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Photography: A One Year Journey in Pictures

The very first posts on my blog didn’t have pictures.  I’ve always liked words, but I was intimidated by pictures.  I didn’t even have a camera other than my phone, and my pictures never came out how I intended them.  I tried to make Justin take pictures for me with his camera, but I also didn’t like that idea because I wanted everything on my blog to be mine.

Slowly I began borrowing his camera (a Canon Powershot SX10), though I never took it off auto mode.  I produced masterpieces like these:


Kale Salad with Cheddar and Apples.  A delicious salad, not that you can tell from the photo.  I’ve been intending to remake this salad and give it a better picture.


Cornmeal Crusted Tofu with a Tomato Caper Sauce  Another delicious dish doomed by bad lighting, a dreadful presentation, and sad photography skills.

yuppie nachos

Yuppie Nachos.  This was by far the best picture from that period of my photography career.  I remember being very proud of it.  Granted, I just lucked out that the auto settings didn’t make everything dreadfully yellow, considering this photo was taken at 9:00 at night under our stove lights.  Still, these nachos are delicious (made with goat cheese, jack cheese and sundried tomatoes before being topped with guacamole), and I was pleased that the picture made them look like something I would actually want to eat.

Last March (2011), I purchased a LivingSocial deal for a 3 hour beginner’s photography class from Isla Studio.  Justin had been trying to show me things on his camera, but I knew I’d do better with a teacher.  I went over to San Francisco for the class with Justin’s camera.  There were maybe 25 students in this cool industrial space, with a whole range of cameras.  Some people had tiny point and shoots, and others had massive DSLRs with multiple lenses. 

Our instructor, Lindsey, was fantastic.  She explained everything simply with great photos to demonstrate, and she somehow found time to show each of us how to use our camera and find each setting we were discussing without ever letting the class lag.  After her class I almost never took my little Powershot off manual again.  (Unless I was trying to photograph a moving target in which case all bets were off).

 Ashley also has a great series of Photography 101 posts that have been really helpful to me:

Plus all her examples are pretty food pictures.

So armed with my newfound knowledge, my pictures started getting a lot better, very quickly.  These are all still taken with the Powershot SX10, but I was shooting in manual mode and had much better control over the camera.


Grilled Cheese with Extra Sharp Cheddar, Apples, and Whole Grain Mustard.  Still my very favorite sandwich.  I’d written about this perfect grilled cheese in one of my very first blog posts, but it was picture-less.  I hoped appetizing photographs would influence some of you to make this sandwich!


Roasted Zucchini and Potato Mole Tacos with Avocado.  Another photo I was so proud of.  I loved the colors (what’s not to like about a purple potato?), and I liked the lighting as well. 

I’d been borrowing Justin’s camera for nearly a year, and it mostly wasn’t a problem.  However, sometimes we’d be going different places and both want the camera.  I knew I’d eventually want to upgrade to a DSLR, but I didn’t have the money for it yet, and I was totally overwhelmed by all the different models and lenses.  I bought myself this tiny Canon Powershot ELPH 300 which I really liked.  It was tiny and easy to take on runs or bike rides.


I used it to take this picture of a lizard we saw on one of our hikes, and I was really happy with the quality.  For all of my food pictures, though, I was happy to continue borrowing Justin’s camera as long as it was available.

Around Thanksgiving, Justin started to talk about how he’d already thought of my Christmas present.  He taunted me with it for nearly six weeks.  He assured me that it was the best Christmas present ever.  That he knew I’d be so excited.  He wouldn’t give me any hints except that 1) I would love it, and 2) it was useful.  Let it be noted that when someone spends weeks telling you that they’ve bought you the best present in the whole world, it is hard to figure out what to get for their present! 

When Christmas finally came and we opened presents, I was completely shocked to see he’d gotten me a Canon 7D.  It was an incredible gift, and I was totally blown away.  He said he thought I’d gone as far as I could with his camera, and that I needed a better one to really make the most out of my photography.  I was so amazed, and must have thanked him a million times.  Even now, when I’m taking photos or going through the day’s photos at night I’ll thank him for my fancy camera.  I’m still just barely learning all of its tricks. 

Several days later, as I was celebrating Christmas with my family, I was shocked again to open a 50mm f/1.4 lens from my parents.  I could finally take artistic food photos with a super tight focus and very shallow depth of field (let’s just call that artistically blurry).  I think I unwrapped it, stared at the box in disbelief, and said to my mom “Really?!” My grandmother had even gotten me the perfect camera case to fit all my new toys!  Justin had put some serious coordinating into Christmas, and I was overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity.

I was determined to learn everything about my camera, and not become one of those people who has a fancy toy but no idea how to use it.


I bought a manual and got to studying.  Even though I’ve read the whole thing cover to cover, I think I’ve only mastered about 20% of my camera’s functionality.  Still, I’ve been able to take some incredible photographs.


Simple, Customizable Granola.  I loved how the colors of the craisins played against the pink of the bowl, and as well as how much texture there is in this photo.  I’ve also finally learned the lesson about natural light, which means I can take photos in my house, on my kitchen counter, between the hours of 2:30-3:30PM.  Which pretty much limits me to getting great photos on the weekend until it starts getting lighter much later.


Vegetarian Black Bean Soup.  This was my first picture that got accepted to FoodGawker, and I was over the moon with excitement.  Seriously, I called Justin and my parents and sent frantically excited emails like I’d just gotten into my first choice college, early admission. 

It’s been just a little less than a year from the first photo in this post to the last.  I’m thoroughly amazed when I look at the difference between them.  I still have so much to learn (manual focus, I’m going to master you one of these days!), but my photos are really starting to look exactly how I want them to, and that’s very exciting.


Here are all my tools, my little Canon ELPH 300 in red, Justin’s trusty Powershot SX10, and my new Canon 7d.  I’ve committed to taking at least one picture a day for all of 2012, though many days I’m up more around the 100 range, and up in the 500-700 range on the weekends.  I’m still taking lots of duds for each good photo, but I’ve learned so much about my camera, as well as about lighting and composition.  With any luck I’ll have improved even more in another year!

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A Fully Stocked Pantry

A while back I promised my friend Alex a pantry post, and it’s been sitting half completed in my drafts folder for weeks.  She reminded me about it this weekend, so I finished it up for you.

A large chunk of my pantry is stocked from the bulk section at my grocery store.  I always have a few kinds of dried beans and grains, plus nutritional yeast in glass jars. 


Right now, I have green lentils, snowcap beans, and Christmas lima beans on hand.  For grains I have brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, and wheat berries.  All of these are stable for a long time, and when I empty a jar, I’ll refill it with something new from the bulk section.  I also always have polenta and nutritional yeast on hand.  I use nutritional yeast in tons of dishes, including my favorite mushroom gravy and black bean soup.  I like the taste, and it’s a great source of vegetarian protein and B vitamins.


In the metal bucket I keep onions, garlic, and potatoes.  They’re also shelf stable for at least a few weeks, and I use onions and garlic most nights in whatever I’m cooking.  The potatoes also make for a quick dinner.  A sweet potato with black beans and nutritional yeast is easy and requires almost no hands on time, and scrambled eggs and roasted potatoes is one of my favorite quick dinners.

I also always have canned beans, coconut milk, pasta, marinara sauce, canned tomatoes, and macaroni cheese on hand.  I like cooking beans from scratch, but on busy nights that just isn’t feasible.


I buy my spices in bulk too, usually in very small amounts.  I always have cumin, cayenne pepper, chili powder, rosemary, oregano, thyme, cinnamon and nutmeg on hand.


I always have olive oil and safflower oil on hand, plus balsamic vinegar and apple cider vinegar, and soy sauce and mirin.  These let me make most salad dressing or simple sauces easily.


Other things I always have on hand are cheddar cheese and parmesan cheese, and lemons or limes.  When I do the weekly grocery shopping, I mostly pick up produce, milk, yogurt, eggs or tofu, plus anything we’ve run low on.

Off the top of my head, here are just a few things I could make with these pantry staples:

  • pasta with marinara sauce
  • black bean soup
  • multiple permutations of rice and beans
  • baked sweet potato with black beans
  • scrambled eggs and roasted potatoes
  • poached eggs in tomato sauce
  • polenta with marinara
  • chili
  • quinoa with coconut milk
  • pasta e fagioli
  • fried rice
  • three bean salad
  • cannellini beans baked in tomato sauce
  • macaroni and cheese

Add some greens to the mix, and you can easily triple the list of possible dinners.  Some combination of grains, greens and beans is in my regular dinner rotation.

I’ll also often make a soup by sautéing onion and garlic in olive oil, adding dried beans and stock, and either cooking some grains in the soup, or else wilting in some spinach or chard or kale at the last minute.  I’ll season it with whatever spices I have on hand.

I keep everything pretty well stocked because I like to have lots of options.  I think we all have a small list of groceries that we always need to have on hand, though.  For Justin, that’s pasta, marinara sauce, parmesan cheese, tortillas, refried beans, extra sharp cheddar, and jalapenos.  For me, it’s potatoes, eggs, black beans, macaroni and cheese, broccoli, extra sharp cheddar, and sourdough bread.

What ingredients do you always keep on hand?

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Purple Cabbage, Tofu, and Bok Choy Bowl with Ginger Lime Dressing

Sometimes you build a whole meal around a single ingredient.  In this case, I came home with the purple cabbage and everything else fell into place.  I loved the colors in this dish.  The greens and the purples made me smile, and the crispy tofu melted into a perfectly soft center.


I bought the purple cabbage at the farmers’ market because I thought it was so cute (I like cute vegetables the best), and then I wasn’t sure what to do with it.


I sautéed some tofu.


Threw together some and ginger-lime dressing


and mixed it all together with something green. 


Purple Cabbage, Tofu and Bok Choy Bowl with Ginger Lime Dressing

I came up with this just from the ingredients I had on hand; the whole thing is built around the purple cabbage.  If you don’t have mirin, feel free to sub in olive oil.  The flavor profile won’t be the same, but it will still be delicious.


  • 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp safflower oil
  • 1/2 block extra firm tofu
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 head purple cabbage
  • 1 small head bok choy

for the ginger-lime dressing

  • 1 tbsp finely diced ginger
  • zest of 1 lime
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1 tbsp mirin
  1. In a large skillet, over high heat, add the toasted sesame oil and safflower oil.  As the oil heats up, swirl the pan until the oil covers the bottom of the pan.
  2. Slice the 1/2 block of tofu into 1” x 1/4” pieces.  Place each piece in the skillet and season with salt and pepper.  The key to a good sear on the tofu is not to move it once it’s in the skillet.
  3. After 3 minutes, flip over one piece of tofu to check.  If the bottom is golden brown, flip the other pieces over and let them cook for another 3 minutes.
  4. While the tofu is cooking, roughly chop the cabbage and bok choy.
  5. When the tofu is golden on both sides, remove it from the pan, and add the cabbage and bok choy.  Cook for 4 minutes.
  6. While the cabbage and bok choy are cooking, combine all the ingredients for the dressing together in a small bowl and mix.
  7. After 4 minutes, remove the cabbage and bok choy mixture and portion into two bowls.  Top each bowl with 1/2 the tofu, and split the dressing between the two bowls.

The whole thought process and cooking, from idea to eating took me about 15 minutes.  Sometimes you just have to open your fridge and toss things together, and luckily for me, this worked out really well.  Now I need to go seek out some more cute purple cabbage.  Also baby bok choy.  That’s a pretty cute vegetable.

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Salted Caramel Pretzel Cookies and Whoopie Pies

When I saw Theresa’s post for Chocolate Stout Cookies with Salted Caramel Frosting and Pretzels, I knew I had to make them.  They seemed like the perfect sweet and salty combination, and I’ve definitely been on a bit of a pretzels-in-baked-goods kick.  (see both granola bar recipes)


I followed her recipe exactly, except I chopped up a dark chocolate bar instead of using chocolate chips.  I nearly got a contact sugar high just making the frosting.  Luckily the pretzels cut some of the sweetness from the frosting so the whole cookie is delicious together.  Licking the frosting spoon is the equivalent of mainlining sugar though; so don’t say I didn’t warn you!

As I was assembling the cookies I also realized that they’d make perfect whoopie pies, so I put some together like that instead.


Obviously I love salted caramel whoopie pies, so I’m glad to have a second version up my sleeve.


Now I just need someone to eat the rest of them for me!

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Oakland Half Marathon Training: Week 5

This was a week full of lots of random aches and pains.  I pulled something in my left quad, and while it doesn’t hurt to run, it’s sore just walking around on it.  Also, the tops of my feet are sore, and my hill workout (literally!) kicked my butt.  I took an extra rest day this week, and I’m really glad I did.  I’ve been living in my compression socks, and “The Stick” is permanently attached to my hand.image

Last week in summary:

  • Monday: (scheduled 4-5 long hills at 5k pace) 6 miles
  • Tuesday: (scheduled 4 miles) rest
  • Wednesday: (scheduled 6 miles) 4 miles
  • Thursday: (scheduled 6 miles) 7.5 miles with 6 long hills
  • Friday: (scheduled rest) rest
  • Saturday: (scheduled 11 miles) 11 miles
  • Sunday: (scheduled rest) rest

That hill workout kicked my butt!  I took this picture from the top:


What a gorgeous place to live.  There were orange and lemon trees all along the crazy hill (and it was super steep), but even though the workout was hard, I was happy to be running in such a pretty place.


Next week’s plan:

  • Monday: 4 miles
  • Tuesday: 6x880s
  • Wednesday: 7 miles
  • Thursday: rest
  • Friday: 7 miles
  • Saturday: rest
  • Sunday: 8 miles at Train with Shane

We’ll see!  I need my legs to stop feeling so beat up, so I may cut down the mileage on the two mid-week 7 milers.

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Recipe: Honey Peanut Butter Pretzel Granola Bars

So I loved the chocolate chip pretzel granola bars.  So much so, that they’re nearly gone.  My desk drawer is empty of all granola bars, and the freezer only has one left.  I’ve actually been eating them straight from the freezer, and they’re great cold.  No need to defrost if you don’t have time. 

So clearly, I needed to make them again.  But since I had some peanut butter chips and was out of chocolate chips (a tragedy that will be remedied quickly), I thought I’d stay closer to the peanut butter flavors of the Luna bar that inspired this recipe in the first place.


Honey Peanut Butter Pretzel Granola Bar

These bars have a more intense flavor than my chocolate chip pretzel granola bars.  I also doubled the amount of pretzels for some extra salt and crunch.  This recipe makes 16 small bars.  They also freeze very well, and make a great snack straight from the freezer.

  • 1 cup old fashioned oats
  • 1/2 cup coconut (flaked)
  • 4 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 2/3 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 cup puffed rice cereal
  • 1 cup crushed pretzels
  • butter to grease the pan
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter chips
  1. Spread the oats and coconut on a cookie sheet and toast in the oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until the coconut is golden.
  2. In a large bowl, mash the bananas and then mix in the peanut butter and honey until smooth.
  3. Mix the oats, coconut, puffed rice and pretzels into the banana mixture.
  4. Pour the mixture into a greased 8×12” baking pan.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.
  6. When the granola bars have cooled, press the peanut butter chips into the top of the bars.  Wait until they’re completely cool before you cut the bars.


I really like recipes that mix and match, like my customizable granola recipe.  You could swap in all sorts of things here.  Different cereals for the puffed rice, different nut butters for the peanut butter, different sweeteners for the honey, and different flavors of chips to top everything.  You could even leave out the chips all together and spread peanut butter or melted chocolate on top of these bars and cool them in the fridge before cutting.  Then you’d have a thin layer of peanut butter or chocolate on each bar, just like a Luna bar.

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Oakland Half Marathon Training: Week 4

It was a pretty good training week.  My plan called for 31 miles this week, but since I’m only running 5 days a week instead of 6, I’m feeling pretty good about this week’s 29 miles.  Though I’m tempted to run out the door and cram in 2 more miles, I’m trying to respect the rest days.  I’ve basically just cut the weekend 3 miler off the Cool Running schedule in favor of an extra rest day


This week was a little bit of a cut back week, but had a quality 6 miles workout on Monday.  I don’t really like fartleks as speed workouts.  I prefer intervals because they’re easier to compare across time.  You can’t really compare last month’s fartlek with this month’s.  That said, I managed 6 miles at a 9:07 pace, which is my goal half marathon pace, so that felt great.  I’d definitely describe this workout as “comfortably hard.”

Last week in summary:

  • Monday: (scheduled 5 mile fartlek) 6 mile fartlek
  • Tuesday: (scheduled 3 miles) 3 miles
  • Wednesday: (scheduled 6 miles) 4 miles with Run Club
  • Thursday: (scheduled 6 miles) 6 miles
  • Friday: (scheduled rest) rest!
  • Saturday: (scheduled 8 miles) 10 miles
  • Sunday: (scheduled rest) rest! 

I also managed to get to yoga every day Monday – Friday, and even fit in three strength training sessions.  Holy cross training!

Next week’s plan:

  • Monday: 4-5 long hills at 5k pace
  • Tuesday: 4 miles
  • Wednesday: 6 miles
  • Thursday: 6 miles
  • Friday: rest
  • Saturday: 11 miles
  • Sunday: rest

Amusingly, the hardest run of that set will probably be Tuesday’s.  I run in the morning on Tuesday instead of after work, and it’s just hard for me to get going in the morning.  I can wake up and get out the door just fine, but my body seems to rebel against the idea of running first thing in the morning.  I’ve noticed the same thing with my weekend long runs.  The first mile or two is always extra slow until my legs seem to wake up and realize what’s going on.


Are you a morning runner?

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Chocolate Chip Pretzel Granola Bars

I usually keep a box of granola bars at my desk at work.  They’re the perfect 3:00 snack before my afternoon run.  I’ve just run through a whole box of Clif Coconut Chocolate Chip Clif bars, and before that it was a box of Coconut Cream Larabars.  I appreciate the convenience of picking up a box of granola bars, but I knew they had to be pretty easy  make at home myself.


I’d picked up the new Peanut Honey Pretzel Luna bar last weekend, and I liked it a lot, but decided to adapt it with some of my favorite flavors.  I’d made a double batch of Ashley’s maple almond butter last weekend and wanted to use it in these bars.

Chocolate Chip Pretzel Granola Bar

The maple almond butter is definitely a more subtle flavor than peanut butter.  You can easily swap in peanut butter for the almond butter and honey for the maple syrup to make a closer match for the new Luna Bar flavor.  This recipe makes 16 bars, and freezes well.

  • 1 cup old fashioned oats
  • 1/2 cup coconut (flaked)
  • 4 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1/2 cup maple almond butter
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1 cup puffed rice cereal
  • 1/2 cup crushed pretzels
  • butter to grease the pan
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips
  1. Spread the oats and coconut on a cookie sheet and toast in the oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until the coconut is golden.
  2. In a large bowl, mash the bananas and then mix in the maple almond butter and maple syrup until smooth.
  3. Mix the oats, coconut, puffed rice and pretzels into the bananas mixture.
  4. Pour the mixture into a greased 8×12” baking pan.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.
  6. When the granola bars have cooled, press the chocolate chips into the top of the bars.  Wait until they’re completely cool before you cut the bars.


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Coffee Heath Bar Crunch Cookies

After a long run last weekend, we celebrated Aron’s birthday with a Coffee Heath Bar ice cream cake.  It was a delicious way to refuel after 10 miles.  Later that week during one of my regular runs, I had a brainstorm.  Coffee heath bar cookies!  You can’t really have ice cream cake on hand at all times, but cookies?  Those are fair game. 


Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch is actually my favorite Ben and Jerry’s flavor, but Coffee Heath Bar is a close second.  Plus I loved the idea of coffee flavor in the cookies.  Perhaps these are a better before run snack, full of lots of carbs and a little kick of caffeine.


Coffee Heath Bar Crunch Cookies

Rolling the dough into even balls allows these cookies to spread out into a perfect circle.  These are a flatter, crunchier cookie, and they are delicious dipped in a cup of coffee.

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp espresso powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp hot water
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 cup chocolate chips (I used 1/2 cup mini, 1/2 cup regular)
  • 3/4 cup toffee pieces
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cream together the butter and the white and brown sugar in a large bowl.
  3. Add the egg and vanilla and mix until smooth.
  4. Stir in the flour, espresso powder and salt.
  5. In a small, separate bowl, mix together the hot water and baking soda.  Add this mixture to the dough and mix.
  6. Mix in the chocolate chips and toffee pieces until  they are well distributed throughout the dough.
  7. Roll the dough into 1” balls and bake on parchment paper-lined cookie sheets for 12-15 minutes or until golden.

The cookies are crunchy, and the toffee melted into thin chewy rivers running through the cookie.  I think they’d fuel you through a fantastic run.

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