A Healthier Taco Salad

Do you remember this commercial from a while back?

Yeah, that’s a “salad” all right. Salads have started to get a bad rap since then, with articles ruminating on how your salad is making you fat or proclaiming that your salad is worse than a burger, but the truth is that salad is just like any other food. It all depends on what you put in it and how much of it you eat. Use some common sense – avoid adding fried chicken, copious amounts of cheese, and drowning it in creamy dressing – and you’ll be okay. Salad isn’t bad for you just because it’s a salad, and it isn’t good for you just because it’s a salad either. It’s just food and it is for you what you make of it.

That said, let’s disabuse ourselves of the notion that taco salad is inherently unhealthy, shall we?

First, get your taco meat going. Today I used ground chuck, but I’ve used ground turkey, ground chicken, or ground pork in the past. You can even use shredded rotisserie chicken or leftover steak or no meat at all. It all depends on what you’re feeling like and what you have on hand. For ground meat, a simple browning and the addition of some spices is all it needs. Put a skillet on medium-high heat, add a little oil, then the meat. I also like to add in chopped onions and sometimes chopped bell pepper once the meat is mostly cooked and let those brown as well. Leave these out and add them to the salad raw if you prefer. Once the meat is browned and the onions and peppers are soft, drain the grease off, then add a sprinkling of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cumin. You can also add chilli powder if you like, but I like just these four. You’ll need ¼-½ cup of the cooked mixture for the salad, depending on how much you plan to eat. Save the rest for future salads.

Now, get your veggies together. Prep your lettuce of choice – romaine, green leaf, red leaf, butter, spinach, a combo thereof, it’s all good here. I like to chop mine up nice and small. Once you have your base of greenery, you can add whatever’s your fancy. I usually do a mix of black beans, tomatoes, black olives, and avocado. Always avocado. Can never have too much avocado. Sometimes I add a bit of cheddar or monterrey jack cheese. If it’s summer, I’ll add some raw sweet corn, another one of my favorites.

For dressing I do a variation on my usual citrus vinaigrette. I zest a lime and combine that with a teaspoon of lime juice, two teaspoons of olive oil, and a nice spoonful of salsa. Mixed up with the greens and veg, you really get the tartness of the lime and the spiciness of the salsa all throughout.

So what are we missing here? Sour cream. Fatty dressing, A fried tortilla shell. Greasy meat. All of those things that give the “salad” part of “taco salad” a bad name. And once everything is combined, you won’t miss any of those things at all. There’s no reason that taco salad can’t be healthy or why you can’t enjoy it just as much as you ever would. Genius or no, it’s just delicious.

Taco Salad

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Why I Work Out: To Reach the Top

Stairwell

Twice a week, this has been my view. In February I’m going to climb to the top of the John Hancock Center for Hustle Up the Hancock, a stair climb that benefits the Respiratory Health Association of Chicago. 94 floors. 1,632 steps. For someone who lives on the top floor of a three-story walk-up, who bounds up the stairs to catch the el, who mentally shouts at the people in front of her to go up faster!, training for this has been surprisingly hard.

Back when registration opened, I coerced Rick into doing the climb with me. Now that we’re both immersed in our training routines – I on the stairs in my building and he on his gym’s stairmaster – we’ve started to wonder what in hell we were thinking. Not only is stair climbing really, really, ridiculously difficult, but what happens once the climb is complete? What’s the purpose of our workouts? “Is it to train for the stair climb, in which case, once the climb is complete there is no longer a need to work out,” he asked, “or is the stair climb just a way point in larger/longer lifestyle change?”

This question made me start to think about my own reasons for maintaining fitness. I’ll explore them in several posts, but in thinking about the stair climb I realized that one of my biggest motivations is simply getting the opportunity to finish something. I remember being a few years out of college, going to work every day, coming home, going out on the weekend with friends, only to repeat it all over again, week in and week out. It was all the same and while I enjoyed no longer being under the weight of paper deadlines and the necessity of reading four chapters when all I really wanted to do was watch the next episode of The X-Files (that’s how long ago I went to college, people), I missed working toward something. I missed having something to achieve. I missed putting in my best effort and seeing it all come together in some tangible way.

These end goals have changed throughout time. Originally, like most people, my goal was to lose a certain amount of weight. Once achieved, the desire to maintain my weight was enough to keep me going for a long time, albeit with some occasional wavering in dedication. But then my goals became something else. I wanted to be able to do 20 push-ups. To do one pull-up. To do the splits. (Still working on that one, but I am now significantly more flexible than I have ever been.) To run 5K without stopping. To complete a half-marathon. To climb up 1,632 steps. These are not easy things, but I’m fairly certain that if I put in the work, I’ll make it to the end. I find gratification in this.

Simply put, I’ve fallen in love with the challenge. I went from being an out-of-shape, completely unathletic teenager who believed that this sports thing wasn’t in her genes, to someone who has a half-marathon medal hanging off of her bookcase. Fifteen-year-old me never would have guessed that was possible. Thirty-three-year-old me still kind of can’t believe it that I did that, nor that I’m crazy enough to put myself through it again. But that’s where the fun is – in going further than I did before, in going faster than I did before, in feeling a little less like dying than I did before. The goal itself will never be the end. The process is the purpose.

1,632 steps. I’ll see you at the top.

7-11-14 Lakefront (3)

No Recipe Roasted Salmon with Spicy Garlic Broccoli and Lemony Brown Rice

1-17-15 Roasted Salmon

I know that one of the most used excuses for not cooking when you live by yourself that you’re not important enough to spend the time cooking for. I don’t see it that way. Rather, one of the often overlooked advantages of cooking for yourself is that you get to try whichever recipe you want, figure out what works and what doesn’t, and build a repertoire of easy, really good go-to meals. (And what doesn’t work you throw away and never tell anyone about!)

I’m not crazy about salmon as a trendy “superfood” (I’m not crazy about the idea of “superfoods” in general, but that’s another post), but I do enjoy it on occasion, especially when it’s cooked well. This roasted salmon is something I’ve been making for years. I originally found it in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and have since committed the easy recipe to memory, modifying it according to my tastes and what I have on hand. Here’s what I do:

1-17-15 Salmon

Preheat the oven to 425F. When the oven is hot, pour about a tablespoon of olive oil in a metal pan and put it in the oven for about 5 minutes, so the oil heats. Meanwhile, check ¾-1 pound of salmon for bones and sprinkle the flesh with salt and pepper. Next add some herbs. I like to use dried thyme, but you could use fresh or change it up with dill, tarragon, parsley, or whatever else you like. I also added some lemon zest because I happened to have it.

Once the oil is hot, carefully put the salmon in, flesh-side down. The oil should sizzle when the salmon touches it. Just try not splatter the oil because hot oil and skin are not a fun combination. (Trust me. Not oil this hot.) Season the skin the same as the flesh and cook the salmon for 6 minutes, turning and cooking for another 6 minutes. Check for doneness – it should flake easily and be opaque. Cook for another 2-3 minutes if needed. Dry salmon is not delicious, so if extra time is needed it’s better to cook in small increments and check multiple times.

1-17-15 Broccoli

This broccoli is an easy, tasty way to get more green veg into your meals. If you’ve never roasted it, you’re missing out on how great broccoli can really be. It pairs exceedingly well with garlic and crushed red pepper (think about how good it is Pad Se Ew with chili sauce…mmm, Pad Se Ew…) and I’ve added both here. All you need to do is cut your broccoli up into evenly small pieces, including the stalk if you’d like. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sprinkle some crushed red pepper on top – the amount will depend on how spicy you like it. I used maybe ¼ teaspoon for three heads of broccoli. Cook at 425F for 10 or so minutes. Meanwhile, chop up 4-5 cloves of garlic and add them to the broccoli at the 10 minute mark, stir everything up, then cook for at least another 10-15 minutes. Adding the garlic later will prevent it from burning should your broccoli require extra roasting time. The broccoli is done when it is nicely browned and easily pierced with a fork.

As for the lemony brown rice, juice a lemon and use whatever liquid you get as a substitute for some of the water and proceed as you otherwise would.

Another advantage of cooking for yourself? Getting to eat all of the leftovers. With this meal being simple and delicious and, if you’re concerned about it, which I am, fairly healthy, I’m glad to have a good dinner and several good lunches in my near future.

No sad desk lunches here!

No sad desk lunches here!

One Brick at a Time

Finally, warm enough to join the Back on My Feet crew for a morning run! I am not even being facetious.

Finally, warm enough to join the Back on My Feet crew for a morning run! I am not even being facetious.

This post from Nerd Fitness hit me just at the right time. With it being January, I’ve been contemplating what my goals for the new year should be. Many of my goals last year were fitness related and this year is no different. I’ve once again signed up for the Shamrock Shuffle and hope to best my previous time. I’ve registered for the Chicago Spring Half Marathon in May and with my gained knowledge on training and injury prevention/treatment, I expect to do significantly better. I want to do more pull-ups. I still want to be able to do a hanging leg raise with my toes touching the bar. Even crazier, I want to be able to do a front lever. (I can already do a tuck front lever! Albeit, not with my arms completely straight.) I know that if I work on these things a little bit every day, eventually I’ll be able to do them.

Where I find my knowledge faltering is with my non-fitness related goals. For the past year I’ve been working on starting my own business, and while my partner and I have made good progress, it’s hard to know where to go from here. In making my New Year’s Goals, I knew I needed to put something business-related on the list, but I had no idea what. How much revenue can we expect to make? How much marketing should we do? How many new customers should we aim to bring in? I don’t have any idea how to answer these questions and this leaves me clueless as to what I should aspire to do.

When I was writing my thesis in undergrad, and again in grad school, I used to set daily goals for myself. Writing a thesis seemed an insurmountable task, so I would tell myself I just had to work on one specific section today and then I didn’t have to think about it again until the next day. It worked – I would sit down in the morning, do my one assigned section, and eventually the entire paper came together. It was focusing on just one step at a time, instead of concerning myself with the larger picture. I realized I did the same thing when I set out to lose weight, focusing only on going to the gym a set number of times a week and eating at the dining hall only for lunch, not the number of pounds I wanted to lose or the number of calories I wanted to restrict. And I repeated the process last year when I trained for my half marathon, reminding myself that I didn’t have to run the entirely of my long runs, but that I had to try and I could walk when I needed. (Despite my panicky doubts, I never cumulatively walked more than five minutes.)

So, again, I find myself focusing on the step I’m on and not the finish line at the end. Or in Nerd Fitness parlance, the brick I’m laying, not the one that was laid yesterday or the one that will be laid tomorrow. With the nebulous end goal of “run a successful business in mind,” I knew what my specific goal should be: do one thing for the business every day. It’s a small goal, yes, and I don’t know where it will eventually lead me, but I trust that every small step takes me closer to the finish line and every brick goes toward building the walls of my dream cathedral.

What I Love Friday

Links I Love

The ol’ high fructose corn syrup vs sugar debate. Personally, I always thought the issue was that most people didn’t know HFCS was sugar and, thus, not aware they were consuming sugar in products where you wouldn’t expect sugar to be. Shouldn’t the goal should be to eat less added sugar in general, not debate which kind of sugar we want to vilify?

Stages of winter rage. This is precisely how I feel, minus the car issues. (Because I don’t have a car. Add “stepping into knee high mounds of snow while trying get off the bus” and you’ve got me exactly.)

Fear is the root of your problems. I know this and yet I still have trouble overcoming it. The second to last bullet point really hits home with me.

⇢ Running on Healthy on how running humbles us all. Honestly, running humbles me daily. It is the one thing that can make you simultaneously feel awesome and like a complete loser. (Luckily, the awesome feeling tends to stick around for a bit longer.)

⇢ I love that episode of Good Eats where Alton Brown shows some schmuck living with his mother how to make a decent breakfast for any lady friend that might come over. Consider this the print version: the Kitchn’s 10 Breakfast Survival Skills Every Cook Should Know.

Really Freakin’ Good Maple Mustard Chicken

Maple Mustard Chicken

I’m always on the lookout for easy, tasty, healthy dishes (really, who isn’t?), so when I saw this recipe linked to at Healthy Nest, I had to try it. With just four ingredients, plus salt and pepper, there’s no reason not to cook up this nearly effortless, completely fabulous dinner.

The name, though. You see, I cook for myself. It makes no difference to me whether a man is or not pleased with my culinary skills and while I do enjoy sharing these skills with men when they are around, I just as much enjoy sharing them with women and, to be perfectly honest, myself. After all, if I’m not worth cooking for, then who is? So the name “Man Pleasing Chicken” had to go. It’s cute, you want to impress your boyfriend or your husband, I get it, but it’s just not me. I bring you instead: Really Freakin’ Good Maple Mustard Chicken.

I followed this recipe to the letter here, because there seemed little reason to deviate from the four ingredients at the get-go. What you end up with is a slightly sweet, slightly acidic, completely moist piece of chicken that will make you wonder why you ever cooked chicken any other way. I roasted some broccoli, cooked some brown rice, and had me a nice dinner while watching Jason Statham in Redemption. (What? I’m over 30 and it’s cold. I can totally spend Saturday in by myself with a tasty dinner and Mr. Statham on the screen. That movie was pretty good, by the way.)

I am, however, eager to try some variations. The original recipe suggests throwing some fresh rosemary on top, which I bet would be good. I also think a sprinkling of chile flakes or chipotle powder would spice things up nicely. Tarragon would add a floral note. Ooh, if you switched out the maple for honey and threw in some lemon zest? I bet that would be a winner.

This is what I love about cooking for myself. I get to try something new and there’s no pressure for it to be the best meal ever. And when a person – be they a female friend or a male more-than-friend – comes along who I do want to please? Well, I’ve got the perfect recipe ready to go.

½ cup dijon mustard
¼ cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
4-6 chicken thighs (I used skin-on, bone-in, but use what you like)

Mix the mustard, syrup, and vinegar in a bowl. If you want, line a pan with foil to aid in cleanup. Personally, I like to scoop up the browned bits that collect in the bottom of the pan when you roast chicken and it’s impossible to do this with foil. I dredged the thighs through the mixture and then poured the remaining mixture over the chicken to ensure a thorough coating. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Bake at 450° for 40 minutes, basting with the sauce about halfway through. Cook until the internal temperature reaches at least 165° or the juices run clear when the meat is cut with a knife. Spoon some of the remaining sauce over the chicken to serve and boom, you’re done.

Serve this to a man and, yes, you’ve probably pleased him, but more importantly, you’ve probably pleased yourself.

Review: Spark

Runs last week:

✧ 2.95 miles, 32:00 – 10:50 pace
✧ 2.44 miles, 32:00, hills – 13:06 pace
✧ 2.36 miles, 30:00, new shoes – 12:42 pace
✧ 2.75 miles, 30:00 – 10:54 pace
✧ And my first trampoline class! Where I, alas, twisted my knee twice. It was giving me some pain the next day, but it’s feeling a bit better now. Oddly it doesn’t seem to have affected my ability to run at all, so I am very thankful for that.

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD

Spark

I think it’s safe to say we’ve all experienced the calming effects of exercise at one point or another. You’ve had a stressful day at work, you’re in a foul mood, you can’t imagine adding one more thing to your day, but you force yourself to go for a run or lift some weights or do some yoga and suddenly the cloud of doom hanging above your head has dispersed. It should be no surprise that exercise has as much of an effect on the mind as it does on the body, and yet discovering the degree to which this is so is eye-opening.

In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John J. Ratey explores this connection and offers us a look at just how beneficial that daily workout really is. The book is a mix of the scientific and the anecdotal, with explanations of how exercise promotes the growth of important proteins in the brain interspersed with case studies of Ratey’s patients who have suffered from a whole host of psychological maladies. I won’t focus on the neuroscience part of the book because, let’s face it, my psychology degree is over 10 years old and pretty useless and I don’t really understand any of that stuff anymore. But, if exercise has been proven to increase the growth of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor – a protein that increases the growth of neurons and synapses in the brain) and this protein has been linked to learning, memory, depression, anxiety, dementia, and Alzheimers, to name a few, I am rather convinced to believe that exercise is worth more than feeling like a rock star for being able to do 20 push-ups.

Where the book’s real strength lies for most of us is in Ratey’s telling of how exercise practically cured some of his patients of their psychological ills. Ratey is quick not to dismiss the importance of medication – he is not one of those pseudo-scientists who would claim that all you need to do is think positively – but he very strongly encourages his patients to incorporate exercise into their therapy. For some, it is not that exercises cures anything, but that it gives them (and us) control over something when they may otherwise feel a complete loss of control. Of panic disorders Ratey writes, “By doing something other than sitting and worrying, we reroute our thought process around the passive-response center and dilute the fear, while at the same time optimizing the brain to learn a new scenario.” He goes on to tell the story of a woman in the midst of a painful divorce, fearful of losing her kids and feeling like she “couldn’t stand up for herself or accomplish anything.” She initially tried, and quit, Prozac, then began adding aerobic exercise to her routine at Ratey’s recommendation. Although her circumstances didn’t change drastically, her outlook and response to it did. The increased movement allowed her feel active, rather than passive, she no longer worried constantly, and she began to reengage with other areas of her life.

Much of the book is filled with anecdotes like this and to do a comprehensive review, I would need to list many of the examples cited for cases of depression, ADHD, hormonal changes, and addiction. Ratey even uses his own mother to illustrate the effect of exercise on aging. Always an active and involved woman, it wasn’t until a hip break at the age of 86 slowed her body down that her mind also began to slip away. Suffice it to say, these examples are worth reading and will make you want to get up, put on your sneakers, and get out the door not so you can have abs of steel, but so that you can think clearly, breathe calmly, and be happy.

On the one hand there is some temptation to take a skeptical stance and see this evidence for exactly what it is – anecdotal – yet that would be a disservice to what Ratey is attempting to show here. His argument is that if exercise can work, why not try it? There may not be as much quantifiable evidence for exercise as a psychological salve, but if qualitative evidence leans in favor of exercise as a remedy for ailments in both the body and the mind, we owe it to ourselves to take it a bit more seriously and discover exactly what it can do for us. Our thinking of exercise as something we do to ourselves needs to change to become something we do for ourselves. It’s not about being an athlete or being first or last picked in PE or yearning after a number on the scale. It’s about doing what we can to get the most out of every moment of this life. True, this is something that I’ve long believed, but I’ve never been more doubtless of this than I am after having read this book.