Monday, December 17, 2012

Food is Love

I grew up in a family where food was love. Food was an important means by which we showed each other that we cared.

My paternal grandmother died when I was six. She was a short round Eastern European woman who loved to cook. The family gathered at her house for huge delectable holiday meals. There were always two or three kinds of pie. Her small, old fashioned kitchen would be full of aunts and cousins, cooking, arranging serving platters, laughing, and competing to have a turn washing dishes. In addition to these regular family dinners, Mom (along with us kids) would drop in to visit Grandma every Friday afternoon after doing the weekly grocery shopping. Grandma would bring out plates of cookies and squares, which were always delectable. "Eat! Eat! Have another cookie. Try one of these date squares." After a Friday afternoon at Grandma's house, we were sure not to have much of an appetite left for supper, which frustrated my Dad.

When I was a child, our family always sat down and ate together. My Mom was a good cook, and she strived to prepare meals that were both healthy and appealing. She also froze and canned fruits and vegetables from our big garden, and was especially well known for her jams and jellies, which she continues to make to this day. My Dad was a committed gardener, and as well as raising vegetables and berry bushes, he experimented with varieties of fruit trees that were hardy enough to grow in a northern climate. He also supplied the table with game (moose, deer, grouse), salmon, char, and trout.

You can see how it is that I have come by my enjoyment of cooking and eating well. Each of my siblings and my own three children are all interested in food and are good cooks, thus carrying on the family tradition.

I like to cook. Although it can be interesting and challenging to cook with limitations imposed by diners who are vegetarians, on a calorie restricted diet, or who are avoiding some classification of food such as wheat, it is much more fun and creative to cook unfettered. Ground pork, Japanese eggplant, onion, tomatoes, and chili oil make a tasty Szechuan dish. Pumpkin soup is more delicious with a little dollop of heavy cream, potato latkes are tastier with both apple sauce and sour cream piled on, and there is nothing quite as lovely for dessert as a Missippippi Mudpie moist chocolate cake with mocha cream icing.

As much as I enjoy the creative process of cooking, I also enjoy feeding people. It is a very basic way to please people, to give them pleasure, and to show my feelings of caring for them. I also like to eat, not just to satisfy hunger or to fuel the body, but to enjoy savouring the food. I think that for too many people, food has become an enemy, but for me it is a very satisfying part of daily life. Food brings people together in a happy, social way. Moreover, love of good food is woven into who I am, my creative process, my sense of family, and my family's way of showing caring for each other.

So, dear reader, you understand now why changing some of my habits around food to focus on heart healthy eating and cooking is such a challenge for me. Some of those bad old habits are rooted in the fundamental things in life that make me me.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Dairy Fat Confessions

Recently I posted on the topic of Heart Healthy Habits. Then I did a little bit of self analysis and examined some of my not so healthy habits, especially in the area of diet. Specifically, I wrote about salt and sugar, and how these sneaky ingredients in food sabotage my generally healthy attitudes and eating habits. Although one can choose not to add salt or sugar to the plate, sometimes they can be hard to avoid, for example, when eating out in restaurants. I find that restaurant meals generally are quite salty, and bakery treats and restaurant desserts tend to be very sweet and much too big.

Dairy fat is another category of food that calls for moderation. Milk itself has wonderful nutritional value. It is a great source of calcium and vitamin D, and it has protein and other good things in it. Many people don't people don't consume enough dairy. I am the opposite; I enjoy it too much. I drink at least one glass of milk everyday. One cup of low fat milk (1%) has 110 calories and 8 g of protein. That's a healthy choice. I also enjoy yoghurt, and usually choose the low fat, low calorie kind, even though the full-fat yoghurt is much more satisfying.

However, cream, whipped cream, ice cream, and butter are another story. They contain fat -- lots and lots of saturated fat. I have worked myself down from full-fat milk to 2% and then to 1%, and I think I see skim milk in my future. I put milk rather than cream in my coffee. And I only put a thin little scraping of butter on my bread. In choosing to eat butter rather than margarine, I am opting for saturated fat over trans fats. There are some softened margarines, like Becel, that have no trans fats, but butter tastes better, I think. So I eat butter, but don't slather it on. As I mentioned in the earlier post, I don't indulge in cream, whipped cream, or ice cream very often.

So why am I flagellating myself about dairy fats? Well, I can sum that up in just one word. Cheese. I love cheese, just about every kind of it. Cream cheese, cheddar cheese, feta cheese, Gouda cheese, parmesan, and wonderful creamy, full-fat Brie. Mmmmmm. For years of my life, I ate a cheese sandwich in my bag lunch almost every day and never tired of it. My favourite snack, to this day, is a few stoned wheat thin crackers and 20-30 grams of cheese. Thirty grams of the kind of cheddar in my fridge right now would provide 110 calories (I can live with that) but also 14% of my daily fat intake, and 30% of the recommended daily saturated fat intake. Whoa! That is something to think twice about.

I also like to use cheese in my cooking. Pasta, of course begs for cheese: macaroni and cheese, lasagna, fettuccini alfredo, manicotti stuffed with spinach and ricotta, or a lovely bit of grated premium Parmesan sprinkled on top of fusilli or penne. I put cheese or cheese sauce on broccoli and cauliflower, goat cheese into salads, and cream cheese icing on cakes. I would be a very unhappy gal if I was deprived of cheese.

I also like to use butter in my cooking. Although most of the time I opt for healthy oils like olive oil, there is nothing like fresh caught trout or salmon cooked in a little butter with dill or other garden herbs. I have recently taken up Indian cooking, and ghee is a necessary ingredient to get the authentic taste, and oh so yummy.

My other big dairy fat confession centers on sour cream. Sour cream is a fabulous ingredient with perogies, in chowders, in sauces, and in baking. I am making myself hungry just thinking about it. I am afraid that the dairy fat habit is going to be a very challenging one for me to break!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Creative Path is a Winding One

When I was seventeen, I made a decision to go to university rather than to art school. My reasoning was that if I went to university, it would lead to a profession with which I could support myself, whereas good jobs for artists were few and far between, I thought. (I believed in the starving artist in a garret cliche.) I could always paint on the side, I told myself.

Well, it didn't work out that way. Painting became only a hobby, not a passion, and in that, a hobby that I did not pursue at all for great stretches of time. My career has always been voracious, consuming most of my time.

I do not regret my decision to go to university, and to pursue the careers that I have had. I have had a good life, and very interesting, engaging work. When my first husband passed away at a young age leaving me with three small children, I was grateful that I had the education and skills to be able to hold down a good job and support my family well.

But I sometimes wonder about the path not taken. I was speaking with a new colleague recently, and I found out that in addition to his job as an administrator, he is also a painter. I asked him whether he had any time to pursue his art. "Oh yes," he said. "Evenings and weekends." Then he showed me two of his large and elaborate works, and his preparatory sketches for his work in progress. I left feeling inspired to try harder to make time in my life for creative pursuits.

I mentioned several posts ago that I signed up for an art class and have begun painting again. I was so nervous walking into that studio class full of strangers. The instructor came and looked through my painting supplies and told me that I was using a poor quality stretched canvas and that I had all kinds of unnecessary colours in my kit. I went ahead and planned out my painting, and as soon as I blocked it in, made some serious errors. I persisted, and the paint brush felt more like a whisk broom than a brush in my out-of-practice hands.

Several sessions have gone by and I have now finished that painting -- my first in eight or ten years. This is what it looked like after a couple of sessions (I was nearly in despair). I kept working away at it, and in between painting sessions, I would stand and stare at it, thinking about my next move.

Now the painting is finished. Although it might not be the best painting I have ever done, I am thrilled just to be painting again, and to have finished one. Now when I walk around, I am observing the world differently, thinking like a painter. I think about the shapes and colours of the landscape, and how I could represent it in a painting.