Life of Megan

Sunday, December 28, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

Traditionally, I have been pretty good at keeping my New Year's resolutions. I try to pick goals that I have some real reason to keep, and I try to make them specific. I think posting them somewhere public makes it a bit easier to keep them. So, without further ado, here are my resolutions for this year:

Greater than 75% Probability of Success

  • Lose 5-10 more pounds and keep the weight off
    Ah, the classic weight-loss resolution. But this year, I've got a big advantage--I've lost 41 lbs since the last week of May, and I'm on a roll and feeling great. My big secret has been a website, Calorie Count, which helped me figure out how many calories I'm burning a day and then made it easy for me to record how many I'm ingesting. Using this site, I've been able to lose weight without sacrificing anything but portion sizes (and the occasional bad donut at work).

  • Write back to people who send me letters and things
    This one is about discipline. I feel pretty confident I can make time to stay connected this year, and I got beautiful stationery for Christmas to help keep me motivated.

  • Continue to learn and to keep a great attitude at work
    Learning and staying upbeat have made my job a pleasure so far; I want to keep it up.

  • Advance my running to the next level
    I have built to a decent base of 20-25 miles per week and have seemingly tamed my ITBS. Now it's time to push to 30-40 miles per week while continuing to stay injury free. I'll be using a number of solid running resources and will be rewarding myself with running swag.

Greater than 50% Probability of Success

  • Incorporate strength training into my exercise routine
    I know I need to train my muscles to be the best runner I can be (and to burn those extra calories, thus forcing me to eat more!), but I typically maintain a strength-training program for 6-8 weeks before giving it up. With my Wii Fit and some nice other plans to help encourage me, I'm going to make this year different. My big limitation to running shouldn't be that my arms eventually get tired.

  • Train for and run a fall marathon
    This one goes along with my desire to improve my running but falls into a lower probability of success category because marathon training requires so much time.

  • Dress myself more professionally
    I know I should "dress for success," so to speak, but I am lazy, unskilled in these matters, and not a big fan of shopping. Still, with my weight loss, I'm eager to look more presentable to my coworkers, friends, and family. But let's face it--this is one area where I don't really know what I'm doing.

Less than 25% Probability of Success

  • Leave my fingernails alone
    This has been my New Year's resolution since I started dating Judson more than 10 years ago. The problem is that I pick my nails when I am bored, stressed, or nervous and sometimes just because my hands happen to be empty. Further, my nails are always weak no matter what I'm eating. They are thin and flexible, and they break easily. Also, I don't particularly care what my nails look like. I do admit that I admire other women's nice nails. I need some sort of mini-goals and some rewards to help make this resolution a keeper, and I haven't thought of any so far.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An Engineer's Vocabulary: Delta

The engineers at work, our customers, and our suppliers employ English in some pretty interesting ways sometimes. If you want to impress an engineer, or at least to make headway in convincing him that you aren't an idiot, throwing these terms into your every day speech can be helpful. I thought I'd try to help you out by occasionally posting some of the phrases I hear most often. Today's word is Delta.

Pretty much everyone who was forced to take physics at one time has seen the capital Greek letter Delta used to show a net difference between two measurements (for example, the difference in speed measured at one time and speed measured later). In this case, we'd normally say "What is Delta x?" There is nothing unusual about using Delta in this way--it's just shorthand for "What is x2 - x1?"

Engineers use Delta as a noun, by itself, whenever they're interested in how a value may change. It's as if we have not actually learned the words "difference" or "change." I can understand the latter, since as a whole, engineers tend to be politically conservative, but they've definitely taken enough math to have learned "difference." Here's an example of how to use this term correctly in every-day conversation:
Bob: "Larry, we thought the zebras would be home at 9:00, but it sounds like they'll be late."
Larry: "Really? What's the delta?"
So now you have a little insight into the secret language of engineers. Use it well!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Humble Food Is the Best Food

Tonight, we had a really delicious dinner of boiled kale on toast, topped with fried eggs, and served with a beet roesti. This is undeniably peasant food, and it's quite seasonal for those of us living in the Northeast. It was hearty and good for us, and we had plenty to eat.

I think too often, we want to be rich. We think that if we were rich, we could eat like kings. And it's true that being on a budget really limits your ability to enjoy fine wine, to try out truffles, and sometimes even to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. But we should be grateful that so many have had to make do with so little for so long. Peasants gave us French toast, bouillabaisse, and French onion soup, just to name a few things (without even leaving France!). You don't need tons of money to make great food (though these days, it may be a stretch to buy fresh produce). You need simple ingredients, well seasoned, simply prepared. Everything else is just decoration. Woo woo!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Judson's Birthday Dinner

Today was Judson's birthday, so I tried to make him a great dinner (and took a day off from calorie counting). I opted on a roast chicken with roasted broccoli and potatoes. Then for dessert, I tried to replicate the delicious peanut-butter mousse dish we had when we ate at Lola.

In the world of gastronomy, many consider the true test of one's cooking skills to be how well they can roast a chicken. And as it turns out, roasting a chicken is a pretty tricky thing. You want all the meat to be done and flavorful, juicy and moist. You want the skin to be thin and crispy. It's a simple process, but one that's easy to ruin, as my (and Judson's) past experiences have proven. The skin is really what makes it tricky, I think. At any rate, this time, I decided to try out Bittman's approach, which appealed to me because it seemed clever and because it didn't require me to truss the chicken. In my experience, trussing chickens results in losing some of the best skin. I turned the oven on to 450F and stuck a cast iron skillet in it. While it preheated, I started my mise en place for the other dishes, and then I got out my chicken. I checked to make sure it didn't have any kidneys and such, patted it dry, dusted it with pepper, stuffed a bunch of thyme, some rosemary, and a lemon inside it, and then rubbed olive oil over the whole thing. It's probably worth noting that I was using a Kosher chicken. The beauty of Kosher chickens is that the Koshering process ensures the chicken will be well-seasoned (with salt). Also, Kosher animals are killed humanely. That's important to me. At any rate, about 10 min after the oven claimed it had hit 450 (I wanted to make sure that skillet was 450 too), I carefully removed the skilled from the oven, put the chicken in the skillet, and then put the skillet back in the oven, burning myself only once or twice.

With the chicken done, I moved on to other projects. I sliced some garlic and cut up two small heads of broccoli. I put these in a half-sheet pan, tossed them in a little olive oil, and sprinkled on some salt and pepper. Then I set them aside.

I chopped a medium-large onion and some more garlic and placed those in a bowl together. Then I cut up two potatoes into cubes roughly 0.5" per side. I put a pot of water on the stove to boil, adding some salt.

Then I got to work on my mousse. After the chicken had been in the oven about 30 minutes, I slid the broccoli in with it (using the top rack). When the water was boiling, I added the potatoes. At some point, I chopped two pieces of bacon and started cooking them over medium heat in our large Le Creuset casserole.

I boiled the potatoes until they were almost ready to eat, and then drained them. I finished cooking them by first adding the onion and garlic to the casserole with the bacon, and then adding the potatoes when the onions and garlic were fragrant and the onions were turning translucent. The broccoli was finished long before the chicken. I put it in a casserole and tossed it with a little parmesan cheese, lemon zest, and lemon juice.

When the chicken was done (the thigh registered 165F), I removed it to a cutting board to rest. I added some of the pan juices to my potatoes to finish cooking them and warmed up the broccoli in the oven.

Then we ate dinner.

A while later, I came back to finish the mousse (which was made by heating milk, pouring it over some peanut-butter chips, stirring until smooth, adding peanut butter, and then stirring that until smooth, and then folding in homemade whipped cream) by making caramel sauce. For this, I heated sugar and water in a pan over medium heat with the lid on until the sugar was boiling. Then I removed the lid and stood there watching it until it was a nice, medium amber, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to keep the cooking even. Then, I added cream, vanilla, and a pinch of salt. I stirred until it was smooth. I carefully tasted a little, added more salt, and cheered with delight.

When the caramel was no longer flesh-burning hot, I spooned some of it over the mousse and topped it with peanuts.

All in all, the chicken was fabulous, the broccoli was good (but would have been better had my timing been better), and the potatoes were delicious (but you knew that since they contained bacon). The mousse was a bit too sweet, but the caramel was delightful.

Should I feel guilty about eating a Kosher chicken and some bacon in the same meal?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Comfort Food, Medium Healthy

With winter fast approaching, the Farmer's Market dwindling, and the sun hiding behind clouds until April, it is comfort-food season here in Ithaca. Sadly, comfort food is generally not low in calories, and even the most diligent portion-controller can struggle to find room for it. So today, I present a dish that is homey, easy, and fast. I would call it an Italian dish, but I don't actually know anything about Italian food (aside from the fact that the Romans thought cabbage was a panacea). I'm under the impression I invented this myself, but it's possible I read it somewhere, remembered the basics, and then later thought I invented it.

Please make up a name for it and tell me.

  • 2 oz pancetta, preferably cut into roughly 3/8" cubes
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 (28-oz) can crushed or whole tomatoes (and their juice)
  • 1-2 (14.5 oz) cans cannellini beans, drained
  • 8-10 oz fresh spinach
  • Salt and pepper
  • Crushed red pepper
  • 1-3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 oz Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
Quick note on ingredients: I like to get my pancetta by asking the deli to cut me one slice 1/4"-1/2" thick. The last time I made this dish, I used 1.25 cups of dried cannellini beans, which I cooked the night before.

  1. In a large, high-sided skillet (or large saucepan), cook the pancetta over medium heat until it has rendered its delicious fat and is crispy. If you have defective pancetta, and you don't have enough fat in the pan to cook the onions, add a little olive oil.
  2. Add the onions and cook until translucent. Add the garlic.
  3. When the garlic is golden and aromatic, add the tomatoes, deglazing the pan with their juice. Cook a few minutes until mixture is simmering.
  4. Add the beans. Taste and add salt if needed. Season with pepper and crushed red pepper.
  5. When the beans are hot, add the spinach in batches, mixing it with the other ingredients until it has wilted before adding more.
  6. Reduce the heat to low. Stir in the balsamic vinegar, using a little at first and tasting as you go. Stir in about half the cheese.
  7. Serve in bowls, topping with more cheese and with a swirl of extra-virgin olive oil.
Serves 2.

Note on cooking: Please do NOT pass up on the olive oil at the end to save a few extra calories. You'll be using a teaspoon or less, and it greatly enhances the dish.

Monday, December 01, 2008


For Thanksgiving, Judson and I headed to Canton, Ohio, to stay with my grandparents and to visit with them, my parents, and my brother. We had a great time. My grandmother's cooking is as good as ever (which is to say that it's great). Everyone was impressed by the chocolate-coated marshmallows I delivered, and my toffee was a big hit once again. I'm relieved to have Christmas Candy Making, Round I, complete.

Canton is about an hour south of Cleveland, Ohio. When I was a kid, Cleveland was not a city anyone would boast about. There was crime, grime, and not much else. But since then, Cleveland's grown up. First, Drew Carey proclaimed that "Cleveland Rocks!" Shortly thereafter (or maybe shortly before that), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was established in the city. Then, in recent years, I've become more interested in the food world. Michael Ruhlman lives there--food writer and author of The French Laundry Cookbook, among others, friend of Anthony Bourdain. So does Michael Symon; his two restaurants, Lola and Lolita, are thriving.

And so Judson and I had been planning to make a detour up to Cleveland to give Lola a shot even before Michael Symon became famous through Iron Chef America. Friday, we got our chance, and we were even nice enough to bring along my brother.

As I have learned, Lola is located in Cleveland's Warehouse district. This means that it's close to a huge phallic memorial and also to Progressive Field (formerly Jacobs Field, which I had actually heard of). The building looks modern and is among a variety of other interesting-looking restaurants. The decor was very cool. The walls were chocolate-colored, and there was food-related and bridge-related art on the walls. Music improved the audience--it was modern and interesting, but not too loud.

Of course, we wouldn't mind eating in an old shopping center if the food was good, so none of this mattered too much to us, except to justify my wearing heals. We were there for the food, and we weren't disappointed.

We started with the beef-cheek pierogies and the charcuterie. The pierogies were delicious. They didn't taste greasy or even too heavy, but they were rich and meaty and just perfect for the start of a winter meal. The charcuterie was heavenly. We were served cured pork loin, duck prosciutto, lamb salami, and some sort of delicious pepperoni. We were served tasty homemade toast points along with the meats, and to top it all off, there were delicious cornichons (tiny cucumber pickles) and pickled garlic. It turns out that pickled garlic is delicious beyond words. It's something I'm going to have to try out.

Adam ordered the pork schnitzel. Judson had seared scallops with navy beans and lamb sausage. I had the homemade pastrami sandwich. All our entrees were fantastic. Adam's pork was better than anything I'd tasted in Germany. Judson's scallops were perfect; as were the beans and sausage. I thought lamb sausage sounded odd, but it was savory and delicious, and the lamb flavor came through strong and clear. My pastrami was perfectly seasoned and cooked. The sandwich could put NYC delis out of business, and it wasn't even as big as my head. The French fries that were served with it were wonderful. They were shoestring fries, thin, crispy outside but still creamy inside. They'd been fried up with rosemary and garlic, and both flavors contributed to the deliciosity of my fries.

We didn't really think we had room for dessert, but we were wrong. We ended up ordering a chocolate pot de creme and a peanut-butter caramel mousse. Peanut butter + caramel = heaven. The mousse was light and airy, but the flavors were full and rich. The caramel flavor combined with the peanuts to give the dessert a taste somewhat like an ultra-peanutty peanut brittle. The chocolate pot de creme wasn't too shabby either. (I don't know. I love chocolate, but I'm just not a huge fan of chocolate desserts--I am not a great judge.)

All in all, we had one of the best meals of our lives, and we'd be happy to go back any day. The prices were pretty reasonable and were a steal for the level of food and service we received (and still would have been good had we gone for dinner). Our waitress was excellent (I wish I could remember your name!). The wine and beer lists were phenomenal.

If you're in Cleveland, I'd definitely recommend you give Lola a chance. You don't even have to dress up--their dress code is business casual.