Country Breakfast Benefit for p:ear

This morning Wifey and I went to the World Forestry Center in southwest Portland for a benefit for p:ear, an organization focusing on mentoring transitional and homeless youth (basically they teach job skills to those who need the education and turn them into contributing members of society while helping them stand on their own two feet).

That's a great cause, but the real honest reason we bought tickets was for the food. Sponsored by Portland Monthly magazine, the Country Breakfast brought together four top chefs to produce dishes in that theme. (There were also five bartenders doing a bloody mary challenge which we did not buy tickets for because neither of us can stand them.)

There was also a country band, plenty of picnic tables and tables to stand at, sponsorship from Google Places, coffee from Three Sisters Coffee (check them out in Sisters, OR - good stuff), and yogurt from Sunshine Dairy.

For those wondering, yes, this is an odd way to spend a Sunday morning considering my previous post, but in my defense the tickets were bought before the epiphany. If I hadn't already bought them we probably wouldn't have gone, because for damn sure this was not healthy and not on my diet. I consumed way too many calories, but if we take Misaki for a long walk this afternoon maybe I will be allowed to eat dinner. Maybe.

Our first stop was to check out Chef Chris Carriker of The Gilt Club, a restaurant we haven't been to yet.

Sounds nice, doesn't it? Check out the spread:

Here's the catch: you only get to choose one of those four things. Lame. I chose the cherry strudel (stuffed with cherries as well as cherry sauce on top) with a small scoop of creamy foie gras on top.

The pastry was very well done and the cherry sauce was excellent. Wifey thought it was a tad sweet because she prefers savory flavors for breakfast, but I thought it worked. But the foie? It literally tasted like nothing but butter and didn't fit the rest of the dish. It was just there to be foie, not to add anything.

Wifey chose morcilla sausage benedict.

Did you know that's a Latin American version of blood sausage? We had no idea until we Googled it later and neither of us had ever had blood sausage. Guess what? It was damn tasty (tastes nothing like blood). The egg was the consistency of jelly and unfortunately none of the rest of the dish stood up to the sausage.

Both plates were good eating, but it almost seemed like there was too much going on and perhaps too many dishes. Or maybe we watch way too much Top Chef...

Next up was Chef Jenn Louis of Lincoln and Sunshine Tavern.

Here was the biscuit and gravy.

Louis' biscuit and gravy is fantastic, but it looks a little sad on the plate, doesn't it? We loved the flavors, but there just wasn't anything special here. Perhaps we think that because we've eaten twice at Sunshine Tavern (and will recommend it to anyone who asks). Or, maybe we watch too much Top Chef.

Next up was Chef Cathy Whims of Nostrana and Oven & Shaker (two of our favorites, long-time blog readers will recognize).

This dish had a ton of potential and looked very pretty.

Under the polenta is the egg and a layer of parmagiano, but surprisingly the overall dish was just a tad bland, as if the flavors fought rather than complementing each other. Neither of us would order this dish were it on the menu though. (It's worth noting neither Nostrana or O&S have a breakfast or brunch menu.)

Last up was Chef Gregory Gourdet of Departure. Gourdet was recently named Portland's hottest chef (not in a rising star kind of way, though he is, but actually hot). I think the fact that exists is kind of odd and even odder is the fact I know about it. Whatever. (By the way, the pic in that link is on the patio of Departure, which has one of the best happy hour views in the city.)

That sounds pretty tasty, doesn't it?

It was - very. The biscuit was excellent, the chicken fried up just right while not being greasy, and the kimchee mayo and slaw were excellent. Loved this. The smoothie was pretty tasty as well and matched it nicely. It is apparently time for us to go to Departure for dinner.

At the end of the meal we were both pretty full (okay, I was stuffed). And yes, my completely ballpark estimate on calories is "a shitload," but it was a good time. Our vote that is completely meaningless for the best dish goes to Gourdet.

What did we learn?

1 - We need to go to Departure.

2 - p:ear is a good program.

3 - We watch too much Top Chef. (shrug)


Time to Quit Screwing Around

There are times when you know something to be true, but heaviness of that truth doesn't really make an impact until someone points it out to you in plain language. Then you stop and think about it and wonder how the hell you've let it get to this point.

For me, I knew I was overweight, but it wasn't a priority to deal with it. Later, always later. Two jobs, working on a book, and all that goes with that, it just didn't seem like the most important thing. Just recently a few different things happened that changed my mind.

I suppose I first have to give some credit to my day job. This year as part of our health insurance we were given an incentive of $480 savings on our 2013 insurance contributions if we took a Personal Health Survey and took a biometric screening test (cholesterol, triglycerides, all that). I did the survey, which was kind of silly because you get the incentive just for taking it, regardless of the results and with no need to create some kind of plan that is tracked based on those results; basically it's free money. 

Then I went in for the blood draw for the biometric test. This just happened to be the day after I clocked 207.4 on the scale, which for someone a dash over 5-8 is, well, too much. Again, I knew this, but it didn't seem to really register (I guess). I've been higher over the past 10 years or so, but been able to get it down to the 200 or so mark (still - too high) with focus on exercise and diet for relative short periods. Of course, at the screening facility they don't weigh you naked and I was actually recorded at 212. I guess it was a good thing I was wearing just running shoes and not my hiking boots, since this is the number they used to calculate my BMI (thanks for that inaccurate number, by the way). 

Next up came checking the blood pressure. Over the past few years it's been checked at various times and it's always been a tad high. It was one of those things that wasn't quite a worrying number, just at the point where I could tell myself, "Hey, this will come down when I lose a few pounds." And then it was forgotten.

When I came home that day, my wife asked me what my numbers were. Um, 159 over 89. "Holy shit!" she said. And that's when it hit me. I knew the numbers were bad, knew I should do something about it, but until I heard the intensity of her concern at the number, it wasn't real enough. Regardless of the outcome of the biometric testing I needed to start making changes. (The biometric results came back with slightly high normal bad cholesterol, very low good cholesterol, and slightly high triglycerides. Nothing horrible, but not great either.)

The first change I made had to do with sleep. I routinely would stay up until midnight during the week, sometimes later, despite the fact the alarm goes off at 5:30 am. We pledged to each other we'd be in bed by 11. On the morning side I pushed the alarm back to 6. I was leaving the house at 7am every day, but much of the time was spent reading during my breakfast. Since that usually amounted to 30-45 minutes, I decided the sleeping time was more important and so far have managed to cut half an hour out of the morning routine with the only fallout being reduced progress reading whatever novel I'm in the middle of. Simply because of that I've noticed I am more awake in the morning, which means I need less coffee to get going. 

Next I decided to reduce my number of commitments. I have a day job that pays all the bills, but I was also the editor of a sports news website. Being a news editor, no matter the assigned hours, is an always-on type of job simply because of what it is. News does not sleep, so articles continuously have to be reviewed, edited and placed in the correct location on the site. I decided the extra check wasn't worth the stress on my day, so I gave up the title and went back to being just a writer. Giving up that responsibility went a long ways towards lessening my workload in the evenings and feeds into my ability to get to bed earlier.

The last major thing I did was start tracking my calories. At the endorsement of local chef Ken Gordon (of Kenny and Zuke's fame) I downloaded the My Fitness Pal app from iTunes to track everything I put in my mouth on my iPhone (there is a corresponding website which I have never used, but makes it available not just to iPhone owners). Every dietitian will tell you a major component of changing your eating patterns is keeping a food journal and this app, with me everywhere, makes it easy. Another byproduct? At least for me, the simple act of keeping the journal changes what I eat because I want to be eating healthier if I'm tracking it. I decided I wanted a goal of eating 1800 calories in a day, getting that down to 1400 or so after workouts, and have been tracking my food for two weeks. I'm eating healthier, feeling better, and really feel like these changes are ones I can live with. Heck, I can even have a beer if I like, as long as I work it into the day's calories. (For those of you who care, here is a nice guide to calc the number of calories in a 12 ounce beer - it's based on the alcohol percentage. Hat tip to @obeyshiba for the link.)

I only made a slight change to my exercise schedule, adding in more walks to one that included the treadmill. Since Misaki is on a restricted diet herself to cut off a couple pounds this works nicely - we both get the extra burn we need.

I'm working less eggs and more seafood into the diet to work on the cholesterol imbalances, more fruits and vegetables and less grains in general, more chicken breast and minimal pork and red meat, and trying to manage my dairy intake a little closer. The hardest part of this is the less eggs and milk. I've loved dairy my entire life, but now I have to be more careful about how I consume it to balance the fats and calories. And eggs? Well, instead of two eggs for my daily breakfast I'm now down to just one a couple times a week. We're adding new things to our diets too, like quinoa (actually pretty tasty) and, just recently, cauliflower.

Another very difficult thing for me is recognizing when to eat what. The idea of having your big meal for breakfast, average meal at lunch, and a small meal at dinner - with a couple snacks mixed in - is a total mind shift. We've taken to having soup for dinner, which we get fresh at New Seasons or Whole Foods, because it's low in calories and usually very good for you (the fresh soup don't have the sodium issues the canned ones do - and taste a ton better). I'm still trying to get my head around having what I think of traditional dinner food for breakfast, such as a rice/chicken/vegetable combination instead of eggs, toast and cereal. The concept just feels wrong, but the results are so damn right.

So far I'm down nine pounds in two weeks, which is a phenomenal (and unexpected) start. I'm not going to expect this pace to continue - that would be crazy - but I have a few things I can do when I do start to level off. Lifting weights is one, longer and more frequent walks is another. Or more time on the elliptical. And every day I see how my foods add up in the calorie counting app and I find something I could do better (holy shit peanut butter makes an impact!).

This time I believe the changes will stick. I really don't have any other choice.


Loved a Vegetarian Dinner at Natural Selection

In the past couple weeks Wifey and I have made a concerted effort to eat healthier, which, if you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that healthy isn't necessarily a requirement for us when we eat out. But this is Portland, a mecca for not only just about any kind of food you may want but also vegetarian and vegan options coming out of your ears.

Last year Wifey showed me the menu at Natural Selection, a small restaurant on Alberta in northeast Portland. Chef Aaron Woo (read about him on Oregonlive here and here) puts together a weekly menu focusing on ingredients currently in season and local that is 100% vegetarian and mostly vegan and gluten-free. At the time I thought it sounded good, but really? Vegetarian? As in no meat? How good could it be, right?

Then we made our decision to eat better (more on that later) and the restaurant came up again. Oh what the hell, we decided, it definitely sounded good...we'll give it a try. So we made a reservation (highly recommended if not required) and spent Leap Day stuffing ourselves with vegetables.

Natural Selection is a small place, seating around 30-40 (I'm horrible at estimating), with an open kitchen. You step inside and the atmosphere is dark but inviting, lots of warm colors and friendly people. The kitchen, manned by Chef Woo and three others plus one person working the front desk/mini bar, is on the left and the tables the right, extending all way to the back of the space. Our table was almost to the very back, facing the impressive wine rack. (It may not show up in the pic, but if you click on it and blow it up you may be able to see the 40oz of Olde English 800 in the top right - there has to be a story there because it absolutely doesn't fit anything else in the restaurant.)

The menu is comprised of eight dishes (the one we tried is below), divided into two possible four-course meals, one being completely vegan. The prices vary, but there are two starters, two salads, two entrees, and two desserts. You can mix and match or, if you want to try more things, you can order one of each for $35 (this is about a $11 savings from ordering all four a la carte, the price of the first course). Optional wine pairings/flights are available as well as several other wines and a limited amount of mixed drinks.

We were hungry and everything looked good...so screw it - we ordered two four-course meals. That means literally one of everything on the menu. Yes, each of these dishes was pretty healthy on their own, but the sheer amount of food we ate makes it not necessarily a healthy meal. Shrug. (Click on the pic below to read the menu.)

We started off with a non-alcoholic mixed drink - a cherry fizz with ginger ale, cherry juice and a dash of vanilla. Quite tasty. Then we were presented with an amuse bouche of pita topped with a chickpea and chickpea puree (or, hummus). This picture didn't turn out, but it was a tasty beginning to the evening.

The first dish was black truffle and tagliatelle pasta with brussels sprouts, baby turnips and crispy shallots.

I had never had anything with shaved truffles before - amazing. This "never had ___ before - amazing" became a theme of the evening. This was probably the least healthy dish of the night because the sauce was a little on the creamy side - nope, not vegan - but the truffles added so much depth.

The other half of the first course was a spring leek and white bean soup with parsnip, thyme, red onion and lemon. We aren't entirely sure what the item in the middle was, but it was nice and crunchy and contained whole chickpeas. Also damn good.

The second course began with this treviso and kohlrabi salad with medjool dates, pistachio, Meyer lemon and green olives. Treviso was something new to us - I know Treviso as a city in Italy - and while the greens were bitter, the lemon balanced it nicely.

The other salad was a citrus and frisee with arugula, fennel, goat cheese and radish. Again, perfect balance between the sweet of the oranges and the bitter of the greens. And that cheese? Oh my. I could eat that all night long.

Next came the entrees. This is a black trumpet (new to me) and sunchoke hash with butternut squash, rapini and roasted peppers. The squash is wrapped up inside the cabbage leaf.

The other entree featured pine nut crusted cauliflower with nettle pistou, quinoa, carrots and saffron oil. I am on record as not being a fan of cauliflower, but this was really, really good. And the quinoa? This was another new food to us we both enjoyed. Might have to pick some up. Everything in this dish just worked. I will say, though, the knives we were given with our meal did a poor job of cutting either the cabbage leaf or the cauliflower. And yes, that's my worst criticism of the night.

After the entrees we were served a light palate cleanser, a pomegranate and lime granita. Pretty, isn't it? And tart. Wow that was tart. Consider my palate cleansed.

It's worth mentioning that you will not get a fast meal, but that's by design. We were there for two hours from start to finish and while that seems like a long time, the pace of the dishes coming out seemed just about right. There was a little downtime between each dish, but we could watch everyone at work in the kitchen, something we find interesting. In other words, plan to relax and enjoy your meal, especially if go the four-course route.

Then it was time for dessert. At this point were both pretty full, but the desserts are on the small side, though that doesn't mean they are simple by any means. This orange and rhubarb cake with white chocolate mousse and vanilla sauce? Amazing. It also came with a slice of blood orange, some toasted walnuts, and a hollow chocolate stick. So good.

The other dessert was cinnamon and fennel beignets with Meyer lemon curd, creme fraiche and marmalade (tart, not sure what the fruit was). This dish wasn't marked on the menu as vegetarian. The beignets were so light and fluffy and everything together was simply amazing. Have I said that enough yet?

We're converts. Well, not to being vegetarians - no chance of that - but to the fact vegetarian food can not only be tasty but also every bit as intricate and flavorful as any other kind of meal. Heck, maybe even more so. Wifey and I agreed we'd go back to Natural Selection in an instant, though four courses probably isn't necessary - that was a lot of food. The service was friendly and good, we never felt forgotten (this happens to us a ridiculous amount of times, as if we are ninjas and they can't see us or something), and the food was just plain excellent.

So go visit Chef Woo's restaurant of awesomeness and see what we mean. Us? We'll probably go back later in the spring when berries start to come into season to see what he'll do with those.