What do you want to do AFTER you eat that?

This past weekend I had brunch at a great spot in Bushwick called Café Ghia.  I had narrowed my decision down to two menu items, and, as I often do (for better or for worse), I asked my server’s opinion.  Should I have the seasonal omelet (goat cheese, zucchini, mushrooms, and asparagus) with roasted potatoes or their breakfast mofongo (an egg overtop fried plantains)?   Both dishes looked good to me, but were very different.  The waitress thought about my question for a minute and then said, “Well it depends what you want to do afterwards today.”  That wasn’t what I had expected.

Outside Bushwick’s brunch gem, Café Ghia

I had thought maybe she’d tell me to get the mofongo because it’s more unique–I could find a similar omelet anywhere in the city.  Or, perhaps that she would suggest I have the omelet as it’s “seasonal” and likely to change soon.  I had even semi-expected her to simply recommend the more expensive dish.

I stared at her for a second, not sure if it was a rhetorical question or if she really wanted me to tell her what I had planned for the rest of my day. Sensing my confusion, she explained that both were really good options, but that the mofongo was a much heavier dish and was likely to “sit in my stomach.” As she told me this, she kind of leaned back and set her hands on her stomach as if to demonstrate just where that mofongo was going to go.  Then, putting down her hands, continued to say that if I had a more active day planned I might want to opt for the omelet. My dietitian-to-be brain turned on.  The waitress, whether she understood why or not, was completely correct.  With the main part of the dish being fried, high-glycemic carbohydrates, the mofongo would be considerably higher in fat and be slower to digest, making me feel kind of sluggish.  I ordered the omelette.

The interaction got me thinking: What if we approached all our eating decisions asking, what do I want this food to do for me, or, maybe more importantly, what do I not want this food to do to me?  Would we make more nutritious decisions? One of the reasons I love food so much is the culture and experience of eating and cooking, but I think food’s main purpose: to fuel us, can easily get lost within all the rituals and social pressures surrounding it.

As often as we use a machine as a metaphor for the human body, we aren’t machines.  Food is more than fuel to us and not considering the many other reasons why we eat isn’t practical.  So, I’m not going to tell you not to have dishes that might “sit in your stomach.”  I’m not suggesting that you avoid cookies at Christmas or stop making rolls with your mom. And, I’m not saying that you need to stop enjoying a happy hour with your coworkers at the end of a particularly long week.

I am going to remind you, however, that none of these things should be done everyday, let alone every meal.  Your default eating habit needs to be one of health.  One doughnut because it tastes so. freakin. good. or a few pieces of pizza is fine. Totally fine.  But it’s a slippery slope because repeated crap food decisions can lead to the development of chronic health problems–heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, etc.

In fact, one of the main things emphasized in the recently released 2015 dietary guidelines was a shift towards the importance of meal patterns versus specific foods or nutrients. This adjustment in thinking about how we eat is an important one, and has been applauded by many dietitians because it isn’t what you eat one time, it’s what you eat, on average, all the time that matters.

Unfortunately we don’t always have mindful waitresses following us around to help us connect our food choices with the rest of our lives. We have to do it ourselves.  So be mindful: What do you want to do after you eat?  Me? I want to live healthfully.



Let’s Start at the Very Beginning: Carrot Cake

{skip the foreplay and go to the recipe}

Let’s start at the very beginning:
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with A-B-C
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi
{When you bake you begin with mom loves me}

While Julie Andrews regrettably omitted this last line to the initial stanza of her song–an exclusion which might have had something to do with the movie already being almost 3 hours long–it is exactly how I started to bake.

Eleven years whimsical bakehouseold, I picked up  The Whimsical Bakehouse–Fun-To-Make Cakes That Taste as Good as They Look by Liv Hansen and Kaye Hansen at our local library because the cake on the front of the book was bright and colorful and I knew that my mom could show me how to make it.  Turns out, my mom didn’t have any idea how to decorate a cake like that, but she was willing to help me try.

My mom always says that year was the year in which I really got interested in baking.  That year a shoulder injury sidelined–or poolsided–me from swimming.  Unable to participate in any other sport, I turned to the kitchen.  While it makes no sense from a weight management perspective to replace physical activity with dessert creation and consumption, my gravitation toward the kitchen will make perfect sense to any swimmer.   For those who have not swam competitively,  the swimmer lifestyle can be generalized by a lot of time in the pool and a lot of time eating.  I surmise now that I probably turned to baking back then because it was a comfortable extension of something I had a lot of experience doing: eating.  Plus it was fun, delicious, and my mom always helped me with the dishes….injured shoulder, remember?

So we baked (and my mom cleaned up after) almost all of the cake recipes in the cookbook, but there was one recipe that we wrote down and continued to make long after the cookbook was returned to the library.  This is that recipe.  Well, sort of.  One of this cake’s best attributes is the ease at which it accepts gluten-free flours.  Seriously, though, this is one gluten-free recipe that can’t be screwed up.  It is just that good.  This carrot cake is sweet and spiced and everything nice.  It manages to be light while still carrying substance.  The creamy tang of the cream cheese frosting perfectly compliments the soft, rich cake.  And, with a vegetable in its name, the cake practically demands guilt-free indulgence.

cropped-img_1808-e1414553645679.jpgBaked as written by the mother and daughter Hansen duo or adapted to the gluten free version my mom and I bake now, this cake is a tried and true crowd pleaser:

Carrot Cake

  • Servings: depends how much you like it
  • Difficulty: easy, honest.
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For the cake:
4 large eggs
1 and 1/2 cups oil (I’ve successfully used canola, vegetable, and melted coconut oil before)
2 cups white sugar
2 cups gluten-free flour mixture with a gum in it (or use 1 cup oat flour, 1/2 brown rice flour, 1/4 cup sweet sorghum flour, 1/4 cup potato starch, and 2 teaspoons xanthum gum)
2 and 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups grated carrots
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup raisins
For the cream cheese frosting:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter (use real butter, don’t use margarine)
9 oz cream cheese (yes, opening the new package for just that one extra ounce is worth it)
6 cups confectioners sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Grease (spray) two 9 by 3 inch round pans.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Beat the eggs, oil, and sugar for a few minutes (or if you know what “light and fluffy” looks like, beat until light and fluffy”) Add the sifted dry ingredients to the wet batter at a low speed. When the mixture is 75% incorporated and carrots, walnuts, and raisins and mix until smooth.
Divide batter between pans. (We always used three 8 by 2 inch pans because we didn’t have the two 9 by 3 inch round pans the Whimsical Bakehouse called for. I think that this is actually a strength of our version of the recipe because the extra layer means more of that cream cheese frosting in every bite!) Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until tester in center comes out clean. Don’t worry about over cooking the cake. I promise it won’t come out dry, but if you take it out too early, getting it out of the pans will become a nightmare. Similarly, it is important to cool the cakes on a wire rack until they are cool (about 20 minutes) or it will be extremely difficult to get the cakes out in one piece.
While the cake cools, in a mixer bowl at medium high-speed beat butter until creamy. Then add and cream the cream cheese. Add powdered sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla extract all at once and beat at a low speed until the frosting is smooth. Increase the speed of the mixer and continue beating for another minute or so until the frosting is thick but light.