First Breathe, Then RUN - Baby Spinach with Blackberries, Candied Almonds, Avocados and Manchego

4 years ago

Evolution is an imperfect process. As each generation adapts to the demands of a new environment, it carries now useless attributes that were once assets. The human tailbone. Wisdom teeth. The appendix.

Some vestigial attributes are not only unnecessary but are actually counter-productive to our current needs. For example, stress. I don't mean butterflies in your stomach before a presentation. I mean real, overwhelming, can't see straight stress. You know, the kind of heart-pounding, mind-muffling, sweat-inducing stress most experience at one point or another and those with higher levels of anxiety may even experience on a day-to-day basis. Stress can send our emotional and intellectual calibration into a crazy useless tailspin.

Basically, the only thing an extreme stress response is good for is running from a predator. And not even doing so efficiently - but blind hysterical running in an unplanned direction, your arms flailing in panic. Usually this kind of running ends with the flee-er tripping over a log or tumbling into a very tall waterfall. Or anyone who watches horror movies knows this kind of running signals the character's last few minutes on screen. Once hysterical stress sets in, it's pretty much over.

I have a story about this kind of stress. It's about the time I was almost eaten by a lion.

Not the lion but he can help set the mood Not the lion but he can help set the mood

A while back, as an add-on to a work trip to Africa, a former boyfriend and I decided to go on a long, adventurous safari. We went beyond the usual tourist circuit where lions look up and roll their eyes at you judgmentally to a reserve called the Selou in Tanzania. At the time, this reserve was difficult to access and generally reserved for high-end camps and exclusive safaris. We weren't in that category but we had the will, the time, a tent and a guide who had never been to this park but was willing to take us there.

For weeks, we drove and occasionally walked through this reserve and saw the most amazing scenes of zebras grazing, wildebeest galloping and hippos rolling in rivers. During the day, we relieved ourselves behind trees trying hard to relax enough to do our business while keeping an eye out for any opportunists. Only once during these three weeks was a bath offered. It was in a rather questionable looking spring that our guide took us to reluctantly after being subjected to my increasing desperation. My boyfriend, unwilling to risk the possibility of dysentery for one dirt free night, watched dubiously as I happily traded my health for the relief of feeling my own skin that had, for weeks, been trapped beneath an impenetrable layer of sand, grime, sweat and dirt.

In the evenings, our guide would help us set up our tent, make dinner, chat a bit and each night he would retire to our jeep leaving us to our nightly soundtrack of hollow winds and the disturbing sounds of lions roaring, feeble yelping and bones crunching (seriously. I'm positive that's what it was). One night, my boyfriend and I were starting to drift off to sleep at the late hour of 7:30 p.m., when emerging from the familiar rustling wind, we heard a very low, but distinct, grumbling roar that sounded like it was literally breathed into our ears. This roar-sigh was not human and it came from a very large animal. You don't know you know these things but civilization has not erased what is an almost biological memory, one shared among a species. Holy crap. I'm about to be eaten. I am an animal with a body that is fitted with absolutely no physical advantages over a lion.

And I. am. screwed.

We laid perfectly still and listened as this lion circled our tent and nudged at the thin metal stakes that kept the tent from becoming a comical nylon sheet molding two terrified hunched figures. Terrified is exactly the right word - we use it so casually. We were later told lions can't seem to get past the "this smells good but looks like an inanimate object" barrier, but I'm not sure even that knowledge would have changed my certainty that this was pretty much it for me.

And then the weirdest thing happened. In the midst of this moment of terror, we both started having what I can only describe as uncontrollable narcoleptic fits. He would drift off and start snoring or making noises and I would do the same. And each time one of us started making any sleep noises, the lion would move in that direction and start sniffing and pawing at the base of the tent. We spent the night pinching each other awake so as not to make noise while this animal continued to hunt us. The next day our arms were covered in black bruises from feeble efforts to play dead, or not there, or there but not interesting. The lion of course got bored at some point during the night and moved on but we were sure he had hovered about us for hours.

This is what I would call a totally ineffective stress response. What falling asleep was going to do for us in that situation, I don't know. Or perhaps, on a basic level our minds decided if we were going to be eaten anyway, we'd rather self-anesthetize! If we knew we couldn't fight, then better to meet our end asleep rather than awake?

The trick with stress is to bring it down a few notches - take panic stress down to productive stress - where you are sharp, aware, planning and reacting with intelligence.

So, following a little research on foods that help reduce stress, here is a very healthy and tasty recipe for Baby Spinach with Blackberries, Candied Almonds, Avocado and Manchego. The blackberries contain polyphenol compounds that can apparently limit the release of adrenaline. Avocados contain potassium that reduces high blood pressure. Spinach contains magnesium that combats fatigue which can heighten stress. Almonds contain vitamin E and B which help protect the immune system putting you in tip-top shape. Manchego cheese is just delicious and a nice peppery accent for the sweet almonds and blackberries.

Next time you are faced with an anxiety causing event, be it a lion, a test, or the prospect of too many changes keeping you awake at night, take a deep breath and focus before you find yourself running blindly straight into the door marked with a big skull and cross-bones. Let's reserve that for cartoons.

Baby Spinach with Blackberries, Candied Almonds, Avocado and Manchego

Baby Spinach with Blackberries, Candied Almonds, Avocado and Manchego

1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 avocado
1 pint blackberries
1 cup almonds
1/4 cup brown sugar
sea salt
2 ounces Manchego cheese
1 package of baby spinach

To make the dressing, mix the first 3 ingredients until emulsified. Add sea salt and pepper to taste.

To candy the almonds, melt brown sugar in a pan by leaving it on medium heat until it liquefies but has not started to brown. Don't stir just shake pan occasionally. Toss almonds in melted sugar, let cool slightly and break up clumps. Sprinkle with sea salt.

Slice avocado. Toss spinach, almonds, blackberries and avocado with dressing. Shave over with Manchego cheese.

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