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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 1

Longtime readers of this blog probably won’t remember that I did my first paleo challenge in early 2012. This is a fact I mentioned in one post, and then never again (partly because I abandoned blogging for a long stretch about a month later). Let me briefly fill in the gaps:

After my initial “30-day challenge,” I just kept rolling with the rules of that challenging, not quite realizing that the guidelines I used were an extremely strict form of the diet. The positive side is that, in addition to change my eating habits, I started working out, lost about 70-80 pounds, pulled out of a spiral of depression and anxiety, and then—for awhile—everything seemed to be going my way. About a year later, when things stopped going my way…

Well, I don’t know that I want to compare my food issues with actual addiction; it’s certainly compulsive, and at times unmanageable, but I think it’s an exaggeration to say I was “addicted” to shitty food, and it does a disservice to actual addicts struggling with actual problems. But basically, my 2012 holiday season was a fairly stressful time for a number of reasons. I’ve always been a stress eater, and although I managed to resist the many treats and snacks brought into work during the holidays, I made the decision at a Christmas party with a friend’s family that a few treats wouldn’t hurt me. And they didn’t—not at first. The fact that I had lost so much weight and continued to work out made me think I could treat myself once in awhile. “Once in awhile” quickly became “once a week,” but it was okay. I was training for a half-marathon at that point, shedding pounds like they were going out of style, eating well 95% of the time. Then, weekly treats led to more frequent cravings, which I would try to resist but often didn’t. Some of the time, I would say to myself, “I’m satisfying this craving so it goes away” (it didn’t); some of the time, I would simply acknowledged that I was stressed and dealt with it by eating, even though I knew it was a hollow activity. Part of it, even, had a warped, secretive quality that I still don’t fully understand… Like, I’m so much of an open book, I somehow felt like I needed this secret of eating garbage to keep to myself. Not my finest hour.

Then, in August of 2013 (one week before the half-marathon), while house-sitting for a friend, I got up early to go for my last “long run.” Two miles into it, I tripped on a protruding chunk of sidewalk, tumbled, and literally saw stars (I didn’t think that really happened!). I knew I’d sprained my ankle, and after sitting for a little while and trying to determine if I could walk, I made the trek back to the condo. This may have exacerbated the injury, but I had no choice; it was 6AM on a Sunday, nobody was out on the streets, nobody I knew lived nearby (and even if they did, I left my phone behind so it wouldn’t flop around the entire run), there were no cabs or buses.

This was a turning point. After an urgent care doctor diagnosed me with a minor sprain and all but guaranteed I would be able to run my half-marathon the following week, I felt no better. After a month of physical therapy, I felt somewhat better, but my foot was definitely not in running shape. I let it slide for a few months, hoping the pain would gradually go away; it didn’t. Finally, I went to an orthopedist for a proper diagnosis, and within two weeks, I was in surgery having a torn tendon and ligament repaired. Grueling recovery followed; overly intensive physical therapy led to a separate issue, the build-up of scar tissue on my Achilles’ tendon, which was both extremely painful and required even more physical therapy.

Here I am now, 23 months out from surgery, and still nowhere near running shape. I’ve gained back most of the weight I lost when I first started eating paleo, not solely from lack of exercise. It has much more to do with the slow backslide into eating 95% garbage, 5% healthy food (mostly by accident). Breathing problems came back, muscle aches came back, allergies came back, chronic heartburn came back, panic attacks came back, I get sick all the time… All the problems I had before the lifestyle changes I made in 2012 had come back with a vengeance. And all signs pointed to one answer: resumption of the paleo diet. Even if I can’t work out as aggressively as I did before—even if I can never reach that point again—the very least I can do, for the sake of my own health, is eat well and hope it has the same effect without intense workouts.

Now that the sob-story preamble is out of the way, let me explain the idea here: I’ve embarked on a 30-day paleo challenge. I’m not a very creative cook, so I rely on recipes I find online (many of them adaptations of non-paleo recipes using paleo ingredients, but not always), and one thing I’ve found in the past two years is that recipes can be hit-or-miss. Making virtually everything from scratch has turned me into a pretty good cook, so I’m confident enough at this point to know when a recipe is good and when it’s bad. More than anything, I’d like to bring attention to the good ones.

Full disclosure: this is basically a low-effort way to continue blogging. The 150 Films project is taxing in terms of both time and brainpower. This is much simpler: I’m finding the recipes, making them, eating the food, and having opinions about the results. All I have to do is write it down.

And lest you think the menu lacks variety, there are a lot of simple menus (not from recipes) that don’t merit any sort of review: a simple Cobb salad here, steamed chicken there, and so on. Nothing too fancy.


Paleo Leap – Breakfast Stuffed Peppers

Although I’ve spent a ton of time prowling around paleo recipe sites in the past, I wasn’t familiar with Paleo Leap before now. Strangely enough, so many of their recipes sounded delicious that they’re a major source this time around. I think this is partly because the site, while it offers a trove of free information, mainly seems geared toward selling people a Whole 30 type boot camp program; as a result, many of their recipes are stripped down and full of ingredients I can eat under my challenge rules.

For these stuffed peppers, I doubled the recipe and used two peppers of each color: green, red, yellow, and orange. Although the recipe leaves the pepper type up to you, I’d recommend using red peppers exclusively; yellow and orange are too sweet, and green are too bitter, to complement the stuffing ingredients. Speaking of stuffing ingredients, I used a package of AmyLu chicken breakfast sausages, sliced up and distributed evenly among the peppers. I think bacon might have been more flavorful, but I’m not eating bacon during the challenge.

In the future, I may try either adding the egg to the peppers first or combining eggs with the other stuffing ingredients first. The recipe says to “top off” the already filled peppers with eggs, a problematic direction since the extremely large peppers I used were overstuffed by the time I got to the egg. It was difficult to drizzle any egg in there without it overflowing; for the sake of cleanliness, I think it would be better to pour in an egg-filling mixture (or egg first, if you want to beat them one at a time) and, perhaps, dumping any leftover mixture into a custard cup to form into its own li’l snack muffin.

I liked how it turned out, although I wouldn’t describe it as life-changing. The hearty stuffing, combined with the zing of the peppers, made this an enjoyable (and portable!) breakfast meal.


Paleo Taco Salad

Read the ingredients list. Go ahead; I’ll wait. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? And, okay, maybe it is, with all the proper ingredients—but I fudged a little bit. I’m planning on attacking this same salad again next week, so I may try a little harder to find the missing ingredients.

What did I change? Well, Whole Foods was out of fresh cilantro (shocking, I know!), but in the freezer section, I found these little frozen cups o’ cilantro. So they’re fresh-esque, but not exactly optimal. I used them in the dressing—which was to be processed into oblivion, anyway—which I found overwhelmed the rest of the salad. However, I omitted the fresh cilantro from the salad itself (on account of not having any), so maybe that would have restored balance to it. Then again, maybe not.

Another change I made, purely out of laziness, was to substitute green peppers for the red peppers; this is because I found a bag of frozen, diced green peppers, which saved me the effort of dicing. But the flavor difference between green and red very well might have had an impact. I have less cooking to do for Week 2, so I plan to buy an actual pepper and dice it with my own two hands. We’ll see next week if that improves anything.

The last ingredient change that may have been a mistake was the lack of pico de gallo. Again, too lazy to make my own (and probably would have failed, anyway, on account of the lack of cilantro). Now, the recipe says “pico de gallo or chunky salsa”; my problem is that I missed the “chunky” part. I grabbed a jar of salsa labeled “cilantro jalapeño,” figuring it would have at least a superficial similarity to pico de gallo, but it is definitely not chunky; the second day I ate the salad, I mixed the salsa and the dressing to make some kind of unholy super dressing. It was not great.

Chicken and Avocado Caesar Salad

After my disappointment with the taco salad, I made this with low expectations. Although some of the taco salad problems might very well be all my fault (we’ll see next week), the disappointment reminded me that sometimes paleo recipes can really burn you through poor description. I worried that this Caesar salad would taste like a pale imitation of the real thing, but holy shit—this is by far the Recipe of the Week (cue Sousa march). And I say that having omitted the bacon! It’s possibly even better than what I experienced!

It’s hard to say what the secret weapon of this recipe is. The chicken seasoning, adding a nice Italian flavor? The salty bite of the anchovy paste in the dressing? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Paleo Leap’s Chicken and Avocado Caesar Salad is definitely a keeper!


Ground Beef and Cabbage Skillet

I used bagged, shredded red cabbage and LocalFolks Foods‘ Mushroom & Garden Vegetable Pasta Sauce for the tomato sauce. Like the Breakfast Stuffed Peppers, it’s a good, hearty entrée that did very little to blow my mind. However, it might improve (or, at least, add variety) to change up the sauce. I’m sure I’ll make it again (one of the virtues of the recipe is that it’s very easy to make), but next time, perhaps, I’ll use River Valley Kitchens’ Wild Mushroom Burgundy Pasta Sauce. The wine flavor might give the recipe a little more excitement. (Wine is verboten under the 30-day challenge rules, but outside of those rules, I’ve basically turned into the Cajun cook: add a cup of wine to everything!)


Primal Kitchen Greek Vinaigrette

I’ve long enjoyed Mark Sisson’s blog, so when he started pimping his “Primal Kitchen” mayo, I was intrigued. I never quite mastered the art of homemade paleo mayo, and I’m not as hung up as others on the paleo “rule” that everything must be hand-prepared… Sometimes, you have to save time and trust other people. I didn’t think Sisson would lead me astray, and he didn’t. His mayo—made with avocado oil—is great.

So when I Googled “paleo salad dressing” in the hopes of a couple of good recipes, my wondering eyes set their gaze upon Primal Kitchen dressings. Sisson expanded! Why wouldn’t I jump on another time-saving innovation from someone I trust?

I bought a two-pack of Greek Vinaigrette and Honey Mustard Vinaigrette. For the recipes above, I made the dressings they offered; for my not-too-exciting Cobb salad, I started with the Greek Vinaigrette. It has a nice, understated flavor—a typical “oil and vinegar” type of mix—with an unexpected spicy kick. I’d recommend it.

Anna’s Choice Cashew Swirls

The 30-day challenge rules limit me to four types of nut: cashews, almonds, walnuts, and macadamia nuts (one handful per day, or two tablespoons of a nut butter—yes, I snicker at that every time, too). I probably didn’t mention this on the blog, but I got braces in December. I can finally afford them, and I figured I should pull the trigger before my teeth officially all fall out. Consequently, eating nuts is not the most fun activity in the world (that’s what she said), especially since I foolishly timed this paleo challenge for the week after a major adjustment. I’ve never been a huge fan of nuts in butter form (except for peanut butter, but peanuts are not nuts and are not paleo—easily the biggest challenge of this entire lifestyle), but I had to grin and bear it.

For the sake of variety, I started investigating macadamia and walnut butters. I’m intimately familiar with both almond and cashew butter (they go into a lot of recipes), but I couldn’t recall seeing the other butters on store shelves. Online, I stumbled across Anna’s Choice swirls, which combine macadamia butter with either almonds or cashews. That was perfect, so I ordered a jar of each.

What I didn’t realize is that both include a heaping helping of coconut sugar. I’m not really a fan of that, because although coconut sugar allegedly has a lower glycemic index than cane sugar, and it’s made from coconuts (the only fruit worshipped by paleo eaters), it doesn’t conform to challenge rules and I’m suspicious of its actual nutritional content. But since I didn’t buy any other nut butters this week, I’ve been dutifully eating two tablespoons everyday, starting with Cashew Swirls.

I know cashew butter tends to be liquidy/oily, but this is ridiculous. I don’t know if macadamia nuts are similarly liquidy, which makes this stuff extra-soupy, or if the butter processing adds an excess of oil, but man… Even after rigorous stirring, this should not qualify as “butter,” or even as solid food. At room temperature, it has the thickness of maple syrup; refrigerated, it’s a teensy bit more solid. On the plus side, it makes scooping out a tablespoon easier. On the negative side, eating it is basically like eating a little thimbleful of soup; I’d probably be better off scooping it out of the jar and directly into my mouth.

I couldn’t imagine spreading this on a sandwich… Maybe it’s good for slathering on the end of a piece of celery, but I’d be concerned about it dripping. Nut oils stain (again, that’s what she said), and those particular stains are not always easy to get out. It tastes fine, but I’d advise anyone eating it to handle with caution and care.

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  • So who knew all you did to do was post about food for me to finally leave a comment…!

    It seems that every stuffed pepper recipe ever always has WAY more stuffing than peppers. These recipe-makers seem to find peppers that are the size of cereal bowls when cut in half! But that sure does look tasty.

    Beth 5 years ago Reply Link

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