Tuesday, June 14, 2011

1 Year Later

A year and a day ago, I went to a family party and ate loads of pasta salad, beer brats, meat and tons of buns. The next day, I felt awful and need a change - right away. Two weeks earlier, I had a colonscopy and upper endoscopy and learned that I was negative for Celiac Disease. I had two weeks before my follow up appointment with my gastro and the probiotics and antibiotics were not changing a thing. In my panicked research to figure out what Celiac Disease was, I came across a few articles about people testing negative for Celiac but still responded badly when eating gluten. I had nothing to lose. The day after the party, I started a gluten free one week trial. The goal was to do one week off gluten and one week on gluten and then see the doctor. My experimental diet started on a Monday evening. By Friday evening, all my symptoms that were plaguing me since I had my appendectomy in October 2008 (and greatly worsened around the holiday season in 2009) disappeared. I felt so wonderful being off gluten. For the sake of research, I needed to go back on wheat. I barely made it one meal before becoming so sick.

At my follow up appointment, there was a different Michelle in the room. A well-informed patient with a list of questions, comparisons between life on and off gluten, as well as a game plan for continuing to go gluten free.

Originally, I was embarrassed because I did not have Celiac disease. Was this all in my head? I didn't have a signle test show any intolerance to gluten (skin test, blood work, stool samples, and biopsy). I thankfully had a few symptoms that resulted with physical changes in my body (besides "not feeling well", brain fog, low energy, no appetite, headaches) and every time I slipped up or didn't pay attention to cross-contamination, the symptoms returned in a rush.

Over the past year, I learned a lot more about NCGI (non-Celiac gluten intolerance). It's real and studies suggest that about 1% of the population has Celiac disease and up to 10% are gluten intolerant. CNN recently ran a story on it and NBC Chicago had a segment on their health watch (including my story!)

For me, life after gluten is wonderful. Just over a year ago, I signed power of attorney and living will documents since my health was dramatically declining by the week. Only days off gluten, my health did a total 180. I feel better, have energy to keep up with myself, and enjoy food like never before. Ironically, following a gluten free diet has exposed me to many more foods. The range of food I'm eating has increased at least twenty times over. Yes, I still can cave in for an ice cream sandwich, but now the ice cream is rice based and my straight-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies are made with a gf flour mix and dark chocolate chips. I'm eating my veggies, baking bread, and throwing together some pretty impressive dinners and hostessing dinner parties. I started this blog mainly to prove to my mom that I was still eating. My first few entries are embarrassingly simple, although it is comical and rewarding to see the growth in my cooking skills over the course of only one year. I'm at over 135 posts, have strangers following my blog, hits from around the world, and even business cards with my blog address.

Life is good.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Rib Fest 2011

Yesterday two of my friends and I went to Ribfest at Lincoln/Damen/Irving Park in Chicago. The festival is exactly what the name implies: dozens of different varieties of ribs. As soon as we got there, one of the boys asked, "You're not still on your vegan diet, are you?" Fortunately for him and a relief for me - adding meat back into my diet increased the number of foods I could eat. By a lot.

We bought out tickets and started looking at all the stands. For $6 worth of tickets, you can get a sampler size - three rib bones. At every stand, I paid attention to what was on the menu and how people were handling the food. Sandwiches? I'll pass. No gloves? No thanks. I tried ribs from Corner 41 Bar & Grill. When I asked if they were gluten and dairy free (including soy sauce in my description since that was likely to be the biggest offender at an event like this), the man assured me that they were, rambled off a very comforting list, down to the vinegar used. I was sold. The ribs were very tender and delicious and had a slight kick to them.

It was really great to be able to eat at a street festival. As we ate our way up and down the festival, I ended up getting another sampler of ribs (nervous, however, since it took three people to answer my gluten free question, but the third one spoke with enough authority to comfort
me), corn on the cob, and strawberry lemon aid. The 28 Day Healthy Eating Challenge was getting to me - I needed my veggies. I was really frustrated that I couldn't have corn on the cob and asked at one stand if they put butter on it. Then my friend suggested I ask for it without butter. I did, it wasn't the same since I didn't have butter glistening on my chin, but you know what, corn is still tasty! We later passed by a huge crowd gathering around grilled asparagus. I'm craving vegetables! What happened? Three years ago, I would have just eaten ribs and ice cream. Now I am having semi-balanced food at a festival - meat, corn, fruity non-alcoholic beverages, and the rice crackers I stashed in my purse for some carbs!

My friends and I are planning on visiting some more street festivals this summer. I'm still impressed at how many options there are, even for people with food allergies and intolerances! (Now just to avoid people with their overflowing cups of beer...)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

28 Day Challenge Reflection

When I went into the 28 Day Healthy Eating Challenge with Whole Foods, I outlined a few of my obstacles:
  • I have had a soda a day since college. The caffeine in Coke and Pepsi helps my chronic headaches. I only had four cans of soda throughout the challenge - one while out at a bar with friends and the other three near the end of my challenge. I can go without soda, but I did notice a negative change in my headache levels without the caffeine kick. And empty calories.
  • I will also be exercising - 20-30 minutes 5 days a week. Haha. I paid attention to how much I walk and I realize I walk A LOT! Living in the city without a car means I lead a very pedestrian lifestyle. I am disappointed that I never managed to take my bike out for a ride during the uncharacteristically summer days in the past month.
  • I'm skinny and cannot lose any more weight. Despite my best intentions and even with increasing my healthy-fat intake of foods like avocado and nuts, I lost 4.5 pounds in 4 weeks. I am currently at my adult all-time low and hope that at this point I can only go up.
  • I normally do not eat any breakfast or will snack on dry cereal from a plastic bag. I am happy to report that I did not eat any dry cereal from a plastic bag like a five year old on this challenge. I woke up early and ate breakfast or made a shake or smoothie every day.
  • I love white rice and haven't really enjoyed brown rice too much. I'm learning to like brown rice. The only time I had white rice was in my bowl at Chipotle and with my vegetable sushi rolls.
  • I need to be careful with so I do not accidentally eat any gluten. My last reaction was probably from the smallest trace of gluten and yet was so severe I had to leave work early. My only reaction came from nutritional yeast - either cross contamination from bulk bins or the yeast itself. I'm leaning towards the nutritional yeast being the culprit. At some point, I will probably give it another go before permanently ruling it out of my diet.
  • And I need to do all of this while working over 40 hours a week. Done.
One of the risks of going vegan is going heavy on vegan products, like meat replacements and veggie burgers and veggie sausage and such. This is the same for gluten free. It is easy to run to the grocery store and buy gluten free cookies that are five times the price of its wheat-filled counterpart and only have a third of the taste and even less of the nutrients. While I used the term vegan a lot the past month, it really was a plant strong meat-free diet. Going away from eggs was shockingly perhaps the most challenging - it is so easy and quick to have an egg or two for breakfast. Most gluten and dairy free baked goods contain only one allergen: eggs. I'm surprised at how easy it was for me to eliminate fish and meat products from my diet. I went the firefighter route for this - a drastic change in my diet rather than a gradual change. Figuring that I already was dairy (except for goat and sheep cheese) free, I had an advantage. The hardest thing though was going oil free. As soon as I saw a drastic change in my weight, I added oil back in my diet. I'm now much more conscious of how I use oil and like the freedom of knowing that it is possible to cook without it. Back in the day, I used to cook everything in butter and I only owned canola oil for baking purposes. Eliot showed me how to cook with oil instead of butter and that simple switch opened up another giant culinary door for me. Oil based pan frying is a staple in a dairy free kitchen. Even my fake butter is a vegetable oil spread. Now I have a few more culinary tricks up my sleeve and can add basic techniques such as sauteing and baking to my skillset.

My over arching goal was to diversify my plate. It was becoming very white and very boring. And expensive! I love cooking with fresh ingredients and there were several meals throughout the challenge where I looked at my plate and smiled because I was accomplishing my goal of "eating a rainbow".

For our last meal of the challenge, the bloggers got together at Whole Foods for a dinner of salad, fruit salad, vegan macaroons and perhaps the most impressive: lasagna. I was super excited to have a raw vegan lasagna earlier this year. It was tasty, but obviously cold and radically
different from the lasagna of my childhood. One of the first dishes I learned to prepare as a kid was lasagna. My mom had the clipped recipe on a little piece of paper and I would dutifully follow it, layering the uncooked noodles with the sauce and various cheeses. It was really my first all-by-myself-I-don't-need-your-help-any-more-thanks-mom recipes I made. And made several times for my family. When I needed to go off dairy but learned that I could tolerate sheep's cheese, I toyed with the idea of making a lasagna, but quickly realized that a lasagna with only four servings could easily add up to over fifty dollars with all the specialty products I would need to use. I had quite honestly given up on ever eating a hot lasagna again. Or at least until my budget would allow for such an extravagant meal. But then the Engine 2 book published a delicious, colorful, dairy free lasagna recipe. And it was heavenly! Loaded with fresh veggies, tofu, nuts and pasta carefully placed between brown rice noodles (gluten free so I could also enjoy the dish!), the lasagna was what I was missing. But presented in a new way. Just because I can't eat something in the traditionally prepared way doesn't mean I can't have it again. It just means that a little bit of creativity is the only thing standing in my way.

Overall, I think this challenge was the best thing for me. It shook up the colors on my plate, got me eating a lot more fruits, veggies, and nuts, pulled me away from being so meat-focused with meal planning, and helped make breakfast part of my morning routine. The cooking habits I developed are likely to stay with me. I only need a small portion of meat to feel satisfied and my cravings for vegetables are pretty strong now. I used to only eat two or three times a day. Now, I snack and can easily eat 6-7 times a day. I also started eating foods that were unfamiliar to me, like eggplant, and learned some more ways to add tofu and beans in my diet.

What are some of your healthy eating goals? Have you ever done something to shake up your plate? How did that go?

Monday, June 6, 2011

A trio of healthy eating

These past four weeks have certainly flown by! I thought I would be struggling to come up with food options while on a budget and gluten free doing this 28 Day Healthy Eating Challenge, but I have been eating a bigger variety of food than ever before! Since I found myself in the kitchen more than at the computer, I'm afraid I'm going to cheat and just do a "I wish I could go into detail" post for three of the great things I have been eating. There are a few more straggling posts coming and I think shake up what I present on the blog. Rather than having so many meat based dishes, I am going to share my joy in making more vegetable and fruit dishes.

This mushroom strogonaff is from Engine 2. The recipe is really easy and when served with brown rice, a very filling lunch! I never really ate mushrooms before this diet and I'm happy to report that I like them!

I found a recipe for gf vegan bread and used Pamela's Flour Mix for the first time. The bread turned out to be amazing - I ate it all within 24 hours of baking it. The Brown Rice and Lentil Burger recipe came from Engine 2. I used about a tablespoon of flour to help bind the ingredients together. With not the greatest luck. A friend pointed out that flour was probably called for because of its glue (gluten) qualities. Overall, very tasty and the broken burgers would go great over pasta or on top of a salad.

This is perhaps one of my prettiest pictures. Don't these tacos look beautiful? They are guac tacos. That's right - guacamole in a warmed corn tortilla. I disregarded the serving size and ended up with over 3 cups of guac one weekend so I plopped the mix on a tortilla and called it a taco. Turns out that too much of a good thing is just that - too much. Next time I make guac for just myself, I'm going to remember to cut the recipe into quarters since there's no way I could eat that much!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Avocado Summer Salad

Going plant strong meant eating many more salads. I didn't eat salad until last August when I went on a cruise with my family and needed to start eating fish and salad almost out of necessity because I knew if I was ever hungry, it would be my fault. The springboard for this salad was a picture I saw on a foodie website as well as on TV. I jazzed it up a bit and was so excited to finally eat it by the time I managed to buy all the fresh ingredients. This was great to make on those hot summer days when you want to properly cook, but at the same time, want a fast meal that gets you out of the kitchen and on to another adventure. From entering the kitchen to fist bite, this is easily a 30 minute or less meal - much less if the quinoa is already cooked or canned or frozen corn is used.

And can I just ask who the hell am I that I got excited to eat a salad?!?

Avocado Summer Salad
Serves 2-3 meal sized portions
1 cup uncooked quinoa
1/2 T sugar
Lemon juice
3 ears of corn, husked
2 tomatoes, washed and diced
1 handful cherry tomatoes, washed
1 head of butter lettuce, washed and torn into pieces
2 avocados

Prepare 1 cup quinoa according to package directions.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water with sugar and a splash of lemon juice (mom's special recipe) with to boil. Add the corn. Cook until corn is tender. When corn is cool enough to handle, cut kernels off.

In a large bowl, toss together lettuce, corn, quinoa, tomatoes. Immediately before serving, add diced avocados on top.
(Note: This was so good, I didn't even bother adding a dressing.)

I've never had butter lettuce before, let alone be a savvy enough lettuce consumer to truly appreciate the range of varieties available and their unique flavorings, but the butter lettuce was really, really good. The whole salad, in fact, was delicious! My 28-day plant strong (no animal product) diet ends this week. I see more salads like this in my future. This one had quinoa as a source of protein. I think when I make it again, I will cook the quinoa with chicken stock and add about 1/2 cup of cooked chicken to the recipe for the extra protein/calorie punch without sacrificing all the healthy nutrients this salad already has going for it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Corner Bakery

While out shopping with a friend over the weekend, he asked where we were going to have lunch. I planned for everything else - what stores we were driving to and where the sales were, but I didn't really plan for lunch. I had an extra big breakfast and threw some larabars in my purse to tide me over if I started getting hungry. But there were were in the north suburbs in the shopping districts dotted with restaurants and I had to find some place to eat on the fly. I looked in the window of the first suggestion - a burger joint. We passed. Next up was Corner Bakery. The teenage cashier greeted us. I didn't even bother looking at the menu. I told her that I was gluten free and vegan - what would she recommend. I got the confused look from her and asked if she knew what gluten free meant. The light bulb clicked and she said that I couldn't have wheat. We're going on the right path now! I fleshed out the rest of the definition (no wheat, barely, rye or oats or anything that came in contact with those). And then she recommended the soup. I asked if she was sure that there was no gluten in there (some broths contain gluten) so she checked the allergen binder. Someone walking by pointed out that there was milk in there. Yikes! So we figuratively took a few steps back. There were pictures of salads and we figured out that I could have a salad without bread or sauce (soy sauce often contains wheat). The Asian Endamame Salad was a great choice. When ringing me up, she asked what size - apparently the larger portion was served over wontons. Delicious, but deadly (or at least, illness-inducing for me). I went with the side salad and heard her carefully repeat no bread, no sauce and the order was passed along the line with those instructions. When my food arrived, it was identified as with no bread, no sauce. This may seem like a little much, but this is now my typical dialogue with food service employees when dining out. I'm grateful for allergen charts and binders of nutritional information available so employees can quickly identify safe options for diners with food allergies. Corner Bakery, which has many locations in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, did a great job with their online material. Their allergen information is on the last few pages of their document. It is also dated from 2008. They are one of the first restaurants I've seen with check marks in a separate column for vegan items! Awesome!

The salad itself was loaded with vegetables - halved cherry tomatoes, julienned carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, endamame, green onions - and herbs like cilantro and basil all over a bed of lettuce. A very colorful and delicious dish that hit the spot!