Remember when I used to blog?

Life has been…different, lately. And very busy. I don’t know that I’m actually doing a whole lot, but it sure feels like I’m spending every moment on something. It occurred to me that it’s been awhile since I actually blogged, so I thought I’d put down some sort of update.

There are several new people in my life, friends I’ve made through the Welcome to Night Vale fandom and through Sean. It has been so wonderful getting to know them and sharing things with them. I’ve been doing a lot more chatting recently than I had for years. I’d really missed it. So many of my new friends are artists or writers, so we’ve been inspiring each other to create fanworks, and it’s been so much fun.

My online life has sort of shifted; I used to spend a lot of time on social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, but now I hardly ever look at those two sites. I’m enjoying the chatting a lot more—it’s more personal, and it’s with people I care a lot about. (Sometimes on social media I get a bunch of updates from acquaintances and barely anything from my closest friends.)

I have a trip coming up soon; I’m going to New York City! I’ve only been once before, during Sean and my visit to New York state in 2011 (which I never finished writing up, alas). I’m really excited to see the city properly. I’m going to a Broadway musical, even! But the best part is that I’m going to meet someone very special in person for the first time. :)

I went home to visit my family over Labor Day weekend. It was nice. I didn’t feel like doing much, so I hung out in the office with Mom most of the time. On Sunday, the day before I left, we had a cookout, and AJ let Connor and Logan invite a bunch of their friends. Mom and Dad’s yard was filled with teen and pre-teen boys, swimming, playing horseshoes, tossing beanbags, and helping with the grill. It was amazing. Eventually we all sat down to eat wherever we could find a spot and one of Logan’s friends, Cade, entertained us with jokes. Then he and Logan challenged each other to eat various food items with lemon juice squirted all over them. It was funny.

Ben had no idea I was visiting, so I didn’t see him at all. Gah. Next time I will be sure to tell him myself that I am coming!

My daily writing challenge has kind of faltered. Some days I have been too mentally exhausted to write. Some days I just haven’t been in the right headspace. I’m still trying to write regularly, but it seems like every day isn’t sustainable. I’m trying not to beat myself up over it, and instead to enjoy the writing I’m doing.

So far the vast majority of my writing has been fanworks. I’m trying not to feel bad about this, either. For some reason I feel like I should be writing original stuff, like the work I’ve done isn’t “real.” But people have enjoyed what I’ve written, and I’ve enjoyed writing it. There’s value to it. I’m trying to break out of the “if it can’t make money, it’s worthless” mentality.

(Of course, I’m also nervous that I’m just scared to try to write something original, because I don’t feel like I can do it and I don’t want to fail…)

Sean and I eat out a lot these days. Neither of us is a big fan of cooking. For Sean, it’s mostly that it takes so much time. For me, there’s the added issue that Sean is fairly picky, so there’s the danger that I’ll spend forever making something and then he won’t like it. So we tend to get takeout or fast food, or just go to a restaurant.

We have been trying to make healthier choices, at least. I’ve been getting Starbucks’ Protein Bistro Box for breakfast pretty regularly. It comes with a hard-boiled egg, two slices of white cheddar cheese, a small multi-grain pita with honey-peanut butter spread, apple slices, and grapes. It is so yummy! Much nicer than a sausage or bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit, and healthier too. It’s a struggle not to just eat one every day. (I’ve been thinking that I could probably create my own version at home that would cost less. Maybe I’ll do that.)

Exercise-wise, neither of us is doing much of anything. We have to go up a flight of stairs to leave our apartment, and I take the stairs in the parking garage at work, but that’s about it. I’ve been thinking about getting back into walking or running in the mornings now that the weather is cooling off again, but I’m not sure I want to get up any earlier than I already do. My evenings feel pretty short already, especially since most of my friends stay up late.

Yesterday one of my friends linked me to a couple of videos: the pilot short and the first episode of the miniseries Over the Garden Wall. I had never seen it before, though I knew a lot of people were fans. It was absolutely incredible. So unique and charming. Creepy and cute all at once. The music is spectacular. At some point I need to sit down and watch the whole thing. (I was disappointed that both of the two main characters are boys, but my friend says there are important girl characters in the show, so I will hold out hope.)

Otherwise, I haven’t been watching or listening to much of anything lately beyond Welcome to Night Vale. I’ve heard of a couple of podcasts that sound great, but it’s hard for me to find time to listen to podcasts. I need to be doing something with my hands, but it can’t be something that takes too much mental energy, because I’ll get distracted from the show. Maybe if I start walking again, I could listen then. I’ve also been thinking about learning embroidery, or at least cross-stitch. I could listen to podcasts while doing that, maybe.

Well, that’s basically what’s going on in my life right now! On the whole, things are really good. Love, family, friends, hobbies, adventures, happiness. :)

Bleargh

I’ve been staying up too late all week. Yesterday I ended up taking a nap in the afternoon, but then I stayed up until 12:30, and that seems to have thrown me off, because when my alarm went off this morning I felt like a zombie. I snoozed for half an hour, and when the alarm went off again, I snoozed for another 15 minutes, and when it went off again, I almost snoozed for another 15 minutes, but after about three I reluctantly roused myself and shuffled into the bathroom.

I was sitting on the toilet scrolling through Tumblr when I noticed it was 7:15…sleeping in doesn’t leave much time for morning prep. So I got dressed and went to work and felt dead until I finally got my morning protein shake into me.

My day was spent organizing things that needed to be organized and researching things that needed to be researched. When my day was over I came home and asked Sean if he wanted to do Thai tonight. He did, so he got in the shower.

(He didn’t work today, so when I got home he was sitting at his desk in his white undershirt, all rumpled from sleep, his hair going everywhere, looking incredibly sexy, and I am unhappy to report that my period started this morning.)

It was raining, so we had to cover our heads and run to and from the car, and I had to watch for the usual drivers who don’t seem to care when road conditions are hazardous, zipping around, tailgating, turning from the wrong lane.

Dinner was very nice; I tried the dumplings, which are filled with a paste made of many different meats, and the Penang curry, which was delicious. Sean had a spicy herb soup with chicken and fried rice with shrimp. This was the first time I didn’t have any jasmine tea.

The rain had slowed to a drizzle by the time we were finished, so the drive back wasn’t nearly as treacherous. We stopped at Baskin Robbins and sat in the car for a bit as Sean finished telling me about something frustrating that had happened with one of his gaming friends. Then we went in and I got two scoops of butter pecan and Sean got a mocha cappuccino blast.

We came home and I basically read fanfiction and surfed Tumblr for hours. Not the most productive evening, but my brain doesn’t quite seem to be in creative mode. I opened a new Word document, thinking I’d start on an idea I had earlier, but it doesn’t seem to want to come out right now.

I’ve sort of hit a snag with the longer fanfic I’ve been working on as well. I’m not sure what to do next. I have some pieces, but I need to fill in a lot of gaps. Hopefully I’ll figure something out tomorrow.

I have had some writing fun recently, though. This past week I wrote a series of unrelated five-sentence ficlets as part of a Tumblr meme. Followers sent a sentence and I had to write five follow-up sentences. I ended up writing 34 of them. It was so much fun. I want to do it again.

I’m really enjoying interacting with other writers on Tumblr. I am often intimidated by how talented and prolific they all seem to be, but I’m managing to keep from comparing myself to them too much. I’m just trying to do the best I can and enjoy it.

Tomorrow I plan to sleep in, then focus on writing. Wish me luck. :)

A possible new approach to meal planning

For years I have struggled with regularly preparing meals at home. I tend to dislike following routines for any length of time, and I also tend to dislike having to come up with vast organizational schemes more frequently than perhaps monthly (or even bimonthly), so creating a weekly meal plan, shopping for it, and then cooking according to that plan every night has rarely occurred.

Thinking about it today, I started to wonder if I couldn’t space out the planning and work more. Buy in bulk, take the first few steps of a recipe, package up single or double servings, then freeze the servings to cook later. I do have times where I want to do a huge project; perhaps I could use those times to stock up on freezable meal beginnings. And then on regular nights all I’d really have to do to make dinner would be to pick a pre-prepared item and get the fresh ingredients I might need to compliment it. To save freezer space, I could even branch out into unfrozen vacuum-packed food, if it’s possible to do that safely. And of course there’s always canning.

It’s a thought. This may be a good way for me to go so I don’t feel as overwhelmed during the week.

Idea: A malleable restaurant experience

Reading through Tofugu’s Famous Foods of Every Japanese Prefecture [North, East, Central] makes me feel two things: hungry, and wistful. I want to go to all those places and try all those foods.

It occurred to me that it would be cool for a Japanese restaurant to have a small regular menu and then switch out other menu items, perhaps every quarter, to feature different items from different regions. It would be a little difficult logistically, as they’d have to source the ingredients and train the chefs and whatnot, but it would make for a fascinating dining experience. They could even change their decor to match the city or prefecture whose food they were featuring at any given time. A map and photos at the entryway could show guests what the current region is and what kinds of specialty items to expect.

The restaurant could also try weeklong events, such as an udon event or a ramen event, and go crazy with different selections. Maybe they could bring in guest chefs, specialists, to take some of the pressure off the main staff.

No matter how big a restaurant’s menu is–the menu at our current go-to Japanese restaurant is pretty huge–there’s always going to be something missing. And if Kitchen Nightmares has taught me anything, it’s that a smaller menu improves food quality all around. These lessons are actionable: shift to a smaller menu that changes regularly. This move would bring refreshing variety and the opportunity to try new things while allowing the chefs increased focus on each dish.

Almond chicken

Almond chicken detailSean and I have had trouble finding a go-to Chinese restaurant since we moved to the Atlanta area. He’s very particular about his almond chicken: he wants it to have thick gravy, and he also likes the chicken to be breaded and fried as a whole breast and then sliced afterward.

One of the restaurant managers I talked to said most restaurants here do a thin soy sauce because their customers are concerned about fat content. We have found one Chinese place near us that does the thick gravy, but they fry small pieces of chicken individually, and the quality of their food isn’t great overall.

I finally decided I would try to create the dish at home and see if I could satisfy my picky husband. Since in terms of cooking I’m a relative n00b, I searched around online awhile for tips. The first recipe I found that involved thick gravy was actually from a vegan blog: Crispy Fried Almond “Chicken” with Gravy (Soo Guy). Using that blog entry as a reference, here’s how I made dinner.

First, I started a cup of white rice in my rice cooker. The thing takes forever to cook rice, but always with delicious results.

Next I started cooking two frozen chicken breasts on my George Foreman grill, 13 minutes on each side. I decided against trying to fry the chicken, especially since I didn’t have time to thaw it, and I knew the chicken would come out nice and tender on my grill.

Then I toasted the almonds. I had a bag of snack pack almonds, so I just used one of those packs. I hammered the pack with a meat tenderizer until the almonds were broken up, then seared them in my wok-like pan. Unfortunately I let them toast for too long, so I had to be careful to pick out unburned almonds when I was finished.

Next I made chicken broth. I boiled some leftover chicken for 3 minutes, then scooped the chicken out of the water and added the soy sauce and butter. (I actually messed up the first time by putting in way too much soy sauce; I started over with the amount listed on the vegan blog and it worked great.)

Making chicken broth   Adding soy sauce and butter

In a larger saucepan I combined cornstarch and water, then slowly added the broth/soy mixture over medium heat, continually stirring until the gravy formed.

Cornstarch   Adding soy sauce mixture

Thickening sauceNext was simply plating: I put down a foundation of white rice, cut up the grilled chicken and laid it across, drizzled the whole thing with gravy, and then sprinkled roasted almonds on top.

It turned out that I hadn’t made quite enough chicken, but Sean loved the gravy. He loved the entire meal. Apparently frying isn’t necessary; he just likes the nice tender chicken combined with the thick sauce. When he was done with his plate he went back for the leftover rice and as much gravy as he could put on it.

Cooking for me is always such an iffy prospect, especially when it’s something new. I’m really glad this turned out well. It is always so satisfying to score a win in the kitchen.

I think next time I’ll cook more meat, and I’ll also make a side of steamed or stir-fried vegetables.

Almond Chicken

Fall fun

This month I’ve been indulging in autumn activities and quite enjoying myself. I love the crisp feeling we occasionally get in the air (it’s Georgia, so it can take awhile for fall to kick in), the changing leaves, and all the harvest flavors.

First off, I decorated the dining room for fall, using a centerpiece and candles given to me by Sean’s mom, the green-blue sushi set given to me by Brooke and David, and a few miscellaneous pieces I’ve picked up here and there.

fall decorationsNext, I made banana bread!

banana breadThen, last night, I made a butternut squash pie, which is very much like a pumpkin pie. I used this recipe for the pie and this recipe for the crust. It was delicious.

butternut squash pieOn Saturday, I had Heidi over for a whole afternoon and evening of fall festivities. The main thing we’d planned to do was carve pumpkins, but we also made stewed apples and roasted pumpkin seeds and enjoyed them with hot apple cider.

pumpkin carvingfall treats

pumpkin carved with a haunted house scene pumpkin carved with a jack skellington face

It’s been a great start to the cooler season! I’m looking forward to more baking and activities. Hopefully I can find a good place to get some leaf-changing pictures soon!

My new old relationship with eating

Me at the Grand Ole OpryAs time has passed since my duodenal switch surgery (it’s nearly been a year!), the rapid weight loss I was experiencing has declined to possibly nothing. This was anticipated, and as I’ve reached an excellent weight of 136, not unwelcome. However, there is still the possibility of losing a bit more weight before the slight rebound I’ve been told to expect. If I can manage to lose a bit more such that I rebound to about where I am now, that would be great.

Things have become more challenging, though. In the beginning, I hated eating and had to force myself to do it. When I did, I could only stand certain foods. Over the weeks and months since, though, my tastes have started to go back to where they were before the surgery. My perspective has flipped right back to loving food and wanting to eat all the time. And I’ve become accustomed to the amount my small stomach can take in, such that I am able to pace myself and potentially overeat if I don’t pay attention.

Due to malabsorption, I should not be capable of becoming morbidly obese again so long as I don’t go crazy with my food choices, but there’s nothing keeping me from being overweight but my own willpower. This surgery, after all, is not a magic bullet. It didn’t do all the work of weight loss–I had to eat right and exercise–and it will not do all the work of keeping me at a healthy weight. My need to get enough protein has made me a label-reader; I must keep up that habit. Further, I am working to limit processed foods as much as possible, as this is the best way to keep my sugar intake down. This is very difficult now that I have a taste for sugar again. My ideal is to get my sugar fix through fruit, but when I want an actual dessert, I try to at least go for items sweetened with Splenda, honey, or real sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup. And of course, I don’t drink sugary filler.

Beyond eating right for health, I will also have to manage the side effects of this surgery for the rest of my life. One very unromantic side effect is that white bread, white rice, and normal pasta make me gassy. In the beginning I just didn’t eat those things at all, but now that my tastes are pretty much back to normal, I’ve been craving them. So I buy 100% whole wheat/grain bread products (not “multigrain”), and I try to only eat brown rice.

Pasta has been a different animal, though. Sean and I make a lot of use of those Knorr noodle packets, because they’re simple and fast. But they don’t come in whole wheat varieties. There was a whole wheat version of the Alfredo noodles at one time, and we tried it and didn’t care for it…and that must have been the general consensus, because I don’t see it anywhere these days.

I recently bought a bunch of plain whole wheat pasta in various varieties, but I haven’t made much use of them. That will require finding good sauce recipes and keeping those supplies on hand, and I haven’t figured all that out yet. I do still plan to try, but some days I consider it a victory just to leave the kitchen clean!

Luckily for me, the last time I went to the store, I found a 50% whole grain version of Kraft Dinner. Obviously this isn’t a perfect solution–at 50% that means there’s still gas-inducing content–but it tastes great and so far doesn’t seem to affect me nearly as badly as the regular dinner. Sean and I love macaroni and cheese, so this is an excellent solution until I get to the point where I can make my own pasta sauces.

I started some work as a temporary on-site contractor a couple weeks ago. I’d forgotten how the office environment encourages my boredom-eating. Having nothing to do but the work I’m there to do is good, obviously, but my creative, multitasking mind tends to get antsy. I like flipping back and forth between tasks; it lets my brain refresh itself and promotes my creativity. I’ve realized since going back to an office environment that I’ve used eating as a “task” to reboot my brain. I’d take a break to grab a snack and then munch on it thoughtlessly while working. This is obviously not a habit I want to get back into, so I’m working on replacing it with something else, like going to refill my water bottle or standing up at my computer.

Happily, I’ve taken advantage of working in a skyscraper to use the stairs. Four flights up and down! Unhappily, working full time outside the apartment has made it impossible for me to meet my personal trainer during the week. I’m trying to figure out what to do about that.

Yay for my George Foreman electric grill

My George Foreman electric grillFor my birthday this year, my parents sent me what has become an absolute staple in my kitchen: a George Foreman electric grill. In the months since, I’ve used it practically every day for chicken, burgers, fish, or hot dogs. It is really simple to use, grills meats to wonderful tenderness, and cleans up easily.

The book that came with the grill gives cooking guidelines for pretty much anything I want to make. I just turn the dial to the proper setting and grill to the recommended time. As I’ve used the grill so often, I’ve learned how much to adjust cook times for food thickness.

I eat a lot of chicken, and the George Foreman grills frozen chicken breasts moist and juicy every time, something that’s been difficult for me to do consistently on the stovetop or in the oven. Fish comes off the grill flaky and delicious, and burgers grill up pretty much as they would on a normal grill. I’ve also grilled vegetables, though I want to do more experimentation there.

I rarely flavor the meats before cooking. I’ve tried marinades a couple of times, but for the most part I use frozen meat (without thawing) and let the grill bring out the natural tastes.

Time and time again, I laugh at myself for favoring this grill over my stovetop or oven. It just feels so easy. I like that I can “set it and forget it”, something I can’t do when cooking on the stove. Food takes about the same amount of time to cook as it would in the oven, but I don’t have to get out baking dishes and racks or use aluminum foil–I just throw the meat on the grill.

Having this grill has really helped me keep my protein intake up in a healthy way. As a duodenal switch weight loss surgery patient, it’s vital that I get enough protein, but without a convenient way to cook meat, I can imagine I’d be grabbing a lot more fast food than I should be. Actually, while on my way home from the farmers market today, I thought about stopping to get a chicken sandwich somewhere…but instead I came home and made one myself. This means I know exactly what went into the sandwich I had for lunch!

I used to have one of the original countertop George Foremans, but I didn’t use it a lot because I found it awkward to clean. This new grill comes apart for easy scrubbing down in the sink. I’m sort of surprised at how willing I’ve been to clean this grill daily. It’s become part of my regular routine.

In all, I am really happy my parents gave me this wonderful grill. I like it so much I even called a hotel once to ask whether they allow people to have grills in the rooms. (Unfortunately, but predictably, they don’t!) I foresee myself using my George Foreman until it falls apart ;)

Cooking hamburgersGrilling tilapiaGrilled chickenBurgersPork chops

My first attempt at Mexican food

In an attempt to save money and eat more healthily, I have started cooking more at home. Up until now this has mostly consisted of making a handful of stock dishes: grilled chicken, burgers, hot dogs, sausage, or fish, with a Knorr packaged noodle side and some sort of steamed vegetable. While this routine isn’t bad in terms of variation, after awhile it can get boring to cook the same way over and over. I’ve also been craving various types of food that I usually go out for, like Chinese or Mexican. Today I decided to plan ahead and make a Mexican-style meal.

I chose the following recipes from AllRecipes.com:

I also decided that instead of purchasing the salsa to be used for baking the chicken, I would make some from scratch. I chose this recipe:

Prep

The first thing I did was get two frozen chicken breasts out and put them into a dish in the refrigerator to thaw. I went ahead and put the spices from the Quick and Easy Mexican Chicken recipe into the dish and on top of the chicken.

My next step was to go to the store and grab some supplies–I needed the cilantro, jalapeno pepper, and lime juice for the salsa, the shredded cheese for the chicken (I chose a 4-cheese Mexican blend instead of cheddar), and the chicken broth for the rice. I already had tomatoes, onions, and cloves of garlic from the Marietta Square Farmers Market, and I keep frozen chicken breasts, brown rice, and various spices on hand.

I went ahead and did my shopping in the morning so I could prepare the salsa in advance, giving it time to sit in the fridge. It took me about half an hour to chop and mix everything. As I also spent time this morning on some freelance work, a personal training appointment, the grocery shopping, and of course my random desire to scrub my bathtub, it wasn’t until after noon that I started making the salsa.

The tomato, onion, garlic, and jalapeno were easy to chop, of course. The cilantro was technically easy too, I suppose, but I’ve always disliked chopping cilantro…it takes forever. Once I had everything mixed, I had to agree with one recipe reviewer that the end result seemed more like pico de gallo than salsa. Still, I figured it would be nice and fresh and good for the cooking. Though I scaled down the salsa recipe to one serving, it resulted in more than the half-cup needed for the chicken recipe. I put the rest of it out as a garnish alongside the sour cream, but neither of us ended up using it.

Cooking

I started to actually make dinner at around 7 o’clock. I began with the rice, since it had the longest cooking time. After the rice had been cooking for about 15 minutes, I got the chicken out of the fridge to brown it in the skillet as per the recipe. Unfortunately, the breasts weren’t quite thawed, so I didn’t follow the recipe exactly. Instead of cooking in the skillet until there was no pink left, I simply browned as much as I could of the chicken, removing it from the heat before the outside could get chewy. I transferred the chicken to the baking dish, topped it off with the homemade salsa and shredded cheese, then put it all in the oven. I ended up having to cook both the chicken and the rice longer than expected, finally getting them both done around 8:30.

Meanwhile, I warmed the refried black beans in a pan on the stove and three wheat tortillas in an aluminum foil pouch in the oven.

Time Analysis

With the shopping, morning prep, and evening cooking time, this meal took about two and a half hours from my day.

Cost Analysis

Here’s what I spent on necessities for the recipes ($6.68 total):

  • Cilantro: $0.50
  • Jalapeno pepper: $0.05
  • Kroger brand canned tomatoes: $0.67
  • Kroger brand chicken broth: $1.99
  • Kroger brand lime juice (bottle): $1.79
  • Kroger brand shredded Mexican-style cheese: $1.68

Here’s what I spent on extras to go with the meal ($4.28 total):

  • Bush’s refried black beans: $1.29
  • Daisy sour cream: $1.00
  • Wheat tortillas (8): $1.99

Together, that’s $10.96, or $5.48 per person.

It’s a little harder to add in the cost of the ingredients I already had. Unfortunately I don’t have the receipt for the frozen chicken breasts, which came from a 5-pound bag of frozen, boneless, skinless breasts from Walmart. I want to say that bag costs around $10, but I’m not sure. I’m also not sure how many breasts were originally in the bag, but I think it was at least 10. If so, that would add just $1 per person. As for the vegetables from the farmers market, I know I got four tomatoes for $3, so the one I used in this recipe adds $0.75 total, or $0.38 per person. I don’t remember how much the onions cost or how many I got. I have a feeling I had a basket of five or six originally, and that wouldn’t have cost more than a few dollars. If we pretend each onion cost as much as a tomato, that would put the total cost per person up to $0.75. The head of garlic is negligible; it contained many cloves.

A rough total including the frozen chicken and farmers market vegetables would therefore be $7.23 per person. This is an overestimate, as the chicken broth, lime, cheese, and tortillas were not all used today.

The Yum Factor

I was fairly happy with this meal. The main weakness, I’d say, was the pico de gallo “salsa”. It was all right, but not really my cup of tea. The rice was delicious, though, and so were the refried beans. The beans were actually Sean’s favorite part of the meal, which is kind of sad considering I had nothing to do with their flavor. Indeed, the part of the meal I spent the most time on was the least memorable, while the part I spent the least time on was the most.

Despite the weakness of the “salsa”, the chicken came out moist and tender, and I wish there had been a bit more of it–the breasts were rather small. I ate a tortilla with my meal, but Sean didn’t have any tortillas at all, so I may as well not have bought them. We did, however, both use sour cream.

Conclusions

Ultimately, I’m not sure I’d say this meal was worth the effort. If I try it again, I’ll probably buy the salsa instead of making it myself. I do think the price was good, though.

I may eschew the oven baking entirely and grill the chicken next time, then add a sauce when it’s done. Grilling is very easy with the George Foreman electric grill my parents got me for my birthday this year, and there’s no thawing required. :)

Curry chicken and peas

The other night Sean and I went to our favorite Japanese restaurant and had a new-to-us dish, a combination meal for two consisting of teriyaki beef, chicken, and salmon; shrimp and vegetable tempura; a California roll and a shrimp tempura roll; and a bowl of fancily-sliced fruit. It was all delicious, but as you can imagine, we had plenty of leftovers.

I managed to eat half the remaining chicken yesterday, but I found it to be very dry. Today I wanted to get rid of the rest of it, and I asked Mom on AIM if there was any way to infuse dry chicken with moisture. “No,” she said, “but you can add a sauce.”

I decided to try making a curry sauce with yogurt and adding some steamed peas for extra flavor and moisture. First I checked allrecipes.com to see if they had any tips. I found this and noted all the advice in the comments about not simmering the yogurt. I mixed 1/4 cup Chobani plain Greek yogurt in a bowl with as much curry powder as I thought I wanted (tasting to check the flavor), then set that mixture aside to come to room temperature. In the meantime, I boiled some frozen peas for roughly 8 minutes. Once the peas were done, I cut up the chicken and dropped the pieces in with the peas to let them warm up and hopefully absorb some water (though I don’t think the latter goal was achieved). Finally I drained the peas and chicken and mixed them into the yogurt.

The result was pretty good. The chicken was still dry, but the peas were nice little pockets of juice, and the curry yogurt flavor was lovely. Every part of the meal was a good source of protein, too, which is important for me. I’ll have to try this again sometime–but instead of using someone else’s dry chicken, I’ll grill my own to achieve soft, succulent deliciousness.

Chicken and peas with yogurt curry

Cottage cheese conundrum

I have always loved cottage cheese, and I’ve always been a little picky about it. Since having weight loss surgery, I’ve depended on cottage cheese to help me get enough protein. Unfortunately, I have trouble finding a brand I really like. There seem to be too many things that can go wrong with taste and texture. Here’s a breakdown of all the brands I’ve tried.

Brand Rating Notes
Great Value, large curd, 4% milkfat passable Walmart’s brand is the best I’ve found so far in terms of taste and texture, but it doesn’t bring me joy.
Great Value, small curd, low fat gross Small curd is too dry for me now.
Kroger bleh I can force myself to eat this, but it’s tasteless.
Breakstone’s disgusting Dry, tasteless…why anyone would do this to themselves is beyond me.
Dean’s okay Dean’s is actually better than Walmart brand, but I haven’t found it sold locally, so it doesn’t really help me much.
Mayfield yuck Way too salty. I didn’t think cottage cheese could be salty!
? – Hyatt Place breakfast bar cottage cheese awesome I don’t know where they get their cottage cheese, but I want it.
? – Steak ‘n Shake cottage cheese awesome Another delicious cottage cheese of mysterious origin.

I think Dean’s is the brand I used to eat back in Kentucky. I found it in Augusta the last time I visited; it was the first time I’d ever seen it there. Naturally I bought some and tried it, and it was good. But since I’ve been home I haven’t found it anywhere. Le sigh.

Will the perfect cottage cheese continue to elude me?!

Sayonara, unajuu

One of the strangest things for me about weight loss surgery has been the change in my reactions to food. Some foods I used to adore are now too bland for me; some foods I didn’t really care much about have gained extreme importance. Of course, there are foods I’m supposed to be avoiding, but even when I cheat and let myself have a small bite, I often discover that I don’t like it enough to warrant the cheating.

One example of how things have changed: I am very picky about meat products now. Most ground beef dishes, like burgers and meatloaf, are too dry for me. I tend to find them flavorless and unpleasant. I have also grown tired of eggs, no matter how they’re cooked; I’ll eat them if they’re what’s available and I know I need the protein, but they no longer give me any satisfaction. (Part of me wonders if I might find farm fresh eggs more palatable. I’ll have to give it a try sometime.) Ham doesn’t thrill me, but it gets the job done…but I love a good pork chop. And of course, steak is marvelous. I eat them rarer than I used to, because that way they’re nice and juicy and soft. We’ve started going to Ted’s here in Atlanta, and I’m addicted to bison steak. Fish also makes me happy. I love a good grilled or broiled salmon fillet, and I’d eat sashimi every day if I could–but it has to be good sashimi. If it’s possible, I’m even pickier about sashimi now than I was before.

I still enjoy cottage cheese, but I have become even pickier about brands. There was once a time when I could eat a non-favorite brand and be okay with it, but now, unless it’s Walmart brand, I can’t stand the stuff. I don’t know what it is about how Walmart makes their cottage cheese versus the way the other companies make theirs, but something is different to my now overly sensitive palate.

Then there’s sweets. I always had a sweet tooth before. Cookies, pastries, brownies, cakes, chocolate candy, anything chocolate really…I’d gobble it all up without heeding quality or quantity. Now, of course, I’m almost completely off sugar, except in cases when it’s unavoidable. There are times when I let myself have some sugary snack–usually when traveling, because I don’t keep that sort of thing in the house–but when I do, it never meets my expectations. It always feels pointless. The taste doesn’t do anything for me. I can vividly remember how eating sweets used to make me feel, but now, after having weight loss surgery, eating them will never make me feel that way again. It is such a strange feeling…almost a feeling of loss, until I remember that this change is what has allowed me to drop 100 pounds.

That brings me to unagi.

In 2001, I went to Japan for the first time. It was an amazing trip that changed my life. While I was there, I had unagidon, barbecued eel over a bowl of rice, for the first time. I promptly dubbed it my favorite dish in the world and sought it out thereafter as much as possible. Towards the end of my homestay in Yatsushiro, my host mother, noting how much I adored unagidon, made me a huge bowl with a double helping. I ate it all.

Since then I’ve found unagidon and its sister dish unagijuu (also called unadon and unajuu, respectively) in various restaurants in the US, including my former favorite Augusta Japanese restaurant (which unfortunately seems to have gone downhill in recent years). Here’s some delicious unadon I had there in 2008, complete with onions.

unadon

You're supposed to eat unadon on Eel Day to build stamina for the summer heat.

I hadn’t had unadon or unajuu since the surgery, until the other night at Haru Ichiban in Duluth. I was trying to go for something with plenty of protein, since it’s easy to mess up and maximize carbs in a Japanese restaurant. I didn’t even think about sugar. Here’s the unajuu:

My last box of unajuu.

My last box of unajuu.

Look at that sauce. Unlike the unadon above, this unajuu is saturated. Apart from sopping it all up with a napkin (which I didn’t think of until just now), there really was no way to avoid the sauce. And, unfortunately for me, that sauce is sweet.

I mentioned that when I eat sweets like candy or cookies they don’t really do much for me. Because of this, I usually don’t continue eating them. On the rare occasions that I do, though, I get this really nasty feeling in my chest, between my neck and my stomach. It’s this weird gurgling feeling, highly unpleasant. And it only happens when I eat sugar in high concentration.

Let me tell you, that unajuu made me miserable after just a few bites.

I stopped, ordered some salmon sashimi to get my protein, and spent the rest of the evening trying not to throw up. I was successful, yay! But that put the nail in the coffin of my once passionate affair with unajuu…and perhaps unadon as well, if it’s made with that same concentration of sauce.

Goodbye, unajuu. I loved you once, and somewhere inside I love you still, but it’s no longer meant to be.

Lent

As an adolescent and teenager, I often observed Lent by giving up some treat that I’d normally regularly indulge in. The two main ones I can remember right now are chocolate and soda. I don’t recall going crazy on Mardi Gras beforehand–actually, I’ve never really done anything for Mardi Gras–but on the years I gave up chocolate, I excitedly awaited Easter and the accompanying basket of goodies.

There were times when I would fast for a day as well, drinking only water, looking forward to the next day when I could eat again and the food would be twice as sweet.

I used to think these periods of stringent self-denial helped to build willpower. Now, though, I think that they didn’t, at least for me. A critical problem is that I always knew they would end. And once they ended, I’d celebrate by overindulging. That’s not willpower, really…it’s more like anticipation. It’s not behavior modification, but simply a deferral of desire. True willpower–at least in the “ideal”–would be to give something up forever, without hope of ever regaining it. Realistic willpower would be to make small changes in habits and diet over time, maintaining them for the rest of your life.

A friend has been exploring the paradigm of denial and indulgence in western culture, the “I deserve it” mindset, the outlook that one has been “good” or “bad” and that food can act as a reward or comfort. It’s interesting to see her take on this. She didn’t grow up within it, at least not in the same way I did. (To be fair, my family has always rejected the “I deserve it” mindset, but the other pieces are there.) My friend observes all this with a sort of bemusement and detached frustration. One of her thoughts is that this approach toward food demonstrates a lack of discipline, and she identifies “pre-1970s” as a time when the people of America had “values” rather than “obsessions”.

While this somewhat smacks of the “good old days” fallacy, I think she may be on to something, at least in terms of the relationship of Americans to food. Food is so plentiful here that it has become just as much a consumer product as anything else, and we are nothing if not a consumer culture. And as a consumer culture, we continually demand more for less. Even as the quality of food declines with price, we buy and eat more of it, because we feel we are getting a good deal.

As an example, I used to make and eat an entire box of macaroni and cheese myself. Why not eat it all? It was delicious. I’d offer some to Sean, but he’d always decline, saying he didn’t eat macaroni and cheese by itself; if he ate it, he wanted it with a meal. Sean, who was raised with significantly different food values than me, was, quite frankly, horrified by my eating habits. He doesn’t generally air complaints if he doesn’t think they matter in the grand scheme of our marriage, so I’m not sure I fully grasped just how grotesque he found my relationship to food until I started to share his opinion. And that didn’t come until after I had weight loss surgery, and I started eating more the way he eats. Now I look back at the way I used to eat and it seems shocking, unbelievable.

We were out at Ted’s Montana Grill with friends not too long ago and I tried a small taste of their chips and dip. The dip is an amazing French onion that I enjoyed very much. I related how I used to like to sit with a huge bag of Ruffles and a tub of French onion dip and just eat and eat and eat. And then I paused. “This has been a ‘This Is Why You’re Fat’ moment!” I concluded into the awkward silence. I’m not sure that I would have confessed such a thing before having weight loss surgery, or that I would have been able to make a joke about it.

My friend argues that our food obsession has Judeo-Christian roots. She points to the language used in advertising, phrases like “you deserve it”, “reward yourself”, “indulge”, “sinful”. These phrases either offer the consumer a reward for being “good” or encourage the consumer to be “bad”. Either way, they play on a cultural obsession with good and evil that is invisible to those of us who grew up with it. It’s odd to my friend mainly because it’s so alien. (Imagine how other religions are depicted in American media, when they are depicted at all. They seem foreign, unknown. Often all that can be done to make them acceptable is to add humor. Other attempts often feel preachy.)

It is fascinating to me to take a step back and see my own culture as it’s perceived by someone with one foot firmly in it and one foot firmly in another, or by someone completely outside it. I enjoy having my expectations and understanding shaken. I like to think about what it all means, how much of me has been shaped by my culture, whether there are universal values…there is so much to explore and try to grasp. More than one could ever hope to study in a lifetime.

I haven’t observed Lent in many years. At this point, in terms of food, there’s not much more I could give up anyway. But I’m glad I took part when I was younger, even if the lesson I learned was different from the lesson I thought I was learning. And I’m glad to have my culture, something that is mine, a place that is cozy and known. No matter how philosophical I want to get about it, it will always be my home, and a place of love.

Greek yogurt

A number of duodenal switch patients discover after surgery that they are lactose intolerant. In order to avoid the more unpleasant DS side effects, the ones that are often mentioned as cons to having this particular procedure versus another form of weight loss surgery, these patients must avoid dairy products for the rest of their lives.

Fortunately, this was not true in my case. Lactose intolerance would have severely crippled my efforts to get enough protein, as milk products such as cottage cheese, cheese, and milk itself have been essential joys in a world where suddenly I am very picky about food.

One of the greatest sources of protein (and deliciousness) I’ve found is Chobani’s plain Greek yogurt. I buy it in huge tubs. Recommended to me by my aunt, one measuring cup of the stuff packs 26 whopping grams of protein. Being plain, there are no additives to mess me up. Most flavored yogurts have lots of added sugar, and I have to avoid (or at least minimize) all sugars, even natural ones. The only sweetener I can really use is sucralose, and I can’t find any yogurts that are sweetened that way.

So I do it myself, at home.

At first all I did was throw a cup or a half cup of Chobani into a bowl and mix in some Splenda. However, lately I’ve tried a few variations, and it’s been rather nice.

Hershey's cocoa in Greek yogurt

The first thing I tried was putting in some Hershey’s cocoa. Worked like a charm. You have to be careful not to put in too much cocoa, but otherwise, it makes for a nice creamy chocolate dessert.

The next experiment was raspberries. I know, I know, natural sugar…but I only put a few berries into the cup of yogurt, then mashed them up and mixed them in. The swirls of tartness made me suck in my cheeks with delight. I obviously can’t eat a lot of fruit all the time, but a little here and there shouldn’t destroy me.

My latest flavoring is cinnamon, and I think it might be my favorite. I’ve always loved cinnamon, but I never really thought about it. When people would ask what my favorite treat was, I’d probably say “chocolate”…but to be honest, chocolate is getting a little old these days. I like a tiny bit here and there, but it’s not how it used to be. I don’t want to eat a whole box of Oreos (not like I even could).

In any case, cinnamon and Greek yogurt go together really well. I haven’t really been measuring anything but the yogurt as I’ve been making my concoctions, but I think it turns out to something like 1 cup Greek yogurt, 2 T Splenda, 1 T cinnamon. Experiment with it…I think you’ll like it!

cinnamon in Greek yogurt

cinnamon in Greek yogurt

Bariatric Advantage Meal Replacement powder

One of the biggest struggles with the duodenal switch weight loss surgery is getting enough protein. My entire approach toward food has changed; where once I could eat and eat and eat, and wanted to, now I can’t, and even when I can eat, I often feel ambivalent or even turned off by food. But it’s imperative that I keep my protein intake up; that plus weight training are the one-two punch that will ensure I lose fat and not muscle.

To make sure I get enough protein, I’ve been tracking what I eat with SparkPeople. In the beginning I aimed for 60 grams of protein per day, but now that I’ve added more exercise and my stomach seems capable of handling more food, I’ve upped my goal to 90. I generally end up somewhere in the 80s.

yogurtdeli hamchicken and edamame

While I think the ideal situation would be to get all my protein from real food, I’m not sure that’s actually possible. I’ve tried. Even on days when I forced myself to eat virtually nonstop (which is not recommended), I wasn’t able to get much further than the 50s. So to assist me in this endeavor, I’ve turned to various protein supplements.

When I originally looked at all my options, I thought it would be easiest to depend on products I could buy locally. I started out with New Whey Liquid Protein, which I’d tried out shortly after surgery and which was available at the smoothie place up the street from our apartment. Each little tube contains a whopping 42 grams of protein. I’d heard that the non-citrus flavors weren’t very good, so I stuck with orange.

However, New Whey isn’t something you’d want to drink regularly. For one thing, it replaces too much food. For another, it’s not delicious. Also, some weight loss surgery patients have trouble with whey protein (though I didn’t seem to). Regardless, one day I drank a tube of Liquid Protein and decided, “Never again. Or at least not for a very long time.” Now I think New Whey is probably good to keep on hand for emergencies, but not to depend on routinely.

After that I switched to Atkins Advantage shakes. They come in four flavors: Dark Chocolate Royale, Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla. I tried them all, but they were all too chalky save the Dark Chocolate Royale, so that’s what I’ve stuck with ever since. I keep one compartment on the door of my fridge loaded up with Atkins shakes and have them for breakfast or snacks. Unlike New Whey, these don’t pack a lot of protein: just 15 grams. But that’s enough to get me going in the morning and help me transition to regular food for the rest of the day.

I’ve also been using Atkins Advantage meal bars as snacks. Their protein content differs depending on the flavor. I like the Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar (19 grams), the Mudslide Bar (15 grams), and the Cookies n’ Creme Bar (15 grams). I try not to have an Atkins shake and an Atkins bar in the same day, because again I’m leery of replacing too much food. Also, the bars tend to have a lot of carbohydrates, which I’m trying to avoid–the best carbs come from vegetables, brown rice, and whole wheat bread, if I must have carbs at all. The shakes don’t really have this carbohydrate problem, so I tend to depend on them more than the bars, but sometimes I want some kind of treat for a snack, and the bars are the closest thing I can do.

At this point I’d like to point out that it’s important to avoid sugar during this period of rapid weight loss. I’m also avoiding most artificial sugars, because they can cause unpleasant gastric side effects. However, sucralose (Splenda) seems to be okay, so I do use that. The Atkins products are all made with sucralose.

This system has been mostly working for me. I’ve been trying to incorporate more protein-rich foods and snacks into my diet, too. But getting to 90 grams of protein per day is still a challenge. So finally I thought I’d look for a shake that packs more of a protein punch.

I ordered one Ready to Shake Meal Replacement from Bariatric Advantage to try it out. They sent a plastic bottle with a screw top; inside the bottle was a pre-measured amount of powder to make a shake with 27 grams of protein.

protein shakeThe idea is that you put water or milk into the bottle, shake it, and drink, but it proved a little more challenging than it sounds. When I put the water in, the powder at the very bottom became a paste, not unlike what happens to powdered hot cocoa. I had to use a straw to scrape the powder off the bottom. Then the sludge was caught in the straw, so I had to blow it back out and try to mix it all up again. Finally it was done, and I threw the straw away…but then when I started to drink, replacing and removing the cap as I did so, I realized that the shaking had coated the inside of the cap with liquid, meaning I would spill it each time I took the lid off. Plus, drinking from the ridged mouth of the bottle was unpleasant. Fortunately I had another straw, so I popped it in and finished the shake that way.

The taste isn’t unpleasant. Right now I’d say I like Atkins better, but I’m not sure if that’s just because I drink the Atkins shakes refrigerated or not. Neither Atkins nor this shake is delicious.

The shake might taste better with milk instead of water, too. I didn’t realize I could use milk until I went to Bariatric Advantage’s recipes page. There I also found a lot of other information:

  • You can make shakes and smoothies with the powders using a blender.
  • You can make ice cream with the powders.
  • You can stir the powders into other foods, like oatmeal or soup.

I think at this point it would behoove me to get some of the unflavored powder and try it out in various recipes. This sounds like a great way to keep getting real food into my system while bumping up the protein.

I’m not sure I want to commit to the shakes at this point, though. I like the idea of making shakes and smoothies with ice and a blender, but I don’t actually have a blender, and I’m not won over by the taste of the shake. What I may do is buy a large bag of unflavored powder for cooking and then get one or two small packets of flavored powder to try out as shakes or ice cream. I’ll probably stay away from fruit smoothies, since even natural sugars can retard the rapid weight loss.

[EDIT: A few hours after finishing the shake, I had piercing lower abdominal pain followed by diarrhea. I will not be purchasing any more Bariatric Advantage protein powder.]

This surgery has given me a whole lot of new things to keep track of, but it has so been worth it. As of today, I’m down 76 pounds! Now I’m 43 pounds away from my “I could be happy at that weight” goal and 57 pounds away from the weight all the online calculators tell me I should be. It’s amazing that either way, I’m closer to the goal than I am to where I started!