19 October 2013

Pumpkin Pie Syrup

Like apparently every other girl my age, fall is my favorite season. In Tucson fall is more of a state of mind than an actual season, since 80% of our trees are cacti and palms (no changing leaves there) and a "brisk" day is 80 degrees, at least well into November. I love fall in theory though and I sometimes escape to Prescott for a few weekends to get my fix, bringing plenty of scarves and boots and tights and sweaters with me.
Prescott trip Fall '10
Something about this time of year seems to breathe new life into me, and I always start feeling really inspired, creative, motivated, and nostalgic for autumns gone by. I love waking up just as it's starting to get light and bundling up to take my dog out, I love the way every mirror and window in the house fogs up when I take a shower, I love sipping hot toddies and french press coffee and hot chocolate with the occasional shot of peppermint or butterscotch liqueur. I love remembering all the angsty autumns of my adolescence- chilly October nights wearing fingerless gloves and black nail polish, listening to hipster bands at the catalyst and crushing on boys with beards and sweaters (Hey, Stewie!) Although, that might have been what I did the whole time. Senior year was interesting. Regardless- fall is a familiar and exhilarating time, and every year as the temperatures drop and pumpkins start showing up in stores I get excited.

Speaking of pumpkins. Do you remember when 'pumpkin everything!' was not a thing? Sure, there was always pumpkin pie and maybe a novelty pumpkin spice latte here and there, but it was nothing like how it is now. I'm pretty sure the day Starbucks starts selling pumpkin drinks is the first day of fall in a lot of people's minds. And it's not just coffee- there's pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin soup, pumpkin oatmeal, pumpkin mac and cheese, pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin butter, pumpkin liquor, pumpkin doughnuts- if you can think of it, someone (or some company) has put pumpkin in it. It's nuts. I always start off the season rolling my eyes and thinking, "really guys? It's just a squash. Chill the f out", but after a few weeks in I'm like, "you know, a pumpkin latte actually does sound pretty good right now". Pumpkins have some really persuasive advertisers.

I considered just grabbing one at Starbucks on the way to class, but their drinks are usually too dense and sweet for my liking. I also looked at the ingredients for the syrup they use and it turns out there's nothing in it resembling pumpkin or spice, just high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings. There were lots of recipes for homemade versions online though, so I decided to just quickly whip one up yesterday. Making simple syrups is seriously easy and only takes like 15-20 mins- and now I have a big jar full of sweet, spicy bronze syrup for less than it would have cost me to buy a single drink at a coffee shop.

Pumpkin Pie Syrup 
makes about 2 cups
45 calories/1 tbsp serving

2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups water
1/4 cup pumpkin puree (canned or homemade)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
6 cloves
10 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf

All you have to do is combine everything in a medium saucepan, bring to a boil over medium heat, and cook for 10-15 minutes until sugar is fully melted and syrup has reduced slightly. It will get even thicker as it cools.
Remove the cloves, peppercorns, and bay leaf, and if you want a really clear, pure syrup you can strain it through a wire mesh sieve. I don't have one of those so I tried filtering it with my french press and it kind of worked but not really since the syrup is so much thicker than water. It doesn't matter though, it's mostly for aesthetics.

I think this syrup would be good for lots of things, such as with pancakes, yogurt, oatmeal, ice cream, or mixed into a cocktail. The amount of sugar in it acts as a preservative so it should last (opened) for a couple weeks. I'm not positive but I'm pretty sure it could also be canned and stored for a few months.

Of course, I used it to make a pumpkin spice latte.
I used:
1 cup of original unsweetened almond milk, heated
1/2 cup strong coffee OR 1 shot of espresso
2 tbsp pumpkin pie syrup (I might use 1.5 next time, 2 was pretty sweet)

Calories: 122

Happy Fall :)


14 October 2013

Some Thoughts on Self-Awareness

Something strange happened to me on Thursday.

I did something which I have always believed I am bad at, only this time I was good at it.

It was a class presentation, which I have always dreaded and have in fact dropped certain classes for upon learning that they would be required. My confidence has really been boosted over the past 10 months so they no longer give me a sickening pit in my stomach; however, I'd still prefer to sit and listen quietly than stand up and speak.

The first strange thing was that out of the three members of my group (we gave a group presentation, each of us talking about a different aspect of our subject), I seemed to be the least nervous. I am slightly older (1-3 years) and have a bit more college experience than most of the students in my classes now since I am a 3rd semester senior, so it may have been that my own anxieties about presenting have become muted while my classmates' are still fresh. However, having never been the "confident one", it felt totally alien to be reassuring the other group members and attempting to calm their frazzled nerves.

What was really strange, though, was that on the elevator after the class was over one of my other classmates (whom I have never interacted with before) turned to me and said, "Your presentation was really good. You made eye contact and were so confident. I was like, 'I want to be like that'". Not only was I incredibly flattered, but I was also quite taken aback- me, confident? and not just passable at presenting but good enough for someone to actually admire me? This did not fit with my image of myself or my skills at all, and as I walked to my car I thought, "maybe the person I've always believed myself to be is not who I actually am".

I've found that throughout our lives we seem to accumulate a list of traits and qualities that we assign to ourselves. Some are told to us often enough that we internalize them, others we discover or diagnose on our own. Especially now that social media plays such a large role in our lives, we are encouraged to define ourselves in our profiles, about me's, etc by a list of adjectives rather than letting our personalities come out organically through our interactions.

One of the biggest ones for me has been that I'm shy or introverted. People have told me this so many times over my entire life that it is just a facet of my identity now. I am pretty introverted, I like my alone time, and I was definitely a shy kid- but having this specific idea of myself cemented in my brain totally blinded me to the ways in which I am not introverted. It even caused me to believe that I was naturally predisposed to be bad at certain things- things like presenting in front of a class. The fact is, though, that many of the things I have self-diagnosed myself as bad at I am actually decent and even good at. It just took an unbiased stranger to bring it to my attention.

Often people say that you should not be concerned with the opinions of others, just concentrate on how you view yourself. I have found, however, that the way I view myself is frequently inaccurate. I have a list of things that I believe myself to be, and when those things change (or are simply not true) it can be difficult to see the discrepancies. I think sometimes other people can see us far more accurately than we see ourselves.

I'm so glad that girl complimented me in the elevator, because it brought me a bit closer to understanding who I am and what I'm actually capable of. The past two years have been a whirlwind from which I'm still in the process of re-emerging. I'm recreating and redefining myself, but it's easy to get lost and be unable to see or notice the changes. That interaction was a reminder to try to see myself objectively- to let my personality and abilities speak for themselves, rather than stuffing them under preconceived ideas of what they are.

<3 Em

07 October 2013

Life/Fitness Update

Hello all! It's that time of the year and school has really been taking up almost every last bit of my time. Maybe it's because the end is so near or maybe it's the fact that 3 out of my 4 classes are essay and discussion based 400 levels, but this semester has been even more overwhelming and demanding than usual. I am really enjoying them, but it's kind of terrifying how quickly the weeks are sweeping by with deadlines seemingly around every corner. I'm nearly halfway done and yet there's still so much to do! I'm just trying to stay focused on that December 21st graduation date :)

Anyways, after having a bit of a stress-induced meltdown over how busy I am and how little spare time I seem to have last week, I sat down and wrote out a very detailed schedule. The main reason I did this is because there are so many things that I really want to do that seem to live perpetually on the back burner- so I wanted to really look at how my time is spent and find ways to work in some of the extra things around all my school and work commitments. Lists, schedules, and getting organized always seem to calm me down and help me regain control of overwhelming situations.

This schedule is now hanging on my fridge, and I've color coded it and everything to include activities for work, school, fitness, and general lifestyle. If the schedule works as I hope it will, it will hold me accountable for doing homework each day (which I've had a habit of procrastinating in the past) while also allowing me ample time for blogging, crafting, writing, and other enjoyable activities each day. The schedule will also help me meet my fitness goals- I'm still working on my 5k to 10k regimen (currently running about 5 miles), but I've been wanting to add an additional daily form of exercise to my routine. Specifically, I've really been wanting to try Insanity- a max interval training program which is supposedly as difficult as the name suggests. The program is designed for people who are already somewhat fitness-competent and are looking for a boost or something new and intense to mix things up. I've been hovering around 120-123 lbs for the past few months and have been slacking a bit on cardio and strength training (other than running) so I'm hoping this program will give me the kick I need to help me keep progressing towards my fitness goals. 

Speaking of fitness goals/progress, I recently posted a couple before/after photos on my tumblr, which I use mostly as a space for all things fitness, feminism, self-care, and nerdiness. One of the things I like about tumblr is that very few people that I'm connected with through it know me in real life, so I can post unflattering before pictures of myself without feeling too embarrassed about it. I wasn't sure I wanted to post the same pictures on blogger, because I'm hesitant to remind (or show) people that I know and frequently interact with how I looked when I was at my highest weight and unhealthiest lifestyle. Ultimately, though, I decided that it is the progress and who I am today that is important and that I want to document- hopefully people will appreciate and notice how far I've come, rather than where it was I came from.

The photos are watermarked with my tumblr address, etc. to prevent pill/diet companies stealing them to promote their product.
I don't have many photos of myself at my highest weight, because I avoided cameras at all costs :) It's a bit of a bummer though, because I wish I had more for comparison. It's pretty crazy to look at the ones I do have though, because although I knew I was overweight, I never felt that big. Regardless, I'm happy to have come quite a ways from that place, not only physically but mentally and emotionally. I'm really proud of where I am today! 


03 August 2013

Homemade Living: Summer Jams

At the beginning of my summer vacation I decided I wanted to do a feature called "Homemade Summer", in which I would make and blog about things that are usually bought premade in the grocery store but can actually be made fairly cheaply and much more deliciously at home. Of course, various vacations and work and life got in the way and I only managed to post about marshmallows before it was suddenly August. I should just learn my lesson about starting new features. I never can seem to stick to the schedule I set for them.

Anyways, I still LOVE the original idea of Homemade Summer, especially since many people are trying to step away from processed ingredients in an effort to get healthier. That's part of it for me as well, but I also just like proving to myself and the world that supposedly complicated things like cheese and pickles and mayonnaise are not only possible to make in a small home kitchen but easy, fun, and typically loads cheaper and more delicious. That's why I've decided to change "Homemade Summer" to "Homemade Living". Instead of being a 15-week rushed summer feature, I'm going to make this particular type of home cooking an additional facet of my blog with posts appearing regularly but not according to a strict schedule. Not only will this allow me to blog at a pace that fits my busy schedule, I'll be able to keep writing about this fun topic for as long as I still have things I want to try to make!

One of the reasons I decided to change the format of this feature is that I've recently gotten into canning. I've canned once or twice before- a jar of apple butter here, a couple jars of salsa there- but I've never really embraced canning for all the wonderfulness it is. It's the chance to snatch up all the glorious fruits and veggies of each season when they are at they're lowest price and greatest flavor/texture and turn them into something that can be enjoyed all year long! Things made with out of season ingredients are just not going to taste as good as things made with ingredients in the peak of their season. Instead of switching to store bought sauces, preserves, etc in the off season, wouldn't it be better to have a couple jars of homemade summer tomato sauce or autumn apple butter in the pantry ready to use whenever you please? Yes, it would be.

I think the reason most people don't can is that they presume it is complicated and that you'll need a whole bunch of fancy, expensive equipment. This is not the case AT ALL and if you saw my crappy, scratched up, 5 piece pots and pan set that I have to work with, you'd have to believe me. All you really need are jars, lids and bands which are super cheap (10$ or less for a set of 12 at Fry's), a medium-large sized pot for cooking your preserves/brine, a large pot for processing your jars, and a small pot for simmering your lids. Ideally you will also have a set of tongs for lifting the jars and a small rack to keep them off the bottom of the pan, but I've gotten by without- it just makes for a riskier canning adventure (meaning, I dipped my hand in boiling water by accident yesterday. ow.). If you have the desire to can, don't let a limited kitchen hold you back. It's easier than you think! I recently purchased Marisa McClellan's book Food in Jars, which I definitely recommend for the novice canner as it goes over the basic waterbath process and has loads of delicious recipes.

Today, I wanted to focus on one of the first things people think of when they think canning- jam! Jam is awesome because it really concentrates the flavor of whatever fruit your using and can be eaten in so many different ways- swirled into yogurt, spread on toast, with peanut butter on a sandwich, mixed into a vinaigrette, glazed over chicken or pork, spooned over ice cream- really anywhere you might want a punch of bright, fruity flavor, you can insert jam. This post is going to focus on three different jams I've made this week using delicious mid-summer ingredients: blueberries (I just can't stop buying those giant boxes of them!), tomatoes, and cantaloupe.

All of these recipes use the waterbath processing method which is as follows:
1. Collect and clean the number of jars your recipe will require. For each jar, make sure you have a band and a clean,  new (previously sealed will not work) lid.
2. Place a rack in the bottom of a large pot and place the jars on top of the rack. This will keep the jars from coming into direct contact with the heat source and thus prevent breakage. Fill the jars and the pot with water until the level reaches 1-2 inches above the top of the jars. Cover the pot and place over high heat while you prepare your recipe.
3. Place the lids in a small saucepan and cover with water. Simmer for 15 minutes on very low heat. Keep the lids in the hot water until ready to use.
4. When you have completed your recipe and the water in the large pot is boiling rapidly, use tongs to remove the jars (pour out all the water) and place them on a clean, towel-lined counter. Do the same with the lids. Fill the jars, leaving 1/4-1/2 inch headspace at the top. Use a moistened paper towel to clean off the rims of the jars. Place the lids on the jars and lightly screw on the bands to keep them into place. Don't over-tighten.
5. Place the filled jars back into the boiling water. Cover and process for the indicated time (usually about 10-15 minutes, though altitude makes a difference so make sure to look it up for where you live. Higher altitude=longer processing time).
6. When the processing time is complete, use tongs to carefully remove the jars and place them back on the counter. You should notice the sound of each lid popping inward as the hot air escapes almost immediately after being removed from the water. That means the processing has done its job! Let the jars cool overnight at room temperature and don't move or mess with them.
7. The next day, test the seals by removing the bands and lifting each jar by its lid a few inches off the counter. It should hold fast. Most preserves can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to a year. Once opened, store in the fridge and use in a few weeks.

I first fell in love with tomato jam at a cafe in Portland where it was used as a signature spread on breakfast sandwiches, and I've been wanting to recreate it ever since. This recipe is adapted from the blog Use Real Butter and it's (added) pectin free so relies solely on sugar, the pectin already in the fruit, and a long simmering time to reach its smooth, spreadable texture. The result is a bright red intensely tomatoe-y jam that is sweet but also warm and savory. It is ah-maze-ing on crackers with sharp cheddar cheese or soft goats cheese (or probably any other cheese, too) and can also be smeared on toast by itself or topped with a runny fried egg. It can also do whatever ketchup does and then some!

Makes 2 pint jars with a little extra.

3.5 lbs mixed tomatoes- I used a BIG (1 lb) yellow heirloom, a box of grape tomatoes, and 5 or 6 vine tomatoes.
1 small yellow onion
1/2 cup diced granny smith apple
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
1. Chop up all the tomatoes, onion, and apple and place in a large stock pot.
2. Add all other ingredients and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and then reduce to a simmer.
3. Cook for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning at the bottom.
4. Once the jam has reached the desired consistency, fill your (already cleaned, heated) jars and process for 15 minutes.

This is classic, uncomplicated Blueberry jam. It works anywhere you would usually put fruit jam such as yogurt, toast, or a pb&j. Like all other homemade jams, the flavor of the main fruit is super concentrated to the point that it just seems to be bursting with fresh summer blueberries. I've never been a fan of store-bought fruit jams because they tend to be cloyingly sweet and unappealingly sticky and thick; luckily, this version is free from those issues. It's sweet and spreadable while remaining light and fruity. This and the following recipe are adapted from the book Food in Jars.

Makes 3.5 half pint jars or 7 4 oz jars

4 cups smashed blueberries
2 cups granulated sugar
zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 3-oz packet liquid pectin

1. Combine blueberries and sugar in a medium sized pot and bring to a boil. Add lemon juice and spices and cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the jam is thick and shiny.
2. Add the pectin, stir, and cook an additional 5 minutes or until jam is thick enough to drip slowly from a spoon.
3. Fill prepared jars and process for 10 minutes.

I'm not the biggest fan of canteloupe but I'm a BIG fan of this jam. It tastes less like the melon and more like a zesty, creamy, tropical treat. It uses real vanilla bean which makes a world of difference in my opinion- I just can't resist things flecked with those teeny little black spots. Like the blueberry jam, it does what any other jam will do. It's a bit thinner than some other jams, making me think it would be particularly excellent over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Yum!

Makes  2.5 half pint jars or 5 4 oz jars

3 cups diced peeled cantaloupe
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
zest of one lemon small lemon or 1/2 large lemon
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 3-oz packet liquid pectin

1. Combine cantaloupe, sugar, and vanilla bean pod and seeds in a medium pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
2. Add lemon zest, juice, and pectin and return to a rapid boil. Cook for an additional 5-10 minutes or until the bubbles are thick and then mixture has somewhat reduced. Remove the vanilla bean pod and discard.
3. Fill prepared jars and process for 10 minutes. 
It's the weekend, so find your local farmer's market, snatch up some fresh produce, and try making some jams! You won't be disappointed. Plus if you can hold on to a few jars you'll already be stocked with delicious homemade gifts for the holidays!


29 July 2013

My Running Essentials

I posted this to Instagram and Facebook already, but on Saturday I completed the couch to five K program I've been gushing about. It was a nine week program which took me a little over 12 weeks to complete due to a couple trips out of town. It feels so good to have accomplished it! I remember coming home from my run on the very first day of the program and fantasizing about the day I would complete it, somehow being able to run for 30 minutes without stopping. That day has arrived and now I can't wait to see what else I can push myself to do! Tomorrow I'm going to begin the follow-up program, 5k to 10k, and hopefully in another 9-12 weeks I'll be running 6.2 miles! I've already rambled on about this in my previous running post (linked above), but if you have any inkling at all that you might want to try running, I can't recommend it (and the c25k program) enough! I've yet to find any activity that is so noticeably beneficial to your body and mind.
I had Colton snap this picture of me after I'd gotten back from my last run to commemorate the event :)
Luckily when I started running I had already been on a fitness kick for a few months so I had a lot of the things I would need- all you really need to run is a pair of good running shoes and clothes that let you move. As I progressed in the program, however, I found that there were a few things that made the running experience not only more enjoyable but often a bit easier. Here is my list of running essentials for the amateur runner:

  1. Running shoes: a good pair of running shoes is a must, and you need to be properly fitted for them to make sure you get the right kind for your foot. Good shoes will keep you comfortable and decrease your chances of injury or strain while bad shoes will guarantee discomfort and eventual injury. Running shoes can be expensive (although you can sometimes find them on sale), but they are well worth it and will last a long time (most shoes will be good for 300-400 miles). There are many brands of running shoes and deciding which kind to get often comes down to price and style, as most brands create shoes for all different types of feet. I currently have a pair of Mizuno Wave Rider 13s which I love and have found to be reliable and comfortable. 
  2. Running shorts:
    The fitblr community is obsessed with Nike Pros, and for good reason. They are made with Nike's dri-FIT material which makes them stay comfy, breathable, and dry throughout your run. They also come in a gazillion awesome colors and prints and look really cute, so that's why I love them. Really, any pair of pants or shorts that are comfy and allow you to move will do the trick, but I like compression shorts and I like the look and feel of Nike Pros... and for 25$ a pop you could do a lot worse.
  3. Sports Bras: Everyone will need a different style/fit, so find what works for you! Personally, I love the colors, variety, support, and price of Forever 21's sports bras so I get all mine from there. Different people may need bras of a higher quality, though. 
  4. Running socks: We are now getting into the things that I didn't realize I needed until I learned about them... and then once I tried them I couldn't imagine going without! Running socks are more cushioned and breathable than normal cotton socks, and they conform to your foot really well. Before I used them my feet would often get uncomfortably hot while I was running (especially in the Tucson heat) which would distract me from having a good workout. Now that I use them, I rarely if ever have any discomfort in my feet. My brand of choice is Balega- they make socks designed for both men and women with different running needs.
  5. Armband: I use my phone not only to listen to music but to run my running app which tells me when to run and records my pace/distance. When I first started, I just held my phone in my hand and it was a huge pain. Literally- it made the shoulder of whichever arm was carrying the phone ache throughout the run and for a while afterwards. Using an armband allows me to have my phone with me while maintaining good form and keeping my hands free. It also gives me a way to keep my house key with me while I'm running instead of hiding it outside my house. There are lots of fancy, high-tech armbands out there, but I've found that a simple one is all I need. I got mine off of amazon for only 6$ (2$ before shipping!) and it's cute, sturdy, and easy to use. The plastic front allows me to use my phone while it's inside the arm band, which is nice. The only downside is that the armband is not totally waterproof, so if I were to run in the rain or sweat an inordinate amount during a workout water might get to my phone. I haven't had any problems with that thus far, though.
  6.  Earbuds: It's so annoying to be running and to have to constantly be adjusting your headphones to try and keep them inside your ears or putting them back in every time they fall out. It totally gets you out of your running groove! They make special running headphones which either hook behind the ear or twist and lock inside your ear, but they can be expensive- just make sure that whatever headphones you use are well fitted to your ear and don't cause you any problems. I found a nice pair at Ross for about 10$ that do the trick.
  7. Running apps: A huge part of the fun of running is competing against your previous paces and distances. Running apps like c25k, 5k to 10k, and Nike+ Running all use GPS to show you how far and how fast you run. It's a great way to keep track of your fitness progress. If you are a beginning runner or are training for a 5k or 10k race, the first two apps also help you get to a certain level of running ability within 9 weeks. I have found I am much more motivated to go running when it feels as though I am accomplishing something by logging days in a set program. It also lets me see how far I've come! 
  8.  Running music: It goes without saying that having something to listen to while you're running (especially something that keeps your motivation and energy up) greatly improves the running experience. I have a few songs that I know will always give me an extra boost, so I make sure they are on my playlist. Pandora also has several stations designed with fitness in mind. So far I've enjoyed the Pop and Hip Hop Power Workout, Dance Cardio, Pop Fitness, and Alternative endurance training. Lastly, this is a great website which lets you put in your average running pace (if you use the apps mentioned above this will be easy to figure out) and gives you a big list of songs that will match your stride as you run. Isn't that awesome?
  9. Yoga mat: After you run, you HAVE to stretch! It helps prevent injury and lactic acid build up, which will make you stiff and sore the next day otherwise. I use a simple yoga mat that I bought for about 15$ at Ross. I use it not only for stretching but for strength training workouts, so it gets a lot of use. Having something you can quickly lay out and then roll back up again ensures that you do your stretches after every run, so a yoga mat is definitely necessary running equipment!
There you have it! My running essentials for the amateur runner. As I begin running longer distances (I'm hoping to be able to do a half or even full marathon within the next couple years!) I'm sure I'll discover more things that are necessary for longer, more difficult runs. For now, these things should be more than enough to help any short-distance runner have a comfortable, safe, and enjoyable running experience!

<3 Em

28 July 2013

Classic Blueberry Pie

I've been interested in cooking and experimenting in the kitchen ever since I was a little girl. On uneventful summer days, my sister and I used to make "creations" by throwing random amounts of random ingredients into a bowl and then baking whatever dough or batter resulted and hoping it would turn into the most marvelous cookie/muffin/cake ever. Most memorable are the slightly-off-tasting-but-actually-not-that-bad green tinted cupcakes and my naive attempt at coffee cake, which I had misinterpreted as cake containing coffee. Needless to say the gummy flat cake flecked with my parents expensive coffee grounds did not impress.

When I got a little bit older, I starting reading my parents' copy of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, picking random recipes based on what ingredients we had in the kitchen, and trying my hand at them. I liked that cookbook because it not only seemed to have the recipe for every dish in existence, the recipes were all the simplest versions of themselves. Most of the time I could just pick something that sounded interesting and see if I could make it without having to ask my parents to buy me some obscure ingredients. Thanks to the BHaG cookbook I made risotto before I knew what risotto was, polenta before I knew what polenta was, and a vast array of other dishes for not much reason other than I was bored and felt like cooking. 

On one of these occasions, I decided I wanted to try to make blueberry pie. I had never made or even eaten blueberry pie, but I loved the way it looked with its dark purple-blue hue, delicate little berries, and flakey lattice top. Fresh blueberries were (are) expensive, so we only had a couple bags of frozen blueberries for me to work with- according to Better Homes and Gardens, that would be just fine! I remember being pleased and surprised by how simple the recipe was. The dough was a simple flour-butter-salt-sugar-water pastry and the filling was not much more than blueberries, sugar, and a touch of lemon juice. While I wasn't courageous enough to attempt a lattice top (opting for a traditional flat top crust instead), I had high hopes for this simple, pretty little pie. When it came out of the oven it smelled and looked perfect, but when we cut into it later that evening my heart fell as the filling dripped out from the pastry, making a thin juicey mess in the pie tin. It still tasted fine, but it was far from the picturesque, delicate blueberry pie I had imagined. I chalked it up to blueberries (especially the frozen variety) containing too much water and never made another attempt, preferring the sturdiness of apples or chocolate cream.

But now I do the grocery shopping for myself, so when I noticed Safeway had 2 lb boxes of fresh blueberries on sale for 5 dollars (versus the 3 dollar pint box I usually buy), I just couldn't resist. It wouldn't have been fiscally responsible! Of course 2 lbs of blueberries is way too much for a single person to eat before they go bad, so something had to be done. I decided it was time to make a fresh, more experienced attempt at blueberry pie. 

This recipe appealed to me because the author of the blog I found it on also lamented too-drippy pie filling, insisting that this pie is sturdy enough to hold it's shape without being so thick as to resemble Jell-O. The filling recipe is also very simple, but not as simple as the Better Homes and Gardens method, which makes me feel more confident because for some reason I tend to think more steps/ingredients=more consistent, controllable, and delicious results. 
 The only change I made was to use my favorite pastry crust recipe, which uses a mix of shortening and butter instead of exclusively one or the other. I like the flavor and crumbliness that butter lends to the crust, but find that shortening adds flakiness and helps keep the bottom crust from becoming thin, flat, and hard. 

Here is the link to the original recipe.

2.5 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup shortening
6-8 tbsp ice water

6 cups fresh blueberries, divided
1 granny smith apple
2 tsp lemon zest
2 tsp lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp instant tapioca
1/8 tsp salt
2 tbsp unsalted butter
 1 large egg beaten with 1 tsp water
1. Line a baking sheet with foil. Place on the bottom rack of the oven. Preheat over to 400 degrees.
2. Make the dough by combining flour, salt, and sugar. Use a pastry cutter (or your hands) to cut in the butter and shortening until the mixture resembles course crumbs. Add ice water 2 tbsp until a cohesive (not sticky) dough is formed. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for one hour.
3. Place three cups of blueberries in a medium saucepan and cook on low, mashing with a spoon or potato masher until the berries have cooked down. They should turn into a thick, slightly chunky blueberry compote. Remove from heat and let cool.
4. Peel, core, and grate the granny smith apple. Place inside a paper towel and squeeze out as much excess liquid as possible. 
5. To the cooked berries, add the apple, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, tapioca, salt, and remaining blueberries. Stir to combine.
6. Roll out half of the pastry dough to form a 12 inch disc. Lay inside a 9 inch pie pan and trim edges to no more than 1 inch excess. Spoon the filling into the dish and spread evenly. Cut the 2 tbsp unsalted butter into pieces and place on top of the filling.
7. Roll out the other half of the pastry dough. For a classic crust, simple lay the disc of dough over the filled pan and cut 4-6 slits in the top for ventilation. For a lattice top, use a pizza or ravioli slicer (or a sharp knife) and cut 10-11 long strips in the rolled out disc of dough. Lay 5 strips vertically across the filling, spacing evenly. Fold up strips 1, 3, and 5 halfway and place a strip horizontally so that it crosses over strips 2 and 4. Lay strips 1, 3, and 5 back down. Repeat, folding up strips 2 and 4 and laying a strip horizontally over 1, 3, and 5. Do the same for the other half of the pie. Here's a visual explanation. 
8. Cut away excess dough from edges. Use the egg wash to adhere to top crust/strips to the bottom crust. Use your fingers or a fork to make a decorative pattern around the edge. Brush the top crust with the egg wash. 
8. Bake the pie for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 350, and bake for 30-40 additional minutes, or until filling is bubbling and crust is golden brown. If necessary, line the outer crust with tin foil during the baking process to keep it from burning.

27 July 2013

The Vacation that Never Was

For the past three years, I've taken a couple weeks in the middle of July off of work and headed up to the redwood forests of Northern California to, well, work. I have the honor of cooking for the Mendocino Sufi Youth Retreat, a wonderful 5 day spiritual retreat for 18-29 year-olds. I've been attending the youth retreat as a regular camper since I was 16 (the age limit has since been changed), and when I was offered the opportunity to take over the kitchen responsibilities at age 20 I jumped at the chance.
my first year at the retreat!
Each year it has been quite a bit of work in the weeks leading up to the retreat- I not only have to design a five day menu, I need to make sure there are plenty of vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, and dairy free options at each meal, test all the recipes I haven't made before, convert every recipe to fit the number of campers expected at the retreat (usually between 25-35), buy all the groceries... and then drive the two days up to camp where I usually work from about 6:30am-11pm in the kitchen with only a few hours here and there for meals, errands, and relaxing. It is intense, to say the least. I love doing it though, and I have no hesitation in saying I'll happily do it again next year.

This being my third year, things really seemed to click and I felt like I had a pretty good handle on everything I was trying to do. Nothing came out inedible (I'd say most things came out pretty good!) and meals were never more then 5 minutes off schedule. I'm going to say that is at least in part due to the multitude of timed cooking competitions I watch... somehow I've internalized Gordon Ramsey shouting "two minutes out on risotto!" and it has made me a more punctual cook.

I never remember or have the time/energy to take pictures of the food I make or the things that go on in the kitchen, but luckily some people do! Here's a few:

Salmon baked with lemon, butter, and dill
Simple risotto
Ratatouille- one of my favorite simple summertime vegan meals- the hardest part is making the spiral!

Everyone did a fantastic job helping out and it was a really fun, delicious year. That said, once everything was said and done and the kitchen had been scrubbed clean, Colton and I were greatly looking forward to embarking on the second half of our trip- the vacation half!

We were planning on spending the night in Fort Bragg (a coastal town about 30 minutes away from the camp) with my parents and then leaving the next day for San Francisco, where we would spend two nights with a couple friends. From there we would enjoy a leisurely road-trip back to Prescott over the course of two days, where we would pick up Clementine and then head back to Tucson with a day to spare before having to go back to work.

As you may have been able to glean from the title, we did not get very far into these plans.

We were able to enjoy our time in Mendocino and Fort Bragg, and joined the rest of the retreat-goers for the traditional drink at the only bar in the tiny little town.

Afterwards, we met up with my parents (along with my sister) had a nice Thai dinner which I greatly appreciated not having to cook, and went to bed early in order to be up bright and early to begin the next leg of our trip. When we awoke we had breakfast, took a short walk around town, did some laundry and some last minute shopping and then we headed off to the bay area.

We made it about an hour to a town called Cloverfield. Just a few miles past, my engine began making a loud knocking noise and I realized I needed to get off the highway immediately. Although my Dad had changed the oil before we had left for California, we soon found that I was completely out of oil and the lack of it had likely caused some engine damage. With the help of a slightly senile albeit very helpful passerby and AAA, we were able to get the car towed back to Cloverfield and put enough oil in it so that we would be able to drive to the town's mechanic the next day (it was about 7pm by the time we got back into town). We stayed at an overpriced Super 8, ordered takeout, and went to bed hoping to get the problem resolved early enough to get to stick mostly to our original plan, minus a day.

We took the car to the mechanic the next morning and went across the street to have brunch and pass the time. Eventually they called to inform us that the oil was not leaking from the oil pan but from some other part of the engine (how this occurred I have no idea) and that unfortunately the damage was bad enough that the car would need a whole new engine. After a lot of stressful phone calls, tears, and discussion, we decided to pay to have the leak fixed and attempt to drive the car home with the damaged engine, knowing that it could possibly seize up but hoping it would at least make it on a slow trip back to Arizona. We wound up spending another night in Cloverdale, this time deciding to scrap all plans of our vacation and just head straight back to Prescott.

We got the partially fixed car around noon the next day after shelling out about 400 dollars. Tentatively, we headed out on the road. Things seemed to be going well for the first 30 minutes, but just as we were entering Santa Rosa, the engine seized up and we wound up having to coast into the nearest exit via the shoulder and into a gas station. From there it was pretty clear we would not be leaving California with this car.

Luckily, my Dad was in the area so he was able to come pick us up, help us call a towing company to take the car to a junkyard, set us up in a hotel, and arrange an alternate route home. After discussing a couple different options, we finally decided to ride a combination of amtrak buses and trains over the next 24 hours which would eventually land us in Maricopa, a town close enough to Colton's parents for them to come pick us up and take us to Prescott, where we would pick up Clem and one of my parents' other cars and drive all the way back down to Tucson. Our relaxing post-work vacation had now become a stressful 3 day ordeal which left me with a drained bank account, no car, and a long ride home on public transportation.

We left Santa Rosa on a bus at 8:30 the next morning, transferred onto a train a couple hours later in Martinez, arrived in Bakersfield 6 hours later where we got on another bus, arrived in LA where we had a 3 hour layover, and then finally boarded a train at 10 pm which we rode until 5:30 the next morning, finally debarking in a state of grogginess and exhaustion.

We did try to have a bit of fun throughout all this, since we weren't going to be getting the vacation we hoped for. We played a lot of cards, watched movies on my laptop, listened to audiobooks, took silly selfies on the bus, and sampled the amtrak's outrageously expensive selection of food and drink.
By the time all of this was over with and we were in Prescott with little Clementine, we pretty much only had enough time to go to sleep, get up the next morning, head to Tucson, and immediately clock in at work. Hence the Vacation that Never Was.

The good news is that we are now settled back in Tucson, my summer classes are over, youth retreat is over, and I now have about a month before starting my last semester of college during which I can finally relax for a little bit and look for a new car. It was a rough trip to say the least, but I've never been more happy to be home!

<3 Em

02 June 2013

I think I love running now...

As you know, I've been on a major health/fitness/weight loss kick since January of this year. My workout routine has had a lot of variation over the months to accommodate my hectic school and work schedule as well as my abilities, but I've basically been trying to work out for 30 mins to an hour a day, 3-5 days a week. My strength training routine hasn't changed much in 2 years, but I've been experimenting with different forms of cardio to keep things interesting and figure out what I like. I started off with some amateur hip hop workout videos on youtube, moved on to more intense aerobics/dance videos, got really excited about everything Deanne Berry did for a while, and now I'm on to running with the very popular Couch to 5k program- and through some miracle, running has become my favorite.

I have never, EVER been a runner. In middle school and high school I absolutely dreaded the days that we had to run the mile and would always "run the straights, walk the curves" because i knew there was no way I'd get through it otherwise. I would see the cross country team running after school and question why on earth anyone would put themselves through that willingly while secretly marveling at their ability to run for more than a few minutes. I did begin going to the gym in high school/throughout college and could run fairly successfully on the treadmill, but I openly detested running outside. It was so much harder than running in an air-conditioned gym with your own little tv screen, and you couldn't just step off and quit whenever you wanted- you'd have to walk back to where you started.

There was always a part of me, though, that wished I could be a real runner- one of those people that is not only able to run outside for long periods of time but actually enjoys it. I decided to try couch to 5k simply because a bunch of people I follow on tumblr were talking about it, and I think it was one of the best fitness-related decisions I ever made. I'm not all the way there yet, but I'm actually on my way to becoming a real runner! I look forward to every workout, my endurance and stamina has increased exponentially in just the 5 weeks I've been with the program, and I think/talk about running and how much I like it pretty much all the time.

If any small part of you has any desire whatsoever to get into running, I seriously cannot recommend this program (and the smart phone app which is incredibly useful and only a couple bucks) enough. At the risk of sounding like every single other person who used this program and wrote or talked about it online: if I could do it and end up LOVING running, anyone can have the same results.

I'm halfway through the 9 week program right now, so I still have a few more weeks left but here is what I can tell you about the program and the first few weeks:

From what I can gather, the program is divided into three 3-week segments. The first 3 weeks are designed to basically just get your body used to the act of running without concentrating very much on endurance. The running segments are very short, but if (like me) you aren't used to running at all, they are still difficult. Not difficult enough to be overwhelming, but definitely enough to feel like a valid and challenging workout. The second 3-week segment is designed to transition you from running short periods to being able to run for longer periods. While the first three weeks were focused on getting your body into running-mode, I feel like the second three weeks are much more focused on getting your mind into running mode. By week 4, you are already capable of running but it may still feel difficult and mentally exhausting to push yourself to keep going. I definitely had to spend entire jogging segments during the fourth week convincing myself that I could do it and that I shouldn't quit. Right now I am on the fifth week, which has also been called the hump week or the "oh shit" week. My next run will be a full 20 minute jog that for the first time will not be broken up with walking segments- many people have felt that this week/jog is the big mental challenge of the program and once you are able to complete it the final weeks will feel relatively easy. The final three weeks are designed to simply extend the amount of time you are running (without any walking) until you reach 30 minutes and ideally 3.1 miles.

I'm not going to lie, I did not love running right from the first workout. I enjoyed completing the workouts because I felt like I was making progress and got a huge boost of endorphins each time, but the running itself felt like hell for the first few weeks. To make it easier, I would try to mentally trick myself by thinking over and over, "I love this! This feels soo great, I'm so glad I'm doing this!" while feeling like I was going to throw up and die. Around the beginning of the fourth week, though, something shifted and I no longer felt exhausted a minute or two into each run. I started feeling as though I could keep going at the end of each section and was able to get into a 'zone' where I didn't even think about the fact that I was running, I just ran and let my mind wander. And that's when the real excitement set in- I was running, I wasn't hating it, and I was actually kind of good at it! SO- that is all to say: if you try this program and have trouble pushing through each workout in the beginning like I did, just keep pushing and trying your best and eventually you will experience the same mental switch and begin to feel exhilarated instead of exhausted!

The most amazing thing about the program is the way it is designed really, really works. Many weeks I was so doubtful looking ahead to the next workouts, unsure I would be able to complete them. The first two weeks only have you running 60-90 seconds which sounds like nothing but actually feel exhausting in the beginning! I was terrified of week three, when I would be running 3 minute segments, and even more terrified for week 4 when I would be running 5 minutes at a time. Miraculously, though, the program really does prepare you in advance for each level of difficulty and yesterday I ran two 8 minute segments and barely felt winded! That's a far cry from week three, when I had to seriously struggle to get past the two minute mark.

SO now that I've rambled on for several hundred words about this amazing program, I want to finish by saying that out of all the benefits that running offers- weight loss, muscle tone, stamina, energy, a healthy heart and lungs- the most valuable thing I have received through running and in particular couch to 5k is an amazing amount of confidence. I never thought I would be able to run for 3 minutes at a time without stopping, let alone 20-30 minutes and yet this program helped me prove to myself that I can and that it will be fun, too. It has made me feel physically energized and toned and mentally motivated and strong-willed. If you don't want to run for the physical benefits, the mental benefits are more than enough reason to get started!

Ok, so there's my massive endorsement of the couch to 5k program. If you are at all intrigued by the idea of running, you should absolutely start out with this! Maybe in the next couple weeks I'll do a post about my favorite running/fitness clothes/gear which have made running that much more comfortable and fun :)

<3 Em

24 May 2013

Homemade Summer: Vanilla Bean Marshmallows

A few weeks ago in a post I mentioned that I wanted to do something I dubbed "homemade summer", where every week or two I would make, photograph, and write about something that is typically bought pre-made but is possible to make in a home kitchen. In our world of prepackaged and processed foods, many people don't even realize it's possible- let alone fairly easy- to make things like marshmallows, condiments, yogurt, etc at home. But it is possible, and the results are often so, sooo much better than what you would get at the store.

I thought marshmallows would be a fun way to kick off this project since they are pretty simple, delicious, and arguably the most important part of the quintessential summer treat- the s'more. I made a pretty big batch and gave some to my dad for his birthday. This recipe is really easy (I whipped it together in about an hour before I went to work on my birthday) and uses ingredients you likely already have on hand. The result is a soft, spongy, marshmallow that acts just the way a marshmallow should: it roasts over a fire, melts in hot cocoa, and squishes nicely between a couple graham crackers. It also tastes just like a store bought marshmallow, only better! The vanilla flavor is more present and it tastes sugary and fresh instead of processed. If you're so inclined, I'd definitely recommend whipping up a bag of these to take on your next camping trip instead of opting for the store-bought stuff!

I used Smitten Kitchen's recipe for marshmallows, only I decreased the gelatin slightly as I only had 3 envelopes on hand.

Confectioners sugar for dusting/tossing marshmallows
3 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1 cup cold water, divided
2 cups cane sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp salt
2 large egg whites
1 scraped vanilla bean (I also added about 1/4 tsp vanilla to up the vanilla flavor, as my vanilla bean was a bit old and dried out)

Oil the sides and bottom of a 9 by 13 square baking dish. I own only one ceramic rectangular casserole dish which I have used for just about every recipe that requires a casserole dish on this website... so I made do with that. Something with sharp edges, like a sheet cake pan, would be much better though.

Dust the dish with powdered sugar

Use an electric mixer to beat the egg whites until they just form stiff peaks. Reserve in a separate bowl for later.
 Place the gelatin in the (cleaned) bowl of the mixer. Pour half a cup of the cold water over the gelatin to allow it to set.

In a saucepan, combine sugar, corn syrup, salt and the remaining 1/2 cup water over low heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. When the mixture has become clear, raise the temperature to medium and allow the mixture to boil without stirring until it has reached a temperature of 240 degrees F. I do not own a candy thermometer, but Deb says this will take about 12 minutes so I set my timer to that and it seemed to be the right amount of time :)

Remove pan from heat and pour directly over gelatin in the mixer bowl, stirring until gelatin is dissolved. With the whisk attachment, beat the gelatin/sugar mixture until it is thick, white, and tripled in volume (about 6-10 mins). It will look a lot like marshmallow fluff, and it's just as gooey and delicious!

 Add the whipped egg whites back into the mixer bowl along with the vanilla bean scrapings and/or any other flavorings you'd like to use.
Whip until combined, and then dump the whole mixture into the oiled, dusted baking dish. Don't worry too much about getting every last bit in there, as this stuff is really sticky and gooey and hard to work with without making a mess! Dust the top with a generous amount of powdered sugar.

Let the marshmallows set, uncovered in the fridge for several hours or overnight.

Once the marsh have set, run a thin knife along the edges of the dish and then use your fingers to slowly pry the giant marshmallow from the dish. Working on a counter dusted with plenty of powdered sugar, cut the marshmallow mat into strips and then 1 inch squares

Toss the marshmallows with even more powdered sugar to keep the sticky cut sides from holding them together. And that's all there is to it! Fresh, homemade marshmallows perfect for your next camping trip or hot cocoa mug (or even a cup of coffee in the morning!)

<3 Em

23 May 2013

I'm Feelin' Twenty-Two

As much as I find myself wanting to resist liking Taylor Swift or any of her impossibly catchy songs, I can't help but secretly sing along to every one that comes on the radio while I'm alone in my car. Girl just tells it like it is, you know? Anyways they've been playing '22' on the station I listen to non-stop these days, and it's been constantly stuck in my head. This is partially due to the fact that I myself have just turned 22, and I get a small amount of glee every time I can accurately shout, "I don't know about you, but I'm feelin' twenty-two!" at the chorus. It's the little things.

My birthday was just two days after the last day of my spring semester, so everything happened in a blur of activity and excitement. I had to work on my actual birthday, but the next day Colton and I left for Prescott to spend time with my parents for my dad's birthday and Mother's day. After that, we took off on a week long trip to California which was awesome! We went to Disneyland/California Adventure and then spent several days in San Diego hanging out on the beach and eating lots and lots of food. The trip was part of Colton's birthday gift to me as well as my own gift to myself and the chance to take a week off work, spend a day at the Disney parks, and just relax and do whatever was sooooo nice.

Hopefully now that we are back I can get back into the swing of blogging fairly regularly. I am enrolled in a couple online summer classes this semester which have already proven themselves to be very intense! Last night I stayed up till 4 am working on my midterm and was able to turn it in with less than a minute (of the three hour time limit) to spare. It's a lot of work! But it will be worth it to have an easier course load this fall. That will be taking up some of my time though, and on top of that I am once again cooking for the Mendocino Sufi Youth Retreat in July. That means another week of meals to design and test followed by a lot of grocery shopping and finally 5 days of intense work from pretty much 6am to midnight. It's takes a LOT of planning and work but I really enjoy doing it :)

Other than that, I'm hoping to spend this summer continuing my regimen of healthy eating and fitness (I am 5 weeks into the couch to 5k plan right now. Have you heard of it? I think I'll do another post on just that later!) while also squeezing in time for the activities I really enjoy, like cooking and crafting. It would be ideal if I had enough extra time to really invest in my Etsy shop this summer and get it off the ground, but with so much else on my plate that might have to take the back burner. We'll see! Regardless, it's looking to be a fun and exciting last summer in college!

SO, that's what's been going on in my world the past few weeks and what's on the horizon. Before I go, here are a few pics from my birthday/vacation:

 Colton made breakfast for us both in the morning, which we ate outside in our little yard next to the cactus garden. Delicious blueberries and strawberries wrapped in crepes and topped with whipped cream with a side of center cut bacon- which is only 25 calories a slice! My kind of bacon.

I took my birthday as an opportunity to update my measurements since I hadn't done so since the 20 lb loss mark. I posted this picture on instagram with the caption that (as of my bday) I had lost 35.6 pounds and a total of 36.5 inches, which is the length I'm showing with the tape measure. I'm so proud of what I've accomplished by returning to a healthy lifestyle this year! I am now at about about a 38 lb overall loss and looking forward to hitting the 40 lb mark!

Colton had me pick out a necklace that I wanted on Etsy for my birthday and this is the one I chose- it is a Doctor Who reference which appeals to my nerdy side and love for that show, but it's also really beautiful and pairs well with my style.

Though it's probably not very safe, when Clementine rides in the car she doesn't want to sit anywhere but on my lap. She prefers to put her head right in the crook of my elbow while I drive as well, even if that means she has to sit up to do so. She's a super weirdo. Luckily she's small and light enough that it barely makes a difference while I drive. Colton took this picture on our way from Tucson to Prescott the day after my birthday and Clem just looks so very pleased with the world. She should have her own talk show with that smile.
Walking from our hotel to the parks on the morning of our Disney day!

Nearing the castle! Gosh, is there anything more fun than disneyland? We had the best time. It was hot (over 100), but the lines weren't too long anywhere and we zipped back and forth between the two parks half a dozen times, experiencing everything. We rode space mountain 3 times (it was the first and last ride we did as well) and California Screamin' twice, and those were definitely our favorites. Through some miracle neither of us got too cranky, hungry, hot, or tired and we just had a blast from open to close!
Indiana Jones line selfie...
Instead of spending lots of money on food inside the parks, we brought our lunch in and stored it in the lockers inside Disneyland. Bagel sandwiches, sliced veggies, trail mix, and chips... without waiting in long lines or forking over tons of cash. Definitely recommended! Although, we did split a sundae from the ice cream parlor later that afternoon :)

I wish I had taken more pictures but as usual I got caught up in actually having the experiences and didn't stop to photograph them! Colton has more pictures on his phone of our ride pictures, san diego, etc which I will put in a later post. Hope your week is coming to a nice close!

<3 Em