Monday, April 26, 2010

Belated food post

I haven't talked much about food lately, but that doesn't mean I haven't been cooking! Here are some recent creations from my kitchen:

These cookies are from a couple of Saturdays ago. They are chocolate and butterscotch chip cookies with cinnamon. The recipe was loosely based on this one, but eliminating the toffee and going with all chips, and with a teaspoon of cinnamon added to the flour. There was something of a happy accident in that I added too many chips, so the cookies stayed big and chunky instead of flattening out. And I am really liking the addition of cinnamon to a lot of my cookie recipes. Yum!

Chocolate and butterscotch chip cookies with cinnamon



Made a tasty pizza last Thursday - black and green olives, fresh Mozzarella, Trugole cheese, and Grana Padano cheese, and home-cured Canadian bacon (still had a little bit left in the freezer!).

Mmmmmmm....pizza!



Another cookie recipe - this is from the "sounds really strange, but is actually really good" files. I found this recipe in Bon Appetit for soft chocolate cookies with grapefruit and star anise and wanted to give it a try. Soft in texture with a rich chocolate flavor, the star anise adds a licorice note, and the grapefruit zest lends a pleasant citrus burst. Probably not a cookie for everyone, but I found them interesting, unique, and quite flavorful.

Exotic tasting cookies



Saturday night's dinner was shrimp in yellow curry. This is a Thai-style coconut curry dish I found in Mark Bittman's cookbook, The Minimalist Cooks at Home. (You might remember Bittman as one of the lucky guys who got to eat and drink his way around Spain with Gwyneth Paltrow and Claudia Bassols) His recipe is here - but I changed a few things. I added lemongrass and roasted chile paste to the aromatics, reduced the amount of shrimp to a pound and included some veggies (red bell pepper, water chestnuts), and used all of a 14 1/2 oz. can of coconut milk (the recipe called for a cup, but I figured why waste the rest?). Even had some of my homemade curry powder on hand. You create an extremely flavorful sauce and basically poach the shrimp until just cooked through. This dish was outstanding.

Shrimp in yellow curry



Sunday was a crummy day weather wise, so I stayed in for most of the day and made pork and black bean enchiladas. It started with a homemade guajillo chile salsa, which would serve as my enchilada sauce. I also made a tangy and smoky tomatillo-chipotle salsa. A small hunk of pork butt was seasoned with a variety of spices and braised in beer, chicken stock, and some of the tomatillo-chipotle salsa until tender. I shredded the pork and mixed it with a can of black beans. The braising liquid was defatted and reduced to about a half cup worth of intensely flavored and spicy glaze, and this was mixed into the pork and beans. The pork and beans were rolled up in tortillas, topped with guajillo chile salsa, Monterrey Jack, and sharp cheddar cheeses and baked until golden brown and bubbly on top.

Hot out of the oven



Labor intensive? Yes. But absolutely worth the effort? You bet! The enchiladas came out of the oven smelling amazing, and tasting even better. Topped off with a little bit of both of my salsas and some sour cream, and I had a delightful south-of-the-border feast.

Plated up, with extra guajillo chile and tomatillo-chipotle salsas!



There, I am caught up!

Jean

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nature's surround sound

Saturday morning arrived with cloudy skies and temps in the low 50's. Looked like we had received a little rain overnight, and a quick check of the radar indicated my area was in a dry slot with most of the rain was in southern MN. I headed out for my run.

Everything was going just fine until around mile 7 when a few raindrops started to fall. I could see the southern skies darkening, and I started to hear some claps of distant thunder.

A couple of miles later, the heavens opened up. It started with some large raindrops intermingling with...pea-sized hail? Good grief! This is the first time I have ever been caught in hail on a run (it stings). The hail subsided quickly enough, but heavy rain continued, along with more thunder and lightning.

In no time, I was drenched. Large puddles quickly appeared along the trails. Gutters along the side streets became small rivers. We received a tremendous amount of rain in a very short period of time.

(Nice morning for the Get In Gear, by they way! I will be interested in reading some race reports.)

I will say this much - there are few things cooler than being able to hear thunder when you are outside. It is just an amazing sound. The rumbling can not only be heard, but also felt. This vast, expansive sound makes you feel small. Mother Nature's surround sound system absolutely rocks!

I actually met another runner during the worst of it. We exchanged "Good mornings" with a little bit of a laughter in our voices, both keenly aware that we didn't do a very good job of interpreting the local weather forecast.

Clothing completely saturated? Check. Shoes waterlogged? Check. Chafing badly because every article of clothing was clinging to my body? Really big check. Good times!

Can you believe I ran 20 miles in this crap? This was the weekend for my "long run" in preparation for my marathon in a couple weeks! In spite of the conditions, I ran OK. But never have I been so happy to take a hot shower and put on some dry clothes.

So, with that, let the taper begin! :)

A couple of random notes:

1. This morning I noticed two different flowers. The marsh marigolds are in full bloom in one of the local parks I passed. The swamp was just a sea of yellow flowers. And, I saw some lilacs along the trail that are just starting to bloom. This is, I believe, the earliest I have ever seen both. In fact, I know a couple of years ago during a cool spring, the lilacs were not out until Memorial Day weekend.

2. Here are a couple of belated action shots of me from last weekend's Trail Mix 25k - My friend Jon was there with his family, and his daughter was kind enough to snap a few photos of me. It is kind of rare that I get any photos of me actually running in a race, so these were fun to receive.

Yours truly, completing the first lap



And, here I am at the finish

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I like Minnesota in the springtime

What a spectacular week. Running has been excellent, with pleasant, dry days in the high 60's and low 70's. Just delightful. And the warmer days have caused the vegetation to explode. Lots of wildflowers are emerging, and the flowering trees are starting to blossom. It is looking gorgeous around here.

Spotted a few new birds this week, all on Sunday. I was very happy to see the warblers have started to return. I found numerous yellow-rumped "Myrtle" warblers, and located a solitary palm warbler. These two species are usually amongst the first of the warblers to arrive, so they were right on cue. I also discovered a few blue-winged teal on one of the lakes, field sparrows (in a field, appropriately enough), and encountered a very chatty brown thrasher. It is so great to see the spring migrants moving through.

Forget Paris. I will gladly take Minnesota in the springtime any day! :) A few images from this week:

Leaves filling in nicely along the trails



This happy cardinal was singing from the treetops



A blossoming apple tree



A closeup of the apple blossoms



The yellow-rumped warblers (a.k.a., "Myrtle" or "Butterbutt") have arrived



Blue-winged teal floating on the lake



A flowering crab apple tree outside of my place - these are blossoming at least a couple of weeks earlier than normal

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Trail Mix 25k

Yours truly at the Hyland Lake Park Reserve, ready for Trail Mix



Fueled by last night's pre-race pizza consisting of arugula, pine nuts, three cheeses, and prosciutto two ways (cooked on the pizza itself, and a couple of slices draped over the top post-cooking), I headed down to Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington to join Minnesota's trail running enthusiasts for the 19th running of the Trail Mix Races.

Love those pre-races meals...



The morning was cloudless and beautiful, with a rather cool start. And Hyland Lake Park looked stunning. With our relatively early spring, many leaves have started to sprout, so the green color was everywhere. A great day to be a runner, and everyone seemed positively giddy with the way the day had turned out. I would be partaking in the 25k, but there were a good number of folks tackling the 50k ultra.

Start of the 50k race



My goal today was not to have any goals. :) Didn't even wear my watch. I was really just intending on treating this as a long, steady training run, which is what I did.

The trails were quite nice and scenic, taking you through the woods, fields, and past lakes and ponds. The 25k race consisted of two laps around the park on a mix of grass, dirt, and wood chip trails. The terrain was rolling and hilly; lots of gradual ups and downs, with a couple of longer, steeper hills, but nothing overly difficult. Trails were wide (I believe they serve as ski trails in the winter months) and not at all technical. This would be a great introductory trail race for anyone looking to try some longer distances.

Birds were everywhere. Before the race, I chased a rather loquacious ruby-crowned kinglet around the picnic grounds, and I saw my first chipping sparrow of the season in the same area. During the race, we passed an osprey nesting platform where mama and papa osprey were busy constructing their nest. I also heard numerous robins, cardinals, wood ducks, red-bellied woodpeckers, and also the familiar cackle of the pileated woodpecker. The feathered friends were enjoying this day as much as the runners.

By the second loop, the day had really warmed up. From our start at around 40, the temperature quickly shot up into the upper 50's. I was feeling overdressed with my long-sleeved shirt, but was probably faring better than those who decided to wear jackets and long pants!

I was really enjoying myself during this race. The park was spectacular (it is impressive that people had the foresight to protect areas like this, since the park is truly surrounded by the metro area - heck, the infamous Mall Of America is only a few miles east of here!), runners were having fun, and aid stations were enthusiastic and on the ball.

Overall, I was pleased with my run. I ran how I wanted to and didn't overdo anything, finishing in 2 hours, 17 minutes, and change (official results forthcoming). Actually, this is a new PR (I have only done one 25k before, and that was at the Superior Trail Races - anyone who has run that knows that isn't exactly a PR kind of course!).

I had a great time today at Trail Mix and saw several folks I know. I got to chat with Wildknits before and after the race, which was a lot of fun. I ran into Ed, an old colleague from my previous job, so I got to talk to him. And, I also saw our family friend Jon after the race, so I got to catch up with him and his family as well. Fun stuff!

The rest of my day involved a little bit of shopping, baking a batch of chocolate and butterscotch chip cookies, and the semi-regular post-race tradition of take-out for dinner. I am now sipping on a Boulder Beer Co. "Mojo" I.P.A. as I type this.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A beautiful Sunday in Minnesota

No run on Sunday after the 19 miler. Instead, I took a two hour hike up at the local park on an absolutely gorgeous spring day. I hadn't been out here since last fall, so I wanted to check out what was going on.

Lots of new bird arrivals - got to see my first trumpeter swans, double-crested cormorants, ruby-crowned kinglets, and brown-headed cowbirds of the season. There were plenty of other feathered friends as well, including song sparrows, eastern phoebes, northern flickers, cardinals, American goldfinches, killdeer, and wood ducks.

Trees are getting greener by the day, and the forest floor is coming to life. Bloodroots are starting to bloom, and all sorts of vegetation is beginning to sprout.

Some images from Sunday:

Gray squirrel finding snacks in the treetops



Bloodroots blooming on the forest floor



Trails getting greener



Trumpeter swans inspecting a possible nesting site



As you can see, it is a great time to be in Minnesota right now.

A quick food note - Saturday's dinner was pretty good; linguine carbonara with apple-cinnamon bacon.

Pasta with bacon and eggs - it's not just for breakfast anymore!



This was very loosely based on a Giada recipe where she worked with some pancetta dusted with cinnamon. I bought some wonderful apple-cinnamon bacon from Old World Meats when I drove through Duluth last week, so I used that instead. It is not a traditional carbonara in any sense of the word, but it was really delicious and quick to put together. The cinnamon adds an earthy and unexpected warmth and sweetness to the dish that was quite tasty. A simple dish, slightly exotic, and really good stuff.

Until next time,

Jean

Saturday, April 10, 2010

19 on a pretty day

Sunrise over Fish Lake on Saturday morning



Gorgeous day down here on Saturday. 44 degrees when I woke up. I ran 19 miles today. It was a decent run - better than last weekend's 16 miler, anyhow! Just a nice, steady pace. Skies were slightly overcast, and breezes were gentle, making for ideal running conditions. A lot of fun to run today.

I was treated to symphony of bird songs. The woods was positively alive today. Lots of leaves are popping out and hints of green are showing up everywhere. Also, the Dutchman's breeches are in full bloom on the forest floor. By my assessment, they are 2 1/2 weeks earlier than last year. It is really getting beautiful down here.

Getting green along the trails



Dutchman's breeches - some of the first wildflowers of the season



New bird arrivals this week:

On Wednesday, I noticed the tree swallows and northern flickers were back in my neighborhood. I also found a pied-billed grebe swimming in a local pond

Today I saw my first osprey of the season. He took flight as I rounded the corner along the edge of a lake. I also saw a pair of Coopers hawks. And, a couple of eastern bluebirds were busy selecting a home in the meadow.

Until next time,

Jean

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Easter 2010, and the arrival of spring in MN

Buds popping on the hazelnut shrubs - spring arrives in northern MN!



Spring is arriving on the North Shore! It was a pleasure to take it in over a long Easter weekend with the family.

I went on three runs; a 16 miler and a couple of 5 milers, all done on a mix of quiet dirt roads with a little bit of trail thrown in for good measure. The long run was exceptionally difficult for the last 6 miles, as I was running directly into a very strong wind, and the last few miles didn't so much represent actual running as it did simply surviving! The 5 milers were both really good, however, feeling both speedy and spry.

Weekend food was good as always - Dad's burgers on the grill one night, Mom's homemade lasagna another. Mom and I also went into town to have lunch as My Sister's Place, where I got an additional burger fix with the "Trail Center's Bull Moose" burger, and Mom had a veggie calzone (which I also got to try...yum!). Never any shortage of good chow when visiting the folks.

Good burgers at My Sister's Place



Easter Sunday was fun. It started with Sunday church service where I was recruited to sing in the church choir! They were a little short-handed with some of the usual folks being out of town, the choir is somewhat informal, and I can at least carry a tune, so it all worked out in the end. We capped the day off with and Easter ham dinner and my nephew's 1st birthday party, which was a blast - mainly for us. The little guy doesn't quite understand the whole premise of gift opening yet, but he will figure that out soon enough! We all enjoyed his delicious Easter-themed birthday cake, made by Grandma Susie.

A festive cake for a special birthday



Lots of good birds have started to arrive on the North Shore - golden-crowned kinglet, yellow-bellied sapsucker, eastern phoebe, northern flicker, Merlin, red-tailed hawk, and the turkey vulture were new arrivals while I was there. The Compton's tortoiseshell and mourning cloak butterflies have emerged from hibernation. Of course, the resident chickadees and nuthatches (a.k.a., "Dad's birds") were a treat, as always. And various plants are coming to life, such as the pretty little flowers on the hazelnut shrubs pictured above. It is enjoyable to see the gradual arrival of spring.

Mourning cloak butterfly from our Monday hike



A friendly chickadee enjoying a handout



Dad with a feathered friend



I had a couple specific birding highlight that were memorable learning experiences:

1. A male pileated woodpecker was busy excavating a hole in an old dead birch tree. We watched from afar with binoculars (so as not to disturb the nesting site) for more than an hour. The woodpecker was busy hammering away on the inside, occasionally sweeping out the debris. The damage he can impart in a short period of time is remarkable, and it looked as if he was using a broom as a large cloud of wood chips and sawdust would fly out of the hole. It was an amazing sight to see.

2. While walking in the woods on a quiet afternoon, I had the attention of a solitary red-breasted nuthatch who followed me around. He would take a seed from my hand, fly to a tree, and embed it in the crevasses of the bark (nuthatches will do this to store a cache of seeds for later - there must be thousands upon thousands of seeds in the sides of trees!). While I have seen this countless times before, what I had never noticed was a very fast and subtle move. Once the seed was packed into the bark, the nuthatch would quickly flake off a small piece of bark and pack it on top of the seed to effectively hide it from view. Clever little nuthatch. What fantastic camouflage!

With both birds, I was struck by their work ethic, creativity, and tireless efforts to build a nest or store food. They are constantly on the move and work so hard to make a life for themselves, and their perseverance and determination can only be admired. There truly are no deadbeats in the bird kingdom!

So that was the weekend in a long-winded nutshell. I returned to the Cities to find leaves popping out on the trees, even more new bird arrivals, and some wildflowers starting to bloom. More on that later!

Until next time,

Jean

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A belated Happy Easter!

Easter Dinner 2010



I just returned from an extended weekend in the North Country. Lots of fun with friends and family, a few runs (including an exceedingly difficult 16 miler), plenty of great food, an abundance of wildlife, and I even was recruited at the last minute to sing in the church choir at the Sunday Easter service!

More to come - just wanted to let you know I haven't disappeared!

To all who celebrate Easter, I hope you had a wonderful and memorable holiday weekend.

Jean

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