Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On Thanksgiving, I am Grateful for You

grateful - the little reminders

To my virtual and otherwise embodied friends & family:

I know that so many of you are going through challenges, that 2010 has been a year filled with anxiety and questions, largely without answer.  To say that this past year has been full of underwhelming hope and disappointing results is an understatement. 

But I am proud to be your friend.  Honored, actually.  If anything, I’ve learned from each of you a great deal about humility, grace and how to operate with compassion when life is dealing a hand that should be tossed back into the pile of discards.   Not once did you complain and say your plight was unfair.   Mostly you said that you were still better off than so many others and that it was just time to muster up more patience and fortitude.

Sadly, one of you folded your tent before anyone could reach out and grab your hand, leaving us breathless with grief and questions without answer.  We kept going anyway, missing you every single day. 

Then there are those of you who can make even the most unfortunate event seem like a glass half full.  You’ve no idea how much your attitude catches on and makes life bearable and even inspirational for so many more around you. 

I’ve watched some of you invent great alternate universes that keep the sanity alive.  I’ve watched some of you create some innovative solutions to ordinary life altering issues.  I’ve seen some of you march forward with enough chutzpah to lend some to others who are in need.  I’ve seen some of you part with precious gifts just to make the world a better place all the while dealing with a pile of things that would undo an ordinary soul.

You are some of the most brilliant people on this planet.   Keep marching.  Keep on speaking.  Keep on being who you are.   That’s all. 

In gratitude I say, pie for all.

And thank you.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Very Gluten Free Thanksgiving


Holiday food memories are like a family photo album with scratch and sniff pages.   Ask anyone about their earliest Thanksgiving memories and chances are it is a combination of the Macy’s parade and the smell of yams with toasted marshmallows or pumpkin pie.  Then again, some of us might only remember Uncle Zeke’s shiny flask filled with something that added a certain charm to the boring punch bowl filled with preseason eggnog.

My brother reports that we always had a Thanksgiving dinner growing up; that the Ad Man recited the same typed poem/prayer of thanks each year.  But I cannot muster up one solitary memory from childhood about the holiday.  There aren’t even any family photos from Thanksgiving to use as a memory crutch.  I’m puzzled that the guy- the Ad Man- who photographed anything and everyone would skip a major holiday opportunity.  I suspect that we actually ate liver and onions for Thanksgiving and that is why I’ve blocked out those early years.

My Thanksgiving memories actually begin when I was a 17-year-old bride attending the famous holiday feast with combined families at the newly minted in-laws.  Just because it was Thanksgiving and the new lemon loving in-laws were hosting my father and stepmother, assorted siblings and guests meant there was something nothing to be nervous about. The gathering would take place in their beautiful colonial on a wooded lane where the neighbor parks his helicopter.   Perfectly Norman Rockwell – in theory.  Spending most of that memorable holiday with a “nervous” stomach ailment was mortifying.  The Ad Man even rustled up the family doctor by phone who diagnosed “stomach ache”.  It would still be years before the gluten intolerance diagnosis, but I was suffering all the way back then.

Since that Thursday 30 something years ago, we’ve spent some happy and almost pain-free Thanksgivings with the in-laws.  We came to enjoy the time together and I prepared in advance for the onslaught of not feeling well by keeping a giant assortment of stomach remedies in my bag.   It also helps that we avoided mingling the two entire families ever again after that first crazy year.

That first memorable in-law Thanksgiving Day is where the early hints that gluten was not my friend were apparent.  Those “stomach aches” that everyone assumed were merely stress related were pain inflicted by the invasion of wheat, barley and rye making me sick.  And Thanksgiving dinner is nothing without a pile of stuffing, freshly baked rolls, pies and even those awful green beans drowning in mushroom soup and topped with fried onions; lots of wheat.

These days we prefer a small holiday dinner.  Neither of us enjoys turkey so we feast on a chicken or duck and after the gluten diagnosis we avoided stuffing, but now that we have access to some great gluten free breads, we indulge this one time of year.  Loading up on fresh veggies, lightly sautéed and seasoned along with the chicken makes for a wonderful feast and none of the stress, physical or mental.

My favorite stuffing is Stove Top (quit snickering).  It was a sad day when I realized I couldn’t eat it any longer.  And there are those that subscribe to more is better, loading up the savory bread with chestnuts, apples, nuts, sausage and other little goodies.  I like the old original version with a little sautéed celery and onion, seasonings like sage, thyme, (poultry seasoning), salt and pepper and moistened with chicken broth and butter.  Tossed lightly and either served from the pot or a casserole that bakes to make the top a bit crunchy.
I worked on this version until it tasted quite similar to the old Stove Top and nothing makes me happier.

On this holiday, I salute the long gone Ad Man, the long gone family doctor who meant well more than he was accurate, and the fabulous house that was on the lane with the helicopter pad.  We raise our glasses in a toast to our younger selves – and say a small hallelujah that we got this far in one piece to enjoy our gluten free holiday feast.
Gluten Free Fabulous Stove Top Stuffing
Savory Cubes
  • Ends of old loaves of gluten free bread (variety is good), cubed into ½ inch pieces
  • Olive oil
  • Herbs and spices: thyme, chopped sage, poultry seasoning, a pinch of rosemary, salt, pepper
  • Butter
  • Chicken broth
Cube up the bread into ½ inch pieces.  If you have the opportunity, leave it out overnight uncovered to dry out a bit.  Otherwise just proceed after cubing. The prep and recipe are very flexible and resilient.  In a large bowl combine a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and enough herbs/spices to make your nose tickle.  Add the cubes of bread and fold gently (don’t break up the bread) to coat.  If you need more just drizzle and fold.

On a lightly oiled baking pan (I use a half sheet pan size) lay out the cubes about one layer high (you will have a small pile).  If there is too much use a second sheet.

Place in a preheated 350 oven for about 15 minutes.  Turn the oven to 300 degrees and bake for about 35 minutes.  You want the cubes to toast and dry, but not burn.  Turn the oven off and don’t open it.  Leave the pans in there for as long as you are able – overnight is great.  You want them as dry as possible.

When completely cooled store in a double zip-lock bag or container and refrigerate.  Because they have so much oil in them, you don’t want it to get rancid before you use them all.

Gluten Free Stuffing
  • 6 -8 cups of stuffing cubes
  • 2 ribs celery chopped to a medium fine dice
  • ½ onion chopped to a medium fine dice
  • ½ stick butter
  • Poultry seasoning to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Parsley (until it looks pretty)
  • ½ cup gluten free chicken broth (and more if needed)
Sautée celery and onion in butter and oil mixture over medium low heat.  When very soft add the spices and stir.  Take stuffing cubes and place in a bowl.  Drizzle the softened mixture over the cubes and fold in being careful to not break up the cubes.  Add broth until just moistened.  Place in a buttered casserole dish and cover with foil.  Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes and uncover for an additional five to ten minutes.
Just remember that the whole thing is adjustable to your own tastes – add more or less spicing, veggies or broth.

Gluten Free Drunken Pumpkin Pie
  • One gluten free pie crust: Whole Foods or your favorite recipe
  • One 15 oz. can of organic pumpkin
  • 1 cup of half/half
  • ½ cup of milk
  • 4- 5 tablespoons of really good whiskey
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ cup of superfine sugar
  • ¼ cup of maple syrup (the real stuff)
  • 3 eggs
  • Ground ginger, a pinch of ground clove, a bit of cinnamon and a large twist of the black pepper
  • A ton of whipped cream
Preheat oven to 325.  Bake pie shell (9”) for about 20-25 minutes or until lightly brown.

Place the other ingredients (except the whipped cream) in a large bowl and whisk together until fully incorporated.  Add as much or as little of the spices as you like – they mellow with time so more is actually better.  The black pepper is an old trick (not mine) that seems to provide a happy back note to the whole thing.

Pour through a mesh sieve into the pie crust and bake for about 55 minutes, checking at 45 minutes.  The center should be slightly wiggly.  Do not fret if cracks form (although they should not) because you can cover them with whipped cream when serving.
If you have the time, leave the mixture to sit for about 30 minutes to mingle before pouring into the shell.  Even better – bake the pie the night before because it tastes best the 2nd day after the flavorings and whiskey have a chance to hang out together.  Store in the refrigerator but take it out about 30 minutes before serving for best flavor.  Pile on the whipped cream and enjoy.

Happy Gluten Free Thanksgiving!

*cross posted from my new food blog at Wordpress:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

You Know You Want One: Peanut Butter Buckeyes

fully dressed little peanut butter buckeyes
Even though most of our street celebrated Hanukkah, there were neighbors and friends who brought us homemade holiday food gifts and by far the favorite was chocolate peanut butter fudge.  If candy were currency we kids would have been able to pay off the mortgage with the amount that we hoarded.  We were allowed to buy candy with our allowance, but rarely was any sweet stuff purchased by our mom; Brach’s Bridge Mix was for, well, bridge games.  

Halloween was the most important holiday of the year and none of us failed to fill up pillowcases filled with goodies.  We were only interested in the good stuff which would have been by today’s standards,  enormous chocolate bars and peanut butter cups.
At an early age I fell in love with the partnership of anything peanut butter and chocolate.  It was limited to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups when I could afford them with my allowance.

Syracuse is not all that far from Ohio yet I never knew a buckeye was anything but a tree thing until I saw the recipe on Smitten Kitchen.  How did this confection remain off my sweet tooth radar?  For God’s sake – it has peanut butter and chocolate, two of the holy grail candy ingredients.

Smitten Kitchen was borrowing from the Baked boys and that version has cream cheese and graham cracker crumbs.  I wondered how the origninal Buckeye candies were prepared.

A Google search came up with a zillion recipes and mixed reviews as well as several techniques. 
The common complaints turned out to be rather simple.  People had an expectation that mixing up butter, peanut butter, powdered sugar and flavoring and covering it with chocolate could be done by a door knob.
Even the most simple looking confection requires a little skill, practice, and attention to detail.  Chocolate seizes – it doesn’t harden, or the inside mixture crumbles if too dry, or oozes condensation if too wet and messes with the chocolate coating.  All things chemistry have to coincide to make it work.  Though it isn’t rocket science, it is the kind of thing that takes a bit practice and patience.  

I might find darker creamy peanut butter  next time.  When the ingredient list is that small, the main character, peanut butter, needs to be stellar and taste deeply roasted.  I used organic (ordinary) peanut butter from Whole Paycheck and it isn’t peanut-ty enough.  But that might just be me.

But about one thing everyone agrees - be careful.  They’re addictive.
happy little (linty) buckeyes
Peanut Butter Chocolate Buckeyes
  • 3 cups sifted organic powdered sugar
  • 1.5 cups creamy peanut butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon flaked salt (you want salt that will dissolve)
  • 1 bag (12 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1 tablespoon Crisco or other shortening
Prepare a large baking sheet with a silpat or parchment.  Sift the sugar into a large mixing bowl (I used a stand-mixer).  Drop in the peanut butter and butter.  Set the mixer on low until the sugar is incorporated and then turn it up just until everything is fully mixed.  With  the mixer running on low, slowly add in the salt and vanilla.

Using a tablespoon scoop, place on the cookie sheet until you’ve used all the mixture.  Form into round balls.  Keep your hands clean and a little moist with water and the rolling will go smoothly.  If you start to build up the mixture on your hands, the balls will get slightly linty (see photo).

Once done, set the pan in the freezer.  You can leave it overnight but you will want to cover it with foil.  Right before dipping,  in a small bowl over a tiny pan of simmering water (tiny tiny simmer!) melt the chocolate with the Crisco.  Once melted, stir until fully dissolved.  Cool slightly.

Using toothpicks or forks, dip each frozen peanut butter ball into the chocolate, let it drip a bit and place on the frozen cookie sheet; it helps set the chocolate faster.  Either cover them entirely with chocolate or just leave a little “buckeye”  peeking out.

Freeze or refrigerate.  And serve cold – straight from the freezer or refrigerator.
And watch them disappear!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dear Insurance Company: Really?

avoid this!
Even the fancy aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies doesn’t banish the persistent ode-de-stink; nothing like the imaginary smell of an old wet down jacket or stinky boot-liner to clog up the sinus.    

Battling an ongoing sinus war is certainly not a good way to enjoy the beautiful fall weather.  Oh wait.  At 85 degrees things are continuing to bloom long since past their prime; including mold and fungus which accounts for the spectacular Petri-dish fusion up inside my head.

For going on a decade I’ve lived with the persistent muse called sinus fungus that mimics a sinus infection.  In fact there is more research these days that points to fungus being the culprit of more sinus problems than infections as once thought.  Antibiotics, while effective for treating real infections, only provides a better playground for the other stuff once the good bacteria are wiped out in the grand slam from the pharmaceuticals.  

With some spot treatment over the years, most times I am adept at handling the August/September onslaught of allergies and can keep invasion of the clinical mud room in my sinus to a minimum.  But once it takes hold, the battle begins.  I bring out the McNeil rinses, the sprays, the OTC Claritin, and a huge pot of chicken soup.  In some cases it requires a battlefield of little soldiers called antifungal that attack the monsters hiding deep inside my breathing passages.  I take no prisoners and take the battle seriously because I want them gone.  Banished.

Only a few times during the decade, (ok, a few more than a few) have I had to succeed to intervention on the part of the torture machine inside my ENT’s office.  It is with mighty fortitude and the promise of a good fine red wine afterward that I even get near that contraption.  If you’ve seen one, you know what I am talking about.  Think Dyson, made especially for the sinus; only the wand is longer than one is tall.  Impossible it would seem that it would not go straight into one’s brain, but the Doctor is quite skilled in not poking a hole into the tiny bit of gray matter that remains intact at my age.

After one treatment, I once waited to faint until I was outside his office because I was too embarrassed to do it inside.  That required not only copious amounts of wine, but some very fine dark chocolate to rid me of that nightmare.  That is why, the actual incentive why I try valiantly to take care of it myself with all the tools at hand – at home.

I finally ran out of the antifungal meds and now with a new insurance plan find myself perplexed at how they are so stingy with the cheap ass drugs.  First they would not allow the doctor’s prescribed dosage saying it was too many.   I am supposed to take the stuff for a few weeks at a time – but the insurance company insists I cannot take more than two weeks.  Of course I don’t remember them conferencing in on my doctor’s visit, but apparently they were there in spirit.

Trying my best to not get too upset with their machinations, I relented and went for the copious refills allowed at the first moment possible.  And that was nixed as well with the slap that one treatment is plenty and the drug is not for chronic issues. 
Oh, really? 

So, now the Pharmacy has to submit a form from the doctor that double pinky swears that I really need this cheap ass medication that costs less to buy than the fax machine and man power it will take to give uber special permission to use.

Got that?

Good.  Welcome to our health care system, revised.  Let’s just say it needs some fine tuning.

And let’s just wish my visiting fungus a fond farewell, just as soon as I get my medication once again.  Meantime, I am parceling out the last doses like they are the very last pieces of dark chocolate on earth.

Thank you, health care company.  So glad to have you in my corner, all the time, 24/7 and making sure my treatment fits YOUR guidelines. 

I never knew you cared so much.