For years, my brother has made fun of my father. About string cheese.
You see, my father simply grabs a stick of string cheese and takes bites. To my brother, this is ridiculous. “Why buy string cheese, then?” he queries, a little querulously. The point of string cheese is not the taste, which is bland grocery-store mozzarella. It’s the novelty factor, the chance to rip tiny shreds of salty whiteness and dangle them above the lips. You miss all the fun when you simply bite down and chew like it’s cud.
My father, who runs more toward the prosaic than the poetic on such matters, simply answers, “But it’s convenient.”
This is the point at which my brother and I scoff, and say, What’s so great about that?
Well. Andy, if you’re reading this, I have to tell you: since Little Bean was born, I eat my string cheese like Dad does.
In fact, I think I ate 1/3 of my calories when I was pregnant in string cheese. When I was out and about, and ravenous again, it was hard to find something I could hold in my hand and eat as I walked, something that didn’t have gluten in it. When in doubt, I grabbed another string cheese.
However, when I walked through the world slowly, with the enormous belly, I still relished the chance to dangle a slender thread of cheese above my mouth.
Now, home with a baby (a darling-hearted baby), I’m gobbling my string cheese in bites, not shreds. I feel sort of guilty, and I know what I’m missing, but really, there’s not much else of a choice.
Eating is still pretty interesting around here. Little Bean is bigger now, no longer a newborn, and her sleeping habits are more and more predictable. But if I take the time, during one of her naps, to make an elaborate meal, I’m asking for her to wake up. She always does. And so, I snack and nibble.
I can’t tell you how many half-eaten salads were left around the house the first weeks that Little Bean was home. Soup seems easy, but soup is hot. I don’t want to spill hot zucchini-lemon-egg soup on my daughter’s forehead. Full meals can only happen at breakfast and dinner (at nearly midnight) when the Chef is here. And so, for most of the day, I need food I can hold in my hand.
Sandwiches were, of course, invented for this purpose. And I can have sandwiches, on gluten-free bread. Only, I haven’t had the time to make much bread from scratch, my favorite gluten-free bakery is quite a long car ride away, and the sandwich bread from Whole Foods is about $9 a loaf. We’re spending our money on wipes and diapers these days. Overly priced loaves of bread are a splurge item now.
There’s cheese, of all kinds, which can be bitten in small portions. I’m in love with the stick pepperoni made by Brent at Olsen Farms, and I buy some every Saturday at the farmers’ market. But if I eat cheese and pepperoni all day long, I won’t be able to leave the house through the door, eventually. There are hard-boiled eggs, handfuls of walnuts, and carrot sticks with hummus. (Plus, the occasional coffee cup full of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.) And fruit. Fruit is the world’s gift to new mamas. However, after 12 Italian plums in one day, I lose my gratitude for that gift.
This is the time in which my passion for good food is truly tested. I’m sure many people give in to tv dinners, fast food, and packaged snacks at this point. I feel the lure. Here’s where having to be gluten-free comes in handy. I can’t.
Instead, I eat simply. I still insist on the best ingredients for myself. Little Bean’s big debut into the world was at the farmers’ market, and we’ve been back to one a couple of times a week ever since. Red Haven peaches from Rama Farms have bristly skin and juicy flesh. The sweet Italian sausages from Skagit River Ranch make a great lunch with rice. The fat heirloom tomatoes from Billy Allstot have broad shoulders and wild colors. This is the time of year when food doesn’t need much fixing anyway.
Every time I eat, I feel like I’m teaching my daughter how to be in the world. So many people have told me, “Oh, wait until you have children. You’ll have to give up this making food from scratch, everything fresh, a different recipe every night stuff. Eventually, you’ll settle for the chicken nuggets too.” May I politely say? No thanks.
There may not be many five-hour, tasting-menu degustation experiences in the near future for me and the Chef. It may be months before I prepare a meal that requires more than several steps in the kitchen. But I’m not settling for frozen foods and snacks that don’t taste like much of anything but fats and salt.
Right now, for awhile, I may have to eat my string cheese in bites. But if most of my food has to fit into my hand, I still want it to be the best palm-shaped food I can find.
Gluten-Free Granola Bars
Granola bars are perfect for this particular eating dilemma. Packed with nutrition, sweet with dried fruit, and compact for the hand, power bars and granola bars have taken over the land. However, most of the commercially packaged ones have gluten in them. And other kinds of bars, while mostly good, grow bland after awhile.
So I set out to learn how to make my own. While the Chef held the baby and played with her, I set up in the kitchen: all ingredients arrayed out; saucepan, casserole dish, and big bowl waiting; good music on the player. While he’s home, I sometimes take my space and make the kitchen my own again. Half an hour later I was dancing to Bill Frisell and patting down the last of the granola mix into the pan. Life felt good in that moment.
There are so many ways to make granola bars. I was inspired by Heidi Swanson’s recipe in Super Natural Cooking and a dozen more I found on the internet. This is really only a template. Find the fruit you like best. Play with cereals and grains. Use honey instead of agave. Just find a way, as I did, to make these. They’re sweet and nutritious, crunchy and chewy at the same time, and really quite addictive. And with their density preventing me from eating more than one at a time, they’ll be around for a bit, waiting for me in that emergency situation where I have to eat now, but there’s no time to eat.
2 cups rolled oats, certified gluten-free
1 cup hazelnuts
1 cup agave nectar syrup
1 cup muscovado brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup brown rice cereal
2 cups mixed dried fruit (here I used mangoes, raisins, and cranberries)
Preheat the oven to 325°. Line a small casserole dish with parchment paper. (If you want thick granola bars, use a small casserole dish. For thin ones, choose a larger casserole dish.)
Slide the oats and hazelnuts onto a baking sheet and into the oven. Let them toast, turning them once in a while, for about ten minutes.
While those are toasting, put the agave nectar syrup, brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and sea salt into a saucepan. On medium heat, bring the syrup to a slow boil. Set aside.
In a bowl, combine the toasted oats and hazelnuts, the sunflower seeds, brown rice cereal, and dried fruit. Pour the syrup over this concoction and stir it all up, making sure everything is evenly coated.
Pat the mixture into the casserole dish, on top of the parchment paper. Smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Put the dish into the oven to bake.
Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how crunchy you want the bars to be. Allow them to cool for at least an hour before cutting them up into bars. (You’ll probably have to hack at them a bit. These aren’t soft granola bars.)