27 February 2008

Dining out gluten-free

The best way to ensure a successful gluten-free meal out is to communicate your situation with your waiter and the best way I have found to do that is to have a card that explains what you cannot eat like the one pictured above. Some people explain on their cards what gluten intolerance is and what they can and cannot eat. Since I have multiple foods I need to avoid in order to keep from having a constant migraine I don't have room for all that on my card. A graphic designer by profession, I designed my card to be small enough to be carried in my purse, but large enough to have all my allergies and sensitivities legible for the waiter.

So, you may wonder, how does it work when I dine out? I show the card to my waiter as soon as he/she approaches my table, so that they know up front that I need special attention. I try to have a short explanation of my situation ready and then also have an idea of what I might be able to eat on their menu. This way, they can check with the chef (I encourage them to take my card with them) and see if what I have tentatively chosen will be free of gluten and all my other allergies. I also try to be as pleasant and accommodating as possible. Many times I have lived without the delicious sauce that normally accompanies the entree, or the salad dressing. If the restaurant tries to accommodate me, I am gracious and a generous tipper.

Other things that help the experience is bringing along my own salad dressing or deciding ahead of time that I will be fine with a lemon wedge and olive oil. I try to arrive at the restaurant when they are least busy and I sometimes make suggestions that will make the meal more palatable to me without causing them too much trouble. If I have to live without the sauce and their special seasoning (which might include gluten or dextrose), I make sure to tell them that they can use olive oil, salt and pepper. You might think the latter is unnecessary, but I most often have chefs go to extremes to make sure I am safe and will not put anything on my meat or fish. I had the experience in Paris last summer where I was warned off having beef entirely because the chef couldn't be certain what the cow might have eaten!

I have generally found waiters and chefs to be quite willing to help. My best experiences have been at places like Il Fornaio in San Jose, CA, where the sous chef came out to meet me because she was so impressed with my card. She said that most people just tell them verbally what they cannot have, even if it is a list of 15 things and then are very demanding if the staff forgets something. I also had great success in France and Belgium last summer where I took a French version of my card. I did decide to laminate the card after my first one got so grease-soaked that it became difficult to read. Also, I do tend to stick to higher end restaurants where they are more able to cook something from scratch for me. My worst experience was at a high-end place outside of Detroit where they pre-marinated all their meats and fish...except the scallops. Because I couldn't be sure what was in the marinade, I had only once choice for dinner that night...grilled scallops and a salad with a lemon wedge and a glass of water. One more word to the wise: places with gluten-free menus are not as easy as you might expect, especially if you have additional allergies like me. I had an egg allergy, which I think I have since outgrown, and I discovered to my horror that P.F. Chang’s marinates nearly all their meat and fish in egg white. It is not listed on their menu and I only found out because the first time I went there with my card they took it back to the chef and checked everything out.

So if you haven't been using a card, make one up and start using it. You want to err on the side of caution and always check to make sure they aren't sneaking in gluten in your mashed potatoes or something. Bon Appétit!

17 February 2008

Borscht with Sun-dried Tomato and Dill

I just got my first delivery of organic produce from a local farm and it came with a bunch of beets and fresh dill. I was in the mood to recreate my Ukrainian grandmother’s borscht recipe...with a few twists of my own. Try this on a cold afternoon. If you can tolerate sour cream, add it to the garnishes.
За ваше здоровье!

Borscht with Sun-dried Tomato and Dill

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 carrot, peeled and chopped or grated
1 leek, washed, white and light green part chopped
1 bunch beets (4-5), peeled and cut into matchsticks
1/4 cup or slightly more unsulfered sun-dried tomatoes
1 tablespoon or less chopped fresh dill
2 cups chicken stock (I used homemade)
2 cups water
1 tsp. vinegar (I used rice vinegar...sulfite-free)
1/2 tsp. sugar
salt and pepper to taste

chopped cucumber and dill for garnish

Heat oil in large, heavy pot. Add leeks and carrot, salt and pepper and saute over medium low heat until carrot is soft. Add beets and tomatoes and saute a few minutes. Add chicken stock and water, dill, vinegar and sugar. Bring to a boil, then simmer 20-30 minutes or until beets are soft but still retain most of the their color. I pureed mine slightly with an immersion blender, but it isn’t necessary.

Ladle into bowls, garnish with cucumber and dill.

Feeds 4

11 February 2008

Endive, Celery and Tuna Salad

I adapted this salad from a recipe in the January/February issue of Martha Stewart's Everyday Food. I needed something different to go with canned tuna and this fit the bill. As I recently discovered that raw red onion and possibly wine vinegars trigger my migraines, I omitted the onion and the wine vinegar, substituting rice vinegar. I only added the tuna and cucumber to the original recipe, but I think chives or green onion would be nice also.

My version
2 tablespoons rice vinegar (without added sugar)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 celery stalks, sliced thinly
2 heads Belgian endive, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1/3 English cucumber, sliced
3 oz. canned tuna packed in water and drained
sea salt and ground black pepper to taste

In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil and rice vinegar add salt and pepper to taste. In medium bowl, place sliced endive, celery, cucumber and tuna. Spoon 2 tablespoons of dressing on salad and toss well. Jar remaining dressing and refrigerate for future use.

Feeds 1 for lunch entree
Weight Watcher points (about 5 - depends how much dressing you use)

The last couple of weeks have been fairly headache free for me and I have used the time to catch up on things that I kept putting off when I was chasing one headache after the other. Like cleaning the house, installing new software, making chicken stock...sounds like simple stuff, but when your head is pulsating and you feel nauseated and light and sound are killing you with every step even everyday things feel monumental.

I am hoping that I have finally hit on a strategy for dealing with winter weather-induced headaches. I had a visit to my neurologist last week and he told me something he has probably said many times before but I think it actually sunk in this time. Maybe I am just more willing to do what is necessary now. He said that weather is the #3 headache trigger among migraine sufferers and that managing triggers is probably going to be the main thing for me to work on. I guess that before I realized I had food triggers (besides alcohol) I didn't think that advice was very useful for me. Also, for the last year, I have been avoiding gluten and all the foods I am even marginally allergic to and the headaches kept coming, especially in the November-January time frame. Granted, they are fewer without gluten and eggs and almonds...but still too many.

In November I read a controversial book about migraine triggers (Heal your Headache by Dr. David Buchholz) and I decided to try his method for two months. He says to avoid ALL potential trigger foods and all migraine meds (except aspirin and Aleve) to get rid of rebound headaches and then gradually reintroduce the trigger foods. Well, I lasted two weeks without Amerge because I couldn't tough it out while cooking Thanksgiving dinner! But the interesting thing is that I started to realize that I really did react to some of the known migraine trigger foods.

I previously didn't think most of the common triggers bothered me. I suspected the aged cheeses after finding out I was allergic to Parmesan and blue cheese. I am also allergic to yogurt, which is on the list. Nitrites I am not sure bother me, but I know that other preservatives do. I never thought that onions were a problem until I figured out I was getting a headache every time I ate a salad with red onion in it. Then came the vinegar revelations. So, I toughed it out for almost the whole two months and I am really glad I did. I am starting to figure out some of my triggers. While red onion is one of them, cooked white onion is not. Citrus is not. Peanuts are not, but other nuts are a maybe, certainly the ones I am allergic to, but maybe some of the others as well. Lima beans and lentils I am still unsure of but will try to reintroduce soon.

Then I started wondering about sulfites and did some research only to find even more overlap with the migraine food trigger list. Balsamic vinegar, wine vinegar, fruit juice conentrates. Well, I am pretty sure now that sulfites are an issue for me. Could be dose related, but it still makes an awful lot of foods potential headache triggers.

So how did all this knowledge translate into almost two weeks of headache-free bliss? I realized that I had to avoid all triggers when the wacky winter weather was here...especially as a cold front moves in. I have been tracking incoming cold fronts (every other day here in Seattle for the last month, it seems) and I have been abstaining from all my known triggers, from sulfites (which includes chocolate, wine, wine vinegars, balsamic, fruit juice concentrates, etc.) and using ice packs and aspirin when I start to get my symptoms. I have also continued my exercise, getting 7-8 hours of sleep, and eating at regular times and what do you know, the headaches just stopped. I am almost afraid to write this, as I am more than a little bit superstitious about headache-free claims. I have even been able to reintroduce some foods from my moderate allergy list (which I have avoided for over 12 months) and I am still ok. Amazing. Hope it continues. Now I am going to have to redo my allergy restaurant card. Happy days.