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Monday, December 2, 2013

Turkey Soup

Good morning!

Thanksgiving weekend is over, and as we drag into this first Monday in December, many of us may be feeling a need for some corrective or restorative measures if we engaged in Thanksgiving excess. 

After spending most of yesterday in bed sipping mint tea to compensate for three days of pie, I've vowed to avoid rich food indulgences for, oh, let's say the next two weeks. At least.

So it's a good thing my husband made a big pot of turkey and rice soup yesterday. That's the perfect antidote to the Thanksgiving feast. I hope all of you who cooked a turkey saved the carcass for stock. Mine yielded about 7 quarts, half of which went in yesterday's soup and the other half headed for the freezer.

Other good remedies to bring your system back into balance include smoothies you make at home using fruit and vegetables (sweeten with stevia and don't add juice), yogurt, greens, herbal or green tea, and homemade pickles.

What's your favorite post-Thanksgiving restorative?

Matcha Smoothie

1/2 frozen banana
1 cup almond milk
1 tsp matcha powder
1/2 cup yogurt
4 or 5 drops stevia


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Diet showdown thingie

I flipped this on Flipboard, but in case you missed it, this "diet showdown" looks interesting enough to bring to your attention. I've already signed up for whatever-it-is, primarily because I use the Lift app and like it, particularly the lengthy explanations the developers provide for every minor update.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Soup night

Soup is always in season, but on a chilly fall night, the right soup is especially welcome and can be an ideal supper.

After an indulgent meal with great food, wine and friends last night at Trattoria Stella, my aging digestive system needs a recovery day. Fortunately, dinner is already decided thanks to this lovely gift of turnips and greens from a friend's garden:

So, I'll make them into soup, adapting a recipe from Deborah Madison's Vegetable Literacy to the other ingredients I have on hand. Basically, I'll cook the chopped turnips in a little butter with potatoes, carrots, onion and thyme, then cover the vegetables with water, bring to a boil and simmer until all is tender. I'll whiz the soup to a smooth puree in the blender, return to the pot and add the chopped greens to finish. Delicious recovery!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Nordic Diet course

As some of you know, I've been fascinated with the Scandinavian approach to food ever since visiting the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis and its outstanding FIKA cafe. I wanted more, which back in Traverse City meant I would need to learn to make it myself.

So far, my experiments in Scandinavian cuisine have been guided by chef Trina Hahnemann's book, The Nordic Diet, which describes a healthy approach to eating featuring foods native to the Scandinavian countries and provides 75 recipes.

As of yesterday, I'm ramping up my education and practice in this cuisine by starting a 4-week class on Coursera from the University of Copenhagen, The New Nordic Diet: from Gastronomy to Health. The lectures so far are a little dry, but the course comes with recipes and I'll be trying those. If any of you want to join me in the class, it's free! 

Aside from the deliciousness being achieved by creative chefs reinventing this traditional and long-overlooked cuisine (remember, Noma in Copenhagen is considered the top restaurant in the world), the Nordic diet offers a guideline for those of us in northern latitudes who want to improve our health, but not at the expense of the environment.

Often my dietary plans have conflicted with the contents of the CSA box or the offerings at the farmer's market. For about half of the year, beginning now, root vegetables are the local produce most available, so a low-carb diet isn't a great fit for a northern locavore. I've also often been frustrated by some seasonal cookbooks by chefs who live in places where asparagus and tomatoes apparently appear in the market at the same time.

The Nordic Diet approach helps me merge my locavore goals with my health goals. The primary difficulty is that fish and shellfish are not as available to me as they are to the Scandinavians. Sure, I have fish from Lake Michigan, but concerns about mercury pollution prevent me from making it a significant part of my diet.

I'll be reporting back over the next few weeks with the most helpful things I learn. I hope you like beets!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Saving room for dessert

Because sometimes it's your daughter's birthday.

At the last dinner support group meeting, I served celery root soup and crostini. This is, in my opinion, an ideal light dinner. But I rarely restrain myself from offering abundant food to guests (even when it's light and healthy), so I knew my friends would be wondering why they were only getting a cup of soup and a piece of toast.

We were saving room for dessert.

A few days earlier, my husband came home with a bag of apples, noted it was October, and asked me to make his favorite apple cake, a tradition of the season. This cake is delicious, but I don't even dare to run it through a calorie calculator. The recipe is on my knitting-books-film blog, for those interested.

I don't believe deprivation is sustainable as a strategy for weight loss, fitness, health or much of anything else. Obviously, abstaining totally from some substances is crucial; a recovering alcoholic doesn't allow himself "just one drink," and a kid with a life-threatening peanut allergy doesn't take a bite of a Snickers bar. But for most people, including those trying to get in shape, arbitrarily eliminating an entire food group isn't necessary and could backfire into binge eating.

So saving room for the occasional dessert need not be the first step on a path to obesity. If sugar is a challenge or trigger food for you (it is for me, and many others), enjoy that slice of birthday cake, and then send it away for a few days or a couple of weeks (the deep freeze, maybe).

The apple cake, followed by my daughter's birthday, was a little too much sweetness for my system, so today I begin a 21-day "no sweets" challenge supported by the Lift app to check my tendency to sugar addiction before it gets entrenched again. I'm not swearing off sugar for life, but I want to get it back to an occasional indulgence rather than a biscotti-with-morning-coffee routine that turns into an afternoon "where's the chocolate?" craving.

Monday, October 7, 2013


Good morning to all of you who said over the weekend, "I'll start [that good habit] on Monday."

It's Monday!

You should be more excited.

What will you be starting today?

I've been slacking about tracking my food intake, so I'm resolved to log every single bite in MyFitnessPal app. 

And, after watching Anthony Bourdain hang out foraging, fermenting and cooking with best-restaurant-in-the-world chef RenĂ© Redzepi last night, I'm once again inspired to get some healthy Nordic cuisine going in my kitchen (as well as research Danish immigration policies). This is good timing because the New Nordic Diet course on Coursera starts in two weeks! And I need to finish Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, an excellent novel partially set in Minnesota, the Scandinavian center of the U.S. Isn't it amazing how sometimes the universe seems to be sending a message? The message I'm getting is either, "start that rye bread sourdough," or "move to Copenhagen." Well, one of those things I can do today.

Delicious Scandinavian cuisine from FIKA at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. This was a light, healthy, fabulous day-after-Thanksgiving lunch last year.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


An easy and time-saving way to pack lots of flavor into simple vegetable dishes is make a batch of a delicious sauce once a week and use it profusely.

As I had a large supply of red bell peppers from the CSA box this week, I made nearly a quart of romesco sauce yesterday, and that became the flavoring agent for the main dish at last night's fitness support dinner.

I adapted Deborah Madison's recipe in Vegetable Literacy (again, I can't stop recommending this book), using what I had on hand. I roasted the peppers by putting them directly on a low flame on my gas stovetop burner, turning them with tongs until mostly charred all around, then letting them sit in a Pyrex bowl with cover on for 15 minutes or so before peeling. I'm not very good at roasting peppers and chilies, and I don't like doing it on the stovetop, but the good news is it doesn't have to be perfect.

The recipe:

Romesco Sauce

Romesco sauce (left); roasted veggies and lentils (right)
1 slice of good bread, preferably sourdough, toasted in 1 tbsp olive oil in a pan
1/2 cup toasted walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, or a combination
3 or 4 cloves of peeled garlic
2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded
4 roasted Roma tomatoes, or 1 can of Muir Glen diced roasted tomatoes with chilies
handful of parsley
few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil
salt to taste

In a food processor, pulse the nuts, bread and garlic until finely minced. Add the peppers, tomatoes, parsley, thyme, paprika and a teaspoon or so of salt and blend. With the motor running, drizzle in the vinegar, then the olive oil. Taste and adjust as necessary.

Last night, the sauce was a terrific addition to a dish of French lentils and roasted veggies. Today, I'm thinking I'll make some hummus and use it in place of some of the olive oil.

Romesco is an extremely delicious and versatile sauce, but roasting peppers isn't fast, so you may want to plan this one on the weekend. For an instant "secret sauce" that can be used as a dressing on a tossed salad or added to cooked vegetables, grains and legumes, I give you my 30-second vinaigrette:

Honey-Mustard Balsamic Dressing

1 tbsp honey mustard
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil
pinch of salt

Add all ingredients to a small jar and shake. It's that easy. I never measure the ingredients when I'm making it, so this is approximate. Scale it up if you need more.

If you live in northern Michigan or like to order online, I implore you to buy Food for Thought's cherry honey mustard for this dressing. I use this mustard in almost every recipe calling for mustard, and I also use it to make mayonnaise.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

More on walking

What a lovely day for a walk in northern Michigan!

In case you need more incentive to get out and take a stroll, check out this article listing eight ways walking can benefit your health. Some of these may be new to you.

I know that I'm particularly blessed to live in a spot friendly for walkers. My neighborhood has sidewalks, pleasant tree-lined streets, and trails by several bodies of water within a couple of blocks of my house: Grand Traverse Bay, Boardman Lake and the Boardman River. I can also walk to downtown shops, the best movie theater in the world, and numerous excellent local eateries. The only downside is winter, when the sidewalks are clogged with ice and snow and walking can be hazardous. Then, I put cleats on my boots and slow down a little.

Hopefully, your neighborhood is conducive to walking, but if not, check out local parks or trail systems. If all else fails, pacing around your house is better than sitting all day. Even with my walk-friendly neighborhood, I resort to this sometimes when the weather is bad, and I always pace when I'm on the phone.

For anyone contemplating relocation, you can use this nifty website to scout out your proposed new home's walkability.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Meetings with friends and food!

Now that I've deposited one child at college and established the other in another year of high school, my schedule is settled enough to begin the dinner/lunch meetings promised in the welcome post.

The dinner meeting already has been happening with a couple of test subjects for a few weeks. The time for that is set at 6:30 p.m. on Mondays at my house. I have room for two or three more, so let me know if you're interested in that.

For those who prefer a lunch gathering, I'm thinking Tuesdays at noon may be a good time, but if another day or time would be better, let me know. It would be a quick, express lunch chat and we could start on Sept. 24.

Food will be light, nutritious, and nearly always vegetarian.

Obviously, this is a hyper-local event. I'm a decent cook, but I'm not good enough to warrant a trip from Russia! Distant readers, I'll post menus, recipes and all of the good suggestions from the meetings.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Portion control

Of all the potential villains to blame for humanity's expanding waistlines, restaurants have so far been pretty low on the totem pole, with the exception of the universally reviled fast-food chains.

Restaurants can be fabulous and worthy of their high approval ratings. Eating out is fun and relaxing. The food may be expertly prepared, and someone else will be doing the work, including the clean-up. What's not to like?

Yet, with more and more meals being eaten in restaurants, we should probably consider what's on those plates. The short answer: way too much.

Restaurant owners say they serve gigantic portions because customers believe large portions offer more value. If a table of four people were to split one restaurant serving, that might be true. Certainly I've been served plates in restaurants that could've come pretty close to feeding my family of four. But usually, few diners are splitting plates with their table mates.

I've tried to get in the habit of bringing my own take-out container when dining at a restaurant, and when I remember to do this, I immediately put about half of my food in it as soon as it's served. When I'm not prepared, I have to rely on restraint, which can be challenging with tasty food before me.

What are your strategies for eating out?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Striiv to walk more

Never underestimate the power of peer pressure. Sometimes you can harness this pressure as the wind in your fitness sail.

I've been using the Striiv device and mobile app for several months, but recent updates to the system have increased its effectiveness, largely due to the motivation of not disappointing strangers in cyberspace.

The new "Relay" feature is simply ingenious. It's an optional mini-game that has two people walk a total of 200 steps, passing a "baton" between them after each 50. So, I start a relay race, walk 50 steps, and the app passes the baton to my partner, who walks 50 steps and passes it back to me. The partner can be a pre-existing friend or, lacking that, it can be a "wildcard" -- a random Striiv user.

What this boils down to is that sometimes I'm sitting on the sofa reading and I get a message on my phone that someone is passing me the baton. So in the middle of a paragraph, I get up and walk 50 steps because "Lou A", whoever that may be, is waiting on me.

If Dr. James Levine is correct, these little interruptions to my sedentary ways may turn out to be the magical cattle prod of weight loss. Dr. Levine, a professor of medicine at the famed Mayo Clinic and author of Move a Little, Lose a Lot, suggests the crucial factor in weight management and other fitness markers is how often a person moves, rather than intensity of exercise. In other words, it may be that simply staying out of the chair for most of the day is more effective than an hour on the treadmill.

I'll experiment with this theory and report back later. Gotta go. Pam is waiting for me to grab the baton.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

See you in September

This blog will be on hiatus for a few days while I pack my oldest off for another year of college and my youngest back to high school. Look for the next update soon after Labor Day.

My domesticity blog has a new post, if anyone wants to read it.

Enjoy your Labor Day weekend!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


One near-universal piece of advice given to weight watchers is to drink more water, with the typical recommendation being about 64 ounces a day. And those who live in dry climates, where dehydration is a concern for everyone, may need to go beyond a half-gallon a day.

Nutritionists and weight loss coaches say people often confuse hunger with thirst, and some suggest first drinking a glass of water and waiting 15 minutes when feeling hungry.

But does "water" have to be water? The answer depends on who you ask.

My research on this question has led me to the conclusion that some flexibility exists in satisfying the 8 glasses per day rule. Sadly, this flexibility does not extend to alcohol; beer, wine, and vodka martinis are certainly liquids, but they are dehydrating, not to mention highly caloric. You may need to drink even more water to counteract the diuretic effects of the alcohol.

I've seen mixed reports on coffee. Although many of my older diet books marked it as a villain and required any consumption of it to be offset with additional water, some more recent findings say it may be counted in your daily water tally. I've decided to split the difference and consider it neutral.

I'm counting tea, particularly green tea. I wrote about this on my foodie blog a few months ago, so click that link if you want to know more.
hydration station

To those fond of those much-maligned fizzy beverages, consider investing in a sodastream or similar device. I bought one earlier this year on the recommendation of several friends and the request of my daughter, who loves soft drinks. Although you can purchase packets of syrup that attempt to imitate popular beverages, I prefer creating my own flavors. The internet has countless recipes for flavored syrups, with or without sugar, but one of my favorite fizzy drink concoctions is just adding a squeeze of lemon and a couple of drops of stevia to the carbonated water.

If I'm feeling slightly more enterprising, I'll make a fizzy version of doogh, a refreshing Persian drink of yogurt and mint. I whiz a little yogurt, salt and mint in the blender, and then add about an equal volume of fizzy water.

Herbal teas, or tisanes, also are an excellent option for getting your water. Most groceries have a decent selection of herbals, and you may have some plants in your yard or garden that are tea-worthy. Deborah Madison's Vegetable Literacy book, which I can't stop recommending, has some suggestions for tisanes with parts of the plant you may have been discarding (such as fennel fronds).

With so many creative, easy and tasty options available for keeping hydrated, this can be one of the most enjoyable opportunities for improving one's healthstyle.


Monday, August 26, 2013


Information on weight loss is not in scarce supply. The problem for those who are making an effort to lose weight and/or improve their health through diet and exercise is getting slammed with information, so much of it conflicting, that confusion and paralysis can set in.

New books on weight loss featuring the latest greatest plan hit the shelves at dizzying speed. Most offer a promise that if you can just give up this thing or start doing that thing, you will feel better and the pounds will melt away.

My collection of such books:

Over the years, I've given up fat, severely restricted carbs, eaten grapefruit at every meal, given up all animal products, given up grains, and consumed large amounts of coconut oil. Not at the same time. And most of these efforts lasted only a few weeks, except for vegetarianism. 

The only common message I've found in these books is to avoid junk food. None of them have a plan involving the supersize menu at the drive-up window, and the jumbo bags of chips and bottles of sugary drinks are universally chastised. Opinions vary on everything else.

Beyond frustrated at trying to reconcile all of these differing recommendations, I decided to improve my ability to evaluate health advice. I took an online nutrition course offered by the University of California at San Francisco. By no means did this six-week class make me an expert; rather, it inspired me to continue learning. I've since completed a course on food and sustainability, I'm working on one about nutrition and physical activity, and I'm excited about a course on the Nordic diet that begins in a couple of months.

Don't worry, dear blog readers: I'm not suggesting you all sign up for nutrition classes! I'll report back any relevant information I learn. Although if any of you are inclined to sign up for a class, let me know and we can make a study group.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Challenge: neighborhood bar and food trucks

I suspect it's little coincidence my weight loss started to stall about the time Little Fleet opened in the neighborhood. For the first time in my life, I want to sit at a bar all day.

I haven't been there that much. But I want to be. It's possibly the most perfect hang-out in the world, and it's only two blocks from my house.

If I walk by in the evening, I will likely see someone I know, and it's so very easy to join a table, or stop to chat by a food truck, and before I know it, I'm ordering something.

If I walk by in the afternoon, it's so very easy to decide I really don't want to cook that day, especially if Roaming Harvest is there. Or I may be tempted by the amazing and decadent dirty fries at the Anchor.

Across the street from Little Fleet is my favorite restaurant, The Cooks' House. For better or worse, it's also Mario Batali's favorite restaurant, as well as hundreds of other people's, so tables are always booked in advance, preventing me from succumbing to any walk-by temptations. But of course, I start mentally counting the days until we have a special occasion to call for a reservation.

Directly across the other street is an excellent cupcake shop and the best new casual restaurant in town, Georgina's. Then, if I'm headed downtown, before I've walked another block, I'll pass the always-hopping Bubba's, the fabulous Morsels coffee shop, and Northern Natural cider house.

That I've had anything to eat or drink at home this summer is nothing short of a miracle. If I didn't like to cook and feel compelled to stay on budget with food and money, I would basically live within a block of Front and Wellington. I'd head with my laptop every morning to Morsels to caffeinate and write, grab lunch at one of the many excellent eateries in the vicinity, then drop by Little Fleet for happy hour and walk home later to sleep. I won't name names, but I suspect some people I know are basically doing that. And if one of you is reading this, and wants to have lunch at my house, let me know.

What are your local challenges and how do you handle them?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Nordic Diet menu

My apologies for not posting yesterday. Sadness at the news of the passing of a dear one made all else seem trivial.

On Thursday evening, we enjoyed a dinner of Norwegian fish cakes, long bean salad and roasted potatoes. I've had a fascination with new Scandinavian cooking ever since visiting the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis last Thanksgiving, and the primary outcome has been an exploration of the "Nordic diet". Emphasizing the traditional foodstuffs of Scandinavia -- rye, oats, cold-water fish, root vegetables and leafy greens -- the diet is touted as equivalent to the Mediterranean Diet in health, and it provides those of us in northern climates a guideline for eating well with foods more likely to be produced locally.

I've been using Trina Hahnemann's cookbook, "The Nordic Diet," with excellent results so far. I have yet to try her recipe for rye and beer oatmeal, but I'll get to it!

For Thursday's dinner, I served a version of her fishcakes recipe. She recommends salmon for this traditional Norwegian comfort food, although most other recipes I've seen use cod. I've made it both ways and I think the salmon version is tastier. She also incorporates grated vegetables into the batter, which add flavor and nutrients while reducing the calorie count.

I used a recipe from Crescent Dragonwagon's Bean By Bean cookbook for the long beans, and the roasted potatoes were basically this method described on the Chocolate and Zucchini blog, with a little olive oil and butter instead of the duck fat.
potatoes, pole beans and fish cakes

Fish Cakes
(adapted from The Nordic Diet)

1 lb or so of skinless, boneless fish
1 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp rolled oats
2 tbsp flour
1 egg
1 small carrot
1 small zucchini or summer squash
1 tbsp fresh thyme (or herb of choice)
1 tbsp oil
1 tbsp butter

In a food processor, pulse the carrot and squash until minced, then add the fish and pulse until it's all meal-like but not a paste. Add the oats, flour, egg, salt and thyme and pulse until it's a coarse batter, not completely smooth. You can use a box grater for the vegetables, mince up the fish on a cutting board and mix it all in a bowl if you don't have a food processor.

Refrigerate for at least an hour. When ready to cook, heat the oil in a skillet on medium-high. Spoon out a scoop of batter, shape it into a patty, and cook it in the pan, repeating with the remaining batter until your pan is full. Cook for about 5 minutes on each side.

If you'd like, make a quick topping of yogurt with some herbs to serve with the cakes.

4 servings of approximately 300 calories each.

Long bean salad
(adapted from Bean by Bean)

1.5 lbs mixed green beans and yellow wax beans
2 tbsp prepared mustard
1 tbsp honey
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp minced fresh parsley
dash of ground cloves
salt and pepper to taste

Wash the beans and trim the ends, if you like them that way. You can also cut the beans in smaller pieces if you prefer. Bring a large pot of water to boil and blanch the beans by dropping them into the water for 2-3 minutes, or until they're almost but not quite done. Your cooking time will vary depending on the type of bean and it's freshness. Keep pulling one out to test.

Drain the beans and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. 

Mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl, then add the beans and toss. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chill and serve later. It will be good any way!

6 servings of approximately 37 calories each. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Raw food

Several months ago, I read a fascinating book by Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. In one of those mysterious little coincidences the universe occasionally throws at us, the very next book I read was Cooked, by Michael Pollan, who cites Wrangham's research extensively in his first chapter.

Safe in the knowledge that this blog is far too obscure for Professor Wrangham to ever read it and suffer horror or outrage at the way I'm about to mangle his thesis, I'll do my best to summarize the key point of interest from a weight loss perspective.

gazpacho is raw
Wrangham makes a compelling case that the practice of eating cooked food was the key adaptation that enabled the evolution of homo sapiens.  Calories from cooked food are more efficiently absorbed and utilized by the body, thereby freeing energy for the development of the brain. In a nutshell. Wrangham notes that even modern humans, who benefit from technology such as blenders that eliminate the work of chewing, have difficulty consuming enough calories on a raw food diet to maintain their weight.

Hmmm. So, if a person wants to lose weight, eating more raw foods might be the way to go? Professor Wrangham doesn't say so (not his area of concern), but other researchers have made that recommendation.

Anyone contemplating a raw foods diet should research it diligently, and by that I mean gathering more information than the introduction chapter of a celebrity's raw foods cookbook. Many physicians and nutritionists praise the diet for its emphasize on vegetables but caution that adherents are likely to miss important nutrients.

Eliminating a food group -- or an entire category of food (cooked) -- when it isn't warranted by a medical or ethical concern is usually unsustainable and, in some cases, may cause adverse health effects. But simply increasing the proportion of raw foods in your diet could be very effective for weight loss without risking nutritional deficiencies.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Flipboard is on!

I've started a magazine for this group on Flipboard which you can find here or, hopefully, by searching for TC Fitness Pals on the app, if you have it.

What's Flipboard? It's a cool free mobile app for collecting most of your news stories, as well as your Facebook and Twitter feeds, in one place. I especially like using it for Twitter because if someone tweets a link, you get the story or photo in magazine format without having to click to it. Yeah, I know, clicking isn't a huge chore, but with the magazine style, you can visually scan enough of the story to know if you'd want to click on it anyway, thus speeding your web-surfing.

You can create your own magazine for your personal use or to share with others. I've made magazines to organize interesting articles I want to save to re-read or read later.

If you'd like to contribute to the TC Fitness Pals magazine, let me know. I can add you as an editor and you can also "flip" on-topic articles to share.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Mostly plants

As I said in the first post, I'm following Michael Pollan's diet advice: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Those seven words sum up legions of nutrition studies and may even be on your physician's prescription pad.
this week's farm box

But as I've become aware from reading news stories, talking to friends and attending Weight Watchers meetings, many people don't know how to prepare vegetables and often believe they don't like them, except maybe for the deep-fried versions.

If that describes you, I urge you to try more vegetables. Globalization has scattered people and their foods, making sushi and curry available even in small, rural towns in North America (and tragically, Big Macs available in almost every other locale on earth). In the supermarket, products that would have been exotic and hard to find a decade ago are now regularly stocked. Witness the explosive popularity of quinoa, as well as its subsequent backlash.

So what do you do with this exciting produce? If you try yesterday's gazpacho recipe, you'll see that preparing fresh vegetables doesn't need to involve actual cooking. It can be so easy!

A good cookbook or two can be your best ally. I have a few (well, a few dozen), and many of my favorites feature the plant kingdom, although not all are strictly vegetarian.

My top 10:*

1. Vegetable Literacy, by Deborah Madison. This is Madison's most recent cookbook and is not yet available in paperback, so it may be a little pricey, but it's worth every penny. I doubt you will find a plant food in your grocery or farmer's market that Madison doesn't describe and provide instructions for preparing. I love that she uses every edible part of the plant. For an example, see this post from my cooking blog with a recipe featuring fennel.

2. Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi. Part of the recipe described above comes from this cookbook by the brilliant and increasingly well-known London chef of Israeli birth. He combines spices and flavors in exciting ways that are indescribably delicious. Cookbooks by chefs often can presume an expertise in the kitchen beyond the average home cook, but this is not the case with Ottolenghi. His recipes are approachable and some are so easy you'll be stunned it can taste that good with so little effort.

3. Lucid Food, by Louisa Shafia. You may have to special order this one from your local bookseller or buy online as it's not commonly stocked, but it's worth seeking out, especially if you want to bring an eco-consciousness into your kitchen. Shafia provides delicious, simple recipes, organized seasonally, and she actually knows what's available in each season. Shafia writes well and provides many useful tips for greening your kitchen.

4. The Nordic Diet, by Trine Hahnemann. This must be Scandinavian spa food. Not a dish in this volume is likely to put you in danger of exceeding your daily calorie budget. The recipes are easy and tasty.

5. The French Market Cookbook, by Clotilde Dusoulier. Ok, I don't actually have this one yet, but I'm sure I'll love it because I'm a big fan of the author's blog. French vegetarian cooking? Mais oui!

6. Herbivoracious, by Michael Natkin. Another cookbook by a food blogger, this globally-inspired collection of vegetarian stand-outs will appeal particularly to fans of Asian cuisine. Be careful if you're watching calories; some of the recipes are heavy on fat or cheese.

7. Bean by Bean, by Crescent Dragonwagon. This comprehensive guide to the musical fruit will inspire you without taxing your culinary skills.

8. Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, by Maria Speck. Whole grains are featured in imaginative ways by the author, who draws from her Greek and German heritage.

9. World Vegetarian, by Madhur Jaffrey. The renowned cookbook author travels the world for the best vegetarian recipes, with a natural emphasis on her native land of India.

10. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison. The bible.

*Amazon links provided but please support your local bookstore. In northern Michigan, Brilliant Books and Horizon stock most of these.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ripe tomatoes and beer

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

My apologies to the spirit of Mr. Dickens, but I can't help recalling his famous line when pondering the opportunities and challenges of late summer weight loss efforts.

For those striving to eat better and exercise more, August in the northern hemisphere offers near-perfect conditions. Farm stands and markets are bursting with fresh produce, and the weather is usually ideal for outdoor activities. 

And yet....

Summer can bring an intensity in the temptations that derail our efforts. Invitations increase to food fests such as picnics, cookouts and family reunions. Adult social life often incorporates food and alcohol, and even the regular, ordinary activities such as dates with friends can reach a frenzied level in summer. Throw in vacations and travel, which mean more meals away from home, and the produce stand starts to resemble the aspirin after an evening of excess.

For those of us in foodie towns, the challenge can be acute. Here in northern Michigan, wineries and microbrews are popping up like earthworms after a rain. Many of the breweries are within walking distance of my house! Well, that's something, right? If I walk there and back, don't I cancel out the calories? Not when the walk takes 5 minutes. 

(Coming soon for Traverse City friends: a post on the particular challenges of The Little Fleet neighborhood.)

I favor a zen-like, moderation-in-all-things approach to weight loss, and nearly all of the peer-reviewed research I've read about indicates a balanced strategy is the most effective way, or even the only way, to lose it and keep it off. Go ahead and enjoy a pint at the pub with your friends, just make sure you balance it with some physical activity before or after, and include at least one high-nutrient, low-calorie meal in your day.

One such meal could be a simple, veggie-filled chilled soup. Late summer is the best season for gazpacho, which you can make in 5 minutes if you have a blender or food processor (maybe 10 minutes with a knife). Vary the ingredients for what's in your fridge -- really, almost any summer veggie can go in a gazpacho. I added a small roasted eggplant left over from dinner last night to this basic recipe:

Simple Gazpacho

2 large, ripe tomatoes
1 cucumber
1 or 2 garlic cloves
1 large slice of day-old bread
handful of parsley
2 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp sherry or red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Pulse the bread, parsley and garlic in the blender until finely chopped. Add the cucumber and pulse a few times. Do the same with the tomatoes. Add the olive oil and vinegar, pulse again until you like the texture, or whiz it until completely smooth. Add a little water if you want a thinner soup. Add salt and pepper to taste. Chill if you don't want to eat it right away.

Makes 4 cups. 130 calories per 1-cup serving.

Tomorrow: inspired cookbooks for making the most of the harvest.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Chocoholism cured in 10 easy steps

My name is Sharon and I'm a chocoholic.

That's Step 1, right? Admitting you have a problem.

Now to the rest of my plan for losing weight while living with chocoholism.

Step 2. Accept that chocolate isn't inherently evil. In moderation, it's a health food!

Step 3. Say no to total deprivation. Chocolate is a food and we can't go cold-turkey on food as with alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. Denying yourself something you love-- especially something that's healthy in moderation -- can set you up for failure. How many times have you heard, or said, "I can't lose weight because if I can't have this-thing-that-gives-my-life-joy I would rather be fat?" Chocolate isn't weight loss kryptonite. If you love it, make peace with it.

Step 4. Recognize that the addiction is not to the cacao bean, but to the sugar with which it's blended. If you want to test this theory, expose yourself to a bag of cheap milk chocolate (maybe mini-Snickers bars) and a large bar of very dark chocolate. Which one is harder to stop eating?

Step 5. Therefore resolve to choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate. The darker, the better. Or maybe make your own stevia-sweetened chocolate bars.

Step 6. Follow the advice of Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat, who recommends eating small amounts of the best quality chocolate you can afford and savoring each bite.

Step 7. Make the principles of satiety work for you. If you're mindful that the first bite of chocolate is the best, you can put the bar away and save the next bite to follow another meal.

Step 8. Consider going naked. Raw chocolate is increasingly available (Oryana sells it in T.C.), can be lightly sweetened with stevia or honey, and tastes quite good. Sometimes when I crave chocolate, I toss a tablespoon of cacao nibs in the blender with a cup of almond milk and a little stevia and enjoy it hot or cold. But take it with a healthy dose of skepticism about raw food claims.

ok, maybe this really is kyrptonite
Step 9. Learn which form of chocolate is your particular nemesis and endeavor to avoid it as much as possible. Mine is Green & Black's milk chocolate almond bar (sugar and nuts, an addictive combo). Oryana seems to put it on sale every other week, and if I bring home a bar, it will be gone in an hour. A bar of 85% dark can sit on my desk for a week or more. Choose correctly at the store and win.

Step 10. When you indulge, make it count. If you bite into something heavy on calories and it's not freakishly good, stop eating it. Otherwise, you'll feel ripped off just like you did when you paid too much for tickets and the star was either sick or phoning it in and the big-haired woman in front of you kept inanely commenting and you missed your friend's birthday party to be there (this is a totally made-up analogy). You still got something, but you didn't enjoy it and it wasn't worth the cost.

For a recipe to get you started, try this chocolate blueberry treat featuring blueberries, currently in-season and abundant at the farmer's market.

Chocolate Blueberry Smoothie
(adapted from Louisa Shafia's Lucid Food)

1/2 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)
1 cup unsweetened nut or soy milk
2 tsp. cacao nibs
1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cubes (about 1/2 cup) ice
sprinkle of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom
5 drops of stevia

Whiz all ingredients at high speed in a blender.

Made with unsweetened coconut milk, this is about 100 calories.

If you don't have cacao nibs, add another tsp or so of cocoa powder. You may prefer the taste of that anyway. Experiment!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Tools, gadgets, resources

Last fall, I bought an iPhone to stay in touch with my son who had just started college in another state. As most parents of teens know, his generation communicates primarily by texting. (Parents of teens and 20-somethings cannot be faulted for wondering if humans will eventually lose the capacity for speech.)

The iPhone has certainly served its purpose as a vital link with my child, but astonishingly, it has also been my most important tool for weight loss.

Weight Watchers and most nutritionists emphasize keeping a food journal, or tracking, as the most important strategy for weight loss. But as anyone who has attempted this knows, it's not as easy as it sounds. Writing down everything you eat, looking up the calories (or points) and subtracting it from the daily food budget is a time-consuming chore. That's part of the appeal of weight loss programs that offer to deliver portioned, pre-counted meals to your door, and of diet books that provide daily menus.

Technology doesn't completely eliminate the hassle of journaling, but it makes the task much easier, and as research is showing, it can be surprisingly effective. Although most computerized tracking systems have websites or online versions, using an app on a smartphone is super convenient because you always have it with you.

I'm tried CalorieCount, LoseIt and FitDay, and all work well, are free and offer similar features. The data junkie in me loves the USDA's SuperTracker tool because I want to see exactly how much of every nutrient I'm consuming, but it doesn't yet have a mobile version.

After reviewing several of the free options, I chose MyFitnessPal primarily because it is integrated with so many compatible apps. I've been using the Striiv smart pedometer for several months, and it logs my activity and reports it to the MyFitnessPal counter to adjust my daily calorie balance. The popular FitBit pedometer does this as well.

If you'd like to be friends on MyFitnessPal or Striiv, let me know via e-mail and I'll send you an invite.

I'm compiling a recommended resource list and would love to include your suggestions for tools, gadgets, websites and anything else you find helpful. Click the link under "Pages" in the right sidebar column, just above the search box.

Coming tomorrow: Chocoholics Anonymous, a 12-step program (or some steps anyway).

Friday, August 16, 2013


Americans are fat. Dieting sucks.

That's not exactly a newsflash. We're bombarded by messages telling us we need to lose weight, how to do it and why we will fail.

Information, as well as misinformation, is abundant. Adequate support is not so easy to find.
my collection of "plans"

Half of my friends are trying to lose weight, anywhere from 10 pounds to 100. And at least some of the other half are not telling me about it. In the past 25 years of struggling with weight, the only times I've been successful at losing was when I did it with friends. Support can make a huge difference in tackling a problem.

This blog is an invitation to my friends (both existing and those I haven't met yet) to share our experiences in finding our best healthstyle and sticking to it. Expect to find links to resources around the web as well as recipes, recommendations and encouragement. Don't expect to find rules, a plan or chastisements. This is about figuring out what works for us as individuals and how we can help each other: vegan for some, paleo for others, hugs for all.

Any blog is influenced by the biases of its creator and manager, so I'll be upfront about mine. I'm a big fangirl of Michael Pollan. I love his mantra "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I've been successful at the first part and the last part for decades and am working really hard on the middle part.

I favor organic foods; I think the evidence that organic is better for the planet is stronger than the evidence that organic is better for our health. Although I advocate for organic food, I'm not a purist and I won't sit in judgment on anyone's Meijer shopping cart (I go there, too). In fact, I believe feeding the nearly 10 billion people who will inhabit this planet by 2050 will require more cooperation between organic and conventional agriculture.

I'm enthusiastic about alternatives to the money-based economic structure. I've been intensely involved with a local currency project and a member-owned natural foods cooperative. I've bartered for goods and services, and I've worked countless hours in exchange for coupons, courtesy admissions, thanks, or (most frequently) no direct benefit (a.k.a volunteering). I believe that cash/money is a tool for facilitating exchange, but it should only be the means to an end, never the ends. Although I intend to "monetize" this blog (if 10,000 Russians stop by, why shouldn't I collect a penny for their page views?), I'm happy to directly trade any local services I may provide (jars of hummus, loaves of bread, dinners, feature writing, etc.) for yours.

Other opinions and biases will no doubt be revealed as we continue.

I intend to update this blog daily (yes, daily -- that's not a typo!), so check back frequently. Leave your tips, suggestions, complaints, achievements, frustrations and recommendations in the comments section (or e-mail me if you'd prefer) and I'll include your input in the next posting.

Special Offer for Local Friends:

Attend a weekly support meeting at my house and enjoy lunch or dinner, prepared by me, for free! Space is limited, so let me know via e-mail, text, phone or Facebook message if you're interested. I can probably manage two lunch meetings a week and one dinner; the dinner will be Monday evenings at 6:30, beginning after Labor Day, and two spaces are already reserved.