Saturday, June 9, 2012

Tomato & Fennel Soup with Cannellini Beans

I know, I know.  Soup isn't generally something one eats when it's 92 and humid outside.  But for me, the issue isn't so much the temperature outdoors as it is the temperature indoors.

More specifically, the temperature indoors in my office.  

For whatever reason, buildings throughout the DC area have decided to compensate for decades without summertime temperature control (my mom tells me that before the days of widespread A/C, Washington was considered a hardship post in the foreign service) by blasting the A/C at obscene levels.  

The following scene happens to me at least a billion times each summer: After walking down the block in temperatures described by the local weatherman as "akin to standing in a blast furnace," I'll walk into a building where the temperature seems to be set on the "winter in Antarctica" setting.  
Within seconds, I have goosebumps.  Within minutes, my teeth are chattering.  Soon my nailbeds and lips turn blue.  I look around, expecting to see penguins migrating past the receptionist's desk -- or, if we're looking at a kinder, gentler type of frigid conditions, at least some Inuit folks chillin' in the cafeteria.  Alas, there are none.

After encountering this motif often during my first summer here, I started schlepping a thick cardigan sweater with me everywhere, just so that I don't die of exposure.  

Indoors.  During summer.

So, knowing that the temperature outside is predicted to go soaring this week, I know I'm going to need something warm to help me survive the icebox at work. I've also had fennel on the brain, since I recently discovered it and am fairly certain that it's fucking magical. 
With all that in mind, I decided to whip up an Italian-inspired tomato soup with cannellini beans as well as sauteed fennel, onion, and garlic.  As luck would have it, it was delicious -- and it helped fend off the hypothermia, which I definitely appreciated.
Tomato and Fennel Soup with Cannellini Beans
Makes two servings of soup

1 fennel bulb
1/2 white onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 16 oz. carton Imagine Organics Creamy Tomato Soup (it's GF and, as far as I could tell from the ingredient list, dairy-free)
1 12 oz. can Eden Organic cannellini beans (I specifically go for Eden Organics due to their commitment to using BPA-free cans)
3 tablespoons grapeseed or olive oil
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
Salt and pepper to taste

Thinly slice the onion and fennel, and saute until caramelized in 2 tablespoons oil.

Once caramelized, remove the onion and fennel mix from heat and place into a bowl.  Finely chop (or mince) the garlic and saute with one tablespoon oil, along with the fennel seeds, until browned and pungent.

Take it off the stove once it's browned (and be careful, because garlic can be a bastard when it burns quickly), and combine it with the bowl of fennel and onion.

Pour the soup into the same (now empty) pot.  Drain the cannellini beans and combine with the soup.  Let it simmer for 10-15 minutes.

Top with the onion, fennel, and garlic saute.  Season with salt and pepper.  Be warm.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

New Product Review: Udi's Millet-Chia Bread and Good Karma Flax Milk

Living on the East Coast, I often feel like I'm living in some sort of career-imposed exile from the land of gluten-free abundance (also known as the West).  So, when new GF products finally mosey on out here, I get really, really, ridiculously excited.

I've been wanting to try Udi's GF Millet-Chia bread for months now.  I saw it on the Udi's website, and I've been all antsy in anticipation of some new GF bread from my Colorado brethren.  (I mean, seriously.  A company with a quintessentially Israeli name, based in Colorado and producing delicious GF goods?  Can we get any more up my alley than that?)
Millet-Chia Bread

Happily, my boy Udi didn't disappoint.  The bread is delicious, and I love how totally millet-y it is -- ok, so "millet-y" isn't a real word, but the point here is that there are millet grains embedded in the bread itself.  If that ain't whole grain, friends, then I don't know what is.  Per the usual with Udi's, it tastes great.

Meanwhile, my mother-in-law emailed me a few weeks ago about a product she'd recently heard about but that hadn't yet arrived in Texas: Good Karma Flax Milk.  I'm always on the lookout for good dairy milk alternatives, and I got pretty stoked when I read about this.  Now, a girl needs her omega 3's, and she also needs her calcium -- and the flax milk delivers plenty of both.  

By some act of God, this stuff has arrived in Virginia before making its way to Texas (color me bewildered), so of course I had to pick some up.  Much like Udi's, it didn't disappoint: I got the vanilla flavor, and it's some tasty stuff.  It's creamy, sweet, and it packs quite the nutritional punch -- 1200 mg of omega 3s and as much calcium as dairy milk per serving.  This, I'd say, is an epic win.

You might be guessing that most of my breakfasts for the past week have involved both the bread and the flax milk.

You'd be guessing right.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Chili Verde Chicken & Black Beans

As you may have discerned from the title of this recipe, I started eating meat again.  As it turns out, my body needed it -- despite eating prodigious amounts of plant protein and maintaining ridiculously high iron intake when I was vegetarian, I was losing muscle mass like woah and wasn't able to bring myself back from the brink of serious anemia.

Since I'm a big fan of the idea that the hallmark of a healthy diet is flexibility in meeting one's own individual needs, I decided to reintegrate some meat back into my life.

I still eat vegetarian (and, save for my Greek yogurt, mostly plant-based) during the day, but dinners now involve meat of some kind.  My husband, who is very much a meat-eatin' Texan and was probably an apex predator in a past life, is quite pleased.

So, the recipes I post here will sometimes reflect that change -- but because some of my dear friends are vegetarians (and, in other cases, some of my dear friends live with or are married to vegetarians), I plan to try and provide vegetarian options for each omnivorous recipe I post. 

One of my favorite blogs, Peas & Crayons, gives her readers what she refers to as T-Rex and Brontosaurus options -- and I love that idea, so I'm going to follow suit.  Wherever possible, I'll show vegetarian and omnivore-friendly options for each dish.  I want to show some love across the omni-veg schism, you know?

Anyways, without further ado, I present:

Chili Verde Chicken & Black Beans

I'm constantly on the hunt for new recipes to try out with Hubs.  We both love Mexican food -- what with him being from Texas and me being from Colorado and all -- and we both really miss it.  DC has exactly zero good Mexican restaurants, so I wanted to give this recipe a shot as soon as I saw it.

I used this recipe from Epicurious as the basis for the dish, but I omitted the milk, cheese, and black pepper.  I also made a number of substitutions and additions (changes in italics below):
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 3/4 cups Mexican salsa verde (sometimes called tomatillo sauce; from a 16-oz jar)
  • 1 3/4 cups Edward & Sons vegetarian chicken-flavored broth
  • 2 1/2 to 3 cups coarsely shredded cooked chicken (from a 2-lb rotisserie chicken, skin removed)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cups coarsely crushed home-made tortilla chips
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
  • 1 cup chopped onion

Vegetarian option: If you sub out the chicken broth with the vegetarian chicken-flavored broth listed above, the only thing left to do is nix the chicken and double the amount of black beans, or add 1/2 cup corn and 1/4 cup quinoa (uncooked - let it cook in the salsa verde, and it'll thicken things up nicely).  This baby will be filled with plant protein and all the good-for-you awesomeness that black beans and quinoa bring to the table. 

Vegan option:  In addition to the substitutions above, omit the sour cream and use fresh avocado or guacamole.  I'd wager that this is far better than sour cream (damn, I wish I'd thought of that before I cooked this!), because really, you can never go wrong with avocado or guac.  Ever. 

Happily, both Hubs and I were pretty impressed by this dish (and it takes a lot to impress Hubs when it comes to Mexican food).  You wouldn't expect such humble ingredients to turn into such an awesome dinner, but it was like a mariachi party in my mouth.  Orale!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Home-made Tortilla Chips

I often get frustrated with tortilla chips. 

You can spend $4 on a bag of those suckers, but then you open the bag and a) it turns out it was filled with a lot of air and not a lot of chips, and b) what chips were living there have now been smooshed and look more like a pile of crumbs than legit chips.

So, I decided it was high time to make my own. 

And, as it turns out, it's ridiculously easy and incredibly cost-effective.  For $.79, I got a pack of organic corn tortillas at Whole Foods (and you can get bigger packs at other grocery stores).  For $4, I got a shaker of cumin that I'll use for months.  Chip for chip, home-made is a way better deal!

Homemade Tortilla Chips
  • 10 corn tortillas
  • 1/8 cup olive oil
  • Salt to taste
  • Cumin to taste
Use a pizza slicer to cut the tortillas into chip-size portions (on the tortillas I used, this wound up being sixths -- quite possibly the most awkward measurement used thus far in any blog I've ever written).

Lay the pieces onto a cookie sheet.  Using a marinating brush, brush the tortilla pieces with a bit of olive oil (you won't use the whole 1/8 cup, but you need enough to dip the brush into).  Sprinkle with salt and cumin.

Bake at 350 for 10 minutes or until browned and crispy.

Once they're cool, they're ready and willing to be dipped into or sprinkled onto just about anything -- salsa, hummus, soup...the list goes on!

Monday, May 21, 2012

It Has Come to My Attention...

Apparently it's Gluten-Free Month.  Or Celiac Awareness Month.  Or something like that.

I, for one, would like it to be called "Hug a Glutard" month.  What's that you say?  "Hug a Glutard" is a no-go?

(This is an opportune moment for a quick disclaimer: if you're the sort of person who is offended by things like swear words and South Park/Family Guy-esque jokes, then this here blog is not for you.  Believe me, it's better for all of us if we lay this out up front.)

Anyways, in honor of Gluten-Free Month, I wanted to highlight some of my favorite glutard-friendly products.  Some are stand-ins for their glutinous counterparts that I used to eat, and others are fabulous on their own.

1) KIND Healthy Grains: Back in my glorious days of glutinous gluttony (sorry, I couldn't resist the alliteration), I loooooooved me some granola.  Almond-coconut granola, blueberry granola, everything.  However, I particularly loved peanut butter granola.  So, you can imagine my unabated joy -- which actually involved jumping up and down while gasping with delight, and probably made passersby wonder if they needed to call the paramedics -- when I saw KIND gluten-free peanut butter granola in the grocery store.

I bought three bags at once, because I suddenly went from "Holyshithisisamazing" mode into "OmigodwhatiftheyonlycarrythisforalittlewhileandthentheypullitIhavetostockpilethisliketheSovietsstockpilednukes" mode.  Mercifully, they haven't stopped carrying it, but I keep buying it.

2)  Trader Joe's Brown Rice Tortillas:  Anyone who longs for the days of burritos and wraps can now re-live those glories, thanks to these awesome tortillas.  As with most GF products, they crumble more easily than regular tortillas -- but that can largely be mitigated by popping each tortilla in the microwave for 20 seconds before folding it up.  I've been using these for super-fast pizzas, but their most notable use to date has been for Mediterranean veggie wraps (recipe to come).

3)  Suzie's Thin Cakes:  Made from popped quinoa, corn, and sesame, these little guys are full of whole grain and are only 11-12 calories per cake.  They make the perfect vehicle for, well, almost anything: hummus, nut butters, jellies (almond butter and strawberry jam is a personal fave) -- the list is endless.

4)  Bob's Red Mill GF Rolled Oats:  When I had my wisdom teeth pulled during college, the silver lining was that I got to eat an obscene amount of oatmeal.  Seriously, oatmeal is magical.  My father thought I'd lost my mind and started asking if perhaps I was becoming a horse -- because the fact is, I really freakin' love oatmeal.  Finding certified GF oats after going gluten-free was one of the greatest and most crucial elements of my health and happiness, since both my tastebuds and my insides love this stuff.

Love, thy name is GF Oatmeal.

5)  They're not pictured here, but Bob's Red Mill GF Oat Flour and Honeyville Almond Flour are objects of great affection in my kitchen these days.  Since I unraveled the mysteries of GF baking (GF baking was, until about a month ago, an enigma wrapped in brown rice flour and shrouded in xanthan gum) and realized that these are the two key ingredients, I've been on a baking binge.  For me, if something enables me to have light, fluffy, and delicious homemade GF blueberry muffins, then that thing will be subject to my undying love and adoration.  I'll probably start writing love sonnets to my GF oat flour and almond flour tonight.

Mmmmm.  Muffins.  Gaaaaaaahhhh.

So, with that -- happy Gluten-Free Month!  May your GF adventures be delicious!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Inspiration from Tiny Buddha

A few days ago, my friend Tina sent me a link to an awesome article from Tiny Buddha -- and, because sometimes life hands you just the right thing at just the right time, it was exactly what I needed.

While it's becoming increasingly clear to me what I don't want out of my career, figuring out what I do want has been a different can of worms.   This article, Six Powerful Questions That Will Change Your Life Forever (the title aims a bit high, but it's still helpful), really got me thinking.  

I found that three of the six questions largely dealt with the same thing, so I boiled it down to three key ideas and then let my imagination run wild.  

What do you absolutely love in life?
Reading, writing, food, creativity, cuddling with Hubs while watching comedy movies, all things Middle East (ok, everything but the internecine religious warfare and the Egyptian dysentery), cooking, baking, spending time with friends and loved ones, spirituality, vivid colors, trees, maternal and children's health issues in developing countries, sunlight, Chai, learning, coffee, teaching, independence, helping others, design, modern art, Islamic art, working out, Japanese gardens, cacti, comedy, thunderstorms, Colorado, blueberry muffins, yoga, beaches, fresh fruit, organizing, waking up early and watching the sunrise, stargazing, the Rocky Mountains in the summer, jazz music, Monty Python, Mel Brooks movies ("You changed your name to Latrine?"), ice cream, traveling, Texas Hill Country, Tel Aviv, Pad Thai.

What are your greatest accomplishments in life so far?
Moving to Israel: Deciding to go to Jerusalem was the scariest thing I’ve ever done.   I’d always wanted to live overseas, but I never thought I’d have the courage to take that big of a leap – especially when it involved spending a year in a country that I’d never visited before, where I knew no one, and where I didn’t speak the language.  It was terrifying -- I remember waking up on the morning of my departure and feeling like there was a Mac truck sitting on my chest -- but I did it and I thrived.  It was an amazing experience, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Learning Hebrew: I got off the plane in Tel Aviv with no knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet, and one year later I was reading, writing, and speaking with a proficiency I never imagined.  I wasn’t fluent, but I was getting there – and I was incredibly proud of the progress I’d made.

Living alone: For a long time, the idea of living alone terrified me.  I'd always had roommates, and those roommates were always close friends with whom I spent almost all my free time.  The idea of spending all that free time by myself seemed incredibly scary – what would I do without friends to keep me company?  I knew, however, that I needed to get to a point where I felt that I was in excellent company when I was alone.  I also knew that living by myself was the way to accomplish that, so I spent three years living alone.  There were times when it was lonely, but overall it was an enormously positive experience.

Leaving He Who Shall Not Be Named: When I decided to leave my ex, who I'll refer to as A, I felt like by insides were being ripped out.  (Long story short: long-distance relationship with an old flame from my college days, plans to get engaged, I move across the country to be with him, he starts binge drinking and being hostile to the point of bordering on abuse, I move out exactly six weeks after I moved in.  It was terrible.)  It was, hands down, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I never thought I’d have the conviction or strength to leave someone I loved so much, but I knew that the relationship would destroy me if I stayed.  I had to take breaks from packing up my stuff to just sit on the floor and cry, but I pushed through the pain and got myself out of a horrible situation. 

What would I do if money, time, limitations, and judgment were non-issues?   Or, phrased differently: if I had unlimited funds and opportunities, and if I knew no one would judge me for my choices, what would I choose to do?
I’d write – oh, would I write. 
I’d find a way to mix my love of the Middle East and international affairs with my love of health and science. 
I’d be an entrepreneur and would work for myself.
I’d spend my days in a fulfilling job that allows me to be intellectually stimulated, creative, and independent while making a discernible difference in peoples’ lives.  
Hubs and I would travel to as many places as humanly possible.  (We don’t just want to see the major places that people usually go – we want to see the out-of-the-way places as well.) 
I’d go on medical aid trips to help with women’s health issues in developing countries. 
I’d make people laugh as a matter of routine. 
I’d watch funny movies and shows with Hubs after cooking a delicious dinner that we both enjoy. 
I’d divide my time between a city (in an ideal world, the city in question wouldn’t be DC – but we’re here for the long haul, so DC it is), a cottage in Texas Hill Country, and a cabin in Colorado.  (It’s imperative that this cabin not be rustic, though.  I don’t do rustic.  I want a nice cabin with double-paned windows and heated tile floors.) 
I’d make artwork, and I wouldn't be terrified to show it to people. 
I’d cook with abandon.   
I’d visit the Middle East often, and I’d come back loaded with textiles, jewelry, and spices. 
I’d go to yoga more often than once every other week. 
I’d make it my mission to scatter joy.

Who do you admire most in the world?
Elizabeth Gilbert:  Seriously, I adore her.  Every time I read something she writes or listen to an interview of hers on the radio, I feel as if she’s talking directly to me.  Her warmth, compassion, intellect, and humor are tremendous.  Adding to which, she’s just so relatable!   I deeply admire her ability to be completely true to herself (which is quite a tall order, when you start to think about how hard and painful it can be – and was for her – to absolutely be true to yourself), follow her heart, dissect her feelings and experiences in thoughtful and insightful ways, and articulate those experiences in a way that makes her feel as if you’ve been friends forever.

Nick Kristof:  I've never loved a journalist's reporting the way I love Nick Kristof's.  His dispatches from the front lines of the developing world are eye-opening, and I deeply admire his commitment to traveling to places most people would never dream of visiting, reporting on what he sees there, and then taking action once he gets home.  He and his wife, Cheryl Wu Dunn, wrote a book about all the problems facing women in the developing world, and it's one of the most enlightening, infuriating, and captivating books I've ever read. His determination to shed light on issues such as maternal and infant mortality rates, sex trafficking, and other problems affecting women is truly inspiring.

Madeleine Albright:  I love the fact that she’s both whip-smart and down-to-earth.  She endured some massive trials in her day, not the least of which was the endemic sexism that thrived in the academic and government sectors in the 60s and 70s.  I deeply admire the fact that she earned her Ph.D. in an era where middle-age women were routinely denied the degree (my Gram was a case in point), and she then went on to work her way through a system that was inherently stacked against her to become the first woman appointed as Secretary of State.  Adding to which, in the middle of her career her husband left her, quite abruptly, for another woman after 20 years of marriage – yet despite the wrenching heartache that caused, she worked through it and clearly did quite well for herself.  They say that the best revenge is a life well-lived, and I think it’s safe to say that she got hers.

Robert Gates:  Former Secretary Gates is, by all accounts, a class act.  That's a rarity here in DC, and I immensely admire his ability to do the right thing (as opposed to what would serve his own interests) and remain above the fray of DC politics.  In a town where partisan warfare, unbridled narcissism, and general vitriol often rule, he never dipped his toes into that cesspool.  He has epitomized what public service should be.

Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig:  I love that they don't hold anything back with their humor.  Tina Fey goes all-out in her nerdiness (and can I just say how endearing it is to see someone embrace her dweeby self so fully?), Amy Poehler leaves it all on the field with her bawdy, "I give exactly zero fucks what you think of me" style, and Kristen Wiig absolutely nailed it when she wrote "Bridesmaids."  All three have unique personalities, and they seem to have no qualms about really owning who -- and how -- they are.  This, in turn, creates a comedic style that personifies each person in a totally different and totally awesome way.  The result is always awesome.

My parents:  I love how happy they are together.  They've been married for 35 years, and they're sublimely happy -- in fact, they've always been my role models for what I want in a relationship.  Back in my (horrific) dating days, I relied on my parents' relationship as a compass for what I eventually wanted, and until I met Hubs, no relationship had met those standards.  However, I knew I'd rather be alone than settle for anything less than the sort of relationship my parents have.  It took a while, but that strategy paid off - I never settled, and I wound up marrying an amazing man who makes me absurdly happy.

I realized, when all was said and done, that I had a blast writing all this down.  It felt awesome to think of all the things I love and that make me happy, and thinking of my life in terms of expansion (what are the possibilities, what could make me really happy?) versus contraction (I spend 40+ hours per week feeling miserable, there are no job openings, etc.) made a huge difference.

Now, the question is...what to do with it all?

Hmmmm, thoughts to ponder.  Suggestions are welcome!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get...

As you may have gathered from some of my other posts, things have been pretty tough lately -- I'm finally realizing that after many years of feeling unfulfilled in my career, I have to make a change.  (I can't go into any detail on what I do now or why I don't enjoy it, but I can definitely say that I've been one miserable cowgirl lately.)  The process of figuring out what I want to do and how I want to do it is an epic task, and it's been stressing me out something fierce.

When things get hard, I start looking for ways to make myself feel better, even if it's only for a few moments.  I'm a walking poster child for taking deep breaths and visualizing being on the beach, which definitely helps (deep breath in...I'm in the Seychelles, in a hammock on the beach...I'm drinking mango juice with a little paper umbrella in it...I don't have cell phone or Blackberry reception...).

In addition to imagining that I'm sunning myself on a tropical beach, I realized that if I'm going to come through this time of stress and unhappiness with my health intact, I need to uber-vigilant about taking good care of myself.

The phrase "taking care of yourself" is usually associated with doing all the things we know we "should" do: eating broccoli, getting sleep, flossing nightly, etc.

All that is true -- but I also find that self-care takes many other forms

In addition to eating loads of fruits and veggies, I've found that it's essential for me to spend some time venting my frustrations to my friends and family (or a blank Word document on my laptop).  It's also crucial for me to make sure I get to the gym every dayadd little pick-me-ups to my daily routine to help brighten things up, and take baby steps in the direction of the life I want.

So, with that, I present...

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get:

1) Flowers.  No joke.  I know, I know -- it's not exactly "the tough get going," but I find that some pretty flowers on the table make a huge difference.  Incorporating little elements of lightness and beauty into my daily routine does wonders for my outlook.  They're the first thing I see when I walk in the door, and they always make me smile.

2) Baking.  I have an undying love for blueberry muffins.  Back in my glutinous days, I used to keep a stockpile of blueberry muffin mix in my apartment during grad school -- and damned if I didn't bake up a batch whenever midterms or finals came around.  There's just something inherently upbeat and happy about a blueberry muffin, and I use them as an incentive to get through the morning.  I whipped up a batch for this week, and I know I can look forward to 1:30 each afternoon when I get to have my "Hooray, you've made it halfway through the day!" prize.

Ok, so this is a strawberry muffin -- but they're just as fabulous as the blueberry variety!

3) Running.  Nothing clears my mind and lifts my mood like a good run.  The rhythm of my feet hitting the ground, as well as the confidence of knowing that my body knows exactly what to do, help me relax and release some of my pent-up stress.  The runner's high at the end sure doesn't hurt, either.

4) Massages.  All the stress has led to me walking around with my shoulders up by my ears (for the record, I can confirm that this is really uncomfortable).  My Massage Envy membership might just be what saves my neck and keeps me from being in a permanent state of muscle spasms.

I know that it's going to be a while before things get better.  However, the sustained stress that comes with situations like mine can take a lasting toll on the body.

As I was brushing my teeth one morning, I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that I needed to be careful and take extraordinarily good care of myself.  I viscerally understood that if I didn't do these things, the chronic stress would do lasting damage to every cell in my body.

So, I've decided to commit to taking really, really, ridiculously good care of myself.  I'm committed to daily green monsters after my trip to the gym each morning, fresh flowers each week, monthly massages, and lots of deep breathing.

This, I hope, will enable me to mitigate the damaging effects of sustained stress -- and hopefully emerge on the other side of this experience stronger than ever.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The First Step is Admitting You Have a Problem

Hi, my name is Lillian, and I'm addicted to Brad's Raw Kale Chips.

You see, these kale chips -- particularly the Vampire Killer variety -- are freakin' delicious.  They're garlicky, savory, crispy...everything a girl could want in a chip, but made from kale.  Kale!  It's so damn good for you!  How could I possibly resist the allure of something so delicious and nutritious?

They come with a hefty price tag, though.  $8 bucks a pop ain't cheap.

However, it's a known fact that addicts will lie, cheat, and steal to get the money for their next fix.  So, who stashed away cash so she could go get some kale chips without it showing up on her bank statement?

I did.

Furthermore, if it came down to the last box of Vampire Killer kale chips in the Arlington Whole Foods, I'm pretty sure I'd shank anyone standing between me and that coveted box of leafy green magic.

It started dawning on me last year that I might have just a small problem when it comes to my unbridled love of the aforementioned kale chips, so I added a dehydrator to our wedding registry in hopes that I'd be able to make my own.  After seven million failed attempts at recreating the deliciousness of my store-bought kale chips in the oven (half-soggy and half-burned = epic fail), I figured I needed to figure out what this dehydration buzz was all about.

So I put it on the registry, and voila, we were soon owners of a lovely dehydrator.

But who found it intimidating as all get-out?  Who looked at it and thought "Shit, this thing is going to be a huge pain to clean" and then didn't use it?  That'd be me, y'all.

Last weekend, though, I finally hit the kale chip addiction wall.  It was time to suck it up and overcome my fear of the dehydrator.

FEAR ME.  Or not.  Whatevs, it's your call.

I'd been wanting to try Angela Liddon's recipe for sundried tomato kale chips since she first posted the recipe on her (absolutely awesome) blog, Oh She Glows.  So after a day -- ok, almost a year -- of giving the dehydrator the side-eye, I marched right up to it, pulled it off the shelf, washed it, and got to work on the kale chips.

I amended Angela's recipe by adding more garlic (10 cloves - did I mention that I love garlic?) and omitting the basil in favor of some diced onion (1/4 cup).

I worked the cashew-sundried tomato-garlic mixture (which, I should add, was insanely good.  I nearly freebased half of it just standing in my kitchen.) into the kale, carefully laid it out on the rings of the dehydrator, and turned 'er on.

12 hours later I had kale chips that rival even the best of my boy Brad's.  No joke.  So, for about the same amount of money -- the ingredients cost about $8 -- I made four times as many kale chips as  I can buy at the store.

It's a win-win for everyone: I get to have delicious kale chips without having to spend an obnoxious amount of money, and everyone at Whole Foods can relax and not feel like they have to watch their six to keep from being attacked by a crazy kale chip addict.  Huzzah!


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thwarting Intellectual Snobbery

Ok, so we all know that everybody has pet peeves.  Some are ridiculous (case in point: I totally can't deal with it when my clothes or linens smell like food, so I close all the bathroom and bedroom doors before I cook dinner), and some are legit.

One thing that has generally driven me up a wall is intellectual one-upmanship.  You know what I mean: the "Oh, you read that?  I find it insulting to my intelligence."  Or "You're referencing a TV show?  I never watch television of any sort, and I only watch artsy, independent, foreign films."

Personal faves, those lines. 

When I was younger, I used to try to keep up with these people.  I felt overwhelmed by the need to defend my intelligence.  Even if I knew that I was just as smart as, if not smarter than, the people claiming to be at the very top of the intellectual food chain, their one-upmanship would make me feel totally inadequate.  (That, of course, is exactly what it was designed to do -- and it worked.)

In recent years, though, I've stopped caring as much.  I still feel the pang of "Hey, that's not fair!" whenever someone tries to start an intellectual pissing contest, but as I've gotten older I haven't felt like making the effort to defend myself or engage in their one-upmanship.  
I'll never win at that game, because no one ever does when dealing with someone who's so wholly determined to prove their superiority.  

The fact is, I love -- nay, adore -- all manner of things that a lot of people think are completely vapid.  

What's more is that I now get a huge kick out of owning my love of such things.  I also get a huge kick out of seeing the reactions of the smarter-than-thou crowd when I 'fess up to my love of People magazine.

So, with that, I decided to make a list of all the intellectually bankrupt things I love:

1)  I've read a bajillion criticisms of Eat, Pray, Love, most of which involve people saying that it insulted their intelligence and that they got dumber just by reading the first chapter.  By contrast, I freaking loved it.  I loved every minute I spent reading it.  My copy is dog-eared all over the place, underlined, and extremely well-loved.  It's one of my favorite books, and I re-read it all the time.

2)  I don't care that celebrity gossip is vapid -- in fact, that's precisely why I love it.  It's brain candy, except that it doesn't actually rot your brain.  After years of resisting its allure and echoing sentiments like "I could never read such crap," I started reading it in grad school to give myself a break from all the dense articles I was slogging through.  I never looked back.

3)  Seriously, folks: BAD TELEVISION IS A GODSEND.  Want to know how I love to spend my Friday nights?  I can assure you: it doesn't involve artsy, independent films filled with moral ambiguity, complex character development, or plotlines focusing on how irrevocably messed up the world is.  It does involve The Soup and Fashion Police.  You'd better believe that my week ends on a high note when it's in the company of Joan Rivers and "Starlet or Streetwalker?". 

4)  Speaking of artsy, independent films, it's generally my view that "artsy and independent" are code for "depressing and disturbing."  There are a few exceptions to this, clearly -- but barring those outliers, I'm NOT on board with movies that leave me feeling like all my internal organs have been ripped out.  I like my entertainment to be entertaining.  For me that involves humor, romance, explosions, or some combination thereof.  If it makes me an idiot, then this idiot will go hang out with a collection of movies that don't make her want to cry her eyes out for the next four days.

There you have it, friends: the definitive guide to thwarting intellectual snobbery by embracing one's love of fluff.  Now I have some TMZ to read...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Strawberry-Vanilla Muffins (Gluten Free, Dairy Free)

I'm a big fan of muffins.  More specifically, I'm a big fan of blueberry muffins.

If I'm being honest, I'll concede to the fact that I have a raging, undying love of blueberry muffins.

So imagine my horror, circa May 2008, when I realized that my body hated on gluten and I'd never again open a box of Betty Crocker blueberry muffin mix.  (What can I say?  Boxed baked goods and I were tight back in the day.  During grad school, I kept some just-add-water blueberry muffin mix in the cupboard for the days when I felt like my overworked brain was going to angrily climb out of my skull in protest.)   

It was a dark time.  No joke.

I've tried several pre-made GF blueberry muffins in the last four years, but they've all tasted like sandpaper.  Then I read about baking with almond flour -- everyone said that unlike brown rice flour, which produces muffins that could double as a cute little brick, almond flour produces light, fluffy creations that actually taste good.

I had to try this.

I tested the almond flour theory using a recipe for Paleo Pumpkin Muffins (I'm not on the Paleo plan, but I occasionally borrow from Paleo recipes that strike my fancy), and it was a hit.  There was no doubt: I was a convert to the world of baking with almond flour.

I decided to tweak the recipe a bit and see if I could come up with some blueberry muffins, because it's high time for blueberry muffins to be welcomed back into my life.   

The results were pretty good, but not spectacular.  I suspected I could do better.

So, last night I tweaked the recipe again and made strawberry-vanilla muffins.  Now THAT'S what I'm talkin' about!  These muffins are light, fluffy, and delicious -- and, since they're made with almond flour, oat flour and applesauce, they're loaded with both protein and fiber.

Damn Good Strawberry-Vanilla Muffins (Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Oil Free)
Makes 12 muffins

1 cup almond flour (I like Bob's Red Mill)
1 cup GF oat flour (again, I like Bob's Red Mill)
3/4 cup applesauce
2 eggs (vegan option: add the equivalent of 2 eggs using either a flax egg or Ener-G egg replacer)
1/3 cup organic sugar
1/4 cup honey (vegan option: agave or stevia)
1 tsp almond butter (preferably smooth and salted)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2/3 cup fresh strawberries, diced small
1 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
Vanilla sugar (for sprinkling on top)

Put all ingredients but the blueberries in a mixer, and mix until combined and smooth.  Gently fold in strawberries by hand (they're delicate little dudes, and a mixer will smush them).  Line a muffin tin with paper liners, and dollop the muffin batter into the tins.  Sprinkle vanilla sugar onto the top of each muffin (how much you use is up to you).  Bake 20 minutes at 350 or until a toothpick stuck in the center of each muffin comes out smooth.

Ain't she a beaut?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Standing at the Base and Standing at the Summit

After I finished grad school and started working, I felt a persistent sense of...meh.  A strong blah, if you will.  

There was something missing in my life.

I had no goals.

(This always makes me think of this scene from "Can't Hardly Wait" where the nerdy kid gets drunk and says "I can't feel my legs.  I have no legs!  I HAAAAAVE NOOOOOO LEEEEEEEEEEGS!"  That, in turn, made me occasionally say "I HAAAAAAVE NOOOOO GOOOOAAAAAALS!")

I had spent such a long time working towards completing my Master's and getting a job in DC that once I found myself in possession of both said Master's and job in DC, I...well, I had nothing to work towards.  It felt really, really weird.

Over three years later, though, I've definitely got myself some goals.  I now have what often feels like an aircraft carrier's worth of goals, to be more precise:

1) Get back to my "happy weight" -- the weight at which I feel my best, can run without hurting my knees or feet, and look good without compromising my athletic body type:

STATUS:  Sooooooo close!  I've lost a lot of the extra weight I put on during grad school and my first few years back in the working world, and I'm within spitting distance of my goal.  Happily, I've officially reached the stage where I had to buy new pants -- and I'm down a full size.  (*Does happy dance*)  Progress!

2)  Pay off my credit card:

STATUS:  As of today...achieved!  It took a while, but who has two thumbs and no credit card debt?  This girl!

3)  Start running competitively again:

STATUS:  It's a work in progress, but I'm definitely on my way!  I've had osteoarthritis in my feet since I was 21 -- most likely caused by decades of undiagnosed Celiac disease --  and I haven't run a 5K since just before the arthritis was diagnosed.  I know that in the world of competetive running, a 5K is like a leisurely afternoon stroll.  I've never been (nor will I ever be) a marathoner, and I'm cool with that.  I run because I love it, not because I'm hardcore -- so those 5Ks are just the right distance for me.
I've largely forgone running for 10 years, but I miss it something fierce.  Now that I'm outfitted with an awesome set of running shoes and am dropping the extra weight (which has greatly reduced the pressure on my joints), I'm up and running again.  (*Does another happy dance*)  My goal is to start running 5Ks again this fall -- for now, I'm working on getting my mile times down and my endurance back up to where it once was.  Progress!

4)  The big one: start my own business as a health coach and cooking instructor:

STATUS:  It's intimidating as all get-out, but progress is being made.  I know what I want to do and how I want to do it, so now I need to focus on things like paperwork and marketing.  Those are no small tasks, so it's going to take a lot of determination and persistence to do this right.  (*Crosses fingers*)

I find that pursuing long-term goals can be a daunting prospect, especially when in the beginning stages.  When I start working towards a long-term goal, I always feel like I'm at the base of a mountain, looking up at the summit and wondering how the hell I'm going to get up there.  The beginning is always the hardest: you know there's a lot of hard work ahead, and you haven't started seeing any of the benefits or pay-off -- so it's hard to stay motivated.

At moments like that, I have to work extra hard to keep myself focused and on task.  When I first set out to lose weight, I nearly gave up after 8 days.  When I first climbed on the treadmill again after a years-long hiatus from running, I could only run one mile at a dreadfully slow pace.  When I first started setting aside a larger percentage of my paycheck in order to pay off my credit card sooner rather than later, it felt like it was going to take forever to get to where I wanted to be.

Whenever I feel like the goal I've set for myself is intimidating -- that it's going to be too hard, take too long, or that it might not be achievable at all -- I look at this picture:

That's me and my dear friend Jes at the summit of Mt. Bierstadt, a 14,000 foot peak in our beloved Colorado.  We climbed it in June 2007, and it was a tough hike.  I remember standing at the base of that mountain, looking up at the summit, and thinking "Sweet Jesus, what am I doing?  How the hell am I going to get up there?"  It took a lot of trail mix and some blisters, but we made it -- and we had an awesome time.
The view from the base
I keep that picture framed as a reminder that I really can achieve things that, at the outset, are incredibly intimidating.  Much like Mt. Bierstadt, a lot of my big goals seem imposing and more than a little bit scary (please see Goal #4 above).  But, much like climbing to the top of a Fourteener, progress is made one step at a time -- and it's always worth it.  When a task feels too big, I remind myself to just keep going one step at a time.  I know I'll get there eventually.
The view from the summit

Monday, May 7, 2012

Redesigning the Home Office

I’ve always loved redecorating, renovating, and reorganizing my stuff.  When I was growing up, I reorganized or redecorated my bedroom on what was probably a quarterly basis.  My parents, God love ’em, were endlessly patient and never once interfered with my grand design plans.  (Side note to parents: you guys rock.)  

As an adult, that impulse has never really gone away.  While I don’t constantly rearrange and redecorate the way I used to, I still find myself examining the apartment from time to time and thinking “Hmmmm.  That needs to change.”

The need has been particularly acute lately whenever I look at my sad, cluttered, awful-looking space in our study/spare room.  I bought the desk just after I moved back to DC a few years ago, and as a $19 Wal-Mart purchase, it has served me well.  But the finish is coming off -- and I really feel that, as a (somewhat) functional adult, I probably shouldn’t have a decaying desk.

Similarly, the bookshelf was another Wal-Mart purchase that I picked up just after Hubs and I moved in together.  I was, shall we say, financially constrained at the time – so I bought it because it was cheap and functional. However, it’s ugly as sin.  There’s no escaping that fact.  It looks like something an old, cheap, curmudgeonly dude would buy after yelling at the neighborhood children to get off his lawn.  The only redeeming qualities about this beast are that it’s still standing and that the shelves haven’t split under the weight of all my books. 

It was supposed to be an interim bookcase.  My plan was to use it until I could afford a better piece of furniture that doesn’t reek of aesthetic ruination.

Two years later, it’s still here.

And I’m kind of starting to resent the shit out of it.

I get annoyed every time I look at it.  I’ve started mentally spewing vitriol at it, so now whenever I walk into the study, my inner monologue sounds like “Time for brain candy!  I can’t wait to check TMZ for some celeb gossi – GOD F*CKING DAMMIT, THAT STUPID BOOKSHELF IS SO F*CKING UGLY!”

I have less hate in my heart for the desk, since it’s less heinous than the bookshelf.  But still.  I’m not really a fan of either one these days.

So, I’ve decided to embark on a project to reclaim my little workspace.

I figure that I want to be writing more and that, hopefully, I’ll be spending more time at my home desk once I begin seeing clients as a health and wellness coach.  One shouldn't go about setting up a business if one hates the space from which she'll do that, right?

Seriously, I figure I probably shouldn’t loathe the workspace with every fiber of my being.

My mother-in-law just happens to have a background in interior design, and she also just happens to be fabulous.  She introduced me to – for which I’ll be forever grateful – and through the epic amounts of time I’ve spent on that website, I found this example of reorganized bookshelves

OMG.  Lurve.

I have plans, my friends.  Plans for a matching (!!!) desk and bookshelf, both of which are made of real wood.  Plans for colorful organizing accessories.

Now, this will have to happen in phases – after all, money doesn’t grow on trees, and I’m trying to pay off my student loans as fast as possible – but just the act of developing a strategic plan is enough to make me feel a teeeeeny bit less hateful towards my home office space.  Someday, with enough TLC and improvement, I might even love it.

For now, though, I'll just try not to scowl so much at my bookshelf.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Best Ever Mother's Day Gift

I suck at buying gifts.  I’ll sit there wringing my hands for weeks before any gift-giving holiday or birthday, fretting about what the hell I’m going to get for someone. 

This becomes particularly acute on both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Since they’re both gift-giving holidays, I know that I want to get my parents something – but what to get is always an epic challenge.  I don’t want to get something as meaningful as what I’d get them for Christmas or their birthdays, since I like to reserve the big gifts for special occasions, but I don’t want them to go giftless either.

Thus the quandary: how to say “thank you for being an awesome parent” without getting something generic and lame?  In the same way that I hate – hate! – the idea that every woman wants and loves candy, stuffed teddy bears, and red roses on Valentine’s Day, I can barely stomach the idea of buying perfume for Mother’s Day or neckties for Father’s Day.

My Mom has plenty of perfume, and my Dad needs another tie like politician needs a scandal.

So, imagine my relief when last year around Mother’s Day I read this column by Nick Kristof.  Kristof is one of my favorite New York Times op-ed columnists, and and he along with his wife wrote the book Half the Sky -- which is one of the most astounding, educating, and infuriating books I’ve ever read.

In his column last year, Kristof wrote about a program called the Mothers' Day Movement.  The Mothers' Day Movement collects and matches donations in honor of Mother's Day, then gives the proceeds to a grassroots organization benefiting women and children.  The movement is designed to breathe life into Kristof’s call to action from last year’s column:

“It’s time to move the apostrophe so that it becomes not just Mother’s Day, honoring a single mother, but Mothers’ Day, an occasion to try and help mothers around the globe as well.”

As soon as I read about the Mothers' Day Movement, I knew: this is the right thing.  This is something my Mom will appreciate more than perfume.  This is something she’d be thrilled to be part of.

So, Hubs and I decided to make donations in honor of both our amazing moms – and they couldn’t have been happier about it.

We've made donations in their honor again this year.  I’m particularly excited about this year’s selected charity, Saving Mothers, because it directly addresses one of the issues I feel so deeply passionate about: reducing infant and maternal mortality rates in developing countries.

When I was studying in Israel, one of the most eye-opening courses I took was a class on the political economy of the Middle East.  It sounds heinously, painfully, “stab out your own eyes with your pen” boring, but it turned out to be amazing.  I learned an incredible amount about the importance of women’s roles in economic development – and, by extension, the many issues surrounding inadequate family planning and maternal care services.

The fact is, more than half a million women die each year in childbirth.  That’s about one every 90 seconds.  Think about that: in the time it took me to write and edit this post, 15 women died while either trying to give birth or while in recovery after delivering their baby.   

What's worse is that almost all of those deaths would have been entirely preventable with access to proper obstetric and post-natal care. (A series of Washington Post articles from 2008 does a fantastic – and heart-wrenching – job of illustrating just how perilous pregnancy and childbirth are for many women in the developing world.)

Given this year’s charity of choice for the Mothers' Day Movement, I’m extra excited to make my donation.  Unlike flowers (which will probably set off my mom’s allergies) or chocolate (which will definitely set off her allergies), I know she’ll be thrilled with this gift.

All moms deserve a shot at the safe delivery of a healthy baby – and there’s no doubt that both my mom and my mother-in-law will be honored to help make that happen.

Friday, May 4, 2012

How the Times Totally Reaffirmed My Decision to Attend IIN

I occasionally stumble across articles that really get me thinking (ok, by “occasionally,” I mean “every damn day”).  This usually happens while I’m at work, so my ability to really ponder the contents and implications of any such article is usually ridiculously limited – unless it’s the sort of article that resonates with me so deeply that I know, instinctively and with every molecule in my body, exactly what I think about it.

Today I found one of those articles.  In this New York Times “Room for Debate” series, a series of columnists discussed whether people need more advice about eating well.  Many of the columnists presented totally valid and well-reasoned arguments (especially Marion Nestle, whom I now officially adore), and much of what they said totally reaffirmed my own stance on the issue: 

in my social circle – which is made up of professional, highly educated, busy women – people don’t eat well not because they lack the knowledge, willpower or resources to do so, but rather because they lack time.

For many people the idea of cooking fresh, wholesome food seems incredibly daunting.  Many people feel like it’s going to be either time-consuming or labor-intensive, and the fact that the term “slow food” is used so prevalently doesn’t help matters much.  (Yes, I know it’s the opposite of McDonalds and other forms of fast food, but people who are pressed for time are seriously not enthralled with even the mere suggestion that dinner might take a long time to prepare.)

As a result, one tour of downtown DC at lunchtime reveals a huge swath of people who are eating lots of burgers and fries, lots of street meat, and a whole ton of vending machine fare.

This dilemma (food or time, time or food?) is one of the main reasons why I decided to start training to be a health coach.

The fact is, most people don’t need to be told what to do.  A lot of people already know: they need to eat better and exercise more.  Most people could list a litany of the things they know they should be doing – so what they don’t need are lectures and exhortations about how they ought to change.

What most people do need, however, are strategies.  They need game plans and practical tips to help them implement those plans.  They need support.

Around this time last year, I started to realize that I could actually help people with these things.  I’ve been preparing dinner four times per week and bringing a fresh, healthy lunch to school or work every day for 15 years (this started when I was in high school, since I was given the task of cooking dinner).  

During those 15 years, I've learned a thing or two about how to save myself time and effort during the week.  I've learned how to whip up quick and easy dinners from fresh, healthy ingredients. I've learned how to ensure that I can pull together a wholesome lunch in under 10 minutes.

Then I realized that I could help people reach their health goals by sharing what I've learned and giving them the suggestions, strategies, and support they need.

When things started heading south at work last summer, I started thinking about this more and more.  I wonder if I could make a job out of this, I asked myself.  Could I actually do that?

Fast forward one year: I’m enrolled at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and I’ll be in training (which is all done remotely and after work -- it's awesome) until December. 

I now feel certain that it's possible for people to eat well and achieve their health goals without losing their minds or losing time out of an already packed schedule -- and someday, I hope to help them do that.