Monday, March 30, 2009

Sun Overdose


It happens every year, and I never learn. There comes a day, in the early spring, when the sun emerges for the first time in many long months. When this happens Vancouverites experience a chemical response resulting from the massive quantities of vitamin D, and they go insane. They rush out into the sunshine, squinting like moles and wonder what that huge, bright, and irresistibly attractive orb in the sky is. Like worshippers in a cult they gather outside and try to soak up as much as possible. I am no exception to this annual phenomenon, and when the sun emerged on Sunday I tried to drink in as much of it as I could stomach. I took the new Trek Valencia out for a one hour spin in the morning, then spent an hour in the afternoon lying in a patch of sun on my bed like a strange hairless cat, and in the afternoon I took a half hour walk. All of this without wearing sunscreen or sunglasses--clearly risky behaviour as I have always been warned never to have unprotected sun exposure. It was like a drug---soooo good, but with a bad crash afterwards. It wasn't long before I had developed a dreadful headache which has lasted into today. It was clearly punishment for being sun greedy. I glutted myself on yellow rays and then paid the price with a throbbing head and a promise to be more conservative in my sun exposure next time. But today is horrifically gloomy. It rained all day, and it was almost as if the sun was some widespread group delusion. I suspect by the time it emerges again I will have forgotten the pain and will be prone to overdoing it. Such is life in sun deprived Vancouver. But at least we all appreciate the good weather when it happens!


And on a food related note: I cooked an eggplant this evening. I only bought the thing from my local market because it was so bizarrely beautiful. I don't think I've ever really looked at an eggplant before, and I've decided that they're culinary works of art that should probably be given over to long hours of dreamy gazing. They have perfect smooth skin that is blissful to touch. The purple-black colour is reminiscent of royalty, dark velvet, and esoteric rites. The shape is extremely pleasing, and they have a fascinating spongy give when you press a finger into the shiny skin. I almost didn't want to cut it up, but I've read that they go bad quickly so I sliced and broiled it and created an absolutely delicious accompaniment to our regular pasta dish. Though I assumed they would be difficult to prepare, eggplants are actually fairly simple to transform into a fantastic side dish with a slightly sweet flavour. Here's what I did:


Slice an eggplant into 1/2 inch pieces and arrange on a greased broiler pan. Sprinkle both sides with salt and wait 10 minutes. The salt will leech out some of the water, and with it the bitter flavour that eggplant can be prone to. Sponge off the water with a paper towel.


Mix together 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tsp balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp basil (or any other spice you think of really, though I found basil was quite tasty), and salt and pepper to taste. Baste the tops of the eggplant slices with this mixture and place under the broiler for 5 minutes. Flip the eggplant and baste the other side. Broil for a further 5-8 minutes, or until the eggplant seems tender when pierced with a fork.


I then sprinkled the whole thing with fresh lime juice, and voila!, an eggplant dish that isn't scary in the least.


Tune in next time for adventures in butternut squash.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wanna Ride Bikes?


Insane or not, I did it. I bought a new bicycle. It's a Trek Valencia hybrid commuter bike with disc brakes (pictured above), which I'm told will be extremely high performance in the rain. What I've mainly been doing with it so far is staring at it--admiring its charcoal frame and sleek looking tires. It's easy to get lots of ogling time in, because the bike is living in my bedroom, for lack of a better storage option at the moment. M. hasn't complained about this so far. I assume it's because he's currently storing a brand new 8 foot tall Fishman SoloAmp in our living room. Between that, two electric guitars, and the massive speakers he built, it's beginning to look like we're preparing for a rock concert. So I guess neither of us have complaining rights.

It's not as if I haven't ridden the bike at all though. I took it out on the first day for a quick ride of approximately 15 blocks. This proved to be surprisingly exhausting. The hills in Vancouver are subtle and omnipresent. Sometimes the gradient is visible, but sometimes it's not, and you're left wondering why you're working so hard. I was feeling a little discouraged, but I guess the struggle is to be expected. I assume my body will eventually get used to it and start climbing hills with ease. In the meantime I might be limited to short rides around my neighbourhood. Also, my new sporting injuries include 4 perfectly aligned bruises on my left shin from slamming into the pedal, and what I am going to dub "Bicycle-seat Associated Double Ass-cheek Stress Syndrome," or BADASS for short, which is a direct result of the fact that bicycle seats don't seem to be designed for anything resembling comfort. If I remember correctly from my childhood though, cases of BADASS tend to decrease the more you ride, and eventually go away altogether as you adjust to cycling. I hope to be able to commute to work at least one way by May 1. And in the meantime, the Valencia is very pretty to look at.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Powder

Throughout the ski season I have encountered numerous people who have whispered of an elusive yet wondrous thing called "Fresh Powder." They speak of this environmental phenomenon as if it is a god--something that descends to earth to grace us briefly with it's presence and then soon is marred by our destructive human nature. Since we have had a very strange pattern of weather over the past months I have done all of my learning to ski on ice--sometimes ice covered in a shallow layer of slush or hard snow. And so I could only imagine what this glorious thing called Fresh Powder might be like. I imagined the mountain transformed to virgin whiteness; imagined my skis flying over pristine snow with nothing to hinder my smooth downhill movement; imagined being enveloped in softness; imagined being one with the mountain, no longer having a need to fight against the unforgiving ice. I drank up the Fresh Powder mythology with gusto. I truly believed in its mystical properties, its ability to transform skiing from mildly mediocre to a life changing sporting experience spoken of with deep reverence yearned for over the hot months of the summer like a lost lover.

And on Saturday night, against all odds (seeing as it is March and the ski season should be winding down), Cypress mountain was visited by the goddess Fresh Powder in a furious whirlwind of falling snow. Riding the lift to the top of the mountain I felt like I had been transplanted to Siberia. Visibility was nearly zero. I could see the lift chair in front of me but beyond that was a blinding white vortex of swirling ice. The tracks made by skiers coming down the mountain were covered up almost as soon as they were formed. There was a tangible excitement in the air. Clearly people were revelling in the appearance of Fresh Powder, and I was eager to try it out myself.

So I tried it. And I now feel like a really giant practical joke has been pulled on me, because as far as I can tell, there's really nothing great about Fresh Powder at all. Oh false god! False idol! I have been duped--sucked in like a cult member and spit out on the other side with my illusions shattered. Fresh Powder is ridiculously hard to ski in. Rather than sliding over the surface of the mountain I was forced to push my way through the snow, which expended so much energy and caused the muscles in my thighs to burn so badly that I was pretty much toast by the end of a single run.

"This is great!" M. shouted--clearly still brainwashed by the myth of Fresh Powder.

"No it's not!" I countered. I felt like I'd just been put through a washing machine full of hail. My face was being assaulted by ice pellets. The ground beneath me was a swirling swamp of whiteness that hid dangerous obstacles, like hard bumps of icy snow which I would hit with great force causing me to keel forward precariously and wrench my knees painfully. My progress was slowed considerably by the need to navigate these unseen obstacles, so there was no freeing rush of flying down the mountain unencumbered. The bottom line seems to be this:

Fresh Powder = Really Hard Work

People were falling over left, right, and centre. Some bails were quite spectacular, involving full body rotations and huge sprays of snow. I managed to stay basically upright for most of the evening, though my legs were screaming at me to stop tormenting them.

When I inquired about the specific merits of Fresh Powder (having found none so far myself), M. said that it was softer if you fell on it. This seemed a bit weak to me. I wanted to know what it was about Fresh Powder that actually improved the quality of your skiing, not the quality of your falling, but so far no one has been able to provide even a single concrete example of the former.

On the bright side though, I made it down a black run with moguls (NOT small furry animals I have discovered, but bumpy obstacles that increase the difficulty of ski navigation), which was quite a proud moment. I have made it this season from complete beginner to being able to successfully (if not very quickly) navigate black runs, so I will consider this ski season a great success! We only have one more night of skiing to go and then I'll have to find another sport to fill my time. I'm thinking of taking up cycling, but this thought may be a sign of impending insanity. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In Defence of Food (and Beans)

I have recently finished reading Michael Pollan's book In Defence of Food and have come out on the other side a bit horrified about the state of human nutrition in the West. For instance, consider this: Industrial farming of produce focuses on crops that are picked for their high yield rather than their nutritional content. Combine this with the fact that fields are planted with a very small rotation of crops, meaning that the soil is massively depleted. When farmers "replenish" the soil with chemical fertilizers they only put back a few key nutrients, where undepleted soil would be rich in dozens of nutrients. The result is produce with fewer nutrients initially, planted in soil without sufficient nutrients, resulting in produce with even fewer nutrients. The bottom line is that you now must eat three apples today to gain the nutritional value of one apple picked in the 1950s.

Some other interesting tid-bits: Western countries are the only ones who have managed to produce a population that is both obese and undernourished due to the proliferation of refined sugars and carbohydrates; Factory farms feed their animals on a diet of grains, which is completely contrary to their natural diet of grasses. As a result we are eating meat that is undernourished and, therefore, not particularly nourishing; the food industry is producing nearly 3000 calories worth of food per person per day, when an average caloric intake should be around 2000 calories. This means either spectacular waste or spectacular over-eating.

The first two thirds of Pollan's book outlines the history of the Western Diet, and are full of fascinating but disturbing information about the transformation of food from a mechanism of nourishment and integral aspect of culture to an array of engineered food products that would be unrecognizable to your great-great grandmother. The last third of the book provides a series of rules that might help you escape the destructive processed food cycle and begin eating what Pollan defines as actual Food--unadulterated products that would be recognizable to our Neolithic ancestors.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who eats things. I assume that's all of you. Even if it doesn't change your outlook on the way you eat it's an incredibly entertaining and informative read.

_____________________

After reading Pollan's book I was keen to begin introducing some Real Foods into my diet that I had previously overlooked. Beans were one of these things. A food previously on my list of "Things to Avoid at All Costs," I had to admit that their omission meant forgoing an excellent whole food that could be worked into all sorts of recipes. The problem was, I had no idea how to pick out beans, or what to do with them once I had them. I wandered over to Choices on a sunny Saturday afternoon for a bean buying experience and found myself in the bulk aisle staring quizzically at about 12 different bins of beans. Having not one iota of knowledge about beans resulted in making decisions based purely on aesthetic principals. Yeah, I just picked the prettiest ones. Once I had narrowed down my choices to five or six beautifully shaped, jewel toned beans I picked three that seemed to go together best. What I ended up with was a few cups of brilliant orange Red Lentils, a kilogram of deep maroon Adzuki Beans, and a small bag of satiny Black Turtle Beans.

Holding up the bags to the light as if I was inspecting rare gems recently culled from the earth I found that I was deeply enjoying my bean shopping trip. The bags of beans appealed to my senses and produced a deep sense of well-being in knowing that I had just made a decision that would positively influence my overall health. Feeling virtuous I walked back home, neatly stacked the beans in matching plastic containers, admired them for a few days, and then finally decided that staring at them wasn't going to do me an awful lot of good. So I whipped up a rice curry with red lentils, dried apricots, shitake mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes. And, similar to my Brussels Sprouts experience, it turns out that beans are actually a really good thing! My brother insists that eating beans would immediately result in vomiting, but I suspect he's exaggerating a bit. You never know though.

For those who don't feel that beans will cause stomach contractions and the violent evacuation of their meal I will suggest that rice cooked with Red Lentils makes an excellent base for all manner of vegetables with sauces. Red Lentils don't need to be soaked overnight and will become soft with just 10 minutes of simmering, making them extremely convenient compared to the array of beans that need hours of preparation. Try mixing in some unsulphured dried apricots (which I have found have a much more complex flavour than the sulphured variety) and you're on your way to a delicious and easy meal.

Bon Appetite!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Brussels Sprouts Conspiracy


I feel like I have been the victim of a small conspiracy. My entire life I have been told by peers, the media, books, and common knowledge that Brussels sprouts are at the apex of the disgusting vegetable scale. Brussels sprouts, as far as I knew, were not so much a food as an instrument of torture so ingrained in our social systems of eating as to become mythological in scope. The Brussels sprout is depicted, in popular consciousness, as a little green bomb concentrated with bitterness and the ability to produce gagging. As a result of this anti-Brussels sprout propaganda I had never actually eaten one. They sometimes appeared at Christmas in a lovely glass serving bowl, but I don't think I actually witnessed anyone eating one. I certainly didn't let them touch my plate. I kind of assumed that consuming one would result in stomach churning so bad that I would be laid up for months.

Recently I've been trying to explore the world of vegetables a little more fully. Since I currently can't eat wheat/gluten, eggs, soy, or dairy I've had to get more creative with the other foods that I'm eating. And you can only eat so many steamed green beans and salads with tomato, cucumber, and avocado, before you begin wondering if there might be other taste sensations out there just waiting to be experienced. I was browsing recipes online when I stumbled upon a simple and quick Brussels sprouts concoction that sounded strangely tasty. The recipe was accompanied by an article on the extraordinary health benefits of the lowly Brussels sprout, which apparently packs over 800% of your daily requirement of vitamin K. At my local market later that evening I wandered over to the bin of Brussels sprouts and peered in like someone checking under the bed for monsters. They looked fairly innocuous. Sort of cute actually--all round and curled up, like baby cabbages. I selected a few handfuls and went to the till feeling as if I was breaking some sort of food consumption law. Would people think I was insane if they saw me there with my bananas, oranges, and dreaded Brussels sprouts? No one said anything.

At home that evening, M. chopped the Brussels sprouts into quarters. We put them in the steamer. We tossed them with the Mediterranean style dressing and I served them up with heaping plates of quinoa. As the first piece of green death was travelling towards my mouth I had a moment of hesitation. I felt an electric tension in the air, a paradigm shift in the making. I let the Brussels sprout touch my tongue. I didn't immediately fall into a coma or otherwise experience a major failing of my bodily systems. I chewed it carefully. I swallowed. I looked at M. across from me happily eating his own Brussels sprouts and suddenly it dawned on me--I had been duped! There is absolutely nothing...NOTHING offensive about a Brussels sprout. They're actually rather pleasant: green leafy flavour with a pleasing texture, almost like a crisper artichoke heart. I ate the rest of my Brussels sprouts feeling that the world had been brutally unjust to this tiny vegetable. I'm not sure who it pissed off to become the victim of such cruel and unwarranted rumours about its taste and value, but I must now declare myself a Brussels sprout convert. And the next time that shining bowl of Brussels sprouts passes by me at Christmas dinner I'm going to take a giant heaping spoonful of them, and then have seconds, just for the shock value.

For those of you who are already Brussels sprouts lovers or are now Brussels sprouts curious, I append the recipe that converted me:

5 Minute Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts may be small in size but they're large in nutritional value. One serving of this recipe provides 870% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin K, 326% DV for vitamin C and 40% DV for vitamin A. And they only take minutes to prepare. Enjoy!

Prep and Cook Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients:
1 lb Brussels sprouts

Mediterranean Dressing
3 TBS extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp lemon juice
2 medium cloves garlic, chopped or pressed
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
1 TBS Dijon mustard

Directions:
Fill the bottom of the steamer with 2 inches of water.
While steam is building up in steamer, cut Brussels sprouts into quarters and let sit for at least 5 minutes to bring out their hidden health benefits.
Chop or press garlic and let sit for at least 5 minutes to bring out their health-promoting properties.
Steam Brussels sprouts for 5 minutes.
Transfer to a bowl. For more flavour toss Brussels sprouts with the ingredients for the Mediterranean Dressing while they are still hot. (Mediterranean Dressing does not need to be made separately.)

Serves 2

Research shows that carotenoids found in foods are best absorbed when consumed with oils.

Healthy Cooking Tips:
To mellow the flavour of garlic, add garlic to Brussels sprouts for the last 2 minutes of steaming.