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. AllRecipes.com 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.