The Fat-Positive Diet

Scale 3
How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

Don’t worry. This isn’t going to turn into a diet blog. I’d rather hit myself on the hand with hammers. But this thing has been happening with me: it’s kind of a big effing deal for me, and I think it may be of interest to my readers. So although I’m finding myself with an uncharacteristic reluctance to talk about something this personal, I’ve decided to take the plunge.

I am, as anyone who knows me or has seen photos of me knows, fat. I have been fat for a long time, and have been more or less okay with it for a long time. My attitude towards my fatness has largely been shaped by the feminist fat-positive movement: I wasn’t going to make myself miserable trying to force my body into the mainstream image of ideal female beauty, and I was instead going to work on being as healthy as I could be — eating well, exercising, reducing stress, etc. — at the weight that I already was.

But a few months ago, my bad knee started getting worse. I’ve had a bad knee for a long time (I blew it out doing the polka and it’s never been the same since); but as bad knees go, it wasn’t that bad. I had to be careful getting in and out of cars; I had bad days when I had to rest it; I had to quit doing the polka. No big deal. I can live a rich, full life being careful getting in and out of cars and not doing the polka.

But a few months ago, it started getting worse. Like, having trouble climbing hills and stairs worse.

Lombard street
That was not okay. I live in San Francisco. I need to be able to climb hills and stairs. And I know about knees. They don’t get better. I could see the writing on the wall: I knew that if I didn’t take action, my mobility would just get worse and worse with time. I could easily lose more than just stairs and hills. I could lose dancing. Fucking. Long walks. Walking at all.

Short of surgery, there’s really only one thing you can do for a bad knee that I wasn’t already doing.

And that’s to lose weight.

How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

Fat!so?
It’s really hard not to feel like a traitor about this. When I reach a benchmark in my weight loss and get all excited and proud, or when someone compliments me on how good I look now and I get a little self-esteem-boosting thrill, it’s hard not to feel like a traitor to my feminist roots, and to the fat women who fought so hard to liberate me from the rigid and narrow social constructs of female beauty.

And even apart from feeling like a traitor, there are about eighty million emotional traps along the way: traps that threaten to upend years of hard mental health work spent learning to love myself the way I am.

For starters: I know that weight loss typically fails about 90% of the time. So far this weight loss thing is working; but I’ve only been at it for a couple of months, and I know that in the long run, it could easily fail. And if this fails, then I get to feel like… well, like a failure. I get to be back at Square One, with my bad knee and everything — but without the emotional supports I built up during my “Fuck You, Body Fascists” anti- dieting years.

But if I’m one of the 10% that succeeds… well, then I feel like an idiot for having whined about it for so long, and for not having done this sooner. (I’m already feeling like that now. In a purely practical sense, this has been easier than I’d thought it would be, and so now I’m feeling like a jackass for having insisted all these years that it was all but impossible.)

And if I am successful, the last thing in the world I want to do is get all smug and judgmental about how easy it was and how if I can do it, anyone can. If there’s anything I hate, it’s when people who’ve lost weight (or never gained it) get smug and judgmental about how if they can do it, anyone can. (I’m looking at you, Dan Savage.) That is a huge, ugly trap, and it’s one I’m desperate to avoid.

Voa_Guinea_chimpanzee_picking_30jan08
Plus, it’s so hard to let go of thinking that food and the appetite for it should be “natural.” I mean, it’s food. It’s one of the oldest, deepest instincts we have. (Reproducing and escaping from predators also leap to mind.) The fact that I can’t just “eat naturally,” the fact that I have to pay careful, conscious attention to everything I eat and when… it’s hard not to see that as a failure of character.

And as much as I want my weight loss to purely be about my health, the reality is that, now that I’m in the process, it’s become more about my appearance than I’d like. I really don’t want that: I find it politically troubling and emotionally toxic, and I think in the long run it’ll undermine what I’m trying to do. But it’s hard. As much as I like to think of myself as a free-spirited, convention- defying rebel, the reality is that I’m a social animal, and social animals care about what other animals think of them. And since I’m non-monogamous, I have to be aware of the realities of the sexual economy… and the reality of the sexual economy is that I’ll almost certainly get more action and attention as I lose weight. I dearly wish I didn’t care about that, but I do.

Scale 5
In case you’re curious: So far, I’ve been successful. As of this writing, I’ve lost 20 pounds in two and a half months. And in case you’re curious, I don’t have any great secret to my so-far success. Counting calories; keeping a food diary; regular exercise; patience. Absurdly simple in theory. In practice, it’s been a fucking minefield, especially at the beginning: crying fits in grocery store parking lots, heavy conversations with family and friends, planning that at times borders on obsessive compulsive, a painful and complicated emotional dance every time I have dinner with friends or eat out, and way more processing with Ingrid than I ever wanted to have to go through. (And I don’t even get to call this a success yet. 90% of people who lose weight gain it back within a year; so until I’ve lost all the weight I want and have kept it off for a year, I don’t get to relax and think of this as a win. And to some extent, I’ll never get to completely relax: I’ll probably have to do some form of calorie- counting and weight management for the rest of my life.)

But it is getting easier with time, as I get more and more used to my new eating habits. It’s getting physically easier: for the first week or two, 1800 calories a day just didn’t make me feel full, and I was cranky on good days and despairing on bad ones. Now 1800 calories feels like plenty, as my body has adjusted its sense of how much food is enough. And it’s gotten easier mentally as well, as I’ve found some strategies — emotional, psychological, practical strategies — that so far have helped.

Origin-of-species
It’s helped to remember that my appetites and instincts about food evolved about 100,000 years ago on the African savannah, in an environment of scarcity. The taste for sweets and fats; the tendency to gorge when I’m hungry; the impulse to keep on eating even after I’ve had enough; the triggers that make me hungry when I see or smell food… that’s not weakness or moral failure. That’s millions of years of evolution at work: evolution that hasn’t had time to catch up with the modern American food landscape. And as a rationalist and a skeptic, in the same way that I’m not going to let myself believe in deities just because evolution has wired my brain to see patterns and intentions even where none exist, I’m not going to let myself eat three brownies at a party just because evolution has wired my brain to think I might starve to death if I don’t.

Chocolate chip pancakes and sausage on a stick
It’s helped for me to think of this as a political issue. It helps to remember that the multinational food corporations have spent decades carefully studying the abovementioned evolutionary food triggers, so they can manipulate me into buying and eating way more food than is good for me. It helps to think of weight loss, not as giving in to the mainstream cultural standards of female beauty, but as sending a big “Fuck You” to the purveyors of quadruple- patty hamburgers and Chocolate Chip Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick.

It’s helped for me to remember that my other “natural” impulses aren’t so natural, either. It’s worked for me to remember that as a non-monogamist, I have to think carefully about who to have sex with and when; that as a city dweller, I have to think consciously about whether I’m genuinely in danger or am just being paranoid (or conversely, whether I’m genuinely safe or am just being oblivious). Food is no different. It’s “natural” for humans to be rational animals, and to think about our choices instead of just reacting.

Doing this with Ingrid has been a huge help. Being able to support each other, encourage each other, plan meals together, share strategies, vent… it’s been invaluable. I don’t know if the people studying weight loss have looked at whether it’s more effective to do it with a partner or friend… but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

Lose it ihpone app
Keeping a food diary has helped enormously. It helps in the obvious way: that’s how I keep track of my calories. But more than that, it helps me be more mindful and present about how I eat. I’m a lot less likely to run to the corner and get a Snickers bar if I know I have to write it in my journal. (If you have an iPhone, btw, there’s a wicked cool calorie- counting app called LoseIt. I can’t tell you how much easier it’s made this process. If you don’t, though, not to worry: the Interweb has made calorie- counting a relative breeze.)

It helps to think of this as a permanent lifestyle change. It’s hard, but it helps. If I think of this as something I’ll just have to do once and will then be finished with… well, that wouldn’t just make this harder to sustain in the long run. It’d also make it harder in the short run: easier to blow it off for a day, and then another day, since all I’d be doing is postponing my “final” goal by a day or two. Thinking of this as “This is just how I eat now” makes it easier to keep it up.

It helped a lot to get a sane calorie count from my medical provider that took into account how much exercise I get. (As much as I love my little LoseIt iPhone app, if I’d have gotten my daily calorie count from that, it would have been way too low… since the gizmo apparently assumes that anyone using their program is about as active as a recently- fed boa constrictor.)

It helps to avoid using moral language about weight loss: to avoid thinking of “cheating” on my diet, “forbidden” foods, etc. It’s hard enough to not eat the things I’m trying not to eat, without making them seem more attractive because they’re naughty and wicked.

In defense of food
It helps to eat real food… and to avoid “diet” food like the plague. No diet shakes, no power bars, no lowfat cardboard cookies from the industrialized food industry. Fruit, vegetables, bread, meat, rice, beans… that sort of thing. I don’t even eat lowfat cheese. I’d rather just eat regular cheese, and eat less of it.

It helps to eat slowly. Partly because it gives the “fullness” trigger in my brain time to catch up with my stomach… but partly because I get more pleasure from my food, and don’t feel deprived. And it helps to eat smaller meals more frequently: since I never get all that hungry, I can make smarter and more conscious choices about what to eat.

Measuring cups spoons
It helps to measure my food, as much as I can. For calorie counting, it’s pretty much essential. My instincts about what constituted a cup of soup or a teaspoon of butter were way, way off. I don’t whip out the cup measure when I eat out, obviously… but I almost always do it at home, and since I’ve been doing it, my estimates on portion size when I do eat out have gotten a lot better.

It’s helped to break down my ultimate long-term goal into smaller, more manageable goals. When my health care provider told me I should lose 60 pounds to be at my maximum good health, I just about gave up in despair right then. Instead, I decided to fuck that noise, I was simply going to lose 20 pounds… and then I’d see how I felt, and how hard it was, and whether I wanted to continue or stay put. I am now shooting for another 20 pounds… and when that’s gone, I’ll once again re-evaluate and decide whether or not I want to keep going, and how far.

It’s helped to make incremental, non-drastic changes in my eating and my exercise. I think this is what trips up a lot of people who are trying to lose weight: they want to become health- obsessed gym bunnies overnight, and when that’s too hard, they give up. It helped instead to add one workout a week to what I was already doing… and then, when I got used to that, to add one more.

And on a related topic: It’s helped to be aware that weight loss can happen in fits and starts: there are natural fluctuations, with some weeks where I lose a lot and others where I don’t or even gain a little. One of my big hysterical grocery-store crying fits came early on in my program, during a week where I gained weight… and it took Ingrid forever to convince me that this didn’t necessarily mean I was doing something wrong, or that I had to make an already difficult weight-loss program even more strenuous. But she was right. It makes much more sense to keep my focus on the big picture, the overall arc. If I gain half a pound a week three weeks in a row, then I might decide that I need to step things up. But if I gain half a pound one week, I’m not going to decide that what I’m doing isn’t working. I’m just going to stick with it.

Dumbbell
It’s helped for me to find exercise that I love doing. I am now doing bicep curls with 20 lb. dumbbells. I feel like a fucking Amazon goddess. Weightlifting rules.

It’s helped for me to do some sort of exercise almost every day. It’s not just that I burn more calories that way. It’s that it makes exercise into a normal part of my daily life: not a special thing I do a couple times a week and can blow off if I’m not in the mood, but an everyday routine like brushing my teeth.

When I’m not in the mood to exercise, it helps to remember that I never, ever, ever have been sorry that I worked out. Ever. No matter how crummy I felt when I started, I have always felt better afterwards.

Going to the gym helps. It’s not absolutely necessary; if you can’t afford a gym membership, you can get good exercise without one. But for me, the gym has been a lifesaver. The thing about the gym is it takes minimal willpower. All I need is the willpower to get in the car and get my ass to the gym. Once I’m there, of course I’m going to work out. I mean, what else am I going to do?

But it’s also helped to have some exercise equipment at home. Nothing fancy or expensive: some dumbbells, a stability ball, a resistance band, a mat. Having exercise equipment at home means I can easily do at least a little exercise every day, even if I can’t get to the gym. And that’s helped turn it into a regular part of my daily life, like brushing my teeth.

It’s helped to get a trainer. (Hi, Marta! We love you.)

Autumn_Red_peaches
It’s helped for me to to find healthy foods that I love. (Summer fruit season has made this so much easier: I can eat peaches and cherries and strawberries for months and never get tired of them.)

Dynamo donut
And it’s helped to not be a purist: to eat the occasional cheeseburger, the occasional barbecued ribs, the occasional donut. I have to budget my day’s calories for it (or else budget for the occasional day when I don’t worry about it). But thinking, “I can never have another donut again as long as I live” would make this intolerable. Thinking, “I can have a donut today if I have a light dinner” makes this do-able. An entertaining challenge, even. Like my food for the day is a puzzle, and I’m trying to get all the pieces to fit together.

Knee joint
Finally, more than anything else, it helps me to remember my knee. It helps to notice how much better my knee already feels now that I’ve lost the 20 pounds: to notice that I’m climbing stairs and hills again, with little or no problem. It helps to think of how much better my knee will feel when I lose another 20, and then another. It helps to pick up the 20 lb. dumbbells at the gym and think about how rough it would be on my knees to walk around carrying them all day… and how much better it would feel to set them down. It helps to think that I might even be able to do the polka again someday. And when I start thinking that this weight loss thing isn’t that big a deal and I can have that ice cream if I want it, it helps to imagine my old age, and to think about whether I want to be spending it dancing, walking in the woods, exploring new cities, on my knees committing unspeakable sexual acts… or sitting on a sofa watching TV and waiting to die.

There’s something Ingrid has said about this, something that’s really stuck with me. She’s pointed out that if I were diabetic or something, and I was told I had to change my eating habits in order to stay alive… I’d do it. I might gripe about it, but I’d manage, and I’d even find a way to enjoy it if I could.

Well, the reality isn’t that far off. I have a choice between a good shot at a healthy, active, pleasurable middle and old age… and a long, steady decline into a vicious circle of inactivity and ill health. I am, as the old ’80s T-shirts used to say, choosing life.

So that’s what’s working for me. If you’re doing this as well: What’s working for you?

Important note: I am most emphatically NOT looking for diet tips. Anyone who offers diet tips will be banned from this blog. I am only partially kidding. I already know the mechanics of what I need to do: count calories, keep a food journal, exercise regularly, be patient. Rocket science.

What I’m looking for is psychological tips. Ways of walking through the emotional minefield. Ways of framing this that make it more sustainable. Ways of answering the question:

How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

And for that matter, how do you be a fat-positive skeptic?

(To be completed in tomorrow’s post.)

The Fat-Positive Diet

Frittatas

It’s been a while since I’ve done a food post, and since I recently revived this recipe and put it back into my rotation, I thought I’d share it with the rest of the class.

Frittata
Frittatas are, IMO, one of the great unsung food items. They’re easy, they’re quick, they’re portable, and they’re massively versatile. You can eat them hot, warm, or cold; you can eat them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner; they’re good in summer or winter; you can carry them in a lunchbox or a picnic basket. And you can put just about anything in them — so you can personalize them to your own preferences, or use them to clear out bits and pieces from your fridge.

Here’s my recipe. Except I’m not sure it could be called a “recipe,” exactly. It’s more of a broad concept.

What you’ll need:

Eggs
Eggs (duh).

Stuff that you’d like to have in a frittata. (I told you this was versatile.) Peppers, onions, olives, sausage, asparagus, tomatoes, mushrooms, ham, spinach, peas, corn… pretty much any sort of vegetable, or any sort of meat. I’ve made frittatas with potatoes (more on that in a moment); and while I haven’t yet made this myself, I’ve heard tell of frittatas being made with day-old cooked pasta.

An ovenproof skillet. A non-stick one is ideal — if you have something like a good Calphalon pan that can be put in the oven, that’s what you want — but any skillet that can be put in the oven will do. Cast iron is classic, but in my experience it’s hard to get a frittata cleanly out of a cast iron pan. Pretty much any size is fine: you can make little frittatas, or big ones.

Oil or butter.

Salt and pepper.

How to make it:

Heat your oven to 375 Fahrenheit.

Take the eggs out of the fridge and let them come to room temperature. (You never, ever, ever want to cook cold eggs if you can possibly help it. Cooking cold eggs makes them rubbery.) For a little pan, like a 7″, four eggs will probably be enough; for a 10″ pan, I use six; for a bigger pan, eight or ten.

Put oil or butter in your skillet, and heat it up. (Less if you’re using a non-stick pan; more if you’re not.)

Vegetables
Take the stuff that you want to put in your frittata, and put it in your skillet. If it needs cooking, cook it: it won’t cook for very long in the frittata itself. (If it doesn’t need cooking, just warm it up a bit.) Sautee your onions or peppers or sausage or whatever, until they’re pretty much as cooked as you like. (You can also roast your veggies instead of sauteeing them if you prefer.) IMO, veggies and stuff should be cut up into smallish dice, since the frittata will be hard to eat otherwise. If you’re going to do potatoes, slice them very thinly, and sautee them until they’re crispy and golden brown. If you’re going to use tomatoes, cut them up and drain out the liquid and seeds on paper towels first; otherwise, your frittata will be soupy. Onions are extra-good if they’re caramelized.

“How much stuff?” I hear you cry. You want enough stuff that the skillet will be full to about halfway up… but not so much that it’s packed solid. When you pour the eggs in, you want a fair amount of the egg to filter down around the veggies and whatnot to the bottom of the pan.

Eggs 1
Beat your eggs lightly (they should be thoroughly mixed but not frothy). You don’t add milk or anything; just eggs, plus salt and pepper to taste. Turn the heat down to medium low, and pour the eggs into the skillet. (If you aren’t using a non-stick pan, make sure there’s butter or oil on the sides of the pan as well as the bottom before you put in the eggs. If you are using a non-stick pan, this doesn’t hurt, but it isn’t as big a deal.)

Cook on the stovetop at medium low until the bottom is set but the top is still runny. The time will vary depending on how big a frittata you’re making, but it should only be a few minutes. (About 5 minutes for a 7″ pan; a bit more for a bigger one.)

When the bottom is set but the top is still runny, put it in the oven at 375 Fahrenheit, and cook until it’s completely set. Again, the time will vary depending on how big a frittata you’re making, but it should only be a few minutes. Just keep an eye on it. (About 3-4 minutes for a 7″ pan; a bit more for a bigger one. I told you this was quick.)

If you want the top browned, stick it in the broiler for a minute. If you like cheese, grate it on the top at the broiler stage.

Calphalon12inchSkillet
Transfer it to a plate. This is the point where you realize why I keep gassing on about non-stick skillets. If you’re using cast iron, you’ll probably need to slide a butter knife around the edges to loosen it before doing this, and it still may not come out all that pretty. You can also say “Fuck it,” and serve it directly out of the pan. Let it rest for a minute, then slice it into wedges like pizza, and serve.

Have fun! And if you make any interesting or unusual or especially tasty versions of this, let me know, as I’m always looking for ideas.

Sweet basil book
(Credit for the broad concept — namely, “cook on the stovetop until the bottom is set, then put it in the oven at 375 until it’s done” — goes to the lovely book Sweet Basil, Garlic, Tomatoes, and Chives: The Vegetable Dishes of Tuscany and Provence.)

Frittatas

Home Carbonation, and Contrary Human Nature

Have you ever wanted to do something that you basically couldn’t care less about, just because someone told you that you couldn’t?

Soda club
Ingrid and I just signed up for this Soda Club thing: a “make your own sparkling water” gizmo with replaceable CO2 cartridges. A keen idea, and one we’re very excited about: we drink a ton of fizz water, and we’ve been going through a ton of plastic fizz water bottles every week. (Yes, we recycle them; but with plastic especially, it’s much better if you can just avoid buying the stuff in the first place.) This gizmo will cut our plastic consumption by a considerable amount. Plus, we can have as much fizz water as we want, whenever we want it, without suffering the miserable indignity of going to the store or waiting for our next grocery delivery.

But here’s the thing. One of the instructions on the Soda Club soda maker says that you should not carbonate anything other than plain water.

And the moment I read that, I was immediately filled with a powerful desire to carbonate things that I shouldn’t.

Coffee_cup
I now want to carbonate everything. Coffee. Soy milk. Orange juice. Bourbon. Absinthe. I want to go through our entire liquor cabinet and carbonate everything in it. I want to make my own sparkling wine, just by taking regular sparkling wine and carbonating it. I want to go to the supermarket and find a bunch of weird beverages, just so I can carbonate them. I want to buy a second carbonating gizmo, just so I can try to carbonate weird stuff without mucking up the one we use for water.

Now, it’s important to understand: Before we got this gizmo and read this warning, the thought that it might be fun to carbonate coffee or bourbon had never, ever occurred to me. Not once. If you had asked me, “Would you like to carbonate some coffee?”, or, “On your list of things you would like to do before you die, where does ‘carbonate coffee’ fit?”, I would have looked at you like you were nuts.

But now I’m the one who’s nuts. This is driving me mildly batty. I really want to know what carbonated coffee would taste like. I’m sure I’ll forget about this in a week or two (or I would have if I hadn’t blogged about it). But for now, the desire for forbidden carbonation is raging hot in my blood.

What the heck is this about?

Marlon brando wild bunch
I have a strong fondness for this part of me that wants to rebel against everything. It’s a big part of what makes me who I am, and especially who I am as a writer: the part that looks at the ideas and rules that most people accept without question, and asks, “Is there really a good reason for that?” That’s an important and valuable human activity. Fun, too.

But at times, it’s a bit silly, and even counter- productive. As I’ve written before: To reflexively rebel against the mainstream means you’re just as controlled by that mainstream as you would be if you reflexively conformed to it.

And some rules are rules for a reason. According to the company’s FAQ (no, I’m not the first person to ask this question), if you carbonate things other than water with ther gizmo, “you risk damaging your drinks maker, not to mention making a big fizzy mess!” (Exclamation point theirs.) I don’t know why this is — I don’t know if there’s some weird chemical process that happens when you try to carbonate soy milk — but I doubt that they’d make up a rule like that for no reason. If they say it makes a big fizzy mess, it probably makes a big fizzy mess.

I’m reminded of an interview I once read with the actor Klaus Kinski. He was raging against the intolerable strictures of our conformist society, and he said (I’m paraphrasing here), “I’ll be driving along, and I’ll see a sign that says ‘Right Lane Must Turn Right,’ and I think to myself, ‘MUST turn right? MUST?!? FUCK YOU!'”

Right lane must turn right
That line made me laugh for weeks afterwards, and it was a catch- phrase among my circle of friends for a long time. It was such a blatantly absurd example of pointless rebellion. Traffic laws are the perfect example of laws that are there for very good reasons indeed… and in any case, it seemed just a teensy bit out of proportion, a case of choosing one’s battles somewhat poorly. There are far more intolerable strictures of our conformist society than the right turn only lane.

And yet, it’s kind of how I feel now about the home carbonator.

“MUST not carbonate anything other than water? MUST not?!? FUCK YOU!”

Home Carbonation, and Contrary Human Nature

Broiled Chicken Breasts

Marvs broiler

I’ve been looking over my last couple weeks of blogging, and I realize I’ve been big with the heavy topics and the cranky pants lately. So today, we have a nice recipe.

Well, not so much a recipe as a general food suggestion.

It’s the marinated, broiled, skinless boneless chicken breast. And it’s become one of the most beloved and relied- upon standards in our rotation. It’s super- fast, it’s ridiculously easy, it’s healthy, and it’s delicious.

And it’s unbelievably versatile. You can make sandwiches with it. You can make chicken salad with it. You can cut it up to add protein to a regular salad. You can cut it up or shred it into noodles. Add it to a stir-fry. Use it in an omelette or a frittata. Use it in risotto. Or you can just put a chunk of it on your plate, with a vegetable and a starch next to it, and pretend you’re a 1950s American family.

2herbs_and_spices

Plus you can flavor it almost any way you want to. And that makes it even more versatile. You can use Italian seasonings, Asian seasonings, Middle- Eastern seasonings, Tex-Mex seasonings, good old- fashioned “whatever you have in your kitchen” seasonings… whatever. Chicken is a subtle flavor, and you can spice it up almost any way you want to. Which means you can use this process for almost any recipe where you want little bits of chickeny protein.

It isn’t strictly necessary to use skinless and boneless, I suppose. But the chicken cuts up better, and absorbs the flavor better, without the skin on it. And it cooks a whole lot faster without the bones.

Here’s the recipe. Such as it is.

Olive oil

1: Make an oil-based marinade. (Technically, I suppose it isn’t really a marinade, but I’m not sure what else to call it. “Oil with flavorful stuff in it,” I guess.) This can be pretty much anything you want, and is your opportunity for your creativity to shine. Olive oil and mustard. Olive oil and Old Bay. Olive oil, lemon, and black pepper. Olive oil and rosemary. Peanut oil, sesame oil, ginger, and soy sauce. Olive oil and cumin. Chili oil. You get the idea.

Make enough to coat the chicken thoroughly, but you don’t need so much that the chicken is taking a bath.

Do be sure to put a little salt in your marinade/ oily flavorful goop (unless you’re using something like Old Bay, which is good with chicken but salty as fuck.) I did a sweet marinade once that I thought didn’t need salt, and boy, was I wrong. And be aware that anything with sugar in it will blacken. That may be okay with you — I personally love chicken with a blackened sweet- hot mustard marinade/ goop — but just know what you’re getting yourself into.

2: Put the skinless, boneless chicken breasts in the goop, and let them sit. For an hour if you have time; for ten minutes if you don’t. (The subtler the flavor, the longer you have to let it sit… which is why we tend to go for unsubtle flavors.)

3: Put some tinfoil or a crappy cookie sheet you don’t much care about on your broiler pan, and turn your oven to Broil. (I find that it works best to preheat the oven for a few minutes before putting the chicken under the broiler; but then, we have a really old oven.)

Fire

4: Broil the chicken breasts for roughly 7-8 minutes on one side, and roughly 7-8 minutes on the other. You may have to experiment a little to get the exact time right: it’ll vary depending on your oven and the size of the chicken breasts. You don’t want them overcooked and dry… but you really, really don’t want undercooked chicken, either.

Save a little of the marinade, so when you flip the chicken to cook the other side, you can re-coat it.

If you want to go all nutsoid about how the chicken looks, be sure to broil it with the ugly side up first and the nice side up second, since the side that’s up second will be the side that looks prettiest. But if you’re just going to cut it up — or if you don’t care about that sort of thing — then don’t worry about it.

And that’s it.

Make some oily flavorful goop. Coat the chicken with it. Let it sit if you feel like it. Broil it. Eat.

And if you come up with some really good goop concoctions, let me know.

Broiled Chicken Breasts

Stock

Stock_Pot
I haven’t done a food post in a while, and this is one of my favorite cooking tricks, so I thought I’d share it with the rest of the class.

It’s homemade stock.

I think a lot of people have the idea that making your own stock is a big pain. But it’s really not. It’s ridiculously easy. And homemade stock adds a wonderful richness and complexity to your cooking. It’s delicious in soups and stews; we always make pots of beans with stock; it’s essential in gravy, in my opinion; and you can cook rice with stock instead of water, to give it flavor and a little more substance. Almost any savory dish that you cook with water can be enhanced by using stock instead. And yes, homemade is better than store-bought.

Besides, if you eat meat, making stock out of the bones gives you that whole “using every part of the animal” thing. I’m not a vegetarian, but I sort of feel like I should be, and getting as much use out of the meat as I can is one of the ways that I assuage my guilt about it. (Not eating it very often is another; mostly eating free- range, grass- fed, pasture- raised, etc. meat is another.)

So here’s my EZ, low-stress recipe for homemade stock.

The Meat Version

Vogelskelett
1. If you cook with or eat meat, save the bones. If there’s meat or fat on the bones, that’s good, but it’s not necessary. Keep them in a big, gallon-sized freezer bag in your freezer. (This is the part that grosses Ingrid out — she had a hard time getting past the “Why are we keeping garbage in our freezer?” issue — but I think I’ve finally convinced her that chicken bones are an ingredient, not trash.) I sometimes even ask restaurants to give me the bones in a take-home bag if there are any left on my plate.

We keep chicken and beef bones separate. I suppose you could mix them, I’ve never tried it — but different animals have distinctive flavors, and I’m inclined to think that mixing them would be a muddle. Also, we don’t cook with beef often, and when we do it’s kind of a big deal — so we like to keep our beef stock for special cooking occasions. (We’re still cooking with the bones from our Christmas roast beef.)

You can also include the rinds of hard cheeses like Parmesan in your frozen bag of bones. It makes for a very rich, smoky, strongly-flavored stock, so be sure that that’s what you want if you’re going to do that.

Vegetables
2. When you’ve saved up enough bones (and hard cheese rinds, if you’re doing that), put them in a big-ass cooking pot. Add in a bunch of cheap, flavorful vegetables: onions, carrots, garlic, celery, bell peppers, corn, pretty much whatever you want. (This is a good use for veggies that aren’t actually rotten but are past their prime — rubbery carrots, wrinkly peppers, that sort of thing.) Just be sure the veggies are the flavor you want: tomatoes, for instance, will give your stock a very strong, tomatoey flavor like ministrone, so don’t use them if you don’t want that. If you want to play it safe and have a very versatile stock, stick with onions, garlic, carrots, and celery. Chop the veggies up some, but you don’t need to do it finely — big chunks are totally fine. And don’t bother chopping the garlic — just peel the cloves and throw them in whole.

Add some whole peppercorns (more or less, depending on how much pepper you like — I usually use a small handful for a big stock pot), and fresh herbs of your choice. (When we make stock, we usually just get the packet that our organic produce delivery service calls “mixed herbs,” and that works just ducky. And no, you don’t need to make a sachet out of the herbs — you’re going to strain it all out anyway, so just throw the damn herbs into the pot already.) The pot should not be too full — say, about a third to a half full of bones and veggies.

Salt is not necessary or called for. You can add salt to whatever you’re cooking with your stock. The stock doesn’t need it, or want it.

Pot
3. Cover the whole mess with plenty of water. Bring it to a boil, turn it down to a simmer, keep it covered, and cook it for about an hour. You can stir it now and then if you like, or you can leave it the hell alone.

Sieve
4. Strain out the boiled bones and veggies from the yummy liquid. You’ll probably need to do this three or four times to get all the pulp and gunk out. Use a sieve, and keep straining until you’re no longer straining out a significant amount of pulp.
Throw the boiled bones and veggies away. They are now useless: the flavor and nutrition has been boiled out of them and into the stock. That’s the whole point. However, if there’s any edible meat left, you may want to pick it off the bones and keep it with your stock. You won’t want to make a sandwich out of it or anything, since it’s now been boiled to a fare- thee- well, but it can add some meatiness and substance to soups and stews.

You can use your stock right away, or you can stick it in your freezer and use it whenever you want.

Many recipes call for roasting the bones and veggies before you simmer them. Supposedly this makes for a richer, more flavorful stock. But it’s also, obviously, more work… and for me, one of the great joys of stock is how fracking easy it is. I love doing something that adds such a distinctive touch to my cooking, with so very little effort. So I’ve never bothered with the roasting. But if you think I’m wrong about this, let me know.

The Veggie Version

Vegetables 2
The veggie version is exactly like the meat version. Just leave out the “storing the mutilated skeletons of dead animals in your freezer and then boiling them in a pot like a ghoul” part. If you eat cheese, though, hard cheese rinds are a very nice addition to a veggie stock, giving it that smoky richness without the dead animals. So when you’ve grated your Parmesan down to the rind, put the rind in a baggie or a Tupperware in your freezer, and use it when you’re ready to make your stock.

The big downside of homemade stock is that, between the last batch of stock you made and the bag of bones you’re saving for your next batch, it can take up a fair amount of room in your freezer. But IMO, it’s totally worth it.

Any thoughts? Do any of you make your own stock — and if so, what tricks do you have to offer?

Stock

Mixing Brown and White: Rice, Pasta, and Pointless Carbs

Bread
I’m not an Atkins devotee. Far from it. Grains and bread have been a staple of the human diet for millenia, and I think any diet plan that treats them like Satan incarnate is a bit off the rails.

But I do try to limit what I call “pointless carbs.” White bread, refined sugar, Twinkies. That sort of thing.

And I run into a problem when it comes to rice and pasta.

Pasta
On the one hand, white rice and white pasta definitely count as pointless carbs. They’re made from grains — in the case of white rice, they are grains — that have had most of the icky fiber and nutrients processed out of them, leaving behind only the glucosey goodness.

On the other hand, I think brown rice and whole-wheat pasta taste like peat moss.

So a few years ago, Ingrid and I went to a restaurant with a wonderfully elegant solution to this problem. (The Big Sky Cafe in San Luis Obispo, if you want to know.)

They had mixed brown and white rice.

And ever since then, that’s how I’ve been making rice. Pasta, too. Half brown, half white.

Brown_and_white_rice
I actually think it tastes way better than the plain white rice and pasta that my Midwestern palate was nurtured on. You get this lovely complexity of flavor and texture with the mix. The stronger, earthier flavor of the brown gives a nice balance to the milder flavor of the white, and vice versa. And you get the dense, rough texture of the brown, without feeling like you’re chewing through a hay bale. It’s definitely a best of both worlds deal, a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

I realize that plain brown rice and plain whole wheat pasta would probably be better for me. But I don’t like them, and I’m not going to eat them, and it’s not better for me if I don’t eat them. Mixing is a good compromise. The harm reduction model of healthy eating.

Kitchen_timer
The only tricky part is the timing. Cooking times are different for brown and white rice and pasta, so you have to finesse that. It’s really not hard, though. You can cut the Gordian knot if you like: make the brown and white in separate pans, and mix them when they’re done. But if you want to cook them in the same pan, just put in enough water for both, put in the one with the longer cooking time, and then put in the one with the shorter cooking time later, timed so they finish together.

Example: If your whole-wheat pasta takes 12 minutes and your white pasta takes 10, just start cooking the whole wheat pasta, and put in the white pasta 2 minutes later.

Or for rice: If your brown rice takes 40 minutes and your white rice takes 20, start cooking the brown rice, and add the white rice 20 minutes later. Be sure to start with the right amount of water for both. (I know, your mother told you never to remove the lid when you’re cooking rice; but really, nothing terrible will happen if you just do it once.)

Anyway. This works really well for us, and I thought I’d pass it along. If you try it, let me know how it goes.

Mixing Brown and White: Rice, Pasta, and Pointless Carbs

Chopped Salad

Salad
This one goes out to everyone who hates salad. Or who just doesn’t like it.

I’ve never been a salad fan. It’s not my sworn enemy the way broccoli is, and there have been individual salads in my life that I’ve quite enjoyed. But as a rule, I find salads tedious. A chore. Unobjectionable, but still something I eat because I feel that I should, not because I actually want to.

But I had this dish at a dinner party recently, a salad that I loved and actively enjoyed. I’d never even heard of it before this dinner, so I wanted to share it with the rest of y’all who don’t much like salads but wish you did.

It’s chopped salad.

It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a salad, with greens and stuff; but instead of the greens being in big leaves that you have to chew through like a cow, the whole thing is chopped up together into fairly fine pieces. The contents are totally green salad contents; but the vibe is more like a relish than a green salad.

Cow_female_black_white
And I had this flash of realization. The reason I don’t like salads isn’t that I object to the taste of lettuce or spinach or whatever. The reason I don’t like salads is the whole “chewing through the leaves like a cow” thing. That’s what makes it feel like a chore. When the greens and the goodies are all chopped up together, you get the deliciousness, without the “chewing your cud” experience. Plus you don’t have to wade through the big chewy leaves to get to the yummy treat parts; it’s all chopped up together, and you get little bits of the whole salad in every bite. And somehow, chopping it up into smaller bits brings out the flavor of the greens in a really nice way.

Chopping_board
The one we had at the dinner party had nuts and cheeses chopped into the greens; so I made one last night with spinach and walnuts and blue cheese (which is what we happened to have around the house). It was marvelous. And easy-shmeezy. You basically just make your salad, chop it up as finely as you want (which took about five minutes), and dress it however you normally would. (Although I’d personally stay away from gloppy creamy dressings like ranch or blue cheese, since I think that would just make it a mess. I’d stick with oil and vinegar, oil and lemon juice, things like that.)

I’m not sure how it would work with a regular salad with lots of vegetables, like tomatoes and cucumbers and stuff. Although it might work just fine. But for the sort of salad with greens and nuts and bits of cheese, it’s yummers. I am now completely sold on the whole salad issue. Kudos to Jimmy, who has opened my eyes like no-one else before to the way of the salad.

Chopped Salad

When Life Hands You Cliches…

Life handed us lemons this week.

Lemons_2

In a very literal way. We get a weekly delivery of organic groceries and produce from Planet Organics (a service that we love, btw), and normally we custom order to get the particular produce we want. But this week I forgot to custom order, so instead we got the produce that they picked for us.

Which included four lemons.

Lemons that we didn’t really want or have any use for. Also, we have a lemon tree in our backyard, so they were superfluous as well as being unwanted.

So there was really only one thing I could do:

I made lemonade.

Lemonade

Hot honey lemonade, to be precise. What with the weather being so cold and all.

I mean, what the hell else was I supposed to do? Life had handed me lemons. I don’t really see that I had a choice here. The opportunity was just too perfect.

When life hands you lemons, you damn well make lemonade.

And when life hands you cliches, you gas on about it in your blog.

When Life Hands You Cliches…

Dinner, Art, and Class Warfare: The French Laundry

French_laundry_2
I’ll admit right up front: I may be being unfair.

Here’s how this got started. Ingrid and I have a big anniversary coming up soonish: in January 2008 we’ll have been together for ten years. We’d been making vague plans to celebrate by going to The French Laundry — considered by most to be the best restaurant in the entire Bay Area, by many to be the best restaurant in the country, and by some to be the best restaurant in the world. We knew it was pricey, but when one of the best restaurants in the world is just an hour away, it seems a shame not to splurge on it at least once.

Money_2
So we were chatting with my in-laws when the subject of The French Laundry came up. We mentioned our plans  and they told us exactly how expensive dinner for two at The French Laundry is.

Including everything — food, service, wine, tax — dinner for two at The French Laundry costs about $750.

And poof — there go those plans.

It’s not so much that we can’t afford it. If we saved up, if we stopped going out to dinner for a few months and set that money aside, I’m sure we could manage.

Che
But the idea of spending $750 on dinner for two makes my gorge rise. It doesn’t make me think “romantic luxury splurge.” It makes me think “class warfare.” It makes me think of what the blue-collar families in our neighborhood — hell, on our block — could do with that money. Hell, it makes me think about what we could do with that money. The thought of taking that money and shoving it down our gullets makes me both morally and physically nauseous.

Floyster
Which isn’t exactly the frame of mind you want to be in when you’re eating at the best restaurant in the world.

But I started this piece by saying, “I may be being unfair,” and I meant it.

Sunprotection
It can be argued — it has been argued — that a meal at a place like French Laundry isn’t simply a luxury or a splurge. It’s a work of art. And I don’t have any moral revulsion at all over spending $750 on a work of art. I’d do it all the time if I could afford it. I get a little grossed out when I read about millions of dollars being spent on a Van Gogh — especially since Van Gogh lived and died in poverty and won’t ever see a dime of it — but if someone spent $750 on a sculpture by my friend Josie Porter, I wouldn’t be troubled in the slightest. I’d think she deserved every penny of it, and more. Artists work hard at what they do, and spend lots of time learning how to do it well. And I don’t have any doubt that the chefs at French Laundry are artists.

Hundred_dollar_bill
And it’s also the case that this is, to some extent, a question of scale, a difference of degree and not of kind. We’ve never in our lives spent $750 on dinner for two — but we’ve certainly spent $60, $80, $100. Not that infrequently, either. And while the idea of people spending $750 on dinner for two makes me think fond thoughts about storming the castle and parading around with the baron’s head on a pike, I’m sure that for many people, the idea of people spending $100 on dinner for two makes them feel exactly the same way.

Flparmesan
So maybe the whole gorge-rising, heads-on-pikes, moral and political outrage thing really isn’t fair. Maybe it does make sense — not just financial sense, but moral sense — to save up our eating-out budget, to forego the nice dinners out for a while and save up for one truly spectacular one.

I dunno. I really can’t figure this one out. Thoughts?

Sculpture above: Sun Protection by Josie Porter. Copyright © 2006 Josie Porter, all rights reserved. Image reprinted with permission of the artist, who totally kicks ass.

Dinner, Art, and Class Warfare: The French Laundry