Monday, December 15, 2014

Spread the cheer - eggplant tagine dip

One thing I love about the holidays is the food! Such good food within a short time span. It's great on our tummies, not so great on those pants, that dress, that suit.

I really like seeing all the variety of appetizers, entrees, and desserts that people bring. People come together for the holidays and you get to try new foods, experience wonderful flavors, and share different cultures. Oftentimes I leave an event usually asking at least recipe for me to try later at home.

Something new that I recently tried was a rendition of an eggplant tagine, a Moroccan stew. Tagine is a traditional stew named after the cooking equipment that the dish is normally prepared with.

Tagines lined up in a row (photo courtesy of K. Rogers)

Tagines can be made with a variety of different ingredients, such as different meats, vegetables, or even fruits, slow cooked and simmered with a combination of different spices like curry, cumin, and saffron. The final product culminates into this aromatic dish that can be eaten with rice, pasta, or even, as I experienced it, as a dip.

Vegetable tagine (photo courtesy of Turajski)

Festive vegetarian eggplant tagine!

My first experience having a tagine was at a potluck for an end-of-quarter celebration for a mentoring pilot program happening at my university. The flavor profile is a little bit of sweet, savory, and spicy. There's a great kick at the end that comes from a little bit of cayenne.

There's a great amount of versatility with a tagine. In essence, it's just a stew of your favorite things (whether it's really well-seasoned meat, in season produce, or just an assortment of blazing spices).

Here's my rendition of the eggplant tagine (recipe from M. Diaz, who was so kind as to share with me his wonderful recipe!). You'll find that the recipe is very flexible - you can add or omit anything you don't want. I think that next time, I might add some zucchini squash and celery. Also, the dish is super festive looking and not difficult to make!

-  Olive oil for brushing
- 1 chinese eggplant (I think any eggplant would work), diced
- 1 24 oz can of stewed tomatoes (I chose the fire roasted and seasoned with garlic flavor)
- 1 red onion, chopped
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons of honey to start
- 1 lime
- Spices of your choice (cumin is a huge staple for most tagines, but I didn't have any on hand, so I used Trader Joes' 21 seasoning salute, cayenne, paprika, garlic salt, and onion powder)

1. Preheat oven to 425 degree F
2. Slightly grease a baking sheet with olive oil
3. Place eggplant and garlic cloves in baking sheet and bake until slightly cooked (should be roughly 15 minutes) - once garlic slightly roasted, cut into smaller pieces for stew
4. While waiting, make the stew - throw in stewed tomatoes (can be done from scratch, too), onions and let simmer slowly
5. After eggplant and garlic done, toss in and stir slowly
6. After simmering for about 5 minutes, slowly add in honey until it fully dissolves (if your honey is super thick, try to heat it up slowly in another bowl). Once honey dissolved, add in spices of your choice and taste every so often until you like the taste
7. Finish off with a squeeze of lime - it will enhance the flavors further
8. Once happy with the taste, let it cool and you can serve with either rice, chips, couscous, or even pasta (I used brown rice sesame crackers)
9. Tagine will taste good several days after - in fact, the flavors are deeper if you let it sit in the fridge for a few hours!

You'll find that the flavors of this dish are slightly sweet and acidic - perfect for a dip... or even breakfast (I brought some to work today and ate it by 10AM....)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Quinoa "meatball" spaghetti pasta - postrun meal

Today, I rounded off my 600 miles for the year.

About a year and a half ago, I was hitting a rough patch in grad school. Experiments weren't working. Days didn't feel productive. The manuscript was nowhere near done. My overall mood and self-esteem was at an all time low. I needed an outlet, anything. Grad school can sometimes feel too abstract to feel like real accomplishments are done. There are also too few milestones to rejoice and celebrate.

So I decided to make concrete goals, just to feel more accomplished, and boost my overall mood. Goals that weren't so far away, like the idea of graduating, etc. I decided to run 300 miles less than half a year. When the new year rolled around, I met the goal and decided to up the challenge and do 600 miles in one year. Tonight, I ran the last stretch!

For 2015, I'm going to try for 700 and slowly make my way up - we'll see how far I get.

What better way to celebrate this little achievement? Gorge on pasta and yogurt.

Post-run eating should always include a good source of protein. Your body needs more protein to make up for all the hard effort your body has endured and helps boost recovery time for your body to heal itself and prep for the next activity.

One of my favorite protein loaded dishes is quinoa "meatballs." The meatballs are made with a combination of quinoa, mushrooms, garlic, onions, basil, and some parmesan. Simply bake these bad boys up in the oven and serve on top of your pasta of choice. They're a nice change from your usual meatballs, and in some ways, I prefer these "meatballs" to the original (bad episode of food poisoning, another story, another time).

The prep for these balls is super simple - you'll notice that my instructions are eye-balling, but that just means that it's open for your favorite substitutions!

I think the one thing to worry about is getting your quinoa to be just the right texture. I have found that if you give a little more water initially in the cooking, the quinoa ends up slightly mushier, which makes for a great binding agent for your meatball.

If you have just regular cooked quinoa, you can use an egg for a binding agent.

I personally like red sauce, but I like to make my sauce thick with lots of vegetables (I used eggplant, zucchini, onions, mushrooms and garlic). The end result reminds me of a red ratatouille-esque sauce that you can put on top of pasta or even a bed of greens for a low carb choice.

Perfect way to start my week off!

Have a great week everyone! Until next time, happy eating!

For quinoa:
- 1 cup quinoa
- 1 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 onion finely chopped
- 6 mushrooms finely chopped (the onion and mushroom amount is equivalent here, but you can adjust)
- 3 garlic cloves minced
- 1/4 cup basil chopped
- Parmesan cheese

For pasta sauce:
- Any pasta sauce of your choice (or even homemade if you're so inclined!)
- 1 onion coarsely chopped
- 1 zucchini chopped
- 1 eggplant chopped
- 3 garlic cloves chopped
- Pack of mushrooms chopped (~10 mushrooms?)
*I also like to use celery, tomatoes, or broccoli sometimes too

1. Soak quinoa with water (I like to do overnight, but a couple hours is OK)
2. Boil quinoa with water over low heat once water initially boils - should take about 20 minutes
3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
4. Once quinoa cooked, add in onions, mushrooms, garlic, basil and stir to evenly mix
5. Sprinkle parmesan amount of your choice and mix
6. Line baking pan and form little meatballs from your quinoa mix (I like to use a ice cream scooper or cookie scooper to just make it go faster)
7. Bake quinoa until browned, roughly 30-40 minutes - should appear crisp
8. While waiting for quinoa, make pasta sauce (or use sauce of your choice). If you're making the sauce that I have listed, it's simply adding in vegetables as soon as the stock red sauce is boiling!
9. Stir and cook vegetables and when done, lower heat until quinoa balls ready
10. Once quinoa balls cooked, either place into red sauce, or eat separately!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thanksgiving day thanks - take a deep breath!

Thanksgiving isn't the same without indulging in some great food and good company. Whether you spend it with family, old friends, new friends, or even by yourself, it's a time to reflect on the year and think about all the great things that have come your way.

Laguna Beach (Photo courtesy of MOH)
And for me, what better way to reflect than against this wonderful backdrop? Seriously, it's as if Southern California didn't get the memo that we're getting near Winter.

It's been awhile since MOH and I have gone hiking and we wanted to go all out. We ended up hiking for 4 hours, trekked 6 miles, and woke up the next day with our legs massively burning.

Laguna Beach has this beautiful park called Top of the World, which is aptly named. The scenery is beautiful, there's scattered remnants of wildlife, and lots of trails to choose from - and the top view is insane. 

We started out our trek with the Car Wreck Trail. This trail was labeled as difficult but MOH and I decided to take our chances. We ended up starting uphill and had to go steadily down a steep path. I slid three times, once officially on my butt. Towards the end of the descend, I just gave up and squatted all the way down (like how you squat to look at an ant up close, and I just slid along the sandy path). If you reach the end of the trail in one piece, you'll see this old car wedged deep into the soil.

The steepness of this hill reminded me of a trail at a Science Camp I attended younger - it was called "hamburger hill" because if you ever fell down the hill, it was said that your face would look like hamburger meat. Not a pretty sight, but you get how steep and dangerous these types of hills can be if you're not careful. 

Hills everywhere!
We got quite a bit of a workout, especially by the way I was trekking down. Since there was a mixture of rocks and sand on the path, I made sure to avoid falling as much as possible by squatting and walking down sideways to balance myself (makes for a great rear/quad workout if anyone's interested!).

One of the really pretty sights was all the trees just sprawled around the park. Groves of trees provided shade to us amid the 80 degree weather (Fall season, right?) while we hiked the Mathis Canyon Trail.

MOH and I love to hike around this time of the year - just escaping away to be closer to nature puts things in perspective and just helps clear our heads. We hiked two main trails before we eventually ran into a separate wilderness park (Top of the World is part of the Aliso and Woods Canyon Park) and ended up taking an alternate route back to the car. It ended up being a super steep hike back up that was probably a little steeper than the hill we descended initially. Our thighs were burning, sweat showered down my face (sexy, right?), and we finished the hike feeling super winded, but accomplished.

Despite the heat and the sweat on my face and pits, this hike was really fun. I enjoy hikes with lots of challenges and this hike definitely fit the bill. It was a beautiful Thanksgiving.

Thanks to everyone who comes across this blog - I really appreciate your support and hope everyone is having a great start of the holidays!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Why sleep, when you can run?

To paraphrase Fatboy Slim: "eat, sleep, run, repeat."

(photo courtesy of ShokoPhoto)
I'm halfway through my half-marathon running schedule (so is that a quarter way through?), and it's getting to that time of year when it's cold outside (at least cold for Southern California). I like to do dawn runs to start my weekends, but this morning was particularly painful starting a run in 50 degree weather. Not to mention, doing it in shorts and a t-shirt.

I also have to play this compromise between getting enough sleep and getting in enough time to do a run before it gets too bright. And then there's the pre-run snack that helps provide fuel for a long run. People suggest eating a snack before running at least 30 minutes in advance, but if you're already waking up at 6 to do a run, you're looking at waking up at 5 in order to get something in the belly without running with the feeling of a brick in your stomach. I've found that a good snack for me is cold oatmeal. Simply mix equal amount of oatmeal, yogurt, and almond milk, and let sit in fridge overnight. Quick, easy, and good amount of protein and carbs to get you through the morning!

What if you have to make the choice between getting in a good run or getting in the full sleep? I was curious if there have been any research articles looking into this and there's quite a body of research known about this area. 

Sleep is a necessity for everyone, even cute koalas (photo courtesy of Alex P.)
It's well known that sleep deprivation isn't great. Your body needs a good amount of sleep to basically reset itself. Having a good night's sleep is especially important for maintaining good communication throughout your different brain regions. In both animals and humans, sleep deprivation often leads to memory impairments in working memory and the consolidation or strengthening of new information. But can exercise reverse these negative consequences? 

Exercise has been shown to be important for improving cognitive function and protecting new memory formation, but how effective would squeezing in some sweat do in a compromised situation like what happens during sleep deprivation? 

Turns out, providing consistent exercise to animals before sleep deprivation completely protects the animals from sleep deprivation-induced damage to the brain. In this study, rats were allowed a month of regular exercise on a treadmill before being sleep deprived for 24 hours. Sleep deprivation causes many detrimental consequences on the brain such as decrease in electrical activation of the brain and decreases in key proteins essential for memory formation*. Groups that had exercised before sleep deprivation overall had higher levels of electrical activity in the memory area of the brain and pro-memory proteins compared to the control groups. 

These findings point to how much exercise can benefit and even protect the body from injury. It also points to how sensitive our brains are. If we're super sleep deprived, several molecular changes are drastically being changed, having a detrimental impact on our cognitive function. However, fitting in some exercise (in this case leisure running or walking) can ameliorate the damage done to the body from continual stress. In a way, I think that's why so many of my mentors have stressed the importance of fitting in some time getting in physical activity. My undergraduate mentor's joke of what a Ph.D. stood for?

Permanent Health Disorder.

Maybe that's why she ran and hiked so much...

Happy November everyone! November is a great month for me. MOH's birthday just passed, and I'm getting one step closer to my dream job. More news to come at a later time.

Happy eating!

*Sleep deprivation has shown to cause a decrease in early long term potentiation and lead to decreases in CaMKII and BDNF protein levels within the dentate gyrus. 


Zagaar, M, Dao, A, Alhaider, I, and Alkadhi, K. Regular treadmill exercise prevents sleep deprivation-induced disruption of synaptic plasticity and associated signaling cascade in the dentate gyrus. 2013. Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Kabocha and Yams - roast fest!

The supermarket I normally go to has decided to embrace fall - squashes and yams are on SALE!

I love a good sale, but when that sale falls in with the season, you load up. So when I saw the sale sign up for Kabocha and Sweet Yams, I hauled home with a bunch of these little suckers.

As a child, Kabocha squash was a staple soup. Simmered in a light chicken broth with green onion garnish, this soup was the go-to for if you were ever feeling sick. And yams? My mom loved to just roast them or boil them and have us eat them as snacks. Yams are so sweet to begin with that there's no need for added sugar (although I do love caramelized yams with coconut).

While I did roast some whole yams (I like to bring one to work to snack on when I get the munchies), I tried to do some yam fries. Super simple, super flavorful. I never noticed it before, but sweet potato fries and yam fries have this extra bite to them. It's a little sweeter, but there's something about tasting a natural caramelization that you get from the sugars of the potato. What's even better? MOH is all for it. Both of us are from the camp that french fries should be just potatoes, but with the rise of sweet potato fries and now yam fries, there's room for everyone.

Easy fries - toss with olive oil, garlic salt and pepper (roast 15 minutes on each side at 400 degrees F)
And if the yam fries weren't enough - I decided to do roasted kabocha squash slices for breakfast. Kabocha is really creamy and decadent. The taste reminds me of acorn squash, but creamier. I've done an acorn squash roast with shredded coconut (I like to make it during Thanksgiving time), so this time, I decided to roast kabocha with some coconut oil and a little salt and pepper. Again, very simple, but really tasty! The outside of the squash is firm (slightly burnt is my preference), but the interior is really creamy. This heats well too! If I had planned better, I would have eaten this with a side of eggs.

Same prep as yam fries only use coconut oil for extra flavor! Keep rind on if you like, or peel off
I think that next on our list is to do a squash risotto. Another time!

Until next time, happy eating all!!!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Coconut milk Clam chowder - belated welcome to Fall

It's FINALLY starting to get cold in Irvine. MOH and I were so excited to to see rain last night - yes, the rain lasted five minutes, but the cold breeze and light rain just made it "Fall" for us. The days get darker faster, there's this nice chilly wind in the air when you go running in the evening, and clouds hang in the sky to shade the sun. It's like fall just arrived!

As the weather gets cooler, MOH and I shift our eating habits from salads/stir fries to more hearty soups. MOH has this fascination with creamy soups. He loves pot pie, potato leek soup, and clam chowder, especially San Francisco clam chowder.

So when he asked me to try to make clam chowder, but a dairy free version, I was super hesitant. It's always hard to try to recreate a recipe of something that's really beloved. Most chowder recipes call for heavy cream or half-and-half, and lots of butter and all purpose flour, but none of these options were good. But after looking around at some great sites, there are some tricks - people have tried different milk alternatives like coconut milk. The results? Creamy decadence without the heavy caloric burden. Win win.

Chowder is super simple to make - you just need to make sure the bottom of your soup pot isn't burning. I like to make my chowder reminiscent of "new england" style, which has a thickened broth thanks to potatoes other starch components (other variants of clam chowder include tomatoes, red broth, asparagus, etc.).

All in all, the chowder took less than 40 minutes to make including prep time. To get it gluten free, I relied on the starch from the potatoes (I like russet, but I've heard that red potatoes might be more soft) and a little bit of cornstarch to thicken the soup (what I use for sup mang cua, a crab asparagus soup).

I was a bit hesitant to have MOH try it - he's been spoiled by clam chowder by SF and Monterey, but he liked the funky chowder and ate it happily with two slices of bread. I say "funky" only because I added in some unlikely chowder ingredients like carrots, corn, and green onions. The chowder turned out to be a cute mash-up of clam and corn chowder components and tasted super creamy and delicious!

If you like creamy, chunky soups, definitely give this recipe a shot!

Until next time, happy eating!

Ingredients (enough to serve 2): 
2 tbsp butter
1/2 onion chopped
2 celery stalks chopped
1/2 cup carrots chopped
1 cup of water 
2 cups of potatoes (or 1-2 potatoes, depending on size) cubed
1 1/2 cups of coconut milk (more or less half a can)
1 6.5oz can of clams
1/2 can corn
Garlic salt to taste
Green onions as garnish

1. In a soup pot, add butter and turn up heat to medium
2. Throw in onions, celery and carrots and sautee until browned
3. Once browned, add water and potatoes and simmer with lid partially closed for about 10-15 minutes (I check on them every so often - the water will get absorbed by potatoes and the potatoes will become very soft)
4. Once potatoes softened, add in milk and canned clams (include the juice!)
5. Finish off soup with adding corn and do last minute seasoning with garlic salt and pepper (dill and a dash of tabasco can be added for extra flavor)
6. Garnish with green onions and enjoy!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Riding on the runner's high

Ever get "runner's high?"

That feeling where you feel like your body is numb to any soreness or pain you may be feeling on those last miles? Or that euphoric feeling that all is well in the world (I mean, who cares if there's that looming deadline?).

Alone to your thoughts (photo courtesy of Alias0591)
Whether you just ran a massively long distance, hiked up a tall hill, or have been biking a long stretch, long endurance exercise has a way of producing this great boost of energy that many categorize as "runner's high." It doesn't happen all the time, but when it does, you feel on top of the world. I call it "second wind" or "autopilot," because my runner's high entails either feeling a speed of energy or just going through the motions.

It turns out there's an actual scientific reason why you're feeling so good during your runner's high - your body is releasing lots of feel-good hormones that are triggering pleasure centers in your brain. Specifically, chemical compounds called endocannibinoids (eCBs) are released in your brain, which act to relieve inhibition of the hormone dopamine. In doing so, more dopamine can be released to have an effect on different brain regions, giving you that fuzzy, happy-go-lucky, not-a-care-in-the-world feeling!

Endurance exercise stimulates release of eCBs that eventually lead to release of happy-go-lucky dopamine
But human aren't the only ones who run for leisure - some other animals do long distance running as well (known as cursorial animals). In a study conducted in 2011, researchers found that other animals that do endurance activities (dogs, horses, etc.), also have the same physiological after-effects. In this study, blood levels compared eCB from treadmill runners versus treadmill walkers within three groups (people, dogs, and ferrets). Researchers found that while dogs and humans both had increased levels of eCB in their blood, the non cursorial ferret (animals that do not do long distance running) did not have eCB release.

This study shows the physiological rewards that humans and other animals have when they engage in endurance exercise and points to why certain animals are willing to do more high risk, injury-prone exercise (running) over the safer, less injury-prone exercise (walking). There's just something so addicting about getting out there and going on a run. The day may have been long, your legs might be too tired to hold your body up, and the sun might just be a little too bright for your liking, but nothing can beat the chance to hit that rush. You just hit the pavement running, leaving everything behind.


Raichlen DA, Foster AD, Gerdeman GL, Seillier A and Giuffrida A. Wired to run: exercise-induces endocannabinoid signaling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the 'runner's high'. 2011. Journal of Experimental Biology.