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Cooking on through it all November 15, 2009

Posted by PAS in food, survivorship.
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NYC - Chelsea Market - Food Network

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In 2003, after two years of low-carb eating, I compiled the recipes and drafted a cookbook called ‘Notes from Gaelen’s Kitchen’ – my mostly meatless collection of whole foods low carb recipes, many inspired by my collection of ethnic vegetarian cookbooks.

I wrote chapter introductions and recipe notes, and started the most laborious part of cookbook writing: testing recipes over and over to be sure that anyone who could follow directions could reproduce the recipes in my cookbook, first time every time.

And then came April, 2004. Stage IV rectal cancer, metastasized to my liver. Chemo, that made everything taste like metal. It was hard to even watch cooking shows – when the sight of food brought on nausea, actually cooking it and tasting it over and over was out of the question. Eating assumed, of course, that I could taste food. But for most of chemo #! (Folfox: 5FU, Leucovorin, Oxaliplatin + Avastin), chemo #2 (Folfiri: 5FU, leucovorin, irinotecan + FUDR infused directly into my liver) and chemo #3 (a modified dose of Folfiri), I couldn’t taste much of anything unless it was sour (think lemonade without much sugar) or very spicy (hello, siracha!)

Although I won several cooking contests at the New York State Fair during 2004, 2005 and 2006, I was cooking from memory and from gut feelings about how the ingredients would taste when I made those recipes. I was not improvising with food – I was putting together trusty favorites and sending them to the judges. My palate was in no shape to create new recipes, or test recipes to make sure that everyone could follow my preparation directions. A few days ago in my review of Rebecca Katz’s cookbook, I joked that my tastebuds went on strike during chemo. Most days, that was true. Looking back, I ate a depressing amount of fast food (yes, Taco Bell!), frozen ready-to-heat meals, and food from the Wegmans prepared foods case – anything to avoid having to handle raw foods and cook things for myself from scratch.

During 2004, the Food Network ran its first ‘Next Food Network Star’ competition. Top Chef debuted its first season that year. Part of me wished that I could have auditioned to be the next Food Network star – but facing terminal cancer, I knew I couldn’t handle the pressure involved in a reality cooking show. After all, during state fair week, I only managed to prepare half of my entries, and some days didn’t take in food at all. So since I couldn’t cook, I watched (but only on my off-chemo weeks!)

I put my own cookbook writing aside and focused on living through my chemo treatments and recovering from two abdominal surgeries. After cancer, I had to re-learn how to eat, finding new lower-fiber foods to satisfy my preferred low carb diet. But I drew a line and said ‘this I cannot do’ about cooking and developing recipes. I cooked only what I needed. I stopped inventing new things, trying to puzzle out tastes from others’ recipes.

Tonight, I watched Chef Seamus Mullen, chef-owner of the two Boqueria restaurants in NYC, competing in a semi-final episode of Food Network’s ‘Next Iron Chef‘ reality cooking competition. Mullen has been a strong competitor throughout, and had made it to the final three contestants. In this episode, obviously in pain, Chef Mullen limped through the hour-long shopping expedition, and the two-hour prep time, and his presentation to the judges. Despite obvious pain, he stayed focused on his dream of being the next iron chef. He refused to let anything get in his way, even a serious flare of his rheumatoid arthritis that several times caused pain difficult enough to stop him in his tracks.

I was humbled, watching Chef Mullen continue to work no matter what. I was humbled even though in this round, he was eliminated from the competition.

And out of respect for Chef Mullen’s efforts, I’m dusting off my recipes and my cookbook notes.

I will not permit cancer, chemo, surgery or pain to continue to interfere with the essential things which define me – and cooking is one of those essential things.
I don’t know when I’ll finish ‘Notes from Gaelen’s Kitchen,’ but I have put some new ingredients on my shopping list and pulled some recipes to test, and writing is no longer on my creative back burner.

Be in harmony with your expectations. – Chinese Moon Festival wish

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Amuse my tastebuds, please! November 12, 2009

Posted by PAS in cancer, food, nutrition, survivorship.
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Salem Diner menu

Image by Teckie Kev via Flickr

amuse-bouche [a.myz.buʃ] a single, bite-sized hors d’œuvre. … These, often accompanied by a complementing wine, are served as an excitement of taste buds to both prepare the guest for the meal and to offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cooking.

I’m a self-professed foodie – a person who reads my 300+ cookbooks like novels, creates new recipes based on favorite tastes, prepares a dish over and over until I get the taste(s) right, treasures memories like the special lunch I enjoyed at Bolo in NYC, one of Bobby Flay’s first restaurants (now closed.) My tiny kitchen’s cabinets are covered with 25 years of state fair culinary competition ribbons. For me, the amuse-bouche – that single mouthful that sings with taste – is my cooking goal every time I sharpen my chef’s knife.

The first thing the nurses warned me about in chemo teaching is that my tastes would change while on chemo, food and smells might make me nauseaus, and patients were often unable to eat their favorite things because the medicine(s) changed their taste preferences so dramatically. Every chemo is a bit different, but palate-numbing is a common denominator.

While I was on chemo, my tastebuds went on strike. On the day of an infusion, I craved – watermelon. Lemon. Taco Bell. Seriously, Taco Bell. Good Mexican food was wasted on me, but the heavily salted stuff from borderline drive-thru tasted wonderful, complete with fast-food guacamole and pico de gallo. Not fresh, not organic, not seasonal. But I could *taste* it. I’m not proud to admit that a cheap beef taco was often the last real food I could manage before the chemo nausea kicked in. Days 2-14 after infusion, I had the appetite of a finicky toddler. Smells of fresh, raw or cooking food might make me hungry, or make me sick. It could literally go either way. During those days, I did find some solace in my 70s comfort food: Cauliflower Soup from Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook, Garlic Broth from Anna Thomas’s Vegetarian Epicure, and homemade pierogies from my friend Kim, or from the ladies auxiliary at the Ukranian Church got me through those days.

When chemo ended, my tastebuds limped across the chemo picket line – and some of them had clearly developed attitude problems. Spicy foods threw them into revolt. Salt levels were hit or miss. Sour tastes, fresh fruit, and creamy vegetable tasted usually tasted good – but not always. Lemon, which I don’t love, always worked during chemo and continued to work when it was over. Salmon, a pre-chemo mainstay, tasted too strong now, but smoked salmon was terrific Pepper became critical in every dish. After the end of each chemo regimen, it took me months to get back the palate sensitivity on which I’d always depended.

I examined some cancer cookbooks during treatment, but all were uniformly disappointing. I know how to make ingredients sing, make them amuse my tastebuds and incite my appetite – but the smells of cooking and the handling of raw foods often made me ill. I used a lot of premade and frozen foods while on chemo, but wondered how other patients handled the utter lack of taste in most of those cancer ‘cookbooks.’

What I would have given for a copy of One Bite at a Time, Rebecca Katz’s amazing cookbook subtitled ‘Nourishing Recipes for Cancer Survivors and Their Friends.’

If you only make one of the 20 soups Katz includes in this cookbook, it will have paid for itself. A beautiful, simple and basic vegetable stock called Magic Mineral Broth (TM) will add magic to any soup, vegetable, rice, pasta or grain where it’s used. Other recipes include Carmelized Red Onion soup; Taxicab Yellow Tomato Soup with Pesto – I could go on, but these are recipes you should discover for yourself. If you’d like a taste, check here for Katz’s online recipe selection. It includes another of my favorites from One Bite at a Time – Flourless Almond Tortes.

Food on chemo can be a challenge for both the patients and caregivers – but the recipes in Katz’s book are real food designed to deliver high taste and high nutrient value. You don’t need to have cancer to need that. Enjoy!

What was your favorite food during chemo? C’mon, admit it. After all – I admitted to Taco Bell cravings…how much worse could your craving be?

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You, too, can be part of Keurig nation March 24, 2009

Posted by PAS in food, the 'net.
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Over at “What’s that Smell,” the accidental mommies blog, they’ve reviewed and are giving away a Keurig Platinum home single cup brewing system. Click the title of this post to see the accidental mommies’ review and the contest information, and check out the Platinum brewer at http://www.keurig.com or the Keurig page for the Platinum brewer

I’ve got a Keurig–the small ‘mini’ brewer. But I’d be happy to upgrade for a free Platinum model. For me, the secret to surviving with a Keurig is a fill-your-own My K-cup, and good medium-grind medium or dark roast freshly ground coffee. I’m partial to Eight O’Clock Hazelnut, and to Paul D’Lima (nothin’ like the hometown blend) but I’ve discovered some other favorites, too. The Green Mountain Hot Cocoa K-cups are a real treat…and only 5g carbs, much simpler than making my own cocoa.

So enter now, and enter often–the contest closes on April 3 2009 at noon CST.