Some cooking tips

In my quest to cook and eat healthier (except when stressed, when I eat Skittles in a gross and shameful quantity), I’ve discovered a few handy ingredient swapping tips.

Whole Wheat Pasta
When I first started eating this, I didn’t like it. I thought it tasted dry and had a sort of sandy texture to it. But now that it’s been ALL I’ve eaten for a while, I love it. I actually sort of prefer it. The same thing happened to me with white and brown rice. Once I made the switch, I liked the healthier version a lot more. Now pasta is a bigger part of our diet, which is great, since it’s such a simple meal.

Favorite dish: Whole wheat pasta tossed with vinaigrette, diced tomatoes, chickpeas, and feta

Potato
Potatoes get a bad rap. They’re full of nutrients and, if you’re good about how you accessorize them, naturally fat-free. Bread and pasta made with potato flour is healthier than the white-flour equivalent and much tastier too.

Favorite dish: Gnocchi with fresh sauteed green beans, grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and pesto

Breadcrumb substitutions
Whenever a recipe calls for breadcrumbs, you have two healthier and tastier options. When the recipe is like meatloaf or meatballs and calls for breadcrumbs to act as a binding agent in the mixture, you can substitute quick-cooking oats instead. While the mix will look like you dumped meat into a bowl of cereal, the finished product will not have visible oatmeal all over it, I promise.

Panko breadcrumbs are a healthier (and all-around better) substitute for traditional breading. Yum! A third option is to grind up whole wheat crackers and use cracker meal, but I rarely do this because it still involves a flour step.

Favorite dish: Italian-seasoned meatballs made with oats and herbs.

Eggs
Eggs are the best breakfast. Because they’re so high in protein, they keep you feeling fuller longer and magically prevent you from over-eating later in the day (seriously). When I eat eggs at 7:30, I don’t get hungry for lunch until 1:30. If I eat cereal at the same time, I’m hungry at 11.

Favorite dish: scrambled eggs with Chipotle Tobasco

Cottage cheese
Fat-free cottage cheese is another miracle food that keeps you feeling fuller, has good vitamin content, and is high in protein. Plus, it cries out to be combined with all sorts of healthy stuff: dried fruit, whole fruit, peanut butter, even herby stuff like pesto. You can mash it into egg salad! You can use it to make lasagna (if you live in the midwest)!

Favorite dish: cottage cheese with dried cranberries

My Food Shame

One of my most embarrassing confessions: I’ve only just recently eaten an orange.

I was sort of famous among my former colleagues for having never actually eaten an orange in my life. If someone in the office was peeling an orange, even if it was in another room, I could smell it and it would make me nauseated. Despite this, I have often enjoyed other orange things, like orange sherbert, orange soda, even orange juice, including the occasional Screwdriver or Sloe Screw Up Against the Wall.

It’s often embarrassing to let people know I don’t eat oranges, or endure having orange eaten in my presence, so I keep pretty mum about it.

A couple months ago, I attended a work-related event at which a fruit medley was served. It looked delicious, but it contained….blood oranges. Not wanting to be rude, I took some of the salad, trying to avoid the blood oranges without drawing attention to myself. I was unsuccessful and ultimately had two of the little sections on my plate.

When I look at an orange, I don’t see fruit. I see the veins like housefly wings; I see alien eggsacks from science fiction films, I see internal organs. The blood orange was even worse–blood mauve, veiny, fleshy.

But I was a good boy. I was a grown up. I ate those two little sections of blood orange right up. And it wasn’t awful–I liked the tartness, but the texture still bothered me.

Yesterday I bit the bullet, so to speak, and tried making pork tenderloin with an orange and red onion salsa. I bought the oranges–I even peeled them myself!–and coarsely chopped them, then added the ingredients. I made the black beans and rice, I made the pork…and then topped it with the salsa. There was no going back.

Until I tasted one of the orange bits. I nearly puked. Needless to say, I scraped it ALL of my pork and ate around it.

But I could still taste it, slight undertaste in everything on my plate, circling like little tastebud sharks…

Feeling My Age?

Over the weekend I enjoyed a lovely brunch with a poet friend here in DC (where I got to have aebleskiver–one of the few ethnic treats of my childhood!). Over the course of our meandering conversation, we talked about what it meant to feel old.

“I was just thinking recently about how no matter how old I am, I feel old,” I told her. I expected her to reciprocate the sentiment.

“Not me,” she said. “When I was in my thirties I had so much energy, and it stopped all of a sudden. I do feel like a different person now.”

Since our talk I’ve been thinking about this because

a) I’ve continued to feel old
b) I’ve continued to feel tired

I had to remind myself that I spent seven years living on college campuses, and that for the last three of those years, I lived with 18-year-olds. Hundreds of them. I lived with them, then I taught them in comp and creative writing classes, and then I spent the next four years working on their campus, surrounded by them.

For all intents and purposes, I spent roughly the first 13 of my adult years completely surrounded by 18-year-olds, deprived of adult contact and conversation, except among colleagues.

Although it’s not much time between, say, 18 and 25, the mental distance is vast. I watched young adults make the same mistakes I made, had conversations in which they said to me the exact same crazy/stupid/arrogant things I said in my own youth.

More than that, they saw me as old. They weren’t able to distinguish much between me and some of the regular tenured faculty, for example. I was pretty much a generic “grown-up.” I had a “real life,” whatever that meant. Bills, I suppose–a car payment.

It reminds me of an encounter I had at my Target Greatland. My cashier, a girl in her late teens, had been awkwardly talking to an older man. I took his age to be about 45. As he left, she rolled her eyes. “God!” she complained. “He always flirts with me. It’s so gross–he’s, like, thirty.” She laughed and looked at me. I must have had a shocked look on my face; she dropped her laughter and silently scanned my items.

What Cooking Teaches Me about Management

Over the past five years or so, I’ve really devoted much of my free time to teaching myself to cook. I’m no chef by any stretch of the imagination and I live in the shadow of my mother, who’s like a gourmet in her own right, but I do all right and I’m committed to getting better at it.

Tonight I’m cooking flank stank marinated in red wine vinegar, soy sauce, shallots, garlic, and thyme, for example.

But I realized, having just come from a board meeting at work, that cooking has done a lot to inform the way I look at running a business.

1. You have to have a plan before you start, especially when trying something you’ve never done before.
Amateur cooks really have to use recipes religiously when learning to cook because they provide structure to the endeavor, but they also train cooks how to think about a dish as a whole. Recipes encourage sequencing, which is akin to strategy—understanding how step a leads to step b and so forth. I’ve said about 80 times this month that it’s easier to chart a course than it is to turn the Titanic.

2. You have to know what you need before you start.
A mistake I sometimes make is not reading the ingredient list thoroughly enough, or not preparing something to be chopped or whathaveyou before it gets into the pot. It’s a good reminder to myself to understand what resources will be required to accomplish a task in my organization, to think critically about what we have on hand, what we’ll need to go out and get, and what needs to be transformed before it can be used.

3. The ability to improvise is an art in and of itself.
Although having a plan is critical to starting, things don’t always go as planned. Anyone who’s ever managed an event can assure you of that. And true for cooking, too. If your eggs are expired or your greens wilt unexpectedly, knowing what you can substitute without a loss of flavor, quality, or color is important. A friend of mine who also loves to cook was telling me about a show he watches where the host teaches you the science of cooking, explaining, for example, how mayonnaise exists in an emulsion without separating. It’s through lessons like that, by understanding how ingredients work together, that cooks can make smart choices.

4. Patience is more than a virtue, it’s required.
Once you’ve put all your effort into the dish, sometimes you just have to let it simmer before you can dive in. Baking works this way and it’s often just a leap of faith from raw dough to finished pastry. To paraphrase an adage, watching the pot won’t make it boil. It’ll probably just get nervous or uncomfortable.

5. Multiple levels of evaluation are essential to revising formulas.
When tasting a new dish, you think about its color, its aroma, its flavor, its texture, even how well the dish goes with different side dishes or beverages. Thinking critically about each factor discretely and collectively provides the cook with essential insight into what works in the recipe and what needs to be addressed. A program or organization is no different.

Health Scare in America

I had to see my doctor today. I was looking forward to it because I honestly like him and have had good consultations with him in the past.

To give you some background on this, I’ve been having some strange pain and fever lately. The pain is not the worst I’ve ever had—that would be a tie between when I had tears in my trachea and when I thought my appendix was about to burst—but let’s just say it’s distracting and, at times, consuming. Needless to say, I was a little concerned, particularly after a little internet research led me to believe I might have developed shingles.

I get to the doctor and am disappointed to discover that instead of the doctor, I’m seeing the physician’s assistant. She asked me to describe what was wrong and barely waited for my answers before firing off the next question. She poked my abdomen, knocked on it, and said, “You’re too young to have what I think you have…”

She made some notes and said, “Well, I don’t think you have shingles, but I’m going to treat you for it because it won’t hurt if you don’t.” She wrote out some prescriptions for me. She said, “There’s no reason for me to think you would have it…”

I said, “Well, I had chicken pox three times.”

She looked me right in the eye, steely, and said, “No, you didn’t.” Not in shock, but in a tone that suggested there’s no way in hell I had chicken pox three times. When the clock struck minute nine on the appointment, she vanished from the room, leaving me to get out on my own. A nine-minute appointment and half a diagnosis is what I got. Now maybe you can understand why I’m not enamored of her. And maybe why men hate going to see the doctor!

So now I’m home, still achey, not interested in having ANYTHING touch any part of the right side of my abdomen.

But wait, Charlie. Could this day get any worse?

I’m glad you asked! Yes. Yes, it could.

Because when I got my quick lunch from Whataburger, which I love, I started munching on the fries in the car. And when I got near the bottom—having eaten almost the whole thing—I discovered:

A PUBIC HAIR!

Thick, black, and curly, you can faintly see it in this on-the-spot camera phone shot, near the high side of the carton’s bottom. And the photo doesn’t do it justice because this looked like Rapunzel’s pubic hair, like some small insects were going to use it to climb out of the french fry box to freedom.

Thanks for listening.

Birthday

Today is my boyfriend’s birthday. He’s finally turning 30, which means, for a few short weeks, we’re the same age. He’s sad about it, but I figure he’s already so gray it doesn’t matter.

His consolation: a feast at Famous Dave’s.

If you don’t have Famous Dave’s where you are, I feel real bad for you. It’s delicious and amazing and surprisingly Minnesotan. When I discovered one here in the Valley, I nearly pooped with delight.

If you need me tonight, I’ll be holding my stomach and groaning. From overeating!