Saturday, May 18, 2013

My New Lunch Obsession: Pret a Manger

A new job in a new part of town inevitably means having to find new places for lunch. Sure, your typical Corner Bakeries and Potbellys and whatnot abound, but there is no cafeteria in my new building to fix a simple salad and no Hannah's Bretzel or Chicago's Downtown Farmstand (RIP) for my Au Naturale fix.

It was more of an accident than anything else the first time I wandered into Pret a Manger. I had never been inside one before-- it's entirely possible I've never seen one before-- but it's funny how once you discover a place you can't un-discover it. I feel like now I see them everywhere. And that's a good thing! Pret is totally one of those au naturale fast food places that Michael Pollan was referencing when he answered my travel question. They sell sandwiches, salads, soups, and snacky things but everything is made fresh in-house daily, with organic when they can get it, and sourced locally as much as possible. The best part? They don't carry anything over day by day. If they have leftover food at closing, they donate it to local food shelters. As I've said in previous posts: good for my body and my conscience. You can even see how they react in real-time with employees constantly coming out of the back kitchen bearing freshly-made items to restock any items that are running low. It's nice to know that my Farmer's Market salad (my current lunch obsession de jour) hasn't been sitting and wilting since 9am. Only once have I entered to find them out of my choice, and when one friendly employee saw me hovering, he asked what I was waiting for then scurried into the back and had someone prepare the salad for me immediately. Great customer service! The prices are pretty reasonable, too.

Anyway, that's my new discovery and shout out for the day. I'm glad Pret exists, and I'm even more glad I found it in my new work 'hood. I certainly haven't explored all that is out there in regards to other potential au naturale options; I can sometimes become a creature of habit and I expect my current obsession with the Farmers Market salad to last a while until I decide I JUST CAN'T have it one day more. Perhaps as the weather gets better I will be more apt to venture out of the 3 or 4 block radius I've carved for myself. But until then, I've found my fix.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Michael Pollan is a God

With Michael Pollan, who's totally ignoring me.

No, he's not actually ignoring me. I mainly just photobombed him after he signed a copy of my book and while he was conversing with someone else. Yes, I was that person. No, I am not proud.

But I won't lie- I was SO super-psyched to see him in person. The BF and I bought tickets to his event/book tour/speaking engagement at Elmhurst College months ago. Michael Pollan is a huge influence on the Au Naturale conversion-- watching "Food Inc." was the tipping point and I've devoured pretty much all of his books-- so the opportunity to see him in person was just too much to pass up. It was a great event: he is a wonderful public speaker, and although a lot of the event was to promote his newest book, 'Cooked', I hung on to his every word and even learned some new and interesting tidbits. That ticket was $15 well spent.

At the end of the event, they opened up for some Q&A and I just couldn't resist. I thought of all that I had learned on this journey, all I still wanted to learn, and what kind of things I wanted to know about him if I ever got the chance to ask. When it was my turn to step up to the microphone, I decided to go with a problem that has plagued me since the beginning. One my loyal readers know about far too well.

After first telling him that he's been an influence on me and how I try to eat Au Naturale as often as I can, I explained that up until recently I worked at a job that involved lots of business travel to places where the nearest restaurant in a gazillion mile radius was McDonald's, making an Au Naturale diet virtually impossible. "As someone who also travels a lot, with your book tour and speaking engagements and whatnot," I opined, "I'm curious to know how you handle that challenge?"

Michael Pollan nodded enthusiastically. "That's a great question," he responded.

I beamed.

He then went on to explain that it was a struggle for him, too. He thinks airports are the worst. His safe bet is to eat vegetarian if he's on the road. However, he's encouraged by the number of small, fast food-like local and organic restaurants that are popping up everywhere, making it easier for those of us who need the fast food but don't want to eat... well, traditional fast food.

Nothing ground-breaking, but it was great to hear his take on it and reassuring that even he finds it as much of a challenge as I do. I was glad I asked the question, because although the actual travel part is no longer applicable to my life, the challenges of eating irregularly will soon be back.

"Wait, back up," you're thinking. "You're not traveling anymore?"

No, loyal readers, I am not. In the past few posts I've made vague references to Big Life Things and now it's time to reveal them! Not only do I have a new job (why I'm not traveling anymore) but in a few months I will be leaving the Real World to go back to school for a masters degree. Whoo hoo! I've been vague about it because I was terrified that I might not get into any program at all and then I'd be writing with my tail between my legs. But after over a year of taking standardized tests, writing more drafts of more essays than I can count, then struggling with the choice of where to go when I was fortunate enough to get accepted to multiple programs, it is over. For a few brief months, I can go back to a normal life. (By the way, the essay writing is why I was ignoring the blog: 1 free hour to write a blog post = 1 free hour to work on the essays some more. As much as I love to write, it was hell.)

The normal life, aka 9-to-5, evenings free, weekends free, will be short-lived, which is why my question to Michael still seemed relevant. My MBA program will be an super-intensive two years. Beyond classes, I will have group meetings, presentations, professional club events, case competitions, career treks, international travel and more. All these things will stretch into late nights, weekends, lunches, and beyond. 9-to-5 will seem like a dream.  I see lots of pizza and beer in my future (apparently MBA-ers like to drink. A lot.) I will be on a very restricted budget. I will most likely be living in the school cafeteria or subject to events that lure you with promises of food (because masters students, just like undergrads, love events with free food).

All of this will take a toll on the Au Naturale lifestyle. Back when I was doing business travel to college campuses, a lot of my clients were food service providers so I got a good inside look into the modern college cafeteria. It's changed a lot since my undergrad days, in a good way. A lot more fresh cooking, efforts to source locally, healthier fare. But it's still out of my control, and even when I'm eating at home I know I will be too rushed and too tired to often want to put a lot of effort into my cooking.

I'm going to try not to sweat it. I think the slow cooker will come out often, and I hope that the BF and I will be on the ball with canning and freezing some awesome produce at the start of the summer so we have staples at the ready when we need it. Who knows, perhaps things won't be as crazy as I'm making them out to be. From what I've heard, though.... well, we'll see. But it will be an adventure, and with any good adventure, I look forward to experiencing the ride and seeing where it ends up.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

I'm So Bored!!!! (With Breakfast)

It's true. For someone who loves breakfast-- and certainly don't get me started on how awesome brunch is-- I am BORED.

The recent Big Life Things have meant that I now have more time for a proper breakfast. To be clear, I've been better about eating it since my Au Naturale conversion because don't you know that breakfast is the most important meal of the day?? But while I used to have just enough time to inhale a piece of whole wheat bread topped with almond butter and a banana before rushing out the door, I can now make eggs (pasture raised, natch).

So I make eggs. And more eggs. And even more eggs.

A few weeks ago I got antsy and started craving cereal so I started eating cereal. Hey, I thought, at least with the milk I'm getting more calcium in my diet. Then the cereal ran out. So I went back to eggs.

After getting bored again, I bought mushrooms from the mushroom guy at the winter Farmer's Market to try to make the eggs more interesting. Then I got sick of mushrooms.

So it's time to find something new. While I have lots of breakfast recipes (perhaps if you're good little kiddos I will post the ever popular cottage cheese pancake recipe) and more time than before, I don't want to spend all morning making breakfast for myself. Also because I am not even remotely close to being a "morning person", having to use enough brain energy to do something totally creative every day before the coffee kicks in is bound to result in failure.

But my biggest dilemma is that most recipes I've found either involve, you guessed it, EGGS, or are super carb heavy. For those of you who might remember the story of trying to kick my carbaholic habit,  I don't really love that option, either. So my key to preparing breakfast creatively is to find the creativity within itself: the creativity in ingredients.

So far, I've compiled just a few good ingredients that can be arranged in quick, varying ways:


So for example, I could make either a smoothie or a parfait with the fruit. But I know I need to add more or else I'll get bored. Again.  Here's where I turn it to you, loyal readers. Any favorites? Other suggestions? I will be happy to give you a shout out. What breakfast foods make you super happy in the morning? I'll give you all the credit via regular update with reviews, ratings, or even just recipe alerts. It's been a while since I posted one of those. I owe you at least that. Alright? Now get to it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Where is the Au Naturale Drive-Thru??

There is a post I wrote sometime in the past that I desire to link to, but am too lazy right now to dig around and find. It's about expanding waist lines, the ever-present Health Thing, and the fact that eating too much Au Naturale food is still eating too much food. Perhaps you can go look for it on your own? (Tee hee. See what I did there?)

In any case, I was reminded of this post the other day- most days, lately- when I put on a pair of my more forgiving work slacks and had a muffin top the likes of which you only see in a Panera bakery counter. Blech.

(Wait- didn't I use that terrible analogy in a previous post, too? Someone look it up and let me know.)

This recent health decline is, without a doubt, due to the stresses of the Big Life Things that I mentioned 2 posts ago. During the height of it I didn't have much time to cook, when I did it was nothing really remarkable, and I dealt with the stress by eating and drinking way too much. I've never been much of an exerciser- more like a reluctant exerciser- but I've also been moving around a lot less than I normally do. If I wore a pedometer, it would be seeking counseling for neglect.

Granted, I could go out and buy those organic frozen dinners, but there's a lot of evidence that pre-packaged organic is getting less and less so, and it's a drain on the wallet. And it's a frozen dinner. Meh.
It also wasn't very motivating when we had all kinds of CSA deliciousness that should have been used before we could justify going out and buying completely different food. But, as sad as I am that the Farm Box season is over, I'm slightly relieved that I can go out and buy some staples to make easy dinners instead of having to figure out how to use what was given to me.

Sometimes I wish there was an Au Naturale version of McDonald's, complete with a drive-thru for seasonal ingredients, pasture-raised burgers and chicken sandwiches, quinoa parfaits, etc. Wouldn't that be awesome? Perhaps there's a business idea in there. In fact, I once sat on a panel at a college where students were giving presentations for charitable ideas/clubs for which they wanted start-up funding. One girl had just that idea. Unfortunately, it wasn't developed at all and she had really very little clue of what it takes to run a restaurant, or how to make money selling premium organic meals at a discount, but she had the right idea for the right reasons. In any case, I appreciated her vision then. And certainly now.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Here, Fishy Fishy Fishy...

I was posting the previous blog post onto my twitter feed (ahem) when my eyes caught this post from Slow Food USA:

This, my loyal readers is TERRIBLE NEWS. Sadly, this news isn't new at all.

First of all, show of hands: who even knew bluefin tuna was in this much trouble? If you didn't, you're not the only one. At many a sushi restaurant here in Chicago you can still easily find it on the menu. It's not like shark fin soup, which everyone seems to know is bad. If a reputable US restaurant has it on the menu, it can't be that bad or unethical to eat, can it?

I admit that until a few years ago, I didn't think so. On our third date, the BF and I went to a sushi restaurant where he whipped out his copy of the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch list so he could order responsibly. I had never seen or heard of this thing. Clearly, our waitress did not either: as he probed where and how certain fish were caught, she kept assuring us the fish was fresh. Not was he was asking, ma'am. 

But I was intrigued (after the date, he remarked that he was glad I didn't run out of the restaurant thinking he was some sort of a freak for having a seafood guide). As I didn't have a smartphone to download the electronic copy, he gave me a nifty little wallet-sized Shedd Aquarium seafood guide. I've used the same one ever since. 

Which reminds me: I now have both a smartphone and a need for the updated guide. Hold on a sec.... okay, I'm back.

But when it comes to making only intelligent seafood choices, I'm not perfect. Sushi is far and away my favorite food, so it's really hard to say no to things that I'm just a sucker for, although they may be in the yellow zone. However, I do put my foot down on bluefin. There is a sushi restaurant near me that has a special (although I'm not sure why its called a special when it seems to be on the menu every time) that serves tuna sashimi 3 ways: otherwise known as 3 levels of fattiness. And make no mistake, it's delicious, without comparison. Every time a good friend from New York visits, she always requests one evening at this restaurant simply because of the tuna special. Last time, though, I inquired with the waitress about the type of tuna they used for it. As soon as she told me, I just couldn't order that appetizer along with her. You get one guess why.

Don't get me wrong- I wanted it. But I also want to be part of the solution, and the solution is not really all that difficult. By making my voice known with my dollars and decreasing demand, fishing will decrease. When that happens, the tuna population can relatively quickly bounce back. Fishermen overfish because they say their livelihood depends on it. But yet they've never given an answer to what they will do if they cause their own livelihood to go extinct. Cutting back won't make them a ton of money, but it will keep them in business for far longer than if they continue down this road. And with proper regulation- if that ever happens- we can all happily enjoy bluefin moving forward. But if not, enjoy your next piece, because it may be your last.

By the way, curious about what the Seafood Watch is? Click on that link above. They even have an app (available here) that you can download to have at your fingertips. Not only will it help guide you on responsible purchasing choices as it relates to seafood populations and ecosystems, it will also help you make healthy choices in terms of mercury levels, and your own health. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Ay, geez, I didn't realize how long it had been since I last posted. Yes, 2012 was not the greatest time for writing in the short history of the Au Naturale blog, my loyal readers, so if you are a loyal reader, thanks for continuing to be loyal.

I once read an article that took a very pointed jab at all the abandoned blogs littering the internets, and I swore I would never become one of those. Hey, look what (kind of) happened. So I'm slapping myself on the wrist (or back of hand, or across the face) to get back in shape.

You know what else I'm doing? Apologizing for not writing at all, which I swore to you I would never do again. So, there goes that resolution. But look! It's 2013! It's time for new resolutions! The slate is wiped clean!!! At least, I've decided it is.

In any case, I won't make any excuses. There's been a lot of things and big changes going on in my life in the past few months, and hopefully a few good ones coming up in the next few months. I'm not going to give details here because I feel like I might jinx it... as in, what if the good thing doesn't happen and then I have to answer for it? Granted, some of you readers are also folks I talk to on a regular basis and know what this is all about and are probably rolling your eyes at me. The rest of you are probably rolling your eyes because I could seriously not be more vague right now if I tried.

Disclaimer: this is probably the most annoying post I've ever written. Apologies.

But in any case, these Big Life Things have taken over my life, and in the times I finally felt like I had a free hour to write, I instead decided that was yet another hour to devote to working on the Big Life Things. And then I saw an update from a blogger I've been following who is working on similar Big Life Things, and I decided if he can find time to blog, so can I!

So here we are. Um. Hi.

As usual, I have many things I plan to pontificate on. I won't do it in a novel here. I can say that recently I enjoyed a lovely dinner with some good friends and we got into a discussion about healthy things, thoughts on meat vs. vegan, and the follies and thoughts of what has been referred to as the Western Diet and western diseases. My friends made some good points- some of which I agreed with, and some of which I didn't. The ones I didn't had to do with the fact that I am more of the belief than they are that the modern Western Diet- think corn everything, artificial everything, preservative everything- is a cause of many western ills. Do I think it's everything? No, because I don't believe that much of life has simple answers. But I can't imagine how many other things affect our health as much as our very wonky, very unnatural diet.

I didn't debate it much with them because it was super loud in the restaurant, I was uncomfortable because a rotating heater above our table made me feel like I was having post-menopausal hot flashes, and I didn't want to get into a heavy debate at such a lovely dinner. But wouldn't you know it, the next day I saw this article and it reinforced much of what I was thinking, including the fact that one factor cannot explain it all. I wish to learn more about this study:

New Health Rankings: Of 17 Nations, US is Dead Last

It's also a great argument for more gun control. But that is a discussion for a different day, in a different venue.

So ends my crappy new year's post. There are more that I've half-written until the guilt of not working on the Big Life Things left them idling in my drafts folder. But I see a light at the end of the tunnel, and expect this blog to make a resurgence. We're going to party like it's 2011.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

What The Heck is a Caponata? *RECIPE ALERT*

I love finding recipes that are more than just tasty, but pleasant surprises, such as the leek and swiss chard tart.  Because sometimes you look in your fridge and see stuff that you have to use up right now or risk throwing in the garbage. You look for something that isn't too fancy, probably isn't going to blow you away, will "do the trick" if you will, but ends up being something you want to keep in your recipe box forever. The recipe below is one of those.

We've been pretty good about using everything in our CSA box, but we're not perfect. However, we've been better at anticipating when we're getting overwhelmed and been proactive about it, such as last weekend's canning adventure; stay tuned for details about that.  There was one week, though, where I decided I needed to be in charge of dinner. This was during the crazy period where the BF was acting as personal chef, dishwasher, and housekeeper, and I wanted to give him a break. I took a look at the fridge, grabbed a cacophony of veggies that needed to be used, including bell peppers and an on-the-verge-of-being-tired eggplant, and headed up to his place.

I then scrambled for a recipe.

Yeah, yeah, I wasn't as prepared as I needed to be. What else is new. But as he got home from work and began to wind down, I realized I needed something easy and fast. And eggplant and peppers and onions- surely there had to be zillions of recipes around the interwebz to help out. Much to my surprise, the "hey, this should work just fine" recipe that I quickly settled on shocked us both by how balanced and delicious it was. It was listed as an appetizer-y, salad-y, you could say caponata (does that work here? Yeah, I think it does. Let's call it caponata-y) food, but with some improv I turned it into a dinner sandwich so amazing that we pounced on the leftovers for seconds. It's now in the permanent repertoire.

The recipe, of course, is not listed below as I found it. In my creature-of-habit haze I automatically sliced the eggplant into half-inch slices and sweated it out with salt before I noticed that the recipe called for me to roast the eggplant whole. This, in turn, caused me to have to adjust how I cooked it. It worried me that the pieces looked a little dry after pulling it out of the broiler, but that was just on the surface. Once I chopped the slices into tiny cubes, I realized the interior was still juicy (well, as juicy as an eggplant can be... perhaps juicy is the wrong word?) and the texture still worked perfectly in the finished product. It also saved some cooking time, as well. Also, part of me wonders if roasting it whole would have even been the best way to do it: eggplant is a very bitter veggie on it's own, which is why taking the time to sweat it out is key. I fear the bitterness would have remained if I had just thrown the whole thing in the broiler.  If you wish to try it though- just prick the eggplant with a fork, roast for 30 minutes, then peel and chop- let me know how it turns out.

Below is the recipe as I made it in sandwich form. Capers are an option, but we didn't have any and I thought it was awesome. The BF thought capers could have worked, so again, if you wish, try it and let me know how it turns out. And I bet if you let it marinate in the fridge overnight it's even better the next day. We just thought it was too tasty to wait and find out. I wouldn't hesitate to do it again as a meal, but it's original caponata-y, appetizer-y intended purpose, topped on toasted slices of french bread or water crackers, will surely make it on the appetizer menu of my next dinner party. Holidays, anyone?
Eggplant & Red Pepper Caponata-y Sandwich
  • makes 3 sandwiches
  • medium eggplant (about 1 1/4 pounds) 
  • medium red bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
  • 3 tablespoons capers (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil 
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • garlic cloves, minced 
  • 4-6 pieces whole wheat bread
  • 3 slices mozarella or provolone cheese


  1. 1. Slice eggplant into half-inch slices; season both sides liberally with salt and set aside for a half hour
  2. 2. Preheat broiler
  3. 3. Cut bell pepper in half lengthwise; discard seeds and membranes. Place pepper halves, skin sides up, on a foil-lined baking sheet; flatten with hand. Broil 15 minutes or until blackened. Place in a zip-top plastic bag; seal. Let stand 15 minutes. 
  4. 4. While bell pepper is steaming in the plastic bag, rinse salt off of eggplant slices and pat dry. Lay slices on the baking sheet and broil for 10-15 minutes, until beginning to wrinkle 
  5. 5. Peel pepper, then chop pepper and eggplant into small pieces. Do not mince.
  6. 6. Combine eggplant, bell pepper, onion, and remaining ingredients in a medium bowl; toss well.
  7. 7. For sandwiches, lay 2 slices of bread in toaster or broiler; top one piece of bread with a slice of cheese. Toast until cheese is bubbly
  8. 8. Top cheesy bread slice with caponata and complete with other slice of bread