Monthly Archives: March 2010

Spa Day and Spring Cleaning

River Avon and Pulteney Bridge

I feel pretty lucky these days. Freelancing is treating me well, thanks largely to a client in London who gives me enough work to keep me afloat. Better still, I like the job and I like the company. Its a small firm with a start-up vibe and the people who work there are totally jazzed about what they do. They’re also the kind of people who would rather have a company “away day” at a spa rather than at some bullsh!t team-building boot camp.

So that’s how I came to find myself at the Thermae Bath Spa yesterday. I’ve never been to a spa before, and I was sort of expecting to spend the day in a robe getting massages and cucumber facials while handsome men in white served me carrot juice and warm towels. In retrospect, it seems obvious now that the Thermae Bath Spa, located in a city famous for its mineral springs and Roman baths, is very focused on the, well, spa aspect of the whole thing: pools, baths and steam rooms are the main event. And I’m very glad someone told me to bring my bathing suit.

It was kind of strange spending two hours in steam rooms, waterfall showers and mineral pools with the people I work with, all of us wearing next to nothing. I wonder how comfortable everyone was with the whole thing? I mean, I swim all the time but I can’t say my mind didn’t arch a proverbial eyebrow at my pale skin and five-year-old bathing suit.

Whatever insecurities we had, we managed to get over them sufficiently enough to enjoy ourselves. I can’t say I totally relaxed into it, but I do think the hot steam rooms had a therapeutic effect on my various knee- and ankle-related aches and pains. And it’s hard not to feel “cleansed” after spending two hours drenched in mineral water.

Unfortunately, I think I managed to undo whatever “cleansing” effects the spa had on me at lunch. We went to the Firehouse Rotisserie at around 2pm, and by that point I’d already had a pretty long day. I was up at 5am and went to the gym for a pretty full-on weight workout which, by the way, felt great because I was really well-rested and energised.

But by 2pm, I felt hungry and dehydrated from all that steam. Instead of water, I drank champaign, which gave me an instant headache. My first bite of food – a Vietnamese Spring Roll – sent my hunger into high gear. I then proceeded to eat more fried food than I normally eat in an entire month.

Vietnamese Vegetarian Spring Rolls with spicy ponzu dip

Spiced Chickpea and Harrisa Fritters with Almond Apricot Cous Cous

Spicy Fries

Here is why being vegetarian isn’t necessarily healthy: the only veggie options at many restaurants are often fried carb bombs. And girl cannot live on salad alone.

For the record, I didn’t eat all of that food. I had 3 spring rolls, two falafel balls, some couscous and a couple fries. And I must admit, their spicy fries were excellent. But I just felt so out of it by the end of the meal that I didn’t have the mental capacity to refrain from eating all of my dessert:

Orange Jelly

That’s a mandarin orange and champaign “jelly”, by the way. More champaign. Just what I needed. My body was angry. It wanted copious amounts of water and wheatgrass shots. I fed it booze, grease and sugar.

So when I woke up this morning, I really felt like I needed a do over. If only my spa outing was today, I could have had a therapeutic steam bath to sweat out all the crap my body wanted to purge. Instead, I reached for my bike helmet. I hadn’t been for a ride in months and finally, the threat of ice on the road was over and the sun was out early enough to head out at 6:30am before the traffic kicked up.

I almost took my iPod but then I thought better of it. The iPod has been my constant companion at the gym, but therein lies one of my major grievances with the gym: it’s way too easy to fool myself into thinking that exercise has to be a grind, the kind of thing I have to mask with loud music or a good podcast.

Today’s ride was all about clearing my body and my mind, so I left the headphones and home and, for an hour and a half, got lost in my own head, thinking about what I wanted to do with my day and the days to come, and how I want to feel at the end of it all.

It sounds cheesy, but I feel like a bit of spring cleaning of the soul is in order. Nothing but clean food and focus. I’m pretty sure I’m going to go alcohol free for the month of April, and possibly through May until I go on my trip to Chicago for a friend’s wedding (hopefully by then I’ll want to drink champaign again). I’m also thinking about going caffeine free again, though I find that hard to imagine – I’ve been really enjoying coffee lately and have learned to like it BLACK. We’ll see about that one.

To conclude, I feel better. The bike ride lifted my spirits. At least I think it was the ride. Or it may have been these ridiculously cute cow babies who greeted me when I got home:

Cow babies galore

Skillet Pot Pie

IMG_4092

Weird. I’ve been having this mad hankering for, well, not chicken pot pie because I don’t eat chicken, but something in the same spirit: a creamy hot pot with lots of mixed veggies, encased in a savory crust. Comfort food!

Last Sunday I came up with this, and it was so good that Tim and I ate the whole thing on our own in one sitting. Which wasn’t a horrible thing – unlike most pot pies, this skillet pie is actually pretty good for you.


  • Its full of tasty veggies like broccoli, mushrooms, celery and carrots – shall not want for Vitamin A or C!

  • The tofu gives it a little protein punch

  • The gravy is made with a roux of veggie stock, soymilk, flour and a little olive oil (non-vegans, feel free to use milk and butter instead)

  • The pie topped with yummy mashed potato (but feel free to replace with pastry if you dare – life is short!)



For those of you seeking something akin to chicken pot pie, frozen tofu works well here. When tofu is frozen then thawed, it becomes super spongy, almost bread-like, and you can easily squeeze out all of its water, priming it to absorb all of the tasty goodness around it (like gravy!).

IMG_4093



Skillet Pot Pie



Feel free to add or take away as your tastes allow. A bay leaf could work well here, and just about any veggie. You could also try seitan, tempeh, or beans like chickpeas in place of the tofu. And instead of mashed potato on top, why not mashed parsnip or mashed swede?


2 tbsp olive oil
1 leek, diced
1 onion, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
4 mushrooms, diced
2 carrots,
200g tofu, frozen then thawed, squeezed dry, and crumbled into chunks
2 tbsp flour
1 cup veggie stock
1.5 cups soy milk
1/2 cup peas
1 cup broccoli florets
1 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper
mashed potatoes






Preheat oven to 350.

Heat the olive oil in a cast iron skillet (or other oven-proof pan).

Add the leek, onion, celery and carrots. Saute until soft (about 10 minutes). Add the mushroom and tofu and saute until the mushrooms are cooked. Add the flour and mix well.

Slowly add the veggie stock, mixing constantly to form a thick gravy. Do the same with the soy milk. When the mixture has thickened, add the broccoli, peas, thyme and parsley.

Cover the pan with mashed potato. Create criss-cross patterns with a fork and sprinkle with paprika if you like. Bake at 350 for about 30-40 minutes, until the top is crispy and browned.


Serves 4. Per serving: 327 Calories; 13.6g Protein; 12.4g Total Fat; 43.3g Total Carbohydrates.




Clay oven project: not so easy after all

What’s missing from this picture? A clay oven of course!

Garden post tidy

Given our love of bread and pizza, and our long-time disillusionment with our puny electric oven, Tim and I have decided to build a clay oven in our backyard.

Yesterday we got started by planning our oven. Like all great projects, this one started on the internet.

If you search Google for “backyard clay oven” or “homemade pizza oven”, you’ll find plenty of instructions for outdoor clay ovens, some even claiming that said ovens are “surprisingly easy” to build. However, as we set about drawing our plans, we realised the scale of what was involved. It took us about half a day to address all of the following questions, and we didn’t even manage to answer them all:


  • Where will the oven live? (Answer: Outside next to the patio)

  • How big should the oven be? (Answer: 60cm)

  • If the inside of the oven is 60cm wide, how big will the outside oven be? (Answer: about 1 meter)

  • How will we build the base? (TBD)



The question of the clay oven base is turning into a whole separate project in itself.

Building a table for the oven is no trivial matter. It needs to be solid enough to support a really heavy oven, level of course, and given our rudimentary carpentry skills, simple to build. All of the clay oven instructions out there seem to overlook this tricky matter of the base. All of the options seem to involve tools or skills we don’t possess.


Wood?



Our initial thought was to build the base out of wood, but we really have no idea how to go about this. Everything out there looks a bit to complicated for us and our lack of such things as a table saw. But a wooden table would look nice and let us store our firewood under the oven.

For example, check out this wooden base at handyprojects.blogspot.com. The pictures reveal just how much work is involved in building even the simplest of bases:



Here is another wooden table, a bit more rustic, built by Jackie and Glenn out of logs:



What about stone?

I love stone, and a stone base would look really nice with our stone walls. But these photos suggest that stone is tough to work with.

Check out the caption on ryancdeuschle’s stone base: “The foundation for the cob oven. I dug into the ground a few inches to give the massive base rocks a little something to bite into. The stone was moved and stacked by hand using a lever and fulcrum. No lortor was used, the rocks are stacked so that their wieght secures them to each other.”



(This stone base is similar.)

Here’s yet another base built out of stone – very pretty, but I suspect deceptively difficult to build!



Brick?



Brick is ok, and seems easier to work with than stone. I love Becky’s brick base – but how did she build it?



Perhaps I could adopt one of these plans for building a brick bbq?




The sawhorse approach



For simplicity, we will likely go with the sawhorse approach, similar to this one used by Chim Squared:



So that’s we left off, feeling burnt out and strangely hungry for pizza (or at least that’s how I felt anyway). It was good to get started. With any luck, we’ll have our clay oven ready in time for a summer bbq!

The day after a bad hangover

The one thing that’s nice about hangovers is that the day after the hangover feels SO good by comparison.

Saturday night turned into an unexpectedly fun (and boozy) night with the neighbors. Bear in mind, we live on a farm, and aren’t exactly used to big nights out. And who would expect a night like that would happen in a place like this?

Stockman's Cottage

But it did happen, which is just a testament to how awesome our neighbors really are. They had us over for an amazing dinner of roasted red peppers, wild mushroom risotto and TWO desserts: Christmas pudding and lemon posset, two quintessentially British desserts that they knew I’d never had before. How sweet is that?

Yes, the way to my heart is definitely through my stomach.

I didn’t take any photos – for some reason I’m still a bit shy about my food/photo obsession with the not-so-new-anymore neighbs. But I like these people. And despite the hangover, I didn’t really have any regrets. Which makes me think: I never felt like this in London. In London, going out always came with this weird level of worry and premeditated regret. Why am I so much more relaxed here? Maybe I’ve found the balance I’ve been looking for. Add to that a few kindred spirits, and what’s to feel bad about (aside from the splitting headache)?

One other upside: the hangover enabled me to enjoy some of my favorite comfort foods that I haven’t treated myself to in a while: scrambled eggs and toast with avocado!

Hangover food

But back to the day after the hangover (the day after a day after a good night out). After stoking Sunday’s hangover with scrambled eggs, Mexican food, and a good nap on the couch, I felt right as rain on Monday and ready to rock the gym.

After a warm up and a stretch, I did some leg presses, assisted wide-grip pullups, dumbbell pullovers, and cable upright rows. Finally, I went for a nice easy swim before heading home for a tasty breakfast – buckwheat crepes with loads of fresh fruit and soy yogurt.

Breakfast crepes (again)


The weekend seems like a distant memory now. Time flies when you’re having fun (and getting hard).

Sowing the seeds of love

Seeds of love

Saturday may have been the best day of 2010, weather-wise at least. The sun was shining and it was warm enough to be outside wearing only jeans, t-shirt, and a hoodie. This is precisely what I needed to keep my gardening mojo going strong.

After an hour’s walk in the sun, I wasn’t ready to go back indoors, so I tidied up the garden by picking up the leaves, sweeping the path, and making everything good and ready for our plants when they’re ready to move outside.

Garden post tidy

Back indoors, I sowed my lettuce, rocket, and cilantro, and in the process, discovered a few pleasant surprises.

First, one of my tomato seeds has begun to sprout! The first sprout of the year – so exciting. It’s like magic! And I’m totally stoked for many more to come… I can’t wait to check on these bad boys tomorrow morning. Secretly, I’m rooting for the jalapenos most of all.

First sprout of 2010!

Speaking of tomatoes, I’m definitely noticing a Mexican theme to this year’s garden: jalapenos, tomatoes, cilantro, lettuce. That’s like 4/6 of a taco right there (the other 2/6 being refried beans and corn tortillas). A goal for the future: to enjoy Mexican food in England, with zero food miles. I think I’ll need a bit more space if I’m going to get jiggy with the corn masa and frijoles negros.

I was happy to see that at least one of last year’s gardening attempts survived the winter: this humble chive. I thought it would have died but it seems to have sprung back to life. Mmm, looking forward to some tasty omelettes in the future.

Chives

My other notable find was not edible, but exciting nonetheless: my yucca plant has sprung a new bud! This plant was in dire straights last year, so after some advice from gardener mom and the Helpful Gardener, I lopped off the stem in two places and planted it back into the soil. A couple months later, behold! A new sprout!

The yucca lives!

Overall, Saturday was a pretty spectacular day. And on top of the gardening, I also got an MRI scan of my ankle. MRIs, by the way, are totally out of this world. The room sounds like the “bleep bleep” of the bridge from the Starship Enterprise (classic Star Trek) and the drumming noises during the scan sound like aliens coming into attack. They let me bring in my own music to listen to, but I’m not sure why when I couldn’t hear it over the machine. Still, I’m anxious to get the results, and to be one step closer to solving this pesky ankle problem.

And of course, while I wait for all this new food to grow in, I’m making do with the fruits (and vegetables) of our organic box:

Breakfast crepes


Everything Salad

The Gym: Friend or Faux?

Intent on getting fit without having to pay for it, I quit the gym some years ago in pursuit of a fitness regime that allowed me to stay healthy simply by =just living life. For the most part, it worked. I lived in London at the time and was cycling everywhere. I also swam regularly and took lots of long walks. I was pretty active, and it helped me shed a few extra pounds, and in theory, the swimming kept me strong.

But not strong enough?

A few incidents over the last year has me convinced that I could do with being a bit stronger. I’ve had ankle pain for years, and about a year ago my knee started playing up. I think the real wake-up call was a kidney infection last summer that caused me to lose way too much weight, and I’m pretty sure some of that was muscle mass.

Lately, I’ve been rethinking my anti-gym stance. In search of truth I went to one of the truest blogs on fitness I know, Cranky Fitness, and revisited my April 2008 guest post: Five Good Reasons to Quit the Gym.

For the most part, I still feel the same way: the whole idea of paying for physical fitness boggles my mind. I want a lifestyle that lets me stay healthy naturally, and the gym is once of the most unnatural environments I’ve ever been in.

And then I got to the end of the post, where I included a few good reasons to stick with the gym. A few of these really rang a bell:


  • You have a gym buddy

  • You like to swim and your gym has a pool

  • You live in a shitty climate

  • You enjoy lifting weights but don’t have the space or cash for a home gym



Neither January in Chicago nor February in England have been terribly conducive to long afternoon walks in the sun, and I’ve really missed swimming. But perhaps most importantly, I want to get strong, and I have a really hard time motivating myself to do strength exercises at home. I know if I show up at the free weights, I’ll use them.

So last December, during my month-long trip to Chicago for the holidays, I decided to give the gym another chance. I scored a 30-day membership at the YMCA near my parent’s place, and used it almost every day. Something must have been working for me, because when I got back to England, I signed up at the “local” gym (thanks to Tim for the encouragement).

I have a pretty basic workout plan that works roughly like this:


  • Monday: Strength – Quads / Back / Abs

  • Tuesday: Swim 2000m

  • Wednesday: Strength – Hamstrings / Chest

  • Thursday: Swim 2000m

  • Friday: Strength – Quads / Shoulders / Abs



My physio suggests that weak hamstrings are the cause of my knee pain, so I’ve been giving them special attention. Lately, the knee has been feeling better. Whether that’s due to strength training, stretching, rest, or ice, I can’t say. But nevertheless, something seems to be working, so why stop now?

I’m still at odds with the gym. I don’t want to feel like I need it in my life. And when I walk in and see the rows of treadmills, stationary bikes and TVs, I feel a little disgusted with the whole thing. But on the other hand, it’s kind of nice. Everything is just there, and having Tim along adds extra motivation, even though we don’t work out together while we’re at the gym.

So I’m going to stick with the gym for the next little while and see how it goes. I know it takes a lot longer than I think it should before I can expect to see any real noticeable changes from my exercise. So I’ve just gotta be patient and enjoy the journey as much as I can. At the end of this month it will be about 3 months since I got started at the YMCA. I’m excited to find out where I go from here…Stay tuned!

Lessons From a Gardening Noob

First Herb Garden

One of the reasons I moved to the country is to have some outdoor space where I can grow my own vegetables. I moved here last July, too late for the 2009 growing season, so I decided to use the months that followed to prepare myself for gardening in 2010.

Well, 2010 is here and already I’m running late, largely due to my total lack of experience in the gardening department. My previous attempts to grow potted peppers all ended in pots full of dead and shrivelled vegetable matter. But this time, I’m determined. Really.

Last week, Tim and I were musing over the possibilities when the door rang – it was the postman with a long-awaited package from my parents in the States. Inside was a little surprise: a little growing kit and a few packets of seeds. The timing was uncanny.

In fact, it seems that timing is a pretty important thing when it comes to gardening. Knowing when to sow, plant and harvest all depends on various factors such as frost, temperature, the condition of the plant’s shoots and flower buds, and I’m sure a hundred other things I haven’t thought of.

There is much to learn.

So I’m starting simple.

(Sort of.)

My 2010 garden will consist of


  • Peppers: Jalapeno and sweet red

  • Tomatoes: Moneymaker, sungold and cherry

  • Herbs: Parsley, cilantro, basil and rocket/arugula

  • Lettuce: Dynamite and romaine

  • Potatoes


Tim will fill in the fruit front with strawberries and raspberries, and hopefully lend a hand with the potatoes and everything else. If things go well this month, I may also add purple sprouting broccoli and pumpkin to the list, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.

My entire veggie garden will be planted in containers since (a) we rent our place and (b) we want to make sure we like gardening before we dig up a bunch of soil.

I’m in desperate need of a good gardening book (any suggestions?) but for now, the Sustainable Living Initiative’s Rough Guide to Growing Vegetables is doing a pretty good job of filling in the knowledge gaps, specifically these handy PDF charts:


So the jobs for this month are to


  • Acquire containers, seeds and plants (done)

  • Prepare containers for planting (done)

  • Prepare sprouters for sprounting (done)

  • Sow directly into containers: lettuce, rocket and cilantro

  • Sow in pots: Moneymaker tomato, jalapeno pepper, sweet red peppers, parsley (done)

  • Plant in large pots: sungold and cherry tomatoes (half-way done – I bought these as plants rather than seeds and planted the cherry tomatoes in a large pot, but still need to find a container for the sungold)


So far, the main lesson of this activity is clear:

Start planning the veggie garden in January.

Lots of plants such as peas and onions were to be sewn in February. Early planning may also have given me time to prepare raised beds if I were feeling really ambitious. I also wish I had the time to do more seed searching, particularly for good heirloom tomatoes and funky potatoes. Instead I settled for what was available at the nearby gardening shop.

But hey, I’m growing my food. Or at least trying to. Now I wait impatiently for the first buds to sprout from my seeds. Tick tock…

Weekend Food Blogging

Just a quick post on this manic Monday to reflect on a weekend of good eating. The overall theme was “mush”, thanks to my new friend the food mill, which I can see is going to be invaluable in mashing roots and legumes. Sweet, potato, black beans… What else can I mash?

I’m feeling pretty good about the “wholeness” of my diet these days… except for perhaps those veggie sausages that sneaked in on Saturday. The sausage recipe, courtesy of Vegan Dad, relies primarily on wheat gluten, the main ingredient of seitan, as the binder. Wheat gluten is made by washing wheat flour dough with water until all the starch dissolves, leaving insoluble, high-protein gluten as an elastic mass which is then cooked before being eaten. In other words: wheat gluten is highly processed.

My mind tells me wheat gluten should be off my radar, but my soft spot for veggie hot dogs has me craving these wheat-based wieners. What’s a girl to do?

Eat and enjoy, I guess. In moderation.


Sunday





Breakfast



Cornmeal crepes with fresh fruit and soy yogurt

Cornmeal Crepes with Fresh Fruit and Soy Yogurt

Recipe: Vegan cornmeal crepes


Lunch



Swede and potato mash with beetroot salad and veggie sausages

Mystery Lunch

Recipe: Homemade vegan sausages
Recipe: Rote Rubensalat (Red Beet Salad)


Dinner



Enchiladas with mexican rice and refried black beans

Mexican Feast

Recipe: Refried black beans


Sunday




Breakfast



Buckwheat crepes with fresh fruit, almonds and soy yogurt

Breakfast Crepes

Recipe: Vegan buckwheat crepes


Lunch



Bubble and squeak with panfried tofu and beetroot salad

Bubble, Squeak, Beets and Tofu


Dinner



Red beans and rice with broccoli and leeks

Red beans and rice

Recipe: Red Beans and Rice