Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jumping Off The Master Cleanse Bridge

It wasn't long after the new year that the topic of cleansing became de rigueur at work.  If someone in the building wasn't mid-cleanse, someone's wife was, or a candidate was, and pretty soon my work partner Lauren was carving away ten days at the beginning of February to enter The Master Cleanse.  

The Master Cleanse is a liquid diet created almost 70 years ago by Stanley Burroughs, who may not have been a pioneer in fad diets, but certainly made his mark on the fashion and entertainment industry of this decade after Beyonce's remarkable 22-pound-in-14-day loss for her role in Dreamgirls.  During the cleanse, you spend 10 days or more on a tonic of organic lemon juice, grade B maple syrup, and cayenne pepper.  These days are to be bookmarked by a couple days of juicing/raw foods in an effort to prevent system shock going in and out of the cleanse.

Watching Lauren, the perennial optimist, moon over the magical effects of the cleanse before, during and after her journey, I found myself losing my trademark skepticism.  Lauren felt like she had re-calibrated her entire body: I wanted to feel my body re-calibrate.  Lauren lost 10 pounds: I wanted to lose 10 pounds.  Lauren fell in love during her cleanse: I wanted to fit into all those pants I've bought on faith of finally getting in shape.  I thought about it a lot.  How fast does 10 days go by anyway?  I finally got to where I couldn't get the cleanse out of my mind, so I chose a day (a Saturday), read a few websites (though none of the warnings), found the best price on organic lemons and grade B maple syrup (People's Co-op), and had a final meal of braised kale and popcorn.    Also to my credit, I withdrew on coffee and sugar the week before. 

Challenging? Yes. Stupid? Yes.  Enlightening? Yes. Depriving oneself of their raison d'etre (in my case, not just eating and cooking but thinking on, researching and discussing food) has led to some intense moments of introspection...and boredom, loneliness, and despondency.  First and foremost, most social interaction revolves around food.  Or alcohol.  Or coffee.  Take away eating and drinking,  you take away visiting with friends.  I venture to say that at this point in my life I'm almost purely a food-socializer.  I don't go to shows, readings or lectures, I go out to dinner or I orchestrate gatherings around food.   Sure, ten days can go by in regular life without a dinner party or restaurant rendezvous, but without a friendly coffee or quick trip to the rice-and-bean cart at lunch?   Secondly, when I am home alone, in my element, well if the tv isn't on, I'm usually reading a cookbook, food magazine or curating my recipe collection.  And when I'm not doing that, I'm probably cooking something.   Which brings me back to the impetus for the cleanse in the first place--to live without food for some time is to realize its importance, and hopefully to raise it to a more esteemed level.  Separating it's superficial hold over me as a compulsive obsession and giving it the thoughtful attention it deserves.  Learning the difference, possibly for the first time, between authentic hunger and boredom.  

What I've learned: in regular life, I'm often not as hungry as I think I am.  Also, I do enjoy a certain feeling of internal cleanliness, though all told, I think I'm pretty goddam healthy with a balanced diet that does include wheat, dairy and meat. It's towards the end of Day 8, with 2 more days (plus tonight-and night is always the hardest time) to get through.  Though I've been taking this journey literally one hour at a time, I do believe I'll make it to day ten, unless my fear of success prevents me from meeting that feat.  

Monday, February 9, 2009

Refrigerator Gumbo

I often prefer to have a (nearly) empty fridge to a full one, for the sheer thrill of making something out of practically nothing.  Since a few posts back oh so many months ago, I've been doing the boring old routine of moderate diet-and-exercise to the tune of being down about 5 pounds, but more severe than limiting intake of food has been limiting my expenditure of cash.  I am incredibly grateful to still have a job but I've steadily been living slightly above my means ever since I paired down to a one-person (one dog, one cat) household.  Currently, I have a $15 dollar-a-day food budget.  The last year and a half marks the first time in my professional life that I am not surrounded by free food and beverage all the live long day.   Although technically I can still eat and drink for free at Half & Half, I choose not to abuse that privilege too much, mostly because I tend to piss off Jeff and the staff seem to fear me.  The reality is $15 doesn't get you very far for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you don't do at least 2 of those meals yourself.  If you manage to curate a good pantry, stock your fridge with the basics and shop with a modicum of a plan, you can still enjoy a few great meals out every week.  I inevitably end up going over my budget at some point, but the fact that I'm tracking means I probably don't up as deeply in the hole as I would otherwise. 

Anyway, tonight's challenge was: make something with the perishable leftovers in the fridge which included: 
-taco meat from the superbowl (previously frozen, thawed for last night's Ladies Nacho Night, but not all eaten)
-beans from Ladies Nacho Night
-rice from beans-and-rice-taco-salad (?) lunch
-half a tomato
The challenge: Nothing Mexican.  I've kind of had enough of tacos and nachos lately, I'm shocked to admit to myself.   It's still the middle of winter.  The economy is scary.  I have too much work to do.  Soup is the restorative answer.  And not a taco soup.  I settle on riffing on gumbo, something I've never made before.

I am hard pressed to think of a cuisine I don't like.  There are a couple though, that I am almost indifferent towards, and that is Ethiopian and Cajun.  I won't diss them, but I will usually opt for Chinese instead.  For some reason however, whether it's a renewed sense of patriotism or my maiden discovery of creole flavors, I've "started seeing" gumbo.  First, it was looking for something to do with a shitload of okra in my freezer.  Then, it was a piece on a famous Cajun home cook in the NY Times Magazine, and soon I was open to the idea.  Tonight's bounty gave me the excuse to take a stab at it.  

Carrots, onion, celery and garlic were thankfully on hand.  As was some  chicken stock, which I now always have in the freezer thanks to my monthly duty of making dog food that always yields a few quarts of the stuff.  

I started with a roux: 1 T. canola oil and 1 T. flour.  Never before, at least in memory, have I actually made a dark roux, the kind that takes on color and actually smells nutty.  I pretty much limited roux for bechamel and occasionally the backbone for a soup, but I've never spent much time coaxing the flavor from the marriage of fat and flour into something other than a scientific property.  Maybe one of the reasons I've never cared for Cajun (is creole a different cuisine? must look into that) food is that I've just never had good Cajun food? In any event, I cooked the roux to a nice toffee brown for about 1o minutes while chopping my onions, celery and carrot.   I added those and after they released some aromatic aroma I threw in some thyme (dried), half of a tomato (diced) and garlic (minced).   I allowed this to cook a little longer and then added my chicken one frozen chunk because I was too lazy to use another pot.  No difference, just melt the stock at a lower temperature at first and count on it taking longer.  

Once the stock melted and heated I added the rice, beans and beef.  Have to admit I wasn't planning on using the beef originally, but threw it in on a whim knowing it could make or break the soup.  Sure, some Andouille sausage would have been nice, as would some shrimp or confit duck, but the whole point was to make it work with what I had, and use up as many perishable goods as possible.  After that reached a boil I added some okra (frozen, sliced) and corn (frozen):  my freezer is an equal opportunity forum for using leftovers.  A teeny bit of tamari soy sauce to give it the umami that would have been delivered in the sausage.  A pinch of salt. Generous grindings of black pepper and as a finishing touch, about 3 Tablespoons of leftover salsa (Herdez brand, comes in a can, it's better than $8 fancy salsa).   The results?  A little bit spicy, pretty hardy and legitimately good.  I'm especially fond of the corn and okra aspects, and of course the broth.   And my net cost on food for today and through lunch tomorrow will be $0, which means I can go crazy somewhere else in the week.