Our New Little Snowman Friend

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We received about 6 inches of snow here in New York during this most recent winter storm, and guess who went outside twice to shovel? (You can’t see me, but I’m totally pointing to myself right now.) When Todd got here, he helped as well—and then we built a snowman! I just quickly wanted to share some pics:

Our new little friend.

Our new little friend.

I stole his hat!

I stole his hat!

Todd is exhausted from too much shoveling...

Todd is exhausted from too much shoveling…

Recipe: Cinnamon Maple Walnut Butter

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I subscribe to at least 10 different magazines, which I make sure to read cover to cover every month so that I can learn new information, whether it’s about the top vacation destinations or how to take better care of my hair and skin. But the recipes are always my favorite part of any magazine, especially when they’re quick, easy, and delicious. One of my current go-to recipes is the do-it-yourself cinnamon maple walnut butter recommended by Runner’s World as a high-protein snack or lunch. I love it so much that I have plans to try out all of the other flavors, especially the almond coconut butter, and even to experiment with my own macadamia butter.

Banana slices topped with walnut butter and diced dried plums

Banana slices topped with walnut butter and diced dried plums

I couldn’t resist sharing the Runner’s World recipe here on my blog, though of course I have a few disclaimers to make before I do: Although the magazine suggested adding salt, I found that I didn’t need it. And instead of buying roasted walnuts, I just bought a bag of regular walnuts and roasted them myself in the oven. Because I used a little more than the cup of nuts that the recipe calls for, I also added a pinch more maple syrup. I love that the sweetness of the nut butter comes directly from the pure maple syrup, rather than some artificial or added source.

Ingredients
~1 cup walnuts
~1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
~1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Roasted walnuts

Preparation
~Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and pour the walnuts into a small baking pan. Once the oven is hot, roast the walnuts for about 10 to 15 minutes, occasionally shaking the pan to help them roast evenly.
~When the walnuts have cooled, toss them into a blender. Blend for 3 to 5 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides as necessary.
~Add syrup and cinnamon and blend for another 2 minutes or until smooth. The more you blend, the fluffier your nut butter will get. Although the photo on the Runner’s World website makes these butters look as smooth as any nut butter you can buy in the store, I couldn’t get mine to entirely lose it’s slightly crumbling texture. Maybe I’ll have better luck (or more patience when blending) next time!
~Transfer the nut butter from the blender into a glass jar. You should have about 1/2 cup of butter, which lasts surprisingly long. (And for those of us who are nutrition obsessed, it’s helpful to know that two tablespoons of walnut butter have about 200 calories, according to Runner’s World.)

Nut butter in a blender

Running in Winter: My Motivation

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I didn’t run very much or very often over the holiday season. Instead, I baked cherry oat bread, feasted on lobster, and practiced yoga—all of which I enjoyed immensely but didn’t leave me with the elation or satisfaction I experience after a good run. I wanted to run more in the new year, and today I received an acknowledgement of my progress in the form of a Nike+ badge for running five weeks in a row.

Although most of those runs have been brief jaunts on the treadmill or heavily bundled slow jogs outside, I’ve managed to run at least once per week for the past five weeks, totaling about 18 miles. Most of that mileage came in the past week as I started thinking more and more about the spring: flowers in bloom, birds chirping, a refreshing gentle breeze. I imagine myself in the New York Botanical Garden, jogging up and down hills and around flower beds filled with tulips, roses, herbs, and more. I imagine myself in Central Park, circling the gravel-lined reservoir and stopping for a rest at Belvedere Castle. I imagine myself back in the financial district, running along the river and seeing how far I can get before I merge back into the city streets and take a people-watching walk break.

For now, spring is my inspiration and I’m going to run more often and push myself harder so that when it arrives, I’ll be ready to hit the pavement and spend a nice, long run appreciating the beauty of nature.

What motivates you to run through the long winter?

Recipe: Simple and Healthy Flounder Bake

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Because Todd knows that I like to eat healthy foods that are easy to prepare, he recently bought us the Skinnytaste Cookbook, based on the popular blog of the same name. It contains so many delicious recipes that rely on bright vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains.

Now that Lent has arrived and some of us can’t eat meat on Fridays, I want to share a simple fish recipe from theSkinnytaste Cookbook that Todd and I really enjoyed: a broccolini flounder bake. As usual, we modified this version a bit. We cut out the cheese and oregano, added onions and piled on extra tomatoes, and served it over a rice medley.

Flounder Bake

Ingredients
~3 teaspoons olive oil
~6 oz broccolini (or baby broccoli)
~2 cups multi-colored cherry tomatoes
~3 garlic cloves, chopped
~4 flounder filets (about 4 oz. each)
~1 whole sweet onion
~Crushed red pepper flakes
~Salt
~Black pepper
~Paprika
~Fresh lemon juice

Flounder BakeCooking Steps
~Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
~In a large pot, boil water for the rice. We used a red, black, and brown rice medley from Trader Joe’s, but I think just about any type of rice would work with this dish.
~In a large skillet over medium heat, pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Season onions with paprika and sauté until they start to soften.
~Trim 1 inch from the broccolini stems and add them to the skillet, seasoning with salt and cooking until they start to become tender.
~Next, add the tomatoes, garlic cloves, and pepper flakes. Cook for about 8 to 10 minutes longer, stirring occasionally.
~While the veggies cook, season the flounder with salt and black pepper. Drizzle a baking dish with 1/2 tablespoon of oil, lay the flounder in the dish, then sprinkle with remaining 1/2 tablespoon of oil and lemon juice, to taste.
~Bake the fish until it is partly cooked, about 5 minutes.
~Remove the dish from the oven and top the fish with the veggie mixture. Return to the oven and bake until the fish is cooked through and opaque, about 10 to 15 more minutes.
~Serve atop the rice medley and enjoy!

Flounder Bake

Restaurant Review: Moon Star Grill in Riverdale

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One of my best friends has lived in many places, including Mexico, Oregon, and Chicago. Luckily for me, she’s back in New York for a while—and that means we get to try out a ton of great restaurants together. This weekend, Todd joined us for dinner at an Asian-fusion gem, Moon Star Grill, in Riverdale, New York. This sleek spot features high-quality Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese offerings in a setting so friendly and serene that we lingered much longer than planned, sipping hot Jasmine tea and nibbling on chilled pineapple chunks.

Appetizer: Fried Vegetable Dumplings

Appetizer: Fried Vegetable Dumplings

Though we took nearly 20 minutes to place our orders because everything on the menu sounded delicious, the waitstaff never rushed us or seemed frustrated by our indecision. Finally, we decided on soups and an appetizer to share. My friend got a steaming Wonton soup and Todd decided on a delicious La Sa Ga, a soup with curry chicken, coconut milk, and rice vermicelli. I had wanted to order the same soup, but had hesitated because it was marked with a spicy pepper on the menu; however, when I stole a sip from Todd’s bowl, I didn’t taste much heat at all, just a rich flavor that lingered in my mouth until our appetizer, fried vegetable dumplings, arrived. Crispy on the outside and filled with soft vegetables inside, they were so good that Todd offered to eat my second dumpling if I didn’t want it. I did.

Entree: Mango Shrimp

Entree: Mango Shrimp

Though we’d already had some soup and an appetizer, we still wanted more food. So, even though each entree came with white or brown rice, we decided to also order a plate of Bun Xao noodles to share (in the background of the picture above). We all loved the soft, stir-fried rice noodles tossed with shredded vegetables, egg, and chopped peanuts, and I took at least two helpings during the course of the meal. The noodles also came with a garlic-infused nuoc cham dipping sauce on the side. For my entree, I chose a simple Mango Shrimp dish, which I thought came with a fair amount of shrimp, a ton of mangoes, and an ample amount of sweet dipping sauce to mix my rice into. I really enjoyed this dish, though I was glad that we shared all of the entrees as a table because it might have been too much of the same sweet flavor if I had tried to finish it all myself.

Entree: Chicken with Ginger and Scallion Sauce

Entree: Chicken with Ginger and Scallion Sauce (and my friend’s finger, because she was too impatient to wait for me to take a photo)

While reading this review, some of you might be thinking that the dishes look like they aren’t anything special: there’s no fancy plating, they’re shining with sauce, and they might resemble the fare you could get at your local Chinese takeout place. I want to take this moment to assure you that they are so much tastier than all of my local Asian restaurants, and that this is probably one of the best casual dining spots I’ve been to in a long time. If you like variety, this is truly a great place to try out. My friend’s plate, Chicken with Ginger and Scallion Sauce, had a nice tang to it and came with crisp vegetables. Todd’s order, Bo Xao Gung, featured sliced, tender beef with red pepper, mushrooms, squash, snow peas, water chestnuts, and onions. No matter how picky of an eater you might be, I think you’ll find something to love at Moon Start Grill—and if you aren’t yet impressed by the food, then maybe the desserts can tempt you.

Fried Green Tea Ice Cream

Fried Green Tea Ice Cream

For dessert, we split two ice cream dishes: fried green tea ice cream and three scoops of regular pistachio ice cream. The fried ice cream was perfect: warm and slightly crisp on the outside and soft and cold on the inside, topped with a generous serving of whipped cream and a cherry. After we finished our meal, the waitstaff brought us another dessert surprise: a glass (same size as above) filled with ice and sweet pineapple chunks! By the time we left the restaurant, we felt so full, and more than satisfied with our meal. (Plus, we had leftovers for my friend to take home!)

Me and my friend at Moon Star Grill

Me and my friend at Moon Star Grill

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

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In January, I read six books. That sounds impressive, but The Strange Library falls more into the short-story category and Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library was a children’s book. I skimmed a few parts of The Leftovers and Restoration where they started to drag, and The Fate of Mercy Alban, a murder-horror-romance guilty pleasure, required barely more effort than it took to turn the pages. But one nonfiction book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Slum, will have a place in my thoughts and in my heart for a long time.

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Researched and reported on from November 2007 to March 2011, the book explores the lives of the inhabitants of Annawadi, one of Mumbai’s slums. Simply knowing that the characters are real people is different from feeling and understanding that reality, and Boo expertly achieves the latter. From the start, the precise detail and the personalities that Boo’s subjects possess shine on the page, proving that she delved deep into their lives, which she confirms in the author’s note: “I documented the experiences of residents with written notes, video recordings, audiotapes, and photographs. … I came to my understanding of their thoughts by pressing them in repeated (they would say endless) conversations and fact-checking interviews, often while they worked.”

The portraits Boo compiles range from heartbreaking to inspiring, and often manage to be both at the same time. Manji teaches the slum’s children to read while attempting to become the slum’s first female resident to obtain a college education; at the same time, her best friend kills herself by drinking rat poison as a way of making her own decisions in a life dictated by tradition and an overbearing family. The orphan Sunil struggles to make a meager living by digging through the nearby airport’s trash and selling his goods to young Abdul.

Though the book’s primary story focuses on an accusation by a one-legged woman that Abdul set her on fire, Boo constantly provides snapshots into the other residents’ lives as well. She does so with a journalist’s hand, letting the stark truth of an individual’s situation impact the reader and omitting any overly dramatic sentiment. The characters—real people who live without running water, with a shared toilet, with dirt floors and ramshackle homes that threaten to collapse—drive the book forward, and their ingenuity in the face of many obstacles keeps the reader turning pages and, at the end, wondering what they’re up to now that several years have passed.

Despite the sheer amount of journalism that went into the creation of this book, it reads like a novel. The prose manages to be both graceful and blunt, depicting the poverty and corruption in Mumbai but questioning it at the same time. Here’s one passage that really showcases this balance:

Which day was this? How long had he been here? He was being beaten and phones were ringing in a room next door, which Abdul had concluded was some kind of control room, because of the radio squawks. The officers all spoke in Marathi, which he made the effort to follow. Trying to figure out what the officers were saying gave him something to do besides worrying the obvious problem of being innocent and beaten in a jail cell.

The officers had been going after his hands, the body part on which his livelihood depended. Small hands, with the prominent veins, orange rust stains, and healed cuts that were standard in his profession, they had been seriously injured only once—a bicycle spoke that went deep.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is gritty and real, and that’s what makes it a nonfiction gem. Boo’s analysis of social inequality, politics, and commerce doesn’t feel polemic, but is instead revealed through the characters and their stories.

Yet, I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge its flaws. At least one critic has pointed out that Boo reveals corruption and exploitation from the vantage point of the victims, but fails to give equal say to the perpetrators, such as the police officers who beat Abdul or a nun who resells the clothes and food donated to the orphanage. It isn’t clear why these interviews are not included in the book. Perhaps this issue could have been solved if my other minor complaint were resolved: Boo’s character is noticeably absent from the book. It’s naive to think that the author had no effect on the slumdwellers’ lives during her time in Annawadi, and I would have liked to see some evidence of this, rather than act as though flitted from place to place like a ghost. In her author’s note, Boo acknowledges, “Several children of the slum, having mastered my Flip Video camera, also documented events recounted in this book.”

Despite this, the book remains a powerful and extraordinary depiction of one slum in present-day India, and I would highly recommend it. Even if this type of sober, uncomfortable nonfiction isn’t your typical read, it will truly make you appreciate the privileges that we so often take for granted in our lives.

Embarking on a Journey to Rediscover What Poetry Means to Me

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As some of you know, I self-published a poetry book, “An Unfamiliar Ache,” in late 2010. It collects together material spanning the three or four years prior, and I have to admit that it includes much more teenage angst than I remember. As I flip back through its pages, I realize that most of the poems need work. Some of them need to be trashed altogether. They only represent a small sliver of the work I created during that time, and it reminds me of how much and how often I used to write.

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