Sustenance

Food. Nourishment. Grub. Whatever you want to call that stuff you stuff into your mouth, its intended purpose is to support life.

I remember watching a TED Talk comparing the human brain to other animals. Our brains are more evolved because we cook our food. Could it really be that simple? It is, and here’s why: In order for the brain to grow and develop, it must be fed. The number of calories a human body burns in a day depends on its level of activity; but not your brain. It makes no difference if your brain is sleeping, designing rocket ships or trying to figure out common core math, it will burn 500 calories each and every day, no matter what.

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If you were a gorilla, and only ate raw twigs and leaves, you would have to spend most of your waking hours eating to consume enough calories just to stay alive. If a gorilla had the capacity to cook (or, at the very least, make a smoothie), it could reduce large volumes of food into smaller, more easily digestible meals. By doing so, it could consume many more calories in much less time, making it’s brain larger and, presumably, smarter.

“Hmm, I think this paleo diet is really working.”

So, it was the discovery of fire that essential transformed us into the species we are today. These are scientific facts, people, and I don’t dispute them. But here’s where I get tripped up: what was the turning point that changed our fuel from throwing the day’s kill onto the fire into dinner parties for eight, complete with wine pairings?

Who was the first Homo erectus Martha Stewart? Did she one day think, “Hmm, I wonder if this animal flesh would taste better combined with sprigs of vegetation and some roots?” Was it she that decided meals tastes better when shared with friends? “Hey, let’s invite the Uga-ugas over this Saturday night!”

Was this the advent of our complicated relationship with food?

It’s hard to picture an early ancestor sitting around the cave thinking, “I’m not really hungry, but I could go for a nosh.” I don’t think lower-food chain animals behave this way. Would a lion ever hunt down a gazelle because it’s feeling a tad peckish? Can you imagine a bear polishing off a salmon because there’s nothing good on TV? Or what if a chipmunk’s mate ran away? Would it scarf down all the nuts it was saving for winter because it had no access to raw cookie dough?

No, these disordered uses of food are strictly human. I hate to be a downer, but let’s face it: we sometimes take the very thing that’s meant to keep us alive and use it to slowly kill ourselves. They don’t call it “death by chocolate” for nothing.

And even if you have a very healthy diet, I doubt you view food as simply a way of transporting nutrients into your body. No, we modern-day humans have turned our food into so much more.

Food is a major component of our social lives. We use it to celebrate, to bring people together, to give pleasure, to comfort, to express love…all good things in moderation.

My personal relationship with food, and more specifically eating, is based on romance…and sometimes anger…but mostly romance. When I speak about a good meal, I create a narrative, a sensuous, seductive story detailing every nuance of every bite.

Once, while recommending a restaurant to a friend, my husband said, They have good ravioli.”

WHAT?

“Oh, no, no, no” I said. “They have delectable cheese-filled pasta pillows, that taste like they are lovingly assembled by the chubby hands of baby cherubs…so tender, I could have rested my head on them and slept.”

Now, that’s romantic. Want to know what’s not romantic? A date that does not involve a meal, that’s what.

Every Thursday night, my husband and I go on a date. Whether we’re seeing a show, or going to a concert, we always start by going out to dinner. One night, to mix things up a little, I suggested we have a quick bite at home and spend our date playing tennis. Great idea, right? Sure, if you think throwing a hissy fit on date night adds a nice spice to a marriage. I played so badly that the evening devolved into a lot of excuses, blaming, cursing, and pouting. Sexy, no? After that failed experiment, it was back to candlelit restaurants for us – back to savoring each seductive morsel with a good glass of wine and relaxing conversation.

And we judge others by what they eat.

I once threw a dinner party, not knowing one guest was in the middle of a cleanse. Why would someone on a cleanse come to a dinner party in the first place? You tell me. Anyway, he couldn’t eat anything I served, but as luck would have it, I made floral arrangements out of carnations, clementines, squash blossoms and Nasturtiums. So, he ate the centerpiece. True story! And, yes, we all judged him.

The bottom line is this: Food is complicated. We don’t really know why we eat the way we do, or why we like some things but loathe others. All we can really be sure of is that grub does more than just sustain our bodies. It nourishes our hearts, our imaginations, our relationships and feeds the soul.

Happy Thanksgiving from SNORK!

So, this Thanksgiving, I hope you find yourself sitting at a table with the people you love, feeling full of life’s blessings and enjoying all the flavors of this world’s abundance.

Matzo Ball Soup

(Don’t miss out on additional content. Listen to Matzo Ball Soup on SNORK, the podcast! Click Here!http://hwcdn.libsyn.com/p/d/e/a/dea34392b8dc86b6/Snork_Episode02.mp3?c_id=8785619&expiration=1429239792&hwt=2d30163003d047fd2e16267ba1170c58)

In the Spring of 1990, Easter and Passover landed on the same weekend. It just so happened, that was also the weekend I chose to bring my boyfriend home to meet my family. Since we are Catholic and he is Jewish, I thought why don’t I surprise him and make matzo ball soup with Easter dinner?!

I had never made it before and, truth be told, I’d never eaten it before either. But, I figured, it’s soup. How hard could it be?

Since I wanted to make a good impression, I called his mother and asked for her recipe.

“Manischewitz,” she said.

“Is that a cookbook?” I asked her

“No, no,” she said. “It’s a brand. It comes in a box. From the supermarket.”

“Oh,” I said. “But I kind of wanted to make your recipe. The one he grew up with.”

“Manischewitz,” she repeated. “Just throw some fresh chopped parsley in there. It makes it look more homemade.”

So, I went to the store to find the mix. The package claimed that one box made nine servings: a cup of broth and one matzo ball each.

This was perfect because 18 people were coming for dinner. I bought two boxes. Following the directions, I prepared the matzo meal, but when I rolled out the balls, they were as small as walnuts – miniscule.

I would be embarrassed to offer such a puny portion to my boyfriend. So, I went back to the store and bought two more boxes, then combined all the matzo meal and doubled the size of the balls. They still looked small to me, but it was actually better that way. I wouldn’t want everyone to fill up on soup, since my mother was cooking a huge ham. As you may have guessed, I hadn’t fully thought things through, menu-wise.

Once the balls were done, I carefully dropped them into the prepared broth. As per the package instructed, I covered it tightly.

While waiting for the soup to cook, I chopped the fresh parsley.

All this was going on at the same time that my family was getting to know my boyfriend. And by “getting to know” I mean “interrogating.”

After the soup was allowed to cook for the prescribed 20 minutes, I removed the lid.

It was like a David Copperfield trick. All of the broth, ever last drop, had disappeared. And each matzo ball had magically transformed into blobs the size of a grapefruit! But it was too late to start over. My mother had called everyone in to dinner and they were already seated. So I had to serve it.

Sinker!

To make matters worse, my mothers fancy china came with dainty little soup bowls. I could barely fit one ball in each.

My sister came into the kitchen to help me serve. She looked at one of the bowls, looked in the pot and asked, “What the hell are these?”

“Knock it off” I snapped. “They’re matzo balls, of course. What do they look like?”

“Grapefruits,” she replied.

“Never mind, just bring them out,” I said, as I hit each bowl with a few sprinkles of parsley. Oh, yeah. That parsley made all the difference. They looked homemade all right. Homemade by a shiksa who can’t follow directions from a box of soup mix.

My boyfriend looked at his bowl and I knew that he knew that I knew I’d screwed up. And then he said, “Sinkers! My favorite! These are just the way my mother made them.”

Now what do you do with a guy who’d tell such a sweet lie. You marry him of course. And that’s just what I did.

Give Them Love

For many, the holidays are a time of rejoicing, of abundance, and of feasting. But it can be the most difficult time of the year for many others. This SNORK is a public service announcement, dedicated to shining a light on a group of people who are often mocked, marginalized, and misunderstood. I am, of course, referring to vegans.

Oh, I can just hear you: “Who me? Why, some of my best friends are vegans!”

Please don’t try to defend yourself. I’ve seen it first-hand; the way people roll their eyes when someone announces their veganism. I’ve heard, “Well, I’d invite so-and-so to the dinner party, but have you ever tried cooking for a vegan? It’s a pain in the ass!”

I can tell you what it’s like from both perspectives because I, too, was once one of them.

It all happened very suddenly. I was working out at the gym one day, when my trainer handed me a copy Skinny Bitch. His message, while as subtle as a blood-curdling scream, was not lost on me. By the time I finished reading it, I was so repulsed by the thought of food, any food, that I ate nothing but organic strawberries for the next three days. I won’t go into details here, but if you’ve read it, you know what I mean.

So, just like that, without forethought, I made a drastic and life-changing decision. This was not a bright idea, by the way. It’s probably better to put a little planning into something that dramatic, but no – not me! I jumped right in. Hindsight might suggest that I was actually pushed into it by an over-enthusiastic 19-year-old trainer with less than 4% body fat, but I bear no ill will against him (and may he blow up like a balloon when he hits the age of 40). Anyway…

The first step toward my new lifestyle was to drive to Whole Foods and purchase about a trillion dollars worth of groceries marked “vegan.” Whole Foods makes it all so easy by clearly tagging vegan-friendly products. No pesky label reading for this girl. Thank you Whole Foods.

The next step was to eat the food identified as “vegan.” This was a little trickier than purchasing it. For example, there is a phenomenon known as “vegan cheese.” Now, if you have had a lifelong love affair with all things dairy, this rubbery impostor will make you cry real tears. I searched the web for the most recommended brands, bought them all, tested them in a variety of recipes and decided I’d rather go without than try to fool myself into believing this crap was cheese (or even food, for that matter).

After a few weeks, two things became obvious:

  1. The vegan foods from the supermarket are so highly processed, you may as well eat a Big Mac (no offense Mickey D), and
  2. Whenever mealtime rolled around, I wanted to curl into the fetal position. You see, preparing food was becoming a much bigger chore since my carnivorous days…so much so, in fact, that I hated eating.

Now this should alarm you. Here I was, a healthy American-Italian-Armenian (translation: unabashed food lover) and I did not want to eat. My meals became repetitive and uninspired. Breakfast: oatmeal with berries and almond milk. Lunch: peanut butter on apples or bananas. Dinner: sautéed vegetables with rice and beans, and a salad. Zzzzzzz…

I should mention that during this time, I did not force my family to get on board. Hubby and the kids were still enjoying omnivore cuisine. I would cook for them without ever feeling the least bit resentful as I listened to sunny-side-up eggs popping and squeaking in the frying pan. I did not once growl or grimace as I coated precious, tender lamb chops with my own concoction of mint, garlic, onions and lemon and then smelled their heavenly aroma as they sizzled upon the grill. Oh, no! I was more than happy to do it, while my rice was boiling on the stove.

You had me at ‘mallow.

I should also mention that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t so much fun to be around during my vegan adventure. As a result, my kids went from being normal teenagers to becoming food pushers: “Hey mom, you gotta try this provolone!” Or, “Tonight would be a great night for s’mores! Whaddya say?” They were desperate because I was becoming a real drag, a chronic cranky pants, to be exact. But I remained steadfast (against my own instincts). Oh, and are you surprised that vegans can’t have s’mores? Well, chocolate has milk in it and marshmallows (my kryptonite) are made with gelatin, which comes from pigs. So cross those off the list, along with every other delicious thing you can possibly think of.

Something else that I longed for was dining out. So hubby took me to a local Mexican restaurant and assured me there must be something on the menu that I could eat. Of course, I asked all the pertinent vegan questions to make sure there was not a hint of the verboten in my meal. After I sufficiently interrogated the waiter, I ordered a vegetable burrito (which was not on the menu, so I explained how to make one). When my dinner arrived, it was essentially under-cooked broccoli, with a few carrot slivers, wrapped in a tortilla. I just looked at it, sighed and drank my meat-free water. Misery.

And then, the moment I dreaded the most…we were invited to a Christmas party – a Christmas dinner party. I gave my husband strict instructions not to tell anyone I was a vegan. I did not want to be one of those preachy, demanding people with “dietary issues.” Surely I could navigate the meal by eating side dishes, after nonchalantly asking about their ingredients: “Wow, those Brussels sprouts look super tasty! What’s in them? Oh, bacon? Like real bacon or those soy bacon bits? Oh, real bacon. Ohhh.” Curse you, real bacon! And of course I could always fall back on the salad, and perhaps have some salad and maybe take a little salad. God help me if the hostess got creative by adding cheese to it.

That first party went off without a hitch. No one was the wiser. But the second soiree took a nasty turn. While performing my new skill of undercover food detective, I was able to ascertain which items on the table were OK and which were off-limits. But something must have had a hidden criminal element in it, such as chicken broth or perhaps butter. How do I know? Because when I got home, I was sicker than sick. It was the kind of sick that makes you fear you might die, and then fear that you might not. I had passed up the gorgeous beef Wellington, skipped the creamy mashed potatoes, and ignored the luscious cheesecake only to be taken down by the wild rice or some frigging yams! Unbeknownst to me, when you give up animal product for any length of time and then eat it again, your body holds a clearance sale: Everything Must Go!

Yet I still wasn’t willing to give up. Why? Truth be told, I never felt physically better in my life (with the exception of the aforementioned “incident”). Gone was the arthritis pain in my knee. No more belly bloat. No more general malaise. Psychologically, however, I was feeling pretty damn sorry for myself. But, life is full of trade-offs. Right? Certainly I would get used to this new way of eating. Right? People, I do not have what it takes to make a successful martyr. Sorry. No can do.

But here’s what finally tipped the scales and put me back on the meat wagon…my old pal, Whole Foods.

Each November, Whole Foods publishes a holiday menu full of catering fare. I always have at least 30 people for holiday dinners and, handy though I may be in the kitchen, I am not equipped to run a banquet hall. So I’ve always turned to Whole Foods for an assist. Basically I order the same things every year: one shrimp cocktail platter that serves 12 (if you show up late, you’re out of luck, my friend), an assorted crudité platter that serves 24, one Brie en croute that serves up to 10, and a double order of their turkey dinner for 8 (which consists of two turkeys and various sides). While flipping through the menu in search of additional dishes to round out the meal, I saw it. There it was, on page 10…the saddest thing you can imagine, especially during the holidays. Among the sumptuous offerings of “Rib Roast Dinner for 8” and “Roasted Pork Loin for 4” was “Vegan Dinner…for 1.”

One is the loneliest number.

One is the loneliest number.

In that moment, it all came into focus. I was alone. I was dinner for one. And, bloat be damned, I was hungry for cheese. Glorious, glorious cheese! And marshmallows. Real marshmallows made from Porky Pig! And wild salmon! And beef! I broke down is a puddle of my own wanton desire. It was not pretty, but it was bound to happen.

Therefore, when I say to you, “vegans need love,” I know what I’m talking about. So, the next time you meet one, or have to cook for one, or have to eat with one, keep an open mind. Do not judge. Do not mock. Instead, open your arms and give that skinny bitch a hug.

 

My New Lover

I’m going to do some things in today’s post that I’ve never done in this blog before.  For starters, I’m going to tell you what really gets my motor going.  I’m going to get specific.  And I’m going to name names.  Brace.

Women often have to think outside the box to spice things up at home.  Well, I’m no different.  There was something I’d been fantasizing about, craving, and wanting for some time…to bring a pro into our lives.  When I finally got up the nerve to tell my husband, he blanched a little, but ultimately climbed on board and agreed to satisfy my longing.  Of course, I’m referring to the Vitamix Professional Series 750, which I asked Hubby to give me for Christmas.  He balked because it’s a pricey piece of equipment, but you get what you pay for (and, trust me, I am getting my money’s worth).  If you’ve never seen one, well…it’s really sort of a blender, but to call it that diminishes its fabulousness, as far as I’m concerned.

For the record, I’m not hawking this thing or getting paid to mention it.  It’s just that I’m in the mood…to share.

Diamonds, exotic vacations, and fancy cars make some women swoon.  Me?  I go bonkers for scullery gadgets.  I like the aforementioned fine things, too, but gift me with something shiny that plugs into the kitchen, and I get that certain kind of feeling all over.  You would be hard-pressed to come up with a culinary accessory that I don’t own.  I have juicers, stand mixers, pasta machines, espresso makers…all of it.  Oh, and just in case you’re getting ideas, please be advised: I do not share, lend, or otherwise allow the touching of my wares.  So don’t even ask me.

Anywho, before I enter into any committed relationship, I do my research.  I had been lusting after a Vitamix for several years, but since it runs about $700, I really had to want it and want it bad.  What first attracted me was its ability to make things hot (like soup) and cold (like frozen desserts).  How is this even possible?  As part of my investigation, I visited Sur La Table and started poking around.  When approached by the store’s manager, I began pumping him about the Vitamix Pro 750.

“Rather than tell you,” he purred, “Why don’t I show you?”

Uh-oh!  He planned to tantalize me with a demonstration.  Before he even started, I knew I’d be powerless against his seduction.

He produced a stalk of celery, snapped it in half and put it in the container.  Then he whipped out the biggest carrot I’d ever seen in my life.  He cut it into three pieces (just three!!) and placed them with the celery, then added about half a cup of apple juice.  Flipping a switch, the contents were reduced to a liquid within seconds.  I actually, audibly gasped.  Then, just to drive the point home, he let it run a little longer.  The contents became hot and steamy.  He gave me a taste.  It was like a soup my husband loves – a soup that normally takes over an hour to make.  I began daydreaming of all the things I wanted to do with that machine.  My reverie was interrupted when I realized a crowd had formed.  Strangers were watching.  I felt my cheeks get hot and flushed.

Already fully enrapt, I nearly collapsed when he showed me how to clean it.  He filled it half-way with warm water and added two drops of dish soap.  Running the pre-programmed cleaning cycle, which takes just one minute, it was sparkling (needing only to have the suds rinsed out).  No dismantling.  No screwing and unscrewing.  Heaven help me, I was a goner.

Since receiving this magnificent piece of machinery, I have used it every single day.  My All-Clad 7-Qt. Deluxe Slow Cooker is starting to get jealous, but I don’t care.  I’m in love.

Now, I’m going to do the second thing I’ve never done in this blog:  I’m going to give you a recipe.  It’s for my Carrot-Orange Soup, based on a recipe from the original Silver Palate Cookbook.  The ingredients are basically the same, but the proportions and method are mine. Here goes…

Anita's Pro 750 Carrot-Orange Soup

Anita’s Pro 750 Carrot-Orange Soup

 1 tablespoon of butter

1 tablespoon of olive oil

1 large Vidalia onion, peeled and cut in half

4 gigantic carrots, peeled and cut into thirds

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (divided)

1 medium orange

1 cup orange juice

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Options:

 ½ cup toasted papitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)

fresh orange zest

2 teaspoons mild curry powder

1” chunk of fresh ginger (peeled)

Method:

In a large saucepan, heat the oil and butter over medium heat.  While waiting for the butter to melt, place half the stock, onion and carrots into the Vitamix  Pro 750 (if you’re using ginger, throw that in there, too).  Turn the dial to “1” and pulse about 5 times to pulverize the onions and carrots (some chunks might remain.  That’s OK).  Add the carrot/onion blend to the oil/butter mixture (if using curry, stir it in now).  Squeeze in the juice of the orange.  Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes.  Pour the whole kit and caboodle back into the Vitamix, add remaining stock, and run the pre-programmed “soup” function.  When the machine stops running, stir in the orange juice by hand and divide into serving bowls.  Garnish with the orange zest and papitas.  I like to serve it with Glutino gluten-free Cheddar crackers. Makes 4 servings.  If you don’t have a Vitamix Professional Series 750, you’ll just have to get one, ‘cuz you can’t borrow mine.