Thursday, January 20, 2011

Whole grain muffins, gluten free and dairy free

Maybe it’s the cold weather and carb-cravings, the need to feel warmth in the belly when warmth from the sun on the face has long been absent, but I found myself day-dreaming about muffins on the train home Tuesday night.  I got lost in it, like one gets lost in a complex novel.  Time ceased to exist.

By the time I arrived home, I had a recipe nearly worked out in my head.

The added challenge would be making these xanthan gum and guar gum free.  But, as a second step from cookies, muffins are a taking it to that next level of difficulty, but still within a range of ease.  To start, I began with something savory, something akin to corn muffins.  Something that would go deliciously with the chicken and vegetable soup I had made the previous evening.

I started with amaranth flour and ended with a good helping of maple syrup. 

Even as I spooned the batter into the muffin cups, I knew.  The smell was sweet, familiar in a distant-memory sort of way.  The texture and consistency was perfect.  As they baked, the house filled with a warm golden aroma and the tops cracked beautifully, and I knew.

I am definitely on to something.

By the way, it seems I’m in good company in my gluten free muffin daydreams.

Whole grain muffins
These have a wonderful flavor and a nice medium-weight moist crumb.   Although they are perfect as a dinner side, I can also imagine them split open and buttered with a drizzle of honey or a spoonful of jam alongside scrambled eggs at breakfast. 
1 cup sorghum flour
¾ cup amaranth flour
¾ cup tapioca flour
½ tsp baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 eggs
1/3 cup oil
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
¾ tsp salt
½ cup water

Heat oven to 350F.  Line a standard muffin pan (12 wells) with paper muffin liners.

In a large bowl, blend all dry ingredients to make one homogeneous flour mixture.  Make a well in the center of the flour mixture.

In a medium bowl, whisk wet ingredients together.  Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture and stir just until incorporated.

Spoon the batter into the muffin liners, each will be 2/3 to 3/4 full.

Bake on center rack for 20 to 25 minutes. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

French cut green beans with prosciutto

I have really been digging the simplicity of vegetables lately. 

It feels good after the December days of indulgence, to eat very simply.  A pile of green beans, some cooked brown rice, and pieces of cooked chicken breast, seasoned with only a little salt and pepper – this has been my lunch for the past two weeks. 

Last weekend, I took those ingredients, threw them in a skillet together with a bit of butter, and sauted them until hot.  I added a bit of thyme and it was perfect.  It felt healthy, simple, and comforting. 

Of course, I’m the kind of person who can eat a pile of vegetables, with a smattering of almonds or sunflower seeds for lunch and be quite content (for a couple of hours anyway!).  I usually eat small meals like this throughout the day.

This weekend, I decided to jazz things up a bit.  I wanted to create something that would stand well on its own as a complete meal, one whose main ingredient is a green vegetable, yet is full of a variety of tastes and textures

Bonus points were awarded for how quickly it comes together – perfect for a week-night meal.

Green beans with prosciutto
I like using the French cut green beans because they are less woody, but you may use tiny or actual French green beans if you can find them (this is a much easier feat when they are in season).  Serve as is, or over a cooked grain.  I liked this served over California brown rice, but would go nicely over cooked quinoa as well.

3.5oz diced prosciutto
1 tablespoon salted butter
15oz can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained and rinsed
12oz bag frozen French cut green beans
1 ½ tsp dried thyme
Sliced toasted almonds

Mustard vinaigrette
Whisk together in a small bowl:
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon ground mustard

Melt butter over medium-high heat in a large skillet or dutch oven.  Add diced prosciutto and sauté for a few minutes, until meat begins to darken in color.  Then, add the garbanzo beans and sauté a few minutes more.  You want the beans good and hot, beginning to soften and turn color.  Add the green beans and thyme.  Cook until green beans turn bright green, stirring frequently, and then drizzle 3-4 teaspoons of the mustard vinaigrette into the pan. Continue to stir about a minute or two more.

Remove the pan from heat and pour beans onto a serving plate, so they don’t cook much longer.  Sprinkle toasted sliced almonds on top and serve with remaining vinaigrette on the side.  

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Gums be gone - gum free, gluten free chocolate chip cookies

I began this gluten-free life very wary of any ingredients I didn’t recognize as food.  This wasn’t anything particularly new for me, although playing investigator each time I picked up a product at the grocery store, looking for ‘hidden’ gluten, did make my disdain for unpronounceable ingredient lists even more pronounced.  

My motto has always been something along the lines of “real is always better than manufactured, even if it is higher in fat, sugar, cholesterol, or whatever is the current media’s ‘evil’ food.” 

Next time you are in the grocery store, flip over a container of low calorie, low fat ice cream.  Then flip over a container of real ice cream, something like Haagen Dazs ‘five.'  Compare the nutritional value and the ingredient list.  Pound for pound, I’ll take the full-fat variety.

You can imagine my reluctance, then, when I began this gluten-free life and I discovered words like “xanthan gum” and “guar gum” were common in many gluten free recipes.  Not only would I be eating these non-foods, I would have to stock them in my kitchen!  

The horrors

Eventually I gave in, thinking, not unlike a teenage girl, “Everybody else is using them, I guess they must be okay.”  But, I've continued to somewhat cringe each time I use the xanthan gum, and I have always used less in my own baking than typical recipes. "Just enough to keep it all from crumbling," is how I think of it.

Then, Shauna (a.k.a., the Gluten Free Girl) brings up this topic on Facebook – do others suffer from stomach issues when eating xanthan or guar gums?  The response was overwhelmingly, “yes!!”  As I read through the responses, the light-bulb that turned on in my brain was so bright you could have seen it from space

This might be why I can’t tolerate the majority of gluten-free prepackaged products and mixes.  I could never figure out why I developed stomach upset from eating these products, when the ingredient lists contained all things I would use in my own kitchen.  I had previously determined the company must use more sugar or yeast or something that I don’t do at home.  Now I wonder if it is because the company uses more xanthan gum than I would at home.

Shauna claims we don’t need gums at all to hold our baked goods together and that the notion of using gums is antiquated, coming from a time when rice flour and potato starch were THE options for gluten free baking.  Now that we have other wonderful flours, such as teff, millet, quinoa, and amaranth, we can better bind our batter without gums (say that three times fast!).  

Do I feel some experimenting coming on?  

I'm not sure if these gums are the real culprit, but I'm excited nonetheless to try to rid my kitchen of them.  So, of course, I've started to test the idea that gluten free baked goods could be successful without them.  I had been tweaking my chocolate chip cookie recipe and decided to add a xanthan gum bake-off.  In one weekend, I created two exact batches of gluten free chocolate chip cookies, one with xanthan gum and one without. 

They looked, felt, and tasted exactly the same!  Even Ben couldn’t tell the difference (though he did want to try more cookies, just to make sure…).

Of course the real test will be breads and muffins, but I have already had some success with these in the past, sans gums, and I’m looking forward to some more experimenting! A big high-five to Shauna for bringing this to our attention!

Gluten free chocolate chip cookies
This recipe is the result of some variation testing on flours and baking agents. The resulting cookie is buttery, crunchy on the edges, and soft inside.  I removed the xanthan gum completely with perfect success.  As always with chocolate chip cookies, use butter that is just soft enough to cream with the sugar (not melted at all).  Also, I use raw sugar in all of my baking and it gives the finished product a lot more flavor than refined sugar.

3/4 cup quinoa flour
1 cup tapioca flour
1/2 cup coconut flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup salted butter
1 cup raw sugar (turbinado)
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
8 oz chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350F.
Mix flours and baking soda in a medium bowl to create one homogeneous flour mixture.

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until well blended.  Stir in eggs and vanilla. Add flour, about a third at a time, stirring until just incorporated.  Add 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 1/2-inch thick (see below).  Bake at 350F for about 15 minutes. 

Place remaining balls of dough in the refrigerator in between batches.

Allow to cool baked cookies on the cookie sheet for a couple of minutes before removing to cool completely on a wire rack.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Internet versus face-to-face interactions - is the Internet enough?

Possibly one of the most memorable pictures from my introduction to psychology course in college was this picture of one of Harlow’s monkeys.  

The poor little baby monkey just looked so desperate, reaching for the bottle attached to one “mother” while clinging to the other “mother,” and it burned an image and an understanding about human nature in my brain: food may be a basic need for survival, but it doesn’t trump comfort from another being

Let me explain.  Harry Harlow conducted a series of experiments in the 1950s and 1960s with infant monkeys, who were taken from their mothers only weeks after birth. In the psychology world, people just refer to them as "Harlow's monkeys."  In the picture you see here, these monkeys were provided two surrogate mothers: a soft, terry-cloth covered mother who did not supply food, and a hard, wire mother who did supply food (the bottle you see pictured).  The infant monkeys clung to the terry cloth mother for comfort and wouldn’t leave, even for food.  When the mothers were within reaching distance, the monkeys would remain holding onto their terry cloth mother and reach for the food on the other mother.  They spent more time with the cuddly mother than with the food-providing mother.

Granted, neither of these mothers were the real thing, but the study suggests there is something about the touch and comfort-giving capability of the terry cloth mother that made her preferred over the purely instrumental need-providing mother.   

Recently, a study reported in Social Indicators Research examined whether Internet communication with friends and family was just as effective as face-to-face interactions in predicting satisfaction with life (or quality of life).   

This reminded me of old Harlow’s monkeys.  Though his work was focused on parenting, it highlighted that there is something more important going on in our relationships than instrumental support; there’s something about interactions with family and friends that provides individuals with comfort.  In fact, since his time, the relationship between social interactions and well-being has been well established and is often referred to as “social support” - is "social support" it still there when this interaction is mediated through the Internet??  Put another way, how important is the nearness to another human being?  Or are the words enough?

If you are reading this blog, you don’t have to be hit over the head with the social expansion of the Internet over the last 5 years; email, instant chat, Facebook, twitter, blogs, and skype all make it seem as though we have never been so connected to family and friends (especially with those living far away) in all history of mankind.  However, is this interaction able to take the place of, or even supplement, seeing loved ones in person, as it pertains to our well-being? 

According to this recent study, it is not enough.  The researchers guess this has something to do with the lack of non-verbal cues, lack of warmth, and the laziness of communication associated with Internet communication.  The internet may make it easier to communicate a message, even tell people things that are close to our hearts, but this is apparently a lot like receiving food from our wire surrogate mothers – very utilitarian, not so comforting.  We need that soft terry cloth of a touch to send our well-being soaring. 

So what do we do in this online-obsessed, social-media crazed world?  You don’t have to eschew those friend requests or instant message pop-up windows, but understand that these mediums perform a certain function for us, and are great at times, but email, chat, or Facebook updates cannot replace real interactions.  Take care to meet face-to-face with those who live near enough to do so and supplement with the Internet as needed.  Remember, the words exchange over the Internet may be important, but they don’t trump the physical comfort of another human being.
For more information:
Lee, P., Leung, L., Lo, V., Xiong, C., Wu, T. (2011). Internet communication versus face-to-face interaction in quality of Life.  Social Indicators Research, 100; 375-389.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dear Grandpa, you'd love this lentil soup

This morning I received a letter from my grandfather, written on the back of a large white envelope in small, black cursive:

I thought about you yesterday as I excitedly checked on the dinner I had prepared and was about to serve, all hot and bubbly in the crock pot.  It looked fantastic.  Underutilized equipment, the crock pot, in my opinion.  It would serve many single men well to learn how to use it.  Your parents were here and I knew everyone would be in for a treat with the stew that I made…

Suddenly, Ben rustled to get out of bed and sleep vanished -- and, so did the letter.  It was all a dream.  It had been so pleasant and so vivid, and I tried desperately to fall back asleep, to re-conjure the image of the letter, to continue reading.  I wanted to know what else my grandfather would have said, if he were alive now.  In just this small snippet of writing, I felt his excitement over food and joy of feeding loved ones.  I imagined what I might say in reply…

Dear Grandpa,
You are very right, the crockpot is sorely underutilized.  Every time I use it I come home to a lovely fragrant house and a hot, perfect meal ready for me, and I wonder why I don’t use it every day.  I think of you often and I wish you could know the life I am living out here in Portland.  Ben and I planted a huge garden last summer, with great success.  You should have seen how tall our cherry tomato plants grew!  I had to trim them every few days to keep them from taking over the house.   The tomatoes themselves were amazingly sweet and juicy.  I’m sending you a picture of just some of our bumper crop (see below).  At the end of the season, we tried your trick of ripening the green ones in a sunny window sill (it worked!) and Ben pickled a great number of the remaining green ones.  By the way, I wish you could have met him; like you he gets acutely excited about certain things.  These pickled tomatoes were one of those things.  He was like a mad scientist figuring out how he would do it.  Grandma has met him and thinks he even looks like you!    

Sending you much love,

I don’t know if my grandpa really ever used a crock pot, but he planted a big garden every year and certainly loved food.  I remember several visits to my grandparents when it would be around noon and my grandfather would still be sipping his coffee and nibbling at his bacon, savoring the morning hours.  He talked animatedly with us between (and sometimes during!) his bites. 
Over the past couple of days, I had been mentally adapting a soup recipe from 101 cookbooks.  I woke up knowing I would make that soup in the crock pot, maybe it would be something like the stew my grandfather had made in my dreams...  

Pork and Lentil soup
I adapted this soup from Heidi’s Lively up yourself lentil soup.  I wanted a different green vegetable and made it a bit heartier by adding pork.  I also changed up the seasonings and garnish.  It’s quick and easy to prepare, then simmers all day in the crock pot.  A good test of any soup – Ben and I still liked it after eating it for three days straight!

1.5 lb piece of pork tenderloin
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 cups water
1 cup dried lentils (I used brown), sorted and rinsed
1 14.5oz can of diced fire-roasted tomatoes (I used Muir Glen)
1 small onion, diced fine
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 garlic cloves, minced or diced fine
2 cups tiny green beans, cooked and chopped into bite-sized pieces

Garnish:  soft goat cheese

Place the pork tenderloin in the bottom of your slow cooker.  Add the remaining ingredients except for the green beans and goat cheese.  Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours. 

Shortly before serving, remove the pork with a large spoon/fork and place on a plate.  Shred the pork with a fork and return to the slow cooker.  Then add the green beans to the slow cooker (adding them at the end keeps them green and vibrant rather than over-cooked and brown). 

Top each serving with a teaspoon or so of goat cheese.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

On well-being and strong chair legs

Let me tell you a story about a chair.  The story is short and simple, but I think you will find it interesting. 

This chair was no ordinary chair, yet not extraordinary either.  Being small, made of wood, and of simple design, the chair had three legs and looked a little something like this:

Left untouched, this chair was fine to stand on its own and was quite content doing so.  The chair’s three legs offered adequate support and stability.  However, the chair was one day overcome with an unexpected burden, which broke one of the chair’s legs, and the chair quickly toppled over.  Under the weight of this burden, the chair looked like this:

Now, let me ask you – what does your chair look like

You see, this chair could represent any one of us, with each leg representing a part of our identity, or one aspect of our sense of ‘self.’  When things are going well in a particular realm of our lives, this leg is strong and supports us; the more aspects of our selves we develop and nurture, the better supported we feel.  Then, if something goes wrong in one area, we remain supported by the others and are less likely to topple over like that poor chair pictured above. 

One aspect of our lives could be social support from family and friends.  Another could be our career or work life. Other parts of our identity are shaped by our hobbies or goals.  For example, my sense of self is made up of my relationships with others, my day job, this blog, cooking, being physically active in various pursuits such as dance, and creative outlets such as sewing.

The goals we have that are associated with these various aspects of our selves could be in any number of stages at any given time, but the idea is to have multiple aspects of ourselves so that if one ‘leg’ is broken, we have something else to stand on.  That is, if things aren’t going well in one area of our life (e.g., goals in that area are proving difficult to accomplish), chances are that we will have other aspects of our identity, from which we can draw self-worth or self-esteem.  At work, maybe you just got a big promotion and that makes up for the fact that you have been struggling to make it to the gym during the holiday months.   

Have you ever thought to yourself, during those times you’ve experienced a road-block, “Well, at least [fill in the blank here] was a success/was good last week/went well?”  This kind of thinking keeps you from feeling knocked-out, toppled over, or down-in-the-dumps

While it’s beneficial to have multiple aspects of ourselves for this reason, it can be counter-productive to have too many aspects.  Spread too thin, we cannot focus our attention to any one part of our identity long enough to strengthen it.  Many legs do a chair no good if all of them are wobbly. 

I bring this up here because many of you, like me, are living with a chronic illness. Chronic illness can make strengthening the various aspects of our selves more difficult than usual.

Unfortunately, it can be very common for individuals with a chronic illness to experience a loss of self that arises from living a restricted life or feeling socially isolated.  Given the extent to which food is such an integral part of social interaction, memories of family, and celebrations, it is easy to see how many of us might begin to feel restricted and socially isolated.  For many, this might be the unexpected burden that crushes a chair leg.  However, we can resist, or repair, this loss of self, by proactively restructuring our gluten-free lives as different from our gluten-filled lives, in a way that supports a positive identity.  In some cases, this might be a simple as swapping one activity for another, but in other cases it requires a grand restructuring of thought processes and behaviors. 

Most importantly, and perhaps most simply, maintaining our sense of self in the face of chronic illness requires us to not let the illness prevent us from engaging in the things that are meaningful to us.  However, when that is not possible, we need to be flexible enough to redefine ourselves, developing illness-compatible aspects of our identity so that we may continue to feel whole and supported.

As we go into the new year (and the new week) ahead of us, take stock of what your chair looks like.  If it looks like it could use some wood glue and a couple of vice grips, think about what aspects of your identity could use developing, or what new aspects you would like to create.   

Start with the question, “who am I?”  Then set some goals, both short- and long-term, that support your identity.  If you don’t like what you see, or you don’t have enough legs to stand on, create some goals that put you in the direction of developing your ‘self’ more.  It might feel daunting at first, but start with some baby steps, and remember that the more energy you put in to the development of your ‘self,’ the more you get back. 

If you’re like me, you’ve got some work to do… 

Happy new year to you all and best wishes for strong chair legs this year!

For more on how goals related to our sense of identity improve our mental health:
Ryan, R. & Deci, E.  (2000).  Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.  American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
McGregor, I., & Little, B.R. (1998). Personal projects, happiness, and meaning: On doing
well and being yourself. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(2), 494-512.

For more on how chronic illness affects our mental health through loss of the self:
Charmaz, K. (1983) Loss of self: A fundamental form of suffering in the chronically ill.  Sociology of health and illness, 5(2), 168-195.