Saturday, November 22, 2014

Cozy Winter Granola (dairy, gluten and grain free)

Like Pavlov’s dog, I used to salivate at the first ring of a holiday bell, anxious for November and December’s much anticipated comfort foods and holiday meals. We all tend to splurge with more reckless abandon from Thanksgiving through New Year’s and although my body never exactly thrived off double scoops of peppermint stick ice cream over warm molten chocolate cake, my inner fat kid certainly did. I used to be able to bounce back from holiday indulgence almost as fast as I could wipe the evidence off my sticky, soiled face with a holly embroidered napkin. Although I’m still waiting for the official memo (would have been nice to get a little warning,) I've begrudgingly accepted that atonement for a month or two of “who cares, it’s Christmas!” after the age of 30 is an uphill battle I don’t have the patience for. So, I've had to modify my approach a little to avoid the winter purgatory. 

Even if we are trying to be mindful of lingering saddle bags, let’s be honest. Deprivation this time of year only results in a particularly ugly type of “hangry.” As it often is, the answer seems to be balance. I allow myself a few “screw it!” moments (Bubby’s legendary Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas morning brunch,) but in between I do my best to take care of myself and my husband. I fulfill the desire to fill our house with familiar smells and memories by making simple modifications to classic recipes, and by finding healthier or simplified versions of old favorites that I find equally satisfying. It took me a great deal of trial and error over the past few holiday seasons (I still don’t understand why people say things like “tastes JUST like a Pillsbury sugar cookie!” when it tastes like a macaroon scraped off the bottom of someone’s shoe). Bottom line: if the healthier versions feels like a sad-sack replacements of the real thing, you’ll likely wander back to the fridge a few hours later and end up eating what you were craving in the first place.

I’ve stumbled my way through dozens of allergen free, clean, paleo, etc versions of holiday treats and comfort foods and some of them (grain-free sugar cookies) made me want to throw a rolling pin against the wall. Others were so delicious (allergen free dark chocolate peppermint pretzels,) that the results called to me from the freezer with equally loud “eeeeeeat me” voices as the naughtier version.  Allow me to save you the trouble of wasted hours and shelves full of expiring specialty ingredients and share a few recipes that anchor our holiday regimen.

I always know a “healthy spin” is successful when my husband loves it, craves it and asks for 2nd and 3rd batches long after it’s gone. This “granola” recipe is a favorite of his; and just this past weekend became a new favorite of a beloved childhood friend, my best girlfriends from college, and their charming better halves. It fills the house with sweet and comforting scents and is a far healthier start to cold winter mornings than pastries or French toast and bacon! 

Cozy Winter Granola (dairy, gluten and grain free)

¼ cup (heaping) raw pumpkin seeds
¼ cup (heaping) raw sunflower seeds
3/4 cup raw almonds
1/2 cup raw cashews
½ cup raw pecans
¼ cup raw walnuts
¼ cup golden flax seeds
¾ Cup unsweetened shredded coconut
¼ cup honey
¼ cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons coconut oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Optional: ½ cup allergen free chocolate chips  or raw cacao nibs
1/2 cup golden raisins
½ teaspoon sea salt

Parchment paper (don’t sub wax paper, trust me!)

  1. Rinse pumpkin and sunflower seeds in a fine mesh strainer. Put in a bowl and pour water over seeds with about ¼ inch to cover. Soak seeds for about an hour then drain and towel dry
  2. Preheat oven to 275 and line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper
  3. Put nuts in a food processor or high speed blender and pulse a few times to chop the nuts into smaller pieces. (You don’t want the nuts to be ground to a powder; its ideal to have the pieces vary in sizes).
  4. Heat coconut oil, maple syrup, honey and vanilla in the microwave for 30 seconds, or on the stovetop on low for a few minutes, just until the coconut oil is melted and the liquids combine.
  5. Combine all ingredients, except the raisins and salt, in a large mixing bowl. Stir to coat.
  6. Spread the granola mixture evenly onto the cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for about 25 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring ½ way through cooking time. For a chewier granola, cook just under 25 minutes; for a crispy, crunchy granola, cook a few minutes longer but keep a close eye on it to prevent over-browning.
  7. Remove from oven and sprinkle with sea salt. Add raisins and use a spatula to flatten them into the mixture. (Note: the mixture will not be crispy upon removing from oven, it will still be wet until the sugars cool and harden.)
  8. Allow to cool for 30 minutes to an hour (depending on the humidity of your kitchen!) Break apart and store in an airtight container, using parchment paper to separate layers. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Grown Up Friends

A few weekends ago I went to Palm Springs for a bachelorette party thrown in honor of a California girlfriend that I've known for a few years now. We’re kindred spirits, like-minded in many ways, and I value our friendship so much that I didn't think twice about attending her bachelorette party as an outsider among her childhood and college friends. Distracted by work quite a bit these days, the fact that I would be the stranger in the midst didn't even cross my mind until I was on the way to the airport.

I was relieved to find the bride’s friends were all as approachable, fun and quirky as she is. I also had the good fortune of seeing at least a few familiar faces; and thankfully being social and building relationships is not unnatural to me. Still I found myself feeling surprisingly insecure throughout the weekend. Self-critical thoughts like “stop talking so much” or “don’t talk about yourself” kept popping up. Even though I was having a good time and enjoying everyone’s company, I kept self-correcting and judging myself harshly.  I’d crack a well received joke and in the next breath think, “Ugh. You’re trying too hard to be funny.”

We arrived on Friday afternoon and by Saturday evening, the self-critical inner monologue was unsettling enough to me to break out the champagne and “college Liz.” I don’t drink much anymore and “college Liz” has been long dead and buried, but being the “new girl” among old friends stirred up a kind of insecurity that is relatively new to me. Sure I’m accustomed to hypercritical self-awareness when it comes to my performance at work or to my personal appearance, but I’m not used to it in the social space. Being engaging, funny, charming and conversational with new people-that’s supposed to be my sweet spot.

Making new friends as an adult makes me feel vulnerable in a way I don’t remember ever feeling before. After college, we’re deprived of the disarming experiences (like sharing dorm bathrooms or 8 years of math class) that serve as catalysts for lasting bonds. As grown-ups we’re faced with making new friends in stifling professional environments or places like bars and buses that are anything but conducive to making authentic personal connections. If you’re a transplant like I am, then you know that infiltrating a group of lifelong friends is a whole other complicated gauntlet. Still, I used to feel well equipped for these challenges. Why does it feel so much harder the older I get?

My childhood and college girlfriends have always been a great source of strength for me; I always had this feeling that if I could see myself the way they saw me I would be much better off. Those friendships have always made me feel loved, needed, wise, funny, smart – everything a good friendship should make you feel. But those friendships and those women are all very far away. The women I met over my first few years in San Francisco made me feel embraced, accepted and appreciated. Now that most of them have had children and/or left the city, I ’m facing my fourth cycle of making new friends. In the absence of all the women with whom I’ve built uplifting relationships over the years, an unfamiliar social self-consciousness fills the void left by the positive reinforcement of their laughter and energy. The quiet though, as uncomfortable as it is at times, has revealed a pressing need. I have to learn to love myself in the silence and the noise. I have to learn to draw my sense of self worth from within.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Indian Wedding

On my walk home from Pilates yesterday afternoon, as I ascended the Mason Street hill from Union Square, I heard the unmistakable twang of sitar filling Huntington Square a block above me. The music was celebratory, punctuated by the thud of hand drums bouncing off the Pac Union Club’s ancient brownstone walls, and infused with cheers and laughter. The positive energy was palpable. Even before I hit the crest of the hill where the crowd was visible, I had a smile on my face.

The block in front of the Fairmont Hotel had been barricaded to accommodate an Indian wedding celebration that spilled out of the front doors and into the streets before passing neighbors and tourists. The wedding guests kept pouring out of the hotel as I approached. They danced in a serpentine line that weaved in and out of the grey-flecked white marble columns and blurred into the edges of a crowd surrounding the groom. Gold headdress atop his head, he cheered and bounced on the back of a tall white horse spotted with tan. 

Silk saris saturated with the colors of the rainbow looked like splashes of paint against the facade of the old white hotel. Miles of silk adorned with gold coins and thick with embroidery hung across the slight frames of silver-haired, WASPy retirees and flowed down the backs of beautiful young Indian bridesmaids. The traditional dress looked strikingly natural on both sets of women. They all appeared equally as proud to lose themselves in Indian tradition and in devotion to the bride and groom. Men held their children on their shoulders and hopped up and down on the pavement, a common lack of rhythm united ancient looking uncles, awkward singles and youthful family men. There were no straight faces in the group, only smiles as bright and bold as the colors of dress.

There’s something truly remarkable about weddings. I can't think of anything else that inspires us to put aside our own priorities, agendas, baggage and judgments in favor of unadulterated joy. Weddings exist in this wonderful, beautiful vacuum where we replace the things that taint the good in life with everything that is good. They are full of the memories that that bind us. They are overflowing with the kindness that feeds our souls. They are a source of hope that fuels our dreams for the future. Everywhere you turn on that day, you see loyalty, love, support, history, optimism. It’s truly remarkable. 

I stood glued to that sidewalk for a few minutes. My feet felt heavy even as my chest filled with longing and I felt sadness inflate my ribs. Although only witness to it, I found it hard to walk away from that once in a lifetime sensation of being surrounded by everyone that matters – protected, elevated, insulated by their love and the sheer force of their combined support.  I moved only when the groom rode towards the door and his future with his bride. As I walked towards home and looked over the other side of Nob Hill to the ocean, I thought about how I would get married once a year until I die if given the chance (and a little extra $). I turned back for a last look before they were out of sight, and I wondered if I will ever feel as invincible and complete as I did with my hand inside my husbands and our family and friends at our sides.  

When I arrived home wishing I had a sari in my closet, I realized I’m still going through a little post-wedding withdrawal.  I can’t help but wonder if I will be as long as I chose to live the life I love here in California. Perhaps the price I pay is always feeling a little bit like a sponge - full of tiny little holes left by family and friends so far away, waiting to be filled up, filled in, made whole by the uplifting force of their combined presence in my life. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Venus Fly Trap

By January, everyone is ready for a reset button. Carrying around a few extra pounds, staring back at ruddy skin, and feeling lethargic get old after a while. Most people are anxious to return to pre-holiday form, as am I of course, but because weight management is a slippery slope for me, I have to be particularly mindful of the pressure I put on myself come the New Year. After years of torturing myself in January as punishment for a blissfully indulgent December, I finally learned that remedying one form of unhealthy with another, (extreme measures,) results in frustration at best and binging at worst.  
In the past few years, I’ve tried to ease myself back into a nourishing, clean diet by slowly decreasing artificial sugar intake and rich foods and simultaneously increasing simply prepared whole meals and snacks. We return to cooking at home more; inventive salads, fresh grilled fish and chicken and pureed vegetable soups fill the menu. When cravings strike, I do my best to remember the end game: clean diet = clean body=clear mind=strong and happy Liz.  If I slip up, I try like hell to avoid punishing myself with extra workouts or skimping on meals. I even write post-it notes on the inside of my bathroom mirror with messages like “be kind to yourself” or “health is fragile. Be gentile.”  The theme is positive reinforcement. The goal is that within a couple of weeks, my brain recognizes and feels the remarkable difference between a nourishing, clean diet and an overindulgent one. If I can be patient and focus on health above all, I start to truly feel why I’m mindful of nourishing my body first, and indulging second.
It all sounds quite simple and sensible, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the reality is that after years of trying, I still can’t wrap the sins of the holidays up in a neat and tidy January package. It’s as if while my conscious self is focusing on the healthy path, there’s still that little voice deep inside me saying “don’t let that scale keep going in the wrong direction!” The fear of losing control slowly, quietly builds - it’s a seed that starts small and flourishes despite my refusal to water it. Even if I turn my back on it with intentions and healthy habits, it still grows into a Venus fly trap by the end of January.  I walk right into the trap and hit the release valve with a regretful night out or weekend of overindulgence, effectively burying a month of “right” with a mindless dose of “wrong.”
I stood in the shower Sunday morning, the scalding hot water bathing me in déjà vu. After a moment of searching my memory I realized that this was the 3rd or 4th January in a row when I’ve buckled under the same old self-imposed pressures right as the calendar turns to February.  I looked down at my toes and watched the water rush around them, feeling heavy and rooted to the porcelain tub like a statue.  In that moment, I wondered if the strength and wisdom and self worth I’ve worked so hard to arm myself with will always be as fluid as the water rushing at my feet – and if that ashamed chubby girl inside of me will remain as immovable as the feet beneath it. Will I ever be able to drown her out for good?