“See No Evil” by Robert Baer

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This is one that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for way too long and I finally got around to reading it. I’m so glad I did!

See No Evil is Bob Baer’s account of his amazing career with the CIA and his perspective from the field on the triumphs and failings of the CIA intelligence program, U.S. and Middle East relations, and the issues that arise from dealing with Washington bureaucrats from thousands of miles away.

You might know the author, Robert “Bob” Baer, from CNN where he’s a regular contributor on subjects of terrorism, the Middle East, and the CIA. You would never guess from his humble demeanor on TV that this man really knows what he’s talking about! Baer was a CIA agent working in some of the most dangerous situations in the Middle East through the late 70s to mid 90s. He was in Beirut when the embassy was bombed; he was living with the Kurdish people in northern Iraq during their civil war; and he routinely sought out and visited the homes of terrorists to collect intelligence for the U.S.

Baer is one of the few Americans who have visited the Yaghnobi people in Tajikistan who are said to have produced Roxane, Alexander the Great’s wife (I would love to do this one day if it becomes safe enough!).

“Ever since I had arrived in Dushanbe, I’d heard rumors about the remnants of an ancient civilization tucked away in a valley high in the mountains. The people who lived there were said to be descendants of the ancient kingdom of Samarkand, which had produced Alexander the Great’s wife, Roxane. Although they now called themselves Yaghnobis, their language hadn’t changed significantly in the last twenty-five hundred years. It was very close to ancient Soghdian, an Indo-European tongue in the Iranian family. The Yaghnobis’ way of life apparently hadn’t changed, either. They lived without electricity or running water. And if the wild rumors were true, the Yaghnobis had even reverted to worshiping fire.”

 

Not only is this book a page turner and very easy to read (as in, you won’t want to put it down), but it’s a testament to the importance of having CIA operatives overseas, collecting intelligence and not sticking our heads in the sand as a nation. It has further convinced me the U.S. needs to strengthen its overseas intelligence gathering operations to prevent future terrorist attacks and also open communication between the U.S. and other nations that could be potential allies. While we may be “war weary” – and yes, war should be avoided if possible – extremists groups are still focused on wreaking havoc in the western world and intelligence gathering seems to be a smartest way to prevent future attacks.

Watercress and Leek Soup

I’ve been shopping more often at farmers’ markets this year and trying to buy as much organic and local food as possible. I found a beautiful bunch of leeks at my local farmers market and was able to get it for free along with a bag of onions I paid $2 for. There are tons of creamy leek recipes online, but I wanted to make something healthier. I found this leek soup recipe on the blog RealFoodForager.com. I like that the recipe was simple — and I made it even more simple by leaving out the celeriac root since I couldn’t find one at my local Whole Foods or the farmer’s market.

This soup took about 30 minutes to make — between washing the veggies with Honest Fruit & Veggie wash, chopping, sauteing, boiling, cooling, and pureeing. Honest Fruit & Veggie Wash, by the way, is amazing. Spray this on your fruits or veggies before washing, leave it on for 1-2 minutes, then rinse. You’ll notice that produce looks brighter — you can especially see this with persimmons, plums, and large leaves, or other vibrantly color produce. They must be covered in wax or chemicals or something, because once you wash off the Honest Wash, any dingyness or faded color is gone!

Back to the soup–this watercress soup is a great starter before a meal, or good with a sandwich as part of a healthy lunch.

Here’s my recipe:

watercress soup

Watercress Soup

Serves 4

  • 1 Tbsp. coconut oil
  • 3 leeks, cleaned and chopped
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 bunch fresh watercress
  • 3 cups organic chicken broth

1. First trim, wash and chop leeks. Here’s a great video how-to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8glwRaS8OM

2. Melt coconut oil in large soup pot. Add the onion and leeks, stir to caramelize slightly, cooking for about 4-5 minutes over medium heat.

3. Add all of the chicken broth and the cleaned watercress (you can eat the stems!).

4. Stir and let simmer for about 10 minutes.

5. Once the watercress is wilted and the soup has cooked for a bit, turn the burner off and let it cool.

6. When the soup is only slightly warm, pour it into a high-powered blender, like a Vitamix, and blend of 20 seconds. You can also use an immersion blender.

Enjoy!

Green Couscous Salad

Don’t be intimidated by the looonng ingredient list for this couscous salad. It’s actually very simple to prepare. I’ll warn you, it is a bit time consuming, but well worth it!

I’m a huge fan of veggie-based meals with lots of herbs, spices and good quality olive oil. They’re very satisfying if done right. The cookbook, “Plenty” has tons of veggie recipes (that’s where I got this one). Some are best as appetizers while others could stand-in for a meaty main course. If I made this salad with quinoa, it would have enough protein and B vitamins to stand-in for a main course, but I wanted to follow the recipe exactly so I used couscous and served it as a side dish.

Couscous

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Green Couscous
Serves 4

1 cup couscous
3/4 cup boiling water or vegetable stock
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cumin

Herb Paste: (fresh herbs are very important here since they’re such a major flavor in this dish)
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 Tbsp chopped tarragon
2 Tbsp chopped dill
2 Tbsp chopped mint
6 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 cup unsalted pistachios, toasted and roughly chopped
3 green onions, finely sliced
1 fresh green chile, finely chopped (I used a Serrano chile)
1 1/4 cup arugula leaves, chopped

Place the couscous in a large bowl and cover with the boiling water or stock. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, fry the onion in the olive oil on medium heat until golden and completely soft. Add the salt and cumin, mix well. Leave to let cool slightly.

To make herb paste place ingredients in a food processor (I used a small blender — The Magic Bullet). Blend until smooth.

Add the herb mixture to the couscous and mix it together. Use a fork to fluff the couscous. Add the cooked onion, pistachios, green onions, green chile and the arugula and gently toss. Serve at room temperature.

I served this alongside whitefish baked with lemon slices and dill.

Image via my Instagram account

China Camp Hike

East of San Rafael in northern California is a California State Park called China Camp. This 19th century Chinese settlement has a lot of history and some beautiful trails. Chinese immigrants created a self-sustaining shrimping village in this spot starting in 1880. Today you can walk on the old, crooked dock and tour a small museum with some artifacts from this time when about 500 people lived here. The park re-created the tiny houses settlers would have lived in at the time, which are very sparse.

China Camp is a great place to hangout on a sunny day, have a picnic or take a hike. On a recent weekend, my fiancé and I h hiked the Shoreline Trail. This 4.5 mile trail takes you through oak trees and tall grass with excellent views of San Pablo Bay.

Shoreline 1

Shoreline 2

Shoreline 4

Shoreline 5

Shoreline 7

If you go here, keep in mind you need to bring cash for parking OR park alongside the two-lane road. Sometimes these free spots on the road fill-up and you’ll have to park far from the trailhead. The spots along the road don’t leave much room for driving error, as a cliff to the bay is feet away with no guard rail in many spots.

It’s likely you’ll encounter others along your hike since this is a well-known trail, but most of the time we were alone on the trail. Here are some trail rules of etiquette to know if you go hiking:

  • You might have to stand aside on the narrow portions of the trail as other hikers pass. People going on the easy downhill portions should yield to hikers going uphill. Bikers should yield to hikers. Everyone yields to people on horseback.
  • Stay to the right on wider sections of trail.
  • Always pass on the left.
  • Stay on the trail to avoid trampling into an animal’s space (rattlesnakes are common in Northern California — I’ve come across a few).
  • Don’t hike alone!

HikingGuide,

7 Great Places To Go Camping This Summer In California

I used to hate camping as a kid, but now, especially living in a city, I see camping as a break from the hustle-and-bustle of San Francisco. It’s a great way to get away from my laptop and get out in nature to hike, swim and have a good time. Even day trips to these parks provide enough regenerative time with nature to make me start my week with greater enthusiasm. Here are some of the best camping spots in California — many I’ve been to, some recently, others not-so-recently, and a couple I’ve yet to try.

Jenkinson Lake
1. Jenkinson Lake in Sly Park is a beautiful place to camp and enjoy the sun. Sly Park is in the town of Pollock Pines — it’s off highway 50 on your way to Lake Tahoe going east. The lake is incredibly picturesque and sits among a pine tree forest. The air smells like campfires, pine needles and on crowded days, like barbecued food from the campsites. I’ve been kayaking on the lake, which is a great way to see the lake and to cool-off a bit in the water. You can rent kayaks and boats from Memorial Day weekend though Labor Day weekend. The lake also offers fishing, 8 miles of hiking trails and 9 miles of horseback riding trails. There is a nature preserve at one end of the lake where you can see thousands of lady bugs and maybe a bald eagle if you’re lucky. It gets very hot in Sly Park, so you’ll want to find a spot with shade. You can visit for the day or camp overnight. To camp, you’ll need to make a reservation of at least two nights, or three for holiday weekends. The only downside is dogs and babies in diapers are not allowed in the lake because the water is also used for drinking water. The rangers are strict about the park rules, so keep that in mind and you’ll have a great time.

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2. Emerald Bay’s boat-in campground at Lake Tahoe has been on my to-visit list for a number years now. This 20 site campground is rarely accessible by road. Guests have to kayak in. The reward for visitors is the chance to experience Emerald Bay, and views of the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains, without the droves of tourists who are there during most days. You can launch your kayaks (rented or ones you own) from a couple of places depending on whether you want to kayak for just an hour or three-to-four. The campsite will open July 1, 2013 and be open until Labor Day weekend. Reservations are required. The rate is $35 per night.

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3. Bodega Bay is on the coast in Northern California, about an hour-and-a-half drive north of San Francisco. The gorgeous craggy shores and moody weather makes it a great place to relax. The best places to camp are Bodega Dunes and Wrights Beach, each for $35 per night. Keep in mind Wright’s Beach doesn’t have hot showers, but you can use the ones next door at Bodega. Dogs are not allowed on Bodega Dunes beach. This is also a great place to picnic for the day. Forget s’mores for this trip — I often stop at Patrick’s of Bodega Bay to buy a bag of saltwater taffy. Yum!

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4. Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to Lassen Peak — an active volcano, in addition to hydrothermal areas. The park also has pristine high-mountain lakes and 150 miles of hiking trails, however you cannot bring your dog on the park’s trails. The park host numerous activities including events for amateur astronomersclubs for kids and an Art & Wine FestivalLassen has eight campsites, half of which accept reservations. The fee for camping ranges from $30-$50 per night, groups cost $50. The park’s main road sometimes doesn’t open until mid-June depending on snow fall, so check traffic reports.

Yosemite May 2010
5. Yosemite National Park is a must-see place for residents and visitors of California for its grand beauty. The park is a four hour drive east of San Jose. Seven of the park’s 13 campgrounds accept reservations, the others are first come, first serve. Campsites range from rural with no showers to a bit more crowded, but have showers and bathrooms. White Wolf is a first come, first serve site, but at 8,000 feet you get a taste of the high Sierras. All campsites in the Yosemite Valley take reservations and are beautiful but crowded at popular times of the year. To get some solitude you can apply for a Wilderness Permit and camp for a night or two at Little Yosemite Valley near some of Yosemite’s best attractions — Half Dome and Merced River. But you must be hiking the area and present your planned itinerary to get the permit.The park has numerous outdoor activities to suite all tastes.

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6. Sequoia National Forest is home to giant redwood trees, lush vegetation and the longest cave in California. The forest is in Sequoia & Kings Canyon and is about a 5 hour drive north of Los Angeles. There are 14 campgrounds in the park, most of which are first come, first serve. Camping costs about $20. The Lodgepole Campground is about 2 miles from the Giant Forest — a grove of redwoods with the General Sherman tree, the largest living tree in the world standing 275 feet tall and 2,300 years old.

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7. Lake Almanor is another great place to enjoy the summer sun. Lake Almanor is in Plumas County, about three hours north of Sacramento in Lassen National Forest. I’ve both camped here and stayed in a cabin. Both are good options. The lake is a great place to swim and fish, and at night at lot of people barbecue. The campsites are first come, first serve, but for a fee, you can make a reservation. Camping is $18 per night. Down the street from the campground is a place called Majors Outpost where you can rent ski boats, jet skis and fishing boats.

Photos courtesy of Flickr users (in order of photos) akeg, SLY PARK, seannaberIngridtaylarglennwilliamspdxGeorg Lesterbumeister1 and Jose and Roxanne.

Amazing Hike From Presidio Gate to Baker Beach

I love how many state and county parks there are in the San Francisco Bay Area. As the weather has warmed up and the sun’s come out a bit, I’ve been trying to see as much and as many of these parks as possible. Here are some I’ve visited:

Presidio and Baker Beach

This past weekend I spent the afternoon walking through the Presidio, from the gate at Lombard to Baker Beach. There are so many attractions at this park. I was surprised to walk by horse stables and I later read about a “mountain lake” in the Presidio, which I did not see. But I was able to get some amazing views of Crissy Field and downtown, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. Looking out at Crissy Field it was a beautiful sunny day and by the time I got to the Golden Gate overlook, and especially Baker Beach, the coast was entrenched in fog.

crissy field

ocean trees

View pic

gg view

China Camp State Park

Last weekend I was eager to make the most of my Sunday by getting outside and soaking up some sunshine, which the city doesn’t always offer since the weather is so moody. I visited China Camp State Park in the north bay, located in San Rafael. It felt at least 10 degrees warmer than the city. The scenery along the two lane road to China Camp is mostly greenery and bay views, and the occasional passing car. China Camp was a Chinese shrimping village in the 1880s and there are some structures still standing (the crooked dock) that make it extra special. There are also re-creations of the little shacks where the shrimpers and their families likely lived. This was a self-sustained community so they had their own gardens. The only way in was by boat. For visitors today there is a small museum along the shoreline that displays the tools Chinese shrimpers used to haul in their keep.  There are some beautiful hiking trails where you can really feel like you’re away from the city. And the shoreline is not too crowded (at least when I visited). If you walk north along the shore you can find a secluded spot to cast a fishing pole.

McNears Beach Park

This is a very well maintained county park down the road from China Camp. It has a volleyball court, a dock for fishing and plenty of grass to lay a picnic blanket. There is a sandy beach area for swimming and swimming pool, too.

Iron-rich recipes for people who don’t love meat

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I found out in May of last year that I had anemia. Fortunately it was iron deficiency anemia, so it’s curable. (A little Google research after my diagnosis showed that sometimes peoples’ digestive systems don’t absorb iron properly, which can be a chronic problem but this is not what I had.)

I started taking an iron supplement every day. I also incorporated more home-cooked meals into my diet (less Starbucks grab-and-go sandwiches and more baked chicken, steamed greens and quinoa). Shortly after taking the supplement I noticed a spike in my energy levels, which was incredible after living a lethargic life for way too long.

My doctor said I needed a more balanced diet — not just meat, but also steamed dark leafy greens. I could cook and eat the greens, but I’ve never liked meat, red meat in particular. Not only did I not enjoy it but as a non- red meat eater for more than a decade, I found it was difficult to cook it just right. I knew I had tasted and liked meat cooked on a grill but living in San Francisco with no outdoor space, I had no way to do that. I discovered that sauces and long cooking times were my answer to enjoying meat on occasion. Sauces mask a too-meaty flavor, and long cooking times make meat more chewable — chewy pieces of meat still disgust me.

I love cooking with my crockpot! It makes meat very tender. I’d also recommend buying a bamboo steamer and a wok for lightly steaming veggies like kale and other greens without making them soggy. Those are a great side dish to a meaty main course.

Here are some recipes with lots of flavor and where meat isn’t the main focus flavor-wise:

Crockpot Lamb Stew

I’ve learned that anytime red meat is cooked in red wine, you have a winner of a dish. I really like using lamb for stew. You can probably get away with buying a number of cuts but I prefer to buy lamb shanks, leg of lamb or stew lamb meat.

Stew is fun and easy to make because you can use what produce you have in the fridge. And after cooking at a low heat all day in the crockpot, the lamb is super tender and chewable. Plus my version of this stew dish has a lot of veggies which adds flavor. Here’s my favorite combo:

Makes 4 servings

— 1 28 oz. can organic diced tomatoes in juice

— 1 Tbsp tomato paste

— 1 bay leaf

— 2 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed

— 5 whole carrots, peeled and cut into 1-2 inch pieces

— 5 fresh sprigs of thyme

— 1 container vegetable stock

— 1 yellow onion, diced

— 2 stalks of celery, diced

— 2 shallots, diced

— 1 cloves of garlic

— 1 can organic white beans, rinsed

— 3 Tbsp olive oil

— 1 cup merlot

— 4 lamb shanks

Add the tomatoes, paste, onion, carrots, potatoes, celery, bay leaf, thyme , beans and broth to the crockpot. Put a little sea salt on the lamb shanks and heat 3 Tbsp of olive oil in a pan. Drop the shanks, or other cut of lamb, into the hot pan to sear both sides but not cook through. Remove the shanks and add them to the crockpot. Turn down the heat, or move the pan away from the heat for a moment to add the wine. I use Merlot. It doesn’t have to be top-notch vino, but never cook with wine you wouldn’t drink. Turn the heat back up and use a heat proof spatula to scrap-up all the pieces of lamb that stuck to the pan while the wine simmers. Add the wine to the crockpot. Cook on medium heat for 6-8 hours. Serve with rustic French bread.

Healthy Burrito Bowl

I tried cooking black beans and garbanzo beans in the crockpot and came home to a burned mess both times. I’m still working on mastering that one (more water?), so for now I used canned.

Stick the chicken in the oven first. Then cook the quinoa. And heat the beans in a separate pot. Layer the ingredients in a bowl starting with the lettuce, quinoa, beans, chicken, and serve with salsa and guacamole.

Makes 2-4 servings (leftovers!)

— 3-4 bunches romaine lettuce (I like to slice it myself because it ends up being crunchier and a good bed for all the ingredients). I love this knife for lettuce. Run some cold water over it and drain it in a salad spinner.

— 2 cans organic black beans (loaded with iron!)

— 1/2- 3/4 cup cooked quinoa (also a great source of iron)

— 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, baked with a sprinkling of sea salt, cumin, onion powder and ground cayenne pepper. After baking, slice into strips. (Some iron here, too)

— Homemade salsa. (I make this in my small Bella blender, it’s like a Magic Bullet. Salsa has so many healthy ingredients, plus the vitamin C in the tomatoes helps your body to better absorb the iron.

  1. 2 tomatoes, seeded and sliced into 1-inch chunks
  2. 1/2 medium yellow onion diced (you can also use red, which is more common in salsa, but I like the mild and sometimes sweet taste of the yellow)
  3. 1-2 jalapenos, seeded and sliced. Include a few seeds if you want more heat in the salsa.
  4. About 1/4-1/2 cup cilantro leaves
  5. 1 large clove of garlic, cut into four pieces
  6. Pinch of sea salt

— Homemade guacamole. OK, this one is super easy. I use the recipe from the book, “Skinny Bitch in the Kitch.”

  1. 2 avocados, mashed with a fork
  2. juice of 1/2 lime
  3. 2 cloves of garlic diced

Thai Beef Curry

I love this recipe because it’s easy, quick and healthy but tastes like takeout. There are a lot of great Thai food places in San Francisco and this dish comes close to recreating something you’d get at a restaurant. Plus, the beef is loaded with iron, and the curry flavors it so non-meat fans can enjoy it, too.

Cook the beef in the 2 cans of coconut milk, plus 1 Tbsp. curry paste, 1 Tbsp. fish sauce for about 10-15 minutes while stirring occasionally. Steam brown rice in the meantime. Add veggies to the curry and cook for about five minutes more.

Makes 3 servings

— 1-2 bags frozen Thai veggies, or stir-fry veggies

— About 3/4 pound beef cubes, stew beef or beef chunks (all the same thing and are a really affordable cut of meat)

— 1 Tbsp. Thai fish sauce

— 1 Tbsp. Thai green or red curry paste

— 2 cans coconut milk (yum, this is so delicious)

— 1 cup brown rice

Image courtesy of Flickr, Andrew Fogg

These apps will help you find food in your area

If you’re like me you have dozens of apps on your phone but there are only a handful you use frequently. For me, the apps I use most often are the ones to organize dinners, chose a happy hour place or simply find a healthy lunch spot that’s nearby. I didn’t list the obvious ones, like Yelp (which I use almost daily) and the Google app because I figure if you own a smartphone you probably have these must-have apps. Here are the others that get a lot of play on my phone:

AroundMe: The AroundMe app is one I’ve been using since I bought my first iPhone. It’s simple and does exactly what you think it would — finds places near your location. Launch the app and you can see it has a bunch of categories to chose from — coffee, bar, restaurant are the ones I use most often. The app shows you the distance between you and that location. Click on one of the destinations and it takes you to a map where you can see the walking or driving route. Add your favorite destinations to the app to quickly access them. You can also find the nearest gas station, parking lot, supermarket or movie theatre, too. AroundMe is free and available for iOS and Android.

LocalEatsThis lovely app is similar to AroundMe but focuses just on restaurants and has beautiful photos to help make your decision of where to dine easier. Search by location to find what’s near to you or use a map to scour your city for a particular eatery. You can buy it in the App Store for 99 cents.

OpenTable: I love the convenience this free app offers. True, it’s easy to pick-up the phone and make a reservation but it’s even simpler to make a reservation with this app — just a couple touches and done. I included OpenTable in this list because it’s also great for when you’re feeling indecisive about where to eat or maybe craving a specific cuisine. You can browse the restaurants near you or in a certain location and see how expensive each one is according to dollar signs listed (one to four), and also see the times the restaurant has tables available. Check OpenTable’s website here to see if the app is available for your city. The app is available for iPhone, iPod Touch, iPadAndroid and BlackBerry.

SupperKing: You need to be a bit adventurous to try this app. With SupperKing you crash people’s dinner parties. The person throwing the dinner party can chose to sell you tickets for a price or offer the meal for free. Yes, you eat food cooked by complete strangers in their own home! I’ll admit I haven’t mustered-up the courage to use it yet.  I might try it out for this blog, though, so stayed tuned! The community is a great idea, and I wrote about it for Mashable when I first heard about it. I can really see it taking off in Europe and maybe in small college towns (Chico?!) but for the average city-living individual I would feel nervous eating food a stranger cooked. Although the founder Kai told me in-home dinner parties are a great way to really connect with people (I agree!), so it may be worth a shot. It’s definitely a new idea.

Your living room makes a great gym

In the past few years the ways we can get a good workout at home have grown. Even gym-goers like myself have been persuaded to workout at home more frequently. 

There are a ton of fun ways to sweat using a game console paired with a device like the Wii Fit or Nike Kinect. You dance or do sports moves (essentially things like air golf), while burning calories. Even traditional workout videos now have corresponding multimedia tools like online forums to find additional motivation. I’ve found some great videos on YouTube just by searching for trainers I read about in magazines — I just connect my laptop to my television in my living room and can browse from all sorts of fitness content. And you can bet if you’re trying a new fitness routine that there are dozens (maybe hundreds) of videos on YouTube from people who’ve already tried it and are offering their reviews. 

The latest workout I’m doing at home is the Tracy Anderson Perfect Design Series I-III workout. And before my recent vacation to Thailand I learned a short Tracy Anderson routine by watching a YouTube video. The routine was short enough to remember the moves and was a good way to start the day before drinking Chang beer and eating delicious Thai curries.

It’s easy to get comfortable at home (as you should be!) but don’t let that stop you from breaking a sweat in your living room. It opens up so much more time in the day when your “gym” is in your home.