Thursday, July 28, 2011

Listening to your body and Mollie Katzen's Roasted Apples with Reduced Balsamic Vinegar

'Listening to your body' is a phrase I often hear in my yoga classes.  It usually means one of two things: "Listen to your body and don't try to pull your arm out of its socket to get into a really challenging pose." Or "listen to your body and don't try to hide underneath the yoga mat when you're supposed to be attempting to do a handstand and mentally psych yourself out of trying something new."

I also hear people joke about listening to their bodies.  Saying: "I'm going to listen to my body, and my body says I want chocolate!" However, sadly these types of jokes really reflect quite the opposite understanding of the body.  If your knees hurt and you're pre-diabetic, your head might be saying chocolate, but your body is saying no thank you.  If you have trouble breathing when going up stairs and your pants are tight, your body is probably telling you to go outside and have a lighter diner rather than to turn up the A/C on a sunny day and order in some pepperoni pizza.

 Although the phrase 'listening to your body' sounds quite gentle and loving, to actually listen to your body often really sucks. For example, a good online friend of mine recently discovered that his throat has a nasty habit of closing up when he eats too much dairy or products containing flour. While he tried to tell his body that cheese is an extremely tasty substance and muscle through its protests at first, eventually he decided that breathing and changing his diet was easier. Another friend of mine has a body that tells him in no uncertain terms that eating cheese, ice cream, or any foods containing lactose are not appreciated, thank you very much. This requires lots of annoying planning and questioning of waitstaff, which he'd actually rather not do, although his body insists upon it.

For most of my life, I chose to pretty much ignore my body when food was concerned. I have a good memory, and have fragmented images of in my mind eating real food with pleasure, like sharing a slice of liverwurst under the table with my aunt's very deaf white cat. But most of my linear, later memories involve dinners that were great Stand-Offs between myself and my mother and father. The day would start with an argument about drinking orange juice (I hated the stuff, and cunningly tried to pretend to hate pulpy orange juice when that kind was in the house, and then, alternately hate the smooth, strained type when mom had bought a different variety). It would end with a stand-off over 'eating my greens' at dinner.  Even my parents regarded 'green' as a punishment (given that it was usually Green Giant boiled in a bag) but one which was a necessary part of becoming an adult.

So, the usual conversations I had between myself and my body were as follows:

Flickr: lotusutol
Body: I've really had enough sugar.
Me: No you haven't!  This is your favorite kind of cake!  I'm going to have a bigger slice.


Body: Some protein would be nice at some point today.
Me: I'm sorry, but I've decided that, since no one is supervising me, we'll be having some Hostess Cupcakes and Sour Cream and Onion Ruffles.

Later, some of my conversations with my body would sound like this.

Me: I can have cereal breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  It's totally low in calories and I'm totally full!
Body: Um...
Me:  The label says it's full of nutrients!
Body: What about a sandwich?
Me: What about a Weight Watchers ice cream sandwich?

This left me puffy and unhappy, particularly since most of my conversations with my body regarding exercise often took this form.

Body: Trying that sport looks fun!  Or let's climb a tree.
Me: I'm going to die.

Mom, grandmother: You're going to hurt your head and die!  Stay inside in the healthy A/C and watch TV!
Me: Wait, how did mom and grandmom get in my head?

Even after I went vegetarian, I pretty much neatly transitioned from highly processed junk food (pizza, fried stuff, sugar) to vegetarian junk food.  It says a great deal about my eating habits that what I most regretted giving up was Oreos, which at the time contained lard. I consoled myself with Hydrox, but found their crumbly texture to be vastly inferior to the greatness of the O-R-E-O.
Flickr: Chazz Layne

After flirting briefly with veganism last year, I began to finally admit something to myself--I'd been working for years, riding on and off, getting slower running times, and even after adding yoga to my 'fitness prescription' for myself, I wasn't seeing much in the way of results, and hadn't for years.

This fitted neatly with my doomed, adversarial relationship with my body, which I had been told by family, friends, and teachers was doomed to be out-of-shape--first because I was small and pudgy, then because I was small and slim, sometimes because I was female, other times because I was nerd and not a jock...all sorts of little stories imposed upon my body.

The moral of this tale is that I started listening to my body, rather than telling stuff to my body, and added fish back into my diet, cut out all of the processed foods I was eating (including vegan 'veggie burgers') and I feel much better.  I still eat dessert (this is, after all, mostly a baking blog) but only a small portion, and not every day.

The bulk of my diet for the last few months has been fruit, veggies, fish, and lots of nuts (which I still prefer heavily salted--my only vice) and I feel better. I guess you could call this a 'Mediterranean diet.'  That is, before the 'Mediterranean diet' became represented by John Belushi's "Cheezeburger Cheezeburger' sketch on Saturday Night Live. 

In some ways, I would rather 'be' a vegetarian or vegan, and perhaps if I hadn't eaten so crappily for thirty-six years, I wouldn't need the fish.  I realize that there are nine million websites out there about 'vegan athletes' but the truth is, I tried to convince myself for many years I didn't need the protein to improve my athletic performance and I have found that I do.

Me: You can get all of your nutrients from vegetables sources! Just read that article on this vegan triathlete online!
Body: Protein....Protein...not getting the right balance of macronutrients from beans and grains...

So the moral of this story is that I have incorporated fish into my diet. I still often eat vegan and I certainly don't see myself going back to eating meat, although I have always maintained I'm not opposed to meat-eating, just the way that 99.9% of the meat is raised today.

I think it's awesome if you're a meat-eater and doing your best to support ethically-raised livestock, and truly the 'sustainability movement' needs meat-eaters just as much as it does vegan and vegetarians. I've always felt much more of a sense of kindred sympathy with people who support farming than the largely urban, very militant cadre of vegans who have very little knowledge of animals, and seem to regard them in a very sentimental fashion.  And whether people like it or not, I think that as a society, we're going to have to eat much less meat, much less frequently, if we want to eat meat that is worth eating--ethically raised, and not addled with lots of artificial hormones and antibiotics.

Of course, I have many non-sentimental fantastic blogging vegan friends who I turn to for inspiration and advice when preparing my vegan meals like my evil vegan Californian twin and former college buddy Grass Fed Duck.  But for my readers, I just wanted to be honest (because all a blogger has is her honesty) about what I eat everyday, so you have no illusions.  I eat mostly vegan and vegetarian, but yes, sometimes I do eat fish.  I'm still a basketcase, and still suck in my middle-aged crisis hobbies, but I suck much less at them.

This is a wonderful dessert that is actually healthy, pungent, and vegan from Mollie Katzen.  Apples are a fall fruit, but few summer dinners are better than fruit, nuts, and cheese (if you desire to or can eat it) so hopefully you'll pardon me at least this offense, by offering what might seem a less-than-summery recipe. I had it with some broiled salmon.

Mollie Katzen's Roasted Apples with Reduced Balsamic Vinegar


2 large Fuji apples

1 cup of balsamic vinegar

1. Preheat oven to 425F

2. Cut two apples (I used Fuji) roughly, leave the skin on.  Place as a single layer in a large baking dish.

3. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until they can be easily pieced with a fork.

4. While the apples are baking, bring 1 cup of balsamic vinegar to a boil.  Reduce temperature and simmer for 30 minutes, until reduced to 2/3 a cup (approximately). The vinegar with have a slightly earthy, smoky taste to it.

5. Toss the vinegar in the roasted apples and serve. It can be eaten over ice cream or yogurt, with nuts and cheddar or blue cheese, or as an accompaniment to your protein of choice.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

And I go back to black (plums)...

A couple of weeks ago, a girl at my stable found a newborn bird in the corner of a horse's stall. She thought it was dead and tossed it out with the shavings onto the manure pile.

When I was walking back from the barn to put away my tack I saw a pink, featherless body writhing in the grass. Amazingly, it had survived the hooves of a 16h Thoroughbred and being hoisted into the trash. I put it in the crook of my riding hat, and decided to drop it off at the local SPCA.

I didn't really expect it to survive the journey over there, given that driving in my area in the summer occasionally makes me question the value of life.

However, it lived and seemed to grow stronger every moment, blindly open up its mouth for food. I waited a half hour behind a woman with many pets who seemed to find the online vaccination schedule incomprehensible, but finally I surrendered the bird.

I called a week later to ask if he was still alive. "We send the wild birds to Wildlife Rehab after 24 hours," said the woman at the front desk.

"Well, I hope he's more successful than Amy Winehouse," I said, thinking myself terribly witty at the time.

I couldn't have known that in a few weeks Amy Winehouse would be be dead.

While some people seem to have an unusual will to live, others seem to be born with an invisible mechanism, kind of like the old TV version of Mission Impossible I used to watch with my mom: "This person will self-destruct within 27 years.  Good luck!"

It's hard for me to imagine Amy Winehouse clean. In her interviews, she seemed to suggest that her drug abuse was just as much a part of her defiant art as her heavily kohled eyelids and tattoos. 'Clean' was associated with bubble-gum, packaged pop. Being a bad girl in the style of 1960s human train wrecks was the essence of her sense of self.

Of course, you can logically point out that there is no one more bubble gum than the early Britney and look what happened to Little Miss Spears. But you can't argue with an artist like that.

I've never believed that it was necessary to drink and drug to be creative--almost all great artists produced their best works during moments of sobriety, and their art was a respite from their self-inflicted suffering, rather than a product of it.  I guess some people might question this statement who are big fans of the Beats and 60s rock, but I've never been a Burroughs and Kerouac fan, and even the great music heroes of that era tended to produce their best, least self-indulgent music before really getting deep into drug culture.

Despite the fact that the only high I've ever experienced in my life is a runner's high, I loved Amy Winehouse's music and voice.  I even related to the defiance of her anthem "Rehab," as I too am someone who has always been told that she lives in the 'wrong way.'  Who sees herself as an outsider in my own, dorky, early-to-bed and early-to-rise kind of a way.

From my own experiences living in England...I recall once meeting a fellow aspiring actor who was proud of all of the AA-listed symptoms of alcohol that he displayed.  "Drinking before breakfast?  Check?!"  Did Amy's behavior feel more normalized in the culture across the pond?

Anyway, given that I can't tolerate anything stronger than weak coffee and the kind of cold medication you have to 'sign up for' at the drug store leaves me climbing the walls, if drugs are required for creative inspiration, than there is no hope for me.

But they often say that where there is life and breath there is hope, and no matter what awaits us all in the great beyond, on this earth, there will never be a sequel to Back to Black.

It's been too hot to cook, much less bake, so I've been eating lots of fruit, vegetables and nuts drizzled with plenty of good balsamic vinegar.  Truthfully, I could drink the stuff.

Pecan plum salad


1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon (vegan) Worcestershire sauce (I eat fish, but non-vegan Worcestershire sauce contains high fructose corn syrup as well as anchovies, the former of which I try to avoid)


1 sliced black plum
1/2 cup lightly steamed, chilled green beans
1 cup chopped fresh spinach
1/4 cup chopped pecans


Mix the dressing ingredients to make an emulsion, drizzle over the salad ingredients and serve.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A terrible day for the Greek people...

Flickr: luna715
About a year or so ago, my father and I had this conversation...

"You know how I will always remember your birthday?"
I paused, expecting some sentimental story.
"That was the day the Turks invaded Cyprus. A terrible day for the Greek people!"
I felt vaguely that I should apologize, somehow.

My mother had a more legitimate grievance about the timing of my birth--her due date was July 4th and I was born July 21st. So instead of a patriotic, Independence Day-baby, I was born nearly nine pounds, with hair and my mother had nearly three extra weeks of being pregnant in the middle of the sweltering July heat.

Despite this rather unprepossessing start, I always loved my birthday as a child. I spent literally a month planning it--back in the day before Type A parents had children's birthday parties with bounce houses and pony rides, I would comb old-fashioned party planning books. There were many scheduled games, followed by the presentation of a box with wrapped prizes where the winner would have to pick his or her reward by pulling on a string, hoisting up a dangling gift, sight unseen.  My mother and I blew up all of the balloons ourselves, and I thought my twisted streamers and Garfield or Snoopy-centric decorations were quite festive.

My mother never baked from scratch--ever--and she always ordered an ice cream cake from Carvel.  Chocolate and vanilla with pink roses and icing.  (Red was my favorite color, and I think they didn't offer red roses).

Carvel ice cream cakes, when frozen, are the most uniquely indestructible substances on the face of the planet. Diamonds from the darkest mines of South Africa cannot compete with a Carvel ice cream cake extracted from the freezer.

The cake would wait as the guests mowed their way through McDonald's burgers or pizza and candy (there was always theme-specific candy in favor cups).  Finally, the family's sharpest knife could saw its way through the cake, helped by the sweltering mid-July temperatures.

It's hard not to see a metaphor for my life in the cake.  As a small child, I wanted the cake to melt so I could eat it all, I wanted things to rush on quickly--counting down the months to my next exciting birthday in half-years ("I am seven and a HALF"...No one ever says. "I am thirty-seven and a HALF.) 

True to form, I would always clamor for the slice with the MOST icing roses and couldn't believe that people would want a slice without them, much like I always wanted to be the MOST famous writer/actress/TV personality and couldn't understand why you wouldn't NOT want to be the best whatever.  You can never have enough pink icing roses!  NEVER!

And yet, I would always try to savor the cake--eating the icing separate, the flowers one by one, running the crumbling chocolate crunchies over my tongue, first when they were hard, then enjoying them as they softened to Oreo-like consistency.  Trying to keep the chocolate and the vanilla separate and make the cake last as long as possible. 

Kind of like the way, all of my life, I've been very reluctant to commit to things permanently--I want to keep the birthday cake as long as possible, to keep possibilities open....

Reluctantly, I have to concede that I may not become an Olympic gymnast at this phase of my life,  but I look better and feel better than I have in previous years--better than I did at twenty-seven or seventeen, even...and given that I have my two front teeth, perhaps even at seven.

I'd also like to add that I share a birthday with the legendary comedian and director Jonathan Miller, Ernest Hemingway, and Robin Williams.  So perhaps July 21st isn't such an infamous day after all.

No Carvel cake for me this July 21st, though.

Food and fitness-wise, since my last birthday, I've begun baking more intensively, cut out almost all of the 'fake foods' from my diet (including fake meats), begun practicing yoga almost daily, went vegan for a bit--then added fish back to my diet, begun food blogging and baking more seriously, and tried to get past major fear barriers with my riding.

Even with all of its imperfections I am very grateful for my life.
Image credit: Cake Central

Although, I still cannot understand why you wouldn't want the pink icing roses on your slice of cake....

Saturday, July 16, 2011

I pierced a girl...


I’ve never quite understood the body art trend, even though I would say that a larger percentage of my friends have multiple piercings than do not. When I was fourteen, I got my ears pierced at the Seview Square Mall in one of those jewelry shops that allow you to be impaled with gold studs embedded with your birthstone. Piercing your ears at a store in front of Deb pretty much qualified as a rite of 1980s suburban passage.

After wearing earrings that were too heavy for my lobes, the holes became enlarged so I eventually had to let them close. I still have two large scars on my ears, which I took as a sign that I was meant to pass from this world as I entered it—unadorned.  I wear a watch. 

Between my junior and senior year of high school, I attended a summer program on the campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, MA. One of my roommates was Kim, from Berkley, California. Rooming with Kim was one of my first experiences with West Coast culture.

Kim was a pale, waifish creature—tall and barely 105 pounds. She wore cut-off jeans belted with a multi-colored rope, Birkenstocks, and white men’s t-shirts bought in bulk at the Harvard Coop.  About a week into the program she found a thrift store called Dollar-A-Pound. The store might still be there. Every week, a warehouse near MIT would be mysteriously filled with used clothes, all of which would be on sale for...a dollar-a-pound. We walked there together from our dorm. Our other roommate, Mita, was far too grossed out to join us. Our purchases—faded, shapeless clothing—looked good on Kim’s model-like frame, but just made my stocky, short nub of a body look vaguely homeless.
Flick: travis_simon

Kim was given to impulsive decisions, some of which had more costly consequences than Dollar-A-Pound.  At the beginning of the summer she had thick, luxuriant straight red hair down to her waist like a Pre-Raphaelite nymph. Then, she cut it all off, as short as a boy, at a barber shop.  “It feels so free,” she said. I cried inside. Despite the fact that I hadn’t cut my hair in a year, it refused to grow any longer than breast-length.

Flickr: freeparking 

During that summer, Kim briefly dated a boy named Ruskin, also from Berkeley. Ruskin’s parents were hardcore hippies. “They gave him ACID for his birthday,” said Kim.  Even she was shocked. “And it wasn’t even GOOD ACID.”

(Later, in graduate school, I would read the art criticism of the Victorian writer John Ruskin.  Despite being married to a woman whom he met when she was a child of nine and writing monumental volumes of art criticism on works depicting lusty naked bodies, John Ruskin reportedly died a virgin. This proves that the Victorians were weirder than ANYONE who ever lived during the 1960s).

One day, Kim informed Mita and myself: “I want to get my nose pierced.”

“I wouldn’t do it.  What if you don’t like it?” I asked, and showed her the scars on my earlobes.
“I’ll take it out if I don’t like it.”
Flickr: megangoodchild

All three of us went to the nearest jewelry store, in the Cambridge Galleria. There was lots of silver jewelry in the store depicting eyes in the middle of hands and Dungeons and Dragons multi-sided dice.

The scene seemed promising, but the boy working at the shop said: “we can’t pierce noses, it’s illegal for sanitary reasons.”

Collectively, we felt let down.  We had tried so hard to steel our courage.

“But we sell piercing kits.  If you’d like to do it at home.  $11,” he said.

 The logic of being able to pierce one’s own nose but not have it done in-house seemed troubling, but we persevered.

“Are you going to do it to yourself?” asked Mita.

“I’ll do it,” I said.  I knew I’d never have the courage to get my own nose pierced, but piercing someone else’s nose seemed much more manageable.  Mita held Kim’s hand. I squeezed the gun.

It felt like stapling a very large, thick research paper.

“I did it!” shrieked Kim.  “I pierced my nose.”

“I pierced someone’s nose!” I shrieked.  I hardly noticed that the ugly, lumpish metallic stud didn’t look particularly attractive.

Turning the stud was painful. Mita, whose mother had her nose pierced when she was a girl in India, had warned Kim of this. Eventually, the pain, the inability to blow her nose, and the fact that her appearance wasn’t particularly enhanced by the piercing caused Kim to remove the adornment. I felt slightly disappointed that the evidence of my bravery had been erased. 

Sometimes when I see the rings of a sliced olive, I think of Kim.
This is a nice, savory bread and you will enjoy it, even if you have mixed feelings about ring-shaped adornments.

It's not very attractive, but unlike a nose piercing, it's quite useful.  Although it's a quick bread, it's sturdy enough to be eaten with hummus, turkey, or cheese and would make a lovely addition to a Mediterranean meal or appetizer.

Olive Bread

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano (spices can be adjusted to your taste)
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup milk (I used almond milk)
1/4 cup mild olive oil
1/2 cup pitted black olives
1/2 cup chopped walnuts


1. Preheat oven to 350F. Oil a 9x5 baking pan.

2. Sift the flours, baking powder, spices, and salt. In another bowl, mix the eggs, milk, and oil.  Add the flour mixture until the batter is incorporated.  Fold in the olives and walnuts.

3. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until a toothpick is extracted clean. Let cool before removing from the pan for at least 15 minutes.

4. Serve with olive oil or hummus.