Monthly Archives: January 2011

delicious transformation

I’ve been thinking about transformation lately. Whether as a political catchphrase or self-help focus, change visits us no matter if we’re ready or open to it. Last year, we moved. We’ll probably do it again this year. My career, my nurse-self, morphs every time I walk into a patient’s room. I’ve grown sassier, and my sense of humor that becomes more and more twisted with every passing week.

I love it.

Transformation is part of what makes us human. It’s no wonder that our experience as a species shifted as we learned to cook–those first caveman kebabs opened some major doors.

When it’s time to celebrate a birthday, or a holiday, or a rare Sunday night in which we’re all free, Sandra and I tend to do some culinary transformations of our own. Plans develop mere hours before the meal needs to be on the table. No carefully drafted menus here. “What about stuffed mushrooms? And some other vegetables or something?” After a brief telephonic brainstorm with my beloved sister-in-law, I’m off to Costco.

Let’s see. This time, the occasion was my mother-in-law’s birthday. This meant steak–for her. Fish for the rest of us. She gets to be the Steak Queen. Not that we all need an animal protein; “if all I had for dinner was stuffed mushrooms and green beans, I’d be happy,” said Sandra. Noted. But Jesse picks out a piece of salmon for everyone.

Here’s what we brought home: giant onions, baby portabella mushrooms, steak, salmon, mixed greens, pomegranate arils, crumbled feta, French-cut green beans. Sandra brought cake and ice cream. And her creative mind.

I started by preparing the onions. The food processor made gloriously short work of slicing them, and they went straight into a Dutch oven with some olive oil to carmelize on low-medium heat. At first, the pot totally overflowed with onion slices. After a few minutes,

they slouched. The quantity of onion juice in the pot rivaled the quantity of the onion shreds. I kept moving.

I gently washed the mushrooms and de-stalked them. The stalks and a few whole mushrooms (this was a Costco-sized package, after all) took a spin in the food processor while some onion and garlic sizzled in olive oil.

After a few minutes, the shredded shroomies met the onion-garlic sauté. Some salt and black pepper joined the party; moments later a handful of craisins and walnuts jumped in too. I threw in some dried chives and 1/4 c white wine (the chardonnay the in-laws were sipping, in fact) and let the whole thing simmer for about 10 minutes. The wine reduced and the whole mixture began to turn a warm wood-brown. Finally, I tossed in a half a cup each of fat-free cottage cheese and cooked brown rice. Poof. Filling.

Sandra filled the patient little mushroom caps and popped them into a 350° oven. 20 minutes later, they came out crisp and toasty on top.

Meanwhile, the onions kept melting.

Sandra prepared the salmon steaks, rubbing them with mayonnaise and Penzey’s 4/S Special Seasoned Sea Salt and covering them with lemon slices (seriously!). The thick cuts went on the grill on foil-covered grates. She rubbed the New York strip steak we’d picked out for Cheryl with her favorite hickory-smoked salt and set it to grilling a few minutes later. Meanwhile, I parboiled a load of green beans and whipped some olive oil, walnuts, and a couple strips of lemon rind in the food processor. Just before bringing the beans to the table, I tossed them in this mixture.

The salad came together quickly: the greens, the pomegranate arils, the crumbled feta. I toasted some pecans in a tablespoon of sugar and a couple teaspoons of butter in a nonstick pan and and set them on the side. A quick vinaigrette and ta-da. So simple it felt like cheating.

I attribute this to Sandra’s wisdom and sublime kitchen flexibility: everything ends up on the table at the same time. The salmon,

the steak,

the sides.

The whole process–and I’m nothing if not process-oriented–took and hour and a half, maybe. Big raw onions turned into a little bowlful of mushy sweet onion jam. Disparate ingredients became harmonic salad. Raw steak became… slightly less raw, as Cheryl loves it “red but warm.”

This time in the kitchen, with our modicum of power over the culinary metamorphosis of these little things, imbued me with a deeper perspective. A readiness to abide as our year, our life takes shape.

Seriously!

Shut up. I know it’s irrevocably cheesy. Over-the-top New Age self-help-y. BUT. You try it, and just tell me you don’t see anew that we really can participate in our own delicious transformation.

Nope. You can’t.

Booyah.

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mythical GF granola bars

I’ve had a series of little health-related wake-up calls in the last few months. And no, this isn’t a New Year’s resolution post! It’s all a normal part of having a body, to be sure. I completed the inaugural half-marathon event of the Portland Marathon on 10/10/10 (I hit the 10-mile mark at 10 AM, by the way) and THEN decided it was time to clean up my act. Kind of a bizarre order of events, but it’s true. I discovered that somehow, I’ve added a small but significant amount of poundage onto my frame since starting nursing school in 2008. Granted, between then and now I also successfully and healthily completed 2 triathlons, a duathlon, and a half-marathon. So a lot of that is slow-twitch endurance muscle, I’d like to think. But some of it isn’t. Some of it is a direct result of the carnitas craved after a 4-hour brick workout. Some of it is a result of, well, a stressful 16-month nursing program and a move and a wedding. I’m gorgeous the way I am, to be sure (and modest to boot). I’d just like to do what I can to stay healthy for the long haul.

In order to do so in a smart, body-positive way, I’m being mindful about what I do with my body and what I put in it. I joined a yoga studio and I’m keeping a food journal. I visited my NP and had some basic bloodwork done, which showed an LDL cholesterol level that was a meager 2 or 3 points into the range that makes said NP talk to people about eating more oatmeal and cutting back on solid fats. And since I’m a self-motivated take-charge sort of person (on good days), I’m now on a mission. So it’s time to highlight some recipes and dishes that make the most of flavor, texture, and color without relying on brown butter or (sigh) bacon fat for oomph. Don’t worry. Those two won’t go away entirely.

So. Naturally, I’m on the hunt for a gluten-free baked good I can enjoy regularly that supports these lovely goals I’ve got.

I’m not asking for much here. Just a breakfast/snack bar that’s gluten-free, low-fat, low sugar, low-calorie, tasty, and will contribute to the betterment of my cholesterol numbers (which are fine but could be better).

Yup. Not asking for much at all.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Pulling together such a recipe would be akin to finding and subsequently catching a unicorn in the back yard (though I remain convinced there’s one in the stream running through the little valley behind the house). A lot of gluten-free baked goods remain higher in fats or calories relative to their gluten-full cognates due to the necessary omission of healthfood’s darling, whole wheat flour. In order to mimic the high-protein glutenny antics of ol’ whole wheat, we use almond flour, soy flour, sorghum flour. We use buckwheat and teff. We use an extra egg or two. We use potato starch and tapioca flour to add lightness and lift. We add a little more butter or oil to keep things moist and airy. High-nutrition though they are, put a few of those ingredients together and compare what you’ve got in your mixing bowl with the mixing bowl of a non-GF health junkie and she, with her whole wheat and vital wheat gluten and her egg whites and applesauce, is going to come out ahead on the caloric front. It’s also why I roll my eyes when people find out I’m gluten-free and say, “Oh! I want to try that! I bet I’d lose so much weight!” No, honey. You’d eat a lot more nuts and cheese. Out the window would got that nice little high-fiber low-fat granola bar.

Not that I’m complaining. I’ll skip the heartburn and the gastrointestinal pyrotechnics that go along with gluten consumption and take an extra few pounds any day.

But I digress.

The recipe hunt. Basically, I’m going to try to combine my whole grain GF nutritional powerhouses in a way that capitalizes on their nutty goodness without involving a cup each of honey and coconut oil. I’ve already got the specialized palette of the crunchy hippie food lover. And at this point, I’m willing to pay almost any price for any ingredient I can easily source. Which means I have to be able to find said ingredient in a nearby grocery store. And I want to put this thing together with tools I already have–the most complex of which should be the 11-cup food processor. (Those of you without access to such a robot should just stop reading. In my pre-processor days, these kind of posts made me really sad.)

Trials #1-3 have included the following ingredients:

  • 2c gluten-free old-fashioned rolled oats, toasted briefly under the broiler
  • 2c gluten-free brown rice puff cereal (GF hippie Rice Krispies–found mine at Market of Choice in West Linn)
  • 1/2 c rice bran
  • 1/2 c quinoa flakes (Market of Choice, again)
  • 1/4 c almond meal flour (Bob’s Red Mill stuff)
  • 3/4 c water OR light almond milk OR OMG SOME UBER-STEEPED CHAI WITH ALMOND MILK
  • 1 1/4 c pitted dates
  • 1/2 c craisins
  • 1/8 c chia seeds (found mine at Haggen in Oregon City)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp fresh-grated nutmeg

Basically, I plopped the first 4 ingredients together in a big mixing bowl and tossed the last 8 ingredients in the food processor and pulsed like crazy. And then I mixed the two together, spread in a glass 9×13″ baking dish coated with coconut oil, and baked at 350° F for 25-30 min. Look: no sugar! No honey! No agave syrup! No stevia or xylitol or Splenda or  maple syrup or molasses. No added oils or fats. Not even an egg. The combination of chia seeds, the liquid of choice, dates, and almond meal serves to bind everything into bar form. The dates, craisins, and spices contribute to the significant sweetness.

The result? A good place to start, I think. The finished product has a subtle sweetness, a toasty smell, and a deep nutty flavor. And a crapload of fiber (pun very clearly intended) and iron and calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. They’re very chewy–in a good way, I think. If you want, you could even turn this into straight granola instead of bars: crumble the mixture onto greased baking sheets and pop them in the oven. Watch closely; they’ll need more like 10-15 minutes to reach their peak in that form. Mix into Greek yogurt and feel better than everyone else.

I had also initially intended to include some puffed corn as well. But the bag of the pre-puffed hull-free stuff I bought at the grocery store met its end on the kitchen floor, nommed open by our dear old grandpa-dog, Cutter. So, determined to get my corny fix, I decided to attempt to pop corn in a paper bag in the nuker. No oil, just popcorn. Lots of people say they’ve done this before. So if your average Internet surfer can make popcorn in the microwave safely, I figured, I should have no trouble.

Wrong!

I was lucky to pull the bag out of the microwave and fling it into the sink before it burst into flames.

What I’m trying to say is, I flung the bag into the sink and THEN IT BURST INTO FLAMES. Little ones, easily doused by the sink’s extendo-faucet. (The fire extinguisher lives only a foot away, anyhow.) What would a kitchen experiment be without a little sink fire?

Just because I’m getting healthy doesn’t mean I don’t know how to have a good time.

WILT #24, in which we have a mountain

Milwaukee is home to a thick glob of my maternal family history. My grandparents rooted themselves in the lakeside Wisconsin city and proceeded to raise their family with corn tortillas warmed on the stovetop and floss tied through the girls’ earring holes in case fights broke out in school.

My first memories of my grandparents happen in Milwaukee. My grandfather’s boat, El Miguelín, bobbed along on Lake Michigan. I remember the smell: industrial, cold, navy blue, pipe smoke. Lake Michigan was Grampa’s Lake. I think I even referred to it as such in conversation with my
little elementary schoolmates once or twice, and then had to explain myself to my teacher.

Out here, Mount Hood is everybody’s mountain. A significant factor in real estate-related decisions is the view–a foreign concept to this girl from the flat Midwest. But I’m starting to understand. Jesse and I went up to Timberline earlier this week and skied and took a snowboarding lesson and
spent a night at the lodge. Driving up, the mountain was pink and snow-covered. From our room at the lodge, clear weather from a crisp cold front brought us unlimited visibility and a wide-angle view of the Cascades. Mount Jefferson stood strong as we made our way down runs called JoJaMi and Jeff Flood Express.

When it’s clear, Cheryl looks out the dining room window and observes, “The
mountain’s out!” I snort every time. This October, we saw the steel gray stony mountain and then slodged through a week of fog. It lifted several days later to reveal a bleach-white snowy peak. Magic mood-ring mountain. Winter!

On sunny days, I can see Mount Saint Helens when I drive to work. I come around the bend in 205 northbound by the Johnson Creek exit and occasionally feel the need to scream “VOLCANO!!!!!” There it stands with its blunt top, the unmistakable result of irrepressible forces working beneath our feet.

The mountain provides a sense of unconditional grandfatherly approval. Look up and it’s there, steady, watching you while you drive home from an afternoon fishing or getting your tires rotated or something. I can’t fathom the emotional boom that must have followed the bursting of Mount Saint Helens–if all of a sudden Hood opened up and shot off its peak, I think my sense of place, my groundedness, might go with for a while.

Tadasana, mountain pose, is practiced standing strong with feet flexed and legs activated, muscles wrapped up long and tight and tall. Quadriceps become the red stripe travelling up your barber pole spine. It’s a confident pose, intentional–but it’s okay to fake it til you make it. Mountain don’t judge.