Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Year of Cooking Dangerously

Digging around through the archives of my core email lists sure brings back memories. They are to us what the letters and diaries of the Regency gentlefolk were to them. And they hold as significant a place in history for our children as those old letters and diaries do for us now. At least, as long as Yahoo's servers don't crash. Which is looking chancy these days. Still, it is illuminating to go back to watershed points in our lives and measure how far we've come since those days.

I remember when we were first notified that my oldest, whom I occasionally slip up and call Dog--much to his preteen annoyance, is gluten intolerant. That was a pretty momentous moment. I think that the next pivotal moment brought even more upheaval. Six months into our oh-so-free lifestyle--gluten-free that is--we began seeing "gluten reactions" even after eating foods that we'd eaten before and knew to be gluten-free. It was a desperate time, casting around in the dark and frantically trying to apply our new gluten-free rules in a situation where it seemed that the rules were changing on us. And our doctor couldn't tell us what the new "new rules" were because he was as untutored as we in all of this. The best answer he could give us was to suggest we see a specialist.

I thank God for the internet. Literally. Because a mom on one of my parenting lists was going through, in her parallel existence, the very same situation. We consequently branched off together in a foodie email list where yet another mom educated us on IgG-mediated reactions. The Reader's Digest version is that IgE antibodies create "classic allergies" of the rashes, hives, and anaphylactic sort that we're all familiar with; IgA antibodies are associated with mucosal tissue, like the intestinal tissue that generates IgA antibodies in response to gluten in the intolerant; and then there are the IgG antibodies that create reactions that aren't necessarily IgE in style and, instead of appearing within an hour or so, manifest themselves past several hours, days, or even as long as two weeks later. (There are other antibody reactions, but I've not researched those.) The IgG savvy mom suggested going to Optimum Health Resource Laboratories, then known as York. Our results from their lab were later endorsed by our allergist.

The test results were both relieving and devastating. Relieving because now we knew what the new "new rules" were. Devastating because almost all of their favorite foods were on the list, which I've since learned is a very common dynamic in intestinal hyper permeability or leaky gut syndrome. The initial loss was 19 different foods, which later cascaded to consume entire food groups, some of which we still have not recovered. My first response was, "Oh, my God, what are they going to eat?"

And this began what I started calling "The Year of Cooking Dangerously." It set the trend for me that in moments of dietary crisis, I would retreat into the kitchen to experiment without regard for effort, waste, or whether anyone outside of our family would like it. Just desperate to find replacement foods that approximated what was lost without using the ingredients that would trigger another reaction episode. It was during those times that I learned what each and every ingredient brought to the recipe and what things might bring similar characteristics as substitutes. A hands-on crash course in the chemistry of cooking. If it hadn't been such an emotionally charged time, I might have been able to segue it into scientific unit studies for the children, but I didn't have the poise to pull that off. As a result of that year, I've been left with an unbreakable habit of tweaking recipes even though I don't have to so much anymore; R from Down Under calls me "Tweaker."

From a "pumpkin brownie" recipe that was making the gf/cf/xf food list circuit at the time, my cosmic twin tweaked a recipe from which I've tweaked my current pear butter muffin recipe. It became the foundation for my "baking" during the grainless years. It is one of those recipes that can be yanked in a million different directions and still come out edible. Okay, maybe only edible to my kids. They eat things that amaze onlookers. Like spoonfuls of ghee. They line up like little birds for this. Tool Guy watches and shudders. I've made this recipe so many ways...without eggs...without grains...without eggs and grains...that it typifies for me the art of Cooking Dangerously. Reckless experimentation within narrowly constrained parameters.

Egg is one of the most difficult ingredients to lose in baking. Easier to lose grain than eggs. It brings to the recipe both binding and leavening elements. Flax seed boiled in water can help replace the binding and for those who are seed-free, a teaspoon of gelatin in a cup of hot water will act similarly. The grain-free, egg-free pumpkin brownies turned out sort of what I'd imagined a baked pudding to be like. As my children adjusted to their reduced choices, this became the favorite snack and they even requested that I freeze it, sliced into cubes. They'd then help themselves to a cube when in the grasp of a Hobbit moment. Bug, then 2 years old, called them "tump'in brownies."

Grainfree, Eggfree, Pumpkin Brownies

1 cup pumpkin/sweet potato/yam/butternut squash puree
3 t ground flax seeds mixed with 1/2 cup water or 1/2 cup gelatin water
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 t vanilla
1/2 cup tapioca starch
1/2 cup arrowroot starch
1/2 cup potato starch
1/2 cup acorn starch
(Starch flours can be tweaked to any combination of at least two of these, as long as the total amount equals 2 cups)
1 t guar gum
2 t cinnamon
1 t nutmeg
1 t cloves
1 t allspice
2 T featherlight baking powder
1/2 t salt
2 cups sugar or equivalent sugar substitute

In mixer, blend wet ingredients. In bowl, mix dry. Slowly blend dry ingredients into wet ingredients for two minutes. Spread into 15x10x1 baking pan and bake for 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees, until it passes toothpick test.

Since eggs and grains have come back into our lives, so has the loft in our baked goods. These days, I'm baking muffins now and serving them hot out of the oven. Looking back, the basic recipe isn't so very different, but what a difference a little difference makes.

Pear Butter Muffins

1 cup pear butter (sweet fruit puree of any stripe will do)
3 eggs
1/2 cup olive oil
2 t vanilla
1/2 cup tapioca starch
1/2 cup potato starch
1 cup gluten free grain flour
1 t guar gum
2 t cinnamon
1 t nutmeg
1 t allspice
1 T cream of tartar
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1/2 cup date sugar
squirt of stevia

In mixer, blend wet ingredients. In bowl, measure out dry. Mix dry into wet ingredients, only mixing until fully incorporated. Put in baking pan or muffin forms and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes for pan or 15-30 minutes for muffin or until dry toothpicked.

It definitely warms my heart to see this recipe that, in all of its incarnations, has been with us for four years, will now, even when there are more novel foods available, still inspire squeals of delight. It still sends Bug, who is never the soul of discretion, nor can ever keep any good thing to himself, through the house, shrieking, "The muffins are ready!!"

Friday, March 23, 2007

For Want of a Nail....

For want of a shoe, the horse was lost; For want of a horse, the rider was lost.

For want of a rider, the battle was lost; For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.

And all for want of a nail.

Even though I was born and raised in Louisiana, my family having settled there in the 1720's with the original land grants, I don't consider myself strictly Cajun. My family wasn't part of the Acadian exile from Nova Scotia. They were German potato farmers. Nope. No romance there.

Still, having deep roots there, whenever I think of comfort food, I think of gumbo. And so does my Hoosier husband who took Cajun cuisine much further than I, a native, ever did in my whole life: he's eaten alligator. No. It doesn't taste like chicken. So when we went gluten-free, the first question he asked--even before bread--was "Can we still do gumbo?" The happy answer is, yes, Virginia, there is delicious gluten-free gumbo. Even my father says so, though I stand willing to concede that he's sparing my feelings. Dads do that.

Because I share my roof with Hobbits of varying stature, I make monster quantities and reheat on demand, demand being often. This is my version of convenience food. And though I know my grandmother would probably cringe, I use a 22 qt. pressure cooker to make short shrift of a project that would take much longer simmering in a cast iron dutch oven. To date, I haven't confessed this to my grandmother from whom I get my cooking and gardening compulsions, as well as my nose. Sorry, Maw Maw. I still use my cast iron cookware for everything else though. Like roux, for example. Nothing beats cast iron for excellent roux.

Now I have to say that, in all fairness to me, what happened was the mouse's fault. Really. I know I was supposed to put a glue trap down in the basement at the first signs of intrusion, but I got side tracked, my brain being on hiatus about that time. After a busy morning of getting up to go grocery shopping, then an afternoon of homeschooling and taking co-op orders, I decided to make some gumbo. Which should have been a quick task with a pressure cooker. Uh huh. I keep this big mama down in the basement because it is so big, that's the only place I can comfortably store it. After I brought it up and started cleaning it, I noticed The Problem. The mouse had eaten the little red safety valve out of the lid. All for the want of a nail...

I stewed on this dilemma for a while, believing that I surely could figure out a stop gap measure until the new safety valves (notice the use of the plural form) I frantically ordered over the internet came in. A cork would do it. Surely. Let me point out that the take-home lesson, boys and girls, is that a cork will not satisfactorily substitute for a safety valve in a pressure cooker. Oh, for about 15 minutes after the control began rattling, it held. In hubris, I decided it would hold for the other 15 minutes I wanted. Sheer hubris. As I turned in smug complacency, I was rewarded with an astonishing fountain of gumbo. All over the stove. The inside of the hood. The wall behind the stove. Oh, yeah. The wall behind the stove. Oh, but the fun was just beginning. As I began cleaning up this indescribable mess, I began to hear the snap, crackle, and pop of the clearly non-functional GFCI circuit behind the stove. I dashed down to the basement, screaming to all and sundry to clear a path so that I could throw the breaker. Shortly thereafter, as I was wedged into the microscopic margin between the wall and the stove, changing the old GFCI for one that actually works, I kept repeating to myself that one day I'd find the whole thing funny and we'd all laugh. Tool Guy didn't have to wait for "one day." He found it funny and laughed right away.

But back to gumbo. In Louisiana, gumbo is a lot like potato salad. There's a basic universal recipe and then every family has their own version, tailored to their tastes. I grew up with a very simple chicken and andouille sausage gumbo. When I started making it myself, I added all kinds of things that aren't authentic, like mushrooms. Feel free to ignore any inauthenticities you may notice. Or better still, tweak it for your preferences.


Roux, about a half cup per two quarts of liquid
3-5 lbs. chicken pieces
2-3 lbs. sausage, cut into slices or chunks
diced onion
sliced celery
salt and pepper to taste
1-2 bay leaves, depending on batch size

Now, 'sha, you staht witch-u roux.

Sorry. Blast from the past. These days, the voices I hear call each other "youse guys" and talk about buying "pots" to fix their cars when they break down. Back to roux. I've played with different flours: sorghum, sweet rice, millet, jasmine rice. Everyone will likely have a different favorite, but I've settled on jasmine. Whatever size batch you're making, the ratio of flour to oil is roughly 1:1 and my oil of preference is lard, though olive oil is fine, too. Using less oil and more flour makes it brown faster; using more oil takes longer to brown, but you have more control over the exact shade the roux becomes. Browning too quickly can tip the balance from "done" into "burned" before you can stop it and you have to start all over. There's no salvaging burned roux. Wheat flour roux browned to a copper shade best suits my tastes, but I've seen roux that looks like oily chocolate, which is too bold for my palate, surprising given my appetite for dark chocolate. In gluten-free roux, however, either one of these states equates to "carbon." In my experience and taste, a warm honey-shaded roux will make a good rice flour gumbo without having bitter undertones. You'll have to experiment. Good roux is one of those artisan things and is dependent on practice and preference.

Pour the oil into a cast iron skillet and begin to heat. As it warms up, stir in the flour. Roux is labor intensive and will need constant stirring, especially as it becomes browner. I start on high heat to get things going and then turn the temperature down as the flour starts to brown and I need more control. This usually gets me roux in about 20-30 minutes. Some cooks put their "trinity" (onion, celery, and bell pepper) in the roux as it gets dark since that will slow down the cooking. My trinity goes limping: onion and celery and I put it in the gumbo proper.

While my roux is going and before it needs continual attention, I saute green onions, celery, and mushrooms, then toss them with the chicken, bay leaves, sausage, and enough water to cover into the pressure cooker. I run this stuff through the pressure cooker in 30 minutes, fish out the solid pieces, and strain the broth while the chicken pieces are cooling for deboning. If the broth is too scanty, I supplement with some of my homemade chicken broth. Then I throw everything back into the cooker. Check the salt and pepper status at this point, since the sausage will share its seasonings with the gumbo, and so add any salt and pepper after it is cooked. Next, I pour the excess oil off of the roux and add enough roux to the liquid to make it thick enough for our tastes...again an individual variable...we like a medium-bodied gumbo. I cover and pressure it again just long enough to start the control rattling. This gets the roux thoroughly incorporated into the broth. If you're doing this in a cast iron dutch oven, you'll need to simmer on very low until the incorporation happens, watching to make sure the roux doesn't burn on the bottom. Toss all the meat back into the gumbo.

Serve over hot rice. Serves a family of Hobbits.

We may have crossed the threshold into spring, but until it's hot enough to sweat, it's cool enough for gumbo.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Corn. It's What's for Dinner...And Breakfast...And Lunch...And Snacks...And...And...

Corn has become the hot topic on a lot of my email lists. As you may suspect, most of them are food lists and even the ones that aren't directly related to food attract people who feel strongly about their food. On my gardening and homesteading lists, people are talking about GMO and what, to quote one poster, "Monsatan" is doing to corn, among other foods that have previously been safe for most peoplekind to eat. On my allergen/intolerance lists, we're talking about corn's ubiquity...and iniquity. Most of us agree that corn is even more evil than gluten because of the limitless ways that industrial agriculture has found to manipulate this bumper crop into countless food additives. The non-food applications may even be worse, since one proceeds through life not expecting to be whammied by the paper towel that she reels off the roll in someone's kitchen. Or licking that stamp. Or expect your sweet little baby to get snaked by those nifty fingerpaints. Yeah. Gotcha.

Corn is also more particularly evil since it isn't included on the top allergen list, being considered a "rare" allergy in the IgE sense. Some in the corn-sensitive community may take exception to being classified as a rare breed, but that's the medical and marketing communities parsing words with a paring knife for you. At any rate, corn in all of its gloriously mutated permutations currently escapes declaration on labels. Imagine how simple it would be to pick up a labeled item and read, "Item contains corn" just as folk sensitive to the other eight now finally enjoy the right to simple and clear information about their particular enemy. But, no. The corn-sensitive must doggedly persist through the phone merry-go-round until reaching the receiver in the cracking unit where the R&D geeks reside to hear them confess that, yes, ma'am, the original food source is corn. The caller is then to be dazzled by the sparkling promise that because of the convoluted nature of what they, the chem gods, have done, the corn has now forgotten its corn-ness. Only the most sensitive will react to this final product. Huh. Well, that's us. The corn canaries.

In fairness, I'm much appreciative of some very sympathetic, generous, and informative specialists who have helped me to understand what the particular ingredient does for the product, the fractionation processes, and what each stage of processing does to corn. Then there was the one woman who even cried on the phone along with me when I learned that my children's favorite hot dog was now out of reach because the company had begun adding a lactic acid starter culture from corn. The individual people are so compassionate. The Machine is not.

One of my foodie friends lamented that she didn't even want to try to wrap her brain around going corn-free because it seemed so impossible. "How does one eliminate it all?" And given the above, it's an understandable lament. I didn't have an eloquent and sophisticated strategy to outline for her. It's pretty simple. Not easy, but simple. No commercially processed foods. And those four words open the door to a totally revolutionized way of living. Because now necessity demands that everything, or as near as makes it everything, be made from scratch. And with the advent of corn as the basis for packaging even vegetables, then the ramifications are even more far-reaching.

The very first face of the corn enemy....okay, the second after high fructose corn syrup....that stared back at me when I started weeding out was citric acid. It can be made from other substances. Sago palm, for example. But, no, corn is cheap and so corn it is, most of the time. So here's my middler who has been dubbed Hugga-bug by his doting grandmother and who adores pizza. When we were grain-free, I even came up with the idea of "pizza leather," just so he could get the taste of a pizza without the problem of flour. The pizza leather was the easy part. The hard part was finding pizza sauce without citric acid from corn. Despite searching through all my available organics, naturals, and "grandma's own recipe" kinds of brands, I was never able to find a safe pizza sauce, though there may have been a maverick brand emerge since then. That was when I gave up looking and decided that it was time to garden.

My favorite mom n' pop nursery mentioned that they always start their tomato seedlings on St. Patrick's Day. So the arrival of St. Patrick's Day this year has found me armed with Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening chapter on seed starting and the graciously shared wisdom and experience of farming veteran, J. from The L. P. Farm. This year I'm starting my tomatoes from seed. Organic. Heirloom. Based on a consensus of knowledgeable pioneers, I ordered my seeds from the Baker Creek Seed Company. After scrolling through pages of amazing choices, I finally settled on Amish Paste and Beefsteak for my maiden voyage. Now these seeds sit, softening in the sprouting mix soil, under a bright afternoon sunshine that gets stronger daily now. We may have gotten a blizzard two days ago, but I'm taking Spring on faith. My tomatoes have begun.

The last of last year's tomatoes, canned into tomato sauce, sit down in my basement, waiting for their turn to be called into action. I've made pizza proper, or spread it on that delicious Almost Everything Free Sourdough for pizza bread, and made pizza leather. It also makes a great spaghetti sauce when diluted with some homemade chicken broth and served over spaghetti squash or Tinkyada Pasta.

The backbone of this recipe came from, for me, an unexpected source, given that we can only shop the outer aisles of the grocery store and we're Breatharians and all. In one of my more masochistic moments I was watching Food Network of all things and, lo, Alton "God Bless Him!" Brown actually aired a recipe that I could use! I still had to tweak it for our purposes, but it's become a staple in our pantry.

Bug hovers over my soon-to-be seedlings in anticipation. He can't wait for spring either.

Easy Tomato Sauce

20 Roma Tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Real Salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup minced Vidalia Onions
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon each of chopped oregano and thyme leaves

Or simply dump all of the ingredients except tomatoes into your food processor and whir until well processed.

Preheat oven 350*

Halve tomatoes and remove all of the seeds. This yields a thicker tomato sauce. If you want a thinner sauce, then simply half the tomatoes and place them face up into two 13x9 pans. Spoon seasoning mix over the face of the tomatoes. Bake for two hours. Check tomatoes after an hour and turn down if they are browning too quickly. When baked, remove, allow to cool and run through the food processor to thoroughly incorporate.

If the sauce is too thin for your preference, it can be thickened with a Contadina tomato paste or similar paste made with tomatoes as the sole ingredient.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

We're Breatharians

Why not?

There are vegetarians. And valetudinarians. I've been accused of being one of these. There are vegans. And raw foodists. Catch "Wife Swap," anyone? Don't get me wrong, I do make my own kefir. I just don't rouse everyone in the middle of the night to partake....especially the kids, since they can't do dairy.

We're Breatharians. We live on air. I call my blog "everything-free eating" because we've had to remove so many food items from our menu that it feels like it is everything-free. And "everything-free" cooking has proven to be the biggest challenge of my life.

Five years ago, we had a positive diagnosis of gluten intolerance in our oldest child. The dietary changes that this positive diagnosis required led to us connecting the dots to the genetic chain, linking at least three generations on Tool Guy's (my dearest husband of twenty-four years, twin of Tim "The Tool Man" Tailor) paternal side of the family and one, possibly two generations on the maternal side. One year after diagnosis, we were slammed by the emergence of a long list of other intolerances, confirmed by IgG testing. Not something you're ready to find out one month before delivering your next baby, you know? Before it all stabilized, we'd lost entire food groups. Clawing our way back to wellness has been a long, gruelling fight, but we're getting there.

Gluten-free living seems almost halcyon by comparison. I read other gluten-free blogs with the avid anticipation I used to reserve for the Sears Wish List Catalog when I was a child. As we've crept forward and added new foods back in, I've begun pulling out old gluten-free (and casein-free) recipe books and pillaging the library for more current ones. In fact, in our family we've started a unique family tradition. Every Thanksgiving, instead of the usual fare, we have a spread containing all of the foods we've successfully added back in, plus a trial food....the food we'd like most to add back in and augers best for successful re-entry. It's added a special facet to the concept of Giving Thanks.

My oldest is contemplating the trial food for this year as I type. It's a toss up between corn and dairy. Corn is looking to be the favorite among the three of them. The middler wants grits in the worst way. What can I say? It's the Southerner coming out in him. We may live in New England, but these Hobbits are three-quarters Southern and blood will out.

The food blog deities have set the standard of posting a delicious and appropriate recipe with each entry. I'll do my best to approach the bar, though I don't know how long I can sustain such a momentum. Oh, the pressure...

My oldest has, in his extensive list, a positive reaction to yeast, which has put bread out of reach, even after we were able to put grains back into the diet. The logical alternative to this would be sourdough bread. Enjoy Life even has this Wonder Bread kind of sourdough. Ignoring the almost $6 price tag on this microscopic loaf of bread, it flopped at our house because we still, apparently, haven't shaken reactivity to seeds and this brand uses sunflower oil. I also had this approach-avoidance relationship with wheat-based sourdough bread recipes, because I couldn't visualize the jump between the differences in gluten and gluten free breads. I did follow Sandor Katz's suggestions for catching wild yeasts in his most excellent book, Wild Fermentation. My ferments must be too wild to be harnessed, because all I got was flat, wet, sour glop.

This is where the combined genius of email lists populated by eccentrics and innovators is so priceless. A Washington-based computer whiz, who has been dubbed The Glutenator, frequently putters in her kitchen, saying "What if...." and making it happen. The Glutenator found a reliable way of capturing wild yeasts by using milk kefir grains in apple juice, the grains carrying the yeasts and the juice being sweet enough and neutral enough in flavor to be a delicious ingredient in bread without torquing the sense of bread-ness. She provided the basic recipe and I, never able to leave any recipe alone and follow it to the letter, tweaked it into what I call Almost Everything Free Sourdough Bread. With further intrepidity, I followed it up with my Almost Everything Free Bagels.

Originally, I'd begun these sourdough experiments with rice flour, because it is the cheapest to waste. When I started succeeding, I started blending in sorghum for a more whole wheat kind of approach. This was not met with raptures by the children. Even celiac children want Wonder Bread. Philistines. More recently, I've been mixing millet in as well, but I've found that too much millet makes the sourdough....well...sour. Now I've got a three grain mix going on that everyone is content with. The littles have each put on three pounds in the last month. Three much needed pounds, I might add. Tool Guy doesn't need his three pounds though.

Almost Everything Free Sourdough Bread

2 cups gluten-free flour
2 cups kefir-fermented apple juice

Mix thoroughly and let stand for 24 hours.

In a bowl, measure out:

1/2 cup tapioca starch flour
1/2 cup potato starch flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons guar gum

In a mixer, whip up 4-6 egg whites until frothy.

Into the meringue, pour:

1/3 cup olive oil
1 egg
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 cups sourdough starter

Mix in dry ingredients. This yields a rather thin batter for a bread. It will be about the consistency of toothpaste, but not spreading out with the ease of pancake batter. Pour into bread pan and let rise until doubled. Bake at 350* for an hour.

When the kidlets can do seeds again, I'm going to add sunflower seeds, garlic, and onion bits to these bagels and call them my Almost Everything Free Everything Bagels in acknowledgement of Thomas' Everything Bagel, of which we no longer mourn the loss.

Almost Everything Free Sourdough Bagels

1 cup sourdough starter
3/4 cup rice flour
3/4 cup potato starch flour
1/2 cup tapioca starch flour
1 T guar gum
2 T olive oil
2 T maple syrup
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, slightly beaten
1 egg white, whipped to meringue
1 teaspoon vinegar
Egg whites for finish (optional)
Rice flour

Whip egg into meringue, add oil, syrup, vinegar, and whole egg. Add starter, then dry ingredients. Beat on medium for 2 minutes. Mixture will be stiff and thick. If too crumbly, add more starter/kefir cider. This is one gluten-free recipe that I use my dough hook for.

Divide dough into 8 balls, dusting hands if necessary to prevent sticking. Roll into balls, flatten slightly, punch hole in center and place on cooking sheet.

In warm environment, let rise 4 hours or until desired loft.

Place sheet in cold oven and bake at 325* for 15 minutes. Place bagels into boiling water for 30 seconds on each side, brush surface with egg whites, and bake at 400* for 20-25 minutes or until nicely browned.

Remove and place on wire rack to cool.