Monday, October 31, 2011

My Journey to Wellness, Part II: Why I Went Vegetarian

I never, ever, EVER in a million years thought I’d ever be a vegetarian.  I freaking love meat.  I salivate to the point of helplessness when faced with a slice of Genoa salami.  When I lived in Israel, I’d make trips to Tel Aviv purely to eat pork and non-kosher beef. My mom says that when I was an infant, I went through more jars of pureed chicken baby food than any other kid she knew.
Noshing on a burger in my pre-GF, pre-veg days

And yet, here I am avoiding meat.  Those who know me were shocked to find that I’d given up meat – and I can’t blame them, since I was shocked too.  So, how did this happen?

About a year ago, I started trying to transition to a more plant-based diet.  I wasn’t cutting meat out entirely, but I was trying to cut back on how much of it I ate.  My decision to do that was simple: when I started really looking at what I was eating, I realized that although I was counting calories, I still wasn’t eating a lot of fruits and veggies.  So, in order to eat more of the good stuff, I cut back on everything else.
Then, in February, I suddenly stopped wanting to eat meat.  It was without rhyme or reason; after 30 years of loving it, I suddenly didn’t want anything to do with it.  This lasted about a month. 
During the course of that month, I started to feel pretty darn good.  My face cleared up, I had more energy, and when “that time of the month” rolled around, I was…totally fine.  This was a serious deviation from the norm for me; since I was a teenager, “that time” has entailed debilitating cramps and days of misery.   But not that month.  That month - for the first time in my life - all I needed were two Advil, and then I was good for the day.
It was magical.
I’ve since tried eating a little bit of meat very infrequently, but when I do, those same old problems – fatigue, my skin looking like it belongs to a teenager, cramps – come back with a vengeance.  So, I’ve decided to go full-fledged vegetarian. 
I’ve also decided to run an experiment: this weekend, I watched Forks Over Knives.  (It was ah-maaaaa-zing!  Coming from a family with rampant heart disease, this rocked my world.)  There’s a clip where a UFC fighter mentions that he has a milk allergy that gave him recurrent ear infections – and if there’s one thing that defined my childhood, it was recurrent ear infections.  However, I’d never heard of a milk allergy causing anything more than stomach upset. 
This, friends, is where I turn to our dear ally Google.  As it turns out, a milk allergy is a wholly different animal from lactose intolerance.  This was big news to me – I had no idea there was a difference!  And, as it also turns out, a milk allergy can manifest itself through asthma (check), recurrent bronchitis (check), ear infections (check), sinus infections (check), and other upper respiratory symptoms (check, check, and check).  So, as of today I’m going dairy-free as well to see if it makes a difference with my asthma and sinuses.
A common reaction that I hear from people is that there must not be anything that I can actually eat – but that’s not the case!  There are many, many gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegetarian food possibilities out there, and I’m going to do my best to find, create, and cook as many as possible.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

My Journey to Wellness Part 1: Why I Went Gluten-Free

Bread.  Pasta.  If you ask my taste buds, bread and pasta are the nectar of the gods; if you ask my innards, however, they're the handiwork of the devil.

Since the ways of the gluten-free diet have gained a tremendous amount of popularity in recent years, I figured I'd shed some light on the first part of my journey to wellness: finding out that gluten and I are SO not BFF.

The beginning - 1981:  I've had stomach aches all my life.  I was a colic-y baby -- apparently with quite the talent for projectile vomiting, according to my parents -- and my earliest memories are of having debilitating pain in my stomach.  Although it was intermittent, it was  always lurking.  I never went more than few days without a bad stomach ache, and despite many examinations by pediatricians,  they never went away for good.  I largely learned to deal with it, especially since my childhood was basically a whole host of medical issues.  In addition to the chronic tummy troubles, horrible allergies (I'm alarmingly comfortable getting injections, since I started getting allergy shots when I was 3), asthma, repeated bouts of bronchitis, and chronic ear and sinus infections were all the status quo.  Whatevs, right?

Fast-forward to 1997:  When I was 16, we moved from Colorado - where I'd spent almost my entire life - to rural Pennsylvania for my Dad's job.  While I wound up making awesome friends and loving my new high school, the stress of the move appeared to push my stomach over the edge that it had been teetering on for so long.  Sharp stomach and abdominal pains landed me in the ER (where a highly unsympathetic attending was convinced I was pregnant, despite the fact that I'd barely even kissed a boy at that age - my protestations to this point fell on disbelieving ears, to my epic frustration), I had to take days off school because the nausea would be so bad, and there were days when, for no apparent reason, eating anything would leave me doubled over in pain.

One of my best friends had mentioned that her mom had something called a gluten allergy.  I had no idea what this newfangled idea was, but when her mom explained it to me and mentioned what the symptoms were, I remember thinking, "Huh, I wonder if that's what's going on with me.  I should ask my doctor about this."  Ask I did.

"That's a bullshit, new-age, witch doctor idea," my doctor said with a scowl.  "There's no such thing as a gluten allergy."

Being so young at the time, it didn't even occur to me to push back against such a hostile reaction, nor did I think I should dig up more information.  If my doctor had so resoundingly debunked this theory, then it must be a load of bull.  So I carried on, and I eventually just assumed that the stomach pain and general misery were just going to be something I'd have to live with.

Fast forward to 2002:  "What's that thing on your foot?!"  I was a senior in college, and was sitting on the couch with my boyfriend at the time when he suddenly pointed in horror to a weird nodule on the top of my right foot.  "Oh, dude, my feet are bony and screwed up," I said with a shrug. "It's probably on the left one too."

But then we looked at my left foot, and there was no nodule to be found.  Panic set in; an uncle had just died of cancer weeks earlier, and I was convinced I was about to suffer the same fate.  My inner monologue sounded something like "HolycrapIbetItotallyhavefootcancerIprobablyhavetwoweekstoliveaaaaaaaaaaagggghhhh."

So I went to the doctor, got a referral to an orthopedic surgeon, and waited nervously for my consult and inevitable death sentence.

"This is osteoarthritis," he said while looking at an X-ray of my foot.  "It's fairly advanced, too.  The nodule is a bone spur, which built up because the cartilage in your feet is so worn down."

Now, I'd had no injuries to my feet.  There was no reason for a 21-year-old to have osteoarthritis, and certainly not an advanced case.  I was relieved as hell to realize that I didn't have some heinous, incurable foot cancer - but I wondered how I managed to get osteoarthritis about 40 years before most people do.

Fast-forward to 2008:  My parents and I were all back in Colorado (I was going to grad school about 80 miles from my hometown) - hooray!  However, my dad had been getting sicker and sicker for months.  I was pretty alarmed by this; on recent visits home, his skin looked gray and waxy, and my mom had told me that he'd been so fatigued that he couldn't make it through a day at work without coming home to take a nap.  He'd been having a lot of digestive issues too, so his doctor sent him to a GI specialist for extensive tests.

The diagnosis?  Celiac disease.  It all made sense, and a biopsy presented irrefutable proof that gluten was now persona non grata in my Dad's life.  My mom called me the next day and said, with the absolute conviction of a mom who's been dealing with her child's chronic health issues for decades, "Lillian, I've been reading up on Celiac, and you need to hear this.  This explains everything.  The stomach problems, the IBS, the chronic asthma, the arthritis -- everything you've been dealing with for 27 years is listed as a symptom of Celiac.  I think you need to cut out the gluten, ASAP, and see how you feel."

My mom, who has an uncanny knack for being right, was right again: I cut gluten out of my life that night, and I noticed an improvement within a few days.  My feet didn't hurt as much, my stomach aches were fewer and further between, and my asthma rarely ever rears its ugly head.

There are no words to describe how relieved I was to finally figure out what was going on.  After 27 years of never knowing if I'd be able to go more than a few days without stomach pain, not being able to tell if tomorrow the pain would again get so severe that I'd have to spend the day in my bed curled into fetal position, I'd resigned myself to the idea that things were just always going to be this way.  Suddenly that was no longer the case, and I was thrilled.

Do I miss gluten?  Sure!  When I'm around a fresh-baked pizza, I salivate like a damn Pavlovian dog.  But I remember the years of both chronic and often acute pain, and that quickly squelches any desire I have for pizza and beer.  Going gluten-free can be hard -- but if it's what your body needs, the benefits are immeasurable.  I'm happier and healthier at 30 than I ever was at 20, and it's awesome. :)

With my girls on graduation day in 2008 - a few weeks after I went GF, and I was already feeling better!

(Part II, coming tomorrow, will be why I went vegetarian - stay tuned!)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cultivating Gratitude...and Cooking Lentils Bourguignon

Today was one of "those" days.  The sort of day when it could be said that instead of me working at my job, "in Mother Russia, job work you."  Life has been pretty stressful lately -- and poor Hubs has had to live with a wife who's prone to sighing deeply and occasionally bursting into tears at the end of a long day.

When things get difficult, I try to focus on the good things in order to keep myself from getting bogged down in worries about work, the future, and what I'm doing with my life.  My Dad once told me that it's important to cultivate what he called an attitude of gratitude, and when the going gets tough, I make a concerted effort to get grateful.

When I'm going to sleep at night, I try to think of at least five things that happened during the day -- if not more -- that I'm thankful for.  If I can't come up with five things that happened during the day, I'll go with five general things that can't be confined to the course of 24 hours (i.e., I have an awesome husband, a wonderful family, and good friends).

So, for today, I'm thankful for the following things:

1) The fact that my mom got some good news after a recent health scare.  I'm really, really close with my mom, and I'd been worried about her - so this good news is a huge relief.

2) All your lovely comments on yesterday's post!  I can't tell you how much I appreciate it, and I'm glad y'all liked my tribute to my Gram.

3) Hubs's giant hugs as soon as he comes home - few things make me feel more safe and happy than a bear-hug from him.

4) New contact lenses!  My old ones were super painful, so I'm excited to no longer have pains in my eyeballs. :)

5) When I got off the shuttle from work this evening, I could tell that it was about to rain buckets -- and I made it inside my apartment juuuuuust in the nick of time before the rain started.

6) Once I got home, I had a hankering for something hearty and comforting.  Back before I went veg, I used to love beef bourguignon - so I decided to try to make a vegetarian version.  French lentils are hearty, protein-rich, and filled with iron, so I thought they might go well with a bourguignon stew.  I topped it with caramelized onions (my favorite condiment in the world) and garlic croutons (how-to is below), and it was just what the doctor ordered.

Lentils Bourguignon
1/2 cup French lentils
3 carrots
2 celery stalks
2 potatoes
2 cups vegetable broth
2 cups red wine
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
1/4 tablespoon dried rosemary
1/4 tablespoon dried thyme

Step 1: Chop up the carrots, potatoes, and celery.  Put them into a stock pot with the broth, wine, balsamic, and spices.

Step 2: Let it simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes, or until the veggies and lentil are all tender.  Although it has a lot of liquid to begin with, the cooking process boils it down to a thick stew - so don't worry if it looks like waaaaay more liquid than seems necessary at first!

Step 3: While the stew is doing its thang, make the...

Caramelized Onion and Garlic Croutons
*I learned how to make the garlic croutons from watching a Mark Bittman video podcast on iTunes - so I can't take credit for this idea!
1 onion
6 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Step 1: Thinly slice both the onion and the garlic.

Step 2: Separately sautee each (the onions cook much more slowly than the garlic, so it's best to separate 'em so the garlic doesn't get carbonzied).  The garlic before:

Garlic after:

Once the stew is ready and the onions and garlic are happily caramelized, you're ready to go - serve up the stew, garnish with the garlic croutons and find something to be grateful for. :)

Happy almost Friday, y'all!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

WAIW: Curry in Memory of My Gram

My entry for this week's What I Ate Wednesday, hosted by the ever-awesome Jenn of Peas and Crayons, is going to be a bit different: in place of my usual display of noms, I'm going to focus on a recipe and the memory of one of my favorite people.

To explain what I'm getting at here, today would've been my Gram's 91st birthday.  In honor of her birthday, I wanted to make a dish that I knew she'd appreciate: curry.

To give some context to this curry dish, Gram was 19 when World War II began, and 21 when the U.S. joined the fighting.  She grew up in Denver and went to school in Philadelphia, so the war was far away --  however, she wanted to do her part for the war effort.  She became a Red Cross Girl and quickly found herself on a passenger ship bound for India.  She spent a year there, taking care of children and lifting the spirits of U.S. personnel stationed in India while traveling through the subcontinent.  While she was there, she picked up a serious love of curry.

When she returned from India, she went to graduate school -- where, as luck would have it, she met my Grandpa.  Grandpa became a Foreign Service Officer, and so Gram and Grandpa, my uncles, and my mom spent the next 20 years living between Washington and Europe.

The whole fam: My Gram and Grandpa, Mom, and uncles, circa 1954

By the time I came along, Grandpa had retired and they were living back in Colorado.  Grandpa passed away when I was a baby, but Gram was a constant feature in my life.  Growing up 2 miles away from my Gram meant that I was over at her house -- or she was over at ours -- all the time.  She did a lot of cooking for us, and one of my favorite dishes was the chicken curry she'd learned to make while living in India.  It was an amazing combination of flavors and textures: spicy, sweet, salty, crunchy, and velvety smooth, all wrapped into one dish.

When I came back from my year living in Israel, it was obvious that Gram's health was failing.  After many rounds of tests, we found that she had Lou Gehrig's Disease.  Known by its clinical name, Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), ALS is almost invariably fatal.  We spent as much time with her as possible, and my parents made a Herculean effort (which, in my opinion, was nothing short of heroic) to make her comfortable and act as her primary caretakers during her final months.

She died four years ago this weekend, after having lived a truly impressive life.  I still miss her all the time, and I think of all the events she's missed in the last four years -- my graduation from grad school and my wedding being chief among them.  I always imagine her attending these events in whatever way she can: sitting in the rafters of the auditorium when I received my Master's, or chillin' in an empty pew to watch as I got married.

When I was in London earlier this month, I had a serious Gram moment when I went out for Indian food.  The restaurant I went to served me a complimentary cup of coconut lentil curry soup, and as soon as I tasted it, I could her Gram's voice in my head: "Oh, darling!  This is marvelous!"

Indeed, it was marvelous -- so, in honor of her birthday, I wanted to re-create that soup.

Coconut Lentil Curry Soup for Gram
2/3 cup red lentils
2/3 cup yellow split peas
1 can light coconut milk
3/4 cup vegetable broth
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 tablespoons shredded coconut

For garnish: toasted almonds, toasted coconut, and cilantro

Step 1:  Put the lentils, split peas, coconut milk, veggie broth, 1 tablespoon shredded coconut, and curry powder into a stock pot.  

Step 2:  Simmer over medium heat for 30-35 minutes, or until it's nice and thick.  The red lentils dissolve into a puree, leaving the split peas for texture.  You'll know it's done when the split peas are intact but soft.  In the last few minutes before it comes off the stove, add 1 teaspoon fresh-grated ginger.

Step 3:  While the soup cools off a bit, work on the garnish.  Cut up some cilantro leaves (they add zest, so I highly recommend them).  Dry roast 2 tablespoons slivered almonds and 2 tablespoons shredded coconut in a pan over medium heat - watch them carefully, because they burn easily (as I almost learned the hard way when I got distracted and got them out of the pan at the very last second)!

Step 4:  Serve up the soup, then garnish it with the coconut, almonds, and cilantro.

Happy 91st birthday, Gram - I love you!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Existential Squash

It would appear that my recently-purchased spaghetti squash and I are kindred spirits. 
You see, for the better part of two years now, I’ve been feeling like there has to be more to my purpose in life than just my job.  I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something more – something else – I’m supposed to do with my life, and that sitting in my windowless office isn’t where my purpose lies.  However, when one has been working in or going to school for a particular line of work for a decade, this realization is pretty effing scary.  It brings on an enormous existential freak-out, actually.
My spaghetti squash, meanwhile, seemed to have similar feelings.  From its perch on the counter, it seemed to be looking up at me and saying “I’m always used as a replacement for spaghetti noodles.  I mean, yes, I know it’s in my name and all, but I’m bigger than that.  Really, I am!  If you just let me work outside the box a little bit, you’ll see that I’m destined for bigger things than marinara sauce.” 
Knowing this feeling quite well myself, I couldn’t bring myself to relegate the spaghetti squash to a future of marinara.  It deserved more than that.
In order to help the spaghetti squash live up to its potential, I decided to make a dish similar to Middle Eastern Lentil Soup and use the advieh that I love so much.  I added sautéed onions for extra flavor, and, in an effort to use up the rest of last night’s Israeli salad, I combined the leftover salad with the squash.  And, if you'll indulge my bad puns once again: hot dog, we have a weiner!

Middle Eastern Spaghetti Squash
1/2 white onion, sliced thin
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon advieh, divided
1 spaghetti squash
1 cup Israeli salad (optional)

Step 1:  
Cut the spaghetti squash in half (these suckers put up quite a fight - I was on the phone with my mom when I did this, and when she asked why I clearly sounded strained I replied "I'm murdering a spaghetti squash, and it's fighting me somethin' fierce.")
Clean out the pulp and the seeds, and place the halves face-down in a pan with 1/2 inch of water (just like making pumpkin puree).  Cook at 350 for 30 minutes.
Step 2:  While the squash gets its cook on, thinly slice the onions.  Then saute them in the olive oil over medium-high heat; when they start to brown, add 1/4 teaspoon of the advieh.

Step 3:  Once the squash is tender, scrape out the spaghetti awesomeness into a bowl.  Add the other 1/4 teaspoon of advieh, and stir until mixed.
Step 4:  If combining with Israeli salad, add that and mix 'er up!  If not, top with the sauteed onions.  I'd also recommend almonds for added crunch!
The layered version

The all-mixed-up version
Aaah, spaghetti squash: you’ve lived up to your potential, my friend.  Well done.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Weekend Recap and Israeli Salad

Aaah, the weekend.  The happy times, the fun, the extra sleep: how I love them all!  (I say this as I’m writing on a Monday, so I’m waxing poetic about the weekend particularly hard right now.  Oy!)  This weekend was fabulously productive – I know, it’s not everyone’s idea of a good time, but for OCD types like myself, a weekend spent organizing and cleaning out closets is, um, actually really satisfying.  (I think there’s something seriously wrong with me.)
A case in point: before the wedding, a shelf in our kitchen was being used to house all our cookbooks.  Since hubs and I registered for a ludicrous amount of kitchen gadgets and cooking gear, though, that shelf has been usurped by appliances and mixing bowls.  All the cookbooks were displaced, so they’ve been living in a spontaneously-arranged refugee camp behind the couch.  This weekend, though, they found a home!  Hubs and I finally got some bookshelves, and I was incredibly stoked to get them set up.


There was also the matter of the linen closet: there was no room for our post-wedding glut of new sheets and towels.  It was time for a purge, and purge I did – after conquering the closet, we had four bags of linens to give to our local Goodwill.
Insert sigh of accomplishment and self-satisfaction here.
The weekend wasn’t all organization, though: there was time for me to feed my celebrity gossip addiction (I can never finish a New York Times crossword puzzle, but given a People magazine crossword…I own that shit!), go for a long run, and put my favorite bath salts to use.  I even got signed up for a membership at Massage Envy, which I’m unbelievably excited about – I’d been thinking about signing up for a long time, and I’m really glad I did.

By the time Sunday night rolled around, I’d just gone running and had a hankering for a light, refreshing dinner.  I was rummaging around in the fridge and was getting increasingly frustrated when suddenly I had an idea: w
hen I was living in Israel, Israeli salad was served at nearly every dinner I attended.  Israeli salad is made from chopped onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and cucumber, so I had a love-hate relationship with it (in that love onions and peppers, but I can’t stand tomatoes or cucumbers).   However, it’s absurdly simple to make – and it’s jam-packed with nutrients, so why not modify it to suit my taste?

I decided to replace the tomatoes and cucumbers with chickpeas (at the rate I eat chickpeas, there’s a very real chance of me turning into one), and voila – my take on the traditional Israeli salad was born.  In addition to being both GF and vegan, it’s light, refreshing, and nutrient-dense.  Bring it on!
Modified Israeli Salad:
1 organic red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 organic green bell pepper, finely chopped
¼ red onion, finely chopped
14 oz. chickpeas
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of one lemon
¼ teaspoon sea salt
Fresh-ground pepper to taste
Dry-roasted almonds 
Mix all the ingredients -- except the almonds -- until combined.  

Once mixed, garnish with the roasted almonds and serve immediately (I dished it up onto a bed of romaine leaves, and wound up using them as taco shells in a wholly unexpected moment of food insanity).

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Homesick Coloradoan Soup

I'm a displaced Colorado girl.  My career, however, necessitates living in DC -- and despite having lived here for almost three years, I'm still adjusting to life away from the Rocky Mountains.  Sometimes (ok, often) a girl gets homesick for her old 'hood.  (Case in point: when we were in Colorado for the wedding, I didn't cry once during or leading up to the big day.  Two days after the wedding, however, when hubs and I were driving around Denver, we went to the Whole Foods near where I went to grad school -- and this prompted a full-on meltdown from yours truly.  I sat in the car and bawled my eyes out, so one could say that it got real in the Whole Foods parking lot.  But I digress.)

When those moments strike, I find that creating some Colorado-esque food helps tremendously.

I happened to have one of those moments this week, just as the weather turned chilly here in DC. What's a girl to do when the mercury is falling and she misses her home turf like woah? She makes some Southwest-inspired soup. It's plant-based and nutrient dense, so it nourishes your body while warming both your belly and your soul. A dual-use technology healing soup, if you will.

Homesick Coloradoan Soup:

1 cups chopped peppers and onions (I used Whole Foods frozen organic Southwest blend)
2 tablespoon ground cumin, or to taste
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano (regular oregano also works well)
2 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cups red quinoa
14 oz. black beans (if you're using dried beans, be sure to soak them before cooking)
14 oz. chopped tomatoes

Combine all ingredients and simmer for 30 minutes or until the beans and quinoa are tender.  For those who're ok with dairy, this can be served with queso fresco; for those going dairy-free, cheddar Daiya rocks my socks when garnished on this soup.

Et voila!

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Word (Or Many) on Dieting and Self-Acceptance

Since I joined Twitter and Pinterest last week, I've been struck by two things: first, in Twitter, it's amazing how many people are peddling miracle weight-loss cures that will "shrink you to a size 2 in weeks" or take you "from fatass to badass" in a matter of days.  Secondly, in Pinterest, when I went to the Sports & Fitness section I realized that it's filled with pictures of perfectly sculpted, size-zero women next to phrases meant to motivate people to lose weight.  "You'll regret eating that cookie, but you won't regret running that last mile," said one.

Ok, y'all: this freaks me out.  No wonder so many of us spend so much time feeling shitty about ourselves.  If looking at pictures of women who don't have an ounce of fat on their bodies (save for their boobs, which are insufferably perky) is supposed to make me feel good about myself -- if it's supposed to motivate me to lose weight or eat less or work out more than I already do -- then it's not working.  In fact, I don't see how it can make anyone feel anything other than awful.

For context, I've always had a somewhat contentious relationship with my body.  From the time I was 12 and suddenly went from being tall and gangly to being, shall we say, curvy (seriously, that shit happened overnight), I've struggled to be okay with myself as I am.

You see, I come from a long line of very skinny women.  My Mom, who spent many years as a ballerina, is thin and graceful.  Her mom, my Gram, was tall, glamorous, and also quite thin.  On my Dad's side, the women are petite and svelte.  My dad's mother, my Nana, was a tiny woman (5' on a good day) with delicate features and a slight build.

Then there's me.

I'm reasonably tall -- 5'7", so I'm neither tall like my Gram nor petite like my Nana -- but I managed to be built like the lovechild of a linebacker and a barrel.  I have broad shoulders, soccer thighs, and hips that make me look like I was made to bear enough children to populate the Yukon Territory.  (Or so it feels when I look at myself in the mirror.)

With my mama - note how I'm, like, twice her size.
I exercise like a maniac, mainly because I've always been an athlete and life without sports would drive me insane.  I also eat well, and I've maintained the same weight and same clothing size since I was in high school.  However, until recently, I always wanted to be thinner than I am.  I'd look at myself and compare my body to almost everyone around me -- the sorority girls in college who wore size 2 jeans, the skinny girls on the Metro, all the women in my family tree who look nothing like me -- and I'd be filled with self-loathing.  I felt that I looked like a beached whale compared to them, and how could a beached whale be anything other than gross and disgusting?

Whenever I tried to diet, though, the scale wouldn't budge.  It held steady at 140 despite obsessive calorie counting, two-a-days at the gym, and desperate attempts to stave off hunger by drinking enough water to sink an aircraft carrier.  (Side note: it also really sucks to be stuck in meetings when you downed an entire Nalgene bottle of water with lunch and are in desperate need of a visit to the ladies room.)

Recently, though, I had a series of epiphanies.  The first was courtesy of my awesome husband: one day when I was having an "I'm not skinny enough" meltdown, he looked me in the eye and said "You look like what you are: an athlete.  You look strong and healthy.  I love the way you're built, because you have muscle.  You see your soccer thighs as a bad thing, but when I look at your legs I see strength and agility.  You.  Are.  Beautiful." And that's when I realized: I'm an athlete, not a skinny girl.  I'm built for sports, not modeling.  When I stopped framing my body image in terms of thinness and started thinking in terms of looking like what I am, everything changed.

Then I had a second epiphany: maybe the scale isn't budging because my weight is exactly where it's supposed to be.  Maybe this is my healthiest weight.  Maybe my body is actually happy as it is, even though I don't see it that way.  Maybe my mind and my body need to get on the same page.

That led to a third epiphany: I need to replace my "be as skinny as I can be" goal with a new one: be as strong, healthy, and happy as I can be.  I need to eat foods that make me feel good.  I need to do exercises that make me feel strong, agile, and generally badass.  I don't need to worry about becoming the skinny girl, because I'm not her.

To that end, I was thrilled when I found SELF magazine's Happy Weight Calculator.  It's a much, much more realistic take on what a person should weigh.  It takes into account the size of your frame (good for linebacker-barrel hypothetical progeny like myself), the amount of exercise you get, and your age -- all of which are critical factors in determining a person's happiest, healthiest weight.

I tried it out, and wouldn't you know it: my happy weight is 140.  Turns out my body has it right; for years I've been refusing to acknowledge my body's ability to be at its ideal weight, but now I'm listening.   I could go insane comparing myself to the super-skinny, perfectly sculpted women I see on TV, in magazines, and, apparently all over Pinterest, but it will bring me (and, until recently, has brought me) nothing but suffering and self-loathing.  Instead, I can choose to accept and love my body as it is -- soccer thighs and all -- and to pursue strength and health in place of the ability to double as an underwear model.

So, to those of you trying desperately to be the skinniest version of yourselves: pause for a second.  Stop comparing yourself to other people.  Breathe.  Try out the Happy Weight Calculator, and see what it comes up with.  But above all else, remember that regardless of whether or not you're trying to lose weight, you're awesome as you are.  If you're working hard to lose weight, let those goals come from a place of self-acceptance, not self-loathing.  Let go of the need to be the thinnest possible version of yourself.  Instead, focus on being the healthiest, strongest, and happiest you can be.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sweat & Soup (But Not Together, Obviously, Because That'd Be Gross)

When it comes to life in general, I’m a big – nay, HUGE – fan of routine. I’m more productive, more driven, and just generally better at having my ish together when I’m in a routine.

When it comes to my workouts, however, that routine can sometimes dig itself into a rut.  I’ve done largely the same stuff for years: 40 minutes of cardio (some combination of elliptical/treadmill/bike) plus some lifting afterwards.  It often starts to feel really old, but when you’re on a budget and don’t want to pay for group fitness classes (me), or when you often find yourself looking like a total nincompoop in group fitness classes (me, again -- I've actually been laughed at by passers-by), you run out of options pretty quickly.

I’ve been looking for ways to jazz things up a bit, so I picked up a copy of The New Rules of Lifting for Women, and I lurve it.  It’s fantastic – the workouts are quick but still a butt-whuppin’, and I love how strong I feel after 25 minutes of lifting.  By the time I leave the gym, I’m sporting a serious case of the shakes (or, as my high school track coach used to call it, Elvis legs).  I do cardio on the days when I don’t lift, which mitigates the “please shoot me now” boredom that comes with spending 30 minutes a day on the elliptical. 

I’ve also largely shifted my gym sessions from the evenings to the morning.  (There are still mornings where that doesn’t happen, but for the most part it has held up.)  This is a HUGE surprise for me, because I’ve never been a gym morning person.  When I tried to do morning workouts before, I was always tired and in desperate need of caffeine, and I felt like my brain was crashing around in my skull whenever I tried to brave the treadmill.  (I’d run for a mile and then be totally convinced that I was giving myself brain damage.  “Bah, I’m going to wind up on life support at this rate!  Time to go back to running at night!”)  However, since I started lifting, morning gym sessions have become a gazillion times easier and less painful.  I have a cup of coffee as soon as I wake up, and then I’m all energized and ready to go.  Plus, it doesn’t hurt that I get to see views like this:

Well, I should say that I used to get to see views like that back when the sun wasn't pulling a disappearing act on us.  (I took that picture back in early September.)  I have to say: I love fall, but I miss my favorite shiny celestial orb.  Mid-winter is going to be seriously hard, friends.

The good thing, though, is that the weather is finally cooling off.  After a typically hot and humid summer in DC, this is cause for much excitement.  As soon as I saw that the weather forecast includes markedly cooler weather as we get closer to the weekend, I was all, "OMIGODCOOLWEATHERIWANTTOMAKESOUP."  Then I was all, "If memory serves, the lining of my good winter coat was ripping when I put it in storage last spring.  I should probably get that fixed."

But the key thing here, friends, is: I really love soup.  (I also have an alarmingly tangential inner monologue, but that's not the point.)

I recently made a dish for hubs that involves chicken with a tomato-oregano-artichoke sauce -- and although I didn't eat the chicken, I was diggin' the sauce like woah.  I wanted to re-create it, but as -- wait for it -- a soup.

The ensuing soup recipe is definitely Mediterranean and a wee bit Greek.  It doesn't wear a Speedo, mercifully, but it does pack a huge dose of vitamin C (and, with the imminent arrival of cold/flu season, who couldn't use more of that?).

Mediterranean Tomato Soup

1 16-ounce can crushed tomatoes
4 sprigs of fresh oregano, tied into a bouquet garnis
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon aniseed
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
6 marinated artichoke hearts, chopped

Pour the olive oil into a stock pot.  Once it's hot, add the aniseed, minced garlic, and chopped onion.  Sautee until the onion is soft and the garlic is starting to brown.

Add the crushed tomatoes, balsamic, artichoke hearts, and bouquet garnis.  Let it simmer for 15-20 minutes.

After it simmers, it'll be ready to serve!  I served it with some Lundberg Farms Japonica rice blend and garnished it with crushed Brad's Raw Kale Chips.  (Full disclosure: I have a raging addiction to Brad's Raw Kale Chips.  Holy crap, those things are good.)

Happy eating!

And, with that, a question: what do you love most about fall?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

WIAW: The "What on earth do people like you EAT?" Edition

As soon as people find out I’m both gluten intolerant and (99% of the time) vegetarian, I usually get a horrified look just before someone cries “But what do you eat?!”

It’s a valid question – so much of what people eat today is made with bread and meat that it’s hard to imagine forgoing gluten in addition to an entire food group.  So to those who wonder what a vegetarian (and sometimes vegan) eats when also going gluten-free, rest assured: there are still plenty of delicious options out there.  Seriously!  I know this sounds totally ridiculous – about as believable as my old theory that Osama Bin Laden was actually hiding in Cancun and working as a bouncer at a bar filled with drunk college kids on spring break (for real though, wouldn't that have been the perfect cover?) – but I promise, it’s true.  Contrary to popular belief, I don’t spend my evenings foraging through a remote forest for tree bark to gnaw on. :)
I’m using this week’s What I Ate Wednesday, hosted by the fabulous Jenn of Peas and Crayons, to a) basically do a tour of my lunch box, and b) show that it’s not insanely difficult to meet one’s nutritional needs while going veg + GF.  For an added challenge, these meals are entirely vegan.  Many people who are gluten intolerant are also lactose intolerant, so lest these dietary needs start to look like a huge Venn diagram, I’m going to focus on GF and vegan goodies.
Let the fun begin!

  GF rolled oats with chia seeds and almond milk.  While some glutards can’t handle oats, those who can will be pleased to find that there are certified GF rolled oats (and certified GF steel-cut oats) that are just as awesome as the ones we ate back in our glutinous days.  Oats are a good source of iron – a key nutrient to watch when one is vegan or vegetarian – and the addition of the chia seeds packs even more of this kickass vitamin.  Omega 3’s from the chia seeds help facilitate absorption of the iron, and the almond milk adds other vitamins to boot.

Snacks:  Question numero uno for most vegetarians and vegans is “But where do you get your protein?”  Happily, there are many sources of plant protein - all of which are GF - that fit the bill perfectly.  Two of my favorite snacks involve said plant proteins: an apple with cashew butter (if cashews aren’t your thing, there are plenty of nut butters on the market that are insanely good…seriously, I could freebase that stuff for the better part of a day and not get tired of it) and multi-grain GF crackers with hummus.  The chickpeas in the hummus and the cashew butter pack plenty of plant protein into the day, with the added benefit being that they’re ridiculously delish.

Lunch:  Dr. McDougall’s black bean and lime soup, when combined with fresh spinach and brown rice, turns into an excellent source of protein and iron.  Oh, and it’s really effing yummy.  I find myself getting really stoked for lunch on a regular basis, but particularly when I know that this meal is on the horizon.  When the clock turns to 12:00, somebody is doing a happy dance in her office.  That somebody is me.

Dinner:  The options are endless!  Some of my favorite GF and vegan dinners have been featured here, including (but in no way limited to) Southwestern quinoa, millet, and black bean pilaf; Middle Eastern lentil soup, garlic and lemon lentils with rice and spinach, Italian roasted veggie kabobs, with roasted veggies and potatoes...the list goes on.  This week, though, I went with my potato cravings (I'm Irish, so I like to think my love of potatoes is genetically embedded) and had roasted veggies and taters.

While cooking for a GF, vegan, or vegetarian diet does require some culinary creativity, it's not difficult at all.  Hopefully this shows that it is, in fact, totally feasible – and it’s certainly more feasible than my old Bin Laden in Cancun theory. :)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Best. Weekend. Ever.

Confession: I, um, don't get out much.  When I was younger and had fewer responsibilities, weekends were a time of wild abandon; I'd go to a happy hour for work on Friday night, Pilates class with my roommate on Saturday morning (I have no idea how I did this, since now a Friday night HH would completely ruin me.  Thus, a Pilates class the next morning would be out of the question -- unless I'd be allowed to gently weep and/or pathetically whimper in the back of the room), out drinking with my girls on Saturday, and then to visit the Smithsonian on Sunday.

Now?  By the time Friday night rolls around, I'm good for exactly one activity: sitting on the couch in my sweatpants.  This usually involves carry-out Thai food and a Will Ferrell movie with hubs, but half the time I wind up asleep next to, if not face-down in, my drunken noodles jae.

My weekends are usually spent running around like a madwoman.  There's grocery shopping, the farmer's market, drycleaning, laundry, cleaning the the time I've had a cup of coffee on Saturday morning, my to-do list is as long as my arm.  Hubs and I make time to see our friends, too, so between errands, chores, and seeing our homies, there's a notable absence of free time.  I don't usually let myself have much -- okay, any -- time off from my responsibilities: the Blackberry is on, we're in town, and I've got that to-do list staring me in the eye.  I wind up feeling too busy to ever leave town and do fun stuff on the weekends, so we usually stay within the confines of the Beltway.

This weekend, however, was totally different.  Sunday was hubs's birthday, and all he's wanted for the last few weeks has been to escape DC.  So, we got the hell outta Dodge -- we went to Middleburg, VA, and then spent Sunday afternoon hiking along the Appalachian Trail near Harper's Ferry, VA.  This was a weekend of fun.  A weekend of calm.  A weekend of some much-needed time away from the frenetic pace of life.

Whadddaaaap! Guess where I'm not gonna be this weekend?!
There were rolling hills and beautiful Virginia countryside.  There were farms, vineyards, roadside stands selling pumpkin and apple cider, and pastures filled with grazing horses.

There were not one, but two servings of Greek salad (yup, you read that right: I put away two huge plates of Greek salad in one sitting).  There was pumpkin ice cream, which elicited an "OMIGODTHEYHAVEPUMPKINICECREAMIREALLYWANTTOHAVESOMEOMIGODTHISISGONNABEAWESOME" from yours truly:

There was an amazing bookstore where I nearly spent waaaaaaaayyy too much money, had I not reminded myself that I can't afford to buy 20 books at once.  There was abundant sunshine, fresh air, and the sound of crickets as we sat outside at a restaurant eating dinner on Saturday night.

In short, we had an awesome time.   Middleburg is only an hour from downtown DC -- but it feels like it's worlds away.  It's a beautiful small town, and I loved it.  Merely walking down the street made me feel more calm and centered than I have in months.

It's easy for me to forget how badly I need to make the time to relax and recharge.  I often find myself wishing I had time to do the things I want to do, but I almost never let myself actually take the time to do them.  Life runs at such a hectic pace that before I know it, I'm burned out and cranky and wishing I could have a bonfire where I'd burn my to-do lists in effigy and sacrifice my Blackberry as an offering to the gods of leisure.

This weekend, though, I was reminded of how important it is to take time to get some R&R.  It made a huge difference for me, and while we were in Middleburg, I was struck by how totally not stressed out or anxious I was.  I wasn't worried about anything happening at the office, fighting traffic, or whether the Metro was going to make me late for work.  Instead, I was busy strolling past historic buildings, enjoying the autumn sunshine, and browsing through bookstores.  I wasn't trying to take deep breaths to calm my mind and find my bliss, because I was living it.

What do you do to relax and recharge?  Do you get out of town, or are there other things you do during the weekend?

Monday, October 17, 2011

How to Make Pumpkin Puree

All my pumpkin-lovers in da house, lemme hear you say "Heeeeeeeey!"

It appears that most of us in the food blogging world are madly in love with pumpkin.  This, my friends, is a good thing.  There can never be such a thing as too much pumpkin!  (On the other hand, this is also my philosophy about garlic -- and that theory is disputed with impressive frequency.  How can there possibly be too much garlic or too much pumpkin in the world?!  It's impossible!  Ah, but I digress.)

While I'm a big believer in stockpiling canned pumpkin to use once it goes out of season, I also like to make fresh pumpkin puree while these glorious things are in season.  It's impressively easy -- I know that sounds about as plausible as a resurrected Abe Lincoln being the next Carson Daly, but trust me on this.   Adding to which, the pumpkin stores in the fridge for a good long time without the added worries about BPA in can lining.

Step 1:  Cut the punikn' in half (you'll need the biggest, most badass knife in your arsenal for this task.  This is the hardest part of the whole process, but it's all coasting from here!):

Step 2:  Scoop out the pulp and the seeds.

"We feel so empty inside..."

Step 3:
 Place pumpkin halves face-down in a baking pan filled with 1/2 - 3/4 inch water.  Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes, or until the flesh is tender.

Gasp!  Orange and blue: Broncos colors!  GET EXCITED!

Step 3:
 Scoop out the pumpkin, et voila!  It's soft enough to puree by mashing it with a fork, or you can keep it in its quasi-chunky form for pumpkin curry and other delectable dishes.

"Why do I suddenly feel so hollow?"

Step 4:  Allow yourself to get pretty effing stoked about all this pumpkin.  Happy dances are encouraged.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Food Shopping Confessions

I have a confession to make.

When it comes to food, I'm a serious impulse buyer.  I have to rein in this impulse, like, all the effing time, and I usually do a decent job of it.

Except today.

I went to Whole Foods with a fairly limited list.  However, I was in a mopey mood (work is crushing my spirit, one day at a time).  My defenses were worn down.  I couldn't help it.

The apricot-mango juice and the cashew butter were calling to me.  Asking -- nay, begging -- to be added to my cart.

"Liiiiiiiilllllliiiiiaaaannnn," said the juice, "You know how much you love me!  Remember when you were living in Israel, and Prigat's mango nectar and apricot nectar were two of the most delicious things you'd ever had?  I have both of those!"

The cashew butter, meanwhile, was busy reminding me of the fact that when I was growing up, the natural foods store where my parents shopped had fresh-ground cashew butter.  Which, for the record, was freaking delicious.  I used to freebase that stuff regularly.

And so, my resolve was gone.  I folded like a lawnchair and added both the juice and the cashew butter to my cart.  And although I normally regret impulse buys, I can't say I regret either of these.  I feel a little bit better already. :)

I suspect I'm not the only one who indulges in the occasional impulse buy, though -- does anyone else do this?  If so, what have been your favorite items?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Roasted Garlic, Lemon, and Veggie Soup

When hubs and I first started dating, one of the things I immediately loved about him is the fact that he's an awesome cook.  The first time I saw his apartment, I noticed the all-clad professional series pots and pans -- and I was even more smitten than I already was.

And then, there was the night when he roasted garlic.

I'd had a long and tiring day at work, and since we hadn't yet moved in together, we'd coordinated that I'd go over to his place after leaving the office.  I was feeling reeeallllly tired, but as I was walking down the hall, I noticed that something smelled absolutely delicious.  As I got closer to his apartment, the smell got stronger, and I started drooling.  (I should mention that I frequently sport the Pavlovian dog motif.)  I walked in the door, and Oh.  My.  God.  The smell of roasted garlic was sublime.

In that moment, I knew: he's The One.  No joke.  Love blossomed over roasted garlic.

Hubs and I learned how to roast garlic from reading Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, but Angela at Oh She Glows has a tutorial on the same method that Sir Bittman (in my mind, homeslice has totally been knighted for his sustained awesomeness) recommends -- replete with amazing pictures.

And, since fall has arrived, I've been in serious soup-craving mode.  I love, love, love soups.  They're easy to cook, delicious, and they feel so nourishing and homey that as soon as it starts getting chilly out, I can't get enough of the stuff.  So, I decided to substitute raw garlic for roasted garlic (credit also goes to Angela at OSG for that idea!) in one of my favorite soups.  This one involves garlic, lemon, fresh herbs, veggies, and chickpeas, and the raw-for-roasted substitution brought it to a whole new level of yumminess.

Roasted Garlic, Lemon, Veggie, and Chickpea Soup
1 onion
3 carrots
2 celery stalks
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 lemon
1 head of garlic
1 1/2 GF pasta (I like Tinkyada tricolor fusili)
1 vegetable boullion cube
Fresh rosemary, thyme, and oregano
3 cups water

While the garlic is roasting, chop up the onion and cook, with olive oil, over medium-high heat until browned.

While the onions are browning, chop the carrots and celery, and make a bouquet garnis by tying twine around the fresh herbs:

Add the carrots and celery to the onions, and stir.

Add the chickpeas, water and the boullion cube, and tie the bouquet garnis to the side of the pot (basically, this is so it doesn't get lost in the soup -- fishing out a pack o' herbs when all you want to do is eat isn't fun).

Once the veggies are almost tender, add the pasta.  Let it all cook until the pasta is al dente and the veggies are tender, at which point it's, shall we say, copacetic (I've been wanting to use that word for days now!  Huzzah!) to retrieve the bouquet garnis.

At this point, the garlic should be roasted, soft, and freaking delicious.  Squeeze the roasted garlic cloves into a bowl, mash them into a paste, and add to the soup.  As a finishing touch, squeeze the juice of one lemon into the soup and stir.  Garnish with a pinch of salt and pepper, serve hot, and enjoy!