Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Summer, summer, summer...

We've had a couple of really nice days here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.  Sunny, somewhat breezy, with temperatures in the upper 70's.  Lower humidity too, so that has made for some relatively comfortable running.  I will enjoy it while I can - temps are slated to climb back into the 90's later this week with some sticky weather promised.

Taking advantage of the beautiful summer weather
Haven't talked a lot about races lately, but I have one coming up.  On the 4th, I am running in the Tofte Trek on the North Shore.  This will be my third time running the race, but my first time since 2006.  It is a hilly and fun little 10K on some winding trails in the Superior National Forest. 

The race also has a reputation for being muddy.  When I ran it in 2006, the summer was fairly dry.  However, the North Shore has received several inches of rain in recent weeks, so I am anticipating a mud fest this time around.  No specific goals in mind, just looking forward to celebrating the birth of our nation by getting dirty with some crazy trail runners!  Should be great fun.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Busy week and some sausage

Yet another crazy week is in the books. It was a crazy week weather wise, too. We had some unseasonably cold and damp days where the high temperature hit all of 61 degrees on Thursday (so, 52 degrees colder than the high on June 7th!). Granted, runners appreciate this sort of thing, as cooler temperatures are greatly enjoyed. But wow, was it gloomy and overcast for several of those days. Felt more like April than June.

Temperatures have warmed slightly since then, but it is still cooler than a typical June.  This morning I enjoyed a 13 mile run in the mid 60's.  Nice morning.  Red-winged blackbird babies have emerged (I saw some adults feeding the youngsters), and the males have been busy defending their areas.  I was "dive bombed" several times!  I heard the chattering of the sedge wrens for the first time all summer.  And all of the summer flowers are out in full force.  Daisies are everywhere along the trails, and I also just noticed the lesser daisy fleabane is out.  Very pretty in Minnesota right now.  And I even had to share the trail with some of the local wildlife.

Mama deer enjoying the trail during my Saturday run
Perhaps you are sick of the ongoing pizza discussion, but I made another good one this week. This pizza had fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggianio, a sprinkling of chives, and my homemade spicy Italian sausage.

A delicious pizza for sure, but the sausage was the star of the show. I made a batch this weekend using my recipe, the only difference being that I didn't have fresh thyme and didn't want to run out and get some just for this. So I substituted 1 tsp. of fresh rosemary for the 1 T. of fresh thyme (used a little less since rosemary is fairly strong). Really, you could go with either or a combination of both, no big deal.

Sourdough pizza with homemade Italian sausage.  Mama mia!

The sausage was delicious, well-seasoned, quite spicy (a very potent and fresh batch of crushed red pepper!), and also fairly lean. I don't add extra fat when I make bulk sausage like this (although you would want to if stuffing into casings). It browns up nicely, and there is not a ton of greasy fat that is rendered out.  It is really good in a red sauce for pasta, it makes a great addition to meatballs mixed with some ground beef, and without question it is a fantastic pizza topping.  Happy to have a couple pounds of this in my freezer for future cooking endeavors!

In fact, starting late last year I made a series of these "Jean Cooks" videos that I shared with friends on Facebook, mainly to kill time during our suck fest of a winter.  Seemed like I was snowed in just about every weekend, so it gave me something to do (and, I had to cook dinner anyhow).  I had almost forgotten that I filmed a video about this recipe for Italian sausage, so it seems appropriate to share it here.  It is incredibly low budget with terrible production values, and I make no apologies for my footware.  That being said, enjoy!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Chicken Salad with a twist

Long time readers might remember that I only recently have started to overcome my aversion to mayonnaise-based "salads" (chicken salad, egg salad, etc.).

Saturday I made some fantastic chicken salad.  Last month I found this recipe for a rosemary chicken salad with smoked almonds on an awesome local food blog that looked too intriguing not to try.   I had some leftover roasted chicken, so I whipped up a batch for sandwiches.

I followed the recipe quite closely, and it was delightful.  Freshness from the rosemary and green onions, lightness from cutting the mayo with yogurt, and a nice crunch from the chopped smoked almonds, not to mention the smoky flavor (loved the smoked almonds here - a unique additional, and an interesting and tasty twist).  Awesome!

Chicken salad for the soul
An absolutely delicious recipe. It made for an excellent sandwich with some spring greens and a slice of tomato.  Yum!

Hey, these mayonnaise-based salads aren't too bad... ;-)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Couple of pizzas

This week felt as if it was ten days long. A couple of really long days at the office, and there were a couple of days I went running at 4:30 in the morning to account for my schedule (actually, those runs were really nice - quite cool, surprisingly light outside, and it was just me, the bunnies, and the robins along the path!). In any case, I am happy the weekend is here.

Despite my hectic week, I did manage to make a couple of nice pizzas for my weeknight dinners.

I typically make a batch of dough on Sunday, keep it in the fridge, and it accounts for two meals over the course of the week. The dough keeps really well for five or six days (the flavor improves as well with the long, slow, cold fermentation).  Even on those long days, it is easy to pat out some dough, throw on a few toppings, and I can have a pizza for dinner in no time.

Here are the pizzas I made this week.  This one is basically a classic Margherita with tomato sauce, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella, but I sullied it with the addition of some good Boar's Head pepperoni!

An adulterated Margherita - don't tell the Italians!
This pizza was topped with pepperoni, Cantimpalo chorizo, artichoke hearts, and fresh basil, with fresh mozzarella and Grana Padano.  Really loved the flavors of this one.  Hard to go wrong with artichoke hearts as a topping.

Artichoke hearts on pizza = awesome!
You generally don't think of homemade pizza being a convenience food, but in this case, it truly is! Nice to have this dough on hand for a relatively quick and easy meal on those long days.

Which reminds me, I need to feed my starter tonight!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bird sightings and stir-fry

Had some interesting bird sightings over the last few days:

Friday, while running along the trail in my neighborhood, I encountered a northern bobwhite. Nearly stepped on him, as a matter of fact. This little quail strutted out of the tall grasses right in front of me, and I actually had to stop. He never flew and just marched on down the bike path, clucking at me. I was stunned to see this bird. Southern MN is the northern edge of the bobwhite's range. However, I believe their populations are highly localized, and it has been decades since I have seen one in this state. It was especially strange to see one here, as I was in a small park surrounded by subdivisions. I have through this same spot for nearly four years, and I have never seen them out here before, so I have no idea how he got here. In any case, very cool to see the bobwhite!

Saturday on my long run I stumbled upon a mama wild turkey and at least ten baby turkeys along a trail in the creek bottoms. The little guys were really little, perhaps no more than a foot tall. It was quite a spectacle watching them try to keep up with mom. I had my camera and tried to take some pictures, but none turned out. It was far too dark in the forest at that time of morning. Still, quite fun to see the short turkeys. For those keeping score at home, it was a 14 mile run and I saw 11 turkeys - that gives us a .78 TPM ratio (Turkeys Per Mile!).

Since I did not get a good turkey photo, please enjoy this one of me on my Saturday run! :)



Sunday I took a hike up at Elm Creek. Floating around in the cove of a lake was a family of trumpeter swans. Eight fuzzy babies were tagging along with the parents as they feasted on various aquatic grasses. The babies were adorable and looked like little Aflac ducks! I got to watch them at close range for more than 20 minutes before they paddled back out into the lake. An absolute treat. I was able to snap a few low quality pictures, but at least you can see the whole crew here.

Seven swans a swimming? No, make that ten swans!



Dinner last night was a good one - a spicy pork and green bean stir-fry. The recipe was very loosely based on this one from Bon Appetit, although there were some significant variations that I have documented below. The main differences are that I used sliced pork tenderloin instead of ground pork, and green beans instead of asparagus. Other additions included garlic, red bell pepper, and cashews, along with adjustments to sauce mixture. Turned out really nice. The sauce thickened up beautifully and created a flavorful and spicy glaze to the tender pork and still slightly crisp veggies.  Delicious!

Spicy Pork and Green Bean Stir-Fry
-adapted heavily from Bon Appetit



Pork:
-1 lb. pork tenderloin, sliced into thin strips
-1 red jalapeno or Fresno chile, minced with seeds
-4 cloves garlic, finely minced
-1 T. fresh ginger, grated
-1 T. soy sauce
-1/2 t. sesame oil

Sauce:
-3 T. soy sauce
-3 T. white wine
-2 T. oyster sauce
-1 T. chile garlic sauce
-2 t. honey
-2 t. cornstarch

Veggies and Garnish:
-2 T. cooking oil, divided
-8 oz. green beans, trimmed, blanched, and shocked in an ice bath
-1/2 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
-4 scallions, thinly sliced
-2/3 c. roasted cashews
-Cooked white rice for serving

Combine the pork, chile pepper, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and sesame oil in bowl and stir well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, up to a couple of hours.

Combine all the sauce ingredients, stirring well to dissolve the cornstarch. Set aside.

When ready to cook, add half the oil to a wok over medium high heat. Stir-fry the pork until almost cooked through (if necessary, do this in batches so as not to crowd the wok). Transfer to a bowl.

Add the remaining oil to the wok and add the green beans and red bell pepper. Stir-fry for a couple of minutes. Return the pork to the wok and add the sauce. Stir for a couple minutes more until the meat is cooked through and the sauce is thick and bubbly.

Remove from the heat and add the scallions and cashews.

Serve with white rice and enjoy! Makes about 4 servings.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sizzling!

On Monday we had a freakishly warm high of 96 degrees in my neighborhood. I actually went running that afternoon, a run which was not fast and probably not smart, either. It was HOT! I took it really, really easy and trudged my way through the heat and humidity, all the while watching Monarch butterflies spontaneously combust over the meadow. (Kidding about the last part, but it seemed plausible)

Tuesday was to bring more of the same weather, so I put in my 5 miles bright and early at 4:45 AM. At that time, it was still 75 degrees - a little humid, but not all that unpleasant. Several other runners had the same idea. I actually encountered five different people running at this hour! Clearly, I chose wisely and it ended up being the right decision. This is what happened later in the day:

"Me mind on fire, me soul on fire,
Feeling hot, hot, hot!"




That's right, we achieved a new record high temperature in the Twin Cities for this date - 103 degrees! Wow! I was really glad I ran early. Although, I think I was sweating through my khakis just as badly on the drive home as I did on my early run, even with the air conditioning on! You can read several fun facts about Tuesday's warmth on the local National Weather Circus website.

(As an aside, I am really hoping this doesn't turn into one of "those" summers - we just finished enduring one of "those" winters!)

Today I also ran early at 4:45 AM because of a late meeting. The heat had pretty much blown out of here, so the run was done at a comfortable 70 degrees, which felt almost chilly compared to yesterday! Amazing how light it is at that time of day at this time of year. A really pleasant run. Even saw a flock of cedar waxwings pilfering berries off of trees at a local school, and chased a baby bunny off the trail. Nice day. Better than the last two, anyhow.

Here is Tuesday night's dinner (because nothing is better than firing up the oven when it is 103 degrees outside!) - sourdough pizza with the classic Margherita toppings of tomato, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, and olive oil.

Homemade Sourdough Pizza Margherita



This would certainly not pass the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana's stringent authenticity standards (yes, there are rules), so it was not a "true" Margherita. A few of my violations included the use of my homemade sourdough for the crust, not using buffalo mozzarella, no traditional San Marzano tomatoes were involved in the making of this pizza, and I did brazenly sprinkle a little grated Grana Padano cheese on there as well (shhhh...don't tell!). No wood fire oven, either. But what can I say? It was a Margherita in spirit, and it was still an excellent pizza! So simple, so fresh, and downright delicious. (And leftover slices made for a fantastic breakfast this morning, too.)

Best of all, the air conditioning managed to hold the outside heat at bay whilst I was baking!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Sunday I made my best spaghetti alla carbonara to date. It turned out fantastic!

I followed a recipe from the beautiful bell' alimento blog for a dish called "Spaghetti al Moro" - the author's interpretation of a carbonara with a slightly spicy twist involving the addition of some crushed red pepper. I love crushed red pepper. Works for me!

The principles are exactly the same - cook the guanciale or pancetta, add the cooked spaghetti, then toss everything in a large bowl with mixture of eggs and Pecorino cheese. The heat from the spaghetti gently cooks the eggs and melts the cheese. Adding a little pasta cooking water while tossing the mixture helps to thin the sauce, forming a luxurious coating on the spaghetti.

My variations included using some good local bacon instead of the guanciale, and adding a couple of cloves of finely minced garlic to the bacon right towards the end of its cooking, just before the pasta was added. To the egg and cheese mixture I also included some minced Italian parsley for color and freshness, along several healthy grinds of black pepper. But that was it. Otherwise, I followed the recipe and its amounts exactly.

The dish is quite simple and quick to prepare, but the execution can be tricky. In the past, I have had some challenges with the egg mixture curdling slightly while tossing the pasta (too slow on the tossing, and not enough pasta cooking water to thin it out!). But this time I nailed it. The sauce turned into this silky, smooth, glossy coating on the spaghetti. It came together so nicely.

Carbonara success!



And it tasted awesome! I mean, what is not to like about spaghetti with crispy bits of bacon in an egg and cheese sauce, with a little extra zip from some crushed red pepper? This will become a regular in the menu rotation, especially on those days when I don't want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Marvelous!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Interesting runs on a holiday weekend at home

Memorial Day weekend is always the unofficial start of summer, and that seems especially true in Minnesota. Friday afternoon I observed the mass exodus of Twin Cities residents heading north with boats, trailers, and campers in tow.

I was really glad I didn't have to go anywhere. Having taken my vacation earlier this month, it was nice not to have to battle traffic.

Saturday morning was particularly beautiful - a comfortable 54 degrees, abundant sunshine, and lots of birds singing. Great wildlife today - I saw and heard great-crested flycatchers, yellow warblers, gray catbirds, brown thrasher, ring-necked pheasant, common yellowthroats, the green heron, a cottontail rabbit (bunnies!), and a whitetail buck with velvet antlers.

Also, the red-winged blackbirds have started to get rather territorial. Lots of posturing, the males displaying their brilliant red epaulets, and I had my first encounter with one attempting to "dive-bomb" me on the trail! I always love this. Feisty little birds.

I ended up running 14 miles instead of my planned 12 thanks to a trail along the creek bottoms that was flooded out. The flooding was in the middle of nowhere, so I ended up backtracking quite a bit! No worries, though. As noted, it was a nice morning.

Sunday was a day off from running, but I did go hiking at my local park. But Monday morning's run was rather interesting as well. Some storms had rumbled through around 4 AM. It was quite overcast and humid, but cooler in the low 60's, when I woke up to go running. There was another wave of storms to the west. Looked like I had plenty of time, however.

The first adventurous moment occurred about a mile into my run. I rounded a corner by the pond and came face to face with papa Canada goose. Mama and the babies were right behind him. Normally I just make a wide swing around these guys because the geese are ornery this time of year. But this section of the trail was really narrow, and papa was right in the middle of it.

With loud hissing sounds and webbed feet rapidly slapping the pavement, the goose charged me! I decided to turn around rather than attempt to sneak by, and I am certain it was the right move. I don't want to be the guy who ends up on the news because he got his ass kicked by a goose.

To keep things even more interesting, the weather took a turn. As I rounded the lake, I heard a clap of thunder. And the skies to the west started to darken rapidly. Whoops! My leisurely Monday run turned into an impromptu speed workout as I hightailed it for home.

With a mile to go, I was absolutely engulfed by dark clouds and wind. It was unbelievable how dark it was. A couple flashes of lightning off in the distance, another clap of thunder - but no rain with these black clouds! So strange. The dark clouds of the leading edge passed, and about a block from my place, some big raindrops started to fall. I ducked inside just in time as this small storm system clipped my neighborhood. What a workout!

In any case, I had a nice weekend. Here are a few images:

The maple leaves are huge right now



Calm lake at Elm Creek



Hiking at Elm Creek

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