Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in Review

It is December 31, 2010. I never thought I would survive this year. In January and February, my health started crashing. In the early spring, I started rounds of various tests to discover what was wrong. I even signed a power of attorney and living will. My family and I had these serious conversations as I could feel my body weakening and shutting down. I went through life in a daze, unaffected by everything surrounding me and eating carb-rich meals to try to gain weight before falling asleep before it was even dark outside. My tests, for the most part, just asked more questions and it was not until I woke up from a colonoscopy in May did a doctor ever mention gluten to me. (And then I had to run home to google what it meant…) During my gluten filled months, I took this picture on my camera phone to prove to my family that I was okay - see? I was smiling while at the beach. There were many days before my diagnosis when I would just walk to the beach and sit. I couldn't do anything else, except maybe listen to music, for several hours. My friends rarely saw me and at one point, over a month went by without talking to my best friend.

Now, I am a picture of good health. I have energy, an appetite, and lots of energy. I used to have an average of six to eight migraines a month; in the past six months of being gluten free, I’ve had a grand total of one. My life completely changed through food. I used to hate eating because I never really tasted my food. Now, I’m excited to cook and experiment with new flavors. I am very fortunate to have friends that are also foodies. Last night, three of us went to Whole Foods and spent almost two hours just wandering around the store, looking at all the food and even splurging on some great finds (dairy free mozzarella anyone?). A year ago, I was stage managing in theatre and most of my meals were eaten at a desk or while working. Now I am retired from the theatre and enjoying my food and am eating at a kitchen table (after taking pictures, of course!) or dining out at one of Chicago’s many accommodating restaurants.

For me, my year truly started in June when I eliminated gluten from my diet. Since then, I have cooked with vegetables I did not recognize at a farmer’s market, picked vegetables and fruit from my mom’s garden and created delicious meals, learned to cook fish, baked cookies that failed and succeeded. I went to a Pampered Chef party and ate a flourless chocolate cake (and purchased quite a few new gadgets.) My friends and I had a dinner party celebrating the sweet potato and another vegetarian tofu night. I went on a cruise with my family. My best friend Eliot discovered that he is gluten intolerant and my younger sister was tested for Celiac disease. I’ve had pizza, pasta, and sandwiches. I was glutenized from meats and cursed every gluten hangover. When two of my friends got married, I ate gluten-free homemade egg noodles at their wedding (the best noodles I have ever had, too!). I dined out with friends...lots of times! I read so many stories and blogs of other people with gluten intolerance and Celiac disease and have met people with similar stories in the most random places. I shared food with my coworkers and my baked goods were quickly eaten. I started having regular dinners with Eliot and he taught me how to balance a knife, cut a bell pepper, and use Kosher salt. My culinary skills are being sharpened by him, The Food Network, lots of blogs and my Chicago Public Library card. Almost all of my broths are homemade. I’m eating foods like macaroni and cheese and fried chicken that I thought I would never have again. I've had foods I never heard of before like quinoa, spaghetti squash, and polenta. I've become one of Chipotle's biggest fans. I started with pretty uninspired dishes and moved towards some really tasty and beautiful meals. I adapted some recipes and I did it all in a studio apartment with a kitchen barely big enough for two.

And I was on TV. My non Celiac gluten intolerance story was shared on NBC news in November in Chicago. Hopefully the story and this blog can help spread the word that gluten intolerance can stand alone from Celiac disease and more doctors recognize this in their patients sooner so no one has to suffer. (And I look a lot different than the empty girl in the above photo, don't I?)

My cabinets were purged, and ultimately, all the gluten that Eliot and I had was donated to a food pantry over Thanksgiving. Goodbye, gluten!

So what will 2011 bring? More food, more pictures, and a lot more original recipes and I start to really experiment and play with baking as well as cooking. And if Eliot has any influence, more bacon.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Place at the Table: Christmas 2010

While at my mom's house for the holidays, eating my leftovers (chicken, potato, and squash that she made in advance with the forethought of feeding me), I stumbled upon this Dear Abby article in her local paper.

I am lucky.

This sentence made me want to vomit:
After your column ran, my father called to tell me that holiday dinners would no longer accommodate my daughter’s celiac disease. She’s 9 and struggles with being “different.”

I am appalled by some people's insensitivity towards food allergies and intolerances. The original question is about a vegan Thanksgiving. T
here is being super accommodating/bend over backwards approach , such as making an entire vegan Thanksgiving for a room full of carnivores with one lone vegan. Or there is the considerate host approach: make sure that your guest with different dietary restrictions feels welcome and well fed. For Thanksgiving, it would be painless to mash potatoes with rice milk or coat vegetables with olive oil rather than butter and hold the bacon. And of course, there are many degrees of considerate host and hostesses in between.

But to tell a nine-year-old girl that her needs would no longer be accommodated? Is grandpa planning on only serving wheat pasta or sandwiches on Wonder Bread? Too bad for the kid who would have been happy with a baked potato or some rice and veggies that are naturally safe for her to eat? Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are lifelong dietary restrictions. I feel sorry for the mother who wrote the letter and her daughter. There are many people who are able to accommodate dietary restrictions in their parties and family meals with grace and good nature.

I survived a Christmas Eve brunch and a Christmas dinner without being glutenized. I am super sensitive, so the smallest amount of gluten can quickly make me sick. I had to turn down using a well seasoned cast iron pan and remind my uncle that he can’t add a bottle of beer to the ham he made sure was gluten free. My family is VERY accommodating and for that, I am extremely grateful. My aunt brought over green beans and a small bag of beets without butter so I could take out my portion before she finished preparing them for the buffet. Little things like that go a long way. I had a full plate of food this year.

For Christmas Eve brunch at my dad’s, we had French Toast with breakfast sausage, bacon, and plenty of fresh fruit. Everyone had stuffed French Toast and I made my Udi’s French Toast with soy butter and rice milk. This is one of those same-but-different ideas. My sister tasted a piece of my toast and she liked it. It may be awhile before a gluten free item trumps its gluten counterpart (mostly due to cost effectiveness), but it is getting there.On Christmas Day, my mom’s side of the family was coming over for a Polish feast. There were potato pancakes, cabbage rolls, cabbage with bacon, green beans, applesauce, beets, ham, Polish sausage, four kinds of perogies mushroom soup, corn, and plenty of rolls (and defrosted Udi’s bread for me). Majority of the food was dairy and gluten free. I missed out on the perogies and Polish sausage the most, but the gluten free perogie recipe is for another day (I received a perogie/ravioli maker for Christmas) and there was no label on the Polish sausage so did not want to risk ruining my otherwise very safe meal with this (delicious) meat. My brother and I made the potato pancakes using rice flour earlier in the day. He peeled potatoes, I grated them in the food processor and we both had griddles fired up to cook the pancakes. This is what the holidays are truly about: people coming together to create and share something wonderful.

I hope that you and your family had a wonderful holiday and that there is always a place for you at the table.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!
This year, Santa is getting rice milk and Chocolate-Covered Coconut Cookies!

The coconut cookies are easily gluten and dairy free with a simple butter substitution (we used Crystal Farms again) and gfdf semi-sweet chocolate chips! These taste just like a Mounds Bar and are quite delicious! Check out the Rachel Ray recipe to make your own delicious cookies. Kudos to my mom for finding this recipe and making them for me for Christmas! It is so nice to have a chocolate dessert in the house!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How Do I Cook Gluten Free For You?

Is this your first holiday being gluten free? Does someone want to cook for you but they do not know where to start? Are you looking for the right words to explain how to cook gluten free to someone who has no idea what gluten is?

I’m going to try to help! Disclaimer: I have been gluten free for just over 6 months. In that short time, I’ve explained to a lot of my friends and family how to safely prepare some delicious gluten-free foods! This is my attempt at providing some accessible tips that you can share!

How Do I Cook Gluten Free For You?

What is gluten? Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barely and rye that provides elasticity in food. Oats often make this list because they are cross-contaminated (grown in the same fields, ground on the same mills…it IS possible to find certified gluten-free oats!).

So what is off limits? Wheat, barely, rye and most oats. And anything prepared with those foods. Many processed foods in colorful packages contain gluten. Some hidden sources of gluten include beer, licorice, some broths and bouillon cubs and most popular soy sauces. Some obvious sources are pasta, bread, bagels, cookies, bread crumbs, croutons, waffles, pancakes, pretzels...

So all I have to do is read a label? Depends. Some companies are GREAT with labeling “gluten free” on the front of the packaging. Sometimes you can find the gluten-free claim next to the ingredients list. In the United States, companies are required to declare wheat as an ingredient because it is one of the eight major food allergens. Gluten is not! Some cereals, for instance, do not identify wheat in their ingredients, but they contain malt flavoring so they are not gluten free. The easiest option is to buy many whole ingredients – such as rice, fruits, vegetables, eggs, oil, and most meats. When in doubt, pick up your phone and call the phone number listed on the packaging – you can quickly get an answer from the company about whether it is gluten free or not. The representatives are knowledgeable and can answer questions about cross-contamination risks (such as if the factory lines are dusted with flour to prevent foods from sticking!). A quick internet search of the product you would like to buy and the word “gluten” will trigger a flood of responses – from bloggers raving about delicious foods to people on message boards complaining that they got sick.

Where do I find gluten free food? Some grocery stores have a section or part of an aisle with gluten free foods while others have their gluten free pasta next to their wheat pasta. Big box grocery stores like Jewel and Dominicks (Safeway) are great. Meijer and Super Target carry many products. Specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes carry the widest variety, often at the lowest prices since popularity of gluten free foods is higher. Stores like the Woodman’s (a grocery store popular in the Midwest) have half an aisle dedicated to gluten free! If you are lucky, there will be tags next to the product to catch your eye that this is a gluten free product. Whole Foods uses purple tags. Trader Joes has a gluten free (gf) symbol. Gluten free bread is often found in the freezer section. Udi’s is the best bread – just buy a loaf and defrost it on your counter overnight and it is good for a week!

Well what can you eat on a gluten-free diet? The same food as anyone else, just a few ingredients in the grains section of the food pyramid are different. There are spaghetti made with rice or corn, soy sauce without wheat (San-J is my personal favorite – they even label Gluten Free right on the front!), waffles, corn tortillas, tapioca flour rolls, bagels, pizza crusts, chocolate chip cookies and so forth! Obviously, eating lots of fresh, whole fruits and vegetables are easy choices. There are some fun gluten free foods like quinoa that are delicious and are fun and easy to make if you are feeling adventurous! The internet is full of recipe sites and food blogs offering tasty ideas from low key to gourmet.

I have no idea what to make! Just remember, you are only cooking ONE meal. It does not have to be a culinary showpiece. Keep it simple. Keep your ingredients list to a minimum. ASK lots of questions if you aren’t sure – I’ve been navigating the gluten free diet so can offer some suggestions, including preferred brands! Most restaurants offer a bowl of fruit as their gluten free dessert option.

But my recipe calls for a tablespoon of flour! You can use corn starch instead! There are some great gluten free flours out there – try substituting white rice flour. If you need more than a little bit of flour, sometimes a combination of flours will provide the right flavor profile. There are all-purpose gluten free flour mixes for sale.

Now I’m in the kitchen – what now? Cleanliness is key. Wash your hands, especially after handling any wheat products. Gluten intolerance is a parts-per-million sensitivity. A little speck of gluten can make someone sick. Everyone’s responses are different – some people are non-symptomatic Celiacs while others get sick almost instantly and need a few days to bounce back from a reaction. In the end, no amount of gluten is good for someone with gluten intolerance or Celiac disease. Make sure all your prep bowls, measuring cups, knives, and so forth that you will be using are clean. AND NO WOODEN SPOONS OR CUTTING BOARDS! Those are extremely difficult to get clean and can quickly cross-contaminate an otherwise gluten free dish. If you do not have dedicated gluten free appliances, avoid using things like a toaster, pizza stone or other stoneware, waffle maker or bread maker to make a gluten free product. If deep frying anything, make sure the oil is fresh – you don’t want specks of bread crumbs leftover in the oil coming into contact with your gluten free food! When baking foods in the oven, lay down parchment paper or aluminum foil. It will help protect food from cross contamination and make clean up a breeze! Same goes for the grill!

But I want to serve gluten too! If you’re preparing gluten free and gluten filled foods at the same time, always make the gluten free version first. (Making two types of French toast? Fully cook the gluten free version before cooking the wheat version.) Keep the food on separate plates – preferably ones that look different. If you are having trays of crackers, cheese, and fruit, be sure to lay out the other food before you touch the crackers. And no mixing gluten free crackers with their wheat filled counterparts!

Wow – there’s a lot to think about. I know. Thanks for making me a gluten free meal! I’ll help with the dishes!

P.S. Also dairy free? Instead of butter, use a vegetable oil spread or Earth Balance vegan butter. Use Crisco in cookies. Many foods can be cooked with vegetable oil or extra virgin olive oil. Use rice or soy milk instead of cow’s milk. Ask a vegan what he or she uses! Many vegans have found AMAZING and creative recipes that do not use any dairy. (Okay, if you don’t know a vegan, google what you would like to make and the word vegan – the vegans even figured out how to make dairy-free fudge that is to die for!) Tofu is a popular substitute. Instead of milk chocolate, use dark chocolate. (Oh darn, you HAVE to eat super rich chocolate? Poor you.) Also, some lactose intolerant people are able to tolerate goat cheese or lactose free cheeses. This is something that is wildly different for every person – always ask first – never assume!!

Do you have more suggestions? Let's keep this list going

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My Gluten and Dairy Filled Gingerbread House

I had the brilliant idea to build a gingerbread house this year. The last time I did this, I was a little kid. My previous Christmas's have been a whirlwind of activity (and holding down two or more jobs) so I decided this year I would leisurely and creatively build a house from a kit.

Most. Stressful. Decision. Ever.

To save money because I'm always looking to cut corners and save a few bucks, I bought a traditional kit (translation: my gluten and dairy free home was welcoming a potentially dangerous guest.) I was not going to actually eat something that was sitting out for several weeks (even though the kit DID say the house is only 44 servings!?!). When I read the instructions and saw that I was supposed to cut the cookie pieces to size, I nearly had a heart attack. There was no way gluten was going anywhere near my knives or cutting board. It was bad enough that I had to mix the frosting myself (which really isn't a big deal - my dairy reactions come only from consuming - my gluten reactions, on the other hand, really are from that pesky parts-per-million cross-contamination). I did the ultimate cheat: I decided that my house was going to be held together by hot glue so I did not have to worry about the pieces not fitting together exactly. This also saved me hours of "wait for the frosting to harden before adding the next pieces" game. The royal icing was a royal pain to work with. I'm happy the roof even got covered. By then, the joy of making the house was completely gone and I was not even looking forward to the prospect of decorating it (with the hot glue gun, of course).The gingerbread house is my most pitiful arts and crafts project ever. I was working on my crafting cookie sheets (in my former life I was a prop designer - I have cookie sheets that never touch food) covered in tin foil over several newspapers. When I was finished, I disinfected the hot glue gun and scissors and really cleaned the table and floor. Was it worth it? The smell of the gingerbread is nice. But next year, I think I'll just buy a scented candle.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Eating around the holidays is MUCH better this time around! Last year, I received a box of Frango chocolates (loaded with milk). At our office Christmas party at Maggiano’s, I was just dairy free and I filled up on bread because I could not eat any of the appetizers (this was before my salad eating days), and my plain grilled chicken breast and barely blanched green beans on a pitiful looking plate arrived AFTER everyone else was finished with their first helpings. I did not stay to see what my fruit cup looked like. Situations like this are what give me major food anxiety that prevent me from feeling safe or enjoying dining out.

Thankfully, this year’s holiday festivities are off to a great start!

Instead of chocolates, I received gluten free cookies from my boss and his wife! Yay for food I can eat myself rather than regift!!! I spoke to someone from Maggiano’s a week ago to go over my menu. The restaurant prides themselves on being able to make some gluten free food, but as I saw with how dairy-free was handled last year, I was obviously very skeptical. One of the two salads would be safe (the other had blue cheese), salmon over herbs and gf pasta with a red sauce, and dessert would be a plate of fruit. My salmon and pasta would have special preparation to make sure that they were gf. I was feeling better after talking to the Maggiano’s representative, but was still scared of a repeat of last year.

I must say, I am quite impressed by Maggiano’s making me dairy and gluten free food. (And this time around, I received my food first!) The salmon was especially delicious and their gf pasta was just like I make at home. The fruit plate was a little disappointing only because I am so used to having traditional desserts converted to gf at home. But when dining out with a food allergy or two, it seems like fruit is the easiest solution for the chefs. If you are just gluten free, Maggiano’s did have more (dairy filled) gf options! Be sure to ask!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas Cupcakes

Until I have a few hours to master a gluten free Christmas cookie recipe, I'm settling for cupcakes. They are a breeze to make (remember how much I raved about them early on in my gluten and dairy free baking?) and bring to a holiday party. The frosting I made was with dark chocolate chips, some powdered sugar and a little bit of water. It was like someone plopped fudge on top - delicious!!! And holiday sprinkles? One of the best parts about baking! (That and the leftover frosting in the fridge...)

Happy Holidays!!!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bacon Potato Pancakes

When going over the Christmas menu with my mom, I just heard "gluten, gluten, meat, gluten, gluten." We will be feasting on Polish foods and almost everything struck me as being filled with gluten (except for the meat). I know that Santa is bringing me a griddle this year, so I figured we could make some gluten and dairy free potato pancakes and break in my new gadget! Eliot and I set out to experiment with some potatoes and create one of the most delicious potato pancakes out there. ...But then we got distracted by how good this version tasted. Since many potatoes were peeled, I do not have the exact count for this recipe:

Bacon Potato Pancakes

6 to 8 medium sized potatoes, peeled and grated
3 or 4 eggs
Several pieces of bacon
Kosher salt

Cook the bacon on the stove. Cut with kitchen shears into bacon bits. Leave the bacon drippings in the pan.

Make sure the potatoes are dry. Place in a bowl and add the eggs and some kosher salt. Add the cooked bacon. Place in warm pan and cook, much like a pancake.
We tried two different versions of this - one with the bacon embedded inside the potato pancake and the other with the bacon sprinkled on top (like chocolate chips). We preferred the first option some more. These were a great all-in-one breakfast item! Eggs, potatoes and bacon nicely blended together into one comprehensive dish!!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Turkey Tetrazzini

After Thanksgiving, my mom made another turkey and sent me home with the carcass to make stock (delicious!) and have some leftover turkey to turn into more delicious meals. I decided to try my hand at Turkey Tetrazzini. Since substituting any flours would be easy enough, I switched my focus to finding a dairy free recipe (since a white sauce is just a bit difficult to do without milk or butter) and then convert it myself to gluten free. With a game plan in mind and a bunch of different websites to try, I found a recipe...that was both gluten and dairy free. So a little less work for me! The dairy and gluten free substitutions for this recipe were rice milk and rice flour.
This recipe, however, almost requires a sous chef. I had so many pots, pans, cutting boards, knives, and even a Dutch oven (for the final steps) out it seemed a little ridiculous. By the time I got to the steps of how to make the sauce, I was checking out of the cooking process and was trying to fast forward through the steps. So I was not successful with trying to "cook out the 'flour' flavor." Sadly, this recipe tasted diary free and a little bland to me. Rice milk is rather thin and doesn't make for a good, thick sauce. I am going to start experimenting soon with more sauces because exclusively having red sauces is getting a little boring.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Gluten Intolerance Group and Product Sampling

When I first found out that I may have Celiac disease, I learned of support groups and started google searching for “gluten free Chicago,” thankful that I live in such a large city where I would be able to find a group that matched my potential new diet. I found the Gluten Intolerance Group and went to my first meeting when I was only three weeks gluten free, back when I was uneducated and thought that meant only wheat-free... Since then, I've come a long way and have read so much information on gluten and the diet and tried a bunch of different products.

Lately, we’ve been having taste testings at our meeting at the Whole Foods in the South Loop (first Thursday of the month at 7pm). Last month, there was Silk’s seasonal soy milk drinks and some gummies. The pumpkin pie contained traces of dairy, so I had to pass. This month, we tried some bars and cookies. And I could sample everything!

I finally found a triple threat with many options that works for me and Eliot: Katz Gluten Free. Their products are manufactured in a dedicated gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free facility. Juggling two food allergies or intolerances can be difficult enough, but our combined combination makes finding pre-made desserts difficult. (Thankfully, I love baking so neither of us has felt deprived yet.) I sampled chocolate rugelech, chocolate chip cookies, marble cake, and challah Kaiser rolls. The rolls were delicious and would be great for a sandwich! (Not that I’ve been craving that lately or anything…) The marble cake was one of those surprising bites that did not taste gluten free at all!

We also sampled Wild Alice Bars. And by sample, we had bars that were little one bite tastes of two different bars. They are gluten free and vegan, but contain tree nuts, so they would have to be treats just for me if I buy them. They were pretty good. I really liked the Cranberry Walnut bar.

And finally, we welcomed Marshall, the founder of The GFB – The Gluten Free Bar. Another fantastic triple threat! They were made to be snacks or even meal replacements that were great tasting. Currently there are two flavors out: Peanut Butter and Peanut Butter Chocolate. Both are really tasty, rich, and very filling. I’m actually planning on having one for lunch tomorrow since I’ll need to eat on the train between church and a baking party! I have a few currently in my backpack so whenever Eliot or I need a snack, they are ready for us and more importantly: safe and tasty for both of us. (I’m such a mom… I used to make sure to have at least two bars always in my bag and making sure at least one of them was tree-nut free which was hard. I'm thrilled to have found a product that we both love!)

If you are interested in any of the above mentioned products, you can order them online. And if you would like to come check out a Gluten Intolerance Group meeting, check out their meeting schedule. There are meetings in the South Loop, Evanston, Hinsdale, Libertyville, Northbook, and Orland Park. Next month, the South Loop meeting is going to be having a bread tasting! Yum!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

San-J sauces: steak over noodles

Before I went home for Thanksgiving, I helped my mom via telephone navigate the grocery store to buy some food I can keep at her house. I told her which milk substitute to buy (there's only one I drink: Rice Dream Original) and which crackers were good. And then we got to the soy sauce aisle. It is AMAZING to have products where gluten-free is proudly stamped on the front of the label. No further label reading necessary, Mom! Just pick up some gluten free San-J Teriyaki Sauce and Sweet & Tangy Sauce! (This is also part of my secret plan to have my mom enjoy more gluten free products so there are plenty of delicious options already in her cabinets.)
To make this stir fry, we marinated steak in the teriyaki sauce and my mom cooked it on the grill while I got to work on the rice noodles and the rest of the stir-fry. I poured some extra virgin olive oil in the pan and as soon as that was warm (which is MUCH faster on a gas grill than an electric one!!!), I cooked a diced onion. When that was almost done, I tossed in snap peas and large diced pineapple pieces with the Sweet & Tangy sauce. This was an easy and fast meal, filled with carbs, protein, fruits, veggies and flavor!