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.

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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.

in the kitchen: spaghetti sans noodles

One of the many changes to my diet my doctor has suggested is cutting way back on refined carbs, sugars, and starches, and cutting back on those things in general, even if they’re whole. This helps people with IBS and diabetes especially, but it’s also good for all people, especially if you are an American who has been following the old food pyramid, because that basically advocated a box of cereal, a loaf of bread, and a bushel of potatoes a day, and that’s disgusting. Fat doesn’t put fat on your body, carbs do. Anyway.

I also just generally like to find ways to put more produce into my daily diet. I’ve given up thinking about it in terms of fruits and vegetables, because I’ve always been more of a vegetable girl, and if I keep tabs I get confused about what category you throw things like avocado, tomato, and bell pepper, so instead, I just go with trying to eat a lot of colorful things that come out of the ground.

With a jar of spicy tomato-basil spaghetti sauce (I had it lying around; otherwise I think it’s great to take diced tomatoes, fresh herbs and garlic, and chopped mushrooms and make it fresh), a Trader Joe’s sundried tomato chicken sausage, and a spaghetti squash, I made a delicious, filling dinner that can easily be made vegetarian by subbing the sausage for some kind of fake sausage or extra veggies.

Not the best photo, but it was oh so yummy, and it was a one bowl, one pan meal that didn’t take long at all, except the spaghetti squash, which you can easily make in advance. Cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and then coat the inside with a little olive oil and garlic. Throw it in a baking dish with a little water, bake for an hour at 375 degrees. Scrape out the insides and they look like spaghetti. I made it a day in advance and left it in the fridge, but it probably won’t keep longer than that. Then I threw it in a skillet with the sauce and sausage, tossed it, and served it. So easy to make, easy to change, easy to make with whatever you have in your house.