Delicious Nostalgia with a Spin!

Sometime during the holidays a friend invited me to a party at her place and served a potato-cod dish that was delicious. When I asked about it, she said it was made with salted cod. Are you kidding me? Where on earth did you find salted cod? I could not believe it, it had been so many years! Spanish Table is the place! There is one in Marin County and there is one in Berkeley that I know of.

I don’t know how well known salted cod is here on the West Coast. In Magdalen Island, where I’m from, it used to be something that every family would have. Heavily salted, the fish would keep for months without spoiling which, in a world before freezer, was gold really. Obviously there were freezers when I was a kid (oh c’mon!) but I still remember having salted cod fish cakes as a kid. Those were traditional really and like the “meat pies” every family had their own recipe for. At the time it was on the cheap side: Mashed potatoes, desalted cod (we’ll get to that) onions, there you go! Two things happened that changed everything: 1- with everybody owning a freezer, why would we bother with salting (or smoking*) fish? 2- Cod fishing took a dive in the North Atlantic for several years, the stocks being down dramatically, the quotas all but disappeared. Cod became rare, and pricey and well… too fuffy for salting!

Now, salted cod is inedible. You cannot eat it without first desalting it. Why bother then? Because desalted cod does not taste the same as fresh cod, it just doesn’t. There’s a dry-ish quality to it that is just different. Once desalted you can do pretty much anything with it, but it’s better mixed with something than by itself. If you want a steamed or fried cod filet, get fresh cod (black cod from H&H comes to mind, oh my!) but if you want to make fish cakes, salted cod is really hard to beat! I have been meaning to grab some salted cod for some time and Sunday I happened to be at Spanish Table and just decided it was time to do it! Tomorrow I’m off, I am making fish cakes!

My new obsession is seasonal cooking. I work for the CUESA and am at all 3 Farmer’s Market every week. Surrounded by the best and the freshest food in the world, I’d be a fool not to make the best of the seasonal bounty. I wanted to incorporate some market goodness to my fish cakes. Because of that this recipe isn’t exactly traditional it’s more my spin on something I grew up with. Please nobody send me emails telling me “but you didn’t put in browned onions!” or “there is no butter in your potatoes” I know! Try this you won’t miss the burned.. huh I mean browned onions or the butter. I promise!

First a few comments on the ingredients I used:

Fingerling potatoes
I used fingerling potatoes because I wanted my potatoes to be chunky and have lots of texture to them.

Desalted cod
The salted cod comes in packs of 1 lb, I used only half. As long as it’s salted, the cod will last for months in the freezer (it will never freeze though!). Once desalted, it last about as long as regular fish.Before desalting, know what you will do with it!

Green onion kumquats

Ok, this is a bit of a cheat because I took the picture before I actually made the recipe. I used only 1 kumquat because I didn’t want to overpower the fish with it. I also didn’t use the shallot half for the same reason.
I am totally in love with kumquats! I mince them into everything. It just gives this strong but not overpowering citrus flair to any dish. I use very little because it goes a long way.

Bodega Serrano Chile Goat Cheese
Finally, I used Bodega Goat Cheese serrano cheese. Not a lot, just about 1/2 oz in place of butter in my mashed potatoes. This is the best idea I’ve had in ages! It was absolutely delicious. It’s creamy, it’s tasty and the Serrano in there have a humongous bite. Try it, you will not regret it.

Salted Cod Fish Cakes

1 lbs fingerling potatoes (if you don’t want skin in your mashed potatoes, use bigger ones and peel)
8 oz salted cod
1/2 oz soft goat cheese with serrano Chile
1 kumquat, minced
1 green onion, minced
Salt & Pepper (careful with the salt!)
1 Egg white
Flour (I measured before and after, used about 1 TBSP total if that much)
Grapeseed oil (I used about 1 1/2 TBSP)

The night before:
Put the salted cod in a bowl with enough water to cover completely and put in the fridge. Change the water a few times until you are ready to use it (I changed it before bed, in the morning, and at noon). You can’t eat salted cod without de-salting it first. Desalted cod doesn’t taste the same as fresh cod… it’s just not the same!

A few hours before serving time (I did that around 2pm):
Put the potatoes in a casserole with enough water to cover and a little bit of salt. Cook 15 20 minutes until fork tender. Drain completely and mash the potatoes (I used a fork to break down the skins too). Add the cheese to the potatoes and mix very well.

While the potatoes are cooking, drain the cod and poach in water for about 10 minutes or until it flakes easily. Once cooked drain and break apart with a fork.

In a big bowl mix the cod, the potatoes, the kumquat and the green onions. Add pepper (and salt if needed, but it shouldn’t be really), shape in a big ball at the bottom of the bowl and put in the fridge to rest for a bit.

Mixed and ready to rest

A bit before dinner time:
Divide the potato-fish mix into 6 cakes (I like them rather thin, but it’s a matter of taste). Dunk each cake in egg white and dust with flour. Heat up the oil in a hot pan and fry for about 2 minutes per side or until browned and crispy. Serve hot.

Fish Cakes Final Product

Those can be frozen and reheated! My aunt freezes them uncooked and then throws them in the deep fryer. Her’s have no cheese in them though.
Those cakes are fairly big, it could easily make smaller cakes or even bite sized ones for appetizers.
You don’t have to let it rest between mixing the ingredients and shaping the cakes but I find that it makes them easier to work with.

So there you go! These were absolutely delicious. They made 3 servings (6 fish cakes) and those are big so really it could be 6 servings, but honestly we ate the whole thing in one sitting! It was that good!

Happy Cooking everybody!

* Thankfully a family back home decided to keep the art of smoking fish the “old way”. Look here Fumoir D’antan for information about what they are up to!

Slowing Down

Tonight we ate the last of the Tcho chocolate. 1 oz each, 10+ minutes of pure deliciousness! Yes, it really took us that long, maybe more, to eat an ounce of chocolate. This is a new concept for me, and I’m loving it! You see, Saturday we visited the Tcho chocolate factory at Pier 17. It was organized by the CUESA for the volunteers. So a troop of us lined up, hair net and all to visit the factory and of course taste some delicious chocolate!

The tour
The tour was fabulous. Meb, a fellow volunteer who also works for Tcho, gave us a talk about the history of chocolate, what it is, isn’t, the productions techniques, etc. She also talked about what Tcho does to help the farmers they are dealing with by providing them with the equipment and the knowledge they need to produce better more profitable chocolate. I am a food nerd, so I knew it would interest me but I have to say I was impressed with Meb’s presentation. I learned a lot!

Obviously the smells in the factory are swoon-worthy. Walking by all that chocolate and not being permitted to steal any borders on the verge of torture. Ok, it’s not water-boarding, but it’s MEAN!

Tasting the goodness
After we came out of the production part of the building, we shed our beautiful hair nets (that could be the next trend!) and eagerly walked toward the tasting area.

Now I have mentioned before that I tend to eat very fast, probably faster than anybody I know. I refer to myself as a vacuum eater and slowing down has been my battle of the last 10 years. I walked in the tasting area feeling slightly self conscious and kept reminding myself “don’t just gobble it up”, “take your time”, and looking around for some cues on how to proceed.

There was no need to worry because Meb gave us a lesson on how to really taste and enjoy chocolate. It was SO FUN!

  • Smell it.
  • Warm it up a little in your hands (if it’s good quality, it won’t melt right away).
  • Bring it to your ear and break it, it should make a sharp snapping sound.
  • Put a piece in your mouth and let it melt slowly (chewing it brings out the bitterness).
  • Notice the nuances in flavors as the chocolate slowly melts.

It was the best chocolate I had ever experienced! The taste kept changing as it melted and the complexities of the taste became really evident as we tasted different chocolates. Before this, I would have said that chocolate tastes like… chocolate. Dark chocolate is sharper, a little bitter and milk chocolate is creamier and much sweeter. Now I can tell you that there’s a dark chocolate that has nutty undertones, one that is almost sour, and that the 99% cacao will traumatize your mouth!

Sharing the lesson
I bought my 3 favorites to share the experience with my husband. I was so excited to have him experience what I had! When we tasted the first piece, he did what we’ve always done, throw it in his mouth and start chewing.

“Wait! You’re doing it all wrong!”
“I’m eating chocolate wrong?”
“Yes you are! You are eating too fast.”
“I’m eating too fast? You are telling me that?”

Did I mention that if I’m vacuum eater, my husband takes forever to eat? It’s been a subject of discussion off and on over the years. The whole situation was pretty funny. I proceeded to explain to him what I had learned and he tried it “my way”. It was fun to see him realize what I was talking about.

It took us 3 days to eat 6 oz of chocolate between the two of us. That in itself is an achievement, but we (at least I) have learned an important lesson. Slowing down isn’t a punishment, it’s a gift!

Slowing down isn’t just about weight
I’ve always tried to force myself to eat slower because I know that it takes 20 minutes for my stomach to tell my brain “Ok, I’ve had enough now, stop calling for food.” I can shovel in a lot of food in 20 minutes at the speed I’m eating. Eating slower has always been a way to curb overeating.

All of us who have dealt with weight issues have had that experience of eating one chip, and then realizing you’re at the end of the bag without really tasting anything in between. Sometimes without even realizing that we ate the middle of it too! Slowing down our eating certainly helps us keep that mindless eating at bay. Making a conscious effort means we are more aware, right there that makes a difference.

There is more to it than that though. Chocolate isn’t just chocolate, same as coffee isn’t just coffee. You can have a waxy chocolate bar that doesn’t taste like anything (try spending 10 minutes on an ounce of that and see how it tastes) or you can have the real thing from a quality chocolate maker. Thing is, if you gobble it up really fast you will never taste the difference. It’s the same thing as someone who reads real fast, you see the beginning and the end, and your brain fills the blanks. If you eat super fast, your brain goes “yup, that’s chocolate” and fills up the blanks by sending you the “chocolate taste signal” because you’re eating too fast for your taste buds to do their job. If you take your time every part of the process have time to do their job, send the right messages, and you really, truly can experience what food really taste like.

Tonight I cooked carrots in a foil packet with dried lemon, thyme and garlic for the first time. Taking my time while I was eating, I discovered that the carrots were roasted just perfectly, that the thyme was fresh. I detected a hint of the lemon, and realized that I need to buy new garlic, mine is getting old.

It’s more than just slow down so that you don’t overeat, it’s slow down and pay attention to every single thing you are eating. The complexities of everything we are eating are there for use to experience, we just have to give ourselves time to take it in. To me it’s a whole new way of thinking about what I eat. A new food adventure!

Now I go make my list for the Farmer’s Market tomorrow. First on my list: Garlic!

Training too much? Me?

I’ve always been a big believer in the Inertia law: “A body in motion tends to remain in motion; A body on the couch isn’t going anywhere.”

For years I have embodied both sides of that deal. I’ve had long periods of regular activity, and equally long periods of couch time. As I was ready to finish my certification and begin my career as a personal trainer this summer, I decided that couch time was over for good. I would just keep training no matter what!

I did well too! I lifted weights regularly, I trained for and ran my very first 5K, I did a boot camp twice a week followed by a swimming workout. I had a lot of fun really… until the last week of August.

The previous week I was particularly tired, I did have trouble sleeping and decided that it was nothing to worry about, I would just pull through it. My hip was also sore a lot, which was new, but I had added uphills to my runs, so I figured I was adapting to the new terrain. I pushed through the week, telling myself that next week was to be better. How wrong can one be?

Monday morning, I dragged myself almost walking backward to the gym, I didn’t want to, my knee was hurting for the first time in months, I hadn’t slept right I just felt like a mess. Halfway into my workout I just walked out and went home. I didn’t run that day, I felt like walking was just too much. Tuesday, I skipped boot camp. I just couldn’t get up, I was hurting again, but more than anything I was sick of it. I didn’t want to work out. Finally Thursday I dragged myself to boot camp and realized that I physically could not keep up. I didn’t not have the energy to do the workout, I did about half of it, hating every second of it. Afterward sitting in the car I realized that the very thought of going for a swim was making me feel nauseous.

WTF? I absolutely love to swim! It’s not a workout to me, it’s moving meditation. As I sat in the car, everything around me seemed to close in. “I can’t keep up, I can’t work out, I’ll never be a trainer, I can’t even train myself!” I just sat in the car crying, total melt down. Sometimes letting it out is needed I guess, I don’t know that the parking lot at Crissy Field is the ideal place but… Finally I calmed down, drove home sniffling, and sat back down to study.  As it turned out, the chapter I was starting talked about over training.  Isn’t it funny how things happen sometimes?

What is over training? 
Basically over training is something that “commonly occurs in athletes or fitness enthusiasts who are training beyond the body’s ability to recover” (NASM Essential Personal Fitness Training Manual p. 286). I like that description because it really seems to encompass all the factors at play in what happens there. It answers this simple question: How come athletes who train for the Olympics train 6-7 days/week at a lot higher intensity than I do, and yet they don’t end up sitting in their car at Crissy Fields crying their eyes out? Because their body have a recovery capacity that far out perform my own. Duh! right? Well yeah, but there is more to it than that.

Athletes do over train sometimes, and funny enough, so do beginners! For competitive athletes, it’s easy to understand that with a lifetime of achievement being at stake, it’s easy to lose one’s focus and to overdo it in the hope of bringing greater results. It’s not wise, but it’s understandable. Every Olympics we see a few examples of athletes who had great potential, but show up for the games burned out from their training and sadly crash during competition.

Ok, athletes I get, but newbies like me? Really?
It’s not so easy to understand how somebody who’s just getting started could over train.  I think there are two sides to this:

First, we tend to want to start training today and see results yesterday. We watch the biggest loser, and other such fantasy shows and think we can just go from hours on the couch to hitting the gym for hours every day, and go from flab to fab in a nano second. The problem with that is that the body recovers during rest, the more work is imposed on the body, the more rest it needs. Of course, the better conditioned the body is, the faster it can recover, needing a shorter rest period for a bigger training volume (but rest is always needed!). When you hit the gym for the first time in 10-15-20 years, your ability to recover is on slow motion for a while. The idea is to start slow, give the body sufficient rest time, and progressively increase the training volume as you become more conditioned. The same is true when you start a new sport since you are often working new muscles, or working them differently, and your body needs time to condition itself to the new pattern of movement to improve its recovery ability.

The other side of this issue is that we “know” that to lose weight starvation is required (please note the sarcasm in here). Unfortunately, starvation and training do not go well together. Truth is that you have to eat to lose weight, and that to work out, your body needs fuel (carbs, proteins, fats, a slew of nutrients) to keep going, and help recovery. Oh wait! There’s that word again, recover!

Insufficient food intake inhibits the body’s ability to perform (because it doesn’t have the fuel to power up) and to recover, making over training more likely.  There is a fine line between eating little enough to lose weight, but enough to be able to power through one’s work outs. Sometimes that line is hard to find because really, it’s in a different spot for everybody. The bottom line is that you will not be able to eat little enough to lose 2-3 lbs/week, and still have enough fuel to power through a high intensity work out every day and recover fast enough to keep the pace without feeling the symptoms of over training. Balance is the key, and having a clear view of your goals.

What to look for?
As I am writing this I realize that in mid August I decided to lose a few lbs because I thought it would make me look more “like a trainer”. So I added to my work outs, and cut down my food intake. Oops! Vanity is a b…There are tons of factors that can make a difference in your ability to recover. Sleep is certainly one of them, stress level is another. The best way to keep yourself from over doing it, and maximize your body’s ability to recover is to make sure you eat enough varied healthy foods , that you build your work out volume progressively, and that you remember that rest is a huge part of working out.

Here are some the symptoms that might be a clue that you are over training;

  • Decreased performance
  • Fatigue
  • Altered hormonal states
  • Poor sleeping patterns
  • Reproductive disorders
  • Decreased immunity
  • Loss of appetite (if only!)
  • Mood disturbances
  • Lack of enthusiasm for training (abnormal lack of enthusiasm that is)
  • Altered immune system ability
  • Altered resting heart rate
  • Pain/ongoing soreness

So what do I do?
What do you do if you suspect that you might be over training? First, check with your doctor to make sure it is not something more serious, you can never be too safe! Then, take a few days off from training, see how that helps. I do mean days off, not “oh I’m getting burned out from running so I’ll swim for a few days” (not that such thoughts would ever occur to me…:oD). More importantly, take a good look at your training routine, your food log and your sleeping patterns, and make the necessary adjustment so that it doesn’t happen again.

Lets not confuse the soreness of a new routine with over training. Those are two different issues, the first week or two you are supposed to be sore, but weeks into it if you still are abnormally sore, tired, if it affects your every day life, then it’s time to think about it. Of course, chances are that you are either not eating enough in general, not eating enough of certain nutrients (cutting the carbs too much?) or need more sleep. There’s also the possibility that you have been too ambitious in your work out planning and need to step it back a little. It’s ok, don’t worry! You will get there, you just can’t run before you learn how to walk right?

Nobody said it would be easy, but I’m saying it can be so much fun!!

NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training