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Archive for June, 2010

On Thursday last, Shauna James Ahern at Gluten-Free Girl tweeted an idea.

“What’s the first dish you ever learned to cook? How did it make you feel to cook it?”

Milestone meals started popping into my head, and in reverse chronological order I worked my way back to the first thing.  Okay…  perhaps not the first thing.  That would be Roast Beef with Pickle Gravy, lovingly prepared in Imagination Land as a very small child.  My dad made me a yellow toy stove in his basement woodshop, complete with real stovetop dials, electric burners painted on, handles leftover from their kitchen remodel, and one door which opened the same way an oven would (with a sliding rack inside too!).  I remember playing with that stove all the time.

My first proper independent cooking was breakfast.  Eggs to be precise.  I started with scrambled.  Maybe sautéing some onions in some butter before pouring in the beaten egg and chives, then mixing in some cheese or cut up salami.  My parents had a white, glass-topped, electric stove, and it was awful.  The breakfast preparation process involved putting the pan on the stovetop, turning on the burner, tossing a pat of butter in the pan, and walking away.  Only then would I bother with prep work;  cutting up onions, harvesting chives, cubing cheese, getting a plate, etc., because it seemed a full 15 minutes before that butter even started to melt.  But in any case, that routine became a rhythm and many mornings before school I got up to make my own breakfast.

It was not long before scrambled eggs became omelets.  To me, omelets feel like the first real dish I ever learned to cook.  I think I was around 12-years old, and it was utterly empowering!

Omelets were the first dish I made for someone else.  The scrambled eggs were always for me.  I cannot remember if my little sister ever ate the scrambled eggs, but the omelets were for everyone.  As if the act of sharing food with others is the last real step in preparing anything.  I remember getting praise from my parents, and being brave enough to cook breakfast in other people’s kitchens after an overnight.  I remember my mistakes in judging how much filling was too full to fold without cracking, which fillings got too runny, and how to get all the egg to cook without scorching the bottom too badly.  In point of fact, these omelets were more like a folded and stuffed frittata than a proper omelet, but they were tasty and very close to what my father made on the weekends.

Not long after, say 7th or 8th grade, my parents had me get dinner started once in a while.  I have few memories of being confident in middle school (who does?), but yet I have clear recollections of standing at the kitchen counter after school and enjoying these tasks.  I felt comfortable in my own skin.  It was never anything challenging.  These were uncomplicated assignments with clear direction.  My father is always one planned meal ahead.  He wakes up contemplating dinner, and he goes to bed thinking lunch.  But even without being complex cooking, these chores built an underlying ease with simple routines:  adding marinade to meat and getting it in the fridge, peeling potatoes, forming hamburger patties so they were ready for the grill as soon as the folks got home.  One frequent recipe in particular was simple baked chicken with a combination of garlic salt and brown sugar.  In college I asked my dad for the recipe, and he humbly sent a scrawled recipe entitled Dad’s Incredible Chicken.  It was met with acclaim by the roommates, and The Spouse and I still regularly make it, lo these many years later.

The remarkably addictive thing about learning to cook is that the learning feels good.  The process of diving into something new.  Deciding to try.  Learning how to fail.  If we succeed in passing these skills onto The Child, this already gutsy and resilient kid just might feel empowered too.  The Spouse commented last night that it is his hope The Child will find herself heading off on her own already “just knowing” how to cook.  I taught myself technique in my mid-twenties, but I already just knew how to cook.  Thanks Dad!

Dad’s Incredible Chicken

1 chicken, quartered
Garlic salt
¼ – ⅓  cup brown sugar

Arrange chicken skin side up in lightly oiled baking pan.
Season fairly heavily with garlic salt.
Sprinkle generously with brown sugar.
Bake at 375°F for one hour.
Cover with foil after 30-40 minutes if chicken appears too dry.
May be served hot or cold.
Share with friends and gloat.

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

Updated 6/15/2010:

I have so enjoyed reading the memories of the other contributors to the project.  Check out Shauna’s post to read more: http://glutenfreegirl.blogspot.com/2010/06/first-meal-i-ever-cooked.html

What was the first thing you ever cooked?

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Accessibility

A friend of mine recently pointed me at the 20×200 website.  The tagline for the online gallery is “Discover Great Artists at an Affordable Price” and many hours were spent surfing and discovering.  Jen Bekman is the fascinating creator of 20×200, which endeavors to provide archival-quality art pieces to an all-inclusive audience starting at $20.

While surfing through, I landed on the 20×200 profile for Mark Menjivar and his You Are What You Eat project.  Clicking through all the images and reading the brief captions speaks volumes about how we humans relate to food under different circumstances in our lives.  And as I scroll and surf my way through 20×200 building my personal wish list, it is clear that Jen Bekman is changing the way we humans relate to art as well.  Sometimes accessibility makes all the difference.

Go explore Mark’s images (projects -> you are what you eat -> images).  What do you see?  In the meantime, I’ll be organizing my fridge.

Bar Tender | San Antonio, TX | 1-Person Household | Goes to sleep at 8AM and wakes up at 4PM daily. by Mark Menjivar

Midwife/Middle School Science Teacher | San Antonio, TX | 3-Person Household (including dog) | First week after deciding to eat locally grown vegetables. by Mark Menjivar

The Artist’s Statement [taken directly from his website: http://www.markmenjivar.com/]

You Are What You Eat is a series of portraits made by examining the interiors of refrigerators in homes across the United States.

For three years I traveled around the country exploring food issues. The more time I spent speaking and listening to individual stories, the more I began to think about the foods we consume and the effects they have on us as individuals and communities. An intense curiosity and questions about stewardship led me to begin to make these unconventional portraits.

A refrigerator is both a private and a shared space. One person likened the question, “May I photograph the interior of your fridge?” to asking someone to pose nude for the camera. Each fridge is photographed “as is.” Nothing added, nothing taken away.

These are portraits of the rich and the poor. Vegetarians, Republicans, members of the NRA, those left out, the under appreciated,former soldiers in Hitler’s SS, dreamers, and so much more. We never know the full story of one’s life. 

My hope is that we will think deeply about how we care. How we care for our bodies. How we care for others. And how we care for the land.

You Are What You Eat has been used by several organizations and universities as a center piece for dialog about food issues. if interested in finding out more information about bringing the exhibit to your community, please contact me. [mjmenjivar(at)gmail.com]

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No foodie should preach about sustainability and local agriculture without taking a serious look at their own pantry.  We have been getting organic grocery delivery of local produce for many years now, and I find it well worth the drawbacks for our circumstances.  Recently, we joined a local meat CSA (community supported agriculture) and drive once a month to a predetermined drop point to pick up our share of the monthly meat.

But if Vidalia onions are in season you can bet I am going to select them over the local ones, and I cannot function in the kitchen without my spice drawer which hails from all over the world.  All across California wine country there is a movement to drink local.  That’s great.  Support your community.  But I hardly think Napa would like to encourage restaurants across the country to only drink local.  In fact the story of their success depends on worldwide exportation and is a fabulous example of local agriculture makes good for a community.

So recently when I opened the pantry looking for a quick and easy side dish I saw the quinoa, which hails from *checks package* Bolivia.  Hmmm… dinner is going to have a big carbon footprint tonight kiddo… Except of course these things are all relative.  Quinoa packs nutrition, history, and socially-responsible agriculture into a tiny grain.

Technically, quinoa is not a true grain or cereal.  Botanically speaking, Chenopodium quinoa is a chenopod (like beets, spinach, or chard) and can also be consumed as a leaf vegetable, although it is predominantly grown for its edible seeds.  Originating in the Andes, it can be grown at altitudes over 13,000 feet.  And although it can also be grown on fertile plains with the benefit of mechanization, this contributes to soil erosion.  But the mountain crops are both easier on the land, of better quality besides, and are hand-farmed by small-scale communities.  The quinoa I purchase is produced by a cooperative of small growers and is sold through Alter-Eco, a fair-trade product distributor.  I prefer their Red Quinoa and choose to purchase it from Amazon in bulk.   It qualifies for Amazon Prime free shipping, and is cheaper per bag ($5.67/1 lb. bag) than the bulk price offered by Alter Eco online ($6.49/1 lb. bag).  You may not be certain you want eight pounds of the stuff right off the bat…  but I think the variety of recipes available on the intertubes these days will provide a multitude of inspiration.

The National Association of Quinoa Farmers (ANAPQUI) was created in 1983 in order to maximize the revenue of local communities who were selling at a loss. The Anapqui cooperative currently regroups 1100 small producers from the south of the Bolivian Altiplano who now benefit from decent living wages, transformation and packaging facilities. The latter, partially funded by the United Nations Development Program, enables them to export directly without having to rely on middlemen. The profit from sales goes towards financing educational and training programs that have led to the introduction of organic farming methods. -- Alter Eco website

Quinoa is a low-maintenance crop as the seeds have a coating of saponins.  Saponins are nifty plant-derived chemical compounds. They are amphipathic glycosides, so they have both hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (fat-loving) qualities.  Saponins all share the same phenomena of foaming when shaken in aqueous solution, and some saponins were historically used as soaps.  Most importantly to quinoa, saponins tend to taste bitter.  Awful enough that crops are typically safe from birds, insects, and other foraging animals.  After harvest, the saponins are removed before consumption, and most quinoa available in the US comes ready to prepare.

Quinoa, together with potatoes and maize, were hugely important to the Incas and other pre-Columbian civilizations.  To the point of being sacred.  It is considered a complete protein, that is to say it has a balanced set of essential amino acids including the oft-missing lysine, which is very rare in plants, and according to the package I purchased, one quarter cup serving contains 160 calories, 5 grams of protein, 3 grams of dietary fiber, and 20% of the daily recommended intake for iron.  There is solid nutrition science behind why this stuff fueled Incan armies.

Confession

To be quite honest, I forgot it was in the pantry.  I started buying it years ago when a friend was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, back before the food industry started catering to the gluten-free niche market.  I really only ever made one recipe:  Quinoa Taboulleh from Cooking Light.  It worked well as a gluten-free dip alongside hummus, or as a side dish to roast lamb.  I usually I made it for a crowd.  I skipped the raisins and went with parsley over mint.  And I shortened the cooking time to the package instructions of 15 minutes so it didn’t go all mushy.  Back then I bought red quinoa in bulk, but we have since diversified our gluten-free offerings as more and more friends receive their diagnoses.  So the last few packages had quietly hidden in the back of the pantry until I opened it up last month assuming I would take the easy out and just boil up some pasta.

Epiphany

While the fennel and onions bubbled away on the stove I read the package instructions.  Add rinsed quinoa to water, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.  Well that is about the same time commitment for pasta, so why not?  I find rice tricky because you have to cover it and not peek, but this simmers uncovered.  It cooked up just as it said it would, and as they absorb the water and burst there is a tell tale curlicue on each grain letting you know they are almost ready as the germ separates from the seed.  I mixed in some frozen corn, about 2 Tablespoons of salted butter (the butter is key if I want The Child to eat it without complaint!), and some fresh grinds of black pepper.  I would have added other things and played more, but it was time to eat.  It was under 30 minutes from the time I opened the pantry looking for pasta to the time The Child and I sat down to quinoa for dinner.

Quinoa and The Child

Much like discovering how easily farro could replace the desperation pasta meal, it was a revelation to recall just how quick and easy quinoa is to make.  While we ate I remembered one of the reasons quinoa had fallen out of favor around here.  It was not very baby or toddler friendly as a standalone dish for our family, as the individual grains were sometimes difficult to swallow.  We had a similar baby-gagging experience with couscous.  Mixed with something mushy, like hummus, tiny grains are easier for small children to eat safely and keep from sticking to everything.  In fact at our recent re-entry dinner The Child decided that mixing it with the fennel and onion mash was a more convenient way to eat it, instead of chasing the frustratingly itty-bitty grains around her plate with her spoon.  We each had seconds and stored the leftovers in the fridge.  Later in the week we discovered the leftover quinoa and corn worked very well mixed in with salsa and scooped up with tortilla chips, as well as making an excellent omelet filling with melted cheese.

During my health issues this spring The Spouse made another huge batch.  At first to help address the residual anemia post blood transfusion (between quinoa and meat and iron supplements recommended by the doc it cleared up within a few days), and then post-surgically to get more fiber and, um, let’s just say combat a challenging side effect of the pain medication.  This batch used up our leftover vegetable broth in place of the water for added flavor.  We had it stirred into cold chicken salad and salmon salad.  Alongside scrambled eggs for breakfast.  As a side dish at dinner served much like wild rice.  But the clear family favorite was mixed into salsa.  One post-hospital dinner consisted of a jar of salsa and red quinoa mixed 1:1, homemade guacamole, and Tostitos Scoops.  The Child was thrilled to “just have snackies” for dinner, and I welcomed the opportunity to nibble while healing.

Salsa for Dinner

Before we were married, my mom and her friends hosted a wedding shower.  I reluctantly agreed on the condition that there would not be any silly games.  That request somehow got lost in translation and there were, in fact, silly games.  One of them involved each person giving a gift getting to ask me any question they liked about The Soon-to-be-Spouse.  At one point someone asked what his favorite food was.  I didn’t really know what to say, but I answered, “Chips and salsa.”  There was much derision, but it was true.  Comfort food at the time often centered around a bag of chips and and a bowl of adulterated salsa.  And sometimes that became dinner.  And now we get to share that pleasure with The Child without any worries about the meal being insufficiently nutritious.  Time to make some more quinoa.

Photo by Randy Mayor for Cooking Light

Quinoa Tabbouleh from Cooking Light

Yield:  5 servings (serving size: 1 cup)

Ingredients
1 3/4 cups water
1 cup uncooked quinoa
1/2 cup coarsely chopped seeded tomato
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint or parsley
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped cucumber
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons minced fresh onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine water and quinoa in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat; fluff with a fork. Stir in tomato and remaining ingredients. Cover; let stand 1 hour. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

CALORIES 182 (24% from fat); FAT 4.8g (sat 0.6g,mono 2.5g,poly 1.1g); IRON 3.5mg; CHOLESTEROL 0.0mg; CALCIUM 31mg; CARBOHYDRATE 31.6g; SODIUM 259mg; PROTEIN 5g; FIBER 5.3g

Cooking Light, OCTOBER 1999

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Healing

It has been a weird and wacky spring.  In late April, I had a simple procedure done.  One of those girlie things that is supposed to be simple and reduce the inconvenience of being a woman.  The OB/GYN thought an endometrial ablation would perhaps address my longtime symptoms.   But then a freak one-in-a-million complication landed me in the hospital with a life-threatening hemorrhage, three long weeks after the procedure.  After a blood transfusion and three days of top-notch medical care (all hail fabulous nursing care!) I was back home with strict orders to take it easy and tend to the residual anemia.  Within the week I was back in the ER, stabilized, admitted, and scheduled for a laparoscopic supracervical hysterectomy.  I have only been home a short while, but all I can say is, “Wow!  Why didn’t I do this years ago??”

Recovery has been going really, really well now that the offending organ is outta there!  Apparently recovery for a traditional hysterectomy is four to eight weeks.  Here I am ten days out from surgery, and I am down to a smidgen of ibuprofen to see me through the day.  Sleeping well.  Eating well.  And maybe back to writing often in a little bit, but a bit dizzy and tired yet.  By two weeks the doc estimates I will be feeling close to my normal self.  I still have the one little-ovary-that-could, so I have no worries about hormone replacement and adjustment yet either.  All this started in April, just after a bout of the flu for The Child and myself, and here we are in June…  School is out after today, and I seem to have missed spring.

So while this post has nothing to do with raising my omnivorous child, I wanted to offer up my experience to anyone who may be weighing their options in this department.  Pain and discomfort will change anyone’s behavior.  Parenting is already a challenge, so why let pain interfere if you don’t have to?  My spine is slowly degenerating, and at the moment there is nothing anyone can do about that.  But I have been weighing the recommendations of my OB/GYN for three years now before finally acting on them.  The bizarre life-threatening side effect I experienced aside…  both of these procedures are remarkably straightforward and I would still make all the same decisions over again.  Except in hindsight, I would have skipped the ablation and gone straight to surgery.  And I should have done it a lot sooner.  Not because of any danger from the ablation, but because I never expected to feel so at ease with the decision to have the hysterectomy.  My experiences of both procedures and recovery have been vastly more comfortable and simple than the more invasive approaches many doctors were taking just a few years ago.

A few more days of rest and catching up with life are in store:  bills, cooking, writing, housekeeping, the bathroom remodel which went on amidst it all, and backing out of all the knitting mistakes my addled brain made this spring.  Many thanks to my fabulously generous neighborhood, my friends, my mom, and everyone who pitched in to help The Spouse pull off a few months single-handed.  At noon today The Child comes home from her last day of school.  I am looking forward to the little things; like Saturday date nights not spent in the ER, and a comfortable summer with a 2nd grader!

**Update 6/14/2010 :: 15 days post-surgical**

I had my first post-surgical checkin with the doctor today.  It seems I was a little cocky about my recovery.  There is nothing to worry about, mind you.  No serious complications.  The incisions keep healing, and I am still not in much pain since switching entirely to IBU from the serious pain meds last week.  But I am exhausted.  Having trouble concentrating.  More dizzy than my usual self.  But mostly just very, very tired.

I fessed up to the doctor today that last week I probably did too much.  The Child’s room was being re-carpeted, and when it was finished I spent a day and a half moving her things back in.  Shifting furniture.  Carrying books.   Then I started in on the tasks which have gone so long unattended.  Vacuuming.  Laundry.  It was really stupid.

I hit a wall where I was suddenly nauseated, felt internal pressure on the incisions, and realized I’d done far more than I ought have.

So I spent the weekend on the couch and came clean at my appointment today.    There was a definite cringe when I detailed my poor choices, and I was politely chastised for doing too much.  Apparently my ‘2-weeks and you’re feeling fine’ post was a little premature.  The doctor said that on the inside I am still healing, and 6-8 weeks for total healing is still an accurate assessment.  The exhaustion and dizziness I’d been concerned were stress or lack of exercise, are in fact totally normal.  So I was tactfully informed me to cut it out and just rest.

So more Go Fish and reading with The Child, while The Spouse enforces the refreshed edict to just chill.  Alright then… time for a nap.

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