The International Vegetarian: Part 7, China

[This is the seventh post in a series on vegetarian dishes from around the world. Check out my previous posts on Ethiopia, India, Italy, Mexico, Spain, and Japan.]

Happy Moon Festival, everyone! I chose this weekend to celebrate Chinese cuisine because today is the Moon Festival, which commemorates the moon goddess Chang’e and her ascent to immortality. I’m kind of oversimplifying, but you can read more about the origins of the festival here. On this day, Chinese youngsters would usually light lanterns, eat moon cakes, and have fun. Moon cakes really are tasty (though perhaps not everyone would enjoy these red bean filled pastries), but part of their deliciousness is because they are also usually made with lard. Boo. I meant to look for vegetarian moon cakes at one or two local stores, but I just didn’t get to it. Life gets in the way sometimes.

Anyway, instead of moon cakes I decided to celebrate with another Chinese export: Tofu. This bean-curd substance is high in protein, low in fat, has been eaten in China for millennia… and it’s totally confusing to cook with. Texture-wise tofu is like a soft cheese, nutritionally it is used as a meat substitute, and its composition is vegetable in nature, but cooking with tofu is not like cooking with any of these things. For this reason, I know many people who hate tofu. If you’re one of them, though, I urge you to give it another try.

Love this pic from Rovio’s G+ page of Angry Birds celebrating the Moon Festival!

One key to making good tofu is marinating, and the other is dry frying. I followed the dry-frying technique described on this blog, and pressed the tofu between two paper-towel-lined cutting boards before frying. This did a great job of removing the moisture and browning the tofu. After that, I marinated the tofu for about an hour in a mixture of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and onion powder. The result was very firm, lightly toasted tofu with a strong flavor. Tofu doesn’t need to marinate long, which is a good thing for people like me who make kind of last-minute cooking decisions. The entire drying/dry-frying process took about half an hour, and a marinade can do its work in less than one hour if necessary.

While the tofu was marinating, I also whipped up some cong you bing or scallion pancakes. I love these as an appetizer at Chinese restaurants, but I’d never made them myself. It turns out, they’re quite easy and use simple ingredients: Flour, water, egg, scallions, and seasoning. If you’re tired of serving your stir-fry with rice, or if you have little people in your house who enjoy playing with their food, try making these sometime.

I finished off my stir-fry with the marinated tofu, carrots, water chestnuts, bell pepper, green onions, and snow pea pods. These veggies were cooked quickly in sesame oil and hoisin sauce–a soybean-based sauce popular in Cantonese cooking that is available in many U.S. supermarkets. The result was delicious. The tofu comes out looking a little black here because of the marinade, but only a few of the thinner pieces got overcooked. The rest were crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, hearty, and filling.

 

Experimenting with new foods and cooking techniques is half the fun of being a home chef, so if you’ve been avoiding tofu check out the preparation methods discussed here. You may be pleasantly surprised!

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Celebrating National Public Lands Day 2012

Outdoor enthusiasts probably already know that today is National Public Lands Day, a day on which we can visit U.S. National Parks and Historical Sites for free. Many public lands around the country also had programs for volunteers to clean up and preserve sites of interest. Here in Southern Arizona, there are several interesting properties run by the National Park Service. I decided to visit one that was new to me: Tumacacori National Historical Park.

The site at Tumacacori has a long and kind of sad history that reveals a lot about what life was like in the Sonoran Desert before the 20th Century. A mission was established near this site by Father Eusebio Kino in 1691. Father Kino was a Jesuit priest who, during his time in this area, established a network of missions and interacted with native tribes. The official historical record states that Father Kino (an Italian of noble origin) was well regarded and respectful of the Pima (aka Tohono O’odham)  among whom he lived. Tumacacori was Kino’s first mission in the area, though he started preaching long before a church was built here. Kino would go on a year later to start the mission at San Xavier del Bac, which I visited in March, and numerous other missions in Arizona and Sonora.

Father Kino died in 1711 in Magdalena, Sonora, where he is buried today. After his death (and likely before it, too) the mission at Tumacacori struggled. The mission complex (as shown above) should be considered more of a town center than just a church. There was a granary that stored food, a school, a cemetery, orchards and fields, irrigation canals, and a kiln to fire bricks for construction–all in this one spot. While that made it an important spot for the community, it also made Tumacacori an attractive target to hostile Apache who repeatedly raided the site in spite of attempts at fortification. (To be fair, the Pima were also sometimes restive–it was an uprising by the Pima that forced the move to the current site in the mid-1700s.)

European politics also influenced Tumacacori’s fate. In the 1760s, the Jesuits fell out of favor with the Spanish king and were expelled from New World colonies. More precisely, Jesuit priests like those at Tumacacori were rounded up and sent out into the desert to almost certain deaths. Their replacements, from the Franciscan order, wanted a bigger and better site and put the Pima to work building the current church around 1800s. Although this church was never actually finished (the design was scaled back several times due to lack of funding, and the bell tower was never more complete than it is now), at one point it was functional–the facade still shows some traces of the bright paint that once covered it, and the inside also hints at better times.

Note, for example, the niches in the side walls along the nave and the painting behind the altar. The ceiling also shows faded patterns. So what happened here? Well, after the Mexican Revolution, the Spanish-born Franciscan priests were also expelled, leaving the site without a resident priest and in the care of the Pima, who had their hands full with awful weather, Apache raids, and disease. The Mexican-American war provided the final blow to Tumacacori: Supplies became harder to come by and Mexican troops abandoned the nearby presidio (fort) at Tubac, making the site even harder to defend. In 1848, the last native residents of Tumacacori decamped to the more vibrant and better-defended mission at San Xavier. As they retreated, the Pima took much of the church’s artwork with them. Whatever was left was subject to a fast and intense decay. Only about 60 years passed between the abandonment of the mission and the creation of the National Historical Site under Teddy Roosevelt, but the mission looks like it suffered centuries of damage.

Cemetery at Tumacacori. The grave in the center is the only one that is identified. Others are from the early 20th century; any traces of pre-20th century graves are gone.

The site is worth a visit if you live in Tucson or the surrounding areas. Admission is normally $3 and includes a self-guided tour. A festival in December also includes music and dancing from local native peoples. While San Xavier is hands-down the better example of a mission church, it does not offer such extensive historical and educational display as Tumacacori. I felt I learned a lot more here about what life was like at a colonial-era mission, and one of the highlights of the site’s museum was hearing audio recordings in which elder members of the Tohono O’Odham, Yaqui, and Apache tribes discuss their lives and heritage.

The town of Tubac, which I just love for its galleries and boutique shops, is a few miles up the road. (Technically, it’s a few kilometers–I-19 south of Tucson has metric highway signs. As a runner, it’s a good thing I’ve become so adept and making distance conversions in my head.) I went to Tubac today as well, but only after another short detour to the Coronado National Forest site on the outskirts of Nogales. I took a nice, 10-mile drive out to Peña Blanca Lake. This body of water that is not so impressive on its own, but the drive out is filled with hairpin turns and rolling hills. It was also nice to spend a few minutes sitting out on a dock in the middle of the desert, appreciating all that our public lands have to offer.

 

 

The International Vegetarian: Part 6, Japan

[This is the sixth post in a series on vegetarian foods from around the world. Check out my prior posts on Ethiopia, India, Italy, Mexico, and Spain.]

One thing that stood out to me as I was preparing this blog entry is the extent to which Japanese foods have become a part of the American diet. Not only do I have three restaurants that serve sushi within walking distance of my house, I can also purchase pre-packaged sushi at the corner Albertsons. Teriyaki sauce is always in my fridge, and in the past couple of years I have noticed edamame also showing up on store shelves. All of this is good news. Much of Japanese cuisine is healthy and delicious, and even if you don’t eat seafood there are an array of vegetable dishes, noodle bowls, and tofu offerings to choose from.

As with past blog entries, I decided to try making my own Japanese meal. After visiting this site, I was surprised how easy making vegetable tempura looked. This dish, which consists of lightly battered and fried veggies, supposedly was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 1500s. In the intervening centuries, though, Japan has made tempura its own. For my meal, I used a zucchini, a sweet potato, and several snow pea pods. I also made the simple batter described at the link above, and did my best to prepare according to the author’s tips. The result was edible, and the sweet potato was actually delicious, but I’m not sure I did this totally right. The pea pods cooked very quickly in the canola oil, and the zucchini turned out kind of mushy. If I try this again, I may slice the zucchini into matchsticks and leave it out to dry longer before cooking. I’m also not sure if I overworked the batter. I tried not to, but the texture here just doesn’t look like restaurant tempura. This meal was served with white rice, a bit of soy sauce, and instant miso soup, which was quite good!

 

 

 

 

For those who aren’t convinced by my attempt at Japanese cooking, here’s a friendly reminder that you can always get tasty options elsewhere. Here’s a delicious veggie sushi platter that I got last night for dinner after work. The roll contains cucumber, asparagus, and cream cheese, the nigiri on the lower left is a sweet egg omelette, and the one on the lower right is lightly fried tofu with ginger sauce. Completely filling and great tasting. I even got to compare food notes with the guys sitting next to me at the sushi bar, who had a tasty-looking mushroom and soba noodle dish. Maybe an option for a future Japanese meal!

12 Miles, 3 Goals, and 2 Unexpected Surprises

Today was my last really long run before the Arizona Half Marathon in 13 days! Eeep! I have to say that I really, really did not want to get up this morning. I had seven hours of meetings on campus yesterday (yes, on a Saturday) and then got to bed a bit late because my IT band strap keeps getting up and wandering away from me in the night. After my IT band was sore last week, the idea of a 12-mile run without it made me a little panicky. Anyway, after three times snoozing the alarm this morning I finally forced myself up and out.

The spirit may have been weak this morning, but my body was ready:

Mile 1: 9:56

Mile 2: 10:18

Mile 3: 10:05

Mile 4: 9:52

Mile 5: 10:03

Mile 6: 9:57

Mile 7: 10:02

Mile 8: 11:07 (Gu and water refill)

Mile 9: 10:18

Mile 10: 10:47 (More water–first fountain was wonky)

Mile 11: 10:25

Mile 12: 10:41 (and another .1 at 9:36/pace)

Total: 12.1 at 10:17

Stolen from the Pima County Government. Public domain, booya!

I’m pretty thrilled to have achieved three goals: 1) Finished the 12.1 miles I wanted; 2) Held to the race pace I want, despite making an extra water stop; 3) Reached a new farthest point on the Rillito River Trail where I run. Next week I will cut back mileage on my weekend run in preparation for the race, and at this point a 2:15 finish time seems within reach.

I also had two unexpected surprises on this run, which is nice. First, I found a small outdoor plaza or amphitheater that I never knew existed on the path between La Cañada Drive and La Cholla Blvd. I assume it’s part of the nearby apartment complex, but it’s still pretty cool. My second surprise was even cooler, though. I’m pretty sure that I saw Tucsonan and  U.S. Olympic athlete Abdi Abdirahman on my run this morning. It’s actually the second time that I thought I’ve seen him on this trail, but this time he startled me by passing me so close on the left, and when he lapped me and came back, I got a big smile on my face and he smiled back. Again, I’m not 100% sure it was him, but I’m at least 90% sure. And I tweeted him to ask if it was him. So, Mr. Abdirahman, if you see my tweet and happen to find this blog, just know that you made my day today. I ran a bit farther and faster because of you. Unless it wasn’t you. In that case, thank you random smiling stranger!

The Joy of Swimming

I’ve been a bit lax in posting about my progress in swimming, but I did finally finish the learn to swim 500 yards program from About.com that I started a couple of months ago. Monsoon rains and pool closures gave me some delays in finishing this program, and since the semester started I’ve only been able to get in 2 swim workouts per week instead of 3 due to time constraints and the high mileage I’m doing. However, if you are a swimming skeptic as I was before I started, here are some reasons to try swimming as a cross-training exercise:

  1. It’s easy and cheap to get started. A basic one-piece swimsuit can be purchased for $40 or less, and I paid around $10 total for swim goggles and a swim cap. That’s it. Assuming you already have access to a pool, there really isn’t much you need in the way of gear.
  2. It strengthens and tones with little to no impact. Now that I’m running 20+ miles a week, this is something I really appreciate. After an 11 miler like I ran this Sunday, there’s no way I’d be able to do another 30-minute run the following day, but being in the pool is somehow soothing. I wouldn’t say I feel like I’ve gotten tremendous weight loss benefits from swimming, but it definitely works for toning. My arms, abs, and chest muscles are more defined than when I started, and that’s not something that came from running or light yoga alone. Swimming involves extension, constant movement, and attention to form. When done properly, it really pays off.
  3. This is not the pool I swim in. But we do have palm trees and lounge chairs, plus a DJ on Friday afternoons. Be jealous.

    It’s fun. I guess I’m spoiled by living in a nice climate and having an outdoor pool, but I love that swimming allows me to be outside exercising even when it’s close to 100 degrees. Night swims are also fun, with cooler air, warm water, and the eerie pool lighting underneath you.

  4. Attention to form and breathing translate well to running. I do think more about form when running than I did before I started swimming. I don’t slouch as much, I engage my core, and I check myself occasionally when I find my form slacking. This may be why I’m finishing strong even on some of the longer runs I’ve been doing.
  5. Swimmers are hot. Really, what can I say? These swimming guys are easy on the eyes.

Overall, I plan to keep swimming on my off-days from running. I probably won’t try to build too much distance between now and my half-marathon on October 6, but yesterday’s 500 yards actually felt easy, so who knows? Whenever I do feel like pushing myself, About.com also has a more advanced program that I might try.

11.1 Miles and the Magic of Recovery Food

So, after my Spanish feasting and fun on Saturday night, I got up bright and early yesterday to do a long run. My goal was to hit 11 miles and do so at my goal half marathon pace of 10:20-10:30 mile. What can I say? I nailed it:

Mile 1: 10:27

Mile 2: 10:04

Mile 3: 10:01

Mile 4: 10:01

Mile 5: 10:07

Mile 6: 10:10

Mile 7: 10:16

Mile 8: 11:06 (this is where I stopped to refill my water and eat a GU)

Mile 9: 10:21

Mile 10: 10:31

Mile 11.1: 10:15 (and 9:43/mi pace on the last .1)

Total: 11.1 miles at 10:18/pace

I’m pretty thrilled about this because it is my third-longest run ever and my longest run since the half marathon I ran in 2010. This distance also allows me to assess my performance and set a goal for the Arizona Half Marathon on 10/6. Based on this, a 2:15 time is actually a possibility if I can hold pace and if I am properly rested. Keep in mind, this 11.1 miles comes on the heels of what (just barely) was my highest mileage week ever last week. I ran 21.6 miles last week, which beats my prior longest-mileage week of 21.0 miles in 2007. I will be happy with any new PR I get on 10/6, but it would be nice to have something I feel really proud of.

After running yesterday, I knew I was going to be sore so I decided to load up on natural anti-inflammatory foods for the rest of the day. I learned a little about anti-inflammatory foods as an alternative to pain medications from reading Scott Jurek’s book (reviewed here), but I was surprised and pleased to learn from Internet research that many anti-inflammatories are already a part of my diet! Here are things I enjoyed yesterday after running:

  1. Walnuts: After running, I made myself a brunch of pancakes with crushed walnuts. My lunch of a lentil burger also included ground walnuts in the patty.
  2. Olive Oil and Ginger: Oil and vinegar is my go-to dressing, but olive oil and ginger are also known anti-inflammatory foods. The dressing I made up was 2 parts olive oil, 1 part rice vinegar, and ginger and garlic to taste.
  3. TurmericThis spice which often appears in curry also shows up in yellow mustard. I put some mustard with an extra 1/4 tsp. of turmeric on my lunch lentil burger.

    Image from Steve Lupton/Corbis. Time magazine’s story on Turmeric includes University of Arizona research!

  4. Sweet Potato: Yes, I still have some leftover sweet potato enchiladas from last weekend’s Mexican dinner, and happily sweet potato is a good source of nutrients that help fight inflammation.
  5. Omega-3s: I take flax seed oil supplements as a source of Omega-3s, and while they also contain Omega-6s that may contribute to inflammation, as long as these nutrients are kept in balance they should be OK.

My list of foods also included some things to avoid. Sugar, processed milk, caffeine, potatoes, and tomatoes can all contribute to inflammation–so I kept my dairy intake low, skipped the coffee, and avoided the latter two vegetables yesterday. I’m happy to report that, after some light yoga last night, I feel all right this morning. Still a little sore, but I think I will manage today’s pool workout just fine. Next time you do a long run, try these natural feel-good foods to help your recovery!

The International Vegetarian: Part 5, Spain

(This is the fifth post in my somewhat weekly series on vegetarian dishes from around the world. Check out my earlier entries on Ethiopia, India, Italy, and Mexico for more meal ideas!)

I wasn’t intending to do Spanish cooking as part of this series, but my friend unintentionally gave me this challenge when she decided to have a birthday dinner this weekend at a Spanish restaurant.

I lived in Spain ten years ago as a student, and if you know about Spanish cooking you probably know these things already:

1) Spanish food is quite distinct from Mexican or Latin American food, something many people here in the U.S. don’t realize. The flavor palate and ingredients are much more similar to other Mediterranean cuisines, with olives, peppers, and goat cheese as featured ingredients.

2) Spanish cuisine can also be difficult for vegetarians. The pig plays a big role in Spanish food, and in any major city you can find bars or stores with giant hams in the window. The Spanish love their jamón, which is cured and served in various ways. You can even find pig’s ears on the menu and, yes, I have tried them. They’re kind of gross. Seafood is also a major element of Spanish food and it’s not uncommon to find tuna or cod in unusual places like on salads and pizza. However…

3) Vegetarian cooking can be done, and tapas menus (small plates, generally popular as inexpensive, shared bar food) can include veggie-friendly options like cheese, olives, mushrooms, potatoes, and more.

For lunch this Saturday morning, I decided to prepare myself a delicious meal of patatas bravas (a popular tapa) and a Spanish-inspired grilled cheese with romesco sauce.

Romesco sauce hails from Northern Spain and can be served with seafood, vegetables, or on a sandwich like this one. I got my recipe from The Pampered Chef’s The Vegetarian Table Cookbook, but you can easily find recipes online. The common theme is combining roasted red peppers, garlic, and ground toasted almonds. My preparation added a bit of mayo and basil from my own basil plant, but you can also add tomato, vinegar, or red pepper flakes if you like it hotter. Incidentally, a coffee grinder makes a great tool for processing nuts if you don’t have a manual or electric food processor. I then spread my romesco sauce on wheat bread and made a grilled cheese with mozzarella and Manchego cheeses. It was a lucky bit of fate to find Manchego at my neighborhood Albertsons this morning, and if you can find it it’s worth the price. This is a firm, goat milk cheese from the La Mancha region with a mellow, nutty flavor. This cheese is ubiquitous in Spain, and combining it with mozzarella helped give it the melty, grilled cheese texture that I wouldn’t have gotten with Manchego alone.

Patatas bravas are fried potatoes with a spicy, tomato based sauce that is easy to make. My friends and I always used to get these at the bar when we were out, and in Madrid they were often served up like fast food. Today I followed this recipe which employs ketchup as a shortcut in the sauce, but I used diced tomatoes from a can with a bit of white wine vinegar instead. If you want to go all-out there’s also a recipe from famed chef Jose Andres here. I love allioli sauce as an accompaniment to the potatoes, too, but I chose not to make it today. The brava sauce should be spicy, and cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes will add an extra kick, but that’s for you to decide! I finished off the entire meal with some extra slices of manchego and a few olives that I apparently keep lying around in case a Mediterranean luncheon breaks out in my house.

Buen provecho to me!

For an impromptu meal, this turned out really well. Next time, I will probably skip the mayo in the romesco… it’s a bit much when serving this with the salsa brava that has lots of mayonnaise too. There was one thing this lunch was missing, though, and that’s the last thing to know about Spanish food:

4) Spanish food is best paired with friends and a good time. A Spanish meal was even better later in the evening when my friends and I went to Casa Vicente here in Tucson. This restaurant really knows how to treat a large group, and they offer a wide variety of Spanish dishes, drinks, and wines you won’t find on the menu elsewhere. (If you are so inclined to drink… I actually tasted the virgin sangria that another non-drinker at the party ordered, and it was tasty!) For seafood eaters, here’s the amazing seafood paella that my table ordered. We had a lovely dinner on the patio, great conversation, and I even got to see some of the flamenco dancing on stage. Good times, friends, and jaleo–all that Spanish dining is meant to be! Hasta la proxima, amigos!