Monday, April 1, 2013

Stark Raving Med -- Guest Post by Kathleen Halverson

30 Day Mediterranean Lifestyle Challenge

Kathleen Halverson is a production editor on our publications team. She also teaches yoga. She had me laughing with her Mediterranean challenge stories, so I asked her share with all of you. 

I have always been convinced that I am a disaster in the kitchen. And that I can’t cook. But my recent transition to the Mediterranean Lifestyle is proving me wrong.
I certainly don’t like to cook (or, didn’t used to) and in the past have staunchly refused to do so. My husband has done all the cooking and shopping for our family, and all of us like it that way.

Who knew that, just a few days into this challenge, I would be able to not only identify a fennel but whip up a frittata? It is Day 2, and I am cooking savory, taste-bud-stimulating meals that are exciting and fun to eat. Although still tentative (mainly with my own self-discipline) about whether I can do this, I have to admit: This cooking thing is more fun and a tiny little bit easier than I thought it would be.

Yup, you are talking to someone who has gone stark raving mad for Med. At least, so far.

For example, this morning, I made the most delicious vegetable frittata for breakfast. I think it’s my favorite recipe so far. And, last night, I tried my hand at “whipping up” a quinoa, chicken, cucumber, and dill salad (I’m about to dive into it now for lunch). I say “whipping up” because, for me, that means 3 hours. Yes. Twice the time it says that preparation and cooking take. But, hey, I’m a newbie to all of this. If I am not spending my time a bit green (OK: clueless) in the kitchen, peppering my husband (who’s trying to read) with questions and singing along to the music on my iPod while making meals that, in the end, truly make me amaze myself and my family, then where would I be and what different thing would I be doing? I’d be on the couch watching TV or reading a book, slogging down sparkling water, my mood as grumbly as my gut, which is still most definitely adjusting to Sonoma style living. I’m not hesitant to admit that!!! The food is yummy and filling, but let’s be frank about it: This transition takes some—no, a LOT—of getting used to if you haven’t been eating and living this way all along—which, let’s face it, most of us haven’t, or we wouldn’t have signed up for this challenge: Right?

This is Day 2 of my transition to Sonoma-style living—and Week 2 of reading and learning all about Mediterranean Lifestyle eating, and the ins and outs of the New Sonoma Plan. I am finding myself smack in the middle of an exciting discovery: Not only can I cook when I put my mind to it, but the food I make tastes pretty darn fabulous!

Now, the question is, “Can I make this last? Can I truly shift from thinking of this as a ‘short-term thing to get through’ to embodying it as a lifelong habit that will bring me endless health and body benefits?” It remains to be seen, but I am hopeful—more hopeful than I was last week, fretting about what I wouldn’t be eating. Now, already, I am excited about what I am eating! After all, how can you fret about a frittata?

Making The Case for Cooking
Kathleen post pantry cleanout (center);
Minestrone soup, breakfast, lunch creation, frittata
cooking, Matthew eating salad he requested, the
elusive fennel, quinoa (clockwise from top left)
The Mediterranean Lifestyle is one that requires some (if not a lot of) cooking and planning—neither of which I am particularly interested in or skilled at. Well, I haven’t been until now. But I knew that, in accepting this latest ASHA challenge, I had to finally cave in and reluctantly embrace some embodiment of the culinary, even if it was making the most basic of recipes (or so I told myself—I never would have considered a frittata anywhere near “basic” but I did it). I’ve tried so many different ways of losing weight over the years, all with the caveat of “I will NOT cook. I will not change who I am. I will find a way around this eating plan so that I still do not have to cook.” Years ago, I thought that Weight Watchers’ quick-cook (or no-cook) packaged foods worked for me. Clearly, they didn’t, because as soon as I went off the plan, the pounds came right back on). And I thought, “I can eat out as long as I eat ‘healthy’!” (How easy it was to snub that credo once dinner was actually on the table in front of me.)

I think what I am learning the most (and it may sound like a no-brainer to those who cook, but it’s quite enlightening to me) is that cooking is essential to successful, long-term weight loss and increased overall wellness. And not just cooking, but the cooking of delicious, savory, tasty, exciting, fresh, locally grown, whole foods. They just make you feel better. When you cook, you have so much more control over exactly what you are putting into your meals, which, if you cook with fresh, whole foods, translates to a trimmer waistline among other benefits.

I seriously hate admitting that, let me tell ya. I will never stop loving me a nice slice of pizza (or several), but it clearly hasn’t served me well over the years.

The nonconformist kitchen-hater who has lived inside of me for the past 20 years is still somewhat stomping her feet, crossing her arms, and pouting, saying, “You caved. You let them change you!” But the reality is, the scale (and my declining energy levels and overall lousy feeling) has shown that the very stubbornness I used to eschew all things culinary is the very thing that, over time, changed me for the worse. The thin, energetic , happier, healthier person I was 20 years ago is saying, “Finally. You are finally going to let me out and show me to the world again. It’s been a long time. Now, let’s do this thing.”

Are You Kidding Me? Learning to “Like” to Cook?

My personal challenge in this overall ASHA Challenge was to learn to like to cook—and to do so, I need to EXACTLY follow recipes. As in, have them spelled out for me, one step at a time, the obvious being explicitly stated rather than implied, right down to the last detail (e.g., my latest question to my poor husband: “You mean the pasta goes into the minestrone soup UNCOOKED? Ohhhhh!!”). So, I am doing my best to stringently follow the exact meal plans laid out for me in Week 1, rather than trying to cobble it together on my own. I am swapping out, say, lunch on Day 2 and eating it on Day 4 instead, for example, but so far, it seems to be working. Following exact meal plans (or exact meals) just makes it easier. It’s less for me think about and plan.

In line with this personal challenge, I have found that, mostly, Sonoma gives me what I need to successfully make yummy meals. The only thing that would be better, for me, in using the New Sonoma recipes is having pictures of what these strange new foods look like. Such as my lovely new friend the fennel (more on the fennel a few paragraphs down). However, being in the publishing field, I realize that photos, especially color ones, would double or triple the production costs of the book, which would then get passed along to us. I can live without the photos (thanks to my other friend, Produce Dude; see Fennel section for more details [trust me, this Fennel discussion is worth the buildup]).

In learning to like to cook, first I had to get myself to a grocery store (OK, now my inner nonconformist was REALLY raging). For produce and a few other specialty items, I chose My Organic Market (MOM) in Rockville. Why MOM’s? OK, coming clean here: I had a $50 gift card to use toward my purchase of all that delectable but not cheap produce. And I knew I’d have a greater chance of finding the more elusive foods on my list (such as those tasty Wasa crackers that I like to crumble up and use as “croutons” in my salad).

Sunday, and the Case of the Clueless Mom

So let’s talk about what Sunday looked like. Do you remember Sunday, March 10, in the greater Washington/Baltimore area? It was a stunning, surprisingly balmy day. The sun was shining, people were out and about, radios were blasting, spirits were high all around town. Spring was in the air.

Sunday also was, according to New Sonoma, “Day Zero” for me. A day of purging and reorganizing the kitchen. A day of shopping and learning. A day of preparing for Day 1 and an exciting new beginning. Blech, I’d rather be riding my bike.

As much as I wanted to be outside that day, Sunday was one of the most interesting days I’ve had in a long time. (The story I’m about to share is actually the crux of what led to this blog post. It involves the elusive fennel.)

My Friend the Fennel

Let me switch to present tense for a moment. It enhances your sense of being present with me and my friend the fennel.

It’s a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. I could be at the playground with my 4-year-old son, or taking the dog for a walk, or taking myself for a walk (such sacrifices for this Sonoma Explorer). It’s true: I really have gone stark raving mad for Med because, instead of spending time outside, off I go to MOM’s. I enter the MOM produce section (which, by the way, is beautiful and brimming with not only amazing-looking produce but tons of positive energy), park my cart to the side, and unfold my shopping list. I look around, and my inner nonconformist starts freaking out (I’m the only one with a darn list. How do these people do it? They are so zippy and easy and comfortable in this new land of bright colors and blissful fresh foods. And they keep trying to kill me with their carts. All I’m trying to do is stand here and THINK for a minute. If I get one more “Excuse me,” I’m gonna scream. Where can I park this cart and just be left alone with my list for a moment?!?!)

Finally, after organizing how I’m going to go about tackling this new and unfamiliar territory, I manage to start finding my items. I find the bell peppers, the onions (which ones? ah, yellow, I guess), the carrots, the parsley (which one? Flat leaf? Sure, throw it in the cart, that’ll do), the potatoes (whoops! no dice! admire them and step away from the white potatoes), and the list goes on.

Then, I get to the next item on the list. It says “fennel.”

I freeze.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve certainly heard of fennel. But I’m not sure I ever knew what it was. I drink fennel tea sometimes. I have always been vaguely aware of fennel’s existence. But now, I have to actually find it on a produce shelf, and buy it, and figure out what to do with it when I got home. Whole different story.

Keep in mind, while I’m doing all of this, I’m trying to look all hip and organic and cool, as if “Hey, I spend a LOT of time here! Let me, just, you know, duck in here and get some things.” (I suppose the list gave me away very quickly, huh?)

Anyway, so now I’m internally freaking out, my panicked glances at the labels atop the lettuce section totally giving me away. The conversation in my head goes something like this:

Culinary Explorer Kathleen: What the heck does fennel look like? I have to find it! Is it leafy, like lettuce? Or rooty, like a potato? But, I drink fennel tea, so it must be more like an herb. Let’s check there.

Kitchen-Hating Nonconformist Kathleen: See? Told you. You can’t do this. You suck at grocery shopping and at cooking. You don’t even know what a freaking fennel looks like. Who in the cooking world can’t identify a simple fennel?

And back and forth we go.

Finally, Culinary Explorer Girl wins. Humbleness and humor find me. I realize how ridiculous I am being. (Am I really going to leave the store not having bought fennel simply because I didn’t know what it looks like? REALLY, Kathleen? Who cares what the produce dude thinks, or what the tight-lipped woman expertly racing around the tomato aisle giving me dirty looks thinks?). I decide rather than being embarrassed about asking, why not treat this as the adventure it is proving to be? I spot the produce dude; he is sporting the ever-popular “urban grunge” look, so it’s hard to call him “the produce man.” He seriously looks like the kind of guy who probably spends his free time barefoot in blue jeans drinking green tea and strumming an acoustic guitar, singing songs that, of course, he wrote. I smilingly approach him, my wrinkled and marked up list in hand, and say, “Can you please tell me what a [glance down at paper, squint a bit] ‘fennel’ looks like?”

“Oh, sure. It’s right here.” He smiles easily and picks up the fennel and hands it to me. Simple as that.

The funniest thing of all is that the fennel was an ingredient for last night’s planned dinner. Which my husband and I decided to not make.

Let me explain (there are logistics involved here): It required too much time—more than we bargained for. We were both exhausted, and we had a very hungry 4-year-old on our hands who was not about to wait for an entire chicken to roast (only after being rubbed down and surrounded with vegetables). Patience, friends, we are still navigating the logistics of incorporating Sonoma-style living and being into our family life. We resorted to a still-Sonoma-friendly meal but one that required much less time to prepare.

As for the fennel, it still sits there, patiently waiting for me to prepare and cook it. I’m sure there’s another recipe I can use it in this week. I won’t let that little guy go bad—not after all my work in acquiring him! J

I Hear (and Taste) a Symphony

Now let’s talk about my cooking skills themselves. I am learning that all is not lost.

My first attempt (and a successful one at that) was the Mediterranean Soup. The soup is DELICIOUS and because it makes 8 cups (although, this Explorer somehow ended up with 12 cups), I froze half of it. I actually took a picture of it, it looked so colorful in the skillet!

It was kind of comical had you been a fly on the wall late last night while I was making said soup. (You’ve already heard about how overwhelmed I was in that big building known as a “grocery store,” bumbling around like the newbie I am.) Ask Kelly, fellow Sonoma Explorer with a life very similar life to my own—namely, defined as a balancing act involving a full-time job, toddlers, and time management, among other things. We ran into each other at the very end of my hours-long excursion to transition my family and myself into Mediterranean gods and goddesses. She saw me at Safeway (stop #2 after MOM’s) at the very end of my rope: I was trying to find what MOM’s didn’t have (and, honestly, things that I could more easily afford without sacrificing quality).

Fast-forward to later that evening, after my son was in bed and I could focus on (gasp) cooking at long last.

The recipe said it would take 1 hour and 15 minutes to make this soup. I managed to double that time. But I discovered something critical to my future as a cook of all things fresh and flavorful, something that I had never tried before: Listening to music while cooking. It TOTALLY helped me and actually made me enjoy the process. And because I was spending so much time wrangling with all the chopping and sautéing and slicing and simmering, I wasn’t sitting in front of the TV all night, wondering what I could eat (and whining b/c I was fasting for the biometric screening on Monday morning).

Some comments I kept making to my husband while cooking the soup included the following:

“How do you ‘slice’ garlic, for God’s sake?” [I still don’t know the answer to that one. I ended up just chopping up the cloves. I think a glass jar of minced garlic might be in order.]

“You mean I have to put the pasta into the soup uncooked?”

“Shit! I forgot to buy chile flakes [whatever they are]. Oh, well.” [I ad libbed and shook some crushed red pepper and chili powder into the soup instead; it turned out OK, considering I like spicy food.]

“OK, OK, I’ll stop talking now.” [in response to him looking up at me and sighing, as he was interrupted from his reading for the 19th time…]

And then there’s this priceless conversation that I simply must recap here. We were discussing the roasted chicken that we were planning to cook the next night (yes, the one with fennel in it, the same one that ended up not getting made).

Me: “You mean they sell a whole raw chicken in the grocery store?”
Jeff: “Yes; they’re actually a lot cheaper than buying boneless breast.”
Me: “[insert wrinkly face] Ewww, that’s gross. I hate touching raw meat. Can you be the one to prepare the chicken? I’ll take on the fennel.”

So, fellow explorers and blog followers, for me it all comes down to frittatas and fennel. Being fearless and asking questions. Having fun.  Embracing a new way of living and being.

I really am stark raving mad for Med. 

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