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Lunch Lady

*Disclaimer* This post along with my previous one are intended to be celebrations of summer vacation. By no means am I complaining about my “real life” the other 10 months out of the year…. I am simply stating the facts. I LOVE my job and wouldn’t trade it for the world. And for that I am most grateful. Now on to more important things like this ridiculously tasty salad.     

I know I promised not to harp on the many reasons why I love summer vacation… but I’m recanting on my promise (tsk, tsk) because there is one more thing that I have been relishing extra this summer. Lunch…. that crucial mid-day elixir that gets us through the work day. “But… you’re not working. So why is lunch so remarkable these days?” you may ask. Let me explain…

Unlike my qualms with a typical breakfast spread I am actually quite fond of traditional lunchtime foods. Salads, soups, sandwiches, spreads… now those are my kinda foods. Rather my lunchtime woes are once again rooted in the circumstances surrounding my meals on a typical school day:

  1. Timing – Hungry or not here it comes! My lunchtime coincides with that of my students so it is reliably from 11:25 a.m.-12:20 p.m. (this is a very loose interpretation… see below). Therefore, I eat when the clock tells me to rather than when my body says it’s time. Sure, I could dig into my lunchbox at 1:30 if I wanted to (I am the teacher after all!) but I would have to brace myself for a 6 year old inquisition. What are you eating? … That looks/smells funny!… Ewww! I hate that!… I’m hungry too. I want a snack. Hence, I choose Option 1.
  2. Lunch “Break?” – By the time I walk my kids to the cafeteria and use my super teacher powers to squelch the inevitable tears over lost lunch cards/seating arrangement gripes/what mom packed in Johnny’s lunchbox it is 11:35 a.m. By the time I go to the office and check my physical mailbox followed by getting back to my classroom to check my virtual mailbox it is 11:45 a.m. By the time I respond to said mail (and voicemails and handwritten notes) it is 12:00 p.m. By the time I set up the excessive amount of materials required for our hands-on math workshop it is 12:15 p.m. and time to sprint to the bathroom (even my bathroom breaks are time restricted… not even nature trumps the rigidity of a teacher’s schedule) and make it back to the front doors just in time to greet the rosy-cheeked children coming in from recess. The aforementioned schedule is actually the description of a highly desired “free” lunch period. On the other days I’m committed to meetings with my colleagues/administration/parents which means all those other tasks get nixed and/or completed in a condensed tornado like fashion. So there is no actual “lunch time”. Consuming my meal is entwined in all of my other mid-day duties… it is multi-tasking at its best.
  3. Menu – As I mentioned above I have a propensity for most foods deemed lunch worthy. The complicating matter is not what I want to eat, but rather what I can eat at school. Anything that needs to be eaten warm is out of the question because of the precious time that it would take to walk to the teachers’ lounge (which is on the other side of the building), stand in front of the microwave (which I avoid at all costs to begin with), and then walk back to my classroom. Meals that require more than one utensil are also off the acceptable foods list because they entail actually sitting down and using both hands which does not bode well with my multi-tasking ways. Garlic, ginger, parmesan cheese… not in my lunch! Why? Because have you ever walked into someone’s office after they devoured an over-stuffed tuna sandwich?! Yea… we all have and we all remember it because it’s scarring. Hence why foods with pungent smells are off the menu as well. I’d like for my students not to forever associate me with an undesirable aroma (plus there is also no better way to lose the focus of a 6 year old then to invade their nostrils with a “stinky” smell). Lastly, given the skyrocketing percentage of young children with food allergies I have inevitably had a child with nut allergies in my class every year. This means no nuts or nut products in the classroom for risk of cross-contamination. So much for that un-picky palate.

But in the mystical land of summer vacation there are no time restraints, meetings, tasks to tend to, or children to care for. Lunch = eating whatever I want whenever I want.  And I love it. This summer I’ve eaten hot meals, meals with stinky cheeses and nuts galore, meals that I prepared minutes (rather than hours) before consuming, and meals that required sitting and actually chewing. I’ve experimented with new recipes that are school-friendly and those that will have to be reserved for summers, holidays,and snow days (we’ll broach the topic of these little gems come winter!) Come 11:25 a.m. on September 5th nostalgia may be tugging on the hems of my first day of school clothes, but come 12:20 p.m. when I get my first “I missed you at lunch!” hug it will all be worth it!

This salad has been one of my favorite creations of the summer. It’s cool and crisp and the sweet agave and rice vinegar, savory soy sauce, and rich sesame oil meld together perfectly. The combination of tofu, edamame, sunflower seeds, brown rice, and colorful veggies will satisfy your taste buds as well as all of your nutritional needs (protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals… it’s got it all!) And with the school year just around the corner the fact that it can be made the night before and eaten cold with just one utensil makes it a winner!

Tofu-Edamame Salad

Serves 1

Ingredients

Salad:

  • 3 oz. baked tofu (I bake a whole block of tofu at a time using this recipe http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recipe/easy-baked-tofu and use it in different dishes throughout the week)
  • 1/4 cup cooked edamame
  • 1/2 cup cooked brown rice (I have also used quinoa in this recipe with equally as good results)
  • 1/4 cup chopped red pepper
  • 1/4 cup shredded carrot
  • 2 TBSP chopped scallions
  • 1TBSP roasted sunflower seeds

Dressing:

  • 1tsp agave nectar (or honey)
  • 1 tsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1tsp natural rice vinegar

Directions:

  1. Combine salad ingredients in a medium bowl.
  2. Whisk together dressing ingredients in a small bowl.
  3. Drizzle dressing over the salad and toss to coat.
  4. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for lunch on the go.
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One of my favorite things about where we live is that on Sundays an incredible farmers’ market is held just five minutes away. I’ve already detailed the reasons behind my love for farmers’ markets and eating local so I won’t be redundant, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that there is an undeniable air of magic at the market during the height of the summer harvest. The tables at each booth, with the bold colors of the abounding produce, rival a painter’s palate. The menagerie of items available at this time of year is unparalleled… ranging from classic favorites (peaches and tomatoes) to lesser known gems (zucchini blossoms and Romanesco cauliflowers). While I love to “window shop” at the market and could spend hours ogling the seasonal bounty, I always have my list in hand and rarely deviate from it. Here comes my the part where I make my (embarrassingly pathetic) public confession… I am a compulsive menu planner and spend my Saturday evenings pouring through my recipe archives and perusing my favorite websites until I have all of our meals planned for the week (and I like it!). So impulse purchases simply do not fit into my neatly organized (OCD driven) plans.


But this week my routine was thrown for a loop that came in the form of a weekend wedding in NYC. Because I spent my Saturday night socializing in my favorite little black dress and sipping on adult beverages (as opposed to sitting alone on the couch in my pajamas and snacking on cereal) I arrived at the market list-less. In addition, Nick and I spent a pretty penny to stay the night at the swanky venue (NYC’s Mandarin Hotel) so we vowed to enjoy every last second of it. This meant leaving the city at noon and arriving at the tail end of the market when the pickings are slim.


I made a beeline for my favorite booth in hopes of at least being able to snag some of our weekly staples. In doing so, I stumbled upon an oversized barrel of beets which sparked memories of a very tasty beet and potato salad that I enjoyed while in Italy last month. I’m pretty sure I was beginning to salivate when my daydream was interrupted by the voice of fellow market-goer. “If you marinate those in some balsamic vinegar and then grill them they are really great!” Hmmm… roasted? Yes. Boiled? Yes. But grilled? “I’ve never made them that way… sounds delicious!” I replied. I had already started to shovel the beets into my bag… I was in a time crunch and I could ponder the desired cooking method at a later time. But, my foodie friend was just warming up. He emphatically gestured towards a basket of fresh garlic. “The beets really are delicious, but this is the BEST when grilled! It’ll melt in your mouth and has none of the usual overwhelming pungency!” He continued his endorsement with instructions for prepping and grilling, but I had zoned out because he had already sold me. It had little to do with what he said and a lot to do with how he said it. The giddy fervor in his voice was likably familiar. I realized it echoed the tone of my own voice when speaking about a culinary discovery and it was infectious! Our conversation was rushed along by the bellowing voice of the farmer… “Closing time! Buck a bunch! Buck a basket!” (a perk of going to the market late!) I had no clue what I was going to do with this garlic but I had caved to the impulse buy.


“Was that guy talking to you at the market weird?” Nick innocently inquired when we got home. I couldn’t help but grin at the thought of the same sentiment crossing the mind of others… but in response to my most recent recipe rant. “Nope… just passionate about his produce!” I defended.

The garlic taunted me from our countertop for the remainder of the day. This perfect specimen of fresh produce without a matching recipe was challenging my creativity. Fortunately, I found my inspiration the next day in the dips/spreads section while finishing my shopping at Whole Foods. Roasted garlic hummus! Yes, I would combine the lonely garlic with my newfound love of freshly cooked chickpeas.

And so this morning I prepped my garlic for its glorious fate. I gave it a quick trim, moisturized it with a drizzle of olive oil, dressed it in the shiniest of foil, and delicately placed it on the grill grates. My only regret was that no one else was home to savor the hypnotic aroma that permeated the air as the barbecue worked its magic. An hour later and it revealed itself to be everything that had been promised…. mellow, creamy, and totally dream worthy. I toyed with the idea of spreading this buttery, nutty deliciousness on every cracker/slice of bread I could find, but resisted in order to preserve my original plan (and my breath). And so I wed the garlic to my go-to hummus recipe and the marriage was a blissful one. The garlic was subtle enough to preserve the integrity of the hummus, yet flavorful enough to lend some welcome spice to the original. I celebrated this perfect union along with some crudités all through lunch.

I would love to end this post with a lesson learned and statement of intent to head to the  farmers’ market without a list more often… but who am I kidding?! Apologies in advance to my new friend from the market… but unless you want to make a permanent Saturday night reservation for meal planning time at Casa de Martha you likely won’t be foodie-talking me into more impulse buys any time soon!

Grill-Roasted Garlic 

 Ingredients:

  • 1 bulb of fresh garlic
  • olive oil

Directions:

  1. Preheat grill to medium and adjust for indirect heat.
  2. Cut off the top 1/2 inch of the bulb to expose the tops of the individual cloves. Remove any loose, papery outer layers.
  3. Place the bulb with the cut side up on a square of aluminum foil. Drizzle with olive oil.
  4. Bring up opposite edges of the foil and seal with a double fold. Fold the remaining edges together to completely enclose garlic. Leave a bit of space for steam to build.
  5. Place garlic on the grill over the unlit side.
  6. Grill, covered, for 45 minutes to an hour or until the garlic feels soft when squeezed.
  7. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Roasted Garlic Hummus

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups chickpeas (I used freshly cooked chickpeas, but canned works as well)
  • 2 TBSP tahini
  • 1 head of roasted garlic
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp salt
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 TBSP reserved chickpea cooking liquid/liquid from can/water
  • 1 TBSP olive oil

Directions:

  1. Place the chickpeas, tahini, cumin, and salt in the bowl of a food processor.
  2. Squeeze the cloves of garlic from their skin into the bowl along with the chickpea mixture.
  3. Process until the mixture is finely ground. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  4. With the processor running, pour the lemon juice and cooking liquid/water through the feeder tube in a steady stream.
  5. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and process for an additional minute.
  6. With the processor running, pour the olive oil through the feeder tube in a steady stream.
  7. Scrape down the bowl and continue to process until the hummus is smooth.
  8. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator covered for up to a week.

Note: I prefer my hummus on the thicker side. For a creamier texture add more water or olive oil until the hummus has reached your desired consistency.

Bed and Breakfast

The perks to having summers off are endless, but in fear of igniting a firestorm of comments  about how teachers are overpaid and underworked (the local media forums seem to be handling that just fine on their own) I’ll avoid the laundry list of reasons why I love summer vacation. I’ll even spare you year round workers from having to quell the green monster that would emerge after reading a “top 10” list and rather I’ll simply highlight my top two. Narrowing it down to just two was easy as these are the two things that I count down the days till in June and nostalgically pine for come September. The two things that spawn a snow day dance just so I can have a taste of them in the midst of the winter blues. The two things my husband makes snide remarks about on a daily basis because my pleasure in them is laughably palpable. So without further ado here are the top two perks of summer vacation according to Ms. Stoever…

1. Bed – While sleeping in and being awoken solely by bodily cues is quite nice (the dreaded alarm clock takes summers off as well), the perk “bed” actually refers to my post-wake up routine. Each morning I roll out of bed, make the 15 step journey from our bedroom to the kitchen, pour myself an oversized mug of coffee (which conveniently has already been made by Nick before he left for work and has now cooled to the perfect temperature), and then make the return journey back to bed. With my cup of Joe at my side I climb back into the preserved warmth of my bed, prop myself up with the excess of pillows, wriggle back under the duvet, grab my book iPad off the nightstand, and I am ready to settle into my bookworm’s paradise. The beauty of it is that I can truly lose myself amidst the pages of a good read (or in the case of my current book selection {cough} the Fifty Shades Trilogy {cough} … amidst the pages of pure smut).There are no time constraints, no tired, heavy eyes to combat, and no work priorities to contend with. I am typically only brought back to reality by my grumbling stomach nagging to be tended to. Which brings me to my second perk…

2. Breakfast – You’ve heard it all before… breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Research has proven that a healthful breakfast positively impacts your daily performance (energy levels, concentration, etc.) as well as your overall weight management, heart health, and quality of your diet. Unfortunately for me for most of my life breakfast was my least favorite meal of the day. My first qualm with breakfast is in its timing. I have zero appetite while I still have Sandman remnants in my eyes (and these days before I’ve got a steady flow of caffeine in my veins). I need at least an hour before I’m ready to “break fast.” On school days I literally roll out of bed and into my car to head to the gym by 6am. Getting up any earlier just to warm up for breakfast is a hard limit for me (book reference anyone?!) So that means eating a small piece of fruit on my way into the gym and packing a portable breakfast for afterwards (typically plain yogurt and nuts or on lazy days a Larabar or Whole Foods Green Superfood bar).  This means shoveling spoonfuls of food into my mouth while simultaneously tending to the flood of emails that overtook my inbox during the night and making final preparations before the tornado of children arrive. I’m pretty sure this behavior meets at least some criteria for mindless eating (sorry Brian Wansink). The bottom line is that my school day breakfasts lack lifestyle and palate appeal. My second qualm is with a typical breakfast spread. I loathe milk, my textural issues make me gag at even the sight of something mushy (soupy oatmeal, soggy cereal), I’m a lacto-vegetarian (no eggs or meat), and I try to avoid heavy carbo-loaded items (bagels, etc). My quest to create well-rounded breakfasts out of these limited options has led me to eat excessive amounts of unsweetened Greek and soy yogurts, pure fruit and nut bars, and the occasional homemade cereal or muffin. I know I’ve come a long way from my Light and Fit yogurt and Special K days, but the monotony has caught up with me and I’m sure a little variety could go a long way nutrient wise as well.

So I vowed this summer to not only get creative with my breakfasts, but to actually sit and consciously make spoon to mouth movements and savor (or at least taste!) each bite. My mission has been fruitful (both literally and figuratively) thus far and knowing that a new, healthful, and (9 times out of 10) delicious recipe is waiting to be made in my kitchen makes tearing myself away from my morning reading bearable. I’ve learned to tweak things to please my personal tastes (i.e. overcooked oatmeal that any normal person would turn their nose at), I’ve taken some new food risks (chia seed pudding?!), and I’ve found ways to bring new life and nutrients to my old favorites (i.e. yogurt parfaits). I’ve been sure to test out recipes that could be made the night before in hopes of heading into the new school year with a broader breakfast artillery. Dare I say I am really liking breakfast these days?! Watch out dinner!

Below are pictures of and links to some of my favorite recipes thus far. With the exception of the caramelized banana oatmeal all of the recipes came from bloggers I follow. I did minimal (if any) tweaking to each (swapping a different fruit or nut, omitting optional items like protein powder, etc.) so re-writing them seemed senseless. Plus these sites are all hosted by incredible bloggers whose posts are totally worth browsing.

You can be certain that I’ll be enjoying the remaining days of bed and breakfasting to the last drop!

Top Row:                                                                  

Caramelized Banana Oatmeal – Martha Stoever Original (recipe below)

Nutty Strawberry Banana Quinoa – Ambitious Kitchen

Bottom Row:    

Swiss Oatmeal with Blueberries – Colourful Palate

Breakfast Parfait Jar – Peanut Butter and Peppers

Top Row:

Chia Pudding – Eating Bird Food

Vegan Peach Muesli – Eating Bird Food

Bottom Row:

Power Muesli – Everyday Maven

Banana Quinoa Flake Bake – Eating Bird Food

Caramelized Banana Oatmeal

serves 1

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup old fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
  • 1 small banana or 1/2 large banana, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 Tablespoon agave
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vegan butter (I prefer Earth Balance whipped)
  • 1 Tablespoon unsweetened shredded coconut, if desired

Directions:

  1. Combine oats and almond milk in a small saucepan over high heat.
  2. Bring to a boil.
  3. Lower heat and simmer.
  4. Allow oatmeal to cook until it is thick, stirring occasionally. Approximately 10 minutes.
  5. While oatmeal is combine bananas, walnuts, agave, and cinnamon in a small bowl. Toss to coat.
  6. In a small skillet melt butter over medium heat. Add banana mixture.
  7. Cook for approximately 5 minutes until bananas begin to caramelize.
  8. Add caramelized bananas to cooked oatmeal and top with shredded coconut if using.

Soul Food

What do a first year anniversary, a vacation of a lifetime, aging grandparents, family members sprinkled across the country, and a national tragedy all have in common? They are all a timely reminder to me that life is unpredictable… there are no promises, no guarantees, and at times no answers. Let’s be honest… life can be unfair, cruel, and at its lowest moments seemingly unbearable. So why then do we grasp onto life with unparalleled fervor? Why do the words “life is precious” slip off so many tongues with ease? Because in life there is love. No matter where your ambiguous journey may take you around each corner is the possibility of discovering new love and even in the simplest of moments along the way old love can continue to grow. Love is beautifully mysterious in its own way as it can be unveiled in the most unexpected of entities. Many of us are blessed with love amongst the branches of our family trees, both the one who are born into and the one we plant the seed for. But, how many of us have also discovered love in a golden friendship, a furry pal, or a classroom full of first graders… at the age of 2, 22, 42, or 92?! No matter where, when, how, or with whom love is found it is magical. Love soothes us in the darkest of  life’s moments and sets our world ablaze in the brightest. Love is life’s gift.

The following words are not intended to be laden with the voice of a preacher. Rather they are a public proclamation and plea from my soul to my self. Slow down… prioritize… make time for those you love… and always say “I love you.”

My first move towards embracing this mantra is to begin a new family tradition of Sunday night  cooking. You wouldn’t be here reading this right now if I did not already cook on a daily basis. The key word there is “I.” Let me set the scene for a typical evening in our home. I am in the kitchen preparing dinner while Nick sits on the other side of our peninsula countertop working on his laptop. Despite our close proximity our interactions and conversations during this time involve minimal eye contact and overly succinct statements. Most sound something like this…

Partner 1: Hey! Guess what…

Partner 2: Huh? I wasn’t listening.

Partner 1: Forget it. It’s not important.

or

Partner 1: Hey! Guess wh…

Partner 2 (interrupting): Hold on. I’m busy right now.

By no means am I suggesting that the two of us should be in the kitchen together every night (the phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen” certainly has validity), but we could “prioritize and make time” to do so once a week. And so we’ve decided that on Sunday evenings we will don our aprons, cue some music, execute culinary teamwork, and admire one another’s work (or at least efforts!). We will sit across the table from one another… actively listening to each other and reflecting on our conversation. We will enjoy a meal made with TLC. We will celebrate and cultivate our love.

Our tradition commenced this past Sunday with a menu of homemade tomato and basil marinara (which we learned to make during our incredible cooking class experience in Rome) and fresh farmer’s market pasta. I was hesitant to blog about this meal because the recipe is unrefined, the lighting was terrible, and I was taking pictures with my iPhone. But in this moment those things don’t matter because in the words of my dear Aunt Tricia “It’s all about the LOVE!”

Tomato Basil Marinara

adapted from Chef Andrea – Cooking Classes in Rome

Makes approximately 4 cups of sauce

Ingredients

4 pounds Roma tomatoes

2 cloves garlic

extra virgin olive oil

salt

handful of fresh basil leaves, chiffonade

Directions

  1. Place a large pot of water on high heat to boil. While waiting for the water to boil use a paring knife to cut a lengthwise slit down the middle of each tomato.
  2. When the water comes to a boil place the tomatoes in the pot for 2-3 minutes. Remove the tomatoes using a slotted spoon and place in colander. Rinse with cold water. (Save the cooking water for your pasta. It now contains vitamins and minerals from the tomatoes…. bonus!)
  3. Once the tomatoes are cool enough to handle peel the skin from each. Place a colander over a bowl and squeeze each tomato over the colander to remove the seeds. Chop the squeezed tomatoes into smaller pieces. Set aside the bowl of tomato juice.
  4. Smash the garlic cloves (you can use the bottom of a heavy pan) being sure to keep the skins on. Coat the bottom of a large saute pan with olive oil and place over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot place the cloves in the pan and lightly brown them on each side.
  5. When garlic is browned pour the chopped tomatoes into the pan and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat to medium-low to maintain a gentle simmer. After about 5-10 minutes the tomatoes will cook down and release more juices. Add a generous pinch of salt.
  6. Simmer sauce, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. If your sauce is getting too thick you can add the reserved tomato sauce a little at a time.
  7. Once tomatoes have cooked down and flavors have melded to your liking use a spoon to remove the garlic cloves. Then using a pasta fork or potato masher break down the tomatoes to your desired consistency. Finally, scatter fresh basil over the sauce.

Bon Appétit!

Chapter 6 – Take Two

Coming off two hard earned PR’s I very well could have justified taking a break from running (or at least from race training) and coasted along on the coattails of success for a couple of months. However, my feats had not squashed the little bug in my ear constantly nagging me with reminders of my half marathon disappointment and how I could use my peaking fitness levels as the catalyst towards redemption. The lingering question became “Should I use my accomplishments as a reason to rest and recover or should I use them as a springboard towards silencing my personal demons?”

If you’ve learned anything about me through this saga you could probably predict which way I leaning, but once again it was the Rock and Roll Series that sealed the deal for me. I opened up my e-mail one evening in early December to find an “invitation” to register for the inaugural half marathon in DC in March. The timing was perfect… I could take a bit of break through the holidays and come the new year go full throttle with my training. Add to that my high level of appreciation and trust in the Rock and Roll Series and the allure of a weekend visit to DC during cherry blossom season and I was sold. I ran the idea by Nick who was sold just as quickly because the event was also offering a full marathon. He was gearing up to begin training for a 50 mile ultra marathon in May so a marathon in late March would be an ideal training run for him (a marathon as a training run?! yes… I too never thought I’d put those phrases together) After completing his and hers registrations, the last order of business was to decide on a goal and a plan to lead me to it. Once again, I fell back on my pre-injury comfort pace of 10 min miles and Nick graduated me to a real, intermediate training plan (in contrast to my personalized, “coming back from injury” plan) My only qualm was that by this point a 10:00/mile pace was too comfortable over short to mid distances (which most training runs are) so I settled on training at a goal pace of 9:30/mile with my race day goal being 2 hours10 minutes (just shy of a 10:00/mile pace) and a reach goal of 2 hours 5 minutes (just over a 9:30/mile pace).

Staying true to form I vehemently stuck to my training plan…. stubbornly running my longest distance ever (16 miles) with a raging sinus infection and my race day simulation run (12 miles at a 9:45/mile pace) while battling a nasty stomach bug. You may remember that I consider being subjected to winter weather a form of corporal punishment so training through the winter months should have been a deal breaker for me. However, during the week I run at the gym because early morning workouts at the gym by my school allow me to beat rush hour traffic (anyone out there who needs workout motivation should commit to commuting an hour in the suburbs of NYC… guaranteed to get your butt out of bed before the sun rises everyday). This new training plan provided a lot of variety (interval runs, tempo runs, cadence runs) which kept the monotonous treadmill workouts from getting too stale. I saved my long runs for the weekend and Mother Nature must be a fan of mine because the mild winter weather prevented me from coming home with tears frozen to my eyelids due to hypothermia. All in all, throughout the 12 weeks of training I felt strong (both physically and emotionally) and optimistic… I had genuine faith that with each run I was that much closer to my goal.

On an unseasonably warm March afternoon, Nick and I made the trek down to DC. The hours in the car gave my budding jitters plenty of opportunity to blossom into full blown nerves. I was confident that without any major, unforeseen obstacles I could reach my goal of 2 hours 10 minutes, but the overwhelming disappointment that I had experienced after my first half marathon had left an undeniable mark on my ego and I dreaded feeling that way again. We went through all the motions of our pre-race rituals… picked up our packets and perused the expo, strolled through and admired the city on our way to dinner (thank you Busboys and Poets for accommodating both my vegan diet and our pre-race nutritional needs), reviewed course maps, laid out our gear, set alarms for an hour that shouldn’t be seen on Saturday mornings, and settled in for an (attempted) good night’s sleep.

As the sun was just making it’s way across the horizon the next morning, we were piling onto a bus with our fellow runners from the hotel. Sleepy eyed but buzzing and armed with bananas, water bottles, Garmins, and Gu gels we were a motley crew and some of the first to arrive at the start. Fortunately, the DC Armory opened it’s doors to the racers so we were able to stretch and fuel someplace other than the dewy grass and relieve ourselves in bathrooms that were not portable (winning!). I was perking with anxiety, so much so that by the time we were able to head to our corrals I felt like I had already run the race ten times over in my head. Nick left me for his “I’m way faster than you” corral with his traditional peck and encouraging “You got this!” As the crowd of runners were herded towards the start I gave myself a once over (water, chews, headphones, and Nike+ all in check), pumped myself with as much power of positive thinking as I could muster, waited for the official “GO!”, and released the trigger.

To be continued…

Do my sentiments over getting to the start line mirror yours about finally getting to a recipe here?! Relax… it has arrived.

Speaking of anxiety… though I love cooking and find it medicinal at the end of a long day there are still those days when I’m driving home watching the minutes tick away as I sit in traffic (remember that awesome commute I have?!) and mentally creating a list of all the things that I could be (and need to be) doing in the few hours I’ll have at home before collapsing into bed and starting all over again. On those days making dinner feels like a chore and I can completely relate to those (my mom *cough, cough*) who swear that at the end of the day they just don’t have the mental or physical energy to pour into cooking a healthful meal. For those who are training for an event and need to get in those training runs (or for those who are simply trying to find a way to squeeze in that recommended 30 minutes of exercise of each day) spending precious time in front of the stove or cutting board may not be feasible… something’s gotta give. Though I have been trying to feature recipes for fueling runners and highlighting their nutritional benefits, I decided to put a different spin on things today and post a recipe that has advantages for both your physical and mental health. This recipe has the potential to come together in 20 minutes tops and if you cook the quinoa in advance you could cut that time down to 5 minutes and have it become a no-cook meal (perfect for the dog days of summer). So save this recipe, stock up on the ingredients, and go for that run/walk/bike/yoga class after work because you (yes you!) really can do it all!

Strawberry Spinach Quinoa Salad

adapted from Cookie and Kate

Dressing ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard (I prefer whole-grain Dijon mustard)
  • 2 teaspoons real maple syrup (honey or agave nectar could be substituted)
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped shallot
  • sea salt and fresh black pepper, to taste

Salad ingredients:

  • 1 cup uncooked quinoa or 3 cups cooked quinoa, warmed
  • 1/2 cup goat cheese crumbles
  • 2 1/2 cups strawberries, chopped
  • 6 oz baby spinach, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup pecan pieces
  • sea salt and fresh black pepper, to taste

Instructions:

  1. If you did not cook the quinoa in advance do so according to package directions.
  2. Make the dressing: In a small bowl whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, Dijon mustard, maple syrups, and shallot. Adjust flavors to suit your tastes and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Toast the pecans: In a small pan over medium heat, toast your pecan pieces, stirring often, until they are fragrant and golden (approximately 5 minutes).
  4. In a bowl, mix together warm quinoa with the goat cheese. Gently mix in the strawberries and spinach. Toss with dressing as desired and top with pecan pieces.

Serves 4 as a main dish

Chapter 5 – Hittin’ My Stride

Disappointed?!

Hadn’t the allure of crossing that finish line been dangling above my head for the past two years?!

Hadn’t I endured and recovered from two stress fractures attempting to get to this point?!

Hadn’t I vehemently stuck to a slow and steady two month training plan to ensure that I accomplished just this?!

Hadn’t I just completed my first half marathon at a pace that was nearly a minute and a half faster than how I had trained?!

The answer to all of the above… “Yes.”

So, pray tell, why the long face?

Because after suppressing my ego for the past few months, rationale me was exhausted and my ego took total advantage of this weakness and was rearing it’s ugly head in full force. I am young, I workout almost daily, I adhere to a healthful diet, I am strong-willed and dedicated to anything I set my heart to…. and yet I did not feel that my performance reflected any of those traits. I had completed the race, but my sense of accomplishment was far from complete.

So, what is a girl to do? Give up on the notion of ever being a runner all together? After all, my mother had insisted that “Maybe it’s just not for you.” more than once following my injuries… and aren’t moms always right?! Yeah right… I am far too stubborn for that. The logical answer of course was to train for another race and, even more importantly, better myself as a runner in the process.

It just so happened that the Rock and Roll Series was hosting their inaugural 10k in Prospect Park, Brooklyn in October. The timing, distance, and venue were ideal and so the very next day I registered. The first step towards betterment was to determine what “better” actually meant. Prior to my injuries I had been able to run 10 minute miles comfortably. So I decided that if I could run 6.2 miles in under an hour (just shy of that 10:00/mile pace) I would deem the race a success. I consulted with my personal coach/husband and was again presented with a training plan that had all the same conditions of the one I had just completed…with the exception of some leeway with my pace. Once again, I firmly adhered to the plan… diligently getting in each scheduled run and keeping my overachieving trigger in check. And once again, my final motivational push came the weekend before my race as I chased Nick around the woods of the Ramapo Valley as he achieved his latest personal feat… completing a 50k (31 mile) trail run. Personal coach, husband, and ultimate motivator all in one… luckiest girl ever!

Race day was one for the memory books before the event even began. Highway construction and an unexpectedly high demand for race day packet pick-up nearly prevented me from even making it to the starting line (amongst the hundreds of intense and angst runners waiting on the seemingly endless line I managed to find the only two guys laid back enough to let me casually cut into the queue). Meanwhile, after dropping me at the start, Nick had (unbeknownst to him) ventured into a less than desirable neighborhood in Brooklyn in an attempt to find parking and while sprinting from said parking spot back to the park had a firsthand encounter with a street shooting. Unscathed, but experiencing a serious adrenaline rush, he made it to my corral just in time for a final pep talk and good luck peck. It was a chilly morning and my stiff muscles (there had been no time for stretching) and bare skin were screaming in opposition, but by the time I was a couple tenths of a mile in I could feel myself loosening up and settling into a rhythm that was pulsing with determination. The race itself was two laps around the park and by the time I reached the halfway point I was not only on pace to reaching my goal, but ahead of it! That realization in and of itself was enough to propel me onward, but with each runner I passed and each tenth of a mile that ticked by I got an even bigger boost of adrenaline. Seeing Nick at mile 6 was the final catalyst as I turned the corner into the finishing stretch and was in (what felt like to me anyway) a full sprint. I blew across the finish line and as my stride winded down the pounding in my chest was no longer attributed to physical exertion, but to pride. I had surpassed my expectations (official time of 58:10, a 9:21/mile pace)… I had bettered myself as a runner and I could confidently say (even if just to myself) that I had accomplished something.

Fast forward another month and another bout of goal setting and training…I entered my fourth annual Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning and PR’d by nearly 2 minutes by running a 8:25/mile pace. That made it official… I was back on the road to running and cruising it.

To be continued…

And now for a culinary journey with similar ups and downs.

Ahhhh… the elusive homemade veggie burger. This growingly popular alternative to the all American beef burger is now widely available in the frozen food section of most local supermarkets. While some brands (i.e. Amy’s Kitchen) have managed to appease my picky palate, the unpronounceable ingredients and scant evidence of their namesake, vegetables, amongst most of these prepackaged pucks has left me in search of a homemade version. Easier said than done my herbivorous friend. No other food has ever tested my culinary prowess and patience quite like the veggie burger has. In an attempt to avoid embodying Einstein’s definition of insanity (cue overused quote regarding doing the same thing over again and expecting different results) I have experimented with a variety of hearty vegetables, protein bases, and sticky binders. But, my attempts have repeatedly resulted in textural and flavorful failures…dry, bland, mushy, crumbly burgers messes that no amount of condiment doctoring could save. I’ve poured my faith into my food blogger idols and placed trust in proclamations that their recipe holds the answer to the woes experienced by myself, and so many others, who are in pursuit of the evasive homemade veggie burger. And then after years of woefully scraping up the burnt crumbly remnants of my most recent burger bust the answer came from ultra-marathoner, author, and vegan advocate, Scott Jurek. As luck would have it I, the one who had chased this fleeting veggie burger dream, cannot even take credit for finally capturing it. Nick stumbled across the link to the recipe on Scott Jurek’s Facebook page and e-mailed it to me with a simple subject line of “Let’s try these.” Despite my doubts… I mean if the food blogger deities hadn’t led me to veggie burger euphoria how was some superhuman athlete turned amateur chef going to take me there?! Well… Mr. Jurek had me eating my doubts, literally. Because his recipe for Lentil-Mushroom Burgers, which resulted in a complexly flavorful patty that was moist, yet firm (they even passed the grill test!), was the key to unlocking the homemade veggie burger mystery. And now, as a reputable food blogger wannabe, I pass along the key to you… prepare for homemade veggie burger greatness!

The bonus of these burgers:

  • Lentils – Lentils are jam-packed with protein, iron and B vitamins. The body uses B vitamins to generate energy to sustain running.
  • Swiss chard – A serving of this jaunty nutritional overachiever contains more than a day’s worth of vitamins A and C. Vitamin C is required to make collagen, an important structural component of tendons, ligaments and bone. Further bolstering the nutritional value of swiss chard is huge amounts of vitamin K that are needed for proper blood clotting and bone health.
  • Flaxseeds – Flaxseeds are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 has been linked to improved sensitivity to insulin and glucose metabolism. It can help to reduce inflammatory response in conditions such as osteoarthritis and possibly exercise-induced asthma. Researchers are currently investigating if omega-3 reduces muscular inflammatory response after an intense workout.

Lentil-Mushroom Burgers

adapted from Eat and Run by Scott Jurek

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dried green lentils
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large sweet onion, chopped
  • 3 cups chopped mushrooms
  • 1 1/2 cups finely chopped swiss chard (or other winter green)
  • 3/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 2 cups whole wheat bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup flaxseed meal
  • 2 tablespoons dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 12 hamburger buns
  • condiments and accompaniments of choice

Directions

In a medium pot, bring 2 1/4 cups of water to a boil. Then add lentils, parsley, 1 teaspoon minced garlic, and 1/4 cup chopped onions.

Combine walnuts, bread crumbs, and flaxseed meal in a small bowl and set aside.

In a separate pan greased with olive oil, sauté remaining onion and garlic, mushrooms, and kale for 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

Remove lentils from heat, add Dijon mustard and balsamic vinegar, and mash ingredients together (I used a potato masher).

In a large bowl, combine lentil mixture, sautéed vegetables, and bread-crumb mixture. Place bowl in refrigerator until mixture is cool.

Using your hands, form patties and grill (or pan fry over medium-high heat) until lightly browned and crispy on both sides, approximately 5 minutes per side. Serve on a toasted bun (or on their own) with your favorite condiments.

Makes 12 four-inch burgers.

Make ahead tip: Place formed patties on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with foil and place in freezer. Once patties are completely frozen use scissors to cut the paper between the patties and stack them in a large freezer container or bag. When you thaw them, leave the paper between them so they’ll be easy to separate.

Chapter 4 – Going the Distance

I don’t know if it was the prolonged pain, the fear of being wheeled down the aisle on my wedding day, or the icy demand of my mother that I “better not dare go running” but following my hip stress fracture in February, I quit running for 4 months. During that time I satiated my exercise pangs with low impact cardio (elliptical, spinning) and resistance training which helped to maintain the cardiovascular gains I had made prior to my injury. Our impending nuptials and the culmination of the school year kept me more than occupied and the itch to train for a half marathon subsided once again. By the time we returned from honeymoon in early July I was completely pain free, well rested and recuperated, and in the throes of summer vacation… the ideal conditions for the running bug to rear its head yet again. My premature registration for the Rock and Roll Half Marathon in Philly left me with a monetary commitment and the perfect excuse to broach the topic of training with Nick. True to his level-headed, unconditionally supportive ways he agreed to help me train for the race in September. But in return I had to promise to adhere to the strict provisions of this individualized training plan. These stipulations included tracking the distance and pace of all runs, giving a “pain report” following said runs, keeping my pace at 12 minutes miles, and only running on designated days for the prescribed distance. The overachiever in me cringed at these provisions. 12 minute miles?! Could that even be considered a jog?! Not pushing my distance goals that extra half mile or so… even if I was feeling great?! But, just as my scheming for how to find the loopholes in this agreement began, the rational side of me finally took a stand. If I had any hope of making it across that finish line I had better listen to someone beside my own ego.

And so my training started with a 1 mile “run” and slowly (emphasis on the s-l-o-w) ramped up from there. My “Nicky P.’s Coming Back from Injury Plan” had a prominent place on our refrigerator and the bright pink highlighter marks were proof of my progress and promise. I stuck to running only 3 days a week and locked the treadmill in at 5.0 MPH. The only exceptions to my rule abiding ways were my long runs which I did on the road. There were times when I fell into a comfortable stride that was a bit faster or I added a couple tenths of a mile in order to make my way back home, but all in all my deviations were minimal and limited. I would be lying if I said that my ego didn’t make a valiant attempt at veering me off course. At times I found my finger twitching above the speed button on the treadmill and the thought of turning off my Nike+ app and doing an unaccounted for extra lap around the neighborhood crossed my mind a time or two, but luckily rational me stood firm and had my sense of guilt as support. Two weeks before race day I completed my longest run yet, 12 miles, and upon finishing I had my first firm proclamation that I really was going to do this. One week out I cheered Nick on as he completed his first marathon and as I watched in admiration as the expressions on the racers’ faces turned from grit to glory I was filled with the final bit of motivation I needed.

Our journey began on a picture perfect Saturday afternoon in mid-September. In tow were my parents trekking to Philadelphia from their home in NY in order to round out my support crew. Upon arrival, I did all the requisite pre-race rituals…. packet pick-up, healthful meal, course review, gear preparation… and hit the hotel hay. I’m not sure what reached a higher decibel… the fluttering of my nerves or the rumbling of my dad’s snores… but either way I had a restless night. Luckily, my adrenaline was in full force by the time Nick and I made our early morning exit to the starting line. We were met by a few other members of the Pacer team and the small talk and spectacles (these events are notorious for “costuming”) helped pass the time until I had to head to my corral where Nick left with me with some final reassuring words and a kiss. The first few miles of the race flew by, partly because I was being carried by the roar of the spectators, partly because of the jolts of energy sparked by seeing my proud family at miles 1 and 3, partly because I was only a 1/3 of the way in. At mile 5, I swapped water bottles and big smiles with Nick, and headed out on the long stretch of course that follows the banks of the Schuylkill River. By mile 8, I was still feeling strong physically, but my mental toughness had started to wane. Runners who were far older than me, far larger than me… seemingly far less conditioned than me… were continuously passing me by. My only goal had been to complete the race and I was well on my way to doing so, but I couldn’t quiet the nagging sound of inferiority and humility resounding within. This particular stretch of the course was dotted by few spectators (read as “distractions”) and so I tried my best to put on my blinders and focus solely on the passing scenery and sound of my own sneakers ticking away the miles. At mile 10, I had a much needed reunion with Nick who had agreed to run the final stretch alongside me. His company alone was a morale boost and his words of encouragement were more precious than any Gu pack or Gatorade (which at that point in the race are like gold!) The distraction carried me through the last 5k and when he left me at the chute his cheerful “You got this!”, coupled with a final sighting of my family cheering me on, propelled me across the finish line. I caught my breath, hung my medal around my neck, grabbed a water, and started weaving my through the crowd of sweaty, exacerbated runners towards the family meeting area. In the midst of the chaos and celebration I managed to find Nick who immediately reached out for a hug. As we closed in on one another my heart swelled to capacity with overwhelming…

DISAPPOINTMENT.

To be continued…

To ensure you don’t feel the same way about today’s recipe I had to stick with a tried and true favorite.

Whether you are an athlete, busy mom, student – or anyone who spends the majority of their day on the go – energy bars are the ideal option for a quick source of protein, complex carbohydrates, and vitamins & minerals. They are easy to throw in your trusty bag (or bags if you’re like me and carry a purse, canvas tote, lunchbox, and gym bag) and are a quick source of energy (and often a solution for sweet tooth cravings). While store bought bars certainly fit the bill, homemade energy bars have the added bonus of being cost efficient, free of preservatives, added sweeteners, and other unpronounceable ingredients, and they can be tailored to fit your personal taste preferences. I’ve experimented with many a bar recipe and have rarely met one I didn’t like, but this recipe for quinoa energy bars is a reliable favorite.

The “run” down on quinoa energy bars:

  • Quinoa is not only packed with carbohydrates to fuel your workouts, but it is rich in protein needed for muscle growth and repair.
  • Nuts and seeds are nutrient powerhouses that provide heart-healthy fats, protein, and fiber. Walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds in particular provide the essential omega-3 fatty acids that are needed to properly metabolize fat and proteins.
  • Chia seeds became a superfood trend after being toted as the “Aztec running food” that fueled the Tarahumara barefoot runners featured in the bestselling book, Born to Run. In addition to the typical benefits of nuts and seeds, chia seeds are also a good source of calcium. For those who exercise a lot (and are prone to stress fractures!) maintaining strong bones with proper calcium intake is a must. Chia seeds also contain boron, a nutrient necessary for the body to absorb and make use of calcium.

Quinoa Energy Bars

adapted from Get Off Your Tush and Cook

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup quinoa
  • 2 cups oats, rolled, quick cooking
  • 1/4 cup evaporated cane juice (sugar)
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1/4 cup flaxseed meal
  • 2 TBSP chia seeds
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 cup raw nuts of choice: I used almonds, walnuts, and sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 cup dried fruit of choice: I used a mixed dried berry blend
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut
  • 1/4 cup applesauce
  • 2 TBSP agave nectar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions

Grease a 9×13-inch pan and set aside.

Cook dry quinoa according to directions. While quinoa is cooking, combine the next 10 ingredients (through coconut) in a large bowl.

Once quinoa is cooked, add to the pan the applesauce, agave nectar, vanilla, and water. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and mix until well combined.

Transfer quinoa bar mixture into prepared pan. Using your hands, press the mixture into the pan so it is spread evenly.

Bake for 20 minutes at 350ºF. Cool completely and cut into pieces.

Store in refrigerator.