December is for Takeout

Somewhere along the way, the month of December started to really stress me out. More than one Christmas has involved crying on my part because it was just SO NOT FUN, in frustrating contrast to my hopes for the day. Last year I made some progress with having a more enjoyable and mellow Christmas, mainly by concentrating on gifts for kids and donating all other gift money to the Vermont Food Bank. (With a matching donation from my employer, our gift became 600 meals for Vermonters in need!)

This year I've made another discovery in getting through December in one less-stressed piece: minimize cooking! Some quick tips to share:

Get takeout! In addition to Chinese and Japanese food from Panda North, we also got pulled pork dinner from Hazel this month. (It's huge and comes with two sides, try collards and mac & cheese.)

Trust in TJ's! Tamales from Trader Joe's are both delicious and Christmasy. We had them on Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday this year, also known as December 12th. Tonight we had Trader Joe's pork gyoza, the savory dumplings that are excellent dipped in homemade Sichuan Chili Oil mixed with soy sauce.

Go local! I recently discovered VT Dinners, Brattleboro-area maker of frozen dinners with emphasis on locally sourced ingredients. I tried their Fill the Freezer offer (it's still going until December 31st if you're in the area!) and am now STOCKED with yummy meals.

Soup it Up! Soup can be dinner, add toast if you want to fill in the corners. We always keep cans of clam chowder and Progresso Chickarina for those just-in-case evenings when I don't know what's for dinner.

PIZZA! Of course.

Photo gallery:

Hearty, savory, and a little spicy—this is the VT Dinners Shepherd's Pie.

VT Dinners is running a "Fill the Freezer" holiday deal (20% off 12 dinners or 6 family packs, use code "freezer" at checkout, expires 12/31/15). I went for it and am inordinately excited to have a freezer-full of double serving meals at my fingertips. I'm also very enthusiastic about VT Dinners in general, it sounds so much like my CSA Gourmet Business Plan come to life! VT Dinners, let me know if you're hiring, haha!


One more VT Dinners photo—I've gotten very strong recommendations to try the mouthwatering Chicken Pot Pie. Next on my list. (By the way, I get no compensation for mentioning anything in this post, this is just what I'm loving right now.)

Trader Joe's is 45 minutes away, near Amherst Massachusetts. Whenever we go anywhere near Amherst we take a cooler along so we can hit Trader Joe's and not have things melt on the way home. Just like soup in the cabinet, we try to have some Trader Joe's always in the freezer.

What are your favorite easy dinners? Do you find the holidays stressful sometimes? I hope yours are very merry and bright!!

Best Holiday Cookies! Oatmeal Coconut Chocolate Chip

Today, at last, I'd like to share the recipe for my famous Oatmeal Coconut Chocolate Chip cookies. They make for a great cookie-tin gift for the holidays. They also happen to be So Delicious.

First, let me walk you through the steps. Then, the recipe!

First thing to add is rolled oats. These cookies are healthy! Kinda.

Add flour and sugar.

Add chocolate chips. The trick here is to add a normal amount of chips, and then add some more.

Next comes brown sugar.

And then, the pièce de resistance, coconut. Find just regular dried coconut, not sweetened flakes. Other dry ingredients include baking soda and salt.

Melt one stick of unsalted butter.

Beat together 1 egg and some vanilla.

Add wet ingredients to dry. The key here is persistence over doubt. IT WILL SEEM that the egg and butter are not enough to moisten all of the other ingredients. Put these concerns aside. Mix things together by hand with confidence and character. They WILL start to stick together, even just a tiny bit. That is enough.

Squeeze walnut-sized balls of batter together and place on parchment-covered baking sheet. Bits will fall off—that's OK. Press them back in to random cookie balls.

Because these cookies are so ingredient heavy they will not really spread out by themselves. They will need a little "spank" with a metal turner/spatula halfway through baking. Open the oven, and with your favorite tool, gently push down on each cookie to make it flatter.

Cool finished cookies a bit.

Then transfer to rack for further cooling.

Here's the formal recipe:

1 1/4 c. oatmeal (rolled oats)
1 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 c. flake coconut
1 c. chocolate chips
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 stick butter, melted (1/2 c)
1 t. vanilla
1 egg

  • Preheat oven to 325˚ F
  • Combine dry ingredients.
  • Mix in butter, vanilla, egg
  • Drop on parchment-covered cookie sheet
  • Bale 7 minutes, then "spank" with metal turner
  • Bake 5 more minutes.
  • Let cool slightly, then move to rack to cool

Makes about 35 cookies.

Enjoy! Merry Merry!

Other gift ideas from this blog: Holiday Crafts including personalized mugs & home brew

Bun Thit Nuong, Vermont-Style

On a recent vacation morning, say for example the morning after a national holiday during which I'd eaten a lot of turkey and had some lovely wine, I woke up craving something extremely specific. I wanted a #37 from the Saigon Palace in Toronto, Ontario. We often used to go to the Saigon Palace--on Spadina Avenue just steps away from the University of Toronto's St. George Campus--for all manner of Vietnamese food while I was at U of T. And #37 was my favorite. It was a big bowlful of noodles and stuff--I could try to describe all the stuff, but since it was Vietnamese I didn't know exactly what it was.

In the course of Googling, I reminisced about "The Saigon," as we called it. The Saigon Palace was a diner-like establishment with formica tables and late 80s decor such as pinkish wallpaper and framed Asian-ish prints. It also had a pages-long laminated menu. They served Vietnamese coffee and a million other kinds of drinks, mostly coming in tall parfait-type soda fountain glasses where you could see grass noodles or thick descending drips of sweetened condensed milk through the sides of the glass. Everything seemed a little exotic. Once I ordered what I thought was just hot coffee, and when it came and I gave it a stir, an intact egg yolk came swirling up to the surface to greet me.

A huge bowl of food was super-cheap, maybe about $5 CDN. You could smoke in the back room, which was a big deal to college kids. The back room of the Saigon Palace was the first venue of my eating something on a dare, in this case some kind of small chile pepper that seared my mouth but earned me folding money and a little extra respect. (At least I hoped it was respect, haha!)

Anyway, I learned two things from Google. One is that the Saigon Palace now seems to be closed. The other is that #37 is probably something called Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio, which basically means rice noodles with grilled pork and spring rolls. Yes!

My mission now had focus. My post-Thanksgiving goal would be to replicate Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio as soon as possible and without traveling anywhere. I figured the blogger "Wandering Chopsticks" would know what to do, and sure enough I found some good information on her page for Bun Thit Heo Nuong, Tom, Cha Gio. I also found a second good source at Hapa Nom Nom.

Next came the adapting. Most of the sources I looked at showed a wheat-type wrapping for the spring rolls, but the Saigon Palace always used rice-paper wrapping. It forms a pale, blistery skin on the spring roll that is shatteringly crisp and delicious. While I can actually buy these at the local farmer's market, I didn't have time to do so. So that eliminates the authentic Cha Gio.

But I can narrow my goal and still try for Bun Thit Nuong. As Wandering Chopsticks puts it, this is more an assembly of items than a single recipe. Here's what I put together.

Clockwise from upper right:
  • sliced cucumber, fresh cilantro, fresh mint, bean sprouts
  • crushed peanuts (I put roasted unsalted peanuts in a plastic bag and pounded with a mallet)
  • Rice sticks (called "Vermicelli" as well, by Ka•me)
  • Pickled carrot & purple daikon (Do chua from Wandering Chopsticks)
  • Fish Dipping sauce (Nuoc mam from Wandering Chopsticks)
  • Marinating pork from Hapa Nom Nom (see below)
  • NOT SHOWN: greens—I used tender lettuce leaves and baby kale

While most ingredients are raw and cold, there is a little cooking involved. You need to cook the rice sticks (vermicelli) according to instructions and then rinse in cold water. And after marinating 2+ hours, the pork will be ready to cook. For this part, I used an inexpensive pork chop of some kind—the cheapest pork per pound that I sliced into long thin strips and marinated according to Hapa Nom Nom's recipe. Except... I didn't have molasses, so I made it Vermont-style by using maple syrup instead. I stir-fried the sugar-laden pork for about 10-15 minutes until it was very browned and caramelized. It smelled amazing. I know frying is not grilling, but Wandering Chopsticks says it's OK so I went for it.

Assembly time!

Place lettuce/greens in bottom of bowl. At the Saigon Palace this would be a proper large bowl with pink and blue and yellow designs all over it.

Next, add a generous portion of cold rice noodles.

Garnish around the sides with mint, cilantro, cucumber, pickled vegetables, and still-warm pork.


Top with a sprinkling of peanuts and a generous slosh of fish dipping sauce over all. 

The finishing touch at the Saigon Palace was always a generous squeeze of hot sauce--I used Sriracha.

Notes: This was delightfully close to the rice bowl of memory, I think the Sriracha squeeze and peanuts put it over the top. My fellow eater also really liked it, and he's never been to the Saigon Palace. I would love to include:

eggy steamed meatloaf: This would sometimes turn up in #37 and sometimes not. Wandering Chopsticks has a recipe for this simple Vietnamese classic, also known as Cha Trung Hap

crispy shallots: I ALMOST pulled these off as well, but then I burned the shallots to a char in hot oil. Oops :(

Cha Gio: obviously this would be so much more "#37" if it came with the rice-paper spring rolls

Giant iced Vietnamese coffee: because of course!

Do you have a Vietnamese comfort food? Have you been to the Saigon Palace in Toronto? Do you ever have elaborate cravings that you feel compelled to follow up on?

Race Report: Hamsterwheel 6-Hour, New Hampshire

They called me "Chicago."

The nickname started around lap 5. The race director and his wife were both so super nice, always asking what they could get me when I stopped between laps. The race director's wife, Darby, seemed like my personal cheerleader (and to many others, too!). With her kind words, I knew she was genuinely interested and supportive about how I was doing. She even sent me off on my last lap by saying, "You can do it, and I'll be waiting for you! Go Chicago!" Inspiring words!

I earned the "Chicago" moniker by stripping down to my Chicago Half-Marathon 2013 technical long-sleeved tee a little way into my second ever 6-hour race. The race was aptly called The Hamsterwheel, and took place in the adorable town of New Boston, New Hampshire. I had a feeling when I picked out gear that the Chicago shirt would be easy to turn into a name for me—and when it happened I thought it was great. I worked hard for that "Chicago" back in 2013, and here I was working even harder, for another bigger goal.

I also sported my new Green Mountain State buff, since a New Hampshire race needed to know the presence of its intrepid western neighbor.

But back to the beginning.

After my 6-hour race in August I immediately signed up for another one. I love the idea of putting in whatever miles and pace you want, with time being the limit--not distance. New Boston, NH is about 90 minutes from where I live in Brattleboro, Vermont, so an early morning drive there would do the trick, and I'd be done racing by 2pm, ready to drive home. Perfect!

Of course an August race is very different than a November one. When I signed up on a sunny day, I had no idea if it would be snowing, freezing, blizzarding, or what. Fortunately the weather was mild--around zero degrees (32F) early on and then it warmed up a tiny bit. It had rained the day before but cleared up by Saturday November 14. Up and driving before dawn, I saw the pink clouds of sunrise as I drove through New Hampshire countryside. I was at the race site and checking in before 7:30.

My November course was also very different in character than the August one. August was a 2.2 mile loop of mostly dirt with a lot of elevation changes. The Hamsterwheel is on 4-ish miles of out-&-back rail-trail, meaning it was pretty uniformly flat and... same-ish. The rail trail surface also happened to be compacted creosote or crushed stone (a fellow participant aptly captioned a photo with "Damn you crushed stone!") or concrete in sparkly hellish disguise or similar. Whatever it was, it was a brutally hard surface for me after months of mostly running on dirt.

Ultra runners are very cool and supportive. An out and back course meant I saw everybody many times. Many would exchange a glance, a comment, a thumbs up, a nod, a small wave. The lead runner, a Canadian woman I'd love to hang out with, gave everyone a quick but friendly "Good job!" every time she passed someone. Classy!

What I like a lot about ultras is how the physical challenge combines with the mental game. Ultras are GREAT for people who are very stubborn and have interesting relationships with pain and discomfort. So far, for me a 6 hour race feels a little like a fight between the mind and the brain. I don't know what the difference is, but there are two voices and they both seem cerebral. One is saying, this is ridiculous. You should stop doing this. The other is saying, hey... there's a reason we're doing this. The feeling is only temporary. Think about something else, because your whining is not relevant. We are more than that.

I don't know where the body factors into this! Between the mind and the brain, the body is like the workhorse that keeps going while its two drivers are arguing about whether to stop at the next tavern or go on and get the job done. Thank goodness that my body just chugs along. Every now and then I try to appreciate just that and shut those drivers down.

Running for so long gets a little delirious and jumbled, so just for the record here are some of my post-race notes. It really was an awesome day.

After 2 laps I took off layers, but after two more I put on gloves and a hat when I realized that conserving energy would help me keep running.

Nutrition was GU Roctane drink and fruit balls. I got sick of the fruit balls within 4 hours. I watered down the roctane after a few laps as I'd done before to avoid being overcaffeinated, but it didn't sit well when it was diluted. My body wanted pure roctane and I went back to that for later laps to good effect. It really is amazing stuff.

As noted, the Hamsterwheel was not a looped course but an out and back with small lollipop/loop at the start/finish. The lollipop was also the only elevation, so I quickly dubbed it my favorite part of the race since I got some variety to look forward to. The hilly bit was nice soft dirt, and I knew it was near the lovely start/finish where I could rest briefly.

I tried not to stop for long. The longest was about 5 minutes once I'd started to realize the particulars of the course. I had some ramen and did some stretching to assuage my aching pelvis.

Laps 1-3 were super easy and felt great. Lap 4 I realized the challenges of the surface. I also realized that if I kept going I could reach my 50k A goal. That was unplanned for, but very welcome. To be clear, my C goal was 6 laps (24 miles); my B goal was 7 laps aka over marathon distance (28 miles) and my A goal was 8 laps or a 50k. The course was so flat that I managed to put in a lot of comfortable mileage at a good pace, and then I just had to gut out the rest of it to make my 50k.

The 50k was a birthday present to myself. Back in January I said to my husband with a note of fear and awe, "I think I want to run a 50k this year!" At that point my farthest distance had been a half marathon, ~20k. By November of this same year I really doubted a 50k could happen and had already set a new goal of running 50k by June 2016. But then... it worked out! I was SO HAPPY. I sang "Happy Birthday" to myself on my last lap and felt teary. And during the course of the race I also necessarily ran my first marathon distance. I celebrated that 26.2 milestone as well, believe me!

In the second half of a 6-hour race I like to trick my brain by subtracting a lap. For instance, when I'm on the 4th to last lap I will say, "Hey brain, only 3 laps after this! Just 3!" I know I'm doing it to myself, but it still works every time. This time on the 2nd to last lap I bid a preliminary goodbye to landmarks. Only one more time to see that fuzzy tree! One more time I'll see the old birch! One more time past the mile marker that isn't a mile marker! One more time until I'll never see the plastic fencing! It didn't matter that I never noticed these things on my last lap to say goodbye that LAST time. The only point was to keep my brain occupied and chomping on its fodder so my mind could do its job.

The 8th and last lap was a lot more bearable than laps 5-7, precisely because I was going to be done. On those middle laps I kept telling myself that periods of feeling bad are followed by feeling good, and I'd get there at some point. And I did.

For whatever they're worth, here are my splits, a lot faster than the 13:30 mile average that I allow myself for "normal" trail running. Note how there is a consistent lag every 4 miles, which means I got to the start/finish station and took a little break.

When I came back in after that last lap, where Darby said she'd be waiting for me, I rounded the last turn and I heard her yell, "Is that Chicago??!"  I raised my arms in victory and ran across the finish line, and she gave me a big hug. So did the 6-hour race winner who was already done, the Canadian woman whose energy and consistency was incredibly inspiring. The small crowd was cheering and it felt just... incredible.

I kind of love that the home-made finisher's medal is missing the final "L"--it's truly the HamsterWHEE!

Before the race I snapped a pic of the first place prizes--golden hamsterwheels!

Like I said, the race director, organizers, and volunteers were super nice and organized. When I ended the 6-hour race and needed solace, they had a fire going, a table of soda that included Coke, and tons of food including three kinds of pizza. I hung out by the fire and rolled my muscles (meaning I massaged them with a water bottle), and we continued to cheer people coming in AND those people continuing on for the 12-hour and 24-hour races. Some people I know think 6 hours is a little crazy... for me I can't imagine running 12 hours or 24 hours. Yet this race had that too, and there were souls that actually did it, running until 8am the following morning. Wow!

Thank you Just Keep Running for all that you do!

Gnarly Roots: Celeriac soup

Celeriac is the next cauliflower in terms of trendy foods. (I have decided. You're welcome!) It makes a delicious and filling soup--like cream of potato but with a smidge more personality. But look at this root! It is hairy and bumpy and gnarled, with a crop-top from where the celery was harvested earlier in the season. Who would think to eat such a thing!? Fortunately, a few trims with a big knife shears off the knobbly bits, and then it can be cubed and ready for soup.

My celeriac comes from the farmer's market, and I followed a Celeriac and Roasted Garlic soup recipe by Simply Delicious. Celeriac has a distinctive celery taste, but is more subtle than celery's bright green zing. The Simply Delicious recipe recommends using roasted garlic rather than raw, to keep that on the mild side too.

 Here are my two roots, one roasted and one not, ready to soupify.

A quantity of potatoes add body to the soup; onion is also in the mix. After sautéeing I added prepared chicken stock for a homey vibe, though any stock will do.

Cook until soft, purée, and serve with a swirl of cream or half and half. This provided a great work lunch for three days running!

Have you tried celeriac? Do you "soupify" it or do something else?

Happy Halloween! Goodbye October!

This week I went to Boston for work, which I take as an opportunity to eat different food than I can get in Brattleboro. I wanted Indian food or spicy Middle Eastern food, but what I found was just as good.

I got Wagamama Ramen at Wagamama in Harvard Square. It was delicious. Wagamama seems to be a British chain of Japanese style noodle bars, and I'm sure it is like the McDonald's of ramen to a purist or something like that. But to someone who doesn't know any better, I was delighted by the smokey porky briney taste of the dashi broth, and the mix of meats and seafoods. The Wagamama Ramen includes "chikuwa," which is a foodie first for me. According to Wikipedia chikuwa is a "tube-like food product" essentially made from fish paste and starches molded into a tube and then broiled and sliced. You can see it in rings on the right-hand side of my bowl there. I liked it.

I rented an apartment for my trip because it was actually cheaper than a hotel room. To make sure I would be happy in the morning, I stopped by Whole Foods after dinner and picked up some cold brew coffee.

The second evening I went with colleagues to dinner at Bostonia and had a scallop entree I can't stop thinking about. George's Bank scallops with ricotta gnudi and beech mushrooms, offset by crunchy snap peas and pea shoots, all in a silky creamy parmesan sauce. So good.

Back in Vermont, the end of October means end of the West Brattleboro Farmers Market for the season. On the last day little fires burn merrily around the market.

Giant apples in the Halloween sun

Spooky Halloween decoration, courtesy of fourth grade.

This year we carved our pumpkins using a carving kit that included templates. I was very impressed by how the pumpkin saws and scoop tools worked well even for younger carvers. Did you know that we no longer use real candles inside pumpkins, but rechargeable electric ones? Safe, though not quite the same warm glow.

Onward to November! My plans for this next month are mostly running related: to do my annual Pile on the Miles challenge (goal: 101 miles in November), help co-direct the local Thanksgiving Turkey Trot race, and run another 6-hour race on November 14. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! (Attributed to Admiral Farragut, I know this phrase not because of my grasp of naval history but because of its memorable use by the Charles Coburn character in "The More the Merrier" (1943) co-starring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea. Great movie.)

Days of Soup and Snowflakes

The weather has changed in Vermont. The days are noticeably shorter. It's also cooler—one day we had the windows open at night, the next we had them shut tight because it was suddenly CHILLY. We've started running the furnace again. I am craving hot soup and crusty bread with a lot of butter on it. It's really hard to get up at 5:30 am to go run... I fail on most days, and I'm forgiving myself for that.

The foliage this year has been pretty, but fast. Last weekend it hadn't quite started yet, this weekend it's almost over.

Leaf vista

Dead morning glories and tomatoes—apparently the killing frost came last night.

Ready for jack-o-lanterns

Leaf bags turned into impromptu "bird mountain" by kindergartener

Also, it snowed today. Just a few nuggets in a mini flurry. But... still.

How is your October going? Is it AUTUMNAL?

Still Septembre?

Hello friends! So my son started kindergarten this year, which involves taking French. Last week he asked me, pronouncing the final word in French, "Is it still Septembre?" Why, yes. Yes it is still Septembre. Here is what I've been up to in the last month or so.

A pleasant visit to the King Arthur Flour Company in Norwich, Vermont.

 There's a vibrant cafe inside...

...and I ordered a delightful hammy panini to eat as I visited with some special people who live in the area.

King Arthur Flour is a Certified B Corporation, a special kind of business structure with a triple bottom line, showing that not only do they aim to grow profit, but also benefit people and planet.



I had a $25 gift card and picked out a woodsy tea towel, an apple oven mitt, a baker's blade (also known as a "lame"), and a yeast measuring spoon.

The yeast spoon is particularly exciting. It measures exactly the amount of 1 packet of yeast, being 2 1/4 teaspoons. I stopped buying yeast packets years ago and have been carefully measuring out 2 1/4 teaspoons of bulk yeast ever since. Being able to do this in ONE SCOOP is pure genius.

September also means the Guilford Fair here in Vermont. Here are some prize winning vegetables—check out the gorgeous cabbages in the center.

Hey look—King Arthur Flour prizes!



This weekend we also made it back to Pickity Place in New Hampshire for an elegant multi-generational lunch. (Here is my 2014 post.)

We were seated in the sunroom this time--well worth making a special request!

 Mint tableside

Fruit & cheese to start

Potato soup... it had a nice, savory porcini mushroom undertone

Seared citrus salad with slice of watermelon radish and one tiny pickled pepper

Foccacia with dipping oil

The beef medallions over barley was actually a chicken-fried steak over risotto. Summer squash on the side. It was really good!

Lemon cupcake with blackberry buttercream... and a blackberry! 

Pickity Place does an amazing job. They make you feel special and pampered, but they are also a well-oiled machine with 3 seatings a day. And of course, the grounds are also very picturesque, great for a post-prandial wander.





Also, it was Bombadil Feast Day this weekend! We started this tradition in 2011, and our 5th annual edition is going stronger than ever. We had guests, and readings, and stomp rockets in the yard.

Sausages are now a major part of the tradition, in addition to drinking-bowls.

Somehow Lentil Salad seemed hobbit-y.

How was your Septembre? Please leave a comment and share!