The Premise

So, I’ve been thinking about food. I think about food a lot. Maybe too much. Like a lot of my compatriots, I worry about weight, count carbs, count calories, restrict this thing or that, and it becomes…a struggle. It’s ridiculous, really. And we know what is true about our food: it’s crammed with sugar and cheap fat. We Americans have a sweet tooth. And there’s actually nothing wrong with sugar, inherently. It just doesn’t belong in absolutely everything.

Perhaps worse, is that we eat alone, and in a hurry, at desks, while we frantically struggle to keep up productivity so we can rush home and cram food in our faces. If we have families, it’s sometimes worse. We are a fast food nation, even at home, and the dinner table has been disappearing since I was a kid. We eat when we are bored, we eat when we are lonely, we eat when we are sad. And that’s sad. One of the stereotypes of Americans is an excess of friendliness, (I know there are some others. We’ll leave them for now.) but there are too many of us eating unconsciously, and alone, watching Netflix and not even enjoying the sugary snacks on which we are gorging.

I’m hardly the first person to have this thought. Here’s an article written by Margaret Churchill in 2002 on the subject of paying attention to pleasure and satiety. In 2009, Psychology Today published this article by Jan Chozen Bays, MD, on a similar topic. This one, from Joseph B. Nelson and Diabetes Spectrum, has a solid list of cited works for the more scientifically inclined.

I propose an experiment, and I invite you to join me, American or not. It’s March 5, 2019. I’m going to spend the next year eating consciously. Here are the rules as I have set them.

  1. Turn off the media. All of it. Alone or with a group, we are playing with our phones and arguing on Twitter while we eat. That can’t be good for anyone.
  2. Real Food. The definition here is broad, but I think the less that comes out of cans and boxes and the more that comes out of refrigeration, the better.
  3. Balance. I’m so over cutting carbs. I know it works short term, and I’m not going to say you should or shouldn’t ever do it. Just that it’s not what I want.
  4. Slow down. I’m like everyone else — I don’t get an hour or two to relax in the middle of the day and eat. I’ve decided that if I don’t have time to eat properly, and slowly, that I’ll wait until I do. If I’ve reached hangry, a handful of peanuts or something tiny should really hold off the pain if I’ve eaten decently prior to all that.
  5. Pay attention. With all of this, it should be easier to pay attention and enjoy what I am eating. Yes, food is fuel, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making it a pleasure as well.

So how do we begin? By cleaning out the fridge. No low fat, low carb, fake sugar crap. In theory, I will eat less, and can therefore afford better food.  I am a Diet Coke addict, so I’m keeping that. Judge me if you will. Other than that, whole, identifiable food. I choose not to worry about the GMO/organics debates. My budget exists, and I have to live in it. If that issue is part of your world, I welcome you to my party as you are. Let’s explore food, with all its colors and flavors, and see what happens.

That Sketchy Mexican Place

You know the one. It’s a squat, nondescript building off the main road, and the sign is in Spanish. Some of them have jalapeno peppers dancing in sombreros on the sign. You’ve never been there. There are no lights in the parking lot, and you’re just not sure. Let me help you.

Go.

Go now.

In different parts of the country, it could be Greek or Italian, maybe even a Mom and Pop diner that is open all night, just off the highway. Open the door and you know you’re in the right place — it smells like fryers, and they serve milkshakes and real Cherry Coke. We had an amazing local Japanese food place that was run by a Korean family. A lot of Asian food in most parts of America is brought in preprepared and frozen; little nuggets of breaded frozen meat and frozen precut veggies. That’s how you know you’re in the wrong place. Watch for the delivery truck in the back. If they’ve got crates of fresh onions and green peppers, go in and have a seat.

The thing about restaurant food in America, is that we tend toward chain stores and stay focused on speed. So they accommodate us. That’s the glory of Capitalism. We usually get exactly what we ask for. So it’s our own fault if we get quick, deep fried garbage. It’s terrible for our bodies, and there’s no pleasure in eating it, nor pride in preparing it. That’s what the Sketchy Mexican Place is all about.

I won’t gloss over a fundamental truth: I have gotten sick with this philosophy. Sometimes sketchiness is a warning. Oddly enough, I had a bad feeling about the place when I walked in, and a worse feeling when I got my food. In my experience, the best way to judge is the bathroom. Outdated is fine, even a plus. Dirty is not. Chain stores are heavy on the gloss, and low on the freshness.

So when you find your own Sketchy Mexican Place, and you try it, go often. Take your friends. You are not only getting a great meal, but you’re supporting the local economy, and encouraging small business owners to take risks. It’s better for you, and there’s more flavor, and more passion in the food you will find there.

Eat well.

The Art of Vinaigrette

Simple salad, simple dressing. YUM.

Vinaigrette is amazing stuff. It’s simple, tasty, and goes with everything. You can buy it, if you want, but if you make your own, you can proportion it the way you like it, with the vinegars and olive oils that you like, and it’s always fresh. You can make it in the quantity you need — you don’t even need a recipe, really.

Traditionally, it’s made with three parts olive oil and one part vinegar. I don’t know why you would do it that way. I wouldn’t. In its simplest form, it’s oil whisked with vinegar, with a little mustard to emulsify. Past that, you can add whatever you want. I like salt and pepper, but you can add whatever you want. Spices, herbs, you do you.

Like everything simple, it’s not that simple. Let’s talk about basalmic vinegar.

If you don’t like it, it’s ok. It’s possible you’ve never really had it. Traditionally made basalmic vinegar is probably not at your grocery store, and it probably isn’t in your bottled basalmic vinaigrette. Mass produced basalmic vinegar is a different animal. If you like it, eat it. If you don’t, find the good stuff. It’s made from pressed grapes and aged in barrels, like wine, for a year, sometimes decades. You can spend as much as you want on this stuff, but you can get good stuff without selling plasma.

Look at my pasta maker, there in the back.

Enter The Natural Olive. Nope, not sponsored. I’m just a fan. If you are in North Carolina, and you are prepared for a foodie experience, head toward Hickory or Morganton and stop in. It’s just vats of olive oils and real basalmic vinegars with little plates of bread. Taste everything. They will help you if you know what you’re going to make, but, really, it’s all about what you like. If you’re not close, you can order online.

Sure, you can make vinagrette with plain olive oil and vinegar, and people will eat it. But why not early Picual Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil with Fig Infused Traditional Basalmic. This stuff will roll your eyes back in your head. The dark chocolate will make grown men weep. Put it on strawberries and eat it in the dark. It’s all the stimulation you can handle.

This image is only here because I thought it looked cool.

The point is, at least get good basalmic. It’s currently $14.99 for 200 ml, which sounds like a lot. Maybe it is. But you won’t need much. If you have to choose one or the other, get your olive oil at the grocery store, but order your vinegar. It really makes a difference.

So. I go half and half, vinegar and oil. A bit of mustard, salt and pepper. Whisk. Put on everything. Eat with a spoon. It’s rich and sweet and tangy, relatively healthy, it even smells delicious. There are infinite variations, according to taste. Enjoy!

Strawberry Fields For Breakfast

I neglected to glaze these. No one minded, and they’re gone now anyway. But glazing is the right thing to do.

These little strawberry flowers are a perfect late breakfast. When you realize they are cookie type crusts filled with pastry cream and topped with fruit, there will be a part of you that rebels against such rich food, but here’s what I suggest: cut it in half. Better yet, get a breakfast buddy and share. These are about 6 inches wide, so half a tart feels like plenty if you stop and eat slowly, and really take pleasure in the bright Spring flavors. Thanks to the freshness of early strawberries, there is a lot less sugar than you might think. And as the caption suggests, I left off the glaze. They disappeared too fast.

Rich food like this is perfect for conscious eating. The richness of the cream, the tart sweetness of fresh strawberry, the crunch of the crust. Add the visual appeal, and you have a perfect accompaniment to a hot, bitter cup of coffee on the porch. These are a fair bit of work; so it’s more of a Sunday Brunch than a weekday experience, but if you are an early riser, you could mix and bake the night before, and assemble in the morning without too much trouble. Just don’t rush them.

These recipes come from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s ‘The Pie and Pastry Bible‘. My copy features in the image above. It’s a huge book, and while I collect cookbooks like I fear they will someday disappear, I go to this one a lot. Even for sweet things, I don’t like a ton of sugar, and I find that these recipes are often lower in sugar than other variations in similar recipes. So for these tarts, I used the Sweet Cookie Tart Crust, and the Pastry Cream. (If you’re unfamiliar with making pastry cream, you may want to check out a few YouTube videos on the topic. It isn’t difficult, but there’s a process.) Then I sliced the strawberries, and here we are. But there are a couple of important details.

Strawberries are just now becoming available. They don’t grow in my region, so we have to wait until they come from warmer climates. If you have regional fruit available, use it. You will be stunned at the difference it makes. Don’t get me wrong. These were delicious. But when our local fruit comes in, I’ll be visiting the farmers’ markets. Any fruit that won’t brown quickly is great for these tarts.

Second, vanilla. There are plenty of pastry cream recipes with vanilla extract. You can use vanilla extract. And you know I respect your budget. But if you can possibly splurge, try beanilla.com. (Not sponsored, just the one I use, and they will sell you small amounts of beans.) Real vanilla is so much better. Most of the inexpensive vanilla extracts you can buy are synthetic, or something even more unsettling. Don’t get excited about the beaver thing — it’s expensive, and you’re likely just getting synthetic. I use inexpensive extract all the time, for anything where vanilla is just a side flavor, like chocolate chip cookies, But where vanilla is the feature, like this pastry cream, it is really worth the extra flavor. If you’re going to sit and appreciate these, you will notice the difference immediately. Bonus on vanilla beans: After you scrape out the center for your pastry cream, you can put the bean in your sugar container, and leave it there. After a little while, it will fragrance and flavor your sugar with vanilla goodness. It’s subtle, but it’s another dimension of flavor you can enjoy when you are having something sweet as a treat.

So give these a shot. They’re small and delicious and meant to be shared.

Homemade Pasta Is Easier Than You Think

Let it dry on a professional drying rack. Or, you know, the back of a chair while the sauce cooks in the background.

It is, I promise. You do have to invest in a little equipment. Well, you don’t have to, but if you don’t, it will not be easier than you think. I’ll give you a simple recipe you won’t have to write down, that you can flavor with anything you can puree, and you can run with it.

You need:

2 eggs

flour

salt

olive oil

whatever you want to use for flavor, or nothing at all

a pasta roller

Now. About that pasta roller. I went for this one. It is a little more spendy than some of the others, but it comes with attachments for spaghetti and fettuccine, it’s all stainless steel, and it’s solid. You can buy them cheaper if you feel you must, but if the gears are plastic, you’re going to have to buy another one soon. I’m not sponsored, I just don’t care for plastic tools. You do you.

So. For my spinach and basil pasta, I cooked a skillet full of fresh basil and spinach in a generous amount of olive oils until it was as tiny as it could get. I smashed mine in a mortar and pestle, because my blender seemed to have disappeared. Use a blender or food processor if you have it. Put it in a bowl with two eggs and a bunch of flour. How much? Doesn’t matter. You’ll see that the process is more important. Now mix. It’s pasta, so you don’t need to be gentle. When your spoon fails you, take it out on the counter and knead until it’s smooth. It will pick up as much flour as it needs. When you’ve had enough of that, quit. Let it rest about half an hour.

Set your machine on the widest setting, and put it through. It will come out ratty and awful and you’ll think you did something wrong. You didn’t. Fold it more or less in half and pass it through again. It may look better, but don’t worry if it doesn’t. Just do it again. Might take three times. Then narrow the rollers according to the manufacturers instructions. Pass it through again. It’ll start to look smoother. Once you have something that looks like sheets of pasta, you can start doing just two passes on each setting.

The things I read said to go up to the thinnest setting for ravioli, but on this machine, it’s hard to do that. The 6 setting was plenty thin, even with the double layers on the edges. I used the same setting for the spinach and basil pasta, and it was good for me. The green lasagna noodles you see are also at a 6 on my machine. Worked out perfect.

The best part? They need minimal cooking when they’re this fresh. I didn’t boil these before I layered them into my lasagna. If you are having something that isn’t baked, you need to boil them, but only very briefly. A couple of minutes will do the job. Drain, throw ’em in some fresh sauce, or just a few veggies and good olive oil. Whatever floats your boat. Put it on a plate. Eat, slowly. Taste the work you put in and the flavor of the fresh spinach. It’s not so evenly colored as the store noodles, but that’s because it’s real veggies as flavor and not just dehydrated nonsense and artificial color. Real food. Share it with someone you care about enough to make them fresh pasta.

Croissant Philosophy

Beautiful, aren’t they? These are settled together on a saucer — they’re small, maybe three or four bites. Light, crisp, ephemeral little tastes of pleasure. They won’t last. Partially because I’m certain they’ll be eaten before morning, but also because their perfection begins to fade as soon as they are finished. They’ll be alright tomorrow afternoon, but they are everything they can be now. They are the perfect symbol of Conscious Eating. They are full of rich flavor, and come from long and careful preparation. Sit down, pour a bit of hot tea. Winter is still at the door, soon to retreat. These are still hot. Take a bite, let the flakes fall on your plate, and on your shirt, and really taste the long, cool fermentation of the dough, the warm stretch of the gluten, the rich nuttiness of the butter lightly browned. You could eat a dozen, but how much more pleasure to sit with a friend and a hot cuppa, and truly enjoy the experience of just one. Maybe two. Laugh and let the flakes fall where they may.

Stuffed Artichokes, and Why They Matter

Tonight, I made stuffed artichokes. It’s a simple dish, and if you don’t live in artichoke country, you can still get excellent ones fairly cheap. Preparation is straightforward — cut off the stem, boil until the base is good and soft when you stick a knife in it. Cut it in half and scoop out the furry bits and the tiny leaves that don’t offer much. Finely chop the stem, then add…whatever. What do you like? Onion is good, minced, maybe garlic. I had tiny sweet peppers still, so I put those in. Salt, pepper, thyme, something vaguely Italian. I meant to add feta, but I forgot it. Saute in butter, then add panko bread crumbs until you have a sort of buttery paste. Stick it in the space you scooped out, and bake a few minutes, just to brown the top. Melt some butter. Serve.

It’s delicious, nutritious, and very real.

Why does it matter? Because you can’t eat your artichoke in a hurry. Once you’ve enjoyed the buttery filling, you pull each leaf away with your fingers, and dip it in the melted butter. It just takes time and napkins. This isn’t formal food, probably. But it is easy to prepare, and kind of participatory. I don’t know if you can get your kids into artichokes, but if you can, they’d have fun with this one. And they look funny. I think that helps a lot. So slow down, have an artichoke with a friend, and tell all the old jokes you can think of. Especially the dumb ones.

A Conscious Meal

I did it. I turned off the phone and tablet and television, and prepared food. It’s evening, and though I was hungry, I wasn’t famished. I put together a small green salad with sweet peppers and cranberries, and just a little bit of bleu cheese dressing. I had baked a small loaf of bread, just enough for two, and I had some feta cheese, and honey, and dried figs to put on it.

I set the table, as a deliberate act of preparation. Bringing food to table, I listened to the crackle of the collapsing crush of the fresh bread. With a deep breath, I ate. To be fair, I have been off sugar for several weeks, (I think this helps with the perception of sweetness of one’s food, but I don’t have a real source, only experience. It’s a harmless experiment you can try, if you’re interested in really cultivating your ability to taste the food in front of you.) I don’t think of romaine lettuce as a particularly flavorful item, but if you stop and pay attention to it, you’ll find it does have a sort of green freshness. The way you would think it would taste, if you concentrated on it. It was delicious. Green pea pods, a bit of bitter cabbage, with the sweetness of cranberries, and the sour bite of bleu cheese. Simple, inexpensive, nutritious.

I love figs and honey. I recognize it’s not for everyone, but if you add a bit of feta and a crust of chewy bread, you have something beautiful.

I ate less than 500 calories, as measured by some good information, and also vague guessing. I feel full. I don’t crave anything in particular.

Cleanup was easy.

So far, so good.