My Running Journey

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In 2012, my 5″1′ frame clocked in at about 130 pounds, and my doctor told me I needed to lose at least 10 of them. Before that, I hadn’t really thought much about my weight or about the foods (read: Taco Bell) I put into my body. I didn’t care about organic or sustainable or exercise. But I had noticed that it was harder to play ddr (that’s Dance Dance Revolution, for anyone who didn’t spend high school in arcades dancing in sync with colorful arrows scrolling on the TV screen), and I figured that my doctor might be on to something. So, challenge accepted.

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At right, in 2010, about a year and a half before my doctor suggested I lose weight. At left, me now: not my lightest weight, but at my healthiest.

I started with food: I downloaded the MyFitnessPal calorie-counting app and painstakingly plugged in my meals. It got easier over time and pretty much became a habit; I still do it, mostly to check myself when I want to eat too many chocolate-covered mangoes or coffee-nut M&Ms. Bit by bit, I gave things up: soda, fast food, mindless snacking. I still eat burgers and ice cream and candy, only I do so now in moderation instead of all the time. That philosophy became, and still is, my mantra: Everything is fine, in moderation.

Then I added in some exercise. At first I only did the warm-up to Shuan T’s Insanity workout videos, because I couldn’t complete any more than that. By 2014, I felt ready to attempt my first race, mostly because you could score a cuddly stuffed elephant if you raised a certain amount of money. Todd and I finished in 34 minutes. Afterward I wrote: “I wouldn’t call myself a ‘runner’ by any stretch of the word. I don’t pace faster than eleven and a half minutes per mile. I don’t jog more than file miles per week, most weeks.” So I started doing practice jogs; I added weight training to my routine. I struggled my way to push ups and chin ups (well, I’m still working on that; I can only do one) and burpees.

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A family photo at the hotel gym the night before the third annual Chocolate 5k Race in April.

Now I can do speed runs and intervals and long runs and half marathons. Sometimes I run alone, or with Todd, and sometimes we do races as a family. I weigh 110 pounds, give or take a few depending on the day, and I can see muscles (baby ones) in places I didn’t have any before. My best 5k pace is now about 26 minutes, and Todd’s is even faster. We’ve come a long way.

But I still want to keep improving. This past weekend, Todd and I ran a 10k in Queens, our first in Flushing-Meadows Park. It was drizzly, and the course was muddy, but we completed the 6.2 miles in 58 and a half minutes. We crossed the finish line holding hands. For me it was a win, even though I placed 1,878 out of 5,101 women and 5,963 out of 10,884 total racers, even though the fastest female finished the course in 34 minutes, a full 24 minutes ahead of me. I can’t even wrap my mind around that kind of strength and speed, but I’m going to keep reaching for it.

And I won’t stop trying to reach new milestones—like next year, when Todd and I attempt the NYC Marathon. I’m scared, but determined. After all, I am a runner.

Restaurant Review: Hudson Grille

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This past weekend, Todd and I were tasked with finding a restaurant that would satisfy both sets of parents, mine and his, as well as the two of us. After reviewing a ton of website menus and Yelp reviews, we chose Hudson Grille in White Plains, which had a menu that ranged from a standard burger with cheese to fried lobster dumplings. And to our relief, it was a success, and everyone really enjoyed their food, from the appetizers to the desserts.

ATMOSPHERE & SERVICE
The space felt large and roomy, and I was glad to see that people weren’t sitting nearly on top of each other. It was pretty empty when we arrived around 4 p.m., but started to fill up as our meal wound down. There was a bar with some kind of sports game on TV, and that area got a little bit loud at times, but we were seated a distance away and it wasn’t too bothersome. I did think that the lighting was too dim, and it made the glare of the afternoon sun coming in through the blinds even more irritating (but if we closed the blinds, it felt too dark to see our food or each other very well). Our waiter was very friendly and accommodated all of our requests, and the staff refilled our water frequently so we never went thirsty!

APPETIZERS

 

We chose the lobster quesadilla (which came with a mango salsa and sweet chili sauce), the sautéed mussels, and the pear-thyme salad to share. The quesadilla was the star of the appetizers, with tender lobster and a nicely browned tortilla. The sauces worked well with the dish, and we all enjoyed it. The mussels, too, were surprisingly good—not at all sandy, and the coconut milk, lemongrass, curry broth was so flavorful, just the right level of sweet and spiced. The large hunk of bread on top tasted great when soaked in the broth. The salad was tasty, too; I really liked the grilled pears but was kind of unimpressed by the rest of it, and I didn’t taste the thyme much at all.

ENTREES
Since we had six people in our party, we luckily got to sample a lot of different menu items for our main meals. I liked mine (the butternut squash ravioli) the best in the end, but I also really enjoyed the cedar plank salmon.

 

I’ll start with the chipotle shrimp pasta (above), which my mom ordered and asked for it to be not too spicy. The kitchen complied perfectly, and it had just the right amount of kick without being overpowering. The tomato- and pepper-based sauce was good and paired well with the shrimp, but we weren’t wowed by the dish and probably wouldn’t order it again. Todd’s parents both ordered the steak sandwich (above, without cheese or aioli) and said they enjoyed it. It came accompanied by fries, which were good but again, nothing out of this world.

 


Todd ordered the duck breast (above), which had a really nice sear and the right amount of chew without being tough. The julienned vegetables were bright and fresh, and the duck wontons brought a nice sweet yet savory burst to the plate. My dad chose the cedar plank salmon (also above), which was cooked absolutely wonderfully, with a tender, flaky inside and crusty, crunchy exterior. So delicious! And his bok choy and rice looked good, as well. And now, my pasta (below): pillowy tortellacci stuffed with butternut squash puree, served atop a bed of soft spinach, and all doused with a garlic cream sauce, then topped with a sun-dried tomato pesto. It was seriously out of this world, and I was so glad to have run 11 miles earlier that morning so that I could eat it without feeling guilty about how creamy and decadent (and calorie-laden) it was. Definitely worth it.

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DESSERTS

We chose three different desserts: the banoffee pie, the almond coconut ice cream cake, and the flourless chocolate cake. We enjoyed all three, but I think the ice cream cake was my favorite, with a subtle hint of coconut and enrobed in a rich chocolate ganache. It also came with a mango sauce that paired nicely, and I wish there had been some more of that. Here’s a pic of the pretty plating:

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The flourless chocolate cake was also really good, super dark and rich and thick. I don’t think I would have been able to eat more than a few bites if it were the only dessert I’d ordered, though, because it was so heavy and filling. It came with vanilla ice cream, but we asked for chocolate instead.

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Lastly, the banoffee pie. I loved the bananas and the whipped cream and the chocolate sauce and the toffee glaze….but I did not like the tart shell at all. It was a pretty flavorless puff pastry that just didn’t go with the rest of the dessert; I would have preferred a flaky buttery pie shell, a graham-cracker crust, or even a chocolate cookie-like crust.

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Overall we really enjoyed our desserts, and our entire experience at Hudson Grille, and would definitely return!

Restaurant Review: Bustan

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Bustan is a small, bustling, nearly overflowing space, wedged between King Food Chinese and a fairly nondescript pub on the Upper West Side’s Amsterdam Avenue. Inside, it’s sweltering, but somehow feels cozy, like you’ve been bundled into a giant womb. Unfortunately we ended up outside on the covered back patio, warmed only by heat lamps that were mostly directed at a big party sitting off to one side. And it seemed like, back there in the chilly dim light, that we’d been forgotten about; our server hardly came to our table, and it took about 20 minutes before we could even place our order. Suffice to say, I was not looking upon the restaurant fondly. But then the food arrived, and all my complaints withered away. The eclectic Mediterranean dishes were zesty and flavorful, prettily presented, and delicious.

To start, we ordered a rich, thick hummus, paired with a warm loaf of bread and olives. The bread was light and airy, perfect dipped into the hummus, and we quickly finished the first loaf and asked for a second, which didn’t seem to be a problem. We also ordered an appetizer special: lamb buns with onions. The dough resembled the soft chewiness of bao (one of my favorite kind of buns!), and the lamb was spiced and seasoned really well.

For my meal, I ordered a salad, with roasted beets, baby arugula, red onions, and pistachio-crusted coat cheese (that big circular thing plopped on top). Since I wasn’t sure if it’d be enough food, I also ordered the grilled octopus appetizer, which came on a bed of white beans and tomato and was drizzled with a cilantro oil. The octopus was really tender, not too tough or too chewy, and I loved the mix of flavors in the dish. The salad was also good, but a little too dressed for my taste. We also had an issue with our food arriving on time: Todd’s cousin’s wife and I both got our salads before our husbands got their food, even though we’d asked for them as our meal, and we ended up waiting nearly 15 minutes before we could all eat together.

Todd ordered the lamb terracotta, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. It came out as a savory bread dome, which our served cut away to reveal a sort of tagine inside, featuring hearty chunks of lamb, tomato, peppers, and a whole host of spices. The lamb had a nicely charred exterior and a soft interior, and the flavors in the dish were the perfect combo of spiced but not too spicy. And of course the presentation was undeniably cool, especially since the bread dome could then be dunked into the stew.

And lastly, dessert. Todd and I shared the chocolate cake, and Todd’s cousin and his wife opted for the doughnuts, which the kitchen was able to make without eggs to accommodate his egg allergy. (I’m not sure what they used instead.) The plating of the chocolate cake was gorgeous, and I loved the unexpected pairing of cherries and cornflakes and hazelnut gelato. The cake itself was also good, but a little disappointing in texture. Todd and I had both been expecting something a little softer and denser and pudding-like. Todd’s cousin and his wife enjoyed the doughnuts, which came with three different dipping sauces, including chocolate and raspberry.

After dinner, we enjoyed a nice stroll and pleasant conversation. All in all, despite some setbacks and frustrations, Bustan delivered where it mattered: the food.

Restaurant Review: The Hudson House

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My favorite cousin and I had originally scheduled to get together last month, but an unexpected bout of viral and bacterial conjunctivitis in both my eyes quashed our plans. Finally recovered, I met up with her on Saturday for brunch in Nyack, New York, on the Hudson River. We went to a fine-dining restaurant called The Hudson House, located in the town’s former village hall and jailhouse. The cells are still intact, but now they hold the eatery’s wine instead of the inebriated citizens who’ve drunk too much of it! The dining room is cozy yet classy, with sloping angles and dimmed lighting and formal white tablecloths, and there’s also an outdoor seating area (which wasn’t open on our visit but is probably a nice spot to enjoy breakfast in the summer months).

The brunch menu wasn’t as extensive as other places we’ve been, but it did have something for everyone, from vanilla yogurt and omelets and a country breakfast with two eggs any style, sausage, roasted tomato, english muffin, home fries, and toast to lump crab cakes, an organic salmon salad, and a half-pound burger. We’d already looked at the menu beforehand and knew what we wanted, but it still took a while for our waiter, Jose, to come to our table because the restaurant was pretty crowded and other diners had arrived before us. On the plus side, that gave us ample time to enjoy the complimentary bread basket, which contain mini corn muffins (I found them a little too dry but Todd popped one after another into his mouth no problem) and some kind of fluffy sourdough bread that tasted divine with a smear of the incredibly soft, whipped butter that came with it.

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Complimentary bread basket with butter and a cup of bold, flavorful coffee and milk.

Finally we got around to ordering our meals: my cousin had her heart set on the french toast; Todd and I decided to split the pancakes and the eggs benedict since we couldn’t choose between them. When our food came, we dug right in because we were starving. First up, the french toast. Four triangles of thick, doughy brioche bread were crusted with cornflakes and stuffed with peanut butter, accompanied by fresh berries, bacon, and pure maple syrup. It was a dish that would fill you up and keep you full long after the meal. It had just the right amount of crunch from the cornflakes, but we thought there could have been more peanut butter inside and more fruit scattered on top. But all in all it was decadent and satisfying, even though my cousin only managed to eat half of it!

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Peanut butter-stuffed brioche french toast.

Todd and I shared the toasted coconut pancakes, topped with blueberry compote. Again, though I strongly felt there could have been more blueberry on this dish to brighten it up with fruity goodness (I only got seven blueberries; I counted), it was extremely tasty. The coconut flavor really came through, and the pancakes themselves were cooked to perfection: a little crisp on the outside but warm and fluffy on the inside. Because it came with four generously sized pancakes, this was a perfect choice for sharing. I could never have eaten it all on my own!

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Coconut pancakes with blueberry compote.

And now for the savory half of our shared meal: eggs benedict with prosciutto, portobello, baby arugula, and truffle vinaigrette. This was the smallest of the three dishes, and Todd definitely wouldn’t have been satisfied if this were all he’d ordered. We had no complaints about the flavors in this dish—a mix of peppery and salty and tangy—though our eggs were a little overcooked. The truffle vinaigrette went really well with all the other components, and Todd said the english muffin paired nicely as well. (I opted to put my egg and meat and mushroom on top of a pancake instead of eating the english muffin.) I also didn’t try the few breakfast potatoes that came with it, but Todd approved.

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Eggs benedict.

Since this brunch was a belated birthday celebration for me, we couldn’t pass up dessert. All of the desserts at the restaurant are made in house, and they all sounded divine! We were torn between the banana cream pie (with fresh bananas, a chocolate bottom layer, a gingersnap crust, and tons of whipped cream on top) or the sticky toffee pudding (with toffee sauce and candied ginger). Jose, our waiter, recommended the former, so we went with that…but then he surprised us and bought us both desserts, with the sticky toffee pudding on the house! We were so excited and grateful to him. Both were really good, but I found the sticky toffee pudding a little too rich and sweet; after one or two bites, I felt like I’d had enough. As for the banana cream pie, on the other hand, I could have eaten the entire slice and more because it was the best piece of pie I have ever eaten. Ever. Sweet and soft and fresh and intensely flavorful, it turned a good brunch into a fantastic one. I’m already craving more of it. (Pictures of both are in the slideshow below.)

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So although The Hudson House could have improved some aspects of our meal, we definitely enjoyed it and would recommend it to friends visiting the area. And if you go, please do not forget to order a slice of the pie. I promise you won’t regret it (except you might be tempted to order another piece…or two or three…to take home with you)!

Restaurant Review: Zora’s Cafe

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Not only did my coworker’s get me gifts for my 29th birthday, including a giant box of Godiva chocolates and a book that’s all about coffee, they also took me out to lunch. We settled on Zora’s Cafe, an unassuming soul food spot on Ninth Avenue between 47th and 48th streets. The restaurant aims to “develop healthier soul food dishes without compromising great taste” by using cage-free eggs and organic vegetables, among other strategies. The simplicity of the menu in the window—four appetizers, seven entrees, only three lunch specials—belied the savory complexity of our meals. Once inside, we noted that the space felt cozy and welcoming, with exposed brick and the smells of the kitchen wafting out into the dining space. What’s more, the mother-daughter duo that started Zora’s were the ones who served us and cooked our food! Now that’s what I call true Southern hospitality, and it was much appreciated.

Our meal began with complimentary cornbread: soft in the center but deliciously crispy on the edges. A hint of citrus added a pleasant zing to it, and I probably could have eaten the entire basket on my own if I hadn’t wanted to save room for my main meal. Adrienne ordered an iced tea, which she enjoyed, while Lisa and I stuck to water. Our server, Zora herself, was extremely welcoming and attentive, checking back to make sure that everything was to our liking and whether we needed anything more. She had no problem answering our questions, even when we asked the same ones twice!

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Then it was time for entrees. Everything on the menu sounded good: fried green tomatoes, battered wings, chicken and waffles, slow-simmered braised beef oxtails. Ultimately we all chose the catfish sandwich; Adrienne and Lisa got theirs fried and accompanied by white bread, whereas I went with pan-seared and whole wheat. The lunch option was only $10, and it came with a side of fries, though Zora explained we could substitute any other side we liked instead. Lisa went with a simple salad, Adrienne chose the spice-dusted potato salad (in the photo on the left, below), and I picked the collard greens (in the photo on the right, below). The sandwiches also came with a hot sauce and a white condiment that was a homemade version of tartar sauce.

Adrienne and Lisa both agreed that their cornmeal-crusted catfish had a ton of flavor, despite being a little salty. Adrienne’s potato salad was rich and creamy. My fish was cooked perfectly, nice and flaky and melt-in-your-mouth tender. The sear gave it a slight char that paired really well with the collard greens. Although the dessert options, including a peach cobbler, sounded so tempting, we all felt too full to give them a try. That’s just one of the many reasons I’m already planning to go back! I’d definitely recommend Zora’s Cafe to anyone looking for a solid lunch or dinner option in the area.

 

Recipe: Applesauce Chicken Casserole

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On weeks that Todd and I are both super busy with work, it helps to cook a few simple-to-make dishes on a Sunday, especially ones that can last for a few days. But if we’re going to eat the same food several nights in a row, it needs to be tasty. With that in mind, I created this applesauce chicken casserole; it’s based on an apple-cider chicken recipe, but I added tons of vegetables and used applesauce because I didn’t have any cider. It worked really well, giving the chicken a yummy coating that crisped nicely during roasting without burning. And there was a ton of food, so we definitely had enough for the next couple of evenings! Here’s the recipe…

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The casserole: toasted breadcrumbs, crisp chicken, and a bed of healthy veggies.

Ingredients
~1 tbsp. butter, softened
~1/2 cup apple sauce
~1/4 cup chopped parsley
~1 medium yellow onion
~10 ounces sliced mushroom
~4 ounces baby carrots, cut in half lengthwise
~1/2 small head cauliflower, broken into florets
~1/2 small sweet dumpling squash, cut into chunks and softened in microwave
~1/4 cup cooked peas
~Salt, to taste
~Pepper, to taste
~1/4 cup vegetable oil
~1.5 lbs chicken thighs
~1/4 cup bread crumb tossed with a sprinkle of parmesan

Instructions
~Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
~In a small bowl, mix butter, applesauce, and parsley until well combined.

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~In the bottom of a rectangular baking dish, scatter onion, mushrooms, carrots, cauliflower florets, squash, and peas. Season with salt and pepper, add oil, then toss to coat.

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I used a purple cauliflower I found at the farmer’s market. It looked so pretty!

~Dunk each piece of chicken in applesauce mixture until well coated. Set aside  remaining applesauce, then arrange chicken pieces, skin side up, over vegetables. Pour remaining applesauce mixture over chicken and let soak into veggies below.

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~Roast for 30 minutes, then lower temperature to 375 degrees. Roast until vegetables are tender and chicken reads 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about another 30 minutes. Add bread crumb and parmesan topping and roast until bread crumbs are lightly toasted, about 10 minutes.
~Serve and enjoy 🙂

A Boo-tiful Halloween

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Wow, I’ve been busy! I’d spent some time planning snacks and activities for a Halloween party held at my friend’s house in Connecticut, and I’m pleased to say that it was a success. We had a sleepover the night before so that we could wake up and get an early start on all of our creations, from chocolate cupcakes to fruit cups meant to look like candy corn.

Clockwise from top left: Elina and me, wearing matching Halloween socks, with Ghost; chocolate-covered Oreo cookies made to look like pumpkins; a salad topped with a sour cream “spider web”; spinach “toxic waste” mac & cheese; and orange, pineapple, whipped cream “candy corn” fruit cups.

At the party we also took pictures with Halloween props and watched Poltergeist, a horror classic that isn’t scary but is fun to poke fun at. We even carved pumpkins! Todd and I went the easy route and just turned out pumpkin into a bat, but some of our friends etched out some really creative designs.

On Sunday, I decided that we still hadn’t had enough Halloween sugar, so I baked a lemon-ricotta cake with cream cheese frosting and a layer of lemon curd, then decorated it with some Halloween sprinkles. I also made mini cupcake versions, but those were topped with a vanilla-malt frosting. Mom and I baked vanilla cupcakes with vanilla frosting, too, and had fun scarify-ing them with spooky ghosts and gummy worms and any other candy we could find.

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To burn some of those calories, Todd and I did a six-mile run to the Botanical Garden in hopes of seeing some fall foliage. Most of the trees hadn’t begun their transformations yet, but we saw some stunning fall colors near the entrance of the garden. When we got home, we quickly washed Todd’s car before it rained, falling in sheets so thick you couldn’t see through them. It was nice to relax and listen to the storm after the busy weekend we’d had.

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Unfortunately I missed out on seeing the cute costumes of trick-or-treaters because I had to work late yesterday, and it’s likely to be busy and late all week here at O magazine. But it’s okay: I have plenty of sweets and candy to help me power through!