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Mrs. Renfro’s Salsa

Posted: May 21st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Food Reviews | Tags: , | Comments Off on Mrs. Renfro’s Salsa

Ghost Pepper SalsaTortilla chips and salsa are a food combination which should always be safe for those of us with celiac disease, but which sadly often aren’t. I’ve run into tortilla chips that actually include flour in their ingredients. Even if they don’t, some of them are processed on production lines with wheat-containing products and are cross-contaminated. In restaurants, fresh tortilla chips are often fried in the same fryer as gluten containing dishes. It’s not terribly difficult finding a gluten free tortilla chip, but normal care must still be taken.

The same thing is true with salsa. And just because a product is a higher end product does not automatically mean it’s safe. I remember picking up an expensive fresh salsa refrigerated in the produce section and discovering it included wheat flour in its ingredients. There are, however, quite a few salsas that are gluten free and safe. Over the years since our diagnosis our family has gradually drifted toward Mrs. Renfro’s.

Mrs. Renfro’s salsas are all gluten free (at least every one I’ve ever purchased). They have a broad variety as well. My daughter generally likes the peach salsa (and I see they have a pineapple salsa now, so I’ll have to find that one for her). My son likes the jalapeno green salsa, especially on eggs. I like them all, but particularly enjoy their habanero salsa.

As far as the ghost pepper salsa pictured in this post? Yes, I’ve bought it a number of times and do recommend it. I enjoy its flavor and its heat, at least in moderation. Sometimes very hot foods can become unpleasantly bitter, but Mrs. Renfro’s Ghost Pepper Salsa does not suffer from that flaw. However, it is quite hot. If you don’t enjoy foods at that end of the spectrum, stick to their milder salsas.


Joe’s Crab Shack

Posted: May 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Joe’s Crab Shack

Joe's Crab ShackPeace, love, and crabs, baby!

My wife loves crab legs (though she usually buys and steams them herself) and BC (before celiac) we used to head over to Joe’s Crab Shack at least a few times a year. It’s pretty good for a big chain and the atmosphere is always a lot of fun. I don’t believe we had been back since I was diagnosed with celiac disease, though. It just never came up on my radar as I was learning how to eat (and eat out) gluten free.

Recently, however, a friend of my wife wanted to meet her there for lunch along with the daughters. They’ve been friends since both were pregnant, so the two girls have known each other their whole lives. In fact, the girls used to play together in the sandy play area at Joe’s while the Moms hung out and talked. (Obviously, that was before they were teens.)

As my daughter also has celiac disease, I naturally checked the restaurant beforehand and yes, Joe’s has a gluten free menu. My wife and daughter enjoyed their visit, so a few weeks later, we decided to make it a family outing. Many of their buckets and steampots are gluten free. I decided to try the Orleans, since it’s been a long time since my last crawfish boil. (I was born in Louisiana after all. And yes, I do suck the heads.) So, what was my verdict?

The crawfish were well-spiced, but under the spicing the tail meat seemed pretty bland to me. I’m not sure why, exactly, but they weren’t bad — just not great. The sausage, potatoes, and corn were all quite yummy. The shrimp were horrible — probably overcooked as they typically take much less time to cook than everything else in the pot. (And my wife confirmed my opinion on the shrimp, so it wasn’t just my tastebuds.) But I didn’t order the dish for the shrimp, so I didn’t really miss them at all.

My wife and daughter had snow crab buckets. I tasted a bit of the crab and it was quite good. They both certainly enjoyed their meal.

Joe’s definitely has some good gluten free options. It helps, I suppose, that their signature dishes are composed of food that’s naturally gluten free and tends to be best prepared in a gluten free manner anyway. Joe’s gets a definite thumbs up from us. It’s true they are a chain restaurant, but they are one of the decent ones.


Mama Fu’s

Posted: May 7th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Mama Fu’s

Mama Fu’s is a restaurant I had seen on a number of local gluten free restaurant lists for years, but had never visited. We recently watched the release of Titanic in 3D (which was fun) and happened to be near one of the local restaurants and decided to give it a try.

Chinese and Asian restaurants where we can safely eat are few and far between. Most soy sauce is fermented with wheat and soy sauce tends to be everywhere in an Asian restaurant. There’s Pei Wei and PF Chang’s, of course. And there are higher end local restaurants like Uchi’s (which is really more Japanese). But the options are pretty limited.

Their gluten free guide contains a note that not all locations outside Texas have the gluten free sauce, so check first if you live in another state with a Mama Fu’s.

The food was decent. I wouldn’t call it great, but it was pretty good and as far as my daughter and I could tell it was safe. Neither of us got noticeably sick, anyway. And it was reasonably quick, convenient, and not too expensive. I got what was listed on the menu as one of the spiciest dishes and found it somewhat bland personally. But then, I tend to like spicy things.

So if we’re out doing something and need to go grab a bite to eat somewhere, Mama Fu’s definitely makes the list of options.


Maudie’s Tex-Mex

Posted: April 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Maudie’s Tex-Mex

For my birthday, we finally tried Maudie’s Tex-Mex. I’ve heard about Maudie’s for years, of course, but with all the excellent Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants across Austin, had never actually been. Now that my younger kids and I are diagnosed with celiac disease, our options for Mexican food are somewhat more constrained. Some places, like Chuy’s, use beer to marinade all their meat. Other places make flour and corn tortillas on the same surfaces at pretty much the same time. And some use flour to thicken their sauces. As with most other sorts of restaurants, it’s become a minefield.

Maudie’s, though, stands out from the crowd with its gluten free options. It started as soon as we walked in and my daughter and I said we needed a gluten free menu. The waitress immediately told us the tortilla chips weren’t safe as they were fried in the same oil as gluten containing dishes. She brought us gluten free tortilla chips (still in a sealed plastic bag) and our own salsa so there would be no cross-contamination from dipping in the same dish. I was impressed that she did all that without any questions or requests from us. That’s a level of knowledge and care we don’t often encounter.

Their gluten free menu is also a pleasant change. Often, the gluten free menu at a restaurant is really a cross-reference to their main menu listing the dishes (often with modifications) from the main menu that are safe to eat. In order to get a full description of the dish and the price, you have to jump back and forth between the regular menu and the gluten free menu. At Maudie’s, the gluten free menu is self-contained. It describes the dishes and gives the price. It’s a complete menu and you don’t have to refer back to the regular menu at all. That may seem like a small thing, but it really means a lot.

The food was outstanding. My daughter got her usual cheese enchiladas. My wife got some taco plate with gluten-filled flour tortilla tacos. It was my birthday, so I got the grilled chipotle shrimp. They were served fajita style with corn tortillas and were absolutely delicious! I loved the sliced serrano peppers sauteed along with the onions and bell peppers. That was a nice touch.

Maudie’s goes on our relatively short list of safe and fun places to eat — places where you don’t have to think too much about having celiac disease or worry about the food.


Gluten Free Chili and Cornbread

Posted: April 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Personal | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Gluten Free Chili and Cornbread

Gluten Free Chili and Cornbread

This isn’t a recipe site and I don’t plan to turn it into one. But as I was cooking this past weekend, it occurred to me that this would make a good dish through which I could explore the way I approach meals and cooking in general and some of the specific ways we’ve adapted dishes to be gluten free. So I’m not going to write this up as a recipe, but there will be a couple of pretty decent recipes embedded in this post if you care to extract them from the text and write them down on recipes cards yourself. If not, I hope you’ll enjoy the post anyway.

Chili, of course, is everywhere in Texas and everyone has their own recipe. It’s also a dish that’s easy to make gluten free. Many chili recipes are gluten free without any adaptation. Many others only require slight adaptation.

I started developing my own chili recipe in my early twenties. I used a fusion of techniques and spicing, primarily Southwestern and Indian, I had learned from my Dad growing up. And I developed a few wrinkles of my own through trial and error. I never had a recipe for it or exact measurements, so it was a little different every time I made it. My father and some of my friends at the time loved it, but many others found it too hot. (The chili had both an up-front heat and a cumulative, developing heat that snuck up on you.) In particular, my kids wouldn’t eat it, so I gradually quit making chili much at all.

My wife, however, loved a good Texas red with a bite, but not overpoweringly hot, so she kept looking for a good recipe. One day, she stumbled across one in our local supermarket that looked easy to adapt into a chili like the ones she preferred. She gave it a whirl and it turned out pretty delicious. She tweaked it a bit until it was pitch perfect. And the kids liked it too (especially with a lot of cheese)! I pretty much follow her recipe, though I do tweak it just a bit. It’s a fun and simple recipe that produces a reliably yummy chili.

Start by browning a couple of pounds of ground beef. These days, with our increased awareness about what we eat, we prefer lean, organic, grass-fed ground beef, but any ground beef will work. When the ground beef is browned, drain it and set it aside for later. (If you have Yorkies you tend to spoil, set aside a little of the ground beef for them.)

While the ground beef is cooking in a large skillet, add a pound and a half to two pounds of diced beef cubes (about 3/8 inch or so) to a large pot. (We generally use one of our ceramic coated, cast iron dutch ovens.) Finely diced stew meat will work. Or you can pick your preferred cut of beef and dice it yourself.

Chop a medium to large onion. I’ll use different onions according to my mood. A white onion will give the chili a slightly sharper bite. A lot of the time I’ll use a yellow onion because I like them. When they are in season a Texas 1015 onion can provide a delicious change of pace. Add the onion to the pot.

Then seed and finely dice your fresh chiles. What chiles should you use? Well, that’s according to the flavor you want. Definitely include a larger chile. Most of the time I use a poblano, but a large ancho or, in season, a roasted hatch green chile or two are good alternatives. You always need 1-2 jalapenos for their distinctive flavor. Beyond that, use whatever chiles you like. I’ll sometimes dice up a serrano or two. We almost never have fresh cayenne peppers here, but I would love to try one or two in this chili some day. Some chile pequins could be nice. Really, just use the chiles you like. The ones you pick will shape the flavor of the end result. Toss the finely diced chiles into the pot.

Crush or mince at least six large cloves of garlic and add them to the pot. Really, you can put in just about as much garlic as you like. We like garlic, so we never go easy on it.

Cook the beef cubes, onion, chiles, and garlic mixture on medium-high heat until the beef is no longer pink. You’ll know when it’s ready for the next step.

Add the ground beef to the pot and add the spices. The spices include 2-4 teaspoons each of salt, black pepper, and cumin. Throw in half a teaspoon or so of ground cayenne pepper (assuming you didn’t have any fresh ones available for the step above). Cayenne’s a moderately hot pepper, so adjust according to your tolerance. And then add 3-5 tablespoons of chili powder. I suppose in some parts of the country, you pretty much only have the generic chili powder blend in a bottle. Here, though, we rarely have fewer than two chili powder blends in the bulk spices at any of our grocery stores. The chili in the picture above was made with a San Antonio fiesta chili powder. The chili powder used will, of course, influence the final flavor of the chili. Stir to combine without removing the pot from the heat.

Stir in tomatoes. Personally, I like to use a large can (30 oz. or so) of organic crushed tomatoes and a medium can (15 oz. or so) of organic tomato sauce. I also like chunks of tomato in my chili, so I usually add a can of organic diced tomatoes. (You can chop up fresh tomatoes as long as you recognize that will extend the cooking time.) If you want your chili without those chunks of tomatoes, it’s perfectly okay to skip them.

Purists will insist that a Texas red has no beans. Beans, if provided, are to be served on the side. My wife and I both like beans in our chili, so we thumb our noses at the purists and make our chili the way we like it. We both tend to like black beans, so we’ll normally throw in a can of drained black beans. (Or add some fresh cooked ones, but we don’t make beans from scratch all that often.)

Finally, add enough liquid to reach the desired consistency. Usually that’s going to be about 1-3 cups. (This is a part I always just eyeball rather than measure.) It will be a little thin at first, but as it simmers, and especially as the tomatoes cook, it will thicken. A lot of the time we’ll use a gluten free organic beef broth for the liquid. (We like the Central Market Organics beef broth.) But a gluten free beer works too. Red wine adds a certain richness. In a pinch you could even just use water, though obviously that won’t add any flavor of its own.

Heat the pot and simmer, stirring occasionally, until it’s done. That’s usually going to take at least an hour and the longer it cooks, the better it will be. Save the leftovers, of course. Chili is always better the second day.

We always make cornbread to go with our chili. My wife adapted one of our recipes to be gluten free, but didn’t tell me about the changes she made to it. I made it a couple of times just substituting all-purpose gluten free flour for the regular all-purpose flour on a one-for-one basis and, while edible, the result was not very good at all and had a strange consistency. Finally, she told me she had modified the cornbread recipe and wrote it down for me. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m not much of a baker, so I don’t play with the recipe.

Add 1 1/4 cups of gluten free (most should be gluten free, but always check) corn meal and 3/4 cup Jules gluten free all-purpose flour (or some other all-purpose gluten free flour, though I don’t promise the same result with any other) to a mixing bowl.  Add four teaspoons of baking powder, half a teaspoon of salt, and some cayenne (to taste). Mix the dry ingredients together thoroughly.

Add two eggs, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, and one cup of water to the dry mixture. Stir, just until combined. (Don’t use an electric mixer or stir past the point that everything is combined.)

Transfer to a greased pan and cook at 425 degrees until done. It’s going to take about 20 minutes, but I’m sure most people know the drill. When it’s pulling away from the sides and a toothpick or butter knife inserted into the center comes out clean, it’s done.

My kids like cheese in their chili and honey on their cornbread. I can’t eat cheese anymore and I just like butter on my cornbread. Gluten free tamales go well with it too.

And that’s pretty much what things look like when I cook. Hope you enjoyed my narrative description of the process!


Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Brownie Mix

Posted: April 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Food Reviews | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Brownie Mix

Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free Brownie MixI wanted to prepare a dessert for our Easter dinner, but spent most of my attention and time on the meal itself. While I can follow a dessert recipe, I’ve never been a major dessert chef. It’s just not an area of cooking I enjoy as much as I do other foods. So I decided to stick to something simple — a brownie topped with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge. (Or, in my case, just the brownie topped with hot fudge.)

Unlike me, my wife loves making desserts and brownies are one of her specialties. It only took her a few tries after the kids and I were diagnosed with celiac disease to adapt her brownies to be gluten free. She’s never really recorded her recipe though, and wouldn’t have been able to write it down accurately from memory while recovering. So I decided it wasn’t the time for me to try to make gluten free brownies from scratch.

I saw the Bob’s Red Mill GF Brownie Mix at our neighborhood HEB and decided to give it a whirl. Bob’s Red Mill has always been reliably safe and we’ve tried some of their other products with good results over the years. If you haven’t read about the company and their founder’s philosophy of people before profit, I recommend visiting their site and checking it out.

I followed the directions on the package without varying from them. (My wife tends to experiment and change mixes — usually successfully, but again I’m not the baker she is.) The directions were straightforward and pretty simple.

The results?

The brownies came out chocolatey and delicious! Everyone enjoyed them and they vanished fairly quickly. They weren’t as good as my wife’s, of course, but they were still good brownies. And very importantly, they were chewy. As my son and I joked, there’s a name for “cake-like” brownies. And that word is … cake!

So, if you need a quick and easy pan of gluten free brownies, this is a great mix to use. It gets a definite thumbs up!


Gluten Free Easter

Posted: April 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Gluten Free Easter

With my wife’s surgery, we knew she would be mostly out of commission on Easter, so she did her shopping in advance for the “kids.” Since Hershey has officially published their list of gluten free candy, that task was made easier. She also mailed a box of Easter goodies to our granddaughter well in advance. That left our Easter dinner up to me.

I discussed it with our daughter and we decided to go with an Irish theme this year — roast leg of lamb with mint sauce, chive champ, and buttered cabbage. I handled to leg of lamb, mint sauce, and buttered cabbage while my daughter cooked the champ. (Champ is mashed potatoes made with milk boiled with scallions and, in this case, chives and lots of Irish butter.) It all turned out wonderfully. My father-in-law joined us and he ate a full plate and took a tupperware container of food home with him.

Gluten free cooking leaves many menu options available without alteration. Everything above is naturally gluten free. I don’t think my kids often feel deprived.


Three Years Gluten Free

Posted: April 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Three Years Gluten Free

This month marks the third year since I was diagnosed with celiac disease and almost two years since both my younger children were diagnosed. Our gluten free life has become so deeply engrained and automatic that it almost feels sometimes like we’ve lived this way forever. Our refrigerator, pantry, and freezer have almost nothing in them containing gluten. My wife sometimes likes bread or frozen flax seed waffles, and sometimes a breakfast cereal (hot or cold) with gluten. She will also sometimes have some nuts or chocolates in the house that are not guaranteed to be gluten free. But other than that, she pretty much eats what we eat at home.

We’ve essentially converted our lives to be gluten free. Everything we cook is gluten free. And though we tended to cook a lot before, once a food-related diagnosis enters the picture, cooking for yourself becomes a lot more important. My son has been living in an apartment at college this year and cooking all his own meals. My daughter has been learning how to cook more for herself — so much so that the morning after a recent sleepover she made breakfast for herself and her friend.

My kids are both careful and assertive about what they can or can’t eat, especially my daughter. My son, like me, sometimes prefers to avoid going out in order to skip the hassle of explaining yet again that he has celiac disease.

Family gatherings are actually the hardest social setting. At work, school, and with friends you can simply decline to eat anything you didn’t prepare or bring yourself. My kids and I often employ that approach. We can, for instance, eat before or after a gathering and just have something to drink while others eat. It’s a way of participating socially without having to worry about the food. But at family gatherings, as they’ve started to learn more about celiac disease, they want to try to prepare something we can eat. It’s an understandable motivation. In their shoes with a family member on a restricted diet, I would probably have the same urge. And it’s hard to say no in the face of intended kindness.

But there are so many hidden ‘gotchas’ when cooking for someone with celiac disease. Their kitchens and appliances are not a gluten free environment. Were they careful about cross contamination? And there are the things that are so automatic for me now that it’s hard for me to remember them all when I tell them the foods to watch for. It’s hard to say no, but at the same time it’s hard to trust that they really managed to cook a truly gluten free dish, especially since it’s not something they regularly do.

Another difficult situation these days is when my wife has been sick and people from our church have wanted to bring us a meal. (Honestly, a decade or more ago nobody ever really offered. Not sure why. Ironically, now that we can’t really accept somebody seems to ask almost every time.) It feels rude to decline, but at the same time nobody in our house but my wife could eat it anyway. And since I’m cooking, I can easily cook enough for all of us.

Adapting to this disease hasn’t been fun for any of us and I still feel bad that my children inherited it from me. But we have a good handle on it. Since we discovered my kids had celiac before they had a significant amount of damage, they will never have the chronic, severe symptoms I developed and which I’m still working to overcome. I’m thankful for that much at least. And we remind ourselves that if you are going to have a chronic, incurable disease, celiac is a pretty good one to have. You can control it completely simply by managing what you eat.

Now if we could just get the blood tests for celiac disease added to routine screenings, nobody would have to wait for a diagnosis and suffer the symptoms a lengthy delay in that diagnosis can create. Given that 1% of the population has celiac disease and most of them don’t know they have it, screening for it as part of normal physicals seems like a wise step for the medical community to take. And you can’t just screen once and forget about it. If you have the genes for celiac disease, they could activate at any time.

I hope life is treating those who read this blog well. Peace.


Heartland Gourmet Red Velvet Cupcake Mix

Posted: March 26th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Food Reviews | Tags: , | Comments Off on Heartland Gourmet Red Velvet Cupcake Mix

Heartland Gourmet Gluten Free Red Velvet Cupcake MixMy wife was shopping at World Market a while ago when she stumbled across a brand of gluten free mixes she had never seen before. My wife has always been the baker in the family. While I can follow a baking recipe without any problem, I’m much better at other sorts of cooking. My wife, on the other hand, figures out ways to enhance and adapt any baking recipe she tries over time. And she makes some things, like her brownies, without much of a recipe at all. She’s adapted many of the things she bakes to be gluten free now, but the mixes looked interesting and she picked up one to try, the Heartland Gourmet Gluten Free Red Velvet Cupcake Mix.

My wife generally prepares mixes according to the instructions on a mix the first time in order to work out what to add or how to change the preparation of that mix in the future. In her experience, every mix requires some adaptation and adjustment to produce something really good. That’s been particularly true of gluten free mixes.

Not so with this red velvet cupcake mix. The cupcakes were moist with a smooth, rich texture and delicious flavor. They weren’t grainy at all. The cupcakes didn’t crumble. It was hard to believe they were gluten free!

We haven’t tried any of the other mixes yet, but this cupcake mix is truly excellent. If you can find it in your area, give it a try.


Pink Slime – But Not At HEB

Posted: March 19th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Food Reviews, Misc | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Pink Slime – But Not At HEB

ABC has been airing a series of reports on so-called “Lean Finely Textured Beef” better known as pink slime. In their initial report, former USDA scientists outline how the agency, which is supposed to be a regulatory agency but is in fact essentially run by the industry they purport to regulate, over-ruled their recommendations against allowing BPI to label pink slime as beef. Take a moment to watch the report and discover what you’ve been eating.

In the follow-up segment below, ABC checked with top supermarkets and Whole Foods to see which ones included pink slime in their ground beef. (And in this case, a refusal to answer is as good as an admission that they do.) Although we try to buy organic beef, I was very happy to see that HEB, the supermarket at which we shop, does not add pink slime to their ground beef. I would have to be pretty desperate before I would do any grocery shopping at a place like Walmart. (Of course, that was true even before this report. It just confirms that as a wise choice.)

And it also appears the schools will at least have the choice whether they get beef with or without pink slime from the USDA starting next fall. I only have one child left in public school and she can’t eat the food provided at her high school even if she had any desire to do so. But all parents who have kids who eat school lunches should contact their school districts and make their wishes known.

Of course, pink slime is only one problem among many in our poorly regulated, highly industrialized, and fundamentally immoral food production industry. (It can hardly be honestly called farming or ranching anymore.) When I look at the sheer scope of the depths into which we have sunk over the past four decades, it can be overwhelming. But all we can do is tackle one problem at a time as we try to restore some minimum level of integrity to our regulatory agencies and overall industry.

Personally, I think a great place to start is full disclosure. It should be easy for us to determine what’s truly in the “food” we’re consuming and everything about the way it was produced. GMO? Label it. “Natural flavor”? Fully disclose everything included in the flavors, including any binding agents. Make the categories simpler and require that products be appropriately placed. We have organic, non-organic, processed, and imitation foods. We need to have mandatory, easily understood, and well-defined categories like those. (We used to require that imitation food include that on the packaging. Removing that requirement certainly hasn’t made things better.)