Friday, September 18, 2009

To Sleep, Perchance

“Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!”

Oh, jeez, Macbeth, you, too? Even those of us who haven’t killed a king have insomnia issues. There's not one, but two types of insomnia, both of them bite. There's your not-being-able-to-fall-asleep-at-all, bad enough, but the other is the really diabolical one. Falling asleep’s no problem, but then shortly after, you wake with a sense of panic and the knowledge you have ruined your life.

There is no redemption, no hope and let’s not even talk about going back to sleep. You just lie there rigid and brood or turn over and over like a rotisserie chicken. Your overwhelming sense of dread may fade with the coming of dawn, but it does not, let us say, make for a good night. In insomnia parlance, this is known as fragmented sleep.

I’ve been there. Often. Most of the people I hang with have, too. We talk melatonin, tryptophan, serotonin. We talk warm milk, scotch, Ambien. We have lots of time for talk, because we’re not sleeping.

There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as torture, or as we call it these days, enhanced interrogation. Lack of sleep breaks you down, it produces serious cracks in your personality and dents in your reasoning. It also screws with your brain chemistry, including interrupting the flow of leptin, the neurotransmitter that lets you know when you’re full. Lose enough sleep and you overeat, don’t eat anything or eat crap.

If it’s any comfort for those similarly afflicted (and it’s probably not), this complaint is not new. It is not a byproduct of the terrible modern life we lead. According to my excellent friend, a former seminarian, the "Lucernarium," a Matins liturgy dating back to the Middle Ages. contains the line, "Éripe nos de timóre noctúrno." Translation: Deliver us from the terror of the night. Through the miracle of modern science, we now understand that terror as the chemical imbalance occuring around 3:00 AM, when your serotonin levels have tanked and you feel vulnerable to just about anything.

So how do you avoid insomnia? Good question. My friends and I pass on the latest tips and very little seems to do any good. Among the advice handed out by smiling experts:

No coffee (doh).

No booze.

Keep your bedroom dark and cool.

Keep regular hours, going to sleep at the same time every night.

Don’t succumb to afternoon naps (except for those who say, go ahead, succumb, nap -- it’s enough to keep a girl up nights).

Drink chamomile tea.

Chamomile tea, if you recall your Beatrix Potter, is the little toddy old Mrs. Rabbit (why old? Because she had four kids?) gave naughty Peter after his misadventures in Farmer McGregor’s garden. “One teaspoon to be taken at bedtime.”

When you ask for herbal tea at a restaurant, chamomile is always the one they have. Why chamomile? It is a medically proven soother of nerves and a digestive. But it tastes to me of dust and just makes me anxious. This I do not need.

The other thing experts say just might lure you to sleep is to eat a light snack an hour or so before bedtime. Not just any snack, one that doses you with a little tryptophan, making you happy, relaxed and deliciously drowsy. That means a cocktail of complex carbs and protein. Bananas and apricots are a particularly good source, also nuts, both of which are, happily, vegan.

I came up with these apricot squares with an almond crust, a little nursery food for grownups, heady, gratifying and made with low-glycemic agave, so it won’t cause your blood sugar to spike just as you’re getting cozy beneath the covers. They taste pretty decadent for your healthier-than-average cookie. I’m not guaranteeing they’ll produce zzzzzs. But they won’t be among all the things you’re rueing while you’re lying wide awake at 3:00 AM.

Wishing you sweet dreams. Eripe nos de timóre noctúrno.

Macbeth hath murdered sleep. I have probably massacred the Latin for

Dolcia Somnia Quadruus (Sweet Dreams Squares)

1 cup water or herbal tea (chamomile if you must)

1 cup dried apricots

1 cinnamon stick

2-1/2 cups almond meal, also known as almond flour, or 2-1/2 cups blanched almonds, ground fine

4 tablespoons coconut oil

4 tablespoons agave

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cardamon

grated zest of 1 lemon

Pour tea or water into a medium-sized saucepan. Add apricots and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover, reduce heat to low and let simmer for half an hour.

Preheat oven to 350.

For the crust: In a bowl, blender or food processor, mix together almond flour, coconut oil, 3 tablespoons of the agave and almond extract just until it forms crumbs. Then add 1 tablespoon of the apricot poaching liquid and mix until everything starts to come together into dough.

Set aside 1 cup of the dough and press the remainder into an 8X8 pan. Bake for 20 minutes.

While crust bakes, prepare the apricot filling:

Pulse apricots, remaining tablespoon agave, cinnamon and cardamon and grated lemon zest in a blender or food processor until mixture is coarsely blended, not fussily pureed.

Remove crumb crust from oven, spread apricot filling on top and sprinkle remaining cup of crumbs on top. Bake for 15 minutes.

Cool and cut into squares.

Makes 16.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The (Spaghetti) Wrestler

While in New York last week, I discovered spaghetti wrestling. Silly me, at first I thought they were two separate entities -- spaghetti, as in something you eat and wrestling, as in something you do. Spaghetti wrestling offers both.

You are, no doubt, more worldly than I and already know this sport of sorts involves inflating a kiddie pool, filling it with pasta, sauce and two wrestlers dressed in provocative undergarments. They then wrestle and tumble amongst the pasta. Mirth ensues.

I found out about spaghetti wrestling not at a city biker bar (though bikers are big fans), but at a local fair in upstate New York where it’s billed as your basic family entertainment.

I went cross-eyed with wonder over issues including:

-- Quantity

A pound of spaghetti amply serves four. Kiddie pools range from a capacity of 100 to 200 gallons. So how many pounds of spaghetti does it take to fill it? The answer? Until it’s full.

-- Safety

The spaghetti and sauce are not hot. This is done more for the sake of preventing plastic pool melt and leakage than protecting the wrestlers from burns.

-- Sauce

The preferred kind of sauce varies from your classic marinara to Wesson oil, which seems lazy. If you’re going to grind fistfuls of spaghetti into someone, you might as well go the distance, so to speak, with a true sauce.

-- Noodle

When I asked which made for the better performance, whole grain spaghetti or the standard semolina pasta, people stepped away from me. Asking whether spaghetti had the edge over linguini or fettuccini seemed out of the question.

-- Marketing

Who. Came. Up. With. This? And why? And why do people think it’s fun? And if I don’t, what does that mean?

-- Morality

Forget kink, it’s an egregious waste of food that could feed the hungry. This is the sort of high-minded thinking that makes one unpopular at parties.

No spaghetti was hurt -- or wasted -- in the production of the above image. Photography occurred post-meal and involved a handful of leftovers. Recipe below.

TKO Spaghetti

1 fennel bulb

2 onion

2 zucchini

4 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup dry white wine, or more to taste

2 dozen kalamata olives, pitted

sea salt and fresh pepper

4 ounces whole wheat spaghetti

juice and zest of one lemon

handfuls of fresh herbs including parsley, tarragon, basil, thyme, whatever you like

Preheat oven to 425.

Chop up your fennel, onion and zucchini into bite-sized pieces. Spread out into generous-sized roaster, so the vegetables aren't crowded and have space. Mince garlic and stir into vegetables. Stir in one tablespoon of olive oil, 1/4 cup white wine and olives.

Roast vegetables for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, so they roast evenly.

In a large pot, cook spaghetti until just al dente, even a little chewy. Drain well. Return pasta to pot, along with vegetables and any accumulated juices. Grate in lemon zest and squeeze in juice. Chop herbs fine and stir in, along with remaining 1/4 cup of white wine and the last tablespoon of olive oil

Heat over medium-high heat, stirring, until just heated through, about five minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 4.