Cooking Adventure: Blueberry Muffins, aka Blueberry Explosion

My cooking journey has a parallel story similar to running adventure, in the sense that the passion/love has been cultivated through time. I grew up in a somewhat “foodie” family. My grandfather would go the miles (literally) to find fresh-caught tuna to make sashimi. He would spend hours making Taiwanese sausage from scratch, because that was the authentic thing to do. He definitely enjoyed good food and alcohol. Growing up, I appreciated good food, especially, when it was placed in front of me. I never really learned how to cook except in those rare occasions that I would help. Even then, I remembered my main job was to wash dishes because I was not “skilled” enough to help.

In college, I lived on campus and dining hall food was just fine and convenient. It wasn’t until the last year when I lived in an apartment where there was a small kitchen that I began to “experiment”. I would not call that cooking, especially, when mostly I just cooked white rice (via rice cooker). My very first dish was taught by my dad who at my request showed me some authentic Taiwanese pork stew. I was mesmerized at how many STEPS it required to make a dish. Even then, only my nostalgia with Taiwanese food motivated me to cook few times a month. Essentially, I still lived on dining hall food.

Then came graduate school when my little brother (who was in high school) lived with me. Cooking became a necessity to live. There was another (minor) depending on me. Cooking was a chore – it needed to be done and hopefully well enough to eat (or at least provide some calorie) To my surprise, practice did make it better. Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory was definitely working for me.

When I got married, cooking remained a chore. Someone had to do it. If it was left to my hubby who honestly despised cooking, we would probably eat out all the time, which could be expensive and unhealthy. It was not until recently (fall of 2012), after my dad’s minor stroke, when I decided to change my lifestyle, that I began to see cooking as a “fun thing” to do. At first, I had to relearn about healthy cooking, then it became a fun activity to scour the website for recipes. Soon after, watching Chef John’s Foodwishes was a regular before-going-to-bed activity. I was dreaming what I would make.

Cooking like running is a journey. Just like running, in the beginning, there was some growing pain. But over time, I discovered that I enjoyed the process of following a recipe and then creating something that was more my taste. It was my artistic expression. This past few weeks, after trying Chef John’s Blueberry Muffins couple times with few minor variation. I finally found my (and hubby’s) favorite.

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Original credit goes to Chef John’s Too Many Blueberry Muffins

My minor modifications are:

  1. Flour: I semi substituted the 3 cups all-purpose flour to 2.5 cups of all-purpose flour and half cup of wheat flour. I tried with 1.5 cups all-purpose flour + 1.5 cups of wheat flour because I liked the “rougher” texture. However, hubby’s feedback was that it was too dry.
  2. Blueberry: Chef John already put more than the usual amount of blueberry. I added even more because both of us loved blueberry. I used 2.5 cups. It was really blueberry explosion goodness! The unintended but excellent result was the muffins were very moist.
  3. Sugar: instead of white granulated sugar, I used turbinado raw cane sugar. At our household, we banned white sugar. It is too refined for healthy reasons. This is another major motivation for me to start baking, because virtually all store-bought pastry uses white sugar.
  4. Vegetable Oil: I used coconut oil at home. Vegetable oil is also banned from our kitchen since the heating point is too low for a lot of my style of cooking.
  5. Lemon zest/extract: I tried both and found no difference in the final product. So, for ease, I used lemon juice.

Here is the shop list version of my recipe:

2.5 cups all-purpose flour
0.5 cups wheat flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup turbinado raw cane sugar
1 (1/2 cup) stick butter, softened
2 tablespoons coconut oil
2 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2.5 cups fresh blueberries

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Closing the Running/Racing Chapter, Opening Another Door

I have been taking a long hiatus from training for various reasons. The main one really is about taking care of myself for other more important life goals. I have experienced way too many injuries to justify training for a race. It took me a while to realize that backing off did not mean backing out. For the last 6 months, I have struggled with slowing down. It may sound braggy but truthfully, it has been about re-defining who I have came to identity myself – a runner in training.

I accidentally found the love for running almost 2.5 years ago with completing my first 5K with the “Race to the End of Summer”, which took place Labor Day weekend in 2013. I had started training spring of that year. Before that spring, running was probably on the list of “top 5 things I hate”. Subsequently, I completed San Jose’s Rock and Roll Mini Marathon (5 miles). I was hooked, not necessarily the competition (although RnR did open my eyes to ‘Elite Runners’ as they circled back to the starting line just as my corral was being released)

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If there was a climax to my running adventure, it would have been completing San Francisco Rock and Roll Half Marathon in spring of 2014. One Golden Gate Bridge, 13.1 miles, and many many self-talks later, I was in tears to cross that finish line. I had a black toe as my badge of honor to show. I walked proud and prouder into registering for San Jose Fit, almost immediately, to better my time for next half marathon. For one insane second, I contemplated ‘what if I signed up for marathon training?’

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My prize would have been completing Morgan Hill Half Marathon (MHHM) in the fall of 2014 as the end goal training with San Jose Fit. The key was “would have been”. The rigorous training included track workout, which was the first time I was introduced to the ideas of farleck (speed workout). Hm… I should have listened to my body. Again the key words were “should have”. I got so wrapped up in the whole “no pain no gain” and “pushing beyond the limit” was what half marathon was about, right?

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During the six months training for MHHM, my brother-in-law introduced Brazen Racing to me, which was the local running company that organized races in local parks (read: trail running!) Another accidental find of another love – I discovered that running on trails in the nature was so my thing! Less crowds, more nature – what is there NOT to love? I decided for my 10K mark, I would show it with a Brazen medal.

I did not account for the fact that trail running was different, in some ways, more technical as I had to navigate hills and uneven terrains. I learned the “what goes up must come down” law of “running hills” Running up was hard but coming down was even harder! (hello, hip flexor muscles, where have you been all my life?) The lack of hill skills finally did me in on the this 10K race – I ended up straining majority of my quads and spraining my right ankle. I lost the footing, literally, half mile from the finish line. This was probably the biggest mistake – I ran the last 1/2 mile since I was “so close” anyway, right??

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Okay, that was not the biggest mistake. The biggest mistake was not resting. The Brazen race was in July. MHHM was in October. I wanted to continue training. So I did. Why not? I probably took a week off when the ankle was swollen but as soon as I could, I was back running with taping my ankle. I was so proud of myself of managing this little mishap. Then, in August, during one long run, I sprained the same ankle again! (What a surprise…) This was when I started thinking, okay maybe, just maybe, I should, probably, possibly, re-consider this training. Stubborn as stubborn goes, I repeated the same strategy – rest minimally and roughing it out.

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By September, I was not able to push past 10 miles mark on the long run without pain. What was more alarming was the right knee started to feel pain as well. At this point, I was thinking, just one more month and since I was already at 10 miles, I could really just willpower through the last 3.1 miles on actual race day. Totally manageable, totally doable, and totally a bad idea! By chance, I was in LA visiting my newborn niece and saw our family doctor there. He noticed that I was fidgety with my right ankle (note: injured ankle+heels were not a good combination) He decided to check me out with some massage (he’s a Chinese medicine doctor a special gift with sports injury) Within minutes (and few questions of why and what have you been doing?), he gave me the recommendation: “STOP RUNNING, immediately”

The repeated ankle injury never healed properly, which had been causing the calf muscle to overwork and overcompensate. That had in turn affected the stability of the right knee. There were numerous weird muscle nodules on my calf that I had no idea existed. Few painful therapeutic massage were evident that the doctor was right. Interestingly, he checked the left side, which I promptly told him was unnecessary, but ended up in a loud scream as he found similar nodules on the left calf!

Truthfully told, I did not need any doctor to diagnose this. I kind of knew that my body was not in best shape. I supposed having a doctor telling me this was the final breaking point. Some of his words were “irreparable damages” and “long term effects”. I had to really think about what was more important to me. I finally contacted the race director for MHHM to see if I could postpone my race for another year or transfer to another runner. Fortunately, the director was very understanding and told me either way was fine. (Kudos to MHHM, as this was not the common practice)

I finally took the fall 2014 off. Not long after, I was itching to start. I decided I would come back with another Brazen’s 10K in early Spring this year. This time, I chose a totally FLAT course (Coyote Creek) thinking it would be “safe”. I dragged my feet to the finish line. Nope, ankle and knee were still in recovery mode. I was actually happy to cross that finish line.

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After a long conversation with my dad and family doctor, I finally decided that I would continue to run leisurely and not register for any races this year. I loved training for races: it gave me the drive to beat my own record. I loved the feeling of finishing and accomplishing things. But I also learned that I was in the dog chasing its tail spiral. Each race pushed me away from being fully recover. I had to change my perspective: no race NOW, but not never.

Now, sitting at my computer, recovering from a 6-mile hike at Nisene Marks Forest, I’m learning to redefine (yet again) my active lifestyle. I no longer set any goals of how many miles/minutes I run. Some days, I can barely finish 1 mile. Some days, I enjoyed 6-miles hikes. Some days, yoga just felt more right than anything else. And on days like today, I’m loving my other adventure: trying recipes with cooking and baking.

Life is forever evolving. I’m grateful to have the experience of running and training for races. It definitely gave me way more than I had expected. Now onto the adventures…

First Time Surfing in Costa Azul, Cabos, Mexico

The highlight of the recent Los Cabos trip was my first-ever attempt at surfing. This was not an easy decision because I was not a confident swimmer. In fact, prior to Cabos, I have never swam in open ocean without a life jacket. I have participated in snorkeling in other trips where life jacket was always required (and necessary in my case). I only learned “swimming” few years ago as an adult and I barely mastered the breaststroke in a kiddie pool.

Originally, I had signed up for body boarding lesson while Vlad registered for surfing lesson. Oddly, I did feel better and more secure with body boarding since I would be “surfing” towards the shore. After a lengthy conversation with a friend, who had done surfing, he said it made no difference in terms of “swimming”. In either scenario, I would be out in the ocean. I would not be able to “touch” the bottom of the ocean until I reached the shore.(That was the root of my fear – I freaked out when I could not touch land) I was half convinced after that conversation. Fear, irrational as always, just did not go away with “logical explanation”.

I did not dwell much as we embarked on the trip. The day before the lesson, while confirming the pick up time/lesson, I decided to ask the lady if I could still change to surfing. She assured me that it would be safe and actually more fun. I told her “okay, why not”

We drove from Cabo San Lucas to this local sport called Costa Azul to surf. The water as the name suggested was crystal blue and the waves were HUGE! I thought “holy mack, these were real waves!” And there were few dozen surfers out catching waves and it did look fun!

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We had two instructors taking care of five students, a pretty good ratio. The quickie lesson was done on the sand – “one, you lay down; two, mini push up; three, you stand up” It was less than ten minutes. Then, the instructors went off with the group of three teenagers. I thought “What? Now I am supposed to know how to surf?” Vlad and I were still tired and half awake from previous day’s adventure of off road driving. I didn’t really have much energy to “freak out” although I secretly hoped that maybe I could still take body boarding lesson.

To my surprise, the instructors did not take any boards. They were in the water with the students, helping them catching waves. The most helpful thing was the instructor “commanding” when to stand up as they helped “timed” the waves. It was much easier. That helped with my nerves knowing the instructors were in the water close by.

When the other group finished, the instructors waved at us to come into the ocean. I reiterated to one of the instructor, Victor, that I was not a good swimmer and felt really nervous. He said “okay” and told me to “take it easy”. No strong reaction (which in retrospect, it was a good response).

I had my first taste of physical challenge getting the board into the water. As stated earlier, the waves were big and as they crashed on shore, it had tremendous energy still. Because of my unfamiliarity with the ocean and the board, I got smacked around trying getting into water. Finally, Victor said to get on the board quickly and PADDLE, the word that would haunt me for rest of the morning. I paddled, paddled, and paddled (and paddled some more) to the open ocean. By the time I got to the spot to catch the wave, I was already tired!

To Victor’s credit, he never left my side the first session. He could tell I was really not a confident swimmer, as the first catch turned out to be half successful. He would tell me to get ready as the wave approached and told me when to “stand up” I did as I learned on the beach but my nerves got the best of me. I wanted to actually “fall into water” so that I would know that falling into open ocean without a life jacket was safe. I was after all strapped to the board, which essentially was a floatation device!

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That first fall was not the worst because I had planned it. The second fall was the hardest because I actually caught the wave and half confused because I did not know what riding the wave felt like! When I realized I was balancing on the board and riding the wave, it was super exhilarating and at the same time, the exhilaration took my focus away from balancing. And BOOM, I was off the board. All this happened in about 15 seconds. The wave kept going dragging my board towards the shore as I struggled with gulping salty sea water! That was NOT a pleasant experience.

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In between each catch, there was more “paddle” (and more paddle) back to the ocean. I was dead tired and my arms felt like spaghetti by end of the first session. I could barely walk back to our chairs. In some instances, I had even hard time getting back on the board (which required core and arm strength). When the second session arrived, I was half dreading going back. I did not know if I had more energy to one, getting the board back into the ocean; two, to paddle; and three, to surf!

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To the instructor’s credit and passion for surfing, their enthusiasm helped tremendously. They continued to encourage me and helped me stay afloat. They would cheer when one of us caught the wave. I did catch several waves. As the instructor called us at the end, we were “professional beginners” How about that, a sense of humor on top of being excellent teachers.

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I was glad that I challenged myself to do something I feared. It taught me to face head on (literally as the wave crashed into me few times) with  fear. Now I am actually thinking to go back to the pool and continue to swim to get over my lack of confidence in water. I know it has always been a mental thing than a physical thing. Granted, I was extremely tired and sore the day after surfing. The mental gain totally outweighed the physical gain. I’m very grateful and blessed with awesome teachers in Cabos with this amazing experience. Finally, I am thankful for the perfect ocean condition that allow a “professional” beginner to successful and safely navigate her first surfing session!

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The Pain of NOT Training a.k.a Running 10K Hellyer with Brazen

Last Saturday, I ran Brazen’s Hellyer 10K with my brother-in-law, who raced in the half marathon’s category. Summary: my brother-in-law set his personal record of 1hr25mins for the half while I finished my 10K in almost the same amount of time. Yup, I was not trained and I paid for every mile and some.

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I started at a new company in February that took majority of my focus, therefore, training suffered. I went into the race having ran ZERO miles that week (mistake #1) and having the task of preparing my husband’s surprise birthday party that would happen later post race (mistake #2, but really fun though!) I was undertrained in every part of my body, which resulted in hurting everywhere, except my hair and my fingernails! I actually felt worst than when I ran my first half marathon almost a year ago. I did not think that was possible.

I went into the race with a 7min run/1min walk plan — well, that worked for the first half. Then by mile 4, I was feeling pain in my right knee. By mile 5, I was just walking for most part. By mile 5.5, I said “F—it, the knee wasn’t getting better, so let me get off this pavement ASAP so I ran” I really was happy to have crossed the finish line!

My biggest problem was the lack of core muscle. Nothing held together – therefore my form suffered. It then just crumbled from there… Luckily, the surprise birthday part was later same day. Tequila shots and nice chardonnay helped with the pain. Seeing friends and having a wonderful time certainly helped!

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Lesson learned: TRAIN TRAIN TRAIN! The 10K helped me realize how my winter hiatus has hurt my fitness. It is time to get back in shape through better eating, consistent workout, and stronger mindset. I’m contemplating to register for Double Dipsea. That is a heck of a race… and one that DEFINITELY requires training. Going into that without proper training is like a punishment!

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“Running on Empty” Ulrich’s Trans-America Run

Thanks to a month-long cold that turned into an incessant coughing, instead of running, I read about running. I had to get my “fix” from somewhere!

I decided to pick up Marshall Ulrich’s “Running on Empty” that recounted the story of him running across America from San Francisco City Hall to New York City Hall. The epic quest was a mind-boggling (and physically-challenging) 3063 miles in 52 days at age 57 years old. Every day, he ran the equivalent of TWO marathons and TWO 10K’s. (For those who prefer a number, that was about 70 miles daily)

Yeah, this guy was extreme (or crazy, that was my first reaction). No doubt.

The first part of the book described his ultra running’s accolades fairly succinctly, which surprised me. (And Marshall pushed boundary with Badwater and numerous other activities) I had expected a more detailed story. However, a third way through I realized this book was about the incredible trans-America journey. It provided a chronological trip from west to east, providing a lot of the backend story, viewed from Marshall’s perspective. I flipped through the pages, as if I was running with him (spiritually, of course!)

Of course, Marshall’s story and accomplishment was amazing. Perseverance. Mental toughness. Persistence. Courage. Physicality. We could throw another dozen quality out there that would describe the lessons from this book. However, one of the biggest lesson that touched me was when Marshall was recounting his mountaineering activity of summiting the Everest.

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(I know, this man just does A LOT of extreme adventures!)

In particular, it was the story of a group of Russian climbers who were summiting the Everest along with Marshall’s group, coincidentally also lead by a Russian leader. The Russian National Climbing Team was setting a record of a never-done-before North Face route WITHOUT oxygen. They also did not use Sherpas; they would carry the heavy equipment themselves. Marshall was observing how one day, one of the climbers from the National Team came down dejected, because he was kicked off the team for “gripping about his hands being cold at 27000 ft”.

WOW. Talk about a dream vanishing in front of you. Or there goes years-long preparation. Or it just sucks!

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The take away for me was “quit complaining”! Just because it was cold, it did not mean that you had to say it. It would have accomplished NOTHING. If anything, it brought down your mental toughness and killed the energy for those around you! In the case of summiting Everest, obviously, mental strength was probably the biggest asset to accomplish the task.

In life, myself included and guilty, it can seem easier to gripe about little things. At the end, it really does NOTHING. Absolutely counter productive. There is a subtle and a blurred line between expressing one’s emotions/feelings and complaining. After reading about the Russians (which by the way, I’m married to one), I am more aware the difference between a healthy (and quick) expression of one’s state of emotion and a useless complain.

In line with my Chinese upbringing of Taoism, everything in moderation is the practice. I don’t vow to become a “Macho-Russian” (Marshall’s words). Instead, I want to adopt this “suck it up and just do it” attitude in my plethora of tools. It may be helpful in certain situations, like halfway through a 10 mile long run. I choose to train and run, therefore, suck it up, don’t complain about the pain, just do it!

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Helleyer 10K with Brazen Racing

With my ankle injury and subsequently my knee issue, I’ve taken a break from running since October 2014. I miss running! Of course, I have ran few times after the pain has decreased, but overall, I have not done any running or training. In an effort to stay relatively active, I have joined a climbing gym and practiced yoga.

People say you don’t know what you have until you miss it, well, that’s absolutely true with running. I’m itching to go back and just resume simple 30 minutes of running. I don’t need any fancy tempo or speed work. Just running.

The break also helps me to realize that I miss running for running itself. I used to think that I ran because it helped me to stay fit (read: weight management) Part of that is still true. However, I miss running the most for the simple joy of being carefree and the mental freedoms that it comes!

In an effort to get back to the bliss, I registered for the Brazen’s Helleyer 10K. It will get me on track with running. Oh I’m so excited to get started with running and training!!

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More on Costa Rica: Animals that Marvel!

What made Costa Rica so extraordinary was the abundance of wild animals residing in nature. It is phenomenal that Costa Rica takes up only 0.05% of the land mass on earth and yet it contains 5% of all the biodiversity on the planet! I jokingly said to my husband that in some areas, there might be more monkeys than people!

On my “to-see” list was the sloth. That was the one creature that fascinates me for its always-happy-go-lucky look and for its notoriously slow movement! I made it known to our guides that was the one creature I wanted to see while I was in Costa Rica. To be fair, on all excursions, there would be another like-minded tourist. Can you blame us, especially, after seeing this?

We saw our first sloth HIGH up on the canopy at Tortuguero National Park, while on the boat in one of the canals. Sloths live on the tree (more correctly: hangs upside down) and spend 18-20 hours sleeping. The only time it comes down from the trees is when it needs to poop, which due to its slow metabolism, is every 10-14 days. It made sense to spot the three-toed sloth on the tree. BUT, it was not the best viewing experience!

Thankfully, at the later part of our trip, at Manual Antonio National Park, our guide had a super magnifying binocular. We were able to observe closely of both three-toed sloth and two-toed sloth. In Manual Antonio National Park, there were definitely more wild life than human. This was the best video:

Not on my list, but equally as fun to see was the red-eyed tree frog. We did not plan to visit Arenal Natura Ecological Park but fate brought us to see this wonderfully colorful little fella. We lucked out that day because of the rainy, humid condition that this little fella came out and we were able to see it in person and hold it. There weren’t too many tourists that day so the guide was able to spend more time and let us look at him closely. It was the most colorful animal I’ve seen!

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You’d think with all the strong colors, it might be poisonous. It turned out that the colors were just faking it to scare its predators. The colors were used as a “woah” factor so that the predators would be stump for a moment or two to allow the frog to escape. It was the coolest combination of color and sensation to hold it. The gelatin-like legs were giving me all sorts of weird sensation when I held it!

The last two stars were very funny in their behavior. At Manual Antonio National Park, the beach was gorgeous and it was tended by two animals that marveled us: the white-faced monkeys and the raccoons. The jungle that borders next to the pristine beach is filled with the white-faced monkeys. They were not afraid of the tourists, instead they were waiting for the right moments to steal your bags away! They apparently liked the cookies very much. In fact, when our guides took out the pineapple (which did not interest the monkeys) and other food, we were quickly encircled by monkeys. It seemed like the monkeys were come in groups and few would distract the tourists to take photos and videos and all of a sudden, there would be another one that stealthily take the cookies!

The raccoons were just as funny. There was a family of three raccoons constantly “patrolling” the beaches. We kept seeing them going back and forth and preyed on unsuspecting tourists! It was the most hilarious thing we’ve seen, ON A BEACH!

All in all, there were many awesome animals that completed and utterly surprised us. It was definitely the highlight of Costa Rica – the natural wonder that it contains!