Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The simple act of asking

Do you remember watching Sesame Street as a child, with Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch? I have one very vivid memory of watching Sesame Street when I was 4 years old. My mom would sometimes let me watch Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (they aired back-to-back) before she took me to preschool. I am sitting downstairs in the family room, on the floor, and I have a plate with some ritz crackers and a spoonful of peanut butter in front of me. This was one of my favorite lunches at that age, and I remember happily spreading peanut butter on each cracker I ate, watching the characters sing and dance on the screen (apparently I have always liked eating snack-like meals). My only concern in the world at that moment was if I would have peanut butter left over and no crackers to spread it on or if I would end up with crackers left over, but no peanut butter. Well, that, and wondering why all the cookies the cookie monster ‘ate’ actually ended up as crumbs that flew out of his mouth onto the floor.

Do you also remember how each episode was themed with a particular ‘letter of the day’? Well, today’s post is kind of like that, with the theme of ‘the importance of asking for what you need.’ It’s something Sesame Street should have taught us, along with our ABCs.

Ben spends his days helping his students identify what they need to be successful in school – a quiet place to study? Help with childcare? Access to a computer? Often, he helps them figure out what they need to be successful in some pretty stressful circumstances. In these instances, the students not only have to identify what they need, but go to their professor or their significant other or their academic advisor…and ask for help. The students may not end up getting what they need, but the simple act of vocalizing what they need at least gives others the opportunity to help. Since no one is a mind reader, staying silent almost guarantees the students will not get what they need to be successful.

This concept may sound simple, but take some time to observe and you will see how asking for what you need, or the lack of asking for what you need, plays a large role in your own life, especially in relationships. Even though we know what the other is thinking almost 99% of the time, this is one of the mantras of my relationship with Ben. We agree that we cannot do for the other what they want unless they ask and we agree to do our best to provide what the other asks for. It keeps our communication open and prevents a lot of misunderstandings.

We all come into situations with expectations. We have expectations of how the other will behave, what the interaction will look like, and what the outcomes will be. Knowing the other person’s expectations makes interactions go more smoothly. Asking for what you need to accomplish a task or successfully navigate an interaction helps the other person understand your expectations and your position. Hopefully, others will return the favor, asking for what they need so that you might understand their situation.

I certainly saw this play out in grand fashion the past couple of weeks…both in how not asking for what you need can create unnecessarily stressful situations for everyone involved and in how asking for what you need can make potentially stressful situations ridiculously easy. Part of the reason why I have been so absent from this site lately is because of misunderstood needs, because of people not asking me for what they needed, which ended up creating a chain of events that left me rushing to meet deadlines for my dissertation submission.

On the positive side of things, Ben and I took a mini-vacation to the Willamette Valley this past weekend. We enjoyed wine tasting, olive oil tasting, and visiting some small towns along the way. We stopped at the Red Ridge Farms, tasted and purchased one of the best wines we’ve tasted – the Cotttonwood winery’s 2004 Syrah.

Ben walked right up to the appetizer table and asked the attendant, “Is that salami gluten free?” She didn’t skip a beat and went to the refrigerator to check the package – we recognized the brand right away as one we have found to be gluten free and knew it was okay. I was surprised at her recognition of the words, “gluten free,” because I’ve had some pretty interesting encounters with unknowledgeable servers and restaurant staff. The thing is, we could have wondered about it or just avoided it entirely, but the simple 5-word question got us the information we needed.

Later on, in McMinnville, we had a similar, yet even better, experience. At La Rambla, where we chose to eat dinner, we explained to our server I had a gluten intolerance issue and we needed to ask lots of questions about the menu options. She explained that both her husband and daughter were celiac positive, so she knew exactly how to help us. Imagine that! La Rambla is a Spanish Tapas restaurant in old-town McMinnville and if you’ve been paying attention, you are probably not surprised we would be excited to eat at a place like this. We ate the mixed plate with olives, cheese, Serrano ham, bacon-wrapped dates, and quince paste. We had the garlic prawns and sautéed spinach with currants, pine nuts, and garlic. It was all delicious. Well, actually, Ben thinks I my cooking is better…and I certainly shouldn’t argue with him about that, now should I!

At home again, we’ve been enjoying the abundance of fresh asparagus all spring – cooking it in a myriad of ways. Mostly, since we just really like the taste of it, we sauté it with a little bit of olive oil and eat an entire bunch between us at dinner. Our latest concoction – using a bit of crème fraiche for a sauce, with fresh lemon juice, garlic, and capers. This sauce comes together quickly and makes everything taste decadent.

To make the Lemon Garlic Cream sauce:

Dollop a few spoon-fulls of crème fraiche into a small sauce pan and add a teaspoon of tapioca flour. Mix well. Turn the heat on medium-low and stir to thicken. Stir in some fresh lemon juice, a clove or two of minced garlic, and a tablespoon capers.

I’ve done this sauce with and without tapioca to thicken it. It is delicious both ways, but should be cooled a bit if you don’t use tapioca so that it doesn’t run all over the plate!

Spoon the sauce over the asparagus. Try serving with chicken seasoned with lavender, rosemary, and sea salt.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dulcet - A gluten-free product review

How excited was I when the good people over at Dulcet contacted me to 1) let me know the majority of their line of condiments, dressings, and spice mixes are gluten free, and 2) they would be happy to let me try a few samples? (I know, if only all questions were this easy!)

Dulcet makes several types of spice mixes, salad dressings, mustards, marinades, and (their newest addition) ketchups. All of their products, except for their Asian sauce, are gluten free. They not only have their products in several stores, they have a stand at the Portland Farmer’s Market every Saturday. I had, of course, seen them at the market, but made the silly assumption their products, like so many dressings, contained gluten. If there is something I’m learning these days, it’s to not make assumptions – in doing so, I may miss out on some delicious food! In addition to this post, check out their beautiful website where they list the numerous awards their products have received. Beware, though, it will make you hungry!

The package of samples I received included Curry Ketchup, Moroccan Cooking and Spice Rub, Madras Curry Mustard, and Tangy and Peppery Moroccan Sauce and Marinade. I was really excited to try them and for our first use of them, we stayed fairly well “in the lines” in order to get a good feel for how they taste, but I also offer suggestions on how they might be used when you want to get creative.

The first one we tried was the Moroccan Cooking and Spice Rub. It came with a recipe for roasted carrots and we happened to have a number of large carrots on hand, so I cut them up into sticks and tossed them with some olive oil and a few tablespoons of the spice mix. I roasted them at 375F for about 35 minutes.

The carrots were delicious. The spice is somewhat like a curry and has a bit of a spicy kick. I can imagine this spice going really well with a variety of things in addition to roasted vegetables – pork roast, grilled chicken, sautéed vegetables in coconut milk, or even mixed in with scrambled eggs before cooking. We are definitely fans of this spice mix and are excited at all of the new cooking possibilities it opens up!

The next products we tried were the Curry Ketchup and the Madras Curry Mustard. Here’s the German girl in me again, but when I saw them, I immediately thought, “Bratwurst.” Around the Köln (Cologne) area of Germany, a really common street vendor dish is curry-wurst, which is made with sliced bratwurst cooked in curry ketchup and served over French fries. We made sweet-potato fries in the oven and cooked up some German-style bratwursts to eat with our Curry Ketchup and Madras Curry Mustard. I have to admit I am not much of a mustard fan, but I enjoyed both the Ketchup and the Mustard. The ketchup is thick and the flavor is surprisingly well-balanced. Ben is a mustard fan and could not get enough of this mustard, but didn’t care too much for the ketchup. And, again, these products could be used for so much more than simply condiments! I can see brushing the mustard on various meats while grilling or adding a bit to your potato salad for a different twist.

Last, but certainly not least, we tried the Tangy and Peppery Moroccan Sauce and Marinade. I sautéed some zucchini, broccoli raab, mushroom, and onion in a pan. As the vegetables started to soften, I poured in just enough of the sauce to cover the vegetables, turned the heat to low, covered them up and let them simmer for about 10 minutes. The package directions say to simply add to the vegetables and serve, but I felt the simmering time would allow the vegetables to absorb some of the flavor of the sauce. I served the vegetables over cooked brown rice. As the name suggests, this sauce is pretty tangy, but also pretty sweet. We really liked it, and will use it again, but it tastes a bit too sweet for my palate (keep in mind, though, that I almost never use sugar in my cooking and use less sugar in my baking than most folks and Ben didn’t think it was too sweet at all). This sauce would be a great marinade for chicken or as a cooking sauce for fish. Tonight, for example, I will be cooking foil packets in the oven with Tilapia, zucchini, and this sauce.

I am so glad companies like Dulcet are making natural products, which are naturally gluten free, and are amazingly delicious! Go ahead, try them out, and expand your spice and sauce horizons.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Gluten free butternut squash risotto with andouille

It seems almost too good to be true, but I passed my dissertation defense on Friday. That thing, that graduate education, which has been a part of my life for the past five years, is over.

No more worrying about syllabi (neither those from which I’m learning or from which I’m teaching), no more studying for exams, no more wondering whether I’ll finish, no more no more no more.

You would think I’d be bouncing off the walls, but my excitement is tempered with a sense of loss as well. I’ve been a student for 21 years of my short life and that student identity is now, suddenly, ceasing to exist. I have to incorporate a new identity – that of doctor – when I don’t really feel any more qualified to do that today than I did last week. Which forces me to ask - did I get out of my graduate education what I wanted?

I tell myself, even as tumultuous as my graduate experience was, I did learn a lot. And that knowledge will present itself in the work that I do, whether I can explicitly point to it or not.

Ben and I celebrated Friday night by going out for gluten free pizza and beer – which we enjoyed at an outside table in the sun. I was exhausted and hadn’t eaten since lunch; it felt so good to relax. The rest of the weekend I was in mostly a haze, though I visited with some friends and Ben and I familiarized ourselves with some Portland neighborhoods (house-hunting research!).

I feel like I’m finally getting my sea legs under me after this weekend and I can actually think about other things…

Portland has been rainy and cool the past few days. Drizzle mixed with powerful down-pours and a shot of thunder thrown in. Monday was the perfect day to make warm comfort food, though most of the rest of the country is gearing up to warmer weather. I had a small package of frozen cooked squash in my freezer and decided now was the time to use it - before Portland, too, is too warm to be thinking about winter squash.

This risotto came together beautifully. I kept it simple and if you have frozen squash available to you (sometimes it’s hard to find at the grocery store), it’s a cinch to make. I used freshly grated nutmeg because, well, it smells and tastes delicious, but you can use the pre-ground version if that is what you have. The sweetness of the cinnamon and nutmeg really complements the spice of the sausage – and all that vitamin A? This dish is delicious AND healthy. It is also dairy free, if you omit the feta cheese.

Butternut squash risotto with andouille sausage:

4 cups chicken broth

1 cup aborio rice

½ large onion, diced

1 small package cooked butternut squash (or about 2 cups)

2 andouille sausages, sliced

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Feta cheese for garnish (optional)

Toasted pine nuts for garnish (optional)

Bring your broth to a simmer in a sauce pan over medium-low heat. Keep it simmering at this heat until you have used it all.

In your large stockpot, heat a good dose of olive oil over medium heat (it should well-cover the bottom of your pot) and saute your onions for a few minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the rice and stir for a few minutes, until the edges of the rice become translucent.

Add a ladle-full of broth and stir until all of the broth is absorbed. Add another ladle-full and stir until absorbed. If too much broth is evaporating, i.e., your mixture is rapidly boiling and/or you have lots of steam coming from the rice mixture, turn your heat down a touch. Continue adding ladle-fulls of broth and stirring until all of the broth is used, or until the rice is tender, with just a tiniest bit of bite left. Add your spices, the sausage, and the butternut squash and stir well.

Cover and remove from heat. Let the dish rest for about 5-10 minutes.

Serve with feta cheese and toasted pine nuts sprinkled on top.