Blah Blah Blahg

A little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of blah blah blah....

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What's Cookin' Good Lookin'? Recipe Round-up: Soup's On!

Even though I can see and feel the many signs of Spring as the days grow longer, the breezes are warmer, and crocuses peak through the soil in my future front yard garden plots, I still feel very drawn to soups and stews. Granted, I am one of those folks who drinks hot coffee or tea in the dog days of August, so eating soups year round should come as no surprise. Still, there is something very satisfying about watching, smelling, and tasting a variety of common ingredients come to life in one big pot! So when I posted a desperate plea for dinner inspiration on Thursday evening, I was immediately excited to see a suggestion for Tomato & Spinach soup.
I probably should fess up to taking all recipes with a grain of salt (pun intended). I used to be so reliant on recipes--and the same rotational flow of just a few tried and true ones, for that matter. I knew they worked, I knew I liked them, and I knew I preferred eating recipes that worked and that I liked. Cutting gluten out of my diet made that a thing of the past rather quickly. My usual staples (pasta, bread, pasta, flour, pasta, couscous, pasta, pasta, pasta) were not so easy to come by anymore if I didn't want to spend a fortune on gluten-free alternatives. Additionally, processed foods, packaged foods, and pretty much anything in a bottle, jar, etc., that uses any kind of preservative is often something I cannot eat due to my gluten intolerance. At first, my culinary repertoire shrunk to devastating proportions, but I soon realized the value in the concept of "less-is-more," and rather than feeling stifled by restrictions, I feel enhanced with opportunity for more creative cooking! For the first time, I realized vegetables, meats, rices, and other whole foods actually have a flavor of their own. Cooking became more about enhancing that flavor with spices, non-grain vinegars, and herbs--and less about trying to hide all the ingredients under a pile of sauce.
So, back to the soup before I boil over with gluten-full stories here...
I loved the idea of a tomato-based soup and was already picking up spinach for a strawberry & spinach salad. The original recipe called for barley, which I decided to replace with rice. I also used only canned tomatoes for the soup and no fresh ones as the recipe requested.
Go ahead, gasp in disgust! But have you seen the price on tomatoes this time of year? Plus, they taste like tomato-textured balls of water! Additionally, canned tomato products actually have more nutritional benefit as the antioxidants in the tomatoes become more concentrated. So, here's (more or less) what I did:
I started off sauteing a medium diced onion, a couple stalks of diced celery, a couple diced carrots and about 3 cloves minced garlic in some extra virgin olive oil. My friend's recipe doesn't have you add the spinach until the end and she suggested using frozen spinach since it cooks up so nicely. Since I was using fresh, I decided to throw it in before adding liquids so it would wilt a bit.
I added a large can of petite diced tomatoes, a small can of tomato sauce, an undisclosed amount of ketchup (the original recipe called for ketchup--see, I do follow some directions!), and about a cup of water.
The recipe my friend shared called for squash and yellow squash and zucchini were on sale, so I used quite a bit. I added this to the pot and half a cup of instant brown rice. I added Italian seasoning, additional dried basil, oregano, and parsley, some onion powder, garlic powder, Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. I measured nothing. Then I added a bay leaf and hoped I'd find it again before accidentally ingesting it.* I brought it all to a gentle boil and then let it simmer for a bit longer on low heat while I washed dishes.

There ya have it: Tomato, Spinach & Rice Soup with a Whole Bunch of Other Veggies and Ingredients...
And, it was Delish! I sprinkled on some shredded Parmesan cheese and a dash more parsley. And the best part has been the leftovers. Soups have an amazing ability to become even better the next day and in the days to follow (if it lasts that long). So, soup's on!

Bon apetit!

*Good news! After much searching, giving up and hoping for the best, I found my bay leaf 3 days later before enjoying some delicious leftovers!

Friday, March 25, 2011

It's Friday! This Moment: Chasing Rainbows

{this moment}

A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments for all to find and see.*

Sometimes we get caught in the rain. Sometimes we miss the bus or get on the wrong one altogether. In general, things don't always turn out the way we'd planned or the way we'd want--but I trust in God that I am always in the right place at the right time, and this breathtaking sight outside the grocery store yesterday was glorious proof in my eyes!

*Idea for {this moment} posts adapted from this blog

~Signs of Spring in Spokane~

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sleep Apnea?! Oh, CPAP!

C-PAP Re-cap:
As many of you already know, after months of doctors visits both locally and back east, and after years of unexplainable and untreated health problems, I was diagnosed in January (quite to the surprise of my doctors and myself) with severe Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Within days, I met with a home medical care specialist and took home my new C-PAP machine and my first mask. I was overcome with excitement at finally knowing what has been going on all these years and optimistic about my future. My first night on C-PAP therapy was nothing short of amazing--I slept nearly through the night and awoke feeling no chest pain, no shortness of breath, and no numbness or tingling in my hands and arms.

Sleepless In Spokane

Subsequent nights did not go quite so well, until after over a month of trying to somehow make it work, I realized this mask was not the one for me. I am fairly petite, and even though this was the smallest size in this particular style of full-face masks (covers both the nose and mouth), I couldn't manage to keep it from moving or leaking and consequently spewing pressurized air into my eyes. While this did give my eyelashes that nice windblown look (I might sell it on e-bay now and target the modeling industry), it was not conducive to a good night's sleep! No problem, there are over a hundred different mask and nasal attachments for C-PAP machines. I have since met with the sleep physician who conducted the sleep study and who will oversee my treatment from hereon out. I've also had several meetings with my home medical care specialist. About 2 weeks ago, I brought home a new attachment, called a nasal pillow (sounds either luxurious or gross and it's a little bit of both, if you ask me). This one is made specifically for women and is therefore quite a bit smaller and less bulky. Rather than covering my nose and mouth, it sits below my nose and blows air into my nostrils. It's cute, right? Mine is a pastel blue and has a charming floral print on the straps. The first challenge with this would be learning to breathe through my nose and not my mouth. This would be a relatively quick lesson. Every time I even opened my mouth with the thing attached, it sent gushing air down the back of my throat. Needless to say, I was awake every 5 to 10 minutes on the first night of using my new nasal pillow. The next night, I was filled with dread at bedtime.
"Ok, Michelle," I said to myself, (Hey, when you get as little sleep and oxygen at night as I do, you, too, will start having conversations with yourself!) "Keep an open mind and a closed mouth!"
I started my bedtime routine extra early that night and rather than approaching this contraption as a medical device, I decided to think of it in Yogic terms as my brand new Pranayama (Yoga breathing) machine. I did a few gentle poses, spent some time in legs-up-the-wall position, and got into bed and masked up. And so I proceeded on several more nights with the nasal pillow, which has the bonus of being very lightweight and very easy to remove. So easy to remove, in fact, that I figured out how to do so in my sleep...Great! Several times each night I'd awaken adorably snuggled up next to my nasal pillow and hose, which was still attached to my C-PAP machine but not attached to me! I was not sure why I was taking off the device and I realized I was spending very few hours of the night actually getting any air or sleep for that matter. Nights of restless sleep continued and I continued to wake up each morning with too much evidence of that. Add to that yet another exciting challenge: making use of a nasal pillow when you have a cold and stuffy nose!

Waiting to Exhale
After recovering enough from my cold that I could breathe through my nose and still struggling to keep the nasal pillow on for more than half an hour at a time, I decided it was time to put in another call to my home medical care specialist. I made the call yesterday in the early afternoon. She proposed that I might be opening my mouth in my sleep and removing the mask because the air gushing down my throat was uncomfortable and waking me up. She suggested adding a chin strap to the mix, which would help keep my mouth closed. Now I would start by putting on the nasal pillow and then affix the chin strap over that to keep me from opening my mouth and add another layer between my overly nimble fingers and the straps of my nasal pillow.

Mask Up!

I got home in the evening and began to set up camp. (This includes daily changing of the distilled water in my machine and cleaning of the nasal pillow, bi-weekly rinsing of the filter sponge in the back, and weekly washing of the now 2 hose attachments followed by a dry run of the machine to get all the excess water out of the hose.) I unwrapped my new chin strap. I started laughing as made size adjustments. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, I started crying. And not just a few moments of moping or pouting, we're talking full-blown crocodile tears, heaving sobs and massively puffy eyes to boot!
My evening wear is starting to look more and more like this!
For some time, I let myself go to the place I've avoided going at all until now. "This is not what I want." I let myself feel the fear and sadness around having sleep apnea for the rest of my life. I let myself feel the overwhelming relief at that being all it is that has been affecting my health for so long and at having a long rest-of-my-life to look forward to! I concurrently allowed myself to experience the anxiety and frustration at there not being a quick fix for this (or a cure at all for that matter, aside from potentially unsuccessful and invasive surgery). I do not think it is healthy to exist in that state of mind for long, but it is also not healthy to completely hold it in either, so for that time, I allowed the intense emotions to flood me, move through me, and move onward.
I now had to clean out my hose and nasal pillow again (you don't want to know what all got in there during my sob session!), and remove mass quantities of my hair from various strips of Velcro (these really were made for bald, middle aged men). As I stoically went through these motions, I also acknowledged internally that if this additional conglomeration of Velcro and neoprene is what I needed to be able to sleep, breathe and heal, it would be totally worth it. If it did not work out, there were still other options. After time, all of this would become second nature and I might even have a hard time recalling the intensity of this particular moment.

It Takes Your Breath Away!
I masked up again, turned on the machine and had 3 consecutive hours of sleep in which I was able to breathe and recuperate. I woke up after that time aware that the overabundance of straps was rubbing uncomfortably against the back of my ears, but my chest didn't hurt. I wasn't short of breath. My hands and arms weren't numb or achy, I was not drenched in a cold sweat, and my heart rate was at its normal resting pace.
Unsure of what to do regarding the painful rubbing of straps against my ears, I ended up having a restless continuation of my night, but I was proactive in calling my home care specialist this morning and learned how to remove one of the extra straps. I made it through my work day, got home, and masked up yet again for a nap! Napping is still hard for me because I personally loathe sleeping during the day after years of doing so uncontrollably, but I managed a short one--breathing and all!

...And the Moral of the Story Is...

C-PAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. Two words in that acronym stand out to me more and more: positive and pressure. It is essential (though often challenging) to stay positive in this process. There are so many options for C-PAP therapy and beyond that, there are other treatment options to look into as well. There is not a quick fix and I must remember that I did not become this unwell in one night, one month, or even one year. It will take time and guesswork to become well. The process may not be linear and at times it may feel as if I am moving backward. The second word which pops up often is pressure, and that is what I feel when I realize people are going to ask me how I slept every morning with sincere, genuine hope that I will say "better." I even feel pressure that I inflict upon myself because this is what is standing between my state of health as it is right now and where I would like to be. My energy reserves are still low and fluctuating. That is where I remember the importance of the word continuous in C-PAP therapy and sleep apnea treatment. The fact of the matter is, that even moving backward is still moving. So long as I keep on keeping on, I am never at a point in which I have any reason to give up. Like riding a bicycle, you only fall if you stop pedaling. I must maintain my sense of humor around it--laughter keeps the airways open, you know!
I had a brief conversation with a family member this afternoon in which he expressed his empathy by saying "I'm so sorry you have to go through this all alone!" It was in that moment that I clearly stated and recognized for the first time, "I am not alone. You are there to support me and I have friends here, too. I am also not the only person with sleep apnea." I might indulge in occasional, designated "me" time to wallow in anger, frustration, sadness or fear. I do this with the understanding that when that time is up, I come back into the world I am so happy and grateful to be a part of and take my days and moments one compassionate and intentional breath at a time.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Purim Projects, Part 2: Final Preparations & A Quick Kvetch Before Getting Back to the Festivies!

We're at the final countdown before Shabbat starts and then Purim begins! I had hoped to get a lot more done in the way of projects, preparing mishloach manot, baking, crafting, and blogging. However, as the saying goes, we make plans and God laughs! I've been under the weather--most likely a result of not getting enough sleep while adjusting to night-life on C-PAP therapy--and reminding myself that this is the month of Adar and I, too, should be laughing. I am, of course, joyful at knowing the probable cause behind years of struggling with unexplainable health problems. I am also realizing that while my energy reserves are still limited, I need to move with my natural rhythms and not try so hard to push against them. I have been collecting my thoughts on this journey toward wellness in writing and will likely be blogging about that in the near future. For now, it is more important to focus on the upcoming festivities, and I will do just that after this brief, yet pointed message:
So, as I mentioned in my last post, I was seeking a way to come up with a decent recipe for gluten-free hamentaschen. I had planned to doctor up a gluten-free pie crust mix for the dough as I have not yet found a pre-mixed gluten free flour that I like for baking cookies. Most of the mixes I've bought all have a rather distinctive flavor from the garbanzo bean flour used as a protein. I have a great recipe from a dear friend to mix my own flour using peanut flour as the protein, but alas, I had no peanut flour, no rice or potato flours either, and no time or energy to start shopping around at that point. While I was at the supermarket, I came across a sale on a gluten free cookie mix put out by King Arthur Flour, which I'd never seen before. I figured I might as well give it a shot.
*This mix is Kosher and pareve, so you could substitute margarine if you'd prefer to not have dairy cookies
It's a basic cookie mix and the box listed 5 recipes on the back for various types of cookies that could be made. They were all drop cookies and I was about to attempt a roll/cut cookie. I added an egg, 1/2 cup butter*, 3 tbsp of vegetable shortening and 1 teaspoon of almond extract to the mix. Now, I never taste raw cookie dough...but, in case I did this was actually really yummy! Usually gluten free cookie doughs taste like, well, gluten free flour. This tasted like cookie dough! It was a bit too soft to work with as a rolled dough as is, so I dusted my cutting board and rolling pin with a bit of powdered sugar, and added a few spoonfuls of gluten-free flour mix, which successfully stiffened the dough without affecting the flavor.
I used apricot and almond preserves for filling. I used an egg wash to seal the corners, as the dough was a bit more prone to not sticking than my old recipe. They baked up quite nicely, and aside from being a bit more crumbly than regular hamentaschen, they are delicious!
Gluten free Hamentaschen seem to be a bit more prone to falling apart, but I suppose that's just the way the cookie crumbles!

Although a bit later than I'd planned, I did get a couple of my mishloach manot out via mail today. The mitzvah of mishloach manot
is to give a g
ift of (at least) 2 types of prepared food (meaning the foods each receive a different type of blessing before eating them--i.e. a fruit and a grain) to at least one person. My goal was to send out some home-baked goodies, but I did not quite get around to baking more than one batch of gluten-free hamentaschen and decided to stick with prepared goodies instead. Because the recipients have not yet received their goodies, mum's the word on what's in there! But here are some cute and budget-friendly ideas for mishloach manot should you have the urge to put together your own:
  • Breakfast Basket: include a box of cereal, oatmeal, or pancake/waffle mix, and a couple fruits or a bottle of fruit juice. A fun way to present this is inside a large cereal bowl with a spoon (can be purchased at a discount store or dollar store).
  • Coffee/Tea lovers Basket: include a bag of coffee beans or box of tea, sugar packets, creamer, and some biscotti or tea biscuits. It can be cute to present this along with a couple of mugs or tea cups & saucers. Again, these items can be purchased at a discount store or even a thrift store.
  • Local Delicacies: for friends and family who do not live nearby, sending a gift of foods indigenous to your location can be thoughtful. Since I live in Spokane, I might send a gift of huckleberry flavored items or prepared foods made by local producers.
  • Ethnic Food Theme: For your Italian food loving friends and family, a gift of pasta, jarred sauce and perhaps a bottle of wine could be a wonderful idea. Similar baskets could be made with a Mexican food theme, Jewish food theme, or any other type of ethnic food.
  • Night at the movies: Why not gift some popcorn and candy to a movie lover? I've seen large, reusable, popcorn buckets sold at my local dollar store and thought this would be such a cute way to deliver this!
Although many people do go all out and spend a great deal of time and money on mishloach manot, you don't need to do that. You can keep it simple, inexpensive, and still thoughtful and fun by making use of discount stores, dollar stores, and even thrift stores. They do not need to be wrapped up in fancy, expensive baskets. You can quite tastefully deliver your goodies on paper plates, boxes, or even make your own gift containers using recycled materials, like the ones shown here.

One other important part of Purim is listening to the Megillah (story of Purim). During the reading of the Megillah, noisemakers called graggers are used by children and adults alike to blot out the sound of the name of the Purim story villain, Haman. Many people purchase graggers from Judaica shops and I even have a wooden one I've had from the time I was a child that, I believe, was a gift from family in Israel. However, graggers can be made at home, too, and this is a great way to get the kids crafting.
  • Fill an empty coffee tin, plastic bottle, or other recycled container with dried beans or rice
  • Glue/staple two small paper plates together and attach a wooden craft stick. Punch two holes, one on either side of the craft stick about midway to the top. Tie a short piece of yarn through each hole and attach a large wooden bead to each piece of yarn. Make sure not to make the yarn too long or you will have a rather dangerous situation on your hands! This creates a sort of hand-held drum that works with *gentle* twirling/shaking.
  • I loved this idea over at : to help prevent boredom-induced, unintended noise during the Megillah reading, fill a small tin or container with candy (or you could opt for raisins and other small dried fruit). Have the kids decorate the container. Shaking it will make a satisfactory amount of noise AND the kiddos will have something to munch on between noise-making opportunities!
  • Experiment with different types of containers, fillers, and methods of creating sound. This is a great opportunity to experiment, learn, and make a lot of noise!
Finally, as we enjoy delicious meals with family and friends, sharing goodies, parading in costumes and festivity all around, it is important and a mitzvah to remember those less fortunate during this joyful time. We are commanded to give extra tzedakah (charity) on this holiday to ensure that everyone can participate in the celebration of Purim. There are many worthy causes, especially now in the wake of such incredible disaster and destruction over in Japan. If finances do not allow for monetary donation, I think there is great value in donating time and talents even in your own community. May everyone have a joyful weekend and to my Jewish friends & family, a Chag Purim Sameach!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sesame Street: Making Hamentaschen

Purim Projects, Part 1: Hamentaschen

Purim is just a week away and there is much to craft, create, concoct, and celebrate! I would like to dedicate this post entirely to one of my favorite parts of Purim: the hamentaschen! Hamentaschen (shown in the above photo taken from the internet and NOT my kitchen, unfortunately) are a jam/fruit-filled butter cookie traditionally eaten on Purim. They are shaped like a triangle to represent the shape of the hat worn by the infamous Purim story villain, Haman. While they are most often filled with fruit preserves, they can also be filled with poppy seed filling, chocolate/chocolate chips, sweet almond filling, Nutella, halva, caramel, you name it! Even the dough itself can be made in various ways, ranging from a crunchier cookie to a softer, chewier cookie.
Click here for a traditional recipe for hamentaschen. This is my first Purim eating an entirely gluten-free diet and I don't want to miss out! I will be experimenting this afternoon with doctoring up a gluten-free pie crust mix to create a suitable cookie dough.
Kids also love getting in on the fun of making hamentaschen. One way to involve them in the process is to whip up a batch of peanut butter playdough that they can roll out, cut into circles, fill with jam or jelly and pinch into tasty, triangular, P.B. & J Hamentaschen!

Peanut Butter & Jelly Hamentaschen Peanut Butter Playdough Recipe
  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
Once you mix the ingredients, you can store this in an airtight container or plastic zippered bag with the air squeezed out. Kids can use a rolling pin to roll out the dough. Using a 3 or 4-inch circle-shaped cookie cutter (or cup), they can cut out circles. Have them spoon a small dollop of jelly or jam into the center and form into triangles.
For directions on forming those nifty little triangles and an overall hamentaschen instructions, I always turn to my good friends on Sesame Street. I've posted a video on my blog for your viewing pleasure.

Hamentaschen Costume
I still haven't officially settled on a particular costume idea, but I remember a costume my mother made for my sister and me one Purim. She used poster board & cellophane to create hamentaschen costumes! The costumes in these photos are adorable--who knew there was a market for hamentaschen costumes now?! (Who knew that market runs in the $30 range??) Needless to say, I'm off to the local dollar store...

I also have some work to do before I get my mishloach manot ready to be mailed or delivered! I especially loved this idea for presenting a plate of hamentaschen in the shape of a Mogen David (Star of David). I'd love to tell you more specifics, but that would most definitely ruin the surprise for some of my friends & family who read my blog! However, you can follow up on my next Purim Projects post, which will focus on mishloach manot. Until then, it's Adar, be Happy!

Saturday, March 05, 2011

OY to the World!

It's been a while, but I'm BACK!
We are entering the Jewish month of Adar II*. (This is a leap year in the Jewish calendar and there are two months of Adar.) The month of Adar marks a time of joy and happiness in Jewish history. The holiday of Purim falls on the 14th of Adar, corresponding this year to the secular date of March 20th. This is a holiday that truly has it all: a dramatic story, great food & beverages, costumes, big parties, and the gifting of food & treats to friends and family (called mishloach manot).
In more personal news, I am not falling short on joyful celebrations of my own lately. I just moved into a wonderful new apartment where I truly feel safe, comfortable and at Home. This has been a long time coming and I am immensely grateful to many dear friends and family--both local and long-distance, who helped out in so many ways to make this possible. I am enjoying the process of nesting and unpacking in a space that finally feels like my own. I am also excited to be welcoming my first guests (of many more, I hope!) for dinner tomorrow evening. My father and his fiance are visiting for a few days from Massachusetts and I am so thrilled to be preparing a meal in a fabulous new kitchen for such special guests!
I will be posting more in the days to follow about ways to invite happiness into this joyful month and my own plans for Purim. I've got plenty of ideas I look forward to sharing on creating budget-friendly mishloach manot for friends and family, Purim-themed craft projects to enjoy with children (or kids at heart), recipes, and more! I'm still debating costume ideas for myself...any suggestions? But for now, I'm off to do a bit more organizing and to bake my father's favorite chocolate chocolate-chip cake with (of course) chocolate frosting!