Essentially Sweet

I've lately been pondering the essence of sweetness. One of the rules of my diet is avoid sugar in most of its forms (sugar, evaporated cane juice, turbinado sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, juice concentrates). When reading a nutrition label,

[l]ook for words that end in "ose" or "ol" like dextrose, fructose, maltose, sucrose, glucose, lactose, mannitol and sorbitol. These are all forms of sugar. Syrups such as corn sweetener, sorghum syrup and high fructose syrups are sweeteners that are often added to drinks. Brown sugar, molasses and honey may be "natural" but they all give you the same calories as regular table sugar.

To return "sweetness" to my palate, I've been using sugar substitutes -- Splenda and Nutrasweet. By completely excluding real sugar, my palate has learned to accept Splenda as tasting like real sugar.

Have you ever had the experience of ordering colas from a restaurant and wondering if what you've just sipped from your unlabelled paper cup or glass is your "real" Pepsi or your friend's Diet Pepsi? I think this happens most often with fountain-served colas, where you're never sure that the establishment isn't trying to save a few cents by adjusting the amount of cola syrup in the drinks. I bet a really weakly mixed Coca Cola tastes a lot like a Diet Coke in these circumstances.

Up until recently I operated under the assumption that a sugar substitute was, well, a poor cousin to the real thing. After all, when your palate has just taken in a slice of chocolate cake with buttercream icing, a sugar-free chocolate candy tastes weird.

But maybe the problem lies in the relative sweetness scale. A molecule of sugar has a perceived sweetness rating; fructose has another, sorbitol another, and so forth. If you have X number of units of sucrose, you need twice as much maltose to approximate the same sweetness. But maltose may impart other flavors beside "sweet": maybe it has a burned quality, or a hint of spoiled salmon (who knows). So now you have to rejigger the other flavors in what you're making to compensate, and your simple substitution has gotten a lot more complicated.

Try this thought experiment: take three cups of coffee from the same pot. Add a teaspoon of sugar to one, a teaspoon of granulated Splenda to the second, and a teaspoon of mystery powder to the third. Sample all three.

The mystery powder is sugar that has been magically stripped of its insulin-triggering properties. You get no high, no sugar crash, no endorphin tickle. It's just "sweet" as you've always remembered. You're not feeling any physical "reward" from this product and your blood chemistry is as undisturbed as if you were drinking tap water.

Does it "taste" the same?

My theory is that when I really crave sweets, I am not craving just the taste experience but the whole physical reaction. It's a chemical pleasure I've gotten used to and want to return to.

If this is correct, then it doesn't matter if one day a chemist discovers a way to de-sugar-fy a sugar molecule the way we decaffeinate coffee, because we aren't craving the sugary taste: we want the sugary high.

And if that is the case, we're moving beyond the realm of self-discipline and stick-to-it-iveness, aren't we?

After all: do you know anyone who can't go a whole week without a salad?


Stair Master

This isn't a blog about big issues. I'm just trying to capture all those easily overlooked aspects of a life change I thinkg pretty much anyone can accomplish. And the supply little differences is inexhaustible.

At my office the second floor is separated from the first by a pair of staircases framing a grand atrium-like lobby. There are 15 steps on either side. If I need to speak to someone about one of my projects, I usually end up going up the stairs, even if it is just a little thing.

It was not too long ago that I would top the stairs and be out of breath. I'd cover it up by holding my breath or suppressing my gasping (not wanting to appear as unfit as I was), but if I got into a conversation I was screwed. I literally had to stop talking to breathe, which made me more than a little self-conscious, which adds stress, which made me find it harder to get to the point. Face it, it was a mess.

I just noticed over the past few days that I've got so much energy that I try to take the stairs as fast as I can, with a satisfying THUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMP as I do it. At first I did it to see if I could, and now I'm doing it because I can. And I'm not gasping at the top, either. In fact I feel kind of OK.

I'm still months and months away from being "in shape," but the changes so far have already made a difference.



Last night our son woke up several times and wanted to share the experience. When I am fully awakened I find it difficult to get back to sleep, so I ended up working from 3AM on today.

Today was the first time I was going to try a morning workout. By "morning," I mean when the gym opens (5:30AM) to wrap up by 6:20AM so I can get home and shower and get the boy ready for daycare. I was on the dark, foggy streets at 5:15AM, waited a little to get in, and did my full workout only skimping 5 minutes on my cardio.

Once home I showered, dressed, got the boy to daycare, returned home to receive a plumber, rushed back to the office, worked nonstop (10 minutes for lunch) on a variety of zany things, picked up the boy from daycare, drove home, rushed to a hardware store to buy something they did not have in stock, and returned home for dinner at 7:15.

On my workout card, the instructions say to start doing two repetitions of my exercises. Before I only did one, I guess to break in on the equipment. Doing the same stuff twice as much was a challenge and except for two already puny muscle groups I was able to do it without hurting too much.

But I noticed something today: I'm tired. Really beat. Ready to sleep on my feet. Just punked out.

I haven't felt this way in a long while. When I started on my diet, by omitting all sugar highs and crashes I seriously screwed up my body's signals for telling me when I was hungry. All my cues were mixed up. I'd be going along and suddenly feel like dropping dead for lack of food. No appetite, just a switch from nonhungry to very hungry. That settled down and I started to learn new cues for being ready to eat.

What I find interesting is that a similar situation occurred with the concept of being "tired." I have loads of energy but I've not been tired like this. And when I remember fatigue, I think of the daily "sugar crashes" I'd have where I needed either coffee or more sweets to perk myself up again. That's not happening any more. My system is so even-keeled that I only feel tired when I have some real reasons to be. If I skip on sleep, I'm otherwise OK through the day. I'm rarely "dragging."

This has paid huge dividends at work, where mental acuity formerly came from the bottom of a Dunkin Donuts iced coffee.

By the way, I plan to work out three times a week: once in the early AM, once in the evening after work, and when I can fit it in on a weekend. I think this minimizes the impact on my wife's schedule, who also works hard and has not been drafted to daycare while I have "fun."


Grilling to Perfection

I grill every week, sometimes twice, and with repetition my techniques are getting more and more well-honed.

Hardware: I use a Weber Silver One-Touch, a housewarming gift from my parents. I've had it for two years and have already replaced the grille once. I use a Weber chimney starter instead of lighter fluid and an inexpensive fireplace lighter because I got tired of firing up matches that blow out in the teasing wind. The vents are always open.

I take three or four paper towels from the kitchen and give them a light spritz on one side from a can of aerosol canola oil. That little bit of oil makes the paper act like a candle and keeps it burning long enough to set the coals off. (I picked up this tip from Alton Brown.)

I load the chimney up to the top, sometimes heaping a little over (give the coal a shake to help it settle. I've tried cooking with different amounts of coal depending on what I was cooking, but that increases the unpredictability. If you start with roughly the same amount of coal each time, you can more easily adjust cooking times and food placement than when your fire varies by 200 degrees from fire to fire. Cutting down the variables is a way to get consistently good results.

I use wood coal bought by the sack at Whole Foods or Trader Joes or the local hardware store. I prefer it for several reasons: (1) the bags are lighter than pressed briquets and it is easier to handle them; (2) they burn hotter (though that means they also burn shorter); (3) they burn cleaner without any oily smell.

Once the fire is lit, it usually takes about 15 minutes for the chimney to be ready. I use this time to put all the food on aluminum-foil-lined plates, ready for delivery to the grill. The hamburger is seasoned, the steaks coated, etc. etc. Everything must be ready to cook.

Another advantage of the chimney is that all the coals are lit at the same time and burn down together. (I think that enhances the overall heat produced.) I remember setting up barbecues where the goal was to build a pyramid of coals and get them started with lighter fluid and fanning. The coals on the edges did not catch until much later on while the coals at the bottom were already past peak.

The fire is ready when a blue flame starts dancing at the top of the chimney. Another way to tell is, if you wait too long, the chimney starts to glow orange and begin to bend in the heat.

Wearing a work glove, I grab the chimney by the handle and up-end it into the grill, keeping my head away from the sparks and ash. I then use some old tongs to push the coals around and distribute as needed -- usually I make an even layer, but on occasion I will go for a "hot zone/medium zone" by banking the coals. I then put the red-hot chimney somewhere safe to cool off.

When I am cooking for the week, I plan out my food and the desired heat. For example, yesterday I grilled two beefsteaks for dinner that night, a porterhouse and a strip steak, both coated with salt and crushed pepper (four minutes per side); a tuna steak (four minutes per side); eight six-ounce hamburgers; twelve sausages (7-9 minutes), then some asparagus (5-7 minutes). The steaks and tuna got the first, hottest heat; then the hamburgers, with the sausage ringing the grill; then the sausage moved to the center for finishing; then the asparagus.

In this situation, I added another few handfuls of coals to the already hot fire before putting the grill on. Put on too much and it starts to smoulder and issue an off-putting smell until they heat up. But adding fresh coal to the fire lengthens the grilling time overall.

Once the coals are distributed, I throw the grill on top and let it heat up. I then brush it with a copper wire brush to get rid of any food debris or fat from previous cooking. If I am cooking fish, I may give the grill another scrubbing midway to avoid imparting off flavors to the later foods.

The last most important piece of equipment I use is an electronic timer. I usually get distracted with so many small things to tend, so if I just use my watch I will forget whether it was four minutes or three since the second hand passed the 12. My timer faithfully counts down what I want it to, and after a while it has gotten so that I'll trust the timer over my own inspection of whether a piece is "done" yet.

Something to keep in mind: your food will continue to keep cooking when you take it off the grill. A thick cut of steak needs five minutes or more to "settle down" and bind up, and its internal temperature will continue to rise for a few more minutes. So if it is perfect when you cut into it on the grill, it will be overdone when it reaches the plate.

That's all I can think of regarding grilling without getting into specific recipes. None of my stuff is at all expensive, and with practice you will get amazingly professional results.