Sunday, March 22, 2009

Simple Irish food for March

In the spirit of the day, Ben and I enjoyed a Shepherd's pie on St. Patrick's day - along with a gluten free beer, dyed green. One part simple, classic and one part kitschy.

Earlier in the week, we made colcannon from sweet potatoes, thinly sliced onion, and shredded cabbage. We seasoned it with salt and pepper. I had to hold back from making either of these dishes more complex - adding cheese, or maybe some finely diced apples and a dash of nutmeg. Or perhaps some thinly-sliced, spicy sausage.

I managed to refrain from over-doing it, however, because I wanted to stay at least somewhat true to the simple spirit of Irish food. And, I'm glad I did.

I did make them a bit healthier, mind you, by substituting out the plain white potatoes for sweet potatoes (not yams!) in the colcannon and for quinoa flakes in the Shepherd's pie. Those of you who know true Shepherd's pie will notice I also opted for chicken instead of beef.

There's something to be said for simplicity. The feel of the newspaper or a good book in your hands feels so much more real than the electronic typeface on a glowing screen. Speaking of, I actually had to keep myself from giggling the other day on my walk home from work -- Every day I walk passed the same woman who is reading a book while she walks. She walks very quickly and doesn't look away from her pages. I always wonder if she would trip one day.

This past week, however, I saw her coming and looked to see what book she was reading. However she did not have a book in her hands, but a Kindle. For those of you who don't know, a Kindle is a small electronic device to which you can download books and read them on the device. Now I wonder what she is missing out on by not having the feel of the pages in her hands.


I am in the home-stretch right now as far as my dissertation is concerned, so I am going to be taking a break from posting here for a bit. Don't be surprised if you don't hear from me for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I will be finishing up that final draft, which I will hand to my committee 3 weeks before my dissertation defense.

Potato-free, gluten-free chicken shepherd's pie:

2/3 cup quinoa flakes
1 3/4 cups water
1 Tablespoon butter
Sea salt

1 1/2 cups frozen peas
1 1/2 cups chopped carrot
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 cup cooked chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 teaspoons ground thyme
sea salt and pepper to taste

2 cups chicken broth
2 teaspoons tapioca flour

In a small saucepan, bring the water to boil and add quinoa flakes. Stir and reduce heat to low. Cook for a few minutes more, then remove from heat and stir in butter and salt. Allow to cool (the mixture will thicken a bit as it cools).

In a large skillet, heat a few tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and carrots and cook for a few minutes, until they begin to soften. Stir in ground thyme, salt, and pepper. Add peas and chicken and cook until heated through. Turn heat to low and cover.

Meanwhile, add your chicken broth and tapioca flour to a small saucepan and stir to dissolve flour. Bring the mixture to heat, over medium-high heat and allow to boil for a few minutes, stirring nearly constantly. Reduce heat to low and continue stirring until it begins to thicken.

Add the broth mixture to the vegetable pan and mix well. Turn off heat.

Butter the sides of 2 16-oz souffle dishes or a small casserole dish. Spoon the vegetable mixture into the dishes. Spoon the "potato" mixture on top of the vegetables, creating a 'crust' that covers the entire surface of the vegetables. Dust with paprika (optional).

Place the dishes under the broiler for a few minutes to brown the tops and 'set' the dish.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

An Irish girl's cake, celebrating the start of her Gluten-free life

My mom gives me a lot of happy feelings. Once, when I was in first grade, I made a leprechaun mask. When I came home from school, I showed my mom the mask. She put it on and began dancing around the kitchen, singing, ‘I’m a little leprechaun.’ It was so funny it made me happy.

St. Patrick ’s Day has always had a special place in my heart. No matter where I am or what is going on in my life, I somehow mark the day – whether it’s going out with friends, simply making “Irish” food at home, wearing green clothing, or some combination thereof. I look forward to it probably more than any more-traditional holiday. I am a red-headed Irish girl, after all.

Growing up, my mom would bake what we called “green cake” for our St. Paddy’s day dessert. This wasn’t just any green cake – this was pudding-filled, pistachio-mint, chocolate-frosted green cake. Often, she would also bake mini chocolate chips into the cake batter, so not only was the cake frosted with delicious chocolate frosting, but there would be a layer of mini chocolate chips floating around near the bottom of each slice (the chips usually fell to the bottom of the cake instead of being distributed throughout, but we liked them anyway). Oh, how we always looked forward to that cake.

The quote above is from me, at ten years old, and it was published in the Minneapolis paper. It was in response to a question the paper posed to readers, asking them when they have been happiest and what makes them happy. I remember that moment to this day - my mom had THE green cake baking while she danced around the kitchen with my leprechaun mask. I stood there in the kitchen, giggling, with the fading spring evening light coming in through the living room windows and the smell of peppermint mingling with a faint pistachio scent warming the kitchen. I remember feeling so good; even at that age, I somehow understood how fortunate I was to have a mother who paid attention to the hundreds of random art projects I brought home.

I remember calling my mom from my apartment in college, asking her for the recipe. In the years since, I have almost always baked the green cake in my own home. At least nine years later, I still have the piece of scratch paper where I wrote down the ingredients and instructions she relayed over the phone (on the back of a psychology club officers' meeting agenda!). Pulling it out of my mess of cookbooks and hand-scribbled recipes yesterday, I used it as a guide for making a gluten-free version.

This cake, this green cake, is not only the cake that brings up all kinds of happy childhood memories, it is not only a St.Patrick’s Day tradition for my family, it is not only amazingly delicious, it’s also the last thing I knowingly ate that contained gluten – one year ago.

Now, St. Patrick’s day holds even more meaning for me - it’s forever marked as the beginning of my new life. And this green cake? A birth-day cake of sorts.

This year, I made it gluten free. And this is how I will make it, years from now, for my own children.

St. Patrick’s day green cake:

This cake calls for a package of instant pistachio pudding, but don’t be turned off by that – the flavor really blends nicely with the peppermint extract and makes the cake’s texture incredibly dense and moist.

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 raw sugar
4 eggs
13 Tablespoons butter, melted until mostly liquid
1 cup hazelnut milk (or your favorite milk)
½-1 teaspoon peppermint extract (if you want it really minty, go with the full teaspoon)
1 package instant pistachio pudding (Jell-O brand)

6-8 drops green food coloring

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, salt, and pudding mix and mix well. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with an electric mixer (or in your stand mixer) until slightly frothy. Add sugar, butter, milk, peppermint, and food coloring and blend at medium speed until well blended. Add the flour mixture and beat at medium speed for about 1 minute, until smooth.

Pour the batter into the two prepared cake pans.

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. You can certainly bake this in a 9x12 cake pan (this is actually how mom always used to do it) - just bake it for a bit longer, about 40-45 minutes.

Remove cake from pans and cool completely on wire racks.

To frost the cake:

1 cup butter, slightly soft
2 3/4 cups powdered sugar

½ cup cocoa powder

1-2 tablespoons milk (hazelnut, soy, etc.) as needed

Mix cocoa powder with sugar in a small bowl and set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add 1 cup of the powdered sugar/cocoa mix and blend. Add the remaining sugar/cocoa 1 cup at a time and blend until smooth.

Spread over the top of one of the layers. Place the second cake layer on top and frost top and sides.

Enjoy - and dance an Irish jig!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Snow pea stir-fry

I love my crockpot. Seriously.

There’s always been some sort of middle-America, low-class, country-home kinda connotation associated with crock-pot cooking in my mind. I don’t know exactly where it came from, or if other people have similar associations, but even though I own a crock pot (and cook with it), I have to admit that somewhere in the back of my mind I have this negative association with the crockpot.

Negative prejudices aside, I love using it. Not only do I frequently cook whole chickens while I’m away at work, but my recent foray into cooking pork roast sealed the deal. During our Sunday trip to the grocery store this past weekend, we decided to change things up a bit and pick up a pork roast. Having very little experience with this type of meat, I went poking around the internet for ways others before me have prepared pork roast. As soon as I saw that many people have tossed their roast in their crockpot for about 10 hours, I thought, “Of course! Could it be any easier?”

So, Monday morning, I chopped up a sweet potato, some carrots, and a small onion. I placed the veggies in the bottom of my crockpot, placed the roast on top, added a sprinkle of sea salt and black pepper, and set the whole works to cook on low while we were away at work.

I literally forgot about it while I was away, but the smell that greeted me when I arrived home was nothing less than amazing. The smell tortured me for another couple of hours until Ben came home, when I pulled some of the pork into a small saucepan, added some gluten free barbecue sauce, and made BBQ pork sandwiches. The veggies were somewhat salty and sweet, having absorbed the flavor of the meat and each other. Last night, with some of the leftover pork, I made pork spring rolls with broccoli slaw, onion, and freshly grated ginger. Ben and I both agreed – we’re doing this again.

Playing around like this has been getting me through these past weeks when I’m tired of cooking winter root veggies and waiting desperately for spring, when various foods are once again “in season.” I’ve been buying zucchini and spinach, though they are technically not “in season” right now in order to keep some green veggies in our diets (in addition to the Brussels sprouts, of course).

In my playing around with my food, I’ve been doing a lot of Asian-inspired meals (as evidenced by the pork spring rolls), and I made up this stir-fry the other night – with snow peas and scrambled egg. I’ve also been making a lot of Asian-inspired meals because I’ve fallen in love with real ginger root. OH MY! Try it once and you will never go back to the dried, ground stuff again. And, you’ll be as addicted to using it as I am, finding all sorts of excuses to make meals around it.

But then again, I’ve always loved ginger. A friend of mine and I discovered a while back that I didn’t understand who would eat all of the wasabi that came with sushi at one of our favorite sushi places and she didn’t understand who would eat all of the ginger root. Well, we found out that she does indeed eat all of the wasabi and I eat all of the ginger root, wishing I had more.

Snow-pea stir-fry:

In hindsight, this would have been mighty tasty with a little of that pork roast cut up and tossed in the mix, but it was uber delicious with just the scrambled egg as the protein source.

3 cups snow peas
1 small onion, chopped
4 eggs
1 cup broccoli slaw
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed
1 teaspoon sea salt
About 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
¼ teaspoon ground clove
1 tablespoon cilantro
2 cloves garlic, minced or finely diced
Fish sauce
Wheat free Tamari
Olive oil

In a medium-hot skillet, heat some olive oil and crack open the four eggs directly into the skillet. Stir until cooked through and set aside.

Heat a couple more tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet over medium heat and sauté onions until they begin to soften. Add garlic, ginger, seasonings, and a few splashes each of fish sauce and Tamari.

Add broccoli slaw and snow peas and cook briefly, until peas turn bright green, stirring almost constantly.

Before serving, add scrambled eggs and stir to mix.

(Optional) Serve over rice spiked with cilantro and sea salt.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Cherry-coconut muffins (gluten-free, dairy-free)

No sooner did I write that last post (about taking time out once in a while) than did I succumb to a sneak attack by the flu going around. I definitely needed to take a time out for this one – 102-degree temperature and body aches so bad the surface of my skin hurt to the touch. And I’m usually the one who hardly gets sick, and when I do it lasts a furious two days and I’m back to my normal routine. This one caught me by surprise and held me hostage for a while.

But, I’m finally feeling almost normal now – a week and a half later. I baked cookies yesterday and finally got around to organizing a few things around the house. Today, after grocery shopping, starting laundry, and vacuuming, I baked a batch of muffins to throw in the freezer for breakfasts this week. On-the-water rowing started last week (though I had to skip out on it while I recovered), so this week I’m going to need some quick grab-and-go breakfasts I can eat after I scurry home to take a shower and get ready for work.

Unfortunately, Ben wasn’t immune to this illness; he came home from work on Monday with a 100-degree temperature. He battled his way though the week with some strong over-the-counter medication and reported to work every day this week. It pained me to think he was at work and this sick, but it just so happened to be one of the most important weeks of the term and perhaps the whole year; staying home unfortunately wasn’t an option. So, I gave him a tight hug every morning, as if I could will energy and strength into his day, and wished him a kick-butt kind of day before I headed off to work. Fortunately, he faired pretty well and is also almost recovered.

Something that came to me in my fever-induced delirium one night was a realization that I’ve been having a hard time coming up with a regular lunch routine. Now that I’m working full time, I need to bring a lunch every day. This hadn’t been too much of a problem in my pre-gluten-free days because I was always content with a sandwich. In fact, not just content - I actually really like sandwiches. But, it becomes more difficult now to always have gluten-free bread on hand or lunch meat that isn’t potentially processed with gluten.

A good friend of mine, who had studied fisheries and wildlife in college, told me once that deer are animals of extreme routine. They walk the same path ever day, day after day. A lot of people in his classes thought this was pretty humorous – imagine an animal that just travels the same path day after day! Only it takes a little bit of self-awareness to see that humans are the same way – we take the same route to work every day, we sit in the same office with the same desk with the same people, we take the same route home, and we usually have some sort of evening routine that involves eating dinner and ‘relaxing’ until we go to bed.

I’m pretty sure one of the problems with adjusting to the gluten-free lifestyle is that it upsets our routine – especially if our routine involves stopping by the local bakery on our way to work for our morning scone. Or, if we think of taking a sandwich to work every day as the epitome of an easy lunch. In fact, I used to take two slices of peanut butter toast to work with me in the morning for breakfast. I toasted the bread, spread on the peanut butter, and packed the pieces PB-sides together in a baggie and tossed them in with my lunch. When I got to work, I filled my mug with coffee, sat down at my desk with my toast and started my day. Now that bread requires more work, planning, and expense in order to have it around, that routine doesn’t feel as comfortable. I have to come up with a different routine, especially for lunches. I think it is key to create a NEW routine if we are to fully adjust, and not necessarily a replacement routine (e.g., substituting gluten-free bread for regular bread).

My mind keeps coming back to this idea of Bento – which, after a bit of online research, I’ve discovered is just a fancy way of saying “boxed lunch.” But, I think one of the underlying themes in a Bento lunch is including various bites of food. For example, a Bento lunch could consist of: two hard boiled eggs, some cooked rice, slices of apples, and cooked Brussels sprouts. Each part corresponds with a particular nutritional need, but the parts don’t necessarily go together, like in a salad or stir-fry. It sort of removes cultural convention of what constitutes a meal.

Not that I’m much of a slave to convention, mind you. I went through a phase when I ate nothing but a pile of green beans for lunch and loved every minute of it. In fact, I think that removing cultural convention from our meal-planning helps us gluten-free-ers eat without feeling like we need to be ‘normal’ in some way or that our food needs to ‘look’ like everyone else’s. And, our American cultural norms around eating are anything but healthy anyway!

What can I take for lunch that requires little preparation time and can be found at any grocery store? Does anyone have any ideas or good standbys? Do any of you do Bento?

These are the muffins I made today – tart cherries with almonds and coconut – and they turned out pretty darn delicious. I had purchased a couple of cans of OregoN tart pie cherries the other day at the grocery store on a whim (truth be told, they were ‘reduced for quick sale’ and I have been eyeing those OregoN berries in a can for some time now), thinking I would come up with a great way to use them. I have another can left and I might make some sort of tartlets with them.

Cherry-coconut muffins

The OregoN Cherries come packed in water, which ends up becoming cherry-flavored water, so I used this water as part of the liquid in the muffins (hey, why not?). So, depending on just how much water is in the can you purchase, you may need to adjust the additional water accordingly. Outside of the brown rice flour, I used some good, high fiber and high-nutrient flours to up the nutritional value of these muffins, but you could definitely do some substituting based on what you have on hand. For a run-down about how different flours function in baked goods, go here.

1 cup brown rice flour

¾ cup sorghum flour

¼ cup tapioca flour

¼ cup teff flour

¼ cup coconut flour

2 tsp baking powder

¾ tsp xanthan gum

2 tsp cinnamon

1 egg

¼ cup olive oil (or melted butter)

¼ cup honey or agave nectar

½ - ¾ cup water

1 can OregoN tart pie cherries, with liquid

1 cup almonds, coarsely chopped (or crushed in a plastic bag with a heavy-bottomed mug)

½ cup wide-ribbon coconut (unsweetened)

Heat your almonds and coconut in a skillet over medium heat until toasted and fragrant. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, blend your dry ingredients together. In a small mixing bowl, beat your egg with the oil, honey, and water.

Stir the wet ingredients into the flour mixture. Add the can of cherries and the almond/coconut mixture and mix well.

Spoon into prepared muffin tins (makes 12 muffins) and bake at 350F for about 25 minutes. Allow to cool for a few minutes before removing from pan.