Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Comforting Quinoa

Ben and I made pho-ga recently and the tastes of that Vietnamese chicken soup have been lingering in my mind for weeks. The warmth of the clove and the zing of the ginger have been dancing around, taunting me, pleading with me to make something just as flavorful, and just as comforting. I had also been introduced to coriander seed via the pho-ga recipe and was intrigued by its unique flavor and couldn’t wait to taste it again. How great would it be to be able to enjoy all of those tastes in another dish?

Incidentally, quinoa has become my life-saver, my go-to food lately. It not only cooks up fast and easy, but it is also relatively high in fiber (5g) and protein (5g). Even though I can usually cook up a delicious meal without any sort of grain, by basing the meal on either vegetables, beans, meat, or eggs, I find something particularly comforting about including a warm, soft grain-based part to my meal. Quinoa has become a staple in my kitchen since I discovered it fills this gap in my meals and is healthier than rice or rice-based pastas.

So there I was, cooking up quinoa to go with my asparagus and crock-pot chicken, and I realized I had the perfect blank canvas to create the flavors I had been craving. I excitedly threw in some ginger, clove, sea salt, cilantro, and ground coriander. The smells mingled and wafted up to my nose as the quinoa absorbed its cooking water and I knew I was in for heaven. With these few seasonings, I transformed a comforting grain into a bona-fide comfort food. Move over mac and cheese!

Comforting Quinoa

1 cup quinoa
2 cups water (or broth)
½ teaspoon ground clove
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cilantro
½ teaspoon ground coriander seed
Sea salt to taste

Place quinoa and water in large saucepan and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and add clove, ginger, cilantro, and coriander, stirring to add. Cover and simmer until all water is absorbed (about 15 minutes). Taste and add salt as desired.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I wake up excited every Sunday morning…okay, sometimes physically very slowly, but mentally excited. After nuzzling my face in Ben’s neck one last time, I open my front door, bend down, and pick up the paper. I bring it to the kitchen table and either Ben or I start a large pot of coffee. We read the paper, sometimes to each other, and by the time we are cooking breakfast, we begin work on the crossword puzzle. This is the Sunday morning ritual I look forward to each week.

Sometimes rituals like this can be very important. Maintaining a sense of stability in ones life can support overall health and well-being; it seems we benefit in some way from knowing what to expect from our day and ourselves. While some rituals define who we are and others simply bring us joy, understanding when to hang on and when to let go can make some transitions easier.

I remember a time, just before my diagnosis, when I felt weak and nothing seemed interesting to me anymore. Still, I got up at 6:00am every morning to workout at the school fitness center simply because I had been doing so every day for months. Even though my heart wasn’t in it and I would sometimes only make it 2 miles instead of 5, I would go. At a time when I didn’t know what was going on, when I felt I sometimes didn’t even know myself, I hung onto this ritual. It was an integral part of my self-identity.

While I was going through tests at the student clinic, I had been blood tested for gluten-intolerance. Of the three available blood tests for gluten intolerance, my doctor chose one based on what she had read somewhere. I later found out that it is best to administer all three tests, as some can come back negative while others come back positive, based on what the individual’s body is doing to fight the gluten. When my test came back negative, I was frustrated with the idea that I still didn’t have an answer for my symptoms, but was elated to know that I wasn’t doing any more harm by eating a sandwich.

Since I had suspected gluten intolerance and my mom had been diagnosed with it, I tried to eat a variety of grains and limited my intake of straight-up gluteny foods, like bread. After getting my negative diagnosis, I was freed to not feel like I was potentially harming my body with every bite of bread. Of course, I went nuts. I immediately went to the grocery store and happily purchased bread, cereal, and pasta.

That week, I enjoyed turkey sandwiches on multigrain bread with avocado, onion, lettuce, and tomato. I savored my favorite honey bunches o’ oats with yogurt and bananas. I also grew sicker and sicker, and by the end of the week, I was so tired that my afternoon coffee was followed by an hour-long nap. Determined to go work out that afternoon (because I hadn’t made it that morning), I got up from the couch, feeling chilled and feverish, and put on my workout clothes. They felt uncomfortable over my bloated belly and, still feeling chilled, I wanted sweatpants and a sweatshirt on, not shorts and a t-shirt. I promptly sat down on my bed and cried.

Instead of working out, I drew myself a bath and opened a bottle of wine. I didn’t know who I was anymore, why I lacked all motivation to do anything, why I was so tired, why my body ached, and why my stomach rejected anything I put in it. I had lost my battle to keep my ritual and my self-identity as an athletic, active individual was slipping away.

I also remember when I was contemplating whether to try going gluten-free, one of the biggest obstacles for me was the idea of letting go of some of my gluteny rituals. Like happily trotting down to the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning, after a good 2-hour row, and nibbling on a scone the size of my face while picking up that week’s fruit and vegetables. I didn’t want to let this part of my routine go. However, after going gluten-free, I mentally approached the farmer’s market in a new way; I now think of my favorite bakery stand as where the "old me" used to go. The healthier, happier me walks right by and mentally acknowledges my old ritual as I actively seek out vegetables and fruit I've never heard of before.

I think that struggling to hold onto my ritual of working out is what kept me from going completely insane during those winter months. On the other hand, being flexible enough to not only physically, but mentally, adjust my farmer’s market ritual has made my transition to a gluten-free life easier.

It seems that holding onto some rituals can be mentally beneficial, especially those which are inherently good for us. However, by breaking some rituals and habits we allow ourselves to encounter new experiences and potentially change our lives for the better.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Woe is me, I have to eat vegetables

Given my quest to eat low-sugar foods, even lower sugar fruits and vegetables, and the abundance of vegetables at the farmer’s market, I have definitely been eating my share of green vegetables lately. See, green vegetables like spinach and broccoli are packed with tons of healthy vitamins and minerals, and they are also typically lower in sugar than vegetables like carrots, potatoes, or beets. The large exception is green peas, which are really high in fiber, but also really high in sugar.

At the market the other day, I loaded up my bags with zucchini and broccoli, purchased an enormous walla walla sweet onion, and couldn’t resist two pints of fresh hood river strawberries. For those of you who live in the Portland area, you know about both the delight of cooking with walla walla sweets (sweeter than any other onion, when cooked they almost have a caramelly-sweet taste) and eating fresh hood river strawberries. These berries are dark red throughout, so tender, so juicy… I’ve often said I want to take a bath in them. Until I moved to Portland, I had never experienced how delicious strawberries could be and I thought all strawberries had a tasteless, white center. Strawberries, by the way, are one of the lower-sugar fruits. Hooray!

As wonderful as my market trip may sound, I definitely get into ruts and I feel blah about cooking vegetables…again. As I was cleaning and chopping the 5 knobs of broccoli I had purchased, I decided to throw some into a pot to steam with some diced walla walla onion. I then pulled out the leftover rice from the Mexican meal Ben and I had made the night before, which contained fresh garlic, sea salt, cilantro, and lime juice. I topped a healthy serving of the rice with an even healthier serving of the broccoli and onion, and then, after nosing around in my fridge for a bit, tossed on some toasted sliced almonds for protein. I grabbed a fork, brought my bowl to the table, and sat down with a self-pitying sigh, thinking, “Here we go again…vegetables and rice…”

Oh dear god! I took one bite and nearly fell off my chair it was so good. I moaned and groaned with each bite. Normally, I think about how to tweak recipes as I eat them, always asking myself what would make it even better. Not with this one. It was pure delight. With complete sarcasm and a sideways smile, I thought, “Woe is me, I have to eat vegetables.”

One of my favorite ways to eat vegetables, however, is finding ways to make them the base of a delicious, nutritious meal. See, the rice is good, but is lacking in nutritional value (even brown rice). When I can, I think of vegetables as the “rice” or the “pasta” of a meal and go from there.

Zucchini works really well for this, and is an easy way to utilize all of that zucchini and summer squash no one knows what to do with this time of year. This is one dish I have begun to CRAVE lately, it’s so good:

Roasted zucchini and white bean salad

1 large zucchini, sliced thinly (this works well for those the size of a small club)
1 cup dry white beans, cooked (see note below)
OR one can white beans
½ large sweet onion, diced or sliced how you like it
1 large avocado, sliced
Good olive oil (the oil you use flavors your food, so use a good one!)
Sea salt

Toss sliced zucchini and onion in a large bowl, add a splash of olive oil, some sea salt, and basil. Mix well. Place the mixture in a single layer in a baking dish and roast in the oven (uncovered) for 20-25 minutes at 425F, until tender. Alternatively, you can also sauté the onion and zucchini with salt and basil in a large skillet, if it’s hot outside and you don’t want to heat the house up with the oven!

Meanwhile, heat the cooked beans (if previously prepared) on the stove in a sauce pan.

Dish up zucchini onto 4 plates, top with ¼ of the cooked beans, and ¼ of the sliced avocado. Enjoy!

Feeds 4.
Cooking dry beans at Home

Note: Hot-soaking and then cooking dry beans in your crockpot will help reduce some of the “gassy sugars” that produce gas and bloating. If you are working to reduce inflammation, this may be particularly important.

“No Toot” crockpot beans (from The Bean Cookbook, Northarvest Bean Growers Association):

Heat 10 cups of water and 1 tsp salt in a large pot, bring to boiling
Add 1 pound dry beans (always inspect your beans for stones and rinse with cool water first!)
Boil for 2-3 minutes
Remove from heat, cover, and let stand 4-16 hours.
Drain, discarding the soak water, rinse beans well with fresh, cold water
Pour beans into crockpot, cover with fresh, cold water, add 1 tsp salt.
Cook on low for 8-12 hours.
Use in recipe, refrigerate, or freeze.

I have done this successfully using only a cup of dry beans; you don’t need to cook the whole pound of beans at once. I also find that the beans become almost too tender after soaking most of the day and cooking overnight 8 hours on low, so if you can check on your beans during the cooking process for doneness, do so. However, they really are “tootless!”

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Summer Berries

I absolutely love this time of year, when more berries than you could possibly consume are in season and calling out to you from almost every vendor at the farmer’s market. Blueberries, marion berries, red currants, logan berries, and raspberries are just some of the fruits glowing their beautiful colors at the market right now.

As I walk each week the few blocks to the Portland Farmer’s Market, under the warm summer sun, I never fail to marvel at how fortunate I am to live so close to fresh, delicious fruits, vegetables, and gluten-free bakery items (a local gluten-free baker has a stand at the market). I also have a hard time restraining myself from purchasing more than I need. Yesterday, as Ben and I walked to the market together, we had berries on the brain. And I gave in to an entire half-flat. I think Ben and I ate almost an entire pint of them on our walk back to my apartment, they were so ripe and delicious.

They also ended up being the perfect take-along snack for our bike ride to the Sellwood neighborhood that afternoon. Ben and I have discovered we are both antique and thrift-shop junkies and can spend hours poking through collections of vintage and antique furniture and, okay, Junk. Partly intrigued by the uniqueness of some of the items, and a lot intrigued by the history they contain, we seem to not be able to get enough of the things we might find in the Goodwills and antique shops that dot the Portland area. Also, we wanted to check out the Sellwood area in general because we think that might be a neighborhood in which we would want to buy our first home (of course, we haven’t ruled out the other areas yet, we’re just collecting information right now).

Sellwood is linked to downtown Portland by this great bike/walking trail called the Springwater Corridor. It makes the 3.5 miles go by so swiftly because it’s a straight shot and you’re not dealing with traffic. We gleefully pedaled down the corridor and parked our bikes along one of the Sellwood main strips. We poked around the antique shops and we were excited to stumble upon a couple of art galleries as well. After a good hour and a half, we took a break to sit on a bench and munch our fresh blueberries and some pecans, giddy to be out enjoying the summer sunshine together.

Later that day, back at home, I washed the remaining pints of berries in a large bowl. I froze the majority of them, but I also made a batch of blueberry muffins. I love these fresh out of the oven, with the blueberries warm and bursting in my mouth as I bite into them.

I have made a number of variations of this recipe, each one slightly different. Play with it and see what you like best. The tapioca flour gives the tops a nice crust and the sorghum flour and flax add fiber and omega-3. They may be a bit crumbly for some people (though this is what I like about this recipe – they almost melt in your mouth), so if you like a more robust muffin, add a teaspoon of xanthan gum to the flours.

Blueberry Muffins:

1 cup brown rice flour
½ cup each millet, sorghum, and tapioca flour
¼ cup ground blond flax seed, soaked in ½ cup room-temp water
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1/2 cup to 3/4 cup water or apple juice
¼ cup oil
¼ cup honey, agave nectar, or brown rice syrup
1 egg
1 cup fresh blueberries

Preheat oven to 375 and grease and flour (with rice flour) muffin tin or use a non-stick muffin tin.
Blend all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients.
In a small bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy and stir in the oil, honey, and water/juice. When wet ingredients are well blended, pour into the well of the dry ingredients and mix until just blended. Carefully fold in the blueberries
Spoon batter into 12 muffin molds (I use a quarter-cup measure for efficiency) and bake for 15-20 minutes. Enjoy!

Feeds 12 (or fewer!).

Monday, June 2, 2008


"Our strength grows out of our weakness."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am 27 years old and every day, I take 22 pills and one liquid medication. Since I have to take my medications on a schedule, I have them organized (except for the ones that require refrigeration and the liquid) in the pill box pictured above…like I’m an old lady on heart medication. That pill box goes with me everywhere now, since I need to get something from it almost every hour.

How did I get here? Apparently, I have been poisoning my body for the last 27 years with bread. That’s the short version of it anyway. I am gluten-intolerant, which means that the protein found in the grains wheat, rye, barley, and their cousins are toxic to my body and thus my immune system has been identifying foods containing these proteins as toxic intruders, staging a war in my gut for years. As a result, my immune system is so damaged the poor thing has nothing left to give. The bacteria and yeast running rampant in my body has been no match for the little bit of anti-bodies I could produce and I spent the last couple of years growing weaker and sicker until this past winter when I finally decided I had had enough and sought medical assistance.

Not that seeking medical assistance was that easy, or effective. Being a student with no health insurance, I was limited in my options. I was subjected to every blood test the student clinic could reasonably perform (within my dollar-amount allotment) and I was deemed to be in pristine health. I finally decided to give the gluten-free diet a serious try, to see if I ended up feeling better without that protein in my diet.

Actually, I have the Gluten Free Girl to thank in pushing me to truly accept gluten intolerance/celiac disease as the potential cause of my sickened body. Well, that and I didn’t want to think about things like cancer. Her story sounded eerily similar to mine; though I grew up in a household where my mother cooked nutritious meals and taught us how to eat well, I dealt with bouts of chronic digestive issues my whole life, along with constantly feeling tired, strange changes in appetite, anxiety, craving sugar, headaches, and a constant clearing of my throat that never seemed to go away. It was easy in high school and college to blame these symptoms on stress. But, I was beginning to not accept that as an explanation as things grew worse in graduate school.

I read her book and cried. In fact, I read the first few pages while in Powells Books and had to choke back tears. Part of me knew, and had known for some time. The rest of me did not want to accept it.

I think I also needed to understand that being gluten intolerant (or having celiac disease) didn’t mean that you didn’t have periods of feeling well. I could think back to plenty of times when I felt great. When I was studying abroad in Germany, for example, during my junior year of college, where bread and cheese were staple parts of my diet, I felt better than I had in years. These thoughts made me initially resistant to the idea that I had celiac disease, even though my mom was diagnosed years ago. I also had no idea that the other symptoms I was experiencing would be tied to gluten; seeing how my other symptoms had all been found to be related to gluten was certainly an eye-opener.

So, I cleaned out my cupboards, gave away gluten-containing foods and contaminated cooking utensils. I spent many hours online reading about where gluten “hides” in food and shampoo and cosmetics. I was horrified to learn that things like shampoo, toothpaste, and hand lotions needed to be investigated. After many hours, I created a pile of those things too, which I began to treat like poisons; I didn’t want to touch them and washed my hands after touching just the bottles.

About 2 weeks after being 100% gluten-free, I felt amazingly better. And I didn’t feel deprived, either, because I knew what I was doing was good for my health. Would you eat poison knowing it would make you sick? No. That’s how I have come to think about gluteny (gluten-containing) foods.

Unfortunately, I quickly took a nose-dive. I began to feel worse than ever. I kept a food journal to keep track of what I was eating, to potentially draw out what was making me sick again. I knew I would have to go through a healing process, as many have written about in the online forums I was reading, but I didn’t want to risk the chance that it was something more serious plaguing me.

Though I really couldn’t afford it, I went to a Naturopathic clinic. Through more tests, they discovered that I was indeed gluten intolerant and I needed to do a lot of work to restore balance to my body. Hence the plethora of medications I am taking. Besides these medications, I am also on a restricted diet to reduce inflammation. It isn’t entirely easy to maintain, but I do what I can and accept what I cannot.

Acceptance has become another life mantra.

Gluten-free, 22 pills a day, careful eating, and, most importantly, acceptance: this is my path to healing.