Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Weekend in photos

The weather for this Memorial Day weekend was atrocious.  Storms, heavy rain, high heat and humidity - not fun.

Thankfully, Monday was rather pleasant, and it was a nice day to be outside.  Had a good run in the morning where I counted 36 baby geese at the lake.  Then I went for a nice hike at Elm Creek Park Reserve.

Lots of activity at Elm Creek.  The sedge wrens and common yellowthroats were chattering out of control.  And they are almost impossible to see because they skulk around in the tall grasses!  I saw a couple of American white pelicans, yellow warblers, Eastern kingbirds, and goldfinches.  Heard, but not seen, were the great-crested flycatchers and the eastern wood-pewees.  Also saw a mama deer.

The highlight was seeing a baby red-winged blackbird that had just fledged (pictured below).  The little guy was in a tree right along the edge of the trail.  He didn't move at all, so I snapped a couple of quick pictures.  I had to move quickly because mama blackbird was dive bombing me, none too pleased with my presence!

I think this is the year of the butterfly.  They are in great abundance this spring.  I saw two new ones on Monday - a Common Buckeye and a Question Mark.  Very cool insects, and they both made me work very hard to capture photographs so I could ID them later.

Finally, FEAR THE TURTLE! :)  The trails are undergoing a turtle invasion.  I encountered two enormous snapping turtles on the trails, both looking for places to lay their eggs.  I also chased a painted turtle off the bike path, so they are on the move as well.  (I did not attempt to chase the snapping turtles - those dudes are on their own!)   

Here are a few pictures from Memorial Day weekend:

Elm Creek Park Reserve, looking rather lovely

Common Buckeye butterfly

"None shall pass!"  Snapping turtle blocking the trail.


Wild Rose in bloom.  These are three weeks early compared to last year.

Question Mark butterfly

A baby red-winged blackbird.  What a cute little guy! 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #12: Off the Eaten Path

The Cookbook Challenge returns after a brief hiatus due to a pesky marathon one weekend, and another weekend up north on vacation.  I'm back, baby!  And this time, we're going to cook something surreal from the pages of Off the Eaten Path by Bob Blumer.

The Surreal Gourmet rides again!
Bob Blumer is known in culinary circles as "The Surreal Gourmet."  In the past he has hosted a couple of different shows on the Food Network and is perhaps best known for cooking via unconventional methods (examples: poaching a fish in a dishwasher, cooking using a hot car engine), or turning food into art using some presentation methods that are...well, surreal. 

Off the Eaten Path is Blumer's third book, published in 2000.  It features creative special occasion dinners, movie-themed suppers, some "surreal" recipes that look like foods that are different than what they really are, as well as some extreme recipes (such as the dishwasher and engine cooking methods mentioned previously).  The recipes are clever, and the book is filled with Blumer's whimsical art.  If there is such thing as a "fun" cookbook that just begs you to have a good time, this is it.   

The dish I made was his Pepper-Crusted Maple-Glazed Salmon.  What you have here are salmon fillets marinated in a mixture of maple syrup and soy sauce, crusted with cracked pepper, and roasted in a hot oven.  Blumer serves it on top of a puddle of creamed corn spiked with a little chipotle pepper, so I did that as well.    

This salmon recipe violates nearly every rule you are told about marinating fish.  Most recipes call for a very brief soaking time.  Blumer has you marinate the salmon for 24 hours (and up to 48!).

However, something magical occurs because of this.  The marination has an effect of almost curing the fish, resulting in a sort of "candied" fillet of salmon roasting.  It is super tasty.  I used to make this a lot, but the recipe fell out of my rotation, so I decided to revisit my old friend for the purposes of this challenge.

The exterior of the roasted salmon is much firmer than it would have been had it not been marinated, and it gets this lacquered coating due to the sweet marinade.  But the interior remains unbelievably moist and perfectly cooked due to the quick, high heat roasingt.  Not only does the pepper crust add some crunch; it also serves to cut some of that sweetness.   Truly yummy stuff.  The spicy, smoky creamed corn sauce is a nice compliment as well.

The Surreal Gourmet's Pepper-Crusted Maple-Glazed Salmon
It is incredibly easy to make, too.  Hardly any prep work is involved, and it cooks in a mere 7 minutes in the oven.  This would work well for a quick weeknight dinner, or even a dinner party.

While the recipe itself is really, really good, if you feel like jazzing it up, I have a few tricks that I have done in the past.  All of these ingredients provide some additional foils to balance out the sweetness with some tangy, spicy, and smoky elements.  Being an adventurous cook myself, I hope Blumer won't mind!  Try these suggestions if you like:

1.  You can add small amounts of Dijon mustard, balsamic or sherry vinegar, and chipotle pepper sauce to the marinade. 

2.  Instead of cracked black pepper, try dusting the salmon with ancho chile powder.  You lose some of the crunch, but the ancho smells and tastes so good with the maple glaze. Mmmmm! 

As I noted earlier, Off the Eaten Path is just plain fun, and it makes me smile whenever I page through it.  The book inspires you to play with your food, and it shares some great ideas for party themes, creative presentations, and some downright zany preparation methods.  Don't know that I will be cooking Blumer's lemongrass shrimp on my engine block any time soon, but I am glad to know it is possible. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Actual running content, and Memorial Day wishes

It has been almost two weeks since the Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon, and I feel really great.  As discussed, it wasn't my fastest marathon, and I wasn't going all out for a personal best or anything.  But aside from some minor stiffness for a couple of days after, I feel like my old self.

Running has been good, and even put in a nice 10 miler on some trails and dirt roads last weekend when visiting the folks.

Now I am in a weird place where I actually have no races on my calendar.  That will change soon, as I will be picking out some events to do this summer and fall.  Time to set some new goals and plan some new adventures!

With the holiday weekend approaching, I am looking forward to spending some time at home while others battle their way north to vacation and fishing destinations (and given the road construction I witnessed on my trip last weekend, that will be no easy task). 

Safe travels to all who are going somewhere, and let's also not fail to remember what Memorial Day weekend is really about.  May God bless all those who served and sacrificed more than I can ever imagine.

My great uncle Albert (right), WWI veteran who never made it home.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Weekend up North

Sorry for the blog break!  My marathon weekend flowed into a busy week, which involved a trip up north to visit Mom and Dad.

I had a really nice long weekend on the North Shore.  I got in a few good runs, did some hiking, ate some really good food, and took in the sights.

It looks like summer here in the Twin Cities, but spring is really just getting started up north.  Leaves are popping, flowers are blooming, and birds are arriving.

The butterflies are out of control.  Monarchs arrived in droves while I was there.  Mom and Dad insist they have never seen so many.  There were also plenty of American Ladies, Mourning Cloaks, and Red Admirals.

As for birds, I saw some warblers (chestnut-sided, Myrtle, black-throated green, Parula, American redstart, Blackburnian, and heard plenty of the ovenbird), a blue-headed vireo, white-throated sparrows, Merlins, and broad-winged hawks, to name a few.

I don't have too much to say other than it was a wonderful weekend, and Minnesota is a beautiful place.  A few photos in lieu of more words:

Clematis vine (Purple Virgin's Bower) in full bloom

Moose maple leaves starting to pop out

Lunar moth

Yours truly on a hike, Lake Superior in the background

Fresh herring fish & chips at the Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon

This past weekend I ran the Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon in St. Joseph, MN.  This is now the first marathon I have done twice, having run this race in 2010.   

One of my local running buddies who I met through Twitter, Mark, also signed up for the race, so we carpooled up there together bright and early on Saturday morning. (Actually, does a 4:15 AM departure time qualify as "bright and early?"  Wouldn't "dark and early" be more appropriate?!?)

The race takes place on the Lake Wobegon Trail, a railroad bed converted to a bike trail.  It runs from Holdingford to St. Joseph, passing through the towns of Albany and Avon along the way.  The "Lake Wobegon" name is, of course, the fictional town popularized by Garrison Keillor's, "A Prairie Home Companion," which is based on some small towns in this region of the state.

It was, by and large, a really nice day for a race.  Temperatures were in the 40's at the start, so it was cool to begin.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky, which would have an effect later, but it was hard to complain about the temperature too much.

The scenery is spectacular - woods, farms, vast fields, lakes, and quaint small towns - very beautiful.  And since it was an early spring this year, all of the trees were green and lush.  We were serenaded by frogs and birds the whole way (from my recollection, I heard red-bellied woodpeckers, pheasants, American redstarts, gray catbirds, common yellowthroats, sedge wrens, a loon, and an ovenbird chirping at mile 21!).

Mark and I had similar pace goals, and we actually ran together for the first 18 miles until we became separated.  It was very enjoyable chatting during the race, and we had a good conversation.  Topics included high school sports, past races, the TV show "Arrested Development," our fellow "#MNRunnerds" running buddies, the joys of home ownership, along with the challenges surrounding the short sale process.  We covered a wide range of subjects!  It really seemed to make the miles pass quickly.

My race was steady and consistent.  I just kept plugging away and picking off the miles.  The day did get somewhat warm over the closing miles, so that was a factor.  It wasn't particularly hot, but all sun and no clouds made it feel a little warm.  Never really hit a wall or anything, but by mile 22 or so I was getting anxious for the finish line!

I crossed in 4:14:18.  Not my fastest marathon, but given the kind of day, it was comparable to the weather I had at the Fox Cities Marathon in 2008 where I ran a similar time.  Overall, I was pleased with how things went, and I have felt really good in the days following the race.

A few photos:

A shot of me crossing the finish line - photo courtesy of Tony Peroutky Photography

Mark and me after the finish, making the #MNRunnerds proud!
The very nice medal and finisher shirt
After I finished and got myself some water, I headed back to the finish line to watch and cheer on the other runners coming in.  There was an announcer calling out people's names as they crossed, and he took time to acknowledge the first-time finishers, which was very cool.  The marathon finish covers a wide range of emotions, from pain and agony, to tears, to the biggest smiles.  It is quite a remarkable and moving thing to see.

The St. Cloud River Runners do an amazing job with this race.  They gave us a rather sweet looking medal, a long sleeved tech shirt, AND a really nice garment bag with the race logo.  And the entry fee was only $45!  In an age where there are local races charging $60 to $90 for a half marathon, this is an absolutely bargain.  I don't know how they do it.  Bravo to the race director and her crew!  An incredible job all around.

Additionally, the volunteers and the roving band of spectators you would see time and time again at various trail intersections were nothing short of fantastic.  They were cheering wildly for everyone and ringing cowbells.  It was like a moving party you got to see every couple of miles!  Great stuff, and thanks to everyone for helping out.

So, another marathon is in the books.  There were no Garrison Keillor sightings en route, but I had a great time, enjoyed myself immensely, and would gladly do this race again.  And it seems only fitting to close this out the way I did with my 2010 race report...

"And that's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and the local marathons are way above average."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Finished!

The Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon is done! 

The Hardware
A gorgeous day, and a great race.  Got a little warm at the finish, but I managed to bring it home in 4:14:18.  And I feel good afterwards, so it was a successful endeavor.

More later! :)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The geese have landed

These little guys showed up this week:

Baby Canada geese with the parents
The little geese have hatched!  They are so cute, but the parents get even more surly than normal with the little ones around.  While I was taking the picture, the guy on the left kept lowering his head and charging towards me, hissing and stomping his webbed feet.  I kept my distance so as not to get assaulted.  In any case, it is always fun to see baby birds.

I had a decent 15 mile run this morning.  Overcast, slightly misty, but cool, so it was a great day to run.  Saw (and heard) some new birds as well.  The common yellowthroats arrived today in droves.  They were everywhere along the swampy trails.  I also heard my first gray catbird of the year, so I am happy they are back.  Other sightings include wood ducks, white-throated sparrows, Myrtle warbler, the rather loquacious sedge wrens, and the green heron (a favorite waterbird of mine who showed up yesterday).

I feel fortunate to see any of these birds, because our early spring has created quite a canopy of leaves.  Everything is lush, green, and looks like mid June.  It's getting very hard to spot anything!  The picture below gives a pretty good example of that.  The leaves on the trail were part of a leaf/mudslide brought about by some heavy downpours this week.  I am amazed how things look right now. 

Green trails after a storm
Today was the last "long" run before the Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon next week.  (Excuse me while I use Twitter-speak for a second) My buddy @marqualler of the #MNRunnerds is running as well, so we are carpooling up there together.  I am excited for the marathon, and I think it should be a fun race.  I recently realized this is my first "repeat" marathon (did this once before in 2010), so it will be neat to do it again.  The hard work has been done, so my job this week is to rest up, eat well, and enjoy the experience on Saturday.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #11: Salsa

Just in time for Cinco de Mayo, this Cookbook Challenge takes us south of the border with Salsa by Reed Hearon.

An encyclopedia of salsa!
I bought this book nearly twenty years ago, and it has become my go-to book for salsa preparation.  Salsa contains a fantastic glossary featuring different chilies and other common ingredients, descriptions of the techniques used to make the salsas, and divides the chapters by fiery, mild, modern, and even dessert salsa.

Back in the day, it wasn't so easy to find things like guajillo and cascabel chiles (at least it wasn't in frigid Minnesota).  Occasionally I found myself mail ordering for the ingredients to make these recipes!  Thankfully, times have changed, and most ingredients are now easily found at better grocery stores.

Having made nearly everything in the book, I thought I would revisit an old favorite for this challenge.  The recipe I went with was the Chipotle Tomatillo Salsa (recipe found online here).

Tomatillos are a fruit that looks like a green tomato in a paper husk.  They are tart and have a bright, almost citrus flavor.  The recipe also calls for chipotle chilies, the dried, smoked jalapeno.  Chipotles can be found two ways - canned and reconstituted in a spicy adobo sauce, or just plain 'ol dried, as we are using here.

Fabulous dried chipotle chilies from Mariposa Farms
The key to the salsa is that you take a dry skillet and pan-roast the ingredients over medium heat.  This adds a complexity and depth of flavor that would be absent if this step is skipped.

The chipotles get toasted in the skillet for a minute or so, just to wake up the favor, before removing the seeds and soaking in hot water to soften.  Then the tomatillos, thickly sliced onion, and whole, unpeeled cloves of garlic are roasted until blackened, blistered, and slightly soft (the recipe in the link above doesn't mention pan-roasting the onion and garlic, but you should).  Then everything, including the chipotle soaking water, gets tossed in a blender and is processed until you have a slightly textured liquid.

Tangy and smoky
The salsa is tangy, tart, fiery, and smoky, with a really nice roasted flavor because we took the time to pan-roast the tomatillos, onion, and garlic.  Cilantro adds a nice freshness.  This is a pretty hot salsa, but it is oh, so good!  Hearon suggests that this is one of the most versatile salsas in his book.  Delicious with chips, and I've also used this as a condiment for breakfast burritos, tacos, and enchiladas. 
  
A fun book with many delicious recipes that I can personally recommend.  I reference this often, and will continue to do so.  If you like spicy food and can get your hands on a copy, Salsa makes a nice addition to any cookbook library. 

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