Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Secret to Weight Loss

I don't mind telling you that I've lost some weight recently. As a matter of fact, I've lost about 14 pounds in 8 weeks. Not only have my friends started to notice, but casual acquaintenances are commenting. The conversation usually goes like this:

"Have you lost weight?"
"Why yes, thank you for noticing."
(quickly) "Not that you were overweight before..."
"Yes, and thank you for that as well."

Hey, I take my compliments where I can get them.

A friend of mine asked me how I did it. He made it sound like it was a great secret, privy only to a select few who have paid $200 to the Church of Weightlossology. "Well," I said, looking as sincere as I could, "I tried something new. I started eating less and exercising more."

It's amazing I have any friends left at all. Now you see why I grab all the compliments that I can.

However, his point is well taken. Weight loss is not easy. If it were, Jenny Craig would be out of business. So, I thought about the question, and I am now going to reveal the secret to weight loss.

Before I do, I should warn you that I am not going to reveal any step-by-step methodology on how to count Weight Watchers points, track simple carbs, lift weights, walk 1,000 steps every day, or only eat foods that begin with the letter 'Q.' There are countless books, Websites, and counselors out there that are more than happy to take your dollar and give you a plan of action complete with color brochures, Excel charts, and a 1-800 hotline. What I am going to tell you is the SECRET part.

SECRET PART #1. Do not go it alone.

For the second year in a row, my workplace has sponsored a Biggest Loser competition. Not too surprisingly, this program has been VERY popular. I signed up this year as well as last year.

The basic idea is that you form teams, and the team (not individual) with the greatest weight loss wins. In other words, if you decide to go on an eating binge, you don't only get dirty looks from the person in the mirror, you get dirty looks from your teammates as well. Public humiliation is powerful motivator.

Actually, my team this year is much more gung ho than my team last year. We are developing strategies, giving each other advice, and cheering each other on. We are trying to create a supportive environment to encourage each other to hit our target weight. We have plenty of time for dirty looks closer to the end of the contest.

SECRET PART#2: Assume that you have no will power.

I am convinced that most diets fail because they rely on the dieter to actively make good choices on the fly. THIS WILL NOT WORK. If you have a bag of Doritos and a bag of carrots in your desk, you will always go for the Doritos. Always, always, always. The only hope that you have is to REMOVE THE STINKIN' DORITOS FROM YOUR DESK.

In other words, to be successful, you need to set up your lifestyle so that you don't have to make hard choices. I often eat oatmeal for breakfast because it is easy to make and it has only 2 Weight Watchers points per 1/2 cup dry. I keep 1 cup snack bags of Honey Nut Cheerios in my desk drawer because they give me a satisfying 2-point snack in the middle of the day. To be serious about losing weight, you need to figure out how you plan to thwart your best attempts and stop yourself early on...not midstream. I KNOW that I have no will power. So, I don't even try to tempt myself.

If your office brings in donuts on Friday afternoons (as one of my previous jobs did), you may need to take drastic action. Duct tape may be required.

SECRET PART #3: Make it easy to get exercise.

I go to Krav Maga class 2 to 3 times per week. I have worked out my schedule so that I can stop off there on my way home from work. I also periodically take a walk at lunchtime. I have mapped out a 1-mile circuit from my office. Not only do I get exercise, but I also get to take a 25-minute stress break during lunch.
This is a brilliant way for ME to get exercise. However, it might not work for YOU. You will have to figure out your own way to get exercise. However, whatever you do, it is best if you remember SECRET PARTS #1 and #2. In other words, you need to find people to make you get exercise, and you need to make it as easy as possible. If you have a choice of taking a walk or eating a bag of Doritos...well, you get the idea.

So, that's it. That's my secret. Oh, sure...there is other stuff to worry about like nutrition and weekly weigh-ins and drinking plenty of water and strength training vs. cardio training. But none of that works without the secret parts.

Now, if you will excuse me, I'm going to go preen in front of the mirror. And maybe I'll even compliment myself. I'm not proud.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Social Network Information Value (SNIV)

Allow me to present a thought experiment.

Social networks are complex entities. In fact, social network analysis has evolved as a mathematical tool to model the intricate workings of social networks. Mathematical algorithms that map out social networks include the social network potential (SNP), a mathematical coefficient that represents both the size of an individual's social network and their ability to influence that network. Many variables contribute to a person’s SNP, including group memberships, leadership roles, peer recognition, publication of electronic and non-electronic media, and frequency of past distribution of information within a network.

Although social network analysis is an effective tool for mapping out the complexities of social information exchange, this inherent complexity is also its shortcoming. Social network analysis focuses on the network itself, not on the individual. What appears to be lacking is a simple metric that measures the magnitude of information a person exchanges within a social network regardless of the type of information exchanged, the complexity of the network, or the level of influence the person has on the network. I call this measure the Social Network Information Value (SNIV). It is defined as: the magnitude of information a person exchanges within a social network. This magnitude is defined by two factors: 1) the overall size of the network in terms of direct contacts to other people (via an electronic or physical medium), and 2) the amount of personal information (P) that the person exchanges with each member of their network. If one considers that each person in a social network has a certain amount of personal information that can be shared, the maximum value of P=1 (or 100%) only happens if a person shares EVERY bit of personal information, including demographic information, private medical information, personal thoughts, secrets, etc.

A visual model of SNIV is shown below. Person A and Person B each have multiple direct contacts (smiley faces). Imagine that the size of each smiley face represents the amount of information exchanged. Person A exchanges more information with her close friends than does Person B, but Person B has more direct contacts overall. Therefore, Person B may have a greater SNIV depending on the exact number of contacts and the amount of information exchanged with each contact.

Mathematically, this can be expressed as:

Where n equals the total number of personal contacts in the social network for a given person, Pi is the percentage of personal information exchanged with each person i, and P bar equals the average amount of personal information exchanged.

In reality, this model is slightly more complex. P, the percentage of information that one exchanges with a social contact, is really a combination of the personal information that one gives out (shares) and the personal information that one receives (cares). People within a social network do not necessarily give and receive information equally. Some are more likely to relate information about their personal life, but do not wish to hear about the lives of their contacts. Others may thrive on gossip and scuttlebutt, but they are very protective of their own privacy. By plotting a person’s overall SNIV on a y-axis and a person’s ratio of sharing to caring on an x-axis as shown below, one can visualize four emerging population segments: Hermits, Socialites, Voyeurs, and Exhibitionists.

Hermits have very few to no personal contacts, and they exchange little to no information. Socialites have many social contacts, and they maintain a balance between information given and received. Voyeurs and Exhibitionists are obviously the extremes of the sharing/caring balance described above.

Therefore, if one assumes that P is in fact the sum of the share factor (percentage of personal information one shares with each contact, S) and the care factor (percentage of personal information one receives from each contact, C), the SNIV equation is rewritten thusly:

In other words, a person’s SNIV consists of the total amount of information one gives out to one’s contacts plus the total amount of information that one receives from one’s contacts. To maximize one's SNIV, one needs to balance sharing and caring.

More importantly, a related value can be calculated to ascertain a person’s potential for engaging in a social network. I call this value the Social Network Information Threshold (SNIT). The SNIT can be defined as the total amount of information one is willing to give out to one’s contacts plus the total amount one is willing to receive. The quotient of SNIV over SNIT (QSNIT) reflects the balance of one’s potential for sharing information compared to one’s actual practice of sharing information.

The psychological implications of this balance could be a whole field of study in itself. A person with a QSNIT of 1 is in equal balance. Whether this person prefers to be a Hermit, Socialite, Voyeur, or Exhibitionist, this person is exactly as connected as he or she wishes to be.

However, a QSNIT below 1 suggests that the person is not as socially connected as he or she would like, and this could lead to feelings of alienation and depression. A person operating below threshold must find a way to reconnect with a social network to maintain balance. Simply establishing personal connections is not enough to raise one’s QSNIT. One must actually exchange personal information to raise the quotient.

Social network sites are effective ways of raising a QSNIT in that they give a person an almost limitless number of contacts and an easy way to exchange information. What has to be managed, however, is exactly how much information is given or received. The ease that one can disseminate personal information to others through a social network site can artificially raise a person’s QSNIT above 1. When this happens, a person moves past their privacy comfort level. What is most insidious about social network sites is that a person may not realize they have exceeded their privacy comfort level until they take a full inventory of their contacts and their level of intimacy, at which point their privacy has been compromised beyond repair.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Esther: A Tale of Passion, Intrigue, and Vengeance

Chag Purim Sameach, everyone. Happy Purim.

I celebrated Purim this year in my traditional fashion:

  1. Baking over 10 dozen hamantaschen to be distributed to family and friends for shalach manot (sending of gifts)

  2. Planning to celebrate my favorite holiday in style with a big Purim party involving friends and games and food and drink

  3. Completely failing to get my act together in time to actually carry off said Purim party

  4. Taking the kids to the Purim carnival so they could win lots and lots of tchotchkes that will eventually end up in a landfill

  5. Dressing up in costume, attending a reading of the Megillah (the Book of Esther) at my synagogue, and dutifully whirring my grogger at the mention of Haman's name (the evil villain of the story)

I leave every Purim feeling woefully unfulfilled. What's worse is that I feel I have to gobble up all the leftover hamantaschen and scramble to get ready for Pesach which is only a month away. I have got to break this vicious cycle.

Purim throughout my upbringing has always been a joyous holiday. "Joyous" should be defined as, "wildly happy under carefully controlled conditions." Even the Chasidim, who know how to party hardy when the situation calls for it, place their drinking within the context of Torah study. I remember an orthodox rabbi friend who once told me that the drunkest he ever got was on a Purim. He was studying the Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther) with a well known, well respected rabbi, and every time they finished studying a section, the elder rabbi's wife brought them some schnapps.

"So, tell me," I asked him. "What is the Book of Esther like when you are drunk."

"I made some of the most cogent, intelligent insights I have ever made," he responded dryly. "I just wish I could remember them."

Purim has too long been shackled by "joyousness." It's time that the holiday moved to "wicked raucousness." And, if necessary, I will lead the charge.

Mind you, I am not advocating for strong drink in these enlightened, temperate times of AA, MADD, and celebrity rehab stints. Nor am I advocating AGAINST it either. Sure, there is the Talmudic requirement to get so drunk on Purim that one does not know the difference between, "cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai." But by codifying the requirement to get drunk, even an act of wild intoxication becomes simply "joyous." Ever since the writing of the Talmud, rabbinical scholars have either tried to justify carefully controlled drunken behavior, or explained it away in a metaphorical context. What fun is that?

Whoopee. Purim is either a pediatric holiday of songs, cookies, and costumes or a drunken celebration with carefully measured shot glasses.

We are missing the bigger picture. Purim is one helluva soap opera story. THIS is what we should focus on. Forget the costumes, forget the controlled or uncontrolled drinking, forget the 10 dozen hamantaschen (oy, I wish I could). Just go back and read the full story. Hot stuff.

For example, Mordechai won't bow down to Haman because Mordechai is a Jew. In Sunday School I learned that this was because Mordechai would not bow down to any man; he would only bow down to God. Malarkey. Read the damn story. Haman is a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite king, and the Agagites are blood enemies of the Jews. In the parshah Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 25:19), the Torah says, "You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!" So, this whole little misunderstanding was due to a nasty blood feud, not some higher religious attitude on Mordechai's part. No wonder Haman was pissed.

Or how about later in the Book of Esther when Esther reveals Haman's plot to the king, and the king walks away furious at Haman. Haman sees that the king is out for blood and he prostrates himself in front of the queen to beg for mercy. The king comes back in the room and sees Haman lying prostrate on Esther's couch and thinks that Haman is about to ravish his queen. Whoops! If the whole plotting to exterminate the Jews thing weren't bad enough, now Haman's caught in a compromising position with the queen. WHOAAAA!

Or how about when the Jews have been given permission by the king to fight against anyone who attacks them and they kill 500 people in one day in the city of Shushan, including Haman's sons. If that wasn't bloody enough for you, Esther orders that Haman's dead sons be impaled on a stake, presumably to send the message, "Don't mess with us," and then the Jews get to do the whole thing again the next day, killing 300 men.

We celebrate this story with jam filled cookies? Groovy.

So, next year I plan to celebrate this great holiday in style. After all the baking is done, after the kids are tired from the Purim carnival, after we have all paraded around the synagogue dressed as pirates, my wife and I are going to put the kids to bed, turn the lights down low, and read the book of Esther to each other. We'll take turns reading sections, mutter commentary to each other such as, "Sunovabitch! That's wicked harsh!", debate who we would cast in the Oliver Stone rendering of the story, and then play act some of the more interesting scenes.

And then, and only then, will I get drunk.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Zev Winicur is Now Your Friend

(Originally posted 2/21/09)

Well, I finally broke down and did it. After years of avoiding the inevitable, I swallowed my pride, shredded my dignity, sold my soul, and joined the masses.

Yes, last week I set up a Facebook page.

I don't have anything against social networking sites (SNSs). In fact, I've allowed my LinkedIn network to expand slowly and organically over the years. Furthermore, I am an avowed email addict, and the only reason that I don't have Internet access on my cell phone is that I might forget to eat after a while. But Facebook, MySpace, and their ilk all seemed to be different animals. These were the SNSs of the young and hip, or as I like to refer to them, the MOUM (masses of unmotivated morons). MySpace was to real blogs what Tammy Faye Bakker was to...well, Michelle Obama. One was overly decorated, overly self indulgent, and totally lacking in any real content. And the other was Michelle Obama.

Yes, I think I'm going to start referring to Wolfsong Enterprises as the Michelle Obama of blogs. But I digress...

I had reconnected with an old high school friend through his blog (the Janeane Garofalo of blogs), and he destroyed my last bulwark of resistance. He enticed me onto the site with the promise of seeing many an old colleague and friend. Curiosity final won out.

The moment I entered the site, I felt as if I had stumbled upon a trap door to a secret underground world where all of my old acquaintances were hiding. I stepped through the magic door, and suddenly all my old high school buddies, college buddies, grad school buddies, and my rabbi were waving to me from the open bar. "Zev!" they all seemed to shout, "We were wondering when you'd make your way down here. Have a drink!" It was, and still is, a bit unsettling.

Naturally, it wasn't long before I downloaded the most flattering picture I could find of myself (the one from last summer AFTER I lost some weight) as well as a couple pictures of my family. I only downloaded two pictures because my wife values her privacy a whole lot more than I do, and she gets very squirrelly and grumpy when I mention her by name on my blog. So, I am now a lot more careful about what information I share about my wife 'Brunhilda'.

In fact, it was many days before I admitted to my wife Helga that I had set up a Facebook page. She looked at me as if I had reported proudly, "Hey, guess what? I just got a tattoo, earring, ponytail, and a High School Musical lunchbox. Don't I look cool?"

"Isn't that for college students?" she asked. "Well..." I answered...and then I shared with her my first impressions from my week on Facebook. In fact, these are Zev's Quick Observations About Facebook.


According to a 2007 Forrester Research report, 74% of young adults (age 18-21) have a profile on some SNS. Compare that to 53% of teenagers (ages 12-17) and 25% of adults (ages 18+). About 42% of young adults use Facebook compared to only about 8% of adults. Facebook certainly appears to be a young persons toy.

College students primarily use Facebook as a social activity, that is to view and discuss people's profiles. According to a 2007 article in First Monday, for most young adults, Facebook is primarily used as a "friend function," that is "Accepting, adding, browsing through, or reviewing friends; seeing how friends are connected; showing friends other individuals." College students also use Facebook as a virtual directory of contact information for friends they already know.

My theory is that in the next 5 years, the percentage of adult users on Facebook will skyrocket. The reasons are fourfold:

  1. Facebook no longer requires a university email address. Therefore, the doors have been thrown open to EVERYBODY.

  2. All the young adults currently on Facebook will eventually become old adults, and they will take their Facebook accounts with them. Once an email addict, always an email addict. The same goes for SNSs.

  3. Many adults need a networking site that is less stodgy than LinkedIn but less tacky than MySpace. (Take THAT Rupert Murdoch)

  4. Adults have an even greater need than young adults for a networking site that puts us in contact with friends old and new for the simple reason: WE ARE OLDER AND WE KNOW MORE PEOPLE.

Q.E.D. Facebook will soon belong to the 40-year olds. Of course I'll be an old man of 50 when that happens. But I'll be a cool, happenin' 50-year old.


In the days before the Internet, anonymity was an inevitable and unfortunate result of the lack of a tangible network of local friends and family. Many people asked themselves, "If I died, how many days would it take before people notice?" Maintaining a public identity required constant activation energy.

And then came the Internet and Web 2.0 with email and SNSs. I worried that my father-in-law (i.e. Thelma's father) was headed for near obscurity when he retired and dropped his daily contact with his university crowd. Then he discovered email. Now his social life is richer than my own.

In other words, you have to be constantly vigilant just to stay hidden. It is too easy to create a Google Spoor.

    By the way, Google Spoor--the trail of information one leaves on the Internet that is visible through a Google search--is my own term and my own concept. You may use it in your daily discourse. Just remember that you heard it here FIRST.


    Identify theft is a real threat in this country as evidenced by the increased number of TV advertisements for free credit report sites. And yet, many SNS users post enough information on their Websites for a moderately talented identity thief to deduce and steal their Social Security Number. In fact, over 80% of Facebook users post their name, birthday, hometown, high school, and email, as well as posting potentially incriminating information about their personality, such as favorites, interests, political views, and relationships. Facebook allows its users to set privacy settings restricting viewer access, and although 84% of users reported that they knew of the privacy settings, only 48% actually made use of the privacy settings. In fact, 54% of Facebook users have added friends that they would not consider friends.

    In other words, in this day and age, no one can use the excuse that they did not know they were revealing too much personal information. We all know. We just don't care.


    The moment I got on Facebook, the system started telling me who my friends were. "Zev is now friends with Bob." Really? Bob (not his real name) was my college roommate. I've known him since the 8th grade. He was one of my groomsmen at my wedding. And only now he has become my friend? "Zev has become a fan of Tom Lehrer." Hello, I've been listening to Tom Lehrer since I was 12. But only now that I've clicked on a link am I a true fan.

    The most insidious aspect of Facebook is the Update Status. Unlike a blog, in which the writer may spend hours wordsmithing his intelligent discourse or arguing a cogent theory (or just sayin' stuff), the Update Status allows us to report our immediate deeds and thoughts. My first Update was, "Zev is typing that Zev is typing." I thought it would implode the system. It didn't. All it did was wait for me to tell the world something else that I was doing. And now, before I go to bed, I have the opportunity to tell my network of 'real' friends that I am going to bed.

    Eventually, keyboard interfaces will give way to direct neural taps that allow us to telepathically connect to the Internet. When that happens, we will be able to report to the world everything we are doing and thinking as we are doing and thinking it. And what's to stop the download from going both ways?

    "Zev Winicur is feeling Hungry. Zev Winicur has become a fan of Burger King. Zev Winicur is now ordering five BK Veggies. Zev Winicur is now a fan of Pepto-Bismol."

    It could happen.


    Clinical discussions of Internet addiction go back at least 10 years. Yes, even CBS news reported on the phenomenon last summer.

    Let's face it, I'm doomed. I'm becoming a Facebook junkie already, and I've only been on a week. I'm giving up my privacy, my every move is being scrutinized by high school acquaintances, and a computer is telling me who I'm allowed to be friends with. The best that I can hope for is that my father-in-law never discovers this beast. On the other hand, maybe he can become friends with his daughter...Muffy.

    How Restaurants Can Ride Out the Economic Storm

    (Originally posted 2/26/09)

    A couple of weeks ago, I took my family out to one of our favorite Indian restaurants for dinner. The waitress, who recognized us immediately, commented on our long absence from her establishment. We explained (somewhat sheepishly, I might add) that we had not been going out for dinner anywhere these past few months. “I understand,” she said. “Very few people do. It’s been hard for us.”

    The economic downturn has been especially hard on the restaurant industry. CNBC reported on declining restaurant attendance last December. According to The NPD Group, a leading market research company, the opening of new restaurants was balanced out by the closings, resulting in no growth in total restaurant units in 2008. In 2009, restaurant traffic is predicted to fall by at least 1%, and the casual dining segment could have its worst year in decades.

    Dick Williams, culinary advisor and owner of Denver’s high end Buckhorn Exchange Steakhouse, reported that menu prices increased 4.3% in 2008. With food costs expected to increase by 7-9%, either menu prices will rise in 2009, or portion sizes will shrink.

    So, what is a restaurateur to do? The answer is obvious. Start offering cooking classes.

    Interestingly, cooking classes are doing quite well in this economy precisely because so many people are no longer going to restaurants. Sherry Zylka, associate dean of continuing education and workforce development at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, MI, reported a 20% increase in the number of men taking classes, suggesting that interest in cooking cuts across gender lines.

    By offering cooking demonstrations and classes, restaurants can maintain their customer loyalty while continuing to make some money. By offering classes at $15-$25 per class, the restaurant can greatly undercut Williams-Sonoma’s costs for cooking demonstrations. Furthermore, the restaurant does not need to create a new brand identity or reputation for its cooking demonstrations. The quality of its product is known to all of its customers.

    Ethnic restaurants in particular could succeed with cooking demonstrations simply because fewer Americans know how to make exotic dishes. A cooking class on making paneer pakora (fried, battered cheese) is much more exciting than a cooking class on, oh, I don't know...breaded cheese sticks.

    Unfortunately, I predict that few restaurants will try out this idea simply because of the fear that the classes will cannibalize or neutralize their existing business. While this is certainly a possibility, I personally think that the benefits gained in building customer loyalty outweigh any lost revenue. When times are tough, customers will flock to the restaurants to learn how to make their favorite dishes at home. And when times get better, customers will come back. Yes, even if customers know the "secrets" of cooking, they will still go out to eat at restaurants for two important reasons: 1) most people don’t want to cook if they don't have to, and 2) they know that the restaurant can do it better.

    So, there it is: my secret for riding out the economic storm. It is free advice for any restaurateurs who wants to take it. I won’t charge you a penny for the idea.

    However, if you want to give me a discounted rate on your palak paneer demonstration, I won’t say no.

    My Favorite Indian Restaurant in Indianapolis

    (Originally posted 1/10/08)
    According to IndyEthnicFood.com, the Indianapolis metro area has 12 Indian restaurants (11 really since India Garden has two locations). I have eaten in 8 out of the 11 restaurants, and I have not had a bad meal in any of them. That's pretty good for a midwestern city. How many other cities outside of Mumbai can boast a MINIMUM competence rate of 73% when it comes to Indian food.

    However, I have my favorites. In fact, I have my favorite, and it is definitely Taj of India. The restaurant serves east Indian fare. The average entree costs $8-$12, and the lunch buffet is $6.60 per person.

    The food is fantastic, the portions are large, the vegetarian entrees are many (I've counted close to 25), and the restaurant feels...well...friendly. There is no other word for it but friendly. I feel more comfortable there then in any other Indian restaurant in town, largely because of the soft lighting, authentic Indian music, and unpretentious attitude. And, of course, the food. Oh, yes...the food...

    My wife insists that we go there (or get takeout from there) whenever possible. Malai Kofta is her favorite dish, and she insists that they make the best malai kofta in town. Tonight she insisted that I drive across town to Taj of India after I picked up Omri from Hebrew School (even though it wasn't the closest restaurant to the school or to our house) because she was craving some "comfort food."

    Of course, I have to admit that we also love the restaurant because Rani, our favorite waitress, works there. It's not just that she's always friendly, it's not just that she's very cute, it's not just that she can recognize me on the phone whenever I put in an order, it's not just that she knows our order by heart:

    malai kofta mild for Shirah, paneer pakora for the boys, one order of garlic naan, and something medium spicy for me...usually palak paneer. Oh, and 2 mango shakes.
    No, it's not any one of those things. It's all of those things combined.

    I highly, highly recommend the restaurant. Please say namaste to Rani when you're there.

    And tip her well.

    Bubbles of Incompetence

    (Originally posted 12/14/06)

    I have long held the belief that incompetence is not merely the lack of competence, but in fact a noncorporeal entity that exists in two forms: static and transient. Static incompetence takes up permanent residence in a single person, like our current president, or a single institution, like FEMA. Transient incompetence, on the other hand, exists in discrete bubbles that shift from one location to the next, occasionally encompassing an entire establishment. How else can one explain why a favorite restaurant suddenly can’t make change, drops all their dishes, and screws up your order…repeatedly?

    Actually, this time it wasn’t my favorite restaurant…it was my mother’s. A couple of week’s ago, my mother and I went out to dinner at Nick’s Patio, her favorite restaurant in South Bend, Indiana. Nick’s serves American home-style food in very large, very tasty portions, but the restaurant has become her favorite because it is one of the few places in South Bend that can accommodate her low-salt, low-fat, low-spiciness diet. Recently, the owner of Nick’s had to put himself on a low-salt diet, and he has repeatedly assured my mother that she can get a good low-sodium meal there.

    But every now and then, there is a bubble.

    She ordered the vegetable stir fry and told the waitress that it needs to be low salt. “No soy sauce,” she said.

    “No problem,” said the waitress.

    When the plate came, my mother tried to ask the waitress about the noticeable brown sauce on the stir fry. “This is no soy sauce, right?”

    “Yes,” she said. “I told the kitchen, no soy sauce.”

    So my mother started eating.

    “Taste this,” she asked me. “Is there soy sauce in it?”

    I tasted the stir fry. It actually had flavor, which is usually indicative of the presence of salt in some form. But who was I to argue with her favorite establishment?

    “Um…” I said, “I’m not sure. Maybe they used a broth instead.”

    My mother wasn’t convinced. After eating a third of the meal, she flagged down the waitress and asked her to ask the kitchen about the brown sauce. Eating with my mother is always entertaining.

    It took a while for the waitress to get back to us. A long while. In the meantime, I had given my mother a third of my 4-egg omelette (which was low salt) so she wouldn’t starve. Finally, the waitress returned.

    “It’s not soy sauce,” she said cheerfully. “It’s teriyaki sauce.”

    There was an audible pause.

    After my mother explained to her as politely as her New York blood would allow that a) teriyaki sauce was almost ENTIRELY made up of soy sauce and b) teriyaki sauce was extremely high in salt, she asked to speak to the owner. The owner wasn't there, so she spoke to the manager. The manager made sure that she got her meal re-made (although for some bizarre reason, it took two more times before the kitchen could get it right), and she didn’t charge us for my mother’s meal. It was very good customer service for one of Nick’s faithful patrons. If only the manager had left it there.

    The manager patiently explained to us that the kitchen staff didn’t know what was in teriyaki sauce. “Furthermore,” she continued, “Most of them don’t even speak English.”

    Sometimes honesty is NOT the best policy. Open letter to all restaurants that I patronize in the future: Please don’t ever tell me that a) the people preparing my food have no idea what they are putting into it or, b) nobody can accurately communicate my order to the kitchen staff. If necessary, make something up. Anything. “Oh, we’re sorry about that. The chef’s wife ran away today with the plumber, and he’s been messing up everyone’s order.” I’ll accept that. I’d prefer that.

    Didn’t know that teriyaki sauce had soy sauce in it? Honestly. What did they think made it salty? Magic?

    We decided to go elsewhere for dessert, and after another comedy of errors (where all of our favorite ice cream establishments were closed), we ended up at McDonalds to get chocolate-dipped cones. There were only about 4 other patrons in the restaurant, but after putting my order in, we had to wait about 7 minutes to get the cones because - and I kid you not - none of the staff knew how to make chocolate-dipped cones.

    I felt like jumping across the counter and offering to make them myself. Look, I would say, ice cream…chocolate sauce…dip…twirl…done! But I didn’t. It wasn’t their fault. The bubble had simply encompassed all of South Bend, and there was nothing I could do but wait for the bubble to get bored and move on.

    Amber Indian, Revisited

    (Originally posted 11/16/06)
    Forget what I previously said about the desserts at Amber Indian. I went to the lunch buffet yesterday, and the gulab jamun was perfect. They were warm and flavorful, with a good amount of cardamom. Good desserts on an Indian lunch buffet (at least in Indianapolis) seems like such a rarity that I am always impressed when I find them.

    Tu B'Shevat Bars

    (Originally posted 2/4/09)

    Chag Sameach! Happy Tu B'Shevat.

    One of my traditions every year for Tu B'Shevat (the new year of the trees) is making Tu B'Shevat Bars. This recipe contains fruits from all three 'species': hard outer shell (orange, nuts), hard inner pit (dates), and entirely edible (carob, raisins, figs). The recipe uses fruits primarily found in Israel.

    I do warn you, however...these bars are addictive.

    Tu B'Shevat Bars

    1 cup raisins
    1/2 cup chopped dates
    1/2 cup chopped figs
    1/3 cup orange juice
    zest of 1 orange
    2 eggs
    1/2 cup vegetable oil
    3/4 cup brown sugar
    1/2 cup honey
    1 Tbs. vanilla extract
    1/2 cup carob powder
    1 1/2 cup all purpose flour
    2 tsp. cinnamon
    1/2 tsp. nutmeg
    1/4 tsp. ground clove
    1 tsp. baking soda
    1/2 tsp. baking powder
    1/2 tsp. salt
    1 cup chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans)

    In a small bowl, combine the raisins, dates, figs, orange juice, and orange zest. Set this aside.

    In a large bowl, beat eggs, oil, and sugar on a medium speed with an electric mixer. Add the honey slowly while continuing to beat on a medium speed. Beat in vanilla and carob powder until creamy. Stir in flour, spices, baking soda, baking powder, and salt until well mixed. Stir in nuts and fruit mixture by hand.

    Spoon into a well-greased and floured 13 x 9 inch baking pan. Bake at 325 degrees F 30 to 35 degrees or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

    Let cool completely and cut into bars. Yields about 40 bars.

    Note: this recipe contains honey, which means that it will overbake if not watched carefully. Check the bars after 25 minutes, and then check every 4-5 minutes after that.

    Veggie Breadsticks

    (Originally posted 4/9/08)

    I get tired of listening to my children negotiate, stall, or whine whenever their dinner consists of one or more vegetables not on their favorites list. You'd think I was raising a family of carnivores (and not vegetarians) the way they pick at their peas. So, I am happy to report that I have found a new way to disguise...uh, I mean incorporate...vegetables in a "snack food." I present to you my recipe for veggie breadsticks.

    The great thing about this recipe is that it can be made with any vegetables on hand. I would also recommend substituting tomato paste for some of the liquid. But please do add the ground flax seed. What better way is there to get your omega 3 fatty acids, not to mention fiber, manganese, magnesium, and folate?

    And by the way, Micah ate three of them tonight. On his own. Without negotiating, stalling, or whining.


    1 package active dry yeast
    1/2 cup warm water
    2 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
    2 Tbs. olive oil
    1/2 tsp. salt
    1 small carrot
    1/2 cup packed volume of frozen spinach (thawed and water squeezed out)
    1/4 tsp. oregano
    1/4 tsp. basil
    2 Tbs. ground flax seed
    garlic salt

    Grind the spinach, carrot, and spices in a food processor until they form a thick paste. In a large bowl, combine the veggies, yeast, warm water, and 1 1/2 cups of the flour. Mix well to blend. Add oil, salt, and remaining flour and stir until the dough sticks together.

    Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Dust your hands with flour and knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, about five minutes. If the dough gets sticky, sprinkle it with a little flour. If the dough gets too dry, sprinkle water 1 tsp. at a time and knead in.

    Roll the dough in a ball and place it in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with a dishtowel and set in a warm but not hot place to rise until doubled in volume, 30 minutes to an hour. Preheat the oven to 450 deg. F.

    Sprinkle a baking sheet with cornmeal. When the dough has risen, punch it down, knead it a couple more times, and roll it out with a rolling pin onto a baking sheet until it forms a large rectangle about 1/2 inch thick. Allow the dough to rest for 20 minutes.

    Using a knife or other sharp edge, cut the dough into strips 1 inch wide by pressing straight down on the dough with the edge. Spray the breadsticks lightly with cooking spray and sprinkle them with garlic salt. Bake in the center of the oven for about 10 minutes.

    The recipe makes 8-10 breadsticks.

    Mango Hamantaschen

    (Originally posted 3/21/08)

    Chag Sameach! Happy Purim!

    I'm participating in a Biggest Loser contest at work (losing weight, of course), and our weigh-in day is Friday morning. Let me tell you, it's just not fair having Purim the night before a weigh-in day. But I was good. I had only two hamantaschen all day and I didn't inbibe in any alcohol.

    But I've weighed in now...and the weekend starts tonight...so I'm extending my Purim celebration until Saturday night. I'm sure there must be a responsa out there for extending Purim through the weekend if it comes mid-week before a weigh-in day. There must be. I'm seeing single malt scotch in my future.

    Last weekend I catered a lunch at our synagogue. It was a "fiesta" theme, which basically meant Latin American food from Mexico and Venezuela. As part of the dessert, I baked two kinds of tropical, parve hamantaschen: mango and pineapple. The pineapple filling was simply pineapple preserves from a jar, but the mango filling was rather inspired. The recipe is below:

    Mango Hamantaschen

    2 cups all-purpose flour
    1/2 cup sugar
    1 1/4 tsp baking powder
    1 eggs, beaten
    2 Tbs orange juice
    1/2 tsp vanilla extract
    ½ cup butter
    Mango filling

    Mango filling:
    3 ripe mangoes (each about 3/4 pound)
    1 Tbs fresh lime juice
    2 Tbs sugar
    1 tsp corn starch mixed with 2 tsp water

    Peel and cut flesh from mangoes, discarding pits. In a blender or food processor purée mango with the lime juice and 2 Tbs sugar until smooth. Heat sauce over a low to medium flame, stirring constantly. Add the corn starch and cook until it thickens to your desired consistency. This recipe makes a lot of filling, but you can always freeze the extra.

    Sift or mix well the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
    In a separate bowl, mix together eggs, margarine, juice, and vanilla extract.
    Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and mix together. If the dough is too sticky, add a little more flour and cover.
    Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
    Roll out dough to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut into circles with a 2 ½-inch round cookie cutter.
    Put ¾ tsp of filling in the center of the circle. Shape into triangles using a standard hamantaschen fold.
    Preheat oven to 325ºF. Bake on a parchment-lined cookie sheet for 10 to 12 minutes, until edges are golden brown. Cook on a rack.

    Dark Chocolate Raspberry Scones

    (Originally published 3/2/08)

    2 cups all-purpose flour
    1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
    1/3 cup cocoa powder
    2 tsp. baking powder
    1/4 tsp. salt
    6 Tbs. unsalted butter, chilled
    1/2 cup milk
    1 large egg
    1 tsp. vanilla extract
    3 oz. semisweet baking chocolate
    1/2 cup frozen raspberriess

    Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly grease a baking sheet.

    In a larger bowl, stir together the flour, brown sugar, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Cut the butter into 1/2 inch cubes and distribute them over the flour mixture. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. In a separate bowl, stir together the milk, egg, and vanilla. Add the milk mixture to the flour mixture and stir to combine. Chop the baking chocolate into small chunks, and stir into the dough. In a blender or food processor, chop up the still-frozen raspberries and fold them into the dough.
    Using a 1/3 cup measuring cup, drop the dough onto the prepared baking sheet leaving about 2-3 inches between scones. Bake for 16 to 18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

    Vegetarian Thanksgiving Stuffing

    (Originally posted 11/28/07)

    I did have great intentions of writing our family newsletter, the Yearly T'ruah, back in September. I was all set to go...but then I had to go and break my left pinky finger. Technically, I could still type. But when you spend 9-10 hours of your day furiously typing reports at work with your left hand in splint, you lose all enthusiasm for cranking out a typed newsletter once you get home.

    So, now that my hand is no longer splinted, and my pinky is healing nicely, I have grand intentions of getting The T'ruah out before Chanukah. Of course, calling it the T'ruah doesn't make much sense anymore...but that's the way the oil burns.

    But now it is Thanksgiving. Well, okay, now it is a couple of days AFTER Thanksgiving. My sister-in-law hosted the family dinner this year, taking over the tradition long held by my parents-in-law. My sister-in-law was excited about taking on the responsibility, and my in-laws were ECSTATIC about dumping it on her.

    Of course, we followed my in-laws other family tradition and split up the cooking so that no one person was saddled with feeding an army.

    One of my contributions was the vegetarian stuffing. Many years ago, I convinced my father-in-law that homemade stuffing was MUCH better than Pepperidge Farm's stuffing, so now I get to make it every year. Of course, I make a vegetarian stuffing which is served separately in a pan. Besides, even for those omnivores who insist on eating turkey and other animal flesh for Thanksgiving, it is much safer to eat the stuffing separately as many food studies have shown.

    So, here is my recipe for Vegetarian Thanksgiving Stuffing:
    1 pan cornbread
    7 slices oven-dried white (or whole wheat) bread
    2 cups celery
    1 cup onion
    1 tsp. sage
    1 Tbs. poultry seasoning (or similar spice mixture)
    5-7 cups vegetarian broth
    4-8 Tbs. butter, melted
    Salt and pepper to taste

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Saute celery and onion in a little oil.

    In a bowl, crumble together cornbread and oven dried bread. Add sauteed vegetables and spices, and mix together. Pour in broth and butter. Bake in greased pan for 30-45 minutes.

    Blue-Yellow Swirled Cornbread

    (Originally posted 2/26/07)

    I finally have a new job (details to come in a later post), so I felt like celebrating tonight. However, Omri and Shirah were too tired to go out to eat, and we were out of any alcoholic beverage. Not much of a celebration. So, I had to settle with making a nice comfort food dinner of corn bread, black-eyed peas, and fried okra. I even got creative with the corn bread and used both yellow and blue cornmeal. I made up two separate batches and swirled them together. I recommend you try it. It's not much more work than a single batch, and it makes a unique and visually arresting cornbread. And the world definitely needs more visually arresting...cornbread.

    Note: I'm not including the recipe since the cannister of cornmeal has a cornbread recipe on the side. However, I add 2 Tbs of ground flax seed to boost the omega-3 fatty acids.

    Yes, folks, there you have it. Visually arresting cornbread with omega-3 fatty acids. I think we're no longer talking "comfort food".

    Root 'n Tuber Kugel

    (Originally posted 2/26/07)

    Last weekend I catered a lunch for the Sisterhood Shabbat at our synagogue. We had a nice bagel lunch with cheese platter, hummus, cream cheese, green salad, kugels, and dessert. No one seemed to notice that we didn't have lox with the bagels and cream cheese. That, of course, was no accident. It was all part of my diabolical "vegetarian agenda" to convert the masses. Just you wait, I'll make vegetarians out of them yet.

    I received rave reviews for a kugel recipe I invented. I call it the Root and Tuber Kugel because it has both roots (carrots and sweet potatoes) and tubers (white potatoes). Besides, it just so darn fun to say "Root 'n Tuber Kugel."

    3 large Idaho potatoes
    1 large sweet potato
    3 large carrots
    1 medium onion, diced
    4 large eggs, lightly beaten
    2 Tbs. vegetable oil
    1 tsp. salt
    fresh ground pepper
    1/4 cup potato starch
    3/4 cup boiling water

    Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
    Grate potatoes and carrots using the fine (smallest holes) disc in the food processor.
    Squeeze out liquid and place in a large mixing bowl.
    Stir in eggs, 5 tbsp. oil, salt, pepper and onions.
    Sprinkle starch on top.
    Pour boiling water over starch and stir thoroughly.
    Coat a 9x13 baking pan with cooking spray and carefully pour mixture into pan.
    Bake for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, reduce heat to 400 degrees and bake for 40 minutes or until the top is a deep golden brown.

    Spanikopita Pie

    (Originally 1/8/07)

    Pies are tricky things. My mother-in-law makes some of the best pies I've ever tasted, and I make a point of watching her every time she makes pie crust. I've learned some of her tricks, such as use ice cold water (yes, the recipe in your cook book was serious about that), cut in the fat with a pastry cutter, and handle the dough as little as possible. Once you've mastered the art of a good pie crust, the sky is the limit.

    I came up with a new recipe the other day for spanikopita pie. It's a very simple concept: spanikopita...in a pie shell. The great thing about the recipe is that both my kids will eat it, and one of them will even eat it eagerly. I think this is a first for any spinach dish I've made for them.

    Needless to say, I'll have to make it again soon.

    8 " pie crust:
    1 1/2 cups flour
    1/2 tsp. salt
    1/2 cup shortening
    4 Tbs. ice water

    1 10oz. package of frozen spinach
    1/2 lb. feta cheese
    4 eggs
    1 Tbs. lemon juice
    1/2 tsp. nutmeg
    1 clove garlic, minced
    1/2 tsp. dill

    Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

    Prepare the pie crust by mixing the salt and flour together and cutting in the shortening. Sprinkle with ice water and toss with a fork. Gather dough into a ball, wrap in waxed paper, and refrigerate at least a half hour. Roll ball of dough into flat circle and place in pie plate.

    Thaw spinach and squeeze out water. Add other filling ingredients and mix together. Pour into pie shell.

    Bake at 450 degrees for 5-10 minutes to set crust, then reduce heat to 350 degrees F and bake for 30-40 minutes until set.

    Egg Nog Kugel

    (Originally posted 12/27/06)
    I believe the eighth night of Chanukah should be called the "fire hazard" night. We had seven chanukiot set up, which means that we had 63 candles burning (see picture to the left). Luckily most of the wrapped presents had already been unwrapped, so the chances of an errant candle setting off a horrific holiday blaze were somewhat reduced.

    But what's a holiday without a sense of danger.
    Switching topics...after my previous rant...uh, I mean homily...one might mistakenly think that I oppose ALL blending of cultures. Not true, not true, not true. And on Chanukah next year, I can think of no better way to celebrate the season than by making the traditional Chanukah noodle kugel with a slight Christmas twist.

    Egg Nog Kugel

    8 oz. wide egg noodles
    4 oz. butter or margarine
    6 eggs
    1/2 cup sour cream
    1 cup cottage cheese
    1 cup egg nog
    ¼ cup sugar
    ½ cup raisins

    1 cup chopped pecans
    ½ cup brown sugar
    2 Tbs. butter, melted

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cook noodles in boiling salted water until tender. Drain and add butter. Set aside. Beat together eggs, sour cream, cottage cheese, egg nog, and sugar. Add raisins. Add mixture to noodles. Pour into greased 8 x 12-inch baking dish. Mix together topping ingredients. Sprinkle over kugel. Bake for one hour. Serves 10-12.

    Thanksgiving Wild Rice Pilaf with Tofu

    (Originally posted 11/24/06)

    Happy Thanksgiving! Well, Happy 2nd day of Thanksgiving to be exact. We are spending Thanksgiving with my in-laws who have moved their big feast to the day after Thanksgiving to better accommodate everyone's holiday family expectations. Now my sister-in-law can feast with her in-laws in Oblong, Illinois, on Thursday and feast with her parents in Terre Haute on Friday. This creates a defacto 2nd seder for Thanksgiving. My in-laws aren't Jewish, but they have a better understanding of Jewish ritual than do most Jews.

    This creates a new tradition for the Thanksgiving meal: lasagna. Although the 2nd seder always has the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, etc., the 1st seder for the last two years has been vegetarian lasagna and garlic bread. It makes for a great Thanksgiving meal, but it's a little difficult to slice into sandwiches for leftovers.

    Many have asked me, “Just what do vegetarians EAT during Thanksgiving?” I suspect many have an image of my family meagerly scraping the last of the mashed potatoes and corn onto our plate while the rest of the extended family, omnivores all of them, greedily gorge themselves on turkey and giblet gravy and toss half of their crescent roll to my hungry children to watch them scuffle over the buttery roll, all the time taking bets on who will end up with the black eye.

    Although I have experimented with many vegetarian main dishes in the past on Thanksgiving, nowadays we just create a balanced meal of side dishes rather than a hierarchical meal of main dish and back-up singers. Having said that, some side dishes do get elevated to the status of “signature dish.” The wild rice pilaf with tofu has become a new tradition (three years running). Although it doesn't slice into sandwiches like turkey, it makes a great tortilla wrap for the week after Thanksgiving.

    Wild Rice Pilaf with Tofu

    1 lb. (1 block) of extra-firm tofu, Chinese style
    3 cups vegetarian broth (I recommend Rapunzel Vegetable Bouillon)
    1 cup brown rice
    1/2 cup wild rice (make sure it's Minnesota-grown)
    1/4-1/2 cup chopped onion
    1 Tbs. vegetable oil
    1 15 oz. can mandarin oranges, drained, syrup reserved
    1 cup chopped pecans
    sprig of rosemary

    Preheat the oven to 400oF. Drain the tofu and press out the excess water on 2-3 paper towels. Cut the tofu into cubes. Marinate the tofu in 1-2 cups of broth for 30 minutes at room temperature or for several hours in the refrigerator. Remove the tofu from the broth and bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes. Turn each piece of tofu over and bake for another 10 minutes until tofu is firm and light brown, but not burnt.

    In a large sauce pot, saute the onions in the oil. Add the brown rice, 1 cup broth, 1/4 cup reserved mandarin orange syrup, and 1/4-1/2 cup water and cook until rice is tender. In a separate pot, cook the wild rice in 1 cup of water.

    Mix together the brown rice, wild rice, chopped pecans, and tofu. Serve on a large platter, garnished with mandarin orange slices and a couple of sprigs of rosemary (optional).


    (Originally posted 10/19/06)

    Seitan, a vegetarian meat analog, is made from wheat gluten cooked in broth, traditionally a soy broth. Gluten is the protein found in whole wheat flour. It can be isolated from whole wheat flour by rinsing and kneading a flour/water mixture until all the starch is removed.

    I used to make my own gluten from scratch back when I was in grad school. It was a lot of fun, but it was very time consuming, and it left a starchy mess that coated the entire kitchen. I finally gave it up and started making it the easy way by reconstituting store-bought gluten flour with liquid. I still miss making my own gluten. It's kind of like the difference between hunting wild game in the Boundary Waters and buying pre-packaged chicken wings at the deli counter.

    The best book I have found on seitan is Cooking with Gluten and Seitan, by Dorothy R. Bates and Colby Wingate. I have had the best luck cooking seitan in a pressure cooker for 30 minutes instead of simmering it slowly. The pressure cooker gives a soft, slightly chewy seitan, whereas the simmering method always gives me a hard, rubbery seitan which is really not conducive to convincing your friends and relatives to become vegetarian.

    Tonight I made glutenschnitzel, my own personal seitan recipe. It's made like vienerschnitzel or chicken schnitzel, but you don't have to pound the mean into flat cutlets. You simply slice the seitan into thin cutlets (about 1/4 inch thick).

    I prepare three separate shallow bowls: one with white flour, one with an egg beaten with 1-2 teaspoons of water, and a third with bread crumbs. I coat the seitan cutlet with flour, transfer it to the egg and coat it completely, and then transfer the eggy cutlet to the bread crumbs. Each cutlet is then fried in about 1/4 inch thick of vegetable oil. I flip the cutlet over and fry the other side when the first side browns.

    I usually serve Glutenschnitzel with a tomato sauce, such as a commercial spaghetti sauce.

    Note: It is important to remember that like most meat analogs, seitan tastes and feels SIMILAR to meat but not EXACTLY LIKE meat. It is its own animal, so to speak. I find it important to appreciate seitan for what it is, rather than what it isn't.

    Israeli Fruit Salad

    (Originally posted 10/12/06)

    I created this simple recipe for the sisterhood opening meeting. It celebrates the fruits of Israel.

    1 pomegranate
    2 oranges
    2 green apples
    4 tsp. lemon juice
    4 tsp. honey
    1/2 tsp. cinnamon

    Mix lemon juice, honey, and cinnamon. Remove seeds from pomegranates. Peel oranges, separate sections, and cut into ¾ inch pieces. Core apple and chop into ¾ inch pieces. Immediately mix apples with the lemon-honey dressing (to prevent browning), and then mix apples the rest of the fruit. (Serves 4-6 people