Monday, July 30, 2012

How Do You Feel About Sugar?

As I peruse the special diet books on amazon (where the food allergy books are located), I am surprised at the number of sugar-free diet books – and especially the number of gluten-free and sugar-free diet books available.

I completely understand why those who need to avoid sugar for medical reasons do so. I liken it to those with food allergies avoiding the foods they are allergic to.

As a baker, I like to use sugar. In Learning to Bake Allergen-Free: A Crash Course for Busy Parents on Baking without Wheat, Gluten, Dairy, Eggs, Soy or Nuts, I discuss sweeteners in detail. In short, sugar is rarely a concern for those with food allergies, and it’s one of the few traditional baking ingredients most of us don’t need to substitute for.

I’m not a fan of artificial sweeteners. Saccharine, aspartame, sucralose… they aren’t for me.

I love natural sweeteners, including honey and maple syrup – and use them – but they tend to be very expensive. (And we’re already paying a lot more for other specialty ingredients.)

I also like to use agave nectar. It tends to be very smooth and blends extremely well (more so than honey).

But there are things you can do with sugar that you just can’t do with these natural sweeteners, such as make a sugared topping on a muffin or pie crust, or cream the sugar and shortening together to make a fluffier cake.

I do like to use sugar, but in moderation. I never (ever) buy an off-the-shelf mix where sugar is the first ingredient. It’s simply not necessary to use that much sugar. When I make my own jams, I use about half the sugar of what is typically called for, and when baking, I like to keep the sugar low – so that the finished product is just sweet enough.

Now you tell me – how do you feel about sugar? Do you use it? Would you like more recipes without it?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Field Trip to an Avocado Farm

When I met Mimi Holtz at the BlogHer conference last year and she told me that her family owned an avocado farm, I was fascinated. First, I had never thought much about where the avocados I buy at the grocery store come from, or that there would be such a thing as an avocado farm. But of course that’s silly; avocados have to come from somewhere and it makes perfect sense that they would come from southern California, where the Holtz family farm is located.

I also had no idea that there were different varieties of avocados (three that they grow on the Holtz farm), or that avocados won’t ripen until after they are picked (unlike the apples from the farms here in the Northeast).

The only avocados I had ever bought were from the grocery store until I started buying from California Avocados Direct. There is a night and day difference between the avocados that now get delivered to my door and the one’s I used to buy. Mimi sliced some avocado up for us, and it was oh so good!

Touring an avocado farm is not something most of us get to do every day, so I was thrilled when Mimi invited us for a private tour while were on vacation in Southern California. I wanted the whole scoop on avocados.

The view from the farm was breath taking!

And the avocados were plentiful. Did you know that avocados hang from long stems off sometimes very large trees?

Here’s a shot of a baby avocado. This one will grow up for next year’s harvest:

The best part of the tour was learning how to use an avocado picker. Each of us took a turn:

Mimi showed us how, then Pat took a turn.

 I gave it a try, and Kevin looked like an expert!

And we went home with freshly picked avocados. Avocados need about ten days to ripen (off the tree) before they are ready to eat. Any day now they will be ready to eat!

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Sunshine Award Goes to Five Who Make Me Smile

In the past week I received not just one, but two Sunshine Awards. I’m feelin’ the love. And even though I got a bit too much sun while in Southern California on vacation, this sunshine award comes with no harmful rays so I am happy to pass it on.

But first, let me introduce you to the people who gave me the award:

Mimi Holtz, aka Mimi Avocado, lives on an avocado ranch in Southern California. I met her last year at BlogHer, and was able to visit her farm last week. This is a picture of her at Annie's Cafe, where we met for breakfast. (More on the silly hat my husband is wearing in a future post.)

And I met Cindy, the Vegetarian Mamma, at the Nourished Conference earlier this year.

I feel so lucky that I get to meet so many terrific people at these conferences! Thank you both for this honor!

The Sunshine Award is given by bloggers to other bloggers who positively and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere, the interconnected community of website authors.

Here’s how the award works:

1. Recipients thank the person who gave them the award and link back to them.

2. Recipients answer the following 10 questions about themselves. My answers are included here:

Favorite Color: This one is a lay up. Purple.

Favorite Animal: Hmmm… I’m not really an animal person. Do teddy bears count?

Favorite Number: My basketball jerseys (when I played many years ago) were always 12 and 33, but I would have picked 9 if I could.

Favorite Drink: Red wine. Iced tea. Either with chocolate is even better.

Facebook or Twitter: A couple of months ago I would have said twitter. Since I’ve created a facebook page I find I like them both!

Good Movie or Good Book: Too hard to choose. I like both. What’s important is the “good” part. A great story is a great story, regardless of the medium.

My passion: I tend to get obsessed about new things. Right now it’s photography – especially food photography. Next month it may be something else.

Giving or Getting presents: Either one. Presents are best when they are a surprise.

Favorite Day of the Year: The first day I can open the doors wide and let the spring air cool the house.

Favorite Flower: Daisies. I like their simplicity.

3. Recipients select 10 of their favorite bloggers, link to those blogs, then let them know they have been awarded the Sunshine Award!

Since I just recently picked some of my favorite food allergy bloggers for the Liebster Award, I am intentionally pick some different bloggers. And I am following Mimi’s lead and selecting only five. All of these are blogs that make me smile.

One Woman’s Eye
: Written by author and coach Joanne Tombrakos, this blog is the place to turn for a healthy dose of positive reality. And is you need to get more work done, check out her latest book, It Takes an Egg Timer.

Baby Bummers
: A cartoon blog written by my friend Devon Wickens, this blog is sure to make you smile (especially if you are over (ahem) 40).

Middle Passages
: Written by Liza Carens Salerno, this blog often has pictures of the East Coast Shoreline, sure to make you smile.

Under the Tiki Hut
: My favorite posts on this blog are the Friday Top Ten that Carol Kilgore shares. Be sure to check out her new book, In Name Only.

Inspiration for Creativity
: Andree Santini (who happens to be my sister) writes, creates, and often draws or paints for us. If you’ve got writer’s block, this is a great place to visit.

Congrats to all of you and please pass the award on!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Three Foods I Always Make Myself (and You Should Too!)

I used to buy jam in jars at the grocery store. I nearly always used off-the-shelf frosting, and it never occurred to me to make my own salad dressing. Why should I, when so many varieties are available in bottles at the grocery store?

What I have discovered is that these foods can all be made easily in my own kitchen. In addition to being able to control ingredients and ensure no cross-contamination with food allergens, I can save money. Even better, there is no question that they taste better when I make them at home.

I’m not sure when it became the norm to buy all of our foods ready-made. I grew up in the TV dinner era when everything was about convenience. I’m quite sure jam available at the grocery store was viewed as a very positive thing by my parents. And, having been brought up on convenience foods, the skills to make it at home were never passed down. The knowledge transfer stopped with my grandparents, or perhaps even before that.

Once I learned how to make these three foods, I’ve sworn off the off-the-shelf versions:

Frosting – When I read the ingredients for most off-the-shelf frostings, I cringe. Why does frosting need a list of a dozen or more ingredients? I make my own with confectioner’s sugar, shortening, and either water or non-dairy milk. It’s simple, healthy (well, healthier), and nearly impossible to mess up.

Salad dressing
– A simple concoction of light olive oil (3 parts), vinegar (brown rice, balsamic, or apple cider) (2 parts), and a tiny bit of sweetener (usually I choose agave nectar) makes a fabulous dressing. From there, you can make dozens of variations. Try using honey instead of agave and adding mustard for a honey mustard dressing.

Jam – I am obsessed with making homemade jam. Again, there is almost no way to mess this up – there is an enormous amount of flexibility in the ingredients, and you can control how much sugar you add. If you plan to eat it right away (or within a week), then you can go very low on sugar. I like to use about ½ cup of sugar for every cup of crushed fruit – that is enough to both sweeten and keep the bacteria from growing if you are preserving. And you don’t need anything else, but you might want to add some lemon juice, spices, or extracts, like I did with this Blueberry Jam recipe.

Do you have a favorite food that you used to buy at the store and now you make it yourself at home?

Monday, July 9, 2012

The New King Arthur Flour Store

One of the best things about driving back and forth to Hanover, New Hampshire over the past four years was the campus’s proximity to the King Arthur Flour Shop, just across the river in Norwich, Vermont. I always made sure to plan enough time to linger in the store, read labels, and dream up new baking projects.

The last time I was able to visit the store was just after their remodel at my son’s graduation. Here’s what I found:

An entire section with gluten-free and allergen-free baking mixes and flours.

And more scattered throughout the store.

Two full aisles of cookbooks, including many gluten-free books. Maybe you'll be able to find my book there soon!

I am definitely going to miss the store. I need to find a new reason to travel to Central Vermont. Any suggestions?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Pet Peeves: How do you Bake Without Flour?

The question I get asked most often when I tell people I bake without wheat, milk, butter, or eggs, is not, “Really, you bake without eggs?” or “What do you use instead of butter?” No, the question I get asked most often is, “How do you bake without flour?”

I’ve stopped rolling my eyes. The truth is, there was a time where I might have asked the same thing. After being asked the same question over and over, I have come to accept that a large portion of us believe all flour is wheat. In fact, my entirely unscientific personal polling would lead me to believe that at least half of us believe that.

Here are the facts:

Wheat is flour. Not all flour is wheat.

Despite the fact that 90% or more of the flour we find on the grocery store shelves is indeed wheat, there are dozens of non-wheat flours.

There are many more gluten-free flours than gluten-containing flours. I once had a conversation with a waiter who kept insisting that rice contained gluten. Nope. Gluten-containing grains are wheat, rye, and barley. That’s it.

Wheat includes spelt, kamut, wheat germ, and all other forms of the wheat grain.

Flour can be made from grains, beans, nuts, and even seeds. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Top row (left to right): brown rice, millet, oat
Bottom row (left to right): sorghum, buckwheat, garbanzo bean (chickpea)

Always use gluten-free oat flour. Those with corn allergies may need to avoid millet.

What are your favorite gluten-free flours?

Allergen-Free Avocado Dressing

For most of my life I bought salad dressing in bottles at the grocery store. I was always amazed by seemingly exotic salad dressings that could be found in restaurants, until I learned how to make my own. Homemade salad dressings can be so much more than simple oil and vinegar; almost any fruit or spice can be the basis for a salad dressing, and you can control how much sugar you want to use.

One of my favorite "exotic" dressings has always been avocado (or avocado ranch) dressing. Here's my gluten-free and dairy-free version:

Avocado Dressing

1 medium avocado – the riper the better
¼ cup light olive oil
1 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp water
¼ tsp salt

Puree the avocado in a food processor or blender until smooth. Add the other ingredients and continue to puree until well blended.

If you're not sure what to do with that avocado that is about to go bad, make some salad dressing!