Say Cheese! (aka: One Cheesy Summer)

Cheese glorious cheese

Okay, I know it’s Independence Day, and I should probably write a post celebrating our nation’s bold and wonderful patriotic heritage, or about the joy of celebrating by making things blow up. But that’s pretty cliché, so instead, I’m going to write about cheese.

Yes, cheese. Queso. Fromage. Der käse.

See, every summer, my kids and I like to have a foodie adventure. Usually, we pick a country, or a type of cuisine, then we spend a few weeks tasting foods from that culture. We sample at restaurants, look up new recipes, and try our hand at preparing all sorts of interesting foods from around the world. The French and Chinese experiments were huge hits. Soul food and Indian food, to my disappointment, didn’t go over so well with my kids.

This summer, we took a slight detour from our annual tradition. After a delicious visit to a famous Berkeley restaurant known as The Cheese Board Collective, the kids and I were inspired. What if, instead of trying many types of food from one culture, we try eating a variety of fresh breads and cheeses from many cultures? Think of the possibilities!

bread

So once a week, instead of cooking dinner, we head out to the deli, or farmers’ markets, or to local bakeries, and we pick up a fresh, hot loaf of some type of interesting bread, and one or two cheeses. Then we head home and prepare a cheese platter to sample with our bread. So far, along with the usual staples like cheddar, swiss, and mozzarella, we’ve also eaten fontina, harvati, goat cheese, brie, and munster. We’ve also had plenty of breads, like pugliese, naan, rosemary olive loaf, cheddar-jalapeño ciabatta, and garlic-onion baguettes. Like with any foods, we have found definite winners (harvati with dill) and definite losers (a spicy artisan cheese from a farmers’ market stand).

You know, when you really think about it, this is a very patriotic blog post. No, not because of the amber waves of grain that went into each loaf of bread. But because our little food experiment embodies one of the values we Americans hold dear–the freedom to make our own choices. We live in a country where we are at liberty to make our own choices, to try any kind of bread or cheese or other food that we desire. And, true to the American spirit, we can break from tradition and define our own customs, like spending a summer tasting new foods together as a family.

Happy Independence Day!

Independence Day USA

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Not Milk (aka: 80s Girl Meets Lactose Intolerance)

lactose intolerance stomachaches

I consider myself a super-healthy person. But sometime during the past few months, something changed. It started with a few minor tummy-aches, which made me question everything. Was it something I ate? Was I drinking too much coffee? Was it stress? Then, over time, the discomfort increased. Before long, my body was in constant turmoil. No one knew it, but I was walking around feeling as though my stomach was full of Pop Rocks mixed with Coke, constantly on the verge of explosion.

Yeah, I know. Go to the doctor, dummy. And if I had medical insurance, then I totally would have.

Luckily, I had a light bulb moment a couple of weeks ago. What if my chronic stomach-aching had something to do with dairy products? I did some Googling, and learned that lactose intolerance is something that commonly develops during the adult years; not during childhood as I’d thought.

Could I be lactose intolerant?

It was unthinkable.  After all, I was a child of the 80s. From early childhood, we were force-fed the idea that dairy products were the healthiest thing in the world. Milk does a body good! Cheese, glorious cheese! If I just kept ingesting milk (flavored with Nesquick), then my outside would catch up with my inside, and I would grow from an invisible girl with a crush to a strong, confident woman who has outgrown Michael Martin.

dairy products cheese milk butter Still, I had to find out. So for a few days, I cut dairy out of my diet. Or, tried to. I switched to almond milk cream in my coffee, and gave up my beloved cheese (very hard to do when you are an almost-vegetarian). But the war inside my abdomen didn’t cease. Then I learned more — lactose can be hidden inside many non-dairy foods, like breads and cereals. Noooo!! I would rather live with the chronic stomach upset than give up my favorite foods.

Then I remembered something I’d once seen on a TV commercial. There is an over-the-counter drug called Lactaid, which contains an enzyme that helps the body to digest lactose. Could it work for me, too? In desperation, I raced to the drug store and bought a box of Lactaid chewables. Just before my next meal (spinach and mushroom quiche with swiss cheese), I popped one in my mouth. It was like eating a piece of vanilla-flavored chalk. Then I ate my cheesy dinner, and waited.

Ta-daa! The months-long battle in my gassy, bloated stomach came to a screeching halt. All was quiet on the southern front. I couldn’t believe it! The next day, I chewed a Lactaid before each meal, and the seas continued to be smooth and calm. Same for the next day, and the next. In fact, since I began taking Lactaid, I have returned to my usual, 100% healthy self, and it feels wonderful.

Yes, I know. I am starting to sound like a total drug commercial. Even worse, I can’t think of some clever, humorous way to wrap up this post. I’m too busy thinking about the yummy Garlic Alfredo sauce I plan to cook for dinner, and all the cream and parmesan cheese it will require. But thank goodness — I will be able to sit with my kids and enjoy every bite. Because for the lactose intolerant, Lactaid does a body good. Pass it on.

 

 

 

Slow Can Be Mmm Good (aka: Slow Food)

I like a lot of fast things. Running fast. Speeding fast down a deserted stretch of highway. Fast roller coasters (with fast-moving lines). Fast rock songs that leave you breathless after a fast impromptu dance session. The charge of adrenaline, the fast blood pumping through your veins – speed can be quite a rush.

But not always.

slow sunrise heart Sometimes, slow is much, much better than fast. Slow sunrises on a warm summer morning. Slow hikes through a mountain wilderness. And especially, slow food. No, I don’t mean crippled prey that hobbles away as you aim your hunting rifle. I mean sloooow food, as in the opposite of fast food. As in, the slow food movement, which, in case you don’t know, is an entire thing.

There’s some political stuff, too, but to keep it simple, the slow food movement is about three things:

  • Avoiding fast food and processed foods with long lists of ingredients
  • Buying whole foods, then cooking and eating them
  • Making efforts to buy organic, sustainably grown foods from local growers, and even growing your own

There are so many good reasons to avoid fast food, that I could write an entire blog about it. Or, I can point you toward eye-opening books, such as Fast Food Nation or Food, Inc. I try to very rarely eat fast food. Yes, it can be very challenging in today’s fast-paced culture to make meals a slow-paced affair. Believe me – as a single mom of three kids who just happens to be a college student with a job, I get the whole time-crunch defense. Still, I try to find ways to cook healthy meals from scratch for my family on a regular basis. With a little effort, advanced planning, and some help from the kids, I manage to produce homemade soups and stews, veggie-loaded quiches, and pots of thick, spicy chili. We plant a small, organic garden plot each spring, and by summer, enjoy a harvest of juicy cucumbers, crisp green beans, and plump, colorful tomatoes.

more good slow food

Do we ever take shortcuts? Sure! Schedules can get pretty hectic some days, and there is just no time to wait for a casserole to bake. During times like these, we try to turn toward not-so-fast foods – foods that cook quickly, but are still minimally processed, like grilled cheese sandwiches, veggie omelettes, or homemade bean burritos. Foods like these are nutritious and packed with flavor, and can often be prepared faster than a trip to a drive-thru window.

veggies are the best

There’s one more component of the slow food movement which really appeals to me. It is about slowing down and savoring food. Sitting with family and engaging in conversation while eating meals (something I need to work on). Taking a moment out of our busy lives to enjoy the flavors of good, well-prepared foods, and taking comfort in knowing exactly where they came from and how they were produced. There are plenty of moments in our lives when faster is better. Food, however, is much better in the slow lane.

Wine, food and great friends

 

 

Sriracha Everything! (aka: A Spicy Food Experiment)

Sriracha is the key Yesterday, I discovered an amazing new sandwich combination: two slices of white bread spread thick with avocado, plus mayo, a few leftover fish sticks, and plenty of Sriracha sauce. Mmm…my mouth is still watering, just remembering how it tasted.

What’s that? Ew? Okay, I know…maybe most people would have tossed the leftover fish sticks. But I didn’t want to see them go to waste. And anyway, who cares what the rest of the sandwich consisted of? It was all about the Sriracha sauce.

First of all, let me just say that I am not a Sriracha newbie. I’ve been happily dousing my Asian food dishes with the delectable, spicy red sauce for years. But recently, I decided that maybe it was time to experiment a little. After all, I am not a big fan of bland American food, like hamburgers or mac ‘n cheese. So why not try spicing it up a little?

So I did. I poured Sriracha onto my pizza. Squeezed some onto my scrambled eggs. Slathered it onto my cheese sandwiches and painted it onto my black bean burgers. And know what I discovered? That Sriracha makes just about everything taste better. Sriracha is the key. Sriracha is like edible poetry. Sriracha food pyramid

My kids have been amused, watching me worship at the church of Sriracha during meals. “How do you manage to keep a straight face while you eat that?” they ask. “Isn’t it super spicy?” Sure, I say. But that is the great thing about it – the blaze of fire that gives way to flavor. The calculated risk, like the sudden, shocking drop of a roller coaster that leads to a thrilling joy ride.

Sriracha everything!

Sriracha fire bear

I thought about making that my new motto, but my kids kind of ruined that by creating a list of foods they think I should try with the sauce: Peanut butter and Sriracha sandwiches. Sriracha pancakes. Sriracha ice cream. Ugh…grody. So maybe there are a few limits — Sriracha can’t make everything taste better.    But for the most part, it has been a fun experiment. Sometimes we need to try new things to put a little spice in our lives.

I Love Sriracha Sauce

Cake Intolerant (aka: Mother Nature is a Comedienne)

Snow White CakeI’ve finally come to accept the old adage, You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Yes, I know, this saying wasn’t meant to be taken literally. It’s supposed to mean that you can’t have two things that you desire if having one will cancel out the other. However, in my case, I literally can’t have my cake and eat it, too.

I used to love cake. When I was a kid, it was my favorite dessert. Spongy, angel-white birthday cake with creamy whipped icing. Thick, sweet slices of soft, butter-yellow cake topped with thick, gooey chocolate frosting – aahhhh! Cake was something to look forward to. Better than ice cream. Better than anything.

But then, Mother Nature decided to play a little joke. I can picture her now, hunched over in a grove of trees in a forest somewhere, rubbing her wicked hands together. “I know,” she says, her eyes flashing with mischief. “I’ll curse Tiare’s body and make her unable to enjoy this delectable treat.” There is a flash of lightning, and Boom! The curse is set.

Around a decade ago, I learned that cake had become my enemy. You know how some people are lactose intolerant? Well, apparently, I am now cake intolerant. Wait a minute, you say. That is so not a thing! There’s no such thing as cake intolerance. Anyone can enjoy a slice of cake. Surely, there is a pill, or a psychological treatment, or an alternative recipe that will allow you to eat cake like everyone else.

First of all, alternative cake recipes are just…grody. If it isn’t made with butter, sugar, flour with actual gluten, and fresh eggs, well then, I am not interested. Second of all, there is no cure, because cake intolerance is not a real disease. I am not allergic to anything in the cake – just the cake itself.

Sadly, my sweet tooth has not fully caught up with my inability to eat this dessert. For example, I decided to bake a carrot cake for my kids and me to eat after Easter dinner. It turned out perfectly – brown sugar-sweet, filled with pecans and cinnamon, spread with a smooth, thick cream-cheese frosting. Just the aroma alone was enough to make my mouth water. I didn’t go crazy – only helped myself to one delicious slice after a small dinner.

Mistake. Big mistake. My poor stomach gave quite a protest in the middle of the night, as though yelling, “Stupid, stupid, stupid – remember Mother Nature? You can’t eat cake, idiot!”

Me after eating cake

So the next day, I decided to eat another slice. Because hey – there’s no such thing as cake intolerance, right? Surely it was just a fluke. Plus, that cake was just soooo good. Stomachache amnesia fogged my memories as I happily indulged in that second slice. But then…

Trust me, you do not want the gory details. Let’s just say that Montezuma himself couldn’t have plotted a more vicious revenge.

rich chocolate cakeI’m done. No more cake. No carrot, no old-fashioned butter yellow, no birthday white, no angel’s or devil’s food. No cake. You win, Mother Nature, you win. I will return to the days of baking lovely, homemade cakes for everyone else while never eating a single bite. I concede.

And somewhere in her forest grove, Mother Nature cackles with glee. “That was too easy,” she says. “You might even say…that was a piece of cake.”

Beans and Cornbread (aka: Food for the Soul)

Soul Food

Sunday night is a trip to the south

Journey for the soul by way of the mouth

Come round!

Come round!

Have a steaming plate of collard greens

Crispy meat and simmered beans

Bowls of gumbo, fiery spice

Taste it – ain’t that nice?

Grandma’s cornbread, bless her soul

Come round hungry, leave here full.

Every now and then, my kids and I decide to go on a cultural food kick. We pick a type of cuisine – say French food, or Thai, or Chinese, and we research recipes and cook and sample all sorts of dishes. It is great fun, and we often end up adding a few new dishes to our usual repertoire. So this summer, I got a bright idea. “Hey kids…maybe we should try cooking some soul food.”

“Soul food?” asked my kids (who are, I should point out, half black American). “What’s soul food?”

Oops. Guess I accidentally left that out of their upbringing.

I’m not going to lie. I was never a fan of soul food. I mean, some of it is okay. I actually love simple dishes like beans and rice, cornbread, and sweet potato pie. But there are a few soul food dishes that even I haven’t worked up the courage to try; like chitlins (aka: chitterlings), for example. I’m just kind of thinking that there are some parts of the pig that maybe are okay to go to waste, you know?

So we went to work researching. We read about the history of soul food, which has its roots in the south, during the period of U.S. slavery. (“So soul food is poor peoples’ food?” asked my teen. “Well, technically it’s southern food,” I explained.). We called up a few relatives to get their input on the correct way to cook gumbo or collard greens, which apparently are supposed to be simmered with meat for several hours. I cheated and steamed ours in the microwave.

For my kids, the results were mixed. Thumbs up: Cornbread, hush puppies, fried fish, biscuits and gravy. Thumbs down: collard greens, red beans and rice, hot links, and grits.

“But the important thing is, did it feed your soul?” I asked, at the end of our culinary journey to the south.

Meh. My kids were indifferent. Apparently, it is pizza that feeds their souls, and not beans and cornbread. Oh well. Maybe our next culinary journey will be to Italy.

To Meat or not to Meat (aka: Going Mostly Meatless with Kids)

Just for the record, I am not a vegetarian. Although I am far more likely to choose a meatless alternative than not, I do eat meat on occasion. My children, however, are crazy about meat. They love big, homemade meatballs, grilled salmon or chicken, and sausage pizza. Unfortunately, anyone who has walked into a supermarket lately has probably noticed the outrageously high meat prices. If not, you can read more about it here: http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/04/16/cpi-shows-food-prices-rising/7742669/ and here: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/meat-prices-are-skyrocketing/371383/ .

greasy hamburger

greasy hamburgers are what the kids crave

Veggie Burgers are the best

Now the kids are eating more veggie burgers, just like me.

And so, thanks to inflation, my kids are now half-vegetarians, like me. I’ve cut the amount of meat in many of our usual recipes by half, and I’ve been serving meatless meals 3-4 nights per week. If the kids have noticed a difference, they haven’t said a thing. I’m hoping that it’s due to my mad cooking skills. J

It isn’t really that hard to cut out meat-based meals, or to adjust them to use less meat or no meat at all. And thanks to the internet, there are about a bazillion great vegetarian recipes available to choose from. I’ve finally begun to organize them on my Pinterest page, to make them easier to find. Of course, I’m not bothering to include the super easy meat-free standbys that we eat so often, like grilled cheese sandwiches, frozen black bean burgers, or egg salad. (And as I write this, my teen is cooking a huge bowl of oatmeal with raisins and walnuts).

Will I ever take the leap to become a full vegetarian? Probably not. I have a genetic tendency to develop iron-deficiency anemia and already must take iron pills twice a day. So my health really does benefit from meat. Besides, I love seafood too much, and occasionally crave a good juicy piece of meat. As for my kids, I like to give them the freedom to choose what they enjoy eating, meat or no meat. But unless the prices come back down, they will have to enjoy meat a little less often.

 

Grilled-Meats

What the rich people may be grilling this summer.

grilled veggies

What the rest of us will be grilling this summer.