insulin production (reducing the effect of diabetes), while some human studies have shown it to reduce hypertension and others have shown that it has no effect on hypertension. The WHO's study found no carcinogenic activity with Stevia and that it might help with hypertension and diabetes, but that further study was needed to determine dosage.

So basically, studies done on rats aren't as relevant as studies done on humans. And a study done on one human isn't going to be relevant for all of us. That Stevia will help one person's diabetes could mutate someone else's liver, you never really can tell in the great lottery of science (you just go on the results of large randomized trials, which are never 100% effective).

At this point, there doesn't seem to be much evidence that it's bad for you, and there is some evidence that it's good for you. So it could be a good alternative.

However, I can't get past the taste. It definitely is sweeter than sugar, but the taste isn't as innocuous. It isn't purely sweet. There's another flavor behind it, that can interact with whatever it is you're drinking/eating it with. I can't really quantify it any better than that, but I'd recommend trying some and finding out whether it's your kind of thing.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Monday Recipe - Partying in a new decade!

As some of you already know, I'm turning 30 on Wednesday. So this past Saturday was my big party, and this being me, I ended up cooking all day. I'm listing the recipes below (but keep in mind that I'm winging it off memory).

For those of you who came to the party, thanks for coming! I had a great time (well, apart from the migraine, but at least that went away eventually), and I hope you did too!

The Asian meatballs disappeared right quick, and the orzo soon after. I heard some people liked the falafel (I wasn't a big fan, but part of that I think was because I didn't add enough couscous, so the spices were way too strong). One of my longtime favorites is the stuffed grape leaf recipe.

Fruity wine
For a yummy (and antioxidant-full) cocktail, mix a half glass of white wine with blueberry-pomegranate juice. It's like fruit juice with an alcohol kick.

Orzo feta with cherry tomatoes
1 lb orzo, cooked al dente and cooled
24 oz cherry tomatoes, halved (that's about 3 pints, I think)
6T marjoram, minced (this is about one of those small spice containers-worth)
3C feta
2/3C green onions, sliced thinly
4T dijon mustard
1/2C lemon juice
1/2C olive oil
2 chicken breasts, cooked and torn into small pieces (optional)

Whisk marjoram, green onions, mustard, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt in a bowl. Take 4T of the mixture and add it to a bowl with the cherry tomatoes, mixing to coat thoroughly. Pour the rest of the marinade over the orzo and feta, stirring to mix. Add the tomatoes. Add chicken if desired.

Asian Meatballs
2lbs ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped finely
6 green onions, sliced finely
4t sesame seeds
1/2C soy sauce (I can't remember exactly if this quantity is right, but it's somewhere around there)

Mix ingredients in a large bowl. Shape into 1" meatballs and put on a non-stick (or greased) pan and broil for 10-15 minutes.

Stuffed Grape Leaves (Dolmathes)

2 jars grapevine leaves, washed

1 1/2 lbs ground beef and/or lamb

2 1/2 t salt (optional)


2T vegetable oil

2 onions, chopped

1C rice, raw

Juice from 1 1/2 lemons

1/4C mint

1/2C water

1/4C butter (optional)

2C chicken broth

Mix meat, oil, onions, rice, lemon juice, mint, water, salt and pepper in a large bowl. To roll the leaves, take a grape leaf and lay it out flat, vein-side up. take a small dollop of the meat mixture and put it at the base of the leaf. Fold the two sides on to the center, then roll away from you to make a small log-shaped roll. Make sure the leaf is not torn, and that it is rolled tightly (if it isn't, it may explode apart while cooking).

In a large pot, line the bottom with layers of grape leaves. Make sure they are packed as tightly together as possible (if they're loose, again, they may explode in cooking). To make more room in the pot, smoosh them together as closely as possible. Then start another layer. Pour in chicken broth until the leaves are just barely covered and add the pats of butter if desired. Bring to a simmer and cook for 45-60 minutes (or until rice is cooked through). Grape leaves freeze easily.

Oven-baked Falafel
I found this recipe on this wonderful food blog, Food Stories. The main mistake I made was that I didn't use enough couscous (it really looked like A LOT of couscous when I was making it, so I decided to wing it to add less). The great thing about this is that falafel is normally fried, and this is baked, so it's healthier.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Rant - Where'd the cheese go?

Ok, so we have plenty of cheese in this country. We have cheddar out the wazoo, in all different levels of sharp (extra sharp=extra yummy), we have Swiss, we have parmesan and mozzarella (my farmer's market sells some seriously yummy mozzarella every friday). So yes, we have options. But seriously, where'd all the really tasty cheese go? I'm talking the melty, smells-like-old-socks kind of cheese that explodes on your tongue like a scrumptious dairy bomb. Or the subtle hard cheese that pairs with wine and is just impossible to stop eating. There's triple-creme brie, melted goat cheese on bread, hard mountain cheese. We have goat cheese here yes, but the goat cheese I've liked the most has other flavors in it (citrus lavendar, orange cardamom), so it's less about the cheese appreciation as the flavor and the pairing with bread.

So where'd all that cheese go?

The problem in the states is the pasteurization (heating the milk to kill of the bacteria before making the cheese). There are restrictions on who can make and sell cheese, and for good reason (listeria and e coli). But while pasteurization does definitely cut down on the negative side effects of cheese, people have been eating cheese for a hell of a lot longer than pasteurization has been around. The French eat unpasteurized cheese all the time, and do we ever hear about massive e coli outbreaks in France? Non, pas du tout. The e coli outbreaks we hear about are in the US involving meat (don't get me started on the meat packing plants) and spinach.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't pasteurize, because pasteurization was a great advance and is definitely useful (especially for pregnant women who don't want to chance exposing their baby to bacteria). I just want the option to eat non-pasteurized cheese without paying an arm and a leg. The raw-milk cheese on the market here has to sit for more than 60 days before it can be sold, because the bacteria is most likely to occue in the first 60 days (I'm presuming they test the cheese before they sell it). So basically, the two most popular soft cheeses in the world (brie and camembert) must be pasteurized because they can't sit around for 60 days. And have you tried pasteurized brie? It tastes vaguely like cheese, but basically amounts to a high calorie, high fat cheese-textured spread.

And American cheese? Seriously, I think that was a psychology experiment to figure out how much BS we'd believe if they told us it was cheese. I know lots of kids like it (I did when I was a kid), but man, that stuff isn't natural!

I've gotten some very fragrant, mouth watering cheeses at cheese shops near me. But for a small wheel (maybe 4-5 inches in diameter), it'll run me anywhere from $10-$20. So I usually stick with flavored goat cheese and mozzarella, and occasionally spring for something fancier if it's in my budget.

I'll run through some of the really tasty cheese isn't another, non-rant post. But what are all your thoughts on cheese and pasteurization? Have you had European cheese made from raw milk? What kinds of cheese do you prefer?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Addictive Powers of Chewing Gum

I admit that I have a strong (and not entirely unabashed) addiction to chewing gum. I go down to the convenience store in the lobby at work and buy five or six of those big packs of sugarless chewing gum at a time. And the gum does last for a while (several weeks to a month), so I'm not going overboard. But you should have seen their faces the first couple times I bought that much. They probably thought I was buying gum for my entire department. They're used to me now, though.

I normally get the itch to eat something around 1:30 or 2p, which is a bit after lunch, but before my 4p snack. So as to not add a bunch of extra calories to my daily intake, I resort to chewing gum.

A little while back I decided to google chewing gum, to see whether chewing 3-5 sticks of it a day (ok, at a time) was a good idea. And the results were mixed.

A lot of the info below was found on this page.

The Good Stuff

1. Many brands of chewing gum are given the American Dental Association's seal of approval. On a package of Extra, it says "The ADA Council on Scientific Affairs' acceptance of Extra is based on its finding that the physical action of chewing Extra sugar-free gum for 20 minutes after eating stimulates saliva flow, which helps to prevent cavities by reducing plaque acids and strengthening teeth." The Orbit package says the same thing.

2. Gum is a low-cal alternative to eating snacks (when it's the munchies, rather than real hunger - I found a page (which I can't find again now) on which someone says that they chew gum instead of eating lunch because lunch makes them sleepy. So gum instead of non-hunger based snacks = good. Gum instead of lunch = not so good).

3. Gum is tasty! My new favorite is the Sangria Fresca flavor from Orbit, but I also like their Mojito Mint, Sweet Mint, and Extra's Green Apple. I tend to start chewing one stick and then popping another soon after to refresh the flavor. Pretty soon I have 4-5 sticks in my mouth, but the flavor's still there because I'm still popping it. When I was little, I think I got something like 15 sticks in my mouth because I was trying to see how many I could possibly fit (the record is Richard Walker with 135 sticks chewed for 8 hours).

4. Chewing gum is supposed to increase alertness and concentration (perhaps it has something to do with being mindful, and focusing on chewing gum helps focus attention into other tasks as well?). Perhaps that why I bite my lip sometimes when I'm chewing gum - I'm focusing so much on other stuff that I forget that I'm chewing on gum and try to gnaw my lip instead...

5. Gum freshens your breath, temporarily at least.

6. Some psychologists believe that chewing gum can reduce tension and boredom, and that it can help release nervous attention and provide an outlet for frustration and irritation.

7. Chewing gum can help people quit smoking (whether it's nicotine gum or just basic gum).

The Bad Stuff

1. The artificial sweeteners in chewing gum can be very bad for you. Like sorbitol, which has been shown (in large quantities) to have a laxative effect and causes abdominal pain, diarrhea, extreme weight loss, to the point of hospitalization. Now, this only happens with 20g and higher of sorbitol (which is 15 sticks of Orbit gum). So it looks like I'm ok with the 2-4 sticks I have on most weekdays.

2. Some chewing gum uses xylitol, which has fewer health problems than sorbitol, and even has some positive effects (with osteoporosis, diabetes, dental care, and infection, for example). So this is good. However, xylitol is never the primary sweetener. Even in gums like Trident, which does use xylitol, the primary sweetener, and first on the list of ingredients, is sorbitol.

3. Chewing gum is really sticky. No duh, right? That's what makes it great for chewing, that we can chow down on the rubber for a while and it never breaks down (unless it's been sitting in the sun for a while, then it disintegrates. I don't recommend that, it's really REALLY nasty). But the problem comes when it makes contact with something non-mouth-related.
  • Hair, for instance. Hair and chewing gum don't mix. I've heard peanut butter is good for that.
  • For shoes? Stick your shoe in the freezer for several hours or overnight. This will make it brittle and easy to scrape off. This can also be used for clothing, carpets, mats, and even hair (though thank you, I don't want to stand there stuck to the freezer for a while until it manages to freeze...)
  • Once the bulk of the chewing gum has come off, take a beaten egg white and rub it onto whatever remains of the gum for a few minutes.
  • If the gum has spread out on a piece of clothing, then rub it with a mixture of salt and dishwashing liquid and another cloth.
4. Overuse of chewing muscles can make them very very tight and even, in some cases, lead to damage to the muscles and the disc in the tempero-mandibular joint.

That's all I've got for the moment. So I figure, all in all, chewing gum on occasion can be good for your teeth and help keep you concentrated, but chewing constantly, or even frequently, can lead to problems. Everything in moderation, that's the key!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Kickin' it with the Hoars

As I've mentioned in passing in some other posts, I play on a kickball team. It's more social than exercise, but that's why most of us are there. But then we have games like last night, when we only had one extra person (and only four women, which is the minimum, so we got to play in the field every inning), and there's so much more running around. And I got up to kick three times (and scored once, woohoo!).

Most of the exercise comes from foul balls. You kick the ball foul, but you still have to run, just in case it turns out to be fair. And when you're on base and the kicker kicks it foul (on the ground), you still have to run just in case it's fair. And then there are the superspeed intervals, when you're on base, the ball is popped up, but the fielders drop it and you have to streak to the next base before they get the force play on you.

The other part of the exercise is the fact that it's just so damn cold that you have to jump around to get warm (ok, so maybe I was the only one dancing around and doing jacks, but hell, it was damn chilly, even through a long sleeved shirt, fleece, and team shirt!).

Our game last night was really fun. It was the best kind of kickball - everyone is really good natured and having a great time (even the team that got crushed, which thankfully wasn't us this week). Because smiles burn more calories than frowns right? I'd rather lose a game and have fun than win a game and not have fun because everyone got so super-duper intense. Thankfully, we had fun AND won last night (17-2), which is just the best of both worlds.

Then at the bar afterwards there are the bicep curls in carrying beer pitchers and flip cup (if you do enough of them, maybe it's even a full set!).

So here's the exercise spin on kickball, but really we're all just there to have a good time. And we've got a great crew, do us Hoars (team name= Horatio Alger, aka the Hoars. This becomes interesting when you're eating dinner with the folks and just out of the blue, total non-sequitur say "I'm a Hoar." Everyone just freezes, forks halfway to mouths, thinking "WHAT did she just say?!" What can I say, I like shocking people on occasion ;)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fun New Foods: Quinoa

Breaking out a new series of posts! I'm going to highlight a "new" food in each of these posts. In some cases, you might say "uh...Leth....that's not a new food, I've been eating that for ages!" Especially if you read health and food blogs frequently. But then the very next person to come along will say "well what the hell is that funky food you're talking about?!" So here goes.

Quinoa (keen-wa or ki-no-ah, I say the former)

This is my favorite carb at the moment (well, in addition to the multi-grain date bread I eat every day). It's in the whole grain family, kind of like barley but with less of that "I'm eating this because it's healthy and not because I like it" factor. Quinoa is small, circular grain that's cooked up like rice (only faster). It's especially tasty cooked in chicken broth, but is nearly as tasty cooked in water and with a little salt and pepper sprinkled on it. It goes well with meat and in soup (I used to
make soup with barley, which was kind of coarse and bland. Now I make soup with quinoa and it's much lighter and tastier). It's not as good with something bulky, such as eating with eggplant parm or ratatouille (those are better with pasta, in my opinion).

Ok, so it looks kinda gross up close. But see that little bumpy thing at top, and the fact that it's darker around the edges? You can't see all that detail when you're eating it, but the bump and the dark edges are visible and it looks like cute little swirlies on your plate. So if you get a kick out of cool shapes (yeah, I admit it, I'm kind of a nerd sometimes), then you'll get a kick out of quinoa.

What's good about quinoa from a health perspective? Well, it's a whole grain, which means that it's higher in dietary fiber, antioxidants, dietary minerals, vitamins and protein than refined carbs. Manufacturers often have to fortify refined grains to make up for the loss of vitamins and minerals. Also, whole grain carbs are digested (and enter the blood stream) more slowly. This helps avoid the cycle of eating a plate of (refined) carbs, then getting hungry soon after (caused by a spike and dip in blood sugar).

The Good Stuff
1. Quinoa is a whole grain, so it hasn't been as processed, so it's taken fewer resources to make. Thus, a smaller carbon footprint.
2. As a whole grain, it will fill you up for longer and not spike your blood sugar.
3. It's tasty.
4. Higher in vitamins and nutrients, and therefore better than refined grains in protecting against disease and promoting overall health.
5. You get to confuse people when you go into stores and ask for it and they say "whatwhat?"

The Bad Stuff
1. It's harder to find than your more run-of-the-mill grains. But you can always request it - I put in a request with my local farmstand, and just a few weeks ago noticed that they finally were stocking it. I bought a bag on principle (I didn't need any more), just to support the decision to stock it. Previously I had to go out of my way to another store to buy it.
2. People look at you funny when you ask for it, then they send you to look at the rice. Or they try to correct your pronunciation.

Quinoa is definitely my new superfood. It's my go-to grain, my side carb of choice. If you haven't tried it, then go for it!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Monday Recipe - Off the Cuff Cooking

So I didn't have much time this weekend to cook. Normally, I'll take my Sunday to cook for leftovers for the week, or for the freezer. But this Sunday was pretty busy. So I figured I'd just eat out of the freezer for this week. Then at Whole Foods, the veggies were calling me. So I threw together a two-meal veggies and ravioli dish. I think that the recipe might need a little tweaking, and I might get ravioli with a different kind of cheese next time (the goat cheese was a little too...creamy, I guess). But it was pretty good for having thrown it together off the cuff.

Veggie-Topped Ravioli
12 walnut goat cheese ravioli (or whatever kind speaks to you)
1 head of broccoli, broken into bite-sized pieces
2 small onions, cut into rounds and then halved
12-15 baby portobello mushrooms, broken into pieces
1/2-1T butter (optional)
a short pour of white wine (just enough to keep it moist and add flavor)
garlic olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
red pepper flakes to taste

Sautee the onions in garlic oil until translucent and slightly browned. Add the mushrooms, wine, and butter until the mushrooms are cooked down. Add the broccoli and spices and cook until broccoli is bright green and hot (but not mushy).

In the meantime, bring water to boil and cook the ravioli (about 3-4 minutes). Don't overcook, as the ravioli may fall apart.

Serve ravioli topped with veggies.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday Rant - You are working for tips, aren't you?

I understand that many people who serve tables (especially in such academic areas as Harvard, Porter, or Kendall Squares) are students working part-time. It's not a career choice, it's just a way to pay their way through the school year.

I know, I've been there. And honestly, I wasn't a very good waitress. I'd forget things (ooh, you mean you wanted silverware?), or I'd spill things (all over someone's head, on one memorable occasion). My heart wasn't in it, because while I enjoy being social and talking to people, it's just not quite as fun when you're trying to fit being personable into 8 tables ordering at different times and wanting refills and going through napkins like there's no tomorrow. And trying to keep the kitchen happy on top of that. Then when the table leaves, you hope and pray for that 15-20%, which you sometimes get, and sometimes you get 10% or less. And I found that I'd start judging people once they sat down - "this'll be a good tipping table" "this'll be a bad tipping table," based on whatever subconscious trends I thought I'd noticed with past tables. And then if I thought they'd not tip well, it'd make it that much harder to provide them good service, because why bother, right?

So as I said, I understand. But honestly, would it kill some servers to smile sometimes? Take last night, for example. I went to a pub-style restaurant in Harvard Sq. We had a sprawling group of maybe 15 people, milling around the (tiny) back area where there are a few tables, but mostly they just store their backup kegs and the entrance to the back store room. A social gathering that's basically a nightmare for a waitress, because you know that not everyone's eating, people aren't going to drink that much, and you're going to be running back and forth. On top of that, not everyone's going to be there at the end to decide on a concrete 20% tip, so it really depends on what people throw in. So I understand her lack of enthusiasm.

But I got there earlier than the group and was chatting with two other people who were there earlier and we ordered beers from her. And she seemed so put upon by the whole thing. Even the process of making change for us to pay for the beers seemed like a cross to bear. No smile, nope nope nope.

My reasoning is this. You may not expect much from a table (or big amoeba-like gathering) in the way of tips. You may be right. But if you frown the whole time, act like you don't want to be there, and in general look entirely put-upon, then you're confirming that expectation. You're creating the very result you feared. That said, honestly, I have no idea how much we left for a tip, so I don't know if her fears were realized (I threw in mine with some tip included and headed out). Put on a smile, hope for the best, do your best, and who knows, you might just get it!

(Oh, and if any of you are the "don't give tips just leave a card saying you disagree with the tip system" types, I'm going to shoot you down right here. Servers make about $2.50 an hour, and those little cards don't change anything, other than the server's ability to pay rent. If you want to change something, then petition your representative to get the minimum wage for servers changed)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Aging well? Don't let the mold get you down

So unlike most blog posts having to do with food and aging, I'm not actually going to talk about the effect food has on your aging process. No no no. Rather, I'd like to take a moment to discuss how food ages. Like a fine wine, getting better as the days go by? Or like chicken left out of the fridge, going spectacularly rancid. On that last note, I encountered my first rancid chicken breast over the summer (the scary thing is that I cooked with some of it, and it tasted fine, but when I defrosted the rest it was entirely gone. Blech). Not a sensory experience I'm looking forward to repeating.

This topic was brought on by some pumpkin cookies I baked on Monday (the recipe is here). For the last two weeks (and the next three), we're having Cookie Mondays at work. So two or three people bring in cookies to share with the floor. I decided to try a new recipe and made these pumpkin cookies. And as I was baking them, I tried them as they came out of the oven and man they were realllly bland. Embarrassingly bland. Such that I seriously considered going to the store and buying cookies. But I just made the icing and it sweetened them up a little, and I brought them in. Tuesday they were ok, a little better than I'd remembered from Monday. But I had two tupperware worth of leftovers to do something with. So I brought one to kickball for my teammates. I made some excuses, saying I thought they were pretty bland (I hadn't iced this bunch). But then I tried one, and they were really yummy! No more excuses, wow those cookies age really well! They were still very moist, and the rum-soaked raisins (I used regular rum because I didn't have the special flavored rum the recipe calls for) added some definite extra flavor. Note to self: next time I make this recipe, wait 2-3 days before serving.

On another occasion was my experience with an avocado. Over the summer, I made my tomato caper ziti recipe, which calls for avocado bathed in lemon crumbled on top. What I normally do is bring in the tomato ziti in a tupperware, and bring in the whole avocado to work. Then I slice the avocado in half, put the other half in tupperware for the next day. But on this occasion, I didn't eat the avocado the next day. In fact, it wasn't until friday that I pulled it out of the fridge (it went in on monday). And looking through the opacity of the tupperware, it looked very strange. I opened it up it had a blanket of mold growing up out of it. Blanket isn't the right word, that sounds thin. This was more like a shag carpet, like grass left too long without mowing, like a nice spongy moss. It was dark dark greenish bluish gray and covered the avocado so completely that had I not known there was an avocado in there, I wouldn't have been able to identify it. I threw out the tupperware without even washing it (well, of course I had to gross some co-workers out with it first...).

Meat is interesting with age. Pork does not deal with with reheating, even the next day. It's not bad for you, not rancid, it just doesn't taste good. Chicken is usually ok for a couple days (and may even be better the next day once the flavors have a chance to sit and enhance), but then it starts to glisten and get a funky flavor before it goes bad. Beef reheats very well, and again there's the flavor enhancement issue with letting it sit overnight, but I had an experience with stuffed grape leaves (beef and lamb) which I had cooked on Saturday and when I finished it up on Friday it gave me a pretty blinding headache.

People deal with aging dairy in different ways. For me, if milk (or cream) even has a hint of a bad smell, it's down the drain, no two ways about it. I did this once, however, and then had to deal with the shock of being told that "you can still cook with chunky cream." Ok, so it wasn't said exactly like that. But the gist of it was that cream can be used for cream sauce even if it's curdled. No thanks, not for me. However, I'll happily lop off the mold from cheese (I'm talking not normally moldy cheese) and eat the rest. I figure it's like penicillin. A little mold on bread? No worries, I'll just pick it off and toast it up.

What are your experiences (good or bad) with aging food? Anything you were surprised weathered time well? Or alternatively, were surprised at just how fast (or funkily) it went bad?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Getting My Cardio On

So in the last few weeks, I feel like I've barely been exercising. It started with being sick and getting subs for some of my classes. Then there was a networking event I went to and got a sub. Then one of my classes got canceled. And that was a good thing, despite the drop in pay and exercise, as I mentioned here. So my schedule looks like this:

Monday: 1 hour cardio (step), 1 hour boot camp (about 10 minutes of cardio intervals, total)
Tuesday: 1 hour meditation class
Wednesday: 1.5 hour meditation group, 5-inning kickball game (not much running involved, though there are bicep curls in our flip cup matches...)
Thursday: 1 hour boot camp (again, about 10 minutes cardio intervals)
Friday: every other week spinning, off week nothing (or, I should say, something social and not exercise related)
Saturday: 1.5 hour boot camp (about 20 minutes cardio intervals)
Sunday: rest

The thing with boot camp is this...most of the time I do a circuit training class, which has everyone in small groups doing different exercises. The advantages to this are that I can walk around and help them on their form very easily, and there's a bit of a competitive element so that people in groups are working harder with each other. Disadvantage is that I don't get to do any of the lifting, and I have to do very simple moves (no compound movements). So I went from 2-3 lifting classes per week to none. I'm starting to mix it up a little, sometimes doing a circuit class, sometimes having everyone individual (the whole class doing the same thing at the same time). And man am I sore today, yes sirree. But I do like the circuit format.

So given that in one week I do all circuit classes, I'm doing not quite 3 hours of cardio, best case, and not quite 2 hours, worst case. And what with the quantity I normally eat (and the fact that I don't feel like it's a big thing to eat a cookie if I want one, or three), it just doesn't seem sustainable. So something's gotta give.

I was debating whether to jump rope, meditate, or cook dinner when I got home last night, before heading out for a book discussion meetup. I have trouble motivating to work out on my own, but I was feeling the need to do cardio. And since money's tight, I felt like I should make dinner before going out. But I also didn't know how late I'd be out (since Tuesday is trivia night), and meditation is important too.

The meditation won out. I put on a meditation CD, got down on the floor, fended off my cat's grooming advances, and meditated for 30 minutes. Then I went to the book group and ordered dinner there. The cardio fell by the wayside. Unfortunately, there was no trivia due to the playoffs (though given the result, perhaps it would've been better to have had trivia!).

I've considered adding cardio to my lunchtime, but I don't really like to go back to work all sweaty (and taking a shower entails bringing make-up and such with me...). Now I'm just making excuses. And since I've had a cold, I haven't been back to yoga (I didn't think the person on the next mat would really appreciate me hacking up a lung in their direction).

Maybe on the days I am at the gym, I should jump rope for 15 minutes before I teach class. Because jump rope is an awesome workout, more bang for your buck than running. I could do jump rope and pushups, and I think that'll stand me in pretty good stead.

What are your go-to cardio/weight workouts in a restricted schedule? How often do you work out (if at all)?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Brewed Chocolate

So recently I came across the Cabaret Brewed Chocolate website and was intrigued. There's nothing better than hot chocolate on a cold fall/winter day, coming in from the cold and wrapping your hands around a nice warm cuppa. But the problem with hot chocolate is that it usually comes packed with sugar, and if made with non-skim milk, there's fat in there too. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Swiss Miss, and can actually eat it dry straight out of the package. Even better with little mini marshmallows. But there must be healthier, low-sugar, low-fat options, right?

So I thought I'd try this brewed chocolate.

What's brewed chocolate, you ask?

The marketing from their website: "We brew whole raw cacao beans in water to extract the flavor and essence. Much the same as coffee is brewed from coffee beans -- except it takes a lot longer and it takes a lot a beans. A full pound of whole raw cacao for every jar. Then we sweeten this wonderful liquid with organic evaporated cane juice and reduce it into concentrated syrup. You stir this syrup into hot water - by the teaspoon - to instantly create a small cup of brewed chocolate."

So what are the good things about it?

1. Organic cane juice is a healthier option than refined sugar
2. Cocoa beans are very high in theobromine, which has much the same effect as caffeine without the jittery side effects. It supposedly promotes general mood enhancement and calm.
3. It's different and interesting, and it's always good to try new things!
4. Ancient Mexicans apparently valued chocolate more for how it made them feel than how it tasted - so the effect of the theobromine in the chocolate can raise your mood as well as making you time warp back to the New World.

And what are the bad things?

1. It's DAMN expensive! The 6oz jar (about 24 servings) costs $15, which comes to about $20 with shipping.
2. It's an interesting flavor. But it tastes more like brewed adzuki beans than chocolate. It's not bad, it's just not going to fulfill a hot chocolate craving. Maybe if I brewed it with hot milk instead of hot water, that would make a difference.
3. Ancient Mexicans apparently valued chocolate more for how it made them feel than how it tasted - so this also says that the company isn't trying hard to make it taste good, they're just focusing on the effects of it.
4. The website says that the flavor is "light, delicate and remarkably complex" - hm...well, it definitely is light, sure. Delicate I can get on board with. Remarkably complex I'm not so sure. Maybe I'm just used to bold flavors, but the flavor just seemed rather weak to me.

I don't regret trying this out, I always like trying new things. I wouldn't buy it again. But if you prefer mild, light flavors, and want the benefits of a hot beverage without the negatives of caffeine, then you might want to try it. I'm not sure if they sell in retail stores, you might have to just order it online.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Monday Recipe - Apple butter

So this week I still had a large bag of apples left over from picking last weekend. Last weekend was the massive apple cook-off, and this week continued much the same. Apple cherry bread pudding (I didn't realize it was going to be like a pastry, I thought it would be pudding-like, but it was really yummy!), apple cherry crisp, apple chicken, and apple butter.

The apple butter recipe took me about six to eight hours. But I think that that's mostly because I made a double recipe (the quantities below are for a double recipe, which was about 10 1/2 smallish mason jars), and I used a deep pot on low heat (so I didn't have to constantly stir), which took longer to evaporate.

The problem I ran into is that I had no idea how many pounds of apples I had. So I rigged up a scale, MacGyver-style. I took an 8lb weight, tied it to a string, attached the string to one end of a stick. Then to the other side, I tied the bag with apples. And tried to balance it on a folded-up chair until it was about even. And it actually seems to have worked!!!

Apple butter

8lbs of apples
2C apple cider vinegar
4C water
Sugar (about 7-8 cups)
4t cinnamon
t cloves
t allspice
grated rind of one lemon

Cut the apples into quarters (without removing core or peel, as much of the flavor is in them) and add them to a large pot with the water and vinegar. Cover, bring to a boil, then simmer until apples are soft (about 20 minutes).

Ladle the apples into a food mill or chinese sieve. Force pulp into the bowl/pan below. This process took a while, and I was really surprised at how little detritus was left over from the peel and seeds, considering how many apples I used. Once the apples are reduced, return the apples to a pot. For every one cup of apple puree, add 1/2 cup of sugar. Stir to dissolve sugar. Add a dash of salt, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and lemon rind. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.

All the above steps can be simplified if you just want to use applesauce instead.

Cook uncovered in a large pot on medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent the bottom from burning (or if, like me, you don't want to stand there for ages blasting out your shoulder stirring, put it on lower heat for a longer time). Cook until thick and smooth when spooned onto a plate (cooking cook take anywhere from 2-6 hours depending on the size of the pot and the heat).

I'm not going to go through the canning procedure here, but if you want to do that, then here are the steps. I did can them, and the seals were good on all but one of the jars (and it's important to sterilize and get a good seal to prevent botulism). I figure they'll make good Christmas presents.

It came out really yummy, spicy and sweet and great on toast.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Rant - Caffeine, Beverages, and Sleep

Why is it that all the really tasty non-alcoholic beverages seem to have caffeine? Coke (Cherry Coke is my fave and they don't make that sans caffeine), chai (you can occasionally find it without caffeine, but it's not usually as good), coffee, and tea (drinking looseleaf tea, it's amazing how few options there are for decaf, unless you want to decaf it yourself).

I drink lots of water, but that's because I'm prone to dehydration, not because I like the taste. And the caffeine lobby has even gotten its hooks into water now, with this product called Water Joe. I remember seeing a booth plugging caffeinated water when I was in college and thinking WTF? My reasoning was, if I'm going to deal with caffeine (given it gives me big withdrawal headaches), then I might's well drink something that tastes good. But I suppose the site is right that for people who are just looking for that caffeine IV, they don't necessarily need all the sugar and calories too.

I don't drink much juice (thankfully, given my tooth enamel situation), or soda (even of the decaf kind). So basically, my options are water, decaf tea and the occasional ginger ale. But I love me the caffeinated drinks, I do I do.

And why is this? Why is there such a dearth of tasty decaf options, especially for hot drinks? Decaffing doesn't change the taste of tea, so there's really no reason for that. Not a big fan of the taste of coffee. Soda does taste different when decaf, does anyone know why that is?

And here's the problem - we're a notoriously sleep-deprived culture. Kids in college consider it almost a badge of honor to pull an all-nighter. If you comment on how much a co-worker is yawning, they'll almost proudly say that they only got three hours of sleep because of such-and-such. And the rise of energy drinks only fuels people to stay awake longer to squeeze those 26 hours out of the day.

Our culture runs on caffeine. Honestly, it's not natural to see, when you get on an airplane at 11am, that half the plane drops right off to sleep. Our bodies evolved to respond to sunlight, to wake when it comes up, and go to sleep when it goes down. And while that's not practical (especially in the winter months when it gets dark at 4:30), it's also not practical health-wise to force our bodies to stay up into the wee hours, sleep for four hours, then set the alarm clock across the room on super-blast until we are able to crack open sleep-deprived lids.

I was once seriously asked what I could possibly be doing at home at 11p on a Saturday night, and received a very puzzled look when I replied that I would be sleeping. Not to say that I'm always so virtuous (trivia Tuesdays and kickball Wednesdays being a big exception), but if I don't have plans, then I'm likely to start meditating around 10-something and I'm in bed by 11.

Check out this wikipedia page on the effects of sleep deprivation on the body. I also saw a 60 minutes episode about sleep, and in one of the studies, they'd deprive a boy of sleep by subtly taking him out of REM over and over. After a few days, his thinking had slowed down and he had reached a near diabetic state. Another test subject showed obvious difficulty in having a normal, thoughful discussion, but thought that she would be able to drive just fine. Because we're all so used to sleep deprivation, we don't really realize the effect that it has on our bodies. We just gulp some caffeine, blast the AC, open the window, and hope we don't fall asleep.

I don't have anything against caffeine. I wish I could drink it more, since so many of the drinks I like seem to have it. But it seems to be the cure-all in our society. Have a headache? Drink a coke. Falling asleep at your desk? Have some coffee. Need to get through a night of clubbing? Have a rum and coke. I'm for moderation in all things, but this country has a caffeine addiction to fill the gap for our breakup with sleep. I'd rather drink the caffeinated beverage because I want it and like the taste of it, rather than just because it's going to wake me up, or because it's going to stave off the inevitable caffeine headache.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Debunking the Bunk - Coffee

So the common wisdom about coffee seems to be that it's bad for you. Especially if you drink it in large quantities (I've heard tales of people drinking 8 pots a day, or of a girl working in a coffee shop who was admitted to the hospital for heart palpitations after drinking 10 espressos or so).

So not the best idea to drink 10 shots of espresso in a short time. Moderation is key.

But now, the common wisdom about coffee seems to be shifting (at least among scientists who've studied coffee's effect). Coffee's bad reputation seems to be more image than substance. In the past, coffee has been linked to anything from breast cancer to pancreatic cancer to heart disease. One hypothesis for the supposed bad effect of coffee (from this book) is that coffee often went hand in hand with cigarette smoking, and that it was the smoking that truly caused the health problems.

So now we're supposed to just on the coffee bandwagon? What's the deal?

A study cited in Science Daily says that women who drink 2-3 cups of caffeinated coffee a day decrease their chance of death from heart disease by 25%, and decrease their chance of death by cancer or heart disease by 18%. People drinking decaf coffee also had a lower rate of death than those not drinking coffee. Men had neither a higher nor lower risk associated with coffee.

Another study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (mentioned in this Senior Health article) says that regular coffee drinking of up to 6 cups a day has no negative effect for either men or women.

The Bad Stuff

1. Caffeine can have negative effects ranging from an increase in anxiety, withdrawal headaches, irritability, shakiness, and insomnia.

2. Drinking espresso, French press, or other coffee that doesn't drip through a paper filter can increase your cholesterol by a few points.

3. Drinking a lot of coffee may increase your risk for developing osteoporosis or breaking a bone.

4. Not so yummy flavors, such as blueberry (I swear, one day at work when someone was brewing blueberry coffee, I had no idea what the smell was and I really honestly though that someone had forgotten to take out the trash).

5. If you already have heart disease? No dice. Coffee can increase your risk of heart attack or stroke.

The Good Stuff

1. Lower chance of developing kidney stones, gallstones, Parkinson's, colon cancer, or type 2 diabetes.

2. Less chance that you'll voluntarily depart this earthly coil - coffee (and other caffeinated beverages) often act like mild anti-depressants. Two studies showed that suicides are as much as 50% lower among coffee drinkers.

3. Lower rates of heart disease for women.

4. Yummy flavors such as hazelnut, mocha, pumpkin.

5. Coffee may be one of our highest sources of antioxidants, but whether that's because we drink a boatload of coffee, or that we don't eat enough other antioxidant food isn't specified. Coffee came out ahead of tea, chocolate or fruit on the antioxidant-o-meter. The next highest sources of antioxidants were black tea, bananas, dried beans (do people eat dried beans and do they have the same antioxidant level well cooked?), corn, red wine, lager beer (go flip cup!), apples, tomatoes, and potatoes.

However, the docs don't recommend adding coffee to your diet for health reasons. Because while coffee does have a lot of antioxidants, the other healthy food antioxidant sources (such as fruit and veggies) offer more in terms of total nutrition. And if you're like me and have to add a good deal of milk and sugar to coffee to make it palatable, well that pretty much negates the health benefit, right? Now I want some decaf anyway...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Hittin' the Woods

So I know this is occurring to me very late in the year, as it's getting quite nippy out of doors now. But I'm thinking of getting back into hiking. What I hadn't realized is that the AMC (the Appalachian Mountain Club, not the theater...) organizes outings, or at least people who belong to the AMC do. So on their website you can plug in your state and it will tell you what local events are going on. It can be anything from hiking to walking, paddling to social hour. Maybe they even have snow-shoeing in the winter (which I've never tried, but the snow shoes are so cute, I might just take it up!). And since I have this Saturday morning off, for once (no class), I figure maybe I'll take advantage and get outside, see nature, get some exercise, and meet new people.

The cool stuff about hiking:

1. It's the easiest and least expensive outdoor activity (ok, well, maybe not counting gas, depending on how far afield you go). This is huge for me, because living in the city isn't cheap. And going out and being social generally involves spending money on dinner, or drinks, or a movie, or an event ticket, or membership in a club. So I'm all for finding ways to be social that aren't going to break the bank. I also signed up for ten meetup groups last night (ok, yes, overboard, but they all looked so interesting!)

2. It'll get your heart rate up. And the wonky thing about that is that I find the going the hardest at the base of the hill. Like when you're going up a very subtle incline on your way to the heavy hiking and you're getting out of breath and wondering why the hell it's so hard when you haven't even started the mountain yet. The rocks at the top are practically cake compared to that! The top is like step aerobics to me, I could run like a mountain goat. That bottom's a killer.

3. Sunlight, sunlight, sunlight. Sunlight is good for you (in moderation of course). Brief exposure can help you get enough vitamin D, but too much can increase your risk of skin cancer. So start off your hike, get warmed up, then stop for a stretch and slap on some sunscreen. The other factor in sunlight is that it elevates your mood, especially if you're like me and have a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where too many gray days make the winter just seem dreary, and then that day of sunlight makes you feel like you want to jump out of your skin singing to the radio (that would be the seratonin, which is increased by exposure to natural light).

4. Help prevent osteoporosis. It's important, especially early (and middle) in life to do a fairly amount of impact activity. But running and kickboxing are often hard on the joints. Hiking has been shown to help increase bone density and slow calcium loss. And trails are gentler on the joints than pavement (I imagine this is because dirt is a softer and more spongy surface).

5. Boost your balance. If you've ever tried hiking up a rocky trail, you know that the rocks really have no concern for the people walking on them, so they stick out over which way, tip over without notice, skitter down the trail, or get very slippery from moisture in the air. Good hiking shoes are key. But hiking can also help build up balance (especially with a big backpack) as well as ankle strength. If you don't have very good ankle strength, try to minimize the scrambling over loose rock until you've built it up a little, just so you don't twist your ankle and get stuck on the mountain (bosus are a good way of building up ankle strength).

6. Enjoy nature. Especially this time of year (and especially in the Northeast), the leaves are turning yellow, orange and red, and the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. And being outside in the stillness (especially if you're used to the loud city) can be very meditative and calming. So every once in a while, take a gander up at the canopy, or off to the side of the trail, and there are amazing things to see, from funky shaped mushrooms to tree frogs.

So turn off your cell phone (but have it with you in case of emergency), bring a friend, and make a social event of it yourself!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Cooking with Coke

So last year I read Ruth Ozeki's book My Year of Meats. It was a very entertaining book about a half Japanese woman who becomes the producer of a Japanese tv show in America which each episode features a different kind of meat recipe, mostly cooked by middle America soccer mom types. The meat lobby in Japan was trying to beef up (sorry, couldn't resist) its presence and selling power, so they wanted her to push beef (though she often found the pork recipes much more compelling). So she criss-crosses the continent, looking for camera-friendly American faces with good recipes behind them.

And one of the recipes was a meatloaf basted in Coca Cola. Yes, that's right, Coca Cola. Only in the book, they couldn't (for some reason I don't remember) get Coke, so they used Pepsi and it "just wasn't the same."

Apparently, this is fairly common. The Coke website lists a whole slew of recipes using their products, anything from ginger chicken wings to beef brisket, German sauerbraten to meat loaf, Cherry Coke lentils to Japanese pickled cauliflower. I've never tried it, I shouldn't pass judgement on it until I do.

But hell, I'm going to.

Maybe it's because I try to minimize the amount of chemicals I put in my food that this just seems wrong. And I fully admit to being a hypocrite, because I eat out with no problem, and eat packaged ice cream, and soda on occasion. But when I'm cooking, I try to cook with as natural ingredients as I can.

And there's just something about using Coke in recipes that just seems wrong to me. But having done my research, it seems that all the concerns about the acid (which can quite effectively clean off corrosive car batteries) are unfounded, since our stomach acids are much stronger and can neutralize the acids in the soda. More problematic is the fact that colas have been proven to leech calcium out of the bones and potentially lead to osteoporosis later in life, as well as contributing to ulcers (but only for those who drink lots of it).

But I'm thinking that cooking coke might be like cooking alcohol (and that supposition is entirely based on my own logic and is not based one iota in science or research) in that when you cook it, it neutralizes some of the bad stuff about it. Plus, there's a lot less exposure to it if you're using one can to cook a whole haunch of meat. And it apparently makes the meat much more tender and gives it a unique flavor (is unique good? Maybe I should try it now just to see).

But there are other legends/lore/rumors/theories about Coke. How's about we look into those?

Rumor: Coke is an effective spermicide, and that if you douche with it, it will prevent pregnancy. But, according to Snopes, this is like "attempting to close the barn door after the horse has gotten loose." It might kill some sperm, but most will be out of its reach already, and you could end up both pregnant and with a nasty yeast infection to boot (apologies to any guys reading this...)

Rumor: Coke will dissolve a tooth/nail/penny/piece of meat left in it overnight. Nope. That acid could eventually dissolve a tooth, if left for quite a while, but the same effect could be gotten from orange juice.

Rumor: Coke can clean out a car engine. I couldn't find anything on snopes about it (except that using Coke for car oil is not advise). But this message board basically debunks this myth. While coke is effective at cleaning batteries, using coke to clean out an engine would make things worse - the water in the soda would evaporate, leaving the gunky sticky corn syrup behind to gum up the works.

Other alternatives (to drinking) with Coke: (caveat: I have not tested most of these and some frankly seem rather suspect, but they're interesting nonetheless)

1. Add a can of coke to beans while they're cooking to reduce the ensuing gas-fest (I haven't tested the veracity of this, if you have, let me know if it works!)

2. Quiet an upset/hungover tummy

3. Boost the effectiveness of your laundry detergent by adding a can of coke to the wash. Apparently, the carbonation is supposed to help get stains out. Again, haven't tried it, and wouldn't want to add something with that much corn syrup to my laundry, but if you've tried it and it works, throw your two cents in here

4. Use coke to scrub rust off, the acid will do the trick

5. Pour a can of coke in the toilet and let sit for an hour. The acid will help clean the stains off the porcelain.

6. Relieve jelly fish stings. Hell, this is much better than other, less appealing options.

7. Mix one can of coke, one cup of ammonia and 1/4 cup of dish soap and spray on your lawn once a month for greener grass. Something about this one seems fishy to me. Ammonia and coca cola? Hmm...

8. Bring a pot of coke to boil with some fresh ginger and drink as a cold remedy.

9. Shake and spray over the windshield to clean off crusted bugs. (Wouldn't the corn syrup put a sticky film?)

10. Here's where you put another use for Coke!

Given my previous rant about the fact that some people refuse to try new things, now I feel like I should try this. Once my insane fall cooking is over and done with, I just might...

Monday, October 6, 2008

Monday Recipe - It's Smorgasbord Time!

This is the time of year when I do a lot of cooking (not that I don't normally cook weekly, but I mean A LOT). I'm filling up my freezer with frozen local veggies, so in the middle of February I can pull out some yummy gingery corn, ratatouille, or clam stuffed tomatoes. So basically, I started cooking around 11a or so, when I got home from the grocery store, and finished around 7p last night. It made for one crazy day of cooking!

To start off with, Saturday was the fall apple picking excursion. And man, I didn't realize that this is just the beginning of apple season, so this was the weekend that EVERYONE was going apple picking. We were parked in parking lot D on the totally opposite side of the orchard as normal. Anyway, when we got there, I decided I was going to get two BIG bags for apples (and at $20 a pop, I'm going to have to use them all...). I filled them up, then we hit the main store for cider doughnuts, caramel apples, and hot cider. Mmmm.

Then comes time to use all those apples.

So to start off with, I made applesauce. It didn't come out as well as last year (I couldn't remember how I made it, so I just kind of winged it). I either cooked it too long, or blended it too finely. Basically I just filled a large pot with peeled, cored, and quartered apples (just bought an apple slicer, and man did that make it a hell of a lot easier), added some water, brown sugar, cinnamon, and a little ginger, and set it to cook. Once it was mushy, I put it in the blender and blended until not lumpy. Now it's in my freezer. I'm not sure exactly what I did differently, but I want to figure it out because last year my applesauce was awesome and this year it's kinda ho hum.

Then, I made apple crisp. I loosely followed the peach pear crisp recipe from last week, but I didn't use the flour because it was too soft, and all together not crisp enough. I didn't even measure, I just poured some brown sugar, oatmeal, and spices in a bowl and mixed with soft butter, then topped the sliced apples (skin on) with the mixture. I filled in areas where I didn't have enough with some extra oatmeal and sugar. This went right into the freezer too (except for the little taster bite I took, mmm).

I made a little gingery corn (a half dozen ears) by boiling the ears briefly (just a few minutes), cutting the corn off the cob, and then cooking the kernels in butter, finely chopped ginger, salt and pepper. Froze that too, except that it fell out of the freezer during the day and spilled all over my floor. :( :( I managed to salvage about 1/3 of the tupperware that didn't fall on the floor, so that's my side dish for the week.

Next stop, ratatouille. I forgot to buy onions, which I'd normally start with. I put oil in a big pot, added three chopped up red/orange peppers, three each of squash and zucchini (sliced into bite-sized pieces), four peeled and sliced Japanese eggplants, a couple handfuls of baby carrots (chopped), and four cans of whole tomatoes (sliced in half). I added garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to taste. Let it sit and simmer for a good long time (no idea how long it was, but it was probably more than an hour, if not two). This freezes well also.

While the ratatouille was cooking, I made some sweet potato fries. Chop up a sweet potato into roughly fry-shaped pieces. Put them in a big bowl, coat them in a thin layer of olive oil, salt and pepper, then lay them out on a cookie sheet (I use a silicon one on top of metal so they won't stick) and bake for a while, maybe 30-45 minutes, until soft. This was just a snack to get through until I made my dinner.

Yes, that's right, I'm that crazy, my list isn't done yet...

Last stop, tomato capers over ziti with lemon avocado. First, I chopped up four large tomatoes into small (1/2 inch) pieces and put them in a bowl with 4T minced capers, 4 cloves minced garlic, 4T finely chopped oregano, t red pepper flakes, 1/2C olive oil, and a t salt. Cover and refrigerate to let flavors mingle. Bring a pot of water to boil, and cook 1-2lb ziti. While ziti is cooking, chop up an avocado, douse with lemon juice and sprinkle with salt. Squeeze the avocado a little to mush it up. To serve: top ziti with tomato and avocado. My lunch for the week (I also cooked some chicken to put on top as well). This is one of my favorite recipes, I've made it tons of times!

Now I don't have any room left in my freezer, and I still have another big bag of apples left! I guess I'll just have to eat some of the crisp that's in there now :D

Friday, October 3, 2008

Friday Rant - Technology and Obesity

So there are lots of different factors contributing to the recent rise in obesity. I'm not going to talk about genes, or about the prevalence of fast food (and the prospective banning of it). I'm not even going to talk about how all the yummiest food seems to be bad for you, the whole problematic calories in vs calories out debate.

No, today's rant is about technology. And don't get me wrong, I love technology. I'm technologized to the hilt. I have a big flat panel tv that I can hook my computer into for a larger monitor. I have a laptop on wireless in a tiny apartment. I have a cell phone which opens normally, then you turn it sideways and it opens into a full QWERTY keyboard. I have a car, though I live in the city and within walking distance of the subway and the bus (though I don't use my car often, only fill the tank about once a month). Long story short, I live a connected life. And I love the fact that I can sit down and google to find out what B-list actor starred in Gotcha (Anthony Edwards) or what exactly a caper is (the pickled bud of the caper shrub).

The problem comes when people use technology to be lazy. They drive to the gym (in some places, St Louis for instance, you really do have to drive there because there's no public transport), but when they get there, they park illegally in the lot right by the front doors because they can't walk an extra TWO minutes to get to the gym. TO EXERCISE. Um....

An interesting take on it is in this post on the Freakonomics blog. Basically, it's the accessibility of the outhouse. Way back when, people had to walk back and forth to the outhouse, which added more activity to their day. But apart from that, imagine it's the middle of a New England winter and it's a blizzard outside, or it's the last (crazy blowing) remanants of a hurricane outside. Do you want to trudge outside to the outhouse? I certainly don't. So you would perhaps eat a bit less, and certainly drink a bit less, and therefore end up consuming fewer calories.

Seems a little out there as a theory, but when you think about it...if you're concerned about how much output you're going to have, or how much trash you'll have to take to the town dump, then you're probably likely to take steps to consume less. I know, for instance, that when I was in Egypt I was always very concerned about water consumption. I didn't want to get dehydrated, certainly not, but I definitely didn't want to get stuck having to pee over a fly-infested hole in the ground (I attempted that once and quickly decided I didn't have to go that badly). But with clean, close-at-hand toilets everywhere? No worries, go ahead and have three large cups of coffee with plenty of milk and sugar, go for it!

My random list of technologies that make our life easier, and promote our laziness:

1. Remote control: my absolute favorite. I'm a total tv addict. And if I had to get up every 10-15 minutes to fast forward through the commercials on my DVR, it would annoy me to no end. But you remember back in the day when remotes weren't as prevalent (ok, so I don't really remember, but I remember when the remote was broken...)? You had to get up every time you wanted to change the channel, so sometimes you ended up watching something not quite as interesting (but potentially more edifying). And there wasn't as much tv ADD.

2. Food processor: again, one of my favorites. You chop something into medium chunks, dump it in, and it's all chopped up in less than a minute. Sweet! Before I had the food processor, I'd spend literally 30 minutes chopping up some carrots, or onions, or what have you. So the food processor is a time saver, but it also means less time standing, less time chopping. I made pesto last year and didn't have a food processor. So I chopped all the basil, garlic, and pine nuts by hand. And it seriously sucked. My shoulder and arm were very sore the next day. But hey, I was working!

3. Cell phone: honestly, I can't really imagine life without a cell phone now. I mean, I can, obviously, since I'm old enough to have been a teenager before cell phones were common. But I don't have a home phone, just my cell. When I was growing up, I didn't have a phone in my room. Whenever I'd hear the phone ring, I'd have to race at breakneck speed into my parent's room, or into the kitchen, to pick up the ringer before it went to the answering machine. And yeah, it was kind of a pain in the ass. But it got me moving, got me running around. Now, all I have to do is frantically search through my bag in search of the phantom Dropkick Murphys tone which I can hear ringing but has seemed to have disappeared somewhere in the depths.

4. Video games: I don't think these are the evil that lots of people have made them out to be. I think that they do promote analytical thinking, hand and eye coordination, and such. And my teen years were spent on a Gameboy playing Tetris, or the computer playing Doom or Heretic. That said, I think that kids nowadays are so much more likely to be sitting at home, alone, playing video games, rather than going outside and playing a pick-up game of whiffle ball, or riding their bikes, or climbing trees, or just running around and making trouble.

5. Alarm clock: there's no way I could get by without my trusty cell phone alarm. But here's the thing...because of all the technology (electricity, television, computers) that let us stay up super-late, we need the alarm clocks to wake our groggy selves up in the morning. Way back when, people went to sleep when the sun went down, and the woke up when the sun came up. Now, that might make work a bit....interesting. In the winter, you get to leave at noon, asleep by 5, then awake at 7:30 to be at work by 9? Ok, so that's not going to work. But the thing is...our bodies respond to the sunlight. It sucks to wake up before the sun in winter, doesn't it? And if you acclimate your body to sleep when it's sunny, or not sleep when it's dark, then it throws off all the circadian rhythms. And when we're tired, we don't feel like exercising, and it's hard to find the motivation when you have to keep your eyes open with toothpicks.

Ok, so that's my list for now. You guys got anything else?

There are so many ways where technology helps us get active too (music, exercise equipment, MBT sneakers), so let's not forget those! Maybe I'll put another post up on that at some point.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Mystery of the Thinning Enamel: Case Closed

I previously blogged about the state of my teeth. Some cavities, a cracked tooth, and thinning enamel on my front teeth. I had a deep cleaning done last month. Yesterday was the filling. And somehow I hadn't really realized how big the cavity was. Either that or it grew really quickly (which they say it can once it hits the dentin). They shot me up with Novocaine and dug out the cavity. And given the sensitivity and the fact that they had to give me two shots of Novocaine, they thought the decay might have hit the nerve and I'd need a root canal (I never really knew what a root canal was, but now that I do, ugh!). Thankfully, I narrowly escaped that.

In any event, they drilled out the cavity, then as they were preparing the filling, I explored it a little with my tongue. I had a hole nearly the size of my tooth in my tooth! Seriously! It was like a hole with a tooth shell around it. I couldn't get over how big it was, I still can't, it was nuts.

Anyway, during this whole cavity and filling process, I asked the doc about my thinning enamel (indicated by some yellowing of the teeth. Sometimes this means staining, in which case whitening is called for. Sometimes it means thinning enamel, which lets the yellow dentin underneath show through. In my case it's the later. And what sucks is that enamel doesn't grow back). I asked her why it might be thinning, and she went through the same things that the lady who cleaned my teeth mentioned - acidic stuff like juice, soda, possibly tomatoes (though they wouldn't be that bad). I rarely drink juice and infrequently drink soda. So I was still at a loss. Continue the filling process.

Then a lightbulb goes off in my head.

I eat a lot of fruit. My breakfast every morning is a fruit shake, something like this:

1 banana
2/3 of a half a cantaloupe or 1/3 container of defrosted strawberries
1 nectarine/peach/handful of blueberries
dash of water
2t flax seed oil
scoop of whey protein powder

I drink this (and it's usually a glass and a half worth of shake), then I brush my teeth and head out. Basically, the problems are twofold. The acid from the fruit gets on my front teeth as I drink the shake and sticks on the enamel. Then I go brush my teeth and the acid works as an abrasive to wear away the enamel. So I think I'm being so good and having fruit for breakfast and brushing my teeth, but really I'm wearing them away. You can't win sometimes, can you?

Or wait, maybe you can! The dentist then provided a solution for me, because she acknowledged that fruit is a very healthy option. Buy straws. Drinking my shake through a straw will send it right to the back of my mouth and bypass the front teeth completely. On top of that, rinse out my mouth with water before brushing my teeth just in case any of the fruit acid stuck on there. Woohoo, easy solution!