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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Planning a swim

I've been giving a lot of thought over the past few days to the triathlete who drowned on Saturday in the Schuylkill River.  It was Derek "Rudy" Valentino's first triathlon, he was 40 years, a father of two boys, and lived in the tri-state area, specifically, Delaware County.   His drowning death hits a little too close to home for me, especially after the passing of my friend, Angel Oramas at the beginning of this month.  I did not know Mr. Valentino, but since he was a new triathlete, and was a local, home-town man, close to me in  age, I feel a athletic connection.  The swim portion of the triathlon is the area where I get the most nervous. It's a huge body of water, murky, crowded and not something in which I'm used to swimming.  As I've struggled with getting in my work outs this year, fitting in my training and mentoring my SheRox Tri ladies, hearing about a death in my sport was too unsettling.

I do have positive things to note though; I've gotten some good feedback from the SheRox Mentor program regarding my mentoring.  I've been biking as much as I can, logging in 463 Miles since May 26th; 383 Miles in June alone.  Of that mileage, 369 miles were my morning or afternoon workout bike rides.  I rode 92 miles round trip to work from May 26th through June 29th.  I can't even imagine what my mileage would be if I were riding as much as I did last year, or if I had been logging my miles since either the start of 2010 or my riding season.  I've run outside more this season than I have over the past three years.  I'm not swimming nearly enough, but I feel like I have real knowledge and a plan for the swim.  It's funny, as soon as I heard about the drowning, I was thinking I didn't want to do the swim.  Then I started to reassess my skills and what I need to do to improve over the next month.   A comment a friend made via Facebook about the swim portion of the triathlon put things into perspective - she said to keep going and to conquer your fear of the river, which is the scariest part of the triathlon.  There are so many people all trying to get to the same point at the same time.  Thrashing, kicking and pushing through the river.  My advice to get through the swim is to stay to the sides and the back of the wave.  Keep the buoys and bridges in sight.  Go slow and remember to go at your own pace - not the pace of the wave around you.  If you panic, take a moment somehow to catch your breath or grab onto the lifeguard boats and safety kayaks.  Check out the river before the triathlon, and study the distance; memorize it and then visualize the course as you do your swim training and workouts.  I made it through the river before, when I couldn't swim all that well.  I suspect I'll just have to find my rhythm pacing and go as slow as I need to go just to keep swimming.   Advice I offer for almost any endeavor, biking, running, and especially swimming.  Practice makes one better in any sport but so does a plan, visualization, and being mentally prepared.  Today was the first day in over a year when I truly began to believe I can do this, that I will do this, and that I am a triathlete.  There's real power in positive thinking.     

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Trio of Refreshing Salads: Pasta; Cucumber & Fennel; Lentil

I had a cucumber fennel salad at our friends Astrid and Roger's house the other night and it was a revelation in simplicity.  Light, refreshing and very cooling on a hot summer night.  It made me think about simplifying my cooking.  Not so much taking short cuts but using less ingredients and finding ways to maximize those ingredients.  The Holy Trinity, a Mire Poix, three or four essential aromatics that boost any dish; carrots, onions and celery or bell peppers.  With this in mind I decide to make a basic and healthy pasta salad; cucumber, fennel, fennel fronds and onion; lentils with sautéed carrots, onions and celery, paired with toasted pumpkin seeds and a Dijon vinaigrette.  The recipes are easier than you think and can all be constructed in less than two hours time, feeding you for several days.

The pasta salad is a stripped down summer version of macaroni salad - without the fattening mayonnaise,  trading out boring white pasta for whole wheat and adding more veggies and a non-fat dressing.   No recipe really needed here - I used whole wheat rotini pasta, diced carrots, celery and bell peppers; chopped pitted oil cured olives, a sprinkling of dried Italian Herbs and a good bottle of non-fat or light balsamic or Italian salad dressing.  It's a variation of so many pasta salads I've made in the past.  For the other two salads, here are the recipes:

Cucumber and Fennel Salad Ingredients:

  • 1 Large Cucumber - Peeled in strips, cut in half & seeded and cut into small dice
  • 1 Small/Medium Fennel Bulb with Fronds - cored and cut into small dice, 1/4 fronds reserved for garnish (if the fronds are not attached, substitute 1 Tablespoon Dried Dill)
  • 1/2 White Onion (about 1/2 cup) - cut into thin, half moon slices
  • 2 Tablespoons White Wine Vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar or Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1/2 Tablespoon Kosher Salt
  • 1 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons Light Olive Oil

Directions:

  1. Clean and prepare the cucumber and fennel.  Peel the cucumber, leaving some peel on the cuc for color. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Dice the seeded cucumber into 1/4 inch diced pieces.  Place the diced cucumber in a mixing bowl and set aside.
  2. Core the root from the fennel bulb and cut the bulb into 1/4 inch pieces - roughly diced.  Place the diced fennel in the bowl with the cucumber.  
  3. Roughly chop the fennel fronds and add to the diced cucumber and fennel
  4. Slice the white onion into thin half moon slices and add to the cucumber/fennel
  5. Pour the white wine and rice or cider vinegars over the cucumber/fennel.  Season with the kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Let this sit for about 5 to 10 minutes, then drizzle over the olive oil and toss to combine thoroughly.  Refrigerate and serve chilled.  Taste and adjust seasonings as needed with salt, pepper, vinegar or olive oil.  Makes 6 servings.

Lentil Salad with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds in a Dijon Vinaigrette Ingredients:
  • 1 Cup Dried Lentils - picked over and rinsed
  • 2 Medium Carrots - Peeled, Rinsed and cut into small dice
  • 1/2 Medium Red Onion - cut into small dice
  • 2 Medium Celery Stalks - cut into small dice
  • 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • 1/2 Cup Toasted Pumpkin Seeds (or you can substitute Walnuts)
For Vinaigrette:
  • 1/4 Cup White Wine Vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon Apple Cider or Rice Vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons Prepared Dijon Mustard
  • 1 Teaspoon Kosher Salt
  • 1 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
  • 1/3 Cup Olive Oil
Directions:
  1. Pick over and rinse the lentils.  Place them into a pot and cover with 2 inches of cold water. Bring the water to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.  Cook, keeping the lentils at a bare simmer and frequently taste the lentils until they are tender to the tooth but not mushy.  This could take 20 minutes or longer, depending on the freshness of the dried lentils.  Immediately drain the lentils in a fine mess strainer and rinse under cold water; set the lentils aside in a mixing bowl.
  2. Heat the tablespoon of olive oil in a non-stick saute pan over medium high heat.  When the oil is shimmering, sauté the carrots, celery and onions until the onions and celery is translucent and the carrots are slightly tender, about 6 minutes.  Allow the mixture to cool and then add to the cooked lentils.
  3. Toast the pumpkin seeds - it's easiest to do so in a microwave, on a microwave safe dish, in 30 second increments up to a minute and a half.  Allow the seeds to cool and then add them to the lentil and sautéed vegetables. 
  4. Meanwhile, whisk together the vinaigrette, combining the vinegars, Dijon Mustard, salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the mixture is emulsified.  Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed.  The dressing should be tart but not too acidic.  Pour the dressing over the lentil/vegetable mixture, refrigerate and serve well-chilled.  Makes 6 to 8 servings.  

Monday, June 21, 2010

Red Quinoa & Chick Pea Salad with Dried Cranberries

Quinoa is the oldest ancient grain, a perfect protein and a misunderstood whole grain. Pronounced Keen-Wah, quinoa comes in either red or golden/brown and it is a wonderful substitute for brown rice, Bulgar wheat or even couscous in salads, side dishes or even as a breakfast porridge. Truly! I've seen quinoa on the menu at Green Eggs Cafe and have it on good authority that it's scrumptious as a hot cereal - along the lines of my version of breakfast couscous.
Trader Joe's was promoting boxes of Red Quinoa about a month ago and like with most successful marketing or store campaigns, the end cap displays were intriguing enough to entice me to buy a box. The box sat in my cupboard for awhile and then I was inspired to make this salad, based on two other salads I've had, a bulgar wheat salad and a chickpea and cranberry salad.  I took the best of each and combined them into this Quinoa, Chickpea and Dried Cranberry Medley.  Note, I cooked the quinoa in flavorful water, not knowing for sure what I would do with it once it was cooked. I tossed in a vegetable bullion cube and dried bell pepper flakes.  Half a packaged of dried salad dressing mix would do the trick too (though it might be a tad salty).  The quinoa was tasty just as I cooked it but since it was already flavorful,  it was magical in this salad.

Red Quinoa, Chickpeas and Dried Cranberry Salad Ingredients:
  • 1 Cup Dried/Uncooked Red Quinoa - rinsed thoroughly and cooked in 2 1/5 cups cold water
  • 1 Vegetable Bullion Cube or 1/2 dried salad dressing packet (such as Good Seasons)
  • 2 Tablespoons Dried Bell Pepper Flakes
  • 2 Medium Carrots - peeled, rinsed and cut into small dice
  • 2 celery stalks - cleaned and cut into small dice
  • 1 Small Zucchini - cleaned and cut into small dice
  • 1 14-16 ounce can chick peas - drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 Cup Pumpkin Seeds - Toasted
Lemon Vinaigrette Ingredients: (or use 1 cup of a light bottled vinaigrette of choice, such as light balsamic, Italian, or lemon)
  • Zest of 1 Lemon
  • Juice of 1 Lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
  • 1 Tablespoon White Wine Vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1 Teaspoon Salt
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon Dried Mustard Powder
  • 1/4 Cup Olive Oil
Directions:

  1. Rinse the quinoa in a fine mesh strainer; use a 3 or 4 quart sauce pot with a tight fitting lid and then cook the quinoa in 2 & 1/2 cups of water, adding in the bullion cube and dried bell pepper flakes, or salad dressing packet. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cover the pot, simmering until all the water is absorbed and the quinoa germ has sprouted - about 40 minutes. When the quinoa is fully cooked and is tender to the tooth, rinse it under cold water in a fine mess strainer and set aside in a mixing bowl.
  2. While the quinoa is cooking, prepare the vegetables, dicing the carrots, celery and zucchini into small 1/4 inch pieces. Add the diced vegetables to the mixing bowl along with the chick peas (garbanzo or ceci beans), the dried cranberries and toasted pumpkin seeds.
  3. If using home-made dressing, make the vinaigrette. Combine the lemon juice and zest along with the tablespoons of white wine and cider vinegars. Add in the dried mustard, salt and freshly ground pepper and whisk to combine. Continually whisk and slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the vinaigrette is emulsified. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding in more salt, pepper, mustard, etc until the dressing is tart but not too tart and not overly oily.
  4. Once the quinoa is cooked and cooled, add it to the prepared vegetables. Pour the dressing over the quinoa mixture and fold it in to thoroughly combine. Allow the flavors to blend about 30 minutes before serving for best taste. Makes 3 to 4 cups; serves 8. Salad is best served cold and will keep for up to 4 days in a tightly covered container.    

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bike Parking has arrived!

One of my big pet peeves about bicycling, cyclists and riding in the City is - we have few places to lock our bikes. Never mind my other pet peeves such as the rude cyclists riding on the sidewalk; the completely kitted-out riders who think they are Lance Armstrong in the final run of the Tour du France and don't know anything about real cycling; the flip flops on their feet and no helmet on their head fixie riders; the glass and debris strewn pot-hole and wonky streets that tear up my skinny road bike tires; Stu Bykofsky of the Daily News with his constant whining and misinformed writings of impending doom about how we don't need any more bike lanes in Philly; and the drivers who want to cut you off the road and send you flying into traffic to a certain death or injury. Nope - my big pet peeve is that since the parking meters were taken off the streets and parking kiosks were installed, there is less bicycle parking space in Center City Philadelphia. Until last week. Thank you Streets Department for coming through on your promise to install these swank cut-outs onto the old meter poles, repurposing them for the thousands of bike riders. Thank you Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia for advocating and keeping this need in the public's attention and on the agenda of the Streets Department. Thank you Mayor Nutter for not cutting the funds used for this important installation. And thank you, you mis-guided fool, anti-cyclist, Neanderthal, gas-guzzling, BP supporter, Stu Bykofsky for providing column space about the Philly Biking scene. Bad press is still press and your rants have garnered a lot of attention and funds for the Bicycle Coalition.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Food & Candy Finds: Pretzel M&M's

And now for a sweet interlude.  We could use one about now, especially after my last post.  I offer a virtual treat for the candy lover in all of us.  My friend, Jen Check, found these addictive Pretzel m&m's last week and it didn't take but one to get me hooked.  This is candy crack. The combination of chocolate and salty pretzels is one of those candy match-made-in heaven pairings that's hard to beat.  I love candy and I love m&m's so this latest offering from Mars is nearly perfect.  The only things that would make  pretzel m&m's better would be to combine the pretzel filling with dark chocolate and/or caramel, making it more like their enemy's Take 5 Bar; a sinfully perfect candy bar consisting of pretzels, caramel, peanut butter, peanuts covered in chocolate.  The pretzel m&m's remind me of malt balls or Whoppers, but with a better crunch and a more satisfying sweet/salty/crunchy/chocolate combination.  Malt balls are another oddly addictive candy that has an off-tasting waxy chocolate coating.  Weird with the first bite but familiar and pleasing by the time you've popped the 10th one into your mouth.  

Pretzel M&M's are a brand new candy, which hit the candy shelves within the past month.  I'm glad I found them this quickly as they are hard to locate.  I haven't seen any advertising for them yet and I'm sure folks will not realize this is a new flavor; the bag is blue and the m&m character representing them is the paranoid Orange Guy.  I've since learned that this is a new incarnation for the blue bag and the orange character, previously these were the "faces" of M&M Crispy.   I am always intrigued by classic candy limited editions or new flavors but that interest usually wains somewhere in-between the opening of the package and the the first bite.  Take, for instance, the Coconut M&M - a serious candy disappointment.  The flavors are all wrong - it should have been a dark chocolate filling with a pronounced coconut flavor and real pieces of coconut flakes.  These were too sweet.  Flavoring is a problem with the "regular" special edition flavors (as opposed to the over-priced and over-packaged "Premium" m&m's).  The flavors are too bland and artificial tasting.  The Transformers Peanut Butter and Strawberry m&m's from a several years ago were almost there, but the strawberry flavoring was too faint.  Seems you just can't keep mixing up and reinventing the classic candies.  Faced with too many choices we want to go back to what we know or remember best.  Maybe that's why the new pretzel m&m's will be a hit, it's a classic flavor combination and it doesn't need too many marketing gimmicks, sizes, characters or additional food groups to make it better.  Chocolate, pretzels, sweet and salty.  Ah, I think I'll take that bag now and head off to watch some TVLand.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Man Who Loved Shoes

I had a friend who loved shoes.  Not sure if he would approve of these, but since they are the only pair in an interesting photo I have, I thought I'd share.  I had a friend who loved to shop, sing, tell jokes, gossip, make people laugh.  I had a friend, his name is Angel Oramas and he died last week.  I've been struggling since learning of his death to make sense of it, to find the answers as to why.  Of course, there won't be any answers, he himself said the reasons for this are inconsequential.  I had a friend, who took his own life and left behind a legacy of stories and love, laughter and an ocean of tears.  Today there was service in his honor, not a memorial but a a celebration of his life and the service was filled with so many stories of Angel's great sense of humor, his snarky commentaries, his love of all things beautiful in art, music, clothing, food.  I had a friend who came into this world and found it filled with tragedy.  In his short life, he tried to fill his world with beauty, laughter and love.  He was successful yet he had no idea of his impact he made on others.  His death, the fact that he chose to take his life has rocked me to my core.  In his death, I sense my own past sadness and loneliness, the emptiness that used to swallow me up at night.  My empathy and slight understanding of his demons resonates deep within me and at the same time, I have NO idea what drove Angel to the edge of darkness.  I may have thought about going to the edge, and tried a few feeble attempts as a depressed and screwed up teenager, but my depression is cyclical and seasonal.  The worst of it came during my teen and early adult years; more came along in my 20's and 30's, brought on by the bad company I kept, my bad habits, too much drink and not enough therapy.  The nights may be dark and lonely but the sun keeps shining and the earth keeps turning and so we too must go on is this life. 
Of the many things that were said about Angel, the things I was most struck by were the constant references to his friends and music being his family and love of his life.  The celebration of Angel's life was held at the Academy of Music rehearsal hall, a place he spent a lot of time; he was last there on Tuesday night, June 1st for the Opera Company's rehearsal of Orphee &  Eurydice.  There was much talk of Angel's great sense of humor, his jokes, his compassion and whole-hearted work ethic.   My friend would have been most impressed with the turn out, the showing of love and affection, the beautiful reception, with appropriately printed labels for each food item!  I had a friend who loved to throw a great party and spared no expense or took short cuts to when it came to laying out a spread and decorating.


I'm trying to find the meaning in his death.  When other friends of mine have passed, I immediately got the life lessons they taught.  My dear friend Joe Fee, who was my boss from 1992 to 1995 at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, died of leukemia.  Joe was only in his early 40's.  He was the funniest person I ever met, sweet and self-deprecating.  He was also afraid to live life, and consequently, died young without having ever loved, lived or laughed enough. The lesson I learned - don't' be afraid to live. I carry this with me each day.  When Sally, my 93 year old great lady friend died 6 years ago, the lessons  I took from her life and our friendship was that it's never too late to live, to try, to laugh and to love.  Sally worked every day of her life up until the last 4 or 6 months of her life.  When she was the age I am now, 43, she was embarking on the second or third phase of her life.  At age 80, when I met her, she was still vital, running her younger friends ragged.  I have awesome memories of her outlasting my best friend, Rachel and me in Chicago.  We 30-somethings were tired from all the sight seeing; Sally was raring to go and wanted to go out on the town each night.  Lesson learned from Sally - there's always time to do something, go somewhere, or drink a Southern Comfort Manhattan (with 3 cherries!)  
So it's with sadness that I try to make sense of Angel's death.  Maybe the lesson is to believe that you matter and remember to tell people in your life they matter to you.  Part of the lesson is to be more open and honest (Angel, you could be brutally honest, gurl!)  Remember to find beauty in the everyday, it's everywhere if you look.  Laugh and make others laugh too.  Enjoy what you have while you can and help others to enjoy it too.  
I end with words, and inside joke and a prayer for my friend.  Truly - it's a word and adverb he often said and every time I say it, I can hear his high pitched tenor voice - I truly believe you taught me this leading adverb, Angel.  Shoes - the man loved his shoes and kept Zappos in business.  "Fix me a platter of chips, bitch!" was a funny thing we over-heard a friend say, and we added the bitch part to the end. For an entire summer we would say this to each other and pee ourselves laughing. Then Angel met the lady who originally uttered it in all innocence.  She had no idea she said it and that it had become the running joke of the 2001 Spoleto, Italy trip.  Angel, truly went and said to her, "You're the platter of chips lady!"  

Before me peaceful
Behind me peaceful
Under me peaceful
Over me peaceful
All around me peaceful

This is from a Navajo proverb and I say this prayer for you Angel, so that your soul may be at peace, truly. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Miso Dip

I like Asian-inspired recipes.  After Latin and Italian cuisines, I think I excel at Asian recipes.  I don't claim to make authentic Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese or Korean style meals, but I can make a reasonable facsimile of them.  I guess I tend to do a mash-up of Vietnamese/Chinese/Japanese style cooking.  I usually always have on hand two kinds of soy sauce - low sodium and Kecap Vietnamese Sweet Soy; Rice Vinegar or Mirin; Sesame Oil; Hot Chili Sauce; Fish Sauce; A variety of mustard, ranging from Asian to French.  I like my condiments, what can I say?  They help keep my cooking interesting without adding a lot of fat calories.  So when I cooked an All-Asian inspired barbecue for Memorial Day, I realized I need a good appetizer that would be light, easy to make and work well for a hot day.  Perspiration is a good inspiration, on a hot day, who wants to heat or grill one more thing?  I needed a little starter that works well with either a stir fry or Asian barbecue and a batch of rice crackers.  I looked to the condiment cupboard threw together things I thought would work well, and voila, a miso dip that is rich (without being fattening) and has great Unami; it can be used as a filling in an Asian wrap, folded into Asian Chicken Salad, or used as a dip with simple rice crackers or Wheat Thins, the possibilities are endless.

Miso Dip Ingredients (Yes, you really ought to make a trip to the Asian Supermarket)

  • 1/4 Cup White Miso Paste
  • 1-8 ounce Package Low-Fat Cream Cheese (softened)
  • 1/4 Cup Low-Sodium Soy Sauce
  • 1 Teaspoon Chili Paste (or more to taste)
  • 2 Teaspoons Spicy Brown Mustard or Chinese Mustard (or one take-out packet)
  • 1 Tablespoon Honey
  • 1 Tablespoon Fresh Lemon or Lime Juice
  • 1 Teaspoon Chinese 5 Spice Powder
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
  • Rice Crackers (such as Kame Wasabi Rice Crackers) and other assorted crackers for serving

Directions:

  1. Use a large mixing bowl and beat together the miso paste and the softened cream cheese until well-blended.  
  2. Stir in the soy sauce, chili paste, mustard, honey, lemon or lime juice, Chinese 5 Spice Powder and freshly ground pepper.  Blend to fully incorporated all the ingredients until the mixture is smooth.  Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more hot sauce, honey, lemon/lime juice and or soy sauce to suit your taste.  
  3. Put the dip into a serving bowl and chill for at least 30 minutes to set and allow the flavors to blend together.  Serve cold, with Rice crackers or crackers of choice.  
  4. Dip will work well as a spread in a wrap, or stuffed into a chicken breast, on salmon or tilapia, or as a dressing for an Asian-style chicken salad.  
  5. Makes 2 cups.  Refrigerate, tightly covered.  Will keep for up to one week.