Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cold (weather) Comfort

“As you grow older, you'll find the only things you regret are the things you didn't do.”
~~ Zachary Scott

I have a relatively short list of regrets in life. I probably should regret more of the things I've done but ... meh, why dwell on the past?

However, one regret I do hold on to is that my interest in cooking didn't develop until after my grandmother had passed away. I missed an opportunity to learn some amazing, old-school Southern cooking techniques from her.

Mama, as she was known in my family, was pretty much a stereotypical Southern grandmother who, along with my grandfather and their big brood of kids, moved from the hills of western North Carolina to Delaware back when my mother was still a young girl.
My grandfather and she grew all their own produce. Not only did they have huge garden tracts that grew an amazing array of vegetables but also an apple orchard, pear trees, peach trees, grape arbors, strawberry patches, three colors of raspberries, blueberries, a chestnut tree, two kinds of cherry trees.... I could keep going.
Much of childhood was spent at my grandparent's home. My many cousins and I were granted plenty of play time and going there was always a treat, but we were still expected to do our share of chores and those gardens provided plenty of that. There was hoeing, weeding, picking and hauling. Planting was mostly grown-up or “older kid” work; it was too important to get right to allow younger children to do.

Then there was the time spent “under the trees”. This referred to a cluster of shade maples in their yard that was the official gathering space for socializing, outdoor dining, or just enjoying the breeze with a glass of iced tea in your hand. Of course, this was also the space for the seated chores. During the “picking time”, that glass of iced tea and socializing came with bushel baskets full of produce to work on. There were green beans to snap, limas to hull, corn to shuck, cherries to pit, apples to peel & slice and so on.
Much of that produce was canned. They had a fire pit out behind the “freezer house” that held a large metal wash tub that Papa would pack full over and over again with produce-laden mason jars, boiling away before they were taken to fill the shelves of their cellar. Not only did they store enough vegetables and fruits to feed themselves through the winter, but they had plenty to give away to our considerably large extended family.
Of course, going to Mama & Papa's meant you got to, nay, had to, let her feed you. When I think back, it seems like my grandmother's wood-fired stove/oven was constantly going, turning out amazing food. Pies made from fruits that were picked that morning, biscuits and cornbread (and no Jenifer, there was no sugar in that cornbread). There were roasts and casseroles, fried chicken, fresh veggies with butter, and she made sure that the pot of water was boiling before she sent us kids to go pick the corn for fresh corn on the cob.
If you can think of a classic Southern dish, it was undoubtedly in Mama's repertoire. And never once do I recall seeing a recipe book. She cooked from memory and good old-fashioned know how.

I can still faintly remember some of the smells that came from her kitchen, and to this day, it sets my mouth to watering. I know I was just a kid, but I could kick myself for not taking the time to learn some of what she had to teach.

There a a bunch of different dishes of hers that I dearly loved, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be her chicken & dumplings. It was rich and silky with big chunks of pulled chicken and pillowy yet hearty drop style dumplings. Talk about a happy childhood memory...

Even though I never learned Mama's recipe, chicken & dumplings is still one of my favorite comfort foods. It's one of those foods that sends the winter chill running scared from your body.
The cool thing is that for the most part, chicken & dumplings is a relatively healthy dish. It's basically a light chicken stew. The biggest problem is the dumplings. They are essentially little lumps of white flour, delicious lumps of white flour but still not the best form of carbohydrates to eat in quantity. The tweak here is simple, up the complex carbs, back off on, if not eliminate the white flour and keep the deliciousness. Can do.

First of all, we want to go heavy on the vegetables. That's a good way to lighten up and “healthify” ( I just coined that word. If you use it, you have to send me a check.) many dishes. In fact, it's a very, VERY good idea to increase the amount of vegetables in your life.

Next up are those pesky (if delicious ) dumplings. Clearly we need to replace most, if not all, of that white flour with a more complex carbohydrate. Using a healthier flour like whole wheat, oat, garbanzo or brown rice flour is one option, but you are going to sacrifice some flavor and texture and only gain a small margin of health benefit.
The better option would be to base the dumplings on something other than flour. I chose one of my favorite sources of healthy, complex carbs, sweet potatoes.
Yes, this does create a rather dramatic shift in the flavor profile of the dish, but it's a shift in a very tasty direction.

Chicken & Sweet Potato Dumplings

1 large roasting chicken
6 cups good quality chicken stock or broth
2 bay leaves
1 jumbo yam
3 large carrots peeled & diced
1 medium onion peeled & diced
4 ribs celery diced
2 parsnips peeled & diced
1 cup chopped mushrooms, I used porcini
1 Tbs canola oil
1 cup peas
1 Tbs chopped fresh thyme
2 tsp chopped fresh marjoram
1 egg
4 Tbs whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
salt & pepper to taste

After thoroughly rinsing the chicken with cold water, place it in a sauce pot with the stock & bay leaves. Bring it to a simmer & cook until the chicken is done, approximately 15 minutes.

Remove the pot & place in a colander that is set inside a mixing bowl so the chicken can drain but you catch all that delicious liquid. Skim the fat off the top of the broth.

Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, pick off the meat in large chunks. Save the meat, but discard the skin & bones.

Cook the sweet potato. You can peel it and boil it but, I advise against it; you lose flavor & vitamins and add excess moisture to the dumplings, which will require adding more flour. I recommend baking it or doing what I do, put it on a plate, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and microwave it for 8-10 minutes.
Scoop the flesh of the sweet potato into a mixing bowl and smash it up with a fork.

Place a large pot over medium heat, add in the canola oil (you can also use 1 Tbs of the chicken fat you skimmed from the top of the broth) and the chopped vegetables. Don't add the peas yet.
Season with a pinch of salt & pepper and saute, stirring frequently until the veggies begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in the herbs and 1 Tbs of wheat flour and continue to stir & cook for another 90 seconds.

Add in the stock a bit at a time, stirring well to make sure no lumps of flour form. Bring the mixture to a low simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. Check seasoning and adjust if needed.

Add the egg to the sweet potato & mix well. Add in the spices, a small pinch of salt & pepper, then the baking soda. Stir in the remaining flour, but be careful. All yams aren't created equal you have to judge how much flour to use. You want the dumpling mixture to be a thick but workable paste, slightly sticky to the touch.

With the liquid still simmering, drop the dumpling mix in round spoonfuls into the stew. Keep adding until all the dumpling mix is used. Stir the pot very gently from time to time, separating the dumplings but not breaking them up.

Once all the dumplings are added & floating, carefully add in the pulled chicken and the peas. Cook for another two minutes.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The January Bump & the Resolution Shuffle

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."
~~ Thomas Edison

I just got home from the gym and it's in full swing: the January gym bump. The annual influx of New Year's resolutioners who this year really are going to lose those extra pounds and get in shape.

I don't mean to sound cynical. I actually like seeing so many new people making the effort to get healthy. It is just sad knowing that by mid-February, most of those new faces will be gone from the gym, their resolutions left in the junk drawer along with their membership cards.

That's the way of it though, isn't it? Everyone breaks their New Year's resolutions, don't they?
It's become so common that it seems like there is practically no stigma attached to abandoning your resolution. In fact, it's pretty much expected.
I just read a friend's blog post today about how they are making changes to the way they eat in accordance with their resolution. Then, in the very next sentence, they say that odds are they will revert back to old habits by mid-February. I'm no psychologist, but I have to think that entering into your resolution with a defeatist attitude like that is a recipe for failure.
Can you say self-fulfilling prophesy?

It's easy to see why we fall into this pattern though. The holidays have just ended, and many of us have spent the last several weeks celebrating and consuming more than usual. Plus, all the partying and general hectic bustle of the holidays have left us no time to exercise.
Now it's January, the holiday treats are gone, the social events are done and I'm so over partying and just want to calm down and get back to normal.
Suddenly, we've got all that time we were spending shopping and socializing to devote getting rid of those extra pounds. We've got the resolve, we have the opportunity, and we're going to seize it!

The problem is that the January slow down only lasts so long. Sooner or later, life starts getting interesting again; social events and other activities start popping up and the next thing you know, the lighter diet and exercise program get left on the side of the road as we drive off towards Spring.

As a Chef, I have seen this pattern reflected in the restaurant and catering business my whole career. The holiday season is crazy time, often the busiest time of the year. Then right after New Year's, the rooms full of customers eating & drinking abruptly vanish and in one day, you've gone from the busiest time of the year to the slowest. Things stay slow through January, and as we head into February, the customers and catering events start to return. By the time Spring is in bloom, the business has often returned to normal levels.

Since I have been serving healthy food for those looking to lose weight and get in shape, I have a reversed business pattern. During the holiday season, my business declines as many of my clients choose to give in to the lure of the festive season and let their diets run wild. In January I get a sharp increase in business, not only from returning clients but new ones looking to make good on those resolutions. I do fairly well keeping clients on track but still, by late winter a percentage of them have gone off our program.

So what's the solution to the resolution/de-resolution dilemma? How do you keep from de-rezzing?
Yep, I just made a Tron reference. :)

If you are really looking to make meaningful changes to your body, maybe what you need is a plan. A plan instead of a resolution is a good idea. A plan to help you achieve your resolution is an even better idea. However, I think the best approach is having a resolution that is a step to help you carry out your plan.

What's the distinction I'm drawing between a resolution and a plan? A resolution is a singular adjustment, one change to how you do things. However, to live a healthier lifestyle, just about all of us will need to make a number of changes to how we eat (most of the time) and stay active. If you can make small changes, little course corrections to your life, you may be surprised how quickly good habits get made and the results begin to add up. That's where the plan comes in.
This post is already getting rather wordy, so we'll talk plan in later entries.

If you are still working out your resolution, there are a few guidelines that might help you keep it.

First off, make it specific. Vague resolutions like “losing weight” or “eating better” are more likely to be broken. A better option would be to swear off eating from any place that has a drive-thru or eat nothing that comes in a plastic wrapper. It's far too easy to abandon a resolution if there is nothing concrete to continue.

At the same time, be careful to not set overly lofty goals for yourself. In fact, it's best not to make a goal your resolution. Better to make your resolution a part of the process.
How about dusting off that bathroom scale & resolving to weigh yourself every morning? That can be a great way to keep yourself on track.
Or if you take frequent, short elevator trips, you can adopt the 2 up/3 down rule. You'll take the stairs if you are going up two floors or fewer, down three floors or fewer: even if the elevator door is open and waiting when you walk by.
That would literally be a little course correction, eh?

Sometimes is helps to tell someone, tell many someones, about your resolution. It might give you a bit more motivation to stick with it if you garnish the resolution with a little social pressure.

There are a number of little tricks to help you keep your resolution. Just remember to start with something you can keep going and transform into a long term habit. Of course to know what works for you, you first have to know yourself, and knowing yourself is the first step in making your plan.
But that's a topic for another blog entry.