Friday, September 19, 2008

Pick Your Poison

After years--what feels like many years--of shoe-string menu selections, I have what feels like a backlog of foods or products that I want to experiment with. Each food that re-enters the menu represents a whole cornucopia of possibilities of things to be able to try. Each with their own risk.

People have discussed the challenge of making everything from scratch. And it is physically demanding. But on the other hand, it's easier. It lacks the drama and suspense of wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. Or if the other shoe will drop. Or the bitter taste of when the other shoe actually drops. Particularly when you thought that the shoe was firmly tied to your foot.

I'm finding that, with the influx of new products to consider, making things from scratch may have actually been easier and less time-consuming than trying to vet out the various and sundry items. It certainly involves quite a bit of time and energy either on the phone or sending off emails, communicating with the companies, trying to pin them down to making commitments as to whether or not the "natural flavorings" might have something that is still off the menu, hiding under that muzzy umbrella term. It is particularly frustrating to have them primly reply that this is "proprietary" information. There are a whole host of unsuitable replies that I retain unsaid and from which I will spare you. I have, however, managed to corner a few into admitting to the absence or presence of specific problematic ingredients, like corn--which isn't required to be declared under the allergen labeling law.

Other manufacturers are delightfully open about what they put in their foods and their processes. It certainly makes vetting out foods much easier. One recent email exchange with Yummy Earth lollipops went something like this:

Me: I know you've got "dairy free" on your website, but I feel compelled--in an OCD kind of way, I guess--to inquire about dairy/casein/lactose in your Butterscotch candy. Realio-trulio? Nothing in it?

YE: Realio and trulio with a cherry on top.

Now why can't all manufacturers be this nice?

Unfortunately, even stuff that is labeled gluten free and looks safe isn't really safe when there are other food issues afoot. Chex cereals have recently declared their Rice Chex gluten free. But. The more sensitive folks are reporting reactions...perhaps to corntamination, but there's no way of knowing. I recently had a blithe moment...or was it a blond moment?...when I ripped open a bag of Mary's Gone Crackers' recently released "sticks and twigs"--which are delicious, btw, but Tool Guy now calls them "Mary's Gone Crazy" due to the putative effect it has here--and let all of the Hobbits indulge. In the ensuing aftermath, I had plenty of opportunity to repent my recklessness. What were they reacting to? Who knows? It looked safe. It should have been safe. But it clearly wasn't. Not for us. The food canaries. Four people having food reactions at the same time is a new ring of hell which I have not heretofore visited. Not goin' back anytime soon, either. Sorry, Mary.

I can only take so much of this kind of food drama and then I toss the phone into an obscure corner and head for the kitchen. The latest favorite food to show up on the menu is injera. I started indulging in this shortly after a very long phone conversation with an internet foodie friend. Hey, when someone calls you to say that they were researching lacto-bacilli until 4:30 am on your behalf, it gets your attention, right? The crux of the conversation was that not all grains are created equal with regard to catching wild yeasts. This is why rye is the recommended flour for sourdough starters. Rye "grabs" lacto-bacilli out of the air more readily than wheat.

Now for gluten free. And we know rye ain't gluten free. Let me digress a moment to say that God planned things very well, nutritionally as well as other ways. There is no one food that is the sole source of any kind of nutrition. Every single nutrient is present in abundant redundancy...which makes sense when you consider how big the world is and people used to be forced to eat regionally, food intolerances aside. Likewise, rye is not the single repository for positive LAB contribution to a sourdough starter. The very good news is that teff is similarly endowed and so is fenugreek seed. With some playing around, I found that a few fenugreek seeds tossed in a flagging starter re-energized it to a startling degree.

So I made it my business to get some teff--ivory is my preference--and play around with it. Most of the injera recipes I found included wheat because, unfortunately, the financial and governmental politics have driven the price of teff out of reach for those traditional consumers. So I resorted to the fundamentals of fermenting grains and engineered it that way. One of the beauties of this traditional comfort food is its simplicity, unlike most gluten free grain foods...just flour, water, and salt.


Mix a couple of cups of water with a couple of cups of teff and allow to sit out on the counter for a day or two or until bubbly. You can also use a starter from a previous batch by utilizing the dark liquid that accumulates on the surface of the settled flour...the liquid that old miners used to call "hooch." When it is ready, add a teaspoon or so of salt for flavor and enough water to make the batter runny. If the batter is too runny, the injera won't hold together, but it needs to be thinner than regular pancake batter. How's that for ingredient specificity? Pour into a heated, greased skillet (medium low heat) and allow to cook until the surface is no longer shiny. Traditional injera isn't flipped like a pancake, but I've not been able to restrain myself from the urge to flip. Similarly, the Hobbits have been unable to restrain themselves from seeing this as an exotic pancake and demanding copious amounts of maple syrup which to anoint the injera. Philistines, I tell ya...Philistines. Promising that someday I'll learn to make the African dishes which are scooped up with injera "spoons" and eaten, I make my feeble apologies to the traditional culture that spawned them. Someday. Promise.

Making stuff from scratch looks easy when compared to these labyrinthine exercises of detection. I know what is going in my stuff. Every ingredient. Every surface I touched. How that flour was milled. Where that tomato came from. Exactly how much sweetener went in it. Up close and personal. Intimate knowledge. We who have food issues have to work harder at eating than the average consumer. We just get to pick which way we want to work hard.

Pick your poison.


Anonymous said...

Outstanding post! Thank you!

talkback said...

I found out about this blog from my daughter-in-law, an awesome cook, artist and mom of a gluten-sensitive kid in Austin. I am so glad that I decided to click on this link from her blog today. I've been wanting to make sourdough at home for awhile, and you gave me the info. I heartily agree with your desire to really KNOW what's in the food I eat, and I too have spent countless hours calling and emailing food producers for detailed info. I have also had no luck trying to get our local food co-op to stop buying so many products with "natural" flavorings in them, or any luck finding out what they are made of. Thanks again, you made my day!
-C. Sever

4ddintx said...

I just threw out a failed GF sourdough starter (rice flour), so this came at the best time!

Where do you get your teff? I can't get any locally and was wondering about a good online source.

Thanks...I was ready to give up hope on sourdough! (Do you think you can use the starter mixed with other flours for bread, too? I can't wait to try the injera, but bread is still loved at my houe, too!).

RasJane said...

I am so glad I found your blog! I have an allergic-to-everything kid too, and what a pain it was all those years to try and find safe packaged foods. I've (mostly)given up. Besides, he basically lives on meat a veggies anyway.
Injera though, is one of the breads he can actually eat. We love it. He also likes pancakes made from millet that has been soaked around 24 hours. It doesn't get as strong a taste. Maybe that's why he likes it! LOL
I look forward to exploring your blog.

Loztnausten said...

Talkback, I'm glad that the information was timely for you! Glad to have made your day...your visit certainly made mine. :)

4ddintx, I get it here: (Sorry that this won't hyperlink in comments. :( )

It all apparently comes from one company that grows it here in the Northeast, but this is the best price I've found on the whole ivory teff, which has a milder flavor than the brown. I do use a mixed grain bread for my starter. Right now, the primary grains I use are a combination of brown rice, millet, and teff, but I also, as the whimsy appears, will dabble with sorghum and buckwheat.

Hope this helps encourage your sourdough along!

Rasjane, thanks for stopping by and thanks for the encouragement!

Anonymous said...

This looks amazing. I'm re-inheriting my 10 inch cast iron skillet this week so maybe I'll make injera :)
As for african dishes to go along with it - just make a spicy stew or curry or chili. Beef or lamb and curry spices and tomato sauce with some vegetables for the adults :) Or lentils - red lentils cook down into a lovely sauce - with curry spices and panir cheese. Yum! OK, that's it. I'm making this this week! (OK, I'm not, I'm making pasta to use up the 50 pounds of tomatoes in various stages of processing in the kitchen and dining room, but someday I'll make injera and curry :)

Loztnausten said...

These sound delicious, Alyss! I'm just beginning to tap into the rich cuisines of the African continent and I expect that we'll be seeing more of them appear on our dinner table. The prospects are exciting! :)