Running Lessons

Lady Dare and I finished another Shamrock race today! This is our third annual Virginia Beach St. Paddy’s Day Pilgrimage. We started this ladies’ weekend thing a few years ago. I was interested in running a half marathon and so was Lady Dare. We decided to up the ante with a semi-destination race, and thus our yearly trip to Virginia Beach to run too far began.

We ran the half our first year, the full last year, and dropped back down to the half again this year. We like Shamrock because it’s a well-organzed event with a whole lot of swag: Irish stew and Yuengling at the finish, a race shirt, a hat, a medal, and usually another goodie at the end. This year was the 40th Shamrock and we got hoodies! The weather is  cool enough for comfortable running and warm enough for sitting on the beach with your beer after.

I was very happy with my result: less than 2 minutes off of my half marathon personal best. I’m also very happy because I barely trained for this race. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but work has been so busy, winter is dark, and I’m so lazy. The longest run I did before racing was 5 miles. I do not advocate this method of racing. I’m going to be a lot more sore than I would be if I’d trained properly. My right foot is really hurting. As satisfying as my race was, I was not smart about it. I would never take this approach to a full marathon.

But while I was running, I was thinking a lot about how I trained and how it’s possible to just go out and run 13.1 miles without much preparation. Experience is part of it. I’ve run two marathons, a half before this one, and plenty of shorter races. I don’t get nearly as nervous as I used to about longer distances. I’m still anxious, but I have a much better sense of what to expect from the experience (and long races are a lot of experiencing!). At some point, I learned my body has a pace it can maintain (not a very fast one) for a pretty long time. I only found this pace recently and it was only when I found it that I realized how much I wanted that pace. Let me explain.

I struggled for a long time to make myself a runner. It’s something I enjoy, but starting out, I never would have said “I’m a runner.” I would say “I run.” The reason is that I always got tired so quickly and needed to walk. Or I thought walking during a run meant I wasn’t in shape, or that I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough, or, or, or… Then, sometime last year, things just fell into place. I think it happened while I was training for the Shamrock marathon, but I didn’t realize it until I started “training” (i.e. running a couple of times a week with Margot and not very far) for this year’s race. I could just, go. I still stop and walk every so often, but the whole running experience just feels better. It’s not effortless, but it’s a lot less stressful. I love that. And it’s what let me line up at the start this morning, confident I could finish this race.

I did something new this morning too, while I was running. Lady Dare told me a couple of years ago that she uses long races to think about the people she loves and carry them in her heart. I can’t remember if she said she does this to music, but I used songs to try the same thing. I made a playlist for the race and with each new song, I’d think about someone I love for the duration of the song. Here’s a sample:

  • “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver and “Let Her Dance” by the Bobby Fuller Four – Himself. They’re songs we dance to.
  • “Deep Red Bells” by Neko Case and “I’m On a Boat” by The Lonely Island – Lady Dare (Posseeiiiiiiiiiidon!)
  • “Another State Line” by Abi Tapia – my Mum, because we moved around a lot growing up.
  • “Barton Hollow” by The Civil Wars – my sister because she’s in Austin and gets to go to Barton Springs (not all the links are super deep and meaningful, ok?)
  • “Bossa Nova Baby” by Elvis Presley – Fosterfamily! I can just imagine them dancing to that one.
  • “Rosette” by Le Vent du Nord – The O’Ferrelys, who first lived together in Montreal.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture and I already feel sappy enough. The point is that this exercise helped pass the mileage and was a nice way to reflect on the people in my life and how lucky I am to have them all. I realize this post has a lot of run-induced navel-gazing, so maybe it should also serve as a warning of dangers of running?

On that note, my sore legs and I are going to bed.

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Grumpasaurus

I realized a while back that I’ve never explained the subtitle of this blog. Well, I’ve talked about the deer. But Grumpasaurae? This is the plural for the species Grumpasaurus (family: Grumpasaurae, species: Grumapsaurus knittica).

Grumpasaurae are cranky-looking, diminutive dinosaurs who like to eat bad moods. Our first one showed up not long after Himself and I began dating, when he was on an international trip for work.

Die peppers!

Did I mention that he likes to get in to mischief and be “helpful”? Yes, the G-man has many attributes.

While I was in Baghdad, I came across another Grumpasaurus, known as G2. He could be a little more adventurous than his American cousin.

Safety first!

At this point, more and more Grumpasaurae made themselves known to me, begging for new homes. They had a tendency to self-identify with their new owners. It’s not like choosing a pet at the pound; a Grumpasaurus chooses you. I’ve seen nearly a dozen over the years, including a pair that showed up right in time for our wedding:

We RECEIVED Grumpasaurae for our wedding!!!

So now it’s kinda my thing. I’ve re-homed several of the little guys, taking care to match their personalities to their new owners.

Stanasaurus

And a few others who also came to the wedding:

You can see DS-saurus, Pandasaurus, and G2 lurking in the background, Boosaurus and our original up front. In fact, G-man helped us get people to our wedding.

Himself’s sister designed these incredible invites just for us. I nearly wet myself laughing then almost started crying when I saw them. I love these things so much.

The front of our invites

Then of course my sister got in on the action and designed our wedding favors:

Drink up!

And that’s the story. This is where the deer and Grumpasaurae roam.

 

Pssst, want your very own Grumpasaurus? If you’re Just Crafty Enough, you can find them. Thanks for the inspirational (and free!) pattern Kat!

Cassoulet Dreams

It’s everywhere. I can’t get away from it. And it’s awesome.

Two weeks ago, we were hanging out with the Deers, who not only gave us the hard sell on pressure cookers, but served up a mighty fine cassoulet. They did it the long/right way too: making a duck confit and using that as the base for the beany, sausagey goodness to come. I’m convinced they somehow inspired the NY Times, too, since Mark Bittman deigned to make his own cassoulet the following weekend.

His recipe sounds lovely, but also requires quite a commitment. For the record, anything involving duck counts as “commitment cooking,” meaning the ingredients are (1) expensive, (2) hard to find, (3) unfamiliar/difficult to work with/intimidating. Good duck hits the trifecta for me. Married to a hunter-gather, and as an apprentice hunter-gatherer, I should get over being intimidated by a bird that’s not (rationally speaking) any more difficult to work with than chicken. Maybe if I watch Julie & Julia again that would help. Or not.

Back to cassoulet. Proper, Frenchy-French cassoulet requires the following: duck and its glorious fat, beans, and sausage. I first encountered this delight in France and thought I could eat it for the rest of my life. Fast-forward nearly 10 years: I have cassoulet again, thanks to the fabulous Deers. And now it haunts me. I swear I’m dreaming of cassoulet.

Cue the latest issue of Bon Appetit landing in our mailbox last week. Well helllloooooooo simple cassoulet recipe. Naturally, I must make/have. Purists will scream at me because there’s no duck. Get over it. I’m here to tell you that a delicious, duck-free, slightly Spanish cassoulet is easily within reach (the recipe, courtesy of the lovely people who shut down Gourmet, follows). It also takes far less time than proper cassoulet, so when you’ve been suffering from cassoulet dreams, it’s mighty satisfying and you’re more likely to have all of the ingredients on hand. Himself and I devoured this stuff all weekend and I enjoyed the rest of my share at work today. (That’s right, I apportion shares of preferred leftovers, which are labelled with our names. It may sound cute, but it’s a fail-safe way to keep Himself from eating all of the desirable leftovers. He’s welcome to the undesirable leftovers.)

What’s so good about this? The beans. The sausage is also excellent, but since we’re not selling our homemade venison sausage, I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up. But the beans! They’re moist and not quite falling apart, packed with a rich, meaty, tomatoey flavor. I’m thinking I could live on cassoulet again. Here’s the recipe, with my adjustments, based on what I had to hand and a dodgey stove.

Chorizo and Gigante Bean Cassoulet

3 cups dried gigante, corona, or large limas (I used large limas)

4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling

8 fresh Spanish chorizo or hot italian sausage links, ~2lbs (I used venison sausage, but almost any quality sausage will work)

1 leek, white and pale green section, cut into 1/4″ rounds

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped

5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced (I confess, I buy those big tubs of minced garlic at Costco because I’m lazy. Add 2-3 heaping tsp if you’re also lazy and think there’s no such thing as too much garlic.)

3 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained, chopped (optional, but who can pass up a bonafide chance to buy anchovies that you won’t really know you’re eating?)

1 tbsp tomato paste (I used the same amount of sauce)

11/2 tsp smoked paprika (I used regular paprika, but added 1/2 tsp of smoky chipotle seasoning we picked up at Penzey’s)

3 cups chicken broth (I used stock)

1 28-oz can whole tomatoes, drained, crushed with your hands (who does this? I used 2 14-oz cans of diced tomatoes and the earth continues to revolve)

7 sprigs thyme

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs rosemary (we were out of rosemary, but managed to choke the cassoulet down anyway)

Get your beans ready in one of three ways: (1) soak overnight in a pot covered by about 3″ of water (or “overnight” starting the morning you want to use them, i.e. 8 hours of soaking); (2) put beans in a pot covered by 3″ of water, bring to a boil, boil for 2 minutes, remove from heat, cover, and let stand one hour; (3) soften them up in a pressure cooker (can’t help you here, we haven’t started using a pressure cooker yet).

Drain the beans. Add fresh water to cover by 3″ (no, I don’t know why 3″ is the magical depth for beans). Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, until beans are tender but not mushy, 1-1.5 hours. (Mine took about 40 minutes, so don’t set the timer for the full hour before you wander off.) Drain, reserving one cup of bean broth.

Preheat oven to 450F. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add sausage and cook, turning occasionally, until golden all over, 7-8 minutes. Transfer sausage to a plate and set aside. (Note: this can easily be a one pot meal if you use your pot for the beans, which would be hanging out in a colander at this point. Also, I was on slightly-higher-than-medium heat for this and the next step.)

Place 2 tbsp oil, leek, and onion in same pot. Season with salt and pepper, cook, stirring occasionally, until veggies are softened and light golden, about 5 mins. Add garlic and anchovies, stir 1 minute to break down anchovies. Add tomato paste (sauce) and paprika (plus chipotle!), stir constantly until paste is caramelized, about 2 minutes. (I have no idea what caramelized tomato paste looks like. I’ve never seen it. I just stirred for a few minutes until everything was bubbly and well mixed. Sauce in lieu of paste may be the reason.) Add reserved cup of bean broth, beans, chicken broth, and next 4 (3 in my case) ingredients. Bring to a boil.

Cover, and bake until beans are very tender, about 30 minutes. (Mine took 20.) Add whole sausages, including any accumulated juices to pot, pressing to submerge. Bake covered until liquid is reduced and slightly thickened, 40-45 minutes longer. (I think I did 40 minutes on this step.)

Breadcrumb topping!

Add 2 cups of fresh breadcrumbs (3-4 slices of bread introduced to a food processor) to 3 tbsp oil you’ve heated in a large skillet on medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until golden and crisp, about 10 minutes. (Do not ask your husband who’s been pruning trees all afternoon to help with this. His jelly arms will scatter breadcrumbs all over the place.) Season with salt and pepper. Remove cassoulet from often and sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Return to oven, uncovered, until crumbs are browned and liquid is bubbling, about 15 minutes. (Mine took 10.)

Remove pot from over and let rest for 15 minutes!!! This is important! Cassoulet needs to congeal slightly to be perfect. It will be too gloppy if you serve it now. Sit on your hands or go make a salad to pass the time. When it’s ready, sprinkle some lemon zest (a tsp or so)  and chopped parsley (at least 1/4 cup) over the cassoulet; they add a lovely bright note.

Take a deep breath, and enjoy.

Since making this, I’ve thought that crushed tortilla chips would also make an excellent topping, in lieu of breadcrumbs, but you’ll totally take a hit on authenticity. Then again, do you have real French people coming to dinner? I think it could also be successful with some nice big portabello mushrooms, in lieu of sausage, if you wanted a vegetarian version (sub veggie for chick broth too, obvs). I don’t think mushrooms would affect the cooking times either; however, I would cook the mushrooms longer than the sausage, a minimum of 10 minutes in the pan. That’s when they start to get a nice earthy buzz to them.

And that’s it.

Saturday Morning

I thought everyone would appreciate a re-telling of what I did at 6:30 am this past Saturday.

Himself was still away, scheduled to fly in that afternoon. We usually get up a little before 6 am on weekdays to catch the train, which means Margot doesn’t really let us sleep in on weekends. So it was 6:30 am and I got up to take her outside.

Foreshadowing: When I’m home alone, I lock the front door because of my residual city dweller paranoia.

I got up to let Margot out the back door and stepped outside, closing the door behind me. I watched her run around for about 30 seconds, then realized I locked myself out of the house. You know when you have an epiphany-type realization? Lightening strikes your brain and you remember where that red shirt went/who won the oscar for best actress in 2001/that the back door locked automatically behind you? I didn’t even have to try the door. I just knew.

So I was standing outside, in jammie bottoms, a robe, and slippers. I didn’t even have a shirt on. My first thought as I turned around to jiggle the door handle in futility was one loooooonnnnngggggg expletive. My phone was inside. I was already imagining my trip up to the neighbors, asking to call a locksmith, etc.

Given my deep-seated disinclination to look like an idiot, I promptly tried to find a way back into the house. I tried the bedroom window. Locked. I pulled the screen off the kitchen window and tried to pry it open. Locked. I walked up to the shed to see if there might be a key hidden up there, conveniently labelled: “In Case of Moron.” No luck.

As I’m walking back to the house, my imaginary trip to the neighbors to ask to borrow their phone has played itself out as an awkward, day-long ordeal, during which they offer to lend me clothes and I have to sit with them all day because the locksmith is taking forever to show up. Then of course, the locksmith costs far more than I’d anticipated (for some reason I think a locksmith should cost $75 to open a door. I have no idea is this is based in reality). By the time I reach the front door again, I’m thinking I should just break a window, even though that might be more expensive.

Then I had my second epiphany. Himself knows how to open a locked door using a credit card and has tried to teach me this skill. I say tried, because I was always half-hearted in my attempts due to my lifelong guilt about ever doing anything remotely naughty, like break in to something. But I figured this was the perfect time to channel his instructions to get Margot and me back inside. But I’m still outside in my jammies and robe. no credit cards have magically appeared in my pockets.

By the way, through all of this, Margot was having a merry time of running around, trying to figure out what kind of goofy game Mama was playing, wondering when she’d get her breakfast.

Back to the credit card. My resourceful husband keeps many useful things in his truck and I figured some kind of stiff plastic card had to be one of them. I hustled over to Dodge and sure enough, found an expired gift card in the console. Back to the front door! I patiently pushed the card up the slot in the door, trying to catch the catch. It wasn’t working. He told me that newer locks were made to prevent this kind of B&E. Was this a newer lock!?

I went around to the back door, whose handle looked even newer. I tried the card, still nothing. Now resigned to begging a neighbor for the use of their phone, wearing some old college sweatshirt, drinking weak coffee and promising to name our firstborn after this family, I went back to the front door. Distracted by my internal scripting of my eventual phone call to Himself, I tried the card from above the latch. And it worked. The door opened. Angels may have been singing.

I promptly fed Margot, took her back upstairs to her crate, crawled back in bed, which was still a little warm, and went back to sleep for another hour. The end.

Guilty Pleasures

Himself is away for work for a few days, which means Margot and I are enjoying a brief succession of ladies nights. Actually, I prefer to think of them as Ladeez Nites. What kind of mischief do we make for ourselves? I’m so glad you asked:

  1. We catch up on British telly. Oh yes Downton Abbey, I mean you. Shockingly, my husband is not a fan, so I look forward to these little breaks that let us catch up on all the soapy upper class action. Margot loves a good cut-glass accent.
  2. We play a lot of fetch. Himself and I play a lot of fetch with Margot anyway, but when it’s just us girls, we play even more because no one is around to observe how badly I throw.* I also derive an unreasonable amount of satisfaction from accidentally throwing her squeaker someplace supposedly irretrievable, then having her prove me wrong.
  3. I resist the urge to let her sleep in our bed. Long term, I don’t want the dog sleeping in our bed anymore than Himself does. But when it’s still chilly, I’m perpetually cold, and I have the whole bed to myself? Our wiggle-butt pup seems like a perfect compact little heater. Margot plays the role of temptress well too, by frequently proffering her warm belly for rubs.
  4. I get to leave work on time. Work’s been a little hectic lately, so I relish my 4:30 departure even more than usual, knowing I have to get home and let the dog out.
  5. I let her snuggle on the couch with me, which is also normally a banned activity.**
  6. I let myself get scared by the house. We’re still living in a rental, awaiting completion of fire repairs and I find the rental house spooky. It’s much older than our house and makes funny noises. When I’m outside with Margot at night I can all too easily imagine creepy scary things watching me from inside. I have to make myself not look at the windows. Why am I listing this as a guilty pleasure?
  7. I make mac’n’cheese. As a Real Grown-Up, I have to put kale in it and have brussels sprouts on the side, but it’s still creamy, comforting pasta.

We’re having an exciting time of it.

*I played sports all the way up through grad school, i.e. I’m not a completely uncoordinated muppet. I can throw a rugby ball like nobody’s business. But smaller balls? I’m completely hopeless. It’s like I can’t get my hand to release the ball when my brain says “release you moron!” Totally embarrassing.

**I’m kidding about this one. It’s really more of goofy test to see if Himself is paying attention. Although now he’ll think this is some kind of double bluff. Crap. I swear she wasn’t on the couch!

Shortbread, etc.

Inspired by a trip to Penzeys yesterday, I made lavender shortbread tonight. I modified a Smitten Kitchen recipe, mainly just by adding the lavender. Although I apparently wasn’t paying close enough attention because when I got to the “put dough in pan” step, I thought, “Huh. This is a really wet dough.” Upon rechecking the recipe, I realized I had doubled the butter by mistake. So I doubled the rest of the recipe and added a tablespoon of lavender.

Blog author’s past, singular, experience of lavender shortbread here. Please note that I was a thin, crisp iteration of shortbread, with a delicate, dare I say, teasing aroma of lavender.

So I got to the dough-in-pan step again. And I tasted the dough. Which tasted at first like a sweet, strong lavender and then punched me in the mouth with camphor. Blech. In an effort to be thrifty with my butter though, I looked for salvation. Yes, I doubled the recipe again and added the new batch to to lavender-toxic batch. Luckily, that brought the lavender down to non-hazardous levels. For anyone keeping track at home, I now have a quadrupled shortbread in the works.

Is there anything wrong with baking an enter cookie sheet of lavender? I don’t mean I had enough pieces to fill a cookie sheet for baking, I mean the pan was spread edge to edge with shortbread dough.

Me again. Is shortbread a dough or a batter? And should it be over an inch thick on the pan?

I baked the entire thing for 45 minutes, then cut it up into pieces to bake for an additional 15 minutes. The flavor is good, but I’m thinking I need to work on my shortbread wrangling if I’m going to produce something more attractive than this:

Image

Why yes, I did enjoy a piece.

As you can see, it’s not the prettiest looking cookie. But the taste is good, which is nice, since I’ll be eating it for about a month. It has a fine crumb, but the appropriately dense, flaky texture I fancy in a shortbread.

I can safely rest on my pedestal. Those lumps didn’t stand a chance of touching me.

I’m also thinking these would do very well in a gluten-free recipe. There’s no rising and you need about a metric ton of butter, meaning some of the less desirable flavors associated with the many forms of GF flour should be masked. The plain shortbread recipe is also very easy to tweak, just maybe start with less than a tablespoon of another flavor.

I made a few other goodies today: pretzels(a fav for Himself and I), kale with apricots, and a potentially/truly bad fudge. I had some coconut milk that had been sitting in the fridge for a little too long, so I found a coconut milk fudge recipe. Lacking condensed milk, I used cream, agave nectar and peanut butter, then thought it wasn’t very sweet, so I poured salted caramel on top. And I may have burned the caramel.

All of these details and information are (I’m now realizing) a long-winded way of saying some days in the kitchen are more adventurous than others. I hadn’t spent a solid afternoon/evening cooking or baking in a while, since the rental house kitchen is teeny. But I was in need of the kind of therapy that produces a minor backache and week’s worth of food/month’s worth of shortbread. I got my therapy, we got a good dinner, and hopefully I won’t poison us with that fudge.

Last thing: My all-time favorite cookbook is Appetite, by Nigel Slater. He’s a wonderfully British home cook who has an amazing voice for food and cooking. He’s so encouraging that reading his recipes are like having your kindergarten teacher showing you how to cook, as in you can do no wrong and will almost certainly receive a gold star, even if you make something inedible, because hey, we’re learning, right? He is a cook clearly familiar with adventurous (read: unsuccessful) cooking days and pushes the reader to have them too. Ultimately, if you make bad food, you can probably get takeout or make a peanut butter sandwich. Therefore, take chances and have fun. This concept is not rocket surgery. But it’s very comforting.