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.

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Homemade Energy Bars I: Whole Grain Chews

There’s only one problem with getting into fitness: inevitable weakening in the face of the supplement craze. As I watch my fellow triathlon trainees squeezing gels into their mouths, it’s easy to give in to the notion that I need the stuff. I continually have to remind myself that real food should be enough for any body. Beyond the protein (powder) shakes that help me meet my protein requirements minus much meat, there’s no creatine, glutamine, ecdysterone, 5-HTP, or anything else I can’t pronounce or made up of more numbers than letters in this body.

This is why I have been combing blogs and books, and experimenting with combination after combination of natural ingredients to bring you a collection of the best homemade energy bars. This is why I will continue to experiment, posting the worthy results under this new series. I hope you appreciate the results: many craisins were harmed in the process.

Most of the popular commercial energy bars are chalk full of weird ingredients, and taste like chalk to boot. Exceptions are Larabars and most Clif Bars, which will cost you a (however chiseled) arm and a leg to consume regularly. Making a whole pan of your own is a matter of less than 5$ and 10 minutes in the kitchen. Stock up on oats, pressed barley, coconut, honey, peanut butter, nuts and dried fruits, and you’ll have everything you need on hand to whip up any number of my bars. Keep them on the counter for a week, or wrap ’em in foil and freeze them for that 3-week away hike.

I like to alternate recipes to keep me from getting bored. Some bars are baked, which tend to be lighter and crispier, while the unbaked ones resemble the chewy commercial type. The baked ones are more cookie-like, while the pressed ones tend to be sweeter and more intense.

The unbaked ones (like the recipe I am sharing today) need a lot more sticky binder than you’d expect to keep them from falling apart. Please don’t make the mistake I did and try to cut down on the peanut butter! If you’re worried about fat issues involved in 1 whole cup of peanut butter, cut the bars into small cubes…that’s all you need for a quick jolt on the trails anyway!

These bars are dense and satisfying, perfect mid- or post-workouts over an hour long. (Before a workout you’ll want to have some more complex, or slow-burn carbs for sustained energy.) They are sweetened with all-natural ingredients–honey, dried fruit, and natural peanut butter. Honey is made up of fructose and glucose and is a simple, or single-molecule sugar. This means that it enters your bloodstream quickly–translating to more energy bang for your buck.

Athletes take note: carbs (formerly known as sugar) are your friend and fuel. And heck, they’re a lot cheaper than filling up your car. Remember that it is also important to consume simple carbs after a workout, when your muscles are needing to restock their glycogen stores. (See this article for more information than you care to read here.)

All that aside, they’re just plain tasty and convenient. And they fit perfectly in laptop bags, glove compartments, and even dainty purses.

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patriotic muffins

In Canada we have this great stuff called Red River Cereal. Not only is it Canadian, it actually originated in Manitoba’s storied Red River Valley–the area surrounding the city I’m from. I don’t know if it’s available in conventional grocery stores in the US, but as with everything else, is available here. (Bob’s Red Mill 7 or 10 grain cereal will also do the trick, though the result will possess a diminished cultural caliber.

As far as whole foods go, this one is tops. Made of just three simple ingredients — cracked wheat, rye and flax– this stuff will boost your High-Density Lipoproteins (the “good” cholesterol everyone is raving about these days) like nobody’s business. HDL Muffins didn’t quite have the same ring to it though.

And just in case the cholesterol pitch wasn’t enough, these babies are high in fiber and protein as well. So pack up those power bars and whip out your wooden spoons.

Since we’re not swallows who can just peck away at grains laid out on the glistening buffet of late February snow, we humans have to turn cereal into more tender possibilities. Whether it’s cooked on the stovetop to yield a hot viscous pudding with a satisfying chew, or made into these Red River Valley Muffins, I think we might actually have it a little better than the birds.

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