Sunday, August 22, 2010

Allergies? Schmallergies!

The kitchen can be an unnerving, frustrating and occasionally dangerous place to find yourself in. The sharp knives, water-electric hookups, plugs and of course the stove and oven are obviously risky business when handled incorrectly. But for those with food allergies the place that so many families centre their lives around, and parties take off in, can become the equivalent of running the gauntlet. When the allergies are environmentally aggravated in one way or another (as in some cases with wheat and gluten due to flour in the air) even abstaining from eating the culprit can't help.

So what to do? Well, one (expensive, but fairly convenient and quick) option is to rely on premade, prepackaged baked goods and prepared meals. It's hard to argue with the ease of toasting up a slice of rice bread in the morning to have with breakfast or throwing a package of cookies in your kids' lunchbox. But if your allergy or other dietary restriction list doesn't fall into line with the "usual" list of culprits known as the "Top 8" - or if the standard "swap" for one allergen is also problematic, the static ingredient lists of most products eliminate them from your repetoire. Even with the most carefully scrutinized labels, there is always the chance that an errant moment of cross-contamination occurred in the processing plant - and in anaphylactic or newly diagnosed conditions it might not be a chance someone's willing to take.

A more "middle of the road" approach that balances convenience and control is the use of pre-packaged flour blends and baking mixes for the majority of your specialty cooking. Just like anyone who's used a box of cake mix or whipped up pancakes with a little help, gluten-free (in particular) chefs can choose what elements to add or substitute to the dry mixture without needing to carry an arsenal of ingredients in their pantry. Gluten- and dairy-intolerant? Non-dairy milk is a fine substitute. In most cases an egg replacer like Ener-G can stand in for the real thing, too. And we're lucky that, at least near me, the pre-mixed blends for cakes, cookies and breads are making their way out of the health food stores and into the mainstream grocery aisles and bulk suppliers. Even those without special dietary needs are able to try their hand at creating "safe" treats and meals, as long as they can measure, mix and bake!

It was a gluten-free banana bread blend that got me onto trying out gluten-free baking again - both after talking to the mother of a newly diagnosed celiac patient and realizing that every time "traditional" flour began flying in my kitchen I myself would end up with burning eyes and rashy skin. I was perusing the bins at (surprise surprise) Bulk Barn when I saw the dry mix nestled in with GF cake, pizza crust and bread formulae, and since banana bread in any incarnation is unlikely to be turned down by my worthy gaggle of taste-testers, I figured it would be a safe bet. Being the nature of Bulk Barn, they don't provide the name of their mix supplier, but on their product page it provides the ingredients and nutritional information: "evaporated cane juice, rice flour, whole grain rice flour, corn flour, tapioca starch, cornstarch, baking soda, sea salt, methocel, guar gum, xanthan gum". All you have to add is one egg (or substitute), 3 mashed bananas, a touch of vanilla and some yogurt.

Well, as you can see, I went the "customization" route with the loaf I made. First, I dialed up the bananas to 4 1/2 medium guys and roasted them at 400F for 35 minutes - after making my last roasted banana bread anything less seemed kind of lackluster. In addition to using a commercial vegan egg replacer, I added more cinnamon, used non-fat Greek yogurt and added 2/3 cup of yogurt chips to the batter for a bit of extra "oomph". I suspect using half the chips would have yielded a bit more balanced looking result, but I'm sure this will taste awesome just as it is.

But here's where the "read the labels" philosophy comes back around. Yes, the mix is gluten free, but it also contained corn - one of the other no-nos on the list for the girl I was working with, along with fungi, brassicae, milk, strawberries and any red meat. And almost every other "general" mix I found on the shelves had it too. So I set about looking for a simple, basic dry mix recipe that not only was free of all those taboos, but didn't rely on the typical binders of xantham or guar gums either. Thankfully, FoodBuzz' search feature led me to a fellow Canadian, Veronica, and her site Life With Nature - which featured a recipe for banana muffins that were not only gluten and corn free, but vegan and fat free too! Of course, I had to try the recipe out right away, and with a few minor modifications and additions for added nutrition and flavour I think we have a winner. With only natural sweeteners, a nutty note from cooked quinoa and a perfect crunch from sunflower, chia and flax seeds, it's health food done right. Of course, if you don't like the banana in the recipe (or you're just looking for something different!), use 1 cup of pure pumpkin puree instead (and add some dried cranberries!) - it will be a delicious switch-up! I roasted the bananas for this recipe (400F for 35 minutes), but again you don't have to - you pick!

Iron - Rich "Gleegan" Muffins
Inspired by Veronica Rousseau
Makes 16
2 cups brown rice flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
4 large over-ripe bananas, roasted or not
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup agave nectar (or honey if not vegan)
1 tbsp blackstap molasses
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp fresh-grated ginger
1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup cooked quinoa, cooled
1/3 cup toasted sunflower seeds
2 tbsp chia seed
1/4 cup whole flax seeds
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.
  3. In a large bowl, mash the bananas with the syrup, agave nectar, molasses, applesauce, oil, ginger and vanilla until well blended.
  4. Add the dry ingredients to the banana mixture, stirring to combine.
  5. Fold in quinoa, sunflower, chia and flax seeds.
  6. Bake for 25 - 30 minutes.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 177.0
Total Fat: 4.4 g
Cholesterol: 0.0 mg
Sodium: 5.2 mg
Total Carbs: 33.7 g
Dietary Fiber: 3.3 g
Protein: 3.3 g

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