I Am That Girl Now

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Experiments in Satisfying Treats

I've done some reading on how to properly prepare yam noodles, and I've purchased some Better'n Peanut Butter from Trader Joe's (the first time I've dared to have it in the apartment in months). If I'd been thinking, I would've picked up some dried strawberries, too, but I forgot.

Oh yes. I'm going to make the Just So Damn Wrong PB&J Noodles again. No jelly this time-- that got melty and wrong-- but I think that some dried fruit, chopped into bits, would hit that part of the palate nicely. Since my traditional love for PB&J sandwiches tends toward strawberry preserves, I long to try this with dried strawberries, but for the purposes of this experiment I think a small amount of raisins will do.

My problem with sweet treats and with old loves like PB&Js is that there's just not enough there there. I require foods to be one of two things: either a) satisfying and hearty, so that I can eat a small portion and feel satisfied, or b) they're low enough in calories and fat that I can eat a giant bowl full. These sorts of things are generally the sorts of things you find on the WeightWatchers' Core Program or the South Beach Diet: whole grains, vegetables, lean meats, 0-cal liquids. Things that take a long time to eat (mostly because the fiber content means you have to actively chew them and they won't fall apart in your mouth, but in some cases, like soup, this is more due to temperature); things that have a fairly low caloric density; things that fill you up and take a long time to digest. Cookies, alas, have few of these qualities.

Often, the answer people turn to in their quest to be able to indulge is to try to find the perfect diet version. Some things (like Glenny's Soy Crisps and VitaMuffins) do the job admirably while adding in nutrients and bulk; my main argument there becomes the "oh dear God I cannot afford to buy these regularly" factor. And, I have to admit, it's still not enough; I eat with my eyes and I eat with my time, and I want something to look big enough to be filling and to take enough time to feel like I've done something, here.

A friend of mine has an obsession with creating close-to-calorie-free food. Which is, in its way, a lovely idea, but it still misses the consumption-time, digestion-time, and bulk factors. I'm okay with having calories in my food as long as they're put to a good cause, and having some oomph, something to bite down on and chew on-- that's important to me. Otherwise, it's just like eating flavored air.

For lack of satisfying alternatives, I have turned to my kitchen. My theory is this: if I can identify the things that I like about a dish, then I can re-create this in a healthier manner, something I can chew on and thus keep the flavor in my mouth for a while, something that my stomach takes a while to mull over. I want the flavor, but I want substance, too.

You may not have been with me on the PB&J Noodles-- trust me, you're not alone; my sister and my Hub think I've gone mad-- but often, my goofy experiments turn into family favorites. So far, the two biggest successes have been stealing the flavors of buffalo wings and spinach/artichoke dip; here, I'll show you the process I went through for those.

We do a "baked potato" salad-- which has nothing to do with baked potatoes except for the toppings: chopped scallions, bacon bits, part-skim cheddar cheese, and a dressing made of fat-free plain yogurt (subbing in for the sour cream). We also have a "buffalo" salad, with a dressing made from fat-free plain yogurt whisked with plenty of Frank's Red Hot sauce, some crumbles of blue cheese, and chopped celery. They're weird, but they work; my Hub is terribly fond of them.

Speaking of buffalo...

Before embarking on Meg v2.0, I had a deep and abiding love for buffalo wings and when I discovered buffalo chicken sandwiches-- most of which were breaded-- I adored them, too. Looking back, I realized that what I loved most about those things wasn't the chicken or the breading or the grease or the fried crispiness, it was the buffalo sauce-- the tang of the tabasco/vinegar/garlic blend that just sang to me.

I also had a love for butter-drenched popcorn-- the way the salt stuck to it, the variation in texture in the spots where the popcorn shrivelled from moisture, the intense flavor experience. I had, for the past year, been trying to make do with spritzing my popcorn with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter spray (and trying desperately to control myself, since past a certain point it's no good for me) or, when I became wary of the chemicals in ICBINB, olive oil from my Misto. Either way, the results were just not what I wanted.

Last month, these two issues collided when a friend introduced me to some kind of buffalo-wing-flavored pretzel chunks. They were glorious. They were addictive. They were also insanely high in calories and fat, and caused my entire brain to short-circuit. This sent me in search of a replacement, ASAP, before either myself or my Hub (who also adored them) went out and bought them.

My first try, which involved pouring Frank's Red Hot sauce into a spritz bottle and spritzing, did not do. It also broke the bottle; apparently Frank's is full of particulate matter that does not do well for spritz utility. On my second try, I tried just dashing Frank's over the popcorn-- again, not quite what I was going for, since even mixing the popcorn around meant I was getting pretty uneven results. On my third try, I dashed Frank's into the bowl before I put the popcorn in-- and dusted it with salt and garlic powder, too, for good measure. Then I put the popcorn into the bowl, dashed Frank's over the top, and stirred carefully. GOLDEN. Brilliant. Perfect. It could have been made in a restaurant.

My Hub was pretty wary of my buffalo popcorn concoction. I offered some to him on a number of occasions and he waved it away, saying it wasn't his thing. This state of affairs lasted until this past weekend when we developed a plan to make popcorn and watch a movie one evening. This usually meant separate popcorn-- popped over the stove for him (a friend gave us one of those poppers that you crank to stir, and my Hub loves it), homemade microwave popcorn for me. The plan hit a snag very quickly because we had only enough popcorn for one batch.

My Hub took a bullet for the team and valiantly sacrificed his preference. I offered to do something besides the buffalo popcorn this time through, but he insisted that I not make any changes for him. I went ahead and made my popcorn, and he tried it. That's when his eyebrows shot up and he said, "Hey. HEY. Why haven't you made this for me before? This is excellent!"

Voila, we no longer have an issue regarding those evil buffalo-flavored pretzels. Add in the fact that we are, at heart, cheap bastards who dislike shelling out coin for what we can get at home, and I sense we won't be buying out any time soon.

Spinach-artichoke dip is a mystery to me. On the one hand, spinach and artichokes are glorious together; they do well as pizza toppings (a spinach/artichoke pizza on whole-wheat crust with part-skim mozzarella and parmesan shredded on top is a thing of beauty), and on pasta, and as part of salads. They're both fantastically good for you, as long as you don't buy the artichokes that've been marinated in oil. Put them in a dip, though, and things go all to hell.

I can't tell you the number of WeightWatchers board messages I've seen that essentially read "Oh God, I thought the dip was okay because it was made with spinach and artichokes but then I got home and it turns out it's horrible!" Yes, grasshopper, that's because there is also a whopping amount of cheese in there, plus (often) mayonnaise or sour cream or both. And if you're eating it at a restaurant, the odds are good that none of those ingredients were of the low-fat or fat-free varieties. This stuff is horrible for you, and then whatever chips you use to eat it are no walk in the park, either. Add in the fact that it's a strangely addictive taste and that, as a dip, there's not half the chewing experience there should be, and there won't be any question of just eating a few bites-- universally, it ends up being a Must Eat It All, Then Scrape The Bottom Of The Container For The Last Few Globs experience.

The idea for how to recondition this one was a surprise because it came out of trying to recondition something entirely different. My Hub and I had discovered parsnips this past winter, suspiciously using them in recipes and then discovering that hey, we liked 'em. One night while craving pasta sauce but unwilling to commit the calories to pasta (even whole wheat, which is now our pasta of choice), I had the crazy idea to shred up a parsnip and steam the shreds into limpness. I used my Hub's stock pasta sauce, which is high on spicy flavors, and... holy crap, it actually worked. The flavors went well together. I made the same dish for my Hub a few days later, and he likewise approved. He then started brainstorming on more ways to use this vegetable, and one of the surprising ones he popped up with was "...like spinach artichoke dip".

A few weeks later, the Food Network's Calorie Commando had a show involving a low-cal version of spinach artichoke dip. We added four shredded-up artichokes to the mix and baked it as a cassarole, and dear lord, it's fantastic. We've been eating the leftovers all week. If you don't mind parsnips, I highly recommend it.

I have some ideas for a chocolate crumble, of sorts, that would involve bulgur wheat and cocoa powder (which is fat-free) and Splenda, and egg whites utilized somehow as a binder. I have yet to work out the logistics of it, but it would be chewy, and chocolatey, and be in bits smaller than an average bite but large enough to still suggest "one-bite chunk". Undoubtedly when I manage to get this experiment licked, you'll hear about it here.

Yes, this is all weird and wacky stuff, and it might not work for you-- but something else might. My point is, get in your kitchen. Figure out what you like about those treats, and how you could take those tastes and make them into a different kind of treat-- one that you chew, and savor, and take your time with as a matter of course, on that fills you up and that your stomach takes time to digest. It can be done. It just takes a willingness to be try.


  • Hi Meg!
    Thank you for your "crazy concoctions" post! It's always nice to feel you're not alone - I currently live with my boyfriend, and boy you should see some of the looks of horror on his face when I walk out of the kitchen with a new concoction. "Get that away from me!" he says as he runs like I have the plague ;)

    Sure, some of my concoctions may be wierd and wacky, but to me in the quest for healthier living, they are DIVINE!! I too have a peanut butter addiction (my roommate and I used to polish off the giant econo-sized tub in a week, then wonder why our pants were getting tighter.... ;)), and recently discovered that mixing cottage cheese with a tablespoon of peanut butter with splenda makes a tasty treat on celery - with far less fat and calories!

    - Cynthia

    By Anonymous Cynthia, at 2:49 PM  

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