Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Master Cleanser

Although this is a food blog, the holidays often leave us with such a food hangover that we resolve to lose weight and detox in the new year. With food comes diet and health, and here's one for the books! I decided to try an extreme version of a detox diet called "The Master Cleanser" by Stanley Burroughs. It's also known as "The Maple Syrup Diet" or "The Lemonade Diet." It's been around for over 60 years, and many people swear by it. In fact, Beyonce followed this for 14 days and lost 20 pounds for her role in Dreamgirls. Although weight loss is a nice perk, my primary goal was to clean out my body and give my digestive system a little rest. There's a ton of literature online about this cleanse, although my go-to resource was simply The prescribed amount of time for a beginner to follow is 10 days. I decided to be less ambitious and start at 5 days. I did this while I was still on winter break, and quite frankly, I'm not sure how people manage to have a normal life at all while doing this detox. There are claims that it boosts your energy levels and you can go about your life per usual, but that was not my personal experience.

To make this concoction, you combine purified water with 12 tablespoons fresh-queezed organic lemon juice (I cheated and used regular lemons... organic ones were $3 more per 2lbs!), 12 tablespoons organic grade B maple syrup (this comprises most of your day's caloric intake and nutrients), and as much cayenne pepper as you can bear (but at least half a teaspoon). That's about a bag of lemons and more than half a bottle of maple syrup per day. The mixture doesn't taste great, but it's not too bad, like spicy lemonade. I made two nalgene bottles full and carried them around with me everywhere, taking swigs whenever I felt hungry. The liquid diet part isn't all that bad, I felt hungry but it was bearable. It's the other part of this cleanse that makes it so miserable. Each night, you are supposed to do a "saltwater flush" which entails mixing a tablespoon of sea salt (not table salt) with a liter of water and chugging it. The first day, I did it with cold water, and I suffered indescribable chills after wards. I was so cold that my fingers were all numb, and even two coats and a down comforter couldn't warm me up. By the time my body finally felt warm again, the saltwater was starting its job. The purpose is to flush out your intestines and colon, and since you're not eating anything solid, this is essential for your digestive system to keep moving. The flush is unpleasant to say the least. After about an hour of drinking it, I was in the bathroom for the next hour. Each time I thought I was finished, my tummy would gurgle and it would start again. It wasn't painful, just the novel discomfort of essentially peeing from somewhere else. It's actually quite exhausting.

Day 1 went by without any major complications. I cheated and ate a few crackers late night (when I am most prone to snacking) but more for the flavor and texture of food, than because I felt so hungry as to need to eat. Day 2 was a different story. I had gotten tired of the spicy lemonade taste, and the act of squeezing 2lbs of lemons each morning and mixing your concoction takes about 30 minutes. I went through the day ok, but by the time I came home from work, I was exhausted. I had a pounding headache, felt extremely fatigued, and was just plain cranky. I yelled at Justin for having the audacity to eat anything within sight or smell range of me. I yelled at the dogs for smelling like dog food. I even wanted to yell at my fishtank. The combination of crankiness and fatigue made me dread the flush even more. But it had to be done. After it was over, I felt woozy and light-headed. I thought I might pass out. I finally caved and had a bowl of butternut squash soup. It made a world of difference, I felt SO much better. I awoke the next day with memories of my crankiness, fatigue and close knowledge of our bathroom, and decided that it just wasn't worth it! I quit after 2 days.

I think this detox cleanse would be easier for someone who doesn't love food as much as I do. Not eating takes such a joy away from your daily life. But that alone is bearable if it wasn't for the daily flush, that takes at least 2 hours each day where you cannot be far from the toilet (and I doubt you'd want to be near a public toilet). The upside is that I lost 4 pounds in those two days, and have managed to keep it off since with exercise and healthy eating. I wonder if a lot of the benefits people report are from placebo effect. Of course there aren't any empirical evidence to support this cleanse, and plenty of nutritionists recommend against it. From my own experience, I will second Beyonce when she says: "Unless you have to lose weight quickly for a movie, I wouldn't recommend this. There are other ways to lose weight."

Somnio's Cafe

Ok Austin. Up to this point it's been a cute little journey for us as newcomers to the city, recapping restaurants popular Austin restaurants from the eyes of an Austin newbie. Here's our attempt to cover a restaurant that (hopefully) isn't completely obvious, in the hopes that it will give something new to try for long-time Austinites.

Somnio's Cafe was recommended to us by my co-worker Susan. It follows one of the bigger trends in dining these days -- everything local, organic, and vegetarian-friendly -- and it follows it very well.

The restaurant is fairly easy to miss, located on South First, and I'll admit the atmosphere inside could use a little more work. It's not an expensive restaurant but the food is good enough to warrant dressing the place up a bit, or at least just adding a bit of personality. The decor is very friendly but a little on the bland side (although I did dig the chandeliers, pictured above). To me it just seems like they didn't put a lot of thought or effort into it, and when I see places like that I get worried they don't put a lot of thought into their food either.

Luckily this was not the case at all. All the ingredients, as I stated, are local and organic. The menu is somewhat Asian-influenced and the value is incredible. We started out with the Pan-Fried Shitake Dumplings ($7), and, trust me, coming from someone who is fairly picky about dumplings (especially if the restaurant is not actually Asian), these were pretty darn good.

As my entree side salad, I got the Sissy's salad, which contains apples, jalapenos, goat cheese (or avocados in the summer), cilantro, pecans, and a garlic vinaigrette. Very unique and very delicious. For my main course, I had the Crazy Crispy (Pork) Medallions ($11), which were breaded tastily with panko and served with buckwheat noodles.

Han got one of their main specialties, the "Make Your Own Rice Bowl" ($7). Yeah, it's pretty much your typical build-your-own deal: you choose a protein, some veggies, and a sauce/seasoning. Han built a chicken curry plate that was both delicious and huge (see her hand for scale), and after the above comment about "worrying about the effort" you have to smile a bit at the detail in the presentation.

For drinks, Somnio's is currently BYO with no corkage fee (ch-ching!) and we did have a carafe of their organic coffee made in a french press that was quite excellent and sent us off happy.

[On a side note: we usually opt not to have dessert as we did at Somnio's that night, but we've been pondering whether it's fair to review a restaurant without tasting such an important feature as the dessert. What are your thoughts everyone? At the very least, we've decided we will re-visit the idea after the wedding. :-)]

Somnio's Cafe
1807 South First Street

KAT Announcements: First off, we're hoping to add another contributor in the near future. Keep on the lookout for her first post.

Second of all, I'm preparing to "research" the best cup of coffee in Austin. If you've got any suggestions, please post them below.

Til next time folks!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mama Ren's famous blue crabs

As a child, this was one of my favorite dishes. I am a huge fan of all things aquatic, I enjoy keeping them, eating them, and collecting replicas of them. I especially love crustaceans, but more to eat than to keep as pets. My mom makes me this simple dish when I go home in the winter, during the prime blue crab season. Chinese people eat blue crab in the winter because that's when the female crabs have the most uh... reproductive goodies. We call it "wang." It's the yellow and orange rich and flavorful pieces found inside the shell, and nestled between the two body sections. Delicious!

Justin and I returned from a visit to Michigan, where sadly we did not eat blue crab. My mother had a hard time finding a fresh catch during our brief visit. Luckily for us, our trip to the Chinese Supermarket (on N. Lamar) yielded some live blue crabs! We have also found them live at Fiesta. There are several tricks to finding good crabs. First, make sure you pick the female ones, the male ones don't have the same "wang," and personally, I don't find their "wang" as good. Crabs are sexed by their flap on the bottom of their body. This is what a female crab looks like.

You also want to make sure that your crab is alive and kicking. Dead crabs lose the springy texture in their meat, and taste pasty and can also smell bad. Make sure that all your crabs are alive when they hit the pot. My mom also says to look for the crabs that are the dirtiest, I guess that means they have been around long enough to reach maturity, and are more likely to have "wang." In addition, make sure that each crab feels nice and heavy, which suggests dense succulent meat. Pick up a few crabs for comparison purposes.

After you bring your crabs home (I suggest 3 crabs per person), keep them in the refrigerator until about an hour before cooking, at which point, you can transfer them to the sink with a few inches of cold water. Soak them for about half an hour. Next, use a small brush and brush them under running water, make sure you get their undersides, that's where they are usually most dirty. Watch out for those pinchers!

While you are cleaning your crabs, boil an inch of water in a large but shallow pot with a few slices of fresh ginger. Once your water boils, you can transfer your crabs into the pot. Cover and turn the heat down to medium. Cook for 10-15 minutes. They should be nice and red when they are fully cooked.

Eating them is the tricky part! First you rip off the flap that covers their belly (the one that tells you they're female), then you carefully separate the shell from the rest of the body. If you are lucky, your crab will be bursting with delicious "wang" and should look like mine. But don't worry if your crab doesn't have "wang," it will still be delicious!

My family's traditional accompaniment is to dip the crab in a ginger vinegar sauce. You simmer about 1/3 cup balsamic (or chinese) vinegar with 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sugar and diced ginger (about the size of a quarter). Be careful to not let your mixture boil, you just want to melt the sugar. I like to pour the sauce into the shell of my crab and use that as a built-in dipping bowl. Just snap the body of your crab in half, remove the legs, and use a toothpick to extract the meat. Enjoy!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Five EASY New Years Eating Resolutions

Now, never in a million years did I ever intend for this to become a diet blog, but good eating is always key. So in the spirit of New Year's, instead of the usual crash diet and "I swear I will go to the gym 4 times a week" resolutions, here are some very easy changes you can make that can actually make a big difference, whether you're trying to lose weight, live healthier, or even save some money.

1. Share the wealth
Do you have a spouse/SO/friend/dog? Take them with you to lunch. Whatever diet is hip at the time will tell you "Oh carbs are bad" or "No fats are bad" but really the fact of the matter is that what you eat is not nearly as important as how much you eat. Anywhere you go out to eat, the portion size will likely be bigger than you need it to be, so go ahead and split it. Whether it's a burrito or a steak dinner, sharing your meal with a friend (or at least just taking half home) can make any meal more reasonable.

2. Ditch the fries
You might think of fries as just a side dish, but in most cases a side of fries can have as many calories as the main dish, sometimes even more. Luckily, most places today, even fast food restaurants, are letting you switch out your fries for healthier options. At McDonalds, a Big Mac (no cheese) with a side salad and unsweetened iced tea or diet Coke is less than 600 calories.

3. Use smaller plates
Han read an article about the 9-inch diet in People (couldn't find the direct link, sorry), and although the exact details of the diet are a bit controversial, the idea behind it is pretty solid. The author of the diet, Alex Bogusky, got the idea when he moved into his new house, which was built in the 1940s. He found that none of his plates fit in the cabinets. After doing some research, he found that the plates that everyday Americans use have actually grown from 8.5 inches in diameter to 12. Needless to say, this corresponds almost identically to the rise in obesity rates. As a child we are always taught that we should finish everything on our plates because there are starving children in [insert Third World Country of your mother's choosing]. And I don't know about you guys, but a lot of times I end up eating things even if I'm full "just because it's there." The 9-inch diet basically states that you can eat whatever you want, but just make sure that it all fits on a 9-inch plate. I think even if you don't follow that exactly, even just getting in the mindset of preparing/ordering slightly less than what you think you want to eat can go a very long way. (See #1)

4. Eat at least one vegetable or fruit at each meal
Most of us do not eat three servings of fruit or vegetables a day, let alone the five that the USDA recommends. Remembering specifically to eat a banana or a side salad with every meal serves two purposes. One is that it will get you more of the vitamins and minerals that your body needs. Two, it will take up space in your stomach and take the place of other higher calorie side dishes.

5. Treat red meat like a luxury, not a necessity
I went over this briefly in my Austin Land and Cattle review. Back in the day, meat was usually only eaten during a celebration, usually by the wealthy. You always hear bible-era stories about "slaughtering a cow" whenever something awesome happened and they had to throw a party. Over time, modern farming techniques (which I won't even get started on) has made beef and other red meats much more affordable, and nowadays people are used to eating beef two or three times a day. But the fact of the matter is beef and pork have almost twice as many calories and saturated fat as chicken or fish for the same serving size. Not to mention the environmental impact each industry has. When it comes down to it, just because we can afford to eat something every day doesn't mean we should. We could all afford to eat a hot fudge sundae three times a day but we know not to do that. Of course, vegetarianism isn't for everybody (there's no way I could do it for very long), but if you want to save your gut and the planet some grief, do it like they did in the Bible days: wait until a special occasion to slaughter that cow.

Happy eating in 2009 everybody!