viking yogurt

Oh how I wish I had that Viking hat right now. The one with the big horns sticking out of a plastic dome crafted to look like metal. The one that’s somewhere in the Ward cottage in the Northern Canadian town of Gimli where I spent my summers as a chunky-thighed child.

Why? Because I’d put it on right now and take a picture of myself eating this yogurt.

While browsing my unfortunately-big-box-but-nonetheless-endearing Wegman’s last week, this little container jumped out at me from the overpriced-but-delicious dairy case. (OK, I promise, no more hyphenated conjunctions.)

Flirting its paper label adorned with whimsical pomegranate and passion fruit, I simply couldn’t say no. I don’t think I even noticed the $1.99 price tag. (Or was it $2.99?) Yogurt-love is a blinding, reckless force.

Started by Siggi Hilmarsson in 2004, this Icelandic-style yogurt has been steadily increasing in popularity. It’s been featured in Gourmet and O magazines, but I’m feeling proud that I found it on a whim. Siggi’s skyr is made with skim milk from pasture-raised cows in Morrisville NY, close enough to Syracuse that I can still call it “local food.”

Because the milk used in this yogurt comes from cows that eat what they’re supposed to, it has more omega 3’s than corn fed cow’s milk. It’s also free of antibiotics, corn starch, pectin, thickeners, and that enemy of real food, high-fructose corn syrup. If that weren’t enough, this yogurt has 120 calories, 0 grams of fat, and, get this, 16 grams of protein per 6 oz serving. As I trudge towards my October half marathon, this just-sweet creamy lusciousness might almost make me surrender my protein shakes.

Until I’m reunited with that Viking hat, this yogurt is going to have to bring out my inner Icelander on its own. And with all its muscle-building properties, it might help me look the Norse conqueror part all the better.

Yeah, that one.

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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Homemade Energy Bars IV: Sunshine Bars

I could do the cucaracha right now. Problem is, I don’t really know what the cucaracha is. But if I did, I’d clutch these granola bars in my hands and shake them like marakas.

You see, I’ve been wishin’ and hopin’ and dreamin’ about creating the perfect home-made baked granola bars: toasty brown on the outside but with just the right chew factor that (some of) the bought ones have. I’ve managed with the chewy ones and the rolled ones and the fudgy ones, but the good old fashioned baked version has eluded me.

Part of the problem is pickyness. I’ve tried over 15 recipes, tweaking and re-tweaking. I’ve meticulously recorded every substitution and result. Most of the bars have turned out quite edible — something to be proud of even. But there’s always been one tiny problem. Too sticky. Too crispy. Too crumbly.

To add to my dismay, I desperately wanted crispy rice cereal in these elusive bars. Just a wee bit of that airy crunch you can hear in the back of your head when you chew. Whenever I’d add the sticky ingredients, those rice puffs would soak it all in and mush up like an abandoned bowl of Cheerios. I wasn’t about to make Rice Krispy squares, laden with butter and melted marshmallows. I wanted something good.

Eventually I gave up and bought some, just like normal people do. But after the 18th disappointing, too-sweet bar with a novel-length ingredients list, I went back to my oats and my coconut. I begged them to co-operate. I needed them to get me through the last two weeks of school without putting up a fight.

I guess I did something right. Sometimes I think ingredients, like people, just need to be loved. People talk to plants, horses, babies — why not craisins and pumpkin seeds?  As I wax poetic about something that was probably more luck than oat-whispering, I beseech you: Quaker and Kashi got nothing on homemade bars. Unless, of course, it takes you months to get them how you like them.

Good granola bars depend on the right proportion of ingredients, a sticky binder, and the right baking time and temperature. After many trials, I think I’ve found the right bar to usher me into a new season of triathlon training.

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chocolate syrup you can believe in

There’s something so satisfying about making stuff. As a child of the 80s, boxes and packages of commercially-produced food formed part of my culinary landscape. Hamburger Helper was far from our family table, but the grocery store scene and the post-agrarian commuter town I grew up in did nothing to plant the DIY spirit.  I thought nothing of this situation until I hit my mid-20s, when people I admired started becoming more interested in what this thing called food is all about.

I’m not sure when it started. Maybe I realized it was cheaper to make stuff like granola, rather than buying boxes of the sugar-laced junk. Maybe it was in my early 20s, when I accepted the fact that I actually enjoyed baking and cooking. Maybe it was my first summer tending a garden, when I experienced that constant wonder at a planet that gives so much without asking for anything back.

Somewhere along the lines, I started caring what was in my food. And though there are people out there (some of them who read this blog) who believe that thinking about food diminishes the joy of eating, I’m not one of them. Food is both a pleasure and a necessity. It’s both an end in itself,  and a vehicle for nutrients. It can rollick the senses one day, and just get you by the next.

With the recent peanut butter contamination, people have been up in arms about food safety. And rightly so. Some have been indignant, some informative, others just plain hilarious:  Jon Stewart’s attempt last week to eat a Chinese toy-spinach-tomato-peanut-butter sandwich cracked me up more than his teeth.

It all got me thinking about turn-of -the-century hero Upton Sinclair, who in 1906 shook the U.S. with his novel exposing the horrors of the meatpacking industry. I’ll spare you the details, but Sinclair’s outrage led to that year’s passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

After following the pb story, I realized again how literal the term junk food truly is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no sanitation freak. I’m still well after numerous dirt-flecked garden carrots and trips overseas without hand sanitizer. I’m not the only one who thinks it’s good for you, either. 

But rat hair, maggots, and mildew? No thanks. I’m not going to start making my own ketchup or anything, but the whole racket makes me want to keep as much food preparation under my control as I can. So what I don’t bleach my countertops every second day, at least I try to keep out the FDA’s allowable “30 or more fly eggs per 100 grams.” * 

In the meantime, I just wanted to be able to infuse some chocolate into my (neutrally flavored) protein shakes once in awhile. Is that too much for a triathlete to ask? Whisking in stright up cocoa left it lumpy, and every bottle at the store boasted high-fructose corn syrup as its first ingredient. I’ll take real sugar, thanks.  

So here it is, in all it’s pure, sweet, no-fat chocolately glory. Ready to spoon over commercially-made ice cream, stirred into factory-farmed milk, or into my favorite of the fake protein delivery systems. Isn’t being alive today such a wonderful paradox?

Bring 1½ cups water and 3 cups white sugar to a boil, stirring often. Reduce to medium and whisk in 1½ cups cocoa1 Tbsp vanilla extract¼ tsp salt, and 1 Tbsp honey (if the mixture starts to rise, simply take it off the element while you whisk). Whisk over medium heat until all solids have dissolved. Simmer until the mixture has thickened, strain (if you’re worried about chunks, mine seemed OK) and cool for a few minutes on the counter.

Pour into a squeeze bottle or jar and store in the fridge. Because of the high sugar content and lack of fat, the syrup should keep for at least 6 months. 

*U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “The Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans.”  FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Available here

Homemade Energy Bars III: Peanut Ginger Squares

It seemed fitting that the day after completing my first triathlon, while nursing the pleasant soreness of limbs pushed to their limits, that I should post another recipe in my Homemade Energy Bars series. The balls and chews I’ve already featured seemed to go over well, and so I bring you another fantastic, real food version of those tempting health food store snacks. So here’s another no-bake treat, one as simple as bonding for 5 minutes with your food processor (or, as in my case, your hand-blender-with-fortunate-attachment).

I’m not really one for the energy goos and gels. Preferring instead the taste and texture of real food, I tend to pack my workout bag with things of the grainy-granola variety, as opposed to packages full of something resembling McDonalds’ birthday cake icing. However, even with these proclivities, during my race yesterday I did pound back a pack of Chocolate Outrage Guu midway through my 24 mile bike. With its quick delivery of energy with zero digestive problems, I will definitely lean on these in future race days. But for everyday use (training and running errands when it doesn’t matter if I have to stop for a bathroom break), these are much more satisfying.

Racing, whether in a 5k or an Ironman, peels back the layers of culture and associations that surround our eating and drinking. It strips food down to fuel, and liquid to its hydrating properties. It makes you aware of things most people don’t give 2 cents of their thoughts to, like sodium, carb and protein intake. In short, it can drive you crazy, thinking of your body as a machine to be tweaked and oiled.

Training for that compulsive finish line is a trial of mind and body. It is an ever-building procession of cells and attitudes and obsessions that carry you into the days ahead. As I stood there in the water my mind went strangely blank, and I felt my animal nature rise beneath my skin. For just shy of three hours, my tastes, memories and to-do lists were buried under the power of being that well-fueled machine. I was muscle and sinew and units of energy, and it felt truly euphoric.

If you are sick of seeing plates full of nothing but novelty, reward or diet-induced contraband, go and register for a race. Suddenly everything you eat and drink will feel more plump, juicy and satisfying. Like an intravenous running from the earth straight into your blood stream, you will feel miraculously connected and newly powerful.

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Homemade Energy Bars II: Walamee Balls

I really like making up names for the stuff I bake, kind of like Grandpa did. It’s not that any of them stick as well, but I try. I guess it kind of feels like branding, like I could develop a cute package and commercial to go along with them. But that would defeat the purpose, really.

With my my latest concoction in the energy snack series combining walnuts and sesame seeds, I came up with the name walamee balls, or bars, or just walamees. I think it sounds pleasantly Australian. Exotic, despite its everyday ingredients.

Many of you seemed to enjoy the Whole Grain Chews I posted a few weeks ago. So just for you, I quickly got to work on another seedy snack, similarly chewy but different in style. A sweet and nutty combination of raisins, dates, sesame seeds and walnuts, these little packages deliver a healthy hit of energy-boosting carbs and muscle-building protein in about 1.5 “round” inches. Throw them in your bike bag or backpack for when those blood sugar levels start to get low.

Making your own snacks–a food group we’ve wholly handed to big companies–can be incredibly satisfying. Not only do these snacks take minutes to prepare, you can practically do them in your sleep. They also save on packaging and transportation (yay Earth!) and are composed of whole, natural ingredients (yay Bodies!) So next time you’re cruising down the Power Bar aisle, don’t be fooled by the healthy bodies on the packaging. You deserve better.

So grab your food processor (or a friend’s or grandmother’s), some basic ingredients, and a couple of well-scrubbed kids, and get rolling! These handy snacks keep marvelously–on the counter or in the fridge where they’ll be even more refreshingly cool.

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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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