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Life’s lemons

24 Jul

I’ve been alone lately.

At first, after a tearful breakup with the man who’d shared almost all of my leisure hours, I embraced my new independence.

“Plans for a Full Life,” I titled a page in my journal. “Start journaling again,” the list demanded. “Exercise. Learn to play clarinet.”

And so I did. I struggled through a yoga DVD and pored over a fingering chart on an unexpected vacation day. At night, I sprawled across my entire full-size mattress, and then I stayed in bed and read through long-neglected stacks of magazines and nurturing books, such as The Woman’s Comfort Book, on Saturday mornings. Afternoons I spent playing with cats at a local animal shelter or trying out new recipes for dinner.

And in the evenings, I took myself on dates—walks around a lake that my boyfriend had tired of visiting, independent films that he might have mocked throughout the shows.

But then, last Friday night, I saw a sold-out concert at Ravinia, where he probably would have kissed me and held my hand.

Lovers dominate that park; and, constantly, on their way to or from their lavish picnic spreads, couples would stop, kiss, smile, laugh, or hug just in front of me.

Alone wasn’t so wonderful anymore. In fact, it never really had been.

And as I perched on a tiny stone barrier beneath a tree, I told myself—as I always do when alone in a crowd—not to cry. “This is just a season,” I promised myself. “One day, you’ll be the one holding hands again.”

Hope, for the first time after a month of despair, had returned. How fitting, then, that the concert concluded with an encore of Five for Fighting’s plaintive acapella line “You gotta have hope.”

And with that hope, I’ve started paging through a tiny brochure I recently found among my mom’s old recipe collection. Exciting Cooking with Rice for Two [or More], the pamphlet was titled by the Rice Council of America back in 1976.

A ’70s bride, my mom must have written to the council and requested that free brochure full of savory rice ideas to try for dinners with her new husband.

And while variations are included for only two or six servings for dishes such as a tangy, buttery lemon pilaf (adapted recipe below), alterations for one should be simple enough.

Or maybe I’ll start practicing for two—when I won’t be alone anymore.

2 cups uncooked long-grain rice
4 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped green onions
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

Combine the rice, water, and salt, and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, until rice has absorbed all of the water. In a separate pan, sauté the celery, onions, and pepper in the butter until the vegetables are soft. Add vegetables and lemon peel to cooked rice and toss. Then serve to six . . . or savor solo, and save the rest for the future.


A toast to (g-chat) friends

19 May

“You should get g-chat,” I told my dad during dinner a few nights ago.

“All day, you could talk to your coworkers, or friends, or even me,” I
persisted despite his shaking head.

“Who do you talk to?” he asked me.

And I paused, thinking of my chat list’s mostly gray, inactive friend user names.

My ex’s, once at the top of the list, had disappeared after an ugly online parting of ways. And thanks to an even uglier breakup engineered by my ex–best friend, her name had likewise been deleted long ago.

So now, offline and unavailable friends overwhelm my list.

It has barely–but luckily–retained J.–always flagged with a red “busy” sign reminding me of his admirable patience in reading my frequent rants against Republicans or patriarchal chauvinists or pronatalists.

New-mom T., once my staunchest ally in the relentless nine-to-five battle known as corporate America, has wisely retreated from the full-time fight to the relative peace of part-time work (i.e., limited IM connectivity) and civilian family life.

My family–at least my tech-savvy brother and cousin–have remained available. Yet the friendly green dot beside their user names conceals the impossibly busy, can’t-chat-now schedule of a marketing programmer, an expert photographer, and the thousands of other rare professionals fortunate enough to be actually passionate about their jobs.

I’m just lucky to have one, I told myself during a period of IM silence a few months ago as I observed the job search of my friend–and former coworker–R.

She’d made the intrepid decision to leave a comfortable position in Chicago and begin a bold new adventure in Tennessee. And as she slowly charmed the Nashville employment scene, she only rarely had time for her smart phone’s IM list during those long months.

So when finally I could celebrate her well-deserved new job, I secretly felt less happiness for her than for myself.

Because my most loyal g-chat conspirator had returned. Now we can silently complain about our coworkers’ annoying habits of clipping fingernails in the next cubicle or playing songs on repeat all afternoon. We can plan each evening’s activity (Glee and The Bachelor, anyone?) and itemize our menus for dinner. And, even more important, we can debate the mouthwatering merits of restaurant options for lunch.

These lunch discussions, conducted from miles apart, have served as bittersweet reminders of our past workday lunches together, when we’d chat about boys or coworkers or sometimes even work as I enjoyed my pre-gluten-free days of Portillo’s or Qdoba.

But most often, we ate at Quiznos.

And now, of all the forbidden sandwiches in the world, Quiznos is the most tempting.

Yet the soft, toasty bread, along with the tomatoes, lettuce, and mayonnaise that I always requested as an alteration to Quiznos’ standard veggie sub recipe, are not so different from the ingredients of my favorite homemade sandwich, I realized recently. I simply needed to add some melted muenster cheese and–the key ingredient–a generous heap of sliced black olives to recreate that perfectly toasty Quiznos sub.

So, with Udi’s amazing whole-grain gluten-free bread, I can take a bite at my desk and almost taste those long-ago lunches with my dear friend at Quiznos. Only now, we’re talking on g-chat.

Old loves

17 Apr

My ex was married yesterday.

And as I slogged through my Saturday chores of sweeping my floors, washing my towels, and dusting my furniture, I–for some masochistic reason–envisioned him straightening his bow tie, admiring his bride, and embarking on his honeymoon . . . .

And then I relived the honeymoon of our own relationship–ended just a little more than a year ago–as I recalled his first admiring gaze across a P.F. Chang’s dinner table, our third date to a favorite Chinese carryout spot with tofu and crab pot stickers, and his first time cooking grilled cheese sandwiches for me.

In fact, almost every one of my favorite dishes and restaurants evokes a memory of him.

But he wasn’t the one who came to mind yesterday as I made my favorite new breakfast . . . and brunch . . . and, sometimes, late-night dinner.

Instead, this dish evoked memories of cold nights spent cooking in my warm, cozy kitchen with my new boyfriend. He’d been the first person–since my father, who used to fry up the family’s Saturday morning breakfasts–to make me French toast.

The thick fluffy slices, dusted in powdered sugar and drenched in real maple syrup, proved even better than my father’s so long ago. And unlike his, these were gluten free.

Udi’s gluten-free breads, available in a white sandwich variety and a faux whole-wheat “whole-grain” version sold in nonspecialty local grocery stores such as Dominick’s, have given me back countless pre-Celiac bread-based meals, including breakfasts of toast and Welch’s grape jelly, lunches of imitation Quiznos veggie sandwiches (more on these later), and now, late-night dinners of omelets and French toast.

And during those late-night dinners, my boyfriend gave me–an egg-scrambling, omelet-frying failure–yet another gift: the recipe.

7 to 8 slices of Udi’s white sandwich gluten-free bread

3 eggs

about 1/4 cup of milk or cream

dash of vanilla

generous sprinkling of cinnamon

1 to 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter

various toppings (powdered sugar, maple syrup, sliced strawberries, oranges, and/or bananas)

If bread is frozen, microwave it until soft. Then whisk together eggs, milk or cream, vanilla, and cinnamon. Dip both sides of each bread slice in egg mixture and fry in unsalted butter until slices are browned on both sides.

Then top with sugar, syrup, or fruit, and share with a new–or old–love.

Loving life

1 Mar

February 14, 1995.

That date, accompanied by my childish drawing of requisite hearts, is scrawled in the top corner of a crumpled notebook page tucked into a special photo album labeled “Andrea’s Recipes.”

The recipe on that crushed page had languished among my collected scraps of food ideas for five years–ever since the move to my first apartment with its tiny kitchen promising countless nights of home-cooked meals. To prepare for them, I’d searched the corners of my mom’s spacious kitchen, where I’d found, buried within her old blue folder bulging with unused recipes dating back to the ’70s, this relic of the ’90s.

Those years had been consumed with the stomach-wrenching anxiety of my dad’s first fight with intestinal lymphoma. The diagnosis had left my family choking on our favorite simple meal, affectionately called “rice and sauce,” and then smiling wanly over subsequent casseroles donated by well-meaning church friends.

“Church cookbook,” my mom had appropriately noted as she’d taken down the recipe for the best of those numerous noodle casseroles. But perhaps its generous use of egg noodles–laden with gluten that was unknowingly feeding the cancer in my dad’s intestines–had somehow subconsciously deterred us, for we made the casserole only that one time on Valentine’s Day in 1995.

Now more than 15 years later, I finally returned to the dish this past month. After all, February seemed like the perfect time to celebrate my love for life–and for my dad’s–both made possible by gluten-free adaptations that, every so often, make dishes even tastier than their original versions.

So, based on that original recipe for chicken noodle casserole, here’s my vegetarian, gluten-free take on Rice Quorn Casserole.

2 cups uncooked jasmine rice
1 tsp. salt
3 cups water
1 and 1/2 cups frozen Quorn Chik’n Tenders (my new obsession–and the most authentic fake meat on the market)
Olive oil, garlic salt, black pepper, and dried basil
1 12-ounce package Pacific Natural Foods Organic Cream of Mushroom Condensed Soup
10 ounces frozen salted peas
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
5 to 7 Velveeta slices

Combine the first three ingredients, bring to a boil, and then simmer for about 15 minutes until rice absorbs water.

Meanwhile, in a nonstick pan, season Chik’n Tenders generously with garlic salt, pepper, and dried basil, and fry in olive oil until slightly brown.

In a separate bowl, whisk together mushroom soup, cornstarch, milk, and peas. Then combine all ingredients in a medium-sized casserole dish, top with Velveeta slices, cook for about 25 to 30 minutes, and enjoy this comforting Quorn casserole.

It’s sure to be love–whether or not it’s Valentine’s Day.

Homemade happiness

6 Feb

I’m lazy, I realized as I edited my Super-Bowl grocery list.

After all, just beneath the catalog of carrots and cream cheese and powdered sugar needed for the complex recipe (i.e., requiring me to wash extra dishes from the food processor and mixer) for carrot cake, I’d added a tentative or . . . and the simple ingredients for a gluten-free version of “Rice Krispies” treats.

Of course, a simple, crunchy dessert would likely make the best football-game finger food, but its Super-Bowl suitability wasn’t its main appeal.

It was easy.

And I’d grown accustomed to the ease of combining an initially promising King Arthur Flour brownie mix with a bit of melted butter or turning some gluten-free Bisquick into a hasty batch of biscuits.

Those products, however, had proven as fast as they were disappointing. In fact, my only truly satisfactory recent dessert had been homemade. And rather easy, I reminded myself as I reconsidered my grocery list.

Yet still, the main ingredient–a five-pound bag of gala apples delivered, along with several other unsolicited groceries, by my father after one of his trademark Trader Joe’s runs before a visit to me–had languished in the fridge for days. Every evening I’d glimpse the daunting bag and envision hours of peeling and slicing.

And then, in 15 minutes, I’d finished–even in spite of (or because of) the distraction of my boyfriend stealing apple skins (and a surreptitious slice or two).

His late-night offer to pick up any needed groceries before his visit to me had inspired me to ask for the dish’s last missing ingredient–milk. And as I poured it into my dry ingredients, while he scrambled eggs and fried bacon for an impromptu 1 A.M. “breakfast for dinner,” I’d never been happier in my tiny kitchen, full of laughter and love . . . and the warm aroma of apples and cinnamon.

Adapted slightly from my mom’s worn ’70s edition of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, this apple cobbler evoked childhood memories of cozy winter nights when I craved the richness of my favorite apple slices but lacked the time or patience to roll out the lengths of unwieldy dough.

With such an excessive amount of dough unlikely to translate into a flavorful gluten-free version, an apple cobbler is now–as then–the perfect apple-slices or apple-pie substitute.

Combine 1 scant cup sugar (for gala apples, perfectly sweet and firm, 1 cup of sugar may prove a bit too much), 3 tablespoons corn starch (for a thinner filling, reduce to 2 tablespoons and 1 teaspoon), 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, and 6 cups sliced gala apples over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes until sauce thickens and apples soften.

Meanwhile, combine 1 cup Sweet Ali’s gluten-free flour mix, sifted (This instruction had always seemed optional–and ignorable–to me. Then my boyfriend, who rarely follows recipes himself, insisted on the importance of this one rule, and he was to thank for the fluffiest gluten-free pasty ever concocted in my kitchen!), 2 heaping tablespoons sugar, 1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cut in 1/4 cup butter until mixture forms coarse crumbs. Beat together 1/4 cup milk and 1 egg, add to dry ingredients, and mix till just moistened.

Place apple filling into 8-inch casserole dish and top with 6 dollops of dough. Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.

Then serve warm, with Edy’s Slow Churned French Vanilla Ice Cream, during today’s Super Bowl. Unless, of course, carrot cake is being served, as it is in my home.

Stolen sandwiches

31 May

“Do you want to go out to eat?”

My answer to that question is almost always “yes.”

Sure, I usually decline my family’s invitation to dine at The Clubhouse, given their bland flavorings and limited gluten-free menu (featuring some admittedly rich mashed potatoes and delicate gluten-free buns), and I often reject my mom’s pleas to join her at Egg’lectic Cafe, given their paltry gluten-free selection and painful reminders of now-forbidden breakfast favorites (Banana Bread French Toast, anyone?), but I’m always eager to meet my brother at Chipotle or join my best friend at Honey.

After all, Honey has reliably satisfied my comfort-food cravings with their “not-just-grilled-cheese sandwich” for months.

But lately, the recipe has changed: a gummy new gluten-free bread forms the sandwich’s base, and an increasing amount of grease saturates each slice.

With a loaf of my favorite Prairie Bread from Whole Foods, however, I’ve stolen—or, rather, adjusted—Honey’s amazing recipe to create an even better homemade grilled cheese.

2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 slices of Whole Foods’ Prairie Bread, thawed
2 teaspoons of Trader Joe’s Pesto Alla Genovese
Several thin slices of Trader Joe’s Raw Milk White Cheddar
1 slice of tomato
1 handful of baby arugula

In a nonstick skillet, fry the bread in the olive oil until slightly browned. Coat one side of each slice with pesto, add the cheese, press the sandwich together, and cover the pan to melt the cheese. Insert the tomato slice and arugula and fry uncovered to wilt the arugula slightly. Then enjoy a restaurant-quality lunch or dinner—without even going out to eat!

Grandma’s carrot cake

18 Jan

My grandma’s holiday desserts were always unpredictable.

“I decided not to use the lamb cake pan this year,” she announced unexpectedly one Easter.

“Don’t worry, it’s carrot cake,” she lied about her pumpkin-cake counterfeit to my suspicious brother one Christmas.

“I didn’t do anything differently,” she responded to my mother’s inquiry about a frosting tasting more of cream cheese than of confectioners sugar one Thanksgiving.

So when the holiday baking soon (understandably) became my duty, it proved—if not innovative or complex—reliably consistent.

But when I recently began adapting my grandma’s holiday recipes for my gluten-free diet, I feared a relapse into her baking’s trademark volatility.

Surprisingly, however, her delicious recipe for a rich, moist carrot cake has evolved into the most authentic, consistent, and—during this past holiday season—frequently requested dessert in my gluten-free baking repertoire.

1 and 1/2 cups of canola oil
2 cups of sugar
2 and 1/2 cups of grated carrots
4 eggs
2 and 1/2 cups of Meister’s all-purpose gluten-free flour
1/2 cup of Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free all-purpose baking flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of baking soda
2 teaspoons of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of salt

Combine the first four ingredients. Sift together the dry ingredients, add to the wet mixture, and mix well. Bake in a greased tube pan at 350 degrees for one hour. Allow cake to cool, and frost with cream-cheese frosting.

6 ounces of Safeway or Trader Joe’s cream cheese
2 tablespoons of butter, softened
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1 pound of confectioners sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons of milk

Cream together the cream cheese, butter, and then the vanilla. Gradually add the powdered sugar and enough milk to make the frosting of spreading consistency. Then frost and serve. (And, every once in a while, top with chopped nuts for an unpredictable holiday surprise.)