Tuesday, 22 November 2011

SmartCooks Discovers K-Chips (Kool Krispy Kale)!

November 2011

SmartCooks here. 

Who'd thunk it?  Years, ago I'd never heard of kale.  We certainly didn't eat it in my household in southwestern Ontario.  In adult life, I sailed by it in the vegey section of supermarkets, farmers' markets, and herb and spice stores.  The few times I tried it I found it very bitter.

Well... no more!  The foodie blogs are abuzz with the newest method for eating kale, i.e., as if they are potato chips.  And, before I go further, let me say, I've tried K-Chips half a dozen times and I have become a MAJOR fan. 

What is Kale and Why is it Beneficial?

Research says that kale is a form of cabbage and has high levels of beta carotene, vitamins such as K and C, as well as calcium.   

Once upon a time, kale was one of the most common green vegetables in all of Europe. The plant can have various types of 'curly' leaves, with colours ranging from light green to violent green and brown. 

For K-chips, Red Russian kale is often used as is a classic Italian 'Dinosaur' kale (pictured left), which has deep blue-grey, and long and narrow leaves.  This type of kale is winter hardy and becomes even sweeter after a hard frost.  Tuscan kale and curly types of kale are also well known and can be used for K-Chips (picture, right).  

How to make it

Various websites recommend using a dehydrator to dry the kale (see left). Other sites swear by cooking them in the oven, which is what I did. The directions for oven temperature, though, were all over the map -- from 300 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  I went with 350 for about 10 minutes (watching closely) and taking them out as the leaves become brown at the edges.

If doing K-Chips in the oven, the other recommendation is to ensure the kale is Dry i.e., wash and spin it several times in a salad spinner. 

K-Chips Basic Recipe
(Synthesized from many websites, picture is Smitten Kitchen )

1 bunch of kale, either dinosaur, Tuscan, curly kale
1 T olive oil
Sea salt, to taste

1) Wash a bunch of kale and spin it in a salad spinner or use a dehydrator to dry thoroughly.  Make sure it is thoroughly dry. 
2) Remove the stems and the centre ribs. 
3) Tear the kale into bite-sized pieces.
4) Place kale in a ziploc bag and toss with 1 T olive oil.  Alternatively use hands to mix. 
*(Note can add other ingredients at this point, see K-Chips Variations below).
5) Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lay K-Chips in a single layer.
6) Bake for 10 minutes, or until CRISP and edges are brown.  If not ready after 10 minutes, continue baking and watch minute by minute. 
7) Add sea salt for taste. 

K-Chips Variations

There are almost as many variations to K-Chips as there are for potato chips.  I found recipes for salt and vinegar (add sherry, malt or balsamic vinegar), rosemary garlic oil, parmesan, lemon juice, or pickle juice. 

The raw food sites have more complicated recipes and involve a dehydrator.  I haven't included those sites but google away.... 

Nothing quite beats K-chips as a superb low carb and high protein snack. Go wild and pass the K-Chips please! 

Best K-Chips recipe sites:

Totally addictive kale chips:  http://mynewroots.blogspot.com/2010/07/totally-addictive-kale-crisps.html


For more fun, Gwenneth Paltrow (kindof) makes Kale Chips on the Ellen show. 

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Aside #17: Shout-Out to the best Food Blogging Sites

November 2011

As part of the SmartCooks portion of the blog, I've scoured most of the major foodie sites and have a list of about 12 sites (of hundreds) that I like the best.  There's an incredible range of people food blogging, either as an outlet or hobby or because they are serious chefs being paid by advertisers to write up their recipes and post them.  They have in common:  a love of making and eating good, healthy, nutritious food. 

Here's my top 5 web blogs:

Smitten Kitchen

Written from a tiny kitchen in New York, Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen blog is about five years old and has gained a large set of followers. 

Deb is a freelance writer/photographer who has received numerous awards for best food weblog and best photography.  She is currently working on "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook", to be released in Fall 2012.  She was recently a guest columnist in Martha Stewart's 'Food' app (more on that later).  She has hundreds of recipes on her site, all indexed from 'Sweets' and 'Seasonal Favourites' to 'Drinks' and 'Disasters'.  She is a fabulous writer and photographer, with a real ability to mix family anecdotes and recipes in one creative posting. 

Her predominant entries are food but she also apparently loves bourbon, which just happens to be my Husband's favourite Drink of Choice.  On May 14, 2011, she posted a recipe for Vermontucky Lemonade and I decided we needed to taste-test it for Husband's July birthday.  He and friends had a fine time polishing off the pitcher I made up.  She also has a wicked Tart Marg that she calls a "day-erasing, stress-obliterating margarita".  Cheers!


Food 52

Another unique food blog is Food 52, written by two New York Times writers, Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs (creators of the "The Essential New York Times Cookbook")

The idea behind the Food 52 weblog was to create a 'buzzing' place for people to talk about food; it took 52 weeks to create Food 52 weblog.  It's wildly successful.  They have a thriving community of home cooks, encouraged through contests, a cooking 'hotline' and promotion of recipes that are submitted to them for vetting. It's sophisticated and high quality.   

They love to work by themes, such as the 'Best Appetizer' or 'Best Dessert' and post the winning recipes.  Their website is choc-a-bloc full of recipes and tips, all done with exceptional writing and photography.  They love to promote aspiring young cooks.  They even have a Cooking Manifesto that includes promotion of cooking as the centrepiece of the family experience.   

Recently they released both a new cookbook (pictured above) based on the recipes submitted to them on the Food 52 weblog and an ipad app featuring their best recipes. 

I have many favourites from their recipe list, and find their ideas for simple, straightforward, uncomplicated dinners among the best I've found. 

About a month ago, for example, I cooked the recipe from the winner of 'The Best Holiday Roast Contest'.  The Porcini and Rosemary Crusted Beef Tenderloin with Port Wine Sauce was as good as posted.  It definitely deserved to be the winner.  Yummmm....

Martha Stewart The Everyday Food Blog 

I know. I know.  But if I'm looking for easy, classic, low-calorie (mostly), gluten-free, quick recipes for dinner or menu ideas, Martha is it.  Recent sample of entries:  "Roasted Salmon with Lemon Relish (below), Crispy Apricot Pork Chops , Roast Beef with Cabbage, Squash and Carrots .  It's all wholesome and good food. 

But where Martha Stewart really, really shines is the Ipad app version of her Food magazine.  It defines 'cutting edge', with the highest quality cooking videos, interactive recipes, and special effects like lights winking on a tree etc.  It's a treat to download the monthy magazine (ok, that part takes awhile) and spend an hour going through it.  There are just so many quick tips, creative ideas, and interesting columnists (like Deb Perelman from Smitten Kitchen). 

There are only a handful of magazines apps in general and food ones in particular.  Her company is hands-down the trend-setter for wireless mobile app technology.

Vegan Yum Yum and Kalyn's Kitchen 

The fourth spot is actually a tie between two vegetarian food blogs.  The first is Vegan Yum Yum , written by a 20s something named Lolo who has her own cookbook (left, also just released), has won Best Blog of the Year awards and was a guest on Martha Stewart's show to promote her sidelines of cupcake making and knitting (sigh).  Her photography is as amazing as her ability to pick wonderful recipes, like Spîcy Lemon Pepper Pasta with Broccoli or Avocado Wasabi Salad  (pictured below).  

She has been voted as best vegetarian weblog (among hundreds of competitors) and has thousands of followers.  And she's not even 30 years old yet.

The other vegetarian favourite is Kalyn's Kitchen, a home-cooking blog.  Kalyn shares recipes that combine her love for delicious food with a commitment to healthy, lower-glycemic eating. She bases her recipes on the South Beach diet that helped her lose 40 pounds a few years back.  She too has been blogging for a number of years. 

I cook her recipes all the time, especially on Meatless Mondays, which the food blogs are all promoting.  I do more than one day a week meatless and find plenty of excellent offerings on her site. Barely Blanched Broccoli Salad with Feta and Fried Almonds is typical of the recipes on her site.  She is also a skilled photographer and, at times, posts an entry on her marvellous back garden with its rows of vegetables. 

My New Roots  

The newest of the blogs that I like is written and created on Bloggers, the site that I use.  Its focus is more on picking healthy choices to eat every day.  Its recipes are mostly vegetarian but it varies.  There's not much about the author but she puts a lot of work into the explanations of each recipe. 
There's beautiful photography and creativity associated with recipes like Heart Beet Rawvioli with Pesto Oil .  I will leave you with the cute pix. 
Shout Out to ALL!!!


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Aside #16; Community Supported Agriculture Basket #4

November 2011

CSA Basket Number #4 from Bryson's Farms arrived today.  I had delayed its delivery by one week as I was still cooking and munching my way through Basket #3. This week's basket is full of organic fall and winter vegetables but still has lots of greens for salads!  

Unfortunately, I can't delay my biweekly order too often or they will kick me off the program in favour of weekly clients so I'm still undecided about whether this will work out or not...  So I will be cooking and freezing this weekend!

Here's a sample pix of what #4 looks like.  I looked up some of the more unfamiliar vegeys on the website.  

For example, the Cauliflower has a greenish tinge to it.  The website notes that cauliflower can come with a variety of colours (e.g., purpose, green or yellow).  They stress there was no malathion or chemical fertilizers used. 

The Broccoli (bottom left) with all the leaves is quite rare.  It's called Spigariello Liscia or 'Italian leaf broccoli' and the entire plant (including leaves) are edible, either steamed or chopped into stir frys. 

The curly Blue Kale at the top of the picture is hardy through the early frost season here until the temperature hits -10 degrees Celsius.  In fact, frost makes it sweeter.  I will look for recipes for this one.  

Bryson's says they receive lots of emails inquiring about the “yellow root crop”.  They are Golden Beets and should be slice them (unpeeled) into 1/4 inch pieces, steamed for about 20 minutes.  The tops can also be eaten.  They are apparently quite treasured by chefs.   
The long, white vegetable on the left looks like a small Daikon Radish, which I've only recently discovered and enjoy.  They are 'hot' when eaten raw and milder when steamed or roasted. 

If I'm right, two types of turnips are included:  Those on the right (bottom) are called Milan Purple Top Turnip, and are sweet, cooked or raw.  I've been including them in a salad of julienned celeriac, carrot and turnips and it's delicious.  The second type of turnip (white, far right bottom) seems to be Hakurei Turnip, which can be enjoyed raw, grated on salads, steamed, sliced in a stir-fry – even baked. They are very mild with an almost sweet flavour. They originate in Japan where they are treasured. And the tops are nice as well as a cooking green.
The potatoes look like Banana Fingerlings and they advise not to peel them but to wash, steam and enjoy.  There is one treasured bulb of Garlic called Music Garlic, which is in short supply in Ottawa, and retails for $3 each if you are lucky enough to find it.  It has both great flavour and great storage capacity. 

I also added some items to my order for this time only i.e., 
-- Heirloom Tomato Sauce (pix right):  No salt, no preservatives. Just Tomatoes! Defrost and add to make spaghetti sauce or any other dish.  This will feature in tonight's dinner. 
-- Heirloom Tomato Tart (pix below) that is company-ready and would easily serve 6-8 people.  I cut it into manageable slices and will cook one at a time when it fits the menu.
-- Curried Roasted Squash Soup:  They describe it as the perfect mix of spicy and sweet.  It is also low fat, vegan and gluten-free.  Can't go wrong.

Heirloom Tomato Tart. 

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

SmartCooks Spices it up with Thai Pumpkin Soup

November 2011

SmartCooks here.

Quick question:  "What's a pumpkin's favourite sport?  Answer:  Squash!"
(Small joke, :) sorry, not).

Spicy Thai Pumpkin Soup.  I decided to make it and from scratch.  Vegetarian.  Gluten-free.  Calorie-conscious.  Low/no sodium.  Enough for a dozen or so folks. If you decide to do it, you need to put aside the time, but the end result was velvet-y, satisfying, and hopefully not too spicy!

The main ingredient -- Pumpkins -- was the first challenge. Who'd guessed there is a paucity of pumpkin in the stores in Ottawa? Bloblaws said its supply was sold out before Hallowe'en.  No luck at the Metro or Herb and Spice outlets.  I read on the food blogs that there is a shortage of both canned and fresh pumpkin in the US too, thanks to the wet summer and Tropical Storm Irene.  Foodies there are hoarding what they can find for their Thanksgiving cooking fests.  Go figure.  Amazing.   

But ... let's hear it for local supply one more time!  The lone surviving stand at the Parkdale Market had fresh, locally grown pumpkins.  $1 for small ones; $3 for medium size.  For $10, I had the dinner soup.  Can't beat those prices. 

Before Making the Soup

Task Number 1 was to do the vegetable stock -- about 10-15 cups -- from scratch.  I love making my own vegetable stock and almost always have some in the freezer.  The recipe I use is adapted from an old recipe book (one of the few I still own) called Classic Soups.  I found it at Chapters years ago on the bargain table and it seems to be out of print now, but it's a gem.  I've made dozens of soups from this book and it's never let me down.  With a mandoline, key vegetables like celery, fennel, onion, carrot or whatever's around, cheesecloth, Bouquet Garni and a big pot, I make large batches.  No salt.  I had enough in the freezer for this recipe.

Preparing the Pumpkin

I took my 3 medium size pumpkins, cut them in big chunks, scooped out the seeds and other stringy bits (and I did NOT keep the seeds... horrors), and placed them face-down on two large baking sheets that were covered in tin foil and lightly brushed with olive oil.  The baking is done at 350 degrees Celsius for about an hour until skins are soft.  (If short of time, I am sure I could have microwaved them too... but I didn't).  Once cooled, scoop out all the flesh and discard the outer skin. 

The Thai Spicy Soup

This part got tricky.  I could not find a vegan, gluten-free, not highly caloric, slightly spicy Thai recipe I liked either in my cookbooks or on the Internet.  Some recipes looked too bland; others way too spicy (e.g., one Thai recipe called for 6 red Thai chilies, and I found 2 more than enough for company.  So I adapted.  Directions below are based on what I did.  You can eliminate or add to the spices in order to reach the desired level of spicy-ness.  Play around with it a bit and enjoy!

Ingredients (for 12 large bowls, and likely some to freeze or have the next day):

12 cups of diced pumpkin
14 cups of vegetable stock
2 T olive oil (or sunflower or canola)  
3 medium shallots, chopped
3 tsp minced garlic
3 tsp curry powder (medium strength)
1 stalk lemongrass, chopped and smashed
1/2 tsp each of the following 7 spices:  crushed red pepper, coriander seeds, cayenne pepper, cumin seeds, ground turmeric, mustard seeds, chili flakes
1 tsp grated ginger
2 small red chilies, seeded, finely chopped
1/2 cup coconut milk (optional)
Toasted pumpkin seeds, for garnish
Cilantro leaves to garnish (optional)
Salt and pepper (optional at the table)


Use a very large pot.  Cook the shallots and garlic first in the pot for about 4 minutes, or until slightly softened.  Add the curry powder, 7 spices, ginger, lemongrass and red chilies. I smashed the lemongrass slightly first to ensure its flavour was released before adding to the pot. Stir for another minute or so until fragrant. 

Add in the diced pumpkin and vegetable stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and let it cook until the pumpkin is softened.  This took about 15-20 minutes for such a large quantity of soup.  

Use an immersion blender right in the pot to blend the soup until smooth.  Alternatively, transfer soup (in batches) to a food processor to blend (that's way messier).  

When finished simmering, add in the coconut milk, and leave for a few more minutes.  Some recipes left this out.  I had half a cup left from another recipe so threw it in and it gave the soup a deeper, richer colour.  More could be added to cool down the spicy-ness.  

Toasted pumpkin seeds and coriander can be added at the table.  Salt and pepper at individual discretion. 

Final Serving Touch (totally optional of course)

The Queens of American-style etiquette, Martha Stewart and Oprah, suggest serving the soup in small carved out pumpkins.  Nice touch.  Too many people and a bit too fussy prep-wise for me.  But a thought for the future.  Here's pictures from their sites and Flickr.


SmartCooks Discovers Tomatillos and makes a Salsa Verde

November 2011

SmartCooks here. 

So, tomatillos, pronounced ['toh-MAH-tee-YO'].  I've gone my entire life noticing them in the stores and at the farmers' markets but never buying or trying to cook with them.  Have I missed out on a culinary delight! Mine looked exactly like the ones in the pictures below (courtesy of a couple of sites like Pinch My Salt and Gourmet Sleuth ). 

About eight of them arrived in my last Community Supported Agriculture Basket from Bryson's Farms. I wondered at first if they were a Christmas tree ornament but no ;) after I searched sites to find out what they are and what you do with them. (By the way, click here for a nice review of Bryson's Farms that has just appeared in the 'Food Buzz' column of Ottawa Magazine.

Brief History of Tomatillos 

According to my research, a tomatillo is a relative of the tomato, but with a very different taste.  The fruit provides the tart flavor found in Mexican green sauces. In Mexico the fruit is called tomates verdes, tomates de cascara as well as fresadillas.  The fruits average about 1 -2" wide and have a papery outer skin. The tomatillo is used when it is still green.

The Aztecs found the tomatillo around 800 BC and 'tomatillo' is 'round and plump'.  When Europeans arrived, there was much confusion between a 'Tomato' and a 'Tomatillo'.  The 'tomato' proved to be immensely popular with Europeans and was taken to Italy where it grew well in the Mediterranean climate.  The 'tomatillo', however, never gained in popularity with Europeans. In recent years, it is slowly being rediscovered. 

Salsa Verde/Green Salsa

The best recipe for using Tomatillos is to make a Salsa verde.  There are numerous versions of the recipes out there, and all seem to suggest either boiling them or roasting them.  I chose to boil them and went with a version of the recipe below, although apparently roasting them delivers more flavour. 

There are endless variations to this recipe, e.g., hotter by adding more chiles, or adding red or green tomatoes as well as tomatillos. Some people leave out the onion.  It all depends on taste. I loved the one I made below and used with chicken, pork chops and on its own with tortilla chips.  It was YUMMM! Hoping my CSA basket gives me more this week. 


1 1/2 lb tomatillos
1/2 cup chopped white onion
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
1 T fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 Jalapeño peppers OR 2 serrano peppers, stemmed, seeded and chopped
Salt to taste


Remove papery husks from tomatillos and rinse.

If roasting, cut the tomatillos in half and place cut side down on a foil-lined baking sheet.  Put under broiler 5-7 minutes to lightly blacken the skin.  If boiling, place tomatillos in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.  Remove with a slotted spoon.

Place tomatillos, lime juice, onions, cilantro, chili peppers, and sugar in a food processor (or blender) and pulse until all ingredients are finely chopped and mixed. Season to taste with salt. Cool in refrigerator.


Monday, 14 November 2011

Aside #15: November 11, 2011: Remembrance Day?

November 2011

Remembrance Day and the entire weekend were indeed one to remember.  It was chock-a-block full of activities, in fact more than Husband and I counted on.  It had jammed into it SmartCooking! (next posting), a delightful dinner party, a memorable brunch with my 84-year-old uncle who was in town to participate in the Veterans' Day ceremonies, a greet-the-new-(I want one)-baby drop-in, an encore of raking the leaves (time for all of them to be DOWN!), fitness (not enough of course), an encounter with the Unconscious Beings from across the street (more below and see Aside #7) and Apple Shopping.

In bad parallel construction form, I will focus on the last activity...  Apple Shopping... as the subject of this Aside.  Not the farmer's market type of apple shopping, but an 'argh-I-need a new MacApple laptop and how can it possibly COST that MUCH!' 

Let me take you through the sequence of events on November 11, 2011.  Friday morning was Remembrance Day morning.  I always mark it appropriately.  I usually end up cleaning the kitchen and assembling lists for the weekend while watching the ceremonies on the kitchen TV.  Given that we live downtown, we can hear the gun salutes that "boom" from Parliament Hill every few minutes.  The cats (who were outside in their back deck gazebo and condo) jump every time the 'boom' sounds.  I ran outside when the two CF-18 flew overhead AND this year marked the first time the Air Force sent a flyby of 7 Griffon helicopters as a specific tribute to the Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan.  It really was a sight to see in the Ottawa skies. 

Stores were scheduled to open at 12:30 p.m. once the ceremonies concluded.  A friend and I had decided earlier that week to be at the Apple Store (of course located in the busiest tourist mall in downtown Ottawa) as soon as it opened.  I expected to walk out with a new Mac with all my files transferred over from the old one, which was dying quickly. 

Three things went wrong with that plan:  a) it was a HUGE mistake to try and drive or be anywhere downtown; b) Apple is now so corporate that service is impossible; and c) I didn't count on the 'Black Friday' type of frenzy that began the minute stores opened their doors after the Remembrance Day ceremonies. 

Mistake #1

My first clue should have been trying to park at the mall.  Almost as soon as we arrived, the 'lot full' sign went up.  When we walked into the mall, we walked straight into CHAOS, i.e., security guards and long line-up of youngsters eager to purchase the XBox 360 game called "Call of Duty:  Modern Warfare 3", hyped by a company eager to shatter its one-day sales records.  It did.  I can't stop thinking about consumers celebrating Remembrance Day by buying an ENTERTAINMENT GAME that glorifies war.  Go figure....

There were more modest line-ups for the release of the 8th and final chapter in the Harry Potter series on DVD and Blu-ray and the final epic battle of good versus evil.  The forces of Good are of course victorious (with consequences).  If only war had a final chapter like Harry Potter ...

Mistake #2

The Apple store was completely jammed with frenzied consumers of Everything Apple.  I am completely out of my element in that store, sure I will ask a wrong, dumb question of the super-savvy, all-tekked out Apple boys (sorry, few girls there).  I went about replacing my Mac completely wrong. "I have money to spend," I say confidently to a harried, why-are-you-asking-me? employee at the Genius Bar. He continues to stare at me as I defiantly add:  "I want to buy a fully loaded, top of the line, 15-inch MacPro, transfer my files from the old laptop to the new one, and I will give you my debit card and be on my merry way fast.".... Not.  

Rejected by Genius Boy at the Genius Bar (turns out that's the service counter), my friend and I are directed to a table of MacPros.  Once there, it turns out you have to 'log in' onto a model MacPro and receive an electronic message that says "I'm 3rd in line for service".  Actually, my friend knew to sign in this way.... there are ZERO instructions anywhere telling customers to do this.  I'm sure I would have stood at the table for an hour waiting for someone to deign to help me.  

So... ding... another harassed Apple Boy comes to the table.  I repeat my chipper intro ... "Gee, I just want to spend my money in your store and leave here with a shiny new Mac toy...."  Nope.  No way.  Nada. Good-bye.  Why?  The laptops can only be ordered on-line because I want a 'custom' one.  Some warehouse in China ships it to my home address (not to the store).  I then bring the new and old ones to the Apple store for the transfer to happen. By this point, I've mentally swallowed half a dozen blue pills to calm down and mutter dejectedly about where on the website would I find these instructions advising me to not bother going to the store first.  For future reference... 'custom' means anything beyond the basic bottom price.  So add memory ... 'custom', a backlit screen ... 'custom'.  Maximum annoyance and frustration ... not 'custom'. 

So.... friend and I leave, grateful to get out of the MacMadness.  At home, I order what I want on line via my Ipad because of course my laptop isn't working.  And, naturally, I screw it up, by not seeing the option about 'standard' versus 'express' shipping.  So, some day in the next month or so, I expect the boat from China to dock and the Mac to be loaded onto the ass/mule to plod its way to my house.  And, yes, you,ve probably figured out by now that I am/was mightily peeved with the Gods of Mac... but I still bought one.   

Mistake #3

Back to Remembrance Day.  Friends tell me that other stores in Ottawa were similarly affected by the same form of frenzied afternoon shopping.  The cars in front of our house were lined up for blocks inching their way along the street to get onto the Queensway.  Some speculated that Remembrance Day is now Canada's version of the US 'Black Friday'.  Stores seem to be gearing their product launch strategies that way.  If so, TELL us and I will avoid anything but my own fireplace. 

It was an odd way to mark Remembrance Day.  The afternoon frenzy was in sharp contrast to the morning activities, courtesy of governments across the country and around the world actively promoting acknowledgement of the sacrifices and heroism of veterans.  The parades and speeches are bigger and longer than they have ever been in my memory.  But it seems the only memory most of us will have is having to wait through the morning hours to rush, spend, consume and lose ourselves in the glaze and haze of shopping.  Sad.  

Addendum Note re Unconscious Be-ings:

My lack of uninterrupted sleep was well documented in Aside #7 when I described the stupid neighbours across the street and dubbed them 'Unconscious Be-ings'.  Things quieted down a bit as the weather turned colder i.e., they drank themselves into a stupor inside the house.  The main floor of the run-down house now seems to be devoid of furniture or curtains so I assume they meet there, talked inanely all night, drink copious amounts of whatever, and crash on the floor.  Not that I care much...

But Remembrance Day Night was obviously the occasion for a ramped up Partee time.  I woke out of a solid sleep to loud noise that I could hear through the closed windows and blinds.  'Will' the Cat was trying to peek out the blinds to see what was going on, so I joined him. 

The Be-ings were loose on the street, running and bellowing like testosterone-hyped demons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  This time the demon beings discovered bags of mulched leaves that were stacked up across the street (about 20 bags or so).  They decided, in their infinite stupidity, to throw the bags into the middle of the street. By the time I looked out, bag number 4 was being tossed; although it was 3 a.m., cars and taxis were out and about on our busy street and forced to swerve into the other lane to avoid the debris.   

I took a deep breath.  But I couldn't help myself.  I threw up the window frame in a rage and yelled as loud as I could for them to 'cease and desist'.  Perhaps my language was a tad more colourful than that.  Of course, the Be-ings then told me what I could do with myself... some type of anatomically impossible activity I believe... and ran off down the street. 

Husband of course was now awake and, inevitably, we ended up putting on coats over our night clothes and going outside to pick up the bags of leaves. I'm sure we were watched by the demon lads. Husband stalked in front of their house but alcoholic stupor had obviously set in and they didn't emerge.  Back in the house, I watched through the blinds as 2 of them (hoodies up) slithered back down the street and into their lair. 

That was the end of the night's sleep for me.  By 7 a.m., I'd read all the morning newspapers on my ipad and finally fell back asleep.  Husband took sleeping aides. I was irked on many levels... a) the absolute insanity of their behavior; b) the safety issues and knowing the police likely wouldn't have gotten here until an accident had occurred; c) them sniffing out that I'm the 'watcher' who tattles on their bad behaviour; and d) that I missed my 9 a.m. fitness class with a friend.  

Gotta say, I don't get these people.  Then again, I don't think they're people, which is why I call them the 'UNconsciouis Be-ings'.   ah well...




Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Aside #14: Aerobics: One Noun That Changed a Life

November 2011

Aerobics.  The one noun that changed my life.  This is my homage to the world of Aerobics Fitness.   

A large chunk of my adult fitness life has been spent as an aerobicizer -- high impact, anaerobic, sweaty, crowded, good times.... more so in years gone by than now ;) but the love remains. 

Aerobics has been the source of my energy, my social network, a place to connect with close friends, and a sanctioned outlet for my love of music and dance. It kept me motivated, balanced, energized, fit.  I planned my participation in each class carefully ... every day, for hours on end on weekends, while travelling for work or holidays, during times of serious illness ... nothing stopped me. 

Along the way, I've been fortunate, and amazed, to meet kindred souls, both participants and instructors alike, all of whom share the passion for hot, sweaty, super-hyped adrenaline bodies dancing up a frenzy to choreography and music that would literally set my blood on fire. 

I couldn't find a comprehensive piece of research on the history of Aerobics fitness or even here in Ottawa.  So below is my own take, with my own memories, and heavily laced with my own journey.  So, let me 'Go Crazy on You' in a whimsical, nostalgic kindof way.  WooHoo. 

What is Aerobics, exactly?

Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a physician working at a San Antonio air force hospital in Texas, first coined the word 'Aerobics' and published a program dedicated to 'total wellbeing' in 1968.  It sold about 30 million copies and is no longer published but it is indeed a classic.  

Dr. Cooper's motivation was a system of exercises to help prevent coronary artery disease. He introduced a point system for different types of cardiovascular fitness as well as fitness tests to determine individual fitness levels.  His has maintained a life-long commitment to research and programs to encourage cardiovascular well-being and established two well known institutions, The Cooper Institute and the Cooper Aerobics Centre in the U.S. 

Dr. Cooper had the moves but NOT the groove.  It took Jacki Sorenson, a fitness instructor, who in 1969 combined aerobic exercises, dance and music in a class format for Air Force wives at a base in Puerto Rico.  YouTube has a clip of the type of aerobics dance moves from that era.  It's completely hysterical to watch it now and think back on how far aerobics dance has progressed.  Her Jacki Sorensen's Fitness Classes still exist throughout the world.   

And Then Along Comes Jane ....  

Jane Fonda was my personal epiphany into the world of Aerobic Fitness and dance.  She was the first to really break into the Canadian mass market through VHS videos and I embraced home videos as my personal fitness mecca. 

(Short Note here:  I may have embraced the fitness craze but NOT the clothing.  No plunging or thong-y multi-coloured spandex, no leotards, definitely no leg warmers... But I did have BIG Hair. I was/am always outfitted in your basic black top, bottom, socks, wristband and warm-up jacket. :) 

My BJ (Before Jane) period was shall we say intermittent fitness-wise.  In my 20s and early 30s, I mostly worked out at the YMCA on Argyle Street in Ottawa where we would run around the large gym in a circle like hamsters on their wheels.  There was music and an instructor but mostly it was a place to meet friends.  I'd go through periods of fitness buff-ness and being so bored with it I'd drop out.  I tried other classes in the '80s, jazz in particular, but lacked enough formal training to last through many classes. 

By the time I met my virtual Jane, my fitness level was non-existent.  She entered my life at a moment of extreme stress and change. Husband and I had just moved to Winterpeg in 1988, celebrated an anniversary by getting married and I had taken a leave from my job as head of public affairs at an Advisory Council.  I loved the job but, of course, me being me, gave it more than I gave more fit-ting parts of my life.
Winterpeg was the perfect recipe for a personal funk. My memory is of 9 months of winter, square tires, battery plug-ins and cold.  Dry cold be damned.... it was friggin' cold.  I knew no one.  Even though I was on leave, I worked on contract, doing a chunk of my job from our home in Winterpeg.  I had a huge word processing machine (likely a Micom) that took up half a room and I wrote press kits stuffed with communications materials to accompany the launch of major research studies. 

The only place I knew was Purolator Courier.  I'd arrive there most nights just before its 10 p.m. closing time, diskettes in hand, and send an express package to Ottawa.  It would arrive there before 9 a.m. the next day (so who said you need Email and the Internet anyway?)  The only time I got out was to take time for another contract that came my way i.e., to help organize a conference to encourage women to enter politics.  Today, I'd tell 'em to run the other way ... fast ... but, in those days, I was younger and more idealistic.

Instead of a down funk-y 9 months, Jane Fonda made me 'feel the burn', in the form of a video cassette called Jane Fonda's New Workout Video .  It galvanized me.  I could not get enough. The concept of running and exercising to music ("Do It" was a particular favourite) hit the endorphin spot.  Every day I'd stop working around 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. and the Cat -- Mortimer -- and I would head for the family room, close the curtains on the white world outside, pop in the video, crank up the volume, and enter Jane zone for hours until Husband got home.

I loved the choreography so much that I learned it all by heart, intent on matching Jane move for move. I acquired more VHS cassettes (Jane did 23 in all) and moved between Aerobics and resistance videos.  I made friends with others in the field, like Kathy Smith and Husband tried Richard Simmons whose focus was more '50s and '60s rock 'n roll.  The house rocked.  The cat would lie under me when floor work was required and I'd have to 'pet and crunch and pet and crunch and scritch and double crunch and double pet'....

My Ottawa Aerobics Scene

By the time Husband and I returned to Ottawa and me to my job in 1990, I was securely launched into the Aerobics fitness craze.  Or thought I was.  It didn't last.  Super stress led once more to super unfit me.  The Council imploded with feminist politics.  I jumped to a royal commssion to do communications and well...more nasty politics, this time centred around post-structural feminism and power.  The commission finally exploded onto the front pages of every national newspaper and broadcast outlet.  Many staff left, including me, at one point

I eventually returned to work, but not until making a public declaration that I would leave the office for an hour and 15 minutes every single noon hour and hit the gym, no matter what was going on, no matter what stress or workload existed... And I kept my word.  For years, I lost myself in noon classes at gyms and Clubs (all long defunct), mostly in downtown Ottawa -- like Physical Limits, BodyWorks, Downtown Fitness Institute, Sparks Street Fitness... It didn't matter what type of class -- Step, Hi/Low Aerobics, Weights, Hip Hop,a smattering of yoga.... I was there.

It was the heyday of Aerobics in gyms across Ottawa. I fought for my 12 inches of space on the Aerobics floor and woe betide any upstart newbie bunny who dared to occupy the same 12 inches.  (Aerobics rules of etiquette anyone? I would mutter loudly.)  I often did double or triple classes on weekends. I made friends with the same passionate, committed people and this social network became my daily connection with the world of Aerobics. 

There was an elite group of Aerobicizers at the time at the BodyWorks Aerobics Studio on Elgin Street above the Mayflower Restaurant.  Many participants and instructors were among the first wave of the passionately committed folks and they remained actively involved for decades.  A close friend was among the first to work out there, and for years I had been amazed by her lithe stretching ability and passion for classes.

But it took me three trys to actually walk into a class there.  The first time I peeked in, I fled to Elgin Street, terrified at the intensity of the workouts.  When I finally steeled myself and made it into a class and found 'MY' spot (2nd row left toward the stereo), I was hooked.  To me, this was the place to be... participants worked out with intensity (some of them also hung out and made out together but I was pretty much on the fringe of all that).  

I found BodyWorks particularly cutting edge in music and choreography.  I revel in memories of classes with a live drumer  working us up to a peak of cardio frenzy (I know... I know. And it WAS primitive and primordial.)   One of my favourite instructors (I had many faves) used to get the class going in a pattern of moves, and then crouch down at the front, look at us and shout "Beauty" into the microphone.  I knew what he meant.  We'd roar our approval back at him.  WooHoo...   

I split my workout time among many clubs, following the best and hardest workouts possible. I have memories of doing a class at Physical Limits at noon and then running down Elgin Street for a 5:30 p.m. BodyWorks class.  On weekends, a close friend and I would gleefully do one class at one location, hop in his sporty little car, and zoom across town to another class.  We were PUMPED. 

Branching Out

Over time, running entered my life.  I'd do the gym at noon and go for a 5 km run with Goldie the dog around the suburbs in the country.  Eventually, I sampled all the 5 and 10 K runs like Rattle Me Bones, Nordion 10 km , Great Pumpkin Chase, Beat Beethoven , Annual Santa Claus Parade run, July 1 'Hot as Hell' run.  I never had fast times... just lots of cardiovascular endurance.   

But Aerobics remained my mainstay passion.  When I travelled for work, I sought out the hottest, hardest, most cutting edge studio I could find.  BodyAlive on Yonge Street in Toronto with Al Greene was the zenith of my experience.  My nirvana.  I'd be at a fed-prov meeting somewhere in the city and the minute it concluded, I'd grab a taxi, run into the club, change, get my ticket (NO one entered a studio without a ticket because it was so crowded and popular), and do the hardest class imaginable, 2nd row right, near a pillar.

Like the long-gone logo, the classes were hard core... complex choreography... intense music ... top-notch professional instructors.  I'd do a class, shower, dash across the street to Starbucks for a few bags of coffee beans (no Starbucks yet in Ottawa), flag a taxi, and head for Toronto Island for the last flight to Ottawa, often dropping into my seat in the nick of time, smelling of coffee beans, and still sweating (despite the shower) from the workout.  I'd practically fly the plane on my own adrenaline. 

One of the absolute highlights of those years was my 40th birthday, which came with a ticket from Husband to go to San Diego to see the International Aerobics Championships, featuring the Canadian champion who just happened to be a fave instructor from Ottawa.  It was more gynastics than aerobics but it was a thrill to watch the competitions.

The same instructor/national aerobics champion introduced me to plyometric jumping which ramped up my workouts to a new level.  I  remember the first time I did a tuck knee jump high into the air, followed by a flying jack ... He was behind me and propelled me still higher.  It took high impact classes to a new level for me. 

When Husband and I travelled from San Francisco to Los Angeles one holiday, I sampled every type of Aerobics class available between the two cities.  The classes were all light years ahead of Canada and little old Ottawa in every way -- moves, music, choreo, type of class.  San Francisco was hard-core step...  Carmel gave me the first taste of tai chi and pilates which were unheard of in Ottawa at the time ... I even tried a Pilates Reformer class, which was a stretch (small insider joke). LA was a smorgsbord of every type of class imaginable. The clubs were gi-normous.  I entered huge rooms with giant TV screens projecting the instructor so participants, numbering 200 or 300, could readily see him or her. 

My favourite LA memory is of an Environment conference I got to attend but then stayed behind for a Saturday morning workout in a warehouse somewhere in LA.  The 'cash only' class was a two-hour special workshop marathon given by one of the superstars of the Aerobics world.  She was unforgiving.  I've forgotten her name but the memory of that class remains. 

I had a somewhat shameful memory of trying to get into the Reebok Sports Club in New York.  A membership at that time was $10K a year.  I was outraged to be told that not only could I NOT pay for a drop-in class (excuse me!), I could only get a tour around the 160,000 square foot facility IF I planned to become a member.  I wrote nasty e-mails to Reebok on returning home about their lack of global leadership.  Unanswered of course.

Fitness conferences in the summer and winter were fun/fit times.  Can Fit Pro Conference at the Toronto Convention Centre was an opportunity to cram in 5 or 6 workshop workouts every day for up to five days with 6,000-10,000 other participants.  I didn't drink, smoke, eat sodium, or a lot of red meat and I LOVED it all.  Like my close aerobics friends who attended with me, we were High all the time.. on adrenaline! 

The times they are 'a-changing....'

After a decade of Aerobics bliss, the club scene in Ottawa inevitably began to change.  One club went bankrupt (twice), others followed.  BodyWorks shuttered its Elgin Street location with little notice to members because of noise infractions meted out by the City of Ottawa.  Favourite instructors moved on or quit teaching.  The social network got married, divorced, moved, were promoted and generally had less time for fitness (ahem, the latter would be me.) Injuries and stiffness started to plague me which I tried to ignore.  I spent too much time at physio.

I (and other dedicated souls) practically needed grief counsellors as the clubs started disappearing.  We organized impromptu classes at gyms and studios. We would drag out a little ghetto-tickler/stereo with NO pitch control (horrors!) on a dolly with a gallon of water and paper cups and work out for a few hours.  I'd recruit people for the class and collect a few bucks to give to Most Favourite Instructor.  If we could have found a suitable outdoor spot we would have!  If I'm painting a picture of pathetic, I don't mean to.  We would do anything it took to feed the need.  And we were successful most of the time.   

Around that time, and way too late in the game, I did a stint at teaching Aerobics.  I knew I would never make it to the 'A' list of instructors.  My musicality and cue-ing were OK but I lack creativity with the choreography.  My cardio levels deteriorated through illness and injury.  In the heyday of Aerobics, it was all freestyle 8, 16, 32 count patterns ... the instructors came up with their own routines.  I found it took a LOT of time, but thanks to close friends, I persevered, with teaching gigs at both Ys, BodyWorks, Ottawa Athletic Centre, Florida Fitness and, finally, yes, even Goodlife. Memories of teaching on stage, with friends, are among the finest highlights of my life. 

Les Mills Programs

As clubs folded, we (I) eventually ended up at Goodlife just before Goodlife bought the licences to the Les Mills system of fitness programs, which have taken the fitness industry by storm.  Their programs are used at Goodlife (and other clubs) globally. Les Mills programs originated in New Zealand (of all places!) and I think there are now 10,000 and upwards clubs around the world using their copyrighted programs -- BodyAttack (Hi/Low Aerobics), BodyStep, BodyPump, BodyVive, BodyBalance, BodyJam ... you get the drift.  More are added every year (e.g., Sh'Bam, CX30, RPM).

Freestyle is gone... the classes are all highly researched and moves tightly choreographed.  Instructors are certified.  Class formats, new music and moves for classes are all formulaic and scheduled on a quarterly basis.  And, oh yeah, it's no longer called 'Aerobics' -- it's 'group fitness' or Group EXercise.  Everything is highly branded and corporate. 

For example, I know that if I do BodyAttack at any of the Clubs here in Ottawa, the hour-long class will consist of 5-minute or so tracks that progress through warm up, mixed to high impact, plyometric, upper body conditioning/push-ups, running, agility, interval, power, lower body and core conditioning and cooldown.  If I go to Germany to a club there with the same program, I can be confident of same progression in the class.  I will know all the moves (the grapevines, heel digs, squats, superman, running man, tuck jumps etc) and sing along to familiar music.     

The Goodlife philosophy is NOT a bad thing or a criticism of them in any way. In fact, I wish I'd lived in New Zealand and had been part of the development of the Les Mills programs.  Back in my aerobics heyday and trying to teach, I craved some kind of structure other than freestyle.  I wish Goodlife/Les Mills had been around when I was younger and/or more fit as the classes are Challenging.  I especially appreciate Goodlife in that I can use the new social media technologies to track schedules easily ... anywhere ... anytime... I remember well my days of asking hotel desks and scanning yellow pages.  

But I'd be lying though if I said I felt 100% comfortable there anymore.  The participants in the really rockin' classes (like BodyAttack) are 20 and even 30 years younger than I am.  The classes are usually jammed to the rafters, especially when the best instructors are teaching. 

I can still 'rock' with the toughest of them, albeit more low than high impact (to the surprise of the youngsters)... but there are these, ah, 'rolls', that weren't there years ago.  I've always been a class gal and not an on-my-own type of participant.  But, sigh, the day is approaching when I will need to fundamentally re-evaluate what I'm doing fitness-wise and why.  My physiotherapist would say I'm overdue;)  The Walking Burpees on the latest BA release are doing me in.....

But I continue to persevere... spurred on by the what has always motivated me -- the MUSIC, the MOVES, my FRIENDS, and most of all by the INSTRUCTORS!  My heart still sings when the endorphin rush kicks in!

OK, Just a Few Funny Moments

To end on a high note.... there were funny moments in classes throughout the years and I will close out with a couple that are relate-able. 

For example, there was the time I was running late and changed, grabbed my towel, ran into the gym, started working out, went to use my towel and discovered (to my utmost embarrassment) that the 'towel' was my 'bra'.  I scurried to put it away at the side of the room. This was MUCH to the amusement of the back row of lads who would mutter at the start of every class, "Ok guys, Up Periscope".  I didn't care. I'd turn and tell them to "fill their boots or running shoes". 

There was the time I got kicked out of a class in San Francisco for inadvertently taking someone's spot (I didn't sign up in advance).  I was OUTraged, went to storm out of the class, and fell over the step, and had to be assisted, bleeding knee and all, from the studio. 

Another U.S. tale... one very weird class I found in Washington late one evening, turned out to be a kind of pole strip-tease class to train for spots in 'clubs'.  The instructor was only too accommodating in suggesting a 'private' remedial class for me.  I lasted 30 minutes and slipped away. I joined my colleagues for dinner an hour later and DIDN'T explain where I'd been.... 'Canadian senior public servant' does the strip tease was not a rumour I cared to start....' .    

A less-funny (but it was) incident involved a wardrobe malfunction when I was teaching a large group of aerobicizers at the YMCA in the big gym.  The microphone on my head caught in well, my wig... story for another day ... and my wig started sliding backwards off my head, much to the astonishment of the front-row participants, including former governor general Adrienne Clarkson.  I still remember the song, ''Praise You'' by Fat Boy Slim, and escaping into the music room to readjust.  How I got through that class is a mystery. 

Enough.  This is too long but I'm not paring it back.  There are many, many more tales that could be told. 

Last thought.  When I see that Jane Fonda, at 72 years, is planning a new fitness DVD for newbies to the aerobics scene... I can only stand up and applaud. 

Actually, more than that, I am sure I will buy or download it and move along with her.  If she still wants to 'feel the burn'... then so will I!