Monday, June 25, 2007

Chicken, Sweet Potato, Fennel, and Spinach in Cashew-Cream Sauce

Last week for cooking night, I was in a rush so I just knocked out a no-cook mango raita and a simple cashew chutney and picked up some naan from The Clay Pit, my favorite Indian restaurant in Austin.

The Clay Pit makes a Korma sauce that they describe as a "rich cashew-almond-cream sauce" and I describe as "incredibly delicious." I've always wanted to try imitating it, but never got around to it.

While I ate the cashew chutney, though, I realized it wasn't too far off, and then I had a bunch left over from cooking night, so tonight I tried my hand at reusing it and adapting it into something like the Clay Pit's Korma. Here's the chutney, first:
Cashew Chutney

From India: The Vegetarian Table by Yamuna Devi

2/3c dried chana dal or yellow split peas
1/2t fennel seeds
1c cashew nuts
water as needed
1/2- to 1-inch piece fresh ginger
1/2 to 3 hot green chiles (BHS: I used 2 serranos and it had noticeable heat)
1/3c chopped cilantro
salt to taste

Place the dal, fennel seeds, and nuts in a skillet and toast until the dal and nuts brown in a few places. Add 4 cups of water and bring to a boil for 3 minutes. Set aside for an hour or so (BHS: The goal is to let the nuts and dal plump up a bit, so don't skimp on this too much), then drain and transfer to a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Add the ginger, chiles, cilantro, and 1 3/4c water. Process until very smooth, for 2 or 3 minutes, adding enough water to make a thin sauce; season with salt. (BHS: I used a blender, which was fine, but I had to slice the ginger and chiles up before blending, and had to add water immediately with the nuts to get things moving in there.)

The essence of Clay Pit's Korma is a rich creaminess from the fat and protein in the nuts, paired with a subtle sweetness from hints of anise and raisins plumped in the sauce. I went for the same thing by thinning that chutney with a bit more water, then bringing it to a simmer with a generous handful of currants and 6 or 7 star anise before cooking the chicken and veggies in it. Here, I'll write it up like a real recipe:

Chicken with Sweet Potatoes, Fennel, and Spinach in Cashew-Cream Sauce
Chicken with Sweet Potatoes, Fennel, and Spinach in Cashew-Cream Sauce

3-4c cashew chutney (very liquid; if yours is thicker start with less and add water)
1 large handful currants or raisins
6 star anise

1 large fennel bulb, chopped very thin (I used a mandolin & then a knife)
1 large sweet potato, diced
1 bunch spinach, rinsed and chopped
1.5lbs skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized chunks

Bring the chutney, raisins or currants, and star anise to a gentle simmer in a wok or very large skillet over medium-low heat. When the sauce has been visibly simmering for a couple minutes, remove the star anise and add the sweet potato and fennel, cover, and continue simmering, stirring occasionally, until the potato can be pierced with a fork but isn't fully cooked. Add the chicken and continue simmering, covered, occasionally stirring to keep the sauce from burning on the bottom of the pan, until the chicken is just cooked through. Turn off the heat and fold in the spinach until it is just wilted. Salt to taste and serve either in a bowl on its own or over rice.

Serves 6 (maybe 8.)

It came out really well, I have to say. Not quite the same as the Clay Pit, since I only used cashews. Maybe next time I'll add almonds and pistachios, too. And I think some chopped nuts tossed in to plump up with the raisins in the sauce would be nice, too, rather than just pureeing them all.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Good Espresso in Austin: Teo

Good news for Austinites! Good news for Austinites who want good espresso, anyway.

I've never thought of myself as a coffee snob, and when it comes to drip coffee, I'm not. I drink drip coffee that my friends think is revolting.

But when it comes to espresso, I've been spoiled by my time in San Francisco. Ritual Coffee Roasters was 2 blocks from my apartment and pulled some of the most delicious cappuccinos I've ever had. They were smooth, bold, but not bitter at all, creamy with the milk. I started off getting them tall, but they talked me down to a short double cappuccino, and their espresso was so good that, I admitted, they were right: It didn't need the extra milk. Even their macchiato (a shot of espresso with just the tiniest bit of milk and froth, served in a shot glass) was smooth.

Then there was Blue Bottle Coffee. Further from my apartment, their stand in Hayes Valley was more something I read about than something I frequented, but they set up shop every week without fail at the Ferry Plaza farmer's market, and their mochas were to die for. They were so good, they put other mochas to shame (well, there's Philz Coffee, and their mocha is incredible, but it's more like an overwhelming dessert than anything else; comparing Blue Bottle's mocha to Phil's is apples and oranges.)

I got back to Austin and discovered that most places apparently don't know how to make espresso. I'm sticking to my guns on this one: It's not that I'm a snob. It's just that most espresso is really not very good, and most people don't know any better. I was a little surprised when every coffee shop in Austin offered me sugar with my cappuccino. Why would I need that? Then I took a sip, and without fail, every time, the milk froth was floating atop a cup full of black, bitter espresso, like I'd ordered a cup of syrup of ipecac.

I doubt most people enjoy cappuccino in places like Austin. I bet they think it's supposed to be some kind of drink for the hardcore, unpalatably bitter to normal people. In truth, it's supposed to be smooth and delicious, but it just takes a lot of skill to do. So most people probably get mochas, or have their drinks flavored, to make them drinkable. I don't blame them or look down on them: What else are they supposed to do? The espresso at almost every place in this city is really unpleasant to drink.

This morning, after physical therapy, I headed over to Central Market to pick up some lunch supplies before driving the rest of the way in to work, and on a whim stopped at a gelato place I've been a few times, Teo. I wasn't sure what I was going to order, but on the way in I saw a picture of the owner standing next to a pretty old Italian dude, and the caption on the article said that they were, in fact, in Italy, and the old Italian dude was teaching him to make espresso.

I hesitantly ordered a short, double cappuccino, and the friendly barista chatted with me about coffee while pulling it, saying that she no longer drinks espresso from any place in Austin besides Teo.

The result? Impressive. I've only had the one, so I'll reserve judgment, but it was extremely close in quality to the Ritual version. Smooth espresso, just enough milk to give it a creaminess, and only the slightest hint of a bitter edge to pick it up, just the right amount. It was easily the best cappuccino I've had in months (well, to be precise, since the last time I was in San Francisco, for the Game Developer's Conference, and had one from Blue Bottle every single day.)

Teo is not in my neighborhood, but I've made a mental note: When I want espresso, I'll go nowhere else. Why pay for a cup of bitter motor oil now that I know this place is around?

I heartily encourage anyone in Austin who likes espresso to give them a shot. That old Italian dude apparently knew what he was doing.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Swimming

I've never been a lap swimmer. I grew up with a pool, but we mostly played Marco Polo and other games, got those weighted rings that stand up on the bottom of the pool and swam through them, tried to see how many sticks we could pick up without surfacing for air, that kind of thing. But I never was any good at freestyle swimming, let alone anything harder like the butterfly.

I had to swim freestyle for high-school phys ed, and I dreaded it. Even now I can visualize the high school pool with its eerie green light and the echoes of feet slapping on the tile and the over-chlorinated smell, and it makes me anxious. I really didn't enjoy that at all.

The last time I swam a lap was at Dartmouth, for my swim test my freshman year. I passed. Then I didn't swim another lap for a decade.

I went on a few dates with this guy who is a lifeguard, diver, and swimmer, and he agreed to teach me how to swim in exchange for me teaching him a thing or two about rock climbing. Then the dating didn't work out, but my curiosity was piqued. My friend Ali told me she was headed to Stacy Pool just a mile or so from my house to do some swimming for her upcoming triathlon, and I figured, hey, I've gotta start somewhere. Ali's friend Erik picked up some goggles for us on his way over and I was off and swimming.

That was a rough day. I'd swim a single lap, sputtering and choking my way along, and then have to stop, my heart going like a jackhammer. Then I'd wait several minutes and do another. My breathing was uncoordinated, my stroke was haphazard. Still, I enjoyed it! I could feel things coming together just a little bit, more than they ever had before.

Since that day I've been to Stacy pool three more times. Today I biked over and the pool was marvelously empty thanks to the looming rain clouds, and I had a lane to myself for much of the time. Over the week I've been reading a bunch of websites about proper freestyle form, and really focusing on paying attention while I swim.

Today something clicked. I swam over a mile, stopping only a handful of times. In less than twenty minutes I swam a full third of a mile without stopping!

I still struggle with breathing on my left side, so most of the swimming today I did breathing entirely to my right. I think the breathing thing has two components: first, it feels "wrong," like interlocking your fingers or crossing your legs the "wrong" way, so it's not as smooth, and once I start gasping for breaths it's all over. Second, alternating breathing means only taking a breath every three strokes, and my body really wants me breathing every other stroke right now.

I think the latter will get better in time, and the former will just take work. I swam a couple laps breathing entirely to my left side, and periodically switched for a few breaths during my longer distances, and I'll keep doing that every time I go there until it feels natural.

I credit my yoga practice with this dramatic turnaround, from hating swimming to enjoying it so much I chose it over climbing today. My body awareness has had a massive impact on my ability to pick up the swimming. I can pay attention simultaneously to what my legs are doing, what my torso is doing, and what both arms are doing, pivoting smoothly to breathe while also using as little energy as possible on the arm recovery, then pivoting back down and attentively drawing my other elbow as high as possible for its recovery. It just all feels much more natural, much less overwhelming than I remember.

Of course, now my problem is that I'm trying to simultaneously juggle cycling, bouldering, yoga, and swimming. It was hard enough with 3 sports. We'll see how it goes.

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I bring people together.

The other day I logged into MySpace, not something I do very often, and found a message from someone I don't know. He said I could post it on here, so here it is (names changed):
Brian
My younger brother has recently announced to us he is gay. I was devastated at first. I have been secretly studying the gay life and trying to make sense of it. Totally coincidentally and at random I have looked at your page. For what ever reason when I read your description it all clicked with me. There is nothing wrong with Gabe, he's normal for him like I'm normal for me. This is probably the craziest message you have and will ever receive, but I thought you should know that the great description you gave of yourself and your overall presentation had an important influence on someone. And how ironic the situation.
take care
pete
We exchanged a couple messages, but really, that's the meat of it. I was kind of floored. First of all, I looked at my MySpace profile and don't really understand how I managed to do that, but I was really flattered. How awesome, to know that I somehow caused this to happen!

I went and looked at Pete's page and I have to admit, a bunch of the things about him (he's from the Bible Belt, he refers to Jesus Christ a lot, talks about the Bible, lives in the suburbs) are things that often trigger a kind of condescension in me. To be very frank, I look down on that demographic. I stereotype them as closed-minded and intolerant.

How ironic to get a message from someone who fits that bill so perfectly but who was so open-minded, and then to realize I'm the closed-minded one. Pete's behavior is exactly the right thing. He didn't deny his devastation, but instead explored it, out of love for his brother, and sounds well on his way to acceptance.

It was a good wake-up call for me: I need to approach people like Pete with the same level of compassion, even if it means dealing with my rather unflattering arrogance.

P.S. How hilariously adorable is it how he says he's "secretly studying the gay life and trying to make sense of it"? I chuckled all day at that.

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

Loose jeans

Several years ago I weighed quite a bit more than I do now, somewhere around 235lbs. I lost 35 of those pounds and then for years, hovered at 200, a body fat of about 12-14%, a homeostasis my body was too happy to cling to. It almost doesn't matter what I do when I'm in that zone: I can overeat substantially without really gaining much (and if I do it's not hard to drop back down to that range) but conversely I can exercise and eat less and never really drop below 12%.

I finally decided, about a month ago, to get under 10%, ideally to around 8%. (The medically healthy lower limit for guys is about 6%, but I'm afraid that would just be untenable.) I started using BalanceLog again, a program essentially like Fit Day, tracking my exercise and food consumption, and being diligent about not overeating. I eat half my meals from restaurants, asking for to-go boxes as soon as I sit down and putting half the meal away right off the bat. I rarely snack on candy. I eat smaller portions.

The trick in dropping from an already relatively-low body fat percentage to something lower seems to be that I can never let myself feel hungry for long periods of time. If I do, well, first, I get frustrated and lose my will power, but second, my body stops burning fat, believing that I'm stuck on a desert island, starving. I've kept lots of carrots, celery, pickles, sugar-free popsicles & fudgsicles, and other low-calorie snacks around so I can graze whenever I feel like it, avoid that poverty mentality with food, but not add 400 calories a day to my diet just by snacking on candy and whatnot.

Finally, the exercise is crucial. If I do a 2-hour medium-intensity bike ride every weekend, that's about 1500 calories burned, which is another 200 calories I can eat every single day. Add in an intensive yoga class or two every week and a few hours of rock climbing and it lets me eat pretty generous amounts of food and still be running a calorie deficit.

OK, so it's been a month; how's it going? I'm pleased to report that last Tuesday after rock climbing, I went to change back into my favorite pair of jeans, the 33-waist Diesels that have historically been slightly snug on me, with the Kenneth Cole belt that has also been on the tight side, and with jeans buttoned and belt buckled, I was able to slide completely out of them.

On the one hand, it'd be nice if they didn't get too loose, because I'd really rather not have to buy another pair of those jeans, but on the other hand, what better reason to need new clothing?

I weighed in this evening at 193lbs and 10% body fat, my lowest body fat ever.

It's worth noting that this has hardly been a grueling process of self-denial. Sure, I've been eating less, and sure, I don't get to indulge quite like I used to, but I've still been to the Salt Lick and gorged on BBQ and pie, I've had ice cream on many occasions, I go to the Alamo and even get the occasional milkshake with my chicken strip basket. It's not like I'm starving to death over here. I think the key is, when you're tracking the food you eat in something like Fit Day that tells you calorie values for various foods, you build an intuition for the calorie content of things, and you can indulge more intelligently. The BBQ, for example, isn't outrageous. A few big slices of beef brisket is only a couple hundred calories. Take it easy on the sauce and plan on a little more exercise the next day, and everything works out just fine.

Plus, just like with personal finance, having good intuition leads to good habits, which then allow you to indulge without feeling guilty, because you know it'll add up. Before this, I'd overeat and just try not to think about it, just like I used to make impulse purchases and then feel palpable anxiety when I logged into my bank account online to see my balance. No longer!

I'm curious to see, when I get down to 8%, whether it's sustainable, whether my body recalibrates to the new percentage and lets me stay there, or whether it'll be like walking a tightrope, whether my body will eagerly bounce back to 12% the first chance I give it. I'm naturally hoping for the former, but this little undertaking was motivated half by curiosity, so if it turns out it's unsustainable, I won't be too crestfallen. I'll be happy just to have had the self-discipline to get there even for a week!

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