Sunday, December 18, 2016

An Accidental Food Renaissance - Part 1

So it’s the holiday season, and I have been exposed to some fantastic food – including a new place called the Two Twenty Two which had the first ever “gluten-free open-faced calzone”… which to be fair is really just fancy-talk for “pizza”. I was too excited to take a picture, so I’ll do it next time I go there [and there will definitely be a next time, woo!].

Instead, I want to take advantage of the free time to do a little reminiscing, and think about all that I have to be thankful for during these past three years on my health journey… or as I like to think of it, my food renaissance. :)

But while I feel the most effective change has happened within the last three years, the story itself begins much farther back.

Well not too far back else I start speculating about my childhood… though I can say I’ve always had a passion for food. At least up until I started being conscious about health, and becoming self-conscious of the fact that I was mostly overweight – what was once a sense of pride for me suddenly became a liability.

Sooner or later, though, I became a firm believer in the orthodoxy of mainstream diets, and began not only shunning fast food and junk food whenever possible, but also engaging in pseudo-vegetarianism, limiting fat, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables [mostly fruit], consuming soy everything, and, of course, cramming down on all of that HEALTHYWHOLEGRAIN. For my sandwiches I would shun the dreaded white bread, replace it with stone-ground healthy whole wheat bread – I could almost taste the windmill stone pulverizing those wheat grains into the dark, roughage-packed manna – and then just sit back and relax as I imagined the pounds rolling off. Maybe I’d throw in a bowl of Total cereal [with soy or rice milk, of course], and maybe a spat of Country Crock margarine … I adored popping open a fresh tub of it, breathing in all the yummy chemical deodorants. Oh and let’s not forget the fruit… add in some apples and bananas, maybe both. Meat was too be shunned, at best maybe low-fat, low-salt Butterball sliced turkey,… and heaven forbid I eat more than one egg a week, or I imagined I’d choke on all that cholesterol! Cheese was perhaps my only “cheat” food, although once I discovered over-priced soy cheese and rice cheese I felt I could eat as much as I could afford and gain no health repercussions whatsoever [in hindsight, I’m thankful I couldn’t afford to gorge myself on those things].

At the time, “calories in calories out” did not exist for me, at least not as a silly catchphrase. Even so, it seemed like “common sense” that great food choices alone was not going to be enough -- I had to also exercise till I dropped!! And so I would jog, treadmill, cycle, do weights, push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, stretching, and so forth. Dance Dance Revolution was a godsend at the time, and through manic spasms that the PS2 somehow equated to "dancing" I was able to lose about 5 pounds in a month. Once I got bored with that, Wii Fit came around and took it to the next level of self-deprecating interactivity!

And seemingly doing everything right, I was rather shameless in my efforts to spread the gospel. This WAS the best way to eat healthy, and I wanted to make sure everyone was aware of that. I was proudly smug when news story after news story continued to validate the wonders of HEALTHYWHOLEGRAINS or the horrors of ARTERYCLOGGINGSATURATEDFAT! I was buddy-buddy with any doctor who wagged his or her finger at those straying from the orthodoxy, courting fat, cholesterol and other death wishes. When Super Size Me came out, I showed it to EVERYONE I knew in the hopes they’d finally “get it”. When the news people HOWLED over the unholy Atkins diet, I was unified in the collective derision against all the who risked their very lives and their arteries over some weird fad diet.

And the irony of it all, despite my fanaticism, I was still overweight and gradually getting bigger over time. And each time it happened, I would seek to determine a culprit based on my pool of dogmatic knowledge. Fat makes you fat, so maybe I was eating too much “low-fat” peanut butter? Ergo, I should try non-fat peanut butter, or even no peanut butter at all… maybe soy butter was the answer! Meat was bad [OF COURSE!], so no more fat-free turkey… and in fact no more normal Mexican food! Tortillas with beans and veggies it is! I didn’t believe in the emerging low-carb “craze,” but I was a believe in portion sizes, and it occurred to me that I was always eager to finish my entire plate. So small plates it is! And when making sandwiches, the “lean” flatbreads and wraps would replace the big, calorific bread slices. I was often hungry, so I looked up every magical way to not feel hungry and put the pain out of my mind [after all, no pain no gain] – I still remember a period of time when I would always drink several servings of yerba matte a day for that reason. And of course the excessive exercise would continue, combined with other oddball shortcuts the likes of which you would see in a 6-minute ab commercial.

Food was becoming complicated, and gone was the simple pleasure of just eating what was good and what I enjoyed. Now food was my enemy, and I would beat it into submission until it started acting as it should, and not embarrass me in front of my friends and family. And it seemed to work… the thrill of doing what wright, but MORE OF IT, simply heightened my sense of infallibility. Now it was going to work, and NOW I was finally going to lose weight. And that was more important now as I began to have some strange health problems appear too – including random fainting, shortness of breath, high blood pressure, and a less than stellar cholesterol profile. I didn’t really make the connection, but instead figured that once I got thinner, somehow magic would happen and the other conditions would go away too. So I carried on wasting time, energy and money on this conventional lifestyle.

Then, in 2010, came what I now call...

Mailroom Day...

Original at:

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Ema-zing Experience

Okay, I think I'm taking title puns a bit too far; but while the place does have a few flaws, Ēma Chicago offered a superb dining experience, and washighly committed to its gluten-free menu.  This includes offering a separate kitchen area and utensils, knowledgeable waiters (thank you "James Cameron"!) and a large dedicated GF menu that was nearly identical to the main menu. In fact, there were a handful of items UNIQUE to the GF menu -- we had Market Greens and Fish of the Day, two things arguably healthier than the few "gluteny" items left behind in the conventional menu.

But I digress....

Dinner was enjoyed as sort of a swan song for my Meetup group, and I was able to share the experience with two fellow GF'ers (thank you Rachel and Mustafa!).  Both of them had to avoid gluten out of medical necessity, and neither of us had been at this restaurant before (in fact, it's the latest Lettuce Entertain You chain that had just opened). We were all definitely venturing into uncharted waters, and so there was no shame in asking and re-asking questions, no matter how big or small. And ultimately, the restaurant came through for us! Ēma is certainly one of the few restaurants I've been to where a person with Celiac Disease, wheat allergy or extreme wheat intolerance can feel safe and welcomed.

As a benefit of being in a group, we had the opportunity to sample a good variety of dishes. First off, the hummus...

Being a kind of "Mediterranean" restaurant [in the American sense of the word], this place offered a nice variety of fancy hummus dishes, some conventional, others never before seen.  Nonetheless, we did order the conventional hummus as a control...

"Conventional" only in name at least as this stuff was superb! Creamier and richer than your average hummus, it was also peppered with savory spice and these adorable little za'atar granules that added some crunch as well as delightful bursts of flavor with each mouthful. It was also accompanied with a nice set of raw vegetables.

Next we had the mushroom hummus, an item I had never seen done before, but I suspected would lead to a heavenly flood of umami....

And I was right -- this was pure flavor town! The combination of cognac, onions and mushroom juice infused the hummus with a meaty savoriness that defied expectation. The mushrooms themselves were a gorgeous medley of different types, though I at least tasted oyster mushrooms in the mix. It was VERY hard to take my time eating this, fighting back the urge to tear into this highly addictive dish!

Finally we had the seasonal oddball, the pumpkin hummus:

Really more of a pseudo-hummus since this was primarily mashed kabocha squash with sweet spice and beautiful little pepitas [pumpkin seeds]. Maybe there might have been some chickpea thrown in, but if not I can't say they would have been missed.  Puréed squash, I can confidently say, makes a damn fine substitute -- and being a huge fan of pepitas, I felt right at home!

Oh and FUN FACT!  All these hummus dishes came with these enormous bowls generously-packed with GF crackers:

They were primarily rice flour-based, though I did taste some potato in there too.  They were tasty, they held their shape admirably, and they did give everything a delightful crunch.  They also served as my favorite edible scoop for that dynamite mushroom hummus!  XD

But we didn't just come here to binge on hummus, time for some entrées!

First off we have the celery root soup with pine nuts and currants! I may have only once had celeriac before but obviously I forgot how creamy and potato-like it can be, albeit with a more refreshing taste and texture. It's also highly nutrient dense and packed with great fibers, and above all it makes a damn good soup!  If you ever miss those old "Cream of [Whatever]" soups, here's a hint to recapture that silky flavor: purée some celery root!!

Next up we have the Stracciatella....

I had to look this up since "Stracciatella" could mean lots of food things, including ice cream and soup.  Luckily, it turned out it was the buffalo milk cheese definition!  I've had buffalo milk cheese before, but never uncooked so this was quite an experience -- and I will say it has a much more delicate and pleasing flavor than your run-of-the-mill fresh mozzarella. It was a unique and refreshing bit of fat, protein and history that is not easy to come by -- add some delicious vine tomatoes and a good drizzle of olive oil, and you have quite the... striking stracciatella!  :3

Finally, just a little bit of meat....

By comparison to the aforementioned, the chicken kefta was more on the conventional side.  You have a seasoned chicken kebab/souvlaki with a little side of tzatziki and some saffron rice.  It's by no means a bad offering, but could it have been too much to ask for two skewers rather than one?  ;)

Perhaps that's my only gripe with the restaurant, and one that's perhaps a bit uncalled for since Ēma is meant to be more on the medium-to-high end of the cost spectrum [and I certainly knew what I was getting into]. But as with all "small plate" restaurants, I feel the size of the portion doesn't always justify the cost. Of course I'll take into account the quality of the ingredients and the uniqueness of the dishes... after all, I expect to pay a little premium to enjoy the mushroom hummus or Stracciatella that they serve here. But these hidden gems aside, other menu items strike me as a bit overpriced; and either the quantity needs to be ramped, or the uniqueness has to be pushed up a notch to justify the investment.

But this is a minor niggle -- overall Ēma treated us very well and opened my eyes just a little further to new food ideas! And while I don't see myself returning frequently for dinner, I can imagine dropping by every once in while for some tea and a side of mushroom hummus as a snack.

What can I say?  That thing left its mark on me!  <3