Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happiness is unexpected benefits

Warning:  This post is not vegetarian-friendly

We discovered that the local super-stores put additives in their meat ("marinated in up to a 10% solution to maintain freshness!") but don't list the ingredients of said "solution".  Because we can't trust commercial products to be gluten free unless they label, I went on a meat quest.  Once you look beyond the megastores and their dye-soaked week-old overpriced cuts, it gets interesting.  I have an advantage of being in a smallish city surrounded by rural, so if I was really motivated I could always visit individual farms.  If I bought a chest freezer and found a place to put it, I could get half a cow for a big investment up front but a bargain per pound.  Unfortunately I don't have that $500-$1000 initial investment money for the freezer and cow.

Luckily I made a discovery.  It's called Quality Meats Incorporated, and it's the last of the multi-generational old-fashioned family run butcher shops within a hundred miles.  It's also less than ten minutes away from the house.  They use local meats that are hormone, antibiotic and additive-free.  They're in this tiny little bare-walls shop by the freeway that (not surprisingly) always has a crowd at the counter.  Everything's minimally processed with no gluten products.  Best yet, they're CHEAP.  Thick-cut smoked lean bacon right off the pig for less than $2.00 a pound.  If you can even find packaged bacon in the store that guarantees gluten-free, it'll be more than twice that price, and mostly fat that cooks away.  They even have "freezer packs" that are a 40 pound assortment of various meats and cuts for $50.  Steak under $3.00/lb.  Whole amish fryer chickens for $5.00.   

It seems silly to wax enthusiastic about meat, but this is the first time the search for gluten-free has led to finding something both better and cheaper than store products.  We've been struggling with the additional cost of this diet.  His body has finally realized it can get nutrition from food, so he's going through a couple gallons of milk a week, plus daily red meat and veggies.  It's an interesting study of intuitive eating, but this find allows us to pile on the proteins and iron while supporting a local family business and local small farmers.  It's a win all around.  I might have never discovered it if I hadn't been forced to think outside the big box stores. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Recipe Box: Chocolate Meringues (gluten free)

CHOCOLATE MERINGUES

My favorite meringue is still slightly treacly and chewy in the middle, which is why I prefer homemade to boxed.  Really, they're so easy to make (despite their reputation) that it makes no sense to buy them.  They're a nice fancy addition to holiday cookie assortments, and because they're gluten, soy, and dairy-free, they can be eaten by most non-vegans. 

This recipe is for meringues with just a hint of chocolate, but you can easily make plain ones by eliminating the cocoa powder and 1/4 cup powdered sugar.  Adding 1/8 teaspoon of flavored extract (vanilla, orange, mint, etc.) will make that flavor cookies, but try it first with stronger flavors to make sure it doesn't wind up overwhelming.

4 large egg whites
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit

Mix dry ingredients in separate bowl and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. If you don't have parchment paper, butter the cookie sheets and dust with white rice flour.

In a mixing bowl, use an electric mixer to beat egg whites on low until frothy, then on high until soft peaks form.  Continue to mix on high, adding dry ingredients one tablespoon at a time and mixing in well before adding the next tablespoon.  When the mixture is able to form and hold stiff peaks, drop it in ping-pong ball size spoonfuls onto the parchment paper (or if you want to get fancy, use a pastry bag and toothed tip to make neat blobs).  Bake for 1 hour.  Let rest for 1 hour.  Store in fridge for up to one week (they never last more than a day here.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gluten-Free Product Reviews

I'll be going through gluten-free products with a vengeance (as our budget allows) in search of the ones that best compare with mainstream gluten-containing products.  Since I'm fairly new to this, there may be a lot I'm missing (i.e. ALL rice pasta tastes like kindergarten paste?).  I wanted to give my first impressions as someone just setting out to explore this new lifestyle, hopefully helping others with their own trial-and-error.

Bob's Red Mill Pizza Crust Mix

The first reaction is "OMG I can make homemade pizza again!"  happy dance.  My review is mixed and a bit hedged.  As a substitute for a commercial pizza crust mix, like Jiffy's, it holds up reasonably well!  As a substitute for my own homemade foccacia pizza crust, it falls flat.  That may be an entirely unreasonable expectation on my part, of course.  The good news is that the mix is actually complete; including a packet of yeast. It bakes well, holds it's form, and re-heats well in the microwave for at least three days (which is how long it took us to finish the pizzas).  The bad news is that it's bland, and somewhat mealy in texture.  I would highly recommend some doctoring if you do use it.  Try brushing the finished crust with garlic-flavored oil, mix Italian herbs into the dough, or sprinkle the outer crust with shredded cheddar cheese to bake into the bread.    The crust might also be made crispier if, after the initial bake or for the last ten minutes, it was put directly on the oven rack or a pizza stone instead of finishing in the pan.  Since each package makes two pizzas, you can experiment two ways, or leave one alone as a control in case the experiment goes badly. The crispy crust might help with the texture issues. 

Bob's Red Mill Pancake Mix

Made these last week. It isn't Bob's fault this one disappointed me, but it would help if the label were changed to "Whole Grain Pancake Mix".  If you're expecting the sweet, fluffy flavor of buttermilk pancakes you would get out of other commercial mixes, you'll be badly surprised.  If you're expecting the heavy, nutty, semi-bitter flavor of whole-grain pancakes, you'll probably be very happy.  That said, there are positives on this mix.  It does behave just like regular pancake mix and fluffs up beautifully.  The package also gives directions to make small batches (6-8 4 inch pancakes) at a time instead of needing to use the whole package in one go.  Since they're heavy and filling, that was enough to feed both of us with enough leftover to pack for lunch the next day.  Unfortunately I was expecting the sweet buttermilky flavor and had to use a lot of syrup to make them palatable. JD made them for breakfast again yesterday and added 1/4 cup of powdered (confectioner's) sugar to the dry mix, with a splash extra milk to balance the texture.  They were MUCH closer to what I expected.  I'm sure if we experiment once more using buttermilk instead of 2% it will bridge the gap. 

Betty Crocker Gluten-Free Brownie Mix

This is a new product on the shelves with their regular baking mixes.  It turned out so well that I'm going back for their gluten-free cake mixes!  I could tell when I mixed this up that the flavor would be that of very dark chocolate, not the sweet milk chocolate I'm used to.  So I added three tablespoons confectioner's sugar and one of sesame oil (to balance the added dry ingredients).  It still tasted like dark chocolate, but wasn't quite as bitter.  If you love 70% or higher good quality dark chocolate, you'll be absolutely in love with these brownies.  Check the bake time by the toothpick method.  I had a roast in at the same time and the brownies took twice as long as package directions indicated to bake.  The batter should be mixed smooth; no lumps.  It's thicker than normal brownie batter and won't really rise or flow, so spread it smoothly in the pan.

DeBoles Gluten-Free Rice Penne

This had good texture for penne pasta, but gave my home-made red wine tomato and vegetable sauce an annoying undertone of library paste.  It also didn't hold up that well; by the end of the meal it was already going to pieces under the sauce.  I'm glad I kept the sauce separate, because I think it'll taste better over rice than these rice noodles.  I probably won't buy this brand again, unless to try their corn-base noodles for comparison.

 Thai Kitchen Rice Noodle Sides

This is Ramen for grownups, and diabolically tasty!  Be sure to check the label, because we found that the rice noodles in peanut sauce in the 9.77oz is labeled gluten-free, but the 5.9oz size of the same flavor is NOT gluten free (label says "contains wheat").  The labels are all over the place too, so depending on the package size and batch, it may be in big words under the flavor, or in tiny letters off in a corner.  I like the little bring-to-work size.  I had the Spring Onion flavor yesterday and it was heaven.  It had a separate packet for the seasonings and another for the spicy pepper oil; so you could theoretically spice to taste.



Those are the specific gluten-free brands we've tried this week, in our frenzy to find the right flavors.  I'm sure our experimentation will settle down once we find favorite brands and products, but I'll keep letting you know what we find!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Happiness is Using Up My Fabric

In the interest of retrenching on spending and decluttering, I'm pulling out my enormous fabric hoard and putting it to use! 

I think most sewers accumulate a hoard at one point or another.  Mine is the result of business ventures that went bust.  One year I was going to make quilted drum covers to sell at Renaissance fairs and Pagan festivals.  I bought fabric in bolts when I could find it cheap and the pattern was right.  When I let go of that idea, most of the fabric remained.  Ditto when I bought up several hundred dollars worth of brocade to make plus-size Kimonos to sell on E-bay.  Still sitting in totes in the attic.

That's a bad project habit of mine; I'm a planner.  I love to draw up intricate designs, price materials, buy materials, write out step-by-step what I'm going to do.....then it goes into a tote in the attic :-)

One project that's been sitting on the shelf is curtains.  We had very dark blue curtains that were disturbingly see-through at night when the lights were on in the house. We have a tiny house with bad lighting, so the dark curtains made it even smaller.  I've also been trying several ways to be able to keep plants without the cats either eating them or knocking them over.  So instead of waiting for money to buy fabric specifically for the project, I pulled out the bolts of quilting cotton once destined for drum covers. I made cafe' style curtains that give enough privacy, but let in plenty of light at the top.  I then hung plants from the ceiling where they could take advantage of the sun.  Between my fabric hoard and some bamboo sticks I'd bought to make a trellis (planned, priced, purchased, stuck in attic) I was able to make a major decorating change without spending an extra dime. 

The two yards of black pleather I found in a box made a rather hot and daring pencil skirt that I can't wait to wear to a party with my knee high boots.  I think I originally bought it for something punkish like the base for a skirt made of braided leather belts.  As for the brocade?  I have at least a few plans for dresses and jackets, but I may take at least some to make into a bodice for Ren-Faires.  Maybe even turn the rest into a nice luxurious quilt.  The point is that when inspired for a project, I need to look first to what I have before I decide I need to go out and buy more.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gluten Free: First impressions and a comment on sugar

I've now passed my first week going gluten-free.  I've gradually realized that there really isn't such a thing as "substitute" when you're talking about such a complete change in diet.  While there are "flour substitutes," the magical formula with the same taste, texture and cooking behaviour as wheat flour is still out there, somewhere, beckoning me forth.  What I've realized is that I can't think of things as substitutes for foods I've eaten in the past if I want to learn to appreciate them for their own flavor and texture.  I have to think of them as what they are: new foods. 

Otherwise it feels way too much like a weight-loss diet, which means the change won't be sustainable.  Deprivation almost never is.  It also means it's triggering all kinds of weird psychological deprivation/binge issues that I know so well from my weight-watchers days.  Sorghum "substitutes" for the flavor of wheat in the same way fat-free carob "substitutes" for chocolate.  It doesn't, which means the craving isn't satisfied and neither am I.  In this case, I don't have the choice to satisfy my bread craving at home because of the risk of cross-contamination from crumbs, etc.  I can eat bread away from home (i.e. keep crackers in my desk at work) or I can keep practicing some gluten-free alchemy in search of the magic formula. 

A lot of the mixes and recipes I've tried so far have been poor substitutes, but it has taken me a week to pin down the reason; sugar.  White bread is sweet.  So are other things generally made from wheat flour.  So I make gluten-free pancakes from a mix expecting the light, fluffy, sweet taste of buttermilk and am disappointed when I get the heavy, semi-bitter, nutty whole-grain flavor of sorghum.  On the other hand, if I had come to the table expecting the flavor of whole-grain high-fiber pancakes I would have been fully satisfied and ecstatic over the results.   The gluten-free brownies aren't that good when I'm expecting the sweet milk-chocolate taste I'm used to, but are fantastic if I'm expecting the new, richer flavor of very dark chocolate. 

So going gluten-free seems so far to require a re-training of the taste buds and expectations similar to a change to whole foods.  Whole grain wheat products tend to have the same complex, semi-bitter flavor as what I've tried so far; probably because the flour "substitutes" are generally whole-grain.  Gluten-free foods also tend to be brands that omit super-sweeteners, like HFCS or artificial sweeteners (which we try to avoid anyway) to appeal to a whole-foods market.  People with Gluten intolerance also seem to tend to have multiple sensitivities so GF foods tend to keep it simple. 

Whether it's training or nature, my taste-buds are sensitive to bitterness.  One of the reasons I hate tomatoes is that I can taste a nasty, bitter flavor in even the sweetest hothouse grape tomato. Ditto with many whole-grain products, rye bread, etc.  This new gluten-free change is either going to require me to retrain my taste buds or work that much harder to find recipes that satisfy my taste cravings.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Happiness is: The Designated Control Freak Rule

This rule says, basically, whoever cares enough to want it is in charge of making it happen. 

In our house, there's rarely a dispute over who is in charge of what.  Now this could be because my partner is wonderfully laid back and patient, so he may just not be telling me when my skimping on the vaccuuming bothers him.  Or it could be because of the way the chores have settled between us. 

We discovered fairly early on that a neat, clean house was more important to him than it was to me.  I enjoy a clean house, but it isn't as high a priority on my time and energy as many other things.  I've always operated on the "blitz" method, where I periodically decide I'm sick of the mess and take an entire day to deep clean.  He's much better at daily ongoing maintenance of a clean house, and I'm learning to adapt to his better cleaning habits.

But there's no "if you love me you'll do the laundry this way because you know it's important to me" passive-aggressive nonsense. He knows that I'll put off laundry until I'm actually out of underwear (and even then sometimes I'll wash one pair in the sink rather than do a load).  I will also habitually leave most of the clean clothes in the basket until I've worn it all again, rather than put them away.  He has fewer clothes than I do and is much more concerned about how they're cleaned and put away.  One way he could theoretically handle this conflict of priorities would be to stand on "your turn" principles, nag me about getting it done, then get disgruntled if I don't do it "correctly".  Under the designated control freak rule, he simply does the laundry.  This may mean more work for him, but it means less nagging, conflict, and aggrieved but ultimately pointless discussions about when to add the fabric softener.  It means more peace and fewer resentments. He considers that a win-win situation.

Of course this can't work one-way.  There has to be give and take between adults, and some personal responsibility.  If one person is doing all the work then the couple or group may need to consider whether their needs and priorities are compatible.  And, of course, while it's generally good to give kids some choice in which chores they're in charge of, giving them full freedom to do nothing hasn't ever worked to my knowledge.

So my partner does the laundry and dishes.  He also wears shoes in the house and I like to go barefoot, so I'm in charge of vaccuuming.  It bothers me more to feel "grit" on the carpet. That's my Designated Control Freak.  I also like to dust, so that's mine.  I'm a germaphobe and actually like the smell of bleach, so the bathroom's mine as well.  He works at home during most days and hates looking at clutter, so general "picking up" usually happens before I get home from the office. 

I suppose you could argue that we're lucky in a lot of ways.  After all, our Designated Control Freaks don't conflict that often and we're able to settle it pretty amicably when it does.  We've made sure to "check in" periodically to make sure we both feel like we're contributing equally and the burden isn't all one direction.  It ends up working out according to our cleaning habits; he does the daily tasks and I do the periodic ones that can be moved a few days in either direction.  Win-Win.

Designated Control Freak comes down to personal priorities.  Is having something done a certain way more important than arbitrary divisions of labor?  Do you get more peace of mind doing it "correctly" yourself, for yourself, then trying to get someone else to do it for you?  Then consider simply doing for yourself, and find some peace of mind in the process.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Gluten-Free Shopping, Mainstream Brands

So we went shopping yesterday.  Yes, while I have concerns about their employee treatment, I am forced by finances to do most of my shopping at Waldemort (the store that shall not be named).  We had to stop and read a lot of labels, but between that and Internet shopping I found some surprising things about how many mainstream brands are adapting to their market by having clear gluten-labeling policies!  Here's a few things I found out:

Walmart brands are very, very good about labeling.  Anything that may contain allergens is clearly labeled including potential cross-contamination ("processed in a facility that also processes wheat") but anything they are actually confident calling gluten-free is also labeled.  Look for "A Gluten-Free Food" or "Naturally Gluten-Free" on the label.   Even most of their vitamins are labeled, but you have to call and check on each batch of multivitamins.  It might be worth it since JD just shelled out $50 for two months worth of specialty gluten-free multivitamins from the health store.  Apparently they taste like something not-so-recently dead :-)

I was surprised by dairy (which might make a good band name).  None of the regular gallons of milk were actually labeled gluten-free.  The only one labeled such was the cardboard half-gallon of Walmart brand organic milk.  While it might be safe anyway, we're being extra paranoid for the first year so that we don't interrupt his healing process.  So while I need milk for baking, etc. we might re-think breakfast cereal if we have to pay $7 a gallon for something labeled gluten-free.  Cottage and ricotta cheeses, ice cream and block cheeses were also an issue.  Nada on the cottage and ricotta.  We found one local Michigan cheese maker who labeled their block cheese, but had to get the pre-shredded mozzarella (which, oddly, WAS labeled gluten-free, even though you'd think they came from the same manufacturer as the block cheese).  Ben and Jerry's was the only ice cream labeled, but too expensive.  So we're putting the ice-cream maker back into use. 

We were also blocked on the "super-extra paranoid" front in the meat department.  You'd think meat was meat, but every packaged cut on the shelf had a tiny fine-print label that says "Contains up to an 8% solution or marinade to maintain freshness".  There's no info on what's in the marinade, but most stock bases have gluten.  So no roast or steaks.  I got hamburger instead, which was labeled gluten free.  Sausage is a hopeless minefield and I might just look for an actual butcher who can make it to specifications. 

Ditto on nuts, as every package of nuts in any form, anywhere in the store had a "processed in a facility that also processes wheat" warning.  Maybe I can talk my parents into bringing me Georgia pecans for Christmas. 

The joy of the day was in Internet research!  The best way to know if you can trust a label is to see if they have a specific gluten-labelling policy on their website.  Google the manufacturer and look for a FAQ, a health and safety section, an allergen section, etc.  If in doubt, e-mail them and if they're confident in their labeling they'll tell you.  If you get a "we cannot guarantee" or "ingredients change in each batch" or "may have been processed in the same facility" legalese, you can't trust them unless your gluten sensitivity is very light.

But there are a few brands that are going out of their way to compete for the business of the 3 million Celiac sufferers in the U.S.!  This info is as of December 2010, but remember that these policies DO change without warning, so check the websites regularly for updates.  I should note that I'm not receiving any benefit from any of these companies, they're just brands I looked at specifically when grocery shopping. 

Kraft Foods: 
Rating: Good-job-keep-going

Their website states:

"The ingredient information on labels of Kraft products is very specific to help you make accurate and informed choices. If a Kraft product has an ingredient that is a source of gluten, the specific grain will be listed in the ingredient statement, no matter how small the amount. For labeling purposes, Kraft products will always state the names ‘wheat, barley, rye and/or oats’ when they are added to a product either directly as an ingredient or as part of an ingredient. "


This means that if they use modified food starch from a gluten product, they will label "modified food starch (wheat)," for example.  The problem with this may be psychological.  They are making the assertion that if a wheat, barley, rye or oat product is not clearly listed on the label, it isn't there.  I don't think that's good enough.  If they suddenly changed their policy, the consumer would never know unless they regularly visited the website.  I think it's awesome that they're taking the extra step, but one more (actually labeling products "Gluten Free" if they are) would cinch my business at least.  In the initial extra-careful first year, we can't take a chance.  Sorry Kraft.  I hope to use your products again someday.
 
Campbells:
Rating: Good-job-keep-going
 
They are making efforts to test and certify foods as gluten-free and maintain an extensive list of gluten-free foods on their website: http://www.campbellsoupcompany.com/pdf/FAQ_GlutenFreeProductList.pdf
 
Unfortunately, when I checked the list against their products in-store, the items were not specifically labeled gluten-free and the ingredients lists include the suspect keywords, like "modified food starch" and "natural flavors" that make it way too risky to buy.  Plus, since they rely on a published list instead of labeling each batch of product, it could legally change at any time without warning.  I would love to go back to Swanson broths for my soup bases, but until they take that extra step of saying "gluten-free" on the label, I'll have to make do with something else.
 
Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing
Rating:  FAIL!
Is actually made by Clorox...who knew?  Anyway the labeling is unclear, the website only goes so far as to say they comply with the federal law which makes them list the top 8 allergens (of which wheat is one, but barley, rye, oats and gluten are NOT required disclosures).  They did not respond to an e-mail asking for clarification.  This makes me sad, because it was my favorite addition to scrambled eggs in the morning. 
 
General Mills
Rating:  WIN!  LOVE!
General Mills not only maintains a website with gluten-free product lists (including batch numbers, something I haven't seen elsewhere!) but they also include advice, recipes using their GF products, etc. http://www.liveglutenfreely.com/
What gives them a WIN! rating is that in addition to the published online information, their GF products are clearly labeled Gluten Free.  Sometimes in small letters over the bar code, sometimes (like with Chex cereal) emblazoned across the front of the box.  This means that when I am reading all the labels on the shelf, I will reach for a General Mills brand first since I know they will say directly if it's GF.  Since Kellogg's is apparently not rolling with the zeitgeist, it means I'll probably be using crushed Rice Chex to make my "rice krispy treat" recipe from now on. 
 
General Mills gets an extra LOVE! rating to their current WIN! rating, because Betty Crocker now has (in regular stores, no less) Gluten free baking mixes including cakes and brownies, for reasonable prices.  They also came out with a Gluten-Free Bisquick!  Unfortunately I had to pass on that because in that particular store it was shelved right underneath all the leaky, floury boxes of regular Bisquick and other baking mixes.  Cross contamination fail :-(  That's Wal-mart's fault though, not General Mills. 
 
Heinz
Rating:  WIN!
Heinz maintains a website with a complete international list of gluten-free products (specifically labeled as to which country they're available in as gluten-free) and an advice area:  http://www.heinz.com/glutenfree/index.html
 
They get a WIN! rating because they also label their products Gluten Free when appropriate.  Hunt's (their main competitor here in Michigan at least) does not, which is why I had to toss half a bottle of their ketchup when we did the gluten-clean out at our house.   Heinz also produces/owns Ore-Ida frozen potato products and Smart Ones frozen dinners.  The frozen potato products are very handy to have labeled Gluten Free, since there's so much potential cross-contamination from breaded frozen products (onion rings, chicken wings, etc.) that may be processed in the same facility. 
 
Newman's Own
Rating:  Good-job-keep-going Newman's Own maintains a website with allergen and sensitivity info on their products (including Gluten, MSG and Sulfides)  http://www.newmansown.com/foodQA.aspx


 
They also state:
If one or more of the major common allergens recognized by FDA are contained in a Newman's Own product they will be listed in the ingredient statement regardless of the level and whether or not directly added to the product or contained in another ingredient.


The composition of each ingredient will be reviewed for the presence of the major common food allergens recognized by FDA.

Again, the legalese of the last bit means that they are promising to review each product component for wheat, but not specifically gluten.  Since I don't know how often the website list is updated and the products themselves (at least the ones I found) are not labeled "Gluten-Free", I can't take the risk buying it.  That's a shame, because I do love their salad dressings! 

Wishbone
Rating:  WIN!
They carry a list of gluten-free dressings on their website with a caveat that it may change:  http://www.wish-bone.com/Contact-Us-FAQs.aspx

But they also clearly label on the product whether it is gluten-free.  This is how we finally got ranch and blue cheese dressing (which can sometimes be an issue if the mold in the blue cheese was grown on bread!).  They pretty much do dressings, but the clear labelling means you've got a big range of flavors to play with. 

Ben and Jerry's
Rating:  FAIL!
Ben and Jerry's may maintain a list of gluten-free flavors somewhere on their poorly designed, graphic and gimmick-heavy, content-poor, hard-to-navigate website, but I didn't have the patience for it.  A site search got nothing useful. Their products claim that all gluten ingredients are specified on the label, but if they're not going to maintain an accessible list OR label products gluten-free, I have to pass.  I'll really, really miss the Phish Food :-(

Lawry's and McCormick spices
Rating:  FAIL
Neither company maintains a list of gluten-free products (as formulas change frequently) and neither labels gluten-free products as such.  They both rely on a statement that if the product contains any gluten ingredients it will be clearly noted on the label, but as policies like that can change without warning (except for the FDA top allergens i.e. wheat) it isn't trustworthy enough for me.  These two companies dominate the spice shelves at my supermarket, so I might actually have to spring for the organic bulk spices at the health food store. 

************************

So that's the ratings, based on two hours of intense label-reading at the grocery store last night :-)  Hope it helps some other folks when looking for ways to keep the costs down on eating gluten-free!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Recipe Box: Everything Soup (gluten free)

This is an idea I've used before, but I give full inspiration credit to
http://glutenfreeeasily.com/everything-soup-and-cornbread/ in this case.

Between cleaning out the cupboards of everything with gluten and getting my paycheck a.k.a. grocery money today, there was a bit of a gap where the kitchen was bare indeed.  It wasn't completely bare though, and after reading through a bunch of recipes on the site above, I was inspired by the "everything soup" idea.  It's essentially a gumbo; you toss whatever bits of leftovers you have into a freezer bag, then toss it in to make soup.  The appeal is that you have a different flavor every single time. 

So I looked around the remains of our pantry and fridge and put the following in a crock pot to make enough gluten-free soup to last a good solid week!

4 frozen chicken breasts

1 small bottle of white wine (a Riesling, about 2 cups; I buy these specifically for cooking wine, as I only have to open a small bottle at a time instead of wasting a full 750ml when I'm the only one who drinks it)

The remains of a slightly shriveled ginger root (about 2 tablespoons minced)

A large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1" cubes (leftover from Thanksgiving, about 2-3 cups cubed)

half an onion, chopped

four slightly shriveled and half-frozen carrots from the back of the fridge (no longer edible raw) chopped

half a red-pepper, diced

about a cup of green onions (about to go bad but not quite slimy yet) chopped

about a cup of dried pinto beans from the back of the cupboard.

2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp cardamon
1/4 cup butter, sliced
4 cups of water

Everything went into the crock pot about 9:00am, and by 5:00 we had a large amount of golden, delicious, slightly sweet and fruity soup.  I added another 2 tablespoons of lemon juice to the finished soup at the end to give it a nice fresh flavor and bring out the other flavors by raising the acidity (vinegar works well for this too!).

This is a great way to use up leftovers, especially if you have one of those "too little for another meal but too much to throw away" situations.  Stuff it into a dedicated ziplock bag in the freezer.  I'm planning to do a soup every grocery day (about two weeks) to use up leftover fresh produce before we re-stock the fridge.  The best part is that because every batch is different, there's enough variety to satisfy anyone!

Going Gluten-Free

After a long year of working with my partner's serious illness, we think we've finally found the reason for it and our household is officially going gluten free.

Technically only he needs to eat gluten-free, but the risk of cross contamination, accidents, and the hassles of split meals make it logical for me to simply join him on the diet and just keep everything containing gluten out of the house altogether.  My having the occasional gluteny treat is not worth the chance of making him sick again. 

So we scoured every label for the obvious (wheat, barely, rye) and the less obvious (caramel color, malt, modified food starch, "natural flavor" and a hundred others).  Everything unopened we suspected of containing gluten went to the Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes food bank yesterday.  31 pounds and the warm fuzzy feeling of helping those who really need it.  Anything they wouldn't accept (frozen, refrigerated, partials, etc.) goes into a friend's freezer who has a big family to feed. 

The cupboard isn't as bare as I'd feared, since some brands (like Wal-mart) is adapting to the changing market by labeling products when they're gluten-free.  Most of the time the issue isn't that the product actually contains wheat gluten, but that it was manufactured in a facility that handles gluten-containing products and the flour dust, crumbs, handlers, etc. could cause cross-contamination.  I was particularly surprised to see that a lot of plain frozen vegetables have "may contain" warnings on them that make them unsafe; perhaps because the same facility is used to process frozen breaded items.  It isn't worth the risk at this point, so out the door it goes. 

Some of the gluten dangers are surprising.  Did you know that Crest is willing to claim their toothpaste is gluten free, but Colgate isn't?  Did you know that some artificial colors are made from wheat, and that you have to write each manufacturer with the batch number to find out if you can use, say, frosting coloring or vanilla extract?  Did you know that most commercial vitamin E is made from wheat germ, and therefore vitamins, multivitamins, and even chapstick can make a gluten sensitive person sick? 

At this point we're going crazy-paranoid about every little thing, in hopes of getting him well as fast as possible.  In a year or so he may decide to test his tolerance for, say, chapstick, but in the meantime he's not eating in restaurants, we're bringing our own food to potlucks and family gatherings, and creating a gluten-clean house by even scrubbing down all the food shelves and replacing the shelf paper in case there's residual flour dust. 

After three days he's already feeling better, but we're both still surprised every time he eats something and doesn't get sick. 

The biggest concern for us was cost, as national figures suggest that a gluten-free diet costs 200%-300% more than the average American diet.  Yesterday we went to one of the two health-food stores in town and extensively priced everything, noting brand, size and cost in a notebook.  I'm sure they thought we were either crazy, or spies from a competing shop, because very puzzled clerks kept asking if they could help us :-)  Once I have it all plugged into a spreadsheet we can do a comparison check at the other health food store in town, and then see what on the list is also available at local grocery chains. 

We discovered that the high-cost estimates of eating gluten-free is assuming a few things.  It's assuming that people buy the outrageously priced, Styrofoam textured commercial GF foods, like cookies, crackers, bread, candy, baking mixes and microwavable meals.  It's six dollars for a pack of GF cookies comparable to the package of vanilla sandwich cookies you can buy at any dollar store. 

For someone who is tolerant of glutens, it's generally cheaper (in a purely financial sense) to buy pre-packaged and prepared foods.  Before going GF I could get a package of cookies, crackers, or cereal cheaper than the ingredients to make them myself.  The inverse is true when you're discussing a gluten-free diet.  Even using gluten-free flour substitutes, I can make GF cookies MUCH more cheaply than I can buy them, and they'll actually taste like cookies.  I can make my own flour mixes much more cheaply than buying commercial mixes.  I can make a fresh meal of fresh veggies and meat much more cheaply than buying commercial GF microwave dinners. 

The ideal and least expensive route to Gluten-free is to rely on fresh vegetables (blanch and freeze them yourself with seasonings already included for quick side dishes) meats, whole gluten-free grains and legumes, and rice.  No one actually needs the pre-packaged stuff that makes the GF diet so expensive. 

I, however, am a bread fiend.  Like many Europeans, I think a really complete, excellent meal comes with fresh bread of some kind or another.  So I'm willing to sacrifice some extra money (and thankful I have it) to buy a few gluten-free flour alternatives to mix myself and use in baking.  In some ways that's a benefit; how can a pie crust made with almond flour instead of wheat be anything but yummier? :-) 

I can at least count us extremely lucky that I love to experiment in the kitchen and am a fairly good cook and baker.  It will be easier for me to transition to gluten-free than it would for a lot of people, because I can think around recipes and know how to substitute items to achieve good flavor.  I've already accumulated a stack of recipes to try, and am planning to search diligently to find a substitute flour for the roux in our family's traditional Christmas gumbo.  I hear amaranth works well.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Recipe Box: Leftover Corn Tortillas (Chilaquiles, Chips, Soup)

Yesterday's recipe post on Tacos leaves most people with a large stack of corn tortillas and only a few days to a week to use them up (more if they have artificial preservatives; check the package).  They're good for tacos for a few days (wrapped tightly in the fridge) but you have more options for the leftovers than just using them to hold various fillings.

Chilaquiles (reposted from ideas for leftover Pico de Gallo):


This was my absolute favorite breakfast when I visited my parents in Mexico, even if it doesn't quite taste the same in Michigan somehow :-) I've found that cooking it in well-seasoned cast-iron makes it taste more authentic:

For each serving:
2 Leftover soft corn (masa flour) tortillas
2 eggs
2 Tablespoons salsa ranchero or 1/2 cup leftover Pico de Gallo
1 Tablespoon fresh cream (can substitute sour cream in the U.S.)
1 tablespoon fresh salsa (or to taste)
1 teaspoon olive oil

cut the tortillas into strips and cook in the oil on medium-high until crispy or browned
turn down heat
add eggs and salsa
cook over medium low heat until eggs are to your liking
serve with a dollop of fresh cream or sour cream and fresh salsa. This can be a main dish for breakfast or a "side dish" with eggs and toast


Homemade Tortilla Chips:

Sometimes you get these in good Mexican restaurants (more often it's commercial corn chips dipped in the deep fryer to imitate homemade).  They're a really simple, efficient way to use up all your leftover tortillas at the end of the week. 

You need:
1 medium cast-iron or uncoated steel pan
1 cup vegetable shortening
6" tortillas (each tortilla will make 6 chips; your only limit is how long you want to spend on this).
Salt in shaker (sea salt or table salt)
paper towels.

Put the pan on medium-high heat with the shortening until it is all melted.  The oil should "fizz" a little when you put in the tortillas, but not smoke.  If the oil begins to smoke, turn it down a notch and continue to monitor.  If you're using a deep fryer or thermometer, you're looking for about 350-375 degrees F. 

Slice the tortillas into six pie-shaped wedges. 

Line a plate with 2 to 3 paper towels or napkins. 

Cook in a single layer in the pan until lightly browned and crispy (1-2 minutes). Remove to paper towels with a fork or metal spatula to drain and shake salt liberally over the layer. 

Start a new layer of chips.  When it is almost done, dump the first batch into a large bowl and add another paper towel to the layers on the plate. 

Repeat until you have enough chips. 

Note that you can flavor the chips at the salting stage, adding a sprinkle of lime juice, ranch dressing mix, etc.  Try making them dessert chips by using a mix of cinnamon and sugar instead of salt. 


Tortilla Soup

The Gumbo of the south, there are so many varied recipes for tortilla soup that you could almost toss some leftover tortillas into anything and apply the name.  Purists will argue for their particular variation as the most authentic, of course, even if the same claim is made for vastly different recipes.  I highly suggest you either experiment with the very basic recipe here, or Google "tortilla soup" and try some of the recipes you find. Most are based on fresh regional vegetables and use the leftover corn tortillas as a thickening agent much like flour. 

Very Basic Fresh Recipe:

6 six-inch leftover/stale corn flour tortillas chopped into small pieces (1/4 to 1/2 inch), plus 2-4 same for garnish cut into 1/2" strips.
6-8 cups chicken broth
10 oz chicken breast, cut into 1/2" cubes.
4  Roma tomatoes
3 whole green chili peppers (or jalapeno for a spicier soup, or green bell peppers for a very mild soup)
1/2 medium onion (approx 1 cup) diced
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves minced garlic
1 tsp salt
1 tsp oregano
1/2 cup fresh cilantro

Garnish:
Sour Cream
Limes
Avocado

You should be able to make this all with one pan and one soup pot.  The pan should be uncoated steel or cast iron, medium size frying pan.  You could even make it all in the soup pot if it's uncoated steel or cast iron, mixing all the ingredients at the end.  We'll assume a separate pot for the purpose of this recipe. 

Add the chicken broth and the 6 small-chopped tortillas to the pot on medium heat, stirring occasionally until at a simmer, then reduce to medium-low. 

Roast the tomatoes and peppers:  In the dry frying pan on medium heat, let the tomatoes and peppers toast, turning occasionally until each side is a little darkened.  Remove from the pan and let cool on the cutting board while you heat the olive oil in the pan.  Once they're cool enough to handle, chop the tomatoes into chunks and mince the peppers.  Add to the soup pot.

Once the olive oil is hot (a drop of water will pop and sputter) add the tortilla strips and fry 2 minutes or until crispy.  Set aside on paper towels to cool.  This will be garnish.

In the remaining oil, cook the onion, garlic and dried oregano until the onion is translucent.  Add onion and garlic to soup pot.

In the remaining oil, cook the cubes of chicken until browned.  Add to soup pot. 

Cook soup for 30 minutes.  (note, you can also assemble all of the above and use as a slow-cooker recipe, but the flavors will be less distinct when you finish). 

While the soup is cooking, chop the fresh cilantro, pit/peel/cube the avocado and slice the limes.  Use the cilantro, sour cream, fried tortilla strips, avocado and squeezes of lime as garnish to individual taste when you serve the soup at the table.


As I said, there are many, many variations on this soup!  You can easily go vegan by subbing vegetable broth and tofu for the chicken products (check the tortilla package for animal products).  You can add some crunch with fresh shredded cabbage added at the table, or up the iron with sauteed spinach added in the last ten minutes of cooking.  Many tortilla soups are tomato-based, which can be done by adding 8 oz of tomato paste and doubling the fresh tomatoes in the recipe.  Some also add fresh corn and black beans for a midwestern taste.

Finally, if you don't have access or money for fresh veggies, you can fake this recipe by mixing chicken soup with a jar of tomato and onion salsa, using sour cream and crumbled corn chips as garnish.  It isn't as good as the fresh, but when making do it might just make it :-)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Recipe Box: Real Tacos

Taco Bell came out with their Cantina Tacos, finally moving away from the Tex-Mex messes and into real central Mexico street food.   The problem is that the real corn flour tortillas go stale very quickly, so you actually get a crumbling mess full of cheap meat. When my parents lived in Ajijic, the emphasis was on really fresh veggies and homemade corn tortillas still warm from the little shop. 

For two people (6 small tacos) you'll need:

a package of at least 6 6-inch corn tortillas, usually found in the refrigerated section of the store. 
10-12 oz steak or chicken breast (one large or two small)
3 limes (one zested)
6 cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 red onion, coarsely chopped
1tsp black pepper
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup white wine vinegar or rice vinegar
1/2 cup oil (garlic flavored, oilive, vegetable, etc.) + 2 Tablespoons oil (for cooking meat)
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes


Do Ahead:

Marinate the Meat:

Combine the juice and zest of one lime, 1/2 cup vinegar, 1/2 cup oil, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, 3 cloves of garlic, 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1 tablespoon of the chopped cilantro and 1/4 cup of the chopped red onion in a ziplock bag with the chicken or beef.  Shake well so that the meat is well coated.  Place in fridge for at least an hour.  You can certainly leave this overnight or throughout the day if you need to. 

Marinate the Onions:

Combine the remaining chopped onions, 1/4 cup cilantro and the juice of one lime in a bowl or ziplock bag, mixing well.  Let sit in fridge for at least an hour or overnight.


Put It Together:

Chop meat into 1/2" cubes.  Heat 2 tablespoons oil in medium frying pan over medium-high heat.  Combine meat, 2 tablespoons oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper, and 3 cloves of garlic in pan and stir frequently until meat is cooked through. 

In the meantime, heat a small non-stick frying pan (omelette pan, etc.) on medium heat.  Place tortilla in pan for 15 seconds, then flip and heat for another 15 seconds.  Remove to a plate and cover to retain heat (clean sacking towel, paper towel, pan lid, another plate, etc.) Repeat for all six tortillas.

Remaining tortillas should be immediately sealed in a plastic bag, removing as much air as possible.  They're only good for a couple of days after they're opened (if that).  Good uses for leftover tortillas include Chilequiles, homemade corn chips fried and coated with either salt or sugar/cinamon, tortilla soup, etc.

Slice the remaining lime into at least six slices. 

Mix the remaining fresh cilantro into the onion mixture and serve in a bowl. 


Assemble a taco by taking a tortilla, adding a spoonful of meat, a spoonful of the cilantro/onion mix, then squeezing a slice of lime over the combination.  The taste is simple, fresh and crunchy with a nice bite from the cilantro.  Once the marinating is done this can be turned out as a meal in less than half an hour, even if you're making margaritas to go with it. 

Any leftover onion/cilantro mix can be stirred into salsa to freshen up the flavor. 

A vegan version could be made by substituting more veggies for the meat (i.e. tomatoes, peppers, etc.) or slices of fresh avacado.  Check the Corn Tortillas to make sure they weren't made with animal fat. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Why Matters

Way back in the olden days (2006) Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece on his blog about racism.  In it, he proposes three criteria to define the severity of (and response to) a racist action or event:  Content, Intention and Conviction.  I agree with his breakdown (although I think Impact should have consideration as well), I can see why some of the commenters found it to be so challenging.  After all, two of the three criteria are all about why someone did something, rather than what they did. 

The Why is important, because so many outcomes of daily decisions and actions are dependent on it.   Do I do a thing because I should or because I want to?  Is it an accident, the result of my strong emotion, or a reflection of what I really think?  Do I do it to impress someone, to learn something, to help someone?  This all affects my approach to a task, my state of mind while working on it, and the satisfaction I take from it. 

This argument could easily lead to horribly saccharine Pollyanna behaviour and the alienation of everyone I know.  But if I don't take it to extremes it has the potential to really impact my happiness, health, work effectiveness and relationships. 

For example:  If I exercise to lose weight, I will not maintain it.  The Why in this case is distant and probably impossible. When I fail to reach or maintain that unrealistic goal I will become discouraged and my motivation will disappear. Why bother if it isn't going to get me what I want? Because I'm exercising to change my body the effect is to pit my mind and body against each other as enemies instead of allies.  This increases my chances of experiencing pain and injury while exercising and puts it into the category of punishment. 

I'm so used to operating like this that any exercise at all comes complete with a full matched set of baggage.  If I even start an exercise routine I feel I have to ramp it all the way up as quickly as possible so that I can get maximum benefit before I lose interest.  I then burn out or injure myself and give up (with all the accompanying stigma of failure).  It's hard for me to just enjoy an exercise without placing all kinds of extra expectations on what I'm doing.  I need a goal to work towards, and if I don't make progress I will give up. 

 The generic "for my health" why doesn't work either.  It's too vague, and not in any way guaranteed.  Yes, cardiovascular fitness is a much better indicator of long-term health and longevity.  But my brain can always reason away the motivation.  I could be at a perfect level of cardiovascular fitness and be hit by a bus, or be diagnosed with any of the dozens of cancers that stream through both sides of my family.  When that happens, won't I have been better off enjoying those moments instead of sweating?

 But for the last two weeks I've been walking 1 to 2 moderately brisk miles a day, every day.  Not for my health, or to lose weight, or even because I enjoy the exhaust fumes from the passing cars (it's too dark in the morning yet to walk anywhere without street lights).  I'm walking for my happiness.  See, last summer I went hiking with my partner in the Smoky Mountains, and once in Hocking Hills, Ohio.  Both times we were prevented from tackling certain trails because I wasn't physically up to it.  The day after a steep four mile hike my entire body would be so stiff I could barely hobble to the bathrooms.  But this year I want to go places and see things.  I want to get to the top of Clingman's Dome without stopping for a breather at every bench.  I want to do the full-day tour of Mammoth Cave.  I want to do the Grandma Gatewood trail at Hocking Hills, complete with little side trips up gullies to look for waterfalls. 

But to do all that I have to be able to comfortably hike 5+ miles in a day and still be able to bend my knees the next morning. 

Yeah, ok so I won't be climbing Everest or running a triathalon.  But then I don't really want to do those things so why train as if I did?  Abrams and Rainbow Falls in one weekend motivates me.  It's possible (5 miles each), tangible, and short-term.  The anticipation of hiking in the mountains brings pleasure to the exercise instead of punishment. Maybe after that I'll build up to something more strenuous.  Then again I may decide that I have time in my life for this level of exercise and no more.  For now, this Why works for me. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Recently

Every now and then I come across a fascinating writer and throw off everything else I'm doing for the sake of scrounging every last word available.  The reason for my silence in the last week is that all my brainpower is bent on Malcolm Gladwell, a New Yorker Magazine writer and publisher of several books in the general philosophical area of epistemology.  He's particularly adept at taking those little deceptive heuristics (i.e. "everyone knows" that black people are better at sports, that fat people are to blame, that Ivy League schools are better) and taking them to pieces to show the cognitive bias at work.  He also has a simple, elegant writing style that's easy to read.

I don't always agree with his conclusions, of course.  One article packed with ED or body dysmorphia triggers is his piece on the Pima Indians of Arizona.  On the other hand, if you can overlook a few of the fat myths perpetuated, he falls well above the usual pop media simplification of the issues.  His dissection of the cold reading techniques and evangelical language in fad diet books is fascinating.  He openly accepts the genetic factors of body weight, such as setpoints.  He covers the issue so extensively that if you reach a point where you're tempted to give up in disgust (say, when he says diets can still work), keep reading.  A few short paragraphs later, he throws out something that sounds very FA, like this:
"'A lot of studies look at ten-per-cent weight loss," said Mary Hoskin, who is coördinating the section of the N.I.H. study involving the Pima. "But if you look at long-term weight loss nobody can maintain ten per cent.'"
It sounds as if he's contradicting himself, but considering the reasoned quality of his other writings, I truly believe that he's simply considering every available angle, nook and cranny of the idea for the sake of comprehension.  If he could only go a short step further and look beyond the idea of fat as a disease to cure, it would be perfect.  Then again, in 1998 I don't know if a lot of the same research was available.  The HAES paradigm wasn't even a blip on the radar.  BMI wasn't being questioned as heavily. He didn't have available the recent studies showing that fitness levels (completely independent of fat) were the better determinant of health and life expectancy. 

I wonder what he would do with the information now?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Recipe Box: Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing

This is my favorite springtime dressing.  The flavor is so sharp that it goes well with the bitterness of spring salad greeds (radicchio, arugula, endive, dandelion and other field greens).   Note that you want balsamic vinegar, not red wine vinegar.  Balsamic is not actually made from wine, but from grape pressings that are reduced to concentrate the flavor, then aged.   This gives it a much stronger and more complex flavor than the lighter wine vinegars. 

A little goes a long way.  These are estimate amounts, since it's usually more about a splash of this and a dash of that.  The flavor is best if you mix it just before serving. This will cover about 4-5 salads and will keep a day or two (at the most) in the fridge.  Once you get a feel for the proportions you can scale it up or down pretty easily. 

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons prepared yellow mustard
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon sugar
pinch of salt
pinch of pepper

Whisk well with fork before pouring each serving, as the oil and garlic will separate quickly.

Anybody else have a favorite dressing recipe?  I'm craving the greens right now with all this thawing and sprouting going on outside!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Recipe Box: Homemade Pizza


Homemade pizza isn't actually cheaper.  If you're willing to eat at Little Ceasars or other chains you can get a pizza for around $5.  But while sometimes commercial food is cheaper, the homemade version is much, much better.

Crust:

1 Tablespoon white sugar
1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water (between 90 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit)
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1 cup for dusting
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano

(note: if you're short on time, you can use a box or two of the Jiffy brand pizza crust mix, and add the garlic powder, onion powder and dried oregano when mixing and before rising.)

Mix the sugar and water in a small bowl.  Add the yeast and let sit about 10 minutes or until it looks creamy.

Mix the 2 cups flour, salt, onion and garlic powders and oregano in a large bowl.  Add yeast mixture and stir until all the flour is absorbed (you may need to add additional water, 1 tablespoon at a time, to get all the flour to absorb).

Dust the clean countertop with flour.  Turn the dough out onto the floured surface and knead for about 1 minute.

Coat a large bowl with olive oil.  Coat the ball of dough with oil and cover with a damp cloth or paper towel.  Let sit in warm, dry place for 30 minutes or until it doubles in size.

(Note: prepare toppings while crust is rising)

Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees (F)

Roll the dough out thin and lay on a greased cookie sheet (or pizza stone, if you've got one). Bake for 3-4 minutes.  Pull out from oven and add sauce, cheese and toppings.  Bake for an additional 20 minutes or until crust is golden and crusty.

For the pizza pictured, I used:

1/3 cup tomato sauce
2 cups mozzerella cheese
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
1 cup sliced and browned italian sausage
1/3 cup chopped artichokes
1/4 cup grilled red pepper
1/4 cup green olives
1 Tablespoon nonpareil capers

Sure, the toppings were heavier than the crust.  That's the point :-)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Quote from Anne Lamott

"“But about a month before my friend Pammy died, she said something that may have permanently changed me.


"We had gone shopping for a dress for me to wear that night to a nightclub with the man I was seeing at the time. Pammy was in a wheelchair, wearing her Queen Mum wig, the Easy Rider look in her eyes. I tried on a lavender minidress, which is not my usual style. I tend to wear big, baggy clothes. People used to tell me I dressed like John Goodman. Anyway, the dress fit perfectly, and I came out to model it for her. I stood there feeling very shy and self-conscious and pleased. Then I said, 'Do you think it makes my hips look too big?' and she said to me slowly, 'Annie? I really don’t think you have that kind of time.'"

--Anne Lamott
(as quoted at http://www.happiness-project.com/)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Fat Positive News

I only occasionally bother to look at weight-related news anymore; most of it is toxic.  But today I came across two separate articles that rate very few sanity-watchers points! 

The first one is about Kevin Smith being tossed off a plane for being too fat, courtesy of The National out of Abu Dhabi.  The article does a pretty good job of an actual balanced viewpoint, finishing up with some excellent quotes by Bill Fabrey of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination.

The second is from a local paper at California State University, Chico.  It covers a presentation by two dietitians at the University on HAES, Intuitive Eating, and body-acceptance.  The presentation was part of a "Love Every Body" week sponsored by the university wellness center.  (Warning: Don't read the comments, they don't really contribute anything but miserable ignorance). 

Friday, March 5, 2010

Is it better to know?

As a follow-up to the article I shared on constructive versus destructive worry, I ask the question, "is it better to know?"

I just found out that the creaking in the front end of my car is something that's expensive to fix, but not dangerous to drive on for a while until I can afford it.  The thing is, it's been creaking for a long while, which sets off a nagging worry in the back of my head every time I hear the "rusty bedsprings" effect after a bump.  was my axel going to fall off one of these days?  Was a strut going to come shooting through the engine?  In other words, was I going to have to find a way to pay the huge, upside-down loan that runs almost double the car's value?

So now I know.  It's expensive, but not immediately. 

So the happiness question is....was the intense stress today waiting for the estimate greater or lesser than the tiny moments of stress added up over months of squeaking?  Is the relief of knowing I don't have to put off some much needed repairs on the house worth the stress of figuring out how to scrimp a thousand dollars this summer?  Sure I'd have to do it anyway, but now that it's real, there's a lot more urgency to it. 

I'm a classic procrastinator on this type of stressful decision.  I understand the concept of catching something early making it easier to fix, but there's always something in my head that overrides that common-sense by telling me that if I ignore it long enough, it'll go away.  But is that any kind of way to live?  Is the weight of something on my "to do" pile worth the hassle of doing it?  I'm particularly guilty of this when it comes to medical issues.  I put off routine exams for fear that there'll be some kind of paradigm-destroying bad news as a result.  Sure, the news might be slightly less bad if it's something that can be treated with early detection, but it'll still be worse than not having the news in the first place. 

This is all about fear.  Fear of a doctor's potential fat-hate, fear of a bad diagnosis, fear of death, fear of loss.  At some point that fear of pain and stress takes on a self-fulfilling aspect and becomes painful and stressful on its own.  Even before the bad news.  While added up into a long term view that stress may be greater from procrastination than from disaster, but in any one particular moment, taken as a snapshot of time, it seems less. 

But wait, I thought living in the moment was a good thing? 

As human beings we're capable of something almost magical in the animal kingdom; we can tell the future.  Not always accurately, but we can draw conclusions from past experiences and project those patterns into the future to guess what will happen next.  This results in conscious long term planning and manipulation of our environment.  Unfortunately, in some people, it also results in a tendancy to live entirely in either the past or future.  Like all things (including excess), it is good in moderation.  We are capable, biologically, of amazing flexibility and adaptability to our circumstances.  We can learn to consider the future, remember the past, and live in the present.  We can even learn to do all of these at the same time.  How amazing is that? There's a lesson in there for me. 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Roadtrip Photos


Tahquamenon Falls


Whitefish Point Lighthouse

Northern shore of Lake Michigan

Those are some highlights, of course!  I don't want to drag feed readers to a halt with all the photos, but if you're curious you can view the full slideshow here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

You're Never Too Old to Run Away From Home

I always loved Huck Finn :-)

JD and I ran away from home this weekend. We couldn't afford a long trip south to get somewhere warm, which is pretty traditional for spring break.  Instead we went where everyone else was traveling FROM.  Up north.  The UP (upper penninsula).  Across the straights of Mackinaw.  That bit of Michigan that might as well be Canada.   

There's not much in the UP that doesn't involve the outdoors, so winter there is almost empty. Maybe a quarter of the businesses in larger towns stay open for the snowmobilers, ice-fishers, and locals.  But Tahquamenon Falls is still flowing, Lake Superior is still dramatic (and almost as cold as it is in August) and Whitefish Point is still beautiful in the winter. 

We were thwarted a lot.  We both love kitchy roadside attractions (The Mystery Spot!  See live bears!  Michigan Wax Museum!) and most were closed for the season.  We love to take backroads through the state forests instead of highways, but all the state forest roads quickly ended in walls of snow passable only by snowmobiles or skis.  Even the roads to the lower Tahquamenon Falls and Pictured Rocks lakeshore were closed for the season.  Winter hiking is one thing.  A twelve mile trek through two feet of snow to look at a cliff is on another level.  Even a very pretty cliff.  Also, my faith in dive diners was alternately destroyed and restored as we moved.

Then again there were benefits!  The traffic was almost non-existant.  Off-season hotel rates were fantastic and reservations were for other people.  There were no bugs, and the mixed pine/birch forests covered with snow made for a very scenic drive.  It was quiet.  There were no bugs.  There were ice floes under the falls and heaving with the waves along the lakeshores.  There were no bugs.

(For those who don't get the bug reference, the UP is a combination of marshland and clear flowing rivers that results in huge summer populations of mosquitoes and black flies that can carry away small children to where their bloodless bodies will never be found.  Locals call this "Nature" or sometimes "Tourist-Repellant".)

In all we took three days to drive almost a thousand miles and finally calmed my wanderlust for another season.  I'm now in "travel-lag" and can just about stay awake with enough coffee. I don't know if I'd do it again without skis or snowshoes to really get around, but it was worth it just to see.  The place is so different in the winter that if we decide to go again in three months it'll be a whole different destination. 

Pictures will be forthcoming, but probably not until tonight when I can sort through them.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Happiness in Hard Times

My mother forwarded me a link to an excellent article on finding happiness through adaptability in hard times.  It's a great read.

What jumped out at me with that "I must explore this further" spark was this:

"She has clients distinguish productive worries (which spark action) from destructive ones (which trigger an endless loop of catastrophic thinking)."

I have a friend who's favorite phrase is "Worry is just an invitation to trouble".  He's talking about the destructive type of worry, of course.  The endless loop of catastrophic thinking not only distracts you from enjoyment of the present, but can actually be self-fulfilling.   People tend to return attitudes, in that they avoid lonely people, are hostile towards angry people, but seek out the company of the happy.  Worrying constantly about being alone can invite that situation to continue. 

The productive type of worry is something I've never thought about in such terms.  I'm used to considering all "worry" to be destructive or stressful, but the worry about my job is motivating me to take classes and/or certifications to make me more employable.  It's also motivating me to take on extra tasks at work (like offering computer training to my co-workers) to become more valuable to my current employer and expand my resume. 

The problem itself (employment uncertainty) could spark either type of worry, of course. I could spend all my time obsessing over scenarios of bankruptcy and fall into that destructive loop.  Wait,  I sometimes do that anyway!  No worry is entirely one or the other, just as no problem worth worrying over is ever simple. 

So, as Pollyanna as it sounds, whether a worry is destructive or constructive really is up to you.  It may take work and vigilance to turn a destructive loop into constructive action, but it's possible.   

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A moment of sweet, sweet triumph

Like everyone, I spend a lot of time after certain situations fuming over what I should have said.  Today I don't have to.  Today's perfect moment, truly in the snarky spirit of XKCD and Failblog, was this:

I was sitting in the office break room on my afternoon break, reading a book.  A couple of guys were joking about interviewees for a supervisor position, and eventually came around to the applicants who spoke English as a second language. (note: luckily none of these guys were actually involved in the hiring decision of said supervisor).

Guy said:

"What happens when one of them goes out to meet with industries and they can't even understand what he says?  I don't think they have any business being a supervisor if they can't even talk English well enough to be understood."

Without even looking up, I said, "Speak."

He thought for a second, then turned bright red and glared at me.  I raised an eyebrow and said, "Just making a point."

The other person at the table started to snicker at him.  He got up and left.

Oh, that sweet, sweet moment of glory... 

Do you have a triumph story?  Ever put a fat-hater neatly in their place?  Ever shut up a bigot with a well-placed verbal strike?  Share!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fat Calf Boots FTW!

So I've often lamented the lack of boots that will go around my massive, Irish-peasant style 22" calves.  It's worse because all the fun outfits I'm coming up with (harlequin wrap dress, belt skirt, kimono dress, etc.) really require the knee high boots to complete the image in my head. I've even had a pair of custom-made boots on my radar somewhere in priority between a new bathtub and kitchen flooring.  Meaning next year.  Maybe.  If they don't give us more furlough days at work or cut my pay.

Yesterday I walked into Payless, of all places, and there was a pair of faux-leather high-heel knee-high boots by Predictions.  The size 11 wide-width came with an extended calf size (i.e. an elastic gore in the back) and actually fully (if barely) zipped all the way up!

Sure the pleather and generally cheap construction means these are temporary...but they were also on clearance for $14. 

Seriously.

I checked the Payless website and they're not listed, but if you have a local Payless you could call and ask if they have any in stock (Predictions high-heel knee high black pleather, Extended calf size) or just stop by.  I plan to clear out the local stores here so that I have backup pair when they wear out. 

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Valentines Day Tribute

From Richard Brautigan, Revenge of the Lawn (1971) (via Google Books, but I first read this excerpt at The Happiness Project)

I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone

"I was trying to describe you to someone a few days ago. You don't look like any girl I've ever seen before.


I couldn't say "Well she looks just like Jane Fonda, except that she's got red hair, and her mouth is different and of course, she's not a movie star..."

I couldn't say that because you don’t look like Jane Fonda at all.

I finally ended up describing you as a movie I saw when I was a child in Tacoma Washington. I guess I saw it in 1941 or 42, somewhere in there. I think I was seven, or eight, or six.

It was a movie about rural electrification, a perfect 1930's New Deal morality kind of movie to show kids. The movie was about farmers living in the country without electricity. They had to use lanterns to see by at night, for sewing and reading, and they didn't have any appliances like toasters or washing machines, and they couldn't listen to the radio. They built a dam with big electric generators and they put poles across the countryside and strung wire over fields and pastures.

There was an incredible heroic dimension that came from the simple putting up of poles for the wires to travel along. They looked ancient and modern at the same time.

Then the movie showed electricity like a young Greek god, coming to the farmer to take away forever the dark ways of his life. Suddenly, religiously, with the throwing of a switch, the farmer had electric lights to see by when he milked his cows in the early black winter mornings. The farmer's family got to listen to the radio and have a toaster and lots of bright lights to sew dresses and read the newspaper by.

It was really a fantastic movie and excited me like listening to the Star Spangled Banner, or seeing photographs of President Roosevelt, or hearing him on the radio "... the President of the United States... "

I wanted electricity to go everywhere in the world. I wanted all the farmers in the world to be able to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio....

And that's how you look to me."

Fat Positive Images: Les Toil

 "Nikki" by Les Toil (from http://www.toilgirls.com/pinups/nikki.html)

Les Toil is a graphic artist who features bold, confident and whimsical pin-up images of large women. (Note: many pictures in his gallery are NSFW) Actual large women, as in portraits!  It's fascinating to go through his gallery and see a photo of the actual model alongside the piece.  He tries to capture her personality in the setting, not just her body.  You can get your own portrait created ($$$!) or just peruse his pin-ups for a mood boost. 

His work should be familiar to those in the FA community, as he's designed promotional posters for the dance company Big Moves and Logo/advertising art for a range of Fat-positive companies such as BBW Travel, Chicago BBW, and Torrid.  He's also the artist behind the graphic novel "Shmobots". 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Project Management

When it comes to new crafts and projects, I'm definitely distractable by the new and shiny. I posted before about the stress of unfinished projects weighing me down with obligation and potential, but there has to be a happy medium where I have enough projects going to satisfy my need to create, and yet not so many that I will never finish what I have. I'm tentatively trying to choose one or two projects in several categories that will be my Current Projects. As I finish one, I can find another.

Part of the impulse to drop everything to start on something new is that my capacity for inspiration is much, much better than my long-term memory. If I don't start the new project RIGHT NOW, I will forget.

So I'm also starting to go through my various project magazines (ReadyMade, Circulars from Lowes and Home Depot, etc.) and clipping. I can usually reduce a full magazine to a few articles describing projects I may actually tackle and recipes I may actually try. I freecycled an empty box from work that once held address labels and stick the clippings in there. I may one day scan or scrapbook and sort them by category, but for now I'm just preserving. When I have a project opening I can go through my clippings and pick.

Scanning has two advantages. First it reduces physical clutter, second it allows me to sort ideas from online sources along with the clipped articles. The only disadvantage is that its an extra step, which I may or may not be willing to take once the initial appeal of virtuous project management wears off. Remember that its far more important to choose a system you'll follow than a more efficient one you won't.

So far, my list of current projects go like this:

Sewing:
1. Braided Rag Rug
2. Punk skirt made with multistranded braided belts worked into the design.

Home Improvement:
1. Finish bathroom (baseboards, tub, lighting and ventilation, paint)

Gardening:
1. start pots of parsely

DeClutter:
1. Kitchen drawers

Except for certain aspects of the Home Improvement project, I have all the supplies I need for these projects already in the house. That's especially important because I will both save money I normally throw into buying supplies for never-completed projects, and reduce clutter in the house by using up/putting to purpose items that are currently occupying spare corners and cupboards.

The tighter focus and limits on straying outside these areas may also help me finish the projects. The follow-through is usually my weak point in any project. I'm an excellent planner, pricer, shopper, and researcher, but the actual "doing" often fails. Most of these are projects I've already planned, shopped for and begun, but have been sitting on a back burner for anywhere from a month to a year.


Added to Project Inspirations:

Growing Bamboo in Michigan?
http://www.americanbamboo.org/GeneralInfoPages/GrowingBambooIndoors.html
http://www.lewisbamboo.com/tessinfo.html
http://www.plantdelights.com/Catalog/Current/Detail/02123.html

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Happiness is fighting without regrets

Every couple fights. I don't care how compatible or idyllic, sooner or later there will be a disagreement. I learned over this weekend that the most important thing for me to remember is to avoid saying or doing something in a fight that I'll regret later.

That was my goal on Sunday morning when JD came in and (I thought) started laying down ultimatums as to how I should behave in public. I was confused, hurt and angry, but held onto that "no regrettable words or actions" rule. Unfortunately, I had NO reactions to what he'd said that didn't involve hurting him back as badly as I could. So instead of replying at all, I asked him to give me time and space to think about some things. Of course at that point it was his decision to walk away or demand an immediate answer. He made the absolute right decision and gave me the space I needed.

This was big, so I took two days. Silence reigned in the house and I stayed icily polite while I worked things through in my head, ran through the high emotions, and arrived at a place where I could firmly lay down my own boundaries without anger.

Of course at that point I found out that I had COMPLETELY misunderstood what he had originally said. There were no ultimatums. He wasn't trying to change me at all.

Now part of me thinks I wasted two days of our relationship by agonizing over something that could have been resolved immediately by asking for clarification. On the other hand, if we two very upset people had tried to resolve anything in that moment, it would have never happened. I would have been yelling and crying and verbally slicing him open, he would have defended himself by cutting back, and it would have dealt our relationship a serious blow that would linger over every future disagreement we ever had.
Instead we had a very short, calm discussion in which we could actually laugh at the misunderstanding, and ended up strengthening our relationship.

I can't ever claim to be always rational by any stretch of the imagination. I'm frequently (and unfortunately) mean and snarky, and very well able to do real harm with my words. It's been the destruction of a few friendships in my life when my cutting remarks turned a normal fight into a relationship-killer. I think, though, that trying to be mindful of the long-term effects of my words and actions in a highly emotional situation will end up being the saving grace of my relationships. I can't take back words and actions, and apologising never erases.

On the flip side, when I'm upset and express it or ask for something to change, it can be really frustrating to wait for an answer. If it's important to me, I want to know NOW. I have to remember the example JD set this weekend. Giving the person time and space can mean that I will get a more reasoned, well-considered answer instead of a kneejerk reaction. If the person gives their response plenty of thought, I don't feel like I have to argue by listing points they might not have considered. It's hard of course, but I think I'll have better relationships for it.

Currently Reading:
Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding
A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones

New Random Interest Links Added:
Passive Aggressive Notes.com
http://www.passiveaggressivenotes.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garden_Gnome_Liberationists

University of Pennsylvania Happiness questionnaires
http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx

New Quotes Added:
"Do you really think ... that it is weakness that yields to temptation? I tell you that there are terrible temptations that it requires strength, strength and courage, to yield to. To stake all one's life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure, I care not -- there is no weakness in that."
OSCAR WILDE, An Ideal Husband

“The best way out is always through.”
-Robert Frost

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.”
-Goethe

"It is a common mistake on the part of cooler, self-contained natures to assume that those who have a giving and ebullient character are what they are only because they cannot help it—that they are fed from a spring that will never stop rather than a reservoir that can be exhausted. Hence the feeling of stark disbelief or unpleasant shock on the part of others when the reservoir of effort and energy—for it turns out to be a reservoir—is almost gone….the principal reward for those who give lavishly rather than meagerly is the expectation that they remain true to form and continue to give."
 - W. Jackson Bate

“Everything turns out to be valuable that one does for one’s self without thought of profit.”
-Marguerite Yourcenar

"Now and then it's good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy."
- Guillaume Apollinaire

“We are never so much disposed to quarrel with others as when we are dissatisfied with ourselves.”
- William Hazlitt

Friday, February 5, 2010

Fat Positive Images: The Full Body Project


 (#59, Full Body Project, Leonard Nimoy Photography)
 http://www.leonardnimoyphotography.com/7body.htm

Leonard Nimoy's  The Full Body Project is a fantastic collection of fat women (mainly nudes, but I did find one relatively work-safe example to include!  Link is NSFW)  Whatever his motivation or reaction to the media criticism of this project, the photos of the women involved are every bit as strong, confident, joyful and gorgeous as their real selves. My favorite is of the women dancing in a circle (3rd row on first page of the website).  They're just having so much fun it makes me want to be there with them, in all their unapologetically naked, fat glory. 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fat Positive Images: Fernando Botero Angulo

(Picnic 1998, by Fernando Botero)

Fernando Botero Angulo is a Colombian painter and sculpter born in 1932 in Medell√≠n, Antioquia, Colombia.  His art features large figures of both people and animals. 

Images from Google 

When asked why he chose to paint the "fat people"  his response was, “An artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it.”  (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fernando_Botero

I love his paintings of fat couples, in love, seductive, happy!  His nudes are bold and confident, sensual and beautiful.  He's very much worth discovering if you haven't encountered his work before.

Happiness Tools: Resolution Charts and Mini-Journals

Resolution Chart:

Gretchin Rubin at The Happiness Project is a frequent encourager of charting your goals and resolutions.  The daily task of reviewing and checking off items reinforces the resolution in your mind, and being able to view progress gives a whole lot of satisfaction! 

I've never seen her resolution chart, so I came up with one I think will work for me.  It's a monthly chart divided into weeks and checkable days, with some daily and some weekly resolutions.  There's my known resolutions and space to add new ones each week.  It's a pretty simple Excel spreadsheet with a tab for each month.

Here's the whole chart:


and a closeup of this week:


I put 5 weeks (4 for February) on a single page, which I can tape to a kitchen cupboard to keep it in my conscious mind.  Everyone sorts their life differently.  I tend to plan goals on a weekly basis, so I don't cut the chart mid-week to put each month on a different page.  You may be better at long-range planning and prefer to make each month a unit of measurement towards your goals.  Or each pay-period at work.  Whatever helps you organize the progress in your mind!

If anyone is Excel-Challenged, let me know.  I'd be happy to send you a 2010 template you can customize in Excel or Excel-compatible freeware, or I can send a .pdf of each month you can print and fill in by hand.  E-mail me at TheMysticMundane@gmail.com.


Mini-Journal: 

They call this the "one-line journal" at The Happiness Project, but since I often write more than one line, I like "mini-journal" instead.  Or maybe Journalette? :-)

I've tried many times to start keeping a journal.  In the house decluttering I've come across about a dozen journals, all beautiful, all nicely bound with quality paper.  All with maybe 2-10 entries each before I gave up.  The problem is, of course, time.  But at the same time, I read those few entries and they spark memories of events, people, etc. that I've forgotten after only a few years.  I always think that some funny or important moment will be forever engraved on my memory, and I'm almost always wrong.  I do have long-term memory issues, but what's worse is that my long-term memory is much more effective at retaining the bad moments than the good. 

So instead of buying yet another pretty fancy journal with parchment pages and leather cover, I went to the dollar store and got a cheap, plastic covered 2010 weekly planner.  I'ts about the size of my checkbook, so I can carry it easily in my purse.  Each week is on a double page, and each day has about a business-card size lined space that will fit 2-3 sentences.  Each day I jot something down; a quote, a funny moment, a joke, something important happening in my life right now.  By choosing what stands out the most to me from each day I also capture my life on a larger scale and progression.  By limiting myself to a few sentences I don't feel pressured to write a daily essay with some profound conclusion, but do get the creative challenge of distilling some days into a small space (I'm sure you've noticed that brevity is a challenge for me).  :-)

Of course I'm not a big planner person.  I don't have a lot of appointments and such that I need to track, so the few I have can go right in the journal with the rest.  Since I have to open it every day anyway, I'm more likely to check for appointments.  Those of you with day-planner or pda-scale lives have the choice to incorporate your daily journal into your regular system, or just pick up that little dollar-store version (or a moleskin if you want to get super-fancy) to carry around inside it.  It depends on how much of your life you want to record for later.  Personally I don't really care about the meetings I went to a year ago, but I would like to remember that thing my best friend said.