Cilantro (Soap) on the Side

I love Mexican food. I love Thai food. Why do the chefs at these restaurants have to ruin their delicious cuisine with the Evil Weed (as my friend likes to call it)?

It’s a little request, really. Just put the little green sprigs in a bowl on the side so those who enjoy it can sprinkle it liberally to their delight.

Seriously, the stuff tastes exactly like Palmolive to me. I can’t stand the smell of it! I know I’m not alone in this. And it has been suggested to me that those of us who taste cilantro as soap are slightly (or not so slightly) allergic to it. I don’t know because I hate the stuff so much I don’t think I’ve ever ingested enough of it to find out what the reaction might be. I guess the reaction of “blech!” is enough of an allergy for me.

Really. I was shopping last night, and every brand of salsa in the grocery store included cilantro. I have to make my own (which I’m not opposed to, but who has the time?). And tonight I had a meeting after work, and I had to grab a burrito at the Mexican restaurant down the street from my church, and it was laden with cilantro! I couldn’t eat it. I wanted to cry!

I know, I’m a little melodramatic, but seriously, when I’m hungry, you don’t want to mess with me. I get really cranky!

So, this blog is my soapbox, I just told someone, and let me tell you, I don’t like eating soap, or anything that tastes like soap!

Thank God for Casa Vallarta. They make an AWESOME chile relleno burrito, and their guacamole has no cilantro. This place is mere paces from my apartment, and I eat there frequently. For those of you in the ‘hood, this restaurant has amazing Mexican home cookin’. Really, this is a very tidy little hole in the wall whose fajitas really shouldn’t be missed. They make their corn tortillas by hand every day. And they don’t cook with cilantro.

I am so totally going there tomorrow.

Whole Grains Evangelism

Gillian’s New Year’s resolution this year was to pick one cook book a month and cook from it almost exclusively. Gillian is quite the chef, and we have a nice little cook book collection, and she wanted to really spend time with some of the books, and that seemed like a good way to do it.

For January she chose Whole Grains, Every Day, Every Way by Lorna Sass. Sass is also a specialist in vegan cooking, but I won’t hold that against her (ha ha). This book is decidedly not vegan, or even vegetarian.

This book has changed my life. I am now a whole grains evangelist. I am spreading the word about this book and about eating whole foods.

The recipes include some things I may have heard of, but never before eaten, like kamut or spelt. We have tried many recipes already, and have loved them all. Each one has been absolutely delicious. So far we have tried and loved kamut, broccoli rabe, and sausage medley; masa harina-beef casserole; faro risoto with butternut squash, ham, sage, and toasted walnuts; and (I think my favorite so far) bulgur pilaf with Moroccan roast chicken. And did I mention the granola? It is the best I’ve ever eaten, and super easy to make.

The bonus is that we feel great, too. There has been a real difference in my energy level each day. Not to mention the positive effects on the digestive system, if you know what I mean (and I think you do).

There are many real health benefits for eating a whole grain diet. Sass points to studies that show that a whole grain diet can lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, can lower cholesterol, reduce risk of stroke and obesity, and can protect against digestive system cancers. A colleague of mine told me that her father has increased whole grains in his diet during the last year, changing nothing else about his diet and exercise regime, and within a year he naturally lost twelve pounds. You can check out some of the scientific literature on the health benefits at the Whole Grains Council website.

And health benefits aside, this stuff is really delicious! The left overs are awesome. You’re having healthy food that doesn’t feel at all overly virtuous to eat. I really like to eat for pleasure. Food is passion. I don’t believe in dieting as discipline on principal. I don’t like processed foods – I like to know where my food comes from and what is in it. I like my food to be food.

Michael Pollan wrote a really great piece for the New York Times Magazine on January 28, Unhappy Meals where he talks about how the majority of Americans consume highly processed food products. Have you walked into a Safeway or Albertsen’s or any grocery store chain recently? Everything is prepackaged and processed. What is in that stuff anyway? I can’t pronounce half of the ingredients list on some things. It is so hard to find unprocessed food these days. We are fortunate in the Bay Area to have several grocery stores that stock things like spelt and kamut, but if we lived in Kentucky we might have to mail-order these things.

Gillian and I have always eaten very well, and we are relatively heath conscious, but not obsessive about it. Mostly, we eat for pleasure. My friends think I’m a little crazy, but I feel that I’ve had a conversion experience. I am a believer.

We are enjoying cooking from this book so much that we’ve decided to continue focusing on it, cultivating a “grain bank” as Sass recommends, menu planning primarily using Whole Grains. Gillian may move on to other books eventually, but we have decided that whole grain recipes are going to stay a staple of our diet.

Alright, I’ll climb down from my pulpit, but I’ll leave you with one of our favorite recipes from the book (with slight modifications).

Stupendous Granola

2/3 cup grade B maple syrup
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup toasted wheat germ
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 1/2 cups unsalted nuts (your choice), coarsely chopped
1 cup dried fruit

Place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 225.

In a small saucepan, blend the syrup and oil. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until warm (3-5 min). Stir in the vanilla extract. Cover and set aside.

In a large bowl, toss the oats, wheat germ, coconut, and nuts together. Stir in the syrup mixture until the oats are evenly coated.

Spread the granola mixture evenly onto a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake until the oats are golden brown, about 1 1/2 hours. Stir the mixture every 20 minutes, and rotate the baking sheet so that the mixture will be evenly toasted.

Transfer to a large storage container. When cool, stir in the fruit.* Cover and store at room temperature for up to 2 weeks or refrigerate for up to 2 months.

* We used dates, throwing them in the mix to toast with everything else. They were delicious after a toasting.

Variations: Use rolled barley, spelt, or rye in place of some of the rolled oats. Also, try adding 1/8 cup of sesame seed and/or flax seeds.

A Close Call

Gillian and I ran some errands this weekend, and had a perilously close brush with holiday stress, the kind of stress I have vowed to avoid while at the same time participating in enough activity so that I can enjoy the season. Its a delicate balance, easy to topple, we found.

We needed supplies for truffle-making, so we went out and about in the world, braving the holiday shopping chaos. It was really quite fun. There is an aspect of holiday shopping that I actually enjoy, if you can ignore the consumer greed. There is a palpable excitement in the air, coming from the energy of people bustling about getting very important things done. This past weekend was so cold in the Bay Area that it really felt like winter “back east,” as we like to say in California. The cold made me feel cozy and Christmasey. We werre bundled up, getting done our list of important things, bustling around, running into old friends, and enjoying the scene.

After much debate, we decided to get a tree. Already feeling we had put in a full day of bustling, we persisted in getting our tree on Saturday. Young men with chainsaws were taking orders from a much older man who looked like he had seen some hard times. We showed the man which tree we wanted, and he said that he would have it ready to go after we paid for it. We went in the store and paid for the tree, got hot dogs on the way out, fetched the car, and drove up to the curb to claim our tree.

The young man helping us was none too happy about it. It was clear that he wanted to be doing anything but help us strap a Christmas tree to the top of our car. The poor kid was clearly not happy in his work. What should have taken 10 minutes took 45. Gillian and I didn’t know what to do to prod this kid along. We’re not professional Christmas tree fasteners. We didn’t want to tell this guy who so obviously hates his job that he was doing it too slowly. And we were pretty certain that he didn’t care that we had to get home to decorate the tree and make chocolate truffles for our friends. But we really wanted to get home! We were risking getting cranky and tired.

We finally got the tree home, and it took a lot longer to set it up than we thought. Putting a six-foot tree in a tiny apartment is not easy (although I do believe that no matter what, there is always room for a Christmas tree). We had to re-arrange some large furtniture and our entire entertainment system, but we were determined and we got that thing to fit! Then the decorating: We had to string the lights twice because we realized that it works better to string from the bottom up with the lights plugged in too late. I think I have to re-learn that every year. then the process of hanging the decorations, going through the Christmas box, gushing over the angel cow ornament and the baby ice skates that I used to wear as a kid (my mom turned them into holiday deorations after I grew out of them. They are pretty cute.).

We had planned on making truffles that day, but by the time we got home and got the tree decorated, it was about 8:00. We were tired and couldn’t possibly get started that late. We’d be up all night! We agreed to skip church (gasp!) and stay home and get started in the morning. We also had to go to a co-worker’s Hanukah party the next day (which I really wanted to attend), which would no longer be convenient since we’d be in the process of making truffles. Undaunted, we were determined to do it all.

Mind you, this is how I get into trouble around the holidays. I get overly ambitious. Really, its the story of my life. I guess when I grow up I’ll have the goal of not having eyes bigger than my stomach. Right. Like that’s gonna happen.

Gillian and I started to disagree about process. To start, our disagreements were friendly debates, and for quite a while, we were able to work things out amicably. Gillian finished the ganaches (I assisted and washed dishes), and by noon they were all setting. We went to the party, had a nice time socializing with friends from the office, played with cute babies, ate yummy potato latkas with home-made apple sauce, caught up with a few old friends, and finally made our excuses, which people were willing to accept because they knew they would benefit from our planned afternoon activities.

We came back home and immediately started making truffles. Without the truffle-making, we had already had a full day, I think most would agree. But we were determined, and we perservered.

The process took far too long, and half way through, we realized that we didn’t have enough paper cups for all of the truffles. Gillian was going to have to drive accross town to get more. I really didn’t want her to go. I wanted to have a stress-free day of holiday activity and not have either of us go anywhere. I immediately became cranky, and we argued. Was it better to just make due with the paper cups that we had, or should one of us just bite the bullet and go get what we needed? I felt we should stay home, but Gillian is more of a perfectionist, especially when it comes to food. She wasn’t going to be relaxed unless we had everything we needed. I gave in and let her go, but I wasn’t happy about it.

We were both tired, and we both new that we were going to be up too late. I had to go to work at 6:30 the next morning, and I wanted to go to bed. It was 10:30 and we still needed to box the truffles after the were shaped and rolled in cocoa. We were in the middle of a long process, and we didn’t have enough time to relax, and for a moment it didn’t feel like we were having fun. It felt too close for comfort to holiday stress.

We bickered and whined at each other. My feet hurt, and I wanted nothing more than to be horizontal by 11:00. We had a hard moment discussing whether or not I should go to bed or stay up and see the process through. We never settled the argument, but I stayed up and helped assemble the boxes, and the process went by pretty quickly. Once we got past the crankiness, we were punchy and silly, laughing at ourselves because we were so tired that we couldn’t accurately count truffles any more.

In spite of ourselves, we had a fun time, managing to fill our weekend with holiday activities, creating an unrealistic agenda, accomplishing most everything and then some, and avoiding a close call with holiday stress.

Merry Christmas, indeed.

Today I am thankful for…

Mashed potatoes
Butternut squash with ginger, lemon, butter, and honey
Brussels sprouts with bacon and thyme
Home-made cranberry sauce
Oyster cornbread stuffing
Shitake mushroom gravy
Maple pecan pie
Amazing smells eminating from the kitchen
Gillian’s cooking tallent
Elastic waistbands
My beautiful wife to share this day and this meal with