Monday, September 26, 2011

DIY Food Adventure: Cook/Prepare Your Own Food

Results Thus Far

This food challenge has been amazing for me.  I am cooking and preparing all of my own food while pregnant and dealing with the stress of moving, trying to find renters for my previous home, stressing over my husband's job and happiness, coaching and editing, etc.

I am not going to lie.  It is NOT easy at times--especially at 8pm at night trying to roast chickens needed for dinner and eating after 9pm after a long day and evening full of loading and unloading the car with stuff from our move and running errands.  Some days the best I can do is grab a brick of cheese and an apple or carrots for a lunch or snack on the go.  But if I am making the majority of my meals in my own kitchen, there is definitely a sense of satisfaction and the bottom-line: I just feel better.

How can I tell?  Well, when I splurge and have something packaged like corn chips or ice cream, take out like a burrito bowl at Chipotle, or something with a little sugar or refined carb at a restaurant, I just feel crappy.  The next day, I am cranky and exhausted.  Part of it is having sugar or too high density carbs before bedtime and that screws up my sleep--I toss and turn and wake up constantly.  And anyone who has been pregnant knows that you are already going to the bathroom multiple times a night and finding comfortable positions is a never-ending battle, so adding the tossing and turning and trouble sleeping just compounds the fallout the next day.  I hate feeling that way.

Realizing what food does to you is empowering.  Although we all stifle our screaming brains sometimes to over-indulge, knowing what that does to you is humbling.  Food is a drug, make no mistake.  For good or for not.

But cooking has made my life SO much better.  I just feel better and perform better in all aspects from computer work and home productivity, to the gym and my workouts and coaching, to just being in a cheerful, upbeat mood.

Change is Hard

But why didn't I cook more before--why has it always felt like a chore?

Some answers are in an article I just read on the subject from the NY Times: Is Junk Food Really Cheaper? by Mark Bittman.  
The core problem is that cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch. “People really are stressed out with all that they have to do, and they don’t want to cook,” says Julie Guthman, associate professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of the forthcoming “Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism.” “Their reaction is, ‘Let me enjoy what I want to eat, and stop telling me what to do.’ And it’s one of the few things that less well-off people have: they don’t have to cook.”
The gist of the issue is that junk food is NOT cheaper, but since cooking is equated with work and eating out as a privilege we feel we have earned/deserve, it's less desirable to cook than to go out to eat.  It's not about the price--cooking your own food is less expensive than eating even fast food.  At least that is true with standard groceries and might get more stretched when you add in quality ingredients like organic, grass-fed or pastured meats and their dairy products and farmers market sourced organic produce.  For instance, I once burned through $40 buying fruit at a farmers market.  Easy.

Baby Steps to Real Food

But you don't have to go straight from Subway sandwiches, Ritz crackers, Golden Grahams, Fruit Roll-ups, and Ben and Jerry's to home-cooked.  Take it in baby steps:

  • Figure out what's in the your food. Start looking at the labels and if you can't pronounce an ingredient or an ingredient doesn't look like a food (meat/dairy product/vegetable/fruit/nut/seed/spice), put it back on the shelf. 
  • Cut back on eating food that comes in packages, pre-made, or from restaurants.  
    • Try making the simple stuff like roasted chicken (takes literally salt, pepper, and 10min or less of your fussing and an hour of roasting) and cutting your own veggies (or buy a food processor for ease).  

    • Buy a slow cooker and make your meals for days at one time.  You're already saving money and getting more for your money--plus, you're already eating healthier because your home-cooked food doesn't need chemical preservatives and you can control everything you put in it. 

  • Take it to the next level and start cooking and preparing more of your meals at home.  
    • Start with breakfast: eggs, veggies, and fruit takes 15min or less, is cheaper than that box of cereal and milk, and gives you longer lasting fullness and energy than that sugar bomb (yes, that even goes for Grape Nuts, check them on the glycemic index--the more processed, the more it burns through your body like pure sugar).  

    • Making your lunch is cheaper than buying it.  Lunch is a great time for leftovers.
    • And dinners you cook will be more rewarding and taste better than those you can grab on the go.  Plus, if you use a slow cooker or make your meal ahead of time, your end of day prep and cooking is much more manageable. 

  • Take a moment to assess the effects of your changes.  How do you feel after eating real food you make yourself?  How do you feel after having packaged, pre-made, or restaurant food?  I'm betting you'll notice a difference!
  • Finally, once you've mastered the basic meals, try getting creative and branching out with more complex recipes if you feel like it.  There is nothing wrong with simplicity, but variety is also a good thing :)

Now do you feel like Bill Murray in What About Bob screaming, "I'm sailing!" only yours is "I'm Cooking!"?

Hope you can make these changes in your life too! :)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

DIY Food Adventure: Slow Cooker Carnitas with Confetti Slaw

My CrossFit gym is embarking on a new kind of challenge, simply cooking and preparing your own food called the DIY Food Adventure.

So starting today, I am going to try to cook/prepare all my food--which is certainly going to be a tough one when I am moving this coming weekend.  But trying is an important step--despite that annoying Yoda quote my husband always throws at me: "Do or do not; there is no try."  To me there is a try with the intention of doing--it just doesn't always make it.  And with food, the LAST thing you want to do is beat yourself up over every transgression from your ideal.  Live your life and try your best.  My parents used to never get mad at me if I screwed up a test or grade in school as long as I "tried my best."  And we all know when we have really "tried our best" and when we haven't.  

The Prep

Sunday was the mega grocery shopping trip, spending about $150 at New Leaf, our local, better version of Whole Foods.  That bought us a slew of produce (I missed the farmer's market this weekend) and a 7.43# slab of pork shoulder roast for carnitas.  We also have store-bought eggs that are best for hard-boiling (I've tried the fresh ones and they just aren't as easy to peel or hold together as the shelved varieties with a little more age on them).  Finally, we bought whole chickens to roast for lunches and dinner that night.

Hard-boiling method a la America's Test Kitchen:

  • Place 6 store-bought eggs (omega-enriched and as close to farm as you can get them from the store--but trust me, store-bought is better than fresh for hard boiling) in a sauce pot filled with water to cover the eggs and sprinkled prodigiously with kosher salt. 
  • Allow the water to come to a boil over high heat.
  • When it is rapidly bubbling--meaning large bubbles breaking the surface, rolling-style--turn off the heat and remove the pot from the burner, cover, and let stand for 10 minutes (a little longer if you cook more eggs or a little less if you really lagged on catching that boil--we've all been there and heard the water splattering rather than the boiling bubbles).  
  • While the eggs are finishing, get out a big bowl and fill it with ice and water and once your ten minutes are up, add the eggs using tongs (not your hands, silly) and let them cool off in their ice bath like you'd love to do post-WOD.  
Perfect eggs and NO sulfur smell.  Done in less than 30 minutes start to finish.  Store in the fridge.

Here is the Roasted Chicken recipe we used, from Thomas Keller, posted on epicurious: My Favorite Simple Roasted Chicken Recipe.  Although the photo above was taken after an overnight in the fridge, it hopefully still captures a little bit of that brown, crispy goodness from when it was pulled from the oven.  I can't believe how juicy and flavorful the meat is and how that salt really makes it delicious.  It is like a brined bird, but SO much easier.  Better than rotisserie.  And just about as simple as buying pre-made.  Seriously. 

We had some roasted chicken for dinner that night--couldn't resist it fresh and crispy--alongside steamed artichoke hearts dipped them in melted grass-fed butter.  Yum!

I also made a roasted red pepper and baby bok choy stir fry to have more veggies in the house--perhaps for dinner variety or lunches/snacks.  Here is the recipe I used (substituting grapeseed oil for olive oil and yellow bell peppers for red ones): Baby Bok Choy with Yellow Bell Peppers Recipe.

Slow Cooker Carnitas
Don't have time to spend 3-4hrs watching a pot of carnitas?  Here's the answer: slow cook it!  Sweet and as spicy as you want it, this versatile, delicious pulled pork is definitely a staple in this household.

Cooking Time: 6+ hours on Low in the slow cooker, 45 minutes or so on the stovetop to brown
Quantity: Never as much as you would love to have to last forever.

  • pork shoulder/butt--as big as you can handle and as untrimmed of fat as you can get.  I like to get as many meals as possible so 5# is a minimum.
  • orange juice or any juice--we've tried a bunch with success (the small ~15oz bottles do well)
  • salt
  • pepper
  • garlic (cloves or powder)
  • spices to taste (ex. cumin, cayenne, you name it!)
First, pour the orange juice into the slow cooker pot and add your salt, pepper, garlic, and spices.  Swirl to dissolve and distribute.  

Then, cut the pork shoulder into fist-sized hunks. DO NOT trim it of its fat--you need it for frying.  Add the hunks to the pot and then toss them in the OJ mixture to coat each one.  Next, mash them down into the juice and set your pot a-cooking: Low for 6 hours or so--we've done less for smaller batches and more for larger ones.  You just want to make sure it is fall-apart tender, but you are going to still cook it more, so it doesn't have to be a 12-hour affair.  

Once it's done with the slow cookin', it's on to stage 2: the fryin'.  Dump the contents of the slow cooker pot into a huge stove-top pot (like a stock pot--NOT non-stick) and heat on the higher side of medium high--like 8 out of 10.  It'll boil away for about 30 minutes or so depending on the quantity of meat and liquid until it starts to stick and that is when the fun begins.  Start your scrapping as soon as it starts a-stickin'.  A strong spatula (read: metal, NOT plastic) works wonders.  Come back often to re-scrape until the liquid is basically completely gone and you feel like it is just going to burn or dry out if you leave it in there much longer.  

Then, if you have a ton of fat in the pot still (this used to happen to us, but hasn't in a long time--probably because the butcher still partially trims off some fat despite my efforts), you can drain the meat before storing and keep that fat for a butter substitute.  If you don't have much liquid, just dump the meat and juices into a storage container.  It'll last for a week in the fridge, but ours never stays around that long :)  

Serve with Confetti Slaw (below), salsas, guacamole or just avocado, on lettuce leaves as tacos, in eggs, or however you want to enjoy that unbelievably delicious porky goodness.

Confetti Slaw
A beautiful symphony of flavors, texture, and crunch!  Basically a play on the Crunchy Slaw I made for my Hearty Paleo-Zone Chili, this slaw is more finely diced for ease of incorporating with the meat and being picked up by utensils.  It is a great way to add some veg without it overpowering the dish.

Prep Time: 15 minutes or less
Quantity: a truckload

  • head of green cabbage
  • head of red cabbage
  • bunch of cilantro
  • 3 or so limes

Remove damaged outer leaves from the cabbages and any wilted, brown/black cilantro leaves.  Cut the cabbages into hunks and salad spin them to rinse.  Add them back into the salad spinner bowl once you rinse it out (the outer one, not the colander) for storage and assembly of the slaw (yes, it makes that much!).  

In small batches, food process the cabbage into a dice.  This takes patience not to over-stuff the food processor and have to fish out large chunks when you upend it into the bowl.  Not fun.  If you move fast, the multiple batches won't be too annoying.  It beats trying to hand-chop every piece down to a dice.  Believe me, I've tried and made a mess.  

Once the cabbage is done, rinse the cilantro, remove any woodier stem sections, and food process that too.  Add it to the bowl.  

Finally, roll the limes on the counter to release some juices, then cut and juice (it pays to have a citrus juicer).  Add the juice to the bowl and stir it up.  Taste and add more limes if you have them (or lemon juice can substitute).  I would wait to salt it until serving your portion because I have ruined a whole batch with over salting before--I think the citrus can accentuate it.  Add any other flavors you desire.  The Confetti Slaw should add a gorgeous splash of color and a nice lime scented crunch to your dish.  Load it up on the carnitas for a great meal!

Let me know how you like to serve your carnitas and if you've tried my recipe!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Back in Action: New Beginnings

Hello, readers!  I apologize for being away for so long.  Life often gets in the way and hobbies fall to the wayside.  But the important thing is that I am back to share my food experiences to the benefit of anyone who gets inspired by them :)


So I am 23 weeks pregnant today with a baby boy.  Wow.  I haven't posted since I became pregnant, partly because I didn't want to spill the beans too early and partly because I have just been overwhelmed with life in general: first child on the way, new house, moving, CrossFit, friends, family, etc.  My goal for my pregnancy is to eat gluten-free as a rule and to follow a new dietary plan based on the CrossFit Prescription: Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. 

My dietary prescription, determined by listening to my pregnant body's current needs is:

     Eat meat and fruit, vegetables, healthy fats, little starch, and minimal sugar. 

I love the simplicity of the items and their ordering.  I make sure every meal has some protein (meat, eggs, dairy, fish, etc.) and carbohydrate (fruit and/or vegetables) and fat (animal fats and cheese, nuts and seeds, supplemented with fish oil).  Minimal sugar and little starch basically are for my "cheats"--if I have a little rice or corn or some ice cream, I am not going to beat myself up over it and feel bad like a NO before them would make me feel.  I will just keep them to a minimum--meaning maybe once or twice a week.

But for me: NO gluten.  I want to stick to my guns on that because I know it inflames my digestive tract, mucks up absorption, and has real physical fallout, leaving me stuffy and runny-nosed, puffy-eyed, headachy, cranky, exhaustion, and voraciously hungry soon after.  If my body is constantly trying to heal itself from the inside out, how can I give all that I need to give to the little one developing inside me?

Pregnancy has been an incredible experience for me.  For one: NO morning sickness.  I attribute that to a healthy diet and continuing to bike and CrossFit (scaling and modifying, of course).  For another, I feel GREAT.  Of course, I went through the extreme tiredness of the first trimester like most women, crashing at the end of every day.  And now I definitely need my 8-9hrs of sleep, but the second trimester has brought more energy back.  I am LOVING every moment of discovery about the amazing things my body is capable of doing as it changes and the amazing little life inside me who is so active.  I also love love love that this is a time-off for body image for me.  Like most women, I obsessed over my body image and now, I have no choice but to watch in wonder as my belly expands.  For once in my life, I can freely call myself humongous and absolutely love it :)


I found that I really crave fruit.  At first it was melons and I could eat an entire half a watermelon or whole honeydew myself in a sitting if I allowed myself.  Then bags of cherries when they were in season.  Now it is grapes--at least a bunch every morning.  I realize that this desire for fruit is from a need of more sugary carbohydrates for quick, easy energy and for the fiber that will counteract the iron in my prenatal vitamins to keep me regular.  It seems evolutionarily on point, especially since we have a bounty of local fruit and it's the summer.  Guiltless indulgence is completely fine.

I find it interesting that I do not crave candy, pastries, pizza, cookies, chocolate, or breads much at all.  Sure, I've tried the gluten-free pizzas, but then I found I can replicate everything I wanted by melting cheese on heirloom tomatoes and topping it with basil, pesto, or pepperoni.  I've made nut flour pancakes, muffins, and cookies when the spirit moves me, but the desire is quick to pass.  I realize that when I do want these foods, it's more based on fond memories and emotional attachment than their actual taste.  That means that I might see them and want them, but it's based on a memory like helping Grandma bake brown sugar crusted apple crisps that warmed the whole house with a sweet cinnamon aroma or remembering yeasty freshly baked bread and how it would melt the butter smeared on top.  To me right now, that butter makes my mouth water--not the bread!

My tastes for meat have changed too.  I have been head over heels in love with carnitas.  That and scrambled or fried eggs and cheese are about the only proteins I truly desire and crave.  So it seems that saturated fats like the butter I slather my eggs in, fatty cheeses, and the crispy carnitas are what my body desires and needs, not so much other fats like nuts, seeds, or avocado.  Interesting since saturated fats are SO important for growth and development and bodily function while those omega-6s can certainly cause dysfunction if you go overboard with them.  Seems evolutionarily on point again.

And while I avoid other dairy because it gives me those gluten-like symptoms, I can stomach cheese and really love it, especially right now.  I guess it fits the bill for a fatty protein source to my body, which seems to have priority over lean meats.

But my meat tastes have definitely changed: I used to be in love with ribs and now that taste is out the door, and the smokey BBQ meats just nauseate me.  Chicken is still a hit or miss with me and while I love a good steak, it is still backseat to My Darling Carnitas.  I have a crock pot/slow cooker now that makes the recipe ten times simpler for our busy days: Slow Cooker Carnitas.  I'll post the recipe tomorrow since I am making it today.  Here it is in the slow cooker:

Finally beverages: while I used to drink herbal teas instead of plain water as much as possible, I lost my taste for them and now rely on filtered water.  This is likely another evolutionary instinct kicking in since herbal teas might have some unwanted reactions during pregnancy.  I'll have an occasional decaf iced mocha with organic milk and whip from Verve, but that is at most a once a week treat (a minimal sugar indulgence) that is absolutely delicious, but usually makes me feel a little worse for wear.  So water truly is the ultimate thirst quencher.

DIY Food Adventure

My CrossFit gym is embarking on a new kind of challenge, simply cooking and preparing your own food called the DIY Food Adventure.  Tomorrow I'll share the prep for the week and my staple meals as food for thought and inspiration.

Here is the next installment: Slow Cooker Carnitas and Confetti Slaw.