Saturday, August 30, 2008

Coconut Pancakes with Sara

I remember back when I first started eating gluten free (okay, it wasn’t that long ago!) and I felt so overwhelmed by everything I was reading and learning about the gluten-free diet and where gluten hides. I started with an over-simplified diet to make it as easy for myself as possible – I stuck to whole foods, things I knew were gluten free, such as vegetables, fruit, rice, and chicken. If it came out of a package, I tried to avoid it.

Then, as I began to get a better handle on things, I searched the internet for recipes and information on how to bake my own bread, cookies, and other baked goods. I remember being overwhelmed all over again as I read recipes which called for 3 or 4 different types of flour and something called, “xanthan gum.”

Since I was already pretty well-informed regarding eating nutritiously, I was wary (and still a bit am) of gums and other stabilizers and I refused to accept substituting rice flour in everything, which is completely devoid of any nutrition and spikes your insulin.

And, not to mention, how in the heck am I supposed to have all these different flours in my cupboard?? It seemed that every recipe called for something different.

Now, it just seems part of the routine.

The more I read online, the more I learned about how nutritious teff and sorghum are. Quinoa and millet too. I learned that using these flours in combination with brown rice flour would make a healthier bread and enable me to make breakfast muffins that contained fiber and protein.

One day, I bit the bullet and made a big trip to Whole Foods, purchasing the following flours: brown rice, millet, teff, sorghum, and tapioca. I also picked up a bag of ground flax seed because I knew I could add it to my baked goods to add some nutritional value. Later that week, Ben and I made a trip to Ikea and I picked up a number of air-tight containers to store my flours.

I discovered that once the flours were in my kitchen, labeled and organized, baking muffins with 4 different flours was just as easy as it had been with all-purpose wheat flour!

Since then, I have been experimenting with garbanzo/fava been flour and almond flour. And, my most recent addition has been coconut flour. Despite the fact that coconut is one of my favorite tastes (I used to frequently order coconut lattes, for example), I had stayed away from it because I thought it would just be too high in fat.

Boy, was I excited when I took a look at the package and read there is only 1.5g of fat in a serving! That, and about 20% of your day’s worth of fiber! This stuff is not only tasty, but healthy!

So, when my friend Sara and her boyfriend were in town this past weekend, I asked them what they were interested in for breakfast. When I suggested pancakes or muffins or somesuch, I was delighted to find that Sara was interested in seeing how I put together baked goods with my “new” flours!

So, I pulled out a couple of basic recipes for pancakes and did some comparing to understand the basic components. I was eager to try the coconut flour, and thought it would add a nice flavor to the pancakes, so I pulled that one down from my cupboard and reached for the brown rice and tapioca flours as well.

These came out amazing! I had played around with making gluten-free pancakes a couple of times before, and was mostly disappointed, but these were perfect! I have to admit I was both surprised and relieved.

We added blueberries to ours, which makes it slightly more difficult to spread the batter thin, but they were definitely delicious, with a light coconut flavor!

Coconut pancakes

¾ cup brown rice flour
½ cup coconut flour
¼ cup tapioca flour
½ teaspoon xanthan gum (see note)
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup agava nectar or honey or brown rice syrup
1 ½ - 2 cups hazelnut milk (any other milk will work just fine)
2 tablespoons oil of choice or melted butter (see note)

In a large mixing bowl, combine flours, baking powder, and xanthan gum. Mix well.

Add eggs, vanilla, and agava nectar. Slowly add milk and mix until just combined. Batter will appear thicker than typical pancake batter.

Heat oil in a skillet over medium to medium-low heat. The pan is ready when water droplets sizzle across it.

Spoon batter onto pan and spread carefully with the back of the spoon, to the desired thickness. My favorite way of cooking pancakes is to spread the batter out across the entire skillet of a smallish-sized skillet to make large, restaurant-style pancakes. Cook until batter appears dry on top (you may or may not have the bubbles appear that are typical for pancakes) and flip.

When pancakes are done, transfer to an oven-safe plate and place in warm oven to keep warm while the rest are cooked.

Note: If you do not want to use xanthan gum, soak ¼ cup of ground flax in about ½ cup water for about 10 minutes and add with the other wet ingredients. Also, for more cake-like pancakes, omit the oil.

Tip: If you substitute another flour for the coconut flour, reduce the milk to 1 cup. The coconut flour is especially absorbent and requires more liquid.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Oh glorious life! Both your delights and challenges are transitory yet meaningful

“When we develop the capacity to ride the waves of change, letting go of our need to have reality cooperate with our own wishes and instead wishing for an ability to be comfortable with reality as it presents itself, moment to moment, we discover within ourselves an abiding calm. No longer in a state of denial about the transitory nature of existence, we are able to celebrate this fleeting life before we, too, dissolve. We are able to cherish the pleasures life does provide not because we imagine they will last forever, but because we know they are temporary.”

--Nina Wise, A big new free happy unusual life, p.76

I took the same route home yesterday that I take every day from work. Only, this time it was about 3 hours later than when I am normally on that route and I had spent the previous hour and half hanging out with my rowing team at a brewery near my work. Given my diet restrictions, I could only drink water while I was there – nothing on the menu fit with my diet – but I had planned ahead and eaten food from home. However, I had a great time socializing with my teammates, who I hadn’t seen in about a month, since I had been taking a month-long hiatus during August.

See, this summer seems to have been like frog and toad’s wild ride. Despite my best efforts, I felt like my life was complete chaos and I couldn’t accomplish anything I set out to accomplish. This is very unlike me.

It started with feeling overwhelmed with both the stress of not feeling well and dealing with the process of healing. I fought being labeled as "sick," by other people and especially by myself. Taking a lot of pills every day and having symptoms catch me by surprise here and there makes that pretty difficult. I also spent a considerable portion of the summer trying to find a job, struggling to have the energy for writing cover letters and attending interviews.

Then my apartment flooded and what little sense of stability I felt in my living situation seemed to have been turned on its head. With a broken down immune system, how was I going to be expected to live in an apartment with the potential for extensive mold growth??

Furthermore, Ben and I had been talking about moving in together, but had several “barriers” such as the size of my apartment, his 2 cats + my 1 cat = 3 cats, and questions regarding the state of my lease. When my apartment flooded, the option of moving out was potentially on the table as well…

In general, I felt like I was not in harmony with the universe. Everything I thought I wanted to do or accomplish was being thwarted by (sometimes really silly) things that seemed beyond my control. I just couldn’t fashion the life I wanted to be living.

Since I am someone who believes you can set goals and accomplish them, and that having a positive attitude and BELIEVING you can create your life are all important, it was incredibly frustrating to feel helpless. And feel like I couldn’t muster any more positivity. I had reached my life quota somehow.

So, there I was. The last time I had tried to make it to rowing practice, I had even forgone meeting up with friends the evening before so that I could get to bed at a decent time and get some much-needed sleep, after a horribly stressful day at work. I woke up when the rest of my teammates were already gathering at the boathouse, and I was laying there, wondering why my alarm didn’t wake me. I soon discovered that my alarm was indeed going off (the radio), but that I couldn’t hear it over the fan I had turned on when I went to bed. Argh.

That's enough, I said. Instead of trying to do everything and failing at it, I’m going to do as little as possible and focus on simple daily life for a while. That’s why I hadn’t seen my teammates in about a month and hadn’t seen most of my friends for probably longer than that.

However, as I biked home yesterday through Ladd’s Addition in SE Portland, I couldn’t help but notice something. The air was cool, there was a slight breeze moving the leaves on the trees, and there was little traffic, bike or car. I heard soft music coming from one of the houses, and a man stood near the window of his front porch with a glass of wine.

The neighborhood felt calm. And it made me feel calm. The universe was in some way telling me things would be alright; my wild ride was just that, a ride. A chapter in my life, which felt rougher than most, but part of my life nonetheless. And just as transitory as the good chapters.

And, I realized, the more I fight feeling tired, fighting the reality of my body’s current state, the healing process, and the things I need to do in order to feel healthy, the more I create unnecessary strain in my life. Everything we experience contributes to who we are and creates the life we were born to live.

Acceptance can be infinitely powerful; accepting the life you are meant to be leading and the things you cannot necessarily change.

The question is, what do you do with what you experience? What do you learn and how do you use it to inform or improve your life and others’ lives?

Growing up, my mom used to always emphasize that if I did the best I could, it was all my parents could ever ask of me. I am reminded of that now. I am doing the best I can and that is all I can ask of myself.

I think the best thing we can do is accept where we are in life and learn from what we experience, putting it to use in helping ourselves and especially others.

This is partly why I write this blog, so that if anything I write here helps someone else deal with whatever stumbling block they have encountered, whether it’s a celiac diagnosis or otherwise, I will feel that I have done the best I can.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Traveling leads to pine nuts

Last summer, I took three weeks to visit various friends all over Europe. I started out in Paris with Sara, who was there working on a ten-week research project. Then Sara and I, along with Danielle, spent a long weekend visiting Nikos in Athens. I headed off by myself to Germany where I met up with an old friend, Kristian, and spent the last weekend with my friend Carolin in Trier.

Needless to say, the trip was amazing; I soaked up 24-7 time with friends, learned so much about the history and culture of the countries I stayed in, and saw some things I thought I never would.

And the food! When I travel to other countries, there are largely two things I find most interesting about the trip itself: 1) to understand or imagine what it’s like to live there, and 2) to taste the local food.

For example, one of my favorite “places” in Germany is the Rhine river. I remember the first time I experienced it: I was 18 and taking the train with Sara and another friend of ours from Cologne to Frankfurt. It was our last day in Germany and we boarded the train at 5am, or some equally ungodly hour, as our means to get to the airport. We were sleepy from lack of sleep and also heartbroken to be leaving Germany behind, so we barely spoke a word the first 20 minutes or so. We eventually realized the beauty that was passing by our windows and fell breathless as small towns with cathedrals, vineyards, and several castles, all dotting the green and blue landscape, came and went. I couldn’t help but try to imagine what it would be like to live in one of those small towns and wake up every morning to the beauty of the hills and the river. Fortunately for me, much of my travel abroad has been in connection with friends who are natives and seeing the country and culture through their eyes helps me understand such things.

I think part of understanding what life is like in another country is tasting their local food. Well, that, and I just love discovering new tastes! In the timeline of my life, my trip last summer occurred before I found out I am gluten intolerant, so I tasted breads and pastries and Nikos’ grandma’s melt-in-your-mouth almond cookies. On my last day in Trier with Carolin, I got to taste a Spanish flatbread, made by one of Carolin’s friends from Spain. It was crisp and lightly sweet, with sugar and pine nuts baked into the top. I hadn’t seen pine nuts in very many dishes before this, but I liked the unique flavor they added to the bread.

This bread came back to mind the other day in the grocery store, when I was looking to break out of my nut “routine.” See, I have been eating a lot of cashews and pecans and almonds lately and I was looking for a change of pace. I noticed the pine nuts in the bulk section memories of Carolin, Trier, and Spanish flatbread came rushing back to me.

Back at home, I tried adding them to some roasted zucchini and was amazed at the flavor they added to the vegetables. Just this one small ingredient shift changed the tone altogether! After a little more experimenting, and a bit of thinking, I came up with the stuffed zucchini recipe posted below. Pine nuts have certainly become a favorite these days, so you may see them popping up in future recipes as well!

Stuffed Zucchini:

2 large zucchini
1 can artichoke hearts, chopped
1 can white beans or chickpeas
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 large clove garlic (or 2 small), minced
1 small red onion, diced
20 or so pitted Kalamata Olives, sliced
2 teaspoons oregano
½ teaspoon nutmeg or cinnamon
½ teaspoon sea salt

Chop the ends off of each zucchini and then slice length-wise. Scoop out and discard any seeds. Using a sharp knife, score the zucchini meat and then scoop out with a large spoon, leaving about a ¼ inch shell. Place the zucchini meat onto a cutting board and chop into small pieces.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix the zucchini meat, artichoke hearts, and beans.

In a skillet, sauté the onion with a little olive oil, until the onion begins to soften. Add the minced garlic and sauté for about a minute more. Add the onion to the zucchini-bean mixture.

While the pan is still hot, add the pine nuts and toast on medium-high until browned, then set aside.

Place the zucchini shells into a glass baking dish (if the zucchini are really large, you will likely need 2 dishes). Add the oregano, salt, and nutmeg to the zucchini-bean mixture and mix well, then spoon into the zucchini shells. The filling will likely be higher than the edges of the shells. Sprinkle pine nuts on top.

Bake at 400F for about 30 minutes.


Feeds 4.

Tip: When they are done baking, slice the zucchini shells in half, crosswise, to aid removal from the pan. Use a metal spatula to carefully lift out of the pan.
Add ons: I can't eat cheese yet, but Ben and I both agreed that adding cubed feta to this would be oh-so tasty! If you can eat dairy - try it, and let me know how it goes!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Celebrating imperfection

Every once in a while, you need a break.

The past couple of weeks, I had been really in need of a break. All of this cooking and carefully planning my meals and grocery shopping to keep my kitchen stocked with healthy food has gotten wearing. Normally, I am so excited to try out new recipes and new food, but lately I haven't had the energy. I'm burnned out.

So, Ben and I planned on heading out to the Hawthorne Fish House for dinner Saturday night. It’s one of the gluten-friendly restaurants I’ve discovered in Portland and hadn’t had the opportunity to try yet. (by the way, I lifted the pics here from their website, since I didn't take my camera with me!)

Oh man, was I excited. After reading multiple reviews and other food blogs about both the Hawthorne and Corbett locations, I couldn’t wait for rice flour-coated, fried fish with sweet potato fries. Most of all, I looked forward to relaxing, letting someone else do all the cooking, and not worry an ounce about cleaning up dishes. Even better, I was looking forward to being OUT, eating somewhere other than home.

Before I went gluten-free, I didn't eat out all that often, especially relative to how often the average american eats out, so it really hasn't been that much of a transition for me to eat almost all of my meals at home. And, what I am finding is that eating out gluten-free really isn't that difficult, what makes it difficult right now avoiding things like tomatoes, cheese, peanuts, corn, soy, and all of the other things that I need to avoid while I'm healing. Fortunately, the Hawthorne Fish House has a rather simple menu, and they fry their fish and fries in rice oil, not peanut oil!

Granted, I am not supposed to eat fried foods at all right now while I’m healing, but I allowed myself that transgression. Why? Because while it is important for my health to be careful about what I eat, it is just as important for my mental health to get a break every once in a while. As long as the break isn’t potentially really damaging (I wouldn’t eat gluten or dairy for example), I believe that for those of us on extremely restricted healing diets need to have a small mental health break. It’s part of acceptance, doing what you can for yourself, and recognizing when a small break will keep you from going totally insane.

In fact, perfectionism can lead to some detrimental thought patterns. Many who do not allow themselves imperfection can wind up mentally beating themselves up for small things said wrong, a small mistake or misstep at work, or any lack of self-control. Rumination over small negative life events can lead to depression and anxiety. Check out some of Sonja Lyubomirsky’s work if you are interested in learning more. She has also recently released a great book called, The How of Happiness. Furthermore, Roy Baumeister has done some interesting work on self control. He maintains that exerting self-control over one or more areas of our lives makes it difficult to exert self-control over other areas; our self-control is a limited resource. So, for example, maintaining impeccable control over my diet makes it difficult for me to utilize self-control in keeping my apartment clean. (In fact, my apartment is a disaster right now!) While we can strengthen our self-control, and his work is certainly no excuse to go around exerting NO self-control (!!), it goes to show we can only be so perfect.

We decided on the Hawthorne avenue location and for some reason I was surprised at how ‘midwest’ the place was decorated, even though I knew it was started by a couple from Wisconsin! The meal was delicious! And, aside from being fried, my meal was relatively “safe.” I passed on the gluten-free beer (which Ben did enjoy, since he doesn’t even need to eat gluten-free, much less anti-inflammatory) and substituted sweet potato fries for the regular fries (white potatoes are more starchy than sweet potatoes).

This little excursion is just what I needed! And Ben and I always get giddy when we see those two little letters on any menu: GF.