New Year's resolutions

Live Long and Prosper the Mammalian Way

The second you finish reading this post, you need to get off your computer or phone or tablet or whatever and go seek out some meaningful human contact. Why? Because (of course) I've been reading a new book:

I think I highlighted the whole first third of the thing. If I had to pick a thesis sentence, it would be this:

Research shows that playing cards once a week or meeting friends every Wednesday night at Starbucks adds as many years to our lives as taking beta blockers or quitting a pack-a-day smoking habit.

Meaning, if your New Year's resolution was to quit smoking, hooray, but you'd get even better payoff if you made and invested weekly time in a couple friends! Or hung out in the flesh with a few family members.

And as for worrying about which foods and environmental toxins causes cancer or Alzheimer's, consider these findings:

More and more proof is emerging that in many cases, full social lives can slow down, if not halt, an existing cancer's progress.

Socially isolated female lab rats developed eighty-four times as many breast cancer tumors as female rats who lived in groups. Eighty-four times! [Her emphasis.]

In 2004 a Swedish epidemiologist discovered the lowest rate of dementia in people with extensive social networks. 

Author and psychologist Pinker cites all kinds of studies, many familiar to me from other brain books, and she presents her information in the most accessible way. How does face-to-face contact work its magic? It lowers "physiological stress responses, which in turn helps the body fight infection and inflammation." And this magic begins when we're babies. Babies who get lots of skin-to-skin contact gain weight faster, generate more new neurons, and feel half as much pain if they've undergone a painful medical procedure. The magic extends to the new mom, who suffers lower postpartum depression rates, stress levels, and boosts her own learning and memory. Pinker follows the benefits of close connection from babyhood through adolescence into old age. A super worthwhile read.

So supposing you're not well-connected--at least not with people you see regularly face to face. The irony is, you're not alone. One-third of middle-aged Americans (between 45-49) say they have no one to confide in. One quarter of American men over 75 now live alone, while half of their female counterparts do! And while Americans boasted a  average of three confidants in 1985, by 2004 we were down to fewer than two. Yes, we're spending 520 billion minutes per day online, and lots of those on "social media," but we're less connected than ever, and it's taking a toll on our health and longevity. Loneliness "exaggerates the inflammation and reactivity to stress that are linked to heart disease" and "drives up the cortisol and blood pressure levels that damage the internal organs." Super bummer.

The cure, however, is much more do-able than cutting out carbs or working out five times a week (both of which would finally yield less benefit). The cure is getting together regularly with a few other people. Building the face-to-face social network that keeps us alive. Pinker mentions people who attend church or synagogue, not for the religion of it (though that has proven psychological benefits as well), but for the company of it. Heck, maybe the grown kids should live in your basement and grandma in the attic!

After reading this book I--ahem--texted two friends to remind them that we were going to get together for tea or a walk. I also had lunch with another friend for a game of Scrabble and planning a joint classroom activity. And lest you think this post is solely about saving your life through camaraderie, rather than food, I here include a recipe that the Scrabble friend was making for dinner. Just as Pinker points out, we catch ideas and behaviors (for good or ill) from our close contacts, and, sure enough, I went home and made the exact same dish for our own dinner.

Am I a food photographer, or what? (Forgot to take a pic until half-eaten.)

Tortilla Pie
1 c leftover cooked turkey or chicken
1 can of beans, drained
1 c of frozen corn
1 c of salsa
8 ozs of tomato sauce
2 c grated cheese
1/2 c fresh cilantro
2 scallions, chopped
1/2 tsp cumin

4 large (10-in) flour tortillas

Preheat the oven to 450F. Combine all the ingredients, except the tortillas. 



In a large skillet, fry each tortilla in some butter or oil or bacon fat until puffed and golden on each side (about one minute).


On a rimmed cookie sheet or other large enough pan, layer one tortilla and 1-1/3 c filling. Repeat layers until you run out. Bake 12-15 minutes until heated.

Serves 4.

As I wrote my friend afterward, Tortilla Pie was a little hard to serve (we resorted to kitchen shears to cut it up), but it sure was tasty.

This New Year's, let's resolve to replace two hours of social media time with actual social time. And if we get together to eat better or walk together to do it, so much the better!

 

The Day the Diet Died

New Year's at the Needle!

 2014 is dead! Long live 2015!

(Can you tell I just started reading a book on the Tudors, and Henry VIII has just been crowned king after the death of his father Henry VII?)

But really, the death of 2014 is great because it means you're legally off the hook for any New Year's Resolutions you made in 2014, in case you were still keeping any of them. According to a University of Scranton study quoted in this Vox article,

Seventy-seven percent of the resolvers studied made it through a full week, then 55 percent stuck with their goals for a month. By June, six months into the New Year, only 40 percent of those who had made a New Year's resolution were still sticking with the goal.

That's actually way better than I would have guessed. Let me do a report card on myself and see how I fared. In my previous January 2014 post I named three food resolutions:

1. Extend Sugar-Free January for a vague, unnamed length of time. I made it to March! Well into 55% territory.

2. Give up buying one item that comes in single-use, non-recyclable plastic and make/buy an alternative. Woo hoo! I stopped buying bagged salad greens or spinach and started rinsing and making my own salads, and I've actually kept up with this one the entire year, even trying new kale salads. I am the 40%!

3. Prepare one new vegetable per week until you run out of them, and then add new favorites to your rotation. Fail. I don't know if I even made it two weeks on this one. I am the 77%.

Maybe these results make me a typical American.

In any case, I've noticed the latest trend for 2015 is dissing the diet. As in, giving up dieting, in favor of what these authors say is not dieting.


This book, for instance, tells us to lose the fad diets and hopes of fast weight-loss permanently. Instead, lose weight very gradually by tweaking your food habits. Drop the soda a day. Replace the afternoon bag of Doritos with a couple pieces of fruit. Will you lose 20 lbs in two weeks? Not a chance, but those two changes alone (if those were habits of yours) could net you 20-30 lbs in a year, and it would be permanent (unless you took up the habits again). Author Markey counsels against diets that require total elimination of any foods because, as I completely agree, those diets are unsustainable. She also advises against fasting or seriously limiting calories, lest your body go into starvation mode and pack the pounds on enthusiastically whenever you do start eating again.

Sadly, though, she's still in favor of exercise for health (not necessarily weight loss) and bypassing the bread basket (one of my chief joys in restaurant life). But you can't have everything. Markey also disdains saturated animal fat from butter, red meat, whole dairy, and so on, which I think are now off the no-no list. Nevertheless, not a bad book to start with, if you've tried diet after diet and yo-yoed your way through life.

I didn't get too far through this one:


 I think they wanted to start a social media movement about cutting yourself a break because there were instructions to connect with other "wycwycers" on the usual sites. Does the world really need more superficial connections? A question only you can answer.

As for the advice given in the book, here's a sample: if you eat the triple chocolate cheesecake at the office party, skip dessert the next two days, and so forth. It may have gone deeper (and less obvious) than that, but I didn't hang around for it.

My point being, the health trend for 2015 appears to be diet but don't call it dieting. Got it.

With this in mind, it's time to set new resolutions for the year! Connect with me superficially online and join me for any of these? Or hit me up when the Market opens in May and see if I'm still among the 40% who keep on keeping on.

1. Keep Sugar-Free January and then shift to two desserts per week.

2. Walk 20-30 minutes 3x per week. Not for weight-loss purposes, but to keep ye old body fully operational longer. I turned 45 a few days ago!

3. Let's try this one again: Serve two vegetables at dinner or a fruit and a vegetable. I won't be picky about trying new things. I just want to get it on the table.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2015!

2014 New Year's Resolutions

Time for the inevitable post--and funny that it's always New Year's Resolutions (plural), as if we were ever successful in keeping even one of them. Maybe we figure if we increase the number of resolutions, we improve our odds of succeeding with something we shoot for...

Anyhow, inspired by recent books I've read, here are some resolutions I'm considering which might also interest you:

RESOLUTION 1. Extending the usual practice of Sugar-Free January to a toned-down version thereafter. That is, go cold turkey off sugar (except honey in the tea and what honey is found in my homemade granola) for the entire, very long month of January, as I do every year, but after that, limiting sugar to the occasional dessert, especially when offered one at the home of a friend or at book club or at a family special event.

Recently I read/skimmed Eve Schaub's

and posted the following 4-star review on Goodreads:

(Rounding up from 3.5 stars.)

If you enjoy books where a family decides to give up [insert common cultural practice] for a year, while they blog about the consequences, this book will be right up your alley.

Inspired by the Robert Lustig YouTube video on the evils of sugar, Schaub's family abstains from fructose for a year and blogs about it in a chatty style (i.e., many exclamation points and italics and asides).

I had read and found convicting and enthralling Lustig's book FAT CHANCE: BEATING THE ODDS AGAINST SUGAR, PROCESSED FOOD, OBESITY, AND DISEASE, which I imagine covered much of the same ground as the video. Schaub does a good job of summing up the scientific arguments against fructose in laymen's language.

YEAR OF NO SUGAR is correctly billed as a memoir, however, so if you want the hardcore discussion of why sugar is making us fat and killing us, I would refer you to the Lustig book. Schaub recounts instead stories of driving all over town in search of something sugar-free at a restaurant, battling the omnipresence of sugar at schools and in community celebrations, dealing with the holidays, and so on.

As my husband and I do Sugar-Free January every year, and as I have long bemoaned how kids are bombarded with crap food, of which sugar is only one of many harmful ingredients, I could nod along with Schaub in her struggles. But being also firmly in the camp of don't-be-a-pain-in-the-butt when people lovingly prepare food for you, I sympathized with the put-upon wait staff at restaurants and the friends and relatives who tried to bless this family with food, only to be stymied! It wasn't like folks were offering them pies, cakes, and candy, for Pete's sake, but a tablespoon of sugar in the entree's sauce, and the deal was off.

Food can make everything wonderful or everything miserable. I think if I can convince my kids to prefer homemade goodies (which by their nature are rarer), the battle will be won. But first we've got to get through the rest of this holiday season...

Note: I received a galley of this book from the publisher.

RESOLUTION 2. Giving up one thing I normally buy packaged in single-use, non-recyclable plastic, and buying/making the alternative. I think I'm through with bagged spinach. Yes, it takes more effort to buy a bunch of spinach and wash it and dry it, but those crinkly salad bags are forever and can never morph into anything but trash. 

I would give up storebought sour cream, except that I haven't found a homemade version that worked well enough, and the tubs are at least recyclable into fleece jackets or plastic lumber or something! This resolution was inspired by two great reads:

and

Two fascinating, creative, disheartening books that will having you joining me on this resolution.

RESOLUTION 3. And, finally, if you're tired of resolutions that are about deprivation of some sort, give this one a go. Prepare one new vegetable per week until you run out of them, and then add new favorites to your rotation. We're stuck in the broccoli-spinach-carrots-brussels sprouts-green beans-Napa cabbage rut. How about your family?

I see Deborah Madison has issued a new revision of one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, and I can't wait to check it out:

Yes, I'll be that lady in the produce section buying the weird stuff that's never on sale, and I hope the practice will continue into the 2014 Market season because there were green and squash varieties I'd never heard of before!

Happy New Year to all, and my your Resolutions outlast the week.


In Which I Become a Wannabe Artisan Baker

Check out that crust!

Per last week's post on New Year's Food Resolutions, I wasted no time in tackling Resolution #1: learn to make a decent loaf of whole-wheatish artisan bread to tide me over until the Market opens again in May. Mind you, I had no desire to become a genuine artisan, just a faux one. And I am happy to report that becoming a faux artisan baker is now within the home cook's reach, with minimal initial investment and even more minimal effort.

After checking out Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François' Bread in Five website, I borrowed a copy of their book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day from the library and set about tackling their French boule recipe because the authors advised, "You should become familiar with the following recipe before going through the rest of the book." Okey-doke. Except the boule recipe makes four loaves of completely white bread, and I wasn't having any of that after reading Fat Chance, so take everything I say about the recipe and their book after this with a grain of salt and 1.5 cups of whole wheat flour. (The authors also have a follow-up book called Healthy Breads in Five Minutes a Day, and I'm trying that one next.)

I've been a dedicated bread-machiner for years, making my own pizza crusts, rolls, and breads to accompany soup, but now that I've discovered this method I'm more likely to go this route, or at least stick to the Dough cycle on my bread machine and then bake the loaf in the oven for the delicious crust.

I did need some special equipment:

On this rock I will bake my loaves

A pizza or baking stone, and a pizza peel (basically a thin wooden or aluminum, long-handled spatula thingy for sliding the dough in and loaves/pizzas out--if you've gotten a slice of Veraci at the Market, you know what I'm talking about). My pizza peel hasn't arrived yet, so I've been making do with a lipless cookie sheet. Not ideal. The first pizza I made stuck to the cookie sheet and got all mushed up as I tried to coax it off. It became not quite a calzone, but more like whipped pizza. Nevertheless, the crust was crisper!

Back to the artisan bread. With this book's method, you whip up a bunch of dough, let it sit on the counter a while, and then stick it in the fridge to be used over the course of two weeks. I went for the absolute easiest method, mixing the minimal ingredients right in the 6-quart container with a wooden spoon. Afterward, I just had one spoon to wash. And the authors say you don't even have to clean out the container when you make the next batch--it'll give you a jumpstart on a "sourdough"!

Dough, ready to go

After the dough has been in the fridge at least three hours, you cut off a "grapefruit-sized" hank of it and tuck all the rough ends underneath. This took me about twenty seconds. I'm not kidding.

Note all the cornmeal underneath. No pizza repeats!

After cutting a couple artistic slashes on top, I then let it rise not long enough (read directions wrong), while I preheated the oven and stone. Two things to note: (1) by "grapefruit-sized," they mean one of those big hummers you get in gift boxes, not the piddly ones that aren't much bigger than navel oranges; and (2) doughs with whole wheat are supposed to rest a little longer and bake a little longer. I did neither--oops.

When the oven beeped, in went the loaf, skating right off that cornmeal-covered sheet, as did all the cornmeal. The hardest part was pouring a cup of hot water in a broiling pan to do the initial "steam." I tried to do it without pulling the rack out and ended up spilling 1/3 of it. Too late! I slammed the oven door to preserve whatever water made it in and then proceeded to mop up the liquid dribbling out from the underside of the door.

Half an hour later, out emerged my beautiful loaf! Crunchy crust, nice "thump" when you tapped it, dense crumb. We enjoyed it very much with our ham and bean soup. The only drawback was that, because my hank of dough was too small and I let it rest for only half the requested time before baking, the loaf came out the size of a guinea pig. A tasty, well-fed guinea pig, but a guinea pig all the same. As a family of five, we need loaves the size of small puppies.

All that said, the book lives up to its promise! Almost non-existent time and effort required. "Five Minutes" might be an exaggeration--the hands-on time probably comes to more like 3.5 minutes. I'm eager to try again, doing a better job following instructions.

If I had any quibble about the book (having tried only one recipe), it would be that it doesn't actually contain that many bread recipes, but it has plenty of recipes for things to go with your homemade bread. I'd also love an index that goes by basic bread recipe, listing all the variations you can make with it. For example, I noticed the "French boule" I made could also be used for cinnamon rolls, naan, pita bread, and so on, but I only discovered this by looking at each of those recipes.

Looking forward to fulfilling this New Year's Resolution over and over! Highly recommend other wannabe artisan bakers give this a try.

2013 New Year's Food Resolutions

Last year I listed twelve possible New Year's Food Resolutions your family could adopt and suggested giving ONE a spin. Which one did you choose, and how did you do?

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, 60% of people have given up on their resolutions within six months, a figure I found surprisingly low. After all, the gym always calms down by March, and I figure "exercising more" must make the Top Two of Perennial New Year's Resolutions. Last year I aimed for the much lower bar of "take the stairs when they're an option" and have prevailed, although I admit I am rarely in places where stairs need to be taken because I spend a disproportionate amount of time parked in front of my computer. Basically it amounts to dragging my children up countless flights from Level 4 of the Lincoln Square parking garage to the cinemas at the top, the few times a year we go to the movies.

In any case, I've picked a couple New Year's Food Resolutions for 2013 and have tips for other ones:

1. Learn to make a decent loaf of artisan bread so I won't have to buy them at the store. This doesn't mean I'm giving up breads from the Bellevue Farmers Market by a long shot--I just want to have an option for your basic whole-wheatish loaf with a crunchy crust and something to eat in the off-season. Kathleen Flinn's book The Kitchen Counter Cooking School turned me on to "No-Knead Artisan Bread," which I plan on trying. I'll report back.

2. Swap out one kid snack food for something healthier. My thirteen-year-old asks me consistently to replenish "the snack shelf," i.e., the place where pretzels and crackers and chips are found. My son asked me to buy granola bars. After having reviewed Robert Lustig's excellent and alarming book Fat Chance, I'm determined (after getting through Christmas-cookie season) to reduce the amount of sugar and meaningless calories my kids consume, so they don't join the 40% of "normal-weight" individuals who harbor insulin resistance, that dreaded precursor to chronic metabolic disease. That means I'm going to make the effort (for at least six months, until I give up) to cut up fruits and make dips for cut-up vegetables. I'm going to slice cheese. I'm going to try recipes for homemade granola bars, starting with this one.

(Pic of Ina Garten's recipe courtesy of Penniesonaplatter.com)

No idea how it'll go because my son dislikes dried fruit. Might have to substitute chocolate chips, which hopefully won't completely negate the effort.

That's it! Don't want to bite off more than I can chew, so to speak.

But if you chose the resolution from last year to "substitute one homemade product for a storebought processed food," I have a couple more finds for you, both of which I have tried and found delicious. The first, perfect for leftover turkey, is Homemade Enchilada Sauce. The second, also perfect for leftovers and many, many casserole and crock-pot recipes is Homemade Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup. Uh-huh. No more "open a can of..." I didn't have mushrooms and just made "condensed cream soup," and it worked wonderfully for turkey tetrazzini. Next time I make it, I might double the recipe and freeze half. You're welcome, and Happy New Year!

Twelve New Year's Food Resolutions for 2012

Starting Small

It's that time again--time for the often ill-fated, sweeping promises to ourselves and time for the late-January guilt that follows on their abandonment.

Telling yourself you're going to exercise more (and I am, I am, I am!) may not be sustainable, but a baby step might be more successful. I am going to go for one twenty-minute walk twice a week. Or, I will always take the stairs unless I am late.

Unlike exercise resolutions, making a food resolution doesn't involve any membership fees, sweaty handgrips, new Lycra wardrobes, expensive shoes, or fighting over weight machines. In fact, you may find the achievement of one New Year's Food Resolution so painlessly do-able that you add another along about February, and then one more in March. Eating better is incremental. We make one change and never go back, so with each additional adjustment we are further and further along the road to better nutrition and family health.

So give one of these suggestions a spin. Bookmark this post so that you can come back and add another in a couple weeks. Or work on your one resolution all 2012 and call it good. Either way you'll be that much better off. Feel free to add a Food Resolution in the comments if I forgot any!

  1. Cook one more meal per week. This one saves the gut and the pocketbook. If you already cook every night, pick a different resolution!
  2. Cook one more vegetarian meal per week. Black bean burritos. Soup. Pasta Pomodoro. Baked potato bar.
  3. Cook one meal per week entirely from leftovers or pantry/refrigerator stores. In our house we call it Smorgasbord of Leftovers or Clean-Out-the-Fridge Night.
  4. Take a Knife Skills class. If you're not crazy about cooking, this small investment will increase your confidence.
  5. Learn to cut up a chicken. Not only is buying a whole chicken more earth-friendly, but you can satisfy varying desires for light meat and dark meat around your table. Buying Skagit River Ranch chickens is what made me learn. No more bags of Tyson saline-injected, inhumanely-farmed chicken breasts!
  6. Learn to make one food that you normally buy processed. Be it Hamburger Helper or canned soup or cake mix. Just one. Once you taste the difference and compare the ingredient lists, you'll hate to go back. Cake mixes, canned biscuits, brownie mixes, and the like all got the boot from my pantry a few years ago, and we haven't looked back.
  7. Avoid one genetically-modified food. Most soybeans, non-organic corn, and "canola" is genetically-modified. I'm ditching canola oil this year. Soybeans and non-organic corn were eliminated in past years, insofar as possible. Most chocolate contains soy lecithin as an emulsifier, so 100% elimination is out for us. Fermented and traditionally-processed soy are still okay with us (organic tofu and soy sauce). It's the soybean oil (usually labeled "vegetable oil") and soy protein I stay away from.
  8. Replace one fruit/vegetable from the "Dirty Dozen" with one from the "Clean Fifteen." Buying organic fruits and vegetables can be expensive and isn't necessary in all cases. In fact, a family could stay in-budget well by only eating from the less-pesticide-laden options. If you can't bear to give up that one fruit, if it's on the Dirty Dozen list, make the switch to organic.
  9. Cut out one non-local, out-of-season fruit or vegetable in favor of something local and/or seasonal. My kids groan, but I don't buy out-of-season berries from California (or even farther away). Those strawberries that are huge as tennis balls and taste about the same? No way. We'll stick with our Washington pears and apples in the off-season, or delve into the Bellevue Farmers Market berries that I froze.
  10. Eat one more serving of vegetables a day. Amazing how tough this can be to do. I try to have two vegetable options per dinner: one salad and one steamed something. Or else I'll steam two different vegetables. Or stir-fry whatever I've got in the bin and eat two helpings of it. (One serving equals about half a cup.)
  11. Replace one protein source with its wild/grass-fed/humanely-raised equivalent. If your budget can't afford a wholesale switch to wild salmon, pastured beef, or happily-raised chicken or pork, pick the protein that gives you the most heeby-jeebies when you watch the videos. Yes, the good options are pricier. This isn't all bad (see Resolution #2).
  12. Plant something. Your favorite herb, a summer tomato plant, some carrots. Actually I leave this resolution to my husband because there is no plant I can't kill. Possibly I might consider an edible cactus...

Happy New Year and good eating!