Tag Archives: cooking

Lifestyle Makeover, Part 2: What Goes In

While my wife is at home for several weeks recovering from abdominal surgery, we’re making some overdue upgrades to our house and our lifestyles. In this series of posts I’m sharing these changes with my readers.

Two weeks after her surgery, my wife surprised me by uttering a phrase I never thought I’d hear from her:

“It’s so nice to be able to eat salad again.”

For about the first twenty years of our marriage, our eating habits followed what is these days dubbed the Standard American Diet. Yes, it’s “SAD” for good reasons. It tends to be heavy on processed foods, highly refined flour, sugar, and saturated fat. (Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich and Frosty, anyone?)

To think I used to love these things. So did my cats.

We had our excuses. As young upcoming professionals (does anyone remember the term “Yuppies”?) we didn’t have time to cook for ourselves. Nor the inclination. As software engineers we spent our mental energy slinging code, not hash. And when we got home all we wanted to do was stuff something in our faces and go to bed. (Or stay up and watch Doctor Who, but I digress.)

Our upbringing didn’t help with this attitude. Both of us grew up in a standard suburban setting, with meals home-cooked by our moms. Unfortunately, it was an era of well-done everything, especially vegetables, which were often cooked to mush. For years I thought spinach only came in bricks doused with vinegar.

It comes in leaves? Awesome!

Salad? That was iceberg lettuce with carrots, radishes (yuck), and other raw stuff which needed to be bathed with thick, fat-filled dressing to be even palatable. Pass the steak and tater tots, please.

I’m not complaining; it’s the way it was, and we didn’t expect any different. But as adults free to eat as we pleased, we did exactly that.

Then things began to change. Having kids was one motivator. Finding ways to get them to eat their veggies required creativity, like incorporating them into pasta sauces and making stir-fries. We switched to whole-wheat bread and reduced-fat milk. We began watching cooking shows and picking up ideas. Still, we relied on convenience (i.e. tasty but not very nutritious) much of the time.

We also gradually became aware of the damage the SAD could do to our bodies. My wife struggled with her weight. I was physically active even back then, but I too was starting to notice some thickness around the waist. So we responded the way a couple of highly intelligent, problem-solving engineers would:

FAD DIET!!!!!!

We tried South Beach for starters, then another variant of low-carb. I remember one week in particular where I decided to give up bread and sugar, substituting lettuce wraps and unsweetened cocoa in milk. After three days all I could think about was when I was going to eat next. As a long-term solution, the fads were hopeless.

Our diet direction was positive, however, Through gradual adaptation and some trial and error, we exchanged our poor eating habits for better ones. More fresh vegetables and fruit. Whole grains. Reduced fat in baked goods. And we began to choose organic food over conventional.

And salads? Who knew they could taste good?

A salad I threw together at Whole Foods. A little of everything – just the way I like it!

By this year, our sordid food past was well behind us. My wife began consulting with a nutritionist to analyze her eating habits and make suggestions on further improvements. I signed up too, figuring that improving my nutrition could help make me a better runner.

And then, routine medical screenings discovered two types of cancer in her. Surgery was required. The good news was her improved eating habits and physical training prepared her well for the ordeal, and have contributed to a so far smooth recovery.

The “bad” part? Guess what her diet had to be for the first few weeks afterward? Yes. Easy to digest stuff. That meant white bread and white rice, vegetables and fruit cooked to death, and other refined products. Except for no fried food, it was the SAD! I felt guilty just shopping for it.

There’s a significant difference between now and back then, however. Neither of us longs for the bad old days any more. We’ve lost our taste for the SAD, and my wife couldn’t wait to start her “new normal” eating again. And thus her quote when she was once again able to eat a salad.

Tonight’s dinner: beef and bell pepper stir-fry with arborio race. Thanks, Joyce!

Coming up: What did the consultation with the nutritionist reveal? I’ll share the data with you all.

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Ban Anna? No, Just the Wafers

SOMEONE PLEASE ENLIGHTEN ME. Where in the U.S. Constitution does it require that any dessert involving bananas must include vanilla wafers?

Bananas do not usually get too ripe at the RBT house, as we all prefer them before they get brown and spotty. And I eat one for breakfast just about every day, especially before a morning run or race. But things have been a bit nuts around here recently, and so it was that I found five rapidly aging bananas in the kitchen this weekend.

MORE: Read about why bananas are considered by many to be a perfect food for runners

My standard approach is to make banana bread, but I wanted to try something new. Plus I needed a dessert for our D&D session. So I looked around for a banana pudding-style cake recipe in our cookbooks at home and on the Internet. What I found did not impress me.

The mac-and-cheese of mass market cookies.

The mac-and-cheese of mass market cookies. Source: Wikipedia.

The generic recipes (like Kraft Foods) called for instant banana pudding mix, or instant vanilla pudding with sliced bananas. Several promising leads to “Southern Banana Pudding” were nothing more than the instant stuff with a little bourbon added. A couple non-instant recipes were full of sugar and fat, but called for only a single banana – pretty odd for recipes with “banana” in their titles. And every recipe – I mean every recipe – called for a layer, crust, or topping of those d*mn wafers. Mmmm…vanilla-scented sawdust.

I checked supposedly upscale sites like Food Network and Martha Stewart. I consulted The Cake Mix Doctor, with which my wife has produced some real winners like her carrot cake and chocolate chip cake. Wafers, wafers everywhere. In desperation I began checking vegan recipes, which called for – wait for it! – vegan vanilla wafers. Arrgh!!!

How could i serve a Bohemian recipe to such a refined group of jolly fellows?

How could I serve a Bohemian cake to such a refined group of jolly fellows?

Finally I came across a recipe thankfully omitting the wafers. And it called for three ripe bananas. I upped that to four and made a few other tweaks. Here is the result. I used a caramel drizzle in place of the cream cheese frosting, to lower the fat and better taste the bananas. This was a hit.

Wafer-less Banana Cake

RBT’s Un-Wafer Banana Cake

Dry ingredients: 1 cup white whole-wheat flour, 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 1/4 tsp salt

3/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup lowfat milk
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted
4 medium-sized ripe bananas, mashed
1 tsp vanilla extract

Combine the dry ingredients. Beat the egg and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, coconut oil, bananas, and milk. Fold in the dry ingredients until moistened. Pour into a cake pan (I used a Bundt pan for a little more elegance) and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cake is done when cake tester comes out clean. Turn out of pan and cool on rack. The cake should still be very moist inside.

When cool, drizzle with your favorite caramel sauce (here’s the one I made) and top with powdered sugar.

Enjoy with whipped cream, ice cream, whipped coconut cream (or all of them), and fruit.

Yes, it is.

Why yes, it is. 

 

 

Lean Dinners for Fat Tuesday

Packsi

You’re looking at a marathon, folks.

TODAY WAS MARDI GRAS, bien sûr, and in Ann Arbor you couldn’t take three steps without running into some place selling pączkis. Traditionally, these were made to use up lard and sugar you weren’t allowed to eat during Lent. With 40 days of relative privation ahead, one could be forgiven for packing away a few at around 450 calories each. For me, however, it would only create the need to tack on five miles to my next run.

As careful as I tried to be, I was nearly sucked in when I stopped at the Coffee House Creamery near closing for a little Mint Moose Tracks(*). They had pączkis, naturally, and Jamie (I know all their names) was trying her best to get rid of the few they had left. Fortunately, they were out of Bavarian Cream, the only kind I like, so I escaped.

Anyway, in the spirit of balance, I’d like to share on this Fat Tuesday a couple of dishes from Cooking Light magazine that I made recently. They have the distinct advantages of being quick to make, low in calories, and high in nutrition. Oh, and they taste great, too. Click on their titles to get the recipes.

Herbed Shrimp and White Bean Salad

Herbed Shrimp and White Bean SaladThe greens here are great choices – the arugula looks good with the shrimp, and the watercress adds a great mild peppery bite. I used champagne vinegar in place of the sherry vinegar, and chopped Roma tomatoes instead of grape tomatoes. I was surprised that the shrimp was seasoned only with some diluted honey and a bit of salt, but they grilled up with great color and flavor. I think the key was to use good quality fresh shrimp, and not the frozen stuff, which gets rubbery very fast.

Grill pan

Available at your local Gateway to the Abyss Costco.

I used this enameled cast-iron grill pan for the shrimp. Just a couple of minutes per side did the trick. I left the tails on to protect the tail meat from overcooking and for a prettier presentation.

On the same website where this recipe can be found is a more involved one which you’re welcome to try if you’re more ambitious and/or have more time than I do at present. For us, this simpler version was just great. And just 267 calories per serving.

Crisp Lamb Lettuce Wraps

Crisp Lamb Lettuce WrapsThis one was a real surprise to me. I like Mediterranean food, but I was skeptical how well cinnamon was going to work with ground meat. The flavors came at me from all directions, but the hummus, yogurt and mint blended smoothly with the lamb and veggies to create a very satisfying mouthful. This one’s a keeper, too.

While I’m a big fan of wraps, I much prefer flatbread or some other grain-based wrapper to leaves. But the photo in the magazine looked so good I went ahead with the lettuce instead. I didn’t miss the bread. The Boston lettuce is sturdy enough to hold it all most of the way.

Two wraps (one serving) were enough to fill me up. For this much flavor and how filling it is, it’s amazing that they total only 158 calories. I probably used more than 1/4 cup of filling per wrap, but not that much more. This tasted just as good the next day served cold – maybe even better, since the flavors in the lamb mixture had time to mingle.

So there you have it – two healthy, low-calorie dishes to offset any fat-filled sugary goodies you may have consumed today. That said, I happened to stop at the ice cream place on my way back from shopping for some exotic ingredients. Details to follow when I try the recipe, but I will say it’s supposedly healthy but ain’t low in calories.

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(*) Food of the gods.

Putting the P.I.E. Together

IT’S BEEN A QUIET FEW DAYS at the Fitness at 50 household, primarily because I’m spending a lot of time writing. It’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and my goal this month is a novel, from scratch, of at least 50,000 words. I’m trying for an average of 2,000 words per day, which is tough given a full-time day job, and Aikido and running in the evenings, but so far I’m close.

So what is my novel about? At this point I will say only that it is science fiction and it’s in very rough form. I spent a few days in October putting together character sketches and a plot summary, but the story itself is just sort of coming out as I write and think about the next day’s direction.

I won’t be sharing much of it for a while; the idea is to use November just to write, and not do any editing until December. That means what I’m writing now – the first draft – is very rough and full of unfinished ideas and conversations. Even the main plot has shifted a couple of times already, but that’s okay. It’s all part of the adventure.

I did find time this weekend to make a pie, at the request of my daughter, and who can turn down that kind of request? Here’s a photo of the finished pie. Can you guess what kind it is?

Give up? If you guessed it’s a custard type of pie, you are essentially correct. But I’ll bet you don’t know its featured ingredient. Here’s a photo of a slice, although I doubt it’ll be much of a hint.

I won’t keep you in suspense any longer, especially because I have no idea if anyone’s bothered to get this far in the post anyway. (Reading about writing is rather like watching golf. No, scratch that, it’s even more boring.) Anyway, along with sugar, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, and a touch of maple syrup, the featured ingredient is…well, here’s the recipe:

Apple cider vinegar? That’s right! I never would’ve thought you could make a pie featuring vinegar. And yet, the result is not sour at all – it’s sweet and tangy. Now you can definitely taste the vinegar, and it stays with you a bit, so I think I’ll play with it some more before I officially add it to The Recipes I Am Famous For. My daughter is a big fan of it, however.

P.S. The title of this post comes from an article I read online that talks about proper paragraph structure. You can read it here.