Spring/Summer Garden 3.0

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My very first backyard garden originated from a desire to eat locally, to self-sustain in some small way. Growing primarily herbs and a few tomato plants, I discovered a love for gardening; few activities left me as centered as digging my hands into the dirt or plucking leaves I knew I would cook with later. Last year’s garden saw the addition of a lettuce bed, which really flourished throughout the spring and well into the summer. I loved taking salads made with backyard lettuce to work for lunch, especially if I could also include some ripe homegrown tomatoes.

This year, for my third garden, I’ve followed last year’s layout—lettuce in the shady bed, herbs in the sunnier planter. But I did move all of my veggies to the side of the house, since it gets much more sun than the backyard. And we have lots more variety in our herbs and veggies this year! To help me grow them successfully, I plan to resume my “Growing My Green Thumb” posts (so far I’ve learned about purple basil, Italian parsley, thyme, and lavender) throughout the spring and summer. But until then, here’s an introductory photo tour of what I’m calling Garden 3.0:

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Lettuce bed.

First up, lettuce. Last year’s garden had three kinds, but this year I branched out a little since we were able to find more of a selection. Those tiny shoots on the right-hand side had sprouted up from last year, but it’s too early to tell exactly what type of lettuce they are. Next to them we planted colorful kale, which I’m really excited about, followed by what was simply labeled a “market blend.” Beyond that are red-leaf, buttercrunch, and iceberg varieties that should work well in many different recipes.

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Herb planter.

In the herb garden, I planted purple basil, Thai basil (though these plants already seem to be wilting for some reason), two types of lavender (one of which grew back from last year), German thyme, straight and curly parsley, chives, garlic chives, dill, cilantro, mint, and chamomile. And I didn’t forget this blog’s namesake: pineapple sage!

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Dad, helping me out.

As for veggies, we have a bunch of tomato plants (I even found two different types of heirloom tomatoes this year), as well as red, green, and orange peppers—and some jalapeños we bought by accident. There’s traditional eggplant and Japanese eggplant, leeks, cabbage, baby broccoli, Swiss chard, cauliflower, and squash. Todd really wanted to try growing onions, and I picked out little corn stalks. I don’t have much hope for either the onions or the corn, but I’ll stay positive and see what happens.

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Getting dirty.

Last but not least, I bought a raspberry bush—well, right now it’s more like a stalk with one little bud growing from it. I didn’t realize until later that it can take up to two years to grow and produce fruit, but I’m still excited. Now I’ll have something to look forward to even after summer ends!

Review: ABA Turkish Restaurant

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Last week I went out with my coworkers for lunch. I don’t often write on this blog about my job, but here’s some context: I’m a copy editor for a pretty big consumer magazine. There are three of us on the copy desk, and we read every article at several stages in the production process, looking for things like typos, grammar fixes, and style blunders. Anyway, it was senior copy editor LD’s birthday on Wednesday, so copy chief AD suggested we go out to celebrate. LD decided on ABA Turkish Restaurant, which featured a reasonably priced ($16) lunch special (an appetizer and entree, followed by coffee or tea).

The weather, stuck in a cold spell, made the day feel dreary; a light drizzle pattered down as we walked to ABA. Once inside, I appreciated the restaurant’s snug warmth: dim lighting easy on the eyes, a collection of polished wooden tables provided by a Turkish decorating company. Our friendly server gave us just the right amount of time to look over the menu; service in general seemed efficient without feeling rushed. In the end, all three of us settled on variations of the lunch special.

APPETIZERS
Clockwise from top left: lentil soup, yogurt soup, eggplant salad

AD ordered the lentil soup, which managed to achieve a bold, hearty flavor without being too spicy. The pureed lentils had a nice, thick texture, but I would have preferred the inclusion of whole lentils to lend a little variety to each bite. AD described it as “a fulfilling comfort food on this cold rainy day.”

On the other hand, LD’s soup of the day seemed made for a spring afternoon. She decided to order it after we spent some time puzzling over what “yogurt soup” could possibly mean. I kept imaging something thin, watery, and super tangy; in my mind, it didn’t sound too appealing. Surprisingly, it was actually really delicious—refreshing and light, so creamy and luscious—and I almost wished I had ordered it as well.

I decided on the eggplant salad for my appetizer, though it was not at all like I’d imagined. To me, “eggplant salad” conjures up a vision of chopped grilled eggplant, with some tomatoes, onions, and olives sprinkled throughout. Well, there was one olive, but no tomatoes or onions. Instead, roasted eggplant had been mashed with garlic and red pepper to create a chunky dip (somewhat similar to baba ghanoush). It wasn’t what I expected but once I tasted it, I was hooked. I couldn’t stop eating it, especially smeared atop the crusty bread (one of several types) served to our table.

ENTREES
From left: shaved lamb and beef, Turkish meatballs, grilled chicken kebab

The protein options for the second course (including shaved lamb and beef, grilled chicken, Turkish meatballs, lamb kebab, and falafel, among others) all came with the same sides: rice, red cabbage, and a small salad. The rice had a pleasant toasty depth to it, and the red cabbage gave a burst of brightness to the dish. Though the salad was relatively uninspiring (really just iceberg lettuce and grated carrots), I liked that it was at least a healthy addition to the plate.

AD ordered the thin-sliced lamb and beef gyro meat, subtly spiced and cooked on a rotating spit. The generous portion and traditional flavor left AD feeling satisfied. LD chose the Turkish meatballs, which consisted of char-grilled ground lamb and beef, seasoned with Turkish spices. Even though she didn’t want to eat too much in advance of her birthday dinner, LD couldn’t help but finish all the meat on her plate. I went with a simple order of grilled chicken cubes that ended up having a complex spice profile and were incredibly succulent—and I couldn’t get enough of the crispy char on the outsides. They tasted even better when dunked into my leftover eggplant dip!

COFFEE & TEA
From left: American coffee, Turkish tea

AD, LD, and I got a laugh out of the fact that final “course” of the lunch menu consisted of coffee, tea, and…that’s it. No dessert accompanied the beverages unless, I suppose, you ordered it separately and paid extra. I felt that something should have been offered, even if just a bite-size pastry or a piece of baklava (which, according to the restaurant’s website, is imported directly from Turkey) for the table to split. We also found it amusing that although ABA offered Turkish tea (a specific kind of black tea), the lunch special’s coffee option was “American coffee” (i.e., your average weak and watery cup of joe). As for the Turkish tea, AD commented that it was good but strong. I didn’t try it, but one Turkish reviewer on Yelp lauded its authenticity: it had the “right color, right smell, and right taste.”

OVERALL IMPRESSION

By no means am I an expert on Turkish culture or cuisine, but everything from the decor to the food at ABA felt real. Even better, it didn’t limit itself to only a few menu items; options ranged from pan-fried calf liver or beef dumplings to grilled meats or a vegetable casserole. Although I thought the third course should have included dessert, I found the appetier and entree portions to be just enough for a midday meal: I left feeling full, but not so stuffed that I wanted to go home and take a nap instead of returning to work.

The Ups and Downs of the 5 Boro Bike Tour

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I’d been really looking forward to the TD 5 Boro Bike Tour after the pleasant 25-mile training ride I did with my dad, brother, and Todd about a month ago. But as May 1 loomed closer and the forecast predicted rain, I started to feel less confident. I’d never cycled in the rain before. Especially not surrounded by literally thousands of people who might skid and crash into me. But I didn’t want to quit before I even tried (nor did I want to lose the $99 I paid for the event), so Dad went out and bought us all ponchos. On the morning of the bike tour, we tied plastic bags around our socks to try to keep the rain out. Then, in just the barest drizzle, we biked to the subway that would take us downtown.

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Todd, Dad, Brother, and me outside of our house before heading to the subway.

Navigating the subway with a bike was a little challenging, but since it was a Sunday the trains weren’t too crowded. And thankfully my brother swapped with me on the stairs: I carried his racing bike and he hefted my regular commuter bike, which is much heavier. We arrived at the starting line around 9 a.m., but had to wait 10 to 15 minutes while the sponsors made speeches and recited to us the rules of the road. The rain had started to pick up by this point, so we just wanted to get moving.

Here’s a quick video of us waiting at the starting line:

Finally the count down began and we were off…walking our bikes for a few blocks until we crossed the officially starting line and the road widened, giving us space to ride. The first few miles felt super easy and really fun despite the rain, and it was such a cool experience to see the same buildings I’ve walked passed hundreds of times from the seat of a bike. It took a little while to get used to all the other riders around me, but we weren’t as cramped as I’d feared. We headed north and entered Central Park around the four-mile mark. I expected from our 10k there that it would be hilly, but it wasn’t actually as bad as I’d thought; what was worse was all the wet, slippery horse manure beneath our tires that was impossible to navigate around.

Here’s a video from Dad’s headcam (which he’d mounted to his bike) as we entered Central Park (I’d like to also note that this is what it felt like wearing glasses the entire ride):

From Central Park we traveled through Harlem and crossed the Madison Avenue Bridge into my home borough, the Bronx. Probably a mile later (or maybe even less), we were already crossing the Third Avenue Bridge back into Manhattan. That marked 10 miles. The wind was no longer at our backs; instead, as we rode south, we headed straight into the wind and rain. And it was hard! Even going downhill, I still had to peddle to keep myself moving forward. When we hit a tunnel, everyone cheered and whooped and made loud sounds that echoed off the walls. You can’t really hear it in the video below, unfortunately, but you’ll still get an idea of what it felt like to get a brief respite from the rain (my brother is in the gray shorts and I’m in the bright blue pants):

We crossed the Queensboro Bridge into Queens and made our way up through Astoria, then back down along the waterfront until we finally came upon a rest stop at mile 25. They had apples and bananas, but they’d run out of energy bars. At that point I felt a little tired, but mostly just damp. My hoodie was soaked through, despite my poncho. The rest stop was crowded and the rain continued to patter down, so we didn’t linger long. Dad, Brother, and Todd all ate bananas. After a quick bathroom break and a few selfies, we rejoined the course.

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The massive lines of people waiting for Port A Potties at the rest stop.

At mile 30, I struggled over the Pulaski Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Queens. The others in my group pulled ahead until I lost sight of them, and all I could do was huff and puff and keep moving my legs in hopes of ascending without having to walk. I couldn’t feel my feet; rain had somehow seeped through my plastic bags and into my socks, puddling up around my toes. I pedaled and pedaled and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. But I finally crested over the bridge and cruised down the other side—only to see Dad, Brother, and Todd huddled off to the side of the road. As far as I could tell, the entire derailleur and chain had popped off my brother’s bike. We stood in the rain for a while trying to fix it and scout for help, but eventually Dad and Brother had to leave the course.

Todd and I pushed on, determined to make it to the finish festival in Staten Island. By mile 33, I couldn’t feel my hands, either. My teeth chattered incessantly. We pulled over so I could gulp down some water. We walked our bikes for a few minutes, and I felt scared because I couldn’t even feel myself stepping on my feet—no pins and needles, nothing at all. I broke down in tears. My legs felt fine, but I was just so wet and cold that I could barely function. But with Todd’s encouragement, I got back on my bike and cried and cursed all the way over the bridge and into Staten Island. (Click here to see a funny picture of me, still crying a little, as I crossed the finish line.)

I was too cold to enjoy the vendors or the music at the finish festival. Instead, we raced as fast as we could the last two miles to the ferry. Once inside I collapsed, hungry and tired and freezing and still a little weepy, but also triumphant. The 40-mile bike tour was one of the hardest physical challenges I’ve encountered, but I did it!

Now I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for better weather next year.

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Tired and cold on the ferry ride back to Manhattan from Staten Island.

Restaurant Review: Project Brunch

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wp-1462216105205.jpgCandy-loaded milkshakes from Black Tap. Teardrop cakes too pretty to eat. Rainbow everything. Food crazes, meet Project Brunch. The new breakfast/lunch spot in Staten Island is making headlines for its over-the-top offerings, like blueberry-batter pancakes, tiramisu French toast, and a BLT with panko-coated tomatoes and herb aioli.

Of course, I needed to visit. And now that I have, all I can say is this: I must return. Multiple times. Until my fiancé and I have sampled everything on the menu, plus the daily specials, which were Oreo pancakes and reuben waffles during our visit last Saturday with Todd’s parents. We arrived at the restaurant around 9 a.m., worried we might be met with a long wait and lines extending out the door. From the outside, the spot looked sleek and modern, with big windows that let in tons of light.

Inside, we were pleasantly surprised to find only a 15-minute wait and a friendly atmosphere. The minimalist space evoked hipster cool and rustic charm; its wood and tin accents felt homey and low-key. It’s one room was smaller than we’d expected, but I appreciated that the tables were spaced well and didn’t feel crowded together. The noise level hummed at a low murmur that faded into the background. Overall, both the restaurant and its staff were extremely pleasant and welcoming.

While waiting, we perused the menu. I bounced back and forth between getting something simple—caramelized grapefruit; mashed avocado on whole grain toast, topped with grilled tomatoes and an egg any style; oatmeal with fresh berries, raisins, almonds, and brown sugar—or something extravagant. I love anything and everything s’mores, so I really wanted the s’mores waffle (graham cracker and marshmallow batter! a torched marshmallow on top! delicious hot fudge!). But since Todd planned to get the s’mores hot chocolate, I decided on savory instead of sweet. Todd’s mom ordered a cappuccino, which was served in a mason jar and brimming with foam. Todd’s dad and I both stayed classic with “bottomless” cups of strong Lavazza coffee.

We started the meal by sharing a thick, moist slice of freshly baked banana bread, topped with banana slices. It was accompanied by whipped cinnamon cream cheese, which was super tasty but also very sweet. I really liked that the cream cheese came on the side so we could take as little or as much as we wanted, though I wish it had been featured more creatively and appetizingly on the plate rather than smushed into a little plastic cup. Of course, I’m just nitpicking here. The banana bread, more than sizable enough for all of us to sample a piece, tasted heavenly: a hint of sugar, an overload of crunchy walnuts, ripe bananas. I’d eat this for breakfast every day if I could, little plastic cup or not.

Todd’s parents both decided to eat omelets, which came with home fries and toast. Our server was very attentive and sent Rachel’s food back to the kitchen when it didn’t come out as well done as she’d asked for. The omelets were each made with three eggs, and fillings ranged from standard onions and peppers to corned beef hash or chicken apple sausage. Though their meals were tasty, Todd’s parents expressed a desire to try something more adventurous next time.

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I chose the Project B.E.C. Think runny egg yolks, thick slices of cheese, crispy bacon—all on a bacon-chive waffle. If you’re thinking that sounds like the ideal balance of protein, carbs, and flat-out yumminess… you’re absolutely right. The eggs were cooked just the right amount, the bacon wasn’t too greasy or too burnt, the waffle was fluffy and warm. (Full disclosure: I did remove three of the six slices of cheese because it just seemed like too much cheese, even for me.) This luscious creation is definitely big enough to share, though I’m not sure you’ll want to. It came with home fries, but disappointingly they weren’t anything to write home about. Mine were soggy and a little cold, and I really thought they could have used a lot more seasoning; I’d recommend more salt, pepper, garlic powder, paprika, and maybe even a dash of chili powder for a little heat. Luckily the sandwich was outstanding enough to completely make up for it.

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That brings me to Todd, who ordered the most adventurous meal of all: the breakfast burrito bowl. A warm soft tortilla cradled a hearty blend of pulled pork with “secret seasoning,” caramelized onions, queso fresco, avocado, grilled tomatoes, sriracha sour cream, and a scrambled cheddar cheese omelet. Though I’d feared that the dish might be too spicy or oily for a morning meal, I was happily proved wrong as I stole bite after bite of Todd’s juicy pork. The ingredients’ bold flavors really mixed together well and left Todd feeling more than satisfied.

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I highly recommend Project Brunch. As for me, I’m already trying to plan a return visit so I can delve into the sweeter side of the menu. (S’mores waffle, I hear your call…)

The Second Annual Chocolate 5k Run

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Just when I thought nothing exciting enough to blog about would ever happen again, I scored a new PR in the second annual chocolate 5k run: 28 minutes and 32 seconds. That’s nearly two minutes faster than I ran the same course last year, so I felt pretty proud of my improvement. Here are a few highlights from the race:

The chocolate 5k, which took place a good hour and a half away from our house, was definitely worth the drive. For the $25 entry fee, you get a spiffy jersey and a drawstring bag, not to mention free food and a really great community vibe. The best part for me was getting to run with the people I love most in the world! Here we are (Todd, me, mom, and dad) wearing our race tees and posing in front of some signage:

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The course primarily traveled along the roads of New Windsor, with the first two miles mostly uphill. It took a lot of work just to get going, and I think we all felt pretty winded pretty quickly. Luckily the roads were closed to through-traffic, so we got to enjoy the scenery and appreciate the friendly residents who came outside to cheer us on. At the halfway point in the course, we circled through a roundabout, which had a water station and rest point for those who needed it. Right before my dad got there, he and Todd (who was just a little bit ahead of him and already heading back) shared a high five:

A few seconds later I gave Todd a high-five, too, and then caught up to dad. I never thought the day would come when I would pass him up during a race, but he was wearing new sneakers and I think just going easy on the rest of us. I passed him up here, during the mini “trail” portion of the race, and then we ran up the steepest hill of the race (so steep that I had to walk up part of it):

And finally, a short clip of the finish line (and my mom, ending on a strong, fast note):

The race was chip-timed, which I prefer for accuracy. Another big plus: It was followed by an all-you-can-eat breakfast of eggs, sausage, and chocolate (or chocolate chip or plain) pancakes. And coffee, hot chocolate, and chocolate milk. And chocolate fountains for dipping fruit, cookies, and—my favorite—marshmallows. Yum! Unfortunately I only remembered to take a picture after eating half of it because I was starving.

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After eating, we checked our time results and then stuck around for the awards ceremony. According to the official results, I ranked seventh in my age group; to place, I would have needed to run faster than 26 minutes. But I’m still happy with my PR—and maybe next year I’ll run even faster. Todd finished just ahead of me, at 27 minutes and 35 seconds. He won the second place award for males in his age group! True to theme, it was a jar of bite-size chocolates.

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An Easter Run and Recipe

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Of all the Christian holidays, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is the most joyous. The songs at mass are uplifting and glorifying. We share treats and dinners with family and friends. Even nature seems to feel the spirit: little tulip stalks pop up from the dirt, the sun makes us squint in every selfie. And we take joy in the little things, the memories we create: a good run, a broccoli soufflé cooling on the stove…

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