Sunday, August 31, 2008

How Cool Is This?

How is this for a cool birthday gift? In addition to some really great new cookwear and gadgets (which I'm sure you'll hear and see more about in coming posts), a subscription to Cooks Illustrated, all sorts of great books and some really beautiful pottery, I received a subscription to "Living Without" magazine. This magazine is devoted to people with allergies and food sensitivities. I admit, I'd never seen this one before and I can't wait to delve in and see what it's all about. A quick glance showed a TON of information on all sorts of allergies and plenty of good-looking recipes.
So, if you've never seen this magazine, go check it out. I'd love to hear your opinions!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Oh-So-Adaptable Pasta

If you have any sort of restricted diet, you have to love pasta. It’s enormous adaptability is a relief, isn’t it? There are so many combinations of ingredients that can be mixed with pasta. Additionally, you can serve it hot or cold. All-weather food!

There are plenty of options just in the pasta, too. You can find whole grain pasta, pasta with vegetables in it, pasta with supplements such as fiber and calcium, low carbohydrate pasta and even gluten free pasta. With so many options, it is much easier to add variety to your diet with this very simple food.

Now, I have a significant tomato allergy and I need to avoid dairy so the traditional tomato and cream sauces aren’t on my menu. But that doesn’t mean I need to skip pasta altogether. The picture above was dinner last night. Now, my son and husband are very fond of marinara sauce so their pasta was served that way. Mine was tossed with diced red onion, diced celery, fresh parsley and roasted almonds with just a drizzle of olive oil. Flavor, texture and color all together and it was great! I could toss it with vegetables and a prepared salad dressing, chill it and have a great pasta salad to serve as a side dish. In fact, I will probably do that for our Indoor Birthday Picnic on Sunday. I’m thinking my favorite Greek dressing will make a great pasta salad.

This is why pasta is such a great meal for families with dietary considerations. Each serving can be personalized to suit the needs of the person eating. Any vegetable combination, any sauce, cheese, no cheese and any other ingredient you can imagine can be served up and the entire family can sit down together. Kids can help prepare and choose their own pasta toppings and tossings. I think we all know why this is a great thing, right? Kids need to learn to cook and learn about the food they eat so as to learn to make wise food choices throughout their lives. Plus, the time spent preparing and eating the meal together is good for everyone.

So, let’s hear it for Super Adaptable Pasta! It’s a great lunch, dinner or side. Let’s go eat that!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Chocolate Mousse - dairy-free, sugar-free options

Have I ever mentioned how much I love chocolate? Believe me, it’s a lot. I also appreciate a really nice mousse. However, since I need to avoid dairy, this isn’t so easy to find. But it isn’t impossible. In fact, it is possible to put together a very nice chocolate-mint mousse that is healthy (healthy???), very simple and delicious. Ready for this?

For 4 – 6 servings, you’ll need:

· 12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips (or equivalent quantity of unsweetened baking chocolate)
· 2 packages of extra firm tofu (12.3 oz each) - chilled
· 8 oz tub of non-dairy whipped topping
· 2 tsp vanilla extract
· 2 tsp mint extract (I used peppermint)
· Alternative sweetener to taste (if you use unsweetened baking chocolate)
· Whipped topping and cherries to garnish

In a blender, combine the chocolate, tofu, whipped topping, vanilla and mint. Blend until smooth. If you are using semi-sweet morsels, you will not need any further sweetening. If you are using baking chocolate, you may want to add a bit of sweetener. Add just a little at a time, tasting often until it is to your taste. This should be served right away and can be topped with a dollop of whipped topping and a cherry.

As always, there are all sorts of alternatives possible. If you would rather use whipped cream instead of non-dairy topping, go for it. Don’t like mint? How about almond extract or orange extract? You could use your favorite liqueur, as well. Not fond of chocolate? Try soy nut butter, peanut butter, almond butter, white chocolate or even butterscotch chips. Of course, if you use the white chocolate or the butterscotch chips, be aware that they will be considerably sweeter and may not be available sugar-free.

As I mentioned, this is something that should be served right away since tofu can separate in the refrigerator. However, if you do need to refrigerate it and it separates, it can be blended again and will be just fine. Best of all, this is such a simple dessert, you can toss it together at a moment’s notice.

So, let’s go eat that!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Avocado and Salmon Salad

Ever have one of those weeks? A stretch of days where everything you have to do snowballs and knocks you flat so that, by the weekend, the last thing in the world you want is to work hard for your dinner? I’m betting you have. Probably more than one week like that. Well, I just had one of those weeks and I found myself too tired to even bother with any sort of take away. I wanted something simple, flavorful and healthy but I didn’t want to expend a lot of effort. This avocado and salmon salad was the very thing. Non-dairy, no sugar added, egg-free, gluten-free, low sodium and easily adaptable, this salad is a wonderful and healthy dish that can be whipped up in literally minutes. Here’s how it goes.

You’ll need:

· 1 ripe avocado (it should be give a bit in your fingers but the skin should be undamaged)
· ¼ tsp ginger (I used ground ginger but fresh ginger is great if you have it on hand)
· 1 tsp celery seed
· ½ tsp salt (can be omitted)
· 2 T lime juice
· 2 tsp low sodium soy sauce
· 1 – 2 tsp minced fresh parsley
· ¼ cup minced onion (I used a sweet onion but you can use any onion, including scallions if you’d like)
· 6 oz canned salmon, drained (this can be rinsed and drained if it is more sodium than you want to have)

Mix together the avocado, ginger, celery seed, salt, lime juice, soy sauce and parsley until fairly smooth. It will have a consistency similar to mayonnaise. Add the onion and salmon and mix well.

That’s it! This is excellent on crackers, wrapped in lettuce leaves, on toast points, wrapped in a tortilla or on a simple sandwich. Want to hear about alternatives? No problem. Switch out the salmon for tuna, if you’d like. Add additional diced vegetables such as sweet peppers or celery. You can add diced apple and toasted sunflower seeds, as well, if you’d like a bit more crunch. Very adaptable.

I don’t suppose I need to remind you of the benefits of using avocado in place of mayonnaise, do I? In case you haven’t already heard, avocado, while reasonably high in fat, is loaded with monounsaturated fats which are quite healthy when eaten in moderation. Monounsaturated fats can even help reduce blood cholesterol. Additionally, avocados are high in B vitamins which are so good for many body functions as well as overall energy levels.

So, if you’re in a bit of a hurry for a healthy, flavorful meal that is a bit of something different, give this salad a try. Let’s go eat that!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Tomato-Free Baked Beans

Mmmm… baked beans. I love them. Unfortunately, most canned baked beans include tomato sauce and tomatoes are a no-go for me. There are a few tomato-free brands but that doesn’t give a person much variety. So, since my son loves legumes of nearly all types (he’s not so into garbanzo beans but what the heck) and I like them too, I thought it might be fun to try something a little different and go for a flavor that might even entice my husband who really isn’t such a bean fan.

Here’s what I did. You’ll need:

· 6 C dry Great Northern beans
· 1 quart chicken stock
· 1 clove of garlic, minced
· 2 T lime juice
· 8 oz can of pineapple chunks in juice (NOT syrup)
· 4 T maple syrup (I used sugar-free maple syrup)
· 1 T rice vinegar
· 2 T lite soy sauce
· 1 tsp celery salt
· ¼ sweet onion (medium to large)
· Salt and pepper to taste

This is not a quick recipe but it is fairly low effort. First of all, you’ll need to soak the beans in water overnight. After that, drain away the water and put the beans in a large stock pot with the chicken stock, garlic, lime juice and a dash of salt and pepper. Bring to a low boil for about an hour.

Add the pineapple chunks with juice, maple syrup, vinegar, soy sauce, celery salt and onion. At this point, you can continue cooking the beans on the stove top or transfer them to the slow cooker. If you choose the slow cooker, be aware that you will need to allow the beans to cook for 7 – 8 hours. Certainly, the quickest method is on the stove top (about another hour) but the slow cooker does allow you to leave them while you go about your business. In the end, you need to cook the beans until they are tender.

Near the end of the cooking process, taste and add more salt and pepper as desired.

This is a great side dish for a pot luck since it makes a LOT of beans. If you are using it as a side dish for a smaller group, cut the recipe in half. My son will happily eat these as a main dish with a green salad and I like them as a quick, satisfying lunch. As you might imagine, these beans are great as leftovers though I have never tried freezing them. You can certainly give that a try but don’t be too disappointed if the beans are made mushy by the freezing and thawing. Of course, you may not mind that so more power to you.

Alterantives and additions? You bet. You can switch out beef or turkey stock for the chicken stock. You can add other vegetables to make it more of a stew. Carrots and celery would be great in this. If you prefer more of a soup instead of a thicker stew or baked bean casserole texture, add more stock.

Legumes are fantastic, healthy protein and fiber sources so, let’s go eat that!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What Is It About Milk, Anyway?

In general, I think it is enough just to know I’m allergic to a certain food. I know I shouldn’t eat it because it results in reactions I really don’t want. I need to know how to get along without it in terms of selecting and cooking foods but I don’t really need a lecture in immunology and food chemistry that would tell me just why I’m allergic.

Except, sometimes, the biology teacher in me resurfaces and I really do wonder.

Since I sometimes wonder, I figure it is more than likely that many, many other people do, as well. In today’s internet savvy age, it is equally likely that many of you already sought out and found this information. Well, for those of us only just getting curious or who are just too busy to have ferreted out the facts, here is some information on just why a person would be allergic to dairy.

Some time ago, I did an entry on the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity ( and in that, I mentioned that an allergic reaction to a food resulted in an overproduction of immunoglobulin E and histamines that bring on the unpleasant hives, itching, swelling and so on that we all recognize with allergies. So, what is in the food that triggers the reaction?

As it happens, it is the proteins in dairy that are the culprits. Specifically, the whey and caseins are the substances in milk and milk products that trigger reactions in allergic individuals. Now, in general, dairy allergies are more common in children and are often outgrown. But, for those of us who find themselves allergic even in adulthood, the problem is the same. Our bodies simply don’t recognize the proteins as safe food and our bodies react as if it was an invasion.

This is different from lactose intolerance, of course. Lactose intolerance is the result of the body’s lack of the enzyme lactase that breaks down milk sugar (lactose) for digestion. Lactose intolerance is characterized by digestive upset which is quite different from an allergic reaction. It doesn’t involve an overreaction of the immune system.

If you are unsure if your difficulty with dairy is the result of lactose intolerance or an allergy, take the time to consult your doctor. Information is always our best ally. To that end, here is a link to confirm the information I’ve handed out today.

So, armed with some more information and understanding about why we need to eat the way we do, let’s go eat that!

Monday, August 11, 2008

When Eating Out Really Works

Here I am, back from my conference! As I said before I left, I had already done my research and made my plans so I anticipated having few problems finding foods I could easily eat while away from home. I have to tell you, it worked out even better than I had hoped. Let me pass along some well-earned praise and tell you what happened.

I was in Chicago this past week and the conference hotel was the Hilton Chicago. First of all, this is a beautiful location and, knowing that they pride themselves on service to their guests, I took advantage of this fact. I asked for substitutions in my meals as needed and they were extremely gracious. The conference had already made arrangements with the hotel catering staff to provide special plates for me for the opening dinner and keynote luncheon I was attending. By making a point of keeping my request quite simple, it was a simple thing for the caterers to accomodate. At the dinner, I had a simple grilled chicken breast and steamed spinach. It was done beautifully and the servers, knowing it was a special plate due to food allergies, could not do enough to be sure I had whatever I wanted. Seriously, lots of applause for the service staff at the Hilton Chicago. They are TOP NOTCH. At the keynote luncheon, they had planned a pasta bar but none of the sauces and toppings were going to work for me. Again, I opted to keep my request super simple and they brought me a plate of plain pasta tossed with extra virgin olive oil. Tucked in my tote bag, I had a can of dry-roasted, salted almonds. I added a handful of those to my pasta and had a lovely lunch. The waiter was only too happy to substitute a nice fresh apple for the salad I couldn't have and that even took the place of dessert. Perfect! At the hotel restaurant, I was able to order with only a few, minor alterations which they were quite happy to make for me.

I also took a side trip to The Plaza At the Park Grill in Millenium Park. What a lovely place! The Park Grill is open year round but The Plaza is a warm weather place. In winter, the area is a pretty ice rink but summer makes it a pleasant place for outdoor dining and people watching. It was casual and the menu was varied. This variety in the menu meant it was a simple thing for me to order a meal and ask for only a few, simple changes. In my case, I ordered a very nice Kobe beef burger and only had to ask that they leave off the gorgonzola and the bun. Again, it was simple and they were very happy to accomodate so we had a very nice meal.

I did have the hotel put a small refrigerator in my room so I was able to keep some snacks and small meals right there in my room for times when I didn't really want the bigger restaurant food.

So folks, there it is. Proof. A bit of preparation and a willingness to ask for minor changes makes it an easy thing to go out for dinner and to go on vacations without worrying about what and how you will eat.

So, get out there and let's go eat that!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Traveling and Eating Out On a Specialized Diet

It’s hard enough to eat in a restaurant when you are concerned about calories, fats and cholesterol. Thankfully, more and more of our favorite places are offering healthier alternatives on their menus and the occasional meal that doesn’t precisely meet our caloric goals needn’t be a serious problem. However, when you must consider food allergies, sensitivities, diabetes and other less forgiving dietary needs, it can become a real challenge to eat away from your own kitchen. For many of us, it really is such a bother, fuss and even a risk that we simply don’t. It’s unfortunate and not a lot of fun sometimes but it can feel as if there is no other choice.

Here’s the good news. There are plenty of choices if you are willing to do just a bit of research, speak up at the right moment and can be just a bit flexible. Let me explain what I mean by starting with a vacation.

The first thing I do after we choose our destination is find out about restaurants in the hotel or around where we’ll be staying. This sort of information is readily available online and in guidebooks. The fast food chain restaurants are easy to research since most will list their ingredients on their websites. This means you can plan at least some of your meals before you even leave home. In the more traditional, sit-down restaurants, you can call ahead and ask about their ability to accommodate special requests. Most establishments are happy to cooperate and provide their patrons with a meal that will suit special dietary needs. A word of advice on this, if I may. When you do arrive for your meal, be considerate and keep your requests simple. Asking for basic dishes that have been adjusted to your needs will make it easier and more pleasant for all involved. Also, be prepared with your request and don’t make the server play Twenty Questions with you to figure out what the chef should prepare.

Just checking into surrounding restaurants will likely take care of your concerns. However, there are additional options. If you will have a refrigerator and maybe even a microwave where you will be staying, plan to have at least some of your meals and your snacks in your room. When you arrange your accommodations, you can ask about markets and grocery stores in the vicinity. Now, before you start chucking imaginary tomatoes my way, hear me out. I know having to do all the cooking and cleaning up on a vacation isn’t really what most of us have in mind. However, planning to have breakfast or lunch in the room each day really isn’t such a hardship, is it? Even an occasional dinner in the room can be relaxing after a full day of sight-seeing and the like. As an added benefit, just consider the savings over eating three meals a day in restaurants. Even if your hotel charges an additional fee to have a refrigerator in your room, you will still end up saving more than you spent and will have the convenience of having at least some of the foods you need right at hand.

I promise you, this is really very easy and it works. A recent trip to Disneyland was made very easy by the ingredient lists available everywhere, even the small snack carts scattered around the park. Remember to ask at any fast food location, even if you couldn’t find their ingredients lists online. They will be able to provide you with the information right there in the restaurant.

Of course, going to restaurants in your home town is even easier. Just a few local calls will give you a list of places where you can go to have a great meal made to suit your needs. You don’t need to be afraid to ask. If they can’t or won’t accommodate your dietary needs, you didn’t really want to eat there anyway, right? Just remember, try to keep your requests as simple as possible, know what your restrictions are so as to be ready to explain them succinctly and be as flexible as you can.

I’ll be on a brief hiatus for the next week or so since I’ll be out of town at a conference. And yes, I did call ahead and do my research. The conference staff has most kindly helped arrange special plates for me at keynote luncheons and dinners, the hotel has arranged to provide a refrigerator in my room and the conference staff helped me locate a grocery store that is walking distance from the hotel. I won’t have to worry about finding safe, healthy meals on this trip and it required only a few emails, a bit of time online and a phone call.

Don’t let your special diet keep you from the fun of a vacation or an evening out with friends and family. Let’s go eat that!