Saturday, April 28, 2012

On Your Mark, Get Set, Grill!

We had an early spring here in Indiana, and grilling season is well underway.  We inaugurated our grill a couple weeks ago with two racks of baby back pork ribs, made our special way – simmered in beer, onions and Old Bay seasoning, then grilled HOT with Smokin’ Joe Jones barbecue sauce (we get it on Netrition) until the sauce has a bit of nice char and the meat is falling off the bones.

Today, my husband Paul, the undisputed grillmeister, cooked plain, simple hamburgers.

Half-pound hamburgers, blissfully seasoned, crunchy on the outside, spurting juice on the inside.  Paul and I like our steaks fairly rare, but hamburger is riskier, so we straddle the fine line between cooking it thoroughly while still keeping it juicy.  Paul eats his on low-carb bread (from Trader Joe’s) with cheese, Heinz 1-carb catsup and sliced onion.  I eat mine on a toasted Muffin in a Minute bun with cheese, mayo, and a lot of freshly ground black pepper.  The wonderful grill “crust” crunches when I bite into it, and juice runs down my chin and my wrist.

Atkins heaven.

In honor of grilling season, I’m going to pass on a few of Paul’s precious grill secrets.  Take notes, Grasshopper, and learn from the master.

Hamburgers.  Ground chuck and only ground chuck.  As Danny Glover says in Lethal Weapon 3, “You cut the fat, you cut the flavor.”  Add your seasonings of choice and leave well enough alone; hamburgers don’t need “ingredients.”  Make your patties thicker at the edges than the middle; otherwise you’ll end up with a meatball instead of a patty.  And for goodness’ sake, don’t mash your burgers down while they’re cooking!

Steaks.  Now, here’s a disclaimer:  Paul and I like our steaks black on the outside and rare in the middle, which isn’t to everyone’s taste.  But if that’s how you like your steaks, cut them thick and cook them hot to get that crusty exterior while saving that rare, juicy middle!

Lean pork and chicken.  Any pork and chicken can benefit from a marinade, but lean pork chops, and even more so boneless skinless chicken breasts, need marinade.  A couple of our favorites are:  Beer and jerk seasoning; olive oil, lemon, garlic and Italian seasoning; and beer and lemon pepper.  It’s not rocket science.  Put your marinade ingredients in a ziploc bag or plastic storage container.  Add your meat.  Shake vigorously.  Put in your refrigerator and let sit overnight, or at the very least a couple hours.  Vegetables don’t need to hydrate in the marinade, so a few minutes is fine for them.

Grill tips.  Always have your grill nice and hot before you put your meat on it so it won’t stick.  And don’t poke holes in your meat!  Turn your food with tongs, not a fork!  Don’t overcook your food – it’ll continue cooking after you take it off the grill, so take it off just a little early and let it rest before you eat it.  Yes, these are very simple tips, but that’s because they’re common mistakes.

Fire it up!

Sweeteners, Religion and Zits, oh my!

Let’s face it:  The topic of artificial sweeteners is one that many low carbers are religious about.  By that I mean that people have firmly-held beliefs which may or may not be founded in publicly recognized science, they cherry pick the “evidence” which supports their beliefs and ignore any which doesn’t, there is absolutely no changing their minds, they become hostile if you dare to question or disagree, and they will do their utmost to sway others to their particular beliefs – and often see no need to be polite or respectful to those who don’t want to convert.

Now, let me start off by announcing which church I belong to.  I eat artificial sweeteners.  I sometimes eat sugar alcohols, though not frequently.  I eat Splenda whenever I please.  I rarely eat stevia, but that’s only because I have a hard time finding any that tastes good to me.  I’ve even tried some of the less common sweeteners, like lo han.  I don’t eat saccharine or aspartame, again, because I don’t like the flavor.

I’ve read a lot of posts by people warning against a particular sweetener (mostly Splenda) or against artificial sweeteners in general.  The anti-[Sweetener X] sermon usually goes as follows:  “Sweetener X is artificially created/is treated with Y/contains Z molecules/can be converted to XYZ, and therefore will cause cancer/kidney damage/migraines/demonic possession.  This “doctor” who works for a rival company and has no real credentials says.  Also, there’s all these unverified stories of people who ate Sweetener X, along with God knows what other eating/smoking/drinking/shooting up habits and God knows what preexisting conditions, and they had these horrific problems, so Sweetener X is obviously at fault and unbelievably dangerous.  Don’t quote FDA testing at me because everybody knows it’s worthless, even though I merrily consume other FDA-tested substances 24/7/365.”

The anti-artificial-sweeteners-in-general sermon usually runs something like:  “Not only is sugar addictive, but the taste of sweetness is addictive, so if you eat artificial sweeteners, you’re eventually going to go back to eating sugar.  Also, not only does sugar do all kinds of horrible things to your body, but the taste of sweetness does horrible things to your body too.”  The latter statement, by the way, kind of reminds me of the Catholic idea that you can commit a sin without actually physically doing anything – just wanting it is enough.  Which makes me wonder if I also do horrible things to my body if I dream about eating a Toblerone bar, and if so, what am I supposed to do about it?

It’s said that the devil can quote scripture for his own purposes, and let’s face it, anybody can find a “scientific study” to support anything.  You can use statistics to prove that fire engines cause fires and milk causes juvenile delinquency (yes, I’ve seen those specifically).  The question obviously becomes, whose evidence do you trust?

I’m going to tell a story, and trust me, it’s relevant.  Growing up in rural southern Indiana, a common and traditional Hoosier beverage was sassafras tea.  My grandma and I had it often.  We dug up the sassafras, cleaned and dried the roots, cut them into shavings and brewed up the delicious rootbeer-flavored tea (sassafras root was in fact used in traditional rootbeer) and drank it by the gallon.  How much more natural can you get than shavings of a tree root?  Decades later, the FDA decided that safrole, the rootbeer-flavored chemical in sassafras root, was a weak carcinogen in rats and therefore dangerous to humans, and outlawed the sale of sassafras as a food product.  Never mind that tobacco and alcohol, well-established as massively harmful and addictive as well, are freely sold, or that rats have very different metabolisms than humans and were given, proportionately, a totally surreal amount of pure safrole – enough that we’d probably have to drink down a whole forest’s worth of sassafras in a week to get the equivalent.  Still, gotta protect the public from those evil tree roots!

My point here is that anytime I look at a “scientific study,” I ask, “What’s their agenda?  Who are they working for/against?  Have they started this study with an end result in mind?”  Unfortunately, so many of these studies start out with a decided bias and, not surprisingly, show exactly what the designers want to show because it’s so easy to manipulate results.  Short of seeing raw data and every single parameter of the study, probably none of them are reliable as read.

In the end, the only data I trust are my own.  So here’s how my dogma goes:  It’s entirely possible that some or all of these artificial sweeteners aren’t necessarily good for me.  However, I know from personal experience how much sugar/high fructose corn syrup hurt me:  I got fat, I felt awful, I had horrible blood sugar swings and no energy.  So I know that I don’t want to eat sugar/HFCS.  In fact, I’m a little paranoid about it, simply because the food manufacturers work so darned hard to bully and/or trick me into eating the stuff, and that kind of thing inevitably gets my stubborn up.  That’s Fact 1.

I also know that I like sweetener in my tea.  Sometimes I like a sweet dessert.  I probably don’t require these things to sustain life, but I want them, and nothing makes me want something more than being told I can’t have it.  Every time I’ve tried to get by on willpower and self-denial, I’ve always, always given up and gone back to my old ways of eating.  That’s Fact 2.

So, given Fact 1 and Fact 2, my choices are (1) Eat sugar/HFCS, which I know hurts me; (2) Use nothing and try to get by on my nonexistent willpower, which I know doesn’t work for me; or (3) Use artificial sweetener, which at best confers no nutritional benefit, and at worst may or may not be doing some unspecified harm, but it keeps me content and able to resist sugary goodies.  Obviously, I choose (3) as the lesser of evils.

But my religion isn’t evangelical.  I feel no need to convert others to my way of thinking and I absolutely, 100% respect any person’s choice to believe otherwise.  What’s right for me isn’t what’s right for everyone and I’m not arrogant enough to believe otherwise.  Only you know your strengths, weaknesses and needs, and only I know mine.  Live and let live.  No need for holy wars.

Because religion is like a big, painful pimple.  Everybody gets some sooner or later, but it’s sensitive – leave mine the heck alone, and nobody really wants to hear about yours.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Heavy Weight of Hamburger Helper

I am of a generation born without Hamburger Helper.

What does Hamburger Helper mean to you?  Think back.  Betty Crocker convenience food in a box with an appetizing picture on the front?  Frugality, stretching your pound of hamburger with macaroni and a bunch of artificial ingredients and unpronounceable chemicals?  Humble, homey comfort food?  A quick meal for busy moms which, while decidedly mediocre, was at least inoffensive enough for children to eat?

Would it surprise you to know that I never ate Hamburger Helper as a child?  Ever?  Not because it wasn’t available – I was born in 1962, and Hamburger Helper first showed its face on grocery store shelves in 1970.  I spent more than a decade at home during the Hamburger Helper years.

When I was a child, my maternal grandmother lived with us, and because my mom could (and did) burn water, Grandma was in charge of the kitchen, and Grandma had very firm philosophies about food.  One was that “boughten” foods (which encompassed eating out, frozen foods, canned foods, pretty much anything but raw ingredients) were undesirable from a number of standpoints, including cost, flavor, and nutrition.  Don’t get the idea that Grandma was a health food cook, but she was definitely what they’d call nowadays a slow food cook.  Cakes, pies, brownies and cookies were prepared from recipes, not mixes.  Oatmeal was the old-fashioned slow-cooking kind.  Biscuits didn’t come out of a refrigerator tube or a box.  When Grandma made macaroni and cheese, she boiled elbow macaroni and made a cheese sauce – from grated, not powdered, cheese.  She wouldn’t touch margerine, by the way, or Velveeta.  “Plastic food,” she called them.

Grandma, who was solely responsible for teaching me how to cook, wouldn’t touch Hamburger Helper with somebody else’s ten-foot pole.  She’d curl her lip in contempt when we walked past such things at the grocery store.  Betty Crocker symbolized everything Grandma despised in “boughten food” – shortcutting, inferior flavor and suspicious ingredients – and it would certainly never show its face in her kitchen.

Grandma did, however, make her own version of Hamburger Helper, with elbow macaroni, her homemade rich tomato sauce, ground beef, cheese and spices.  We called it “mac-a-ghetti.”

The picture on the front of the Hamburger Helper box looked so much like Grandma’s mac-a-ghetti that years later, when I was on my own and living in an apartment on a shoestring budget and without Grandma’s wonderful home-canned tomato sauce, I tried it.  It was, in a word, disgusting.  It didn’t taste like anything – tomatoes, cheese, spices, anything.  It was just kind of there.  I was so disappointed.  It was the Pop Tarts, all over again.

I never cared for cooked fruit, so when Grandma made pies, she’d use the leftover pie crust to make for me what she jokingly called “pop tarts.”  She’d roll the crust out in a circle, put some of her homemade jam in the middle, fold it over into a semicircle and pinch it closed, then bake it.  I adored these “pop tarts.”  The first time I tasted a Kellogg’s Pop Tart, I was just plain offended.  Where was that wonderful buttery, flaky crust?  Where was the filling?  Why in the world would anybody eat these flavorless, sawdusty things, much less pay money for them?

After my initial experiment, I avoided Hamburger Helper.  Just a few years ago, however, after being introduced to Atkins by some dear friends, I gave Hamburger Helper another thought.  One of my friends had decidedly upscale tastes, and once for a get-together I’d made a delicious meat sauce with ground chuck, wine, tomatoes, fresh garlic, onions, fresh herbs, and Dreamfields elbow macaroni, and as a joke, I called it “Hamburger Helper.”  It was delicious, my friend got the joke (and had several helpings), and Hamburger Helper became an inside joke in our home.

Tonight for dinner I made Hamburger Helper – with fresh ground chuck, tomatoes, fresh garlic, lightly caramelized onions sauteed in the beef fat, herbs and spices, and a splash of Pinot Noir; now, however, the hubby and I rarely eat Dreamfields, so I used House Brand Tofu Shirataki’s macaroni shape and simmered the macaroni right in the sauce for three hours.  It wasn’t fast food, or fake food, or even especially cheap food, but it was delicious.

Yes, there’s a point to this whole trip down memory lane.  If there were any good memories to be had from a plate of Hamburger Helper (and there weren’t), I’d have had them tonight, but I’d have had them with a plate of completely delicious and nutritious low-carb food.  No, it’s not exactly the same as a plate of Hamburger Helper, thank goodness!  It’s much, much better.  I enjoyed cooking it and we sure enjoyed eating it, and we’ll smirk at each other when we heat up the leftovers and enjoy the joke.

Up yours, Betty Crocker!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Exercise and Why We Hate It

Ask anybody their earliest memory of what the word “exercise” means.  Nine times out of ten, they’re flashing back to the school gym.  I know I certainly do.  And what do people remember about school gym?

Frustration.  I never learned to do a cartwheel.  I just couldn’t do it.  To a grade-school little girl, this was actually a serious failing.  My gym teacher actually kept me in at recess for over a month to try to teach me cartwheels.  Seriously.  (Incidentally, I never learned to do a cartwheel.  Surprisingly, this failure hasn’t significantly impacted my life in any way whatsoever.)

Discomfort.  Did those horrible one-piece gym outfits inflicted on schoolgirls in the late '60s and '70s ever fit anyone?  I was tall for my age, and for a girl, I had quarterback shoulders.  I went through gym class with a perpetual wedgie.

Drudgery.  Really, did anybody look forward to doing jumping jacks, situps and pushups in gym class?  Even the sporty types?

Rejection and humiliation.  I was the bookish geeky girl with the coke bottle glasses who was invariably chosen last for every team, and the other kids made fun of everything I did – or couldn’t do.

Physical pain.  Between grade school and middle school, I broke five pairs of glasses (this was the 1960s, when glasses as strong as mine cost about $200 a pair and took almost a month to get another pair made), had at least a dozen severely sprained ankles, four or five bloody noses, knocked most of my front teeth loose and split my lip (same incident), three or four black eyes, and one probable concussion.  I couldn’t even begin to count the bruises and scrapes and pulled muscles.  And all this from a physically cautious, geeky little girl who took no crazy risks and did the absolute minimum possible in gym.

Doomed to failure.  Why is it that if students have trouble in math or reading, they can take remedial classes or get special help, they’re not expected to compete against gifted students, but in gym class poor clumsy nonathletic kids are expected to keep up with, and compete against, gifted athletes?  Why isn’t there a remedial gym class for the athletically challenged, where kids can perform at their own level of ability?

I recently watched Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” and in it he bemoaned how some schools had gym classes only one day a week, and some not at all.  My first thought was, “God, I wish that had been my school!”  I’m sure that’s not the message Mr. Spurlock wanted the audience to get, but I have the feeling that maybe I’m not as unique as all that.  Really, if the above are the kind of feelings that a child comes to associate with exercise, is it any wonder that people grow up trying to avoid it?  And because my earliest experiences with deliberate physical exercise were so negative, I consequently did my very best to avoid exercise thereafter.

As matters stood, I was over 40 years old when I first realized I could enjoy deliberate physical exercise.  For me, the key was solitude – the diametric opposite of those horrible school gym classes.  I’m a deeply introverted exerciser.  I don't do aerobics classes.  I don't do personal trainers or exercise buddies.  Put on my iPod and use weight machines or get on my elliptical, and I can happily sweat and retreat into my own little world.  I get a definite “buzz” from it.  I sure wish I’d realized all this several decades ago!

I can only imagine how different my life would have been if my early experiences with the word “exercise” had been positive.  How would it have changed the way I thought of physical activity if my gym teacher hadn’t rolled her eyes at me when I failed to perform a cartwheel, or if the other kids hadn’t laughed at me when a dodgeball hit me in the face and shattered my glasses, thus effectively blinding me for weeks?  How would it have changed my self-esteem and my perception of my body if I’d been allowed to perform and succeed at my own level of ability instead of being forced to compete, and doomed to fail, against the phys ed equivalent of Mensa students?  Might I not have developed healthy and regular exercise habits if I'd been allowed to find, and practice, forms of exercise I enjoyed, or at least didn't mind, instead of what I thought of as daily physical and psychological torture?

I’m going to cap this rant off with a truly pathetic confession.  The one food I’ve never been able to eat is beans.  They make me hurl.  Seriously.  Beans = hurl.  Period.

Well, my worst school nightmare was that horrible hellish day known as “school olympics” – a whole afternoon of schoolwide competitive games.  Well, in fourth grade, I got up at 3 a.m. and tiptoed into the kitchen and scooped out a tiny spoonful of leftover baked beans, which I took back to my bedroom and mashed up to make them unrecognizable.  Later that morning, I went from breakfast to my bedroom and ate the beans, walked out into the hall and threw up everywhere.  That got me out of school and “school olympics.”  To be brutally honest, if I’d had the wherewithal, I’d have gladly picked up a gun and shot myself in the foot if it would have gotten me out of a year’s worth of gym class.

What a difference we could make for our kids by making exercise a positive experience, instead of a twelve-year course in humiliation and body dysmorphia.  Is it a tragedy that there isn’t more phys ed in school?  I don’t know.  Lack of exercise is a bad thing – I totally agree.  I’m just not sure that doing permanent damage to a child’s self-esteem in the name of “health” is any healthier.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Just Say No!

You like to go to lunch with your coworkers.  Today they’re going to Olive Garden, where you used to eat breadsticks by the dozen . . . and you’re not sure you can pass them by now.

You’re celebrating Thanksgiving dinner with your husband’s family, and your mother-in-law says there can’t be any harm if you take “just a little taste” of her world-famous pumpkin pie.

Your boss has scheduled a long afternoon meeting.  He’s having barbecue brought in from a local restaurant.  There’s literally nothing low carb there to eat.

You’re at a restaurant and the low-carb pickings are slim.  There’s chicken Alfredo, but it’s served over fettucine.  Or you can have the inevitable chicken caesar salad, but you’re getting tired of that!

Your well-meaning sister urges you to add more fruit and grains to your diet – that it’s “not healthy” to cut sugar and starch out of your diet and that everything is fine “in moderation.”

Your friend has invited you and some other friends over to dinner.  You don’t know what he’s serving, but you do know he loves pasta and carby casseroles, so the odds aren’t good for you.

These are just a few of the situations every low carber runs into.  There are endless variations.  The most valuable skill you will ever learn is the ability to assert yourself firmly and stand your ground.

On the low-carb lists, I’ve seen a number of strategies people use for such situations.  Some say they’re gluten intolerant or have allergies.  Some impress on friends and family that just as an alcoholic is only “one drink from a drunk,” that well-meaning “just one taste” is the first slip down the slippery slope.  Some explain the science of low carb.

After nine years of low carbing, I don’t make excuses, I don’t explain, and I don’t argue.  I just say “No, thank you,” and stop there.  The only person I have to convince that low carb is right for me is me.  Yes, I want and I deserve the help and support of my friends and family.  That doesn’t mean I’ll always get it.  I am solidly, 100% the only person responsible for what goes into my mouth, past, present and future.  That means I and only I will control my eating.  If my friends and family ask for information, I’ll gladly see that they get it.  However, my health is more important than pleasing them.

Before you disagree with me, think about this:  WHY should it bother anyone else that I won’t eat what (or where) they want?  WHY should it bother anyone that they don’t get to influence my intake?  If their approval is conditional upon their ability to make me do what they want, then their approval isn’t worth having.  That’s not friendship or love.  That’s control.

The most pathetic excuse I have ever heard come out of a low carber’s mouth is “I couldn’t help myself” or “I had no choice.”  Sorry, that doesn’t wash.  Your hands put food in your mouth at the direction of your brain, and unless someone held you down and physically stuffed that roll in your mouth, or pointed a gun at your head and it’s pie or death, you choose.  Whether you choose to eat low carb or to give in is your choice alone.  Don’t ever, ever delude yourself that someone else’s comments or feelings or behavior or actions are a valid excuse for eating off plan.  You and only you are responsible for what goes in your mouth, so grow a spine and learn to take control of it.

“Hey, I know you guys love Olive Garden, but it’s hard for me to eat there.  If we can’t choose another place today, I’ll have to skip.  Maybe we can have lunch together somewhere else next time.”

“Sorry, I know that pie’s got to be fantastic, but I’m not having any.”

“Sir, the barbecue looks great, but I can’t eat it.  I’ll need to order a chef’s salad or something, or run out and bring something back.”

“The chicken Alfredo looks delicious, but I don’t eat pasta.  I’d like an extra side of broccoli and serve the chicken over that, please.”

“Sis, I love you and I appreciate your concern, but we’re going to have to agree to disagree.  Thanks, but no potatoes.”

“Hey, Fred, thanks for the invitation to dinner.  Can you let me know what you’re serving?  I’m on a special eating plan, and I don’t want to put you to any trouble, so I may bring a plate of food and just enjoy everyone’s company, or can I bring a couple dishes to pitch in?”

Make no mistake, you do deserve your friends and families’ understanding and support – and failing that, at the very least, their acceptance, and if you don't get it, then that's their failure, not yours.  However, it’s too much to expect them to do your low carbing for you.  You’ve got to learn to draw the line and stand firm.  This is your life, your way of eating, and sticking to it is both your right and your responsibility.  Just as no alcoholic should let themselves be wheedled into “just one,” nobody with a peanut allergy should be pressured into “just a taste,” no diabetic should knuckle under to “just a little slice,” you’ve got to put your health first and not expect, or allow, others to choose for you.  You don’t have to explain, justify, negotiate, or argue.

Just say no, and mean it.