Monday, May 25, 2009

Cooking Something New

I am so bored with food, it’s ridiculous. I like to eat, sure. But cooking seems like a lot of time wasted on something that disappears in fifteen minutes. It’s hard to get excited about cooking. And of course, when you’re dealing with food allergies, your choices get limited that much more.

So I’ve decided to challenge myself to try cooking something new once a month. Last month, it was Belgian Endive. I bought some on a whim, looked up recipes, and tried the easiest. It was okay. Not great, but okay. It’s got a bit of a bitter taste so you have to cook it for a long time with something like margarine and lemon to get it to mellow out. The good thing was not that I found a recipe that I loved, but that I branched out of my boring routine and took the mystery out of one of those funny-looking vegetables at the store. Now that I’ve tried it once, I’ll be willing to try it again soon, in a different recipe. And I’ve already found one that sounds much better than the one I tried.

Tonight, I tried frying plantains. I’ve had plantains before, in restaurants, and I really like them. They’re a relative of the banana, but they’re not sweet. They’re actually more like a potato in consistency and taste, and recipes range from sweet (with margarine and brown sugar) to savory (with oil, salt, and spices, or used as an ingredient in dishes such as stuffing). In restaurants, I’ve had plantains sweet and I’ve really liked them. But after cooking them that way tonight (sliced, fried in margarine, and dusted with brown sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla), I wasn’t as thrilled. Perhaps I bought the wrong kind – there are different varieties. But they tasted like potatoes topped with sugar. Hmm. Kind of dry. Not really what I was expecting.

Here’s the funny part. My son, who is extremely picky and rarely likes anything new, liked the plantains. This from a kid who won’t eat potatoes. But he liked them. Maybe that’s how I’ll get him to start eating potatoes, now that I think about it.

Anyway, once again, it’s not so much that I found a great new recipe, as that I tried something different, and dinner wasn’t the same old boring fare that is usually is. My son helped me cook them. We all sat around and evaluated them. We tried pouring maple syrup over them. (That helped.) In other words, dinner became a family experiment, not just a boring chore.

I think next time I buy plantains, I’m going to slice them and thread the slices on a kabob with meat. I bet they’ll take on the flavor of a marinade and be a good potato substitute. Or maybe they’ll be awful. But I’m willing to try, just to do something different and shake up the ol’ dinner routine a little.

So, what have you tried lately that’s different? I could use some ideas.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Reaping More Awareness

You know something’s gone mainstream when it starts showing up in TV shows, not as a pivotal plot point, but as a throw-away dialogue line.

Last night, I was watching an episode of Reaper. (Granted, it was about six weeks old – I’m woefully behind on my DVR.) In this episode, Sam (the main character) doesn’t know his girlfriend has found out that his biological father just happens to be Satan. She accosts him and demands to know if there’s “anything you want to tell me.”

Sam, looking confused and contrite, offers, “I’m allergic to tree nuts?”

It wasn’t even a punchline to a joke. It was just a bit of dialogue that allowed him to attempt to elude the girlfriend for another second or two. And in the great scale of evils, being allergic to tree nuts didn’t even make the girlfriend blink – not when it was measured against being the son of the devil. Go figure.

What does this mean? Simply that food allergies have become so common that just about everyone knows about them and knows someone with them, so that a TV show can mention food allergies off-the-cuff and no one is left scratching their heads.

Just try doing that ten years ago. More than half the audience would have been saying, “Allergic to tree nuts? What’s that all about?”

This is, of course, good news. Wide-spread awareness is the first major step towards a cure for any illness – the more people understand the illness, the more likely they are to discover it early enough in themselves to treat, the more likely they are to support friends and family who get the illness, and the more likely they are to support research and treatment funding. Just look what’s happened with breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, and even erectile dysfunction.

Okay, maybe I’m overanalyzing a silly television show. But it made me smile to think that the writers of Reaper are aware of food allergies and aren’t above spreading a little more awareness themselves. Every little bit helps.

I always have liked that show!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Planting Seeds

Ask any gardener in Utah, and you’ll learn that Mother’s Day weekend is the traditional time to plant your garden in this area. Any sooner, and the baby plants will likely freeze. Later, and your growing season will be too short. But Mother’s Day weekend usually heralds the end of the overnight freezes, and the start of those lovely, long, warm days of summer.

So, appropriately, this Mother’s Day weekend found me at the Mother’s Day Garden Fair in West Jordan, planting seeds.

But not those kinds of seeds.

Working at the Utah Food Allergy Network (UFAN) booth, founder Michelle Fogg and I were planting seeds of information. Seeds of reassurance. Seeds of growth, for sure, but not the kind that grow in the soil.

I can only hope I have a green thumb, because at least a couple of hundred people stopped by our booth to ask questions and learn more about food allergies. That’s a lot of seeds we planted.

Frankly, I was amazed at how many people talked to us. Some were adults with allergies; some had children with allergies; some had grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or cousins with food allergies. All wanted more information.

“How do I find out if my daughter is allergic to milk?”

“I just found out I have celiac disease. What can I eat?”

“Where can I find a decent selection of gluten-free foods?”

“How do I bake a birthday cake without eggs?”

When you’re newly diagnosed with food allergies, it can feel like you’re the only one. You can feel isolated, singled out, overwhelmed. But if you’d stood in our booth for a few minutes, you’d have quickly seen just how many people are dealing with this now. We’re definitely not alone. And fortunately, there are a lot more great resources, such as knowledgeable allergists, conscientious food manufacturers, and information-rich websites that are making it easier to live with food allergies now than it was even five years ago.

So while I was a little surprised – and dismayed – by how many people were anxious to talk to us at this garden fair, I was also pleased that I actually had information to help them, whether it was recommending allergists, handing out samples of allergen-friendly food, pointing out websites for recipes and support, signing people up for our UFAN email group, or recommending grocery stores with tasty allergen-friendly products.

And as they walked away, I swear I could see both ideas and confidence sprouting. Sometimes all it takes is a seed.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Egg Replacers

Come see me this Saturday (May 9, 2009, 9 am – 5 pm) at the UFAN booth at the Mother’s Day Garden Fair. It’s being held at Conservation Garden Park, 8215 South 1300 West, in West Jordan, UT. Click here for more info.

In my baking, I’m always on the lookout for great ways to replace eggs so that my son can share his baked treats with his egg- and milk-allergic best friend. This weekend, I finally tried a new egg replacer product that I’ve been hearing about on the UFAN email list for months. It’s called Ener-G Egg Replacer, it's tapioca based, and I found it at Smith’s.

On the back of the Ener-G box, there are several great recipes, including an incredibly simple and allergen-friendly recipe for sponge cake.

On Friday night, I was hosting a graduation party for a friend who just received his master’s degree at Weber State U (and he just happens to be the dad of my son’s egg- and milk-allergic best friend).

So decided to test the sponge cake recipe and turn it into a jelly roll. It worked great! I followed the recipe on the box, then baked it in a 10” x 15” pan. Next I spread the cake with strawberry jelly and rolled it up. Finally, I frosted the cake with white icing, draped a Fruit-by-the-Foot fruit snack over it like a ribbon, and voila – a diploma cake!

I haven’t tried the Ener-G Egg Replacer in anything else yet, but the cake worked out nicely, so I’m definitely going to use it in my other recipes to see how it works. They have a website with recipes and more products here.

Here are my other tried-and-true egg replacers:

For each egg called for in the recipe, substitute:

  • 1 tsp baking powder, 1 T water or apple juice, and 1 T white vinegar – This foams up rapidly (like a science fair volcano), so it’s fun to do with kids and it works great in baked recipes like breads and cakes. This actually works better than the applesauce or banana options, because the foaming action makes breads rise a little better, I think. It’s also cheap and easy, using ingredients you already have on hand. (No dashing to the store!)

  • 3 T apple sauce – This works well in cookies.

  • 1/2 mashed banana – This works well in cookies (if you want the banana taste). A friend just told me she used mashed banana instead of eggs in pancakes she made using Bisquick’s mix, and she loved it.

  • 1 T ground flax seed mixed with 3 T warm water – Actually, I’ve never tried this, because people with nut allergies have a higher chance of also being allergic to flax. But I know others on the UFAN mailing list have used ground flax seed with great results, so if you know you’re not allergic to flax, go ahead and give it a try.