Monthly Archives: January 2012

Running through the brick walls

The first real attempt at exercise after a long hiatus is always the toughest. This morning, I was reminded of that. Every single time I go months or years without running, I swear that it will be the last time I ever take such a long break. Running, after all, is an addictive mixture of pain and adrenaline; gasping and glory. Even if you take a few paces that feel like they must be your last, a few steps later you break through that brick wall and are flying high.

When I woke up this morning, the sky was clear and blue. The air outside was temperate. My GPS watch was charged and begging for action. There was no excuse: I needed to run. And for once I was feeling the motivation. I strapped on my heart rate monitor. I fastened my watch to my wrist. I donned my sweet Nike running shorts and Asics shoes with gel inserts. I was ready.
So was Riley, my dog. I strapped her into her little pink harness and brought her along.
We set out at an relaxed jog, Riley taking full advantage of the retractable lead to pause and sprinkle on every other driveway we passed. Five minutes went by in a breeze, feet bouncing easily off the pavement and air feeling abundant as I inhaled. Confident, I increased the pace. Then, things changed.
My heart rate monitor beeped at an alarming 180. To athletes, this would be no big deal; just a subtle reassurance that your body is doing what you should and that you’re getting exercise. But if you’ve been sedentary for a while, your heart reaching 180 beats per minute is a sign that something is seriously wrong. It is a reason to panic. My brain tried to convince my panicking senses that the world wasn’t ending. Slowing my pace a notch, I continued to run. With my brand-new trusty GPS watch, I plotted out a great loop. Only moderately hilly, this loop circles around my house and is exactly 1.23 miles long. Perfect for a beginner who doesn’t want to venture too far from home.
Well, after 32 minutes I’d run two laps, two and a half miles and had spent seven minutes doing intervals: one minute running, one minute jogging. My legs were cramping and my back felt sore. But at the same time, it felt amazing. And I know that the next time won’t hurt as badly, and I’ll be able to go just a little bit longer or a little bit faster. That’s all the motivation I need to get back out there tomorrow morning before work. That, and feeling just a little bit more fit ever since I did the run.
Yep, I just threw that out there onto the Internet to live forever. Tomorrow morning, a pre-work run. Maybe since I made it public, I’ll actually follow through with it!
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Musical Mondays: 1/30/2012 edition

Last time we met here for Musical Mondays, I had won a college talent show (okay, amongst maybe 10 people, but still). But I basically stopped playing guitar for four years after that. What happened?

Well, I was busy. I turned 21, for one, and was henceforth compelled to conduct tons of anthropological research on the drinking establishments in Geneva and then Atlanta. I’d pick up my guitar once in a while and try to play songs that I’d known, or songs that I wanted to learn. Without real diligence, though, it’s hard to get better. An hour or two every few months will sustain one’s knowledge of chords, but you’ll never improve if that’s all you play.

Then, I fell in love, and that makes you want to sing! So I started playing all the time. Well, that’s an exaggeration. But let me elaborate. On one of the first nights that I met and hung out with Xavier at his house, the guitars came out. (He has a few). His awesome friend Jenny (hi Jenny! I think you’re reading this!) and I started talking about Bright Eyes. I remembered that I used to know one of their songs, so I grabbed one of the acoustics and began strumming a hackneyed rendition of “First Day of My Life.” I’d been drinking, so I even had the courage to sing a little. It was rusty, of course, but fun. The guitar was eventually turned over to someone more worthy of its noise-making potential. Hoping I’d be hanging out with Xavier again, I started practicing more so we could play together the next time.

Now, Xavier is a talented musician who can play pretty much any instrument and sings really well. He’ll play in front of assembled groups of people and actually impress them. When we are out in public and he ends up playing, people like to joke around and ask if that’s how he got me to go out with him. And I always say, “Nope! He actually heard me play first.” But he did play me lots of lullabies in the beginning of our relationship, so now when he plays, it’s hard not to fall asleep.

So that brings us to the present. I’ve been spending a lot more time with guitars, and singing too (but that’s strictly a private hobby, as I am petrified to sing in a serious manner in front of people). It’s really fun to have someone to play with. We ‘jam’ at home at least once a week. My current guitar focus is trying to work on my fingerpicking and developing a few more strumming patterns, since I seem to play every song the same way.

I’m also learning the basics of piano. My idea was, if I can learn the basic theory behind it, it will help me with understanding guitar as well. A couple of weeks ago I learned the major and minor chords, as well as the 7s. I’ve been practicing those hard. The hand stretching is funny. When you first start playing guitar, stretching your fingers all over the fret board is overwhelming. But then you get used to it. Stretching your fingers for piano is a completely different ball game! For each chord, you’re supposed to hit four keys at once. For instance, if you’re playing a C, you hit the C, E, G, and then the next C key. My little hands can barely stretch over to play the second C without hitting B. I keep telling myself that little kids can do this so I should be able to also. I’ll get it eventually, but in the meantime, it’s something to keep working on! It’s also challenging to learn how to play chords with both hands. I’m very used to my guitar, where my left hand plays chords and my right strums or fingerpicks. Piano seems like a very dynamic instrument. I’m enjoying it so far, though!

How To Be a Domestic Rockstar for Under $12, Part 2

Things are excellent in your life right now! You just made delicious roasted chicken that everyone enjoyed very much. Now that your group is full and satiated, you’re ready to make stock for tomorrow’s soup. This will largely happen slowly and stealthily in the background while you’re doing other things. Here’s what to do.

You saved the bones from the chicken feast, and from the chicken that you cut up earlier. Rinse those off. Try to make sure they’re free of skin, but don’t go too crazy with it.

Place your bones in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Don’t forget the backbone and wing tips that you removed earlier! Add water to the pan, enough to cover the bones by a few inches.

Then heat the pot over medium-low until it reaches a gentle simmer. Some foamy stuff might float up to the surface of the pot while this is happening. Try to skim it off using a spoon or strainer. When the stock simmers, lower the heat to the absolute lowest setting on the stove. You do not want this pot to boil. You want it cooking for a long time.

As soon as you turn down the heat, cover the pot and leave it alone for a few hours. You’ll know it’s ready when your house smells amazing and the stock has turned a pale golden color. If that doesn’t happen, give it three hours minimum on the stove. I’ve been known to fall asleep and let mine go for eight. As long as the pot is covered and not simmering, this is just fine.

If you know a little bit about cooking, you might be wondering why we didn’t add any aromatics to the stock. You should absolutely feel free to add carrot, onion, leek, celery, peppercorns, etc. But for the soup we’re making with the stock, which will be heavily flavored with spicy peppers, garlic, and onions, it’s not completely necessary.
When you’re finished cooking the stock, use tongs to extract the bones and wing tips as soon as you can. Let it cool for a while on the stovetop, then in the fridge. Try not to agitate the broth; let it settle so all the gunk stays on the bottom. When it looks very clear, it’s time to separate the gunk at the bottom from the clean broth that will become your soup. There are a few ways to do this, but you should pick what’s most comfortable. You can use a ladle, or by carefully pouring out the good stuff without disrupting the bottom waste layer. Be as gentle as possible and don’t worry too much about the last inch or so of cloudy stock; focus on getting out the good stuff. Throw out the rest.

You can put the stock in the fridge overnight so that fat rises to the surface and is easier to remove, but there shouldn’t be much, so don’t feel guilty about making soup straight from here!

DAY TWO: TORTILLA SOUP

Making soup from scratch is incredibly easy and incredibly satisfying. You might have five minutes of hands-on work. All you do is cook some veggies in oil, add seasonings, and then add your homemade stock to let all of the flavors blend together into happy harmony. Here’s how.

In a large saucepan, heat up a little bit of olive oil over medium. Mince two cloves of garlic and an onion, then saute them in the oil until softened and browned.

Then, add some chopped peppers. Use bell pepper, jalepeno, serrano, roasted poblano, or any combination that reaches your spice level. For this batch, I used what was on hand: a green bell pepper and a jar of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. The adobo adds a smoky kick to the finished soup.

Add tomato paste and season with cumin, chili powder, coriander, and salt.

Add tomatoes and stock. Bring to simmer, then turn the heat down to low. Add all of the chicken pieces that you reserved – shredding or chopping them to the size you’d like. Let it simmer for at least twenty minutes, but as long as an hour if you want – let the flavors mingle!

Boom. Tortilla soup.

Half the fun of this is in garnishing the soup with delicious toppings that add crunch and creaminess! While delicious and filling as an appetizer, this soup can be bulked out to make a meal if you add rice, corn, or black beans.

Can you believe all of that took just forty minutes? Congratulations, you’re a chef.

Next-Day Chicken Tortilla Soup (serves 3-4 as entree, 8 as appetizer)
Two quarts chicken stock
1 medium onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup peppers of your choice, chopped (bell, jalapeno, serrano, roasted poblano, ancho, etc)
1/4 c tomato paste
1 cup tomato, chopped, from about 2 tomatoes (or one 14.5 oz can fire-roasted)
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp chili powder
1 cup chopped cooked chicken
Salt
Garnishes (cilantro, lime, avocado, tortilla chips, cheese, sour cream, etc)

In a large saucepan, heat a splash of canola oil over medium. Add onion and garlic, stirring often until browned. Add peppers and saute for a couple of minutes until soft. Toss in the tomato paste and spices, stirring until fragrant. Add tomatoes and stock. Let the mixture come to a strong simmer. When it does, add chicken. Lower heat and let it simmer gently for as long as you can stand it.

Ladle into bowls, garnishing as desired!

As always, thanks to Xavier for photographing the kitchen madness!

What I’m Reading Wednesday: 1/25/2012

Today’s book: “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides

I really didn’t know what to say about this one. It’s heralded as one of the top books in 2011 by the New York Times and plenty of other institutions – for whatever that’s worth. And the plot description on Amazon sounded intriguing. Unfortunately, the book wasn’t as great as I’d hoped it would be. It was a fine read, to be sure, but I can’t quite call it a great story.

The storyline opens on graduation day at Brown University in the early 1980’s. I liked the time setting; characters in “The Marriage Plot” weren’t plagued by ringing cell phones throughout the story. Unencumbered by technology, their interactions felt pure and honest. As one of the characters traveled the world, his lack of Facebook, Skype, and text messaging allowed him to truly come to terms with his feelings for another character. In 2012, can you imagine not talking to one of your loved ones for months and months? Relying only upon long-traveled letters that arrive weeks after they’re written? It’s a disconcerting thought.

So this book is basically about a love triangle. In the middle is the Madeleine, the girl you’d love to hate in real life. She’s self-absorbed, overly intellectual, and beautiful. On one side is Mitchell, the guy she’s been stringing along for four years of college. And on the other side is Leonard, the living definition of ‘tortured genius.’ Through a series of flashbacks and present narration following each character, we learn what happens to the three of them in the year after graduation. Now, all of their adventures hinge upon Madeleine’s senior thesis. The girl is completely obsessed with old novels, and she formulates this whole idea about – you guessed it – the marriage plot, the omnipotence of marriage as an end-all, be-all to so many of the stories that Madeleine read. As we read, we wonder: will these young people perpetuate the old stereotypes? Or will things be different for them?

It’s a fun read. Eugenides knows how to create suspense by switching the vantage point among characters at critical plot junctures. At one point, I was so eager to learn what would happen with a character that I wanted to skip the next chunk of narrative about a different one. For that kind of interest alone, I must give this book its dues; it was absorbing.

But a large flaw with the book was that Madeleine wasn’t a believable character for me. It wasn’t that I couldn’t identify her motives or understand her decisions; she just didn’t seem like a real girl. We have to wonder if this was because the author, Eugenides, is male; writing the opposite gender is a risky proposition. The guy is critically acclaimed as a novelist for good reason. He tells a great, absorbing story. But that doesn’t mean he understands what it’s like to be a 22-year-old woman and can portray one convincingly.

That said, the storyline was interesting and I devoured it quickly. It was something that I could almost relate to immediately, having graduated college a few years ago myself, and having woken up on the morning of my graduation about as hung over as Madeleine was for hers. This is a good book for adults in their twenties or thirties who can relate to the characters directly, or for people in their fifties who have fond memories of being idealistic post-grads in the 80’s.

Bottom line: Give it a shot.
6/8 slices.

Looking for something to read? Get advice from other What I’m Reading Wednesdays:

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
Red Mist by Patricia Cornwell
11/22/63 by Stephen King

How To Be a Domestic Rockstar For Under $12, Part One

If you’re the kind of person who has always wanted to cook more, read on. If you’re the kind of person who cooks plenty already but is always open to a new idea or two, read on. If you’re the kind of person who hates cooking and would rather get take-out than turn on the stove, read on… you might just change your mind.

I’m the kind of person who cooks all the time and loves it. I’m also the kind of person who is incapable of making appropriate portions. In my house, we’re either plagued with awkwardly tiny amounts of food (who knew snow pea shoots would shrink from overflowing panful to three spoonfuls? and how are we supposed to share it?) or enough for two weeks. Leftovers can be fun for the next day’s lunch, but I crave variety. Even with an abundance of food in the fridge, I love to whip up something new. The contents of Tupperware leftover containers end up in the trash as often as they end up in our stomachs: a waste of money and food.
I had to fix the problem. Since my job keeps me pretty busy during the day, I don’t have a lot of motivation to cook a different, elaborate meal every night. Here’s what I came up with. What if I told you that you could spend about twenty minutes making a stunningly delicious meal one night, then another twenty minutes transforming the leftovers into something completely new and different? Here’s how. On Day One, you will be roasting a chicken and vegetables. Sounds boring, right? Let me tell you a secret. Roasting a chicken is honestly, no joke, one of the easiest things that you can do in the kitchen. However, when you present a roasted chicken at the table, people go nuts like you should be on Top Chef. Twenty minutes of work gets that kind of reactions. I promise.
After you roast the chicken and your family/friends/loved ones have eaten their fill, you will take the leftover meat and stick it in a Tupperware container until the next day. Then you will take the chicken bones and make stock. The next night, you will add some vegetables and the leftover meat to the stock and feast upon chicken tortilla soup. When you present this at the table, people will go nuts for a second time. It’s that good and you will look like a kitchen rock star. The total hands-on time? Forty minutes. Tops.

Another benefit of this meal is that it’s inexpensive. If you buy a regular 4-pound chicken at the grocery store, it might cost you $5-6. If buy a bird from a nice farm, it might cost $12. The vegetables for roasting and the soup might run you another dollar or two. I regularly feed two people in my house (a hungry guy and a fairly hungry girl) and this is two meals for us. It’s one of the most delicious ways to stick to a budget.

Here’s how to get started.
NIGHT ONE: Salt-Crusted Roast Chicken with Vegetables.
You’re going to be roasting your chicken on top of a bed of vegetables. This will result in a one-dish meal featuring crispy, insanely delicious veggies.
First, make a couple of decisions. How many chickens will you be preparing? Personally, I’d plan on one breast or one leg/thigh/wing combo per person. Next, decide what pan you’re going to use. If you have anything cast-iron, this is the time to pull it out. Regardless, use the thickest pan in your arsenal. Thicker pan = more heat = crispier, caramelized veggies. You’ll see in the photos that I use an oven-safe nonstick skillet, but you can use anything that fits in your oven.
Then, prepare your vegetables. You can use almost anything, but I’d suggest starting with Yukon Gold potato, leeks, and carrots. Whatever you choose, dice roughly and then cover the bottom  of your pan with the pieces. Shake a little olive oil on top, then add salt and pepper. Toss everything together so it’s evenly mixed.

Here comes the hardest part of the entire thing. But it’s still pretty simple. You’ll need to prepare your chicken for roasting. You are going to butterfly the chicken so it cooks evenly and the breasts stay as moist as the dark meat.

Whole chickens intimidate people, but don’t be alarmed. Buying a whole chicken saves you lots of money – it will probably cost somewhere between $2-3 per pound, as opposed to $5-9 for boneless skinless breasts. And cutting it up ranks in difficulty somewhere around making a paper snowflake. The chicken has joints where the bones naturally come together. Feel for those, cut through them, and you’ll be just fine.

You should have purchased a whole chicken from your butcher, local farmer, or grocery store. Lay that baby out on a cutting board and admire it for a while.

Depending on what chicken you got, there might be some stuff inside. I use Springer Mountain Chicken, which is widely available in Atlanta. Their whole birds usually come with the gizzards and neck tucked inside. Your chicken might have a little paper bag full of gizzards. Don’t be squeamish – put your whole fist in there and take everything out of the bird. I reserve the neck to use for stock, but gizzards admittedly aren’t my thing.

Once your chicken is clean and ready, use your knife or a sharp pair of kitchen shears to cut off the wing tips. Use the tip of your knife to feel for the joint to slice it cleanly off. If you don’t want to serve the wings, feel free to cut them off too – they’re delicious, but might be finicky to eat. Whatever pieces you remove, save it for later. It’s going to be the base of your stock. After this, you’re going to butterfly the chicken. This is a lot easier than it sounds. What you’ll do is cut alongside the chicken’s backbone on both sides, slicing through the ribs. This will allow you to remove the backbone. Then you can arrange the butterflied chicken in the pan so that it cooks evenly,  remaining juicy and delicious throughout.

If you don’t want to butterfly the chicken, you don’t have to – but I strongly recommend it. Otherwise, the legs will overcook long before the breast is done, and you’ll end up with dry meat. If you’re squeamish and really don’t want to cut up the chicken, Google “how to truss a chicken” and you’ll find ways not to. But again, I really recommend butterflying it. Even if it’s intimidating the first time, you’ll soon realize how easy it is and it’ll be fine the second time.

Season the chicken with lots of salt, some pepper, and if you have any fresh herbs, mince and use those too. You can even peel back the skin and rub seasoning directly onto the meat, as long as you replace the skin when you’r done. This time, I used lemon zest from my California shipment of Meyer lemons and it turned out amazingly! You could get really creative here, but the beauty of this dish is that it’s just as great when you keep it simple. Arrange the seasoned chicken on top of the veggies as in the photo below, arranging the thighs so that they prop up the drumsticks. Your goal is to maximize the area of exposed skin, which crisps deliciously in the oven.

Stick it in your preheated-to-500-degrees oven for 20 minutes. It might smoke. Don’t worry about that – but perhaps disable your fire alarm. After 20 minutes, turn the heat down to 400 and rotate the pan. Let it roast for another 30 minutes or so, perhaps rotating the pan again 15 minutes in. If you have a meat thermometer, use it – you want the chicken’s internal temperature to hit 160 degrees Farenheit, according to USDA Food Safety guidelines. If not, peek around the bird until you see where the juices are running out. Make sure they’re clear. If not, pop it back into the oven in 5-minute increments until they are. The chicken’s skin should be golden brown and crispy.
You now have a delicious skillet full of roast chicken and vegetables.

After smelling this for the last 45 minutes, and then pulling it out of the oven, your top priority is eating chicken immediately. However, the best thing you can do for the next 10 minutes is let the chicken rest. Basically, this helps the chicken stay juicy when you cut it. If you’re impatient, now is a great time to distract yourself by arranging a little green salad or something to round out the meal. You can even make your own vinaigrette, it’s so easy! Want to learn how? Okay, here we go. You can do this with a whisk, an immersion blender, or even a regular blender. In a medium bowl, stir together the following: 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, 1/2 tbsp honey, 1 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp orange juice, 1 tsp dijon mustard. When it’s blended well, begin drizzling in canola oil, whisking/blending/stirring throughout. Add the oil slowly, never stopping the whisking, until you have reached the consistency you want for your salad dressing. Pour that stuff over your salad. It’s great and you’ll be shocked at how easy it was to make.

Now that the chicken has rested for ten minutes, it’s ready to be served. Make this easy on your guests by carving it for them. Place the chicken on a cutting board and slice it up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Hang onto those bones! Or, just cut it into pieces. Using a sharp knife, feel for the joints between the drumstick and thigh; cut through cleanly. Same with the wing. Slice the breasts off the bone, though; you’ll want those bones for later. Arrange the meat on top of the vegetables (in the skillet or in another serving dish if you want to be fancy). Dinner is ready!

After you enjoy the hell out of your roasted chicken and crispy delicious vegetables, be sure to reserve the leftover meat and bones. You’re going to spend five minutes tonight making stock for tomorrow’s soup.

I debated whether to include a recipe for this, because there are so many successful ways to roast a chicken that I don’t want to limit you by confining you to specifics. I decided it would be best to include a recipe to guide beginners, but please keep in mind that you can really do anything to this bird and it will taste great. Add a turnip to the vegetable mix. Season it with fresh marjoram. Add cumin, paprika, and chili powder to the salt for the skin. Seriously, the options are endless. But here’s an easy way to try it for the first time.

Easy Roast Chicken serves 3-4
1 3-4lb whole chicken
3 carrots
3 leeks
1-2 large Yukon Gold potatoes
Kosher salt
Pepper
Olive oil
Any other seasonings you want: fresh thyme, lemon zest…

Preheat your oven to 500F.

Peel, clean, and dice the vegetables. Place them in the cooking pan, seasoning with olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste.

Prepare the chicken. Remove giblets, cut off wing tips (and wings if you want), and cut through the ribs along both sides of the backbone to remove it. Season the chicken’s skin with pepper, olive oil, and anything else you want. (Lemon zest is my new obsession). Get the seasonings underneath the skin if you can. Finish the skin by seasoning it with lots of salt.

Roast for 20 minutes at 500 degrees. Turn the heat down to 400, rotate the pan, and roast in 10-15 minute intervals until the juices run clear or a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast or thigh measures 160F.

Let it rest for 10 minutes, slice, and enjoy!

And as always, thanks to Xavier for helping me with photos while my hands were busy with pollo…