Wednesday, October 31, 2007

And now, on to Thanksgiving

It's time to toss out the Halloween candy (can we say high-fructose corn syrup?) and move on to a more complex culinary holiday: Thanksgiving. Yes, it's coming.

It's tempting to go into denial, but then you'll find yourself racing around looking for baking pans, roasters, turkeys, and exotic ingredients at the last minute -- paying top dollar, and standing in long checkout lines with all the other people who tried that tactic.

Over the years I've enjoyed wonderful, storybook Thanksgivings -- and had turkey days that ended with me staring miserably at a kitchen full of greasy poultry leftovers and ruined tablecloths.

I like to think I'm getting better at it. Here are five steps I've learned to take in order to come to grips with the very real logistic and emotional issues that surround Thanksgiving:

1. Clean out the pantry well in advance. Whether it's your storage locker, basement, garage, or pantry, get in there and make sure you have a clear path to the stuff for Thanksgiving and Christmas. And that you have the equipment you need: roasters, baking pans, cookie sheets, cookie cutters, pie plates, large serving bowls and platters, a functioning mixer (for whipped cream and mashed potatoes), enough place settings of china and stainless for the number of guests you expect, and a nice tablecloth and napkins. A punchbowl and a large coffee pot will help, too. Make a list of what's missing (for Step 4).

2. Check the appliances. If your refrigerator is acting up, or your oven seems to be baking unevenly, or if some of your burners don't work, this is the time to get replacements or call in the repair person -- not the week before Thanksgiving. And make sure the dishwasher is on its best behavior, as well.

3. Read up on Thanksgiving cooking. Don't leave yourself at the mercy of some lifestyle magazine at the checkout counter, either. Do some research and find a Thanksgiving cookbook that suits your style, be it vegetarian, traditional, gourmet, or natural foods. Then read it. I can strongly recommend Cook's Illustrated Thanksgiving Survival Guide (online) for its thoroughly tested recipes. If you like to cook, but are not used to orchestrating complete meals for a crowd of guests, I'd suggest the ebook Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner. It takes a project management approach to the meal, with checklists and charts -- as well as all the recipes you'll need to prepare a classic Thanksgiving meal.

4. Buy (or borrow) the necessary equipment. Take your list (from Step 1) and look up the items you need on Amazon, getting a sense for prices and creating a wish list. Then head for your local consignment shop or a discount store such as Ross. You should be able to get much of what you need very cheaply at one of those shops; the remainder you can buy online at Amazon,, or similar. It's fine to borrow these items, but don't rely on someone to remember to bring them to the Thanksgiving event. Get them in advance.

5. Plan for enjoyment. Think about your favorite Thanksgiving meals from the past and what made them really wonderful. Do you enjoy simple, informal buffets or elegant sit-downs? Traditional recipes, or the latest gourmet trends? A big, energetic group of guests or a small group of quiet, reflective people? Plan a Thanksgiving experience that's as close to your ideal as possible. Strongly resist taking responsibility for a meal that's outside your comfort zone! If someone insists you provide an ultra-gourmet experience, a strict vegetarian meal, a feast for 24 with elegant linens and silver, or cater to a guest list full of people who creep you out, don't do it. Tell whoever is asking for something you don't want to prepare that they can host Thanksgiving and you'll bring a dessert or wine!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Pumpkin everywhere

I came home from yoga tonight to find a pumpkin lit and glaring at me on our front porch. And a bowl of pumpkin innards waiting for me in the kitchen.

Zorg had insisted last night on buying a big pumpkin at the Ballard Market and tonight he carved it, giving it a particularly crazed expression that I suspect had something to do with his day at work.

My job was to separate the seeds from the pulp and toast the seeds -- with a little olive oil and salt -- in the oven. Fortunately, pumpkin seeds float; I floated them out of the pulp, dried them with paper towels, and tossed them onto a foil-lined baking pan. Toasting them took about 45 minutes in a 375-degree oven, and the house smells great. (Particularly after I carted the pulp off to the compost bin.)

Happy Halloween!

(cross-posted on The Mysterious Traveler Sets Out)

Bodywork and beyond

When you feel good, you crave activity (aka exercise) and good (aka healthy) food.

This is where bodywork -- from classic massage to Chinese medicine and Rolfing -- comes in. These treatments and techniques relieve pain, help you overcome physical restrictions, and heighten body awareness.

My friend Larry Swanson, a top-notch web designer, has created a site called Bodywork U. It's primarily for bodywork practitioners to find professional development programs and classes. But, with its list of state-by-state list of massage schools and other programs, Bodywork U is also a great way for you to find the leading studios and practitioners in whatever bodywork area you'd like to explore.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Middle View

In the past year I've gone from a size 14 to a size 8, but have lost only 13 pounds.

This was mysterious to me, but my fitness instructor says I've probably lost 25 pounds of fat and gained 12 pounds of muscle.

This is intriguing, because the most common measure of health and fitness is the BMI (body mass index, an estimate of body fat based on height and weight). My BMI (of 27) indicates that I'm still significantly overweight -- which seems to me to a bit weird for a size 8 woman.

Now comes a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that suggests that waist circumference (adjusted by race/ethnic identity) is a better indicator of fitness and risk for cardiovascular diseases. Interestingly, my waist is the area of my body that has lost the most inches; my waist measurement falls well below the study's criterion for "overweight."

Squash Caramel

It's squash season, so I tore a recipe for squash soup out of the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 20-21) and picked up a large acorn squash at the Ballard Market.

It wasn't until I began making the recipe that I realized the "Roasted Squash Soup with Brown Butter" was one squash, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and one cup plus two teaspoons of butter. That's not soup, that's squash-flavored carmel sauce. Somewhere at the Wall Street Journal, a recipe writer is out of his or her gourd.

I found it particularly bizarre because the recipe starts by having you split, seed, and roast the squash, which will carmelize the vegetable's abundant natural sugars and make additional sugar pretty much overkill -- in every sense of the word.

So while my (unsugared but lightly buttered) squash roasted, I went back to the drawing board with the rest of the recipe to see what I could do to replace the butter with something a bit more appetizing.

I ended up sauteeing some naturally sweet vegetables -- chopped sweet onions, a chopped red pepper, and three chopped carrots -- in a little bit of butter. Then I added water to cover the veggies and dropped in three stalks of celery (to be removed later, before pureeing the soup) and left that to simmer.

After the squash finished roasting, I removed the skin and added the squash to the vegetable soup, and then removed the fibrous celery. Then I left the soup to cool (so it could be pureed later in the blender).

To get the browned butter flavor, I reduced the cup (16 tablespoons) of butter called for in the recipe to 2 tablespoons and followed the fairly involved directions for melting and boiling the butter, which concludes by setting the saucepan in an ice bath to get the golden brown butter separated from the milk solids. That butter is then added to the pureed soup.

(I did it, but it was a pain. I wonder if an interesting oil could be added instead -- sesame perhaps?)

The recipe winds up with cayenne, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, vinegar, lemon juice, and salt added to the puree, which is then gently heated before serving. I pulled back quite a bit on these final additions; my soup was less rich and sweet and thus needed less sharp flavoring to "cut" it.

The final soup got Zorg's "yum" of approval, and I'll be cooking it again.

Mushroom season, delicious and daring

My year in Italy included a meal in a private dining room at one of the city's finest restaurants. It was October, the height of mushroom season, and the menu our host chose made the most of it: antipasto with herbed, marinated mushrooms, a first-course pasta with a heady sauce of fresh porcinis, and Portabella mushroom steaks for the main course. The only off note among the chorus of "oohs" and "ahs" around the table was my friend Patrizia, who could be heard muttering "We're going to be poisoned."

Therein lies the challenge for mushroom aficionados.

Once you move beyond the basics of the common cultivated button, cremini, and portabella mushrooms (and several varieties of Asian cultivated mushrooms, such as shitaki) you're at the mercy of the mushroom pickers who comb the woods and fields. Fortunately, the vast majority of them, and the markets they sell to, can distinguish the edible wild fungi from the dangerous ones. That means the morels, chanterelles, and porcinis that turn up at your local market present only the most infinitesimal risk while offering the rewards of fabulous flavor for pastas, soups, sauces, risottos, and more. If you don't find them locally, a good online source is Foods in Season, specializing in fresh wild mushrooms (including truffles) from the Pacific Northwest.

Go to town cooking up Risotto al Funghi Porcini and the like, but, unless you are a mushroom expert with extensive experience, do not eat the mushrooms found in your yard or on hikes. Most of the perfectly safe wild mushrooms have poisonous look-alikes. Also, be aware that some amateur mushrooms pickers -- and hikers -- insist not only on eating what they find, but in serving mushroom-laced dishes to unsuspecting guests. Their dinner parties are good ones to avoid during, and right after, mushroom season.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Welcome to Food, Fitness, Fashion

When I noticed how many posts on my personal blog were about food, fitness and fashion, I realized that I wanted a place to blog about these topics without making my usual readers roll their eyes. Thus "Food, Fitness, Fashion" was born.

I'll be commenting on fashion trends, focusing on a longterm perspective. Sure, "kitten heels" are back, but where the bleep did they come from in the first place?

And I'll be writing about food, reporting on ways to cook, eat, and even indulge healthily and enjoyably -- without turning yourself into one of those ghastly food vigilantes. (If you think I'm turning into one, please comment immediately and send truffles.)

Finally, I'll be writing about fitness -- a topic on which I'm afraid I am a bit of a vigilante. You may be able to guess, by checking out the blog's fitness links (at right), what kind of vigilante.