Friday, November 30, 2007

Twenty Four and Counting...

Milestones. We've seen a few of them over the past few years. Making our last cross-country move. Buying our home. Bug's first steps here. Starting schooling. Our homebirth with Princess' precipitate arrival...good thing we'd planned a homebirth! Each dietary diagnosis. Each food taken out. The foods we've been able to add back in. And now Tool Guy and I celebrating our twenty-fourth wedding anniversary. Next year, the big one.

Several months back, our Party Planner offered, out of the blue, to take care of the Hobbits for Tool Guy and I to go off for a weekend. Days away seemed overly ambitious to me...stretching the umbilical cord a bit further than my comfort zone allowed, but we were definitely ready for a night out. So I watched the movie releases and waited for something relatively interesting and decent to come out. This took longer than even I had anticipated, Hollywood's creative vacuum being what it is, so it happened that the night we settled on was close enough to our anniversary to call it a celebratory date. Sweet. Dinner and a movie.

In our area, the safest place to eat out for anyone who is only gluten-free and not Everything Free is Outback. So we dressed to the nines...well, as ninish as one can get and not over-do it for an AMC Loews theatre, you know...and headed out for our date. I'm trying to remember the last time I've eaten out. Probably four years. Yeah, Outback isn't haute cuisine nor any of the other culinary ideals like eating local and all of that, but it's someone else's cooking. It's hard to be critical of something that is at least half way decent and I didn't know intimately from start to finish. If nothing else, the mystique is appetizing. We arrived hungry and were seated immediately, which is another indicator of how long it has been since we've eaten out together. We've never been seated that quickly at an Outback in our entire marriage. Yeah, that 24 year thing. Hey, I'll take my milestones where I can get them.

It was so refreshing to have a relaxing meal, refreshing conversation, and idle ease with a minimum of fuss. Our server did attempt to bring us a loaf of bread, but that was the only bobble. We each had our favorite picks and finished it all off with the brownie. It's probably an indicator of all the tweaking and testing that I've done that I was unconsciously evaluating the dessert as I dove in. My mind was weighing the crumb, the texture, the taste...all that stuff. Given that it's just cocoa powder, eggs, and stuff that just adds flavor, like a bunch of terrific crunchy walnuts. It did crumble apart rather mystery about why. But a massive mountain of ice cream, whipped cream, and shaved chocolate goes a long way toward holding that brownie together and I'm not about to quibble with such a surfeit of sugar, right?

I suppose the first indicator that there would be a change of direction in our evening plans was when we stopped off at the bank's ATM to get cash for the festivities. Tool Guy had recently received a newly PINned card, which had worked the last time he'd used it. Not tonight. Not at the bank's ATM. Not at another nearby ATM. And, unfortunately, not at the restaurant. And equally unfortunately, my purse with the checkbook and perfectly functional ATM card were at home. They were gracious about the glitch and we headed home to get more reliable coverage of our dinner tab. Scratch the movie. Fall back ten and punt. Sighing over the necessity, we drove back and continued the threads of the things we'd discussed over dinner, enjoying the night sky and joking about finding some spot to go parking. Hey, twenty-four years isn't that long, you know.

It's nice to be able to enjoy such food without worrying about reactions. Well, Tool Guy did have a minor reaction, but in a public place, cross-contamination is probably inevitable. I didn't even have any kinds of kick-backs from all of that sugar. The meal was grainless (except for the corn that has to be in there somewhere)...even the that was right up my alley. Someday, I need to go into the kitchen for some cooking dangerously and figure out how they do that flourless brownie. Meanwhile, I'm contenting myself with grainless pancakes. They're pretty light and fluffy and actually rather delicious. Well, not as delicious as brownies, but they do fill the hole and when slathered with ghee, they'll do. Until I hammer down that brownie thing.

Grain-free Pancakes

1 cup eggs
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup coconut flour
1/2 t guar gum
1/2 t salt
1/2 t baking soda

Blend up eggs and coconut milk before adding remaining ingredients and mixing. Be ready to add more milk...the coconut flour thickens as it absorbs moisture and it is very absorbent. Dole out onto heated griddle over medium low heat, turning when the top bubbles and loses its shine. Serve with ghee and maple syrup.

I had to smile when we walked in the door to see a totally darkened living room, populated with Hobbits on the floor, munching faux popcorn and shoestring fries. All of the faces were turned up toward the TV screen with 3D glasses perched on each nose. It looked like a flashback from the '50's. Trust Party Planner to come up with something that would make a simple DVD and a dark room a festive event. No one was missing us. Heh. Grabbing the stuff we'd come for, we dashed back out with just some quick explanations to resume the rest of our evening. No movie. Just lots of talking about plans and ideas for the next twenty four years. Good food and good company is all that counts.

Friday, November 23, 2007

For This We Give Thanks

The holiday season is upon us, despite the commercial attempts to skip both Halloween (no great loss there) and Thanksgiving this year. The garden has been put to bed and I've pulled absolutely as many leaves out of the yard as I ever intend to this year. Poke me with a fork. Of course, Thanksgiving brings up the remembrances of colonists and the profound gratitude for simple survival, which has bequeathed to us the traditional foods that represent this holiday to most Americans. These days, nothing in history is being taken for granted, but is being re-examined, rewritten, and restructured. Whatever the actual facts of the first Thanksgiving may or may not be, it is certainly appropriate to designate a time to acknowledge what we have received and be grateful for it.

We have a lot of things to be thankful for this year. The Hobbits continue to grow and thrive, to challenge and thrill us with their burgeoning personalities, skills, and reach, to amaze us with demonstrations of what they are capable of. Physical blessings and provisions above and beyond what we could have ever dreamed of asking for. A bountiful garden. Generous friends and family who love us unconditionally and forgive the hurts that closeness occasions. Deeper walks and deeper relationships. Expanding experiences and expanding borders. "He makes all things new."*

Recently, I received a phone call from a close friend. Since the inception of our multitudinous food allergies--which coincided with the unanticipated pregnancy with Princess--I've drawn in upon myself and pulled into a safe circle where I could figure out the huge confusion of what was happening to us and create a place for the Hobbits that wasn't rife with landmines. No eating out, no traveling, no socializing that involved the presence of food--too much risk of cross-contamination with my contact canaries who cop reactions from just touching the stuff. I called this period of time my "gestational hibernation." Which was pretty accurate while I was pregnant and Princess was a baby, except that now Princess is creeping up on five years old. The phone call from my friend was a wake-up call that it was time to take some baby steps out of my den. A fellowship lunch was coming up. We usually duck out before the food is served, despite Dog's protests that he'd like to stay "this once." Gently, this friend prodded me to reconsider cooking something safe for us to eat and coming along to join in the fellowship. Given our strides forward and her winsome reasoning, I relented. Unbeknownst to me, she ran interference for me with the kitchen coordinators to isolate our food to a corner of the kitchen to prevent cross-contamination on the site. We just had to show up with our food, eat, and enjoy. Blessings of the day: no later food reactions to cause regrets and a good time was had by all.

At the meal, this friend brought a ratatouille, which I'd never tried before. Since I'm impervious to contamination reactions, I taste tested the recipe and decided this was one to add to our repertoire. So in celebration of the many things that we are thankful for, it's part of this year's celebration...remembering to give thanks for friends who care enough to prod us to expand our comfort zone. Along with the Autumnal Beef Stew, per Bug's request.

Ratatouille, tweaked from Diana Rattray's recipe

Olive oil, sufficient to coat vegetables
2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
1 onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1 eggplant, cubed
4 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 teaspoon dried leaf basil
1 teaspoon dried leaf oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried leaf thyme

In a 4-quart Dutch oven or saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and onions and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 6 to 7 minutes. Add eggplant; stir until coated with oil. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep vegetables from sticking. Add tomatoes, zucchini, and herbs; mix well. Cover and cook over low heat about 15 minutes, or until eggplant is tender but not too soft.

During the course of the year, the Hobbits and I have discussed the various and sundry holidays and their significance. We discuss the various theories about the origins of each holiday. Some holidays are rooted in things that we don't embrace, but we still choose to celebrate that day anyway because its original meaning has been lost and it has acquired a meaning that is significant for us. So whether the story of the first settlers is apocryphal or not, we have begun molding and shaping a holiday tradition that makes it uniquely ours. Each year, as we have begun adding foods back into our originally sparse and spartan menu, it has become our practice to include those foods newly re-introduced from the past year in our Thanksgiving dinner and the next new food that we intend to trial. So you can see that our Thanksgiving dinner doesn't look anything like what most folks here are eating, but it gets to the heart of what we have to be thankful for.

This year the Hobbits are singing the praises of Fage Greek Yogurt. We're trialling dairy. Cross your fingers, folks...

*Rev. 5:21

Friday, November 16, 2007

Unprofitable Servant

We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. Luke 17:10

I guess it's becoming clear that I hang out with a lot of foodie kind of people. It kind of happens that people who are in the same set of circumstances gravitate together. A goodly number of the email lists I inhabit are about food and food choices. Many of the people that come are, like me, in search of answers to questions that the medical community does not appear to possess the ability to answer. There are an astonishing and saddening number of people that persist in having problems that doctors and tests say aren't there. How contrary of us. I like hanging out with these kinds of people because the pooled experiences, feedback, ideas, and synergy of highly motivated folk can produce astonishing results. My best puzzle pieces came from these kinds of dynamic exchanges.

Change can be hard. Especially when it comes to eating. There are ten million diets out there, each with their own line of highly specialized products just for this very reason. Most of us want the variables and details figured out for us. But some people can see a truth, foresee the consequences to themselves, and set a course for themselves for change that is unwavering, in spite of the fact that they have no immediate feedback mechanisms rewarding or punishing them along the way. They just see a future danger and discipline themselves toward change without flinching. I admire these people so much because I had to be dragged into this. I'm one of those people for whom the consequences had to be more immediate and intense or I probably wouldn't have come along for the ride. That said, I'm never tempted to least on the Hobbits' behalf...the consequences are too severe for us. That's why I admire people who can look down the road at potential cumulative damage and change direction. That takes so much more will power. I have to say that I admire them a lot more than I admire me. I only did these things because I was spanked into it. I'm the unprofitable servant....I've only done what was required of me.

Shortly after our introduction of bread, I started having my own set of difficulties that pushed grains off the menu for me. During this time I played around with a grain-free sourdough bread made from bean flour. This bread uses garbanzo and fava bean flour, but any mild bean could be milled in most grain mills and then used. It has a hearty taste, but the texture tends to be a bit crumbly. I can't say that it is something that I'd yearn for like chocolate chip cookies, but as a stop-gap bread, it's a pretty good fill in.

Grain-Free Almost Everything Free Bread


2 cups bean flour
2 cups kefir-fermented apple juice

Mix thoroughly and let stand for 24 hours.

In a bowl, measure out:

1/2 cup tapioca starch flour
1/2 cup potato starch flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons guar gum

In a mixer, whip up 4-6 egg whites until frothy.

Into the meringue, pour:

1/3 cup olive oil
1 egg
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 cups sourdough starter

Mix in dry ingredients. This yields a rather thin batter for a bread. It will be about the consistency of toothpaste, but not spreading out with the ease of pancake batter. Pour into bread pan and let rise until doubled. Bake at 350* for an hour.

I'm still reading farming books. The latest point of inspiration is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. This is the first of her books that I've ever read...I've never been much of a follower of Oprah Book Club type of books. But I loved it. It was a great book. I laughed and cried, but mostly I thought that she'd been looking in my windows. She and I share an affinity for tomatoes and her description of her summer kitchen sounds a lot like mine. Actually, given our different perspectives on life, I was amazed that we had so much in common. Their story of making the changes necessary to eat local, uprooting their lives and relocating across country to follow this dream is amazing. I'm astonished and have a profound amount of respect for people who are willing to shake up the status quo and endure the disequilibrium that this brings all for the sake of personal growth and for ideological reasons. These people who are willing to endure the inconvenience and sacrifice with no other motivation than an intrinsic ideal...they've got what I want.

I think I'm ready to move beyond just dragging my feet and doing what is required of me. Look out I come.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Good Enough Is Perfect

I'm delving into farming books. I'm planning on turning our little corner of the Shire into a mini-farm. Visions of chicken tractors dance through my head. A must-read book on the subject is You Can Farm by Joel Salatin and the way he writes it makes you think that it's really can farm. One of the more notable quotes in the book comes from his father. He tells how his father gradually passed the reins of the family farm over to him, allowing Joel to make decisions and do things without micromanaging the changeover. "Good enough is perfect," he said. When I first read that, it rubbed my perfectionistic, control-freak nature the wrong way. I cringed. But the thought stayed with me and bubbled in the back of my mind like my pickles. I pondered the hazards of "analysis paralysis," of being caught up in trying to do things so perfectly that nothing gets done at all. Sometimes it is best just to move forward, even if it isn't the best plan around, just to get moving and see what happens.

Which got me thinking about all of the work that I do and the very little that I task the Hobbits to do and the disservice that exacts...for all of us, all for the purpose of satisfying my way of doing things. I've been working on letting go. One excruciating inch at a time. The breaking point for me was the leaves in the yard. Last year, the leaf fall was significantly diminished by the emergence of a cyclical defoliating pestilence. They were amazing. I could stand out on the back deck of our house and hear them eating the leaves. I'm not the only one who noticed this....several other people commented on it, so I know I'm not nuts. (Well, I probably am, but at least this isn't the evidence of it. Smirk.) Yard clean up last fall was an easy-breezy affair. And it only took that one easy-breezy year to forget just how many leaves the trees in our yard produce. After slogging away for an entire week and not being half way done--ignoring the new deposits on the areas where I'd cleaned--I decided that I needed to fall back ten and punt. This was the time for Operation Good Enough Is Perfect.

It came to me one night as I was falling asleep. I'd equip Princess with a small rake and have her edging around buildings and trees; Bug would man the hose and garden, soaking the leaves to speed composting; Dog would run relay on the mulch bags for the mower. Of course, when I announced my plan, it was met with crows of delight from work-famished younglings who were eager to assume this Herculean task. Um. Not. Nonetheless, everyone went to their assigned stations. What had taken me a week to half way complete was accomplished in two days with the four of us working. Dog estimated that he'd satisfied all of his PhysEd requirements for quite some time. He pondered weighing a full mulch bag and calculating the poundage he'd schlepped into the garden, just to throw in some practical math skills applications on top of it all. Bug was a trooper and soaked the leaves relentlessly, just pausing long enough to call for more EMs to refill the spraying cup. "This is the best job I've ever had!" he chirped. I gotta get these guys out more.

On chilly, hard-working days like these, it's divine to come into a house warmed by the oven and infused with the smell of dinner baking. I'm telling you, I keep flashing on all of my childhood favorites these days. Comfort food. My mom used to make a cream of mushroom casserole that we all loved. When everything went off the menu, we lost this one, since it was a "box of this, can of that" kind of recipe. After a while, it dawned on me that someone had probably used the packaged food as a short-cut from a Real Food recipe. I twiddled with it and reverse engineered it into a recipe that everyone with furry feet can enjoy, namely the Hobbits.

Cream of Mushroom Chicken Casserole

6-9 chicken parts
8-12 mushrooms, sliced
2 cups rice
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups coconut milk
2 T dry Italian Dressing Mix

I said before that my grandmother started every recipe by browning the meat in carmelized sugar and oil. See? Here it is. So dump oil or lard in cast iron dutch oven and heat sugar until brown and bubbling, just to the point of smoking. Add meat pieces and allow to brown on each side, turning for even browning. Add sliced mushrooms and saute. Add bone broth, coconut milk, rice, and stir. When the liquids begin boiling, add dressing mix and stir until until incorporated. Bake at 350* for 1-2 hours or until cooked.

Italian Dressing Mix

1 T garlic powder
1 T onion powder
2 T oregano
1 t pepper
1/4 thyme
1 t basil
1 T parsley

For dressing, mix:

1/4 cup cider vinegar
2/3 cup oil
2 T water
2 T dry mix

In the quest for gardening perfection, I stumbled across Efficient Microbes as an enhancer. I used it one Fall and in the following spring, all of the dead fall leaves in the garden were dirt...almost no leafy matter left. And worms? There were so many that when I walked through the garden, they would spring from the ground and wiggle across the tops of my feet with each step. Really. It was like something out of Tremors. The following year I skipped the EM and the results weren't as stellar. It's a great product. But that's the problem. It's a product that I'm buying from someone else and I've taken Sandor Katz's admonition to heart...the one about becoming a producer and not a consumer.

Then the idea struck me. EM is fermented molasses water with some additives thrown in. Fermented molasses water. How about kombucha tea made with molasses instead of white sugar? In the interest of this science project, I sacrificed all but two of my scobies to make this muddy brew. It fermented up and even made more muddy scobies in the process. I had Bug spraying this stuff all over the layers and layers and layers of leaves blanketing what was my garden. I won't know until the spring whether or not my science experiment did its job. I'll know if it the leaves have been reduced to rubble and have returned to the dust sufficiently.

And good enough? Yeah. That would be perfect.

Friday, November 2, 2007

That Which Makes Me Stronger

I'm not a student of Nietchze nor am I an Existentialist. But while I was in college, I heard the late Francis Schaeffer say, "All truth is God's truth." And whatever else he erred over in all of his philosophical wanderings, in this respect Nietchze was right: "That which does not kill me makes me stronger."

Dog is getting older. Our first born. You know the old wag, "The first one is an experiment..." Well, we're feeling our way gingerly into the pre-teen years. It makes me nervous. He asks some very hard questions. Like "why us?" Being different is starting to bother him. I knew it would happen at some point. I just didn't expect "some point" to be now. But it is. "Why do we have to be the ones who have to eat differently than everyone else?" This is tough to answer without resorting to the hackneyed (and intrinsically insensitive) chestnut about how "I used to complain that I had no shoes until I met the man with no feet." Ugh. But we did discuss how everyone who is hit with something unexpected, unpleasant, and difficult to deal with wants to know why. There are lots of possibilities of "why." Most are too long and complicated to get into when someone is having a Big Feelings moment and many don't even really matter. Many times, knowing the "why" of something doesn't make it any easier to bear.

In this case, for me, there is at least one "why" and the knowing of it makes it easier. This stuff we're going through--this journey we're on--it does make us stronger. There are so many ways that I've grown through all of this...many of which I'm only dimly beginning to sense and am awkwardly groping for ways in which to articulate them. Some I'll probably only discover in later years down the road. I'm finding that one of the ways I'm stronger is that I've become free. I'm liberated from the absolute craving for approval from others. I don't need others to agree with the decisions we've made and how we're moving through life. I'm also realizing that just enduring doesn't accomplish the same thing as embracing. I've watched people enduring the overwhelming floods of what they face and I've watched others embracing. No doubt about it. Those who embrace move through it, carrying more away with them than those who just endure or rage against it all. Since I have to go through this, I don't want to waste a drop of strength that I can possibly glean from the experience. If I'm going to have to pay the toll of walking down this road to which I've been drafted, I want as much for my money as I can acquire. I don't want to squander it on anger.

Embracing the challenges we face reminds me of a cookbook I picked up from the library recently, Grandma's Wartime Kitchen by Joanne Lamb Hayes. It's filled with recipes from a time when things were in short supply and life was about "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."

Cottage Pudding with Toffee Sauce adapted from Grandma's Wartime Kitchen by Joanne Lamb Hayes

4 (3 inch) squares or wedges day old unfrosted vanilla, spice or pound cake or pear butter muffins
1/3 cup coconut or other alternative milk cream
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tsp ghee or other oil
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350*. Arrange cake on a wire rack that fits on top of a 9-inch square baking pan. Place the pan in the oven; fill with boiling water to within 1 inch of the top of the pan. Place rack full of cake on top of pan. Cover with oiled aluminum foil or an inverted bowl. Heat cake until sauce is prepared--no longer than 10 minutes.

Combine alternative milk, maple syrup, and ghee/oil. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.

To serve, place cake on individual dessert plates; divide sauce over cake pieces and serve immediately. Don't worry. It'll disappear in less time than it took to make.

While Dog and I talked, it all distilled down to the fact that our genes aren't going to change. We'll always have to eat, to some degree, out of the mainstream and we can either embrace it or rebel. Rebelling has too many thorns...more than embracing. I'm expecting that Dog may have to spend some time when he is older exploring those thorns, but that's going to be his journey.