Category Archives: Never too many cooks in the kitchen

What’s the best gluten-free pasta ever found in my pantry? (Or, a very belated taste test)

This post is long overdue. In fact, I’m embarrassed by how long. When I pulled up the photos to get going, I realized they were date-stamped August 30, 2013. That means I’ve spent over six months wondering, “What should I write?,” considering this, and deciding against it.

At first, the timing was too close to the Gluten-Free and Allergy-Free Expo in Secaucus (which will be September 6–7 this year, if you want to think ahead); then I had astrology posts to write; and then the holidays hit.

But mostly, I’ve just never cared much about pasta.

gluten-free pasta taste test

Not care about THIS? Really?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate it; in fact, in some preparations—lasagna, you say?—I love it. But pasta’s sorta . . . boring. Too easy. The default vegetarian dish at every omnivorous dinner party. Liable to be mushy and bland. Long before the advent of my gluten-free excuse, my friends expected me to groan when Italian was announced as the choice of restaurant for a night.

I’ve heard it said that those with allergies or intolerances crave the thing that sickens them. But the opposite may have been true for me. As a kid, I didn’t like bread, donuts, many pastries, and most cereals (I did eat corn and rice Chex. See? I knew). I have vivid memories of eating hearty homemade bread—which, mind you, was one of my dad’s specialties—and needing to leave the table midchew to spit out a mouthful that had suddenly become doughy and repulsive.

There were exceptions. I never seemed to have trouble with, say, cake. However, overall, wheaty foods like pasta were things I’d avoid. Though I didn’t start experiencing noticeable celiac symptoms until the end of college, looking back, I wonder if those aversions were an early manifestation of the disease I now know I have.

But enough about me. This post is, oddly enough, about pasta. Long ago now, through some combination of changing taste buds, impulse shopping, and the lure of the forbidden, I wound up with four different kinds of GF pasta in my pantry.

So Sprue Jr. and I invited over some friends and had an awesome pasta taste test. I couldn’t wait to share the results. And then, I did. For half a year.

Molly with gluten-free pasta options

I’d have tried to pass this off as having happened last week, but the hair’s a dead giveaway.

But forget all that. Since I know my opinion about pasta is in the minority, I’ve decided to break my silence. I hope that if you like pasta more than I do or are looking for meatless options to carry you through some Lenten Fridays, my notes—and the notes of my fellow tasters, two of whom are gluten-eaters and all of whom are better qualified than I to comment on pasta—will come in handy. 

Head on over to My Life With Food Allergies, where the rest of the post appears, to learn which gluten-free pasta won in our very scientific taste test (corn, rice, quinoa, or red lentil).

What’s your favorite kind of gluten-free pasta? Do you ever procrastinate for months on end before writing a post? I’ll feel ever so much better if you do. 

[I shared this at Tessa the Domestic Diva’s Allergy-Free Wednesdays linkup.]

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A Recipe for a Simple Weeknight Meal (or, More Likely, Disaster)

There’s nothing like a simple weeknight meal. Now, I don’t mean peanut butter (or sunbutter) straight out of the jar with a handful of potato chips, or peanut butter spread onto gluten-free bread with potato chips on the side, or even leftovers.

tired girl on kitchen floor with coffee maker

This girl should’ve made coffee before starting on her simple meal.
Photo © Evil Erin | Flickr

I’m talking about those gorgeous complete meals that come together in such a snap you feel like you must have cheated to get there. Everyone’s happy, no one’s hungry, and you have time left in the evening to, say, write a blog post.

I’m not the only one who loves these meals. Cookbooks are devoted to them; moms and dads sing their praises; and especially after Thanksgiving, I bet many of you in the US plan to fall back on them for a while.

But, although I believe these perfect meals exist, the formula eludes me. My “quick” meal ideas usually turn into inefficient, lengthy, messy, multiple-pot culinary odysseys. They taste good, but they take forever.

Since I got positive feedback the last time I shared a recipe, I thought I’d share this one with you, too. Your suggestions and criticisms are, as always, welcome. Maybe, with your help, I’ll manage to complete a meal in 30 minutes…someday.


A Simple Weeknight Meal

Yields: 1 dinner, with leftovers (if you weren’t so hungry by the time you finished that you ate it all), and 1 big mess

Prep time: 30 minutes to 4 hours, not counting time spent gathering inspiration on Pinterest (this section of recipes is always BS anyway)

Cook time: varies by recipe and other variables (including but not limited to evenness of pan heating, stove and oven hot spots, vegetable sizes, and altitude of your house), whose effects recipes rarely address and always underestimate

Ingredients

1 to 3 exhausted but ambitious cooks (see Notes)
1 recipe you’ve never tried before and plan to heavily adapt
1 to 2 additional recipes from which you’d like to draw inspiration (optional but highly recommended)
1 or more dietary restriction (again, optional but recommended—see Notes)
Optional garnishes: poor knife skills, inadequately stocked kitchen, multiple other things you intended to achieve that evening, and a low stress threshold

If this is you at the thought of cooking something, you're probably ready. Photo © Brittney Bush Bollay | Flickr

If this is you at the thought of cooking something, you’re probably ready.
Photo © Brittney Bush Bollay | Flickr

Directions

  1. Prep half of the ingredients and leave the rest to peel, chop, slice, etc., later, when you’ll be too distracted trying to stop the onions on the stove from burning to do either bit properly.
  2. Forget to preheat the oven, bring water to boil, or press the tofu until much, much later.
  3. Realize that you’re missing one or more ingredients. Don’t panic; instead, begin a lengthy debate over what in your cupboards might work as a substitute, with recourse to Google as necessary. If consensus cannot be reached, draw straws to decide who will “run out” to the store for the ingredient. Or give up and eat popcorn, since it’s not like you’ve done much yet anyway.
  4. Assuming you’re forging on with the meal, take a few minutes to select some appropriate musical accompaniment.
  5. Next you’ll want to at least scrape the crud off of the cast-iron skillet that has been sitting on the stove since your last simple weeknight meal, unless the flavor profile was similar, in which case forget it.
  6. Start those onions sizzling while you check your bookmarks and open tabs for a side dish idea. Should one appear, start prepping ingredients for that, ideally before finishing what remains for the original recipe.
  7. Text the person who has gone off to the store to request a few more missing ingredients for the new recipe.
  8. Start adding water to the onions because they are seriously going to catch on fire and you can’t believe you haven’t finished mincing the garlic yet.
  9. Accept an incoming phone call and let the onions “brown” a little longer while you chat and attempt to cut up vegetables with the phone wedged against your shoulder.
  10. Jump guiltily when you hear your fellow cook at the door and tell the person on the other end that you’re right in the middle of cooking and really can’t talk. Pretend you only just picked up.
  11. If you are trying to prepare a gluten-free (or allergy-free, or vegan, or what-have-you) meal, inspect the package labels of the new ingredients and ask the buyer if he/she is sure this brand is safe. Regardless of the response, check the manufacturer’s website yourself (with sneakiness to taste).
  12. Fend off any lingering impulse to just eat popcorn. Although you may not have accomplished much, per se, you’re in too far to turn back now.
  13. Set your jaw in a grim line and turn your attention to prepping and cooking in earnest. Bicker as desired.
  14. Begin checking the clock and moaning about how late it has gotten and how this ALWAYS HAPPENS. Repeat until every shred of patience and good will has been used up.
  15. Let the assembled dish bake/reduce/thicken just as long as you can—invariably less than the specified time because you’ll be too starving to care about taste or texture. Throw some plates on the table and serve immediately. (Optional: waste several seconds deciding between plates and bowls.)
  16. Enjoy while you can! Soon enough, you’ll be doing it again. But better. (Optimism will keep in an airtight container indefinitely and is even better the next day.)

Notes

Adages bedarned, this method works best with more than one cook in the kitchen; two cooks can inspire each other to greater and more absurd heights of complexity, and having a partner will lend to each the sense of security that the total prep time will be halved. Three is most likely the upper limit, beyond which point differing tastes and colliding elbows create the danger that no meal will result at all. In a pinch, a single cook will do, particularly if said cook is a fan of Top Chef and/or plans to post about the meal on a blog.

A food processor is not recommended. Let’s not baby ourselves.

Speaking of which…I myself do not have children, and therefore cannot vouch for them as an ingredient in this recipe. However, if you do add them to the mix, I suggest including such optional steps as teaching younguns to chop carrots (after starting the onions, mind) and taking breaks to nag older ones to do their homework and/or set the table.

If you eat meat, you may find it more difficult to stretch out the preparation process quite as interminably as I do. If you find yourself taking less than an hour to put together your meals, I strongly recommend vegetarianism.

Does this sound more or less like your own recipe for a simple weeknight meal, or have you mastered the formula? Share your tips and suggestions for actual simple meals in the comments.

I shared this on Vegetarian Mamma‘s Gluten-Free Fridays.

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How I accidentally terrified my peanut-allergic friend

trader-joes-sunflower-seed-butter…and you can, too—not that you should—in three easy steps:

Step 1. Buy sunbutter.
Step 2. Make buckeyes.
Step 3. Serve.

See, I like peanut butter. I like peanut butter a lot. Give me Thai peanut sauce, Reese’s cups, Nutter Butters, any flavor of Peanut Butter & Co.—if it’s peanuts, I’ll eat it.

I have a friend, whom I’ll call B., who is allergic to peanuts. When I discovered that sunflower seed butter (or sunbutter) has a taste and texture like peanut butter’s, I was surprised to learn B. had never tried it. No peanut butter and no peanut butter substitute? How did he live?

Sprue Jr.—that’s Althea, who thought she should have a special name on my blog, and should be more careful what she wishes for—loves peanut butter, too. We always have a jar in the fridge, and we sometimes even make our own. (Lightly salted Planter’s peanuts make the best peanut butter ever, and if you add in pumpkin puree and pie spices, it’s all over.)

So, at a party we threw, we decided to show B. what he was missing. We made all the food not only vegetarian and gluten-free, but also peanut-free, tree nut–free, and soy-free (because a soy-intolerant friend of ours was also attending). We wanted to ensure everyone could try everything, without feeling nervous. It’s just nicer that way.

Now, buying groceries with gluten in mind is annoying enough, but this was harder still. I’ve never been more grateful for my smartphone. I scrutinized package labels and manufacturers’ websites until I thought my eyeballs would fall out and roll away down the aisle. It seemed every brand of chocolate that wasn’t processed alongside wheat was processed alongside nuts—or, failing that, contained soy.

Once I had found acceptable ingredients and resecured my eyes in their sockets, Sprue Jr. and I had a wonderful time rolling slightly-too-warm sunbutter balls around in not-really-tempered chocolate. By the way, the forks method only works for the first dip.

Clockwise from top, we've got white-chocolate- and dark-chocolate-covered no-bake cake truffles, dark-chocolate buckeyes, more truffles, marshmallow-swirl brownie bites, and milk-chocolate buckeyes. And you probably recognize the berries.

Clockwise from the top, we’ve got white-chocolate- and dark-chocolate-covered no-bake cake truffles (made with KAF vanilla cake mix), dark-chocolate buckeyes, more truffles, marshmallow-swirl brownie bites (made with Bob’s brownie mix and marshmallow fluff), and milk-chocolate buckeyes. You probably recognize the berries.

Despite the not-fit-for-the-Cooking-Channel preparation, the buckeyes, once set overnight in the freezer, tasted perfect. When I carried the desserts platter around at the party (to collect the oohs and aahs and you-MADE-this?s), I thought B. would be thrilled.

Instead, he took the candy with trepidation and said, “It smells like peanut butter.”

Silly me, I nodded enthusiastically. Sprue Jr., who was standing by, did too. We know!, I suppose we were both thinking. Isn’t it great?

“Are you sure there’s no peanuts in this?” B. said, and it finally dawned on me he was nervous. We assured him it was safe—not processed alongside nuts or anything—and he took a bite.

“It feels like death coating my tongue,” he said.

Crestfallen, we began a chorus of apologies and oh-nos.

“No, it’s good,” B. continued, “but it tastes just like what I imagine peanut butter would taste like.” Later that evening, he exclaimed—more than once—that he couldn’t believe he wasn’t dead.

He later elaborated, in email,

At the time it felt really strange…I had this visceral sense that I was eating poison. Whenever I smell peanut butter there’s this burning in my nose—not because of an allergic reaction, I don’t think, but my body just knows it’s poison, and it mixes my immune system with a fear reaction and the adrenaline starts pumping and I just know something is terribly wrong. And sunbutter smelled exactly the same way to me, or at least my body had the same response, so it was hard to force myself to just eat it…

Of course, I didn’t intend to scare B., or make him feel like he was being poisoned. All I wanted was to share something I enjoy with him, the best way I could. But he hasn’t had sunbutter again since the party, and though he said that the aftertaste was clearly sunflower seeds, not peanuts, and that he’s not opposed to trying it again, he clearly didn’t respond with the “here’s what I’ve been missing all my life” sense of joy I’d been expecting.

The experience showed me how different it is to have celiac disease, diagnosed in my twenties, than to have anaphylactic food allergies from birth. There are specific things I have happy memories of eating, and therefore want to recreate now. For someone who has never had anything but scary or painful memories associated with a food, there’s understandably less reason to find a substitute. And, although I can certainly relate to being nervous that something I’m eating might turn out to contain gluten, accidental peanut exposure poses a more immediate risk for B.

The lesson here is this: If you, like me, love peanuts, and have a friend who can’t eat them, by all means make and serve these delicious buckeye knockoffs (taking, of course, the same cross-contamination measures you’d want someone to take for you).

But remember: one man’s favorite is another man’s poison. Your friend may not run right out to buy a year’s supply. If not, well, more sunbutter for you. And the only thing scary about that is how quickly you’ll go through it.

Do you like to eat “free from” substitutes for old favorite foods? Is there anything you draw the line at trying? And are you a peanut butter or sunbutter fan, too?

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Discovering “new worlds” of gluten-free

Embarrassing story time. You know the rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”? Well, I used to think it went, “In 141892…” Yup. That halcyon year 141892.

I have no idea what first put this wildly inaccurate detail into my head, but I suppose I felt the line scanned better that way. Even though I learned and relearned about Columbus every year through at least seventh grade, I managed to persist in the error until I was…well…too old. I just never gave it much thought.

Christopher Columbus statue

Boldly going where tons of people have gone before

Though it was dumb of me, it’s sort of appropriate, given that blithely perpetuated errors are the stuff of the education American kids receive about Christopher Columbus.

We learn he discovered America, but people already lived there and other sailors before him had stumbled on its shores. Plus, Columbus himself never admitted to discovering a “new” continent. He just called it India. Many of us also learned that Columbus was the first to suggest the world was round, when in fact educated folks of his time already knew it was. And he stands accused of many other things left out of the standard elementary school curriculum. When you really examine the Columbus story, there’s much that isn’t right.

Still, anyone who gives you a day off is a little bit of a hero. So in honor of Columbus Day—and rethinking things we’ve never thought through—here’s a list of a few discoveries I made while in search of something else entirely.

Went looking for onion rings and instead I found…bhaji

Bhaji are onion or vegetable fritters coated in my favorite ingredient ever—chickpea flour. You can fry or bake them, then dip in cucumber-mint-yogurt raita. You’ll forget you were ever looking for onion rings.

Went looking for cornbread and instead I found…arepas and pupusas

Folks who only ever order tacos are missing out on a whole world of corn patties. Some of the biggest producers of corn masa—such as Maseca—are now certified gluten-free, so you can enjoy safely (except perhaps where your arteries are concerned).

Went looking for “barley” and instead I found…buckwheat

You can buy whole buckwheat groats in bulk and make them into stir-fries, burgers, breakfast cereal, risotto, and deep-fried risotto balls (which I can attest are amazing). Buckwheat is so not just for crepes. Speaking of which…

Went looking for crepes and instead I found…dosas

Though you’ll have to hunt a bit to find the right ingredients to make these at home, dosas should usually be gluten-free (with the exception of cross-contamination). If you like crepes, Indian food, potatoes, and enormous portion sizes (and who doesn’t?), you’ll love these.

Went looking for pizza and instead I found…socca

You know about my love of socca already, but I had to include it, since it’s my greatest discovery of all time.

Have you tried any of these? Which do you like best?

I was not the first to discover these foods; people across the country and around the world kindly posted the recipes online, and others have eaten them for many years before I was around to Google them. I “discovered” these naturally gluten-free, not-meant-to-imitate-anything meals while intending to find something else.

The foods on this list aren’t what I originally went looking for—maybe just on the same latitude—but I’m glad I found them, and I look forward to charting ever-new terrain on my gluten-free journey.

Desserts, for example. When it comes to gluten-free flour blends, thar be dragons. When I quit skirting the shores (and clutching my King Arthur Flour mixes), I’m sure I’ll find all kinds of things I never intended to look for. Doing so may never get a holiday named for me, or a rhyme for kids to mess up when they recite it in 141892, but it’ll sure be fun.

Did you ever have silly misconceptions like my futuristic-Columbus invention? What naturally gluten-free foods have you discovered when you went searching for recipes for something else?

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