Perfect pancakes (which happen to be gluten-free)

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Long plagued by various allergies (grass, pollen, cats), last year Jeff decide to see what would happen if he stopped eating gluten. Jeff is always experimenting on himself, so, honestly, I didn’t expect it to last, but now we are both convinced that steering clear of gluten was a good thing for his health. I am a pretty firm believer in “all things in moderation” when it comes to food, so at first I wasn’t very tolerant of gluten intolerance, and one of my chief concerns was pancakes. Every weekend, I like to make pancakes. What would become of my pancakes? 

Well,  after just a few weeks of experimenting with various flours and dairy products*, I didn’t just discover a good gluten-free pancake, I produced my ideal pancake, a holy grail that had long eluded me. And, miracle of miracles, I remembered exactly what I did, and I wrote it down.

It is crucial to note that whether or not these are your ideal pancakes all depends on what you want from your pancakes. I don’t like them to be cakey, I like them carmel-colored and floppy with buttery edges—think Cracker Barrel, not IHOP. I also like them to be a real day-starter, not dessert, so I am pleased with the protein content of my ingredients. Without further ado, I give you my perfect pancakes:

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Perfect Pancakes (which happen to be gluten free)

1/2 cup of almond meal

1/2 cup of rice flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons ground flax seed

1/2 cup half-and-half

1/2 cup greek yogurt

1 egg

1 tablespoon safflower oil (or similar)

Water/milk to thin as needed

Add the dry ingredients to a mixing bowl and stir to combine. Add the half-and-half, greek yogurt, egg and oil and stir with a rubber scrapper until all ingredients are well incorporated. The batter should be just slightly thicker than cake batter—wet enough to pour slowly and spread slightly on the griddle, but not runny. I often add about 2 tablespoons of water or milk to thin the batter, but you can vary this as needed since different flour and yogurt brands might result in thicker or thinner batters.

Heat your skillet or griddle until a piece of butter sizzles on impact but doesn’t instantly burn. It you are using a cast iron skillet or griddle, you might want to start preheating it first, before you mix up your batter, since they can be slow to reach the right temperature. I use a cast iron griddle, but I tested the recipe in my non-stick skillet as well, and it worked fine. When you think you have the heat right, add a small piece of butter to the pan (about the size of a pencil eraser) then add a 1/4 cup of batter to the puddle of sizzling butter. If your heat is right, you should see bubbles form in the pancake within about 15 seconds. When the top is covered in bubbles and the edges are starting to set, flip the pancake. Check for doneness, and remove when the bottom is golden-brown.

Now this is key: Add a new piece of butter (just the size of a pencil eraser) to the pan between each pancake. And no, this doesn’t mean you will skip buttering the pancakes when you put them on your plate—what’s the matter with you?! The butter is key to achieving a carmel color and a lacy crunch on the edges (see the second picture above.)

I like to keep the pancakes warm in a little pocket of folded foil on the counter, which works surprisingly well. The recipe makes about 12, but there’s no shame in doubling it. I’m especially fond of serving them with blueberries.**

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 Last photo by Jeff!

* I can’t wait to listen to this episode of Fresh Air. I love when the Test Kitchen folks break down the science of cooking for me!

**These blueberries came in our frozen CSA via Winter Sun Farms. Once a month through the winter, we get a box of frozen or canned items that were harvested from regional farms during peak season. Lots of people neglect the importance of supporting not just local farmers, but local processors, aggregators and distributors, too!

Street Finds: Farewell, winter

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Windsor near 11th Ave., Brooklyn. I have no idea what is happening here.

IMG_33396th Ave, near 20th St., in exactly the same place I found the snow bench last year. I think this block has a talented snow sculptor in residence.

I took these pictures in February, when we were at least 40 days into constant snow cover. I am happy to report that, with the exception of a few dank heaps lurking in the shadows, we are set to welcome spring tomorrow with snow-free streets.

Vacation to spring

DSC_0034DSC_0029DSC_0101 DSC_0102 DSC_0105 DSC_0107No one goes to England for the good weather, and strictly speaking, I didn’t either, but in the weeks preceding my February 28 departure, the weather was one of the things I was looking forward to the most. With highs consistently in the upper 40s and lower 50s, England has had a good 20 degrees on New York for the past few months. Fifty sounded positively balmy.

What I forgot to even anticipate was spring. But oh—the daffodils, the snow drops, the crocuses, the lambs in the fields. New Yorkers, I am happy to report that spring has not deserted the world; there is hope. A few years ago, during the hottest summer ever recorded in the United States, Jeff and I took a trip to Nashville, a city that isn’t known for cool summers. In comparison to Oklahoma, however, Nashville was a dream. The grass was green, there were local tomatoes and watermelons for sale, and fireflies bobbed heavily in the twilight, all things you miss when you are living in the middle of a drought-ravished wasteland. It was a short, beautiful respite. Jeff and I have always referred to it as the time we took a vacation to summer, and it was just what we needed to survive until September. I think this trip to England, and especially my friends’ wonderful garden, might just get me through until May.

I have more photos to share from my trip, which was actually in celebration of my dear friends’ wedding, not spring, but spring is always a good place to start.

Block Party – now with more fire!

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A couple months ago, I realized why Brooklyn is the perfect city for us, even though Jeff and I want very different things from our community.

I grew up in the country with hardly a neighbor in site. I wanted kids to play with, I wanted to live on Sesame Street, I wanted to borrow milk from a neighbor, I wanted to know what a block party was.

Jeff grew up in a small town where everyone knew his business. Jeff has the same name as his dad and everyone knows his dad. Everyone knows Jeff. The woman who cut his hair when he was 5 assumed without asking that she was invited to our wedding, because why wouldn’t she be? She had known him all his life. 

I want a community; Jeff wants to be anonymous. Brooklyn offers both. 

In honor of my desire to remember warmer times, I thought I would share a few photos from last summer’s block party, which was even more amazing than the year before. The city closed the street and everyone dragged their tables, chairs, grills and kiddie pools out onto the pavement. A band played, a man let me add my hot dogs to his grill and we got to know a few of our neighbors a little better. Then, our nice Scottish neighbor Chris (AKA Flambeaux), marched down the hill breathing fire.

Welcome to Brooklyn, where you have to breath fire to stand out from the crowd, but you don’t have to cook your own hotdogs. 

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Antigua

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I wish I was here. I think we all do. Instead, Brooklyn is on roughly day 42 of constant snow cover, with nary a day of above-freezing temperatures so far this year. In honor of the weather, I’ve decided to revisit a few of my warmer adventures from the past year or so, starting with the warmest of them all: Antigua.

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“Jeff and I like to travel” – I have been evaluating the honesty of that statement for a couple years now. Jeff and I have been to a dozen countries on three continents, and we’ve spent time in more than a dozen states together. I think we do both like to travel, but sometimes I wonder if what I like best is the anticipation of travel and the people part of travel – visiting with old friends, talking long into the night with strangers. I often tell Peter, one of my best friends and frequent travel companions, that my favorite day of our contentment-hopping trip to Morocco and Budapest in 2007  was the day we took the train between Fes and Marrakesh, talking the whole time about everything, including – most memorably – his British dental care habits, or lack thereof. A whole new continent, and I just wanted to talk. About teeth.

Poor Jeff spent most of that ride slumped against the side of the train car, a victim of jet lag and indigestion. It isn’t that Jeff doesn’t like to travel, it’s just that it doesn’t always go so well for him. He also pointed out to me a while back that, thanks in part to my love of people, we hadn’t taken a trip that was just the two of us since our honeymoon, which was also the last time we swam in the ocean. We resolved about two years ago that out next trip would be just us, on a beach. Nothing complicated. No compromises.

For us, no compromises didn’t mean flying first class, it meant asking ourselves questions about what  some of the little things are that usually trip us up or annoy us, like leaving on a Saturday when we are still tired from our work week, then coming home on Sunday with no time to recoup. Or staying in a room with tacky decor that we can’t wait to get out of in the morning.

With that in mind, our location criteria was: 1) direct flight from NYC;  2) clear water conducive to off-shore snorkeling;  3) no desert islands – we like things green!;  4) hotel room with a balcony or patio (I think that for me, this was the sole focus of my anticipation, so dearly have I missed having a yard);  5) no tacky floral bedspread;  6) reasonably affordable. It is shocking how hard it is to meet both criteria 5 and 6 at the same time.

We finally settled on Sugar Ridge resort in Antigua, and after much debate, we opted for the all-inclusive plan. We’ve realized that the more decisions we have to make during a trip, the more stressful it can be and the more we end up fighting with each other. Also, I’m a real cheapskate, and I didn’t want to spend the whole trip debating $8 pina coladas.  I  found a good deal on Hotels.com that let me use a coupon code to save an additional $250, our visit was during the first week of the off-season in mid-April, and we were buying our flights with credit card points, so we didn’t mind splurging a little.

So here’s everything in a nut shell: the view from our room was amazing; the whole place smelled like flowers (“Like a honeysuckle’s vagina,” said my husband the poet); the sand was made of choral and shells; there was sushi on the all-inclusive menu; I got 60 mosquito bites, but they didn’t bother me much.

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I’d built myself up so much about the damn balcony that I was sure it couldn’t possibly live up to my expectations, but miracle of miracles, it was even better than I had imagined. The whole resort is built into the hills, about a mile from the water, which means the view is amazing but you have to take a free shuttle (an open Jeep) to the local beaches, which we didn’t mind at all. We also didn’t mind walking up and down the very steep pathways and stairs at the resort, but for the literally faint of heart or lame of knee, they offered free golf cart taxis.

Our first visit to the nearest beach (The Nest) was another everything-I-dreamed-of moment. Not only was the  whole water/sand/palm tree situation idyllic, there were no cruise ships in the harbor, and the whole beach was virtually deserted. I didn’t take many pictures that day because I was making a point to unplug, and I thought it was just the first of several amazing days at the beach. Unfortunately, clouds rolled in on the afternoon of our second day and they kept rolling in for the rest of our trip. It didn’t rain constantly, but it didn’t stay totally clear for very long. I didn’t mind much at the time, but looking back on it I feel a little sad that we didn’t have more time in the sun and that my memories of the island have a decidedly grey cast.

The rain did make us feel very wise for choosing a resort with beautiful decor and amazing views; if we had been stuck in a beach-side hotel full of whicker and hibiscus-printed everything, I might have felt completely different about the trip. We were also pretty happy with our all-inclusive plan. Compared to other resorts, the food was great; compared to restaurants we eat at in Brooklyn, it left something to be desired. But I have real sympathy for resorts in that they have to cater to everyone from young Brooklyn foodies like us to British retirees.

The grey weather did lead to the most epic Scrabble location of all time:

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Street Finds: Snow bench

IMG_23596th Ave near 20th St., Brooklyn. Taken in February, 2013

Weather is one of the things I love most about New York and miss most about Oklahoma. With the whole city in a state of perpetual deep freeze, I’ve been thinking a lot about bad weather and missing home. Here’s the thing: Today, the high temperature in Oklahoma City is only 18 degrees, which is exactly the same as the forecast here in New York. BUT the high tomorrow in Oklahoma is 61. New York City? A balmy 30 followed my more highs in the teens.

Not only does Oklahoma’s schizophrenic weather appeal to my love of chaos, it offers reprieve. I don’t mind being cold so much as I mind staying cold. I need a few decent days every so often that I can plan my week around, especially in a city where everything is done on foot. Last winter’s long, slow slog toward spring nearly killed me. I wanted to scream, It’s March and I’ve already put up with your crap for four months—where’s the freak, 80-degree Tuesday you owe me?! Were I on my native soil, that Tuesday would be my birthright.

On the other hand, our first year in New York was, hands-down, the most glorious year of weather I have ever experienced. I was suspended in a state of constant gratitude and simultaneous anger, having  seen for the first time how the other half lives. A warm and vibrant autumn faded slowly into a mild winter with only a handful of days below freezing and a couple pretty snowfalls. In summer, temperatures hovered in the 80s and low 90s, the grass stayed green and rain was so plentiful that flowers I would never have attempted back home—delicate foxgloves and hydrangea—grew in sidewalk planters. The fact that no one found it exceptional angered me. These people have so much. 

My gratitude and anger was really the product of a kind of post-traumatic stress. During the last 18 months or so that we lived in Oklahoma, an ice storm followed by a wind storm brought down a massive tree in our yard; our home fell victim to a freak, “500-year” flood and my car was pummeled by softball-size hail, something I didn’t truly believe existed until I saw it with my own eyes. Back-to-back blizzards trapped me in my house for about a week, and on at least two occasions, tornadoes touched down less than two miles from our house. I helped a colleague harvest his garlic after a tornado leveled his home, and another person I knew died when a fast-moving, drought-fueled wildfire engulfed her house. I lost track of the times I received a letter in the mail stating that I lived in a federal disaster zone (although no letter came the one time we actually needed assistance.) The summer before we left, Oklahoma City experienced a record-shattering 63 days of 100+-degree temperatures. Even the lows were hot. The heat was the last straw, sucking the joy out of our final days at home and creating a new form of cabin fever in which even the traditional foods of summer were no comfort because it was too dry to safely grill, tomato blossoms couldn’t set and watermelons shriveled on the vine.

When people say there is no bad weather, only bad clothing, I ask how one should dress for 110 degrees or softball-size hail. The answers is, you don’t—you just hunker down and wait for your beautiful Tuesday to arrive.

Just my luck

photo 2Last night I watched the sun set for the first time in 2014 as my plane made its final approach to LaGuardia. We landed, I got my bag and headed to the taxi line, where I found, mercifully, far more cars than people and no wait whatsoever. The driver even seemed to understand where I wanted to go and how to get there.

Then, in the airport exit lane, the car stalled. The driver immediately restarted the engine, and soon we were pulling onto the highway, but it was clear that all was not well under the hood. There was a gentle rocking sensation, like riding with a grandmother who keeps her food hovering against the brake pedal, and I started to picture myself stranded on the side of the BQE, so cold without my hat and mittens that even the glittering skyline across the East River would offer no comfort.

“Just my luck,” I imagined myself saying while recounting what was  about to become a harrowing travel ordeal. Then I gave myself a mental slap in the face. I hate the phrase “just my luck.” I think it is stupid, illogical, inaccurate and, most of all, unhealthy. The thing is, we never say “just my luck” when things go well. When my plane landed safely and ahead of schedule, I didn’t say, “just my luck.” When my bag arrived quickly and undamaged, I didn’t say, “just my luck.” When there was no line for a taxi, I didn’t say, “just my luck.”

I have long referred to my outlook on life as logical optimism. I believe that, most of the time, it is only logical to believe that things are good and disasters will be avoided. Jeff is often annoyed by my Spock-meets-Pollyana worldview. When Jeff tells the story of the three wrecks he had in his Ford Ranger, it is the tale a little truck that was plagued by misfortune. The first time he told me the story I said, “You are so lucky – I can’t believe you had three  wrecks and emerged without a scratch!” Even the truck was okay, although Jeff did spend all of his savings on repairs.

I have long believed that the stories we tell about our own lives, in our heads and to other people, shape not just the perception but the actual direction of our days. According to this story from NPR, there is research to back me up. The general gist of it is that when we tell ourselves that our sorrows and misfortunes are overwhelming or unique to our individual experience (“I’m never going to make friends” or “I’m the only person here without friends”) we have a hard time overcoming them, but when we reframe the narrative (“Everyone has trouble making friends at first”) we not only feel better in the short term, we also achieve more and see concrete returns. But really, you should listen to the story – it involves the phrase, “I pooped on Frankenstein.”

Telling stories is a defining part of the human experience. How often have you started crafting a story (or Facebook status) before an event took place? Our desire to have something to tell can lead to a lot of whining. On-time arrivals, wine bottles that don’t break in transit and cab rides that are short and fairly priced don’t make good stories because they are such common occurrences. Most of the time, things do work out. But when disaster strikes, why do we frame ourselves as victims instead of heroes? I’m not a Greek scholar, but I don’t think, “just my luck” is how Odysseus described his 10-year journey home from Troy.

I contemplated all of this during what turned out to be a short and uneventful ride home, and when the car finally lurched up to the curb outside my apartment , I said to myself, “just my luck.”