Saturday, August 29, 2009

Thai Sweet Potato Soup

I started to blog about this particular soup recipe a whole month ago when I made it for the first time. But, I spaced, and failed, so now I will try to remember exactly what I did that made this particular fall soup so yum-tastic, since I mentioned it on @MissCritta's facebook page yesterday.

Reasons you should make a sweet potato soup: sweet potatoes are, from what I hear, nutritious. In many ways. And they're tasty. And orange. Which, if you're Rose, will be a reason NOT to make the soup, as she has a severe and undying hatred for orange. But if you're an Auburn fan, would count as a huge reason to make the soup.

Thai Sweet Potato Soup

First: prepare a sweet potato. My favorite method is to roast several at once in the oven (400 degrees for about an hour, depending on the oven and size of the potato) as they are simple to prepare, ready to eat, and keep well in the fridge for a day or two. Plus the flavors really develop well with the roasting method. If you don't have an hour to wait, though, I guess you could just peel the potato (a large one or two small ones), dice it, and boil it until fork tender; drain, and mash. But really, you should just roast the thing.

Second: In your favorite soup/stock pot, heat about 1/2 tablespoon olive oil and 1/2 tablespoon of butter over medium heat. While that's warming up, dice a white onion (Vidalia if available) and mince some garlic. Add to the heated pot, saute until cooked through with salt and some red pepper flakes. After they've cooked, add in about a tablespoon of tomato paste, some ground/grated ginger, and cinnamon. I probably put some other spices in there, but can't remember if it was (a) cumin, (b) garam masala (I know it's Indian, not Thai, but I do crazy things in the kitchen), (c) cayenne pepper, or (d) chili powder. So, get creative at that point if you feel like it.

After incorporating the other spices and tomato paste, deglaze the pan with about 1/4-1/2 cup white wine (vodka works too). Simmer until liquid is reduced by half; add a can of coconut milk (low fat is fine, but I'm on a full-fat kick lately, and it's soooo goooood), some milk or half & half, chicken stock and the potato. Use your own judgment on how much liquid you want; depends on the day, the potato, and your cooking style/personal taste. Simmer until just heated and the potato is incorporated as well as you can get it, then pour the whole mixture into your food processor or blender and puree. You can also use an immersion blender, but I'm terrified of them, so I don't use mine anymore.

Return to medium heat, correct seasonings (add more salt/pepper/chicken stock/milk/half and half if you want it thinned out) and simmer about 20 minutes. Enjoy!

Dave and I adored this soup. I think it's darn tasty and perfect for fall nights.

In other news, non-food-related, I defended my dissertation last Friday (hooray) and am trying to figure out life post-school. It's odd, but enjoyable.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Iron Girls

Yesterday, I successfully finished the Aflac Iron Girl Triathlon in Columbia, Maryland. As many of you know, I trained to raise money and awareness for young adults living with cancer through the Ulman Cancer Fund's Team FIGHT. 70 outstanding women of all ages, shapes and sizes participated in the tri yesterday, and we rocked! There was nothing quite like hearing "GO TEAM FIGHT!" every five minutes out on the course! I am lucky to have had such an incredible first triathlon experience, and also fortunate to have been able to meet several new friends along the way. Thanks to all of you who helped me raise funds this year, and those of you who offered kind words of support and encouragement as I went through training! I feel like it's all I've talked about this year, but I'm going to indulge and talk about it once more.

Our (I was with Anne Willis, one of my best friends) day started at 4:15 a.m. After a quick breakfast, donning of our uniforms, final run-through of our "do not forget" checklist and a quick dance around the room to Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," (yes, we were delirious) we were ready to go. Meg (incredible lady with an inspiring story; check out her blog here!) picked us up at 5 a.m. to head to the course. After setting up our transition areas, I had about 2 hours of standing around getting nervous, playing around, and updating Facebook and Twitter to keep my mind occupied.

By the time I lined up with my group to jump in the lake, I was so anxious, I thought I might pass out. Those kind of nerves generally don't strike me unless I'm in front of my graduate committee, and yesterday, I just couldn't shake them. All I could do was get in the water, and swim. So that's what I did. After hearing the countdown "3, 2, 1, AFLAC!" I started my freestyle and made up my mind to just enjoy the day.

I wish I could go into detail about the course, but honestly, it was a blur. I swam, biked, and ran. Really hard. My goal was go finish, and to do my best, and I did both of those. At some point during the 17 mile bike, I realized that I was more focused than I'd ever been in my life. It was a great feeling!

(I'm smiling with my eyes.)

I concentrated not on winning or going fast, but on just riding the bike, conserving energy, and enjoying the course. I also realized that nothing was really hurting and I had energy, two really nice side effects of this approach. To top it off, I finished faster than I dreamed I would. The swim took 25 minutes, which was exactly what I expected. But, biking 17 miles took 1 hour 15 minutes (I'm super slow on the bike and expected to take at least an hour and a half), and I did the 3.4 mile run with a 9 minute mile pace, which is my average running pace for road races and training. Considering that when I started the run, I thought my legs were going to fall off, and I was insanely tired, and I felt like I was crawling instead of running, I was in disbelief when I looked down at my watch at the first mile marker and saw "8:51." This made me insanely happy, not to mention I felt like a total badass. :)

Now, usually when I am going through a hard workout, what pushes me to keep going is thinking about all the people in the world, particularly people in my own life, who are not healthy enough or able to do what I do. My mantra on Saturday was, "remember, you're doing this because you can." It's a simple thought, but it's so true, and powerful. Yesterday was no exception to that. I ran with a green "Waeger Will Win" bracelet in honor of Dan Waeger, who recently lost his battle with lung cancer but used his life to better the lives of others. I carried the Team FIGHT and Ulman Fund logos on my jersey, which means I ran with the spirit of the 70,000 young adults each year who are diagnosed with cancer. I thought about all the cancer survivors in my family, and I thought about how motivated I am to keep exercising, eating well, and taking care of myself in hopes of preventing serious illness and disease in my own life.

Call me selfish, but at that point, my thoughts turned to me. During the run, what kept me going when I wanted to quit was thinking about just how far I personally have come in my one year of training - not just in terms of physical ability, but also in psychological well being. Don't get me wrong: I freaking loved knowing that I was able to succeed at a serious, hard-core endurance athletic event. But, most importantly, I finally realized this year that being in the best shape of my life, and being my happiest, does not equal being the smallest pants size or lightest weight I've ever been. I learned, without even knowing I'd learned it, how to mentally prepare for a challenge I wanted to overcome. How thinking positively and believing I could do it, meant that I could. Focusing on what I was doing, just because I could, caused me to find every last ounce of energy I had and sprint as fast as I could on the home stretch and finish my first triathlon in 2:16:03.

(look at me go! woo hoo)

Now, if you're sitting there thinking, "that's great, LBD, but I could never do anything like that," you probably won't be able to until you change your mind. But once you change your mind, I bet you'd be surprised just exactly what you could do. I certainly didn't get here overnight. I have never been particularly athletic. I never played sports in high school, and refused to participate in intramural sports in college. I couldn't even really swim until last September, nor did I own a bike until December. In fact, 4 years ago (when Anne and I started working out together in Auburn), I couldn't run a mile without stopping. My mom (thankfully) started a get-healthy routine when I was a teenager, and she and I were avid walkers. I continued to walk at Auburn, and then one day, on one of our many walks around campus, Loren made me run for 15 minutes straight, just to prove that I could do it. Despite thinking I was going to die running up the hill at the amphitheater on campus, she was right. Rosalie took advantage of our twice-a-week gym time to encourage me to sign up for a 5K with her back in 2006 (just 3 years ago!), so I have her to thank for my catching the running bug. Lindsey then convinced me to sign up for a 10K last May, and running while studying for my qualifying exams saved me from losing my mind. Then, last summer on one of the many road trips I took, Anne, a 12-year Ewing's Sarcoma survivor (and 3 time Iron Girl), told me to sign up for a tri when I just mentioned I'd thought about it. When I got back to school last August, Liz held me accountable for twice-weekly pool visits, and I was well prepared thanks to our routine swims, even though we pretty much had to force ourselves in the water sometimes. As you can see, I'm living proof that one person doing something very small, such as turning a walk around campus into a run, or pushing someone to register for a road race "for the cute t-shirt!" or agreeing to meet a friend at the pool or at the corner for a bike ride (Alyssa...) is all it takes to change a life. Hopefully, my story, or Meg's story, or Dan's story, or Anne's story, will motivate you to take on your own challenge. If you ever need help finding a race, or getting started, let me know. I want to pay it forward, and help as many people as possible start leading a healthier lifestyle that involves better eating and workout habits. My life has been much better since I began paying attention to what I eat and how I work out, and I can almost guarantee that yours will get better, too.

As I sit here this morning, nearly 24 hours after finishing, I'm really sore. I'm tired. But inspired. I feel like a new person. I feel like something changed in me during the race, that helped me center and re-focus on my life. I've been hanging on to a lot of negativity, bitterness and anger, poisonous feelings from some rough patches and bad times in my life from a few years ago. And on my run, I experienced a moment in which I just let go of all of it, and I instantly felt better. I finally embraced my life, and realized I shouldn't worry about the bad anymore, and instead just focus on all the good that I've been blessed with. I then thought about just how very lucky I am to have a husband who loves me for who I am and has supported me through bad times, long drives, bad moods, intense workout training, dissertations, classes, weddings, and stress, and how happy I am knowing that we get to go through this life together. And, not surprisingly, I heard this song in my head:

Cheesy as it might sound, we all have a light that can shine through us, made brighter with love: for another person, for nature, for yourself, for God, for whatever. This triathlon changed my life. It made me a better person. And I can't wait for my next one: Iron Girl Atlanta 2010. Who's in?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Don't Hurt Yourself Bananas Foster

I keep dark rum in my house for 2 reasons: Wes Cooksey, and bananas foster.

Last night, I decided that my World of Warcraft playing husband and I needed dessert. See how happy it made him? I'm such a good wife.

Now, you probably know that if you order bananas foster in a restaurant, you do so partly for the flashy presentation that involves lighting the dish on fire to burn off the rum in the sauce. In my house, though, we call such a move a "fire hazard," and given recent kitchen injuries (including the time I almost cut off the tip of my finger with a CAN OF CHICKPEAS), I tend to play it safe and stay away from anything that might physically harm me in the cooking process. Flipping omelettes? Not a problem. The worst that can happen is a big mess on the stove or floor. Broiling? Sure. Use your oven mitts and don't let your pita chips burn. Chopping vegetables with super-sharp Henckles knives? As long as I am not in a bad mood (apparently, I get aggressive and sloppy when I'm angry). Playing with fire and alcohol? That's a big no-no.

So, based on a Paula Deen recipe, I have come up with my own version of bananas foster that can be whipped up in a jiffy, usually at any given moment since I always have the ingredients on hand, and the shortcut technique I invented really can't hurt you at all. Not a rum drinker? I'm not either. I actually hate it. But, it's just not bananas foster without the rum, so go out and get yourself a small bottle to keep in the pantry for this one dish. Or incase Wes Cooksey happens to come over and wants to play Rock Band.

Don't Hurt Yourself Bananas Foster

1 banana
2-3 tablespoons butter
about 1/4-1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 splash vanilla extract
1/4 cup dark rum

In a small, nonstick saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. While that's melting, prepare the banana: slice into thin pieces, or (what I usually do) cut it in half, then slice it lengthwise, making 4 sections. Add brown sugar, cinnamon and vanilla to the butter, stir to combine and make a thick, gooey sauce. Add the bananas, and toss to coat. Immediately pour in the rum (stand back! don't let it splatter on the gas) and stir to create a thinner sauce. Cook for 5 minutes, until the alcohol has burned off, and the bananas have soaked up some of the sauce. Remove from heat, serve over vanilla ice cream or with whipped cream.

There is nothing quite like tasty, warm rum sauce over vanilla ice cream. I'm a sucker for ice cream in general, but especially if certain things are paired with it, like warm cake or warm sauce. It melts together and is simply divine.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Spinach, Walnut & Basil Pesto with Balsamic-Citrus Grilled Chicken

Okay, readers, I know the title sounds fancy-schmancy, but I promise that this recipe is super simple and cheap. Late last week, I decided I should be really conscious of what I was eating in preparation for my big triathlon coming up this weekend. My strategy for the next 6 days? I plan to rather pretentiously carb- and protein-load all week, as well as stay away from alcohol. Not that I drink that much anyway, but I somehow figured out that I feel and perform way better when I don't drink anything at all, ever. Who'd have thought it? So, don't expect any yummy cocktail recipes, like this one that I invented the other day when I realized I have 2 whole liters of peach schnapps in my pantry (how in the world that happened, I have no idea):

Georgia Peach Sweet Tea Cocktail
1 part Firefly sweet tea vodka
1/2 part peach schnapps
ice cold water

Fill a small rocks glass with ice, add ingredients, stir, go sit on your back porch, light a citronella candle and enjoy.

I digress. Back to my pesto, which I made in response to Dave's request for "something light." I tried making pesto, which is a vibrant green mixture that goes really well with pasta, from scratch earlier this summer, and forgot to add garlic. This made me angry, and sad, when I sat there wondering why it was so bland. I re-tried it this week, especially since my basil plant has not yet kicked the bucket and I wanted to make good use of its tasty, leafy greens. I felt the need to use up my remaining bag of spinach, something I have fully enjoyed as a pantry/fridge staple this summer. Also, I always have walnuts in my freezer, so this was a real cinch to whip up in no time.

Spinach and Walnut Pesto
In your food processor, combine the following:
about 1/2 to 3/4 bag fresh spinach, washed and patted dry (or run through the salad spinner)
zest of one lemon
juice of half a lemon
1 clove garlic
lots of salt & pepper
handful of basil leaves
about 1/3 cup of walnuts, toasted

until it resembles a somewhat homogenous mixture. Then, drizzle in about 1/4 - 1/2 cup of really good quality extra virgin olive oil. Refrigerate until ready to serve. I prefer it over vermicelli, angel hair, or spaghetti. Note: save some of your starchy pasta water while mixing the pesto with the pasta; if the pesto/pasta is too sticky, you can thin it out with hot pasta water or (what I did) butter. Lots of it.

Balsamic-Citrus Grilled Chicken
Prepare a marinade (combine together and pour in a dish or plastic zip-loc bag) out of the following ingredients:
about 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
about 1/4 cup oil (I use EVOO; can use whatever you like really)
juice of the other half of your lemon, and maybe some zest if you feel like it
2 tablespoons honey
salt & pepper
fresh chopped basil and rosemary leaves (use dried Italian seasoning if you don't have fresh herbs)

Add 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts to the marinade; allow to chill in the fridge for at least 20 minutes and up to several hours. Remove from marinade, grill until cooked through, about 12 minutes.

I think I made a balsamic chicken once based on a recipe of Giada's (surprise, surprise), but the grilled version was so very tasty. I served the chicken breasts over the pasta that had been tossed with the pesto. When you toss hot pasta with pesto, it cooks the mixture just enough to take the harsh, raw-ness out of the pesto. We devoured it, and I even enjoyed my leftovers cold the next day.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pasta with Vodka Cream Sauce, Cherry Tomatoes & Peas

I had no idea what to make for dinner tonight. I was leaning towards pasta, but didn't want fettucini alfredo (too heavy), and didn't want just plan olive oil/sauteed onion sauce. I kind of walked in circles around the kitchen for a while, and then it hit me.

I have made this Rachael Ray vodka cream pasta for a long time; it was one of Rose's favorites, and is also something I enjoy, especially when I want some super fast and yummy pasta. But, after perusing my copy of The Silver Spoon, which is an Italian Bible of recipes (and includes directions on how to prepare things I may not ever be brave enough to eat, like tongue), I found another, better, tastier (albeit more fattening) way to make vodka cream pasta. It involves no crushed tomatoes, as Rachael's does, but instead uses tomato paste.

Here's a little improvement that I created tonight on the Silver Spoon vodka sauce: I added peas, fresh sliced cherry tomatoes (straight from Christy's garden, yummmmmtastic), and lots more butter. To quote Ina, how bad could that be? The answer: not bad at all.

penne pasta
salt & pepper
dried Italian seasoning
1/2 white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup vodka
1/2 cup chicken stock
heavy cream (maybe 3/4 cup?)
frozen peas
cherry tomatoes, sliced (optional)
fresh parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil; salt generously, and add penne. Cook until al dente, about 8-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat about 1 tablespoon oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in a pan over medium-high heat. Sautee onion, garlic, salt & pepper, and Italian seasonings until onions are cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add tomato paste, start to work/melt into the onion. Add vodka, combine well. Cook until liquid reduces by half, about 5 minutes. Add chicken stock, salt & pepper again to taste. Simmer gently, reducing heat. Add cream, stir. Add pats of butter to your heart's content, slowly stirring or whisking in each time. As soon as you're ready to add the pasta to the sauce (which is, at my house, as soon as it's done) throw in the frozen peas and tomatoes. Stir, simmer for about 3 minutes so that the pasta absorbs some of the sauce. Plate up, top with freshly grated parmesan cheese. Enjoy.