Sunday, July 4, 2010

Food is not just about consumption

Eating in the post-weight loss surgery world can be a bit of a dilemma. As we look back at the pre-surgical life we led, we often see consumption being of paramount importance both to our psychological well being and our personal feelings of worth. When we entered into the new life created by our surgically-reduced ability to consume food, the importance of consumption changed. So what has changed? Certainly the ability to eat all the food you “wanted” has been eliminated. But what else has changed? How important to us personally was our ability to consume food? Did it have to be good food? Tasty food? Filling food? Comfort food? Food that was healthy? Or just a lot of food?

Why we got to the place where we had to have weight-reduction surgery is individual to each of us. I got there after thirty years of being heavy, having insulin dependent diabetes, high blood pressure and looking at my wedding picture from March 2008 and comparing it to my wedding picture from July 1966.

I was not healthy, and I felt that my life was being significantly shortened by my obesity. I had tried diets and done a bit of yo-yoing up and down but my job and career did not lend itself to an active physical regimen. The basic laws of thermo-dynamics were conspiring to make me heavier. So I had the surgery. Those first few weeks frankly were pretty easy though the high protein drinks I had were not that appealing. I didn’t feel the urge to eat anything and I started to drop weight quickly. Pants got looser and looser. Shirts got larger. Towels would fit around me easily.

In the fourth week I began to eat semi-solid foods. A scrambled egg was delicious on that first semi-solid Saturday. After a few weeks of yogurt I was ready to chew something. I wanted to taste things but I felt no overwhelming need to over-eat. The flavor and texture of that first scrambled egg with a bit of salt and pepper is stuck indelibly in my mind. It was delicious. So for the next couple of weeks I stuck to a semi-soft diet and started to add new (and old) flavors, textures and foods into my diet. It was not about how much I could consume. My surgery limited that for me. It was about what I ate and how it tasted. What were the things about the dish or food that gave it the character I wanted? 

I was responsible for eating substantive amounts of proteins as part of my weight-loss regimen, and making sometimes bland protein-rich dishes required me to look at aggressive spicing and condiments to accentuate the flavor. I started considering what small things I could add to a dish that would change its flavor, complexity, and composition. A braised pork dish was accentuated by raisins, and some apple cider vinegar. A poached chicken dish was enhanced by the use of chipotle bouillon cubes in the poaching liquid. I added capers and some anchovy fillets to my pureed tuna fish for a tasty sandwich. I didn’t even need to use mayonnaise and used a bit of olive oil instead.

The physical restriction placed on me by the surgery meant that I would never be able to over-consume again. I guess you could live on cheesecake and wash it down with chocolate milkshakes, but that is a bit counter-intuitive. I was really limited to Eight Bites. So I went for small enhancements to the dish rather than large volumes. These small enhancements led to exciting new dishes that in many cases I have turned into antipasti as part of my new career as a chef. I found that I didn’t have to create large amounts of food, just small bites with extraordinary flavors and surprise taste elements.

One example is a pureed cannellini bean spread on a piece of bruschetta or a crostini. This is a standard topping for Italian crostini antipasti and is relatively bland. The basic puree is made by draining and rinsing a can of cannellini beans and put those in a sauce pan with about a half can of chicken stock and three garlic cloves. Add some salt and pepper and let the beans cook at medium low heat for about 20 minutes until the stock is virtually gone. Pour the beans into a food processor and puree. Put in a bowl and into the refrigerator to cool. Saute a medium chopped onion in a small saute pan in a bit of olive oil or butter, add some salt and pepper. Saute until translucent and then add some sugar (teaspoon or so) and a tablespoon of vinegar. Finish caramelizing the onions and set aside in a bowl. Taste it to see if the flavor profile is sufficiently sweet and sour and adjust as necessary. To make the crostini you could spread the bean puree on the crisp bread and top with the caramelized onions. Cut them into serving size pieces and place on a pretty plate. Or change it a bit and give it a surprise taste element. Spread the bread with a thin layer of fig jam or an apple chutney, then top with the bean puree and onions. When your friends bite into this little antipasto they get the crunch of the crisp bread, the smooth textural quality of the beans, and the sweet and sour contribution of the onions. Then they will get a hint of a sweet undertone and you will get questioned as to what you put on this.

It is truly about taste and not just about consumption. Enjoy your weight loss, and enjoy all those extraordinary tastes you can now have as well as create.