nuts n’ bolts

Turning the calendar to December brings many happy memories, tinged with the sepia hue of nostalgia. The tree usually went up during the first week, leaving its silky pine needles strewn about the living room floor. The Christmas CDs were pulled from a basement cabinet, with Johnny Mathis, Amy Grant, and the Home Alone soundtrack still looking bright under eleven months of dust.

But the highlight of the pre-Christmas season for me always took place in the kitchen, gathered around two foil roasting pans. It was the evening we put on Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas album and made the annual batch of nuts n’ bolts that would feed a month’s worth of guests.

Us kids would measure out boxed cereal under dad’s tutelage, while our mom would whip up the mysterious sauce that would transform it. We’d take turns stirring the fragile mixture, and then settle in to watch a Christmas movie while our favorite snack baked.

We could never wait for them to cool and crisp up properly, so our first bowls were served oven-warm. We’d pour glasses of cool eggnog spiked with coke, and sit around the tree munching on what was to us the taste of the holidays.

Over the years, despite boyfriends and girlfriends, first apartments, and busier lives, we managed to hold on to our tradition. Sure, there were years there were four of us instead of five. There were times it didn’t bring the same magic it did at five, or seven, or even fifteen. But somehow, each year the nuts n’ bolts got made.

This year the god of all things salty, fatty and delicious brought me back to Winnipeg for the festivities. I never realized how international our recipe was: Our mix always included Chex cereal, which we could only get in the U.S., and Shreddies, which you can only get in Canada. Suddenly, nuts n’ bolts had become an unlikely metaphor for my life over the past few years.

I scanned the recipe and sheepishly asked my mom if we could cut down the pound of butter. Both of us are fitness and health buffs, but her response reminded me that there are just some things you don’t mess with. As I watched a block of the stuff turn melt away in the saucepan, I made peace with my Christmas companion: Olive oil could wait. It was time to rekindle an important, buttery love.

I brought a small bag of the mix back to Syracuse with me, and after suffering through small rations decided to make my own batch. Mark turned his nose at the idea, but encouraged me nonetheless. I committed to a half batch, knowing I’d be sharing with lucky friends along the way.

Even without my beloved Canadian Shreddies and the warmth cast by 10 hands mixing and stirring away, my first crack at tradition was a success. I used raw cashews and no-oil roasted almonds to cut down on salt and fat. And yes, I even cut down on the butter by an ounce or two. (Don’t tell my mom!)

But what was really music to my ears? Hearing Mark utter these words while hovering over the cookie sheet: “I guess I do like them.” Looks like I’ll have to give up more than I bargained for. But it’s Christmas, and that’s fine with me.

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Homemade Energy Bars V: Shot Blocks Redux

One of my favorite authors once wrote “how we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” It’s one of those observations so plain it pricks you. Nothing terribly complicated or profound, but as true as the sun’s heat in July.

On a bike ride the other day, I saw it printed on the Unitarian Universalists’ church lawn sign. (Am I the only one who’s noticed that the more liberal the church, the better the church sign quotes?)

This week, I got my days back. And true to Annie Dillard’s sentiment, my life. It came suddenly, with the absence of 9 am starts, ominous deadlines, and open jaws of expectation. It came, bringing hours to write and cook and clean and shop for groceries.  It came with empty hours too, heavy with shoulds and if-onlys.

And so here I find myself in that precarious place between the fullness of life and its opposite. This past year has been manic, and looking back I’m sometimes surprised I survived. But rather than rolling gently off that year, I’ve crashed abruptly into this week.

This week — with its scaled-back workout schedule, pressing humidity, and loose ends — is like an irritating old friend. You love her but sometimes you just don’t know what to do with her.

Besides being void of routine, this week has also brought the dreaded taper, that bittersweet period before a big race when triathletes attempt to do something foreign to their very existence: rest. For most, this comes about as naturally as speaking Czech.

But with the advice of my tri friends ringing loudly in my ears (“5% undertrained is better than 3% overtrained”), I’m hanging out with my food processor instead of my running shoes. I decided it was time to bring you another snack packed with energy and natural goodness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a fan of Clif shot blocks and GU gel as the next endurance athlete. But I also take pride in turning the earth’s bounty into sport fuel. Minus the citric acid, “natural flavor,” sunflower oil, and carnauba wax.

So here’s a humbler kind of shot block, one that looks suspiciously like a Christmas goodie. The chocolately goodness comes from minimally processed cocoa powder, delivered a shot of not only good-for-you flavanols, but magnesium and zinc too. And we all know how great almonds are for us.

And so going back to my opening quote, I guess I spent part of my day conjuring up good and healthy things. My life, I hope, will follow suit.

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walnut, gorgonzola and caramelized onion pizza

I tried to come up with a more clever name for this amazing Monday night surprise, but knowing that few could resist such an alluring combination, decided to tempt away. I came home at 8 p.m.  to the fruits of Mark’s unlikely domestic day: fresh pizza dough and israeli couscous salad for tomorrow’s lunch. Not to mention the new 15$ box of wine sitting in my cupboard, happily plump.

Even when it comes to life’s finer things, sometimes I’m not afraid to admit to a cheap streak. Drinking wine with pizza on a cold and rainy Monday night would otherwise seem too indulgent. That’s the short story of how boxed wine became my best friend.

Let me walk you through this creation we’re just on the brink of perfecting. The first time we made it we used too few onions, and our blue cheese wasn’t blue enough. Add our too-toasty walnuts to the mix and we had ourselves a disappointment. But I wasn’t prepared to give up on such robust ingredients, waiting there as if to beg me to bring them to justice.

This time we ramped up the caramelized onions, spreading them thick and sweetly gooey over olive-oil brushed dough rounds. (Next time I’d do even more than the picture shows!)

Then we added the walnuts, in chunks big enough to be surprising but small enough to blend in. If you’ve never had nuts on a pizza, you’re in for a treat. Pine nuts could work well here, too.

After about 7 minutes in a firey hot oven, we dotted them with cubes of perfect gorgonzola, and placed them back in the oven 5 more minutes.

The result? A crisp, yet chewy pizza dough (we used this month’s Bon Appetit recipe because of its large, freezeable yield), teeming with flavors that almost seem to good to be hanging out together on a pizza. I almost felt guilty finishing mine, but then I remembered how stressed I am, and how food tends to make medium-sized sorrows turn to extra-large joys.

Even if for only 30 sweet, candle-lit minutes.

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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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Chameleon Granola

I often call it my favourite meal of the day. I love that delightful first crunch of that says “hello world.” I love cracking the shell of a boiled egg, exposing its warm, opaque flesh. I confess that I often fall asleep thinking about breakfast.

For some, breakfast is just fuel for the day. For others, it can be a reason to get up.

When I was cycling around Vancouver island in the Spring of ’06, breakfast was the only meal I’d eat out. I’d ride around a new town for an hour, looking for the perfect nook. I was often rewarded, like when I found these cinnamon buns at a rustic bakery, hidden away in cottage country forest, brushed inside with the slightest hint of raspberry.

It was so good, I didn’t even notice the plastic.

Breakfast with friends is a vulnerable meal to share; each rubs sleep from his or her eyes, and dips into the first morsels of a day full of senses. I have so many cozy memories of breakfasting: my grandfather’s porridge, fancy sweet potato pancakes at Fresh (a fantastic Winnipeg restaurant), a plate heaping with goodies at a greasy spoon, my friend Krista’s rum and banana crepes, poori bhaji in India.

Among all the ways to break a fast, granola holds its own. (Hey, I did live in Winnipeg’s ‘Granola Belt’ for 4 years.) It is a constant friend, showing up in our house at least every two weeks with new displays of taste and texture. This is the perfect recipe-in-flux, forgiving and even flourishing under the most brash of adjustments and tweaks. I think that trying to find new combinations of texture, chunkiness, sweetness, and health might just be one of my lifelong quests.

You can find much more straightforward granola recipes out there, but believe me, in terms of this morning delight I’ve played the explorer and the scientist. I can’t tell you how you’ll like it best, but I can tell you what to try. As the Chinese Proverb so goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” Here’s to a lifetime of granola.

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