Tag Archives: cooking

Change of Plan

Okay, SO.

The short story is that my sweatpants are fitting tightly, which is nature’s way of saying, “Yes, excuse me, but you see, you might want think about dialing it back a bit. Like, now.”

My sweatpants, guys. SWEATPANTS. I don’t have to think about how that happened, because I know exactly how it happened. I never exactly got over the post-wedding holiday bliss of not giving a shit about what I was eating, how much I was imbibing, and how little I was moving due to the increasingly miserable cold weather.

So it’s time for a change. I have neither the time or patience to count points and go to meetings, so I’m not doing Weight Watchers. I have some respect for my arteries, so Atkins is out. I don’t eat enough meat to make Paleo a viable option. And replacing solid food with juice—not my thing. I have working teeth, and I want to eat food.

Enter VB6, a flexitarian approach to diet from one of my culinary heroes, Mark Bittman, who wrote the cookbook I have continued to use with the most frequency since I started experimenting in the kitchen. VB6 stands for “Vegan Before 6pm”. To me, there’s nothing flexible about the word ‘vegan’, and I have to admit I was dubious when I first picked up the book. I do eat meat, but not very much, though I do eat fish and yogurt and eggs, and I REALLY like cheese. I don’t like fake meat or soy crumbles or tofurkey or any kinds of soy products masquerading as meat. I like tofu when I treat it like tofu, not as if I were trying to dress it up and make it look and taste like chicken.

But there’s no fake meat involved in the VB6 program. Actually, there’s nothing fake or highly-processed—and that’s the point. If you’re following VB6, you eat a diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes—basically a whole lot of whole plant-based foods, minimally processed with no refined flours or added sugar or ingredients you can’t recognize. You can drink alcohol, but not before 6pm. You can have a grilled rib steak and frites if you crave it, as long as you eat it after 6. There are no calories or points to count, but you do have eat mindfully. And fish? By all means, after 6 – but stick with sustainable, responsibly caught sources. Bittman recommends the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. (There’s an app!)

If you know how to cook, and you know healthy eating (even if you’re not currently eating healthy) VB6 is not a stretch… until you start to think of things like how you like your morning coffee (with milk, no sugar), or your favorite post-workout recovery drink (lowfat chocolate milk), or some of your favorite at-work snacks (string cheese!). I realized that I consume a lot of dairy unconsciously, on top of the dairy I do eat frequently and very consciously: cheese on pizza, greek yogurt with granola, and my favorite, fro-yo (with damn near anything).

I am preparing to give up all but one of those things before 6pm. I need to have my coffee in the morning, but I’ll drink coffee black after I leave the house. I will not put sugar in my oatmeal. I will eat bananas and apples and almonds and NOTHING FROM A VENDING MACHINE while I am at work. I will not sneak chocolate. I will not eat pasta or ciabatta or semolina or pita bread and—

Oh my god, my life is OVER.

Okay, maybe not. But when confronted with the idea – really, the fact – that I do all of my nervous/stress/bored eating at work, I feel a little terrified about following this program. And then I remember the sweatpants, and how horrible I feel about myself when I put them on. I don’t want to feel horrible. I want to feel like an unstoppable, powerful, force of nature. I want to feel like Wonder Woman. She could summon the wherewithal to resist mindless eating, to delay gratification and not have a treat nightly, and to instead focus on making her 10,000 steps every day and eating a healthy diet. I can do that. I’ve done much harder things.

This weekend I invested several hours and many, many ducats shopping for whole, vegan foods. I pored over the recipes in the book and today set about making three dishes in bulk for the week:

Miso Soup with Vegetables and Tofu

Miso Soup with Vegetables and Tofu

Super easy recipe with a lot of flexibility. Made with spinach, shitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, baby bok choy, scallions, red miso and firm tofu. Oh, and water. No stock, no seasoning. Came together in 30 minutes, and yielded 4 quarts. Also, my non-VB6-following husband loved it.

Chickpea Ratatouille

Chickpea Ratatouille

I started with Bittman’s recipe and then just started cooking what I had in reaching distance: onions, garlic, zucchini, roasted red peppers, chickpeas, a medley of fresh herbs & some red chili flakes. Great to have on top of polenta, brown rice, farro, or with…

Whole Wheat Flatbread

Whole Wheat Flatbread

Homemade flatbread! You can eat bread on this diet, and it can be poofy bread if you want it. But it has to be whole grain. Since I don’t have the patience to read labels on packages of supermarket bread, and because supermarket bread just plain sucks, I opted to make my own. It was super easy (thanks once again to my food processor), and the recipe yielded enough servings to last me over 8 meals, so it was really economical, too. Whole wheat flour, instant yeast, salt, olive oil and water. Boom.

I’m planning on using the blog as a tool for recording my experience with VB6, to keep me honest and motivated, and to share new recipes from Bittman as well as those inspired by necessity, creativity or just trying to make something filling and delicious from just a few ingredients. And remember, this is VB6, people. There will be some treats. I just won’t be eating them every day.

Happy Cooking,

J.

I needed a cookie.

There are cravings you can suppress, and then there are the other kinds of cravings. The kind that can’t be ignored, however much you really, honestly want to ignore them. The ones that fall under the category of “I MUST HAVE THIS IF I EVER HOPE TO BE A COMPLETE/HAPPY/FUNCTIONING HUMAN”.

I have learned – and continue to learn – that when you really want something, and you have an image of this very thing in your head that’s so vivid you could just reach out and touch it, there is no substitute. You must have it. You could try having some alternate version, but it won’t satisfy that deep-seated NEED.

I’m like this about certain pairs of Nikes, burgers, and cookies. Sometimes I’ll want a cookie, and I’ll get one from Starbucks. If I catch a nice barista, the cookie will be warm and a little gooey in the middle, and it’s alright. Nothing spectacular.

And then there are times I need a cookie. A real cookie. I’m not after the sugar so much as a multi-layered experience of WOW. Crisp edges, chewy center. Maybe some melt-y chips inside. But I don’t want a lot of goo. I want crunch and spice and warmth and zing and CHOCOLATE (most of the time; I do eat lots of cookies without chocolate).

I’m back on the Weight Watchers wagon at the moment. I had myself in tip-top shape, and then I got married and went to Hawaii, and my husband and I were all about relaxing and stuffing our faces and taking a break from being consumed with our diets. It was a magical week. And then it was Thanksgiving. And then it was Christmas.

And then there were another 10 pounds on the scale. Oops.

So I’m watching what I eat, and most days I do fine. I eat my veggies, I drink my green tea, I look like the picture of self discipline & inner poise. But last night, as I approached Penn Station on my way home, I found myself wanting a cookie. So I ducked into the Starbucks on 7th Avenue & 31st and got a warm chocolate chip cookie. And a few minutes later, after I took a second bite I thought to myself, “This is really not what I wanted. It’s sugary and has no variation in its texture and it’s so disappointing. Ugh.”

Of course I ate the rest of it. I hate it when I do things like that.

Today I was determined to erase the experience of the bad cookie and instead make a cookie I could be proud of. I flipped through a bunch of my cookbooks and looked at my usual spots online, but nothing was jumping out at me saying, “Pick me! Pick me!”. I had three ingredients I really wanted to use: dark chocolate chips, tart dried cherries, and walnuts. You know, antioxidant rich and pretend-healthy.

So I decided to improvise. I looked at a recipe for oatmeal cookies in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, took it apart, and put it back together as a brand new recipe. If the raw dough is any indication, these babies are going to be fabulous, and I expect the result to be…

The Cookie I Want When I Need a Fucking Cookie

IMG_7730

Ingredients:
1.5 cups rolled oats
1 cup fresh walnut pieces
12 oz. bag Nestlé Dark Chocolate Chips, divided
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1.5 cups flour
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup tart dried cherries, roughly chopped

Method:

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine oats and walnuts on a sheet pan. Toast in the oven for 5-7 minutes, until you can smell the walnuts. Remove the pan immediately and set aside to cool.

Measure out a heaping cup of the chocolate chips, place them in a microwave safe bowl. Set the remaining chips aside.

Microwave the bowl of chocolate chips for 30 seconds, then remove and stir chocolate. If not several whole chips remain, continue microwaving at 10 second intervals and stirring until you have a homogenous mixture. Set aside to cool.

In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium-high speed for about 5 minutes. You want to allow time for air to work its way through the mixture – it will be light in color and fluffy. Turn off the mixer and add the melted chocolate. Resume mixing at medium speed, and add eggs one at a time, blending well after each addition. Then add the vanilla and continue to blend for another 30 seconds. Stop the mixer.

Add the flour, cinnamon,baking powder and salt and mix on the slowest setting for 30 seconds – this is just so the flour doesn’t blow up in your face. Then increase the mixing speed to medium and mix until all ingredients are just combined. Turn off the mixer. Add oats & walnuts, the dried cherries and remaining chocolate chips. Mix on the lowest setting for 10-20 seconds, until everything is combined.

Remove the mixing bowl from the standing mixer, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4-6 hours, or overnight. Make sure to take the bowl out of the fridge about an hour before you’re ready to start baking – otherwise the dough will be solid as a rock.

Position rack in the center of the oven and set the temperature to 375 degrees. Use a cookie scoop or large spoon to form balls of dough, and place on a cookie sheet about 1.5 inches apart. Since the dough is cold, the cookies don’t spread very much. If you make small cookies (1 scoop each), you’ll fit about 14 to a pan. If you make them larger, as pictured, 9 will fit on a pan. This recipe yielded 30 small cookies and 9 large. It could have been more, but I ate some dough.

Whatever. It was good. Real good.

-JM

Yes.

"I'll get you, my pretty..."

“I’ll get you, my pretty…”

That beautiful monstrosity in the picture is a slice of lime meringue tart from Mustard’s Grill in Napa Valley, California.

My boyfriend and I stopped into Mustard’s between vineyard tours. It was a warm, sunny California winter day, the kind that makes you wish you rented a convertible instead of the Kia 4-door parked in the front lot. There was a 40-minute wait for lunch, so we leaned back against the wall of the crowded bar and took in the scenery. Plates of gently charred salmon steaks, lamb burgers, pork chops, fettuccine with scallops, and smiles as far as the eye could see. Two seats emptied at the bar and I wasted no time claiming them. A lamb burger for him, the fettuccine for me.

Some of our best meals together have been eaten at the bars of very crowded restaurants, and this lunch may be in my top three of best meals of all time. I hadn’t eaten seafood fra diavolo this good since I was in Italy, about fourteen years prior. And I knew my boyfriend loved the lamb burger—it’s not very difficult to grin with your mouth full.

Later that day, we had dinner further up the road at Bottega, an inviting and capacious Italian restaurant in Yountville, one of the American West’s great capitals of food & wine. I remember sampling a fruity Zinfandel at the bar, and then one of us may have ordered duck or lamb ragu for dinner. I couldn’t tell you exactly because I have no recollection of the meal itself. All I remember is that at some point I looked down at the freshly-cleared table and saw a ring being held in front of me. I nodded, and then nodded some more. A few minutes later there was a bottle of champagne on the table and people we’d never seen before were congratulating us.

It was the very best meal we shared at a table, my pre-husband and I, and I couldn’t tell you what it was.

The next day, we continued to eat and drink our way through Napa, giddily smiling and holding hands, wondering how much free booze we could procure by telling people, “Guess what? We’re getting hitched!”

Turns out, quite a lot. We returned to Mustard’s for dinner and enjoyed a wonderful flight of local wines, followed by a round of champagne. Full of love, bubbles, devil-may-care and la-tee-daa, I signaled our waiter and asked about the tower of fluff I had seen on a passing dessert cart.

“That,” I said. “Whatever that is, I hope you saved a slice for me.”

That was later December of last year. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of planning, decision-making, working, and run-of-the-mill life stuff. Somewhere in there we bought a house. In New Jersey. We’re an aunt and uncle to twin girls. I bought a big froufy dress, which was a surprise to everyone, including me. I’ve made a few impressive meals and had zero time to write about them.

Well, that’s not entirely true. With the little time I have had, I’ve been reading and researching Consumer Reports, BHG, and Cook’s Illustrated. Exactly one month after we became engaged, pre-husband and I put in an offer on a 1912 Craftsman across the street from a park in Bloomfield, NJ. It’s the kind of house where you could host Christmas dinner for your family, your friends and their kids.

But the house is need of lots of love, a new bathroom, and most importantly a new kitchen. This isn’t me being like one of those people on House Hunters, who walks in to the house and says, “This kitchen has to go. The paint color is just not my style.”

This kitchen is a wreck and needs to be gutted top to bottom.  And while a full renovation project may be a little intimidating, this is a challenge I’m embracing. This is my playroom, my laboratory, and the nucleus of the home Pre-husband and I will share. It is the room where I will brew and quietly drink the first cup of coffee every morning, where I will roast my first Thanksgiving turkey and test recipes for the hundreds of cookies I’ll bake & give away every December. It’ll be the place where I’ll make chili and ice cream and birthday cakes and cassoulet and green salads. It will be a space worthy of a spread in This Old House magazine, complete with workhorse appliances, a place for every pot, pan, knife, gadget, cookbook and baking sheet that I have collected over the years.

Now I just have to figure out where all that stuff will go. Now the fun begins.