Walk Softly and Carry Big Sticks

Now that spring has finally sprung, many of us are dusting off our walking shoes and hiking boots to venture back out into the great outdoors. Nothing beats a good walking program or an exhilarating hike to keep us fit, healthy, on top of our game and on top of the world. Here is a simple and surprising tip to keep you moving and get the best results possible. Invest in a set of walking sticks.

No, I’m not kidding, and no, it’s not cheating. Although, in my martial arts training we had a saying, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Completely different set of circumstances. But, I digress. Whether you are a walk-around-the-park kind of trekker, or if you prefer going deep into the forest or climbing high in the Rockies, there are multiple benefits of using walking sticks. Or hiking poles. Whatever you choose to call them.

Hiking poles (or walking sticks), can help your posture by keeping you more upright, with your chest lifted, your shoulders back, and your torso balanced over your hips. Not only does this help your posture, it takes pressure off of your knees, reducing the possibility of pain, stiffness, injuries, and eventually arthritis.

It’s also good for a healthy spine. Using the poles helps to simulate a “normal” gait pattern, meaning that your arms and legs are moving in opposition. This results in a gentle counter-rotation of your chest and pelvis, which is essential for a strong, flexible, and healthy spine.

The poles give you an upper body as well as a lower body workout. If you don’t believe me, give it a try and get back to me. You might be surprised. Also, since the poles help put you in better postural alignment, the forces of gravity are able to go through your legs in a harmonious way, working the backs of your legs as well as the front. You work your gluts (butt muscles), as well as your hamstrings, resulting in stronger legs, a more shapely derriere, and significantly less stress and strain on your knees at the same time. Score more for the poles!

The poles help you go the distance, giving you a longer workout as well as a more balanced one so you can go deeper into the woods or further up the trail to enjoy the great outdoors.

Finally, the little ninja in me couldn’t keep from including this last little tidbit. Having two big sticks in your hands can provide a handy dandy makeshift weapon when your walking in the woods (or in the park). You never know when you might run into an unexpected four-legged (or two-legged) threat. As we say in my martial arts class, everything’s a weapon. Besides, if you have one, chances are you won’t need one.

Happy hiking!

 

Laughter: The Best Medicine

Laughter really is the best medicine. Too many of us have forgotten how to laugh, and have become far too serious. If you don’t believe me, take a look around you. There are too many unhappy people–you can see it in their body language and their faces. It’s not healthy. And life is too short not to make the most of it.

I was born into a family that loved to laugh. They also liked to yell a lot, and many fond childhood memories are of family gatherings filled with loud Eastern European voices yelling over each other to be heard punctuated with bursts of hearty laughter. I remember my paternal grandmother laughing so uproariously that tears streamed down her face. Ah, those were the good old days.

Everyone in my family has a sharp wit and wicked sense of humor, but my mother and her older brother were the masters of humor, pranks, and trickery. It was in their DNA and they fine-tuned their skill by learning at the feet of the master, my grandfather. Good grief, that man was funny!

My mother used every April Fool’s Day to play a joke on me and my sisters by taking liberties with our lunches. Peanut butter sandwiches were laced with rubber bands. Ham sandwiches were a piece of paper between 2 sliced of bread which read “this is not a ham sandwich.” Hard boiled eggs weren’t. They were raw.

Of course, we learned to expect it, and so did our friends. They couldn’t wait for us to open our brown bags to see what devilment our mom cooked up, so to speak. And, everyone got a good laugh out of it. I still do.

So, this April Fool’s Day, remember that laughter really is the best medicine. It’s right up there with high quality dark chocolate and good wine. It beats the heck out of being unhappy.

Real Men DO Eat Quiche

Real men do eat quiche. Or, at least mine does. He absolutely loves it, and so do I. My ex-BFF always made asparagus quiche every time she had us over for brunch, because my husband loved it so much. It was good, but the rich crust and heavy cream in the filling sat in my stomach like a brick for days, not to mention what it did to my hips.

A long time ago a friend introduced me to a “crustless quiche” recipe she found in a Fannie Farmer cookbook. It included cottage cheese, frozen spinach (yuk!), and just a few other mundane ingredients. However, melted butter formed a lovely crust as it baked. Mmmmmm, butter. Now you’re talking!

For years it was my go-to quiche recipe. But, it just didn’t seem very healthy or nutritious. Go figure. So, I used my stealthy ninja skills to cut, draw, and re-arrange a few things. I added fresh vegetables and the results were short of miraculous.

Then, for good measure (and because it is quiche, after all), I added the coup de gras—bacon! If you’re not a fan of bacon, you can use turkey bacon or just leave it out entirely so it is a vegetarian dish. You may want to even play with a few variations of your own. Just in case you like to play with your food. So, here it is, my Best Quiche Ever!

 

10 eggs

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp sea salt (I like the Himalayan sea salt, because it’s pretty.)

1/2 cup butter (melted)

1/2 cup flour

4 cups coarsely chopped fresh baby spinach

3 cups cooked butternut squash, mashed (Mashing things really helps with anger issues. Not that I would know).

2 cups shredded cheese of your choice (I use either cheddar or a blend of mild cheeses. Depends on my mood).

10 strips chopped cooked bacon (I buy the precooked kind. My late father would be horrified. Frying bacon was his forte in the kitchen).

10-12 spears fresh baby asparagus

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Melt the butter in a 9x13x2 baking dish, but I would prepare the batter first so the butter doesn’t burn. I learned that one the hard way. Beat the eggs (I do it by hand using a whisk, once again releasing any pent up aggression), mix in the flour, sea salt, and baking powder.

Add the spinach, squash, bacon, and cheese. Mix well. Melt the butter in the oven. Remove pan from oven, gently and carefully (another harsh lesson learned the hard way), add the batter to the pan. Evenly distribute the asparagus spears on top, gently pressing into the batter.

Return to the oven and bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Reduce heat to 350 and cook for another 35-40 minutes. Stand 5 minutes to set before serving. This is great paired with French Bread, my Hallelujah Kale Salad, and a light white wine. Enjoy!!

Hairless At Twenty-Five

Imagine a young woman waking up one morning, getting her coffee, having her breakfast, and then taking her shower. It’s just an average day in the life of a twenty-five year old. Until she gets out of the shower and begins drying her hair. She notices a small bald spot at the top of her head, and her boyfriend confirms what she sees.

Instead of going to work she heads straight to the dermatologist. She is diagnosed with alopecia and told not to worry about it–it was probably a temporary situation, and isolated incident, and the hair would grow back. Five months later she was completely bald. Now imagine that young woman is you.

You have just begun living a nightmare that just won’t end. You try every treatment that is recommended, no matter how painful and/or expensive. They all fail. You do all the research, consult with the experts, do everything you’re told to do, and the only result you get are a few soft hairs beginning to sprout. However, within a few days they fall out.

The only consistent answer you get to all of your questions is, “We don’t know.” It’s a wait-and-see situation. However, there is a trial medication that you can try. But it costs about $800/month, insurance doesn’t cover it, and there is no guarantee that it will work. Or, if it does, that it will be permanent.

You feel completely normal except for your bald head. You aren’t sick, but you look really weird, even with your wig. Which, by the way, is hotter than hell and itches as well. Strangers come up to you and ask you what kind of cancer you have. Children stare and point, much to their parent’s embarrassment.

You tell the parents it’s okay–you’re used to it. You try and make jokes about it. You keep thinking that someday your hair might grow back. But the reality is, it’s a crap shoot. What would you do?

I honestly don’t know what I would do. But I don’t think I would handle it with the dignity, grace, and spirit that my niece does. She is that woman. And she is truly amazing.

A Chicken In Every Pot

In 1928, Herbert Hoover promised the nation that there would be “a chicken in every pot” if he won. I love that idea, especially if it’s in my crock pot.

But I never could manage to cook a whole chicken in my crock pot. It always came out as a big mushy mess. It tasted okay, but the texture was horrible. And then I found a crock pot recipe for a “rotisserie” chicken.

When I read the recipe I did a mental head smack. I was cooking it way too long! No wonder why mine was a mushy mess. So, I tried the recipe and it was fabulous. Of course, true to form, I changed the ingredients around a bit. After all, blind obedience never was my forte.

I love chicken, not only because it is incredibly versatile, the health benefits of chicken is nothing to scratch at. (Sorry, bad chicken humor). I do cook (and eat) a lot of chicken. But I was recently banned from bringing chicken for lunch by a small group of vegans who were offended by my chicken.

How could you possibly be offended by a chicken? That poor bird never did anything to hurt anyone. Besides, it gave its life for me. The least we can do is show it some respect and appreciation. I know I always say a few words of thanksgiving before I eat it. I just make sure I say them silently so I don’t offend anyone.

I love chicken. I have one in my crock pot right now. I’m getting ready to download the 25 new recipes that showed up in my inbox this morning. I will raise a drumstick in salute to that noble bird. I might even break out into a rendition of the chicken dance. Because there really should be a chicken in every pot.

Don’t Tell Me What To Do

Are you ever amazed that some people believe that they have the right to tell you what to do? To control what you say, do, think, or eat? Yes, I said eat.

I’m part of a group that meets twice a week for some pretty intensive physical and mental conditioning. It’s exhausting, especially since I have to drive an hour to get there and an hour home. But, it’s well worth the effort. After all, I don’t ever want to become complacent, or choose not to do something because it’s “too hard.” Besides, I love a challenge.

Those 2 days are long, exhausting, and depleting. If you don’t bring food to sustain you, you will die. Or at least pass out. Since there is no scheduled break, we step off of the mat anytime our blood sugar threatens to plummet. I always bring chicken, because it’s the only thing that keeps me going without making me feel sick.

After doing this for two years, last week I was informed that my chicken was no longer welcome in the building. I couldn’t eat it anymore because the smell of my chicken was offending the delicate senses of the vegans in the room. Huh.

They never even thought to consider that I might be offended by their 6-clove-garlic-seaweed-ginger-tofu curry. Or that they might want to think about using deodorant and occasionally washing their feet.

But I would never say that. Because I believe that we should live and let live, unless it is causing someone harm. I believe in free will choice. I believe in mutual respect and appreciation. Most of all, I believe this courtesy should be extended to one and all.

So, I will continue to bring my chicken. Because I can. Because I will. And because no one can tell me what to do. But the ninja in me sure would like to see them try.

Major Mac and Cheese Makeover

I love comfort food. Who doesn’t? My favorite has got to be macaroni and cheese. Good old-fashioned, rich, creamy, gooey, stick-to-your-ribs (and to your hips) macaroni and cheese. It sure does hit the spot on a cold winter evening or when you feel you need some home-style cooking. But seriously, who needs all that extra fat and calories?

I spent years trying out recipes of “lightened up” mac and cheese. They sure did save on fat and calories, because they were so awful I couldn’t eat them. Maybe that was the intention all along. But I still wanted my mac and cheese. So, I used my stealthy ninja skills along with my sharp objects to cut down on the bad stuff and to sneak in some healthy additions as well.

By using high protein pasta, decreasing the amount of butter (but not eliminating it completely), using unsweetened almond milk instead of whole milk, substituting butternut squash for 1 cup of cheese, and tossing in baby spinach for good measure, I believe I finally nailed it. After many tried and true attempts, here is my Major Mac and Cheese Makeover.

16 ounces  Barilla Protein Plus penne pasta

2 TBSP butter

1/4 cup flour

1 tsp dry mustard

1 tsp white pepper

dash hot pepper sauce

2 1/2 cups unsweetened almond milk

1 cup cooked butternut squash

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

3 cups chopped baby spinach

Spray a casserole dish with no-stick cooking spray. Cook the penne pasta according to directions, drain and place in the casserole dish. Add the chopped spinach and toss gently. In a medium saucepan,  melt butter. Stir in flour, mustard, pepper, and hot pepper sauce and blend until smooth. Mix the cooked butternut squash in a food processor with 1 cup of the almond milk and blend until completely smooth.

(Note: I buy the butternut squash already cubed in the produce section of the grocery store. I got tired of wrestling those bad boys and losing the fight. Guess my ninja knives aren’t as sharp as I think. Or my ninja skills).

Add the squash and almond milk mixture to the pan, and slowly add the remainder of the almond milk. Cook until the mixture boils, stirring constantly. Add the cheese and cook just until cheese is melted, stirring constantly. Pour mixture on top of pasta/spinach mix, cover and cook on 350 degrees for 1 hour. The results are a smooth, creamy, mild flavored, and oh-so-satisfying macaroni and cheese. Without the fat, calories, and the guilt.

Time to Get On the Ball

When I was in grade school, our teachers used to tell us to “get on the ball!” It was a metaphor for get to work, stop slacking, quit fooling around (and having fun). Basically, time to get serious and grow up. Sheesh! What a bunch of kill joys!

But I sure wished that they meant it, literally. Because getting on the ball is a fantastic (and inexpensive) addition to any fitness program, or just simply to have some fun. In fact, it’s so much fun that you don’t feel like your doing any exercise at all. And, you can do it every day, all in the privacy of your own home. Just sitting on the ball for a few minutes each day can:

1). Improve posture, balance, core strength, and flexibility.

2). Increase blood flow, lymphatic flow, and environmental awareness.

3). Improve cognition, attention, and creativity.

4). Relieve stress, anxiety, and fatigue.

5). Make you feel like a kid again. (That one just happens to be my personal favorite).

Start by simply sitting on the ball. Once you are comfortable, you can add gentle rocking back and forth, and side to side. Start doing gentle bounces. You can even do an aerobic workout on the ball. Put on some music and go to town bouncing around. Or course, keeping safety in mind at all times. I even like doing light weights for my arms while sitting on the ball, because it gives me more bang for my buck. What can I say–I like multitasking.

If you are new to using an exercise ball (also called fit ball, Swiss ball, physio ball, Pilates ball), you might want to check in with a physical therapist to make sure you get the correct size and you know how to use it correctly and safely. But most of all, remember that exercise doesn’t have to be tedious. It can be fun and uplifting. It can even make you feel like a kid again. Without the nagging teachers.

A Day In the Life Of a Penguin

My love affair with penguins started in the 5th grade when I had to do my first research paper (ack!). We were able to chose any topic that we wanted to write about. I was completely at a loss, so my mom suggested I look in something called The Encyclopedia Britannica for ideas.

Yes, that’s the way we did it back then. No quick internet search right at your fingertips or in the palm of your hand. No, Sir-ee, not for my generation. We had to do things the hard way. Like walk a mile back and forth to school in 2 feet of snow, uphill in both directions.

Anyway, as I was flipping through the entire collection of books I saw a picture of a penguin. Eureka! I had my topic! My mom looked a bit skeptical when I told her I wanted to write a paper on penguins, but she agreed to help me. Over the next few days, we both fell in love with these adorable mammals as we learned about their habits and patterns. I even remember a few fun facts to this day.

For example, penguins are incredible social. And, even though they can’t fly, they can jump as high as 9 feet. That sure would come in handy in a ballet class or during my ninja training days. Also, penguins display very intricate courting behavior. I guess that means the females preen their feathers and the males flex their muscles.

I even remember how they know if it’s safe to go in the water. They all gather at the waters edge and begin pushing and shoving each other until one of them falls in. If the penguin swims around, they’re good to go. If the hapless penguin gets eaten by a predator….well, you get the idea.

I learned a lot of life’s lessons doing that report. First of all, it’s good to belong to a community. After all, there is safety in numbers. Next, sometimes you need to be able to jump and rise above the fray to get to where you’re going. Finally, don’t make it a habit to push to the front of the line in a crowd, because you might not make it out alive, literally and figuratively.

This sweet memory was triggered when my sister showed me a video of the penguin parade at the Pittsburgh Zoo last month. And, the fact that National Penguin Day was last month. Who knew?

I still love penguins. And I love the fact that for the next 40 years, any time my mom and I saw a penguin, we would look at each other and smile. My mom would always ask if I remembered “our” report on penguins. Which , by the way, I got an “A” on. I always assured her that I did. Because I remember everything, especially a day in the life of a penguin.

Hallelujah Kale Salad

I have a love-hate relationship with kale. On the one hand, I love the incredible health benefits in this beautifully colorful but pungent vegetable. On the flip side, I don’t like to eat it. Period. End of discussion.

A few years ago, I used my stealthy ninja tricks to sneak more kale into my diet. I had started juicing, because I heard about the almost magical benefits of this latest dietary fad. One of my friends even assured me that her green juices gave her “super powers.” Hmmmmm….I thought to myself, who wouldn’t want that? And I started adding kale to my juices.

Since my martial arts class started at noon, it was always a challenge to figure out when to eat lunch. Eat too close to noon and you feel like you’re going to throw up. Which would certainly defeat your opponent, but there are better ways of doing that. Eat too early and you’re defeated by your own plummeting blood sugar. Having a freshly rendered juice before leaving for the dojo seemed to be the perfect solution.

Until the day when I was feeling exceptionally adventurous and put an entire bunch of kale in my juice before I ran out of the house to go to class. Class always began with a vigorous acrobatic warm up including a complex series of rolls, falls, cartwheels, etc.  After my first 2 rolls I realized I had made a serious error in judgment. I managed to keep it together (if you catch my drift) for the rest of the class, but I assure you, I never did that again!

Recently, a friend of mine shared her kale salad recipe with me. It involves “massaging” the kale to make it soft and tender. Always skeptical, I tried it in spite of my misgivings, figuring I could always put it in the composting if it was inedible. It was delicious! So good that I ate the entire bowl in one sitting, without the dire side effects I experienced from the kale juice. Halleluja! Kale really can be irresistible! So….here it is. My Hallelujah Kale Salad.

1 bunch green kale

1 ripe avocado

1 lemon

sea salt

Mash the avocado in a large bowl. Strip the leaves from the stem, tear into smaller pieces, and toss them into the bowl. Add the juice of half a freshly squeezed lemon and “massage” the ingredients together with your hand. Not only does it soften and tenderize the leaves as you work the avocado into the kale, it’s an awesome way to work out some anger issues. Not that I would know anything about that. (Yes, I’m rolling my eyes right now). Sprinkle sea salt to taste and mix together.

You might want to add a bit more lemon juice. I like things that are tart (like myself), so I actually use an entire lemon. During a creative streak, I tried adding ingredients like garbanzo beans, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, etc., but it didn’t quite work out. In this salad, the kale stands alone. Enjoy!