26 February 2010

Fickle Fickle, Chicken Little

I'm allowed to waiver in my decision, right? I'm giving myself this grace. Somedays, nothing sounds better than a smoked turkey sandwich, piled high with bird and cheese and roasted veggies on a hearty bread.

Others, like today, all I want are veggies and legumes and simple foods. Crackers, cheese, peanutbutter slathered on apples. To go back to the way things were.

Last night I over-indulged in Caesar infused chicken ciabatta. Fantastically fried, full of fat and flavor. I reveled in the fun of eating it, lapping up the garlicy sauce with a swig of intoxicating Sauvignon Blanc that tasted of peaches and summer.

This morning, though, the fun was gone. I felt still full from dinner, yet I'd eaten only the hot sandwich + a few flat fries and a small onion ring -- much less, physically, than I normally eat. Calorically, a whopper. (Preceded and chased by a half-packet of Girl Scout cookies, but I digress...)

Breakfast of toast and jam and coffee, with a pre-workout veggie sausage beckoned. Post-gym, a half apple, a protein bar, and miso soup. The notion of meat -- even fish -- makes me reach for the digestion-assisting ginger tea.

15 February 2010

Action Item: Chart My Protein

Last Friday, I set myself a to-do item for the weekend. To get an accurate handle on how much protein I was really eating -- and how much I was lacking -- I knew I needed to look at the numbers. So I put an action item on my calendar to consult a protein chart, print it out, and see what foods have the most wallop for my calories/fat/cholesterol/conscience.

I found a couple charts, and, using my J-school fact-checking skills, cross-checked them to make sure they were in sync. Then came out the big guns: Excel, and math.

I listed all the meals I've eaten in the last week -- noting both what I ate pre Dr M visit as well as post.

I inserted a column for the foods I ate, another to track whether said meals contained meats, and a column for notes. Today I stuck in another column to track protein, in grams.

I've spent the last hour calculating approximate values of my meals, then aggregating them for a daily total.

Before we get to the bottom line, here's a fun fact from my analysis: a 4-ounce serving of either cashews or almonds have nearly as much protein as 3 ounces of red meat. True, that means I’d have to eat ½ cup of nuts -- much more than the 'palm-sized' scoop that is supposed to be the appropriate serving per person. But it would be delicious going down...

And so, the numbers. Though I knew I was deficient (based on blood work), the results of the rough-analysis startled me. And embarrassed. I used to be such a good vegetarian, contemplating and balancing my proteins, matching beans with rice and eating heaps of lentils...

If the recommended daily allowance of protein is in the 55-60g range, I'm getting roughly half that. On an average meatless day, I intake approximately 35g protein. On meat (read: fish) days -- which happen only about twice a week, on Friday or Saturday when we dine out, and on Monday when we grocery-shop -- I get closer to the mark, with about 55-57 g.

That means, on most days, I'm at least 25g shy of the recommended dose -- the equivalent of 3.5 servings of black beans; 3 veggie breakfast sausages; 2 servings of cottage cheese; or 1 silly serving of meat.

One serving. That seems manageable.

According to these numbers, I wouldn't even have to eat "meat" meat -- if I add one extra dose of fish per day, or even one of those delicious Field Roast apple-sage sausage links (packing a whopping 26g per), I'd be set.

So I'll try integrating high-protein foods into my normal repertoire -- like sprinkling nuts on salads, and even trying cottage cheese in unexpected places (like fajitas tonight; or, on a weekend brunch, in pancakes -- ala the "cloud cakes" at Endolyne Joe's.)

I am up for the challenge and am looking forward to seeing the results.

12 February 2010

The Backstory: How, When, and Why I Went Meatless

I was a vegetarian for effectively 10 years of my life, first shunning red meat at the end of middle school when I connected the dots between the doe-eyed cows I adored and my lunchtime hamburger. From there, it took another 5 before I fully cut out all meat products.

Nearly all of my friends in high school were vegetarian -- many even vegan. We hung around in the straightedge scene, known for its limitations: no drugs, no drink, no meat. The amount of times I went with sXe friends to Denny's after shows, ordering a round of greasy food -- "But hold the meat!", and "Hold the cheese and sour cream, too!" -- as the waitress scribbled down substitutions and shook her head -- is countless.

I got teased mercilessly for being the one in the bunch who still ate chicken, salmon, and Thanksgiving dinner. My highschool boyfriend vowed to not kiss me if I'd just eaten a bite of flesh (I lured him in anyway). I was told by my vegan pals that I couldn't eat the faux ice cream sundaes because they were reserving that stuff for themselves (fortunately, one of my friends stepped in and let me have a bowl. It -- all mealy and gritty and posing as chocolate -- wasn’t really worth it.). The straightedge kids proudly displayed their non-meat-eating ways as a banner that set them apart from “normal teenagers” -- but in a way, I was the rebel of that group; the one who didn’t conform to all the rules but still hung out and had a great time. I didn’t regret a moment of it.

When I went away to college, I lived in the dorms the first year and ate nearly everything save for the cow (I even snuck some "other white meat" aka pork onto my plate. No one knew the difference; they didn't know my background, didn’t know what I typically ate and didn’t eat. I gained the requisite Freshman 15 and -- frustrated with my layer of fat and 34” waist Levis that actually hugged me in the right spots -- came home that summer and swam daily. I cut out cheese for those 3 months too, and the lbs dropped right off.

At the end of that summer is when my now husband and I reconnected. We’d known each other since high school, he a familiar face in the local straightedge scene. We’d always been cool -- hanging in the same circle, chatting at shows. We’d even gone on a couple dates our senior year (we went to different schools). But I was hung up on another guy and prepping for college placement essays and all-around not interested. After one date (ironically, on Valentine’s Day), he told me to call him when I returned home from a weeklong trip to Mexico with my family. I didn’t.

It wasn't until a warm summer night in August, waiting between sets at a show/party at Fantagraphics comic book warehouse in South Seattle, that he skated by in his green hoodie and smiled at me. That was the night things changed. I called him that next week -- albeit 18 mos after the original ask. We spent nearly every free moment together that week, and I used what other limited time I had packing up my things to return to Oregon for school.

I moved back to Eugene, living with a friend I’d met in the dorms that year. We grocery-shopped together to save money and keep a familial, community feel to our apartment. We tried to eat dinners together on most nights, both of us coming from a strong family environment where you closed your busy day around a warm meal, sharing stories and laughter. My roommate didn’t eat meat at all -- not even the “white” kind. For a few weeks, I threw frozen chicken breasts into the Safeway shopping cart and would microwave or otherwise prepare a sidedish of chicken for myself, to accompany our meatless meals. But as budgets tightened and I grew tired of cooking frozen meat and didn’t really know that I could handle the raw stuff, the frozen meats started falling by the wayside.

On the other end of the phone back in Seattle, my now-serious boyfriend was also not eating meat. When he came to visit, or I north to see him, I made a conscious decision to not order meat products in front of him. I didn’t want to screw this up. I wanted no risk of this cute boy not kissing me at the end of the date because I’d eaten a slice of chicken or turkey wing.

By the end of first semester sophomore year, I was “vegetarian.” It was that year that I came home for break and, for the first time, shunned the turkey dinner at Christmas.

My stepsister was also vegetarian during this period, so I wasn’t alone. And my family has always been earnestly supportive of dietary restrictions. My mom, a former home-ec teacher and, by sheer nature, a nurturer, willingly prepared multiple meal options for those of us who didn’t eat certain items.

It was easy. Ridiculously so.

11 February 2010

Day 2: Not So Great

To borrow some screenwriting terms, yesterday I crossed the first threshold—eagerly flinging the doors open to enter my new world. I dreamt up what meat I might eat, landed on chicken, and went for it.

Today, I find myself refusing the call. I feel daunted by the notion that I need to eat more -- or turkey -- today. The magic is already worn, the glimmer fading. Doubt and questioning of myself, my diet -- my identity -- is setting in.

I’m not sure I want to do this.

10 February 2010

I Did It!

Today I went to Starbucks post-gym workout, flipped through the selections of to-go meals, and selected a curried chicken/couscous/quinoa salad. The first foray was really unmemorable. The flavors bland, the protein count not even that high (relative to my normal vegetarian/fish-based lunches). Sort of a throw-away, really.

I just needed to get over the hump.

I ate most of the chicken, leaving about 5 nuggets in the package. Just in case. (I didn’t want to dive in too far too fast…)

I should point out that this decision to once again eat meats may seem rash. But I’ve been flirting with the idea for a year, ever since leaving Dr M’s last year when she urged me to eat red meat "tomorrow," if I could possibly stomach it. Truly, my new diet isn’t a case of being impressionable or fickle. I just needed a swift kick in the ass.

Taking the Plunge

To track my adventures and progress in meat-eating, I’m starting a food journal -- tallying the foods I’ve eaten over the past few days (noting that these are indicative of the past several years), and thinking about what’s next.

I posted a note on Twitter imploring my foodie friends to help me reintegrate meats -- white meats first. I don’t even know where to start.

I’ve find myself daydreaming about menu items I’ve long glanced away from, feeling the tug that I *wanted* to eat them, yet my conscience (and, my heart) telling me No.

Should I go for a verde chicken burger at Red Mill? A turkey/cranberry/cream cheese sandwich at Specialty’s? A turkey-bacon breakfast sandwich at Starbucks? BBQ chicken pizza? Fajitas? Something tossed in pasta?

I’m hesitating to take the plunge. Talking about meat -- lifting the shackles off those long-forbidden foods and dreaming up piles of chicken and turkey -- is one thing. Actually purchasing and slipping it in my mouth is another.

Making decisions on what to order in restaurants will likely prove challenging. I’ve long sworn half the reason I’m vegetarian is because it’s so tough for me to choose what to eat. If I had a self-imposed limitation and could only choose from the veggie -- or, now fish -- options, it made things a lot simpler.

Shopping, too, feels daunting. How will it feel to put a package of raw meat into the cart -- and actually take it up to the checkout station and purchase it? The first time I ever bought fish, I walked around Fred Meyer 2 or 3 times, putting everything else in the cart, before I finally mustered enough nerve to go up to the fish counter and order a side of salmon. I flushed as I asked the fishmonger how many ounces I needed -- and how long to cook it.

This is all new territory. Crossing the first threshold is scary.

07 February 2010

Good Things Come in Small Packages

In ode to a favored episode of Seinfeld, tonight I took my first ever attempt at making tamales.

The humble, corn-husk-wrapped pillows seems so simple. You can buy one at virtually any Mexican restaurant or taco truck -- even at a cockfight, as George Costanza shows us.

Yet the little buggers aren't the quickest things to make. Tamales require soaking and steaming and settling.

The affair began long before Superbowl 44 when I stopped at the grocery store this morning. Post-workout and epically hungry, I found myself in the Mexican-food aisle, surrounded by beans and rice and loads of spice. As I scanned the shelves, tiny tins of salsas -- brands not found on the "domestic" salsa aisle -- and Flan mixes beckoned to me, as did teensy plasticine pouches of herbs (just enough for a dish or two).

My eyes locked in on the larger plastic-wrapped bags of corn husks laying askew on the shelf -- a few paltry packets hanging, but most left unattended to. Stringy, crackly, and awkward.

I'd never taken the time to consider where one buys corn husks. In the summertime when the sun is high and the days long, my compost bin swims in them -- remnants tossed carelessly aside as I shuck fresh corn to grill, boil, or scrape into salads.

These husks -- perhaps from last summer -- invited me to take a closer look. So I stood and read the package's instructed recipe for tamales about 3 times to make sure I understood the procedure and needs, then heaved a 4.4-lb bag of masa (which I can also use for home-made tortillas) into the cart. Quickly followed by a tin of salsa verde, some frijoles refritos, a package of frozen faux-chicken (Quorn) nuggets, and a large mesh bag of organic onions.

First up once home, I soaked the corn husks under cover of boiling water and various pots and pans (to weight them down) for 2 hours, then drained them and set aside for use. I ripped a few of the husks into strips of "twine" to bind the tamales once assembled. (Note #1 to self: Next time, don't even consider soaking the entire 8-oz package of husks unless you plan to feed an army + their families. I could've presoaked maybe 4 total and had plenty to spare.)

I sliced the onions thin, saute-steaming them in a covered skillet while the Quorn nuggets defrosted in the microwave, steeping in chili powder and garlic. Adding the "chicken" to the onions, I let their flavors meld, their textures slump. Meanwhile, I wracked my brain and racks of cooking utensils trying to decide how I could best steam some 12-plus tamales. (I settled on my large pasta pot with a steamer basket fanned out and inserted at the base, hovering over an inch of water.)

Mixing the corn-mush base wasn't too tough: 2 C. of the masa + some baking soda and salt stirred together, added to lard (in my case, vegan shortening) "whipped" with a T. of veggie broth. Add more broth to blend the mixture into a "spongy" consistency. (Note to self #2: add a smidge more broth next time.)

Assembly came next. I opened each corn husk and wondered how many layers I was to use (in some cases there were at least 5-6 thick layers per). Then I scooped a handful of masa with my fingers, formed it into ball, and pressed it to the center of the husk with a nudge from the heel of my hand. Add a spoonful of the chicken-onion mixture and it was time to seal the deal. I found it best to roll the narrow width around the filling, then close each end with the longer sides of the husk. I knotted each parcel with the husk twine, then nestled each packet into the steamer basket, taking care to gently stack the layers. With slightly less than a pound of Quorn + one onion and the masa amounts listed above, I came out with 12 tamales total.

From here -- about an hour in to the process thus far, not counting the 2-hour steep time for the husks -- I closed the lid on the pot and let the bundles steam for about 1.5 hours total. (Note #3: Check the amount of water at the bottom of the pan every 20 minutes or so to make sure it hasn't run dry.)

The big unveiling was a smash success: As we cut open each pouch, warm dabs of moist cornmeal-like mush layered with perfectly seasoned "meat" and silky, plump threads of onions. Add a dollop of salsa and a splash of hot sauce -- along with a side dish of refried beans and corn -- and I was transported to days of Mexican sun.

As the saying goes, good things do indeed come in small packages.

(Kudos to my dear husband for the assembly photo!)