Monday, November 8, 2010

Basic Gluten Free Banana Bread Recipe

In my quest to plan for a gluten-free, vegan Christmas dinner that suits various family members (not an easy task, might I add), I came across this simple banana bread recipe that meets both requirements on the Book of Yum blog (if using egg substitute). I like this recipe because it doesn't require ten different flours and xanthan gum like most g/f recipes. I can say it was a success and I'm now enjoying a most piece of banana bread, my first in a long time. YUM is right.

For this recipe, I made my own rice flour by washing, drying and grinding basmati rice in my coffee grinder. I will say that although it feels smooth to the touch, it tastes a little gritty when used in baking. I may soon break down and buy either a grain mill or actual rice flour, but for now it's so cheap and easy (with a little planning) to do make my own this way - especially when I've already purchased 1000 lbs of rice at my favorite wholesale warehouse! I'm just thrilled that I may not have to forgo all my favorite quick breads in my efforts to avoid wheat... Smile.

Mission Impossible Week Two: A Spending Freeze

Week two is long over and once again, my budget was blown this week after my husband went to Costco. Without me. He took my short list and decide to add to it quite a bit. I can't say I blame him, though, for buying that box of sweet potatoes (although I already had ten of them sitting on the counter) or the five pound bag of frozen blueberries (despite the fact we had one-and-a-half bags in the freezer already). We do eat a lot of them. And he was easily seduced into grabbing the gourmet frozen meatballs after that little sample he and our son tried - although I already bought pounds of ground beef and ground turkey to make homemade meatballs... Whatever. If I did the math and had an accountant to amortize all of the food he bought, then we'd probably be a-o.k. budget wise.... so I'll try not to sweat it this month. (cringe)

One of the reasons he was so excited to "stock up" at Costco (a.k.a. Disney World for adult men) is because we recently purchased a chest freezer. In our previous house we had two refrigerators which was a Godsend. Now we have the world's smallest refrigerator. We debated on whether we should get another one or just a freezer and the freezer won out - mostly because of the cost. Chest freezers are much less expensive than refrigerators (we bought ours at Sears for $170) and with a little know-how, one can freeze a lot... and save a lot of money.

By my calculation, buying a freezer was the most economical decision. I figured it costs us $.46/day or $3.26/week in its first year - and by then it's more than earned it's keep. Buying wholesale chicken breasts alone saves us $3/pound! My other favorite meats to freeze are inexpensive stew meat and pork shoulder - both are great crock pot meats and can be used in stew, tacos, and bbq recipes, among others. Suffice it to say, after the last trip to Costco I will not be buying meat for months.

Meat is not the only thing the freezer is good at preserving. I freeze just about everything - here are a few items we freeze that save us a ton of money:
  • Cheese: split up a 5 lb bag of shredded mozzarella into ziplock bags (2 cups each) and you're set for many pizza nights to come! Once thawed, use quickly since the extra moisture can lead to quick mold growth.
  • Vegetables: Whenever I have extra onions and peppers that are getting old, I slice or dice them and freeze them flat on a cookie sheet. Once they are frozen, put into a ziplock bag and use when needed. They work well in cooking but are not so great fresh.
  • Mashed Potatoes, cooked rice: make extra and freeze in ziplock. Put in boiling water to thaw when ready to use. Saves lots of time!
  • Extra broth and soups
  • Any leftovers: I always freeze one or two servings of leftovers we really like in individual serving containers - that way I can pull them out quickly when I don't feel like cooking or my husband can take them for lunch.
  • Bread: make bread crumbs from the heels of a loaf of bread and freeze.
Here's a quick guide to freezing just about anything!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Food as medicine: going gluten-free

I know it's trendy but I've done it: I've gone gluten-free. It's all the rage, believe it or not. A couple of months ago, when I was toying with the idea, and article in the Wall Street Journal talked about the gluten-free "diet" that many without celiac disease are going on to lose weight... and it's not effective.

But wheat and gluten sensitivity are real issues. According to WSJ, as many as twenty million Americans have a gluten sensitivity without having full-blown celiac disease. Symptoms often include depression, mental fogginess, and mood swings, to name a few. Those that know me may say that, at times, I might be sensitive to wheat, based on those symptoms alone. And they might be right... and I never knew it.

My journey to a wheat and gluten-free diet was driven less by my mood swings and mental fogginess and more by problematic skin that I've had since I was a kid. I can remember going to a dermatologist in fourth grade and on every birthday I thought, "This is going to be the year my skin clears up." So a few years ago I went to yet another dermatologist after years of having used every possible over-the-counter, prescription and cosmetic treatment out there. It didn't take long before the doctor diagnosed me with two problems: 1) I was a 20-something hormonal woman for which there was no hope and 2) I was sensitive to wheat. Well, number one was no big shock but I was a bit skeptical of number two... There was little formal testing except some sort of questionable "muscle response" test that involved me holding wheat in one hand while the doctor tested my muscle response on the other. And from that she determined a diagnosis.

I quickly asserted that 1) the doctor was a quack and 2) there was NO WAY I could give up wheat - what would happen to pizza night and pancake morning? Late night bowl of cereal? And let us not forget beer!

Wheat/gluten-free just wasn't gonna happen.

Fast forward to three years and one baby later: my skin was still not clear after becoming a thirty-something. So I did a little research. Much to my dismay I found claims that eliminating wheat can be effective treatment for skin problems. So I tried it... and I lasted a few days. But admittedly, it did seem to help a little. Grrr...

After a sun-and-alcohol soaked vacation in August, my skin was wrecked. Now, thirty years old, I was determined to find a cure. First stop: I made a commitment to going gluten-free. For real.

Not knowing if it is the wheat or gluten that affects me, I decided to eliminate sources of gluten and wheat - both of which are often used in processed foods as fillers and preservatives. I invested in pounds of quinoa and made sure I was stocked up on gluten-free oatmeal. I looked up recipes and swapped potatoes for bread. My expectations were low but I was hopeful... and miraculously, it worked!

My skin was noticeably clearer within a few days. I cheated the first weekend with "real" pizza, french toast casserole and soy sauce with my sushi, at which point my face was inflamed again, but went back to being "free" two days later. And you know what? After two weeks it's gotten a lot easier. Sure, I've had to be creative (and today I did eat the crust of my son's grilled cheese sandwich), but for the most part it's not so bad after all.

I'm still exploring foods that work for me and foods that don't - including if non-wheat sources of gluten (i.e. oats) have the same effect as wheat gluten. And the truth is that I'll probably have to cheat a little more this holiday season because I can't fathom going through it without pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie and gingerbread cookies - and, sorry folks, gluten-free flours just don't have the same quality and consistency. (Thank God this isn't life or death.)

In the meantime, I'll be sure to share with you my favorite wheat and/or gluten-free concoctions, starting with oatmeal squares (or 'momma's cereal bars' as they are known around here). These are great as a snack, or top them with sauteed apples and a little syrup for a hearty breakfast.

Baked Oatmeal Squares
(adapted from Virginia Bed and Breakfast Cookbook)

4 cups rolled oats (read the labels for gluten-free oats)
1/2 cup flour (I use oat flour that I make by grinding oatmeal in my coffee grinder until very fine)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup raisins
1/2 stick melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar or syrup (maple or brown rice pancake syrup)
1 egg
2 cups milk
Cinnamon and sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients and whisk to incorporate. Stir in melted butter and mix well. In a small bowl, beat eggs and milk; add to oats mixture and stir well. Pour mixture into a greased 8x11 inch baking dish. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Bake for 20-22 minutes, or until set in center and edges are brown. Cut into 12 squares and serve warm. Freeze leftovers if desired.