Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012 and Slow Cooking Heaven

Thanksgiving this year was a quiet affair; Bill and Amanda stayed in California with James in preparation for his first birthday on Sunday (you may recall he was born on Thanksgiving Day last year), and my step-sister and her husband also decided to celebrate at home. That meant it was just four of us on Thankgiving Day--me, Dad, Linda (stepmom), and my Aunt Kim. AND since everyone but me was leaving town the day after Thanksgiving...I was getting all the leftovers!

But what to do with 3 pounds of turkey? My family doesn't do the whole bird; we like the white meat best so we always just do a turkey breast. But the smallest breast I could find was 6.5 pounds which meant there was a lot that went home with me.

Cook's Country to the rescue! Don't know what I'm talking about? It's from the same people who do the America's Test Kitchen tv show on PBS and they have the BEST recipes I have ever made. Better than Martha Stewart, better than any of your Food Networks chefs, just great classic cooking. They also do equipment reviews, teach the basics of techniques, and getting their once every two months magazine is a big highlight for me. Seriously. Love it.

Their most recent issue had what sounded like a great slow cooker chicken and dumpling recipe. So I decided to sub in the turkey for the chicken--which meant I got to skip the step where you pre-brown and season the chicken. Since the turkey was also already cooked, I let the slow cooker go for the minimum cooking time and it ended up really tender, but not dry. I also left out the dumplings, since I had a roll of Pilsbury's biscuits to use up.

The finished product!

Here's the recipe if you want to give it a try! Some other changes I made--I used only one onion and left our the peas. Because, ew.


--3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
--salt and pepper
--3 tablespoons vegetable oil
--2 onion chopped (I used one medium onion)
--2 celery ribs, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
--2 carrots, peeled, quartered and cut into 1/4 inch pieces (I used chopped baby carrots)
--4 garlic cloves, minced
--1 tablespoon tomato paste
--2 bay leaves
--1 teaspoon dry thyme
--1/4 cup all purpose flour
--1/2 cup dry white wine
--4 cups low sodium chicken broth
--1 cup frozen peas 


--1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
--1 tablespoon baking powder
--1 teaspoon salt
--1 cup whole milk
--4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1) Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Brown half of chicken all over, 5-8 minutes, transfer to slow cooker. Repeat with 1 tablespoon oil and remaining chicken. 
(since I used turkey leftovers, I just dumped them frozen into the slow cooker--easy)

2) Heat remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in now-empty skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions, celery, and carrots and cook until soft, about 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in garlic, tomato paste, bay leaves, and thyme and cook until fragrant and tomato paste begins to brown, about 2 minutes. 

3) Stir in flour and cook for 1 minute. Slowly whisk in wine, scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan. Whisk in 1 cup broth and bring to a simmer, transfer to slow cooker. Stir in remaining 3 cups of broth. Cover and cook until chicken is tender, 4 to 6 hours on low. Stir in peas. (I cooked mine for just about 4 hours on low, then reduced to hear to warm for another hour before serving).
4) For dumplings: whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in large bowl. Stir in milk and melted butter until just incorporated. Using greased 1/4 cup measure drop 8 dumplings around perimeter of stew. Cover and cook until dumplings have doubled in size, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove bay leaves and serve.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Edinburgh (cont): Down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace

After leaving Edinburgh Castle, Wendy and I made a lot of little stops. There was a writer's museum right down the street that had some really cool artifacts from three of Scotland's most famous authors; Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. It wasn't quite as interesting as we had hoped, so we only spent a few minutes there poking around.

Outside the Writer's Museum.

We then hit a bunch of shops, as souveniers and gifts to take home were a must. Especially since Edinburgh was the largest city we would be visiting. After shoping, we paused for a quick photo-op of the Royal Mile itself and headed down the hill, passing by St. Giles Cathedral. The cathedral dates from the 14th century (but was extensively restored in the 19th century). It has been a site of worship for over 900 years and is now the center of the Church of Scotland. It has a distinctive crown steeple which is easily recognizable from pretty much anywhere on the Royal Mile. The cathedral is dedicated to St. Giles, who is the patron saint of Edinburgh.

Looking down the Royal Mile.

St. Giles Cathedral

The cathedral also has a really great kind of hidden cafe in the basement (you have to walk around to the back from the touristy side to find the entrance) where Wendy and I had a delicious and cheap lunch...well, cheap for Scotland. We kind of get hosed on the exchange rate, so even a 7 pound lunch ends up costing over 10 bucks. Sigh.

Once we had refreshed a bit, we took a little detour down one of the streets that leads off to the Royal Mile. I was on my way to the Edinburgh Royal Museum and I think Wendy was in search of a knitting shop she had encountered the year before. Our wandering led us right past The Elephant House, the coffeehouse where JK Rowling famously spent her days writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I have to admit it was kind of exciting to linger outside the shop and envision her sitting at a small table with a cup of coffee dreaming up one of my favorite book series of all time.

And this is where the magic all began...

From there, it was just across the street to the museum. Unfortunately, this is where things got a bit sticky. It seems the Edinburgh Royal Museum and the Royal Museum of Scotland used to be two separate museums--and this was the indication in my guidebook. But in the last year the two museums merged into one building. So I spent about 20 minutes wandering around scratching my head and asking random Scots where a museum was that didn't exist anymore. Finally, I went into the actual museum and there I learned of the merger. 

So what's the Millennium Clock? I first ran across it on my initial visit to Edinburgh back in 2001.

The clock was created by four master craftsman for the Scottish Millennium Festival. It's not exactly a cheerful piece, as it commemorates human suffering throughout the twentieth century, as we stood trapped in the neverending prison of time. It's divided into four sections, the crypt, the nave, the belfry, and the spire. Each one contains unique and highly symbolic figures. The most disturbing are near the top, where charactures of Hitler and Stalin pass a large saw back and forth; sawing through the lives of humanity in the century. But not all hope is lost--at the very top of the clock stands "the pietà, in the shape of a cross. A female figure carrying a dead man. She is the mother, the wife, the daughter, the sister, the friend. Pietà is Italian for pity, compassion."

Coming to view the clock has become something of a pilgrimage for me every time I visit Edinburgh. It's beautiful and horrifying and it serves as a reminder for what people are capable of--both in terms of terror and compassion.

After leaving the museum and walking back down most of the Royal Mile, I needed a rest. I headed back to our apartment (which you might recall was less than a block off the main road) and took a bit of a break. I met back up with Chris, Kent, and Wendy, and we set out for our last stop of the day--the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

It is the official residence of the Monarch in Scotland and is mostly used for state ceremonies and entertaining. Next to the palace are the ruins of an abbey that was founded by David I, King of Scots, in 1128, and Holyrood Palace has served as the principal residence of the Kings and Queens of Scots since the 15th century. Queen Elizabeth II spends one week in residence at Holyrood Palace at the beginning of each summer, where she carries out a range of official engagements and ceremonies.

Holrood Palace.

 Keeping an eye out for invaders...

The Abbey ruins, just outside the back of the Palace.

The ruins from the garden surrounding the Palace.

Right next to the Palace is an inactive volcano crater. It's one of the seven hills of Edinburgh.

On our way back from Holyrood, we stopped at another pub for dinner that was right around the corner from our apartment. The food was yummy, but Kent found a small bug in his salad (the horror!) and we all ended up getting our entire meal comped. Score! Thanks for taking one for the team, Kent!

Coming up next time: St. Andrews!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Edinburgh, Day 1--Edinburgh Castle

Our first full day in Scotland dawned clear and chilly. Due to a combination of factors (but mostly jet lag), I was up early and decided to go for a run. It was a Saturday and early enough that the tourists hadn't come out yet and the Great Edinburgh Run wasn't due to begin for a few hours so I had the streets pretty much to myself. It was a bit cold, but I warmed up quickly--especially when the route I took had the first mile completely up hill. It was a slog, but I made it and was rewarded with a stunning view of the Royal Mile.

And this makes a good time to get into some history, no? I wonder if anyone who reads this blog is actually interested in this but I know when I go back and read this blog in 10 or 20 years, I'll like it. So suck it up, people.

Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, the seat of the Scottish parliament and government, the largest city by area and the second largest by population in the country. Located in the south-east of Scotland, Edinburgh lies on the east coast of the Central Belt, along the Firth of Forth, near the North Sea. The city was one of the historical major centers of the Enlightenment, led by the University of Edinburgh, helping to earn it the nickname Athens of the North. The Old Town and New Town districts of Edinburgh were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 in recognition of the unique character of the Medieval Old Town and the planned Georgian New Town.

See, wasn't that interesting? Getting back to my more personal story, after I made it home and got cleaned up from my run, we all headed out for a day of sight-seeing, starting with Edinburgh Castle. Edinburgh Castle is located at the top of the Royal Mile, the main street that runs through the Old Town District. It connects the castle with Holyrood Palace, the Queen's residence when she is in town. Hence, the name Royal Mile (it also happens to be almost exactly a mile long). 

We made it to the castle just a few minutes before opening, and Wendy and I opted for the audio tour since we wanted to get the full experience. I hadn't been to the castle in about 10 years and they had opened up some new buildings and exhibits. It has a long history, and you can bet your ass I'm going to make you learn some of it.

Edinburgh Castle!

Kent, Chris, Wendy, and me in front of the castle.

From wiki:

Edinburgh Castle is a fortress which dominates the skyline of the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, from its position atop the volcanic Castle Rock. Human habitation of the site is dated back as far as the 9th century BC, although the nature of early settlement is unclear. There has been a royal castle here since at least the reign of David I in the 12th century, and the site continued to be a royal residence until the Union of the Crowns in 1603. From the 15th century the castle's residential role declined, and by the 17th century its principal role was as a military base with a large garrison. Its importance as a historic monument was recognised from the 19th century, and various restoration programs have been carried out since. As one of the most important fortresses in the Kingdom of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle was involved in many historical conflicts, from the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century, up to the Jacobite Rising of 1745, and has been besieged, both successfully and unsuccessfully, on several occasions.

Few of the present buildings pre-date the Lang Siege of the 16th century, when the medieval fortifications were largely destroyed by artillery bombardment. The most notable exceptions are St Margaret's Chapel, which dates from the early 12th century and is the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, the Royal Palace, and the early-16th-century Great Hall. The castle also houses the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish National War Memorial, and the National War Museum of Scotland.

Inside the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle (with Victorian decorations)

The apartments where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to the future king of both England and Scotland, James VI (or I depending on how you look at it).

View of the city from a cannon.

Looking towards the train station from the castle.

St. Margaret's Chapel, the oldest building in the castle grounds.

More views from the castle.

Most of what we saw in the castle dates from the 17th and 18th century. When it was used as a garrison, the military ripped out a lot of the medieval decor and replaced it (sadly) and it wasn't until the Victorian Era that the Scots really began to care about restoring their old buildings. And let's face it, to Americans things from that long ago still seem pretty old. After all, we don't go tripping over 1000 year old ruins every time we go for a walk outside the suburbs. 

Wendy and I spent about 2 hours in the castle, and then spent some time wandering down the Royal Mile and stopping into various shops and museums. But I think that might be the subject of the next post....

Friday, November 09, 2012

The Color Run

Almost two years to the day that I started taking up running with the Couch to 5K program, I ran my second 5K. This one was The Color Run which took place at National Harbor and raised money for Children’s Hospital. Unlike most 5Ks, it wasn’t timed (more of a fun run than an actual race), and at every kilometer there were volunteers with a specific color of powdered dye that they would throw onto you. It made for a fun yet messy run.

 So young, so innocent. No idea what mess awaits them!

Unlike last year’s Thanksgiving 5K (which I ran solo) this one I had two friends with me, Zach and Lauren. I still did the actual running by myself though since Zach is a little speed demon and Lauren decided to walk it. Riddle me this Batman: why is it every 5K course must include a giant hill? I get that Virginia isn’t the flattest place in the world, but isn’t it possible to find SOMEWHRE that doesn’t include a hill that makes me want to lay down and die??

But that’s what training is for, and I pushed myself up that hill and managed to run the entire course—which is always my goal rather than a specific time. My mantra while running (or let’s be honest, slowly jogging) is to repeat “you are not a quitter.” Sometimes that’s the only thing that can get you through it. When you feel that your lungs are going to burst, when your calves are aching, and when your heart feels like it’s going to pound out your chest, the only thing you have is pure nerve and determination. I’ve never quit at anything in my life and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let something like 3 miles get the best of me. I think the training for a race is as much mental as it is physical. You not only have to get your body used to running for however long those 3 miles takes, but also your brain to stay focused and keep pushing those legs.

And of course, there’s always race day adrenaline. It’s exciting to take part in an event like this—which had over 5,000 runners! They started us off in large groups at 9:00 in the morning (thankfully we were in the first heat and didn’t have to wait hours to run) and were still releasing runners an hour later. There’s a sense of camaraderie that exists in things like this; especially when you’re all covered in red, yellow, blue, purple, and orange dye. People encourage and joke with one another, which isn’t easy when most of your are wheezing along. 

All in all, the second race was a success! I ran the whole thing (even the hill!) which is always my goal and we participated in an event that raised money for a great charity. I'm thinking a 5K every six months is a good goal.

Post-race messiness!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

If it's not Scottish, it's crrrrrap.

Another day, another international journey. This time I headed across the pond  to Scotland with Chris, Kent, and my friend Wendy who currently lives in Olympia, Washington. The trip came together in kind of a funny way. Wendy had traveled to Scotland last year with her family and in February posted about how she wished she could go back. I responded something along the lines of, "let's do it. How about October?" Between me and Chris we then had the entire trip planned in about two weeks with hotels and flight booked. What can I say, we move fast.

We planned to spend nine days on the trip, but traveling to and from Scotland basically takes an entire day, which left us a week of sight-seeing. For the first time in another country we rented a car so we could keep the itinerary somewhat fluid. We basically traveled in a big loop starting out in Edinburgh in the east, then heading slightly north to St. Andrews, continuing Northwest into the highlands and Inverness, going further west to the Isle of Skye and then coming back south and east through Glencoe, Stirling, and finally ending up back in Edinburgh. Here was the itinerary:

Day 1: travel, evening in Edinburgh

Day 2: Edinburgh

Day 3: St. Andrews

Day 4: Loch Ness/Inverness area

Days 5 and 6: Isle of Skye

Day 7: travel to Stirling area

Day 8: travel back to Edinburgh

Day 9: come home!

All in all, it was a trip without major incident, which was kind of a relief. There were no problems with the rental car, the flights all went off without a hitch, and there were no (seriously) injuries or delays. More on all of that later...including the epic battle of Kent vs. Scottish showers and the day we almost killed a woman on horseback. But for now, Edinburgh!

When traveling to Europe, you're most likely going to be on a red-eye flight. Chris and Kent managed to sweet-talk the check-in lady into letting me sit in economy plus for free and we settled in for a relaxing flight that would hopefully include some sleep. Unfortunately for us and the other two hundred or so people on the plane there was a kid two rows down for us who screamed for three solid hours. Now to clarify: this wasn't a baby. This was a kid who was about four years old. Old enough for his parents to tell him to STFU or otherwise discipline him or find out what the fuck was wrong with him that would make him scream for THREE HOURS. But the parents were clearly not interested and just say there and did. nothing. So let's just say that we didn't get a lot of sleep on our flight to London. But we wouldn't let it get us down, and we connected to our flight to Edinburgh, finally got some sleep on that hour long flight, and arrived at Edinburgh airport around 3 in the afternoon.

And then it was time for adventures in driving on the wrong side of the road! Since we had rented a car to get us around...someone was going to have to drive it and Chris stepped up. I had borrowed my Mom's GPS and downloaded the UK maps (since renting it from the car rental company was super expensive) so we thought we were good to go. Chris actually took to driving on the left pretty well and did really great on the roundabouts. But....nothing is ever easy.

Turns out Edinburgh was hosting the Great Edinburgh Run the day after we arrived and there were unannounced road closures all over the place. PLUS there seemed to be some kind of epic construction project going on downtown and half the city was dug up and inaccessible. So our GPS was...kind of useless once we hit the downtown area. The apartment we rented was right off the Royal Mile (more on that later) so we had to rely on my memory of the city from 10 years ago and Wendy's memory from her one day stay the year prior. But finally FINALLY we made it and pulled into Old Tollbooth Wynd (for reals). After a bit of running about to actually find the entrance to the apartment we were settled in our home for two nights.

And then it was time for food! Since we were right off the Royal Mile, there were tons of pubs and restaurants but we wanted a taste of real Scotland. The famous The World's End pub was just a few blocks away, so we took to the street and had some good old fashioned pub grub...along with a pint of cider of course.

That's enough chitchat isn't it? Let's get to the pictures!

 Me, Chris, and Kent outside the apartment on Old Tollbooth Wynd

 Me and Wendy with our pints at the pub!

 My steak and ale pie (i.e. stew) with chips, beans, and yorkshire pudding! It was AMAZING, even though it looks kind of gross. I think that's true of most Scottish food, actually.

Outside The World's End

 Wendy in our apartment

Our super nice kitchen!

Coming up next: we dive into the history of Edinburgh and learn about the castle and the Royal Mile!