Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Plot Thickens:
Is your Xanthan Gum as harmless as it appears?

If you've baked with gluten free flours for any length of time, you undoubtedly learned very quickly that they don't hold together in the same way that wheat flour does.

Despite the best of intentions, you really can't substitute a cup of rice flour for a cup of wheat flour to make a loaf of bread.  That certain something special will simply be missing.

Similarly, your favorite cookies may turn into a burned, crumbled mess!

The gluten in wheat is what binds doughs beautifully; it provides the sticky cohesion that bakers and chefs love so well.

In order to achieve the same effect with gluten free flours, resourceful gluten free bakers typically rely upon a well known food thickening agent called xanthan gum.  Adding this substance to batters and doughs helps create gluten free baked goods and treats with the perfect level of viscosity.  They hold together with style.

So, what's the catch?

It might not be time yet to bust out the theme music from the movie "Jaws"... but as it turns out, there is a lot you may not know about the xanthan gum in your cupboard or refrigerator.

Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide made from the coat of a tiny microorganism called Xanthomonas campestris. Companies like Bob's Red Mill make it by fermenting glucose, sucrose or lactose with this bacterium, and then use isopropyl alcohol to "precipitate" it from the growth medium.  It is later dried and ground into a powder. 

These companies use the xanthan gum powder in a wide variety of products.  It works as a thickener or stabilizer for a diverse range of products and needs ranging from ice cream to cosmetics to thickening mud for drilling.  Xanthan significantly increases the viscosity of liquids and in most foods it is used at a concentration of .5%.

Here's something important that food manufacturers don't really advertise about xanthan gum:

Your xanthan gum has the potential in itself to trigger allergic responses if you happen to be sensitive to its growth mediums.

Do you know what the growth mediums for xanthan gum ARE?  Do you?

Because until today, I didn't.

The growth mediums are:  CORN, DAIRY, WHEAT, SOY

Yes, that xanthan gum you're using in your gluten free baking may actually have been derived from WHEAT.

In fact, it probably is!

I called Bob's Red Mill today and spoke with a representative, because I wanted to make sure that the xanthan gum I use for my gluten free baking was not grown from a soy medium.  I have an allergy to soy that I try to be really respectful of, and I strictly avoid all possible exposure to soy.

Imagine my shock to hear straight from the representative,

"Oh no, you have nothing to worry about.  We don't use soy.  Our xanthan gum is created using wheat starch." 

Dumbfounded, I responded - "But, it's supposed to be gluten free! It says so right here on the package."

"Oh, by the time the bacteria has done its work there are zero wheat proteins remaining," he assured me. "We grow it from wheat starch but it is gluten free by the time it gets to you."

I wondered how he could be so sure.

The label on the bag of Bob's Red Mill gluten free xanthan gum states:

"Bob's Red Mill Products Labeled Gluten Free are batch tested in our quality control laboratory.  We use an ELISA Gluten Assay test to determine if a product is gluten free."  (Emphasis added.)

Which means, in sum, that Bob's Red Mill is deciding for itself if its products are actually gluten free.  There is no independent lab involved, no third party testing.

Here is a quote from AllAllergy.Net which sums up my concerns as a gluten free baker:

"In the U.S. there are 2 major suppliers of xanthan gum.  One uses soy as the fermentation medium while the other uses wheat.  Residual wheat gluten has been detected on the xanthan gum made on the wheat substrate."

If residual gluten has been detected in even *some* batches xanthan gum grown from the wheat starch medium, what guarantee is there that ALL packages of xanthan gum from any company - including Bob's Red Mill - are truly gluten-free?  How often are they actually batch testing?  Do they test every week?  Every month?  Once a year? 

More importantly... can folks with a heightened sensitivity to gluten REALLY rest assured that they will not have an allergic response to the xanthan gum that they are baking with?

If you suffer from a known allergy to gluten, corn, dairy or soy I highly recommend calling the manufacturer of the xanthan gum product you like to use in your baking to find out exactly what medium they are growing it from.

You might be shocked to discover, as I was, that your friendly little package of xanthan gum is actually grown from a product to which you are highly sensitive... and that the company itself is doing its own ELISA testing without an external quality control.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's All In The Family: Why A Rotation Diet
Might Help Prevent Food Allergies!

The Potato Family (Nightshades)
Did you know that it is possible to develop more and more food allergies over time?

I had no clue.

I learned about this in September 2010 when my allergy doctor (an internationally famous MD and chair of the department of Allergy and Immunology at our leading local hospital) ran a skin test on my back and cheerfully announced that I had developed a true allergy to soy along with milder IgE mediated reactions to rice, almonds and sesame seeds.


This news came as a real shock to me because I'd based much of my gluten-free diet for two years on rice and almond flour.

"But, I've never had a problem with rice before! Really! I've eaten it for nearly 34 years!  And almonds?  I *love* almonds!  I eat almond butter every day!"

"Well," he responded pleasantly, "We often crave the foods that we're allergic to. Why don't you try strictly avoiding these foods for a while and we can re-test you in the future to see if your body has resolved the issue. It's possible that in the future you'll be able to enjoy rice again."

Dumbfounded, I consulted a nutritionist friend.

"How is this possible?" I asked her.

"Most people today eat the same foods day after day," she said. "They get very little variety in their diet. Over time this can cause allergic reactions to foods that they once tolerated just fine. Even though eating the same foods repeatedly is just one cause of allergy, it is real. You should take his advice seriously."

This is how I first came to learn about rotation diets and food families.

* * *

If you've never heard of botanical food families before, you are not alone.

Foods are classified into different botanical food families. If you have an allergy to one member of a food family, it is quite possible that you may be reacting to other members of that food family too.

A common example would be someone with a cashew or pistachio allergy. They may also have problems with mangoes, which (surprisingly enough) turn out to be members of the cashew family as well.

Wisdom about which ingredients hail from the same families may have been common knowledge back in the days when the average family grew its own food, saved seeds and harvested their crops with pride. Families then knew much more about what appeared on their dinner tables.

These days, most of us in developed countries go to the grocery store to purchase our prepackaged, sanitized foods and produce that is flown in from all over the world. Unless you're buying organic, most vegetables are grown with pesticide and even genetically modified to create (for example) carrots or tomatoes that are all the exact same length, width and color. (They generally share the same lack of flavor too!)

Because we no longer need to rely on the growing seasons to provide us with certain staple foods, it is possible to purchase the same variety of apples to eat year-round. Folks aren't forced to vary their diets... they can just purchase apples or rice grown in some other part of the planet where the climate is just right for a harvest.

I've always been a creature of habit.

As a kid I ate the same lunch every day for a year and never got tired of it:

Ham and bean (canned) soup
Bread and butter
Celery with peanut butter
An apple
...and when I was really lucky, a cookie.

Knowing what I know now about food sensitivities and rotation, it's not particularly surprising that - especially given my intense love of cheese danishes and pasta with cheese over the course of three decades - I ended up with significant intolerances to wheat and most dairy.

* * *

So now that you understand food families and the need for variety, it's time to talk about rotation diets.

Foods in the same families may cause similar reactions in the gut.

For normal folks it takes FOUR days to completely "clear" a food they've eaten from their digestive tract. During those four days, the person's immune system may continue to react to foods they've eaten by generating antibodies or cell-based immune responses. This means their immune system is working overtime long after they've completely forgotten about eating the meal.

If you (or people you love) suffer from food sensitivities, you can go a long way toward managing sensitivities and intolerances by rotating your diet regularly. This means switching up the foods you eat so that you don't repeat them until you've completely cleared them from your digestive tract.

There are many benefits to a rotation diet.

First, by eliminating an entire food family for four days and then re-adding it, you may notice - perhaps for the first time - which foods or food families are truly causing symptoms.

"Wow, every time I eat potatoes or eggplant, I feel tired for the next two days!"

Next, when you become aware of your reactions to different foods, you can eliminate them for a few months and then re-add them after your immune system has had a chance to settle down. This significantly reduces your chance of becoming allergic to foods that you can currently eat without trouble.

The "settling" of the immune system (when a person becomes less sensitive over time to foods to which they were allergic) is commonly referred to by doctors as tolerance

Scientists are working hard to understand how tolerance develops with the goal of learning how to induce this state in patients.  Says John J. Oppenheimer, MD, of the UMD-NJ New Jersey Medical School in New Brunswick, "Why tolerance occurs is the million-dollar question in food allergy.  We are working on it."*

* * *

So how does this all look, in action?

Well... today's a "Pheasant Family" day in our kitchen.

I started out bright and early with a lovely farm fresh egg, sauteed in extra virgin olive oil.

Since I've already embarked on the pheasant path for the day, this means I can now also freely cook with chicken, peafowl, pheasant or quail. Maybe a lovely roasted chicken for dinner?

Tomorrow though, and actually for the next three days, I'll need to be mindful in the kitchen about these foods... and try hard to avoid them in the meals I prepare.

Of course, we won't just be eating eggs and chicken all day long today! I'll be selecting many diverse ingredients from other food families too.

Right now I'm hankering for a taste of the fresh, fragrant avocados sitting in the glass bowl on our counter. If I decide to go for it, to dive into one of those luscious ripe avocados... this opens my way today for the Laurel Family. Laurel Family members make wonderful spicing for tasty recipes. They include bay leaves, cinnamon and sassafras. From the bones of our roasted chicken, I could make a lovely chicken broth flavored with bay leaves!

Or perhaps, I'll dive into the Mustard Family. The options are virtually endless there: Brussels Sprouts, Collards, Kale, and Turnips to name a few. We could have roasted Brussels sprouts drizzled in olive oil and serve our roasted chicken on a bed of kale.

The main thing is awareness. If I KNOW that I'm going to want to make a special lasagna dinner with tomatoes and cheese tomorrow evening for my husband, I need to plan tomorrow's menu around the Potato and Bovine families.

This inspires me to think of appropriate breakfasts... potato hash with sauteed bison? Steak and potatoes? A protein-style hamburger and French fries for lunch? It's not that I'm eating less, or limiting my calories. I'm just keeping my meals "all in the family" for that day.

* * *

If you find yourself experiencing increasing food sensitivities and are considering a rotation diet, I highly recommend that you buy the book that helped me very much in the beginning of my experiments with rotating foods and understanding food families... "The Adaptation Diet". Its author, Dr. Charles Moss, is a practicing physician in La Jolla, California who treats patients with chronic, stress-induced problems using nutritional therapy and acupuncture. I met Dr. Moss in person once and he seemed like a very wise man.

I know it can seem overwhelming at first, but the benefits are real - and worthwhile.

After carefully avoiding soy, rice, nuts and sesame seeds for a full year, I was skin-tested again my my MD this past Fall.

"All of your skin reactions were less severe this time," he reported, "...and I'm glad to say you are now non-reactive to rice. It looks like that strict avoidance really helped you. Feel free to re-add rice to your diet in small amounts. I think you'll be fine."

* Oppenheimer quote was originally published in this WebMd article.

Monday, February 20, 2012

It Gets Better!

Gluten free.

The funny thing about living gluten free is that the process for me has been a lot like having kids.

When my husband and I welcomed our first child into the world nearly seven years ago, we couldn't believe how much harder parenthood was than it had looked. We were dumbfounded, exhausted, overwhelmed.

It took me at least a year to get the hang of being a new mom and at last fully let go of my former identity as a fun, energetic, spontaneous single girl.

When our second baby hit the scene, parenting started feeling a little less intense... because at least some of the time, my husband and I knew what we were doing. We'd dealt with fevers, tantrums, stitches, all-night-colic, stomach flus... we actually got to the point where we could change a diaper swiftly, with sterile finesse.

By the time our third (and final) baby joined the family, parenting small children had become second nature. She is nearly three years old now. A few weeks ago I laughingly asked my husband,

"Do you remember our life before kids?"

His reply was pretty simple: "No."

* * * * * *

Living gluten free has been sort of a parallel journey for me.

In 2007 when I first found out about my autoimmune thyroiditis and the relationship between autoimmunity and celiac disease, the notion of living gluten free was intense.

Give up wheat? (You mean, BREAD? PASTRY? PASTA!!!?) Live without soy sauce? Read the label of EVERY product I used in the kitchen? Learn to substitute strange flours, strange starches, and even the mysterious product known as xanthan gum?

Not only did this prospect in itself seem daunting but I had very little support for my sudden change in diet at home. My husband thought living gluten free was a fad, a phase... something that I would "grow out of". He mocked the naturopath who diagnosed my thyroiditis and recommended a lifelong gluten free diet.

Our families were even more perplexed, baffled by my abrupt dietary sea change. My mother had always known me as the girl who would cheerfully eat ANYTHING. I'd affectionately referred to myself as "a human garbage disposal" as a teen, happy to eat all leftovers, all snacks, all junk food.

(I was sinfully lucky, blessed in the 1990s with the kind of metabolism that would let me eat a pint of Ben n'Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream in one sitting without gaining an ounce.)

It took a long while and many patient explanations for our families to wrap their generous, loving, but baffled minds around the concept that this was a permanent change for me.

* * * * *

Starting to write this blog in 2008 made eating gluten free a lot more fun. Trying out new gluten free products was always an enjoyable treat, and more than anything I loved tinkering in the kitchen.

For someone who had never thought of herself much as a good cook, it was a true pleasure to discover that when I really put my mind to figuring out a recipe, interesting and positive things happened in my kitchen!

2009 - 2011 were truly challenging years... yet my gluten free diet remained a highlight. Something constantly positive to feel great about.

Four years after going gluten free, my family and friends have at last wholly accepted my choice and it is no longer a common discussion topic at group dinners. My husband automatically checks to make sure packaged foods are gluten-free before purchasing them for me. He now asks routinely waiters at restaurants about their gluten-free menu options.

Our growing children know more about gluten free eating than any of their friends or teachers... and I find that they've become very sensitive and considerate of the food allergies and intolerances faced by their classmates.

So here we are!

2012. Still gluten free.

And to be honest, living gluten free has become one of the easiest things I do.

* * * * *

I haven't posted recipes over the past two years because after my third pregnancy, I found myself navigating one serious health challenge after another. My body went to crazy-town.

Heart trouble. Esophagus trouble. More thyroid trouble. Spinal disc herniations. Chronic bacterial infections. Antibodies trending toward lupus. Multiple food allergies.

It's been quite a time.

Gluten free became the least of my dietary challenges.

Suddenly I had to avoid, um, EVERYTHING.

Dairy, Sugar, Soy, Sea Salt, Lemons, Nuts, Seeds, Shellfish, Ginger, Sulfites... even some favorite gluten-free grains like Amaranth and Quinoa which inexplicably began giving me hives and flushing.

With all the ups and downs I've stayed gluten free... followed an anti-inflammatory diet bordering on Paleo.

I still cook gluten free every day, still make two dinners every night - one for my family and one for me. Thankfully over time some of the more recent food intolerances have receded and my diet is a bit more 'normal', whatever that means.

* * * * * *

Through it all, high quality produce, grass-fed organic meats and wild-caught fish have been my solace.

"You Are What You Eat..." I still believe this.
"Life And Death Begin In The Gut..." I still believe this, too.

Food may not be the answer to ALL of my health problems; but I truly believe that the gluten free lifestyle has opened me up to an entire world of alternative healing options where on a daily basis I challenge truisms spouted by aging doctors and look to the Earth to find my medicine.

I've decided to pick up where I'd left off with this "Tasty... and Gluten Free" blog... and to really make something special out of it.

In my best dreams, I hope that my ongoing gluten free experiments, recipes, research and discoveries will help others who are also navigating the challenging long-term path of eating "differently" than everyone they know.

Wherever you are, and whomever you may be - I wish you the very best of good health... and a delicious dinner!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick Or Treat? Gluten Free Halloween

Happy Halloween!

A lot of parents must be scrambling right about now to figure out what to do for their gluten free kiddos.

"Do we take them Trick Or Treating?

Do we take them to a movie and avoid the holiday?"

How do you explain to your hyped-up four or six year old that they can't have all of the same candy treats that all of their friends will be enjoying at local pumpkin patches and carnivals?

* * *

My three children eat a 'normal' diet, whatever that means. However, four years later I still eat strictly gluten free despite my supposedly negative HLA-DQ tests.

I *feel* better gluten free. During the handful of months that I 'broke' my gluten free diet in 2010, my health plummeted rapidly with autoimmune symptoms abounding. It didn't take long for me to realize that whether or not I have a celiac diagnosis, I have a better quality of daily life when I am gluten free.

So, I'm still a gluten free lady... and a gluten free mom.

I'm lucky though because at the age of 35 it is pretty easy for me to 'deny' myself gluten-filled treats. (It doesn't feel like deprivation at all!)

When people ask me,

"How do you DO that? Don't you miss eating normally?"

I reply quite honestly, "I love feeling well, and any food that makes me feel terrible really isn't something I miss in the slightest."


It would be really different if I were a little kid.

* * *

One of my dear friends has a darling seven year old daughter that suffers from ulcerative colitis. To help heal her gut, she has been on a very intense "Specific Carbohydrate Diet" which eliminates all sugar, refined grains and starch from the diet. Her daughter has been on the diet now for over four years, and is absolutely thriving.

Halloween, birthday parties, classroom parties, spontaneous snacks - these are all really difficult for my friend to navigate for her daughter though.

For Halloween, my friend came up with something really ingenious that I thought was so great, I've been using it with my own children.

She allows her daughter to go Trick-Or-Treating with all of her friends, with the strict understanding that she will not eat the candy but rather bring it back home.

Once her little girl brings the candies home in her bucket, she and her mother make a celebration of counting them out. For every ten small candies her daughter collects, my friend gives her the choice of a small toy from a bucket of toys she has collected over the years from 99cent stores.

Her daughter is elated by the chance to earn so many toys in one evening! She loves Halloween because she still gets to enjoy the costumes and fun, without feeling left out. She still gets treasures. She just doesn't eat all of the candy.

(My friend also makes sure that she prepares all of her daughter's favorite 'desserts' such as almond flour banana bread and special yogurt... so that her tummy feels 'treated' as well.)

* * *

Even though my children do not have food allergies, I loved her idea so much that we have now implemented it now in our home for three years.

We take our three kids trick or treating and then trade them toys for their candies. I bake gluten free cookies to have on hand, with ice cream. They are thrilled about the fun, the toys and the dessert. In the end, they always forget about the candy.

Still... for those who really love Halloween candy and don't feel like trading Hot Wheels for Hershey's, here are some good resources to help gluten free families navigate their way through gluten free trick-or-treating:

National Foundation for Celiac Awareness
(thanks to Sure Foods Living)

Gluten Free Candy List 2011

2011 Gluten-Free Candy List

Gluten Free Candy, as of October 2011

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ridiculously Sweet Carob Cookies

A lot has happened since the last time I posted a recipe. Most relevant to the readers of this blog, I learned definitively that I do not have celiac disease, thanks to a panel of DNA blood tests that revealed I do not possess ANY of the genetic markers or subunits for celiac. The genes in question would have been located on the HLA class II-complex and are called DQ2 and DQ8 (plus their subunits).

The GI doctor that worked with me summed it up like this: "Given the results of your bloodwork, you have basically zero chance of developing celiac in your lifetime. You just don't have the genes for it." This, when backed up by the fact that my full celiac blood panel testing for antibodies had already been negative, was pretty conclusive. Said the GI doc, "Gluten is difficult to digest and you may be one of the many people for whom it causes irritable bowel symptoms, but you are definitely not a celiac."

With this information, my strict diet and lifestyle over the last three years came into question. I have spent the last several months meditating on my relationship with gluten and the gluten free diet... trying to figure out what feels best to my body, what I believe in, and what I should eat.

To be perfectly honest I have experimented and wheat doesn't taste very good to me any more. I've grown so accustomed to the flavors of tapioca, sorghum, rice, etc. that I have completely lost my palate for wheat. I just don't get the satisfaction out of a flour tortilla that I used to... what I've come to so far, is that even if I *can* eat gluten without damaging my gut, I really don't like it all that much. I actually prefer the taste of gluten free food.

On top of which, my nearly three year old child is still suffering from chronic gut problems and I feel compelled to create dairy, soy and gluten-free meals for him every day. So cooking without gluten will remain a way of life, at least for now.

My husband and I made the hard choice last night to try to cut all cane sugar, maple sugar and fruit out of our son's diet (in addition to the dairy, soy and gluten) for the next two weeks until we can at last meet with a pediatric GI. Our child has an incredible sweet tooth, and this may be a key to his problems. So today, after wracking my brains (and the internet) to find a recipe for cookies that would be free of gluten, dairy, soy and sugar (but still somehow yummy!) I came upon a recipe by Elana's Pantry for her scrumptious Chocolate Chip Cookies.

We've heard good things about carob and its effects upon the tummy, so I decided to adapt her recipe and create some almond carob cookies. OMG!!! You cannot even believe how sweet and decadent these morsels turned out to be. My main thoughts on the recipe at this point are that the cookies don't hold together as well when they are undercooked but they burn if overcooked, so you have to hit that timing sweet spot just right... in our oven, it turned out to be 9 minutes. Also, I recommend cooling the cookies completely before removing them from the parchment paper, so that they hold together well.

Sugar lovers will NEVER believe that there is no cane sugar in these cookies... they are the sweetest things I have ever tasted. You should have seen the look of bliss on our boy's little face as he took the first bite. Unforgettable.

Ridiculously Sweet Carob Cookies

What You'll Need...

1/2 bag dry roasted & salted almonds, finely ground (or, 2.5 cups of almond flour)
1/2 cup agave nectar
1/2 cup grapeseed oil (expeller pressed)
1/2 cup carob powder
1 tbsp vanilla
1/2 tsp baking soda
parchment paper and a cookie sheet

How It Works...

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cover cookie sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.

Using cuisinart or blender, grind your dry roasted salted almonds into a fine powder. Stop blending before the oil causes it to turn to almond butter. You can use a sifter if you want it to be finer. (Or, you may purchase blanched almond flour.)

In a large bowl, add 2.5 cups of almond flour to the agave nectar, grapeseed oil, vanilla and baking soda. Mix well. Finally, stir in the carob powder and mix for 60 seconds or longer to make sure all ingredients are well combined.

This dough will really spread on the sheet so using teaspoons drop small rounds onto your lined baking sheet leaving at least 1.5 inches space between each cookie. Our rounds were about 1 inch in diameter as dough, which formed cookies that were over three inches wide.

Bake for 8-10 minutes (in our oven, 9 seemed to work the best) until cookies are firm but not burned. Remove from oven and cool entire cookie sheet on rack until completely cool. Remove cookies when cool and enjoy! Just remember, a little goes a long way! These are the sweetest cookies I've ever eaten! They're also very light and soft.

Makes 18 - 24 cookies

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Green Bean Chicken

Perhaps it is not surprising that today after taking thyroid replacement hormone for the very first time I felt inspired and energetic enough to cook, photograph and write about a tasty gluten free meal for the first time in what feels like months.

Longtime readers of my blog know that I began to follow a strict gluten free diet two years ago when I was first diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease. Although there were many adjustments to make in a short time, living gluten free (and mostly dairy and sugar free) quickly became a beautiful part of my life and brought much health and joy to my family.

It only took about five to six months after going gluten free two years ago for my thyroid condition to resolve itself completely. I was also following a careful regimen of vitamin support and exercise in addition to the dietary changes, all under the supervision of a very caring and knowledgeable doctor. So I can’t guarantee that diet alone resolved my thyroid problem at the time, but I do know that I was able to get my TPO antibodies to drop from nearly 900 to 15 (normal range is <35). My TSH returned to the ideal zone, and I felt absolutely fantastic. I had well over a year of feeling absolutely amazing without medication, for which I remain so grateful. I don't think I'd felt that good since I was in high school!

Then, as I believe happens for nearly everyone at some point in their life, there came a full year of intense challenge and physical stress thanks to a high risk pregnancy and my father's death from Alzheimer's disease. After a few months of feeling pretty desperately awful postpartum I began to suspect that my symptoms went beyond typical childbirth recovery and that my thyroid problem had returned. Multiple blood tests have now confirmed that my Hashimoto’s has reactivated in full force – TPO antibodies have climbed into the thousands, I have a highly elevated TSH putting me just a breath away from full blown hypothyroidism.

As part of the new healing regimen involving bioidentical thyroid hormones, my doctor tested me again for food intolerances and has let me know that I now need to avoid corn and soy in addition to gluten and dairy. Also nightshade vegetables – especially tomatoes, and even bananas! Looks like I’ll be eating raw foods and baking a lot of bread from scratch as soy lecithin seems to be in just about everything we buy, including many of my favorite gluten free products.

You might think that I'd be discouraged by all this news... but actually, I feel fantastic! I'm so excited to begin again on the path to healing and so glad to know that there is a tangible cause behind all of the symptoms I've experienced for the past four months.

I’m sure it is literally too early to feel a beneficial effect from the vitamins and thyroid hormone that I ingested this morning, but somehow I had a lot more energy all day than I have experienced in a long while. For this reason, I decided to present for your dining pleasure one of our absolute favorite family recipes... Green Bean Chicken. A simple, hearty dish that will feed a family of four to six with ease! May it bring warmth to your stomach (and your heart) on this chilly December evening. As my health and energy continue to increase, I hope to be sharing more of our family favorites with you throughout the holiday season.

Green Bean Chicken

What You’ll Need...

Thinly sliced chicken breasts (approx 1 lb chicken)*
Long grain brown rice – 1.5 cups (although white rice is delicious too)
Chicken bouillon, 3 cups
3 shallots, thinly sliced
Garlic, 6-8 cloves
Several large handfuls fresh green beans (preferably organic)
Crimini mushrooms, 20 quartered or chopped into thick slices
Olive oil

Optional: replace 1 cup of bouillon for the rice with tomato sauce

*We also enjoy making this recipe with one lb of chicken thighs, although it is of course fattier and so less healthy

How It Works...

Heat a large glug of olive oil in a four quart saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. When oil is hot but not smoking, add thinly sliced shallots and saut̩ until they begin to caramelize. Next add chicken pieces (I cut up each thinly sliced breast into three equal portions) and sear both sides with the shallots, until the flesh is white on the outside but still pink in the middle. Add brown rice, bouillon and all whole (peeled) garlic cloves and bring to a boil. (If you are using tomato sauce with bouillon, add it now.) Once the liquid is boiling, add green beans (ends removed, remaining beans broken into 1 Р2 inch pieces) and all the quartered mushrooms. Dust with fresh ground pepper and salt to taste. Stir well with a wooden spoon a few times to completely integrate chicken, rice and vegetables as they boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 45 Р55 minutes or until rice is fluffy and soft and vegetables and meat are moist and cooked through. Chicken should be so soft it falls apart at the touch of a fork when finished.

Serves 4 – 6.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Spaghetti (Squash) with Meat Sauce

This recipe represents one more small step on my never-ending quest to feed my children and husband more healthfully. As I've mentioned before, as the resident chef here I walk a fine line between "healthy" and "too healthy". When any meal falls into what my children might qualify the "too healthy" category (meaning that they don't think it tastes delicious enough to merit the high vegetable intake) they will mainly push the food around on their plate a little before asking what else we have in the refrigerator.

Luckily, a mommy really can't go wrong with spaghetti. Whenever my kids ask me what we are having for dinner and I reply, "Pasta with red sauce", their little faces illuminate as though I have just told them that Santa Claus himself is coming to share the meal. There may well be many children out there that don't enjoy spaghetti, but in my house, it is an absolute favorite.

Thanks to this incredible good will in our home toward spaghetti I felt like I could experiment a little and push the envelope... so lately I've been working on this homemade ragout using spaghetti squash in lieu of pasta.

I hadn't really cooked much with spaghetti squash before. In general, I think I've always been a little intimidated by most winter squashes. Luckily my local grocery store places a little sticker on each squash with specific directions for how to cook it using either the conventional oven or a microwave. The first time I tried my hand at making a spaghetti squash, I definitely didn't cook it for long enough and so the threads of squash were more difficult to fork out of the rind and perhaps a bit too al dente.

My main advice with this recipe would be to make sure that you cook your spaghetti squash until the threads are soft and supple, and then be sure to saute them a little longer once you have combined them with your meat and vegetable sauce. I always know when I've cooked the spaghetti squash perfectly because my children don't ask me why their "pasta" is crunchy. (I think this is one occasion when it is definitely preferable to overcook rather than undercook the spaghetti!) When served fresh, warm and perhaps dusted with a bit of Parmesan cheese, this meal makes an ideal option for a truly heart-healthy yet traditional family meal.

Spaghetti (Squash) with Meat Sauce

What You'll Need:

1 spaghetti squash
2 tbsp grapeseed oil
1 lb lean ground beef
1 medium onion, minced
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 handfuls mushrooms, minced
3-4 small zucchini squash, minced
1/4 cup red Zinfandel
15 oz diced tomatoes
sea salt
fresh ground black pepper
Italian seasoning
garlic powder

How It Works:

With a cleaver or strong long-bladed knife, cut spaghetti squash in half width-wise. Place one-half of squash with cut end down in about 1/2 inch of water, in a glass dish. Cover with well with plastic wrap (so that plastic is well affixed to sides of the glass dish, creating a sort of air pocket all around the base of the squash). Microwave on high for about 12-14 minutes or until you can easily remove squash "spaghetti" strands from the rind with the tines of a fork. Repeat all steps with 2nd half of spaghetti squash. Pour squash spaghetti into a large bowl, cover it and set aside.


Pour grapeseed oil into the base of a large, deep saucepan and heat at a medium-high temperature. When oil is warm but not smoking, add ground beef and break up any chunks with a large wooden spoon. Stir beef while cooking, seasoning with salt, fresh ground pepper, garlic powder and Italian seasoning to taste. (I use about 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp ground pepper, 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning and 1/2 tsp garlic powder... but you should make it to suit your personal enjoyment and/or any health restrictions you may have.)

When meat has browned, remove it from the pan and place to the side in a separate bowl. Return your deep saucepan (with the same oil) to the stovetop burner and add minced onions. Saute for about two minutes, stirring constantly and then add garlic. Saute for another minute. When garlic smells fragrant (but has not burned), add the minced mushrooms and zucchini. (You may decide to add another glug of grapeseed oil at this point.) Combine everything well with your wooden spoon and then saute the vegetable mixture covered for 3-5 minutes. (Covering will release the moisture in the mushrooms and zucchini without drying them out.) Remove the cover, check your mixture. Stir, reduce temperature a bit and allow to continue sauteing over medium-low heat if the veggies seem too moist or raw.

When your vegetables have finished their dance in the saute pan, re-add the browned ground beef and combine well using the wooden spoon. Next add your diced tomatoes and stir them gently. Cook for the entire sauce for 2 minutes, and then add the zinfandel. Reduce heat to low, stir well, and allow to simmer uncovered. Simmer for a minimum of 10-15 minutes on low. Feel free to simmer longer, the flavor only gets more delicious with increased simmering.

As the time nears when you are ready to serve, add about 3/4 of your squash "spaghetti" strands into your meat sauce and combine everything on the stove over low heat for a few minutes to re-warm the squash strands and fuse all of the flavors together. (You may also prefer to serve the squash pasta as a "bed" with the sauce spooned gently onto its top.) If you enjoy cheese, try grating a bit of Parmesan cheese over the top of each plate before serving.

Serves 6. Just as delicious on the second day, makes great leftovers!