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