Monday, February 22, 2010

A little food for thought

“It is a very safe space for you isn’t it?”  Ben asked after I finished explaining how quickly time passes while I’m at the gym.

“It’s like I just get a run in and start with some weights, and before I know it, it’s already been over an hour and I need to head to the showers,” I had said.  I thought about his question for a moment and his use of the words ‘safe space.’  I quickly understood he didn’t literally mean that the space literally felt free from physical threat or danger, but rather that it was a place I felt comfortable and competent.

“Yes,” I replied. 

For him, the gym is a very intimidating space, where he is too aware of the people around him who might be watching and judging; he is unsure of how he should dress or how to operate a treadmill.  For me, it’s a place where I feel strong, where I focus on things I’m good at, and where everything else sort of goes away.   

When I complete a challenging workout and my body feels rubbery and drenched in sweat, I feel like I can take on the world.  It’s just what I need when other parts of my life feel out of control or particularly stressful. 

This, of course, got me thinking about places where we feel competent and how we move through these spaces in the course of our day and what this does to our psychological well-being.  Feeling competent is one thing – it makes us feel good about our selves, provides a feeling of self-efficacy in that domain, and gives us a boost of energy.  But what happens when we feel so competent in a space that we feel bored?  It would seem that in order for us to continue to feel engaged and energized in a space, there needs to be a certain element of challenge, to keep us from feeling like our activity (job, hobby, etc) is too easy and therefore not really worth much…and thus reducing our sense of accomplishment and self-esteem.

It reminded me of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (“Mike” to those who know him) was getting at when he conceptualized his idea of “flow” – which is what you experience when you are participating in an activity that balances skill and challenge, and time seems to cease to exist.  Everything else falls away in favor of your focus on the task at hand.  

Although these flow experiences require a bit of up-front energy (think of what it feels like to drag yourself to the gym instead of staying at home on the couch), participating in them results in feeling energized.  Though I had always thought Mike’s concept of flow was a remarkably astute observation of human motivation and productivity, it began to occur to me that maybe it is indeed at the crux of happiness – that engaging in activities that offer just enough challenge to feel somewhat difficult, yet we feel competent enough to try, elevates our mood and provides a sense of enjoyment.

For example, I feel competent at the gym because I’ve had a lot of experience with running, rowing, and weight-training.  I have little trouble logging a four- or five-mile run on any given day and this makes me feel good… but not for long.   

It gets boring.   

So, then I change it up and add inclines (if I’m on a treadmill – or, change outdoor routes if outside) and speed changes.  I add weight to my reps or reps to my sets.  I continually up the ante, to keep feeling challenged, and my lust for the activity flourishes. 

Similarly, being gluten free has forced me to become pretty competent in the kitchen (talk about a challenge at first – whew!).  Periodically, though, I get bored.  Bored of the same cookie recipe, bored of the same meals.   

So, I up the ante; I buy meat I’ve never cooked with before, or I experiment with a spice I’ve never tried.  I wonder if I could pull off a better gluten free pie crust.  With a challenge in front of me, I can come home from a full day of work and an hour at the gym and still feel energetic enough to stand over the counter and chop vegetables. 

I've noticed that doing this keeps me feeling challenged and interested.  In turn, I feel competent and self-confident.

The funny thing about flow, though, is that the process is cyclical.  It seems that competence and skill and energy are all so intertwined as to feel like the question of the chicken and the egg – which one comes first?  They are so dependent on one another that you could find yourself in a delicious feed-back loop of challenge-competence-energy.  On the other hand, if you find yourself in a space where you are seriously lacking in any of these, figuring out how to jump into the loop can seem daunting, doesn’t it?    

If you aren’t experienced with baking, for example, starting the gluten free diet and suddenly being faced with baking your own gluten free baked goods can seem especially foreign.  Maybe you don’t even own measuring cups or a muffin tin.  (As a side – this can be a blessing actually, because then you aren’t faced with donating or otherwise getting rid of your plastic or silicone bake-ware previously contaminated with gluteny flours).   As you set out to bake some gluten free muffins, the balance between challenge and competence might feel horribly weighted towards the challenge side of the scale – almost enough so that you don’t even want to start.   You feel an unnecessary amount of trepidation for the task in front of you; wondering if you have all the supplies you will need, wondering weather there are things about baking (and baking gluten free) that you don’t know you don’t know.

These situations seem to require the most amount of up-front energy to start. 
Once you’ve had a few good and bad experiences under your belt, however, your sense of competency grows, and you find yourself excited to bake a batch of muffins you know will turn out well.  Then, you feel enough mastery over muffins to want to move on to pie crusts.

It seems to make sense.  As we move through our day, into various spaces and activities, the more activities we undertake that contain an appropriate balance of challenge and skill, the more opportunity we have to feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments.  Understandably, we will encounter a number of situations where the challenge feels a little outside of our ability, but if we muster through these difficult situations, as uncomfortable as they might seem, we might turn these activities into equally safe spaces in the future.  
Just a little food for thought :) 

P.S. The picture at the top is one I took at the Olympic ruins in Greece - it's the archway leading into the auditorium; I imagine Olympic athletes all vary slightly in the balance between challenge and skill they feel upon entering competition.  

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sausage and vegetable cassoulet

Let’s mark the day – February 16th

Tuesday was the first day of 2010 that I got to run outside sans long pants, sans fleece.  In fact, I was in running shorts and a t-shirt. 

Though purple crocuses are starting to pop up along the sidewalks in Portland, I felt like I needed to pinch myself this week when I realized it was more than pleasant enough for an easy outdoor run.  While on said run, I noticed pink cherry blossoms starting to bloom along the waterfront. 

The signs of spring in Portland are already here.

It still seems strange to this Minnesota gal to think in February that the season of warm, hearty soups and stews will soon be over.  Scenes like the one above, a picture I took on a recent snowshoeing trip on Mt. Hood, will be a distant memory – at least, until next year.

But, we’re not quite there yet.  There’s still time to enjoy some heavy, warming bowls of foodie goodness.

Like this cassoulet – one of my favorite dishes.  It’s not quite as heavy as a thick, meaty stew, but it’s certainly hearty and very easy to throw together.

Sausage and vegetable cassoulet
This isn’t really a true cassoulet, which are usually baked in a pot with lots of meat pieces in the oven – they are usually much heavier.  I like the simplicity of this one.  I also like to take it off the heat while the veggies are still al dente (just a bit of bite left).  Just personal preference.

4 pork or chicken kielbasa sausages, sliced
4 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 onion, diced
4 or 5 stalks celery, sliced
3 or 4 small zucchini, sliced
1 can white navy or cannellini beans
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 tsp dried basil
Freshly grated black pepper
Crème fraiche

In a large pot or dutch oven, sauté onions, carrots, and celery with a few tablespoons olive oil over medium heat until they begin to soften.

Add sausages, zucchini, garlic, and basil, continuing to stir.  Add the can of beans, with liquid and stir to mix.  Cover and let simmer for about 15 minutes.

Garnish each bowl with a dollop of crème fraiche and freshly grated black pepper.


Monday, February 15, 2010


Ben has been bugging me for months – maybe even an entire year – to attempt a gluten free donut recipe.  More than that, he has been not-so-subtly suggesting a lemon-curd-filled gluten free donut. 

This weekend, I finally attempted to make his dream a reality. 

I failed miserably.

I thought about taking a picture of the pale, flat, bland little discs on the baking sheet to share with you all how miserable it really was, but couldn’t even be bothered with it.  Despite the resounding failure, however, Ben was appreciative of the attempt and even ate a number of them dipped in the lemon curd we made.

“They taste like bland little cookies,” he said, as he made a lemon-curd sandwich with two of them.  I love how Ben can always take lemons and make…lemon sandwiches. 

I ate my usual rice cakes with sunbutter for breakfast that morning and we tossed the remaining batter in the trash, moving on with our day.  Though the donuts won that morning, I will certainly try again, until I get it right.  

Our day took us to the Hawthorne district, where I purchased the print pictured at the top of this post.  We were at Greg's - recently re-opened almost a month after his passing.  He was truly one of Portland's most amazing people (those of you who knew him know) and Ben and I were incredibly saddened to hear of his death.  I'm not sure he really knew how many lives he touched, even by some of the simple things he did every day, but Ben and I knew him for a scarce 5 months and we have felt a loss of someone we really admired. 

We noticed his shop was open, so we had to go in.  A number of Nikki McClure's prints resonated with me, but this one did especially.  I often speak of how enjoyable the process is in accomplishing any task, but mostly with cooking and baking.

The process of coming up with a fantastic gluten free donut recipe, is, believe it or not, enjoyable.  It's a challenge.

So, the fact that this print depicts someone pitting cherries (which are lush and delicious, but pitting them can be tedious) with the word "process" - it really spoke to me.  It also reminds me to slow down, to appreciate the little daily things that might appear tedious, and to think about how these small things matter.  Similar to the all the ways Greg touched the Portland community just by doing and being what he did every day.

This will go up in my kitchen.

Though we don’t really “do” the whole Valentine's day thing, I thought it was a good enough excuse as any for us to share a nice red wine and some of our favorite small-bites foods.  Taking center stage last night was our bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with toasted almonds and feta cheese. 

I know I might get sick of these if I ate them every day, but it would probably take years.  They are impossibly delicious – the perfect blend of salty and sweet, especially with the good, thick-sliced bacon and big, juicy medjool dates we used.   

These definitely turned out – no more experimenting required!

By the way, that is Dewey in the background - sitting up at the table, grumpy because there is no bacon for him :)

Bacon-wrapped dates
I bought a brick of feta cheese, which is easier to use because you can cut narrow bricks to stuff into the dates.  Also, the meatier (less fatty) your bacon, the easier it is to put these together and the better they hold up.  You can also use chevre and pipe it in using a plastic bag – just stuff the cheese into the corner of the bag and snip the tip with a scissors and squeeze into the date after you stuff in the almond.

10 medjool dates
5 slices thick-sliced bacon
10 toasted almonds
Feta cheese

To remove pits from the dates: using a long, narrow object (I used an orange peeler), push through the end opposite of where the date was attached to the stem and push the pit all the way out of the other end.  Remove all of the pits and create a pile of your dates.

Slice 10 small, narrow bricks of feta cheese and pile these pieces next to your dates.
Place your almonds next to your cheese and dates.  Then place 10 toothpicks there as well.

On a separate place, slice the bacon slices in half, so you now have 10 shorter slices of bacon.

Stuff each date with a piece of the cheese, then an almond.  Then roll the date up in a bacon slice and secure with a tooth pick.  Repeat for all dates.

Place dates in a baking dish or a sheet pan with edges and bake at 425F to 450F for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until bacon is cooked through.  Higher temperatures will obviously cook the works faster and will make your bacon crisp up more.

Let them cool a bit before you bit into them, because the cheese will be very hot! 


Friday, February 12, 2010

Toasted coconut and chocolate cookies

I had itchy hands yesterday, both literally and figuratively.  

In the literal sense, I recently had a flare-up of my DH (Dermatitis Herpetiformis), which many of you are likely familiar with.  For those of you who don’t know, DH is a skin condition experienced by approximately 25% of all celiacs that produces itchy blistery bumps, most typically on your hands, knees, elbows, and ankles.  And, according to Dr. Peter Green (Director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia), if you have DH, you have Celiac disease.  

There are a number of photos of patients with this rash online and many look beyond worse than I’ve ever had it.  At its best, I’ve had a random bump here and there that doesn’t really itch that much.  At its worst, I’ve had close to 10 bumps on each ankle, irritated and blistery and itchy something furious.  It was at its worst for me when I was healing, about 4 or 5 months after starting the gluten free diet.  I’ve read conflicting information about whether these bumps go away completely on the gluten free diet, and how long that takes.  Some say the bumps often go away on a completely gluten free diet (this might take up to 2 years) and flare-ups mean the re-introduction of gluten into the system.  Others say someone with DH will mostly rid themselves of the rash when on a gluten free diet, but will have rash flare-ups throughout one’s life and it isn’t connected at all to whether that person ingested gluten or not. 

I’ve recently had a particularly bad flare-up on my hands and am left wondering – did I ingest gluten accidentally somewhere?  And, if so, was it recently or does it take some weeks for these symptoms to appear?  Alternatively, I’m coming up on my two-year gluten-free anniversary in March, so my body might still be riding itself of toxins…  Or, these flare-ups are just going to be a fact of my life…  Or, I could be reacting to something else?  All of this feels very frustrating.  The itching is one thing (mine aren’t that itchy), but they also leave scars. 

The best I can do in this situation is to not drive myself nuts looking for answers, but rather to monitor my diet and monitor my symptoms.  If there is something to know there, then I will find it. 

In the figurative sense, my hands were itching to get into the kitchen, to mix up some dough, to create and experiment. I haven’t baked anything in a while and the last batch of cookies I did were from a mix. 

I needed to bake cookies.

One of my favorite flavor combinations for sweet things is coconut with chocolate (well, that and peanut butter and chocolate).  Ben doesn’t care much for chocolate at all, but this weekend, I will finally be giving Ben something he has been waiting for for some time now – gluten free lemon filled donuts!  So, since we are baking something especially for him this weekend, I decided these cookies would be all about me.  Nice how that works, isn’t it? 

And a cookie was born.

Toasted coconut and chocolate cookies

I have been having a lot of good luck lately with quinoa flour, so I thought I’d continue experimenting with it here – with great results!  The texture of these are awesome.  They are not grainy and they don’t get soggy after a day or so (which happens with some gluten free baked goods, I’ve noticed).  Keep them in an airtight container on the counter or freeze ‘em for later.

1 cup quinoa flour
1 cup tapioca flour
½ cup coconut flour
1 tsp xanthan gum
1 cup butter
1 cup raw sugar (turbinado)
1 tsp baking soda
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

1 cup toasted coconut
1 cup chocolate chips

Mix flours and xanthan gum in a small bowl to create one homogeneous flour mix. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until well blended.  Add eggs and vanilla and stir until incorporated. Add flour mixture, about a third at a time, until it is all mixed in.  Then stir in your coconut and chocolate chips.  The mixture will be quite tough at this point, and you might want to use your hands.

Roll dough into golf-ball sized balls and place on a plate so they are all ready to go.  

Place the balls about an inch or so apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet and flatten with your hand or the back of a spatula to about 1/5 inch thick.  Bake at 350F for about 12-15 minutes. 

Allow to cool on wire rack.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Plumbing projects and The Cravings Place cookie mix

Although I didn't truly mean to, I did stew over that last recipe for days... A number of weeks, in fact (yowza). But it was that good...

In the meantime, we've been retreating to hearty standbys - chicken and vegetable soup, stuffed acorn squash, and risottos.  I pulled together a little home-made marinara sauce (with freshly grated nutmeg - as the Germans do) and we enjoyed a number of nights with buffalo meatball and vegetable spaghetti. Anything full and warming that combines meat and vegetables in one warm bowl was definitely what we wanted on the menu.

This past weekend, inspired by a friend and our trip to Otto's Sausage Kitchen the weekend prior, I made potato-leek soup with creme fraiche and bacon (if you live in the area - go there! for their sausages smoked on site, and then buy some fresh meats to take home with you.  All of their sausages are gluten free!).  Long story short, friend took home some bacon (and later declared that if she disappeared it was because she had eloped with said bacon) to add to her potato leek soup she planned on cooking up later that day. I heard her version was delicious, right down to the last drop.  Mine?  Yes.

And, you might be surprised to know that this foodie knows her way around other parts of the kitchen as well; I installed our drinking water faucet and under-sink filtration system all by myself (and even in-between dragging rolls of insulation upstairs and pushing them through the attic access to Ben, who was installing an attic blanket!). 

Beautiful!  And it works just as good as it looks.  (and, by the way, I installed the sponge-holder you see there the day before - it keeps the sponges out of the way and allows them to dry quickly, reducing stink build-up).


After my plumbing task was done, I had to try out a cookie mix given to me by a co-worker.  Although the gluten free mixes cut baking time down considerably, I don't buy them often because, 1) my cookies usually turn out better, and 2) when I bake, I actually enjoy the process of baking - blending the flours, creaming butter and sugar, and seeing the dough take shape - mixes take that away from me.  

However, when time is of the essence and I am 100% out of any form of sweet treat, baking cookies from a mix is better than no sweets around when a craving hits. So, I am known to have one lurking in my pantry from time to time (maybe 2 or 3x a year?), but many have been disappointing; I was curious to know if The Cravings Place lived up to its name.

First of all, putting the ingredients together couldn't have been easier.  I did a test batch to see how they spread and quickly realized they didn't.  So, I rolled the dough into balls and flattened with my hands.  They don't spread or flatten beyond where you physically shape them, so keep that in mind.

Out of the oven, they are amazing.  Very delicious, with only a hint of grainy mouth-feel.  The next day, after hanging out on the counter in a plastic container, they are still pretty good and hold their own fine, but pretty grainy.  But, they don't change much after a number of days on that same counter (which is a fine feat, as many of us gluten-free-ers know).  Overall, as far as processed gluten free cookies go, they're up there among the best.  Compared to home-made?  Definitely a notch below. 

I would definitely go to these again in a pinch, and feel confident to try their other mixes.  They are all also egg free, dairy free, and nut free.