Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Popcorn taste without the corn

We've tried out a new homemade, gluten free snack food that's kid friendly: Alegría. can tell ours are falling apart. More than you know. It's supposed to look like a granola bar, but every time we've made them, our granola bars fall apart, too, so we smash them into little balls before we eat them. It works, though.

I'm really searching for anything that would make a good finger food aside from the traditional fruits and veggies. Living out in a desert like we do, fresh produce doesn't do really well as a snack when we need to go out in the summer heat. So I need, basically, a grain bar. A yummy munchie that I can feed to the kids.

Finding one has been a time-consuming process that hasn't yielded great results, mostly because of how many food restrictions we have, and my unfamiliarity with the foods I am left with.

The kids are both gluten free now for the Celiac Disease (one is positive, and one I want to stay negative), but both of them are still having issues; my daughter actually feels worse since she's gone off gluten. So we're doing an elimination diet.

Which means I have to find a snack food that avoids all the foods we're avoiding on their diet, obviously. It makes this little yummy a real treat: a dairy free, wheat free, fish free, shellfish free, peanut free, tree nut free, egg free, soy free, potato free, chicken free, peach free, tomato free, sugar cane free, and white/navy bean free snack for kids.

Woo hoo.

Oh, this sucker is corn free too, since corn is looking suspect as well.

I'm so glad this snack isn't too hard to make! Right now, simply cooking our meals is a lot of work. I don't know that I would have even made the attempt at a snack food, but we have relatives visiting for the holidays, both my folks and my husband's. I needed some food for the kids that was a bit less labor intensive, because I've realized something very life altering, at least with regards to having people over.

It's a HECK of a lot of work to cook for this many people when I have to make every broth, every sauce, practically every everything from scratch. I can see why women around the world were so happy when canned goods and pre-prepared foods were invented! I have spent about 2/3 of my holiday cooking or cleaning up after cooking, and if I really wanted that much of my day spent in cooking, I would have pursued a career as a cook.

But let me share the recipe. Or rather, the link to the recipe. This small snack-bar contains Amaranth whole grains, honey, and a few drops of lemon juice. That's it. As I said above, it's called 'Alegría,' commonly eaten in Mexico. It's a little crunchy, a little sweet, and if you have a child that used to like granola bars and the like, they might enjoy this. The kids can have fun making it, as well, once you figure out how to do it. Although it's a bit messy for us, so far.

The link for a recipe we've been using is here:

The recipe itself is half-way down their page. However, the recipe asks for 'toasted amaranth seed,' which I've also heard called 'popped amaranth.'

You do not have to buy this - I haven't actually ever seen it for sale. You can toast it yourself, however, and frankly, it's a real trip!

To Toast or Pop Amaranth
What you'll need:
whole grain amaranth - Bob's Red Mill sells this, at health stores or online
a pot or skillet with high sides that can take high heat
a bowl
possibly something to mix the amaranth with

What you do:
1. Heat your pot/skillet to a high heat. I have read to put it on 'high,' but that has been too hot for us, so we've tried med. high with better results.
2. Get the bowl ready - this will be to dump the popped amaranth into.
3. Measure out a Tablespoon of amaranth and dump it into the pot. Move it around immediately, either by swishing the pot around, or stirring it with a spoon, spatula, or small brush.
4. It will start to pop within seconds, and as you can see, it looks just like popcorn.

Of course, it's like popcorn made for someone the size of Tom Thumb.

Ah well, the taste is still fine. Now, these little grain will pop straight into the air once they start going. Some will stay in the pot, some will pop right out of the pan onto you, the stove-top, the floor, the children. Yes, the kids all think this is absolutely hysterical. You keep stirring for a few more seconds, until a fair amount has popped, and then you dump it out into the bowl. You may need to scoop them off of the bottom/sides of your pot, if they stick, because they will burn very quickly after they've popped.
5. Put the pot back on the stove-top, let it reheat a few seconds, and add another Tablespoon of amaranth grains and repeat the whole thing until you have enough to eat. 4 Tablespoons of Amaranth seeds will make about 1 1/2 cups of popped amaranth.

A few things we have learned along the way:
- Popped amaranth tastes, to my non-gourmet palate, just like popcorn. It's funky. If you or your kids can no longer have corn but miss popcorn, this is, I think, a great fix for the taste, at least.
- Unfortunately, burnt popped amaranth smells just like burnt popcorn. Yuck.
- Unpopped amaranth kernels mixed in with the popped ones don't seem to cause any problems for us. Not too hard to chew, just a little crunchier than the popped amaranth.
- I have read many methods for popping amaranth, and none of them I've seen have really addressed the 'it's popping all over me!' issue. The other cooks all say to stir it, which means that I can't put a lid on, which means this stuff goes everywhere. If I find a good solution to this, I'll make sure to post it!

As I said before, we haven't made this yet so that it stays together - I understand humidity differences and the viscosity of the honey mixture make a difference - but it's edible, and it was fun to make, so that's been enough for us so far. We'll keep experimenting.

On another note, I would love to give a shout out to the very few pre-made foods we can have on our elimination diet. They have made this holiday just that little bit less stressful.

Pre-Fab Food Recommendations:
Earth Balance Soy-Free natural buttery spread - Dairy free and gluten free, although this contains corn, I believe. The kids both like the taste fairly well. It also melts better than any other non-dairy spread I've tried.

Food For Life Millet Bread - One of the few gluten, potato, sugar cane and dairy-free breads I've found (Udi's breads taste better, and don't need to be toasted, but they have potato). Toasted, this bread is less sweet than the rice breads we've tried, and remains the only gluten-free bread that the kids are willing to eat on their elimination diet.

Agave Nectar - Many brands. This has been a live saver with our sugar cane-free issues. I've added this stuff to everything from smoothies to gluten free pancakes. Yee ha for this!

So Delicious (Turtle Mountain) Coconut Milk Beverage and Coconut Milk ice cream - Awesome stuff. It's dairy free, gluten free, soy free, and at least some flavors of the ice cream is sweetened with agave nectar so it's sugar cane free. We've been using the unsweetened coconut milk beverage to make smoothies with frozen fruit, or in place of milk in gluten-free pancakes, as well. The flavor is mild, and seems to go over well with my kids, even the one who is not a big coconut fan.

Good luck with your own holiday experiments in gluten-free cooking this year! I hope they turn out tasty and easy to make at the same time.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Way to a Child's Stomach is through his Anime

My food, and my little victory, are one in the same, today, and it's all because of anime.

When you have children who like anime, here's something to consider: the characters are probably eating different foods than you're used to, if you're a westerner like myself. But the good part is, a lot of those foods are rice based. Great for those of us with gluten issues, yes? As long as we can get some gluten-free soy sauce and a recipe, we're pretty set.

And if my kids are anything to go by, offering them a food that a beloved anime character just ate is a sure fire way to get them to eat.

The food that you will find in hordes of anime shows, one that is fantastically easy to make, is a rice ball. My kids spent over an hour today making rice balls and consuming them at speeds heretofore unknown in human kind. And I owe it all to anime, because when they heard that they, too, could have 'rice balls,' their eyes lit up and they were on that idea like, pardon the pun, white on rice.

So, how do you make a rice ball? Here's a simple way to go about it. I am SURE there are better ways, or more interesting ways, but here's my simple, unenlightened method for cranking these out.

Rice Balls:
What you'll need:
glutinous rice, or sticky rice. It's very short grained, and most often found in the Asian or 'ethnic' section of the normal grocery store, or an asian grocery, or you can order it on line if you're desperate, I'm sure.

nori, or toasted nori, or nori seaweed - these are square, flat sheets of seaweed. If you can't find this, don't worry. It's nice, but not necessary


fillings - I'll talk about this at the end.

What to do:
First, and this is the part that will make a difference, you want to SOAK this rice. It usually doesn't say it on the package, but you need to do this to be able to make a rice ball that doesn't fall apart. It's crucial for the rice to get nice and sticky. Soak your rice for 6 hours, or overnight.

Then, drain the rice, and next, cook it. When you cook this stuff, you can cook it just like 'normal' rice. Get 2 cups of water to 1 cup rice, dump it in a pot together and bring it to a boil, then lower the temperature to a simmer, cover, and cook until the water is absorbed, about 20 minutes. You don't have to add salt (although you can if you want to) because there will salt added later.

Now you let it cool enough for you to handle it without burning your hands. At this point, I get a big bowl for each child and dump enough rice in for them to make a few rice balls each. I get a plate with salt in it, and a small bowl of water. If I have nori, I cut small 1-2 inch strips in it with a pair of shears, and then cut those in half, widthwise.

To make a plain rice ball, with no filling, the children should put their hands in the water, then place each hand in the salt to get a bit of salt on their palms, then they pick up the rice and shape it in their hand. Once they have the desired shape, they can get a piece of nori and wrap it around one side, as a good place to hold it when it gets eaten later.

To get the 'triangle' shape often seen in the anime shows, put the rice on the palm, and make an 'L' shape with the other hand. Then cup the other hand over the rice and press it against the palm, and you have the lovely 'triangle.'

FILLING: The filling can be whatever the kids can dream up. Little pieces of tuna, or salmon with a little gluten free soy sauce mixed in with it, or fruit, or scrambled egg, or cut up pieces of pickles (surprisingly good, I understand). Literally anything. To make a rice ball with filling, just put half the desired amount of rice in their hand, then put a small bit of filling in the middle, and then add the rest of the rice and shape around the filling.

These keep well in the fridge, and can be eaten hot or cold. The rice can also be refrigerated and used the next day, or frozen and thawed for later use.

Also, for those who are a little more health conscious, you can find brown glutinous rice if you have an asian market, or care to hunt it down on-line. Just as tasty, but with a little more chewiness to it, as I understand it.

Anyway, I hope this helps some of you who might have small children with a love for anime and a dislike of a 'gluten free' diet! Take care, and Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Millet - will the drama never end

Millet. It's at all the natural food stores that I haunt out of necessity now. I have seen references to it as an 'alternative grain to wheat' in a number of places. Foodie sites everywhere talk about the nutty aroma, the taste, how easy it is to make. So of course I bought a little bag of millet. It looks rather nice - pale yellow, small and spherical, and the smell is appetizing. It really is kind of nutty.

How hard can it be to cook, I thought. It's a grain, right? Grains aren't that hard to cook. I used to cook rice all the time. I can do this.


Perhaps millet is a fine friend to gourmet cooks, or to vegetarians with more experience in the cooking of grains. For those like me - the cooking challenged - figuring out how to cook millet has turned into something of a quest.

First came the cookbook search. I have three shelves of cookbooks on a bookcase. Not that I could tell you why - really, I'm not much of a cook. I probably haven't used half of the books. I just like to have them, I suppose. Perhaps in case I need a recipe, my computer is broken, the web suddenly implodes, and life as we know it ceases except for electric powered stoves.

Like I said, I'm not sure why I have this many. But it didn't help. The only ones that mentioned millet had them cooked in conjunction with other foods we couldn't have. So then I went to the web, and instantly found entry after entry talking about millet.

First Attempt: Using a 2:1 water to millet ratio, I cooked the millet in a pot just liked I'd cook rice, with the lid on and the millet soaking up every last drop of water.
Results: Flop. The darn stuff was still crunchy inside!

Second Attempt: After more research, I found a little tidbit that seemed to address my problem. Millet, it turns out, does much better if it is dry pan fried - until it pops - before you start the 'boiling in water' part. And they do mean pop. I put my millet in a dry pan, turned up the heat, and it literally started making this popping noise. Then I used the same 2:1 ratio of water to millet and tried again.
Results: Flop #2. I forgot to put the lid on while it cooked. It was better, however. Not as crunchy. I managed to salvage it by using it in a broth later where it cooked for another 15 minutes or so. Turned out quite nicely that way, actually.

Third Attempt: 2:1 ratio of water to millet, pan fried ahead of time, remembered the lid, finally!
Results: Come on, you can guess, right? Flop #3. STILL crunchy in the middle, argh.

Fourth Attempt: Did yet more research, and found out that all this time, I'd had a little page from my Dietician that mentioned cooking grains, millet among them. And in her directions, the water to millet ration was 3:1. I thought that must be it. I'd just been using 1 cup too little water! So I did it all again...except I started this attempt after 4 hours of sleep, so forgot to pan fry it.
Results: Yes, another Flop. #4. Or rather, a flop as far as I'm concerned. It wasn't crunchy, though; it was mush. Thicker than malt-o-meal, but less thick than oatmeal. Still, utter and complete mush. This isn't something you can use as a substitute for rice in a meal. For those who are looking for an interesting oatmeal substitute, however? Here's how to make this version:

Millet Porridge

1. Put 3 cups water and 1 cup whole grain millet into a pot with a lid.
2. Bring the water to a boil, then turn down the heat to a simmer, cover, and simmer until all water is absorbed, about 40 minutes (at 3,000 feet above sea level).

The main drawback is the time it takes to cooks. However, the taste and smell really are a bit nutty, but pleasant. The texture is rather nice - soft, but with a little rice-like texture in small places throughout the mush. It looks like something you might be able to pour into a small bread pan and then cool and slice up later. Maybe serve it up reheated and under a tomato sauce like polenta? I'll try it and get back to you all when I try that.

Meanwhile, I am still on my quest to actually make millet that I can use like rice. Not too mushy, and not too crunchy, please, whatever cooking gods are listening. The moment that happens, that's my victory dance of the day.

If you are like me, where changes in your family's diet feel overwhelming and frustrating, it can be hard to make it through the day sometimes. I've been trying to remind myself of my small victories during the day. My victory dance.

Today's Victory Dance was NOT CHEATING.

My body has calmed down somewhat in the last few weeks, and now I can have foods that do not make my throat swell up. They will, however, give me stomach pains, intestinal yuckitude, and honestly, make me angry.

It sounds weird, but I swear this happens. I will wake up the morning after a 'bad' food in a foul mood and angry at every tiny little inconvenience all day long, possibly into the next day, and then suddenly I'm fine again. Even so, the urge to cheat on my diet is so very hard to resist, sometimes.

I may not emotionally care about the foods I can't have, yet, but I still crave them sometimes. I eat the same foods nearly every day with almost no variation, because I still don't have that many I can eat. So when I see tempting food around me, it's hard to resist the possibility of trying just a teeny, tiny bite. Not gluten - that I refuse to cheat on. But everything else? Much harder to ignore. Right now, everywhere we look there is holiday food: on tv, at friends' houses, in supermarkets. Every darn place. And my self-control has been hit hard.

So I've cheated. I admit it.

A piece of fudge, a small bowl of popcorn...and boy did I regret it almost before the taste left my tongue. I felt like smacking myself. I know this will happen. Why couldn't I have just sucked it up and stayed on my diet? It makes me feel like a failure, and an idiot, and then the next day when I'm super-grump-mom to my kids, I feel even worse, because I know it didn't have to be that way, if I'd only been a little stronger willed.

On top of that, if I react, then that delays when I can next try a new food, which means I don't get to add variety to my diet as quickly, which is why I was so weak in the first place: lack of variety. And I have to be a good example to the kids, who are on diets themselves. All good reasons not to cheat, but I still find it a struggle when faced with good food around me that smells great and that I used to be able to pick up and eat without a thought.

Today, though, in the face of fudge and gluten free pasta and candy and cookies and buckwheat pancakes...I DID NOT CHEAT.

That's my victory for the day. And it means that tomorrow, not only will I not be sick, or angry with my family, but I will get to try a new food, too. And while I miss the tastes, it's wonderful to feel proud of an accomplishment with food, rather than sad about a loss.

I'm hoping that the elk I get to try tomorrow will be completely worth the effort. But I know my family is.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Being Normal

I used to be normal, in a general sense only, of course, but still, normal. I’d go grab a bite at McDonald’s with some friends as we let our kids run around like a miniature Mongolian horde. I’d sit, relaxing, and watch TV with the family at night. I’d go on errands and end up spending the entire day out, feeling relaxed and with nothing to focus on but what was next on the list.

And now that’s gone. Don't get me wrong. Nothing tragic has happened. I haven’t lost my job, my limbs, or my family. All I’ve lost, it seems, is my ability to eat what I want without my body deciding that ‘today is a good day to die.’

I always knew I was a bit of a drama queen, I just never realized my body was, too.

I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in July of this year, and the moment that test came back positive, I thought things were looking up. At last, a reason behind the aches and pains and depression and constant colds and flus and...well, you get the idea. I had assumed that would be the end of things - go gluten free, and life will immediately improve - that's the hype, yeah?

But for me, on the second day of my gluten free diet, I felt like death warmed over. Nauseated, stomach pains, light headed and dizzy, aching all over like I had a fever. Turns out, I have food allergies, too. And a few gazillion sensitivities and intolerances, to least for right now.

My body feels the need to gripe about years of gluten, obviously. It's slowly calming down from its tantrum, though. I still can't eat much - less than 10 foods, at this point - but the reactions are less severe. So now, I'm in 'figuring out what the heck to do' mode. New foods, new recipes, new stores, and definitely new ways of getting through my days.

I feel overwhelmed, even as my body is starting to recover. I've never been much of a cook, and now I get to try and jump in feet first to the world of cooking or I'll be stuck subsisting on cardboard and water. There's been a host of mistakes: humorous ones, frustrating ones, devastating ones that used up the last of my patience...or the last of a food I could eat.

But there are good things, too.

- From January to June, I gained 40 pounds. From July to now, I've lost 45.

- My father had been diagnosed with Celiac Sprue a few years back, and since I tested positive as well, we tested the whole family. My daughter and my brother both tested positive for the disease. My son has a lot of the warning signs, including other food allergies. So now, these three people I love are going to have healthier lives because of this discovery

- Because of our food diaries and awareness, we're starting to find more food allergies and issues that my children have, as well. Now they'll be even healthier than just going gluten-free.

- Because my kids don't want to be eating cardboard and water any more than I do, they have had to get much more active in choosing foods and creating recipes. It gives me hope that by the time they are old enough to be on their own, they'll both be good cooks so they'll never be in the position that I am.

Yeah, my position: I'm a lazy non-foodie who is now stuck pretending that I am neither lazy nor food-challenged. I'm trying to live up to this challenge, but I think it's gonna be a while before I truly manage it. But I'm happy to share what I've learned along the way. Maybe it can help someone else in this same position.

And if not, at least my drama queen body will feel like it got to express itself.