Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Chapati

Welcome to the second installment of my new series, “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen!” You can read about my first bread adventure here.

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Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #2: Whole Wheat Chapati

I returned to the kitchen last weekend for my second “multi-ethnic” bread-making adventure from The Hot Bread Kitchen CookbookI’d been planning to make rich and complex paratha, but my time and energy were in short supply, so I settled on the simpler chapati, a classic South Asian flatbread. I’d helped make chapati while facilitating a cooking class at work last fall; also, many of my Bengali and Indian students and co-workers make it regularly.

Chapati requires just three ingredients: whole wheat flour, boiled water, and salt. What could be easier than that? As the cookbook mentions, mixing flour with hot water cooks the flour so that the flatbreads stay tender and pliable, even the next day. I recalled that you can actually buy special “chapati flour,” which is very finely ground. I used regular whole wheat flour for mine and it worked fine, although I may try using chapati flour next time to see if it changes the bread’s texture at all.

My chapati turned out well. The recipe was so simple and the whole process took just under an hour, from initial mixing to 12 cooked flatbreads. I made them in parallel with F making chicken curry from Simply Delicious. The chapati were (was?) tender, soft, and great for scooping up chicken pieces in the curry.

I took some leftover chapati to work the next day for my Bengali co-workers to sample — they were generous in their praise and told me it tasted like the “real thing.” An Indian co-worker recommended using a little less salt next time and drizzling leftover chapati with olive oil before packing and reheating them for lunch. I’ll try that next time — and yes, there will definitely be a next time for these quick and delicious flatbreads.

Have you ever made chapati? Post your tips and tricks in the comments.

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Singing Bach’s “Mass in B Minor”

Design: John Featherstone. Copy: Rachel Yarham

Design: John Featherstone. Copy: Rachel Yarham

It was a long, hard slog to the Barbican Hall to perform J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor (BWV 232) as part of the Crouch End Festival Chorus. The Mass in B minor (completed in 1749) is a piece of epic proportions — it’s almost two hours long and requires the utmost concentration to keep up with the tricky rhythms, runs, and fugues.

Although I had never sung Bach’s Mass in B minor before, I was familiar with bits of it from listening to recordings over the years. It is a glorious piece. When you listen, it doesn’t sound all that complex because the melodies and harmonies are so pleasing and hummable; however, singing it is another matter! I was forewarned, as my good friend Emma sang the piece with her choir in Boston last year and told me how difficult it was. What I wasn’t prepared for was the non-logical placement of words and syllables on unexpected beats. Learning Bach, I soon figured out, requires the ability to quickly recognize patterns and repeat them at different pitches. Once I understood that, it made many bits of the music easier to learn (multiple sectional rehearsals to “note bash” were also helpful).

To add another degree of complexity (particularly for those singers with perfect pitch), we sang our Mass in B minor in Baroque pitch, which is half a step lower than today’s standard pitch used by most orchestras. Our orchestra for the Mass in B minor, though, was the Bach Camerata, a period instrument ensemble complete with strings, old-school oboes, wooden flutes (they sound beautiful — sort of a cross between a modern flute and a recorder), and horns with no keys (amazing that the musicians can control all the pitches with their embouchures).

Concert day brought the usual marathon afternoon rehearsal, which is always brightened by the fact that it’s the first time we (the chorus) get to see the orchestra and soloists. They did not disappoint. I was captivated from the first duet, “Christe eleison,” between soprano Mary Bevan (whom F and I saw in the ENO’s Mikado last fall) and mezzo-soprano Diana Moore. Moore’s “Agnus Dei” at the end of the piece was also breathtaking. Callum Thorpe delivered resonant bass solos and Ben Johnson‘s tenor was in good form. The Bach Camerata was a joy to listen to and sing with; I was particularly impressed by the two flute players and the accuracy and articulation of the entire ensemble.

By many audience accounts, we pulled off a great performance. The Mass in B minor is exhausting to perform — and probably to listen to — but early reviews and comments point to a success. Our director, DT, certainly seemed really pleased after the first half. It a great experience to learn Bach’s Mass in B minor; I’m glad to have done it, but as a fellow singer pointed out, also glad to move onto the next challenge.

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Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: M’smen

Hello and Happy New Year! Long time no blog… I lost a bit of energy and motivation for it last fall, but now it’s a new year and I have a new project that I hope to blog about regularly. Read on to find out more…

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As the holiday season approached last year, I stumbled upon a review of some new cookbooks, one of which caught my eye: The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook. The review explained that Hot Bread Kitchen is a social enterprise in New York City, helping migrant women share bread-making skills from their cultures while providing them with training and jobs. As some of you may know, working with migrant women is a passion of mine (as well as my job!). The fact that the cookbook included bread recipes from around the world had me sold. I sent the link to F, hinting that I might like the book for Christmas. He willingly obliged.

So, armed with a beautiful cookbook made up of a plethora of “multi-ethnic” (their words) bread recipes as well as extensive tips and techniques, I have made a 2016 intention to try two new bread recipes per month from the book. That’s roughly every other weekend, so it should be manageable. As I make my way through breads of the world, I will write short posts about my experience with the recipes (I will not post the recipes themselves). I hope you’ll join me on my bread-making adventures: “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen.”

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Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #1: M’smen

The first section of The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook is titled “Primordial Bread: Unleavened Flatbreads.” I have tried my hand at flatbreads before and make naan pretty often. I like the general simplicity of flatbreads — they don’t usually need much resting time and cook quickly in a hot pan on the stovetop. For my maiden foray into The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook, I decided to cook the very first recipe in the book: m’smen, a Moroccan flatbread.

The only ingredient for m’smen that I didn’t already have at home was semolina, which was easy to find at our local greengrocer or big Tesco. The other ingredients were plain (all-purpose) flour, salt, water, neutral oil, and salted butter.

Making m‘smen required a few stages of dough shaping and resting before cooking, so the whole process took me almost two hours. I started around 11am with a vigorous 6-minute arm workout of mixing the dough by hand (must get a stand mixer one of these days!), before dividing the dough into 12 balls and setting them on oiled baking sheets to rest for half an hour. I left to do some errands and ended up out longer than expected, so the dough actually rested for almost an hour.

Next, the recipe called for more oiled workspace (I guess my hands were well-hydrated by the end of the process?) to stretch each dough ball out, sprinkle it with butter/oil and semolina, then fold it over onto itself to create a neat little pocket:

post-stretching & folding

post-stretching & folding

Finally, each pocket must be stretched and cooked in a hot skillet for a couple of minutes on each side. The author of the recipe recommends drizzling hot m’smen with honey and having alongside mint tea. F and I did share the first bread with honey — yum — and reheated the rest in the evening to serve alongside falafel and yogurt sauce and Moroccan carrot salad. Once the m’smen cooled down, they were a combination of crunchy and chewy, with a pleasant flavor and a hint of sweetness.

cooking the m'smen

cooking the m’smen

I enjoyed the process of making m’smen. It was a relatively involved recipe with a lot of hands-on time, but the flatbreads turned out delicate and delicious — worth the time investment. The dough was quite sticky and very stretchy; it helped to keep my hands oiled. I’ll definitely make m’smen again and may freeze some to use as an alternative to sandwich bread.

Have you ever heard of “m’smen”? Have you every made it yourself?

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Race Recap: Perivale 5, 2015 edition

Post-race. Photo credit: Bruce L. https://www.flickr.com/photos/76479355@N07/

Post-race. Photo credit: Bruce L. https://www.flickr.com/photos/76479355@N07/

I almost pulled out of this year’s Perivale 5 race at the last minute; work has been stressful and I haven’t been very keen on running in the past few weeks. But then I thought it would be nice to get out with my running friends for the low-key 5 mile race, so I baked some banana bread on Saturday and jumped into the car with Gabi, Caroline, and Sandra on Sunday morning. The weather was dull and grey with unseasonably warm temperatures and blustery wind.

The usual crowd of runners club and non huddled out of the wind in the Perivale track clubhouse until time forced us to run a few warmup laps. When it was time to race, Gabi and I decided to stick with the 40-minute pacer — dressed in a Santa suit, as were the other pacers — for the first couple of miles, as both of us were aiming to run under 40 minutes. We settled into a comfortable, just under 8:00/mile pace alongside a very trim Santa. My Garmin clocked 7:55 for the first mile — right on target. I stuck with Santa for the next mile, which was a slightly faster 7:44.

As we wended our way towards the halfway point and second loop of the course, I finally started to feel properly warmed up and began pulling away from 40-minute Santa. Running alone for much of the third mile, I managed to keep my pace even and clocked a slightly faster 7:42 third mile.

The fourth mile was the toughest: a long straightaway along a busy road with a headwind. Just keep running, you’ve got a good rhythm. Hands low. Entering the small park — by far the most interesting  part of the course — at mile 4, I was pleased to see 7:39 flash on my Garmin and an overall time of under 32:00. Okay, I know I’ll be under 40:00 but let’s see if I can squeeze in under 39:00, I thought.

Passing 35-minute Santa in the park — he was way off pace, poor thing — I swept past a couple of men as we emerged onto the track for the last lap. I love how this race finishes on a track; it feels a bit like home to me. I felt springy as I stepped my way around and had a decent kick to finish in 38:54 (7:47/mile pace), with a last mile of 7:08. A perfect negative-split race — but 1 second slower than last year! I ran comfortably hard but was glad not to overdo it; I haven’t had the desire to push so hard recently. Gabi also said we could definitely blame slower times on the wind!

Perivale 5 is always a well-organized event with good marshaling and a relaxed but competitive feel. Sandra, Caroline, and Gabi ran well, along with a few other Heathsiders who turned up.

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At the theatre: English National Opera’s “The Mikado”

When my parents visited in May, we took them to see the English National Opera‘s (ENO) production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” It was such good fun that last weekend F and I attended another Gilbert and Sullivan production at the ENO — this time, “The Mikado”. Here’s my review:

Whereas the ENO “Pirates” took a minimalist and period approach to its setting and costumes, “The Mikado” took the cast and audience back to the 1920s. The set was a cream and white space on a tilted stage platform. The performers wore pristine suits and flapper dresses while speaking with über-posh English accents (plenty of diphthong!). There were even six male and six female dancers, dressed as waiters and maids, that added to the 1920s feel with tap dance and the Charleston. The only inconsistency was that, at least according to the libretto, they were still supposed to be Japanese.

Musically, “The Mikado” is a strong production. Anthony Gregory played Nanki-Poo with the right dose of romanticism and sang with a solid tenor voice. Mary Bevan’s Yum Yum complimented him well, although I was more impressed by Rachael Lloyd’s Pitti-Sing; she has more opportunity for comedy and has quite a few solos for a supporting character. Graeme Danby’s Pooh-Bah, however, stood out the most. Danby had solid comic timing in his (literally) multi-faceted role and his rich, agile bass voice and excellent diction were a joy to listen to. A musical highlight was listening to the above four singers join forces in Act II’s quartet, “Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day” — beautiful.

Fergus Macleod led the ENO orchestra to a great performance that complimented the singers without overpowering them. The men’s and women’s choruses had good intonation, although their diction could have been better. There was more spoken dialogue in “The Mikado” than I expected and it gave me a chance to revel in the wittiness and precision of Gilbert’s libretto.

Trust the ENO to inject some present-day politics and pop culture into Gilbert and Sullivan — the operettas already use parody, after all. The ENO used Ko-Ko’s opening monologue, “As some day it may happen” or “I’ve Got a Little List,” to get digs at the English rugby team, the VW emissions scandal, and even David Cameron’s “close encounter with a pig.” Brilliant.

Overall, the ENO’s “Mikado” is well worth seeing. The setting is fun, the singing is strong, and the libretto is spot-on. It makes a great way to escape and enjoy a rainy weekend afternoon. Go see it if you have the chance.

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Race Recap: XC Met League #2 – Stevenage

Saturday 7 November saw the arrival of the second Start Fitness Met League Cross Country fixture of the season, in Stevenage. The course used to have a lovely section through the woods — many were dismayed to learn that this year the woods had been taken out (something about permissions for using the area and the woods getting too torn up by XC runners…what, us?!).

So this year the course at Stevenage was run solely around the undulating grassy field — two laps for the women and three for the men — with some snaking back and forth to keep things interesting. Although the women’s course was advertised at 5.8km (3.6mi), it ended up being 6.6km (4.1mi) according to my and others’ Garmin watches. I believe the men’s course was also longer than usual.

Post-race. Photo credit: Ken T.

Post-race. Photo credit: Ken T.

The most interesting part of the race had to have been the weather: windy, wet, but oddly warm for November. Proper cross country weather, some called it. There was plenty of mud to slog through and water to slosh into spikes, not to mention a brutal headwind over half the course. The Heathside ladies’ contingent stood shivering together after taking off our layers and waiting for the start, but once we started running it was quite warm.

The first bit of the course’s large lap had some ups and downs with muddy corners — spikes were a necessity — before it flattened out along the backside of the loop. When my Garmin ticked off 3km just as we finished the first lap, I knew the course would be longer than advertised. No matter, I thought, just keep running. I didn’t feel particularly energetic after a busy week with no running and not much to eat the evening before, so I didn’t push very hard but tried to run steadily and notched pretty consistent splits per kilometer: 4:42, 4:41, 4:32, 4:53, 4:43, and 4:20 pace for the last .6km to the finish. I came well back in the results, at 133rd of 218 women and the 27th or 27 Heathside ladies finishing, but am pleased and in retrospect enjoyed it.

We certainly looked a bit bedraggled and wet-rat-like after the race (see photo above), but we also felt tough and virtuous after braving the less-than-ideal conditions. Well done, Team Heathside!

Next up: Perivale 5 road race in early December

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Singing Mozart & Britten at the Barbican

As a member of the Crouch End Festival Chorus, I was kept busy for the past six weeks as we spent one to two nights a week preparing to sing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mass in C minor, K. 427/417a (1782-83) and Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas, Op.42 cantata (1948). With a shorter rehearsal period than usual, we all had to put in extra effort, but I’d say it paid off in our concert at the Barbican on 18 October.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

It helped that we had the London Mozart Players as our orchestra for the evening. They are an incredible group of professional musicians and it was an honor to sing with them. The soloist lineup was also impressive, the highlight being Grace Davidson, who sang the Monteverdi Vespers with us in February. Fellow soprano K referred to her as, “she who cannot be faulted” — yes, she is that good. Julia Doyle, Ed Lyon, and Dominic Sedgwick blended well with Davidson in the Mozart mass, and Ed Lyon performed a dramatic Nicolas in Britten’s cantata.

But on to the music. I would venture to say that Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor is one of the few well-known pieces that Mozart wrote in a minor mode, and it carries every bit of weight and drama you might know from works such as his Symphony no. 25 in G minor, Symphony no. 40 in G minorRequiem Mass, and parts of his opera Don Giovanni. Our director, DT, believes the Mass in C minor is even better than the Requiem — the latter, of course, is more often performed and enshrouded in the tragedy of Mozart’s early death before finishing it. But the Great Mass is glorious (and also happens to be unfinished). I love singing Mozart because it suits my voice well; the soprano parts sit comfortably in my upper register and I’m able to bring out my operatic vibrato sound, cultivated back in my Oberlin Musical Union days thanks to exposure to many talented voice majors. My favorite movements to sing in the Mass in C minor were the opening “Kyrie” and the powerful “Qui tollis”:

Along with the heavy and dramatic bits, Mozart’s mass has plenty of tricky runs and a couple of fugues that hearken back to Bach, Handel, and Monteverdi. Much of the solo writing foreshadows Mozart’s late operas. I just love it.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

In contrast to the Mass in C minor, Britten’s cantata Saint Nicolas can only be described as “quirky.” Britten wrote it in 1948 for amateur singers and musicians (plus a solo tenor part for his partner Peter Pears to sing), so it has choral parts for boy sopranos, and small choruses for childlike soprano and alto voices. We had three school choirs join us for those parts, which created a lovely balance of adult and children’s voices. Based on the life of Nicolas, who became the patron saint of sailors and children as well as Santa Claus, Britten’s cantata tells a compelling story of Nicolas’ life, works, and piety before he becomes a saint. The cantata has drama, journeys to Palestine, a storm at sea, and even pickled boys. Britten has also embedded two hymns in the work, which DT rehearsed with the audience so they could join in at the right times.

An Oberlin friend, who is an accomplished musician himself, came to the concert and said that the chorus was “really quite impressive,” especially for an amateur group. Thanks, S! I think the concert went really well and it was incredible to sing with the London Mozart Players. Some audience members complained that the Mozart Mass in C minor was “too much of a sop-fest,” but I didn’t mind a bit. Britten’s cantata was a nice contrast to the mass and highlighted our chorus’ ability to make musical connections with school choirs as well as professional musicians.

Next up: Bach’s Mass in B minor at the Barbican in January. Get your tickets now!

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Race Recap: VeloPark Team Relay Duathlon

The event: VeloPark Team Relay Duathlon

The task: each person of a 4-member team (all women, all men, or 2 of each) must run 2 miles, bike 6 miles, and run 1 mile before handing off their ankle chip to the next team member. Winners are determined by aggregate times.

The background: F is an avid cyclist and I’m more of a runner, so I thought it would be something fun we could do together. He and I formed a “mixed team” along with my fellow Heathside runner J and Hampstead Tri Club member N. As the weekend approached, I admit that I started to regret signing up for a race the morning after a chorus concert, but in the end I’m really glad we did it.

The recap: A group of us met in the not-quite-light morning to cycle down to the VeloPark, a 1-mile paved, outdoor loop in East London’s Lee Valley Olympic Park complex. Upon arrival, team captain J checked us in and handed out our colored, numbered, letter-coded stickers: we had to race in order of registration, which meant J went first, followed by me, F, and N. One sticker on the bike’s seat post, one on the front of the helmet, and bibs pinned on front and back of your shirt.

Once we settled our bikes in bay 11, we rushed over for the race briefing: run on the left, cycle on the right, pass on the right, no drafting. The competition looked stiff, as most people showed up with snazzy bikes and tri bars. I felt a bit silly with my Canyon “fitness bike” with a rack, but I’m much more familiar with its handling and shifting than my road bike so am glad I stuck with my gut feeling to ride it. Plus, F and I decided we were out to have fun, not to crush everyone in sight (although of course, the competitive instinct kicks in once you’re out on the course).

Shortly after 8:30am, the first runners were off! The course looked undulating, and I was glad I’d be running a couple of laps before cycling to get a feel for the curves and hills. J and G looked strong coming through the first lap. I downed a banana shortly after J got on the bike, knowing I had about half an hour before my turn.

The sun came out partway through J’s leg, which helped me warm up while skipping in place in the transition box. Before I knew it, J was coming in from her second run and putting the chip around my ankle. Off I went to run two 1-mile laps of the course. Use the downhills, I reminded myself as I leaned into the first descent. I was pleased with a first mile just over 7:00 and tried to keep up the pace for the second lap. It felt hard, but I managed to pass a few runners on the second lap and shouted encouragement to Heathsiders D and S, both already on their bike legs.

As I finished the second run lap, F and J were in our transition box to hand me my helmet, glasses, and bike — great team support — to send me off for 6 laps. One advantage of cycling in my running shoes was that I could run my bike to the mount line much more easily than those in cycling shoes with cleats. It felt good to be cycling after a hard two miles of running, although I did have 6 laps ahead of me. Use the downhills, I again told myself. Once I figured out how to negotiate the tricky corners and the long hill, I settled into a pretty steady pace of about 3:25/mile (lap). It helped to pick out riders ahead of me to try and pass — which I did. F and J shouted encouragement each time I went by the transition zone, and the marshals were equally encouraging.

I finished the 6-mile bike leg in about 20:45 and handed off my bike, helmet, and glasses to my teammates. Just one lap to run. Come on! Wow, running after cycling is hard…it felt like I was running through tar for most of the lap, but I somehow managed a respectable 7:14 mile before whipping off my chip and giving it to F.

The results: After J and me, F and N both had strong races, each of them making up a lot of time on their bike legs (16:48 & 17:59, respectively and including the bike-to-run transition) for our team. N’s fast running also helped, and surprisingly our mixed team, “Heels and Wheels,” came 3rd out of 14! None of us were expecting that, and it just goes to show that if you turn up you never know what might happen.

My overall official time was 43:09 with official splits as follows: Mile 1 Run 7:06; Mile 2 Run + Transition 7:36; Mile 1 Cycle 3:24.9; Mile 2 Cycle 3:23.4; Mile 3 Cycle 3:27; Mile 4 Cycle 3:25.7; Mile 5 Cycle 3:22.1; Mile 6 Cycle + Transition 3:53.8; 1 Mile Run + Chip Handover 7:29.1. My bike splits were faster than I anticipated, with a total of 20:56.9 for the 6 miles plus transition, and I’m pleased with my three miles of running just over 7:00/mile pace.

There was great camaraderie and team spirit among us North London clubs: there were all-Heathside ladies’ and mens’ teams alongside our mixed-club mixed team. The ladies team came second in their category and the men also had a strong race.

The team relay duathlon was my first multi-sport event, and while it did not make me any keener to do a triathlon, I could see myself doing more run-bike-runs in the future. The distance was short and sweet — manageable without having to do major training in either discipline, and painful but over quickly.

Next up: two cross country races in November. Stay tuned for the next race report!

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Race Recap: Return to Cross Country! Met League #1 (Claybury)

Ah, Autumn. Crisp, (ideally) sunny mornings, warmish days, and cool evenings. I love this time of year, as it evokes thoughts of warm, comforting vegetable dishes (sweet potatoes, squash, you know), sweet apple desserts, and of course cross country running! After taking part in a bunch of cross country (XC) races two years ago, I missed all of last season due to working full time while doing a DELTA course. Needless to say, my new spikes and I were keen to get back to the muddy, hilly trails. Here’s my recap of this season’s first Start Fitness Met League cross country race:

Heathside ladies out in full force (photo credit: Cathy J.)

Heathside ladies out in full force (photo credit: Cathy J.)

The first Met League XC race took place at Claybury Park in north London. Two years ago, I ran in regular running shoes (or “trainers” for you UK readers) on what I recalled to be quite a muddy afternoon. The course was much drier this year, so some people even opted to keep their trainers on, but I was excited to don my spikes — and am glad I did.

One could only describe the Claybury course as undulating. There’s one long, steep uphill in the woods that we had to tackle twice — the downhill is equally as steep, and uneven enough to merit caution while descending. As you can see from my splits below (click the image to enlarge), the kilometers including the steep hill were my slowest two of the race.

ClayburyXCsplits-10.10.15

The start of the race was much too crowded: a mass of women running downhill through a narrow passage between the trees. There was a good deal of jostling and trying not to step on other runners. After the first half kilometer or so, though, the field spread out enough to settle into a consistent pace.

Blurry me in the foreground (photo credit: Dulce)

Blurry me in the foreground (photo credit: Dulce)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my body after racing twice in the past few weeks, but the change of terrain and atmosphere seemed to be good and I was pleased with my pace throughout. I ended up alternating leading and chasing another Heathside runner for the second half of the race; she would bound effortlessly up the hills and I would catch up with her on the flat sections. We used great teamwork in the last couple of kilometers to gain on non-Heathsiders and she encouraged me up the last hill to the finish, where she just edged me out. I was pleased with my time of 27:03 (7:15/mi or 4:31/km pace) for the 6km/3.73mi course and felt good. My ankles needs to get used to running in spikes again, though!

Loads of Heathsiders turned up to run for the club; I think at least 30 women and even more men came out. Everyone ran well, and in cross country each person scores points, so the more that show up the more points we take away from other teams! I was 83rd out of 198 ladies but just missed out on scoring for Heathside’s C team because so many fast women came out to run. I’m already looking forward to the next XC outing.

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Race Recap: Middlesex 10k 2015

‘Twas a crisp, sunny morning in early October, as club runners turned out in droves to run the Middlesex 10k in Victoria Park (one of my favorite London road race locations). I’d forgotten what a competitive race this was — it serves as the Middlesex County road race championships, so lots of fast runners show up hoping to nab a medal.

I had no such hopes, but set my personal goal at a somewhat ambitious 45:00. Since I ran a big 5k PB a week and a half ago and felt on the edge of a cold all week, I wasn’t too bothered about trying to gun for a PR/PB in this race. 45:00 would be quite close to my PB from this past April, so I knew it might be a stretch. In terms of pacing, I was aiming to run relatively consistent splits as close to 4:30/km as possible until the last couple of kilometers, when I planned to push to the finish.

Things were going well as J and I settled into a nice pace together. A 4:17 first kilometer before we settled into just over 4:30/km for the next few. An annoying boy around 3km threw us off by dancing around in front of runners before stopping right in our path — I barely squeezed past him while Jo had to dodge at the last second; we both yelled at him (I believe “idiot!” came out of my mouth) and alerted a marshal to the kid’s dangerous behavior.

J and I slowed a bit in the 5th kilometer and came through the 5k in 22:50. That was still on track to run under 46:00, so I was fine with it but knew I’d have to dig in and try to pick up the pace in the second half of the race. The next kilometer was a quicker 4:31 before I started to pull away from J as we approached the last lap. Perhaps I picked it up a bit too much, as my 7th and 8th kilometers were 4:23 and 4:43 respectively…oops! Probably should’ve tried to split the difference and stick to 4:30s. With 2 kilometers to go, I started pushing towards the finish. Things went well until 500m to go, when I suddenly felt like I had hardly anything left. I was able to fend off a runner behind me for the finish, but I didn’t have much kick.

My final time was 45:37 (average pace 7:20/mi, 4:33/km), good for 208th/292 overall and 36th of 79 women (told you it was a competitive race). I’m pleased, as it’s my second fastest 10k time to date. What did I learn from this race? I definitely need more practice pacing 10ks.

Middlesex10k-Oct2015-Splits

Moral of the story: 10k pacing is hard!

Heathside runners did well in the race, picking up quite a few of the Middlesex championships medals in various individual and team categories. S ran a big PB and J and C also ran well; we all enjoyed some smitten kitchen apple slab pie afterwards.

will run for pie

will run for pie

Up next: Cross country! I’ve got some snazzy new spikes and am excited to get back to the muddy hills after missing all of last season.

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Race Recap: City v Wharf 5k & a PB!

Last month, one of my co-workers sent me a link to the City v Wharf 5k and said ‘We should run this!’ A Wednesday evening race in flat Victoria Park, on my way home from work? And a rare chance to run a timed 5k that isn’t a parkrun? Heck yes. This race is set up as a corporate challenge of sorts, pitting runners from companies in the City of London against those from companies in Canary Wharf. Our little charity isn’t really either, but the main office is on the Isle of Dogs, just hop across the Quay from Canary Wharf. We got three of our other fitness-minded co-workers to join us so we had enough for a team. Here’s what went down:

Post-race with running co-workers (photo courtesy of HP)

Post-race with running co-workers (photo courtesy of HP)

A lovely day — cool and partly sunny — dawned for the City v Wharf 5k in Victoria Park. The race was at 6pm, a slightly unusual running time for me, but I fueled well for lunch and packed a peanut butter and honey sandwich along with a banana for my pre-race snack. When we got to the race HQ, we dropped off our bags and were instructed to pick up our “City Runner” or “Wharf Runner” sweatbands — not a bad perk for the entry fee.

I wanted to use this chip-timed 5k as a test of my fitness and to see how close I could get to my PB from 2012. I have been getting to the track pretty consistently over the past month and have had some good longer runs in preparation for the Middlesex 10k next weekend, so a PB was not impossible to consider. As usual, I set myself two goals: a dream goal — run a PB — and a more conservative, achievable goal — run as close to 22:00 as possible and ideally under.

Since 5k races are over almost as soon as they begin, it’s good to have a race strategy. I recently read an article on Runner’s World about how professionals pace mid-distance track races: in the 1500m and 5000m, the first and last laps are almost always the fastest. I thought that could work well for a flat road 5k, so I decided to try and run the first kilometer fast, the middle three steady and more relaxed, and the last one fast. To run a PB I needed to run the first and last kilometers around 4:00 and the middle three at an average pace of 4:20/km.

The pacing strategy worked: I ran an almost perfect inverse pyramid of 4:04, 4:18, 4:30, 4:22, and 4:00 kilometers. I might have gone out too fast, as the 4:30 third kilometer was probably too slow, but it paid off in any case because I ran a PR/PB by 6 seconds! I stopped my Garmin at the finish exactly on my previous PB of 21:18, so it wasn’t until I got home and saw the official chip time results that I knew it was a PB. My official time was 21:12 (average pace of 4:14/km / 6:50/mile). I was the 13th woman of 260 and 146th of 801 runners overall. I am really pleased with the time and it proves that I am in good shape at the moment.

Two of my co-workers also ran PBs and the other two ran really well — one had a dramatic sprint finish with a guy from another company. The post-race food was unfortunately non-existent — just bowls of candy — but the atmosphere was great and it was fun to race on a weekday evening. Cycling home felt really easy after the effort I gave in the race.

Next up: Middlesex 10k in Victoria Park — a fast club race back in my favourite racing location!

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What’s Been Cooking? Late Summer Edition

Gosh, the summer has flown by. Was it the same for you?

This blog has fallen a little by the wayside… I’m still here, just less frequently and with fewer of my “own” recipes, especially now that I can save all my favorites to NYT Cooking. Even though I’m posting fewer recipes doesn’t mean I’ve stopped cooking…on the contrary, our kitchen remains an exciting and comforting place amidst the stresses of daily life.

Here’s a peek into what F and I have been cooking over the past few months, in no particular order.

IMG_1421Ottolenghi’s “Chickpea Saute with Greek Yogurt” — light and bright summer flavors went beautifully over rice with a rich and creamy Greek yogurt sauce on the side. Highly recommended and very easy to throw together on a weeknight.
IMG_1163Pasta with Zucchini, Ricotta and Basil, courtesy of David Tanis at NYT Cooking. Creamy and rich yet summery, thanks to lemon zest and basil.

IMG_1407Smitten kitchen’s takeout-style sesame noodles with cucumber. Simple and delicious — I made them when F was away at a conference and managed not to get too tired of them despite having them over the course of 4 meals in two days…
IMG_1455The Woks of Life’s Shanghai-Style Braised Pork Belly — it took 3 hours but was totally worth it for the melt-in-your-mouth texture of the pork belly in rich, sticky sauce. So so good. We will definitely make it again on our next leisurely weekend.

Non-photographed but just as tasty dishes:

  • Melissa Clark’s Lunchbox Harvest Muffins (NYT Cooking) are moist and not dense at all, despite using only whole wheat flour. They’re packed with grated apple, carrot, and zucchini and made great afternoon snacks for F and me during the workweek.
  • We made Martha Rose Shulman’s Spicy South Indian Cauliflower for the second time. F browned some cubes of paneer cheese to add in and I made naan bread to go on the side.
  • I had always wanted to try making bircher muesli and finally did this summer. I used Nigella’s “basic bircher muesli” recipe and it turned out exactly like I’d hoped. Last week I made a double batch, which got us both through two weekday breakfasts.
  • These blueberry pancakes are SO FLUFFY, thanks to whipping the egg whites before folding them into the batter.
  • Rather have blueberry muffins? I made some of those, too: Call Me Cupcake’s blueberry lemon muffins were just right and didn’t even need the cardamom topping, in my opinion.

What have you been cooking?

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Book Review: Diane Chandler, “The Road to Donetsk”

I was recently contacted by Blackbird Digital Books to read and review a new digitally published novel, Diane Chandler’s The Road to Donetsk. I received a free digital copy of the book and no other compensation. All thoughts and opinions below are my own.

Photo from Google Images

In May 1994, fresh-faced 26-year-old Vanessa arrives in newly independent Ukraine from Manchester, England for her first international aid stint. From Kyiv (Chandler spells it Kiev, the Russian transliteration) Vanessa will oversee the implementation of a £3 billion program to help set up job centers and training to battle rising unemployment after the fall of the Soviet Union.

One of the first non-Ukrainians that Vanessa meets in Kyiv is Dan, an American working for USAID in Ukraine. Before Vanessa is properly introduced, we find ourselves in a propellor plane with her and Dan, on a last-minute trip to Donetsk for a coal mine tour. (Donetsk and its people, we quickly sense, will become a central part of the novel’s narrative.) Vanessa is immediately attracted to Dan’s relaxed American charm, and it does not take long before a romance develops. However, for the first third of the book the romance feels forced and awkwardly dropped into the otherwise fascinating and insightful commentary on Ukraine in its early days of independence.

Chandler vividly and accurately depicts Ukraine in its many guises: simple, sparkling yet laborious village life alongside grim and grimy underpaid miners; expat communities in Kyiv; vast steppe and birch forests; crumbling balconies and garish curtains; complex people who are hard to get to know. Chandler knows her stuff, having managed aid programs in Ukraine around the time she sets the novel. Vanessa’s story at times reads like Chandler’s memoir, so accurately and sensitively does the author portray Ukraine.

Vanessa begins her time in Ukraine as a stereotypical self-professed altruist; she feels a need to “help improve” the lives of the Ukrainians and yet shies away from learning from the people, about the people. Dan emerges as her mentor as well as her lover, feeding her astute commentary such as:

…it’s the way it is here. They expect you to come up with the answers. They always come prepared with their set piece, they toss a problem in the air and then they sit back wanting you to fix it for them. [..] Look, in the Soviet Union, you didn’t speak out, you didn’t offer solutions… (69)

Myriad cultural differences lie under the surface, differences so ingrained into each culture that Vanessa needs all the help she can get to begin to understand them. A surly Ukrainian colleague on the aid program staff helps dispel Vanessa’s naivety:

But do you really expect that we should welcome you here as missionaries? To show us the right ways? If so then you are misled. Because we are more clever than you. Have you any idea of the intelligence we needed simply to survive under communist regime? (355)

This could not be a more timely book, highlighting Ukraine’s precarious position between Russia and Western Europe that has been the case for much of history. This position is particularly relevant since the Euromaidan demonstrations starting in 2013 that have led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine. In the context of the novel, a Ukrainian tells Vanessa at one point that Ukraine stands “at the crossroads between East and West, we are the prize which you and Russia fight over. It is like a tug of war” (354). How times have not changed.

As Vanessa struggles with her position as a western aid facilitator in a complicated country, her romance with Dan also develops its own complexities. The novel’s romantic elements start to feel less forced as Vanessa’s attraction to Dan develops a balance between Dan as a more experienced mentor in the aid world and Vanessa’s fresh, somewhat naive take on it. Recalling that this story is told as an older Vanessa’s memories, we start to sense that something may happen to doom the relationship. Will Ukraine get in the way?

Overall, Chandler’s novel is insightful and enjoyable to read. There are some inconsistencies, such as when Ukraine’s Independence Day is stated as August 25th (it is actually the 24th). I  also found some of the British slang stilted: Vanessa sits “keening silently”; why not just “weeping”? Despite these rough patches, The Road to Donetsk improves greatly after the first third and illuminates important and timely aspects of the aid world.

My reading experience was further enhanced by having lived in Ukraine for over two years as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I often identified with Vanessa’s feelings and observations about the Ukrainian people and their lives. For example, I never did discover the answer to this conundrum:

…the young for the most part attractive and svelte, while the older peasant women had become almost tubular with age, their skin gnarled. At what point did this transformation happen? I wondered… (150)

Discussion of how Vanessa’s aid program impacts the country and people at the grassroots level also struck a chord with me, as this is what the Peace Corps aims to do in sending out volunteers to communities around a country. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) strive to “walk alongside” the people to foster cross-cultural connections and transfer skills. I remember having similar feelings to Vanessa upon reading this passage near the end of the novel:

That we expect a programme to bring about a lasting and yet so radical change in three short years is unfathomable for me – although I did genuinely expect this back then. […] All those people who came into contact with our programme took with them skills and experience into the local economy, into their future… (383)

Many PCVs begin their service with expectations like Vanessa’s; however, we soon learn that despite all the grants we write and trainings we lead, implementing something sustainable in a country with such a different history, culture, and mindset can be nearly impossible. But the people who do come into contact with a PCV or other aid program take away skills and experience, along with memories, into their futures. The exchange is mutual and it changes us for the better.

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The Road to Donetsk has been named a Finalist for this year’s People’s Book Prize. You can purchase Diane Chandler’s novel from Amazon UK and Waterstones. Many thanks to Blackbird Digital Books for the opportunity to read and review this fascinating novel.