Friday, August 29, 2008

Friday Rant - Rewarding Bad Behavior

Food is expensive. Prices keep going up (the price of strawberries is a good twice that of what it was last year). Same thing as gas (but personally, I think the price of gas should keep going up so it'll force people to buy more energy efficient cars or carpool or take public transport).

Reasons why food prices have gone up:

1. Bargain basement dollar - we're importing food by the boatloads rather than supporting our local farmers. I actually saw leeks from Guatemala last week at my local farmstand (not farmer's market), when I KNOW that leeks are seasonal now. I'm gonna be sure to grab them at the farmer's market today for broccoli leek soup. Mmm.

2. Higher costs - pesticides are more expensive, and also the gas price to get the food cross country (though you'd think that would make imported food MORE expensive, but I guess that's the dollar for you).

3. This country has an obsession with corn - corn for ethanol, corn syrup (soda, tons and tons of food products), corn-based plastic (I like the green aspect of this, kinda cool, never heard of it til I googled it), corn starch (apart from cooking, this apparently also makes paper more printable), drugs, cosmetics, cleansers, and more (I found this list at an admittedly very biased site). And I think it's awesome we're going green with all the corn-based rather than petroleum-based products. It also means that we're growing more and more corn, and less and less of other crops (and the less there is of a crop, the higher the price). I admittedly am not an expert in the economics of food production, apart from having read Fast Food Nation and some other economics-for-the-layman books.

4. Pennies on the dollar - other countries' workers (or even undocumented workers in this country) are paid so much less than the average American worker that the food they produce can be sold at much cheaper prices. There's a whole discussion of the strawberry picking industry in Reefer Madness, and the lengths the packers go through to keep the labor costs down.

5. Corn prices are going up - when the value of something rises, then the price goes up. So when we started adding ethanol to gas, and using corn for every last thing, it becomes a more valuable crop. So the farmers can charge a bit more for it. We feed animals corn, so the rising price in corn then makes the cost of the meat go up as well.

Here's my beef (no pun intended).

There's all this talk about "going green" and I think that it's great people are trying to reduce their carbon imprint. Giving tax breaks on driving hybrid cars is a start. Trying to make products out of biodegradable material definitely needed. But everything's gotten so expensive that people turn around and buy the cheapest food out there. I don't blame them. The problem is that the cheapest food is the stuff from Central America, or California (which isn't a problem if you're in CA, but if you're in the northeast, like me, that's a hell of a carbon imprint).

But logically, shouldn't the food that's grown five miles from me be cheaper than the food grown 3000 miles away and hauled here by truck/plane/train? I know that legal workers are paid more and there's a higher cost of living to support. So I understand why local food is more expensive at the moment. But if we're really serious about trying to reduce our carbon imprint, and if we're really serious about trying to pay people living wages and working under good conditions, shouldn't imported food be made more expensive than local food? And I'm not talking that the food companies should get this, I'm talking taxes. Because not all the food companies are ethical, and they're not necessarily going to pour the extra money back into their workers, or their companies, or their products.

Tax dollars on imports could pay for the nutrition and health training that so many people in this country desperately need, given our burgeoning obesity rates. They could also use those tax dollars to give tax breaks to local farms, on sales they make locally. This could then make the food less expensive, bring more business to them. Because there are already so many people in this country who can barely afford food and end up buying the cheapest stuff (like McDonald's) because that's what they can pay for. But if we redistributed it, made the local farms the cheapest through tax incentives, people could get healthier food which tastes even better.

I'm aware there are holes in this argument (what do you do with food like pasta or rice that isn't grown locally? How do you ensure those taxes do really go back into the food system to make sure that there is affordable food from the local farms? How do you make sure that those McFarms don't just sell to the local farmstands somehow?). I don't like spending tons of money on food any more than the next person (just for me, I generally spend anywhere from $80-$100 per week on food). But I feel like there should be a better way. I shouldn't be penalized for buying food grown five miles from my house under humane and sustainable conditions. Companies which drive their workers 12 hours a day at superspeed and barely give them breaks shouldn't be rewarded by having their food the cheapest and therefore most bought.

Please give your thoughts on this, feel free to point out any fatal flaws in what I've said (I won't be offended), or offer your own suggestions.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

All Hail the Tomato!

Is it a fruit? Is it a veggie? Do we care? If you're into trivia, like me, you might be interested to hear the (potentially hypocryphal) tale about tomatoes - tomatoes were considered veggies way back in the days after Boston Harbor got steeped in tea (tomatoes were brought to the US a bit after 1800). However, veggies were taxed at a higher rate than fruit, so the sellers advocated for a legal change. Prior to that, it was generally thought of as a vegetable (according to a book which I just read, which unfortunately has seeped through the holes in my sometimes sieve-like brain, so I can't cite it for you here) - not based on scientific thought, just the common understanding.

What's the technical difference between a fruit and a vegetable? According to Ask Yahoo, fruit is defined as: "the sweet, ripened ovary or ovaries of a seed-bearing plant. A vegetable, in contrast, is an herbaceous plant cultivated for an edible part (seeds, roots, stems, leaves, bulbs, tubers, or nonsweet fruits). So, to be really nitpicky, a fruit could be a vegetable, but a vegetable could not be a fruit."

So this means that tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, avocados, peppers, pumpkins, peapods, and zucchini are fruit.

Now, in my mind, this is just wrong.

Not from a biological perspective. I fully recognize that given the definition of a fruit, these all qualify, and scientifically, these are considered fruit. So my definition of fruit is much more culturally driven. For me, fruit=sweet. Salad=vegetable.

Now I feel like I'm on the wrong side of the debate in what could be a big metaphor for evolution vs. creationism (no offense to those of you creationists, but I'm staunchly on science's side here). I'm advocating what I feel to be true as reality, and through my blog, I'm trying to impose it on others. Blech. So here's my thing - these fregetables evolved with fruit-like qualities, I'll grant you that. And if you want to call them fruits, then please be my guest, as I wouldn't impose my fruit-loving terminology upon you. But to my mind, all of these on the list are vegetables, and that's how I'll refer to them from now on.

Now that my Jupiter-sized tangent is done, let's proceed!

Tomatoes have lycopene in them, which is an antioxidant that supposedly helps to prevent prostate cancer, heart disease, and other (mysteriously vague) cancers and diseases. However, the lycopene is bound up in the cell walls, and our bodies have a hard time extracting it from raw tomatoes (source). So cooking releases the lycopene more easily into our system.

But really, is lycopene the cure-all it seems to be (is anything, ever)? One of the largest studies on cancer done by the National Cancer Institute showed that tomatoes didn't really prevent against prostate cancer, and the beta-carotene can actually increase its risk. Ensuing studies showed no link whatsoever between lycopene and prostate cancer. So the study suggests eating veggies plentifully, but not taking beta carotene supplements (if you're a guy at risk for prostate cancer. Otherwise, have at it).

Tomatoes also have tons of vitamin C (no more scurvy!), vitamin A (no more night blindness!), potassium, and a little bit of fiber (not as much as broccoli say, but more than a candy bar, so that's good enough for me! See a list of fiber content here). And as Christine Hanley put it so wonderfully on Cranky Fitness yesterday, eating lots of fiber can cut down on the rates of colon cancer.)

And they're in season! I picked up some very pretty ones with orangey-yellow stripes at the farmer's market the other day. Sliced up with some basil, mozzarella, and olive oil makes a perfect appetizer to a meal.

In a few weeks, I'll post up my recipe for clam-stuffed tomatoes, as I make mega-amounts to freeze and unearth in the dead of winter.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Don't Pick up Your Bike and Throw It

Ok, so I was going to write this blog post about the things you shouldn't do in group exercise classes. Then I changed my mind, and thought I'd paint that with a veneer of what you should do, just to be more positive. But, well, heck, it just comes across as funnier to talk about the crazy things people do (and what they should be doing), rather than say what they should do (and off-hand mention those wacky people who didn't). Now I'm getting my semantic panties in a wad. But here we go anyway...

10. Wash your gym clothes. Seriously. And remember to bring them.

a) Friend K went to spinning one night. She was seated behind one of those serious riders (or at least, he seemed serious, since he was decked out in bike shorts with padding, bike shirt with pocket and advertising, the works). Now, if you've never been to spinning, basically the class consists of sitting down and standing up as you pedal at various speeds and resistances. And every time he stood up, a massive cloud of noxious BO fumes enveloped her. This isn't hyperbole. It was so bad, she actually got off her bike, took the time to set up another bike, and got on. Then the instructor, in a well-meaning effort, turned on the rotating fan, and the smell blew her way again. Rule of thumb: you can get away with wearing pants or shorts a couple times, but they start to get bad after about a four or five (unless they're really tight, you work out A LOT, or you have bad odor).

b) No, you may not come to class shirtless. If you're a woman, you can sometimes get away with wearing one of those sports bra tops. But if you're a guy, no way in hell. Nobody wants to see that. Because seriously, the guys who ask are not the guys you'd want to see without their shirts.

9. Don't give the evil eye to the instructor trying to correct your form

I'm a certified group exercise instructor. That doesn't mean I know everything, not by a long shot. But I do know what movements are safe, which are liable to cause injury, and what modifications you should use if you need to. If you're in a weight class and the instructor comes around and suggests a correction, then it's not just because I'm on a high horse getting you to do it exactly how I want. It could be because you aren't really hitting the muscle group well, or because you could injure yourself. If I say something to you, off the microphone, don't just look at me balefully. It might make me go away, but it's not going to help you any. Rule of thumb: we're really just there to try to help you, so help us help you!

8. That said, don't injure yourself just to do what everyone else is doing

I'm not a mind reader. I don't know that you have carpal tunnel/plantar fasciitis/recovering broken bones/bad back/bad knees/etc. If you have time before class, mention to the instructor that you have some restrictions. If it's a spinning class and you have back or knee problems, there are some definite form cues you want to follow (don't lean forward on the bike, don't pedal really slowly with high resistance). If you're in weight lifting, the instructor will need to know about your restrictions so she can either give alternate exercises or modifications. You can mention this during that exercise if she comes around to correct you. Rule of thumb: if something hurts (and I don't mean muscle pain, I mean bad "this is gonna send you to the doctor" pain), then don't do it. Ask the instructor if you don't know another way to hit the muscle group.

7. Everyone loves upbeat, but manic? Not so much

There's this one very friendly man who goes to the group exercise classes at my gym. He's a tad on the older side, and a tad on the portly side. It's great that he's in classes and that he truly seems to enjoy them. That said, ooh boy. Before class starts, he's in the group ex room dancing around to the music in his head (not in a crazy-I'm-scared-of-my-safety way, but in a quite a bit over the top upbeat way). Then in class, he's very vocal. Now, normally I like vocal. Gives me great feedback if people are liking class.

Case in point - I'm teaching a weight class one day. We have our hips on the bosu our hands on the gliders, and we're gliding our hands out in front and back (lower back and gluts). He's modifying by just lying on the floor instead of the bosu (perfectly fine, I love when people are confident enough to modify on their own). He starts flailing his arms around and saying (loudly) stuff like "this isn't so bad!" And he's just trying to be funny, really I know he is...but it's one of those situations where someone's trying so hard to be friendly and funny that it's just too much. Rule of thumb: friendly is good. Super friendly, "I'm your best friend so I'm going to laugh like we have an inside joke now" is not.

6. You may have the attention span of a gnat, but save the reading material for the cardio machines

I never thought I'd see this. It shocked me when I did. I was teaching a weight lifting class and we were doing glut raises (tabletop position, one leg up, push through gluts) and one of the women in class had a magazine down on the floor that she was reading while doing her glut squeezes. On the one hand, I guess it's something to do with your eyes. But honestly, she couldn't spent the time of maybe 16 reps on each legs (probably about 2 minutes) without some form of extra stimulus (apart from the music, the exercise, my cuing, etc)? Is it the fast paced city-world we're in? Yikes. It makes the instructor feel superfluous, and it may mean you're not listening to the cuing. Save the magazines for the cardio machines on the main floor.

5. Don't stop and stare

There are two categories of stop and gapers.

a) The "holy shit what the f*&( are these people doing, I can't do that?!" types. This happens mostly in step class. And I totally understand. Step can be daunting, especially because at my gym, there are no basic step classes, they're all advanced. A good step instructor will give basic options for the beginners, but none of the classes are going to be easy peasy. So they stand on their step, or beside their step, and they just stare at what the rest of us are doing. They might try a little more. Then they sometimes pick up their bench and leave. The thing is, step is a foreign language. You can't expect to be dropped in Paris and understand what "allez faire une basique, L-step, sautez sautez sautez" ("do a basic, L-step, jump jump jump") means, would you? So it takes time to learn. Do the basic stuff (what the class starts with) and don't worry about doing what everyone else does. If you have gotten your heart rate up, and you stop moving completely, you risk fainting. Rule of thumb: everyone feels silly the first time, nobody knows what they're doing. Just try it.

b) The "you want me to do what now?" people. These generally come in in January. They don't want to be there. They're generally there with friends. They feel very awkward and uncomfortable and silly with the exercises we're doing, especially in weight lifting. This gets even worse when I try to correct form, because if I go over, they'll completely stop and stand there not moving even if I try to get them to do the motion so I can correct them. Rule of thumb: again, everyone feels silly the first time. Just do it.

4. Don't wear high heels to step class (or kickboxing, or cycling, or hell, any class)

One of my fellow instructors was visiting LA and went to a step class on the Sunset Strip. There was a lady in back wearing high heels and looking very much like she was exotic dancing on the step. You'd think that this kind of footwear wouldn't logically make it into the gym wardrobe in, say, Boston. But you'd be wrong. One of my other colleagues was teaching kwando (which includes lots of jumping, kicking, and all in all pounding on your feet) and there was a woman who came to class in high heels. So she tells the lady she can't take class in high heels (can you imagine? I'd be surprised if she didn't twist her ankle). The lady complains. Management (get this) tells her she has to let the lady into the class in heels. So she quits and goes to another, more reasonable gym. Rule of thumb: shouldn't management NOT want lawsuits? Don't wear unsafe gym gear to class.

3. Grunting is best left to your own private pursuits

I don't have a problem with grunting out on the weight floor. And I'm not talking weight machines, I'm talking the man-gym (not that women don't lift there too, the area with all the free weights and scary looking ripped muscles. To lift that amount of weight, you kinda half to grunt or groan or whatever. No problems there.

But not in class. If you're in a weight class, we're probably doing each muscle group for about 2 to 4 minutes, with lots of reps. If you're grunting, you may have too much weight. Or you just need to learn what it's like to exhale without making noise. Because grunting makes people uncomfortable. Or, in some cases, enraged beyond belief.

2. If you feel the need to talk every second, go for drinks instead of exercise

I understand, you've had a hard day, a hard week, you just started dating someone, you just broke up with someone, your sister just got admitted to rehab, your cousin go suspended from school, your mother won the Pulitzer Prize. Whatever. Class. is. for. exercise.

If you're in a spin class, you can get away with chatting through the recovery (if you're chatting during the rest of class, you're not working hard enough).

If you're in any other kind of class (and I mean any class whatsoever), then zip it. It's distracting for other members, it's distracting for the instructor, and if you're talking, you're not listening to important cues to what we're doing and how we're going it.

1. We all love to stay connected. Connect to class, not your cell phone.

People bring cell phones everywhere they go. Work, the bathroom, the gym, the group exercise room. I don't have a problem with cell phones being in the room (though having them on vibrate would be nice, especially when they start ringing during the quiet stretch), but do NOT talk on the phone while you're in the room. If you're a doctor/psychiatrist/whatever on call, then use a beeper and take your cell in the hall.

Case in point: I was teaching spinning one day at a small gym. I only had one or two people taking class that day, and there's a stretch of floor that's clear next to the bikes. I don't mind if people come in and use the area to stretch, as long as they don't mind the loud music and are respectful of class. So when this girl came in, it didn't immediately hit me. Then I realized she was talking on her phone. While I was teaching class. And it wasn't that she walked in to stretch and said "oops, sorry, didn't realize there was class." She was so oblivious, she just kept on talking. And talking. Now, I could've gotten off my bike, gone over to her, and asked her to leave or finish her call. But I felt like that would have interrupted class and would have taken a lot longer than the option I chose.

So I turned up the music. Loudly. She left.

0. Your tales of bad group exercise etiquette?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Red peppers and poison control

A couple months ago, I brought back some small dried peppers from vacation in exotic climes. My intention was to crumble them up and make red pepper flakes.

The other weekend, I decided I was going to make chai (I promise, this is related...). I also had cardamom pods from said vacation, and needed to crush them up, and get a little jar to put them in. While I was there, figured I'd get jars for crushed coriander, whole cloves, and the peppers once I crushed them. Went on to make the chai - I'll list the ingredients here, though I haven't found the proportions that I really like yet, so I'm not giving quantities...

Chai - cardamom, coriander, whole cloves, allspice, black tea, fresh ginger, black pepper, water, milk (boil spices in water first, then add milk).

Ok, so back to the peppers. I bought myself a handy dandy spice grinder (think mini metal bucket and pestle) and crushed the coriander and cardamom. Then figured, while I was at it, might's well do the pepper. Then I figured out that the pepper crushes really easily by hand.

No, I didn't put gloves on, or cover my hands in plastic bags.

Idiot. I know that's what you're thinking. Yes, you're right.

So I get done crushing them up and I'm pretty proud of myself for finally getting around to it. I have fresh crushed pepper that came halfway around the world and I'm totally psyched about it.

Then I touched my lip. Firefirefire! Oops...hmmm.

So I wash my hands a couple times. No dice. Then I start to obsess about how I'm going to take my contact lenses out.

Oh, you can feel it coming, can't you?

So, I'm obsessing about my contacts, thinking about how I know it's going to sting like hell, and that I have to teach step and weight lifting in the morning (which really sucks in glasses), and it's like having a loose tooth. I just have to get the contacts out RIGHT THAT MOMENT.

So I do, and yes it stings. I have to take out the left one with a kleenex because it stings so badly.

Try washing my hands a few more times, still no luck.

I call a friend of mine who's a doctor, figuring she might have an idea how to get the damn pepper oil off my fingers (apparently my brain cramps on the idea of google during a pepper oil attack). She suggests I call poison control, because they'll probably know. Finds the number for me.

So here I am, 10pm on a friday night, hands covered in pepper oil, calling Poison Control to ask them how to get a food product off my hands. It would have been amusing if my skin hadn't been on fire whenever it happened to brush it.

Poison control recommends immersing my hands in oil (or a mixture of vinegar and water) for a while, or coating them in vaseline. As I don't have that much vinegar, and don't have vaseline, oil seemed to be the ticket. So I ask them how long "a while" is. I'm thinking 10-15 minutes. He says he doesn't want to give me a number, because then I'll just call back afterwards if it didn't work. So I ask for a ballpark. 45 minutes.

45 freaking minutes!

So I pour all my remaining canola oil (olive and grapeseed oil are way too expensive, thank you very much) into a metal mixing bowl, plop myself down in front of a dvd (which thankfully had more than 45 minutes left), and immersed my hands. My wrists were resting painfully on the rim of the bowl, and I just don't do well just watching tv (I normally cook, or cross-stitch, or do puzzles, or something with my hands). But I made it through. Maybe 40 minutes.

Then I realize I have a problem. There I am, sitting with my hands in a bowl of oil, in my armchair, 10 feet from the kitchen sink. If I take my hands out of the oil to carry the bowl, the bowl will either slip, or the oil will drip all over the floor. So here's where my weight lifting comes in handy.

I get up and walk in a squat, with the bowl in my lap, squat walking all the way over to the sink, manage to lift the bowl up (somehow, don't ask me how) to the sink, and pour out the oil, without spilling one drop. I impressed even myself.

Tested my hands on my tongue, still slightly peppery, but definitely much much better than before. Why didn't I wait to take out my contacts? Why oh why?

Poison Control thought the hydrogen peroxide would clear the contacts of the nasty oils overnight. So I put them in in the morning. Uh, no. Practically couldn't get them out because my eyes were screwed shut so hard against the pepper needles pricking them.

Note to self: buy plastic bags or gloves for the next time I take it upon myself to crush up some red peppers.

Have any other ideas to cut down spicy oil?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Monday Recipe - Spicy Turkey Veggie Lasagna

So I went to my local farmer's market on Friday, and I'm trying to decide what I should make for my Sunday-eat-it-all-week meal. The past couple weeks I've had eggplant parm, american chop suey, and a baba ganoush (eggplant) pasta, so it's been pretty eggplant heavy. But then, eggplant are in season, and since I'm trying to be as much a locavore as I can, there you have it.

As a side note on the locavore-ness (which I will go into more in depth at some later date), I try to get veggies that are as local as possible. Now, not being a true locavore, I'll eat veggies from California in the winter. I do my best not to eat international veggies. At this time of year, if something's from the midwest I'll think twice, since I should be able to get it at least in the Northeast, if not locally. Last week, my plan was to make cauliflower leek soup, since I'd seen leeks at the farmer's market. Until I get to the farm stand where I normally shop and the leeks were from Guatemala. Whatwhat?! </end slightly related but mostly tangential discussion>

Anyway, this lasagna recipe has never come out as true lasagna. Meaning, that I've never been able to cook it, cool itand, and pull it in squares out of the tray so that it doesn't fall into big pieces of lasagna goulash (so, no, it doesn't look anything like the photo appended here...). But it still tastes yum-yum-yummy! And if anyone has any tips on how to get it so it'll serve in squares, I'd greatly appreciate it! I think one thing is to have more layers of pasta. I usually start with that bottom layer of pasta, then get so excited about layering everything else, that I get to the top sprinkle of cheese and realize I've forgotten to layer more pasta. Whoops.


Spicy Turkey Veggie Lasagna

(Quantities listed below are suggestions, add more or less of whatever as you wish)

Tomato sauce - use the same tomato sauce as the eggplant parm, and crumble up two large portabello caps into the sauce

3 Jalapeno turkey sausages (outer casing peeled off and meat crumbled into pieces_
Eggplant (either one medium eggplant, or if you get distracted by weird things like me, you could get one small white eggplant and three long thin light purple ones)
2 Leeks (next time, I think I'd actually use more, maybe 3 or 4)
Lasagna pasta (dry)
Olive oil
Parmesan cheese (to sprinkle)

Ricotta layer:
30oz Ricotta cheese (or, if the containers at your store, like mine, come in 32oz, that's perfectly fine)
Spinach (however much you want - if you're using frozen, get about 20oz. If fresh, anywhere from .5-1lb, cleaned and chopped up)
4 Eggs
C Parmesan
1/2 Cream (I forgot to get this ingredient, and it didn't suffer for it)
t Red pepper flakes

1. Make the tomato sauce and set to simmer while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Try not to taunt the cat too badly when you use a can opener on the tomatoes - she will assume you have something yummy like tuna even if you let her smell the can to show her it's really tomatoes. Oh, whoops, she likes tomatoes...

2. Cut the eggplant into thin strips (it's fine to keep the skin on, unless you feel strongly about removing it). Don't cut the strips too thin, because trust me, it's easy to either slice a finger, or end up with paper thin eggplant that just almost isn't even worth spending the time grilling. Place eggplant in a bowl, sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Grill (or saute) until tender.

3. Cut off green and stringy parts of the leeks. Slice lengthwise, grill or saute until soft. Separate layers.

4. Saute crumbled turkey sausage until slightly browned.

5. Put chopped spinach in a large bowl with ricotta, eggs, parmesan, cream (optional) and pepper. Maybe some oregano too, now that I think of it. Mix together.

6. With a large casserole dish (and you may need a second smaller one too), put a thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of the dish. Layer dry pasta, sauce, turkey, leeks, ricotta mixture, sauce, pasta, sauce, eggplant, ricotta, sauce, sprinkle parmesan cheese on top. Or at least, that's how I would've layered it if I'd remembered that second layer of pasta. Feel free to get creative and layer it however your heart desires.

7. Bake in the oven at 375 until sauce is bubbly, then bake a little more until it looks cooked (I was watching the Olympics, ok? I didn't time it...). Probably 45-60 minutes. If you're using glass casserole dishes, definitely don't preheat the oven, unless you want the glass the crack and leak your lovely creation all over your over and cause your fire alarm to screech loudly. If you've got porcelain or whatever other kind of casserole dish, you're good to go with preheating.

8. Take out of oven. Let cool.

This recipe made me probably about 12-15 servings, if not more. I haven't quite figured out what a serving is yet.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday Rant - I am NOT a fruit!

Ever since I was a low-esteemed teenager I've had trouble with using fruit terminology to describe people's bodies. Now that I'm a confident almost-30 year old, I have even more of a problem with it, but for different reasons.

And here's my problem, I have a classic hourglass shape. Large chest, good sized hips, small waist = hourglass. The problem? In the fruit system, this equals an apple shape. And granted, if I were to gain a bunch of weight, it would tend to center around my middle first, and would turn me into an apple shape. But as of right now, I am not and apple shape. But the fruit system doesn't allow for hourglass. It's apple or pear (is there another one I'm not aware of?).

Growing up, my mother used this system (she has a pear shape and would tell me I was an apple shape. Not to say I was large or whatever, but as a statement of fact, since that is how that system works). And I was a teenager in the 90s, and fully embraced the plaid shirt grunge trend, so my shirts went straight down from my chest, which did in fact make me look like I had a big round apple shape. So this made me feel like I was fat, even though looking at pictures now I realize I wasn't.

But now that I have a more confidence voice on me, I'm speaking out against this system, because really, there are so many more shapes than just apple and pear. I like this site, which seems a lot more reasonable. They list three body types:

1. Short waist - your body may be defined as an H shape, or column (Princess Diana, Anne Hathaway), or if you become overweight, you may become an apple shape (Dawn French) - am I supposed to know who that last one is? The thing I really like here is that it says that you may become an apple shape if you become overweight, not just if you have big chest and hips

2. Long waist - shoulders approximately the same width as hips, in either an 8 shape (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Cate Blanchett) or hourglass shape (Jessica Simpson) - I have a really long waist, such that I can be shorter than a guy standing up, then taller than him sitting down

3. Shoulders narrower than the hips, then you're a V shape (Jennifer Garner, Keira Knightly - long waisted, Salma Hayak - short waisted), and if you really must use the fruit system "pear shaped"

I must say I like the letters and numbers system so much better. V-shape, 8-shape, H-shape, all good. No easy letter/number for hourglass, any suggestions?

I just feel like telling anyone, especially a young adolescent girl, that they're an apple shape, or even a pear shape (have you seen a pear? That bottom half is really big!) just reinforces any sense of low self esteem they already have about their body. Because even if you know you have an hourglass shape, you may not be confident about it, and being called an apple focuses your attention on your tummy and how big it is (even if it isn't all that big) and makes you feel bad about it.

Ok, now to get out of my teenage mind spiral. I am confident about my body now, given how well I eat and how much I exercise. I have the same twinges of body issues that all American women have, because seriously, in this society it's hard to get away from it. But I seriously bridle every time I hear someone called an apple shape or a pear shape. Even if someone is truly an apple shape with a "buddha tummy," I don't feel like it's positive reinforcement to say that to them (and isn't necessarily going to inspire them to lose the buddha tummy, even if they can).

Agree? Disagree? Never thought about it?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Debunking the Bunk - Alcohol

Most of us were raised that alcohol is bad bad bad. Parents flip out when they find their teenagers, or middleschoolers, or even elementary school children, have raided the liquor cabinet and gotten smashed. And understandably so, especially for the youngsters. Alcohol has a lot of really negative effects, and if you're not old enough to know your limits and to make appropriate decisions, then you're not necessarily going to stop when you should (kids think they're invincible, after all, right?).

I'll get to the positive stuff in a second, I promise :)

Some of the negative effects of alcohol:

* liver cirrhosis (usually happens in adults who've been drinking a lot time, but if you start when you're 10, I imagine you could smash you're liver by college or so, couldn't you?)
* vitamin deficiencies (and we all know teenagers aren't all that compliant with the health suggestions their parents give "take vitamins? are you kidding? I'm not 8!")
* loss of appetite (drunkorexia seems to be a new trend, mostly by women, who save up all their calories of the day for binge drinking, eating very little actual food)
* totally embarrassing yourself, getting caught on video by someone's cell phone, and having your drunken indiscretion posted on YouTube. Man, if you thought it was hard being a kid 10-20 years ago, try the internet age!
* lowering of inhibitions (this is bad for anyone of all ages. But combine young and invincible with alcohol and you get a higher likelihood of STDs, pregnancy, thinking you can fly off the top of a building, that kind of thing)

I remember as a little girl (like 4 or 5), I'd always ask my dad for a sip of his beer. He'd let me have a sip and I always hated the taste. Blech. But I'd always keep asking for a sip the next time he had a beer, because I guess I wasn't at that stage of development yet when I realized that it was going to taste the same every time. To this day, my dad thinks that I liked the taste, because I kept asking him. I think I didn't comprehend why he'd always drink it if it tasted that bad, so I figured if I tried it again it'd be better.

But I think this was a good approach my father had. Because if he'd said "no you can't have any, you're not old enough, it's bad for you," well then, my curiosity would be piqued, and who knows, I might have gotten all into it when I hit high school. As it is, I had an enduring impression that alcohol tasted disgusting, and I didn't start drinking much until I was 27 (not that I drink much now, but I've at least figured out what it is I like drinking). I think it's the whole culture of negativity around alcohol which lends itself to teenage drinking.

And yes, alcohol is bad for you, if drunk in excess. So while I'm debunking the fact that it's always bad, I'm not saying you should go out and drink a pool of red wine every night, because then you might come back to me and say "you said alcohol was good, and now I'm being sued by my neighbor when my pool of wine toppled over (when I stumbled drunkenly into it) and covered their lawn and stained their cute little white poodle red." (and that example is inspired by an actual story I heard once about a frat party which knocked their backyard pool over into the dean's backyard. Oops.)

However, it isn't the big evil we all thought it was. It definitely has its drawbacks as well, but recent studies have shown some benefits. A balanced article about the health positives and negatives mentions that studies have shown that moderate drinking (up to one glass (12oz beer, 5oz wine, 1.5oz hard liquor) for women, or two glasses for men can boost cardiovascular health, especially in middle age, and that these benefits trump the increased risk in breast and colon cancers. (I know it's because women are smaller, but damn did we get the short end of the stick on that one!)

So I definitely try to stay under that 7 drink a week minimum (though who knows how many ounces the drinks I order are, I don't grill the bartender or he'll stop serving me), for the most part.

I don't have kids yet, and probably won't for a while yet. But when I do, I'm going to take the approach that my dad did. They can take a little sip (maybe not of the girly-drinks like martinis, because they'll like those too much), to show that it's not this huge no-no, and I'll talk to them about how to drink responsibly once they're old enough (I'm thinking that conversation would probably be high school, since I know that high schoolers do that, and parents are mostly just in denial about it). Not to condone underage drinking, but to teach them about the dangers of it and tell them that if they are going to do it, how to be safe. Kind of like the alcohol version of giving kids condoms in case they need them, rather than just staying in denial. Of course, that's easily said now, since I'm not a parent.

I went to a party once where the hosts had two little girls (3 and 2, at the time). They were serving spiked punch, and the two year old kept getting her hands on it and drinking it down because it tasted yummy. And the parents were kind of laughing it off like "wow, guess she likes it, huh?" This is NOT the kind of tasting I'm talking about here. Because seriously, a 2 year old is too young to be downing vodka-spiked drinking like it's kool-aid, and seriously, it's got to be hindering her brain development. For the record, 10 is too young for this, even 15. If when the kids get to high school and their parents give the ok to have a spiked drunk at a supervised party, then I'm fine with that, as long as the parents have taught them about responsibility and are watching them to make sure they don't go overboard. And I know that a lot of people feel really strongly about this, so I welcome any kind of debate.

I feel like this turned a little bit into a Friday rant. Oh well. What are your thoughts about alcohol? What's your poison? Do you drink because it's healthy for you, because it tastes good, because you want to loosen up, get drunk, etc?

I currently have pineapple soaking in vodka for a party I'm having in two weeks. Mmmm.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Whoever thought 30 pushups would be easy?

At this point, 30 pushups seems like nothing. But seriously, week 5 of the 100 pushup program is definitely not a walk in the park. About halfway through week 3, I dropped my pushups down to my knees. Part of me feels like that's cheating. But on the other hand, my wrists were taking a serious beating doing 100 pushups (over 5 sets) on my toes. Plus, given that both my mother and grandmother have carpal tunnel syndrome, I listen to my wrist pain.

So no toe pushups for me (at least, not for high reps).

Plus, doing them on my toes means that I only come down about halfway, three quarters if I'm being really good. When I dropped to my knees, I could then bring my chest all the way down to brush the floor, and it felt as if I were isolating the chest muscles better.

All that to say that I'm doing pushups on my knees and getting a better workout for it.

I did my week 4 completion test on Sunday, and I made sure not to not look at the minimum to get the top rung (because if I did, I knew, just knew, that I would only do the minimum and tell myself that was enough). I managed to pound out 50 (50!), and it didn't really start to get hard until about 35-40 (40 ended up being the minimum).

Monday I was teaching boot camp, and our cardio exercise was jumping jacks. And I was psyched to notice that I actually have shoulder dimples now when I'm doing jacks! My body type is the kind that doesn't gain muscle definition easily, so I'm always super excited when I have the least little line that shows up. If I end up not finishing the pushup program, then I'll still be happy for this little development, even if it goes away once I stop doing so many pushups.

But then came the start of week 5 on Tuesday. Week 5 and 6 look completely insane. I'm not kidding. I didn't have too much trouble with the last day of week 4, even though I did too many since I couldn't remember the numbers (I did 30,24,24,20,30). But once I get past 30 and start nearing 40, that's when the muscles in my chest start to burn badly. Which is the point, I suppose. Here's what weeks 5 and 6 look like:

Week 5
Day 1: (60 sec rest in between) 40/32/30/25/40(or as many as possible/AMAP)
Day 2: (45 sec) 20/20/18/18/15/15/14/AMAP 40
Day 3: (30 sec) 18/18/16/16/14/14/12/AMAP 40

Week 6
Day 1: (60 sec) 56/45/42/40/AMAP 56
Day 2: (45 sec) 30/30/25/25/25/25/22/AMAP 56
Day 3: (30 sec) 27/27/23/23/23/23/20/AMAP 56

Given that my max on Sunday was 50, doing 40, then another 32 with just a minute in between seems nigh on impossible. I made it through about 25 of the second set. I think I may take another couple days off of pushups, maybe do some chest flies instead, and repeat week 4 again.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Healthy food and teeth

I went to the dentist yesterday. I hadn't been there in a really long time (given how my last insurance had my closest in-network dentist as nowhere I could get easily). They recommended a deep cleaning, fillings for two cavities, an onlay (cracked tooth, like a mini-crown), and eventual extraction of two partially erupted wisdom teeth. Blech.

Yesterday was the first of many parts to address all that. And it was the deep cleaning. If you've never had a deep cleaning, it takes about 2.5-3 hours. No that's not a typo. I sat there with my jaws cracked with for a full 2.5 hours. They had to use an anaesthetic gel on my gums because of the bleeding and how deep down under the gums they were cleaning. Definitely like the gel better than novocaine, which for me generally lasts until bedtime and causes me to bite my tongue at least once without realizing it.

The dentist commented on how yellowed my teeth have become. I've heard this before, and had dentists recommended whitening (not covered by insurance). This, however, apparently wasn't a discoloration of the teeth. I don't smoke or drink coffee much (though I do drink tea a lot, and the dentist said tea shouldn't have that much effect). So I learned about a new (to me) cause of yellowing.

My enamel has made a great escape.

And this has happened very slowly (looking online, it seems that there are people who lose enamel more quickly, but it's generally due to other causes, like bulimia, but for slower loss, there are the causes I'm discussing below, according to my hygienist).

So then she goes through the things which eat away at enamel, the main one being soda. And unlike the incidence of soda leading to low bone density (and osteoporosis), this isn't just dark colas. This is all soda. And it's because they're acidic. But I don't often drink soda. So then she asks about juice, which is also acidic (especially orange juice). Nope, I drink juice even less than soda. She goes back to cleaning my mouth.

Then, as we're talking about my health in relation to several years ago, she throw me the kicker.

It's my salad dressing that might be the culprit. The vinegar, to be more precise, which is very acidic. I make my own salad dressing, which is a good 50% vinegar. I also eat tomatoes, which are very acidic. And it's apparently eating away at the enamel of my teeth, letting the layer of dentin underneath show through (and dentin is yellow).

It could also be sugar from candy, which is another cause of enamel loss. I don't eat a lot of candy, but I'd have to admit that I eat more candy than I eat salad (though I eat more veggies than I eat candy).

There's apparently no way right now to replace the enamel on the teeth, though scientists are currently working on a synthisized version. I'm going to keep eating salad, and probably will keep eating some candy (though I'll try not to eat too's the eternal battle). More important is the flossing. I'm really bad at that. Ergh.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Monday Recipe - Chicken Spinach Soup

I never was much a fan of spinach. In fact, I never was much a fan of vegetables in general, other then basic salad stuff, peas, and corn. Then, I discovered how to cook most of them in a tasty way, and yummm! (Kale, for example, is a vegetable I recently tried and was very surprised at how tasty it was). I learned that asparagus doesn't actually have to be gray after it's cooked (boiling the life out of it), and I actually do like broccoli as long as it's still crunchy. I always used to say that broccoli was the only subject I agreed with the elder President Bush on (he went on record to say he didn't like broccoli), but now I'm happy to say that I can cross even that off our similarities list.

I was a bit dubious about spinach soup, however much I'm a fan of spinach now (especially Jamaican spinach). Something about spinach floating in broth just didn't seem appetizing. But man was I wrong! Plus, this recipe gave me my first chance to use my handy dandy new food processor (woooohooo!), and I didn't slice my finger this time like I did when I was unpacking it (why oh why were we created to be curious beings? Reminder: when directions say NOT to touch the blade, DON'T touch it just to see how sharp it is...). And the food processor did about 20 minutes of work in about 20 seconds. I'm a convert, yes sirree.

The recipe below is slightly modified from the original. I doubled the amount of carrots, scallions, and broth, added chicken to give it protein, but kept the amount of spinach the same. It came out pretty well balanced, I think.


Chicken Spinach Soup

.5-1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts (optional)
1.5-2 lbs spinach, washed and de-stemmed (I used baby spinach, not sure if it changed the flavor)
12C chicken broth (6-8C if you're not adding chicken)
2/3C scallions, chopped
2/3C carrots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
C quinoa (or barley, rice, pasta, etc)
2T butter

Melt butter in a large pot and add scallions, carrots and garlic (you can also use olive oil instead of butter for a healthier base). Sautee 2-3 minutes. Add broth and bring to a boil. Add whole chicken breasts to the broth.

While chicken is cooking, de-stem the spinach. When chicken is cooked, remove the chicken breasts from the pot. Transfer on a plate to a cutting board. With two sturdy forks, tear chicken into small pieces (you can also cut it into small pieces, but for some strange reason I much prefer how the torn chicken comes out). Return chicken to pot along with the quinoa.

When quinoa is cooked (it will be slightly chewy but not crunchy), add in the spinach and cook until just wilted. Salt and pepper to taste. Be sure not to overcook at this stage or the spinach will turn an unappetizing color.

Depending how large your serving sizes are, I'd say it makes about 8 servings (if you're using the chicken and 12C broth).

Friday, August 15, 2008

Friday Rant - no, I'm not a health nazi

So for the most part, I eat healthy food. I tend to hold forth about healthy food and related topics when I'm writing on my blog, but in real life I go with the flow. The thing is, my co-workers think I eat REALLY healthy, whereas my family probably things I'm just so-so healthy. This is because I'm always bringing in my home-made lunch to work and eating healthy snacks, and when I go out to eat with my family, I get what I want to eat, since I hardly ever go out to restaurants. And I'm not shy with dessert.

Enter the Dunkin' Donuts munchkins.

There was a 1/2-3/4 of a box of munchkins left over after a meeting. I was in the kitchen making some tea when the doughnuts arrived. One of my other coworkers was taking a break in the kitchen as well (this is the same coworker who was the subject of another rant).

And seriously, pass up doughnuts? Are you kidding? I grabbed a couple of the chocolate glazed munchkins. And coworker is looking at me like I've just given birth to an alien or something. "I thought you didn't eat anything that wasn't healthy?!" (he's always trying to convince me to eat cookies or soda or whatever).

Granted, the example of my eating habits he's seen so far has been a very healthy one (much like the example my dad has is of me eating a LOT). But come on, outright amazement? Did he really think I never eat any desserts whatsoever? Even the biggest health nazi eats some things sometimes that aren't good for you, right? He was entirely flabbergasted.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Debunking the Bunk - Chocolate

We've all learned that chocolate is bad for you. All those candy bars and pies and cakes and cookies are squarely in the "don't eat me or you'll feel guilty" column. And what with all the recent press about the obesity epidemic going on in this country, there seems to be more and more emphasis on all those yummy things we're just NOT supposed to eat. Chocolate's a no-brainer, right? After all, it's sweet, pre-packaged, and high in calories. So we should steer clear, right?

Well, not always.

There are a couple kinds of chocolate, and not all of them are really that bad for you. Some actually have some health benefits (in moderation, dangit!). And it still has a lot of calories, so you have to balance it out by eating fewer other yummy foods.

1. Dark chocolate (and I'm talking 70% and higher cocoa) has been proven to lower blood pressure in some people (I wonder how many bars the stressed Olympians go through?), as well as being an antioxidant. To quote "A hint: Don't replace healthy foods with chocolate. Most people's diets have plenty of sweets. Switch those for some chocolate if you're going to try the truffle treatment." I like this idea...truffle treatment!

2. Flavored dark chocolate - will have the same amount of antioxidants and blood pressure lowering properties as long as there's no milk in the bar (why oh why does milk have such a bad effect on chocolate? pooh!). I've had some tasty chili chocolate, or mint chocolate, or ginger chocolate.

3. Milk chocolate - my personal favorite. When I studied in Toulouse, France, I'd go to the chocolatier and buy a big block of milk chocolate to gnaw on in the movie theater. Didn't do great things for my teeth, but man was it yummy! As mentioned before, the milk in this chocolate completely counteracts its health benefits. I found a pink salt and goji berry milk chocolate bar recently that's just heavenly. And it's so rich that I can't eat more than two or three little squares without going on overload.

4. White chocolate - is the least like real chocolate (and in fact, the USDA doesn't consider it to be chocolate at all since it doesn't have cocoa solids). It has to have at least 20% cocoa butter, and the rest is sugar, milk fat and milk solids. They even have a white chocolate bar with olives in it!

So while unfortunately chocolate isn't going to be a healthy choice to replace, say, breakfast, it's not the big evil it's been made out to be! I'm getting better at liking dark chocolate...

Some other uses for chocolate:

1. To plug up a flesh-eating acid leak (MacGyver, episode 1)
2. Brush your teeth (whatwhat?!)
3. Wrestle in it (for all those guys out there who couldn't wait to see the women mud wrestling, here's one even better! And then afterwards there's the adult fun (link safe for work) with chocolate...)
4. To stop addictions (ok, so eating chocolate to STOP a chocolate addiction isn't going to help, really, but it sure will taste good!)
5. Worship it (apologies if you find this blasphemous. Personally, having no religion, I find it rather amusing to think people out there are eating their Gods)
6. It's da bomb! (could be an April Fool's joke, but this looks like some serious fun, if it's really real!)
7. Make a 4-way (no, get your mind out of the gutter now! This is toast with olive oil, salt and chocolate. Sounds intriguing...)
8. Make a fire (ok, so I was expecting the chocolate itself to be making the fire, and I was very intrigued. Apparently, chocolate is a good polishing agent to polish the bottom of a soda can, which can then reflect sunlight onto some tinder. Just in case you're ever stuck in the woods with no matches but happen to have candy and soda)
9. Seek revenge (so this is what they mean when they say "bite someone's head off"...)
10. Clear up zits (seriously?! You mean no more stress/PMS zit outbreaks? All I have to do to solve that is eat some chocolate? Sign me up!)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympic Boot Camp

The spirit of the Olympics took me on Monday and I set up my boot camp class with an Olympic theme. Some are a bit more of a stretch than others, but it definitely made the workout more interesting (even if it was just the packaging, and the exercises were the same).

I'll give you the workout, then I want to hear your ideas!

Station #1 - Basketball
Squat jumps (quads, gluts, calves) - squat down, pick up the imaginary ball, stand and jump shoot (2 minutes)

Station #2 - Breaststroke / Gymnastics
Lower back - using the gliders (my fave!!), lie on your stomach with gliders (or rags, or paper plates) under hands. With arms straight, pull shoulders up off ground, sliding scapulae down the back (arms make triangle with floor). This is start position - from here, glide out, circle out wide until hands are under shoulders, and push up (mimic breaststroke - my only change here would be with extension out front, lower chest down to ground, then back up. If not, it won't hit the lower back) (1 minute)
Pushups - like those jump down presses they do on floor exercise - (1 minute)

(note to self: when demonstrating gymnastics, try not to make a fool of myself by dropping down onto hands from kneeling. Chest will not thank me)

Cardio #1 - Boxing
- Alternate front punches, slip side to side (squat back as you step side)
- Shuffle side to side, shuffle with same side jab, shuffle jab with cross opposite hand (shuffle R w/ right jab, cross punch L) - (2 minutes)

Station #3 - Volleyball
Tricep extensions - overhand block - 1 minute
Bicep curls - underhand block - 1 minute

Station #4 - Fencing
Moving lunges - again with the gliders. This one is hard to explain. Bear with me. Both feet on the gliders, one foot in front (let's say the right foot). Shuffle forward and then lunge right leg with right hand out like striking, then shuffle back and lean a bit like you're avoiding a sword (hits abs). Much more fun with two people facing each other and going back and forth like they're actually fencing. I did my best to find a video link for this, unfortunately it's not available on YouTube. 1 minute each leg

(note: toes right smack in the center of the gliders/paper plates, or the toes end up coming off, sticking to the floor, and causing forward motion to trip forward. Not the best plan of action)

Cardio #2 - Boxing
- Right hand jab side x8, jab front (turn body facing side) x8
- Side x4, front x4
- Side x2, front x2
- Alternate side/front
- Option: side jab becomes back jab (from jab back face one side to jab front face other side).
- Do a bunch of reps. 1 minute each hand.

Station #5 - Tennis
Shoulders - attach elbow to side, external shoulder rotation (with elbow on ribs, rotate hand towards back with palm up, but don't twist through torso) - 1 minute each hand, or 2 minutes both hands.

Station #6 - Cycling
Abs/Obliques - bicycle abs (supine position, feet in air, bring one shoulder to opposite bent knee with other leg out straight), maintain slow tempo for more challenge (2 minutes)

Cardio #3 - Boxing
- Shuffle jab on 2:00 diagonal, uppercuts (as long as you want, either 4, 6, or 8), shuffle back, jumping jacks.
- Repeat other side.
- Advanced options: replace uppercuts with fast hooks, and replace jacks with kick up heels and high alternating arms (kick up heels=one foot low kick, switch to other side with a small jump, alternating arms=one hand high, with each foot switch, alternate hands) - 2 minutes

Repeat circuit. Choose favorite 2 cardio exercises to repeat. Instead of finishing with cardio, finish with cool down and stretch.

I'm thinking of doing this again tomorrow. Any ideas on different exercises I can do which mimic Olympic sports?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Breakfast of Champions

In case any of you missed the swimming yesterday (I think it was yesterday, it's hard to keep track of with my DVR), the American men's team won the freestyle relay. Cue Michael Phelps screaming for what seemed like ten minutes (or was that instant replay?).

So then they do a little background on Michael Phelps (and seriously, he has the cutest puppy ever, I have total puppy envy). And they read out of his autobiography (can you believe a 23-year old has an autobio already?) what he would eat for an average day for breakfast:

- 3 Sandwiches of fried eggs, lettuce, tomato, cheese, fried onions, and mayo
- one omelet
- a bowl of grits (is Baltimore considered the south?)
- 3 slices of french toast with powdered sugar
- 3 chocolate chip pancakes

He's supposed to eat 8000-10,000 calories a day. A DAY! In the piece they had on the tv, he basically says he eats as much as he can put in, because no matter how much he eats, he doesn't break 200lbs. Can you imagine how much he must be swimming on a regular basis that he can eat that much per day and not gain weight? Wow. His breakfast is more than I'd eat in an entire day.

They showed a dinner out at a Chinese restaurant, and the entire (6-person) table was covered (covered!) with plates of food.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'd LOVE to be able to eat that much (though training that much might be more problematic, I have no idea how he doesn't push into overtraining). But I think it'd be pretty hard to HAVE to eat constantly to keep my weight up. Easier that than to restrict to keep it down, but I think I'd be happy being able to consume about 3000-4000, that'd work for me!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Monday Recipe - American Chop Suey

Almost typed American Chop Suet. And man would that be a really damn different recipe. Ugh.

I've had a craving for American Chop Suey for a couple weeks now, and finally got around to looking up a recipe online and making it this weekend.

Somehow, the onions I bought turned out to be the gold medalists in attacking eye ducts. I'd cut up half an onion and then my eyes would sting so badly I'd have to screw them shut for about five minutes while OCD washing my hands to get the onion smell off. Then repeat. Managed to get through an onion and a half without slicing a finger off, which is always a good thing.

And this was even after I put the onion in the freezer, which is my personal trick for cutting down on the onion-y smell. Hmph. I've also heard of breathing through your mouth and chewing gum. Any other tips?


American Chop Suey

medium onion, finely chopped
green pepper, finely chopped
red/italian pepper, finely chopped
lb ground beef/turkey (I used beef)
lb whole wheat elbows
2 cloves garlic (or more)
a shake of celery seed
a shake of chili powder
olive/grapeseed oil
4-5C tomato sauce (used the same sauce as with the eggplant parm last week, and added about 1/4-1/2 lb mushrooms)

Make the sauce first, as it needs to cook for a while. The recipe listed for the eggplant parm above will make more than you need for this recipe (about 10-12C total), but it can be frozen or used for any tomato sauce based recipe you want to make.

Put onion, peppers, and oil in a large pan and saute until onion is translucent. Add meat and cook until brown. Drain fat. Stir in garlic, celery seed, and chili powder. Add tomato sauce and let simmer. While sauce is simmering, prepare pasta until al dente. Add to meat mixture and serve.

I don't know how well it comes out frozen and reheated, but I had a bunch extra, so I'll find out! This recipe made about 10 servings, if I recall correctly.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Friday Rant - you mean, that comes out of the ground?

I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker the other day. I was headed to the farmer's market and asked if she wanted to come. Somehow the subject of cherries came up, and she said she wanted to get the dark red kind. This made me pause. I'm thinking in my head, "are there other colors of cherries?" (I just did a wikipedia search, and there are red, dark red, light red, and some yellowish ones).

But I didn't get the feeling she was talking about some strange variety of cherry. So I said I thought that cherries were generally dark red. And then she said something that blew my mind - "I want the dark red cherries, not the ones they put in martinis."

And there you have it - I completely understand this, because our society has become so divorced from the concept of growing food that sometimes we just don't know where it comes from. I suppose it isn't unrealistic to expect that a maraschino cherry is just a different variety of cherry, plucked off the tree and bottled (or, if you've never even seen it bottled and only seen it in martinis). And if you grow up in a city and never deal with the growing of food, well then all your information comes with whatever you're exposed to in tv, movies, and books (well, ok, then there's parents and friends too).

I read Small Wonder (Barbara Kingsolver) a while back and she made this very point. She and her family had a garden in Arizona, and when her kids' friends would come over, they'd go out and pick some veggies for dinner. And the friends would refuse to eat veggies that came out of the ground, because they had dirt on them, and they didn't believe that that's really where veggies came from (veggies come from the grocery store, don't they?).

I was guilty of this myself - my boss brought in a box of home-grown cucumbers, tomatoes, and basil for all of us in the office share (yummm!), and I went to grab a cucumber, saw dirt on it, and almost put it back. Then I pinched myself and took it anyway. Because while I wouldn't take a veggie with dirt on it in the big box grocery store, I knew he'd picked it that very morning, so it was perfectly reasonable for there to be dirt on it.

But is this a good thing, that we've come "so far" technologically and culturally and can get any fruit and veggie on earth, but we have no idea where they come from? I read Fast Food Nation earlier this year and it's true, I really didn't have a great idea where the meat I eat comes from. And I don't want to see any remnant of the animal in the food I'm eating (I can deal with fish heads and lobsters, but the idea of killing a chicken just kinda wigs me out). But I really didn't have a great idea of just exactly what the animal goes through between pasture (or pen, as the case may be) and my plate. I would've thought that the process would've improved since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, but apparently it hasn't necessarily (there are always the abattoirs that buck the trend mentioned in Fast Food Nation, but there are so many that don't).

Have you had any interactions of this, people (or you) just had no idea where the food comes from, or that a particular food was prepared and they thought it was natural? (for the record, a maraschino cherry has been macerated in flavored sugar syrup, then dyed, and is usually flavored with almond. Green maraschinos are mint flavored).

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Debunking the Bunk - Salad

Wait, what? Salad? You're kidding, right? Salad's always been good for you!

This week I'm turning the tables - foods that everything thinks that are great for you, that really aren't always. And up first is salad. Ok, not salad per se, but salad dressing and salad toppings. You can't go wrong with veggies, whether it be lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, flowers, dried fruit, fresh fruit, etc.

But where I see people go wrong is on all those toppings and especially the salad dressing. I can't even tell you how many times I've seen this very scenario: coworker/friend/random person is talking about how they want to lose x amount of pounds for x event (usually it's a wedding or something). So they switch to eating salads every meal, cut out all carbs, and basically give their diet a bland make-over. You already know how I feel about restrictive diets. But whenever I see someone revert to salads and cold cuts (no bread) for lunch, I can practically count down the days until it's back to pizza.

Here's the problem with salad dressing - first of all it's made out of oil, vinegar, and sugar (with other spices and additives added in), or even worse, cream. Now, we've learned that oil is good for you, but it's really all about moderation. But the pesky little thing about oil that most of us forget is that while it does raise your good cholesterol, one serving is one tablespoon and 120 calories. So the majority of the calories in the salad are coming from the dressing, especially if that bottle is getting upended and squirted to cover every last inch of the lettuce. Plus, add in the nuts (again, good fat, but only if used in moderation), bacon bits, cheese, croutons, fried chicken etc.

And because it's a salad, we're likely to eat more of it, and then have dessert or a nice yummy sugary treat later to reward ourselves for being so virtuous in eating that salad.

Now, don't get me wrong, salads are a great idea, and we shouldn't eat less of them. But adding a variety of flavors to the salad will cut down the need to have too much dressing (purple cabbage is a great option because it's so flavorful and looks so pretty), and adding lots of pretty colors also helps satisfy the eye-stomach link too (if it doesn't look tasty, then we're less likely to be satisfied with it, right?). One suggestion: spinach or mesclun salad with purple cabbage, red peppers, some walnuts, and some dried cranberries. And here's my favorite dressing that I use most of the time (having the vinegar in there definitely helps the moderation because too much makes my mouth pucker, but just a couple T is awfully tasty):

1 part olive oil
1 part balsamic (white or dark) / or lemon juice
dollop of dijon mustard
salt and pepper

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

I'm starting to hate pushups

ok, not really. I like pushups, really I do. But not when I do 85 in under 10 minutes. Teaching, I'd always say something really perky like "woohoo! Now it's time for pushups!" *insert wacky cheerleader voice here* (I'm not usually a cheerleader type instructor (I hope), but pushups just seem to bring out that side of me). But then, with teaching, we'd do no more than 15-20, maybe 30. So it was easy to get pumped.

But 100 pushups is. not. easy.

I'm sure that that comes as a big surprise to you, right? You're probably asking how exactly I thought that the 100 pushup program would be easy. And I didn't, not really. But I didn't expect it would be quite this hard.

I'm in week three (of six) now. And man is the different between weeks two and three hard. Pushups are three days a week, and each day there are five sets with rest in between. So last week I was doing sets of 15/15/12/12/as many as possible at least 15. This week starts out with 25/17/17/15/amap 25. Wha-what?! This may not seem like a huge difference, but I assure you, 25 pushups is a lot, especially when you're doing 84 total in one sitting! And damn does it make my wrists hurt!

And seriously, the whole "as many as possible but at least 25" thing....are there people who are actually doing more than 25? Because I actually had to drop to my knees for the last 10 pushups, so there was noooo way I was doing more than 25.

Now, I do like the fact that I can then say "hey, I just did 85 pushups" because, well, damn that's impressive, isn't it? But I don't know if I can make it to the end. I don't feel the need to necessarily do 100 consecutive pushups, my whole goal was basically to make myself do some lifting, now that I'm teaching boot camp (and therefore teaching people on a circuit class rather than doing it myself). And I don't want to pump up the size of my shoulders at all. But I'm hoping I can at least finish week three. Let's see how it goes.

Here's what weeks 3 and 4 look like:

Week 3
Day 1: 25/17/17/15/as many as possible but at least 25 (aka AMAP) - 60sec rest
Day 2: 27/19/19/15/AMAP 25 - 90sec rest
Day 3: 30/22/22/20/AMAP 27 - 120sec rest

Week 4
Day 1: 27/20/20/17/AMAP 27 - 60 sec rest
Day 2: 27/21/21/18/AMAP 25 - 90 sec rest
Day 3: 30/22/22/20/AMAP 29 - 120 sec rest

Week 3 and Week 4 don't actually look all that different. If I can make it through week 3, then maybe I'll be able to continue to week 4. But then I have my progress test and if I want to stay in the same bracket, I'll have to do at least 40. Yikes!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mmmmm Popcorn

This weekend was a movie weekend. I went to see Mamma Mia! on Saturday (I can't believe how many ABBA songs I actually know, wow!) and Tell No One on Sunday (enjoyable French movie with an actual plot arc). Sunday night was popcorn night, and I haven't had popcorn in quite a long time. Damn it's good stuff! And maybe I'm out of the loop, but I've never noticed a theater to have spices to top popcorn with before. Cajun spices definitely punch it up, mm mm.

Having eaten a half a large (and by large, I really mean gargantuan, as in about twice the size of my head) bag of popcorn, I ask myself, what's the deal with popcorn? I have this vague impression in my head that it's a healthier option than say, nachos and cheese or a big box of junior mints.

Studiously doing internet research
***** I say I ate as much popcorn as all that? (backpedaling, big time)

Ok, so I found one page with info about movie popcorn, not sure how official it is because I've never heard of this university. Still looking for other sources. In the meantime, I love how they describe movie popcorn: "Why is movie theater popcorn so much worse than the supermarket variety? Because it’s usually popped in highly saturated coconut oil, and because the servings are on steroids." Ahem. Yes. Or it could be that I thought my stomach was the size of a kickball and I just keep eating and eating. But man was it good. But then, we know that fat makes stuff taste good.

It's not that popcorn is bad for you. It's actually a healthy snack. Without the butter, oil, so on and so forth. But then, I've popped popcorn at home, and no matter what spices I put on it, it's just not as good as movie popcorn (I made a spicy popcorn once that was actually pretty good, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was. I think there was paprika or something).

But then, I work out all the time. I won't stress about it, I'll just sit back and enjoy the good movie, good company, and yummy buttery spicy popcorn!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Monday Recipe - Eggplant Parm with Spinach and Mushrooms

Back to the cooking grind this weekend. I haven't cooked in several weeks, because of the City Chase and a relaxing weekend in Maine. So this week, I made two recipes - the eggplant parm I'm listing below and a chicken tomato feta pasta with a mustard marjoram dressing. The latter I'll mention at a later date (it's awesome, but I don't have the recipe in my head at the moment...).

Beware: if you cook this recipe and live in a shoebox like I do, you might end up smelling like eggplant parm if you go out that evening...

The eggplant parm was originally my dad's recipe until I tweaked the sauce and added some veggies. So we'll call this a father-daughter collaboration. I bought the eggplant at the farmer's market (it's in season, woohoo!), and the spinach, onions, and mushrooms came from my local farmstand. I ate it straight-up, but I think that it would probably be awesome as a sauce over pasta as well. The recipe below makes lots of leftovers (for fairly large servings, it's about 10 servings, I think).


Eggplant Parm with Spinach and Mushroom

1 medium-large onion, chopped finely
3 28oz cans of italian-style diced tomatoes
t marjoram
t crushed red pepper flakes
1/2C red wine
grapeseed/olive oil

Eggplant parm:
1 medium eggplant, peeled and sliced into disks
1-2C bread crumbs
2-3 eggs
1/2lb spinach (give or take)
2 large portabello mushrooms, sliced lengthwise
1/4-1/2lb mozzarella
garlic (optional)
grapeseed/olive oil

To make the sauce:
Put some oil in a pot and add chopped onions. Once onions are translucent, but not browned, add the tomatoes, spices, and wine. Continue to cook while you make the eggplant so the flavors will permeate the sauce. Don't hold your head too close to the pot or you might get hot tomato in your face (no, of course that didn't happen to me, no sirree!)

To make the eggplant parm:
Put bread crumbs in one bowl and eggs (whisked) in another. Add oil to a skillet. Coat eggplant disk in egg then bread crumbs and place in the heated skillet (as many at a time as you can fit). Cook until browned on both sides (don't overcook as they have the tendency to turn into hockey pucks, which could both help build up jaw muscles and also crack teeth at the same time). Set aside.

Next comes the assembly. I use a glass casserole dish, so I don't preheat the oven (putting glass into a hot oven can make it crack, I hear tell), but if you're using another material, then preheat the oven to 375.

In your casserole dish, put a thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom, then follow with layers of eggplant, sauce, mushroom, spinach, sauce, cheese, sauce, eggplant, etc etc until it's completed. Dab minced garlic throughout as much as desired (I forgot this step when I made it, so it's not essential). Pop into the oven and cook until cheese is melted and tomato sauce is bubbling (but not bubbling over, so don't pile your layers too high. Trust me, tomato and cheese caking the bottom of your over never makes for a pleasant experience when it comes to fire alarms).

Maybe next time I make this I'll try adding chicken or something, to add some protein (apart from the cheese, which (while tasty) is high in saturated fat.

It just occurred to me that there's no parmesan in this recipe. Hrm. Well, I suppose I was supposed to use parmesan instead of mozzarella, but whatever, it's all about taste, right?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Friday Rant - Calorie what what??!

We have so many yummy foods available to us nowadays. If you think back 100 or even 50 years ago, the American diet was much less varied, and people ate the food that they cooked (or their family cooked), for the most part. People did eat out, but it wasn't quite as prevalent as it is now. This is in part because women are more often than not working just as much as their husbands and the percentage of stay-at-home parents has considerably reduced. And who wants to work all day long, then maybe hit the gym afterwards, then come home and cook a full dinner for the family? Not likely. I don't even like to cook in evenings when I get home, and I live alone.

So what do we do? We have aisles of frozen prepared foods at the grocery store, take-out and dining out. While I don't care for frozen dinners, I do love take out and eating out. The problem is that you never really know what's in the food. Read this article about some of the various chains (for instance, Dunkin' Donuts smoothies pack a major sugar punch and IHOP's omelet feast will cost you 1335 calories ) - in NY they're forcing them to provide the nutritional information on their menus, and it turns out that some of their meals (just an entree, not including drinks, appetizers, and dessert) come to more than half (if not almost all) an average person's daily calories! They're getting a bit better about not adding trans fats to their food (I recently read that because of the regulations, a chain fast food restaurants might actually be a safer bet, concerning trans fat, than would a chain sit-down restaurant). But we really don't know what all they used to cook the food (olive oil vs butter vs partially hydrogenated vegetable oil plus sodium galore).

And the problem is that they restaurants want people to come back and eat there again (imagine that?!), and well, gosh darnit, fat tastes good! So they make it unhealthy because they know if people eat it and like it, they'll come back. But if they make it really healthy, it might still taste good (healthy food can taste good, really it can), it just doesn't have that same pop of "wow!" that the fatty stuff has. Unless it's really fresh yummy stuff like raspberries off the bush from the farmer's market, then it's expensive. So while we all complain that restaurants are hiding mega-doses of calories in our meals, we're basically encouraging them to do just that.

If I ate out or got take out every night, I think that I'd have tons of trouble keeping my weight to a healthy level. That's just me, and perhaps it's because when I do happen to eat out, I'm not shy about eating a lot. Since I don't eat out often, I figure when I do, it's a treat. So maybe if I ate out more often, I'd be more circumspect in what I chose to eat.

So here I am, ranting that the restaurants pack their meals with calories and trans fats, admitting that I eat plenty of it when I do go out, and pointing out that it's very difficult to provide home cooked food (unless you eat home cooked food from the freezer, like I do) with how much we have to work just to put that very food on the table. So this is a true rant - I'm complaining about it, but not really providing solutions. Maybe all my smart readers can help me out with this?