Monday, December 29, 2008

Looking forward to 2009

I'm going to take this week off from blogging as well. But starting next week, I'm going to go on a 4-5 month world tour. Ok, not quite...I wish it involved airplanes and foreign currency. But really it's my blog that's going global.

Since the farmer's market is closed and there are very few local foods, I figured I'd take this opportunity to tour the world's cuisines. So every month I'm going to focus on a different continent. Haven't decided yet what order they're going to go in or what countries I'll cover, but here are some ideas to look forward to (and unfortunately I won't have time to cover them all, but this is my wish list):

Europe: French, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, German, Scandanavian
Middle Eastern/North African: Greek (yes, I know it's a European country, but the food seems to overlap more with Middle Eastern than European), Lebanese, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Armenian
Asian: Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Malaysian, Vietnamese
Mexico/Central and South America: Mexican, Haitian, Jamaican, Argentinian, Brazilian
Mystery Month: I figure that several of these will be hard to fit all I want to in one month, so I'll pick the ones I really wanted to do but missed and run with it.

So I won't be making as many big pot meals (that's what all the food I've stored in my freezer is for. I'm figuring the international meals will be good for a couple meals, and then I can fill in the rest of the week from my freezer.

Are there any amazing cuisines that I've forgotten and you'd recommend?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Monday Recipe - Peppermint and Cardamom Meringues

Every year with my mother's family, our Christmas tradition is to draw a name from a hat and fill that person's stocking. Kind of like a Secret Santa. This year I got my stepfather's stocking. And to save money, I decided I was going to do a lot of cooking (well, and I got books really cheaply at my company's holiday book sale). I usually make cookies, but he has dietary restrictions where he can't have egg yolks or butter. So what to do?

I made meringues. By Thursday, I'll have made three kinds of meringues - cardamom, peppermint, and almond. I've made all but the almond so far. I also found the cutest Santa tupperware at Target that I'm going to package them in ( though what's up with the tupperware not locking? The tops fall off if you look at them funny...).

Word of caution: meringues are highly addictive, and they're like Pringles - once you pop, you can't stop. The peppermint ones in particular.

The main recipe below is for the peppermint, the parentheses is for the cardamom. I quadrupled or sextupled the recipe (basically I just wanted to use a dozen eggs), the amounts below are the amounts I actually used.

Also, I didn't want to waste all the egg yolks, so I'm going to try my hand at creme brule on wednesday. More to come on that...

Peppermint (cardmom) meringues

12 egg whites
3C (4C) superfine sugar
14 candycanes, crushed (T cardamom)
3/4t cream of tartar (cardamom meringue recipe didn't call for it, but I'd add it next time)

Preheat the oven to 275.

Crush the candy canes with a mortar and pestle into small pieces. Until your shoulder starts to hurt. And your hand. Almost had enough? Only 6 canes left. You want to crush them until there's some peppermint powder, and some small pieces of cane.

If you don't have superfine sugar (apparently they sell this, I didn't see any at my supermarket), take a bunch of regular sugar and put it in your food processor.

Separate the whites and yolks, making extra sure not to get any of the yolks into the whites (to make sure not to make a mistake, which always happens right when you've cracked the 10th into the big bowl, crack each yolk into a small bowl and then add it to the big bowl). If there's any yolk in the whites, it won't beat up properly.

Whip the eggs with a beater until foamy. Gradually add in the sugar (if you're making the peppermint ones, then add in some of the peppermint powder as well, but not the small chunks). Beat until the mixture forms stiff peaks (shoulder pain, yes yes). If you're making the cardamom version, add the spices after stiff peaks are formed.

Dollop onto a greased pan (or silicon cookie sheet). Peppermint - sprinkle crushed candy over top of each meringue. Cardamom - sprinkle cardamom on the top. Pop into the oven and bake for 1-2 hours (my eyes almost popped when I saw this, I hadn't realized it would take so long).

I wasn't able to fit all the meringues into the oven on the first go-round, so I put the remaining sugared whites in the fridge, then whipped them for a little while before spooning out the next batch. They were much thinner and ran into each other, but they tasted just as good.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cardio Nation

So, I've focused a lot on working the muscles, including the brain muscle with meditation and yoga (or rather, relaxing it). Apart from my breathless run in with a very large set of stairs, I haven't talked too much about cardio.

Both weights and cardio are important. Weights help build muscle, which increases strength, makes your body more able to deal with stress (from exercise), and can raise your metabolism. Cardio helps with weight loss, improves lung and heart health, increases bone density (if there's impact involved), temporarily relieves depression and anxiety, gives you confidence and reduces stress.

But what is cardio, really? I mean, you've got marathoner friend A, who swears by running, social friend B, who busts a move in group exercise, intense friend C, who does nothing but cycle, and loner friend D who ergs her heart out on the rowing machine.

I admittedly don't have much experience with running. I joined the track team my senior year of high school, but the meets were the same day as my piano lessons (a fact I wasn't disappointed to learn), and I was the slowest person with the least endurance on the team. I did continue jogging through the summer following my senior year, but stopped when I got to college. Tried to take it up twice - once in college I went on a 2 mile run, and it was hell. Then I went to Alaska in 2003 and didn't have any workout equipment. At that point, I didn't know what else to do for cardio, so I went jogging. I hurt for three days.

I occasionally flirt with the idea of running. I'm more of a social exerciser, so it's hard to motivate myself to go running on my own. I've thought about joining a running group, but I feel like I'd really be slowing them up (or end up on my own). C and I have talked about running when the weather starts getting nice again, since neither of us are runners, so we'd be starting at the same level.

My other concern is that I've had plantar fasciitis, and it's always hovering right under the surface, waiting to pop out and scream "HAHAAA! It's time to take three months off of exercise while I make you feel like you've got nails reaming your heels! Wheeeee!" I'm not sure how to run to minimize my risk of it flaring up again. Any suggestions?

There are two kinds of cycling - road cycling and group exercise cycling. Road cyclists tend to be less into the social dimension of the activity...they're there to push themselves as hard as they can, and they've even got the padded shorts and pocketed shirts to prove how serious they are. I find road cycling difficult, because you have to deal with cars on the road or people and animals on the bike path. It's nice having scenery and getting outdoors, but I like the fact that on a stationery bike I can close my eyes and just push myself to the music.

Then there's cycling class, which really goes from A to Z in style. You have instructors who take you up 30 minute hills, raising your resistence continually the whole time, while they shout "PUSH!!!" (true story), you have instructors who vary the workout but keep it super-intense, others who are supportive and give you options for modification, others who give you imagery of your whole ride (now on your left, you'll see a wonderful view of the ocean as you sprint up to the front of the pack). Every class is different, especially because of the music.

The other thing is that a lot of cycling newbies are intimidated by the spin room, so they're reluctant to try it. It's usually dark in there, and my gym even has UV lights we can turn on overhead (though we don't usually use them). The music is loud and the instructor is often loud too. People come out drenched in sweat. But what I always tell people is that you can take it at your own level, nobody can actually see if you turn your resistence up. So if you're already going gangbusters (or if you want to take it easy), just pretend to turn the dial if you feel pressure to do so. Spinning is one of the only exercises I do that makes me really sweat. Step gets my heart rate up, but not nearly the same way spinning does.

Group Exercise
Saying "I like group exercise" is kinda like saying "I like books." Your next question would be "well, what kind of books?"

Step - my favorite. This is what got me into teaching. It's partly the choreography, because it's always changing, and there's a real feeling of accomplishment when you complete a class and do well (or a drive to do better next time), and it's just also really awesome to see everyone doing all the dancy moves on the step all in unison. It is challenging the first few times, because step really is a foreign language. If you don't know what an L-step, basic, scissor, or straddle are, then the first few classes are going to be a study in how to end up going the opposite direction as everyone else. But if you can stick out those first few classes, it only gets easier. And step is great for the "the hour's already over?!" factor.

Cardio kickboxing - a bit different from martial arts, this is aerobically modified martial arts. In other words, kicking and punching the air (or, occasionally, pairing up and punching pads). Great workout for the core, legs, and shoulders, as well as the sweat factor. The music in these classes are generally pretty rockin', as you need a faster tempo and a heavy downbeat to really get into the punching swing of things. I like teaching kwando spar (with the pads and gloves), because it's a sociological study to see how people deal with punching each other. People who know each other (or have been to a class a while) aren't at all timid about hitting strongly (especially if they've just had a fight...marriage therapy charge can be paid out to me directly, thanks). People who don't know each other, however, get these grins on their faces because they're nervous about punching, since it's not normally a socially sanctioned exercise. They smile to cover over their hesitation, but then they smile because it's just so satisfying to take those gloves and smack the pads in front of them.

Zumba/Hip hop - zumba is Latin dance aerobics. I honestly haven't done much of either, though I have taken them occasionally. My problem with both is that I'm used to step, which is a shoulders back and upright format. Then I go to zumba and hip hop and my upper body just isn't that pliable in the way they're asking me to be. I can move my hips (though, seriously, how sexy can I really feel in sneakers?), but my upper body looks really awkward in the mirror. It's definitely fun though.

When I got to college, I tried out for the crew team. I really liked the workout (it was kind of a bootcamp thing), but the women's crew team met at 5a every morning. Um, no. Seeing as I'd go to sleep at 2a, and I'm not much of a morning exerciser, I don't think so. In my sophomore year, though, I did sign up for a rowing class. This consisted of sitting on an erg machine facing a window and erging for however long the coach told me to. I kind of enjoyed it. I'd listen to NPR and erg away. I haven't done much erging since then, but I do remember it being a great workout for the whole body.

There are other great cardio options too - jump rope is one of the best exercises that really gives you bang for your buck in comparing time with energy output. 30 second of jumping rope can totally take your breath away. There're jumping jacks, burpees, leaping side to side, lateral shuffles, among many others. What's your favorite cardio? Which makes you sweat the most? Do you mix it up, or are you a one-cardio loyalist?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hair Healthy Food

So we've all heard the effect that our diet has on our general health. Grease can cause acne (or not, since no actual studies show it, rather it's the stress that makes us eat the greasy food that may cause the acne), salty food causes bloating, fruit can thin tooth enamel, and so on and so forth.

But what does diet do to hair? This website lists the top 10 foods for hair health. Some highlights below:

- Are you shining me on? Omega 3 and Omega 6 (O3 - salmon, dark green veggies, flax seed oil, O6 - poultry, eggs, cereal, whole grains) promote healthy, shiny hair (oooh, can I make my hair look like the lady in the Pantene commercial by eating salmon? Huh huh?). A healthy scalp makes healthy, shiny hair - chow on some carrots for vitamin A (and in addition, help improve your vision with the beta carotene).
- Preventing a different shine...of the bald type... Vitamins B6, B12, Niacin (B3) and Pantothenic Acid (B5) helps prevent hair loss and graying and promotes scalp circulation. Good food sources - meat (B3), whole grain cereals, organ meat, egg yolks (B5, B6), chicken, fish, eggs, milk (B12).
- Oh so stimulating! Native people of Guatemala traditionally use the pulp of the avocado to stimulate hair growth. Low-fat dairy also promotes hair growth, because of the calcium.
- Ironing has never been so fun! As long as it's the iron you eat, that is...iron is one of the nutrients that promotes growth and hair health (green veggies, red meat).
- Don't you split hairs with me! Biotin is a nutrient which we normally have plenty of. However, a deficiency can cause brittle, split hair. Beans have plenty of biotin, as well as hair-healthy protein, iron and zinc.
- Ewww! There's hair in my food! A lack of zinc can lead to shedding hair. And given how much hair I shed on a regular basis, I think I need about as much zinc as I can get! Also, selenium promotes a healthy scalp, linked to hair loss. Brazil nuts are the best source of selenium, walnuts, cashews, pecans, and almonds have loads of zinc (as well as if you want great hair and an aphrodesiac side-effect, this is the way to go).

What not to do?
- Restrict your calories too much. When you restrict calories, you end up eating less all around, include the healthy stuff. And if you don't get enough of the vitamins and minerals above, it can make your hair look duller and flatter and may even fall out faster (as well as impacting your health in other ways). So if you're restricting your calories, try to eat more fresh food with vitamins and minerals (that way you get more quantity out of your however many calories.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday Recipe - Curried Squash

This weekend was a crazy awesome social weekend.

Friday was the cookie swap. I brought chocolate rolo cookies (chocolate with a rolo in the center which melts to caramel). They were ok, but not as good as my coworker's batch when she brought them in. K made chocolate dipped pecan shortbread cookies (my mouth is watering just thinking about them), L made chocolate chip blondies, S made three kinds of cookies - peanut butter cup, chocolate chip and oatmeal, and J made oatmeal chocolate chip and oatmeal cranberry. Excellent of excellent, now I have lots of yummy cookies to chow down on! :)

Saturday was A's birthday party. Being from Guadaloupe, he made a dangerously good tropical punch (rum and guava/passion fruit/pineapple juice). Match that with the salsa/meringue dancing and French swap (probably not an official term at all, but it was different than a regular yankee swap, so that's the name it got) and it was a good time.

Sunday was dinner at P's house. It was like Thanksgiving, there was so much food. For six of us, we had pumpkin soup, basmati spiced rice, aloo gobi (cauliflower and potato with tomato and cilantro), curried squash, bread, chickpeas, salad with rice and tuna, chocolate apricot cake, and strawberry raspberry sponge cake with marzipan. It was awesome! Most of it was homemade by the six of us, and it made for a wonderful meal. I brought the curried squash, so I'm putting the recipe here below.

Curried Squash

2-2.5lbs butternut squash
1 medium onion, chopped into half rounds
2C chicken/vegetable broth
T curry powder (I used Indian red curry powder)
2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
1/2C cream (I used half and half)

Cut the squash in half and bake in the oven until soft. Scoop out the insides and set aside. This may take a while (anywhere from 30-90 minutes, depending on the size of the squash).

Put onions and garlic in a pot with some oil and sautee until onions are translucent and soft. Add the squash, curry powder, and broth and cook at a simmer until the liquid has evaporated and sauce consistency has evened out (15-30 minutes). Add the cream and cook 5-10 minutes until the liquid has stabilized in thickness.

Serve over rice, quinoa, or couscous.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Rant - Natural Girl

I've said it before and I'll say it again, natural's the way to go.

No, no, I'm not talking about grooming habits, that would be a whole other kind of blog.

I'm talking food. Jam/preserves to be exact.

You see, I've never been that big a fan of jam. PBJ sandwiches didn't hold much sway on me as a kid, and now, if I make a PB sandwich, it's much more likely to have honey on it than jam.

My mother, grandmother and aunt do make great jam (especially elderberry jam. And I haven't tried my aunt's crabapple (I think it was) jam she gave me at Thanksgiving, but I'm sure it's good). But I never really jumped on the jam bandwagon.

And then I made my own. Apple butter, pumpkin butter, cranberry orange preserves. And man, am I now a serious convert. I'm sure it's partly the fact that I actually made that jam. I guess in my head, jam was kinda like bread - I know that people make it themselves (obviously my relatives do), but I'd never seen it made and so it was all rather mysterious. The first (and only, thus far) time I made bread, I had the same sense of accomplishment, looking at the loaf on the counter and saying "I MADE that!" That's the same way I feel about the fruit butters.

I had a little left over, not a full jar, of each of them (well, actually, I haven't tried the pumpkin butter yet, but I've tried the rest). And man, I'm seriously hooked now. I get to work thinking "oooh, so when's it snack time, I want my toast and jam!"

I think part of it is that the jams you buy at the store are so bland. And they're not usually all fruit and sugar (they have preservatives and such in them). You grab a bottle of Welch's grape jelly and it tastes rather like a grape jolly rancher. That is to say, really fake-ass jam. And bland as all get out. Sure, it's super sweet, you can taste the flavor, but it doesn't have pop. (and yes, I fully recognize that not having much experience in the supermarket jam department, there may be some that are good, but I'm turning a blind eye at the moment, yes I am). Also, I tend to gravitate more towards different flavors. Given a choice between raspberry, strawberry, or apricot, I'll take the apricot any day. The more common ones just aren't as interesting to me.

So I realize that the jam-makers need to keep prices low (reducing the amount of actual fruit they use) and sweeteners high (because with less fruit comes the need for more sweet flavor). And cheap jam definitely is a plus because it makes low-cost meals like PBJ available.

But homemade jam just tastes so much better, and it's all natural. Now, I'm not sure how long it's good for, but I figure, since they're sealed in sterilized jars, that'll keep a good long time even without the preservatives.

My next all-natural food project? Ice cream. I'm considering getting one of those "throw in the stuff and it makes it for you" ice cream makers (not the ones that you have to freeze and the churn yourself. We'll'd be awesome to have natural sherbet and gelato and ice cream, since ice cream sandwiches and fudgsicles are one of the few pre-packaged foods I regularly buy at the grocery store.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kicking some boot camp obstacle butt

So, last month I went to Boston Mania, a fitness conference. I was telling one of the conference coordinators about my boot camp class and she gave me a great idea for a different obstacle course! So here's the obstacle course I did this past Saturday. The class is an hour and a half. If you wanted to do it in an hour, I'd just reduce the time in the obstacle course and then not do some of the secondary muscle groups, like gluts or adductors. Or just take out the second exercise on each muscle group.

Warm-up - 5 minutes

Obstacle course - 5 minutes
Think of it like it's set up in a box around the room with the center open

Straddle run - set up 8 benches next to one another (horizontally) at different heights - the first bench with one riser, the second with two, etc. Then run over them laterally (don't step off the front facing forward). Go through twice, the second time facing the other direction to work the other leg evenly

10 Jacks

Walking lunges
- all the way to the wall

Hot lava
(3 times through) - set up 8 bosus on diagonal angles from each other (from the first one, the next bosu is about a foot away at about 2:00, the third at 10:00 from the second). Level 1, step from one bosu to the next. Level 2, step both feet to each bosu as you go. Level 3, jump from one bosu to the next - pretend the bosus are made of hot lava, so you want to touch each one for as little time as possible (don't run down the bosu line, both feet touch each bosu).

5 Squats

Lateral shuffle (5 times back and forth)

Repeat until 5 minutes is up

Weights (2 minutes per exercise)
Set up benches in the center of the room. Put three risers under one side of the bench, one riser under the other. Work with a partner. You'll need mats, bars and handweights (if you don't have bars, you can use handweights). Each exercises comes in a pair. With your partner, you each do one for two minutes and then switch.

Exercises 1 & 2
  • Chest flies (chest) - lie on the bench (head high) with handweights. Wrists face each other with hands overhead, slowly bring your hands out to shoulder level and then back up.
  • Bent over rows (back) - standing with the bar in hand, knees slightly (but not very) bent, bend over at the waist with abs in tight and back nice and flat. Pull the bar in to the belly button, letting your elbows skim your sides.
Exercises 3 & 4 (even the bench out, two risers on each side)
  • Tricep dips/extensions (triceps) - sit on the bench, hands down on the bench with fingertips curling off the side (fingers facing your legs). If you have bad wrists, you can support your wrists on large weights on the bench. Lift your butt up off the bench, then lower it down towards the floor, your butt skimming against the bench on the way down. The farther from the bench your feet are, the harder it is.
  • Bicep curls (biceps) - standing, bar in hand with an underhand grip, elbows securely sitting on your ribs. Contract upwards, bringing the bar towards your shoulders (not too fast).

Exercises 5 & 6
  • Frontal raise (shoulders) - standing straight, raise bar to straight out in front of shoulders, then release.
  • Kayak abs (obliques) - sit on the bench with the bar in hand. Lean back at an angle so your abs are engaged. Raise the bar in front of you, now dip one end of the bar towards the floor and pretend you're digging a kayak oar through the water. Bring the bar back up and dip down the other side (keep your motion nice and smooth).
Exercises 7 & 8 (halfway there!!!)
  • Plie squats (adductors, quads) - toes pointed out towards the corner of the room, shoulders back and chest open. Don't lean forwards as you squat down, make sure your knees track over your toes (rather then facing the front of the room), and keep abs in tight.
  • Pushups/low back (chest, low back)- do as many pushups as possible (at least 8), then release down to prone position. Take your hands under your forehead and lift your upper body off the floor, abs tight, working through the low back. Return to pushups.

Exercises 9 & 10
  • Reverse flies (back) - with weights in hands, bend at waist with back flat. Wrists face each other, hanging down below. Raise arms out to the side, squeezing up through the shoulder blades. There a really fine line on this exercise on this between shoulders and back. Make sure you squeeze your shoulder blades together like you're cracking a nut between them, or it turns into a shoulder exercise.
  • Preacher curls (biceps) - sit on bench with weights in hand. Set your elbows against the inside of your thighs (but don't put your weight through your elbows or it will hurt - just push out through your elbows). Now, bicep curls slowly down and up.
Exercises 11 & 12
  • Glut squeezes - stand on the bench, balancing on one foot, pointing the other toe out behind the bench. Now squeeze the pointed toe up behind you, squeezing through the glut. Don't lean forward at the waist.
  • Bicycle crunches (abs/obliques) - lie on your back, fingertips behind neck, one knee bent, the other extended out. Bring the opposite shoulder to the bent knee, then switch. Don't go too fast. Don't worry about where your elbow is - if you focus too much on bringing your elbow to your knee, it could make your low back start to hurt. To make it more difficult, lower the straight leg closer to the floor.

Exercises 13 & 14
  • Hamstring roll-out - on your back on a mat, put one foot on a ball, other foot flat on the floor. Lift your hips up off the floor and roll the ball out and in (keeping your foot on the ball, not letting it roll to your calf). To make it harder, you can lift the other foot up in the air, or put both feet on the ball. 1 minute each leg.
  • Lateral raise (shoulders) - raise handweights out to the side to shoulder height
Exercises 15 & 16
  • Tricep kickbacks - weight in one hand, same side foot on the bench. Lift weighted elbow up and kick back wrist until arm is straight. Pretend your shoulder is fused and can't move, just hinge at the elbow.
  • Plank reach (abs) - plank position supported on your elbows. Keep your hips down in line between your shoulders and ankles (if you drop your hips lower, it stresses your lower back. If you lift them higher, you don't get an ab workout). Now, reach out one hand and tap the floor in front of you, switch.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Monday Recipe - Cranberry-Orange Preserves

This weekend saw the last of my canning enterprises for the year. I've previously made apple butter and pumpkin butter, and was talking to one of the members at the gym about it. She mentioned she'd seen a recipe for a spicy cranberry relish, which intrigued me. So I went looking for recipes last week. Online, I found a recipe for a cranberry, onion, and serrano chili relish. But I also just got a jelly/jam/preserve cookbook last week from one of my coworkers, so I looked up in there and found a cranberry-orange preserve. I decided I wanted a sweet preserve to put on toast, but the idea of the chilis sounded good as well. So I decided to add some chili pepper to the cranberry-orange preserve. I pretty much came to this conclusion at the store while looking at the red onions, and decided I didn't really want an onion relish. So I grabbed a bunch of oranges instead.

I got home, and even though I'd gotten more oranges that I thought I'd use, it turned out I didn't have enough for the recipe. So I added the juice of two limes and hoped that because these oranges were enormous, they'd be considered more than the average orange. Next time I make the recipe, I'll try adding a little more chili, because while there's a very faint faint hint of it, you can really hardly taste it at the quantity in the recipe below (though that could be because I didn't include the seeds). The recipe below made 9 jars of preserves.

Cranberry-Orange Preserves
3lbs fresh cranberries
3lbs sugar (6 cups)
juice of 6 large oranges
zest of 6 large oranges
juice of 2 limes
T serrano chili, minced finely

Put the cranberries (whole) and citrus juice in a large pot and heat on medium until cranberries around very soft (about 15-20 minutes). Add sugar, zest, and chili and turn up heat on high. Stir occasionally (and be wary because every time I stirred, it would start to roil and pop and hit my skin in blazing red bites) until it sets to the consistency you want. This could be 5-10 minutes if you want it to be very loose and runny, or it could be an hour if you want a really thick jam-like consistency (I went for the latter, but next time will probably do a little less).

Follow the proper canning procedures (listed here), unless you're going to eat it right away.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday Rant - When did food become so crazy?

As I've mentioned in several of my recent posts, I'm reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma right now. There was one passage that completely shocked me (or rather, I shouldn't be shocked but found that really, deep down, I was). This is based on research done by General Mills, where they worked with families to put cameras in their kitchens to record their eating habits.

"Mom...prepares a dish and a salad that she usually winds up eating by herself. Meanwhile, the kids, and Dad, too, if he's around, each fix something different for themselves, because Dad's on a low-carb diet, the teenager's become a vegetarian, and the eight-year-old in on a strict ration of pizza that the shrink says it's best to indulge (lest she develop eating disorders later on in life). So over the course of a half hour or so each family member roams into the kitchen, removes a single-portion entree from the freezer, and zaps it in the microwave...After the sound of the beep each diner brings his microwavable dish to the dining room table, where he or she may or may not cross paths with another family member at the table for a few minutes. Families who eat in this way are among the 47 percent of Americans who report to pollsters that they still sit down to a family meal every night,"

I have several major problems with this, I hardly know where to start. First of all, I would hardly call that a family dinner. It takes about 5 minutes to eat a microwaved meal, so their overlap is going to be pretty small, if at all. It doesn't leave much opportunity for parents to check in with kids, to find out what's going on in their lives (and it's hardly likely that teenagers are going to seek out opportunities for that otherwise). It doesn't teach the kids healthy eating habits. It encourages everyone to be solo in their own household. And to think they consider this to be a "family dinner"?

Now, I know that families are really busy, what with extra work from the office, various music or sports lessons, homework, friends, that sort of thing. And perhaps a family dinner every night isn't practical. But I'm sure it can be worked out at least a couple times a week.

But it's more the microwave dinner thing that bothers me. And the fact that the 8 year old is indulged in eating pizza every night because that's what she's decided she likes, to the exclusion of all else. I mean, seriously? What happened to parenting? I was admittedly a very picky eater as a child, but I still got my protein, carbs and veggies for meals. I wasn't forced to finish my plate, but I was encouraged to try things I didn't like. I didn't always try them, but I at least had a more or less balanced diet. But letting your child eat only pizza is a major case of spoildom. Sure, you don't want her to get an eating disorder later on. But I think the creation of an eating disorder is more in the way that it's approached - for instance, it's not that you're not allowing her to have pizza every night that's going to cause the eating disorder. It's the way you go about it. If you say "pizza's a bad food, and it's going to make you fat. Eat this salad and you'll be skinny and pretty," well hell that's got eating disorder written all over it. But if you get her involved in the cooking process (pride in creating food is a powerful thing), and work to make tasty recipes (not just flavorless "healthy" things), then eventually, her grip on the pizza will start to lessen.

Now, I know I don't have kids, and it's easy to throw out opinions every which way. But come on, this is just ridiculous. When I was living in Calais, France, the kids at the elementary school I taught at were eating things like pate and liver for their lunches. "Well, they're French," you might say. And no, I'm not advocating pate and liver for kids. But I think that the French have a better sense of a parent, don't coddle the kids so much that you let them eat unhealthy food every day of the week (make the yummy unhealthy food be a treat, not a standard), and make an event out of a meal. We're so scattered in this country, running from one thing to the next, that we often forget just to sit down and enjoy what we're doing, whether that's eating or what have you.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

People give me strange looks

At work, I'm in the kitchen all the time. Getting water. Making morning snack. Making lunch. Making afternoon snack. Getting more water. And sometimes what I make is pretty run of the mill (toast for snack, hamburger for lunch, that kind of thing). But then other times I get a ton of questions. Such as...

1. "Do you know you just poured your tea down the sink?" - while I could be so involved in a conversation that I really know not what I do, I really am intending to pour my steeped tea down the sink. Because decaf tea doesn't have as many yummy flavors as regular, I sometimes buy regular and decaffeinate it myself (steep it and pour it out, because most of the caffeine comes out in the first 30 seconds).

2. "What is that?" - every time I break out the hibiscus tea, this question comes out. I brought the hibiscus tea back from Egypt, and it's quite tasty. Very sweet (with sugar added) and flowery. When it's dried, it looks like a deep red flower. I keep it in a big plastic bag, and nobody knows what to make of it. Then there's the pumpkin butter (I'm still working through the original batch bought at the farmer's market). I was asking this morning whether it's something I ate as a kid (the question was out of the blue, and I thought it was referring to jam in general, so I admit to being a bit flabbergasted at the question). Nope, just a tasty new treat I've found.

3. "Do you ever actually work?" - I get this one because I tend to assemble my lunches in the kitchen (rather than cutting up salads before work, I'd rather bring all the fixin's and make it there), and I have a morning snack, an afternoon snack, and I frequently get water. To my co-workers who may read this blog...yes I do work! A full week! But it also helps me get away from my desk, stretch, and be all around more focused if I'm not staring at the screen the entire day non-stop. It also gives me social interaction with my co-workers.

I learned two new terms from Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma. Neophobia - the few of the new (used in this context for trying new foods) and neophilia (liking to try new foods). Neophobia does have an evolutionary advantage in that if you try a new food that's poisonous, it could harm (or kill) you. But we also have neophilic tendencies so that if a particular crop (or crops) fails, then we won't starve. I think I'd have to put myself in the neophilic category, because I get bored with the same old thing all the time (I once had a co-workers who said she found her healthiest diet was to restrict herself to only seven kinds of food. Shudder). And so the branching out leads to some strange looks (and I believe in part horror when I offered my friends dried Mexican spice worms at a party...). But I must say, I do kind of enjoy the new things and showing other people the cool new things I've discovered. But then, I wouldn't have a blog if I wasn't into sharing about food, would I?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Glorious Pushups!

No secret my love/hate relationship with pushups. Having tried the 100 pushups program, and made it up to 50, I found that I liked pushups for their effects (excellent shoulders, strong abs and chest), and not so much for the necessity of doing them. The first 10-20 pushups are awesome, and I feel pumped. Get past that (or in multiple sets), and I'm counting down until I get to the end, and I subconsciously start making my range of motion shorter as a way to cheat it easier.

Charlotte reminded me of pushups today in her post about karate, and doing knuckle pushups on blocks of wood. Actually, I prefer knuckle pushups to regular palm ones. Carpal tunnel runs in my family, and plank position starts to feel quite uncomfortable after a while (one reason I ended up dropping to my knees when the number of pushups started to soar in the 100 program). Occasionally I do pushups on my fingers, but lift the heels of my hands off the floor, which also straightens my wrists.

A couple years ago, I participated in a small group training at my gym. The personal trainer would take us to the track on the roof, each of us with a massive weight (one of those big round ones from the weight room - mine was either 25 or 35 lbs, I don't remember which). We'd do various sets of exercises, then sprint around the track, repeat. At one point he had us doing pushups. And my wrists weren't feeling great, so I did them on my knuckles. On that soft cement stuff they make tracks out of (not as hard as sidewalk, but not quite rubberized either). It actually wasn't bad, apart from the divots the cement made on my knuckles. Note: when I do knuckle pushups, I do them with my wrists in facing each other, not facing my toes. I much prefer using a mat, however.

So here's our daily round-up of pushup styles:

1. On the wall: the most basic kind of pushups, perfect for people who are just starting out or who need to modify based on injury (for instance, not being able to support yourself on your knees, where toes are too much). Start 2-4 feet from the wall with your feet (the closer you stand, the easier it becomes), and then bring your face in to the fall. Exhale on your way back up to standing.

2. On your knees: you can do these on a mat or on the bare floor. Actually, I recommend (if you have a good sense of body awareness) trying it on the bare floor. But, mucho importante, NOT on your kneecaps. What you want to do is drop your hips so they're in a straight line between your shoulders and your knees. Keeping your hips in line will automatically keep your kneecaps off the floor (you want to be slightly above the knee). If you're on your kneecaps, your hips are too high. If it's too difficult to do the pushup with your hips in line and you need to raise your hips up (to make it easier), then grab a mat to protect your knees. Another note: keep your hands out a bit wider than the mat. How you know that your hands are wide enough is that when you're as low down as you're going to go, your elbows are directly over your wrists (and not further out).

3. On your toes: Hand position just like #2, but this time, your hips are in a straight line between your shoulders and your toes. Massively important here is to not let your hips drop. This is really easy to do - we focus so much on pushing up away from the floor, that we sometimes let our backs arch (hips lower than shoulders). This can cause back problems. When I was doing the 100 pushups program, I realized I wasn't doing pushups entirely correctly, because I started to feel it in my low back.

4. On your toes, higher intensity options: play with your number of contact points -
(a) lift one foot up in the air as you pushup, or do a
(b) one-handed pushup (yikes!)
(c) cross one ankle over the other to make feet into one contact point (this is one of my faves)
(d) knuckle pushups
(e) raise one hand up on a bench, step, or pilates block
(f) support your hands on two handweights. Do a pushup, then lift one hand with weight up, elbow skimming the side, for a row (back)
(g) start in plank position with your feet on a ball/bench, then do pushups
(h) add a clap at the top of the pushup

5. Tricep pushups, on your knees or toes: take your index fingers and thumbs together in front of you to make the shape of a diamond, a put it down on the floor. Do a pushup while keeping your elbows skimming in against your body. Harder option, put your hands right under your shoulders/armpits and do a tricep pushups with your elbows skimming your sides. I hate these.

6. Pushup craziness: when I took ju-jitsu, there were the craziest pushups we had to do. First of all, they were on the fingertips (unlike what I mentioned above, which is on the entire fingers and top of the hand). Just the fingertips. Now, start with your hips up in the air (almost like downward dog), and then simulate a wave - dive your face down towards your hands, then arch upwards, so your face is coming up first while your chest is down, and you're ending up in a fingertips version of updog. But this isn't zen like yoga. It's hard as all hell. And then hold plank for a while (and one time, I'm not kidding, the 250lb sensei actually stepped up on a guy's back like he was walking over a curb. And the guy held him. That's some serious abs right there). I can't for the life of me find a pic, or I'd totally post it for you.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Are you zesty?

So for the pumpkin butter recipe I made on Sunday, I had to zest and juice four lemons. Well, I was excited to do this, because I just bought a citrus zester at IKEA on Friday, like the one on the left. I was looking forward to trying it out, hoping it would make the job of zesting easier. Well, my review in four words: are you kidding me?!

Besides the fact that the zesting end of it is very small, so it's that much harder to scrape off the zest in any kind of speedy manner, it just didn't zest very well. I scraped for a couple minutes and had barely cracked the white layer of the lemon. Um, no, I don't think so.

So I went back to the ginger grater that I usually use (like the one on the right, only rounder). It's awesome because you can just set the grater down on your lap or a table (it has a non-slip bottom) and grate the lemon back and forth. The lemon rind (or if you're grating ginger, the ginger pieces and juice) get trapped in the moat circle around the grater, so you don't lose any (or get it all over yourself). Downside? Sore shoulder.

So this is an example of the grass is always greener. I was looking for a citrus zester because it seemed like it would be so much better than the one I already used. But once I tried it, I realized that I really did already have it good (oooh, now that was good grammar, wasn't it?).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Monday Recipe - Pumpkinfest

So what did I do the weekend after gorging myself on two big Thanksgiving dinners on Thursday? Well, cook of course!

Christmas this year is going to be a lot of homemade stuff. I'd already made apple butter, and decided I was going to try my hand at pumpkin butter (I had some from the farmer's market that was delicious). So, Wednesday afternoon I headed to my local farmstand. And they had only one pumpkin left. I hadn't realized that pumpkins are nearly past season, but apparently it's so. And I should've taken a picture with this pumpkin, because it was an 18lb monster.

Saturday morning, I cut up the pumpkin into manageable pieces and popped it in the oven to bake (after having only once cut up and de-skinned a large pumpkin to make soup, I'm NEVER doing that every again, for the health of my poor hands and shoulders. Cutting up a raw pumpkin is HARD!). But because the pumpkin was so large, it took two shifts in the oven and about three hours total. I scooped the pumpkin out of the shells and put it in the fridge while I went off to enjoy the rest of my day.

On returning home around 9 or 9:30 with some DVDs and some hard-found mason jars (apparently these are going out of season too), I mixed up the seasonings into the pumpkin because it says to let it sit and marinate for 8-10 hours. Watched Mrs. Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Cute movie. Set spiced pumpkin on the counter to marinate overnight. I put it on the stove around 9:30a to cook down while I made eggplant parm (with farmer's market kale and mushroom instead of spinach and portabello). I finally started bottling the pumpkin butter around 4p. If you follow the recipe below, it will take much less time than that. I made a quadruple recipe (the original recipe said it would take about 1 hour to cook down), and it made 12 jars of butter.

Pumpkin Butter

3 1/2 cups of fresh and canned (unspiced) pumpkin
2 1/2 cups of brown sugar
1/2 cup water
juice and zest of one lemon
T cinnamon
t ginger (I ran out, so barely had any in there, and it came out fine)
t allspice

Bake the pumpkin in the oven until soft and scoop out contents into a bowl. Depending on the size of the pumpkin, this could take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours.

Mix all ingredients except water into the pumpkin and let stand in room temperature for 8-10 hours.

Put spiced pumpkin in a large pot on the stove and add water. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until it has reduced down to jam consistency. I had more trouble figuring out when this happened with the pumpkin butter because it was naturally chunkier than the apple butter (which I had smoothed out in a food mill). Definitely set aside some time for this part of the process. If you're making the recipe above, it might be quick, because the original recipe did say it would take about 1 hour. However, both times I've made jam (in admittedly large batches), it has taken me the majority of the day. If you're unsure whether it's the right consistency, try spreading some on bread to test it out.

There are a lot of different methods of canning. Some boil the jars into a big pot, pulling them out with tongs. Some run them through a dishwasher. One of the suggested methods I found works well for me - it's to put the jars opening side up in a 200 degree oven for 10 minutes. While they're sterilizing in the oven, I put the lids in boiling water. Then with tongs, I take out one jar at a time, fill it with pumpkin butter, and set it on the counter. I then fish out one of the lids, dry it off with a clean cloth, and close the jar tightly. Then tip the jar upside down on the counter to cool (I'm told that doing this will help the seal because the butter is right next to the jar top).

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Swing Batta Batta Batta Swing!

So on Sunday I went to Game On, a bar in Fenway Park for a batting cage event. I had thought we would be hitting balls in Fenway Park (must've totally misunderstood their post), so I was a little disappointed when it was just a batting cage in the bar. But it was still fun. I got two turns up at the batting cage and they served us lunch too.

And let me tell you, I'm seriously sore now. My forearms feels like I held something in vise grip for hours, rather than just taking a swing at 20 balls (and connecting maybe 10-12). And my obliques are on fire every time I turn the least bit through my core.

Now, thing is, I cand understand the forearm pain, since I don't work them that often (except to support things like pushups). But the obliques shocked the hell out of me. I can normally do abs until the cows come home, whether it's crunches on the ball, bicycle crunches, planks, or what have you. Granted, I don't do as many abs as I used to since I'm now teaching boot camp. But still.

Regardless, it was fun, and I feel like I got some exercise out of it!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Wonderful World of Garlic

So we've known for a while that garlic's good for us. Those Mediterranean folks were way ahead of the curve on that one - garlic is such an integral component of Italian, French, Spanish (I think), and Middle Eastern cooking.

Garlic adds some definite yumminess to any recipe, whether it be eggplant parm, vodka tomato sauce, American chop suey, or Jamaican spinach. Too much, however, and people are going to start thinking you're trying to stave off vampires (and everyone else for that matter).

Garlic Curiosity

When I lived in St Louis, there was a Middle Eastern restaurant (I don't remember what kind) that had a garlic festival every year. I never attended, but one of the things that stood out on the advertisement is that they serve garlic juice. Yes, you read that right, garlic juice (and I don't mean this kind of garlic juice, which you use to spray on food). Now, this sounds about as appealing to me as, say, parsley juice or olive oil ice cream.

But wait!

I've tried olive oil ice cream. And it's not half bad. It definitely tasted like olive oil, but it was also sweet, so it tasted like ice cream. I didn't get a full scoop, just one of those tasters (Toscanini's), but it was very interesting to try.

I imagine that they don't make garlic juice taste like you just squeezed out garlic into a glass. They must add something to balance it out a little. I'm having trouble finding info about it online, however.

What's the strangest garlicky food you've come across?

The Debate

So the debate comes in, fresh garlic or bottled garlic? I always use bottled, minced garlic because it's easier (and a hell of a lot faster). I don't mind getting the smell of garlic on my hands, but it's kind of a pain to peel it, then chop it, then clean the cutting board afterwards.

Well, the part of garlic that gives it its characteristic smell is called Allicin. It's widely promoted for anti-bacterial properties, fighting infections and preventing bacteria-related food poisoning (ref: WebMD). But Allicin is fragile and disappears quickly and crushed fresh garlic is more stable and has higher levels of Allicin than preserved versions. Garlic stored in water (which is what I use) had Allicin levels decrease by half in about six days (six days?! I keep minced garlic around for months!), and in vegetable oil within the span of a few hours.

That's not to say that preserved garlic doesn't still have beneficial properties, because it does. It's just not as good as the fresh stuff.

Cheesy garlic bread

Yesterday for lunch I had some leftover cauliflower leek soup. But I wanted some kind of healthy carb to go with it, so I decided to make some toast. But just plain toast isn't so interested, even considering that the 7-grain date bread I eat is very yummy. So I made some cheesy garlic bread.

2-4T olive oil
t minced garlic
asiago cheese (enough that the cheese is coated in the oil)
salt and pepper

Mix the ingredients in a small bowl and lay in a thin layer over a slice of bread. Bake at 400 until warm and cheese is slightly melty. In the past, I've made just plain cheese bread, and the heat of the oven bakes the cheese until it's hard and crunchy in no time at all. This version with the added olive oil keeps the cheese moist and yummy, not drying it out. The dates in the bread also gave it a slightly sweet flavor to go with the salty cheese.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Monday Non-Recipe - pre-Thanksgiving and eating out

So this weekend I barely had five minutes of unspoken for time. Cooking? Totally out of the question. But this, of course, meant that I had plenty of yummy food prepared by other people.


Chinatown - chicken cooked Chinese style with garlic, scallions, and soy sauce (bone in). The waiters in Chinatown must be weirded out by me, because the guy asked me three times if that's what I really wanted, because it was cooked Chinese style (not a regular rice plate). It was really yummy (though slightly undercooked). Even better was the dou mieu (totally not the right pinyin transliteration, and I don't remember what tone it is, but I learned this time around that it's called peapod shoots in English). It's a big plate of greens (pictured left), kind of like spinach, cooked in oil. I ate nearly the entire plate (and it wasn't a small plate). I only eat it once or twice a year, and it's one of my favorites ever.
Kickball party - beer, beer, beer, neon blue shot of something or other, beer.


P's birthday party - lots of little tasters of food, all very yummy - vegetarian Chinese potstickers, red pepper flake goat cheese, goat cheese with spices (maybe dill?), dark chocolate with red pepper, milk chocolate with toffee, kettlecorn (popcorn that's salty and sweet all at once), homemade pesto, and plenty plenty of wine flowing. Yumminess of yumminess.


Game On batting cages - Game On is a bar in Fenway Park, and they had an event where you go and hit in the batting cages. I had thought it was going to be in Fenway, so I was a little disappointed to find out we'd be in the bar the whole time. But the good thing was that we were indoors, so we didn't totally freeze. I got to hit twice in the batting cages (aluminum bat, ouch on the sting from contact with the ball), and got some action pictures of me batting. They also had food (burgers and sausage) that were perfectly passable.

I had planned to go to a potluck Sunday night, but by the time I got home from the game I was tired and just needed some time to relax.

Planned recipe of the week

Kale Chips
I haven't tried them yet, but they sound intriguing. You rip a bunch of kale off the stems and put them on a baking tray. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper and then bake on high heat (400-500) for 30-60 seconds. I'll let you know how they come out!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday Rant - Expression lines

So I was walking through a mall the other day, and there was a sign on one of the carts that advertised a cream to prevent expression lines. By this I'm presuming they mean wrinkles. And I suppose that "expression lines" is a positive way to put it, since they are lines brought about by expressions (be they smiles or frowns or anything in between). "Wrinkles" has inherited a negative connotation - we get them with age, there are a million and a half products to minimize them, and smooth skin is culturally considered more attractive. But what's so wrong with wrinkles that we feel we can't even use the word?

My response? What-evah. Wrinkles are part of aging, and why does aging have to be bad?

Ok, so maybe I'll feel differently when I have more wrinkles. Being 30, I don't have too many. I never did understand the issues that people have with age, women not being able to admit to how old they are. I say wear your age, experience, and wisdom with pride. And sure, some people are old but not wise, wise but not old, experienced but not wise, you get my drift.

I did notice some wrinkles recently. Above my eyes and below my eyebrows. I looked at them like "where the hell did those come from?" Then I squinted my eyes (like I do when it's sunny, yes I know I should wear sunglasses more often), and I furrowed my eyebrows, and I realized that's where they came from. I find it more fascinating than worrying to find wrinkles - I'm intrigued to know what expressions my face makes that create the wrinkles.

But yeah, nobody wants too many wrinkles when they're young. Super-wrinkly faces are better left to the elderly. So what can we do to help delay the onset of wrinkles?

1. Stay out of the sun. My father told me about two of his co-workers who were related who would go out and bronze in the sun every weekend. The younger one had smooth skin and a perpetual tan. The older one, who he assumed was her grandmother, had tanned but very wrinkly skin. Turns out she was her mother and was only in her 40s, yet she looked at least in her 60s.

2. Sleep on your back (and get enough sleep). Not getting enough sleep wears down our bodies and our minds, adding to stress, forgetfulness, and lack of energy. Not being as healthy can wear on your body just as much as your mind. Think about all those people who look 60 when they're really 40 because they look like they're bearing the weight of the world on their shoulders. Also, they say you should sleep on your back, because sleeping on your stomach or side might cut down a bit on circulation and lead to wrinkles.

3. Stop smoking. It leads to wrinkles (if only that were the worst thing it led to).

4. Hydrate and moisturize. Drink lots and lots of water. Being dehydrated can dry your skin out as well. And especially now that it's damn freezing outside, use a moisturizer. Hydrated skin is a bit plumper (in the good, anti-wrinkly kind of way). My skin gets really dry in the winter, though I haven't been using my shower moisturizing bar because it makes the tub really slippery (and I need to buy another non-slip pad for the bottom), and I don't feel like starting the winter with a bang on the head.

5. Eat a healthy diet. You don't have to follow a diet fad (actually, probably better not to, because those fads usually fall by the wayside), just eat a healthy diet that's high in good fats (nuts, avocados, olive oil) and low in bad fats (all those yummy pastries, cookies, ice cream, etc), eat red meat and alcohol in moderation, and eat plenty of veggies. In the words of Michael Pollan "eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I'm not vegetarian, but I'm making a concerted effort to add more plants to my diet. Plants have lots of water in them, which is good for hydration, as well as all the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Eating a healthy diet helps the body deal with UV radiation and pollution (which I'm sure going to need after spending 15 minutes in the exhaust-filled subway station last night after work).

6. Be happy. Research shows that healthy, happy people tend to show fewer wrinkles than their unhealthy, unhappy counterparts. Exercise helps with this, both with feeling more confident and happy about yourself, and to improve your attitude. Age has a lot to do with a state of mind. I'm sure you've seen someone who was looking confident and happy up to a certain point, then something happened and all of a sudden they look 10 years older than they did just a few months before.

Not as much of a rant as I intended. What are your feelings about wrinkles? Do you remember what your first one is from? Do you try to figure out what expressions you're making that create the wrinkles (or am I just an odd bird for wondering that)?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Spotlight on Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are one of my favorite fall foods. Sweet potato fries especially. Often what I'll do is peel a sweet potato, then cut it into rough fry-shapes, then toss it with olive oil, salt and pepper, and bake them at about 350-400 for, I dunno, 30 minutes (or until soft). I don't care for them crispy, because they're less sweet.

I remember several years ago asking a personal trainer what kind of carb to eat if I were to eat carbs. She told me to eat a sweet potato. Now, I know there are plenty of healthy, whole grain carbs (like quinoa, for instance), but I wasn't big on carbs at that point. So now, I'm wondering if what she said would hold water. What's the deal with sweet potatoes?

1. They're high in vitamins A and C.
2. Good for ulcers and inflamed colons.
3. Beneficial for low blood pressure
4. Great for people who do lots of muscle work, because of its high vitamin and mineral content
5. Good for diabetes because it helps stabilize blood sugar.
8. Immunity booster
9. Relief of asthma
10. Helps maintain the water balance in the body
11. Soothing to digestions.
12. Aids in weight gain (wait, is this a good thing?)
(off the top of my head)
13. Very very tasty
14. Colorful, and my philosophy is that making something look tasty is half the battle

So basically, sweet potatoes have more vitamins and minerals than regular potatoes. They have some great health benefits, especially for those with blood sugar or digestive issues. You shouldn't eat too many of them or you risk weight gain. So eat them in moderation, but don't worry about their whole carb-iness - since they're lower on the glycemic index than regular potatoes, they don't threaten to spike your blood sugar as high, and they have a slew of antioxidants swimming around in their little atoms.

What are your favorite sweet potato recipes? Here are some that I've already posted:
Sweet potato chili
Pork chops with sweet potato fries
I've also made mashed sweet potatoes, which need less butter and milk than regular potatoes, so they don't have the same calorie/fat load

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Developing the Undeveloped - Hamstrings

Whenever you're doing any kind of exercise (in particular, weight lifting), it's important to work not just the primary mover (for instance, biceps), but the opposing muscle group as well (triceps). Thing is, if you only focus on those impressive visible muscles (like quads and biceps), without working their opposing muscles groups, then you create an imbalance in your body which can lead to injuries. We see this a lot with people who go nuts on their ab muscles to try to sculpt through a sixpack, but then never work their back muscles, which in turn creates back problems.

But still, there's an impetus to focus on the cool muscles, the ones that create a sculpted figure, that you can show off (whether it's in class or in a tank top or bathing suit). Like the biceps, abs, quads, and secondarily the triceps and calves. Back when I was doing the 100 pushups program, I got some shoulder definition that was awesome, and I was nearly jumping up and down when I first got a little tricep definition line. I have a body type that doesn't really lend well to muscle definition, so I celebrate every last little line.

But just as important as lifting weights for strength and improved health is to lift a total body workout, to keep your body in balance and strong all around. So here I am, focusing on one of the muscles which normally doesn't get a lot of play time: hamstrings.

So here are some exercises you can do to work your hamstrings (opposing muscle group to quads). I wish I had pics for all of them, but my camera's on the fritz so I'm relying on the web.

With a ball (and a mat)

1. Single Leg Roll - lie on your back with one heel up on the ball, the other foot planted flat on the floor. Lift your butt up in the air until your back is only halfway on the ground (perhaps a little higher). Squeeze your abs tight to protect your lower back. Extend your foot out on the ball (don't let it roll onto your ankle), then pull it back in. Focuses on the hamstring of the leg that's on the ball
  • Challenge Up! Lift the foot that's on the floor into the air, keeping your hips off the floor, hands down on the floor by your sides, pulling abs in tight as your extend and contract your leg.
  • Challenge Up! From either the basic level (foot on the group) or level 2 (foot in the air), lift your hands up off the ground and extend them above you. It adds a bigger balance challenge and targets the muscles more heavily.
2. Double Leg Roll - lie on your back with both heels on the ball, lift your hips up off the floor, contracting abs. Extend legs out and in.
  • Challenge Up! Lift your hands in the air.
With a ball (and no mat)

1. Ball Squat - lift one leg up onto the ball in front of you. Sit back like you're sitting in a chair (squat). Your knee stays right over your ankle on the floor (be sure not to let your knee come forward or you can risk knee injury). As you sit back in your squat, press down into the ball with your heel, activating the hamstrings. Switch legs.

With a bosu (and a body bar)

1. Ham touch in - stand on top of the bosu. To make this exercise easier, hold onto the body bar (and make sure it's a padded body bar and not a basic metal bar which will slip on the floor) to add a contact point on the floor, since the bosu is unstable. Step back with the same foot as the hand holding the body bar into a straight leg lunge position. Balance on your front foot and the bar, tap your back foot in to the bosu. Focuses on the hamstrings of the leg on the bosu.
  • Challenge Up! Extend your leg back and in without tapping the bosu (but coming close).
  • Challenge Up! Lift the body bar off the floor as you do the motion.
  • Challenge Up! As your foot comes in to the bosu, lift the bar up towards you (parallel to the ground), skimming your side with your elbow (back exercise).
With gliders (and a mat)

1. Alternate hamstring glides - lie on your back on the floor with both feet on the gliders. Lift your hips up off the floor to about mid-back (bra-line if you're a woman), keeping your hands on the floor. Extend one leg out and in, then alternate to the other leg. Focuses on the extended leg hamstring.
  • Challenge Up! Lift your arms in the air.
  • Challenge Up! Extend both legs out at the same time, then pull back in. This can be challenging if you extend too far and end up having trouble pulling back in. Just get a feel for it and keep those abs tight.
  • Challenge UpUpUp! Extend one leg out at an angle (the straighter the leg is, the harder it will be) and hold it there. Now take the other leg and glide it out and in while the other leg balances out on the glider. Switch legs. Focuses on the hamstring of the leg which is extended and held.
Do you have any other great hamstring exercises?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tasty of Tastiness - A meal with a skyview

There are always a couple of memorable meals that stand out in anyone's life. Whether it's a birthday you had when you were little, or a Thanksgiving dinner with family, a dinner at a restaurant, a seven course tasting menu, what have you.

Sunday night, I went to the Top of the Hub with my family to celebrate my father's birthday. One of the awesome things about this restaurant is that it's near the top of a skyscraper looking out over the lights of Boston. We watched the moon rise yellow over the lights (and man did it look as huge as a half skyscraper). They had live music piped through the speakers and very attentive wait staff.

And the awesomeness extended to the menu. Everything I ate was absolutely scrumptious. Here's the deets:

Beringer Merlot (with a hint of cherry, cocoa, and allspice - and yes, I read that on the bottle, I'm not quite that good to identify all by taste. It did have the best legs of any wine I think I've ever had.)
Spinach salad with pear, walnuts, balsamic reduction vinaigrette, and goat cheese
Lobster bisque (I just had a taste of this, but it was super yummy)
Lobster mac and cheese with truffle oil (mmmmmmm is all I have to say about that)
Date pudding with french vanilla ice cream (pudding being more like a spice cake. I almost got the creme brule, but figured that, while it would've been awesome too, I can get creme brule at a number of places. But how often do you see date pudding on a menu?)

I had some of the mac and cheese left over, and just finished it off for dinner. It's the best meal I've had in a long time. I don't have the recipe to share (maybe I should try to figure out what was in it and give it a shot).

What's the best meal you've had? I had another meal in Bruges, Belgium that was incredible - scallop with truffles, pigeon for entree, then french toast with pineapple and cracked black pepper for dessert (spicy and sweet at the same time).

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday Rant - Feeding corn to fish

I just started reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. It's a book rather in the same vein as Fast Food Nation, in that it's tracing the roots of our food system. Fast Food Nation focuses on fast food (no kidding, right?), whereas Pollan's book is focused more on what makes up our everyday food from the grocery store. And the answer to that is corn. And soybeans. When the price of one spikes, the other is used, in anything from cereal to frozen yogurt, beer to Cheez Whiz, coffee whitener to ketchup, soups to candies, cake mixes to gravy, syrups to hot sauces, mayonnaise to mustard, margarine to bologna, salad dressing to vitamins. That's right, corn's in everything.

But you'd never know it, because on the ingredients, it's listed as the following:
- modified or unmodified starch
- glucose syrup
- maltodextrin
- crystalline fructose
- asorbic acid
- lecithin
- dextrose
- lactic acid
- lysine
- maltose
- HFS and MSG
- polyols
- caramel color
- xanthan gum

All of these mean corn, processed in many different ways. They did a study comparing the levels of corn-consumption markers in Americans vs. Mexicans. Now, keep in mind that Mexicans eat about 40% corn in their diet via tortillas and the like. Americans eat about 7-8% of obvious corn in our diets. I say obvious because the levels of corn in our system far outstripped the levels of corn in the Mexicans' diets. Because pretty much anything we eat that's been processed in any way has some fraction of corn in it. Diet Coke? Corn. Ice cream? Corn. Meat? Corn.

What, what, meat?

That's where the corned fish comes in. (Little digression - I was interested to learn that corned beef has nothing to do with corn - "corn" used to mean any kind of grain, and so that included grains of salt).

Corn in this country is very inexpensive. In August, you can find ears of corn for $.50, and that's for the good stuff we eat straight. Number 2 corn is the corn used as components in other processed foods. This was helped along by the Nixon administration, which broke down the system FDR put in place for stabilizing the farming system and farmer's income vs. market prices. Now, there's so much corn on the market, the prices keep going down. But because the prices go down, the farmers plant more so they can harvest more and pay their bills. Which then depresses prices more. Vicious cycle.

So what do they do with all this corn? They take them to wet mills (basically, the mills where they turn them into components besides flour and starch). And quite a bit of the corn is turned into food for cattle (which is also mixed with protein, vitamins, and antibiotics). That's shipped off to the cattle mills.

Now the problem with feeding corn to cattle is this - cattle have evolved to eat grass. They are ruminants and their rumine processed grass well, not corn. The corn they eat makes their rumine highly acidic (normally they are acid neutral), much as our own stomachs are acidic. And when bacteria grows in their stomachs (such as e. coli), it grows much hardier and more resistant to acid, which then in turn can prove harmful or even fatal to us upon consumption. If the cattle were fed grass for only a month before slaughter, their rumines would be able to recover acid neutral enough to be much less of a danger to us (as far as e. coli).

At least they're not being fed pulverized cattle bone and brain and meal anymore (BSE scared that process out of us). But cattle meal isn't entirely out of the system - it's being fed to chickens and pigs. And chicken and pig meal is then fed back to the cattle, which seems to me to just be a round-about system of feeding cattle to cattle.

And now they're even engineering salmon to eat corn. Salmon! Unless I have my ecology really wrong, salmon have never even seen corn, never mind evolved on it.

All of the chemicals sprayed on the corn, then the chemicals and medicines poured into the cattle, the bacteria rampant in the abattoirs, all of that just makes me wonder what the hell we're doing. I mean, if you tinker with nature too much, it's bound to tinker right back, wouldn't you think? If we get too reliant on corn to the exception of other crops (as many farmers are one-crop exclusive now, as they never used to be), then what happens when the corn market finally goes flop?

In one of Michael Pollan's other books, The Botany of Desire, he talks about the tulip market in Holland a couple centuries ago. It started off as a simple trading of tulips, like in an everyday market. But fairly soon, it started to spiral up until they were trading in tulip futures, and the tulips became an idea rather than a reality (a farmer couldn't actually go to market and sell actual flowers, because everybody was buying futures, not flowers). And then it crashed.

I'm hoping that there's something we can do about this before it crashes. Whether that crash comes in the form of people getting sicker, or whether it's a financial crash of the farmers (and in turn the processors and packagers). Our market is doing terribly right now, but if the system of oversupply isn't corrected, I don't think it's going to get any better for the farmers once the rest of the system corrects itself. And what happens when the farmers are bankrupt? Do we start importing our food? Do we go back to square one, rebooting our food system? Am I being an alarmist?

How's about that for a damn-heavy Friday post! Any attempts to lighten this up are greatly appreciated! :)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fun New Foods: Durian Fruit

The main distinction about durian fruit is its notorious smell. It's a native of Asia, where the fruit is banned in public places, such as subways, malls, and hotels. That just piques my interest right there. Mother Nature created a fruit, which people actually eat, that's so noxious-smelling that it had to be banned in public places? Color me curious.

It's called "The King of Fruit." If I were a fruit, I'm not sure I'd want my king to be a stinkypants odor-challenged mega-fruit, but hey, to each their own, right?

Anthony Bourdain, the chef and food writer, described durian thusly "Its taste can only be described as...indescribable, something you will either love or despise. ...Your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother."

Ok, so, perhaps not such a pleasant experience. But if it's that bad, then why do people eat it?! Perhaps it's like stinky cheese. Some of the best European cheese (don't get me started on the flavorless pasteurized cheese here in the States) smells as bad as your week-old sweaty socks. But tastes quite yummy when spread on bread or a cracker and eaten with relish (the emotion, not the food).

Hence a quote from a British traveler to Asia in 1599: "It is of such an excellent taste that it surpasses in flavor all the other fruits of the world."

Funny durian story involving a space suits, spray cans, and chastened hotel guests can be found here.

I find it amazing though, given how intermingled our senses of taste and smell are, that something that's quite that odiferous could turn into something quite so tasty. Maybe it's an acquired taste? Or maybe there's something in it that's just really tasty once eaten, just like there are some foods that smell great but then aren't so tasty (the roasted chestnuts they sell in the subway, for instance). But to some accounts, the durian flesh is almost like vanilla pudding, very creamy, and doesn't taste at all like the smell would suggest.

I've oft been curious about durian fruit. I've read about it in travelogues. I've seen it in the Super 88 (Chinese grocery store with tons of random international foods). I wouldn't have a problem buying some and trying it, because trying wacky new things is fun (I actually offered people Mexican-spiced dried worms at a party once, partly to see the looks on their faces. Only one person took me up on it).

But here's the thing, I have a really sensitive nose. So I don't want to put the durian fruit in my car, because the smell will stick around. I don't want to eat it outside, because I might get covered in the durian juice and then become stinky myself. I don't want to bring it home because then my condo will smell worse than the pig farms I've driven past in the countryside. So where do I eat it? If they offered it on a menu, I'd totally try some. But then, it would probably scare away all the customers, because they'd come in to the restaurant and then turn around and leave right away.

Maybe I should just wait until I finally manage to get to Asia and try it over there.

Have any of you tried durian fruit? If so, what was it like? If not, any inclination?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Boston Mania - Cool New Moves and Wackiness

So yesterday was the overview of the conference, and man was it fun and exhausting at the same time! Today we get down to the nitty gritty, nuts and bolts, the stuff that wowed me, and the stuff that just made me go hmmmm.

1. Partner bent over rows. I've looked for a photo of this, but can't for the life of me find one. So I'll do my best to describe it. Person 1 lies down on the ground, 2 stand over them, one foot on each side (I'd say just about waist or rib-height on 1). 1 crosses their hands over their chest, tightens their core so that they are as stiff as a board. 2 reaches down in a squat, grabs their hands around 1's arms (removing all watches beforehand) and lifts 1 up towards them in a bent over row. Elbows stay in close to 2's sides to activate the back muscles, weight stays balanced over feet (no leaning forward), knees nice and bent to support weight on quads instead of low back. 1 is working all through the core muscles to keep herself straight as she's being picked up.

Note: I wouldn't actually do this in my group ex classes, because while very fun and a great exercise if done properly, there is too much margin for error. If 2 wasn't able to hold 1 and let go, 1 could bump her head on the ground. If 2 squatted improperly and took 1's full body weight on her back, she could injure her back. So, a great exercise for people who know what they're doing, or for personal training, not so much for group fitness.

2. Fireman's carry. One of the other volunteers showed me this one and man was it frightening! Basically, he reached down, put his arm under my right leg, draped me over his shoulders, and picked me up. It's very disconcerting to be hanging over someone's shoulders, more than five feet above the ground, while he's running, and the whole time you're chanting "don't drop me, don't drop me." For obvious reasons, not going to do this in my group fitness class. Probably wouldn't do it with personal training either, unless the trainee was a serious athlete.

3. Jump and catch. Ok, starting with a bosu, stand on the bosu and get comfortable on it. Now, you need a small ball a little larger than your fist, filled with sand (or whatever it is they use to weight them down. I think one broke open and it looked kind of like kitty litter or fertilizer inside). Reach down, touch your knee, then your ankle, then put the ball between your feet and stand up. Now, try jumping up off the bosu a little with the ball between your feet. No worries if it pops out (exercise to go chasing it!). The last level of craziness? Give a nice jump off the bosu, letting go of the ball with your feet so that it flies upward in the air towards your hands. Catch the ball while you're jumping and then land on the bosu. And don't fall off. I tried it once, and I was able to catch the ball, but not stick my landing. I would say this one takes a lot of practice, but hey, you're exercise while you're practicing, right?

4. Tag. Say what what? Tag? You mean, that game I played in recess when I was 9 years old? Yup. A couple different ways to do this one. You can put together a couple of steps and then have one person chase the other back and forth (without reaching across, that's cheating!). This works, but there's a major dizziness factor and possibility of tripping over the bench. Then there's group tag. Take a group of people, split them into two side of the room, spread out in lines facing each other. Choose two ITs, one from each side. They stand in the center. Now when you shout go, everyone runs across the room, and IT tries to tag them. When they get tagged, they have to drop and do pushups, or stay in place for jacks, or something like that. The rest of the people who made it across have to keep running across, avoiding the people in the middle as well as IT, until they're tagged. Game ends when everyone's done. People feel a little silly, but there are a lot of grins going on. I was planning to take it easy and get tagged, but then the adrenaline kicked in and I ran across three or four times until I was out of breath.

5. Sheriff vs. Outlaw. No, this isn't a naughty XXX game, this is another one of those silly cardio games that kick your lungs' ass (do lungs have asses? If they do, then consider them kicked). Minimum 4 people each team. Person 1 is the sheriff, 2 is the outlaw, 3 and 4 are the outlaw's buddies. 2-4 clasp hands (in a circle or triangle). The sheriff has to run around the circle to tag the sheriff (can't reach across the middle), and the outlaw's buddies have to protect him by shifting the circle laterally, always keeping the outlaw out of reach. Once the outlaw is caught (or 30 seconds is up), then 2 becomes the sheriff, 3 the outlaw, etc. Great game for kids too.

6. Cycling into the wind. I'm sure lots of cycling instructors already teach this kind of interval, but it was a new one for me. Since I'm not a road rider, I sometimes forget a bit to give parallels to what's going on on the road, but this is a great one. So imagine you're riding down the coastline. You have kind of heavy resistance on because there's a little bit of a headwind, but it's manageable. You're kicking it to the beat of the music, because hell it's so much easier that way. Then you turn a corner and there's a killer wind blowing in your face. Ok, so we're in the cycling room and there's no real wind, so how do I do that? You turn your gear up, but keep your cadence the same. So all of a sudden it's sooo much harder just like you smacked that wall of wind. But you don't want to slow down (because that's just cheating yourself because it's getting easier, and if you slow down too much with high resistance, you could end up with knee issues).

7. Kick butt jump rope. Or maybe I should say whip butt jump rope. Jump rope is one of the best exercises you can do for cardio. It's got one of the biggest bangs for your buck. And sure, it can be hard to keep it up, and it gets tangled in your feet. But if you've ever jumped rope for 30 or 60 seconds straight (if you're not used to training with it consistently), then you know what I'm talking about. Then you bring in funkier moves and in comes some problems. Like crossing your hands, bringing your elbows together in the center so that you jump through the crossed rope, then open it up again. All well and good, I was psyched when I was able to do this. Then I tried it again and didn't cross my arms all the way to the elbows. And what did I end up with? Major whip burn on my butt from the rope smacking it. Hard. Ouch.

8. Singing presenters. There's this one presenter who does awesome step classes. The first conference I ever went to, two years ago, I was really burned out on step that I really needed to change it up. She was teaching a vertical step class, which I took to heart and never went back. Two years later, I pretty much exclusively teach vertical. She teaches an awesome dancy step class. The odd thing is that during the cool down and stretch, she sings. She has music with just the instrumentals, and she sings along with it. She has a good voice, so it sounds fine. But I was so shocked the first time I heard it, it was all I could do not to bust out laughing. I was used to it by this go round, but it's still bizarre every time I see it.

9. Ball punch. Person 1 holds a big stability ball in their hands. 2 punches the ball (tightening through core), nice fast rhythm. Then both 1 and 2 shuffle to one side, exchange. Then 1 punches ball while 2 is holding it. Shuffle back the other way. Lateral movement is great for cardio, punching is great for shoulders, back, and arms, as well as core (since you're rotating through your core to add power to the punch).

10. Bosu partner cross. Two people share one bosu. Then face perpendicular, standing to the side of the bosu. 1 crosses over the top of the bosu several times. When done, they say "cross." Then 2 crosses over. The person on the floor can't go until they hear "cross." Then you reduce the number of crosses to no more than 4, or 3, or 2. It's good because it keeps you on your toes, you never know when they're going to say cross, so you have to work on reaction time, and you get a leg workout in going over the top.

There was so much more I learned at the conference, but these were some of the different and new ones that stood out.