Sunday, May 27, 2007

Holy Crap!

I just took a look online at the triathlon course I'll be doing.

The swim is triangular around a pocket of a good-size, shark-free lake. No problem.

The run is slightly hilly, but nothing scary. Also, I'm just guessing here, shark-free. No problem.

This is the profile for the bike course.

Let me repeat... this is the profile for the course which Cerdic and I must haul our big-boned butts up and over. The earlier, visuals-free description online, when I registered, said "moderately hilly." It did not mention the giant freakin' mountain right smack in the middle of the course.

Okay, yes, I know mountains are technically 1,000 meters or more, but still. I am particularly terrified of what happens at the mile 4 marker. Is it me or does the course get vertical? Should I invest in some rock-climbing gear?? Crap!

I mean, really. Crap!!

Does Cerdic have a -0000 gear that might possibly get me over that monstrosity?

I suddenly feel like I should get a leash for Cerdic because I'm going to be walking him quite a ways on race day.

Maybe you cycling types think I'm over-reacting, but I'm having trouble getting up baby hills with maybe 20' in elevation gain over a quarter-mile.

That said, as I get less terrified of Cerdic, I am finding the momentum we build going uphill, however painfully, turns into warp speed momentum on the down side.

I will not be held responsible for any skinny wenches Cerdic and I take out as we break the sound barrier between mile markers 5 and 6.5.

Tri Again: Week Two Training Recap

Thanks for reading this (if you are) and keeping me honest and off the couch. Actually, I don’t have a couch, but metaphorically speaking...

This was my second and final "base skills" week. In the coming two weeks, I’ll be pushing harder but still not paying much attention to speed so that I don’t get myself all mentally wound up about improving on time, which usually leads to me forgetting about form and pace and ending up hurt.

I’ve decided not to include the daily Wileywalkies in my training log since I do it every day and it’s nothing extra to my routine.

Sunday 20 May: I started the week with a 3.3 mile ralk through my hilly neighborhood, slightly longer than the 5K I’ll be doing at the triathlon.

Monday 21 May: Pilates in the morning. After class, I ralked for 1.1 miles on the indoor track at school, really just to warm up for half an hour of upper body weight training, followed by a half-hour swim.

Tuesday 22 May: nothin’! (Well, aside from the aforementioned not-to-be-mentioned walkies.) A "rest day."

Wednesday 23 May: Pilates in the morning. I had planned to get a quick ralk in before picking up Cerdic at the bike shop, but my afternoon class ran late and I had the choice of either a 15-minute workout, and a rush to get to the store before they closed, or going straight to the store. I opted for the latter.

Thursday 24 May: 3.25 mile ralk followed by half an hour of upper-body weight training. I noticed something interesting about the indoor track at school, and would welcome comments from Dr. Virago and any other runner reading along. Our track is a measly 1/12th of a mile, so I do a lot of turns (I prefer running on it, though, because it’s easier on my knees and ankles). And, like most indoor tracks, there’s a post about doing alternate directions: counter-clockwise Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, clockwise the rest of the time. I find that when I ralk clockwise, I hurt less and am much faster (about a minute per mile). I decided it’s because, in that direction, my dominant leg (the left one) is on the outside of the turn, giving me more power. Weird, huh?

Friday 25 May: Despite the psyche-scarring circumstances , I managed a decent 45 minute swim. Earlier in the day, I had also planned to take Cerdic out on the road for a spin. Alas, on the very first hill, I shifted wrong and the chain popped off. With much grumbling, I took it back to the bike shop where they showed me how to fix it (ridiculously easy) and explained, once again, the concept of shifting to me (easier said than done). Yeah, yeah. It was at this point that I decided to name my bike, hoping to foster some kind of connection between me and it, other than hatred and dread, that is. When I got home after swimming, I decided I’d had enough traumatic workouts for the day and didn’t bother taking Cerdic out for another test run.

Saturday 26 May: Pilates in the morning. In the late afternoon, I strapped on the helmet that makes me feel like Queen of the She-Dorks and took Cerdic out. Gulp. On the plus side, I live in a very hilly area, so I can’t avoid learning how to shift. Unfortunately, since I don’t know how to shift, or at least don’t have a feel for it, the meager four miles I did were hell. I will say naming Cerdic is helping me tremendously, at least emotionally. I am terrified of riding a bike and my cycling skills are on par with a three-year-old’s, but it does help talking to Cerdic as if we’re in this thing together. It also helps that I live in a very rural area. I didn’t have to worry about anyone other than a couple cows and a rather shocked rabbit hearing me call Cerdic the "son of a pig-eating whore" when I popped the chain off again going uphill.

This time I got off the bike, fixed the chain, got back on and sallied forth.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Horror. Oh. The Horror.

Due to our class schedule, we are having a nice four-day weekend. So Friday, I headed to campus not to work or learn, but to swim.

As you come out of the women’s locker room, at first you can only see a corner of the pool. I saw an almost perfectly still surface and thought whoo hoo! I’ve got the place to myself (which is usually the case... I’ve never been in the pool there with more than one other person).

As I rounded the corner, however, I saw there were two long, lean men doing laps with such ease that they made barely a ripple. Okay, I can deal with that. There were still three lanes wide open.

The men got to the far end of the pool and stopped to chat with each other.

That’s when I heard them speaking German.

Suddenly, the familiar voice of one of them rang out through the natatorium (yeah, that’s what they call it): "[Pirate]! You haff come to train, ya?"

Oh. Crap.

There I was, in my swimsuit and no makeup, like a deer in the headlights as der Brotmeister and one of the other superfit German chefs looked on.

Those of you who know me well, or who just read this blog closely, know that I have Body Image Issues, and those of you who read the old blog may recall my intense love-hate experience with der Brotmeister, one of my most demanding and yet endearing chefs.

I don’t think the guys reading this will understand, since in my experience, even guys with incredible guts flopping over the waistband of their Speedos (shudder) seem oblivious to their bodies. But I know most of the women reading this, especially my friends who would probably rather die in a burning building than escape wearing just their underwear, right now are saying "oh honey, I’m so sorry for you."

I mumbled hello and got into the pool as quickly as possible, trying not to die of mortification. He swam over.

I heard myself snap "Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping, Chef?" (The day before, I ran into him coming out of his class, looking exhausted, and he told me that after working a double shift for the last three weeks, which means 5 a.m. till 9 p.m. every day, he was going to spend the weekend sleeping.)

He said he had slept in, and then napped after breakfast, and starts to tell me about his day and then asks "Vat’s new?"

I muttered "nothing" and started swimming. He swam beside me for a while and then, I think when he realized I was going for the world record in "Not coming up for air due to intense embarrassment," he finally peeled away.

I would have preferred an actual shark in the pool.

The other chef (a culinary chef I don’t know by name) left soon after, but der Brotmeister hung around, chatting with the lifeguard as he stood there and freakin’ watched me. Go away! Leave me alone! To pinch a line from The Princess Bride that seemed appropriate, "Leave me to wallow in freakish misery!" Arrrrrrrrgh...

I just kept swimming, head down, not even doing the occasional backstroke which I do as a "rest" length.

Ugh. It’s one thing to be prancing about in my swimsuit at the actual triathlon, when I’m surrounded by thousands of other women dressed in equally small outfits, women who are shorter, taller (well, not usually), older, younger, fatter, scrawnier, droopier and so on, all of us sporting hideous swimcaps. It’s another thing completely to have naught but a flimsy piece of spandex between me and the watchful eyes of a naturally athletic chef whom I like.

I would say well, it can’t get worse than that, but that to me sounds like an invitation for more meddling by Fortuna.

If nothing else, I was able to swim the distance I’ll be doing at the triathlon, plus at least two extra laps (I lost count), in less time than I swam the actual course back in 2004, all without getting winded once (I’m a very slow but very steady swimmer) and without being at all sore today.

As to how much therapy I’ll need to recover emotionally from that particular workout, well, that’s another matter entirely.

Res Ipsa Loquitur

I know I’ve been posting a lot about the triathlon, Wiley and the occasional cheffy moment I have at home, but not much about Cookin’ School. It’s partly because we’re in classroom classes now, which aren’t as intense as being in the kitchens and bakeshops. It’s also because the baking and pastry students and the culinary students are mixed together in these classes, and I want to hit the majority of the latter in the head with a hammer.

Yes, that tends to be my solution for everything. But anyway...

Here’s a recap, with as much self-restraint as I can muster to avoid ranting about the idiot contingent.

Our Restaurant Law class is already over and done with. It’s a mere three weeks long. I got a 98 on the final, which surprised me since I found much of the class brain-quakingly confusing. Our teacher was a local lawyer who frustrated the hell out of me because he clearly knew the law and was a font of potential knowledge. But he’s been teaching this class forever, cycling through corporation formation, liability and torts like clockwork to a brand new class every three weeks, and it showed.

Instead of being a font he was more like a whitewater river, streaming laws and case studies and random anecdotes in a steady, unyielding deluge. When people raised their hands to ask a question, he’d snap "What?!" or "Now you’re really making a pest of yourself!" He had a really dry sense of humor, and I suspect he thought treating students’ questions like that was kind of funny, but I felt it was time to get out the old hammer and give his skull a good conk or two.

I’d argue that this is the most important course we have at school, because whether we’re in baking or culinary, whether we’re being hired or hiring people, whether we’re the owner or just the cook of the place that serves bad chicken one day, we’re going to run into legal issues. I wish the course had been longer and the teacher had taken it more seriously.

Though, to be fair, I also can’t blame him or any of our other teachers for being on autopilot. The level of disrespect and inattention the culinary kids show them is amazing. All the baking students, plus my friend Fantasia (her nickname from the old blog), an unusually smart and serious culinary student, cluster in the center first two rows of every class. On either side of us, it’s the Visigoths and the Huns.

No, that’s insulting to Visigoths and Huns.

The culinary students carry on their own conversations, text each other jokes, leave their cell phones on and take calls, shout out what they feel are humorous observations at random, snicker at other students’ questions and generally act like they are five year olds who’ve had too much sugar. Included in the crowd is one of the culinary guys I extern’ed with in Vegas who drove me nuts and The Foie Girl. You may remember The Foie Girl from the old blog, a cross between Reese Witherspoon in "Election" and Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." Well, now that she’s back from extern, she’s even worse, adding a tediously faux-macho swagger to her comic arrogance.

As an aside, she did her extern at the place in the Caribbean that I was briefly considering. Had I gone, since they provide assigned housing, she and I likely would have been roommates.

Does anyone else feel a sudden chill?

Anyway, in addition to making grand pronouncements about her greatness, she is now also prone to doing things like entering the classroom and declaring "Guys, I got so shit-faced last night!"

Thanks for sharing. Next time try a little harder and maybe we’ll all be blessed with the success of your fatal alcohol poisoning.

Some friends in academia have mused about what it would be like to be a non-chef instructor at Cookin’ School. I really think it’s its own special ring of the Inferno. Because I think the culinary students, who are arrogant little shits to begin with in general, see non-chef instructors as non-human. Granted, I don’t take the instructors as seriously in part because I know they will not get in my face and scream invective like a chef might, but the culinary brats take it one step further and seem to go out of their way to disrespect them, much in the same way kitchen staff tries to make life hell for the servers in a restaurant. The old "you’re not one of us" mentality, compounded by stupidity and immaturity.

Ok. Deep breath. Stop talking about the morons and get back on topic. To use my favorite new legal phrase about how insufferable the hordes are, res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself.

My Nutrition class is pretty interesting, but much of it is stuff I’ve read over and over in magazines. It also bugs me how the teacher dumbs down everything. When she gave our most recent assignment, she spent more time assuring us "guys, it won’t take more than ten minutes, tops" than she did really explaining it.

Our Business Management class is another kettle of fish. It reminds me so much... too much... of the various management and leadership workshops I’ve been forced to go to while out in the working world. A lot of talk, a lot of forced participation, very little meat and bones substance. The instructor strikes me as someone who has been doing corporate workshops for years and knows that he’s not going to get through to the brats and so is just going through the motions.

Except for one thing. He calls on me All. The. Time.

Legolas (yes, my beloved baker buddy is back, much to my relief and delight) jokingly said "I feel like telling him, ‘hey, she’s single!’" and Mandilicious, another baking friend, observed "it’s your own fault, because you always answer with something intelligent," but it’s really getting on my nerves.

On Thursday, in fact, he was making some comment about something and suddenly gestured at me and said, "[Pirate], go ahead." I frowned and asked "Why?" He claimed that I "looked like I had something to say." I shook my head and replied "No, I’m just listening attentively, unlike other people."

The hordes gave a collective snicker, but at least he didn’t call on me for the rest of class.

And finally, we drew the short straw as a group and have the same teacher for both our Cost Control and Purchasing Food Class and our Menu Development Class. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but he really should just retire already. I suspect he was eligible to do so about 20 years ago.

The man takes points off for everything, including if we don’t have 1.5 line spacing in our typed assignments (who on earth even uses 1.5 spacing?) and if, on quizzes, when asked to define a term we do anything less than regurgitate exactly the words he gave us.

I’m actually very interested in both topics, and I think the material itself is useful for someone thinking of opening her own place one day, but damn. Teach the course and don’t use it as an autocratic power trip.

That said, I feel I can’t ding him too much, because he does do more than the other teachers to keep the hordes in line, threatening to take points off when, for example, the girls violate dress code by wearing open-toe shoes (heaven forbid!).

So, yeah, if you detect a little frustration about my current classes, teachers and the hordes that constitute the majority of my classmates, it’s certainly there. I like the material itself in each class, however (except for BizManagement, which is just a load of bollocks), and I feel the classes are of value for that reason.

That said, I can’t wait to get back into the bakeshop (I will in mid-June) and get my hands on some marzipan.

For educational purposes only, you understand.

Feelin' Cheffy

Ok, ok, so enough about triathlons and the world’s greatest dog. Here’s a post about food.

Last weekend, I realized I still had most of a bottle of some fat-free "Cinnamon Hazelnut" non-dairy creamer that I’d bought just out of curiosity to try in my coffee. Yuck. I had to get rid of it, and not in my coffee, nor am I capable of wasting food. So I tried making crepes with it (I was out of milk).

The crepes themselves were more pancake-like than crepey, but the taste was ok, if a little dry. Wiley liked them.

The only reason I’m posting the lame photo I took of them here is because the filling and sauce I made for them were crazytasty. I peeled and chopped two Gala apples and sauteed them in a 1/2 oz. or so of butter, just so they wouldn’t stick. Then I added in, about a tablespoon at a time, Applejack and dark rum, alternating between the two and letting them reduce before adding more. Scrumptious. For the sauce I just mixed a little candied ginger spread with, yeah, Applejack and dark rum and cooked it down.

The result: not too sweet, very appley and with just a little ginger kick, plus the rummy goodness one must expect from a pirate.

Also last weekend, I made a couple Gordon Ramsay recipes. One was his "Show-off Ribeye for 8," though I scaled it down and only made it for "1+1," as in one me plus one very eager dog.

It. Kicked. Ass.

It was possibly the best piece of meat I’ve ever eaten (I used grass-fed beef that I’d bought, frozen, a couple weeks earlier at Trader Joe’s). It was ridiculously easy, too. I didn’t take a picture, and I’m not posting the recipe because it’s copyrighted and all, but if you can get your hands on the April issue of the British food magazine Olive, check it out.

I’m also not posting the recipe because I consider it my new secret "show-off" entree weapon. If you come to dinner and I want to impress you, that’s what you’re getting...

With seared scallops for a starter.

Ramsay did seared scallops for a starter on one of The F Word episodes, and it looked so tasty and easy that I had to try it. I found out at the last minute that I didn’t have curry powder, so I substituted my own special spice blend, as well as changed the garnish, so I consider the recipe "mine" enough to post it here, including photo with haphazard plating (hey, it was for me and Wiley... I'll do a fantastic plating when I'm getting paid for it, you know?).

I blanched some haricots verts (again, frozen from Trader Joe’s, but damn if they aren’t tasty... and cheap!) and made a dressing of sweet mustard, fromage blanc and vodka. In retrospect, I should have added something like capers to the dressing, as it wasn’t quite "finished," but I held back as I wasn’t sure what the scallops would taste like and had to make the dressing before I cooked them.

The scallops themselves I patted dry and dipped in a blend of one part kosher salt to one part dulce pimenton and one part hot pimenton (both pimentons being a fancy cheffy spice that my friend Shorewoodian sent me... no, it is not pimento spelled wrong. And get your hands on some if you can. Very tasty). I dusted off the excess and then put them in a hot pan with olive oil (the oil itself was almost at smoking point... because we all know never to put food in a pan without heating the oil first, right? I only ask because I’ve seen it done, by classmates, no less.). They were about a minute on each side and didn’t burn, despite what you may be thinking from the photo. The pimenton got a little darker and crusty, that’s all.

The pimenton added a really nice, slightly smoky earthiness to the scallops, which were perfectly cooked, if I don’t say so myself. I give all the credit to Ramsay, anyway. Well, most of the credit.

Okay, a modest amount.

Hwaet, Cerdic!

I finally got my bike on Wednesday, opting for the aluminum frame over the steel, which meant I had to wait a couple extra days for the guy to get it in stock.

Like Dr. Virago, I enjoy naming things. I also felt that, by giving my bike a name, I might not hate biking so much and maybe, just maybe, we’d bond a little.

After much contemplation, I named the bike Cerdic.

If you have never seen the recent Jerry Bruckheimer version of King Arthur, with Clive Owen in the title role and Keira Knightly as Guinevere, well, you’re really missing out. It is a dreadful movie, and it made me seriously question Clive as crush-worthy (he just.... stands... there.).

However, it is terrific to watch with snarky friends and pick apart, especially friends who know anything about that period of Britian and/or martial arts. Or basic logic. (Question: If Arthur and his knights have been posted to Hadrian’s Wall for 15 years and charged with protecting Rome’s interests, why are they completely unaware that a super-wealthy Roman family whose son is a protege of the pope just happen to be living several miles north, in Woad lands? Why do they need a guy straight off the boat from Rome to tell them this, as well as to mention that Saxons are invading from the north? What do they do all day, sit around the round table and eat Spam a lot? Just asking...)

I do like Knightly’s Guinevere, who is more ambiguous and Macchiavellian than the usual damsel. I especially like that she’s a vicious, bloodthirsty fighter in the climactic battle scene, even though they dressed her in a leather bikini.

But the best thing about "King Arthur" is the main bad guy... Saxon invader Cerdic. Stellan Skarsgard’s performance is hilarious (intentionally so, I believe) as the barbarian badass who’s just bored to death with his day job and really tired of killing people who don’t deserve it. Not that they don’t deserve to die, they do, but, you know, it’s just a little beneath him to be slaughtering people who don’t even put up much of a fight.

His tag line, begun with a weary sigh, is "Kill them all. Burn everything."

Yeah, this is the guy (center) I want to name my bike after. I feel they have much in common. They’re big and blond (though the bike’s official color scheme is "Sand with Black") and aren't the fastest.

I hope my Cerdic will be as relentless and steady as its cinematic namesake. Also, movieCerdic is not prone to panic, and I hope I can say the same of my bike, since I am prone to panic while cycling, and it would be nice if one of us was not teetering on the edge during the 20K we’ll be together on race day.

At the Danskin Triathlon, when you pass someone you’re supposed to shout encouragement, and the person being passed is supposed to do the same (recommended phrases include "Looking good!" "Stay strong!" and the dreaded "You go, girl!"). I felt kind of goofy and so not me doing that last time. I’ll be doing it again, but this time with a secret smile.

Because in my head, I’ll be thinking, yeah... you know it.

Kill them all. Burn everything.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Police (Dog) Brutality

I'll write more about Cookin' School and food soon, promise, but first, an ultra-brief Wiley aside.

Today, as we were returning to the car after walkies through the woods at a local park, we passed two cop cars and two cop SUVs, all parked in a row. The cops were all hanging around outside of them, clearly not working too hard. As we neared, just as I saw every vehicle had "K9 Unit" on its door, Wiley sniffed the air and started barking like crazy.

The vehicle windows were all cracked but not actually opened and for that I'm thankful, because suddenly there were four enormous (I swear they were part bear) German Shepherds roused from an apparent post-training exercise nap, all of them barking and doing their best to escape the vehicles and go all Rodney King on Wiley. They were so aggressive that they were actually making the cars and trucks rock back and forth and side to side.

It was kind of scary. The cops looked embarrassed, Wiley just barked more (dumbass) and I started walking faster, dragging him behind me saying "those are some dogs you do not want to pick a fight with, baby."


Holy Parthenogenesis, Batman!

I wanted to post this yesterday but got too involved in classes and then making it to the bike store to get my new bike (more on that in a separate post, assuming I don't break every bone in my body on my first test ride)...

Have you read about this??

I love sharks (even though I fear them), especially those freaktastic hammerheads, but this was just a bit creepy, I think because it reminded me of the great Shriekback song, "Nemesis," about, at least as I understand, a mass extinction. I'm thinking in particular of the line "Big black nemesis, parthenogenesis, everybody's happy as the dead come home."

Oh, I dunno, maybe the song is about breaking up with a girlfriend. In any case, it's a cool song and a cool story. Read it.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Tri, Tri, Tri Again: Week One Training Recap

Ok, that’s the best I could do for a pithy heading. After all, my first title of choice, Slow Fat Triathlete, has already been taken by Jayne Williams, who wrote a pretty funny book about her experience as a triathlete who actually weighed quite a bit more than I do (and she’s shorter!) when she started doing them.

I don’t expect anyone to read this, though feel free if you’ve got a surplus of time and nothing better to do. Basically, I believe that by posting this for all the world to see (not that the world is looking... but... it might), it will keep me honest. It’s much easier to slack if you’re quiet about it, you know?

So here is a recap of week one of my triathlon training. In addition to buying Jayne’s book, I also got Sally Edwards’ Triathlons for Women. Edwards spoke briefly at a special breakfast for "Team Survivor" members at the Chicagoland Danskin I did back in 2004. What really impressed me about her, though, is that she has finished last in more triathlons than probably anybody. She’s a world-class athlete who has won gazillions of them, too, but she intentionally finishes last in every Danskin triathlon so that none of the women doing it has to fear that they’ll be the last one across the line. I don’t usually go for that kind of, dare I say, touchy-feely empowerment, but I have to admit I think that’s really cool.

So, anyway, I’m following Edwards’ recommendations for a training program, which includes spending the first couple weeks working on base skills rather than gunning all out for distance, speed or duration. In many ways, this week was actually harder than "normal" working out for me because I held back and focused on form and pace and all the tedious technical stuff. I’m hoping that by laying the foundation of proper technique now, I’ll be less likely to get hurt.

Sunday 13 May: kicked off Tri Again 2007 training with what I do every day... an off-leash dog walk of about two miles through the hilly wooded park near me. While Wiley took a post-walkies nap, I then did a fast walk of 3.3 miles, just slightly longer than I’ll be doing at the triathlon.

Monday 14 May: I did my morning Pilates intermediate floor routine like I do every other day. As a sidenote, I recommend Pilates very, very highly to anyone who is no longer a spring chicken and would like a stronger back, better posture and flatter stomach. The routine lasts less than 20 minutes, wakes me up without getting me sweaty and really does give one a stronger core, which helps me do everything from walk backwards as a campus tour guide ("we’re walking... we’re walking") to lift 50 lb. bags of flour.

But if you do try Pilates, try to take a free intro class at a local studio to learn proper form and then get a real Pilates DVD, not those crappy hybrid yogalates or taebolates or whatever. I got Classical Pilates Technique: The Complete Mat Workout Series a couple years ago and recommend it very highly. The reviewers on slammed it for having no music or production value (it’s just the person doing the routine with a voice-over by a Dutch guy with a funny accent), but quite frankly, if I want production value, I’ll go see a freakin’ Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

Oh, also today, in addition to doing a mile or so dog walk, I ralked for 2.5 miles on the indoor track at school. Ralking is my sport, and I have every confidence that one day it will be an Olympic sport. Ok, maybe not, but it works for me. I walk one lap, run one lap, over and over. I think that in the running world it’s called fartlek, but that sounds even goofier than ralking.

Tuesday 15 May: a "rest" day with just a 30 minute dog walk through the hills.

Wednesday 16 May: morning Pilates and dog walk. I also had a meeting with the personal trainer they have on staff at the school gym. Sitting in his office, surrounded by framed photos of all his finishes at the New York Marathon, when I told him I was training for a triathlon, he gave me the look one might give a very dumb but sweet child who has just declared her intention to be a brain surgeon. "Oh, uh, good for you," he said. Actually, he was very nice and supportive, especially after I explained this was my second one, having done the first one without training for it. He also said that he wanted to do one, but that the swimming portion would kill him.

It amazes me how many superfit people I know who say that... why is everyone afraid of the swimming portion? That’s the easiest part. That night, in fact, I swam for 35 minutes in the pool at school, with very few breaks. My two problems when swimming are my irrational fear of sharks (yes, even in an indoor pool) and the way swimming completely mellows me out, to the point that I stared at the shower curtain in the locker room for at least ten minutes before remembering I was supposed to shower off all the chlorine.

Thursday 17 May: a mile dog walk in the morning, and a 2.2 mile ralk on the track at school, really focusing on my form, starting at the top of my head (head up, eyes ahead, neck and shoulders relaxed, elbows at 90 degrees, arms back and forward not side to side, hands loosely closed with thumb touching middle finger not clenched, abs in, hip flexors forward, knees soft throughout stride, ankles doing what they can to keep my feet from flopping outward, heel not striking too hard, eight strides per breath, four in, four out). Then I take a tally of what hurts (everything... damn, I hate running) and start again checking form from the top of my head.

It’s especially torturous because I decided that, at least for my base skills weeks, I would train without music. I can’t have headphones on race day, after all, or when I swim or cycle. Running to begin with is hell, but doing it without Rob Zombie, Rammstein, Seether, A Perfect Circle and Beyonce is, I have come to believe, nothing short of masochism. And yeah, I have Beyonce’s "Check Up On It" right between my beloved angry boys on my MP3 player... got a problem with that?

Friday 18 May: crazy blowout training day! Well, not really. 1.5 mile dog walk in the morning. Then after class, I did another 2.2 mile ralk, half an hour of upper body weight training per the plan the personal trainer wrote out for me on Wednesday, and then an easy 20 minute lap swim, again focusing on form. I am actually a terribly inefficient swimmer, but thanks to my, er, natural bouyancy, I can flail about and still get where I’m going. The aquatics guy they have on staff at the gym is on vacation until Memorial Day, but when he gets back I’m signing up for a lesson.

Saturday 19 May: Pilates and a dog walk that I’m not counting since it was on-leash (too many other dogs in the park to let Captain Chaos go free ranging), but otherwise nothin’. All part of my plan. I will ramp things up a bit this week. I did go to the bicycle store the personal trainer recommended. Although it was a Very Serious Bike Shop, they had a couple bikes in my range.

The guy suggested I might like the aluminum frame Giant Cypress that they had at their other store instead of the steel frame Giant Cypress ST I took a shine to, and since it was pouring rain all day (with more in the forecast for the whole weekend), I saw no reason to get the bike that day.

So I’ll be going back this week to get the bike, the rack and the helmet, followed I’m sure by the Band-Aids, the anti-anxiety medication and the OxyContin to ease the pain of broken limbs. When I explained to Mike at Bikeway that I have a lot of Issues about bike riding (it’s high on my list of Things I’d Rather Not Be Around, bested only by cows and sharks), he said I wouldn’t need to worry about even trying the whole toe clip/clipless pedal thing right now. Then he explained to me how to shift on the 24-speed bike I’ll be getting, which was actually the most helpful 30 seconds I’ve had in a long time.

I really don’t feel I need all those gears, but nowadays, that’s the bare minimum, at least for me, as I am too tall for the Huffy SpongeBob SquarePants kiddie bike that I’d probably be happiest with. I may still put streamers on whichever Giant bike I get.

And no, Giant is not the size. It's just the brand name.

Reading this over, I’m reminded of something a classmate said to me when I ran into her (not literally) in the gym. When I explained I was training for a triathlon, she expressed great surprise and asked: "Are you a good swimmer?" I said no. "Are you a good cyclist?" Definitely not. I hate even the thought of the cycle portion. "Do you run?" As well as a bear recently roused from hibernation, only with more growling.

"Wow," she said. "Now I’m really impressed. I could never go out and try to do something I was no good at, just to do it."

Yeah, well, that’s pretty much how I roll. And ralk.

Quote of The Day

"All good chefs are left-handed." - Gordon Ramsay

My friends J&E and B&B back in Wisconsin know that I’ve been going through BBC America withdrawal - even if I could afford cable, the local carrier doesn’t provide BBC America, so honestly, what’s the point? - so they’ve sent me DVDs and tapes of several shows on the channel.

And the only thing I love more than a good, or even mediocre, British police procedural is one of Gordon Ramsay’s shows. I couldn’t sit through more than five minutes of "Hell’s Kitchen," his show over here, but I adored "Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares" and "The Boiling Point."

Well, I think "The F Word," which J&E and B&B recently sent separate bits of, tops them both.

I know Ramsay’s overexposed, I know his usual tv schtick of raving, foul-mouthed kitchen bully is tiresome, but I love the guy. Not when he’s being an arrogant jerk (hell, I get my fill of that at school), but when he’s just being a smartass and especially when he’s cooking. I love his recipes and the way he explains them on "F Word."

I also really love the mini-vignettes they do on the show of everything from him trying to spear-fish sea bass to showing clueless Brits how to cook a proper Sunday meal in their own kitchens. Like Jamie Oliver, and just about every other British chef these days it seems, Ramsay has adopted a few causes, including sustainable fishing and humanely-reared livestock, as well as bringing back Sunday dinner as a home-cooked, family gathering. That’s why I love BBC America and read the Brit food mags Fresh and Olive every month. It just seem there’s a lot more thought in their approach to food then shouting "bam!" when you throw yet more butter in the pot.

Anyway, one of the episodes of "F Word" that I watched last night was, as Ramsay himself would say, "ex-TROUD-‘n’ry."

All season, he’d been raising two Berkshire pigs in his backyard (named Trinny and Susannah, the cheeky bastard, which will amuse anyone who’s watched the original, and far superior, "What Not To Wear" tv series, another British import). While he was raising them for meat, he also treated them a bit like pets, and gave them a lot of care and affection.

In this episode, it was time to take them to the abattoir. He did, and it was emotional for him (sincere, not put on, I thought).

And this is the key bit: they showed the pigs being slaughtered while he looked on (he said he felt he had to be there to witness it).

That would never happen on an American show. You might see Bobby Flay shaking hands with his butcher or Emeril holding up a piece of raw meat, but there’s no discussion, nevermind visuals, of how we get all those nice little packages of meat in our supermarkets. There have been studies done on schoolchildren that show most of them have no concept that their hamburger was once a cow. Americans in general seem to think that meat grows in tidy little gardens or something (that’s surely what scientists hope to do one day... read this for a truly disturbing future food ... meat sheets).

I’m not against eating meat. I think we as humans are omnivorous creatures. But I also think we owe it to the environment, to the animals and to ourselves to eat humanely-reared, sustainable meat, and most of all to acknowledge that eating meat involves killing another living creature.

On a related note, back in my journo days, when I was doing an article on why black leather is so popular in heavy metal, one of the people I interviewed pointed out that leather was an iconic fabric of bad boys and dangerous sorts for the simple reason that "you can’t have leather without death."

That’s how I feel about meat. I still eat it, but just like I won’t buy eggs from battery farms or drink milk from confined cows, I’ve given up eating meat raised under questionable circumstances. Yeah, the humane stuff is more expensive, but I don’t eat that much of it to begin with and, as was pointed out in the excellent Omnivore’s Dilemma, if the average American magically found $50-100 a month of disposable income for a cell phone (and how many of us really need one, anyway?), surely we can afford to pay a bit more for our meat.

As for the quote that kicked off this little Ramsay lovefest/meat rant, yeah, Ramsay, who is also left-handed, did say that. Well, he’s right about that, too.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Eternal Interspecies Love

Yes, yes, I'll get back to posting about Cookin' School and all things pastry soon enough, but I wanted to post more cute animal pix, especially because several of you have asked via e-mail or even in person about Dash, Wiley's feline "special friend." Hey, I don't judge.

I first mentioned Dash in the old blog as the friendly cat who lived two doors down from us and had become quite attached to Wiley. While Wiley napped indoors by the patio in the sun, Dash would sit on the other side of the window and stare longingly. When Wiley went outside, Dash would appear from under a car and walk beside him. Dash frequently left tokens of affection, in the form of dead whole or mostly whole rodents, on our doormat.

When we arrived back home last month, late at night, it just so happened that Dash was sitting in our parking spot, as if waiting for his love to return.

Wiley, for his part, remains coy, alternately ignoring Dash and sniffing tentatively in his wake.

Just about every day, it goes something like this.

Wiley watches Dash...

Dash watches Wiley...

At last, a furtive kiss. Or at least a sniff.

Ok, they're not baby polar bears, but they are pretty damn cute.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Quorn, How Do I Love Thee?

I had a great dinner Friday night and, as I was preparing it and getting excited about it, I decided to blog about it. Why? Not because it was beautifully plated (not at all... the method was "dump from pan into bowl"). Not because it featured exotic or expensive ingredients (all came from my local supermarket and fit well within my student budget).

No, I feel it worthy of inclusion in the blog because the star ingredient was Quorn.

I love Quorn. And I am tired of acquaintances (it's been a few over the years) who have never even tried Quorn mocking me for eating a fake food made from fungus.

Even though I'm not a vegetarian, I'm not a big meat eater and I'm also kind of lazy. I'm also not good at planning meals ahead allowing time for frozen meat to thaw. Although I am in the 1% of the American population that likes tofu (really), ironically I am also in the 1% of the American population that shouldn't eat soy (in my case, not because of an allergy, but because some studies suggest that the phytoestrogens in soy might fuel my particular kind of cancer, and if there are any lone wolf cancer cells left in my body, I don't want to give them a Happy Meal, ya know?). Tempeh doesn't agree with me and TVP tastes to me like, well, an acronym rather than a food.

I happened upon Quorn a few years ago, right after it was introduced in the U.S., at the health food supermarket where I used to work. I was so excited to find a meat-free product that wasn't soy, was low-fat, low cholesterol and tasty. I've tried most of the Quorn products, but the only one I really like and buy is the "Naked Chik'nCutlet." It looks vaguely like a chicken breast.

Quorn is made from mycoprotein, a fungus. Before you go "eeeeeew," think of the mold in blue cheese, the live bacteria in good yogurt, the turd-like things pigs dig up and farmers sell for hundreds of bucks (aka truffles), and the "noble rot" that makes some wines so desirable. Yes, we humans eat and esteem a lot of weird things, so don't pick on my beloved Quorn just because it comes from the fungi kingdom.

Friday night, I sauteed some shallots and fresh garlic in a bit of olive oil, added a sliced Quorn Naked Chik'n Cutlet and some fresh broccoli that I cut into bite-size pieces. A drizzle of organic chicken stock let the broccoli steam a bit, and also gave the Quorn a nice moist meatiness. Meanwhile, I boiled half a cup of mushroom tortellini from Trader Joe's, tossed it all together once the pasta was done and added a tablespoon of Vermont Butter and Cheese Company quark. For those of you who haven't tried it, I highly recommend quark, a German style soft cheese, as a lower calorie, lower fat substitute for ... well, there really is nothing like quark. It's sort of cream cheese texture but with a creme fraiche taste. In a word, yummy.

I sprinkled on some chopped fresh parsley and voila... a satisfying, meat-free, soy-free meal with tons of taste.

As you can see from the photo below, I was not the only one excited about this Quorn-tastic meal. Wiley is a real Quorndog.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Importance of Being Buster

As part of my ongoing campaign to win Wiley's heart back by buying him a great deal of stuff he probably doesn't need or even want, I recently purchased a Buster Cube. Lily and Zoe, adorable vizslas of my friends B and B, have one and seem to like it. It's a hard plastic cube with a hole in one side that leads to a curvy tunnel interior. You put in treats, shake to distribute them, and the dog has to figure out how to get them out.

The web site touts the Cube as "stimulating" and the packaging claimed it would encourage my dog to use his "problem-solving skills," but I figured Wiley would probably lose interest in it after five minutes.

I was proven wrong.

It's like Doggie Playstation or something. He'll head-butt it, bat it with his paw, stick his snout into the hole and stretch his tongue to try to lick the treats, hold it between his paws and try to chew it apart (not possible, despite his best efforts)... for hours.

Aside from the entertainment value of watching a dog repeatedly head-butt a piece of hard plastic, I like the Buster Cube because it makes him work for his treats. It also gives him a "job" to do, which is supposed to calm anxious dogs down when left alone. So far, since Buster came into our home, I haven't had any comments from the neighbors about him howling when I leave him alone. I don't know if they've just learned to live with it or if he's too busy head-butting Buster, but if you've got an anxious, neurotic dog, I would encourage you to get him his (or her) own Doggie Playstation.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

For This I Blame Dr. Virago

As many of you know, my dear friend Dr. Virago, in addition to her many other amazing accomplishments as a human, including the ability to accessorize well, does marathons. After completing her most recent ridiculously long run under exceedingly difficult conditions (Boston, dreadful weather, head cold), she wrote an inspiring post about her journey from couch potato (and believe me, I used to live with her, I know...) to runner of ridiculously long distances.

Well, dammit, she inspired me. Crap. I hate it when that happens.

In 81 days I will be doing the New England Danskin Triathlon. I registered for it tonight. It's somewhere in Massachusetts. I'm not sure where, but I figure I've got 81 days to find out. And to buy a bicycle.

I did the Chicagoland Danskin Triathlon a couple years ago and finished, albeit well after the two friends I did it with. I didn't mind. After all, they had trained for it. My training consisted of swimming a total of about three miles at the YMCA two months before the event (I lost interest), walking my dogs daily (Kosmo was still with me and Wiley back then), and buying a bike for $60 at Target a couple weeks before the event and going around the block once or twice to make sure everything worked before race day.

This time, however, I am determined to do it right. I am actually going to train for it.

What does this have to do with you? Well, nothing, really. I just know that if I post it here, in the cold, hard, eternal record for posterity that is cyberspace, I won't back out or decide to go outlet-shopping that day.

And now for my semi-inspiring message: if I can do a triathlon without training for it, so can you. Give it a shot. If you're a chick, I highly recommend the Danskin Triathlon experience (sorry, no boys allowed), not because it's a very rah-rah-sister atmosphere full of positive energy (it is), not because you will feel like the king of world (or queen... or empress) when you cross the finish line (I did), but because they give you a ton of free stuff from sponsors.

Hey, we all have to find our motivation.

Say Cheese

For those of you who, like me, enjoy a bit of cheese now and then (as in a pound or two every day if only we could), here's a cheap thrill: Cheddar Vision.

Yes, you can watch it age right in front of your eyes... if you've got the time.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Let's Be Careful Out There

I meant to note this yesterday... each of us returning students received a lovely "welcome back" gift with Cookin' School's crest on it.

It was a pocket-sized first aid kit.

Actually, it's probably the most practical "welcome back" gift they could give us, but I still thought it was funny.

In other news, when I went to get measured for my new uniforms today, I discovered - oh happy day! - that they are finally letting the chicks get chef jackets made for chicks (smaller in the shoulder, fitted just a touch at the waist, smaller neck and small side slits to accomodate the movement of hips). Yay!

Monday, May 7, 2007

...And Then There Were 11

Okay, for those of you tired of my blogging about bad drivers and sensitive dogs, now that school has restarted, I promise I'll get back on track with the general focus of this blog, though I reserve the right to go off on a tangent and/or rant at any time.

I just finished day one of "reorientation," during which a lot of people talked to us for 15 minutes at a time about all that's changed while we were away (new dining hours! new parking lot rules! whoo hoo!) as well as to please remember to hand in our extern manuals on time and what to expect in the next six weeks as well as to please remember to hand in our extern manuals on time and oh, did I mention, hand in our extern manuals on time? The manuals aren't due till Thursday, but I had mine done and handed it in today in hopes of avoiding more anxious pleas to remember to hand it in on time.

My real classes don't start till Wednesday. Believe it or not, I have another day to get "reorientated," one of my favorite goofy words ever. Tomorrow is actually a useful day as we'll go from the Bursar (to ensure our bill is paid) to the Registrar (to confirm our class schedule) to, my favorite destination, Central Issue, where Brunhilde the Bitchy Uniform Queen will no doubt make some comment, like every time I've seen her, about how I could lose weight if I just did a couple laps around the parking lot during lunch.

Oh yeah, that's something to look forward to. Note to self: try not to hit her in the head with a hammer.

We'll get measured for new uniforms, including the snazzy (not) denim chef jackets we have to wear for the final three weeks before graduation, when we will be unleashed on the public as front of house staff for the school's bakery and cafe. We'll also pick up books, get new campus mailboxes and that sort of thing.

When my classes finally start, I'll be in the classroom, rather than the bakeshop, until mid-June. I'll be taking five classes: Nutrition, Costing Control, Restaurant Law, Menu Development and Introduction to Management. I'm looking forward to the first two (yay math!) as well as Menu Development. I think Restaurant Law could be interesting or deadly boring. The one class I'm dreading is Intro to Management, because if it's all role-playing and touchy-feely, I'm going to do poorly. I can imagine it now:

Q. An employee appears drunk on the job. What do you do?

Me: Fire him/her.

Q. An employee is late several days in a row and often bursts into tears on the job. What do you say to him/her?

Me: "You're fired."

Q. An employee comes to you and complains that another employee has made an ethnic/racial/religious/sexist/ageist/heightest/sizeist/political slur. What do you do?

Me: Call them into my office (the walk-in) and fire them both, unless I like one of them better.

Oh yeah, this is going to be a good class.

The biggest news of today was how few people returned. When we started, there were more than 100 of us crammed into the main amphitheater-style classroom. Today, we easily fit in a conference room in the Student Rec Center, with many empty chairs. (We were culinary and baking & pastry students mixed together).

Of the 21 people in my class when we left on externship in December, only 11 of us are back. At least four were held back from externship to repeat classes (ha!) and, in a touching story, one girl hated her externship and quit, then moved in with her boyfriend (also in our class) and started working where he was on extern and he elected to stay with her until she finished. Aww, how touching. Whatever. At least one girl definitely quit and went into front of house management, a blessing for us all since she actually set her pastry cream on fire... more than once. The rest are simply MIA.

Fortunately, and not surprisingly, almost all of the people who did come back are the people I liked the most, or at least minded the least, and are generally the most serious about this. Whew. We may get some more people in our class (sometimes people work longer at externship so a few people who were ahead of us may drop back to join our group), but we've all got our fingers crossed that our class stays nice and small at just 11 people (class sizes are supposed to be 16-18 max, so when we had 21, it was a headache for the chefs as well as for us).

Before leaving campus, I stopped by the Hospitality Office to check in with my tour guide boss. Wow, what a reception! Hugs and kisses and effusive praise all around. Apparently none of the current tour guides are quite as loud and bossy as I am and they're glad to have me back. Gotta keep those old ladies on the tours in line, ya know?

Which reminds me of something I meant to note ages ago. At orientation at the Vegas hotel, I was elected group leader, almost unanimously -- only I didn't vote for myself because, quite frankly, I didn't want the position. When I muttered to the woman next to me "Why me?" she replied "You have the face of someone in charge."

Oh. So. I guess that's a compliment? Or perhaps an admission of fear.

I guess having Chinghis Khan as a personal role model all those years finally paid off.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Return of Mr. Kittenheads

You may be wondering why I have not waxed poetic about the joyful reunion I had heading back east when I stopped at Dr. Virago's to pick up my dog Wiley. Dr. Virago and her s/o Bulloch had been minding Wiley while I was in Vegas and, while I missed him terribly, it seemed the feeling was not mutual.

As you can see from the above photo, taken in their living room, Wiley was more than happy there, enjoying himself tremendously and enjoying Bulloch's masterful cooking (see photo below) even more.

When I pulled up to their house, Wiley didn't even recognize me. Or maybe he just wasn't letting on. In any case, I know, he's 12 and he's a dog and whatever, but to be honest I was pretty hurt.

It was only on the last day of my stopover, when I started packing and getting ready to go, that he started following me everywhere. When we got home, he hopped out of the car, walked a perimeter of the apartment and then plopped down as if he'd never left.

He's come around to me in the past few days, though to be honest I'm not sure if he remembered me or if he decided I was a convenient biped whose cooking was acceptable. He definitely did remember the routes we drive to his favorite long walkies spots, and started barking his head off on the approach.

So, yeah, the dog I rescued from the mean streets of Moscow, for whom I hired a dog nanny when he was a puppy, the dog I brought back to the States at no small expense and fed and cared for and loved, and for whom I purchased "intellectually stimulating" toys and wake up early to ensure sufficient walkie times, yes, that dog seems to remember favorite trees more than me. Sigh.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

A Plummy Post, with a Hint of Bitterness

As you may have surmised from my chocolate rant, I am safely out of Vegas and back East, ready to start my second year at Cookin' School on Monday.
The Vegas car culture continues to haunt me, however. I can't get my insurance policy changed back to New York rates, which are half of Vegas rates (yes, that's right... I know, shocking considering how high Empire State rates are), until I get my car registered in New York.
Apparently, according to the helpful people at my insurance company, they have to change my policy the same day (the very moment, to hear them tell it) that I get my NY plates, or both states will fine me hundreds of dollars for trying to scam them by getting insurance rates based on the state I am living in.
What I find amusing, or what I would find amusing if it wasn't so vexing, is that Nevada and New York have some of the lousiest drivers this side of Moscow (though New York drivers are, in general, infinitely more skilled and apparently more conscious than the average Las Vegan behind the wheel... yes, that's right. I know, shocking considering how obnoxious Empire State drivers are).
One wonders what kind of place the world would be if both states put as much time and effort into driver education and, where prudent, driver termination with extreme prejudice, as they put into tracking down scofflaws who fail to change their policy at the same point in the time-space continuum they receive new plates.
The photo above, by the way, was something I snapped on the road. It just seemed appropos for this post.
Something not at all on the same topic, but delicious anyway, is the Silly Tasting Notes Generator. I highly recommend a visit, so you have something to say the next time you're at dinner or some other occasion surrounded by wine snobs who use terms like "crunchy" and "bevelled" to describe what they're drinking. (Yes, I have heard or read both terms.)
And if you're about to argue that using a term like "crunchy" or "bevelled" to describe wine does not in fact make one a snob, well, take a good long look in the mirror.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Save the Whales... No, Screw the Whales, Save the Chocolate

Ok, I am not even a big fan of chocolate and I am still appalled by an effort currently underway to velveetize the stuff.

What am I talking about? A bunch of cut-rate chocolate and candy makers, as well as lobbyists, have filed a "Citizen's Petition" with the FDA to be allowed to call products made without cocoa butter "chocolate." These products are already on shelves: they're the uber-nasty "chocolatey" or "chocolate-flavored" cheapo crap that make Ex-Lax taste like gourmet by comparison. The petitioners allege that consumers wouldn't care and wouldn't even notice if they were allowed to call these vegetable oil-laden monstrosities "chocolate." This is like saying no one notices that Velveeta is not quite cheese, or that strawberry Qwik is not exactly bursting with berries from nature's bounty. (For the record, I like Qwik, but would never consider it a fruit product.)

Nevermind that "chocolatey" products have a waxy, unpleasantly chewy mouthfeel. Cocoa butter is natural (and also expensive) while the cheaper hydrogenated oils and trans fats manufacturers want to be able to substitute and call the result "chocolate" are artificial and associated with a variety of health issues.

Fortunately, there is something we can all do. Until June 25, we can post public comments against this ridiculous petition. Of course, you could also post a comment in favor of the petition, but I'd hunt you down and force you to eat crap "mockolate" until you exploded.

The easiest way to get to the FDA's public comment page for the petition - and to get more information so you can make up your own mind, pro or con - is at CandyBlog's Don't Mess With Our Chocolate page.

You can read the actual language of the petition there, and then click on the "Don't Mess with our Chocolate" graphic to get to the FDA docket public comment page. Godspeed.