Friday, August 28, 2009

Minnesota State Fair, Day 1

I couldn't start my day without a visit to my old haunt, Machinery Hill. So here it is, the front end of the hill where one can find just about any kind of vehicle, including all the farming equipment my father used to admire during our childhood visits to the fair. We didn't venture too far back into the hill, after all I was with my niece Megan, a seasoned fair goer and we had a limited amount of time. Off to get some roasted corn.

Nothing better than an ear of roasted corn at 8:20 in the morning, besides, it was gluten-free. None of the buildings open until 9:00 so we wandered about, scoping out our plan for the morning. Our first stop was the Education building, Megan's favorite spot in the fair, to look at hundreds of pieces of high school and grade school art work. From there we made our way to the Ag-Hort building. I was hoping to see some bees and get some buckwheat honey. We saw bees and tasted the buckwheat honey which I actually did not like, so on to the highlight of the fair! 

French Fries, gluten-free, no coating, fried in dedicated fryers and, Heinz ketchup! Hooray! 32 Ounces of my favorite food in the world.

All around a good day, and I am headed back today with my friend Paula for more time with the bees and of course more fries.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Grilled Salmon and Bean Thread Noodles

I do like grilled salmon but it so hard to pull off! I struggle with the fish sticking to the grill or fish basket and falling apart, ruining any possible presentation. This summer I discovered cedar wood sheets, pliable, smooth, paper-thin sheets that are just the right size to enclose a single serving of salmon. The sheets are soaked in water to minimize charring and become pliable enough to wrap around the salmon. I simply smothered my salmon fillets  with a gluten-free BBQ sauce, placed the fillets on the cedar sheets and tied them with a long green onion. They cook up in no short order, 3 minutes or so on each side, and no struggling to flip or get out of a fish grill basket. The salmon was tender, moist and fell apart! I served the salmon with an Asian noodle salad with cilantro and black sesame seeds.

Bean Thread Noodles

6 ounces bean thread noodles
1/4 cup gluten-free soy sauce (tamari)
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
3 tablespoons Asian sesame oil
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons peeled, and minced ginger (I actually grated my ginger)
1 large carrot, peeled and julienned (I used matchstick carrots)
1 large stalk celery, julienned
2 green onions including green tops, cut into matchsticks
1/2 cup packed cilantro leaves (I chopped the leaves)
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds, toasted

In a large bowl, soak the bean thread noodles in hot water to cover until softened, about 20 minutes. Drain well, pat the noodles dry with paper towels.

In a large bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, sugar and ginger. Add the noodles and toss until well coated with the dressing. Add the carrot, celery, green onion, cilantro and sesame seeds, toss to distribute ingredients evenly.  Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate up to 2 days. Remove from fridge 30 minutes before serving.

The recipe indicates that it serves 4, that would be four very generous portions!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tina's gluten-free quesadillas

There are a number of things Tina does really well, one of them is cooking and baking. She is actually the baker in the house. I do bake, but I don't really like it and Tina does. She has a way with dough. 

When I was first diagnosed with Celiac Disease Tina was simply devastated. I wrapped my mind around staying positive and she cried off and on for a few weeks. She thought our days of enjoying food, sharing food and going out to dinner were over. Well, we didn't go out for dinner for a long time, and we had to navigate the creation of a safe kitchen, not a gluten free kitchen but a kitchen that was safe. That meant labeling jars in the fridge that were being kept gluten-free (read no double dipping with a utensil that had been glutenized), getting a second toaster, establishing a second set of gluten-free wooden spoons, and maintaining a level of vigilance around cleaning that we were not used to. For example if a wash cloth was used to wipe a wheat flour covered counter down, or crumbs from wheat bread, it went straight into the wash. It wasn't easy and it took some time to settle into a routine and get used to new habits.

It took equally long to discover gluten-free alternatives for me. Figuring out how to cook gluten-free pasta, coming up with a gluten-free onion ring, making buckwheat savory creeps were big challenges. Tina spent a great deal of time figuring out how to make some of my most favorite foods gluten-free. For the longest time we simply couldn't find a gluten-free tortilla that was any good. The ones we tried were dry, brittle and tasteless and hardly passed for a Mexican treat. Corn tortillas worked for some things but when it came to making a good quesadilla, forget it.

Then, a few months ago I saw a post on Gluten-Free Girl. Some how Shauna and Danny had gotten a package of a gluten-free tortilla made by French Meadow Bakery. Imagine that, a local bakery, right here in the Twin Cites. I called them immediately only to find out that the delivery to Seattle was a promo. The tortilla would not be available to the general public for a few more months. I kept my eye on their website and a few weeks ago they appeared. Thank goodness I live here, a mail order of one package runs about $20, way too much for 6 small tortillas. I called them and learned that if I placed an order prior to Friday, I could pick them up myself at the Eagan plant the following Tuesday.

I picked my French Meadow Gluten-Free Tortillas up on Tuesday. They were frozen and on the smallish side. Tina gave me a grocery list and when I got home I sat in the kitchen and watched her work her magic.  

The tortillas themselves are far better than any other product I have tried, and they sure beat a corn tortilla for making a quesadilla. They are chewy, which is not a great quality but they are darn good. Tina made chicken quesadillas for me with chipotle sour cream. Oh my goodness they were so good I hardly noticed the chewiness. I love it when Tina cooks for me, especially when she works so hard to recreate my favorite things gluten-free. These chicken quesadillas were simply wonderful and a great treat. I will surely be asking for them again soon.

A Cooking lesson and much more!

My friend Paula invited me over to learn how to make beer butt chicken yesterday. Actually, I guess I invited myself over after learning that she grills beer butt chicken. 

I have not come to a place where I feel comfortable eating in the homes of other people easily since being diagnosed with Celiac Disease. I worry incessantly about being rude or getting an accidental hit of gluten. I am a control freak about my gluten-free diet. I come by it honestly. At least I don't spin my wheels controlling things which are simply outside my dominion. I do in fact have complete control of what goes in my mouth and it is this tight grip, this rigid adherence to my gluten-free diet,  that is the only treatment for Celiac Disease. I do not have gluten intolerance and I do not have a food allergy. I have a disease that left untreated will lead to catastrophic and potentially untreatable conditions including abdominal lymphoma.  I can't control the course of cancer.

I have had good experiences and bad experiences as a guest eating in someone's home. There are some people I simply trust with my diet in their hands. My friend Jennifer for example is someone I trust!  Jennifer introduced me to quinoa, a ancient grain from South America. She also edited a great book on food allergies, 8 Degrees of Ingredients.  I know she understands the disease and the diet. I will eat food out of her kitchen any time!

I also have complete trust and confidence in Paula and Andrea and the safety of the food that comes out of their kitchen. Paula goes to a great deal of extra effort to make sure I know that she is paying attention to details like using clean utensils. She always places packages of food she is using on the table for all of us to review. She does this in a nonchalant, matter of fact manner. I appreciate this, perhaps more than anything. I don't have to ask if I can look at the label, she offers it up in advance. And when desert is served, it is the same thing for all of us. If gluten-free cookies are good enough for me, they are good enough for all of us. Paula and Andrea pick up gluten-free baked goods at my favorite bakery and they rave about my gluten-free pasta. Eating what I eat, well it just makes me feel darn good.

So, with my gluten-free beer in hand, I headed over to Paula and Andrea's house to learn how to make this beer butt chicken on the grill. It was so much fun, and so simple. After rubbing and seasoning the whole chickens we poured GF beer into to rinsed out cans of diet coke, propped the cans up into the cavity of the chicken and put them on the grill. A hour and a half later we sat down to a stellar summer dinner of succulent, moist chicken, GF pesto pasta, and ripe summer tomatoes with shaved parmesan cheese. We meet Jane, a friend of Paula and Andrea's who is the conductor and director of One Voice Mixed Choir ( We loved Jane, she is so interesting and fun. Jane is part of a potluck group who's membership is made up of vegans, Celiacs and people who can eat anything. She helped herself to the GF pasta without pause, another feel good gesture as far as I was concerned. I don't like drawing attention to myself, or the difference in my diet, so when a meal can be this transparent for me it is pure joy!

 I left, happy, content and connected to these two women that I simply adore. I  left having mounted another good experience in eating out and trusting others with my well being. These evenings give me experience in being a confident, kind and considerate guest which is just as important. I am always grateful when friends and family are willing to go to the effort to eat gluten free, especially when it feels so genuine and so pellucid. I appreciate the opportunity to become a better dinner guest. I am still learning but I think I am getting better. I am learning that plenty of people are more than willing and more than capable, I just need to be more willing myself and allow others the opportunity to serve me. God knows how much I enjoy serving others.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sky Blue Pink, no photo but a lasting memory

I wish I had a picture of the morning sky this past Wednesday. Sky Blue Pink, that is what Tina's mom calls it when pink clouds are mounted against a blue sky. I  love my morning walks, if for nothing else to see an occasional sunrise that simply takes my breath away. I have had an impending since of fall for a few weeks now, it creeps up on me earlier and earlier every year. It has been dark out when I leave in the morning for at least two weeks, even darker now as August slips away. Acorns and crab apples are falling from the trees and squirrels are busy packing it all away. I too am thinking about "putting food by" as I call my canning and freezing routine that kicks up in high gear in less than two weeks. This past Wednesday, not only did the Sky Blue Pink sunrise take my breath away, but so did an old patients mother, for the second time.

When I first started walking on Summit, 10 years ago, I occasionally caught sight of a familiar woman. She was usually running and always with a dog. I tormented myself trying to figure out who she was. About a year ago, she was out running her dog and our eyes met. She stopped and said, "Cari, right? Your a nurse at Children's. You took care of my son Sam. I will never forget you." That was it, Sam's  mom, Patty. I remembered her instantly. Patty went on to tell me that I had left a lasting impression on her and she always hoped she would run into me to tell me how grateful she was for a very specific message I gave her almost 20 years ago when Sam was nearly on deaths door.  

Patty told me Sam was now a senior in high school, looking at colleges. If you had asked me 20 years ago, I would have said San would never survive, and if he did, he would be mainstreamed as a special needs student. College, how could that be? The conversation returned to my work and the care I had given Sam, or more to the point, the care I had given his mom during one of his many hospitalizations. I was a new nurse really, and didn't have much experience. Sam became critically ill during a night shift. Patty seemed particularly unsure of herself. "Your only job is to advocate for him." I say it all time time to parents, I never really think about it, it seems so obvious. She stood at the end of the bed as a crisis evolved, words can't describe her fear. I took her hand, placed it on Sam's foot and said, stay connected Patty, stay connected. Patty remembered the night like it were yesterday, tears in her eyes as she conveyed how powerful my words and actions were that night. Patty said, knowing that her job was to advocate for Sam changed her world.

Twenty years of advocating and staying connected and now Sam was looking at colleges. Patty said Boston College was his first choice but she wasn't sure she could manage him being that far away. I cried as well, overwhelmed by the interaction and gave her a hug, whispering into her her ear "The job changes as they grow, now it is time to let him go." I don't have children. I don't know the first thing about raising them, caring for them, empowering them, who knew if it was the right thing to say.  I sent Patty a card last May, high school graduation month. I guess it is traditional to send the graduate a card but my connection was with Sam's mom. 

As I stood on Summit Ave Wednesday morning, under the Sky Blue Pink, I ran into Patty again, out running the dog. I stood, admiring the sun rise as she came up behind me, taking me by surprise. "Sam is leaving for Boston on the 31st" she told me. "Are you o.k.?" I asked.

"I am, thanks to you." and off she ran.

I spent the rest of the day, on top of the world, not only for the Sky Blue Pink, but for Patty and the messages she has given me along Summit Avenue. My work matters, I make a difference. How often do we hear that?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Braised Lamb Shanks

Thanks to my friend the beekeeper and her lovely farmer friends at Rising Moon Farm in Zumbrota, MN ( Tina is going to have her most favorite dinner this evening!

I don't like lamb much, actually not at all. I have very bad memories of Easter lamb dinners from growing up. My mother might have served lamb once, one Easter lamb dinner. The house smelled all day long and I didn't like the smell, nor did I like the rich meat. It only takes one experience for me to mount a life time of attitude! I am not proud of that characteristic, especially since it spills out way beyond my food preferences. I am committed to working on giving second chances so I might give these a try. That is, if Tina will share.

Tina, she loves lamb and since I love her I am willing to grill lamb chops and braise shanks even if braising does evoke the memory of that awful Easter dinner. I stumbled on a recipe for braised lamb shanks years ago in the Union Square Cafe Cookbook. Apparently they are wonderful and I can imagine the long, slow cooking ensures fork-tender, fall-from-the-bone lamb. Given the noise that takes place when Tina sits down to this dinner, I know it is a winner. 

Braised Lamb Shanks with Garlic and Herbs

6 garlic cloves
4 lamb shanks (From Rising Moon Farm if you can get your hands on them!)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons flour (rice flour if making gluten-free)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups sliced onions
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon chopped parsly
1 cup white wine
3 cups veal stock (I use Chef Sid's Innovative Cuisine Veal Demi Glacé which is GF)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Cut one of the cloves of garlic in half and rub the lamb shanks with the halves. Cut remaining garlic into thin slices, set aside. Season the shanks with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, dredge in flour. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or large ovenproof skillet. Add the lamb shanks and brown on all sides. Remove the shanks from the pan and set aside. Toss the onions and sliced garlic into the pan and saute 3-5 minutes, until softened. Add the herbs and cook 3 minutes. Add the wine, rise the heat to high and reduce by half. Stir in veal stock, season with remaining salt and pepper. Place shanks in the pan, cover and bake for two hours, until the meat is fork tender. Uncover the pan and turn the oven up to 500 degrees. Let the lamb shanks brown in the oven for 20 minutes, basting the meat thoroughly with the pan gravy every five minutes. Remove the shanks from the pan, keep them covered and warm. Strain the pan gravy into a bowl and, using a bulb baster or ladle, skim the fat. Return the gravy to the pan and reduce by half over high heat. Transfer the lamb shanks to a warm serving platter. Spoon gravy over the shanks or serve gravy in a sauceboat on the side.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What to do with a super full of honey

I have done some reading. I have looked at pictures. I have done more reading. Until this past Sunday, I was still perplexed  about how honey is extracted from the super frames. In fact, it was just a very big blur of confussion.

On Sunday, I had a chance to go to a honey extraction workshop at Nature's Path in Stillwater, MN. I am not exactly part of the local beekeepers community, at least not yet.  I don't even have hives yet, so it felt a little dishonest to present myself as a first year beekeeper. The first year beekeeper, that was who was in invited to participate, not second year and not seasoned beekeepers, just first year folks. I signed up anyway, hungry for any source of knowledge and connection I can get. Plus I got to leave work, just in the nick of time. It was my turn for an admission and a 6 year old with behavior problems need a room, not my kind of nursing!

Jim, who owns and operates Nature's Path invited first time beekeepers over for a hands on demonstration of honey harvesting. And I mean hands on. We got to remove frames from supers full of honey, uncap and  puncture the honey filled cells and place the frames into an extractor and spin off the honey, triple straining and filtering  the honey into a bucket and filling our own jars of honey to take home. We also go to see three different ways to get bees out of your honey supers and ready a hive for winter. Jim's wife served honey crinkle cookies, honey popcorn and honey lemonade (we all know what I am doing today).

A honey super is part of the beehive used to collect honey. The supers contain frames and the honey bees collect and process nectar on the honeycomb of the frames and then cap it with beeswax. When the honeycomb is full a beekeeper will remove the full frames and extract the honey. We used a hot knife and a another tool to do the uncapping and then placed the frames into the hand crank extractor. It had been very difficult for me to picture this process and understand exactly how the honey was actually removed. I kept reading how fun and interesting it was and that beekeepers often invited friends, neighbors and family over to watch and participate in this hopefully late summer celebration. It was all of that and more, and yes, if I get honey I will host a harvesting party.

I left with a much better understanding of how this all works which was great. More importantly I felt the generosity of Jim and every other beekeeper there. This is an amazing group of individuals, ready, willing and able to impart their knowledge, their tools, their tips, their experience and anything else a novice might want or need. I meet Betty, a St. Paul beekeeper who lives practically around the corner who told me all about her urban beehive in her backyard. Gosh what fun, to have your bees right in your own back yard. I meet Jim's wife Wendy who encouraged me to come back next year when I really was a first time beekeeper and not a zero time fraud. She also thought I was smart to get a jump start on my education, no shame in coming a year early! I made a point of thanking Jim before I left. He must have seen the "deer in the headlights" look in my eyes as I admitted to being a little overwhelmed by how much I need to learn. Jim suggested I try and break the endeavor down into steps and stay focused on the job at hand this month and not get to ahead of myself. "For example, in March, think about what needs to be done in March, not what needs to be done in August."

I have so much to learn! Staying in the hear and now, staying present and not escalating into the future. I need so much work on this lesson alone!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Minnesota State Fair, Counting the days!

I am not a Minnesota State Fair fair-goer. After all, I was probably 16 before I even knew the Midway existed. My father took us to the fair every summer when I was growing up. It was not an annual summer tradition we looked forward to. He would pile all 6 of us into to the family station wagon at 6:00 am. My mother never joined us for these adventures. It took an exhausting amount of time to find the right parking spot, something not too far and not to expensive. We headed to Machinery Hill. Until I was much older this is what I thought the fair was, Machinery Hill. My father, who did in fact have farm property he was responsible for in Iowa and North Dakota surveyed the combines, the tractors, the silos, acting like he might make a purchase. Maybe he did, I don't really know. We would grow impatient and eventually he would take us to get a foot long hot dog which we thought was simply fantastic.  By 10 am we were back home, having never seen the dairy building,  the home economics building, a single animal, the giant slide, the haunted house, or any other part of the Minnesota State Fair. I didn't know local t.v. stations broadcasted from the fair, I didn't know there was a Midway, cheese curds snow cones, lemonade, fried donuts or anything on a stick for that matter. 

Tina takes her nephew Chase to the fair every year, going on 8 years or so now. They have a tradition that he looks forward to that involves a coin jar that sit on our dresser. All year long we toss coins into the jar. Every time Chase visits he checks the jar, noting how full it has become. When opening day at the fair arrives he and Tina take the coin jar to the bank and have the coins counted and exchanged for bills. This is their fair fund, the money they can spend that day at the fair. Chase doesn't know, but on occasion I go to the bank and get $20 worth of coins to dump in the jar, just so he can see the level of coins grow bigger in the jar. I am not sure what he likes more, turning in the coins or actually spending the day at the fair. I never go, I am not a fair-goer. They spend ample time at the giant slide, they eat their way through the day, and go on some crazy water ride at the very end of the day. They come home spent, with just enough energy to tell me exactly how much money was in the jar and describe the expression on the bank tellers face when he or she asks what they are up to with all that change. Chase describes every minute of the day in remarkable detail. They have a ball.

I am going to go to the fair this year and I am counting the days until the opening day, hoping to turn those bad memories of Machinery Hill into new memories. I have two stops to make during my highly anticipated day at the fair. The yellow and red french fry booths, well they serve gluten free french fries. I am going to eat so many french fries that I will probably get sick. I'll bring my own ketchup, just to be sure and make a day of it, eating fries in between my visits to the bee booth in the agricultural building, yes apparently there is an agricultural building at the fair. I imagine it might be near Machinery Hill. The Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Association hosts an area in the building where bee lovers can see inside a bee hive, learn about the honey bee, watch honey extraction and even see what one can do with the wax. I can't wait. I can't wait for the fries or the bees and if all goes well, I expect to become a fair-goer. Who knows, 12 days of the great american summer event,  I just might go more than once to make up for lost time.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Getting ready for Julie and Julia

Does this look like the kitchen of someone who cooks 27 minutes a day? According to Michael Pollan, Out of the Kitchen, On to the Couch, this is the average amount of time a day spent in food preparation by most American's.

Whoa! I know I am an outlier but 27 minutes, really?

We are going to see Julie and Julia, for two reasons. First and foremost Tina's brother Charlie had a serious boy crush on Julia Child and watched every single episode of the French Chef. When she died, Charlie cried. So we will go, with Charlie, to remember and celebrate the life of this extraordinary women who empowered so many in the kitchen! Julia Child is an Icon! After all she actually paved the way for the Food Network.

But this could have been my movie. True story. I have an active imagination, based on kernels of reality. I  have seen myself at the Oscars, twice in fact. The first time I am watching Kathy Bates accept the best actress award for portraying me in a movie "Testing the Human Spirit", a true story about my work as a nurse taking care of pediatric patients with AIDS. My second  appearance is for a documentary in which I work my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Those plans fell apart after I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease and working my way through a singe recipe became very challenging.  My hopes of hitting the hollywood scene were dashed and Julie Powell stole the show. I am happy for her really, even if it was sort of my idea. I am mostly happy that cooking is going to hit the big screen and maybe bring some enthusiasm back to the kitchen.

I will admit, I am  excentric, especially in the kitchen. If I want tomato paste I start with tomatoes  and spend an entire day cooking them down to a tangy paste. I always start from scratch and buck the food marketing researchers idea of what cooking today is all about. According to their model and their idea on the direction of cooking, my off spring, if I had them, would consider my idea of cooking crazy. They may be right according to history. Apparently in the 1950's the rage of breaking down cooking to opening cans and boxes and using packaged food was redefined with the advent of leaving something for the cook to do, specifically, crack open an egg, so "she" could take ownership of the cake". That is crazy. I do spend hours in the kitchen, chopping, dicing, sauteing, braising, stewing. If it comes in a bottle and I can make it myself, I do, chutney, mayo, soup, sauces . . . If it comes in a box and I can make it myself I do. When I grocery shop my cart is full of fruit, vegetables, weird flours, dairy and meat. I am not going to be tricked into thinking the box cake mix is somehow mine if I crack an egg into it. 

And that movie idea, well it is on the back burner!