Friday, February 29, 2008

Breatharian Revisited

Our foods, like our lives, are works in progress. Nothing is static, at least not for long. And being an inveterate tweaker, I'm constantly playing with the variables. One of the beauties of hanging out on food lists is that there are other food geeks who love to tweak as much as I do. They often come up with ideas that jump start me off in a new direction or affirm the germ of an idea that has been fermenting in the back of my mind.

A few months ago, one of those tweakers mentioned cold ferments in relation to sourdough breads. I had noticed that when I keep my starter in the refrigerator, not only do I not have to feed it as frequently, it also doesn't taste as...well...sour. Don't get me wrong. I like a tangy bread. But then, I have other aesthetics to please. The ones that are shorter than me. What can I say? They outnumber me. sour sourdough. Got it. So I keep my starter in the refrigerator. But TLS was talking about keeping the whole thing in the refrigerator. All the time. It took me a while before I could wrap my brain around it. Sometimes the gluten/gluten-free barrier makes my brain shut down.

Then I decided why not? Let's cook dangerously. I started making up my bread the night before and just shoving it in the refrigerator until the morning. Then I'd pull it out, pop it into the oven at 100* for a couple of hours or until it rose to my satisfaction and baked as usual. Good bread. Really, really good bread.

Then a few weeks ago, she recommended this book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. And I'd like to recommend it as well. Just let me say up front, it's a bread book. And it isn't gluten-free. But this book has a fine attention to detail. As I read through the book, I found myself nodding in agreement, because my experience in the kitchen confirmed what they were instructing. But they've written it down in such a way that organizes it and explains everything, including how to adjust the bread in order to change the texture in the final product. They talk about "slack" dough making a better crumb than a dough that must be kneaded by hand. And guess what, Breatharian? Gluten free dough is best when it is slack, so this entire idea is well suited to the gluten free bread.

They spend a couple of pages talking about how wetter doughs will yield a "custard" crumb, which is a desirable texture in bread. I can avow and affirm that this is indeed true and, while they attribute this quality to the gluten in the bread, I can also avow and affirm that gluten free bread is able to achieve its own "custard" crumb. Perhaps not to the gluten-oriented palate, but to the Breatharian one, the texture is heavenly. All of the Hobbits, including the tallest one whose palate still bears the memory-taint of gluten, noticed and commented on the marked difference in the quality of the bread after doing a long rise, cold ferment. Bug pulled out a slice of day-old bread and inquired, "Did you bake this today?" Poking an inquiring finger into the slice, I felt it give under my finger, then spring back. "Nope. But it sure feels like I did." He spread ghee on it and devoured it without even considering toasting it. How many gluten free breads can you say that about?

In the past year, since the Glutenator laid the groundwork for the sourdough bread and made me believe gluten-free sourdough was possible, I've been tweaking the basic recipe to improve the texture and longevity of the loaf. The Glutenator once observed that Martha Washington's recipes called for a great deal of eggs...many more eggs than contemporary recipes require. She theorized a couple of reasons for this: 1) everyone raised chickens and eggs were ubiquitous and 2) wheat flour of the day was lower in gluten than current strains of wheat.

Building on the theory that more eggs provides more structure for flours that have less gluten, I've added more egg whites to my recipe. Also, having discovered a much cheaper source for guar gum, I'm adding it with abandon to my recipes. Both of these do wonderful things for improving the texture of the bread.

I'm experimenting with the outer limit of how long a loaf of bread can rise in the refrigerator before the yeast cycle is exhausted. Hertzberg and Francois recommend no longer than five days for a gluten bread and I'm theorizing that a gluten-free bread would probably not sustain itself for that long. Currently, I've allowed bread to ferment for up to 48 hours and still turned out a very successful loaf. I've been trying working toward finding the exhaustion point, but it is difficult to stay that far ahead of the Hobbit appetite. But still I try...

Almost Everything Free Sourdough Bread (v. 2.0)


2 cups gluten-free 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
3-4 teaspoons guar gum

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

Into the meringue, pour:

1/3 cup olive oil
3 egg yolks
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 return to the refrigerator for a minimum of 8 hours or overnight. Remove to a warm oven to rise. The dough may have a skin on top of it. I judge that the bread has risen sufficiently when the skin has stretched to cracking around the edges and the dough underneath takes on a more liquid appearance. Bake at 350* for 1 hour or until done.

This is a book well worth peeking in to. I've got my eye on a few recipes in it that might just be tweakable for a Breatharian. Tool Guy has been yearning for foccaccia and reminisces about the batches we used to buy at the farmer's market up the road from us. It just might happen, Guy.

It will take an experienced eye to be able to sort out the tips and techniques that the Breatharian can use and those that are specific only to gluten bread, but it is well worth playing around with and doing some of your own cooking dangerously. Let's hear it for the food geeks who sit around and email each other with their latest discoveries and inspirations! Thanks, TLS!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Staying By the Stuff

Is everyone campaigned out yet? I know I am...stuff still manages to leak through despite the fact that I've been on a media blackout since Hurricane Katrina. That experience certainly jaded me about news coverage. It was the one time that I had intimate background knowledge of a hot media topic. And for all of the finger pointing, no one was pointing in the right direction. It made me wonder. If they missed so very much stuff on this, on what other stories are they skimming over details and cherry-picking facts? All of them? Most of them? I decided that it wasn't necessary to hear all of the issues or even current events debated and discussed into the most infinite minutae in order to make my decisions and sort of hunkered down into a kind of bunker attitude. Abandoning my six-hour-a-day talk radio habit, I turned my attention toward smaller matters: my own patch of blue.

It was gratifying to recently discover someone whose work I so respect voicing a similar train of thought. Chris Rice explores the idea that our greater center of power is not with our vote, but in the lives that we touch on a daily basis. Which is a rather exciting thought when we really dig into what that means. Our votes are each a single one in so many millions. So easy to get lost, overwhelmed in the slippery shifts of public opinion. We drop our bottle into the ocean and hope it gets found. And when there isn't much to pick from, then what is that vote really worth anyway? Don't get me wrong...I'm still voting! I know that each vote counts. How much louder our voice speaks, though, on an intimate level. When we're face-to-face and eye-to-eye, our words have more weight and make a surer difference.

Clearly, there is power on a global level and there are people who are called to serve there. Clearly, I'm not one of those. But there's comfort in knowing that being the keeper of the small and insignificant things has just as much value as being a mover and a shaker. "But as his part is who goes down to the battle, so shall his part be who stays by the stuff; they shall share alike."* Chris is right...our power is in the lives that we brush up against--and connect with--every minute between the four year voting cycle.

It's always exciting when connecting in a conversation with someone inspires a train of thought that ends up in a new dish that all of the Hobbits enjoy. Another homeschooling mom and I were recently discussing the satisfactions of good sourdough when she happened to mention offhandedly about using her sourdough to make Pig in a Blanket. That was a dish I'd not heard mentioned in many years and I stood there basking in the glow of the light bulb turning on over my head. I could see the Hobbits cheering over this one...what kid doesn't love Pig in a Blanket? That's got to be worth some serious Most Delicious Mommy points, right?

While gluten free bread dough isn't workable to the degree that wheat flour is, an approximation of Pig in a Blanket is indeed possible. So I played with it and came up with this combination, which is more of a stuffed bread than a wrapped hot dog. But there it is. I even renamed it, since all pork and beef hot dog sausage products at our fingertips have corn in them.

Buffalo in a Blanket

Gluten free bread dough sufficient for one loaf of bread
4 hot dogs or sausages

Line two bread pans with parchment. The dough will be evenly split between the pans. Spread a layer in the bottom of each pan, about an inch or so, using about 1/4 of the total dough for each pan. Lay two hot dogs or sausages side by side in each pan. Using the remaining dough, cover the hot dogs/sausages. Allow to rise the normal amount of time and bake at 350* for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Allow to cool enough to touch, slice, and serve.

This was, as expected, a tremendous hit with the Hobbits...a quintessential comfort food. Turns out I did get extra Most Delicious Mommy points for this. Score, me!

Outside of the voting booth, I plow my energies and focus into making a difference on a molecular level: scraped knees, hornworm caterpillar collections and princess scepters. Laundry lines, vegetable rows, and jars of food lined up in the by day...staying by the stuff.

*I Sam. 30:24

Friday, February 15, 2008

Slowly They Turned...Step by Step...Inch by Inch...

Marriage is comprised of compromises, great and small. Anyone married to someone else for almost twenty five years has had at least a brush or two with the necessity of compromise. I have to confess to one of the most challenging marital compromises of all: The Three Stooges. Okay, show of hands. Who gets The Stooges? Un, huh. Just as I thought. Not a woman raised her hand. It's definitely a guy thing. More specifically, it's a Tool Guy thing. Fortunately, he doesn't inflict it on me very often. More frequently than his passion for The Stooges, he's conscientiously curbing his passion for jazz music when I'm around. Yah, I know, I have no taste, but I just don't groove music that doesn't have words...what can I say? It's just that since The Stooges is a guy thing (are a guy thing?), then all members with some semblance of testosterone running around their little bodies seem to share an absolute appreciation for the mystique that is The Stooges. See the power of role-modeling? Fortunately, this kind of imprinting hasn't led to the reproduction of any stooges in our house, much to the advantage of Tool Guy's prospective longevity...he does have a spectacular life insurance policy and a girl can only withstand just so much temptation. And so, I want gluten free Brownie points for my liberal, tolerant, and inclusive attitude that accommodates the occasional Stooge-fest. I flee to my sanctuary, closing the door on the grinding repetition of "Slowly they turned...step by step...inch by inch..." and turn up Chris Rice's "That's What a Heart is Beating For." With my headphones on. Natch.

But things are turning around, step by step and inch by inch. It's been a very slow process and continues to be so. We've just passed our anniversary for the Everything Free diagnosis. Five years, dear Breatharian, and six years of gluten-freeness! I have to indulge a wry smile when I think of the conversation I had with my stunned father, poring over the thick diagnostic booklet and boggling over all of the foods to have to pull. I faithfully parroted the laboratory's doctrinal statement: "Hey, Dad, I know it's grim, but it's only for four months. Six, tops! We can do it for six months!" Oh, the naivete. So yeah, it's taken just a touch longer than I had imagined in my most far-flung dreams, but we're getting there. These days, I don't think in terms of "how much longer will it be?" though sometimes Dog I have a crystal ball, you know? I can't fault him, though, since I'm his primary teacher and question answerer. I suppose it is easy to take the impression that all the answers are right at hand and simply need to be Googled up upon demand. But this is a question I can't even estimate an answer to, I've been wrong so many times. Back when we first started, I was thinking in terms of months and for a very long time I hoped that this would be the month--then this would be the year--that it would all be over. These days, my goals are much more modest. I'd like one or two new foods back in per year. And it's happening, step by step and inch by inch.

The newest successful food are seeds. So we're livin' it up! Sesame seed oil in our stir fries, handfuls of sunflower seeds to munch, and since nuts are still off the menu, desperation...oops!...inspiration struck and I decided to try my hand at making pumpkin seed butter. Have food processor, will cook dangerously--and Breatharian, you know when I'm around sharp implements, it's dangerous! The subsequent pumpkin seed butter wasn't as smooth commercial alternative butters, but the next time I do this, I think I'll be using my steel burr grain mill instead of my food processor. As the Glutenator says, "E3!" (Experiment, experiment, experiment!)

Pumpkin Seed Butter

2 cups pumpkin seed
1 cup or sufficient to make smooth of rice bran or other oil
1/2 tsp. salt or to taste
1 T maple syrup or to taste

Dump it all in the food processor and blend it to death until it is as smooth as you'd like it. The Hobbits found it tasty to have on Edward & Son's plain rice snaps.

Everyone is inching forward these days. I look at Dog and I can't even see the little one who used to line up cars endlessly or run through the house, flapping his hands in front of him. These days he's working on his own graphic novel for a character he calls Wind Rider and is developing an appreciation for Sherlock Holmes. Bug is working his way through a rough social patch, but his speech has very little of the halting monotone of mispronunciations he used to struggle with. And his reading is coming together. Henry and Mudge have become his very favorite people and he's finally found a passion in books. I felt my heart soar when he snagged Princess up and held her a quite willing hostage while he read his way through the entire book, with only three intermissions to get a prompt for a tough word. He's finding his place in a family of passionate readers! And Princess, who has had the benefit of being Everything Free since birth and before, just cruises through life enjoying the usual passions and enduring the usual bumps of an almost five year old.

Is this what normal looks like? Well, maybe not, but I can see it from here.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Humble Pie and Sin On a Spoon


I'm laying low these days. There's a stomach virus making the local circuit and I don't want it to know that I exist. I'm sorry, but after two months of pneumonia and a month recovery time, I figure I've done my duty by the sickness fairies this year. One more bug this winter and I'll be ready to open an artery, you know?

I was agreeing with a foodie friend--who happens to be down with that little stomach bug thing--that it just isn't fair. Isn't eating right supposed to give us iron-clad immunities? Aren't we supposed to be able to sail through life, smugly consoling the unwashed masses who guzzle high fructose corn syrup and munch on extruded cereals sweetened by high fructose corn syrup and subsequently catch every little thing that comes down the pike? (By the way, did you know that a study of these cereals fed to rats found that the rats eating cereal died before the other two of which was only fed the boxes that the cereals came in? Nice, no?) It is more than a little humbling to find that we have immune systems of clay.

Yep. So these days, along with the other stuff on the menu, I'm eating humble pie. I'm less hostile to antibiotics these days, though the ear infections in the house didn't get dosed with them and everyone recovered with their hearing intact despite the dire predictions to the contrary. (I'll spare you the drama of trying to contact a pharmaceutical company on the cusp of a New Year's Eve weekend: No one answers the phone for five consecutive days.) In fact, there are a few other medications that I'm beginning to feel pretty grateful for. Along with the antibiotics, my doctor gave me diflucan to counterbalance some of the less pleasant and more uncomfortable side effects of killing off every little organism in my body. The diflucan accomplished in four little pills what I've been working toward, inching toward for an entire year: I can eat all my old foods again.

This resurrected some unresolved feelings of resentment I've had against a former family doctor. We went our separate ways when I'd asked him to prescribe diflucan for the Hobbits when it first became apparent--at least apparent to me--that dysbiosis was the underlying cause of the spiraling food reactions. He was quick to dismiss me and I remained dismissed. I pretended that he didn't know what he was talking about and began addressing the supposedly imaginary dysbiosis with alternative methods. And that's where we've been this past five years. My recent experience confirms to me I was right all along and this five year grind was avoidable. Sigh.

Still, there is a quiet thought that accompanies the occasional stabs of resentment that flare up: we needed to take that five year grind. We needed the discipline. We needed the journey. The struggle. There's no way of knowing until much further down the road what seeds have been planted during these five years that will produce fruit. In me. In them. Fruit that would never have come to bear any other way. "It has not yet appeared what we shall be..."* I rest on that.

I'm still staying away from sugar, though. So I'm still casting around for ideas of how to fill that hole. You know, the hole that still nags at you, even after you've had a full meal. Or when you're burrowing down under the covers with a toasty rice bag and a good book. Just the time when something to nosh on would make everything perfect. Just the time that I used to cuddle up with a bag of Rollos and not stop until the bag was empty. And of course, every sugar-free candy you can lay your hands on is...drum roll please...sweetened with corn. Um. Not. Thomas Edison said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Nope. He was wrong. That would be 99% desperation, because it is during the times of desperation that inspiration strikes.

The taste I had in my mouth was for chocolate butter cream frosting. So I dug around in the dusty recesses of my food stores and came up with an almost empty box of powdered cocoa, left over from the days when the Hobbits could do chocolate...which blessedly they can again...but somehow this box got overlooked. Hallelujah. The rest of the stuff was near at hand and I went to work with a passion. The prospect of sugar free chocolate will do that to me. What can I tell ya? Sin On a Spoon was born.

Sin On a Spoon

(All ingredients/amounts negotiable)

8 T ghee
1/4 cup cocoa powder
2 T coconut milk
2 T vegetable glycerin or agave nectar

Blend butter with balloon whip mixer attachment on high until soft. Pour in cream/coconut milk and sweetener, whipping until blended. On stir setting, add cocoa powder, turning speed up to high as the powder becomes incorporated.

Find most isolated spot in the house, lock the door, and refuse to share with anyone. Enjoy.

*1 John 3:2

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Perfect Christmas

I'm channeling Joel Salatin's dad again. Well, not literally. No dolphins or long deceased Egyptian princesses or anything like that. Just some good common sense: "Good enough is perfect."

Christmas is always a busier time of year for just about everyone. Lots of hustle and bustle and stuff to do. I pushed decorating back until the last minute because we decided to get a real tree this year. It was a combination of discovering that a neighbor down the road supplements his retirement by selling trees from his property and the fact that the attic so obscenely congested that the thought of digging it out and dragging it down the folding stairs easily tilted the scale in favor of supporting this retiree in his efforts toward maintaining the style to which he is accustomed. The Hobbits were enchanted, since they've only ever known this artificial tree that Tool Guy and I have hauled with us from pillar to post since the early days of our marriage. This year, they climbed a snowy hill with saw in hand, each took a turn gnawing at the trunk with it and then they hauled it back to the vehicle to trundle home. They're still talking about it.

The homeschooling Christmas program was another departure. Not one the Hobbits managed to distinguish themselves, which was quite singular. In the five years since we've been participating, at least one of them has managed to do something like jump off the stage and announce that he was the "champion!" or stalk the narrator or vie for control of the song book or lose her balance and fall of the platform or...or...or...well, you get the picture. They were all angels, even the angel. Bug managed to control his weaponry, both during the time he was the Roman soldier, wearing a sword and while he was a shepherd, wielding a cudgel. (What can I say? Party Planner, who also planned the program, is very well as brave!) And Dog actually sang along with his group. Pretty remarkable for someone who didn't get a passing grade the first quarter of music because he refused to sing. I'm thinking it was the audience that made the difference. Of course, it could also have been his rather pretty partner. Who knows? Hmmm. Now that I mentioned it, I'm going to have to think on this one...he's turning 11 this year, you know.

There were other differences this year that were less anticipated. I should have seen it coming. I really should have. That persistent cough. Princess' ear infection. That persistent cough that started getting worse. And I did all the stuff I was supposed to. Extra C. Extra D. Extra A. Extra Zinc. Sambucol. Raw garlic. The whole laundry list. And that persistent cough kept getting worse. And Tool Guy, too.

My parents come up to visit every year for Christmas and quite a few times in between. Despite our persistent coughs, they decided to stay and spend Christmas at least with us. Mom was great and organized the Hobbits in their decoration of the tree that had been cut the day before. I laid on the couch and coached the selection and watched. Tool Guy pitched in with cooking and there was a lot of stuff made up in advance. For Christmas dinner, Mom made her version of This Pampered Chef's pork roast.

Granny's Pork Roast

5 lbs. pork roast
1-2 cloves garlic
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 T olive oil
1 t sugar

Mince garlic and mix with salt and pepper. Cut slits into the roast and stuff seasoning mix into the slits. In a roasting pot, heat oil and sugar to bubbling, then carmelize the roast on all sides. In a 350* preheated oven, bake roast, covered, until internal temperature is 160*. Toward the end, uncover and allow to crisp for a few minutes. Add water to make gravy as desired.

Serve with rice or potatoes.

The day after Christmas, with that "persistent cough" Tool Guy came home with a diagnosis of pneumonia, which was the boot I needed to go and get my very own diagnosis of pneumonia. Kind of a demented keeping up with the Joneses, no? The Hobbits went in to get checked, but they only had colds and ear infections, nasty as that is. Phew! We urged the grandparents out the door as graciously as possible, hung out a sign saying, "Plague House" and I deliberated the additional measure of sticking an occasional arm out of a window to ring a bell and cry, "Unclean!"

Running a household is difficult when the movers and shakers are both out of commission. Having food brought in was out of the question. Oh, we did have some very generous friends offer. But even if people could provide us with gf meals, the hazard of being high reactors means that cross-contamination in others' kitchens would put us at high risk of reaction. We did, however, have many enthusiastic responses to requests for additional video material when we had exhausted our supply. As one friend put it, "Our videos, at least, are gluten free!" Heh. Just so.

When I couldn't go grocery shopping, I had a friend very scrupulously go to my select stores to get our food and bring it to us. Another friend came over and helped me prep out all of the foods for storage. And the co-op team worked flawlessly dealing with the co-op food delivery. All of these things provided us with the best Christmas we could have ever hoped for. Love. Support. Sustenance until we could pick up the threads of our responsibilities again.

Indeed. What more could one ask for? It was the perfect Christmas.