slow down, detour ahead

April 29, 2013 § 6 Comments

detour2

My encounter with cancer almost two years ago changed me. An obvious statement perhaps, but I’m not talking about the remnants of treatment – scars and other body changes from surgery, the neuropathy (lack of feeling) in fingertips or toes from chemotherapy, more frequent forgetfulness and loss of words that I attribute to “chemo-brain” rather than aging, and the cloud of worry that slowly dissipates as time moves you further away from the milestone of NED (no evidence of disease), more commonly known as remission, but never known as cured. My “core” has changed too. I try to be more patient with myself and with others, more accepting and less judgmental, more joyful and less worried, forgiving and forgetting small injustices and inconveniences, appreciating life daily. As I gradually re-insert myself into the world of work, I’m less concerned with the size of the paycheck and benefit package, and more with the mission and ethics of the company I’ll keep and the amount of good we can do. And work needs to fit into the rest of my life, rather than the reverse which was how things were B.C. (before cancer).

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I flew into L.A. three weeks ago for a long weekend visit with my parents. Although I had only planned to stay a few days, my dad who’s nearing 90 ended up in the hospital the day after I arrived. He came home three days later, but the cause of the loss of consciousness that sent him off in an ambulance was still a mystery. It was time to check-in online for my flight back to Denver. But wintry weather and snowy conditions prompted Southwest to offer passengers the opportunity to re-book their flights up to two weeks later and waive any fare increase. I took the detour.

That extra two weeks ends soon; I fly back this Wednesday with another forecast of Front Range snow, but probably not enough to delay travelers this time. The time, as the popular refrain goes, was well spent. Dad’s back at home and gradually getting back to his old self and routines minus driving. He, mom and the whole family are much more aware of the need for better health and wellness self-care for both of them. We three sisters made calendar commitments to visit often for fun and just to see how they’re doing (and not just take the “We’re fine!” in a phone conversation at face value). Dad had several follow-up appointments after his hospital stay, so mom and I got to meet his medical team of “regular doctor, heart doctor and kidney doctor” as he calls them. And although our family dynamics can sometimes/often be annoying, irritating and downright messy, we almost seamlessly pulled together to make things better right away and for the future. Best of all, we re-connected, shared the love and had some fun too.

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I had some quiet time on my own strolling in a beautiful and funky Venice Beach neighborhood under a clear blue sky.

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Venice can also be charmingly retro and just plain bizarre.

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Of course I had to swing by Santa Monica and hang with the farmers market crowd. I lugged home three heavy bags of the most diverse load of produce I’ve ever bought at a farmers market. My haul represented what would normally be three seasons in Colorado and included

  • Winter – tangerines, grapefruits, a pomelo (of course these don’t even grow in my state), potatoes
  • Spring – mizuna, ruby streaks mustard, arugula, sugar snap peas, radishes, baby turnips, spring onions, spring garlic, strawberries
  • Summer – tomatoes, eggplant, baby zucchini, bell peppers, daikon radish, green beans, fennel

Although my mom no longer prepares elaborate meals for just the two of them, she instilled in me and my sisters the love of good food, well prepared and artfully presented. Here’s a few of the dinners and dishes we enjoyed together over the past several days with that cornucopia of vegetables.

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Sister and niece served a Chinese dish of bean threads and minced pork called “Ants in a Tree” with gently steamed green beans and rice one night. A salad of fennel, orange and slivered onion was a side dish for dinner on another.

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Mom made soba (not pictured) and shrimp tempura, while I prepared the vegetable dishes of blanched mizuna (cut and served cold with ponzu, a light citrus soy sauce) and seared Japanese eggplant drizzled with a miso-sesame sauce. Another night minced chicken in lettuce wraps repeated the Chinese theme of “ants”, small bits of seasoned meat.

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Tofu soup, radish tsukemono (quick salted pickles) and a chicken-egg-vegetable donburi (over rice) made a lovely and delicious meal. I found a frayed and well-splattered recipe in one of mom’s old cookbooks to make one of the best lemon meringue pies we’ve ever eaten!

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Memories refreshed, I happily return home.

ratatouille de grandmere

August 27, 2012 § 8 Comments

I guess this is my first realtime post. Dinner is finishing in the oven, I’m sipping an Oregon pinot noir and remembering my longtime friend and culinary mentor Robert Reynolds. Like me, Robert conquered cancer. His victory lasted for three years before lymphoma returned in the form of a brain tumor earlier this year. One of my reasons to travel to Portland in June was to see him. He had just had surgery but some of the tumor remained. He contemplated a horrendous chemotherapy regimen for a brief time. Not surprisingly to me, he courageously chose quality of life over quantity. He shared his strength with me during my treatment last winter. I wasn’t sure what I could bring to the table, but now it was my turn.

Tonight in Colorado hubby Phil and I raise a toast to “Rowbear” (he liked to go by his French moniker Robeirt) over a light supper of some roasted tomato focaccia I had made this weekend and a zucchini dish from the cookbook he co-authored with his mentor, Josephine Araldo. I loved the cooking technique of lightly cooking each vegetable or leaving raw as it needed, then gentle baking in the oven (even though it’s still summery warmish here). This left each ingredient’s nature distinct, yet in harmony with the dish, a perfect example of the whole, being more than the sum of its parts. Au revoir, Robeirt, until we meet again.

plum delicious!

August 7, 2012 § 14 Comments

Here’s last night’s dessert ~ backyard plum galette, vanilla ice cream (store bought) and plum sauce. Since our Baking with Julia recipe made a double batch of dough and I had enough plums, I went ahead and made two, and delivered the second one (still warm) to our good friends, Mo and Peter. It got a big thumbs up from everyone!

I started on this dessert in April; my hair just starting to sprout post-chemo, along with our fruit trees leafing out! I’m munching a yummy cookie from Lynn at Eat Drink Man Woman Dogs Cat, one of a box she sent me when I supported her in “The Big Climb” for leukemia/lymphoma research and support for survivors. Back to plums, doesn’t everyone grow their own? Actually, this is the first year we had enough from our backyard to do more than just taste. Colorado’s Front Range climate is not kind to fruit trees, so most of ours comes from the slightly milder Western Slope, which grows the most delicious peaches (I have not tasted the famous Georgia peach, however). And since our local abundance is stone fruit and not berries, this is what went into Flo Braker’s Berry Galette recipe.

We had to pick plums (and some small peaches) a little under ripe. By late July, the robins and squirrels have figured out there is a daily buffet of fruit in my yard. While I think there is plenty to go around, they eat or damage so much fruit, that we have to pick it under ripe and barely get our share. Luckily the plums ripened up nicely off the tree, the peaches not so much so I ended up composting those. 😦

This was a small batch of a simply made dough, so I thought it best to do by hand rather than in the food processor. The food processor is so fast, that it’s more difficult to control cutting in the butter and avoid over mixing and/or warming the small amount of ingredients. Dry ingredients, including a beautiful multicolored cornmeal went into the bowl which I mixed to blend.

Remove the ice cubes from now well-chilled water and add the yogurt or sour cream. What a great idea! I often use a little lemon juice or even vinegar to pie dough (helps keep it tender), but this adds a little richness and flavor too. Now you have to work fast, especially in the summer, to avoid letting the butter get too soft which can lead to a greasy, too soft dough and then a tough crust after baking.

I went ahead and used the whole stick of butter (what’s the point of leaving 1 tablespoon out?), quickly cut it into small pieces with the bench knife and tossed it into the flour mixture. If the weather’s warm and you don’t have air conditioning, chilling the dry mix in the refrigerator first will help.

Use a pastry cutter, a pair of table knives or your fingers (only if they’re cool enough though), cut and toss the butter pieces until the largest pieces are pea-sized. Add the chilled liquid, and gently toss and mix to evenly distribute the moisture. Keep a little iced water on hand if you need a little more just to moisten most of the dry mix; you don’t want a too wet dough which tends towards a tough cracker-like crust (remember, water + mixing = gluten).

My dough was a little dry (better than too wet), so I just pressed and folded it on itself a couple of times to bring it together; again you don’t want to overwork here either. The hour or so rest in the refrigerator allows the moisture to distribute more evenly, re-chill the butter and relax the gluten; all of this will make rolling a lot easier. See the butter bits and the colorful flecks of the cornmeal?

I prepped the plums while the dough chilled. These plums were easy to split and pit with my fingers (a lot faster than with a paring knife) and they were small enough to leave halved. I tossed them with the sugar, and then drained, hoping they would give up some of their juice before baking.

If you roll out two portions of dough, place them on a chilled parchment-lined sheet pan. Put the first one back in the refrigerator if your kitchen is warm, or it’s taking a long time to roll out the dough. The oven should be hot by now, and let any calls go to voicemail. Place the fruit onto the dough leaving a 2″ border, gently fold up and pleat; pressing the edge slightly at the bottom of each pleat helps keep the galette from opening during baking.

I did not glaze or sugar the crust before baking, but the small amount of sugar in the dough gave the crust a nice golden brown color after a full 40 minutes at 400°F. Wow, those were juicy plums! After a short 5 minutes of cooling, I c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y moved them using two pancake turners directly to platters; I didn’t want to serve galettes-with-parchment later. That sticky goo was a bit tricky to recover from the parchment and pan, but it made a yummy sauce!

Oh, and I drizzled the honey over the fruit after baking, instead of before. The tart plums definitely needed more sweetness, but I wanted to avoid more oven goo.

Here’s my breakfast next morning, and here’s the squirrel’s. That red plum was gone by the time I got this posted.

not a straight line

April 26, 2012 § 4 Comments

Russian Hawthorne

I’m trying to learn more patience with setbacks. It’s been more than a couple of months since my last chemo treatment and I had thought I’d be in SoCal this month catching up on family time with my parents and sisters. Instead I spent three weeks with a drain in my pelvis ending with a couple of infections, thankfully slight since my immune system is pretty strong again. When one has a hysterectomy due to malignancy, the surgeon removes a lot of lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread to them (I had none :)). But this causes a lot of trauma to the lymph system, and I ended up with a softball-sized encapsulation of lymph fluid called a lymphocele. Needless to say, it was a bit uncomfortable and I needed to grin-and-bear-it until I completed chemotherapy because of the risk of infection from the drainage procedure. That’s done now, and my medical port (which delivered the chemo drugs and IV’s) was also removed last week. I’m thankful I had a good IR (Interventional Radiology) Team who did the work and closed that chapter with me.

We’ve had an unusual warm early Spring, but the typical April weather setback after bringing out the shade umbrella

I also had my first 3 month followup with my gynecologist. “So, Dr. L, what are we looking for since all of my parts that you’d be interested in are gone?” I’m a big fan of Dr. L of Kaiser. Until my encounter with Cancer, I didn’t even have a GYN doctor. For me, he’s been the right mix of concerned competency and confidence, an active listener and advocate in my case. I’ll have 3 months checks with him for two years, interspersed with occasional radiological studies. I’ll see my oncologist Dr. H a few times as well. Things are good.

My ears aren’t bigger, my hair’s just shorter

Celebration Carrot Cake

February 11, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m more of a pie baker than a cake baker (hence my moniker Piebird), but a cake seemed more appropriate to celebrate the end of my chemo treatments. Wanting a somewhat “healthy” cake (hey, I’m taking this to the oncology office), I chose carrot cake, which I’ve probably only made a couple of times way back, probably post-college days. I was short one key ingredient (no, had plenty of carrots, freshly dug from the snowy ground no less), and that was a “neutral flavorless oil”. Now, with a description like that, why would I keep vegetable oil around? I know some of them are good for frying, with a higher smoke point than olive oil, but somehow I’ve managed to get by with butter (straight or clarified), olive oils, coconut oil, and bacon drippings. No flavorless oils for me, apparently!

So I googled up a few recipes, and even found one that used butter, compared it with who knows how many regular oil carrot cakes, and came up with this. It baked up nice and was easy to assemble into its three-layers-with-cream-cheese-frosting finished form. One important caveat to remember: all the ingredients must be at room temperature when you make the cake, and you MUST serve this cake at room temperature; remember butter, unlike oil, is a solid when cold. Everyone seemed to love the buttery carrot cake! There were lots of smiles and finger-licking.

This recipe turned out fine at 5000′ altitude. Since it has a dense texture, I think it would be fine at sea level too. Also, here’s a good article I found on Fine Cooking’s website about using olive oil in cakes. I’m going to try that next time!

Buttery Celebration Carrot Cake

Yields one 3-layer cake (recipe works at 5000 ft.)

ALL INGREDIENTS MUST BE AT ROOM TEMPERATURE

2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

2-3 cups finely grated carrots*

1 cup finely chopped toasted nuts or shredded unsweetened coconut

1/2 cup golden raisins

1 15-oz can crushed unsweetened pineapple, well-drained (save the juice)

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger (or substitute 1 teaspoon ground)

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, melted

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup honey

4 large eggs, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

*Use less carrots for a “cake-ier” texture, more for a dense moist texture, depending on your preference

Preheat the oven to 350°F (start at 375°F for 5000′ altitude) and place oven racks in the center. Prepare three 8-inch round pans by buttering, placing parchment in the bottom and flouring the sides. Combine all of the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and ground ginger if using) mixing well to thoroughly blend and set aside. Separately combine the “add-in” ingredients (carrots, nuts/coconut, raisins, drained pineapple), except the pineapple juice.

In the mixer bowl add the melted butter, sugar and honey and mix to uniformly combine. On medium-low speed, add the eggs one at a time, blending well before adding the next. Add the vanilla. Now blend in all of the add-in ingredients. The mixture may appear “curdled” but will improve after you add the flour. Stop the mixer, add half the flour mixture and blend on low speed. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved pineapple juice (a little more if the batter seems tight or dry), then the rest of the flour. Mix just until uniformly combined. Be sure you have scraped the sides of the bowl and the beater once or twice during mixing.

Evenly divide the batter between the three prepared pans (I like to check the filled pan weights on my scale) and level the tops (pushing a little extra batter around the edge of the pan can help prevent the cake from doming too much). Immediately place the pans into the hot oven evenly spaced apart. Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating once partway through baking if needed to get even doneness of all the cakes. If you’re baking at the higher temperature of 375°F for altitude, lower the temperature to 350°F for the last ten minutes. When done, cakes should be evenly browned on top, springy to a light finger touch in the center and just starting to pull away from the sides of the pans. Set on racks to cool and settle for at least ten minutes. Place a small rack on top of the cake pan, gently invert and let the cake drop out of the pan. Leave the parchment on the bottom for now (it helps hold the cake together) and gently invert again so the cake is right side up on a cooling rack. Cool completely. I wrapped and chilled the cakes overnight and assembled the next day.

Sweet Cream Cheese Frosting

Yields enough to thinly frost a three-layer cake

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature

pinch salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 pound powdered sugar, sifted

Place all of the ingredients except for the powdered sugar into the mixer bowl and beat on medium speed with the flat beater until uniformly blended. Stop the mixer to add the sugar a cup at a time, mixing on a low speed to evenly combine and occasionally scraping the bowl.

Assemble and frost the cake. You can spread a thin layer of orange marmalade on the two lower cakes before applying the frosting for a touch of bitterness. Don’t forget to remove the parchment papers while putting your cakes together!

Serve at room temperature and Celebrate!

Day Zero

February 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

Yesterday was my last chemotherapy treatment. Hurray! I have to say that this area of medicine has really progressed in the past 20 or so years. My husband Phil’s son died of cancer in his early 20’s. He stayed with us during his treatment, and I remember how hard the chemotherapy was–his weight loss, inability to eat or keep food down, and just feeling crappy. So it’s scary when you learn that you have to go through this treatment. My experience was completely different, thank goodness. The management of side effects seems so much improved.

I did have to take a lot of medicines to mitigate those side effects though. My protocol began with 2 doses of dexamethasone (a steroid) the night before, a Zyrtec allergy pill an hour before, pre-meds of Zofran anti-nausea, and Pepsid for stomach upset just before the chemo drugs, of which I got two: Taxol and Carboplatin, so commonly used together that they’re called CarboTaxol. The port infusion of just the chemo took 4 hours at best, so I caught up with quite a bit of reading over six treatments.

I usually feel pretty good day after chemo (all those drugs, especially the steroid probably), then there’s three or four days of feeling like a have a slight flu–ache-ness, tired, headache, but no nausea since I’m taking three types of anti-nausea medication four times a day. I also give myself five daily injections of Neupogen, which jumps starts the bone marrow into producing the white blood cells (neutrophils) needed to fight infections (sometime this drug made my bones ache a little). One of the main dangers of the chemotherapy is the suppression of your immune system which can lead to illness or infections if your skin is broken (scratches, cuts, bites, etc.). In fact, if your body temp goes higher than 100.5°F, you have to go to the doctor or emergency room. Luckily, I haven’t had to do that! During the second week after chemo, I take an antibiotic twice daily to provide protection while my immune system is at its lowest state. Finally, I start feeling “normal”, but still pretty fatigued the third week, and then we go in for another treatment. But not this time! I’m done, and that feels Great!

I baked a carrot cake to celebrate my last chemo with the wonderful nursing staff of Kaiser’s Infusion Clinic.

At home, the finished cake, clean and simple

The cake is demolished in a couple of hours

Word gets around there’s cake in the clinic!

The RN’s help me celebrate my Last Chemo!

Thanks to the wonderful RN’s who administered the chemotherapy and provided warm supportive care to a lot of patients like me!!!

1CC

February 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

Chemo Countdown – 1 day! Tomorrow is my last (hopefully forever) “infusion” (that’s the fancy word for getting a treatment).

I will appreciate getting back to a normal state of energy and stamina, although I’ve heard it can take six months to a year. Yesterday I did more than usual, which is why I probably conked out last night and wrote such a wimpy post. Yesterday morning I drove into town and had an acupuncture treatment, came back home for lunch, then out again to run a couple of errands (post office and groceries). Came home and baked the layers for a carrot cake. Even with Phil getting Chinese take-out for dinner, I still crashed after cleaning up from my baking project and went to bed. I know there are cancer survivors who work during their chemotherapy treatments and they amaze me; I could not have done that.

A month passes for surgery recovery (more waiting) and I meet yet another doctor! Dr. H is my oncologist and hematologist; he’ll be responsible for monitoring and managing my chemotherapy treatments. Again and lucky me, I find him knowledgeable and compassionate; I learn later from a friend who has been under his care for almost ten years, that he is a recent cancer survivor himself.

I have a lot to do before the first infusion. A CT scan provides a fairly detailed picture of my internal state of affairs; there are a couple of lymph fluid collections (lymphoceles) from my surgery that show up, but key is “no evidence for metastatic disease”. A blood draw shows white and red blood cell counts and blood chemistry to help monitor how my liver and kidneys will tolerate the treatment. After all, the goal is to destroy any renegade cancer cells, so this is a systemic treatment that will negatively affect pretty much everything. Blood work will happen before every chemo primarily to make sure my white blood cells (mainly neutrophils) have recovered enough from the last chemo blast to provide me with some level of immunity. Lastly I decide to have the chemo drugs administered via a port instead of an IV line in my hand or arm; after all the needle sticks I’ve already experienced (both good and bad) I need a better way. A port (or portacath) is a small medical device installed beneath the skin of your chest. A catheter runs from the port and is surgically inserted into a vein ending just upstream of the heart. This location allows the drugs to quickly mix and dilute in the blood stream for delivery throughout the body. The port appears as a bump under the skin and has a “wall” into which the nurse inserts a special needle to draw blood samples or infuse the chemo drugs. This can be done many times without the damage to veins that can happen from repeated IV procedures. I will need six infusions, one every three weeks; it’s worth having the minor surgery to get a port. I’ll have my first infusion October 28, 2011 and the last one February 9, 2012. I’m afraid it will feel like a long winter.

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