Monthly Archives: December 2007

Smart Appetizers in 20 Minutes or Less

GHK_ Appetizer Book 1 on Flickr - Photo Sharing!.jpg

In my family, holiday parties are always about the meat, which leaves this little vegetarian out in the bitter Chicago cold. This Christmas, I’m looking to the appetizers and side dishes to round out an appropriately filling holiday meal.

Mark Bittman of the Minimalist Kitchen and the No Knead Bread has just published a list of 101 simple appetizers that can be produced in 20 minutes or less. Lots are vegetarian, some vegan, and all of them are made with happy natural ingredients. Once again, the beauty of real food is that it’s quick and easy to prepare (no Velveeta cheese-balls here!).

Here are a few of my favorites:

On Bread or Crackers

7. Slice soft goat cheese and brush with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and chopped herbs, then with bread crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees until soft, about 10 minutes, and serve hot.

13. Chop fresh mushrooms. Cook slowly in olive oil with salt and pepper until very soft. Stir in minced garlic and parsley. Cook a few more minutes until garlic mellows. (Especially good if you add reconstituted dried porcini.)

18. Bruschetta is the basis for so many good things. Don’t make it too crisp, and start with good country bread. Brush thick slices with olive oil. Broil until toasted on both sides. While it’s still hot, rub with cut clove of garlic on one side (optional). Drizzle with a bit more olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and serve, or top with prosciutto or tapenade.

21. Top bruschetta with chopped, well-cooked broccoli rabe or other greens tossed with minced garlic and olive oil while still warm. Health food, practically. Also good with a layer of Tuscan beans (above).

On Toothpicks

38. Marinated mushrooms: Cut button mushrooms into chunks and toss with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Let rest five minutes. Spear two chunks with a piece of Parmesan about the same size.

Finger Foods

55. Stuff Medjool dates with a piece of Parmesan or Manchego or an almond. Or fresh goat cheese. Or mozzarella, and bake until the cheese begins to melt.

Dips and Spreads

75. Purée white or other beans (if canned, drain them) with garlic and olive oil in food processor, adding olive oil as needed. Stir in lemon juice to taste. Garnish with chopped scallions or red onion. You can add cumin or chopped rosemary with lemon zest.


98. Gazpacho: Chop 2 pounds of tomatoes and a cucumber; blend with a couple of slices of day-old bread, torn into pieces, olive oil, sherry vinegar, garlic (optional) and anchovies (optional). Add a little water (or more oil) to the blender, if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning, then serve in small cups. Optional garnishes include minced bell pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, a piece of anchovy, and/or parsley.


Want a bigger brain? Get a better body.

If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use.
– Charles Darwin

It’s somewhat reassuring to know that even Charles Darwin worried about his big brain going to mush. If only poetry and music were enough… however, research suggests that a fit body may be the most direct route to a fit mind.

Sandra Aamodt, editor of Nature Neuroscience, and Sam Wang, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, argue that physical exercise improves something called ‘executive function’, a cluster of decision-related capacities, such as attention, planning, and problem-solving.

Although executive function typically declines with advancing years, “elderly people who have been athletic all their lives have much better executive function than sedentary people of the same age,” Dr. Aamodt and Dr. Wang reported.

And not just because cognitively healthy people tend to be more active. When inactive people in their 70s get more exercise, executive function improves, an analysis of 18 studies showed. Just walking fast for 30 to 60 minutes several times a week can help. And compared with those who are sedentary, people who exercise regularly in midlife are one-third as likely to develop Alzheimer’s in their 70s. Even those who start exercising in their 60s cut their risk of dementia in half.


In Chicago for Christmas

We have snow!

Tim and I arrived in Chicago last night to lots and lots of snow! We want to spend some time outside in this winter wonderland, but are woefully unprepared in terms of shoes. No wonder people load on the pounds over Christmas – you need a whole separate wardrobe just to go for a walk outside!

Any advice? How do you stay active during the frigid winter months?

My year of swimming: gaining the confidence to try something new


One of the hardest things about exercise is gaining the confidence to start in the first place.

The swimming pool is my ocean of insecurity. I remember swimming all the time as a kid, but pretty much stopped after grammar school (possibly because I became more aware of what I looked like in a bathing suit!). The longer I went without getting into a pool, the more I became convinced that I couldn’t swim in the first place.

After years of procrastination, I finally started swimming again last January. Now I wonder how I ever lived without it.

What happened to get me started? A few things…

  • I hurt my ankleLong story short: I used to run regularly, then I injured my ankle. Yes, it sucks that I had to hurt myself to look for other forms of cardiovascular exercise, but that’s life!
  • I quit the gym – Another long story short: Without running, I turned to the gym for my exercise. But I eventually decided that the gym was an expensive way to not have very much fun.
  • I discovered London Fields Lido – The outdoor heated pool in the middle of rough and tumble Hackney is its own oasis.
  • Tim encouraged me – Support from friends and loved one is probably the best confidence booster their is. Tim suggested I start with the breast stroke, which gave me a bit of direction.
  • I bought a bathing suit and swimming goggles – Well I wasn’t about to swim in my undies.
  • I read about the basic strokes on the BBC website – It’s no substitute for swimming lessons, but it did give me an idea of what to do when I actually got into the pool.
  • I went swimming once – I didn’t commit myself to a long term swimming program. I started with one swim; if I didn’t like it, no one was forcing me to go back. But I did like it, and I did go back.
  • I looked at what other people were doing – When I was finally IN the pool, at the start of my very first lap EVER, I took a moment to survey the situation. The slow lane was a great place to get acquainted; there I found people of all types and abilities making their way across the pool and back again. Lots of people were clearly beginners. Others were hard core. But everyone seemed really happy to be there. So I plunged in and joined them!

This season, we often focus on all the things we want to change in the new year, but let’s not forget the things that went right THIS year. After all, the lessons we learn from success can help us to succeed in other areas.

Swimming is my most rewarding discovery of 2007. Yes, I’m fitter and stronger, but the best part is the fun in finding a new hobby. I’m not only learning how to swim, but also how to be confident and patient. My strategy from here is to use swimming as a template for finding confidence and patience in other areas of my life.

What about you? What’s your biggest success of 2007? How did you do it?

Photo courtesy of onionbagblogger on

Brits and Binge Drinking

Hoegaarden @ The Old Parr's Head

Tis the season to be merry.

Things have been a little quiet around here. Tim and I are preparing to fly to Chicago this Saturday for Christmas, so we’ve been packing in the Christmas parties.

Yesterday was my office’s Christmas lunch, a party that started early at an Italian restaurant and ended very late in a neighboring pub. This morning, back at work, many of my colleagues were nursing headaches and wondering how they got home the night before.

This is how the Brits do Christmas.

In fact, this is how the Brits do drinking in general. Same could be said for Americans, or so was my experience in college and graduate school.

Why is that?

This highly dugg article on MrCrip’s Blog is a short commentary on this subject. He contrasts the drinking culture in France vs Britain, claiming that the latter’s excessive approach to alcohol consumption is due to the way we introduce young people to alcohol.

In France (and many other countries) young people are taught to drink moderately and responsibly. They will routinely see their parents and other adults consume a glass of red wine or a glass of white wine with a meal. This would be a daily occurrence, setting an example of moderation which is then followed by young people as they grow into adulthood.

This responsible approach to alcohol consumption contrasts sharply with the British way of teaching our young people about alcohol. Youngsters will, typically, be restrained from any amount of alcohol consumption until they are eighteen. They will have witnessed their parents, older siblings and other influential adults always looking forward to the next big night out when they will get ‘rat-arsed’, become belligerent and argumentative, spend the following day nursing a hangover from hell and then talk about what a great night they had, even though they can’t remember much about it.

MrCrip isn’t telling us anything new, but it’s interesting food for thought for a season that’s marked by excessive consumption of food, drink and headache pills. The cause of binge drinking might be obvious, but the solution is less so. While I didn’t get totally shit-faced last night, I did do my fair share of drinking, and I confess that I found it an effort to moderate myself throughout the day. So is it possible to turn an excessive habit into a pleasantly moderate one while still enjoying the activity to its fullest?


How to Make Your Own Cookbook

Sorry, folks, this one isn’t free, but it sure is pretty…


TasteBook is a website that lets you turn your own recipes into a hardcover binder-type cookbook. These ain’t your momma’s index cards – Tastebook is an example of just how awesomely cool self-publishing has become. You can collaborate with friends and family on books, add photos, customize the layout, and nab recipes from if you don’t have any recipes of your own.

I haven’t made a TasteBook yet but I’m tempted… right now all my recipes are in an ugly 3-ring binder. Heidi from 101 Cookbooks has more details… let’s just say, she’s impressed:

I was lucky to see a sneak peek of an early version of TasteBook months ago – nearly falling out of my chair when I saw how nice these custom books turned out. I remember thinking, wow, these guys are serious. The physical object I was holding in my hands combined lovely design sensibility with great production quality and a level of customization that I didn’t think was possible. Well, maybe I though it was possible, but certainly not probable.


Link (via 101 Cookbooks)

Best tip of the year: “Start Now”

You know all that stuff about No Years Resolutions?

This is the stuff I’m talking about!

J.D. Roth just posted a very brave decision on Get Fit Slowly: he’s starting now.

A little backstory – J.D. writes for Get Rich Slowly, a blog about slow but sure paths to financial stability. He’s applying the same philosophy to his health.

For my part, I went to bed early last night. That doesn’t happen very often. I’m usually up until midnight or one o’clock writing. (I get up at 5:30 no matter what.) When I woke up this morning, I went for a walk. I grabbed a couple oranges and my iPod and headed out the door. It was a leisurely two-mile stroll through the neighborhood and not a brisk affair, but it was a walk.

What can I say? The post moved me. As did the user comment which prompted J.D. to get started:

With regard to when you should start your fitness program — you should start now. You should start today. You know that though. Would you advise someone who was racking up credit card debt and not dealing with the problem to wait until next year to do something about it? Even if you only lose a pound or two between now and January you’ll be further along than if you hadn’t started.


Use your brain to push your body


René Descartes’ illustration of mind/body dualism.

I’ve been doing a lot of day dreaming lately, especially in the pool. If I catch myself looking at the clock, I fix my gaze on the stripe at the bottom of the pool, and count my strokes. Even though I have my attention fixed on something else, this somehow has the effect of keeping me in the moment.

Psychologists give this state of mental separation a name: dissociation. Athletes use it all the time to push their physical boundaries. From last Thursday’s New York Times:

The first thing to know, said Dr. Benjamin Levine, an exercise researcher and a cardiology professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, is that no one really knows what limits human performance. There’s the ability of the heart to pump blood to the muscles, there’s the ability of the muscles to contract and respond, there’s the question of muscle fuel, and then, of course, there is the mind.

“How does the brain interact with the skeletal muscles and the circulation?” Dr. Levine said. “How much of this is voluntary and how much is involuntary? We just don’t know.”

But since most people can do better, no matter how good their performance, the challenge is to find a safe way to push a little harder. Many ordinary athletes, as well as elites, use a technique known as dissociation.

Dr. Morgan was inspired by Tibetan monks who ran 300 miles in 30 hours by fixating on a distant object (like a tranquil mountain) and breathing in time with their movement. He tested this technique on a sample of runners against a control group and showed that the runner’s who used the monks’ strategy has a statistically significant increase in endurance.

The lesson is: dissociation works for elite athletes who want to push themselves to their maximum physical capacity. But what about us normal folks? Aren’t we the ones who really need the Jedi mind tricks to get ourselves off the couch and onto the track/pool/treadmill/whatever?

A little searching reveals this article which covers TWO (count em’, TWO) mental techniques, association and dissociation. Unlike dissociation, association involves focusing on bodily sensations such as breathing and monitoring any changes that occur. Both can help you relax and enjoy exercise.

Dissociation Techniques

  1. Music – This can generate positive thoughts, improve your mood and distract you from the physical demands of your sport.
  2. Counting game – Count the number of blue cars you see, or the number of dogs of post boxes. Be inventive.
  3. Alphabet game – Work through from A to Z for a chosen category, such as women’s names or countries.
  4. Rainbow game – Try to notice as many colours as possible while you work out: aim for all the colours of the rainbow.
  5. Active fantasy – Imagine yourself as a lottery winner and decide how to spend your winnings.

Association Techniques

  1. Focus on your breathing: controlled, relatively deep rhythmic breathing is the key to relaxation. When you breathe out, try to imagine the tension leaving your body;
  2. Try to remain relaxed while running (or cycling or swimming), but be aware of tension and fatigue in your muscles. It’s often a good idea to start from the head and work down, giving each area or group of muscles your attention. If you notice tension, try to focus on a cue word, such as ‘relax’ or ‘easy’ and try to let the tension flow out of the muscles;
  3. Keep your pace in line with the information you gain from body monitoring. You might, for example, increase the pace if you feel very positive.

Link to Association / Dissociation article
Link to New York Times article (via