Healthy Eating, Easier Running, Introducing Black Beans Quinoa Salad

Ever since I started to train for the half marathon, maintaining a healthy eating has became more important. Any extra “weight” (read: junk) is extra work on the track!

I’ve became vegetarian for three months now, although I’d call myself 95% vegetarian since my husband is still not ready to give up meat and since I cook for us, I still taste the regular food I cook. I know some of my vegetarian friends can cook based on “recipe” and not have to taste the final product. I’m just not built the same way.

Anyway, one of my favorite dish that has both proteins and grains is the black bean quinoa salad. It is very light and fulfilling. I can have a big plate of this and call it a meal after a run. Best of all, it’s surprisingly easy to make!

Ingredients:

1 cup of quinoa (I use both the tri-color or regular quinoa from Trader Joe’s)
1 can of organic black beans (also from the friendly neighborhood Trader Joe’s)
Half bunch of cilantro
half lime

Cooking:

Cook the quinoa according to the instruction. I use rice cooker, the ratio of quinoa to water is 1 to 2. I also add pinch of salt and a teaspoon of olive oil. But you don’t have to. After the quinoa is cooked, I drained the black beans and add pinch of salt to season. Then, I add the beans to the quinoa salad. I chop the cilantro and add it to the beans-quinoa mixture and squeeze some lime juice over it. Finally, salt and pepper to taste. And sometimes, I will add another teaspoon of olive oil. Voila! A healthy meal is made!

This dish can stand on its own or as a side dish to salmon. It goes well together. If I feel more “fancy”, I may roast some sweet corn and then add it to the quinoa salad. It’s fantastic! Or, during summer, when avocado is appropriate, I will add few slices to the salad. It’s refreshing! I have added whatever vegetables I may find additionally in my fridge such as purple onion, broccoli, etc. Also, I have substituted black beans with my other favorite beans: pinto beans.

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When I’m not running, I’m cooking… and tonight’s winner is Cabbage Roll!

Running and cooking as I discover are the perfect pair. The final product of cooking replenish the nutrients needed after running and rewards the soul for the hard work!

On Saturday evening, I decided to make Russian cabbage roll. I called it “Russian” because I tried number of recipes to emulate my mother-in-law’s cabbage roll. After about three tries, according to my husband, it was pretty close to the rolls he remembered.

ImageI’m not a professional cook book writer, so the recipe I share will not have precise measurement. Now I know why when my mom describes a dish, she uses terms like “a pinch” or “a handful”. Cooking when it is done as a creation and sometimes experiment, I enjoy more of the process of creating the dish not so much concerned about the perfection of the final product. There were many times when I just go on the fly, I made something new! This is why I came to love cooking – it’s an expression of the moment.

With my cabbage roll, I used:

ground beef: half pound
cabbage: 1 medium size
onion: 1 medium size
garlic: about 4 cloves
parsley: half bunch
cooked rice (blend of 50/50 white/brown rice): a bowl (probably 1 cup in measurement)

 

For the broth to cook the rolls in, I used chicken broth, tomato sauce, and bay leaf. The mixture  of the tomato sauce + chicken broth is about 50/50 and depending on the number of the rolls you make, the rule of the thumb is to have enough broth to cover the rolls. I sprinkle 3-4 bay leaves for the aroma.

To make the filling, first diced the onions, minced the garlic, and chopped the parsley. I use coconut oil to cook (however if you never used coconut oil, you can use olive oil). In the pan, on medium heat, I stir fry the onion, garlic, and parsley mixture for about 5 minutes. And then I add the ground beef for another 5-7 minutes to fully cook the beef. Finally, the cooked rice is added. I have a rice cooker and in a Chinese household, there is ALWAYS rice around. To season, i use salt, pepper, and a little bit of paprika.

While the filling is being prepared, I boil another pot of water to cook the cabbage. The idea here is to soften the cabbage so peeling each leaf is easy. Before putting the cabbage into the boiling water, make sure you go to the base of the cabbage and cut out the center. This will enable easy peeling. I leave the cabbage in for about 5 minutes or as soon as the cabbage leaf just easily come off. I use a thong to “peel” each leaf onto a clean plate.

Then, like old-fashion wrapping and rolling a burrito, I put the ground beef filling onto each cabbage leaf and roll it into a roll. Since these rolls are for home only, I’m not too concerned about the prettiness. The key is to not use too much ground beef filling that you have hard time “close the wrap”. As I wrap each roll, I put them into the “broth” pot. I usually make about 6-8 rolls (and that’s enough for 2-3 meals).

Bring the “broth” pot to boil and then turn the stove to small and I let it simmer for about an hour. In half an hour, the kitchen will be filled with lots of wonderful aroma, especially the bay leaf! In the picture, I did not add a scoop of sour cream because I was out of stock. That would be THE authentic way of enjoying a proper Russian cabbage roll. And if you have dill, that’s the icing on the cake so to speak. Sprinkle a pinch of dill on top of that sour cream, it’s a nice touch.

On a wintery night, cabbage rolls are heavenly. It just goes so well after a run! And just like running, cooking is meant to be enjoyed. It took me three tries to get the process down for my cabbage roll. Enjoy the process of experimenting and trying something new, it won’t be long before the cabbage rolls become a regular in your household!

 

One Year Later, Thirty Pounds Lighter

Just writing the title of this blog is unbelievable.

I lost 30lbs in one year’s time. If I didn’t write this down, maybe I would deny this ever happened. The denial comes from having gained the extra weight in the first place. It’s not so much of a gloating statement, rather, a lesson to remember, namely, change is possible.

The “why” is worth mentioning as motivation is always key to changes. September 2012, I came back from visiting Ukraine. At some levels, seeing all the beautiful women there might have some unconscious effect on me. I was only human, vanity was part of being human. But that alone would not have supported me all the way. I didn’t believe in appearance was everything.

But seeing the photos from the visit certainly helped me to see reality. I definitely gained weight over the years!

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Additionally, around the same time, I learned of my dad’s health struggles. It was not easy accepting someone who has always seen so strong and important to me was sick. It was like reality, double take. I needed to take care of my health. Finally, I was staring down at turning the big 3-0 birthday in December. I wanted change. I wanted to prove that I still could change, even in the face of the landmark birthday.

How did I do it?

I knew I needed help. I was once someone who said I would not mind “death by food”. Vlad and I worked out at the local YMCA. Until that point, YMCA felt like a monthly donation to a local club. I barely showed up. Of the few occasions I was there, I saw a flyer “YMCA Weight Loss Program”. It was as if the higher power heard me. I was interested but still had reservation. Mentally, I was resisting to the idea “I need to lose weight” or becoming one of those “dieting” people.

Finally, I decided to call and just “inquired” about it. The cost of the program was reasonable at $100 for eight weeks. I did not remember much of the conversation except the front desk lady said, “I did the same program and lost eight pounds. It was a lifestyle change” I heard the keyword “change”. Okay, sold.

The structure of the program was actually effective. We met once a week and always began with “weigh-in”. Yes, the “weigh-in” was the painful part where I faced reality weekly. Wait, scratch that – that most painful part for the first 2 weeks was keeping a food journal! Oh, that was the most single effective way to become aware of how much junk I was eating! Or simply, how much food I was ingesting!

The top physical killer was actually the exercise log next to each day’s food journal. I finally put the Y’s membership to good use! I wanted to change, so I better be true to my words. I started with group classes, thinking that would keep me moving. Some of the classes, Zumba and UJam dancing, were fun. The problem was the “out of breathe” routine was common. The muscle soreness was like that ugly shadow that followed me around for 4 weeks. I did not realize how out of shape I was!

Slowly, the number on the scale started going down. Slowly, I started to become aware of that “bag of potatoes chips” was costing me in terms “out of breathe” and “soreness” hours. Quickly, I ditched all the junk. The reasoning was simple “if I had to work that hard to get rid of it, why put it in at all?” I also learned that 80% of the weight loss effort was what I ingested, 20% was about exercising. If I did not learn about how to eat better, I could kill myself on the gym floor and the scale would not change much.

Few of the biggest changes I made regarding eating habits were

1) I switched from eating white rice to a mix of white and brown rice. This was a funny incident. On the food log, the instructor wrote “brown rice” next to my “white rice” entry for 2 weeks straight with a red pen. Being a stubborn Asian who grew up with white rice, this was like an offense on my pride! Finally, I said, okay, this whole journey was about change. I would give it a try. Pretty soon, I realized that mixed grain rice definitely helped to sustain the fullness much better.

2) I learned that protein did not mean lots of meat. I grew up seeing 16oz steak as a roadway to happiness. When I learned that the right portion of steak (or any meat) was actually the size of a deck of cards, I kid you not, I was thoroughly shocked. A deck of cards? Are we talking about the same deck of cards here? Maybe there was a “supersize me” deck of cards? In line with being willing to change, I said, okay, here goes, deck of cards. In the beginning, seeing an “hole” on the plate was visually displeasing and emotionally disturbing. So, I stuffed it with lots of greens. Pretty soon, when I saw the change on the scale, I let go of my 16oz steak. Truthfully speaking, I also felt more energized with this change.

3) I also learned the art of “80% full”. Coming from the “death by food” mentality, this was an interesting one. I would not lie, portion control was the hardest practice. If it was not for the weekly weigh in, I would not be able to continue and finally learned that most of the time, we all ate too much too fast. This one required the most discipline of all, even more than exercising. I was trained as an athlete in high school so muscle soreness was annoying but I also saw it as badge of honor. But seeing food and not fully consuming it was like waving the red flag in front of a bull and tell it not to move. The true test was Thanksgiving last year – when my brother and his girlfriend cooked a fabulous Thanksgiving feast. I actually stuck to the portion I knew was right, even enjoying the pie and wine. I finally learned the art of “enjoying everything in moderation”

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There were many other challenges but I stuck it out. Honestly, I even surprised myself. My initial goal was just ten pounds, something modest and possible. I reached that goal right at the end of the first 8-weeks session. I immediately signed up for the second 8-weeks session because I knew I had to learn more about lifestyle change and maintenance. By then, I was just curious how far I could go. How much change could I bring? At that point, it was not about the number on the scale anymore. I continued to practice what I learned and I began to shop for new clothes! That was a huge moment for me – when my pants were becoming loose and the shirts were “hanging” on me. Needless to say, that was a fun motivator for me.

Image(taken at my 30th birthday, right near end of first 8-weeks session)

At the end of the second 8-weeks session, I dropped another 9 lbs, continuing the same practice of lifestyle: eat healthy and exercise regularly. Because of the 19 lbs drop, I found this new confidence in myself. I did not sign up for another session because I wanted to be independent and see if I could continue down the healthy path on my own. Instead, I took on another challenge – running.

If eating healthy was my number one nemesis, running would rank top five. I had mentioned that I was an athlete in high school, let me clarify that. I was good with balls – volleyball, soccer, and basketball. Give me a ball, I could run with it. Running by itself however was like the most boring sports, second to chess for me. I used to think “run for what?”

But I picked running as my program to keep me on the healthy path knowing it was another challenge. I needed another foundation to keep me grounded. Also, I knew that running was the easiest thing – put on the shoes and go. In California, there was not much “weather-related” excuse to not run. Additionally, it was a solo sport. I had to come up with all the motivation myself, just like losing weight. I was doing it for myself.

Image(Hiking Redwoods SP, Taken April 2013)

My first run was in the last week of March this year. Fast forward to today, I completed two 5K’s in September, one 5-miles in October, and I plan to complete a half-marathon next Spring. Running had helped me to continue trim sizes, although losing weight was no longer my “prime directive”.

ImageI did not think I could change this much in a year. But I did. Tony Robins said “most people overestimate what they can accomplish in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in a decade” I’d like to add, with determination and willingness to change, a year can accomplish quite a bit, just imagine with the same mindset and attitude, how much we can achieve in a decade?

Image(Taken last weekend at Santa Cruz, CA)