Monday, August 20, 2007

Beans, Beans, Good for the Heart...

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned Rancho Gordo on here before, suppliers of the best beans money can buy. I've missed them ever since moving back to Austin, where beans aren't so locally grown in so many varieties.

Some ingredients aren't worth worrying as much about. I've never had, say, a red onion that really jumped out at me as being wildly better than any other reasonably fresh red onion. Some things aren't really worth the time and money involved in procuring at their zenith.

Lest there be any doubt, beans are a food where the quality is critical. I made the Chocolate Turtle Beans from Heidi's latest cookbook and used a mix of Black Turtle beans and Appaloosa beans that I had sitting around from the Whole Foods bulk bins.

Disaster.

I soaked the beans for a day and a half just to be on the safe side, to where starch had risen to the surface of the water. I eagerly sweated the onions and garlic in my stock pot, added the tantalizing spice blend (I used the rest of my smoked serrano powder from Tierra and my Ceylon cinnamon with the allspice and cumin) and cooked the beans with that, their soaking liquid, and a bottle of thick English stout.

Two hours later, the black beans were still tough, nearly crunchy. Another hour later it became clear they weren't going to get much softer. I kept simmering just to reduce the liquid, mixed in the chocolate, and ate them with fried eggs in soft, fresh whole wheat tortillas. It was supposed to be bliss! That meal was going to be transcendental. Instead, every time the stout-chocolate-smoked serrano sauce started to pull me off to dreamland with its rich, mole-like complexities, I'd bite into a black bean with a crunch like uncooked potato and grimace a little bit.

Beans from Whole Foods are maybe $3/lb. or so for the interesting ones. All of Rancho Gordo's are $5/lb., less than double the price. And the difference is, Rancho Gordo's make for delicious, highly edible dishes, where Whole Foods' are unpalatable, cook poorly, and just aren't worth eating.

I went ahead and ordered a pound each of six different bean varieties from Rancho Gordo. I just got the shipment notification, and should be getting them in a few days.

Really, $38 for six pounds of beans and shipping is just not that much money in the grand scheme of things. Six pounds of beans? If I ate nothing else for dinner, that would probably feed me heartily for an entire month. Using them for side dishes, stews, chilies, and the occasional entree, I'll be set for much longer than that.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Website plug: Yoga Art and Science

I just randomly stumbled upon this website: Yoga Art & Science. It looks fantastic. I wish I'd found it sooner. The focus of the site is on aiding people in developing a home practice, and the author, Witold Fitz-Simon, is a pretty serious Iyengar practitioner and teacher. The site's blog has excellent book recommendations, videos of master yogis demonstrating various poses, and, best of all, practice sequences. The ones I've glanced through so far have me excited to try them.

On top of that, Mr. Fitz-Simon has spent some serious time, it would seem, photographing himself demonstrating a large number of poses, hunting down illustrations for others, and writing up instructions for all of them. This is an invaluable resource, especially in conjunction with Yoga Journal's Pose Reference, also an incredible resource available for free.

He's also written up a whole multi-section portion of the site on props, describing every common prop and its use, demonstrating a bunch of prop-modified poses himself.

Maybe this'll finally motivate me to really start a more regular home practice. At any rate, if you have any interest in yoga at all, this is among the best online resources I've found for it, so far.

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Hyponatremia

I've had this problem for a while now: When I exercise, be it cycling, swimming, or even yoga, I'll often find myself later in the day developing spontaneous muscle cramps.

Essentially, it's any prolonged endurance sport, but oddly it doesn't matter the pace. I went on a ride with Kristine to Buda and focused on keeping a gentle pace, spinning the pedals at a high cadence with relatively low load (it's really good for my knees) but even then, later in the day I was sitting and playing a board game and one of my hamstrings seized up. I spent the next ten or twenty seconds trying to act like everything was OK while straightening my leg very slowly under the table.

This has been going on for a while. I know cramps are usually caused by electrolyte imbalances, but I think I eat a reasonable amount of salt in my diet. Before exercising I usually have some carbohydrates that inevitably include some sodium, and if it's anything of any serious intensity or duration, I'll bring a bottle of energy drink, and I pick brands that have more sodium than most, because I know my sweat is saltier than average. After exercising, my skin is like a salt lick. But I just didn't think that could be the problem.

I started stretching after exercise, a little yoga sequence that thoroughly stretches the legs, shoulders, and hips. It didn't really seem to help a whole lot.

Finally, on a whim, after a challenging ride, I put 2 whole tablespoons of salt in my protein shake. It tasted absolutely revolting, but lo and behold, no cramps.

Ian suggested salt tablets, so I googled around, looking for information on athletes taking sodium supplements. I discovered that a state of sodium deficiency is called hyponatremia, and leads to headache, cramps, and malaise. Bingo. But the websites said that hyponatremia is not a condition normally experienced as a result of normal exercise, and that rarely do athletes need to explicitly supplement their diets with additional sodium.

Nonetheless, I've been drinking a glass of salt water (maybe a tablespoon of salt or slightly less) after all substantial exercise and the cramping is gone, as are the headaches I always just assumed were normal, a result of the heat, or neck strain, or something. I guess not! I know my mother has a thyroid disease that she takes medication for, and one of its symptoms is an increased craving for -- and legitimate physiological need for -- more sodium in her diet. And thyroid disease is congenital. Maybe I have a mild case of that.

Come to think of it, I've always suffered from cold extremities due to low blood pressure, and I've always heard an excess of sodium is correlated with increased blood pressure, so maybe that's related, too.

On the upside, I don't need to worry about moderating my sodium consumption.

Now, if only there were an analogous condition for a deficiency of ice cream. And if only I suffered from it.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Cooking and Critical Mass

As long as I can remember, my cooking has been this oddly schizophrenic activity. It happens in one of two ways. Either I'm Cooking, with a big trip to the grocery store or farmer's market (or both) and a big chunk of time devoted to it, or I'm just cooking a meal to eat, which entails knocking something relatively mediocre out by an easy formula.

Now that I'm really sinking some time and energy into my cooking technique, now that I've cleaned out and organized my pantry, now that I make an effort to keep staples stocked (and, lo and behold, my grocery bill hasn't increased, since staples are so cheap), that's slowly but surely changing.

And it's a really pleasant change. More and more I'm finding myself hungry and am able to open the refrigerator or glance in the pantry and put together, with relative ease, something serious. Something closer to Cooking, something that would until very recently have taken 5 hours, including a specific trip to Central Market, complete with fanfare.

Tonight I had Kristine, Jessica, and Ian over for dinner on a whim, because last night I made some ravioli and there was no way I was going to eat them all. But furthermore, I threw together a full meal, with the help of a couple tomatoes and a pepper I got for the sauce, some figs I'd had around for a week that I needed to use, and a bunch of staples I just... happened to have around. Kristine brought the salad, too; I haven't quite gotten the knack of keeping greens on hand, because they wilt so fast. That's still pretty premeditated for me.

Tonight's Menu:

Spinach salad with sweet bell peppers, chevre, and avocado dressed in lemon and white wine

Chicken, zucchini, sage, and brown butter in whole wheat ravioli with heirloom tomatoes and roasted pepper, with a tomato-pepper coulis

Black Mission figs poached in a pinot noir reduction, with vanilla gelato

Sugar cookies with caramel and roasted cacao nibs

The figs seemed like they'd be good poached, and I had some pinot noir. Then I couldn't really see serving them unaccompanied, so the gelato just kind of happened. I had a vanilla bean, I had some whole milk, I had sugar, cornstarch, and best of all, a tested recipe. What's more, it took almost none of my time. I threw the milk on with the bean on the back burner. I mixed the rest of it and poured it in when the vanilla-milk reached a simmer. I threw it in a cold bath since I didn't have hours to refrigerate it. And immediately before serving dessert, I fired up the ice cream maker and poured it in.

The wine reduction happily simmered away, too, on the side, as I worked with the ravioli, blanched the tomatoes and roasted the peppers (which Kristine then adeptly peeled), and when it was time for dessert, 5 minutes poaching was all it took.

For once, I was able to prepare a full meal, each course ready just as it was served, nothing staying warm (and drying out) in the oven, and yet still able to sit at the table through most of it and socialize. All four burners were on most of the time, and it never felt overwhelming.

Furthermore, it didn't take a special trip to the grocery store.

I was able to improvise well, too. This morning I made the caramel for the cookies, and lacking heavy cream, I just used whole milk. I cooked the sugar syrup longer for a bit more browning, eyeballed some measurement changes to compensate, and after a brief crystallization scare, ended up with delicious, dark brown caramel of just the right texture.

I think this is all a good convergence of my increasing intuition (thanks in large part to this exceptional book) and my more diligent effort to keep those foundation ingredients around.

All I know is, if I'd tried to make a meal like that before, it would have taken a couple days of cookbooks, shopping lists, trips to and from the store, and careful planning, and even then I doubt it would have gone so smoothly. Progress!

Actually, that's a lie - that's not all I know. I also know that after a few hours of running all four burners, the oven, and now my dishwasher, while outside it hit 100 degrees today, it is now really, really hot in here.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Dishwasher Detergents

When I first moved into my house, I was excited to have a dishwasher for the very first time since I moved out of my parents' house 10 years ago. I got a box of Cascade, and started using that, but at some point my anti-big-brand bias took hold, and I thought, it's probably awful stuff, made with ground up bones and dreams or something. I got some of the Mrs. Meyer's stuff from Central Market, a brand that at least looks smaller and more independent, and started using that.

A while ago I realized that my dishes come out of my dishwasher just filthy. I routinely have to re-wash plates, silverware is covered in gunk, and I thought, man, I guess my dishwasher is just no good. That's too bad. I started washing things by hand more and more.

On a whim, I tried using the Cascade again, thinking, "This won't work, there's no way the difference is the detergent. Obviously it's just a bad dishwasher."

My dishes are spotless now.

I actually Googled, just now, to find the name "Cascade" -- it had slipped my mind -- and came across a review of detergents by Consumer Reports. I've been meaning to subscribe to them forever, and at $26 a year, you can't really go wrong, so I did. Turns out Mrs. Meyer's scored a 54, and the powdered Cascade got an 85. Now I'm going to go try their top scorer, the Cascade packets.

I'm just excited I don't have to hand-wash things anymore. It was a sad day when I realized it wasn't getting things clean.

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Chop wood. Carry water.

I know I haven't been posting any Buddhist / therapy / mind / spirit stuff lately. I had a chat with a friend today, though, that was pretty cathartic, and with only a little reformatting (and some vocabulary cleaning - hi, Grandma!) it seemed like a pretty decent post.

Friend: I have a random question for you, and you don't have to answer it right away. I'd genuinely like your thoughts on it, though, because I'm in the throes of some what-am-I-doing sort of mental anguish. (Anguish is a strong word....)

How do you winnow away all the distractions to determine what it is you truly want to be doing with your life?

Nice light fare for the afternoon. :)

Me: How odd, this is what I've been thinking about a lot lately too. Anguish is a strong word, but ennui and existential despair kind of merit it sometimes. My strategy so far has been to focus more intently on my meditation practice and my yoga.

I'm in a pretty rough patch of it right now. It's the first time I've really tried to meditate more diligently on a very frequent basis. I'm experiencing a lot of insight, but a lot of it is, as you describe, a winnowing-away. It's challenging, because I have begun realizing how much of what I do is just motivated by habit, and insecurity and is fundamentally distant, inauthentic, and insincere.

I'm finding myself enjoying socializing less, especially with friends with whom I've realized I am often sarcastic or "cordial", i.e. pleasant but not terribly intimate. And then the difficult part these days is not resenting those people, or feeling irritated when I interact with them.

This extends to my job. I am beginning to realize that I often do not enjoy my job. At the same time, I am questioning whether the problem is the job itself or my approach to it. There are strong parallels with dating: I wondered often, when dating Erik, whether I should break up with him and search for a "more compatible person" or whether the lacking thing was my perspective... whether I should stop thinking about the personal compatibility as the thing to maximize, and instead think of myself as fortunate to have a relationship in which to work diligently.

I found this the other day, while searching for the zen saying it begins with: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."

I really like it. I'm trying, slowly, to apply that to my life. I have realized that I become depressed -- despair is a better word -- when I procrastinate, when I don't work hard.

I read an article in Outside magazine once about a female professional climber on whose refrigerator hung a little sign that just said something like, "LIFE IS HARD WORK. THE SOONER WE REALIZE THIS, THE BETTER." When I first read the article I took that to mean that we should make our peace with the necessity of working hard, and not procrastinate, because there's no avoiding it.

Recently I came to a new understanding of that: That even if it could be avoided, I wouldn't want to. While working hard is unpleasant in an immediate way, just like eating brown rice when there's ice cream right next to it, if I don't work hard, I become totally miserable, I feel like I'm wasting my life. I'm sure I'll have another random insight in a week that will refine this significantly, but right now, my impression is that it's not worth me worrying after the "meaning of life" And that the meaning of life is just to point myself in the right direction and work really hard, every moment of every day. And that if I do that, I won't lapse into ennui because I'll be working too hard, and being too mindful.

I suppose that's not a direct response to your question. That said, in terms of "winnowing away distractions," I have to admit, the instruction there is... meditate. It always bothered me when my teachers would say things like that. "Stop thinking about what to do and just do it. Just meditate, and it will bring contentment and peace, you don't even have to understand how, certainly not right now."

I like to analyze and so that kind of instruction frustrated me.

But I must admit, the more I meditate, the more insight I find, the more peace I experience, and the more beauty I see. The weird part is, my actual meditation sessions are just like lightning storms in my head. I get brief moments of clarity, but no bliss, no realizations during the meditation.

It is a practice without epiphany, I mean.

There's no "peak experiences" with my meditation. The clouds never abruptly clear. I never have a breathtaking view of open sky. It's just that gradually, steadily, I become more mindful, I see things more clearly. I remember reading once that epiphanies cannot be trusted because they are so personal; they cannot be shared. I resisted that then, because epiphanies seem so exciting. But I realize more and more that they are just like orgasms, or ice cream. Pleasant sensory experiences. Just like working really hard every moment of every day, or eating tofu and brown rice when I could be eating ice cream, I think the real win with meditation just comes from that slow, gradual, completely underwhelming, non-peak, non-epiphany kind of experience.

My Mom, oddly enough, practiced Transcendental Meditation -- as did my Dad -- and she commented the other day that when she practices (she does rarely, but still apparently does from time to time) her mind is as wild and crazed as mine. Her take on it is that it's a catharsis, that the meditation helps because it is an outlet, so that you work some of that out, which is a useful way to think about it, I think, because it makes sense, then, that the benefits would come not during the practice but in the rest of life.

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Friday, August 3, 2007

More Frozen Treats

Cantaloupe Sherbet with Honey & CassiaI used the last couple cups of cantaloupe puree last night to make another sherbet. Same basic recipe as the last one, only I used a bit more milk and whisked in the honey straight to the cold mixture, instead of mixing it with the milk and warming it beforehand.

Instead of mint, I went with Vietnamese cassia, the spice we often identify as cinnamon; it's the flavor of "hot cinnamon" candies. It's not really cinnamon, though, although it is a close relative. "True cinnamon" is a different spice, Ceylon cinnamon, and has a much milder, dustier taste.

I found Ceylon cinnamon combined poorly with cantaloupe, the fruit flavor overwhelming it, but cassia was like a minor revelation. Cassia tastes sweet, although it of course contains no sugar, and has a heat to it, almost like capsaicin in peppers. I think that's why it works: the sweetness works in harmony with the sweet cantaloupe and honey flavors -- amazingly, all three flavors are still distinct, they don't compete -- but the heat contrasts with the ice cold sherbet.

The cantaloupe-mint sherbet was very good, but not surprising. I think this is better, because the way the flavors combine is so unexpected.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Frozen Treats

Cantaloupe-Spearmint SherbetThis week is ice cream week. Well, ironically, I haven't made any ice cream, but I have made a sherbet and now frozen yogurt.

The last cantaloupe from my garden was ripening up, and one day I walked outside to find it lying there, its rind bright orange, starting to split on its own it was so ripe. I plucked it off the vine and debated uses for it. I was just about ready to look up recipes for candying fruit, candy it in chunks and dip it in chocolate, when I stumbled across Heidi's Tip-Top Melon Sherbet Recipe, and knew what I needed to do. I went out and picked up a $30 Hamilton Beach ice cream maker and made the sherbet as described on her site, only I warmed the milk and honey together first so I could add some spearmint leaves from the garden. I poured the result, with the leaves, into a jar and set it in the fridge overnight. As it froze in the machine, I sprinkled in flecks of minced mint leaves to give it a little extra color. It came out very well, and is delicious, although it hardened up very solid in the freezer, so I threw it in the blender with a little whipping cream to soften it back up and smooth it out a bit. Now the color is a nice pale peach-orange flecked with green, and the taste is divine.

Matcha Frozen YogurtEager to keep exploring, I then made the Frozen Yogurt Recipe off Heidi's site, from David Lebovitz's ice cream book. I used store-bought strained Greek yogurt to make things a bit quicker for me, but I still wanted a flavor in there. I was thinking of doing mint with chocolate chips, but figuring the mint was already in the cantaloupe sherbet, I changed my mind and decided to pursue a tea flavor.

As much as I love jasmine, it didn't seem like it would pair well with yogurt, the floral height of the jasmine with the funky tang of the yogurt culture, so I moved on to Kukicha, a green tea with small twigs, with a nutty, earthy taste but still the warm, distinct flavor of green tea. I thought it might give the concoction some barnyard flavors, the twigs with the funk of the yogurt and the grassy notes from the tea, but it seemed right in my head.

Now, how to get the tea in there? There's no liquid in that recipe beyond the yogurt, and I wasn't making the yogurt myself. If I were, Lulu observed, I could steep the tea in the milk first and then make the yogurt with that, a technique that apparently worked well for her making this recipe with lemongrass.

Instead, she suggested I look into Shuna's post on candying herbs, which I did, and it sounded straightforward enough: Heat simple syrup to 236F, dump in solid matter to shock it into recrystallizing, quickly pour onto a sheet to cool and crystallize, then dump the resulting chunks of candied herb sugar into a blender and plug your ears.

I did it the first time to the letter of the recipe and the sugar just... didn't recrystallize. Exactly 236F, added the tea, and watched as it turned into... crystal-clear (and sadly crystal-free) syrup with twigs and tea in it.

The irony is that confectioners work really hard to prevent recrystallization. It's hard, most of the time, and it shows: Most inexpensive fudge is gritty from the sugar recrystallizing, for example. Corn syrup is used in candies explicitly because it interferes with the granular sugar's attempts to recrystallize. Dairy does the same.

Usually keeping the solution fully liquid is a balancing act. And here I was, trying to throw myself off sideways as hard as I could, to no avail. I was confused.

The next batch I tried harder. I heated it up to 245, figuring if it still didn't recrystallize, maybe it would at least harden enough I could grind up the result (in my head, I knew this was untrue; 245 is barely firm-ball stage, the stage where the cooled result has the consistency of caramel.) I moistened the Kukicha I was going to dump in, just a little, and then put it in the freezer to get it as cold as possible, hoping the temperature difference would help catalyze the crystallization.

Still nothing. A pan of glassy, perfectly smooth syrup with some twigs and tea leaves in it. I was defeated. I'm not sure what the problem was. Maybe Texas is just too humid? Maybe I should have taken it off the heat when adding the herbs and let it sit to allow the crystals to grow? I don't really know what you do to cultivate crystals, because I've always been working hard to prevent them. Usually the cultivation isn't something you need to really work at.

I gave up on the Kukicha, but I had a crafty backup plan: matcha. I mixed a good few teaspoons of the green tea powder into the yogurt mix, tasting as I went (too little matcha and you can't taste it at all; too much and it's horribly bitter.) I got the mixture just right, froze it, scraped it into a tupperware container, and threw it in the freezer. OK, maybe I had a few spoonfuls in the process (it came out really well -- the flavors are a great combination!)

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