Roasting vegetables: brussel sprouts and new potatoes

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I’ve been trying to bring more veggies into my life. It shouldn’t be that hard; I genuinely love vegetables, I’m surrounded by awesome stores with plenty of fresh produce and I have access to an amazing farmer’s market every Saturday. I even have plenty of kitchen space to cook in. Yet somehow, this whole vegetable thing hasn’t been happening for me. Cooking every night isn’t realistic — I don’t always have the time and I don’t always eat at home. Doing daily salad lunches from one of the many CBD salad bars isn’t sustainable either; one can only eat so many raw veggies (no matter how delicious Janus might make them) before craving something hot and spicy. Next thing you know, you’re sat at a communal table, slurping down a giant bowl of laksa at Malay-Chinese takeaway (and no, coconut milk doesn’t count as a vegetable).

Anyway, the good news is I’ve found a solution. Are you ready? Roasting!

Photo credit: A Hint of Honey

Photo credit: A Hint of Honey

Roasting is the way to go if you want to get your veggie fix. Five reasons:

5. It’s quick — as quick as 10-15 minutes for zucchini or summer squash.

4. It’s easy — no technical ability required other than being able to coarsely chop some things and then get a baking tray into the oven without burning yourself

3. It requires minimal clean up — line your baking tray with foil and toss it out when you’re done roasting; no pots to wash or pans to scrub.

2. It works at any scale — roasting veggies for two is just as simple as roasting for a crowd.

1. It’s delicious. Duh! If you’ve ever been turned off by an overboiled asparagus spear, a mushy broccoli floret or a soggy brussel sprout, now’s the time to give this awesome cooking method a go. Roasting vegetables at temperatures above 400F / 200C caramelizes their exterior while keeping their insides moist and tender. This not only gives your veggies that wonderfully contrasting texture as you bite in, but it brings out their natural sweetness. Roasting also enables some of the water in the vegetable to evaporate, resulting in a more intense, concentrated flavor. Yum!

Ready to roast? Here’s a quick recipe for roasted brussel sprouts and potatoes. The whole thing will take 30 minutes.

Ingredients

8 brussel sprouts (serves 2)

6 small white potatoes (serves 2)

A few cloves fresh garlic or minced garlic paste

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 tsp of mixed herbs

A pinch of salt and pepper

A baking tray / baking sheet / jelly pan (whatever you like to call it)

Method

Line a baking tray with foil. Set your oven to 400F.

Prep your veggies: give the brussel sprouts a good wash and check that the outer leaves are clean. Slice them in half lengthwise. Wash your potatoes and either cut them into similarly sized pieces or leave them whole and poke a few fork holes in them. I used very small young potatoes because they don’t need to be peeled and they cook as quickly as brussel sprouts (win!) but you can use whatever you like. Fingerlings and sweet potatoes both work beautifully with roasting.

Freshly washed brussel sprouts

Arrange: it’s very important to lay your veggies flat on a baking sheet with enough space between them. Don’t pile them on top of each other and don’t pack them in! Doing so will restrict the airflow between them and result in more of a steaming effect rather than roasting, and your veggies may end up soggy. For this reason, it’s also important to use a baking sheet rather than a Dutch oven, casserole or some other deep sided dish — the baking sheet allows for air exposure from all sides enabling the perfect roast.

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Get your basting mix ready: I throw some olive oil, salt, pepper and herbs (rosemary and thyme are great here) into a little dish and shake well. Arrange your veggies on the baking tray and drizzle the mix over the veggies.  You can toss to make sure they’re well coated or you can use a basting brush. Some people like to add balsamic vinegar (experiment above) or brown sugar to the basting mix. I prefer to add a touch of garlic.

Now, it’s important to note at this point that olive oil is your friend: coating your veggies in oil will ensure that they brown evenly, cook faster and don’t dry out. Olive oil also makes it easier for your body to absorb many of the fat soluble nutrients contained in the vegetables. Still, no need to go overboard.

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Pop your tray in the oven, sit back for 20 minutes and wait for your veggies to roast.

When the veggies look like they’ve caramelized, grab the tray, let it cool and you’re done! Enjoy :)

Summer Veggie Quinoa Salad

We were hit by a monster storm earlier this week, but after all the rain, thunder and lightning, it feels like summer has finally arrived. The weather’s been beautifully warm all weekend, the light’s been golden and Bondi has been packed.

Photo by :: uge

Photo by :: uge

Early summer (and early fall) are my favorite times of year. It’s weird to think of mid-October as “early summer”, but that’s how life goes for us here in the Southern Hemisphere. I love this time of year not just for the weather, but for the food. Plump blueberries, bright strawberries, sweet papaya and juicy mangoes have flooded the market aisles. Fresh ears of corn, bunches of kale and piles of multi-coloured tomatoes are overflowing from their crates. Summer is a time of both abundance and lightness. It’s the perfect time for salad.

Here’s the all-star I whipped up today.

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Summer Veggie Quinoa Salad

Isn’t it pretty? I made a big batch and stuck it in the fridge. The worst thing, if you’re trying to eat healthy, is to come home from work or the gym, tired and hungry, and find yourself resorting to Thai delivery. I’ve been guilty of this many a time, so I now use my Sundays to prep for the week ahead and make sure I have something nutritious and filling on hand.

This salad is completely vegetarian and uses quinoa as the base, which means it’ll stay good in the fridge for several days. Quinoa, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is loaded with protein, fiber and minerals. It’s also gluten-free and low GI, which means it’ll keep you feeling full longer. Quinoa is so nutritious that it’s been designated a “super-crop” (not just a super food!) by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Demand for the seed has exploded over the last few years and led to price swings and short supply. If you’re cooking with quinoa for the first time, the most important thing to keep in mind is to wash it extremely thoroughly. Unwashed quinoa is coated in saponin, a bitter-tasting substance that protects it from birds and insects. Warning: cooking your quinoa without first giving it a good rinse may result in an unhappy stomach!

tricolour_quinoa

I use a mix of red, white & black quinoa for a lovely nutty flavor and crunchy texture

Alright, disclaimers done, let’s dive in:

Ingredients

  • 2-3 cups of quinoa
  • 4 cups of water (or vegetable broth)
  • 3-4 cups of your favorite summer vegetables (I used a handful of baby roma and yellow grape tomatoes, some green beans, a bunch of purple baby kale, one small cauliflower, four zucchinis and one cup of red cabbage)
  • Persian feta (you could also use goat cheese)
  • Crushed walnuts
  • Garlic and ginger paste
  • Olive oil

Method

Rinse the quinoa thoroughly and place in a big pot with roughly twice the amount of water. I like to throw in a cube of vegetable bouillon once the water heats up. It brings a wonderful flavor to the quinoa and makes it delicious by itself. You could also use homemade veggie stock if you prefer. To cook the quinoa, bring the water to a boil and simmer on low heat until all of it has been absorbed (about 15 minutes).  Fluff and set aside in a big bowl.

In the meantime, prep your veggies. I like to roast my zucchini and cauliflower with a little bit of olive oil, salt and curry powder.  I recently discovered this deceptively simple roasted cauliflower recipe by Summer Tomato and it’s become my go-to. It involves first steaming the cauliflower by covering the roasting tray with some foil and then roasting uncovered to get the florets all brown and crispy. Yum!

This whole process should take you about 20 minutes. I must warn you though that, at this point, you’ll be tempted to devour your delicious roast veggies and leave nothing for your salad. Don’t panic! Just remember to make a bigger batch so that you have enough for now and for later :-)

Now for the other veggies. When it comes to green beans, I like to blanch them: throw them into a pot of boiling water with some salt, drain with a slotted spoon after 2 minutes and plunge into an ice bath to halt the cooking. Set aside.

Next, throw some olive oil, garlic and ginger paste into a frying or sauté pan and drop in the green beans, the thinly sliced red cabbage and a handful of kale. I used baby purple kale because it doesn’t need slicing or de-stemming and cooks faster than regular kale. Add some salt and give your veggies a good stir. Cook until the cabbage and kale are wilted and tender (5-10 minutes).

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I love these colors

Time to assemble your masterpiece! The quinoa should be nice and cool by now. Crumble a handful of walnuts (or almonds) and stir them through. Next, add your sauteed kale, cabbage and green beans and mix in your roasted cauliflower, zucchini and fresh halved tomatoes. The juices from the veggies will add some depth to the flavor, but we’re not done yet: crack open that jar of Persian Feta and scoop out a big hunk.

Garlic and Dill Feta from Harris Farms

Garlic and Dill Feta from Harris Farms

I’m obsessed with Persian Feta. It’s less salty and more versatile than it’s Greek predecessor and is delicious slathered on bread, on kebabs / in wraps and as a dip. It works perfectly in this salad because it’s creamy and flavorful but retains its form as you distribute it through the quinoa and veggies. Harris Farms here in Sydney does a beautiful Persian Feta with garlic and dill, but if you aren’t able to get it locally, you could sub it with goat cheese or you might consider making your own. A fellow blogger in Paris has an easy guide to a version right here.

Give the whole thing a nice big stir and voilà! Your salad is ready to devour (or to cover and store in the fridge for later). Enjoy :)

Three Lessons from my First Triathlon

I recently survived my first (mini) triathlon. It involved a 430am wakeup, an unexpected open water swim, a soft sand run and…it was fabulous! My friend Joyce cajoled me into registering for the Herbal Life Torrance Beach Tri and, after a month or so of training, we were ready to tackle the course.

There are lots of tips out there from pro triathletes so I’ll refrain from telling you about nutrition, training and equipment. Instead, I thought I’d share three things I’ve learned:

1. Anyone can do it!

OK not anyone but seriously, if you can handle a bit of running, some cycling and a swim, you can do a triathlon. Here’s why:

First off, triathlons come in all shapes and sizes. You don’t have to run a half marathon, swim 2 kms in the ocean or bike all the way from Sydney to Wollongong. I’ll repeat this because it was news to me: the chief characteristic of a triathlon is that it involves three consecutive events. The length of the course is a mere detail ;)

For someone whose initial frame of reference came from a colleague who’s done two Ironmans, the realization that I could dapple in triathlons without committing to the “full distance” was the single biggest factor in my willingness to try. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Sprint: 750m swim (0.5m) | 20km bike (12.4m) | 5km run (3.1m)
  • Olympic: 1.5km swim (0.93m) | 40km bike (24.8m) | 10km run (6.2m)
  • ITU Long: 3km swim (1.86m) | 80km bike (49m) | 20km run (12.4m)
  • Half Ironman / 70.3: 1.9km swim (1.2m) | 90km bike (56m) | 21km run (13.1m)
  • Ultra / Ironman: 3.8km swim (2.4m) | 180km bike (112m) | 42km run (26.2m)

After a few conversations with other “laypeople” and a Google search, I learned I wasn’t the only one conflating the triathlon with the Ironman. That’s like conflating running with an Ultra Marathon :/

If you want to ease into triathlons, look for a good sprint or even a super sprint course (these tend to vary in length but are shorter than sprints). You could also participate in a relay or do only two legs for a taster.

Other things to look for in a beginner’s course: a) a lake or bay for the swim section, b) a flat-ish run and bike course, c) mild, predictable weather, d) a location that isn’t far from where you live.

The second reason I think anyone can do a tri is that triathletes come in all shapes and sizes. Until Torrance, I thought of triathlons as something meant only for elite athletes — people with ripped muscles, expensive road bikes and those awkward outfits that no one looks good in. Heck the very word “triathlete” suggests that you’re not just an athlete at one thing, you’re an athlete at three. It seemed so much more intimidating than say “runner”.

Polka…?

The reality is far from it. Sure, elite triathletes can be a scary breed but, at the average race, you’ll find a good chunk of amateurs — people starting out, people doing it for fun and people just trying to accomplish a fitness goal. There were kids as young as eight competing at Torrance and there were also people who looked well into their 60s.

2. Why no one you know does triathlons

Triathlons, for all the reasons above, have a reputation for being “serious” and therefore not particularly accessible. Even though that’s changing with sprint and super sprint courses, if you’re in your mid-20s, chances are you don’t know anyone who does triathlons. Personally, I know only three people who do them seriously and two of them are white dudes in their 40s (one is a white dude in his 20s). Where are the people like me?

The reality is triathlons are fairly new as a sport; the first modern swim/bike/run event to be called a ‘triathlon’ was held in San Diego in 1974. It wasn’t until 2000 that the triathlon debuted at the Olympics and NBC’s coverage of the Sydney Games, including the women’s triathlon, catapulted awareness of the sport to a national level. The sport has grown rapidly ever since — as of 2013, USA Triathlon reports 174,787 annual members, up from just 21,341 members in 2000. Women account for just over a third of this number (vs. 61% for half marathons and 43% for marathons)

Another deterrent is that it’s an expensive sport. Everything from the entry fees and the one day / annual membership to the technical gear required (road bike, shoes, pedals, wetsuit, tri kit…) could easily run into the thousands. You’re committing to three different sports, it makes sense that you’d need to pay for all three as well.

So what does this mean for demographics? What’s interesting is that the biggest chunk of triathletes (30% of annual USA Triathlon members) are in the  40-44 age group. This age group, together with the 35-39 AG, is generally thought to be the most competitive. Theories and discussions abound for why. Part of it is the upfront investment. Another hypothesis is that there’s an influx of retiring pro athletes in their mid 30s. Yet another reckons that endurance sports become more appealing as you age (as opposed to adventure / adrenaline sports in your 20s). Basically, the late 30s / early 40s sit at the nexus of time and money needed to reach peak athletic ability.

Should you be put off by any of this? No! I got around the startup costs by renting a bike, borrowing a helmet and sunnies and by wearing my surf wetstuit on top of a sports bra and bikini. The die hards will tell you you need a Blue Seventy, a proper tri kit and a laundry list of other paraphernalia. Honestly if you’re just starting out, I say wing it with what you already own. Once you’re committed to improving, you can trade up for the fancier stuff.

3. Just keep swimming…

The scariest part of the tri for me was the swim. Cycling? Whatever. Running? Pshaw!

I’ve never been a particularly strong swimmer and I can’t swim the crawl. Sure, I can easily do the breaststroke for a good half hour but what good is that in the ocean? Unfortunately for me, I didn’t realize we’d be swimming in the Pacific until the day before the race. Don’t ask me why, I have no defence other than my mind deliberately blocking out this little fact in order to keep me hopeful.

When I signed up for the tri, I was coming off a swimming dry spell: it had been more than five years since I’d swum regularly. I took inspiration from Joyce (who’d learned to swim and done her first tri just months earlier!) and figured I just needed to train. I began at Icebergs, an iconic, ocean-fed pool, famous for its icy cold water and spectacular views of Bondi. It never gets particularly busy and because the water is always cold, it’s perfect with a wetsuit (which, it turns out gives you a nice little buoyancy boost). I didn’t have time to learn a new stroke, so I decided to work on what I already knew. I’d read that beginners often swim breaststroke their first tri.

Sunrise laps are easy with this view

The day before the race, Joyce and I set an early alarm and ventured out to her local beach in Santa Monica. We were meeting up with another friend for pointers on ocean swimming. Duck and dive, stingray shuffle, that sort of thing. We walked down to the water, took one look at the water and freaked out. The waves were fierce. We couldn’t stand knee deep in the water without being knocked over. How on earth were we to swim in this??

After a few more attempts to wade in while resisting the powerful rip, we gave up and went home. If the swim course was going to be like this tomorrow, we thought, we’d have to skip it. I was pretty disappointed.

Fortunately for us, Torrance Beach turned out to be a lot kinder than Santa Monica. There were still waves but they were gently breaking two-footers. Most importantly, there was no rip. We’d be swimming after all!

Torrance Beach on a non-triathlon day. Isn’t it pretty?

Here’s where the tips come in handy. First, spend 10-20 minutes getting comfortable in the water. Get your wetsuit on and hop in. Make sure you let some water get into your suit so your body can get accustomed and, more importantly, begin warming that water up. Practice your duckdive: wait for a wave, shut your eyes, hold your breath and dive low and into it! Once the foam has passed, you pop back up. It’s a little scary the first time but it works: you’ll come out on the other side of the wave.

So, breaststroke in the ocean: basically you’ll find that you’re moving (even) slower than those pesky freestylers. Once you’re past the froth though, it’s really relaxing and enjoyable. The best part was the return: the soft friendly waves lift you up and practically carry you back to shore. You might want to practice some body surfing to take full advantage of that. Either way, something to look forward to!

One thing that helped psychologically was the fact that Torrance Beach was swarming with lifeguards. They bobbed on surfboards in the water and hung off buoys, shouting encouragement and offering friendly advice. The way I’d pictured the swim was a thousand aggressive people clambering over each other and kicking each other in the face. In reality, it was all very civilised. We were being let into the ocean in pairs, resulting in a controlled flow of people rather than mayhem.

Swim

It was the opposite of this…

What’s next?

As predicted, I am hooked and already thinking about my next tri!

I’ve done two half marathons and a number of shorter races but after the experience of a triathlon, it’s going to be hard to go back to just running. Cross-training is physically and psychologically easier for me than training for a 2+ hour run. The charm of any run deteriorates rapidly after the first hour. More than that, my knees have started acting up and really complain when hills are involved. In comparison, triathlon “bricks” keep me physically challenged and mentally engaged without taking a toll on my joints. Switching between different muscles, or at least using my leg muscles in different ways, reduces the risk of injury and actually enables me to be improve at each of running, cycling and swimming. Besides, nothing motivates me like knowing I get to jump in to a pool after a sweaty run or bike ride (yes, I know I’m doing it backwards) :)

So, if you’re bored of your running routine, want to try something new or are looking for a stretch fitness goal, consider the triathlon! It combines three awesome sports, builds up your endurance and it is a seriously fun event.

At the finish!

Product of the Month: Vinomofo

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When we first moved to Australia, we were shocked by the prices. Coming from NYC, where you can pay $3,000 / month for a shoebox studio, you’d think that moving elsewhere would be like getting a big bonus every year. Not true.  Sydney has a reputation for its prices: skyhigh rents, inflated public transport, exhorbitant food and drink and even a bleed-me-dry coffee culture. The silver lining is that most of the time you do get what you pay for. Sydney’s real estate market offers beautiful, spacious and varied options.  The city itself is clean, green and absolutely stunning and every neighbourhood has its own park(s) or, better still, a beach. The fresh produce is phenomenal, the bar for basic food and drink is extremely high and the coffee is famously delicious. In fact, there are even a few things that are cheaper in Sydney.

australia-dollars

I digress from my complaint: one thing that you pay way more for in Australia is alcohol. A six pack of beer will cost $15-$20 in Australia, vs. $10 in the US. An average bottle of wine will set you back $20. When I saw Yellowtail, the face of mass-produced Australian critter wine selling for $12.99 at my local bottle-o (vs. a paltry $6.99 in the US!), I knew the Aussie rip-off was real. Australians, of course, love their alcohol so it’s fascinating that beer, wine and spirits are taxed so heavily, representing as they do, the “sin goods”.

Australia's Hunter Valley in the spring.

Australia’s Hunter Valley in the spring.

What’s more ironic is that Australia is one of the world’s biggest wine producers, ranking 6th after France, Italy, Spain, the US and Argentina.  From South Australia’s Barossa, Coonawarra and Mclaren Vale to New South Wales’ Hunter Valley and Mudgee and finally to Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Western Australia’s Margaret River — Australia has some of world’s most revered wine regions and Australians have the wine smarts (palettes?) to boot.  So what about these prices?

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 10.57.09 pmMy favourite product this month is Vinomofo: an Melbourne-based startup that lets you indulge your wine obsession without breaking the bank. Vinomofo assembles epic deals on award-winning wines, sells them online with a generous serving of quirk, and ships them directly to your doorstep. Each wine carried by Vinomofo is approved by their rigorous tasting panel and the company claims that less than 2% of wines submitted to them are acccepted.  Not happy with what you got? You have 365 days to return it — “the ‘fo” will even pick up it up and cover the cost of return shipping. No annoying emails, no subscription needed, nothing but sweet, delicious wine.

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Everything on Vinomofo is sold by the case; you can choose from a mixed case or go with a single label.  You can also choose from an array of “black market” deals — all you’ll know is the grape, the region and the rating out of 100 (if worth revealing). You might get a witty blurb on why that particular case is awesome and, if it’s a mixed case, you might get a few tasting notes on each of the wines. I bought a black market mixed case recently and have been bowled over by the quality, I’m yet to find a bottle I don’t love and the whole thing cost me no more than $120. You heard me, that’s $10 per bottle.

JonStewartMindblown

My introduction to Vinomofo came from a colleague and fellow wine-lover. Four or five of us have succumbed to ordering a case every so often and splitting the spoils. We’ve poo-poohed the wines on offer at company happy hour and have resorted to bringing our own mofo’s to Friday drinks (BYOM trend? You heard it here first). Needless to say, I have a lot of wine on my desk and even more piling up at home.

Doesn't hold a candle to the 'fo

Doesn’t hold a candle to the ‘fo

Of course, after discovering Vinomofo, I tried to think of the US equivalent and had a hard time. The best I could come up with was Lot18, a New York based company with a hard to pronounce name (“lotta tea”?) and, what looks like more of a traditional ecommerce, “always on” sales model. Aside from the dryness of the website (no pun intended), the thing that’s really offputting about Lot18 is the prices: pretty much every wine featured on the landing page was priced at over $60. If I wanted to pay that much, I wouldn’t order it online. I wouldn’t pay their $12.99 for shipping with no returns (forget about a 365 day guarantee!). And I wouldn’t buy just two bottles.

I’ve been spoiled. For good. And it’s great.

A week in Colorado

I got back Tuesday morning from 10 days in the US. We’d flown in to Chicago for my brother’s business school graduation and then spent 5 days with the family, hiking and driving through the Colorado Rockies.

booth

It took us just about four hours to drive over from Denver and we made a brief stop at Independence Pass which, as expected was deathly windy and freezing cold but still worth hopping out for.

Road to Aspen

Aspen is beautiful in the summer.  The town is lively, laid back and disarmingly friendly. We ran into plenty of gregarious Texans, there to escape their sweltering summer heat. We had a fantastic seafood meal at Jimmy’s Bodega and ended the night with ice cream from Paradise Bakery.

The Maroon Bells are fairly quiet in mid-June. I visited nearly 10 years ago and fell in love. The trails were just as beautiful as I remembered and very easy, even in going up to Crater Lake.

Once back in Aspen, Niraj and I embarked upon the Ute trail (or the “Glute trail” as I like to call it, since it will kick your ass).  The climb is steep and unyielding and we were impressed to see quite a few locals using it for their evening run. It’s all worth it when you get to the panoramic views at the top though.  It’s easily amongst the most beautiful summits I’ve seen.

From Aspen, we took the scenic route over to Estes Park, driving 6 hours through winding mountain roads.  Independence Pass was slightly warmer on the way back so we hopped out for a more extended frolic through the snow. Seeing the storm clouds in the distance, breaking over the Rockies, added an other worldly feel to an already spectacular view.

We stopped at several other lookouts and drove through historic mining towns like Leadville. The highlight of the drive though, was indisputably Trail Ridge Road. Winding over 45 miles and climbing to heights of 12,000 feet, Trail Ridge alternately feels like a top of the world moutain tour and a safari in the plains.  We entered Rocky Mountain National Park an hour before dusk, perfect timing to catch grazing herds of elk and even a black bear.

We stayed at River Stone Resort and Bear Paw suites and we were thrilled to wake up each morning to the sounds of the gushing Fall River. RMNP is one of the best US national parks with over 140 miles of hiking trails.  We did a couple of beautiful hikes including the trail up to Mill Lake and the classic Bear Lake.

After more hiking, BBQing and plenty of winter sun, we flew from Denver to Newark and squeezed in a couple more days with family in NJ and of course, Kuku. The trip was wonderful and far too short. As much as I love it here in Sydney, being with my family made me realize how much I miss them and value these trips.

Kuku bluedog