Protein Bars: Version II

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Today was my rest day from training. I’m not a big fan of rest days. Invariably I find myself stiffer, weaker and more tired towards the end of a rest day as my body goes into recovery mode than I do while in full training, and yet I still spend the whole week feeling exhausted after sessions and thinking it’s ok because it’s only however many sessions until a rest day. A love-hate relationship, you might say. Despite the stiffness and sheer boredom that accompany them, having been in programmes with full rest days, and those that simply have two half days a week, I am currently of the opinion that a full day away from training is a good thing in the long run. Mentally, as much as physically, you need a break from the boathouse and all that goes with it. Rest days are also a good opportunity to catch up on PhD work, various errands, and also to prepare food for the coming week, whether it be frozen meals or portables that can be stored and taken to sessions. I have a lot of meals in the freezer at the moment, after some curry experiments and a big batch of Gwyneth Paltrow’s fantastic turkey and sweet potato chilli. As such, today I decided to make some more portable foods. The protein bars that I made a couple of days ago were so well received, and disappeared so quickly, that I just had to make some more, and follow up on some of the ideas for alterations that I mentioned in my last post and have been thinking about since. The result was a batch of protein bars that were so good I felt compelled to do a “protein bar: version II” recipe.

Protein Bars Version II:

Makes 10 bars

3/4 cup oil
1/4 cup brown rice syrup
1tsp vanilla extract
1 ripe banana, mashed
1 heaped tbsp smooth peanut butter
1/2 cup protein powder (unflavoured or vanilla)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2tbsp desiccated coconut
2tbsp pumpkin seeds
2tbsp flaked almonds
1tbsp sunflower seeds
2tbsp ground flaxseed
50g dried cherries
50g sultanas
75g chopped dates
225g jumbo oats

  1. Combine the liquid ingredients with the mashed banana and peanut butter and mix until uniform.
  2. Add the protein powder and cinnamon, stirring thoroughly so that there are no lumps.
  3. Throw in all of the nuts, seeds and fruit.
  4. Finally add the oats, a bit at a time, stirring until thoroughly combined.
  5. Bake in a tin lined with baking parchment at 180 degrees for 20 minutes.
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Protein Bars

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I’ve tried a lot of recipes for granola bars, cereal bars, energy bars, protein bars and so on. Few things are more convenient and nutritionally appropriate after a training session, but most of the recipes I have tried have lacked something, and commercial bars are expensive and not that much better. The recipe given here is an experiment that I tried as an attempt to combine elements of a lot of the recipes I have seen, and much to my surprise it actually turned out very well indeed. The bars went down a treat with various other rowers after my session in the single this morning, and I will be taking one along to my weights session this evening as well.

As you will see, the recipe has quite a variety of nuts and dried fruit. Most of these can be varied according to taste, but I would say the dates are the most essential. I am planning to try chopped dried apricots, dried cranberries or dried cherries in place of sultanas, and pumpkin seeds and desiccated coconut in place of sunflower seeds and sesame seeds, but we’ll start with this combination.

So without further ado:

Protein Bars

3/4 cup oil (something flavourless like sunflower is best)
1/4 cup brown rice syrup
1 heaped tbsp smooth peanut butter
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 ripe banana, mashed
1/2 cup protein powder, preferably flavourless or vanilla flavour
2 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp sunflower seeds
50g flaked almonds
75g sultanas
50g dates, chopped
225g jumbo oats

  1. Combine all liquid ingredients with the peanut butter and the mashed banana and mix until fairly uniform.
  2. Add the protein powder and mix until there are no more lumps.
  3. Add the nuts and fruit, and finally mix in the oats, which may be easiest if you add the oats a bit at a time.
  4. Bake in a tin lined with baking parchment for about 15-20 minutes at 180 degrees.
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Wholemeal pasta, avocado, feta and cherry tomato salad

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I decided  I would just write a short post to share my favourite quick lunch dish, since I’ve made it so often recently. It’s really delicious and takes no longer to make than the time it takes to cook the pasta. And it’s the perfect thing for fuelling afternoon training sessions.

Wholemeal pasta, avocado, feta and cherry tomato salad

Serves 1 hungry athlete

200-250g wholemeal pasta (most shapes work well but avoid spaghetti, linguine etc)
50g feta cheese
1/2 an avocado
6-10 cherry tomatoes, depending on size
Big handful of rocket (arugula)
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar

  1. Start cooking the pasta
  2. Chop the avocado and feta cheese into small pieces
  3. Halve the cherry tomatoes
  4. Mix everything together in a large bowl and sprinkle with a little balsamic vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil
  5. Add the pasta once it has cooked and drained, and mix everything together.

Simple but very delicious

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Turkey Satay Burgers

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It’s been a fair while since I last posted anything here. Life has been fairly hectic and I haven’t had the magical combination of inspiration for what to write, and a period of time at my computer in which to write it and in which I feel like I can get away with not working. Fortunately now that I have a break from Cambridge I have acquired both of those things. I’ll discuss a nice recipe I concocted recently, but before that a brief explanation of why I’ve been so busy. Apart from the whole PhD thing obviously taking up a huge amount of time, I had a fairly major change of direction in my rowing career recently. For years I’ve been rowing in Cambridge, steadily working up from the lowest of the low in college rowing to being in the CUBC squad last year. This year, after a few months in the squad again, I decided that CUBC was not for me and left to pursue other goals. I decided to go to GB trials in the single scull, with the aim of making the team for FISU – the world university rowing championships. This has been a big, big culture shift. Whilst the fundamentals of sculling and sweeping are essentially the same, the whole process of training in the single, setting my own training plan, organising getting to races and so on all by myself has been a new and demanding challenge, but after two surprisingly good results at the first two sets of trials in Boston, Lincolnshire, I feel like I’m well on the way. I will probably write some more on how I ended up changing direction like this, and how I’m training on a day to day basis now, but for the time being, a recipe…

This was mostly inspired by one of my favourite cookbooks: It’s All Good by Gwyneth Paltrow. Thanks to Gwyn, I have discovered that minced turkey is a perfect alternative to minced beef. It’s much lower in saturated fat whilst still being full of protein and really delicious, and also not that expensive. Some of my favourite recipes in the book use it, including a wonderful turkey and sweet potato chilli, and rocket (arugula) flavoured turkey meatballs that I have made over and over again. I have enjoyed these so much that I decided I wanted to try a spin on this theme with some of my favourite things added.

I have a bit of an obsession with peanut butter. Not the horrible tacky variety that tastes like salty vegetable oil, but real crunchy peanut butter that actually tastes of peanuts. I cook with it all the time. I mix it into curries or noodles, marinate chicken in it, or mix it into broccoli before roasting. I regularly eat it with a spoon from the jar when I’m peckish – it’s a pretty bad habit. Although having said that, it is a fairly good thing to be adding to a training diet. It’s a good source of healthy fats and protein – I just need to exercise moderation with it.  I am also a huge fan of combining peanut butter with such things as coriander (cilantro – to appease my North American friends), lime, coconut and soy sauce to name but a few. So I decided to see how peanut butter might work in minced turkey, which I thought I would form into burgers. I like to think of them as being satay burgers, with the peanut butter and coriander and so on, but the comparison doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

On the day I made these I had no limes, so I won’t list them in the recipe, but I would have tried adding some lime juice had I had any, so by all means, someone give this a go. Fresh green chillies would probably also be a good addition in place of chilli powder.

Turkey Satay Burgers

Makes 8 burgers, with 2 burgers being a good serving for a hungry athlete.

500g minced turkey (I used minced breast – dark meat would also work)
1 onion
2-3 heaped tablespoons of peanut butter (I used crunchy)
A big handful of fresh coriander (cilantro), leaves and stalks
3 cloves of garlic
1 inch piece of ginger
1tsp mild chilli powder
Sea salt

  1. Peel and chop the onion, peel and crush the garlic, and peel and grate the ginger. Add these things to a food processor with the coriander, peanut butter and chilli powder and blitz until well chopped. Don’t blend for too long or it will all break down and form a puree that will cause the burger mix to be too wet.
  2. Combine the blended mixture with the minced turkey, divide into 8 equal portions and shape into burgers. This works best if everything is cold as it helps bind the mixture together and prevent it from being too wet.
  3. Cook burgers in a frying pan or grill, being sure to cook them through, since it’s poultry and not beef.

I ate these in wholemeal pitta with a salad of sweet potato and red pepper roasted with a bit of paprika, and a bit of brown rice. Delicious.

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Thoughts on pre-training breakfast (or: overnight oats)

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Among most athletes I know, breakfast seems to divide opinion. We all have to get up early for training. For me and those I row with this regularly means  being up at 5:00-5:30 for rowing, erging, weights or whatever else. Many choose to skip breakfast, either in favour of the extra half an hour in bed, or claiming that they prefer to train on an empty stomach. Others hit the fry ups either before or after training. Personally, I cannot function without breakfast. It is a vital first step after waking up and I struggle to imagine the horror of a morning erg on an empty stomach. Or possibly even worse, a stomach full of bacon.

My breakfasts tend to be very repetitive. There’s a ritual to it and I seem to end up eating the same thing every morning for many days, or even weeks on end. This has never really bothered me – I like the routine and I like to know that what I’m eating is tried and tested for getting me through training and the rest of the day thereafter. I normally go through phases of different types of muesli or porridge (As an aside: I spend enough time with Americans – my step mother, PhD supervisor and various rowers and friends – these days that the phrase “oatmeal” has started to creep into my vocabulary when really I mean “porridge”. I’m very ashamed of myself).  Recently though I was introduced by a friend to the idea of overnight oats, and since then I’ve been making this almost every day. I love the fact that unlike bought muesli I can have complete control over what’s in it, and it’s not painfully expensive. And unlike oatmeal (porridge…) it requires no effort at all in the morning – just take it out of the fridge and tuck in. Porridge is hot, and it will therefore always have a place in my heart for winter breakfasts, but right now overnight oats are king.

The basis of this recipe is just the combination of a cup of oats with a cup of skimmed milk and half a cup of yoghurt. Beyond that you can add more or less anything you want. I have given an example below based purely on what I like and what I happened to make this evening. I adore dried apricots. Hands down the best of all dried fruits. They are definitely the most regular addition to my oats. Coconut flakes are also brilliant and go well with the apricot, but really I just happened to have them in the cupboard. Chia seeds and ground flaxseeds (shown looking pretty with oats in the photo at the top of this post) add some nutritional oomph. Other possible additions include nuts (hazelnuts, almonds, pecans – whatever you have), other dried fruit (the usual ones like sultanas, dates, etc, or branch out into something more interesting like dried apple, dried mango slices – again the possibilities are endless), maple syrup, honey, nut butters, spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla) or fresh berries (possibly best added the morning after rather than left to soak overnight). But anyway, here is one particular combination that I can vouch for, with some pretty pictures.

Overnight Oats, as made this evening

Serves 1 hungry athlete or two normal people

1 cup of jumbo oats
1 cup of skimmed milk
1/2 cup of fat free bio live yoghurt
1/8 cup ground flaxseed
1tbsp chia seeds
Handful (roughly 1/4-1/3 cup) dried apricots
Small handful (up to maybe 1/4 cup) coconut flakes
1 ripe banana (optional)

  1. Chop the apricots. I usually  cut them into quarters, which can be done quickly if you stack them carefully and cut the stacks into quarters. If you’re including the banana (which should be very ripe) mash it to a puree.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a bowl.
  3. Cover and leave in the fridge overnight.

Simple as that.

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I adore apricots. They’re so bright and orange and delicious.

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The dry ingredients.

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The finished product. Gloopy nutritious deliciousness.

I hope this helps someone out there get through their morning erg. Future posts in the pipeline!

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Chicken and roasted broccoli pasta: a post-training dinner

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If there’s one word that could best summarise how to train for rowing, it would be “volume”, as summarised quite nicely by this Olympic champion. As an aerobic, endurance sport with a vastly important technical aspect and a great need for power and strength, the volume of work required can be enormous. An as any physicist will tell you, work is just a transfer of energy. So where do we get this vast amount of energy from so that we can do our work?

This brings us to pasta. I’m sure all endurance athletes have had a very long and close relationship with it. In the past I’ve had moments when I’ve eaten so much pasta, so regularly that I could barely bring myself to look at it any more. It’s not always that bad, but pasta never seems far away. The ease and speed with which it can be cooked, combined with the obvious nutritional advantage of a huge dose of carbohydrates and a decent shot of protein (roughly 10% by dry weight) go some way to explaining its enormous popularity. These days I try not to indulge in it too much, preferring brown rice as my staple carbohydrate, but it still crops up in my diet at least once a week. I normally like to use wholemeal pasta, although I realise the photo at the top of this page includes plain pasta – I just happened to have run out of wholemeal on the night when I decided to prepare this post!

This recipe is a fairly standard meal for me when I’ve got home fairly late from training. It’s very straightforward to prepare and very satisfying. As with a lot of my meals it includes some avocado to give a bit of richness, and some red pepper to add sweetness, but the base ingredient is broccoli. Broccoli obviously has a bad reputation owing to the flavourless, over-boiled mush that’s regularly served up in canteens, but when done properly it’s delicious and another of my favourite ingredients. Nutritionally it is a gold mine, with vast amounts of vitamin C, A, and K to name but a few, and frankly it’s rather delicious too. As with many things my preferred means of cooking it is to roast it. This means using a bit more oil than, say, steaming, but roasting concentrates the flavours and unlike boiling, doesn’t drain off any of the nutrients. It’s also just super convenient to throw things in the oven and leave them while you get on with something else. In this recipe I often interchange normal broccoli and tenderstem/purple sprouting broccoli. Both work perfectly well, but I tend to find that the latter requires slightly less cooking time. Both can start to burn if you leave them in the oven for too long so you may want to be careful first time round.

An optional addition to this recipe is to crush part of a chicken stock cube (preferably one of the Kallo organic ones of Knorr at a push) into the chicken mixture before roasting. This can add a bit of richness to the whole mixture but I tend to avoid it these days.

Chicken and roasted broccoli pasta

Serves one hungry athlete or two normal people

200-250g of pasta shapes, preferably wholemeal. This recipe doesn’t work that well with spaghetti or other long pasta.
1/2 a large head of brocolli, or 1 small head, or 1/2 a pack of tenderstem broccoli, totalling about 200g (usually less for tenderstem)
1 red pepper
1 chicken breast
Umami paste
1/2 an avocado
A couple of sprigs of fresh basil, leaves roughly torn
A good handful of rocket
1 tablespoon of balsamic or red wine vinegar
Sea salt and black pepper

  1. Preheat the oven to about 200 degrees (Celsius)
  2. Cut the broccoli into forkable chunks and the red pepper into 1-2cm squares. Toss together in a roasting tin with a splash of olive oil and a good pinch of sea salt. Place the roasting tin in the preheated oven and set a timer for 30 minutes.
  3. Slice the chicken breast into chunks of a similar size to the broccoli. Mix in a bowl with a squirt of umami paste, a little sea salt and a small drizzle of olive oil, just to lubricate everything.
  4. When 10 minutes remain on the timer for the vegetables, move the vegetables to the sides of the pan and place the chicken in the middle, spreading it out so it cooks evenly, before roasting for the remaining 10 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Remeber to be vigilant to prevent the broccoli from burning at this stage.
  6. Slice the avocado into small chunks
  7. When the chicken and vegetables are done, remove from the oven and add the avocado, rocket, basil and vinegar to the pan, along with a little black pepper. Balsamic vinegar is used in so many things so often that I sometimes like to use red wine vinegar here to change things up a bit. I might try experimenting with other types in future.
  8. Finally mix the pasta into the roasting tin and serve.

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Brocolli. Treat it right. Don’t boil it.

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The vegetable mixture, ready for roasting.

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A squirt of umami paste with a splash of olive oil and a little sea salt.

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Chicken breast with its umami paste marinade.

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Avocado and basil. Lovely shades of green.

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The vegetable mixture after roasting, with only rocket and pasta left to add.

That’s it for today. Soon to come: a discussion of what I wish I’d known as an undergrad, a summary of an athlete cook’s store cupboard essentials/grocery shop, and the previously promised discussion of doping in professional cycling.

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Quinoa, avocado and feta salad: a between sessions meal

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A typical weekend’s training for me involves two back-to-back sessions out on the river, which is roughly a half hour journey away from where I live. The coaches normally leave up to an hour and a half between these two sessions, and obviously having completed one session and with another yet to come, it’s important to fuel up well in this gap. A lot of people run to the local Sainsbury’s and buy all sorts of crap, but I’ve already made my feelings about supermarket sandwiches as training food clear in a previous post. Personally I try to always take home-made food with me. I have been known to occasionally survive on malt loaf when incredibly pushed for time, but it’s really a last resort. So I thought I’d write briefly about what I’m taking to training today.

I learned how to cook quinoa quite recently. I thought I didn’t like it because I kept making it mushy and porridgey. I discovered the error of my ways courtesy of a friend who helped me realise that rather than cook the stuff in an excess of water and drain it, as you might do for pasta or some types of rice, you have to measure out a specific amount of water per unit of dry quinoa, and cook it like a rice pilau, so that when it’s done all of the water has been absorbed and you have nice, distinct quinoa grains with no sludginess. The ratio of quinoa to water should be 1:2 by volume.

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Having actually worked out how to cook quinoa properly, I now absolutely love it. I did once read an article that made me feel bad about buying quinoa because of how recent Western demand for it as a health food is driving up international prices for the crop and causing problems in regions where it is a staple foodstuff, but I try to rationalise this with the fact that it seems almost impossible to buy anything from anywhere without some knock-on negative effect. So I think I’m going to keep eating it.

Quinoa is a good carbohydrate source and particularly interesting from a post-training perspective since it is a complete protein source, meaning that it contains all essential amino acids. Most such complete proteins in our diet are meat or dairy-based, and this sets quinoa apart from most plant-derived foods. Another notable example of a complete protein plant would be soy beans, which is one of the reasons tofu is so beloved of vegetarians. I’ve often considered vegetarianism myself, especially considering the cost and ethical considerations surrounding meat, but I just haven’t had the courage to make the jump yet, and am not sufficiently confident in the rest of my diet to think I’d be able to get sufficient nutrition to keep up with training.

The salad I’m making here is based on quinoa, and also brown rice – another favourite of mine, which perhaps I’ll talk more about another time. It also features avocado, which will crop up a lot in my recipes as it is my favourite thing ever. At some point I will probably write an ode to avocados… The whole thing is topped off with a bit of feta cheese. I don’t normally put cheese in my food but sometimes make an exception with feta, just to add a bit of bite to salads and things.

Quinoa, avocado and feta salad

Serves 1 hungry athlete or 2 normal people

100g quinoa
100g brown rice
1/2 an avocado, cut into small cubes
Handful of rocket leaves
2 Sprigs of basil, leaves only, torn.
Small handful of flaked almonds
40g feta cheese, cut into small cubes
1-2 tbsp olive oil
1-2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Pinch of sea salt

  1. Cook the quinoa and rice (separately) and allow to cool.
  2. Mix all the ingredients together in a tupperware box and take with you to training.

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Along with this salad, I’m also taking along some of Biju Thomas’s blueberry, chocolate and coconut rice cakes from the Feed Zone Portables cook book. They are amazing. Perhaps I’ll do a review of the book at some point. Also stay tuned for some thoughts on Chris Froome and the current state of pro cycling!

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