Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Experiencing pop culture in a time of grief

When someone you love dies, blogging about pop culture, news, travel, and food drops off the priority list.

Doesn’t mean that these trivialities drop our of your life, though. Just that your relationship to them changes, at least for a time.

Music

You know, if you break my heart I’ll go
But I’ll be back again
‘Cause I told you once before good-bye
And I came back again

Music is an emotional mindfield, isn’t it? I don’t think The Beatles “I’ll Be Back” would make anyone’s list of saddest songs ever, but on a day of bad news, I couldn’t handle it. I frantically searched through my playlists for safer havens. I finally settled on “High Energy”, a gathering of uptempo rock and dance numbers, generally with pleasingly dumb lyrics. I stayed locked on that for about a week and a half, ‘til it finally seemed just too incongruous. (Then I switched to Classical.)

Adam Lambert’s excellent album Trespassing was just the sort of uptempo music I needed for a time

Food

I was interested to discover that I still got hungry, still wanted to cook, was still able to eat. Because certain forms of stress and worry make that difficult for me. But not this one, this situation with a known but sad outcome. While  I didn’t eat more, or drink more—I didn’t find comfort in that—I still enjoyed the routine of preparing and eating meals.

I certainly became a distracted cook, though. Leaving the milk out on the counter, putting the vinegar in the wrong pantry, forgetting to start the timer. Like the energy of pushing the sadness away enough to follow a recipe was not leaving enough mental space to remember anything that wasn’t written down.

Things are now improving on that front.

Movies and TV

While actually going out to a movie seemed like too much effort, watching stuff on TV was an appealing distraction. Since I don’t watch much medical stuff anyway, there wasn’t much I felt I had to avoid. Howard’s mother died on Big Bang Theory (as the actress had in real life), but it was handled with a light touch and didn’t set me off. In picking HBO movies, I decided to skip Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow for now, given its premise of the lead character dying over and over. I instead watched and quite appreciated the comedic In a World, one of the more overtly feminist movies I’ve seen in a long time. Recommended.

In a World trailer

News

The human interest stories—little boys lost in the snow, Oliver Sack’s terminal cancer diagnosis—were best avoided for a while, but I still found the theatre of politics a surprisingly useful distraction. Especially in Twitter form (about the length of my attention span, at times). I couldn’t truly dig up my own personal outrage at some of what was going on, but I could still appreciate and retweet other people’s. #StopC51 and all that.

Books

Cover of Being MortalSo just a few days before all this my book club had selected Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal as our next book. It’s about getting older and end of life care, and how the medical profession has been dealing with it, and how it should.

Of course, there were days I wasn’t up to reading much of anything at all, but when I did feel up to it, I did read this, I seriously doubt I would have selected this particular book if left to my own druthers, but I feel it was in some ways helpful. It’s an excellent book, anyway, and much of it was more abstract and factual, which appealed to my logical side. Stories did become more personal and touching later in the book, but that was later in this whole saga for me too and—I don’t think it made anything worse. It certainly presented a number of scenarios I’m so glad my loved one never went through.


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Pre – Christmas dinner

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“Our” Christmas dinner à deux featured duck, which is becoming typical. Less typically, I wasn’t too lazy to make a jus for it from the drippings, featuring rhubarb and ginger. That give a nice zip to the rich, juicy meat.

The mashed red potatoes were seasoned with sour cream, butter, chicken broth, and wasabi paste. They were also a little zippy — and quite delicious.

I’m generally not a fan of stuffing, which usually seems too salty and greasy to me. But this version (cooked on the side, not in the bird) had base of quinoa, lentil, wild rice, and cranberry, to which I added some olive oil, and crisped whole-grain bread. It was very tasty, without all the salt and grease.

Not pictured but also cooked and eaten were maple-glazed butternut squash. And dessert was a custard pie (tarte au oeuf), whose lovely filling made up for the center crust being moderately underdone. The crust at the edge was lovely flaky.

Wishing everyone happy Christmas dining.


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Avocado for dessert

Wish I’d thought of it, but thought I could at least share it…

This dessert was quick, easy, and (for a dessert) pretty healthy…

  1. Alternate slices of pear and avocado on a plate (about ½ each per person).
  2. If you have them, add some sliced strawberry on the edges. (We can still get local strawberries.)
    I think blueberries sprinkled on would be nice as an alternative.
  3. Sprinkle each plate with about 1 Tbsp of blue cheese.
  4. Pour a little port over each plate.
  5. Grind on a bit of black pepper.
Avocado pear strawberry dessert

I didn’t stack the avocado and pear like this, but gives you the idea…

Sounds weird, but it was really quite delicious all together.

(Though keep in mind that I like all of those ingredients on their own as well. If you don’t… Your mileage on the taste front could vary.)


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Easter is all about… fine dining?

That’s not right, is it? The foods of Easter are homey ham and scalloped potatoes and cheap chocolate. Good Friday is fish. Restaurants are not full to bursting for Easter; in fact, some close for the holiday.

So I’m not sure how we came to mark the start of Easter weekend by going out to not one but two of the area’s finest restaurants. It was as spur of the moment as can be for places that require reservations.

First up, Thursday night before the long weekend, was Verses. We just… Hadn’t been there in a while. We’d hoped to have one final crack at their fine fall / winter menu, but we were just too late for that. Upside was: First crack at their fine spring / summer menu.

The place was fairly quiet this Thursday night, and being there just felt nice. As restorative as a visit to the spa.

A celebration of food!

A lovely place to be after a busy work week

We were hungry, and it was a bit difficult deciding what to choose on the new menu, most of which sounded delicious. Jean made it easy on himself appetizer-wise by going for his standby foie gras, this time served with “saffron, vanilla waffle, slow poached orange supremes, and Vin Cotto”.

Foie Gras, The most sinful food!

Le foie gras

And I suppose I also went for the somewhat habitual: They usually have some kind of seafood trio as an appetizer, which I usually can’t resist. This time it was scallops:

Sake Kombu cured on arame salad in toasted sesame rice wine vinaigrette
Ceviche, layered with pico de gallo and avocado croutons
Fennel wrapped pan seared on champagne vinegar dressed fennel fronds

Scallop Tasting

Why have scallops one way when you can have them three ways?

Jean favored the tart ceviche style; I thought it was hard to beat the traditional pan seared, but we both agreed the avocado croutons were just the coolest!

We had a heck of a time selecting our wine, partly because I somehow wanted white despite have selected duck as my main course. But we finally settled on a very lovely French Gewurtz. It arrived just after our appetizers, which may be a first (for this restaurant)! (And by after I mean, like, 30 seconds after.)

Lovely Gewürztraminer and Andrew

Andrew suggested this wine

It certainly suited Jean’s main course of three kinds of seafood: tempura shrimp with aioli, grilled octopus salad, and crab and lobster cannelloni with mushrooms and broccoli.

Seafood

Why have one kind of seafood when you can have four?

The octopus salad had a pleasant smoky taste and very nice texture. The cannelloni were rich and delicious. But perhaps the best were the crispy shrimp, which did not suffer the fate that large shrimp often seem to, of ending up kind of tasteless.

My main was seared duck breast served with a mole sauce. The duck was perfectly prepared, and I loved the chocolate  spiciness of the mole, served in its own mound. The dish was called Duck Duck Goose, and the goose was in the form of a quesadilla, which was crispy and rich. The sides were “dirty” rice—wild rice with black beans—and a Brussels sprout slaw.

We resolved to share a dessert, a plan that was complicated a bit when we didn’t agree on which one. Finally Jean just agreed to go with my choice, the maple mousse.

Maple Desert

Maple mousse

Of course, this wasn’t just maple mousse in a little dish. It was served in delicious dark chocolate, and accented with a fleur de sel tuile and caramel “dust” that tasted rather like the inside of those Crunchie bars. Everything was quite exquisite.

The Friday outing came about because Langdon Hall somehow put me back on their email list, though I haven’t been there in years. And the email mentioned they were doing an oyster and wine tasting on Good Friday, in Wilk’s Bar. Wilk’s Bar is the somewhat less formal, and somewhat less expensive, dining area at this luxury hotel. We didn’t have any particular plans for the holiday Friday, and most things were closed, so trying that out seemed like a nice afternoon outing.

We didn’t want to have another full three-course meal, but we figured that three oysters likely wouldn’t be enough to sustain us til dinner, either. So we each went with another appetizer. I ordered the squash soup with morels, duck confit, and foie gras. Jean ordered the terrine. We received the 2 oz servings of the white wines that were to suit the three oysters to come: a very dry Chablis, a good sparkling Reisling from Tawse winery, and a delicious oaky Chardonnay.

A flight of wine: Chablis, Oaked Chardonay, Tawse Sparkling -> Perfect for Oysters

Why have just one kind of wine when you can have three?

And then we waited. The warm bread basket served with butter made in-house topped with sea salt helped, but it still seemed a long wait for just soup and paté.

When the food did arrive, it came with apologies for the delay; clearly something had gone awry. And they were forgiven when we tasted everything. Hmm. Some of the best examples of squash soup and terrine ever.

Terrine doe Foie Gras - excellent!

Yay! The food is here!

The rest of the meal proceeded at the expected pace. The three kinds of oysters—raw, crispy, and baked—were each just amazingly delicious, and it was fun to have a matching wine for each.

Oyster Trio: Raw, Baked, Fried.  Best Oysters I've had in decades!

Oyster trio. (It’s high time I drop the “why have one” “joke”)

And we again indulged in dessert: One each this time! Jean had the so-called “ice cream sandwich” while I went with cranberry fritters and “hot chocolate”, which turned out to be warm chocolate mousse. And yes, I dipped the fritters.

Icecream Sandwich like no other!

Walnut ice cream and daquoise

The least pleasant part of these types of meals—paying the bill—wasn’t quite as bad this day. They gave us the desserts on the house to compensate for the delay in serving our appetizers.

On Saturday, we gathered with extended family. Interestingly, that was also more of gourmet Easter dinner than one might expect: baked lamb, two kinds of potatoes (neither scalloped, exactly), French green beans, asparagus and mushrooms. And fancy chocolate mousse pastries for dessert, along with fruit salad.

The food was delicious. And the company was even better.


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Chopped Canada (or what to do with that freeze-dried shrimp)

I’ve written before—though not for a while—about how I’m not a big Food Network fan, despite liking to cook, and being known to occasionally watch TV.

But I have been somewhat taken with Chopped Canada. I’d seen the American version a few times and found that somewhat interesting, so checked out the Canadian version.

The first episode was fantastic because one competing chef was clearly an unlikable ass, and he ended up going mano a mano with a woman—a cooking school teacher rather than restaurant chef—who at first had seemed hopeless out of her element. (The other two contestants were also men, but of less striking temperament.)

And, satisfyingly, the nice woman won. Deservedly. In the end, she made a better three-course meal.

Although the remaining episodes haven’t had such vibrant personalities, I’ve been continuing to find it entertainment. But I can’t kid myself that it’s any kind of useful.

Because in real life, you are never handed four random food items, some of which are barely food (strawberry drink powder, processed cheese slices, macaroni deli slices?), and told that in exactly 20 minutes (or 30 or 60—depends on the round), you have to turn it into an appealing appetizer, main, or dessert, complete with lovely plating. Just doesn’t come up.

However, in a recent episode, where the ingredients were not so much bizarre in themselves as just not seeming to belong together in one dish, two of the items that had to be used were freeze-dried shrimp and dark chocolate. One of the chefs, having made something lovely with the other two ingredients in that round, seemed at a bit of a loss what to do with these ones. So although he seemed quite dubious himself, he just melted the chocolate, and tossed the shrimp in there, and served that on the side.

Of course, the judges were a bit dubious, too. Yet to a man, and woman, they declared the freeze-dried shrimp in dark chocolate to be absolutely delicious.

So there’s my one takeaway from this show so far: Apparently, some day, I need to get me some freeze-dried shrimp and chocolate-coat them. (If anyone out there is brave enough to try this before me, do let me know how it goes…)

Shrimp ... but you wouldn't know it was the same as you make it at home - for the taste :)

Un-chocolate-coated shrimp…


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Maple syrup pie

Not sure what it is about Canadians and all our variations on sugar in pie crust: Tarte au sucre (literally, sugar pie), butter tarts, pecan pie, and now maple syrup pie.

I made this on a whim this weekend. The recipe is from Canadian Living. I already had a homemade pie crust ready, so the rest was easy. Walnuts in the bottom of the crust. Then you mix eggs, brown sugar, maple syrup, whipping cream, and flour and pour that in. Truly a dieter’s delight, a nutritionist’s dream!

Maple syrup pie with whipped cream

How about some whipped fat on that baked sugar?

Not sure if this will change at all with refrigeration, but it’s quite a bit runnier than I expected, though I used the recommended amount of flour and eggs and baked it for the specified time.

And the taste? Well, the word sweet comes to mind…


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I made kale chips

Google tells me that kale became “suddenly hip” in 2012, but by end 2013, we were “so over it”. My timeline was a bit different. I never ate kale as a child or teenager, that I recall. I believe I first encountered it when I started getting food baskets from organic farmers; maybe 15 years ago? Then I had to figure out what to do with it.

Raw kale is quite disgusting, but I found that once it cooked and lathed in butter and balsamic vinegar, with maybe some raisins and pine nuts, it’s actually pretty good. And it is this nutritional powerhouse, all vitamins and flavanoids and omega-3s.

Today, as the subject line suggests, I decided to try preparing it a new way: As kale chips.

Kale chips

Those were remarkably good! Jean and I were both surprised. They get all crispy, and a bit salty, and the baking mellows out the bitterness… (Of course, this wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Nothing is everyone’s cup of tea, not even cups of tea. But we definitely liked it.)

Plus, it’s super easy to make. You cut up the kale leaves (don’t use the stems), toss them with about 2 Tbsp of olive oil, spread them on a baking sheet, then sprinkle with sea or kosher salt. Bake at 400 F for about 14 minutes. My guide was my Gwyneth Paltrow recipe book, but there are similar recipes online.


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Early new year?

As in other recent years, plans to go out to dine on New Year’s Eve meant that we couldn’t also do our gourmet cooking thing that day. With Jean working, alternate dates to do that were either this weekend, or the first weekend of January.

While I won’t get into details here, this Christmas required on-the-fly revamping of plans due to unexpected medical issues. Somehow, this persuaded me not to wait. So though we’d only been back from vacation about a day and a half, we did our gourmet dinner yesterday.

Instead of the usual appetizer / main dish / dessert, I decided to try a “small plate” or tapas approach to the meal. We made four appetizers, and two small-serving desserts. And in keeping with that—and also because Jean was on call (fortunately, that did not disrupt things)—we just did tasting portions of wine: one white, one red, one port.

Four appetizers and two wines

Here are the four assembled appetizers and two wines

Unlike the Christmas dinner, most of these were from recipe books (as opposed to online)—three of them from a cookbook published by the Cancer Research Society:

  1. Carpaccio of red tuna with citrus and avocado quenelle: The first item I selected, because I’ve been wanting to try it for ages. Fairly easy, really. You make a vinaigrette of citrus juice, olive oil, and ginger. You mash avocado with lime juice and sesame oil, then add some tabasco. Then you get sushi-grade tuna, slice it thinly, and serve it with the vinaigrette, avocado, orange pieces, and sesame seeds. (Salt and pepper are involved throughout, as well.)
  2. Spring rolls: A bit more involved, but still not too bad. You fry up some red pepper. Then you mix green onion, fresh mint, fresh coriander, watercress (my bean sprout substitute) with sesame oil and salt and pepper. Then you roll the pepper, some enoki mushrooms, and the mixture in hot-water softened rice paper. Jean did all the rolling.
  3. Edamame with Guérande salt: Easiest recipe ever. Boil frozen edamame 10 minutes, drain, and season with sea salt.

I had some boneless lamb loin on hand, and got the idea to try lamb skewers. That recipe I did find online, at Epicurious: Skewered lamb with almond-mint pesto. The pesto involved mixing almonds, Parmesan cheese, garlic, olive, fresh mint, and fresh basil in a food processor. The lamb was cut thin, threaded onto a skewer, brushed with olive oil and salt and pepper, then broiled two minutes per side.

So nothing was that hard, and we were fortunately able to find everything we didn’t already have on hand at our nearby Sobey’s that morning. Of course, things inevitably get a little crazy when you’re trying to finish up four recipes more or less at the same time, but we managed.

And we’re having a good year, because everything was really good. They’d all be “make again”’s (albeit probably not all again on the same day).

The wines were a Cave Spring 2011 Estate Riesling, easily available at your LCBO, and crazy good, really. The hit of the evening. The red was a 2004 (!) Argentina Cabernet Sauvignon. It was very good and smooth, but not as big and showy as we were expecting.

Blueberry pavlova, chocolate, and port

And for dessert…

Desserts were the type you could make ahead, so I did.

The blueberry pavlova was a Gwyneth Paltrow recipe, from her My father’s daughter cookbook. The meringue is made the usual way: Egg whites, sugar, salt, vinegar, beating to stiff peaks, then baking a low temperature for an hour and drying out for another hour. Those are formed into a circle with an indent. In the indent goes some whipped cream with sugar and bluberries, then served with more blueberries on top.

Though it’s certainly not blueberry season, the organic Chilean ones I bought were very good in this rather lovely, light dessert.

The other item was from LCBO Food and Drink Holiday 2009, but it’s not available on their website. For this Festive Bark, you melt 70% chocolate in a bowl over boiling water, then stir in some cashews, candied ginger, apricots, dried cherries, and anise flavor. You spread that out, then you sprinkle sea salt on top, and let it chill.

It’s really hard to go wrong with those ingredients. That was delicious. And went nicely with Fonseca port.


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A very cranberry Christmas

Jean and I have developed a tradition of celebrating with our Christmas morning and dinner the weekend before the stuff with the extended family begins. This year, that pushed it quite early, to this weekend. Even though some of the mail order gifts hadn’t quite made it to our house, yet.

Our Christmas dinner was particularly good this year, for whatever reason. It was a whole set of new recipes (on familiar themes, mind you), and they all turned out really well. Most are available online, and the time I spent organizing recipes in Evernote this year (geek alert!) paid off, as I accessed most of them on my tablet. Bit awkward switching between them, sometimes, but then again, it’s also a bit awkward switching between physical cookbooks.

In the morning I made the cranberry sauce and the pie. The pie was from Fine Cooking Magazine, and it was the very Christmas-sy Ginger-Spice Cranberry-Apple Streusel Pie.

Cranberry-apple pie

My version of the Fine Cooking pie

I followed this recipe pretty much as written, except that I made my usual vodka-based pie crust instead of using their recipe, and I didn’t use quite all the streusel topping. I didn’t find my crust over-browning as the recipe warned it might.

And though I’m jumping to the end of the meal, the pie was really good. It is a nice blend of tart and sweet, and the candied ginger adds a very interesting zing.

The cranberry sauce recipe, courtesy of Cooking Light Magazine, was very basic, essentially just substituting apple cider or juice for the usual water. I went with apple juice, since that’s what I had.

As a not-unusual choice for us, I choose duck as our Christmas meal bird. I had to start that mid-afternoon, following an LCBO recipe created by Jamie Oliver: Slow-roasted duck with sage, ginger, and rhubard sauce. Here I did a few substitutions: I couldn’t find any rhubarb this time of year, so went with cranberry. I added dried sage (from my garden, mind you) instead of fresh. And I used less onion, and white instead of red.

I also couldn’t be bothered with quite as much messing around with the gravy at the end as suggested in this recipe. (Gravy, like jam, is one of those things I don’t have great skills with.) We did create a gravy with the stuffing, defatted drippings, red wine (didn’t have Masala), and chicken broth, but we didn’t do that fried ginger thing. It still made for a nice topping on the meat, and the slow-roasted duck tasted amazing.

For sides, I settled on mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts. In the mashed potato recipe I followed this time, all cooking was done in the microwave, which was a first. You nuke the potatoes, then you nuke the milk and butter in a bowl, then you add the potatoes to that and mash them, then stir in buttermilk, Parmesan, salt, and pepper. This is buttermilk-Parmesan mashed potatoes from Cooking Light magazine. They tasted really good, and that method made fewer dishes.

Roasted Brussels sprouts with walnuts and dates were courtesy Sobey’s. I was low on walnuts after the pie, so I also used some pecans and pine nuts to make up the amount. I also left out the green onions, and used dried thyme instead of fresh and lemon juice instead of zest. No matter, as they were still quite delicious. Roasting gives Brussels sprouts quite nice flavor and texture.

Put together, the plate looked like this:

Christmas dinner plate

For wine, we opened up a 2008 Chateauneuf du pape, which proved highly drinkable. With dessert we had a bit of late harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Prince Edward County, which suited pretty well.

Bottles of French wine

Three French wines, but we drank only one bottle (actually, only part of one bottle) this day


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I hate lunch

I have a lunch problem.

Most food-related things, I am rather fond of. Cooking, restaurants, wine matching, food writing, even grocery shopping.

But lunch. Lunch is the most chore-like of meals. Lunch is eaten not for the joy of it, but merely to fill that biological urge. Lunch lacks fun.

At least, my lunches do. Usually.

Breakfast has the issue that occurs in the morning—not my favorite time of day. But it’s pretty much the highlight of the morning. It inevitably includes coffee, that most wondrous of beverages, both drug and hydration and fine flavor and aroma. And while it’s fairly routine in its contents compared with supper, it’s a nice little roster I work my way through:

  • Berry banana smoothie with side of toast and almond butter

  • Bob’s muesli, warm, cooked in skim milk, served with banana and berries and brown sugar

  • Egg, poached or scrambled, served with whole-grain bagel and Spanish olive oil, with tomato or oranges

  • Granola with yogurt and banana

And on weekends, I sometimes get crepes with fruit and maple, cooked for me.

So, breakfast is a good thing.

And supper… Well, supper is variety and relaxing with a glass of wine and discussing the day and catching up on news. This, after preparing it while singing and dancing around the room to whatever tunes the iPod is serving up that day. Supper is a good thing, also.

By comparison, lunch is a drag.

It features no great beverage

Breakfast gets coffee; supper gets wine. Lunch? Water. Maybe with bubbles, if I’m lucky.

It’s an annoying interruption in the day

But isn’t a nice to have a break in the middle of the day? Sure, it’s OK, but wouldn’t it be nicer to leave just leave work a half hour or hour earlier? Which I could do if I didn’t have to stop for lunch partway through. (I just am not one of those people who can survive from breakfast all the way til dinner. No way, no how.)

Even on vacation… Lunches are generally more pleasant, but still. You’re trying to do stuff during the day. Visit sites and museums and go on hikes and take tours. And always, you have to worry: Where will I be when breakfast wears off. Your activities are limited by proximity to lunch, and the need to spend time on that in the middle of the day.

I suck at menu planning for it

Lunch foodsI realize this is my totally own fault, but there it is. I’ve got breakfast down. And I plan my suppers a week at a time, bolstered by recipes indexes,  and thereby achieve a weekly menu with variety and (I think) balanced nutrition and great taste.

But lunch… Often it’s just a rerun, either a supper leftover or a heartier reprise of breakfast (an omelet? Just scrambled eggs with an extra egg and maybe some cheese and veggies). But after so many years of cooking for two, we don’t always have supper leftovers, and if at the office, I can’t really be blending up smoothies and frying up eggs (given there’s no blender and no stove top there).

Your “proper” lunch foods are what: soups, sandwiches, salads? I love soup, and for a time attempted to  make soups on the weekends to serve as a series of lunches, but I don’t always like devoting time to that. (Interrupts the middle of my day—again!) Sandwiches I’m a bit sick of after getting nothing but that during my schools years (probably where my disdain for lunch began), plus I just don’t like luncheon meat. And salads are as much work as soup, but not as satisfying to eat.

It wrecks my good dietary intentions

Because I’m so bad I’m menu planning for lunch, I end up having to rely on convenience food, like frozen dinners. Apart from being kind of dull, and fairly expensive for what you get, it’s really difficult to get one sufficiently low in sodium, that uses whole-grains and includes vegetables… And forget about organic or “humane-treated” meat. I try to get the best of the lot (Lean Cuisine steamers, and Amy’s organics), but it still sure ain’t homemade.

And so, I kind of hate lunch. And yet, I just can’t get through my day without it. I’m the midst of making a bit of an effort again, buying things like smoked salmon and bean salad and organic soups that are convenient yet nutritional. And I’m bolstering those with Greek yogurt and trail mix.

It’s never going to be my favorite meal, but perhaps I can make peace with it. We’ll see.