Weighing In, Again

Collective weight loss, recorded at our Weight Watchers meeting today: 15.8 lbs. That’s 8.6 for my beer swilling, pork guzzling husband and 7.2 for me.

But despite my bitterness, I’m proud of Fred. Although Weight Watchers tries, a little, to be male-friendly, it’s not easy for the hapless man who stumbles into this largely female realm. Today, for instance, Fred was handed a slip of paper to read out loud at the meeting, with the following tip for feeling good about himself during the weight loss process: “A fresh haircut, a manicure, or some new makeup can go a long way toward boosting your spirits while you’re trying to slim down.” Perhaps I’ll pick up a new tube of mascara for him. It would bring out his eyes.

The most stunning revelation, though, has been that our weight watching is turning us into responsible locavores. We’re relying on fresh, local produce because we’re being forced to eat far more vegetables than meat, and they now need to taste good. This also means that we’re looking for seasonal produce that’s flavorful because it’s not been grown in a hothouse or shipped from too far away. We’re getting most of this from the Farmers Market in Raleigh and our CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) deliveries once a week, and if we can drag ourselves out of the house before noon on Saturday we might even try Durham’s own Farmers Market.

But we WON’T be wearing sensible shoes or peasant skirts, no matter how much they might help lift Fred’s spirits while he’s slimming down.

Weighing In II

It’s been a busy week, but the good news is that we have lost a collective 13.2 pounds.

The bad news is that 5.8 of those pounds are mine and the remaining 7.4 are Fred’s, despite the fact that he took leisurely strolls through the neighborhood and ate pork sandwiches with garlic fries while I ran through sweltering heat and nibbled on carrots. It’s further proof that patriarchy is alive and well.

In which weight watching again spurs us to new heights

Since last summer’s wine revelation, in which a beautiful piece of trout emerged victorious from its poaching in the world’s worst wine, we’ve continued to make variations on that dish. But our current caloric restrictions posed some new challenges when I went to cook some tilapia we picked up at the Evil Empire (some call it Whole Foods). A recipe with “1/2 stick butter” as its second ingredient would force us to eat celery for the rest of the week, and we had other plans.

But summer vegetables, herbs, and . . . well, chicken stock made from the Rainbow Meadow Farms chicken worked in our favor, and I was able to make a dish that was, truly, just as good as the original. (Really, Rainbow Meadow Farms is not paying me. But if they offered me a free chicken one day, I would not offer any objections.)

We ate the dish so fast that I was able to photograph only this sad leftover piece with its pitiful scraps of the pepper and onion–a symbol of the fleeting pleasures our ephemeral existence provides.

Louise was hopeful that some of those fleeting pleasures would fall across her path, and did her best to encourage mishaps by standing underfoot during much of the cooking process.

Realizing that even her best efforts were doomed to failure, however, she conceded defeat and went to pursue other pleasures by beating up Cleo.

Tilapia with Pepper and Onions (serves 2; 8 – 9 points each)

1 lb. tilapia fillets
2 tsp. olive oil
1 yellow pepper, cut into thin strips 2 – 3″ long
1 large sweet onion, halved, sliced thin
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1/4 – 1/2 cup chicken broth (homemade is best; otherwise use low sodium)
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
3 – 4 tbsp. fresh oregano, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

Generously salt and pepper tilapia fillets. Heat oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add onions and saute until translucent. Add pepper and saute for 2-3 minutes, adding a little broth if ingredients get too brown. Add garlic and stir. Add enough broth to cover bottom of skillet. Salt to taste. Cover and cook for 10 minutes or so, until vegetables are tender.

Remove lid and lay tilapia over top of vegetables. Add remaining broth, if needed, and wine. Sprinkle herbs on top of fish. Cover and cook for five minutes or until fish is just cooked. Remove lid and put fish on serving plates. Turn heat to high and cook vegetables, uncovered, just a few minutes more, until liquid has somewhat evaporated. Add vegetables to plates. Leave skillet on high heat and reduce remaining liquid until somewhat thickened. Pour over fish and serve.

Chicken from Heaven

Our wingless friend–the chicken from Rainbow Meadow Farms from last Sunday’s cooking extravaganza–was a testament to the local food movement. It tasted . . . like chicken. Like the hens my grandparents raised, almost as if you’d infused the chicken with a rich broth, or red wine, or even a little tiny hint of bacon. It tasted like real food.

For the purposes of our weight watching, it also offered a revelation. I served it in a variation of an orzo pasta dish from February 2007. That particular recipe included the ingredient “lots and lots of olive oil” and cheese. So when I went to prepare the dish in the weight watching version, I was grumpy. The orzo will be dry, I thought. And tasteless. And who wants to have a life with less olive oil in it?

But when we ate the dish, with only two teaspoons of olive oil and no cheese, we were stunned. Because the chicken actually tasted like something–and, admittedly, had been roasted with the skin on and basted in butter, as I always do–the whole dish was rich and flavorful. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the extra olive oil and cheese would have overpowered the flavor of the chicken.

I’ve long believed that much restaurant cooking in America relies on salt, fat and heavy flavors like bacon and cheese to cover up the poor quality of the ingredients. (You especially notice this if you travel to Italy and come back.) I think that our feathery friend drove this point home.

Orzo with Chicken and Squash (serves 2; 8 points each)

1/4 lb. orzo
2 tsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 – 3 medium crookneck/yellow/summer squash, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced
1/4 cup fresh oregano, minced
1 cup Rainbow Meadow farms or other great chicken, roasted with skin on, skin removed, chopped
1/2 – 1 cup homeade chicken broth

Cook pasta according to package directions. Saute onions in olive oil in large skillet on medium heat until translucent. Add squash and garlic and saute for 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir. Add enough chicken broth to moisten. Cover and cook until vegetables are tender, about 5 – 10 minutes. Add parsley, oregano, and chicken. Uncover and cook for a few minutes more, until chicken is heated through, adding more chicken broth as needed to moisten. Transfer to bowl and stir in with pasta.

Weighing In

We lost a collective 8.2 pounds in our first week.

Fred, however, received a further blow when he was told that he had to eat five vegetable servings a day. He went out and bought some pickles.

Cooking Extravaganza (Beef Burritos, Beef and Lentil Salad)

I’ll say this for Weight Watchers: I’ve been spending more time in the kitchen in an effort to create dishes that won’t be awful and that won’t leave us starving. And it’s been . . . oh damn and blast it all, I have to admit it. I’m having fun.

In what is surely the crowning irony of this whole weight loss experience, our fridge is now groaning with food. Most of the new residents are vegetables and herbs–squash, carrots, celery, mushrooms, watermelon, cilantro, parsley, plums, and so on. We’ve always eaten them, but not this much and not as fast. And we need them now like never before–they are our front line of defense against the battallions of cheese and chips that have been invading our waistlines over the years.

The vegetables also helped us use the leftover steak from Fred’s birthday. Leftover steak wasn’t a familiar concept to Fred in the past, but we’re in a crazy new world now.

They key to our leftover steak preparation were these little babies, picked up at Food World (401 E. Lakewood Ave., Durham.)

Unfortunately they were not labeled, and my search of The Chileman’s database did not produce results. They are tiny dried peppers, about 1/2″ long, with a wonderfully rich flavor–slightly smoky, but not like a chipotle, a good bit of depth, and heat in the same range as a jalapeno. (I’ll keep trying to find out what they are!)

On Saturday, we had these steak and vegetable burritos, which were far more beautiful and delicious than my limited photography skills can convey here.

Here is the recipe. I’m guessing each burrito would have 9 points, but they are a complete meal.

Steak and Vegetable Burritos (serves 2)

2 large flour tortillas
4 oz. cooked steak or beef, sliced into 3″ strips about 1/4″ wide
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, sliced thin
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 – 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 yellow squash, halved lengthwise and sliced thin
1 red pepper, chopped
1/4 – 1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1 – 2 tbsp. cumin
1/4 cup tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
6 – 8 of the tiny peppers pictured above, minced, or 1 tsp. crushed red pepper plus 1 minced chipotle (adjust spices to taste)
1/4 – 1/2 cup crated white cheddar cheese

Saute onions in olive oil over medium heat in large skillet until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add squash, pepper, cilantro, 1/4 cup lime juice, cumin, and salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce and more lime juice as needed. Add beef and peppers. Cover and cook until vegetables are softened, about 5 more minutes. Remove lid and cook until liquid has evaporated, about 5 more minutes. Turn off heat. Put tortilla shells on top of skillet and let steam for 1 minute. Put tortilla shells on two large plates. Divide beef mix into shells, placing slightly to one side. Sprinkle with cheese, roll up, and serve.

Our second beefy delight came in the form of this lentil salad.

Beef, Lentil, and Cilantro Salad (2 huge meal-size servings, 9 – 10 points each)

2 cups cooked yellow lentils
8 oz. cooked steak or beef, sliced into 3″ strips about 1/4″ wide
1/2 large red onion (about 2 cups), sliced thin
3/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice (lime is great if you don’t spill your entire supply all over the floor as someone did this evening)
4 – 5 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. olive oil
6 – 8 of the small unnamed peppers pictured above, or 1 tsp. crushed red pepper with 1 minced chipotle pepper

Mix together lemon/lime just, garlic, cilantro, olive oil, and peppers in a small bowl. Add remaining ingredients to large bowl and pour lemon mix over lemon. Let stand about 1 hour before serving.

And, to top things off, I roasted this chicken from Rainbow Meadow Farms. You may notice it lacks a wing, which saved us several dollars off the price. But it had the most spectacular skin I have ever eaten. I believe chicken skin, eaten by itself, has only a point or two, and so that was dessert.

The chicken preparations were of particular interest to Thelma.

At this point, however, she was asked to leave.

Weight Watching at The Federal

As God is my witness, Weight Watchers will not keep us from The Federal. True, we ate at near-starvation levels all day, and forced ourselves to exercise, but not even the prospect of eating nothing but carrots tomorrow could keep us from our favorite place in Durham tonight.

It still amazes me that a bar with the ambience of The Federal could produce food of such superior quality. The interior reminds me of many burger and beer joints I’ve loved over the years for their friendly staff, cheap drinks, and the standard list of entrees (quesadillas, burgers, and nachos). But The Federal offers so much more.

I went there the first time because I’d heard they were serving pork bellies, which I’d never tried but was eager to eat. Knowing that pork bellies were quite the culinary rage, I expected to find a place with white tablecloths, waitstaff certain of their superiority over me, and a wine list that would require me to use my three years of high school French to pretend I knew what I was ordering just because I could pronounce random names without too much of an East Tennessee accent.

The food at the Federal would certainly not be out of place in that kind of restaurant. Instead, though, you get to sit outside on wooden benches, or inside the bar where people are still allowed to smoke (and how wrong it would be if you could not, across the street from the former Liggett Meyers warehouse), and where the main decorations are ancient Miller clocks (“The Champagne of Beers”) and similar paraphernalia, and where Ben, our favorite bartender, looks like he could take out a whole biker bar but still smiles and asks us how we’ve been when we walk in.

The Federal is certainly not perfect–the pasta with goat cheese and tomatoes has been a bit hit or miss in my experience, and I’ve run across one or two specials that aren’t quite as good as I expected. But I’m still stunned at what that kitchen churns out for the price. (For yesteday’s two entrees, plus two beers, a glass of wine, and tip, the total was $42.)

I think the greatest surprise–this was a few months back–was one special with scallops, ginger, lime, bok choy and hot pepper. The scallops were cooked perfectly, not overdone, and the sauce was complex and rich without overpowering the seafood. Fred’s beloved pork sandwich is spectacular–pulled pork in light smoky sauce with jalapenos and cheese on a thick, crusty baguette. The special I had tonight–mussels steamed in a chipotle chili sauce with lime, onion, and garlic–was even better. And I also love the carnitas, although I don’t order them as often as I should.

If only more places were like The Federal–unpretentious in their service and focused on producing great food–life would be darn near close to perfect.