April 28, 2008

A Lesson at the End of Life

I planned this blog to post reviews and recipes. I knew that I would also share my experiences dealing with celiac disease and how that, and being gluten free, affects my life. The time has come to share more of my personal life. As I write this I am sitting in a nursing home, at the bedside of my great aunt, the sister of my grandmother. Our Italian family’s matriarch. My last connection with the Old Country.

She was my grandmother’s younger sister, but my Nonna was an artist, a free spirit, never still for very long. Lily and her late husband were the established heads of the family. No matter where we gathered, she was always the hostess. Her word was the last word

Growing up I felt like the ugly duckling. I knew I was loved and included, but I was not the golden child that her own grandchildren were. I never felt like my piece of the puzzle fit quite right, that one piece that comes in the box, but you can never figure out exactly where it goes. Marrying into the family I think my dad feels this way too sometimes.

During hard time we’ve always been family. She came to see my Nonna when she had Alzheimer’s, though her own husband was dying at the same time. Of all the family that I invited to my high school graduation, she was the only one who came, saying that if my grandmother couldn’t be there, at least one grandmother would. When she moved to New York to be closer to her daughters and grandchildren she had all of her extra furniture and fixtures shipped to me to furnish my first apartment.

When I moved to New York I had to leave most of that furniture in Ohio, but that was fine with her. Here’s the thing: In the four years that I have lived in New York, a 40 minute train ride from her and my cousins I have visited exactly five times. Christmas and her 90th birthday bash.

Am I bad family? I was always to busy, or felt like was imposing, or I simply felt like I didn’t belong. Whatever my reasons they seem pretty stupid. I’m here now, I’ve been out to see her as much as I can, now that she doesn’t recognize us or acknowledge out presence beyond a week hand squeeze.

I’m asking myself if this counts for anything, if it makes up for anything. Following on the heels of this self-doubt comes the guilt of not visiting. So many missed opportunities to hear stories about my own grandmother as a girl. Stories about their parents, the woman I am named for, the first Vittoria. I am about to lose the last person who knew or contacted our family in Italy. I don’t even know where all her papers and pictures are.

Her two daughters will inherit all these, but this is my legacy too. We all share a common root, Enrico and Vittoria Silano. Never again will I hear vaguely remembered stories of my great grandmother and her two sisters. Nor will I hear how uppity Lily and my Nonna were as American teenagers standing up to their Italian father in the 192030s.

I always intended to ask her to come with me to the Story Corps project when it was at Grand Central. Obviously I never did, because I just didn’t feel comfortable making a request like that of her. Why do we always seem to be let these opportunities pass?

They say that hindsight is 20/20 and that’s the truth. All the harsh thoughts, false starts and missed connections. I know I can’t torture myself with this, or blame myself. At the very least, our whole family is coming together now. My mother will be here tomorrow, and for one last time Lily, her daughters and niece will all be together. The only woman of our family who will be missing is Lily’s granddaughter Amy, who’s away at college finishing her semester.

This truly is one of life’s great lessons, made gluten free because I am gluten free. Don’t miss opportunities when you have them. Don’t ignore a sunny day. And don’t forget to live and love your life. My one hope is that I will have such wonderful family surrounding me when I am 93. Most importantly, never miss an opportunity to tell someone you love them.

April 27, 2008

Arico Peanut Butter Cookie

Now this: this is a peanut butter cookie. Slightly sweet and delicately flavored the Arico Peanut Butter Cookie reminds me of home made peanut butter cookies from long past summer cookouts and potlucks. The texture is hard to describe; soft and chewy and melt in your mouth with respectable pieces of peanut throughout.

Unlike the prepackaged and food service peanut butter cookies of my college days, these are not too highly flavored or too sweet. With so many commercial products being made so sweet, we forget that cookies are supposed to be satisfying, with out being so sickeningly sweet.

Arico cookies and cookie bars are gluten, dairy, trans fat, preservative and artificial color and flavor free. Made from 100% whole grains and 70-81% organic ingredients they are high in calcium and a good source of fiber.

What’s not to love, a tasty cookie from a healthy company that believes those of us with dietary restrictions shouldn’t have to give up fun and flavor for health.

*****A special thank you to Arico Foods for their samples*****

April 25, 2008

Bakery on Main, Extreme Trail Mix Granola Bar

Nuts, raisins and chewies, oh my!

Like the first Bakery on Main granola bar I tried the Extreme Trail Mix bar was chewy, a little crunchy and just sweet enough.

The Extreme Trail Mix bar is chuck full of nuts and seeds. The first one I tasted was sunflower, and halfway through the bar, right next to a dried cranberry I got a whole pecan! The sweetness and chewiness of the nuts nicely balances the crunch of the crisp rice.

This nutty, nutritious and delicious treat is crafted by artisan bakers at the Bakery on Main. They don’t use artificial colors, GMOs, artificial flavors or trans-fats.

Part of their mission statement includes “Better Health and Happy Taste Buds Living Together in Harmony.”

The Bakery on Main employs “Good Manufacturing Practices…ingredient quality controls, full product traceability, gluten testing under AOAC… [and] standardized allergen and sanitation cleaning procedures… to insure food safety.” It’s always great to find a company that takes such pride in creating healthy products for everyone to enjoy.

April 22, 2008

Fennel & Eggs

As I was reading a health food magazine on the subway I found an article extolling the virtues of fennel. I don't see fennel very often, but I remember my Nonna loved it. It's indigenous to the Mediterranean and I'm sure that she ate it growing up in her Italian family; she used to call in fenochio.

Fennel is a winter vegetable, available from autumn to early spring. It has lots of vitamin C, folic acid, potassium and antioxidants. Historically it’s been used for bad breath and indigestion, intestinal spasms and cramps (maybe it’s the celiac’s best friend?)

I’ve almost exclusively had it in salads; it’s great with some walnuts, cranberries, citrus fruit and just a little vinaigrette. This article had some good ideas, but I wanted to try something a little heartier.

It’s hard to use many of the recipes I find, since I’m really only cooking for one. The rest of the folks in this apartment won’t try anything new, so whatever I make gets eaten by me. This was my first attempt, and although it doesn’t look like much, it is delicious! And quick.

Makes 1 Serving:
3 Eggs or egg whites
½ bulb Fennel
1 clove Garlic
1teaspoon Olive Oil
¼ cup shredded Mozzarella cheese
Salt and Fresh Pepper to taste

Thinly slice fennel and garlic, sauté in a large skillet until fennel is soft. Add eggs and stir, cook until eggs are set. Top with cheese, cover and turn of heat. Serve warm.

This is really filling, it makes a great breakfast. I think it would work well with just about any type of cheese. It could also be made to serve more; a larger batch could be baked in the oven.

April 19, 2008

Beyond Rice Cakes

When you learned that you could no longer eat gluten, did visions of rice cakes pass before your eyes? I think at one time another us celiacs, and many dieters have thought we’d only be able to eat rice cakes. But really, they’re not that bad, with a little work the lowly rice cake can make for a great meal.

While staying with my cousins on short notice I faced with this rice cake only prospect. After searching the kitchen for safe foods I found an unopened bottle of Smucker’s Natural Peanut Butter, Quaker Rice Cakes and a pear. The result was fantastic! Quick and easy: 1 rice cake smothered in peanut butter and topped with sliced pear. All the bases covered, carbs, protein and fresh fruit. And I wasn’t hungry till the afternoon.

Another recipe to be filed away for when I’m stuck in a place that doesn’t have all my usual food.

**Note: not all Quaker rice cake products are gluten free**

April 16, 2008

Azure Chocolat

As I was shopping, really munching my way through the samples at Whole Foods in the Bowery, I saw a woman setting up a sample table. It was chocolate! And graham crackers! And fresh marshmallows! I zeroed in on the chocolate, contemplating if it would be safe to try the chocolate, even though it was being displayed with the graham crackers. I readied my battery of questions to see if the chocolate would be safe for me. It started something like this: “those look great, but they’re not gluten free are they?”

“It is”, she smiled back “my facility is dedicated gluten free and Kosher certified!” And that’s how I met the bright and indefatigable Heather, owner and artisan choclatier of Azure Chocolat. I explained my blog and sampling mission to her and decided to hang around to learn more about her operation. I ended up gorging myself on Beauty Bark, Chocolate Covered Graham Crackers and Fresh Marshmallows.

As she got busier I put on a pair of gloves and started to help her out. I learned all about her store and her products. The items she had at Whole Foods were only representations of her products that Whole Foods carries. The Beauty Bark is her own concoction of all the things you should be eating a little bit of everyday: 70% Belgian dark chocolate, walnuts, blueberries, cocoa nibs, golden flax and a little bit of sea salt. It’s great, I think that a lot of people were surprised at how well all the flavors blended together.

Whole Foods also carries her Chocolate Covered Graham Crackers and S’Mores Bars. Both come covered in either milk or dark chocolate. The S’Mores bar has graham cracker, fresh marshmallow, and a layer of ganache and is then smothered in chocolate.

Heather had little bits of fresh graham cracker with chocolate and fresh marshmallow to represent the S’Mores bar. And when I say ‘fresh marshmallows’ I mean made that morning, gooey, sticky, sweet, melts on your tongue marshmallows. As a marshmallow devotee, read ‘fiend’, I have never had a truly fresh marshmallow. I have been ruined for store bought marshmallows. And I’m not sorry.

Along with the items carried by Whole Foods Heather also makes fresh cream truffles, toffee, chocolate covered fresh marshmallows, caramel de sel and short bread cookies. These can be ordered on line or purchased at the store in Centerport, LI. I look forward to working with Heather again. Until then I can only wish that I’d made my left over graham cracker crumbs last longer.

April 12, 2008

Spring in the City

Today was so beautiful that I set out to do some of my Saturday errands on foot. As I walked through the neighborhoods of Queens I was struck by the beauty of spring in New York. The real New York.

Of course Manhattan is New York, with 5th Avenue and Rockefeller Center, but that’s not where the life of the city is. That’s in the numerous small neighborhoods and communities. Spring comes early to midtown. I walk past carts of forced flowers for the Today Show every morning. Diligent city workers have filled the large cement planters of 5th Avenue and Rockefeller Plaza with daffodils that are already in full bloom. One day, overnight, they will be replaced by tulips.

But spring arrived in my neighborhood this week. Barren tree are pushing out buds, puffs of flowers hover around the gnarled branches. Crocuses, daffodils, tulips, hostas and flowers I can’t name have pushed their way through the earth to welcome back the sun. Magnolia trees are in full glory. The building and most trees are still bare, but buds and flowers abound.

At this time of year I am always surprised, joyfully, at how nature has maintained it’s foothold in this paved over city. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, indeed. And flowers bloom in Queens.

Green shoots push though every possible crack. Place where bricks have been prized up. Iron strong tree roots push up and break sidewalk squares, making room for verdant grass and ever smiling dandelions.

As I walk, I can’t help myself. I have to take pictures of the juxtaposition of city and nature. Bright life growing around the drab remainders of our grey winter hibernation. Flowers don’t know from fences, they wiggle through and pull themselves up to share their light. Greenery creeps and snakes along fences and walls. Trees become balls of color.

Soon people will come out of hiding, infected by the new life that’s spreading. Jackets will be shed, midriffs will be bared, car windows will open to spill music into the streets. The neighborhood will re-emerge. Slowly, picking up momentum, life will seep out of shuttered homes onto porches, into the streets.

This is the New York everyone should know. Ethnic food on every corner, perfuming the air so that you can find your way by smell. Socks, trinkets anything you could want for sale on every block. Folk of all ages strutting and preening in their colorful best stretching their style after a bundled up winter. Neighborhoods boisterous with life from within, each stocked with their own cast of characters.

As I walk in the sun, sharing its glow with the daffodil next to me, I remember the joy of quieter springs past. But this miracle of life, rebirth amongst the huge apartment blocks, elevated trains and paved streets resonates more. It’s as if the blooming of the first flower brings the whole city back to light and life after the grey, dreary winter.

April 10, 2008

Nueva Cucina, Chipotlé Taco Seasoning

After learning about Nueva Cucina’s gluten free seasonings from the CeliacChicks I requested, and received, a sample. Last week in the mail came a packet of Chipotlé Taco seasoning. After a few days racking my brain about what to so with it I decided to make a meat loaf.

I tasted the spice mix before using it and it seemed pretty good, I always sample all my ingredients as I’m cooking. I mixed two thirds of it with the meat and mixed the remainder with tomato sauce to make a glaze. As I was cleaning up I tasted what was left of the sauce, which was tangy and sweet, with a definite kick.

The mix itself has dried onion, garlic and raisins along with the ground spices. The meat loaf turned out very well. I’m no connoisseur of chipotlé seasonings, but this one was very flavorful. The package says medium, and I would say that’s accurate. The meat loaf itself wasn’t too spicy, but man, the glaze had a punch!

This would be great with tofu if you lean that way, or in any type of tomato based chili or stew. For those of us who need a different, flavorful quick fix, I say go for it. It beats Hamburger Helper any day. Nueva Cucina makes rice mixes, soups and beef seasonings. Several of their items are not gluten free: Black Beans & Rice, Red Beans & Rice, Pumpkin Soup, and Sweet Corn Soup with Chilies. The gluten free items are made in the same facility in which the others are made but the machines are carefully cleaned between batches.

April 8, 2008

Cherrybrook Kitchen, Fudge Brownie Mix

In my goody bag from the Worry Free Dinner I found a box of Cherrybrook Kitchen brownie mix, along with a cute little spatula with their logo on it. The day after the Worry Free Dinner I was gushing about it to my coworkers and I listed all the treats I found in my bag, As soon as I said “brownie mix” all eyes turned on me greedily. “So, you’re going to make us brownies?” my boss asked. “Don’t forget, I won’t be back till Monday.”

Foot in mouth. I was committed. Not that I would pass up an opportunity to make brownies, no sir. Making brownies means I get to eat brownies.

Sunday night I commandeered the oven, emptying it of pots, setting up my thermometer and started to prepare the mix. Now, the instructions call for margarine and vegetable oil, but being the health conscious type I decided to use what I had on hand: Smart Balance Light and olive oil. Perhaps not conventional, but I don’t think it made to much difference. Although, oddly enough, when I got to work in the morning the brownie had shrunk, pulling away from two sides of the pan. Unusual.

They were a great hit. By 10am the bookkeeper was already eating one, the boss tried one shortly after she arrived. I got everyone to try them, even the UPS pick-up guys and the woman who collects our office trash.

Everyone thought they had great flavor, perfect for chocolate cravings. The Designer pointed out that the texture was a bit off, while moist, it was more crumbly than expected. We decided that this was more like devil’s food cake than brownie, but delicious all the same.

April 6, 2008

Lilli and Loo

This past Tuesday I had the honor of attending the first Worry Free Dinner, hosted at Lilli and Loo. The event was organized by Allergic Girl, along with Vanessa of Food Matters and the staff of Lilli and Loo. They had a gluten, and other allergen, free menu for us to choose from. It was so wonderful to have a choice of items to order from, rather then to choose the only menu item that can eat.

Besides Allergic Girl, Vanessa and myself there were two other women who were able to attend. We had a wonderful evening of great food and great conversation. It was so nice to eat and chat without having to worry about what I was eating. It was truly a first and a wonderful experience. Besides the meal Allergic Girl had gift bags for us with gluten and allergen free foods and other goodies for us to try.

Lilli and Loo keeps gluten free items on their regular menu for us GF folks. The wait staff and chefs are very aware of food issues, allergies and restrictions and are happy to accommodate. While we were talking we were approached by another gluten free woman who was visiting and had found that they had a gluten free menu.

Since the menu was prearranged for us we had a choice of four appetizers, four entrées and four sides. Among other things there were: Saigon Roll, Spicy Chicken Lettuce Wrap, Spicy Beef Salad, Pomegranate Teriyaki Grilled Chicken, Balsamic Teriyaki Grilled Salmon, Borneo Orange Chicken or Beef, Chicken or Shrimp with Fresh Mango, Fried Rice and Singapore Noodles. Their entire gluten free menu is much more extensive.

I tired the Spicy Chicken Lettuce Wrap, Borneo Orange Chicken and Singapore Noodles. I ate entirely more than I should have because it was all so delicious. It was such a treat to have oriental food again. The Spicy Chicken Lettuce Wrap was not too spicy but very flavorful, alone it was enough for a meal. The Borneo Orange Chicken was a crispy dish with a sweet orange sauce, it’s been so long since I’ve had a crispy dish, and to be able to have one with out worrying about what else was cooked in the fryer oil. The Singapore noodles were like standard fried rice, with noodles rather than rice. Again, it’s been a very long time since I’ve had noodles like these.

I highly recommend Lilli and Loo whenever you’re in New York. I plan to take all my friends there so that I can try all the super yummy looking dishes on the menu!

April 3, 2008

Andean Dream Quinoa Cookies

This past Saturday I had the opportunity to meet the lovely couple responsible for Andean Dream quinoa cookies. For those of you not yet familiar with quinoa, it is one of the world’s super foods. It has more protein and complete amino acids than any other grain.

Andean Dream cookies are made from Royal Quinoa, which only grows around one salt lake in the Uyumi Region of the Bolivian Andes. Because of that environment Royal Quinoa is the most nutritious type of quinoa and has the most protein of any variety.

Andean Dream cookies come in five flavors: Coconut, Orange Essence, Chocolate Chip, Raisin & Spice and Cocoa Orange. All the flavors are equally delicious. The cookies have a great texture, crunchy and smooth. None of the varieties is too sweet and the individual flavors are balanced, rather then over powering.

The cookies came prepackaged in the box and two cookies contain one gram of protein. They are gluten free and vegan. The quinoa farmers are certified organic and the farmers who produce the other ingredients are also organic, not yet certified.

Andean Dream works with a Bolivian company La Francesa to manufacture the cookies. Together with the Andean Valley S.A. they formed an association to work to improve the conditions of the Royal Quinoa farmers. They have built better homes for the farming families and a school for the children.

Andean Dream cookies are available on the east and west coasts in Whole Foods, in independent stores and online at the Gluten Free Mall.

I highly recommend these cookies. They’re tasty and nutritious, and individually packed they make a great snack to carry in a bag, purse or in a lunch box. In buying these cookies you are also helping the farmers support themselves.