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My aunt, the Meandering Matriarch, has been doing major home improvement projects around her place off and on for the last several years. Her projects have included remodeling the kitchen, painting inside and out, and redecorating various rooms. She’s very ambitious. Very.

Just recently, she wrote a hilarious post about her latest project that I encourage you to read…especially if you’ve ever had your driveway full of worker-guy pickup trucks day after day for weeks, found yourself inhaling dry wall dust like air freshener, saved yourself from tripping over a pile of drop cloths only to tumble into stacks of wood and tools, endured paint and varnish fumes that are clearly eating holes in your lungs, and/or spent the better half of a day on the phone trying to track down a contractor.

If any of that sounds familiar, you’ll appreciate the Meandering Matriarch’s situation. Moreover, you’ll get a real kick out of the YouTube video she shares (especially if you are charmed by cockney accents). If you don’t have time to read her post, at least go watch the video. Or watch it here. It perfectly illustrates the reason I’m so hesitant to begin on the long list of remodeling projects Tom and I have been discussing.

Heaven forbid someone might accuse us of being “too ‘asty”!

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Ever since going gluten free (GF) nearly a year ago, I have searched for and experimented with a multitude of GF alternatives for certain foods. Unfortunately, my efforts have largely been for naught. Don’t get me wrong, GF food isn’t all horrible; but, as a general rule, it is different than the “real” food it’s trying to replace. Different taste, different density, vastly different texture. Some GF foods are perfectly fine, but some just don’t work in translation.

For example, you can find GF bread fairly easily, but it’s really not “bread” as most of us know it. At least not the yummy, yeasty, warm, airy loaves of heavenly near-orgasm-inducing goodness available at your neighborhood bakery. Nope. Nothing like that at all. GF bread is an entirely different animal.

In all fairness, GF bread sort of looks like normal bread, and, yes, technically you can smear it with peanut butter and jelly or grill it into something that approximates a grilled cheese; the problem comes when you try to eat it. I have yet to be able to choke down more than four or five bites of any type of GF bread. That’s good and bad. The upside is you’re actually full–stuffed, really–after four or five bites. The downside is you feel like you’re eating a hunk of slightly damp drywall in the process. I suspect this paragraph is going to produce a flood of responses from my wonderfully supportive and compassionate readers with recipes attached for “gluten-free bread so good you’ll never know it’s not the real thing.” Fabulous! Send ’em on. I would love to be proved wrong. Oh, how I would love to be proved wrong. Until then, I’ll just wrap my ham and cheese or tuna salad in a lettuce leaf.

Even though I’ve pretty much given up hope of ever eating “real” bread again, I have discovered some very pleasant substitutes along the way for other foods I despaired of never being able to eat again, so I thought I’d take the time to share a couple of those recipes with those of you who have to eat GF,  who are thinking about experimenting with eating GF, or who would just love to bake some delectable goodies for me as a SURPRISE! Anyone? Anyone?

THE FIRST RECIPE

The first discovery I want to share with you is a cheesecake. For the last six months or so, I have experimented repeatedly with a crustless GF cheesecake recipe that a friend gave me years ago, but I have never managed to get it quite right. The finished cheesecake from this recipe usually tastes good–great, even–but the texture or some other aspect of the thing would be all wrong. Certainly not something I could serve to guests (other than my kids) or take to someone else’s home as my contribution to a meal. More importantly, it didn’t have a crust!

Enter Kinnikinnick Foods S’moreables Graham Style Crackers, graham crackers for the GF crowd. I had noticed these little gems in the health food section of my local store on several occasions, but I’d assumed–based on previous experiences with similar products–that they’d be a disappointment. Oh, ye of little faith. Last week, I finally picked up a package of the crackers, instead of just sneering at them as my gaze grazed the display, and noticed a recipe for Lemon Cheesecake on the back of the box using the crackers to make the cheesecake’s crust. Sold. Heck, what did I have to loose? The crustless version was going nowhere fast, so I gathered the ingredients and headed home to give it a whirl.

Oh, my gosh. Heaven! Crust! Creamy cheesy goodness and crust!

Gluten-Free Lemon Cheesecake

Crust:
1 package (8 oz.) of Kinnikinnick S’moreables Graham Style Crackers, crushed into crumbs
1/4 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons melted butter

Grease and line the base and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper.

Combine the crushed crackers, sugar, and butter. Mix well. Press the crumb mixture onto the bottom and 2 inches up the sides of the prepared pan. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Filling:
2 (8 oz.) packages of cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons grated lemon peel
2/3 cup sour cream
1/2 ricotta cheese
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Using an electric mixer, beat the first three ingredients in a large bowl until smooth; do not over beat. Add the sour cream, ricotta, lemon juice, and vanilla. Beat until combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined before adding the next egg. Pour the filling into the crust. Place the pan on a baking sheet. Bake, uncovered, in the preheated oven for about 1 hour or until the cheesecake is set. Cool. Cover the springform pan and refrigerate the cheesecake for 8 hours or overnight.

Serve with whipped cream and berries or drizzled with chocolate. Use your imagination.

THE SECOND RECIPE

The second recipe I want to share–the one I’m really excited about–is one I got this weekend when I attended a gluten-free desserts class at the Culinary Center of Kansas City. Before I go any further, if you live in the KC metro area (and love food) and have never visited or taken a class at the Culinary Center, I must insist that you remedy the situation immediately. Seriously. They offer so much: hands-on cooking classes, dinners on demand, bistro dinners, team builders, Tuesday staff lunches, private parties…the list is long and grows longer every year. I’ve never participated in any activity there that I didn’t enjoy. Plus most everything they do involves a glass of wine…or two. I’ve given you the link to their site. Check it out!

Anyway, the gluten-free desserts class was taught by Danica Pollard, the pastry chef at Lidia’s. Okay, I must pause again–briefly–if you live in the KC metro area and have never been to Lidia’s, a fabulous Italian restaurant located in the Freight House in the Crossroads District, get out of your chair right now and call for a reservation. Better yet, stay right where you are and click on either link I’ve provided and make your reservation online. You won’t be sorry…even if you’re GF. If  you’re not GF, I recommend the Pasta Tasting Trio. Man, I miss the Pasta Tasting Trio. Okay, back to our regularly scheduled post…

Danica made four incredibly delicious gluten-free desserts, and not one of them tasted–or had the mouth-feel–of your typical GF offering. My favorite was her GF Super Fudgey Brownies, which I share with you now (because I love you):

Danica Pollard’s Gluten-Free Super Fudgey Brownies

1 cup GF flour mixture (see below)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa
8 oz. 60-72% chocolate, in small pieces
6 oz. butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon double strength vanilla

GF Flour Mixture (makes 9 cups):
6 cups white rice flour
2 cups potato starch (not potato flour)
1 cup tapioca flour
3 tablespoons xantham gum

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Sift together the flour, salt, and cocoa. Set aside.

Place the chocolate and the butter in a metal or heatproof bowl over simmering water or in a double-boiler. Allow the chocolate and butter to melt slowly, stirring frequently until they are completely melted. Turn off the heat.

With the bowl still over the water, whisk the sugars in until well mixed. Remove the bowl from the heat and fold in the eggs and vanilla. Gently fold in the dry ingredients. Do not over mix. The more you fold or stir the batter, the cakier and less fudge-like the brownies will be.

Pour the batter into a greased 9×13 glass baking dish (Danica recommends a glass baking dish if you want the brownies to be really fudgey–believe me, you want the brownies to be really fudgey). Bake for 25 minutes. Rotate and then bake for an additional 15-20 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with moist crumbs.

Taaaast-eeee!

So, what are you waiting for? Get going!

I took piano lessons for seven years when I was a kid and generally hated it. Piano teachers who insisted on perfect fingering and ramrod straight posture, endless–and mindless–scales up and down the keyboard over and over again, forced practicing nearly every dang day (sorry I was such a brat, Dad), and humiliating piano recitals. It’s a wonder I survived to tell the tale.

The magic keys

But survive I did. Moreover, I regretted quitting almost from the day of my last lesson and have thought numerous times about how wonderful it would be to start again. I just never managed to get around to making it happen. Until now. Finally, 38 years later, I’m once again at the keyboard, taking lessons…of my own volition…even paying for it out of my own pocket…and I’m loving it. LOVING IT! Don’t get me wrong, I still suck, but I don’t care. I really don’t. Making music is a magical power even when the music is lousy.

In my defense, some of the lousy is due to the fact that my piano is waaaay out of tune and some of the keys are sticking, but the piano tuner is coming. I know I may be singing a different tune after he gets here and I can no longer blame the piano for the strange sounds and missed notes, but I don’t think so. I can make music! Really. Whole songs that Tom, Brian, and Dad have all said they enjoy hearing me play. Of course, they’re a biased (and captive) audience, but still. Music! That I’m making! All by myself!

Luckily for me, I’ve found a wonderful piano teacher who is not only talented and knowledgeable, but also extremely patient and kind. Even better, she’s willing to make allowances–bend the rules, if you will–for her “non-traditional” students. Translation: no scales. Oh, and did I mention that she’s patient? AND she said I don’t have to participate in the piano recitals if I don’t want to. Suuuu-weeet! On the downside, she doesn’t give her “non-traditional” students stickers when they’ve mastered a piece. Sigh.

So why am I telling you this? Because I want to challenge you to do something you’ve wanted to do for a long time. Now that you’re an adult, you can do things you’ve been dreaming about and do them just for fun. At this point, no one will expect you to become an expert. No one will expect you to get a college scholarship or turn your passion into a career. You can just follow your passion for the pure enjoyment of it. In other words, you’re free to be totally stink-o and totally happy being totally stink-o. You get to call the shots! Go on. I dare you. Then write and tell me what you’re doing.

After 15 days and 4, 072.7 miles, the Tedster and I finally pulled into our driveway last night, spent but happy for our efforts. We were ready to be home even if home was covered in snow and the car thermometer barely topped 20 degrees F. Tom made sure the cold crap-ola outside was negated by the warmth inside. He had a pot of potato soup steaming on the stove, flowers on the island in the kitchen, the house cleaned, and was standing in the doorway smiling when the garage door went up. Damn, it’s good to be home. Teddy doesn’t even seem to mind the snow covering the grass.

That’s the great thing about Teddy. He never complains about anything…except being left alone (see my post about Midland, TX). No matter where we went or what we did, he was a perfect gentleman, accepting love and attention from everyone we encountered. He never got cranky because a meal wasn’t offered at the normal time, never fussed about being in the car for long stretches of time, never complained about the hotel we stayed in (I repeat, avoid the Guesthouse Suites in El Paso at all cost), never whined because the only place to have a wee was a windswept muddy patch of ground with RVs pulling in and out, never bristled at the comments about his bum leg.

And here I must pause for an aside. Since I’ve never had a handicap (at least a visible handicap–bumfuzzlement is a handicap, isn’t it?), I’ve never fully understood why people with handicaps complain that others see only their wheelchairs, their braces, or their white canes. I mean, I understand the lament on an intellectual level, but haven’t on an emotional one. After traveling with Teddy, I think I now have a little better understanding of how they feel. I was blown away by how many people we encountered who first commented on Teddy’s bum wheel. Forget that he’s as well-behaved as any dog on the planet, that he has an adorable wrinkly face, that he’s wearing a jaunty red neckerchief that makes him look quite dapper, or that he spins his tail in a complete circle when he meets someone new. People first noticed and asked about his leg. I did my best to patiently explain his condition, and Teddy eagerly exchanged howdy-dos with anyone who stopped to chat, but after a while I wanted to scream, “He’s a great little dog! Forget about his leg! HE HAS!” Please understand. I’m talking into the mirror here. This rant is all about me. I’m just letting you know I will be making a concerted effort in the future to look beyond visible handicaps to see people. Thanks to the Ted-meister.

That’s not all I learned on our trip. I learned that Teddy likes Elton John…a lot. He also likes Kenny Chesney and the Eagles, but Elton’s the man. I learned he hates rumble strips and slowing down for the tollbooths on the Austin turnpike…totally unnecessary interruptions to a good nap. I also learned that he’s willing to sit in the car and wait for me to have my own potty stop as long as I park the car where he can watch me go into the building and come back out again. If I want to leave him a Beggin’ Strip to nibble on during my absence, well, that’s just fine, too.

Hey, where'd you go?

He learned a few things about me in the process, as well. For example, he now knows that I have little tolerance (and more than a few bad words) for idiots…um hum, excuse me, drivers…who drive down the left lane of the interstate for miles and miles without passing anyone…often without even GOING THE SPEED LIMIT. Deep breath.

He also now knows that if he uses just the right tone of voice I will get out of my hotel bed at four in the morning to take him outside for a wee even when the spot for weeing is surrounded by idling 18-wheelers and that, if he waits me out, I will resort to hand-feeding him to ensure that we don’t get on the road in the morning with an empty stomach. Little shit.

Together, we discovered that the stretch of Interstate 10 between about 60 miles east of El Paso and about 60 miles west of San Antonio runs through some of the prettiest scenery you’ll see anywhere. Albeit, as desolate as you’ll see anywhere, but gorgeous nonetheless. It’s also a great stretch of wide open road for…well, if you must know…for driving fast. My dad, who worries about me a lot, reads my blog, so I can’t tell you exactly how fast Teddy and I were going, but let’s just say that my little six-speed G35 with just over 300 horsepower was very happy. Very, very happy. ‘Nuf said.

Because I have no idea what this little peak is called--and because I can be very juvenile on occasion--I've dubbed this little outcropping "The Texas Titty." See the wide-open highway? It was like this most of the way.

Mostly, we loved our trip because we got to see (or in Teddy’s case, meet) a bunch of people we know and love in Arizona and Texas. I want to thank them all for adjusting their schedules to accommodate our visit. Spending time with them went a long way toward adjusting my pissy attitude. It certainly didn’t hurt that they fixed us great meals, regaled us with hilarious stories, and–in a couple of instances–put us up for several nights. We had a blast with each and every one of them and miss them all like crazy already. Just know, if I ever get to be Queen of the World, I’m going to make it illegal for family members to live more than 100 miles apart from one another.

Is it just me, or does Dad look rather pleased about our departure?

My only regret is that our fifteen-day-long jaunt was an interstate trip–a trip more about the destination than the journey–and not a two-lane county-road-type trip that encouraged lots of stops and dilly-dallying along the way. If we’d stopped at every interesting little town, scenic overlook, and point-of-interest, we’d still be on our way to Arizona. So much to see. So little time. I’m guessing the road will beckon again soon. Teddy and I will be ready.

…literally. Teddy tooted all the way across New Mexico and half of Texas, which not only made for a rather unpleasant journey, but also a lot of–as it turns out–unnecessary stops at rest areas and truck plazas where we’d pile out of the car and I’d lead him around pleading, “Go potty, Teddy!” in as sweet a voice as I could muster. All to no avail. The goofy dog didn’t do anything until we got checked into the hotel…except fart. If he toots in his sleep tonight, he’s sleeping in the car!

Oh, and if anyone ever asks if you want to go to El Paso, Texas, run the other way as fast as you possibly can. That’s all I’m saying.

Okay, so the temperatures here in Tucson since my arrival last week have been cooler than normal, and the sunshine has been intermittent at best. Maybe not what I was counting on, but still, I’ve had hours-long stretches of sunshine to bask in on several occasions—which is way more than I was getting at home—and I’ve been able to go entire days without wearing my coat, hat, and scarf. I’ve even gotten to wear sandals a few times; although I’m sure the locals think I’m a bit loony. Fair enough. Maybe I am a bit hasty in throwing aside my winter togs, but bare toes and bare arms have been exactly the thing to jumpstart the attitude adjustment I so desperately needed.

Better yet, I’ve gotten to spend time with nearly all my family and friends in both Tucson and Phoenix. No small feat when you consider they’re busy people and I arrived without much notice. I’m grateful to each of them for adjusting already full schedules at the last minute to accommodate my visit, and I thank Dad’s friends for making room for me at their table at Burger King where they meet every weekday morning. Keep me posted on the glowing circles, guys!

I have to thank my Dad, especially, for being such a terrific host to both Teddy and me. Teddy has been welcomed everywhere we’ve gone, but nowhere more so than at Dad’s, where he was greeted with open arms and given the run of the house…and the run of the backseat of Dad’s beloved yellow Beetle. Dad’s not going to know what to do when we leave and he no longer has to hurdle over a sleeping dog sprawled from wall-to-wall in the hallway.

As for me, I’ve been taken to lunch at all my favorite restaurants here in Tucson, including the Firebird up in the northwest part of town, and to a wonderful local theater called The Gaslight Theatre for an afternoon of really well done (and incredibly goofy) melodrama. (Thanks for babysitting Teddy, Chris!) In every way, I’ve been treated like visiting royalty.

Moreover, the short stretches of time we’ve actually been here at Dad’s have been blissfully quiet and relaxing. I’ve gotten to do some reading, practice the piano (but not enough…I apologize in advance, Lori), write a little, and sleep like the dead every night. I’ve even gotten to do a good bit of cooking.

On Monday, a cold (“cold” being a relative term) and dreary day, Dad and I spent the entire afternoon in the kitchen, chopping, peeling, sautéing, simmering, mixing, and baking. By the time we were done, Dad’s freezer was stuffed with multiple containers of three different kinds of soup and enough BBQ’d meatballs to…to…well, I don’t know to what, but the shelves on his freezer door are groaning from the weight of them. He won’t go hungry for a couple of months. That’s all I’m saying.

We made three of my very favorite soups that I knew—or suspected—Dad would like: my mom’s potato soup (which I’ve modified slightly since she taught me to make it years ago); a yummy roasted carrot soup that makes the house smell incredible for several hours while you’re roasting the carrots, parsnips, onions, and ginger; and a knock-your-socks-off corn chowder that my dear friend Tiffany gave me the recipe for two winters ago. I’m including the recipe for each of them at the end of this post if you’d like to try them for yourselves. Just scroll down. I’m also including the recipe for the meatballs because, not only are they smack-your-grandma delicious, they’re perfect to serve at a Super Bowl party. Enjoy!

The Tedster and I have had a blast in Tucson and are feeling much better about the world in general, but it’s time to move on. Tomorrow morning, we’re back on the road. The weather in KC is still crappy…and keeps getting crappier by the minute…and promises to remain uber crappy until early next week…so we’ve decided to head to the very bottom of Texas to see my niece and her family who live in the McAllen area. On the way north from their place, we’ll be able to stop and see my sister and other niece in Austin. With any luck, the weather will clear in the Midwest while Teddy and I are wandering around in the bowels of Texas, and we’ll be able to drive into KC on Tuesday. (From my lips to the weather gods’ ears.)

Anyway, I hate to admit it, but I suppose I’ve been gone long enough. Tom’s clearly been left at home alone longer than he should have been. Yesterday when he made his lunch, he forgot to remove the waxed paper from the deli cheese he used on his sandwich and ended up eating several bites of it at lunchtime before he figured out why the darn thing tasted so lousy. It’s good to be needed. Sigh.

The recipes:

Mom’s Potato Soup (slightly modified)
6 servings

2 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, diced into ¼ inch pieces
4 stalks of celery, sliced crosswise
2 teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon of pepper
3 large russet potatoes, diced into 1 inch pieces (peeling the potatoes is optional)
4 cups of rich chicken broth
4 tablespoons of butter
1 cup of cream

Optional (for serving):
Bacon crumbles
Grated cheese

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a stockpot. Add the onions, celery, salt, and pepper. Sauté the onions and celery until the onions are transparent. About 7 minutes.

Add the potatoes and broth. The broth should cover the potatoes. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender. About 20 minutes.

Use a potato masher (for a chunky soup) or an immersion blender (for a creamy soup) to mash/puree the vegetables. Add the butter and cream. Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 5 more minutes.

Serve with crumbled bacon and/or your favorite grated cheese.

Roasted Carrot Soup
Serves 10

Preheat the oven to 350°

1½ lbs. carrots, peeled and halved lengthwise
1 lb. parsnips, peeled and quartered lengthwise
1 large onion, sliced
3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and diced
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
8 cups rich chicken broth (more if necessary)
2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of cayenne pepper
¼ cup crème fraîche, for garnish
Snipped fresh chives, for garnish

Combine the carrots, parsnips, onion, and ginger in a shallow roasting pan. Dot the vegetables with butter and sprinkle with the brown sugar. Pour 2 cups of the broth over the vegetables.

Cover the roasting pan with foil and bake for 2 hours until the vegetables are very tender.

Transfer the vegetables and broth into a large stockpot and add the remaining 6 cups of broth. Add the salt and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 10 minutes.

Puree the soup in batches in a blender and return to the stockpot or puree with mixture with an immersion blender. Adjust the seasonings and simmer for 20 minutes more.

Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of snipped chives.

Cozy Corn Chowder
6 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into ¼ inch dice
1 large red bell pepper, cut into ¼ inch dice
1 cup carrots, peeled and cut into ¼ inch dice
3 jalapenos, seeded and sliced (3 makes the soup pretty spicy; adjust accordingly)
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups chicken broth
3 cups fresh corn (about 5 ears)
2 medium russet potatoes, cut into ½ inch dice
1 bay leaf
Pinch cayenne
Juice of 1 lime
¼ cup milk
1 tablespoon real maple syrup

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a stockpot. Add the onion, bell pepper, carrots, jalapenos, salt, and pepper and sauté in the olive oil until the onions are transparent. About 7 minutes.

Add the rosemary and thyme. Sauté 1 minute more.

Add the broth, corn, potatoes, bay leaf, and cayenne. Cover and bring it to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.

Uncover and simmer about 10 more minutes to let the liquid reduce a bit.

Remove the bay leaf and puree half the chowder in a blender until smooth. Return the pureed chowder back to the stockpot. Add the lime juice, milk, and maple syrup. Simmer for 5 more minutes. Let the chowder sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Barbeque Meatballs
Makes 4 dozen meatballs

Preheat the oven to 350°

Sauce:
2 cups catsup
2 cups brown sugar
¼ of a large yellow onion, diced
1 tablespoon Liquid Smoke
½ teaspoon garlic salt

Mix the sauce ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the sauce while you mix and form the meatballs.

Meatballs:
1 large can of evaporated milk
2 cups oatmeal
¾ of a large onion, diced
2 eggs
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons salt
½ tablespoon black pepper
½ tablespoon garlic powder
3 lbs. lean ground beef

Mix the first 8 ingredients together in a large bowl. Work the ground beef into the mixture. Form the mixture into small meatballs (slightly smaller than ping pong balls). Place the meatballs in a single layer on two cookie sheets.

Cover the meatballs with the sauce and bake for 1 hour.