Category Archives: food

What’s Been Cooking? Maternity leave, weeks 3-4

Swedish cardamom buns

In Germany, expecting and new mothers have the advantage of a legally protected, essentially “no work allowed” time for 6 weeks before and 8 weeks after their due dates. So now I am on Mutterschutz (maternity leave) and working my way through some cooking and baking projects to keep me from getting too stir-crazy at home and to try and stock the freezer with easy winter meals to reheat when our tiny human arrives.

You can catch up on what I made in my first two weeks off here. Below, see what I’ve gotten up to in my second fortnight off:

Week 3 – bread week, with a bit of soup

By chance, I seemed to settle on a few bread-making projects this week, so in the spirit of The Great British Bake Off, I dubbed Week 3 my personal “bread week.”

On Monday, I made traditional challah from the Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook. It didn’t go quite to plan but was a fun process anyway. Read all about it here.

After the challah failure, F requested that I try my hand at a classic sandwich bread. After some sleuthing, I settled on smitten kitchen’s oat and wheat sandwich bread – it looked tasty, straightforward, and we happened to have all the ingredients at home. So on Wednesday, I put my bread-head back on and got to work. We only have one loaf pan (make that had – I just bought another one!), so I halved Deb’s recipe. The dough came together quickly with some whisking, dumping, and stand mixing (or hand-kneading, but to be honest I’m glad not to have to do that anymore thanks to investing in a stand mixer). I added two extra tablespoons of flour, as the dough was quite wet, then turned it out, plumped it into a ball, and popped it in a bowl for its first rise.

The first rise went a bit longer than Deb’s recommended 60-70 minutes, but I trusted her when she said this was a forgiving recipe. It proved nicely and shaping it into a log roll for the loaf pan was not difficult, although I should have made it a bit shorter, as I think the second rise might have been impeded by the crinkle in the middle (see picture above). Despite the crinkle, the bread baked up wonderfully and, if a bit low-to-the-ground, tasted great. If you don’t believe me, ask F, who said: “It could be a bit bigger but I actually like how dense it is and it tastes really good.”

On Thursday, I took a break from bread and made F’s delicious Hokkaido (aka “red kuri/kari”) squash soup with ginger and coconut. We’ve made it three or four times this fall, which I thought definitely merited its own blog post, so head over here for the newly posted recipe!

On Friday, I went back to bread – this time sweet, in the form of Swedish cardamom buns from NYT Cooking. The whole process took 4-5 hours, but most of that was hands-off time. I think I managed to roll and knot the buns kind of correctly, but some of them split apart in the oven. They also turned out a bit dark (and dry on the second day); I wonder if mine were actually smaller than the recipe intended them to be, although I made 16 as recommended. The cardamom buns did taste good, though! Quite sweet, but countered nicely by the cardamom. Friends professed their enjoyment after dinner on Friday, and a (flexible-ish) vegan friend even ate an entire bun! I’d make these again, perhaps with a shorter baking time and/or slightly lower temperature.

Week 4

I wasn’t feeling super inspired this week, but I ended up doing a bit of baking and cooking anyway.

oat & wheat bread, take 2

On Tuesday, I made smitten kitchen’s oat and wheat sandwich bread again, this time the full recipe. I used the rest of my bag of whole wheat/wholemeal flour, which was 540g, then topped up to the required 635g with spelt flour. I also used olive oil rather than sunflower oil in the dough (Deb says you can use either). The first rise was good again, and instead of dividing the dough I shaped and plopped it all into our new, very large, loaf pan. The bread turned out well – taller than last time – and tasted just as good as the previous loaf, with a nice crust. I froze it in two halves and we thawed it later in the week. The only unfortunate outcome of the freeze-thaw is that the bread dried out a bit and the slices were very crumbly. I wonder if adding a little more water to the dough would also help?

tofu noodles

For Tuesday lunch, I cracked open Anita Bean’s The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook, one of our favorites for easy, vegetable-forward, pantry-based meals. I made her tofu noodles: a tofu, noodle, and vegetable stir fry, simply seasoned with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and lime. It was quick to put together and tasted great, with enough leftovers to cover us for dinner on the same day.

For Friday lunch, I made baked potatoes (aka jacket potatoes for UK readers) using this method (brine then bake at a high temperature), as recommended by The Kitchn. I can’t say the potatoes turned out differently from usual (I usually smear them with oil and salt, then bake for about an hour at 400F/200C), but they were certainly delicious with nice crispy skin. I topped mine with butter, sour cream, baked beans, and cheddar. F made a tuna-sweetcorn mixture for his. We devoured them too quickly to get a picture!

The autumn apple crop continues to put in a strong showing at our favorite fruit and veg stand at the Wochenmarkt around the corner from us. So for a Friday treat, I made these oatmeal brown sugar baked apples from The Kitchn. The apples split a bit towards the end of baking, but that didn’t put us off. Oats and walnuts added nice additional textures, and F proclaimed, “I love this!”

I’ve discovered Junior Bake Off (it’s quite sweet! And some impressive young bakers) and watched an episode this week where they had to make Viennese Whirls. I was inspired (and by “inspired” I mainly mean “developed a strong craving”…blame it on late pregnancy?), and on Saturday tried my hand at Mary Berry’s recipe via The Candid Appetite. Let’s just say that piping was attempted and quickly abandoned, so these became “buttery sandwich cookies” instead. Delicious, although almost too sweet, even for my taste.

Stay tuned for my next edition of “What’s Been Cooking” in a couple of weeks…


Recipe: Hokkaido Squash Soup with Ginger & Coconut

Hokkaido squash soup

One of the reasons I love fall/autumn cooking is the abundance of squash. I love squash’s versatility: you can roast it, stuff it, boil and mash it, add it to curries, and puree it into soups. We’ve already done all of the above this fall, mainly with vibrant Hokkaido (aka “red kari/kuri”) squash, a relatively new discovery for F and me but a squash variety that is readily available here in Germany, and often cheaper than Butternut squash. Hokkaido has another advantage in that it doesn’t need peeling: the skin is thin enough to eat once cooked.

We often oven-roast slices of squash (season with salt, pepper, and fennel seeds) as a staple side dish, but F has also made this delicious Hokkaido squash soup three or four times in the past couple of months. We love it, and it has already become one of our go-to easy lunches or dinners.

This Hokkaido soup with ginger and coconut has a short ingredient list and lots of vitamins to keep you healthy through the winter (although you should also get a flu shot – herd immunity, people!). The recipe can be as flexible as you want: use more ginger, leave out the turmeric, use water instead of stock, add celery root – or not! I wouldn’t recommend leaving out the coconut milk, though; one can gives the soup just the right amount of coconut flavor and enhances its silky-smooth texture.

Hokkaido Squash Soup with Ginger & Coconut (F’s original recipe; makes 4-6 portions)

Ingredients

  • olive oil, or neutral oil of your choice
  • 1-2 medium onions, roughly chopped
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • “a hefty amount” (2in/4-5cm) fresh ginger root, peeled & roughly chopped
  • 1-2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 small-medium Hokkaido squash, washed, de-seeded, & cut into medium-large chunks (you could use Butternut squash instead if that’s easier to find where you live)
  • optional: 1/4 – 1/2 celery root, peeled & cut into medium-large chunks
  • 1L vegetable stock
  • 1 can (400mL) coconut milk
  • to taste: salt & pepper

Procedure

  1. Prep onions, garlic, ginger, and stock. Cut up your squash and celery root.
  2. Heat a few generous glugs of olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions, garlic, and ginger and sauté, stirring occasionally, until they soften and start to brown.
  3. Add turmeric and stir for a minute or so.
  4. Add squash and celery to the pot. Pour in enough stock that it just covers the vegetables (or use more liquid for a thinner soup).
  5. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to an active simmer. Put the lid on and cook until the vegetables are soft enough to puree, about 15-20 minutes.
  6. Take the pot off the heat and use an immersion blender (or transfer carefully to a standard blender) to puree the soup until smooth.
  7. Stir in the coconut milk. Do not return the pot to the heat – the coconut milk may split.
  8. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if necessary. Serve with crusty bread.

Enjoy!


Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Traditional Challah

Welcome back to my (very) casual series, “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen.” Maternity leave (pre-baby, of course) is allowing me more time to explore breads of the world in the Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook. Last time, I made paratha, a rich, buttery flatbread from South Asia. This week, I delved into Jewish cuisine to try my hand at an enriched, yeasted bread: challah. Read on for the experience…

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #10: Traditional Challah

This recipe comes from The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook‘s section titled “Challah and Beyond: Enriched Breads, Rolls and Buns”; my first attempt at a bread from this chapter. The section’s introduction explains challah‘s significance in Jewish history, cuisine and culture, as well as enumerating the different types of challah made around the world. The book also mentions the importance of challah’s braided shape: “A braid, with all of its arms intertwined, is said to represent love” (p171). I can get on board with that!

Hallo, challah!

I decided to start my enriched bread adventures (“breadventures,” if you will) with the chapter’s first recipe, for traditional (Ashkenazi) challah. This required a bit of planning ahead, as I had to make pâte fermentée the day before. That done, on Monday morning I fired up the stand mixer to combine/knead the pâte fermentée with the rest of the dough ingredients: flour (I didn’t have bread flour so used all purpose/plain), sugar, salt, yeast, egg yolks, honey, and water.

After an hour’s rise, I wasn’t sure if the dough had actually risen enough – I feared our kitchen’s “room temperature” may have been lower than Hot Bread Kitchen’s – but went ahead with the rolling and braiding anyway.

The dough was relatively easy to work with, although it took me a while to create ropes that were long enough to make into two-strand braided loaves. Even so, the loaves looked pretty small. But I continued with the steps and let the braided and egg-washed loaves proof/prove for another hour. I gave them a second egg wash then popped them into the oven, where after 45 minutes they had developed a beautiful, shiny, mahogany crust.

Upon handling and tasting the cooled challah, it became clear that they weren’t quite right: too dense (under-proved, I think, and/or maybe because of using plain rather than bread flour) and too salty, even though I reduced the amount of salt because kosher salt is hard to find here. Despite the less-than-stellar outcome, the challah-making process was fun and straightforward, and I’ve learned a few lessons for next time.

Would I make this again? Yes, but with proper bread flour, less salt, and longer proving times.

Have you ever made challah? What are your tips and tricks for getting a light, fluffy loaf?

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What’s Been Cooking? Maternity leave, weeks 1-2

I love apple season

In Germany, expecting and new mothers have the advantage of a legally protected, essentially “no work allowed” time for 6 weeks before and 8 weeks after their due dates. If I were fully employed I would not legally have been allowed to keep working. As a freelancer, I think I could have continued working into the 6 weeks pre-due date, but I decided not to because by 33-34 weeks it was already tiring to cycle back and forth for my teaching commitments.

So yes – now I am on Mutterschutz (maternity leave) and working my way through some cooking and baking projects to keep me from getting too stir-crazy at home and to try and stock the freezer a bit for easy winter meals once our tiny human arrives. Here’s what I’ve gotten up to in my first two weeks off:

Week 1

On Monday, we ate leftover meatloaf and mashed potatoes for lunch, then I froze the rest of the meatloaf and decided to use the mash for a project that had been on my list for a while: potato varenyky using this smitten kitchen recipe. I have fond memories of eating varenyky in Ukraine, usually with sautéed onions, butter, and sour cream. A great cheap, cold-weather, stick-to-your-ribs, carbs-on-carbs kind of meal!

Varenyky!

The varenyky dough was simple to make and had a nice stretch to it, which made it easier to envelope the mashed potatoes and seal the dumplings. We sampled some for dinner – tasty, although the dough was maybe a tad thick – and I froze the rest of them.

Paratha

On Tuesday, I delved back into my Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook and posted about that here: Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Paratha.

Superbly chocolaty cookies

On Friday, I wanted to bake something sweet for the weekend, so went for Melissa Clark’s tiny, salty, chocolaty cookies from NYT Cooking. My goodness were they good! Chewy and with crispy edges, gluten free (in case you care! I don’t), and very rich (thanks to cocoa powder and dark chocolate). G came over for boardgames on Saturday and devoured quite a few of them, and other friends also professed their enjoyment. Will make again!

Week 2

It wasn’t specifically on my cooking project list, but we had leftover vegetables on Tuesday so I threw them into these Korean scallion pancakes from NYT Cooking. It was a great use of the veg and made for a nice, lightish dinner, although I wish the pancakes had turned out a bit crispier.

On Wednesday we were hosting friends for the group’s weekly vegetarian dinner. F made spinach lasagne and I contributed dessert in the form of smitten kitchen’s Versunkener Apfelkuchen (sunken apple (& honey) cake), which was based on a German recipe. Delicious! The honey flavor came through really nicely and the apples were cooked but not mushy. I didn’t include the salted honey glaze because we thought the cake was sweet enough without it. Friends enjoyed it and, when I asked how traditional the recipe was, a couple people said their mothers/grandmothers had made similar cakes. Score for cultural integration through Kuchen!

On Friday (a public holiday in Germany – thanks, Catholics!) we had friends over for brunch: pancakes, of course. Later, I made a big pot of these chickpeas from Bon Appétit. For dinner, I turned some into a spiced chickpea stew with coconut and turmeric, NYT Cooking’s Alison Roman creation that became its own hashtag on social media. I’ve made #thestew three times now and it is so warming and delicious. It’s also quick and easy to throw together, quite forgiving, and flexible: add any greens that you happen to have; enjoy with pita, rice, or sweet potato; add yogurt and garnish, or not.

With the rest of the chickpeas I’ll make some hummus and this creamy chickpea pasta. That should get us through the start of next week!

Stay tuned for my next edition of “What’s Been Cooking” in a couple of weeks…


Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Paratha

Welcome back to my (very) casual series, “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen.” It has been exactly two years since my last post in this series, but I’m on maternity leave now and hope to delve further into the Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook before our mini human arrives. Last time in this series, I made tortillas de tiesto, feta-filled flatbreads from Latin America. Today I also went for a flatbread: paratha, a classic from South Asia. Read on for the experience…

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #9: Paratha

This recipe comes from The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook‘s section titled “Primordial Breads: Unleavened Flatbreads”. From this section, we’re already explored m’smen and chapati. Paratha is a rich, layered flatbread from the Indian subcontinent that Wikipedia tells us is traditionally served with breakfast. The cookbook says that “depending on the region, shapes and fillings can vary greatly.” These are a basic, layered-but-not-stuffed version of paratha.

Paratha

The paratha recipe has a short ingredients list; I decided to make half a recipe (8 instead of 16 flatbreads) for just F and me. Rice flour was the most out-of-the-ordinary ingredient but was easy to find at our local BioMarkt (organic supermarket). I wasn’t bothered to look for ghee in the international supermarket (full disclosure: I only thought of that just now, while writing!), so I used regular unsalted butter, which seemed to work fine.

The paratha dough came together quickly in our newly-acquired stand mixer and, thanks to the addition of butter, it was soft, pliable, and easy to work with. After a couple of 30-minute resting periods, I commenced rolling, buttering, and folding each individual dough ball to build up the layers. (If anyone can advise me on how to roll a triangular piece of dough into a circle, I’d be much obliged. My paratha shapes were not particularly round or consistent.)

Grilling the paratha in a non-stick skillet – with more butter, of course! – was time consuming but not difficult. F and I tried a fresh one and declared them delicious. I loved the nutty flavor imparted by the whole wheat (wholemeal, for UK readers) flour. They tasted like a less dense but richer chapati. When asked to describe the paratha using three adjectives, F summed them up as “buttery, succulent, crisp.” I’d call that a success! The paratha are best eaten warm, although they developed a nice crispiness by the time we had them alongside chicken korma and roasted cauliflower for lunch.

Would I make these again? Absolutely.

Have you ever made paratha? What’s your favorite way to stuff and/or eat them?

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Recipe: Best Bircher Muesli / Overnight Oats

Have I really not posted a standalone recipe in over two years? It’s not like I stopped cooking; we have just developed a good rotation of favorites and I haven’t done as much improvisational/original cooking or baking. I’ve also spent some time updating older recipes as I refine them and take better pictures of the end results.

That said, when I make a recipe regularly enough that I’ve almost memorized it, I think that’s a sign it should go up here on the blog. That’s what has happened with this bircher muesli (aka “overnight oats” to the youngsters), which I’ve been making on and off for a couple of years now. It’s a nice change from the usual dry muesli, granola, or oatmeal/porridge that are my usual breakfast staples.

F also likes this bircher muesli, even though he isn’t normally a porridge/muesli/cereal person. It’s neither too sweet nor too gloopy, which I find can sometimes be the case with bircher mueslis. Texture comes from the oats and grated apple, and I usually add almonds or walnuts on top right before serving.

It may not be the prettiest dish, but it’s what I like in a recipe: delicious, nutritious, and flexible/forgiving if you don’t feel like measuring exactly or don’t quite have the same ingredients on hand. The recipe below makes enough for two people for two to three days; if you don’t want that much, just halve or quarter the amounts below,

Best Bircher Muesli (adapted from here; makes 4 generous or 6 smaller portions – enough for 2-3 mornings of breakfast)

Ingredients

  • 3.5-4 cups plain yogurt (I use either full-fat or low-fat, or a combination)
  • 2 cups oats (I’ve used both porridge/quick-cooking and whole rolled oats – both work well and it’s up to you)
  • juice of 4 oranges
  • 4 Granny Smith apples, grated (peeling optional – I like to leave the skin on for fiber and texture)
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • optional: 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

Procedure

  • The night before you want to eat the muesli: Combine all ingredients together in a large bowl or Tupperware. Mix well to distribute everything evenly.
  • Cover tightly and store in the fridge (it keeps well for 2-3 days).
  • To serve, portion into bowl(s) and top with your choice of nuts and/or additional fruit.

Enjoy!


What’s Been Cooking? “First month in Münster” edition

Hello there! Long time no blog, I know. My excuse is that F and I were moving countries. After a wonderful 6.5 years in London, we decided it was time for new adventures in a smaller place with a less hectic pace of life, so we moved to Münster, Germany at the end of May. It was hard to leave our friends and communities in London but we are glad to be in Münster, where we already have a good network thanks to F’s friends from his university days.

Part of moving into a new flat in Germany required buying and installing a kitchen. No, not just the appliances – an entire kitchen. Apparently it’s a thing in Germany. Kitchens are seen as “furniture,” and most flats come unfurnished, so…no kitchens! (Or at least they aren’t a guarantee.) Once a kitchen is installed in a flat or house, if those tenants move out they can either take the kitchen with them (yes, people do that) or they can sell it to the new people moving in.

 

Anyway, designing and buying a kitchen was a new experience for both of us. They are not cheap, but ideally we’ll be in this flat for the next 5-10 years so it’s a worthy investment and we both enjoy cooking and baking. We ended up at KüchenTreff Münster and had a great experience from designing through installation. I’d recommend them if you’re in the Münster area and in the market for a kitchen.

All that was a long-winded way of getting to the point of this post: what F and I have been cooking (and baking) in our new kitchen over the past month! Here goes, in no particular order:

 

I made our favorite Käsekuchen (German cheesecake) for F’s birthday in mid-June. He returned the favor for my birthday two weeks later by making our now go-to cherry pie from Stella Parks at Serious Eats.

 

June was Spargel-Saison in northwestern Germany. Spargel is white asparagus, which I never came across until visiting western Germany and Belgium in May/June. It’s a thing, and for many – like F – it’s something to be enjoyed in multitudes for a short time every year. It tastes completely different from green asparagus – milder and sweeter, to me. Peel it, then wrap it in a foil packet with butter and salt and roast it in a 200C/400F oven for 45-60 minutes. Yum.

Back to baking, the first thing I made in our new oven was a batch of my go-to granola. Needless to say, more batches have followed.

Anita Bean’s lentil-stuffed peppers from her Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook made for a tasty and light dinner on a warm summery evening.

We don’t usually celebrate the Fourth of July (American Independence Day), but F wanted to have friends over for a barbecue and he asked if flag cakes are actually a thing. I wasn’t sure, but I checked smitten kitchen and – lo and behold – she had a recipe for one. A classic yellow cake base (it stayed quite moist, maybe thanks to buttermilk) is slathered with cream cheese frosting and topped with berries in the shape of the American flag. I think it’s one of the most patriotic things I’ve ever done or made… It was a hit with our German friends and I’d definitely make the cake again, with or without the flag design.

What have you been cooking recently?

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Recipe: Winter Salad Variations

It’s nice to spend the cold, dark months of the year cooking and eating hearty comfort foods like stews, soups and roasted vegetables. But sometimes I am in the mood for something fresh and crunchy to lighten things up: enter the winter salad!

Fennel, green apple, kohlrabi, orange

There are number of robust winter vegetables that, when paired with a zesty dressing, make for a delicious salad. Adding something sweet and something salty to the bowl brings the flavors together and balances things out. I’ll list some of my favorite ingredients below, followed by my lemon-dijon dressing recipe and a few suggested salad combinations.

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Radicchio, fennel, apple, celery, walnut, parsley

Ingredient ideas:

  • Carrots
  • Chicory
  • Kohlrabi
  • Radicchio
  • Fennel
  • Apples (Granny Smith or other tart ones best)
  • Oranges
  • Dried cranberries
  • Feta cheese
  • Goat cheese
  • Lentils (green and brown hold up best in salads)
  • Chickpeas
  • White beans
  • Walnuts or other nut of choice

Lemon-Dijon Dressing (a classic I learned from my mom)

  • Whisk together (I usually do it straight into the bottom of the salad bowl) the following ingredients, to taste: freshly squeezed lemon juiceolive oildijon mustardsalt/pepper. You can add some white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar for extra zing, or if you don’t have enough lemons around.

Salad Variation 1: Fennel, green apple, & kohlrabi with orange

  • Thinly slice 1 fennel bulb, 1 green apple, and 1 kohlrabi bulb. Peel and cut an orange into bite-sized chunks. Add some white beans (butter/cannelloni) for protein. Don’t forget the dressing!

Salad Variation 2: Chicory & radicchio with dried cranberries & green lentils

  • Cook some green lentils in salted water with 1 bayleaf. Drain and set aside.
  • Thinly slice 1 chicory head (bulb?) and 1 radicchio. Add to the salad bowl with dressing, then add in lentils and a handful of dried cranberries.

Salad Variation 3: Grated kohlrabi, carrot, & apple

  • Instead of thinly slicing, you can grate kohlrabi, carrots, and apple straight into the salad bowl. Toss with dressing and enjoy!

Or make up your own combination. Happy salad making!


Year in Review: 2018

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr! З Новим Роком!

It’s hard to believe another year has gone by. Time flies. As we enter 2019, here are some reflections on my 2018.

Running and fitness in 2018:

  • Distance run: Strava tells me that in 2018 I ran 1,271.3km =  789.95mi, which is 298.2km/185.29mi more than in 2017 – I’m really pleased with that!
  • Overall, it was a good running year. I refocused on building my endurance base with Sunday long runs, did a lot of Saturday morning parkruns, and even got in a smattering of speedwork in the warmer, lighter months. I also did some run-commuting to or from work.
  • I ran my 50th parkrun in March 2018! This had been a major goal of mine and I was excited to achieve it (the t-shirt is great, too). My parkrun total currently stands at 63, with more to come in 2019.
  • Racing (running):
  • Distance cycled: 2,054.6km = 1,276.67mi of commuting to/from work in London. Fewer than 2017 because my commute is now shorter. More energy for running!

Favorite books read in 2018:

  • In 2018 I read about 22 books. There were quite a few that I didn’t particularly enjoy, but to balance those out there were some gems:
  • Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach. I really liked Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Manhattan Beach was a very different sort of novel but did not disappoint. I loved the 1930s-40s dockside setting as well as the strong female protagonist and a bit of intrigue. Great writing, too.
  • I don’t usually read much non-fiction, but Dave Eggers’ narrative non-fiction book The Monk of Mokha reads like a story, which makes its reality all the more interesting. I learned a lot about coffee and Yemen – apt, given the current situation there.
  • I am a sucker for historical fiction, and Ken Follett is one of my favorites. In 2018, I read A Column of Fire, the third book in Follett’s “Kingsbridge series” that starts with Pillars of the Earth. Just so good.
  • One of my best friends recommended Tamora Pierce‘s Song of the Lioness quartet, which I raced through. Nothing like a good young adult series with a strong female lead and a bit of magic and mystery!
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is brilliant, and I read her first novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, last year. It was not quite what I expected but I couldn’t put it down and her writing is excellent.

Other highlights of 2018, in no particular order:

  • F and I wanted to travel more in 2018, and we certainly achieved that goal. Here’s where we went:
    • A snap weekend in Zürich with my parents. What a nice city!
    • A lovely trip to Provence in early spring (that post has somehow been lost! Sad. If you go, stay at the La Bastide Perchée guest house in Venelles).
    • A few days in the Ardennes at C’s family farmhouse, with both sets of parents.
    • An amazing two-week holiday in California in August, plus a couple of days in NYC (including seeing Emma!).
    • A long weekend with friends in Münster in October, followed closely by a weekend in Düsseldorf with friends and F’s sister.
    • Almost two weeks in Germany over Christmas/New Year, with the in-laws and friends. Good food, good running, great people, and relaxation.
  • Seeing friends regularly over the year for lunches, dinners, drinks, coffees, and board gaming (game highlights: Seven Wonders, Quacksalber von Quedlinburg, Schnapp die Robbe!).
  • Having my parents and five friends with us for our Thanksgiving-in-London celebration.
  • Continuing to enjoy cooking and baking, both new recipes and old favorites. F and I have become more mindful with how much meat we eat and where we get it, plus we’ve been focusing on fuelling ourselves well for our respective cycling and running.

I’m not big on resolutions but my main intention for 2019 is, as usual, to find a healthy balance between work, exercise, time with F, and other things.

In some blog-related reflecting, here is a listicle of of my top posts via views in 2018:

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2019.

Thanksgiving in London, 2018

After skipping Thanksgiving last year (and hosting a festive cookie party instead), F and I were keen to put on a Thanksgiving celebration this year. As a bonus, my parents flew over to London for the long weekend! We planned the usual feasting on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, but this time we added a twist: F and I reversed the traditional Thanksgiving order! Around 3pm we enjoyed all the desserts with coffee/tea — German Kaffee und Kuchen style. A few hours later, we devoured the savory feast. Everyone agreed that the reverse order worked really well, because we had time to socialise in between while the turkey roasted, and we weren’t too full after dinner. Here’s what we cooked for 9 people, and what we did with the leftover turkey:

  • Dessert:
    • Our favorite family cranberry upside-down cake.
    • Smitten Kitchen’s pumpkin pie with pecan praline sauce. I made the crust, F made the pie, S made the sauce and it was very nice.
    • J&C brought a lovely apple crumble to complete the trio of desserts.
    • Plenty of freshly whipped cream and custard (do you like yours hot or cold?).
  • Dinner:
    • Turkey! We ordered an 11-pound turkey from our favorite local butcher in Crouch End. F stuffed it with apples and thyme, generously salted, peppered, and buttered the skin, and roasted it for a few hours. It tasted great.
    • Gravy: F made a meaty gravy and a vegetarian gravy, and both were silky smooth and delicious.
    • Stuffing: I made the same stuffing/dressing (what is the difference?) that I have for the past few Thanksgivings: this classic sage and onion bread dressing from The Kitchn. I think it turned out the best this year because I used enough broth to keep it moist.
    • Sweet potato casserolemy mom’s/grandma’s recipe that’s been a staple at our family Thanksgivings since I can remember.
    • Brussels sprout and tomato salad: another family recipe.
    • C&W brought some very nice garlicky green beans.
    • Don’t forget the cranberry sauce!
  • Leftovers:
    • There weren’t very many! What we made fed the 9 of us comfortably, and could have fed 10 people. We mostly had turkey leftover, so on Sunday I made a turkey version of my chicken and dumplings, minus the dumplings (we had bread).

We had quite an international group this year: four Brits (all hailing from different regions), two Germans (S was down from Liverpool for a few days), and three Americans. It was the first Thanksgiving for a few people, and I always enjoy introducing my favorite holiday to others. It was also so nice to have my parents around and to share our style of Thanksgiving with them – and how many of my mom’s family recipes we use!


Race Recap: Ridgeway Run 2018

…in which I traverse the trails of Tring for 15 kilometers in the pouring rain.

Some Heathsiders, pre-race. Still dry at this point. Photo credit: Louise C.

Background: The Ridgeway Run 15km trail race has been my goal race for a few months. I ran it last year as a training run and decided that this year, I wanted to be fit enough to race it. So I dutifully built up up my long run distance with Sunday club runs in August and September, and I’ve raced regularly over the past month and a half (maybe too regularly?). I’ve tried to incorporate hill/interval/speed workouts into my training and get in the gym for strength sessions. Two weeks ago, I ran my second-fastest 10k ever in Victoria Park. That gave me some confidence going into this race.

Goal: After the Middlesex 10k, I thought I could push for 1:15:00. As the elation of a fast (road) 10k wore off, I revised my goal to a time range: 1h15m to 1h20m should be realistic. On the day before the race, I was feeling tired and sluggish, not really in the mood for a long race in the forecast rain. So I revised my goal again, to: “faster than last year” (1:25:07).

Race strategy: It’s almost impossible to evenly pace a hilly trail race, so I decided to run by feel and use the flat stretches and downhills to make up time lost on the climbs.

Weather & outfit: The forecast was for 13C/55F and rain. Not just a chance of rain, but 99%-guaranteed autumnal British rain. I wasn’t sure how to dress but remembered it being cool up on the ridge last year and really didn’t want to get chilled due to the rain. I wore shorts, a t-shirt under my Heathside vest, thin arm warmers, and my trail shoes (Salomon Speedcross 4, in case anyone’s wondering. I love how cushiony they are, although they’re a tad narrow in the forefoot for me). The arm warmers were a last-minute addition and definitely the right choice. I’m also really glad I wore my trail shoes, as some people raced in regular running shoes and struggled on the slippery ups and downs.

The race: The rain seemed to be letting up as we walk-jogged to the start. Just kidding, the weather gods seemed to say, as it started raining harder as we were briefed and sent off up the lane promptly at 10:00. The first 1.5km are on paved lanes and I was pleased to tick off a 4:54 first kilometer. I tried to leap around the big, deep puddles for a few minutes, but eventually they were hard to avoid and I was pretty much soaked through already, so what difference would wet feet really make?

We entered the woods after crossing a road and that’s where the trails started. An ascent in the third kilometer meant I slowed right down to 5:42 pace (see elevation profile below). We emerged onto the edge of a golf course and it started raining harder: all I could do was laugh joyously and think of the scene in the rain from Pride and Prejudice. I’m not sure how that popped into my mind, but maybe being out in the countryside put me in a Jane Austen frame of mind.

But back to the race: I had a swift fourth kilometer, net downhill in the pouring rain. A man passed me at some point and warned of a steep hill coming up. I had forgotten how long and painful that fourth-kilometer hill was last year, but ouch. 6:36. I was pleased to run the first 5km in 27:15, though, about two minutes faster than last year.

Kilometers 5-9 are my favorite part of the Ridgeway Run. They go through the woods on wide trails, and it’s relatively flat all along. I had a Serpentine runner and two Leighton Fun Runners pushing me along on this section. The motivation helped, especially as we passed the halfway point: kilometers 8 and 9 in 4:52 and 4:59.

Emerging onto the exposed ridge (think sideways driving rain), the 10th kilometer felt so hard. I took a gel around this time but my legs felt leaden slogging up the steep, grassy hill and into the mist on top. My energy flagged until we entered the woods, when I had to refocus in order to avoid tripping over roots and slipping on leaves. My 13th kilometer was the fastest of the race – 4:33 – in part because a heavily-treading man was right on my heels for the entire narrow descent. It was somewhat annoying, but it did push me to keep going!

The last section of the race is a seemingly endless two kilometers back to the clubhouse on paved roads. My glutes and lower back were not happy, and it was all I could do to stay under 5:00/km pace. Come on, you can make it under 1:20:00. Use your arms. Breathe. You’re almost there. I had to pause briefly before crossing the road, then picked it up for the final grassy stretch of 100m or so to the finish.

Not an easy elevation profile!

The result: I finished the 15k trail race in a chip time of 1:19:04 (8:28/mi, 5:19/km), coming 23rd woman of 209 and 128th overall of 473 finishers. I’m really pleased with my time: it was faster than last year and within my goal time range despite the conditions. As a bonus, I was part of the first three Heathside women (after Emily and Louisa) that won first women’s team prize! Two other women also bagged age group prizes. Overall, not a bad performance for the Heathside contingent.

The Ridgeway Run reminded me that there is something magical about trail running. It was absolutely glorious to be out in the middle of nature, not a house in sight, with intrepid, like-minded people running the race or out walking their dogs in spite of the weather. During the race, I reflected on how remarkable it is that we can travel so far on our two feet. We are fortunate, indeed.

Post-race: I collected my race shirt then headed to the changing rooms to peel off my soaked running clothes, wash the mud off my legs, and attempt to dry off enough to put clean clothes on. Caroline and I got tea and I shared these flapjacks (without chocolate this time) around before we headed home.

Next up: I’m not actually sure! This was my goal race for this training cycle. I think I’ll take it easy for a few weeks then think about what’s next…maybe some cross-country?


Race Recap: Middlesex 10k, 2018 edition

…in which I run my second-swiftest 10k ever!

Photo credit: Bea V.

Background: I ran a good 10k in the Olympic Park last month. Training has been going well since then, with a handful of solid long runs (13-16km) and a smattering of tempo/hill/speed sessions. I thought I was in good enough shape to run faster than I did in the Olympic Park. Unfortunately, I came down with a head cold on the Wednesday/Thursday before the race… I promptly took two days off of exercise in the hopes that my cold would clear, and luckily by Saturday I was feeling better. Sunday morning, I woke up slightly congested and with a small cough, but physically felt okay.

Goal: Given my cold and a stressful week at work, I wasn’t sure how I’d perform. I thus set myself a series of goals for this race (is that a cheeky way of making sure not to disappoint myself?): 1) Under 46:00, 2) Under 46:18 (my fastest time this year), 3) Under 47:30.

Race strategy: Run by feel, not look at my watch too often, and not put too much pressure on myself. I wanted to average under 4:45/km but decided to keep my watch on the timer-only screen to allow myself to focus on how my body felt rather than be a slave to my splits.

Weather & outfit: Sunny and cool – around 10C/50F, maybe a tad warmer in the sun – with a slight breeze. Near-perfect racing conditions. I wore shorts, Heathside vest, and sunglasses.

Heathsiders pre-race. Photo credit: Jim C’s phone

The race: After an 11-minute warmup job, some leg swings, and a Heathside photo, we bunched up at the start and were sent off promptly at 10:30am. As usual, I let the flow of runners carry me along for the first kilometer: 4:22, swift. Andrew and I exchanged greetings and race goals – we both planned to run by feel rather than goal time.

Alun came up alongside me soon after and then pulled ahead. My second and third kilometers were 4:43 and 4:44. Not bad, but can you run faster?, I challenged myself. I think Andrew passed me somewhere in here and ran alongside Alun up ahead. That motivated me to surge to keep in touch with them. I caught Nilesh around 4km and he pulled me through to the 5km mark: 23:16. It might be a stretch to run 46:00 now, but let’s see what you can do. You know how to run a negative split.

Kilometers 6 and 7 are often my slowest in a 10k: my mind wanders as I get tired and my pace often dips as a consequence.

Not so today! With Andrew and Alun up ahead, I knew I had to try and catch them soon, otherwise they would be out of my sights by 8km. So I picked my knees up and reminded myself to use my arms. I can’t remember when I caught up with A&A but they certainly helped me pick up the pace: 4:36 and 4:34 for kilometers 6 and 7.

One lap to go, I breathed to myself, you can do this. With 2km to go, I gave a push over the very slight downhill section and around the tight corner for the last long straightaway. A 4:28 ninth kilometer at 41:35 on my watch: It’s going to be tight, but maybe you can just squeak under 46:00. Come on! I gave it my all in the final 400 meters, nipping along at 4:10/km pace, and almost caught clubmate Emilia on the line.

The result: I finished the 10k in 45:06 (7:16/mi or 4:31/km) and came 35th woman of 90 in this competitive club race. This was my second fastest 10k ever, and 21 seconds off my PR/PB from back in 2015. I am really pleased and wasn’t quite sure I had it in me, especially having a bit of a cold. But the morning was beautiful and I was fortunate to have clubmates of similar speed to pull/push me along during the race (thanks, Nilesh, Alun, and Andrew!). It all came together.

Post-race: Staggering around for a few minutes to catch my breath, acquiring a delicious apple-cinnamon energy ball from Tom, sharing my flapjacks, and trading race stories.

Next up: My goal race for this training cycle: the Ridgeway Run 15k. I ran it last year as an easy training run but hope to be in good enough form to give it a proper go this year.


Vegetarian Month

After enjoying many a burger on our USA trip this summer, F suggested we eat vegetarian for a month after getting home. We didn’t eat much meat to begin with, and I rarely cook meat for myself when F isn’t around. In the past couple of years we’ve been thinking more about the ethics and environmental impact of eating meat. We thought a vegetarian month would expand our recipe repertoire and be a fun challenge. Read on to see what dinners we made…

Anita Bean stir fry with tofu

Week 1

  • A variation of this baked ziti for two
  • Salad Niçoise without tuna: lettuce, green beans, boiled eggs, random other veg
  • Three recipes from Anita Bean’s The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook (a newish favorite)
    • Potatoes with spinach & chickpeas
    • Dhal with almonds, plus rice: this has entered the semi-regular dinner rotation
    • Tofu & veg stir fry (photo above)
  • Sweet potato & black bean tacos: a lazy variation of my enchiladas. Anything with sweet potatoes and black beans is okay by me!

Week 2

Kimchi soup

  • Cauliflower fettuccine Alfredo (adapted from this Serious Eats recipe): this was already in the regular rotation. It’s delicious, especially if you like cauliflower, pasta, and creamy foods.
  • Vegetarian kimchi soup with tofu (adapted from Bon Appétit): pictured above. Not the most photogenic, but still quite tasty.
  • Store-bought veggie burgers on Dunn’s brioche buns with roast potatoes
  • My soba noodle salad with peanut sauce and Quorn pieces
  • Vegetarian bolognese with Quorn mince: F made this from scratch. Didn’t miss the meat!

Week 3

Colorful salad + gruyere-melted-baguette

  • Homemade falafel with yogurt sauce, tomatoes, and pita
  • Pan-fried halloumi-portobello-zucchini “burgers” on Dunn’s brioche buns (man, those buns are good!)
  • Colorful salad with boiled eggs and gruyère-melted toast (pictured above)
  • Tofu, greens, beans, and rice bowls from The Full Helping: hearty and healthy but a bit bland, even after I doubled the spice amounts.
  • Takeaway (vegetarian) pizza from Sacro Cuore, our favorite place across the street

Week 4

Veg, beautiful veg!

  • Roast tomato and garlic pasta, à la Joy the Baker: we’ve made this a number of times before and it’s always nice.
  • Pie and mash! Vegetarian Pieminister pies, homemade mash, peas, gravy.
  • Baked sweet potatoes (1 hour in the oven, 400F/200C) with baked beans (Heinz) and peas. There was probably some grated cheese action, too.
  • A BBC Good Food lentil bolognese at Joe and Ciara’s
  • Pancakes & Pflaumenkuchen on the weekend!

Bonus Recipes (I can’t remember when we made these)

The verdict

Our vegetarian month went well and neither of us craved meat. The most difficult part, I found, was finding good veggie options while out and about: Tesco has limited vegetarian options in their lunchtime meal deals… We tried a bunch of new recipes and some will definitely become part of our regular rotation.

We like a bit of meat in our diets for the iron and protein (and taste), but ethically and environmentally it makes sense to cut down quite a bit on our meat consumption. So we’ve decided to keep eating mostly vegetarian but allow up to two dinners per week to be cooked with some kind of animal protein (chicken, fish, pork, beef, etc) that we buy from our local butcher (much happier chickens!). We can also be flexible when eating out.

What has your experience been with eating vegetarian (or not)? If you are a vegetarian, I applaud you!