Whipped Garlic Feta Dip

Whipped Garlic Feta DipI’ve been neglecting my kitchen lately. I could easily blame it on coming home tired after long, late days at work; on a travel schedule that makes it seem a waste to stock up on fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat; or on a favorite restaurant that’s a short walk from the house. But more than anything, I’ve been in a culinary rut. When I ‘cook’ I’ve been grilling, only changing up the meat, marinade, or sauce.

I took the first step toward a reconciliation with my kitchen when I purchased a Vitamix a couple of weeks ago. I’ve had my eye on it for several years, and when I found a too-good-to-pass-up deal on a new one, I finally took the plunge. Since then I’ve been blending like a manic: applesauce, apple cider, nut butter, sun butter, smoothies, ketchup, mayonnaise…

I’ve also been inspired watching my friend Amy blog her meals (I know she loves food as I do, so I want to try everything she makes). I’ve picked up a couple of her recommended cookbooks, and have started prepping my weeknight meals on the weekend.

I’ve also been searching the web for inspiration, which is how I came upon the idea for this crazy-good, crazy-easy garlic feta dip. I’m calling it a dip, but it would be good as a spread on cooked vegetables and meat, sandwiches – really, on just about anything.

It’s a combination of two recipes I found online (one for a simple whipped feta, and another for a creamy feta dip with jalapeños), plus a couple of touches to suit my tastes. You have to plan just a little bit ahead to roast the garlic and jalapeño, but other than that it comes together very quickly.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees, then wrap tightly in a double-layer of aluminum foil:

  • 1 whole head garlic, top (non-root end) sliced off to reveal the tops of the cloves
  • drizzle with a little olive oil

Place on foil in the oven; roast 20-30 minutes (until it is soft to the touch). Roast on the foil with the garlic:

  • 1 jalapeño pepper

Turn the jalapeño several times, keeping an eye on it and remove when it slightly charred. This will take less time than the garlic.

Let the garlic and jalapeño cool.

Meanwhile, combine in a blender or food processor:

  • 8 ounces feta (liquid drained)
  • 3 ounces cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup good-quality olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp. plain yogurt (I used low fat Greek-syle yogurt, but you can use whatever you have on hand or like)

Blend until smooth and creamy. Then add:

  • roasted garlic (just squeeze the head and the roasted cloves will come right out)
  • roasted jalapeño, seeds removed

Blend until the garlic and jalapeño are incorporated.  The flavors will come together after sitting for a while, but it’s also good served right away.

(This makes about 1.5 cups)

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Unanticipated Benefits of Cross-Training

I’ve been a runner for almost as long as I can remember. When an over-use injury cut short my marathon training last fall, I got serious about exploring other options to stay strong and fit without running almost every day. I’ve been working with a trainer for the past three years, and this spring I added swimming and cycling into the mix (triathlon anyone?). I do these things because it’s important to me that I’m strong, and because I want to stay healthy, and I love the sense of accomplishment that comes from making progress and achieving goals.

I knew that cross-training would be good for me physically. What has surprised me, though, is how each of these activities provides a unique mental release for me.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about running is that the wide-open spaces give my mind a chance to roam, to gather my thoughts, and to sort through things. My weekly distance is usually a good barometer of what’s going on in the rest of my life.  Peak mileage is typically associated with peak stress; I find I’m best able to work through my problems one mile at a time.

Thinking through things works well for me a lot of the time, but sometimes I simply need to turn my brain off – which is not something at which I particularly excel. It wasn’t long after I picked up my first road bike this spring that I realized that’s exactly what happened when I clipped into my pedals and took off for a ride. Unlike running, cycling requires that I focus almost exclusively on what I’m doing. Even now,  I’m mindful of the potential for bodily injury: minor scrapes when I don’t manage to unclip in time for a sudden stop, and the potential for greater injury from cars, animals, children, potholes, and other hazards along my route. I’m almost constantly on the look-out for hazards. It’s stressful at times, but also a nice release: when I’m focused so much on what’s going on around me, I’m finally able to let go of my day-to-day stress.

I do almost all of my swimming in a pool (open-water swimming is another issue entirely). As a child, I got into running in large part because I was such a hopeless swimmer, so in many ways my sense of accomplishment is greatest from swimming. At the start of the year, I had to rest and catch my breath every 25 yards. I learned by studying other swimmers, talking with one of the life guards, and by watching videos of good swimmers. I’d study what they were doing, then try to replicate it, seeing what worked and what didn’t. I’m still doing that – it satisfies my inclination to analyze and experiment, changing one thing at a time and try out new combinations. It also reminds me a little of my long runs, where I have to fully tune-in to my body; I’m aware of my position in the water, how far I’m turning my head to breath, where my hand enters the water, how many strokes it takes to get to the end of the pool. It feels almost decadent.

Of all of my activities, strength training may be the hardest and most fun. I love the moves that I can muscle through (squats, bench press and the like), and dread the ones that require finesse and balance (pretty much anything I do on one leg). I like putting on my compression shorts or a running skirt, then picking up good weight and doing a power weight-lifting move with good form.  I’ve lost track of how much time I spend in the weight room laughing. My trainer has finally gotten used to the fact that I inevitably start to laugh mid-way through a tough set of bench press. I think the laughter stems from my pleasure in what I’m doing and just how far removed the weight room is from the rest of my life. It’s where I most feel like a bad-ass. No – it’s where I’ve discovered that I am a bad-ass.

When push comes to shove, I still think of myself as a runner. It’s where I go for my energy, focus, and stress release. It’s also something that I’m pretty good at doing. But my other activities have provided me with balance, and unexpected rewards that I’ve grown to appreciate.

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Mixed Herb Sauce

mixed herb sauce

I’ve been doing a lot of grilling lately (especially bison steak and pork tenderloin), but am trying to avoid getting into rut with the preparation. It’s easy enough to switch out marinades; it helps but I’ve started to play around sauces as well.

I love chimichurri sauce with steak, and thought I’d try to put together a recipe for that. I started with an internet search and quickly found there are a lot of (sometimes contradictory) variations. The stars of a good chimichurri are fresh, green herbs. I thought parsley was a given, but when I searched recipes I saw a lot of other options: parsley, cilantro, basil, mint, oregano among others. Garlic and olive oil seemed to always be included. And some recipes also added citrus juice, vinegar, peppers, and an assortment of other ingredients.

As usual, I decided to play with what I had on-hand: basil, mint, cilantro, garlic, jalapeno, lemon juice, cider vinegar, and olive oil. As I adjusted the flavors I ran into a problem: it’s been so long since I’ve had a good chimichurri sauce that I really don’t remember what it’s supposed to taste like. Given that limitation, I decided to make it to my liking and then just call it a mixed-herb sauce (which tasted terrific with grilled pork tenderloin and grilled bison).

Place in the bowl of a large food processor (or in a steep-sided mixing bowl that will work with an immersion blender):

  • 1.5 cups mint leaves, packed
  • 2 cups basil leaves, packed
  • 1 bunch cilantro – about 2 cups (while the cilantro was bunched I cut off several inches of stems; since I processed the sauce I didn’t worry about picking the leaves from the stems).
  • 1 jalapeño, seeded and chopped (leave some seeds if you like it spicier)
  • 4-5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar (preferably unfiltered)
  • 1/4 lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup olive oil

Process until fairly smooth. Add salt and adjust vinegar, lemon juice and olive oil to taste. Because of the lemon juice leftovers will keep well in the refrigerator for several days.

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The Long Run as an Exploration of Hedonism

I’ve been thinking about hedonism this week, and how it plays a role in my training. I know that the idea of running as an exercise in pleasure will sound odd to a lot of people (including some athletes), but bear with me while I try to explain.

In his book, Born to Run, Christopher McDougall recounts a conversation with ultra-runner Ann Trason: “You have to listen closely to the sound of your own breathing; be aware of how much sweat is beading on your back; make sure to treat yourself to cool water and a salty snack and ask yourself, honestly and often, exactly how you feel. What could be more sensual than paying exquisite attention to your own body?”

This was on my mind as I set out this morning for a 15 mile training run. The thing about a long run (as Trason points out) is that you have to be in touch with your body. My goal today was to enjoy the run, and do my best to really feel good the entire way. I’m not talking about endorphins (which are terrific, too), but about paying careful attention to how my body felt and responded throughout the run. And really, what is more liberating and more hedonistic than putting one’s full focus on the body, its sensations, and how to make it feel good?

I kept an easy pace, mindful that I was running my longest distance in almost a year. When my legs started to stiffen, I stretched out my stride. When the path went uphill, I slowed my pace. When my back got a little stiff, I moved toward the center of the trail where the slope is less severe. I drank often and when my energy flagged, I treated myself to some carbs gels.

By the second half of the run, I was confident and relaxed, and so I tested myself just a bit. I’d push the pace for a short distance looking for the knife’s edge between the pure pleasure of pushing my limits and hard work, then back off and enjoy the feeling of my body recovering from the effort. It wasn’t a fast run, but the time passed quickly. Moreover, I had the satisfaction of finishing faster than I started, and knowing I can go farther and faster my next time out.

Not all runs are exercises in hedonism. Some runs are meant to be hard (tempo runs and races), and others are just plain painful (intervals and hill work fit into this category for me). But for me the long run is a chance to play and explore and test my limits; sometimes sticking to an easy pace where everything feels good, and other times to push through my limits and see what is waiting for me on the other side of them. And of course enjoying the running rewards that I refuse to resist after a good, long run.

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A Change in Direction

When I started this blog, my only real plan was to record my recipes so that I had a handy place to keep track of the ones that worked for me. It’s been almost three years now, and while I’m still cooking and occasionally creating new recipes, my focus has shifted. I find I’m spending less time in the kitchen (and therefore less time on my blog), and more time focusing on other activities. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is still a priority: finding whole foods, working out (running and strength-training has been supplemented by biking and swimming), and racing. And of course, I still enjoy the rewards (mostly food!) that go along with being so active. I’ve found that I have more to say about those things, so my plan is to expand my blog to cover my other activities and interests. I’ll still post recipes when I come up with something good enough to share, but will also write about the rest of the things that are increasingly important to me.

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Simple Grilled Asparagus with Lemon Caper Sauce

Grilled Asparagus with Lemon Caper Sauce

Asparagus is one of my first choices when I’m looking for a quick, healthy side-dish. My favorite preparation is simply tossed with balsamic and soy sauce, then roasted for a few minutes in the oven. That’s great for fall and winter, but in Atlanta in the summer I avoid turning on the oven whenever possible. I’ve been grilling a lot lately and have tried cooking asparagus this way on the grill – wrapped up in foil packets – but it’s too easy to over-cook and I can never quite manage to keep the sauce from leaking out of the foil.

Tonight I decided to try something different, and terrifically simple. I just tossed the asparagus (rinsed and ends trimmed) in a drizzle of olive oil, kosher salt, and pepper. While I was grilling bison burgers, I spread out the spears horizontally across the grate and cooked them for about 6 minutes, turning them a few times so that they cooked evenly.

I know I should enjoy the taste of fresh green vegetables on their own, but I really wanted a nice sauce to go with the asparagus. I like mayonnaise-based sauces, but have learned that adding just a little bit of mayonnaise to plain yogurt and a few other ingredients results in a good – much healthier – sauce. I looked around my fridge and stirred this together (with enough left over for tomorrow night’s dinner):

  • 2 Tablespoons low-fat (or non-fat) plain yogurt – preferably greek yogurt, since it is thicker.
  • 1 Tablespoon mayonnaise
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 Tablespoons capers, minced – I don’t drain mine very carefully because I wanted some of the salty, vinegary taste from the brine in the sauce

Stir the ingredients together, then serve over asparagus or any green vegetable.

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Not My Grandmother’s Cranberry Sauce

Spiced Cranberry Sauce

My Grandma Bryson was a terrific cook, who (as my cousin, Mike Bryson wrote) “routinely prepared elaborate meals singlehandedly in her miniscule kitchen.” Both she and her mother (my great-grandmother Hicks) spent a lot of time with me in the kitchen during family visits, teaching me how to cook and bake. My favorites were her chocolate sauce (which I wrote about last year), cole slaw, and cranberry sauce.

For years, I looked forward to being served her whole-bean cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving. I was convinced it involved complicated preparations and a long-standing family recipe. (Secret family recipes are not, in fact, unheard of in our family.) I don’t remember when I finally asked her to show me how she made it, but I do remember my shocked disbelief when I found out she just used the recipe on the back of the bag of cranberries: 1 bag of cranberries, one cup of water, one cup of sugar, and boil until the cranberries pop.

I’ve continued to enjoy this easy, traditional cranberry sauce but in recent years I’ve also played with new preparations for cranberry sauce and cranberry relish. (My favorite cranberry relish is the one that NPR host Susan Stamberg manages to recite every year – as she says it sounds terrible and tastes terrific, at least if you like onions and horseradish.)

This year, I decided to try a spicy, less sweet, grown-up version of whole-bean cranberry sauce. As usual, I worked with what I had on-hand. I replaced sugar with (a smaller amount of) local honey, then replaced the water with pure unsweetened cranberry juice and red wine. I’d been given some nice jalapeños from a friend’s garden and since I like the combination of sweet and spicy, I chopped up a few and added them to the sauce, seeds and all.  Finally, I cut some fresh mint from the pots on my patio and added a broken-up cinnamon stick.  It was quick and easy, especially since I didn’t bother to seed the jalapeño and just tossed in whole sprigs of mint (then fished them out after the sauce had cooled and the flavor had infused). Any of the proportions can be varied according to your taste – this is a relatively tart sauce with just a hint of heat from the peppers, and a subtle taste of cinnamon and mint.

In a large saucepan combine:

  • 1 12-ounce bag fresh or frozen cranberries, rinsed and picked over
  • 2/3 cup honey (preferably local)
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cranberry juice (not cranberry juice cocktail)
  • 2/3 cup red wine (use whatever you have on hand and don’t mind drinking)
  • 2-3 jalapeños, roughly chopped (remove seeds and ribs if you want the flavor but not the heat – I didn’t remove them)
  • several large sprigs of fresh mint (I used about a handful)
  • one 6-inch cinnamon stick, broke into pieces

Bring to a boil, stirring frequently and keeping an eye on it to be sure it doesn’t boil over. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer about five minutes until the cranberries have popped. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Remove the mint sprigs and pieces of cinnamon stick. Store in the refrigerator.

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