Monday, September 16, 2013

An Update and a Prayer Request

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a post in which I described the many health challenges of my nephew. Tonight I write to ask you to pray for him tomorrow, as he undergoes major surgery to stabilize and manage his condition.

The shortest update I can give is this: all the tissue biopsies that Taavi underwent last year came back inconclusive for mitochondrial disease. His mother says that this is apparently not unusual (so little is known about mito that tests often miss it), and that the doctors feel that his symptoms are consistent with mitochondrial complex 1. Further specialized testing and imagery of his digestive tract a month ago revealed that his stomach and small intestine are functioning normally, but that a portion of his large intestine is not. It is stretched out and does not contract as it should to move food through. This is the result of an autonomic dysfunction (caused by the mito), and it is one of the main causes of his feeding intolerance, abdominal pain and distention, and even bladder symptoms.

So tomorrow, doctors will be performing a diverting ileostomy--a procedure that disconnects the small and large intestines and routes the end of the small intestine out through the abdominal wall and into an exterior collection pouch. At this point, the hope is that the procedure may be reversed years down the road, so the surgeon will not be removing the dysfunctional portion of colon. Taavi will also have a central line inserted for IV nutrition as he recovers. We don't know how long he will have the IV for, but the surgeon is hopeful that bypassing the colon will enable food to pass unimpeded through the digestive tract once more, and that, with time, Taavi may finally be able to take in the nutrients and calories he needs, either orally through a combination of oral and tube feeding. Currently he is only able to tolerate about half of the amount that he needs. Rebuilding digestive function will be a slow process, and only God knows at this point whether Taavi will eventually be able to have the surgery reversed and how dependent he will be on feeding tubes in the long run. And the surgery won't--and can't--repair the nerve dysfunction caused by the mito. But we are all hopeful that tomorrow's procedures will greatly improve his health and quality of life. Thank you for your prayers.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Great CSA Experiment: Serendipity

The story of weeks 13 and 14 really needs to be fully narrated to be appreciated.

The finalized contents list for week 13 informed us that several crops had yielded lower-than-expected harvests. Each share, therefore, would contain one of four possible items: beets, an Italian eggplant (the large kind), a bag of mixed (smaller) eggplants, or a specialty herb (or green, I'm still not sure) called agretti. Individual boxes aren't labelled, and we were urged not to dig through boxes looking for a particular item. Pick one, and use the swap box if you get something you won't use.

I'm sure I've mentioned before how much we both hate beets. I actually have an aversion to them, thanks to a bad experience with some borscht I made for Lent one year. Maybe there's a good borscht recipe out there, but this definitely wasn't it. Eating it was, appropriately, a penitential experience. All season long, I've used the swap box to trade beets for something else that I know we will enjoy. So when I saw the contents list--and did a little research to find out just what agretti was--I decided that, on the 25% chance that our box contained beets, I would try and swap them. Anything else, I would keep.

On Saturday morning, I selected a box at random and hoped for eggplant. There, in plain view, was a beautiful Italian eggplant. Success!  After putting the rest of the items into my cooler, I was left with an extra item: a bag containing some oblong purple shapes, just the right size to be baby eggplants. What a bonus, I thought, we actually got two of the items and both of mine were eggplant--the best possible outcome. I headed home happily, to share the news of our windfall and to plan menus for the next week. I decided to curry the small eggplants, cook up the remaining potatoes in the pantry, and serve them with some take-away tandoori chicken. The sweet corn would be eaten on the cob with burgers from the freezer, some of the slicing tomatoes, the lemon basil, and the Italian eggplant would go into an Eggplant Provencal casserole for the freezer, the remainder of the slicing tomatoes and the entire bag of Romas would go into the slow cooker to become spaghetti sauce for the freezer, and the heirloom tomatoes would go for sandwiches. Easy.

Or so I thought. On Sunday night I pulled the bag of "mixed eggplant" out of the refrigerator to prepare it for cooking later in the week...and discovered that the bag did not, in fact, contain eggplants. It contained beets. Cylindra beets (hence the confusion), to be exact. Joy gave way to panic. I now had two dilemmas: 1) how do I salvage this week's menu plans? and 2) what am I going to do with these beets?

The first question came down to deciding whether I wanted to give up the freezer casserole and use the big eggplant for the curry. I decided not to take this path, as it would have left me with extra tomatoes and basil, and not enough room in the slow cooker for a larger batch of sauce. I ended up replacing the curry plans with some easy Thai-style oven steamed fish and an eggplant stir fry, for which I purchased two Japanese eggplants at the supermarket. They were no where near as fresh as the share vegetables, but at least they were local and in season. Everything else stayed the same.

That left me with the bag of beets. As I saw it, I had two options: contact the beet-loving friend with whom I split last year's share and see if she would take them, or find some way of preparing them that I might be able to choke down. I considered the first option for several days before deciding that since we'd paid for them, we may as well see what we could do. I googled "beet recipes for beet haters" and found many suggestions, mostly for salads, which I didn't think I'd be up for trying. Several people, though, suggested a radically different use: a chocolate cake made with beets. They unanimously praised the ability of the beets to lend a sweet and sort of earthy flavor to the chocolate, and they raved about how moist the end product was. I was skeptical at first but was finally persuaded to try it when I read comments about beets doing for chocolate cake what carrots do to spice cake. And unlike in the salads, the beets should be well-concealed in a cake. I decided to give it a try, and read through several recipes before selecting one that called for both cocoa and dark chocolate.

We'll return to the cake later, as I didn't get around to making it that first week. Everything else cooked up as planned. In our week 14 box, we got:

  • 6 ears of sweet corn, which were only half-developed--probably the last of that particular farmer's harvest for the season--were eaten with chicken enchiladas. Johanna now stops eating when she sees the corn come out of the cooking dish at the table and points insistently until I carve off some for her.
  • a bag of baby sweet "stuffing" peppers: I had originally planned on stuffing these and cooking them in the crock pot, but the operative word in the description turned out to be "baby." I guess the "stuffing" was intended to convey the idea of stuffing them with cheese for hors d'oeuvres. I chopped them up and made a Thai beef and bell pepper stir fry that was very tasty.
  • an Italian eggplant was stir-fried to accompany the beef and peppers
  • a bag of yellow wax beans was sauteed with lemon and garlic to accompany some French-style chicken cutlets. We also ate up most of the (now weeks old) red potatoes with this dinner.
  • two red bell peppers also weren't quite big enough to stuff, but they were the sweetest and most flavorful I've ever had, and we ate them raw. Or at least, Johanna and I did. 
  • Steve ate the almost-weekly pint of cherry tomatoes raw.
  • two "slicing" tomatoes were cut up to go into a corn (frozen, alas), zucchini, and tomato dish that Johanna also liked.
At the end of the week, I finally found some time to make the chocolate beetroot cake. It was quite an undertaking. The recipe said to cook the whole beets "until soft, about 30 minutes." After said 30 minutes, I could pierce the beets with a sharp knife, but that was about it. I let them cook for another half hour. Softer, but not soft enough to mash as called for. By this time it was time to put Johanna to bed, so I turned off the burner and let the beets sit in the hot water for another two hours. When I came back downstairs, I was dismayed to find them no softer than before. In desperation, I drained and peeled them, cut them into chunks, and microwaved them for six minutes. Still no change. After another six minutes, I decided they were as cooked as they were going to get and I lugged out the food processor. They pureed OK, so I decided to proceed with the recipe. We were both skeptical. My first impression was that the cake was just "OK." I could tell that there was something else in the cake besides chocolate but if I hadn't known that there were beets in the recipe, I would never have guessed, so that was good. But it was denser and, while moist, drier than I was expecting (I was thinking carrot cake) and reminded me of a moist brownie more than a cake. A brownie with no nuts, chocolate chips, or bits of anything in it. So I decided that instead of the cream cheese frosting suggested in the recipe, the cake really needed hot fudge sauce and a clean vanilla ice cream. Sure enough, turning the cake into a hot fudge brownie sundae knocked it out of the park. Steve, who hates beets as much as I do, and who also doesn't care for chocolate cake, was instantly converted. He hopes I'll make it again, and if I get stuck with more  beets, I probably will. My first choice would still be to swap them, since the process of cooking them just to make the cake was so lengthy. But at least now I know that there is something to make with beets that we won't have to summon extra willpower to eat!