Gluten free sparks creativity: apricot pecan sorghum muffins

Apricot pecan sorghum muffin

I am thankful in many ways for the gluten-free diet. Besides the health benefits, it challenged me to become a more adventurous cook.

Without challenges we tend to follow the mental path of least resistance. Creative writers know how imposing internal restrictions on projects can improve creativity and skill.

I always used to follow other people’s recipes, seldom innovating unless I was missing an ingredient. When I switched to a gluten free diet in March 2008, I was at first grieved over losing many favourite recipes, especially since my mother had just died a month before.

Instead of getting stuck in regret, I began learning how to adapt some of those favourites. This success encouraged me to try taking things I liked best about other people’s recipes and incorporate my own preferred ingredients or techniques. I learned basic formulas to build upon. Adaptation led to invention. These adventures in gluten-free baking encouraged me to become more inventive when cooking meat dishes, soups and stews, too. In short, cooking has become a lot more interesting.

This was one of the first new baking recipes I perfected several years ago. It was inspired by my new-found affection for sorghum flour, which is naturally gluten-free. It has a pleasant, wheat-like flavour, not too earthy or nutty, and imparts good texture for cakes and muffins.

In-season barely-ripe local apricots are my favourite fruit, and fruits are among my favourite foods, so you can see where apricots stand. Dried ones are unimpressive, but good enough to provide a wistful reminder of August from the farthest corner of the year.

Apricot pecan sorghum muffins
  • 110 g sorghum flour
  • 100 g brown rice flour
  • 90 g corn starch
  • 1 tsp xanthan gum
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ¼ tsp gluten-free baking powder
  • 180 g can sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 300 g low-fat yogurt
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 100 g vegetable oil
  • ⅓ cup pecans, chopped
  • ⅓ cup dried apricots, chopped
  • 2 tbsp candied ginger, chopped
  • 3 tbsp maple syrup
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Grease a 12-part muffin tin.
  3. Whisk flours, corn starch, xanthan gum, salt, baking soda, baking powder and sugar together in a large bowl.
  4. Whisk together eggs, yogurt, vanilla and oil. Add to dry ingredients and stir to combine.
  5. Combine chopped pecans, apricots, ginger and maple syrup. Fold the fruit mixture briefly into the batter.
  6. Spoon batter into the muffin tin.
  7. Bake 25 minutes until muffins are risen, evenly browned and firm to the touch.
  8. Cool for five minutes, then remove muffins to a rack to cool completely.


Celiac disease remains under-diagnosed


In recent decades celiac disease has emerged from a rare disorder to a common auto-immune disease affecting at least 1 percent of people in North America, Europe and Australia. However, according to specialists I interviewed for an article in the current issue of Gluten-Free Living, the vast majority of people with celiac disease don’t know they have it.

Celiac disease involves an immune response to gluten protein in wheat, barley and rye. Antibodies attack and damage the patient’s own intestinal tissue. Common symptoms include stomach ache, diarrhea or constipation, fatigue and, in children, failure to thrive. However, it sometimes presents unusual and confusing symptoms. A few patients experience life-threatening conditions. In general it has serious long-term health impacts such as decreased bone density and increased risk of certain cancers.

So far the only known treatment is a life-long gluten-free diet.

I recently posted here about what scientific research is doing to find a cause and a drug treatment for celiac disease, as well as the the popularity of the gluten-free diet.

It is interesting to note that while the availability of gluten-free products has done a lot to promote awareness of celiac disease, they also make it easy for people to adopt a gluten-free diet without diagnosis. Specialists I interviewed for the article do not recommend doing so without a doctor’s advice. Celiac disease has important health implications that should receive appropriate medical follow-up. Adoption of a gluten-free diet makes diagnosis impossible with currently approved tests. And for people who do not have celiac disease, the diet is not necessarily healthier.

So the gluten-free diet can contribute to under-diagnosis. Adding to the confusion, physicians may not suspect celiac disease for various reasons: they may be unaware that it can be associated with other health issues such as type 1 diabetes, that it is not merely a childhood disease, but can manifest during adulthood, and that it affects men as often as women.

Anyone who experiences or suspects an adverse reaction to wheat and other grains or has a family history of celiac disease should consult a doctor. For more information, check out the article in Gluten-Free Living.

Plant love nourishes the soul

Herb seedlings

For 2014 I set a goal to incorporate gardening into my daily routine. Gardening is grounding. It can contribute to our nutrition and self-sufficiency, but also mental health.

Digging the soil comes naturally for me with the enthusiasm of spring, not so much the rest of the year. Summer heat discourages me, while winter keeps me out of the back yard altogether. Any ongoing challenge like this needs to be broken down into small pieces and turned into a habit.

I have begun including plants in my morning ritual for 15 minutes each day. I started in January, the hardest month of all, beginning with the task of looking after a few houseplants that normally suffer from neglect. The earthworms in their chalet are flourishing with more attention.

With those chores looked after, I needed some creativity to keep myself busy through the winter. I ordered seeds from Richters Herbs and planted them early. A few other characters have joined their company, which I will show in due time.

I am not a morning person, but plants help start my day on a better footing. When I trudge downstairs first thing and catch sight of the row of herb seedlings on their sunny windowsill, I feel a door open inside. I am ready for growth and new possibilities.

Look after just one plant or a few. Make time for them every day. They will slow you down to a more thoughtful and effective pace. As their roots spread through the soil in a pot or a small garden, you will dig deeper with them. The relationship will nourish your soul.

Following the crest of celiac disease research

Celiac disease via euthman on Flickr

Now is a fascinating time to follow research about celiac disease. With the January 2014 issue of Gluten-Free Living magazine, I began contributing “Study Sessions”, a column highlighting the most recent scientific studies about celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and the gluten-free diet.

In the past few years it has emerged from a rare, little-known condition to a disorder affecting perhaps more than 1 in 100 people in North America. Amidst popular theories about what causes celiac disease (such as GMOs and glyphosphate), the most compelling data points to changes in the community of microorganisms that inhabit our gut. While diet and environmental toxins undoubtedly affect them, scientists have also found significant links to other factors such as hygiene, breastfeeding and pharmaceutical drugs. The prevailing view about what triggers someone with genetic predisposition to develop celiac disease is that we do not know yet.

The race to find a cure for celiac disease has kept pace. So far the only known treatment is life-long avoidance of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. However, several experimental drugs are in clinical trials.

The gluten-free diet itself has become popular. Many people who have not been diagnosed with a clinical sensitivity to gluten claim cutting wheat, barley and rye from their diets makes them feel better. However, research does not support the idea that a gluten-free diet is inherently healthier, or that modern hybrids of wheat are inherently toxic. In fact our digestive systems have co-evolved with cereal crops for thousands of years. Whole wheat provides an important source of iron, fibre and plant protein, so cutting it out can present a nutritional challenge. A well-informed, well-maintained gluten-free diet can compensate. However, many commercial gluten-free products such as breads contain more sugars and fats than their wheat counterparts to make them palatable. This is not a healthier diet.

Another drawback of adopting a gluten-free diet without diagnosis is that it fails to discourage cheating. You might easily justify the occasional indulgence in regular pizza, beer or dubious restaurant food without concern for the consequences. In celiac disease such small transgressions may or may not result in symptoms but can have serious long-term health effects. The diet should not be undertaken lightly.

Anyone who suspects they experience an adverse reaction to gluten should first seek medical advice. Whether or not celiac disease is diagnosed, this will indicate appropriate medical treatment and follow-up. If this process indicates a clean bill of health but the gluten-free diet seems preferable, it should be undertaken with advice from a dietitian.

Once drug companies find a cure for celiac disease, they may spread awareness to more doctors to help find the suspected large majority of celiac disease patients who remain undiagnosed. It might mean people with celiac disease can be less vigilant about what they eat, or can safely consume gluten.

This may be a mixed blessing. Celiac disease research has shed light on the complex relationship our bodies maintain with the organisms that live inside. For decades our diet, drugs and living conditions have been altering this ecosystem.

Any new drug must be subjected to exhaustive clinical testing in patients for safety and efficacy before it becomes commercially available. But such studies cannot readily identify how another long-term drug will alter intestinal ecology.

Nutritious food is the best medicine. If we can achieve good health through diet and exercise, that is the best way.

But many people cannot. In the case of celiac disease, some patients with extreme sensitivity continue to experience life-threatening or debilitating illness despite a gluten-free diet. In the spectrum of suffering, drug treatment will provide alternatives and an improvement in the quality of life for many people.

The photo shows a tissue sample from an intestinal biopsy illustrating flattening of the villi, which is diagnostic of celiac disease. It comes courtesy of Ed Uthman on Flickr via Creative Commons.

The queenly avocado

Palta Reina

Long Canadian winters limit the availability of fresh local produce. We can hardly achieve a balanced diet without resorting to a few imports. I use this opportunity to enjoy tropical fruits and vegetables that can never grow here. Avocados and citrus fruits are two indispensable items I combine with local vegies like carrots and leeks, plus a growing selection of warm-season vegetables like spinach, tomatoes and cucumbers from Ontario greenhouse operations.

Here’s something cool about avocados: they evolved in Central America alongside huge herbivores like the giant ground sloth, capable of digesting the whole fruit and passing its seeds without choking to death. Since all these creatures met their demise thousands of years ago, perhaps at the hands of early human hunters, avocados have lost their natural strategy for seed dispersal. So they should have become extinct 13,000 years ago, too, but carry on just the same. Author Connie Barlow relates this and other similar strange tales in The Ghosts Of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, And Other Ecological Anachronisms. However, humans have also aided survival by domesticating the delicious, nutritious avocado.

Though it is high in fats, these are mostly oleic acids, which help reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. A diet rich in avocados has been shown to help reduce blood cholesterol in people like me with mild hypercholesterolemia.

Avocados also enhance digestive absorption of beta-carotene, our most important source of vitamin A. It gives orange vegetables like carrots and pumpkins their colour but also occurs in greens like spinach and avocados themselves. This is another good reason to combine them with other vegetables in salads.

Slit or nick the skin of an avocado, then peel it like a banana. Be careful to utilize as much as possible of the dark outer flesh immediately under the skin. This is particularly rich in beta-carotene and other nutrients.

Last winter when I embarked on establishing the habit of eating salad every day for lunch, I also conscripted my partner one day a week. Avocado plays a starring role in Cobb salad, which has become our traditional Sunday dinner.

Lately I have been vicariously glimpsing and enjoying some of Peru’s food, culture and natural beauty through Toni Radcliffe, blogger of Shape of Things to Come, who is living and working there for a year. They have a salad called palta reina, or “avocado queen”.

I’m not a linguist, but my modest effort to interpret palta reina proved fascinating. The Spanish word for avocado is aguacate but Peruvians use palto. Reina means queen but seems similar to rellena meaning satiated or stuffed, as in a sausage. Palta reina or palto a la reina is a queenly avocado traditionally stuffed with chicken salad. [Edit: I found out after a comment from Toni that palto is the word for avocado in Quechua, an indigenous language widely spoken in the Andes.]

However, I worked from a vegetarian version Toni posted, using beans instead of chicken. It makes a quick and easy lunch, and has become something I look forward to mid-week in my salad routine.

I grate some Ontario carrot, finely slice a tablespoon of Ontario leek, add some drained black beans and blend the vegetables together with a splash of Worcestershire sauce and a generous dollop of mayonnaise and some pepper. The Worcestershire sauce was my own intuitive innovation, but I found a chef on Youtube who also uses it. A dash of cayenne and Tobasco sauce would also be appropriate here, as would cooked chicken of course. Mix it all up and spoon over two halves of an avocado over a bed of lettuce.

Enjoy this on its own for lunch or as the first course in a larger meal.

Weird weather and species extinction


Speed River Journal’s nature news roundup for Feb. 20, 2014, highlights a few recent comments, forecasts and data on climate change.

This week Greenpeace published analysis of recent weird weather patterns around the world and explaining their connection to climate change. Reuters reports the heavy impact on developed countries is getting the attention of politicians before a 2015 deadline to work out a U.N. climate deal.

While climate change affects temperate regions more adversely, tropical species are also experiencing the impact. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences found New Guinean birds are shifting their distributions up mountain slopes. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds blog reports, this trend puts species in an ever more precarious situation, and some may become extinct by 2100.

A new book by American journalist Elizabeth Kolbert puts such predictions in context. The Sixth Extinction, published this month by NPR books, places the current acceleration of extinctions on the timeline of Earth’s history, relating her own experiences as well as interviews with specialists. Drawing on peer reviewed science, she predicts between 20 and 50 percent of living species will become extinct by the end of this century.

Meanwhile, Anny Revkin at Dot Earth posted the text of a speech by political scientist David G. Viktor, “Why do smart people disagree about the facts? Some perspectives on climate denialism.” In it, Viktor warns against trying too hard to defeat denialists.

Snow that will not stop

Snow beside the driveway

What I usually dislike about snow in February is how it becomes dirty and crusty. This year it hasn’t had a chance. It just keeps falling incessantly.

One winter about 10 years ago we had snow piled this high, but it had mostly fallen in one big storm. Sidewalks ran between walls of snow like the hedges of a maze.

This year several minor snowstorms dropped the bulk of the piles that fill our front yard, but every day or two we receive at least a dusting. The usual January thaw – that would render it all crunchy grey but at least lighten the burden – did not occur.

Shoveling has become almost a daily routine. Saturday I cleared an easy 3 cm that fell in the morning. In the evening we set out to drive to a concert but nearly got stuck in our street from steady snow over the course of the afternoon. Not knowing how much more would fall in the next few hours, we decided to turn back.

Sunday afternoon it took me and Danny two shifts each to clear at least 15 cm. Now to find room we have to carry it around piles that have accumulated for the past month. By the time I finished clearing the last icy barricade left by the plough at the end of the drive, fresh snow was falling.

The forecast promises some sunshine but temperatures still below normal right through the week, more snow on Wednesday and next weekend.

It is beautiful. I am trying to like it. Really I am.

Nature of Winnipeg: Assiniboine Park

Assiniboine Park sculpture garden

Click the image to view a gallery.

In October I promised to post more pictures from my visit to Winnipeg for Canadian Thanksgiving. Well, better late than never! Here is a gallery of images from Winnipeg’s big city park, Assiniboine Park.

My partner Danny and I squeezed in a visit to this park before our flight back to Ontario on Monday morning. Now in the midst of this polar vortex it is hard to believe the memory of what lovely, mild weather we had that day.

I was thoroughly impressed with Assiniboine Park. It spans 450 ha (1,100 acres) – by comparison Toronto’s High Park is only 161 ha (400 acres) – but we only managed to explore a small corner of it, and none of the zoo, which occupies about one-fifth of the area. Nor did we visit the elaborate (and noisy on a holiday Monday) children’s playground.

The park is named for the Assiniboine River. A long footbridge provides a spectacular view of the wide watercourse on its way to join the Red River in downtown Winnipeg.

The large conservatory reminded me of Toronto’s Allan Gardens, with a steamy tropical room and flowering plants around a goldfish pond. A glass case contains a collection of carnivorous plants (rather than orchids); note the pitcher plants in the photo gallery.

The huge English garden must be glorious in summer; in October it presented a splendid study of wabi-sabi. Faded chrysanthemums dripped from their stems, a few colourful exotics continued blooming extravagantly, and lavish foliage evoked the tired but happy feeling that follows a long, memorable day. I’m sure it was meant to be seen just as it was in the rarefied warmth and light of autumn.

The extensive sculpture garden was fascinating. It pays tribute to the Canadian Prairies’ Ukrainian Catholic heritage. Numerous statues of popes and saints (Moses looking like a demented Gandalf) keep company alongside natural and secular images. A collection of bears romps through the woods. Besides the bronze pieces outside, a pavilion houses a large collection of smaller, more delicate statuary. I can’t remember the precise history attached to the marble Arms of Canada shown in my gallery, but it was previously attached to a notable bank or post office.

The main park pavilion, which doubles as a museum and gallery, tyranizes the park landscape. It is a Tudor manor on steroids. Is that a clock tower? No: an enormous erection. Many city parks possess elements of ill-conceived grandeur. It can’t be helped. No doubt many Winnipegers regard the pavilion with affection.

The park also contains a large reflecting pond, extensive naturalized areas and various other features we didn’t have time to visit. View the photo gallery for a glimpse of this excellent city park.

Start the day with a nourishing ritual

Gratitude shelf

Rituals are valuable. They help us focus and remember what matters to us. But we must not become slaves to activities that make us unhappy. If habits turn into ruts, we need to change paths.

First thing in the morning is a good time to establish a ritual. In her stimulating book, Creating a Life Worth Living, Carol Lloyd uses the term “ecstatic task”, and advocates making it part of the daily routine, along with taking a shower and eating breakfast. It should strike close to the source of your creative spring.

In the morning I usually make a pot of tea, then sit at my oak desk at the office window and do 15 minutes of free writing.

It is a good ritual when it works. Problems sometimes arise because I write for a living. If I am frustrated with an assignment or going through an episode of depression as I did last fall, free writing feels like a chore.

The creative lifestyle is an ongoing experiment. To start the New Year I want to revive my morning ritual. I need activities that will energize and help me establish a constructive state of mind. Here is what I plan to try:

  1. For energy, a sun salutation (basic yoga).
  2. For connection with the Earth and living things, 15 minutes of gardening (indoor in winter).
  3. For pleasure, make a pot of tea.
  4. Give thanks for three thinks in writing. If I have found any small token that inspires gratitude, I’ll place it in a shelf designated for this purpose (see photo).
  5. For focus, 15 minutes of an optional activity: free writing, spinning, drawing or tarot reading.

I am ready to start!

What rituals do you like to perform? How do you start your day? How do you get your creativity flowing?

My hot autumn colour scarf

Loxley Scarf 1

A few weeks ago I posted about handspinning outside the comfort zone. I set out to create some lively yarn concentrating on reds, not a colour range I naturally gravitate to. For inspiration I used a photo of fall foliage taken in Germany. Hand carding the fibre and spinning it up was a real treat. Now here is the final product.

Loxley Scarf 2

I had been looking for a pattern that combined a scarf with a hood, and found it in Loxley from Stephen West’s Westknits. It is designed for worsted weight yarn, so I had to do a gauge swatch and some math to convert it for this super-chunky core spun yarn. I ended up having to spin two more skeins to add to the original three, roughly 250 metres altogether.

I love how the hood is loose enough that I can easily throw it back when we go shopping, but drapes so that it will not blow off. My only complaint is that the knit structure is a little too open, so a cold wind might cut through it. But breathing can be a good thing. This actually makes it more adaptable for a variety of weather; on especially bitter days I wear a dark solid-colour beanie underneath.

This is almost as fun to wear as it was to make.

Loxley Scarf 3