Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Something Savory in a Sweet Week

Hi, internet friends!  It's Caramel Week!

The Theme Weavers have gotten back together for a week chock full of ooey-gooey goodness, so I hope that you brought your sweet tooth and are stocked up on butter.
As a kid, I wasn't a fan of caramel.  This may be shocking to you, but bear in mind that what I knew as caramel were those horrid store bought too-chewy caramel candies.  It was only when I got older that I discovered the diversity of truly good caramels and caramel sauces.  Then I was introduced to salted caramel, and my world changed.
To be perfectly clear, anyone who says that salted caramel has jumped or will jump the shark and I can NOT be friends.  Salted caramel is not a fad.  It is a balanced flavor Way of Life.
As much as I love the salted caramel cupcakes at TopIt Cupcakes, the salted caramel apple pie I made for Thanksgiving (two years in a row) by Four and Twenty Blackbirds, and Megan's salted caramel sauce that I have been adding to my Greek yogurt for this entire last week, when we planned caramel week, I knew that I needed to do something that wasn't a dessert.
Partly because I wanted to be "practical," and partly because it was a great excuse to have our friend Dani over for dinner two weeks in a row (she's coming over next week for our Kentucky Derby themed dinner), but mostly because I knew that if I made a dessert, I would end up eating The Entire Thing.  And that's not really working with my current plan of eating better right now.
Enter pork.
Pork is a fantastic partner with caramel; it lends itself to a variety of sweet-ish fruit pairings well, so I knew that working with a pork tenderloin would be the way to go.
Now, let's backtrack for a second to take a closer look at my love of salted caramel.  That it is salted is what makes it genius.  That salt balances out the sweetness of the caramel, which can sometimes be cloyingly overpowering.  Yes, salt can enhance the sweetness of sugary goods (this is why we add it to baked goods), but in enhancing it, that sweetness is tamed.  Simply put, more taste buds are able to come to the party in your mouth.
What I wanted to have, then, was an even bigger party, one in which all the taste buds were mingling and jumping fully clothed into the pool.  I had my salty and sweet, so I was on a mission to bring in the sour, bitter, and umami.
The perfect balance, I found, was a peppercorn-crusted pork tenderloin over a shaved brussels sprouts and apple salad, all drizzled with a soy-caramel sauce.
But first, in the spirit of Theming All the Things and because appetizers, baked brie with apples, hazelnuts, and tamari-caramel sauce.

If you haven't made baked brie, run - don't walk - to the store, get yourself the best brie you can possibly find, and do this.  You're welcome.
All you have to do is plop that wheel onto a baking sheet (the rind is edible), poke a few holes in the top with a sharp knife or fork, put it in a 350° oven, and bake to melty deliciousness.  Then sprinkle whatever you want on top.  In this case, you're seeing some apples that were sauteed in a touch of butter and cinnamon sugar and some of those roasted hazelnuts.  All of this was topped with that modification of Megan's salted caramel sauce I mentioned earlier (I used a tamari syrup instead of corn syrup and didn't add as much salt at the end).

Perfect on just about anything (or simply conveyed to the mouth on a spoon), we downed this atop gluten-free bagel chips and almond crackers.

And now back to the main course.
I followed the recipe for the tenderloin's soy-caramel sauce with only a few modifications:
  • I didn't add ginger.  It has no place in my house.
  • I went with a red onion.  We had a white onion, but the red onion was needing to be used, and we love the flavor that it offers.  I chopped it pretty roughly so that we could get some big ol' bites.
  • I used tamari instead of soy sauce for a fuller, saltier flavor and for the gluten-free option.
  • I added more mustard.  Because mustard.
  • Since the sauce was a bit thin, even for a dressing, I added a splash of cream and let it simmer while the pork finished roasting.
For the salad, The Husband was kind enough to shave the brussels sprouts finely.  In that effort, we decided that the mandolin I bought just for that purpose wasn't intended for brussels sprouts, no matter what the user guide said.  However, the experiment with potatoes went well, so I'm certain weekend lunches until the end of time will now include homemade chips/waffle fries.  Not complaining.
To the sprouts I added thinly julienned apples that I had tossed in lemon juice (partly to keep from browning and partly to add another sour component) and roasted, chopped hazelnuts.  That's it.  It was as simple as could be.  As the pork rested (roasting in an oven must be exhausting), I drizzled the warm dressing over this so that the sprouts would wilt just slightly.  I still wanted the crunch of the green as a contrast to the tenderness of the pork.
Once the pork was rested and sliced, the medallions were plated over the salad, and yet more dressing was drizzled, this time with plenty of those roughly chopped red onions.

This whole plate on a fork at at time is greater than the sum of its parts.  When each mouthful has the sprouts, apples, hazelnuts, pork, onions, and sauce, all of the taste buds are engaged.  Additionally, the different textures of the sprouts, the pork, the hazelnuts, and sauce (plus the wine/bubbly that we had) all serve to enhance the different elements that lend themselves to a beautiful mouthfeel.  Honestly, even though I didn't make dessert (see also: we filled up on brie), this really left us wholly satisfied and craving nothing more.

But if you're still in the mood to satisfy your sweet, tooth, fear not!  The rest of the Theme Weavers have whipped up such an amazing array of delicious caramel treats that you'll be setting out the butter and checking your sugar supplies to make all of them.

Yesterday, we introduced the week with some dynamite eats:
Today I'm teamed up with my friend Carrie over at Bakeaholic Mama; she's made some amazing Milk Duds brownies - mmmmm... caramel and chocolate....mmmmm....

And don't miss out on the rest of this week's caramel craziness:
I hope that you enjoy reading through all of these wonderful recipes as much as I do, and please, let me know - what's your favorite caramel-based recipe to make?  If you don't cook with caramel, have you ever had a caramel sump'n-sump'n at a great restaurant?  What was it, and where was it?

Friday, April 26, 2013

One Kitchen, Many Hearts - Spring Fever

Ahhhh.... spring.  When the flowers are in bloom, the birds are constantly chirping, and it's already 95 degrees in Phoenix.
Thank goodness for air conditioning and great friends.

This month's OKMH box came, like all the others seem to, at the perfect time.  Last week was rough for the country, and as the end of the semester picks up, things have gotten even crazier round these parts.  Kirsten's completely overstuffed USPS boxes (two of them!) were the perfect pick-me-up for both HRH and me.

Behold, The Goods.

Do you see all of those gorgeous hand-written labels on those jars?  The threats of horrible repercussions should The Husband even think about looking at them were being composed the second I unearthed the first beautiful bit of homemade deliciousness.

Not only did Kirsten send me a jar of Wickles "Wannabes" (I've never had the real thing), strawberry jam made from strawberries picked by The Sons, a barbecue glaze that I MIGHT let The Husband use, should he fancy grilling, and some sweet and spicy zucchini pickles that I know I'm either going to have to eat all in one sitting or hoard after labeling it "My Precious," Kirsten also sent a jar of strawberry-rhubarb jam from her friends at Friske's Farm Market.  I can hardly stand it - I love love love rhubarb.  We had a big plant when I was growing up, and summer wasn't summer without rhubarb pies and rhubarb sauce (delicious over vanilla ice cream) and other rhubarb stuff.  The Husband also adores it, so this one is going to get its own safe.
I would have been happy to surround myself with these five new friends, but she had to go further and send me some gorgeous colors - blue and yellow, my two absolute favorites - to action on the mitts and paws ASAP, a so soft (like "it's so fluffy I could die" soft) scarf, also in blue, an "adult juice box" (AKA margarita in a squeeze bottle), and some Max-Freeze for those days when I feel my age after a morning run (we call those days "weekdays).
All of this in one cardboard box, friends.
But apparently, even this wasn't enough.  I think that now we have spent over a year getting to know one another, we've come to think of one another's families as our own.  Kirsten and HRH had an instant bond when we met up in Michigan last November; Kirsten got to spend some time with a pink-loving girl, and HRH got to get her favorite thing ever: attention.  It was a relationship made in heaven. Since then, we've been in discussions for an OKMH betrothal between HRH and one of The Sons.  
To sweeten the deal, HRH received her own OKMH-in-training package, containing a bazillion sheets of construction paper (we got through a lot of construction paper in this house), nearly the same number of sparkly Disney princess stickers, a few princess-themed markers, and some sparkly pink nail polish for her own mitts/paws situation.
HRH lost no time Stickering All the Things.

I call this one "More is More is More."
When I say everything got stickered, I mean everything.

The most wonderful aspect of receiving this package every other month isn't the contents thereof; it's the friendship that has evolved and flourished in these last 18 months among the seven of us.  We are all so very different people, but we have become close in spite of - or perhaps because of - these differences.  We complement - and often compliment - each other well.  And there's not a USPS shipping container big enough to hold the joy I have found in making these friends.  Thank you, Kirsten, for the lovely gifts and the even lovelier thoughts behind each one of them.

Now, I'm especially excited for you to see what I sent to Beka (Kvetchin' Kitchen) this month.  It was my first box of mostly homemade stuff, and I may have had more fun making them than she did unpacking them.  Although from the video that Megan sent me, she pretty much lost her (expletive deleted).
But also check out what Beka sent to Megan (Wanna Be a Country Cleaver), although since they live so close to each other, I'm not sure actual shipping was involved.
And you need to see what Megan sent to Mads (La Petite Pancake).
And also what Mads sent to Jeanne (Inside NanaBread's Head).
And don't forget to see what Jeanne sent to Kat (Tenaciously Yours,).
Or what Kat sent to Kirsten (Comfortably Domestic).

What's been in your mail lately?

Monday, April 22, 2013

"No More Hurting People"

After a week of bombings in Boston, ricin in Senatorial and Presidential mail, an explosion in Texas, an earthquake in China, and an avalanche in Colorado, the country collectively needs Something Good to hold onto.  My heart has been especially leaden in these last seven days.
Three of these tragedies were either accidents or acts of nature, although this doesn't help make the loss of lives any easier.  Yes, I know people are already trying to argue carelessness in West, but it was still an accident, occurring without malice.  But the bombings in Boston, which took four lives, and the ricin sent to the White House, were done on purpose.  By people who wanted to cause suffering, pain, and even death.  I cannot fathom this.  I don't understand a degree of hatred and unhappiness so great that one would be willing to take another's life.  Yes, violence has been part of humanity since its emergence onto this planet.  But I don't think I'll ever get used to the intimacy that some people have with invoking Death for others.
That in Boston those who died were spectators makes the events of the marathon so much worse, in my mind.  Running is a sport that doesn't even seem to surround itself with "fans."  Even if you're not a basketball fan, you know who Michael Jordan and Lebron James are.  Few people don't know of Derek Jeter.  But ask your average "man on the street" who Meb Keflezighi or Kara Goucher, you'll probably get a blank stare.  While other sports' athletes that take place in smaller, closed in venues show their appreciation to those who pay top dollar to see them play, it seems that the appreciation runners have for those who come out to cheer is in a special class of honor.  And these were the people who were hurt, the people who lost their precious lives.  These people who came to cheer on their friends, their parents, their town.  The streets of Heaven are truly too crowded with angels this week.
Bad news seems to be all around us; it's almost the norm of late.  Even locally, we have the privilege of the media spotlight being on the trial of a woman who is accused of killing the man who jilted her (how this case has become the newest national trial is beyond me, but I have no desire to find out what intrigues so many) and a litany of drive by shootings.  It's easy to start to think that because the reporting of such sad news is the norm, it's also the norm of society to lean toward those violent, inhumane tendencies.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama disagrees: "...love and compassion predominate in the world.  And this is why unpleasant events are news, compassionate activities are so much a part of daily life that they are taken for granted and, therefore, largely ignored."
It is my hope that we can stop taking the compassionate activities for granted but still make them that seamless, integral part of our everyday lives.  Maybe that's the key to see the bad news, even if it's not the norm, fade away from our nightly newscasts.
This evening then, I, like many other runners throughout the Valley and country, took a run to honor the people of Boston and to DO Something Good for others, for the running community, and for ourselves.  There were at least six runs in the Metro area, and while I had originally planned to head closer to downtown Phoenix, since The Husband was working late, HRH and I stayed close to home, heading out to Sole Sports in Tempe, where I get all my shoes and most of my gear.
It was truly lovely to see so many people at all different levels of running ability come out, most of them in varying shades of yellow and blue.  There were a handful of dogs (we opted to keep Zooey at home) and plenty of kids, although most of them were either stroller age or old enough to run at least two miles without frequent water breaks.  There was a general air of camaraderie  as people chatted with friends and strangers alike before we all headed out, and HRH found a little girl about her age to run around with.

She loved it.
Until she face planted and scraped the heck out of her knee.

In my attempt to help her feel better, I told her that Kat had also gotten an "owie" last year during her training and was able to run again.  Let's not split hairs about the fact that a scrape on the knee and tendinitis are not in the same ballpark - an owie is an owie is an owie, when you are four.  Slightly inspired, she asked me to take this snap to send to "Miss Kat."  

To subsequently learn that Kat ALSO has purple shoes ("we are basically twins") was enough to perk her up in time to get some homemade frozen yogurt (really frozen bananas and strawberries with a few chocolate chips) for "dinner."
She's pretty much a Kat protege. 

So, HRH had her first DNF.  
But in this fall, which brought nearly instant tears, I worked to help her learn a valuable lesson that we as a country and world had to be reminded of this week: it's important to get up and keep going, to not allow it to stop her from going forward.
Because without those who went forward this last week, the numbers, horrific even at one, could have been much higher.  I shudder to think of what may have transpired without those who didn't run toward the sights that we would instinctively run away from.  Most of those who died in West were those who had responded to the fire that subsequently caused the explosion.  There were runners in Boston who ripped out the IVs that were rehydrating them in order to make room for those who had lost limbs.  We'd all like to think we would do the same thing, but we never know until we are faced with running toward or running away.
Tonight, I hope that by honoring the people of Boston, my daughter will always be one of those who run toward.

If you are able, you can help by making donations to:
  • The One Fund (Boston)
  • The American Red Cross (nationwide)
  • The Austin Disaster Relief Network (in Austin, for West)
  • or any other vetted, reliable organization - do your homework, and consider not just sending a check; blood is always needed throughout the year, as are toiletries and grocery store gift cards.
Together, we can stop taking those compassionate acts for granted and start keeping them front and center.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Long Run (Book Review)

This month I was able to hop back on the book club train that's hosted by Jamie at From Couch to Ironwoman.  I was riveted by the first read, so I was really looking forward to this month's selection, The Long Run, by FDNY firefighter Matt Long.

I was even more excited when I snagged a hard cover copy of the book for mere dollars at my Changing Hands.  I had taken HRH to get a new book (her selection was Llama Llama Red Pajama), and on a whim, I checked out the sports section and found my little treasure.

The Long Run is the story of how Long, a native NYC firefighter and Ironman, survived one of the most horrific injuries I've ever read about.  On a December morning, after completing the Lake Placid Ironman and qualifying for the Boston Marathon with a 3:13 finish at the New York Marathon, he was hit by a bus making an illegal turn.  Rushed to the hospital, doctors told his family that the probability of him surviving was about 5%.  Instead of being thrown, Long was sucked under the bus and impaled by his bike.
I'll be honest; some of the descriptions of the injuries were so vivid and horrifying that I had to stop reading (the book, though, was a "can't put it down"-er).  Even though I knew that Long DID survive (he wrote the book, so it's not like it was a surprise outcome), there were moments when I honestly wasn't sure that he would make it.  But here's the thing.  Long didn't just survive having his bones crushed and being torn nearly in two.  He made it through countless surgeries and blood transfusions, physical therapy/rehabilitation, as well as mental and emotional scarring to once again become an Ironman at Lake Placid, with only two minutes to spare before the deadline (once midnight hits, participants can finish, but they are not bestowed with the title of Ironman).
What hit me the most was Long's brutal honesty about the emotional and mental hurdles that he encountered during his recovery.  That aspect is not something that I think many people, including me, tend to think about, even though anyone who's had an injury from an ingrown toenail on up have encountered some share of it.  But this accident was a series of extremes, and the roller coaster of emotion was par for the course.  It was, in some ways, acutely frustrating to me to read about how Long allowed himself to wallow in what might be described as self-pity.  I wanted him to be grateful that he'd survived and to think positively about his prospects for the future.  But having experienced my father's death from colon cancer - and the knowledge that he faded in great part because he was just tired of fighting - I also feel badly about the anger that bubbled up inside me.  
But because of my experience with my dad, I am less apologetic about my reaction toward Long's feelings toward his colostomy, although I say that with the full acknowledgement that I have the luxury of a completely intact digestive tract.  The colostomy was one of the first surgeries Long's doctors performed. If you aren't familiar with colostomies, they are generally used for colorectal cancer patients who have to have part (or all) of their colons removed.  When the colon is no longer long enough to stretch to the rectum, the end is brought out of the abdomen; waste is collected in a bag that must be emptied throughout the day.  Sometimes colostomies are able to be reversed; in my dad's case, it became permanent.
Fortunately, Long's was able to be reversed.  My dad had his from his first surgery in 1995 until he died in 1999; at first we had hoped it could be reversed, but later surgeries required more colon removal, rendering the colostomy permanent.
And that's why I got a little angry and... well, I don't know how to put it; my reaction to this is difficult to articulate, even though I've mulled over how to explain it for nearly a month.  Of course a colostomy is a less than ideal situation.  No one wants to have a bag full of waste attached to them.  They can leak, they can burst, and then can certainly smell.  They are an insult to pride and don't allow for vanity.  
But in the case of having my dad around for those last few years, I'd rather have had him - colostomy and all - than not.
So it was difficult to read some parts of this book when I felt Long's loathing of the colostomy was less because of what it represented - the accident - and more that pride and vanity.  Sure, the bag (which, by the way, my dad jokingly named "Sparky") isn't sexy, and it's not something to brag about.  Long's doctors were optimistic that they could complete a reversal, and I felt like the cosmetic hindrance was put at the forefront.
Certainly, I can't even pretend to know what went through my father's mind, much less Long's, but as someone who would give anything to have her dad back, colostomy bag and all, my reactions were what they were.
That being said, Long's story makes any complaint I have about shin splints or tendinitis not even worth mentioning.  It truly is a story of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle (his doctors said that the fact that he was a marathoner and Ironman at the time of the accident probably helped save his life) and the sheer power of the human spirit.  Once Long was able to begin overcoming those emotional injuries that aren't always as obvious, his determination was as jaw-dropping as the beginning of his journey.  To want to walk again I get.  To want to run again - yeah, I was complaining after ten days of rest for that tendinitis.  But to say "I WILL" (now the name of his foundation) to walking, running, and completing a freaking Ironman?  There are no words to convey the admiration I have for Matt Long for his ability to set a goal and to see it through, regardless of the pain.  He is truly a role model, and I think that anyone, even non-runners, can gain some perspective in  by reading this book.  We can all take a lesson from the tenacity with which Long took on his goals.
I am most appreciative, though, of the emphasis on donating blood.  Like Long in the first few days after his accident, my dad needed countless units of blood in his last months.  Blood allowed my dad to tell me, one week before he died, that he loved me one last time.  Without the donations of hundreds of people whose names I will never know, my last conversation with my dad would have been about my college tuition payment.  So that blood donation has been something that Matt Long advocates so strongly speaks to me more than any of the emotional or physical ups and downs of his recovery.  Now, in the days after the horrors of Boston, blood donation is once again in the news.  The Red Cross tweeted that stores of blood were not a concern, which is great this week.  But in two weeks or two months, that can change, so I hope that those who were touched by Long's story and/or the selflessness of the first responders (some of them having just finished the marathon) will make appointments at their local blood banks in the coming weeks and months, and become regular donors so that there is never a time in which blood supplies are dangerously low.  There is no substitute for human blood, and without the countless donors, Long would never have survived that first hour.
At the end of the book, which riveted me in its honesty and clarity, I'm reminded that my reply need to be less "I can't" and more "I will."

If you're interested in joining Jamie's book club, go here and sign up.  Even if you, like me, can't make every month, I know you'll find new inspiration with every read.

Monday, April 15, 2013

For Boston

I had planned to post my review of The Long Run, by Matt Long, today, as a part of the online running book club hosted by Jamie.
But it's going to have to wait.
Tonight, I'm hugging my daughter closely and taking her for a run to give thanks for the blessing that is my set of legs, even if they never carry me to a Boston qualifying time.
Tomorrow, along with many other members of the online running community I've come to love more than I had realized, I'm wearing a race shirt to honor those injured and killed today in Boston.
The Red Cross has tweeted that its blood supplies are strong right now, but if you are eligible to donate, please consider making an appointment in the next month; certainly blood banks throughout the country always need it, and the New England area will need replenishing very soon.
And keep running forward, never back.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Less is So Much More

My foot has been feeling better, so I decided to give cabin fever the finger and try a few miles out and back on Wednesday.  To my relief, the two miles were completely pain-free.  I'm hoping to be really back in the swing of things by Pat's Run in a few weeks.  If the doctor says I'm good to go on Monday, I'll be adding the trails back in to the mix next weekend.
I signed the entire family up for Pat's Run this year.  The Husband ran it with me last year (and to my dismay, ran it faster than I did with little to no training), but HRH went to the zoo with my mother-in-law.  This time, she's signed up for the kids' .42 mile run.  We're currently debating who's going to run the 4.2 miler and who will stay back with her.  I'd insist on being the one to run the longer distance (I was the one who signed us up, after all), but my foot is definitely a part of the conversation right now.
HRH is excited, to say the least, at the idea of going to a race with Mommy.  Even though she knows I come back from runs smelling like a goat a wilted rose, she wants to get out there with me.
So, the other night, we put on our gear, slipped the Halti on Zooey, and headed out for a run around the neighborhood.

It might not have been easy running with a 4YO
and an excited coonhound, but it was worth it!
At first, I figured we'd just run a loop - down to the last street in the neighborhood, around and back, but HRH wanted to keep going, so we made our way back by zig-zagging up the streets, saying hello to anyone passing by and taking frequent water breaks in order to stay properly hydrated.
In the end, we ran 1.12 miles, and by we, I mean just that - we both did.  HRH never stopped to walk or asked to go home before we actually got home.  And she had that big grin on her face the entire time.  I can't deny that I had a big, proud mama grin myself; this was the best, most fun, happiest mile I've ever run.
Until she went to bed, HRH kept commenting on our run: "That was totally fun, Mommy!" and "I liked going on a run with you!"  And five minutes after I put her to bed, she was out like a light.
And the next day, she asked if we could go again.
I'm not planning on taking HRH for a seven-mile trail run any time soon, but I certainly am going to start adding in more of these evening, 14-minute-mile jaunts through our neighborhood and perhaps at the park down the street.
Watch out, Boston 2030 - there's a qualifier coming your way!