Running on More Than Empty

I did it. I honestly wasn’t sure I would, but I did it.

I ran 5k.

If I’m honest, I’ve never run 1k before this year.  I’ve never wanted to run before this year.  Despite all the nay-saying — entirely in my own head — I got myself up on Sunday morning and ran 5k for Cancer Research UK.  The most amazing thing is that I only felt like dying a little bit along the way!

As soon as I woke up, I knew I wouldn’t get far without a green smoothie.  I’m not a morning person, which is primarily due to the fact that I don’t believe in sleep.  I used to average about 3 hours of sleep a night, and I never felt worse for wear for it.  After cutting out gluten, I added about an hour a night.  After my nasal surgeries, I added about 30 more minutes.  I still have difficulty actually falling asleep, and my anxiety gets the best of me when something important is happening the next day.  It was no surprise when I was staring down the clock at 2am, only 8 hours before the race was scheduled to begin.

Why a green smoothie, though?  Well, I learned a lot in the 30 day challenge, especially about what my body needs.

  • Fruit sugars are important fuel because they are unprocessed and unrefined.  They feed your cells to keep you moving.
  • Hydration is desperately important in physical activity.  Even if you’re like me and don’t sweat much, your body burns up moisture and releases it through your breath, as well.
  • The fibre in the greens and whole fruit keep things moving in your system — the last thing you need is to feel a big lump in your belly as you’re running!
  • I put a banana in almost every smoothie, and the potassium it contains helps to prevent and repair muscle tears, cramps, and spasms.
  • Chia seed and flax meal are easy additions to add protein to maintain muscles.
  • Coconut water as a base lends more than just water as it is high in electrolytes, which combat dehydration.  Choosing one with added sodium means that it’s a bit more processed, but studies have shown that it hydrates at the same level as sports drinks.
  • You need calories to burn as you run.  They might as well be from real food sources.
  • Green smoothies taste good.

Fuel in and shoes on, my mother-in-law picked us up to drive to the Stormont Estate, the home of the Northern Irish Assembly and the 5k.  They didn’t release a course map, so I did not expect that big hill in the front would actually be part of it.  Equally, I didn’t know that the gorgeous paths through the woodlands trail would be included.  I’ve never run on loose gravel, in mud, or up a giant hill, so there were a lot of firsts in that day.  I didn’t exactly have a good run time, but it was more a matter of showing myself I could do it at all.  It’s a success in my book.

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A Pizza Praise

I know I JUST wrote a post about how we feel bad when we eat things that aren’t homemade, but I wanted to be sure I wasn’t scaremongering. No matter where you live, there are some wholesome choices you can make outside the home. You can find restaurants with sustainable, fresh, local ingredients, who do not use chemical-laden products because the real thing is so much better, and who care about your specific dietary restrictions or concerns. There are restaurant kitchens you can learn to trust nearly as much as your own.

This post isn’t about them. This post is about pizza.

Pizza is one of my favourite foods. I love love LOVE pizza. One of my favourite silly jokes is even about pizza:

How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizza?
Deep pan, crisp and even

You’re groaning now, but you know you’ll tell someone later. Anyway, I sorely miss good pizza (and even bad pizza).  I haven’t yet perfected a gluten-free pizza dough myself. A lot of pre-made bases are chewy, and I never remember that I need an extra hour before baking for boxed doughs to proof. The frozen pizzas offered in the Tesco and Sainsbury’s shops here vary wildly, and, when I found one I really liked, it disappeared forever. What’s a gluten-free girl to do?!

Last year, Dominos UK announced they were rolling out gluten-free pizzas to all their stores by 1 November. All staff would have to take gluten informational training to know about cross-contamination. A couple of days before the 1st, we decided to give them a try. If the Belfast branches were waiting until the 1st to roll out, I figured the worst that could happen was we would be told to wait a few days to order. Wrong. CB phoned, and it went something like this:

CB: Do you offer your gluten-free pizzas yet?
Dominos employee 1: I don’t know what that is. I’ll get the manager.
Dominos manager 1: We did have gluten-free bases, but nobody ordered them. We binned them.
CB: You binned them? You didn’t even advertise them. It wasn’t on your menu.
Dominos manager 1: You can call another branch and see if they have them still. Tell them I told you to call over.

Second branch:

CB: Do you offer your gluten-free pizzas yet? One of the other branch managers told me to phone over to you.
Dominos employee 2: I don’t know what that is. The manager isn’t in, but I’ll phone him and have him phone you back.
. . .
Dominos manager 2: I’m not sure if we have them. What is gluten?
CB: In short, gluten is something that’s in wheat and other grains that some people are allergic to.
Dominos manager 2: Really? Can you tell me more about it? What does it do?
CB: [proves he actually listens to me and spends about 3-4 minutes talking about Celiac and gluten]
Dominos manager 2: Wow. Thanks. I’ve never heard of that. We don’t have anything gluten-free, I don’t think.

While the employees and managers were really nice, they had no idea what was going on (and I have to assume the bit about having binned them was a panic-driven fabrication). At that point, I wasn’t even so bothered they didn’t have the bases — I was prepared for that possibility since it was only rolling out — but I was very concerned by the fact that the information was so sparse and different. They clearly had not be trained about gluten cross-contamination if one of the managers didn’t even know what gluten is. As you may know, I like to have my voice heard. I got in contact with the national Dominos folks and discussed the issues we discovered in the Belfast branches. After a bit of back and forth, we agreed that it was best they pushed the roll-out date back a few weeks and work on employee education. I was later offered a voucher for my assistance and trouble and to try the new pizza when it came out and give feedback.

A few weeks later, voucher in hand, I tread onto the Dominos website. There is a big GF on the choice of bases. There are comments about which toppings are not gluten-free, which, it is good to see, are very few. I double- and triple-check everything before I place the order. I half-expect the phone to ring, and they will tell me they still don’t have them in Belfast. Not even three minutes later, an unknown number calls. I answer.

Dominos employee: You ordered a gluten-free pizza?
Me: (sighing) Yes, I did.
Dominos employee: I just wanted you to know there is egg in the base. Some people are allergic to eggs, and I wanted to make sure that was okay.
Me: Absolutely. Thank you so much for asking.

What a difference. Less than a month prior, no one in the shops even knew what food allergies were. Now they’re phoning to make sure I’m not allergic to eggs?! How wonderful! The delivery driver explained that they always make sure the pizza boxes marked with a gluten-free sticker sit on top of the others, just in case something could fall down into it somehow. Some drivers choose to leave off the dips because they aren’t sure about the content and don’t want to give out something that might have gluten (They don’t; I checked). I was overwhelmed by the allergy-attentive service by a take-away pizza chain!

The Dominos pizza is good and tasty, but it’s not fantastic. It relies a lot on corn, which results in a heavier crust than their usual fare. It is crispy, which is a big problem with gluten-free doughs, and it isn’t too chewy. It only comes in one size (9″), but, in all, it makes for a good indulgent take-away, especially since they added spinach back to the toppings choices! The next hurdle I see for them is understanding that, because of some recent recipe changes, not a single side item or dessert is gluten-free. Currently, the only gluten-free option is the pizza itself.

Dominos Pizza delivered

Dominos Pizza delivered, pre-spinach return

Only a few weeks ago, Pizza Express announced their new gluten-free range (It’s even on the main page of their website!). After doing my research on how they are meant to be trained for cross-contamination (and knowing that I expect a little more from them than I would from Dominos), we decided to give them a try. The menu clearly marks items which have “NGCI”: Non-Gluten-Containing Ingredients. There aren’t a ton of options, but there are a few starters (including a lovely white wine and butternut squash risotto), at least one dessert, and a beer. (Their extensive online allergen menu (PDF) makes suggestions on how to make other items suitable for X allergy.) Nearly all of their pizzas can be made on the gluten-free base without any topping adjustments.

The service astounded me. I always fear the worst when someone questions the gluten-free thing.

Server: Oh, are you gluten-free?
Me: Yes, I am.
Server: I will alert the kitchen.

Rather than being made to feel a picky eater, she let me know with that simple statement that my dietary needs would be taken seriously. One table over, I heard the same server discussing with the mother of a young Celiac girl the changes the company had made in every kitchen for the gluten-free range. They have a completely new and gluten-free portion of every kitchen. Nothing ever goes on that side that has touched the other foods. They have a new oven that is only for gluten-free pizzas. In the cases where they are forced to utilize the same shelf space, the gluten-free items are all on higher shelves so that no errant flour can fall onto them. They are clear when they deliver the pizzas to the table which is gluten-free, but the setting is just the same — it sounds like such a little thing, but, when something is obviously different from others, it draws attention to it when you’d rather just get on with eating.

Pizza Express does have a superior crust. I would expect that. They have quality ingredients with responsible sources. The crust looks and tastes like a regular pizza crust. I’m shocked to say that I almost forgot I was eating a gluten-free pizza. Every once in a while, if I let my mind wander while eating, I’ll come back to the meal with a sudden paranoia that I have made a massive mistake and WHAT HAVE I EATEN?! That panic lasted a second longer when I realised there was pizza in my hand and it looked so good.

REAL pizza from Pizza Express!

REAL pizza from Pizza Express!

Pizzas from Dominos and Pizza Express lead completely divergent existences in the pizza world. Though Dominos did stumble at the beginning, eventually both chains impressed me. I can’t expect for any employee or company to know everything straight out of the gate, but a true willingness to learn and a commitment to respect go a long way in my book.

Much better, Delta!

"Gluten-free" breakfast, January

“Gluten-free” breakfast, January

This picture is the breakfast that I was given on January 6, 2013 on a transatlantic Delta flight.  If you’re not familiar with Special K cereal (which I was not), here is a close-up of the label.

Special K label

Special K label

I know it’s blurry, but I think you can read it well enough.  The second ingredient is “wheat gluten”.  There is also an allergen warning which reads “CONTAINS WHEAT AND MILK INGREDIENTS”.  I can understand the confusion — it says “Lightly Toasted Rice Cereal” — but, as a major company, you have to pay closer attention when a passenger asks for a special meal.  Just because the first ingredient is rice does not mean that it doesn’t have wheat.

I complained.  I do that.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.  No one wants only a banana for breakfast, especially when they’re travelling and have allergies which might mean it’s the only meal they’ll eat that day.  If you were with me, you’ll be happy to know our voices were heard.  Here was my breakfast on April 10, 2013:

So. Much. Better.

So. Much. Better.

Since I couldn’t get a great picture before I devoured it, I’ll tell you what it is. It’s an Udi’s Gluten Free Foods Double Chocolate Muffin, and it was delicious.  I can even forgive them for insisting that everyone wants orange juice with breakfast for giving me something so yummy.  What an improvement, Delta!  Because I’m just as vocal when I’m impressed as when I’m disappointed, I’ve let both Delta and Udi’s know how pleased I am.

Edit: Is it a coincidence that I just received my first-ever Delta flight survey?

Back in Belfast and Black Bean Brownies

From my last meal before travelling

From my last meal before travelling

I am back home to Belfast!  I wish I could say it feels great, but so far it feels like my head against my pillow — but MY pillow!  The tiny traveller made it, too; she got lots of special attention from a lovely family on the transatlantic flight, so she arrived feeling very important and very cute.

She climbed into her luggage while I was packing and did not want to get out.

She climbed into her luggage while I was packing and did not want to get out.

A couple of days before I left, I made dinner with dessert for the family. I’ll be posting the dinner later, but the dessert was too good to leave for long.  The beans provide the starch necessary to hold the brownie batter together without the need for any sort of flour, but they also provide a high level of fibre and protein among other great things.  Even my incredibly picky grandfather enjoyed these guys. If you’re not a big fan of dark chocolate, use regular cocoa powder.  My mother didn’t care for it until she had a scoop of ice cream with it because of the richness.

Decadence

Decadence

Black Bean Brownies

Ingredients:
1 can of black beans (or cook up your own), about 15 oz
5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (I used 3 tablespoons dark chocolate cocoa and 2 tablespoons regular cocoa)
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
pinch of salt
3/4 cup sugar (or 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 cup honey powder)
a bit of icing sugar
cooking oil or spray

Hardware:
large food processor
sieve or colander
mixing bowl
spatula
8×8 baking pan
oven
measuring spoons and cups
cooling rack
knife

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C.

Drain and rinse the black beans in the sieve/colander.  You want the water to run cleanly through the beans.  Shake off the excess water.  Blitz the beans and eggs together in the food processor.  It will look soupy, but the eggs helps the beans to break down better.  Without them, the beans will be very lumpy.

Bean and egg soup

Bean and egg soup

Add the vanilla, salt, and cocoa powder.  Pulse to combine.  Transfer to a mixing bowl.  Stir in the sugar with the spatula.  When completely combined, it should look like any other brownie batter.  I added some chopped pecans and chocolate chips (no measurements, just whatever looked right), but I think they would be great without them.

Brownie batter -- can you even tell this stuff started as a weird soup?

Brownie batter — can you even tell this stuff started as a weird soup?

Pour into the greased baking pan and bake for 28 minutes or until a toothpick comes out cleanly.

Brownies!

Brownies!

Sprinkle the icing sugar over the top if you’re feeling fancy.  I was.

Fancy

Fancy

Wait until they are completely cooled before slicing.  I cut mine into 16 pieces.  If you make them bigger, no one will judge you.  Just tell them you’re eating your vegetables.

One Flu over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Cuckoo.  Cuckoo.  There’s nothing like being confined to a bed to battle through a flu to drive you up the walls with boredom, but I can now walk to the kitchen without getting knocked down by coughing.

Needless to say, cooking hasn’t been a priority.  My mother, who was also suffering, made a pot of soup that lasted about four meals, and my poor dad asked about whatever he could microwave for us.  I’m sure my husband is sitting back in Belfast, grateful not to have to take care of me for once!  I kid, I kid.  We’re both very good about taking care of each other.  I have said that the “legitimate marriage” portion of the visa application could boil down to one two-part question:

Has your spouse/partner had whooping cough at any point during your relationship?
If yes, did you leave them during their whooping cough?

Needless to say, CB and I are still kicking — in more ways than one!

The one thing I have managed to do was prepare dessert for the family dinner that never was.  We got up and cleaned the house (okay, half the house), which prompted itchiness and sneezing, and then I drove out in the pouring rain to borrow a cup of brown sugar from our friends who live about three times closer than the nearest store.  In Belfast, when I am missing an ingredient, I shove on my wellies and trod down to the Tesco.  All in, it’ll take about 20 minutes.  I was gone more than 20 minutes in the car this time.  Living in the sticks is hard, you know?

Once the neighbourly cup of sugar was obtained (which I imagine happened much like finding the Kokiri Sword) . . .

kokiri sword

You got the Kokiri Sword!

I set out to make pumpkin cupcakes.  Only, there wasn’t a muffin pan suited for the job.  What’s a girl to do?

deku shield

Now, ride into battle!

No, that’s not it.  You make do with what you have.  What I had was a really-mini loaf pan.  So I made pumpkin mini loaves.

For scale, that is a regular dinner plate.

For scale, that is a regular dinner plate.

I only changed the recipe because I couldn’t find nutmeg, so I added a little bit of extra cinnamon to keep it from tasting bland.  I also left them in the oven for 28 minutes.  After dinner, I iced them.

Messy, as per usual.

Messy, as per usual.

I know it’s a little bit of heresy in today’s cupcake-crazy world, but I think I like them better this way.  They did have more of a bread texture than cake, which I can’t really explain, but they were more satisfying and tasted less like I was eating dessert.

I have a few new projects I want to try, so now I just need to catch up on Real Life and do it.  Have you adapted any of your recipes into a new shape or style?  How did it work?