Wednesday, November 11, 2009

It's Raining

I cannot think of a single thing to blog about.

Mostly because the really exciting things are too personal, and I know my audience. The other problem is that Daylight Savings Time ended, the remnants of Ida are passing through, and it's November.

My plan to get through this bumpy patch? More movies and Sookie Stackhouse novels.

Oh yes, and cocoa and toast.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Best Gluten-Free Brownie Recipe Ever!

(For those of you who just want the brownies NOW, click here for the recipe. For those of you who enjoy thrilling tales filled with chocolate adventure, read on!)

Yesterday I had one of those “Why the hell is there no chocolate in this house?” moments.

I was in the middle of looking up the nearest Godiva boutique/store locations when I noticed a promo for their Chocolate Chunk Brownies and I was SAVED because I remembered had brownies in the freezer!


Years ago I was perfectly happy with boxed brownies. I was a Duncan-Hines kind of girl. But somewhere in there I wondered if maybe I could do it better. I found a from-scratch recipe that was divine — particularly because I could choose my own cocoa powder and control the sweetness. Life was Good.

Until 2003. The year I went gluten-free.

Those were the Dark Days, my fudgy friends. Dark days, indeed. Yes, there were some GF brownie mixes, but they cost six bucks and tasted like the bag they came in. I resolved to do better. I took my divine brownie recipe and I CONVERTED IT to a GF recipe.

ZOMG you can’t do that! The chemistry! It won’t work! Think of the children!

Um, yes, you can do this, so let’s talk about chemistry and how I created the Frankenbrownie.

The easiest recipes to convert from wheat flour to gluten-free flours are those that don’t contain much flour in the first place. With only ½ cup of flour, this recipe fit nicely. Because GF flours have a lower protein content than all-purpose wheat flour, I knew I needed to add xanthan gum or guar gum as a thickener — but not much. Because of the lower protein content, I also knew I should treat the GF flour like cake flour. That means for every 1 cup of all-purpose wheat flour, I would use 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of GF flour.

Some people get nervous about GF baking when they see that so many GF recipes call for blending your own flours or contain small amounts of different flours. “You mean I gotta buy three different flours?” Well, no, you don’t gotta, but it can really make a difference in the final product. HOWEVER, because there’s not that much flour in this recipe, there’s a lot of flexibility in which GF flour you use. Eggs and butter provide most of the structure. (Oh yeah, say it with me now: “Eggs and butter provide most of the structure.” Mmm...)

I have had success with the following flours in this recipe:
  • A blend of white rice, potato, and tapioca starches (my preferred)
  • Brown rice flour
  • Bob’s Red Mill All-Purpose GF baking flour (which is not my favorite, because it contains garbanzo bean flour which makes the brownie taste slightly beany, but it is very easily found in stores)
You can do this. You should do this. Yes, the mixes are better now, but they still cost six bucks. Wouldn’t you rather use your own recipe and control the quality of your ingredients? Aren’t you tired of always refusing baked goods because you don’t want to be poisoned? Doesn’t your allergy-challenged kid deserve a decent tasting treat?

Oh come on — don’t you miss licking a truly delicious brownie batter off the spoon?

These brownies might just save your life. Well no, probably not, but they are really tasty.
Rich Cocoa Brownies
This recipe was originally published in the Oct/Nov 1996 issue of Fine Cooking magazine. Alas, I cannot find the author’s name. This is a fudgy brownie recipe, as opposed to the cakey, frostable type. My notes are in italics.

Yields 16 brownies More like 9. We are not here for the nutritional value, people.
  • 6 oz. (12 Tbs.) unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup natural or Dutch-process cocoa (I like Ghirardelli. Now is not a good time to be cheap.)
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar ( I cut this down to ¾ cups because I like chocolate, not sugar.)
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1tsp. vanilla extract (Gluten-free! Check the label!)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 2/3 oz. (2/3 cup) cake or gluten-free flour, or 2 1/2 oz. (1/2 cup) of all-purpose wheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp. xanthan gum or guar gum (or if you don’t have any, leave it out and see if you like the texture.)
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F and grease a 9 x 9-inch pan. In a 2-qt saucepan, melt the butter, allowing it to get quite hot . Take the pan from the heat and whisk in the cocoa. Let the mixture cool completely.
Look for steam or the first bubbles on the bottom.
Cooling always baffled me, because...

Whisk the sugar, salt, and vanilla into the cooled cocoa mixture. Add all the eggs at once (NOW it needs to be cool or you'll scramble the eggs!) and whisk again to combine.
...there’s no reason why a little heat should bother any of these ingredients. BTW, before you add the eggs is a really good time to taste the batter and see if everything is going well.
With a rubber spatula, fold in flour until incorporated. Fold in the nuts. Spread the batter in the pan and bake until a toothpick comes out moist and gooey, but not wet, 18 to 20 min. Be careful not to over-bake the brownies or they’ll toughen. Allow them to cool completely before cutting.
I sift my flour and xanthan gum into the batter, then I fold. GF flour can have some funky particulates in it.
The time is dependent on your oven and your own preferences. Yes, it really needs to be a piece of wood and not a metal cake tester because the crumbs won’t stick right on metal. In my oven, I need to go for 22 minutes. Remember heat carryover!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Inertia: Just Do It

So sometimes the hardest part is the beginning, the just doing it, because inertia is in fact a contagious disease.

The anticipatory thinking of a thing, the "I don't wanna" and the "I'll do it tomorrow" often takes longer than (and is worse than) the doing of the thing you're so studiously avoiding. To wit: this post. It will take me 20 minutes to write it, but I've spent two and a half months avoiding it.

It's been so long that even my pen has succumbed to inertia (yes, I'm old-fashioned. I can edit at the computer, but I can't write), and I had to rinse the dried ink out of the nib. We get like that, too. We think we're dried up, but we're not; it's just that our creative nibs are clogged with day-to-day crap.

Okay, that was a tortured metaphor. Cut me some slack, it's been a while.

August was a lost month. We went out of town and the garden dried up, succumbing to squash vine borers (much to the relief of MP) and the weather. August always makes me think of strange things, and this August was no exception. However, to protect both the guilty and the innocent, I won't go into detail. No, it's no good. Don't ask.

Okay, here's a hint: F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night is a terrible beach read. Remember that.

The thing about Just Doing is to bear in mind that it is not the result that matters, but the endeavor itself. At long last you're doing something. Doesn't matter what, or how much; it's more than you did before.

Fear can be a compelling reason why we don't do something. I hate calling contractors to do home improvement work. Hate it. What do I know about someone's skills at carpentry? Get cold sweats. But I can not deal with crappy dirt and diseased tomatoes next year, and I will not hump 4 cubic yards of compost one wheelbarrow at a time along one side of the house, out around the back deck, and across the back yard because some cheap nitwit didn't put a gate in the fence on that side of the house. No.

I have learned to divide things into smaller and smaller chunks, distilling tasks down to their essence. When faced with fear, the question is this: what is the smallest step I can take in this project without succumbing to mind-numbing fear? Look up names. Choose three. Call one for an appointment. Call another. Get estimates and compare.

It is excruciatingly slow. But it is moving forward. Sometimes when things are scary, you have to go that slow. Like Zeno's arrow, you have to fool the frightened part of yourself into thinking you are not moving at all, that everything is fine. You have to reward yourself for tiny acts of bravery. In this way you create a body of accomplishment from which to draw confidence.

There are many people in this world who are doing things I would love to be doing. It isn't that they are fundamentally more talented than I am, but they are braver. It is pointless to entertain thoughts of cowardice -- you work with what you get. So what's the smallest thing I can do right now, TODAY, that put's me closer to my goal?

Don't dwell. Don't let it become a Big Thing. Just do it -- and then eat a chocolate afterward. Chocolate makes everything less scary.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Peaches: A Pictorial Essay

(What? Every story has a Scary Part. This is mine...)

Boiling for one minute then plunging them in ice water
makes stone fruits very easy to peel.

Forty-Five minutes later...

After enacting the "No Peach Left Behind" program, the official Peach Total was 11.56 pounds, or about 50 peaches. While this was significantly less than last year's total of about 30 pounds, it was still enough for 6.5 jars of jam and the cobbler above.

Yes, it was as good as it looks.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Urban Garden Tour

A cashier at Meijers once told me that the Fourth of July is the “Wednesday of Summer.” I hold onto that thought, first because it is true, and second to remind myself that sages exist in undreamed of places. — Naked Latte: Conversations Overheard

Is it tacky to quote from your own novel? Hope not. But what’s really unforgivable is that it’s the 4th of July weekend and I haven’t said anything about my garden this year! So let’s get down to it:

Tomatoes – Let’s get this out of the way, okay? I thought I would be clever this year and scatter the spent grass clippings through the garden to keep the weeds down. Instead, I think I gave the tomatoes cucumber mosaic virus (CMV). They look horrible. MP’s roma tomato (for salsa) isn’t too bad — it’s got fruit that should be ready in the next two weeks — and the sungold is chugging along okay, but the Paul Robesons will be lucky to get any fruit at all. CMV is carried by about 800 different plants, so undoubtedly I brought it in with the spent grass clippings. MP pointed out, “If it’s carried in 800 plants, it’s not really a cucumber virus, is it?” He’s right, too — the cucumbers don’t have it at all. The tomato that looks best? A feral sungold that sprouted from last year’s seed in the compost pile.

Kale – I think I may have hit my kale stride. It looks pretty good and tastes great. Needs to be spread out more, though. That’s my fault for crowding them. Believe it or not, this weekend it’s time to replant the kale for the winter season. This stuff has been growing since February. Cabbage loopers provide an extra protein boost!

Lettuce – I’m so proud of my lettuce. It looks like lettuce! Pretty green bibb lettuce for nice salads. I’d love to tell you how fascinating it tastes but… It’s lettuce. Green. Leafy. And that’s about it. I’m actually growing some stuff in a container, but this horrible little hornworm devoured it, so it’s recuperating (the hornworm, however, will not recuperate.

Cucumber – a strange cucumber malaise made me think that I would have no cucumbers at all this year. They just wouldn’t grow. Only one out of six lived, so I planted two in pots and watched them carefully… and then one died. So I have a largish one and a smaller one, and this may actually be enough. Moderation is important when dealing with curcubits, as we shall see… The reason this image looks so green is that the light is green under all those leaves.

Plumgranny(Queen Anne’s Pocket-Melon) – I grow these for amusement, as they have no culinary value. They smell good. They remind my grandmother of her childhood in Appalachia, so I send her a few. On the plus side, with the tomatoes being so puny, the plumgrannies have room to spread out and they look great. Lots of flowers, but I’m not seeing any little green melons yet.

Butternut Squash – These would probably be doing better if they weren’t overrun by the other squashes. I have pruned back the zucchini and they are doing a little better, but ultimately, I don’t think I’d buy the Burpee’s Butterbush again; if it’s going to survive in the garden, it needs a lot of chutzpah. Still, we’ll probably get a few tiny ones for late-summer risotto. Their flavor is really good.

Pipan(Patty-Pan) Squash – Last year we really got into grilling these, so I planted some, and now they are fighting with the zucchini to see which will rule the garden. They look like alien artifacts, vegetal gifts from extra-terrestrial visitors. Actually, all the squashes are so fascinating I think they’re worthy of their own post. We had so many this past week I gave some away to a friend to who promised to take them to a party with him as a conversation piece to pick up women. Good Luck, kid!

Zucchini – We like zucchini. We like to grill it. This is good, because now we are up to our eyebrows in it. “Don’t plant too many!” MP warned me. “They say one is enough!” I planted three hills… with three plants each, but some died early… so I replanted them… They’re fine now. What’s your address? Do you like zucchini? Because MP shot down the “Let’s brew zucchini beer!” suggestion real quick and now I’m stuck for ideas.

Beans – Alas, the beans have disease issues, too, as evidenced by their quilted-looking leaves. It has not seemed to inhibit their will to produce, however; this year I’ve grown some of the longest beans ever. These are pole beans (as opposed to bush beans), which I like for their flavor and the fact that they take up less horizontal space.

Zinnias – I grew these from seed saved from last year. Need I say more?

Peaches – Yes, I know. You have been waiting for this information breathlessly. The good news: No signs of oriental fruit moths this year! I got on the spray schedule early and have stuck to it. At this point we are about 20 days from harvest. Some peaches have begun to blush, and I won’t be spraying them with bentonite clay again. The bad news: some peaches have also begun to split, probably due to uneven watering, though I don’t know. Alas, bacterial spot is a problem of Elberta peaches, and the leaf-drop can look quite alarming. Water conditions aren’t helping. All told I’ve lost ½ to ¾ of the crop from the freeze and the initial drop of peaches. The soil around here is terrible; I need to fertilize next year earlier and more heavily.

That said, I still will have some delicious peaches and enough to make a few cobblers and cakes with. Don’t know if I’ll be canning any PeachStuff this year. I have this completely unfounded fear that the neighborhood kids will come and steal my peaches, but MP pointed out that most kids don’t even know what a peach looks like. That and… well, my peaches are ugly and covered with weird white crap. Steal them? Probably not.

MP’s Pet Pepper (The Drama Queen) – Yes! This plant is dying! Right before our eyes! Every day! Why don’t we feed it? Why don’t we water it? Don’t we love it? And so on. Dramatic Vegetables can be highly entertaining. It doesn’t help that it’s up on the porch in the 100 degree heat, but really, peppers are sooo excitable. Lack of water is making these jalapenos hot as hell.

This is the season I like best, every morning going out with my knife (to fend off the zucchini) and my trug (to haul everything back to the house) and seeing what is new. The bees are extremely happy. I never worry that they will sting me, only that one might run me over. Sure enough, this morning I bent down at the wrong moment and got thwacked upside the head.

Summer is alive. 'Tis the season to get messy in it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Anti-Hero by Villainess

Some women spend their 401K plans on designer handbags. Some want jewelry. Others have a particular weakness for shoes.

I go mad for soap.

But don’t think I’m easy. Clearly one can find soap anywhere; what I seek is much more subtle and difficult to define. Part of it is scent — I like perfume, too — but there is something about a bar of good-smelling soap lathering up like whipped cream that I seek out. Is it the sensuality? A psychological need to cleanse myself? The fact that I grew up in a house with water so hard all our towels were stained rust-red with iron?

One thing is certain — this is not the kind of obsession you can discuss freely. Still, there are those who have known me long enough to know which passions make me tick, and when they see interesting crossovers, they send word. The phrase “I saw this soap named ‘anti-hero’ and it made me think of you” dropped into a friend’s casual e-mail sounded too good to be true.

With my first glimpse of the Villainess home page I knew I was not in some pink girly candy-land of sickly scented personal products. For starters, the look and feel of the web page can only be described as 19th Century smoky boudoir — aged parchment and skulls over a burgundy tooled-leather background. In addition to selling soap, some of their products are Whipped! (body butter) and Smooch! (body scrub), and also perfume oils in ampoules. (“Historically, the ampoule has held the blood of martyrs, anointing oils, and medicinal solutions. We have misappropriated the delicate vials to hold our equally precious Extrait, and carefully accented each stoppered bottle with our hand-stamped monogram and a weathered copper skull.”)

Describing their scent catalog, the founders state “…we aim for that ultimately unique Villainess touch. A bizarre juxtaposition of scent that will create (or trigger) a vivid olfactory memory.” The scents have names like “Asphyxiate,” “Crushed,” and “Silk & Cyanide.”

Sometimes I wonder what my friends think of when they think of me…

The main page listing their soaps states: “Sometimes a girl needs a change of pace. Or maybe she's had a trying day at the office, juggling evil schemes. That's when you pull out the big guns and spoil yourself.” It seems the people at Villainess understood me.
This is how they describe their soap:

Full Name: Antihero
Weight / Height: 3.5oz (99g) / 3 in
Colour: Soft grey suede.
Distinguishing Features: Absolutely smooth, sheer, silken lather swirled with pitch black Australian clay.
Characteristic Scent: Well-worn sweaty leather, the acrid smoke of cigarettes, and a soft side of honey and vanilla.

Cigarette smoke and leather? In a soap? As an M.A. in English Lit with an emphasis on the portrayal of the hero throughout history, how could I say no?

“Anti-hero” is a sledgehammer to my limbic system. It smells like a woman, the kind of woman wears what she wants and smokes where she wants and doesn’t give a damn anymore what people think. And yet… there is also a softer note, something that reminds me of being utterly depressed and enveloped in a really good hug, smelling the smoke in her clothes with another perfume — a yin-yang animal, organically floral sweet scent like… Hope? Every time I smell it I have a vision of the café where I drank coffee and spent endless hours talking about my M.A. thesis while this woman smoked, nodded, and quietly listened to—

Oh my God. I just now realized I’m talking about Em. Somehow they captured how my best friend Em smelled in 1992.

Wow. Crap. Em… Now I’m totally thrown. Well then! “A vivid olfactory memory.” They weren’t lying. Be careful what you wish for.

In addition to the soap I also ordered some Whipped! in Paradise Misplaced (“Sweetly creamed coconut with touches of mango offset by crisp green tea”) and Smooch! in Krakatoa (“Flashes of exotic foliage… amidst slightly more domestic fruits…and an explosive burst of citrus). I’m pleased to say that all three items were really lush-feeling and wonderful, probably owing in large part to their use of high-end ingredients like palm oil, shea butter and cherry kernel oil.

The next scent I’d like to try? “Villainess” — “Sheer pearly grey shot with crimson…. Our signature scent — all ball gowns and combat boots. Raw, smokey [sic] leather and sweet vanilla musk engulfed in a sheer haze of exotic florals — ylang, neroli, jasmine, lilac and tuberose.”

And if you like that, check out the description for "Bathory.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Having Cake and Not Eating it, Either

Can you believe that this is not a real cake? It is a miniature in polymer clay stolen from PetitPlat by sk's Flickr photostream.

Wheat is everywhere. I deal with it. It’s the people I want to backhand.

The other night someone brought some really lovely sandwiches and cake to class — beautifully packaged and artfully arranged, clearly handmade and very thoughtful. The sandwiches were wraps and small croissants, and the layer cake was chocolate with sliced strawberries pressed into the sides of the real buttercream icing. (none of that sugar-Crisco crap. I can tell.) I appreciate good food even when I can’t eat it.

My friend stood there, handing out sandwiches. “Why aren’t you eating any?”

“The wheat thing.”

“Well you can eat the insides. Just take the bread off.”

There are a few things wrong with this approach:
1) And do what with the insides? Eat chicken salad out of my hands?

2) You can take the meat out of the sandwich but you cannot get the bread off the meat. I tried that when I first when gluten-free and realized the next day just how badly that doesn’t work. (And for the record, if there’s pasta in a soup, you can’t “eat around it.”)

3) What an incredibly flippant, ignorant thing to say to someone when you KNOW she’s allergic to wheat. Nothing like being zinged by a friend.

“No, I can’t just take the insides out,” I replied, “Ask your son’s girlfriend, the one who’s so allergic to nuts, how she feels about eating something that’s touched peanuts.”

“Oh, yeah…” my friend said. Maybe it made her think about what she said, I don’t know. I left it at that.

This exchange is at the forefront of my mind because I have written a really pertinent article about this VERY SAME TOPIC, and I can’t find a publisher.

It seems our local newspaper (and I live in a metro area of 1.2 million people) no longer has the staff to accept reader submissions, even after I told the editor I would do the piece for free. And then three days after I called the paper laid off 75 people, so I know she wasn’t just trying to get rid of me.

So here you are — my article, for free! — and I hope that whether you’re the hostess or the guest, you find something useful.

Entertaining with Food Allergies

(All photos are from PetitPlat by sk's photostream on Flickr. Check out her wonderful blog and more of her stunning polymer clay creations.)

It seems like everyone has a food allergy these days, and that makes entertaining difficult. A good hostess instinctively knows that poisoning one’s guests is a no-no, but with so many different allergies to navigate, how can one plan an inclusive menu? And on the other side of the equation, if you’re a guest with a food allergy, how do you inform a hostess about your allergy without coming across as bossy?

It doesn’t help that the word “allergy” is thrown around a lot. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma &Immunology defines a “food allergy” as specifically involving immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. Symptoms such as hives, swelling of the lips and tongue or vomiting often occur shortly after ingesting the offending food. Anaphylactic shock is when an immune response is so severe that blood pressure drops suddenly and airways narrow, blocking normal breathing. If someone in anaphylactic shock doesn’t immediately use an EpiPen (a one-shot dose of epinephrine) or go to an emergency room, they could die. The World Allergy Organization estimates that each year 150 Americans die from food-related anaphylaxis. Peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish are the most likely to trigger such a severe reaction.

If eating a certain food causes an immune response that does not involve IgE antibodies, it is not considered an “allergy,” but an “intolerance” — although when someone is experiencing several hours of “digestive distress” (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea), medical definitions of “allergy” seem rather quaint. Some food intolerances cause chronic health issues, such as the inability of the body to absorb certain nutrients (which is often the case when someone is allergic to wheat).

If the biology behind food allergies and intolerances hasn’t convinced you to hang up your apron, then take heart — the best advice for dealing with a food allergy is the simplest. Your Momma was right: everything comes down to good manners. Whether you’re a hostess or a guest, put yourself in the other’s shoes for a moment and consider how both your assumptions and requests might sound.

For a hostess, knowing what to do means understanding why you’re entertaining in the first place. It sounds strange and anthropological, but think about it — the purpose of having people over for a meal is about creating a group experience centered around sharing food. If someone can’t share the food, they can’t share the experience. The smaller the group, the more obvious it is that someone is not eating the same thing as everyone else. It changes to chemistry of the gathering by making the guest with the allergy feel left out and the hostess feel inadequate, and that’s not good.

So by all means, if you are hosting less than twelve people ask your guests if they have food allergies. If someone does, ask for menu suggestions or if there’s a dish they would like to bring. By getting input before the event you can be sure there are foods all your guests can share. And unless you have an allergy to something a guest brought, make a point to try it — it’s an inclusive gesture your guest will appreciate, and you might learn a new recipe.

If you are hosting a larger meal or a party with a buffet, assume you will have one or two guests who have food allergies and plan accordingly. The most common allergies are eggs, milk, nuts, peanuts, soy, tree nuts and wheat/gluten, but this is hardly a complete list! When planning the menu, remember that less-processed food is better than pre-packaged and simple is better. If the food is catered, talk to the provider and explain the need for options. If at all possible label the foods or be sure that the servers are aware of which dishes contain what and are prepared to answer questions.

You may not learn about a guest’s allergy until the event itself. Take a guest around and discreetly point out safe foods for their particular concern. Save containers and packaging for ingredient lists so if a guest asks a question you can read labels and be certain.

No matter what size the gathering is, do not telegraph to the entirety of the party that the reason Jane isn’t eating the green goddess salad dressing is because it will put her in the powder room for the next three hours if she has so much as a forkful. That’s Jane’s business, so let her tell if she chooses to. If other guests want to know why Jane is only eating vinegar and oil dressing, breezy, evasive answers are all you need give — and then offer to pass the vinegar and oil.

If a guest asks you to provide detailed explanations of ingredients, do not take it personally. Eating away from home with food allergies is difficult. If you’ve never dealt with a food allergy yourself, you may not realize the consequences of eating certain foods or the level of care required to ensure that a food is “safe.” When a guest asks you questions, remember that undoubtedly this is someone who has suffered “digestive distress” (or something worse) in the past and wants to avoid it in the future. If a guest’s behavior seems particularly dictatorial or unreasonable, remember: you have the option of not inviting them to the next function, but ignoring food allergies is not an option for them.

If you have a food allergy and are invited to dine at someone’s home, you need to say something. Your friends probably already know, but co-workers and casual acquaintances may not. Telling a host you have a food allergy isn’t being pushy; you’re helping him avoid potential embarrassment and giving yourself the opportunity to dine safely. It doesn’t matter how many times you say, “No really, I’m fine” — no host will feel good watching you consume only a glass of chardonnay and a lettuce leaf.

As soon as you receive an invitation, give the host a call or drop an email and explain the situation — simply. Unless anaphylactic shock is a serious possibility there’s no need to go into deep biological detail; just say that an allergy to a particular food is a concern and you wanted him to be aware of it. Some allergies are easier to work around than others; by speaking up you may assist in his decision to serve shrimp or chicken.

However, do consider that your host may already have very definite ideas about the menu and your food allergy may put an unexpected kink in those plans. So instead of just saying what you can’t have, offer to bring a dish you can have that fits in with what’s being served. You might even make the offer to arrive early and help prepare dishes with alternative ingredients so you can eat them, too.

If the gathering is at a restaurant, call ahead or check the Internet to find out what options you have and make arrangements with the kitchen staff ahead of time. More restaurants are becoming aware of allergy challenges and work hard to come up with suitable menu items that eliminate offending foods. If an event is catered find a member of the staff and ask questions, and although it may seem forward, be one of the first in line to avoid cross-contamination from misplaced serving utensils.

As a guest with a food allergy someone will certainly offer you something you cannot eat. Some people are comfortable being the ambassadors of their particular allergy and enjoy educating others, while some people wish they didn’t have to deal with food allergies and don’t want to talk about it. Decide beforehand how you want to respond, and learn to say a simple “No, Thank-You” gracefully. Even if you are asked specifically “So what happens when you do eat eggs?” keep in mind that while everyone is eating is probably not the time to discuss the biological details of your particular allergic reaction.

Accept that your host may not really understand the level of attention required to insure that foods are safe for you and do not push the issue is he seems reluctant to change plans or accept help. Some people don’t understand how limiting a food allergy can be and they just don’t want to. Unfortunately, there may be times when you have to bring your own snacks or eat before or after a function.

Sharing food with friends is a basic human pleasure that gives us a common experience; allergies make sharing that common experience challenging, but not impossible. By being willing to communicate thoughtfully and accommodate some changes, everyone can feel welcome and relaxed — which is why we share meals together in the first place.

And send your Momma a Thank-You note.

For more information about food allergies, check out The site contains resources and recipes for all ages.
The statistics for this article came from the following sources:
The American Academy of Allergy Asthma &Immunology web site
The World Allergy Organization web site

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Halibut with Cucumber Salad and Soy-Mustard Dressing

I know that MP is the chef here, but this is what I ate for lunch yesterday:

Seriously. I made this. You may be suitably impressed now.

This recipe comes from Food and Wine magazine and can be found online here. Provided the soy sauce is gluten-free (Bragg Liquid Amino Acids, revolting as it sounds, is a good choice) it's a nice dish for the dietarily challenged.

The key is taking what you have and making the dish your own. The original recipe is for grouper, but I used halibut. I do not have a mandoline and there was no way I was "folding" cucumber slices. (Although you do need to prop the fish up out of the dressing; a short stack of cucumber works, too.) There's a lot of latitude for personal tastes in Dale Gartland's dish, and that's what makes it a good recipe.

Prep time may be the only thing that stops people from making this. The dressing comes together in a snap. Do not fear the specialized ingredients — mirin is a sweetened cooking wine and used in teriyaki sauces (make your own gluten-free version), rice vinegar is a lovely low-acid vinegar for summer dressings, and white vermouth can be substituted for sake. The fish prep was easy. It's the vegetables that are tough.

A food processor with the right blade can crank out the carrot and radish easily. But the shallots, the garlic, the chile... That's some knife work. And cucumbers are essential, but don't do so well in the food processor. Cucumbers are water trapped by sunshine, so you MUST remove the seeds if you do not use a seedless cucumber or you will end up with a soggy wad of pulp. Nope, the veggies will take up most of the prep time. It's worth it.

You may be tempted to skip the sesame seeds and frizzled shallots/garlic. Don't. Pace yourself. Besides, frizzling is fun. In one pan, you can toast the seeds, then frizzle the shallots and garlic, and then use the flavored oil to cook the fish (pat the fish off so it's dry; makes for a better crust).

What is rewarding about Gartland's dish is the contrast of flavors and textures: soft and cool, sweet and crunchy, salty and green. If you skip any of the ingredients, you will undoubtedly make a tasty entrée, but you will miss out on the fun of discovering new combinations with each bite.

There are so many wonderful things in this world to eat. Don't limit yourself.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Star of Bethlehem

According to the USDA I grew up in Zone 5. Not that they track me personally; I’ve just always been fascinated by their brightly banded map, and wherever I go I ultimately want to know if lemon trees are possible (not hardy below Zone 9-10) and daffodils work (doesn’t get cold enough above Zone 8).

In practical terms this means because I didn’t grow up here, there’s stuff out in my yard I’ve never seen before.

A few years back I was mowing and found flowers where I had never planted any. The leaves looked like garlic chives, but longer and fallen over, with small white flowers, a few to each cluster. It was quite pretty, actually, and I wondered who would randomly plant stuff in the middle of a yard out by the curb.

I mowed around it, went back, and dug it up. This was harder than I thought, because the bulbs it grew from (again, like garlic chives or spring onions) were easily 6-8 inches down, and I mangled several before I got enough to transplant into my flower bed. I had no idea what it was. I assumed it was some sort of wild allium (garlic/onion type plant) or bulb. It’s grown up very nicely, and this year I took some pictures.

Gardeners probably seem rather solid and boring (old people with stone figurines growing way too many zucchini), but the truth is, we’re risk-takers. Who do you think invented zucchini bread? Crazy stuff. Seeing only pictures in a catalog, we decode a few bits of information (like zone hardiness, shade tolerance, and mature height), calculate whether or not we have room (and if it’s something we want, we always do), and send away for little bare-rooted sticks or knobby tubers or packets of seeds that look like alien gallstones. We stick these things in the dirt. We wait. A risky business.

Sometimes it pays off. When MP first saw the peach tree, he looked at me and asked, “Which end is up?” Six years and 30 pounds of peaches later, I apparently guessed right. Then sometimes things don’t go well, and one must rectify the mistakes. This happens to both my mother and her mother — a lot.

Currently my mother is ripping up sweet woodruff (“They said it was a groundcover. No lie!”) while my grandmother has spent 20+ years going at the lily of the valley (“It grows up places I never put it!”). Neither one has made much headway. Interestingly enough, my mother cannot get lily of the valley to grow — and she lives in the woods. What both my mother and grandmother agree upon is that STAR OF BETHLEHEM MUST DIE.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it grows everywhere! All the time!” my mother answered.

Grandma was more specific. “Because it gets yecchy.”

Okay… Over time they revealed that star of bethlehem, while pretty, is invasive, crowding out everything growing around it. After blooming, the grassy leaves get rather slimy and can’t be pulled out. It’s pretty for 2 weeks and annoying for 4 months.

I year or so ago I was at a plant sale hosted by a gardener friend of mine, and in her flower bed I saw the unknown little thing I’d rescued from my yard. “How cute!” I exclaimed, “Would you sell me some?”

“Oh God, that. No. You don’t want it.”

“But I already have some and I like it. What–?”

“Kill it.”

“But I like it! What is it?”

“Star of bethlehem.”

I had nursed a viper in my bosom! (Is that not one of the most wacked out sayings imaginable? No wonder it fell out of favor somewhere about 1910…) However, the truth is… I’ve never had a problem with it. It’s at the edge of the flowerbed, and though I occasionally mow over it in the summer, it always comes back in the spring. Look at it — isn’t it cheerful? Don’t the little while flowers look so happy to greet the springtime? Doesn’t its green center look like a Jell-O mold? I still don’t know how it got out in my yard. Maybe some disgusted person flung it there. Maybe a bird carried it off a compost pile. Nature’s mysteries abound.

“You watch it,” my mother warned me, “You’ll be sorry.” But she’s been saying that to me for decades now about this or that, and I’m still here. A lot depends on soil type and micro-climate, so maybe where I have it now it will remain in control. It marks a point in the springtime when the daffodils are gone but the azaleas aren’t quite ready to show. I’d hate to lose it.

Sometimes you have to take risks.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Searching for the Elusive Purple Easter Egg

Have you ever done something that went so terribly wrong you passed beyond dismay into the realm of “My God, I have to keep going to see how truly bad this can get”?

That happened to me this past weekend over a purple Easter egg. Well, I wanted it to be purple. For the better part of my life I have wondered why there were no purple Easter eggs — and yes, I was a strange kid. We would get the PAAS egg-coloring kit (sometimes the fancy ones, sometimes the basic 5-color) and go to town, but Purple never worked. Red worked… Okay, Pink worked, and Blue worked, but Purple was more like Pink strangled Blue and left Evidence of the Crime. Purple was never truly, you know, “purple,” like a grape or an amethyst. It was Pink vs. Blue on a boiled egg.

My sister tells me that PAAS has really branched out since we were tots and that they do in fact have Purple. I’m not so sure, and I submit as evidence a close up of her children dyeing eggs (I’d show you the kids but they’re so revoltingly cute you’d never notice the eggs).

I see many lovely shades of Blue. I do not see Purple.

This bothers me on a deep, philosophical level. Scientifically, it should work; In both additive and subtractive color spaces, Purple is the combination of Red and Blue. Surely a Red dye with a few drops of Blue, or a Blue dye with a few drops of Red, should be somewhere in the ball-park?

All right, look — here are two lovely eggs. Believe it or not, they’re brown eggs. I used your basic grocery store food dye and made a nice coral color and a spring green.

And look at this. I’m being honest here, no Photoshop tricks. Is this not a purple dye? Dare I say, violaceous, even purplescent?

So what is this? Two Easter eggs and an eight ball?

Here’s a lovely shot; you can really see the striping effect. Makes it look like a slightly ominous melon, lurking, while two sweet Easter eggs unsuspectingly frolic about. (Dare I say it also looks like a more colorful re-enactment of the “before” stage in a Zoloft commercial?)

I think the second the egg hit the water I knew it wasn’t going to work, and yet, I couldn’t stop the process. I think I hoped by sheer saturation of color that something might happen. Being a brown egg certainly didn’t help matters, but it doesn’t explain the disaster completely. Why doesn’t mixing red and blue dye work? What causes the inevitable streaking seen even in my PAAS days? The result looked like the black jellybean that nobody wants to eat.

Back in college I had some Greek friends who celebrated Easter according to the Orthodox calendar. In Greece they dye all their eggs red, to represent the drops of blood Christ shed on the Cross (it’s also the color that represents Life and Renewal, I think). When they got hold of the red dye from a PAAS kit, they were horrified, truly upset. “They’re pink!” they wailed, “We can’t use pink eggs!” I’m not sure what they eventually did, but I feel for them now.

I set the Fugly Egg it out on the coffee table to contemplate. The other two were eventually eaten, but this one remained, so maybe there is an up-side to being dyed an awful color. In better light it actually looked navy blue. Sort of. I have since found out that if you want blood-red eggs, you make a dye from yellow onion skins. I am contemplating possibilities for next year, and I am seeing purple onions and cabbages in my future.

I will succeed, or I will take Bad to a whole new level.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hanami, Cherry-blossom Viewing

In the previous post I mentioned the Japanese concept of hanami, or cherry-blossom viewing. If you've never seen a flowering cherry tree then you must surely wonder what the big deal is.

Yesterday I went out and had my own blossom-viewing party. This is the result (click on any of the images to see it in a larger view).

These are lovely photos, but I'm not sure photos can really capture the experience of a sunny crisp day, Spring awakening, tiny petals falling in the wind...

If you'd like to see some images from Japan, try Tokyo Times or Kirai.

It is a very short moment in Spring -- a few days at most -- and this is why it is so beautiful. Like Life, the flowers of the cherry tree are precious because they are fleeting.

Okay, that's enough introspection. Go outside and play in the dirt.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spring, Interrupted

This winter has been particularly tough all across the country. I don’t remember seeing this much snow in fifteen or twenty years. Needless to say seeing the daffodils bloom was welcome, and I looked forward to my peach tree blooming, which it did.

Sort of.

Somewhere between the March 1st snow dump and the nearly 80 degree day, the night-time temperature plummeted. All the flowers on the lower three-quarters of the peach tree died in the bud. The only flowers that bloomed are on the very top branches, and they are all that I will have this year.

I discovered this while spraying kaolinite clay/pyrethrin on the tree. I felt like Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon when he realizes he has the wrong falcon but he can’t stop scraping at it with the pen-knife. I stood there, touching what looked like perfect buds, every one of them dropping off in my hand. I wanted to be wrong. I wasn’t.

Nothing to be done about it. Made short work of spraying, that’s for sure. With plenty left over, I began to spray the flowering cherry.

It’s probably a “yoshino” variety, common in this part of the country and very pretty come springtime and “hanami.” It never did grow much above 10 ft, and I don’t know if that because of the variety (yoshino cherry trees can grow 25 ft, but maybe this was a dwarf? Or something else?) or where it was planted. Most likely it never grew very tall because in the first five years of its life it acquired a huge split which exposed the heartwood.

This photo shows the clearly exposed heartwood. Looking at the other trees in the yard and how they died, I can read what happened: the area was hit with drought, the original homeowner was clueless, and the drought-tolerant trees (bradford pear, leyland cypress) lived, while the others (water maple, river birch) died. The cherry didn’t die right off, but it split, as is common with thin-barked trees. A new split can be doctored and the tree will try to mend itself. This split was left unattended, the area was dry year after year, and it just got bigger. This tree has been going to die ever since we moved in 10 years ago. It just… didn’t. And because it was so pretty and so brave, I never cut it down.

If I could read insects like I read trees, I probably would have.

The lead branch was already dead, but again, I couldn’t stand to break it off and ruin the shape of the tree. I did, however, pull off a dead lower branch… And maggots boiled out where I broke it off. I thought, “Why are there maggots in a tree?”

No. Not maggots. Termites.

I ran for an empty jelly jar and knocked the stragglers off the broken limb into the jar (always ALWAYS grab samples). By then the others had disappeared back into the tree. I left the branch and didn’t spray anything else. Let the termites stay and be happy so long as I knew where they were.

The next day a tree specialist came out — a real old-timer. He said, “Yep, termites. Gotta get ‘em when it’s cool out before they swarm. The boys got the chipper shredder about five minutes from here. You want I call and take the tree?”

The cherry hadn’t even bloomed yet. It was beautiful when it bloomed. I missed it last year because I went on a trip. The poor tree. Take it? I mean, I knew it would have to go, but my God, give me some time to get used to it… Termites? Are they in the house? Would taking the tree now make them swarm? No, it was only 50 degrees, they’d probably stay put. The poor tree, it hadn’t even had a chance to bloom…

And then I remembered there was somebody standing there. He had a look on his face like, “C’mon lady, make up your mind.”

“Yeah. Call them.” I replied.

I went inside and told MP. “We knew it had to go, right? I mean, poor tree. I wonder if I should cut a few branches and force them? No, that’s kind of morbid.”
Then somebody rang the doorbell and I burst into tears.

I was suddenly torn between grief and total embarrassment. “I can’t do this. I can’t write the check. Please, take care of this.” But I wasn’t too out of my mind with grief to holler out “And make sure they get the right tree!” (MP said later he told the guys, “You touch that peach tree, we all die.”)

The chipper-shredder was surprisingly quiet.

Later that afternoon I went to kung-fu. “Don’t look,” MP told me, “Just keep your head down and don’t look.”

I didn’t. I wouldn’t have looked the next day, either, only MP said something about how they “ground down the stump. Looks like they mulched, too.”

Oh. God. They didn’t spread the remains of a termitey tree all over the daffodils, did they? I ran outside and there was… Nothing. No mulch, just a ground stump, and no tree. Just a hole in my heart that I am honestly truly surprised is there.
I didn’t have much of a chance to dwell on it. Last Thursday the Weather Channel called for rain, ice, and snow.

Oh no, no... Not on my peach tree.

There are two ways to fail: You do the wrong thing, or you do nothing and events unfold accordingly. Doing something, even if it’s the wrong thing, at least provides the possibility of endless variety.

It was the only time I’ve ever worn the Bluetooth into a store and confused people by having an apparent one-sided conversation.

“What do you think, Dad? Is 100 watt enough? I’ve got this ten gallon cooler MP uses for beer-making… Huh? For hot water, Dad. No, spraying only works for radiant frost. Radiational? Oh hell, I don’t know, but this is a cold-air mass. Now, how do I do this without getting electrocuted?”

I mean, the paint department at the Home Depot didn’t quite know what I was on about.

Let me get my keywords straight for the search engines of posterity:

If you have a very few trees, then you can protect the buds and blossoms of fruit trees from freezing temperatures by using a plastic drop cloth and a 100 watt bulb

You will need:
• Drop cloths to cover (probably 2 of the 10’ x 25’)
• Clip on flood lamp
• 100 watt bulb
• 100ft indoor-outdoor extension cord (or whatever it takes to get to the nearest outlet)
• Thermometer (must be accurate)
• Zip-top bag
• Binder clips or clothes pins
• Rope, clothes-line, yarn from your stash, etc., about 2-3’
• A 6’ or longer pole/stick
• Duct tape (naturally)

• Duct-tape two drop cloths together (3 mils or less each. Any thicker is too heavy) using short pieces of duct tape every 12-18” apart. The goal is to keep the plastic together, not to make it air-tight.

• Use the pole (I used a kung-fu staff) to get the plastic up over the crown of the tree with the duct-taped seam off-center. Close the bottom off with loosely tied clothes-line around the trunk.

• Put the clip-on flood light with a 100 watt bulb (bulb facing DOWN) on an inside branch under the plastic, securing and waterproofing the plug of the flood light to the indoor outdoor 100 ft extension cord using duct tape. Tuck the cord/plug under the plastic.

• Put the thermometer inside the zip-top bag and using a binder clip hang it higher than the light by about 3 ft.

• Using the binder clips close any holes/leaks in the plastic; roll or fold up the loose ends of the plastic and secure to tree branches. Make sure to leave a large opening for you and the pole to duck under the plastic, and secure that, too.

The theory is that the heat of the bulb will keep the air mass under the plastic warmer than the air mass outside. The temperature needs to stay at or about 32 degrees Fahrenheit. At 26-28 degrees Fahrenheit flowers will die. Buds can tolerate about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. CHECK WITH YOUR COUNTY EXTENSION OFFICE FOR FREEZING TEMPERATURES FOR YOUR TYPE OF FRUIT TREE. The thinner the plastic and the more holes, the less heat will be trapped. However, if the plastic is too thick it may crush the top branches, and the tree does need some air exchange.

Oh, and try to set all this up in the daylight. I wasn’t so lucky; my first attempt blew off and I didn’t realize it until I got home at 8:30 PM. Alone in the dark, trying to get plastic up over an 8-10 ft tree, one sees the world in rather stark terms.

At night, the setup looks like this. More Halloween than Springtime.

Could you burn the tree down? Oh yeah, count on it. But what are you going to do, lose your peaches? Because Plan B was a 10 gallon open-topped cooler filled with near boiling water and kept under the plastic with the tree. In order to make that work you’d have to boil massive quantities of water and haul them out to the tree, replacing the cooled water every 1-2 hours. As it was I still didn’t get much sleep.

At 11 PM I went out to check the final set up — 38 F

At 2 AM I ducked under the plastic with the pole, and using it like a pool cue, popped about a gallon of rain out of the gathers in the plastic — 34 F

At 6 AM I was popping snow off the plastic — 33F

At 8 AM I popped more snow off the plastic and realized that farming sucks.

The temp under the plastic was 34 F. There was an inch of snow on the ground that didn’t melt until the afternoon. Did I save the peaches? I don’t know — ask me in July. I still have flowers, but what’s going to pollinate them with this wonky weather?

Last night I dragged everything out and wrapped the peach tree up again. I’m glad I did, even though there were 23 mph gusts of wind that left me clinging to 500 square feet of drop cloth with fleeting visions of becoming Mary Poppins of the gardening circle. It shouldn’t have gone below 32 F, but when I woke up this morning there was frost on the ground.

My neighbors think that I am bat-sh-t crazy.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is Sami’s Bakery Millet and Flax Seed Bread Really Gluten-Free?

The short answer: I’m still not sure.

The short summary: This past holiday season I tried Sami’s Millet and Flax Seed bread. It is not labeled, “gluten-free,” but it has no gluten-containing ingredients. I tried it as both bread stuffing and bread pudding (not in the same meal).

It brought a tear to my eye.

It was so good, so unlike other poofy/spongy/sawdust-like GF breads. It handled like bread. It was amazing. I wanted to recreate it myself and went online to find out more about it.

I found controversy instead. Is it or isn’t it gluten-free? How did they get that texture without yeast or gluten? What about this test posted on celiac discussion boards claiming it had 5000ppm of gluten?

In short: is Sami’s Bakery Millet and Flax Seed bread really gluten-free, and who is telling the truth?

What began as investigative research instead became a study in how information is disseminated over the Internet and touches on anonymity, trust, and how to evaluate primary and secondary information sources. So come with me, Detective Jane Friday, and let’s see what we can reasonably determine.

Just the facts, Ma’am.

What is “gluten-free” and who cares?
Very briefly, gluten is a protein found in certain cereal grains such as (but not limited to) wheat barley, rye and spelt. Some people are not able to digest / have a really bad reaction to this protein. They have what is called celiac disease. There is no pill, there is no cure; if you’re a celiac, you don’t eat wheat. Ever again. Period. Well, I mean, you can do whatever you want, but if you’d like to avoid the diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, anemia, headaches, mood swings, generalized weakening of the immune system, etc. associated with being a celiac who is still ingesting wheat, then you need to stop eating all gluten-containing grains.

This is not easy.

Gluten can show up in the weirdest places – soy sauce, artificial crab meat (kiss those yummy California rolls goodbye!) and cheap vitamins. What? “Modified food starch” is often made from wheat and is used in salad dressings, mayonnaise, and drugs. Beer is made from barley. Of course gluten is in all baked goods, but it can also be in your spiced French fries and the glue in envelopes.

We’ve heard a lot about allergies and parents’ reactions to allergies in the news. You do have to wonder about the necessity of handling a peanut found on the floor of a bus as a hazmat situation(although as a general rule, you don’t die from ingesting gluten when you’re a celiac. You can die from the chronic diseases associated with undiagnosed celiac disease, but that’s different from a peanut allergy.) However, in defense of parents of children with food allergies, I will say this: Most people have no idea what they eat (I once explained the whole “gluten-free” thing to someone, who then said, “Bummer! No whole-wheat bagels. But you can eat plain ones, right?”). Unless your 8 year old is precocious enough to ask if the caramel coloring in a cough drop was sourced from a US or non-US food supplier, then it’s the parent who has to check everything out. Sit with someone who inexplicably vomits five times in three hours and see if you can keep hyper-vigilance at bay. The reason parents are so paranoid is because they have to be.

I am not a celiac
But I do play one in my everyday life. After three laparoscopies for stage-3 endometriosis, I began to wonder if there might be something else I could do, something doctors maybe weren’t telling me? When I gave up wheat six years ago, I also gave up rabid PMS, menstrual cramps that could drop a horse, anemia, brain fog, and hay fever (that last one was an unexpected and delightful bonus for someone who had allergy shots for fifteen years). I can’t help it if my HLA DQ test says I’m not a celiac; I know what I know. Wheat don’t work for me.

Why Sami’s Millet and Flax bread is different
It’s gluten that gives bread structural integrity. Manufacturers of gluten-free products try to compensate for the lack of gluten by increasing the protein content with eggs and gums. These gluten-free breads can be dry as dust or have the consistency of a sofa cushion. You can’t eat a sandwich off them because they crumble and fall apart.

The Sami’s bread lists only the following ingredients: Organic Millet Flour, Brown Rice Flour, Water, Aluminum Free Baking Powder, Sea Salt, Organic Grounded Flax Seed [sic]. With no eggs or yeast, somehow this bread has both flexibility and strength. There’s no weird beany flavor from soy or chickpea flour, and it behaves like wheat bread, so it can be rolled, toasted, dried as breadcrumbs, or used as a sandwich.

The label on Sami’s bread does not say that it is gluten-free, but I found it in the GF section of my health food store.

The web controversy
A loaf of this bread at my health food store cost me six bucks. As a baker, I naturally wanted to reverse engineer the product and save money. I went online and found that I was not the only one who tried using only these ingredients and failed. More disturbing, however, was a post that circulated on many boards, basically saying that Sami’s bread was independently tested and not only wasn’t it GF, but it was loaded with gluten. However, there were also people like me who had tried Sami’s products and loved them.

Was the warning a sort of GF urban myth? Was somebody lying about the true ingredients in the product? This link to Ellen’s Kitchen and this link to the message board demonstrates the kind of discussion surrounding GF breads and the what’s safe/what’s not conundrum.

Tracking backwards
The post says the testing originated with the Tri-County Celiac Support Group (TCCSG) of Michigan. The information has been posted in multiple discussion groups (here it is again on by the same user, “cruelshoes.”

I wrote email. Cruelshoes did not respond (I can think of several reasons for that, all of them reasonable; however, we are sticking to facts and not my personal conjecture).

However the president of the TCCSG did respond to my email, and was most helpful. The original page describing the test still exists on the TCCSG server, though I’m not sure you can actually navigate to it from the site’s homepage.

To be absolutely thorough, the next step would have been to write to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources Food Allergy Research & Research Program and find out what their lab protocol is, how this test is done, what the margin of error is on the test, etc. I did not do this owing to time, but their web site contains some good information.

I also wrote to Sami’s Bakery in Florida. They did not respond. So much for me as an investigative reporter.

So I called the bakery. I do not know who answered the phone, but judging by the noise in the background, it was the guy standing closest to it. Here is a summary of the conversation:

Q: Is Sami’s Millet and Flax bread gluten-free?
A: There’s nothing in it that contains gluten, but this is not a gluten-free facility. We make the Millet and Flax products in the morning when everything is clean, and then make the other products afterward.
Q: Does it contain wheat as an ingredient?
A: No. But it’s not a gluten-free bakery, so… But we don’t put wheat in it, no.
Q: Have you ever done testing on the bread to find out what the contamination level is?
A: Actually, yeah. A year or so ago we sent it in and it tested at 33 ppm. That’s pretty close, pretty good (note: as yet there is no standard in the United States for what the term “gluten-free” actually means. The European Union’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) set their standard at 20 ppm).

And that was all I felt I could ask this guy without sounding like a lawyer and scaring him.

Who can you trust as an authoritative source?
  • A dedicated forum on gluten intolerance?

  • A user posting in a forum?

  • The president of the TCCSG?

  • An anonymous guy in a bakery?

  • Me?
There needs to be a source we can trust, and in my own investigation, I’m not satisfied that source was revealed. Are the various celiac forums moderated for scientific and nutritional accuracy? Unless cruelshoes had eaten the bread herself and had a reaction, what were her reasons for posting the information on the message boards after it was already a year old? Sami’s Bakery never responded; are they aware of the problem? Whoever answered the phone at the bakery never hesitated to answer my question (most people say, “WHAT free?”) and seemed to be comfortable discussing the product. These answers matter for two reasons: first because of the legal ramifications, secondly because people’s health will be compromised by inaccuracies.

Out of all my leads I trust the president of the TCCSG most of all, and yet I still have questions. Why was the decision made to remove the link to this post after a year? What additional information did Carolyn Sullivan have access to to create the post quoted by cruelshoes? The post on the TCCSG does not provide all the information listed in the re-post by cruelshoes. Mary Guerriero was very helpful, and I suspect all I need to do is ask and my questions will be answered.

The bottom line
I tried the Sami’s Millet and Flax Bread and I loved it.

I had no reaction to eating it.

I also did not, and I would not eat it every day because I don’t think my body does well with refined carbohydrates, period. I’ve been living six years trying to be basically gluten-free and I know how I react to both small (was that a crumb of toast in the jam?) and large (you mean there was soy sauce in that?) amounts of contamination.

The advice of the President of the TCCSG is sound: “I think we, as gluten free, have many many choices out there now and I, for one, would not risk a product that wasn’t gluten free.” If I were newly diagnosed and trying to get gluten free, if I knew I reacted violently to the presence of gluten or if I knew I was particularly sensitive to gluten, I wouldn’t try Sami’s Millet and Flax Bread.

Email to Sami's Bakery Regarding Their Millet and Flax Seed Bread

from Marianne
date Tue, Jan 13, 2009 at 2:22 PM
subject A happy yet concerned customer

Dear People of Sami's Pita Bakery,

I want to thank you for making Millet and Flax Bread! As a baker who found herself needing to go wheat-free, for six years I despaired of finding a gluten-free / wheat-free bread that even remotely resembled the "real thing." When I tried yours, I was very impressed. I wanted to find out more about your products and your bakery, so I looked up "Sami's bakery" and "gluten free millet flax bread" online.

Are you aware of the debate and sometimes heated emotional controversy surrounding the Millet and Flax products? All of it seems to boil down to a R-Biophar Ridascreen Fast Gliadin test (in English: a test to find the presence of a protein found in gluten) done at the request of the Tri-County Celiac Support Group of Michigan ( ) by the University of Nebraska, Lincoln in 2007. ( and ). Less that 20 ppm is considered "gluten-free." The greater than 5000 ppm listed as a test result indicates more than accidental contamination.

Sami's Millet and Millet and Flax breads do not list any gluten-containing ingredients, but the label on the packaging clearly states that these products are made in a facility that processes wheat and may contain traces of wheat. Part of the issue may be that health food stores are labeling these items as "gluten free" and customers are accepting that at face value. I myself am torn; while I did not have a problem eating these products once a month, would daily ingestion make me ill? When your body is the test tube, "experimenting" with products that "might" be okay is not only uncomfortable, for some it's possibly dangerous. I have several questions which I think will address these concerns:

- How does the Millet and Millet and Flax bread products get that texture without wheat or yeast?
- Are there additional ingredients not listed on the packaging because they're not used in large enough quantities to require it?
- Does Sami's try to limit gluten / wheat contamination, and if so, how? Do they bake these products first thing in the morning, or have a different set of pans?
- Has Sami's ever tested the Millet or Millet and Flax products for wheat / gluten? Would Sami's be willing to have them tested and post the results on their web site?
- Would Sami's be willing to put an FAQ on their web site addressing consumers concerns? Would Sami's allow me to post their response on my blog, Café Tor? ( )

I think it's important to clear up these rumors and uncertainty so that people who have concerns about their diets get the information that they need. While I understand that Sami's bakery may not wish to answer all of these questions (people would love to have the exact recipe!), answering any of them would be most helpful in clearing up whether or not those who need to eat gluten free diets can safely eat Sami's Millet and Millet and Flax bread products.

Thank you so much for your time,
Marianne Richardson

Sami's Bakery did not respond.

Back to the original post.

Email Written to User "Cruelshoes" Regarding Sami's Bakery Products

from Marianne
to cruelshoes
date Mon, Jan 5, 2009 at 9:24 AM
subject Sami's Bread and the TCCSG


I am a blogger over at blog over at,
and I am looking for the user "cruelshoes" from the and forums. Is this perhaps you, or can you put me in
contact with this user?

The reason I am looking for this user is that, while doing some online
research about Sami's Bakery products ( ), I
came across a quote attributed to the President of the Tri-County
Celiac Support Group of Michigan which indicates that Sami's Bakery
products are NOT a good choice for someone trying to be gluten-free.
The quote can be found here ( ) and here
( ), both posted by
cruelshoes. I've searched the TCCSG site and I cannot find the test
results posted there. Where did the original quote about a test being
done come from?

I'd like to try to untangle the heated online thread about Sami's
products. I have no affiliation with Sami's Bakery. Although my HLA
tests are negative, I am a person who is 6 years gluten free and
healthier for it. I tried the Millet and Flax bread and liked it, but
I can't ignore the greater than 5000ppm gluten test results. Please
let me know if you have any information regarding this topic, and if
you are willing to allow me to post any response you might have.

Thank you,
Marianne Richardson

The user did not respond

Back to the original post.

Email Written to the Tri-County Celiac Support Group and Their Response

This is the email I wrote to the current president of the Tri-County Celiac Support Group, Susie Cattin:

from Marianne
to Susie Cattin
date Mon, Jan 5, 2009 at 9:28 AM
subject TCCSG ELISA test on Sami's Bakery products?

Dear Ms. Cattin,

Although my HLA tests are negative, I am a person who is 6 years gluten free and healthier for it. Still, a sandwich would be nice once in a while. While doing some online research about Sami’s Bakery products ( ) I came across a quote attributed to the President of the Tri-County Celiac Support Group of Michigan which indicates that Sami’s Bakery products are NOT a good choice for someone trying to remain gluten-free. The quote can be found here ( ) and here ( ), apparently posted by the same user.

Did the TCCSG ever do this test on Sami’s products? Are the results posted on the TCCSG site? I could not find them. In February 2008 you were not yet president, but do you know anything about this ELISA test? Would the TCCSG be willing to post it on their site?

I blog over at and I’d like to try to untangle the heated online thread about Sami’s products. I have no affiliation with Sami’s Bakery. I tried the Millet and Flax bread and liked it, but I can’t ignore the greater than 5000ppm gluten test results. Please let me know if you have any information regarding this topic, and if you are willing to allow me to post any response you might have on the Cafe Tor blog.

Thank You,
Marianne Richardson

However, Susie Cattin was not the president at the time the original post was written (2007), so she forwarded my email to Mary Guerriero:

from Mary Guerriero
Susie Cattan
date Sat, Jan 10, 2009 at 11:54 AM
subject Sami's bakery

Hi Marianne. My name is Mary Guerriero, past president of TCCSG in SE MI. I am the one who quoted the Un of Nebraska Lincoln, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Food Allergy Research & Research Program lab. We had a company that was, at that time, having their products tested also for gluten content, send these products to this lab. This was Feb 19, 2007. It was their results we went by, not ELISA. They are a research lab and have an extremely good reputation. At that time, there were 2 other companies that also had the products tested at different labs with the same results. I think we had the results on the website for over a yr and then chose to take it off. Didnt know this had come up as a topic again. I do not belong to the listserve and was asked by Carolyn Sullivan if she could post the results and told her absolutely. I think we, as gluten free, have many many choices out there now and I, for one, would not risk a product that wasnt gluten free. If you want a good sandwich, there are now many many gf products that are wonderful. I hope this answers your questions. Thanks so much. Mary

Back to the original post