There’s a connection, I think, between food and exercise. Maybe even more than one connection but the most important is both are better when done with people you love.
When I think about exercising — and for me, that’s running, hiking, cross-country skiing and walking the dog — I most like to do these things when I’m with friends or my husband. There was a time, a long time ago, when my family hiked together (“forced family marches,” they called it then.) There’s a favorite story in our house, a day when I insisted on hiking; It’s etched deeply into the memories of my children and they do not let me forget. It was pouring rain, in Lake Placid. Raindrops fell from the hood of seven-year-old Zoe’s coat as she bent her head, walking and crying. All three children hiked, sad and soggy, until my husband declared we had had enough. Maybe that wasn’t the greatest exercise we ever had together but boy, the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we ate in the car after were the best we’ve ever had.
And like those legendary sandwiches, all food tastes better after exercise. There is nothing quite like working up a good appetite, and sitting down together for refueling. This time of year the weather is ripe for outdoor exercise and I’m thinking about fresh greens, lean protein and lots of flavor, all to fill ‘er up after putting in the work. Read on for food that’s good for eating together and for rewarding yourself after working out.
First is pre-exercise food. The thing about smoothies is that they pack a punch. There’s all the good stuff: fiber, protein, calcium, vitamins and antioxidants and the kinds of things they tell us to eat for good health. At its core, a smoothie fills you up and makes you feel good. I always feel like it’s OK to eat whatever you want for the rest of the entire live-long day, as long as you’ve had a smoothie for breakfast. So here’s how to mix it up: start with a banana. Always, a banana. For the rest of the recipe, you can follow what I’ve done exactly, or, switch it up according to the season (peaches are good, as are apples and cooked carrots.) But follow the basic guideline of that trusty banana – which adds creaminess and potassium and banana-ness – then add protein (plain yogurt, nuts, seeds), some fiber (tender greens) and berries for color and sweetness. I like crunch in my smoothie, so I pour the blended smoothie into a bowl and add some of that good stuff at the end. When I’m feeling particularly motivated, I pack the smoothies in Mason jars, so we can grab them and head out in the morning.
Salad and exercise are typical. It’s perfectly acceptable to forget your manners and stuff in bite after bite of salad—any kind of salad—after exercise. And, cheese and nuts, meat and anything else that’s salty and is good on its own, is even better on crunchy, fresh greens and tossed with dressing. The salad here is based on one of my all-time favorite dishes: saag paneer. That’s the Indian takeout favorite, where chunks of cheese are covered in a spiced and bright green sauce. I shook up the idea a bit, took the cheese and traditional spices and made a fresh salad. It’s got all the flavors of the original, with the tooth of whole, rather than pureed, leafy greens. Saag paneer is traditionally made with greens, such as collards, chard and kale. In this riff, baby kale leaves are wilted in the warm, spiced dressing (though you can riff on this yourself and make it more like palak paneer, traditionally made from spinach). Paneer is an Indian-style fresh cheese that doesn’t melt, but crisps, when fried – crispy fried cheese, eaten where and anyhow, is so good. Use any sturdy greens you have on hand.
I’ve included here a recipe for kofta, which is excellent party food (see above about food eaten with the people you love.) This recipe is based on traditional Lebanese grilled meat, formed into logs, pressed onto skewers and cooked over hot coals. You’ll see versions of kofta often made from lamb, and you can easily use lamb with good results. I made this version with meatloaf mix, because that’s what I had on hand. The meat can stick on the grill so the fattier, the better (lean meat like turkey can be tricky), and be sure to oil your grates very well. These are easy to prepare and big on flavor. Use the food processor to do all the heavy lifting, and you’ll have perfectly uniform chopped onion, garlic and parsley. I add the pine nuts in after the first process, so they don’t get too pureed and add little texture to the meat. The pine nuts are important, for both their buttery, sweet flavor and texture, so don’t leave them out. They’re notoriously expensive, but you only need a small amount. I like to toast them first, and those little buggers burn in a blink, so don’t turn your back. Seriously, let the phone ring and the dog bark until they’re golden brown, then turn off the pan and remove them to a plate to cool. It’s worth the extra effort. Kofta is street food and I always trust street food to be slightly messy and downright delicious. These are both of those things.
This is where I leave you, hopefully inspired to go outside and walk or run or hike with a person you love, or even just a person you like a lot. And I also hope you are encouraged to make some food and share it with those same people. It’ll make it all feel and taste good. One last thing, the exercise you do before eating all that healthy food? It’s good to do, rain or shine.