Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

I’ve done it! After a full summer of fighting sore knees, asthmatic wheezing, and general laziness I can finally call myself a jogger. Not a runner, no – heavens no – but a jogger…yes! Of course, many of you are probably wondering why I would even bother at all and I admit I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for two things. First, with my new grad student lifestyle (read: timetable and budget) I realized I would actually have to make an effort at being healthy; weekly climbing and kayaking trips were just not in the cards anymore. Second, my doctor had never shown as much shock as she did the day I admitted I couldn’t jog past 3 minutes out of doors. Five spirometer tests later (I had failed the first three and insisted on trying twice more – to no avail) and my lung capacity was determined to be significantly below average and back at the level I had been at as a chunky 12 year old. Embarrassing.

My initial attempts at running here in Halifax were just like all my previous ones back home: miserable. I couldn’t go for more than a few minutes at a time and felt like death every time I did so. I felt like such a fraud, trying to do something I have never been good at in the least. It also stung my pride that here I was, the same gal who could kayak all day and hold side-planks like a champ, gasping for breath when jogging a lowly 4 mph. Luckily for me and my lungs, my stubbornness is one of my strongest features and this time it really came in handy.

By our apartment there is a beautiful, large park right on the bay. All summer I’ve managed to get my butt out the door and into the park several times a week. I was still jogging painfully slow, but after the first six weeks or so it actually started feeling pretty good afterwards. The pattern would usually be a 5 minute warm-up walk followed by alternating 3 minutes jogging, 5 minutes walking, for one circumference of the park (~ 2.8 miles). The first few minutes of every jog continued to be torturous as my body fought me down to the very. last. synapse. …but if I were able to hold out my muscles would slooowly start to comply. By the end of July I seemed to have actually won my body over and the entire routine was comfortably challenging.

The real breakthrough came just a few weeks ago. I had been looking up running tips and learned that beginners should just focus on the goal of jogging for 15 minutes at any pace, before they worry about things like rate or distance. “Bummer,” I thought, “there’s no way that’s going to happen.” At this point, I had improved to 6 minutes of jogging, but that was the top of my game. However, I also read that one should warm up for at least 10 whole minutes – that’s quite long when you actually time it. So, the next day, I walked for 10 minutes before jogging and then told myself I wouldn’t stop jogging until my legs literally gave out on me. I would keep my slowest pace – pride be damned! – but I would just keep going. Perhaps not the healthiest experiment, haha, but I really wanted to push myself and see what I could do.

Well I didn’t make it the entire route, but I did make it 2/3 of the way – a whopping 11 minutes of straight (slow) jogging! Unbelievable. I had to take my puffer as a went and I certainly was a striking shade of pink walking home, haha, but I had nearly doubled my past time. It was challenging enough that I almost chickened out on trying it the next week. Since I hadn’t experienced any injury or actual pain from the first attempt, though, I told myself I had to do it again, that I could do it again. And I did. And I’ve kept doing it. The other shoe finally dropped just a few days ago when I went out and clocked a 10-minute-mile during that same route. Let me say that again: a TEN MINUTE MILE. Better get your mitts out, hell just froze over. And I am ecstatic. 😀

Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps (America’s Test Kitchen Light & Healthy 2010)

Ingredients:

1½   C   water

1   C   short-grain rice (such as sushi rice), rinsed

3   T   fish sauce

zest and juice of 1 lime (~ 3 T juice, 2 t zest)

1½   T   brown sugar

1   t   cornstarch

1   lb.  ground chicken

2   t   canola oil

1   Thai or jalapeño chili; stemmed, seeded, and minced*

¼   C   chopped fresh basil**

3   scallions, thinly sliced

12   Bibb or Boston lettuce leaves (~ 1 head)

* Note: For more heat, include some or all of the seeds

** Note: Since I needed to trim my mint plant anyway (my first potted herb since moving across the border! Excuse me while I do a little dance…), I used mint leaves and loved the flavor they added to the dish. If you want more authentic flavors, stick to basil, but I highly recommend you try a little mint at some point. You’ll be surprised.

Procedure:

1) Start the water and rice cooking in your rice cooker  – or bring both to boil in a medium saucepan over High heat before covering, reducing heat to Low, and cooking for 10 minutes. Remove the pot from heat and let rice sit, covered, for 15 minutes before fluffing with a fork.

2) As the rice cooks, whisk fish sauce, lime juice, brown sugar, and cornstarch together in a small bowl and set aside. In a medium bowl, mash the ground chicken with the back of a spoon or a potato masher until no stringy pieces remain.

3) Heat the oil in a 12″ non-stick skillet over Medium heat until shimmering. Add the chicken, chili, and lime zest and cook until meat is no longer pink – breaking up the meat constantly as it cooks – about 5 minutes. Whisk the fish sauce mixture briefly to recombine and add it to the skillet. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens – about 45 seconds. Remove skillet from heat and stir in basil and scallions. Transfer chicken to a serving bowl and serve immediately with rice and lettuce leaves.

4) To assemble wraps: put a spoonful of rice into the center of each lettuce leaf and top with a spoonful a chicken. Fold the edges of the leaf up to form a taco-shape and eat with your hands. The trick is not to stuff them – easy does it!

Alternative serving suggestion of you really want to load up your wraps or are concerned with spills.

Beezer’s Notes:

I’m very happy I decided to try this easy and light recipe. I’m always a sucker for Asian dishes and this one gives you full-scale flavor without investing hardly any time or ingredients. I ended up making this twice in a single week – with NO leftovers surviving! A big thank you to Shane who supplied me with lovely home-grown veggies, including the scallions that I couldn’t find in either grocery store (Halifax grocers are just odd); the next handful are going on my potatoes haha. Quick note: although I think they’re just perfect, Brad thought the wraps were a little dry. You may want to keep a little soy sauce or other Asian-themed sauce handy to top these off, if you so desire.

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥

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Black Bean Soup

Around this time of year I always get the same ambition. No matter how many times I’ve failed in the past, the sunshine (we do get it sometimes!), warmer weather, and my antsy-ness from being trapped at a desk all winter always leads to the same thought: this year I’m definitely going to be a runner. Now before you get any crazy ideas, let me clarify what I consider to be “a runner”: for me it means someone who runs on a weekly basis, for at least 30 minutes at a time total (this means running + walking), without feeling like they are on death’s door after every session. Pretty low standards, right? I think so. My body doesn’t agree.

This season in particular I got a stronger urge than normal. I think it’s because this time around – for the first time in about 5 years – I have to actually WORK at working out. No laughing, I’m serious! In the past, my hobbies had the (wonderful) added bonus of exercise: climbing, kayaking, biking, being on my feet all day in Japan or in a Vermont coffee shop… I just never had to worry about fitting exercise into my routine. Unfortunately, everything I do these days is in front of a computer screen. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying my studies and am really looking forward to having a summer free of classes to focus on my research, but I’m very quickly realizing I’m going to have to actually make an *ahem* effort to stay healthy now. Can you hear me whimpering?

So, full of naive ambition and covered in sunscreen (some of us only burn), I set out yesterday for my first run of the season. What started off so well quickly deteriorated and it always begins with the “stuff”: having exercise-induced asthma, my puffer is always with me. Then I carry my phone both for safety and for music. Next, I have to find room for a 4″x2″ laminated building keycard with attached apartment key. I settled on stuffing my 4″ puffer into the tiny pocket in my leggings, forcing my phone into my old iPod armband, and sliding the keycard under my waistband…only my puffer kept popping out, my armband kept slipping down (not made for the weight of the iPhone), and I gave myself an uncomfortable blister where the keycard rubbed against my upper thigh.

As I was jogging and juggling objects – more juggling than jogging – my left earbud also refused to stay in. Then the wind picked up (it IS Nova Scotia after all) and, believe it or not, kept blowing the headphones cord into my mouth every few minutes. If you had passed me on the street that day you would have seen a gal puffing her way down the avenue with her left hand on her ear, her right hand holding the cord while simultaneously trying to pull up her armband, a brass key flapping from the front of her pants, and a bulge sticking out the back like a little tail. Oh, and my face was bright purple. Of course.

In the end I gave up, turned around, and just walked home. I couldn’t have been out there more than 20 minutes and I feel like I honestly get a better workout just following my pilates or yoga DVDs in my living room…but those won’t get my outside and into the sunlight. I think I’m going to give running at least a few more shots and am brainstorming ways to make the experience at least more manageable if not less painful. I’ll run my headphones cord through my shirtsleeve next time to – hopefully – keep it out of my mouth. I’ll only run when Brad is home so I won’t have to take the cumbersome keys. I could just hold the phone, although I’m always afraid of dropping it…

How about you? Are you a runner at all? Were you one of the dozens of folks who so effortlessly bounded past me the other day – hands free and head high? haha. Tell me your tricks! My lazy bum may never get used to going more than 3 mph, but I’d at least like to feel able. We’ll see.

Black Bean Soup

(slightly adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Soups & Stews 2010)

Ingredients:

For the Beans…

1   lb.   dried black beans, picked over and rinsed (~2 C)

2   bay leaves

5   C   water

1/8   t    baking soda

1   t   salt

For the Soup…

3   T   olive oil

2   large onions, chopped fine (~3 C)

1   large carrot, peeled, chopped fine (~½ C)

3   celery stalks, chopped fine (~1 C)

½   t   salt

6   garlic cloves, minced (~2 T)

½   t   red pepper flakes

1½   T   ground cumin

4   C   low-sodium vegetable broth

2   T   cornstarch

2   T   water

2   T   fresh lime juice from 1 or 2 limes

For Garnishes…

lime wedges

chopped fresh cilantro leaves

finely diced red onion

diced avocado

plain, non-fat greek yogurt or sour cream

* Note: While the recipe calls for using the liquid the beans are cooked in, you don’t have to be that afraid of…shall we say…the “side effects”. The test kitchen chef explained that the added baking soda not only helps in keeping the beans an attractive black color, but also aids in reducing the bloat beans can cause. Hurray!

Procedure:

1) For the beans: place beans, bay leaves, water, and baking soda in a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Bring to boil over Medium-high heat and skim foam from the service as needed. Once boiling, stir in salt, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until beans are tender – 1¼ to 1½ hours. If necessary, add an additional Cup of water and continue to simmer until beans are tender. Do not drain!* Once beans are done, remove bay leaves and set aside in remaining water.

2) For the soup: heat oil in an 8-quart Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed stockpot over Medium-high heat until shimmering, but not smoking. Add onions, carrot, celery, and salt and cook – stirring occasionally – until vegetables are soft and lightly browned – about 12 to 15 minutes. Reduce heat to Medium-low and add the garlic, pepper flakes, and cumin and cook – stirring constantly – for a few minutes or until fragrant.

3) Stir in all but 2 Cups of the beans w/ their liquid and all of the vegetable broth. If you want a perfectly creamy soup with no chunks of beans, add all the beans at this step. Increase heat to Medium-high and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to low and let it simmer uncovered for about half an hour – stirring occasionally. This will blend the flavors and reduce the stock.

4) To finish, use an immersion blender to puree the soup until creamy or, alternatively, blend the soup in batches in an upright blender or food processor. Once blended, stir in the reserved whole beans (if saved). In a small bowl, stir together cornstarch and water until all lumps have dissolved and then gradually add about half of the mixture into the soup. Return the soup to a boil over Medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, to fully thicken. If you’d prefer you soup to be thicker once it’s boiling, add in the remaining half of the cornstarch slurry (you may have to whisk it a bit to recombine it before adding to soup) and allow soup to boil for a few minutes to thicken further. Remove from heat.

5) Off the heat, stir fresh lime juice into soup until fully incorporated. Ladle soup into bowls and serve immediately with preferred garnishes. Be prepared for meat-loving friends/family to love this Mexican-themed, vegetarian soup. 😉

Beezer’s Notes:

I am really surprised how much Brad and I both liked this soup! This was supposed to be just another healthy meal to add to the repertoire (I adapted it to be vegetarian and used greek yogurt instead of sour cream). In particular, I was waiting to hear complaints about the lack of meat and giant dollops of yogurt – he did refuse to eat it until I confessed it’s true nature – but…BUT…he liked it! WE liked it. The generous amount of cumin gave the soup an unidentifiable richness and the red pepper flakes produced just a slight heat, satisfying without making you sweat. The beans were filling enough to make this soup a great stand-alone dinner (especially with toppings), but we didn’t feel weighed down like you’re apt to with other Mexican-themed meals. Finally, the source recipe suggests using chipotle chilies in adobo sauce instead of the red pepper flakes for a smokier taste. Somehow I missed that note the first time around, but I love my choptle chilies in adobo so I’m really excited to try that variation next time!

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥  

Chocolate Cloud Cookies

Well the workload has definitely begun to swamp me again. I sat in front of my office computer for no fewer than 19 hours this weekend and am beginning this week feeling both exhausted and stir crazy. It’s an unpleasant combination that I’m sure any student or cubical rat is familiar with. I’m determined to get to the gym this evening, even if it means falling a bit more behind. I’m also trying to convince my man to make one of these for me, haha, but I’m not holding my breath.

The silver lining to this weekend was that I was able to get in some show tune sing-a-longs. See I love musicals, theater, and Disney songs of all sorts. The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack makes a regular rotation on my iPhone, along with the soundtracks from Chicago, Once Upon a Mattress, Hello Dolly, and – of course – Wicked. Being in a large office space alone at 1 in the morning means you can belt out Defying Gravity to your silly heart’s content – which I did… many times. Who says Science and The Arts can’t go together? 😉

Speaking of going well together, I recently discovered that chocolate and meringue compliment each other more so than I would have thought. Brad and I were both craving chocolate cookies the other day, but I had run out of both chocolate chips and butter. Searching for a cocoa-based dairy-free cookie recipe I was lucky enough to discover these. Now, I have to warn you that my cookies, while very good, didn’t turn out the way Heidi described: where she got gooey chocolate puddles I got crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside, satisfyingly thick mounds. She does warn that baking time can be finicky and that leaving the dough out to dry can influence results. I’m guessing that the combination of those plus my mini-oven were the cause of “chocolate puddles” turning into – what I’ve decided to call – “chocolate clouds”. I’m not disappointed. My cookies married the best of chocolate and meringue-lovers’ worlds. Still, I’d be curious to see how this recipe replicates for others. Let me know if you try them please!

Chocolate Cloud Cookies (minimally adapted from 101 Cookbooks)

Ingredients:

3   C   whole almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped

4   C   confectioner’s sugar

½  C plus 3 T   unsweetened cocoa powder

pinch of salt

4   large egg whites, room temp (preferably free-range)

1   T   pure vanilla extract

Procedure:

1) Preheat the oven to 300°F and line at least 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. The source recipe warns of these babies spreading out like puddles, but mine never did. Still, just in case, you might want to give them extra elbow-room.

2) Sift together sugar, cocoa, and salt into a large bowl. Stir in the almonds, then add egg whites and vanilla. Stir with a wooden spoon or spatula until well combined.

3) Spoon mounds of about 2 Tablespoons of dough each onto prepared baking sheets leaving some extra space between the cookies just in case. Bake until cookies puff up, and the outsides have become glossy and have cracked – 15 to 20 minutes. Once baked fully, slide the parchment paper with cookies still attached carefully onto wire cooling racks. Trying to remove the cookies from the parchment before they have fully cooled will cause the bottoms to rip off and you’ll be left with a shell of a cookie.

4) Serve cookies with a tall glass of milk and a Valentine’s Day card to your loved ones!

Beezer’s Notes:

These cookies blend the light chewiness of meringue with satisfying rich cocoa flavor and crunchy nuts. They are even better dunked in milk and – dangerously – can be eaten by the pile. Another bonus is their incredibly short ingredients list. Plus, if you choose to sub in dried fruit or chocolate chips for the nuts you can have a gluten-free*, dairy-free, and nut-free cookie! I’m actually thinking of trying these with dried cranberries and walnuts for tomorrow – giving these babies little speckles of red for Valentine’s Day.

*If you’re going for the gluten-free variety, make sure to buy pure cocoa powder. Cocoa powder itself is gluten-free, but many brands include additives that contain gluten.

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥   ♥

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