The Lo-Co Vacation

So what I was hoping, while on vacation, is that I’d post about the challenges and triumphs of going lo-co on vacation.

Instead, my lo-co plan went on vacation.

Want to know what total food meltdown on vacation looks like?  Well, it starts with having Eggs Benedict TWICE.  (Apparently, I am a room service slut – thank goodness we rarely stay at wonderful places like this one in Southern California or I’d be on cholesterol meds in like 3 seconds flat).

So far on this trip, I’ve managed just 2 lo-co meal choices.  For all other meals these past 8 days I’ve made choices like these totally NOT lo-co meals:

  • Room service eggs benedict (have to list 2x as it’s such an egregious choice).  At least I ordered it with salmon instead of ham.  Though I do get that does not make up for the egg yolks PLUS hollandaise.
  • A sausage (at least it was chicken/apple!) in Venice Beach, because: a) the Jody Maroni Sausage Kingdom is famous (infamous?) and anyway, how can you not order from a place named the Sausage Kingdom?  And b) we were at Muscle Beach so nothing made any sense.
  • A shrimp dish from a Top Chef Masters restaurant in Santa Monica. Fish would have been a lower cholesterol choice but the fish dish offered didn’t appeal to me…
  • Quinoa Fritters from same Top Chef restaurant – the quinoa part is lo-co but the frying part is an obvious no-no.
  • At the way cool and totally low-key OP Cafe in Santa Monica (complete w/ skateboard dude kid eating breakfast burrito), I had the best breakfast I’ve ever had: eggs and avocado, with tomatillo sauce on flour tortillas.  This was not the kind of place you can order egg whites (or probably it is, but I didn’t).  I did ask about their oatmeal but have to say, am glad I didn’t order it as the dish I ordered was truly spectacular.
  • An apple pancake – served ONLY on Sundays – I mean how can you not order when it’s so special they only offer it once a week?  I thought this was actually a good choice (a lot of fresh apple slices) until my husband and son informed me it tasted like dessert.  Sigh.
  • Beers & wine & margaritas daily … sometimes before 5pm.
  • There’s more – lunches and dinners actually worse – but frankly, it’s all just too embarrassing to list here.

The only 2 good choices I made?   Yesterday, I attempted to recreate the fabulous OP Cafe eggs and avocado in a tortilla dish – it wan’t on the menu at our resort, but they made it for me – and this time I remembered to order egg whites.  It was good, not great – needed tomatillo sauce…

And then for lunch, I ordered a mixed green salad with strawberries and almonds – and actually, it was delicious.  Which is a lot, coming from me, the salad hater.

So that’s my eating lo-co failure.  We have jogged or played tennis every day, so that’s offsetting things a tiny bit.

And with that I’ll sign off – and go for a run.  While listening to the surf, I guess I should plan some better food choices for today.

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Panini Magic

Kitchen gadgets are big in my family.  Though truth be told, I’ve gone a bit too far.  Like, approaching hoarders territory.  I can’t believe I’m going to admit this, but we have a ‘magic closet’ where the oh-so-many large and/or not-often used cooking tools live (like my stash of huge, medium, small and mini crock pots – yes I have 4, yes that’s embarrassing.)  It’s like a clown car in there.

But by far, the most fabulous kitchen gadget I own is a panini maker.  It is not jammed in the magic closet – no siree!  My wonderful Cuisinart Panini Press has got pride of place, right out on my kitchen counter.

I can imagine your puzzled brow.  Let me explain why I love my panini maker so – and why it’s become vital to my lo-co cooking.

My love affair with my panini press didn’t start out as a lo-co undertaking.  I didn’t dole out $49.95 so I could cook low fat, low cholesterol meals.  I bought it because my teenage son said he’d eat more if I made paninis.  So naturally, I raced to the local Bed Bath & Beyond to purchase one.

And it worked!   It used to be that I’d 2 scramble 2 eggs with some cheese, and serve it with Morningstar Farms ‘sausage’ and toast – and he’d eat about 1/2 of what was on his plate.  But when I put those exact same ingredients and rolled them into a tortilla and then grilled it for 2 minutes, he ate it all, every time.  Now he eats a ‘breakfast panini’ nearly every weekend.

So then I expanded beyond breakfast into after-school snacks – and created a fabulous panini’d tortilla stuffed with nutella, chocolate chips and salt-free peanuts.  We graduated from ‘no thanks, I’m not hungry’ after school to him gladly gobbing 2 nutella paninis.  With milk, even.

Then I decided to see what I could panini for lunch for myself – because lunch is a tough meal for me.  I like leftovers warmed up – but don’t have leftovers every day just waiting to be microwaved.  And I really dislike cold sandwiches.  So for years, my default lunch has been a tuna melt – not such a great lo-co meal, what with the mayo and cheese, not to mention the potential mercury issue.

That said, I started with what I knew:  tuna and a bit of cheese on a tortilla.  I panini’d it for 2 minutes and voila – so, so much better than on an english muffin.  But obviously, this did not make it any more lo-co.

I chewed on this for a while (sorry, pun intended) and finally, the true potential of my new fave gadget hit me: I could use the panini press to quell my tuna addiction.  And eat a healthier, lo-co lunch with more fiber and veggies.

So I began experimenting. Leftover roasted veggies on a panini’d tortilla were good, but I didn’t have leftover roasted veggies in the fridge every day.

But what I did have, after making chicken-in-a-bag several times, was plenty of leftover chicken.  Without gravy, that chicken just looked unappealing.  And putting it on a sandwich, with mayo, wasn’t so lo-co either. Of course, it was useful to create a filling salad, but we all know how I feel about salad.  It just makes me sad.

Which is how I came up with the idea to place the chicken, lettuce, tomato and avocado I’d normally use in a salad on a tortilla instead of into a bowl…and then panini it. Some of you out there will be all “eww, warmed up lettuce – gross.”  But for me, this is just magic.  The chicken, lettuce and tomato are slightly warmed, and the avocado makes it moist and delicious – with no mayo.  Lo-co heaven.

And avocado – it’s a great lo-co food.  More on that in a later post.

Not only is this a delicious lunch, this recipe takes all of 30 seconds to set up and exactly 2 minutes to grill on the panini press.  So my lack of planning – when it’s 2pm and I’ve forgotten to have lunch yet again – doesn’t derail my lo-co meal plans (if they haven’t been derailed already).

Most people use a panini press with bread – that’s even in the picture from the Cuisinart site.  And if you prefer bread, go for it.  But it’s easy to use with a tortilla instead – plus it’s fewer calories and I just plain like it better.  Here’s how to make a tortilla panini:

  1. Turn on panini press to warm up, and spray one side of the tortilla with Pam…or I use an Olive Oil sprayer (because it’s my own olive oil so it has no preservatives and, hey, it’s another fun gadget, also from BB&B!)
  2. Place tortilla oiled-side down on a plate, then put your fillings in a long, thin strip (like a log) in the middle of the tortilla – leaving about an inch at each end.
  3. Prep for panini’ing:   a) Easy Way: Fold into half moon and put on panini press.  Or if you’re like me and prefer it neat, with folded sides that don’t leak out AND with the filling reaching all the way through, then do this instead:  b) Fold into a half-moon, then fold each of the ‘short sides’ down, then fold the long end over the short ends – this makes a rectangle. (See lame iPhone photos below!)
  4. Carefully place it on the panini press (it works best to put the folded side DOWN), and set a timer for 2 minutes.
  5. ENJOY!

1) Load filling in center, 1" free at top & bottom; 2) fold into 1/2 moon; 3) Fold sides; 4) Fold top.

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The Sugar Dilemma

To lower my too-high cholesterol, I’ve been focused on eating low-fat, low cholesterol foods and getting more fiber.  And trying (relatively unsuccessfully) to exercise near-daily.

Apparently, that’s not enough.  Apparently the fact that I’m a sugar junkie is a real cholesterol problem.

Sigh.

I learned this from Gary Taubes’ extremely well researched (and scary) article in the New York Times entitled, “Is Sugar Toxic?”  In a nutshell, the premise is that sugar does far more than cause weight gain/obesity and diabetes…that sugar itself is a toxin, when eaten (at typical American levels) over time because it causes metabolic syndrome, which is major risk factor for heart disease.

His premise is based on research from multiple sources, one of whom is Robert Lustig, who was the topic of the opening paragraph of Taubes article:

“On May 26, 2009, Robert Lustig gave a lecture called “Sugar, The Bitter Truth,” which was posted on YouTube the following July. Since then, it has been viewed well over 800,000 times, gaining new viewers at a rate of about 50,000 per month, fairly remarkable numbers for a 90-minute discussion of the nuances of fructose biochemistry and human physiology.”

The YouTube link is included (as of today, there were nearly 1.4mm views) but since 90 minutes is far too long for my blog-oriented learning style, I read on.   Taubes explains:

“If Lustig is right, then our excessive consumption of sugar is the primary reason that the numbers of obese and diabetic Americans have skyrocketed in the past 30 years. But his argument implies more than that. If Lustig is right, it would mean that sugar is also the likely dietary cause of several other chronic ailments widely considered to be diseases of Western lifestyles — heart disease, hypertension and many common cancers among them.”

Why?  What’s so bad about sugar?  If you read this excellent (and long) article, you’ll find out that sugar is metabolized completely differently than starch – and that when you drink or eat a lot of sugar (in any form), the liver has to go into overdrive to process it, and that leads to insulin resistance and/or ‘metabolic syndrome.’

But wait – isn’t insulin resistance diabetes?  What’s that got to do with high cholesterol and heart disease?

Turns out – everything.

“…Physicians and medical authorities came to accept the idea that a condition known as metabolic syndrome is a major, if not the major, risk factor for heart disease and diabetes…

Having metabolic syndrome is another way of saying that the cells in your body are actively ignoring the action of the hormone insulin — a condition known technically as being insulin-resistant… insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome still get remarkably little attention in the press (certainly compared with cholesterol).
Not everyone with insulin resistance becomes diabetic…But having chronically elevated insulin levels has harmful effects of its own — heart disease, for one. A result is higher triglyceride levels and blood pressure, lower levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good cholesterol”), further worsening the insulin resistance — this is metabolic syndrome.”  (bold is mine)

And this is the heart of the matter for me (pun intended).  My last cholesterol test showed an increase in triglycerides AND a lower levels of HDL good cholesterol.  Which makes me worried I either have or am headed toward metabolic syndrome.

Personally, I much preferred the conventional wisdom:

“The conventional wisdom has long been that the worst that can be said about sugars of any kind is that they cause tooth decay and represent “empty calories” that we eat in excess because they taste so good.”

But I fear I can no longer pretend that my sugar addiction is OK (yes, you know about Phish Food ice cream …but there’s also cake and cookies on a regular basis as well).

Lustig’s argument, however, is not about the consumption of empty calories — and biochemists have made the same case previously, though not so publicly. It is that sugar has unique characteristics, specifically in the way the human body metabolizes the fructose in it, that may make it singularly harmful, at least if consumed in sufficient quantities.

So here’s my question:  I do not drink soda (happily, I dislike it).  I don’t drink juice (I take my vodka straight, thank you).  But I do eat ice cream, cake and cookies.  Not a ton, just a little every day.  Do I now need to cut those out as well?  Or is just a little – just a cookie or two every day – is that OK?

And don’t even mention my red wine.  Just don’t.

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Quinoa, Quinoa Everywhere

A month ago, I had never heard of quinoa (keen-wah).  Then I tried some made by a local chef and wham, now it’s everywhere.  OK, OK, I know – it’s not everywhere, really — it’s simply that now that I’m aware of it, it just feels like its everywhere.

Except that, truly, I think it is.  This feels like a bona fide foodie trend.  It feels like quinoa is actually becoming ubiquitous.  At least in Metro NYC.

Because how’s this for funny: I made this Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa recipe for a pot-luck dinner party and someone invited at the last minute (ie, not involved in the who’s-bringing-what game) ALSO brought a quinoa dish.  We were all shocked.

I know you’re wondering, so I’ll just tell you straight up: my quinoa dish was better (if I do say so myself.)  And I do!  Why was it better?  Well, it is NOT because I’m a better cook.  Or that I was bitter that someone else brought quinoa.  Though clearly that is true.

Rather, it was simply that the recipe I used was better: more taste and it looked prettier.

Quinoa - from Epicurious site

So, another week goes by, and I make this quinoa dish for a birthday lunch for a (different group) of friends.  Then another week passes, and my friend Michaela asked if I could please make that delicious dish I brought to the birthday bash for her Memorial Day BBQ.  So I happily whip up a big batch, bring it…and it happened AGAIN!  Someone else ALSO brought a quinoa dish.

And lo and behold – mine was better again (this time, others even said so!)

How weird is that?  I’m not alone in thinking that’s strange, right?  I mean, clearly, there are 2 questions y’all must be pondering:

  1. What is it with quinoa?  Is it a new foodie obsession?  Why is it everywhere? I mean twice in a few weeks in the SUBURBS?!!!  That is crazy!  And here’s another tidbit:  someone at the BBQ said quinoa is all the rage in her town! So if you have any trend info to share, please comment here or on the GoLowCholesterol Facebook Page!
  2. And what’s so great about the quinoa recipe I found?  Why is it so good that it won – hands down – in 2 oh-so-formal (not!) taste tests?

Like I said, I can’t answer the first (and am hoping you can?), but I can tell you why this particular quinoa recipe rocks:

  • First of all it’s very easy – though there is chopping and zesting, so you have to be up for that.
  • Second of all, it has lots of nice color.
  • And third of all – it’s very flavorful … frankly, it’s just plain tasty.

The recipe I used got a 4-fork rating at Epicurious, and the only adjustment I made to render it even more Lo-Co was to leave out the butter.  Check it out online because the reviews offer some great suggestions (like adding avocado and vegetables).

Oh, and the other adjustment I made to this recipe is key: IGNORE the huge, complicated step about cooking quinoa!  That’s what the Epicurious reviewers said and they were right.  I just tossed it in my rice cooker OR you can just cook it the same way you cook rice.

As long as you buy your quinoa pre-washed (this is vital!), the quinoa itself is simple to make.

If you want to download my recipe for Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa, with all the above noted on a PDF, you can view it here.

Want to know more about quinoa?  Like why it’s so healthy and why it’s great for vegetarians?  Read on.  If not, I respect that – just download the recipe PDF or view it on Epicurious and have fun!

More info, you say?  Why is quinoa a great lo-co/healthy choice?  The main thing about quinoa is that it has a lot of protein – unusual for a ‘grain’ or typical side dish – so it’s terrific for vegetarians.  It’s also gluten-free and fat-free (unless you add, say, butter!)

Even more info?  For the best easy-to-read definition, check out about.com (normally not my fave site, but the wikipedia entry is ridiculously technical and full of stuff that I personally didn’t care about!)

Here’s about.com’s quinoa definition – and there are recipes and how-to-cook tips too:

What is quinoa?
While quinoa is usually considered to be a whole grain, it is actually a seed, but can be prepared like whole grains such as rice or barley. Try a quinoa pilaf salad recipe, or serve a vegetable stir-fry over cooked quinoa instead of rice. Quinoa is my favorite grain for three reasons: First, it takes less time to cook than other whole grains – just 10 to 15 minutes. Second, quinoa tastes great on its own, unlike other grains such as millet or teff. Add a bit of olive oil, sea salt and lemon juice and – yum! Finally, of all the whole grains, quinoa has the most protein, so it’s perfect for vegetarians. Quinoa provides all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Quinoa is a gluten-free and cholesterol-free whole grain, is kosher for Passover, and is almost always organic.”

Want even more quinoa info? You can check out:

By the way – this quinoa recipe was GREAT with my afore-posted-about Oven-Ready Roaster!  Because I made that bird again and still have leftovers.  My son even ate some quinoa with his chicken, though he complained about the black beans and said he’d prefer rice with gravy. Sigh.

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