food for thought: la tartine gourmande

When I went gluten free, I sadly accepted the fact that there would essentially be no reason for me to travel to France or Italy anymore, even though I’ve never been. After all, in the land of pastries and pasta, what would be the point? But apparently Italy is leading the world in gluten free-ness (not surprising, when you think about it), and for the time being, I can bring France to me, thanks to La Tartine Gourmande by Beatrice Peltre.

The synopsis of this book was all I needed to read it: French and American recipes, all gluten free (and all soy free, though that’s technically not mentioned–it’s just a coincidence). Now I know how to make galettes (though I still haven’t tried because I’m scared)! I can make tarts! I can make soups and salads that are more interesting than the ones I make for myself! Just the premise of this book is awesome.

As far as the recipes go, they are easy to follow, and she begins the cooking section of the book with a section on guidelines and tips. If you are confused by the tons of gluten free flours out there (amaranth? almond? tapioca? buckwheat?) she explains their taste and weight clearly so that you know what substitutions might work, and what might appeal most to your tastebuds. In each recipe, too, measurements are given in standard and metric, so you can really tailor her book to your cooking lexicon. And it’s a book that covers the spectrum of recipes, so you can basically cook the entire day out of the book and eat like a Frenchie. Start with her basic recipes, which teach you how to do the doughs and stocks that are the base of a lot of the more complicated ones. She’ll also tell you great trivia and tips throughout, like how you can reuse a vanilla bean by washing and drying it.

It seems modeled after other cookbook-cum-memoirs, and its prose is certainly not as well done as, say, French Women Don’t Get Fat, which was a really great read that just happened to contain recipes. But even though La Tartine Gourmande isn’t much of a read, there’s something in it that isn’t in the more prose-y cookbooks–the photographs. Oh, the photographs! You could say that any cookbook is best loved for its photos, but Peltre takes it to a new level, because she’s not just a good photographer, she really gets color. The photos are probably the best part, but the recipes look delicious as well. Peltre makes cooking and entertaining look fun and achievable, and that’s especially welcome when you’re a gluten free eater. I wish I didn’t have to skip or modify so many recipes with dairy in them, but ultimately, this is a great tool for gluten free cooking that even your non-GF friends will want to eat.

the week: a new challenge

I’m back in Boston, and I’m refreshed and ready for a new year, the theme of which is Nothing to Lose 2012.

I need to work on spending less money, going to the gym more, and eating even more healthfully. I also want to force myself to be more efficient and creative in the kitchen–practice my knife skills, learn more about flavor profiles, and really use everything I can. So every week I’m going to buy under $50 worth of groceries and see how many different combinations I can use to make really interesting, healthy food.

I got home and was essentially out of fresh food, but I have tons of dry goods and frozen foods. I suggest that, if you want to participate, you stock up and spend a lot more than $50 getting essential dry and frozen staples, like herbs and spices, various frozen veggies and fruits, frozen chicken breasts and sausages, rice, kasha, flours, oats, dried fruits and nuts. Assume that I have a lot of those, and now see what I bought this week for my groceries:

Produce
2 leeks
2 russet potatoes
2 onions
Bunch of white mushrooms
2 carrots
Organic broccoli slaw
Brussels sprouts
4 apples
3 tangerines

Proteins
18 eggs
Hummus
Turkey bacon

Other
Stuffed grape leaves
Microwavable lentils and peas dish
Half a gallon of almond milk
Tias tortilla chips (after a year off gluten, I want to experiment with dairy re-introduction)

I have a dry-erase board on my refrigerator where I wrote all my meal plans for the week. We’ll see how it goes, and I’ll keep updating, but I think the way to make sure you succeed is to not plan all 14 meals (breakfast I’m not including, because that’s always almond pancakes or granola with fruit) but to plan most, and then to assume that occasionally you’ll want something quick (hence always having a microwavable curry dish or something in my freezer) or something that requires no skill or thinking (hence always having eggs for omelets, plus veggies and grape leaves for hummus dipping). With that, as well as some new recipes (going to try making a potage in my Crock Pot this week) and a project (I need a new batch of granola), I think this can be something that will work. Stay tuned.

refresh and reload

I kind of suck at this second blog. I’m working on it, I promise.

This semester has been full of ups and downs and learning experiences. This wasn’t entirely unexpected; after all, I just moved across the country all alone, started two master’s programs, and am still learning about what exactly is wrong with my body. But all of this stuff happening means I’ve suffered from some bouts of depression, binge eating, feelings of aimlessness because of no longer having a job, cycles of excessive gym use followed by no gym use, learning a ton and loving it, learning a ton and feeling overwhelmed by how quickly I have to absorb it all, having a cluttered apartment with too many possessions, learning to manage money in chunks rather than regular paychecks, and feeling cut off from my family.

It’s a lot to handle, and I’m still not that great at it.

That said, I’ve had enough. I’m cleaning. I’m making piles of stuff to throw out, give away, resell. I’m writing again. I’m making more of an effort to be busy with friends and volunteering, and I’ve sent out tons of resumes and cover letters. As usual, I’m reading like crazy, and I’m getting better and better at it. I’m trying to keep myself interested in different kinds of exercise so that I don’t get bored. I’m striving to get into a better routine with cooking, and I’ve accepted that I need to give up refined sugar so that my stomach stops wrenching and having cravings and crashes. I have pulled out my keyboard a couple times and want to dedicate myself to learning at least one or two new piano pieces next semester. I have the Pimsleur course in Portuguese and plan on listening to it on the treadmill, thus refamiliarizing myself with the language and training my body to run and my joints to not suck so much.

But these steps take time and effort, and I’m also trying to finish my first semester of grad school strong. And I’m going home for a month, to finally see my family and hometown again, to refresh and reload, to finish my novel, to relax. So I’ll be back in the new year with a new purpose and dedication to this blog.

Until then.

food for thought: the kitchen counter cooking school

I read a lot of books, period, and lately I read a lot of food books. So I don’t think I’m being too cavalier when I say that this is the BEST food book I’ve read all year. The Kitchen Counter Cooking School (Kathleen Flinn) is a memoir cum cookbook that is just like taking cooking lessons without paying the exorbitant fees, and without being the awkward, food allergy-challenged person in the room.

I do not lie. First of all, Flinn is just really good at putting together a narrative, so the book is highly readable. That’s why it functions so well as a lesson, too–she’s a good teacher, well trained, who knows how to put together a lesson so that it’s engaging and understandable. The book follows her and her friend as they find nine women (not all female on purpose, but interesting sociologically nonetheless) and take it upon themselves to teach them to cook. And so they do, focusing each lesson on things that real people actually want to eat, are capable of cooking, and can afford to eat regularly, such as chicken and bread. Turning each lesson into a narrative chapter, Flinn offers you a lesson, too, not to mention teaches you things about the US food system, the economics of cooking and buying groceries, and tricks to understanding how to use spices and herbs. I now understand that “flavor profile” isn’t just a pretentious chef word but also something that will make my own cooking more interesting and more cohesive.

The book also delves into each of the students’ lives, which means the book also makes a lot of observations and uncoverings and statements about socioeconomics, gender issues, cultural issues, and age issues that surround food, food preparation, and nutrition. It’s hard to cook for one. It’s hard to cook for children. It’s hard to cook when you don’t have a healthy relationship with food, or with your mother, or with your spouse. It’s hard to cook when you have to work tons of part time jobs and still can only afford what SNAP lets you have. But it’s not hard to cook. That, Flinn teaches, is actually very easy, and only requires a couple tricks.

I’ve never been more inspired to change my life and my cooking and eating habits, and I already have pretty decent ones. I’ve never thought of some things as so simple and easy and endlessly versatile. And I don’t read self help books and hate any book that’s pegged as “inspirational.” I don’t think this one was, but it totally offers you just the tools you need to be a functional, healthy person without buying truffles or spending six hours a day in your kitchen. Finding a reference book within the same binding (or, in my case, the same Kindle file) as a good memoir is not something that happens every day. Add this book to the list of books I will be recommending to EVERYONE this winter.

a city and its food: minneapolis

I spent the weekend in Minneapolis, conveniently avoiding the snowstorm in Boston and inconveniently avoiding my homework. Being from the Southwest, and not being a WASP, I’ve always assumed the Midwest doesn’t have much to offer. Even when people I really respect told me how much I would love going to school in Madison, I chose Simmons instead. Even when I did a summer program at Northwestern in high school, I decided Chicago wasn’t as cool as New York. I’m a West Coast girl with family ties to the East Coast, so I write off the Midwest.

I was mistaken. St. Paul is adorable, and downtown Minneapolis, where I spent Thursday to Sunday, is manageable and city-like, while also really clean, like Disneyland. I was a little ashamed of my initial assumed dislike of the area, and I was really surprised by the awesome restaurants I found. Now I get why shows like The Next Great American Restaurant say that Minneapolis is a food city. Also, it’s really friendly to the dietarily challenged, so if you have food allergies, you won’t be unhappy here. Certainly it’s a very white bread city, racially and culturally, and it’s dead after 8pm, and there’s a lot of bison and cheese, but I was generally satisfied and intrigued by the food I got to eat.

Some general observations. Is it just that I’m not used to eating out lately, or is Minneapolis aioli land? Also, I had no idea that bison burgers were a real thing. That’s awesome but also a little unnerving. I declined to taste bison, since earlier this week I already stretched myself by eating octopus at a tapas restaurant. Also, the surprise of all surprises: I saw Jarritos for sale in more than one place. Finally, I was shocked to find out that Minnesotans are not allergic to spicy food. What’s more, their spicy food is innovative. Finally, it’s a pricey place. But then again, everywhere that’s not Tucson is.

Thursday for lunch I had Au Bon Pain, so nothing special there. Average salad, pretty awesome artichoke aioli as dressing. Dinner was at Hell’s Kitchen, which has an awesome atmosphere–it’s like what the Hard Rock Cafe tries to be, except not overly trendy and with live fiddling and bass violin playing. Also, a very clear menu with vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options laid out. I had a chicken breast with portabellas and fries, and while their housemade ketchup (which includes pears, among other ingredients) was not something I wanted more than a couple tastes of, their chipotle mayonnaise was the most fabulous dipping sauce I have ever tasted. It is definitely something I want to make on my own. Hell’s Kitchen also has breakfast for dinner (and for breakfast, and for lunch), so I wish I had had the time and money to go back for another meal. After that, I met up with a good friend from high school and had a delicious margarita with cava (! my favorite wine ever) in it at Barrio, where all the brown people in Minneapolis work.

Friday: Free, made-to-order breakfast at the hotel. And then food truck lunch! This was so exciting and amazing, because I see food trucks on television shows, but aside from taco stands that proliferate through Tucson, that’s something that I didn’t grow up with. But Marquette Avenue was full of food trucks, and they had really awesome menu items, like innovative tacos and Mexican grilled corn. This wasn’t actually the best choice for me as far as going gluten and dairy free, but I really appreciated the fact that at one stand, when I finally figured out something I thought I could have, the guy was nice enough to suggest that I not buy anything from him because he couldn’t guarantee the gluten free-liness. I ended up getting “Mexican-style” tacos from the Get Sauced truck, which you actually have to qualify at food trucks, since tacos, in food truck culture, are essentially just containers to hold a variety of food combinations from all cultures. It had “Oaxacan style” salsa, and then they had a hotter version in a squeeze bottle, which I heartily added. Not having been to Oaxaca, I can’t say how authentic it was, but it was amazing regardless. It was like salsa puree, and I think there was some avocado in it to make it creamy, like salsa aioli mayonnaise. Whatever. But yum.

On Friday night, my cousin and her daughters picked me up and we went to Pizza Luce, which has my undying love because not only do they have gluten free pizza, but you can also get it with one of two varieties of vegan cheese, or with goat cheese. And you can do custom pizza or order one of their specialty ones, which they clearly mark with vegan-ability and gluten free-ability. Sooooooo nice of them. I ended up with a gluten free, vegan soy-free cheese pizza with spinach and mushrooms, just because that’s my go-to veggie choice when I’m overwhelmed by options. It’s amazing that I’ve only been gf for nine or so months, and I’m already used to not having much choice on menus. It’s almost unnerving to have options again, but I so appreciated this place for offering them. They also had non-pizza options that fit a lot of dietary restriction bills as well.

Saturday I was really excited to go to La Belle Crepe on Nicollet, because it advertised galettes, not just crepes. Galettes are traditionally made with buckwheat, which means they’re gluten free. But La Belle Crepe’s galettes are not traditional, they’re just whole wheat instead of bleached. So, fail. But if you don’t have to be gluten free, my roommate, who ate both a savory and sweet one, said they were amazing. I ended up with a salad from Panera, and I was not excited about it because it had both pears and dried cherries in it (some of my least favorite fruits, and also, I don’t like fruit in my salad unless it’s fruit that’s essentially vegetable, like avocado). But it was surprisingly spectacular, especially the cherry balsamic vinaigrette.

Dinner was at Nicollet Island, and it was various buffets for the conference closing ceremony. Nothing special there–I ate off of the vegetarian table, which had various vegetables with balsamic vinegar and rosemary on them.

So. Midwest, I’m sorry I underestimated you. And Minneapolis, thanks for the spicy inspiration. There are a lot of things I now want to try.

in the kitchen: apple-carrot cake

I have an abundance of carrots and apples in my fridge. I’m leaving town on Thursday morning and will have house guests until then, which means either I need extra stuff to feed them with, or I have to balance eating out with not letting my fridge go to waste. Also, I’ve been trying to taste things lately that I’ve always thought I hated, because I was an incredibly picky eater as a kid (except for, ironically, just about anything made from wheat). One of the things I have always found disgusting is carrot cake.

No more, no more. This morning I used this recipe from Simply Sugar and Gluten Free, with a couple modifications. First, I had brown sugar, so I used that. Also, you don’t need a VitaMix. I only have a small food processor, so I threw everything into my Osterizer instead, and damn if that blender can’t do anything it puts its mind to. It made a great pulp in just a few minutes. I subbed all-purpose flour for sorghum flour. Aside from that, it’s all like it was on the original website, and it was amazing! Even my non-dietarily restricted neighbor thought it was amazing.

No photo today, sorry. But go make it! It was the perfect thing to help me transition from sweet stuff to semi-sweet, because the sweet is all natural, and you don’t feel guilty when you’re having a third piece when you know a large amount of the bread is carrots and apples.

inventory time!

Cereal has always been my weakness, and when you’re in a position to reduce your carbs and starch, it’s even more of something to get rid of. But it’s hard, because it’s so easy, so comforting, so delicious. There’s no way I’ll ever totally give cereal up, but I’ve been trying to reduce my dependency on it, especially now that I live on such a tiny budget and gluten-free cereal is so expensive. Plus, it’s basically empty calories, so I end up eating more throughout the entire day, which is calories and money out the door.

So, step 1. Change from sugary, starchy, empty cereal to filling cereal. That means cereal with fiber and protein, and that means the homemade, low-sugar, delicious granola I’ve been making from scratch.

Step 2. When it’s not a morning where I have somewhere to be first thing (i.e. four or five days a week), make something healthier, more filling, and just plain more interesting. If I want to get better at cooking, I have to practice, experiment, and get better at following recipes. And I have to do that all without buying some of the stuff I really want, because I can’t afford it, like cute little ramekins and a food scale.

Step 3. Be more efficient in the ingredients I use. Store things better, buy only what I can eat, and find recipes for the week that use the ingredients I buy in bulk (right now I have lots of carrots, onions, apples, and mushrooms) in varying ways.

So for breakfast this morning, instead of my usual egg fallback, I made pancakes out of almond meal (aka pancakes that are full of protein, omegas, and healthy fat rather than starch and sugar), stevia, and olive oil, covered them with liliko’i jam and a little syrup, and had a delicious apple with it. Apples here are amazing! I can’t get enough. And compared to my usual, much larger breakfasts, I feel full and happy with less. Also, almond pancakes are a lovely brown color and have a kind of natural, almond sweetness to them without needing sugar. I did add stevia, but I’m thinking of trying it again with applesauce to replace both the egg and the sweetener. Might be interesting.

Then I found this recipe at Simply Sugar and Gluten Free, which is perfect because it’s the kind of recipe I need with the sorts of ingredients I have an abundance of. So it was off to my cabinet to check my flour inventory. I found what I think is all-purpose gf flour (somehow it’s not labeled, but I don’t know what else would be in a plastic bag that looks like flour except flour, and I haven’t bought regular flour in ages), xanthan gum, garbanzo flour, almond meal, and my pao de queijo mix, which I can’t have anymore because I can’t have cheese, but since the flour is vacuum sealed and cheeseless, I’m assuming it’s still good and useable. And according to the package, it’s just tapioca flour with emulsifier and baking soda already in there, so it’s like ready-made baking mix. So I have a ton of flour options, and I can’t wait to get started on more savory, healthy, filling baking. I need a change. This will be good.

wellness: cardio is not enough

Something amazing has happened. After years of being the weak little girl who had to hang onto the lane lines during swim practice to catch her breath, after being the kid who was winded after one sprint in PE class, I am too good for cardio.

Seriously. I go to the gym and do about 60-80 minutes of cardio, and while I break a sweat, I don’t feel like I just worked my ass off and I’m going to die. I either feel like I didn’t do anything at all, or I just feel like, eh. I worked out. That was nice. Whatevs. There are probably lots of things contributing to this.

1. After many years of being on dangerous asthma steroids and allergy pills and still not being able to breathe, I was diagnosed a year ago with the correct breathing condition (vocal cord dysfunction, NOT asthma), went on the correct meds, and now have less of a chance of dying, better blood pressure, a better heart rate, and a less depressed outlook on life. And when you can breathe, you can go on the elliptical without feeling like you’re going to die.

2. I started working out more or less regularly in February of 2010, so as I have more or less kept to that for a year and a half, I have put myself “in shape,” if you will. And people who are in shape can work out without needing to die, and they can definitely work out for longer.

3. This is probably the most sedentary period of my life, grad school, and so I’m sure my body is so excited for those 60-80 minutes that I put it through that it does it without complaint. And an hour of cardio at the gym each day is not enough to counter hours of sitting in a classroom or at a desk, so it’s actually not enough. Hence trying to walk rather than take the T when I run errands, taking the stairs to class, etc.

4. Now that I’m on a more correct diet, my body is actually functioning properly, so working out is not the chore it once was.

Still. When I realized that I was doing a ton of cardio and it wasn’t putting me in the great I-just-worked-out-and-sweated-a-ton-I-feel-amazing! mood I had previously been in after a workout, I had to think about why that was. After all, it’s a perfectly acceptable amount of exercise for someone my age and size. Also, I don’t do exactly the same workout each time—I cycle between the elliptical, stationary bike, treadmill, and elliptical-ish running thingie for which I don’t know the name. So I shouldn’t be bored. Plus, when I am bored by the prospect of a workout, I bring a book or magazine to the gym, because I figure even if it makes the intensity a bit less, it’s better to be doing any cardio at all than to sit in my house.

But the real reason is that I wasn’t giving my body anytime to tone, sculpt, or productively relax. And even though I do some basic stretches after a cardio session, I don’t really stretch. The body needs a challenge, and the body needs a change. The body needs to be surprised. Routine can be lethal.

So I’ve gotten off my lazy ass, literally, and reminded myself that I have lots of workout DVDs. I’m cutting back on my gym time and going back to basics, with Pilates, stretching, The Brazilian Booty Workout, The Girls Next Door Workout, Total Body Balance Ball, and Carmen Electra’s Aerobic Striptease. Mostly the 10-minute Pilates workouts, in different iterations (the entire video is about 50 minutes, but you can skip around and do different 10-minute sets for a customized, targeted session). But sometimes the other ones, because even though they sound silly, they actually do kick your butt (because you can’t lie and say that you haven’t looked at some of those girls and been impressed with their bodies).

I feel amazing, by which I mean I feel sore and like I just used new muscles, or used the old muscles in different ways. So I’m rotating this new kind of workout into my normal cardio routine. Here come sculpted abs and tighter thunder thighs! Here comes even lower blood pressure. Here comes flexibility. Change is good.

in the kitchen: gluten free cupcakes

So tonight a friend and I decided to get together and make dessert. I have my obvious many food issues, and she doesn’t like chocolate, so my idea for making homemade peanut butter cups will have to wait. Tonight we went to the store and bought some Betty Crocker gluten-free yellow cake mix and some Pillsbury no-fuss frosting (free of just about everything I’m not supposed to have, which is a big deal–we considered making our own frosting out of confectioner’s sugar, but this seemed easier). The “recipe” was pretty easy, because it was a mix, so the only thing I had to alter was margarine instead of butter (it kills me that I have to use so many processed fake foods now, which is why baking is something I rarely do, but this was a special occasion).

21 minutes in the oven and they were nice and spongy, and after they cooled for ten minutes we iced, and I found some valentine sprinkles in the cabinet to make them look pretty. I ate three, because I am a disgusting heifer when it comes to dessert, especially after I’ve mostly given up sugar, and now I’m paying for it with a I-never-eat-sugar-anymore-and-now-my-body-can’t-process-it tummyache. Totes worth it, though. Friend took some home, and I have the rest in the fridge. Tomorrow is going to be a very low simple-carb and starch day to give my stomach a break.

Still, treats are good! And being a glutton is good if it teaches you not to be a glutton in the future, right?

in the kitchen: homemade granola

Absolutely the first thing I have to tell you is that you should not cook it in a loaf pan like that. Get a roasting pan. I failed there, and as a result my granola is not the best it could have been. But still, my apartment smells fantastic, and I think with some almond milk and maybe a dab of honey in the bowl, this will be a great breakfast.

Lately I’m really into granola, but to get it gluten free is frustrating. First, gluten free processed foods (even not the bad kind of processed, like granola) are really expensive. Gluten free oats are hard to come by, because it’s much easier for farmers to process it alongside their gluten-full grains like wheat. Then there’s also my personal problem of not being able to have soy or dairy, either. The dairy thing isn’t really an issue, but some store brand granolas have soy oil or lecithin in them. Also, I’m picky about my nuts and seeds, and I don’t like spending a lot of money on something I’m only going to kind of enjoy. So I thought I would spring for a bag of Bob’s Gluten-Free Whole Rolled Oats and do some experimenting.

I trolled the web for recipes and found a bazillion, all with similar ingredients and cooking processes, but with different ratios and cooking temperatures. I also didn’t want to buy a whole lot of extra ingredients right after spending $10 a pound on oats, so I went with sunflower seeds, because I figured I would also use them in trail mix and on salads, and almonds, which I will happily munch on all the time. I also had vanilla extract and cinnamon, olive oil, ginger, and honey. Most recipes recommend agave nectar and/or maple syrup as a sweetener, and now, having tasted my own granola, I think that would probably taste better. But mine is not bad, and I’m proud of myself for experimenting with food and coming out with an edible and enjoyable product.

Pretty, right? So I decided to go with an oven at 325, about three cups of oats, and the aforementioned other ingredients. I eyeballed those and ended up with a handful of seeds and three or four handfuls of whole almonds, which I threw into a Ziploc bag and banged on with a hammer until I got chunks. I stirred the dry goods together with a teaspoon of cinnamon and some grated fresh ginger (well, fresh when I bought it, sitting in a bag in my freezer), and then I really wished I had nutmeg. Then I threw in a little oil and water, splashes of vanilla extract, and some globs of honey and stirred it all again. Then I threw it in the wrong pan and shoved it in the oven. I took it out every twelve or so minutes and stirred it and then put it back again. It took about an hour, though I suspect if you use the correct pan, it’s only about 40-45 minutes.

Still, yum, I think. Definitely good smelling, and I’ll find out how it tastes tomorrow at breakfast.