Monday, March 24, 2014

Real Talk 2: Mindfulness

Part 2 in a series.  I've employed some practices, and have had some things on my mind, that I'm really excited about, and I'd like to share them here.  Not all directly food- nor LA-related, though food certainly weaves through these stories.  I'm calling it Real Talk, though in a less lofty moment, I could just as well have called it Better Living Through Google Docs.

Real Talk 1: Gratitude

I have a system.  Some might think of it as a burden, others as having 'an unhealthy relationship with food', others as a compromise to spontaneity.  It may seem insane to you, but I'm sticking to it.

I'm talking about meal tracking.  I've done it on and off over the last couple years, and I finally decided earlier this year that I'm going to do it forever.  Every Sunday night, I create a list for the week -- every breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack is planned out in a Google doc.  Every Friday night, I do the same for the weekend.  Then after every meal, I stop back in to the doc, check off each thing I ate and add any items I hadn't planned.

I know it sounds like such a mundane and unsexy thing, but the effect of this practice on my life has been so profound that I don't ever want to stop.  Now, this isn't about weight management, but something more.  For one thing, what you eat is what makes you:  it's absolutely true that we are what we eat.  And there's nothing unsexy about taking great care of your body.  But beyond that, it's about keeping my wits about me.  There are so many messages surrounding us to eat all the time.  Every billboard, every coworker's birthday cake, every networking date, and dating date, every note of that movie theater popcorn jingle.  At five feet tall, I happen to be especially little, so the portions being pushed on me just do not fit my life at all.  There's pressure to feed -- a lot, but rarely to nourish.

When I track, I cook.  And when I have a moment to plan ahead this way, I end up cooking healthy, balanced meals.  This adds value (and order) to my time at home, makes it a moment to recharge, and provides that elusive nourishment, in more ways than one.

Here's the thing: as much as I love food (and we all know, I lerrve food), I've realized that I can't really enjoy it without occasionally being hungry.  And yet, I go through stages where I just eat whatever's in front of me, non-stop, without too much regard for nutrition, balance, or even taste.  Lunchtime comes around, and I don't even have appetite, but I shovel it in anyway.  I hate those times.

And I mean, do I still eat crap?  Sometimes.  And then I end up feeling gross for having done it.  This is why I do the slow stuff.  This is why I meal track.   I love food -- and eating mindlessly makes me love it less.  So, if I can prevent that, in about 3 minutes a day, why not?

Now, you don't have to be a meticulous crazypants about it like I am.  But if you do want to be a meticulous crazypants, which in this case I encourage, I've laid out the details of my system below.  It looks complicated, but I use 2 templates -- one for the week, and one for weekends -- in Google Docs, and employ the 'Make a Copy' function, so much of it's already filled in.  The planning may take about ten minutes, because I have to figure out what I'm eating for the whole week, but then for the rest of the week, tracking (with my own little language of markings) literally does takes less than 3 minutes a day.

Tracking what I eat prevents that hungerless zombie state, and gives me a fighting chance against the constant eat-eat-eat pressure.  All these things vying for our attention (and our appetite) rob us of the opportunity to do what we really want to do.  And so, these little practices that shake us out of the drone state may slow us down a bit, but they help us fight those forces.  These habits and wake-up calls add up to mindfulness, and they help us win.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

chicken soup for the working girl's soul

A need took over me to make chicken soup.  I have never made chicken soup.  I don't even like chicken soup all that much.  But, I had to heed the need.

I went to some respected sources.  Claudia Roden gave me the Platonic ideal of Ashkenazi Jewish chicken soup.  I read a delicious-sounding French-Jewish recipe with fennel and leeks from Joan Nathan.  And from Tamar Adler came inspiration to keep it simple and elegant.  But the two recipes that most directly drove my own came from the web:  Smitten Kitchen's deeply chickeny broth, and Chez Pim's whole-chicken-in-a-pot incarnation.

I picked and chose some ideas from each.  I wanted to get as much chickeny flavor into my broth as possible without using a crockpot or discarding meat (Smitten Chicken's recipe cooks 3 pounds of wings in a crockpot for 8 hours, then throws them away).  And I didn't want to spend 3 hours making broth and soup on the night I was going to eat it.  That just won't work.

So I came up with a chicken soup recipe that's compatible with a 9-to-5, but doesn't compromise on deep, rich chicken broth.  To do so, I broke the recipe up into 3 stages.  I limited my broth to chicken and onions, like the Smitten Kitchen recipe, but boiled only for an hour, not to overcook the meat, like Pim.  I chopped vegetables one night, simmered broth while I got ready for work the next morning, and put it all together that night in about 45 minutes.  That final step involves steeping the bones in the broth to get maximum flavor out of them -- a tip I picked up from Pim -- then adding vegetables, chicken meat, and noodles to your broth to make the finished product.  You can split up the stages however you want -- just make sure there is time for the broth to chill thoroughly, so that the fat hardens on top and you can remove it easily (if you choose).

Even with a plan, I was nervous.  I don't come from chicken soup heritage.  This is all new to me.  Would it actually work?  But I went with it.  Dare I say that boiling chicken is an exciting endeavor?

You can stand and watch as the broth comes alive: chicken pieces bobbing around under the surface, little lakes of oil animating and changing shape in response to steamy bubbles.  But really, chicken broth is an exercise in stepping away and letting go.  You trust chicken and water to mediate their own relationship, and sure enough, at around the fifteen minute mark, you catch a whiff of what generations of grannies have associated with nourishing their families and warming them to the bone.  Just like that, the broth gradually takes on that pale yellow hue.  Chicken broth is happening.

And soon, so will chicken noodle soup, the real deal.  Turns out you don't have to be a grannie to feed the need.

Chicken Noodle Soup
Makes 6-8 servings

I should mention the turmeric.  It's not at all traditional, but it's a tip from my mom that I chose to adhere to:  it adds subtle flavor and bright yellow color, and is very good for you.  Omit it if you want, but it's not a bad addition.

1 onion chopped
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup diced carrots
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 cups water **
1/2 tsp ground turmeric, optional
1 3-pound chicken, cut into parts *
1 package dry egg (or other) noodles
2 tbs rough-chopped flat leaf parsley
salt and pepper to taste

* notes on chicken: I used an Empire kosher chicken, cut into 8 pieces, figuring that if I'm going to make an age-old recipe, I should stick with the grannies on this.  This affects seasoning:  kosher meats are salted.  As it stands, fluctuations in water level as the broth boils down mess with the broth's saltiness.  So, season to taste, and season at the end, remembering that you can always add more salt, but you can't take it away if there's too much.

** notes on water: My pot is not so big, so in the initial broth stage, I only had about 4-6 cups water.  After I removed the large chicken pieces, I was able to pour in more water with the bones.  The amount of water is not hard and fast:  your soup will be good, even if you fudge that number a bit in either direction.

Stage 1: Prep 
10 minutes, active

Chop onion, carrots, and celery.  Chill until Stage 2.  Store onions separate from carrots and celery.

Stage 2:  Broth
2 hours total
20 minutes active
1:20 inactive
20 minutes active

Add onion, garlic, and oil to large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent.  Increase heat to medium-high an add chicken pieces to pot, tucking them into the onions so they have some contact with the bottom of the pot.  After a few minutes, add water, enough to cover chicken.

Increase heat to high, cover pot and bring to a boil. (Remember, this is a big pot with a lot of stuff in it.  This can take around fifteen minutes.)  After the boil, reduce heat to low, place lid askew on pot so that there's an open sliver where steam can escape, and simmer for 1 hour.  Occasionally skim off foam from surface of broth.

Turn off heat.  Remove chicken pieces from broth.  Working carefully so as not to burn your fingers, separate bones from meat.  Wrap bones in a piece of cheesecloth and tie off with string or twine, or place them in a strainer (the idea is to be able to easily remove them from broth later).   If you like, remove skin (I removed it -- the broth was so fatty already that I didn't need more fat) and discard.  Store chicken in fridge until you're ready for Stage 3.

Chill broth, still in pot, thoroughly.

Stage 3: Soup
45 minutes total
20 minutes active

[Note: you can divide this stage further, doing the thirty minutes with bones in one step, then just cook the pasta and heat the chicken through before serving.]

Defat broth:  Now that the broth is thoroughly chilled, you can easily remove the fat, which has solidified in little pools on the surface of the broth, with a large spoon.  Remove as much or as little as you like (I removed most, left a bit).  Discard fat, or not.

Place carrots, celery, and bone bundle in pot, bring to a boil.  Lower heat to simmer, and cook for about 30 minutes.  In the meantime, cut or shred chicken into bite-sized pieces.  In the last 10 minutes of simmering, add chicken and pasta to pot.

To serve, add a balanced amount of solids and broth to each bowl, and garnish with chopped fresh parsley.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Norouz is Near! A Sabzi Polo Public Service

March has crept up on us like it always does.  Norouz, the Persian New Year, is but 19 days away.  And what happens every year around this time is that start getting tons of visits here, from people around the world, borne of google searches for sabzi polo, a Persian dish of basmati rice steamed with 4 types of fresh herbs and one half of the traditional norouz meal (the other half is mahi, or fish).

So, let me make this easy for you, dear sabzi-polo-loving readers:

Here is my recipe for sabzi polo.
Here are some photos of sabzi polo.
And here are some thoughts on jumping over fire (it's relevant).

Spring is coming!

Gorgeous photo by Sam Javanrouh.