Food for Thought

Operating at a high level

“Hello, is this Karl?”

“It could be — it depends on who is calling.”

The phone call is from the nurse at my physician’s office.

“Karl, we have your test results back. Some of your levels are high. You need to make an appointment to see the doctor.”

Hmmmm. “Levels,” you say?

I was raised by a doctor. A high “level” is seldom a good thing.

I attempt to make an appointment for some time in 2025, allowing my optimistic nature to shape the situation.

We settle on a Thursday.

The next Thursday.

I have two thoughts as I hang up the phone.

First: I knew I shouldn’t have succumbed to a demand for the blood test. Nothing encouraging occurs when one has a blood test. Those pesky lab techs are going to find something wrong; it’s guaranteed. Remember, I was raised by a doctor.

Second, at my age, high “levels” are a pretty good indicator of what is going on, problemwise.

This realization gives way swiftly to a guess as to what kind of further tests will take place at the appointment.

Concerning the test most likely to occur, I will not go into much detail; the majority of males over the age of 50 know enough about it already. If a man doesn’t know about this particular test, he should enjoy the comfort provided by his ignorance for as long as possible.

Women don’t need to know anything about this exam; they think little enough of us, as is.

“Level,” with some of my habits, also refers to elements in the blood that indicate a good chance the “Big One” is looming. We’re talking cholesterol here, a room in the ICU and beeping sounds in the background. I don’t need blood tests to tell me my cholesterol might be a touch on the high side. After all, I cook nearly every day. I know what I put in the goodies I prepare. That’s why they are goodies.

So, I go to my appointment. The physician is my friend, and I must say I am terribly disappointed when I am confronted with the first test (it is the one I predicted). Though he did graduate work at the John C. Holmes Institute of Urological Studies, he refuses to wear a Zorro outfit and a fake pencil-thin mustache. He won’t dim the lights and play my “Steve Lawrence and Edie Gormé: The Sounds of Romance” CD. There’s no post-procedure cigarette.

I feel oh-so used.

As to the second concern: “Karl, we need to discuss your cholesterol levels.”

“Let me guess: You found hunks of undigested cheese floating around in my blood stream. Draw enough of my blood, and we could make the world’s most unusual fondue. Was it Gruyere or that nifty Mexican Asadero I’ve taken an abnormal liking to?”

While my physician is my friend, he has other patients to tend to; he is no mood to clown around at the office. He’ll wait until we drink wine together for that. I appreciate his detachment and professionalism; I was raised by a doctor, you know.

“Your level of what we can call ‘bad’ cholesterol is not alarmingly high.”

What have I done wrong?

“But,” he says, pointing at a fact-cluttered sheet of paper, “if you look at this number, you’ll see the level of what we’ll call your ‘good’ cholesterol is somewhat low. It’s the ratio that counts. You are a six-point-five and you should be a four.”

Now, he’s just trying to confuse me. Numbers? Math? Ratio? Is there going to be a pop quiz?

To humor him, I pretend I understand what he is saying: I stare intently at the chart. I stroke my chin then look him in the eye, as if I am tuned to the complexities of the problem. In reality, I am thinking about a kitty I saw next to the road that morning and, of course, I’m wondering what I will make for dinner.

“You still exercise, don’t you?,” he asks.

I affirm the fact that I continue to lift heavy objects and put them down again, on a regular schedule.

“Well, you need to do more than just lift weights all the time. What about aerobic activity? I know better than to ask if you run, but do you get out and walk regularly?”

“Beg your pardon?”

“Do you get out and take walks regularly?”

“As in, outside?”

I am confused. Is he suggesting that I go outdoors? That I intentionally wander around out there?

“I walk from the car to the grocery store. And, when I have to, I go up and down the stairs at home.”

“Do you use the treadmill at the gym?”

The treadmill? I thought that thing was for religious fanatics, compelled to martyr themselves, to purify their souls through acts of self-imposed agony. I stare at the doc, like a less-than-intelligent beagle stares at its owner when given an unfamiliar command.

“Do you ever ride the stationary bike at the gym?”

“Well, yes. I ride one to warm up before I lift heavy objects and put them down again.”

“How long do you ride?”

“I try to hold it to a reasonable time — say, two or three minutes.”

This, apparently, is not long enough to make a positive change in the ratio I don’t comprehend. I am stunned — two or three minutes can seem like an eternity when you have the attention span of a sand flea.

“You need to ride the bike much, much longer. And, you need to do it five times a week, or so. That could improve your good cholesterol level, to a point where we won’t need to treat you with medication.”

I knew submitting to the blood test was a bad move. Why did I agree to it?

“So, are you clear on everything?”

Yes, I think, I am clear: Don’t go outside, ride the bike, add capers to a gratin of potatoes along with the requisite cheese, leeks, garlic and heavy cream.

“Clear as a bell, doc.”

As I enter the grocery store that afternoon, I am reminded of two things.

I am a bit dicey at the stern, so I am still very conscious of the test I underwent at the doc’s office. I am, in fact, walking sideways.

And, I remember the capers — those little brined, tangy bits of vegetable matter that complement so many things so well.

“Complement” is the key term here, much like”“levels” was critical earlier in the day. Capers are, to my knowledge, rarely the primary ingredient in a dish — though I am sure someone, somewhere in this wacky world is, as you read this, armed with a big spoon and tying into a heaping mess o’ capers. Massive amounts of capers devoured on a regular basis probably boost “good” cholesterol. That’s why Albanians live so long.

In my kitchen, these beauties are always added to a dish, bringing a piquancy and sharp edge to a recipe — often in concert with other acidic elements.

I love ‘em, and I use them frequently.

The caper is a bliss-producing bud of a special bush with origins in the Mediterranean region, the buds commonly sun dried and brined in vinegar. The caper is not to be confused with the caper berry, a later stage in the development of a bud, possessed of a different taste and put to different uses.

The capers usually come packed in a jar with brine. You fish them out, you rinse them, you toss them in something you are cooking — sometimes chopped but, most of the time, whole.

I have several applications to which I turn regularly.

One is a variation on a pasta alla Puttanesca (for a laugh, look up the meaning of the Italian word “puttanesca”) — the puttanesca sauce being the critical ingredient, the pasta, in my mind, being a matter of choice. The sauce is simple: whole Italian tomatoes, crushed and kept with their own juices, tomato paste, mushed garlic, basil, oregano, anchovies, oil-cured black olives, pitted, chopped or whole, white wine, red pepper flakes, high-grade olive oil. And capers.

Then, there’s variations on the sauce commonly associated with piccatas and schnitzels: white wine, chicken stock (on occasion), parsley, a bit of shallot (if desired) lemon juice. And capers.

Capers are an integral part of a tapenade, all mushy good when pulverized in the company of olives, garlic, olive oil, anchovies.

They also fit in an easy-to-make, all-purpose sauce for a number of seafood applications. The base is a high-grade mayonnaise. It carries a cargo of minced shallot, a bit of lemon juice, salt, pepper, a dash of Dijon mustard, a bit of heavy cream, some dried tarragon, perhaps a dash of hot sauce. And capers. Whip up a healthy wad of this stuff and serve it with a slab of fish or with salmon cakes (made with chunks of fresh salmon) or tuna cakes (made with chunks of fresh tuna).

Or, a piece of fish (hard to find in these parts) simply prepared — pan roasted—— can be topped with a brown or black butter, enhanced with parsley and lemon. And capers.

I decide to create a fast and easy take on a chicken schnitzel. I slice chicken breasts in half horizontally, put them one at a time into a large plastic storage bag that I’ve lubed with a few droplets of water, and pound the dickens out of them, until I have cutlets approximately a quarter-inch thick. I season each cutlet, then give it the seasoned flour/egg/seasoned crumb treatment. I sauté two of the cutlets at a time in a butter and oil mix in a heavy frying pan set over medium high heat — just a couple minutes per side, until the crumb crust is golden. I remove the cutlets to a heated plate while I finish their companions.

Once I’ve finished the cutlets, I keep the pan on the heat, toss in some minced shallot, cook for a moment then deglaze the pan with white wine and a bit of chicken stock. I add lemon juice, chopped parsley and some fresh-ground black pepper and reduce the liquid to a near-syrup state. I taste, adjust the seasoning, sharpen the mix with a bit more fresh lemon juice if necessary, toss in a couple tablespoons of rinsed capers and turn off the heat. At that juncture, I swirl in several tablespoons of butter (ever mindful of that darned ratio) and add the cutlets, covering the pan and letting the residual heat permeate everything for a couple minutes. That gives me time to drain the pasta I’ve cooked, and to put it back in the pan with a touch of the cooking water, butter, crushed garlic, pepper, a bit of lemon juice and freshly shredded Parmesan. I also have time to drain the green peas or green beans I’ve cooked and to dress them with butter and black pepper.

It’s been a long day, but everything is ready to go.

Including my levels.

I wonder if I can find a way to work in some of that Mexican Asadero cheese I’ve taken an abnormal liking to?

I may have to sit on a pillow while I eat, but I am going to enjoy myself while my ratio changes.

What's Cookin?


Josephine Elizabeth “Tiny” Phillips

 Josephine Elizabeth “Tiny” Phillips, 74, died Tuesday, March 18, 2008, at home in Juanita, Colo.  A celebration of life service will be announced at a later time.

 Mrs. Phillips was born March 19, 1933, in Auburn, N.Y., the daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Kendrick.   She married Lester Phillips on June 20, 1953.  The family moved to Pagosa Springs from Ocala, Fla., in 1980, and made their home in Juanita on the San Juan River, near Pagosa Junction.  She loved her family and friends to no end.

 She is survived by her husband, Lester; Deborah Phillips (daughter), of Arboles, Colo.; Jeffery Phillips (son), of Clinton, Wash.; four grandchildren:  Nicholas Bird, of Arboles, Colo., Alan Swinson, of Ocala, Fla., Rachael Clements, of Freeland, Wash., Tanja Charleton, of Greenbank, Wash.; and six great-grandchildren.

 In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Hospice of Mercy 1970 E. 3rd Ave. Suite 100, Durango, CO 81301, or Pagosa Mountain Hospital, 95 S. Pagosa Blvd., Pagosa Springs, CO 81147.



Darian Lujan and Kati Bennett

Darian Lujan and Kati Bennett were married Oct. 13, 2007, in Mesa, Ariz. Darien Lujan is the son of Joe Lujan and Dolores Garza of Pagosa Springs. Grandparents are Santana and Emma Lujan, also of Pagosa Springs. Kati is the daughter of Stan and Carolyn Bennett of Queen Creek, Ariz.