Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happiness is unexpected benefits

Warning:  This post is not vegetarian-friendly

We discovered that the local super-stores put additives in their meat ("marinated in up to a 10% solution to maintain freshness!") but don't list the ingredients of said "solution".  Because we can't trust commercial products to be gluten free unless they label, I went on a meat quest.  Once you look beyond the megastores and their dye-soaked week-old overpriced cuts, it gets interesting.  I have an advantage of being in a smallish city surrounded by rural, so if I was really motivated I could always visit individual farms.  If I bought a chest freezer and found a place to put it, I could get half a cow for a big investment up front but a bargain per pound.  Unfortunately I don't have that $500-$1000 initial investment money for the freezer and cow.

Luckily I made a discovery.  It's called Quality Meats Incorporated, and it's the last of the multi-generational old-fashioned family run butcher shops within a hundred miles.  It's also less than ten minutes away from the house.  They use local meats that are hormone, antibiotic and additive-free.  They're in this tiny little bare-walls shop by the freeway that (not surprisingly) always has a crowd at the counter.  Everything's minimally processed with no gluten products.  Best yet, they're CHEAP.  Thick-cut smoked lean bacon right off the pig for less than $2.00 a pound.  If you can even find packaged bacon in the store that guarantees gluten-free, it'll be more than twice that price, and mostly fat that cooks away.  They even have "freezer packs" that are a 40 pound assortment of various meats and cuts for $50.  Steak under $3.00/lb.  Whole amish fryer chickens for $5.00.   

It seems silly to wax enthusiastic about meat, but this is the first time the search for gluten-free has led to finding something both better and cheaper than store products.  We've been struggling with the additional cost of this diet.  His body has finally realized it can get nutrition from food, so he's going through a couple gallons of milk a week, plus daily red meat and veggies.  It's an interesting study of intuitive eating, but this find allows us to pile on the proteins and iron while supporting a local family business and local small farmers.  It's a win all around.  I might have never discovered it if I hadn't been forced to think outside the big box stores. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Recipe Box: Chocolate Meringues (gluten free)


My favorite meringue is still slightly treacly and chewy in the middle, which is why I prefer homemade to boxed.  Really, they're so easy to make (despite their reputation) that it makes no sense to buy them.  They're a nice fancy addition to holiday cookie assortments, and because they're gluten, soy, and dairy-free, they can be eaten by most non-vegans. 

This recipe is for meringues with just a hint of chocolate, but you can easily make plain ones by eliminating the cocoa powder and 1/4 cup powdered sugar.  Adding 1/8 teaspoon of flavored extract (vanilla, orange, mint, etc.) will make that flavor cookies, but try it first with stronger flavors to make sure it doesn't wind up overwhelming.

4 large egg whites
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit

Mix dry ingredients in separate bowl and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. If you don't have parchment paper, butter the cookie sheets and dust with white rice flour.

In a mixing bowl, use an electric mixer to beat egg whites on low until frothy, then on high until soft peaks form.  Continue to mix on high, adding dry ingredients one tablespoon at a time and mixing in well before adding the next tablespoon.  When the mixture is able to form and hold stiff peaks, drop it in ping-pong ball size spoonfuls onto the parchment paper (or if you want to get fancy, use a pastry bag and toothed tip to make neat blobs).  Bake for 1 hour.  Let rest for 1 hour.  Store in fridge for up to one week (they never last more than a day here.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gluten-Free Product Reviews

I'll be going through gluten-free products with a vengeance (as our budget allows) in search of the ones that best compare with mainstream gluten-containing products.  Since I'm fairly new to this, there may be a lot I'm missing (i.e. ALL rice pasta tastes like kindergarten paste?).  I wanted to give my first impressions as someone just setting out to explore this new lifestyle, hopefully helping others with their own trial-and-error.

Bob's Red Mill Pizza Crust Mix

The first reaction is "OMG I can make homemade pizza again!"  happy dance.  My review is mixed and a bit hedged.  As a substitute for a commercial pizza crust mix, like Jiffy's, it holds up reasonably well!  As a substitute for my own homemade foccacia pizza crust, it falls flat.  That may be an entirely unreasonable expectation on my part, of course.  The good news is that the mix is actually complete; including a packet of yeast. It bakes well, holds it's form, and re-heats well in the microwave for at least three days (which is how long it took us to finish the pizzas).  The bad news is that it's bland, and somewhat mealy in texture.  I would highly recommend some doctoring if you do use it.  Try brushing the finished crust with garlic-flavored oil, mix Italian herbs into the dough, or sprinkle the outer crust with shredded cheddar cheese to bake into the bread.    The crust might also be made crispier if, after the initial bake or for the last ten minutes, it was put directly on the oven rack or a pizza stone instead of finishing in the pan.  Since each package makes two pizzas, you can experiment two ways, or leave one alone as a control in case the experiment goes badly. The crispy crust might help with the texture issues. 

Bob's Red Mill Pancake Mix

Made these last week. It isn't Bob's fault this one disappointed me, but it would help if the label were changed to "Whole Grain Pancake Mix".  If you're expecting the sweet, fluffy flavor of buttermilk pancakes you would get out of other commercial mixes, you'll be badly surprised.  If you're expecting the heavy, nutty, semi-bitter flavor of whole-grain pancakes, you'll probably be very happy.  That said, there are positives on this mix.  It does behave just like regular pancake mix and fluffs up beautifully.  The package also gives directions to make small batches (6-8 4 inch pancakes) at a time instead of needing to use the whole package in one go.  Since they're heavy and filling, that was enough to feed both of us with enough leftover to pack for lunch the next day.  Unfortunately I was expecting the sweet buttermilky flavor and had to use a lot of syrup to make them palatable. JD made them for breakfast again yesterday and added 1/4 cup of powdered (confectioner's) sugar to the dry mix, with a splash extra milk to balance the texture.  They were MUCH closer to what I expected.  I'm sure if we experiment once more using buttermilk instead of 2% it will bridge the gap. 

Betty Crocker Gluten-Free Brownie Mix

This is a new product on the shelves with their regular baking mixes.  It turned out so well that I'm going back for their gluten-free cake mixes!  I could tell when I mixed this up that the flavor would be that of very dark chocolate, not the sweet milk chocolate I'm used to.  So I added three tablespoons confectioner's sugar and one of sesame oil (to balance the added dry ingredients).  It still tasted like dark chocolate, but wasn't quite as bitter.  If you love 70% or higher good quality dark chocolate, you'll be absolutely in love with these brownies.  Check the bake time by the toothpick method.  I had a roast in at the same time and the brownies took twice as long as package directions indicated to bake.  The batter should be mixed smooth; no lumps.  It's thicker than normal brownie batter and won't really rise or flow, so spread it smoothly in the pan.

DeBoles Gluten-Free Rice Penne

This had good texture for penne pasta, but gave my home-made red wine tomato and vegetable sauce an annoying undertone of library paste.  It also didn't hold up that well; by the end of the meal it was already going to pieces under the sauce.  I'm glad I kept the sauce separate, because I think it'll taste better over rice than these rice noodles.  I probably won't buy this brand again, unless to try their corn-base noodles for comparison.

 Thai Kitchen Rice Noodle Sides

This is Ramen for grownups, and diabolically tasty!  Be sure to check the label, because we found that the rice noodles in peanut sauce in the 9.77oz is labeled gluten-free, but the 5.9oz size of the same flavor is NOT gluten free (label says "contains wheat").  The labels are all over the place too, so depending on the package size and batch, it may be in big words under the flavor, or in tiny letters off in a corner.  I like the little bring-to-work size.  I had the Spring Onion flavor yesterday and it was heaven.  It had a separate packet for the seasonings and another for the spicy pepper oil; so you could theoretically spice to taste.

Those are the specific gluten-free brands we've tried this week, in our frenzy to find the right flavors.  I'm sure our experimentation will settle down once we find favorite brands and products, but I'll keep letting you know what we find!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Happiness is Using Up My Fabric

In the interest of retrenching on spending and decluttering, I'm pulling out my enormous fabric hoard and putting it to use! 

I think most sewers accumulate a hoard at one point or another.  Mine is the result of business ventures that went bust.  One year I was going to make quilted drum covers to sell at Renaissance fairs and Pagan festivals.  I bought fabric in bolts when I could find it cheap and the pattern was right.  When I let go of that idea, most of the fabric remained.  Ditto when I bought up several hundred dollars worth of brocade to make plus-size Kimonos to sell on E-bay.  Still sitting in totes in the attic.

That's a bad project habit of mine; I'm a planner.  I love to draw up intricate designs, price materials, buy materials, write out step-by-step what I'm going to do.....then it goes into a tote in the attic :-)

One project that's been sitting on the shelf is curtains.  We had very dark blue curtains that were disturbingly see-through at night when the lights were on in the house. We have a tiny house with bad lighting, so the dark curtains made it even smaller.  I've also been trying several ways to be able to keep plants without the cats either eating them or knocking them over.  So instead of waiting for money to buy fabric specifically for the project, I pulled out the bolts of quilting cotton once destined for drum covers. I made cafe' style curtains that give enough privacy, but let in plenty of light at the top.  I then hung plants from the ceiling where they could take advantage of the sun.  Between my fabric hoard and some bamboo sticks I'd bought to make a trellis (planned, priced, purchased, stuck in attic) I was able to make a major decorating change without spending an extra dime. 

The two yards of black pleather I found in a box made a rather hot and daring pencil skirt that I can't wait to wear to a party with my knee high boots.  I think I originally bought it for something punkish like the base for a skirt made of braided leather belts.  As for the brocade?  I have at least a few plans for dresses and jackets, but I may take at least some to make into a bodice for Ren-Faires.  Maybe even turn the rest into a nice luxurious quilt.  The point is that when inspired for a project, I need to look first to what I have before I decide I need to go out and buy more.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gluten Free: First impressions and a comment on sugar

I've now passed my first week going gluten-free.  I've gradually realized that there really isn't such a thing as "substitute" when you're talking about such a complete change in diet.  While there are "flour substitutes," the magical formula with the same taste, texture and cooking behaviour as wheat flour is still out there, somewhere, beckoning me forth.  What I've realized is that I can't think of things as substitutes for foods I've eaten in the past if I want to learn to appreciate them for their own flavor and texture.  I have to think of them as what they are: new foods. 

Otherwise it feels way too much like a weight-loss diet, which means the change won't be sustainable.  Deprivation almost never is.  It also means it's triggering all kinds of weird psychological deprivation/binge issues that I know so well from my weight-watchers days.  Sorghum "substitutes" for the flavor of wheat in the same way fat-free carob "substitutes" for chocolate.  It doesn't, which means the craving isn't satisfied and neither am I.  In this case, I don't have the choice to satisfy my bread craving at home because of the risk of cross-contamination from crumbs, etc.  I can eat bread away from home (i.e. keep crackers in my desk at work) or I can keep practicing some gluten-free alchemy in search of the magic formula. 

A lot of the mixes and recipes I've tried so far have been poor substitutes, but it has taken me a week to pin down the reason; sugar.  White bread is sweet.  So are other things generally made from wheat flour.  So I make gluten-free pancakes from a mix expecting the light, fluffy, sweet taste of buttermilk and am disappointed when I get the heavy, semi-bitter, nutty whole-grain flavor of sorghum.  On the other hand, if I had come to the table expecting the flavor of whole-grain high-fiber pancakes I would have been fully satisfied and ecstatic over the results.   The gluten-free brownies aren't that good when I'm expecting the sweet milk-chocolate taste I'm used to, but are fantastic if I'm expecting the new, richer flavor of very dark chocolate. 

So going gluten-free seems so far to require a re-training of the taste buds and expectations similar to a change to whole foods.  Whole grain wheat products tend to have the same complex, semi-bitter flavor as what I've tried so far; probably because the flour "substitutes" are generally whole-grain.  Gluten-free foods also tend to be brands that omit super-sweeteners, like HFCS or artificial sweeteners (which we try to avoid anyway) to appeal to a whole-foods market.  People with Gluten intolerance also seem to tend to have multiple sensitivities so GF foods tend to keep it simple. 

Whether it's training or nature, my taste-buds are sensitive to bitterness.  One of the reasons I hate tomatoes is that I can taste a nasty, bitter flavor in even the sweetest hothouse grape tomato. Ditto with many whole-grain products, rye bread, etc.  This new gluten-free change is either going to require me to retrain my taste buds or work that much harder to find recipes that satisfy my taste cravings.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Happiness is: The Designated Control Freak Rule

This rule says, basically, whoever cares enough to want it is in charge of making it happen. 

In our house, there's rarely a dispute over who is in charge of what.  Now this could be because my partner is wonderfully laid back and patient, so he may just not be telling me when my skimping on the vaccuuming bothers him.  Or it could be because of the way the chores have settled between us. 

We discovered fairly early on that a neat, clean house was more important to him than it was to me.  I enjoy a clean house, but it isn't as high a priority on my time and energy as many other things.  I've always operated on the "blitz" method, where I periodically decide I'm sick of the mess and take an entire day to deep clean.  He's much better at daily ongoing maintenance of a clean house, and I'm learning to adapt to his better cleaning habits.

But there's no "if you love me you'll do the laundry this way because you know it's important to me" passive-aggressive nonsense. He knows that I'll put off laundry until I'm actually out of underwear (and even then sometimes I'll wash one pair in the sink rather than do a load).  I will also habitually leave most of the clean clothes in the basket until I've worn it all again, rather than put them away.  He has fewer clothes than I do and is much more concerned about how they're cleaned and put away.  One way he could theoretically handle this conflict of priorities would be to stand on "your turn" principles, nag me about getting it done, then get disgruntled if I don't do it "correctly".  Under the designated control freak rule, he simply does the laundry.  This may mean more work for him, but it means less nagging, conflict, and aggrieved but ultimately pointless discussions about when to add the fabric softener.  It means more peace and fewer resentments. He considers that a win-win situation.

Of course this can't work one-way.  There has to be give and take between adults, and some personal responsibility.  If one person is doing all the work then the couple or group may need to consider whether their needs and priorities are compatible.  And, of course, while it's generally good to give kids some choice in which chores they're in charge of, giving them full freedom to do nothing hasn't ever worked to my knowledge.

So my partner does the laundry and dishes.  He also wears shoes in the house and I like to go barefoot, so I'm in charge of vaccuuming.  It bothers me more to feel "grit" on the carpet. That's my Designated Control Freak.  I also like to dust, so that's mine.  I'm a germaphobe and actually like the smell of bleach, so the bathroom's mine as well.  He works at home during most days and hates looking at clutter, so general "picking up" usually happens before I get home from the office. 

I suppose you could argue that we're lucky in a lot of ways.  After all, our Designated Control Freaks don't conflict that often and we're able to settle it pretty amicably when it does.  We've made sure to "check in" periodically to make sure we both feel like we're contributing equally and the burden isn't all one direction.  It ends up working out according to our cleaning habits; he does the daily tasks and I do the periodic ones that can be moved a few days in either direction.  Win-Win.

Designated Control Freak comes down to personal priorities.  Is having something done a certain way more important than arbitrary divisions of labor?  Do you get more peace of mind doing it "correctly" yourself, for yourself, then trying to get someone else to do it for you?  Then consider simply doing for yourself, and find some peace of mind in the process.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Gluten-Free Shopping, Mainstream Brands

So we went shopping yesterday.  Yes, while I have concerns about their employee treatment, I am forced by finances to do most of my shopping at Waldemort (the store that shall not be named).  We had to stop and read a lot of labels, but between that and Internet shopping I found some surprising things about how many mainstream brands are adapting to their market by having clear gluten-labeling policies!  Here's a few things I found out:

Walmart brands are very, very good about labeling.  Anything that may contain allergens is clearly labeled including potential cross-contamination ("processed in a facility that also processes wheat") but anything they are actually confident calling gluten-free is also labeled.  Look for "A Gluten-Free Food" or "Naturally Gluten-Free" on the label.   Even most of their vitamins are labeled, but you have to call and check on each batch of multivitamins.  It might be worth it since JD just shelled out $50 for two months worth of specialty gluten-free multivitamins from the health store.  Apparently they taste like something not-so-recently dead :-)

I was surprised by dairy (which might make a good band name).  None of the regular gallons of milk were actually labeled gluten-free.  The only one labeled such was the cardboard half-gallon of Walmart brand organic milk.  While it might be safe anyway, we're being extra paranoid for the first year so that we don't interrupt his healing process.  So while I need milk for baking, etc. we might re-think breakfast cereal if we have to pay $7 a gallon for something labeled gluten-free.  Cottage and ricotta cheeses, ice cream and block cheeses were also an issue.  Nada on the cottage and ricotta.  We found one local Michigan cheese maker who labeled their block cheese, but had to get the pre-shredded mozzarella (which, oddly, WAS labeled gluten-free, even though you'd think they came from the same manufacturer as the block cheese).  Ben and Jerry's was the only ice cream labeled, but too expensive.  So we're putting the ice-cream maker back into use. 

We were also blocked on the "super-extra paranoid" front in the meat department.  You'd think meat was meat, but every packaged cut on the shelf had a tiny fine-print label that says "Contains up to an 8% solution or marinade to maintain freshness".  There's no info on what's in the marinade, but most stock bases have gluten.  So no roast or steaks.  I got hamburger instead, which was labeled gluten free.  Sausage is a hopeless minefield and I might just look for an actual butcher who can make it to specifications. 

Ditto on nuts, as every package of nuts in any form, anywhere in the store had a "processed in a facility that also processes wheat" warning.  Maybe I can talk my parents into bringing me Georgia pecans for Christmas. 

The joy of the day was in Internet research!  The best way to know if you can trust a label is to see if they have a specific gluten-labelling policy on their website.  Google the manufacturer and look for a FAQ, a health and safety section, an allergen section, etc.  If in doubt, e-mail them and if they're confident in their labeling they'll tell you.  If you get a "we cannot guarantee" or "ingredients change in each batch" or "may have been processed in the same facility" legalese, you can't trust them unless your gluten sensitivity is very light.

But there are a few brands that are going out of their way to compete for the business of the 3 million Celiac sufferers in the U.S.!  This info is as of December 2010, but remember that these policies DO change without warning, so check the websites regularly for updates.  I should note that I'm not receiving any benefit from any of these companies, they're just brands I looked at specifically when grocery shopping. 

Kraft Foods: 
Rating: Good-job-keep-going

Their website states:

"The ingredient information on labels of Kraft products is very specific to help you make accurate and informed choices. If a Kraft product has an ingredient that is a source of gluten, the specific grain will be listed in the ingredient statement, no matter how small the amount. For labeling purposes, Kraft products will always state the names ‘wheat, barley, rye and/or oats’ when they are added to a product either directly as an ingredient or as part of an ingredient. "

This means that if they use modified food starch from a gluten product, they will label "modified food starch (wheat)," for example.  The problem with this may be psychological.  They are making the assertion that if a wheat, barley, rye or oat product is not clearly listed on the label, it isn't there.  I don't think that's good enough.  If they suddenly changed their policy, the consumer would never know unless they regularly visited the website.  I think it's awesome that they're taking the extra step, but one more (actually labeling products "Gluten Free" if they are) would cinch my business at least.  In the initial extra-careful first year, we can't take a chance.  Sorry Kraft.  I hope to use your products again someday.
Rating: Good-job-keep-going
They are making efforts to test and certify foods as gluten-free and maintain an extensive list of gluten-free foods on their website:
Unfortunately, when I checked the list against their products in-store, the items were not specifically labeled gluten-free and the ingredients lists include the suspect keywords, like "modified food starch" and "natural flavors" that make it way too risky to buy.  Plus, since they rely on a published list instead of labeling each batch of product, it could legally change at any time without warning.  I would love to go back to Swanson broths for my soup bases, but until they take that extra step of saying "gluten-free" on the label, I'll have to make do with something else.
Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing
Rating:  FAIL!
Is actually made by Clorox...who knew?  Anyway the labeling is unclear, the website only goes so far as to say they comply with the federal law which makes them list the top 8 allergens (of which wheat is one, but barley, rye, oats and gluten are NOT required disclosures).  They did not respond to an e-mail asking for clarification.  This makes me sad, because it was my favorite addition to scrambled eggs in the morning. 
General Mills
Rating:  WIN!  LOVE!
General Mills not only maintains a website with gluten-free product lists (including batch numbers, something I haven't seen elsewhere!) but they also include advice, recipes using their GF products, etc.
What gives them a WIN! rating is that in addition to the published online information, their GF products are clearly labeled Gluten Free.  Sometimes in small letters over the bar code, sometimes (like with Chex cereal) emblazoned across the front of the box.  This means that when I am reading all the labels on the shelf, I will reach for a General Mills brand first since I know they will say directly if it's GF.  Since Kellogg's is apparently not rolling with the zeitgeist, it means I'll probably be using crushed Rice Chex to make my "rice krispy treat" recipe from now on. 
General Mills gets an extra LOVE! rating to their current WIN! rating, because Betty Crocker now has (in regular stores, no less) Gluten free baking mixes including cakes and brownies, for reasonable prices.  They also came out with a Gluten-Free Bisquick!  Unfortunately I had to pass on that because in that particular store it was shelved right underneath all the leaky, floury boxes of regular Bisquick and other baking mixes.  Cross contamination fail :-(  That's Wal-mart's fault though, not General Mills. 
Rating:  WIN!
Heinz maintains a website with a complete international list of gluten-free products (specifically labeled as to which country they're available in as gluten-free) and an advice area:
They get a WIN! rating because they also label their products Gluten Free when appropriate.  Hunt's (their main competitor here in Michigan at least) does not, which is why I had to toss half a bottle of their ketchup when we did the gluten-clean out at our house.   Heinz also produces/owns Ore-Ida frozen potato products and Smart Ones frozen dinners.  The frozen potato products are very handy to have labeled Gluten Free, since there's so much potential cross-contamination from breaded frozen products (onion rings, chicken wings, etc.) that may be processed in the same facility. 
Newman's Own
Rating:  Good-job-keep-going Newman's Own maintains a website with allergen and sensitivity info on their products (including Gluten, MSG and Sulfides)

They also state:
If one or more of the major common allergens recognized by FDA are contained in a Newman's Own product they will be listed in the ingredient statement regardless of the level and whether or not directly added to the product or contained in another ingredient.

The composition of each ingredient will be reviewed for the presence of the major common food allergens recognized by FDA.

Again, the legalese of the last bit means that they are promising to review each product component for wheat, but not specifically gluten.  Since I don't know how often the website list is updated and the products themselves (at least the ones I found) are not labeled "Gluten-Free", I can't take the risk buying it.  That's a shame, because I do love their salad dressings! 

Rating:  WIN!
They carry a list of gluten-free dressings on their website with a caveat that it may change:

But they also clearly label on the product whether it is gluten-free.  This is how we finally got ranch and blue cheese dressing (which can sometimes be an issue if the mold in the blue cheese was grown on bread!).  They pretty much do dressings, but the clear labelling means you've got a big range of flavors to play with. 

Ben and Jerry's
Rating:  FAIL!
Ben and Jerry's may maintain a list of gluten-free flavors somewhere on their poorly designed, graphic and gimmick-heavy, content-poor, hard-to-navigate website, but I didn't have the patience for it.  A site search got nothing useful. Their products claim that all gluten ingredients are specified on the label, but if they're not going to maintain an accessible list OR label products gluten-free, I have to pass.  I'll really, really miss the Phish Food :-(

Lawry's and McCormick spices
Rating:  FAIL
Neither company maintains a list of gluten-free products (as formulas change frequently) and neither labels gluten-free products as such.  They both rely on a statement that if the product contains any gluten ingredients it will be clearly noted on the label, but as policies like that can change without warning (except for the FDA top allergens i.e. wheat) it isn't trustworthy enough for me.  These two companies dominate the spice shelves at my supermarket, so I might actually have to spring for the organic bulk spices at the health food store. 


So that's the ratings, based on two hours of intense label-reading at the grocery store last night :-)  Hope it helps some other folks when looking for ways to keep the costs down on eating gluten-free!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Recipe Box: Everything Soup (gluten free)

This is an idea I've used before, but I give full inspiration credit to in this case.

Between cleaning out the cupboards of everything with gluten and getting my paycheck a.k.a. grocery money today, there was a bit of a gap where the kitchen was bare indeed.  It wasn't completely bare though, and after reading through a bunch of recipes on the site above, I was inspired by the "everything soup" idea.  It's essentially a gumbo; you toss whatever bits of leftovers you have into a freezer bag, then toss it in to make soup.  The appeal is that you have a different flavor every single time. 

So I looked around the remains of our pantry and fridge and put the following in a crock pot to make enough gluten-free soup to last a good solid week!

4 frozen chicken breasts

1 small bottle of white wine (a Riesling, about 2 cups; I buy these specifically for cooking wine, as I only have to open a small bottle at a time instead of wasting a full 750ml when I'm the only one who drinks it)

The remains of a slightly shriveled ginger root (about 2 tablespoons minced)

A large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1" cubes (leftover from Thanksgiving, about 2-3 cups cubed)

half an onion, chopped

four slightly shriveled and half-frozen carrots from the back of the fridge (no longer edible raw) chopped

half a red-pepper, diced

about a cup of green onions (about to go bad but not quite slimy yet) chopped

about a cup of dried pinto beans from the back of the cupboard.

2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp cardamon
1/4 cup butter, sliced
4 cups of water

Everything went into the crock pot about 9:00am, and by 5:00 we had a large amount of golden, delicious, slightly sweet and fruity soup.  I added another 2 tablespoons of lemon juice to the finished soup at the end to give it a nice fresh flavor and bring out the other flavors by raising the acidity (vinegar works well for this too!).

This is a great way to use up leftovers, especially if you have one of those "too little for another meal but too much to throw away" situations.  Stuff it into a dedicated ziplock bag in the freezer.  I'm planning to do a soup every grocery day (about two weeks) to use up leftover fresh produce before we re-stock the fridge.  The best part is that because every batch is different, there's enough variety to satisfy anyone!

Going Gluten-Free

After a long year of working with my partner's serious illness, we think we've finally found the reason for it and our household is officially going gluten free.

Technically only he needs to eat gluten-free, but the risk of cross contamination, accidents, and the hassles of split meals make it logical for me to simply join him on the diet and just keep everything containing gluten out of the house altogether.  My having the occasional gluteny treat is not worth the chance of making him sick again. 

So we scoured every label for the obvious (wheat, barely, rye) and the less obvious (caramel color, malt, modified food starch, "natural flavor" and a hundred others).  Everything unopened we suspected of containing gluten went to the Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes food bank yesterday.  31 pounds and the warm fuzzy feeling of helping those who really need it.  Anything they wouldn't accept (frozen, refrigerated, partials, etc.) goes into a friend's freezer who has a big family to feed. 

The cupboard isn't as bare as I'd feared, since some brands (like Wal-mart) is adapting to the changing market by labeling products when they're gluten-free.  Most of the time the issue isn't that the product actually contains wheat gluten, but that it was manufactured in a facility that handles gluten-containing products and the flour dust, crumbs, handlers, etc. could cause cross-contamination.  I was particularly surprised to see that a lot of plain frozen vegetables have "may contain" warnings on them that make them unsafe; perhaps because the same facility is used to process frozen breaded items.  It isn't worth the risk at this point, so out the door it goes. 

Some of the gluten dangers are surprising.  Did you know that Crest is willing to claim their toothpaste is gluten free, but Colgate isn't?  Did you know that some artificial colors are made from wheat, and that you have to write each manufacturer with the batch number to find out if you can use, say, frosting coloring or vanilla extract?  Did you know that most commercial vitamin E is made from wheat germ, and therefore vitamins, multivitamins, and even chapstick can make a gluten sensitive person sick? 

At this point we're going crazy-paranoid about every little thing, in hopes of getting him well as fast as possible.  In a year or so he may decide to test his tolerance for, say, chapstick, but in the meantime he's not eating in restaurants, we're bringing our own food to potlucks and family gatherings, and creating a gluten-clean house by even scrubbing down all the food shelves and replacing the shelf paper in case there's residual flour dust. 

After three days he's already feeling better, but we're both still surprised every time he eats something and doesn't get sick. 

The biggest concern for us was cost, as national figures suggest that a gluten-free diet costs 200%-300% more than the average American diet.  Yesterday we went to one of the two health-food stores in town and extensively priced everything, noting brand, size and cost in a notebook.  I'm sure they thought we were either crazy, or spies from a competing shop, because very puzzled clerks kept asking if they could help us :-)  Once I have it all plugged into a spreadsheet we can do a comparison check at the other health food store in town, and then see what on the list is also available at local grocery chains. 

We discovered that the high-cost estimates of eating gluten-free is assuming a few things.  It's assuming that people buy the outrageously priced, Styrofoam textured commercial GF foods, like cookies, crackers, bread, candy, baking mixes and microwavable meals.  It's six dollars for a pack of GF cookies comparable to the package of vanilla sandwich cookies you can buy at any dollar store. 

For someone who is tolerant of glutens, it's generally cheaper (in a purely financial sense) to buy pre-packaged and prepared foods.  Before going GF I could get a package of cookies, crackers, or cereal cheaper than the ingredients to make them myself.  The inverse is true when you're discussing a gluten-free diet.  Even using gluten-free flour substitutes, I can make GF cookies MUCH more cheaply than I can buy them, and they'll actually taste like cookies.  I can make my own flour mixes much more cheaply than buying commercial mixes.  I can make a fresh meal of fresh veggies and meat much more cheaply than buying commercial GF microwave dinners. 

The ideal and least expensive route to Gluten-free is to rely on fresh vegetables (blanch and freeze them yourself with seasonings already included for quick side dishes) meats, whole gluten-free grains and legumes, and rice.  No one actually needs the pre-packaged stuff that makes the GF diet so expensive. 

I, however, am a bread fiend.  Like many Europeans, I think a really complete, excellent meal comes with fresh bread of some kind or another.  So I'm willing to sacrifice some extra money (and thankful I have it) to buy a few gluten-free flour alternatives to mix myself and use in baking.  In some ways that's a benefit; how can a pie crust made with almond flour instead of wheat be anything but yummier? :-) 

I can at least count us extremely lucky that I love to experiment in the kitchen and am a fairly good cook and baker.  It will be easier for me to transition to gluten-free than it would for a lot of people, because I can think around recipes and know how to substitute items to achieve good flavor.  I've already accumulated a stack of recipes to try, and am planning to search diligently to find a substitute flour for the roux in our family's traditional Christmas gumbo.  I hear amaranth works well.