Friday, February 27, 2009

Battle of the Bulge: A Dispatch From the Front Lines

I enjoy eating comfort foods, and frequently fall victim to inertia when it comes to fitness. Like most people, I am prone to rationalizing these behaviors.
"I just can't get motivated to work-out when it's this cold and gray outside; this is the perfect weather for curling up with a good book and cup of hot chocolate, or red wine, or..."

"So what if my last five meals were high-fat, meat, potato and dairy combos? It's winter, and you need a little extra meat on your bones to stay warm."
Rather than face the music when it comes time to put on street clothes, I disguise my figure in "fashionable" designer sweats, with elastic waistbands and drawstrings. A baggy top that hides my bulging gut completes the look. The sad thing is, I do make it to the gym at least three times per week, and I am mindful about what I eat...most of the time. I also prepare the majority of our meals at home, watch my fiber, fat and nutrient intake, and make an effort to get five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables each day. So what gives?

I can only surmise that I do all the right things on top of doing all the wrong ones. So for every 28 grams of fiber I ingest, there are 30 grams of fat. For every serving of fresh produce, there is a double-portion of carbohydrates. The thing is, when I look in the mirror I don't think I look all that bad! My legs are toned and muscular, my back is lean and strong, my arms are...well, my arms have some flab, but they're not terrible.

If it weren't for those pesky jeans that refuse to button, I would have no clue that I am being defeated by my gut. My gut = problem area. Despite doing crunches, sit-ups, core-intensive yoga and a myriad of other things (like a high-fiber diet) that should help, the bulge refuses to budge. So I've decided to declare a truce. I am going to stop fighting my body, and simply embrace the little things that make life worth living. Below are some "little" things that make a big difference in my personal happiness. (note that not all of them will lead down the path to obesity)

Leftover Coffee
Known in fancier circles as an "espresso martini" or a "coffee martini," this little cocktail is a great way to use that last cup of cold coffee lingering in the coffeemaker (a "healthy" alternative is to dump it into a houseplant, since coffee contains plant-friendly nutrients). The beauty of this cocktail is its versatility. You can use just about any type of booze - vodka (vanilla or espresso flavored, or plain...whatever you have on hand will do) OR rum (spiced rum is fun) OR bourbon (if you want to put hair on your chest). If you're feeling creative add your favorite liqueur (amaretto, Kahlua, chocolate or butterscotch schnapps). If you don't have any liqueur you can use flavored syrup (Torani, for example) or chocolate syrup or hot cocoa mix. I like milk in my coffee, so I definitely recommend adding milk to this concocation. As for sweetness, I only add sugar if I don't have liqueur, or flavoring syrup. Basically, you put ice in the shaker, and add your coffee and other ingredients to taste. Shake and pour into martini glasses. Add a dash of nutmeg or cinnamon for added effect.

Hot Coco-Cocoa
The other day I was enjoying a cup of hot cocoa, while chatting on the phone with a friend. She suggested I add coconut rum to my beverage. I did, and I highly recommend this approach to an old favorite.

A "Reece's" Moment
Remember the commercials for Reece's peanut butter cups back in the '70s? The collision between the hapless guy with the chocolate bar and the irritable guy with the jar of peanut butter? Yeah, well I took a bar of milk chocolate and spread some peanut butter on it, and voila! It tasted just like Reece's. No need to pay extra for a processed candy bar, when you've got the raw materials on hand right here at home!

Lemondrop Martinis
Easier to make than you might realize. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon into a martini shaker filled with ice. Add vodka and two teaspoons of sugar. Shake and pour. Using real lemon juice is a great way to get your vitamin C in the dark days of winter.

Bag o' Food
Trader Joe's and My Organic Market (MOM) carry some excellent skillet meals in their frozen food sections. I had an organic butternut squash and sage pasta Alfredo the other day that was to die-for. Only took ten minutes to prepare, and easily fed three adults when paired with a meat. I wish I could remember the brand, but I got it at MOM's...Generally, I avoid frozen meals that include meat. Side dishes are fine, and they've made great strides in preparing frozen french fries...those Organic Valley shoestrings are downright tasty, and Alexia foods makes good sweet potato fries. Other winners are any of the Asian-inspired frozen rice meals at Trader Joe's (just add meat or tofu), and the cheese and green chili tamales. An exception to the meatless rule is the Orange Glazed Chicken from Trader Joe's. It's a lot like General Tsao's chicken, and actually cooks up crispy in a wok, and you can always toss in whatever vegetables you have on hand, like broccoli, carrots or bell peppers. Best thing about frozen food, you can order carry-out or decide to eat in a restaurant at the last-minute, and your food waits patiently in freezer, instead of filling you with guilt as it rots before your eyes.

Motivated by Fish!
We are fortunate to have a very good seafood market right around the corner in Jessup, MD. Frank's Seafood has an amazing selection, is reasonably-priced and always fresh. The other day I got some grouper, which I then broiled and served with the aforementioned butternut squash and sage pasta Alfredo. Broiling is an excellent winter cooking method. It warms the house, and delivers grill-like results. The high, yet indirect, heat locks in the juices and adds a crispy finish to the exterior. I like to cook wild salmon, rockfish and grouper. Red snapper has too many bones. Season with the fresh-squeezed juice of half a lemon (use the other half for your lemondrop martini), a couple of pats of butter (browns and crisps the top of the fish nicely) and sprinkle with salt and pepper or Old Bay.

Vegetarian Cashew Chicken
This recipe will also work with thinly-sliced, boneless, skinless chicken breast, shrimp or scallops. Sometimes, however, I find it's just easier to cook with tofu. It has the consistency of scrambled eggs, or a soft, flavorless cheese that won't melt. It also keeps forever in the fridge (see note above about value of foods you can blow off for a restaurant meal without guilt), is relatively low-calorie and very low in fat content. Since this one is a real recipe, the ingredients are listed below:

5-6 hot, red, Thai chilies (available at Lotte market on 40) with stems cut off, no other chopping needed
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped or minced
1/2-3/4 cup oyster-flavored sauce (available in Asian section at most grocery stores, but if you gotta go to Lotte for the chilies, pick it up there, as they have the most authentic brands)
1 cup cashews (prefer to use roasted, unsalted b/c the oyster sauce has lots of salt)
1 cup celery coarsely chopped crosswise; try to mimic the size of the cashews, so celery will cook at the same rate as the nuts
1 package of extra-firm tofu OR 1 lb. of chicken, shrimp or scallops
1 bunch green onions chopped any way you like
1/3 cup Canola oil (very important to use a vegetable oil that will not impart its own flavor on the dish)

The meal only takes about 10 minutes to cook once you have everything chopped, so I like to start the rice first, then prep my ingredients. When you're ready to stir-fry, heat oil in a large non-stick fry pan or wok. Add garlic and chili peppers, toss for 2-3 minutes before adding your tofu (or chicken, shrimp, etc). Keep tossing until browned, but keep an eye on the heat, as you don't want your garlic to burn. If things are taking too long, add a tablespoon of the oyster sauce to get the caramelizing effect going. When the tofu is starting to get a little color, add the cashews, celery and oyster sauce. Keep stirring over medium-high heat (can go down to medium, if things look like they might burn) until the ingredients are done, and you see the sugars in the oyster sauce starting to caramelize. Toss in the green onions, and stir to heat through; these guys get over-cooked easily, so you can even turn off the heat at this point. Serve over rice, and watch out for the red chilis.

Hard Times @ Home
Long before Pub Dog there was a Hard Times Cafe here in Columbia, MD. It was never very good (see our posting about the demise of the Columbia branch), so few tears were shed when it closed. However, the chili situation in our area is pretty dire. Fortunately Hard Times has a website (, and they sell their seasoning kits, hot sauces and chili-infused malt vinegar online! I bought two of each, and set about re-creating the Hard Times experience at home. The results cannot be denied...delicious, hearty chili served over spaghetti with shredded cheese tastes just as good at home as it does in the restaurant.