Spicing It Up

They say variety is the spice of life, but I think it’s really garlic salt. Or basil. Or za’atar. Or any number of other dried herbs and seasonings currently crowding out my kitchen cupboards.

Spices are crucially important, and not just because the search for them inspired Columbus to sail westward some 500 years ago, reshaping the future of the Americas forever. They also taste really, really good.

From cumin and dillweed to paprika and cloves, spices have the potential to transform an otherwise unmemorable dish into something you’ll make time and time (thyme and thyme?) again. Heck, there’s a reason Simon and Garfunkel harmonized about parsley and sage instead of bland, boiled chicken breast.

I’m a true spice believer, but it hasn’t always been that way. Much like every other former-22-year-old I know, I moved to New York City nine (nine!) years ago with little more than a suitcase, a laptop and a plastic bin of sad kitchen supplies salvaged from my senior year apartment. I had a wooden spoon, a plastic cereal bowl, salt shakers and some dried onion powder. I did a lot of embarrassing things my first year in Manhattan, but I’d say my “cooking” took the cake.

Also this hat. Hello, 2009!

But as I grew more interested in healthy eating, I started to expand my spice rotation. As I cooked more recipes, I learned that the secret to tasty meals wasn’t necessarily more oil or salt or sugar or bacon (though, let’s be honest, those things often help), but a better use of seasonings. I started with accessible things, like pumpkin pie spice for my oatmeal, but quickly expanded as my palate broadened, adding first rosemary and bay leaves, and then more complex flavors like garam masala and Thai red curry paste to the mix.

I now have more than 50 spice jars at home (mostly made by McCormick, because you can’t take the Baltimore out of the girl), plus hot sauce and a tub of Indian Achaar pickles on my desk at work. And my food is more delicious than ever before. With just a little creative seasoning, I can transform three pounds of veggies into a ratatouille I’ll want to eat all week long or a raw chicken into a garlicky-roasted masterpiece.

And that’s key to healthy eating: actually wanting to consume the nutritious lunch you packed for work instead of leaving it to wilt in the staff fridge and hitting up the sandwich cart downstairs. Cooking for yourself lets you better control your portions, manage what’s going into your body and ultimately saves you money. No wonder the three wise men carried frankincense and myrrh. They knew spices = the original health food.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to start a little experiment: growing my own indoor herb garden. Dried spices have a lot of benefits, namely storability and shelf life, but there’s something extra wonderful about snipping a sprig of parsley in real time to pump up the flavors. There’s also something soul-nourishing about cultivating new life at a time when so much in the world just feels hopeless and dark and sad.

But whhhhhy is my bowl empty?!

So I ordered a little garden planter on Amazon, bought some potting soil, and stopped by the farmers’ market to pick my plants. I went with parsley, basil and sage, three staples in my everyday cooking. I would have bought oregano, since 1. It’s so flavorful fresh and 2. It’s hilarious to hear a Brit say it, but the farmer only had it in big pots that wouldn’t fit into my diminutive blue-toned planter.

And look at them! They’re so darn cute!

Who knows if they’ll grow — there isn’t much room for roots to expand and lord knows whether the sun’s right — but I’m looking forward to trying. Even if I only get one batch of pesto out of them, my babies seedlings have already done much to lift my spirits.

Or maybe it was the dog hugs.


Who wouldn’t love this chihuahua-toy-poodle mix? 


What flavors spice up your cooking? And what the heck is marjoram? Still haven’t figured that one out. 

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Hitting Pause (Hitting Paws?)

There are some beautiful words in other languages that capture a sentiment we can’t quite put our finger on in English. The Danish Hygge — or a feeling of pleasant, charming coziness — has been the buzzword of 2017, but there are so many more that manage to express in a single beat things us Anglophones need an entire sentence to explain.

Some of my favorites:

  • Kummerspeck (German): Weight gain from emotional eating
  • Zeg (Georgian): The day after tomorrow
  • Tartle (Scottish): The stuttering hesitation that comes when you introduce someone whose name you can’t quite recall

But the word I wish existed is one the captures the bittersweet feeling of fond nostalgia for something that isn’t yet over, but clearly nearing its end. You know: that feeling you got those final days of the school year. Or taking a nice vacation with someone you know you won’t date forever. Or starting the final season of a Netflix show realizing, in 10 short hours, you’ll be out of episodes to stream.

Or, for me, running the New York City half marathon last Sunday with the near certainty that it might be my last road race in a very long time.


No, I’m not dying. But I do feel like my relationship with running is on life support. I’ve been running for about seven years, and I’ve had ups and downs with the sport before, but never has my dedication been so tested as it has been these last few months. My work schedule has become too unpredictable to train after work. My sleep’s too precious to log miles before sun-up. My four-legged running partner’s the slowest pacer I know.


My 40 pound mixed breed can do 2.5 miles at a 12:30 pace.

Add those things together, and an activity I used to love has begun to feel like a chore. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I arrived at the New York City half marathon starting line last weekend untrained, unexcited, and unbelievably surprised I didn’t hit the snooze button and sleep through the 7:30 a.m. starting gun like I’d been tempted to do. As I froze my buns off for 30 minutes in my ice-cold corral, I grumbled to myself: “I don’t want to be here.”

And then something extraordinary happened: the race began, and I suddenly remembered why I once loved this sport. I love rounding a corner to find a big cheering squad. I love pointing to a volunteer at a water station to tell him I’m coming for the cup in his hand. I love feeling the strength in my quads as I power up a hill, love doing some quick math and realizing I’m going to cross my 12th (!) half-marathon finish line in under 2 hours, love wearing my medal and heat sheet on the subway ride home and confusing tourists who think I’m a crazy person dressed as a super hero.


Canines in this photo are smaller than they appear.

But I also love my sanity, and that’s why — despite the ear-to-ear grin I had across my face all race day long — I’m sticking to my guns and putting racing on hiatus for the time being. Last Sunday’s event was the perfect reminder of why racing was once my all-time favorite pastime, but it was also a reminder that favorite pastimes can change, and it’s OK to take some time off. Training doesn’t quite fit into my life right now, and maybe by the time it does again, I’ll be ready for it.

I’ll see you again some day, finish line.

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Raisin D’être

My sister and I have disagreed about many important things in life.

  • Peanut butter: creamy or crunchy? (My sister: “Of course creamy. Butter doesn’t come with chunks of cow in it.” Me: “Mmm but it should.”)
  • Empire Records’ emo heart-throb A.J. or lovable goofball Mark? (Let’s just say I married an Ethan Embry lookalike on purpose.)
  • Best ninja turtle to walk down the aisle with: Leonardo or Michelangelo? (Adult realization: We were both wrong. Turns out nerd-boy Donatello and his Silicon Valley-aspirations made him the real catch.)

But this past week, a startling new difference between sisters became shockingly apparent: I think raisins are healthy, and she vehemently disagrees.


The goods.

Raisins — the dried version of grapes and also a California-based musical act — have become my go-to afternoon snack when I need a sweet little pick-me-up. They’re delicious, they’re portion-controlled, they pack a lot of fiber and they’re undoubtedly better for me than the bulk-food candy offerings my company wheels out every day at 2 p.m. to wreak havoc on my blood sugar levels.


I’m only human!

I eat them straight, or I mix them into oatmeal, or I sprinkle them on celery stalks slathered in nut butter — heck, I’ve even carried them as natural fuel on some 15-mile long runs — but no matter how I’m imbibing, I’m probably eating raisins at least 6 out of 7 days a week. And I thought that was a good thing.

After all, they’re nature’s candy!

I told my sister about my increased raisin consumption as I tried to wean myself off my daily chocolate habit, and she — while supportive — was pretty convinced I was just trading one sugar fix for another.

And maybe she has good reason. Dried fruit is notoriously high in calories but low in the hydrating water content that helps give other fruit a reprieve. And raisins don’t start as some super-food produce either — they’re made from grapes, the one fruit Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist who runs a weight management clinic for children and families at the University of California, told the NYTimes he suggests his patients avoid.

“Grapes are just little bags of sugar,” he said in an interview that, let’s be honest, broke my grape-loving heart.

It didn’t, however, break my grape-loving habit, and I’m still eating grapes, raisins and — fine, wine — with abandon.


Because what’s March without soda muffins?!

So who’s right, here? Are raisins essentially sugar bombs in disguise, or did I make a smart swap replacing my afternoon candy binge with that sun-made goodness?

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Runner Vs. Team Sports

My parents encouraged team sports all childhood long, but like wearing my retainer and eating less butter, the pastime never really stuck.

Sure, I chased soccer balls in the fall and struck out looking each spring, but it became clear pretty early on that I wasn’t really of the team sport variety: I wasn’t a natural-born athlete, ducked when pop-flies came my way and happily spent most of my time warming the bench and/or eating orange slices at halftime without having even broken a sweat.

photo 2

Androgyny is the new cool.

They say team sports have all sorts of benefits for youth — they teach collaboration, boost self-esteem, foster clear communication — but I never loved the pressure of performing athletic feats in front of my peers the way some of my friends did. I tended to think exercise was best completed in solitude — plugged into an elliptical with headphones, say, or running five miles to the sound of my own footsteps — and that’s the position I’ve largely maintained these past 31 years.

So it came as a surprise to everyone — primarily me — when I accepted a friend’s invitation to join her indoor volleyball team this winter. It helped her case that she classified it as “very casual” and “likely to involve a decent amount of post-game drinking,” but mostly I said yes because I’d resolved at New Years to be more active this year in non-traditional ways. I’d expected that would mean trying new gym routines (success!) or walking more dogs (success!), but when the opportunity presented itself in the form of organized team sports, it felt like a sign from the universe that it was time to expand my comfort zone.

So I signed up, and — in a semi state of panic — arrived at my first match last month ready to embarrass everyone.

And you know what? I wasn’t as god awful terrible as I expected! I may not have a lot of hand-eye coordination and my erratic bumps tend to send the ball flying in any number of directions, but at least my serves score points and my 70″ frame means I can block a hit as it’s coming over the (arguably extremely low) net. Better yet, I’m getting fit in a new kind of way AND being social doing it, a win-win for this solitary runner.

Let’s pretend this wasn’t taken immediately after I lost the game for everyone. Cool, thanks.

So is volleyball my new sport of choice, and will I be forgoing my weekend long runs for spiking practice and King of the Court? Heck no. But am I excited it looks like we might possibly eke out the final spot in the playoffs? You betcha. The funny thing about stepping out of your comfort zone is once you’re there, it’s tempting to stay. 

Go Team Gary. 

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On the Rocks

There are a couple tenets of my workout policy that I’d thought were non-negotiables: always hydrate before a run, carry a $20 in case of emergencies, think heavily about stretching (though don’t actually do it) and wear a hat when the sun’s shining bright:


Keira says: “Haven’t you used this photo before? If only there were other dogs in your life you could photograph for blog usage…”

But the most sacrosanct principle of my fitness routine was always this: Permanently keep one foot on the ground. Or in other words, no aerial yoga, no box jumps, no aerobatics, no hang gliding. You heard me: Nothing that has this height-adverse athlete working against gravity, because, my god, up-high things are terrifying. (Kind of like opening my news app every morning to see what monstrosities I missed overnight. But I digress.)

So it must have been a bout of temporary insanity — or fine, the love of a good deal — when on Black Friday I signed up for a half-price 10-pack of visits at a local rock climbing gym. I assumed I’d never actually climb, but the gym also offered yoga classes at convenient times, and I’ve been aiming to freshen up my practice.

And for the first five visits, that’s all I did – downward dog (with two feet on the ground), upward dog (with two feet on the ground), talk about getting a dog (with two feet on the ground.)

But as I walked by the climbers each visit on the way to the yoga studio, I started to get envious. They all looked so cool and so calm and so collected and so badass. Even more important: a lot of them looked like me. I’d thought climbers would be all muscle with clear superiority in the upper body strength department, but many of the men and women I saw making their way up the walls looked, well, kind of normal. At least, as normal as you can look doing something so freakishly unnatural as the human body moving vertically.


Or vertically and semi-upside-down. I mean, seriously?

So I suppressed my fears and signed up for an intro climbing class, bringing a friend along to witness what I expected would be a 50-foot drop to my death. And you know what?

IT WAS TERRIFYING! But also super exhilarating. After we learned to tie ourselves into our harnesses and belay for our friends with two feet firmly on the ground, we hit the climbing walls. Most of the climbs, I — shaking with fear — asked to repel down only halfway up the wall, but a few times, I made it all the way to the top, and that was the Coolest. Feeling. Ever. So I went back last night and did it all over again.


And wore this sweet harness.

I didn’t know what kind of workout rock-climbing would be, especially for someone as cautious as me, but it was definitely a sweat-inducing! Today, my upper back and forearms ache that way muscles only do after they haven’t been used in years. I’ve since done some googling, and it seems rock-climbing can burn as many calories as jogging per hour, plus it tones all kinds of muscles from your forearms to your calves to your obliques. Believe me when I say my typing muscles feel particularly warmed up this morning after gripping at tiny handholds for 60 minutes last night.

The best thing about rock climbing? Unless you like the auto-belay, which is a terrifying experiment in throwing yourself from a great height and hoping a machine catches you, you do most of your climbing with a belay partner — a cool experience for a solo runner like me who’s almost always working out in an isolated state. I befriended a couple in the intro class and convinced them to go with me again last night, and — Horray! — none of us dropped each other to our violent ends! Success!

I don’t think climbing will ultimately take the place of running in my heart — it’s too expensive long-term, requires too much gear and demands a bit more planning than just lacing up and running, but having another sport in my repertoire? It rocks.

Have you ever exercised against gravity? Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, I’m talking to you. #2013moviejokes #Ican’tbelievethatmovieisalreadysoold

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Chicken Broth, Part Deux

Congratulations! You’ve now made your own chicken stock!

(That is, assuming you treat my blog like a life coach and did exactly what I suggested in last week’s post. And if you DO do everything I recommend in my blog, you should probably rethink your life choices… and return that golden doodle you stole.)


“Nah, I’m cool here.”

But really, this is the question I find myself grappling with every time I make homemade chicken stock. Now that I have it, what do I DO with it?

We all know chicken stock is great for us — it aids digestion, it’s rich with minerals, it helps beef up immunity against colds — but finding ways to use it beyond chicken noodle soup sometimes takes a little creative thinking. Fortunately, I’ve done it for you. Hashtag you’re welcome.

Here are a few ways I use up a big batch of broth, and I’m open to all your additional recipes and suggestions, because lord knows I can always use more.

  1. Cook a giant batch of grains in it. We’re talking risotto, rice, quinoa, couscous, farro, bulgar, kamut, sorghum, boogabooga, or any number of other funny-named foodstuffs that are now in vogue. [Note: One of the words in that list is made-up. The rest are, amazingly enough, real words.] A big batch of quinoa cooked in broth tastes a million times more interesting than a batch cooked in water.
  2. Boil up some lentils. The UN General Assembly declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, and for good reasons: these little nutritional powerhouses are packing a healthy punch. Dried lentils are some of the most economic and greenest protein sources out there, so throw them into a pot of broth with a bay leaf and some spices, and let them amaze you.
  3. Make some soup. But it doesn’t have to be chicken noodle! This butternut squash/pear soup from my mama’s repertoire is a delicious way to put your homemade broth to good use. Or try this paleo sausage and kale soup, which has graced our kitchen table at least forty-five times this winter.
  4. Freeze it. When in doubt, load your broth into freezable containers and deal with it later. In addition to freezing cup and quart size batches, I also recommend freezing an ice cube tray worth of chicken broth. You can defrost these tiny portions quickly for when you need to deglaze a pan or braise greens or want to make a miniature bowl of soup for a mouse.

How do you put your wholesome chicken broth to good use? “I use it to lure away unsuspecting golden doodles” is a fair answer.


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Taking Stock (Well, Making Stock)

Anyone can make something from something. It’s making something from nothing that really impresses me.

That, and octopuses that can unscrew themselves from the inside of jars. You gotta admit that’s impressive, even with the eight-leg advantage.

When I say making something from nothing, I’m not talking about Kardashian careers or some dubious reporting on the worldwide web. I’m talking about making chicken stock.

For years, I purchased my chicken stock in tin cans from the local grocery store, aware that my recipes called for it but unaware that the store bought stuff wasn’t always so great. Often high in sodium and full of chemicals, commercially produced chicken stock isn’t necessarily the nutritional powerhouse I thought it was. If you don’t believe me, check out this ingredient list from Swanson, including MSG and corn syrup solids. Mmmm. Hydrolyzed soy protein.


As I became more aware of where my food comes from and why that matters, I started to make my own chicken stock. At first, I followed recipes from the internet that called for virgin ingredients like a pound of chicken wings, or a bag of carrots, or eight stalks of celery or two sliced carrots. Some even called for an entire, uncooked chicken, no joke.

But then I realized that that was a huge waste. Why use perfectly good food to make chicken stock when you can make something just as wholesome and nutritious using the (read: free) food scraps that you produce in the normal course of cooking anyways?

That’s right, folks: you can make stock totally out of leftovers, and your tastebuds won’t even know the difference. (Though your wallet will.) Here’s how it works:

1. Put an empty gallon sized ziplock bag in your freezer.

2. Every time you use an onion in your kitchen, add the onion skins and scraps to the ziplock bag. Every time you use celery in a recipe, add the leftover hearts and leaves to the bag. Every time you peel a carrot, add the peelings to the bag. (Though I mostly just wash my carrots, instead of peeling them, but that’s a blog post for another day.) In my experience, here are the veggies whose scraps are worth saving:

  • carrots
  • parsnips
  • celery
  • onions/leeks/scallions/chives/shallots aka all the alliums
  • winter squash
  • herb stems, especially the ones Simon & Garfunkel sing about
  • mushroom stems, though not the ones Led Zeppelin sings about
  • potatoes
  • garlic
  • corn cobs (seriously)

Skip anything really fragrant (I’m not mad about fennel or broccoli, for example), or anything close to rotting (don’t forget you’re going to eat the results), but most anything else is worth experimenting with. If you do a lot of cooking, you’ll be amazed at how quickly that bag fills up.


Onion skins! Thyme stems! Parsnip ends! Oh my!

3. On the day after you’ve roasted a bird, or bought a rotisserie chicken, or somehow come across a bag of bones some other [legal] way, put the picked bones into a large pot. If you don’t eat meat, skip this step and just use the veggies.


Bonus points if you can convince your chef friend to carve it for you.

4. Add the frozen veggie scraps – several cups worth, hopefully – and anything else flavorful you have hanging around, like a few black peppercorns, a bay leaf or some garlic cloves. Skip the salt for now.

5. Cover the bones and scraps with cold water. I always add a splash of vinegar at this point, since I heard once it helps extract more nutrients from the bones, but I’ve never fact checked this and don’t intend to start today.

6. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook on low uncovered for at least an hour, but go for 2-3 if you have the time and all your liquid hasn’t evaporated.


P.S. Everyone should register for a Le Creuset stock pot. I freaking love this thing.

7. Strain the broth (I pour into the sink through a colander into a bowl to catch the liquid below) and throw away the bones/veggies, which have now been leached of their nutrients and aren’t worth reusing again.

8. Once the broth is cool enough to handle, I recommend pouring into 1-cup freezer containers that can be defrosted easily when you know you’ll need it. Other people store in plastic bags, which lie flat, but I’m not that fancy. Or, if you don’t want to freeze it for later use, cook with it immediately!



And, of course, step 9: Wonder why you’ve been buying chicken stock all this time when it’s so easy/cheap/hand-off to make yourself.

Do you make your own chicken stock? I’d love to hear from a convert who has finally taken the plunge!

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