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Heavy Metal Lover

Exercising my right to bare arms

Ah, the dreaded bathroom mirror self-portrait. It’s an awkward and somewhat unsightly cliche, but I didn’t feel entirely comfortable asking a co-worker to photograph my [admittedly rather nice] gun show. I’ve been training regularly, though, and poorly-lit pic aside I’m very pleased with my progress.

While I’ve had some ups and downs with self-esteem and positive body image, I’ve always been happy with my ability to add muscle fairly easily. One of the most popular fitness myths is that a lady should avoid lifting large weights, lest she “bulk up” and look like a man. Well, unless your goal is to add a ton of muscle mass, and you’re planning your workouts and meals accordingly, it’s not going to happen. Even female power lifters, while typically ripped and well-defined, don’t get to the point of looking masculine or bulky. Ultimately, hoisting a pastel 4 lb. weight isn’t going to have the same health benefits as hauling around some serious iron, so why let an old superstition get in the way of your fitness?

One of my favorite sources for weight-lifting facts is The New Rules of Lifting for Women. Strength and conditioning specialist Lou Schuler (together with fitness expert Alwyn Cosgrove and certified nutritionist/registered dietician Cassandra Forsythe) put together a program that combines strength training and conditioning moves, a sensible eating plan, and a good dose of myth-busting.

Did you ever go to a Pilates class hoping that enough Hundreds would grant you the promised “long, lean” dancer muscles? Well, the truth is that your muscles are a certain length and thickness based on your genetic makeup. Nothing less than a medieval torture device will make them longer. Now, you can develop the tone of your muscles, and make your entire body leaner by decreasing your body fat percentage. I’m not terribly tall, meaning my muscles aren’t all that long, comparatively. But my muscles are well-defined, and I’m proud of that. Going beyond looks, my muscles are strong. I can squat and deadlift a respectable percentage of my body weight, or explode up into a high box jump.

And that translates well to my martial arts practice: I may frequently be the lightest person in the room, but my instructors, training partners, and students don’t expect me to sit out a technique just because the other person outweighs me by 25 or 50 pounds. You’re not going to tell a mugger than they need to choose another target in their own weight class, are you? Plus the feeling of lifting and throwing a larger guy properly is a huge rush.

I want to encourage everyone to get out of their comfort zone a little. There’s nothing wrong with a cardio program if you enjoy that type of activity and it works for you. But if you’ve been looking longingly at heavier free weights, and dream about loading up a bar, don’t let anything hold you back!

There’s something truly empowering about checking yourself out in the mirror, liking what you see, and loving how you feel. One of my other weight-lifting lady friends and I even greet each other by flexing. Yes, in public. If you’re ready to challenge your preconceived notions of what exercising has to be like, step away from candy-colored weights and high reps. I’m not an expert, and all my advice comes from personal experience. But I’d be willing to bet most women are lifting far less weight than they’re actually capable of using.

Start with a weight 5-10 pounds higher than your usual, and slowly go through a set of your favorite exercise. Pay close attention to your form! Try a few reps with heavier weights, gradually getting heavier, until you find a weight that you can move for about 12 reps, still using proper form. Start slowly– the only thing worse than undertraining is overtraining. You want to be able to go back to the weight room regularly, not sideline yourself with a pulled muscle or other injury.

If you’re really a novice, work with a trainer first. There’s really no substitute for working in person with an expert who can correct your form and help you come up with a fitness plan that’s best for you. But I’ll bet you my favorite medicine ball that channeling your inner She-Hulk is going to be much more satisfying than tricep kick-backs with 3 lb. Barbie weights.

At the crossroads of food and health

Happy Friday! This has been a really exciting week for me. Last night, I had the privilege of attending an event hosted by C-CAP (Careers Through Culinary Arts Program). It’s an amazing organization that helps underserved students prepare for a career in the culinary industry. Some of today’s top chefs got their start through C-CAP, and the annual benefit is a showcase of talent and a chance to support the program. I’ll be posting a full review next week!

After last night, I rested up and did some finger stretches for today’s treat: it’s Social Media Week in NYC and around the world, and I attended/attempted to liveblog (@toughcookienyc) a keynote talk on the new food role models (Chefs, bloggers, cookbook authors) and a debate on what makes a food trend (who’s kale’s PR rep?). The panels were fun and informative, and I got to meet a really friendly group of bloggers, chefs, and fellow food-lovers. We all agreed it was tough talking about food without having some snacks to carry us through the lunchtime stomach-rumbles!

One aspect of the two events that I loved: it really brought home how food brings everyone to the table. And I think it shows that the sustainable/eco-friendly movement is much more lasting than a fad or a trend. Blue Hill and Oceana represented the local/seasonal and sustainable seafood aspects of cooking last night at C-CAP. Today, Bun Lai from Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, CT talked about growing his own seaweed and using invasive species rather than fish from faraway waters. Robyn O’Brien spoke on how her children’s allergies opened her eyes to how food and health are inextricably linked.

I’m going to be exploring both events (and the interrelation between food and wellness) much more in subsequent posts. I’m also planning a visit to Miya’s with my mom– Chef Lai was thrilled to hear she’s a naturalist with an interest in invasive species, so we’re going to take a road trip for some sustainable sushi ASAP!

Concentrating on how food can improve and enhance your life is probably the biggest, best This is Why You’re Fit I can imagine. We’ll just have to see how to keep raising the bar!

What are some of your favorite foods for health, or wellness practices in your daily routine?

The other red meat

Welcome back!

The women in my family suffer from a terrible curse. We don’t sprout fangs and fur at the full moon, but a little extra hair might be preferable to this burden:

We have timing issues with special meals. “First world problems,” you might scoff, and you’d be right. But when you’re planning a fancy dinner, timing is almost as important as taste! The night my mom first cooked for my dad and his family, the rice took so long to cook that they went out for a walk in between courses. In my case, the special dessert I had been planning refused to set, and so it’s been sulking in the fridge all day today. Luckily, I had just read a recipe for a One Bowl Chocolate Pudding Cake, which took minutes to mix and only half an hour to bake, so the evening ended on a sweet note after all.

Dessert issues aside, last night I was given a wonderful gift– better than sushi, more precious to me than rare jewels or a set of really good chef’s knives. My husband elect said just one simple sentence: “that was the best steak I’ve ever eaten.” And he meant it, too. But before you protest that I just preached about making healthier choices, let me note that I didn’t just cook steak.

I cooked bison!

Bison... it's what's for dinner!

Although I don’t eat meat (other than fish), I’m very interested in new and exotic food sources. There’s a restaurant in our neighborhood that serves elk, bison, and ostrich, and choosing these lean proteins (less fat and cholesterol) can be one way to have your meat and eat it, too.

I bought this filet from the friendly folks at Elk Trails Bison Farm, who sell at the Union Square Greenmarket. They certainly know their bison, and with good reason– they’ve been raising herds in Susquenhanna County, PA since 1985. The gentleman behind the counter confirmed that their Bison is free-range and grass-fed, and they use no antibiotics; he also gave me some cooking tips, which I followed to the letter.

With the turf taken care of, I turned to thinking of surf. Lobster is the obvious special occasion equivalent, but it’s not actually my favorite. I’m much more of a scallop fan– they’re perfect little bite-sized morsels of protein, not to mention quick and simple to cook. And when you’re planning a special meal for a weeknight, there’s no shame in keeping it simple.

Since our entrees were so simple, I kept the side dishes pretty low key, too: sauteed spinach with lots of garlic (it’s okay as long as both parties have garlic breath) and roasted [baby] carrots. I had completely forgotten to pick up carrots this week, so I resorted to using the baby carrots I usually bring to work to eat with some hummus! Shameful, I know. Luckily, the bison was so good that my baby carrot faux pas went unnoticed.

The neat thing about bison is how quickly it defrosts. The packet of steaks I bought were frozen, so I asked how I would go about bringing one out of deep freeze. “An hour before you want to cook it, place the steak in two layers of plastic bags,” I was told, “then put that in a bowl of cool water and it’ll soften right up.” It worked!

One note when cooking bison: because the fat content is so low, you need to be careful not to let the meat dry out/get tough. It’s actually better to cook the steak slowly over low heat (or “low and slow,” as they say in the biz) rather than sear fast in a really hot pan.

Bison Filet Mignon

1 bison steak, roughly 8 oz.
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Rinse the steak under cool water, then pat dry. Rub with some olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat a skillet over low heat, melt some butter into the pan, and add the steak. Cook on one side for 8 minutes, until a nice crust forms. Flip and cook an additional 8 minutes. Remove from heat and place steak on a plate; cover with foil and let rest 5-10 minutes. Add the juices back to the pan and reduce over low heat, then drizzle the sauce over the steak for added juiciness. You can flavor this liquid with wine or broth, or use it to cook mushrooms, onions, garlic, or anything that comes to mind. I kept it fairly plain to focus on the flavor of the meat.

Seared sea scallops

1/2 lb. sea scallops
Olive oil and butter
Salt and pepper

Rinse the scallops in cool water and pat dry. Heat a pan over medium heat and add the oil and a dab of butter; once the oil spatters when a few drops of water are flicked in, add the scallops. Grate some pepper and salt over the scallops, then resist the temptation to move them around in the pan. They need to develop a nicely caramelized seared top! Scallops vary in size, so cooking time may not be uniform. Cook for 2 minutes, then gently peek under the edge of the scallops to see if they need to be flipped. If the scallop’s underside is nicely browned, it’s time to turn it over. Flip, cook for another minute, then serve immediately. They should still be slightly translucent in the middle.

Cider-glazed carrots

6 carrots, peeled and cut into rounds (or one bag of baby carrots)
1 Tb. olive oil
1/4 c. apple cider
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
pinch of ground cloves

Preheat oven to 350. Toss the carrots with the olive oil, cider, and spices. Spread in a single layer and bake for 15-20 minutes, turning carrots over halfway through for even cooking. Carrots should be fork-tender.

I’d love to go out on a high note with the elaborate dessert I made up, but it’s currently being a prima donna. I’ll try to update later, or maybe give it its own post tomorrow. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you ate and/or cooked for your Valentine’s dinner!

My Healthy Valentine

Greetings, lovebirds! The most (or least, depending on your cynicism) romantic day of the year has everything: hearts, candy, chocolate, flowers, and chubby flying babies with projectile weapons.

V-Day doesn’t have much meaning for me, although I do enjoy any excuse to cook a special meal (stay tuned for that post tomorrow!). But I started thinking about how February 14 could be repurposed as a celebration of fitness instead of a day of sugar and dating pressure.

One of my biggest inspirations for being healthy is my father. We’re a lot alike, actually– both stubborn, both happier when we’re exercising regularly. Dad kayaks every day, and goes for long walks when boating conditions keep him off the river. But he also has a genetic tendency toward elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure, which motivates him to stay active and make good dietary choices. The few times he’s had health issues, doctors have told him that his level of fitness probably prevented more serious complications. I can’t think of a better reason to start thinking about your long-term health than that.

So my proposal for today is simple: don’t just tell someone you care about them. Show them! Take care of yourself, so you’ll be around and in good health for a long time. Instead of candy hearts, use this day as a reminder to think about your own cardiac system. Are you getting enough exercise? Choosing good fuel for your body?

February is Heart Health month, and there are some great tips for good practices (and recipes!) at Women’s Health Magazine and epicurious. In the spirit of love and friendship, help someone you know take better care of themselves, too:

1. If working out feels like a chore, partner up and have some fun. Try a game of tennis, or just go for a long walk in the park.
2. Instead of going out to eat, swap recipes and cook healthy meals together.
3. Give the gift of health! Instead of sweet nothings and empty calories, take your main squeeze salsa dancing. Or rock-climbing! Or if the fastest way to your spouse’s heart is through their stomach, surprise them with something delicious yet healthful, like a set of exotic spices.

By this point in our relationship, my Husband Elect knows I don’t need flowers to feel adored, and I’m definitely not the “I love you BEARY much” stuffed animal type. He finds ways to express his love that fit both of our personalities, and that makes the gestures that much more thoughtful. This week I’m going in a million different directions: setting up wedding plans, taking a writing class, leaping tall buildings in a single bound. You know, the usual. One thing I haven’t been able to do is plan our meals for the week!

I was on my way out the door, resigned to buying lunch today, when my guy handed me a plain white takeout bag. “Keep this cold,” he said. “And enjoy!”

I didn’t peek all morning, although the suspense made it hard to concentrate on my work. When lunchtime finally rolled around, I opened the plain white bag to find an equally plain black box.

When I lifted the lid, the contents were even more exciting than a fancy chocolate assortment:

On the 14th of February, my true love gave to me....

Not everyone would think to say it with sushi, but it was the perfect quick and filling lunch for a hectic day!

Check back tomorrow, when I share how I returned the favor.

Healthy anniversary brunch

In February 2005, the future Mr. ToughCookieNYC and I graduated from circling each other in a shy, awkward mating dance (choreographed for nerds, by nerds) and took our first tentative steps as a couple. Seven years later, I’d say we’ve hit the tango stage of our relationship– both figuratively and literally. What better way to celebrate our love than a brunch that’s both health-conscious and flavorful?

Say it with pancakes!

I think the brunch was a success, as my Husband Elect started attacking his food before I could snap a picture of the plate. So you don’t get to see the perfectly crispy turkey bacon I made. Also not pictured: fresh-squeezed orange juice. I may or may not have squeezed the oranges with my bare hands, as I imagine She-Hulk might.

I tried to come up with traditional brunch classics (scrambled eggs, pancakes, bacon, juice, coffee) and reinvent them in a way that felt indulgent without actually being unhealthy. The pancakes were light and fluffy, but I used egg whites, skim milk, and applesauce, instead of whole milk and butter. The scrambled eggs had 2 whole eggs and a generous helping of egg whites. My iced mocha? Made with skim milk, cocoa powder, and a scoop of unsweetened protein powder. And the salad and mixed berries provide fiber and vitamins.

Scrambled eggs

2 whole eggs
1/2 c. egg whites
2 Tb skim milk
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Crack the eggs into a bowl; beat with a fork to blend yolks and whites. Add egg whites and skim milk, and beat with fork until blended. Add salt and pepper. Place a skillet over medium heat; melt a little butter (or use cooking spray, if preferred) into the pan. Pour in the eggs. As the eggs begin to set, gently pull the mixture across the pan with the fork, forming large curds (or clumps). Work from all angles of the pan, gently moving the eggs around as they cook. No need to stir constantly– just pull and rest, pull and rest. When eggs are cooked to desired consistency, serve immediately, grating a little extra fresh pepper over the top to taste.

Chocolate-chip pancakes

3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda

3 Tb. honey
1/3 c. egg whites
1 c. skim milk
4 Tb. applesauce
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
sprinkle of cinnamon powder

Chocolate chips, blueberries, etc. for topping

Combine flour and baking soda in a large bowl; mix with fork. In a separate bowl, mix the wet ingredients. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, folding batter with a spoon. Be careful not to overmix. In a large pan, melt a little butter (or cooking spray) over medium heat. Pour batter in spoonfuls, leaving room between pancakes. When small bubbles start to appear, add chocolate chips, berries, etc. to batter. When bubbles cover most of the pancake’s top surface, flip with non-stick spatula and let cook an extra 1-2 minutes on the other side. Serve immediately, with fruit compote or pure maple syrup.

The way the cookie crumbles

Property of Roger Hargreaves

Happy belated 2012! Blink and 1/12th the year is gone.  I had great plans to post food and fitness content regularly, but as the famous Lennon saying goes, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

However, that’s the past. It’s a new year, or at least a new month, and I declare 2012 to be the year of the cookie.

One of the biggest obstacles I dealt with during my blog hiatus was the recurring shoulder issue I talked about back in November. I was making great progress with physical therapy, doing my exercises like it was my job, stretching every day, and noticing drastic improvements in my posture, strength, and stamina.

Then life threw me the proverbial curveball. Or, in this instance, it was more of a proverbial banana peel: I slipped and fell down the stairs in the subway.

I wish I could say I turned my fall into a graceful tumble, rolling down the steps with ninja-like grace before springing to my feet in a photo-finish worthy of an Olympic rhythmic gymnast. In reality, as my feet went out from under me I instinctively did the most aggressive fallbreak I’ve ever pulled off, including during my brown belt test. I fell sideways as I slipped, which meant my right (injured) side did all the work of dispersing impact.

Then I bumped and slid down a few more stairs, taking some hits to my right hip and thoroughly terrifying a very nice tourist family who didn’t realize that day’s forecast was “cloudy with a chance of falling bloggers.”

I didn’t feel the effects of my fall right away. My Husband Elect, the brilliant Dr. Funkenstein, drew me an Epsom salts bath, dosed me with extra-strength Advil, and helped me coat myself in arnica gel. He was kind enough to wait until I was relaxing on the couch with a heating pad and a mug of hot apple cider before breaking it to me that I had a bruise the shape (and approximate size, from what it felt like) of Long Island on my hip. I wrote a note to my head instructor thanking him for drilling me in fall breaks until they were second nature. Other than that, I told myself how lucky I was to be young, in good shape, and well versed in the fine art of falling properly.

The next day, I didn’t feel young or in good shape at all.

I had a splitting headache, my stomach was upset, and I wanted nothing more than to lie on the couch and moan gently into a decorative throw pillow, like a Regency romance heroine jilted by her beau. I made appointments with the physical therapist and chiropractor for evaluation and adjustments, and resigned myself to missing several weeks of martial arts classes.

I know I take things far too personally, and I’ll probably never be able to stop being too hard on myself. But I can’t stand feeling like getting injured—again!— is something I could have avoided. If only I hadn’t been in a hurry. Why did I have to get injured now? Blather, rinse, repeat.

Obviously, a game of self-blame and regret is the least helpful mindset for healing and recovery. I may be a badass, but I’m still human. I’ve dealt with injuries that interrupted my training before, but I still have to remind myself  that I’m allowed to rest and heal before going back to the mat.

I’ve given myself permission to reorganize my priorities. Instead of my usual high-impact sessions devoted to self-defense techniques and sparring, I’ll be focusing on stabilizing and re-balancing my injured joints, and stretching out my sore muscles. My plan is to do a lot of walking and yoga, and become best friends with the resistance bands. If my PT gives the all-clear, I’m going to try modifying BodyRock’s High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) sessions— I might not be able to jump, but I can lunge, squat, and row like a pro. I’m calling this my February Fitness Challenge, and I’m excited to share my progress here!

Along with my fitness challenge, I’ll be changing up my meal plan. While I was injured (and wallowing, to be brutally honest), I fell into the trap of ordering dinner in. Easy, but also expensive and wasteful (all those plastic containers!). Besides, even the leanest, greenest choices are probably not as healthful as what I’d make at home. So expect plenty of new non-dessert recipes from me, although it wouldn’t be ToughCookieNYC without some triple-decker brownies here and there.

Have you dealt with a fall or other injury? Have any fun exercises, neat new gear, or delicious recipes to share? Tell me all about it!

One pie to rule them all

All stressing aside, I really do love the holiday season. I’ve heard people say that you’re either a baker or a cook; I like to think that I’m both, but I certainly enjoy making baked goods for parties or as presents.

As I’m a vegetarian, Thanksgiving is not really about turkey for me. Instead, I fill my plate with a variety of delicious and healthy family specialties: wild rice with mushrooms, green beans, fresh cranberry salsa, and baked sweet potatoes.

My one and only culinary responsibility is The Pie, and I take that very seriously. I have been making a version of this pie (it evolves slightly from year to year) ever since I was 12 and starting to become more comfortable in the kitchen. I asked my mother if I could make something by myself that year; she gave me a copy of the Bon Appetit Thanksgiving issue and told me to call her if I needed any help. The recipe I found was the “Colonial Times Apple-Cranberry Pie With Cornmeal Crust,” a celebration of mingled New World (corn, cranberry) and Old World (apple) ingredients. I liked the idea of cranberries and apples, but wasn’t so keen on cornmeal, so I substituted an all-butter crust recipe from one of my mom’s hand-written index cards and used apple cider instead of cold water. The experiment was a success: at the end of the night, as I was carrying the empty pie plate out the door, my aunt said, “You’ll make that again next year, right?”

Here’s the latest model:

At some point, I want to go back and find pictures of each year’s pie and post a comparison series. I started out with a full top crust. A few years ago, I started using leaf-shaped cookie cutters to cut out the dough and scattering those pieces decoratively over the top. I like how the slices of apple, currants, and bits of cranberry peek through the crust.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years:

Butter is better

There are several schools of thought as far as pie crusts go. There’s the shortening school, the shortening + butter school, and the lard school. I tried shortening, but it has about as much flavor as paste. Maybe less. Lard is out for a number of reasons. And that leaves us with butter, which is never just a consolation prize. There’s a reason so many chefs cook with butter. It’s full of flavor and makes a tender, flaky crust just as easily as shortening.

Don’t overdo it

As in, don’t overwork your dough. The more you mix and blend, the less likely it is to stand up to your filling. Less work = more successful crust.

Variety is the spice of life

When I make this pie, it never turns out the same way twice. Different apples, slightly different mixture of seasonings, a new ratio of dry to wet ingredients in the pie dough. It doesn’t need to be identical each time: just delicious.

Cranberry-Apple Pie

Adapted from Bon Appetit

Crust adapted from Smitten Kitchen


2 1/2 c. flour
1 Tb sugar
1 tsp salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, very cold
1 c. apple cider

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Cut the butter into small pieces and work into the dry ingredients with a pastry blender. When the butter pieces are the size of small peas, stop blending. Add cider, a few tablespoons at a time, using a rubber spatula or your hands to gather the dough together. Stop after 1/2 cup and stir well; after that, add cider only a tablespoon at a time. Add a little flour if the dough gets overly wet.

Cut the dough in half, wrap each piece in plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight or at least an hour. The dough can stay wrapped and refrigerated for about a week.

While the dough is chilling, move on to the filling (hey, that rhymes!):


1 c. fresh cranberries
1 c. plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 lbs. assorted apples (I like to use as many varieties as possible: this year’s pie had Mutsu, Empire, Rome, Gala, Fuji, Winesap, Braeburn, and Jonagold)
1/2 c. dried currants
liqueur (cranberry or a good bourbon)
5 Tb all-purpose flour
optional: zest of one orange; fresh ginger juice

In the oven, position rack in the lowest third; preheat to 375°F. Place the currants in a small bowl and add just enough liqueur to cover. Chop cranberries with sugar, using a mezzaluna or food processor. Peel and core the apples, and cut into 1/2-inch thick slices. Combine apples, cranberry/sugar mixture, currants, and flour. (If using, zest orange into bowl; peel an inch-long piece of ginger root and press through a clean garlic press to get the juice.) Toss well.

Roll out 1 of the pieces of dough between waxed paper or plastic wrap to 13-inch round. Gently peel off paper or wrap; fold edges in carefully to transfer into 9 1/2″deep-dish pie dish. I’ve found this is the easiest way to transfer the bottom crust into the pie dish in one piece.

Unfold the dough; roll excess in to form a double-thick edge. Crimp edge. Roll out the remaining dough disk on a lightly floured surface to 1/8″ thick. Using a cookie cutter, cut out leaves, apples, or any other shapes you might like. If using leaves,  mark veins with a sharp knife. Add filling to pie dish. Arrange leaves around the edges and top of pie, overlapping in places. Do not cover completely: leave gaps. Brush leaf cutouts and crimped edge with cider.

Place the pie on a baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes, then cover with foil and continue baking for about 35 minutes more, until juices bubble thickly and crust is golden-brown. Transfer pie to rack and cool for 1 hour. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Bon appetit! Or as we say around these parts: OM NOM.