Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lost in Cyberspace

This is a gripe.

I am having a terrible time retrieving my Running Log from I have kept this log since 2006, and it contains data that is important to a runner: personal records, miles run per week or month or year, shoes worn and mileage accrued on those shoes. I can't access any of that, and the customer service folks at Runner's World as well as Rodale, which publishes the magazine, in a word, suck! I have emailed, I have called, I have left messages. Nothing! Nada! Zilch!

I have already transferred the mileage on my five active pair of running shoes to (FYI: You should replace shoes every 400-500 miles, that's why it's important to know). That was easy.

But what I'm really frustrated about is the lost-in-the-vortex information about my PRs. My best running year ever was 2007; that year, I PR'd at every distance. As I am starting to regain some speed (but likely not all of it, due to this annoying thing called aging), I want to compare current race times with my best, or even with those of 2009, or 2011.

It is nearly 2014, and I find it hard to believe that doesn't have a mechanism for the subscriber to change his/her email and password, without the verification link going to the email address you no longer can use! If I log in using social media, all my accumulated information in my log is not there; I am considered a new user. When I contact customer service from the link on the website to change my password, the link for the new password goes to the email address that doesn't exist.

I can't figure out a solution to this problem, a first-world problem, but a problem just the same.

So I hope someone in customer service at Rodale sees this and gets in touch (or listens to my messages and calls me back). When you ask me to contact you, using a specific, non-toll free, phone number, and I get a recording telling me you're with other customers and to leave a message, shouldn't I rightfully expect a return call? Why do I have to call several days in a row, only to get that same message? Why don't customer service reps listen and respond to the previous day's messages at the beginning of the next day?

And I'm not a freeloader; I have subscribed to Runner's World and Bicycling, both Rodale publications, for years. 

If anyone reading this can posit a solution for me, please leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Little Engine That Could

Well, the endurance experiment I conducted on myself earlier this fall was a partial failure; but it was also a partial success. My ultimate goal is to complete an Ironman-distance race in 2016, the year I turn 55 (gasp!). In order to test my mettle, I decided to return to a marathon this year--2007 was the last year I ran 26.2 miles at one time. I finished the Indianapolis Marathon in a respectable 4:03:24, missing Boston Marathon qualifying by so little that it still hurts. And speaking of hurts, a few months later the second metatarsal in my left foot snapped from overuse, which meant had I made Boston I couldn't have run it anyway.

Funny how things have a way of working out.

Ultimate goal in mind, I decided to train for a half-Ironman distance triathlon while also gearing up for a marathon, just to see if I could. If you're wondering how that went, re-read the first sentence of this blog.

Because Facebook is such a public forum, I'm sure most of you know that I posted a big, fat DNF at the Steamtown Marathon, Oct. 13. I'm still not certain what happened to me that day, but I do know I missed out on a gorgeous medal and a quick, downhill sprint to the finish. We still made sure to stop by Bingham's Family Restaurant on the drive home for lunch and a piece of pie. Maybe we'll return to Scranton in 2015 for some unfinished business; we'll see.

For redemption, I bumped my entry into the following week's Empire State Half Marathon to the full distance. I have to credit Richard Gardner, who planted the idea that I should look at Steamtown as a training run and finish the unfinished in my hometown. And thanks to my hubby, who never says no, but only asks if I'm up to the task, whatever race it happens to be. 

It's a rarity for me, but I didn't run the Empire State Marathon for the time; I ran it for pride, for self-confidence and for all my friends and family who were rooting for me to get it done. Five hours after I began, I finished that sucker, even though the last 8 miles were a real struggle. I saw many supporters on the course, at water stations, directing traffic, just watching, which certainly helped.

Special thanks to my work buddies, Dawn (with her daughter Ava) and Trisha for waiting patiently for me at the finish line, holding the best sign I saw all morning:

"Remind me never to run a marathon again; a half, sure, but not a full," I told my husband and two good friends a few minutes after I finished.

Two days later I was already investigating which marathon to conquer in 2014 (you knew that was coming). While I fully intend to return to Northeast Pennsylvania to get that Steamtown medal, for next year I'm leaning toward the Harrisburg Marathon. Many factors point me in the direction of the capital of Pennsylvania, not the least of which is timing. Although I followed an 18-week training schedule for Steamtown, as opposed to the usual 16 weeks, a few more weeks for a few more long runs--20-23 miles (the real hard work of marathon training)--would have helped. Harrisburg is held Veteran's Day weekend, even more time to fit in three more long runs, especially if I start in May or June.

And just like 2013, I will be training for a long-distance triathlon (or should I say two triathlons). Sept. 13 and 14, you'll find us in lovely Sackets Harbor for the Incredoubleman Triathlon. A sprint distance race is on Saturday, while the 70.3 starts 24 hours later. This will be an adventure, sure, but completing this challenge will further solidify my desire and confidence in my ability to race that day-long, 140.6-mile tri in 2016.

Sure I've lost some running speed since turning 50, but my endurance is better than ever. I just hope I can find adequate time to complete the training required. Since we're talking a little under three years from now, I have plenty of time to figure it out.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Big George Was Too Big

Never having been to Lake George, I had no idea what to expect. We rolled into town on Saturday, Aug. 31, and immediately it felt a bit touristy for my taste. Even worse, coffee was not available in town on Sunday until after the race started at 7 a.m. (you'd think merchants would figure this stuff out). Still, the area around the Lake George Triathlon Festival site presented a good flow for the swim-bike-run of the 70.3-mile Big George, my A race for 2013.

At the same I have been training for this race, I have been working toward the Steamtown Marathon, Oct. 13 in Scranton, Penn. It's been tough training for two races at once--at the end of every week, I feel like I haven't done enough running or biking. With one small tri to go, I now have more time to devote to running.

Add a new job--and everything there is to learn with that--and you have someone with not enough time who didn't pay attention to certain aspects of her training--longer bricks (bike/run) workouts, for example, and long bike rides. Still, I had a quality tune-up race at the Cayuga Lake Olympic Tri, so I knew I would finish Big George (an injury forced me to drop out of one race in my long career). I'm nothing if not stubborn.

The hotel was situated about a 1/4-mile from the race site. However, I never sleep well in hotel rooms, and this being Labor Day weekend, I should have known better. The drunks were in fine form on both sides of our room, fireworks boomed, making it difficult for me to get to sleep, and I made the mistake of saying yes to my stepdaughter's request that her boyfriend come along. Their whispering at 1 a.m. woke me up, and kept me up. It was not a good night (in good triathlete fashion, I have already learned from the aforementioned mistakes). Add insufficient coffee, and no traditional pre-race breakfast of scrambled eggs and a wheat bagel with peanut butter (no way to cook the eggs)--well, you know where I'm going with this.

Anyway, bikes had to be in transition on Saturday, one less thing to think about on race day. Sunday morning, 5:30 a.m., I headed to transition, toweled off the night's rain from my bike, and set up my gear. One of my favorite things about triathlons is that 99% of the people who compete are wonderfully friendly and helpful. At this race, they placed us "old ladies" together, helping me to size up the competition. Immediately I spotted a woman no taller than I but a lean, mean fighting machine, and thought, "There's the age group winner." We all chatted, got our gear ready, put on our wetsuits and headed across the street to Lake George, incredibly calm and a perfect 73 degrees.

I had wanted to swim the 1.2 miles in 40-45 minutes; I came out of the water in 43 (yay!), but a key mistake in the lake affected my time. I wasn't hugging the buoy line at all (I wondered where everyone else was), and kept getting off course, adding meters to an already-long swim. In fact, at one point while sighting, I saw a yellow kayak move in front of me, blocking my way and forcing me back on course (thank you). I had counted the big pink balls from shore (there were 9) and spent the swim counting them down--that worked for me at Steelhead 70.3 last year, giving me something to do. It was a small swim wave, and I started on the outside, so no need to wrestle with anyone for position. Except for getting a little off-course, this was an excellent swim!

Then on to the bike, the dreaded bike. Now, don't get me wrong, I love biking--it's the fastest way to cover ground (that's not driving) and this course was especially scenic. It's just that I'm terrible at it! The 4-mile climb out of town wasn't nearly as challenging as the 10 miles up Sweet Road in the beginning of the Syracuse 70.3; now that's a hill! I was impressed by the excellent volunteer support and police officers stationed at key intersections. They would prove helpful when two idiot drivers, on two separate occasions, thought the officer was waving them through when he meant that I could go.

The bike course goes along the Schroon River (I got a chuckle when an Adopt A Highway sponsor, as written on those blue signs, was, "Just Schroon Around." Get it? Adirondack humor.) Approaching Brant Lake felt like going back in time, with gorgeous homes and summer camps abutting the lake; charming is an apt description. The back side of this course is quite fast--the uphills of the eastern side became downhills--and just lovely. I bet in about three weeks it'll be even prettier.

I finished the bike near my goal time (I had wanted 3:35, but got 3:37, not bad for my worst discipline of the three) and changed my shoes and donned my hat for my joy, my first love, my best event--the run! The nice breeze on the bike became a blanket of humidity on the run, not oppressive, but moist just the same. And the first mile of the run was uphill! And the second! Which meant, in a two-loop course, miles 7 and 8 are the same uphills; there were some inclines on the back side of this course as well, but up always goes down. I had trouble opening my packet of Gu Chomps because I was too sweaty. An obliging volunteer at a water stop opened it for me, but it cost me some time.

I just could not get into a rhythm, but the wonderful downhills kept me going. The hubby was at the bottom of the first loop (I say bottom because it was downhill), and then up I went again. It was agonizing for me--remember, I love to run, and I usually am pretty good on hills. When I realized I was struggling I downgraded my goal, which had been 6:45. New goal: under 7 hours. I crossed the finish line at 6:59:19. Whew!

I watched the awards ceremony and sure enough, there she was, my predicted winner in the 50-54 age group, grabbing first place. Well, good for her!

As an aside, and mighty impressive--a woman won this race; yes, a woman, and after she had won the previous day's Olympic distance triathlon--they call this double-race King George. This is second race I have been in this year (the first was a 10K) when a woman crossed the finish line first. Title IX is finally paying off.

On the advice of the race director, whom I had emailed earlier in the week to ask about post-race showers, I headed toward what they call "Million Dollar Beach" to a clean bathhouse with hot showers! And changing rooms! Thanks, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation! Cold showers are the worst!

So, I've taken a few days to mull this race over, especially trying to figure out what went wrong on the run. These are my takeaways, things I will change for the next big race:

1. Do longer bike rides leading up to race day. I had done a few 40-milers and one 56-miler in the four weeks ahead of Sept. 1; clearly not enough.

2. Run off those longer bike rides. I do brick workouts once a week at least, after a 20- to 25-mile bike ride, and then only 2 to 3 miles of running; clearly not enough. This happens to be a factor of time--I need a good five hours to complete such a workout, and that's very difficult to carve out of my busy life. I need to find a way because I know it will reap benefits.

3. Do more hill work. I drove out to bike the beloved Sweet Road hill-from-hell, and did hill repeats closer to the house but I did them once each, meaning twice total; clearly not enough. Same goes for the run. A problem for me is that where I live, there are no hills. That was an advantage to living on the east side of Syracuse--drumlins galore! I'll figure it out.

4. Honestly assess my nutrition. I'm not sure I'm eating properly for what I'm asking my body to achieve week in and week out. This is something I will study over the winter.

Now, did I successfully train for a half-ironman race at the same time as a marathon? I guess I'll find out Oct. 13 in Scranton. Will I attempt another half-ironman? Of course! In fact, I plan to try something completely different in 2014, a new event called Incredoubleman, Sept. 13-14, a weekend devoted to several distances in gorgeous Sackets Harbor. I will race Saturday's sprint distance tri, and then compete in Sunday's 70.3.

Hey, I have more than a year to train!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Try This Tri

It was relatively chilly at 6 a.m. on Sunday, August 4, when we pulled into Taughannock Falls State Park for my latest adventure, the Cayuga Lake Intermediate Triathlon. I had done the sprint distance of this race in 2011 and remember it fondly. As I build up to my A race, Big George 70.3 on Sept. 1, I wanted to use the Olympic distance to test my fitness level.

Windy conditions affected the first two legs--the swim and the bike--but I told myself, "That's no excuse; it's windy for everyone." So I mustered my will and made it through the chop, even after the aggressive, female-only swim start sent my heart rate sky high until I found a lane and could start swimming instead of flailing. (Note to self: do not start swimming in the middle of the pack--off to the side would be much calmer and you can get into a groove that much quicker.)

The run, which let me down two weeks earlier at Lake Delta, returned to me with a vengeance. I'm still running above a 9-minute mile but yesterday I actually felt like I was running. My hamstring let me do my thing, and I let loose. My inner runner girl kicked in and I spent 6 miles passing people. What a relief.

Overall, I finished 3/10 in my age group (a surprise), 41/77 among women and 179/236 overall. Ithaca has a healthy community of triathletes, and I am happy that I was able to keep up. . .somewhat.

There are many reasons to recommend this race. Here are some:

1. They provide bleachers to the spectators. I have never been to another race that offers a place for supporters to sit while they wait for their athlete to cross the finish line.

2. The race T-shirt is made of recycled plastic bottles. And it fits properly. I have countless shirts that are size small, but they are unisex small so they look like a box. These, however, fit perfectly and they're stylish too.

3. The swim announcer was just a hoot, putting us at ease as we started our race. And his buddy who "played" the trumpet signaling that each swim wave had to assemble (like at the beginning of a horse race)--he was another hoot and a real anxiety reliever.

4. While the bike is difficult, a portion of those 24 miles goes along a road adjacent to Cayuga Lake. Spectacular houses dot the lakeshore, and on many of their porches sat supportive spectators, cheering us along. It helped me forget the hills, temporarily.

5. If you race the sprint distance, you get to cap off your feat with a run to Taughannock Falls, the tallest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains, plunging 215 feet. If you race the intermediate, your run distance is doubled and you're lucky to run to the falls twice. That tumbling, picturesque water could be a huge distraction, and I commented to the two volunteers at the turnaround that they had the prettiest spot in the entire race. So, if you need to take a walk break, this would be a perfect place to do so. As an aside, my sister was married at the spot below.

6. Another advantage to the run is that athletes tramp on grass (next to the lake and then Taughannock Creek) before linking to the hiking trail leading to and from those falls. Absolutely no roads. Sailboats and kayaks dot the water. It's just incredibly scenic (and safe).

7. Assigned spaces in the transition area. This saves so much pre-race anxiety and rushing around because you're trying to secure a "better" spot in the most optimal location than your fellow competitors. No one is elbowing out the person next to you for more space. It's so much calmer, and makes for less stress on race day. And if you're running a little late getting to the race venue, it's OK.

8. Impressive volunteer support and inspiring spectators. Coming back in from the bike on Route 96, I got a huge rush from the strangers lining both sides of the road cheering, ringing cowbells and holding signs. (And that's another thing--this race handed out cowbells!) It's such a great feeling, and provides much needed motivation before your final leg (ha ha), the run. The water stops on the run course each had a theme--I remember pirates and then a Motown tent near the falls, decorated with actual vinyl 45 records and women wearing poodle skirts (imagine hauling all that water, gatorade, decorations, etc., more than a mile up the hiking trail). If volunteers make that much of an effort for several hundred athletes, the least we athletes can do is thank them, several times.

9. Good, plentiful food afterwards. The Wegmans boxed lunches provided a healthy coda, with choices from roast beef, turkey and veggie. Whereas some races run low on water, this one had plenty. Part of the reason, as I observed it, was that the volunteers controlled who could grab what. No race number: No boxed lunch. It was that simple. And the table loaded with cut up fruit--perfect. While we didn't wait in the long line for ice cream, a free cone after a race hits the spot.

10. Awards as individual as Ithaca, and as this race. Those who placed 1 to 3 in the women's age groups received handmade necklaces; just a nice touch. I don't know what the men received, but I'm sure it was just as special.

I heartily recommend this race. It sells out rather quickly, so be sure to pay attention to the Ithaca Triathlon Club's website for updates. It'll be tough to find a prettier spot for a triathlon in all of upstate New York than this one and if you have time afterwards, a visit to Ithaca yields all sorts of delights.

I intend to return next year; will I see you there?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Size Matters

I wore a size 2 pair of capris to work yesterday. Why is that noteworthy, you may ask? Because I am not a size 2, never have been, likely never will be. At my leanest a few years back I was a size 4 (not a 2), still am a snug size 4 (since I'm not quite as lean as I would like). I have read about size inflation (or is it deflation?), where a size 6 today is equivalent to a size 10 of years past. But the reality of it hit me when I went shopping for a simple pair of capris to greet the amazing weather we've enjoyed this last week.

I grabbed several manufacturer's size 4 and headed to the dressing room. Every last one of the capris (my mother actually called them "pedal pushers" because you wore them while riding your bike!) was roomy, especially through the waist, leading me to conclude that perhaps I had picked up the wrong size. Happy with a style I found, and confirming that I was actually holding the "correct" size, I trudged back out to the sales floor and grabbed a 2. Even that was a bit roomy, but I settled for the larger waist thinking I could wear a belt.

Did I rejoice at being a size 2? No. Especially since I know that size isn't at all what it should be (and I'm not really a size 2), and at another store, or with another manufacturer I would likely be fitting into a 6 or even an 8 (one reason I truly detest shopping). How do I know this? Well, consider the evidence.

In high school, I weighed 109 pounds consistently, and wore a junior size 9 consistently. Today I weigh a few pounds over that (albeit more muscular pounds because of all the training I do), and I suddenly fit into a misses size 2. It really makes no sense, except as some corporate collusion to mess with women's minds, yet again, about their size and body image.

Think about all the media attention postpartum celebrities get about their "baby weight" and speculation about when they might lose it. I felt bad for Jessica Simpson, who was practically ridiculed after she gave birth because she hadn't melted down to her pre-pregnancy weight as quickly as some would have liked. Or how about Kim Kardashian (trust me, I'm no fan). But that poor woman has been splashed all over celeb rags (er, I mean mags) because she's gained substantial weight while pregnant (well, guess what? I gained 50 pounds during each of my pregnancies and I succeeded in losing it, even though it took a year each time). Or Lady Gaga, who"let herself go," some said, when she gained 30 pounds. Or Jennifer Lawrence, that delightfully refreshing Oscar-winning actress, who has said she is considered fat in Hollywood.

Uh-huh. And I'm a millionaire.

See how ridiculous it all is! Don't we have more important things to worry about in this society?

Now, if I'm a size 2, what does a legitimate size 2 do for clothing? Size 0 is quite hard to come by, especially now that Petite Sophisticate is no more. Does the legitimate size 2 shop in the junior section? I don't know about you, but 75% of the clothing I see in junior sections I wouldn't let my junior-size 1 stepdaughter wear.

I wish I had some pithy conclusion to all this, but I don't. Next time I shop I'll have to plan for more time, since I'll likely have to try on several sizes until I find one that fits, no matter what the number says. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Big Rewards from Small Packages

Everyone who reads this blog knows of my love for racing. I'm not entirely sure where this competitive creature that lurks inside me came from. Perhaps it's latent frustration at coming of age in the 1970s, when girls were just gaining some respect for being athletic. Perhaps it's compensation for my inability to think and speak on my feet. Instead of commanding a place verbally, I try to do it athletically. No matter; it's a personality trait, and one I have come to embrace over the last 10 years I've been focusing on running for more than recreation.

Here's something else I've come to discover about myself--I enjoy running the smaller races, and not just because I am better able to place in my age group (though that's a nice perk). A lot of these races take place in small towns--with the charms those can offer--benefit a wonderful cause and often show off a feature of the place, whether it be a terrific high school band, a spectacular waterfront view or a historic site.

Just missed my goal of 55 minutes while besting the two women behind me. 
Now, don't get me wrong; I still enjoy what I call "the spectacle race," the one with several thousand runners that tends to cost a bit more but also shows off how popular running has become. While I will always try to run Syracuse's Mountain Goat with its beautiful view from Onondaga Park in Strathmore or its challenging hills, I have no burning desire to run the New York City Marathon and its several tens of thousands of runners. As a Central New Yorker, it's expected that I head to Utica every July for the Boilermaker. Well, guess what? After running that legendary 15K for several years, I'm done; I'm over it. The BM is behind me (so to speak). And that's OK--if me not running clears up a registration spot for a rookie runner, all the better. And when you get to the top of the hill at mile 6, please trip the guy on stilts (I've wanted to do that for years!).

While in the midst of training for the May 5 Mountain Goat, I returned to two races I have done before, both with their smaller-town charms. The School House to White House 5K in Pulaski benefits the high school marching band and its quest to travel to Washington, DC to perform at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It's a small race--this year 131 participated in the 5K--but it appears early in the racing calendar (March), so it's a terrific way to enjoy some fresh air and help along a good cause.

Then this past weekend, we headed back to Rome for the Fort to Fort 10K. This race has been active for 26 years, yet I rarely see anyone from Syracuse there. That's a shame because they are missing out on 1) a rare 10K, 2) the coolness factor of running into and out of Revolutionary War-era Fort Stanwix, 3) and the chance to benefit the Red Cross. This race costs a mere $20--while some 5Ks are going off the charts by charging $35 and more. The course featured a downhill at the beginning--which became a challenging uphill at the end--and a whole lot of flat in between. Excellent course support from friendly volunteers and police officers made the 6.2 miles fly by (well, almost).

As an added bonus, we are seeking races that have a kids' fun run attached, as did these two (as well as the Mountain Goat). My 9-year-old stepdaughter enjoys the fun aspect of these runs, but she especially likes the goodies she receives after a job well done. Maybe she won't wait until her 40s for her own inner competitor to emerge.

My next race: The DAR 5K, April 14, another smallish event that raises money to
send Tanzanian children to college. Who can argue with that?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Moving On

Not one to procrastinate, I put off writing this blog for almost six weeks. Now, with the Twittersphere and Facebook somewhat quiet today (must have been that late start to the Syracuse University men's basketball game last night), I may as well get this down, while it's still somewhat fresh.

Most of you know that I was fired from my 13-year job as editor-in-chief of the Syracuse New Times on Feb. 12. I will not go into detail about that awful day, but I will say a few things about it.

* Hard work is not always rewarded.
* Personality conflicts sometimes dictate who you continue to work for.
* Your perceived personality has nothing to do with your ability to do your job. This one requires some explanation. I was told by my former boss, in front of a group of colleagues, that I was one of the most unlikeable people he had ever met. At first I was stunned by that--no one has ever told me that before or since--but then I realized mind games were at work. And some people tend to project (remember Psychology 101?). In the words of Forrest Gump, that's all I'm going to say about that.
* Past employment problems--such as being fired--do not doom you to a life of unemployment. I found that out quickly--and that my "likeability" quotient is just fine, thank you--when I landed a new job within a week of being let go.
* Positive reinforcement is a good thing. I have been told how valuable I am, and how happy they are to have me at my new job, more times in the last three weeks than I heard in the last three years.

Which leads me to Friday night, March 8, which provided a fitting coda to my 25-year career at the Syracuse New Times (13 as the editor, and 12 as a freelancer). Along with longtime music journalist Mark Bialczak (whom I have known for 30 years, having interned on the Sports desk of the Syracuse Post Standard when he was assistant sports editor), I received a Founder's Award at the Syracuse Area Music Awards. We both felt sheepish about receiving such an honor, and it certainly had nothing to do with singing (on my part, anyway; can't speak for Mark's talent), but rather our years of service to the local music community. We both accepted graciously.

Me and my Sammy.
Ever nervous about speaking in public, my voice did quaver during my acceptance speech, but the words were heartfelt. My husband tells me the applause was rowdy, but I didn't hear a bit of it. After I left the stage, I high-tailed it to the bar, Sammy in hand, where I ordered a hard-earned glass of wine. There, perfect strangers congratulated me, others said they felt awful that I had lost my job at The New Times, one prominent local musician (whom I will not name) called the former boss a mofo (except she used the actual word), still others thanked me for my support of their child's band or of the music scene in general. I said thank you, naturally, but it was just part of my job--The New Times and local music have always gone hand-in-hand.

So when Sammy's founder Frank Malfitano decided I should be given a Sammy, in my heart I was grateful, but I also knew he was honoring my hard work over the last decade-plus. Sammys goddess Liz Nowak had to agree to the honor, and I am thankful that she did. There are some days I miss my job at the paper--there is a certain rush to seeing a looming deadline, and then taking it on before conquering it, only to see your hard work delivered the next day. I especially miss working with interns, trying to mold them into hard-working, conscientious reporters.

Awards are nice, and I've won my share, but more important to me over my career have been comments like those Jim Reith once said about me, on air, to his former radio audience: "Molly English is one of the most accurate journalists I know." Or Tim Fox's tear-inducing accolades when he introduced me before I took the stage--"She is one of the best writers in town." That's what I want for my now former interns--the respect of their peers and the community.

And so I have moved on. I am learning the ropes as Communications Director at Service Employees International Union Local 200United, a group that, in a strange coincidence, my sister helped organize way back in the 1980s. Many of you don't know this, but I served in a similar capacity at AFSCME for 10 years before I moved on to The New Times. They say some things are meant to be, that what goes around comes around, and as I have grown up, I'm starting to realize that is indeed the case. Karma works both ways, however (and you can read into that anything you like).

You all know where to find me--Facebook, Twitter, and right here on my blog. Race season is gearing up, and if you care to read about my running exploits, well this is the place to revisit.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Read This, Then Eat

A vegetable lover, I had always thought that Brussels sprouts are miniature cabbages, so I avoided them. No amount of Polish heritage would convince me to like cabbage, so it followed that I would not like Brussels sprouts. It took prodding from a friend, a desire to eat more heathfully and a more adventurous spirit to try the tight little light green spheres. And, boy, am I glad I did!

My discovery of these little nuggets of delight coincided with the roasted vegetable craze, so my introduction to Brussels sprouts meant a sweeter, earthier, caramelized side dish. Eager to incorporate my newfound veggie buddy into a main dish, I searched for such, and found one that is light and hearty, tasty and healthy. (See accompanying recipe.)

As with many vegetables, we baby boomers were “treated” to overcooked, mushy, colorless versions of the real deal by our mothers, many of whom really had no idea how to cook. In my house, the idea was to get food on the table for seven people by 5:24 p.m., when my father walked in the door from work.

We were pretty much fed the basics in the English household, Route 5, Vernon: spaghetti and meatballs, pork chops and applesauce, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and a culinary delight my mother called slop (brown ground beef, then add frozen corn, mix in ketchup, and voila!). Other than the usual garden bounty—my mother was a terrific gardener--I remember iceberg-lettuce wedges topped with French dressing, green beans out of the can and lots of frozen corn.

Not being critical here; my mother probably made the vegetables she hoped we kids would eat, and Brussels sprouts would not have been one of those.

Even though they look the part, sprouts are not small cabbages, although they are, like other cruciferous vegetables—broccoli and cauliflower—members of the cabbage family. They taste similar to cabbage, while also tasting slightly milder and denser in texture. Their origins are thought to be in 16th-century Belgium, hence the name “Brussels.”

But it doesn’t matter where the delightful little globes came from as long as they wind up in your mouth. You can cultivate your own Brussels sprouts—they grow on a long stalk—or you can just buy some at the grocery store or farmers market. In addition to selling them whole, in bulk, some groceries sell them already cleaned and cored, or even sliced into a chiffonade for quick preparation in the aforementioned accompanying recipe.

Brussels sprouts for sale at Syracuse's Regional Market.     
When shopping, look for bright green sprouts and a tight, compact head. Yellow or wilted leaves are a sign of age. Select sprouts that are similar in size to allow them to cook more evenly. Only wash sprouts before preparing, not before storing; they’ll get mealy in a hurry.

Bob Langkammerer is the regional executive chef for Wegmans supermarkets in Syracuse. “We are selling more and more Brussels sprouts,” he says, “especially in prepared foods, and a lot has to do with how we flavor and season them, as well as their health benefits, which are phenomenal.” Among them:

High fiber content (more than 15 percent of daily requirement) that lowers cholesterol and aids digestion.

Antioxidants such as vitamins C, E and A, as well as manganese protect the body’s cells from intruding free radicals.

Anti-inflammatory agents like omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin K are abundant.
One cup of Brussels sprouts contains more than 161 percent of the daily requirement of vitamin C, more than 20 percent of vitamin A and almost 25 percent of folate, necessary for maintaining a healthy pregnancy.

He reports that he attended store openings in Maryland and Pennsylvania recently and those stores have vegetarian bars, similar to the Asian or homestyle self-service foods bars. As part of the grand openings, that bar served roasted Brussels sprouts. “And I got more bang for the buck sampling those,” he says. “People were heading right to the pan and digging out what was left.”

He believes the preparation method meant the difference to those shoppers. “Roasting brings out the caramelization in the Brussels sprouts, making them sweeter and giving them a nice, wholesome flavor. Just boiled or steamed, they really don’t taste the same as roasting.”

As with all produce, Langkammerer stresses that you thoroughly wash before preparing. You may have to core each sprout since the stem can be a bit fibrous and tough to chew and, depending on the size, you may need to cut each in half. “Toss with oil, sprinkle on a little salt and pepper, and roast in the oven. They taste great, and they’re very simple to prepare.”

Once you’ve mastered the basic roasted Brussels sprout, try these recipes for more variety.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts With Carrots and Parsnips
Recipe courtesy of Bob Langkammerer, regional chef for Wegmans Syracuse.

½ pound organic carrots, peeled and cut on the bias into bite-sized pieces
1 8-ounce package Brussels sprouts, washed and quartered
1½ pounds parsnips, peeled and cut on the bias into bite-sized pieces
1½ tablespoons basting oil
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons Wegmans savory finishing sauce (grocery department)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss vegetables with basting oil in large bowl; season to taste with salt and pepper. Spread in single layer on baking sheet. Roast on center rack of oven, about 30 to 40 minutes, until tender. Toss with finishing sauce.

Creamy Brussels Sprouts and Noodles
This recipe is from Taste of Home magazine. It is categorized as a side dish, but there’s no reason this casserole can’t take the starring role at dinnertime. Serve with an orange vegetable and tossed salad, and you have a nice-looking plate.

1 pound fresh Brussels sprouts, quartered
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 tablespoons butter or margarine, divided
1 cup sour cream (can be light)
1 cup small-curd cottage cheese (can be light)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
3 cups medium egg noodles, cooked and drained
½ cup soft bread crumbs

Place the Brussels sprouts and a small amount of water in a saucepan; cover and cook until tender. Meanwhile, in a skillet, saute onions in 2 tablespoons butter until golden brown. Remove from the heat; stir in the sour cream, cottage cheese, garlic, paprika, salt and caraway seeds. Drain sprouts; add to onion mixture with noodles. Spread into a greased shallow 2-quart baking dish. Melt remaining butter and toss with bread crumbs. Sprinkle over casserole. Bake, uncovered, at 375 degrees, for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown.

Shaved Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta
Another Wegmans recipe; if you’re a vegetarian, feel free to omit the pancetta, an Italian bacon.

1 teaspoon olive oil
2 ounces diced pancetta (deli department)
¼ cup shallots, peeled and chopped
1 14-ounce package shaved Brussels sprouts (or shave your own with a mandolin)
¼ cup basting oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons Wegmans apple vinegar spritzer (grocery department)

Add olive oil and pancetta to large skillet; cook on medium about 5 minutes, until pancetta begins to render fat but is not browned. Add shallots, Brussels sprouts and basting oil. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, on medium, 8 to 10 minutes until vegetables are nearly softened but not browned. Remove from heat. Add apple vinegar spritzer, toss and serve.