An ode to the gym

I’m restless.  A wriggly irritation settles inside my abdomen.  As my blood pressure rises, my sinuses tighten.

It’s a beautiful, 60 degree day… and I am going to the gym.

“I hate the gym.”
“Oh, it’s just a short workout today.  You can skip it.”
“Go home and do a quick run outside!”
“You know you would rather lie in the sun at home and cuddle the cats.”

Oh yes.  All of those.  The last one is the most tempting, especially with snacking thrown on top of it.

Still, I manage to pull into the parking lot.  With only a few previous exceptions, once I am here, I do not pull away without a workout under my belt.

Walking through the glass doors and toward the front desk, a sour wave of chlorine-infused air wafts up my nostrils.  The sickening feeling travels down my throat to my stomach.

“Uh huh, sure you want to be here?”

Somehow I get changed, traverse a flight of stairs, clean off my favorite machine, and get my workout underway.

I’ve never been a gym rat.  In the past, my daily workout routine did consist of an hour doing hills on the elliptical, but I would high-tail it home as soon as I was done.  I might lift here and there if I guilted myself into it.  Otherwise, the place to find me was outside, carving out as much of my neighborhood as possible on runs or hiking in the mountains.

Why bother with the gym, then?  I sometimes feel like perhaps I should join the small religious following that claims that gyms are hell on earth and cardio machines are nothing more than human hamster wheels.

As a distance runner, and perhaps in particular, for those whose lives keep them busy enough outside of working out, training at the gym makes fitting in sweat sessions easier.  And often safer.  If I want to run a few miles, then switch to a bike – and not have to worry about changing, or finding my helmet, or checking my tire pressure, or switching into my cycling shoes, etc. the gym is far more convenient.  I don’t have to do my outdoor run and then pack my bags and drive over to get my lifting out of the way – or vice versa.  It is a time saver.

In terms of safety, I don’t need to have my husband set a timer for when I’m supposed to return home.  This is particularly helpful during long runs, where if I’m hurt early on, it could be quite a while until he comes looking for me.  There are also no road-crossings where I play the, “Let’s try to read the mind of the driver and see if they will follow the crosswalk law.” game.  It’s a lot less likely that some predator will jump out and drag me into the thicket in the green belt.  And there are more people around to call 911 should I pass out and whack my head on the treadmill belt.

But really, to move on from dwelling on the more negative positive reasons…

The gym is a community.  If you’re new, it often doesn’t feel like it, especially once you catch sight of the people you assume are the regulars.  It’s intimidating to start, but after spending some time there, you start to notice the elderly couple who walk the track together every afternoon, or the middle-aged pair who enjoy starting their morning at 5 am on the ellipticals…  The women who catch up while walking an incline on the treadmill or lift kettle bells together…  The high school packs that burn off steam.  People come to the gym for company, to help each other meet their goals, and perhaps to learn something new.

In a sense, the gym levels the playing field.  Say you want to work out with a friend, but you’re just on a Couch25k program and they’re a veteran marathon runner.  Chances are, for both of you to get your desired intensity level out of your workout, you wouldn’t be within shouting distance of one another.  But at the gym, you can run or walk side by side and still catch up on the day’s happenings.  You can take turns spotting each other on different weights and still enjoy each other’s company.

I go to the gym for inspiration.  There are people there who greatly exceed my own abilities and their drive pushes me to refine my focus on my goals.  They make me want to be a “better” athlete and to continue to adhere to an active lifestyle.  I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by these types of people in my workplace, but the energy of their passion hits me stronger when I see it in action.

The fast and the built are not the only people I draw inspiration from.  Last summer, during one of my sessions with my then-BFF the elliptical, I was able to witness someone just starting out.  He spent his afternoons with a personal trainer.  Every afternoon I was there, he was there.  I took a long break from the gym at one point and when I returned, I saw him again.  Although he was still working on transforming his health, it impressed me that he stuck with it, like so many of us who fight the same battle here.

While running outside, I am alone and free – free to let my mind wander as I traverse the miles.  There is hardly anything that beats fresh air or the soft crush of gravel underfoot.  The stair climber cannot replace the intoxicating high one feels once reaching the top of a mountain.  All of that is certain.

But the gym will still be a place where I can find community, inspiration, and allow me to fight off whatever demons might be chasing me.

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Dear Rabbit Food…

I hate being a wanna-be…

But I can’t resist a challenge.

Over the past year or so, my friends and family have been hearing a word from me that they hadn’t heard very often before.  And now they’re hearing it all the time.  And by my count, they are getting sick of hearing it.

Vegan.  Veganveganvegan.  Vegan times infinity plus one!

…vegan.

So there 😛

Sorry guys.

The truth is, I’m not one, although I’m getting there.  For the past two days and the week before this previous weekend, as well as a nibble or two of a most-likely-not-vegan baked good left in the teacher’s lounge aside, I have not eaten anything of animal origin.

…oh wait, I forgot my bread has honey in it.

Okay, so maybe not.

But I do the best I can at keeping my diet this way.  My meals are set up so that they are free of dairy, eggs, and meat.  It’s been a while since I’ve used any dairy or eggs in my baked goods.  Aside from our recent trip to San Diego, it has also been a while since my husband has had meat for dinner.

No, he hasn’t shrivelled up and died.  …yet.  He claims his daily turkey sandwich for lunch keeps him breathing.  My lunch, as my recent visit with a physician’s assistant revealed, has also not changed much –

“So what did you eat for lunch Monday?”
“A veggie patty and a salad.”
“And Tuesday?”
“Black bean soup and a salad.”
“Wednesday?”
“A veggie patty and a salad.”
“Thursday?”
“Rice and beans and -”
“And a salad?”

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Yeah.

I don’t like labels.  I especially don’t like labelling my eating habits.  But in any case, even without being strictly vegan, I would classify my diet as heavily plant-based.

It started being more like that a little over a year ago when I lamented my weight fluctuations to my physician.  He attributed it (rightly so) to inconsistencies in my lifestyle, but offered to do a few blood tests and asked if I would be willing to see that center’s nutritionist for a resting metabolic rate test.  I agreed, saw the nutritionist, discovered my RMR, and also took home a fair amount of information from her about nutrition (shocker – Thai curry is high in calories!).  In addition, I started reading a couple publications from the hospital I volunteered at, which happens to be Adventist.

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The Adventists traditionally adhere to a strict vegetarian (or “vegan”) diet (vegans go further with the lifestyle commitment by not purchasing anything of animal origin, including wool, silk, leather, as well as cosmetics and other items that contain animal products).  They are one of three people groups recently identified by National Geographic that contain a very high proportion of centenarians.  And they are one of the only groups of people whose numbers of centenarians are not declining.  This is attributed mostly to their diet and to a lifestyle associated with their Adventist beliefs.

With a bit more research, which I won’t dwell on, I was convinced that avoiding animal products in my diet was the best way to go (for largely health and environmental reasons – I don’t have too many “soft fuzzy” feelings about animals, with the exception of pigs, and I hate chickens [the animals themselves] – which my dad says “Are vegetables.  Because squash is smarter than chickens.”  But I can’t stand preparing chicken – ultimately my grossed-outedness at preparing chicken ruins most of the satisfaction I get from the cooked meal).  I was also enticed by the challenge of creating meals and baked goods without dairy and eggs.

It has been a very productive quest.

I’ve made everything from stir fries…

to enchiladas…
Imageto cheesecake… (this one is also “raw” – a food trend I don’t necessarily agree with)

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to cookies…
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to tacos, to even…

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a Thanksgiving meal (turkey and stuffing aside…) vegan.

My husband is a carnivore; I have no hope or aspiration of converting him to this “dark side”.  But I do ask him after he finishes his portion of whatever recipe I make what his opinion is.  A positive review goes like this –

“Pretty good for rabbit food.”

Among his favorites are red lentil dal, enchiladas, and even pudding (scroll down to the bottom of the hyperlinked page).

This past weekend, at a family gathering in California, was a bit of a test for me.  I was thankfully in the company of another person who also leans vegetarian, but is not fully opposed to eating fish or poultry.  With her help, I was able to scrounge together some food resources to keep my breakfasts and lunches within more plant-based lines.  I did break into the delicious chicken salad and also had a tuna steak for dinner one night and salmon another…

While I enjoyed all the meals, I felt like I ultimately would not miss the presence of fish and eggs (one of my biggest hangups with going vegan) in my day to day life.  Especially with how good I am at selecting quality vegan recipes on my own.

So I think I will stick to rabbit food.  And cheat during holidays or while being served food at another person’s house.

My experiment for this coming weekend is this recipe, along with my own attempt at meatless meatballs using quinoa and chickpea flour.

I leave you with a couple recipes to try – one the best “mac n’ cheese”s, vegan or not, I have ever had, along with my own blueberry muffin recipe that contains ingredients non-vegans are likely to have, is low in added sugar, high in fiber, and as my husband says – “Pretty good for rabbit food.” (i.e. it’s DELICIOUS).

The VeganYumYum’s Mac and Cheese

Image(This is *not* health food!  Whew, there, I got that out – what a relief!  It is one of the richest dishes I’ve ever made, period.

For this I recommend cooking 8 oz of dry macaroni for the sauce recipe given, and also adding freshly roasted hot-peppers, or roasted mini sweet peppers if you don’t like the heat.  I also added these vegan Mexican Chipotle sausages).

Blueberry Muffins

Makes 10 muffins (yes, only ten)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup quick-cooking (not instant) oats
  • 2 Tbsp ground flax seed (optional)
  • 1/4 cup organic/natural sugar*
  • 1/2 tsp salt**
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1/3 cup canola or grape seed oil
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened non-dairy milk (soy or almond)
  • 1 medium banana, mashed***
  • 1 cup blueberries (frozen is fine, but it will turn your batter purple)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Lightly spray a muffin tin with oil.
  2. Combine whole wheat flour, oats, flax seed, sugar, salt, and baking powder in a large mixing bowl.
  3. In a separate bowl, gently whisk together the oil, milk, and mashed banana.
  4. Stir liquid ingredients into dry ingredients with a fork until just moistened.  Fold blueberries into the muffin mix.
  5. Spoon batter into muffin tin, filling each about 3/4 of the way full.
  6. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the muffins have just started to pull away from the sides of the pan and a tester inserted into a muffin comes out clean.  Allow to cool in pan 3-5 minutes, then transfer to a baking rack to cool completely.  When reheating the muffins, placing them in a warm (200 degree) oven is recommended.

*Regular white sugar and regular brown sugar is not vegan as the sugar is processed through cow bone char in order to make it white. Brown sugar is just the whitened sugar with molasses added back in – still not vegan
**I do not advocate leaving salt out of most home baked goods – it normally serves a purpose, and excess sodium in our diets usually comes mostly from packaged/refined products, not our salt shakers
***If you don’t like banana, you can replace it with 1/2 c unsweetened applesauce.  I recommend the banana – it is not very strong and adds a more subtle, rich flavor to the muffins

Meatball evolution

My mother made (and still makes) the most delicious meatballs.  I remember going to Italian restaurants as a kid and always being disappointed with the ones served alongside my pasta/ravioli/etc.  Part of her secret was not mixing everything together perfectly.  You would find a lump of bread or some cheese that wasn’t smoothed into the meat mixture.  The meatballs were dynamic in this way.  And they never failed to satisfy me or be the best part of our spaghetti meal.

The meatballs I am going to show you are very different from hers, but they evolved from them in a sense – I keep certain things the same – always letting the mixture sit for a period of time and always adding Parmesan cheese, as well as kneading the mixture with my hands.  I can say that my mother’s meatballs are more along the lines of comfort food (but are by no means unhealthy).  Just like an “evolved” creature, these meatballs are not better, not “worse”, they are just different or at least suited for a different environment.

I’ve made this recipe twice now, served alongside spaghetti squash.  I think these may become my family’s staple meatball – they will be my kid’s “Mom’s Meatball”, and then they will have “Grandma’s Meatballs” too.  You can choose to use either 99% lean ground turkey or lean (93/7) ground beef.  There is less than a 10 calorie difference between the two, per meatball, if you are a stickler for ground beef.  Either way, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Herbed Turkey Meatballs
(makes 20, ~1.5″ meatballs)

  • 1 lb 99% lean ground turkey
  • 1/2 cup quick cooking oats
  • 1/2 cup various fresh herbs, or about as much as is pictured below – yes, that is a lot of herbs! (I used equal portions of rosemary, sage, basil, and oregano – and yes, they must be fresh!)
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  • 1/2 yellow onion
  • 5 medium cremini mushrooms
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 T grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 T milk (2% or whole)
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste (I also add in a few dashes of cayenne)

(Note: this recipe calls for the use of a food processor.  A blender will probably work fine for processing the herbs and oatmeal as shown below.  It may also work for processing the mushrooms and onions, though you may end up having to hand-mince these items.  Not a big deal, you will just not get as smooth of a meatball in the end, which I’d be happy with, but it depends on the person.)

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Line a shallow baking pan with aluminum foil and coat lightly with olive oil or non-stick cooking spray (I spray lightly with olive oil using a Misto).
  2. In a food processor, add 1/2 cup of oatmeal and all the herbs.
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  3. Run the processor until the herbs are roughly the same size as the ground oatmeal.
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  4. Pour the oat/herbs mixture into a large glass bowl and set aside.  Meanwhile, pulse the onion and the mushrooms together in the food processor until they are minced.  You’ll be just about ready to combine all the rest of the ingredients at this point.
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  5. In the large bowl, combine the oats and herbs, minced onion and mushrooms, and ground turkey.  Add the egg and Parmesan cheese, milk, as well as freshly ground pepper to taste.
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  6. Mix the mixture together thoroughly, kneading with your hands.  I find this is the best and the most satisfying way to make the meatballs (yes, and also the most messy for your hands – but that is part of the fun :-)).  The finished product should stick together nicely and form a smooth ball that resembles bread dough in texture.
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  7. Cover the ball with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to combine.
  8. With your hands, roll roughly 1.5″ balls and place them evenly spaced on a baking sheet.
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  9. Bake at 375 degrees for 25-30 minutes, or until the meatballs are done in the center (they should look like they have a nice, baked “crumb” texture in the middle).
  10. Once you have tested a meatball, or are confident that they are done, place the meatballs under the broiler, set on high, until they are golden brown on top.  This step is optional; however, I feel like it does add nicely to their texture and appearance.
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As you can see, the meatballs are very light and are not greasy at all.  The oatmeal lends itself well to making a very moist meatball.  They go fabulously with spaghetti squash and marinara sauce, though I’m sure they’ll work well with just about any Italian dish.  My husband and I have also dipped these in pineapple salsa as a snack/appetizer and they were delicious that way.

This recipe is very versatile.  I’m currently toying with an adaptation that would include the addition of diced apple, roughly chopped dried cranberries, and a dash or two of cinnamon and nutmeg –  to be served with turkey gravy.  If you find a combination of ingredients that works well for you, please leave a comment!

(Nutrition estimate per meatball: ~47 kcal, 3 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat, 6 g protein, 27 mg sodium, 0 g sugar)