Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bookish Bloggers Book Club: The Girl on the Train.

I joined the Bookish Bloggers Book Club a few months ago, a group based on Goodreads. We are now on book three for this year. In February, we read Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty {check out the discussion post hosted by Confessions of an Evil Stepmother}. In March, we read Where'd You Go Bernadette, A Novel by Maria Sample {check out the discussion post hosted by Sugar Crumbs}.

I'm hosting the April selection - The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. This book is a psychological thriller that has been at the top of my list, as I keep hearing how great of a read it is.

{Image via Amazon.com} <--affiliate link

An introduction from Amazon {<--affiliate link}:

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

Compulsively readable, The Girl on the Train is an emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller and an electrifying debut.

I love to use my Kindle phone app on the L train on my way to and from work, so this sounds like the perfect read to make my travel time go by quickly. If you want to join in on this book club, I will post again during the last week of April with a discussion Q&A post.

Happy reading!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Speedy Treadmill Workout + Shamrock Shuffle Updates.

I woke up this morning to an inch or two of lake effect snow on the ground, temperatures in the 20s and reports of icy roads on WBEZ. Needless to say, the run I had planned on meeting a friend for did not happen. Thankfully I have a few treadmill workouts in my pocket for days like this. Even though it's almost April, icy sidewalks are still a threat sometimes. This is spring in the Midwest!

The Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle 8k is on Sunday so I hope Mother Nature shapes up over the next 48 hours. As an NBC Chicago Stride blog contributor, I had the exciting opportunity to interview an elite runner recently with the Nike Oregon Track Club, Alexi Pappas. She is a 2016 Olympic hopeful and is running the Shamrock Shuffle on Sunday. Alexi holds the #1 bib in the race. Check out my Q&A with Alexi on NBC Chicago Stride!

A few more quick Shamrock Shuffle updates:
  • Sign up for NBC Chicago's team (it's free!) NBC Chicago has several employees running the race. Two runners, Zoraida Sambolin and Kye Martin, are participating in the "Run for TODAY" competition. If they win, they will travel to New York to run another race and anchor from the Today Show plaza. Winners are determined by how many people they can get to join their team in a local race. If any of you are registered for the Shuffle, or know other people who are running, consider signing up! All you have to do is fill out this online form, nothing else is required. I'm on the team!
  • Take a running selfie to be featured on NBC Chicago. Are you planning to take a running selfie at the race on Sunday? If so, send it to NBC Chicago for their photo gallery. Check out the details here. Use the hashtag #ShamrockSelfie or email photos to isee@nbcchicago.com.
  • Log your race miles with Nike+. Nike is running a race promotion on Sunday with the chance to win an entry to the marathon! All runners who log the Shamrock Shuffle race using the Nike+ app, make their final mile the fastest, and share on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #shamrockshuffleFF have the chance to receive an automatic entry to the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Dark Chocolate {Black Bean} Brownie Bites.

On this chilly spring Monday, I have a new {healthier} dessert recipe to share that comes at a perfect time. Perfect because today is my birthday - what better way to celebrate than to share mini dark chocolate brownie bites with you?

These brownies have a secret healthy ingredient, because they contain an entire can of black beans. Pureed black beans work well as a flour and butter substitute - and I swear you can't taste the beans! I also included a few Tablespoons of coconut oil to add healthy fats to this dessert. Most 'regular' brownie recipes call for at least one cup of white sugar. I added only 1/3 cup of brown sugar by using cherries for natural sweetening. You can't taste the cherry flavor, but it adds extra moisture and sweetness to the brownies.

These brownies also include two new {to me} ingredients - Droste cocoa powder and Just Cashew Meal from Trader Joe's. Droste was founded in the late 1800's as a confectionary in Holland. I wanted to use a higher quality cocoa powder for this recipe, and I found Droste at my regular grocery store. However, any pure/raw cocoa powder will work! You can also use any type of nut meal for these brownies. The cashew meal I used helped the finished brownies bind together with a delicious nutty flavor.

I made this batch in a mini muffin tin to create small, bite-sized brownies. These brownies freeze well in a covered container - they are also delicious microwaved for just a few seconds and topped with almond butter!

Dark Chocolate {Black Bean} Brownie Bites

Makes 24 mini brownies.

15 oz. can black beans {rinsed and drained}
2 Tablespoons coconut oil
2 eggs
1 cup frozen dark cherries
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup cashew meal
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

How to~
*Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
*Rinse and drain the beans.
*Defrost the cherries for ~3 minutes in the microwave. Drain the excess liquid.
*Add beans and coconut oil to a food processor; process for ~20 seconds.  Add defrosted cherries. Process until blended.
*Add the pureed mixture to a stand mixer. Mix in the eggs, brown sugar, cocoa powder, almond extract, baking powder and salt. 
*Use a medium cookie scoop to add brownie batter to a well-greased mini muffin tin.
*Bake for ~22 minutes. 

{Adapted from recipes by Taste of Home and Minimalist Baker}

Affiliate link:

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Shamrock Shuffle Training Check-in.

The Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle 8k is coming up in 10 short days {Sunday, March 29} so I thought it would be a great time to do a training check-in. The Shuffle is one of my favorite races of the year. I always run with friends which makes it even more fun. Registration is still open, and you can find my 4 week training plan here.

To prepare for the race, I met a friend for Nike Chicago's St Patrick's Day run last Saturday morning to squeeze in a long run while checking out the green river downtown. The streets were packed with people waiting for the annual parade {and drinking green beer at every establishment calling itself Irish for the day}. Chicago celebrates St. Patrick's Day the Saturday before the big day, and this was the first time I had been downtown in years to check out the green river in person. It did not disappoint. I mentioned the green river last year on St Patrick's Day, but you can find more details on this annual tradition in Chicago Magazine - Why Does Chicago Dye the River Green for St. Patrick's Day?

We finished just over 6 miles on Saturday, my longest run so far in training for the 8k race. Nike hosted a party afterwards at the Michigan Avenue store. This St. Patrick's Day training run is part of the Nike+ Run Club. Group runs are held on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings, starting from either store location in Chicago.

Nike sells official Shamrock Shuffle product in Chicago for the race, including men's and women's shirts and jackets, in performance and sports wear. Gear is available at the Bucktown and Michigan Avenue Nike store locations. Nike gifted me a few of the Shamrock Shuffle shirts to try, and I am living in the gray hoodie pictured below. The colors also complement existing pants and shoes - I love this shade of green!

For running, here is what the last few weeks have involved:

Week 1
Sunday 3/1: Ran the Hot Chocolate Seattle 5k; hiked 8.2 miles
Thursday 3/5: Ran 4 miles {treadmill}
Saturday 3/7: Ran 3.3 miles

Week 2
Monday 3/9: Dance Cardio workout class {1 hour}
Wednesday 3/11: Ran 3.5 miles
Thursday 3/12: Ran 4.2 miles
Friday 3/13: Ran 3.1 miles
Saturday 3/14: Ran 6.2 miles

Week 3
Sunday 3/15: Active rest - walked 3 miles
Monday 3/16: Ran 3 miles
Tuesday 3/17: Ran 5 miles
Wednesday 3/18: Power Sculpt Yoga {1 hour}

I'm thrilled that only one run this month has been on the treadmill. I'm planning to finish two more runs this week and three or four next week prior to the race.

For more training motivation, check out the Nike+ Training Program. Hope to see you out there runners!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Healthy Fruit Salad with Vanilla Mint Dressing.

Can you believe tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day? This month seems to have flown by, but I'll take it with the official start to spring just a few short days away. I'm sharing a naturally sweet and easy fruit salad recipe today that would be perfect for any party or holiday this spring {Easter and Mother's Day are coming up soon}!

I made this salad a few weeks ago for a brunch gathering, after I was asked to bring a fruit dish to share. I tried thinking of something different to do with fruit, but every fruit salad recipe I found perusing food blogs called for adding a lot of extra sugar - some recipes included as much as 1-2 cups. With fruit as colorful and sweet as this, why add extra sugar to the mix?

Instead, this version of fruit salad includes a few of my favorite things:

Fresh strawberries, blackberries, and green grapes.



And lime.

To be honest, I came up with this recipe while staring at the fruit and herb options at Trader Joe's, looking for inspiration. I knew vanilla and mint sounded great together, and it turns out lime juice is a perfect binder to create a "dressing" without added sugar or oil. This combination of flavors goes together incredibly well.

Healthy Fruit Salad with Vanilla Mint Dressing
Serves a crowd.

1 carton strawberries
1 carton green grapes
1 carton blackberries
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 mint leaves + 3 for garnish

How to~
*Wash and slice fruit. {I quartered the strawberries, halved the grapes, and left the blackberries whole.}
*Make dressing by whisking lime juice and vanilla extract. Julienne {tutorial here} or chop the mint leaves and stir into the dressing.
*Pour dressing over fruit and stir until evenly combined. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Chocolate Coconut Oatmeal.

Happy Friday! We will experience a glorious 63 degrees in the city today. I feel like I should be at the beach. If that's not a reason to have chocolate for breakfast, I don't know what is. This morning's recipe doesn't involve your usual chocolate fix {for me that's any form of chocolate from Trader Joe's}. Instead, I added chocolate protein powder to kick up a regular bowl of old-fashioned oats, cooked on the stove. Chocolate and oats combine with unsweetened coconut flakes stirred in while the oats cook, and as a topping.

This is an easy, deliciously sweet but still healthy breakfast. This bowl of oats also includes healthy fats from the addition of coconut oil stirred in at the at the end. I found unsweetened coconut flakes a few months ago at Whole Foods {also available on Amazon <--affiliate link}. I really like the slight crunch and flavor! I also used them in my Chocolate Strawberry Coconut Energy Bites back in February.

Did I mention it tastes like an Almond Joy?

Chocolate Coconut Oatmeal
Serves 2.

1 and 3/4 cups unsweetened almond milk
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1/2 scoop chocolate protein powder {I used whey}
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes + 2 Tablespoons
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon coconut oil

How to~
*Bring almond milk to a boil. Stir in oats and protein powder. Turn the heat down to medium-low.
*Add brown sugar and 1/2 cup coconut flakes. Stir occasionally and let the oatmeal simmer for ~5 minutes.
*Take the pan off the heat and let the oatmeal sit for ~2 minutes to thicken. Stir in coconut oil.
*Top with coconut flakes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Seattle Recap - Dungeness Crab and Vietnamese Spring Rolls.

{I received travel accommodations to Seattle and race registration for two as a member of the Hot Chocolate Blog Ambassador Program. All opinions are my own.}  

The number one thing I wanted to do in Seattle {Part 1 here} was be outdoors. It was a freezing zero degrees back in Chicago that weekend, and a balmy 50+ degrees out west. Finding outdoor activities is easy in Seattle, with access to mountains and the ocean. On Saturday morning, our friends took us out on a short sail with Jack, their friend who retired to live on his sailboat "Annie" five years ago. A beautiful clear {but windy} day, this was my first time on a legitimate sailboat. My photo attempts out on the water ended up lopsided  due to sailing at an angle {I'm sure there's a proper sailing term}, but the view from the harbor cannot be missed.

Sunday took us in another direction, driving northeast into the hills. After the Hot Chocolate race, we headed straight to the mountains to hike the Lake Serene Trail with an extra loop to see Bridal Veil Falls. It was a beautiful day for a hike, in the mid 40s and sunny in the Cascade Mountain Range. The hike to Lake Serene includes an elevation climb of 2,500 feet. The trail is just over 7 miles up and back, but adding on the loop to Bridal Veil Falls made the hike 8.2 miles for the day. The Lake Serene Trailhead is just over an hour's drive from Seattle.

As you as probably aware, there are zero hills in Chicago. Finishing the hills on this hike made me realize I really need to work on my leg strength! My calves were incredibly tight for 3-4 days afterwards, and I spent a lot of time hobbling up/down stairs. Noted, body. Time to shake things up in the leg department. Despite the soreness afterwards, I loved this hike. The photo below shows our stop to eat snacks on rocks overlooking Lake Serene. The reflection of the mountains and sky in the water were beautiful.

After such an active weekend, we decided to stay in on Sunday night. We visited a local Vietnamese market to pick up crab and a few ingredients for spring rolls. I asked Jenny to teach me her techniques for two Vietnamese-style recipes, Dungeness Crab and Vietnamese Spring Rolls. Most recipes I have seen call for eating crab with melted butter. Jenny's preference is to use a squeeze of lime and a generous serving of black pepper. This is a much healthier way to accompany crab, and it is delicious. You can't go wrong with lime juice.

I have eaten crab plenty of times, but I have never prepared it at home. I learned so much about cooking local crab from this experience! First, crab must be fresh {aka live} if you're preparing at home. Keep fresh crabs chilled or on ice until ready to cook. Only male Dungeness Crabs can be fished; females must be returned to the water. Jenny prefers to freeze crab for at least 20 minutes prior to cooking. There are two methods to clean/cook crabs - 1) cook the crab and then clean it; or 2) clean the crab and then cook it. Jenny's preference is number 2, to clean the crab following by cooking it. Find details on both methods from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. You can also save cooking time by breaking the crab legs apart prior to boiling.

Dungeness Crab
Serves 4.

3 Dungeness Crabs
7 quarts water {in an 8 quart stockpot}
1/4 cup salt
2 limes and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

How to~
*Bring water to a boil and add 1/4 cup salt. Adding salt allows the crab to maintain its flavor.
*After cleaning, boil crab for ~7 to 8 minutes per pound. We broke the crab legs apart to reduce the cooking time, approximately 25 minutes.
*Prepare the dipping sauce - squeeze half a lime and 1/8 teaspoon of black pepper in four serving bowls.

While the crab was on to boil, we put together Vietnamese Spring Rolls, with shrimp, rice noodles, and leafy herbs. You can add anything to spring rolls {as long as it fits in your rice paper}, but shrimp is my favorite ingredient.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls
Serves 4.

Rice paper {8 papers}
1 head romaine or butter lettuce
Thai mint {1 bunch}
Thai basil {1 bunch}
1 cucumber
1/2 package {5 ounces} rice noodles
1 pound shrimp
2 cloves garlic
2 Tablespoons white wine
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 cup hoisin sauce
4 Tablespoons crushed peanuts
3 cups warm water

How to~
*Boil rice noodles for ~3 minutes. Rinse noodles in cold water until the water runs clear.
*Spread noodles out on a towel to let them dry.
*Saute garlic in sesame oil for ~2 minutes on medium. Add shrimp, white wine, honey, and black pepper. Saute shrimp for ~2 minutes on each side.
*To prepare a spring roll, moisten the rice paper in warm water. Remove and let it sit for 1 minute. Add lettuce herbs, noodles, cucumber, and shrimp. Roll tightly, tucking the rice paper under until the spring roll is complete.
*For dipping sauce, split hoisin sauce between four bowls and add 1 Tablespoon crushed peanuts to each bowl.

We also snacked on homemade egg rolls - a perfect meal to end an active vacation day.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Seattle Recap - Running + Hot Chocolate 5k.

{I received travel accommodations to Seattle and race registration for two as a member of the Hot Chocolate Blog Ambassador Program. All opinions are my own.} 

I've said this before, and I'll say it again - one of the best ways to explore a new place is on foot. I always look forward to running and wandering neighborhoods and outdoor spaces whenever I have the opportunity to travel {see active recaps in Florida, Door County, and Europe}! K and I returned from a long weekend to Seattle on Monday night. I have so much to share from this trip as we packed in many outdoor activities with friends while visiting. Spring is blooming in Seattle!

We finished a 4+ mile run/hike on Friday morning with our friend Jenny in Discovery Park. At over 500 acres, it's the largest city park in Seattle, located on Magnolia Bluff. It's a beautiful wooded area with two miles of tidal beach and a bluff overlooking the Puget Sound. On a clear day, you can see both the Cascade and Olympic Mountain Ranges. Even though it was overcast and mildly raining, it felt wonderful to run outdoors in temperatures above 40 degrees. Forty is many degrees warmer than the past month in Chicago. We stopped by Volunteer Park Cafe for lunch after the run {highly recommend - don't miss an almond milk latte + chocolate cherry oatmeal cookie} and wandered around Volunteer Park afterwards.

The second run of the weekend was bright and early on Sunday morning with the Seattle Hot Chocolate 5k. The race was very well organized, with separate start times for the 5k and 15k. Runners were placed in corrals with ~3 minutes between each racing group. Our Seattle friends dropped us off around the corner only ten minutes before the race and we were able to get right into our corral {D} with plenty of time to spare.

The Hot Chocolate race has numerous locations around the U.S. I ran the Chicago Hot Chocolate 15k race back in November {race recap here}. The Seattle 5k course had a few gradual hills and one steeper hill at the end, winding through downtown and the Pike Place Market area. I opted to run the 5k instead of the 15k to save my legs for exploring on our last full day of the trip, which ended up being a very good idea. We headed out for a mountain hike immediately after the run. Fueled by post-race chocolate, of course!

Seattle Recap Part 2, coming soon.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Healthy Mint Breakfast "Milkshake."

To celebrate the new month of March {my birthday month!} and the upcoming Irish holiday in a few weeks, I have a healthy new green breakfast "milkshake" to share. Yes, green for shamrock. Can you guess what this recipe is a a copycat of? The Shamrock Shake from McDonald's, of course.

The last time I had a Shamrock Shake was back in college. I remember driving around town with a friend one night in late March when an ice cream craving hit to find a McDonald's still serving the green treat. We eventually found one, but the shake wasn't as good as I remembered - it wasn't minty and had a weird soupy texture - and I haven't had another one since.

This "milkshake" version is healthy enough for breakfast but sweet enough for dessert if that's your preference. The sweetness comes naturally from Medjool dates. Vanilla flavor is incorporated by using vanilla almond milk {I used unsweetened} and vanilla extract. 

I added real mint leaves to give this smoothie the signature minty flavor, but you could also use peppermint extract for a little bit of extra kick. Fresh mint leaves promote digestion and contain powerful antioxidants. The mighty leaves also contain small amounts of other health benefits, including iron, Vitamin A, potassium, and fiber {source}.

Healthy Mint Breakfast "Milkshake"
Serves two.

2 frozen bananas {sliced}
3+ cups raw spinach
10 mint leaves
2 Medjool dates {pitted}
1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 cups vanilla unsweetened almond milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Blend and enjoy!