Sunday, February 22, 2009

The rhythm of life

When you first begin to learn how to row, you hear a lot about the rhythm of the stroke - it is like a waltz, they say. The part of the stroke when you are exerting lots of effort (the drive), is also the part that creates the strongest momentum through the water. The oar is in the water and you are pushing off with your legs, moving backwards with the boat. The drive is also the quicker part of the stroke.

During the other part of the stroke (the recovery), you are still floating backwards as a boat, but your body is slowly creeping forwards so that you end up knees-bent and body-forward. This part is supposed to take twice as long as the drive so that you allow the boat to move easily under you, over the water. During this part, you exert less effort and prepare for the next drive.

When I row, my mind goes blank. My brain is held captive by the constant rhythm of the oars, moving swiftly in and out of the water, the clunk of the oars turning in the oarlocks, and the surge of force at the beginning of each stroke. The rhythm of each rower moving in unison produces audible and physical rhythm such that you could easily row with your eyes closed and not miss a beat. It's no wonder people liken rowing to music.

In a way, it's a lot like life too. I have been keeping myself busy lately, not just with work, but with many things outside of work - writing, working on my dissertation, drawing, making music, gardening, reading, rowing, running, and, of course, spending time with Ben and friends. I have a thousand things I want to accomplish and the thoughts of things I want to bake and cook make me feel as if I will burst at the seams. I love it.

Mostly, what I love about it is that I don't feel like crap through any of it. Sure, I get tired and I also end up staying up a bit too late some nights; I exclaimed to Ben the other night, as I was finally getting a chance to catch up on my blog-reading, "How is it that you are getting to bed before me?!" when his morning alarm goes off a good hour and a half after mine. But, I'm not held back by the usual brain-fog or headaches or itchy rashes or symptom-surprises of my gluteny days.

And, let me tell you, time is flying by. But, I know this kind of activity is not sustainable and will not last forever. Just as one-third of the rowing stroke is intense pressure and the other two-thirds is recovery and preparation, so is life. Time slows again as we take time for self-care and we plan our next big tasks. I think that without that time for rest, we could never adequately fulfill the dreams we have for our lives - those next big goals we want to achieve - nor could we reasonably enjoy the achievement. I can't even tell you how slowly time passed during the roughest part of my healing from gluten and it was certainly a time for me to slow down, scale back, and be patient while I took care of myself. If you are in that part of your journey, I encourage you to do the same while you dream and prepare for your new, healthier life.

Would you expect that little sprout of a Brussels sprout to produce a harvest without any preparation?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gardening, pizza, and pasta - finding ways to cope until spring

Those of you who are gluten free - did you ever think you would say, in exasperation, "I am so OVER pizza right now!"? One of those foods we think upon diagnosis that we will never again be able to enjoy - pizza - is not only incredibly easy to make at home, but apparently becoming the hot item in pizzerias all over Portland.

During our errand-running this weekend, we drove right past a pizza place on Hawthorne Blvd with a large banner advertising their new gluten-free pizza. I'm sorry, I can't remember the name, but I think it was Oasis cafe? Does anyone in the area know? I was surprised to see it, but we didn't try it out. Ironically, the main reason we were driving is because Ben had a show Monday night at Mississippi Pizza, so we rented a car to haul his bass guitar around and we took advantage of the increased mobility to do some heavy errands. Mississippi Pizza also makes GF pizza and sells gluten free beer and I can't tell you how excited I was that Ben was finally playing a show at a place I could not only get gluten free beer, but also gluten free food! And pizza no less! I was really looking forward to it.

But, it turns out there really IS too much of a good thing and, after our gluten free pizza Friday, and pizza at the show on Monday, I actually got tired of eating pizza this weekend! I happily let Ben take the pizza leftovers for his lunch at work. How's that for someone who is supposed to be "limited" in their diet! ha! His band's show was great - one of my favorite new additions to the set was an enormous drum (a marching-band-like, beat-on-the-sides, HUGE drum), which was added to one of their already established songs and incorporated into one of their new songs. Not only did it add a great sound, I couldn't help but to think how much fun it would be to play!

Part of our errand running this weekend included picking up a fig tree and two blueberry bushes for our container garden...and containers, and soil, and mulch, and fertilizer (organic), and, and, and... We also planted some of our spinach seeds in a 12x12 container and started two of our brussels sprouts seedlings. My heating pad is getting some good use, warming our little seedlings. I want to call them 'cute' before they are even sprouted...but that is how I think of them - all warm and cute and waiting to sprout up through their soft dirt blanket.

I also worked on draft number 2 of my dissertation this weekend, which, on top of all our errand running and band playing, made this three-day weekend feel like it was over in a wink. But, here we are looking at Thursday tomorrow already (!). I think I will skip GF pizza Friday this Friday (if Ben agrees)- I'm just still too pizza-ed out!

This is the incredibly easily, impossibly delicious pasta I threw together the other night (in between pizzas!). Slice up a couple of those pathetically small zucchini that are in the grocery stores right now and saute with some diced onion, a couple of minced garlic cloves, a can of quartered artichoke hearts, and a smattering of capers. Add some dried basil and freshly grated pepper. Just before the zucchini and onion looks done, throw in a few handfuls of spinach and stir until the spinach is mostly wilted. Toss the veggies with your favorite GF pasta (I recommend Tinkyada brand) and top with a dollop of creme fraiche and more fresh pepper.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Go ahead honey, it's gluten free: Gluten-free, dairy-free, low sugar fudge bites and other sweets for your sweet

Love is everything it's cracked up to be…It really is worth fighting for, being brave for, risking everything for.

--Erica Jong, 2004

When people talk about taking risks, usually the first things that come to mind are dare-devil stunts like bungee jumping, sky-diving, or helicopter skiing. Usually, we think of risks as the kind of thing that is over in a flash, a heartbeat; something that scares the bejesus out of you for a moment, until it's over.

But what about love?

As Ben and I crawled into bed yesterday evening, pulling the warm covers up to our chins, I inched right up next to him and wrapped my ankles around his. "You must really love me if you can tolerate my cold feet," I said to him, half of me joking around and the other half wondering if he did object to my cold extremities stealing his heat at night.

"I do love you, I do, and I don't mind your cold feet at all," he replied, kissing my forehead. I rested my head on his shoulder and felt safe, content, relaxed, fortunate, and a million things I don't have the words for.

By now, Ben knows everything about me - my quirks, my shortfalls, and my sometimes illogical logic. But, it wasn't always that way. Figuratively speaking, I had "cold feet" when we met about being myself and open up and trusting that he was being honest about who he was.

After all, love is a risk. Sometimes we don't really have the courage to say what we feel, and instead it comes out in inconvenient, awkward bursts...and we miss out on what might have been. Other times, we open up too freely, thinking the other is being honest, and end up getting burned in the end.

And what about loving someone for years, knowing each other inside and out, and seeing each other through life's struggles and triumphs? What happens when a significant part of your lives is defined by the other, and every plan, every possibility, every happiness, and every thought has the other one in it? There's still no guarantee fate won't play its hand... That kind of loss seems unthinkable.

Even so, if you are to live in this life, really live, all you can do is close your eyes...and jump...and have faith that the bungee cord will be strong enough to hold you. In that sense, love, letting someone really know you, is indeed risky. But definitely worth it.

I always used to play off Valentine's day as "that Hallmark holiday," that day when it was culturally prescribed to tell your sweetie you loved them and wondered why we needed a day for that. What's wrong with the other 364 days a year?

But now, I get it. Do we ask why Thanksgiving exists? Can we forget about being thankful on the other 364 days a year? No. But Thanksgiving is a day to remember and to celebrate everything we are thankful for. In a way, Valentine's day is the same - a day to remember how fortunate we are to have loved ones in our lives.

So this Valentine's day, celebrate those in your life who have risked themselves, who have opened up themselves to you, and celebrate your risk in opening up to them. With your friends, your family, and your sweetie - celebrate being each other's bungee cord.

This month's 'Go ahead honey, it's gluten free' theme is sweets for your sweetheart and hosted by Kelly at the Spunky Coconut. My entry is the following recipe for gluten-free, dairy-free, and low sugar fudge. Most fudge calls for sweetened condensed milk, which is no good for those avoiding dairy and sugar. I realized that condensing coconut milk isn't all that hard and works just as well! The only sugar in the recipe is whatever sugar happens to be in the chocolate.

Other great Valentine's day treats:

Double chocolate cherry cookies

Chocolate-mint financiers

Sugar cookies (fun to decorate with each other!)

Gluten-free, dairy-free, low sugar chocolate fudge bites:

This is a ridiculously easy, and fast, chocolate treat and variations are endless. You can dust these with powdered sugar, unsweetened cocoa powder, sea salt, ground nuts, finely shredded coconut... You can also add things to the mix like dried fruit or peppermint extract. I encourage you to make them according to your heart's desires! I made these individual serving size to share, but you can also pour the mix into an 8x8 square pan (pre-greased or lined) and cut into cubes.

12 ounces dark or semi-sweet chocolate (I used Guittard semi-sweet chocolate chips, one bag)

1 cup full fat coconut milk

Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until it begins to boil. Reduce heat to the warmer end of medium-low and simmer, stirring frequently, until milk has reduced and thickened (about 10 minutes). Set aside.

Place the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for about 2 minutes, then stir until bowl begins to cool. If chocolate is still not entirely melted, heat in short bursts of 20-30 seconds until smooth.

Pour milk into the chocolate and stir. The mixture will begin to toughen up at this point, but keep stirring until evenly blended and smooth. Add any add-ins here.

Either pour into a well-greased or parchment-lined 8x8 pan or pour by tablespoon-full into aluminum muffin cups (shake them a bit to evenly distribute the chocolate). Dust with your choice of topping(s). Refrigerate until firm.

Share with your loved ones!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Making Home-made chicken stock

Dressed in a thin long-sleeve shirt and cropped running pants, and with the sun shining, I went for a run on Wednesday.

It felt good to have the sun on my face and work up a sweat that didn't freeze on my extremities. I have Wednesdays off from work, a day right in the middle of the week when I can work on my dissertation, work on side projects, bake bread, clean, grocery shop, or do whatever I need to get done that didn't quite make the cut during the weekend. The other wonderful thing about Wednesdays is I can sleep in a bit and go for my run in the afternoon sun, should it decide to make an appearance.

And, make an appearance it did this week - with highs near 60 - in the first week of February! It's strange for this Minnesota gal, but you will hear no complaints from me.

Despite the sun, it is still winter and the groundhog (or hedgehog at the Portland zoo) did see his shadow on Monday. And the weather forecast is calling for rain again, but not until tomorrow or Monday. Ben and I plan on taking full advantage of the good weather today - heading off to the Chinese Gardens and wherever else the day takes us.

Unfortunately, the nice weather doesn't mean that fresh fruits and vegetables will be available any earlier or that the farmer's market will be open any sooner. There are still 21 days until on-the-water rowing begins and almost 2 months until the farmer's market opens on March 21st.

I've been making a lot of soup this winter in all kinds of ways - chopping vegetables, throwing in various meats, or beans, or cheese. I've tossed in thyme, rosemary, garlic, lavender, oregano, nutmeg, and all sorts of other seasonings into my soups. I've tried a number of various combinations, some of which neither Ben nor I could tolerate (okay, it was only the one with turnips and a combination of seasonings that just didn't fly), but most have been delicious. Some I made using a pre-made soup, such as Pacific Foods Ginger Carrot Cashew soup, adding rice, beans, and toasted pecans to make it more hearty. Others I've made with plain, boxed chicken or vegetable broth.

The best soups, by far, have been the ones made with home-made chicken stock. This winter, I have gotten into the habit of putting a whole chicken in the crockpot on Sunday or Monday morning, setting it to cook on low all day long. By the time dinner time rolls around, we have the most tender, juicy chicken to eat with whatever veggies or sides we want and we have plenty of leftovers to throw in chicken enchiladas or empanadas or soups. We also have a few cups of better-than-ever chicken stock. All of that for about $1.50 a pound? And the one-pot clean-up? It couldn't be any easier.

The other day I saw a commercial for Swanson broth and their tag line is something to the effect of "the secret to perfect soups is swanson broth" or something like that. I laughed.

Here's what you do: Buy a whole chicken (be sure it will fit in your crockpot). When you go to put it in your crockpot, unwrap it and reach into the cavity to remove the neck and gizzards (I throw those out, but you can also use the neck to make additional broth if you aren't as squeamish as me). Place the chicken in the pot, cover, and turn temperature to low. Cook on low for about 8 hours (or until you get home from work). By the time I get home, the chicken is falling off the bones and I need to use a big serving spoon to scoop it out! Once I have the chicken and bones removed onto a plate, I sort through the chicken to separate the meat from the bones. I can then store the left-over chicken in the fridge and it is ready to throw into whatever dish I feel like making that week. I then pour the juices that remain in the crockpot into a glass bowl with a lid and stash it in the fridge.

When I go to make soup, I saute the veggies and seasonings until almost done. I take out the stock and spoon off the fat that has settled on top (I usually keep about a tablespoon of it for added richness) and discard it. I spoon the remaining stock right into the cooking veggies and stir until everything has melted. I then add about a cup of water. I add in some chicken and let everything simmer until the veggies are soft. It really is the most flavorful soup you will ever eat.

Chicken Vegetable Soup:

I threw in a bit of freshly grated nutmeg, to see how it would taste and it adds a bit of sweetness to the soup and keeps your tastebuds guessing. It is definitely worth using home-made stock, but store-bought will work just fine as well.

about 3 cups chicken stock (either home-made or boxed)

1 cup chopped carrots

1/2 medium onion, diced

3 to 4 stalks celery, diced

1 1/2 cups chicken (or about 2 chicken breasts), cooked

1/2 teaspoon ground thyme

1/2 teaspoon salt (omit if using boxed stock)

1 teaspoon rosemary

1 teaspoon oregano

2-3 large garlic cloves, minced

freshly ground black pepper

a few swipes of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

olive oil

Saute your veggies in the olive oil in a large dutch oven or stock pot until mostly cooked. Stir in your seasonings and garlic and cook for a few minutes more. Add your stock and chicken and simmer over med-low heat until veggies are soft.

Serve with an additional drizzle of olive oil.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Lemon Thyme roasted root veggies

It's somewhat strange how quickly the first month of the year always passes. It always seems like we celebrate the first of the year and before I can blink an eye, it's February. Not that I'm complaining, mind you - these winter months feel so dark and lifeless that it's nice to have them over with relatively quickly. In just a few weeks, daisies will start popping up here in Portland, followed by the tulips in the end of February or first week of March.

It helps that I have been incredibly busy lately, working four days a week in my new research position and spending the other three days a week tirelessly examining alpha levels and p-values, computing regression equations, and discerning what it all means. I have been typing up the results and discussion sections of my dissertation as fast as humanly possible and it certainly makes the days feel short. In good news, it seems as though my hypotheses are supported; that challenging oneself to participate in activities that may feel somewhat risky (e.g., going to school, getting married, joining a sports club, quitting your job to travel for 3 months) are related to good mental health. Although my research is only correlational and cannot tell me whether learning a new hobby will improve mental health once you're already feeling down or whether it's only those who have good mental health who frequently try out new things, I think it's still worth it to give it a go if you're feeling ho-hum. I feel it couldn't hurt to be more active and involved in life - even something as easy as trying out new things in the kitchen.

In many ways, I'm glad I have this project to keep me busy. The days are so short and it seems the only fresh fruits and vegetables available are those which have been shipped from half-way around the world - not exactly an inspiring season for a foodie like me. I'm torn between wanting to eat fresh blueberries and knowing the enormous carbon footprint that comes with that tiny little container from Chile. I have turned my attention to fresh herbs and seasonings to add variety to those winter root vegetables, both in roasting and in adding to soups.

My latest? Lemon thyme. It seems somewhat appropriate as I think about it's homonym, time, and how quickly it has been passing.

Lemon thyme produces a wonderful aroma of lemon, filling our whole apartment with a fresh, inviting scent. Seriously, it's amazing. It has been used to treat cough and bronchitis, as well as respiratory infections, so it seems appropriate to cook with in abundance during cold and flu season. Who knows? maybe it will help with that sniffly nose you've been fighting?

I recently roasted some sweet potatoes with parsnips as a quick and easy meal to go along with the chicken I had cooking away in the crockpot. I put together the following seasonings for my roasted veggies:

Several sprigs of fresh lemon thyme (I used a sharp knife to carefully scrape off the leaves)

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 large cloves garlic, minced

sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup pine nuts, ground with a mortar and pestle, or used whole

olive oil

about 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Chop up some sweet potatoes and parsnips (I used two small of each) or your favorite winter veggies and toss with the above in a large bowl.

Pour veggies out into one or more baking dishes (so you have close to a single layer of veggies) and roast at 375F for about 40 minutes, until tender. I served mine with some shredded, cooked chicken and some baby spinach, but they would also be lovely for breakfast with some sausage or bacon or eggs.

How do you keep yourself inspired in the kitchen during these seemingly life-less winter months? What are you experimenting with?