Monday, August 31, 2009

Tomatoes, Tomatoes Everywhere – Freezing Them

I spent all yesterday in my kitchen again, trying to stay ahead of the mound of tomatoes and peppers that keep rolling in from my little garden. I’m probably not the only one – the media keeps reporting that many more people planted gardens this year in an effort to save money. If you didn’t plant a garden, you probably noticed that farmer’s markets have been springing up in many more towns this year, so your opportunity to get fresh produce is still better than usual!

So, just in case you or someone you know has a garden this year and are wondering what to do with all those tomatoes, I thought I’d share a couple of ways I save them for use during the winter. This week I’ll explain how easy it is to freeze them. Next week I’ll show how I oven-dry them (which is so much easier than sun-drying them, and just as tasty!).

To freeze tomatoes, you simply skin them, chop them into chunks, and put them in a quart-sized zippered freezer-style plastic bag, then toss them in the freezer. Really, that’s all there is to it. To skin them easily, drop them in boiling water for one minute, then plunge them into ice water. The skins will peel right off. Then I cut out the core near the stem, chop the tomatoes into bite-sized chunks, and put them in a colander to drain a little. Then I put 2 cups of the tomatoes into a quart-sized bag. Two cups is about equivalent to a can of tomatoes, so when I use a recipe calling for a can of tomatoes, I can just use a bag of my frozen tomatoes. Here’s a photo of several pints of my yellow-colored Lemon Boy tomatoes ready for the freezer.

In case you’re wondering, freezing peppers is even easier. (No skinning necessary!) Simply wash them and pat them dry, cut off the stem end, then slice them open and remove the seeds. Then dice them up and put them in a zippered freezer-style plastic bag. When I freeze them, I lay the bag flat so that the diced peppers don’t all freeze in a big clump. If they’re spread out flat when they freeze, it’s easier to shake out just a few when I need them later for a recipe. I plant Anaheims and JalapeƱos each year, and I freeze both of them the same way.

Got any great allergy-friendly recipes for using up some of those garden veggies? Share them with us by posting them in a Comment!

Happy harvesting!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Safe Muddy Buddies Recipe

Sometimes, parties just call for something sweet and chocolaty. This weekend, one of my son’s friends had a birthday party, and since she invited my son and another friend who both have food allergies, her wonderful mom made safe treats for the party. Rice Krispie Treats (made with milk-free margarine), hot dogs (with safe ingredients), and Muddy Buddies were all on the menu.

Remember Muddy Buddies? Those chocolaty, peanut-buttery, sugary bite-sized snacks made from Chex cereals? How could those possibly be milk-free, egg-free, and nut-free? Turns out it’s pretty easy – if you substitute safe ingredients. Use Sunbutter or a similar sunflower spread instead of peanut butter, safe chocolate chips (Kroger’s Value brand at Smith’s are milk-free and nut-free), and safe margarine (like Nucoa), and you’re in business. Many thanks to Kim for adapting this recipe to make it safe, and more thanks to Lena for serving it to the kids (and us grownups) at yesterday’s party! (And thanks to Betty Crocker® for the original recipe!)

Milk-free, Egg-free, and Peanut-free Chex® Muddy Buddies®
9 c. Rice Chex (or other safe bite-size cereals)
1 c. safe semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 c. Sunbutter sunflower spread
1/4 c. safe margarine (such as Nucoa)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 c. powdered sugar

1. Measure cereal into a large bowl; set aside.
2. In a 1-quart microwaveable bowl, microwave chocolate chips, Sunbutter, and margarine uncovered on High for 1 minute. Stir, then microwave about 30 seconds longer or until mixture can be stirred smooth. Stir in vanilla. Pour mixture over cereal, stirring until evenly coated. Pour into 2-gallon resealable food-storage plastic bag.
3. Add powdered sugar. Seal bag and shake until cereal is well-coated. Spread on waxed paper to cool. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Back to School Tips

My baby went to school today. Okay, so my baby is in fifth grade – he’s still my baby, and I can pout if I want to! I miss him during the days he’s in class, believe it or not, especially after we’ve had so much fun during the summer doing everything from swimming to movies to field trips to playdates. But, school is just one of those facts of life that we take like medicine – we know it’s good for us in the long run, so we put up with the icky taste.

What makes it especially hard on us both this year, though, is that the rest of the county doesn’t start back to school until next Monday. Boy, is there a dark little cloud over my baby’s head today. Ah well.

Last week the Davis County chapter met to discuss back-to-school issues for food-allergic kids. We welcomed a new member, as well as a visitor from Michigan who stopped in to see if we had any suggestions she could use in her child’s school back home. Kim and I talked about the things we’ve done, experienced, and learned over the years that our kids have been in school.

Most of my tips are the same ones I post about this time each year. So I’ll repeat them here, in the hopes that they help smooth the way for other parents this week and next. Good luck, and enjoy these remaining few days of summer, if you’re one of the lucky ones with a week left!

(Remember, there are links to several school-related resources on the Utah Food Allergy Network's website, so check those out, too.)

1. Volunteer a lot, so the staff knows you and counts on you (not just for allergy issues). If the only time they see you is when there's a food allergy, then you may start feeling like they're whispering "Oh no, here she comes again." But if they see you as a "Gosh, what would we do without her" kind of volunteer, then the occasional food issue will be coming from a great mom who's making a reasonable request.

2. If someone else is already the class mom, or you can't volunteer for that position, tell the teacher you really need to attend all parties and field trips because of the food allergy. The teacher may want to let the other parents know that you'll be selected for all the special events because of the food allergy, so that they don't think the teacher is playing favorites or something.

3. Ask the principal if there are other food allergic kids in the same grade, and if they can be assigned to the same teacher. That makes it easier for the allergic parents to trade off field-trip and party chaperone duties, it puts all the kids in the same class so that the classroom can be more allergen-free, and gives you some backup in food issues. (It's nice to NOT be the only one.) Statistically, about one in twenty kids has a food allergy, so chances are good there will be more kids than just your child.

4. Volunteer to shop for all the snacks or food materials for classroom parties or food educational units (like making noodle necklaces or gingerbread houses, etc.). Tell the teacher if she'll collect money donations, you'll go buy all the ingredients. They're usually delighted to get out of having to shop.

5. Make several copies of your Food Allergy Action Plan (available on FAAN’s website) and ask to hang one in the office, the cafeteria kitchen, and the classroom, so that your child's photo and "What to do in case of a reaction" instructions are handy no matter where he is. Your doctor needs to fill this out, so make an appointment asap.

6. Practice with your child what he should do if he "feels funny." Role-play and pretend you're the teacher, and have him come up and tell you what's wrong. Often our kids are too shy about asking for help, so have him practice with you, and with the teacher if possible. Not only does that give your child words to use if something happens, but it helps impress upon the teacher how important it is.

7. I get on my principal's staff meeting agenda at the first of the year and give a 5-minute talk about allergies and demonstrate the EpiPen. I also give a presentation to my son's class, and all the teachers and aides he comes into contact with. If you're not comfortable doing this, ask if there are other allergic parents that you can contact. Talk to them about ways to teach the teachers -- maybe another mom would be willing to give the presentation if you make the photocopies. It's easier when there are two of you involved!

8. Remember, In Utah, your child can legally carry his EpiPen. But he probably can't administer it to himself in an emergency, so make sure the teachers and everyone else know where it is and how to use it. My son carries his in his backpack so that it's always in the classroom, and I also fill a second prescription and they keep it in the office. So he has two sets at school. (I also attach a luggage tag with his photo on it to his backpack, so the teacher can find his backpack in a hurry.)

9. If he's going to be having lunch at school, talk to the Lunch Lady and cafeteria monitor. Introduce your child, tell her what your child is allergic to, and let your child know that the Lunch Lady is a friend that will help keep him safe. Then remember the Lunch Lady and the cafeteria monitor on holidays with little thank you cards or gifts to show you appreciate them. Few people do that. But it will help keep your child's food issues fresh in their mind, and they'll get to know him well.

10. Ask about setting up a food table just for allergic kids. All that’s required is a table with a sign that says allergies only, and the cafeteria monitors clean it with a separate marked bucket and cloth. Don’t let them make your child eat in a separate room or the principal’s office. He shouldn’t be punished just because he’s allergic to some foods! Ask the principal to mention the allergy table in a newsletter or other information that goes home with kids at the beginning of the year. You may find other kids with allergies expressing an interest in sitting at the table if they know it’s available.

11. Ask the parents of your child’s friends to send safe lunches with them every once in a while, so they can eat with your child. Make it a fun place to be!

12. Most peanut-allergic kids don’t react to the smell of peanut butter in the air, but a few do. If you are worried if your child will react to the air in the cafeteria, ask to take him in for a “practice run.” Sit in the cafeteria for half an hour and see if he reacts. If he doesn’t, cross that worry off your list.

13. Eat lunch with him for the first few days. That will reassure both of you that you can both handle this!

14. Talk to the teacher about which cafeteria door your child should use to avoid peanut butter contact (usually the one furthest from the playground), where to put his lunch bag after lunch, and where his EpiPens will be.

15. Remind your child NOT to throw away his lunch trash. Tell him to bring it home in his lunch bag, so that he can avoid using the trash can. If another kid slam-dunks a half-full milk carton in the trash can, you don’t want your milk-allergic child to get splashed.

16. Be aware and be prepared, but don't panic! School is going to be a lot of fun, and your child will do just fine. And believe it or not, so will you!

17. If you and your kid want to, you can order medical alert jewelry to alert teachers and other staff about your child’s allergy. Sometimes, it’s a good visual reminder to the teacher to stop and think about food. (But not always – sometimes you see something so often you stop seeing it, you know what I mean?) If you’d like to order one, I like the sports band versions at American Medical ID. They come in lots of colors, and are especially cool for boys, who don’t usually like the regular bracelets. They also have lots of other kids' selections, so look for the kids' section on their website.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Garden-Fresh and Kitchen-Bound

I was a slave to my garden this weekend.

I love having a garden. I love the taste of a fresh tomato still warm from the sunshine. I love thinking “this recipe would be great with a little fresh Anaheim pepper and oregano,” then walking outside to pick some. I love watching veggies ripen day after day until they’re just perfect.

I also enjoy planting different kinds of tomatoes – varieties you don’t get at the grocery store – just to see what they look and taste like. This year, in addition to my usual Sweet 100s (cherry tomatoes) and Early Girls, I planted a Yellow Boy (big, sweet, gorgeous yellow globes) and a Pink Girl (pale red beauties).

The only downside to having a garden is that it all seems to come ready to pick at once, and then I actually have to DO something with all that great produce. It seems like overnight I go from waiting impatiently for a few tomatoes to finally ripen so I can make a batch of salsa, to suddenly having piles of tomatoes that overwhelm my countertop – enough to make a dozen batches of salsa!

That happened this weekend. My peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, and yellow squash all got harvest-ready at once, and a neighbor’s apricot tree was being ravaged by birds, so I ended up with a couple of mixing bowls of them, too (the apricots, not the birds). So I spent the last two days in the kitchen. I made salsa, chocolate zucchini bread, and apricot pie. For breakfast, I made a baked apricot pancake, and omelets stuffed with cherry tomatoes, peppers, onions, basil, and oregano. We had zucchini casserole, apricots with whipped cream, and fresh tomatoes and mozzarella sprinkled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil and garnished with fresh basil.

My husband accused me of turning into Martha Stewart. We don’t usually eat this well, because I don’t usually have so much fresh produce that I have to try to think up new ways to prepare.

I still have bowls of tomatoes and peppers left on my counter, and tons of them still on the vine, so I’ll be making more salsa and marinara sauce as the days of August and September go by. And maybe I’ll try making gumbo or jambalaya with my tomatoes, okra, and onions. I’ll be freezing tomatoes and peppers so I can make more during the winter, when the store-bought veggies taste something like a hybrid between tennis balls and cardboard. And sun-dried tomatoes (okay, they’re really oven-dried) are great on salads and in pasta sauces during the winter. I may even try to oven-dry some herbs this year.

So if anyone needs me in the next few weeks, I’ll be buried under a big pile of tomatoes in my kitchen. If you’ve got a great recipe or two for me to try, send it along. I’ll be running out of ideas sometime around Wednesday, I’m sure!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Highlights from Dr. Jones’ Talk, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about some of the food allergy topics Dr. Douglas Jones covered at our July UFAN chapter meeting. This week, as promised, I’m sharing more.

FAHF-2 research: FAHF-2 is the Chinese herbal compound that is being studied to see if it really helps prevent anaphylactic reactions to peanuts. While the compound has shown remarkable success with mice, it’s only in Phase 1 of clinical trials with humans. So while we are all keeping our fingers crossed, it will be several years before we’ll have scientific evidence that it works as well in humans as it does in mice. (Several drugs for other diseases have been successful in mice, only to prove ineffective in humans, so it really is too early to tell.) Phase 1 gathers safety data only (does this compound harm the human body?) and doesn’t test whether the compound is actually doing what it’s supposed to do. Phase 2 will measure doses and their effect on the body (more safety studies). Phase 3 will finally address the drug’s actual effectiveness against allergies in a limited group of test subjects. Phase 4 will expand to include a much larger group of test subjects, and Dr. Jones hopes to be a part of that phase, should the compound make it that far.

Probiotics: At this point, studies seem to show that probiotics don’t perform any better than a placebo in preventing food allergies. They may help eczema acutely, but there is no lasting effect beyond a month. There is data that shows giving probiotics to a woman a month before delivery and to the newborn for the first six months of life helps reduce food allergy, but ONLY if the child was delivered via C-section. If it is a vaginal delivery, then probiotics do not seem to be any better than placebo. So at this point, Dr. Jones feels like probiotics are safe, they probably won’t hurt anything, but they probably won’t accomplish anything either. More testing is needed.

Blood Serum (IgE) Testing: Formerly known as RAST, these blood serum tests measure the level of IgE antibodies in the bloodstream. In general, higher numbers indicate the likelihood that the person will react to an allergen. But interpreting the numbers on a blood serum test becomes tricky because there are three different companies that build the testing machines, and a recent study showed that the numbers produced by the three different machines can be very inconsistent. So comparing numbers from the other two machines is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Most studies for food allergy have been done on an ImmunoCAP® machine and those are the numbers that should be used in determining when a food is to be reintroduced by food challenge or not. In Utah, Quest Diagnostics is the only lab that uses the ImmunoCAP® machine, and they accept all insurances except IHC. Most doctors aren’t aware of which labs use which machines. So don’t try to compare your blood serum numbers to your neighbor’s numbers. It’s probably better to use the results as broad guidelines, not as a firm indication of whether it is appropriate to do a food challenge on the child. Food challenges should only be done by an allergist in their office.

Once again, I can’t thank Dr. Jones enough for coming to share his knowledge with all of us. If you want to contact his office for an appointment, here’s his information:

Dr. Douglas H. Jones, MD
Rocky Mountain Allergy, Asthma, Immunology
1660 W. Antelope Dr ., Suite 310
Layton , UT 84041