Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bread and Whine

As of late I have been contemplating a good many things related to what I put down my gullet.

Since I finished the Culinary Arts Program, I've done a successful two week course of Phase 1 of the South Beach Diet, which against my better instincts I liked (while making my own modifications to the suggested eating plan as I refuse to eat things like ham, cottage cheese and aspartame), went to China and willingly let it all go to hell, consuming platefuls of that nation's venerable and porcine delicacies with abandon, came back to the States, felt like crap. I laid around for three days recovering from jet lag and researching juicers, detox diets, and raw foods diets, got sick of that, and went to my sister's college graduation and ate Cheetos, Doritos, pretzels, popcorn and a Klondike Bar in an environment where whole grains and greens seemed...irrelevant, to say the least. I am now trying to gear myself up to embark on something distinctly Unfun: an Elimination Diet.

Grrroooooaaaan. Whine. Moan. Writhe.

Earlier this year on the recommendation of my primary care doctor I got food allergy testing done. For a couple of years now--since the stressful Beijing office job--I've had some weird upper respiratory, digestive and tongue symptoms. I was treated in Beijing with acupuncture, which actually worked quite well (although slowly) on the digestive symptoms, heart palps and tight cough I'd get after eating (bizarre, yes). However, the weird scalloped tongue and the funny, scrapey-burny feeling on it WOULD NOT go away and still hasn't. This last is a curious sort of symptom, I know. Traditional Chinese medicine would locate the problem in the vicinity of the spleen, liver and other digestive organs.* Anyway, back in the states I got food allergy tested and was found to be reactive to tomatoes, eggs, oranges, and....here is the horrid part: BAKER'S YEAST and BREWER'S YEAST.


Well, okay. There's no real evidence, as of yet, that I must give up ALL of these foods entirely. I'm going to eliminate all of them for a time, or at least do my damndest to, and see if there's a significant change in the way I feel. I have no major problem with the tomatoes or the eggs or the oranges (although for god's sake, no tomatoes? In summer? Injustice!)

It is the baker's and brewer's yeasts that are the hard part. It's not just that the blessed wee organisms are responsible for the chemical reactions that create, oh, EVERYTHING GOOD (bread, cakes, rolls, condiments,vinegars, crackers, pickles, etc. Oh, AND ALCOHOL. HUZZAH.) but that yeasts in some form are in most processed foods, making them extremely difficult to escape. I fear the degree of vigilance it will require to properly execute this elimination diet. Actually, at the moment I'm less fearing the vigilance than the length--I am seeing the rather flighty nutritionist tomorrow to start the thing, and I don't know how long she will recommend me to do it. What if it's months? I have three weddings and my fiance's family reunion to attend in the next three months, plus a good many get-togethers with friends of the regular sort. Of course all these things can be enjoyed without the manna of bread and the balm of sweet, sweet Kentucky bourbon (or Malbec or Champagne). IN THEORY.

Well, on the bright side, I won't be consuming any processed food at all, practically. I won't be imbibing extra calories in the form of alcohol, calories which potentially take up happy residence in my rather-too-fleshy arms and midsection. However, I am one of those people who has to have some sort of recourse, some sort of compensation, for undertaking anything gastronomically limited (no, the experience and potential results are not their own reward. It's hardly as if I'm some kind of mature, reasonable adult). Hence I have settled upon a Solution to stave off the inevitable pangs of dullness and boredom I will feel while everyone else is having bacchanal blowouts and chowing down on cinnamon rolls and I'm having lemon water, salmon and steamed vegetables that I have had to make myself because god forbid I go to a restaurant where Unknown Yeasts might lurk.

Well, the picture says it all, people. At least it's not something much worse.

*and curiously, what is apparently my spleen channel (along my inner shins) is insanely painful to massage. Uh...whodathunkit?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Zhongwen zenme shuo "sixteen kinds of pork products with an emphasis on pork belly parts cooked eight different ways"?

Oh god, am I toxic right now.

China good. Bacon gooooooooooooood.


Can't write. Jet lag. Braiinnnnnnnnns. (Pig) brainnnnnnnnns, massssster.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

But then again...

...as of tomorrow I'll be in China for two weeks on vacation with my fiance and some friends, and that exalted land is not exactly known for crunchy healthy whole-grain goodness. Indeed, since ancient times white rice has been favored over brown (peasant food, that, and a good indication you can't afford to have the nasty outer fibrous layer polished off down at the mill, you poor hapless soul you). I'll have to contend with the devilish charms of fat frosty jugs of Yanjing beer, steaming piles of jiaozi (dumplings), silken noodles and fragrant rice upon which savory sauces can be ladled.

So we will see.
We will see, we will see, we will see.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Arthur Agatston, damn your South Beach Dieted, low glycemic-indexed soul to hell.

Jenny's succulent-sounding wanderings through New York's monuments to culinary pleasure will be a striking contrast, I suppose, with my own latest adventures in eating. Since the end of the gastronomic glutfest that was the Culinary Arts Program, I've been On A Diet. Yes, on the South Beach Diet. Oh, how I cringe!

Not having vats of olive oil, one pound blocks of sweet butter and enough full-fat cream to feed the starving Russian masses of yore in one's refrigerator is at first bracing and refreshing to the active culinary mind. "Let us (lettuce?) see, what can I make with...three cups of salad greens, 3 ounces of boneless skinless chicken breast, and two teaspoons of olive oil (a typical list of ingredients in a South Beach Diet meal)?" The conclusion: not anything especially interesting from a gastronomic standpoint. For the past two weeks my eager, quivering hands have shoveled so much roughage into my drooling maw in the form of dark leafy greens and a cornucopia of vegetables that I went to the bathroom nine times in 36 hours. PEOPLE, THAT'S WHAT THEY CALL REGULAR. Instead of boeuf en daube, homemade ice cream, and hanger steak I'm eating low-fat tofu, red cabbage and broccoli for lunch, whole bell peppers for "dessert," and egg whites with multiple squashes stir fried in for breakfast. Starches? None, at least not in the first two weeks of this diet. No brown rice, white rice, pasta, bread, sugar, or anything of that sort. You are allowed to eat lower fat cheese, so I've been snacking on string cheese and raw almonds on occasion when hunger strikes me.

It is relentlessly healthy.

And, at least at this moment, I (gulp) really like it.


How am I supposed to become a great gourmand and food writer if I'm not sampling everything the world's tables have to offer? I can't go on assignment to Greece or Bulgaria or Tanzania and NOT try the doubtless non-South Beach Diet (or any diet)-approved delights that await. In the interests of quality gastronomic literature, my stomach must be allowed to sample all the fish eyeballs, fatty pork, wine, chorizo, chocolate cake, and fried chicken (ad infinitum) it desires, right?

Well, maybe not. As much as I'd like to be Jeffrey Steingarten, Jeffrey Steingarten doesn't have to squeeze himself into a wedding dress in a year (to the best of my knowledge). Hence, in the interests of a somewhat more slender waistline, my penchant for consuming bags of popcorn and four servings of rice in one sitting (as I am wont to do when drunk off my ass) is going to have to cool it for a time. (And ditto to the getting drunk off my ass.)

Instead I'm going to try to relish a somewhat different style of eating. Nothing overly drastic (I am NOT staying on SBD). Although, as I wrote above, I have to admit that two weeks of no heavy starchy carbohydrates, no sugar other than a scant teaspoon of honey here and there, and boatloads of fresh vegetables (all together with a bunch of kung-fu) has made me feel different, and better, and it's a feeling I want to keep.


Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Four Seasons

I woke up one morning during my Passover Cleveland trip to find my father scowling at The New York Times. “Jenny, you need to see this,” he said in a serious voice. I prepared myself a cup of espresso to ready myself for the story, which judging by his expression, was not going to be good. After a fortifying sip, I walked over and looked at the paper. Before I could finish the first sentence, my father broke the depressing news. Frank Bruni had just taken away the Four Season’s third star. While the decline of any historic American restaurant is saddening, I had a more immediate reason to be disappointed about the review: we had reservations to dine there for Alex’s mother’s birthday.

When we met Alex’s parents in New York, our discussion quickly wandered to the Bruni review. Alex’s father quickly dismissed the article. “I wouldn’t worry,” he said. “I don’t think The New York Times’ restaurant reviews are any more reliable than its political coverage.” Nick’s confidence and enthusiastic stories about past meals at the Four Seasons quickly restored my optimism. An epicurean like Nick would never pick an unreliable location for his wife’s 60th birthday.

Still recovering from the previous night’s debauchery, I hadn’t eaten much during the day and was ravenous by dinnertime. This is a rarity when with Nick, who insists on a marathon of wine-filled feasts for both lunch and dinner when traveling. When I walked into the restaurant, I was immediately struck by the room’s décor. Brass and silver chain curtains rippled lazily in the window like a gentle breeze on a still pond. On the way to the main room, I admired the Picasso curtain and Miro tapestries. The famous pool sat proudly in the middle of the room, surrounded by mini cherry-blossom trees. Even a McDonald’s meal would have seemed like haute cuisine in such a tranquil, sophisticated environment.

People say that the Four Seasons isn’t really about the food; it is about the décor and the experience of dining with New York’s elite. While it is true that the food was not the most innovative I’ve ever had, it was definitely no disappointment. Blue fin tuna ravioli with sea urchin was a whimsical start to the meal. Thinly sliced sashimi replaced the usual pasta shell, and the unctuous sea urchin filling was delicious. A buttery bison filet with foie gras and a generous perigord truffle sauce followed. The meal’s highlight was the roasted duck, which was carved tableside. With the perfectly crisp skin of a Peking roast duck and rich succulent meat, the dish was a knockout.

I could barely make room for the marvelous dessert of strawberry and rhubarb shortbread completed the meal, let alone the three complimentary soufflés that appeared at our table when my brother expressed regret about forgetting to order his in advance. Walking out past the beautiful people and impressive art, I appreciated the ethereal experience of dining at the Four Seasons. Of course, it is easy to enjoy a dreamlike meal when you don’t have to look at the bill, the one downside of an otherwise delightful meal.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

City Living

Alex and I often fantasize about moving into the city. Both of us grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, and are used to suburban living. We love our quiet, tree-lined street where we can open the windows at night and grill on our patio. We are so comfortable in our cozy little neighborhood that we rarely venture downtown. However, when we do make it into the city and see all the fabulous restaurants we are missing, we are filled with acute urban envy. I have this image of dining after work at a stylish restaurant across the street from our brownstone apartment. Alex is wearing a tie that has been loosened in a James Bondesque manner, and I am wearing a fashionable outfit with fabulous shoes. The restaurant owners know us, and present us with complementary glasses of champagne right as we are seated at a candle-lit table with crisp white linens. The food is spectacular - the type of cuisine we normally enjoy on special occasions. Except this is no special occasion: this is our everyday urban life.

I just returned home from a weekend in New York City, and my grass-is-always-greener syndrome is worse than ever. The weekend began with a party at the Harvard Club for Alex’s mother’s sixtieth birthday. While the food was delicious, my never-ending glass of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon is what really distinguished the evening. No matter how much I drank, invisible waiters kept refilling the glass. Alex’s mother always says that you won’t end up with too bad of a hangover if you only drink natural wines. I didn’t test her theory’s wisdom that evening, however. Instead, my parents and I went out to a bar after the party, where I drank a huge glass of sambuca. I think it was that final glass that left me with an epic hangover, the likes I haven’t experienced since a wedding last spring.

I really do regret that final glass of sambuca, because the next day the true dining really began. Alex and I met his parents for lunch at Mario Batali’s pizza restaurant, Otto. I was skeptical about the restaurant after a disappointing meal at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, which made me question the abilities of TV celebrity chefs. But, when the appetizer of artichokes marinated in lemon and mint came out, it was clear that this meal was going to be a great success.

For everyone else, that is.

I was still recovering from the sambuca, and couldn’t even bring myself to taste the artichoke, even though it looked amazing. The appetizer was followed by some pizza with a seriously thin crust - the likes of which I have never seen in America. I was able to force down a few slices, and felt anguished that I could not properly enjoy the meal.

If I lived in the city, of course, my failure to enjoy this meal wouldn’t have been so devastating. But not being able to enjoy a meal I know I will not soon be able to replicate filled me with the type of depression that would usually drive me to the bottle. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option at the time. The meal was not an entire loss. I rallied for a delicious tangerine sorbetto dessert. And, while I didn’t enjoy Otto to its fullest, the meal’s restorative powers prepared me for an amazing dinner at the Four Seasons, which will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.