August 20: Running on the National Mall

Moving, especially for a new job, is exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. I have not worked out consistently since May. I finally felt comfortable enough after 5 weeks to venture out for a run around my neighborhood. In my part of town, people don’t really exercise outdoors (and likely not at all). I committed to running for 20 minutes, which I knew was about all I could manage having not run in months and having not worked out in 2.5 weeks (I mistakenly thought the mile I walk each day was doing something for me cardiovascularly). To compound my issue, almost all of my run was uphill! So yeah, for two days I was walking quite gingerly.

My cousin, whom I live with, invited me to go running with his friends after work. I am not an after work exerciser, but I couldn’t resist the lure of running on the Mall. When my cousin said he planned to run from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, which turns out to be about 4.6 miles, I said I would do 2. We missed the rain, so the weather was perfect for running and the sand paths were well-packed and a great running surface. Since my cousin is preparing for the FBI fitness test, he had a different purpose for running, i.e., speed. He charted the course for me and said we’d meet at the WWII Memorial. Off he went. I knew better than to keep up with him, but I was trying to keep my eye on him until I oriented myself with just where I was on the Mall.

I was done by the time I reached the WWII Memorial. I prayed for red lights so I could have a reprieve as I waited to cross the street. I kept wondering how I could be so out of shape. I mean, I just ran hills two days before! A mile shouldn’t wear me out like that. I told my cousin that I was walking back to the car, and he told me no. I was given as much time as I needed to recover, and we started back toward the car.

The thing about running is you can spend lots of time with your thoughts (I think it’s unsafe to run outdoors with earphones on, so I don’t listen to music.). As my body began to rack with great discomfort, I couldn’t help but be reminded that I felt about as bad as I did running across the finish line of my first race, which was a 10K. I wanted to stop running, but I drew on my experience at the Flying Pig and willed myself to the end. The other thing I realized was that I was running a lot more than 2 miles. The most important lesson I learned running last night was that if I am going to continue to run with my cousin in the evenings, I have to do better about fueling my body. Cookies and a PB&J sandwich were such bad choices! I’m embarrassed to even type it, but it’s the truth.

I managed to make it back to the Capitol where my cousin was waiting. I was so nauseous when I should have been feeling awesome. Fortunately, the scenery more than made up for my ill-planned run. I mean, why not enjoy the time spent working out? And what better than taking in the sights of our Nation’s capital!?!? It was a relief and a beautiful sight seeing the U.S. Capitol lit up at against the dusk sky as I made my final push down the Mall. For just a moment, I forgot about my discomfort and savored the moment. It’s going to be really pretty to run in the Fall, and I’m looking forward to it. I plan to be on the Mall every Monday I am able to run. I’m in the process of setting goals, but the end goal is to run from the Capitol to the Jefferson Memorial, which I estimate is about 6 miles round trip. The Jefferson Memorial is my favorite monument. It’s so serene by the Tidal Basin because very few people take the time to walk the extra distance. Framed by cherry blossoms, it’s so beautiful. But before I get my personal 10K on, I have to manage running from the Capitol to the WWII Memorial and back. As it turns out, the distance round trip is about 4 miles, and I ran it in 33 minutes, which includes the time I was stopped at lights. So while my poor running-day diet was highly problematic, the fact that I was averaging sub-10 minute pace for that distance was more likely my issue. It is refreshing, however, to know that with proper conditioning, I should be able to put up some personal bests in future races!
I guess walking one mile a day during the work week has been helping a sista out *smile*

February 8: Walnut-crusted honey mustard chicken breasts with roasted vegetables

In my continued quest to eat as much of my food as possible before the summer when I move, I thawed out some frozen chicken breasts I bought a few months ago during a sale at the grocery store. I’m not a fan of chicken breasts because I have to marinate them or work hard in some other way to season them and infuse them with moisture. Furthermore, they are super easy to overcook. And who wants to eat rubber chicken?

I intended to bake the chicken after I finished baking my wonderfully delicious chocolate cake, but it was enough just to clean the kitchen (I’m a very messy baker). So Wednesday morning I decided I would jazz up chicken breasts by making walnut-crusted honey mustard chicken to top my mixed greens from the seared salmon and couscous salad. I knew I should have purchased the 8 oz container, but in my delusion of thinking I’d actually eat more servings of vegetables compelled me to buy the 16 oz container of mixed greens. So, rather than waste food, which the whole point of this exercise was to avoid, I was up at 6 am crushing walnut halves in a Ziploc bag.

The  recipe is really quite simple. In a resealable bag filled with 2 cups of walnut halves and chicken seasoning, roll a glass or roller pin over it to pulverize the walnuts. A food processor or mini-blender works too. I didn’t do a very good job, which meant I had crispy walnuts. Buts that’s okay. The blackened walnuts added a nice smoky flavor to the chicken lol. As the oven heated to 450 F, I sliced half of a medium-sized red onion and two whole bell peppers (a yellow one and an orange one). I placed the vegetables in the bottom of a 13 X 9 aluminum foil lined baking dish that was sprayed with cooking oil.

In a medium sized bowl, I made honey mustard by mixing ~3/4 cup of Kraft Mayo, ~1/3 cup of yellow mustard, and honey to  taste (~2T).  I don’t buy honey mustard anymore, unless it’s in the form of salad dressing. When I was into making my own chicken tenders as a 20-something graduate student, being able to make honey mustard made life so much more enjoyable. Anyway, I digress (as usual hahaha). Once the honey mustard was prepared, I poured the walnut crumb-chunk mixture into a pie plate. I rinsed and dredged three chicken breasts (2 medium and 1 ridiculously large) in the honey mustard then rolled them around in the walnuts. I lay each breast atop the herb-seasoned vegetables in the baking pan. Into the oven the pan went until the breasts were slightly pink inside, which occurred after about 30 minutes. As you might imagine, the 2 medium-sized chicken breasts were a little more done than the 1 really large one.

Overall, I really enjoyed the walnut-crusted honey mustard chicken breasts. It was a reasonably simple dish to make. I used leftover onion and peppers from the seared salad recipe earlier in the week, which made this dish more cost-effective. Walnuts are rather expensive, but I have a huge bag from Sam’s that I use in baking. And making my own honey mustard cost pennies.  The chicken and vegetables on mixed salad was delicious. The first day I didn’t add dressing, yet the greens didn’t taste like rabbit food. The oil and juices from the vegetables was sufficient. I did use Vidalia onion and peppercorn salad dressing on subsequent salads, and the flavors were quite complementary.

I’ll definitely make this dish again. Some things I will change, however. The seasoning of the chicken was good considering I didn’t really do anything but add chicken seasoning to the walnuts before crushing. I’d also add pepper and a little salt either directly to the chicken or to the honey mustard. It was 6 am. I’m using that as an excuse because I always season my meat before cooking it. I will also put in a little more elbow grease and crush the walnuts a bit more. Coarsely crushed adds some character to the dish, but they did not stick as well to the chicken initially. I had to go back and fill in spaces after laying the breasts in the pan.

I have another package of chicken breasts in the freezer. I think I might poach them to make pulled chicken salad with walnuts and sliced red grapes, which are on sale this week. We’ll see.

Honey mustard: mayonnaise, mustard, and honey

"Crushed" walnut halves

Fresh from the oven

Walnut-crusted honey mustard baked chicken breasts

January 2: Whole Wheat Banana Nut Bread

During my most recent shopping trip, Kroger was kind enough to bundle very ripe bananas and sell them. I lived here for a year before I asked a produce stocker why the store never put out brown or spotted bananas. The party line I received was that Kroger sells so many bananas that there just aren’t any that are spoiled. Yeah, right. But interestingly enough, from that day on, I noticed that there were always a few bunches of over ripe bananas, which as we know are perfect for making banana bread or banana pancakes!

We know where this is going lol. I bought a bundle of mottled bananas and decided to bake a loaf of banana bread. I seldom bake anymore, so it was good to get back in the kitchen and whip out the mixer. I decided to use whole wheat bread not because I was interested in being healthy but because I needed to use it before I moved. Fortunately, I found several recipes when I Googled. I chose the one by King Arthur since they make whole wheat flour. I scanned the ingredients to make sure I had everything necessary to whip up a batch of whole wheat banana bread. As I waited for my bread to cook, I found this awesome link to Breadtopia that even includes a video and commenters posted pictures of their breads.

So, I won’t bother with the recipe in this post because it’s pretty well documented. I used Kroger brand whole wheat flour and actually modified the recipe similar to the one on Breadtopia. I mean, who makes a banana bread without cinnamon and/or nutmug? I added vanilla extract and no banana extract. I was quite liberal in my use of walnuts *smile*. I resisted the urge to include chocolate chips in this first test of the recipe. But let me tell you, if you like chocolate and you love banana nut bread, you must add chocolate chips to the recipe. Talk about your taste buds having orgasms!

Okay, so what about this healthy banana nut bread? First, the batter was a little thicker than with all-purpose flour. I had to use my spatula to scoop the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Oh, and by the way, the recipe from King Arthur yields one loaf. I usually like to make several loaves, but one is good for trying a new recipe without the hassle of scaling down the recipe. The recipe said I should let the bread “rest” for 10 minutes, which was the first sign the bread would be more bread-like than dessert-like. Ten minutes was good for me to wash up the dishes and clean off the counters.

The bread went in a 325 F oven since I used a dark non-stick pan for 62.5 minutes lol. Random I know. It baked uncovered for 50 minutes, then I placed a piece of aluminum foil over it was 12.5 minutes to “prevent over browning” as King Arthur suggested might occur. The house smelled of delicious banana bread, though interestingly the aroma did not become noticeable until maybe 10 minutes before I covered the bread.

Once I turned the bread onto the cooling rack, I noticed that the loaf was quite heavy. I prefer warm bread, so I cut myself a slice to taste after about 10 minutes. The texture is definitely like bread, dense and weighty while still being moist. This recipe does not create that limp bread that I’m used to.

People who commented on the recipe at Breadtopia and King Arthur proclaimed this recipe the “best banana bread” recipe. Um, I wouldn’t say all that, but it is definitely a tasty, healthier alternative to regular banana bread. I do like that the bread has some weight to it and that crumbs don’t fall all over the place. I found though, that as it cooled, the bread seems to lose its moistness over time, which means don’t plan to have leftovers around more than 2 or 3 days. Perhaps adding more bananas ( I used 3 large bananas) or a touch of milk to the batter can help with the bread retaining moisture. Breadtopia even recommends making sure the bananas are “ultra ripe”, which I interpret as just mushy to the touch. Mine could have ripened another day or two in that case.

Besides the moistness issue with my first loaf, I do not have any complaints.  The bread is sweet without feeling like you’re getting a cavity as you chew and the fact that it’s made of whole wheat flour is imperceptible. I can actually eat one slice and be satisfied. I tend to inhale traditional banana nut bread because the carbs leave me wanting more. It’s a great, healthy banana nut bread that does not sacrifice flavor in the name of health. I have about 4 pounds of whole wheat flour to use, so I will definitely be making more whole wheat banana nut bread during the winter.

UPDATE: So last night (01/04/12) I cut myself a piece of bread and decided to put it in the microwave for 10 seconds to warm it up. Ah-mazing! While I’m not ready to put the blue ribbon on it yet, warmed whole wheat banana nut bread is really good. The texture is still dense but also the moistness is much more evident when the bread is slightly warmed. I would still like to moisten the bread a bit so that I also enjoy it at room temperature almost as much as I enjoy it warm.

October 30: Parsnips

Parsnips (Image from Food.com)

As I alluded to in my previous post about Inca red quinoa, I have been celebrating the return of fall weather by roasting root vegetables. I mean, what says fall better than root vegetables? Last weekend while grocery shopping, I decided I would try parsnips. The white, carrot-looking vegetable was located in the bin adjacent to bulk carrots. I chose 3 healthy looking stems of parsnips and a bunch of organic carrots. To accompany the vegetables, I also purchased a bag of small (think golf ball size) Yukon Gold potatoes.

I stored the parsnips and carrots in the refrigerator on a plate. A big no no apparently. You have to place them in a container so they do not soften over time. But one day soaking up refrigerated air was not enough to damage the root vegetables. I gently scrubbed the parsnips, carrots, and potatoes under water. I peeled the parsnips and carrots before cutting them into even sized pieces. In a large Pyrex glass bowl, I seasoned the vegetables with dried herbs and coated them with virgin olive oil. The aluminum foil lined pan went into a preheated 400 F oven for 45-50 minutes or until fork tender. I stirred the vegetables about half way through since they browned on the areas interfacing with the foil.

I loved the roasted vegetables so much that I went and bought more to prepare again last night. The flavors of the parsnips, potatoes, and carrots really complemented each other. I found the nutty bite of the parsnips appealing. They were tender without being mushy, even when I reheated the veggie mix in the microwave. The texture  reminded me of boiled cassava. I Googled to learn more about the nutritional value of this white vegetable. It’s really an excellent source of nutrients, particularly potassium (498 mg for 1 cup of sliced parsnips), while being low in calories (99) and fat (0.4g), sodium (13mg) and cholesterol (0mg). One cup of sliced parsnips even has 1.6 g of protein.

Parsnips is totally my new favorite vegetable. It’s a great alternative to mushrooms and potatoes as my go-to white vegetable. I think next time I buy carrots, parsnips, and potatoes I will try to make this soup. It’s nothing better than soup and grilled cheese on a snowy winter day! As I try new recipes with parsnips, I will let you know how they turn out.

 

October 23: Inca Red Quinoa

A must try if you like quinoa!

Since I cooked a pot of Inca Red quinoa on Sunday for dinner, I have been raving about it to all my co-workers. I am a huge fan of quinoa in general because it’s quick and easy to prepare, it’s a great source of whole grains and protein, and it’s affordable. The only downside of quinoa to me is that it’s rather bland. I definitely have to add either salt or some chicken bouillon to boost the flavor. Well, I happened up a box of Inca Red quinoa while roaming the natural food aisles in Kroger on Sunday morning. Ancient Harvest brand quinoa was on sale for the same price Wal-mart carries it. The Wal-mart in my town only carries the regular variety of quinoa (if I can even say that), so I was pleased to see the Inca Red heirloom brand.

Inca Red cooks the same exact way as the regular variety: boil 2 cups of water and toss in 1 cup of quinoa, reduce to simmer, and cook until the water is absorbed or evaporated. Oh.but.the.flavor! I love it! Inca Red has a nutty flavor and a firmer texture than regular quinoa. The taste and texture reminds me of tabbouleh, only better. I can eat Inca Red by itself whereas I feel with the regular variety, I at least need to throw some vegetables on top to make it more palatable.

I am definitely going back to Kroger this weekend to stock up on Inca Red before the sale price expires. It’s $4 a box good, but not $6 a box good! I’m trying to keep my food costs down, especially since I developed a taste for expensive Fage yogurt, so quinoa will provide an excellent source of protein to go with roasted veggies and bean soups.  I might even mix up some quinoa salad with the Inca Red to see how I like it!

In random updates, I am all about roasted carrots, onions, and sweet potatoes. I prepared some to accompany the Inca Red quinoa and baked Honeysuckle turkey loins. I’ve been bringing leftovers as lunch and the meal is so filling that I can get by on a light snack for dinner, well as long as I don’t workout after work. I just can’t say enough good things about Inca Red quinoa. If you like quinoa, you have to try it!

May 25: Prepare one huge salad to last several days

It occurred to me the other day that I haven’t eaten a respectable serving of vegetables in about two weeks. Yeah, not good I know. Since the oven is shut down for the summer and I have zero desire to eat anything warm, I thought salads would be a great alternative to my usual cereal and milk summer diet. The trouble is, I rarely eat salads, especially if I have to make them. But what is a girl to do? If I weren’t training for a race, then I would happily function on cereal, milk and the occasional bowl of ice cream (okay, more than occasional).

After realizing that buying a fix-it-myself salad from the cafeteria everyday was not in my budget, I bit the bullet and purchased salad fixings. I love spring mix, so I bought a pound of that along with sliced baby portabella mushrooms, grape tomatoes, carrot chips, cucumbers and bell peppers. I already had a red onion at home. I sliced the cucumber and onion and tossed a good amount into a huge Rubbermaid container I normally use for storing cookies and brownies. I added greens and the other ingredients (except the peppers which I somehow forgot about), sprinkled with salt and dried herbs before giving the container a good shake once the lid was securely on it. I then added peeled, whole boiled eggs.

So each morning, I just fill a 5-cup Rubbermaid container with salad and one or two eggs. I prepared some oil and balsamic vinegar for a healthy dressing. I made about a cup of the dressing and drizzed 2T onto my salad. It was delicious! I was pleasantly surprised at how flavorful a little oil-vinegar mix could be. Definitely did not feel like I was eating rabbit food, as I often do when I have salad with no meat protein.

All the salad produce cost about $12. Buying pre-sliced vegetable added some expense, but if I don’t have to invest time dicing and slicing I was more likely to choose a salad over a less healthy lunch option. The pound of salad greens is too much for me, but the other choice I had available was not enough. Consequently, I will be eating salads for lunch and dinner to avoid food waste. To keep things interesting over the summer, I will mix up the types of greens and toppings I use. Otherwise, I already know that I will become bored eating salads all summer.

In other news, I am officially no longer pre-hypertensive. My blood pressure (110/78) is solidly normal. Hurrah for a low sodium diet. I’m sure my healthy lunches this summer will help me maintain the optimal blood pressure.

May 19: Ritz Hint of Salt Crackers

As part of Kroger’s 10 for $10 promotion a few weeks ago, I purchased some Ritz Hint of Salt Crackers. Being pre-hypertensive has it’s challenges, so I was excited to see that one of my favorite brands had a low sodium version that wasn’t replaced with extra fat or sugar to compensate for lower sodium; you can view the nutrition label here. I wanted to use the crackers for peanut butter crackers to better control the nutrition factors compared to pre-packaged peanut butter crackers like Keebler or Austin; PB crackers make a really great, inexpensive post-workout snack.

*sigh* I will be honest: I was a little disappointed with the taste of the crackers not only naked (i.e., without a topper) but also with JIF creamy peanut butter. I can’t imagine how much I would have disliked my peanut butter crackers if I had used JIF creamy natural PB, which has less sugar. The crackers basically have no taste whatsoever.

For the last two weeks, my taste buds have grown accustomed to the crackers; I even find a hint of the buttery taste that makes original Ritz so yummy. I could be delusional, though. With only 7 mg of sodium per cracker, I really can’t beat the nutritional value Ritz Hint of Salt provides. I have 1.5 boxes of crackers left, so if I haven’t fully embraced them by then, I will search for other alternatives. In the meantime, I plan on mixing PB with honey or using low sodium cheese as fillings for the crackers. Fortunately for me, after a workout, I am starving and just about anything tastes halfway decent lol. Preparing the crackers in advance takes about 5 minutes per sleeve of Ritz. In the mornings, I toss a few into a sandwich bag for a pre-workout snack if I plan to go to group fitness from work. Otherwise, I just grab 3 or 4 after working out at home.

Bottom line, Ritz Hint of Salt could stand a little more sodium; just because I am pre-hypertensive doesn’t mean my taste buds died. Using the crackers to make peanut butter sandwiches is an easy, inexpensive way to make pre- or post-workout snacks. With a blend of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, they are filling and nutritiously balanced. If you do not need to watch your sodium for medical reasons, then I do not recommend you even bother with Hint of Salt; stick with the other varieties of Ritz crackers.

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