FOOD FOTO: A Berry Peachy Endeavor

I wrestled with myself over whether to actually leave that title, but I had to.  The truth is, I've made a few fruit crisps in my day - an easily gluten free, widely appealing and adaptable dessert - but I think this combination of strawberries, peaches, and nectarines might be my favorite of all time.

One of the best fruit stands in the neighborhood had a 2-pound assortment of ripe nectarines and yellow peaches for 79 cents TOTAL, so I peeled and diced those along with about a cup of strawberries, and added a tablespoon of honey and the juice of half a lime.  I let this little concoction rest in the fridge overnight, not because I was feeling fancy, but because I simply didn't have time to do anything with it.  So last night around my lunchtime (which, for night shift people is generally just before midnight), I made a mixture of brown sugar, quinoa flakes, gf baking mix, and cut in about 1/3 stick of softened butter for the crisp.  I also made a small slurry (cornstarch mixed with water) so that the accumulated fruit juices would thicken while baking.

Assembly is as easy as spreading half the crisp mixture in the bottom of a prepared souffle (or, deep pie dish if that's what you have), pouring in the fruit, then adding the remainder of the crisp mixture.  Forty minutes in the oven produced a deliciously sweet-tart dessert that I will absolutely make again, and next time I'll take pictures to post with a recipe.  Hello, summer dessert stand-by.


THIS JUST IN: Key Food Supermarkets go Gluten Free!

For those of you unfamiliar with Key Food supermarkets, they're a small chain that serves the 5 boroughs of NYC, as well as points north in New York and Connecticut.  For quite some time they've carried a handful of gf products, like Mary's Gone Crackers, Nature's Path cereals and snack bars, and a few Annie's products.

But LO AND BEHOLD, I was on a quick grocery run a couple of weeks ago when I spotted a brand new gluten free SECTION!  Where the Jellos and instant pudding mixes once stood was now an entire section exclusively devoted to gluten free products - a variety of pastas, great selection of crackers, cookies, flours, gf oats, boxed mixes, cereal, and more.  And best of all, the shelves were flagged with large yellow tags reading "GLUTEN FREE", also scattered around the store to indicate other expressly gluten free products.

So what did I do?  After picking up a celebratory box of Mary's Gone Crackers, I emailed Ben Mandel, the store manager, to give a giant thumbs-up for the initiative.  Mr. Mandel emailed back, not only thank me for the feedback, but also to invite my suggestions of other gluten free products I'd like to see in the store.  WHAT!  If you live near a Key Food, I'd highly recommend swinging by to see if they too have started a similar initiative - if they haven't, consider contacting them to suggest it, and if they have, be sure to send your support!  Progress, my friends!


ON LOCATION: Tabora Farm and Orchard

Greetings, friends!  It's been a minute, and I've missed intrepidly reporting to you all of my gluten free adventures.  Chalk it up to starting a brand new job in a brand new career, in a competitive nurse residency program, no less.  With both classroom theory training and regular 12-hour shifts, cooking has become a little routine - still delicious and healthy, if a little boring.  So I figured I'd catch up with one of my visits ON LOCATION to the incredibly tasty and welcoming Tabora Farm and Orchard, located in Chalfont, PA, about 30 miles north of Philadelphia in my homeland of Bucks County.  Tabora's highlights are seasonal produce (much of it grown on-site), homemade ice cream, and a knock-out, old-fashioned baked goods section, housed in a barn-style building surrounded by miles of farmland. 

At places like this one, I never expect to find things I can eat, considering my figurative butting-of-heads with both gluten and dairy.  And that's one of the many reasons Tabora is exceptional - they offer a growing selection of gluten free baked goods so good that you'll probably be suspicious the first time you try them.  And trust me, you will want to travel there just to try them.


A Different Take on Egg Dyeing

I have a new obsession.  For once, it's not a kitchen appliance.  But rather an egg dyeing technique that ignores the cartoony boxes on the pharmacy shelf and instead looks to the spice rack and scraps on the counter for inspiration.

A few of the more granola sites I follow made various mentions of DIY egg coloring early in the season this year, so my interest was piqued.  I'd read about the technique in the past, but this is the first egg dyeing season in as long as I can remember where I actually had time to think about dyeing eggs at all, much less the technique I'd be using.  What began as a fun little internets research idea became one of the coolest kitchen science projects I'd ever gotten myself into.


FOOD FOTO: Eggcellent

Lady Gaga said it best: We're all born superstars.  After a night of hail storms and freezing temps with the heat conspicuously absent from my apartment, I was feeling a little less like a superstar this morning.  So I made a star-shaped egg, natch.

Making shapes out of food is probably the simplest way to put a smile on your face or the faces of those who are lucky enough to have your cooking at their disposal.  Use your favorite metal cookie cutter, spray the inside generously with cooking spray (make sure it's flour-free spray, gluten free friends) or brush it with a little light-tasting olive oil, place in a prepared pan, and crack an egg or pour some pancake batter in.  And have a better day!


Tostones Gringos (or, Some American's Version of Tostones)

Mmm, tostones.  The cure for the common french fry.  I don't remember the first time I tried these delicious bundles of savory fried plantain, but it was sometime after moving to New York.  In fact, before I knew what a plantain was, I bought a couple at a local bodega, thinking they were enormous, super under-ripe bananas - that was a confusing time.  In my travels to Latin American and Caribbean countries later on, it was impossible to get through a meal without finding some form of plantain, either green or maduro - no complaints from me.

Plantains are an awesome fruit to work with - a green plantain is great for tostones and mofongo (something I have yet to try at home - I prefer Dominican style over Puerto Rican style, but neither is exactly simple to make), or a ripened, yellow-to-black maduro can make an array of delicious, sweet side dishes or desserts.  In my neighborhood, costs range from 25 cents apiece down to 10 cents apiece on sale, so it's an incredibly cost-effective food.  Also?  Tostones are easy to make and incredibly satisfying.


THIS JUST IN: Gluten Free Dumplings by Friedman's Lunch!

Dumplings.  The one favorite food that I haven't eaten nor tried to replicate since cutting out gluten almost two years ago.  Sir Benjamin and I could have bought stock in Vanessa's Dumpling or Prosperity Dumpling up to that point.  Nothing like sinking your teeth into a piping hot pork or veggie dumpling in exchange for a mere quarter, but I also used to buy frozen pot stickers from Sunrise Mart and various groceries in Chinatown, to throw together a quick soup or brown bag lunch. I even made pork dumplings a few times from precut pastry, finishing them in a bamboo steamer.

My friend Caroline has just scooped me on a dumpling revelation of sorts - Friedman's Lunch, a fabulous Westside lunch spot (in Chelsea Market), has changed my dumpling fortune.  The owners launched Feel Good Foods, a line of frozen gluten free foods inspired by owner Vanessa Phillips' own dietary needs.  And (drumroll, please) they've started with DUMPLINGS!  The site also lists the stores where Feel Good Foods can be purchased, including Gluten Free Mall if you're not near one of the locations.  Pick some up for an awesome soup - broth of choice, thinly sliced carrots and mushrooms, your favorite green (I like bok choy or gai lan), and a couple dumplings topped with sliced scallions. Time for a trip to Chelsea....


FOOD FOTO: Crock Pot Love

Not feeling fabulous, yet again, creates a genuine need for uncomplicated cooking.  My eyes shift to the Crock Pot, my $18 little (not really that little, actually) dream investment.  I read a comment on a cooking site the other day, that referred to the Crock Pot as something in which to cook things like Velveeta and Hamburger Helper, natch.  Well, I know mine has never seen either of those, mostly because I can't eat them, but also because of the wealth of wonderful possibilities of this quite laissez-faire method of cooking.  Many refer to this fabulous machine as a slow cooker, which it is, but mine is actually a Crock Pot - not a fancy new space age one, though it is programmable (time by the half hour and high - low - warm), and never gets too hot.

Two things I had yet to cook in Baron Crock Pot: apple butter, which I've never cooked at all, and steel cut oats.  I'd heard chatter over the internets about an overnight oatmeal of sorts, which sounded amazing.  In short, both were cooked over two nights - the apple butter on low for 15 hours then finished in the food processor, and the oats for 9 hours on low.  On the advice of many, rather than cooking the oats directly in the stoneware, I used the Baron instead as a bain-marie, or waterbath, with the oats and liquid in an ovenproof glass bowl.  I added some dried fruit, nuts, and honey to the oats when I woke up, and cooked on high for another hour.  Both were delicious - I'm fine-tuning the recipes, and I'll post next time I give them a go.


Cara Investigates: Gluten Free Beer Made from Barley?

It's true.  Sir Benjamin came across a 4-pack of bottles of Estrella Damm Daura from Barcelona at the local grocery, priced at $6.99, then "looseys" (I didn't realize this term applied to beers as well) for $1.79 at the local European market.  The only gluten free beer I'd tried up to that point was Redbridge, a sorghum-based domestic beer - it's not bad and not terribly difficult to find, but the taste is a little too light and sweet for me.

I was never a serious beer drinker, but the occasional Stella or Franziskaner Weissbier was always a welcome switch from wine, and I'm pretty sure I drank more beer than water in Germany and Austria, since it tends to be cheaper at restaurants.  If I want something carbonated, I'll usually stick to cider - Original Sin and Badger are two of my gluten free favorites, but they can be hard to find.  So imagine my surprise when Sir Benjamin excitedly showed me to the beer aisle, claiming to have found another gluten free beer!


THIS JUST IN: Bittman does it again!

I wasn't really that familiar with Mark Bittman, a food journalist most recently for the New York Times, until I watched him eat and drink his way through Spain with Mario Batali via PBS.  It was an enjoyable and maddening series, maddening only because he got to be there instead of me.  Bittman has developed a really specific style, as embodied by his "Minimalist" cooking column - a bit of culinary simplicity in the world of truffle oil and $1000 chocolate gold-leafed desserts.

"Creamy, Brothy, Earthy, Hearty" is a nice, simple guide to throwing together a good pot of soup, based on your preference for main ingredients and style.  The article covers 12 quick and flexible recipes that you can adapt to your liking and/or pantry availability.  While there are hints of spring in the air here and there in the Northeast, winter is definitely still hanging on by a thread - make a big pot of soup and tell me about it!


On Location: Tu-Lu's Gluten-Free Bakery

I got a tip on Tu-Lu's Bakery a few weeks ago while drinking a glass of spiked pomegranate punch at an incredibly fun party, so I'm frankly quite surprised that I remembered enough details to actually locate the place.  After checking out the completely glowing reviews on the bakery's Yelp page, it was time to give it an earnest once-over.  It's the only dedicated gluten-free food establishment in the city that I'm aware of, so that alone merited a trip.  Sir Benjamin and I had some business on the Upper East in the morning, so we took advantage of the above-freezing temps and walked down to the East Village.


Take Time to Smell The Flours

Q: What flours do you rely on?

Before I embark on my baking recipes (I do actually bake, though you wouldn't know it from the blog so far), I wanted to provide a little background on gluten free flours first.  One of the scariest parts of the diet transition for me was cracking open a recipe book and seeing "amaranth flour" or "quinoa flakes" as an ingredient...what is a "quinoa" and why does it flake?  Why does "amaranth" sound like a mumble?  Many questions.

It's a learning process.  Luckily for me, there were plenty of internet resources that do a fine job of explaining.  The rest is really just trial-and-error, and after awhile, you'll get an idea of which flour produces a particular result, and which you like the best.  If you're not gluten free and following this blog as a personal favor to me (I owe you one), maybe consider shaking things up a bit and giving these flours a try.

Instead of reinventing the floury wheel, I'd rather list a few good resources for you to check out and bookmark, then add a few tips and personal preferences.


THIS JUST IN: Gluten Free in the Major Leagues

Celiac Central reports that reliably awesome Phillies team member Raul Ibanez has recently gone gluten free, related to a gluten allergy diagnosis.  Watch the interview here.

In related news, the Phillies will be hosting a Celiac Awareness night at Citizens Bank Park on July 8th, complete with activities for the whole family and gluten free refreshments.  And the sweet satisfaction of watching the Phils pummel the Braves.

Mark your calendars!


Food Foto: Alterna-lunch

I haven't had to pack a work or clinical shift lunch since last August.  While that's generally a glorious piece of fortune, it doesn't mean that lunch at home is always exciting, either.  Especially if I've cooked breakfast and will be cooking dinner in a handful of hours.  So occasionally, I'll throw together a nice selection of various items around the kitchen, with little preparation, that does not involve two slices of bread.

While homemade hummus is delicious, the next best thing is doctored plain hummus - my local grocery store sells a can of literally just pureed garbanzos, nothing added, for about 99 cents.  I add a couple teaspoons of sesame tahini, olive oil, pepper, lemon juice, and garlic powder.  The chips you see were originally soft corn tortillas who got bent in half under something in the My-First-Refrigerator.  Brushed with olive oil, cut into pieces, sprinkled with garlic powder (I told you, I love garlic), rosemary, and ground flax, and baked.  Accompanied by raw almonds, roma tomato slices, celery sticks, and some cheese for a lunch with tons of flavor, fiber, healthy fat, vitamins, and with zero added sugar.


THIS JUST IN: 'How to Cook Just About Anything' round-up

One of my flavorite food sites, The Kitchn, has a new round-up of their best cooking How-To articles (complete, as always, with gorgeous food fotos).  Check the article out here, and talk to me about your feedback!


The Boyfriend Cooks: "Rice & Beans", or "How to Feed Your Starving Girlfriend (or Self)"

Sir Benjamin writes:

I love eating.  I love the taste, the spice, the texture, the temperature, and the whole "being full" thing.  Unfortunately, I'm a terrible cook [Ed. note: no, he's not]. I can mess up cereal if left to my own devices.  A while back I decided I was going to learn to cook some basic meals that could be made quickly.  Rice and Beans was my first, and seems to be a favorite.  That's the "after" picture above.  Looks good, right?


On Location: Coming soon...A Valentine's Pizza Party!

I had a table-full of Valentines (plus my brother-in-law) this year, for a giant pizza party.  Pizza parties can be a sad event for gluten freers...unless they feature bake-at-home g-f pizza dough from none other than Jules Thin Crust Pizza, and g-f vanilla mocha cupcakes baked with love.

Look for the full write-up soon!  Happy Valentine's Day!


Spaghetti and That's a Spicy Meat-a-balls!

Q: What's your ultimate comfort food?

So I've been feeling sick this week.  Not sick in a really specific way that I can effectively combat with all of my health tricks, but more of a general blah that makes me want to nap every three hours.  My theory is that I'm fighting off a flu that would have been catastrophic had I not diligently gotten my flu shot in December, but that's probably more of a means to pat myself on the back for getting a flu shot.  Either way, I feel exhausted, a little feverish and achy, and exceptionally unmotivated.

If we're then talking about what kind of food makes sense when we're in such a sick-ish funk, you'd think I'd be throwing together some of my Chicken Vegetable Soup. But no.  The Italian-American in me craves spaghetti and meatballs as the ultimate comfort food...go figure.  I used to try to replicate my mom's sauce recipe, but years of getting it not-quite-right led me to believe that it's physically impossible to make homemade sauce as good as hers.  So I make my own, simple version that suffices.  While it's pretty easy to whip up some decent sauce and boil some gluten free spaghetti, the true challenge is a tasty gluten free meatball that holds together without becoming something you could use to play squash.



Cara Investigates: The New 'No Gums!' Manifesto

Q:  Do you use xanthan or guar gums in your baking?

I do, and I have since I started baking gluten free.  Gluten is the protein composite in wheat, barley, and rye that provides many foods with their shape and elasticity. So logically, if we bake using flours that don't contain gluten, we need to find some substance to mimic the effect.  I've read countless disastrous accounts of g-f baking where someone forgot to add such a substance, and they were left with a giant pan of crumbs.

There are a few replacement options, the most popular of which has seemed to be gums: xanthan and guar. Gums are complex little carbohydrates that are naturally produced through fermentation, expressly for use as thickening and binding agents in food.  Most g-f baking mixes for breads, cakes, and muffins contain at least one type of gum, at a ratio of something like 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon to one cup of g-f flour. I can personally attest to using xanthan gum in all my baked goods, with satisfying results.  An 8 oz. package will run you around $11, but mine has lasted for at least a year.

Sounds legit, right?  So what's this new NO GUMS baking trend circulating the internets?


Food Foto: Superbowl Dinner

Q:  What are your Superbowl must-haves?

I threw dinner together instead of watching Halftime, and from what Facebook updates have told me, that was a wise decision.  Because I wasn't particularly interested in either team this year yet felt compelled to watch the Bowl anyway, I opted for a snacky dinner - fries, chips, and a melt.

Yes, all of those things are pictured: herbed yam fries with ketchup, crunchy kale chips (a new addiction), and a turkey/provolone/tomato/dijon mustard melt on homemade gluten free multigrain bread.  Very simple, relatively healthy compared to what one might otherwise eat on this day of competition, and easily made without gluten ingredients.  Look for the recipes at a later date.


Nutty Apple Steel Cut Oatmeal

Q:  Which foods entice you to actually eat breakfast?

Oh, silly breakfast.  I get so uninspired by breakfast food that I often wake up, get distracted doing something else, then have to force myself to eat something to let my body know it's time to operate normally.  So I need a little encouragement sometimes, something to look forward to.  Studying nutrition taught me to be sure not to skip a morning bite due to the proven health benefits - primarily to regulate your metabolism, but also to encourage a healthier and better nutritionally-balanced diet throughout the day.  That Cup Noodles for lunch, eaten purely out of starving desperation, is never the best choice since it's probably made of spaceship materials.

Oats have been a point of contention for gluten free people, since many cannot tolerate them even when the variety is certified g-f.  It's enough to make people not want to even experiment.  I, however, relied on oatmeal far too much before going g-f that cutting it out entirely would only be an option of extreme necessity.  Luckily, that's not the case for me.  Bob's Red Mill makes my favorite variety, and if they aren't available to you locally, the site allows you to order by the package instead of a case.  I've started to prefer the texture of steel cut oats to regular rolled oats, even if the cooking time might be a smidge longer. Adding a couple extra ingredients to give it some variety can add nutrition and maybe even rescue you from the morning doldrums.


Chicken Vegetable Soup

Q:  Which foods are your natural defense against wintry weather?

Winter came early to the Northeast, and proceeded to pummel us all into a frozen state of cranky submission. I don't even think the groundhog's lack of a shadow can do us any good at this point, also considering he's a known trickster.  The best plan of attack is to max out your library book allowance, join Netflix, make some soup, and hunker down until things start to think about growing again.  And if you live in a warm climate, make soup and take it to the park, because you can.

Chicken soup is an easy, awesome winter meal, and it can make a ton for leftovers. It's even suspected to be scientifically helpful for sickness, working to resolve cold symptoms faster.  For the gluten free individual, soup falls into the "lurker" category, as in, it can contain unassumingly sinister hidden ingredients.  Most canned soups contain straight-up wheat, even if they're vegetable-based, and most others use broth or bouillion with unfriendly ingredients.  Even if you aren't g-f, maybe ask yourself how exactly wheat finds its way into a can of chicken soup, and opt for making your own.  

O, Hai!

Another blog...fabulous!

Actually, I hope it will be a kind of a little fabulous.  And if you don't like it, I probably will, so it's already a win.

My job starts in May 2011, a year after leaving my full-time job in cancer research to finish a nursing degree.  I've had a lot of time to spend at home, and certainly more time to pay attention to cooking and frugal grocery shopping than when I was working a full-time demanding job and going to school at night.  To live comfortably on no income, I've had to make some compromises - eating out less-to-never and making a dollar do some interesting acrobatics at the checkout line.  Being gluten free adds an extra complicating factor, since the special flours and products can be, well, not budget-friendly.

The weird thing is, instead of regarding it as some terrible, painful chore, I've actually found myself enjoying the challenge of cooking all the time, gluten free, on a budget.  It's helped me deal with the sometimes intense anxiety of unemployment, i.e., I may not have a job, but I can make these awesome cupcakes!!  I also made quite an awesome discovery that a gluten free lifestyle CAN be practical, affordable, and universally appealing without spending your days eating stale, discounted rice cakes.  In fact, I found that spending less money on food led to a more interesting and certainly healthier diet that doesn't even have to be terribly time-consuming once you find your groove.  If going gluten free has taught me anything, it's that things from nature are what we probably should eat, and for everything else, we need to learn to critically read labels.

I cook or bake nearly every single day of my life, and frequently take point-and-shoot pictures of it, and sometimes even post them to Facebook.  I spend an unnamed amount of time curating my recipe binder and shopping at the six grocery stores and five fruit stands within walking distance of my apartment.  I don't have cable, so my cooking-show-watching is minimal, but occasionally I am granted an episode of Jacques or Lidia on PBS that inspires me to make something new.  So why not post it for your maybe-enjoyment?

It would be silly to say what exactly you can expect from this blog, but I intend to post recipes with plenty of novice photos (both my own recipes and others' I am test-driving), tips, product reviews, and probably other material with thin connections to cooking or baking.

If you have ideas, feedback, or questions, leave a comment and I'll always do my best to respond.

Otherwise...we're off!