Friday, April 29, 2011


Spotted eagle ray viewed by author and family

       Parrot fish, tile fish, spotted eagle rays, southern sting rays, fan coral and brain coral are just a few of the wondrous splendors that we witnessed this past week when snorkeling off the coast of Culebra.  Culebra is a small remote island off the coast of Puerto Rico with pristine beaches and a protected coral reef. What makes the snorkeling here even more precious is that no hiring of a boat was necessary; we simply walked to the beach by our rustic villa, donned our masks and flippers and entered the water.  With the warm water only at our knees, we were able to crouch down, enter the water and immediately we were privy to an exquisite underwater scene.
       I have snorkeled before, but had never seen such a fully developed reef system that was home to so many different types of marine animal and plant life.  We snorkeled three times; the first was right off the beach where we lounged around having lunch and playing card games.  The water was very shallow in this area and hosted an array of small colorful fish, brilliant yellows, transparent fish and my favorite the cobalt blue and canary yellow angel fish.  Not sure which type of angel but the fin structure fit the picture in our snorkeling guide.
       Our next adventure involved a five minute walk along the rocky beach to reach a section that was deeper into the reef.  Well worth the effort.  Love the idea of putting my belongings on a shore with no other sole in sight and entering this underwater universe.  This adventure was beyond my hopes as we swam through, around and over the complex reef system teeming with animal and plant life. 
       With the help of our fins and the buoying effect of the salt, we hardly had to swim but instead can move along at a relaxing pace, that is non-threatening to the sea life and allows us to observe the wonders before us.  Johnny and I swim side by side, shoulder to shoulder, frequently pointing out a plant or fish we find remarkable. In fact, everything seems remarkable.  It is private, it is only us and it is bonding.
       Bonding because of the wonders we are seeing alone together but I suspect the potential danger plays a role as well.  Despite being overwhelmed visually, we are always aware of our surroundings.  We check Johnny’s watch before entering the water to monitor our progress in relation to the current.  Although we are not near any boats, we do pop our heads up when we hear a motor running to check its proximity.  Everything kept its distance but we stay aware.  We have checked with local people ahead of time to see if there are any marine life that could be dangerous to us and told there are no dangerous fish but beware of stepping on one of the abundant sea urchins.  Other snorkelers have told us of rays they have seen and we hope to see one despite our nervousness at encountering on.  Soon,  Johnny points out a ray floating above us to the right and later another one resting on the sea bottom.  Either a ballyhoo or hound fish swims near us and gives us a start as it strongly resembles a barracuda, but we have heard rumors of the barracuda look- alikes that swim there and we relax. 
       It is later in the day than we expected to go, the current is kicking up and we have to exit the water over rocks, so we head back in after a half hour.  We are not disappointed by the shortness of our trip as it is so jam-packed with more marine life than we could have hoped for.  Upon exiting, we vow to bring the children and grandmothers back tomorrow.
       Despite our passionate descriptions of what we have just experienced, we are only able to persuade one out of two children and one out of two grandmothers to join us on another snorkeling expedition the next day .  Around 3:30pm on Friday, we leave our villa to head down to the beach and then walk along the shore to our spot.  After securing everyone’s equipment, we awkwardly enter the water over the rocks with our fins on, but happily we are soon graceful, again as we immerse ourselves in the warm water.  Again, I am in awe of how quickly life changes.  We are not viewing an empty sandy ocean bottom but one that is filled with purple fan coral and schools of brilliant fish as soon as we submerge our heads.  Close to shore we catch sight of a twenty inch pastel parrot fish with yellow lips.

Parrot fish spotted near shore

       The day before, Johnny and I had more or less headed into new territory soon after entering the water, but we see that our eight year old and Johnny’s mom are quite satisfied to explore the immediate area.  We follow suit and enjoy my son’s frequent pointing and excitement.  Already we have experienced the same water in a new way – through their eyes.  Johnny’s mom is not as relaxed or enamored as our son and decides to exit the water but says it was great.  We ask our son, if he would like to go out further and he agrees.  The three of us move side by side, connected like mer people. More joy surges through my body. 
       Like yesterday, we are cognizant of our surroundings and have to frequently go above to adjust masks, blow out water and check for motor boats.  It is a little overcast, less clear and it looks like a ray may not appear until I suddenly see one fifteen feet below us partially buried in the sand.  We give it some space and decide to head back.  As I am debating which two reefs to go between to exit the water, Johnny suddenly taps me on the shoulder and points to a glorious spotted eagle ray to our right.  It is a periwinkle blue with white spots features a six foot wing span and has a five foot tail.  We give it a wide berth and observe its underwater flight.  It makes me a little nervous and I start heading for the exit.  This sighting made my week.  Not that coffee on the ocean view deck, or naps with a Caribbean breeze, or fresh fish for dinner, or pristine white beaches have been a cross to bear but this,   this …… creature was a privilege to behold.  I am humbled.

Diane Lachtrupp Martinez

PS - Although all pictures I have seen of spotted eagle rays show them as dark brown, the one we saw had a bluish/purplish cast.
Spotted Eagle Ray and Parrot Fish photos from this web site

Friday, April 8, 2011


       You’ve just been diagnosed with food allergies.  Whether it is gluten, dairy, soy or all three like me, you are convinced that you are now chained to your kitchen and shall never venture forth again.  In your kitchen, you can control what you purchase and how you prepare it and there is no embarrassment over having a long and detailed conversation with the wait staff, manager or god forbid  "le chef."
       I was cautious at first as to how to approach the restaurants I frequented or those in my furure but decided to just go for it.  Being a foodie, a solid cook and one who enjoys dining out, I have tried not to let my culinary dining habits alter.  I have been going through this for 4 1/2 years, so please benefit from my successful and failed experiences.              
        When I was first diagnosed in 2006, I had by chance recently heard that Wheatfields  Restaurant (downtown Saratoga Springs in upstate New York) had gluten-free pasta and headed on over to partake and support their offerings.   All I had to do was ask about their gluten free pasta, they told me what type of pasta was available and I was able to choose my topping from the menu.  Naturally, due to my dairy allergy, I was limited to certain toppings, but I found them accommodating to substitute a garlic sauce for a cream sauce.   Due to the fact that restaurants need to have a separate pot of boiling water for the gluten-free pasta, they usually offer only one type of pasta per day.  That was easy – a little too easy leading me to think that dining out with my allergies would be worry free.
           Feeling emboldened, I visited other restaurants in downtown Saratoga and at that time (2006), no one else had gluten-free pasta, but with a little ingenuity and a few questions, I could pick other menu items that worked for me.  Generally, I could eat any meats, poultry, fish or pork but had to find one without  breading or a cream sauce.  I can eat all vegetables, fruits, potatoes, rice and all herbs.  So - it is frequently possible to find something and work it out.
           Here's how I order at a sit down restaurant.  When the server first greets us, I ask politely if they have gluten-free pasta.  If they do, great, now I know my options have opened up.  I peruse the menu, find a couple of things that are either perfect for me or could be with a little tweaking.  When the server returns and it is my turn to order I ask the server to come a little closer to discuss my food allergies.  For some reason, some people are uncomfortable to overhear the discussion and don't really believe I have them, so I keep it discreet but not a secret.  I tell them my allergies to gluten, dairy and soy and if I am not ordering a pasta, I will ask for a certain dish and ask if there is any of those ingredients.  If not- good - our order is finished.  If the dish includes dairy, I either move onto a second choice or ask if they can alter the dish a bit and still keep the essence of the dish.  Many times they will say, let me check with the kitchen and then they come back with an answer.  Sometimes there is a little back and forth before we settle on a meal.
           Do I order something, I am not in the mood for just because it is allergy free for me?  For the most part NO!  If I am polite and gently assertive, I can usually get a great meal.  You have to get a sense of the restaurants knowledge of food allergies and their level of accommodation.   Some of them just want to give you a chicken breast over salad and call it a day but I persevere unless.......I am up against overwhelming odds and lack of knowledge. 
            Generally, a more expensive restaurant really has a grip on their ingredients, may have less additives and filler in ingredients they purchase and show more flexibility.   However, a year ago we were having dinner at a wonderful Italian restaurant deep in the heart of Brooklyn and I met some challenges.  I truly enjoy going to really authentic restaurants and this special place had been in the same elegant building for seventy years.  Upon entering, you could feel the history.
              When I asked the waiter if they had gluten-free pasta, he looked at me blankly and then repeated the word incorrectly back to me.  I tried again with no success.  Gluten free was not in his vocabulary, not on the restaurants radar and frankly he didn't seem to care.  I mean wasn't I there to eat his fabulous food as it was. 
               It soon became clear that this was a no go; no one knew what I was talking about and no one wanted to find out.  I have to say that I was at first miffed and put out and looked across the table at my normally supportive husband who was now smirking.  So -  we all had to laugh at the man's apparent lack of interest in anything remotely gluten.  I buckled and ordered chicken cacciatore which worked out just fine, but wasn't what I really wanted.
                Recently though at another restaurant, I did push them closer to the edge because I sensed an in.  Again we were at a very established Italian restaurant in my hometown of Saratoga and at first glance, the menu offered me very little choice.  They did not have gluten-free pasta, so I moved on to the meat, poultry, pork and fish dishes.  Most of them were breaded or had a cream sauce and then of course there is my mood.  What do I feel like having?  I found a broiled halibut with a fun sauce that suited my mood and diet and came with vegetables and potatoes.  The waiter and I settled on the fish but they only choice for starch that evening was mashed potatoes with milk.  There was no rice, fries or baked potato.  I asked the waiter what my options are and he disappeared into the kitchen.  He emerges with a double vegetable offering instead of a starch and asked if that would be okay.  I respond as charmingly as I can,  "That's nice but I'll be unhappy with no potato.  You see, I can't eat the bread either."  A look of realization appeared on his face.  I suggest, "Couldn't they boil a potato with herbs and olive oil."  He said sincerely, that he would check and disappeared again into the kitchen.  He returned with an exciting solution, yes they could do the potatoes.  I thanked him profusely and there is a palpable sense of relief over the entire table.
            What do I do on the way out;  after all, I am a food allergy ambassador.  I thank the waiter again and as I head out the door ask to see the manager.  I am directed to the man behind the bar who also manages and I thank him for accommodating my food allergies.  I mention that it was a little difficult to arrive at a solution, but that I really appreciated their efforts.   He smiled, said it was his pleasure and I felt I had made somewhat of an impression. 
             Did they boil that potato just to shut me up or were they delighted to please me.  I believe that it was a combination of achieving silence on table 9 and a willingness to learn more about customers with food allergies.  That was initially a tough one, but in the end a gratifying meal and experience.  I shall press on.
             In a couple of entries, I shall address eating out at more casual establishments.  Gluten Gal does McDonalds.
(please note, this is not meant as a definitive list; simply the establishments that I frequent in Saratoga Springs)
Wheatfields Restaurant -440 Broadway, Saratoga Springs,NY
Ironically with a name like Wheatfield’s, this restaurant  has been on the cutting edge of offering gluten-free pastas for at least 5 years.  6 months ago they added gluten-free pizzas.
Fifty South –2128 Doubleday Avenue, Route 50, Ballston Spa –
Featuring  gluten-free pasta, bread, hamburger rolls, pancakes and desserts.  They live and breathe organic food for all tastes and can make a gluten gal feel normal.
Mamma Mia’s Pizza/Cafe -185 Ballston Avenue, Saratoga, NY–
In addition to great Italian food, this restaurant offers gluten-free pastas and gluten-free pizzas.
Sperry’s -30 ½ Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, NY –
Normally, I cannot partake of the pre-dinner  bread, but Sperry’s offers gluten-free popovers.  A fun surprise. 

Enjoy and let me know your favorite local places that offer gluten-free menus.
Gluten Gal (Diane Lachtrupp Martinez)