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Spectacular Spinach Salad

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Process for Vacuuming a Room Without Kids:

Step 1: Remove vacuum cleaner from closet.
Step 2: Plug in the vacuum.
Step 3: Turn on the vacuum.
Step 4: Use the vacuum to suck debris and animal hair from the floor.
Step 5: Unplug and return the vacuum to the closet.
 
Approximate Time Required: 5 minutes

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Process for Vacuuming a Room With Kids:

Step 1: Remove vacuum cleaner from closet.
Step 2: Rehang all of the jackets which the baby pulled from the closet while you were removing the vacuum.
Step 3: Negotiate an argument over the remote between the two other kids.
Step 4: Plug in the vacuum.
Step 5: Instruct oldest kid to return the salamander to the outdoors and to stop squishing him.
Step 6: Replug the vacuum which the baby unplugged, while you were trying to save the salamander’s life.
Step 7: Return all vacuum accessories to their proper places.
Step 8: Turn on the vacuum.
Step 9: Begin vacuuming the room, while the baby rides on top of the vacuum, switching it off at intervals of 5 seconds.
Step 10: Turn the vacuum back on. Repeat as often as necessary in order to vacuum first half of room.
Step 11: Pause to console the child who is literally crying over spilt milk.
Step 12: Clean up the milk.
Step 13: Unravel the vacuum cord from the baby’s neck.
Step 14: Resume vacuuming the second half of the room.
Step 15: Revacuum the first half of the room after the baby spills goldfish on the floor, then crushes them riverdance-style.
Step 16: Instruct the children to put clothes on before playing outside.
Step 17: Accept that the vacuuming task is futile. Try again tomorrow.
 

Approximate Time Required: Unknown – This task has never been successfully completed.

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The actual experience, when sandwiched between twenty other equally impossible ‘simple’ tasks, is only remotely comical in writing. Experiencing it is a heart-pounding, curl-into-a-ball-and-cry-with-frustration, exercise in futility. (Yes, attempting to vacuum a room has brought me to tears more times than I’d care to admit.) If only I could learn to accept this loss of control over accomplishing simple tasks. Each day feels like a mad rush of tasks, errands, and chores, yet there is scarce evidence of the work accomplished by the end. Even the process of writing this simple blog post has been overly complicated by a million micro interruptions of the salamander, spilt milk, and crushed goldfish variety.

But recently I have managed to find the most perfect peace in a somewhat unusual place…the gym. Many people dread going to the gym. For me, the gym’s bright, sterile environment invokes the same calm as a dimly lit spa with soothing water features. I feel my heart rate decelerate when I walk through those doors, because my gym offers childcare. So, every day, I have been shuffling the little ones off to the gym, where I claim one hour to use as I please. One precious hour, where I am the master of my time, to select a task and complete it with minimal interruptions. One hour where I can choose to move slowly between the strength training machines or to let my heart race with the endorphins of a good run as compared to the cortisol of home stress. That hour may not make vacuuming a room any less stressful, but at least I had that one blissful hour.

And truly, as completing any task is basically impossible anyway, that one hour removed from my daily duties, has made little to no difference with respect to the condition of my house. Now, if that daily hour manages to make a difference with respect to the condition of my waistline, that will be the icing on the cake.

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Thankfully, the kids actually love going to the Kids Korner at the gym. There are novel toys and video games (which are a bit more violent than anything I allow in our home, thus exciting in an illicit way) and other kids to socialize with. So, in addition to my daily weekday gym escape, we’ve been taking a family trip to the gym each weekend. A post-gym stop at Panera for lunch, where we pick up salads and smoothies and other sorts of yummy feel-good food, has become part of our weekend routine.

I’ve been crushing on Panera’s Spinach Power Salad ever since they introduced it to the menu. I could eat it everyday, but that be bad for my wallet. So, I’ve come up with my own version of a salad inspired by Panera’s tasty offering. My salad features the same fresh baby spinach, topped with sauteed mushrooms and onions, crispy bacon, protein-rich eggs, and crispy garlic-pepper onion straws, tossed in a simple vinaigrette made with sweet caramelized onions and a touch of honey. It’s a near perfect combination of flavors and textures, the sort of thing which makes a healthful salad feel like a treat.

Today’s Focus on Technique – Mustard as an Emulsifier

I add a touch of mustard to almost every vinaigrette I make. In addition to adding a satisfying hint of flavor, mustard has the ability to act as an emulsifier, binding the oil and vinegar, so that the dressing is less likely to separate. This secret superpower of mustard occurs as a result of the  ground mustard seed’s particles’ ability to coat tiny droplets of oil, allowing them to mix harmoniously with the vinegar or lemon juice in a dressing. It doesn’t take a lot, but has the best overall result with ground mustard powder or a good quality prepared mustard.

Spinach Salad with Bacon, Eggs, Mushrooms and Caramelized Onion Vinaigrette

Inspired by Panera’s Spinach Power Salad

Ingredients

  • 8 slices bacon, cooked to crisp, crumbled
  • 3 eggs, hardboiled and chopped
  • 9-12 cups baby spinach leaves

For the sauteed mushrooms and onions

  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups baby bella (cremini) mushrooms, sliced
  • Salt and pepper

For the dressing

  • 1/2 cup caramelized onions (from the sauteed onions)
  • 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • Salt and pepper

For the crispy onions

  • 1 large sweet onion, very thinly sliced
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1-1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

Directions

For the sauteed mushrooms and onions: Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onion. Cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently, until tender and golden. Remove the onions from the pan. Set 1/2 cup aside for the dressing. Save the remaining onions for topping the salad. Add a touch more oil to the pan, if necessary. Add the mushrooms and cook for about 7-10 minutes, until tender and golden. Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

For the caramelized onion vinaigrette: In a blender or food processor, combine the caramelized onions, vinegar, oil, mustard, and honey. Blend until well combined. Season with salt and pepper.

For the crispy garlic-pepper onion straws: Soak the sliced onions in the buttermilk for 30 minutes or so. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, salt, garlic powder, and pepper. In a large fry pan, heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil at medium/medium-high heat for a few minutes, until it’s good and hot. In small batches, remove some of the onions from the buttermilk, shake to remove excess, then toss in the flour mixture until well coated. Scatter the onions in the oil. If the oil is hot enough, they should sizzle instantly and cook to golden and crispy in about two minutes. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and drain over a paper towel. Repeat with remaining onions.

To assemble the salad: Toss a generous serving of spinach leaves (3-4 cups) with a bit of the dressing. Top the salad with the sauteed onions and mushrooms, chopped boiled egg, bacon, and the crispy garlic-pepper onions.

Makes 3-4 large salads

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Low Carb Cottage Pie

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Earlier in the week, my husband bemoaned the fact that daylight savings time was approaching and we would be losing an hour of sleep. I’m not sure what world he’s living in, but the time on the clock has little relevance for our children. Lose an hour, gain an hour…doesn’t really matter to me. I’m not in control of how long I sleep anyway. If anything, I look forward to this evening when I can put the kids to bed an hour ‘early’.

Springing forward brings other benefits as well, specifically a bit of daylight past the kids’ bedtime…which translates into not running in the dark. That, combined with the warming temperatures of spring approaching, bodes well for resuming my evening runs. I have to admit, I’ve been sorely off-track with my fitness goals during these past two weeks and the number on the scale has been creeping upwards. Wintery weather and the early sunset has made it hard to get myself out the door for my evening runs. And finally being able to fit into some of my clothes again has made me complacent about my diet. But I’m not done yet (far from it) and it’s time to get back on track, before I undo the results I’ve achieved so far.

So, starting tomorrow (today I’m going to eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch, AND dinner), I’m hopping back on the horse and refocusing on my fitness goals. With the warmer temps and later sunset, I’ve got no excuses for not heading out for my evening runs. And I’m going to refocus on reducing my refined carb intake (a la South Beach diet), since I know it helps me to feel more satisfied, make better food choices, and eat less overall.

With St. Patty’s Day just around the corner, comforting meat-and-potato type meals are on my mind. But potatoes fall firmly into that refined carb category which I’m aiming to avoid. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some comforting Irish cookin’ with just a few substitutions. You may remember a few weeks ago, when I shared a recipe for mashed cauliflower, which makes a wonderful substitution for mashed potatoes…a substitution which would also make the perfect topping for a low-carb, South Beach friendly cottage pie. Using lean ground beef and part-skim cheese helps lighten the meal even more, without sacrificing any flavor. Furthermore, making low-glycemic index choices for the veggie layer keeps this dish nicely in line with my diet plan.

If you’re looking to celebrate St. Patty’s Day without sacrificing your diet goals, this just might be the dish for you! Though, in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I fully intend to make (and eat) more corned beef and cabbage egg rolls on St. Patty’s Day, with a few dark beers to wash them down. (All food and beer are zero calories on St. Patty’s Day…if you’re Irish, that is. I swear it…a little red-headed leprechaun told me so.)

Looking for a traditional lamb and potatoes Shepherd’s Pie recipe? Click HERE.

Low Carb Cottage Pie

Ingredients

For the beef layer:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • Salt and pepper
For the veggie layer:
  • 2 cups green beans, steamed and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cups mushrooms, sliced
For the mashed cauliflower:
  • 1 head cauliflower, chopped and steamed until tender
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • Salt
  • 1/2 cup part-skim cheddar, shredded

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

For the beef layer: Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the ground beef and cook, stirring frequently, until fully cooked. Sprinkle the flour over the meat and stir, allowing it to cook for about a minute. Then, add the beef broth, worcestershire sauce, and onion powder. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for a few minutes until the liquid thickens into a gravy around the meat. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Pour the mixture into a baking dish.

For the veggies: Wipe out the pan used for the beef. Heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the sliced mushrooms. Cook for 7-10 minutes, until golden and tender. Scatter the mushrooms and the steamed green beans in an even layer over the meat.

For the mashed cauliflower: Using a food processor, blender, or immersion blender, combine the cauliflower, butter, milk, and garlic powder until smooth. Season with salt, to taste. Spread the mashed cauliflower in an even layer over the veggies.

Sprinkle the cheese over the top. Bake for about 25 minutes, until heated through and slightly browned. (Allow for longer cooking time if preparing ahead of time and refrigerating before baking.)

Roasted Chili-Garlic Chickpeas

My baby has entered the period of development I refer to as the crash-helmet phase. This is the period of time where I’m inclined to swaddle my children in bubble wrap and coat everything else in cotton balls. Would that be so weird? He’s learned how to stand now, but his balance is poor and he forgets that he needs to hold on for support. He often gets so excited by his new skill that he throws his hands wildly outward in a grand gesture of success, which usually results in propelling his little body backwards. Oh, and he climbs. Things which were never meant to be climbed. Like his older brothers or the dog. That rarely ends well.

His sweet little head is already peppered with pale yellow bruises. Seriously, do you think people would laugh if I wrapped him in bubble wrap? He’s just too stinkin’ cute to be bruised. What if I just turned down the heat and dressed him all day in his puffy winter coat? It won’t be long before he’s chasing his brothers around the house. Everything always seems to happen so fast from this point.

Good thing I’ve gotten back to my running lately, since I’m going to need strong legs to keep up with all of the active little men in my life. You may assume that running is part of my New Year’s weight loss plan, but it’s actually quite the opposite. I don’t run to lose weight (though I certainly hope it will help). Running makes me feel capable and confident. I yearn to be leaner and swifter, so I can glide through my runs with more grace than the current charging-rhino thing I’ve got going on. I’ve got my eye on running the Disney half-marathon someday. Becoming a better runner is one of the driving forces behind my desire to lose the weight. Lose weight, run better…double win!

If you’ve been following this blog over the past month, you know that I’ve been following the South Beach diet in order to shed some of the extra weight I’ve been carrying around since having my third little love. I’ve been at it for a month now, with only a few little ‘cheats’ and I’ve already lost 12 pounds. The diet basically comes down to eliminating refined carbs and focusing on lean proteins, fresh produce, and whole grains. It’s clean eating, which is an idea I can stand behind! Eliminating refined, sugary foods keeps your blood sugar levels stable, which in turn drastically cuts down on the insatiable cravings for naughty things. That works for me.

But though my hunger and cravings are kept at bay on this diet, I still have that afternoon urge to snack like I haven’t eaten in years. It’s more of a comfort mechanism than a hunger thing, usually corresponding with the time of the day when all three boys are tired, cranky, and stir-crazy…the ‘magic hour’ which falls sometime between lunch and dinner and usually fools me into thinking I’m ravenous. So, I need to keep my house free of my most tempting snacks (I’m talkin’ about you, Cheez-its) and well-stocked with more nutritious, but equally satisfying options, like these roasted chickpeas. I can pop a hundred of these little babies and still feel good about the way I’m satisfying my snackiness with loads of nutritious protein and fiber! The hardest part is trying not to eat the whole batch!

Roasted Chili-Garlic Chickpeas

Ingredients

  • 2 (15.5-ounce) cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
  • 1.5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Drain the cans of chickpeas, then rinse and pat dry with a paper towel. Arrange the chickpeas in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle with the olive oil and seasonings, then shake the pan to evenly coat all chickpeas. Place the baking sheet on the middle oven rack and bake for 25-40 minutes, until as crispy as desired. (25 minutes should produce a crisp exterior with a more tender center. 40 minutes will produce a crunchier result.)

Enjoy warm or at room temperature. Makes a great addition to salads too!

Leftover roasted chickpeas sprinkled over mixed green salad with broiled salmon

Diet Day: 31   Weight Loss: 12   Motivation: Rejuvenated! Hit a plateau, but the scale seems to be moving again!

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