Sunday, March 27, 2011

Caribbean Feast

For my mom's birthday this year, I treated her to a Caribbean feast! I slaved away all day in the kitchen. Um, I mean, I went shopping, made the salad and placed it in the fridge, did as much mise en plas as I could until my mom and sister came home from work and I could get the pans fired up and dinner on the table. All the recipes I used came from Modern Caribbean Cuisine by Wendy Rahamut and the entire meal was dairy, gluten and shrimp free. (This book is AMAZING for anyone looking to cook Caribbean food - LOTS of great recipes that are easy-to-follow and accessible.) My sister agreed to try fish as long as it wasn't shrimp, so the shrimp recipes all had to be placed aside for another time. Since this was a birthday dinner and I was left alone to my own devices, I went through the living room and cabinets and took out some of our fanciest dishes (including some that garnered the "Are those ours?" response from my sister) and washed out wine goblets. I set the dining room table with a tropical table cloth and hung an "Island Party" sign across the china cabinet. Since we eat with our eyes first, I was going to make sure this feast was gorgeous! My sister was in charge of making our frozen strawberry daiquiri mock-tails (can of frozen mix + water + ice + fun straw + tall glass = delicious!)

For our salad, we had tomatoes and avocados (with finely chopped green bell pepper, and onion with minced garlic coated with a olive oil, fresh lime juice, and sugar mixture, and garnished with chives and cilantro). Eating the salad (a bursting-with-delicious-flavors kind of dish) from a wine glass was fun! The glass was the perfect size for the job and it was very easy to see all the ingredients inside.

The main course was plantain-crusted tilapia over a rice dish. The rice was made with onion, celery, thyme, garlic, tomatoes, rice, chicken stock, and coconut milk. I'm a big fan of coconut milk - it is an easy way to add a creamy texture to a dairy free dish. And this wasn't even my substitution - it was written right into the recipe! (Non-American cuisines are a gold mine for gluten and dairy free recipes - the United States seems to sneak wheat and milk in everything!) I found plantain chips in the Mexican aisle at the grocery store and they were delicious to snack on while cooking and helped provide a fun flavor profile to the fish.

Dessert was grilled pineapple with brown sugar and rum. This literally spent three minutes in the broiler before it was done. In my family's traditional style - my mom and I had the dessert a few hours after dinner was finished and the dishes were washed.

I had a lot of fun making an event out of the meal and was proud to showcase some of my dicing and chopping skills. I even got my sister to try fish! My mom loved her birthday dinner and I loved being able to create and share such an elegant meal with my family.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Corned Beef and Cabbage - Hold the Rye

It feels good to eat a traditional, Americanized St. Patrick's Day meal! Normally my mom would make corned beef, I'd ignore the cabbage and make toasted rye bread and beef sandwiches. This year, I was on my own to recreate our family's annual dish.

At the grocery store, I carefully read the ingredients and got stumped with "flavorings." Technically, barley or malt could be snuck in without being declared. I kept reading the package because I was really craving corned beef and lo-and-behold, the last two words on the package in the bottom corner were "Gluten free." Maybe my calls to Safeway/Dominick's asking them to label gluten free products as such were actually being heard? I purchased my always gluten and dairy free veggies (red potatoes, cabbage, and carrots) and headed home to prepare my feast!
I followed the package directions for cooking the corned beef on the stovetop in my Dutch oven. When it was done and was cooling on a plate underneath a piece of foil, I added washed and halved red potatoes and peeled and cut carrots to the water, brought to a boil, and then simmered for almost 10 minutes. Then I added the cut cabbage for a few more minutes unitl everything was cooked and then drained the vegetables.

Despite my awesome knife skills with bell peppers, garlic, and onions, my meat cutting skills leave something to be desired still. I cut the corned beef a little too thick so it was rather tough. I forgot that one of the best parts of my mom's corned beef was always how thin they were sliced. (My sister, it turns out, had the same problem I had when cutting corned beef. Maybe we should have paid better attention to our mom's preparation and presentation of food as we were growing up?)

This was an easy meal to cook and all of the important meal elements were safe to eat! Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Whole Ingredients: Steak and Spinach

Friday night dinners with Eliot made a comeback last night! After work, we stopped at Whole Foods for ingredients for a quick dinner. To combat my low-level of protein this week, we splurged on a nice piece of steak. Eliot did most of the decision making and cooking for our easy dinner. The steak was seasoned with salt and pepper and cooked on a pan on the stove. Organic spinach and mushrooms were sauteed with olive oil and minced garlic. Eliot plated the steak on top of the spinach with a lime wedge and I poured us tall glasses of fruit juice.

When cooking with whole, fresh ingredients, there is no need to go overboard with extras. The food shines all on its own. Grocery stores are even picking up on this: my local Dominick's always offers free samples of different things, including fruit. Customers are invited to try pineapple or Cuties. Is this what we've come to? People don't know what real food not masked by unpronounceable names taste like so we need to bribed to eat right with free samples?

My diet is going more towards whole ingredients and less towards colorful packaged foods. There is less risk of cross-contamination (and much less label reading!) when purchasing ingredients. This means I'm spending a lot more time cooking. I still eat things out of a box or bag. My first year out of college, I only bought fresh meat twice that year. This past year, I only bought frozen meat twice. I feel much better eating this way! (And avoiding gluten and lactose helps, too!!)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Dining Out Tricks and Tips

As soon as I figured out I was lactose intolerant, I was terrified to go out to restaurants. Who knew who was going to poison my food with a pad of butter, a few drops of milk, or a sprinkle of cheese? I was always too embarrassed to say anything to my server, so opted for the seemingly safe choice...which would come garnished with dairy.

Now that I'm gluten and lactose free, I have had a major attitude adjustment. I am dining away from the comforts of my safe kitchen and exploring some of the best restaurants the city has to offer. Gluten-free awareness is growing so it is much easier to dine out now than it had to have been several years ago.

Here are some of my helpful tricks for dining
  • Choose wisely. Many ethnic cuisines, such as Thai (curries), Indian and Mexican are loaded with gluten and dairy free choices!
  • Do some research online. Many chain restaurants have easy to read allergen charts (that are often also available in the restaurant) so you can plan ahead. I made a little card to keep in my wallet that reminds me what boosts to avoid at Jamba Juice, for instance.
  • Be prepared - whether it is having some rice crackers in a bag or travel packets of gluten-free soy sauce for sushi.
  • Call ahead if possible. Before making a reservation, I always inquire about their gluten and dairy free options. This gives the restaurant plenty of advance notice and I don't know if this was done on purpose or just fate, but one restaurant placed me in the section with the waitress with the Celiac roommate.
  • Let the host know that you have dietary restrictions before sitting down. One over-eager hostess tried to tell me that their pasta didn't have gluten but other servers overheard and quickly corrected her and let me know what options I could have at a pizza and pasta place. Again, purpose or fate, but I had a Celiac waitress at another restaurant after telling the host I needed their gluten free menu.
  • Whenever the server comes around the first time (when my friends are still looking over the menu), I mention my restrictions and ask if he or she has any suggestions or if a particular item or two that caught my eye could be safely prepared.
  • Know what to say! At Chipotle, I do most of my ordering online and now just have to leave a "Change gloves" comment since they recognize my name. If I am going through their line, I ask, "Can you change your gloves? I'm gluten intolerant." The crew are fantastic and always wash their hands and change their gloves; they normally complete the rest of my order so only gluten and dairy free hands have worked with putting my bowl or tacos together. When at a restaurant, the script is a lot more free-flowing, but normally starts with "I'm gluten and lactose intolerant, so I can't have things like wheat flour or any dairy." Depending on my server's response (or lack thereof), I'll continue and say more or take out my dining card.
  • Stress the fact that you can't even have a little bit. One server offered me soup that had (wheat) pasta in it - he wasn't sure if I could have it... I have also had a salad come out with croutons - that was quickly given to a friend.
  • Don't be embarrassed. I've heard horror stories from friends ordering things that are naturally gluten-free only to have them arrive on top of an unannounced serving of bread! If your server does not know you cannot eat a particular allergen, he or she cannot provide you with safe food.
  • Always ask if you are not sure if things are gluten-free. I have had chickpea flour crackers at an Indian restaurant and corn chips at a Mexican restaurant. SO much better than a bread basket!
  • Be smart about what you are ordering. One restaurant advertised their wings being gluten-free. They were. But prepared in the same oil as their breaded wings. Our waitress was smart and caught that the oil was contaminated. She apologized for the delay in bringing our food out - the cooks changed the oil in the fryer. I normally bake my wings in the oven - it's important to know the different methods of preparation!
  • Let yourself be surprised. When wandering around for a light meal, a friend and I went into a small burger place. After hearing I was gluten and dairy free, the woman running the place asked what I wanted. She would make me anything. I was baffled by her "I'm taking care of you response" until she said her daughter has Celiac disease. My bunless hamburger came out on a nice plate (rather than a plastic basket) with several servings of French fries from a dedicated fryer. And have I mentioned that one restaurant had the Low-Carb burger on their menu? It was wrapped in lettuce.
  • Tip generously. Leave positive on-line reviews that include buzz words like "gluten" or "lactose".
  • Have fun. Try new things. I challenge myself to eat things I do not cook myself when dining out. My meals out tend to inspire me to crack open a cookbook and create a similar dish or even one that sounded delicious from the menu but had an offending ingredient!
What tricks do you use when you dine out? Have you had great experiences?