mexican chocolate macaroons

As I revealed in my last post, in perhaps unwelcome detail, when you’re not swimming, biking, and running your hiney off there’s a lot more time in the day. There’s time for parties (lately, of the sausage, grilled pizza, fondue, or 50/50 bacon/sirloin burger variety), for yoga (sighhhhhhh), and kitchen experiments.

Not that I completely hung up my hat, things have just been cut down a smidge. Over these last few months, I turned my attention towards running, and was rewarded with a new PR at the Temecula Valley Half Marathon on November 4th. I’ve never been a fast runner, and so managing a 1:44:05, or 7:57-minute mile, felt huge for me. I finally entered the “7’s club,” and celebrated with our crew afterwards with Iron Fire beer and a stop at In n’ Out. (Did you know you can get In n’ Out burgers cooked medium rare? Who knew. Not a huge difference, but they texture is nice.)

Anyway, I was talking about kitchens, wasn’t I…

Last night I attended the season kick-off for a women’s triathlon team I’m stoked to be part of for 2013. As I mingeld with last year’s crew and the handful of new women, I found myself inspired by everyone’s passion for training and racing. Whether we had Ironmans on the calendar or a handful of shorter races, I can already tell we’re going to feed off each other’s energy and successes. The evening got my wheels turning even more in terms of my my goals for 2013, and the extra motivation to get up at 5:30 this morning (and 5:15 tomorrow) to train was another perk.

Since I love to try new recipes for sweets but hate having them around the house, I signed up to bring a dessert of some kind. Led by the Southwestern theme set by the chili and cornbread that were on the main course menu, I settled on these little macaroons I found on Pinterest. With their bite-sized hint of spice and sweetness, they were a hit. Some of my teammates asked for the recipe, so here it is. They remind me of a cookie we called “haystacks” growing up. But those have butter, peanut butter, and oats in them, whereas these are a little more pure/plant-based/paleo … if you’re into that kind of thing. (I am, but only in moderation.)

On the original post (besides shaming my lazy iPhone photography) the author penned a great nugget of wisdom that I know many of us triathletes could use at a time like this:

The secret to vibrant living is not in what you do or don’t eat. It’s learning to hold your health in one hand and your joys and passions in the other, and sometimes we delightfully find that they are one and the same.

As many of us approach this season of indulgence—whether we call it the off season or the holiday season—let this quote speak to you, wherever you’re at with your relationship with food. And while you’re mulling that over, pop one of these grain-free, sugar-free, dairy-free vegan and just try to tell me they’re fun-free. You’ll be surprised.

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roasted peaches, 101

Everybody said it was perfect here. For the first two months of my North County residence, I didn’t believe them. Gloomy mornings and evenings spent wearing long sleeves were evidence of the coldest summer since 1916, a nice little fact Mark heard one day on the radio. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was me. When I moved to D.C. last winter, they got slammed with Snowpocalypse, the worst triple-whammy of winter weather since who knows when. (How did I deal? I made stuffed eggplants.)

Of course it’s selfish to think that weather patterns revolve around my wayfaring ways. Of course they don’t. But after two months of patiently waiting out “June gloom,” California had really started to let me down.

And then came August, sweet August with its clear skies and stone fruit and newly-minted sun. Suddenly everyone who’d claimed how perfect it was here changed their tune: “September and October are the best months,” they’d say. “This is our winter,” they’d assure me, as I inquired about buying a bike trainer for the winter months. Despite a bad track record, the optimist in me must believe them.

August brought so many good things: a trip to Boulder for my first magazine cover photo shoot (not me, mind you, that would be a milestone worth its own post!), my first Aquathon (and many other great San Diego Triathlon Club events), and the much-anticipated parental visit. There was body-boarding with cousins visiting from Vancouver and lounging on the beach with books. With the parents there was a trip to the Wild Animal Park and Stone Brewery, a Del Mar reggae concert, good food and conversation. It was also the month our first pet joined our household of two: a seal-point Snowshoe we haven’t yet named! (Click here for a photo.)

My favorite part about this weather, quickly showing its true colors, is eating outdoors. Until I can afford the restaurants that overlook the ocean and until we have a patio or yard on which to dine, I’ll have to settle for beach picnics, the little deck at the office, and friends with benefits (ie: backyard dining rooms!) Two of those friends are our neighbors, Rob and Barbara, a lovely couple we became acquainted with through my Aunt Evelyn. From the first night we spent with them, drinking wine and eating pizza, they’ve been a significant part of our San Diego socialization process.

On Sunday they invited us over to their funky Leucadia home once more for a potluck with a few other couples. While the guests deliberated over beer, margaritas, or wine in the kitchen, Rob ushered everyone outside to enjoy the still-warm evening. (My kind of host—”get outside everyone, go enjoy it!”)

Charged with appetizers and a dessert, I decided on two recipe-less offerings. The first was fresh spring rolls, made with ingredients procured on Friday at an Asian market Mark had expertly tracked down while I was out covering a triathlon event. The second, simple roasted peaches with local honey, ricotta cheese, and toasted walnuts.

The idea for the peaches came from something similar we’d made for our parents two Christmases ago—Roasted Pears with Ricotta and Honey, from the January 2009 Bon Appetit. That was a slightly more involved version of roasted fruit, requiring that you strain ricotta and crush fennel seeds. I didn’t have time for either, so I stopped at the Leucadia farmer’s market down the street to see if I could come up with a simplified version (hence the “101” in the title … the market takes place just off highway 101, the same road that runs right by our apartment). I bought a few ripe local peaches, and a large jar of local wildflower honey from Deborah, my new friend at Sunflower Organics. (She mixes up a magical offering of honeys, including cinnamon- and Christmas-berry-spiked varieties, some with added bee pollen. Check it out.)

I cut the large peaches in thirds (you could also do halves for a larger portion), and placed them cut side up in a 400 degree oven. (See photos above). I put a little pat of butter on each one, and sprinkled the whole lot with about 2 tablespoons of sugar. I baked them until they looked done, about half an hour. While they baked, I mixed ricotta cheese (probably not local, unfortunately, as it was from Trader Joe’s!) with some cinnamon. To serve, I simply re-heated the peaches in the microwave, and each person got a portion topped with cinnamon-ricotta, drizzled honey, and chopped and toasted walnuts.

Aside from burning two pans of walnuts due to cat-induced distraction, it was a quick summer dessert that wasn’t too heavy or syrupy sweet. I probably should have made more, as I was the only person who brought dessert, but this would be perfect for a potluck or multi-course dinner party where you just want a little something to cleanse sharper flavors from your palate.

There were loads of other delicious items, like Rob’s onion pie (above), stuffed zucchini, grilled salmon, roasted cauliflower, and caprese salad. The best part, though, was the company: people who could talk travel, coffee roasting, wine, and William Carlos Williams. People from all walks of life and various parts of the country who’ve come to land here, a place that, as I’m starting to see, will only become more perfect the more I time I give it.

And of course, it’s the little things that will continue to make it so: love, food, friends, bikes, waves, coffee, sun, health, employment, and gratitude for all of it.

agua fresca de la casa

Since moving to California, I’ve become intrigued with Mexican cuisine. There’s a simple explanation for this new obsession: The serious dearth of authentic Mexican food in my hometown. (Carlos and Murphy’s anyone?) Even upstate New York blew me away with its variety of south-of-the-border-style fare. It was there I learned the pleasure of the tostada, and tasted what God had in mind when he created burritos.

And then, along came Southern California, taking me gently by the hand and saying, “little Canadian—how much you still do not understand.”

Though my first taste of horchata came in New Mexico, my first time making it happened right here in my new coastal home. I’d subsequently tried the creamy beverage in a few different tacquerias (to different levels of satisfaction), and I wanted to learn how to make the nutty refresher the old-fashioned way.

Consulting a version that included mashed strawberries from The New York Times, I forged ahead, omitting the berries and the crushed almond topping. The chef who created the recipe grew up on Mexico City and had authored a few books on the national cuisine, so I figured my horchata was in good hands.

I blanched and peeled almonds. (Trust me, next time I’ll buy them already blanched!) I soaked rice and cinnamon sticks overnight. I pureed and added sweetened condensed milk, that miracle of the canned dairy world. I waited. And then I strained. And strained and strained and strained, watching as precious drips of delicious horchata fell into the pitcher below. So far, so good.

It turned out as good as I’d hoped, though as with all experiments, yielded some lessons and future adaptations. It was far better than the overly sweet, pre-mixed version found at many taco shops, but not quite as good as the one we’d had in New Mexico with shaved ice. Next time I’d find a way to get shaved or crushed ice into my drink. Also, I found the final product too sweet. (Shockingly, the original article says that if you want it even creamier, to add a second can of S.C.M!! Ummm, no thanks, I’m not training for an Ironman—yet.) To counteract this, I’d add an extra cup of regular or evaporated milk to the finished product to “water” it down just a bit.

My second agua fresca came about in a manner similar to the aforementioned milky nectar. I had ordered my first tamarindo in the very same New Mexico taco shop, and when I arrived in California, the tart drink was available everywhere. When I found a huge bag of fresh tamarind pods at North Park Produce (the place I was so lovingly mocked for my enthusiasm at tamales), I saw visions of icy glasses of tamarindo dancing in my head.

As I cracked open my first sticky-sweet tamarind pod, a substance I’d only ever seen before in jars and packets of paste, I was intrigued. The pod cracks and falls open easily between the pressure of your fingers, like a perfectly boiled egg. Beneath it, five or six hard beans, the color of dark chocolate, lie encased in a sticky, date-like substance. Holding all the beans together is a netting you must pry each pod from, as if it were a precious fish meant to feed 5,000.

Homemade tamarindo, as I’d soon find out, was no quick task. But I’d made it myself, standing over my tiny counter, in my tiny apartment just five blocks from the coast, freeing all that delicious paste from its netting and then cleaning it off each hard pod. I followed a random internet recipe loosely, using all the pods in the bag (instead of the prescribed 1/3 cup), and boiling them with a big pot of water and some sugar. I set it in the fridge to “steep” overnight, just like the horchata, before straining it through a sieve.

The process was therapeutic—I was alone. It was rewarding—the citrusy drink would last a week in my fridge, refreshing, especially mixed with some soda water and ice. The world of Mexican beverages, like the food, was just beginning to open before me.

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key lime cupcakes

The trickling water in the fish pond lends a Zen quality to my Maryland backyard. I’m wearing the sundress I always wear after long, grueling bike rides: the loose, earth-toned one I seldom wear out. The air is close, whisking against my shoulders, taunting with its brief cool. Despite the heat, I spend most of the day outside, soaking up the surprise swelter of May’s first Day of Rest.

Despite an early-morning goodbye, today is perfect in doses: an early-morning chat with my mom, good coffee, a ripe mango, morning doves and squirrels and all the familiar summer sounds. The hours loll by, and the sky slowly darkens, preparing for thunder. Oil spills and bomb threats are peripheral. This cocoon shelters, though it fails to cancel any of this out.

This whole weekend, actually, has been one of the most relaxing I’ve spent in D.C. yet. We had to run a short errand yesterday (to deal with recent bank fraud), but found ourselves out in Bethesda, so tried another José Andrés restaurant, Jaleo. We ordered the tapas tasting menu, and it was decent, but we weren’t nearly as blown away as we were by Cafe Atlantico. It was lovely, though, to share a pint of beer and our too-late first meal of the day together on a bright patio.

When we returned home, it was time to use up the rest of last week’s key lime score (a whole bag for $2—half of which we turned into a key lime pie using this recipe—tasty, but not quite as good as the lemon was). What would be a quick and easy way to capture all that tropical tartness?

When I moved to my first major American city, I tried to ignore the cupcake craze that had captivated food bloggers, critics, and even sweet-toothed males. How good could they be? I’d always found them too sweet, too airy, too dry… uninspiring. I’d choose cheesecake, ice cream, or even a slice of dark chocolate any day. Plus, I blamed cupcakes for the food-as-fashion-accessory trend: they were quickly encroaching on Starbucks’ territory as divas toted ribboned boxes of the little cakes from hair appointments to manicure sessions.

Sometime in the last few weeks, though, I changed my mind about cupcakes. Maybe it’s my boss’s fault: he’s brought cupcakes to the office on two occasions, from the fanciest shops in D.C. Maybe last weekend’s whiskey + cupcakes party pushed me over the line. Somehow, in the midst of (yet stolidly ignoring) this city’s silly cupcake wars, I’ve come to appreciate the class of small cakes. So much so that I decided to devote an hour of my precious Saturday to concocting a key lime variety.

I didn’t have the energy to start my own cupcake war, reading recipe reviews and researching how to get the perfect “light, open crumb.” I just picked one that looked easy from Bon Appetit, with a plain buttercream icing from some generic website that aggregates recipes. I left out the green food coloring, used kefir instead of the buttermilk, and improvised on the self-rising flour by making my own: simply add 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt to one cup of regular flour.

The cupcakes turned out quite dense, yet lighter than pound cake, and with a nice chewiness. The icing was too runny (to solve that I’m just keeping the icing in a bowl in the fridge for a quick ice-your-own fix), and on the whole they weren’t as life-changing as this shop’s. BUT, they were fun to make and share, they honored the last of my Key limes, and even if they won’t win any wars, they made me appreciate even more the world of cakes that fit in the palm of a hand.

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lemon custard pie

Since I don’t make any money off this blog, I must be content with it serving two basic needs: providing a record of my life, and emotional boosts when needed. Both were met in my last post, where I veiled my maladies in shades of vegetables.

Today I look back on that post and smile at how quickly things turn around. Since typing those words bemoaning my lack of home-cooked meals, workplace satisfaction, and the perils of urban life, there’s been a change. And rather than casting a dark shadow on this new mood, last week’s downers made the upswing that much sweeter.

Easter weekend was refreshing, spent in a peaceful, North Carolinian home with welcoming folks. Then on Monday, I got some news that literally changed my life. The rest of this week brought a bearable lightness of being, summer skirts, and a wallet swelling a little more than usual.

That’s why today I’m turning a clichéd saying on its head: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” In my world, lemons deserve a treatment far richer and more robust than a simple watered-down, sugar-hyped concoction. They merit a thick and meaty, key-lime pie-esque technique like this one, courtesy of one of my favorite food sites.

The recipe hails from the American south, pairing the best of the fruit with one of my personal pantry staples, sweetened condensed milk. As it turns out, the milk I long associated with 1950s cooking (and the slightly more exotic Vietnamese coffee) has been getting attention lately, as the recent NYT article “Milk in a Can Goes Glam” attests to. I’ve been using the stuff over the past few years as a binder in granola bars, preferring it to higher-calorie, lower-protein options like honey and peanut butter.

For the first time on this blog it’s a featured ingredient, helping lemons come to their full potential.

This pie, incidentally, speaks to another saying: “Easy as pie.” This time, however, it proves it true. Whoever started tossing that phrase around must have been making a pie like this one, because the others I’ve drummed up left a lot more flour on my face. This one is simple: Pressed crust, and a filling that looks like a yellow down comforter would feel. Or a sunny day spent sipping cocktails on a beach. The usual food lingo just doesn’t work here.

I served fat slices (literal, and likely weight gain-inducing) to friends after stuffing them with stuffed eggplants. Topped with puffs of real whipped cream (none of that hairspray stuff for me), we gobbled them down like lemons were going out of style.

Thankfully, my local co-op sells them for 40 cents apiece. Which means that whatever life sends my way, I can make lemon custard pie. And if that ever gets old, maybe I’ll be willing to give lemonade another try. (Check back in the middle of my first D.C. summer. Yes, I’ve been warned.)

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nanaimo bars

This week I was privileged to share the story of one of Canada’s best-loved sweets, the Nanaimo Bar, over on the Atlantic’s Food website. For those of you who are saying “What? The Atlantic covers food?” —don’t be hasty, and get over there to check it out. I first discovered the site through a search for tempeh. When it comes to the web, you never know what you’re going to get.

The story lives over there, but I wanted to give my devoted readers here a preview. I grew up eating these little treats off Christmas cookie platters, only to rediscover them while volunteering in Africa (through some compatriots) and then again while cycle-touring around Vancouver Island, where the recipe was invented.

I stayed up late making them last Tuesday night. The next day, I carted the heavy Pyrex (this year’s Valentine’s Day gift that I so love!) downtown to share with my co-workers. They were hit … unless people were just trying to make me feel better for my country having lost to theirs in hockey.

Sympathy accepted. I was happy to share the history, my story, and the recipe over at the Atlantic, so check it on out. And if you’re feeling creative, check out this site for peanut butter, mint, and cappuccino versions.

Muffin Mondays: Kris’s No-Bake Chocolate Chip Bran Muffins

This week, Kris from Married to Chocolate brings her special chocolatey touch to mornings. Kris also specializes in l0w-maintenance: these muffins are almost no-bake, and come together as fast as you’ll eat them.

I’m a serious believer in dessert emergencies–when you gotta have something sweet, stat. As in, right now. As in, yesterday.

I’m also a serious believer in no-bake desserts. I started No-Bake Mondays on Married to Chocolate because I wanted my desserts fast, cheap, and easy. But the real story why I got into no-baking is because I was oven-less for a year and I had to be creative (that, and I’m a lazy baker).

This insanely easy Chocolate Chip Bran Muffin recipe is not entirely no-bake; you need a microwave to make them. Still. Sticking them in a microwave for one and a half minutes beats waiting half an hour to bake them in the oven, don’t you think? So if you’re anything like me and you have the patience of a five-year-old when it comes to desserts, this recipe is for YOU.

I made these for the first time today and they turned out great! I’ve never made muffins before, let alone microwave muffins. Nervous, I stood watching the muffin tray turn in the microwave with my fingers crossed saying, “please rise, please rise, please, please.” And they did!

More than that, the muffins came out ridiculously moist, dense, and not the least bit airy. They’re made with bran so they have a light, whole grain taste to them that’s awesome with chocolate. I topped the muffins with chocolate chips right out of the microwave so the chocolate was melting as I ate them— ayayay. YUM.

A few tips:

You can also make this a regular oven. Preheat at 350 and bake for 25-30 minutes and do the whole toothpick test. I made a bunch with white chocolate chips and cranberry. They were awesome. If you don’t use up all the batter, you can keep it in the freezer for up to four weeks.

Chocolate Chip Bran Muffins

makes 18

1 cup boiling water

2 cups All Bran cereal

1 cup Bran Flakes cereal

2 cups buttermilk

2 eggs, beaten

½ cup vegetable oil

2 ½ cup flour

2 ½ tsp baking soda

½ cup chocolate chips

1 and ½ cup sugar

½ tsp salt

walnuts (optional)

  1. In a large bowl, pour boiling water over cereal. Stir in the rest of the ingredients and mix well (leave some chocolate chips to top with).
  2. Line a plastic muffin tray with paper liners. Spoon batter in 4/5 of the way.
  3. “Bake” in microwave for one minute and a half. Garnish with chocolate chips and walnuts.
  4. Ta-dah! Muffins in 15 minutes–including prep time. Enjoy!