Monday, July 25, 2011

Touring Chili's Restaurant

by Kelley Lindberg

Every summer, I work with several other moms to arrange educational experiences and field trips for our kids during the summer – it’s kind of a co-op summer day camp. Last week, we went on a tour of the Chili’s Restaurant in Layton, Utah.

The main reason I chose this Chili’s is because I know my son’s best friend has been able to eat there despite his allergies to milk, egg, nuts, peanuts, and seafood. His mom has worked with one of the managers there several times, and they have always agreed to make his dinner safe for him.

When I called and explained to the manager Charles that we wondered if our group of 11 kids and 5 moms could have a “behind-the-scenes” tour of the kitchen, he bent over backwards for us. He had us come at 10:00 in the morning (before the restaurant opened), gave us a tour of the whole kitchen, had one of his managers (Scott) talk to us about what kind of training it takes to become a cook at Chili’s, and so on.

They also took the time to talk to us about how they handle food allergies, from how they separate their food preparation areas and their grill surfaces, to the menus they can show their customers. Chili’s actually has a whole set of allergy information on their website – updated every month – that breaks down their menu by the 8 most common allergens. If you’re allergic to milk, they have a list of suggested items you can order. If you’re allergic to eggs, there’s a different list for you. If you have multiple allergens, it’s a little more complicated, because you have to compare the lists until you find items that work for all your allergies. But still, the lists seem complete and very helpful. You can download the Chili’s Allergy Information here.

The managers printed out a copy of all 8 allergen menus for each of the kids in our group (2 of them have food allergies, but all of them care about each other), and answered all our questions. We were all very impressed with how helpful the manager and his staff were, and how they really seemed responsive to our food allergy needs in particular.

There’s never a guarantee, of course, when it comes to food allergies – accidents can happen at any time – but it’s nice to see yet another restaurant chain really take food allergy issues to heart and understand how important it is to take their customers’ concerns seriously.

Thanks, Chili’s, for giving us such a great tour… and for serving us such a wonderful and SAFE lunch afterwards!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Trying Out New Melons

by Kelley Lindberg

Summer is a great time for discovering new fresh produce!

Last week I discovered Swiss Chard and wrote about super-easy ways to prepare it. This week, I’ve been using my family as guinea pigs testing out new and different melons.

Ask anyone to name a few melons, and you’ll probably get the usual suspects: cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon. But there are a whole slew of different melons showing up in the markets these days, so I decided there’s only one way to find out if they’re any good!

Personally, I love cantaloupe, hate watermelon, and don’t particularly care for honeydew. So I eye new melons with an approach-avoidance thing. If it tastes like cantaloupe, I’ll be happy. If it tastes like watermelon, my husband and son will be on their own eating it.

But I’ve decided to experiment this month anyway, and so far, my luck is holding – I’ve really liked what I’ve discovered.

The first experiment was a big melon called a Galla. When I cut it open, it looked green like honeydew. But it has a much more cantaloupe sort of flavor – mild and sweet. I really liked it!

My second experiment was even more interesting. I found a “Lemondrop” melon at Sam’s Club and took it home to try. And I’m really glad I did. Inside, it’s green like a honeydew, but the flavor is a cross between a cantaloupe and a lemon – like a cantaloupe lemonade, maybe? Hence the name, Lemondrop! Sweet, surprisingly sour, and refreshing!

I’m headed back to the store tomorrow to try another new melon. If you’ve found a favorite, let me know!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Swiss Chard and Other Fresh Finds

by Kelley Lindberg

Finding fresh vegetables and fruits at the store, farmers’ markets, and roadside stands is definitely one of the highlights of summer.

Last week, my son and I got to go on a tour with some friends of a local farm, East Farms, which grows more than 50 types of vegetables and supplies grocery stores and restaurants all across Utah. It was fascinating to learn first-hand how farmers buy and share water to irrigate their fields, to learn how many varieties of vegetables can grow in this climate, and to see how much work it takes to bring fresh veggies to our table every day.

My son even got to practice putting a rubber band around a bunch of spinach. Sounds easy, but he ended up shredding many of the leaves and took far too many seconds – professional pickers can cut and band around 95 bunches of spinach an hour, we heard. We have a whole new appreciation for something that looks simple and that we take for granted in the grocery store.

We also learned that our whole growing season here in Utah is about a month behind normal – so it’s not just my own garden that had a hard time getting started this year!

Even though it’s early, there are still some delicious finds in the produce aisle and farmers’ stands these days. My latest discovery is Swiss Chard. I planted some this year only because I couldn’t find any spinach to plant, and the nursery recommended Swiss Chard as an alternative. I took a chance and planted it. So far, it’s the only thing in my garden that’s growing like gangbusters, so I’m glad I did. If nothing else, it makes my garden look good. But fortunately, it also tastes good!

I hit the internet to figure out what to do with it, and found that it’s easy to prepare. Swiss Chard is similar to cooked spinach, but with a little more flavor (but milder than kale). Consumer Reports even mentioned it this month, describing it as an “overlooked” vegetable worth trying, having “a wealth of nutrients” including iron, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, C, E, and K, which are all “key for growth and immune system support.” (See Consumer Reports’Five Overlooked Vegetables that Deserve a Second Chance.”) 

The easiest way I found to cook it is to just cut or tear it into big pieces (2 inches or so), then sauté it with a little garlic in olive oil and safe margarine (about one tablespoon of each), until it wilts like cooked spinach. It’s good plain like that, or if you want, you can add a dash of your favorite flavoring to the sauté: lemon juice, white wine, or balsamic vinegar. (Sprinkling the sautéed Swiss Chard with parmesan cheese is also tasty, if you’re not allergic to dairy.) My family really liked this – even my picky son.

Another day, I sautéed diced tomatoes with the Swiss Chard using the same recipe, then put it over pasta with some sautéed shrimp. Replace the shrimp with crumbled bacon, grilled sliced chicken, or whatever your family likes for a fast and fresh summer dinner.

As the farmers’ markets are getting started, I hope to find some more fun veggies or fruits to try. If you run across an interesting new or “overlooked” veggie or a great summer recipe for an old standby, please share it! We can all use a little fresh summertime inspiration.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Caribbean Memories

by Kelley Lindberg

I’m looking at a photo of my son pretending to drink a “sandy colada” on the beach in St. Martin. It’s one of a couple thousand photos we and our Baltimore friends took while we spent a week together on a 46-foot catamaran sailboat exploring the Dutch and French West Indies islands in the Caribbean. We just got back a few days ago, and I think I’ve nearly gotten all the sand out of our duffle bags – but not out of our memories, like this photo.

It was an incredible trip. Combine two couples who’ve been friends forever, their four boys ranging in age from 12 to 21, a week of perfect weather (despite the fact that it’s the start of hurricane season… whew!), a sailboat, a million tropical fish, assorted sea turtles, sting rays, barracuda, a nurse shark (“No, really, Mom, they’re practically harmless!”), and a giant pile of snorkel and scuba gear, and you’ve got a recipe for paradise.

At least in my cookbook, that is.

We chartered the sailboat from The Moorings, a company that charters boats all over the world. One of the nice things about this company is that they provide you with a list of meals for the week, you select the food you want, and they’ll stock the boat for you when you arrive. On the menu list, I make copious notes about the food allergies we have in our group (my son’s peanut and tree nut allergies, and the other mom’s kiwi allergy), and they are pretty good about making sure the provisions they bring on board are safe. I always go through every item carefully to make sure nothing sneaks by, and if it does, the company is good about swapping it for something else.

We cook most meals on board, so that makes it easy to control any allergens. And when we eat at a bar or restaurant on shore, we can usually check ingredients labels or talk directly to the chef to make sure the food is safe. If not, I carry a load of safe granola bars as a backup plan.

We’ve found that as the years go by, more and more people are aware of food allergies, even in the more remote places where we travel. It’s slowly becoming easier to talk to chefs – they understand immediately the seriousness of allergies, and they are usually willing to suggest safe alternatives. And labeling is becoming universally more allergy-friendly, so even local brands are making an effort to indicate allergens or allergy-friendly manufacturing processes.

Things have changed a lot in the last ten years, for the better, making travel a little bit easier every year. Of course, I still have to read everything, check everything, talk to everyone, and pack a ton of my own food supplies…you can’t stop being vigilante, ever. But at least there are growing options and increased awareness.

And that makes me happy, because experiencing all the world has to offer is an irresistible goal for our family – and my son would rather live on two weeks’ worth of safe granola bars alone rather than risk missing out on swimming through tropical coral reefs and play peek-a-boo with a nurse shark. Me? I could live without the shark. But those iridescent blue parrot fish?… Never!