Saturday, December 27, 2008

Substitutions: Tamarind for Citrus

It's been a croupy December for the two of us, as we succumbed in succession to the bug du jour. Thankfully it's only wheezing and sneezing, but enough to keep us from much holiday partying. We've been grateful for an Ayurvedic winter tea passed on by our wonderful yoga instructor. Designed as a warming drink, it calls for fresh ginger, star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, and orange peel boiled for ten minutes and strained. No sugar needed--it's delicious. And a daily dose seems to help my winter circulation. Much less cold in hands and feet now, after a week of sipping this.

Orange peel is one of those iffy items for James -- it's less loaded with citric acid than oranges per se, but he'd still rather avoid it. Substituting for citrus is always difficult. There are so few foodstuffs with the same zing. Verjus, rice wine vinegar, cider vinegar, booze -- there are a range of possibilities but few with the tang of oranges.

Tamarind came to mind. At Trader Joe's we found an excellent dried (but soft) version seasoned with peppers that had just the spark we wanted. So we are happily sipping our tea, hoping to outlast the colds, and enjoying one more discovering in the world of culinary substitutions.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gluten-Free Thanksgiving Inspiration

Some great inspirational holiday ideas for the gluten-intolerant on Gluten-Free Girl, one of my favorite foodie blogs. A permanent link to this and other inspirational food blogs is at left.

So much of coping with food intolerances is about attitude. Think of all the things you can eat, rather than focusing on the ones you can't. Enjoy what you can, and learn ways to adapt your old favorites to your new lifestyle.

For example, we won't be attempting the luscious chocolate cupcakes shown on Gluten-Free Girl since chocolate is a severe allergen for James--technically it's a nerve poison. We get our chocolate fix from the Barley Brownies on Bob's Red Mill website. They're quick, easy, and yummy. The cupcakes call for many ingredients on his allergy list -- dairy, lemon, chocolate -- and baking is a precise art. We are better off looking at other flavors.

Tomorrow I'll be trying two new recipes to transport to a group Thanksgiving: a eggplant-pepper Caponata from Dr. Andrew Weil that's completely safe for James as written, and a sweet potato-pecan pie adapted from John Thorne's Outlaw Cook. For the pie, the only substitution will be using non-dairy milk. I'm going to try cocoanut. And either making a gluten-free crust, or simply baking the pie as a pudding. More on Friday about how these turn out!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Labels: A Good Thing

One considerate hostess we know -- with food sensitives among her family and friends -- goes all out for ingredient listing. These small, elegant signs accompanied each item on her buffet.
From BAERS Russian Tea

A special plate with its own ingredient label, was set aside for James. (There is sometimes a problem when the special food is TOO yummy and gets eaten by the normals before the allergic ones get to the buffet.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Holiday Cheer: Dealing with Parties

Parties can be torment for the food-group challenged. Fortunately so many people now have dietary restrictions that few hosts insist on everyone consuming what is set before them. (If you do encounter someone who is old school on this subject, use all your assertiveness training.)

You can help by checking in advance with your host. If food is a major part of the evening, explain the food allergies involved and offer to bring something for the buffet. Since most desserts are toxic to James, and I welcome the chance to make something new, I generally volunteer for sweets.

From Clafouti &c

Here are some photos of our fall favorites at some parties. Learning as I go, I now cut the cakes into bite size pieces and arrange them on a plate I won't miss if it's left behind. I'm stocking up on classy paper plates for the winter gatherings.

From Clafouti &c

I'm also looking into appetizers. There's a caponata that's safe for James as is in the latest newsletter from Dr. Andrew Weil. It is so going to Thanksgiving.

Holiday Cheer: Inventing A New Drink

The weather was cold and damp, it was late at night, and James wanted an eggnog-like drink. Since he's allergic to cow dairy, he thought of almond milk and brandy. We had some Korbel spiced brandy on hand for cooking, and a jigger of that in 3/4 cup warm almond milk, with some grated nutmeg on top, was celebratory enough for us.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Goats Are Our Friends

Allergic to cow's milk? Goats (and the occasional sheep) may be your friends as well.

Goat and sheep cheeses have long been staples in areas like Greece and Spain, where rugged country makes dairy cows impractical. In recent years goat cheese has gone from a gourmet treat to a mainstream staple. The new cheeses are light, fresh, and less "goat-y" in flavor. Even hard cheeses can be found in gourmet sections.

Goat and sheep cheese make wonderful substitutions as well as treats on their own. The simple log chevre can stand in for cream cheese, neufchatel, or cottage cheese in recipes. Peccorino romano, in the pint bin from Trader Joe's, substitutes handily for parmesan. These are widely available. For more specialized varieties, like goat ricotta, you must seek out an upscale market, cheese store, or mail order. Or go directly to the source.

Fortunately we live in foodie central, Northern California. One of the nation's finest goat farms is just "over the hill" on the coast, near Pescadero. Harley Farms produces wonderful cheeses, and it is a joy to visit. The cheese shop is open 7 days a week, with varieties like the ricotta that aren't always in the market. You can step upstairs to the great room overlooking the farm. Flower beds grow the edible flowers that adorn the charming Monet cheeses. The goats, under the watchful eye of their guard llamas, come tumbling in for milking in the late afternoon.

We were pleasantly surprised when Sunset Magazine included Harley Farms, and a photo of their wonderful "upper room" in the August issue.

Goat are a full-service dairy animal. They also provide milk, long considered superior to cow's milk for children and invalids, and easier to digest. Goat milk is a natural substitute for recipes where milky goodness is called upon, such as white sauce, bisque, or baking.

And miracle of miracles, we do find goat butter now and then. It's almost $10 a pound, so we use it sparingly. There is nothing quite like butter on toast or baked potatoes. Goat butter tastes slightly "off" compared to butter, as if the cows had gotten into the silage after eating fresh grass all summer. But I prefer it to all the chemical substitutes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Substitutions: The Key to Sanity

When cooking for someone with multiple food allergies, there will be no one cookbook you can follow exactly. Special cookbooks eliminate one or more allergens, or avoid food groups such as meat or dairy. There's nothing on the market --- yet --- for someone avoiding bovine dairy, citrus, tomatoes, pineapple, mint, chocolate, and cola.

Luckily nowadays many of us are foodies, and options are available. Here are some of my favorite ways to substitute.

Find recipes that eliminate allergens. Start with cookbooks that avoid gluten or dairy. Find cuisines that don't rely on food you must avoid. Vegetarian or kosher cooking might have some ideas.

Look at traditional cuisines. Alsatian food, for example, uses German ingredients with French flair, and much less use of the butter, cream, and tomatoes we avoid.

Can't eat citrus? Find other tastes with zing to replace lemons, lime and oranges. Consider using ginger, nutmeg, fine vinegars, or liqueurs like kirsch as seasoning accents. Learn to love stonefruit in its seasonal variety instead of oranges.

Be an Iron Chef. We fell for this show in the Japanese version before it had subtitles, making it something from a parallel universe. The chefs must create four new dishes using the theme ingredient within one hour. When cooking for the allergic, one must be just as creative at home. Try something new! Be free to invent your own variations. Be glad you are not competing in Kitchen Stadium.

Don't attempt the impossible. Sometimes the real taste just can't be replicated. You are better off learning to enjoy new tastes than to feel frustrated or cheated by an inadequate replica. If the recipe you want relies on primary ingredients you can't have, look for another recipe.

Keep a sense of humor. We joke about recipes combining all James' allergens. Martha Stewart's pineapple-chocolate cheesecake with mint is one of the all-time winners in the "death to James" category.

Enjoy. It's food, it's nourishing, it's an adventure.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Desserts: Wheat-free Sherry Walnut Cake

From Clafouti &c

Last Saturday I tried another recipe from The Wheat-Free Cook by Jacqueline Mallorca (my review here -- and don't hesitate to buy this book as it's now remaindered at Hamilton). The cake was wheat-free, cholesterol-free, and happily consumed by a picnic of costumers in 1920s vintage. Considering it shared the dessert table with a fabulous rum-drenched chocolate cake from a professional bakery, that was compliment enough for me. The simple cake was particularly with a bowl of late season peaches from the farmers market that morning.

From Clafouti &c

In Mallorca's innovative style, the cake uses eggbeaters, not real eggs, with dry sherry and finely chopped walnuts giving the flavor. She calls for orange zest, to which James is allergic, so I let the sugar sit with fresh grated nutmeg instead. (Seemed to go with the Spanish theme -- heart-healthy olive oil is the fat.)

I'm not sure how old the technique of beating eggs and sugar to the ribbon stage is, but a simple cake like this is certainly good for The Gatsby (1920s), impressionist dinners (1890s), and won't be out of place for an English Regency Russian tea later this month. It requires no refrigeration, travels well, and needs only a touch of powdered sugar and an attractive serving plate to appear in the best company. As the photos attest, the cake was well-received at some fine costumed events.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Shortcuts: Taking The Easy Way

Sometimes it's all too much. Cooking from scratch and intelligent food shopping take time, and they can go out the window when priorities collide.

Help is available for those avoiding food allergens.

For the gluten-intolerant, there are more and more products coming on the market. We are impressed by Glutino projects -- see for details. Their corn bread (which tastes like a good white bread, not what Americans call corn bread) has a permanent home in our freezer. It's milk- and casein-free, with no hydrogenated oil or refined sugar. (There are gluten-free goodies that are full of buttery goodness, which makes them unsuitable for the dairy-intolerant.)

Glutino breads are imported from Canada, so the flabby dollar makes them pricey even by Drager's standards. With the freezing and the sturdiness of the bread -- some brands fall apart in the process -- I think we are getting our money's worth. (In defense of Draeger's, a high-end grocery shopping experience in the Bay Area along the lines of Harrod's in London, they offer an astounding variety of foodstuffs, the produce and meats are impeccable, and you can find moderate seasonal values.)

Another great service arrived this morning. I'm a subscriber to spud! (Small Potatoes Urban Delivery). Spud! replaced our former vegetable delivery service, which I suspected of purchasing organic veggies just prior to the leftovers being set aside for senior centers. Spud! uses sturdy Rubbermaid bins for the delivery, which keep cool on our porch until I'm home.

Best of all, you can customize your deliveries online. I'm set up for a bi-weekly organic Fresh Harvest Box. I can exclude specific fruits (ixnay on the inapple-pay), tweak my order in advance, or add grocery items. A blessing indeed if you are busy, housebound, or trying to drive less. We get the organic produce that's better for us and for the planet.

In my fantasies, I'm shopping the farmer's market twice a week like a sagacious French housewife. Or whipping up brilliant creations from the mystery boxes dropped off from the local CSAs -- Community Supported Agriculture boxes that give you whatever is freshest at farms that supply the likes of Chez Panisse and Boulevard.

In reality, we're lucky to have something fresh and nutritious at home at all. So I'm grateful for the shortcuts that help us eat sensibly at home.

N.B. You can get $25 off on your first 4 deliveries with Spud! if you use my code, CR5-992696 when you sign up.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Adapting: Inspirations from today's Chron

Lots of inspiration for the gluten-free and allergy-prone in today's food section of the SF Chronicle.

In Sweet and low, Marlene Sorosky Gray mentions several desserts that adapt well for special dietary needs (as well as for dieters). Ripe fruit, baked or poached fruit, and meringue are flexible and gluten-free by nature. (Just avoid fruits to which you are allergic.) Sorbets can be made at home. You can take a pie recipe and turn it into a crisp, sprinkling the filling with a gluten-free topping. Out of five published recipes, I can use two as written (the poached peaches and meringue torte), two with mild modifications (my apricot-cherry crisp would use teff or buckwheat flour, my melon sorbet would substitute ginger for mint), and the last by turning the pie into a crisp or trying one of the crusts in The Wheat Free Cook. Mmm.

Amanda Berne's The Accidental Vegetarian reminds me of two good inspirations for cooking around allergies. First, vegan recipes can be a great resource for avoiding dairy. One of these days I will review the Veganomicon, an excellent book for those who are daunted by new ingredients, such as beans that don't come from a can. (Note: the authors have a keen web site, the PostPunk Kitchen.) Second, the pasta salad suggestions can all be made up with the new gluten-free pastas on the shelf in many markets. I've not seen orecchiette so far, but this would be tasty using elbow or spiral brown rice pasta.

Marlene Spieler's Roving Feast features salade nicoise, another taste delight that is safe for James. His tomatoes are flung onto my plate as soon as his arrives, and we're both happy.

Gear: Prep Bowls

Cooking with gluten-free flours involves more measuring than conventional recipes. Typical gluten-free recipes will replace 1 cup of regular flour with 1/2 cup of heavy non-wheat flour (sorghum, rice, corn, etc.) and 1/2 cup of light flour (potato flour, cornstarch, tapioca starch), plus the pricey but invaluable xanthan gum that keeps your baked good from collapsing like an overdone souffle.

Let's just say, it's easy for me to lose track of where I am in the measuring process. So these handy little prep bowls have been a great help. Designed by television chef Mario Batali, these five nesting bowls have two measurements inside, one for the full cup and one for the half. You can measure and prep at the same time.

They work well for other ingredients besides flour, and can go to the everyday table with condiments for tacos.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Technique: Why Bother?

Excellent article in the Wednesday Food section of the SF Chronicle, preserved on the sfgate website, on Kitchen Essentials: 10 techniques every cook should know.

Understanding cooking technique has been most helpful to me in coping with the substitutions and in reviewing potential recipes.

Of the techniques covered in this article, folding has been my favorite for years, even before wheat departed my cooking. When you can't rely on wheat to hold up your baking, eggs can step in to save the day. In searching for recipes that will work for us, I know those with beaten eggs can survive my rampant substitutions because the egg whites will do the heavy lifting.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Dining Out: Pick A Cuisine

Dining out becomes a nightmare for the food sensitive. Luckily many restaurants are posting ingredients as a matter of course. We praise this trend lavishly, as it saves cross-examining the wait staff. Also, the mere mention of food allergies now brings prompt attention, as so many people have potentially fatal allergies to foods such as peanuts. Responsible restaurants prefer customers who are not rendered comatose by the food.

One way to smooth dining out with allergies is to check out various national cuisines. Oriental food, for example, is less apt to have many of James' known offenders. This involves some research and questioning about typical food preparation for Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, or Malaysian dishes. Fortunately restaurant staff are usually patient, polite, knowledgeable, and at worst, willing to find someone who can answer your questions. (Our rule of thumb for ethnic cuisine: the good restaurants have a high proportion of diners of a corresponding ethnicity. Bonus points if the menu is dual-language.)

So, for example, we learn that soba noodles have wheat, but rice noodles do not. Inventive dessert treats can be made with rice flour and bean paste. Sweet and sour sauce gets its zing from tomatoes and pineapple, so I wait 'til I'm dining with girlfriends and we order all the yummies our men eschew for their various reasons. Other strategies: Food that is cooked to order can often be made without the offending ingredients. Sauces can be put on the side. Yes, you do have to ask for special treatment, but this is the assertiveness 1A. Polite requests are rarely a problem, and when they are, you have the power to never darken their door again. (That's another post.)

Our latest oriental restaurant find is Banana Island Restaurant in Daly City, a crossroads of Thai-Malaysian-Singapore cuisine. Tucked away inside the Westlake Mall, Banana Island survived a prolonged isolation during the construction of a garage that blocked its only entrance. Business was apparently not harmed, as the place was always busy but not packed. The menu is vast and colorful. The Singapore tofu is ethereal; they make it there. In the center kitchen, you can watch chefs stretching and folding a rice flour bread that comes with a yummy curry dipping sauce. Coconut milk is used instead of cow dairy. Prices are moderate. Service is prompt and efficient, whether you are a large group or a twosome. I found no web page for Banana Island but two pages of restaurant reviews come up when you google it. Yum!

Monday, June 23, 2008

IN REVIEW: The Wheat-Free Cook by Jacqueline Mallorca

"Make every recipe in this book!" was James' enthusiastic endorsement when I showed him a copy of "The Wheat-Free Cook: Gluten-Free Recipes for Everyone" by Jacqueline Mallorca [Morrow, 2007]. With nearly 200 pages of recipes, I've kitchen-tested only about a quarter so far. After trying a dozen gluten-free cookbooks, this is by far my favorite. It got rave reviews during a recent vacation where I whipped up gluten-free breadstuffs every day for our hostess, who had recently joined the ranks of the wheat-intolerant. Even the omnivorous Marin foodies were impressed.

There's a lot to like. Unlike other gluten-free cookbooks, there is little redundancy in content or technique. Each recipe delivers something different and distinct in taste and ingredients. A certified foodie herself, Mallorca worked as assistant to James Beard and helped Chuck Williams with the first Williams Sonoma catalog. This gal knows her way around a kitchen, and was not about to take a diagnosis of gluten-intolerance as the end of her eating adventures. She's created simple, easy-to-prepare dishes that will please anyone's palate. Yes, there is a gourmet sensibility at work here. She pays attention to ingredients, and sun-dried tomatoes and saffron are not in every larder. But these are not daunting recipes, just what I'd imagine a professional cook might whip up at home when she wants to spend most of her evening relaxing with friends over a glass of wine.

As an amateur cooking historian, I'm blown away by Mallorca's ability to use a range of culinary techniques. One surefire success was the four-ingredient chocolate-walnut cake on page 191, which replaced an abandoned favorite picnic treat in my repertoire. (Since James is extremely allergic to chocolate, I substitute the carob powder from Bob's Red Mill for the natural cocoa powder, and it's still very tasty, happily consumed by the "normals".) Mallorca calls for walnuts, pulsed with the cocoa in the food processor. Then she beats Eggbeaters with a cups of sugar, until the mixture reaches the ribbon stage. The Eggbeaters thicken more quickly than eggs, besides having less cholesterol. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Voila! An elegant torte that can go to the finest of events.

Pay attention to her every instruction or your results will be less perfect than they might have been. When she says, roll the teaspoon of canola oil around your preheated skillet, don't use cooking spray on an unheated one as I recently did. The flaxmeal skillet bread on page 143 still turned out but did not have as nice a color or crust.

And, with a nod to fine purveyors of kitchen equipment like Williams-Sonoma, Mallorca explains just why you might want to acquire a specific piece. Perhaps the buckwheat spaetzle on page 81 will turn out better if I get the spaetzle press. They were tasty home fare but a bit blobby for company.

I gravitate to the breads and desserts because they are hardest to fake with the substitute flours. The book does contain tasty main dishes. Rice spaghetti alla carbonara on page 69, which uses up the Eggbeaters left over from the chocolate-walnut torte, and the rice spirals with asparagus featured on the cover are regulars at our dinner table, along with the goat cheese pizza with the rice flour crust on page 137.

The yogurt-rice flour pancakes on page 21 are our new breakfast treat. Yogurt is a magic ingredient in many breads. Ground blanched almonds appear in others. They both add a substance I find missing in other gluten-free recipes. Since James is allergic to cow dairy, we substitute goat yogurt and soy or goat milk.

I can go on and on. Just get the book and try for yourself.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Joy of Food Allergies: A Love Story

I met Mr. Wonderful in 1986. James was perfect for me in many ways, but a challenge to my culinary abilities. He came with food allergies to citrus fruit, bovine dairy, chocolate, cola, tomato, pineapple, mint, and asprin. Several years ago, he realized he was healthier avoiding wheat gluten as well. Since I particularly prided myself on my baking skills, this was a deep blow indeed.

But what can he eat, people exclaim--especially the unwitting who invite us for dinner. "The Joy of Food Allergies" was a title James envisioned for a book on how he coped with food allergies. Diagnosed at age twenty, he finally had a road map for the chronic malaise that had plagued him during his childhood. In typical resolute fashion, he set out to explore various world cuisines, and what they offered. He learned what goes into a typical sauce, or a classic food preparation (skip, for example, Chinese sweet and sour sauce with its tomato and pineapple).

I became his unofficial taster, ferreting out "buttery goodness" in baked goods or entrees, and gently luring him away from Mexican treats featuring lard. In gratitude for his boundless cheerfulness, I've tried my hand at substituting ingredients he can have in numerous recipes. After 22 years, I'm pretty good at this, and upon encouragement from my gluten-intolerant friends, I'm ready to blog about it.

So I'll be blogging about making food substitutions, my favorite recipe books, helpful equipment, useful web sites, and more. If I can stop to measure, I'll include some of my own creations, like the lasagna for which the egg was the only original ingredient. It did taste like lasagna, but was not better the next day, as a true lasagna should be.