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A Pep Talk

Friday, April 18th, 2008

con huevos

So right.

I had this big plan, you guys. This really awesome super duper fabuloso plan to write every single day during this diet thinger. Like NaBloPoMo, only um. Not national, just me. Also not a month. So MeBloPo… nevermind. Anyway, the point is, I was TOTALLY going to do it. I had it all worked out in my head, how I’d guide you through my experience of the Standard Process Wholesome Medley Purification Cleanse (go to page 13 of the .pdf pamphlet, and no I’m not making up the name), take it day-by-day and even break down what I was eating, how I was making it through, and so forth.

THEN A GIANT ANVIL FELL ON MY HEAD LOL

OK so seriously. Somewhere in the middle of the first week it occurred to me. If I had updated you every day, this would have turned into a horrifyingly boring food and exercise diary, combined with the following commentary:

DAY 1: “Hi! I’m Leah! Read along as I enjoy torturing myself and self-righteously assert how it will be NO BIG DEAL WHATSOEVER to eat nothing but steamed vegetables, salad, fruits, and lean proteins for three weeks! Watch as I mistakenly assert it will be easier this time, since I know what I’m doing! So convinced am I of my all-mighty powers on this first day I am going to march right off to join a friend at a Thai restaurant for lunch and then hang out with Molly at the farmers’ market and a bakery in the afternoon! Okey dokey!”

DAY 2: Man. I want a snack. And chocolate. I should have been more organized. This blows already.

DAY 3: Holy crap, I am so hungry. SO HUNGRY. So goddamn hungry. And yet I am eating constantly. Plus my muscles are tingly after only 30 minutes of walking. I forgot about all of this. The first week sucks.

DAY 4: OH. MY. GOD. THE GAS. Was it this bad last time? What did I do wrong? Whatever it was, God forgive me and stop the explosions.

DAY 5: Oh, I feel better. Mmm, smoothies.

DAY 17: I do really want a cracker but I feel SO much better. Cheating sounds fun, ending this sounds fun, but… feeling better, well, feels so nice for a change.

So I realized: I should have done this daily blogging business when I did the cleanse/diet/detox/whatever the first time around. I was SO STRICT and dedicated the first time, and I was really focused on the diet. I mean I was basically living like a monk: I stuck to the prescribed supplements and foods with no deviating. Not one single cheat. Every day I wrote down what I ate, including meals, snacks, and smoothies. Every day I meditated and took notes on it. Most days I exercised and I made notes on that too. I was a model participant and the experience was almost fully documented. But as with everything, the first time was different. I was basically living alone (my roommate was not around a lot and anyway, roommates are different from significant others and/or family), I was able to work at home almost the entire time on a schedule almost entirely of my own making, and it was late summer and the weather was rather conducive to constant outside activity. I was also not in a big socializing mood, so “enjoying” my steamed kale with lemon was a lot easier. This time, I’m not as focused on the cleanse, for many reasons. So even though I knew what to expect, it’s not as easy. Even though I publicly announced I was going to, I almost wasn’t going to write about it at all, until Penny e-mailed me.

Penny’s a reader who found me while searching for information on the Standard Process three-week purification diet. She tried it once before and gave up after a few days, but she’s giving it another valiant go, starting soon. To this I say: PENNY, YOU CAN TOTALLY DO IT! I know you can. Herewith, some hints and tips to keep you on your path.

1. It is not easy. The first three to five days are the absolute hardest. Your body feels kinda whacked out, you’re hungry, you’re craving different foods (especially sugar). Just get through those first five days. Set yourself that little goal. You can do that much. Then once you’re through five days, you’ll say to yourself, I might as well go to seven, now that I’m here. And then you’ll have done a whole week!

2. Get organized before Day 1. Buy the following things: flax seed oil, juice, bananas, and frozen fruits for smoothies; eggs; frozen raw shrimp (find the recipe on my blog for an easy way to make them); at least one or two lean proteins like a steak or some chicken; lots and lots and lots of veggies and fruits. Get yourself situated.

3. When you steam your veggies, make extra so you have leftovers for lunch. Make your salads enormous so you fill up. And get creative. It’s spring! New fruit and veg are popping up all over the place! Ask if you’re allowed to use a little olive oil and vinegar; if not, use some lemon juice. Get creative. See that photo at the top? Fry an egg on high (in healthy oil) and put it on a salad like the photo below; it wilts the greens slightly and the runny yolk becomes part of the dressing.

with neighboring ingredients
4. Mix it up. DO NOT eat the same thing every day. You will want to kill everyone around you and yourself. Eat a variety of proteins (shrimp, scallops, calamari, fish, chicken, steak, etc.). Some days eat more steamed veg, some days eat more salads, some days have an extra smoothie.

5. Resign yourself to the fact that you are not going to be able to socialize as much during these three weeks, because socializing on this thing is hard. It requires an enormous amount of will-power. If you do socialize, it will not be in the way you normally do. You’ll have to drink only water (or, if you’re allowing yourself some coffee or tea, during your one coffee or tea moment of the day). You’ll have to eat whatever you can eat and not share the yummy stuff your friends are having. You can’t snack like everyone else is doing, unless there’s a fruit and veg plate out. You’ll have to be the pain in the ass person who dictates where you go because “um, that place? I don’t know if they have anything I can eat there.”

6. If it’s important for you to do it, and you feel you’re getting benefit from it, try to ignore those who want you to cheat or end early. Friends and family might think you’re crazy, or you’re not getting benefit, or you’re getting too skinny. But the thing about this “cleanse”? It’s not a crazy fast, it’s just a really strict, somewhat boring, very limited diet full of healthy, clean foods. And a lot of supplements*. If you’re following along — meaning you’re eating plenty of vegetables (especially the leafy green kind), fruits, and lean proteins — and if you’re feeling good, then stick to it. Listen to yourself and your body. You’ll know if something is wrong. And if something is wrong, then talk to whoever is monitoring your progress, and see if you should end it early.

7. Take notes! Keep daily progress reports. Not just what you’re eating, but how much physical activity you’re getting, whether you’re meditating (which I highly recommend, right after you wake up, starting with five minutes at a time), how you’re feeling. That way you can see your progress in writing and feel like you’re getting somewhere.

8. YOU CAN DO IT PENNY!

Me? I’m almost done. I don’t want sweets, except maybe a square of dark chocolate. What I want are basic carbs, like a piece of baguette. But I’m glad I did it, because I feel so much better. This time around I plan to maintain more of the “cleanse” diet in my everyday living. Unlike last time when it was a rather rapid descent back into bad habits. That way, maybe I can keep the cleanse for a once-a-year torture experience.

Healthy living, kids. Even that should be done in moderation.

*I can’t vouch for the safety of the supplements, nor do I have any scientific or clinical proof of their efficacy. I’m just going on my personal experience of this process, and I know that I feel much better, physically and mentally, after the three weeks than before. But as with anything of this nature, CONDUCT YOUR HEALTH PROFESSIONAL(S) BEFORE PROCEEDING. Seriously. Don’t be an idiot.

It’s that time again

Monday, March 31st, 2008

As some of you might remember, last year I spent three weeks on a Very Special Diet. You can call it a diet if you like, or a detox, or a total lapse of culinary sanity. You can repeat that part about THREE WEEKS, which is 21 days, which is a really long time to spend taking supplements and drinking smoothies and eating nothing but raw and steamed vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins. You can say a lot of things, and I will nod at most of them. All I remember is that at the end of those three weeks, I felt better than I’d ever felt in my life. So I’m doing it again.

Unlike last time, I’m going to keep track of what I do and how I do it this time around, to give you a better idea of how it works and whether it might work for you. That means if you’ve got any stomach or digestive problems, maybe you’ll find something in this to make it work. Or maybe you’ll decide to do just this very diet/detox/big batch of crazy yourself.

Of course, right before I started, I had my final meal (cooked by my dear friend Alan, and I think he put enough butter on my steak to not only last me three weeks but to honor this blog fully, since there won’t be any butter on this pages for many, many days). And I had to go ahead and torture myself by looking at a cookbook that I’d never bothered to peruse in depth – one of the fantastic “cuisines of the world” bargains I found at Borders, out in front, published in the UK and sold here for next to nada. I brought the Jewish cooking book with me up to Berkeley so my mom could see it, and lo and behold are there some amazing looking recipes in there – vegetarian chopped liver, bulgarian cucumber and walnut appetizer, mint and parsley tahini salad, smoky aubergine and pepper salad, and Libyan spicy pumpkin dip. And that’s just in the first few pages of recipes! Are you dying for me to try any of these?

Sadly, none of this is food I can eat for three weeks but this time I’m going about the diet and the re-entry differently: How do I want to structure my real diet when I get back to the “real” world? Which of these will work for me, and how I can incorporate them so that I stick to a healthier (for me and my restrictions) diet on a regular basis, while not feeling like I’m at steamed vegetable boot camp for the rest of my life? Can I find a routine if I don’t have strong structure like this diet going on? And how can I bring butter back without falling off my newly streamlined wagon? Chances are, you’ll see some of these recipes and others before April is over.

So tomorrow, when you see me posting about whole foods supplements and piles of steamed greens with lemon AND NO BUTTER TO BE SEEN ANYWHERE, it’s not an April Fool’s Day joke. It’s day one. And there will be 20 more to go.

Note: If you decide to follow along at home, and you’re in the Orange County/Los Angeles area, call up my friend Dr. Rudy Amicay and tell him I sent you. He’ll help you through it – I’m just here to give you my experience, and maybe some recipes along the way!

NaBloNoMo, plus Shrimp and Braised Fennel

Friday, November 30th, 2007

gambas and braised fennel

I can’t believe I did it. I honestly cannot believe that I posted every single day on two blogs for 30 days. More importantly, I can’t believe November is over and December is here and 2008 is nearly upon us and oh God I think I just got short of breath from a touch of anxiety.

Today I got a little wild hair up my ass and decided it was well past high time to get on the organization train. Late this afternoon I went around town procuring items for baking (although what is up with most stores having only sweetened coconut?) and I scrubbed the holy hell out of my sink. We’re talking a serious deep clean – I soaked it in hot water and bleach, scoured it with Bar Keepers Friend (how that missing apostrophe breaks my heart) and with S.O.S. pads, used a toothbrush in the hard to reach places, and wiped it down repeatedly with paper towels and dish rags. Oooh, does that baby shine. It’s great! But also sort of a bummer because a) was it that dirty before and if so, ew and b) now I don’t want to use it.

gambas and braised fennel

I was going to start baking tonight, but by the time errands and sink spit-shining were done I was so hungry I could barely see straight. So instead I cooked, and messed up my nice pretty sink.

The other day, my mom (who is a physician) told me that fennel is supposedly very good for digestive problems. Well, boy howdy, and here’s me over here been dying to try that braised fennel with Meyer lemon and parmesan that Luisa wrote about earlier this year. And I have all these Meyer lemons lying around because I’m making so many of those Meyer lemon sablés. So at the store, I got some fennel, and tonight I made it.

There must be an error somewhere in whatever information my mom was given, because there’s no way something that tastes this fantastic can also be good for me – particularly not me of the endless digestive woes. Oooh, if this is good for me, I am in heaven.

I laid it atop some pre-made grits-in-a-tube (thank you Trader Joe’s! Like polenta-in-a-tube, only white) and I paired it with one of my favorite quick ‘n’ easy main dishes: gambas a la plancha. Or, at least, my version of them.

gambas and braised fennel

Do you have frozen shrimp in your freezer? No? You should. Especially if you are an IBS-sufferer. Frozen shrimp are so perfect and so very handy, when it is 7:30 p.m. and you are starving and you need to eat NOW and there is nothing in the fridge and you refuse to risk getting sick and you’re also not hauling your ass to the store. I have both the e-z to peel shell-on shrimp, as well as the pre-shelled kind; the latter come in handy when I’m putting the shrimp in something or need to chop them up into bits. I get both at Trader Joe’s, I’m sure you can find a similar version at a happenin’ store near you.

The rich saltiness of the shrimp played off the creaminess of both the fennel and the grits, and the deeply infused lemon flavor of the fennel gave the shrimp the extra bit of pizazz they needed. And the grits were the perfect foil to the powerful, complex flavors of the two stars. Best of all? It’s honestly good for you, IBSers and gluten-free people alike. Lactose-intolerant too, if you leave off the parmesan! Ah, a meal for the arsenal. So to speak.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go lick out the pot and re-scrub the sink.

Gambas a la Plancha, a la Leah

4 oz. jumbo shrimp, preferably shell on/e-z peel (16-20 count, so this will be about 5 or 6 large shrimp)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, sliced
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
Italian parsley, chopped (I know there’s none in the photo – in my rush to eat, I forgot to put it on)
lemon wedge

1. Defrost the shrimp: place in a strainer and run cold water over them for 5-7 minutes until they are defrosted. They’ll be nice and pliable.

2. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook until soft, 1-2 minutes. Before the garlic browns, add the red pepper flakes and cook for a minute more to release the flavor. Remember, the more you add, the spicier they will be – I usually do a sprinkle or three of the shaker.

3. Add the shrimp to the pan. Cook for about 2-3 minutes, or until bright pink. Turn the shrimp and cook on the other side. They should be bright pink on both sides, with a nice white inside. Do not overcook or you will have rubbery shrimp. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with parsley, and serve with lemon on the side.

Serves 1

Celebrate!

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Tomorrow is the final day of NaBloPoMo. I can’t believe I made it. I can’t believe I posted every single day this month – on TWO blogs no less – all while managing to advance to candidacy, spend time with a certain someone, candy a metric ton of orange peel, scour the stove, go up north, see a few friends, and adore the cat and both dogs in my life. I can do it all, people. I CAN DO IT ALL.

Except, apparently, get back into the healthy regimen (regime!) that was so amazing over the summer. The one where I was eating the magical Leah is happy and healthy and glowing and has perfect skin, no headaches, and no digestive trouble diet. The one where I was riding my bike and swimming and walking and jogging and going to pilates and yoga. The one where someone else was watching over me, which means apparently I have no self-discipline or will-power. I planned to start going without sugar starting today and I couldn’t make it one day. 10:00 p.m. rolls around and I gave in. I would make myself go to bed without dessert as punishment but, um.

Anyhoodle, there’s a lot to say on all of this, and I swear sometime soon (maybe even tomorrow! so exciting!) I am going to say more than “golly gee gosh, I sure am bad at sticking to being healthy, even though I have known digestive problems, oopth!” But for now, I would like to celebrate this whole posting every single day thing. Tomorrow is the last day, but I won’t end up posting until later, and you guys might not see it until later on in the weekend or even Monday, and that’s sort of anti-climactic. So, in celebration of actually doing what I set out to do – and in celebration of accepting that structure and deadlines and having someone to answer to besides myself are all good things and should be applied in other areas besides blog writing, HINT HINT LEAH – I would like to show you a cake I made a few months ago for another celebration. Because it is so friggin’ celebratory that it can do double duty. Oh I am so excited to finally post this here! I’ve been waiting for just the right time and this is so it, I can feel it. My nerd sense is tingling.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Giant Hostess Cupcake Cake.

Giant Hostess cupcake!

I made this for my darling friend Sooz’s birthday. Yes, that’s right. A giant Hostess cupcake. I found this recipe on Baking Bites and knew immediately: THIS IS IT. It is the cake I have to make. So I did. It took me the better part of the day (I had to make six layers instead of four because the first two turned out a little funny, but that was my own dumb fault*), but I was so glad I did. Not only was the cake a visual delight to everyone who saw it, it was delicious. Chocolatey and rich and moist, a light crumb but sturdy enough to stand up to the vanilla cream center. A certain someone ate a whole slice without even pausing, which is in itself a miracle, since cake doesn’t usually thrill him.

The next time someone has a thing worth celebrating, like a birthday or an advancement to candidacy or a month’s worth of high quality blog posting, make this cake. The layers seem to meld together, making it look like it really is a giant cupcake! Everyone will ask how you got the cream center** in there (and will be slightly disappointed by the layering technique – apparently they want billows filled with vanilla cream) (well, that sort of makes sense – who doesn’t want billows filled with vanilla cream?). This cake will blow everyone’s minds and make them happy.

Just like me posting every day!

*The dumb fault thing was that my cocoa was lumpy. Make sure your cocoa is not lumpy at all – sift it if you must – and that your batter is very, very smooth when you pour it into your pans.

**Nicole of Baking Bites suggests cutting a 5″ diameter hole in the layers, but I found that to be a little too big. I’d start with 4″ and work from there.

***I wish I had made the white squiggle on the top better, with fewer, bigger loops. Can someone have a birthday or something so I can make this again?

I’m A Space Cadet, Plus Some Romanesco Cauliflower

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

romanesco cauliflower

Oh my GOD, you guys. I am so out to lunch. Tonight I burned my favorite (but thankfully inexpensive) little stand-by pan, the 8″ omelet pan I use all the time, I mean all all all the time*. I got off the plane, got picked up by Mister Certain Someone and his dog, came home, and had to eat something. So I fried up some sausage and steamed some greens (that were somehow still good, after hanging around in the crisper drawer for I don’t know how long and don’t want to know and probably shouldn’t even be admitting this), while also adoring the cat, going through the mail, catching up on Internetty stuff, blogging, and watching TV. A little while – ok FINE, quite a while later – I’m on the couch, wondering why the smell of sausage is still so intense and why it’s still pretty smoky in the house and, no wait, why the house is filling up with smoke, HOLY CRAP I LEFT THE BURNER ON UNDER THE EMPTY PAN. Which meant the little cribbly bits in the pan and the wee smears of grease burnt up all nice and fused to the pan, making it a useful pan no more!

Thankfully the flame was low enough that there was no other damage besides the pan. Also, it’s good to know I am at least with-it enough to figure out what’s going on before it gets smoky enough in my house to make the smoke alarm go off. Let this be a lesson to us all: No cooking when overly tired, and less multi-tasking when cooking. See America, you need more rest and you need to SLOW DOWN. I am living proof of that. Rush, rush, rush, and all the things you don’t pay attention to burn down.

Wow, that’s deeper than I meant it to be.

romanesco cauliflower

So right, about that cauliflower! (How’s that for a totally fantastic segue?) On Saturday, my parents and I went to the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, and I was entranced by the Romanesco cauliflower. Some people like to call it fractal cauliflower, others (like my mother and apparently my grandmother) call it “alien sex organs.” If I have not totally turned you off eating it now, you should go buy some immediately, because it is beautiful and fascinating and fun and also tasty.

There are probably a million and one fancy ways to cook it. I wanted to roast it and make it all caramelly, but by the time dinner rolled around that would have taken too long, and I was hongry. So I did a quick and easy version of it one night, and it was tangy and sparkly, tender to the tooth but still firm. It’s a perfect “o noes, I have IBS and I better eat more veggies today but they take so long to cook whatever shall I do!” recipe. Go on and get some. Plus I hear alien sex organs are good for the digestive system.

cooked cauliflower

Sautéed Romanesco Cauliflower

1 large head Romanesco cauliflower
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar

1. Remove the tough bottom stem from the cauliflower, and cut it vertically into four quarters. Cut the quarters into slices 1/2″ thick. The cauliflower will crumble, and you may want to cut some of the florets into smaller pieces. Cut the center core into small chunks as well.

2. Heat a pan with about 1/2″ water and place the cauliflower into a steamer basket. When the water boils, place the steamer basket into the pot and cover, steaming until the cauliflower is just tender, about 4-5 minutes.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the steamed cauliflower and sauté until the cauliflower begins to brown. Add the Herbes de Provence, salt, pepper, and the vinegar (you may want to adjust the vinegar depending on how vinegary you like your food – start with less and work up, if you prefer). Sauté another minute or two more, until the cauliflower is nice and brown on the edges.

Serves 2.

*Why is it that the little cheapie items are always the ones I use the most? I have this one knife that I must have bought at a big grocery store, some really basic knife, maybe 4 or 4 1/2″? (I should measure it but that would require effort and right now I have to hurry so I can post this, so maybe I’ll be more specific later.) It’s just this basic $5 knife, larger than a paring knife but way smaller than a big serious knife, and I use it for everything. Even when I know damn well I should bust out the big guns and do some chopping, I’ll lazily slice away using my favorite one, a) because it’s always out and b) because it’s easy. Same with that little pan. Maybe I just like little utensils. I prefer teaspoons over soup spoons. Does anyone know where I’m going with this paragraph?

Today in Oh Hey Great: ok, you know what

List Making (But Not That Kind)

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

1. I have so many things to write about, you guys. SO MANY. But work! And cooking for my parents! And, uh, Nip/Tuck! And other important excuses! Suddenly it is 11:30 p.m. and I’m fiddling around, trying to figure out how to write a good long post in 30 minutes. Plus this writing every day? Is making me less able to get my creativity on, so to speak (because I am SO creative here, right? I mean, am I right or what). I think I need a little room to breathe but not too much, some pressure to write but not too much. Jesus, I’m like the Goldilocks of blogging. Good thing my bed is just right.

1a. In other words, I am so limping toward the NaBloPoMo finish. Has anyone else done NaBlahBlah before and been totally over it by the last week? Maybe I didn’t pace myself. Because, you know, I always pace myself. Very steady, this one. Year of the Rabbit, represent.

2. I have to go back on the No Fun Ever, Not For Anyone, Time To Be Boring and Sad diet again. Okay, okay. Maybe not that one. But I am like the worst New Year’s Eve resolution maker ever, and it’s not even New Year’s Eve. It was NOVEMBER, for chrissakes, and I couldn’t even stick to being all “yay! IBS diet! I’m gonna make it happen!” for more than a week or two. But I have to. Because hooo boy, it’s not good in there. Yes, I know I keep threatening it. But it will happen. The diet with the good recipes and the relatively enjoyable eating and the much happier body. Not the aforementioned Are You Kidding? I Cannot Eat Steamed Greens With Lemon One More Time, Plus What I Wouldn’t Do For A French Fry diet.

3. I love the East Bay! That’s the other reason I’ve been such a bad bad bad blogger. I arrived and whammo, my routine was off and there was a dog to play with and parents to hang out with and the Berkeley Bowl to stumble around and Thai Buddhist temple Sunday brunch and… See? Stuff to write about. It’s all excuses. I am just rotten and lazy and also probably cheat at cards.

4. That is not true. I can’t cheat at cards. I can’t cheat at almost anything. I still feel guilty for cheating on a math test in junior high. Do any of you know how long ago junior high was for me? 20 years ago. (OH MY GOD TWENTY YEARS.) I’m not a paragon of virtue by any means, yet I have weirdly high moral standards for myself and also a fabulous guilt complex (imagine what havoc those three things combined can wreak). I’m very much a “do the right thing” kind of person. OK, now I’m thinking about all the dumb things I’ve done over the years and feeling terrible about them and that’s not a road we need to go down. Not unless by terrible I mean we are laughing and also eating chocolate, listening to Wham! and watching the first season of Nip/Tuck, anyway.

5. I think this post needs to end before I end up telling you about something that does not ever need to be published on the Internet.

some cauliflower, just because
Some cauliflower, just because.

Today in Oh Hey Great: Clarification

Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

It’s so quiet over here. My neighborhood is never this silent. And I don’t just mean all the blogs and sites I usually read, I mean my actual neighbors. Everyone’s eating or napping or digesting or out of town or hiding out and ignoring the holiday altogether.

Me? I’m suffering as gracefully as I can manage, having put away a pile of turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy and prime rib and rolls and and and… that was a bad, bad idea, but tasted good, good, good going down. I’m thankful I got to eat it, and I’ll be thankful when I’m no longer questioning just how many more times I’m going to torment myself by going off the IBS diet.

But hey. It’s Thanksgiving. And I for one love this holiday, more than any other holiday out there. That’s probably no surprise to you – after all, what other holiday revolves more around food and spending time with people you (hopefully) like? So I’ll only complain this little tiny bit, and then it’ll be back to mostly healthy eating, along with a lot of baking for others.

meyer lemon sables

Yes, I baked more today. But do you mind terribly if I wait to tell you about it until tomorrow? All the blood has rushed from my brain to my stomach….

Happy Thanksgiving!

Gai Lan with Anchovies

Monday, November 19th, 2007

Oh boy. Here it is, the Monday before Thanksgiving, and I just now realized I haven’t said a whole lot about it. I’m not a very good food blogger, am I. Like most everyone else, I think I had too much going on in the weeks leading up to this one – that minor detail of the dissertation proposal defense – and the time just got away from me. Not to mention the stress. So I’m feeling all at loose ends.

Oddly – for me, anyway, notoriously big on idle consideration and low on active motivation when it comes to homemade gifts – I’m getting all jazzed about making cookies, candy, and other goodies to give away over the next month. The brownies got me in the mood, and I’ve been getting recipes in order and procuring ingredients. I keep thinking of more and more ideas, more must bakes. In fact, I think my “oooh, and then I can make” list is getting out of hand.

But in all this decadence, there has to be a little bit of healthiness. Okay, let’s be realistic: For some of us, there has to be a lot of healthiness, and we can touch very little of the decadence. I keep trying to find healthy recipes to mix in, to keep us balanced and, you know, moving.

Gai Lan with Anchovies

So I feel kind of bad that I’m presenting you with a recipe about which I’m kind of ambivalent.

A while back, I wanted to make some gai lan (Chinese broccoli) after I grabbed a bag on a whim at the farmers’ market. I very nearly made Luisa’s favorite recipe, from The Splendid Table, which I had made before. Instead, I decided to branch out and try a recipe I found in The New York Times magazine for gai lan with anchovies. Some time during the last year or two – I think it was when I finally made Nancy Silverton’s glorious bagna cauda with papardelle – I discovered a love for anchovies. Previously, my experience with them had been limited to a very youthful “I don’t want no anchokies on my pizza,” so it was nice to know my taste buds had grown up and branched out. Anyway, the combo of gai lan, anchovies, and nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce) sounded pretty unbeatable. I went for it.

And, of course, was sort of disappointed. The broccoli was overwhelmed. The dish was just too salty. This was compounded by the fact that, in my low-carb way, I didn’t have any rice to cut the saltiness. I missed the more delicate flavor of the ginger. I think I may have pouted a little.

This recipe isn’t a total loss, though, so I’m providing the original version here, as I made it. I’m considering working with it again, and I encourage you to as well (despite this less than glowing review). Maybe cut down a bit on the anchovies, or use a lighter chicken broth or stock. Or both. I think I’ll also include some hot peppers next time. Give it a try and tell me how you find it.

Meanwhile, I’m going to be over here, trying to find my holiday spirit for the week.

Gai Lan with Anchovies

Gai Lan (Chinese Broccoli) With Anchovies
From The New York Times

1 pound gai lan, rinsed and trimmed
2 tablespoons canola oil
½ teaspoon minced garlic
8 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons rice wine
¼ cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam)
Cooked white rice, optional.

1. Split the large stalks of gai lan in half lengthwise.

2. Place a large sauté pan over high heat and add the oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the garlic and anchovies and cook, pressing on the anchovies with a wooden spoon until they dissolve and the garlic lightly browns.

3. Add the gai lan and toss in the sauce to coat. Pour in the rice wine and let it reduce for 1 minute. Add the chicken broth and fish sauce, bring to a boil, cover and steam until almost tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Uncover and cook at a lively simmer until the gai lan is tender and the sauce has evaporated slightly.

Serves 2

Midway

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

So it’s halfway through NaBloPoMo. I wanted a big post to celebrate, a lovely baked good or a giant bowl of something yummy to show you, words glistening with a hint of drool from the sheer taste sensation of it all.

Instead, I spent five and a half hours in my car today, just driving up to Beverly Hills and back in order to see a doctor.

(I also found out that if I wanted to get my hair cut and colored at the very lovely salon where I get my eyebrows waxed, it would only set me back $255. Before tip. Which I believe we can all agree is ridiculous. RIDICULOUS. Am I right, people?)

Anyway, after yesterday’s triumphant-but-exhausting stress-a-thon, and not getting enough sleep last night (although getting plenty of amazing Thai food at Thai Nakorn in Stanton), I was ill-prepared for the freeways of Southern California today. Which were worse than usual, even – more accidents today than I’ve ever seen before. I got home a total zombie, and I couldn’t even fathom cooking. Thank heavens for the remaining piece of apple cake.

Hey, if you’re gonna cheat and have an illicit snack, might as well make it the tastiest thing you can find in a five mile radius.

But while I don’t have any pretty pictures, or a recipe, or much of interest to say in general, I can tell you that the doctor I saw was a gastroenterologist – the nicest I’ve ever been to, and one of the nicest physicians in general. (Anyone in the area who would like his info, let me know.) He told me my case is pretty severe, particularly given how long I’ve had it, but he’s the kind of doctor who’s nice and on your side, so it doesn’t seem hopeless. He gave me a lot of useful information about IBS, most of which has to do with… diet*. A lot of it I already knew, but some of it I didn’t. So if you’re interested, please let me know and I’ll explain a bit of what I’m doing, based on what I know works for me and his additional suggestions.

So. Let’s get back to the cooking and the baking and the eating, shall we?

*Erin, I will make a copy of this for you and bring it when I go up north! I think you’ll find it very useful.

Gluten-Free Chocolate Financiers with Agave Nectar

Monday, November 12th, 2007

Everyone! Tonight I experienced a minor triumph in the kitchen. To be quite frank, I’m more than a little giddy about it.

gluten-free chocolate financiers with agave nectar

I’m not, as they say, the most orderly and organized of people. I don’t always read instruction manuals and if there’s a guided tour, forget it. Snooze city. Chances are I’ve ducked out after the second sentence and am off admiring some piece of art in a room that’s – oops! – not part of the admission you purchased, miss.

But when it comes to baking, and to a lesser degree cooking, I have always been by-the-book. To a fault. Scouring stores to find exact ingredients, worrying over whether the tester had a single crumb, begging friends to help me buy a KitchenAid standing mixer so I could get my egg whites whipped just right, pining over scales I still can’t afford so I could get more precise measurements. So right, a total joy in the kitchen. We all know baking is precise and exact, but come on.

I’ve been cooking and baking for most of my life. When I was 11 I got sick of not being able to buy char siu bao in our little mountain town and decided to try and make them, an endeavor that took me two days because I insisted on making not only the dough and the buns, but also the barbecue sauce and thus the pork. I’ve been doing this for a while now. At some point, it was time for me to let go of the proverbial apron strings and start baking outside the recipe box for once.

Lately, you may have noticed me tossing ingredients and measurements in and out almost willy-nilly. I mean, how nonchalantly did I mention fussing around with that tuna salad recipe? OK, fine, tuna salad is sort of different from, you know, a cake, but work with me here. An uptight girl’s gotta start somewhere!

Changing things around in a recipe for a baked good though? Hold up there, turbo. Are you sure you’re ready for that?

No. But guess what. It worked!

gluten-free chocolate financiers with agave nectar

The other week, during Shauna of Gluten-Free Girl’s virtual book tour, I discovered her recipe for gluten-free chocolate financiers on Smitten Kitchen. I got so excited at the idea of those little almondy chocolatey nuggets of joy that I ran out and used the last of my Sur La Table gift card to get mini muffin tins. I had almond meal in my freezer already, since my mom taught me how to use it sometimes for a cheesecake crust (I’d give that entire recipe to you, but I think that would be the last post I’d ever make, if you get my drift). One-two-three, those financiers came together, easy as anything. And oh boy.

Suffice to say I made them again within a week. Even better? A certain someone who rarely eats sweets stole extra ones when he stopped by to say hello – leaving me wondering as to his real motive for stopping by – and then indirectly requested more. You know, one of those, “Oh, um, hey, any more of those chocolate financiers around?”

As amazing as they are – and don’t take my word for it, make them – I got to thinking about how I felt after I ate sugar. Which was not in the “great” category. One little financier (or two, because they’re little right? so you kind of have to eat two? or three?) wasn’t so bad, what with the powdered sugar being balanced out by the almond meal – the fat slowing the absorption of sugar and keeping things relatively mellow. But I still wondered how I’d feel if I reduced the sugar, or replaced it with something like agave nectar.

For those who are new to agave nectar (and I’d never even bought it before today), it is just what you think – the nectar of the agave plant, which also gives us tequila. It’s a natural sweetener that has a lower glycemic index than most other sweeteners out there. Sure, a sweetener is a sweetener, and if you’re trying to stay away from sugar altogether, it’s not going to do you any good. But if you’re trying to stay away from sugar completely, then what are you doing reading about chocolate financiers in the first place? You’ll drive yourself insane, honey.

gluten-free chocolate financiers with agave nectar

I decided to try remaking Shauna’s recipe using agave nectar, to see what would happen. I hope she doesn’t mind – her recipe is wonderful, I just wanted to find a way to enjoy it even more given my fussy tummy. So I substituted. And lo, a miracle occurred. I changed a baked goods recipe, and it turned out great. The little financiers baked up just right, maybe cracking a bit more on the top than before but still staying moist and like a slightly fudgy cake on the inside. The crumb was tender but retained plenty of body. The chocolate richness came through loud and clear, the sweetness balanced the cocoa and the espresso, and that familiar almond undertone was rounded out nicely by the agave.

I confess: I can’t take all the credit. When I was on my solo date on Saturday, I talked to my friend Jenny, the chef and owner of 118 Degrees. She cooks and bakes with agave nectar a lot, so I took advantage of her expertise and asked for her advice. Brilliant woman, that one.

So now I’m excited to try using agave in all sorts of recipes. I don’t think I’ll replace the sugar in every recipe – I know I’m branching out here, but let’s not go too crazy. I don’t know that the old-fashioned baking stickler in me could handle changing certain standards. Others I’d like to make first the original way, to get familiar with the consistency of the batter, so I know how to accommodate for the extra liquid of the agave. And with other recipes, like those for larger cakes, I’ll have to test how the agave changes the overall consistency and appearance. For instance, I have two different recipes that create what are technically larger versions (with icing!) of these financiers, in an old Maida Heatter cookbook and in a recent Splendid Table e-mail. The agave worked well with these itty bitty bite-sized chocolate wonders, but I’m not sure how it would work on a larger scale with only almond meal. I’m dying to try those recipes as is, anyway, and then report back (see how willing I am to suffer for you guys?).

Nevertheless, I highly recommend you try these financiers, either in their original incarnation or with the agave nectar. Just so you know, I drove them over for quick quality assurance to that certain someone, who pronounced them as good as the last batch, even though he had to keep sampling them before he was able to say that with certainty. I don’t blame him. One must be precise, musn’t one?

gluten-free chocolate financiers with agave nectar

Gluten-Free Chocolate Financiers
Adapted from Gluten-Free Girl

Notes from Leah on baking with agave:
1) Agave nectar is liquid, so the amount of almond meal is increased slightly from the original version to compensate for this. The batter will be slightly looser than the original, and you will end up with more cookies (darn).
2) The oven temperature has been lowered by 25 degrees F to compensate for the fact that agave nectar tends to evaporate and burn a little more quickly than sugar.
3) If you use agave nectar, definitely make sure to use Dutch-process cocoa.
4) I add espresso powder or instant coffee to nearly every chocolate recipe; I highly recommend it but feel free to make this optional.
5) If possible, use a wider and more shallow mold or mini muffin tin. I used the taller one (the more “mini cupcake” one) I have, because of the number of financiers this recipe produces, and I think this recipe would do better with the other.
6) Do not overfill your tins (like I did) and do not overbake! You may have a slight crust on the top of your financiers due to the evaporative quality (see #2) if you bake a minute or two too long, but it will be basically unnoticeable (and some people like a little crust).

Makes 20-22 one-inch cookies

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/4 cup almond flour (or almond meal)*
4 tablespoons Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon light agave nectar
1 tablespoon lukewarm water
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder (optional)
1/3 cup egg whites (approx. two large)
¼ teaspoon almond extract

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease financier molds or mini-muffin tins. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and set it aside until it reaches room temperature.

2. Mix the almond flour with the cocoa powder, salt, espresso powder, agave nectar, and water. Stir the egg whites and almond extract into the almond mixture, then gradually stir in the melted butter until incorporated and smooth. Spoon the batter into the molds, filling them three-quarters full. Do not overfill.

3. Bake the financiers for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cookies are slightly puffed and springy to the touch. Do not overbake. Remove them from the oven and let cool completely before removing the financiers from the molds.

4. Once cooled, financiers can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week.

*(Available at health food stores and at Trader Joe’s. If you can’t find it, you can grind blanched almonds in your food processor.)

**Thank you to that certain someone for lending me his camera! More financiers coming his way…

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