Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More Lessons from the Weight Loss Front & a Bit of NaNo


I'm not going to come close to making 50K, especially since I haven't been writing for at least a week. I talked a bit about why in my last post. This story wasn't thought out enough. I lost interest because it didn't have enough depth for my taste. And then I ran out of time. Next year maybe I'll give it another go and do something else. We'll see. Between now and then, I'm scheduling writing time. The main thing I learned from this year's NaNo is how much I miss writing and even if it's just a little bit every day, I need to write.

Weight Loss Lessons

Lesson one: I was sitting in the booth at The Cheesecake Factory perusing their menu, and their nutrition information. California now requires chains with a certain number of locations, I believe it's 20, to make available certain nutrition information. The Cheesecake Factory puts the calories and saturated fat and the amount of carbs, but not the total fat content or the grams of fiber, both of which you need to calculate points for Weight Watchers. What I do is take the average calories per point, which is 50, and divide it into the total calories to get the points. Most of their stuff is in the "this is a whole day's worth of calories" category. So I was feeling really discouraged at trying to choose well. I flirted with just ordering anything and writing the meal off. I really didn't want to do that. So, I decided to eat no more than 1/3 of whatever I ordered. I ended up with a reasonable number of points for the day.

While I was trying to decide how to manage the situation, I thought about how far I'd come and what the consequences of writing the meal off would be. First, it could start a pattern of writing off difficult situations. That's the way back to my previous weight and I don't want to go there. So, that idea was totally out.

Second, I thought about the consequences of what I decided to do. I could give up, probably gain weight, and start the gradual climb back up. Or, I could do my best and at least stay where I am. And, by making the best choices I can in every situation I'm confronted with, I can keep moving toward my goal because I'm maintaining the good habits.

The AHA! moment was when I started thinking about how we as a culture think about weight loss. Because we gain weight so easily, we think that if we're not losing, we must be gaining. We think in that dichotomy--weight loss or weight gain--and ignore the third option--maintaining our weight. I wonder if that mind set isn't part of what gets us when we reach our goal. We don't want to lose any more, so we assume that gaining is what will happen--and it does. We get tired of doing the things that got us to our goal and gradually relax the vigilance and the weight does creep back on. But if we can change our thinking so that we think loss or maintain, maybe we can more easily get to goal because we're being consistent in our choices and by building that pattern of consistency, we'll be more likely to stay at our goal.

That reminds me of a related issue--perfectionism. We often think that if we don't follow our preferred program perfectly, we won't lose weight. Not only that, we'll automatically gain weight. That's another attitude that doesn't work. If we're faced with situations where our choices for healthy, low-calorie food are limited, we can make the best choices we can and not stuff ourselves. The worst that will happen may be that we don't lose weight that week. Or if we do gain, it won't be very much. Remembering that it's not one meal that causes weight gain helps. It's when we decide that meal makes us a total failure and we top it off with more meals that aren't the best choices that we usually see a gain.

Lesson two: I'm facing a Thanksgiving holiday that is not my first choice, not even close. I'm not cooking. If you've read very much of this blog, you know that's unheard of. But the last two weeks have been full of other obligations and I haven't had time to make a menu or grocery shop. My family wants to celebrate on Friday at a favorite restaurant. With all that happening, my husband and I made reservations at LB Steakhouse at Santana Row for Thanksgiving day.

I started thinking about the "holiday season". We start at Halloween now and go through New Year's and think of it as all one long "season" with lots of good food and parties and so on. That can lead to disaster for people who are trying to lose weight, or even to maintain their weight. I realized it's an attitude problem. Lumping it all together makes every day seem like a holiday. If every day is a holiday, we tend to overeat because we're celebrating the holiday or even if we don't eat too much, we may make less healthy or higher calorie choices.

It occurred to me that when we're thinking about food, exercise, etc. and this time of year, we might be better off to think of it as "holiday days" inserted in between "normal days". It's thinking of the whole season from Halloween to New Year's as "difficult" or "challenging" or a "time when we struggle" that makes it harder than it needs to be. Instead, we could look at each day separately. On the normal days, we would do our normal routine. And on the holiday days, we choose what we want to do to celebrate the occasion.

That's not to say this time period isn't more challenging than the rest of the year. We often do have more restaurant meals and meals out with friends and family. We have more parties and holiday concerts, pageants, etc. to attend, usually with a sweet-treat laden reception afterward. A strategy that works if we're not thinking of every day between Halloween and New Year's as a holiday is to ask ourselves if this is a substitute for a regular meal at home and eat the way we would if we were at home. Bringing food along and getting a beverage at a coffee place is another alternative to high-calorie restaurant eating I've used when I knew in advance I wasn't going to be home. If it's a celebration, then we can use whatever our celebration meal strategies are, including saying no to treats that aren't worth the calories. Just because it's a party or occasion doesn't mean we have to eat something.

Other Stuff

Since I now have two jobs, I'm not going to survive until New Year's without a good solid plan. So, that's my goal for the weekend. I have from Thursday through Sunday off. I'm spending part of that time with my calendar putting everything on it that needs to be done. If I don't, I'm going to go nuts because I'll be trying to do too much in a day and not leave enough time for recharging the batteries. I have to consider Christmas in there, too. I haven't thought beyond Thanksgiving. My budget will be small, but at least I'll have one this year. It's nice to have both of us working and we can celebrate. I love holiday celebrations and it's always hard when your income doesn't go beyond the basic necessities. I'm grateful for having those, but I also like to have a bit extra to get gifts and make a special meal and so on. Since I couldn't cook at Thanksgiving, I'm going to plan something extra special for Christmas.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NaNoWriMo and Other Stuff

I was planning to work on my NaNo novel while I had a hot cup of coffee at Peet's. The one thing about losing weight is that once I lose 30 pounds or more, I start to be cold a lot, thus the desire for hot coffee. I digress. I've written more than 10K on the story, but my flash drive only has 9K. Apparently, I saved my afternoon session, but not last night's work. So, the novel is on my other computer. That means I have some time to write a blog post.

I'm having fun writing this bizarre, but fun, story. No one will ever be allowed to read it. The writing stinks and I don't think the story is worth revising. It's just a fun bit of fluff.

But it's showing me some things about being a pantser, a writer who doesn't use an outline, that make me want to learn how to make at least a loose outline. A lot of what I've written is stuff that would be cut, if I were going to try to revise this into a decent story. It's stuff that's in there because the writer is looking for the story I know is in there, not actually writing the story itself. That means there's a lot of repetitive, meandering, and totally boring stuff in between the good parts, the parts that are actually the story I'm trying to write. For NaNo, that's wonderful because it's lots of added words, but if I were actually writing a story with the intent of publishing it, it's a very inefficient way to write. I can handle inefficient because it doesn't bother me to cut words. It's the boring and repetitive stuff that's the problem for me.

I'm ready to move past that way of working and on to something else. So, after NaNo, I'm going to focus more on Holly Lisle's Think Sideways class. If I can spend the same time I'm spending on NaNo, I'll make progress, but slowly. I've been working at it more on a hit and miss basis because my life has been so chaotic lately. I've had a hard time focusing on creative pursuits, particularly on writing.

I'm testing an oven-fried chicken recipe tonight. It looks really good. I'm looking forward to this one. I haven't figured out the points, but the ingredients are not super high-calorie. The only added fat is cooking spray. I don't use cooking spray, but I have my Mistos. I have one for regular olive oil. I'll fill one with peanut oil, which is what I prefer for recipes like this one. And the other one is for the oils I don't use as often.

Also, on the cooking front, I've been thinking about flavor and ingredients. I want to write a post or two about those things, but it may have to wait until after NaNo.

I lost three more pounds last week. Paul's been losing weight, too. He said yesterday that he lost another three pounds. He jokes that when I go on a diet, he loses weight. I don't put food in serving dishes. I serve it onto the plates because in my house, everyone prefers not to wash any more dishes than necessary. So, I pretty much give him what I'm eating and if he's still hungry, he can always have more. He rarely does, which is one reason why he's been losing weight.

His blood pressure's been going down pretty fast, with this new medication. He has an appointment next week to have it checked, but he's been checking it in the morning. The one thing I wish he'd do is make getting some exercise in every day a priority. That's the piece that's missing in his efforts to stay healthy. It would be lovely if he'd challenge himself to get his medicine down to the lowest possible dose. Maybe even get rid of it altogether, but at his age and with his family history of high blood pressure, that may not be possible.

I hate that medical stuff is starting to be our conversation topic. But, there comes a time when that becomes more of an issue in your life. So, I'm dealing with it.

I've made progress with my boxes. I think I have 4 or 5 left. I need to put lids on them and stack them with the others in the bedroom hallway. Then I can move on to the next step, which is sorting the things that are already unpacked and giving stuff we don't use to charity, throwing away any junk, and figuring out how to best use the storage I have. I need to pare down our stuff because our apartment is so small. I really don't want to have boxes in my hallway. When that's done, it's back to the boxes and figuring out where to put that stuff when I unpack it. When you live in an apartment without a garage or attic or basement, the hardest stuff to deal with is stuff like holiday decorations that you need to keep, but don't use every day.

It's amazing how fast the process went when I spread out the boxes I was sorting into. I could take 5 minutes and go through one box. That's a lot more doable than taking 10 minutes to spread out the boxes, 5 minutes sorting one, and 10 more minutes putting the boxes back in stacks. Once I convinced Paul not to stack them back up, I made real progress.

But I need to find a day sometime when I can recharge my batteries without feeling like I'm neglecting important things in order to do it. I need one of those mental health days. I had a difficult day yesterday and realized that was the problem. I need to schedule regular time to recharge. If I don't, then any writing or other creative pursuits suffer. Creative work operates at a different pace and in a different way from the type of work I get paid to do. Or from household chores and similar types of work. When I forget that, my life gets out of balance and I get depressed.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A Mishucalanza of a Post

I've been trying to write a new post for several days, but I can't seem to focus on one topic. So, here's a bunch of topics.

First, NaNoWriMo. I started a novel for NaNo. I was right on track on November 1. The second day, thanks to the time change, (I'll skip the rant and just say I hate that they do this twice a year.) I was way too tired and only got about half the words. November 3 Paul was sick, so I didn't write. Today, though, I stopped at Peet's after work and got in about a half hour. I'll write more later tonight.

The story is going well. It's turning out to be a very bizarre story. I'm writing it in the first person, which I usually don't do. But this one seemed to want to be written that way. I trust my instincts about a story, so I'm writing in the first person. I'm having a lot of fun and hope to catch up the words as the month goes on.

Second, Paul's headache thing came back, but not quite as bad as a couple of weeks ago. Thanks to the COBRA thing where you don't have to pay the whole premium, we still have good health coverage, so he's back on medication for his blood pressure. He goes back in on Friday to get it checked after having been on the medication for several days. We need to pin the doctor down about the headaches, though. I don't think they're caused by the blood pressure problem because he started getting them back when his blood pressure was normal.

Third, weight loss. I've lost a total of 25 pounds, as of last Friday. I've noticed some changes in my approach this time around that are making it a lot easier. I changed a lot of eating habits over the years. The kinds of changes seem to make it easier to make choices that allow the weight to come off without me being hungry.

(I suppose I'm repeating myself a lot in my weight loss posts, but that helps me to cement it in my brain. I apologize if anyone is actually reading this blog and gets bored when I do repeat myself.)

One thing that's making a huge difference is that I'm paying attention more to flavor, texture, color, etc. If it looks pretty, has a variety of textures, and really good flavor, it's satisfying, even if it's not a large amount of food. I get full on smaller amounts of food these days. But that's pretty common when you start losing weight. Regular exercise also decreases my appetite a bit.

Another thing that's making a huge difference is paying attention to how full I am. It's hard for me to do that without paying a lot of attention. It's not an automatic process for me to know when I'm full. So, I use a couple of tricks. I start the meal with soup or salad. Sometimes both. That starts to fill me up and takes some time to eat. Then, when I get to the higher-calorie main course, I'm able to eat appropriate portions and feel satisfied. If I have dessert, I tend to eat only a few bites, which is why when we're out, we usually share.

Fourth, music. This is a big time of year for music. I'm so glad STOCtet chose early December for their concert. Prince of Peace is the week after that. It will make for a much calmer holiday season. While I love doing music, I'm glad we gave up a couple of the choirs. Juggling the rehearsals and concerts for four groups was too much.

Fifth, I still need to figure out a better way to manage my kitchen and food and my weird schedule. I'm discovering that it helps a lot to keep prepped ingredients on hand to make dinner from during the week. But I need to plan the ingredient-making sessions so they're spread out over time, not crammed into a couple of days. I just don't have that much time.

Sixth, that whole organizing thing. A while back I joined the Fly Lady web site. I've been getting the emails, but only doing a little bit. I realized that I have to do the same thing with organizing my life as I did with weight loss--make very gradual changes. I'm starting very small with adding a few new habits. I'm picking the things that bug me the most as the place to start. And the biggie right now is finishing the boxes in the living room. I need to sort, put labels and lids on them and restack them in the bedroom hallway. Then I can deal with all the storage issues one at a time, in those 15-minute spurts Fly Lady talks about.

Seventh, I enjoy Farmville and Cafe World on Facebook. I discovered that if you use your time properly, you can time the crops to ripen and the food to cook at a time when you can play. A few minutes and you can go off and do other things while stuff grows and cooks. The thing is, I'm making myself let myself have fun with them. I was raised that adults don't "play". It's another area in my life where I have to fight my upbringing and allow myself to be myself. I need to play. It sparks my creativity and if I don't play, I can't write stories. Besides, the things I was taught adults do for fun aren't fun for me. The thing that makes me sad is how long it took me to realize that it's OK to be myself. And that realization is one of the reasons I'm able to successfully lose weight now.

Recipe Review--Classic Bread Pudding

I started this post a coulpe of weeks ago, and didn't have time to finish and post it. So, here it is.

The latest recipe I'm testing is a bread pudding with an optional bourbon sauce. Unfortunately, the older bottle of heavy cream I had in the fridge was too old, so I ended up substituting 1/2 cup milk for part of the cream in the bread pudding and skipping the bourbon sauce. It's in the oven and I'm not sure it will be done before the deadline, which is today, but they're on Eastern Daylight Time, so if they have a midnight deadline, I'll miss it. I tried to do it on time, but the timing was awful. I got the recipe right before the concert last week, so time was an issue for me.

This is NOT a "point-friendly" recipe. But it's supposed to be an indulgence. I'm not eating a whole portion of it. Just a bite or two. A whole portion, even if I cut it into the smaller size they suggest, is 13 points and that's with the whole milk substituting for 1/2 cup of the cream. Whew!! If I like the recipe, I may play with it and see if I can make a lower-point version that's worth eating.

I finished the recipe and it was very rich, but very bland. The texture was good and they met their goal with the recipe. But it wasn't worth the calories, as is. The other people who tried it had the same reaction. It's a good base, but it needed more. Spices, raisins, something. I warmed it up and put fresh raspberries on it and it was wonderful. My son topped it with whipped cream and loved it that way. However, I suspect more fat isn't what I'd top this rich dish with.

BTW-I can't post the recipes I test because the people who run the magazine ask us not to share recipes that haven't been published.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Pasta Pomodoro & Cocola

We went to Pasta Pomodoro at Santana Row last night. It had been a while since we ate there. We enjoyed it the last time and were in the mood for Italian. Unfortunately, like a lot of chain restaurants, the quality of the food has diminished over the past couple of years. We were totally disappointed.

My husband had a Caesar salad and frutti de mare. I had minestrone soup, mista salad, and butternut squash ravioli. I had the dressing on the side and an appetizer portion of the ravioli. We both had their bread with pesto/olive oil dip. For the most part, the food was mediocre, at best.

The bread had good texture for dipping, but not a lot of flavor on its own. The pesto dip was mostly olive oil. They mixed pesto with olive oil, apparently substituting the pesto for balsamic vinegar in the traditional bread dipping sauce. Pesto is mainly olive oil, so adding more oil just made it all taste like oil, with little basil flavor. Traditional basil pesto has parmesan and pine nuts, although I've seen it made with walnuts, too. If there was any cheese, I couldn't see or taste it. It was too smooth to have nuts in it.

Our starters were pretty ordinary. The vegetables were fresh, which was nice. But the flavors in the dressing were nothing special. I could get the same flavors in bottles from a local grocery store. The minestrone was beans, zucchini, broth, & croutons. They garnished it with the same pesto they used in the bread dip. It was good, but not great.

Our main courses were the biggest disappointment. Paul said his dish had no flavor. But I tasted it and it was just fishy. Not that good, fresh fish flavor, but that bitter fishy taste of fish that's not spoiled, but not entirely fresh, either. It probably was previously frozen, thawed fish. And it was overcooked, with that rubbery texture it gets.

My ravioli was good, at first. I liked the ravioli, sage leaves, cheese, and browned butter. But then they did something really weird--they crushed amaretti on top. I know orange veggies can be sweet, but pairing amaretti--ameretto-flavored cookies--with Parmesan cheese and sage just didn't work for me. That sugary flavor, laced with cinnamon, clashed with the rest of the dish. I probably wouldn't have ordered it, had I read the menu more carefully and noticed the amaretti in the listing of ingredients.

The last thing that was an issue for me is one of my pet peeves. I really, really hate it when they either ask me to keep my salad fork or, even worse, take it off the plate when they clear it and put it on the table for me to use for the main course. Is it really that much trouble to bring a fresh fork? The best service in recent memory for me was when we went to Julia's Kitchen at Copia, which, unfortunately, is no longer open. Not only did they bring fresh silverware for each course, they looked at what you ordered and brought the appropriate silverware.

We declined dessert, opting to head for Cocola, where we'd enjoyed their desserts and pastries. They still have the same good food. We had the Pumpkin and Milk Chocolate Mousse, a new seasonal dessert. My first bites were good. But I think overall, that dessert needs to be rethought. The pumpkin mousse was wonderful. I liked the milk chocolate mousse and the chocolate cake on the bottom. But, there was also a raspberry gel on the top and a hazelnut filling in the middle of the pumpkin mousse. These additions caused the dessert to have too many flavors competing for your attention. I would use a flavorless, and colorless gel on the top. The red didn't really make the pumpkin orange, which seemed to be its purpose, and I'd rather keep the pumpkin pie brown and skip the sweet, fruity flavor of the raspberry gel. I'd also omit the hazlenut filling. Hazelnuts are too strong a flavor to pair with pumpkin mousse.

All in all, it made me wish I'd had time to go home and cook--or that we'd chosen one of the other restaurants in Santana Row. And chosen a different dessert at Cocola. They have so many wonderful ones. This was the only one I've ever eaten that I didn't like.

On other fronts:

Friday is my weigh in day. I lost 1.5 pounds this week. It's 10% of my total body weight and .5 pounds away from the first goal I set myself. Go me!

I'm testing another recipe for one of the magazines today. I'll write another post about it when I'm done.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Week-and-a-half Later...

I've been so busy this past week and a half. I look at my blog and think--I need to write a post, and then I don't have time. Today I do.

Paul got a job. YAY!! We don't have to move. I may be able to resurrect my cooking project--or come up with a better one. It's not as much money, though, so I may not have much budget to play with.

I'm 2 pounds from reaching the first weight goal I set. I don't expect to reach it this week, though. I'm at a point where the weight loss is slower, which is fine with me.

Today I'm going to test another recipe. This one is for a bread pudding with a bourbon sauce. I'm going to have to find someone to give some of it to because it makes way too much for Paul and I to eat by ourselves.

I'm considering signing up for NaNo again. I sign up, get started, and then life gets busy and I don't finish. But I miss writing, which is why I keep signing up for NaNo--to give me a goal and a reason to write. If I do, I won't start any specific cooking projects, or other new projects, until January. The holiday season is way too swamped for a choir singer and I won't have time for new projects.

I guess my blog is back to being a mishucalanza, what with writing about weight loss, cooking, and writing.

More Lessons from the Weight Loss Front

I started this post on Oct. 11 and finally got it edited today.

So, my week of eating almost exclusively Filling Foods is over and I've been doing points again. That's been going well. However, the contrast pointed up a lesson learned.

I was reading that people tend to eat the same volume of food regardless of their calorie level. So, as an example made up by me, if you normally eat 10 cups of food every day and try to lose weight by cutting back to 7 cups, you might lose weight, but you will feel hungry. However, if you substitute 10 cups of food that totals fewer calories than the 10 cups you normally eat, you will lose weight and you won't be hungry. That's the problem with just eating less of what you usually eat. You miss the volume and feel hungry and deprived. But if you eat high-volume, lower calorie foods, like those on the Filling Foods list, you'll lose weight without feeling hungry.

The problem with that is that food habits are among the most difficult habits to change. Mine have changed drastically over the years, but change has come very slowly. I didn't think I really got the baby step concept because I was always falling short of my goals. But I see that over time, I've made changes that are baby steps and those baby steps have helped make following the program easier.

I eat produce at both lunch and dinner. When I don't, I tend to feel less satisfied and overeat. I love veggie soups and salads. I prefer to eat both, but one or the other works.

I've discovered that if I have fresh fruit at every meal, I don't crave desserts as much. That makes it easier to be super picky about what desserts I eat and in what quantity. My current favorite is one Godiva chocolate gem. They come in truffles or caramel and they're one point. Although they're small enough to eat in one bite, I take several small ones and really taste what I'm eating. And it's enough.

I choose whole grains whenever I can. When I bake, I use whole grain flours as much as I can. Not all recipes will work with only whole grain flours, but I've discovered that I can substitute up to half of the flour with whole grains in most recipes. I experiment with various amounts until I find the maximum I can use without losing the flavor and texture.

I eat vegetarian more often. I eat less red meat than I used to. I eat a lot more beans and oatmeal. The next thing I'm adding is cooked polenta and cooked rice to the precooked foods in my freezer. I also plan to make yogurt cheese mixed with roasted garlic and herbs or salsa or whatever I feel like putting in it to use as a dip for raw vegetables. Yogurt and yogurt cheese can also be used to stretch the mayonnaise in a creamy salad dressing.

I've read books where the author talks about changing their diet to eliminate processed and junk foods. They often claim that just changing to more healthy food like that will cause you to lose weight. But it doesn't, not all by itself. I tried that idea and it didn't work for me. You still have to watch portion sizes and choose the higher-calorie foods less often and in smaller portions. The Weight Watcher point system helps me with that aspect of my weight loss efforts.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Lost .5 This Week

I lost another half pound this week. I went back to counting points, but I've eaten mostly from the filling foods list. What's made the difference today is that satiety factor. I've used 1 point, that I didn't use last week, for a 1/2 tablespoon of maple syrup in my oatmeal and 1 tablespoon of shredded cheese on my huevos rancheros. Those flavors make a huge difference in how the food feels, whether it's satisfying or not. So, I think this is a good plan.

I don't want this blog to become a weight loss blog, even though that's been my focus for the past couple of weeks. I have a new recipe to test. This one is for a traditional bread pudding--and it's NOT diet friendly. However, I'll make it, taste and analyze it. Do the survey. And give the rest away. Or freeze it in small portions to have as a treat, now and then. I need to figure out the points before I do that, so I can decide what's a good serving size and freeze it in that size portion.

I think my next thing will be to go for a walk. I need to get out of here for a while and I have an errand that I can do. It's a beautiful day out there, too. A perfect fall day to be outside--not too hot and sunny.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Almost the End of Week 1

I had a couple more thoughts about the Filling Foods thing today. I didn't have many points left. I only had a couple of activity points, so I was really working hard to figure out what to eat that wouldn't require that I count points. And, I made extra sure to get in some activity.

It wasn't really difficult to find no point foods. I did eat one corn tortilla, but I had activity points to cover it. The big thing was that it took quite a while to put it together. I'd drained some yogurt. I mixed that with garlic I'd roasted and fresh basil and a little salt and pepper. I spread that on celery sticks. That's a keeper for a snack, whether I'm doing Filling Foods or not. I made what amounts to vegan huevos rancheros--black beans, eggs, no-fat salsa and the corn tortilla. It all was very filling. I couldn't finish it. But I was hungry a couple of hours later, so I ate the rest then.

So now I have to figure out what to do about dinner. I think I can easily fit it into the remaining activity points. So, this was a good program for me. I may keep it as a backup or as a way to break a plateau. We'll see how weighing tomorrow goes.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Thoughts About Week 1--So Far

Tomorrow is the last day of my first week following the Simply Filling Foods plan. It's been an interesting week. I won't know if I lost weight until Friday, but there are other things to write about besides the number on the scale.

When WW says the food is filling, they're not kidding. I did an experiment and calculated what the points would have been had I been tracking. If you don't count the Weekly Points, I've averaged 15 points per day for 5 days. When you include the Weekly Points, I've averaged 22 points per day for 5 days. Since my point level is 26, not counting weekly or activity points, if I were tracking points, I'd be under daily points by an average of 4 per day for 5 days, and not using any weekly or activity points. So, hunger is not one of the problems I'm having with this plan.

However, satiety, feeling satisfied, as opposed to simply not being hungry, is a problem for me with this plan. I really like the food on the list. I can see basing my food plan around them. But this week as I worked out the plan, I discovered that it's super low fat unless you use points. That wasn't really a problem. I don't eat a lot of added fats.

It also ended up being super low carb for me. You can't eat bread without counting points, and I guess that's a huge problem for me, since I keep talking about it. Rice, whole wheat pasta, and potatoes are all once a day foods. I'm not clear whether you can eat them more often if you count the points for the other meals. That question isn't addressed in the printed materials or online. Other grains and starchy vegetables are filling foods and can be used to up the carb count. I don't feel well when I eat very low anything. I feel better if I balance the various food types, although I do go overboard with the vegetables sometimes. I love vegetables!!

The way to make that work would be to plan meals more fully than I do now. I often take a look in the pantry and see what there is. Bread, pasta, rice and potatoes are staples that can become the basis for a meal. Soup and sandwiches are a favorite. Stuffed baked potatoes are another. If I keep the filling foods around, I can still do those kind of meals. I just have to have some things cooked in advance or ready to go. That works fine with this plan, until you head to a restaurant--any restaurant.

One restaurant meal can easily add 10 or more points to the total, even when you choose filling foods like salads, with dressing on the side; grilled meats; steamed vegetables and brown rice. A lot of restaurants are putting their nutrition information in the menu, online, or in brochures on the tables. I use them, whenever possible, to help make the best choices or, if I'm splurging, to figure out as accurately as I can, what the point count is. One restaurant meal can eat up enough of your weekly points that the built-in restrictions of this plan can make me feel like this is a diet, not a lifestyle.

I think that after this week, I'm probably going to go back to the regular point plan. But, I'm going to use what worked for me. I want to base my food plan around the filling food list, but count the points so I can include the variety of foods I'm used to eating, especially my homemade whole grain breads.

At the beginning of the week, I feared I'd overeat, since I could eat as much of the filling foods as I wanted. I started using the hunger scale and discovered that 1/2-1 portion of anything is plenty. I'm going to continue using the hunger scale. I think that, more than changing the food plan, is what made a difference this week. I'm going to continue to stop eating, as I did with the filling foods, when I'm full--even if I don't hit all the points for the day, with the caveat that if for some weird reason I'm below the minimum anyone should eat, I'll eat more. I don't think that's going to happen. If that were a likely possibility, I wouldn't need to lose nearly a hundred pounds.

I'm also not worried about nutrition, since I love the healthy food we're supposed to eat. My weight problem is mainly due to not knowing when I've had enough of those healthy foods. That's where the hunger scale comes it. If I know I'm going to be recording it, I pay more attention to when I'm hungry and when I'm full. I think that's a better way for me to use the program effectively.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Simply Filling Foods

Weight Watchers has a food plan where you don't have to count points for everything you eat. You eat from the Filling Foods list, follow a few rules, and only count points if you eat foods that aren't on the list. Sounds easy, but the key to having that plan work is to stop eating when you've had enough. Well, knowing how much is "enough" is my biggest problem. However, I'm planning to try it, anyway.

My reasoning is that following that plan will force me to be more aware of how hungry I am and when I'm done eating. I can't just rely on the point count to tell me when to stop eating. And I won't end up eating more than I want "because I have to eat all of my points". Plus, I'd rather not have to calculate the points for everything I eat.

It seems restrictive because of the rules. I don't like food restrictions, except that when I look at what I eat, most of what I eat is from the Filling Foods list. I'm already choosing to eat mostly from that list because it's mostly whole foods. There are some foods that I'll have to count points for, mainly bread and full-fat dairy. I really don't like nonfat dairy products. They're not very satisfying.

One thing that could be a problem is the way they handle starchy foods. No breads, not even whole grain breads, are considered to be a Filling Food. Baking bread is my specialty. So, I'll do what I do now and use my weekly point allowance to cover my homemade bread. Most days I only eat one slice with breakfast, anyway. Whole wheat pasta or potatoes or brown rice can only be eaten once a day, although you can have other types of grains, like polenta or quinoa, at other meals. It makes it kind of hard when you eat out or at pot lucks and so on, since so many pot luck main dishes are based around pasta or potatoes. I'll have to plan in advance for those times.

It will be really interesting creating recipes using this food plan. I can see that there will be some challenges, but I also see that it will be easier in some ways. A lot of my favorite recipes will fit right in. Others will need a bit of tweaking, but it will be fun to figure out how to make them work.

Tomorrow I'm cooking some meals for a friend who's pregnant. She can't stand the smells of cooking, but when it's prepared for her, she can eat a lot more types of foods without getting nauseous. So we worked out some things and she or her husband will be picking them up tomorrow evening. And I have to bake bread. My sourdough starter needs refreshing and we're almost out of the bread I baked a couple of weeks ago.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

20# Gone

My total weight loss is 20# since last June. That's an average of about 5 pounds per month. That's a nice, steady pace.

I think quick weight loss is an awful goal for many reasons. If you're losing weight to improve your overall health, then trying to lose weight in a unhealthy way seems counterproductive. Then there's all the research that says if you lose it too fast, first it's excess water. Then instead of burning fat, you lose your own muscle tissue. That's also counterproductive to good health.

But that's not why I prefer to lose slowly. I prefer to lose slowly because it gives me time to build (or rebuild) habits that will help me keep it off. Some of what I do is based on things that worked in the past. But a lot of what I'm doing now is in response to living in a culture that promotes weight gain.

It's easier to lose weight if you stay home and make your own food. But that's not a realistic lifestyle for the average person. Although we're not eating out these days, I discovered a couple of new strategies for dealing with restaurant food before Paul was laid off. The problems with restaurant food are mainly the amount of fat they use and the enormous portions they serve. I deal with the fat by eating small amounts of the higher calorie items and getting all dressings, sauces, etc. on the side. Then I get to pick how much of them I eat.

I deal with the portion sizes by getting a separate, small plate. Then I take about a third of what's on the serving-size plate they've given me. I eat that. Usually, it's plenty of food, especially if I've eaten a salad or soup to start with. The rest goes home and I get two or three more meals from it. The other strategy for dealing with portion sizes is to share. Even with sharing, we usually have food to take home.

Another strategy is to use my overall food philosophy--go for the veggies. I always order a salad or vegetable soup. It fills me up and makes it easier to eat smaller portions of the main course. Sometimes I substitute veggies for French fries, depending on what's available. There's no point if the vegetable dishes are all drenched in a butter sauce.

The traditional advice is to order plain steamed vegetables. But they usually aren't cooked properly and are unappetizing. They make me feel like I'm "on a diet". That "on a diet" feeling is hard for me because it makes me feel like I'm being punished for having a body that tends toward fatness. That's a killer for me, psychologically. It makes me want to pig out on high-calorie foods. So, I lose weight better if I eat reasonable-sized portions of foods I like (which includes properly-cooked steamed vegetables).

I'm learning to eat differently if I want dessert, too. If I'm just wanting a taste, a bite or two, I don't worry about it. But if I want a reasonable serving, I don't order a high-calorie main course. I'll have soup and salad and eat lightly the rest of the day (or the next day, if the meal out wasn't planned in advance.)

What's interesting about all of the above is that so much of it is traditional advice I never could figure out how to follow before. I don't want to eat so differently from the people around me that I'm advertising, "I'm trying to lose weight". It's that "punishment feeling" again. I much prefer that it appear that I'm eating the same as everyone else and I stopped eating because I got full.

That's probably why the current Weight Watcher program works so well for me, as well as so many other people. If you plan carefully and make good choices, you can eat like everyone else, just not as much food as the big people. I'm an average height woman with a medium build. I don't need as much food as a woman who's 6' tall and big boned. The problem is learning how much food is the amount my particular body needs. I'm working on it and feel like I finally have some good guidelines.

Friday, September 11, 2009

So Much for the Cooking Project

Well, it looks like I'm going to have to give up on doing anything like my Cute Cooking or Cooking in Miniature idea for now. Or any other project that's just playing because I can't afford to experiment. My cooking project will have to be eating fresh food on a super tight budget.

So, today's cooking will be to do something with the food I bought before I fell this past week and bruised my ribs. One of the biggest issues with cooking for two people is that there is a lot of food that doesn't come in packages sized for two people. The cheapest stuff is usually sized in huge quantities, which was great when I had growing boys living with me. Planning carefully helps because I can make multiple recipes that use the same ingredients.

That dilemma kind of inspired my cute cooking idea. The biggest problem I have is lack of freezer space. If I can buy ingredients for two servings and cook that much, I don't have leftovers to take up space in my freezer. I can then cook and freeze things like rice and beans blanch produce that comes in bunches and oatmeal and bread and stock--ingredients or meals that can be thawed and used when I have less time to cook a whole meal from scratch. That was the theory, anyway.

Experimenting with recipes and food will have to be put off for a time when I have the budget. It's disappointing because I was getting excited about having some fun in my kitchen. I'd been putting a lot of things off that I wanted to try because I wasn't sure about Paul's employment situation. Then he got his benefits and everything was set up for the long haul and I was thinking about doing fun stuff. But with yet another layoff, that's not happening. Time to move back into super frugal budget mode. We're being way more frugal at this point because whether he gets unemployment is really iffy and we may need to have as much as possible to move somewhere else. Who knows where? Our options are pretty limited at this point, but we're always open to workable ideas.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Weight Loss Lessons


I've lost about 20 pounds since I started taking the train to work. I first lost a few pounds from just walking to and from the train. When I exercise, even a moderate amount, my appetite goes down. This happened back a few years ago when Paul and I started walking the track near my mom's house. I lost between 20 and 30 pounds. Then I stayed the same until we moved. I had to stop walking because there was nowhere except sidewalk and I was getting muscle cramps on the fronts of my legs. I gained most of the weight back.

So, when I started losing again, I decided to do more than just adding exercise to my life. I rejoined Weight Watchers, using their online tools. I get my support from online groups and friends and family. I don't find the meetings help me, personally, very much. I tend to tune it all out because I've been there, done that.

Also, I get tired of people's games to make the scale as low as possible each week. People wear special clothes. Take off their shoes. Even make sure they use the toilet right before they weigh in. Some people don't eat before a meeting. It's crazy!! I don't want to get sucked into compulsive, crazy behavior. If that's what it takes, I'd rather stay fat.

Plus, I get frustrated with recipes and food advice because that's another kind of game. You win the game by getting the most food for the fewest points regardless of the nutritional value of your meal. The fact is that what people are really trying to do is to lose weight without making any real changes. The diet food industry is rife with fake foods that mimic the foods people don't want to give up in order to lose weight.

Weight Watchers sell food that's not as high in nutritional value as the fresh food they promote as being healthier. Yet, despite their healthy eating advice, they don't really want you to eat only fresh food because they make a lot of money from selling you their food products. The last time I attended meethings, part of the meeting time was spent promoting Weight Watchers products and I'd prefer to skip that. I ignore the ads when I'm online.

Lessons Learned So Far

The main thing I've learned is that a lot of the advice the professionals give you is true, but until you experience it for yourself, you don't really believe it. And I learned that a lot of research needs to be done into the effect of female hormones on weight.


1. When I was growing up, my mom decided how much food went on the plate and we were expected to eat it all. If there were leftovers, but not enough to save or the leftovers would tempt her too much, she'd beg everyone else to eat them whether we were hungry or not. Consequently, I have no idea how to know when I'm full. I'm used to eating to overfull.

I decided to try an experiment and not put a bite in my mouth until I've swallowed the previous bite. I still forget. Old habits die hard. But I'm getting more consistent with this. The result: I feel full and more satisfied on less food because I'm eating more slowly. This is especially beneficial when eating higher-calorie foods because they require eating super small portions. A side benefit is that I'm more aware of the flavors in my food and that helps me become a better cook.

2. When I grew up and discovered that canned vegetables were not the only way to get vegetables, I discovered that I love vegetables. So, now I go for the fruits and veggies. I'm starting to base my meals more around the veggies and fruits, adding whole grains, protein, and some fat to them. I'm not a vegetarian, but when I make a meat-based main dish, I keep the portion small so I can have a lot of vegetable dishes, too. This strategy allows me to eat a reasonable volume of food and still lose weight. However, I'm discovering that the total volume of food I'm eating is a lot less. I get full faster when I eat this way, especially when I use whole grains.

3. Whole grains are amazing. When I put one serving of white rice or regular pasta or white bread on my plate and eat it, I feel neither full nor satisfied. I need two or three portions for that. But, when I put one serving of whole grain bread, whole grain rice, or whole wheat pasta on my plate, not only am I both full and satisfied, sometimes I can't finish it because it's too much food.

I think one of the main problems people have with whole grains is unfamiliarity with them combined with the poor quality of a lot of the whole grain products, particularly breads, in the markets. You have to keep trying different types and brands to find what you like. When I first tried whole wheat pastas, they were horrible. But now I prefer them because the quality has improved since then. I solve the whole grain bread issue by making my own. Baking bread is one of the pleasures in my life, so that's a no-brainer for me.

4. Beans are one of my favorite foods. I've always liked them and I've been trying out new varieties lately. They really fill you up. I love to add them to pureed vegetable soups because they also thicken the soup. What I've discovered is that when you buy beans at Whole Foods or any store that has a lot of vegetarian customers, they're fresher and take less time to cook. When I eat beans several times a week, I tend to lose more weight than when I don't. I'm not saying that beans cause weight loss, but they probably keep the total calories lower because they're so filling.

5. I'm eating a lot more vegetarian meals these days because it's cheaper. This will be an especially crucial issue as Paul and I deal with yet one more time he's been laid off. I don't want this to derail my weight loss efforts, so I'm going to have to plan meals carefully, keeping the budget in mind.

Time magazine had a disturbing article recently called Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food. They were talking about how difficult it is to eat a standard American diet and not gain weight. And how the agriculture and industry's subsidies allow them to make cheap, but unhealthy food. I haven't figured out how I'm going to continue to eat high-quality, healthful food on my now super-limited budget, but I'm not giving up on it, at least not while I still have a kitchen of my own to cook in.

6. The food thing is really all about portion control and balancing high-calorie and low-calorie foods. Weight Watchers says that you don't have to give up foods you love in order to lose weight. But when people talk about the program, they talk about OP foods. OP stands for On Program. That implies that there are foods that are off program. They usually mean the foods that have been pounded into our brain as being bad. But Weight Watchers is right. You can eat whatever you want, but you have to be willing to change the portion size and what you eat with it. You have to balance your food over time and you have to learn what balance works best for you.

An example: You can eat real macaroni and cheese, just not a huge bowl full. If you make it with whole wheat pasta, which is how I like it, and add some vegetables, you can eat a nice-sized portion. If you just want the comfort food, without adding veggies to the dish itself, you eat a smaller serving. Then, fill the meal out with a vegetable soup or a vegetable side dish and a salad. That's plenty of food.

The problem is that we don't think of macaroni and cheese as the main course. We eat it with high-calorie hot dogs or hamburgers and buns. If I want a hot dog or hamburger and bun, I pair it with grilled corn and watermelon, plus a salad. And I've discovered that one slider-sized hamburger is plenty, especially if I make the buns myself.

My point is that I've been rethinking what constitutes a healthy, satisfying menu and coming up with a very different combination of foods from what I grew up with. It more closely resembles the types of foods recommended by professional nutritionists, with one major exception--I eat mostly whole fat dairy products. I don't like low-fat dairy. I don't substitute cup for cup, though. When I eat whole milk yogurt, I eat a quarter of a cup with fruit and granola. I couldn't eat a whole cup of it. It's too filling.

7. As for the hormone thing, before I stopped having the monthly hormone swings, I lost about 50 pounds, twice. But then I got stuck gaining and losing the same 5 pounds every month. I gave up and gradually regained some of that weight back. I never got back up to my highest weight ever. I managed to permanently keep off about 20-25 pounds. Back then it was all or nothing. You were a failure if you didn't get to the goal they set, and those goals were unrealistically low. Now, you're encouraged to set more reasonable goals and you don't feel like a failure if you've lost a significant amount of weight, but not every pound the experts say someone of your height and gender ought to lose.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the hormone thing--now that I don't have those monthly food cravings, anxiety, etc., my weight loss has been steady, as has my ability to adhere to the program. If I were a researcher working in the field of obesity, that's an area I'd love to examine. One of the things everyone knows about weight loss is that it's harder after menopause. I'm not so sure that's true for everyone. Thus far, it's not been true for me.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Easy Chicken Recipe

I made this last night. It's super good and super easy. This isn't the kind of recipe that needs to be exact, so adjust it for however many people you're cooking for. I baked it in the oven, but it would be a perfect grilled chicken dish for a Labor Day weekend barbecue because it's not very labor-intensive.

Lemon Chicken


Note: The amounts given are for about 2 pounds of chicken pieces, which is about 4 whole chicken legs. Adjust the ingredient amounts up or down according to your tastes and how much chicken you're cooking.

1. 4 whole chicken legs, or 2 pounds chicken pieces.
2. Approximately 2 cloves of garlic. How much garlic you use depends on how big the cloves are and how much you like garlic.
3. Salt and pepper
4. About 1/2 cup fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped.
5. 3 lemons, juiced, for about 2 pounds of chicken. If you're feeding a crowd, add more lemon juice, as needed, to marinate the chicken. Juice it through a sieve so you can catch the pits. Don't throw out the rinds.


1. Wash and dry the chicken pieces. Put in a large bowl. Add the garlic, salt, pepper and parsley. Rub it into the chicken. Make sure the garlic is rubbed over all the chicken pieces.

2. Pour the lemon juice into the bowl and turn the chicken pieces to make sure they're all coated with the juice. Add the lemon rinds to the bowl. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour, two is better. Every half hour or so, pull the bowl out and turn and rub the chicken pieces with the marinade.

You could marinate the chicken overnight, but it doesn't need that long and rubbing the marinade into the chicken periodically gives it deeper flavor. But, if you want to cook it after you get home from work, do the marinade in the morning. Give the chicken a good rub before you leave. Again, when you get home, give it a good rub and let it sit a bit longer while you heat the oven and prep whatever you're eating with the dish.

3. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

4. Take the chicken out of the marinade. Throw out the marinade and lemon rinds. Coat the chicken lightly with olive oil. I don't waste extra virgin olive oil on this type of recipe because it doesn't really add anything to the dish. I use a light olive oil and spray it with my Misto. Then I use my hands to rub the sprayed oil evenly over the chicken. You only need enough oil to keep the chicken from sticking to the rack and promote browning.

5. Put skin side down on the rack. Bake 20-30 minutes, depending on how big the chicken pieces are. Turn over and bake another 20-30 minutes, until done. Check the chicken about 10 minutes before they're done. If it's not browning enough, turn the heat up to 400°F for the last 10 minutes.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Julia Child's Book

Here's another post I started before concert week:

I'm not even trying to cook this week. It's concert week and I'm in charge of the box office. I'm working a lot of hours. So, we're baking potatoes on the grill. We're grilling steak and chicken. We're going to use the cooked meat and potatoes as the basis for quick meals. Tonight, though, it's the traditional steak, salad, and baked potato meal. It's yummy and simple. We both got home after 5, so we didn't want to fuss a lot.

I've been really glad to see Mastering the Art of French Cooking get the attention it deserves. She wrote something special. It's headed for the top of the NYT bestseller list this week, 40-some years after it was first published. I hope people don't buy it, leaf through it, and put it on their shelves to cook from "when they have more time". Her recipes are indeed time-consuming. I bet she'd have loved the slow food movement. Here's a link to Slow Food USA, in case you're interested in the American version or want to find a chapter you could participate in.

Back to the book. If you cook from it, you will learn so much about good cooking techniques. And, if you study the recipe variations, you can learn a lot about creating your own food. People are often intimidated by the idea of not following a recipe exactly. If you look at the types of changes she makes in the variations, you can start to get a feel for what changes will work and what won't.

I've noticed two interesting things about what she wrote. First, her recipes are supposed to serve six people, assuming a three-course meal that was standard in America when she was writing. She says that in France, they'd have six courses and the portions would be half as large. The six courses are hors d'oeuvre, soup, salad, main course, cheese and dessert. As you go through the book, she mentions what recipes would be good hors d'oeuvres for a dinner and they're pretty much vegetable dishes. The cheese and dessert courses are at the end of the meal, so you would most likely be too full to eat too much of them. By dividing the meal up into courses, you take longer to eat, so you're more aware of being full before you've eaten too much.

I think the French paradox thing makes perfect sense when you look at that eating pattern. (The French paradox=eating more saturated fat, whole fat cheeses and dairy and so on, but not getting fat or having a lot of heart attacks. Small portions that include a lot of vegetables and taking a long time to eat mean you're less likely to overeat. But I digress, and that could easily be another post.

I wonder if even the French today cook that many courses for dinner. You'd have to spend all day cooking. That would be fun, but most people have to work. I like small portions of a variety of tastes. So, my personal preference is to do soup, salad, main course/sides and fresh fruit. That's really hard to find the time to do, even with doing some advance cooking, so I don't often get my preference. The Tables for Eight group from my church gets the benefit of my love of multi-course meals. I usually substitute a dessert for the fruit and add some pre-dinner munchies, since it's a dinner party.

Second, she has such a reputation for loving butter and cream that everyone thinks she cooks super-high-fat, unhealthy food. But when you read the recipes, she doesn't add fat willy-nilly. She uses the right amount to get the results she wants. She carefully pours off or removes extra fat because she doesn't want greasy food. Her philosophy was that we shouldn't be afraid of our food. That's a philosophy I agree with, but have struggled with most of my life due to an upbringing that was drenched in being afraid of food.

I very much enjoyed reading the book. Yeah, I'm one of those weird people who reads through cookbooks the way I read novels. I'm definitely going to be cooking from it. I'm thinking about having a fall dinner party with Boeuf Bourguignon as the centerpiece. After going to see Julie and Julia, Paul asked me if I'd ever cooked it. I had, but not Julia Child's version because I didn't have the cookbook at that time. It was a gift from my son who worked in a used bookstore for a few years. Someone gave it to the store and no one wanted it. He gave it a good home.

Local Eating

One of the things I'm doing today is catching up on things that were put aside while I worked a ton of extra hours. The concerts were amazing! So, here's one post I started around mid-August.

Barbara Kingsolver wrote a book called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life which tells of her family's attempts to eat only food they've grown themselves on a farm they bought in Virginia. The locavore movement refers to eating locally grown food, but the definition of "locally grown food" seems to be up to the individual. If you scroll down the page, you come across the definition of "locavore" and the radius seems to be 50, 100, or 150 miles from where you live. I'd heard 100 miles was kind of the standard.

Paul had talked about eating meals centered around locally grown vegetables. We had an interesting conversation about eating only locally produced food. He said he didn't mean to eat only local foods, but rather to use local foods, specifically vegetables, as the center of the menu. I started thinking about the 100-mile thing and wondered what foods are available from within a 100-mile radius of here. I decided to research it, just because I'm a curious person.

So, I got a cardboard wheel from Amazon that shows what's local to the San Francisco Bay Area and when it's in season. It's called The Local Foods Wheel and it's by Maggie Gosselin, Sarah Klein, and Jessica Prentice. Their website: Local Foods Wheel. It's pretty amazing to see that I could, theoretically, get almost anything I want to eat from somewhere local to this area. Tropical fruits like bananas, pineapple, etc. are, as I expected, not on the wheel. There are some things I've never heard of, like burdock root and cardoons. Did you know there's a plant called jujube? And you thought it was just a candy.

I doubt I'll be eating exclusively locally produced food. It would be an interesting exercise to try it for a year, hitting every season, but I don't have the resources to do this. I'd need a car and the time to go to the farmer's markets, farms themselves, and other sources to purchase locally grown food. What I do now is to choose locally grown and produced food whenever possible. It helps that they post signs saying where your food comes from.

In my quest for the best ingredients, because the best ingredients make the best food, I also try to use organic whenever I can. I've noticed that organic is fresher and more flavorful. And local organic is often the best. It's more expensive, but my strategy is to eat more vegetarian meals and to cook from scratch. I don't spend my money or calories on junk food very often. Organic junk food is still junk food. But that's an issue for another post, another time, if I feel like ranting.

I've had some time to think about this whole idea and what I want to do is to use the wheel to help me plan meals that are in season. That can be tough. I subscribe to several food magazines and they send the October issue in late August, so the magazines hitting my mailbox now are full of fall braises and stews. But it's still summer, with late-summer food in the markets.

I'm thinking of storing magazines away by month and pulling them out when that season gets here, so I'm not tempted to cook food that's not yet in season. That's more expensive, as well as not as good because the ingredients aren't at their peak. It's not yet time for braised short ribs and root vegetables. Right now is the time to enjoy tomatoes, peaches, and corn, before they go out of season.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cooking in Miniature

I've been looking at my refrigerator. It's small. Not the smallest I've ever had in an apartment, but not really big enough for someone who cooks from scratch. I've also been reading Cooking for Two 2009 from Cook's Illustrated magazine. It occurred to me that an answer that would allow me to tackle a variety of projects, but still have a theme, is to work on scaling recipes for two people.

I always cook large amounts of food. It's partly because I cooked for a family with two growing boys for so many years. And it's partly my Italian heritage. We Italians seem to have a mission to feed the world. You couldn't walk into my grandmother's house without her offering you food. But now there's only two of us to cook for. So, I cut recipes in half and we still end up getting 2-3 meals out of them because everything is super-sized.

Cooking in Miniature would go right along with Weight Watchers, too. I'm learning what portion sizes I need to eat if I want to be a healthy weight. And they're a lot smaller than what is served in restaurants or found in cookbooks. I think if you made recipes from cookbooks published during my childhood and divided them up into the number of servings the recipe says it makes, you'd think you'd stumbled upon a kid's cookbook because the portions would seem so small.

I think miniaturizing recipes is the perfect challenge for me at this time in my life. The question remains, though, whether to revisit the basics or go international. Maybe I could alternate. Choose basic techniques to practice one month, including using them in recipes. The next month, I could visit a new cuisine. I think I'd get bored with just practicing basic techniques, so alternating would allow me to improve my basic skills and stretch my cooking comfort zone.

I think I may have found my challenge. But, there's one more thing I want to think about before I start planning it. When my Amazon order gets here, it will be easier to figure it all out.

I've got food simmering on the stove. I took stuff I had in the fridge and put it in a pot. It's black beans, salsa verde, vegetable stock, and roasted spicy vegetables. It didn't work for what I originally planned, but I put some of it together, spooned it over a steamed corn tortilla, and topped it with a poached egg, making huevos rancheros with a green sauce. It's not too dry to eat as a soup, especially if you top it with some cheese. I may try that for lunch tomorrow. I think of it as a serendipity recipe. It's serendipity that I found another use for the ingredients since my original idea didn't work.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Musings on Advance Prep Cooking

I was really tired today, so I made the simplest dinner. We had Mushroom-tarragon soup that I made a couple of days ago. Melon with berries. Toast with butter. And eggs scrambled with some of the vegetables I roasted. It took about ten minutes to put together and was yummy.

One of the things I'm trying to do is to make food when I have more time. Then do only the last minute stuff on the busy days. My biggest problem with that is that I have an apartment-sized refrigerator and freezer, which limits the amount of food I can store. People who have family-sized appliances don't know how lucky they are to have space for storing both ingredients and finished dishes. Upon considering the problem, I've thought of two things that could help.

One is to make half recipes whenever possible, which means fewer leftovers to store. The benefit of half recipes is that Paul and I won't be eating the same meal every day for a month. That's obviously an exaggeration, but sometimes it feels that way. I'm noticing that portion sizes in recipes, particularly from books written by restaurant chefs, are growing, just as they are in restaurants. So, a half recipe is about perfect for two meals.

The drawback to half recipes is that I'll have to cook more often. There will be less food I can freeze to reheat on busier days. I'm thinking of getting one of those food saving devices that vacuum seals the food. Then my freezer won't be filled up with packages that are half food and half air. I could fit more stuff in there.

The other thing I can do is to use some of my evening time for prep work. I'd rather just cook on the weekends, which is what I've done the two times I've tried achieving this goal. But since I don't have space to store a whole week's worth of food, I'm going to have to spread the cooking out more. I only go into the office three days a week--Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I do the rest of my work from home. Every other week I visit a woman from our church. I prefer to do that on Tuesdays and have Fridays for catching up with household chores. But, I think I'm going to have to change my visits to Fridays so I can have Tuesdays, and whatever time I can scrape out of the weekend, and maybe an hour or so occasionally in the evenings for advance prep work. Of course, the weeks I don't do the visit, I'll have Tuesdays and Fridays available. So maybe I could plan two weeks at a time and spread the work out so that the most time-consuming work is planned for the weeks I only have to go out three days.

Then there's the weekend schedule issue. This weekend, for example, I have a wedding Saturday afternoon and something scheduled Sunday morning, afternoon, and evening. And next weekend are two orchestra concerts, plus my usual Sunday church time. So, I'm going to have to schedule fairly simple food for next week. These types of scheduling issues crop up fairly regularly. It means I'm going to have to plan and use my time as efficiently as possible. That will be crucial if I'm going to combine the necessary everyday cooking with a special cooking project.

My Friday deadline for figuring out what my project will be may have to be put off. I found an interesting gizmo that I've ordered from Amazon. It may help me figure out what I want to do, so unless it gets here sooner than I expect, it will be next week before I choose what I'm going to do. On the other hand, it may end up being just a good research tool for the post on local eating that I started earlier today. I have to do some research before I can finish my other post, choose my project, and get a schedule going.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back to Your Reglarly Scheduled Foodie Program

Now that the jeans rant is out of the way, back to food.

Last night I recreated a favorite meal from Left Bank Brasserie, located at Santana Row in San Jose. I really love their food and have always had a good experience at their restaurant.

One of my favorite things for brunch is the SALADE LYONNAISE: frisée, warm poached egg, bacon, mustard vinaigrette & FONDUE AU FROMAGE brie, blue and goat cheeses. That's the meal I decided to recreate last night.

The Weight Watcher thing means making adjustments to recipes re: portion sizes, how much fat and higher calorie ingredients I use, and so on. So I often add veggies to fill me up without adding extra calories. One of my favorite ways to do that is to make soup. A half cup is the perfect size to go with a meal. Last night I filled in with a Mushroom-Tarragon Soup.

For the meal itself, I used a very small amount of dressing on the salad, just enough to coat the frisee and give me the flavor I'm looking for. The bacon was thick sliced so I only used a half slice per serving. More would have overwhelmed the other flavors in the salad. I discovered that the eggs I buy, which are super fresh, are simple to poach. They are the first eggs I've poached that look like the pictures of poached eggs.

A quarter cup of the cheese fondue was plenty, maybe even too much. I served it with one slice of olive bread and steamed orange cauliflower. The olive bread went very well with the brie, roquefort, and goat cheese blend in the fondue. The cauliflower was wonderful with the cheese. The pale orange color looked good and cheese sauce really enhances the mild flavor of cauliflower.

The meal was easier than I thought it would be to make. After I test some changes, including the portion sizes, I'll post the recipes. I think a smaller serving of fondue and a half slice of bread, along with the cauliflower, would be enough food. I'd like to add some berries, peaches, or apricots to the meal. I think that would make it a more complete light meal.

Note on the lack of pictures: I need to get a better camera so I can take pictures for this blog. Bad food pictures are NOT better than no pictures. Trust me. I've seen blogs with bad food pictures and I never go back to the blog because bad photography makes the food look disgusting. But, I'm picky about photography, anyway. My dad was a professional and my oldest son, David, is also a photographer. So is Paul. When we were dating, we used to take our cameras and go on photo shoots. My family would give me grief if I posted bad food pictures, even if they never read it. And, since no one else is reading this blog, it doesn't really matter whether I post pictures right now, since I know what it looks like.

Jeans & Clothes--a little rant

I, like every other woman I know, hate buying jeans. As soon as you find some that fit, they stop making them. My problem: I cannot find jeans that sit properly at my waist and aren't too long. I can't wear petite sizes because the rise is too short. But I walk on the hems of average length jeans. And my new jeans fit perfectly, except they're too short in the back and my underwear sticks out the top.

And what's with the 'boot leg' jeans? I can't find straight leg jeans that have normal waists. They all fit below the waistline. Not a good look for me. Can you say "super muffin top"? I hate spending the kind of money they charge for clothes that don't fit or need mending after one wearing.

I have two shirts I need to buy buttons for because the buttons are too small for the buttonholes. So, they don't stay buttoned. I have one shirt that needs the facing ironed because it folds back in the wash. And the style has fabric hooks instead of buttonholes, so there's a gap and my stomach shows through. It's frustrating to dig out the iron for a 1" strip of fabric.

My consolation is that as I lose weight, these clothes will get too big and have to be replaced. Maybe with clothes that fit properly? Or maybe I'll have to buy a sewing machine and start making my own again. At least I can alter the patterns so they fit. And choose colors, fabrics, etc. that appeal to me, rather than being a compromise I've spent too much money on. If I really get ambitious, I could dig out my flat pattern design book and design some of my clothes from scratch. No time these day, but maybe in the future?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Suggestion from Paul & Musings

Paul had another suggestion that really surprised me. He suggested that rather than creating meals around the protein, I start with seasonal vegetables. Instead of saying, "We're having chicken. How do I want to cook it and what goes with it?", he suggested saying, "We're having asparagus. How do I want to cook it and what goes with it?" It's an interesting approach, especially since he's not suggesting going vegetarian, just thinking of the meat, fish, chicken, etc. as one of the "go withs" not the "main deal".

I like that suggestion because it will force me to think differently about how I cook, and that will get me to try new techniques and push myself to be a better cook. It surprised me that he made it, though, because when he gets a salad in a restaurant, he never finishes the lettuce. What he does is pick through for the "good stuff", which he defines as the chicken, shrimp, etc.--in other words, the protein. I'm wondering if maybe he's wanting a change.

I'm leaning toward doing a World Tour, cooking my way around the world. It could fit into Paul's suggestion, since so many of the world cuisines are based on beans, rice, vegetables, etc. And the variety is infinite, especially when you look at regional cuisine. I bet if I separated it into regional cuisine, I could cook a year's worth of cuisines, doing one a month, without leaving the United States (or any other country), which is yet another idea. This doesn't feel like a project with an end, though, unless I do something like exploring one cuisine a month for a year. Or maybe it would be better to do that as year two and revisit the basics for year one.

The world tour seems more interesting than the basics, but I can't help but think I need to go back to basics every so often and refine those techniques. Plus, there are some I've never really learned as well as I could because I don't use them often enough. On the other hand, cooking different cuisines from around the world will require learning the basics of those cuisines. Learning what ingredients define those cuisines and how to work with them and what they taste like and so on.

I see research in my future. But researching something I'm interested in is fun. The hard part is stopping the research. Once I start googling for stuff, time tends to slip away. I slip into "the zone" or "flow" or whatever you prefer to call it way too easily.

Hmmm....I see a foray into new restaurants, too, because that's the best way I can think of to taste food I'm unfamiliar with. The problem is knowing which restaurants have good examples of authentic cuisine from various places around the globe. I'm lucky to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I doubt it's possible to find a cuisine that you can't find a restaurant to go to or ingredients to use to cook it yourself. It's foodie heaven, which is probably one reason I love living here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

More on Julie/Julia

I've been trying really hard not to think badly of Julie Powell, the blogger who cooked her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But it's kind of hard not to agree with Julia, who was quoted in this LA Times article as having said:
"she just doesn't seem very serious, does she?

"I worked very hard on that book. I tested and retested those recipes for eight years so that everybody could cook them. And many, many people have. I don't understand how she could have problems with them. She just must not be much of a cook."

Case in point: I was reading Julie's blog and she complained about having to boil the bacon for a recipe. She said she did it because Julia said to, but she had no idea why. Well, if she'd bothered to read the chapter on Ingredients she'd have known that the bacon Julia was used to in France wasn't smoked and wasn't readily available in America. She recommended parboiling it to get the smoky taste out so the dish didn't taste only of bacon.

That kind of inattention to detail, which is something I noticed cropping up again and again as I read through Julie's book, is what I think made Julia respond the way she did. If you read My Life in France, you see that Julia takes an engineer's approach to her recipes. Everything was carefully thought out and tested over and over to make it repeatable and to ensure the cook gets the result she expects. Yet Julie kept making beginner mistakes like not reading through the recipe and I very much doubt she did her mise en place. I get the feeling that Julie is kind of a dabbler in cooking. She enjoys it, but lacks the passion Julia had. Any project that had a deadline to keep her motivated and was interesting enough to write about would have done.

The reason I'm choosing to pay more attention to my cooking and to trying to find a good cooking project is because I've been a passionate cook since I was a teenager. My mom wouldn't let me cook when I was a kid, unfortunately, because I've always been interested in food and cooking. I've never dug into it the way I'm thinking about doing now because of the weight thing. I had this niggling feeling in the back of my mind that if I really went for it as a cook, people would say that if I didn't cook, I'd be thin. And I didn't want to have more blame heaped on my head. I realize now that my fear is a stupid one. Neither has anything to do with the other. Great cooks come in all sizes. And without that issue to deal with, the question comes back to where to start?

Considering Ideas

I'm still considering ideas for some type of cooking project. Paul suggested a couple of things. He suggested I cook recipes from the cookbooks I have that were written by great chefs. There seems to be something missing in this idea. I can't figure out what I could do to flesh it out into something I could get excited about.

And he suggested I could focus on making recipes with lower fat and calorie content. He says I'm good at it. I'm always having problems with the recipes when magazines like Cooking Light or Eating Well or Weight Watchers recreate recipes. I know they're following the current health guidelines, but they insist on using food I call "fake ingredients". I'm not eating Jello sugar-free pudding made with nonfat milk and topped with fat free Cool Whip. I'd rather eat a fresh peach, plain.

Or the finished dish is so different from the original that the flavors aren't what the person who gave them the original were looking for. When I reduce the calories and fat in dishes, they're lower than the original, but usually not what you'd consider "diet food". This is something I'm doing a lot of these days, though, because I signed up for Weight Watchers online and have lost 13.5 pounds. (Go, me!)

The main problem with this as a project is that it doesn't really excite me as a fun project. And it doesn't really tie into my goal of learning to be a better cook. It uses my current skills in a different way. That's a good thing, but not what I'm after for this project. I think this one is more my everyday cooking life, not a special project.

Another thing I've been noticing about my cooking interests is that I've been cooking a lot more vegetarian meals these days. Good quality meat, poultry, and fish are not cheap meals anymore. So by cooking more vegetarian meals, I can stretch my budget. I'd rather eat top quality less often than poor quality every day. So maybe focusing on more variety in my vegetarian food would be a good project.

I read the New York Times health section on a regular basis. I love both Mark Bittman's blog and Martha Rose Schulman's healthy recipes. I have Mark Bittman's books. I've been looking for Martha's but apparently I'm going to have to buy them online. I could do their food, but it has the same problem as Paul's first idea. I can't figure out what that would do to improve my cooking skills, although it might give me ideas for new recipes.

I also would like to explore Asian cuisine more. I love to eat it, but am pretty unfamiliar with cooking it. I have a few Asian cookbooks, but I have no idea how authentic or good they are. I don't know how to choose Asian cookbooks that would be good for a student to learn from.

World cuisine is appealing to me. I love variety and trying new things. I have several international cookbooks. I could choose one cuisine I'm unfamiliar with every month or two and explore their food. That would be fun and definitely improve my skills as I try techniques unfamiliar to the food I've learned to make so far in my life.

See what I mean about having too many ideas? I've always been an idea person. It does me in every time because I can't choose one. Maybe I need to list pros and cons of each idea with regards to how they fit into my goal of cooking better. Then choose the one that fits the goal best.

I think I need to give myself a week to research and consider various ideas for my project. I'm going to pick one by next Friday. If I don't set myself a deadline, I'll dither for weeks and never get started on it.

Meantime, I need to go start the tomatoes I'm roasting. Tom Colicchio's recipe takes three to four hours to do properly. Today I don't need to bake bread, so I can use my oven for the tomatoes without worrying that the bread will need to go into the oven. I'm planning to use the tomatoes to make a black bean and roasted green tomato chili. I'm roasting pasillas and jalapeños with the tomatoes. We'll see how the whole thing turns out.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Julie/Julia & Foodie Me

I've been very foodie lately. I know, what else is new? I read Julie/Julia during the past couple of weeks. I also read Tom Colicchio's How to Think Like a Chef. And I'm reading My Life in France by Julia Child. I saw the film Julie & Julia last weekend.

The main thing I came away with from the books and film is that Julia is more interesting to me than Julie. And as good a cook as I am, I still have a lot to learn. I feel very frustrated because I don't know how to learn it. I could cook my way through the cookbooks of the best chefs. I can cook their recipes as many times as it takes until I'm satisfied with the results. But that only will tell me if I like it. It doesn't tell me whether they'd think I've got it right.

I want to be Julia Child, in a way, because she had the food career I've wanted from the time I figured out what brings out the passion in my foodie side. I've always wished I could be good enough to teach cooking and have my cooking taken seriously enough to sell cookbooks.

What I lack, first of all, is credentials. I could never afford cooking school and I didn't & don't want to cook in restaurants. My thing isn't cooking the same thing, exactly the same way, day after day, so customers get the same experience no matter how many times they eat in your place. That's what a restaurant chef does.

My thing is making great food for people. I love cooking for friends and family. I love creating recipes and honing them until they're just right. I love figuring out the best words to use to communicate how I made something to other people so they can make it, too.

Another thing I lack is a budget that would allow me to make a recipe over and over until it's just right, even if I end up with more than we can eat or have to toss some because they're awful. That limits my creativity. I can't take the chance that something I think might work doesn't and has to be thrown away.

The third thing I lack is large blocks of time in which to work in the kitchen. I'm thinking I could probably find some blocks of time I could use to work on a regular basis, if not every day. But that doesn't solve the other two problems.

Since I can't teach or write cookbooks right now, I'll take a cue from how Julia handled difficult situations. She did what she could without whining. So, I'll do the thing I can do. I can work on getting better at cooking the best way I know how--by cooking, but in a more scructured way than I usually approach the subject. I think what will work best is to set specific goals geared toward improving my skills, rather than just cooking what I'm in the mood for right now. As for my other two issues, I think I can manage the budget by adjusting my priorities and choices. As for not having teachers or going to cooking school, I guess I'll just have to trust my own instincts. I learned a lot from the chefs when I worked at HomeChef and I'll have to trust that I developed good enough instincts to know when it's right.

The difficult aspect of this idea for me is figuring out where to start. I'm, as usual, full of too many ideas. I don't know whether to dig out my technique books and cook my way through the basic stocks and sauces and so on or pick something I've always wanted to be able to make and try different people's versions until I feel I've mastered it or pick variations of interesting recipes and figure out my favorite. Or maybe there's some other approach I can use, if only I could figure out what it is. Whatever I choose, when I'm satisfied with the result, I want to create variations of the recipes because I can't leave a recipe alone. Ask my family who always complains that I never cook a recipe the same way twice. Not true, by the way. I cook my favorites the same way and then they complain I don't cook them often enough because I love variety.

If anyone's reading this, I wouldn't object to suggestions as to an approach to take. If you make a suggestion and I love it, it will give me a starting point. If I hate it, at least I'll know where I don't want to start.