Friday, April 30, 2010

Before and after part 2

I was looking for this picture when I did the initial before and after pages. For years, I kept this picture on the side of my car door, hoping it would one day be my before photo. I wanted to cry every time I saw it. I was so unhappy with my body there. I weighed more than my husband. I was kind of annoyed at the person who took it. Why was she doing that to me? I knew it would be bad. I picked up Alex to try and cover myself up. I should have just let him stand in front of me.

At any rate, I found it recently when looking for another photo. I thought I had finally torn it up in frustration and despair one time - I kind of even remember the conversation I had in my head..."This will NEVER be my before picture so why not accept that fact and stop torturing myself?" But obviously I hadn't. Or maybe I had multiple copies.

Well the contrast speaks for itself. The first picture got a little stretched in a file conversion, but it's pretty accurate. I have to include the after bikini shots again so as not to gross myself out. I look almost identical to the pics from last summer now but of course, another year older...and maybe 2-3 lbs heavier but I'm not sure.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


I usually find recipes for salads to be kind of silly. In general, I am satisfied with the combinations I think of on my own, and moreover, I believe salads should be based on the conditions of the day. Meaning, a salad should be a some combination of expressing a craving for a specific ingredient as well as reflecting what is in the kitchen and needs using. But I can get into ruts and additionally, often enough a recipe comes along that I would never have thought of myself. Or they can re-inspire me to pursue an odd-ball ingredient. One example is above. I will try this shortly, as I think it looks lovely. It is from Not Eating Out in NY, which has a lot of very delicious, but far too complicated-sounding recipes. The woman who writes it cooks/blogs for a living and has no kids, so she has all day and night to peel turnips into perfectly symmetrical ribbons. One place where I could really benefit from some good recipes is with the dressings. I'm very uncreative and lazy about dressing. It's practically a New Year's resolution of mine to improve every year, and I generally fail. But often the dressing is really the flavor you take away so it's really the most important part. And salad dressings, like baking, really do benefit from some exact proportions. I should work on my dressing-making proclivities.

As for my daily lunch salads I just try and have a whole host of add-ins available in my pantry and refrigerator. It always surprises me when people comment that my salads look good, even though it happens all the time, and has been happening since the high school cafeteria salad bar days. Isn't making a salad just putting things in a bowl? If I do have a knack for making extra-yummy salad combinations it may be due to my overzealous food-shopping habits, along with my tendency towards bulk weekend cooking. When I go to one of those fancy salad-bar restaurants I often note to myself that I have almost all the ingredients from their 20-foot prep table in my own tiny kitchen. But good salads also come from balancing sweet with salty and sour, and mushy with crunchy.

So the following could be either blazingly, irritatingly obvious or somewhat goes....


I buy all kinds, and this week splurged on a $6 bag of mixed greens at the Bethesda farmer's market, feeling kind of silly. However, upon eating them this morning, I found them to be so tasty and fabulous that I'll go back each week. I didn't even want to cover them in dressing and I was eating various pieces with my fingers so as to better enjoy each individual flavor. 

In the winter a shredded cabbage is nice and hearty. The low-water content makes it pretty filling. Sounds rabbit-like, I know but I've come to like it with a strong citrus-y or Asian dressing. I have also been enjoying pea shoots and other funny overpriced micro-greens. If I buy romaine lettuce I usually chop up 3 days worth on Sunday or Monday. I need to start trying more things like shaved fennel and other overlooked root vegetables. Somehow pulling out a mandolin seems overly labor-intensive for a weekday morning (do I even have one?), but it can happen sometimes...

I always have some cooked chicken, pork, hard boiled eggs or fish, as well as tofu, lentils or beans. I also have cooked frozen shrimp in the freezer that just thaw during the morning if I put them in. I often use more than one protein.

I also usually have something like quinoa, wheat berries, couscous, or brown rice cooked and in my fridge. If not or if I want something separate, I'll add a nice hearty whole wheat bread on the side, with a slice of cheese or peanut butter.

Lately I have been not using many other veggies aside from the greens, except for a bell pepper. I've been turning my attention to some added fruit.

I love a little fruit in an otherwise savory salad. Orange wedges perk up salmon and hold their own to a mustard vinaigrette. Apples are a nice sweet and crunchy balance to plain chicken and a fruity vinaigrette. Pineapple and mango are fantastic as well, especially with a grainy salad. The other day I had a salad that was almost equal parts quinoa, arugula and mango. It was fantastic even though it had a bit of an identity crisis appearance to it...kind of not a grain salad, and not a green salad. I don't usually put dried fruit in my salads as I find they are added calories that I don't taste that much. The juiciness of actual fruit seems much more special in my sad little office.

I have a huge selection of seeds and nuts on hand at any time: pistachios, walnuts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, soy nuts. I usually prefer to keep the nuts separate - so better to really taste and crunch them, but seeds in the salad for an extra crunch. Perhaps it's just mental game-playing, but a handful of walnuts on a salad seems like a salad, whereas a salad with a handful of robust walnuts on the side seems like two separate dishes, and hence a bigger lunch.

Generally I don't put cheese in my salads. Perhaps a bit of blue or feta but not usually. I like to savor the cheese on its own or with some bread.

Again - I'm admittedly bad at making dressings. I do however, have a plethora of flavored vinegars and various oils at my disposal that I sprinkle (ok, pour) on top. I try to match the flavors to the ingredients in the salads. I have pomegranate glaze, balsamic glaze, rice vinegar, apple cider vinegar, orange champagne vinegar, olive oil, grapeseed oil, sesame oil, truffle oil, peanut oil, etc. I try and make creamy dressings with real mayo and non-fat Greek yogurt sometimes. I love homemade blue cheese dressing when I get around to making it. It's kind of labor intensive to mush up all that blue cheese but well worth it (mush equal parts blue cheese, yogurt and mayo together, thin with milk as needed). The other dressing I make sort of regularly is a kind of Thai peanut/lime/soy staple (peanut butter, soy, brown sugar, lime, rice vinegar, ginger-check online for ratios).

For an upcoming party I'm making a bean salad I made up. Dead simple. (That's my Jamie Oliver impersonation)
Equal parts black beans, edamame and red kidney beans. Dressing is grapeseed oil, orange champagne vinegar (from TJs - other light vinegar would do) and some cumin and lime. Delish, beautiful, cheap and a real crowd-pleaser.

Mark Bittman app

For those of you who have iPhones...

Mark Bittman has released an app of his "How to Cook Everything" cookbook I have been enjoying - even Dave says he will use it! Even as a recipe non-user, I do refer to recipes and cook books to figure out how to put things together. This app is great to have in a supermarket - suppose you decide to try cooking fennel...just type it in and get a bunch of recipes, and save yourself a second trip to the store...or if you're at home and decide you want to pick a few recipes for the week, you can easily drag the recipes into the "grocery" list and refer to that at the store. It may add silly things like salt, but it's of course easier to ignore extra ingredients than forget the vital ones. I also like that he has a range of types of cuisine in his cookbook, with plenty of Asian choices. There are all sorts of other useful components too, such as a "basics" section, including 16 simple tofu sauces, and some dishes he considers standards. Certainly $1.99 well spent!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

State of confusion

I haven't been posting much lately, mainly due to feeling like I don't have a lot to say. But Natasha's soccer season started again and the snack situation brought a lot of incidents of confusion about what constitutes a healthy snack to a head. A good bit of this confusion is caused by misleading food labeling.

Much as been written and lamented about the pathetic current state of American food labeling. The First Lady is trying to get front-of-the-box labeling, and less confusing labeling in general. There is a lot about it on Marion Nestle's foodpolitics blog, as well as the First Lady's Let's Move site.

I believe food labeling confusion takes two main forms.
1. confusion caused by deliberate obfuscation of facts on part of food manufacturers on actual food labels.
2. erroneous pre-conceived notions of what are "health" foods that block our ability to discern obviously unhealthy foods. (I believe #2 is caused by previous cases of #1 as well as public health initiatives gone awry, e.g. 'Snackwells')

Let's start with #1. The food industry does everything it can to hide the amount of sugar in products, and to promote the healthy aspects of the things it is selling. So they will use multiple sugar products so that "sugar" is not the first ingredient listed, but rather spread out throughout the ingredient list. They will say, "made with whole grains" on the front, when the product is made with mainly processed grains but a small amount of whole grains. They will say, "low-fat foods lead to a healthy heart" or something like that, even though the food is stuffed with tons of insulin-havoc-wreaking sugar. I could go on, but other people have literally written whole books about this.

There is also no standardization in how things are described. So for example, the only wheat flour you want in your food is "whole wheat flour" listed with exactly those three words.

Any of the following are processed white flour.
-enriched flour
-enriched wheat flour
-unbromated unbleached enriched wheat flour (I didn't even know what "bromated" means but now I do)
-unbromated unbleached wheat flour

The word "whole" MUST appear before the word "wheat" or else it's junk. The word "wheat" on its own does not mean "whole wheat" but rather the wheat plant - which just means white flour. Please remember this...and ignore any other words you see. It makes label-reading much easier.

The fact that this is so confusing is criminal in my opinion.

OK - on to sugar. There are tons of otherwise "healthy" foods that are so stuffed with added sugars that they can't possibly be considered good for you. The main offenders in this arena are yogurts, breakfast cereals and granola/granola bars. The problem here is that as a culture we have internalized certain foods as "healthy" including yogurt and granola. I like to look at things this way.

flavored yogurt=low-fat ice cream
granola/granola bars=candy bars with some nutrition
energy bars=candy bars with some protein
sweetened cereal=low-fat cookies
fruit juice=soda with some vitamin C

I'm not saying I never eat those foods - just that when eating them I consider them as treats. I changed my thinking to reflect the equations above and now I view them differently. I forget sometimes how entrenched those foods are in our heads as "health foods" but I've had several conversations with health-conscious people lately that made me remember.

A couple weeks ago I was thinking of making my own granola. I looked up some recipes.Basically, granola is a way of taking high-calorie but nutritionally valuable foods and coating them in added oil and sugar. This results in overeating foods that should be eaten in moderation and then adding in tons of oil and sugar to boot, and resulting in a tub of impossible to resist, massively caloric food.
Here are the two I came close to making, but couldn't bring myself to have around the house.
Ina Garten granola recipe (reviewer comments suggest reducing oil)

I do eat granola sometimes, especially on top of plain shredded mini-wheats and unsweetened cheerios, or as a's a treat, not a health food. But I find it really hard to stick to a small serving - I just want to find one more almond or whatever - the variety makes it all the more hard to eat in moderation (ala Kessler's directive to not have too many choices)

So back to soccer. First soccer game, first snack was yesterday. The parent brought 4 things all from Trader Joe's: apple juice boxes, fruit roll-ups, brown rice crispy treats and fruit-filled granola bars. All were healthier than their uber-processed relatives, but stuffed with tons of sugar. I believe the mom felt she had made healthy decisions, and in some ways she had, but the total sugar content was through the roof-and the game was over at 11:30am so the girls were starving. (ps Here is where I would really love to see the difference between natural sugars and added sugars but manufacturers don't do that yet.)

Some facts:
(calories, sugar grams, fiber grams)

Brown rice crispy bars (130c, 11s, 0f)
100% fruit snack (50c,11s,1.5f)
box apple juice (110c, 18s, 0f)-guessing on this one based on bigger serving size
This apple walks into a bar (140c, 17s, 1f)

I'm least concerned about the 100% fruit snack as the TJs version is actually mostly real fruit - lots of natural sugars but also some fiber, generally small,  only 50 calories, and I don't think many added sugars.  The apple juice is by far the worst with tons of sugar and no actual food. The oat-apple bar is lots of calories disguised in  something with oats, which is really nothing more than a candy bar.

My point is that these foods which have the moniker of being healthy are actually so filled with sugars as to make them one step above a Snickers bar. And I believe the mom thought she was making healthy decisions. They are in fact all products I myself used to buy, and now sometimes still do, but as treats. It took me a while to internalize that Trader Joe's fruit and oat bars are actually sugar-filled candy bars. I don't buy them any more.

The video I posted previous to this post explains the biochemistry of how we deal with sugar in our bodies - but put simply too much sugar leads to weight gain, which leads to any number of health problems. Sugar, whether it be maple syrup, apple juice, brown rice syrup, glucose, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, organic apple juice - it all needs to be consumed in moderation. The one place where I still overindulge, is with fructose in the form of fresh fruit - fruit has so much water and fiber that it's hard to really overeat it.

Anyway, Natasha was so hungry that she ate a rice crispy bar, an apple juice, a fruit roll-up and then a little while later she ate two (12 pieces) salmon makis (I know, the mercury) and then grabbed my two salmon sushi off my plate and ate those too. I don't think it's a big deal that she ate all that sugar after soccer (I should probably be more concerned about the mercury, but we don't have sushi very often). She ate a lot of other food too, and did run around a lot. I am more frustrated that it's so hard to find snacks for kids, even from relatively healthy stores, and even by well-meaning parents, that aren't filled with dozens of grams of sugars. This mom was trying to be healthy and still brought a truckload of sugar.

It shouldn't be so hard...