I am one of those people who can eat pretty much anything. That doesn’t mean I like everything. Corn on the cob is not my thing no matter how often other people urge me to give it a try. I have. It doesn’t do much for me. I am somehow managing to live a full and happy life in spite of it. But there are very few things I do enjoy that cause me any digestive issues, especially if I don’t go completely overboard. As in, I can eat Halloween candy, but I can’t eat all the Halloween candy at one sitting.

My husband, on the other hand, has to be careful about what he eats. Certain foods like dairy and tomato sauce have to be approached with caution. He has tried all sorts of different supplements and dietary solutions, from avoiding whole grains to only eating whole grains to going gluten-free. Some seemed to be helpful, others not so much, but in the end living life without pizza is just too sad so we’re not doing it.

Periodically I take to the internet anyway. Recently I did just that for an upcoming guest post I’m writing for another site when I came across the acronym FODMAP. Which stands for a very long term that I can’t even begin to prounounce. Suffice it to say it’s a group of certain kinds of carbs that nobody really digests all that well. However, some people are more irritated by them than others. Eliminating them seems to have helped many people like my husband who have digestive issues, but for whom testing has not produced any obvious cause.

FODMAP gluten celiac digestive issues IBS wheatApparently these FODMAPs may account for the growing number of cases of non-celiac gluten sensitivity. There is a lot of overlap between high FODMAP foods and foods that contain gluten. For instance, corn, potatoes, rice and quinoa are all low FODMAP foods and gluten-free. This may explain why many people who don’t have celiac disease notice that they feel better when they avoid gluten.

You can read more about FODMAPs here, here and here. Here’s what I found interesting: many of the high-FODMAP foods are foods that my husband avoids already because he has found them to cause tummy troubles. The other thing that is positive is that someone who reacts negatively to these carbs doesn’t necessarily need to eliminate them entirely. They can try eliminating all of them for a couple of weeks and then slowly introduce them back into their diet to see which ones, and in what quantity, they can tolerate. For many people having the occasional slice of pizza is fine. And if you have a flare-up you know what the likely culprits are. This isn’t a life sentence, it’s just information.

After doing all that reading I was excited and emailing my husband a bunch of links. Then I talked his ear off over dinner. Then I told my friend all about FODMAPs. My husband has spent a whole lifetime being poked and prodded and experimenting, though, so he was a lot more circumspect. I think he has just seen so many miracle solutions that were far less than miraculous. I understand that.

Food is a funny thing. Human beings, as omnivores, can choose such a varied diet. And in this day and age when pretty much everything is always available at the grocery store, the variety is even greater. Few of us are eating simply to live, or choosing our diets based on what’s available right now. We eat foods because we like them, because they connect us to each other, because of how they make us feel, because of what they cost. Our meals make personal and political statements. For people like me this means that choosing to be a vegan, or go paleo, or avoid sugar and caffeine, is entirely intellectual. We can make pretty much anything work.

When you have a history of having to be very careful, things are different. I’ve only experienced this second-hand, but I’ve seen it all the same. Comfort, nourishment and choice are all weightier things. Acronyms like FODMAPs start to blend together after a while, and it can all just feel like a lot of work. So I will print out the list and refer to it, but I won’t impose it on my husband the next time he just wants a burger. Or, at least, I will try not to.

Have you heard of FODMAPs? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with these tricky little carbs.

Ice Cream: The Pinnacle of Food Preservation

I am far from a strict locavore, but I do a lot of local eating, especially at this time of year. In fact, doing more local eating is my One Green Thing for July. In my quest to reduce my food miles I grow a garden, I belong to a local CSA program, I shop at my farmers’ market and I eat seasonally. I also preserve the harvest when it comes in. Each year I freeze, can and dry food to eat all year long.

While I enjoy all of the foods that I preserve, there’s one item that trumps them all, and that’s ice cream. In my mind homemade ice cream using local milk, cream and fruit is the height of local eating. If you ignore the sugar, it’s pretty much a health food, packed full of fresh berries (antioxidants!) and dairy (calcium!). While strawberry ice cream is probably the most classic flavour involving fruit I’ve also made raspberry, cherry (tip: get a cherry pitter) and blackberry ice cream with great results.

Homemade raspberry ice cream

To make my own homemade fruit ice cream I started with a generic strawberry ice cream recipe and tweaked it to suit my tastes. The result is an all-purpose formula that you can use with pretty much any kind of fruit. Once you’ve got it in your freezer it should last you for several months. So if you have a bumper crop of strawberries, make a couple of batches of ice cream and enjoy it all summer long. And if you need something to bring to a summer BBQ or pot luck, you can’t go wrong with a frozen dessert.

If you’d like to make your own ice cream this summer, I’m sharing my all-purpose recipe.

Blackberry ice cream

Amber’s All Purpose Fruit Ice Cream Recipe

* This recipe is always gluten-free!

3 cups fruit
1 1/4 – 1 3/4 cups sugar, to taste (the more tart the fruit, the more sugar I use)
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups milk
1 tablespoon vanilla

Wash your fruit, and slice it if required (I don’t slice raspberries or blackberries, I do slice cherries and strawberries). Add the sugar and stir well, then let it sit for 20 minutes. This will draw out the juices, and allow the sugar to dissolve nicely. Once the fruit and sugar have had a chance to sit together and make friends, mash it or run it quickly through a blender or food processor. Add the milk, cream and vanilla, stir well, and freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Yield: Approximately 2 quarts of ice cream.

Do you preserve any food? What’s your favourite method?

I was inspired to write this post by Abbie of Farmer’s Daughter, who is hosting this month’s Green Moms Carnival on food independence. If you want lots of other ideas for local eating, visit her site on July 17.

The Simplicity of Flour

Once upon a time, flour was easy for me. I bought it at the grocery store, and the only choice I had to make was unbleached or whole wheat, or maybe if I was feeling really fancy pastry flour. I used it liberally, and didn’t think too much about it, or where it came from.

After I became interested in local eating, my approach to flour changed. I started looking for flour made from grain that was grown here in the Vancouver area. Eventually, I found it. Once I did, flour was once again simple. I just had to make an annual trip to pick up my share, and I was set.

Future bread
My 2010 Flour

Things became increasingly complicated for me, flour-wise, when I decided to go gluten-free. Flour is generally considered to be synonymous with wheat flour. When a recipe calls for two cups of flour, for example, you can pretty much assume they’re not talking about sorghum or quinoa flour.

It’s possible to mix up gluten-free flour blends that approximate wheat flour. With the addition of xantham or guar gum you can more or less substitute them directly for wheat flour, for pretty much anything except bread. Gluten-free bread is a different animal, and you can’t make it the same way you can make wheat bread. But cakes, cookies, pie crust, muffins and a whole lot of other things are, thankfully, much easier.

Jacob spilled flour and rolled in it
Jacob loves flour!

My first gluten-free flour was a pre-mixed all-purpose blend from Bob’s Red Mill. It had a lot of chickpea flour in it, which made it taste sort of like beans. I wasn’t a huge fan. I decided that I could make a blend myself, after finding a recipe online. I stocked up on a bunch of very expensive gluten-free flours, and got creative. I mixed many, many different kinds of flours and starches together to make my all-purpose flour blend. Quinoa flour. Corn flour. Potato starch. Corn starch. Sorghum flour. Buckwheat flour. Brown rice flour. Sweet white rice flour. Tapioca starch. So many kinds. The results were underwhelming.

Finally, it occurred to me that maybe the best thing was to stop trying to be so fancy. So I did. Now I use a light buckwheat flour to make pancakes or waffles, but for everything else I use this basic flour blend:

Amber’s Gluten-Free Flour Blend

1 part millet flour
1 part brown rice flour
1 part potato starch

See? Simple.

Mixing up a flour blend adds an extra step that I didn’t have to deal with when I ate wheat flour. But once it’s mixed up in a big jar in my kitchen, this flour blend makes baking easy again. Flour is, once again, just flour. No overthinking. No fancy-pants, complicated blends. Just flour.

Sometimes, I guess, it’s best not to make things too hard for yourself. I suppose that’s true whether you’re baking or doing most anything else. Don’t you think so?

Cinnamon Ice Cream

When I was in Victoria for my weekend escape with Amanda, I sampled some cinnamon ice cream. It was delicious, and I wanted more. This is when it occurred to me that I own an ice cream maker. I decided that it couldn’t be that hard to make cinnamon ice cream, so I set about searching for a recipe. I found turned several, but they all contained eggs. I have this thing against custard ice creams. They require planning, because you need to cook up the recipe in advance, and let it cool. Plus, I prefer the cleaner taste that you get without eggs. So I decided to improvise a little bit, and create my own recipe.

Cinnamon ice cream close-up

I have a standard ice cream base recipe that I use, so I prepared that then reverted to the tried-and-true method of adding a little bit of cinnamon and tasting it, then adding a little more and tasting it again. My result has a hint of heat, but not too much. Both of my kids refuse to eat anything spicy, and they enjoyed it. The creamy coolness of the ice cream creates a nice juxtaposition. I’m a fan, and this is my new favourite flavour. Plus, it’s totally gluten-free, so there’s that.

Cinnamon ice cream

Amber’s Cinnamon Ice Cream

* This recipe is always gluten-free!

2 1/2 c cream
2 c milk
1 c sugar
3 t cinnamon, or to taste
1 t vanilla

Mix all ingredients together in a big bowl, and stir with a whisk for two or three minutes, until the sugar is dissolved. This keeps your ice cream from being gritty.

Prepare the ice cream following the directions on your ice cream maker. In mine, which is a counter top electrical machine with a freezer bowl, it took about 25 minutes. Once it’s reached the desired consistency, serve it up and freeze the rest.

Yield: Approximately 2 quarts of ice cream.

This past weekend I updated my recipes, which you can find on my Making Stuff page. I added gluten-free adaptions for most of the recipes listed there. If you have a hankering for some homemade chocolate chip cookies or macaroni and cheese, gluten-free or not, I’ve hooked you up. It’s comfort food for the masses, whatever your stance on wheat.

Have you ever sampled a food on vacation that was so good you had to try to make it yourself at home? How did it go? Tell me all about it!

Gluten-Free Cooking for the Lazy: My Tips

I do not consider myself a foodie or a gourmet. I like to eat food, I like to cook food, but the reality is that I’m not that creative. I follow basic recipes, I prepare mostly simple meals, and I eat the same foods often. In fact, in university, my roommates often commented on just how much pasta I ate. I would make a big batch and then have the leftovers for days. It saved me from having to cook as much, and the repetition didn’t bother me at all. Plus, pasta is yummy.

When my husband Jon went gluten-free to help his irritable bowel syndrome (it worked) and I followed after discovering that I feel better when I don’t eat gluten, it challenged my cooking habits. If I couldn’t eat pasta, bread or baked goods, how would I survive? There was a whole lot of melodrama for about 15 minutes, before I discovered that eating gluten-free really isn’t all that hard. Here are my tips for lazy gluten-free cooking.

Tips for Gluten-Free Cooking

  1. Stick to basics you already eat. Corn, rice and potatoes are all gluten-free. So is oatmeal, if you buy the right kind. Meat, dairy, beans, veggies and fruit are gluten-free, as well. This means you can eat mashed potatoes, nachos, steak, scrambled eggs, homemade granola and a whole lot of Asian cuisine. Eating foods that are naturally gluten-free is cheaper, and most of the time it’s more satisfying, because it doesn’t feel as if it’s missing anything.
  2. Keep quick meals and snacks on hand. I am currently buying a lot of hummus, cheese and tortilla chips. I also always have rice cakes and peanut butter on hand for a quick and easy snack. If you’re changing your diet in a big way, make it easy on yourself. You don’t want to have to spend a long time preparing every bite you put in your mouth – sometimes you just want a quick fix.
  3. Most baked goods are fine without gluten. I mix up an all-purpose gluten-free flour blend using Gluten Free Girl’s instructions. This works for most of the foods I make – chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, pancakes, waffles and pizza dough. I do use xantham or guar gum in most baking, because I find that it makes the finished product less crumbly, but otherwise I substitute my flour blend for regular flour and most people don’t even notice the difference.
  4. Accept gluten-free bread for what it is. Yeast breads are the one thing that really can’t be replicated without gluten. Gluten-free bread is expensive, small, and disappointing at first. If you’re expecting regular bread, well, it’s just not regular bread. I avoided it altogether for the first two months. Now I’ve gone long enough without regular bread that I’ll eat it in a grilled cheese sandwich or something similar and I enjoy it, because I’m not expecting it to be something it isn’t.
  5. Choose your pasta wisely. I’ve had good luck with corn pasta, and Tinkyada rice pasta. Other rice pastas I’ve tried were really mushy on the outside and hard and chewy on the inside. Look for recommendations, follow the directions exactly, and choose recipes with flavourful sauces. This pasta doesn’t stand on its own in the same way that wheat pasta does, so consider it a vehicle for other flavours. My gluten-free lasagna was great, though, thanks for asking.
  6. Surf gluten-free recipes. I’m one of those people who bookmarks recipes I plan to cook someday, even though I know that someday rarely comes. By searching out gluten-free recipes I’m reinforcing that there are lots of things that I really can still eat, and picking up useful tips. Plus, really, who wouldn’t love homemade oreos? There’s so much great food that doesn’t need gluten – explore it!
  7. Don’t go overboard buying gluten-free food. On my first post-wheat shopping trip I wanted to put every single gluten-free item in my cart. Cookies, crackers, pasta, bagels, waffles, donuts, you name it. Never mind that I hadn’t eat a regular bagel in years, I was going to buy the gluten-free kind. I also bought at least a half-dozen different kinds of gluten-free flour. This is expensive (those bagels were something like $6 for a four pack), and you’ll end up with a bunch of stuff you won’t finish. It’s exciting to find food you can actually eat when you give up wheat, but don’t let it go to your head.
  8. Find some gluten-free restaurant options. Sometimes you just want to order pizza, or pick up some takeout. Being gluten-free limits your options. So do a little legwork, and find a few local restaurants that will work. Indian and Thai food is often gluten-free. So is most sushi, provided that you use gluten-free soy sauce. Also, lots of pizza places offer a gluten-free version now. If you track them down, you’ll be able to take a night off from cooking now and then when you’re just not up to it.

It can take a little while to get used to the idea that your diet has changed. I think it’s important to allow yourself the space to mourn a little, while keeping in mind what you’re doing and why. After not too long you’ll adjust to your new reality, and you won’t feel as if you’re missing anything. After all, there’s still far more food that you can eat, than food that you can’t eat.

Have you ever given up gluten – or dairy or meat or some other staple food? How did you cope with the change? I’d love to hear your tips, too!

Give us this Day

Give us this day our daily bread…

Last month I wrote about my husband Jon’s decision to try a gluten-free diet. At the time, I wrote, “I don’t personally believe that gluten is bad for everyone. Most of us can eat it without consequences.” I would have agreed with Michael Pollan’s take, published a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times Magazine. When asked what he thought of gluten-free diets, he answered, in part, “Could it really be that bread, a staple of Western civilization for 6,000 years, is suddenly making millions of us sick? I’m dubious.” It just seemed far-fetched to me that a food that so many of us consume on a daily basis was evil.

'Local' bread close-up

In contrast to my husband, who has always had what he calls a bad gut, I’ve always had a stomach of iron. Other than morning sickness related to pregnancy, and the occasional case of the flu, I can eat pretty much whatever I want without consequences. As Jon gave up bread, and I started preparing gluten-free food for him, I gleefully noshed on full-octane pizza dough and took my daughter out for burgers. But then I had a strange experience, pretty much from out of the blue.

After not consuming gluten for about three days because I was eating with my husband, I met a friend for coffee and ate a cookie. In fact, it was one of the homemade oreos I immortalized in my post about working from a local café. It was good – every bit as good as I remembered. But within an hour or so of eating it I felt bad. I felt bloated and a little nauseous and just generally not good, and the next day I had a mild digestive upset. It wasn’t anything major, but it surprised me, because of me belief that I can eat anything.

I get a cookie to go

Since we were already mostly gluten-free at home, I decided to try going gluten-free for a few weeks myself, and then I bought a lovely loaf of locally-made organic sourdough bread. I thought maybe the cookie reaction was a one-off, or it was caused by all that sugar and fat, so I needed another data point. I am engineer, after all. Bread in hand, I sat down to a lunch of soup and half a loaf of sourdough. And man, did that bread taste good, all covered in butter. I ate it with relish. And then, about an hour later, I felt crappy.

I honestly don’t know what I’m reacting to – whether it’s actually gluten, or wheat specifically, or white flour, or what. I’m also fairly certain that if I started eating it again that I would stop noticing that crappy feeling within a couple of days. But I’ve noticed some positive side effects since I’ve gone off gluten, which make me inclined to stay off of it. For one thing, like Jon my sinuses are clearer now than they were. For another, my skin is also noticeably clearer. I don’t have Celiac disease, and my reaction to gluten is hardly life-threatening, but I also don’t think it’s all in my head, especially because I was never expecting this.

Successful sourdough

For the time being, the kids are still eating gluten. I’ve toyed with the idea of clearing it out of their diets to see what happens, but the truth is that I’m just not ready to make this kind of decision on their behalf. They’re not displaying any obvious signs of distress on their current diet, and asking them to give up wheat would be a big deal.

For instance, Hannah went to a birthday party just this past weekend and ate vast quantities of pizza and cake. If I were clearing gluten out of her diet I would have to provide alternative food for her to eat. And sometimes she would find herself in the position of having to abstain from having a treat the rest of her class got to enjoy, if I didn’t happen to get a heads-up that a mom was bringing in birthday cupcakes. It would be inconvenient for me, yes, but more to the point it would be a big sacrifice for a six-year-old to make. If she had serious allergies we would do it in a heartbeat, but she doesn’t, so imposing dietary restrictions feels extreme.

Milk and cookies for cranky children

I honestly don’t know how long I’ll remain gluten-free. Right now it’s working for me, and I’m mostly okay with it, although I do have my moments. I can bake gluten-free cookies and gluten-free cake and gluten-free banana bread and they’re all great, but gluten-free bread is never the same as actual bread. And when I bought two boxes of Girl Guide cookies out of habit and then realized I couldn’t eat them, I may have cried a little. But I’m committed, and I’m an adult, so I’m sticking with it for now, even though those Girl Guide cookies do look awfully good.

Have you ever given up gluten, dairy, sugar, meat or something similar? What was it like? And what would it take for you to try eliminating gluten from your own diet? I’d love to hear!

Going Gluten-Free

My husband Jon has always had what he calls a bad gut. His mother says that his digestive issues started at around age three, and he’s been plagued by them ever since. There have been times when Jon’s digestive issues were milder or more severe. Sometimes there were obvious triggers that set off a particularly rough patch – like undertaking massive renovations to our house, and all of the associated expense, work and stress. But through all the ups and downs, he’s always had a touchy stomach.

IBS Diagnosis

Over the course of his life, Jon has undergone a whole lot of diagnostic tests and seen a whole lot of specialists. He’s seen family doctors, gastroenterologists, allergists, dietitians, psychologists and alternative health care providers. He’s taken various medications, exercised, worked on his mental health, kept food journals, read books and adhered to special diets. Some of it seemed to help for a time, but none of it really solved his problem.

Since no obvious cause could be found for Jon’s stomach issues, he was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS. As I understand it, this diagnosis means that you regularly suffer from lower abdominal pain associated with diarrhea or constipation, but that no physical cause can be found. People with IBS are often told that it’s “all in their head” – or at least made to feel that’s the case – because nobody can identify a clear reason for their digestive issues.

Suspecting Celiac Disease

At one point about eight years ago I read about Celiac Disease, and recognized some of the symptoms from my daily life with my husband. Jon went for a blood test, and his test can back negative, which was both a relief and a disappointment. It was a relief because I was concerned that removing gluten from our diet would be hard, and a disappointment because it would have provided both an explanation and a solution. At no point, though, did we actually try eliminating gluten.

The past few months have been hard on Jon, for a number of reasons, so his IBS has flared up. We were out of ideas for what to do about it, though. And then about a month ago I was on a playdate and my friend Roxanna made an offhand comment about how diet can affect us. I was in the middle of my two weeks sugar-free at the time, so I was going through a dietary experiment of my own. This meant that I was in a place where I could see that eliminating certain foods may be difficult, but it’s also totally do-able if you’re motivated enough. I thought maybe it would be worth experimenting with some dietary changes to see if it helped Jon’s IBS symptoms.

Going Gluten-Free

I did some reading, and found some more information on gluten sensitivity, and proposed to Jon that he try going gluten-free. While he did have a negative blood test, there is increasing evidence that some people are sensitive to gluten, even if they don’t have a Celiac diagnosis. So he committed to going gluten-free for two weeks to see what effect it would have, and I (mostly) joined him.

We are now past the two week mark and it has made a definite difference for Jon. His digestive issues have significantly improved. He’s even noticed that his sinuses cleared up. For my part, I’ve found gluten-free cooking is far easier than I anticipated. Since potatoes, corn and rice are all gluten-free, dinner is really quite easy. My first experiments in gluten-free baking – chocolate chip cookies and brownies – worked out beautifully. My kids can’t get enough of them, and I’m honestly not sure you could tell the difference if you didn’t know. That’s all positive.

Of course, there are some sacrifices in going gluten-free. There are fewer convenience foods that Jon can eat, and we can’t just call up and order pizza or run through a drive-through. Gluten-free baked goods and baking supplies are more expensive and harder to find. But really, we can do this.

Hoping for Continued Improvement

Going off gluten hasn’t completely solved all of Jon’s problems, but we’re still the relatively early days. Many people report that it takes weeks or months for all symptoms of gluten sensitivity to clear. Perhaps a month or two from now we’ll be saying that it really is a miracle cure. All that I know for sure is that right now, for Jon, the slight inconvenience of going gluten-free is outweighed by the noticeable improvement in how he feels. He doesn’t need a diagnosis, he has personal evidence.

The kids and I still eat gluten, mostly because of the cost of gluten-free. By reserving the really expensive bread for the person who needs it, we can reduce the expense. Plus, I don’t personally believe that gluten is bad for everyone. Most of us can eat it without consequences. But for those who can’t, I think it’s really unfortunate that they can go decades without realizing that it’s causing them so many problems. Hopefully, as the research advances and more people go gluten-free, we’ll have the tools and the awareness to pinpoint gluten sensitivity earlier, so that people don’t suffer unnecessarily for so long.

Now, I’d love to hear from you. I’m still in the early days of gluten-free cooking and shopping, so if you have any tips on how to make it work, I’d love to hear from you! I’m also curious as to whether or not you would ever try giving up gluten. What would it take for you to pass up the French bread and opt for the rice crackers instead?

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