Friday, September 26, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers

It's hard to count all of the ways that people give of themselves to us. Of course, family is there...doing ten thousand little things in so many little ways. And then the folks whose lives touch ours on a regular basis are there. The person who thinks of us that we might be able to use a no-longer-needed book or some clothes that one of the Hobbits might get some more wear out of. The friend who clips a recipe, thinking it might be one that I can convert for our use. Even the kindly soul who has found an article on gluten-free living and thinks the information might be useful for us. Almost every day, there are people pouring themselves in small ways into the support of our family. The matriarch who at separate times gave Dog a pair of opera-style binoculars when she found out that he liked to look at birds. Then made a book bag for Bug to carry his AWANA materials in and always made a point to be available to listen to him recite his lessons. (He surely misses her this year when he has to wait in line!) And also made the flannel baby blanket for Princess...the one that she prizes above all others, even at five years old. I'm deeply grateful for those people. They are irreplaceable and I've been given occasion recently to meditate on just how irreplaceable they are. As I get older, such people are becoming increasingly more precious to me.

But the kindnesses that are almost more touching and certainly more surprising are the ones shown to me by people who I don't really know and have ample excuse to ignore me with impunity. Recently, I was graced by such kindnesses. Tool Guy and I made a decision to change banks in the wake of a security breach of a regional store's data bases. Which entailed all of the joys concomitant with changing banks, ATM cards, and checking accounts. We usually only change banks when we are moving to a new location and I'd forgotten it can be. No doubt about it. As I get older I take change less gracefully. Glad we're not bebopping to new locales at the rate we did when we were younger!

I was totally unprepared when Walmart refused to take my check. Particularly stunning since the bank we chose has a branch in that exact store. (Which, of course, was closed at the time.) I know, I know...I shouldn't be shopping at Walmart anyway, but they are the only place that carry OTC antihistamines without corn starch in them. It did niggle the back of my mind as I stocked my cart, walking through Sam's that I might have the same problem. Surely not. They have a computer data base with my entire shopping history from the inception of my membership. They'd see that I never have bounced a check with them in thirteen years. Nope. When you are talking to a manager whose voice isn't finished changing, you aren't talking with someone who has enough life experience to look at rational reasoning and make independent decisions. He's acquired his position by sheer virtue of the fact that he's outlasted his peers who change jobs more frequently than the software in their Wii systems. Nuh-uh. He's going to fall back on the dictums of policy and entrench himself there. No talking to him. Good thing I've been stocking up for the past few months, because I felt gratified by the fact that there was nothing in that cart that I didn't have more of already in my basement. The cashier, at least, had the grace to be apologetic.

Still, it was frustrating to think that I would have gotten up early and taken Tool Guy to work, dragging along three Hobbits who would have preferred to sleep in, and gone on this exercise in futility, only to return home with nothing to show for it. So on my next stop--at the very store whose computers got hacked--I first visited the manager's stand and spun out my sorry plight. Although I'm a familiar face in the store...not many patrons regularly shop at break of dawn every other Friday, with three children in tow even during the school year...when one thinks about it, she really didn't know me. Even the worst offenders are known to neighbors and considered to be trustworthy. But Doreen was gracious and understanding and pre-approved my check. She even approached me a few minutes later while I was browsing the outer aisles to discuss the computer breach issue in further detail, sharing some of her own experiences in the matter.

Ginger Gold apples are in season right now and the price is certainly right. I stocked up on a whole boxful, as this is a favorite of the Hobbits. Tool Guy remarked offhandedly a few days ago that it's been a long time since we've had apple pie. Yeah. A really long time. I don't think I've made apple pie since before we went gluten free. And I can't say that I was a dab hand at rolling out crusts back then. My crusts were usually rather leathery. It was with much trepidation that I approached the task of making pie. In fact, I think I spread it over a two day period, because I wanted to think everything through carefully before I committed myself. So much for cooking dangerously, eh? The resulting pie was an absolute delight, however, and the crust was astonishing...flaky and melting on the tongue. Perhaps it's been so long since I've eaten wheat and even longer since I've eaten properly made pie, but this was the best pie I've ever eaten, let alone the best gluten free pie I've ever made...having the virtue of being the first. Heh.

Gluten Free Pie Crust

3 T Rice bran
1/4 cup tapioca starch
1/4 cup potato starch
2 1/2 cups gluten free flour (I used a blend of brown rice/millet/teff/buckwheat)
1 t salt
1 t guar gum
2/3 cup lard/ghee/or palm shortening (In sheer desperation for this to work, I used equal amounts of all three)
5 T water

Sift dry ingredients together to blend well. With a pastry knife or with forks, cut fats into the dry ingredients until pebbly. Add water and cut until well incorporated. All of the recipes that I looked at for pies recommend chilling the dough. I found that chilled dough crumbled and this worked more readily when at room temperature. Divide dough into half. Using a silicone baking sheet under one half of the dough and a sheet of baking parchment on top, gently roll out the crust. Peel off the top parchment and re-place as necessary. When dough is desired size and thickness, remove top parchment and, leaving the dough sticking to the baking sheet, work dough into pie plate, carefully working the baking sheet away from the dough. With a fork, poke holes at intermittent spaces in the dough across the bottom of the plate.

When ready to place the upper crust, repeat the same procedure, cutting out the vent holes before placing the sheet over the top of the pie. I found it difficult to crimp the edges in the artistic fluting fashion so popular among pie bakers, so resorted to using the handle of a knife to approximate the pattern. Not sure if it is the nature of gluten free dough or the ineptness of my fingers. Only time will tell. If the taste tests are any indication, I'll be getting plenty of practice.

To prevent the edges of the crust from burning, I created a "collar" with some aluminum foil around the edges. Bake at 350* for 45-50 minutes.

Apple Pie Filling

6-7 cups apples, peeled and sliced (I soaked these overnight in water with a dash of lemon juice in the fridge, giving myself time to work up the nerve to actually bake this.)
2 T maple syrup
Vegetable glycerin mixed with maple syrup to total 1/3 cup sweetening
1/2 t salt
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
4-5 T tapioca starch

Sift dry ingredients to mix well. Add apple slices to the dry ingredients and stir well to coat completely. Spoon into pie plate and pour maple syrup/vegetable glycerin mixture over the top of the apple mixture, cover with top pie crust, and bake according to crust directions.

Ginger Gold apples remind me of our first taste of them a few years ago. In a passion of having discovered a new favorite food, they regaled Granny with raves about this wonderful "new" apple. Being the quintessential indulgent granny, she made it her business to stock up on them during their drive from Texas. Stopping in at a farmer's market, she found some and enthused over her jackpot, explaining to the patient farmer exactly why this was such a special find for children who had very little special to eat in their diets at that time. The lady walked over to a display of Ginger Golds and pulled out two more bushels and gifted them to my mother. The kindness of strangers. Sprinkles of gold.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Pick Your Poison

After years--what feels like many years--of shoe-string menu selections, I have what feels like a backlog of foods or products that I want to experiment with. Each food that re-enters the menu represents a whole cornucopia of possibilities of things to be able to try. Each with their own risk.

People have discussed the challenge of making everything from scratch. And it is physically demanding. But on the other hand, it's easier. It lacks the drama and suspense of wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. Or if the other shoe will drop. Or the bitter taste of when the other shoe actually drops. Particularly when you thought that the shoe was firmly tied to your foot.

I'm finding that, with the influx of new products to consider, making things from scratch may have actually been easier and less time-consuming than trying to vet out the various and sundry items. It certainly involves quite a bit of time and energy either on the phone or sending off emails, communicating with the companies, trying to pin them down to making commitments as to whether or not the "natural flavorings" might have something that is still off the menu, hiding under that muzzy umbrella term. It is particularly frustrating to have them primly reply that this is "proprietary" information. There are a whole host of unsuitable replies that I retain unsaid and from which I will spare you. I have, however, managed to corner a few into admitting to the absence or presence of specific problematic ingredients, like corn--which isn't required to be declared under the allergen labeling law.

Other manufacturers are delightfully open about what they put in their foods and their processes. It certainly makes vetting out foods much easier. One recent email exchange with Yummy Earth lollipops went something like this:

Me: I know you've got "dairy free" on your website, but I feel compelled--in an OCD kind of way, I guess--to inquire about dairy/casein/lactose in your Butterscotch candy. Realio-trulio? Nothing in it?

YE: Realio and trulio with a cherry on top.

Now why can't all manufacturers be this nice?

Unfortunately, even stuff that is labeled gluten free and looks safe isn't really safe when there are other food issues afoot. Chex cereals have recently declared their Rice Chex gluten free. But. The more sensitive folks are reporting reactions...perhaps to corntamination, but there's no way of knowing. I recently had a blithe moment...or was it a blond moment?...when I ripped open a bag of Mary's Gone Crackers' recently released "sticks and twigs"--which are delicious, btw, but Tool Guy now calls them "Mary's Gone Crazy" due to the putative effect it has here--and let all of the Hobbits indulge. In the ensuing aftermath, I had plenty of opportunity to repent my recklessness. What were they reacting to? Who knows? It looked safe. It should have been safe. But it clearly wasn't. Not for us. The food canaries. Four people having food reactions at the same time is a new ring of hell which I have not heretofore visited. Not goin' back anytime soon, either. Sorry, Mary.

I can only take so much of this kind of food drama and then I toss the phone into an obscure corner and head for the kitchen. The latest favorite food to show up on the menu is injera. I started indulging in this shortly after a very long phone conversation with an internet foodie friend. Hey, when someone calls you to say that they were researching lacto-bacilli until 4:30 am on your behalf, it gets your attention, right? The crux of the conversation was that not all grains are created equal with regard to catching wild yeasts. This is why rye is the recommended flour for sourdough starters. Rye "grabs" lacto-bacilli out of the air more readily than wheat.

Now for gluten free. And we know rye ain't gluten free. Let me digress a moment to say that God planned things very well, nutritionally as well as other ways. There is no one food that is the sole source of any kind of nutrition. Every single nutrient is present in abundant redundancy...which makes sense when you consider how big the world is and people used to be forced to eat regionally, food intolerances aside. Likewise, rye is not the single repository for positive LAB contribution to a sourdough starter. The very good news is that teff is similarly endowed and so is fenugreek seed. With some playing around, I found that a few fenugreek seeds tossed in a flagging starter re-energized it to a startling degree.

So I made it my business to get some teff--ivory is my preference--and play around with it. Most of the injera recipes I found included wheat because, unfortunately, the financial and governmental politics have driven the price of teff out of reach for those traditional consumers. So I resorted to the fundamentals of fermenting grains and engineered it that way. One of the beauties of this traditional comfort food is its simplicity, unlike most gluten free grain foods...just flour, water, and salt.


Mix a couple of cups of water with a couple of cups of teff and allow to sit out on the counter for a day or two or until bubbly. You can also use a starter from a previous batch by utilizing the dark liquid that accumulates on the surface of the settled flour...the liquid that old miners used to call "hooch." When it is ready, add a teaspoon or so of salt for flavor and enough water to make the batter runny. If the batter is too runny, the injera won't hold together, but it needs to be thinner than regular pancake batter. How's that for ingredient specificity? Pour into a heated, greased skillet (medium low heat) and allow to cook until the surface is no longer shiny. Traditional injera isn't flipped like a pancake, but I've not been able to restrain myself from the urge to flip. Similarly, the Hobbits have been unable to restrain themselves from seeing this as an exotic pancake and demanding copious amounts of maple syrup which to anoint the injera. Philistines, I tell ya...Philistines. Promising that someday I'll learn to make the African dishes which are scooped up with injera "spoons" and eaten, I make my feeble apologies to the traditional culture that spawned them. Someday. Promise.

Making stuff from scratch looks easy when compared to these labyrinthine exercises of detection. I know what is going in my stuff. Every ingredient. Every surface I touched. How that flour was milled. Where that tomato came from. Exactly how much sweetener went in it. Up close and personal. Intimate knowledge. We who have food issues have to work harder at eating than the average consumer. We just get to pick which way we want to work hard.

Pick your poison.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Let's Begin Again

The leaves outside are turning and so is another page on the calendar. School is in session and it is time to begin again. Personally, I find that, as a parent, I`m greeting the school years with much the same kind of mix of anticipation and regret as I did as a child. Regret that the summer was so short-lived, but anticipation at starting up another school year. We all seem to feel this way, children and parent alike.

I remember thrilling to the possibilities of blank notebooks and the smell of new crayons. (Okay, show of many of you pulled the crayons out of the box and sniffed each one? 'Fess know you did!) Unsharpened pencils. Shiny rulers and sharp scissors. New bottles of glue, uncluttered by tacky wads of previous uses. When I walked through the school supply aisles at the store--the ones that looked like bombed out strikes from the London blitzkregs--it was hard for me to resist grabbing more than just the wide-rule composition notebook Dog needs for his Format Writing class. I still find blank pages compelling.

It`s truly exciting and enjoyable to have regular opportunity to interact with parents who are equally excited about this job of teaching our children. The first few weeks of our homeschooling group are hallmarked by everyone, students and adults alike, reconnecting with old friends and exploring relationships with new ones. Every year, matriculation means the departure of solid fixtures in our family, both of the student and the parent, who contributed to the synergy that makes us feel like a cohesive team. Blessedly, every year brings fresh sparks of talent, enthusiasm and uniqueness that re-energize and enliven us.

Our homeschooling group has been around since...and has seen many families come and go--some for a few years and some for the full tour. The program has expanded and contracted according to need. Maturing along with the children attending and the skills of the parents leading.

Our Drama "department" has seen the coming and going and coming of different generations of talent, both in leadership and participation. Past performances have included Oliver, Anne of Green Gables, and Cheaper By the Dozen. I suggested that everyone was ready to assay Fiddler on the Roof this year, but the newly coronated drama leader glared balefully at me, so I wilted quietly into the scenery. But I think they could do it.

Drama class isn`t short on entertainment, even off-stage. Rumor reached my ears that the talents of these young thespians stretches even to the ability to improv the antics of a gorilla suffering from scientifically-induced rabidity. The things they learn... Despite my most earnest wheedlings, however, it appears that the story of the blowfish must remain untold. Dommage.

One of the things that makes this group feel unique and cutting edge are the talents that parents have contributed to our learning process. In the past, we`ve had such offerings as Crime Scene Investigation by a CSI and Korean Culture class by a first generation citizen. This year, the course offerings include such fare as Introduction to Phonics Fun for the primary set, and for the older students, college level Fine Art directed by a local professional artist who happens to be currently showing her work in some local galleries, SAT Essay Prep, Format Writing, Life Skills, American Sign Language III, Home Economics including fiber arts by a veteran artisan, Music Ensemble by an experienced musician, Drama, and Introduction to Furniture Building, as well as our perennials of General Music, Art and Gym.

Tool Guy is going to be joining us this year, having convinced The Powers That Be to allow him to flex his hours to work on Saturday so that he can be off during the week for our co-op. His is, of course, the Introduction to Furniture Building. There's a fulfilled feeling having all of us pile into the van and take off together to do this as a family.

Which means that I'm also packing more adult "snacks" to go along with us for noshing on during the afternoon. This past week was kimbop. I'm planning ahead for this week. The garden, such as it has been, is winding down. Don't think I'll get many more pickles out of it, but the tomatoes are persisting a bit. Not enough to bother canning, so I decided to pull out my salsa recipe.

We did a stint in San Antonio, where Tool Guy was exposed to honest-to-goodness lacto-fermented salsa. The kind where people just do it and think nothing of it, because "Mama always made it this way." His crew consisted of many natives of the area and he tells me that my salsa is redolent of the tastes of theirs...sans jalapenos for the sake of Hobbit sensibilities. Again, salsa is one of those "potato salad" foods where the ingredients are as varied as the families who make them.


4-6 tomatillos
1-2 red bell peppers
1 vidalia onion
Enough red tomatoes to equal a gallon of product
2-3 T Real Salt

Chop all ingredients, more roughly than fine. Mix thoroughly with salt and divide up into quart jars. (This might very well be able to be fermented in larger crocks, but I've not tried it that way yet.) LOOSELY covering jars with a coated or plastic lid, leave out for 2-4 days, or until bubbling. Gases can build up during the fermentation process, so don't thread the lids on the jars until ready to remove to the refrigerator. This salsa has a tangy zip and effervescent tingle that adds zest to any food it tops.

The High School students aren`t the only ones who are amazing us. The first day, everyone was treated to a primary student with her kaleidscope of butterflies...that were even finger tamed. Finger taming butterflies? Who knew? Got to be here to see it! I was sorry that I didn't have a camera to the ready to catch an image of the cluster of small, grubby index fingers, outstretched in hopes of alluring those shy wings onto the receiver's

Aside from the input and direction that the parents provide to all of the children in each session, we have the input and inspiration that we provide to each other. 'As iron sharpens iron,' we 'provoke one another to love and good works.'

Friday, September 5, 2008

Summer of My Sloth

Pneumonia can be dangerous. This I knew. But I never knew how dangerous. Oh, not necessarily to lung and life. I've pretty much recovered with only an occasional annoyance in the pulmonary department. And the on-hand elecampagne tincture has kept that nicely under control. No. It is in other ways that pneumonia has proved dangerous. You see, after that memorable bout at Christmas, pneumonia revealed to me that life can go on quite oblivious to the fact that there are dust mice under the bed. Stacks of games teetering ominously and with sometimes disastrous outcomes in the closet. Piles of books unattended. Light feebly poking through grimy, neglected windows. Cobwebs left to be co-opted by successive generations of spiders. Lawns left unmowed for extended periods of time, much to the chagrin of the neighbors, but somehow unmoving me. Prior to being ill, I'd pushed myself through my self-assigned work with uncharacteristic discipline, as if I could make everything in life right as long as I kept to my tasks and did "what needed to be done." It was almost compulsive and I could be rather rigid about it. I remember wondering what I'd done with my days before all of this had come to be. I'm starting to remember what I did.

I read mountains of novels.

I played computer games. Compulsively. Just like I do everything else.

I slept late.

I watched videos.

I stared off into space.

Oh, yeah. That's what it felt like...

It's become rather hard to snap myself out of it. To resume the traces and re-discipline myself to those hard habits. Even in gardening I've become quite slack. When it became clear that my garden wasn't going to be performing up to previous years, I decided to live and let live with whatever decided to poke up. Ironically or perhaps to the point, what volunteered actually performed better than what I'd so carefully planned, started, and cultivated. There's probably a lesson to be learned here. I'm meditating on that possibility.

I don't know where this volunteer came from. A friend of mine gave me a couple of yellow zucchini squash from her abundance last year--I'd never heard of yellow zucchini before--but I thought we'd eaten it all. I have no recollection of having any seed of which I'd disposed. And somehow...the largest profile that dominates my garden is the volunteer yellow zucchini squash, producing in characteristic zucchini fashion.

Squash is, along with beans, one of those foods that never seemed to come up on the "crave" list among the Hobbits. No winsome appeals for "just some more squash, Mom!" Philistines. But they do like crispy, crunchy stuff. Salty stuff. Potato chips. That sort of thing. Having recently joined a foodie list on preserving foods, I sit and observe the conversations and technical discussions on the vicissitudes of dehydrating zucchini. Now I'm rolling up my sleeves to try my hand. A lot, it seems depends on the width of the slice, the length and temperature of the dehydrating process and the storage of the end product. Zucchini has humectant qualities, which will attract moisture from the environment to rehydrate itself. to this end, I've found it helpful to insert a dessicate pack, usually scavanged from an empty bottle of supplements, into the jar before vacuum sealing it.

Dehydrating these is one of those endless variables, kinds of things. I generally dehydrate between 100-150* depending on what I'm drying and how quickly I want it done. This time around, in a bit of a hurry, I dried on 150* for 3-4 hours after sprinkling salt over the very thin chips. Having opted for a thinner chip, the end product was a bit difficult to peel off of the drying trays. I learned to pull them up while they were still a bit leathery. Tedious, perhaps, but less tedious than trying to pull fully dried chips off that stuck and cracked like parchment. Individual taste and projected use can dictate how thick or how crispy one wants the final product to be.

I called the Hobbits around for a test drive. Dog and Tool Guy thought they were great, while the other two--unable to surmount the "but it's squash" obstacle--didn't care for them. Tool Guy remarked that this left more for him and left fewer people to fight with over them. Heh. Some you win, some you lose.

Summer draws to a close. My to-do list calls to me reproachfully and I gird my loins to do what must needs be done. Time to slough the sloth.