A very long time ago, my sister and I went on a spa vacation. This took place in pre-internet days, to give you a sense of the amount of time that has passed between then and now. Such a thing as a Yelp review had not yet been invented to assist the clueless traveler. Imperfect as that tool may be, a person can increase the accuracy of their expectations at least a little by skimming over the aggregate natterings of many people who have visited a place.
We had a paper brochure to go on (remember those?), which very possibly came from a human travel agent (remember those?). The place sounded nice enough, and it suited our budget, and so off we went for a little girly getaway.
There was much truth to the marketing: one feature of the palm-tree sprinkled property was in fact a health spa, with scrubs and wraps and rubs and various cosmetic applications and fitness options available all the live long day, and which we quickly surmised catered mainly to ladies of a certain generation (a few back from our own) who were recovering from “having a little work done” and who shimmered around the halls in robes, with just the weight of their Jackie O glasses and towel turbans to prevent a strong breeze from carrying them off. Another feature of the property, not mentioned in the brochure--and you must trust me that I am not making this up, even if you do not know me, because HOW COULD I?—was a training facility for prizefighters. The twain met. In the halls and the dining room and on the grounds. It was terrifically odd. Just very, very, very odd.
One part of the program, on the ladies’ side, was cuisine minceur, tiny dietetic portions of dietetic food, aimed at keeping us slim. And so it was that I learned that nothing makes me want junk food like being told I can't have it. It manufactures a craving that is basically unrelated to whether or not I actually want it in any real sense. There was a movie outing one evening of the weekend and we eagerly signed on for it, just to escape the odd, twainy halls. While no one was monitoring us my sister and I loaded up at the concession stand with some concessions we didn’t normally make, namely big double-feature-sized boxes of candy we could quietly snarf to recover from the steamed slivers of vegetables and the restrictions and the strangeness of the boxers and the face-lifted ladies.
Fast forward many years with various healthe programmes undertaken at intervals. Last month I told a good friend I would keep her company on a Whole30 adventure. This is a kind of body re-set wherein you avoid grains and sugar and dairy as well as a long list of other things that some believe are possibly taxing to the human system, just for a month. You eat lots of vegetables and fruits and protein and (this is key) a good amount of an approved list of fats, which last bit is essential in order to prevent you from chewing on strangers’ hats in the post office.
Programs like this tend to be pretty polarizing. If you have a strong opinion about how stupid this diet is, I'm not bothered by the static much but trust that I have already heard someone else express that very opinion already. The diet is not harmful, I don’t think, focused as it is on fresh, real food, nothing to excess, and no products or subscriptions you must buy in order to succeed. It’s not five meals daily composed entirely of almonds, or a dependence on lots of weird powders or bars or supplements, or anything else that screams 'unhealthy' to me. And it’s just a month. I knew a girl in middle school who turned her palms orange by trying to live on carrots, and there was a long few weeks once when my dad was convinced that some dismal soup that relied heavily and VERY aromatically (but not in a positive way) on cabbage would transform him (which it kind of did, but not as hoped). None of that is going on. I reckon it’ll turn out OK even if I do not win any weightlifting competitions or become a supermodel or grow lustrous blond curls down to my calves, but I will definitely keep you posted if any of those things happens.
Anyway, given my usual response to restriction and my very intense devotion, lately, to using gummy bears as a Xanax alternative when reading the news, I expected to want to eat a lot of movie theater cuisine immediately after starting this spartan endeavor, but in fact my body, humble carriage of my being, (which supplemented the desire to provide solidarity for my friend with some obvious cues that my digestion and general well-being would benefit from a re-set of some type) seemed to agree with the principles.
Weeks one and two sailed by, in fact. That seemed a good enough indication that it was the right thing to do. Large pots of vegetable soup enriched with broth and coconut milk played a big role in that, as did many vegetable-studded frittatas.
Now it is week three. Happily I am not tired of any of the things I can have. I am perhaps more reliant on sweet potatoes than the founders envisioned, but I am not doing this for a grade from the Whole30 panel so I’m at peace with that. The changes I have made are profound enough, I think. And I love sweet potatoes, and my dogs appreciate the many little ends of sweet potatoes flying off the counter towards them since this began. I think that if I could eat bananas, which I sadly cannot, I would be relying quite a bit on those, too. But a cooked sweet potato has served as my banana understudy ever since I was a nursing mama and needed to have a reliable quick fix for hangry episodes that was palatable round the clock. I am always happy to see one because they remind me of fat sweet little babies pressed close to me. And am I the only person who ever read All Of A Kind Family? The baked sweet potato with butter and salt and pepper on which one sister spends her penny made a deep impression on me in my tender youth, and I’m happy to report it can be approximated with ghee, probably in short supply on the lower east side of New York at the turn of the century but which is a green-light substance on this adventure.
A baked sweet potato, cubed and tossed with avocado, lemon juice and olive oil is something you should try, no matter what your beliefs are about nutrition. It’s definitely an Alone In The Kitchen With An Eggplant food, best eaten standing up over the sink as you stare out the window, but it can be gussied up for seated eating with others as you will see below.
I won’t lie. 21 days in, I really want some toast. Stripped of its go-to GIMME SUGAR self-medicating emergency response (alternatively expressed as HOW ABOUT SOME POTATO CHIPS RIGHT ABOUT NOW), the physical self that I do business with is still deeply interested in comfort food of some type. It wants toast, and is willing to settle out of court for a bowl of oatmeal. This is not a general carb craving, or even plain hunger. I don't dream of pasta and I'm getting plenty to eat. It's just that none of it is toast. And I want some toast (though oatmeal would be fine, as I may have mentioned). Toast is feel-better food.
I’m staying the course, mind you. Even though certain people who ought to have my back have been sexting me pictures of bread, grilled and buttered. But I think about comfort food a lot, even when I am not on some wackadoodle eating program; my deep faith in it is closer to me than religion is in its strictest sense. I’m happy to be reminded of the comforting properties of a sweet potato (mashed, hot, with coconut cream and fresh ginger and turmeric, for example, as above--very very heavenly and good). But I hate to see nice foods demonized in any general sense.
I don’t think sugar or dairy or any of the other things on the no-fly list here are intrinsically bad, really—not for everyone, across the board, anyway. In moderation and balance, very few things are. When you are sad and feeling run down, in all likelihood eating something very nourishing will have the greatest net effect on your mood and physical health. But sometimes a waffle, or a piece of cake, or some pudding, a wedge of cheese or a piece of chocolate or whatever it is that unifies your mouth and mind and stomach in the reassuring feeling of being satisfied and soothed is what you need. Like Albert, I think eating is nice.
In a world where so many are hungry and the food system is so messed up, I'm appreciative of any reminder to count my food blessings and eat more consciously, which is really all this amounts to. To consider before reaching. And to focus on vegetables, with their bits of dirt still clinging to remind you that someone's hands worked the soil to make your meal possible.
And though this set of rules seems to suit me okay, at least for 8 more days, it certainly isn't right for everyone, and it's definitely wrong for anyone who thinks it's wrong, maybe only for the simple reason that such a person will not stick to it and will be delaying the courtesy shuttle with one more run to the snack bar for a box of Jujyfruits or Milk Duds before you can say 'Leon Spinks.' Anyone's capital-P Program is just a tool to use to override the New Year's Resolution vagueness of I-should-really-eat-less-of-this-and-more-of-that, which murky vow for me tends to last about 3.27 hours (during which time I celebrate my iron will and/or flounce around feeling deprived) before I cave in and eat a cookie.
Consult your physician, stylist or astrologer before embarking on any restrictive diet, of course, but meanwhile enjoy your sweet potatoes. They are very comforting.
As for this salad, even in an East Coast winter certain greens can be relied upon to be fresh enough to happily eat raw, such as the handsome hydroponic watercress and certain fresh herbs in my local market, and those play nicely here with citrus (one of winter's best features), both fresh and preserved. If you have not yet preserved a lemon your own self, head over to Food In Jars, where Marisa has devoted this month to giving you all the inspiration and information you need to do it.
bright spot in winter sweet potato salad
- 2 garnet yams
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes
- 1 firm-ripe avocado
- 1 blood orange, or a regular orange or tangerine makes a fine substitute
- 1T finely chopped preserved lemon or preserved orange (or substitute green olives or capers, or skip it entirely but the pickly pungency factor is nice)
- About a cup, or more, of leaves of cilantro, mint or watercress, or a mixture
- Juice of half a lemon, maybe more
- Really good olive oil
- Salt + pepper to taste
In a 350° oven, bake the yams (remember to cut an X in those bad boys) until just tender. This can take up to an hour and can be done very far in advance, especially if you come to appreciate having cooked sweet potatoes lingering around your paddock as much I do, in which case bake some extras.
Halve the cherry tomatoes and toss them in a small bowl with a glug of olive oil and a little salt and pepper. Spread these in a baking dish cut side up, and roast in that same type of oven until they shrivel a bit, about 30-40 minutes. Set these aside to cool.
Slice up the orange, using your preferred method to secure just the juicy bits. Mince the preserved lemon. Peel the yams and cut them into 1-2" chunks. Do the same for Mister Avocado.
Toss everybody and everything together, gently so as not to mash up the softer items, along with another shot of olive oil and the lemon juice, and adjust with additional salt and pepper if you feel it's needed. A hit of protein can be obtained by adding some toasted almonds or pecans or even some shredded roast chicken if you roll that way.