paleo postmortem

I did it! I went paleo for a whole month. Yesterday marked the end of 30 whole days of cavewoman-style breakfasts, lunches and dinners sans grains and dairy, minus the three days I let myself cheat due to extenuating circumstances (like birthdays and races).

I can’t help but feel a little victorious. I’ve never tried any sort of “extreme” diet before, and always wondered if I had the willpower. Turns out I do. This single fact probably means more to me than the supposed benefits of the diet—the fact alone that I resisted chips and salsa, popcorn and Greek yogurt for a whole month shows me that when I put my mind to it, I can do anything.

OK, now we’re getting a little cheesy. Seriously though, overall, it was good mental training. Sometimes, food can get the best of me, consuming my thoughts and leading me to false paradises that I then regret visiting. Going paleo helped me narrow my diet down to the absolute bare necessities, the most nutrient-rich, unadulterated pure foods I could possible load up on. And you know what? After the first week’s mental fog passed (likely from the significant reduction in carbohydrates), I felt great. I slept well, had tons of energy, and rarely experienced that mid-afternoon energy slump.

But. Yes, there’s a but. After all is said and done, I simply missed the variety a truly balanced diet offers. Don’t get me wrong, when you come home from two hours of hill repeats at 7:45 in the morning and your husband has bacon and eggs ready for you, you don’t complain. But after days upon days of eggs, boiled, fried, steamed, poached and in omeletes, eggs get old. No matter how much you love them and no matter how good for you they are. I just wanted to sink my teeth into a soft, chewy, crusty piece of good old-fashioned TOAST.

So yesterday morning, that’s just what I did. After my hour Masters swimming workout, I bolted to the market near our house and grabbed a loaf of Bread & Cie’s Fig and Anise bread. Came home, popped two slices in the toaster, and slathered them with butter and honey. Delicious. I wasn’t satiated for as long as I was on my prior paleo breakfasts, but it was worth it.

Here are a few things I learned while trying the paleo diet that I’ll carry over into daily life:

1-Eat your veggies.

I always knew this in theory, but I wasn’t practicing it to the extent I should’ve been as an active person. Carrot and celery sticks don’t count. I have learned the joys of sauteed greens as a quick side or even breakfast. I will continue to eat plenty of easy, broiled yam fries before long weekend training sessions. Mark and I joined a local CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) and somewhat ironically, our first pick-up was last night. (I can see a “Stuff White People Like” post emerging: “Picking up their organic veggies at Lululemon. Ugh. Oh wait. It already is one.) Our first box was impressive, as the spread in the first photo attests.

2-Protein, in moderation.

The paleo diet pushes the consumption of animal protein at every meal and snack, an approach I find not only unecessary, but also bad for the earth. Even when done 100% organic, it’s still just not necessary for us North Americans to hog all that meat-production energy for ourselves. (Yes, I used the word hog in a paragraph about meat. Hey, it’s a blog not a thesis.) I will continue to implore Mark to make the delicious roast beast on a regular basis (his second, rosemary-rubbed version, above, was even better!) and poached salmon has become a staple.

3-Food is worth it.

Meat costs money, yes. Fresh, organic veggies cost money. Big surprise. Paleo has taught me to really stop worrying so much about cost and invest my income in the food that keeps me alive and thriving.

4-Balance is best.

In the process, I’ve re-discovered Mark Sisson’s Daily Apple blog, and though it has some propaganda-esque tips that probably exist to build his publishing and supplement empire, contains some really good, moderate advice. Like this tidbit:

“We often say, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” And for good reason. The target of (paleo) is deep-seated: the long haul of a healthful life, not a brief stop off for cosmetic fixes. The necessary approach, then, is centered around sustainability. One hundred percent compliance with (paleo) principles is ideal, sure, but consider it the ultimate representation – a consummate form rather than typical daily function. The PB is rooted in life, not just research, after all. A practical baseline is this: if you align your life with the PB principles 80 percent of the time, consider yourself on course.”

I love that. Eighty percent I can do. Perhaps even 90. But I simply enjoy certain foods too much to warrant their elimination from my life.

5-Go with your gut.

I know I just argued for balance, but now I’m going to argue for personal preference. Paleo changed my adviser Nell’s life and triathlon training. It works for her. It worked for me, too, but not in that same life-altering way. To me, taste, pleasure, and variety matter far more than some long-term nutritional benefits I’m not yet convinced of anyway. As a LAVA contributor writes on her blog, “by focusing on your own needs, it’s very simple to find enjoyment out of consuming a balanced diet where no food is off limit.” And while you won’t see me loading up on gummy bears anytime soon, I don’t want to live a life where I have to say no should I ever crave them.

All in all, going paleo for a month reaffirmed that while I love being healthy and fit, it’s more about putting life in my years than years in my life. I know I said this in a prior post, but it seems to be the theme of this whole exercise in pseudo-madness. VG’s doughnuts, here I come…

my cheatin’ mouth

Today marks two full weeks of Paleo eating in the bag. As I begin Week Three, I can’t help but look back over my accomplishments, failures, and more lessons learned.

The thing that stands out most is how much my running has improved. Two long runs on this diet and no belching issues at all. I know I can’t jump to conclusions yet, but this seems like a victory worth celebrating … for now. I’ve also managed to resist popcorn, oatmeal, Chobani yogurt, and Mark’s unbelievable lattes.

As for the failures? Well, I haven’t been following my coach’s meal plan to the T. Lunches of “poached Halibut on a bed of julienne carrots, zucchini and leeks” have been losing to my day job, a busier-than-usual freelance plate, and this recent string of gorgeous summer days. I haven’t been getting in all the “Recovery Homebrew” smoothies included in my plan, which is probably leading to the onset of major munchies which usually hits at about 9 p.m. To satiate myself, I chow down on almond (which as I’ve recently learned from Nell, isn’t a good idea!)

The site of the cheating

And then there was Friday, Mark’s birthday, my first official “cheat night.” No, it wasn’t a night of marital infidelity. I decided that spending money on a meal out just wasn’t smart if I couldn’t enjoy any of it, and settled on Searsucker, a top-chef finalist’s trendy new San Diego spot. Partly because it looked good, partly because it was downtown, kind of a novelty for us North County dwellers. We had their “carb-free” crabcake, artichoke hearts with Gruyere and tomato, and short ribs as appetizers, then shared the Mexican-inspired tongue and cheek (yes, literally), and duck breast with confit. On the side, an arugula, prosciutto, mozzarella, and tomato salad. So yes, it was Paleo only insofar as there was meat, though it was fattier than the diet prescribes. Vegetables were lacking (our choice, those are a la carte), and though grains weren’t featured, there was a significant amount of cheese. (Overall, we were a little disappointed by the food. It was OK, but nothing worth raving about.)

I paid for it the next morning on my 40-mile bike ride, during which my gut rebelled, and I had trouble absorbing water. It’s hard to know if it was eating the prohibited foods, or just eating and drinking a wee bit too much.

New Encinitas Whole Foods

I’ve learned a bunch, too. Like that the best kind of deli meats are known as whole cuts, as opposed to the “sectioned and formed” meat products (gross!) or processed meats. Thankfully, Whole Foods just opened a mile from our apartment, and their Applegate farms oven-roasted chicken and turkey breasts are just excellent…especially when paired with some walnuts and pear. (New favorite!) I never really ate deli meat to begin with, but now that I need to be having so much meat, it’s just so easy to turn to.

This article by Phil Lempert outlines what to look for in deli meats, the main issue being sodium nitrite, which is also used alone or with sodium nitrate to fix the color in meat products. (Um, really?) During cooking, however, “nitrites combine with amines naturally present in meat to form carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds,” Lempert says … compounds that are known carcinogens associated with all kinds of cancer. (See the original article for more information on a study done in Sweden.)Another thing I’ve noticed is that I’m craving dairy far more than I am grains. A cold, creamy lick of frozen yogurt or a rubbery slab of mozzarella have tempted me many times over these past few days.

I’m starting to draw conclusions already about this way of eating, which I fire at Mark in small doses through the day. “So I was thinking, about this diet…” The man patiently indulges me every time, as we weigh the pros and cons, what seems to make sense and what seems ridiculous. I am really enjoying trying Paleo out, but I’m not sure I could eat this way for the rest of my life. I read a quote recently in Outside about putting “life in your years,” not just “years on your life.”

Paleo thus far has taught me to be more creative in the kitchen. It wasn’t that I was bad at this before, but over the past year I’ve lapsed. Paleo has helped me make friends with not only a ton of interesting new veggies and greens (rapini, chard, Japanese sweet potato), but methods by which to cook them. The best part of all of this so far is learning that dinner actually comes together more quickly and with less stress than when I used to scour blogs and cookbooks for exotic-looking recipes.

roast beast (and beets)

My second Paleo Experiment-induced trip to Costco on Sunday ended in me taking home a five-pound top sirloin. I purchased it with the intent of making my own homemade (read, additive and sodium-free) healthy roast beef. I’ve never been a big fan of deli meats, and up until trying this new way of eating didn’t really eat much beef at all. But that, along with many other habits and tendencies, has all changed over the past week.

As the days go on, some of the “symptoms” of going Paleo continue to lessen or disappear. Namely, strange stomach pains, a dry mouth, and periods of mental fogginess. Everything seems pretty much back to normal now, with the addition of new energy, better sleeps, and a pretty consistently positive mental outlook.

It’s always so hard to know with these things which are caused or related to a certain factor (here, the diet), or whether they would’ve happened anyway. That’s the complication with the Paleo way of life. Die-hards claim a lot for it, but could many of those “improvements” be due to them incorporating new and fresher veggies and fruits into their diets?

See the above salad. I would often eat salads for lunch at work, but this new diet prompted me to add some turkey and roast beets (which I blasted under the broiler with garlic and olive oil for 30 minutes, skins and all). The turkey was an early-Paleo Experiment slip-up. It’s deli-style, and even though the ingredients are only “turkey, turkey broth (containing less than 2% salt and vegetable oil),” it’s probably not the best. The black flecks on there aren’t pepper, they’re roasted hemp seeds: delish.

Another thing was red about my day besides the beets? The roast beast.

Yes, you read that right. The roast beast. With apologies to any sensitive vegans out there (though they surely would’ve stopped reading by now, so I have nothing to worry about), it is rather pleasant to say “roast beast.” It’s from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and I’ve always found the expression hilarious.

The beast in this case was that five-pound hunk of Paleo protein procured from that grocery store where couples like us should really not be shopping. (Costco). We cut it in half and froze the other 2.5 pounds, and then followed Saveur‘s sandwich issue instructions for DIY roast beef: season the tied roast with salt and pepper, sear in a cast-iron skillet until the edges are browned, and then bake at 225 degrees Fahrenheit for three and a half hours. Take the temperature to make sure the interior reaches 130 degrees, cool, slice, and you’re done!

By slow-cooking the meat at such a low temperature, you retain that nice even pink color. Who wants brown-grey roast beast? Not this Who. Mark reported that it’s not really thinly-cut enough for a good sandwich, which makes it even more Paleo-friendly than it already was.

Tonight, post “Andrew” yoga, I had 100 grams of this served with sauteed spinach and some of Mark Bittman’s Spiced Melon Balls? (For this simple summer appetizer, simply mix the balls from a whole cantaloupe plus one whole honeydew with the juice of half a lime, ½ tsp. salt, 1 tsp. ground coriander, 1/4 tsp. cayenne, and 1 Tbsp. finely chopped cilantro.)

5 Lessons from Today:

1. Don’t add coconut oil to a smoothie with frozen ingredients in it. It will turn to a grimy, greasy slop.

2 .If you’re going to eat roast beast often, invest in an electric meat slicer or marry a butcher.

3. When you go Paleo, it won’t be long before your co-workers start calling you a cavewoman.

4. Roasted seaweed, nuts, or hemp seeds work well when you’re craving popcorn or pretzels.

5. Choose your cheats wisely: I haven’t “caved” (ha ha) often, but tonight am giving in to Stone’s BELGO Anise Imperial Russian Stout while I watch the season premier of Weeds. Hey, it’s not easy being a cavewoman.

the great popcorn resistance

Still going strong on with my Paleo Experiment here. On Friday, Day Five, I headed down to La Jolla Cove at 6:30 am to meet up with some Tri Club friend for a swim. I usually only swim there in the evenings, so the clear morning conditions were a real treat. I saw two sting rays swim by underneath me (rather eerily), and a school of silvery fish not swimming per se, but sorta just hanging out.

We all headed to the Pannikin in La Jolla afterwards, where I managed to resist the fresh muffins and scones sitting on our table. Their coffee was better than it is at the one near our house, so that was another treat. Everyone else headed off to work, but I was taking the day off to pick Mark up from the airport, so I headed back down to the water to go for a run. Nell had me doing hills on the treadmill, but I opted for the real thing instead.

After my run I ate mashed-up yam in my car. Tasted a bit like baby food (gotta work on that!), but otherwise it nailed my carb craving pretty well. I’ll be eating lots of yams, so I’d better get used to it.

It’s great to have Mark back, not only for obvious reasons, but to help me eat though the massive boxes of grapes and cherry tomatoes (Costco!) I’ve been eating since Monday. Having him here will help me be able to mix things up a bit. Friday night we bought some steak, and yesterday, before heading out to one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen, we got some mussels from the little market by our house. I steamed them with onion, garlic, and white wine, and served a perfectly ripe avocado alongside. (Not to mention finishing off those “tomatoes of the week,” too!)

Possibly the biggest miracle so far is resisting popcorn. Thankfully, movie theater popcorn is gross anyway, but I usually make mine at home and smuggle it in. This time, the only smuggling was of the fruit and trail-mix variety.

I still feel energetic, despite a bonking a little on my 2.5 hour ride Saturday–but that could’ve been my strong riding partner, not my lack of dairy and grains! My muscles have felt a little more tired-out than usual, but also, that’s not necessarily from the way I’m eating. I’m sleeping soundly, my mood is cheery, and I’m feeling good.

This morning I’ll tackle my first run of any significant distance on this diet (10 miles), and tomorrow it’s onto Week Two!

egg yolks by another name

Day Four’s in the bag. To be honest, I’ve only craved dairy a few times, and grains not once. Some of the transition issues, which shall remain nameless, have dissipated. I still have a bit of a dry mouth, despite drinking lots of water.

And I’ve learned a few things, too. For one, the yolks from hard-boiled eggs, whisked into olive oil and lemon juice (vinegar, sadly, is not allowed) make a great excuse for a “creamy” salad. I was supposed to have bison and greens tonight, but I had a few things that needed to be used kicking around, so whipped up this uber-colorful salad. Romaine, spinach, grapefruit, peppers, a boiled egg, shredded chicken, red onions, Craisins, and my new favorite dressing–which you’ll see on the second picture. It was so big I didn’t have a plate large enough.

Another thing about this new way of eating: you appreciate variety and “treats” a whole lot more. I will be glad when my massive Costco bag of spinach is gone and I can try some Swiss chard. Crunchy cravings are satisfied by almonds and carrots. A small glass of wine (technically a cheat item but OK’d by my coach for special occasions, which I deemed Day Three and Four of my experiment. Uh, oops?

I have a TON of energy. Almost jittery energy, which I’m not sure is good or bad. On my mid-day bike ride today, I was pretty hyped-up, but I’m not sure if this is because of increased coffee consumption or the merits of Paleo eating. I find I am craving more than the usual one cup a day of coffee. This could be because of the lack of simple carbs, or the fact that our office now has a proper coffee maker.

I know, I know. Four pictures of a salad? I finally dragged out the good camera for this one, straying from the usual dim light and shaky hand iPhone photos. A woman will do crazy things when deprived of popcorn, Chobani, and her husband (for the past month, too!)

Another thing I’ve learned is that gimmicks are sometimes cool. Like these produce bags from my mother-in-law. They actually work! My cilantro and romaine have stayed crisp longer than I care to publicly admit. As for that family-of-eight sized bag of spinach from Costco? Maybe I don’t want that to stick around forever (though it is fantastic wilted in coconut oil. Paleo for a month will teach you some crazy things!) Off to bed. I bumped the early-morning swim I planned for today to tomorrow, so it’s up and at ’em at 5:30.

But first, one last sip of red wine.

oatmeal bars

Things are pretty dismal in the freshcrackedpepper kitchen these days. I’m down to kimchi, eggs, and staples—each of them honorable in their own right, but difficult things to build a meal on. I’ve been content to scavenge and snack, though, using up frozen soups and reverting to the bought pasta sauce in the back of my cupboard.

Breakfast, on the other hand, is one meal that’s never complicated. It’s always simple and comforting, day in and day out. But I have noticed a change. I used to be the kind of person who chose something different from morning to morning: A bagel one day. Muesli the next. Eggs on the weekend. But since becoming a nine-to-fiver, breakfast is one of the many areas my food habits have shifted.

One word: oatmeal. Yup, oatmeal, plain and simple. Maybe it’s peer pressure—there’s a little “oatmeal club” developing at my office, where us health-savvy young female journalists line up by the hot water tap with our bowls of instant cereal. (Are women more susceptible to marketing? McDonald’s Oatmeal and Fruit, Starbucks Perfect Oatmeal, those cutesy Quaker Oatmeal ads that are everywhere?)

Whatever the case may be, it’s fun to stir our oats and chat before the work day starts. But last week a terrible thing happened: My supply of instant multigrain oats that I get smuggled to me from Canada ran out. I had it down to a science: Skim milk + microwave (none of this hot water tap business for me!) + stir + more microwaving + tiny pat of peanut butter + more stirring = the best bowl of creamy, unsweetened oats you could ever ask for.

Well, just buy more, you say. But I don’t know what brands I like down here (whine) and plus, I welcome the DIY challenge. I used to simmer my own steel cut oats all the time when I had just that: time. So, inspired by a co-worker’s frozen pucks of Trader Joe’s steel cut oats, I whipped up a batch, sprinkled in some pumpkin seeds and craisins, spread it into a baking pan, chilled it, and then cut it into bars I could freeze for future mornings.

My own convenience oatmeal. Take that TJ’s. (Plus, I just had a lot of fun playing with depth-of-focus on such bland, beige subject matter.)

So for now, breakfast is helping assuage the guilt of my almost Miranda Hobbes-esque urban existence. (Chinese take-out is still a long way off.) Beyond oatmeal club, however, new tastes abound: a five-course dinner prepared by a friend’s darling husband (“Chef Trev”), blueberry soup at the Swedish embassy after Sunday morning’s 65 mile bike ride (followed by delicious four-dollar falafal), and celebratory amuse-bouche at an event held at the home of the Spanish ambassador.

Things haven’t been too bad, now that I think of it. (Said as awesome housemate delivers me a bowl of stove-top popcorn). But the time has come to hit the grocery store once again. And as this blog will stand witness to, it shouldn’t be that bad after all.

yosenabe (Japanese hot pot)

If there’s a life conducive to food blogging, it’s being unemployed in a college town and newly attached. Conversely, if there’s a lifestyle conducive to letting that blog go stale as an opened box of wheat thins, it’s a nine-to-five job in a full-fledged city with your mate 370 miles away.

These things—with all their promise, exhilaration, and loneliness—have wrecked the most havoc here on these pages.

The excuses fly in: I don’t have the time. I’m too tired and too transient. I don’t have a car. I already spend my days thinking about and working on food. With three new housemates, there’s no space in the fridge for leftovers.

But every good excuse has a better antecedent: I have my weekends. I need the energy and the sense of home good meals bring. I have my bike, the metro, and a great co-op nearby. I can never get enough of food. And lastly, when you share life with great people, there are seldom leftovers anyway.

Perhaps without knowing it, my new housemates have helped eased my transition back into domesticity after more than a month spent country, county, and couch hopping. (Shout out to my wonderful sets of parents, June and Raul, and Rebecca and her parents for their respective hosting!)

They’ve been there with cookies at midnight after long days exploring the city. They’ve offered liver and onions before a treacherous bike ride through D.C.’s morning traffic. They’ve shared roast chicken and salad after a long day at the office, and left notes on perfectly-ripe avocados to spread on my evening slice of supper toast. And they’ve introduced me to Japanese hot pot: a first, and a delight to come home to one chilly Monday night.

As the chef herself put it, nabe is a “true communist meal”: each diner gives and takes according to their ability and need. There’s one big pot in the middle, steaming and stewing away with fresh cabbage, spinach, and seafood. Rather than tending your own little morsel, as is the case with fondue, you simply toss things into the pot at will and fish them out as you so desire.

In the end, everyone is amply fed.

I’m slowly relaxing into life here: exploring the smooth corners and rough edges of the communities around me, giving my hours to this new world and taking from its pool when I need to. There will be times, I know, when take-out will triumph and I will succumb to canned soup. But because I believe in and love good food, my fully-stocked (and darling) kitchen will call me back to a place I hope to never unlearn.

Until then, I owe it to my housemates.

Continue reading