One of my favorite food-o-phile scribes, Jim Harrison, once wrote that “the idea is to eat well and not die from it–for the simple reason that it would be the end of your eating.” “Word,” as the young people say.
With fifty-one plus years across the plate, I am more painfully aware than ever of Harrison’s dictum. Once upon a time, a breakfast of hollandaise-slathered poached eggs on a generous bed of corned beef hash, coupled with a “side” stack of blueberry buttermilk pancakes drowned in maple syrup and adorned with a largish dollop of butter seemed like a perfectly reasonable response to having run 15 miles at 6:00 pace earlier that morning on an empty stomach.
These days, such a repast would comprise sufficient calories to get me through the rest of the week, including the elimination of red wine. The attention-grabbing experience of having a cardiologist string a catheter up your femoral artery will do that to a guy.
Still, a man has his cravings and as Lyle Lovett says, “You can’t resist it/when it happens to you.” I don’t think he was singing about food, but who knows? Regardless, I believe in cravings. Say what you will about self-consciousness, the ability to reason, or the (over-rated) opposable thumb, I say it is in fact cravings that make us human. Ever notice that urge you get when you walk into a movie theater and smell that salty, buttery, popped corn confection? I swear, they could charge a hundred bucks a box and I’d pay it.
That’s humanity talking, Buster. Full volume.
The rub comes of course in that you don’t want to eat yourself into a box. You know, the six-foot long rectangular variety. So, the trick is, as Harrison wrote, to eat well and not die from it.
The trick, I’m learning is not to smother cravings or somehow swindle them into submission (see Coke: Diet). If you’re like me (and I know I am) it’s not so much about discipline and more about learning how and what to want. In the restaurant world, they talk about “training the palate” and that’s what I’m talkin’ about here. Example: rather than a KFC Family Bucket, learn to love an airline breast of chicken, bone-in, grilled golden brown with a dollop of home-made arugula pesto. Yeah baby, that’s some serious eatin’.
Of great assistance to me in this effort has been a “diet” (I use the term ever so loosely) that I got from Mark Bittman, New York Times’ resident foodie. Bittman’s way of eating (WOE) is basically this: Breakfast = whole grains + a little bit of protein. Lunch is “intentionally healthy”. Dinner (“supper” for my Minnesota Readers) is whatever you want. As long as what you want is not that KFC Family Bucket. Fortunately, Bittman’s WOE includes red wine. Otherwise, I’d be out.
Since I don’t weigh myself, I’m not sure if following the Bittman WOE has helped me lose any weight or not. I can tell you this though: I feel great eating this way. Isn’t that the real thing? OK one exception to the Feels Great rule is when dinner/supper is held at a Tacoma Rainiers game and consists of a hot link with kraut, onions, and pickled jalapeños, washed down with a couple of Weinhard IPA’s with a bag of salted peanuts on the side. Batter-up and burp.
What got my attention on the whole eat-to-live thing is, oddly enough, a two week stint on Jury Duty last November. When you are sequestered in a cramped room that got the short end of the HVAC stick, believe me, you better watch what you eat. Just for the record, a brimming bowl of Tabasco-laced cilantro chili from a Tacoma café called the Red Hot, while extremely tasty, does not win you many friends in that situation.
In addition to ventilation issues, I learned something pretty fast about food. While it is true that you are what you eat, it’s also true that what you eat has a surprising effect on how you think. When you need to stay (or at least appear) mentally alert during a highly technical exposition on the anti-coagulant effects of ibuprofen (it was a medical malpractice case – yawn), it’s better that you start your day with a bowl of oatmeal rather than three glazed donuts and a venti with cream.
Two weeks of eating for the primary purpose of staying alert really got me thinking about what I ate and how it affected my affect. I started to think about my diet less for its physical impacts, than for its psychic effects. While there is always a time and place for a beef brisket slow-braised in red wine and root vegetables, it is a dish that must include time for a not-brief siesta. While on Jury Duty, my go-to cuisine for mental acuity was decidedly Asian. More specifically, Vietnamese. We may have lost that war, but if the ubiquity of pho joints in this neck of the woods is any measure, we may not have lost so bad as we thought. With its emphasis on fresh veggies, clean flavors, low fat and protein as a condiment, Vietnamese cuisine is the ultimate brain food, at least for me. Is it any wonder that one of Tacoma’s best examples of the genre, Le-Le, is located but steps from the courthouse?
It was with no small degree of dismay that I realized my favorite rustic dishes from Tuscany and Burgundy were being summarily dismissed, marginalized from my diet. Coq au Vin with a largish serving of roasted garlic mashed potatoes? Good night nurse. A well-marbled 14 oz slab of steak grilled Florentine-style with lemon and served with a side of garlicy sautéed spinach? Take Sominex tonight and sleep. The Flintstone-esque braised lamb-shank, spendidly plonked onto a bed of creamy polenta? Zzzzzzzz.
However, just when I was beginning to give up completely on my French and Italian favorites I remembered a classic dish that perfectly fit my new culinary parameters. Trout meurniere! Light and delicious, trout meurniere is at once succulently sweet, sautéed until golden brown and then sauced with a balanced acid/fat blend of lemon and butter that simply but expertly complements the flavor of the fish. A classic now too often ignored in search of the dangerously creative, trout meurniere is brain food pure and simple. While I find it odd that many of my fishing friends express dislike bordering on distain for trout, perhaps they just haven’t had it served right.
While I am still unable to resist the siren song of the bottomless bag of popcorn at the local cinema, I do tend to eat with greater intention these days. Gradually, my desires are leaning toward the truly tasty, not to mention food that doesn’t require a Zantac or a 90-minute snooze afterward. Vive la craving.
1-2 pan-sized fresh trout (preferably with head-on)
Flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
2 Tbs Butter
Juice from half a lemon
Chopped flat leaf parsely
Heat a cast iron pan medium high with a generous amount of olive oil. Dredge the trout lightly in the seasoned flour. Fry the trout in the pan until golden brown and flip once. When trout is cooked through, remove fish to plate and tent with foil. Pour excess oil from the pan, leaving brown bits. Reduce heat and add in butter. When melted, add lemon juice and cook a few seconds to reduce. Add parsely and pour over fish immediately, serve them piping hot. An acidic, dry Riesling would be excellent with this dish. Add a fresh salad or wilted greens.