Monday, February 24, 2014

Gluten-Free Gnocchi with Gouda, Bacon and Spinach

Photo credit: Ann@74

A few weeks ago, I was doing some errands on the other side of the city and wound up doing my grocery shopping at a new, much larger location of my favorite grocery retailer (Holla, HEB!)  I’d heard that this location’s gluten-free selection was better than most, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Among the many delights I found on the shelf was a package of Racconto brand gluten-free potato gnocchi.

Although I have a cookbook that includes a recipe for making gluten-free gnocchi from scratch, the fact of the matter is that pasta-making just isn’t part of my usual repertoire (though the photo above makes it look really appealing, I must admit.)  The Hubs has a beloved aunt and uncle who make all their own pasta–they’ve told us, on more than one occasion, that “Noodle Day is a good opportunity for a long conversation.”  Perhaps that day will come for The Hubs and me, somewhere down the road, but for now our long conversations take place over coffee, not pasta.  So I was really excited to find a package of prepared gluten-free gnocchi, since gnocchi is one of my favorite types of pasta.

Because today was a very long, very difficult day, I went with a cheesy, baked preparation that doubles as comfort food.  I used gouda, which I found on sale at my grocery store, in the cheese sauce–normally I’d go with sharp cheddar, so if that’s what you have on hand, it will work just fine.   You’ll also note that I used turkey bacon, which is the only kind the Foodie children will eat.  If you’re a pork bacon fan, again, that will work just as well.  I sprinkled the crumbled bacon over the top of the dish, rather than mixing it into the sauce, to keep it crisp and offer a different texture than the chewy gnocchi and creamy sauce.   The spinach in the sauce, of course, is just good for you, and as long as you’re eating bacon and cheese, you might as well do what you can to look out for your health.

Gnocchi take only a few minutes to cook, so make sure your spinach is thawed and your sauce is well underway before you toss the pasta into a pot of boiling water.  Within a few minutes, you’ll be ready to layer the gnocchi and sauce before popping the dish into the oven to finish up.

Ann@74′s photo was made available via a Creative Commons License.

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Gluten-Free Gnocchi with Gouda, Bacon and Spinach

Ingredients:

1 package gluten-free potato gnocchi (about one pound)
2 T. butter
1 tsp. minced garlic
2 T. gluten-free all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 cup chicken broth
2 cups grated gouda cheese
1 package (10 ounces) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
4 slices thin-cut turkey bacon, fried until crisp and crumbled into small pieces
Salt and pepper

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a large casserole dish with cooking spray and set aside.

Fill a large pot with water and set it over high heat to come to a boil. While the water is heating up, melt the butter in a large skillet. When the butter has melted, stir in the minced garlic. Whisk in the flour to create a smooth roux (keeping in mind that gluten-free flour will produce a roux that's much thinner than what you're used to, if you've been using wheat flour.)

Whisk in the milk, then the chicken stock. When the sauce is thick and smooth, remove it from the heat and stir in the grated gouda. Keep stirring until the cheese has melted. Finally, add the chopped spinach and stir until it's evenly distributed. If the sauce looks a little too thick, add more chicken broth until it's of a pourable consistency.

Now it's time to cook the gnocchi. Drop them into the rapidly boiling water and watch for them to begin floating--that's how you'll know they're done. Skim them off the top of the water with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a colander. After you've retrieved all the gnocchi, layer them with the sauce in the prepared casserole dish. Start with just enough sauce to cover the bottom of the dish, then add half the gnocchi, then half the remaining sauce and the remaining half of the gnocchi. Top with the rest of the sauce and sprinkle the crumbled bacon on top.

Bake for 30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbly and starting to brown around the edges.

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Saturday, February 1, 2014

Fitbit Flex (Product Review)

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I had a birthday a couple of weeks ago–my 50th!  I know that’s an occasion many people approach with dread, but I honestly could not be more excited to find myself here.   I’m probably in better shape than I ever was in my younger years; the Foodie children have survived (and, it seems, thrived on) the parenting I offered them in their early childhood; and The Hubs and I have made it to our 25th wedding anniversary with smiles on our faces.   Honestly, what’s not to love about this 50th year of my beautiful life?

The Hubs is notorious for listening to me when I toss off a casual suggestion regarding a possible Christmas or birthday gift, so I really shouldn’t have been at all surprised to find the Fitbit Flex beside my birthday cake–but I was!  I’d mentioned it weeks before, and then I’d forgotten all about it.  Not The Hubs, though–he went searching for a Fitbit right away and found the lovely slate blue Flex you see pictured above.   The Fitbit comes in several different models; the Flex is very basic, but it’s everything I need.  As you can see from the photo, it looks like nothing more than a slightly space-age bracelet.  The guts of the Fitbit are tucked inside the plastic band, a little nugget of computer engineering genius.

For those of you who know nothing about the Fitbit, it’s a pedometer/activity monitor/sleep monitor.  Wear it 24 hours a day and it will tell you how well you slept (whether you were restless and how long you were awake during the night), how many steps you’ve taken in the last 24 hours, how many “very active” minutes you’ve racked up, and how many miles you’ve covered in a day.  The Fitbit website lets you set your own goals for steps, activity and distance, as well as set up notifications for when you’ve reached your goals–by text, email, or a gentle buzz from your Fitbit.  You can even set a silent alarm to wake you in the morning by providing a buzz on the wrist.  (That’s a perfect option if you like to wake up early to exercise but don’t want to wake your partner.)

Things I love about the Fitbit:

  • It syncs up wirelessly with your home computer and/or your smartphone.  No more inputting information: the Fitbit takes care of everything.
  • It syncs with other apps, like My Fitness Pal, allowing you to track both calories and activity.
  • Unlike My Fitness Pal, which requires that you input your physical activity and approximate your calorie burn, the Fitbit also accounts for calories you’ve worked off just by moving around during the day–whether you’re shopping, doing housework, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or even working at your desk.  It takes your age and weight into consideration when making these calculations, offering a more comprehensive picture of your calorie expenditure.
  • Using the Fitbit app or website, you can log in specific activities–like running, walking, or bicycling–to get a more accurate calculation of your calorie burn during active minutes.  Just record your start time and the duration of the activity.
  • Fitbit sends a recap email at the end of every week, telling you how many steps you’ve taken in the last seven days, how many calories you’ve burned, and how many “very active” minutes you’ve racked up.  If you’re also tracking your food intake with My Fitness Pal, it provides an overall read of calories taken in vs. calories burned.
  • It’s virtually weightless.  I often forget I’m even wearing it.
  • The Fitbit battery lasts for an entire week.  The battery meters on the Fitbit app and website let you know when it’s time to recharge, or you can set up a notification to remind yourself.
  • The Fitbit provides a very gentle reminder that I need to be as active as I can during the day.  Tap the Fitbit screen twice and it flashes one to five lights, depending on how close you are to your daily goal.  (The default goal is 10,000 steps per day, but you can adjust that to fit your own activity level–or, if you prefer, track a different goal altogether.)  If I don’t tap the screen, the Fitbit sits there quietly on my wrist and does nothing.  If I do, though, and I see only one blinking light, I know I should probably take the long way to the parking lot at work–and maybe plan to take a walk when I get home.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself looking for the longest way from Point A to Point B, rather than the shortest way.  I’ve taken a walk after work when I felt too tired to go to the gym, and I’ve spent a little more time on the treadmill when I did go to the gym.  I did all of this with the goal of getting closer to seeing five flashing lights before I went to bed at night.  As a result, I’ve lost 3 pounds in the last 12 days. I didn’t start wearing the Fitbit with the goal of losing weight but, I have to admit, I certainly don’t mind.

Staying active takes a little time and effort, to be sure.  It took me nearly 50 years to care enough about myself to make that effort. But the Fitbit is definitely a helpful partner in that enterprise, and I’m thankful to have it with me for this leg of the journey.

 

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Chicken and Spinach Risotto

Chicken Risotto

One of our Foodie family resolutions for 2014 was to try to incorporate more green vegetables into our evening meals.  We’re pretty healthy eaters, on the whole, but it’s easy to get lazy–and when we do, it seems like greens are the first thing to go.  Fortunately, The Boy has always been amenable to broccoli, peas, and green beans.  Much to my delight, though, he’s recently discovered that he also like spinach.

This is one of my favorite dinners because it comes all in one delicious package of grains, green veggies, and protein.  You can use leftover cooked chicken, canned chicken breast, or frozen pre-cooked chicken that you’ve heated in the microwave. I almost always use frozen chopped spinach, simply because it’s easier than chopping my own; given that the spinach ends up wilted into the rice, chopping fresh spinach hardly seems worth the effort in this recipe.  Grated Parmesan, of course, is easy to come by, and Parmesan is the one variety of cheese that doesn’t seem to lose anything if you buy it already grated.

Still, risotto doesn’t qualify as an easy entree, simply because it requires a lot of stirring and, therefore, lots of patience.  Adding the hot broth one ladle at a time, and stirring between additions, loosens the starch from the rice and creates the silky sauce that distinguishes risotto from regular old rice.  (Speaking of which:  it’s very important to use starchy, short grain arborio rice in order to get the right consistency.  Long grain rice won’t give you the same results, no matter how much you stir.  Trust me on this one.)  If you get tired of stirring, or get impatient and add the broth too quickly, you’re going to wind up with something more like rice pilaf than the creamy comfort of risotto.

Still, in spite of its demands, risotto is one of my go-to meals.  Stirring the rice is a peaceful, meditative way to end a hectic day, and no matter what I add to the mix, it’s almost always a hit with everyone.  As The Boy says, “It’s hard to mess up chicken and rice.”  That’s not precisely true, but you get the idea.

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Chicken and Spinach Risotto

Ingredients:

1 T. olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup arborio rice
1 box (32 ounces) chicken stock
1 box (10 ounes) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1 cup cooked and diced (or shredded) chicken
Salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste

Directions:

Heat the chicken stock in a large saucepan with a lid. When it just comes to a boil, turn the heat down slightly and put the lid on the pot. You'll want the stock to stay warm throughout the process of making the risotto.

In another large saucepan, heat the olive oil and add the onion and garlic. Saute over medium heat for a few minutes, until the onions start to soften. Then add the dry arborio rice and stir until the rice has been coated with the olive oil. Let the rice toast for about five minutes, stirring frequently so it doesn't burn.

Start adding the chicken stock to the the dry rice and onion/garlic mixture. Use a large ladle and add the stock one ladle at a time, stirring until the rice soaks up the stock. When most of the liquid has been absorbed, add another ladle of stock. Keep stirring until the rice soaks up the liquid. Continue this process until you're out of stock, or until the rice is tender and the risotto is silky. (This part of the process takes awhile, so be patient. I promise, it's worth the effort.)

When the rice is tender, remove the risotto from the heat. Stir in the spinach and Parmesan cheese, then taste and season the risotto with salt, black pepper, and nutmeg. Finally, stir in the chicken and return the risotto to the heat just until the chicken has warmed through. At this point, avoid stirring as much as possible, so the chicken doesn't break up and get stringy.

Serve risotto with a side of fresh winter fruit.

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Guide to Going Gluten-Free

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A friend called me right before Christmas with a big question.  Her daughter had just been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and her daughter’s doctor had recommended a gluten-free diet as part of her treatment plan.  “How do I even start?” she asked me.

That looks like a small question, I know, but it’s not.  Going gluten-free isn’t as simple as swapping out the bags of flour in your kitchen cabinet, or trading in Wheaties for corn flakes (although, as you’ll see below, those are among the first steps you can take.)  Based on my own experience, going gluten-free involved a lot of trial and error and more than a little wasted money.  So I’ve put together this guide to help those who are new to gluten-free eating avoid some of the missteps I made along the way.

First and foremost:  Remember that going gluten-free isn’t a weight loss strategy, or a healthy eating strategy.  A few days ago I watched a local daytime TV program that did a segment on “the hot new diet trend, gluten-free food.”  Not once did the host or her guest even mention what gluten is, much less why someone might need to avoid it.  If your doctor has suggested a gluten-free diet as a method for treating anything from migraine headaches to skin rashes, by all means, give it a try.  If you’re dealing with stomach problems that resist diagnosis, trying a gluten-free diet might help.  But going gluten-free won’t help you lose weight, and it probably won’t make you feel any better if you aren’t already gluten-sensitive.   Gluten isn’t “bad” for you unless you’re living in a body that can’t process it correctly.

But let’s assume you’ve been advised to go gluten-free, or you have good reason to think gluten might be the cause of a particular problem.  What next?  For me, finding a good loaf of bread was really important–but it took months to find a loaf of gluten-free bread that I found both edible and enjoyable.  The first time I ate a slice of Udi’s Gluten Free white sandwich bread, I stood alone in my kitchen and wept tears of joy.  Just knowing that I could default to a PB & J on those days when I was starving and couldn’t figure out what to eat (and there were many of those days, in the beginning) was a huge weight off my mind.  Gluten-free bread is expensive, though, so making your own is another great option.  Like most people, I work full-time, so making a fresh loaf of bread every day just isn’t an option.  When I do have the time, this recipe for Buttermilk Bread (pictured above) produces moist, tender bread that’s perfect for toasting or making sandwiches.

But maybe bread isn’t the most important thing in your life. What are you really missing–pasta?  Cookies?  Crackers? Cereal? Figure out what it is and find a gluten-free version you like.  Finding a way to get your favorites back into your life will go a long way toward making a gluten-free future feel more realistic and manageable.  I do like an occasional bowl of breakfast cereal, so switching from Special K to Chex was one of the first changes I made.  Not exactly the same but, as it turns out, not a huge sacrifice.  (And Chex now come in a wide variety of gluten-free flavors, so there’s no risk of getting bored.)   Because I was used to snacking on cookies and crackers, I missed them a lot at the beginning of my gluten-free life.  After I got out of the habit of eating them, though, I didn’t miss them at all.  If snack crackers are your thing, most grocery stores are carrying a wider selection of gluten-free options these days, and many companies are offering gluten-free versions of their products.  Sometimes you’ll find them in a designated gluten-free section; sometimes they’ll be right on the shelf, beside their wheat-based counterparts.  If you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease, however, beware of buying gluten-free products shelved beside items containing wheat, since even trace amounts of wheat can be damaging.

Which brings me to this:  Figure out your gluten tolerance (if you have one.)  There are people who will insist that if you’re truly gluten sensitive, you can’t eat any gluten at all, even in trace amounts.  But for some of us with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, eating products that contain very small amounts of wheat flour won’t cause a problem, because gluten sensitivity covers a wide a spectrum.  My general rule of thumb is that if wheat is listed among the last few ingredients in a product, or is present only in trace amounts, I’m going to be okay.  When I do, very rarely, decide to eat something containing gluten–a piece of regular pizza, a hamburger on a regular bun–I do that knowing it’s not going to kill me, but it’s also not going to benefit my immune system, and I’ll need to get right back on the gluten-free wagon afterward.  If I don’t, I’m going to start feeling sick.  I’m lucky to have this flexibility.  Many people don’t.  But you know the body you’re living in better than anyone else does, and if eating small amounts of gluten doesn’t exacerbate whatever symptoms led you to eat gluten-free, then you have your sensitivity under control. For me, the bottom line is in my blood work: if my white count stays within the normal range, then whatever I’m doing with my diet, on balance, is working.

One way to help yourself keep that balance is to find ways to recreate favorite family recipes in gluten-free versions, like this version of   Banana Bread.   It’s not my mom’s famous recipe, but it’s pretty darn good.

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This is sometimes hard work, because gluten-free baking isn’t as simple as swapping out flours For instance:  most gluten-free cookies don’t “melt” in the oven and assume the round cookie shape we all know and love.  If you put a raw blob of dough in the oven, you’ll have a baked blob of dough in about ten minutes.  And, because gluten is what gives baked goods their texture, you’ll end up with a gritty, crumbly disaster on your hands if you just substitute rice flour for wheat flour.  Gluten-free flours have different weights and properties, which means you’ll need to use a blend of different flours when you’re baking.  Use a prepared gluten-free flour blend (I like Namaste Foods Perfect Flour Blend, which is now available at my local Costco), or make a gluten-free flour blend of your own.  If you don’t add xanthan gum to your mix, or use a prepared mix that includes it, you’ll need to add some to your baked goods.  Add about a teaspoon per cup of flour used to create the stretchy texture you lose by eliminating gluten.  Often, you’ll need to add extra liquid to a gluten-free adaptation as well, because gluten-free flours are more absorbent.  There’s no rule for adding extra liquid.  Play it by ear and start with small amounts–one extra egg, an extra 1/8 cup of milk, etc..  And keep in mind that gluten-free batters and doughs won’t be as stiff as their wheat-based counterparts.  (Bread dough will look more like cake batter and be stickier than you’re used to; cake batter will appear runny.)

The easiest way to start your life as a gluten-free eater, though, is to focus on what you can have, not on what you can’t have.  After the 85th time you’ve fielded the “No wheat products?  Good lord, what do you eat?” question, it’s easy to get discouraged and start feeling sorry for yourself.  I actually gained weight after going gluten-free, thanks to a number of pity parties featuring large amounts of ice cream.  But the truth is, barring other food sensitivities, there are plenty of things you can eat:  beef, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, rice, beans, lentils, quinoa, nuts, pasta products and baked goods made from gluten-free flours . . . the list goes on.  My usual answer to that (very rude) question is “The same things you do, just made differently.”

Going gluten-free involves a complete shift in the way you shop for and think about food.  I won’t pretend it’s easy, at first–especially if you, like me, live with people who don’t have to avoid wheat (and, at least in my case, shouldn’t be expected to) and therefore continue to eat the things you’re missing.  But once you’ve made the shift, it’s not that difficult to find and make new things you enjoy.  You just have to learn where to look, and what you’re looking for.

If you’re new to gluten-free eating, or if you have advice for those who are, feel free to share your questions and comments!

           

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Monday, December 30, 2013

It’s a Gluten-Free Product Roundup!

Foodie faithful, no doubt you’ve noticed that the number of posts on this blog has declined.  I could make excuses for myself, but I’ll just say that my life has exploded a little bit in the past year and I’m currently in the process of putting some pieces back together.  One of those pieces is, of course, The Family Foodie.  Spending more time thinking about the food we’re eating over this holiday break has reminded me of how important that is to my happiness; this blog has always been a place where I can share the joy that starts in my kitchen, and I’m more determined than ever to make a place for that joy in my life.

So, I’m going to wrap up this difficult year and kick off the happy-fest with a roundup of the best gluten-free baking products I’ve tried.  The sheer number of new gluten-free products finding their way to the shelves of various stores is daunting–but, as gluten-free eaters know all too well, those products tend to be hit or miss.  In keeping with my Foodie policy, I’ll maintain stoney silence with regard to the misses and, instead, celebrate the hits.

 

Sticky Fingers Bakeries Gluten-Free Scone Mixes

 

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I found these mixes at my local World Market, as you can see from the price sticker.  I loved Sticky Fingers scones in my wheat-eating days and was overjoyed to see these mixes on the shelf, though I wasn’t sure they could approximate the original.  In fact, they might actually be better than the original: crisp and brown on the outside, chewy on the inside.  Thus far, we’ve tried three of the four gluten-free flavors:  Meyer lemon (delicious, full of juicy little bits of lemon), blueberry (okay, but nothing special), and the original plain scone mix, which you can use as a canvas for your favorite add-ins.  I stirred in some cinnamon baking chips and fooled The Girl into thinking she was eating a regular scone.  “These are gluten-free?” she asked, when she saw me eating one.  “But they’re actually good.“  We haven’t yet tried the apple cinnamon flavor, and probably won’t–I’m not a big fan of apple-flavored anything–and I’m holding out hope that Sticky Fingers will make a gluten-free raspberry scone mix.  Each box of mix makes 8 to 10 scones, depending on how large you like them.  (And by the way–if you aren’t a member of World Market’s Explorer program, you should be.  All purchases, including food and coffee, earn points toward future rewards.   Check out the details here.)

 

HEB Brand Gluten-Free Brownie Mix (and other GF products)

 

Brownie Mix

If you’re a local member of the Foodie faithful–meaning you live in Texas–and you’ll want to rush out to your local HEB and grab a box of this brownie mix for the gluten-free people in your life.  This box of mix makes an 8-inch square pan of moist, dense brownies that no one will suspect of being gluten-free.  HEB also has a store brand of gluten-free cornbread mix (terrific), all-purpose baking mix (does the job), and yellow of chocolate cake mixes (I haven’t tried them yet,  but I have high hopes.)  The HEB brand of gluten-free pasta is similarly wonderful, and available in penne, rotini, and spaghetti.

 

Gluten-Free Bisquick

 

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If you grew up with Bisquick in your mom’s kitchen cabinet, as I did, you’ll understand why I was so excited to find a gluten-free version of this baking mix.  I used it as the basis of this Super Simple Pumpkin Bread (pictured above) and was delighted with the results.  It also makes all the basics you might think of in relation to Bisquick: coffee cake, drop biscuits, pancakes, etc.  My one quibble with this product is that it’s a little overpriced for the amount you receive.  Using the Subscribe and Save option at Amazon.com, a box costs about $4.00.  Each box contains about three cups of baking mix.  In other words, you’re going to go through a box of Bisquick (or, at least, the majority of it) every time you make a batch of pancakes or biscuits.  I don’t mind baking from scratch, and that’s certainly the cheaper option.  However, when you need to bake quickly–or if you don’t want to mess with measuring out multiple ingredients–gluten-free Bisquick is hard to beat.

 

A friend called recently to ask for my help with identifying gluten-free products to buy for her daughter, who’d just been diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  I was happy to be able to report that it’s getting easier to find gluten-free products every day.  It’s certainly much easier today than it was two years ago; gluten-free shopping rarely involves a trip to a specialty grocery store anymore.  Best of all, I don’t feel like I’m missing a thing.

 

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