Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Epic Fail? What Do You Think?

So, tomorrow is the Volunteers' Breakfast at school. All year, they've read with children, organized PTO events, assembled bulletin boards, shown up when teachers were at their wits end, provided Teacher Appreciation Days, and what do we award them with? A pen wrapped in cellophane and a breakfast that will last as little as 15 minutes, as several teachers will have to run to car duty, bus duty, babysitting duty... or maybe as long as 30 whole minutes, as we all need to pick up our children promptly at 8:20 in order to teach the 6 hours of lessons planned within the 3 1/2 hours of actual instructional time allotted to teachers in the 7 hour day the children spend in school. Hmmmmm...

So, tonight (after grading papers), I wanted to do our volunteers right by baking a delicious gluten-free cinnamon pecan bread for the Volunteers' Breakfast. I used the Namaste Gluten-Free Bread Mix and added cinnamon, sugar, raisins, and pecans. Great idea, but then I got preoccupied with...blogging. A little less time on the computer, and it would have turned out perfectly. But the computer desk is a whole floor above the kitchen, and once I smelled the cinnamon, it was a little too late.

A little crispy for a celebratory breakfast, but not too crispy to be sliced, frozen, and made into french toast a few weeks from now.

So who do I turn to when all else fails? I wish I had more of a spiritual answer, but it's Bob.

Bob from Bob's Red Mill, that is. Bob and I are tight. He's been supplying me with gluten-free mixes and flours for five years now. And we are especially close since I met him at the actual mill outside of Portland that bears his name.

Bob's Red Mill is a whole grain store in Milwaukie, Oregon that produces more than 400 products, including a full line of certified gluten free products and an extensive line of certified organic products. Thankfully, I can find Bob's products at my local Whole Foods and Kroger stores.


But when I met Bob and thanked him for his dedication to the gluten intolerant community, he sincerely just wanted to know what I was doing at his mill. He loved I was there because of a college roommate reunion.

So, tonight, it was Bob to the rescue. I had a package of gluten-free Bob's Red Mill cornbread mix in the cupboard. I whipped up a batch, spooned the batter into muffin tins, and dotted each muffin with fresh blueberries.

Twenty minutes later, I learned a valuable baking lesson. Always fold the blueberries into the batter, otherwise your muffins look like they're sprouting blueberries.
They aren't pretty, they are definitely cornbread muffins with blueberries floating on top, but nevertheless, they are delicious.

Thanks, Bob.

And if no one else selects them out of the vast array of dishes at our Volunteers' Breakfast, I know at least three people that will enjoy them at the Whiskers' Household over the next few days.

Thank you, Volunteers, for all you do for your children, for your teachers, and for the future of our country. Thank you, Bob, for your vision, for your sweet grandfather spirit, and for your dedication to quality gluten-free products. Thank you, Karen, for showing me that Bob's is more than just a package on my grocery store shelf. (And for being an amazing friend.)

Epic fail tonight? Not a chance.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Birthdays Are Beautiful Things

Birthdays are beautiful things, but I especially love my birthday because it comes every year at the perfect time. Signs of spring are just starting to appear, summer is only one short school quarter away, a much needed spring break is right around the corner, and then there's Easter. Preparing for Holy Week through church services, choir rehearsals, and devotionals leading up and through my birthday is a personal tradition.

Who doesn't like to be celebrated? As a kid, I can remember counting the days until it was finally my birthday. Not only was I thrilled with the idea of being one year older, but it was a day all about ME! Everyone in my world knew that it was my birthday. And if I happened to go somewhere where someone didn't know the significance of the day, it was quite appropriate to announce, "Today is my birthday!" Now, truly, everyone in my world would be up to speed, and we could get on with celebrating.

I remember becoming an adult and going about the business of the day, going to work, running errands, taking care of business just like it was any other day and thinking, "Hey, no one knows that it's my birthday! There's something wrong with this!" But I couldn't just walk around like an eight-year-old announcing, "Today is my birthday!" I sure wanted to though. Becoming an adult was like holding in a big secret and pretending it didn't matter.

Thankfully, as a third grade teacher, I live in the world of eight-year-olds. And to a certain extent, the teaching profession attracts those of us who'd really like to be stuck in those single-digit years for the rest of our lives when everything was magical, fascinating, and lovely. But since I work at an elementary school, on my birthday, I could walk up to any person, child or adult, and announce, "Today is my birthday!" and I'd be properly and sincerely greeted. But even in our school world, an announcement is hardly necessary.

We all know each others' birthdays, how long until they'll arrive, and feel a quiet sadness for those who have "summer birthdays". Our birthdays are listed on the classroom wall along with other crucial information like parts of speech, multiplication tables, capitalization rules, and the names of the seven continents. We count down to birthdays, we graph the birthdays of our classmates, we sing and dance over cupcakes and juice boxes multiple times a month. Birthdays are a big deal!

And they're an even bigger deal if you are the teacher. Student whispers are hushed when the teacher walks by, giggles are shushed as they surreptitiously pass handmade cards to be signed, room moms bring cupcakes for that "surprise" party even though that one child spilled the beans days ago. Today, I got to wear a tiara and a birthday pageant sash. How many grown women get to do that on their birthdays?

Being gluten intolerant, I always feel so loved when someone who understands the issues involved makes sure that I'm taken care of. In the food realm, this birthday was a Love Fest! The husband took me out for birthday dinner at Midtown Cafe. The first words out of the waiter's mouth were, "I hear that you have a gluten allergy. You can order anything from our menu, and we'll make sure to make it gluten-free." A friend brought cupcakes for my entire class this morning. But my treat? PF Chang's gluten-free chocolate dome. Oh my!

Then for lunch, my room moms traveled all the way to Nashville to pick up lunch for me at my favorite gluten-free sandwich shop and bakery - FiddleCakes. Chicken salad on gluten-free bread that actually stays together and an amazing butternut squash soup were out of this world delicious.

Oh, but there's more. At the end of the day, those very same room moms brought cupcakes for the kids. Yes, this was the second batch of cupcakes of the day. (We are big on cupcakes in the elementary schools.) But these cupcakes were ALL made gluten-free. My students loved watching me eat a cupcake for the very first time. They loved eating something that not only their teacher could eat, but they tasted better than the white flour cupcakes that they eat all the time. Imagine a third grade boy asking for the recipe!

They weren't just good. They were amazing.

So, did I mention that FiddleCakes is my new favorite gluten-free treat supplier? When I got home after teaching a sculpting class, that incredible husband of mine showed up with this.

And I can honestly say that it was the best-tasting chocolate cake I've ever had.

And now you're wondering if it's possible that one person can consume so much chocolate in one day...

Birthdays only come once a year. That's what makes them so special.

And thanks to all of you for making it such a delightful day (both the big people and the little ones).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tomato, Tomato, Tomato Meat Sauce

Tomorrow is a long, 10-mile run, and what's a girl to do to prepare? Stock up on carbohydrates with a pasta dinner (using gluten free pasta, of course). Normally, I'd brown some ground turkey, mix in a little turkey sausage to enrich the flavor, pour a jar of organic tomato sauce over the top, and spice it up with a few shakes of crushed red pepper. A quick and easy pre-run meal with just the right amount of protein and carbs.

But tonight the sauce had more of an organic feel. It was definitely homemade, but not in the traditional sense of the word. It just kind of grew from my poor planning...or was it my pure creative genius?

It started with the two pounds of frozen turkey that thawed on my counter all day. Thinking back, when the woman behind the meat counter at Whole Foods said, "Would you like that wrapped separately?" I should have said yes. But the brick of meat finally thawed, and it didn't take me long to realize that browning two pounds of turkey plus the contents of two sausage casings wasn't going to fit in my largest fry pan. Sometime between transferring half of the meat to a second pan and sauteing a whole onion with a few cloves of garlic, I realized that my single jar of pasta sauce just wasn't going to be enough, unless I wanted moist tomato-flavored meatballs for dinner.

With the mountain of turkey browned, and the contents of the pasta jar looking pitifully inadequate in the saucepan, I began looking around the kitchen for anything that resembled a tomato to increase the volume of my sauce. Thankfully, I had a can of fire-roasted whole tomatoes in the cupboard as well as a small can of diced tomatoes. They doubled my sauce, but the mound of meat still looked overwhelming. I rummaged through the refrigerator to find an old jar of pasta sauce that still had about a half cup of sauce clinging to the bottom. I hesitated, but opened the jar and took a whiff. Smelled fine to me, so the old sauce was quickly swirled into my new sauce on the stove. As I was about to close the door to the fridge I saw a tupperware of leftover pizza sauce from last weekend's homemade pizzas. How different can pasta and pizza sauce be? In the pot it went along with the last splash of organic tomato juice. The produce drawer held one lonely tomato that I quickly diced and added to the mixture, and the sauce suddenly looked healthy, bubbly, and ready to receive the meat. The sauce was the exact consistency I was hoping for.

The corn pasta drenched in tomato, tomato, tomato meat sauce was incredible. The tomato flavors deep and rich, perfectly seasoned with basil and oregano, mixed well with the hint of spicy sausage. And it's a good thing too, because we'll be eating tomato, tomato, tomato meat sauce for weeks to come.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Frittatas for Fun

After a long run on Saturday mornings I always look forward to the recovery meal. What good is nine miles of calorie burning if you can't refuel afterward, right? Today, recovery came with a spinach, tomato, and goat cheese frittata.

Sound fancy? Not at all. Williams Sonoma makes it quite easy with their frittata pan - dual pans with linking handles make it easy to flip the pan halfway through the cook time. The frittata stays together making you look like an expert chef.

Sound fattening? Nope. The base is mostly vegetables and egg whites. Saute spinach, chopped tomatoes, minced garlic, and red onion in a little bit of grapeseed oil until tender. Then pour about a cup and a quarter of egg whites mixed with two whole eggs over the veggies in the pan. Dot the top with pieces of goat cheese, and you're well on your way to a healthy meal.

Sound time consuming? Not at all. Five minutes on each side. Even a ravenous runner can wait that long.

Sound delicious? You bet.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Little Bit of Carrot Soup

It's funny how a little bit of this and a little bit of that can come together to create something entirely exquisite. For the past three days, my colleague has been eating curried chicken salad for lunch. While the rich, creamy, deep yellow color has faded a little by the day, my desire for curry has increased exponentially. Mix that "little bit" with the fact that I picked up my CSA delivery of organic vegetables this afternoon, and they just happened to have extra carrots just pried from the ground yesterday. "Take what you'll eat." With a family of four, and only two of them being of the carrot persuasion (the other two being of the kibble and fresh meat persuasion), how many carrots could I take in good conscience?

On the way home I imagined a carrot soup that would chase the chill from my legs, the fog from my brain, and the boringness of the same old carrot-topped salad from my routine. I could almost taste it, but I wondered how I could make it. These days, you don't have to wonder very long. The solution was soon at my fingertips with a few taps on my iPhone.

Allrecipes.com has an amazing recipe called Curried Carrot Soup. The only credit I can take is that I put aside the quiz I had to write, the clothes I had to pack for tomorrow, the lunches I had to make, and the laundry I should have put away to make this simple, delectable meal. I also had to make a few substitutions as this was not a "stop at the grocery store for ingredients" type of day.

It brought me to tears. Seriously, eyes burning, I cried as I sauteed one chopped onion in two tablespoons of grapeseed oil. Adding two tablespoons of curry intensified my curry craving as the aroma flooded the room. Our housemate even surfaced from his studies to say, "How do you expect me to get my work done when you're cooking something like that?" I fed a few pounds of carrots to the food processor and poured the perfect little carrot circles into the soup pot. Once well-coated in carmelized onions and curry, I added four cups of chicken broth. The recipe called for vegetable broth, but maybe the little bit of that made all the difference. After 20 minutes of simmering, just long enough to pack lunch, I used our Vitamix to puree the carrots and onions. It probably would have saved time to pour the puree into another bowl until everything was smooth as silk, but I opted to pour the puree back into the simmering pot and play a fishing game with a slotted spoon until I had almost all of the carrot floaters captured. I added one more cup of water, gave it a stir, and set it to simmer.

Just in time too. The garage door opened, and in walked that husband of mine. I assumed that the intoxicating smell of curry would wash the grime of the day from his mind, and he would instantly be transported to culinary heaven. "Want some carrot soup?"

"I'm not really a carrot soup kind of person," was his reply. Thankfully the joy of the process and the hope of the outcome was strong enough to prevent a girl hissy fit. And because he was hungry, and it was ready, he gave it a shot.

It was definitely the best soup I have ever made. And it may even be the best soup I've ever had. Creamy, rich, spicy, and sweet in every spoonful warming the body and spirit. All from a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And even the husband liked it.

Curried Carrot Soup
* 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
* 1 onion, chopped
* 1 tablespoon curry powder
* 2-3 pounds carrots, chopped
* 4 cups chicken broth
* 1 cup water, or as needed

1. Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Saute onion until tender and translucent. Stir in the curry powder. Add the chopped carrots, and stir until the carrots are coated. Pour in the vegetable broth, and simmer until the carrots are soft, about 20 minutes.
2. Transfer the carrots and broth to a blender, and puree until smooth. Pour back into the pot, and thin with water to your preferred consistency.
3. Taste, close eyes, and smile!
Adapted from allrecipes.com.