Saturday, May 4, 2013

Portion Distortion: The London Edition

We all know that a meal from a restaurant in America is often a meal for two... unless, of course, you are indulging in a tasting menu-style restaurant and paying top dollar to leave hungry. No matter which extreme you choose, clearly, we aren't doing it right. Now, nobody is perfect, but in London, they seem to be a little more aware of the proper portion sizes that make up each part of a meal.

We don't have to turn to My Plate, or any of those other infographics to get a feel for what we should be eating, but we could. Based on the meals served at most restaurants in the US, it may actually come as a shocker to some that vegetables should make up the largest part of the plate. Often, they are absent entirely in American meals. I mean, I get it... restaurants want to serve what people want, and for whatever reason, it seems like there's some common notion that veggies don't win the popularity contest on the plate of an entree. Think about it. If children order chicken fingers and fries or a grilled cheese with fries, there are no veggies in there! (No- ketchup and fries do not count as a serving of vegetables!) At least in London, if you order a plate of fish and chips, you often get some peas along with it. Not to say that that makes up for the fried mess that engulfs the rest of the plate, but at least it gives you the opportunity to fill up on some veggies before you dive head first into the fries. Not to mention, a meal of burger and fries in America often comes with an overflowing plate of fries and a burger that is as big as your face. It shouldn't come as a surprise that that is way more food that one person should eat in one meal... and it probably contains enough saturated fat to last you a week. In London, every time someone ordered a dish with a side of chips, it came with an actual side of chips- just a few chips-- not an overflowing mound of potatoes that could feed a small village of children. In retrospect, if you wanted to indulge in an order of chips every now and then in London, it wouldn't be such a bad thing. And while the burger does not adhere to the recommended 3 to 4 ounce serving of ground beef that the average person should consume in one meal, it's nothing near the “double pounder” that is far too common in America. And, for a dish that would, in fact, come with vegetables of some sort, such as a fish dish with a side salad, the American version differed than the ones I saw in London. The cod and salad I got my first night in London would make a health-junkie proud. I would say I got about a 6 ounce piece of fish with a salad that was bigger than the fish. Unheard of, folks! In America, if I ordered a fish dinner that came with a side of vegetables, which I often do, I think I'd feel privileged if I got six pieces of broccoli without having to pay extra, let alone a whole salad!

Anyway, onto dessert... One of my favorite quotes that a waitress asked while we were in London was if we'd like to “split a dessert”. She didn't ask if we wanted dessert, but if we wanted to split one. I guess it's not common for everyone to get their own dessert in London whereas here, I'm often the odd one out when I opt not to take a peak at the dessert menu. Points for London in the health department right there! I'm not advocating that the dessert, itself, is any healthier, but if all you had was a bite or two of dessert each time you indulged, it wouldn't be so bad. And, if a waitress approached you with a dessert menu in America and asked if you and your friend would like to share a dessert, I have to think she would get a funny look-- I bet some people would even be offended. Then again, maybe it would encourage people to reconsider that gigantic piece of chocolate cake, and maybe opt to split a lighter dessert with a friend just to get a little taste of something sweet. Don't get me wrong, no matter how you slice it, cake is cake... but a thinner slice (a sliver, if you will), is bound to have less of an effect on your waistline, and if you replaced every large slice with a bite, we'd have a thinner nation. Portion distortion is everywhere, but the US is exceptionally guilty.

From Tea to Cider and Every Sip In Between

It doesn't take more than a quick scan of my blog to learn that Tiny Tummy loves tea, so since London is known for its tea, it must not come as a surprise that I went a little tea-crazy in my travels. As a whole, the beverage situation in London is a little different from the US, based on my observations. For example, it wasn't uncommon to see people casually day-drinking at oh, you know, 10:00am. Then again, it was far less common to see drunk teens mindlessly meandering about the streets in the late hours of the night. So, while alcoholic culture may not be absent, it is certainly different. Even the drinks that were most commonly ordered in the bars (yes, Tiny Tummy got a little nosy with other people's drink orders) were often not the vodka on the rocks or rum and coke that we see at bars in the US. Maybe I got a biased sample, but I'd say a casual beer was the most common drink at the bars I went to. And the “girl drink” in London was definitely cider. Perhaps it is because cider here is nothing like cider there, but cider was quite the popular beverage. As someone who doesn't drink (alcohol), I have to say, cider is actually not that bad (granted cider is full of sugar, so you wouldn't catch Tiny Tummy sluggin' it back). London is also known for its Guinness, and again, you're getting a biased sample here because I hate beer, but Guinness was gross. Beyond gross. The guys that I traveled with seemed to like it, but as someone who never drinks beer, it was completely unpalatable, and the other girls who tried it, that do drink beer casually, agreed. If you want a cup of tar, go for Guinness, by all means, but if a lighter beer is more your speed, steer clear.

Anyway, back to the positives: the tea. Oh, the tea. When I walked into the tea stores in London, I felt like a kid in a candy store. For me, a tea shop is a candy store-- especially the ones in London with the most extensive selections of loose leaf tea you could imagine. From the green teas to the hibiscus teas (my personal fav) to the white and black tea blends, the different blends were unreal. My favorite tea store that we went into was Whittard, thanks to the largest selection of decaf hibiscus blends I have ever laid eyes on. I love me a good fruity tea, and Whittard provided blend upon blend of options... and, I mean, I'll probably only be in London once... so I bought one of everything (well, just about everything) in their hibiscus section (I did share with Mommy Tiny Tummy, though). The flavors ranged from “Very Very Berry” to “Acai and Goji Berry” to “Apple and Pomegranate”. Let's just say no fruit went unaccounted for. The store had places to sample all of their teas, coffees, and hot chocolates (the caramel hot chocolate was TO DIE FOR, but not Tiny Tummy-esque). It turns out the "tea" I bought was actually fruity/herbal infusions... either way, totally yummy. If you're exceptionally curious, you can order their teas online, but they are much cheaper in London, even with the nasty conversion rates, so I'm glad I stocked up.

Bottom line: if you're planning a trip to London, I say skip the Guinness and sip the tea.

How To Steep Tea

We all know that Tiny Tummy and tea are two peas in a pod, but I realize that although preparing loose leaf tea is second nature to me, it may be a daunting task for some, so I decided to lay it out for you step by step so you're not stuck relying on those pre-bagged sachets because fresh tea is so worth the extra effort.

To make your very own cup of loose leaf tea, you will need:
1 tea ball or empty bag of tea
2 teaspoons fresh, looseleaf tea
1 mug of boiling water 

To prepare, start by putting the tea into the tea bag or ball and securing it shut. They, add the tea to the boiling water and let it steep. For how long, you might be asking? That depends. If you like really strong tea, you're going to want to steep it for longer, whereas if you like just a touch of flavor, you're going to want to leave it in the water for a shorter period of time. The best way to determine your sweet spot is honestly to taste as you go. For weaker tea I would suggest anywhere from 2-4 minutes. For stronger tea, 4 minutes and beyond. I like really strong tea, so I often leave my tea ball in for at least 8 minutes (call me a rebel) and sometimes up to 15 minutes (but I usually sip as I go.

With simplicity like that, it sure makes commercial tea bags look silly, no? The single extra step of putting your own tea in the bag/ball makes a world of difference. If you're an environmentally conscientious person, the tea ball is a great way to save those tea bags (and save yourself money over time!) And if you hate doing dishes, then the bags are the way to go (but you're already washing the mug anyway, right?) The bags are really best if you want to bring your own tea to a restaurant so you can drink something other than water when everyone else is drinking soda (again, save yourself some money too!) We could learn a little something from the tea fanatics in London. If water is not your speed, try tea!

Skinny Satay

Dinner is often my favorite meal of the day, probably because I never have the same thing two nights in a row. In London, this meal-bias definitely carried over the first night we were there. The best dinner we had, by far, was on that first night. It was actually a group dinner that consisted of a three course meal (nothing was healthy on the menu they offered us-- every entree was a pot-pie), but I was able to order off of their special diet menu. I ordered chicken satay (sauce on the side), grilled cod, high and dry, and a dessert of frozen berries with warm white chocolate sauce. It was a HUGE portion, so I shared a bit, but all was delicious. (Okay I'll admit, I tasted the delicious cake that everyone else got, but the three small bites I took were enough to leave me feeling satisfied and not deprived with my berries. I also tried the filling of their lentil pot pie which was actually quite tasty!) Since I enjoyed the meal so much, I thought it was only fitting that I created my own, Tiny Tummy-esque version of my favorite course, the appetizer, to share with all of you, so you could bring a taste of my London bites into your own kitchen.

First thing is first: the chicken satay.
To make Tiny Tummy's Skinny Satay, you will need:
4 ounces chicken breast, sliced into strips or chunks
(optional, but recommended: spices of your choice. I seasoned mine with a pinch of each of the following: onion powder, cayenne pepper, fresh ground black pepper, cumin, and paprika)
(also optional: you could skewer the chicken, as chicken satay in America is often prepared this way, but for the purposes of recreating the true London experience, I'm opting against it)

For the Peanut Sauce, you will need:
2 tablespoons all natural peanut butter
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice vinegar (if you don't have rice vinegar on hand, apple cider vinegar will do just fine)

For the Cucumber Slaw, you will need:
3 cucumbers, sliced thin
1 red onion, halved and sliced thin
1 red bell pepper, sliced into skinny strips
¼ cup of distilled white vinegar
3 tablespoons of lemon juice
1 teaspoon of Stevia (or sugar)
a pinch of salt
(Note: This recipe will yield WAY more slaw that you need to fit the tiny side-dish-sized portion you need to satisfy this recipe, but it makes a yummy side to keep in your fridge, and one of Tiny Tummy's refrigerator-staples (aka must-haves in the refrigerator) is a cucumber salad very similar to this one)

To prepare, let's start with the chicken. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and arrange your chicken strips/chunks (seasoned, or not) on a lined baking sheet. Bake the chicken for about 15 minutes, or until the pieces are cooked throughout. While the chicken is cooking, you can prepare your sauce. Simply combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and stir until well incorporated. For the slaw, once you've sliced all of your veggies, transfer them to a large bowl, and pour the vinegar and lemon juice over them, followed by the stevia/sugar and salt. Give it a good mix, and allow it to marinate for at least 4 hours before serving. Personally, I like to make this cucumber salad a day in advance and let it soak overnight. Once the chicken is cooked, you can skewer it for presentational purposes, or simply leave it as is and serve it with your sauce and slaw. Bon apetite! 

(Wo)Man versus Food: The Bite by Bite Breakdown

London may be a rainy city, but nobody rains on my healthy-eating parade, not even Kate Middleton and her baby bump. I have to admit, though, while London may be known for its fish and chips, cider, and Guinness, all not exactly the healthiest of options, it is clear that they are, overall, a much healthier country than we are, which made it easier to make healthy choices while there. If you're curious as to the bite-by-bite breakdown of my Tiny Tummy's eating extravaganza in the UK, I'll do my best to provide.

Breakfast every morning was provided to us complimentary by the hotel. As with most hotels in America, it was served as an all you can eat breakfast buffet. The buffet consisted of scrambled eggs, beans, English sausages (no idea what was in those bad boys, but it definitely was not the sausages we are used to in America, so Tiny Tummy steered clear), bacon, toast, yogurt, cottage cheese with fruit in a syrup base, croissants, rolls, cereal, hard boiled eggs, and a bowl of apples and oranges. Often, we had to be at early morning meetings, so while I'm generally not that hungry at that time in the morning, I ate at that hour anyway. I knew that with our busy schedules, lunch wouldn't come until hours later, so I ate a filling breakfast in preparation. Each morning I had 3 or 4 hard boiled egg whites with an orange or an apple. I often grabbed an extra apple for a snack later in the day, and had it when I got hungry either mid-morning, or mid-afternoon.

Lunch was a tossup and completely depended on what we had planned each day. The first few days we had lunch/”linner” at Garfunkel's, a London chain similar to Charlie Browns in the US. They have burgers, pasta, pizza, etc. and a salad bar that you can either get as an appetizer to one of the aforementioned meals, or as an entree. If you couldn't guess, I got the salad bar as an entree. They bring you a small bowl, and for 4 pounds you can fill in once, and for 8.50, you can fill it an unlimited number of times. Because we only had limited time the first day we went, I only got one bowl, and to be honest, it was sort of a blessing. I definitely would have thought to do the unlimited, but to be honest, the single bowl was easily enough. I filled it with lettuce, tomatoes, hard boiled eggs (ate the whites, tossed the yolks), ham (if they had turkey I would have opted for it, but they didn't), corn, beans, cucumbers, etc. While this salad bar was not anywhere near as extensive as Charlie Brown's, it was a cheap, healthy lunch that I knew I could count on, and was about 3 minutes from our hotel. Perhaps my reliance on routine reared its ugly head here, but this became Tiny Tummy's go-to lunch, and I probably ate there at least four times throughout the week (I mean, how can you argue with a cheap, reliable, delicious salad bar?)

My favorite lunch in London definitely came from Borough Market. The market place itself was UNREAL- loaded with yummy sweets, savory goodies, and tons of miscellaneous indulgences- from fudge to gelato to candied nuts to dosas to cheesecake...I may have gained a few pounds simply sampling everything... only kidding. Anyway, I decided to at least try to heir on the healthier side with my lunch, so I went with a veggie burger in a cabbage leaf topped with balsamic marinated onions, hummus, and cabbage slaw in a vinaigrette. It tasted a little too good to be healthy, but it was definitely healthier than the fried falafel, sausages, and potpies that were the alternative. And after sampling just about everything there (who could say no to free turkish marshmallows or homemade gelato), I needed something on the healthier side. Needless to say, delish.

Dinner was where things generally got ugly. The first night, we had a group dinner, so I was able to get a nice meal that night, but the rest of the nights, up until the final night we were there, we went to see shows each night, so people either got dinner before (hence “linner”), or skipped it altogether. I can't eat at 5:00 and be satiated the rest of the night, especially since we often hit the pubs/clubs after the shows each night, so dinner was often a Quest Bar at the intermission of each show (2 some nights if “linner” was earlier). Not the most nutritious, wholesome dinner, per say, but better than fish and chips or bar food that I would have had to turn to otherwise, so I was glad I brought a ton of Quest Bars with me.

After that group dinner the first night, my second favorite dinner that we had was the night we went for sashimi. For an impromptu lady's night out, a few of the girls and I decided to check out London's local conveyer belt sushi chain- Yo Sushi. I can't say that the quality of fish is any fresher that the fish in The Big Apple (I'm going based solely on the one place I tried in London, so don't hold me to that), but the experience of the conveyer belt was quite exciting. We each got our own plates off the conveyer belt (and ordered what wasn't there) and then split a yummy chocolate mousse for dessert. For my dinner, I ordered the salmon and tuna mixed sashimi, and after watching this delicious-looking squid salad pass me on the conveyer belt time and time again, I decided it was calling my name, and got one of those also. I have to say, I am glad I answered that call because the squid salad which was DELISH! (As of course was our yummy chocolate mousse with the exception of some strange sugary filling that I did not care for).

On the more indulgent end of things, for our last night in London, we had a group outing to a local Indian restaurant. For a nation that is known for its Indian food, the dinner was beyond underwhelming, but I haven't had real Indian food in ages, so I indulged a little, nonetheless. The appetizer plate we were given consisted of onion pakora, masala dosa, meat samosas, a small salad, and chicken curry of sorts. I ate the chicken, and the filling of the dosa along with the salad, and left the rest. The main course was a fish curry, chicken and spinach, a vegetable stir fry of sorts, lamb curry, rice, and naan/onion paratha. I admit, I had some paratha which was only OK (but good for someone who hasn't had it in ages), and I tried some of each of the curry dishes. The fish curry was probably my fav, and I skipped the rice altogether. For dessert they offered us almond or pistachio ice cream. I got the almond, but tasted a bite of each one... I preferred the almond one which had little slivers of almonds in it, and was actually ridiculously creamy. Needless to say, we all left there absolutely stuffed. Tiny Tummy was not rockin' a tiny tummy that night, that's for sure!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Fast Food? Not So Fast...

Sure, New York is the city that never sleeps, but even during the day, there is always an extra spring in everyone's step as they feverishly scurry from place to place. I'm a faced-pace gal, so I appreciated this sense of urgency, but when it comes to a vacation, a more relaxed pace is definitely ideal. London may be just as hip and happenin' of a city as New York, but the pace of life is much more relaxed and leisurely than in the Big Apple, and this ease is easily visible in the food culture.

Take “fast food” chains. The idea of fast food in America is generally grab-and-go. Whether it be eating and walking or eating and driving, fast food is not thought of as a sit-down, fine dining experience. Londonites; however, may not agree. Now, I know that McDonald's in Europe and McDonald's in America are fundamentally different-- some Europeans see it as a place to bring the kids for a nice night out-- but I had never really experienced the difference in fast food culture. I passed a few different Pizza Huts in London and couldn't help but peek in after seeing the signs labeled “All you can eat salad bar with every purchase.” It turns out, they were sit-down restaurants with menus and waiters, as opposed to the whole walk up to the counter, order, get your order, and sit back down routine that is commonly exercised in American Pizza Huts. Even Subway looked slightly different with many more chairs and tables than you see in most Subway restaurants in New York. It was not uncommon to see people dining in these chains just as they would a higher-end restaurant... in fact, it was extremely uncommon to see people eating on the streets of London... nothing like the way we picture fast food in America.

Even the restaurant experience, itself, was fundamentally different. First of all, the slower pace of of life is vividly clear in restaurant culture. It took forever to get menus any time we went to a sit down restaurant, the drinks came a good fifteen minutes after you ordered them, and they certainly did not rush between courses. The whole “customer is king” model that we try to exercise in America is not present in London. Maybe this is why Londoners scoff at us Americans and our fast-paced lifestyle, because their meals are so much more leisurely and relaxed. Perhaps if we focused more on the meal, and dedicated more time to each one, we would be a less obese nation. It's a proven fact that the faster you eat, the more you eat, so if we slowed things down, maybe we'd trim some fat off as a result.