Monday, January 5, 2009

On Family, Food, and Freedom

I am very blessed. That thought crosses my mind frequently. It’s a good way to describe how fortunate and content I am, despite the storms of anxiety. All the big things are in place for me: excellent health, loving family, wonderful friends, insatiable curiosity, a well-stocked public library. Everything else is just nitty-gritty detail.

Life gets easier as I become more mellow. “Mellow” is, perhaps, not a word that applies very strongly to me, but the distinction here is that I’m becoming more mellow. I may always be a bit more high-strung than is useful or healthy, but I’m trying to make life easier for myself by prioritizing the important things and taking deep breaths. I find this perspective is especially useful during the times when I am taken out of my comfort zone, such as out-of-town visits with family. It’s easy to be mature and responsible, cool and collected, when you are feeling safe and happy in your own home. It’s another thing altogether to maintain your status of Mature, Responsible Adult when you spend time with people who have known you since you were in diapers. I consider every family visit a success if no one throws a tantrum or storms out of the house in frustration.

I readily empathize with anyone who gets stressed out when either a) visiting her out-of-town family or b) entertaining her out-of-town family in her own home. Any type of visiting is bound to disrupt the natural rhythms of the house: we stay up too late, we smell bad because someone else is in the shower, we sigh at the amount of stuff cluttering the house. It’s chaotic! Add into the mix an energetic two-year-old and you have a recipe for temper tantrums.

But when the ethos of the house is happiness and mellow contentedness, the temper tantrums just never happen. For me, this is the joy of staying with my niece and her parents. The house radiates peace and joy, despite the trail of toys that leads to the two-year-old. The kitchen is alive with cooking and food projects, visitors pop in to say hello, the washing machine hums with a load of diapers whirling around inside. It’s a happy chaos, a level of activity that tells you the people inside are busy living their lives, clutter and dirty dishes be damned. Lydia, the two-year-old, plants herself in the middle of the action, and her presence makes life infinitely sweeter.

I’m a little stunned by how kind and helpful Lydia is. Yes, she’s two, so when I say that she’s helpful, I don’t mean that her help gets things done faster. Rather, it’s the idea that we can do grown-up things, like cooking, and we can include Lydia in the process. Of course a two-year-old is going to slow things down, but with a little love and patience from the grown-ups, tasks get completed, Lydia learns a little bit more, and everyone feels a glowing sense of accomplishment. It’s a winning situation all around.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that because of food sensitivities, the best meals for Lydia’s household are free of gluten, dairy, and corn. Soy is also suspect. That’s a pretty comprehensive list of foods that are off-limits. Cooking a decent meal becomes a daunting task. Seven years of vegetarianism have instilled in me a sense of sympathy for anyone who must avoid certain foods. I don’t have to avoid any foods because I don’t have any food allergies, but I choose vegetarianism, so I know what it’s like trying to eat your way around an entire category of food. It’s hard! But Lydia and her mother, Amanda, have it much harder than I do because the foods they are trying to avoid are building-block foods, the foods of which so many of our meals are made. By comparison, not eating meat is a breeze. (I hope you appreciate my effort not to say “not eating meat is a piece of cake.” Har har!)

Here’s the secret that I’ll confess if you lean in close: I kinda like a cooking challenge. It gives me something to chew on, cookwise. By convergence of time and place, another cooking challenge emerged a few months before my Michigan trip, and the list of off-limit foods is very similar to Amanda’s list. My friend Ammie took up the challenge with gusto! Since October, each month she has organized a group cooking event for what we call a “Candida dinner.” Our friend Nicholas is following a diet that restricts or bans gluten, cow dairy, corn, soy, fruit, and most sugary foods. The reason? To clear up an internal overgrowth of a yeast, Candida albicans. I think all of us were hesitant about how good the food would be if we followed the rules for Nicholas’s diet, but my goodness, we’ve been shocked and elated by our success! Almost everything we have eaten at the Candida dinners has been delicious. Nicholas and his girlfriend, Anna, even came up with a brownie recipe that Ammie dubbed “Miracle Brownies!” The brownies, which are made with yummy ingredients like almond butter, carob, and coconut oil, are amazing: luscious, rich, sweet, hauntingly good. They are a miracle indeed. We all love them.

The Candida dinners introduced me to my favorite new cracker, those made by Mary’s Gone Crackers. These crispy little rounds are free of all offending ingredients, and they taste a bit like potato chips to me. Perhaps I’m biased here, but don’t most of us expect gluten-free baked goods to taste like cardboard? As I’ve said before, tasting is believing. These crackers are so good that I’ll eat them even when I’m by myself and I could, if I wanted, eat all the gluten I want. I like their crispiness, their toasty-nutty flavor. Most of all, I like how they complement my Roasted Garlic and Pea Dip, which might be my new favorite appetizer. This vibrantly green spread, a riff on Nigella Lawson’s Pea and Garlic Crostini, is a lovely party offering. It’s rather sweet in a vegetal way, with the subtle flavors of mint and roasted garlic playing on your tongue. It goes superbly well with the onion-flavored crackers from Mary’s Gone Crackers; the cracker provides a strong savory backdrop for the sweetness of peas.

But the sweetest thing about Roasted Garlic and Pea Dip, when accompanied by the right crackers, is that Nicholas, Amanda, and Lydia can eat it without a wink of worry—a sweet victory indeed. It’s enough to make me think that in the kitchen, anything is possible.

Roasted Garlic and Pea Dip
Adapted from “Pea and Garlic Crostini” in How to Eat by Nigella Lawson

What a recipe! This dip is my appetizer offering to those who must eat food that is free of most common allergens: gluten, corn, soy, dairy, and nuts. It would be right at home as part of a platter of crudités and crackers. So far, my favorite crackers to serve with this dip are the onion-flavored ones from Mary’s Gone Crackers.

Got any other recommendations for gluten-, corn-, and dairy-free crackers or snacks? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

1 beautiful head of garlic
1 tsp. plus 2 tbsp. olive oil, divided
About 2 cups frozen peas
1/4 tsp. dried sage
1/4 tsp. dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
A handful of fresh mint leaves
1-2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice, optional

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Slice the top of the head of garlic such that each clove is exposed in the cross-section. Place the garlic, cut side up, on a small rectangle of foil. Drizzle 1 tsp. of olive oil over the exposed cloves. Wrap the foil around the garlic to make a little parcel. Place the parcel on a cookie sheet and roast for 40-60 minutes. When the garlic is done roasting, remove it from the oven and let it cool for 5-10 minutes, long enough so that it’s cool enough to handle.
2) Cook the frozen peas according to package directions until tender.
3) Place the cooked peas in a food processor. Unwrap the garlic from its foil pouch. Squeeze the cloves of roasted garlic out of their peels and add to the peas. Add 2 tbsp. olive oil, the dried herbs, and a bit of salt and pepper. Buzz in the food processor, stopping to scrape down the sides as needed. Taste the mixture and add more seasonings if needed, especially salt. Buzz until smooth and creamy.
4) Spoon the pea mixture into a nice serving bowl. Rinse and dry the mint leaves and then chop them finely. Sprinkle them over the peas to make a nice tasty garnish. If you like, dribble some fresh lemon juice over the leaves. I like the flavor that lemon juice adds to this dip, but strictly speaking, it’s not essential.


ammie said...

Man, that is some good dip! Thanks for the recipe :) And it's so handy for all of the foodies with dietary restrictions!

boston girlie said...

On the topic of yummy allergen-free snacks, I stumbled across some chips in my brief gluten-free trial that I loved. The brand is Food Should Taste Good. I particularly liked the multi-grain variety. As far as I can tell, they are gluten-free and dairy free, but they contain corn and soy. They are quite expensive, and I can't quite bring myself to buy them regularly. However, I choose to get them occasionally as a treat. I like them better than regular tortilla chips!

ttfn300 said...

food allergies become so much more prevalent, and i think because of that these products have definitely improved. I agree, that you don't have to compromise taste when adjusting around ingredients. I don't have to avoid any foods either, but I love to try out new ways of using various ingredients :)

Rosiecat said...

Hello, everyone! Happy Tuesday!

Ammie, I couldn't agree with you more. It's so nice to have an appetizer I can bring to our Candida dinners!

Boston Girlie, thanks for the snack recommendation. Multi-grain chips sound delicious! I think that the more people who are willing to purchase gluten-free snacks, the easier it will be to find them and afford them.

ttfn, I like the way you think! One of the reasons I got really excited about Gluten-Free Girl (my favorite gluten-free blog) is that Shauna's advice opened up a new world of flours and ingredients to me. I like the idea of diversifying my diet by eating something other than wheat ;-) Which, heaven knows, I eat at almost every meal.

JD said...

I know that I may seem a bit out of the loop, being a meat devouring omnivore and all that; but do people eat diets like this because of a food allergy, or because they want to avoid certain ingredients for health reasons? Do they choose this diet, or is it a necessity to live a decent life?

Rosiecat said...

JD, I am certain you are not alone in your skepticism here! It's complicated. For starters, nobody really knows what causes food allergies. They're very poorly understood at the molecular level, which is reflected in the fact that there are no drugs that can be taken to block their effects. For example, people who have peanut allergies really have no choice but to avoid peanuts. There's no pill they can take that will let them eat peanut butter with abandon.

I think there are also levels of sensitivity when it comes to food. For example, I can eat seitan (seasoned wheat gluten, a common meat substitute) for a meal or two and I'm fine. If I try to eat it for more than two meals in, say, three days, I start feeling crampy and nauseous. So I've concluded that it's best for me not to eat large amounts of seitan, even though I think it's really tasty.

My best guess is that if a person feels much better when they cut certain foods out of their diet, they have some sort of food sensitivity, which may or may not be an allergy. What would a non-allergy food sensitivity look like? An example of this is lactose intolerance, which is an inability to digest the lactose sugar properly. So someone with food sensitivities might have poor digestion, thus they feel better when they eat foods they can digest easily.

Hope that shed some light on these mysterious diets!

Amanda said...

Hi there!
I am about to make this dip for a gathering I am hosting tomorrow. I will tell you how we all liked it.


PS we got your card today and it was very sweet.

Rosiecat said...

Yay for parties at Amanda's house! I hope the dip was well-received.

I'm glad you received the card. It made me laugh out loud at the store. I hope it made Lydia laugh too! Her refusal to wear clothes reminds me of her Aunt Tia when Aunt Tia was a little one ;-)

Amanda said...

The pea dip went over well. I didn't have the Mary's Gone Crackers Crackers, but had a new one that went really well with it. They are Koyo brand Brown Rice Chips and I forget the exact name of the flavor but it was something spicy and chili flavored. The contrast of savory and spicy with sweet was really good.


Rosiecat said...

Ooh, I do loves me some spice! Those crackers sound great. I wonder if they would pair well with hummus? I'm thinking of making a hummus appetizer for our next Candida dinner, and I'd love to try a new cracker to go along with it.

I'm glad the pea dip was tasty! Your praise is a high compliment indeed. I'm currently hard at work on a granola bar that you and Lydia can eat happily.