Thursday, September 29, 2011

one gluten-free year down, now what?

The first day without gluten I felt so much better I couldn't believe it. No stabbing pains leaving me doubled over at my desk, no gasping as spasms began while I sat quietly reading. The second and third days were pretty good, too. Then I would notice after two sips of coffee with cream, the pain would resurface. Really? No cream either? I'd known for years that I don't handle dairy products well, but I was still hoping. I'm a slow learner. It's been up and down from there with more and more foods leaving my "hopefully safe" list and crossing to the other side.

The last 12 months or so have been interesting, exciting, a bit scary, and, sadly for me, not as fully definitive as I would have hoped. I have, over time, removed not only gluten and dairy products---all of them---from my cooking and dining, but also soy, corn, anything artificial, sugars, most nuts and seeds, the rest of the grains, virtually all legumes, anything processed, and it still is not clear what I can eat. I have not posted a lot about eating and cooking lately because I've been seriously wrestling with this issue. Is anything out there safe?

Most recently I've moved toward the Paleo or primal camp, reading everything I can get my hands on. It's primary food sources are those I can usually eat, which is always a plus. Like most any concept held by a variety of people, this health philosophy has a miriad of divergent views. The must do's and must not's are sometimes contradictory. The reading is fun, even though at times I consider hair-pulling and screaming. So this, too, will take some experimentation. I wonder how others handle this. So many seem to do it so well. I would love to hear from any of you who are dealing with or have overcome this struggle. I am not good at lists, but possibly a serious food journal, maybe life journal, might be a helpful tool. Silly as it may sound, I sometimes forget that I don't tolerate specific foods well.

The adventure continues, of course. It seems odd to look back and know that I have not consciously put a single gram of wheat, barley, rye, or their relatives in my mouth in over a year. They don't sound like food to me anymore. That is a help for sure. I no longer complain that anything, really anything, I eat I must prepare. It's just a given. There's no going back, of course, and, hopefully, by next year I'll have it down to an artform. Gotta keep hoping.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

oh, nuts!

The plan for today was to post a comfort food kind of recipe in honor of Paleo Comfort Foods, recently released and on its way to anxious cooks and diners around the world, including me. I will do just that in a day or two, but today my mind and my body are fixated on what seems to be my newest food intolerance. I am not at all sure that this love affair I've had with food for most of my conscious life is not completely one-sided. In fact, I'm getting less sure all the time as one food after another joins the ever-growing category of "don't touch, don't even think about it."

Being newly re-energized by all I've been reading about primal and Paleo eating, I again stocked up on a variety of nuts. I soaked, then dried some in the dehydrator, others I tasted raw. I used an approximation of a recent recipe of Elana Amsterdam's for another batch. Some were good; some were okay. I was not totally excited by any of them, though. Recipes I can tweak, that's no problem. Pain, on the other hand, is a serious problem. I no longer mess around with pain at all. Problem is I did not expect the pain from the nuts. Maybe I should have, since I've had issues from time to time. Since I didn't expect a problem, I didn't approach it cautiously. I ate several kinds of nuts, prepared in multiple fashions all at roughly the same time. I don't know if the pain, which at this point has not fully subsided though it's been two days, was from one type of nut or a specific preparation or if each and every one was an equally guilty culprit. I don't know and I'm not willing to do what's necessary to find out: eat the nuts again. That is not happening.

For the time being, I will turn my attention and recipe selection away from nuts, at least walnuts, pecans, and almonds, since those were the ones I used this week. There's still lots and lots of good food out there. Right now I really need some serious comfort food.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Paleo at Penn: The ABC's of Paleo

Paleo at Penn: The ABC's of Paleo

If you're not quite sure about all this Paleo stuff, here is a delightfully written description of some of the specifics and entertaining aspects of a Paleo diet.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

okay, Paleo, it's a go

I don't really think of myself as impetuous or fool-hardy. I mean, I'm likely to deliberate for days, even weeks, about which darned coconut oil to buy. Something major, like a pair of shoes, could take months. Silly, I know, but I think most things through ad nauseam.

Somehow, though, I have this unfortunate tendency to go gung-ho into new ideas, theories, and concepts without thinking them through and without at least a brief side-step toward common sense. I have made some major, painful, and downright silly food mistakes this way. For instance, when I read The Belly Fat Cure, I thought, "This is great, and look at all the foods I can eat that I thought I couldn't!" And so I did. Problem was, as you can no doubt guess, whether those concepts are correct or not, they don't make my allergies go away. And they come with no pain-free window, no free trial. It doesn't matter that cheese is fine on a multitude of diet and eating plans. I like cheese, and I still have indelible memories of some of my favorites. I just can't eat it. Plain and simple, no fancy wrapping needed. And yet, I do so want to believe if the book says so, my body won't notice. I did the same thing with the multitude of gluten-free grains available. And then with sugar since many of the gluten-free recipes called for it. I can't eat grains. I can't eat sugar. I know better and yet... Sounds certifiable.

This time, as I have explored many of the different versions of a Paleo diet, I have worked ever so hard to try to avoid that pitfall. I read; I cooked; I ate; miraculously, I didn't get sick. I've decided Paleo works for me on a couple of levels. It's fairly easy to describe, which any of you who must follow a restricted diet know is crucial. It only includes real food. Even though many foods are considered okay by some and contraband by others, a thread of simple consistency runs through all. Simply put, eat what our Paleolithic ancestors might have eaten. Eat foods that could be eaten raw, even if you cook them. That includes most vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, natural fats. It does not include grains, dairy, plastics, GMOs, artificial anything, or recently invented conglomerates of any of those. Works for me, that's what I already eat, anyway, and thanks to Wheat Belly, GK is just about onboard.

So at this point, we're all in. Lest you fear this is all about eating live buffalo and pounds of lard, I promise you it's not. It's all I can do here not to include an "I wish!" but that would be misleading for sure. One of my favorite, and oh my gosh I now have many, Paleo-focused blogs and posts to read is Paleo Comfort Foods.
Paleo Comfort Food's country curry is a fun example of getting creative with this healthy and entertaining way of structuring meals. Check it out. And if it sounds interesting, buy their book. It's due to be released any day, hopefully today.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

bean salad, a salute to summer's end

Canned beans are fine, but in the summer, why not start with fresh?

Possibly, probably, my hardest sell for the Paleo diet at home is giving up beans. We both like beans and have used them often to replace other, likely worse, food choices. Still while I like beans; GK, LOVES them. He can wax poetic over beans, really. It is an experience to behold. He listened, somewhat intently, as I described some of the tenants of Paleo eating, nodded acceptance at the inclusion of leafy greens and fish, grimaced a bit over what he considers a high fat content, then turned white as a sheet before turning completely away from the discusssion when I mentioned the avoidance of beans. Did I say hard sell? I do so like understatement.

Though I can understand the argument against them when one is moving toward eating only foods that can be safely eaten raw, it's going to be an uphill battle on the homefront. Success will come in time.

Today, however, is an ode to the bean, in this case the bean salad. As we say goodbye to summer, I'm likely also saying goodbye to a favored salad, so please indulge me while I revisit it here one more time.

Three Bean Salad

For the dressing
  • Crush one clove garlic and macerate in 2 tablespoons balsamic, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, and 1 teaspoon salt. 
  • Whisk in about 3 to 4 ounces of good olive oil, add pepper to taste. 

  • 1 pound fresh green beans, preferrably organic
  • 1 can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 canned garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1/4 cup finely diced onion, or 1 tablespoon dried minced onion

  • Cut fresh green beans in 1 inch pieces, then boil or steam until tender.
  • Combine all beans and onion in large bowl.
  • Pour dressing over beans and onion.
  • Allow flavors to develop in refrigerator for 4 hours or overnight.
  • Can be made a day or two ahead.

This recipe can easily be doubled or tripled. Feel free to substitute beans of your choice.

Goodbye beans. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

memories of pine nuts and cactus

When I was a small child, second or third grade, I believe, I went on my first and only pine nut hunting excursion. My dad's family is Lebanese, and pine nuts are a really big deal in our cooking, especially in holiday and special occasion foods. We use them a lot and certainly value them; they're both hard find in many parts of the world and hard to harvest. And, of course, they are perfectly wonderful to eat.

It felt like such an adventure getting up early in the morning and heading toward the mountains of Frazier Park with more of my extended family than I'd ever seen together outside of holiday dinners. This was a big deal. My dad went, which meant he wasn't working, and that was odd in itself. His sister, my Aunt Linda, and his mother, my grandmother, Memo, headed the hunt if memory serves. There were lots of other people there, and though I know all of them well, I don't remember exactly who anymore. I would make a lousy historian.

I do remember it was tiring and tedious and the excitement of such an outing wore off quickly, very quickly. After awhile I was just a whiny child, tired, grumpy, and anxious for the ordeal to end. And end it did, though not quite in the manner I would have hoped. Finally, finally, finally, covered with sap from the pine trees and cones with sore hands and feet, we started down the mountainside. That was the beginning of my most prominent, possibly indelible, memory of that entire year. I was small and timid, lagging behind on the rugged trail by necessity not choice, so I tried to catch up when the trail looked smoother. I caught up quickly all right as my feet slipped out from under me, and I tumbled, rolled, and finally came to rest far down the path and in the middle of a large cactus. "Rest" is not an accurate term, it was more like impaled.

I can feel it as though it were today. Spikes from that *#@$* cactus covered my hands, arms, face, body, legs, feet. I didn't notice the bruises for days, the cactus attack was so thorough. They were pulling those things out of me for over two weeks, but first the sap had to come off. That meant gasoline or kerosine or paint thinner. I don't remember what was used, exactly. I do remember it hurt like hell.

And what of the pine nuts, our precious reward for the day? I don't remember exactly what became of them. I know I did not volunteer to shell a single one or remove them from the cones. That day I became even more a fan of pine nuts that I didn't have to harvest.

Since then I've bought lots of pine nuts, though as is the case with so much of our food these days, it's getting harder and harder to find pine nuts that aren't downright scary, and in a very different way than my Frazier Park trip. Most that we now see are from China. I don't like buying much of anything from China, but food scares me to death. Also, since pine nuts are very fragile after shelling, and the shells are heavy, they are almost always shelled there before shipping and then treated with chemicals to keep them from becoming too stale to sell. In China they can use products for this that are not legal in the US and other countries. This makes my skin crawl.

Luckily we have a few options in the US to buy pine nuts. Granted they require a little work to get them out of their shells, but no cactus threat is present. Follow the link below and check out their story. It's a much better story than mine.

American Pine Nuts | Fresh, Wild, Incredible | Buy Now and Support our Conservation Efforts |

Sunday, September 4, 2011

slow-cooked marinara sauce with a chicken option

For years one of my favorite pastimes was simmering a large pot of marinara sauce, sometimes two, on the stove. I'd end up with jar upon jar of rich, thick sauce for the freezer. Though in recent years, I've cut way back on my use of tomatoes, there's something comforting about the slow simmer of that sauce. The house just smells wonderful all day, which, of course, is one of my favorite things about slow-cooking and braising.

Though I used large, heavy pots for the fun of it, a crock pot works beautifully, too. The crock pot also has the advantage of needing much less attention during the long cooking process. This sauce goes together so quickly that you could even start it before work and come home wondering if you're in an Italian restaurant.

2  large yellow or white onions, sliced or chopped
5  cloves garlic, chopped
1 or 2 carrots, finely diced
1 pound mushrooms, sliced (canned will work here in a pinch)
2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 4 tablespoons Italian seasoning blend*, preferably one with red pepper flakes
2  15 ounce cans diced tomatoes
2  28 ounce cans tomato sauce**
sea salt and pepper
  • Brown onions and carrots in oil in a large saute pan.
  • Stir in mushrooms and brown slightly.
  • Add garlic and cook another minute or so.
  • Pour onion mix into crock pot and add seasonings, tomatoes, and tomato sauce. 
  • Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper to start.
  • Cook on low for at least 8 hours. The long, slow cooking is what creates a rich sauce.
  • Taste and add salt and pepper if needed.
*a combination of dried or fresh herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and parsley with a pinch of red pepper flakes can be used if you prefer.
**whole tomatoes may be substituted for tomato sauce, resulting in a lighter, though still tasty, sauce.

This sauce can be used as is over spaghetti squash or pasta, or it can be the basis of any number of dishes.

For a quick and easy chicken dish, one of my all-time favorites, add chicken pieces of your choice (I like thighs for this) to the uncooked sauce before beginning the 8 hour cook time. The chicken cooks with the sauce and comes out tender and moist, as it adds more depth to the sauce.

Freeze leftovers for quick dinners on weekdays.

Friday, September 2, 2011

who needs wheat?

Sometimes now when I look at older recipes, both mine and those of others, I am dumbfounded at how often we add gluten when it doesn't even add to the dish, certainly not substantially. The same holds true with dairy and soy, though I'm still holding fast to my right to whine where heavy cream and luscious cheeses are concerned. I'm thinking of this today partly because I'm reviewing dozens of my own chicken dishes and partly, too, because I recently read a comment from a newly diagnosed young mother who is cooking separate meals for her family and looking for better options.

When I look at my old notes---I don't often write recipes per se, at least not for my own use---I notice wheat flour and bread crumbs in most dishes. Few, if any, of these need the wheat. It was just always our go to grain. It was just there. It almost feels quaint now and a little foolish that I never questioned it. It would not have occurred to me that breading didn't have to be wheat or that gravy didn't have to start wit a wheat flour roux. Of course, I was familiar with corn meal or arrowroot or corn starch for these uses, but they never seemed adequate, and I never thought of any as good substitutes. Still, that was then, this is now, and I'm delighted to see that wheat is almost always replaceable with something, often something better.

For many, many dishes, sweet rice flour makes a beautiful sauce or gravy. It can even be used as you would wheat flour to make a roux with oil, pan drippings, or butter if you can use it. If you haven't tried sweet rice flour, you're in for a pleasant surprise. It is milled from short-grained, sticky rice, so it's more glutinous than that from long grained rice, making perfect as a thickener.

One way to use sweet rice flour when preparing crock pot dishes that adds a good deal of flavor is to dredge the meat in the flour and then brown it in small batches. Chicken pieces are especially good this way. Though they can be tossed into the crock pot raw with good results, coating the pieces in rice flour and browning first by sauteeing them on the stove in oil is worth the extra effort. When using whole chickens, sprinkling the rice flour over them before placing in the crock pot also works well. Whole chickens will usually brown nicely on their own in the crock pot.

With almost any recipe, you can mix the spices, herbs, salt, and pepper with the rice flour first and then use this mix to coat your chicken pieces before browning. Any unused seasoned flour should be added to the crock pot to flavor and thicken the dish.

Chicken Chile Verde is quick and easy in the crock pot. This dish can be made more or less firey by adjusting the quantity of hot peppers. Remember to check them when your cutting them if using fresh jalapeno or serrano  peppers. The heat varies so much from one to another that some may taste like bell peppers and others set your mouth on fire. I usually cut off the stem and touch the stem end, the part headed for the compost bucket, to my tongue. Do NOT do this if you are particularly sensitive to to hot and spicy foods. If you're really in a hurry, skip the browning step and layer all ingredients in crock pot. Browning adds to the flavor, but the dish is still very good without it. This recipe can easily be doubled. Note, too, that by leaving out the rice flour, which is in the dish to thicken primarily, this fits into a Paleo plan.
  • 1 onion, sliced or diced
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 cans, about 8 ounces, of mild whole or diced chiles
  • 1 15 ounce can tomatillos, drain most of the liquid
  • 2 to 4 serrano or jalapeno chiles, or a few tablespoons canned
  • 4 ounces chicken broth
  • 2 ounces sweet rice flour
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 to 3 tablespoons oil
  • 8 chicken thighs, cut in eighths (boneless, skinless thighs make it easier)
  1. Mix rice flour with dried herbs, salt & pepper. Add chicken pieces and mix well to coat.
  2. Brown onions and chicken pieces in a small amount of oil.
  3. Place chiles, garlic, and tomatillos in crock pot with any leftover flour mixture. Add browned chicken and onions.
  4. Pour broth evenly over top.
  5. Cover and cook on low for 4 to 6 hours.
  6. Check seasoning, add more salt and pepper if desired.
This is great served with rice, gluten-free tortillas, noodles, mashed cauliflower, or spaghetti squash.
Add a garnish of avocado slices, finely sliced green onions, and sour cream (if dairy works for you.)

More crock pot recipes to come.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

slow-cooked chicken

I love so many things about the return of fall, and though the temperatures where I live do not give us a hint, at least the calendar does. One of my favorite methods of cooking, one that fits right into the mood of autumn, is braising---braising almost anything. Roasting runs a close second, I must admit, and more on that very soon.

sauteed vegetables add flavor to lots of braised dishes

Braising fills the house with wonderful aromas for hours and hours. It's my favorite thing to do on slow weekend days as the temperatures begin to drop. Almost as nice, and better for working weekdays, is the crock pot. I remember when crock pots, like fondue sets, were the stuff of jokes about overdone and never used wedding presents. Thankfully, both have had quite the comeback in recent years. Many recipes can easily go back and forth, from stovetop to crock pot or even into the oven depending on what we want to do at the time.

Carrie, at Ginger Lemon Girl, recently asked in a FaceBook post about people's favorite chicken recipes for the crock pot. Carrie bakes a lot, and I love to read her recipes and posts, as well as enjoy all her pictures of great food, though I, myself, am not much of a baker. But, now she's really speaking my language. Rather than fill her page with a miriad of chicken recipes and ideas, I decided to include them here.

So many chickens, so little time. What's not to like about chicken in the crock pot? It's versitle, it's inexpensive, it's quick, it's easy. Oh yeah, sometimes it's really dry. Chicken breasts will tend to dry out because they cook much more quickly since they have less fat within the muscle. For some it's a hard sell, but I recommend trying chicken thighs instead of breasts when cooking individual pieces in the crock pot. This applies to most braised and roasted recipes, as well. Stop grimmacing; try them at least once. Whole chickens also work well with attention to timing, as do whole legs.

Many of my recipes begin with diced onions and sliced mushrooms, too many my daughter would surely contend.

Crock Pot Chicken Methodology
A basic crock pot method is much more valuable than an individual recipe because, once mastered, it becomes dozens upon dozens of different dishes. One need only change an ingredient or two or three, and the dish is completely tranformed. We'll start with that and go on to many, many possibilities. Most will include vegetables with the chicken. If you have time to saute them before adding them to the crock pot, you'll enjoy additional depth of flavor. If not, they're still darned good.

I use a fairly large crock pot usually, though this method is completely adaptable to almost any size, except maybe the gravy boat or the mini crock.

Basic Crock Pot Chicken

1/2 to 1 cup onions, sliced or chopped
3 or 4 garlic cloves, whole, sliced, or chopped
2 carrots, thickly sliced
8 ounces mushrooms, thickly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves
2 to 3 tablespoons oil (only if you saute vegetables first)
4 to 8 ounces chicken broth, I use Pacific
8 chicken thighs or 1 whole chicken
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
sea salt
black pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons sweet rice flour (completely optional.)

If you plan to saute vegetables, do this first in a few tablespoons of olive oil or chicken fat. Coconut oil would also work well here. This step is optional but fun and rewarding if you have the time.
  • Layer ingredients in the crockpot: vegetables first, sprinkle with rice flour if using, add chicken, then tarragon, salt, pepper, and broth. About the rice flour, while I love the way it thickens a dish like this, I don't use grains anymore. I'm still playing with other thickeners but haven't zeroed in on anything.
  • TaDa! Cover and cook. At low heat this should take from 6 to 8 hours. At high heat, four hours should be plenty.
Remember that crock pot temperatures and cooking speeds vary tremendously, so if you know how yours heats, let your experience lead you where time and temp are concerned.

As in any dish, if you know you don't like an ingredient, say tarragon leaves, don't use them. Substitute an herb you do like, thyme is one of my favorites, or leave it out entirely. It'll still be great. My next post will include many, many options for chicken, including chile verde and an Italian-style  with spicy tomato sauce.