Does gluten-free take too much time?

We’ve become so accustomed to drive through food that we think in order to be “fast”, a meal must include a wait in the car and a sandwich of some sort.  To think of preparing a home cooked meal without using processed food sounds overwhelming or like an activity to be saved for that special occasion.  For many of us, this becomes reason enough not to consider a gluten-free lifestyle or to haphazardly adhere to its restrictions.  So what is the reality?  Does being gluten-free really take too much time?

Last night Ben and one of his friends showed up an hour before we were scheduled to go to a movie.  Knowing Ben, I guessed that he had showed up early looking for food, so instead of waiting for them to ask, I offered chicken soup.  A couple of embarrassed shrugs later they had piping hot bowls of Eight Days a Week Rosemary Chicken Soup topped with shredded parmesan cheese, some Killer Beans, and dried apricots.  Without any effort greater than looking for clean bowls and spoons, these young men were consuming a tasty, healthy, satisfying meal.  Including the 4 minutes of microwave warming, it didn’t take any longer than driving through one of the 6 fast food restaurants they had passed on the way to my house.

Killer Beans
These beans are killer good!

Both of these young men are gluten eaters and both of them are familiar with my household, so they knew I might not have a loaf of bread or box of crackers handy.  They could have easily grabbed a quick sandwich on the way instead of opting for a gluten-free meal.  And yet they didn’t.  The second I wondered why, I was transported back in time to my grandmother’s house.

My parents owned a business across one street and a large yard from my grandmother’s house.  Through her 60s and 70s, my grandmother walked to work every day.  I worked for my parents periodically and would sometimes follow my grandmother home at the end of the day.  Without fail, when I walked through the door she would offer me food.  It might be chili with some cottage cheese and pears, or a slice of ham with English peas and sliced tomatoes, or if I was really lucky some beef and noodles with a carrot and raisin salad.  The fare was always simple, ready in a few minutes, and always delicious.  My sister and I both loved to stop by.

No matter how much I may like some fast food french fries, they are never as delicious as the simple homemade dishes my grandmother had handy in the refrigerator.  For us those foods were “fast”, but what about for my grandmother?

My grandmother taught me how to make chili so let’s start with that. I can make a big batch from start to finish in 30-40 minutes. All the ingredients are readily available from my pantry with the exception of ground beef or ground turkey.  30-40 minutes for 8 servings is no more than 5 minutes per serving.  As an added bonus, the cost savings is huge!

Now let’s look at a dish I haven’t yet mastered.  My grandmother cooked beef cubes for beef and noodles in a pressure cooker.  I don’t have one of those because I fear I’ll blow up the kitchen, but I’ve read that it takes 10-15 minutes at high pressure to cook beef cubes. The noodles can be cooked while the beef is being pressured.  That means this dish probably takes 45 minutes including prep time and it is a family favorite.  She always made enough for at least 12 servings so that’s less than 4 minutes per serving.

Of course these entrees don’t tell the whole time story, but being a great planner my grandmother would reheat an entree she had cooked for Sunday dinner and serve it with freshly cooked vegetables on Wednesday making the whole process look effortless and feel inviting.  All of us can easily do that.

Yes, I recognize that times have changed.  Everything moves faster.  We work more.  We have more scheduled activities.  I have a 60+ hour per week job and I know how it feels to juggle work, family, and a social life.  Given our current lifestyles, does gluten-free really take too much time or do we just assume that it will?

Let’s go back to the meal I served Ben last night as an example:  I cooked the chicken soup in three steps on different days.  Step one was brining and took 5 minutes of prep.  Step 2 was cooking the chicken.  It also took 5 minutes of prep plus 1 1/2 hours of cooking, so I did that last Saturday when I had a block of time at home.  Step 3 included prepping vegetables. On the day I made the soup, I had already cleaned and prepped carrots, squash, and onion by chopping additional amounts when I was oven-roasting vegetables earlier in the week, then storing them in the fridge until the weekend.  I had prepped the sugar snap peas (I like to trim off the ends) the night before while watching TV.  With all that done, Step 3 took less 30 minutes including cooking time.

While I was brining the chicken, I was also soaking beans for the Killer Beans as well as for the soup.  While I was cooking the chicken, I also cooked the beans.  My prep time for 20 servings of food totaled less than an hour.  In my household these servings were consumed in 8 meals.  Adding in reheating time, the time consumed prepping, and each serving averaged 2 1/2 minutes of time in the kitchen.  Only 2 1/2 minutes.  That includes the initial cooking and prep time and it’s still less than the time I would have spent in 8 stops at a fast food restaurant and much less time than eating 8 meals in a sit-down-to-order restaurant.

Am I saying that I’m as consistently prepared as my grandmother, or that I don’t sometimes feel overwhelmed?  No.  But I recognize that many times when I feel overwhelmed by the idea of fixing dinner more than one night per week, all I have to do is shift my thinking away from the current cultural trends and remember how rewarding it was to eat at my grandmother’s table. I immediately feel renewed energy and excitement for getting into the kitchen to immerse myself in the tastes, colors, textures, and smells of cooking. The added bonus of eating a tasty meal at my kitchen table without worrying about dripping food on my blouse seals the deal for me.  Get me out of this car & into the kitchen!

The next time you’re tempted to abandon the idea of strict adherence to a gluten-free diet because it takes too much time, take a moment to think about your mother’s chicken and dumplings, some piping hot cornbread, or the smell of cookies fresh out of the oven.  Remember how you felt walking into a house that smelled like warm cinnamon.  Go ahead, smile, relax and realize that you can easily have those feelings in your own home tomorrow by making a tiny shift in how you spend your time. The time you would have spent waiting in restaurants or your car can be spent at home.

Caring for myself and my family by providing a beautiful, delicious, healthy, gluten-free meal is absolutely worth whatever time it takes in the kitchen.  And as we have seen, that time is less than the time I would spend waiting for food at a restaurant or drive through!

Be brave.  Do your own time tests.  The worst thing that can happen is you’ll make some great memories for your kids.

 

 

 *Eight Days a Week Rosemary Chicken Soup and Killer Beans are original Cooking2Thrive® recipes.

The Benefits of Cooking – Part 2: The Fun!

Some of you are probably reading this just to see how really crazy I am.  I get it.  Your initial thought when hearing the word cook may be more along the lines of: time consuming drudgery, additional work, pots & pans to wash, a disaster waiting to happen, or too much trouble…blah!   I’m with you. Those phrases don’t sound fun. So where is the fun to be found in cooking? Let’s explore the possibilities!

 In addition to providing sustenance, cooking can lead to compliments, camaraderie, spoon licking, new creations, toys, play, shopping, new friends, and chances to learn about other cultures.  Much more appealing terms to be sure, and really…is there anything better than licking the spoon?

 My fun often begins before I ever reach the kitchen. I’ll grab a reusable shopping bag and walk to the local farmers’ market.  If, like me, you enjoy fresh air, sunshine, walking, and the smell of seasonal flowers blooming, you’ll be having fun as soon as you hit the door.

 Most farmers’ markets are filled with an assortment of brightly colored fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are mouthwateringly appealing. Some also offer grass-fed meats.  Others have live bands performing and sell handmade baskets, jewelry, soaps, and clothing.  A morning of shopping and people watching often gives me enough funny stories to last all week.  At the very least, I know I’m supporting the local economy and going home with beautiful, healthy ingredients.  

 Farmer's Market Produce

 Shopping at an outdoor market can add fun when you travel as well.  I once drove through the North Island of New Zealand in an RV.  Along the route were incredible outdoor markets full of kiwifruit, silverbeet, asparagus, and oranges.  Not only were these items fresh, flavorful, and inexpensive, they provided a unique chance to meet people.  On the edge of every town was an RV park with a community kitchen.  The kitchens were stocked with pots and pans larger and more numerous than the RV kitchen could carry.  They also sported industrial size sinks and running hot water for doing dishes.  

 These $15 per night RV parks also offered electrical hookups and large community bathrooms with showers.  They were affordable and popular.  That usually meant sharing the kitchen with several locals.  There’s no better way to find out where the trout are biting, what kind of flies to use to catch them, and where you can buy the best flies.  Even though I’m not a big one to chat with strangers, the common denominator of food made it easier to strike up a conversation.

 Shopping and cooking in a foreign country can leave you with a rich cultural experience that you will never forget.  One of my favorite things to do when I travel outside the US is to visit indigenous grocery stores.  I notice the similarities to, and differences from, what I experience at home.  Some European package design is totally charming making me want to buy products on which I can’t even read the labels. 

 In the same vein, I find it fun to visit the ethnic markets in my town.  I recently tried Milk Cake upon the recommendation of the checkout girl at the Asian market.  A combination of buffalo milk and sugar, this cake is moist and dense.  While it didn’t turn out to be my favorite dessert ever, it provided a good deal of entertainment at a neighborhood dinner party when I took it in the original packaging.

 Some of us could shop ’til we drop, but then we’d never get any food on the table.  Perhaps it’s time to move on to the fun found IN the kitchen.  For those of you who love gadgets, the kitchen can offer an endless supply of specialized toys.  There are blenders, mixers, openers, graters, grinders, peelers, processors, choppers, skewers, colanders, sifters, tenderizers, muddlers, ballers, mortars and pestles, mandolins, juicers, whisks, knives, rolling pins, tongs, herb mills, thermometers, corkscrews, molds, cutters, stones, smokers, and special grapefruit knives.  Available in electric and unplugged versions, many of these can be purchased in bright colors for an additional element of fun.  If you love toys, you’ll love playing with them too.  I’m ready to chop, puree, macerate, pound, slice, cream, cut-in, muddle, grind, juice, measure, smoke, mix and match.  Whew!  Recess was fun.  Is it nap time yet?

 Coming up with new flavor combinations or preparing familiar foods in an unfamiliar way offers entertainment for both your mind and your palette.  My grandmother used to grow radishes in the garden.  She would cut the sides part of the way through to form the petals of a radish rose.  These roses formed a garnish on many of her salads.  I don’t like the bitter-hot, biting taste of radishes, and I’ve never voluntarily used one in the kitchen…until last month.  

 Ben has been building greenhouses for an organic garden.  One day he showed up with some arugula and some tender young radishes.  Feeling appreciative of the gift, I wanted to eat the radishes rather than give them away.  Since I knew I wasn’t fond of them raw, I decided to try a sauté. The result was a delicious change of pace.  I quickly consumed two servings and thought of several variations I wanted to try. I requested more radishes from the garden.  

Sautéd Radishes
Sautéing Watermelon and Red Radishes

 The next bunch arrived with the most beautiful green tops.  I decided to see if the greens are consumable.  They are!  Now I had another challenge – what to do with the greens.  I don’t know about you, but I love learning and I love puzzles.  I needed to learn more about the greens, and I had a chance to put together the pieces of a taste puzzle.  I was excited to see what the resulting dish would be.  Creating something new in the kitchen is supremely fun for me!

 The only thing that makes creating something new in the kitchen more fun is to compete with my boys in a cooking challenge.  The informal rules are that we will all cook the same main ingredient in any way we chose as long as we make the recipe up as we go.  We gather in the kitchen and the chaos begins.  We can all be quite competitive and we’re used to combining lively conversation with meal preparation.  The atmosphere in the kitchen is light-hearted and electric.  

 Last Thanksgiving, James and I had a pie cook-off.  Maybe it was supposed to be a piecrust cook-off, but it turned into a full-fledged competition.  Luckily, James wanted to make whipped cream for his sweet potato pie.  I say luckily because he makes the lightest, fluffiest whipped cream ever.  He always puts the bowl and whisk in the freezer before he starts, and he always lets me taste test when he adds the sugar.  Both of us won in the compliment department, but James’ pecan pie beat my parsnip pie as the favorite.  That’s okay.  Next time I’ll challenge with my lemon meringue pie.  And who won was not as important as the camaraderie in kitchen.  I think it’s safe to pronounce that all family fun should be topped with whipped cream!

James' Pie
James Won the Pie Contest with this Pie

 Relaxed family time can provide many moments of fun in the kitchen.  When the kids get excited because they get to ice the cupcakes and then lick the knife, when they jump up and down because you let them add the chocolate chips to the cookies, when your daughter’s friends want to eat at your house because you make macaroni and cheese from scratch, how can you not feel good about cooking? 

 I know that sometimes you’re too tired to cook.  Don’t force yourself.  Eat gluten-free cereal and milk or yogurt and fruit, or tuna straight from the package and a banana. Giving yourself a break when you really need it will leave you free to remember the fun of cooking.  Forcing yourself to perform in the kitchen when your heart isn’t in it will leave you resentful and less likely to get back in there and have fun another day!  

 Just be careful not to fool yourself into thinking that you “can’t” cook, or it’s ALWAYS drudgery, or it HAS TO take way too much time.  Sometimes it’s easier to say these things than to face our real feelings about food or to recognize that we miss the love we felt in our grandmother’s kitchen when we raided the cookie jar. Sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge that we feel pressured to DO so many things, we don’t relax enough to find the fun in the routine activities that fill our days. Please recognize that every time you stop yourself before you start, you may be missing out on a chance for a rewarding connection with yourself and with your family and where’s the fun in that?

 Cooking engages all our senses:  sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing.  It can feed our intellectual curiosity, our desire to collect or create, our desire to make order from chaos, or our desire to get our hands dirty.  Best of all, it offers many paths of connection to the earth, our communities, our friends, and our families.  When it comes to cooking, the possibilities for fun that satisfies the body, mind, and soul are truly boundless.  

 Next up The Benefits of Cooking Part 3: The Fixin’ in which we’ll explore the skill sets we master when we cook.  Don’t worry if you’re too busy having fun in the kitchen to read it immediately, you can always go to the archives and read it later.

 

Will the chef hate me for being gluten-free?

Hi everyone!

If you ever hesitate before saying yes to a lunch date, dinner date, or wine dinner at a fine dining restaurant because it feels like you’ll be imposing on the chef, you’ll want to watch this interview with Chef Matt McClure.  In the video Chef Matt gives us some tips to make the experience better for both you and the chef.  Before you give up your social life, say no to your colleagues, or limit yourself in any way, please spend a few minutes learning more about gluten-free dining from the chef’s perspective.

Bio

Chef Matt McClure was trained at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont.  He worked in the Boston area at fine dining restaurants: No. 9 Park, Troquet, and Harvest before becoming the Sous Chef for Ashley’s at the Capital in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Chef Matt has been named Executive Chef for 21C Museum Hotel opening in 2013 near Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.  Congratulations, Chef Matt!

Chef Matt McClure
Chef Matt McClure