Summer Black Bean Salad

After our beach excesses, Fred and I crawled back to Weight Watchers a couple of weeks ago, tails between our legs, shame-faced and begging forgiveness. But God was merciful and good, and we actually lost a little.

In general, though, we remain stuck. (Eating rabbit in cream sauce at the Federal isn’t helping.) Fred has lost close to 40 pounds and needs to lose 20 more, but the scale has not budged for him in months now. I’m trying to hang on to my own 17-pound loss, but keep creeping over my goal.

I explained our frustrations to our leader before the meeting. She said that we should try what’s known as the “Simply Filling” plan, in which you don’t count your points but eat primarily from certain groups of foods. She began to describe it.

My eyebrows went up in skeptical anticipation. I’d done the “Simply Filling” plan once before. I knew what it meant. Lots of vegetables and lean meats. Lots of fruit and milk. A lot less of our most recent dietary staples: bread, pizza, pasta, and potatoes.

The leader finished. “Why are you looking at me like that?” she said.

“It won’t work,” I said bluntly. “I’ve tried it and I hated it.”

“Really?” she replied, looking surprised. (It must be incredibly difficult to be a leader, forced to display cheerful optimism when confronted with people like me.) “I’ve found it’s a great way to kick-start my weight loss again.”

She handed me the booklet detailing the plan. “Just see what you think,” she said. She didn’t pat my hand, but I know she wanted to.

I took the book and grumped into the meeting, where I started flipping through the pages to avoid our leader’s upbeat smiles. About halfway through the book, I stopped. There was a photo of what looked like a pretty darn good black bean salad.

I read through the recipe, which included mangoes, limes, cilantro, and jalapeno pepper. This looks promising, I thought.

And it was. It has not revolutionized our weight loss yet, but it’s a sign of hope.

Black Bean Salad

I’ve substitued peaches for the mango, since peaches have been in season here, and added avocado because we had some on hand. The avocado could be omitted, but it adds a nice creamy texture.

For this dish fresh ingredients are absolutely essential. It will be ruined if you try substituting lime juice from concentrate for fresh, or use canned chopped garlic (or worse, garlic powder), or dried cilantro. I find that canned beans work just as well as cooked dry beans, but cook your own if you feel otherwise.

1 15 – oz. can black beans (you can also use dried beans that you have cooked), drained and rinsed
1 peach (peeled or unpeeled), cut into 1″ pieces
1 avocado, scooped from skin and cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 fresh jalapeno pepper, minced (I leave in the seeds for more kick)
Juice of two limes
3 – 4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp. minced fresh cilantro
Salt to taste

Mix lime juice, garlic, and cilantro in small bowl. Add remaining ingredients to medium-sized serving bowl. Pour lime juice mixture over bean mixture and add salt. Stir until thoroughly mixed.

Federal Bunny

I know: you’re tired of hearing about Federal and what a great restaurant it is. (Another review is here.) The problem is that it’s just about the only restaurant we visit these days. It’s our reward for slogging through our Monday Weight Watchers meeting and surviving the first day back at work. And the vision of the pork sandwich and a beer certainly sustains Fred through a week of trying to eat more vegetables and limiting his intake of animal flesh.

But on Monday, Federal served up what may well be the best special they’ve ever had–rabbit with bacon, served over mashed potatoes and roasted parsnips and carrots in a cream sauce. (They were nearly out of it then, so you probably won’t be able to get any now unless they’ve gotten in a new order for the week.)

This entree single-handedly destroyed the noble efforts I’d made the week before at watching what I ate. It tempted me as I stared at the menu, but I lied convincingly to myself, saying that I wasn’t that hungry.

I went for the salad with figs and goat cheese and the soup with carrots, parsnips, and lavender. Our friend Paul ordered the rabbit. That’s good enough, I thought. I’ll get to try it.

When the rabbit arrived, wafting scents of thyme (I think) and bacon across the table, I was grateful for Paul’s lack of willpower and willingness to share. I reached across the table and took a forkful of rabbit and mashed potato, making sure to get a bit of the cream sauce.

That was it. I dutifully ate my delicious salad and soup. I kept staring at the rabbit. By the time I’d wolfed down my dinner Paul was only about half-way through his entree. I knew I wouldn’t make it.

I called our waitress over. “I’ll have the rabbit too,” I said.

Pork Belly at (the) Federal

Our gluttonous streak continued last week, as the fried chicken extravaganza was followed by a pork belly blowout at the Federal.*

Federal remains our favorite Durham restaurant, and has become the site of a weekly post-Weight Watchers pilgrimage, where Fred can order his beloved pork sandwich with cheese and jalapeno peppers and I can sample the Federal’s many fascinating specials.

One special that’s eluded me since I arrived in Durham has been the pork belly (a cut of meat from the pig taken from the underside–essentially uncured bacon). It was on the menu on our very first visit, during a heady six-month period last winter when every foodie in America (including me) could seem to think of nothing else besides little piggy undersides. That night, so many of us had descended on the Federal that there was none left for me, and I had to content myself with the carnitas.

Those carnitas began our love affair with the Federal, but in our weekly visits over the past year pork belly did not make another appearance until last Monday.

I was thrilled and worried. The reasons for the thrill should be obvious. The worry, though, grew out of my struggles through what is coyly known as “maintenance” in Weight Watchers–the tortuous battle to keep off those pounds your body so desperately wants back, the battle you will wage for the rest of your life if your idea of a good time is to eat pork belly while reading a book, preferably with a cat on your lap.

That day, the Weight Watchers scale had revealed a 1.2 pound gain. So I made a compromise: I would order the pork belly, but I would eat only half of it and save the rest for lunch.

You know what happened. I was utterly unprepared for how greasily good that pork belly would be. It had been roasted with a slightly sweet, jerk-style rub and was served with chopped sweet potatoes roasted with onions. The meat itself was achingly tender, each of the four slices containing a quarter-inch layer of creamy fat. I don’t know if the sweet potatoes and onions had been cooked alongside the pork, but it tasted that way.

After eating two slices and half the potatoes, I should have stopped. I should have asked for a box right there. But, I rationalized, how well would this dish heat up? The meat would overcook. The potatoes would lose their succulence. The glorious perfection of the moment would be lost. Carpe diem, I said to myself, and dug right back in.

*It’s probably a good time to note the longstanding cultural debate over how to refer to this article-defying restaurant. A few months ago, a friend told me that since it’s called “Federal,” I should say “Federal” and not “the Federal.” I thought this was nuts–surely a bizarre whim concocted in the picky brain of an overly scrupulous English major.

So I asked Laura, our favorite server, to give me some guidance.* She prefered “the Federal.” Brimming with triumph, I conveyed the news to my friend, who calmly responded that Durham residents who were around when (the) Federal first opened, and was known as Federal, find it hard to change. Naturally, the very next day, a friend at church said, “We should go to Federal sometime!” I wish just once I could be right about something.

*Of course, only the picky brain of an overly scrupulous English major would even think to formulate these questions. Or write about them.

Settling In

We are beginning to settle in. The transition team has been hard at work throughout our move, though we’ll be plagued by the legacy of the past for years. Items long held prisoner in a remote corner of our lives are being removed from confinement and are being returned to shelves and cabinets. The executive branch (our house) no longer contains everything, since we now have a functioning legislative division (Fred’s studio) to help things run more smoothly. And most importantly, Dick Cheney is no longer running the country, which makes the entire universe a happier place.

The move, coupled with over a month of holiday “cheer” and near-constant travel, has altered some of our eating habits. We’ve been cooking, but it’s a lot of the same stuff. So I’ll devote my first post of the new year, a mere 23 days in, not to a new recipe per se, but to report the happy discovery of a new breakfast concoction: pumpkin yogurt.

This discovery came out of Weight Watchers, which Fred and I continue despite the fact that our sole success recently is that neither of us gained more than 3 pounds over the holidays. For someone who consumed a gallon of milk per day in her youth, I’ve found it hard to meet the two-dairy-servings-a-day “Healthy Habit” advocated by WW. So I’ve resorted to this tasty combination to deal with the issue.

Pumpkin Yogurt

1/2 cup vanilla yogurt
2 tbps. canned pumpkin
Cinnamon to taste

And here’s the best part: I found out last week that it’s actually really good for you. Normally I discover that the things that I love to eat (fat, salt, lard, butter, fat, bacon, salt, and fat) aren’t really very healthy. So picture my happy astonishment when I re-read a recent article in the New York Times on “The 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating” and discovered that my yummy little breakfast had two of those foods (cinnamon and canned pumpkin) on the list. Can life get any better? I think not.

No such thing as too many collards

Perhaps it’s come to your attention that our Weight Watchers updates have decreased in frequency. We haven’t quit; we’ve just plateaued. Our collective weight loss stands at 32.8 pounds–15.8 for me, 17 for Fred. With just 1.2 pounds left for me and 6 for Fred (to reach his initial goal of a 10% weight loss), we’re now entering the final push.

This means more soup. At least that’s what was suggested at our last WW meeting.

If you’ve ever wondered how Jell-O salad ever got to be popular, come to a Weight Watchers meeting. I’m often stunned at the culinary tactics some of my fellow members deploy in the kitchen.

In our last meeting, the leader divided us into groups to come up with ideas for fall soup recipes. Our group (led–some might say dictated–by me) devised a spicy butternut squash chowder. This idea was met with murmured confusion, even by some group members. (But like Sarah Palin, and Stalin–who must be related to her since Alaska is so close to Russia–I had managed to suppress dissent.)

The most popular idea was to take a bag of frozen vegetables and dump some canned chicken broth in it. I was forced into seething, bitter retreat.

In response, I offer this very simple but MUCH better dish, which I made the next night.

Brat, Butter Bean, and Collard Soup

3 pork brats or sausages, quartered lengthwise and sliced

NOTE: The brat should have enough fat for the saute. If you use brats made with a low-fat meat like turkey, add oil or chicken stock to the saute mix to keep it from burning.

4 cups collard, cleaned and chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic
1 can butter beans, undrained
1 tsp sage
1 tsp thyme
2 bay leaves
1 whole dried chipotle pepper
Salt to taste
Water or chicken stock to cover

Heat chopped brats on medium heat. Add onions and saute until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add remaining ingredients. Cover and cook on medium heat for about 1/2 hour.

Culinary Disasters

Our rut continues, but even in the midst of our doldrums, we have lost a collective 27 pounds–14 for Fred, 13 for me. The reason may lie in some spectacular culinary failures in the last couple of weeks, which go a long way toward keeping portion sizes under control.

The worst resulted in the sad destruction of a pound or so of arm steak from Ranney Ranch, owned by a colleague from Duke. Ranney Ranch raises “grass-finished” beef, and having grown up on a beef cattle farm, I was looking forward to trying it. But from there, things went downhill.

As far as cooking arm steak is concerned, I had the same amount of experience as someone who’d never accidentally stepped in a “manure pile” by accident. (It happens, you could say.) I suspect that this cut ended up as “ground beef” (which my grandfather adored) when we sent out our own calves to the slaughterhouse. So I was left to scour the internet for cooking ideas, just like anyone else.

My research led me to conclude that a long marinade or braising was the cooking method of choice, since arm steak tends to be tough. As usual, I had no patience with the idea of marinading overnight, so braising it was. Knowing that Ranney Ranch is in New Mexico, I also thought that Mexican spices would be appropriate.

If I’d left it at that, things might have been okay. But after adding chipotle, and salt and pepper, and vinegar (to reduce the gamey taste of the meat, I theorized), and then deciding to throw in tomato, and chili powder, and cumin, and coriander, and brown sugar, and God only knows what else, and then searing it on both sides, and then cooking not quite long enough because it was approaching 9:30 p.m., we were left with some tough meat floating in a sea of what amounted to mediocre barbecue sauce.

I have since learned that grass-finished beef is best cooked simply so that the flavor will stand out. Unfortunately I’m out of arm steak.

Vegetables Make You Thin

Total weight loss as of today: 21.4 pounds (10.8 for Fred, 10.6 for me).

We also picked up our vegetables, which probably account for 99.9% of our weight loss. Snow Creek Organics continues to offer lovely produce despite marketing practices that defy every law for success. Today we received . . .

a Rose Tomato, a heirloom variety that is light and lemony in flavor and pinkish in color . . .

. . . eggplant . . .

. . . okra . . .

. . . poblano peppers . . .

. . . and zucchini, which is a little too sexy to picture here.

Cooking results to be posted later.