Tuesday, December 27, 2011

December Reflections Or: Yes, This Really IS My Life

It’s the tail end of the year. The final grains of sand from December’s hourglass are cascading out of sight. This is when I tend to reflect. On how profoundly different my life is now than it was in December 2008.

Three years ago I was extinguishing my life force and any traces of vitality with lumberjack-sized portions of food. My body was in a state of functioning exhaustion for two reasons: it was continually digesting food, and the foods I sent down the hatch were off the charts in their caloric upper-cut of a punch. At the top of the list were copious amounts of potato chips. And not just any old, off-the-shelf variety. These little lethal weapons were cooked in lard and available only in a certain county of southern Pennsylvania. That meant I had to mail order them from the factory if I wanted my fix. The UPS delivery men and women became very familiar with me thanks to the frequency with which they hauled the cumbersome cardboard packages up the stairs to my second floor apartment. The deliveries were the shape and size of a mini cardboard coffin (interesting, huh?) and plastered with shiny red and white stickers that read ‘FRAGILE.’ Curious how those stickers accurately described the contents of the box as well as my then-state-of-mind. It didn’t take much to send me careening into the kitchen to blot out whatever it was I wanted to blot out. Sometimes, there was nothing really to run from. Eating in such a blind and destructive way had simply become a habit, and as I deliberately looked the other way, my weight crept to an all time high of 345 pounds.

Life at such a size had become profoundly difficult at worst, uncomfortable at best. There were obvious physical tasks that were demanding like climbing a single flight of stairs, getting up from the couch, and trying to negotiate a crowded restaurant without knocking over a few tables or chairs with my hips. Even sleeping, the thing that should have been a breeze, was frought with awkwardness. And then there was the wardrobe: black lycra or black lycra. It was my only choice and I wore it daily, even in crippling heatwaves (here’s something that may shock you: a 300 pound woman swathed in black is generally not good company when the mercury spikes above 65 degrees).

As unhappy as I was, I made peace with my life situation. Food was too insidious an addiction to come to grips with, and finally, after years of believing society’s bigotry, the revelation came down from above that my worth as a human being had zippo to do with what the scale said. So there I was at the end of 2008, in total acceptance of the fact that I’d live the rest of my life with an unshakable addiction and an irrevocable relationship with Lane Bryant.

Mystics and sages have said that it’s the moment we finally surrender that Life or Serendipity or The Great Mystery can finally step in and start to amend a seemingly hopeless situation. 2009 had barely begun when I realized the mystics and sages were correct. Two guiding lights, Diamond Dallas Page (http://www.ddpyoga.com/ ) and Terri Lange, materialized in my life to show me a way out of the woods. I was ready to listen to their advice, follow it, and mix it with my body’s innate wisdom to create a way of living that both strengthened and lightened me, on more than just a physical level.

Yes, the addiction was shakable afterall, but only after I came to terms with two things: 1) I wouldn’t delude myself that being at a lower weight would be a golden ticket to happiness, and 2) I would agree once and for all to face the demons that continually sent me careening into the kitchen.

It took years and I was determined not to rush the process. I wanted a house of bricks. And three years later, I have one. Becoming who I am today was and is an ongoing process that required getting to know and like foods that enhanced my energy level and health, paying attention to or more accurately, FEELING the emotions that are part of the human package, and being physically active on a regular basis. This may not sound like your idea of a good time but I swear, for the most part it’s all been pretty enjoyable…even the challenging days. As Terri Lange told me, marching IN the parade vs. being on the sidelines means taking the good with the bad. Sometimes it feels gloriously exhilarating to be in the middle of it. Other times I get rained on or limp along because of blisters. And just when I think I’ve signed up for a little more of life than I bargained for, I remind myself not only that blisters heal, but I’M IN THE FREAKIN’ PARADE.
Last week I opened my front door to find a cardboard box delivered by UPS waiting for me, adorned with 'FRAGILE' stickers. I felt a momentary and disturbing flashback to the days of hovering half-awake in a potato chip coma, then remembered that it was an order for Lucini organic extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  It would be accurate to say that three years later, I exercise a little more discretion when it comes to sending food down the hatch now. http://shop.lucini.com/Extra-Virgin-Olive-Oil/c/Lucini@OliveOil I tore the box open with delight, admired the gorgeous deep green of the oil, then made a goat cheese omelet with Lucini's lemon-infused olive oil.

So with only a few grains of sand remaining, I’ll close out December 2011 with a major expression of Gratitude to Dallas Page, Terri Lange, and so many amazing members of Team DDPYOGA (Jamie, Richard, Rez, Jay, Sparky, Doug, HD, Robert) who give of themselves and uplift others on their journey back to a fuller life.

                                          Black Lycra:  My Uniform Du Jour for 20 Years

                                 I still wear black...but now it's a choice, not a mandate

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Masala Farm: An Inspired Life

A book-signing for Suvir Saran’s “Masala Farm: Stories and Recipes from an Uncommon Life in the Country” will take place from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 16, at Gardenworks, 1055 Route 30, in Salem, N.Y. For more information, call (518) 854-3250. For more information on Suvir Saran, visit www.suvir.com .

I always tell people there’s no one answer to how I got rid of 185 pounds (and the emotional baggage that’s a package deal). Pardon the pun, but it’s simply too big an issue to point neatly in a singular direction of a pat answer. The ‘How Did You Do It’ queries come both in-person and via e-mail. Usually I can tell when someone really wants to hear what I have to say or if they’re hoping to be sent packing with a quickie prescription of diminished calories and a drill sergeant’s rotation of sit-ups and squats.

I can only give them the truth: The solution is a glittering mosaic. From a distance it may look like a single object, but step towards the canvas for a closer look and you’ll see a composition of little pieces made of different colors, shapes, and textures. All are intrinsic in their importance because when a piece of the mosaic is missing, it’s not the same picture.

Yes, I exercise on a regular basis. Yes, I eat considerably less than I did three years ago. But there’s so much more to the living-in-balance equation. Somewhere along the journey, I knew it would be crucial to make peace with food. With my intense love of it, my well-documented misuse of it, and my sometimes unmitigated fear of it. I’d been heading in the direction of a more harmonious relationship with food for years. And then one day, out of the blue, came an invitation of sorts, to hop on board the peace train. It was May of 2008 when I visited Suvir Saran and Charlie Burd at their gorgeous farm, tucked into the far reaches of Washington County, N.Y., not far from the Vermont border.

I was there to interview Suvir for a newspaper feature on his career as a celebrity chef, cookbook author, lecturer, and owner of the Michelin-awarded Devi restaurant in Manhattan. Despite the sundrenched spring weather, I was attired in my uniform du jour: black spandex leggings and a billowy black top. Even the shoes and sunglasses were of the noir persuasion. Truly, I was shrouded in every sense of the word. But at a size 26, I had very few wardrobe options.

Suvir and Charlie, May 2008...and me in the background taking notes in my usual Johnny Cash ensemble...

Suvir ushered me into the kitchen to a stool at the granite counter overlooking his industrial-sized Viking stove. The stove is his favorite place in the 232-year old farm house because it’s where he loves holding court, whether entertaining out of town guests for the weekend, friends from farmhouses down the road, or in this case, a journalist. I knew I was in for an interview unlike any other when Suvir opened his refrigerator and pulled out a glass bowl filled with goose eggs.

“Do you like eggs?” he asked, smiling as I stared in wonder at what looked like a pile of mini-white footballs.

“They’re my favorite food in the world,” I murmured, sensing with anticipation that he had some serious plans for the eggs.

“Good,” he said quietly, lighting the flame under a cast iron skillet and drizzling it with olive oil.

There were four people to cook for (a photographer had accompanied me) but the enormousness of each egg meant frying only one at a time, which frazzled him not a bit. I can still see Suvir at the Viking, standing protectively over the emerging masterpiece, adorning it with a bit of sea salt and fresh pepper. The culmination came with a chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese pushed back and forth across a grater until the sunny-side-up egg looked like a snow-capped volcano.

                                                                Suvir and "The Girls"

As Suvir went on to prepare the next goose egg, Charlie brewed foamy cups of espresso and stirred a pot of Sambhaar (a spicy vegetable and lentil stew) simmering on an adjacent burner while both talked about their most recent visit to Southeast Asia.

      Suvir Saran's Sambhaar, a delightfully spicy vegetable-lentil stew from his "American Masala" cookbook

Then Suvir handed me a copy of his first cookbook, “Indian Home Cooking,” to look over and I found myself staring at a page near the beginning where he states the following philosophy: “When a guest comes into your house, God comes with him…we treat all our guests as if they were God because we believe God is in all of us.”

Suvir didn’t just stop with perfectly prepared goose eggs that day (with the warm liquid yolks oozing over the toasted bread like glorified, pearlescent lava). He pulled glass storage bowls from the refrigerator to reveal a tomato chutney salsa and a pale green coconut-mint chutney. Then he fired up an iron wok and began ladling a batter made of rice and chick pea flour to make Dosas, a savory pancake used for dipping. (Everything Suvir cooked that day, except the goose eggs, were from recipes in his excellent “American Masala” cookbook).

                            Heaven in a griddle: Suvir Saran's chick pea-flour-based Dosas

“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” he said, looking momentarily up from the sizzling Dosa “I’ve never made Dosas for a journalist before.” Somewhere in his core, he must have intuited a fellow food lover under the journalistic veneer. And perhaps at an unconscious level, he sensed I was trapped in a prison of a body and was searching for answers.

As Suvir will tell anyone who asks (and as a lecturer and consultant who travels the world on speaking engagements, he’s asked quite frequently), the answer to excess weight or any other health imbalance isn’t to enlist your inner drill sergeant of restriction. Don’t we all know by now that it always backfires? Why do we keep falling for it? Why did I keep falling for it all those years? Maybe because I thought it was the only answer, the singular way out of the tunnel.

Suvir maintains, as I ultimately realized, that food is a pleasure meant to be enjoyed. The eating experience is inherently nurturing if we allow it to be. Cliché as it may sound, food is glorious. And it can be both glorious and health-enhancing.

The goose egg was divinely creamy. The symphony of spices in the apricot-colored Sambhaar richocheted from my tongue to the back of my throat as I savored each spoonful. The crisp Dosa was the perfect vehicle to enjoy the thick chutneys, and both versions were fragrant and hypnotic.

If only every meal could have such a ratio of peacefulness and pleasure.

The renowned food critic Gael Greene describes Suvir’s prowess in the kitchen as a cross between George Balanchine and Leonard Bernstein because of his instinct for finding the perfect tension between an efficient flow of food and conversation and a relaxed, enjoyable pace. She has been known to go on for pages about Suvir’s cooking: “I’ve found myself seduced by his Indian riffs on American classics; the richer-than-Bill Gates mac and cheese, his remarkable corn bread, the classic American cakes he perfected, like his dense lemon cake, and upside-down pineapple,” Greene writes in her blog, www.insatiable-critic.com .

That day, we talked at length about the importance of the farm-to-table movement, the evils of the nation’s corporate ways that fills supermarket shelves with dirt-cheap cans of processed food floating in excess food coloring and sodium. But I gathered the most information simply by observing Suvir and Charlie’s ways in the kitchen, the relaxed and modulated pace of meal preparation, and the rapt attention they gave to me as a guest in their home as we sat around our plates and talked. No trance-inducing news footage from a television or even background music from a stereo to interfere with genuinely connecting.

I listened as Suvir explained his views on home kitchens being sacred territory and the central nerve center of the home.
“In the Indian home, the kitchen is where we create magical tastes that have the power to heal the mind, body, and soul. All cultures that are a happy people meet in the kitchen,” he said, scooping out a dollop of mint chutney with a Dosa. “I want to encourage people to go back to the kitchen and start nurturing. I want us to go back to a civilized culture, not one where we are isolated from one another. You are what you eat. And so my philosophy, and that of my parents and grandparents, is to cook, share, and eat with care and thought.”

Suvir had no way of knowing this at the time (though my 300-pound-plus frame may have given him an inkling),but my kitchen was quite the opposite environment. Over the years its main function had eroded into a pit stop to refuel for more potato chip and clam dip binges. Like Suvir and Charlie, I actually loved giving dinner parties and occasionally threw them, but as my eating to dull emotional pain escalated, so did a healthy perspective on food choices, quantity, and an overall sense of boundaries as to a time and a place for eating. For me it was anytime, anyplace, any reason. The original reasons for starting in the first place had long blurred out of focus…such clever grease that keeps the wheels of addiction spinning in perfect rhythm.

I left American Masala Farm that day with Suvir’s first two cookbooks, a cache of goose eggs, and an amazing sense of serenity that I parlayed into a mother’s day lunch on my apartment balcony later that week. I served the courses in the most leisurly fashion ever known to friends and family. The time spent together was a lot more than just a meal, it was an event that lasted for several hours before the last bite of dessert was gone. It would be nearly 9 months (interesting gestation period, no?) before the A-Ha! Moment came while watching Oprah in a potato chip-stupor, which set in motion an avalanche of change and ensuing weight transformation. But something had shifted in me during that encounter with Suvir and Charlie on their farm. It was real and profound and like a seed, took some time to manifest its fruit.

In a culture that desperately reveres instant gratification (especially where wanting to look a certain way is concerned) it’s important that I’m clear with people up front that my path to salvation wasn’t a speedy one. I don’t know if it ever can be.

It took years to put the mosaic together and frame it. Fervent journaling, group therapy, white-knuckle dieting, a few 12-step meetings thrown in for good measure, reading untold volumes of self-help books, an ongoing love affair with spirituality, and a beautiful, savory lesson at American Masala Farm on the transformational power of food all played a part. Up until May 2008, I’d always operated under the premise that food and isolation go hand in hand. Thanks to Suvir and Charlie,I realized it’s quite the opposite.

And it gets even better: The experience I had at their farm has been distilled into Suvir’s latest book, “Masala Farm: Stories and Recipes from an Uncommon Life in the Country.” It’s a cookbook/memoir of simple, pleasure-filled living that Suvir and Charlie wrote together. It showcases dozens of their favorite recipes and recipes from their circle of friends, including Glens Falls caterer Sally Longo, who spent weeks at the farm helping with recipe prep and photo shoots. I’ve been perusing the recipes and photos and it all looks divine. As someone who eats gluten-free, I’ll be making a beeline for the Farmhouse Crispy-Creamy Potatoes, Chai Cider, Chunky Eggplant Dip, Asparagus and Green Pea Risotto, and the Almost-Flourless Caramel-Lacquered Chocolate Peanut Torte.

And I’ll absolutely be marking the occasion with a dinner party. Do I have any takers?

A consummate giver:  I'm over the moon because Suvir just gifted me with a pair of padukas from his family's home in India.  I cherish them and use them everyday. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Yellow Pants: How I Did It:

For 20+ years I wore black, head to toe. On broiling summer days and on occasions like Easter and Valentine's Day when the rest of the world is immersed in pastels.  Well, today my traditional wardrobe has turned on a dime. Often, I still wear black pants, both because black blends well with other colors and a simple force of habit.  Eight months ago I bought a pair of yellow pants because they called to me. For some reason the lemon-yellow beckoned my name, even though I couldn't get them past my thighs.

I knew there'd come a day when I would indeed have them fully hoisted and the button fastened comfortably around my waist.  The key: not forcing my intended result into a timetable of my making.  The body, as I've been saying for so long, knows what it's doing, has its own intelligence and has things covered that I can't even begin to comprehend, like the automatic regulation of my heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and on and on.  I realized it was futile and not very smart to try and boss it around. So I stopped.  And now, when I have a goal, a particular finish line I want to cross, I set my sights on it and then step out of the way and leave the mico-managing to a higher and wiser force.

So it took eight months, big deal. They fly by when you're not obsessing and clock-watching anyway. I simply kept up the way I now live:  being active through YRG, long-distance walking, and weight training; and being faithfully married to clean eating.  Keeping gluten and cow dairy out of my system continues to enhance both my body and mind.  I was also lucky enough to join a gym that had a trainer who was beyond helpful and enthusiastic.  His guidance and formula (supersets) helped transform me and give me the extra push I needed at the tail end of my weight release when progress can sometimes slow down. Thanks to the discerning prescription dispensed by Paul Grassia, my progress actually accelerated, which accelerated me into those yellow pants.  Yeah Baby!

I did the work, but no one does inner and outer transformation like this alone.  So here's to my A-Team:  Paul, DDP, Terri Lange, Team YRG, my Ayurvedic nutritionist Judy Joy Wyle, my spiritual avatar Sri Pranaji, Karina Allrich (the Gluten-Free Goddess), Inner Beauty Goddess Masha Penson, massage therapist and belly-dance teacher extraordinaire Mary Imbimbo Kuntz, Angel-Photographer Joan K. Lentini, role-model-for-creativity Serena Kovalosky, fellow-shadow-seeker Carrie Lee McClelland, and everyone else who have thrown me bouquets of support.

Thanks to you all, I'm Living Life.  REALLY living it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It's Called The Pleasure Principle: Look Into It! Or...There's No Place Like Hattie's

* All photos by Joan K. Lentini of Forward Vision Photography

Anyone who's known me for two weeks or more knows the basic nuts and bolts of my bio. Details large and small like I'm:

A writer
Permanently fixated on the color pink
A former 345-pound woman maintaining a 180 pound weight-loss
A fanatic about weight-lifting (What can I say...I saw "Pumping Iron" an an influential age)
In love with fried chicken and always will be. 

I’m also a recovering American. Lured at childhood into addictive cycles that involved fast and processed food, I've spent the majority of my life either over-indulging in food (the more caloric, the better) or trying fruitlessly to kill off once and for all, my love of it. 

Fast food was gloriously perfect for an affliction that demanded both self-loathing and isolation.  Thanks to a brilliant insight from my friend Esmond Lyons, I’ve realized that fast food is the pornography of the culinary world. It’s cheap, slapped together in a hurry, and satisfies only for a few seconds.  And it’s usually partaken with at least a few grams of shame. 

Immediately after earning my driver's license at age 17, I discovered the magic of drive-thrus because they upped the isolation ante. And they delivered the goods quicker: a bucket of chicken or a combination meal that centered around the largest cheeseburger on the menu shoved through my car window and I was in heaven. The second I found a free parking space I could turn the engine off and shoot up...with no one to watch me. Once I got a taste of the drive-thru lifestyle, actually entering a fast-food establishment through the front door was unthinkable.   In my Heart I knew the reasons I was eating. And they had nothing to do with appreciation of the food. What I appreciated was the way it drugged me.  How it hurled me instantly into the Twilight Zone of Numbness.  Why would I want to do that in a crowded room full of strangers?

I get a lot of questions now from fellow recovering Americans seeking a similar path of transformation. They want the details of food groups, quantities and, what I’ve eliminated completely. I’m open about my current ways with food, even though I know and they know that a recitation of what I eat isn’t going to truly fix what’s ailing them. It’s a potential starting point though, and what always gets included in the schpiel is this:  the only thing I’ve eliminated completely is self-loathing. 

When Dallas Page (fitness guru and inventor of YRG) and Terri Lange (The Godmother of YRG) helped walk me through the early stages of withdrawals to the foods I was addicted to, I knew that in addition to taking guidance from them, I needed to tap into my own well of inner wisdom. It would be the only way to make this a long-term contract I could live with. 

The art of self-acceptance has many facets to it and one thing I realized, after years of fighting it is, there are certain things about me that just are, like my ardor for fried chicken. As with the color of my eyes and the need to be carried out of the movie "Bambi" on a stretcher, it's not going anywhere.

Here's the main reason I stopped fighting the reality that fried chicken is a very important part of my life:  It’s pleasure.  Looking back over all my past ‘failures’ where weight-release and balance were concerned, the largest mistake I made was eliminating pleasure from my life.  Who can live with that?  I’m just not equipped to treat food as fuel, though I’m mindful that fuel is one of food’s intrinsic qualities. As I told a Team YRG member who recently sought my advice about eating, it’s not about eliminating pleasure, but managing my addiction to it.   Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is what we’re programmed to do…the trick for me is not letting it get out of hand. Fighting the fact that I sometimes desire to eat something purely for the pleasure of it only led to unnecessary conflict, self-recrimination, and more elaborate entrapment in the cycle.

Now, when I really want fried chicken, I have it.  And I listen very very closely to make sure it’s not a call to fill an emotional hole.  They can only be filled with liberal amounts of inwardly directed compassion. 

Since I live near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., when I do hear the fried chicken siren going off, I have Hattie’s to fall back on.  SO much better than fast food, for a number of reasons, like, visiting with owners Beth and Jasper Alexander face to face and knowing they actually care about the food they serve customers. Much of the vegetables (especially during summer) are locally sourced and many of the recipes (fried chicken, cucumber salad, pecan pie) are from Hattie Moseley Austin (the restaurant's late founder) herself. 

With the always-vivacious Beth Alexander, and my secret weapon: a mug of hot water...

...and her genius husband, Jasper.  Enjoying face-time, fried chicken, and Hattie's signature cucumber salad.

Hattie’s flagship restaurant in downtown Saratoga Springs has been in operation since 1938. Last year, the Alexander's opened a satellite restaurant outside of town, smack in the middle of a sea of chain restaurants and fast food joints.

Hattie's second location may be surrounded by drive-thru's, but there's only one way to get your hands on a box of their crispy, fragrant fried chicken:  walk through the front door.  Speeding away with the goods to eat in private isn’t on the radar anymore. And neither is the 'never again' mandate regarding foods I truly love.  Think there's a connection?
Sometimes I pop into Hattie's with friends and enjoy a meal with conversation. If I'm doing errands on the fly, I go solo and have no trepidation about sitting at the counter on my own, moaning with joy as I eat (really...just ask the regulars). They key in all this, of course, is balance.  I knew when I began this new way of living that I'd have to change some things, or I'd still be 345 pounds.  My favorite chicken part by far:  thighs. I usually have three. It's just simply what I require to make it worth my time.  However, they're accompanied by a vegetable and not biscuits or fries, and I wash it all down with herbal tea or hot water (my secret weapon) and not a sweetened cold drink.  It works. I leave the meal ecstatic and satisfied, and I continue to release weight.  

If you've read this far, I hope there's no one still wondering why I don't just give the low fat oven-baked version of fried chicken a try. I've tried concocting every version of it in an effort to whittle my waistline and banish the real stuff for good.  Every attempt resulted in uniform awfulness.  

And I simply don't have time for uniform awfulness in my life anymore. Not when there's so much pleasure to enjoy. 


Thursday, July 7, 2011

How To Travel and Eat Clean

It can be done, Truth-Seekers.  With a little planning and help from Mother Nature (Walnuts, Almonds, Almond Milk, Sunflower Seed Butter, Rice Cakes) it's a relative breeze, far more cost effective than fast food, and a priceless investment in your Health.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Recipe of The Week - Strawberry Protein Passion

OK Truth-Seekers, I've got a lot on my plate this week and it's not just food, so this'll have to be a quickie. Some of you know I've come to love protein drinks with such intensity, I practically live on them.  Have at least 2 a day when I'm weight-training and doing YRG.

Now that strawberries are in season, I'm experiencing the joys of enjoying them just-picked vs. the frozen bags I've been accustomed to.  This recipe packs nutrition and flavor, and it's also a great aid to either satisfy a craving or prevent one.  Bon Appetit!

Strawberry Protein Passion

1 scoop egg white protein powder
8-12 ounces almond or coconut milk
1 cup fresh strawberries

Place all ingredients in blender or in immersion blender cup and blend for about a minute until smooth. Try not to chug all at once...Enjoy!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Recipe of The Week: Gluten-Free Greek Pasta Salad

This rainbow of flavors is perfect for hot weather  - Enjoy - it's good for you too!

Greek Gluten-Free Pasta Salad

1 box gluten-free fettucine (elbows or shells can also be used)
3 tomatoes
1 8 ounce package sheep's milk feta (or two, depending on how much protein you want)
2 packages frozen spinach, defrosted
extra virgin olive oil
organic chicken or vegetable stock (quart box)

Cook pasta risotto style:  bring broth to boil and add a bit of olive oil so it doesn't stick together.  Should be enough broth to just or barely cover the pasta (if using fettucine, you may have to break pasta strands in half so it fits under the liquid).  Stir at least once a minute so it doesn't clump.  You may need to add more broth as it absorbs.  Cook till al dente. Drain any remaining liquid. Toss with a little more oil, cover and set aside.

Sautee spinach in a bit of olive oil for about 5 minutes, till spinach gets warm. Remove from heat.  Chop tomatoes and feta cheese and toss together with spinach. Add to pasta and toss thoroughly.  Can be eaten at room temperature or chilled.  

Bon Appetit!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Want a New Life? GO to New Life!

Since releasing 180 pounds over the past couple of years, the focus of my life has changed in more ways than one.  Surprising observation?  No.  But always noteworthy.  So far none of the newness of my new life feels old.  I still get a major kick out of wearing color. My head-to-toe black wardrobe is very past tense...and actually in someone else's hands thanks to a few carloads taken to the Salvation Army. Would you believe I now own and wear blue plaid pants?  Never thought that would happen in this lifetime. Other things I love:  climbing stairs or a simple hill without alarming bystanders by sounding like I'm crossing the threshold into cardiac arrest. 

The focus of my professional life has changed as well. I still write for a living, but decided it was time to take myself off the gluttony beat I'd generously assigned myself to about a decade ago. Regular HFTT readers know I adore food and always will, but I love it in a different way now: It nurtures me instead of drugging me.  And since I'm not sequestering myself in restaurants like I once did, I spend a lot more time at the stove, concocting recipes for HFTT, the Team YRG web site, and my Lotus Love clients.  Another new thing: Writing about fitness, activity, motion, and wellness.  The cool part is I actually get to do it now - and want to, now that I have the energy. 

Case in point  -  a week-long visit to the New Life Hiking Spa in Vermont last spring.  I've been to my share of spas (both during and after my dieting years) and some are OK, others are horrendous (as in too impersonal, lousy food, etc.), and others shine like the sun.  The wellness immersion I experienced at New Life left me feeling revitalized, accomplished, stronger, and more serene.  Another way to phrase my assessment: LOVED IT! 

The spa operates out of The Inn of the Six Mountains in Killington, Vt. during summer months, when ski season in Vermont is a distant memory. It's run by Jimmy LeSage, who founded the spa 32 years ago, the result of his own lifelong quest for better health.

A self-described “hippie into health food and new-age philosophy,” LeSage combined his career as a restaurant chef with emerging trends he saw coming out of health food stores in the late 1970s. “I figured it out the way Nathan Pritikin figured it out,” he said. “I looked at recipes that were appealing and reworked them so they had less salt and fat.”

LeSage makes sure there are cooking demos, and that guests leave home with recipes and other nutritional tools to draw on for lasting change, but what really impressed me is how well he gets the crucial part of the mosaic that most spas overlook:  addressing the psycho-spiritual hole that brought the weight in the first place. 

“In terms of weight, I feel the real issue is emotional,” said LeSage, who has a counseling degree. “It’s important to address what someone is eating, and also the psychological issues behind it.  This isn’t the place to deal with issues with your mom, but the seed is planted.”

And seed-planting is an integral part of New Life’s mission.

“It’s great that clients lose weight while they’re here, but we also give them tools to use when the leave,” he said.  “Just the act of buying groceries requires education.  We teach people to visit the grocery store as if it were a museum. Explore the choices so you can pick what’s real. Do you want peanut butter made with sugar or without?  A whole-grain cracker or one made from white flour?”

As a self-described emotional eater, LeSage says he lives by the advice he gives to his guests. “If I stayed a chef, I’d be dead,” he says. “Now if I graze, I choose an Ak-Mak cracker instead of a Triscuit…or I’ll have an apple. I’ve always been a seeker, and I want people on the path of better health to be seekers, too.” 

LeSage has been a certified yoga instructor since 1977, when he studied at the Sivananda Yoga Center in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec.  Yogic principals of stretching, breathing, and quieting the mind are woven throughout the rest of the spa’s fitness regimen.

There are pool classes, Pilates, strength training, dance classes, and cooking demonstrations, but the stretching, yoga, and meditation are a key focal point on New Life’s fitness menu. Mornings begin with stretching and Qi Gong followed by breakfast and a hike. After lunch comes a rotation of exercise classes followed by the pre-dinner ritual yoga and meditation.

“I just believe that when yoga is practiced regularly, very powerful things happen,” said LeSage. “It has changed my life tremendously.  I’m a Type A kind of guy and regular yoga has helped me focus and achieve my goals in life.  All the stretching and breathing really builds something up.  It can’t be quantified, but it’s there.”

Actually, Jimmy, I couldn't agree more.  There was something rather magical about the healing properties of doing early morning stretching and breathing at the foot of a majestic mountain, heading into the dining room for a healthy breakfast of fresh fruit and a vegetable omelet, and then embarking on the crown jewel of New Life's fitness philosophy:  hiking the Green Mountains. 

“Hiking is a great cardio workout in a beautiful setting,” he said. “The key is, we make it enjoyable…people eventually forget that they’re exercising and just drink in the experience.”

Forensic evidence that I hiked The Appalachian Trail!

I was a little intimidated by the prospect of scaling a sizeable mountain, but there are beginner, intermediate, and advanced level options.  I started the week out with beginner hikes and ended with intermediate, deciding to save the advanced adventure for my next visit. 

Karen Dalury, a yoga instructor at New Life, advises guests away from the ‘all or nothing’ philosophy that’s intrinsic to the dieting mentality.

“Some people come here and want fast results so they do every class; I tell them they’re not going to do all that at home,” she said. “In the long run it’s about finding balance.  If someone drinks five cups of coffee a day and it’s going to make them sad to cut it out completely, why not cut back to three cups a day? We want you to be able to feel good and know what’s right for you, so you’re not dependent on diets or gimmicks. You want to be able to check in with yourself and see how you’re feeling right now, and know how much you want on your plate, or see if it’s time to take a walk or take a nap.  That’s a skill that’s going to save you in the long run.”

Dalury said that it’s the practice of yoga and relaxation techniques that are just as crucial to the transformation process as cardio and clean eating.

"That's why I love yoga, because it lets you get in touch with yourself. Change isn't going to last if you don't peel away those coverings that keep you from feeling what's going on. Weight loss or a new hairdo is meaningless if you don't have peace of mind to go with it," she said.

Not that a little external pampering is out of place at New Life. What would a spa experience be without it?  For every three nights a guest is at the spa, they receive a free service. Guests booked on the 11-night weight loss retreat receive three services, which range from hot-stone massage and reflexology to cranial sacral therapy.

I've been on the yogic path for more than a decade.  When I arrived at New Life last June I had already released 150 pounds.  I was well-versed in the ways of Health, Happiness, and Inner Balance, but I still learned from being there.  There's always something to learn.  And there are always more ways I can Love and Honor who I am.  Spending a few days climbing over rocks, sweating, opening my hip sockets further than I thought possible, connecting with strangers who became friends, and relaxing into the bliss of someone else's healing touch was one of the best ways ever.  Note to self:  Gotta do this again.

At peace after afternoon yoga and a massage...and owning my Life!

“We’re not fancy-schmancy…you can’t get pedicures here, but during the 18 weeks we’re open, we’re the best, most affordable spa in the country,” said LeSage. “Back in the ‘80s I wasn’t ‘in’ because I wasn’t expensive. Now we get both types of clients; people who can afford the $7,000-a-week spa and those who are looking for something they can afford.”


Happy Trails!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Recipe Of The Week: Vegetable Bisque

OK fellow Truth Seekers...you asked for it and here it is:  
Recipe Wednesday.
Recipe Wednesday is...
The perfect antidote for sailing through mid-week doldrums
The entree, side-dish, or dessert you just may devour for dinner this weekend
The beginning of realizing the eye-opening possibilities of eating gluten, wheat, and dairy free, deliciously. 

Bon Appetit My Friends!

Vegetable Bisque

This is one of the many answers I've come up with to make peace with my lukewarm attitude towards vegetables.  Still have to remind myself to eat them after all these years!  I'm just not a fan of the flavor and texture of a lot of them, especially the mealy cruciferous ones like broccoli and cauliflower.  I recently made a vegetable bisque using a bag of frozen mixed vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots).  Any combination works.  A velvety bisque is a great way to ingest them pleasurably. And because of the coconut milk, there's no dairy hangover.
For this and any bisque recipe you'll need a traditional or immersion blender.  Immersions are my preferred method because you don't have to take the soup out of the pot to blend.  You do, however, have to be super-careful about splattering.  You could sautee onions or garlic on the side and add once vegetables have cooked but it's not necessary.  I was in such a hurry when I made this I used onion powder and garlic salt.  My spice cupboard is a HUGE time-saver on busy days. 

1 bag frozen vegetables
1 TBS. powdered chicken stock or boullion
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. garlic salt
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 can coconut milk (regular or light)

Place vegetables in stock pot and add enough water so that it's about an inch deep, no more. Add seasonings and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until vegetables are fork-tender.  Add coconut milk and then blend thoroughly until there are no solid vegetable pieces left.

This is great on its own or mixed with rice.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Today's Food Intake

I guess it's not so odd that some people are curious.  Ever since my first absorbing voyage through the pages of Cosmo (circa age 22) I've been fascinated with the food-intake habits of those I aspired to look like.  I memorized breakfast irregularities, fluid-releasing tricks, fiber-overload, protein underload predilections of the models and movie stars. I never did master the art of mimicing the eating habits of Cindy Crawford and Vendela (remember her?), but then I realized it's best to just listen to my body, because its signals and cues were designed specifically for me and I'd spent inordinate amounts of energy ignoring them.

That said, HFTT readers know I've always been an open book about the journey that never ends.  I'm down 180 pounds and 12 sizes through movement, clean eating and feeling with awareness, so naturally people want a few details on the mechanics.  Occasionally I'll get a query from a reader in Toronto asking what I had for lunch today.  So when I saw another e-mail from one of my favorite and most loyal fellow Truth Seekers, I felt a thunderbolt of inspiration:  Make it a semi-regular blog post.

It'll be illuminating for all of us, including me.  Because nothing puts what I've eaten for the day in a more unobjective light than writing it down...and then making it public.

Remember, I didn't get here by dieting or following to the letter what someone else did.  I got great advice from my mentors, Dallas Page and Terri Lange, a nutritionist, various members of Team YRG, and my trainer at the gym.  Ultimately I made it my own and that's what I encourage you to do.

I eat for both nutrition and pleasure.  For years I tried to stomp the latter out of the equation, believing that it was somehow immoral and unnecessary.  Oh, how wrong I was.  So here's what my tastebuds experienced today...this evening both they and my body are pretty darn happy:

9 a.m.
Double espresso with 4 TBS. light cream and 3/4 TBS honey
Hot water and herbal tea (throughout the day)
2 duck eggs, Sunny
1/2 gluten-free roll, toasted with BUTTER

1 p.m.
1 cup raspberries - I usually eat fruit on its own, better for digestion

2 p.m.
Rhubarb tea (home-brewed...it's rhubarb season!)
1 gluten-free cupcake

5 p.m.
Protein drink made with 1 scoop egg white protein powder, 12 oz. unsweetened almond milk, and a few shakes of cinnamon and apple pie spice (had a craving for the aromatic red spices today)

8 p.m.
Kale Salad with tahini dressing

11 p.m. (as soon as I post this)
Protein drink made with 1 scoop egg white protein power, 12 ounces unsweetened almond milk, spoonful of unsweetened cocoa powder

There you have it.  Some days there are three formal meals, some days five or six smaller ones, and on days like today, semi-organized grazing. Today was a little more carb-oriented because I lifted hard at the gym, followed by 35 minutes of treadmill, and later the YRG Fat Burner (a 25-minute quickie workout I do to keep limber and on top of the core strength). Being fluid with whatever my body's calling for works best for me.  What works best for you?  I know you'll have some delicious fun finding out.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Recipe of The Week

OK fellow Truth Seekers...you asked for it and here it is:  
The debut of Recipe Wednesday!
Recipe Wednesday is...
The perfect antidote for sailing through mid-week doldrums
The entree, side-dish, or dessert you just may devour for dinner this weekend
The beginning of realizing the eye-opening possibilities of eating gluten, wheat, and dairy free, deliciously. 

Bon Appetit My Friends!

Gluten and Dairy-Free Pizza

Did the title of this recipe just induce a major buzz kill?  I admit, it would have cooled my jets a little too, had I not eaten this very dish last night for dinner.  And might I say my Lotus Love clients were DAZZLED.  Now I can't take all the credit, a major part of it goes to Namaste Foods, LLC. They make pizza, cake, cookie mixes and other delights in a dedicated allergen-free facility and everything they make is wheat, gluten, corn, dairy, soy, potato, peanut, and tree nut-free.  Talk about purity!  But I've heard through the food-allergy grapevine that their stuff is also outstanding and it has proved to be true. Not only was texture and flavor a winner, I was stunned that the only effort required was adding water to the mix and applying a little wire whisk action.  No rolling, punching or kneading.

My advice is if you're gonna do it, do it right.  I've tried other GF pizza crust mixes and let's just say the results were sandy, grainy, and crumbly-dry disappointments.  Seek out Namaste pizza crust mix.  If you can't find it at your local store, visit their site and place an order:  www.namastefoods.com .

Below is the recipe I made last night...one based on ingredients in the freezer and cupboards.  Pizza topping combinations can be as individual as the fingerprint, but whether you make it vegetable or meat-laden, USE A GOOD CRUST!

My other secret for great pizza - great sauce. That means healthy sauce, not one messed up with corn syrup or canola oil.  Have cans of tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes on hand for just such an occasion.  Add extra virgin olive oil, salt, sugar, or Agave according to your preferences.

1 bag Namaste Pizza Crust Mix
2 medium onions
Light olive oil for sauteeing
1 32 ounce can tomato sauce (no sugar or oil added)
4-6 ounces of Peccorino (a sheep's milk cheese similar to Romano and Parmasan)
4 large sausage links
Agave nectar

Prepare pizza crust according to instructions and set aside in mixing bowl. Namaste has two servings per bag, I made a big Sicilian style pizza so used the whole bag.

Empty tomato sauce into medium sauce pan and add 1 TBS. Agave nectar and teaspoon of salt.  Simmer uncovered on low heat (this allows some of the water in the sauce to reduce and makes a thicker, more flavorful sauce).

Preheat oven to 450

Spray a large square baking sheet (like a cookie sheet with a rim) with cooking spray and pour pizza batter into pan. Bake for 20 minutes.

In large skillet, heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan (medium heat). Slice onions in thin rings and sautee until carmelized. In a seperate skillet, cook sausage until done, about 15-20 minutes.  Let sausage cool and cut into slices if links. You can also use ground sausage. Add sausage to the onions and mix well. Turn off heat.

When pizza crust has baked for 20 minutes, remove from oven. Spread tomato sauce over the crust, followed by sausage and onion mixture.  Finish by grating Peccorino with a cheese grater over the pizza until it's well covered.  When you get down to the last third of your cheese block, switch from finely grated to large shreds (amps up the cheese flavor and the presentation).

Place pizza back in oven and bake for another 15 minutes.  Prepare to be dazzled!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Temptation Calling

Anyone who says eating isn't a major part of the allure of traveling either has paralyzed tastebuds or isn't being truthful.  Or they're simply the kind I've never been able to figure out:  dispassionate about food in a take-it or leave-it sort of way.

Never have I been afflicted with that particular brand of apathy.  I adore food and its varying temperatures, textures, colors, aromas, and flavors. Swan-dives into gluttony do me no favors, though.  And my body knows the difference now. It doesn't enjoy being drugged anymore (actually, it never did, but it took a while for my mind and spirit to catch up).  Also, I'm not a grateful wearer of denim, and we all know how little wiggle room there is where that iron-willed fabric is concerned.

At the same time, what's the point of travel and adventure if I eat exactly as I do at home?  I love eating clean (no gluten or cow dairy) but when I'm on the Open Road, I tend to take in both the sights and the culinary wonders. Gluten, because of the way it bloats me and saps my energy, is avoided at all costs.  Besides, even on the road there are rice, potato, and corn options in abundance.  I make the occasional indulgence back into the realm of dairy, but it really has to be worth it (superior quality, imaginative presentation).

During the past month I've had back-to-back trips to Florida, Wisconsin, and Alabama. And I realized, as I had to tug a little harder to get my denim pants situated around my waistline the other day, that it was time to dial the indulgence back a few degrees.

In my quest for better health and living with more clarity, I've dropped 180 pounds along the way.  And put a few rules in place from both ends of the spectrum: eating will be done for both pleasure and nutrition, and not to sledgehammer the living daylights out of unpleasant feelings. No food is off limits, but yes, Virginia, quantity does matter.

For example, last week at a seafood restaurant overlooking Mobile Bay, I knew before seeing the menu I'd be getting in one of my top ten favorites:  fried seafood.  But I ordered two vegetable sides with it and told the waitress to hold the fries.  Anytime a menu has lentils (whether it's chick pea salad or black beans and rice) I order them for the fiber more than anything else.  Salads as appetizers are a no-brainer. And my secret weapon?  A steady stream of hot water or herbal tea throughout the meal.  Anyone who has ever washed dishes by hand knows the mighty power steaming water has over a greasy plate.

These are all tricks I employ to make crossing over to the other side a little less impactful.  During the past month I've moaned with pleasure over velvety crawfish bisque, a fluffy and decadent square of Tiramisu, Seafood Eggs Benedict (minus the English muffin), and Oysters Rockefeller.  I enjoy it all with appreciation and awareness, don't eat until I'm shaking my head with regret, and always leave something behind on the plate...a small but significant gesture that I'm in charge of the food, not the other way around.

Always leaving something behind....

Inspite of the safeguards I put in place, it's easy, amazingly easy, to let things slide when traveling.  Maybe it's the combination of the adrenaline of new territory, the stress-charged atmosphere at airports, and edible temptation everywhere that collude to deceive me. And speaking of airports (where I've spent a lot of time waiting lately), I realized I've been subtly operating under one delusion in particular:  food eaten in airport terminals doesn't count.  The calories exist in a hologram and don't really have a consequence.  I'm in survival mode.  I need a little extra comfort before the flight.  The rationales are endless.

Last night on my way home from Mobile, Ala., I made a decision that meant my waiting time at the airport would quadruple:  I volunteered to get bumped from my flight in exchange for an irresistible travel voucher that equals a free plane ticket.  Instead of arriving home at 6:30 p.m., it would be 11:30 p.m.  As I signed on the dotted line I felt the siren call of wanting comfort in the form of food beginning to wail.  Then the ticket agent slid a meal voucher across the formica. All around me were fast food joints pushing burgers, tacos, sweet and sour pork, fried chicken, obscene cinnamon buns as mammoth as they were overly sweet, and ice cream (are you aware there are now cones made of cake?).

Believe it or not, with all the gorgeous fruits of my New Life, there are moments that I get frustrated and infuriated that I can't just dive back in...Sometimes I really do just want the sensation on my tongue....and the sedative effects of sugar and fat sliding through my body. Especially when I'm overly tired and missing home. Instead, I backed away from the food court, hopped on a moving floor and didn't look back till I got to my terminal. Which mercifully had a smoothie stand that sold packaged fresh fruit cup.  Two containers of it were my dinner that night. I'd taken a stand against temptation and it felt glorious.  Why fruit cup for dinner?  I was virtually sedentary the entire day, and after a vegetable omelet and grits for breakfast, and nuts and dried fruit for lunch, I was hardly underfed.

There was more food I could have delved into in my back pack (my emergency supply of clean foods), but I knew it would have been mindless eating.  So I pulled out another form of comfort I keep for such emergencies (the latest Town & Country) and dove in.  My digestive track and denim pants both approved.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

First Mini-Dress!

All I wanted to do was buy a stove top espresso maker.  That was the plan as I walked into the mall yesterday, smack in between the busy-ness of touching down at the airport after nearly two weeks away from home, and a three-hour drive to New Jersey for a Spiritual Retreat at the sanctuary of the one and only Masha Penson.

I get a little edgy if I don't have espresso in the morning, brewed to the specifications to which I've grown accustomed:  the steaming contents of a size medium Bialetti pot, four tablespoons of light cream, and 3/4 tablespoon of honey.  Pure Bliss.  I'd been ten days without this morning elixir and could take no more, so in I popped to Colonie Center and the Coffee Beanery, where they sell great equipment and accessories.

Sorry, espresso always gets me off on a tangent.  So yesterday afternoon, I'm sailing out of Colonie Center with my shiny steel espresso pot and making a beeline for the New York State Thruway when I was stopped cold in my tracks by an orange dress hanging in the entry way of an eyebrow-threading boutique adorably named Arch. They specialize in brow threading and Mehndi tattoos so it was surprising there was clothing at all, but the orange work of art with black embroidery literally shouted to me across the corridor, where ironically, I was bypassing one of my former passions:  those hot and sticky cinnamon buns the size of doorstops.  Or as I like to call them, the binge-eater's version of shooting up.

Even before pulling the dress off its silver hanger I could tell it was one of those above-the-knee varietals ...the blithe and airy dresses I'd only seen on other women.  That's when the heart started racing.  Was the world ready for this?  Was I?  Before I'd fully yanked the apricot-colored fabric all the way over my head, my inner-knowing kicked in, and I realized I'd be walking out onto public asphalt wearing the little orange dress.  Good thing, because it fit perfectly...something I wasn't sure would actually happen after 10 days of semi-recreational eating (an occupational hazard of the travel writer).

I loved the way it looked and felt on me, but this was a MINI dress. The thought of walking out from behind the black velvet dressing room curtain terrified me. I first poked my head out, then the rest of me...eyes fixed on the boutique owner and the woman she was waiting on. Uncensored first-few-seconds-of-viewing reactions were what I was after.  If they looked aghast or tried stifling a laugh, that would be my sign to 86 Operation First Mini Dress.

But there was no suppressed laughter, and I detected no flashes of disgust or pity.  I realize it's wise to take a salewoman's oohing and aahhing with grain of salt, but Sarah either really loved the little orange dress on me or has missed her calling as an Academy Award caliber actor. Besides, every fiber in me was pulsating with joy.  I loved everything about the dress, from the color and embroidery detail, to the price, and the way the lightness of the fabric danced across my skin.

Some of you regular readers know that an ongoing theme of my transformation has been that of visibility.  Other ways of putting that include allowing myself to feel vulnerable, making frequent trips out of my comfort zone, and confronting fears for the sheer challenge of it (like skulling, parasailing, or letting a man get to know me).

For many years I was hidden.  Literally and figuratively. Carrying the burden of nearly 200 pounds of excess weight plus the unquantifiable emotional pain that accompanies it has a tendency to wreak havoc on your Life force.   I don't know if in my former state Life avoided me or I avoided Life.  I do know now that Life responds to how I approach it.  When I started paying attention to who I really am, stopped drugging myself with food, and started deconstruction on the wall of protection, Life responded with Amazing people and situations...some of whom seemed to be literally airlifted into my lap. Without me orchestrating it. That's the beauty of Life and its responsive nature.

So how could I not (grain of saleswoman salt and all) take this dress and love it?  Yes, I was not entirely comfortable walking out the door wearing it. My breathing was guarded and shallow as I sensed wind and sun on my knees...I may have even looked nervously around the parking lot to see if there was a lurking cop. I felt like I'd just broken a major law of proper conduct.  But I kept on walking.  You know why? Beause I can't remember the last time I said no, turned back, and not taken a challenge by the hand.  So why start now?