Monday, November 22, 2010

Top Ten Gravy Tips

Since gravy is such a staple for the migraine patient, here are (in no particular order) ten of my favorite tips for using gravy:

1. Chicken stock is the most versatile liquid to add to your roux. It work great with chicken, but can also be used with pork, beef or seafood with good results. Use the unsalted version to have the most control over sodium and taste.
2. Beef stock is a great alternative that works with beef or stock. It can be used on meat loaf or salsbury steak.
3. Vegetable stock is fun for a change. It can be used to create vegetarian dishes, or served with lighter meats like chicken or seafood.
4. Add Cajun seasoning to your gravy. It makes a great topping for chicken. In the alternative, throw in some red beans, mirepoix (sauteed onion substitutes, bell peppers, celery) garlic, and meat, to end up with red beans and rice.
5. Add curry powder to your gravy. Add in left-over chicken, Asian veggies, serve over rice, and you have chicken a la king.
6. Add cream cheese to your gravy. It makes a great sauce for pasta and/or chicken. Throw in some English peas to give it some color.
7. Add cheese food product (Velveeta) to make a sauce for mac and cheese. Add to cooked macaroni, and bake in casserole.
8. A little milk or cream added to gravy changes its character entirely and makes it new again.
9. Tomato paste turns your veloute into espagnole. If this is prepared with garlic, ginger, and some Indian spices, you get a very commonly-used Indian sauce.
10, Gravy makes great savory pie filling. I use chicken for chicken pot pie and beef for shepherd's pie.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Migraine-Free Cooking!

Migraine-Free Cooking! by Heidi Gunderson is a good-quality self-published book modeled completely on the guidelines in the Buchholz book. In addition to the recipes that one would expect, Heidi includes indispensable tools: the Shopping Lists, Recommendations and Allowable Foods, Cooking Substitutions, and Dietary Triggers to Avoid squeeze nearly everything you need to know into less than ten pages. She tackles the practical everyday issues that everyone has to identify and confront, like, "How can I live without onions?" and "What can I possibly use instead of citrus?"

Best of all, the recipes are perfectly suited to the migraine diet. Unlike some authors, Heidi does not cheat with a lot of trigger ingredients. Although recipes cover many areas, the most attention is devoted to main courses, fish, soups, sauces and sides. This will maximize the usability of the selections.

Two years ago, this book would have saved me countless hours of looking for appropriate cooking ideas. Interestingly, my exhaustive recipe research has turned up many of the same main course dishes as those in the book. From this, I have concluded that 1) the migraine diet will not vary THAT much from person to person; and 2) Heidi's recipes cover most of the dishes in that diet. However, she goes the extra mile and throws in unexpected goodies that I never could have found without her help. (Hopefully I can do the same for my readers in future posts)

One of the best points for beginners is that recipes tend to be stripped down, which keeps things manageable for newbies in the kitchen and people in a hurry. If you're addicted to convenience food, suddenly switching to home-cooking may throw you into that second category. The thing that I like even better about the recipes is that simple recipes are easier to develop to your own tastes and preferences. Migraine staples like chicken pot pie, chili, lasagna, taco meat and shepherd's pie can be modified many different ways, depending on how you want to season them, or what vegetables you want to add (e.g. curry powder in the pot pie or corn and peppers in the taco meat). You can refer to other recipes for ideas of what to change, or let imagination and experience be your guide.

This "stranded on a dessert island" book is an essential for the beginning cook trying to master the migraine cooking repetoire. It is definitely is a "best in class", with just the right amount of information to equip readers without overwhelming them. If you only buy one cook book to learn how to cook the Buccholz way, this is absolutely the one to get.

Tip of the Day

One of the most frustrating things about cooking for me is that it takes so long. If you hurry, you can ruin something or end up in the emergency room. The best trick I have learned to increase my efficiency is to use the "Thanks for Coming!" bowl, aka the garbage bowl. When food is cut, inedible pieces need to go somewhere. I'm right-handed, so I keep a bowl (it can be dirty, since it is for garbage, so no clean dish is dirtied) on my left side. That way, the hand that is steadying the food (as opposed to cutting) is empty and ready to instantly move pieces a few inches away. There's no turning, taking your eyes off of your work, or dropping food on the floor en route or when you have bad aim. Your grip on the knife is maintained. You don't lose the flow of your work.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tip of the Day

If you liked the recipe for MSG-free taco seasoning, take a look at this website: The Spice Hunter. They offer a huge variety of useful products, including salt-free blends of every kind, and they just happen to be MSG-free as well. Fajita, Greek, creole, Indian, curry, and barbecue rubs are just a few of the options available here. If you see a blend that looks promising, you can click it and see all the ingredients, just to be safe (lemon peel and lemon oil make occasional appearances). This stuff is not bargain-priced, but it will give you some options to change up your old standby's and should last a long time. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Word about Sauces

Being a bit of a food TV addict, I was watching Hell's Kitchen the other evening. Gordon asked the chefs to name the "Five Mother Sauces", which they did with relative ease. Some of the names were mumbled or impossible to spell by hearing them (even though I used to be fluent in French - shame on me!). Since I'm always looking for ways to flavor my meat, I went to researching them.

The most surprising thing about this topic is that, for migraine purposes, I have already fully explored the basics. We've already discussed simple gravy (veloute) and bechamel. The third sauce, espagnole, is a doctored, slow-cooked version of veloute with tomato paste added at the end (not good for your migraine patient, so leave it out if necessary). Sadly, the last two mother sauces, vinaigrette and hollandaise, contain acids (vinegar or lemon juice), so are definite migraine no-no's.

The great thing about these sauces is that a few minor variations can give you an almost endless variety of options for flavoring your food. Cream cheese added to veloute makes a great sauces for pasta or chicken. Milk or cream added to veloute creates a great sauce for pot pie. Cheddar (if you can eat it) added to bechamel makes a great sauce for macaroni and cheese. Cajun seasoning added to veloute makes a killer specialty gravy for chicken. The common options are generally simple and well-documented, plus you can expand those options with whatever vegetable or seasoning happens to fit what you are having for dinner.

The only big cautionary note I would throw in is this: if you add egg to a hot liquid, it MUST be tempered so it will not scramble. Add a small bit of the hot sauce to the egg and stir. Then, add more hot liquid to the egg and repeat. When the egg mixture has been fully brought up to temperature, it is added slowly to the cooking sauce. When eggs or milk products are added to a sauce, it can no longer be cooked at high heat levels, because there remains a possibility of curdling.

So, if you can now make a quick light gravy, a slow dark gravy, and a milk-based gravy, you have mastered the migraine-friendly basics of sauce-making according to Escoffier. Congratulations!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ingredient Alert!

As much as I depend on shallots, they are not onions. Sometimes I miss onions horribly. However, simply cooking them sends my wife back to bed. Scallions are fine, but to me, they are just barely more than garnish. What's a family to do?

We have found a new alternative to onions: leeks! Leeks are odd creatures: they remind me of an ear of corn with no silk or corn inside. It doesn't sound like much, I know, but stay with me. . .

The secret to enjoying these things is to cut them up, then to float them in water. Because of their shape, orientation, and proximity to the ground, they tend to take on some dirt and grit. Drop the chopped leeks in a large bowl of water and the good stuff will float while the grit drops to the bottom. Swirl them around a bit, remove with a skimmer and you're ready to go.

So how are they? Just eating a bit raw was a real eye opener for me and my son Carter. We were instantly excited by the sturdy texture, the onion-like smell and taste, the sweetness that came out even from its raw state, and the hint of a grass-like flavor that gives it its own personality.

So far, we have tried leeks in chicken fried rice (minimal soy sauce, just for color, salt to add flavor, and extra soy sauce on the side for those that can tolerate it) and it was definitely better than shallots. Try leeks instead of onions when you are cooking something that really needs some onion-like flavor. Let me know how you like it - enjoy!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Migraine Gourmet - Jerry Rainville

A high-quality self-published work, The Migraine Gourmet is a labor of love by a retiree with degrees in mathematics, business and law. With extra material on avoidance strategies and adapting recipes to follow the diet, this book has recipes varying from the ridiculously simple (grilled burgers) to one of my favorites, jambalaya.

First the good: the introductory material is very good, especially for the beginning dieter. There is a nice list of spices to pair with various meats and veggies. Strangely missing was a personal favorite, thyme and chicken, but these pairings are very helpful to move away from the usual garlic, salt and butter pattern. Also helpful is the section on some acceptable ingredient substitutions. There is also a glossary and table of ingredients containing MSG. All good stuff! These materials obviously came from someone with experience, not some ivory tower.

On the other hand, the recipe offerings were not as useful as I would have preferred. Five beef recipes including hamburgers and meatloaf seems a bit sparse. The nine chicken recipes bring us up to 14 that might qualify for heavy rotation at my house. The recipes sometimes flag triggers, but not always. Some unflagged triggers include mushroom, Dijon mustard, rice wine vinegar, tomato products, lemon juice, and Worcestershire sauce.

If you have learned your triggers, check out the contents and see if this book might work for you. Even the tips may be worth the small investment. However, I was left with the feeling that I would not use more than a couple of pages from this book.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Migraine Cookbook - Michele Sharp

Having amassed a collection of cookbooks purportedly for migraine sufferers, I am mostly disappointed in them. Michele Sharp is director of development for The Migraine Association of Canada, essentially a fundraiser and PR person. She has done this for other not-for-profits as a career, so don't look for any medical, nutritionist, or similar credentials. There's not even mention of her ever having a migraine, so all this content was gathered "on the job".

I could overlook all this had it not been for one other omission - Dr. Buchholz receives no mention at all in an otherwise impressively lengthy bibliography. This is problematic not because of my cultish devotion to the man, but because his list of potential triggers is longer than most others. A recipe following a shorter trigger list may be useless to those using his program, especially beginners. More on that in a minute.

The presentation in this book is interesting, but somewhat problematic. The recipe section includes a sidebar next to every recipe entitled, "This recipe is free of the following triggers". If you have completed the program and identified your every trigger, that is fine. However, the elimination process can take a LONG time (going on two years in my wife's case). In the mean time, a sidebar entitled, "This recipe contains. . . " is MUCH more helpful.

So how are the recipes? I look primarily at meat entrees, since that's usually all I have time to prepare. Fish is not cheap (my wife can't work with daily attacks) and the boys barely put up with vegetarian entrees during Lent, let alone year 'round. Ideally, I want something simple with broad appeal, that my family will not mind eating every 2-3 weeks. There are only 14 meat entrees in the book. See if any of these ingredients discourage you: coconut, vinegar, white wine, onions, soy sauce, ketchup, Dijon mustard, mushrooms, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, . . . And I'm not the kind of person that serves duck, lamb or phyllo crust as a family "go to" recipe. Once you eliminate the recipes in question, a small offering of meat entrees is reduced to almost nothing.

The other recipes often stray into the "too fancy" realm. There are a lot of good options that fall in the gap between a boiled piece of meat and "just for company", but not many appear in this book. The desserts offer some bright spots, but in my experience, safe desserts are easy to find just about anywhere.

Bottom line - if you are looking for basic everyday recipes that are safe and do not require special ingredients, look elsewhere. The sidebar feature is misleading, missing some triggers in the recipes. I find this book to be nearly useless and do not recommend it to beginning cooks.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Health Food is Stealth Food

One of the first mistakes my wife and I made when getting her on the diet was running to every health food store and health food aisle we could find. It's health food, so it must be healthy, right? No!

In fact, packaged foods in health food stores/aisles are stuffed with soy and "natural flavorings". Soy is the darling of the health food community. However, it is not your friend. Organic fruits and meats are still possible choices, but soups, stocks, sauces, and just about everything else in a box or jar probably has one of these culprits lurking in it.

Repeated failures can be demoralizing. Don't waste time, energy and spirit on the quest for miracles at the health food store. Put those resources to work gathering recipes and ingredients that you already know are safe. If you have some extra energy, put it to work in the kitchen instead of the grocery store.

What a Friend We Have in Heidi

Heidi Gunderson has been a great resource person in this journey. Her website, Migraine Free Cooking, contains recipes and her blog contains a wide array of helpful items, including more recipes, discussion of pertinent issues, and links to still more resources. You can even follow her on Twitter. Best of all, her long-awaited book has finally been published. It can be previewed and purchased on Amazon.

She has devoted herself to spreading the good news that migraine patients can follow the Buchholz plan and still eat good food. Check her out!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Knife Pointers

One of the unavoidable tasks of learning how is cook is to learn to cut meat and vegetables safely. If you don't take anything else away from this article, remember Rule #1: NEVER USE A MANDOLIN WITHOUT A SAFETY HANDLE ON THE FOOD. This rule was reinforced for me rather vividly just recently. Not only did my brief violation of this rule create significant pain, blood, scarring, sleepless nights, missed work, and inconvenience, but it completely subverted the purpose of this blog: it gave my wife a migraine, prevented me from cooking, and created a significant hardship on her. It looks like I will eventually recover, but please take advantage of my experience instead of gaining your own. Given a choice, I would have taken vegetables cut with a knife over what I got.

Rule #2: Never reach in a food processor or blender when attached to a base that is plugged in. Someone mentioned a violation of this rule to me when I was explaining my own situation.

Rule #3: Keep your knives sharp and clean. A dull knife will catch and jump unpredictably when force is applied. Unpredictable is what we want to avoid when putting blades in motion.

Some general advice: An 8" chef's knife may look intimidating, but it is reasonably safe and very effective for appropriate jobs when used correctly. Get a book from the library and watch a few videos (YouTube is filled with them). Pay particular attention to how to hold the non-cutting hand. Different vegetables require different approaches, so be sure to learn about all your favorites. I use my chef's knife to chop and slice vegetables, and to carve or slice large pieces of meat. The only common job I have found to date that does not work well with a chef's knife is breaking down and trimming chicken. The big blade swinging around so much to do fine work can be a little hazardous in this case. I can't tell you how to distinguish a fine knife from a paperweight (America's Test Kitchen, books, retailers or chef buddies can help), but I can tell you that my cheap Publix knife ($8.00) that I picked up as a spare has been more than satisfactory.

Food processors and automated slicers are great too. I often use the food processor to get ingredients together quickly for meat loaf. My young son enjoys this job and the intimidation and danger of exposed blades are eliminated. Frequent users may want to invest in extra bowls/attachments so that a clean one is available even when the dishwasher has not been run.

A final good skill to have is sweet-talking your butcher. If your meat is prepared for your needs in advance by a pro, then your still-developing skills will not hold you back.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Good Gravy

My father used to tell me that it is important to marry a woman who knows how to make good gravy. Unfortunately, heat is a big trigger for my wife, so it all falls on me. Fortunately, it's not that tough to make. Better yet, the technique is easily adapted for migraine patients and lends itself to lots of variations.

The key to gravy is following these three easy steps:
1. Create a "roux" (rhymes with "shoe")
2. Add liquid
3. Season to taste

A roux is made by combining roughly equal parts of fat and flour in a sauce pan over medium to medium high heat. Your fat can be butter, oil, margarine, meat drippings or some combination. Butter and olive oil are a popular combination. Butter burns easily, so less heat and more attention are required. Peanut oil is delicious, but bad for you and a potential trigger, but most other fats should be ok. Heat up 2-3 tablespoons of fat and whisk in roughly the same amount of flour. Remember to use a safe whisk if you are cooking in a non-stick sauce pan. Make the mixture as smooth as possible, eliminating all lumps.

Depending on the fat used, the flour may or may not become visibly darker when it is cooked. It may give off a slightly bread-like smell. In any event, after about 5-6 minutes, the dough-like taste that you are trying to avoid will be gone (Note: this is not one of those frequent moments where you should taste your work). Congratulations - you have made a roux.

Now it's time to add liquid. For gravy, the liquid is going to be stock or water. When using water, "base" can be added for flavor. "Better than Boullion" is a safe base choice for many migraine patients (as opposed to real boullion, which is often not). This opens up all kinds of choices for flavors. You may want to steer clear of ham stock, but otherwise, just about everything is reasonably safe. Although the temptation is to match the stock to the meat, chicken stock works great with just about anything. Whisk in about 2 cups of liquid, increase heat, bring to boil and reduce to simmer until the gravy is the desired consistency. Be sure to stir occasionally to keep out the lumps.

Seasoning to taste can be done as the gravy thickens, and fine-tuned when the gravy is finished. This WILL require tasting your work, so remember to use a clean spoon each time. Seasonings can obviously include salt and pepper. However, don't stop there. Other than onion powder for some people, the spice rack is one of your greatest assets. Borrow ideas from your favorite ethnic dishes: Cajun, Greek and Mexican are just a few options. Store-bought seasoning mixes (Creole, Bay Seasining, . . . ) make excellent choices as long as they don't contain trigger additives. Such things DO exist, so shop around, check labels and be patient - your efforts will be rewarded.

Although gravy generally comes out fine even when "eyeballing" measurements, sometimes it refuses to cooperate. Don't despair - you have two options to end up in a good place. First, you can whisk in a bit more flour. This is simple and does the trick without pulling out more ingredients. If you are concerned about changing the taste of the gravy, you have another option: corn starch.

Corn starch has to be used correctly or it will not work as a thickener. However, its advantages outweigh its minor challenges. Stir together 1 part corn starch with 2=3 parts water, just enough to suspend the corn starch in a white, thick, milky mixture called a "slurry". Before the solids settle to the bottom, add a couple of tablespoons to the uncooperative gravy. Increase heat, bring to boil, and quickly reduce heat to simmer. Failing to reduce the heat will cause the corn starch to break down and lose its thickening properties. Remove the gravy from heat as soon as it achieves the desired consistency to avoid this.

The best thing about gravy is that its uses are not limited to something drizzled over a hunk of meat. Other options include the liquid filling for a pot pie, the liquid behind a stew, or the beginnings of a chili.

They say that once you can make gravy, you are offically a real cook. If you are hesitant to cook it without a recipe, try this to get started:

Country Style Steak

This nice recipe uses sauteed onions (shallots work great here) as part of the roux:
Chicken Pot Pie

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Meet. . . Loaf!

Simple, cheap, potentially trigger-free, and an American classic, meatloaf is one of the great ways to feed a family with a migraine patient. As a starting point, check out the Hillybilly Housewife recipe for meatloaf.

A few notes are in order:
1) Shallots, not onions
2) Make your own breadcrumbs. Throw one or two pieces of toast in a food processor and you have trigger-free breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs in this recipe are for texture, not taste, so no need to season them.
3) If you use the food process for both breadcrumbs and veggies (makes prep REALLY fast), make the breadcrumbs first. Otherwise, the breadcrumbs get soggy and are a little harder to work with.
4) Food snobs use fresh garlic. To me, garlic is about tradeoffs. Fresh is best, but requires prep and results in stinky hands. A garlic press is a good workaround. Minced garlic in a jar is faster and easier, but it's not minced as fine as I would prefer. Garlic powder is easy to use, measure and store, and is the only choice where only dry ingredients will do (see Taco Seasoning, for instance), but is otherwise inferior to fresh or pre-minced.
5) Experimentation is possible with this recipe. Different breading will provide different texture. Also, differing amounts of liquid will provide different texture. I prefer the texture with little or no liquid, but it makes the meat more resistant to mixing. You can vary your liquid too: beef or chicken stock work great as flavor enhancers. Finally, you can vary the vegetables you put in the mix. Peppers are always good, or you may have other favorites that you'd like to try.
6) A good cook ordinarily tastes their food to check seasoning. That's not safe with raw meat, so you can take a meatballs worth (about 2 tablespoons) and fry it in a small patty like a burger to check it.
7) Ketchup is not allowed. One of the best alternatives to ketchup for meatloaf is gravy. Gravy is so important to migraine cooking that a separate article will be devoted exclusively to gravy.
8) Leaner cuts of meat produce less grease, but the grease is very easy to pour off. Don't spend more on ground sirloin if that is a stretch for you.
Again, this is very hard to screw up, so try this and have some fun.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Stock in a Box

One of the great ingredients in many recipes is stock. Although homemade stock avoids the problems of unknown added ingredients and by-products, it requires preparation and cold storage. After much time, effort and frustration, I've found a store brand of stock that works great in recipes, without the MSG, soy and other problematic ingredients: Kitchen Basics. They have a very strict policy regarding many common allergens, including several affecting migraine patients. WARNING: it does contain some ONION, but not enough to bother my onion-sensitive wife.

Although I use chicken, beef and vegetable varieties, I keep going back to chicken. Even when I make beef dishes, I sometimes use chicken stock for sauces, gravies and extra liquid. It goes well with pork and I use it in place of water sometimes in rice and risotto. However, beef and vegetable are good and provide a simple tool for some variety in your dishes. When considering salted versus unsalted, unsalted gives you an option if you are also managing sodium intake. Pros prefer unsalted because it allows the most control. I recently switched to unsalted, but find myself adding more salt to compensate. Unsalted is probably the better choice, but neither is strictly "wrong". My best recommendation is not to switch back and forth, as it is easier to misjudge appropriate amounts of added salt.

With so many sources of flavor creating problems for the migraine patient (MSG, soy, onions, most vinegar and wine, citrus, etc.), it is great to have stock on hand and a handful of delicious ways to use it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Start Simple with Black Beans

Untold numbers of great recipes start with sauteeing vegetables. This provides a flavor base that the rest of the dish is built on. The vegetables used in this process are called "aromatics" and can include onions, shallots, bell peppers, carrots, celery and garlic. It is unusual to use all of them in the same dish, but certain combinations are used all the time, such as onions, peppers and garlic in Italian cooking. Shallot substitutions work well in these combinations.

Take a quick look at my recipe for black beans. This is a great dish to practice with. Even if you screw it up beyond repair, which is unlikely, you haven't wasted much money.

The first few steps are the key:

# Cover bottom of hot sauce pan with olive oil
# Add onion and pepper to sauce pan, season lightly with salt, and saute over medium to medium high heat
# When onion and pepper are nearly cooked, add garlic

When covering the bottom of the pan with oil, it just needs a thin coating. The purpose here is to 1) avoid burning or sticking vegetables; 2) add some flavor to the mix; and 3) bring the flavors together "as one". Vegetables are added to HOT oil so that they do not soak up more oil than necessary while cooking. In this dish, crunch is not desirable, so they vegetables are cooked until soft and the shallots are clear. The peppers will lose some of the bright color they have earlier in the cooking. Garlic is added late in the process because it can burn if cooked too long.

When the other ingredients are added, the extra olive oil serves a different purpose. Here, it smooths the texture of canned beans, which can be a bit sandy otherwise. I use any cheap olive oil, favoring milder flavored varieties, but I definitely use olive oil. The texture is "just right" and the flavor is subtle enough that no one will really notice it.

Chicken stock deserves its own article. Suffice it to say for now that Kitchen Basics is my favorite.

The bringing of a semi-liquid mixture to a boil, followed by a long simmer is another process used to bring flavors together. It also give you precise control over the thickness of the final product with your cooking time. For any cooking down of a semi-liquid mixture, I tend to favor stock over water. However, some dishes are so rich that anything but water is overkill. For the super patient, one can cook down a mixture, add more liquid and cook it down again to REALLY bring the flavors together. However, keep in mind that longer cooking and more stirring breaks down the food, much like a slow cooker. Some vegetables can turn to "mush" if cooked for too long, so don't cook the beans all day unless you plan to puree them into soup.

Between sauteeing aromatic vegetables, and cooking down semi-liquid mixtures, you have now acquired important skills to make delicious meals for your migraine patient.

Some Essential Tools

This cook could not survive without a few simple tools. The first and most important is a 12" non-stick skillet. You can cook meats, saute vegetables, or stir-fry in one quickly, with the ability to watch your work, taste frequently, and know that you are finished before it is too late. There are a couple of rules to know: 1) Excessive heat ruins the non-stick finish, so avoid high heat. Medium to medium high is hot enough for most applications, except maybe boiling water quickly. 2) Don't use metal utensils. That will also damage the finish and ruin the pan. Stick to wood and plastic. This includes items like spatulas, spoons, whisks, etc. Obviously, it is OK to use a metal tasting spoon if you don't touch the surface of the pan.

The second most important tool is olive oil. I hate olives and so does my family. I have nasty memories of my sister using olive oil while performing permanent waves on her hair at home. There are few things more disgusting. Put that all aside and try it. Olive oil has many uses - it can be used in salad dressings, it can be used to lubricate your skillet for fry and saute chores, it can be used as a flavor or garnish, it can hold dry rubs on meat so it can bake and take on flavors, it can be used to make a roux for gravy, and it can be used as a texture enhancer for dishes like spaghetti sauce or black beans.

The texture is so much nicer that cheap old Mazzola Oil that we used to use back in the olden days. It imparts a smoothness, rather than an oiliness, when used properly. It doesn't impart a "popcorn" taste. In fact, the taste can be managed easily.

The biggest trick to olive oil is knowing that Extra Virgin Olive Oil ("EVOO" to Rachael Ray fans) has stronger flavor than regular olive oil. If you really don't love the taste, use plain olive oil. If you take a shine to it, try a small bottle of lighter tasting EVOO, such as the Kroger house brand. Then, you can move on to the hard stuff.

The thing to know about olive oil is when to not use it. It works great in most applications, but when dealing with cooking styles, consider whether that style uses olives. Mexican, French and Mediterranean foods use olives all the time, so olive oil is great for those. Cajun and Asian foods do not generally use olives, so it is better to use something else. (Canola oil has no taste and is a good alternative)

Also, olive oil does not take heat as well as some other oils. It has a lower "smoke point" than canola oil and certain others. It is probably not the best choice for deep frying or very hot stir frying.

Keep these tools in your kitchen and you will be in a much better position to start making miracles in the kitchen.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Getting Organized

The quickest obstacle to success in the kitchen is lack of organization. Find a single tool that works for you and use it consistently. My tool is AllRecipes. It's free for regular use and has a recipe box. The recipe box allows you to keep up with their recipes that you like, your own recipes that you type in, links to recipes online, and references to recipes in books. Each entry can be assigned to multiple categories (ground beef, Italian, grilling, etc.), so you can pull up all your recipes for any need you come up with. You can rate recipes and easily find your favorites. Free users can add a few notes. Paid users can modify recipes. Food Network has a similar tool on their website, and there are numerous others. The point is that you can't follow your recipes if you can't find them. Find a good tool, use it liberally, and stick with it. You won't regret it.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Taco Seasoning

My family loves Mexican food. Taco meat is easy to make, but the packaged seasoning is chock full of MSG. has a popular 5-star recipe for homemade taco seasoning. The recipe contains onion powder, which can be omitted without doing too much damage, but onion powder is often tolerated by people sensitive to onions. Onions are a trigger for my wife, yet onion powder is not a problem. A co-worker of mine goes into anaphylactic shock if he eats onions and even he can tolerate onion powder.

Brown and drain some hamburger or other ground meat, add about 1/4 water or stock (chicken or beef) and sprinkle on the seasoning to taste. I'd start with 1 1/2 tablespoons per pound. Bring mixture to boil and then simmer to desired consistency. Taste, add more seasoning and liquid if needed, and continue cooking down. You can add 1/2 to 1 tablespoon flour with the seasoning if you like thicker gravy-like consistency.

This meat is great for tacos, burritos, enchiladas, or nachos. You can add color and texture by adding in sauteed peppers and/or shallots. If you are using low fat meat such as ground sirloin, you can just cook these items with the meat without fear of getting it greasy. Canned or thawed frozen corn also add some color and sweetness.

The seasoning is also good to sprinkle on pork tenderloin or chicken that has been brushed with olive oil prior to baking. Although not technically a fajita seasoning, it can be used to pan fry fajita meats with satisfactory results.

My favorite thing about this seasoning is that it is simple but versatile. Mexican food can be served "taco bar" style, allowing the migraine sufferer to avoid their triggers, while other family can add their favorite cheese, tomato, onion, guacamole or sour cream without making anyone sick. It's a win-win for everyone.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Your Best Friend in the Kitchen

Hands down, my best friend in the fight against my wife's headaches has been shallots. We learned very early on that onions are a trigger for her. Most tasty foods require onions, so a substitute was absolutely necessary if we were ever to enjoy delicious food again.

Shallots present some challenges. The most obvious place to buy them is in the local chain grocery store. However, they are difficult to find. They come in very small and EXPENSIVE bags. When we began the diet, we were facing some financial pressures and were pinching every penny. The shallots in these bags tend to be disappointingly small, which means more work and less food per ounce.

We found two alternatives to tiny shallots in tiny bags with huge prices: first, we discovered that shallots can be found in bulk, or in giant bags, at our local farmer's market. The prices are ridiculously cheap in comparison to retail grocery stores. The shallots at the farmer's market are much larger, as well. They tend to be better quality, though that is not always the case. Avoiding giant bags in favor of hand selecting from the bin solves this problem - look for shallots without the large dark or dry spots. As in most cases, avoid organic if you want to save the most money.

We also found that shallots are available at the local Mexican markets in bulk. They tend to be smaller, and are not as good as the best ones at the farmer's market. However, they are good and cheap enough that a special trip for this purpose may be worthwhile.

Preparation is similar to onions, even down to the tears. The best way to deal with them is to get a library book on knife techniques, or watch a video on YouTube. Cooking shallots like a chef helps make the process efficient, the tears rare, and the pieces uniform for even cooking.

Shallots have certain advantages and disadvantages over onions. Shallots do not have the same taste as onions; they are considerably milder. I miss onions terribly and eat them out whenever I can. Shallots are a tolerable alternative, but not a perfect one. On the other hand, shallots are milder than onions and make a nice raw ingredient in salads, salsas, and other dishes.

Ultimately, the advantages of shallots greatly outweigh their disadvantages. So many styles of cooking depend on onions as a key ingredient and shallots provide a perfectly reasonable substitute. With shallots, the migraine cook can explore every form of cuisine from Cajun to Cuban, French to Italian, and Mexican to classic American. Make your peace with shallots and they will become your best friend in the kitchen.

What's Right and Wrong About the Book

My biggest frustration when picking up the book was that it is SO negative. The list of triggers is all about what a migraine patient CAN'T eat, not what they can eat. I found this terribly frustrating - I became very skilled at finding things in the grocery store that my wife could not eat. I had to figure out for myself how to find what she COULD eat. My goal here will be to tell you what you CAN prepare and eat without fear.

Welcome Aboard!

This blog exists to share my experiences as an inexperienced cook suddenly having to cook dishes that follow this migraine classic. Hopefully, I can spare you some pain by sharing some of mine.