Sensible Fast Food

26 11 2009

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As a trusted purveyor of espresso beverages, I find myself cringing when people opt for nonfat milk but insist on keeping the whipped cream–“It’s the best part” they say.

This started me thinking, which choices really do make the most difference when eating out?  Does it really save on fat and calories to go for the fuller fat milk and leave off the clearly-decadent sugar/fat topping, or is it really an even trade?

I was somewhat shocked at the results.

Where I work, a 16oz cafe mocha with nonfat milk and whipped cream has 290 calories and 10 grams of fat, while going for the standard 2% milk sans whip nets you 260 calories and 8 grams of fat.  The best choices, clearly, are nonfat/no whip (220/2.5) or nixing the chocolate altogether—a 2% latte (190/7) or a nonfat latte (130/0).

If my thoughts on this are so relatively off-base, I thought, then what other misconceptions do I carry with me to the counters and drive-thru windows that I inevitably encounter on my day to day food life?

Salad always sounds like a good choice when trying to avoid fast food perils.  The next time you go to Wendy’s, consider this: their Mandarin Chicken Salad (with all of its trimmings) has 550 calories and 25.5 grams of fat, while a single burger with everything has only 470 calories and 21 grams of fat.  A grilled chicken sandwich (350/7) or chicken Go Wrap (250/10) affords you the addition of a small chili or Frosty–and think of all the additional protein you’ll be getting!

I’m also stymied by the differences in Chinese food nutritionals.  I look at the menu of my favorite Asian cafe and see “Sweet and Sour Chicken” and think “No…bad…fried,” but in reality, that option has only 360 calories per serving (two to a dish) and 10 grams of fat, compared to 450 and 21 for the seemingly innocuous–or at least comparable–Orange Peel Chicken.  The lesson here: know your stats before you order.  I know I have chosen the fattier version time and time again because of assumptions and misleading veggie content.

And now, for pizza.  I had thought I would have to save it for pig out days exclusively, as clearly it would be super-fatty and unhealthy at all times.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not ever going to be the most nutrient-rich choice, but the good news for me: giving in to pepperoni over a vegetarian option isn’t going to make that much of a difference.

That’s right; you heard me correctly.  The key difference is in the crust.  Choosing a thin crust over hand tossed—at least at Dominos—saves you 34 calories per slice (1/8 of a medium pie).  And the difference in fat on a thin crust slice between salty, resplendent pepperoni and garden nonsense is only 3 grams.  Hooray!  The key, then, is portion control.  Just make sure you have plenty of friends (with better hand-eye coordination than you) nearby to snag the last piece out of the box, and a good portion of sensibly-dressed salad to fill in the gaps.

These tenets hold true of any dining out experience.

Have a plan.  Sure, it’s less exciting to arrive with your full meal planned out in advance, but at least you’ll know you won’t be tempted by the pitfalls that lurk ahead.

And, most importantly, everything in moderation.  You can have burgers, and pizza, and beer and cheese—oh dear, now I’m dying for a cheeseburger—as long as you fit them in to a decently-rounded day or week.

Best of luck navigating the fast food jungle!





My Hacker’s Diet

11 11 2009

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So, having lost a good bit of weight lately, I am frequently answering the question “How did you do it?”  I try so hard not to sound snarky  when the best I can muster is “eating better and exercising more.”

What I’ve learned is that these folks are actually asking two very different questions: What techniques have I employed to drop the pounds, and, perhaps more importantly, how have I actually made these techniques work?

Question 1

The answer to the first is easy, and yet, so many respond as though my assertion that fewer calories in + more calories out = weight loss, is some sort of cheat.  I’ve been there.  I spent the better part of my life looking for a gimmick, for some holy grail of a lifestyle change that would unlock a path to a happier, healthier self without the whole mess of tracking and working hard.

I’m not saying that all of the so-called quick fixes are easy.  Few things frighten me more than the thought of a pasta-free existence, or, scarier yet, having permanent, dramatic surgery that would change my physiology forever.

And these methods work, too!  I’ve met many a happy post-bypass patient and Atkins devotee who look and feel great, and whose quality of life has undeniably improved.

But, for me—and I stress the me here—in order for a tactic to be approachable and sustainable, it has to be gentle, fun and rife with wiggle-room.  An Amanda without ice cream is something no one wants to endure.

I took my strategy, unintentionally, from the Hacker’s Diet, a plan that addresses weight loss from a technical perspective.  The basics are:

-Set nutritional goals, and stick to them.

There are precisely 40 kazillion resources to help with this.  I use MyPlate tracking at livestrong.com.  Not all of its settings turned out to be right for me, so I’ve set independent targets for protein, fat and calories based on some quick Internet research.  I imagine a doctor or nutritionist would be a better resource, but I’m lazy, so there you go.

Each day I enter everything I eat—everything.  At first, this took a while, but once my list of frequently-eaten items had grown to include most of my staple meals and snacks, it became a totally manageable task.

I don’t hit all of my targets each day, but keeping track helps me make better decisions about what to incorporate into each meal, and sometimes I get really ambitious and plan out (or even pack up) everything I will eat throughout the day, which makes my in-the-moment choices wicked easy.

-Increase your activity level.

I didn’t get fat by doing crunches and running laps, so opportunities to add calorie-burn to my sedentary TV-aholic existence were limitless.  At first I joined Curves, a women’s circuit-based gym.  The workouts were easy, but they got me into enough of a routine that when they closed their doors, I wasn’t so averse to the idea of doing a cardio video a couple of times a week, jogging a mile or two each morning, and generally looking for extracurriculars that involve physical exertion.

I haven’t made the leap to tracking calories-out the way I have calories-in.  This is a tactic I have mentally reserved for the point at which I reach a plateau.  If you’re hardcore about controlling your results, getting a BodyBugg or reliable calories-burned-per-activity book seems like a good way to go.

-Track and adjust.

No plan will work without accountability.  Nor will a plan work indefinitely without the ability to change.

I track my weight every two weeks, and make my new nutritional targets match my findings.  I also increase the length and intensity of my workouts as I get stronger.  I’ve been advised to set a long-term fitness goal to keep me motivated, like completing a triathlon, so that may be a viable next step.

Question 2

That’s all well and good, you say, but how?

How do you put all of these lovely ideas into action when faced with the temptations, surprises and stresses we encounter?

Here’s where things get completely subjective.  We will all need to delve into different coping strategies as we strive to change our lives.  Here are some of the things that have worked best for me:

Find your motivations—your real motivations—and integrate them into your daily landscape.

I would love to tell you that I wanted to lose weight to be healthier, live longer and feel stronger.  The ugly truth:  I just wanted to be cute.

So instead of gazing longingly at pictures of super-fit people flexing their biceps, or rationalizing that my lifespan would increase once my cholesterol levels were in a healthy range, I bought a dress.

I marched into Anthropologie—a store where I had always felt slight shame as I picked out some tea towels whilst “they” flitted around me picking up skinny jean after skinny jean—and plunked down a not-insignificant chunk of cash on the stinkin’ cutest green and cream striped summer dress, in my goal size.  And instead of shoving it into the depths of my closet, only to be retrieved once the magic number has been reached, I pinned it to a dress-form and placed it prominently in my bedroom.  Once I’m in it, you will not be able to pry the thing off me.

Your motivation might actually be health, or your family, or the prospect of hooking a long-time crush.  So do some soul searching, and once you’ve uncovered your real drivers, give them a big bear hug and plaster them all over your walls.  It could change everything.

-Plan to fail, dust yourself off, and move on.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had an awful binge night followed by a guilt-hangover.  “This indulgence has ruined every effort I’ve made to do better and now I have to start all over again,” I’d tell myself.

This is a load of crap.

Being “bad” is easy.  Failing is easy.  Dealing with your choices as just a part of your journey and regrouping is hard.

The best part for me was that the secret to moving on wasn’t finding ways to keep myself from overeating, but rather giving in and letting go.  Forgiving myself. When I accepted that there would be times when I would max out my daily calories and still go back for a second helping of my mom’s irresistible potato pancakes—I mean c’mon, Mom made them—I actually did it far less.

-Identify your favorites, and let yourself have them.

In “The Best Things _I_ Ever Ate: Sweets,” I talk about how defining the perfect examples of my most tempting foods has helped me.  In the past, when someone offered me a rock-hard grocery store chocolate chip cookie I was tempted.  I love chocolate in all forms, so even though I knew it would be fundamentally unappetizing and unfulfilling, I’d cave, and absorb 200 calories and 10 grams of completely joyless fat.

Now, faced with the same offer, I think in vivid detail about the sublime moment when the shell of a Lindt milk chocolate truffle gives way and its cloying, dreamy center melts onto my tongue.  Too much information?  Sorry, but it works.  No thanks. No crappy cookie for me.

And I’m not just teasing myself.  I keep my pantry well-stocked with the things, and eat them when I really want them as a part of my allotted calories.  I’ve done the same thing with all sorts of familiar culprits: macaroni and cheese, pizza, cheeseburgers, doughnuts.  The list goes on and on.  Some of these favorites cost me quite a large percentage of my food allowance, but they’re totally worth it, and letting myself have them, pretty much whenever I want, make it so much easier to resist partaking in unhealthy foods that do not stir my soul.

-Accept, and revel in, positive reinforcement.

When you’ve been heavy for the majority of your life, you’re likely no good at taking a compliment.  You learn all sorts of ways to deflect positivity outright or through negative self talk.  “That’s a really pretty sweater” turns into “It’s a shame you can’t shop at regular stores, but as fat-girl sweaters go, that one’s not so bad.”  A glance from a stranger simply must be them gawking at your girth.  Every hug contains a reluctance, an apology.

You have to turn off this sabotage stream.

When I realized that I may always have a bit of residual body dysmorphia from the dark times, I knew that I would have to rewire, synapse by synapse, my brain’s interpretation of comments and actions that I “should” feel happy about.

This has involved a purely “fake it till you make it” strategy.  After months of biting my cheek every time I fear what someone else is thinking about me when I catch them staring, and of forcing myself to rephrase snide quips lobbed at the wonderful people around me telling me how beautiful I am, I’m happy to report, it’s sort of working.

Someone told me I was hot today, and for the first time in my life, I actually believed him!  And instead of getting all awkward and changing the subject I smiled and said “thank you.”  Practice saying this with me: “thank you.”  These words can have infinite power if you’ll just let yourself say them.

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All of this means nothing without serious personalization.  But I hope those of you seeking to lose weight, or otherwise make a positive change, can find some kernels here that prove true in your experience.  I wish you patience, resilience, and the power to be gleefully, shamelessly hot.





The Best Things I Ever Ate: Sweets

4 11 2009

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It might seem odd for someone who’s trying to improve the quality of her food choices to dwell on past indulgences. But I have found that one of the very best ways to curb cravings, and revel in successes is to identify and celebrate those truly extraordinary foods that stand, unrivaled, in my sordid dietary past.

Nothing turns me off of that dry, flavorless piece of birthday cake I’m offered like the thought of my first taste of Sweet Streets’ Choc’late Lovin’ Spoon Cake. And I find it much easier to conserve calories throughout the day when the prize that awaits me is the well-preserved perfectly-creamy second half of Lambert’s individual coconut creme pie.

Allowing myself to eat whatever I want proves a fruitful strategy when I often ask the question, “…but is it the best I could have?”

So here I will capture some of those bests, and I encourage you to add your personal favorites, too!

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Cake: Choc’late Lovin’ Spoon Cake, Sweet Streets Desserts, based in Reading PA

spooncake“Cake” is such a broad term, really.  In this application, I’m convinced it’s a cleverly-devised misnomer that gives the diner permission to eat a giant wedge of ganachey goodness.  And yes, a spoon really is the proper utensil.

Pastry: Cherry Cheese Danish, Pearl Bakery, Portland OR

Let me start by saying that I really don’t generally like pastry in any form.  It’s always too dry or too flaky.  But this danish is moist and doughy inside, while still crunchy and sugary outside.  The filling is a mix of tangy, local cherries and an unexpectedly crumbly, rich farmer’s cheese.  Despite my plans to experience the variety of foods Portland had to offer while on my visit, I found myself tethered like a yo-yo back to Pearl Street every morning to experience its perfection just one more time.

Cheesecake: Original Cheesecake, Carnegie Deli, New York NY

carnegieYou know how a young brie has that oozy layer in the center?  If you throw caution to the wind and leave this cheesecake out of the fridge just a bit before eating, its middle also oozes in the most delightful way.  So you have a giant, singular, oozy cream cheese bomb on top of a firm, immensely buttery crust—enough said.

Fruity Item: Apple Crumble, Tea and Sympathy, New York NY

This dessert is as much about the ambiance of the place as the dish itself.  Tea and Sympathy is a tiny teahouse on Greenwich Ave. that usually sports a long line of patrons waiting for a spot at one of its limited, cozy tables.  Loose leaf tea (they have countless varieties) is served in individual pots with all the traditional trimmings.

Save room for dessert, or skip the rest altogether.  The crumble itself is bright and clean, with a lovely crust to fruit ratio, but the real gem is the custard.  Rich and warm, it pools into wells of vanilla bliss amidst the crisp crumb boulders.

Pancakes: Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, The Bongo Room, Chicago IL

ricottaWhile technically a breakfast food, these particular pancakes defy classification.  Flecked with lemon zest and ricotta bits, they most clearly illustrate the cakey origins of the flat discs we usually drown in syrup.  They are savory, rich and satisfying, and accompanied by crushed gingersnaps and smooth brown sugar butter.

Chocolate: Barcelona Bar, Vosges Chocolates, based in Chicago IL

I am a sucker for chocolate in all forms, so picking a favorite was a great challenge.  Lately, Vosges has opened my eyes to a world of new flavor combinations, the most successful of which is the Barcelona bar.  The pairing of deep milk chocolate with crunchy almonds and sea salt may seem pedestrian to those who have long touted the virtues of salted confections, but it totally rocked my budding foodie palate.

Cupcakes: Black and Tan, Sugar Mama’s, Austin TX

blackandtanWhile most seem to value light and super-sugary cake, I prefer quite the opposite.  This is the black hole of cupcakes.  Tart gobs of thick, Irish Creme and cream cheese icing crown a rich, dense cake laced with deep cocoa and malty Guinness stout.

Pie: Coconut Cream Pie, Lambert’s Barbecue, Austin TX

I first tried this pie by complete chance.  My family and I had just finished a meal of perfectly-barked brisket, sweet corn muffins and lemony, wilted spinach at Austin’s then new upmarket barbecue sensation.  When we—quite completely sated—refused dessert, the server offered us his complementary dessert of the evening.  “You must try this pie,” he said.

And now, I pass that advice on.  You simply must try this pie.

The ice-cold, lightly-sweetened filling is worlds away from the gelatinous goop one usually finds in this type of pie.  And the crust—oh the crust!  The texture resembles a cannoli shell, complete with a thin layer of impossibly dark chocolate protecting it from ever suffering a moment’s softening.

Ice Cream: Pumpkin with gingersnaps crushed in, Amy’s Ice Cream, Austin TX

amysSome mark fall by the changing leaves, but for me, Autumn is truly heralded by the appearance of the pumpkin flavor on Amy’s menu.  As with all of their freshly-churned wonders, the best aspect of this ice cream is the texture.  The pumpkin reaches a special viscosity only achieved with this magical proportion of pure, indulgent milk fat and dense, spicy pumpkin.  It’s almost chewy—in a totally great way.  Crush in some gingersnaps and it’s all the best parts of pumpkin pie.





Food Journey Firsts

21 10 2009

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There are countless milestones in my culinary life.  From my very first memory (“forcing” my father to give me his grown-up cup of lime sherbet punch because I was too big for the sippy-cup, and then feeling guilty about it—that’s telling, eh?), to the palatially-transformative brunch dish I experienced just five days ago.

I imagine many of them will wind up chronicled here over time.

On my mind today are two key moments that brought me here, compelled to share my ideas and experiences with the digital masses.

I cheated and used a frozen crust for this particular incarnation--sacrilege, I know.

I cheated and used a frozen crust for this particular incarnation---sacrilege, I know.

My First Original Recipe

I use the word “original” here with trepidation.  I have no delusions of having invented apple pie, or even this particular style of pie.  As in any art, there is always a certain amount of reference in recipe-writing.  Sometimes what results is only a slightly altered rendition, sometimes you get something entirely new and unfamiliar.

What sets this pie apart for me is that this was the first recipe I set out to write.  I had cooked, and had modified recipes my entire life, but had never intended to generate a product that could then be replicated by not only myself through memory, but by other people.  It took steps that are all too familiar now: research, testing, adjusting, testing, adjusting some more, publishing to a small, trusted circle, adjusting yet again, and finally, painfully, deciding that it was “ready.”

This process took me three years.

I certainly don’t use a cookie-cutter process when I write recipes now, but the haphazard way this pie came together still brings me nearly to tears with laughter.  It was an exercise in inefficiency, overspending, and the infinite patience of my family and friends.  I still have nightmares about burnt crumb topping, and get a slightly sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when first biting into an apple—I think I tasted over 30 varieties raw and cooked in the search for the “perfect blend.”  It was dizzying, draining and maddening, but above all, completely addictive.

Smoked gouda and barley-filled crepe with tomato confit and crisped leeks.

Smoked gouda and barley-filled crepe with baby veg, tomato confit and crisped leeks.

Unlimited Possibility

On vacation in Alberta this summer, I had the privilege of eating at Bison.  I have had many a lovely meal, but none that has opened so many corridors of thought, or has so inspired me to do something about my love of food.

Sitting on the patio as a brisk wind blew in an approaching rainstorm, we were presented with a basket of bread—not atypical of any restaurant experience.  The server informed us it was a special recipe, made just for the restaurant, that had been baked that morning at the Wild Flour Bakery, which—she pointed—was just across the courtyard.

Brilliant!  Local ingredients and vendors, culinary tourism, the significance of sharing a meal…

Watermelon radish.

Watermelon radish.

When my entree arrived, I was speechless.  This is not a problem I often face.  The picture I snapped does not even begin to convey the delicate, intricate presentation of each tiny vegetable and drop of tomato-y oil.  The components of the dish were fairly unusual to me as well.  There were cooked radishes on my plate—cooked watermelon radishes—and they were as delicious as beautiful.

…unique ingredients, atypical uses, plating as art, photography, experiencing food with all five senses…

Upon arriving home for the evening, I immediately went online and entered my best guesses to calculate nutritional information for the meal.  Do not think for a moment that I am on, or would ever advocate, a “diet.”  I’ve just been on a get-healthy kick and find that keeping track of calories in/calories out makes a world of difference in controlling my results.  It was not as bad as I had expected!  Plus, I plan to splurge when going out to a new restaurant, so I had limited my calories earlier in the day.  I also chatted briefly with a friend about my experience.  To my surprise, she was thoroughly interested in what I was saying, excitement over inter-connectivity and all.  Could it be possible?  Did I have a point of view some people might actually care to hear?

…nutrition, indulgence, communication, the Internet.

All of these italics swam in my head.  Others joined in.  It took me a few months to make the leap to this forum, and it will take many more to discover my true purpose and voice.

It is so exciting, and daunting, to realize how many aspects of food there are to experience and discuss.  At present, my idea lists are growing far faster than I can realize them.  So let me know what you think, what you like, what you’d like less of, etc., and hopefully this can become something more than just the ramblings of yet another food blogger.

And if not, at least I’ll have a lot of fun trying!





On Hospitality: the Irony of Mandated Pleasantries

17 10 2009

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Wrapping up a chat with a friend, I heard the words that should have generated feelings of warmth and gratitude: “my pleasure.”  Instead, I was irked; irked, and craving a certain brand of over-brined chicken.

What struck me initially was with the way these words evoked such a distasteful reaction once vocalized in my head.  We accept the power of other sensory experiences to trigger memory. The smell of chlorine may take you back to teen summers of lifeguarding.  A favorite old song can bring up a swell of emotion from times long forgotten.  Do those of us with a particular attachment to words link these to memory in a similar, basal way?

But before I let my fascination with the human limbic system take us on a hopeless tangent, let me propose the question that the service professional in me couldn’t help but ask—why on earth would you mandate that every staff member repeat the same exact pleasantry the same exact way every time they interact with a customer?  Surely I’m not the only one who finds this painfully annoying.

Perhaps this sort of scripted speech would make more sense in contexts where interactions are limited.  (I don’t particularly care if my doctor uses the same spiel before every tonsillectomy—it’s a one-time affair.)  But success in the food industry is most certainly dependent on repeat business.

I understand that this isn’t just a random ploy one man thought up to annoy me.  On the surface, it makes sense.  Be nice and your customers will be happy with their visit.  And yet, in this girl’s case, it fails.  I enjoy the product at this particular establishment, and as far as I can tell, the people themselves are innocuous.  But I avoid eating there until my mild hankering explodes into an unrelenting ache for the fried goodness therein.

I would so much rather have a genuine interaction with the person before me.  And perhaps that’s the problem.  Faith in one’s employees to deliver a positive experience without scripting is not something much management possesses.  It takes rigorous hiring practices, patience, coaching and follow-up.  In short, a dedication that not all are willing to give.

So the burden falls on you, repeaters of “Welcome to X-establishment,” and I plead with you, do us consumers, and perfectly harmless phrases, a favor, and can the canned phrases.  Please and thank you.