Where have I been? A story in 10 pictures

Here are top 5 reasons (excuses) I have not blogged since July:

5. I returned from a month-long cross country road trip and wanted to savor the feeling of being unplugged.

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4. It was summer, I can walk to the beach from my house, and I don’t like getting sand in my laptop.

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3. I started my third semester of full-time graduate school.

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2. I stopped prioritizing eating right and training hard, stopped cooking, and entered into a downward shame spiral in which a clean eating blog had no place.

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1. I realized this blog didn’t feel like me anymore.

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5 recent and related events that helped me commit to starting again:

5. I ended 2013 by baking my first real loaf of bread, using my Uncle Jimmy’s recipe. It turned out delicious and I savored every bite. I remembered simplicity, good smells and how happy I am in my kitchen.

homemade-bread

 4. Then, with the holidays behind me, I decided it was time to go back to the gym, start eating mindfully again and get my muscles back.
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3. Upon reconnecting with my awesome network of strong fitness pals, I heard about the wonders of almond flour and started breading EVERYTHING.
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2. With a focus on getting strong again and leaning out, I added a lot more fat back into my diet, and started cooking almost everything in coconut oil…

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**Note: As far as I can tell, coconut oil has life changing properties

or butter or lard.

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1. Finally, with a little help from a friend, I decided that this blog can be about anything I want. Instead of waiting to find the perfect recipe and then trying to write the perfect post, I think I will just share cool information as I find it. Sometimes you have to approach life one hurdle at a time in order to move forward.

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Junk in the trunk

When I was little, the word “adventure” was used to sugar coat traumatic family vacation experiences. If we got pickpocketed on the metro in Rome, missed our flight to the Cayman Islands because we did not have our birth certificates on hand, or if I passed out on a mountain top gondola ride in Jackson Hole and peed my pants, for example, we were simply “on an adventure.” Between the ages of five and fifteen, adventures for my brother and me involved a lot of crying and temper tantrums. (These vacations were also amazing and life-changing, but when something fabulous happened we were just “on vacation.”

What once was a dirty word, however, has been restored, especially as I reflect on my childhood experiences and realize how wonderful my parents made even ridiculous circumstances. I like to think that their generally nonchalant attitude about proper documentation and the like made me who I am today.

Today I excitedly embark on a new adventure, my first one in a while. Starting right about now, my best friend and I are driving clear across the country. Not only that, but we are training along the way for a 10k in California at the end of the trip. I am telling you this because this will be my first vacation since I joined the blogging world. Therefor, I am taking the opportunity to challenge us to a three week, cross country, car camping, 10k training, mostly clean eating but also mind-expanding culinary extravaganza. I’m sure we’ll come up with something worth sharing in that time.

Stay tuned!

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Strong is Beautiful

I recently did something I am really proud of, but am not sure how to share. I took part in a photo shoot at my gym. My coaches put together these “Strong is Beautiful” photo shoots a few times a year, and give members the chance to get some fitness shots taken. In retrospect, I think part of the reason they started doing this is to allow us to see ourselves through someone else’s lens, since our own lens is often distorted and so harsh. I work out 4 times a week, eat pretty healthy most of the time, and sometimes still can’t see my own muscles. Yet I’ve never once looked in the mirror and failed to notice my love handles or “fleshy knees.” I was nervous, but I thought it would be a good challenge for me, and also probably empowering and fun even if I never saw the pictures.

That being said, of course I was dying to see the pictures! When I first got them back, I almost couldn’t look at them. I peaked, with only one eye open. There I was, just sort of out there, in the open, showing (flaunting!) what I got. The lighting was great, the photographer was amazing, I got a spray tan, had my makeup done and was slicked up with baby oil, but I still picked myself to pieces in every shot.

After sleeping on it, I looked at the pictures again and shared them with a few friends. They, of course, sent back kind, amazing comments oozing with love, support and validation. So I looked at them again, and kept looking until I could see my muscles. I looked at them until I was smiling ear to ear with pride and joy. I might have actually even said, “daaayym girl!” in my head. I thought, if I can pick out my imperfections in these pictures, then the pictures are real. They are showing me who I am, which means the strength and beauty I see is also real.

I scored a few points with me this week by allowing myself to be vulnerable to someone else’s lens, and trusting and accepting what they saw instead of rationalizing it away into nothing. That was a little bit huge.

This month, I’m a little over two years, 4 races, and 1 photo shoot into my health and fitness journey. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like a clean diet and some heavy weights to help you face the world.

Here are a few of my favorite pictures:

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**Thanks to Eric Brushett PhotographyTuff Girl Fitness and Bodyology Fitness Studio

Tasting My First Steak, Among Other Things

For my first post of 2013 I thought I would catch you up on a few exciting things that happened in my culinary life since we last spoke. The more I think about this blog, the more I realize that it’s a little about recipes, and a lot about learning how to eat and cook. In that context, I find these three things very important to share. They are presented in non-chronological order.

1) I received Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a Christmas gift. It begins like this:

“This book is for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children’s meals, and the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat.”

mastering-the-art-of-french-cooking-julia-childOne hour on the couch with this page-turner I have decided that Julia Child is the one person, living or dead, whom I would choose to meet if I had the chance. What a woman. What a writer. The reason I was interested in this cookbook in the first place was because everything I have read about both learning to cook and food writing has come back to Julia. She seems to dominate the world of fine cooking through lessons of basics built upon simplicity that nobody can get out of their mind. As someone who has all the basics to learn, I love her for it. She discusses how to hold a knife properly followed by how to chop a carrot, and I’m only on page 43. That I’m reading the thing like a novel is a testament to how beautifully this book is put together. I imagine her co-authors, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, whom she learned to cook with in Paris, were just as fabulous. I promise to share my first experiment!

2) I received a gift certificate for a cooking class for two at the Meitte Culinary Studio in Manhattan. There were so many classes to choose from, but I ultimately went with Classic Italian Supper. Here is the menu:

Bruschetta (grilled bread with olive oil and garlic)
Pomodoro a riso (tomatoes stuffed with rice)
Gnocchi di spinaci con ricotta (spinach and ricotta gnocchi)
Arista di maiale (roasted herb-stuffed pork loin)
Polenta
Piselli freschi (fresh peas with prosciutto)
Raspberry sorbet

I was sold at gnocchi. This is one thing I am dying to learn how to make and I know can be tricky. Class is in March, can’t wait to report back.

3) And finally…I tasted my first steak. It happened at Manhattan Steakhouse in Bonita Springs, FL. What do I mean, you ask? Well, I enjoyed my first medium-rare prime-dry aged porterhouse in a classic steakhouse.

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Image: offthebroiler.wordpress.com/

Half New York strip and half filet mignon. It certainly felt like my first time. I have never tasted or experienced anything like that in my life. I went weak in the knees, so wrapped up in sensation I couldn’t think. I could only feel. And now, it’s all I can think about. It was crisp but creamy, sizzling yet calm, and almost melted in my mouth the second it touched my tongue. I thought, a discovery like this only happens once, make sure to write about it. I’ve got some follow-up research to do, figuring out what makes a steak so delicious but trust me, when I know, you’ll know.

In Interrupt This Blog to Bring You the Hunting Season

Sometimes I feel like I lead a double life. Part of me, the part I’ve known for longer, is horrified by the idea of meat production. She likes bunny rabbits, cute cuddly things, animal adoption and wildlife rehabilitation. She became a vegetarian and enjoyed that it made her conscious about eating every single day. The other part of me, the newer part that I understand better, watches in fascination as a deer is butchered on her kitchen table. She takes pictures so she can write about it, and eats venison sliders hot off the stove in the same room with the butchered carcass. She recognizes that a squirrel with a broken leg left to the coyotes in the woods is not a total waste. She knows that nature can be as brutal as humanity. She is more sure of this lifestyle than any that has come before.

I admit it, the shock value of eating squirrel or trying a little bite of deer heart (because why not?) have long since gone for me. Things I never even knew were a part of life have become common place, and living with a hunter has been a huge part of that. This elicits mixed responses from the people in my life who know me best. They still can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. I just know it’s right.

The thing is, at this point in my life I have a hard time even picking up a package of organic chicken at Whole Foods without wondering how many miles away that chicken was slaughtered, or why it’s wrapped in so much plastic. I have no reservations, however, about the fresh and “free range” meat in my freezer. Since I have made the decision that I am ultimately a meat-eater, I might as well know everything about it and understand exactly where it comes from. For a while I thought I couldn’t handle that, that I just didn’t want to know about or experience most of the lifecycle of these animals. That’s not the case any more. Knowing is the only way I can do it.

As a bonus, all of the wild game I cook is incredibly lean, lending itself well to the culinary experiments of a clean eating blogger. This brings me to the newest freezer challenge: 30lbs of ground venison and about 30+ more pounds of steaks and stew meat.

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I think I squeezed in a few frosty beer glasses and an ice cube tray on the freezer door, but other than that there is not much else in there. Well, there also might be a pheasant and/or a snow goose. I’m really not sure.

What did we cook first, you ask? Read on my friends, read on.

Conclusion of the Freezer Challenge

This day has been marked on my calendar for weeks. Today is the day that I conclude the Freezer Challenge by reporting on my results. Yet, for the first time since starting this blog, I am not excited to write or post.

For most of the month I was doing good, I mean really good. At no point was my freezer wasn’t empty, but I’m pretty sure about 75% of its contents were replaced with fresh things. As a reminder, here is what I set out to use up:

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When I was on a roll, here’s what was going down in my kitchen:

  1. Ezekiel Bread– defrosted for mid-morning snacks of PB & banana or fruit spread at work
  2. Homemade ravioli– brought back to life by sautéing with garlic and olive oil, made a few lunch portions
  3. Naan– quick and easy pizza base, topped with sliced tomatoes and whatever other veggies were in the house
  4. Turkey sausages– simmered in tomato sauce with veggies and served over spaghetti squash
  5. Pizza dough– topped with veggies and freezer tomato sauce, grilled on barbeque
  6. Black bean soup– lunch for work
  7. Chicken chili– lunch for work
  8. Cod fillets– I’m allergic to fish and didn’t eat these, but they disappeared none the less
  9. Edamame– steamed and enjoyed with a pinch of sea salt
  10. Blueberries– mixed with plain greek yogurt
  11. Venison steaks– used for Slow Cooker Pulled Venison

Everything else fell victim to Hurricane (Superstorm) Sandy when I lost power for four days. I do not mean to complain. Most people I know had harder time lost much more than I did. It is just that when the power came back on, and I had to toss almost everything in the fridge and freezer, it was so very sad. We tried to eat as possible before the storm and put a bunch of things into a cooler, but I ended up throwing out a full (and very heavy) garbage bag of food.

Overall, a few important things came out of this challenge. I trained myself to open the freezer and survey the stockpile before running to the store to buy more things. This saved time and money (very precious resources for me these days), and also forced me to get creative and create meals around ingredients by combining them in new ways. You will see a few more of these recipes here in the near future. For now, I need to go figure out what is for dinner tonight.

Squirrel Salad Sandwich

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Hear me out.

The backstory: A few weeks ago I attempted to make bread for the first time. It was a focaccia. Baby steps. Focaccia is both relatively simple to create and the epitome of a savory delight. But I was nervous and had mixed feelings about the results so I didn’t post about it. I consider this a poor move, and that sort of hesitancy stops here and now. What is this blog if not a shared adventure that sometimes involves weirdness or failure?

This brings me to the squirrel salad sandwich. For college graduation I bought my boyfriend (Chris) an L.L. Bean Cookbook, which describes squirrel meat as a wild game delicacy whose flavor cannot be matched. We kind of ignored this statement for a while, until last week when he brought home a field-dressed squirrel. This was in compliance with the house rules: If something is put in the fridge as a cleaned, prepared and unrecognizable ingredient, then I will most likely accept it and turn it into a meal.

However, I was totally turned off by this squirrel. For days it was (metaphorically) staring me right in the face, forcing me into some deep and uncharted self-inquiry. I never in a million years thought I was the kind of person who would taste, never mind cook, a squirrel. Am I that person? Is this too far? What does this mean? Would I post about it? Slowly I began to wonder, what will it taste like?

If I didn’t make a decision soon it was going to spoil, and that had to be worse fate of all. It’s just meat. I’ve tried rabbit. Among meat-eaters, rabbits are generally accepted as an offbeat thing to stew or braise, and how are they actually any different? I respect belief systems, but it’s hard for me to get behind an idea with which I do not agree.

So, we boiled the squirrel, pulled the meat and I took a bite. I’m not even sure what I wanted to feel, but it was just downright tasty.  Cross my heart it tasted like the dark meat of a chicken- moist, mild, and completely palatable. Chris made the rest into a chopped salad with mayo, mustard, celery and dried cranberries to share with a few curious friends, and that was the end.

I doubt that I am going to start eating squirrel on the regular, but I am glad I cooked it and glad I tried it. There are countless epicurean adventures to be had with food and I want to make sure I approach each one with consideration, lest I miss out for no reason. I’m not sure where we go from here, but trust I will let you know.

This leaves me wondering, how do you feel about the weridest thing you’ve ever tasted?

Introducing…The Freezer Challenge

Here is a trap I commonly fall into: I am at an exciting grocery store or farmer’s market and decide to stock up on things I can’t get (at least not at a reasonable price) at our regular Stop & Shop. Before long, bright, beautiful grass-fed meat, floury pizza dough, crisp local veggies, and anything homemade are spilling over the top of my basket, which is now breaking off my arm. I figure I’ll cook as much of it as possible this week and freeze the rest.

For some reason, I always feel a need to stockpile, like I have to make this particular trip to the store really count. When I get home, all the extras go into my neatly sorted, full of good intentions freezer. As soon as the door is shut, they are forgotten and abandoned.

Simultaneously, my boyfriend (with whom I share my freezer) is out in a forest or a marsh or a cornfield trying his best to hit the daily limit on whatever animal is in season. Any meat he brings home is cleaned, butchered, vacuumed sealed and then put you-know-where.

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My freezer, today

We use almost everything eventually, but often things have long past the point of being interesting, appetizing or tasty. Enter the Freezer Challenge. I am on a quest to use up everything in my freezer, one recipe at a time. Then, I can start from scratch and learn how to use this space more efficiently. A few times this week I drove to the grocery store on my way home from work, and then turned around and left without going inside. There are dozens of frozen meals already at home, and figuring them out will force me to be a little bit creative.

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Freezer door, today

So, it starts today. This post is proof. With hunting season and harvest season in full swing, we need to make some room.

Challenge Guidelines:

  1. I have one month
  2. Everything must go
  3. Nothing gets thrown away (well, maybe the puff pastry)
  4. Gifting is ok
  5. Pawning off crap is not
  6. I must report back on my progress one month from today

Get ready to witness some ruthless execution. Who’s with me?

Why Clean Eating is a Five-Rung Step Ladder

Hi, I’m Samantha, and I didn’t learn how to eat until I was 24 years old. It took about seven years and five big steps to figure it out.

College is what prompted this whole shift. The freshman 15 (or 20) snuck up on my sometime between the calzones and boneless wings at 2am. When my last pair of pants wouldn’t button, I began trying to lose weight.  There was no rhyme or reason to how I went about this. I was not exercising regularly or eating that great. But, I stopped going in the dining hall and started cooking my own food. That was step one.

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Before, 2005

Step two was experimenting with vegetarianism. I didn’t know much about meat industry, and I was not yet aware of the devastating effects of food production on the environment. I just felt wrong about what I ate, and I needed to do something drastic to figure out why. Abstinence, as it tends to do, gave me time and space to think.

I did not eat meat for year and a half and it was awesome! I felt great and experimented with a ton new foods. But I still had questions. What is my policy on dairy? How much imitation meat do I want to ingest? When does this end?

Then, I started to miss meat, have dreams I was eating it and wake up feeling guilty. I began to resent having only 1-2 options on a restaurant menu, and stress over parties and other social events. I felt separated from my family. Slowly, being a vegetarian became less important than everything else in my life because I had no idea why I was doing it anymore. When you begin to feel like something is a sacrifice, it becomes uncomfortable. And when you start to feel guilty about those feelings, it’s downright unbearable.

So, even though I was ready for it, I ate my re-introductory bite of meat in hiding, with no one watching. I felt weak and ashamed, and thought I would be judged from then on no matter what I did. Turns out no one cared but me. It got easier, but I kept going back and forth. I told myself, I’ll eat meat for just one more week, or just one day a month, and created rule after rule after rule. All of which I broke, because you will break every rule you make for yourself about eating. I guess step 3 was accepting that I was not a vegetarian anymore. Only when your diet becomes a lifestyle that you believe in will you honor it.

Slowly, I began to shift my attention away from what I could NOT eat, and instead focus on what I was actually putting INTO my body. Enter step 4: I got interested in where my food came from and how it was produced. Guess what? Abstaining from foods is waaaaay simpler than eating with purpose and intention.  Every trip to the grocery store became a cost-benefit analysis between local, organic and conventional options. I wanted to eat in a way that was healthy for me, my community and the planet. Without calculation, this became the foundation of my own philosophy on eating.

Finally, step 5 (aka the clincher): I became a truly fit person for the first time in my life. I started working out with an amazing group of women and learned about clean eating. What a concept! (Hey, what is clean eating?) By eating mostly whole, real, unprocessed foods, and getting regular intense exercise, I have gained confidence and feel leaner and healthier than ever.

Last May, I decided to start training for a 1/2 marathon even though I couldn’t run a mile. When I crossed the finish line in December, I knew I was never looking back. Now I know that I can do anything I want, and hold myself accountable to that. I’ve eliminated “impossible” from my vocabulary. It all stems from my core, how I nourish and take care of myself.  Isn’t it funny how when you believe in something, instead of doing what you think you should, it becomes the easiest thing in the world?

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After, 2012

Even though my standards for what and how I eat are so much higher now than they have ever been, this is the simplest way I know how to live. It’s challenging, but I’ve learned tricks at every turn and it’s been unimaginably rewarding.

Here’s the secret: I don’t let myself get sick of what I eat. I have spent a lot of time in the kitchen coming up with new and different ways to cook the foods I love, and figuring out how to make them fit into the daily grind. And I’m more than happy to share! So, stay tuned for some squeaky clean recipes and other tips, mixed with the classics and served on a bed of thoughtful pondering.