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Happy holi-daze!

It’s the week after Thanksgiving. Holiday songs are blaring in the stores, you’ve probably eaten turkey-and-cranberry sandwiches for dinner at least three nights in a row, and on every street corner and magazine cover, messages of holiday cheer are warring with holiday warnings for your attention. “Six scrumptious pumpkin recipes!” grapples with “Watch what you eat!” and you’re supposed to look forward to parties while suspecting your friends, carolers, Santa’s reindeer, and Jack Frost of sabotaging your diet, fitness routine, and hard-earned self-positive attitude. So much for peace on earth, right?

It’s true that the holidays can be fraught with stress and peril. It’s a time that comes with a lot of built-in expectations for how we’re supposed to feel (joy! gratitude!) and behave (party! celebrate!), and being merry and bright 24/7 takes a toll. On top of that, you’re supposed to sync the holiday whirlwind with your regular schedule, finding time for nourishing meals and your fitness routine. Does your office becomes a winter wonderland of candy and cookies? There’s sure to be an article warning you of the dangers of indulging, or recommending the least damaging option for your waistline. Or maybe you have a well-meaning friend, co-worker, or family member who likes to remind you how many calories are in that delicious piece of peppermint bark. It’s not easy, but there are ways to insulate yourself from the holiday heckling.

The first thing to remember is that this is your holiday season. Your body, your schedule, your choices. If you want to skip an invitation and squeeze in a long run, that’s your right. If you want to have a large glass of eggnog… I doubt it will do any lasting damage (unless the alcohol content is high and you find yourself freestyling to Little Drummer Boy… which might actually make you the hit of the party). The way most people think of it, the holiday season is trench warfare on your body, and the first month of New Year’s resolutions is the cavalry charge. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Make manageable commitments to health, and keep your fitness goals in mind. Are you trying to make it to the gym four times a week? You might have to get creative (pre-work or lunchtime workouts), but you can still make your sessions. Or adjust your plan slightly: can you be active at home? One of my favorite ways to build up a sweat on busy days is high intensity interval training. A friend sent me to Bodyrock, which is a fantastic resource for moves and routines that will have you panting and sweating buckets in under 15 minutes. All you need is a round timer (I downloaded a free application for my phone). Some exercises call for weighted balls, duffel bags, or dip stations, but I’ve been able to MacGuyver most accessories from household items. If you’re staying active, it’s easier to silence all the voices (internal and external) nagging you about those festive cheese balls.

Personally, I build room for indulgences into my mentality. Rigid abstention simply doesn’t work for me. When it comes to food, I’m a sensualist; from smooth butternut squash soup to crispy fried shallots, I treasure taste and texture. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically virtuous in not having dessert. But there are those who think it’s their business that you’ve had second helpings of cornbread stuffing. What makes it their business? Unless they’re your doctor… absolutely nothing. People love to lecture or advise. When I’m feeling charitable, I tell myself it’s based on good intentions. If I’m annoyed, I tell myself that they’re too insecure to enjoy a treat guilt-free, and they’re trying to share the guilt. But guilt is one present I won’t accept this year.

The best defense against a guilt onslaught is to simply not engage. Anyone asking “should you really be eating that?” doesn’t really care about the answer. They just want you to deal with the question. A gym that puts a “don’t look like Santa– work off that bowlful of jelly!” sign in its window just wants your foot in the door and your membership dues in the accounts. Don’t fall for the guilt. You know your body. You know that whether you had roasted kale and lentils for dinner, or three candy canes and a double serving of latkes, you are in charge, and you don’t need to answer to anyone. Treating yourself one night isn’t the end of the world. Having a gingerbread snack attack isn’t going to undermine all your workouts, healthy recipes, and year-round badassitude. This year, give yourself the gift of self-confidence.

The next time you experience someone’s guilt onslaught, don’t buy into it. Instead, imagine a big red light and stop that negativity in its tracks. Then replace the guilt and stress with a you-positive message. It can be anything from “I rocked that Zumba class today” to “I make a kick-ass mulled cider!”
In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a bunch of recipes, exercise tips, and tricks for making this season a time of light in the darkness.
Happy holidays!

Lean, green fighting machine

No, I’m not talking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The heroes on the half-shell probably wouldn’t appreciate today’s recipe, although they might be willing to try it on pizza (with M&M’s, Gruyère, and cashews, perhaps).

What else is green and fights bad guys?

Photo credit lunch.com

Brussels sprouts, of course!

Hey, get back here!

Brussels sprouts may have gotten a bad rap at the dinner table, but prepared properly they’re a delicious nutritional powerhouse. These little green buds belong to the cabbage family, and are high in dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, and folic acid. They also contain sulforaphane, which is believed to have anticancer properties. It’s important not to cook all the nutrients out of  the sprouts, but overcooking is also responsible for the sulfurous odor and gray, mushy appearance that most people associate with this notorious V-E-G. Luckily, sautéing or roasting yields tender, vividly green orbs that are oddly addictive when caramelized.

Brussels sprouts are best in the cold weather months, so consider including them in your holiday feast. If you can find the sprouts on the stalk at a local farmer’s market, so much the better. The sprouts will be fresher, and roasting them on the stalk makes for a dramatic presentation.

Image credited to tinyfarmblog.com

My parents never inflicted Brussels sprouts on us. There was still something satisfying about convincing my dad (who grew up in the era of boiled vegetables) to try three bites, or what my mom calls a  “no, thank you” portion. Several “no, thank yous” later, he was a Brussels sprouts convert.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Based on a recipe from Trader Joe’s

1 stalk Brussels sprouts, rinsed, outer leaves trimmed

2 Tb olive oil

1/4 c. maple syrup

Coarse sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Serves: 4-6

Preheat oven to 350. Line a baking sheet or roasting pan with foil. Rinse the sprouts, pat dry, pick off any wilted outer leaves, and trim the end of the stalk if it looks dried out. Place entire stalk in pan.
Combine the oil and maple syrup and brush over the sprouts, coating all sides evenly. Reserve any leftover glaze for basting. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place in oven and roast for 20-30 minutes, rotating stalk every 5 minutes for even cooking. Baste with extra glaze. The sprouts are done when fork-tender and golden-brown.
If you want to jazz up your sprouts, some additions that pair well include lemon zest, caramelized shallots, toasted nuts, finely-grated Parmesan, and tart fruits such as dried cranberries or pomegranate seeds.

Friday fitness: apples are hard-core

Friday fitness is back with a vengeance! Let’s tackle that all-important food group: the snack. What’s that you say? Snacks aren’t a food group? Perhaps not, but if you eat smaller meals, need a little extra nourishment between feedings, or like a boost before or after working out, chances are you’ve had a snack sometime this week.

The challenge is finding a snack that’s filling without taking the place of a full meal. Some like a small handful of nuts, cottage cheese or yogurt, or veggies and hummus. I love all of those options, but this week I was in the mood for applesauce. Not just your run-of-the-mill applesauce, either– the homemade kind!

At the beginning of October, I went apple-picking. The orchard was beautiful, and I couldn’t resist getting the “20 pounds for $20” deal. However, a month later, the last few apples were starting to look a bit sad.

However, sad raw apples can be quite good cooked apples. I wanted something simple, healthy, and satisfying, so I decided to leave sugar out entirely. Some recipes call for peeling the apples, but I find that to be unnecessary. As long as you have a food mill or strainer, the peels won’t be part of the finished product anyway, and they add a nice pinkish hue. I used an apple-corer to speed things along. Using a corer that also divides is a great way to slice and seed your apples together!

A nice side benefit of cooking with apples: your kitchen smells divine. I could smell fresh apples all the way out in the hall. Actually, be prepared for deliciousness at every turn. Your apples may be funny-looking, tired, or even bruised, but the magic of a little water and heat transforms them into a silky-smooth autumnal treat.

Simple Applesauce

If your only experience is with store-bought applesauce, I don’t blame you for thinking there’s no reason to devote an entire post to the stuff. Well, I’m here to tell you that the homemade version is worlds apart. The flavor is a thousand times more appley, the texture is the furthest thing from grainy. I’ll definitely be making another batch in December to jazz up my latkes.

I used:

7 medium-sized apples, cored (This time, I had a mix of Red Delicious and Jonagolds, with some Golden Delicious; see which varieties make for good sauce)

2 c. water

Optional: cinnamon (I didn’t use any, but you may wish to)

Core and slice your apples into about 8 pieces each, using a sharp knife or divider. Put the apples and water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover the pot. Cook for 25-30 minutes, or until apples have softened. (They should smoosh easily when pressed with the back of a spoon.) Remove from heat and let cool. (I prefer to eat the sauce warm; just be careful when you’re milling not to burn yourself!)

Use a food mill with the medium disk to puree and remove peels, or force the mixture through a sieve. Enjoy plain or with a dash of cinnamon! Applesauce should keep for at least 3 days in the fridge, or can be jarred or frozen. But for a small batch like this, I know I’ll eat it before it goes bad.

Falling off the horse (and getting back on)

Greetings, internet!

It’s been far too long since I posted– online time is even more accelerated since dog years, so at this point it probably feels like at least a decade. I’ve been dealing with the resurgence of an old injury, which has affected my training. Difficulty training led to difficulty even writing about training. However, I realized that injuries, setbacks, and obstacles are part of any athlete’s experience, whether it’s as mild as a pulled muscle or something more serious. What’s important is how you address the issue and determine how to adjust your routine.

In my case, I separated my shoulder a few years ago while learning to do a forward roll. Check out the first 10 seconds in this video to see what I mean:

Instead of rolling over my scapula, I hit my acromioclavicular (or AC) joint, damaging the ligament that connects the acromion to the clavicle. This meant I couldn’t even lift my arm very far away from my body. I certainly couldn’t fight, lift weights, practice yoga, or even carry a large bag on that arm.

A separated shoulder is one of the most common sports injuries. The AC joint is one of the most mobile in the body, which means it’s also the least stable. Actually, both my parents have separated that same joint. My father, who was known for his daily 30 mile bike rides, went over the handlebars when he swerved to avoid a dog that had run onto the road. My mother slipped on a patch of ice on a hiking trail. (I should tell my sister to cushion her shoulders with bubble wrap.)

I was lucky to have the benefit of their experience and advice. “Go to physical therapy!” they said. “Immediately.” With the help of some small weights, plenty of resistance bands, and some dedicated therapists, I slowly built up strength in my back muscles (to anchor the scapula) and worked on stabilizing and strengthening the muscles around the joint. With a joint injury, you can’t improve the bones in the affected area– it’s all about the soft tissue.

After a few months, I went back to train. I had to relearn how to roll, which was both exhilarating and scary. This is where mental strength plays a key role in fitness and rehabilitation. I already had the discipline and determination to rebuild my shoulder– now I needed to face down the reason I had logged so many hours at PT. Of course, if your injury changes the scope of how you can perform, all the mental strength in the world won’t alter the fact that you simply should avoid a technique or a certain motion. In this case, I spoke with my orthopedist and therapist, and they agreed I could *carefully* relearn how to roll.

And, for several years, things were fine. I protected my shoulder and gradually stopped the additional exercises.

Trust me, I know now this was a big mistake.

When I started feeling pain in my shoulders, this time on both sides, I went right back to PT. The AC joint was fine, but my pectoral muscles were very tight, while my back muscles had weakened, drawing my shoulders forward. The strain I felt was the tight muscles pulling against the joints. This time, my routine became all about balance– relaxing the tight muscles, strengthening the weak muscles, and bringing everything into alignment again. I had to take a step back from my fast-paced routine to work at a slower, more deliberate pace. It was really hard to skip class and imagine my partners learning new techniques while I idled on the sidelines.

Ultimately, that kind of thinking was more destructive than an actual injury. I realized that for months I had been prepared to work more slowly, avoid some techniques, and bracing for the pain to return at the end of training. By focusing on fixing the problem at the most basic level, I would be able to return to training in better condition, with fewer aches and limits on my abilities.

So, what can you learn from my mistake?

1. Be honest with yourself. The first time around, I didn’t want to admit that it was a long-term injury.

2. Be upset. It’s okay to feel bad that you’re injured. Allow yourself to wallow for a little while, and then:

3. Be gentle on yourself. If your injury is more severe, it may be harder to shake off a funk. It’s okay to take some time to feel frustrated, and there’s no one right amount of time. Talk to your doctor, a training partner, or an instructor; odds are, they’ve been there, or know someone who has. It’s not a personal failure to have an injury, just an extra challenge to deal with. When you’re ready:

4. Burn it off. Do something that will help you purge those feelings. You’ve acknowledged them, and now it’s time to readjust your thinking to help you move away from that mentality. If activity helps you, build up a sweat or scream it out. If that’s not your style, take a few minutes to meditate. Or bake a loaf of bread. Scrub the bathtub if that helps. Wash it all away.

5. Be patient. Healing is a process. You’ll see progress, but probably not as much or as fast as you’d like. Don’t skip ahead just because you miss sparring, or chaturanga, or you’re sick of walking and need to run. Healing is your job right now, so focus on that.

6. Be persistent. Don’t shirk your rehab exercises! Sooner or later, you’ll end up right back where you left off, or worse.

Ultimately, it’s all about changing how you think about training. Progress in fixing your injury is still progress, even if you’re lifting half the weight you were before, walking one mile instead of ten, or doing push-ups from your knees (or not at all). If you’re goal-oriented and need some motivation, work on specific exercises to rehab your injury. Or try a new challenge!

Edited to add: I was talking with my friend C, who is doing a lot of interesting exercises at the gym. She mentioned the inverted row, so I looked it up and realized that after some more rehab work, I should try to fit it into my routine. I need to be careful with exercises with a pushing component (anything with press in the exercise name), but rows involve *pulling* and bring the back muscles into play. Check out this post from Nerd Fitness! My favorite line: “Let’s go SAT on this s.o.b. – “benchpress” is to “pushing” as “inverted row” is to “pulling.”  Balance FTW!”

In the meantime, with an upper-body injury, I’ve turned to concentrating on my lower-body fitness. Weighted squats and step-ups were out for a while, so I played around with one-legged squats, lunges using a balance board, and a number of exercises to improve my agility and coordination. Don’t take yourself out of the race just because you’re no longer running at the same speed. My father has become a dedicated kayaker. My mother still hikes, just with ice cleats in winter. Change the course, change the destination… just keep going.

Happy new year!

Today is the first day of the new year in the Jewish calendar (5772, to be precise). There’s an advantage to having two new years to celebrate– it means I have two chances to evaluate my progress, come up with new goals, and get a fresh start.

Another nice thing about the new year is all the amazing food my family makes! Dishes with apples and honey are traditional, of course, but my favorite treat is mandelbrot. Mandelbrot means “almond bread,” but it’s actually a cookie similar to biscotti. Biscotti means “twice baked,” and that’s how the mandelbrot are made. They’re baked once in a loaf shape, sliced, and then put back in the oven to get nice and toasted.

My family’s recipe comes not from our aunt or grandmother but my parents’ friend Jim. He and his wife, Ruth, have been family friends for years, and Ruth and my mother are in a Mah-Jong league together. It doesn’t get any more authentic than that.

For a sweet new year

Jim’s Mandelbrot

3 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 c. + 1 Tb oil
1 c. sugar
3 eggs
1 c. slivered almonds (chop some fine)
8 oz. chocolate chips

5 Tb. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F; grease 2 baking sheets.

Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together.

Beat oil, sugar, and eggs in a large bowl. Gradually add 2 cups of the flour mixture, beating constantly.

Fold in almonds and chocolate chips, then add remaining flour. Mix well by hand. Do not overmix dough.

Lightly flour your hands, then divide the dough in quarters and transfer to the baking sheets. Shape into flattish loaves about 3″ wide and 3/4″ high.

Combine the remaining sugar with the cinnamon and sprinkle over each loaf, reserving half the mixture.

Bake for 20 minutes; remove from the oven and cut each loaf into 1/2″ slices. Turn slices cut side up, sprinkle with the remaining cinnamon sugar, then bake until toasted and golden, about 15 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then store in an airtight container.

I always love visiting my family for the holidays, when we can spend time together and cook and bake up a storm. In fact, those are my resolutions for the new year– spend time with the people who matter to me most and cook plenty of fabulous food!

Happy new year!

Friday Fitness: This is Why You’re Fit

Depending on how you look at it, it’s either the end of the work week or the beginning of the weekend. Either way, it’s an excellent opportunity to try something new and shake up your routine.

A couple of years ago, a website called thisiswhyou’refat.com was created to showcase extreme culinary creations such as  the “30,000 calorie sandwich.” The inevitable backlash included sites that used “This is why you’re thin” to advocate for dishes heavy on the vegetables and light on sugar or processed ingredients.

I don’t think fat or thin are as important as fit or unfit. I’m much more interested in how I can train myself to spar longer rounds without getting tired, learn a new technique, run greater distances, or simply introduce healthy changes into my life.

Like many people, I have a desk job. This entails lots of sitting and barely any motion, except for my eyeballs and mouse hand. Although I’m active in the evenings and on weekends, I’ve started coming up with ways to keep myself moving throughout the day.

I’m lucky enough to work within walking distance of the Brooklyn Bridge, and that’s this week’s This is Why You’re Fit: every day, weather allowing, I walk across the bridge and back on my lunch break. I’ve invested in sun block and a spare pair of sunglasses to keep in my desk drawer, and it’s worth it to get outside and  enjoy the air and the view. I come back to work feeling refreshed and ready to tackle all the projects I left behind.

Wanna buy a bridge?

Show me why you’re fit!

Food for Thought

I’ve made a few posts about my martial arts training, which starts to cover the “tough” part of this blog. What about the cookie?

Cooking, baking, and the pursuit of wonderful food have always been a part of my life. I grew up in the wilds of Westchester county, NY, following my grandmother over the river and through the woods in hot pursuit of chanterelles, morels, and oyster mushrooms. I learned to bake challah before I could write in script. My family views cooking as a competitive, full-contact sport—one where everyone wins. Family get-togethers mean family meals, and so food has taken on an extra dimension of emotion for me. When I’m stressed, I bake bread. When I want to celebrate, I create elaborate cakes and cupcakes. It’s no coincidence that my second date with the Husband Elect was disguised as a cooking lesson; he took me out for sushi for our first date and refused to let me pay, so I returned the favor by cooking him dinner and teaching him some of my favorite dishes.

Food can be nourishing, comforting, healing, and an expression of love. When I sat down to think about the first recipe I wanted to share here, I knew it had to be something simple, yet significant.

I couldn’t think of any better way to kick off the food content of this blog than the first recipe I ever memorized or adapted: Maida Heatter’s All American Brownies. This may not be the most intuitive choice for a health and fitness blog, but I believe that there is absolutely room in a healthy lifestyle for delicious, decadent brownies.

When I was 7 or so, I was obsessed with Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. My parents encouraged my culinary experimentation, and so my mother’s copy of Desserts was festooned with tiny sticky fingerprints. Other girls pretended to be Punkie Brewster or Jem; I would tie an apron around my waist and carefully star recipes in pencil. (Sometimes I was Baker Jem, a pink-haired glam-rock chef who made cookies and cakes shaped like stars and music notes.) But no matter how many recipes my mom and I made, I kept coming back to the All-American Brownies.

Now, I like soft, gooey, fudgy brownies. If you prefer yours on the cakier side, add an extra 1/4 cup of flour and bake for another 5-8 minutes.

Try not to drool

Try not to drool on your keyboard!

Fudgy Brownies

Adapted from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts

1 stick + 2 Tb unsalted butter
6 Tb unsweetened cocoa
1 c. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
Secret ingredient: 1/4 tsp. cinnamon

Place oven rack 1/3 up from the bottom; pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.

Prepare an 8″ square cake pan by lining the inside with a piece of foil. (It will be easier if you flip the pan upside down and shape the foil over the outside first.)

Place the butter and cocoa in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Stir occasionally, until the mixture is completely melted and smooth. Set aside to cool for about 3 minutes.

Stir in sugar and vanilla.

Add eggs one at a time, stirring until smooth after each addition.

Add flour, salt, and cinnamon, mixing until smooth.

Pour batter into pan and use a spatula to smooth the surface and coax batter into the corners of the pan.

Bake for 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the cake’s center comes out barely clean. Don’t worry if it’s a bit sticky– the brownies will continue to bake a little out of the oven.

After removing the pan from oven, allow it to cool to room temperature. (I sometimes have trouble with this step, preferring to excavate the warm brownies if I don’t need them to look super-neat.) Then you can use the edges of the foil to lift the brownies right out of the pan, or you can place a rack or plate on top, invert the pan, lift it off, and remove the foil. Then use another rack or plate to flip the brownies right-side up.

Place brownie sheet on a cutting board and cut into 16 even pieces with a sharp knife. If the brownies aren’t cutting easily, chill in the fridge.

Wrap or cover any leftover brownies so that they don’t dry out. They can be frozen, or in theory should keep for a week in the fridge, but I’ve never had them last long enough to test that theory.