Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dissertation quality, gluten free banana-pecan muffins

As I put the finishing touches on my dissertation proposal, I am struck by how long I have been in Portland and in graduate school. It has only been 4 years, but in some ways it doesn't seem that long at all, and in other ways, it feels like I've been here a long time.

I think the feeling of having been here a long time comes from feeling well-seasoned in regards to the ins and outs of Portland and my school. When I think back to my first year of graduate school, forcing myself to remember those shaky first months, I remember mostly feeling frustrated over learning a new campus, new operations, and a new city.

I entered graduate school knowing full well it would take at least 4 years before I was done and that it would be a grueling, stressful 4 years. Other than that, I thought I would grow just as much as I had in the four years I was an undergraduate student.

Boy was I wrong. Well, partly wrong. I think I changed just as much magnitude-wise, but in a totally different direction.

College was all about textbooks and tests and focusing on learning the notions and the ideas of those who have come before you, with little thought as to what you agreed with or didn't. This was peppered with an ebbing and flowing anxiety over who I was and where I was going (needless worrying, as I look back now). I remember stressing far too much over the idea that, “what I do now affects the rest of my life.” Sure, each step leads to another, but you can always go back in some regards and study hieroglyphics if that's what you later find you are totally passionate about!

Graduate school was all about developing as a professional and understanding the larger picture (you can always look up the details) and choosing a philosophical orientation that will guide your professional work. Graduate school taught me far more difficult life lessons than book lessons. I learned a couple of painful lessons on how I was willing to let people treat me. I learned that I am far more stubborn than I ever thought I was. I learned that I am far stronger, both mentally and physically, than I previously gave myself credit for. And, to my detriment, I have a hard time asking for help or feeling incapable.

Mostly, though, I learned that last lesson as a result of my gluten intolerance. Interestingly enough, the most frustrating thing about feeling sick this past year was not really figuring out how to eat gluten free. I was most frustrated with feeling like I was incapable. I hated feeling physically unable to do the things I was used to; too tired to run, too tired to row, too tired to do many of my usually favorite activities. Social situations became a nightmare as I didn't want to draw attention to myself by not eating anything or “harassing” the server with questions about the menu and food preparation practices. I just didn't want to be “different.” I didn't want to be a “pain.” I didn't want to explain what was going on with me. I'm going to have to get over all of that if I want to move forward.

Right now, I'm making the transition out of graduate school. It's big and scary and different. But, I know that I should and will ask for help if I need it.

On a much lighter note, I also learned that graduate school is also full of unspoken, sometimes funny, protocol. For example, when a student proposes his or her thesis or dissertation, it is the student's responsibility to also bring refreshments to the meeting (e.g., water, coffee, food). This morning, I baked what I would call the best batch of banana muffins I have ever baked and I will bring them tomorrow morning for my dissertation proposal.

Did you really think I would serve my committee gluten??

Since these are more of a “treat” and not meant to be healthy in any regard, I used straight-up sugar (inherited from Ben) and the left-over sugared pecans from Ben's birthday cake. If you want to make yours a bit healthier, use ¼ cup agave nectar or honey instead of the sugar and use raw pecans in place of the sugared ones. You can also make it even better with some ground flax. And if you don't like to bake with gums, just leave it out; I don't think it will affect this recipe too much.

Tip: When your bananas start to grow old on the counter, throw them in the freezer as they are. Take them out when you are ready to bake something with them and peel them using a knife.

These came out soooo perfect, just like bakery muffins. I think that if this whole career in health research thing doesn't work out, I'll always have a future in baking ;)

Banana-pecan muffins:

¾ cup sorghum flour

¾ cup brown rice flour

½ cup tapioca flour

½ cup millet flour

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon xanthan gum

½ teaspoon cinnamon

dash salt

Mix the dry ingredients listed above in a large bowl.

2 bananas

1/3 cup grapeseed oil

2 eggs

about 1/3 cup water (I added an additional splash once everything was mixed and the batter looked a bit thick)

Mash the bananas in a small bowl and add remaining wet ingredients. Stir well.

Create a well in the middle of the flour mixture and pour the wet ingredients into this well. Stir until mostly mixed, adding about ½ cup pecan pieces. Mix just until all ingredients are incorporated.

Spoon into prepared muffin tins (however you like them – with papers, greased and floured, etc) and gently smoosh a couple of whole pecans on top of each muffin.

Bake at 350F for about 20 minutes.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Testing, testing: Gluten free empanadas with cheese

Sometimes it's frighteningly obvious I am a researcher. When my doctor took me off one of my medications a few weeks ago, she mentioned I could start testing some key food groups, such as corn, soy, or dairy to see how I reacted to them. She also made a point to say that I should first wait a few weeks until I found out how my body reacted to being off this medication.

I found it strange she should even have to mention this. I thought, “How otherwise would I know what symptoms are attributable to going off the medication and which symptoms are attributable to the new food group?” It seemed like a big, “duh,” to me, but probably only because I think like a researcher, manipulating only one variable at a time. At the same time, since my life is not a laboratory or a closed system, this is not a true experiment. It's a decent approximation.

So, after a few weeks of continuing to feel “normal,” I decided it was time to test my favorite food group – dairy.

Oh, am I a sucker for good cheese. Let's put it this way – when in France last summer, one of the first French words I learned was the word for cheese (Fromage) and, while I don't even remember the word for “water,” I certainly remember “cheese.”

Lucky for me, while I tested positive for gluten intolerance, I tested negative for dairy intolerance. So, I haven't been too worried that I won't be able to at least incorporate some dairy into my diet. And, to be totally honest, being gluten free is waaayyy easier than being dairy free.

One of the fruit vendors at the Portland farmer's market, Packer Orchards, makes the most delicious fruit-filled empanadas. Unfortunately, they are far from gluten free. Walking past them each week at the market, I think, “I need to try to create empanadas, gluten free.” It was a challenge I kept putting off, until this weekend.

I decided that I would try to create savory empandas, and as a reward for my attempt, I would get to try a cheese I had never tasted before. It was time to test my body on dairy, and this was the incentive I needed to figure out a daunting culinary puzzle. I had to make a crust that would not only roll out well, but also cook to a tender consistency and hold up well enough to actually pick up the empanadas and eat them with your hands.

So, this weekend, Ben and I spent more time unpacking his things and organizing our living space. (Thanks to the fact that he previously lived in his own fully functioning kitchen, we now have an over-abundance of pots and pans, eating utensils, and other various kitchen supplies. While I am really excited about this, it is also difficult fitting all of it in what is arguably the most poorly designed kitchen ever. The kitchen in this place is all design and little function.) We also made some amazingly delicious, too good to be true, gluten free empanadas. With cheese. In fact, I selected a spanish sheep's milk cheese: Zamarano.

Creating gluten free empanadas actually turned out to be much easier than I thought; I imagined the dough would be temperamental, since sometimes GF dough can be stubborn, but it was actually more cooperative than some gluteny dough I've worked with. And, the best part is they held up to the “hold it” test – they didn't even try to fall apart in my hands as I bit into them!

The results of my recipe challenge turned out beautifully, and, so far, so has the results of my dairy challenge. In a few days, I'll try multiple servings of dairy in one day -- purely for research purposes, of course.

And for dessert? Roll out the left-over dough, sprinkle raw sugar and cinnamon on top, and bake it. Just like mom used to do with left-over pie crust.

Gluten Free Empanadas:


1 ½ cups sorghum flour

½ cup tapioca flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon xanthan gum

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

½ cup butter or shortening

1 egg

¼ cup water, approximately

Mix all of the dry ingredients well. Cut the butter into small pieces and, with a fork or a pastry knife (or in your mixer, if you are so lucky to have one), cut in the butter until the mixture looks like small granules.

Add the apple cider vinegar and egg and mix well. Slowly add a little of the water at a time, until the dough begins to form and stick together.

Form the dough into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough while you make the filling.


1 can kidney beans (or your favorite), undrained

½ medium red onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced



cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Spanish olives, sliced in half lengthwise

½ cup shredded zamarrano cheese (or your favorite!)

In some good olive oil, saute the onion and garlic in a skillet over medium heat. Add the cumin, cilantro, and cayenne pepper to taste. Add the kidney beans and stir well.

Splash in about a tablespoon apple cider vinegar and stir. Simmer for about 10 minutes on med-low heat. Taste and add more seasonings, if desired. Slightly mash the bean mixture with a fork.

Prepare your olives and cheese and heat the oven to 400F.

Take the dough out of the fridge and place onto a sheet of parchment paper. Place another sheet on top and roll it out, using a rolling pin, until it is about a ¼ inch thick.

Remove the top parchment paper and, using a bowl or cup (depending on how big you want your empanadas – we did some large ones and some small ones), cut circles out of the dough. Placing the circles onto a baking sheet.

Fill the empanadas by placing some of the bean mixture, a few olive slices, and some cheese onto one half of the circles. Fold the circle in half, covering the filling, and pinching the edges together. (I was super careful to not over-fill the empanadas, worried the dough would break to easily, but Ben was much more daring and showed this dough is somewhat forgiving.)

Re-roll leftover dough and repeat process.

Place the empandadas in the 400F oven and bake for about 10-15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and bake for an additional 30 minutes, until you can't stand the wonderful smell any longer!

Serve with guacamole and more spanish olives. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"You know you’re officially a foodie, right?"

Ben said that to me a couple of weeks ago when I excitedly came home with 4 soufflé dishes and 2 square cake pans from sur la table, bursting with new cooking and baking ideas. I didn’t protest. I have not only accepted my lot, but embraced it.

Eating gluten-free (along with all of my other, hopefully temporary, diet restrictions) initially forced me to scour the internet for ideas and recipes, trying to find ways to eat healthy as well as keep things interesting. Now, I do it for fun. I have learned so much about chemical reactions in baking as well as what flavors blend well, and I’ve experimented with ingredients I had never heard of before. It seems the more I cook, the more ideas I come up with and the more I want to cook. Sometimes I want to cook for cooking sake, to see how delicious I can make something, or to try a new recipe I found.

I somewhat believe that all this experimenting is partly a coping mechanism, partly a survival necessity. I have always thought that experimenting and challenging yourself is not only mentally healthy, but essential. It is what keeps us going; it helps to give meaning to our lives and provides us with a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy. Embracing my chronic condition as essentially a challenge has really enabled me to take charge of it and I feel, as a result, I am much healthier, both mentally and physically. Oh yeah, and it’s a lot of FUN too!

While not exactly ‘challenging,’ my latest idea extends my current groove in Midwestern-style cooking. Why not make individual-sized casseroles? Each person can tailor the dish to their liking, similar to making individual pizzas. Also, there’s something comforting about sitting down with a warm bowl of goodness…how much better would it be if it was your OWN little casserole in a still-hot-from-the-oven dish??

The first dish I tried in my little soufflé dishes was a rice gratin, with two of the servings mine and two of the servings Ben’s. He likes his food much spicier than mine and he had purchased two small jalapeño peppers at the grocery store a couple of days earlier. I diced up one of the peppers into small pieces and divided it into his two servings (two of the soufflé dishes). They were delicious!

Since then, I did a baked seashell pasta casserole, using the “creamy” pasta sauce I had created earlier this month. And yesterday, I put together a rice gratin, using up the last of the chicken leftover from our crockpot chicken this past weekend. I am really digging the versatility of these right now, and I have a feeling I will be getting many miles out of these soufflé dishes as fall moves into winter.

In this dish, I use nutmeg, which I have read can produce hallucinations and can be lethal at high doses. However, it is also used to treat flatulence, nausea, and vomiting and has been believed to be an aphrodisiac! In any case, it really adds a nice, unique flavor to this dish.

Chicken Rice Gratin:

1 cup brown rice

2 ½ cups water

½ cup hazelnuts

1 cup cubed, cooked chicken breast

5 or 6 baby zucchini, sliced into discs

2 cups fresh spinach, coarsely chopped/torn

Half a medium red onion, diced

2 eggs

1 clove garlic, minced

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon oregano

Bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the brown rice and stir, reducing heat to low and simmering for about 40 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix the onion, zucchini, chicken, spinach, garlic, nutmeg, sea salt, and oregano. Place the hazelnuts in a sturdy, small bag and crush slightly (I used the bottom of a heavy coffee mug). Toast the hazelnuts in a fry pan over med-high heat, stirring frequently, for a couple of minutes or until they begin to brown. Place the hazelnuts in a small bowl to cool.

Add the rice and hazelnuts into the large bowl and mix well. Whisk the two eggs in a small bowl and add to the rice mixture, mixing until everything is well-coated.

Spoon the mixture into four 16 oz soufflé dishes or a large casserole dish.

Cook uncovered at 400F for about 30 minutes.

Enjoy! Feeds 4.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I can has ice cream??

(Those of you familiar with lolcats know the reference.)

But really, I can have ice cream??

Since I’ve been avoiding dairy, soy, and processed sugar these days, sweet treats like ice cream have been just out of the picture. And, really, even if I could eat soy…have you read the ingredients list on soy ice cream?! Yikes! all sorts of un-pronounceable stuff in there.

Ice cream has been a weakness of mine for a long while now. Oddly enough, my favorite ice cream is the soft serve kind, usually from dairy queen with pieces of heath bar…mmmm. Next to that, and on the other end of the spectrum, is the really dense, creamy kind, usually mint chocolate chip or cookies and cream. This past winter, I got in the habit of picking up a package of the dryers light ‘slow churned’ mint chocolate chip ice cream, eating a small amount of it as my evening treat. One package could last me weeks. Those days feel like ages and ages ago.

And I remember my study abroad days in Freiburg, Germany, where I would sometimes get an ice cream cone at the ice shop by the stadttheater, on my walk home from my social psychology class. I would sit on the steps of the stadttheater in the summer sunshine, people watch, and ponder life.

Upon returning to the states, I remember one sunny, fall day when I felt particularly nostalgic for my days in Freiburg. I decided to stop at Ben and Jerry’s for an ice cream cone to enjoy on my walk home. I remember my shock to find that a “small” cone looked like they had placed an entire pint of ice cream on top of a cone! Unfortunately, walking and eating became mutually exclusive events and I couldn’t even finish the whole thing! It was just another lesson in the proportion differences in the typical American diet compared to the rest of the world. I also answered my own question as to why I didn’t get ice cream cones more often “back home.”

But, I digress.

I have known about the coconut milk ‘ice cream’ made by Luna and Larry for a few months now, but I assumed it had refined sugar as a sweetener, so I mentally placed it in the “off limits” category. But, I began to get antsy the past few weeks, as summer came to an end, craving the ice cream I didn’t have all summer. I decided to take a good, serious, look at the Coconut Bliss ingredients.

I wanted to know if I could have it, even if it meant finding out that I couldn’t just yet.

Luna and Larry, you are my heroes. No refined sugar here! The ingredients are simple, and it is sweetened with agave, which I can eat on a rotational basis! The basic ingredients are coconut milk, agave nectar, and vanilla extract. And, lucky for me, I am a sucker for coconut flavored anything! They then add simple, whole ingredients, such as hazelnuts or cherries or cocoa, to make their various flavors. Genius.

I know it's not something I can eat every day, but it's certainly not harmful on a limited basis. After racing 5k in the Row for the Cure on the Willamette river this weekend, I happily dug into a pint. Mmmmm!

Oh, and go ahead, compare the nutrition information to a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, if you think coconut milk has too much fat.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Mooo-vin' day, mooo-hoo-vin' day

Saturday we packed up the remainder of Ben’s belongings and moved them to our apartment. It went much faster than I thought it would, though I hurt my back a bit unloading some boxes off of the hand truck (like me, much of Ben’s belongings are constituted by books).

And with all these boxes around, the cats have been having a field day the last couple of days…an apartment full of boxes is apparently a cat wonderland. They jump on top of them and hunt each other; they creep between them, sniffing and exploring; and Zora, she who also likes to hang out of the windows, licks the tape wrapped around them. They’re in heaven. Poor Dewey, though, failed to look closely enough before he leapt yesterday and jumped up “onto” a box he thought was closed, though it was actually open and he fell into the empty box. Admittedly, it was pretty funny (but only after making sure he wasn’t hurt!).

Ben and I were both pretty beat by the end of the day Saturday, and very hungry. Good thing I had thought ahead and put a whole chicken in the crockpot that morning, to cook while we were away. I dressed it up with some lavender, rosemary, thyme, garlic, and a little sea salt. As we were loading boxes into the apartment, it was calling out to us from its perch on the kitchen counter, the smell so lovely and wonderful.

While Ben returned the moving truck, I began to put the rest of dinner together – a simple meal of chicken, mashed potatoes, and steamed broccoli. (How’s that for gendered division of labor?).

Since I shouldn’t eat potatoes, I made up a batch of mock garlic mashed potatoes. It was actually something I created earlier this summer. I had purchased a box of quinoa flakes, thinking they might be a good substitute for oatmeal, as a morning hot cereal. However, after trying them two or three times, I decided I had better keep looking. The box sat in my cupboard for a while…every time I looked at that box I felt guilty for not utilizing them, but, as I thought over and over, they are just more savory than they are sweet. Fruit does not mix well into them, unless you also add sugar to the mix (which I refused to do).

Then it dawned on me. They are almost the texture and flavor of mashed potatoes. I wondered what they would taste like if I added garlic, butter, and salt. Delicious was my answer.

And on Saturday evening, as we gratefully filled our bellies, Ben agreed; they are not an exact substitute for potatoes, but they are pretty darn close. And delicious nonetheless. He also commented on how comforting and Midwestern the meal was, and I realized that, along with the green bean casserole I had made last week, I had been cooking pretty Midwestern lately. Perhaps I am a bit homesick.

Even if you aren’t on an anti-inflammatory diet, try these as a healthy alternative to potatoes.

Potato-free mashed potatoes:

1 cup quinoa flakes (or more, to desired thickness)

2 cups water

1 clove garlic, minced

Butter and salt to taste

In a saucepan, bring water to a boil and add quinoa flakes. Stir, returning mixture to a boil. Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add garlic. At this point, you can add the salt and butter, or each person can add salt and butter to taste when served.

Allow to cool a few minutes. The mixture with thicken a bit more after cooling.

Enjoy! (Feeds 2, maybe 3)

And, just for the fun of it: I came home from the grocery store yesterday to find Rosie dressed up as a sailor...and she didn't seem to mind.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A lovely twist on a family tradition

It couldn’t be any less fall-like outside. If you look closely, you will see some of the leaves starting to fall from the trees, but the weather here in Portland is warm and summer-like.

Yet, as I sat outside with my lunch yesterday, I thought about the date on the calendar. It’s the middle of September and before we know it, we will be bundling up in sweaters and long-sleeved shirts, and (here in Portland) donning our rain-proof gear. We will be planning holiday get-togethers and cooking holiday meals.

Growing up in Minnesota, fall was always my favorite season. Never mind the drop in temperature and adjusting to the beginning of another school-year, I loved the fresh crispness in the air, the beautiful colors in the leaves on the trees, and the atmosphere of growing excitement over the upcoming holiday season. Fall reminds me of chasing leaves as they blew off the large trees in our backyard, and my sister and I taking turns burying each other in them. We would collect the small green apples from our two apple trees and mom would bake an apple pie or two.

And presenting itself at every thanksgiving was the traditional green bean casserole, complete with cream of mushroom soup and fried onions. I used to make a variation on this casserole, using fresh (not the canned, fried variety) sautéed onion and adding cooked chicken breast. Living on my own, I could make this on a Sunday evening and eat it for dinner about four or five nights in a row.

Since going gluten free, I haven’t tried to make this casserole because the creamed soup is out. Thinking of fall, and having those lovely genuine French-style green beans in season, however, prompted me take a stab at my own version of this family favorite.

I poked around for a creamed soup recipe and adjusted it to remove the dairy and cornstarch (can’t eat either). I didn’t have any chicken on hand, so I used ground turkey breast instead. It turned out delicious! (and very Minnesotan!) Try it out and think about the upcoming holidays, family, and cool weather (maybe it’s already cool where you are?).

Green Bean Casserole:

1 pound ground turkey
1-1 ½ pounds green beans (if you don’t have access to the French ones, use ‘french style’)
2 cups crimini mushrooms, sliced
½ medium onion, coarsely chopped
½ -1 tsp Cayenne pepper
1 tsp rosemary
½ tsp thyme
½ tsp sea salt

For the “cream of mushroom soup”:

1 cup milk substitute (I used hazelnut milk)
2 Tbs tapioca starch/flour (see note)
1 Tbs butter
1 tsp gluten free bullion (I use Herb-ox in my cooking, since it’s gluten free and sodium free)

In a large skillet, brown the ground turkey, adding the cayenne pepper, rosemary, thyme, and sea salt. Drain the juices and set the turkey aside.

In the same skillet, sauté the mushrooms and onion until the onion becomes soft and the mushrooms begin to shrink. Add the mushroom mixture to the ground turkey.

In a large pot with a lid, add the green beans and a splash of water. Cover and steam on low heat.

Meanwhile, pour the hazelnut milk in a small saucepan and add the tapioca starch. Mix well. Begin heating on medium heat, adding the butter and bullion, and stirring often. Once the butter is melted, increase the heat to medium high and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low and cook a while longer, still stirring, until sauce becomes good and thick. Set aside.

Once beans are tender, drain liquid and place in a large casserole dish. Mix in the turkey mixture and the “soup.”

Bake in a 400F oven for about 30 minutes.


Note: Tapioca flour and tapioca starch are the same thing. You may use any kind of starch in the place of the tapioca, such as potato, arrowroot, corn, etc.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Gluten-free, dairy-free creamy pasta sauce

It’s strange how you almost wake up one morning feeling…normal… and you aren’t quite sure when feeling sick ended and when normal began. I discovered over the past few weeks that I’ve been feeling just that: normal. Such a strange word.

But, I can’t tell you how happy I am to feel healthy and energetic! I am still somewhat conscious of the symptoms I used to have and smile with delight when I realize I am not experiencing them anymore. I giggle, in fact, sometimes.

I also giggle when I come across things reminding me how far I’ve come in 6 months; how eating and baking and cooking gluten free is second nature, and how I am no longer surprised that gluten free baked goods are not a second-rate substitute for their wheat-flour cousins.

I also hope that anyone who might even have the slightest inkling they are gluten intolerant to try eating gluten free for a while…see what happens. The earlier you go gluten free, the faster your body will recover. And there’s no need to suffer or “deal with” your symptoms. Check out the information on celiac symptoms on the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness website.

I was surprised to learn some of the symptoms I had been “dealing with” all my life were related to gluten, such as unexplained chills or heat flashes, feeling overly tired after eating, and migraine headaches. The best one though? I have always felt that I was just a tad overweight, and no matter how much I exercised and watched my diet, I couldn’t get rid of my protruding belly. Now, I pay zero attention to my weight, because, well, I have far bigger things to think about. I eat twice as much as I used to and work out half as much. And I need to wear belts to keep my pants up. My experience is common; many people who have struggled to lose weight (often they are much heavier than I ever was) aren’t necessarily breaking the “less calories taken in than burned” rule, their bodies are having a difficult time metabolizing their gluteny food.

I started eating gluten free relatively young; many don’t discover they have celiac until well into their 40s or 50s. They’ve spent too many decades buying into the symptom solutions American culture feeds us. Headache? Take a pill. Indigestion? Take an antacid. Tired? Drink more coffee! Unfortunately, the longer you wait, sometimes the more damage is done and the longer it takes to heal.

In what feels like a relatively short period of time, I have begun to feel healthy, and my doctor has taken me off one of my medications. Hooray! I don’t need it anymore! I was taking 6 of these a day (2 pills 3 times a day), so my pill box looks blessedly empty these days. And – here’s the really good part – I can start testing other foods, such as dairy, corn, and soy, to see if I can tolerate them.

In the meantime, I created an anti-inflammatory diet friendly pasta sauce (no tomatoes, cheese, or red pepper), using a zucchini the size of my forearm! Don’t be put off by its green tint – when you mix it up with some pasta and vegetables, it feels, and tastes, like a creamy pasta sauce. Pictured above, I didn't even use pasta; I tossed it with french green beans, quartered artichoke hearts, and chickpeas. Even better, try pouring your mixture into a casserole dish, sprinkle sliced almonds on top and bake!

Zucchini pasta sauce:

1 LARGE zucchini, cubed into about ½ inch pieces
½ large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced or chopped finely (see note)
Seasonings, to taste (I used sea salt, ground pepper, and basil)
Olive oil

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until it begins to soften. Add garlic and sauté for about a minute more. Add the zucchini and reduce head to med-low. Season as you desire. Cook covered for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until zucchini is good and tender.

Remove pan from heat. Scoop zucchini mixture into a blender or food processor, small amounts at a time, until smooth (it took me about 3 or 4 rotations and my blender is very weak).

Pour over pasta, bake in a casserole, or save for later use! If you are using it immediately, you may need to re-heat it in a saucepan before you pour it over pasta, depending on how much the mixture has cooled.


Note: I tend to use a lot of garlic, so adjust to your tastes

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Suddenly, a full house

I adopted Rosie, my cat, almost exactly two years ago. Before that, I had been living alone for a little over a year, and since then, it has been just the two of us. For the last 3 years, home has been pretty quiet.

This summer, Ben and I began talking about moving in together, but we had some reservations. What worried us most wasn’t fears over the stability of our relationship, or the idea that we might be moving too quickly. What worried us most was our combined ownership of three cats. Ben’s two cats, Zora and Dewey, have been with him since they were kittens and are 3 and 4 years old, respectively. I adopted Rosie from the Oregon Humane Society and they guessed she was about 5 years old at the time, so she is approximately 7 years old.

We worried how we would ‘fit’ in a one-bedroom, that is, whether we would feel cramped with three pets, and whether my apartment complex would allow that many pets in one unit. We also worried whether the three of them would get along.

On top of the cat issue, we wondered if adding him to my lease meant signing a new lease, thus extending the time I (and we) are obligated to stay in this particular building (given the flood that occurred in August, I haven’t been entirely happy with the building).

The worrying and wondering plagued us, literally preventing us from making any kind of move. Underneath it all, I believe we were afraid to get bad news, to find out that living in my current apartment with both Zora and Dewey would not work out.

Until we realized we were assuming a lot, without testing our assumptions. We assumed these things would be issues we would have to deal with and were avoiding dealing with them by refusing to find out whether they were real issues at all.

In realizing this, we went down to the leasing office, asked what it would require to add him to my lease and found out: 1) 3 cats? No problem! and 2) the current lease stays as is, with his name added to it. We walked out almost dumbfounded, amazed at how much worrying we had put into something that was resolved that quickly and easily. All it took was to ask!

When we brought Zora and Dewey over to my (now our) place, they couldn’t have had a more smooth ‘first meeting.’ Now, of course, Rosie is making a move for dominant cat by making sure to pounce on the other cats just often enough to keep them on their toes… And Zora has taken to scaring us to death by hanging out of the windows up here on the 9th floor (in Portland, screens are optional, especially on the 9th floor). And Dewey, well, Dewey hides in the book shelf a lot in an attempt to become invisible to Zora and Rosie.

But on the whole, it couldn’t be any better. In a matter of two days, my home went from a household of two to a household of five, with plenty of love to go around!

On this particular day, I found Dewey and Zora sleeping on the bed, and Rosie was snuggled up under my desk as I worked.

And, it just goes to show that we sometimes tend to assume barriers exist, without investigating whether they are in fact actual barriers. I wonder how often we let these “assumed barriers” prevent us from trying out new things, working towards goals, or making changes in our lives for the better.

What kinds of things have you always wanted to do, or learn, or achieve that you aren’t because of your “assumed barriers?” Try testing them to see if they are in fact real, or if there are ways to eliminate them. Sometimes the largest barrier is simply the little voice in our head saying we aren’t qualified or talented enough.

How often have you thought things like, “If only I could travel more,” or, “I’ve always wanted to learn (insert activity here).” What are you assuming about what barriers lie in your way to traveling more? Too expensive? Not enough time? Go ahead, assess your budget and your schedule; understand what the potential barrier looks like in order to determine how to address it.

With a few moments of investigative work, you may find that what you wish to accomplish is well within your reach.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ben's 30th Birthday

Yesterday was Ben’s 30th birthday!

This past new year’s eve, I had realized that this September, Ben would turn 30. We had only been dating 2 months at that point, but I knew we would still be together in September.

Sometimes, you just know.

I told him that day that I was looking forward to throwing him a 30th birthday party and celebrating that milestone with him. And, admittedly, at the time, September felt a long way off. Between January and September, I knew the tulips would push their way through the ground, the inevitable summer sunshine would present itself predictably each day, berries would come and go from the famer’s market, and the days would once again begin to shorten.

September came much sooner than I thought. In the time between new year’s eve and now, he and I have shared so much, done so much, and marveled at the ease of our relationship. Even as he supported me emotionally through some of the most difficult periods of my illness and the eventual diagnosis, our relationship felt easy. I feel as if I have known him forever, yet the time we have been together has passed by like the blink of an eye.

As planned, I scheduled a party for him, invited friends, and planned appetizers. And all week I had been trying to come up with a special cake to bake for him, one which would satisfy his love of fruit desserts, but that wasn’t a tart, pie, or crisp. At work, my mind swirled with fruit and cake and frosting combinations, mentally blending flavors.

Since he had been so excited about the baked apple dessert I made this week and September is the harbinger of the glorious apple season (though here in Portland, September hardly feels like fall yet), I created the cake pictured above, a vanilla-based cake with apple butter and vanilla buttercream frosting. I based the recipe on Claudia Pillow and Analise Roberts’ recipe for a maple walnut cake, which calls for apricot butter or preserves. I wasn’t sure if the apple butter would be thick enough to hold the layers together, but thought I’d give it a shot. And it turned out to be a raving success.

Ben and I had a nice dinner together and then shared the rest of the evening with several friends. We all had a great time grazing over fresh strawberries and black berries from the farmer’s market, mixed olive bruschette on gluten-free baguette slices, and other delicious treats, as we talked and joked and caught up with some we hadn’t seen in a while. Several of his friends and his parents had sent me (which I had solicited ahead of time) pictures and stories of him growing up, which I displayed on one of the living room walls.

We went to bed exhausted but happy. Happy to have shared this milestone together, with friends. (and happy to have leftover cake!)

Ben’s vanilla apple spice cake:

1 ¾ cups Brown rice flour
½ cup potato starch
¼ cup tapioca flour
1 teaspoon xanthan gum
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 cup butter, melted until mostly liquid
1 cup hazelnut milk (or favorite milk)
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ½ teaspoons apple pie spice
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Prepare two 9-inch round cake pans with butter and rice flour (or use non-stick) and preheat oven to 350F. In a medium-sized bowl, combine flours, xanthan gum, baking powder, and salt and mix well. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with an electric mixer until slightly frothy, add sugar and butter and blend at medium speed until well blended. Add the flour mixture and beat at medium speed for about 1 minute, until smooth.

To marble the cake: remove about 1/3 of the batter into a small bowl. Add the apple pie spice and cinnamon and mix well with a spoon.

Pour the non-spiced batter into the two prepared cake pans. Carefully spoon the spiced batter, dropping random spoonfuls into the cake pans. Swirl the batter by dragging the butter knife through the batter in a swirling motion a few times.

Bake on the center rack for 35 minutes. To check doneness, insert a toothpick into the center of the cake; if it comes out clean, it is done.

Remove cake from pans and cool completely on wire racks.

To frost cakes:

Approximately 8-10oz apple butter (I used Oregon Hill country apple butter), refrigerated ahead of time
1 cup coarsely chopped or crushed sugared pecans (these can be store-bought or home-made and taste best when they are basic butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar)
1 cup butter, slightly soft
3 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Beat butter with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add the vanilla extract and 1 cup of the powdered sugar and blend. Add the remaining sugar 1 cup at a time and blend until smooth.

Remove the apple butter from refrigerator and spread over one of the cake layers (about ¼ inch thick). Sprinkle half of the sugared pecans over the apple butter and lightly press the nuts in with your hands, careful to not disturb the apple butter. Place the second cake layer on top and frost with the vanilla frosting on top and along sides. Sprinkle remaining pecans on top of cake. Lightly press the pecans into the frosting just enough so they stick into the frosting.


Note: Keep this cake in the refrigerator.