For the past 15 months, I’ve taken charge of my health through lifestyle choices. 80ofoods I used to rely on and love are gone, and it’s been way harder than I pictured. It’s the reason I no longer maniacally post my recipes and thoughts on here; I’ve sadly neglected my beloved and much-asked-about little corner of the internet, partly because I feel that my identity as a food-lover and chef has been slashed to pieces by a gluten-laden machete. No longer can I just go out to dinner anywhere without subjecting a waiter/cook/chef to an inquisition worse than the Spanish experienced back in the sixteenth century, consume the majority of delicious homemade things at gatherings while everyone else gets to oooh and ahhh over it in front of my face, enjoy a night of MSG-laden sushi with my best friend without waking up looking like the blueberry lady from Willy Wonka and then suffering a breakdown the next morning, or eat the best things on this planet: pizza, bread, cookies, and cake.
I was first introduced to the Paleo diet during my first go-around of Crossfit a little over a year ago. Supposedly, this optimal diet and exercise combo were two halves of a best friend necklace. It just worked. It also reduced today’s current health villain: inflammation, while healing all digestive distress. The digestive part was honestly the largest appeal for me, because if we’ve spoken for 5 minutes, we’ve probably talked about how I’ve suffered for my LIFETIME and was known as the fiber girl with stomach issues amongst my loved ones. What a cool identity! Who’s that? Oh, just the girl who hoards All-bran, metamucil, benefiber and fiber one bars.
Even at a time when my arms looked like angel hair pasta, I lived perpetually uncomfortable in my stomach. Always and forever and amen. My old roommate reminds me of times during college when I was in digestive despair, rubbing my poor stomach like a weirdo so much that you’d think it was a lamp granting me three toilet-related wishes. Despite my lifelong love of food, I never knew it was possible to feel like a normal, vibrant person (my natural state) before, during, and after eating. I thought this was just a life-sentence that I had to endure after eating a meal ie something that is required of us to be alive. The discomfort was felt in varying degrees, like instances when I (no joke) wouldn’t go to the bathroom for ten days at a time. Like when I lived in Italy on a diet subsisting of pasta, bread, and dairy and walked around looking like a marsupial. Literally looking like my stomach was the permanent living space of ten kangaroo babies, which was the most perfect and romantic addition to my real-life Italian love affair. I tried to alleviate this distress by stressing the fuck out, praying to the Gods of internal flow, busting out my fiber supplies, and stuffing myself with more gluten-filled bran. Or when I returned to the states, went to several gastro-doctors and nutritionists who all prescribed what we are told to eat by our own government, the standard American grain-and-carb-filled diet. Choose your plate, yay! They also wanted to put me on medication to induce diarrhea (????!), ie take a pill to restore BASIC HUMAN FUNCTION. I felt so defeated and lost that I haphazardly accepted that I would roam this earth in a half-assed state of energy for the rest of my existence. The paleo diet guaranteed otherwise, a solution and opportunity to feel like I want to live inside of my body.
But it also scared the shit out of me and seemed downright mean. I had so many questions. Seriously, angels of the Paleo community, you’re going to strip all of the most delicious things known to man and everything that I’ve subsisted on for the past few years from my hungry hands, and forever? Goodbye cheese and dairy, bread, pizza, and CAKE? Brownies? Chocolate? Sugar? CARBS? ALL GRAINS? SOY? Isn’t soymilk healthy? Not even beans, HUMMUS? HELLO, I’M CUBAN! And you’re going to make me eat the most vile food known to man, eggs?! And major amounts of protein? What am I, a caveman? Well, I guess that’s the point. Nuts and fruit (my only saving grace) seemed to be acceptable, but only in amounts visible to the human eye under a microscope. My reaction was the real-life painting of Scream. Major sigh. Major bummer. Major depression. Major kicks to my metaphorical balls.
After the encouragement of one of my trainers who looks like a chiseled sculpture and swears by the diet, I figured I needed to give it a try. He suggested doing it without my beloved fruit, which can bring the sugar demon alive. So like everything I do, I did it with an unshakable focus. Grizzly style. I ate lots of eggs, bacon, sauerkraut, chicken, tuna, steak, fish, olive oil, avocados, tomatoes, and green vegetables. Carrots, squash, and sweet potatoes were sparing but still included from time to time, especially after workouts. Coconut butter was a nice little dessert every once in a while. Hot sauce, herbs, and mustard became my eating partners and never didn’t surround me. Calories didn’t exist. Listening to my body did. The results were astounding.
Not only was my stomach completely flat and almost concave for the first time in my life, I began to feel like I imagine our species was designed to feel both in my body and mind. What a strange thought, considering I was eating the way us humans were meant to be eating. I felt like an unstoppable warrior. My digestive issues? Completely non-existent as I was singing my praises to the toilet gods. I began to literally want to send mass text messages to all my friends. I didn’t lose much weight, but my clothes started to hug my new body in a way I didn’t think was possible for me. I had abs and arms. People commented. I didn’t even mourn the loss of my old foods because I’m a chef and refused to eat things that weren’t delicious. I thought I was invincible, that this feeling wasn’t fleeting and I continued to eat this way, until I didn’t.
Until I let the influence of friends, family, vacations, and get togethers creep in along with different food choices. Grains saw their way in, along with cheese, bread, and sugar, and avalanches of fruit and nuts. Nothing is more uniting than food. Nothing. On the same note, it can also act as Moses in the parting of your food seas. A close friend of mine cited my new grainless way of eating as a basis for our friend divorce/separation; apparently she no longer felt as connected as when we were both mainly vegetarians eating soy and other processed junk. Once you start telling people about your new way of eating, you get flooded with opinions and reasons about why it’s all completely wrong. Because that’s what we’ve been told. Exclamations such as “But that’s no way to live!” “Live a little, eat some cheese!” “It’s your birthday!” “YOU’RE NEVER EATING PASTA AGAIN?” “YOU’RE LATIN, EAT YOUR RICE AND BEANS!” led me to doubt myself and indulge and indulge, letting my new warrior status fall completely off the wayside: my favorite goat cheese salad, brownies, and cupcakes for my birthday, homemade cookies and bread in California, cheeses and ice cream of all the like whenever possible, donuts in Hawaii, and sugar, lots of sugar, in every form.
Every time I indulged, I paid for it, both emotionally and physically. The more my body got accustomed to eating optimally, the more it rebelled against me when I didn’t. This was so disheartening. How could I have eaten these foods for such a long time, multiple (and I mean MULTIPLE) times a day, and now they were suddenly the boulder to my Indiana Jones self? I actually mourned the loss of each of my favorite foods, knowing that I would one day have to cut them out permanently if I wanted to feel good. Each of these were the foods that contained gluten, the sticky-icky protein that gets lodged in your digestive system like sludge. Literally. I had individual goodbyes for pie, pizza, my sister’s birthday cake, cookies, and Knaus Berry cinnamon rolls. I should have had this playing during each one. After each of them, I felt so incredibly shitty that I had to be quarantined to my bed for days on end. Gluten acted as helium to my ballooned stomach. My entire body and face gained an extra centimeter from inflammation, and I literally was like a non-functioning human, resorting back to infant functioning alla Benjamin Button. I also felt it in my brain. I felt anxious, depressed, and sluggish, like I was a character from a cartoon that walked around with a permanent black cloud over my head. I wasn’t myself. These foods morphed me into the opposite of who I am and what I want to be always: a vibrant, energetic human being that can move freely throughout the world and express myself creatively.
And now, I do. I’ve come to a point where this is just the way I eat. I think with such drastic measures, it’s important to experience both sides of the coin. To eat a certain way, switch it up, and then reintroduce things to see how you feel. Because (fortunately or unfortunately) once you know the truth, you can’t un-know it. You can choose not to dwell, to do something about it, move forward, and make the best of it. Most truths are not permanent, but they are true today, right now, in this moment. With that information we are lucky, because we can act. I can bring coconut aminos and salad dressing on dates, I can eat sardines for snacks, I can be “that person” at restaurants, I can eat before or after events. I can politely refuse foods I don’t eat when they’re offered to me. Thank Jesus I can cook.
If I choose to indulge (which I do, sometimes, of course), I know that it’s because I felt like it in that moment and I know perfectly well what the consequences of that choice will be. I am not a good or bad person or dieter or woman. I no longer need to miss out on life because of the way that I eat. I no longer need to be mad at myself and my body by not being able to tolerate things that the majority of the population can. It doesn’t mean I’m weak or strong or anything. It just is.
As I was lamenting to one of my lovely friends the other day about this, how sometimes I feel so lost and weird about my position as a chef and my sensitivities and how people don’t understand and look at you like you’ve just vomited in their mouth when you tell them you eat this way, she said it’s because I’m a highly sensitive person (this actually exists – an HSP – wikipedia that shit). I feel things deeply and completely, enraptured, consumed, and hypnotized by what I am feeling at the moment. That includes feelings and food, and sometimes a mixture of both. I believe everything happens for a reason, including this complete turn around of my life. I’m super grateful that this is my JOB, that people that follow this lifestyle as well found me, believed and trusted in me, and pay me to test out and develop recipes and then feed them. Our pairing was not accidental. I’m also grateful that I can afford to have plenty of food around me and am equipped with the know-how to prepare it deliciously, and that I’m not in prison or living in a ditch somewhere where my food options are dire and probably loaded with gluten. I have choices and I can do what I want.
So what does that mean for this blog? It means that I will be posting the recipes I can actually eat for the most part, and sometimes I’ll post some other stuff because I know how good it is. I also want to tell my story and be vulnerable and open because this shift has been so profound and life-changing. Something inside of me feels compelled to tell you about this journey. Perhaps I can motivate to help you consider a different way of eating that makes you come alive a bit more, if you feel semi-alive right now. I know for sure that’s what it did for me, simply by choosing foods that make me feel vibrant as opposed to foods that make me feel like a zombie. In this moment, I can offer you my two saving graces: brussels sprouts and bacon.
In this recipe, brussels are roasted with chopped bacon or pancetta. Seriously, how amazing is this entire family of cured meats? They give off their own fat, for free! They’re so generous. Then, because we need a hit of acid, they’re topped off with a reduction of balsamic vinegar, which makes the entire thing complex and deep in flavor while balanced. It’s so insanely good, also because, bacon.
For now, this is how I will be eating. I hope we can interact in this way even if my cake and brownie making doesn’t happen all that often or ever. If not, maybe we can go to a restaurant where you can see me bring my own little condiments and annoy the shit out of waiters. Or maybe you can come over so I can cook for you. You might like that better. Regardless, I hope you stay a while and see what comes out of this.
Bacon & balsamic roasted brussels sprouts
Inspired by Ina Garten, my fancypants Barefoot Contessa lady
Notes: It’s SO much easier and neater to dice cured meats after they’ve been stuck in the freezer for about 30 minutes – 1 hour. If not, it’s just a sloppy, fatty, mess and no one wants that on their cutting board. Sometimes I omit the fat from this recipe because I find the pancetta or bacon gives off just enough through the baking process to coat the vegetables nicely. This way is more delicious and indulgent because, well, butter.
What you need
2 pounds Brussels sprouts, ugly bottoms trimmed then cut in half lengthwise
6 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
1/4 cup ghee (or any fat of your choosing)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons syrupy balsamic vinegar (or to taste)
What you do
Set the oven at 400 degrees F.
On a rimmed sheet pan, place the brussels sprouts, including some of the leaves you lost while cutting, because they turn into yummy brussels chips. Add the diced bacon or pancetta, then the ghee, and salt and pepper to taste (I use about 1 teaspoon each) and toss with the best tools in your kitchen, your hands. Make sure the mixture is in one layer. If it isn’t, spread it evenly amongst two pans.
Roast the Brussels sprouts for 30 to 40 minutes, tossing them around once or twice during baking, until they are super tender and nicely browned and the pancetta or bacon is crispy and cooked through. Remove from the oven, drizzle immediately with the balsamic vinegar, and toss again. Taste for seasonings and serve hot or at room temperature.
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