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Archive for the ‘Eats’ Category

Every few months, I convince myself that I need an old-fashioned country breakfast, complete with some form of eggs, bacon or sausage; pancakes, biscuits or toast; grits; and coffee. All dishes I could perfectly well make at home, but dishes that, like sandwiches and salads, are somehow better when made by someone else.

Deep down, I realize that I don’t really want these foods for their sake, but for the link they hold to the past. Weekend breakfasts with my grandparents were some of the most special moments I had, first as a child, then as a young woman.

They were long, lazy affairs, with bottomless cups of coffee and free-range conversation. I got to know my grandparents, and they got to know me.

It wasn’t about the food, but man, the food. Endless stacks of pancakes, biscuits for days, homemade possumberry or muscadine jelly, crunchy bacon, creamy grits.

I realize this is the path that takes many people on an emotional — and dangerous — journey with food. Ice cream reminds you of Saturdays at the skating rink, but pint after pint doesn’t take you back there. Potato chips remind you of afternoons in front of the television, shoes kicked off and homework tossed in the corner, but munching your way through an entire bag won’t ever reinstate that feeling of freedom.

Food as comfort is a trap, a tasty one, and one we build for ourselves. Acknowledging emotional eating is vital, but also a little hollowing, making us recognize the void we’re trying to fill with food. Recognizing that void means knowing that the past is done, that the people associated with certain foods are gone, and those memories are all we have.

It’s an acknowledgement that, hopefully, helps us all have a better relationship with food, one that lets us make new memories instead of living in the past.

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Clockwise from top left: triple chocolate cake (probably), peach sliders, salted caramel cake.

When people in Atlanta learn about my love of a good doughnut, they invariably give me a knowing look and say, “Oh, you HAVE to go to Sublime Doughnuts.”

So I did. Meh. They seemed like doughnuts that were trying too hard. I know it seems weird to say that a doughnut is too sweet, but those doughnuts were way too sweet.

Luckily, my doughnut salvation appeared in the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival’s tasting tent. The Revolution Doughnuts table was freshly out of peach sliders, but the reps were on board for doughnut chat, complete with a knowledgeable sidebar on our favorite New York breakfast haunt, the Doughnut Plant.

A couple of weeks later, we made the 15-minute journey to Decatur.

The peach sliders? Everything a fruit-themed doughnut should be, and more. The fruit was fresh and deliciously sweet, while the doughnut itself was rather neutral, allowing the peach flavor to shine.

My other selection was the salted caramel, which offered a nice balance of a slightly salty icing over a delicately textured, sweet (but not too sweet) cake doughnut. The husband chose (I think) a triple chocolate cake doughnut, which was delightfully chocolatey without going overboard.

You might think we spend every Saturday morning in Decatur now, but doughnuts are a sometime food. Plus, the line at Revolution Doughnuts isn’t exactly inviting; a 20-minute wait in Georgia’s summer sun does not exactly whet the appetite.

We’ve decided that all future visits will be to-go orders; the chaos of such a small dining area (you have to cross the children’s play area to reach the coffee station, a seemingly dangerous path while holding a cup of hot java) isn’t conducive to a relaxing breakfast.

Plus — sorry Atlanta — people-watching in New York City is way more interesting.

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It’s been about two months since I pretty much gave up artificial sweeteners. I say “pretty much” because I’ll sometimes find a packet hiding behind another pantry inhabitant, and I promised to quit after all of the packets are gone. These packets are, obviously, not gone.

Do I miss my little yellow packets? A little. They gave me free license to make coffee, tea and oatmeal obscenely sweet, without caloric consequence.

I’m glad I tapered off instead of going cold turkey. By the time I really cut myself off, I was accustomed to oatmeal flavored only with cinnamon, walnuts and raisins and cups of coffee and tea sweetened with only a teaspoon or so of sugar.

I haven’t gained any weight from using sugar instead of sweetener. I figure as long as I don’t try to make foods taste as sweet as artificial sweeteners do, I’m good in the calorie department. I can afford the 15 to 30 calories that real sugar adds to a cup of coffee or tea, especially considering I’ve cut back on coffee and tea consumption in general.

An unexpected side effect: My usual cravings for holiday sweets are non-existent. Of course, this may have more to do with the fact that I’m too busy to even THINK about making cookies, much less figuring out how to make eggnog that doesn’t suck.

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chipsI should learn to ignore the siren call of Limited Edition Available Only at Target (I’m looking at you, Pumpkin Spice M&M’s).

I mean, the Pumpkin Pie Pop-Tarts weren’t that bad, but the candy corn soda from a couple of years ago? It should have been a huge lesson.

Really, the worst thing I can say about Lay’s chocolate-dipped potato chips is that I thought they would be saltier. The magical salty-sweet combination never gets off the ground, because it seems like they started with unsalted, or lightly (very lightly) salted chips.

It’s funny, because my worry had been that the chocolate layer would taste like it was laden with chemicals, and instead it’s the saving component of this product. You could put a thick layer of this chocolate over anything edible and it would work in a pinch.

Now, of course, I have the urgent need to purchase a bag of Lay’s Wavy chips and coat them in chocolate just to test my hunch that they’ve used inferior chips for this product. Very clever plan, Lay’s.

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This announcement is more serious than it should be: I’m giving up artificial sweetener.

For the better part of two decades, I’ve stirred the blue stuff or the yellow stuff into my coffee, tea and oatmeal with utter abandon. (As for the pink stuff, seriously, how does that bitter mess still even exist?)

I took up the habit in college during frequent visits to my grandparents. My grandfather, despite never gaining all that much weight, had recently been diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes, and my grandmother immediately traded out the sugar bowl for the blue stuff.

I quickly got used to sweetening my coffee and tea with chemicals. It seemed like the ultimate freebie: sweet beverages without bothersome calories.

I can’t tell you if the blue stuff had any ill effects on my grandfather or not. He died from advanced heart disease before the diabetes could get him outright, although I’m sure the two conditions didn’t co-exist peacefully.

Long story short, the increasing amounts of chatter about artificial sweeteners not being free of consequence have finally sunk in. It just makes sense that tricking your taste buds into thinking that they’re enjoying sugar might just be tricking your body that it’s about to have to process some sugar, too. Given my family history of adult-onset diabetes (my uncle developed it in his late 40s), I don’t need to play fast and loose with my pancreas.

Also, the husband, who has been trying to get me to give up artificial sweetener for years, finally emailed me a story on its possible ill effects with the subject line, “Please stop using artificial sweeteners.”

Nothing like a “please” instead of a “you should” to change a girl’s mind.

So, a couple of months ago I promised to taper off as I made my way through my final Costco-sized box of yellow packets. I began by cutting down on the number of packets I was using, adding only one instead of two to a cup of coffee or tea, and sprinkling only half a packet instead of a whole one over my oatmeal.

I soon came to a somewhat surprising conclusion: Artificial sweetener had enabled me to become accustomed to foods that were way sweeter than they should have been. The husband had suggested that I replace the sweetener in my coffee with (gasp) actual sugar, but the amount of sugar required to make it as sweet as I had gotten used to would be obscene. Same with oatmeal: I had been turning a healthy breakfast food into a bowl of candy (albeit candy with few extra sugar calories).

I haven’t used sweetener at work in weeks, which has caused me to cut down on my coffee consumption overall. I can drink unsweetened coffee, but I don’t exactly look forward to it. And I’ve cut sweetener out of my oatmeal completely, meaning I now enjoy the flavors of the cinnamon, walnuts and raisins that are stirred into it.

And now, answers to the top questions that I get regarding this effort:

  • Do I feel better? Meh. I don’t think artificial sweetener was making me feel that bad to begin with. I worried about the long-term effects above everything else.
  • Have I lost any weight? No. I wasn’t trying to lose any weight. I’m reasonably happy where I am. What I am trying to do, however, is avoid the seemingly inevitable post-40 weight gain that accompanies an unexamined diet and slack exercise habits.
  • Have I upped the sugar intake in my diet? Nope. I added maybe a teaspoon of sugar to a cup of tea one evening to accentuate its cinnamon and apple flavors, but overall I’m adapting to eating a diet that just doesn’t feature that many sweet items.
  • Am I turning into some kind of sugar-hating weirdo? Double nope. I love cookies, cake and candy, but I also recognize them as a sometimes food, not a daily treat.

This effort is almost over. There are only a few yellow packets left in the cabinet (I hesitate to take the container down and count). I have to admit, what I’m going to miss most is not the super-sweet coffee and tea (although, man, there’s nothing like a cup of syrupy sweet hot tea on a cold, rainy winter afternoon), but the ritual. You pour your coffee, add a packet or two of sweetener, stir in some milk or half-and-half, and sit down to enjoy the morning paper and/or a nice leisurely chat with your housemates or co-workers.

Only I can’t even get a daily newspaper anymore, at least in Huntsville, Alabama. The husband doesn’t even DRINK coffee, and I haven’t worked anywhere in years where folks truly spent the first 10 minutes of work catching up over a fresh cup of java.

I can’t hold on to the ritual, so I might as well let go of the yellow stuff, too. Adios, sweet chemicals. It hasn’t been real.

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We’ve been on a pesto kick this week, thanks in part to one stubborn little plant.

About six weeks ago, I brought a couple of basil bunches to the office, thinking that somebody would take it off my hands. Nope. So there it sat, lingering in a vase of water (which I was changing, mind you, every couple of days), developing roots and growing 10 inches while providing the occasional handful of fresh basil leaves for lunchtime salads.

I finally asked myself, how long can I really keep growing basil in a vase of water?

Turns out I should have transplanted it into soil about four weeks ago, and I’ve been risking root rot this whole time.

Since Dennison’s Farm brings me an absurd amount of basil in my CSA box every couple of weeks, I wasn’t planning to plant my own this year. So I took this brave plant home and whirled it into oblivion last night with the other requisite ingredients. It made a divine accompaniment to wine-and-cheese night at Chez Haggerty.

And you know what? I STILL didn’t manage to use all of the leaves. This little plant might end up transplanted into the ground yet due to its sheer will to live.

I halved a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, since I only wanted enough for two people, and it made probably a little under 1/2 cup.

Pesto
(Recipe courtesy of Cook’s Illustrated)

  • 1/8 cup pine nuts
  • 2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
  • 1 cup basil leaves, packed
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 ounce (1/8 cup) grated Parmesan cheese (see note at end of recipe)

Toast pine nuts and unpeeled garlic cloves in a small dry skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the pine nuts are just golden and fragrant and the garlic cloves have darkened slightly, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the garlic to cool before peeling and roughly chopping.

Place nuts, garlic, basil, oil and salt in small work bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade. Process until smooth, stopping as necessary to scrap down sides of bowl, about 30 seconds.

Note: I’ve been grating and shredding my own cheese lately instead of purchasing grated/shredded cheeses, which contain ingredients like cellulose to prevent clumping. I had read that the added ingredients can keep pre-shredded cheese from melting as well as freshly shredded cheese, and it’s true. The texture and the flavor of freshly shredded cheese is simply superior to that of the pre-shredded varieties. And Parmesan, stored correctly, will keep for WEEKS. Totally worth it.

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One of my least favorite parts of the CSA box is the kale. I like my greens raw, coated in olive oil and vinegar, so when the kale gets too leathery to simply toss into the salad spinner, I have to face cooking it in some manner. And I have NEVER liked cooked greens, no matter how much bacon, salt and cornbread were added into the mix.

A few fellow foodies suggested that I make kale chips, advice that I took to heart after sampling the dried okra at Earth Fare. Crunchy veggies instead of mushy greens? I’m in.

I followed a friend’s simple set of instructions:

Separate stems from leaves. Toss with olive oil to lightly coat and sprinkle on a bit of salt and pepper. Bake at 300 degrees for 20 minutes and let the chips cool on the tray for extra crispness.

The chips were pretty tasty when I tried them straight out of the oven, but when I sat down with them 20 minutes later in an ill-fated attempt to use them as a popcorn substitute while watching Butter (good movie, by the way), about half of them had wilted. Too much olive oil, maybe? Do you have to eat these within five minutes of their exit from the oven?

Anyway, no crunch = no popcorny goodness. So we’re back to Square One, where I make elaborate plans to steam the kale and stir it into quinoa and then pretty much don’t.

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