Halloween 2016

The annual chili cook-off at work wasn’t the only thing I had planned on Halloween. (I tend to oversubscribe myself during the fall/winter holidays because I’m afraid of missing out. This is my favorite time of year and I’m determined to enjoy it as much as possible!) Since it was a Monday I had a welcome day off from running, but I still wanted to get to the gym before my evening obligations. I was ambitious and signed up for a 4 PM boot camp class which meant I had to leave work an hour beforehand to drive home, change clothes, and get to the gym on time. Note to self: Leaving work early on the day of the chili cook-off is a bad idea! As much as I try to keep the cook-off from affecting my productivity, I always spend a lot of time configuring the conference room tables and chairs in the morning and deconfiguring them in the afternoon. It requires more effort that I’d like to admit. Luckily I was able to successfully leave work and make it to my 4 PM class at the gym. And it’s a good thing too because I really stuffed my face at the chili cook-off. In an effort to not blow my diet too badly I started off with a small bowl of chili (3 different kinds I wanted to sample, including my own) and some salad, but eventually went back for chips and desserts. I couldn’t help myself! The delicious food my co-workers made was just too hard to resist. I also had my first sugary soda since September 10th (more about that in another post), but it was an incredible specialty cherry cola and worth the calories. Fortunately I felt better after an hour of resistance training at the gym.

After boot camp concluded I drove home as quickly as possible and jumped in the shower. I was due at a friend’s house to trick or treat with a few families and their kids at 6 PM so I had to rush. In an effort to make it there on time, after my shower I simply threw on the same clothes that I had worn to work that day – jeans and my Mickey Mouse Halloween hoodie (see above photo). I bought the sweatshirt at Disneyland when I was there with a friend back in September, but it had been too hot for me to wear it until the last few days of October. Much to my delight it was gloriously cool and fall-like for Halloween this year. The last three years summer has lasted until early November so it was really lovely to have a comfortable Halloween for a change. Trick or treating with the kids – dressed as Harry Potter characters, superheroes, Star Wars icons, and Disney cartoons – was a lot of fun. They were so excited that they dashed from house to house like they were already hopped up on candy! I was actually a little chilly being outside for so long, even in my hoodie, but the kids weren’t affected at all. All they wanted was to fill their buckets with treats. I was completely wiped out when I went home at 9 PM, but trick or treating with the kids was the perfect way to end Halloween.

Halloween recipe variations

On Monday we had our 5th annual chili cook-off at work. It’s a Halloween tradition! It’s also one of my favorite days of the year (maybe second to the annual holiday potluck) and I’m happy to say that even though it was a lot of work it turned out really well. Due to being on the Nutrisystem diet since Labor Day I didn’t get a chance to make any test batches of chili before the cook-off. What a shame! So on Sunday night I simply combined a couple of my favorite old recipes, crossed my fingers, and hoped for a decent outcome. I figured mixing and matching successful recipes couldn’t go wrong! In order to please several non-carnivores at work I promised to make something that was vegetarian friendly. I started with my vegetarian chili recipe, but substituted the spices from my Cincinnati style chili that I made for last year’s cook-off. To my surprise it was absolutely delicious, and actually came in fourth place out of 16 chilis in the popular vote. So in the spirit of Halloween, making a Frankenstein’s monster-style unholy mashup using pieces from different chili recipes can result in something better than the sum of its parts!

Speaking of unholy mashups, the pumpkin bread I made for the chili cook-off got a similar treatment. I originally planned to make a sheet cake, and I even bought some new Halloween sprinkles to decorate it, but some of my co-workers requested pumpkin bread instead. On the plus side it’s easier to throw together, and I already had a can of pumpkin puree in my cupboard so that’s one less ingredient I had to purchase! But which of my favorite recipes to use? The one I posted in September was the best pumpkin bread I’ve ever tasted, but when I tried something different a couple of weeks later I got even better feedback from the taste testers. What a conundrum! In the end I used the recipe from September (mostly so I could avoid buying buttermilk which I never managed to use all of before it spoils), but with a couple of key changes. First of all, I substituted half of the white sugar for light brown sugar for a richer flavor. But more importantly I used a different spice combination:

2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp salt

The result was absolutely incredible! Not only did my co-workers gobble it up, but I loved it too. I’ll have to remember that for next year. The moral of today’s story is that experimental cooking can sometimes turn out even better than you could possibly imagine. So be brave and try something new! I am going to try and keep that in mind with the rest of my holiday baking. ‘Tis the season to be bold!

#tbt – Funny story from Halloween

I went to Mickey’s Halloween Party at Disneyland with some friends back in October. Since I didn’t have a proper Halloween costume I decided to just wear my Rapunzel running shirt with a flowered headband and my hair in a braid. It was barely an homage to a costume, but it was the best I could do on short notice. The shirt is purple and says “Rapunzel” on the front, with a long strand of blond hair printed on the back. The first group of friends I ran into that evening was a family with an adorable three year old daughter. They were all dressed as Monster’s Inc. characters which was awesome. My t-shirt-as-a-costume was lame in comparison, but it was far too warm for me to wear my Emperor Palpatine robe (pictured above at last year’s Halloween party – it was still too warm to wear it then as well). When the mom saw my shirt, here’s what she said to her daughter:

Mom: “Who is she dressed up as? What does her shirt say?”
*pause*
Mom: “Oh wait, you can’t read.”

This made me laugh so hard! It took mom a few seconds to remember that her daughter was only three years old and had no idea what my shirt said. Luckily the blonde hair printed on the back was enough for her to recognize that my “costume” was Rapunzel-inspired. Then she insisted that I accompany her on a roller coaster (child-friendly Gadget’s Go Coaster in Toon Town). It was the beginning of a great Halloween-themed evening at Disneyland with friends and their kids.

All holidays, all the time

The weekend after Thanksgiving I put up my Christmas tree. On its own this is nothing out of the ordinary, but this year I did something a little different. Since I had neglected to decorate my house for either Halloween in October or Thanksgiving in November, I decided to make December a celebration of three holidays instead of just one. So while I trimmed my little Christmas tree and decorated my living room with all the traditional Yuletide ornamentation, I also decked the halls with pumpkins, ghosts, pilgrims, and turkeys. Every surface was covered with festive décor. I loved it! Yoda dressed as Santa Claus is flanked by Lucy and Snoopy bobbing for apples at a Halloween party on one side, and Donald Duck holding a cornucopia and wearing a pilgrim hat on the other side. It’s a mash up of the very best kind. All of my favorite things mingled together for the whole of December. What better way to celebrate the holidays? Unfortunately now it’s time to put everything away again. Usually I take down my Christmas tree on New Year’s Day, but I’ve been procrastinating this year. I’ll take care of it before I have to go back to work on Monday. A few more days of enjoying the decorations is all I want.

Second Halloween weekend

The second weekend of Halloween celebrations actually included Halloween, but it started a few days before. On Wednesday the 28th I made my batch of chili for the cook-off at work on Friday. Not only would the chili taste better after spending some time in the fridge, but I had signed up to bring a cake to the cook-off as well and I didn’t want to have to scramble to make both items Thursday night. (I posted this year’s chili cook-off recipe over the weekend if you’re interested.) On Thursday the 29th I started setting up for the annual chili cook-off at work the next day. One of my co-workers helped me put festive tablecloths on all of the tables so that we wouldn’t make as much of a mess. Also, we had to procure some extra power strips so that all of the Crockpots could be plugged in to keep the chili warm. We had a record thirteen entries this year so we actually reserved a second conference room just to accommodate that many Crockpots. Then when I got home that night I whipped up my favorite chocolate sheet cake after I got home from work. I added some Halloween sprinkles to match the occasion because otherwise it would have been just a boring (but delicious) brown cake. Friday the 30th was the chili cook-off which is always a really busy day for me. Every year I think, “I’ll be able to get some work done before lunch.” But that never happens. Between organizing all of the items everyone brings in, fielding questions from participants, and fending off hungry vultures before the cook-off actually starts, I’m always swamped. And after lunch I’m exhausted! But it’s worth it.

By the time the weekend rolled around I desperately wanted a break, but I had a lot of events planned. On Halloween morning I drove to Laguna Niguel for the Grab the Swag 10K (my second of three Halloween-themed races). According to my car it was only 52 deg when I got there so I was excited to run in some pleasant weather for a change! The race was in Laguna Niguel Regional Park and it was mostly on dirty paths. My poor running shoes got really dirty, but I enjoyed the race. When I got home I turned on the Rugby World Cup finals that I DVRed that morning. It was New Zealand vs. Australia and I was rooting for the All Blacks, of course. And they won! That was fun to watch. Then at 12:30 the Florida vs. Georgia game came on. This season has been a bit of a surprise for Gator fans. We didn’t expect much, but the results have been much better than anyone predicted. Besides a loss to LSU (by only a touchdown) a couple of weeks earlier, every other game has been a win. Go Gators! I was pretty nervous watching them play Georgia because the Bulldogs were very highly ranked at the beginning of the season. But it turns out that they are underperforming as much as the Gators are exceeding expectations this year. Despite the Florida quarterback not being that great (Our first string QB was suspended for a year after he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Oops.), the Gators won 27-3. That was really exciting. There are two more conference games this year so the SEC East championship is in sight. Let’s hope they can keep it up! I have to admit that I spent the rest of Halloween being pretty lazy. I was invited to go trick or treating with some friends and their kids that night, but I was just too exhausted by the time dusk rolled around. So instead I stayed on my couch and watched “The Simpsons” Treehouse of Horror episodes, Wholloween (scary “Doctor Who” episodes), and “Game of Thrones.” An enjoyable holiday evening.

On Sunday November 1st I had another race. Ever since October started my brain somehow thinks that two days in a weekend equals two chances to run races. I am completely nuts. When I first found out about the Dinosaur Dash in Tustin the day after Halloween I thought it was a great idea. They had a 5K and 10K, and I figured a 5K would be enjoyable after the 10K on Halloween. However, after doing some more research I discovered that the 10K started at 7:15 AM and the 5K started at 8:30 AM. Then I remembered that Daylight Savings Time started overnight and that meant the sun would be coming up around 6 AM rather than 7 AM. The 7:15 AM 10K was going to be much more pleasant so I registered for it instead. Two 10Ks in one weekend. Didn’t I tell you I was nuts? I’m glad I did it, though. Due to a variety of factors (weather, work, holidays, etc.) I haven’t been running much during the week so these weekend races are helping me maintain some semblance of an exercise routine. Getting 12.4 miles of running in over the weekend was definitely beneficial. I will dedicate a post to my myriad of fall races soon. Let’s just say there are a lot of them. The rest of November 1st was spent doing things around the house. I made a lasagna to feed my co-workers on Tuesday (more on that later), roasted vegetables for my lunches, and did as many chores as possible in preparation for my Disney World vacation this week. I should have gone to work to make up a few of the hours I’m going to miss while I’m gone, but that didn’t happen. I was lazy instead. I needed the rest for more crazy days to come!

Early November

I went to the grocery store after a long day at work yesterday and discovered that all of the Halloween merchandise had already been replaced with Christmas items. Halloween was only two days before! This seemed strange, somehow. Don’t get me wrong, Christmas is my favorite holiday, but I wasn’t expecting it to arrive quite so soon! Funny enough, I was telling a friend on Sunday how happy I was that Halloween was over. I’d had two weekends of celebration, with the chili cook-off in between, and I was a little burned out. I didn’t even go trick or treating with my friends and their kids because I was exhausted on Saturday night. I hate feeling like I’m wishing away any fall holiday because I love everything about this time of year, but I was ready to move on. (The saddest part is that I never got around to putting out my Halloween decorations this year! Every weekend in October had been packed with activities so my poor ceramic pumpkins are still packed up in the closet with the rest of my holiday paraphernalia. I will make sure to pull them out of storage as soon as I get back from Orlando next week. Pumpkins still work for Thanksgiving, right? I’ll create a new crossover holiday, Hallo-giving, just to emphasize my laziness.) But when I was in the grocery store last night I just wasn’t quite ready to be bombarded by Christmas quite yet. I left without a second glance at the shelves of red and green M&Ms and themed Tupperware. Fast forward 24 hours and the first thing I saw when I walked into CVS was an aisle of Christmas cards. Much to my surprise I seemed to have completely gotten over my humbug attitude from the previous day because I couldn’t stop myself from buying some Snoopy Christmas stickers! So adorable. Bring on Thanksgiving and Christmas! I’m ready!

First Halloween weekend

Halloween was an extended event this year. In the eight days leading up to 10/31 I had several celebratory activities planned. On Friday the 23rd I went to Mickey’s Halloween Party at Disneyland with some friends and their kids. It’s a special event at the park that includes costumes, rides, and lots and lots of candy. My friends all had elaborate costumes, but all I could muster was my Rapunzel running t-shirt and a flowered headband (also for running). Lazy, but effective! The first thing we did was go through three of the “treat trails” in Toontown, which basically consisted of walking through a few of the buildings and getting giant handfuls of candy along the way. I couldn’t believe how much we got! Trick or treating at Disneyland is lucrative (and fattening)! After getting candy my friend’s daughter insisted I go on Gadget’s Go Coaster with her. It’s a small-scale roller coaster in Toontown that the kids love. It was so much fun to ride with a three year-old. By the time we exited Toontown we decided it would be a good idea to stake out a prime spot to watch the parade in a couple of hours. So we made out way to Main Street and spread a large blanket down on the sidewalk to save space for all of us. We took turns staying on the blanket and seeing more Halloween sights before the parade. Earlier this year I attempted to watch the Paint the Night parade, which is new this year, but my view was obstructed by a bunch of rude people. This time I had a front row seat. And it was amazing! I think I enjoyed it more than the kids! Shortly after the parade there was the Halloween-themed fireworks. Disneyland sure knows how to do fireworks right. They were incredible. The families left after the fireworks, but I wandered around for a little bit longer since it was a Friday night and I didn’t need to get up early the next morning. I wanted to ride Space Mountain, but Tomorrowland was packed so I settled for buying one last Halloween pin instead. (Is there a recovery group for Disney pin addicts? I bought about eight Halloween pins this year which is ridiculous.) I got home late that night, but going to Mickey’s Halloween Party was worth it.

The first thing I had to do on Saturday the 24th was pick up a race packet for Surf City 10. I’d signed up for the 10-mile race back in 2014, but then decided to run another race on 10/25 instead. To keep my registration from going to waste I sold my bib to a co-worker. (Yes, I know it’s against the rules. I did it anyway.) I dropped the race bib and shirt (I did a little fast talking and was about to exchange my small women’s shirt for a men’s large) off at his house after picking it up. The rest of the day was more Halloween activities. I had been invited to a Halloween party at a friend’s house that evening. Trying to be helpful and ease the burden on the hosts I promised to provide chili (meat and vegetarian options) for the dinner spread, but I hadn’t gotten around to making it during the week. So that morning I made a quick grocery store run and whipped up two batches of chili as quickly as I could. For the party I threw on my old Emperor Palpatine robe since one of my friends and her family were dressed as Star Wars characters. It was another lazy costume choice, and not a very practical one because it was 90 deg that day. In late October. Would fall ever arrive? In spite of the heat I had a great time at the party, eating delicious food, playing with the kids, and chatting with friends. My beef chili quickly disappeared, but the vegetarian version wasn’t as popular. Next time I’ll remember that my friends are carnivores! The next morning I had my second of three Halloween themed races. This one was a 10-miler down in Dana Point, taking the place of Surf City 10. The reason I chose it was because it’s part of a holiday race series and I’m a sucker for extra medals. (I probably need an intervention for this particular addiction as well. In addition to the Disney pins. I’m a mess!) I wasn’t really looking forward to it since the first half was basically all uphill. And it was just as tough as I imagined, and the mostly downhill second half didn’t really make up for the uphill portion. I was pretty relieved to cross that finish line! The rest of that Sunday was spent resting after the race and being lazy. I watched the obligatory fall classics “Hocus Pocus” and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and loved them, as always. What better way to start off my 2015 Halloween celebrations?

Cincinnati style chili (2015 chili cook-off recipe)

“Between the chili cook-off and doing some actual work, I was exhausted when I left in the afternoon! But it was worth it to see all of my co-workers so happy. Sometimes it feels like we don’t get enough recognition for all of the amazing things we do, so something as simple as a chili cook-off really lifts our spirits.”
11/01/14 webpage post

On Friday we had our annual chili cook-off at work. It’s one of my favorite days of the year. Good food, happy co-workers, and Halloween decorations. What could be better? It’s always so much fun. I think I said it best last year when I mentioned that we don’t feel like we get a lot of credit for all of our accomplishments. We really need morale events like the yearly chili cook-off to keep from burning out. It doesn’t cost our program anything and everyone loves it. The participants are always so grateful that we have it, and it’s a fantastic way to celebrate Halloween at work. This year I did something a little bit different with my cook-off entry and made it inspired by of Cincinnati chili. Usually Cincinnati chili is served over spaghetti, but I skipped that part because it didn’t really make sense for a buffet-style meal (or for folks cutting carbs). Instead I simply threw in some of the typical Cincinnati chili spices – cinnamon, allspice, and cocoa powder. It was delicious! I had to make a couple of batches to get the amounts of all the spices just right, but I think this recipe is a winner. I didn’t win the chili cook-off (that honor always goes to one of the spicier chilis), but I still loved the unique flavor. It’s just different enough from my traditional chili for me to call this a new recipe!

INGREDIENTS:
1 1/2 lb lean ground beef (preferably grass-fed)
1 medium sweet onion, diced
1 medium bell pepper, diced
2 Tbsp chili powder
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp oregano
1 1/2 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 Tbsp cocoa powder
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 cans (14.5 oz each) diced tomatoes
2 cans (8 oz each) tomato sauce
1 can (15 oz) reduced sodium black beans, drained and rinsed (optional)
1 can (15 oz) reduced sodium red kidney beans, drained and rinsed (optional)

DIRECTIONS:
In a small bowl, combine the spices (chili powder, cumin, paprika, oregano, allspice, cinnamon, salt, garlic powder, and black pepper) and cocoa powder and set aside. This will save you time and trouble later. In a large pot (I use my aptly-named 5 qt chili pot that I love) cook the ground beef, onion, and bell pepper until the meat is no longer pink. Add the bowl of spice mix from earlier and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, diced tomatoes, and tomato sauce and stir to combine. If you are adding beans you can throw them in now too. (I left the beans out of my chili cook-off batch so you can skip them if you want.) Bring the chili too a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Put the lid on the pot, but leave it propped open a bit so steam can escape. Cook for at least an hour, stirring about every 15 minutes. Enjoy!

Based on Half Baked Harvest’s Healthier One Pot Cincinnati Chicken Chili.

End of October

My blogging has been sparse this month. Sorry about that. My only excuse is that the last three months of the year are my favorite so I have been trying to enjoy October as much as possible before it’s over. But I haven’t really succeeded because I’ve been working a lot too. That doesn’t exactly lend itself to having fun. These last 31 days have been incredibly busy! I mostly blame myself for that. I signed up for an insane number of races this month (as well as in November and December, but that’s a story for another time) because I wanted to run as much as possible as soon as the seemingly endless summer was over. Granted, “fall” is just barely arriving here in Los Angeles now. The Long Beach half marathon on October 11th was miserably hot. I’ll write another post about that later. For a couple of reasons (but mostly laziness) I’ve been saving a lot of the topics I want to blog about for November so I can attempt National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo). It’s not going to be easy, but I will try to update my webpage every day in November. Last year was a miserable failure so we’ll see if I can redeem myself in 2015. Until then I’m going to do my best to enjoy what’s left of October. Happy Halloween everyone!