Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gluten-free week - the finale

Here we are, at the end of the journey. This is perhaps unexpected, but I don't exactly look forward to gluten-full meals. Is that strange? Having discovered that I can survive without gluten, I no longer feel a slave to bread and pastries as I once declared myself. Food is just fuel. We should eat the foods that nourish us and avoid those that harm us, whatever those foods are. Probably the key for the success of any cleansing diet is to take things lightly: don't go cold turkey, don't deny yourself treats and don't overindulge in forbidden foods once the cleanse is over. Be moderate, listen to your body and be kind to it.

This being said, I think gluten-free is something that everyone should try once. It's an experiment, and for many of us it will be an entirely new experience. I, for one, had never given up bread and cereal for any extended period of time before this. Maybe it will change the way you live. Maybe it will expand your knowledge of food and your palate. Maybe it will make you love cooking. Or maybe it will just give you something to write about. Who knows? Like any challenge, this could go anywhere.

To wrap things up, yesterday we went really simple with a brunch of breakfast and fruit and a dinner of soup and cornbread. Not too fancy. A fitting adieu to an adventurous two weeks.

For brunch, delicious buckwheat pancakes with butter and maple syrup. My favorite pancakes so far.

Pancakes go very well with fruit, did you know? Take a look at this very photogenic cantaloupe.

Dinner was innovative this time. We made a chicken two pepper corn chowder with soft goat cheese, our own invention. I was nervous, but... 
it was awesome. By the way: soft goat cheese in soup - brilliant!

The chowder didn't turn out as thick as it should have, because I kept desperately pouring broth into the pot. But it was all for the best, because I personally like more liquid in my soup. Plus, the goat cheese made it taste incredible. 

No respectable corn chowder should present itself without cornbread. This is the best version I've had so far: no sugar, no wheat, no milk, but rice flour, maple syrup and lots of olive oil.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Gluten-free week - day 7

We're nearing the end of this experiment and I already find myself missing it. Sure, making bread is great, especially when the bread maker makes it so easy and the loaf comes out so disarmingly fluffy and great-smelling. But I also like the challenge of doing without, of finding new things to eat, foods that we Westerners have never seen but that peoples around the world have been eating all their lives.

So I am getting nostalgic. And on this note, yesterday I took to making dishes from around the world. We started the day in Mexico, by lunch we were in India and by dinner we had arrived in Ghana. There's inspiration everywhere, and I'm definitely one to take a recipe, strip it of bells and whistles and make something quick and tasty. It may not be genuinely ethnic food by the time I'm done with it, but at least we're open to The New, right?

Avocado-chocolate pudding topped with shredded coconut. This pudding is ready in five minutes: 1 avocado, some honey, some cocoa, vanilla extract and almond milk, blended well. The best version I make is with carob powder instead of cocoa and agave instead of honey. I must have made this pudding a thousand times and I'd never get bored of it.

Palak paneer with brown rice. The green stuff came from a box from Trader Joe's, but it's made in India without mysterious ingredients and it's the most satisfying quick-meal I know.

Inspired from the Red-Red dish from Ghana, black-eyed peas and tomatoes stew with sauteed bananas. This was legendary. The stew and bananas complement each other so well! I can't imagine anyone not liking this.

Something about frying bananas in butter is SO irresistible (plus, this makes me remember Southern food so fondly).

Friday, March 23, 2012

Gluten-free week - day 6

Cooking doesn't necessarily have to be time-consuming, and it certainly doesn't have to happen every day. I remember when Grandma made a large pot of sarmale every Christmas and we'd have enough leftovers to last until New Year's - and that was a good thing too, because Grandma worked so hard on those things that by the time they were ready she swore off cooking forever (only to resume it a few days later).

A few years ago I visited a friend in Canada. I discovered that in his kitchen he had an entire line of oversize dishes, from huge Pyrex trays to pots large enough to boil a small child. He only cooked on weekends, I learned, and he made enough food to last him the entire week for lunch. It sounded brilliant at the time, and I was very jazzed to try out this promising avenue myself. But I was surprised by my own need for variation in food. Even if it's a decidedly delicious thing, I don't like to eat the same thing every day. To this day, I rarely cook something that lasts more than two days. 

So, yesterday the notorious soup was finished and so was the lasagna. An easy day, food-wise. This makes room for new and wonderful things to populate our plates. Stay tuned!

Nothing like a big fat cup of coffee in the morning.

For lunch, ginger-orange carrot soup again (mmmm), but...

...that was the last of it.

Lasssssagna with brown rice pasta and a glass of Merlot.

And a bowl of cantaloupe for dessert.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gluten-free week - day 5

Thursday for me is the godforsaken day of the week when I realize the week is almost over and I'm nowhere near reaching my goals. So I invariably panic, which translates into less time to write and less time to, well, cook. I usually get my wits together by Friday, so I am planning great feasts for tomorrow, and maybe even cookies for Saturday. For now, we still have oodles of soup and no one has so far honored the dinner invitation, so we are stoically doing most of the work...

The morning started well with a smoothie made of 1 banana, half a mango, 1/4 cup of blueberries, 1/4 cup of walnuts and 1/2 cup of rice milk. Especially when I'm rushed, I much prefer to drink my meal rather than chew it - right?

Come on, one more for the soup! This one's a classic already.

Lasagna with brown rice pasta and accompanied by a nice red Malbec. To be perfectly honest, by the time the lasagna was ready I was famished and even as I struggled to click the shutter for this photo I was positively drooling. So this isn't exactly an accurate rendition of an otherwise excellent dish. I'll try to do a better job next time.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Gluten-free week - day 4

One disadvantage of preparing a large batch of food is that for the next few days you'll end up eating much of the same thing. And it gets boring, it really does. Not just for you, but also for the other dwellers of the house, who will repeatedly point out how much food you prepared, make dismissive gestures at you and complain relentlessly (asking Why don't you make your own damn food? will usually shut them up).

So yesterday was the second day of ginger-orange carrot soup which - as whimsical as it once sounded - once the initial excitement wore off is just a large pot of endless orange stuff. Who wants to come over for dinner, hmm? The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the tapioca chocolate pudding with coconut milk which was stellar and which entirely redeemed the bad reputation that tapioca acquired on the previous pudding-making attempt (somebody said it had the texture of mucus - yes, he actually said that as I was eating it).

Going gluten-free is definitely enlightening, and among the initial discoveries you will make is finding out that you can make flour out of things you never suspected. There are plenty of alternatives to wheat that lend themselves to making pancakes, muffins, cookies and bread. Almond meal and coconut flour are two of those brilliant inventions. Discovering almond flour is like discovering another continent. The first time I made pita pockets I felt like Columbus, opening the oven door onto uncharted land and sitting there in contemplation, filling my lungs with the aroma of promise. But enough reverie - the photos!

Eggplant salad, which also makes a nice eggplant dip if you shovel it with tortilla chips. The best way to make this is to roast the eggplant on the stove, which gives it a nice smoky flavor. My smoke alarm is very sensitive so I opted for baking the eggplant instead and it was very tasty even sans the smoky flavor.

Pita pockets from almond and coconut flour. The eggplant stuff worked great with these. With non-gluten flours you have to use a stabilizer for the dough to stick together and not crumble away. The pita pockets are made with egg, but for bread you can use xanthan gum or guar gum as thickeners - more on that later.

Yes, they make gluten-free beer too! This one is spiced with orange peel, which gives it a fruity taste. Reminds me of Kriek and the other Belgian fruit lambics.

The star of the day: tapioca chocolate pudding with full-fat coconut milk and topped with shredded coconut and bananas.

Have you seen enough of this soup yet?

Air-popped popcorn for dinner. If you are a veritable popcorn fan, I recommend getting one of these brilliant gizmos. No oil, no mess, and you can even add melted butter if you're so inclined. As to the popcorn, be smart and always buy it organic.

Recipes for ginger-orange carrot soup, pita pockets and tapioca pudding.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gluten-free week - day 3

Okay, some days are hurrying days. On hurrying days, I usually pull out things from the fridge, tear pieces out of them and eat standing up in the kitchen. A 3-minute caveman meal. And to be perfectly honest, on days like these I even skip breakfast (gasp). I don't recommend that anyone either eat standing up in the kitchen or skip the most important meal of the day. But sometimes, well, we must.

Luckily, nature's been thoughtful about us hurried ones and designed a fruit that's perfect in these situations: the banana. It has a handle, it lends itself easily to being consumed on the go and thanks to its incorporated wrapper it's entirely messless. The banana is also a great source of Potassium, Manganese, Vitamin B6 and fiber. I am a fan.

Alas, yesterday I didn't have a banana. Instead, I went for a quick grilled meal for lunch and an exotic soup for dinner. I have to admit, having soup is when I miss bread the most...

A fitting lunch-in-front-of-the-computer: grilled chicken with grilled asparagus and fresh cucumber.

Don't forget about the ginger tea! I could sit here and rhapsodize about the benefits of ginger tea, but I'll keep the mystery for now. It looks damn pretty though.

Ginger-orange carrot soup. That's all I'm going to say.

The orange-carrot soup is made with Chardonnay, which also gives it a tangy taste. It's not for everyone. The orange flavor is very strong and granted, the idea of orange soup is a little strange. But the sour cream definitely makes it a winner.

Recipe for ginger-orange carrot soup from here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Gluten-free week - day 2

Yesterday Albuquerque was erased with a giant eraser of wind and dust. Winds over 50 mph snapped trees and caused all kinds of havoc in the city on an otherwise peaceful Sunday. Friends on the West side said they couldn't even see us down here in the valley. It was like we didn't exist. And I'll have to confess, a bleak desolation grabs hold of me when I look out of my window and don't see the Sandia crest looming in the distance. The air was turbid and opaque and there were no more mountains. It was as if I was living in the plains again. Perhaps you know this, but after being around mountains for so long, flatness is decidedly tedious. I became immediately claustrophobic.

And so it was that I spent the better part of my Sunday in the kitchen, concocting new gluten-free ideas. I, just like many of you, am a creature of habit, and I especially enjoy getting into wholesome habits. Preparing my own food is one of those habits. And, much like everybody else, I don't have a lot of time to spare. So generally speaking, the meals I prepare are nutritious but necessarily quick to make. Any recipe that's over 20 minutes in prep time makes me lose my interest.

Now, if usually I'm not keen on spending a whole lot of time cooking, this Sunday was definitely an exception. And I wouldn't even recommend making the baked fries I spent over an hour making and another half an hour cleaning up after (yes, really), if they weren't really, really, unequivocally delicious. So yes, make this - if and only if you have lots of time on your hands and don't mind spending two hours making something that you'll gobble up in ten minutes. Otherwise, go with salads and fruit, throw in some nuts or cheese, you can't go wrong with that.

For brunch: over-easy eggs, cornflakes with kefir and apples with almond butter. This is the new-American breakfast, by the way, I'm starting a thing.

Have I mentioned how brilliant apples with almond butter are?

For dinner, salad from baby bok choy, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, olives and crumbled goat cheese.

These baked fries took a lot of muscle to make - not to mention they stuck to the pan, bastards - but they really were high on the scale of awesomeness, especially dipped in sour cream. They are supposed to be like Arby's fries only, you know, the version without all the poisons.

Recipe for irresistible fries from here.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A gluten-free week

According to the principle less is more, deprivation of certain things often opens our eyes to the existence of many alternatives. There is of course the possibility that the alternatives will turn out to be even better than the originals. Or, most likely, the absence of things we're used to will make us appreciate them even more. At any rate, deprivation is almost always an adventure, and at the very least an exercise in self-discipline.

This being said, I have decided to go gluten free (GF) for another week. Since we've been on the GF boat before and survived heroically, this time we embark upon it with no fear. This is the diary of an entirely home-cooked GF diet. For all you dabblers in cooking, remember that healthy meals don't have to be tasteless. In fact, as I pledge to demonstrate, they can be even more delicious than less-healthy ones.

First, my two cents on gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat (including spelt), barley, rye and malts. Sensitivity and intolerance to gluten are becoming more widespread, especially in North America. Celiac disease is a strong autoimmune response to gluten, but it must not be confused with wheat allergy. A person can be allergic to wheat without having celiac disease. Read more about the whys and hows of a gluten-free diet here and here.

And thus starts the journal. Yesterday we explored light non-gluten flours and decided to make pancakes the size of our heads. Needless to say, we ended up with much more than we could handle. Lesson learned: non-gluten flours can be just as filling and heavy as gluten flours.

Buttermilk pancakes from brown rice and coconut flour. Instead of buttermilk I used half whole milk and half rice milk. Fluffy suckers, still.

Brunch with pancakes, scrambled eggs, tomatoes and cheese. And of course tea.

For dinner, southwestern soup with lima beans and bacon. If I make this again, I would go lighter on the celery and onions since they tend to be overpowering. But overall, a soup with personality.

And if you're brave enough... voila recipes for pancakes and soup.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

In search of Crappy

“Get the pink one” he says, and he’s off.

I mount the diminutive bike and start rolling after him, a little awkward at first. The handlebars jerk right and left as I not-so-smoothly negotiate my center of mass. On your horses, to Building 43!

“Careful,” he yells at me, half-turned on his fairy cycle, “the brakes are tricky on these!”

“What?” I holler back, his words only now making sense as I almost cause an accident to happen rolling into the intersection on red. The drivers stop indulgently, unfazed, and wait for me to wheel along open-mouthed, passively holding the brakeless handlebars. A blonde on a pink minibike.

I pedal furiously to catch up.

“How do you stop?” I ask breathlessly, now traveling by his side.

“You pedal backwards,” and he promptly demonstrates, coming to a full stop as I almost run into a tree.


Building 43. Through the clear doors people are coming and going, and the reception area beyond the doors seems busy enough too. People of all kinds - Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Africans, Yankees and maybe even Eastern-European oddments like myself. I try not to stare, but it’s pretty cool - this is what the streets of Toronto look like. Everyone is going somewhere. As for me, I’m not sure where I am going, but I’m guessing there’s got to be food at the destination.

We park the Google bikes and before we’ve even walked away a couple of dudes hop on and they’re off with them.

“You can leave them anywhere on campus and someone will pick them up,” he responds to my questioning look. I gaze after the dudes squeaking and creaking away with software engineer nonchalance.

“Maybe I should have told them about the brakes?”

But folks here seem to know everything. It’s something in their eyes when they pass you in the hallway, like they are teeming with a secret they’ve only just discovered, like Marie Curie jubilating with the radium in her pocket - um, only less radioactive and less creepy. There is something like sparks everywhere. Even outside, the air is heavy with the vapors of brainstorming, which is probably happening everywhere. After all, we know that Building 43 is where Sergey, Larry and Marissa work their magic.

After I’ve found out about the Google campus bikes, the Google shuttle that collects employees and deposits them at their houses, like royalty, and the 25 cafes in the Googleplex, I will confess that I am a little pissed. I’ve set my mind on finding something crappy about Google. Decidedly crappy.

Our next stop is at the bathroom, where I find a warm toilet seat and reading materials on the back of the door. I spend more time than is normal here, and I tear myself away from the reading material only because I don’t want to make him worry. The autoflush toilet refuses to autoflush, so I am now desperately looking for the flush button, which is nowhere to be found. Instead, there are myriad other buttons. I could get a front spray, a back spray, a quick dry, a long dry, maybe there’s even a candy dispenser right in this wall. Seriously, Google? How about some flushing.

A-ha! It dawns on me. What a clever intelligence test they’ve devised. Only those who can figure out how to flush the toilet deserve to work here. So now I am frantically pushing on pipes and fittings and finally, finally, one of them turns out to be the incognito flush button. Ha! I would have passed that test with flying colors. In only 3.67 minutes.

Over Indian food, I find out more annoying things about Google. It turns out that right here in the Googleplex there is also a smoothie bar (which we later visit, and I have a finger-licking rabbit-style concoction), a massage parlor, a gym and a rec room. A rec room? We later play two hours of Ping-Pong, where I get dangerously competitive, and get intoxicated on Kit-Kats. Kit-Kats too? Jesus, Google!

Outside, the bikes that will take us to the edge of the campus are right outside the door, left by some other weary travelers. How convenient. Riding through campus, in the chilly air of California in winter, I feel my lungs fill with serenity. The squeaking of the bike is like a song, and I sing along, pedaling faster and faster. Outside one of the buildings, we can see large, looming silhouettes of the seven flavors of Android: Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich. On a closer look, a sign says picture-taking is encouraged, but please don’t climb on the sculptures. I’ve half a mind to climb the eclair just to see what they’ll do to me. I bet they’ll give me a cupcake, pat me on the head and send me home. I can’t imagine anybody getting angry here.

No luck. I couldn’t find anything crappy at Google today. Maybe tomorrow.