I’ve noticed as I get older that I don’t sleep as well as I used to. So I set aside time to listen to Dr. Matthew Walker’s interview on “Fresh Air.” He’s the director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science, and talked with Terry Gross about the findings in his new book, Why We Sleep.
Walker confirmed my suspicions about my own sleep, citing the brain’s decreasing ability to generate sleep as we age. But there was another part of the conversation that made me sit up and listen: using alcohol as a “nightcap” not only doesn’t work, it’s counterproductive.
As someone in the wine business, I’d heard that alcohol can interfere with sleep before. But Walker’s warning went further. Alcohol has a sedative effect, so it can put us to sleep. Not surprising, since that’s why many people have a glass of wine or a nip of something before going to bed. The problem is that alcohol-induced sleep isn’t anything like natural sleep, which we need to function normally. It lacks the physically restorative effects of natural sleep.
Not only that, your sleep will be more fragmented. You’ll actually wake up several times during the night, although you won’t realize it. So when you get up in the morning, you’ll have no idea how much sleep you actually lost. And worst of all, alcohol blocks REM sleep – which we need for mental and emotional well-being.
This doesn’t necessarily counter the arguments about alcohol’s health benefits. (Except for the ridiculous notion that a glass of wine before bed will help you lose weight.) But it does mean you need to think carefully about when you drink.
Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend not drinking wine in the evenings (talk about career suicide). Perhaps we all need to think about leaving enough time between the final glass and going to bed, though. Getting the alcohol metabolized first could be key to sleeping better. The alcohol will make us feel tired and wanting to go to bed, but it’s better to resist for a while. Just like you wouldn’t drive with too much alcohol in your system, it’s probably wise not to succumb to sleep, either.
So maybe you should clean up after that dinner party instead of leaving it until morning. Take the dog for a walk instead of just a trip to the backyard. I’m sure you can think of plenty of things to do other than sleep with a little wine in you!
I think I’ve mentioned before that Cy and I are part of a dinner group that has themed dinners. Our most recent one was a dinner with recipes from Jerusalem-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi. Cy and I made a grape leaf and yogurt pie, which is a classic recipe from Turkey. It’s baked, thickened yogurt surrounded by grape leaves, and it was tasty and easy to serve.
Cy’s family often has stuffed grape leaves at special-occasion meals. They’re delicious, and it can be a fun project to fill and roll the individual leaves if you have time. But it also occurred to me that I could take the pie as inspiration: line the pie plate with grape leaves and then put the traditional rice filling inside. Bake it for a half hour, and you’d save yourself time but still have the same flavor. You can serve it at room temperature, which is also a plus.
Well, it turned out beautifully. We served the yogurt version with Bodega Traslagares Verdejo ($13), and it works with the rice version, which I like to top with a little yogurt before serving. Leftovers are good, too – let it warm up a bit since the rice has a crumbly texture when it’s cold. You can even eat it right before bed, just not with the wine!
About 20 grape leaves, fresh or from a jar, dropped in boiling water for 1 minute, then drained and dried
3 cups cooked Basmati rice, cooled on a baking sheet
¼ cup toasted pine nuts
¼ cup currants or chopped raisins
¼ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup chopped dill
¼ cup chopped mint
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
Zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ – ½ cup vegetable stock
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Brush an 8- or 9-inch glass pie plate with olive oil. Take a look at the grape leaves and cut off any protruding stems. Starting on the sides, arrange some of the grape leaves to go around the pie plate, about half of each leaf should go beyond the rim. Fill in the bottom of the plate, then brush liberally with olive oil.
Combine the rice, pine nuts, currants, herbs, lemon zest and juice, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl. Add ¼ cup of the vegetable stock. The mixture should be moist and hold together if you pick up some and squeeze it in your hand. Add more stock if necessary. Taste for seasoning.
Spoon the rice mixture into the lined pie plate, pressing down gently. Fold the leaves over the filling, then brush with more oil. Put another layer of grape leaves on top and brush again with oil. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, the top leaves should be crispy and the filling should be hot (check with an instant-read thermometer). Let the pie cool, then slice and serve, topped with yogurt if you’d like.