Category Archives: First Time

Gluten Free Trial: The Verdict

I came, I cried, I was conquered – by gluten.

It turned out, gluten-free was not for me.  Besides feeling hungry and empty all the time, I had about 7 migraines within my first 2 weeks of trying the gluten-free diet.  This was clearly not the culprit of my migraines.  So at week 3, after telling several friends and family members that it wasn’t working but I was still toughing it, the chorus of “why?!” finally convinced me to just eat some bread already.  I did and I felt better almost instantly.  So I don’t think gluten-free works for me.

However, it does work for A LOT of people.  Doing this trial so publicly, I had great conversations with people (mostly who suffered from IBS) that have had great success with going gluten-free.  These people are passionate and eager to share their recipes and their tips and tricks.  So I don’t want to dissuade anyone from going gluten-free if they think it will make them feel better.

What I learned during the Gluten Free Trial was that eating gluten-free at home really just takes some adjustment.  If you’re eating a lot of baked goods and sandwiches, it will be more so.  But my plan all along was to eat more vegetables and there are a lot of exciting recipes out there that encourage you to eat less bread products. (Look out for my recipe for “cauliflower rice” next post.  It will change your life.) You have to really commit and dedicate yourself to creativity – and, fortunately, the internet is ready to help you.

But I think giving up on bread products and baked goods is key.  That was really hard for me, especially trying the trial in such a busy period in my year.  Only 3 days in, I came down with a seriously nasty stomach virus.  Although I was queasy for days afterward, I was also hungry and you know what most Americans with an upset stomach turn to – bread!  Although I wasn’t planning on trying any gluten-substitute products during the trial, that became necessary as my sick belly was yearning for bread and crackers.  James dutifully went to the store and found me gluten-free bread and crackers, mostly made of rice.  This stuff is a very sad indeed.  The texture is all off, there’s really no taste.  It was depressing.  There is no straight replacement for gluten.  You have to give up those products completely.

Being a busy American on the go does not make that easy.  Breakfast gets things off to a bad start.  Americans love gluten in the morning – toast, pastries, egg sandwiches are all the norm.  And since I’ve been trying to be very cognizant of the sugar I intake, I try to avoid sugary yogurts but they were a necessity for protein.  I felt like I was constantly making sacrifices for other healthy ways I have trained myself to eat in order to accommodate the gluten.  Needless to say, my digestive system was a bit of wreck.  I will say that oatmeal at Starbucks has been my go-to healthy breakfast of choice for a while (and I enjoy Starbucks coffee quite a bit.)  You can control how much sugar you add, and they provide a decent array of dried fruit and nuts, adding fiber to an already fiber-heavy dish.  But the Starbucks at the hotel where I was staying was closed, so the only access to oatmeal I had was instant – some of which had a total of 29 grams of sugar in a serving.  No.  Thank you.

Lunch was a lot easier and, as evidenced by my instagram account, San Diego helped me out by providing corn tortillas for tacos at every turn.  So. Many. Delicious. Tacos!  The movement towards hearty salads and bean salads were incredibly helpful as well.  Lunches I often left satisfied, although my tummy still missed the gluten.

Dinners were very hit or miss for me, especially since event planners typically eat last once we’re sure there was enough food for our attendees.  One night I ate nothing but meat.  Another I settled for eating french fries off someone’s plate.  Like I said – the sacrifices I made to avoid gluten didn’t seem worth it.

But going gluten-free did open my creative brain to all of the wonders we enjoy that don’t include gluten and ones that I’ll be adopting for their fiber and their delicious flavor.

Some of the products I discovered that were gluten-free and delighted me:
Terra Chips: root vegetable chips, filled with fiber, and incredibly tasty
-Wolfgang Puck makes a number of gluten-free soups that were very nuanced for a canned soup and went out their way to label the fact that they were gluten-free.  Impressive.
Danielle’s Pineapple Chips: These things defy logic – incredibly crunchy, tangy, sweet.  I found them in the San Diego airport and went back and bought a second bag to bring home after I housed the first bag.  A thing of beauty!
-I’m sure Kind bars aren’t new to anyone at this point, but their low sugar and gluten-free properties make them a big winner for me. Plus they’ve got really creative flavors that satisfy cravings as well!

In summary: a gluten-free diet improves a lot of lives (just unfortunately not mine) but if you’re a busy person on-the-go, it can be a real challenge.  If you’re dedicated to it, make sure you pack gluten-free goodies that will truly satisfy you to get through the day and keep you feeling happy.

However, my return to gluten was quite glorious (I did not know how I could live without farro.)  There’s something about it that makes me feel more balanced.  Perhaps it’s possible that I actually need gluten?  Yeah, let’s uh… let’s go with that.  Pass the biscuits.

Gluten Free Trial

In the past year I’ve had two surgeries, the second of which laid me up for two months with absolutely no exercise allowed.  These two months happened to oh-so-conveniently coincide with Thanksgiving and Christmas, the marathon eating season for this particular food enthusiast.  I ate pretty much whatever I wanted with abandon and, even now 3.5 months later, I am paying for it to the tune of 15-20 pounds of excess weight.

Needless to say, I’m trying to lose weight, but I’m also on a constant journey to change to a healthier lifestyle without giving up delicious food that delights me.  This doesn’t mean that I’m trying to live life eating an entire sleeve of Thin Mints every night and deluding myself that I can still lose weight. This means that I’m trying to find new foods that actually satisfy my taste buds but aren’t going to ruin my waistline, my heart, my pancreas and my brain.  I’m trying to have it all, essentially.  Yeah, you guessed it – I’m a millennial.  But an OLD and GRUMPY one who does not like being compared to the characters on Girls.  Just a warning.

Frankly, I am not generally a “well” person , especially for a 30-year-old.  I never feel good.  If I’m not suffering from embarrassing gas attacks due to gallstones, it’s a migraine, a sore shoulder, heart palpitations, acid reflux, general fatigue.  It’s sort of pathetic.  But I’ve been aggressively seeking medical attention to figure this out, and currently I’m tackling my migraines, which I’ve been suffering from for 12 years!

After undergoing lots of treatment including physical therapy and a sleep study, my doctor is able to conclude two things: my migraines occur when I’m stressed, when I tend to clench my right shoulder which is pinching my occipital nerve, and that I am mildly narcoleptic.  You read that right – narcoleptic.  My headache specialist kindly termed it as “a sleepy brain.”  It is oddly satisfying to know my love of sleeping late is not due to laziness, but the term narcolepsy definitely wasn’t what I was expecting…

We talked about a lot of different pills I could try to reduce stress or stimulate my brain, but I told her I’d really like to try to reduce stress manually instead and she was in full support of that.  So she suggested I try 3 things in the meantime: a magnesium lotion, more exercise, and a gluten-free diet.  Sigh.  Thank god I’ve had my gallbladder removed so I can still eat cheese.

And that is the beginning of a journey I have vowed to embark upon: going gluten-free for a solid month.  I know there’s a lot of debate about this in the news and in medical communities and I don’t necessarily believe in it.  But see the paragraph above – I never feel good.  If this could help me join the land of adult humans who function correctly then, what the hell, I’ll try it.  Geez, I’m so mature at 30!

My goal is to do this for a month and record how I am feeling.  Then introduce gluten-type foods into my diet when I am occasionally indulging (there’s no way I’m giving up cookies for good, people!) and see how that affects me.  And the increase in exercise.  Like WHOA increasing my exercise.  But that’s a year-long goal I’ve been doing pretty good with – my goal is to be able to keep up, speed-wise, with my boyfriend who has been running 5 miles a day for the past 5 years by December 31, 2015.  We’ll see. 😉

Anyways, this month is also a very stressful one for me, so I think it’s a great time to test if removing gluten from my diet has a positive effect on me – I predict a lot of right shoulder clenching.  I’m an event planner and I am on the core team planning a 1,200-person conference at the beginning of May, followed by an 800-person conference in the beginning of June.  It will be hard to fit my exercise in, though I’ll be doing my darndest, and I’ll be travelling, likely lacking optimal sleep, and working a lot of long days where food can often be an afterthought – grabbing a roll off the buffet before they close it down and running off to the next thing.  Well, rolls aren’t exactly an option for me, are they?  I hope this will present lots of opportunities to talk about my successes and failures in gluten-free eating when in these kinds of situations.

Because of the busy month, I won’t be updating this blog every day, but I will try to post on social media every day with any interesting tidbits I may have.  You can follow me on Facebook, InstagramTwitter, and Google+.

My very first substitution attempt: replacing the breadcrumbs in this favorite Alton Brown roasted broccoli recipe with slivered almonds.  Dare I say – I think it actually tastes better.  I also added some smoked paprika, which makes everything awesome.  This won’t be so hard… right?

Let’s see what all the fuss is about, shall we?

 

Pierogi Project: My first time making homemade pierogi

For the past three Valentine’s Days, James and I have stayed home and made ourselves some steak.  Mostly because going out to dinner on Valentine’s Day is akin to voluntarily being robbed.    And we were incredibly pleased with our decision when, around 7pm, a horribly windy snowstorm whipped snow against our window, and the highway was completely obscured from view.  Since we’re living on the 7th floor, the rest of the weekend promises to transform our apartment into a drafty haunted house.

And because Valentine’s Day was on a Saturday this year, I realized that we could take on a cooking project, something we’ve always wanted to try to make from scratch but didn’t have the time.  A lot of ideas were batted around until we decided that we would have steak and pierogi.DSC_0133

This seemed brilliant at the time but as I continued to research recipes, it became more and more intimidating.  We weren’t just trying a new recipe: we were making pasta dough, which we’ve never done by ourselves, making mashed potatoes, which I hate doing, and then filling the dumplings, which is what I had been regarding as the most difficult part.

There are lots of interesting pierogi recipes out there, as this is a traditional celebratory dish in several cultures, but the one I ended up using was from Sydney Oland of Serious Eats.  It seemed the most straight-forward to me, but that’s because the recipe is written very matter-of-factly.  To novice pierogi makers, like we were (are?), there was a lot of supplemental information we needed to search for as the day went on.DSC_0113

However, the results were delectable and our apartment smelled amazing for days.  Here, I detail James’ and my first foray into pierogi making – hopefully these tips will help you on your own pierogi journey!DSC_0221

Pierogi filled with potatoes and cheddar cheese

Recipe by Sydney Oland at Serious Eats, one of my most trusted sources for reliable food and cooking intel

Ingredients

Dough:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • large pinch of salt (I used 1/8 tsp)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil (I used olive oil)

Filling:

  • 2 large Russet potatoes
  • 1 1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar
  • Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
  • 1 sliced onion fried in 1 tablespoon butter (optional) (but not really)

Procedures:

  1. Make Dough: Place flour and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Add water, egg and vegetable oil and mix, slowly incorporating flour until soft dough forms.
  2. Turn soft dough out onto floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes.
  3. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rest for 1 hour.
  4. To make filling: Wash potatoes and peel (or use food mill, see below) and cut into 1 inch pieces.
  5. Boil in salted water until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.
  6. Drain potatoes, place in a large bowl and mash with a potato masher or fork (or food mill, see below) slowly adding grated cheese.
  7. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  8. Assemble pierogi: Divide dough in half, reserving other half under a kitchen towel.
  9. *Divide halved dough into 24 evenly sized pieces. Roll each piece into a round about 1/8-inch thick.*
  10. Wet edges of dough and place a rounded teaspoon worth of filling in center of round.
  11. Close dough around filling creating a semicircle sealing edges with fingers (or crimp with a fork).
  12. Repeat with all remaining dough (there may be some filling left).
  13. Boil a large pot of water, and working in batches, cook pierogi until they rise to the top of the boiling water.
  14. Another change.  Once all of the pierogi were boiled, we sauteed them in oil to get a nice, crisp browning.  More on that below…

*Here we differed.  Instead of rolling out the dough into pieces, we rolled out one big piece to 1/8 inch thick and used a biscuit cutter (but a cookie cutter would work too), to cut out circles in order to make pierogi in the shape to which we’re accustomed: the crimped half moon.

Pictures and Anecdotes:

Making Pasta Dough:

I’ve only ever made pasta from scratch once, in a cooking class that I took with my brother Dan eight years ago.  So you could say that I was rusty.  I had decided that we would make the dough in the food processor, which would do most of the kneading for us because I didn’t feel confident that I could teach myself how to knead.

So we started in the food processor, but because this dough contains a cup of water, the water started to seep out of the food processor and all over the counter.  This may have been avoided if we had added the ingredients in a certain order, perhaps the water and then the flour, so the water would seep into the flour and not spill.  But we added the flour first, then the water, which spilled over the middle of the processor, the cavity where the mechanics of the processor meets the food bowl.

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James, in his wisdom, said we should salvage all the ingredients and mix them in a bowl with a spoon.  I was skeptical, since I’d never seen it done that way before – there’s usually a complex, delicate mixing procedure that looks like this.  However, once James mixed it all together, the dough looked exactly how it does at the end of the complex procedure, so we just decided to move ahead!

So, we needed to teach ourselves how to knead and found this video from Giuliano Hazan to help us.  (Fun fact!  I used this video completely ignorant to the fact that Giuliano is the author of the first cookbook I ever owned and the son on Marcella Hazan, who I just watched on Mind of Chef today and who is regarded as the “Godmother of Italian Cooking.”  I’d say we found a pretty reliable source!)

The steps we found are as follows:
1.  Flour the surface you’ll be working on – I tried using parchment, but it moved around too much.  I eventually switched to a wood cutting board.
2. Mold the dough into a ball so you can work with it.  It will be very sticky!  Add flour as often as you please throughout the process.
3.  Stretch the dough a little so that you can fold it over one hand like a book.DSC_0012
4. With the heel of your hand, push the dough back on to itself twice, like you’re trying to seal those edges together while also forming the dough back into a ball.DSC_0014
5. Turn the dough 1/4 turn and repeat.

As the recipe says, you knead for about 8 minutes until your dough is not so sticky and feels elastic.  What does elastic mean?  Think of a rubber band – it can be stretched but will snap back into its shape.  The dough won’t be exactly like a rubber band, but it will feel tougher than when you started and you can imagine rolling it.  If you’re not sure, just take the time into consideration – if you’ve kneaded for 8 minutes, it’s probably good to go.  You don’t have to knead continuously, either.  James and I switched at one point so we could both get a chance to try it.

Ready to hydrate!
Ready to hydrate!

Now you let the dough rest under a towel to hydrate.  The recipe says 1 hour, but we waited about 1.5 hours because we were doing other things in the kitchen.

Mashed Potatoes

Now we made the potatoes.  I hardly ever cook potatoes in my house because they’re such a pain – you have to scrub them, some people peel them (but I never do because that’s where all the nutrients are), and then boil, and then mash.  I just don’t like mashed or roasted potatoes enough to go to the trouble, especially on a weeknight.  However, the pierogi memories we had included mashed potatoes, so this was a must.  It also gave me the excuse to use my food mill, which James bought me about 3 years ago and I still had never used.DSC_0017

The food mill is featured on cooking shows a lot for mashed potatoes and for tomato sauce.  It’s used to make uniform, gorgeous texture and also keeps skins of potatoes and tomatoes out of your mixture.  It was also very easy to use, once we realized that all three blades were locked into the machine for storage, and we needed to choose one before proceeding.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until after I already fed potatoes into the machine.  I don’t call this blog “Amateur Hour” for nothing.DSC_0076

Anyways, you feed to potatoes into the top of the machine and turn a crank that pushes the potatoes through the shredder blade and into the bowl below.  Some skins get shredded but most stay at the top, keeping the texture uniform.  It’s pretty badass.  The best part is that the whole mechanism is dishwasher safe.

Action shot!
Action shot!

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Once the potatoes were milled, I added the cheese and incorporated them together with a potato masher, my favorite non-fancy potato tool.  It can be used in lots of applications when you need to mash something, like avocado or mixing something hard into cookie dough like chocolate chips or nuts.

Back to our pasta dough.

Look at how it's hydrated after an hour (and a half)!
Look at how it’s hydrated after an hour (and a half)!


The big change we made to the recipe was that we decided to roll the dough out into one big sheet instead of rolling each individual piece.  It seemed like it would cut down on time.DSC_0105

Rolling pasta dough is different than any other dough I’ve worked with (mostly cookie dough.)  The elasticity we talked about earlier makes the dough start to shrink back into its shape once you’ve rolled it, so you need to apply a healthy amount of pressure to the dough to get it to stay rolled out.  The recipe calls for us to roll the dough to 1/8 inch, which is very thin – the concept is, because you’re folding the dough over to make the pierogi, you end up with 1/4 inch pasta in the finished product, just with some filling in between.  However, if your pasta is just a little bit thicker, it’s easier to work with and we didn’t find that it ruined the dish.  At the end of the process, James made a few pierogi that were 1/4 inch thick before he folded them and we can’t even find those among the others.  So the thickness is not going to screw up your pierogi!DSC_0107

Filling pierogi:
We really had a lot of fun during this part of the process.  It’s time-consuming and a little intimidating at first, which is why I created a short video to show how I did it from start to finish.

The steps are as follows:

  1. Once we rolled the dough out, we cut circles out with our biscuit cutter, which is 2 & 3/4 inch in diameter.  The exact size doesn’t matter a lot because…
  2. Then stretch the dough to be just a little bit larger, stretching the outside and turning the dough, just like a pizza, so that you can fit a healthy amount of filling inside.
  3. Measure out a rounded teaspoon of the filling and place it on one side of the circle.
  4. Flatten the filling, so it will fit the crescent moon shape.
  5. Moisten the edges with a little bit of water.
  6. Fold the pasta over and crimp with a fork.
    1. I like to make the first indentation, then for the next, I put the outside tine of the fork in the last indentation I made so that the crimps are evenly spaced.

Obviously this part of the process takes the longest.  I’d say it took us about an hour to do, although we were also preparing other parts of our meal at the same time.  But it was extremely satisfying, watching this pasta and mashed potatoes become something beautiful, this shape from my childhood that had only ever come from a Mrs. T’s freezer bag.  That is my absolute favorite part of cooking, possibly more than actually eating – when the ingredients come together and you can actually see the food take form.DSC_0137

Now once all the pierogi were finished, they sat for a while before we boiled them.  This was probably the biggest surprise when we tried to move them – the dough is wet and stuck to the plates we were storing them on, which then mangled our lovingly made shapes!  As James was tending to the pot, I had to very gingerly pry them off the plate and flip them onto their tops, which had dried just enough not to stick.  How can this sticking be avoided?  I’m not positive, but I think storing them on a different surface, like the wood cutting board, would be helpful.  We could store them on plates lined with parchment paper, and I’d recommend two layers, because the dough is wet enough to soak through the parchment, which would defeat the purpose.  You could also very lightly dust the plate before placing the pierogi down on it.  That’s probably what I’ll do next time.

You should use a large pot of water to boil your pierogi, which we did not do.  We were only able to get 5 pierogi in the pot at a time, which resulted in long cooking time and very cloudy water by the end.  The water will get cloudier than if you use dried pasta, so make sure you use a lot of water and your biggest pot!

This pot is not big enough...
This pot is not big enough…

However, fresh pierogi also cook very fast, so they’ll float to the top in 2-3 minutes.  Once they float, they’re done and can be fished out using a slotted spoon.

The original recipe says to serve the pierogi this way, but that’s not the way I remember them and certainly not what James was envisioning.  Oh no – we fried them up in olive oil for a golden brown finish and a crisp exterior.  What I found fascinating is that some of the pierogi had gotten really ugly and mangled, but once we fried them – it just didn’t matter.  It was as if my brain couldn’t even compute that they looked different than the others.  That golden brown color means “YUM ME EAT NOW” in my brain, no matter what.

Mangled, yet still looks delicious
Mangled, yet still looks delicious

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James fried up some onions low and slow to accompany the pierogi, also something I’m rather accustomed to when eating pierogi.  The apartment smelled amazing.  I think I’d like to make a fried onion scented candle.DSC_0167

We had about 50 small pierogi to enjoy and so we did, for several days now.  Pierogi are a great cooking project to take on: what would be even better is to take it on with a few friends, so you can all learn and work together, accompanied by some cold beers.  The process will go faster and you won’t be eating at 9pm… like we were.  Also starting earlier in the day would be a good rule of thumb.

Have you made pierogi before and have tips?  Is there anything you’re wondering about that I haven’t covered?  Hit me up in the comments below.DSC_0156DSC_0229

Thanks for coming along on our Pierogi Journey!