Monday, August 15, 2016

Adventures in Running: Ragnar Trail Appalachians-WV

Photo courtesy of Mary Beth
About 48 hours ago I thought "never again." Now I'm not so sure...

This is a long post. And it's not about food. It's about a crazy, scary, amazing adventure.

Team My Running Girlfriends with our finisher medals
Several months ago, my friend Clythie convinced me to sign up for the Ragnar Trail Appalachians-WV Relay Race. It would be her, her husband, her running partner, and several members of our online running group. It sounded like a great fun idea at the time, so I signed up. (What is it? The Ragnar Trail Relay race consists of 4-8 people running 24 loops over 24 hours. This race had three loops: the green "easy" loop of 3.5 miles, the yellow medium-hard loop of 4.6 miles, and the hard red loop of 6.5 miles, for a total of 14.6 miles per person for a regular eight-person team.)

Then I started training for it, about 14 weeks ago. And Clythie, her husband, and her running partner dropped out, because she got the opportunity to move to California. So now I was going to camp and run a relay race with seven other women, one of whom I had worked with many years ago, one of whom I had met for a beer after the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler in DC, and six of whom I had never met at all (although we belonged to the same online running group). I think somewhere around week 8 or 9 of training, I came very close to dropping out because the whole thing just seemed too scary, too difficult, too crazy to do--and probably less because of the running and more because I'm socially awkward. But I felt we had already lost team members by then, and I couldn't place that burden on them, so I hung in there and decided to do this thing.

The week of the race rolled around. A few days before the race was supposed to start, one of our team members had to drop out because of a family emergency. Three of our team mates volunteered to take over one each of her legs, so even if we couldn't find a replacement, we would be able to cover our loops. Then the day before we were supposed to head to West Virginia, our team captain, Kristi, reported that she was ill. Now I was definitely worried and felt I had to be prepared to step up for an extra loop in case she wasn't well enough to run.

The day before the race, Mike and Sebastian drove me to West Virginia (the other team member from my area wasn't driving up until Friday morning, but I was starting us off at 10 a.m. and didn't feel comfortable driving up that early). Unfortunately, I was foolish enough to trust the directions on my phone, so the last few miles before we got to the campsite we were driving on a really rough gravel back road with huge craters. We don't have an SUV. We survived the road (although it was very tense) and finally made it to the camp site. Mike looked around to make sure everything seemed OK, unloaded my stuff, said hello to the team mates who had arrived, and headed back to Northern Virginia.

So now here I was with a bunch of people I barely knew (or didn't know at all), feeling awkward and extremely tense about the race and from coming off the road. Another team mate, Becky, who was en route, had car trouble along the way and was thinking about bailing out. That problem was eventually solved, but I was definitely feeling like a malevolent force in the universe was stacking the deck against us. I proceeded to drink a couple of beers, try unsuccessfully to be helpful about setting things up, and aimlessly move crates and sleeping bags hither and thither. Eventually I shacked up for the night with Mary Beth.

Spectacular sunset our first night
Me (left) and Mary Beth (right)
I think I got about five hours of pretty uncomfortable sleep that night, sleeping more or less directly on the ground. I was the first to get up, at around 5, because I had to go to the bathroom and was starting to feel antsy and excited about the race. I made some coffee on my camp stove and watched the morning sky grow brighter. Meanwhile, behind me the clouds were moving in, and I saw some people pointing at the sky behind me. I turned to see this:

It's a beautiful morning for Ragnar?
Everyone was awake by now, and our last two team mates were on their way. Sometime between six and seven the storm hit. Intense driving rain washed away tents and formed rivers in roads and ruts. When we had to go and watch the safety video, we were soaked to the bone in seconds, and the rain was hard and stung the skin. Still, after the initial shock of soaking through, I started enjoying how insane all this really was.

Waiting to watch the safety video
What road?
In fact, I was almost disappointed that the rain stopped by the time I was supposed to head out on the first run of our 24-hour odyssey (I was runner #1). I went out on the green loop (3.5 mile "easy" run) carrying the team mascot Tatania had found, the Naughty Ninja or NN, at 10 a.m., and we were on our way.

And I'm off!
I quickly found myself in a fairy forest full of deep green moss, thigh-high ferns, and mushrooms. The trail itself was rocky and wet, and I worried that my shoes wouldn't be grippy enough, but they held up OK. Also, my phone was giving me trouble, so I was worried I wouldn't be able to complete my first mission, which was to get a photo of NN, but I finally got my first pic of him:

Naughty Ninja on green loop #1
The first run ended up being surprisingly hard. Not too much in terms of hills, but the run was very technical. It was discouraging that it felt so hard after all the training I had put in, and I worried about how the yellow and red loops were going to feel if this was the "easy" run. The heat had already started to rise again after the rain storm (it reached a heat index over 100), and I soaked my clothes for the second (but not last) time that day. 

Near the end of the run, the three loops converged and traveled through part of the Ragnar camp site. Here runners yelled encouragement and rattled noisemakers, which was incredibly encouraging. I ran past Kevin, an unsettling clown-ghost-zombie thing hung in a tree near the transition area and reached the bridge across the road, which I would come to hate. The bridge was a narrow girder bridge that rose high above the road, with a steep incline and decline on either side and little protection on the sides. Two guys who were chasing each other passed me on the bridge, forcing me to the edge, where I stared through giant gaps, strongly activating my fear of heights. On the other side, the steep decline made my thighs scream. All in all, my first run was pretty terrible and made me terribly nervous about the next loops, which would be the hard and medium loops. But I made it back, transferred the belt, the bib, and the ninja to Kristen, the next runner on deck. 

Kevin, photo courtesy of Ragnar Trail Relays
The dreaded bridge, photo courtesy of Tatania (in foreground)
The rest of the day passed in a heat-soaked daydream. Mary Beth made me a sandwich. Runners came and went. I stretched, I tried to nap (but couldn't). One of our strongest runners, Tatania, injured her back badly while out on her red loop, throwing yet another kink into the wheel. As the day passed, I realized that my night run would be the red loop, and that I would probably run the yellow after dawn. So, late in the afternoon, I started to prepare for my red loop, eating, estimating my time, getting my gear (including head lamp) ready. Greg, Kristi's husband, our volunteer, our amazingly helpful and thoughtful sherpa, and eventually our honorary running girlfriend, gave me GUs and instructions on when to take them. I also prepared mentally for a much longer loop than was billed, because many who came back had measured distances of 7.5 and even 8 miles (rather than 6.5) and decided not to worry about speed but to focus on staying safe, even if that meant having to walk long stretches of the loop. I headed out sometime after 7 in the evening, taking over the belt and the ninja from Kristen (another hero of our troop who ran at least one extra loop).

Kristen, badass runner
Maybe it was the mental preparation, maybe I just made it much worse in my mind, but the red loop ended up being my best loop. Long stretches were relatively smooth downhill, so I was able to maintain a nice running rhythm in some areas. Under some spectacular outcroppings of rocks, the trail became a wonderful, ridiculous soup of big rocks and mud, requiring you to climb, scramble, and scoot down on your butt (basically the fun stuff). The light in the woods as the sun was setting was a glorious golden honey, and at one point I stopped and looked up to see a young deer close by. We stared at each other for several moments, and it wandered off and I continued on my way.

My deer friend
Naughty Ninja, red loop
Under the rock outcropping, shortly before dark
I got to the first water station (about mile 2.6), feeling pretty good. I had taken the first of the GUs Greg gave me, and it worked well. Between the first and second water station, it got dark and I hit the two-mile hill. Because of the hill and that my head lamp had much weaker light than I had noticed during a training run in suburban Virginia, I walked nearly all of the hill. I took my second GU, which kept me going, but that stretch got very hard. The trail markers in spots were few and far between, so I got nervous that I had wandered off the trail a few times. Just beyond the pool of light, I could hear crickets and cicadas, and sometimes I wondered if I heard something much larger. I decided to ignore that, assuming that all these people had scared away the bears, and if they hadn't, well, there wasn't much I could do about it. I had to keep telling myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other and eventually I would get there.

Lots of people passed me on the trail. Many were encouraging, several checked in with me to make sure I was safe and healthy (runners are generally such a generous, caring bunch). One woman fell on the path just ahead of me, but assured me she was OK and then got up and kept running. Finally, I got to the one-mile mark, to the quarter-mile mark, and I was running through the camp (someone joked about how fast I was going, which was not fast). A light flared in my eyes, and I almost tripped on a rock. Suddenly a pair of red glowing eyes leered out of the darkness. I nearly screamed. I realized it was Kevin and laughed. Then I was climbing the hated bridge and passing through tiki torches to the other side. I passed the bib and the ninja to Kristen, and Amanda and Kristi met me with plates of food from the complimentary dinner. The salad was miraculously delicious.

Photo courtesy of Kristen
Photo courtesy of Tatania
I intended to drink a few beers that night, but I was just too tired. Instead, I slept a few hours. In the meantime, My Running Girlfriends were running through the night.

Amanda, badass Running Girlfriend
Tatania and Mary Beth, badass Running Girlfriends
A rocky section of the red loop
The village at night
I woke up about 3:50 in the morning. I told myself I had some more time to sleep and to go back to sleep. At 4:20 I gave up and got up because I had to hike to the bathroom. On the way back, I got a big cup of coffee and watched the Perseids falling for nearly an hour. I saw several dozen fall. Despite her injury, Tatania headed out for her run, which was just before mine. I had a biscuit, but didn't think I had enough time to eat much more before I was up for my yellow loop. At the last minute, I grabbed a GU, and I headed to the village to wait for Tania to come in. I waited by the bonfire for a long time, watching the monitors that told us when runners passed the half-mile mark.

The bonfire in the village, about 5:30 a.m.
Because of her injury, it took longer than expected to finish the green run, so I started at least an hour later than I had anticipated. About a mile into my yellow loop, I felt hungry. I took my GU, which sustained me for a couple more spectacular miles through a planted pine forest that felt like a cathedral and along a ridge with a view over a forested valley.

Photo courtesy of Kristi
Photo courtesy of Kristi
About three miles into that last loop, I began to struggle. I forced myself to keep going. I reeled and stumbled. I got giddy. I stepped on a rock wrong and almost fell, which woke me up for a few minutes. I reached the place where the yellow and red trails converged and thought "it can't be far now," but it seemed so much farther in the daylight. A few runners passed too close, and I almost snapped. Then I got to the one-mile mark, and I nearly cried because I still had so far to go (that last mile is always so long). I got to the quarter-mile marker, and I was determined to run, so I ran. Not fast. But I ran. Then I was climbing the ramp of that godawful bridge, I was going down the other side, and I put everything I had left into accelerating the last few feet into the transition area and handed off to Kristen. Amanda was waiting for me and smiling and congratulating me, and I burst into tears. For several minutes, I cried uncontrollably; it was a crazy mish-mash of joy, relief, pain, hunger, exhaustion, and a dam-burst of arrested fears. (Poor Amanda, she was so kind to me.) I went back to camp in a daze and spaced out for a long time. Eventually I was able to take a shower, and I realized I had sunburn, blistered toes, and chafing injuries on my arms and legs. The bottoms of my feet burned and felt like they had been beaten with sticks.

The Naughty Ninja, yellow and last loop (of mine)
But my excitement grew through the day, as runner after runner completed their loops, and we approached our goal. The last two runners to go out were Greg and Becky. We waited for them just before the dreaded bridge so that we could all run in together as a team (except Tania, who was too hurt to run over the bridge). And then we were going over the bridge, and somehow I didn't hate it anymore.

Greg and Becky head out on the last loop 
Team My Running Girlfriends on the bridge (photo courtesy of Tatania)
Finishing team photo with our giant medals
Team photo showing off our fake tattoos
Winner of the best Naughty Ninja photo (courtesy of Becky)
Naughty Ninja and our incredible metal medal
Greg entering the transition area
Evening sets in
Kristi (fabulous team captain) and her great sport of a husband, Greg
After my last loop, I was sure I would never want to do this again. It was awkward, scary, painful, uncomfortable, sometimes boring, and grueling. But it was also fun, hilarious, majestic, amazing, and life changing. So maybe I will. But first I have to let my feet rest a bit.

Some final thoughts:

  • I am really proud of myself for finishing this race at 45 years old and at least 30 pounds overweight. It was incredibly hard, but it felt like a real achievement. 
  • I am proud and amazed by my wonderful team mates, including our honorary Running Girlfriend, Greg, who stepped in without really having trained so that we could finish without killing ourselves and helped us all so much. 
  • I want to thank and mention everyone on our team individually:
    • Kristi, thanks for organizing and coordinating everything and keeping us going. Thanks for sticking it out even though you felt awful for much of it. Thanks for sharing Greg for a few days, he was an incredibly good sport and so helpful. 
    • Tatania, thanks for the ride home. You amaze me with your toughness. I hope you heal quickly and completely. 
    • Kristen, you are so incredibly energetic and fun. I wish I had seen more of your dancing. Thanks for taking an extra leg.
    • Becky, thanks for the yoga and stretching and being such a bright spark of light. 
    • Amanda, thanks for letting me bawl all over you when I finished and for having such a wonderful smile. It brightened everything at a couple of times when I felt pretty low. 
    • Mary Beth, thanks for the beer, for being our "mom," for making sandwiches, and making us laugh.
    • Greg, thanks for putting up tents and carrying stuff, helping us take care of our nutrition, and jumping in to run.
    • Thank you Clythie, for starting My Running Girlfriends, and for convincing me to do crazy-ass stuff I would probably never do otherwise. I am going to miss you.     
    • And I almost forgot, but thank you Mike and Sebastian for supporting my running and allowing me to go off to West Virginia and do something insane. I love you both. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sweet potato shepherd's pie

All right, I guess I'm just going to break a bunch of the "rules" of blogging and just sally forth in any way I can. I won't be predictable. I won't always include a nice photo of the dish (as will be the case with this shepherd's pie because we simply ate it too fast). And I won't do any of these things out of some sort of rebellion against the establishment or whatever, but simply because I'm at times unmotivated, tired, too busy, and just plain lazy.

That said, I've improvised several meals lately that I'm so happy with I simply must write down the recipes so that I remember how. This sweet potato shepherd's pie is one of those. In fact, I just ate the tiny bit of leftover pie for lunch, and I wish I had some more, but it will simply have to wait (because right now I am braising some pork with apples and we will see how that turns out). 

One of the nice things about this and another recent delightful meal (that I hope to post about soon) is that it's all made in my beloved cast-iron skillet. I make the meat filling in the skillet first, then spread the mashed sweet potatoes over the top, and pop it all in the oven. You could make it in a separate baking dish, but why? Why would you do that when it comes out of the oven all nice and rustic and in a heavy pan and great? 


  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced (see photos for how to dice onions)
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped finely 
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 16 oz. can diced tomatoes (I like Muir Glen organic)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp beef bullion
  • thyme
  • Generous splash of red wine (optional, but delicious)
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • 4-5 medium sweet potatoes, cut into pieces (whatever will get you to about 4 heaping cups of sweet potato cubes) 
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1/4 cup half and half (or cream)
  • salt and pepper
  • Panko bread crumbs (optional)
  • Grated Parmegiano Reggiano (optional)
Tora's real food
 Tora's real food
 Tora's real food
 Tora's real food
 Tora's real food


  1. Start by peeling the sweet potatoes and cutting them into roughly 2-in. cubes (the size isn't all that important; it will just speed cooking). Add them to salted water and bring to a boil. When they are soft (depending on the size of your pieces, between 15-20 minutes), take them off the heat and set them aside for the time being. 
  2. In the meantime, turn the oven on 425 degrees (F). In your skillet, heat the olive oil until it shimmers. Add your chopped onions and carrots. Let them cook at low heat for about 5-10 minutes. 
  3. Turn up the heat to medium-high and add the ground beef, breaking it up with a wooden spoon or some such utensil. Cook it until it is no longer pink anywhere.
  4. Add the tomatoes, a cup of water, big splash of red wine, bullion, brown sugar, and thyme to the pan. Stir everything together and turn up the heat. Keep cooking and stirring the meat mixture at high heat until about half the liquid evaporates. Taste the mixture, add a small amount of salt and some pepper, and then let it keep cooking (careful not to add a lot of salt at this point because more of the liquid will evaporate). Let the liquid in the pan continue to evaporate. The meat mixture is done when it is loose but not watery. Taste the mixture and add as much salt and pepper as you want/need. (And of course, feel free to add herbs or hot sauce if you like that kind of thing.)
  5. Flatten the meat mixture in the pan with the back of your spoon or a spatula or some such. Set it aside. 
  6. For the mashed sweet potatoes, drain the cooking water, and either put them through a ricer (recommended) or mash them with the back of a spoon. Add butter, half and half, a generous pinch of salt, and a little pepper. Taste the sweet potatoes and adjust the seasonings as you like. 
  7. Next, spoon mashed sweet potatoes over top of the meat, spreading them around somewhat evenly. When you've got all the mashed potatoes on there, use the back of a spoon (the back of a spoon is such a useful kitchen tool, don't you think?) to cover the meat completely. Then, if you like, add some handfuls of panko bread crumbs and grate some cheese over the top and slide it all into a hot oven for about 20-30 minutes until the top is slightly browned and the edges bubble. Then eat it. You'll enjoy it. And the sweet potatoes are supposed to be good for you. Maybe add a green salad if you are feeling ambitious.  

Friday, May 29, 2015

Chicken with mustard cream

Tora's real food

Best laid plans and whatnot.

I had every intention to post much more than I have so far this year. But I haven't. Sometime in March (I think, my memory of the past several months has hazed over), I suddenly came down with a massive amount of work. Which is generally good for a freelance editor/writer, but it did become a bit overwhelming when I genuinely lost track of the last time I had had a weekend off or didn't work until 11 at night (or all night in a couple of cases). I missed most of spring, although I tried very hard to pay attention to it while driving to pick up my guys from school and work. But generally I was stressed and overwhelmed. After the biggest projects had been completed, I naturally got sick.

But things have settled down a bit, and I've had some time to reflect on the last few months and recognize that I must change my life (to paraphrase Rilke). Writing, creating, reading, learning--these are the things that mean the most to me (other than family and friends, of course, but they come automatically first; perhaps too much so, I don't consciously recognize their importance as often as I ought to). That includes this blog, this thing that I started (and stopped and tripped over and left lying in a corner and then moved into the spare room and forgot about). So here's a little dish that I have cooked many times over the last few months because it's good (note the plate that has been licked clean below), it's quick, and when you're frustrated, it can be good therapy because of the pounding (see step 2).



  • 1 lb (ish) chicken breast halves
  • salt, lemon pepper blend
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup chicken stock or broth
  • 1-2 tsp Dijon mustard (to taste)
  • 1-2 tsp maple syrup (to taste)
  • 1 cup half and half
  • parsley (fresh if you've got it, but dried will be fine)


  1. Place a large frying pan on the stove and turn it to medium-high heat to let it heat up. 
  2. Blot the chicken breast halves with paper towels. Then place them between two sheets of wax paper. Pound them thin with the implement of your choosing. (My rolling pin is perfect for this job; you can also use a frying pan, or an actual meat tenderizing device that looks a lot like a hammer. This activity always draws lots of attention from the family, who wonder why I am making so much noise, am I angry, what did the chicken ever do to me, etc. In any case, it can be somewhat cathartic.)
  3. Remove the top sheet of wax paper and sprinkle both sides of the chicken breasts liberally with salt and lemon pepper. I've been using Sunny Spain Seasoning from Penzey's Spices, which is pretty fantastic.
  4. While you are hammering away, you've allowed your pan to heat up (right?), now add about 2 Tbsp olive oil to the pan and let it heat up until it shimmers. It should only take a minute or two. 
  5. Place your chicken breast halves in the pan and allow them to cook for about 4 minutes per side.
  6. When the chicken is cooked through, remove it from the pan and allow it to rest on a plate that is tented with aluminum foil. (Tented: Means kind of covered with the foil, but bunched up so that the foil doesn't touch the chicken.)
  7. Add stock, mustard, and maple syrup to the pan. Using a whisk, scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, whisk, and allow the liquid in the pan to reduce to about half. Then add the half and half and season with more lemon pepper, salt (if needed), and parsley. Don't forget to taste it! 
  8. Serve the chicken with the mustard cream and ideally with a blend of roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes that have slightly caramelized, but it's good with just about anything that will soak up the sauce (see figure of plate licked clean).

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Procrastination pie: A lesson in avoiding the really hard work

Little Bird. My most recently completed painting, from September 2014.
I got angry at my son yesterday.

He was supposed to be practicing piano, but he was crying and upset because the piece was difficult. This was not the first time he has experienced this level of frustration with working through something hard. We've tried to coach him through the difficulty, explaining that when something is hard, you just have to work harder. Hardness is not a reflection on intelligence or value; it simply means that something is difficult and requires more work.

I tried going that route first. I told him to take a deep breath and try to slowly work through the lines note by note. Calmly, persistently. He responded with more frustration and tears. I tried again. And then I'm ashamed to say I totally lost it. I yelled. I told him he needed to pull himself together and get over being so emotional about struggling. It went on from there. It wasn't pretty, and I didn't feel good about it afterward.

Thinking about the incident while doing dishes later, I recognized my hypocrisy. I had spent much of an unexpected snow day avoiding my own hard things. Instead of painting or writing or even working on a project for a client, I cooked and cleaned and ran 4 miles and folded laundry, frittering away precious time on easy things. Not easy in terms of the amount of work required, I was exhausted when the day was over, but easy in terms of emotional, mental, and creative effort. Like my son, I constantly struggle with and get anxious about doing certain kinds of work; the difference is that I am a lot better at hiding it from myself and others by doing prodigious amounts of other stuff.

I try to tell myself that being creative is not supposed to be that hard, that I shouldn't get frustrated, that I should take a breath and slowly and persistently push through the difficulty, and perhaps that I should even relax and enjoy it, but the truth is every time I start putting paint to canvas or trying to write a story is a moment of stress, anxiety, and fear. And even when it goes well (which is actually pretty frequent), the terror returns and remains because the next addition of color, the next creative choice could screw it all to hell. I tell myself I shouldn't care. It should be about the process, not the product, but at heart I don't believe that. I tell myself that if I really loved to paint as much as I think I do, it should be easy to get up and do it. But it's not. Just because you love something doesn't make it easy. So painting starts sit for months and sometimes years before I finish them because mustering the courage to push them through the next step is so hard and requires so much emotional energy. (For example, I started Little Bird, the painting at the beginning of this post, five or six years ago and only finally got around to finishing it last September.)

Starting this year, I plan to do better. (I also plan to be more understanding toward my boy.) I've figured out ways to trick myself into running even when it's cold or hot as hell, I'm sore and tired, and I really don't feel like it. Surely I can trick myself into painting and writing more?

In the meantime, while I was avoiding the hard work, I made this shepherd's pie, which turned out to be a huge hit. Inspired by my friend Jeff, who made a shepherd's pie using cauliflower mash instead of mashed potatoes a few weeks ago, I decided to try replacing some of the mashed potatoes with cauliflower. The cauliflower adds a nice, light sweetness to the mash, but is a bit more watery than potatoes are. I may try replacing the potatoes with cauliflower altogether sometime soon, but if/when I do, I will probably need at least two heads of cauliflower and less half and half. I also used a combination of ground beef and loose pork sausage, but you can use any combination you like. And even though I made this meal in part to avoid work, don't be fooled: It's a somewhat time- and labor-intensive recipe, so don't plan to make it on a weeknight. (Unless you have a snow day.)

Shepherd's pie, ingredients

  • 1 large head cauliflower, broken into florets
  • 6 medium yellow potatoes (use any potatoes you like; I just like yellows better)
  • 1/4 cup half and half
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 lb loose pork sausage
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 14 oz. can of diced tomatoes, fire roasted is nice but not necessary
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • smoked paprika, salt, and pepper to taste
  • bread crumbs (optional)


  1. Peel the potatoes and boil them in salted water until tender, about 30 minutes.
  2. Steam the cauliflower until tender, about 15-20 minutes depending on your steamer (test the cauliflower with a fork).
  3. Using a ricer (which will make your life easier, I promise), rice the cauliflower and the potatoes into a bowl. Add the half and half and butter and some salt and pepper and stir together until you have a nice even(ish) mash. Taste the mash to make sure you've added enough salt and pepper. Set the mashed potato-cauliflower mixture aside.
  4. In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil. Toss in a sliver of onion to test the heat. When it sizzles, add the rest of the onion and cook it for about two minutes. Then add the sausage and the ground beef. 
  5. Cook the meat and onions until the meat is no longer pink. If the meat has some brown bits, bonus! Drain most of the fat from the pan. 
  6. Add the garlic to the pan and let it cook for about a minute (do NOT let it burn). 
  7. Add the tomatoes, water, tomato paste, ketchup, mustard, and perhaps a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of pepper and smoked paprika to the meat in the pan. Stir everything together. Over medium-high heat, let the mixture cook down to a loose mass (the pan should contain some liquid, but the mixture should not be watery). Taste the mixture and add salt and pepper until you like it.
  8. Next, assemble the pie. Pour the meat mixture into a large, oven-safe baking dish (mine is about 13 in. by 9 in.). Shake the dish gently to make sure the meat is somewhat evenly distributed. Then place big spoonfuls of the potato-cauliflower mash over the meat mixture and using the back of a spoon spread it out somewhat evenly. (It's a "rustic" dish; it doesn't have to look perfect.) If you want, spread some bread crumbs or Panko over top of the mashed potatoes. (At this point, you can set aside the pie for a few days and bake it another day.)
  9. Bake the pie for 50-55 minutes in a 450-degree (F) oven. Eat. Enjoy. Try to do the hard things.      

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Winter's journey and braised beef shanks

Tora's real food

Virginia in winter is subtly beautiful. Delicate, blackened bone trees. Raw, sweeping curves of hills. A colorbox of strange halftones: olive green, bleached orange, gray-brown, salt white. Sometimes hard to perceive, the beauty is always there if you look for it: the eerie, lonely noise of geese ringing through cold, bell-clear air; the hazy bluish-purple of a certain kind of shrub; a splendid sunset.


Virginia's winter beauty wasn't really on my mind yesterday when I set off on a little trip to The Whole Ox, a wonderful artisanal butcher shop in an old railway station in the Plains. I just needed a respite from being stuck at home for a week, first because of school closings due to snow and bitter cold and then due to sickness. I also wanted to find an excuse to have the oven running all day to dispel some of the chill. But as I sailed along the roads, rising and falling with the curves, that beauty took hold of me again and reminded me why I love Virginia.

Coming back, stocked with a meaty pair of beef shanks and some other odds and ends (The Whole Ox is a lot like a treasure cave; I can never leave with just what's on the list), I passed a pair of foxes in a field. Their red bodies echoed the reddish-orange grasses that stuck up through the snow. Robin's egg sky and tumbledown wooden fence framed the scene. The foxes ignored me as I slowed to watch them--a pair of teenagers getting into trouble: one the instigator and the other slightly hesitant, hanging back. I longed to take a picture of them, but the stretch of road was too dangerous to stop for long. And so I've turned the image over and over in mind like a smooth stone, polishing and holding on to it. Maybe it was just as well I didn't get the picture. It wouldn't have been as good as the one in my mind. 

Once home with my goodies, I quickly started the braise. After three hours of slow cooking in the oven, we had a gorgeous meal of braised beef shanks (so tender the meat fell off the bones), mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts slaw. A wonderful meal that made a cold and ordinary Saturday into a special occasion.

Tora's real food


  • 3 lbs (or thereabouts) beef shanks (preferably big meaty ones with big bones)
  • 1-1 1/2 cups orange juice
  • 1/2-1 cup soy sauce
  • 3 Tbsps vegetable oil (for searing)
  • 3-4 Tbsps flour (for dredging)
  • salt, pepper
  • smoked paprika (optional but oh so nice)
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 whole head of garlic, individual cloves peeled
  • 5-6 whole medium carrots, peeled and ends trimmed


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. Pat the beef shanks dry with paper towels and very liberally sprinkle salt, pepper, and smoked paprika all over them. Rub the seasonings into the meat.  Then dredge the meat with flour.
  3. Heat the vegetable oil to medium-high heat in a frying pan. Sear the meat on all sides, for about 1-2 minutes per side. (You should have a nice golden brown crust on the meat.)
  4. Transfer the meat to a Dutch oven. Arrange the garlic cloves and carrots around the meat. 
  5. Add the orange juice, soy sauce, cumin, and coriander to the hot frying pan. Scrape at the browned bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan. Let the mixture cook for a minute or two, just enough to bring all the ingredients together. Taste the braising liquid. It should be quite strong. Make any tweaks you like at this point (such as add a touch of honey, a splash of vinegar, more spice) and then pour the braising liquid over the meat and vegetables. Then slide it into the oven for about 3 hours. 
  6. Take the meat out of the oven about 20-30 minutes before serving to let it cool down a little before eating. Use the braising liquid as a sauce over mashed potatoes or something that will soak up the juices. And do not forget to suck the marrow out of the bones, for that is truly one of life's pleasures (if you're an omnivore, at least). 
Now, I also promised my friend Clythie at Run Cook Eat Repeat to share the recipe for the Brussels sprouts slaw, so here it is:

Brussels Sprouts Slaw

  • Rinse and grate 1 to 1 1/2 lbs Brussels sprouts that are brilliant green without brown blemishes on a coarse grater. Use the hard whitish ends to hold onto the sprout and then discard that part. I highly recommend getting a protective glove for doing this job. Alternatively, you could shred the sprouts in a food processor. If you do it this way, trim the hard white stem ends first. Add the shredded Brussels sprouts to a medium salad bowl.
  • Coarsely grate about 1/2 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Mix with the shredded sprouts.
  • In another bowl, whisk together
    • 6 Tbsps good quality oil (I used avocado oil, but a good quality extra virgin olive oil or walnut oil would be wonderful too)
    • 4 Tbsps red wine vinegar
    • 1 tsp honey (ish, more or less to taste)
    • 1/4 tsp (or so) salt
    • pinch of pepper
    • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Taste the vinaigrette for seasoning and adjust according to your taste.  
  • Pour the vinaigrette over the sprouts and cheese and mix it all together. Eat! 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Snow day chili with beans and a hint of cocoa

Yesterday it snowed--the first significant snow in a few years here in Northern Virginia. On the tail of the snowstorm came the polar vortex--a mass of cold, hard air as inexorable and weighty as a glacier. Warmth flees before it. And the cold wind blows snow devils into the air, glittering in the sun. It's beautiful, stark, and harsh.

Cold days are good days to make chili. Filling chili, with a touch of warming spice (or a lot, depending on your taste) that satisfies hunger and banishes the cold. Serve it on rice with sour cream, a sprinkling of cheese, and some chopped onion (or any combination that you like).

What's a little different about this chili is the addition of unsweetened cocoa powder. Not to worry, it doesn't make the chili taste like chocolate, but it adds depth to the flavor and a beautiful dark color. And yes, this chili has beans, which I know  is sacrilege in some food circles, but I will gladly offend in this case, ha ha. Beans are incredibly nutritious, full of protein and fiber that will make you feel full for a long time. In this recipe I've used canned beans (organic, of course) for convenience (I know, I'm slipping), but if you are in the mood to cook your own beans, use this no-soak method, which works well for me.

Another nice thing about this chili is that you can switch up the protein: Use ground pork, ground beef, ground turkey, or ground lamb, whatever you have handy. The same is true of the beans. I like a two-to-one combination of white and pinto beans, but you can use any combination of beans.


  • 1 lb ground beef or pork or turkey or lamb (or a combination?)
  • 3 Tbsps extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 2 15-oz cans of white beans (such as cannelini or Great Northern), rinsed and drained
  • 1 15-oz can of pinto beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 28-oz can of ground tomatoes
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1-3 Tbsps chili powder
  • 2 tsps unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp salt (or to taste)


  1. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat (or other large-ish, heavy pot with a thick bottom). Add the onions and cook them until they are soft and slightly brown, about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally and adjust the heat as needed so that the onions don't burn.  
  2. Add the ground beef/pork/turkey/lamb and cook through.
  3. Add crushed garlic and stir until you can smell it, about a minute. 
  4. Add tomatoes, beans, chili powder, cocoa powder, brown sugar, and about half of the salt. Stir everything together and let it simmer for at least 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Longer is fine if you want to start it early in the day and just let it stew. If so, keep the heat on the lowest setting, keep the lid on, and stir from time to time.
  5. Before it's time to serve, have a taste and add salt as needed. Then sever it over rice and with any additions that you like. I prefer sour cream and sometimes some chopped onion. Also, if you like it hot, you could always add some sliced jalapenos.   
 Now enjoy the cold weather and keep warm.