Beet Week – Day 1 Ukrainian Style

Adventures in Ukrainian Cuisine: Beets

I have been living in Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer since September 2010 and thus have had plenty of time to taste – and sometimes cook – many traditional Ukrainian dishes. A lot of these dishes include the staple (mainly root) vegetables that grow so easily and abundantly here in eastern Europe: potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, and beets.

I have found that beets are the biggest challenge. They are a funny shape, have a thicker skin than potatoes or carrots, and are (usually) a deep red-purple color that stains almost everything it touches. Living in Ukraine for the past year and a half has expanded my how-to-prepare-beets horizons.

Even if you know nothing about Ukraine or eastern Europe, you have probably heard of borscht, beet soup (or stew, as I prefer less water-to-vegetables ratio). Borscht is healthy, offering many nutrients and antioxidants and protein in its meat and/or beans.

There are two main kinds of borscht: green borscht and red borscht. As far as I can tell, the main difference between the two is the green borscht’s lack of beets and slightly different ingredient set (additions to green borscht include preserved young cabbage, dill, and hard-boiled egg). Red borscht is what probably comes to mind when a non-Eastern European thinks of borscht: that rich, reddish-purple soup set off by a dollop of bright white sour cream.

It’s important to note that every borscht is different. Every Ukrainian has her own recipe and it rarely turns out the same twice. Borscht gets better with age; third-day reheated borscht is, by far, the tastiest.

Український Борщ (Ukrainian Borscht), Tammela’s Version


  • Meat of choice (I used two chicken drumsticks), or beans, or no protein at all
  • 2 medium onions, sliced thinly
  • 3-4 small-medium potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and grated
  • 1 large or 2 small-medium beets, peeled and grated
  • 1-2 small-medium tomatoes, grated or chopped
  • 1-2 tbsp tomato paste (depending on how tomatoey you want your borscht to be)
  • ½ head of green cabbage, sliced thinly
  • Oil (Ukrainians use sunflower oil, but canola/vegetable oil would work fine)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Fresh dill, chopped
  • Optional: bunch of green onions, chopped
  • For serving: dollop of sour cream; hunk of brown bread; peeled raw garlic clove(s)


  • Bring water with meat to a boil, and simmer until it’s mostly cooked (cooking time will depend on the kind of meat you use; chicken cooks fast)Partway through, add the sliced onion to the water.
  • When meat is mostly cooked, add diced potatoes and keep simmering until potatoes are cooked, 10-20 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, grate the carrot, beet, and tomato, and sauté for a few minutes in a pan with some oil.
  • Add sautéed vegetables to the pot and throw in the cabbage, too.
  • Salt and pepper to taste, stir in some tomato paste, add the dill and/or green onions, and let simmer for as long as you like.
  • Serve borscht with a dollop of sour cream (сметана, smetana), a hunk of brown bread (чорний хліб, chornyy khlib), and (if you’re really brave) a clove or two of peeled raw garlic.

If you are not up for trying your hand at borscht, there are a few other beet-sporting Ukrainian dishes, which are often made for holiday meals but are equally as good for regular consumption.  You can check them out here over the next few days as BEET WEEK continues!


Ready for more delightful beet recipes from the Ukraine?  Click here

Martin Examines Hops

Foraging For Hops

Sadly, I’m not a big beer drinker.  And I say sadly, because I seem to be surrounded by people who really know and love their beer.  My sister’s fiancé, Joel, is a brewer at the one and only Great Lakes Brewing Company, and my good friend, co-filmmaker, and current roommate, Alex, is experienced in the art of home brewing- he even took an online course.  So between them it is as if I’ve been adopted into beer culture.

For the most part this has worked out well enough. They’ve been able to get past my comments such as “I think my favorite beer is Coors Ice- Coors Light poured over a big glass of ice,” and I’ve been able to ignore their Indiana Jones like reactions in beer shops to a rare “one of a kind” find.  But this weekend a connection was made – I have now become a beer “forager.”

It all started a few years ago- Alex had discovered wild hops growing near Colorado Springs.  He had seen it for a few years and after many smell tests found when it would be most ripe for harvest.  It just happened to coincide with this past Saturday, so Alex, Maddy (Alex’s girlfriend), Dan (another beer advocate) and I hopped into the car.

We arrived at a familiar running spot, and started hiking up the road keeping our eyes peeled for what I perceived to be these “illusive” hops.  On the way, I found my eyes (and mind) wandering away from the task at hand, to the crags and rock walls along the path, wondering which I could climb.  I pointed an especially nasty looking one out to Dan, (an experienced climber) wondering if I’d be able to attempt the route while being securely roped up.  Reading my mind he declared: “That’s about the limit of what I’d do without a rope!”  Instantly I was in disbelief and awe for it was 100 feet of near vertical and overhanging rock. We continued on, me pondering Dan’s skill level and the rest of the group searching for the still undiscovered hops.

The trip was not without treasures. We did stumble upon a rare squirrel that looked like a cross between a bunny and the devil.  We photographed the demon and moved on.

Throughout the search, I was completely ignorant to what hops looked like and imagined us gathering long stalks of brown wispy wheat-like plants.   Our prospects weren’t looking too good until finally Alex spotted the “elusive” hop.

I could not have been more surprised.  Rather than brown, tall and thin, it grows as a vine and has little buds ranging from ½ to 1 inch long.  We smelled them and were mildly impressed but moved on to see if there were more.

BOOM- we found the bumper crop.  A small pine tree was covered in them.

This bunch smelled different and we all went back and forth, on which we liked more.  In the end we gathered half a plastic bag full of both varieties and headed to the home brew store.



And despite the excitement of our find, I was still pondering Dan’s declaration about the rock climb, so before we reached the car I convinced Dan to try and “free solo” (climb unroped) his peak, except that I was horrified when he actually took up my challenge and started up.  I thought my stupid dare was about to lead to the witness of my friend falling onto the sharp rocks below.  Luckily, fear or reality got the better of him and he decided ascending in sandals sans rope was not the best plan.

The adventure continued as we drove way out east of the mountains to the plains.  The homebrew store was a combination of a warehouse and bar.  Across the street was a strip club.  We entered the store and Alex and Dan rummaged around, selecting their special ingredients (malted barley extract, yeast) and tools (tubing, buckets). Alex and Dan already had much of the gear but after two batches of last year’s brew had resulted in explosions, Alex wanted new tubing to prevent another round of infection, which he speculated might have been caused by wild yeast entering the beer.

The owner rung us up and delighted in informing us that tax was only 4.7% – we were out of the city now where tax was 9.8%!

“Gotta love being right on the border” he joked.  “But the winter was a drag, snow plow didn’t even plow the street.”

“But you gotta love that tax,” I told him, “hell, I bet you’ll put the plow on your truck and make your own path.”

He gave a hearty laugh, it appeared I hit the nail on the head.  (I wondered if he had a deal with the strip club guy).

Fast-forward to the next day and our cottage was transformed into what could easily be mistaken for a meth lab.  Tubes, and buckets everywhere with a big vat of wort (beer before it has fermented) on the stove.


The smell was… interesting, but it grew on me and over all the hops smelled great.

Alex and Maddy did most of the actual brewing, while I hung around on the sidelines, watching in wonder.  Now, after all the excitement and activity, for once I can honestly say that I’ve never been so excited to crack open a beer.  I’ll let you know how it goes in 4 weeks!



Tri biking

Crazy – Part 2: Race Day

Trying a Triathlon, Part 2: Race Day

(Cont’d from Part 1) The morning of the race was clear and cool. Since it was August, the race started at a pleasant 8 AM. I was up at 4:45, already chugging water to stay hydrated. The night before, a friend had helped me clean up my bike, greased the gears and pedals, pumped up the tires, even adjusted the stem. Its beautiful drop-down handlebars were freshly wrapped. I felt like a jockey before a big race, patting my trusty mount.

When I arrived at the race area, I got my race number (25! A good, solid number, I told myself) written in black permanent marker on my arm, thigh and shin, so I could be identified both in the water and on land. I quickly realized I never wanted to wash that number off again. I jogged around to warm up, shakily swigging water, my stomach fluttering.

As one of the younger participants in the race, I was in the first wave of swimmers. About fifty other women and I lined up on the beach in our red swim caps (“free” race swag!). The gun went off. And so did we!

Swimming in a pool is one thing. Swimming in a lake surrounded by bodies while being kicked in the face is another.

Months earlier, when some of my female coworkers heard I was doing an all-women’s triathlon, they thought it was so neat. “Oh, it’ll just be so nice, having other women there to support you as you go along,” they told me over our microwaved lunches. I nodded politely. It was nice, wasn’t it?

That was not the attitude I decided to take. I’d dropped nearly half a grand to get to this race. I wasn’t here to hold hands and braid each other’s hair, thankyouverymuch. Anytime someone kicked me, I pushed back, jostling for space, and, as people began to feel the swim halfway in, I began picking off the enemy, one by one.

With a final stroke, the swim portion was done. We lurched out onto the sand, ran past the lines of screaming fans (screaming, I tell you!), and up into the Transition Area.

The Transition Area in a triathlon is hallowed ground. Only tri participants can go in or out; spectators are banned. Each racer is assigned to one lane, and that lane consists of a metal sawhorse of sorts, on which you prop your bike, and a very small area near to it, where you put your shoes and socks, towel, and water bottle. Transitions between the races count toward your total time, so the name of the game is speed. I’d practiced transitioning a bit in my backyard, aware of how silly I must look to the neighbor cats who watched me from their window perches, and now was my moment. I ran in, dropped my goggles and cap, shakily got on my socks and shoes, threw on my helmet and away I went. Transition 1, done.

Next was the bike portion. This was by far the biggest part of the race at 15 miles in length. I let Ol’ Blue stretch out her legs and we were off.

The bike portion was along the Mississippi River, on both the Minneapolis and St. Paul sides. Since I lived nearby, I’d spent many Sundays biking the course and beyond.  My main concern for this part of the race was the no-drafting rule. Drafting is when you follow closely behind a biker, using that person’s slipstream to your advantage. There was a strict no-drafting rule, which meant you had to stay a minimum of three bike lengths behind a biker. If you wanted to pass, you must do so in 15 seconds or risk a time penalty.

I’m not sure how seriously the rest of the women interrupted this rule, but for me that meant that, if I were at all able to, I needed to pass anyone in front of me as quickly as I could, every time I saw her, or risk breaking the rules, something I’ve been afraid to do basically since birth. Midway into the bike race and my legs were shaking. Perhaps I’d gone a bit too hard. Perhaps this rule wasn’t meant to harm me.

“It doesn’t matter!” I egged myself on, sipping my Gatorade-water mixture to help me through.

The second half of the bike race proved to be a bit harder than the first half, mostly because the wind had picked up. Dramatically. We made it over the bridge near the Transition Area all but wobbling on our bikes in the gusts. I dismounted and ran my bike over to my lane. Propping my bike up on the sawhorse and throwing down my helmet, I jogged off in a minute flat. Transition 2, done. Now only 5k left to go!

There is a phrase in triathlon-speak called “bricking.” Bricking happens when you get off your bike and try running immediately afterward. It feels, appropriately, like your thighs are made of heavy bricks. Try (tri!) as you might, you can barely lift them. I’d practiced doing this, too, some that summer, but my quads were screaming from the bike race as I started out around the lake.

“Go go go!” my fans shouted at me. I lugged my body along, wind whipping my hair.

I was a mile in to the five kilometers when my shoe came untied. I ignored it. I was hardcore. I was a racer. I was doing a triathlon. A little untied shoe was not enough to make me stop!

A half a mile later and it was all I could do to keep running. It wasn’t that I was feeling sick or tired, at least not so tired that I couldn’t continue. It was that I had never had to pee so badly. Ever. All that hydration, all morning, all during the bike portion, and at each transition…all of it had backfired, big time. I willed myself to just…go…as I kept running. My shorts were black; no one would notice! And I could just jump in the lake right afterward. No big deal! But, like rule-breaking, peeing on command has never been something I’ve been good at. I was doomed. It was all I could think of, with a mile and a half left into my race, the race I’d been training for for months, when I should be thinking about picking it up, picking off people one by one, as the minutes clicked away on my time. All I could think of instead was…water.

I rounded a curve in the path. A water stop was up ahead. I was definitely not interested. But just beyond it…What was that there? Could it be…? Yes! A port-a-potty! I was saved!

And yet: Should I risk my victory for this pit stop? Was I such a fool? I looked around. The race was so spread out it was impossible to tell who was my competition and who had started minutes after me (the swim waves were staggered) and was therefore so far ahead of me, time-wise, that there was no way I’d beat them.

I stopped at the port-a potty, anything for some relief. An older couple out on a morning walk had stopped just ahead of me. I bounced around impatiently as the woman used the toilet. Breaking all rules of Midwestern propriety, I pleaded to the gentleman to let me go before him.

“I’m running a race,” I explained, pointing unnecessarily at my race number. “And I really have to go!” I hopped from foot to foot.

He rather begrudgingly agreed to let me cut, and, once his wife eased her way out of the stall, I bolted in. I relieved myself, tied my shoe, and, liters lighter, zoomed off after my opponents.

A mile left. My feet pounded on the pavement.

Then half a mile.  My lungs ached. Now was my time to go, this was it. This was it. I rallied, willing my legs to turn over faster. They shouted in protest, reminding me of the fifteen miles I’d just biked, and all a bit quicker than they’d been promised.

A third of a mile.

I could see the finish. Just around a curve, down the stretch, and I’d be there.

A quarter of a mile.

There were other women ahead of me, exhausted from the morning, like me. We could all just jog in together, nice and easy…

300 meters.

“Now!” said a voice in my head. “Now’s your time! Think of all the workouts, all the sweat, all the pain it’s taken to get here. Now go go GO!”

200 meters.

I lifted up my head, picked up my legs and pumped my arms down the last stretch. And when I crossed that finish line, I became, officially, a triathlete.

I can’t wait to do another one.


Megan has just returned stateside after a year of living and teaching in China.  Any guesses whether there’s a Triathlon in her future?

The symbol for triathlon in the Olympics

You Don’t Have To Be Crazy But…

Trying a Triathlon: Part 1: Preparation and Training

The symbol for triathlon in the Olympics

I decided to start training for a triathlon in my rather dusty office cubicle in February of 2010. My office was in St. Paul, MN, at a public university, where I worked as an Americorps VISTA volunteer, helping expand the nursing programs to increase healthcare access to low-income patients, including setting up a community clinic. That last venture had completely stalled in contract negotiations with the local community center, and, since it was to be the vast majority of my job, I was bored. Underutilized, and bored. Left to my own devices, I spent a lot of time trolling the Internet, looking for random healthcare funding (that my school inevitably didn’t qualify for) and reading articles about healthcare on the New York Times webpage (that’s work, right?).

I needed direction, in or outside of the office, it didn’t matter. Having graduated from college the previous spring, 2010 was the first time in my life that I didn’t have any direction, didn’t have a clear syllabus with assignments carefully outlined. I found I missed it.

Since my cardiovascular-heavy semester in Eastern Europe (See Running 5 Polish Miles), I’d maintained an okay workout regimen of five days a week running, biking or swimming. Yet I just didn’t feel any spark in any of my workouts. I’d slog off a handful of miles on a treadmill or sweat away on a stationary bike while watching re-runs of Top Chef at the gym after work, then shower up and go eat dinner. Who cared.

And then it struck me: Since I was already running, biking and swimming, why not combine all three? Swim + bike + run = A triathlon! Hey! That was something!

I began cruising the Internet with a purpose. The length of these races was incredibly daunting at first, even the so-called “sprint tris,” which quickly became the only ones I was looking at. Sure, I could run 5 km or bike 15 miles or swim however many laps but combined? Um…

The second thing that concerned me was the price. Triathlons are no picnic to organize, I’m sure. They have to block off roads and beaches and parking lots. They have to hire lifeguards, police officers, and medical teams, and all the myriad of other things that goes into planning not one, but three races. And all that costs money, honey. As was quickly obvious by the registration fee for most of the tris I was finding: between $75 and $125. For one (three-in-one) race. Oi.

Let’s pause here for a moment to review a few facts. 1) I’m a recent college grad (two words: student. loans.) 2) In 2010, our country was—and still is today—recovering from the greatest economic recession we’ve had in years. 3) At the time, I was an Americorps volunteer. This last point is the most important, because Americorps volunteers get paid a very measly living stipend…a figure that puts them at the poverty line of wherever they’re serving…a figure so small I qualified for (and used) food stamps (A fact I always thought my alma mater probably wouldn’t be too eager to include in their latest admissions brochure: “Come to our college! When you graduate, you can get on food stamps only a few months later!”). Basically, it boiled down to $100 for a registration fee being a bit nuts for my monthly budget.

I sat on the idea.

Work stalled. Working out stalled.

Spring rolled around. I couldn’t take it anymore. Encouraged by my boss, a recent fitness convert (Don’t you love when someone can so utterly transform their lives, right in front of your eyes over the course of one short year? That was my boss during my year of Americorps service.), I looked up triathlon races again. The price had gone up.

I looked at my bank account balance, bit my lip, and went for it. A few minutes later, the confirmation email swept into my inbox. I was officially signed up for the YWCA Minneapolis Women’s Triathlon  on August 15, 2010.

The spring and early summer went by in a blur. Suddenly bent with purpose, I increased my workouts to six days a week. I ran around a track in blistering heat, swam between buoys at the lake nearby, and biked for miles on my old purple mountain bike, which dated all the way back to my junior high years.  I felt awesome! I was training for something! I was an athlete!  And yet…

That bike was going to be a problem. In all of my visions of triathlon glory, of me flying through the water like Michael Phelps and peddling the course at, like, 500 miles an hour, and leading the pack—no, breaking ahead of the pack!—during the road race, the bike was not in them. Its clunky gears, its thick and gawky wheels, its upright handlebars, its too-small frame…none of them were synonymous with my sure victory.

It had to go. Now bikes, as many of you may already know (and as I did not at the time), are really expensive. What’re a few gears and some rubber tires doing costing hundreds upon hundreds of dollars? I ask you. New bike, out. Used bike, in! I found one, a women’s Schwinn road bike that’s probably older than I am, at a used bike store in south St. Paul. I broke up with my purple mountain bike on the spot, and biked the blue one home.

Next stop, race day!


Krakow Old Town


Running Five Polish Miles

When I first arrived in Krakow, Poland, for my semester abroad in February 2008, I was just getting back into running after a three-year hiatus. I’d spent that January staying with a friend in her London flat and traveling some around Britain and Europe before my program in Poland started. As my bank account had dwindled over the month, I forced myself to put aside my passport and suitcase for the last week I was in London and decided to try to find cheaper ways to entertain myself (Hey! That’s the name of the site!). Running along the Thames was cheap (free!) and I got to see more of London than if I were walking, so I decided to lace up my shoes again.

At that point, running for me, after having taken so much time off, was a ridiculous effort: I’d lope along at a 10-minute mile pace for five to seven minutes, before giving myself a few minutes’ walking break to try to get my heart rate down below 150 again.

“I’ll ease into it,” I told myself, as I’d drag my body back into my friend’s flat, my cheeks siren red from my efforts.

And so I was still, a week later, during my program’s orientation to Krakow.

A brief history lesson: Krakow is one of the few Polish cities that wasn’t badly damaged during World War II. While Hitler’s army annihilated 98% of Warsaw’s buildings, the Fuhrer decided Krakow, as a city, was not of Slavic origin, and could therefore be spared. His reasoning was that the city had been under the Austrian Empire after the Partitions of Poland in 1795 (until 1918, when Poland was briefly put back on the map as a republic, before being taken over by the Germans during WWII). Even though the city has roots leading back to 966 C.E., it was really a Germanic city, through and through, Hitler decided.

Satisfied with this version of history, Hitler quickly named Krakow the capital of his Nazi Polish government.

He went on to install his new Nazi governor in Wawel Castle, a gorgeous fortress atop a hill in the center of Krakow that’s believed to be the birthplace of Poland, and a huge point of pride for Poles.

Wawel Castle (from below)

What all this history meant, for this 21st century American foreign student, was that Krakow’s Old Town, despite—and also because of—the city’s troubled history, still retains its feel from centuries ago. Each cobble-stoned street is lined with pastel-colored Baroque buildings. They all lead up to the Rynek Glowny, the largest market square in Europe, where the 15th century sunshine yellow Cloth Hall sits at its center and is home to a flower and handicrafts market that operates year-round.


My study abroad program’s guide, Anna (pronounced AHN-ya) spent the morning of my first full day in Krakow showing us around Rynek Glowny and Krakow’s Old Town. She pointed out St. Mary’s Cathedral, with its mismatched towers (so designed, or so the story goes, by two rival brother architects, one of whom killed himself in shame when his tower was shorter and less beautiful than his brother’s), and directed our attention to the Clock Tower, the only remnant of Krakow’s 14th century Town Hall.

Then, she ushered us out of the square. A few blocks’ walk and we’d reached the Barbican, a circular brick fortress with an imposing portcullis.

“This,” said Anna, “Is the only remnant of Krakow’s city wall. The wall used to surround the whole city, but the Austrians tore all of it down in the 1800s.”

She shifted on her feet.

The Planty

“They replaced it with what we call ‘The Planty.’” She motioned around her, to what I’d thought was a small, narrow park.

“The Planty,” Anna continued, “Goes around all of Krakow’s Old Town, forming a green ring around the city with a path running through it.”

I looked around more. The Planty (pronounced PLAHN-tee) was lovely, even in the early February chill. It was made up of one large pathway, and several smaller ones, all of which were lined with trees and benches. A few bundled up Poles sat along the path, reading newspapers or talking in their phones. Others were walking along it, but I didn’t see anyone running. Still…

“How long is the whole thing?” I asked Anna, very aware of the fact that I’d had to stop and walk barely 3/4s of a mile into my run the previous evening.

“Oh, it’s very big,” said Anna, avoiding answering the question, a habit I’d soon learn is common practice among her countrymen.

“Do you have a guess?” I persisted.

She considered. “I’d say five miles. Yes, at least five miles. It’s very, very big around.”


So now I had a goal for myself: I’d run from my dorm a mile or so out of the city center, run the whole Planty and then run—…or maybe walk, to, erm, cool down—back.

With that goal in mind, I spent the next handful of weeks working toward it, running around a huge park near my dormitory. I dodged Rottweilers and Dobermans (the Poles seemed obsessed with muscle dogs). I trotted past bronze statues of Pope John Paul II and Marie Curie, both cherished nationals. I wove through bummed soccer fans after a tough loss at a nearby arena. And on nearly every run I got heckled by the usual suspects—teenagers and construction workers—and gawked at by just about everybody. It turns out no sane person runs in Poland, least of all the way I was doing it: red-faced and puffing ten minutes in.

Spring arrived. I’d worked my way up in mileage and decided one sunny Saturday morning that today was my day to tackle the Planty. I stretched out in my dorm room and bid my roommate farewell (She, too, thought I was a bit nuts, but later admitted that she respected me for my fearlessness to wear skintight, not-hiding-anything running tights, especially in the most Catholic—and therefore fairly conservative—country in the world).

I made it to the Planty without issue and turned onto the trail. With the warmer weather, the trees lining the path had leafed out. The whole trail was green and blooming. It was lovely. And crowded. Krakowians were out en masse enjoying the weather, and I found myself dodging more than the occasional Doberman in order to make my way.

Still, the run was going smoothly, all in all. In fact, I was making really good time. To my left was the Catholic church I’d peeked into the week before, and oh—rounding the next turn—there was the English bookstore where I’d swap paperbacks, and there was that restaurant that serves great peroigi and…

I glanced at my stopwatch. Wait a second. I was making really, really good time. I’d been running on the path for maybe twelve minutes and was, as far as I could tell, already one-third of the way around the city center.

“That can’t be right,” I thought. “I must be forgetting something.”

But before I could ponder it more, I rounded another curve, this time right near the base of the Wawel Castle, and nearly took out a five-year old girl with her father. Coming up short, I realized I’d run right into what looked to be a spring carnival, being held along the banks of the Vistula River.

I was forced to slow to a walk for a moment, trying to get my bearings. There were children and their parents everywhere, all up and down the sidewalk. Popcorn and cotton candy vendors were out hocking their wares. Teenagers were lobbing softballs at milk bottles to win their sweethearts giant stuffed animals.

The popcorn smelled delicious. And—oh! Were those mini-donuts?

I had to get outta there, and quickly, before my resolve to run the Planty faded away. But I was stuck. The street fair looked like it went on for a ways. I couldn’t turn off on a side street without giving up on my goal. Plus, there weren’t any around anyway. I was pinned between the riverbanks to my left and the hill with the Wawel Castle atop it rising up beside me on my right.

I didn’t have a choice: In order to make it around the Planty, I was going to have to run through the whole carnival, Spandex pants and all.

There might have been some pointing. Perhaps some laughter. I know for certain there were mouths that fell open, many gaping at my pants, my face—which was flushed its usual deep red, as it always is when I run—and most of all, my stride.

“What is that girl doing?” they asked each other in Polish.

Eventually, after I nearly ran into a cotton candy salesman and had to duck around three or four enormous dragon stuffed animals, I made it to the other side.

There, I realized I was now halfway around the city center—so two and a half miles around, in theory—and it had only taken me fifteen minutes. I was getting in better shape, sure, but I wasn’t that good. I started to think that maybe Anna was a bit misinformed. And that maybe when I’d told one of my Polish teachers about my goal and her eyes had gotten huge, that maybe she, too, had bought into the whole “The Planty is very big” mantra.

And then I really started to think that maybe I would need to do my long run the next day.

Ten minutes later, and I’d made it. I’d run around the entire Planty, the whole thing, all “five miles” of it, in less than thirty minutes. And I have to say: Those five miles were the quickest, most popcorn- and cotton candy-filled miles I have ever run. Goal accomplished.



Hey, Chickpea

Another dive into my pantry this winter has uncovered my favorite bean: the garbanzo, otherwise known as the chickpea. In Italian, the word for this little member of the pea family is ceci pronounced “che-chi”. “Garbanzo” comes from the Spanish calavance or garvance. Why a simple pea has so many different names is beyond me, but needless to say it’s delicious.

Traveling to Crete this past spring on a high-speed ferry, I sat in a stiff chair with a blazing three-aspirin headache, wondering if I was going to make it to the island before I started feeling like the Cyclops from the Odyssey. Fortunately the ferry arrived to the island in the same time it took the aspirin to do its job. Getting off the boat, I stumbled onto solid land at the Irakclio dock in woozy post-headache relief, just as the sun melted behind a line of dark blue Cretan mountains into a pool of neon pink. 

Walking onto the street with my giant pack, I was greeted by a street vendor who’d stacked bunches of brilliant green stalks atop milk cartons beside his cart. Walking closer, I discovered that the stalks were in fact in the pea family, and that this vendor was selling fresh chick peas on the stem.

I suppose there should be a unique category of euphoria for discovering the tastiness of something fresh and raw that previously you’ve only known as cooked or dried. Imagine only knowing a raisin and then discovering a grape. Or only eating prunes until someone presents you with a plump, ripe plum.

Upon discovering the fresh chickpea, whose flavor has even more depth and richness than an ordinary fresh garden pea, I thought to myself: “why aren’t we eating these all the time?”  The answer being that it’s a lot of work to shell these little guys. After buying a bunch of stalks from the vendor for 1 Euro, I headed to a youth hostel with my friend and traveling companion, Tamara, and the two of us sat on our beds and shelled and ate chick peas for close to an hour. It was like eating candy. The fuzzy pods contained generally one or two chickpeas, and sometimes squeezing them to extract the peas would make them fly out of their pod across the room. The peas were bright green and firm and would’ve been delicious in a rice salad with sun-dried tomatoes and olives. But alas, we were at the mercy of traveling and when we’d found all the peas we could, we looked around at the mess of empty pods and leaves on the beds and realized we were still hungry. Despite their divine sweetness and crunchy texture, a bunch of raw chickpeas doesn’t make a dinner.

But a bunch of dried chickpea does. When you’re not on the island of Crete but rather navigating your way through a cold, snowy winter, chickpeas can either be bought dry by the bag like other beans, or pre-soaked by the can. Buying them by the bag is certainly more economical, but it takes the foresight to soak them overnight.  Still, some things are worth the foresight, and it’s a lot easier than shelling them from the pod.

The versatility of this pea is astounding. Chickpeas can be added to stews or baked on a cookie sheet as a snack or pureed into a spicy soup or combined with tahini to make hummus. Its richness and cooling character make it a wonderful base for herbs and spices, which is why it can be found as an ingredient in a variety of cultural dishes from Italy to India.

One of the most delicious recipes I’ve found for chickpeas is an Italian style salad that makes a great dish to bring to a dinner party or alternatively, makes an easy lunch to bring to work. This recipe is very flexible, so if you want to add other veggies or olives or spices, go for it. The dressing is carefully crafted though, and worth the measurements.  If you have fresh herbs, all the better, but I’ve listed amounts for dried ones since it’s wintertime.

Don’t use dried parsley though if you can help it. Fresh parsley is readily available and makes all the difference. Store it like fresh flowers  in a vase and it will stay fresh for two weeks.  Annie suggests serving this with grilled eggplant and big, flat croutons. Yum!



Chick-pea and Sun-dried Tomato Salad

Adapted from Annie Somerville’s Fields of Greens
Bantam, 2003

 Serves 4-6

 1 1/2 cups dried chickpeas, about 9 oz soaked overnight

1 bay leaf

1/2 tsp dried sage

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes

1/2 cup frozen or freeze-dried green peas

1/2 small red onion, diced about 1/2 cup

Champagne vinegar

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 sundried tomatoes packed in oil, drained and diced about 1/4 cup

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Drain and rinse the chickpeas, place in a large saucepan and cover generously with water. Add herbs and bring to a simmer. Cook for 50-60 minutes.

Meanwhile bring a small pot of water to a boil, add the onion, and cook for 15 seconds. Drain and toss with a splash of Champagne or white balsamic vinegar. Combine the red wine vinegar, garlic, 3/4 tsp salt and few pinches of pepper in a bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil.

When the chickpeas are tender, add the green peas and cook for 1-2 minutes more. Drain, then toss immediately with the vinaigrette, onion, and sun-dried tomatoes. Marinate for an hour, toss in the parsley, and serve.


Discover the Dried Fig

It’s winter. The colors are stark and poetic, but aside from that it’s cold and wet. In Boston, it’s been storm after storm, almost like clockwork. I have become accustomed to my car’s windshield scraper, to bringing that extra pair of shoes, to cracked cuticles and chapped lips and long underwear.

But I’ve also become accustomed to scouring my pantry, as winter is such a wonderful time to cook.  To turn down the thermostat to save on oil costs and turn on the oven as the back-up heating source. What has the pantry uncovered? Figs. Beautiful and versatile, dried figs have seduced me. And not just me – figs are believed to be the first plant ever cultivated by humans.

The best dried figs I ever tasted came from a spice market in Istanbul, Turkey.

An old man with white hair and a tattered blazer was selling them by the box. Unlike the other vendors at the spice market who had stands and/or shops brimming with every sort of spice and dried fruit you could imagine heaped into colorful piles, this man was only selling figs. Maybe illegally. I bought a box of these figs for five Turkish Lira, about three US dollars; it weighed about two pounds and contained the largest most beautiful dried figs I’ve ever laid eyes on. As the day wore on and my friend Samantha and I walked around the buzzing, intricate streets of Istanbul, we snacked on these figs, letting their honey-like stickiness cover our fingers. They had the distinct nutty crunch which comes from the seeds of the fruit, made possible by the special fig wasp who coevolved with the fig over millions of years.

I became so enamored with the figs I even tried to justify going back to the market and buying ten more boxes to ship home. But Sam talked me out of it, fortunately.

Because while these Turkish figs, of the Smyrna variety, were amazing, you can find pretty good figs back home on US soil. California figs are good. Look for a variety called “Calimyrna figs” which is a relative of the Smyrna fig. Calimyrna figs are quite large when fresh, and, if dried properly, retain a lot of flavor.

The flavor of a dried fig, like many dried fruits, is that distinct sweetness, like a brown sugar, and a nuttiness, like that of toasted almonds or pecans. A fresh fig, albeit hard to come by, is alternately slightly citrusy, with the sweetness of a fruity port. Fresh figs are a rare delicacy (at least in my corner of the Northern hemisphere) but dried figs are readily available in the dried fruit sections of most supermarkets. Sometimes they are packaged in a round, pressed together like a pinwheel, or else packaged in a long rectangular box. I usually go with the ones that feel slightly soft to the touch. The ones that get TOO dried out can be reconstituted with a little hot water, but generally aren’t as tasty.

What to do with dried figs?

There are certainly an endless number of ways you can bake with dried figs, chopping them up and putting them in muffins or tea-breads, or mashing them up and mixing them with honey and then making some delicious homemade granola.

But I prefer using dried fruit in savory applications, because I think it’s more interesting. Think bacon wrapped dates or salted caramels or chocolate covered peanuts. Sweet meets salty is one of my favorite flavor combinations. Combining dried figs with cured olives is one way to accomplish this.

On a recent winter night, I recalled a recipe for tapenade my sister-in-law shared with me in Brooklyn. It’s about the least-complicated and most delicious tapenade I’ve ever tasted, and a go-to for an easy appetizer for a dinner or cocktail party.



1 cup pitted kalamata olives

4-5 dried calimyrna figs, stems removed

1/4 cup toasted walnuts*

            a little bit of olive oil

Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend until combined. Add a little olive oil if it seems too thick. Serve with pieces of crusty french bread or crackers. Also delicious as a sandwich spread!

Tips: If the figs feel dry and stiff, put them in a bowl with a little hot water to soften them, then chop them up.

*Best way to toast walnuts is in the toaster oven, but keep an eye on them because they’ll burn easily.

Bonus: Figs are a great source of calcium and fiber.


Fig Leaf Enhancing a Marvelous Turkish View


Throwin’ Down

Title: New Year's Eve! Artist: Rosemary B Mudry Painted: 2002, Oil on Canvas

There are party goers and party throwers.  There are amazing stars that shine at both and duds who’d best just stick to dinner and a movie.  What determines success?  How much fun was had by all

Consider Robin, a consummate party thrower. She loves throwing parties, but even more, Robin loves planning parties.  Before she has completed one party, she already has 3 or 4 more under construction.  Themes and events stream through her brain at rapid speed and inspiration is found everywhere.  She has a list of people she relies upon to get the job done and she knows who to call for everything.  Need a cake?  Ask Robin and she’ll provide the top 5 bakeries to contact.  Looking for tables and chairs? She knows who to call and how much it’ll cost (if anything).  Need a prop?  She’ll check her “closet.”

The Party Closet - that is – a common element among party throwers.  This space is dedicated to housing props, gifts, costumes and anything else that screams PAR -TEE!  These items are not frivolous.  Expert party throwers are not pack rats. They are selective about what they keep on hand, knowing exactly what is required for the perfect party and impossible to find on short notice.  Everything in the party closet is used at some point or it gets passed along, and not every closet is the same.  Each depends on the unique interests of the party givers.  For example, there may be gowns, tuxedos, table linens, western gear, wigs, folding chairs, assorted hats, palm trees, cake pans, crystal, paper plates, jewelry, strobe lights…the list is diverse and seemingly infinite. 

Robin shops all year, looking for bargains that may come in handy for a future event.  She’s bought Swarovski crystal and iPods at rock bottom prices knowing that they will make perfect prizes for a raffle or contest.  She’s found curtains, lamps, chairs and a sundry of inflatable’s to suit every conceivable backdrop. 

One time it was an in-door beach party, complete with sand, trees and water (beach attire required, despite the minus zero temperatures outside).  Another time it was a Red-Carpet Oscar party, complete with what else?  A red carpet (lined with Paparazzi) and Oscars (awarded through a traditional envelope opening ceremony) for all the guests!

“Parties take work.”

“They cost a lot of money.”

“It is impossible to make everybody happy.”

“There is always a crisis.”

“Throwing a party is exhausting and thankless.” Really?

Not according to Robin.  Throwing parties is pure delight and she hosts parties to entertain herself!  She enjoys every minute of it, from the first idea to the day after clean-up.  A last minute crisis to others is an opportunity for her to tap into that unending reservoir of ideas, props and resources.  Friends and acquaintances come out of the wood work to help her prepare and clean up with the hope that they will end up on the next guest list or get a referral from her in the future. And she is always ready to step-in to save the day for others – that’s just what party throwers do!

Excuses don’t fly with Robin because it’s not about the venue, any locale can be party ready.  She regularly moves furniture in and out of her bungalow style house to accomodate her theme.  It’s not about the money, finding ways to party on the cheap is part of the thrill.  And it’s certainly not about hiring someone else to do it for her.  That would absolutely defeat the purpose.  According to Robin, there is only one real reason to throw a party – and that’s simply for the fun of it!  Stick to that premise and the rest will fall perfectly into place. 



Good Maurice, The Badd Llama

Who’s Guarding The Roost?

Good Maurice, The Badd Llama

 “How many teeth does it have?” 

That’s the first thing my mother asked me after learning Jane had a surprise for her. As a messy blond kid my younger sister’s surprises included a humming bird, some snakes and several families of pill bugs, which she relocated to my bed. Steadily, these unexpected gifts grew in size. 

Thanks to Jane, now a farm-oriented business lady, we own goats, sheep and hundreds of chickens. 

“Do you really want to know?” I asked. 

“No, don’t tell me.” 

My mother likes a good shock, which must be why our home looks like Old McDonald’s petting zoo. Still, she had some initial reservations. 

“I have a feeling it will require a lot of care and will harm me,” she said. 

I wanted to ease my mom’s fears, but couldn’t since I knew nothing about llamas. Jane had mentioned getting one, but it seemed she’d considered taking in creatures ranging from Shetland ponies to hippos, so I didn’t take her seriously—until she wrote me the following. 

“… also don’t tell mom, but I am buying them a llama, b/c the coyotes have eaten too many of our chickens and I am afraid for the goats.” 

When Jane puts something in writing it’s a done deal. 

On one level it made sense. Our home is in a rural-ish suburb, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, but close enough to open space for wild animals to roam comfortably. Coyotes had recently moved in, and we’d spotted them lurking around the goat pen and once my mother saw one bounding through high grass to pounce on an unlucky bird. 

A hole  in our fence was plugged with a tree branch, but that was a temporary solution. Jane wanted a more permanent fix for our wily problem, and she argued, what better than a lama?  

A dog, I guess, but my sister isn’t one for convention. Besides, she said, these South American camelids are badder and bigger than any dog. 

That’s what my mom was afraid of: a six-foot wooly beast that needs its “fighting teeth” removed to prevent ear ripping and genital biting (mostly of other llamas) according to the care manual. 

If there’s danger, Jane said, “The goats and chickens know to get behind them.” As for the coyote, she said, “it gets trampled.” 

A few days after the email, a truck pulling a large trailer drove up to the house and a woman from a dusty llama and schnauzer farm (the owners raised the llamas for pleasure, the dogs for profit) led the latest member of our menagerie to his new home. 

From a distance Maurice, or Banjo as we sometimes call him, looks terrifying and ridiculous. His ears arch like devil horns, his eyes look slanted and red.  

 He’s been shaved around his mid section, so that only his neck and legs are covered in dark brown, ocher-highlighted curls of wool—like a French poodle demon.  

On closer inspection, however, he appears much less imposing. Maurice is about my height—with maybe 100 pounds on me—but while he’s big enough to ride he’s shy. His face looks like a cute wooly camel and his deceptive eyes are actually large and black orbs. He spent the first few days in his new home whimpering.  

With lama pellets, we’ve slowly begun to gain this big softy’s trust, and he’s kept up his end of the bargain—there hasn’t been a single coyote sighting since he showed up. 

Yesterday, after my mom had finished corralling the animals and feeding them, I asked what she thought of Jane’s latest present. 

“It’s a good one,” she said. “But I’m all animaled out.  No more for a while” 

Now I’m wondering if I should tell her about the Indian runner ducks my uncle ordered her this summer, as a surprise of course. 


decorated oreos on red

Dipping Delectable Delights

It all started when we were in Kindergarten.  Our mom wanted us to feel like we were part of the gift giving process, but she didn’t want our teachers to end up with something they had absolutely no interest in.  Someone suggested to her that dipping strawberries was really very easy and the next thing you know, a tradition (a hobby?) had started.

The beauty of dipping strawberries is that it is really the easiest thing in the world, but everyone feels they are receiving something very special.  Of course, it is critical to mention that this is only a universal truth if you use good chocolate and decent strawberries.  We say decent because the chocolate will hide some imperfections.   But if you use bad chocolate or a rotten strawberry, you can be sure that the whole bunch will be tossed in the trash, (this year and in subsequent years), because nobody is going take that risk twice! 

We were told to “only buy Merckens” because it was the best.  Everyone seems to love it and it is easy to use, so we continue to buy it.  There may be other good alternatives – we just don’t know them!

Anyway, that first year, the strawberries were such a big hit with the teachers, we decided to do it again the following Christmas.

By then, since strawberries were in short supply, we had seen some beautiful pretzels in an expensive catalog and we decided to branch out.  During our first foray into the chocolate mess, we discovered that after you dip the strawberry in the chocolate, it takes awhile for it to stop dripping.

So, if you are not careful, you will drizzle chocolate all over the other strawberries on the tray.  Not a big deal when you are using the same kind of chocolate, but if you decide to start dipping in say, white chocolate, you have suddenly created a slightly modified concoction.  No worries, we discovered…it actually transforms them from ordinary to extraordinary!  We now purposely drizzle in white, dark and milk!

And we’ve branched out beyond strawberries and pretzels.  We’ve dipped Oreo cookies (we like double stuffed), grapes, raisins, miniature marshmallows, caramel squares, peanuts, roasted pecans and almonds (salted are best), potato chips, peanut butter stuffed pretzels…honestly, if it appeals to you, give it a try.  You may end up inventing your own delectable delight.

Then, if you’re feeling like you want to add a few creative touches, not only can you drizzle more chocolate, you can also cover them in colorful sprinkles, chopped nuts, chopped toffee, other crushed candy, and little candy decorations, to name a few. Once again, imagination is key, and if it appeals to you, it will probably appeal to others too.  Lately we’ve seen advertisements for chocolates sprinkled with sea salt.  We haven’t tried it, but it is probably good.

The complements and comments over the years have been amazing.  We are now in our twenties, but when we run into former teachers and friends from the past, they still tell us they remember those hand-dipped chocolates and they ask if we’re still making them. When we say yes, they sigh and give a big smile.

So would you call this a hobby?  While not something we do all the time, it is something we like to do now and again, particularly at Christmas.  For us, it is a nice alternative (or complement) to traditional cookies.  Both are good and have their place, but if you are looking for a fool proof, easy recipe, you can’t beat dipping chocolates for a fabulous change of pace.  Our melting process calls for putting the chocolate disks in a microwave safe bowl and melting on high for one (1) minute.  Take out the bowl, stir and then return for shorter intervals (30 seconds, then 15 seconds, then 10 seconds).  You do not want to over heat the chocolate because that changes the consistency and ruins the flavor (learned that the hard way).  So don’t get impatient and try to heat for longer intervals.  (If you ask at the store where you buy the chocolate, you’ll no doubt find an expert there that will be happy to give you all kinds of advice).  And if you don’t use all the chocolate that you’ve bought, it can be frozen for another time.    Video of Dipping Strawberries (note: glass of wine and music are optional!)

Our only problem:  they have become so popular that we end up making what feels like thousands.  So be prepared to find a place to store them (you want to keep them cool) and to package them so they stay fresh.  Or just make enough for yourself and ENJOY!  You really can’t go wrong.

Short Video of Dipping