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Monday, May 20, 2013

A Hairy Situation

Last year, an amazing initiative took place at my children's school: the lower school kids were invited to donate at least 8 inches of their hair to make wigs for pediatric cancer patients. My hair was pretty short then, and when I asked my daughter if she'd like to participate in that incredibly generous deed, she declined, because she was terrified she'd end up with ultra short hair. I understood, and we agreed we would both let our hair grow the whole year and then donate it.
Last week, all of this year's volunteers gathered at Salon Moscow on the Upper East Side (which actually donated its services) for a massive hair cut that ended up in more than 15 pony tails destined to become wigs for children who are suffering hair loss due to their treatment.
While at the salon, my throat was tangled in a gigantic knot. I was trying to hold in the tears. It was incredible: all these kids between 6 and 10 years old, mostly girls, plus an adorable pair of sibling boys, some teachers and moms lining up to donate their hair. The good energy was palpable, everyone felt good and proud. Nervous, but proud.

I was 6 years old when my mother started her cancer treatment. She lost all her brunette, long and lush mane, and it never grew back. A cancer patient goes through physical torture in order to try to survive. Unfortunately, there's little we can do to help with that (although visiting the sick has proved to be effecting in uplifting the patient's moral, and contribute in the healing process), and on top of all that, the patient witnesses his or her appearance deteriorate with complete impotence. They are sick inside and the mirror and other people's reactions to they way they look, just keep screaming at them how ill they are. Few things more demoralizing for an individual that looking different and evidently sick.
And that's why, in my mind, with just a simple haircut, we were helping those patients feel so much better about themselves, and that was priceless.

It turned out that that was easy for me to say...I cover my hair on a daily basis, and I'm not an 8-year-old whose lovely, waist-llength hair suddenly shrank up to her shoulders, after 12 months of watching it grow longer and longer.
I was over the moon proud of my daughter, and her enthusiastic approach toward the project. However, when she saw herself in the mirror right after the cut, the shock got the best of her. We got home and she locked herself in the bathroom and refused to come out so no one could see her. I tried to convince her of how wonderful she looked (she does look beautiful!), how healthy her hair was now, how the New Moon was the perfect time to get a haircut, I gifted her the beanie hat she loves the most from my hat collection, I tried rationalizing, explaining, hugging, and she just announced how she and her friends agree that "I always make her do things."
I felt so bad, so guilty, so sad. Such a bad parent...I wanted to teach her the lesson that some times we can sacrifice ourselves a bit in order to help someone who has lost health and even a bit of dignity due to a disease that shows up randomly, damaging happy lives. I wanted her to learn that with small acts of kindness, we can do our part on healing hearts. I wanted her to learn that the haircut would eventually make her soul and her hair grow stronger. I wanted her to become resilient and be able to endure the haircut for a bigger cause. And by trying to do that, all I had done was hurting her self esteem.
Bad mom, pushy mom, bossy mom, mean mom...
At some point, when she was still crying "I look ugly," I thought of my mother, and how bad she must have felt the first time she saw her reflection in the mirror after her chemo. Her hair wasn't shoulder length, it was gone. Then I downloaded a photo of a child with cancer and decided to show it to my daughter. I asked her how she thought this kid (who actually came with a name) must feel about her looks. Suddenly, my daughter reacted and agreed to leave the bathroom. She wrote a list of the pros and cons of her haircut and fell asleep.
She was pretty upset the next morning and didn't want to go to school. Bad, pushy mommy got into action. We eventually got to school (even later than our usual) and her friends welcomed her with cheers, many said that they'd love to donate their hair too, they touched her new coif and tried on her new purple beanie (which instantly put me on lice terror alert, but I can't really complain, as she felt so good and proud of herself, that bad, pushy mommy had to swallow her "no hair accessory sharing policy"). During the weekly school assembly, all the donors were called to the front and a emotional slide show of the whole thing was shown to all the students. Everyone got a glimpse of the atmosphere at the salon, and the admiration for the kids who participated made them all feel great.
As I saw my daughter feeling better, I realized that even if it had hurt me learning that I'm a topic of criticism in the conversations with her friends, it may not be so bad, that I "make her do things," because it's actually part of the job description I accepted when I delivered her into this world. If I'm not the one trying to show her what I consider the right way, who will do it? I'm sure that the way I consider the "right" one might be debatable, and I'm learning by daily trial and error. 
All I'm 100% sure about is that she'll need therapy due to my making her do things. But I also think that her treatment will be way shorter if she has to see the shrink for that reason, than if I didn't make her do anything.    

And among the other things I make my daughter and son do, is to "take care of their bodies" by eating their fruits and veggies.
A couple of moths ago, I discovered how much my daughter loves fruit smoothies, so now, I make her one every morning. It's all fruit with just a bit of water. It's different every day, depending on what we have. But it's always made with some fresh and some frozen fruit. The secret is to always add at least one of the following frozen fruits to ensure sweetness:
mango
pineapple
cherries
You can also use banana, but in our case, it's the only fruit she doesn't like, so I omit it.

To the frozen fruit I add fresh peeled, but whole clementines or oranges, berries (fresh or frozen, any kind), peaches, melon, fresh figs, apples and/or pears (I don't peel those fruits with edible peels).

I throw everything (let's say a handful of each) in the food processor (a good blender works even better and makes no mess, but since mine broke and I'm saving for my children's shrinks, the processor will do for now) with about 1/4 to 1/2 cup water and I puree the whole thing. She drinks it immediately, and I recommend anyone to do so as well, because as it warms, the fruit separates and it's not as tasty.
You can adjust fruit and water quantities according to your taste.
This is a sweet, but vitamin, fiber and antioxidant loaded way of starting the day, and since by drinking the concoction, there's way more fruit in her body than if she were eating it. So even if that's the only fruit she eats for the whole day, there's plenty and I don't have to nag for it.

Now, by popular demand when people see me slurping a green, brown or purple beverage at school drop off, here's a more detailed description of what I'm drinking. There's no exact recipe, as I always eye it and change it depending on what's left in my fridge, freezer, fruit bowl and memory.
This smoothie is my breakfast. I started drinking it when I decided to cleanse my diet (a bit more than a month now), and I love it! I love how it tastes and I love how I feel after I drink it: energized, focused and my body feels light and easy to move.
I usually make it with whatever is left over in the processor after I make my daughter's smoothie, but it's also to whip it up from scratch.

AWESOME GREEN, BROWN OR PURPLE SMOOTHIE  

Ingredients:
4 ounces (about 3 large handfuls) fresh leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and/or chard*
4 or more leaves Romaine lettuce (from the heart)
1 mini-seedless cucumber
1 to 1 1/2 cups fruit (fresh and frozen, such as the mentioned above, although pineapple goes really well with kale in smoothies)
1 to 2 cups of water, depending on desired consistency
2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon RAW (unpasteurized) apple cider vinegar, or to taste, but don't omit it! It's key! 
  
*I often buy organic prewashed mixed baby greens and I like using chard, because it's easy to wash and the stems are edible.

Optional:
  • To add fiber and omega 3's : 2 teaspoons chia (whole or ground), you know I'd never leave this ingredient out!
  • To add fiber: 2 teaspoons psyllium husk (sold as supplement in vitamin shops or at Whole Foods)
  • To super-charge with non-caffeine energy and for hormonal balance: 1 1/2 teaspoons maca powder
  • To add Vitamin E, healthy oils and make it creamy: 1/2 avocado, pitted
  • To add sweetness, fiber, iron and more vitamins: dried white mulberries (soaked overnight in water) 
  • Even more antioxidants: 1 packet frozen unsweetened acai puree (sold in freezer at health food stores) or goji berries (soaked overnight in water)
  • For good vegetarian protein: hemp protein powder (sold in health food stores)
  • Other great additions: fennel, cooked beets (peeled), lemon or lime juice, fresh ginger, fresh mint, basil, dill or other fresh herbs. Some people like 1 celery stick, I personally rather eat my celery than have it in my smoothie, but we all have different tastes, so don't be afraid to try it!

Method:


Just add all the ingredients into the bowl of a large food processor or a powerful blender. 
Puree. 
Adjust amount of water to taste and desired consistency. You can always add more cherries, other fruit or vinegar.
Serve. Drink up and thank yourself!   

Serves 1-2 people. Keeps covered refrigerated for 1 day.
    

      

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Cookbook Tower or The Anatomy of a Salad

Q: What's a Jewish Mother's worst dilemma?

A: Ham on sale!

Well, my husband is much better at delivering the punchline, but that joke does summarize my attitude towards shopping. I believe it might have to do with the fact that I feel a personal attraction towards anything going on sale. Since I was a little girl, people dear to my heart have called me ALE (much to my mother's dismay, as she specifically chose a long name to go well with my short last name, but she ended up calling me Ale too). Every time I see the word SALE anywhere, I feel the sign is calling my name specifically, as in SALE (I know. It's pronounced differently, but I read the sale signs, and the 3 letters are there). I get bewitched by the offer and some times, I end up purchasing things just because they are on sale, and no other logical reason. I haven't made it to ham just yet, but during last Black Friday, I found myself with both of my children at Barnes and Noble, because my daughter was using gift cards she received for her birthday. It was all about her, until a 40% off plus my 10% member's discount on the Modernist Cuisine at Home stopped me on my track. 
I had been eying the huge tome since it came out. Of course, it had all started when its author launched his first 5-book collection Modernist Cuisine at the chutzpah-less price of $500.00, and since that's what I make for a whole year of hard work, the collection was just an unattainable desire. A year later, he and his team of chefs, scientists, photographers, etc came up with this one book adapted for the home cook at a fraction of the professional version. And that day, it was there... in front of me, and at a deep discount. SAle, sAle, sAle....it was calling my name!!!
"I can always return it," I thought, and I took the 100 lb. piece of culinary literature home.
Once I opened it,  I would never return it. It is pompous, and requires some uber sophisticated equipment that I will never own, and although it's for people cooking at home, it's not for the average home cook with a regular human life with a job and a family (of finicky eaters) to feed following all the after school activities. It's obsessive-compulsive in detail, measurements, photography, aesthetics and language. And it's also revolutionary, interesting, and a very important foodie tool backed by science. I've made an incredible vegan gelato, a toasted corn stock, the best no-knead pizza dough, among other things, and all have been outstanding! Even the way the recipes are written teach the cook how to cook well in the best possible and efficient way. It's just the technique for how to cook now (if cooking is your hobby, as you have to be passionate about food in order to really make this investment worth it), if you find the kitchen a place to have fun and feel adventurous.

I did feel remorse after the purchase, because yes, I have too many cookbooks, so many, that besides the ones stored in the pantry and the bookshelf, I've managed to produce a conversation piece that guests can't decide if it's a safety hazard, evidence of sick consumerism, a modern piece of art in the dining room, or a lack of shelving (but don't worry, the books are all safely stacked in a Sapien bookshelf from the Container Store).  


However, after thinking it over for a couple of days, I realized that I needed to make peace with the fact that I am a cookbook collector and that's OK. I was trying to find ways of justifying myself, until I decided I didn't need to. Food is what I love, what I know and do, and what I want to keep learning about, and to do so, cookbooks are an essential tool. They allow me to travel, to meet amazing cooks who live far away, to taste flavors I would never taste any other way, to have a reference of different cuisines, to get to know new ingredients, techniques and ideas. And I do use them!
It's been five months since that purchase, and I have bought like 6 more cookbooks in that period. But I must state, I've used them all!

I'm still doing my food regime (see post below). I'm still feeling well. I've promised myself I will not allow myself to get hungry, and some days are more challenging than others in terms of cravings. However, I'm still going strong, and the restrictions have ignited my kitchen creativity a lot and I can't wait to share the recipes I've been coming up with.

In the meanwhile, I want to dedicate this post to salads and to share some good tricks on how to build them and turn them into deliciousness. Some tips are mine, and some others come from Nathan Myhrvold and his Modernist Cuisine at Home team.

"A well-composed salad balances diverse textures, flavors and colors," Myhrvold writes. "Like musical compositions, salads come in many styles, shapes and sizes."  And he suggests to always keep the following in mind while making them:
  • SEASON 
The success of the salad relies in using produce at the peak of its freshness. The following is a seasonality chart from another book I own and love: LEON: Ingredients and Recipes by Allegra McEvedy. The author (and her restaurants) is based in England, so availability might be slightly different, however I find the chart to be a great source:
 
  •  TEXTURE
"Textural contrast is one of the most satisfying components of eating. Crispy, crunchy, creamy, tender and chewy: a salad can cover a huge range of textures. Mix elements from these categories in various combinations." Modernist Cuisine at Home, states, giving the following examples:
Crispy: lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, apple slices, melons
Crunchy: sliced raw vegetables, fresh pickles, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, croutons (and I also add other nuts or sesame, pumpkin seeds and dehydrated fruits)
Creamy: thin vegetable purees, egg-based dressings, creamy cheeses (and I also recommend nut or seed butters, cooked beans, miso paste and yogurt)
Tender: baby lettuces, avocados, braised beets, cooked potatoes, cooked tender grains
Chewy: dried fruits, cooked whole grains, aged cheeses (edamame too)   

  • TEMPERATURE
"Salad may seem synonymous with cold, but many delicious salads are served best at room temperature, warm, or even hot," states Myhrvold. Wilted greens salad can be an example, so is a warm lentil salad with barley and vinaigrette.

Although the book doesn't mention this in the salad section, I would also like to add that the combination of FLAVORS is something to keep in mind when making a delicious salad. There has to be a balance among the following, not only in the components of the salad, but also in the dressing:
Acidity: lemon or lime juice, vinegar (wine, rice, balsamic, raw apple cider, plum, etc), sour fruits, juices or purees.
Sweetness: A light (please don't add a cup of sugar to your dressing, it will overwhelm your salad and will numb any other subtle and palatable qualities!!!) touch of raw honey, pure maple syrup, date puree or syrup, or coconut nectar are delicious in dressings, while fruits or vegetable purees or juices, fresh, cut, dry or dehydrated fruit can also be amazing additions.
Saltiness: A bit of sea salt can enhance the flavors of all the components of the salad. It's important to salt the dressing when preparing it and also to lightly sprinkle the salad right before serving it (to avoid greens from wilting). Mustard, miso, coconut aminos and soy sauce are also great salting alternatives.
Bitterness: Although we biologically tend to prefer sweeter flavors, a bit of bitterness can be a surprising and complementing touch. Celery, parsley, kale, bitter greens, Brussels sprouts and other vegetables can be great when served combined with other flavors. It's all about finding the balance
Umami: The secret behind delicious food! Try adding nutritional yeast, miso, soy sauce, mushrooms, asparagus, potatoes, fish (such as tuna, wild salmon, anchovies), seaweed, truffles, carrots or edamame to your salad.  

Other flavor enhancers:
Spiciness: Pepper and chile peppers (fresh, smoked, dry, ground, etc...) can add an incredible punch. Ginger, radishes, mustard, other spices, fresh and dry herbs can take a salad from good to extremely unique with just a pinch.
Fat: Without abusing, oils (extra virgin olive, nut, coconut, rice bran, grape seed, safflower and sunflower oils, all expeller pressed) can be the best conduct for flavor and deliver a wonderful mouth feel to the salad.    

Here are three salad recipes that I've made recently with ingredients I had at home, and that enjoyed very much. You can add, vary and take away anything. As they are written, they are vegan and gluten free.
Play around, keeping all the tips in mind.

PINK WALDORF SALAD
Ingredients:
Sorry for wrong direction, but I can't seem to b able to fix it!

2 medium (or 3 small) beets, roasted, peeled and cubed*
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 gala apple, seeded and cubed
1/4 cup raw walnuts, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons vegenaise
2 tablespoons raw (unpasteurized) apple cider vinegar, or to taste
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste   

Method:
Mix all ingredients in a salad bowl and marinate, if possible, for a couple of hours (up to one day) covered and refrigerated.
Adjust seasoning if necessary before serving.

*You can buy roasted ones, sold in many stores now, vacuum packed  



FORBIDDEN RICE SALAD WITH MEXICAN MANGOES AND AVOCADOS

Ingredients:

5 cups cooked forbidden (black) rice, cooled
4 asparagus, trimmed, washed and thinly sliced crosswise (yes, raw!)
1 Mexican mango, peeled, pitted and cubed (Ataulfo, Champagne, or other kind, just make sure it's from Mexico)  
1 avocado, halved, pitted, cubed, peel discarded
1 Meyer (or regular) lemon, zest and juice   
Chipotle chile powder, to taste
2-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Nutritional yeast, a couple of shakes
Sea salt and pepper, to taste

Method:
Mix everything with a spatula, being gentle with the avocado and the mango. Season to taste.
If you want to make it ahead, just add the mango and avocado right before serving.



EASTERN-MIDDLE EASTERN SALAD
Ingredients:

Dressing:
2 to 3 tablespoons tahini  
1 tablespoon brown rice vinegar, or to taste
2-4 teaspoons raw honey
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

Salad:
2 packages "Miracle" shirataki angel hair  , cooked according to package instructions, rinse to cool
1/2 red cabbage, cored and finely shredded
3 carrots, peeled and shredded
2 teaspoons sesame seeds

Method:
Dressing: 
Whisk all ingredients in a medium bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.   
Dressing can be made 2 days ahead and kept covered in refrigerator.

Salad:
Toss noodles, cabbage and carrots in a large serving bowl. Add dressing and toss again, making sure dressing is evenly distributed.
Sprinkle sesame on top and serve.
Salad keeps well refrigerated for 1 day.