Indulgence days

Why is there a picture of ice cream on a low-carb blog? Because this post is about indulgence days. Not over-indulgence days, mind you ;) – which is why there’s only ONE scoop of ice cream in the bowl.

There are as many ways to do low-carb diets/lifestyles as there are people to think them up. One of my friends has lately been on a version of the diet that is fairly strict for the whole week, and then allows one “indulgence day” in which you can eat whatever you want. For a low-carb diet based around ketosis, this strikes me as counter-productive, because getting into ketosis is hard enough that you don’t want to kick yourself out of it once a week.  However, if you are doing a more moderate “lower-carb” diet where you’re just breaking really bad eating habits and losing lots of weight in the process, or if you’ve reached your maintenance weight, then this approach may be for you.

Recently, I’ve gotten down to a weight I’m pretty happy with. My clothes fit, I’m within the “normal” BMI range, and I’m happy with how I look. However, the last few times I’ve gone off this diet, I gain back weight fairly quickly, right back up to the next highest set-point about 7-8 pounds up. I don’t want to do that again, so I decided to try a moderate version of the “indulgence day” concept. This also makes it a lot easier to enjoy the dinner club that I organize and have really come to enjoy :)

In my version, I don’t eat whatever I want. This might work for people who have eaten like that most of the time and are in the process of losing a lot of weight. For them, the gains they make the rest of the week will offset their one day of luxury, no matter how extreme. Instead, I try to choose small indulgences that I will really enjoy – having a small dish of ice cream, a regular latte instead of a soy latte, peas or winter squash, fruit, or even really good oatmeal for breakfast. After eating low-carb for months, these seem like real treats! And if I’m going to a dinner party, I can have a small amount of whatever I want to try – that is a real indulgence :) When my boyfriend made a wonderful bread for the Mexican Day of the Dead recently, I was able to enjoy it.

So how’s it working? I’m holding my own. Basically, my weight fluctuates about 2 pounds per week, higher at the beginning of the week after my indulgence on the weekend, and by Friday pretty much back down to where it was. I’d say that’s pretty good, though there is a part of me that is sneakily trying to figure out how to fit a large serving of pasta and chocolate cake into my indulgence ration :)

Oh, and by the way – if you ever want to eat ice cream, it turns out the premium brands have fewer carbs. Yup. Forget about that low-fat ice cream. It doesn’t taste good, and they add a bunch of carbs to offset removing the fat. And the fat helps give the ice cream a more balanced profile. It’s funny – I now look at sorbet and think “it’s a bowl of sugar” – the worst possible choice and something that previously seemed healthy. So – if you’re going to eat ice cream, choose the best :)

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Low-Carb Shopping – Thumbs-up to Trader Joe’s

This time, instead of a product I’m reviewing an entire store! Why? Because Trader Joe’s has turned out to be an indispensable help when trying to eat low-carb. This is true in a whole variety of categories of foods that are hard to find in regular groceries. After having experience with them in college (home of the “pretty label” $2 wines and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts) I was quite happy to see them open a store here in Olympia, WA.

Frozen foods – This may seem like a strange topic for a cooking blog, but we all know there are those nights when there just isn’t the time or energy to cook. On any other diet you could walk into any regular grocery store and find tons of frozen meals catering to a low-fat diet – most absolutely filled with carbohydrates. Who knew that macaroni and cheese, stuffed potatoes, and lasagna could be diet food? ;)

Unfortunately, you can wander those aisles for hours and not find anything low-carb. Believe me, I’ve tried. I found one (1) Lean Cuisine meal (Steak Tips Portobello with Broccoli) that isn’t filled with stuff I can’t eat. To be fair, Safeway recently developed a seafood line called Waterfront Bistro that has a few low-carb seafood items. But Trader Joes, in contrast, has aisles of appropriate choices. You can find BBQ ribs with the sauce on the side, salmon and other fish dishes with flavorful sauces, pork roasts filled with spinach and cheese, Korean-style kalbi ribs, flash-frozen seafood of all varieties, pot roast, prepared chicken dishes, lamb and chicken skewers, and much more. Most of these just require heating in an oven or microwave with little or no preparation required. They are intended for couples or families and provide much more than one night’s meals, compared to the skimpy, 250-calorie portions found in most diet frozen “meals”. They taste a lot better, too – I’ve served these to guests without embarrassment.

Fresh Meats and Cheeses – One thing I appreciate is TJ’s attention to making cooking easy. We all know a low-carb diet requires more cooking from scratch, which sometimes I really enjoy and … other times I just can’t fit it in. One example is their line of pre-marinaded and cooked chicken breasts, whole or in strips for salad or snacking. They come plain, or with various flavors like Caeser, rosemary-garlic, balsamic vinaigrette, and curry. A nice alternative to deli meats. On top of that, they have specialty pates, sausages, canned oysters, mussels, and sardines, and an unusually wide variety of deli meats and hard-to-find cheeses (to go with their extensive wine selection). All of this makes it much less likely that you’ll get bored with your protein selections.

Produce – TJ’s produce is probably not their highest-rated item. They have a limited selection, and it is nearly all prepackaged. However, I have found that what they have makes cooking easier in two ways – it’s very crisp-fresh, and if you need to save time, you can get a lot of things pre-sliced, pre-chopped, or pre-peeled – and sometimes mixed in convenient ways. This may seem less frugal, in the sense that these veggies cost more – on the other hand, if it means you add it to your omelette in the morning because you don’t have to chop it, you’re getting more of the healthy vegetables you need and less of it may spoil and go to waste. I’ve noticed other grocery stores going this route as well, so it may catch on. I especially appreciate the very fresh veggies that steam in a bag with almost no work, and still taste fresh once cooked.

Condiments, Dairy, and Baking – TJ’s has lots of hard-to-find items for low-carb menus. It has an extensive selection of unsweetened alternative milks (almond, soy, etc.) that have better nutritional profiles than most other brands. TJ’s carries almond flour for baking, and almond butter that has NO sugar and comes in multiple versions (salted/unsalted, creamy/nutty, raw/roasted) – after eating the TJ’s brand for a while, I was shocked to taste Maranatha only to find it had added sugar. There is also a very large selection of nuts in a wide array of varieties and combinations. You can also buy no-sugar mayonnaise and other low-glycemic condiments. TJ’s carries stevia in several versions, which can be hard to find. They’re not exactly heavily stocked in the baking department, but what they do have can be hard to find anywhere else.

Now you know why TJ’s is on my list of grocery stores to visit at least once a month. I don’t have a Whole Foods near me, but I’m guessing there are many of the same products available there. Anyone know?

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Vanilla Pot de Creme

This most amazing dessert is the kind of recipe that can make you SO glad to be on a low-carb diet and not something else. Yes, this is a low-carb, high-protein, ultra-decadent dessert. It has only a very few, high-quality ingredients and is based on a classic French recipe. Best of all, it can be adapted to almost any flavor – but today we’re just going to do pure vanilla. I’m not talking any old vanilla – this is Mexican vanilla bean AND real Mexican vanilla extract. Suffice it say, we swooned.

Critically, you have to make it 24 hours in advance – or you may find yourself eating liquid creme, not the worst fate on earth but definitely not the plan. This recipe makes two 1C servings, or four 1/2 C servings (but who can eat just half a cup?).

Vanilla Pot de Creme

1 C heavy cream
1 vanilla bean
4 egg yolks
2 T splenda
1 t real vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 400º. Boil 4 C water in a saucepan or teapot.

Split the vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds, saving them. Heat the cream in a saucepan over low heat, and add the vanilla bean and seeds. Stir occasionally until small bubbles form around the edges.

Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks and Splenda at high speed until the mixture is pale and frothy.

Mix the vanilla extract into the cream, and remove the vanilla pod. Whisking constantly, slowly pour the cream into the egg yolks. Once combined, pour the mixture into 2 medium or 4 smaller ramekins or cups.

Place the cups in a glass baking dish and pour the boiling water around them to about halfway up the sides. Place in the oven and bake 30-40 minutes (depending on the size of the cups) until the center is barely set. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the baking pan and water to room temperature.

Cover the pots and refrigerate overnight (small cups) to 24 hours (medium cups) until set. Garnish with raspberries, mint, chocolate, orange peel, or whatever takes your fancy.

Nutrition: A 1 C serving has 8 gm protein and 4 gm carbs; a 1/2 C serving has 4 gm protein and 2 gm carbs.

Posted in Dairy and Eggs, Dessert | 1 Comment

Deconstructing Mexican cuisine

Ah, Mexican food – it’s yummy. But with its rice, beans, and tortillas, hardly low-carb. What’s a traveler to do in Latin American countries? Or when the rest of the gang wants to go out for Mexican? I just spent a week in Puerto Vallarta, and I’ve got a few tips to share.

Just because rice, beans, and tortillas are mainstays of Mexican cooking doesn’t mean that’s all there is to it. But if you order a traditional plate and you don’t eat 80% of what’s given to you, it’s going to look a little strange (and Mexicans may be offended by the waste of food). So first off, make sure you know how to ask for no beans, no rice, no tortillas. They’ll still think you’re really strange, but at least they won’t be offended and you won’t be tempted to eat carbs just to look like you’ve finished your meal.

Focus on what you can eat – meat, seafood, salad, and extra salsa, guacamole, and sour cream! If you’re on the coast, you’re in luck – seafood dishes are plentiful and very fresh. Puerto Vallarta is filled with small seafood places that get their seafood fresh every day and serve them up with simple garlic and butter sauces, or “diablo” – a hotter version. Cilantro and lime are also popular (for just about anything). Unlike in the US, fish is eaten fresh and not battered and deep-fried. It often comes in tacos or on crispy rounds, but those can easily be removed – or just eaten – they are often much smaller than US tortillas and one won’t hurt if it’s your only starch. Another favorite of mine is ceviche – a dish originally from Peru with raw shellfish and fish marinated in citrus, onions, cilantro and other veggies and spices until the seafood “cooks”. This is a very low-carb and delicious appetizer.

Farther from the coast, you will be relying more on meat dishes, which are abundant. Try chicken mole, roast chicken, sausage (including the favorite chorizo), and carne asada – literally, “grilled meat.” Again, you’ll have to ask to avoid the rice, beans, and tortillas, since they’ll be expecting you to wrap it all up together, and may be rightly proud of their homemade tortillas.

Breakfast is possibly the easiest meal, as all over Mexico, eggs, sausage, salsa, and ham are breakfast staples. Vegetarians will probably have the easiest time here, as it is not hard to get scrambled eggs or omelettes filled with vegetables and topped with salsa. Although, if you’re not careful, you’ll STILL get your beans and tortillas with your breakfast – and maybe some potatoes too!

I should add a quick word about cooking low-carb in Mexico, which is surprisingly easy (other than reading the ingredients). Most dairy products are full-fat or more so than in the US, although light versions are beginning to show up. Meats are seldom processed or packaged, and there is a wide variety of meats and cheeses available in any amount and any cut. Even packaged foods have far fewer ingredients, fewer fillers and artificial ingredients, and are less sweet. It’s easy to buy typical Mexican sauces for your chicken that have fewer than 5 ingredients. Unlike in the restaurants, large groceries typically have abundant and varied produce. We found it much easier to shop and cook for a family member with celiac disease than we do at home, oddly enough.

Last but not least – have a margarita. It’s not too sweet (assuming it’s not made with a mix), relatively low-carb for alcohol, and is a good substitute for that dessert you just can’t have. Though I’ll show you how to make a low-carb flan or custard, coming up…

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Almond milk is not created equal

A few posts ago, I extolled the virtues of almond milk in preference to soy milk. At least to my taste, almond milk had a much nicer flavor and was lighter on the tongue (not to mention the waistline). I still feel this way, but with a caveat…

The other day I visited Safeway’s extensive organic foods section to get some unsweetened almond milk. I was particularly looking for unflavored, as I already had vanilla. They were out of the brand I usually buy, so I found a different one instead. For a few days I endured a strange taste in my cereal and lattes, until I realized – it was the brand. There was nothing wrong with it, in the sense of being past its due date – it just tasted different and had a really unpleasant flavor. I tossed it rather than drink the rest.

So, what were the mystery brands? Great – Blue Diamond’s Almond Breeze. Yep, the maker of the little cans of almonds and a long-time player in the almond business. Icky – Almond Dream. Avoid it if you can.

What are your favorite almond milk or soy milk brands?

Posted in Drinks, Product Reviews | 2 Comments

Oyster casserole gratin

Now, some of you may have seen the word “oyster” in the title and run away screaming. Let me assure you that if you’re ever going to enjoy an oyster, this would be the way :) Also, this casserole is equally good with other kinds of seafood – any shellfish, such as scallops or mussels. I didn’t have any dairy products other than cheese, and I didn’t feel like eggs, so I made mine more like a casserole than a true gratin.

Oyster Casserole Gratin

3-4 slices thick-cut bacon
1 C sliced crimini mushrooms
1 shallot
salt to taste
1/4 t paprika
8 oz fresh yearling oysters, shelled
several slices or 1 C fontina or other mild cheese
1/4 asiago or parmesan

Preheat oven to 375°

Finely chop the mushrooms, bacon, and shallots and fry them together in a pan until bacon is cooked but not crisp and mushrooms have released most of their water. Add salt and paprika. Add whole oysters and cook for a few minutes until partially done. Drain.

Place oyster mixture in a small casserole dish, and top with fontina and asiago cheese. Bake for 20 minutes at 375° until cheese is melted and casserole is hot. Serves 3.

Nutrition: 30 gm protein and 10 gm carbs per serving.

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Product Review: Carbquik Pancakes

The whole idea of pancakes for breakfast has been tantalizing me since I received my Carbquik baking mix. Not that I normally eat pancakes; I’m more of a cereal gal. But it’s not eggs, and that’s the key thing. They looked easy to whip up, and indeed they were, all with ingredients I had around the house – eggs, water, cream, butter. You can find the recipe on the box, or on the Carbquik website. Their picture looks like the ones at left. Mine came out a little different (see below), but still acceptable.

The pancake batter was not as “pourable” as advertised, which is why my pancakes are not really round, even though I added extra water. This doesn’t really hurt anything, as they cook pretty much just like pancakes otherwise. Of course I probably made mine 2-3 times as big as I was supposed to ;) Still, the entire recipe has 44 gm protein and only 13 gm carbs, so you can really eat as much as you can manage and still not go over your carb limit.

When they’re done cooking, they’re nice and fluffy, just like a pancake should be. There are two main differences – they’re a little more salty, and a lot more filling. If you wanted sweeter pancakes, you could use unsalted butter and possibly add a bit of Splenda or Stevia. They’re filling because they have a deceptively large amount of fiber in them, which is what keeps the carb count low. You don’t have to eat many of these pancakes to fill up, I could only really eat one large one.

These would be great with whipped cream and raspberries, sugar-free syrup, or sugar-free jam. Because they’re rather savory to start with, I think they would also pair well with bacon or sausage, maybe even with bacon mixed into the batter. I put a few in the fridge for later, and they do get a lot denser as they cool. I’ll admit that I spread one with almond butter, and it was delicious :)

Overall, another winner for Carbquick.

Posted in Baking, Breakfast, Product Reviews | 1 Comment