Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Recipes Inside My Head

The smell of woodsmoke drifted through the open window tonight, carried on the chill of the air gone cold in the absence of the sun’s warmth.  Even in Texas, autumn has arrived.  The trees are still as green as can be, and the afternoon heat was enough to make me reconsider my choice of pants today—a skirt and flip-flops would not have been inappropriate for running errands.  But tonight, cozy purple pajamas, worn while reading “Song of the Open Road,” will be enough to set the stage for a weekend’s slumber.

I have not been sleeping well, probably because writing blog posts late at night leaves me wired and antsy for more.  Today was my final day of following the Specific Carbohydrate Diet.  I survived seven days without cereal, but today at the grocery store, I bought a new box of Nature’s Path Optimum Blueberry Cinnamon cereal.  I am looking forward to breaking the fast by returning to some old habits.

My best cooking today happened when I used the recipes inside my head, that process where I cross-reference my mental databases of the ingredients I have on hand and the ways that I could cook them to create something nourishing and delicious.  This skill was critical for my week of SCD eating.  I can only follow someone else’s recipes for so long before I start feeling boxed in by another person’s tastes.  In fact, strangely enough, when I did follow a recipe today, the result was too salty and unpalatable without an intervention.  But I’m getting ahead of myself here.  Let us begin at the beginning.

This morning I woke up feeling tired and slightly ill, like my body was busy trying to fix itself and forgot to let me get a good night’s sleep.  After a week of almond flour baked goods, eggs, and yogurt parfaits, I wanted something more familiar and comforting.  I decided that since Lydia, my adorable niece, was adding bananas back into her diet this week, I could have a banana in my breakfast this morning.  I made my favorite buttermilk smoothie: equal parts buttermilk and orange juice blended to drinkable smoothness with a banana.  Alongside my smoothie I ate two celery sticks’ worth of ants on a log, which was unexpectedly delightful with the smoothie.  It was a great breakfast, but despite the peanut butter, my belly started demanding food just two hours later.  I, however, was too busy playing on my computer and ignored my belly for another hour.  By then, I’d finally figured out what to make for lunch.

Still in my pajamas but feeling marginally better, I made lunch out of pantry staples: a delicious, Italian-herbed red lentil soup, toasted pecans smooshed into two slices of Organic Valley cheese, and a sweet little dessert of homemade applesauce and a spice cookie.  The soup was wonderfully filling and seasoned nicely, a perfect recipe for a moment when the solitary cook wants a great bowl of soup without making leftovers that will last for a week.  I’m going to share my recipe below, as this is the sort of thing I’ll want to make again because it was easy, delicious, and serves just one or two people.

After a shower and some grocery shopping, I felt fine.  The warm Texas sunshine helped.  So did the soup and the applesauce.  I wanted to make the most of my Saturday evening in the kitchen, so I started a batch of SCD yogurt, made with two cups of 1% milk and two tablespoons of whole milk yogurt.  That batch is now sitting on my kitchen bar, culturing itself until tomorrow evening, at which point I’ll transfer it to the refrigerator.  I also made a batch of Peanut Butter Ice Box Truffles, which taste a lot like my old peanut butter bars, but made with the SCD guidelines in mind.  They were sweeter than I expected them to be, sweet enough to be deserving of the name truffles.  I ate two of them, and a sliced apple, as a post-cooking snack.

For dinner, I wanted to make something more elaborate than my quickie at-home lunch.  I was still craving soup and I had two leeks getting lonely in the fridge, so I decided to dip back into the archives of this site to make Greek Avgolemono Soup, one of my all-time favorites!  To accommodate the SCD rules, I omitted the orzo pasta and used just four cups of homemade vegetable broth.  It was a little strange to eat an old favorite without the pasta that makes it so thick and satisfying, but it was fabulous nonetheless.  To eat alongside the soup, I baked a half batch of Spinach and Cheese Triangles from Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet.  I’d had these scrumptious little bites once before, at Lydia’s third birthday party, and they were amazing.  But my batch tonight was too salty.  I’m not sure what went wrong—maybe my cheeses were saltier than Amanda’s or maybe she omitted one of them?  Maybe she sprinkled some of her magic mama dust on the party food and that’s what made them taste so good?  At any rate, I’m going to use my leftover triangles as a topping for crackers or a sandwich filling—something to help neutralize all that salt!  Yikes.

Now that I’ve reached the end of my SCD experiment, I’m tempted to wax poetic about how it has changed my life in wonderful, mind-blowing ways.  The truth is that it was a fun week of cooking!  It was a lot of work, but I discovered some new recipes and goodies (O Organics frozen mango, anyone?) that may have otherwise stayed hidden in the shadows of the unknown.  I’m going to rest on my thoughts for a little while, long enough to collect them into something coherent and comprehensive.  For now, I leave you with two new recipes, one for my buttermilk smoothie and the other for my red lentil soup.  Both are easy and delicious and could even show up on your table tomorrow without much work.  Happy cooking, friends.  I’ll see you back here soon.

Banana-Buttermilk Smoothie

Adapted from Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread by Crescent Dragonwagon

Serves 1

This smoothie is my favorite way to use up buttermilk that’s left over from baking cornbread.  It’s good enough, though, to buy some buttermilk just to make a smoothie.  It’s sweet but a little tart and very refreshing.  I often have it for a dessert, but it’s healthy enough to drink for breakfast or a snack.

1/2 cup buttermilk (preferably not non-fat)

1/2 cup orange juice

1 banana, frozen or not (as you like)

1)  Place all ingredients in a blender and buzz them to smoothness.  Pour into a glass and enjoy.

Quick Italian-ish Red Lentil Soup

Serves 1-2

One thing that I never mentioned about the Specific Carbohydrate Diet is the guidelines about legumes, specifically beans and lentils.  Many of them are off-limits because of the complex carbohydrates they contain, but red lentils are an exception.

I love red lentils.  Those pretty, coral-shaded discs cook quickly into a thick yellow mush, and you can season them in any manner you like.  Here, I combined them with some classic Italian herbs and a few handfuls of vegetables to make a nice soup.  This soup is a good one to keep in mind if you often crave soup but don’t want to wait an hour to make it and you don’t want a lot of leftovers.  It makes a great weeknight dinner or a quickie weekend lunch.

1/2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 of a medium onion, diced

1 celery stick, diced

1 carrot, ends trimmed, peeled, and diced

2 c. water

1/2 tsp. dried basil

1/4 tsp. dried oregano

1/4 tsp. dried sage

Pinch of red pepper flakes

1/2 c. red lentils, rinsed and picked through to remove any non-lentil debris

1/4 tsp. sea salt, plus more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, optional

1)  Pour the olive oil in a large sauce pan and heat over medium heat.  Add the vegetables and saute for 5-10 minutes, or until the vegetables have softened and the onion has begun to brown.

2)  Add the water, spices, lentils, and sea salt to the pan.  Stir and bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down to a simmer, cover, and cook for ten minutes.

3)  Check the lentils to see that they’ve turned yellow and softened into mush.  Taste the soup and add salt and/or pepper to taste.  Serve hot.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Night Nesting

On Friday nights I often suffer from what I call the Friday night blues.  It’s a strange syndrome.  I love the weekends and I try to do all my favorite things each weekend, but it’s almost inevitable that the transition from work week to weekend leaves me feeling a little deflated.  I find it hard to switch from the move-move-move pace of a work day to the sloooooooow-doooooown pace that a really good weekend requires.  What I need, I think, is a good set of strategies for how to make that switch easily and without too much fuss.  Friends, how do YOU swap your working self for your relaxing self?

This particular Friday was rather unusual because I spent most of it being professionally social and very little of it reading papers, which is what I do most of the time right now.  On any given day, though, one must fuel up before leaving the house.  Today’s breakfast, if I may be completely honest, was not very good.  I had a package of frozen blueberries in the freezer that I planned to use for muffins (and still do!), and I thought they would be a nice change of pace from all the mango this week.  I made a blueberry-pecan yogurt parfait, which I thought sounded awesome.  I was wrong.

For the parfait, I toasted a handful of pecans in the oven.  While the nuts bronzed themselves, I mixed together about half a cup of whole milk yogurt with the juice of one Texas orange.  The yogurt was layered into a juice glass and topped with a drizzle of Texas honey, a handful of frozen blueberries, and a scattering of toasted pecans.  The orange juice made the yogurt too watery and, strangely, not sweet enough.  The pecans were totally delicious, and the blueberries were spunky, tart, and flavorful, but the parfait just didn’t do it for me.

Apparently the parfait didn’t do it for my belly, either, because I felt vaguely ill after breakfast and fought waves of nausea on and off all day today.  It wasn’t bad enough to warrant going home, but I worried that I might feel worse as the day wore on.

Perhaps greasy Chinese food was not the best choice for lunch, but that’s what I had.  For this meal, I have to take another free pass on my SCD.  Unexpectedly, I went to lunch with two Asian postdocs from the Duke branch of my new lab, and when I suggested, more ironically than not, Ping Buffett (and no, that’s not a typo, “Buffett” really has two t’s, at least according to multiple on-line listings), they agreed to it!  I was hoping for Souper Salad, which even has a gluten-free menu(!), but I learned my lesson the hard way: never joke about Chinese buffets. 

I didn’t even try to find an SCD-friendly meal at the Chinese buffet.  I resorted to my usual eating habits, and I was reminded yet again that it is not easy being a vegetarian while eating out.  My meal was delicious, but I strongly suspect the egg rolls may have had some meat in them.  In these instances, I adopt a don’t ask, don’t tell policy.  I just don’t want to know.

So I ate my deep-fried egg rolls, green beans seasoned with bean curd (quite tasty!), lo mein, and some sort of spicy carrot and potato thing.  For dessert, I ate a few chunks of canned pineapple, and tiny squares of chocolate cake and strawberry cake.  Grand total with tip: $8.05.  Nutritional value?  I plead the 5th.

In hindsight, I suppose I could have backpedaled.  We were having such trouble agreeing on a place for lunch that I didn’t want to rock the boat when they both agreed easily to the same place.  It is hard enough being a bona fide vegetarian in social situations; I cannot imagine what a hassle it is to be on a diet as restrictive as the SCD.  Amanda, bless her heart, just packs big lunches and snacks for Lydia and herself, and off they go on their adventures.  It seems like a lot of work to me, but I’ve never heard Amanda complain about it.  Her attitude is inspiring.

The rest of my afternoon was pleasingly productive.  Two spice cookies fueled me to the end of the work day, but I still wish I’d bought more apples for this week.  Apples and spice cookies belong together.

I arrived home, and my Friday night blues dragged me down.  I was feeling tired, so I lay on the floor for a while, reading EatingWell and contemplating what I could eat as a pre-run snack.  When the idea struck me, I was jolted out of my lethargy: ants on a log!  I LOVE ants on a log, and with a glass of water they are perfect work-out fuel.  I dug my celery and peanut butter out of the fridge and felt utterly delighted that I’d remembered the celery, lonely and unused in the crisper drawer.

I had a great run, discovering an almost full loop of sidewalk that runs from Spring Loop to Tarrow Street to University Drive back to Spring Loop.  There’s even this great downhill section where I can just let go and feel like I’m flying.  I live for downhills.  After my run, I did some yoga stretches and caught up on Ammie’s blog.  Finally, I was hungry enough for dinner, so I unpacked what was intended to be my lunch earlier today until my plans changed: the last of the Tomato Vegetable Soup and a spinach salad with Organic Valley cheese and toasted pecans.  Dinner surprised me: it tasted great, even though it was neither particularly fresh nor something new and exciting.  It was really nice, though, not having to cook tonight.  I’ve done a lot of cooking this week, trying to keep up with my ambitious SCD plans.  I love to cook, but I also love to not cook when dinner is just sitting there, waiting for me.

I don’t really know what the antidote to these Friday night blues is, but tonight I shoo-ed them away by making my home just a little neater and prettier.  After dinner, I put away all the clean dishes, tucked the dirty ones into the dishwasher, and washed the remaining dishes.  I wiped down the counter and admired the open space.  I slid the cooling rack back into its slot in a cabinet next to the stove, and with that, order was restored in my kitchen.  Now I feel like the weekend can begin.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sure Happy It’s Thursday

Dear readers, tonight I must begin by telling you the truth.  During the work week, I am unable to bond with my kitchen as much as I would like.

I do the best I can, which in my case means that I cook up a storm on the weekends.  During the week, I cook enough to tide myself over until the weekend.  Almost all of my meals are home-cooked, which is a fact of which I am very proud, but you can imagine how much cooking it takes to do that, especially considering that I eat lunch at work every day.  Now add onto that all the things I would like to do each day, and the kitchen time gets crunched into tiny windows in the early morning and late evening.  I really love the late evening hours in the kitchen: the day’s work is done, I’m fed and relaxed, and the house is calm and quiet.  If I’m in the kitchen, I’m probably working on a recipe I’ve wanted to try for weeks.  I’m happy in the midnight kitchen—it’s nice in there, late at night.

I hope you will understand, then, why today’s meals will seem eerily similar to yesterday’s meals.  It’s a typical Thursday event, and it serves to get me really excited about cooking some new dishes on Friday and beyond.

This morning I let myself sleep a little later than normal because a computer snafu kept me up later than I wanted on Wednesday night.  At 8 AM, my alarm sounded its wake-up call.  With sand still in my eyes, I shuffled out to the kitchen to make my new favorite breakfast: a baked egg topped with seasoned almond flour “crumbs” and a mango smoothie.  I brewed a cup of Earl Grey tea (which, by the way, has really grown on me in the last few months!) and added one of Amanda’s Spice Cookies as a breakfast dessert.  It’s hard to go wrong with a breakfast that contains fruit and nuts.

However, I really should have had something stronger than tea at breakfast because I dragged my grogginess around with me all day.  It was just one of those days when I should have been reading papers, and I did do a little reading, but altogether it was not my most productive day.  I’m trying to learn to accept that some days are going to be like that, just like some days are incredibly productive and I get more done than I had even planned.  In the end, I hope, it all balances out.

The weather here in College Station, Texas, was astonishing today: hot, humid, and 40 mph winds, in anticipation of a big rainstorm!  Those winds don’t mess around: I was almost carried away trying to walk from the bus stop to my building this morning!  Some time after 1 PM, I scurried over to “my” cafeteria for lunch, where I read Kath Eats Real Food while dining on an awesome meal: more Tomato Vegetable Soup (just one more bowl to finish tomorrow!), Organic Valley cheese with toasted walnuts, and the rest of my frozen organic mango stirred into some honeyed ricotta cheese.  Ricotta cheese is not a type of cheese that strict followers of the Specific Carbohydrate Diet are encouraged to eat, but I had a few spoonfuls left over from making my famous Mocha Ricotta Muffins for our first journal club.  (Journal club—it’s an excuse for scientists to talk about other people’s data.  I love journal club, especially when it involves chocolate.)  I also love ricotta cheese, and it was sublime with chunks of sweet, silky mango.

Apparently my sweet tooth was in charge at lunch today, because I also had half of a spice cookie.  Consider yourself warned: they might be addictive!

The afternoon creeped by, and I still wanted a coffee, but I resisted the urge, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to have milk or cream if I did take the time to walk to Starbucks.  (I’m not much of a Starbucks fan, but I think it’s the closest coffee bar to Texas A & M’s campus.)  Instead, I made baby step-sized progress on my many little projects and then nibbled on my afternoon snack: two pieces of Organic Valley cheese and one and a half spice cookies.  More cheese and nuts, please!  A fresh apple would have been a lovely addition to this snack, but my kitchen is all out…I’ve been kicking myself all week for not buying more organic apples when I went grocery shopping at HEB last weekend.

Have I mentioned that my new lab is split in two locations right now?  I’m part of what I call the Texas Branch, but there’s also a Duke Branch, and tonight the two branches were united!  My boss and his wife had us over for dinner and drinks (or was it the other way around?), and this evening I had to take my free pass on SCD so that I could eat with everyone else.  We had a Tex-Mex dinner, complete with lots of crispy corn chips and guacamole.  I got tipsy on a glass of white wine, which happened quickly and easily on my empty stomach.  In fact, I’m a little drunk right now, but I hope you don’t mind.  I don’t like to drink and blog, but since I never built up a tolerance to alcohol in college or graduate school, one glass is all it takes.  Actually, half a glass is all it takes.  You can probably guess that I’m a cheap date!

Fortunately, I didn’t trip over any furniture or make out with any inappropriate men, so overall I’d say it was a good night.  With Friday less than an hour away, I’m looking forward to celebrating my week of SCD cooking with some new recipes and some much-needed rest and relaxation.  Good night, dear readers.  I’ll meet you back here same time tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Plan for Delight

In my old, old age (almost 28, people!), I think I am finally learning that nothing will ever be perfect.  I have learned to snatch delight from the chaos of life, and most days, that’s good enough for me.

I do, however, have moments when I feel perfectly delighted, like the universe just winked at me.  This morning was filled with those moments.  It was one of those rare instances when all of my food plans outshine any hopes I had for them and I feel like a complete genius.

Behold, the breakfast menu!

* Mango smoothie, made with about one cup of frozen mango (thawed overnight), half a cup of buttermilk, and a splash of water.  Whirl in blender, sip, and realize that the mango is SO SWEET that there’s no need for a shot of honey.  I’m seriously impressed with Albertson’s organic store brand—I’ve had nothing but delicious food from O Organics.  Later I wondered if the frozen mango had added sugar, but there was just one ingredient in that package: mango!   (Note that the buttermilk is not an approved SCD food, but it is a cultured dairy product and contains live bacteria.  It’s also left over from making cornbread a few weeks ago, so I get a free pass on the buttermilk.  SCD-approved options could include yogurt, nut milk, or pure coconut milk.)

* Coffee with half a teaspoon of honey and two tablespoons of coconut milk.  I’ve been missing milk in my coffee, but the coconut milk today totally hit the spot!  The coconut flavor was subtle and complemented my nutty flavored coffee.

* A baked egg topped with almond flour “bread crumbs” left over from the onion ring project.  I don’t want to brag too loudly here, but this egg dish was amazing.  It was so good that I had to e-mail my sister-in-law to tell her about it, even though I’m pretty sure she’s following along at home.  (She may be my only reader who actually owns Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet, so she knows exactly what I’m talking about when I refer to recipes from my SCD cookbook.)  The almond flour mixture becomes toasty-crisp inside the oven, while the egg underneath bakes into softly yielding perfection.  Eaten together, it’s the best combination of textures and flavors.  The baked egg is definitely on my list of things to make later this week—it’s repeat-worthy.

In addition to my amazing breakfast, I woke up in the mood to get things done, which is always a great feeling, no matter which day it is.

Lunch was not that exciting and I’m slightly ashamed that I have to tell you about it.  Because it was boring.  More leftover Tomato Vegetable Soup, leftover pumpkin-ricotta pasta, and few bites of grain-free granola.  The pasta was wheat pasta and it is most definitely not a food that one is encouraged to eat while following the SCD.  I get a free pass on this one, however, because it was a leftover and I’m trying to clean out the fridge.  Interestingly, I noticed that after lunch I felt fuller than I have after most meals this week.  I’m hypothesizing that the wheat might have something to do with this…

I’m afraid my afternoon snack was also boring.  It was boring because it was also a rerun: a flourless peanut butter brownie and a few more bites of granola.  These endless leftovers are, in my opinion, the most difficult thing about being a home cook for a household of one.  It’s amazing how much more variety you can have if there’s just one extra person around to eat all that food!  May I confess that part of my joy when Matt visits is his enthusiasm in eating my food?  Because that means that I don’t have to eat all those leftovers!  He has an excellent appetite.

Dinner was (oh, my cheeks are flaming with embarrassment here!) another almond crust pizza and a simple spinach salad dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice.  Oh, belly, I’m sorry to put you through so many repeats today!  At least we had breakfast to delight us.

But I’m about to redeem myself.  For the first time in four nights, I had dessert after dinner: Amanda’s Spice Cookies, adapted from the recipe for Ginger Cookies in Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet.  These cookies are chewy and sophisticated, rich with almonds and winter holiday spices.  Amanda had made them for Lydia’s birthday party last month, in the shape of trains and hearts, and they were absolutely adorable.  Amanda, renegade cook that she is, made them with coconut oil instead of butter, so that’s what I did too.  The coconut oil lends a subtle, unusual flavor that I find rather tasty.  I think these cookies would be delicious made with butter too, so I plan to try that variation in the future.  I’m such a tease, dear reader, because I’m not going to give you the recipe now.  The truth is, it’s a work in progress for me because I just made the cookies for the first time tonight and I like to get to know a recipe a little bit better before adding it to this site.  You are more than welcome, however, to find yourself a copy of Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet and test-drive the Ginger Cookies in your own kitchen.  By the way, Amanda wrote in her recipe notes that she thought the cloves were too much in the original recipe.  I took her advice and cut the cloves from 1/2 tsp. to 1/8 tsp. and thought that was just right.

‘Tis past my bedtime again, and dirty dishes await me in the kitchen.  We’ve just completed day four of this week of grain-free eating (well, almost grain-free) and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of new recipes to try.  Such is life: there is never enough time for everything I want to do, so I quietly dial back my expectations and continue to bask in those tiny moments of sheer delight.  Really, it’s the best I can do.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Grind

Tuesday is such a grind.  Monday feels new and shiny to me, a refreshing return to routine, but Tuesday looms large, imposing.  The only way to get through Tuesday is to get back to work.  Once I’m back to work, and really working, Tuesday isn’t so bad.  Sometimes it feels good to work hard.

This morning I wasn’t in the mood for a sit-down breakfast, which is highly unusual for me.  Instead, I made a smoothie and wondered how long a liquid breakfast would tide me over before lunch.  It was rich with coconut milk and whole milk yogurt, so I gambled that together, me and my smoothie might make it until lunch.  Indeed, we did!  Into a blender I dumped a few soaked dried apricots, a heaping quarter cup of thawed raspberries, the juice from two oranges, half a tablespoon of honey, a quarter cup of coconut milk, and half a cup of yogurt.  I whirled it around, poured it into a glass, and proceeded with my wake-up routine of checking my e-mail and seeing who has posted something new on their blog.  Unfortunately, without coffee or tea this morning, I wasn’t quite as perky as I like to be by the time I walk out the door.  (The smoothie, by the way, had a nice flavor but it was a little gritty from all the raspberry seeds.  Next up: a mango smoothie!)

I was amazed that I didn’t start to feel hungry until about 11:30 AM.  Often the late morning is a very productive time of day for me, so I like to work until I get really hungry, at which point I break for lunch.  Around 12:30 PM, I wandered over to the lunchroom in the library building and ate my bagged lunch: another serving of Tomato Vegetable Soup, two pieces of Organic Valley cheese, a few cucumber slices, and a couple bites of grain-free granola.  I washed it all down with sips of water and went back to work feeling satisfied but not stuffed.  Excellent.

Lunch, though, didn’t hold off my hunger as long as usual.  I may have also been a little bit bored—it was not the most exciting day ever at work—so I brought out the afternoon goodies: a flourless peanut butter brownie and the rest of my little stash of grain-free granola.  Today I decided that I like the grain-free granola best by itself—plain yogurt overwhelms the more delicate fruit and nut flavors.

My snack was tasty but I still felt nibbly, probably because I was bored.  I also wished that I’d had some fruit, but alas—I’m all out of fresh fruit right now.

I arrived home just after 6 and had errands on my agenda for the evening.  I didn’t want to rush through my grocery shopping, so I had another snack—this time a piece of Organic Valley cheese eaten with a few toasted walnuts.  This combination is one of my absolute favorites, so good that I’ve already filed it away in this site’s archives.  I also juiced another Texas orange so I’d have a little sweet something to drink with my cheese and nuts.  I might need to buy another bag of oranges!

After a peaceful shopping trip during which I procured fresh and frozen mango, I cobbled dinner together out of leftovers and a fresh spinach salad.  The leftovers were coconut-pumpkin soup and onion rings (freshly baked but made from last night’s onion ring preps).  To eat with my soup and onion rings, I tossed a few handfuls of fresh baby spinach with extra-virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice.  Easy peasy.

Now it is getting late and I’m feeling sad that I can’t have a piece of chocolate.  It’s funny the things I crave most while I’m following the SCD plan: I’m unfazed by the grain-free diet, but I miss chocolate and fresh milk.  Fortunately, I’ve got a mango smoothie to look forward to tomorrow, so that takes the sting out of my sadness.  If Lydia were here, I think she’d tell me that mango beats chocolate any day.  Or maybe she’d try to bargain so she can have both!  That child is a crafty one—I hope she learns to always be proud of her intelligence.

It occurs to me that these daily posts have a certain meandering quality to them, which I can only attribute to the fact that it’s almost my bedtime.  Sweet dreams, dear reader, and may your slumber be perfectly refreshing.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Good Fortune

You will be rewarded greatly for your efforts.

This is the fortune I would fold into a cookie for myself.  It’s hard for me to muster up a lot of effort for anything beyond my job.  I try to do it for my family and my friends, and heaven knows I do it for Matt, but on an everyday basis, I am a seriously lazy person.  Give me a bowl of leftover soup, plop me in front of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, and I’ll happily slurp my way into a peaceful slumber.

But then there are these rare occasions when I put forth a burst of effort, and BOOM!  Things happen.  PhD theses get written, relocations to Texas happen, cornbread and roasted chickpeas happen.  It’s amazing what a little effort can do for a woman.

Today I woke up with a plan.  I like having a plan.  It makes me feel slightly less frazzled than I normally am.  I’m not an obsessive planner, but I just like to have some idea of what’s going to happen so I can brace myself for the inevitable output of energy that will be required of me.  Plans make me happy.  For breakfast, the plan was a sweet version of the almond crust pizza—a sort of Almond Cookie Pizza, if you will.  Following the same basic recipe, I swapped out the savory ingredients and swapped in a few sweet and spicy ones.  In a bowl, I mixed together 1/2 cup almond flour, 1/4 tsp. cinnamon, 1/8 tsp. nutmeg, and 1/8 tsp. salt.  Into that mixture I whisked 1 tsp. coconut oil, 1 tbsp. honey, and 1 large egg.  I patted the mixture out on a parchment sheet-layered cookie sheet just like we discussed yesterday and topped it with thin slices of apple.  The Almond Cookie Pizza baked for about 18 min. at 325 degrees F while I pulled together my breakfast beverages.

I squeezed a few sweet Texas oranges for a glass of fresh orange juice and strained the grounds out of my mug of cold-brewed coffee, which I made using this recipe as a guide.  (When one lives in Texas, one needs a recipe for cold-brewed coffee.)  I sweetened the coffee with half a teaspoon of honey and with that, breakfast was served.

The Almond Cookie Pizza wasn’t bad!  The texture was lovely, but I think it was a touch too salty.  Next time I’ll cut the salt down to a pinch or two.  The apples were awesome—warm and starting to yield sweetly under the oven’s toasty influence.  I would love to try this dish with a honey-yogurt dipping sauce, perhaps spiked with a touch of lemon for flavor.

The orange juice was ambrosially delicious.  The coffee was certainly strong, but I really missed my milk this morning.  I almost never drink my coffee without milk or cream, but those are both off-limits for the week.  I may try to make a batch of nut milk later this week, and I am tempted to try it in my coffee.  Tempted and a little worried!

After a commute, a walk across campus in the rain, and a productive morning of work, I took my lunch break and luxuriated in the ease of eating my packed meal.  Sometimes it’s so nice to not have to cook a meal in order to eat well—you just feast on the efforts of your past labors.  Some days I am all about the packed lunch.

Lunch was simple: leftover Tomato Vegetable Soup, a piece of Organic Valley Cheese, and spoonfuls of yogurt dipped into a baggie of grain-free granola.  Nourishing and delicious.  I was satisfied for hours.  Often when I’m at work, I have trouble focusing because I am easily distracted or overwhelmed or annoyed.  But today I felt very focused and calm.  It’s always a great day at work when I feel focused and I’m able to get things done.  I worked steadily until about 5 PM, when I decided it was time for the afternoon snack.

The afternoon snack is a very important part of my day.  I think everyone should make time for an afternoon snack.  It keeps my energy at a steady level and lets me keep the evening hunger at bay until it’s time for dinner.  My snacks usually consist of fruit and something wholesome that contains fat and protein—something with a little nutritional oomph.  Today I ate my snack at my desk while I worked, nibbling on slices from half an apple, another slice of cheese, a carrot stick, and (best of all) a flourless peanut butter brownie.  The peanut butter brownie is something you need to put on your baking to-do list, so I’ll save my evangelizing for the end of this post.

Work work work, walk in rain, commute, walk in rain, and ahhhhh, finally home again!  I love that moment when I walk in my own front door and the evening stretches out in front of me.  I had half of dinner in the fridge already—yesterday’s leftover coconut-pumpkin soup—so I just needed to figure out something to eat with the soup.  I’d been eyeing a recipe for baked onion rings in Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet, musing to myself that it had been a long, long time since I’d had an onion ring.  Wasn’t it time to fix that?  Normally I stay away from fatty fast foods because they just aren’t good for me, but this recipe looked awfully promising. The onion rings were baked, not fried, and their coating was made of seasoned almond flour, which intrigued me.  They sounded delicious and wholesome, so I dragged out my mixing bowls and got to work.

The recipe was easy and messy.  You mix together an egg and a bit of mustard in one bowl.  In another, you stir together almond flour, grated Parmesan, a touch of cayenne, and salt.  You slice an onion into rings (not too thin, not too thick—mine were between a quarter and half an inch) and you set up your breading station: onion rings get dipped in the mustardy egg, breaded with seasoned almond flour, then placed on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.  Bake at 375 degrees F for 15 to 20 minutes and oh, my, yes, those gorgeous, golden-brown rings studded with almond flour, THOSE are your onion rings.  Mmm-hmm.

I sat down at the dinner table and took a few deep breaths to center myself.  Then I ate.  The soup seemed to have grown more delicious overnight because its flavor was richer and more layered than it was last night.  Maybe that recipe is a keeper after all!  But the onion rings—wow.  They knocked my socks off.  They’re crunchy and a little spicy outside, like a really tasty cracker, and inside, that ring of onion has grown tangy and sweet inside its nubbly casing.  The recipe calls for making onion and bell pepper rings, and drizzling them with olive oil before baking.  I made only onion rings and skipped the extra oil because I was hungry, and I don’t regret a thing.  In fact, I might recommend that you make just half a batch of the egg and almond mixtures because the almond mixture starts to get a little goopy with egg dribbles after you’ve dipped and breaded a half dozen rings.  A half batch keeps things a little cleaner.

It was my good fortune to be rewarded with very tasty onion rings tonight.  I want to send my future self a memo: remember tonight and try not to be so damn lazy!

* * *

Flourless Peanut Butter Brownies

Adapted from Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet

Makes 16 fantastically rich brownies

I don’t mean to switch gears so rapidly on you, hopping from onion rings to brownies, but I’ve got to share this recipe with you before the day is over.  I’ve been keeping it to myself for over a week now, and that’s just not right.  You deserve a peanut butter brownie!

This is peanut butter, amped up to the nth degree.  The recipe could not be simpler—just five ingredients!—but the results are rich and complex.  This brownie has no chocolate or cocoa, so the taste is pure peanut butter but made sweeter with a pour of honey.  The texture reminds me of cheesecake with its velvety smoothness.  The edge pieces get a little cakier, and that’s a very good thing too.

The way to make these is to bake a batch and tuck most of them in the freezer, wrapped in plastic wrap and sealed in a plastic bag.  They are a little addictive, so it’s good to pace yourself with the ritual of retrieving them from the freezer, unwrapping a brownie, and thawing it on the counter.

2 cups peanut butter (I used smooth)

2 large eggs

1/2 cup honey

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/4 tsp. salt

1)  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.  Line an 8-inch square pan with parchment paper.  It’s okay if the paper has some overhang—in fact, I recommend it because then you can lift the brownies out of the pan with the parchment paper.

2)  Mix together all the ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl.  The batter will be very thick here.

3)  Scrape the peanut butter mixture into the prepared baking pan, smoothing it out as best you can with a spoon or your fingers.

4)  Bake for 15 to 20 minutes.  The brownies will still be soft in the middle.  I think a longer baking time probably makes your brownies a little cakier (drier), while a shorter baking time makes them fudgier (moister).

5)  Remove brownies from the oven and let them cool completely.

6)  Run a knife along the edges and then use the parchment paper “handles” to lift the brownies onto a cutting board.  Slice the brownies into 16 squares—four brownies per row.

7)  Store in an airtight container or wrap well and freeze.  Thank your lucky stars for the SCD and its sweet, delicious brownies. 

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Two Soups, One Sunday

I woke up this morning feeling vaguely dreadful about today, the first of seven days with no grains, no chocolate, no fresh milk, and no chickpeas.  Breakfast, I knew, would be the hardest meal of the day because more than any other meal, it’s the meal in which grains are front and center for me.  I woke up already missing my cereal.

So I let myself doze in bed until 9 AM and then I padded out into the kitchen to break the fast.  Last night I had made a big batch of grain-free granola, and my sample tastings had made me hopeful that breakfast would be delicious.  I puttered around the kitchen, filling the tea kettle for a mug of Earl Grey tea (black—no milk, no sugar) and squeezing Texas oranges for a glass of fresh orange juice.  Oh, Texas, you woo me with your oranges, strangely yellow but with juice as sweet as candy.  Good morning indeed!

At the center of breakfast was a fruit and yogurt parfait featuring my new batch of granola.  I layered about a quarter-cup of whole-milk yogurt with a scattering of defrosted raspberries (fruit only—no added sweetener) and a generous spoonful of granola.  I made two three-part layers in a juice glass and called it breakfast.  Without adding any honey to the parfait, it was a little tart for my taste—the only sweetness came from the granola, which was mildly sweet, soft and a little chewy with nuggets of dried apricots.  To wash everything down, I drank a big glass of water and gulped my multivitamin.

This breakfast was small compared to my usual big bowl of whole-grain cereal and I didn’t feel very full after I finished.  My hunger, however, was mild this morning, so I decided to let my belly tell me when it was time to eat again.  I was surprised to find that except for a few hunger pangs before I started cooking lunch, I felt satisfied for several hours.

I cooked lunch accompanied by the local classic rock station:

Take me down to the Paradise City

Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty!

Oh won’t you please take me home!

Can you tell I’m a good back-up singer?  College Station has a plethora of country music stations, but I’ll take Guns ‘N’ Roses over Taylor Swift any day.  Rock on!

I’d been craving tomato soup for three days, and yesterday I found a can of Central Market Organics Italian San Marzano Tomatoes at HEB, which is one of the local grocery stores.  These tomatoes contain NO CITRIC ACID, which I was very pleased to find!  I’m not entirely sure how canned foods fit into the SCD, but I figure if they don’t contain any unwanted additives or preservatives, then I’m going to use them.  I haven’t had great luck with the grocery store produce here in College Station, and I’d rather use canned organic tomatoes than dodgy fresh tomatoes.  These San Marzanos contain tomatoes, tomato juice, and basil.  Perfect.

I made a modified version of this tomato soup, leaving out the white beans and sugar and adding a leek and a quarter-cup of canned pumpkin for flavor and sweetness.  While I was cooking, I nibbled on half of a fresh cucumber.  Once the soup was simmering away peacefully, I whipped up an almond crust pizza, which you must try immediately.  I’ve made this pizza every day for the past three days, and it is so good.  I’m going to save the recipe for the end of this post, where I’ll tell you a little more about the pizza.  You can skip ahead to the recipe now if you like—I don’t mind!

After a long hard day of cooking and writing, I went for a quick run and then treated myself to a snack: a gigantic Golden Delicious apple and a flourless peanut butter brownie plated with a few defrosted raspberries left over from this morning.  I ate this snack with a side of True Blood, The Complete First Season Disc 1.  The best part of True Blood is the part where Jace Everett sings the theme song!

I’m not complaining, but I have to tell you that it is hot here today.  Right now, at 8:01 PM, it is 74 degrees outside.  That’s insane!  My Midwestern body does not know what to do when the calendar says October 25 but the thermometer says 74 degrees.  Clearly, it is not soup weather, but I wanted to stock up on homemade soup for the week because it’s my favorite kind of food to have waiting for me in the fridge.  To make my soup craving match this Texas heat, I decided to make a chilled coconut-pumpkin soup.  I sauteed half an onion in half a tablespoon of coconut oil for a few minutes, then added a diced apple (peeled and cored) and cooked them together for a few more minutes.  I wanted just a hint of spice, so I added half a teaspoon of ground coriander and a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger.  After a minute or so, I added one and a half cups of water and one cup of canned pumpkin.  I cranked up the heat, brought the whole thing to a boil, and then simmered gently for ten minutes.  At that point, I wasn’t quite hungry yet, so I turned off the heat and wandered off for a while.  When I returned, I added half a cup of full-fat coconut milk (from Thai Kitchen) and blended the whole thing to velvety smoothness in the blender.  I tasted the soup, realized it needed salt, and proceeded to salt it generously.  To chill it quickly, I ladled out a serving into a soup bowl, tucked it in the fridge, and voila!  Chilled coconut-pumpkin soup.  It was pretty tasty with a nice rich texture from the pumpkin and the coconut milk, but it could use a bit of heat, perhaps in the form of cayenne pepper.  ‘Tis a work in progress, I’d say.

After the soup I ate a big salad made with baby romaine (dressed with olive oil and lemon juice), quartered and sliced cucumber, toasted pecans, and a few cubes of my favorite Organic Valley cheese.  Now I’m full and happy, and I owe you a recipe!  For this week, although I’ll be talking about a lot of different foods and recipes, I’m going to post only recipes that I think are worth adding to the ol’ repertoire.  Generally I like to post recipes that I’ve made more than once or that I’m fairly certain I will make more than once.  I’ll provide links to the recipes that I adapt from other blogs and such, and of course, if you’ve got your own copy of Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet at home, you can follow along as I cook more new things out of my SCD cookbook.

Almond Crust Pizza with Shaved Onions and Zucchini

Adapted from Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet 

Serves 1

I was floored by how good this pizza crust is.  I didn’t expect much of it; in fact, I was just hoping it would be edible.  Made of a simple mix of almond flour, shredded Parmesan cheese, a few spoonfuls of herbs, olive oil, and an egg, this crust is a go-to recipe on busy weeknights because it comes together in a snap and it is awesome.  It is similar in texture to a nubbly soft flatbread, fragrant with herbs and just the right amount of salt.  I topped mine with a simple combination of cheese and shaved onions and zucchini because that’s what I had on hand.  I loved it so much that I made it again and then again today.

Because the crust is so rich, I like to use a light hand with the cheese topping.  Really, I just scatter a few shreds around and let the flavor of the crust shine.  Feel free to play with the toppings to make this recipe your own.  Our intrepid cookbook authors top their pizza with poached pears, caramelized onions, and Gorgonzola cheese—ooh la la!

For the crust:

1/2 cup finely ground almond flour (I’ve been using the almond flour from Bob’s Red Mill and it works well for me.)

1 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 tsp. dried basil

1/2 tsp. dried oregano

1/4 tsp. dried thyme

1/4 tsp. salt (You can cut the salt by a pinch or two here if you tend to like things a little less salty.  I’ve made it both ways and think it tastes good either way, but I think the pizza could be overwhelmed by salt if your toppings are salty.)

1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 large egg

For the toppings:

Handful of shredded cheese, such as cheddar

6 thinly shaved zucchini slices

A few thinly shaved onion slices

Freshly ground black pepper

1)  For the pizza crust, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2)  Mix together the almond flour, Parmesan cheese, herbs, and salt.  Mix the oil and egg into the dry ingredients.  At this point the batter should be thick but not stiff.

3)  Scrape the crust batter onto the parchment paper into a circular mound.  Place a piece of plastic wrap over the batter.  Using your hands or a rolling pin, roll the batter into a thin circle about 6 to 8 inches in diameter.  Remove the plastic wrap.  Admire how easy that was!

4)  Top the pizza with the handful of shredded cheese, zucchini slices, and onion slices.  Grind a bit of black pepper over the pizza.  Bake for 18-20 minutes or until the crust is a little browned around the edges and the cheese is melted.  I find that in my oven, 20 minutes is perfect.  You might be able to go a little longer to get a crispier crust, but I make no promises about that—it’s just a guess.

5)  Slice into quarters and serve hot.

On Following the Rules

I don’t know about you, but when someone is on a special diet, I get sort of turned off listening to all the things they can’t eat.  The conversation makes me sad because it makes me think about all those delicious things that I love to eat, now forbidden by the rules of this special diet.

The flip side to my reaction is that if you give me a list of the things you can eat and like to eat, then I immediately start dreaming of how I would feed you if you came over for dinner.  I suppose this issue of special diets is philosophical: do you dwell on the bright side of things, or do you linger in the dark shadows, feeling trapped by the rules and restrictions?

I prefer to look toward the light because I like the freedom that accompanies choices.  It is with that idea in mind that I wanted to discuss exactly how I will be following the principles of the SCD this week.

There are three main principles that guide the everyday eating habits of an SCDer.  The first is to eat whole foods.  The second is to eat the right carbohydrates, namely simple monosaccharides and insoluble fiber (such as that found in apple peels).  The third is to eat foods that provide beneficial bacteria, such as cultured yogurt or fermented vegetables like sauerkraut.  My niece, by the way, loves sauerkraut and eats it like candy.

The SCD pantry is not nearly as bare as you might imagine.  While there are no grains, there are all sorts of other goodies, such as whole nuts, nut butters, almond flour, coconut (including shredded unsweetened coconut, coconut oil, and coconut butter, the latter of which my sister-in-law shared with me—she’s the nicest person ever!), and honey.  Inside the refrigerator are eggs, yogurt, different cheeses, butter (or ghee for the extremely lactose-sensitive), and pickles.  Most fresh fruits and vegetables are allowed, although starchier vegetables like potatoes and corn are not allowed.  The starch in these foods is difficult to digest because it is a more complex carbohydrate.

For non-vegetarians, meat, lard, and gelatin are SCD-friendly, but I won’t be eating any of these products because I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian.  My vegetarian philosophy is that I don’t eat products that can only be obtained by killing the animal, so that’s why eggs are in but lard is not.  As an aside, I want to mention that I am a vegetarian for environmental reasons, not for personal health reasons or because I oppose the consumption of animal products.  I cast no judgment upon people who choose to eat meat.

In addition to grains, there are a few foods that I will not be eating this week in order to adhere to the SCD principles.  This list includes fresh milk and cream and all forms of chocolate.  The chocolate ban makes me very sad, but it’s only for a week so I’m going to try not to think about it too much.  I’m trying to follow the SCD as my niece Lydia does, because this whole project is inspired by her digestive troubles.  Lydia reacts badly to canned foods that have been treated with citric acid, so I will be trying to avoid citric acid.  I am not exaggerating when I say citric acid is everywhere—canned tomato products, canned artichokes, canned coconut milk.  I believe it’s used as a preservative and may be derived from corn.  We know that Lydia is sensitive to corn, so she may be reacting to a corn impurity in the citric acid.  Lydia also reacts badly to bananas (of all things!), so I won’t be eating bananas this week.

Finally, honey is the sweetener of choice for SCDers.  The reason for this is that the sugars in honey are mostly fructose and glucose, simple monosaccharides.  Honey is also a mostly unprocessed sweetener, at least unprocessed by human hands.  One could argue that honey is very processed, but bees do the processing for us!  According to Wikipedia, honey does contain some other carbohydrates, so that might be useful for strict SCDers to keep in mind when eating honey.  I’ll be using honey in my baking and cooking this week.

I have thought quite a bit about how I want to approach the SCD principles, especially when it comes to work functions where food will be served.  I’ve decided to give myself a free pass at work functions, so I will not be adhering to SCD principles at those times.  All my home-cooked meals this week will be SCD-friendly, but if the food is prepared by someone else, and I’m expected to eat it, I’m going to bow to social pressure.  In addition, while I will not be drinking fresh cow’s milk this week, I am going to use up my storebought yogurt before making a homemade batch.  I also have half a jug of buttermilk (organic! made from the milk of grass-fed cows!) that I plan to use this week because it’s a cultured milk product and it would be a damn shame to let such fine dairy go to waste.  Frugality triumphs again!  Finally, I’m a little torn about what to do with a few leftovers that are sitting in the fridge.  I may decide to eat them because I hate wasting food.  I hope you understand, dear reader.  I believe these exceptions that I’m allowing myself are balanced by all the SCD-friendly food that I’ll be cooking this week and sharing with you via this site.

And on that note, it’s time to get a pot of soup cooking!  Happy Sunday, dear readers!  May your pantries and your bellies be filled with great food.    

Saturday, October 24, 2009

By the Book

I have always been a skeptic.  I was the eight-year-old in Sunday school class who asked the teacher, “How do you know God exists?”  That question is the reason I earned a minor in philosophy in college.  It may also be the reason I earned a PhD in neuroscience.

My skepticism comes naturally.  Mostly I’m just curious.  I love understanding how things work, why they use this part and not that part.  I love knowing stuff.  This insatiable love for learning drew me to books, and to this day, whenever I walk into a library, I breathe a sigh of relief, happy to be surrounded by books and cozy little spaces in which to read all these books.  I feel the same way about bookstores, too, especially the cookbook section, which I always, always check out, even when I have no intention of purchasing anything.  Today, for example, I found myself lingering over a book about Santa Fe cooking, daydreaming about the day when I might finally, finally see that city and eat its delicious food.  And hey, now I live a lot closer to Santa Fe than I did a month ago, so maybe that day will be sooner rather than later!

In the meantime, I shall occupy myself with my newest project: a week of grain-free eating, following the principles of the Specific Carbohydrate Diet.  My travel guide in this adventure is my slick new copy of Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet by Jodi Bager and Jenny Lass.  I love this book.

I love this book for everything that it is and everything that it isn’t.  It is a cookbook for people who love food and cooking.  It is beautiful and sleek, filled with delicious-sounding recipes made from simple, whole ingredients.  Unlike many gluten-free cookbooks, which are filled with recipes that require a gazillion different gluten-free flours and weird gums to hold everything together, Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet uses just one unusual flour, almond flour.  To get ready for my SCD project, I bought four pounds of almond from Amazon.  Now, with four pounds of almond flour sitting eagerly on the counter, I’m really committed to this project!

I’m not the only one who flirted with this cookbook.  While I puttered around the kitchen, Matt went straight to the meat recipes and studied them intently.  He wasn’t too impressed with the baked-not-fried version of Crispy Southern Chicken (the man loves him some fried chicken), but while my back was turned, he may have drooled on the recipe for Braised Lamb Shanks.  As long as he loves me more than he loves meat, then I’m okay with this carnivorous behavior.  Have I mentioned lately that he always orders red meat when we go to a restaurant together?  And that I love him, despite this extremely un-vegetarian habit?

I won’t be cooking any meat recipes from this cookbook, but I’m hopping with excitement about the other choices.  Roasted Squash and Apple Soup, Almond Crust Pizza, Spinach and Cheese Triangles, Raspberry Jam, Heavenly Hazelnut Ice Cream?  Yes, please!

My fondness for this book goes beyond its recipes.  I am still skeptical about SCD, as I think we all should be in the absence of more evidence about what this diet does.  The authors are good advocates for the diet, as they both have serious digestive disorders that no longer cause them trouble, thanks to SCD.  They take the science seriously, discussing numerous papers published in legitimate scientific journals—there’s even a Cell paper mentioned!  It is my dream to someday publish a paper in Cell.  What I like most about the authors’ position on SCD is that they acknowledge how much we don’t know about SCD.  More research needs to be done in order to understand these disorders and whether SCD is a clinically sound treatment for them.  The data we have for SCD is largely anecdotal—case studies and testimonials—but I find these stories so compelling that I’m just itching for someone to put SCD on mainstream nutrition’s radar.  For now, I’ll be that someone.

I believe in science.  I am a skeptic, but I believe in science.  The theory underlying SCD makes sense to me, at least as a hypothesis.  Here’s the idea: our guts contain a diverse population of bacteria that work hard to help us digest our food.  Presumably we need these bacteria because without them, our digestion is much weaker.  (If anyone knows specifically what these bacteria digest for us, feel free to pipe in here.)  In a healthy gut, all food is digested well and different bacterial species coexist peacefully.  In an unhealthy gut, such as the gut of a person with celiac or ulcerative colitis, not all foods are well-digested before reaching the gut.  These foods provide a feast for some bacterial species but not others, and the feasting bacteria multiply themselves until they have taken over the gut.  This hostile take-over worsens digestion for the person, who may show symptoms in the form of diarrhea or a lack of excretion.  In order to intervene in this process, the SCD eliminates carbohydrates that are difficult for the damaged gut to digest—all carbs that are not simple monosaccharides or insoluble fiber such as that found in fruits and vegetables—and encourages a replenishing of gut bacteria with probiotic-rich food like yogurt.  Over time, this treatment allows the gut to regain its ability to digest more complex foods, thus curing the diarrhea and pain that accompany poor digestion.

So.  That’s the hypothesis.  Don’t believe it, dear reader?  That’s okay.  I’m not sure if I do either, but even if SCD doesn’t cure digestive disorders, if it soothes the symptoms that distress AND it provides good nutrition, then I think that is pretty remarkable.  The important thing about following SCD is to make sure to eat as diverse a diet as possible so that one gets as many nutrients as possible.  I’m not enough of a nutrition expert to say whether there are any nutrients in grains that we cannot get from other foods—readers, any ideas here?—but I will be sticking with my vegetarian habits.  I see here that Elaine Gottshall, one of the founders of SCD, recommended that SCD vegetarians include at least one egg and some cheese every day.  I love eggs and cheese!  That part of SCD will be a snap.

On Sunday I’ll begin my weeklong series of posts about cooking and eating, SCD-style.  My kitchen is stocked with almond flour, a dozen eggs, and a pound of cheese.  I’ve got fresh vegetables waiting to be turned into soup and a jar of fabulous Texas honey lingering sweetly in the cupboard.  To set the scene, tomorrow I’ll describe some of the nitty-gritty details about SCD and what I plan to do in my cooking.  For now, I wish you pleasant meals and good company around the table.  I’m off to bake a batch of grain-free granola!

Friday, October 23, 2009

For My Pumpkin, With Love

My Pumpkin has a head full of wild blonde curls and the roundest, fullest cheeks I’ve ever seen.  She has tiny hands and feet, and she likes to hold my hand when we walk down stairs together.  She loves raisins and watermelon, honey and strawberries, the latter of which she calls “gaw-bewies.”  Her favorite color is pink, and she likes us to coordinate so that we wear our pink tank tops or pink sweaters on the same days.  My Pumpkin enjoys watching the adventures of a pink pig named Olivia, which she pronounces “O-Lydia.”  While she watches Olivia, she tucks her thumb in her mouth and twirls a blonde curl around her finger.  She likes to help us cook, especially when the cap to the honey bottle needs to be cleaned out.  She’s our little honey bear.

My Pumpkin is my niece Lydia, and she is three years old.  Lydia cannot eat gluten or corn, and we don’t know why.  When she does eat these foods, she gets a rash on her bottom and complains that it hurts.  We do not know what these foods are doing to her body on the inside.

Lydia’s food sensitivities could be a result of any number of things.  She may have celiac disease.  She could be experiencing ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, or Crohn’s disease.  She may have food allergies.  Whatever it is, it’s not good.  For about eighteen months of her life, Lydia didn’t gain any weight.  She was a huge baby at birth—a ten-pounder!—but from about eighteen months to three years old, she didn’t gain any weight.  Over the summer, Lydia and her mother drastically changed their eating habits, cutting out all grains, and after just two and half months on this new diet, Lydia has put on four pounds.  Her mother, my sister-in-law Amanda, is absolutely thrilled.

This decision to cut out grains completely was not a willy-nilly decision.  Nor are the food restrictions limited to grains.  At some point in her research, Amanda discovered a diet plan called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet that follows a simple plan for healing the gut: do not eat complex carbohydrates that cannot be digested by a damaged intestine.  Eat simple, whole foods, allow the body to heal itself through nutrition, and enjoy delicious, pain-free meals.

To be honest, I was shocked when Amanda told me about the Specific Carbohydrate Diet.  Cut out all grains?  WHAT?!?  Why on earth would you want to do that?  I could not imagine a life without grains.  No wheat, corn, oats, rice, or cereal.  I think a gluten-free life sounds hard enough, but no oatmeal, not even when it’s made with certified gluten-free oats?  No rice on which to ladle spicy stews?  No granola or cookies for snacks or desserts?  It sounded so awful that I wanted to hide in the pantry with a bag of oatmeal cookies to soothe myself.

Prior to starting the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, Amanda and Lydia had eliminated wheat and corn from their diets.  I had finally adjusted to this change when they started their new diet.  Why, I wondered, is it not enough to avoid wheat and corn?  The answer is that the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) offers the possibility of completely healing Lydia’s body of her food sensitivities.  Gluten-free diets offer no such hope.  For example, outside of SCD communities, celiacs are told that they will have to avoid gluten for the rest of their lives.  This prognosis is cheerful only if it relieves the symptoms of celiac disease.  But one study estimates that 18%—almost one in five—of celiac patients do not respond to the gluten-free diet.

One in five.  Count the fingers on your hand.  One of those fingers is a person with celiac disease for whom avoiding gluten is not enough.

Before gluten became the answer to celiac disease, a team of doctors had found that eliminating most carbohydrates, especially grains, helped celiac patients immensely.  The original SCD patients ate a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (with the exception of a few starchy ones like corn and potatoes), meat, fish, unrefined sweeteners such as honey, and cultured dairy products.  That last item was particularly important: the bacteria in yogurt could improve digestion by repopulating the intestines with so-called “good bacteria,” which could help reduce populations of “bad bacteria” that interfere with absorption of nutrients.  But what was really remarkable about the original SCD study was that of 561 children, 461 were able to return to a normal diet within three years of following the SCD.  That’s 82%, four in five kids.

We hope that Lydia will be one of those four kids.  But we don’t know if Lydia has celiac disease.  A positive diagnosis for celiac is not trivial to obtain.  False negative results are a concern.  The Gluten-Free Girl, Shauna James Ahern, has written quite movingly about how she finally got her celiac diagnosis.  The blood test that finally confirmed what Shauna believed in her gut to be true requires that a patient include gluten in her diet at the time of the test.  Lydia does not eat gluten, and frankly, I can’t say that I want her to, knowing how she reacts to it.

The beautiful thing about SCD is that it offers help for people who have not just celiac disease but all of the bowel disorders that I listed earlier.  Many of its followers have reported great improvement, and I can’t blame Amanda for being hopeful that the SCD might cure Lydia’s body so that one day she can eat pizza and cake at a friend’s birthday party.  Every parent wants their child to have a childhood filled with fun and adventures, and that includes all the edible treats of childhood.  There are lots of things Lydia can eat, but it would be amazing if there were nothing at all that she couldn’t eat.  I would make thumbprint cookies with her, and she could do the thumbprinting and fill each well with gaw-bewie jam.  We would pop popcorn and watch O-Lydia together while wearing our pink pajamas.  I want the SCD to work for her.  But there are no guarantees here.  The SCD fell out of favor with medical practitioners when the gluten-causes-celiac hypothesis caught everyone’s attention.  Certainly, the evidence for this hypothesis is strong—Shauna says she felt better almost immediately after she stopped eating gluten—but the gluten-free diet does not offer the hope of curing the disease in children.  It’s easy to understand the appeal of the gluten-free diet from an eater’s perspective.  Rice!  Corn!  Gluten-free oats!  But the gluten-free diet does not emphasize the importance of intestinal bacteria like SCD does, nor does it emphasize whole foods like SCD does.  SCD is more restrictive, but it’s also a more comprehensive plan for healing.  I like that.

October is Celiac Awareness Month.  Lydia and Amanda have inspired me to celebrate digestive health in a most unusual way: for one week, I will be following the Specific Carbohydrate Diet.  I don’t have a digestive disorder, but I want to increase awareness of the SCD as an option for those who do have digestive issues.  During the final week in October, I will be eating and blogging my way through a gorgeous new cookbook, Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet by Jodi Bager and Jenny Lass.  The only way I can follow the SCD is if I have a good cookbook to guide me around the kitchen.  I first spied this book while staying with Lydia and her family last month.  It looked so tempting to me that I asked Amanda to buy it for me as a birthday gift.  She sent it to me two months early as part of a very awesome and very generous graduation/housewarming/birthday gift.  Tomorrow I’ll tell you a little more about the book and why I like it so much.  Then on Sunday, I’ll shift into food-diary mode and tell you what I’m eating and how I’m feeling while following the SCD.  To be honest, I’m both excited and scared of this plan.  I love my grains and I know I am going to miss them.  But I think it will be an interesting adventure, and my kitchen will be filled with new recipes and inspiring dishes.

See you tomorrow, friends!

* * *

Two more things.  One, please note that I am neither a medical professional nor a nutritionist.  I am a skeptical scientist who would like to see the SCD undergo clinical evaluation to test its efficacy.  All of the information I’ve described here is excerpted from Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet.  My goal in describing SCD and the anecdotal results of SCD treatment is to raise awareness, not to single-handedly convince anyone who is suffering from a digestive disorder that they, too, should jump on the SCD bandwagon.  But if you are interested in the SCD, educate yourself about its benefits and risks before making a decision.  Be skeptical.  Ask the hard questions.  Google Specific Carbohydrate Diet, look at Pubmed articles, and most importantly, talk to a medical professional.  Knowledge is power.

Finally, did you enter Shannon’s ice cream maker giveaway?  There’s still time!  To enter, hop on over to Tri to Cook and tell everyone what you’d ask the kitchen fairies to bring you from csn  I’d ask the fairies to bring me this gorgeous All-Clad skillet.  Hubba hubba!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Spice Report

I am feeling…dare I say it?…happy in Texas these days.

This discovery is rather remarkable because I am feeling happy despite the rain, the unpacked boxes, the lack of sidewalks, and moving away from all my friends.  I think I’m doing really well, having arrived here just over two weeks ago: I’ve got my commute figured out, I now bring an umbrella with me every day, and I’ve decided that I love Texas A & M’s campus, even though it is massive and imposing.  It has rained a lot, but sometimes the sun comes out and makes me feel like there is no other place I’d rather be.  Texas, I may have a crush on you.

My apartment, I’m sure, would be in better shape if I weren’t going off to work every day and then coming home and pretending that there aren’t boxes in every room waiting for me to unpack them.  My living space is functional but not beautiful.  I can cook in the kitchen, but most of my teas are still in boxes.  I can sleep in my bed, but in the morning I hop over piles of things that are waiting for permanent new homes.  If I want to listen to a CD, I may have to locate the box in which that CD is still sitting.  It turns out that it’s taking me far longer to unpack in Texas than it took me to pack in Evanston.

But I don’t really mind any of the reasons why I’m not unpacked yet.  Matt’s visit made me wonderfully happy, and his presence felt like a bridge between my old life in the North and my new life in Texas.  Plus he did an excellent job explaining some of the oddities around here, like why there is so little sidewalk.  (Answers: 1) Until recently builders were not required to put in sidewalk.  2) Everyone drives everywhere.  But I already knew about that second reason and think it is very unfortunate.  I love walking!)

My new job is good, too.  Every day I go off to work and read read read about flies and food, which is fine with me.  There is so much to read!  It’s nice to be easing back into a routine.  It is also nice to know that along with my PhD comes a nice raise and the end of my student days.  I’ve been a student since I was four years old!  That means I’ve been in school for 23 years!  I just hope I have something to show for all that formal education, all those years of sacrifice in order to “better” myself.  Am I better?  Am I somehow different now that I’ve obtained this degree from an elite university?  I don’t know.  But I do know I wanted that PhD, and now I feel relief that it’s done.

With that level of relief still fresh in my memory, it’s hard for me to get too worked up about unpacking.  There are, however, certain issues about unpacking which I have yet to resolve.  My spices, for example, need a home.  But where?  I did a bottle count, and it turns out I own 37 spice jars, 11 spice bags, and 4 bottles of flavor extracts.  My spice collection makes me happy, but it would make me even happier if most of it were not in boxes.  A select few have made it out of the box, including:

* sea salt and black pepper, which I packed in my carry-on and almost had confiscated at the airport(!)

* cinnamon (my favorite everyday spice)

* cumin seed, ground cumin, tumeric, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, cinnamon sticks, and curry powder for a stew and Matt’s okra dish.  We love seriously spicy food.

* vanilla extract for oatmeal and oatmeal cookies

* smoked paprika and chili powder for Smokehouse Almonds

These spices are living next to the stove right now, on a narrow strip of counter.  I suppose that makes them elite spices!  But what am I going to do with my collection?  I have run out of cabinet and drawer space in the kitchen.  Should I buy a spice rack?  A spice cabinet?  I’m thinking about buying some piece of freestanding furniture that would let me store my spices and my tea in the same place.  There’s a corner just off of the kitchen, in the “dining room,” if you will, which I think would be perfect as a little pantry spot.  It’s big enough to put a piece of furniture there and close enough to the kitchen that I could do a spice grab right before I start cooking—even as the oil is heating in the skillet.  What do you think?  Dear readers, how do you store your spice collections?

* * *

Smokehouse Almonds

Adapted from Vegetarian Times

Makes about 1 cup

This recipe was one of the first I made in my new kitchen.  I even went out and bought new bottles of smoked paprika and chili powder for it because my old bottles were still on their way to Texas.  These almonds were totally worth the spice splurge.  They are easy to make and even easier to eat.  I find them especially tasty paired with raisins or cheese, both of which complement the rich, roasted spicy flavor.  They are also great coarsely chopped and sprinkled over a salad.

I tried this recipe using honey or dark brown sugar as the sweetener.  The spice mixture is clumpier with honey, but I think the flavor is better.  And the clumps are pretty tasty too!  Try these almonds both ways and see which one you like.

1/2 tsp. honey or 1 tsp. dark brown sugar (see headnote above)

1 tsp. smoked paprika

1/2 tsp. chili powder

2 tsp. olive oil

1 cup whole raw almonds

Salt (optional)

1)  Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.  Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

2)  In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the sweetener, paprika, and chili powder.  Add the olive oil and stir together.  Pour in the almonds and stir to coat the nuts in the spice mixture.  Pour the nuts onto the prepared baking sheet.

3)  Bake the nuts for 20 minutes until lightly toasted and fragrant.  Sprinkle them with a bit of salt if you like.  Allow them to cool and then store them in an airtight container at room temperature.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Solid and Sturdy

I live in Texas now.

Those are the craziest five words I’ve ever written, but it’s a true statement.  Last Friday I spent 11 hours in transit from Chicago, Illinois to College Station, Texas, with a brief pitstop in Houston.  It’s been over a week now, and I’ve been checking out the place, discovering little treasures and small joys that ease my discomfort.  As the plane swooped into Houston, underneath us glittered downtown Houston like a set of jewels shimmering in the Texas heat.  En route from Houston to College Station, I met Jace Everett’s biggest fan, James from, who has been following Jace’s career for four years and also happens to be one of the nicest men I’ve ever met.  When I arrived in Texas Friday evening, my apartment was supposed to be unlocked, with a set of keys waiting for me in the fridge.  Instead, I found the apartment locked, which meant that I had no place to stay.  Rather than abandoning me to the mosquitoes, James called in a favor and local law enforcement found the property manager, who drove over to meet us, apologized profusely, and let me into my new, empty apartment. 

Welcome to Texas,” said James.  “Don’t give up.”

Men like James make me feel less crazy for moving to Texas.  I don’t mind the idea of living in a place where complete strangers look out for each other.

Still, a move of this magnitude is enormously disorienting.  The simplest things are made complicated by my ignorance of the area.  Where do I go to buy toilet paper?  Am I getting on the right bus to go to campus?  Why does the water taste like bleach?  Did I really not pack a sports bra in my luggage?  Why does it rain all the time here?  I’ve been feeling out of sorts for months now, between job-hunting and thesis-writing, tearful good-byes and an 1100-mile move.  I steal moments of peace from the chaos, but I can’t remember the last time that I felt relaxed.  I want to remember that feeling.

I’m fairly certain, though, that there is no going back.  Finding some relaxation means embracing what is happening right now.  It takes a hearty soul to do that, someone with more resilience and tolerance for disorder than me.  Nobody does it better than Matt.

Matt’s schedule is so packed these days that just thinking about it makes me want to run and hide in a closet.  Nevertheless, he’d booked this past weekend for his first visit to College Station, and he was not going to be deterred by anything—not rain, not a lack of furniture, not even me, whom he could predict would be a little unhinged by the colossal transitions that had shaken my world like earthquakes.  Matt is solid and sturdy, and I felt like if anyone could make me feel good about the boxes inside and Texas outside, it would be him.

It was a grey and damp weekend, but we persevered in the interest of having a good time.  Together we discovered the farmers’ market in nearby Bryan, just a few minutes’ drive from my new apartment.  The Brazos Valley Farmers’ Market has all the appeal of a neighborhood potluck, except that the neighbors are selling things like local honey, homemade pickles, and fresh okra.  There was a coffee stand offering samples of their delicious brews, and if I hadn’t just bought a half-pound of coffee from It’s a Grind!, I would have taken a bag of beans home with me.  I’m very fond of coffee stands at farmers’ markets; I just think it’s such a wonderful way to ease into your shopping at the market.  Matt isn’t much of a coffee-drinker, but that cup of coffee hit the caffeine spot for him.

I’ll admit that the selection at the Brazos Valley Farmers’ Market is pretty slim compared to Evanston’s farmers’ market, but it was still wonderful to feel that sense of local connection.  Matt and I bought gorgeous, gorgeous okra and long, lovely green beans, tiny serrano peppers and jars of honey and pickles.  Best of all, at this laidback market, the vendors had P-L-E-N-T-Y of time to talk to us about the market, their farms, their coffee-roasting, and all the delicious things to do with local produce.  While I love Evanston’s market, it is usually very busy—the sellers have a lot of customers, and they work hard to keep up with them.  Bryan’s market felt more relaxed and homey, and everyone we passed had a smile or a “Howdy!” for us.  It was really quite lovely.

We put that produce to good use.  On Saturday night, Matt and I did what we do best: we cooked together.  Of all the things I have missed doing with him, cooking is at the top of my list.  Matt and I have complementary styles when it comes to food and cooking, so the meals we create together are unique and memorably delicious.  Several years ago, back when Matt and I were new friends, I threw a potluck party as a sort of last hurrah before he moved back to North Carolina.  His offering for the potluck was a tray of okra and onions, slick with oil and seasoned with fiery, addictive Indian spices.  At the time, we were both in Chicago, and okra was a rare and delicious treat.  Matt’s dish left such an impression on me that when we saw okra in Bryan, I knew exactly what we should do with it—assuming Matt knew how to recreate that dish in my new kitchen.  And with a little on-line recipe-checking, he did.  The result was even better than the old one I remembered.

With our Indian-style okra, we ate roasted chickpeas and an all-butter, skillet-sizzled version of this cornbread.  About that cornbread: I swear, it has never tasted better than it did this time.  I didn’t have any vegetable oil on hand, so I used a quarter-cup of butter, melted, instead.  It was unbelievably good!  And about that skillet: I am a convert to the ways of the cast-iron skillet.  For years I made my cornbread in a glass 8 x 8 pan because that’s what I owned, and it worked really well.  But the skillet was perfect this time because it kept the cornbread toasty warm while I roasted the chickpeas.  By the time we sat down to eat, everything was perfect—the chickpeas were crispy, the vegetables were succulent and spicy, and the cornbread was warm and crunchy.  Eating dinner with Matt makes everything taste better.

It’s not easy to keep a flame going when distance and time threaten to snuff it out.  Matt and I now live within driving distance, something that I hope will make our lives easier—no planes required, no restrictions on luggage, no airports to navigate.  I didn’t take a job in Texas specifically to be closer to Matt, but it sure helped me make my decision.  I remain amazed by us, but mostly I am amazed by him.  He is truly one of the kindest people I have ever met, and he showed me all over again this weekend that his love is as sturdy and solid as he is.  On Friday, he drove through the rain for over two hours to get to me.  He took (carless) me to Target, where he helped me pick out a vacuum cleaner for my apartment and he picked out wine glasses for me.  On Saturday, he didn’t complain that I hadn’t bought a shower liner to prevent the bathroom from flooding when someone takes a shower.  And he didn’t complain that I didn’t remember this when we were in Target the evening before.  Instead, we stopped at Walgreens, found a liner, and then he hung it up himself on the shower rod.  He didn’t bat an eye at the stacks of boxes piled in every room—boxes which had arrived less than a day before he did—but he did take bags of trash and empty boxes out to the dumpster.  On his last day here, we laid on the couch together while green beans slowly braised on the stove.  When I became sad about him leaving and tears forced their way out of my eyes, he just squeezed me a little tighter and let me cry, even when my tears made his face wet.  Nobody has ever loved me like he does—fully, deeply, without hesitation.  Lucky for me, love isn’t really quantifiable.  If it were, I’d have to take out a mortgage on my own heart to return what he has given me.  Instead, I just give him what I have and hope that it is enough.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


I’ve been thinking about circles a lot lately.  My favorite tables are circular, perfectly symmetrical and delightfully arranged with serving dishes and plates waiting to be filled.  I love that moment before the dinner party, when everything is ready to go and the chairs around the table are waiting eagerly to seat diners hungry for food and connection.

Some of my favorite foods are circular, too.  I like homemade cookies, made from dough that gets rolled into balls which, in the heat of the oven’s embrace, melt into circles of crisp sugary sweetness.  I like chickpeas, round with that tiny nub of a belly button, and bright orange carrot rounds, sliced neatly with my favorite kitchen knife.  I like radishes, trimmed of their rat-like tails, mysteriously white-hot underneath that tight magenta skin.  And I like eating meals off of my colorfully mismatched circular plates, acquired on the cheap from various thrift stores, an archaeological record of the homes I’ve had since leaving for college ten years ago.

But most of all, I like circles because they have no beginning and no end.  They are the opposite of linearity, a never-ending curve.  Circles are all beauty and no drama—there are no sharp corners or hard edges.  I like circles because they are the shape we make when we hug someone.  Circles feel infinitely flexible to me, always able to stretch to accommodate more.

I’ve been thinking about circles lately because they are the shape that my family and friends have formed around me before sending me on my way to Texas.  My niece, Lydia, is a natural circle-maker.  She asks us to dance with her, and we join hold hands to form a ring of movement, sometimes just Lydia and me, sometimes with aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas, a mommy and a daddy.  In Michigan last month, when it was time for me to say good-bye to Lydia and her mom, Amanda, the three of us formed a single hug circle, Lydia wrapped around Amanda’s hip and me with my arms wrapped around them.  For a few seconds, we stood together, snug and round and radiant with love.  For a few seconds, I could forget that the Amtrak train roaring next to us was going to whisk me several hours away from my family, to a place where phone calls, e-mails, and sparkly pink cards will be necessary but insufficient substitutes for hugs.

Amtrak rolled me back to Chicago, where I proceeded to spend three horrible days packing everything I own into boxes.  After the packing was done and the movers had come and gone, I met my best Chicago friends for one last dinner at Dave’s Italian Kitchen, where I always order a vegetarian calzone the size of a football (it’s the small calzone, mind you) and take half home for lunch the next day.  We treated ourselves to garlic bread and a giant salad followed by a delightful assortment of Italian entrees.  After dinner, nudged by a glowing endorsement from Daphna, we split a chocolate mousse five ways and felt utterly and completely satisfied.  Daphna left our mark at Dave’s, on one of the wine bottles that line the walls, then we headed upstairs and into the cool autumn air to say our good-byes.

Downtown Evanston illuminated the night around us, and we five stood in a circle to say farewell: me, Daphna, Ian, Ammie, and my friend Sharad.  By twos, we broke into smaller circles, the better to exchange hugs.  Ammie hugged me so tightly that I asked for a do-over, the better to return her hug, so strong and fierce that its impression on my heart will last until the next time we see each other.  Sharad, so sweet and kind that he even brought me a box of the assam tea he likes for making his famous chai lattes, hugged me and I told him to enjoy Evanston for me, that nice little town that treated me so well for six years.  With that, our circles scattered into points and we headed our separate ways.

I spent the next two days with friends, running errands by day and sleeping in their guest rooms by night.  I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have friends who, in spite of their busy lives, welcomed me and my stuffed suitcases into their homes.  These friends showed me nothing but love in the face of my exhaustion and sadness.  My impending move weighed heavily on my mind, as heavy as those damn suitcases that contained everything I planned to drag with me to Texas.

On my final night in Chicago, I rode the train with my friend Daine.  We sat in a crowded Red Line car that whisked us farther south in the city than I’d ever been before, at least by train.  That night, it rained buckets, the fat drops soaking into our clothes and my luggage, half of which Daine deftly managed through el stations and into train cars.  Despite the weather, our trip down to Hyde Park felt like an adventure—I was seeing a Chicago I’d never seen before, slick with rain and steeped in history.  That night, after Daine’s wife, Amanda, picked us up from the Red Line stop at Garfield, we laughed and ate popcorn and Daine’s amazing saag paneer and I could pretend that the evening was just a sleepover.  I let the move evaporate from my mind like wafts of steam rising off our morning cups of tea.

That next morning, the start of a day during which I would spend 11 hours in transit from Chicago to College Station, I perched myself on a kitchen stool while Daine cooked a perfect batch of coconut milk pancakes.  He measured out the ingredients the way an artist might dab paint onto a canvas: by feel, not precision.  He melted nuggets of butter into a pan and poured batter into neat little rounds.  The batter cooked up into fluffy rich circles that begged for a topcoat of Nutella or cherry butter or any of the half dozen toppings laid out before us.  We ate the pancakes off of white square plates, geometrically pleasing underneath those lovely little pancakes.

After Amanda and Daine headed out to start their days inside the beehive that is academia, I wandered down to the University of Chicago, looking regal against a grey sky on the verge of rain.  How ironic that I never visited Hyde Park until I was no longer a resident in the area!  With just a few minutes remaining before the start of my trip to Texas, I put Hyde Park on hold and made a note to myself that I would see it in the spring when I returned to Chicago.  I boarded the #55 bus bound for Midway International Airport, away from Hyde Park, 46 degrees and rainy.  And so begins a new set of circles, the kind where I fly from Texas to Chicago and back again.  The circles that embrace me exert a force like gravity.  I may rotate around them, but within their reach I am never alone.