Monday, October 26, 2009

New Host!

My Dear readers, we've moved!

the url is still but if we are now hosted on

Thanks for all your support!
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Friday, October 2, 2009

Movin' on up

Inspired by a recent workshop hosted by Midtown Lunch blogger Zach, I'm giving the blog a cosmetic overhaul ala wordpress (and a post on our new host). So if you found this blog looking for the allergenius turn around, and head on over to


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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

BabyCakes: Just Good Enough?

Good enough? Just good enough? Wait a minute now, what about my manic trek from the West Village to their location at 248 Broome Street? What about the six visits I made in the last three weeks? Or how about that time I dropped by and one of the lovely bakers recounted each item I had purchased on my previous visit (I would have stopped her had my mouth not been full of scrumptious GF savory scone). And dear reader, what about the line item I added recently to my budget just for BabyCakes?

The "good enough" superlative is not simply a cheap hook for this blog entry, its a primary component of my personal food safety philosophy.

My roommate kindly introduced me to the bakery, and a quick glance at their website left me hopeful, but confused;

Although we are 100% vegan and offer numerous gluten free products, a few of our baked goods contain spelt flour. (Separate pans, trays, utensils, sinks and sponges are used for the spelt ingredient).

We do not bake with nuts; however, some of our vendors store nuts in the same facility as our chocolate products. Additionally, all of our gluten free flours are processed on equipment that packages hazelnut and almond flours.

Also, now that the FDA has certified coconuts as a tree nut (see my investigative reporting on that topic) BabyCakes cannot claim to bake without tree nuts.

Fabulous that Erin McKenna, the mastermind behind the deliciosity -and a fellow food allergy sufferer- has instilled such consistent, clear, and safe practices in her kitchen (and has so generously shared her recipes in her latest book). However, the mention of potential cross contamination between GF flour and tree nuts left me scratching my head.

The first time I dropped by, I verified that their Bob's Red Mill gluten free (GF) flours are processed on equipment that also processes nuts. Uncertain about this risk of cross contamination, I contacted Bob's Red Mill directly and received the following brilliant response from a representative:

[W]e do thoroughly clean in between each line of products we run, first with air pressure and then by running 25lbs of product through, discarding it and running the rest of the product through.

Well that's good enough for me. I gathered all the information I could, and felt comfortable that the practices at Bob's Red Mill and at BabyCakes would be consistent enough for my nut allergy-sensitive self. I'm going to take a stand and just urge everyone who is uncertain about a packaged or processed food item to contact as many parts of the supply chain as possible when assessing a product. Companies are surprisingly responsive- and the expanded options are well worth it!

And the baked goods that inspired my drooling, rabid pilgrimage?

Well, this establishment's menu is extensive and constantly reimagines baking Gluten Free, Soy Free, Casein Free, Egg Free, Vegan, Kosher, and Refined Sugar Free.

Everything I tasted: lemon, red velvet and boston creme cupcakes, savory and sweet biscuits, and donuts exceeded their mere-mortal counterparts.* McKenna's use of coconut oil, and agave, not to mention rice flour and a garbanzo/fava bean mix adds a complex, layered flavor to each winning goodie.

Did I say donuts? Yes, GF donuts. Every other day the brilliant bakers churn out lemon coconut, chocolate frosted, chocolate coconut, cinnamon sugar and raspberry filled. All I can say? Exquisite.

Sadly, my hands were much too sticky from cramming the goodies into my mouth to bother with a digital camera (see Kathy's review at Lunchbox Bunch for drool-worthy shots). You'll just have to try them yourself. Oh and they deliver. Did I mention they have gift cards?

*Well except for the iced pumpkin loaf I had today. Honestly though, it was perfectly moist with gobs of frosting. It really just needed more spice- and McKenna professes to be a reluctant seasonal baker. It's okay, I understand, I'm from the Middle East and I didn't know seasons existed until I moved to the states.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New York Style Chicago Pizza/Chicago Style New York Pizza

August hiatus stretched into September hiatus and now we are smack into fall.

But never fear dear reader, The Allergenius traffics in nostalgia, and the end of summer is rife with remembrances of meals past. From the savory to the sweet, we'll be revisiting some old faves in the next couple of weeks. As the season's harvest shifts gears we'll be looking back through the rear view mirror at some summer highlights.

Speaking of traveling metaphors, when I was packing for my recent trip to Chicago I was faced with the age old dilemma: "Computer or CSA veggies?" Let's just say the only work I faced as I boarded the plane was pondering "what constitutes local food?"

The Park Slope Food Coop my personal mecca for all things local has this to say about "500 miles to local":
At the Coop, we define local as within 500 miles, because 500 miles is approximately a one-day-truck-drive away. Arugula picked at dawn on a Monday can be packed, trucked and on our shelves by 8:00 a.m. the next day. Our 500-mile radius stretches from Quebec to North Carolina, and from the Atlantic Coast to the middle of Ohio.

My locally sourced Russet Potatoes, Summer Squash and garlic were decidedly not local in Logan Square Chicago, eight hundred miles from my Brooklyn apartment.

Does this pizza, composed of exotic Long Island veggies constitute fusion cuisine? The perfect meld of two worlds: cloying Chicago deep dish and New York thin crust? Well, no. But it does offer the perfect allergen free blend of flavors.

The Allergenius Pizza (with variations)
*I used Bittman's recipe, and I'm still working on going GF with this one, but if you have a favorite GF crust, have at it!*

1/2 packet active dry yeast
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 to 1 1/4 cups water
2 TB plus 1 tsp. olive oil
Semolina flour as needed
Pinch of sugar

** I added 2 TB chopped rosemary and 3 sliced garlic cloves

Activate the yeast using about a 1/2 cup warm water and the pinch of sugar. Add together and let sit until bubbles form

Combine the yeast, flour and 2 teaspoons salt in a bowl. Begin mixing and add the remaining 1/2 cup water and olive oil. Continue mixing until the mixture forms a ball and is slightly sticky. If it is too dry, add water a very little at a time until it acquires the desired consistency.

Turn the dough onto a work surface floured with the semolina and knead a few seconds. grease a bowl with the remaining olive oil, and place the dough in it. Add Rosemary and Garlic Cloves. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp cloth and allow to rise in a warm place until the dough doubles in size, about 1 to 2 hours.

For Toppings (and baking the Pizza)
I was recently tapped for GERD by my GI doctor and challenged myself to make a group of toppings that would cohere without tomato sauce, the following is what I came up with, not all are allergy free (I held off on the cheese), but hopefully the flavor profile and balance of dry/roasted/saucy will inspire you to make your own creation!

Russet Potatoes, thinly sliced
Salt & Pepper
Lemon Sorrel, whole or roughly chopped
Olive oil
3-4 eggs, over easy (make these in the last five minutes of baking, so that they are nice and fresh and runny!)


Turn the dough out onto your floured surface and (literally) punch it several times. Divide it into desired portions and roll into pizzas. Brush the dough with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper before adding the potato and goat cheese, and spread oil on the surface of the sheet pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until crust browns.

Remove from oven, top with lemon sorrel and fried egg, serve immediately.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Coconut? More like Coco-not-a-nut!

Well not according to the FDA, which clarified in 2006 that coconuts, are in fact a nut.

Confused? I am. Let's piece through the legislation together shall we?

In August 2004, the FDA enacted The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) (or Title II of Public Law 108-282). Turn to page 908 of the PDF. About 2/3 of the way down the page, under the section marked "Conforming Amendments," is the paragraph that defines the eight primary allergens- a fact many of us are familiar with today.

Something I wasn't so familiar with cropped up in this guidance report for the industry published October 2006. Coconuts and lychees are drupes, though they are classified by the FDA as nuts.

Now this is nuts. Although individuals can be allergic to both drupes and nuts (having an allergy to almonds in addition to hazelnuts and cashews for example- or to coconuts for that matter), having a blanket umbrella term is not helpful when it comes to making smart food choices. When you are staring down a label for almond butter and it says "May contain traces of tree nuts," without elaborating which tree nuts it may contain traces of- label reading can often prove challenging and disheartening.

Although Section 403(w)(1), acknowledges that a major food allergen must be declared using the name of the food source from which the major food allergen is derived, I have not found this to be the case in my experience.

(Please note that this represents my own interpretation of the FDA regulations and is not meant to substitute medical guidance.)

One way of intervening on this whole label confusion would be to contact the manufacturer/distributor directly.

I did so several months ago with Wilderness Family Naturals' coconut oil. I am not allergic to coconuts, and wanted to verify that it was totally nut free. I spoke to a representative who clarified that their oil contained only "organic coconut oil." Still a bit wary of the "nut" in "coconut", the jar sat in my pantry for weeks before I even opened it up (with a friend and epi pen nearby) to take a whiff.

Yes, yup, smells like coconut.

I always do food challenges for suspected allergens in the safety of my allergist's office, but on occasion I will perform my own food challenges at home, with a friend, epi pen and benadryl at the ready. Do note that these are foods I may not have eaten in years, or foods I have eaten in very small quantities- but most importantly these are all foods that have not previously caused an allergic reaction. They are foods that I took out of diet because of fear and anxiety (the nut part of the coconut for example- it's scary!)

Several weeks later, with friend and epipen in tow, I took a small teaspoon of the coconut oil. And it tasted great! Soon I was throwing it on everything- from stir fry to oatmeal!

Yes, oatmeal. Breakfast soon became an experiment with flavor profiles, trying to match up different combinations of fruit, spices and coconut. This wonderfully neutral base inspired my present coconut rice pudding recipe. I toss ancho chili powder, agave nectar with some goji berries and a squeeze of lime to produce a sweet, aromatic and ultimately revelatory rice pudding.

Sweet and Spicy Rice Pudding
Makes four servings

1 1/2 cups cooked Jasmine rice
(note: you can use leftover short grain brown rice, I drew on Jasmine rice for its aromatic tone, and though a long-grain, it acts like a sticky short grain rice- I used Bittman's instructions for cooking rice, below)

Pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon ancho chili powder
handful of goji berries
1 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut milk
lime wedge

Place the rice, coconut milk and agave nectar in a medium-size sauce pan over low heat.

Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the salt and simmer until thick and creamy, 5-10 minutes.

Remove from heat, stir in ancho chili powder and goji berries (reserving a few to garnish on top). When you are ready to eat, sprinkle some lime juice from a freshly cut wedge.

Eat this fresh out the pot, or refrigerate to cool!

Mark Bittman's Basic Long-Grain Rice (from How to Cook Everything)
1 1/2 cups long grain rice
2 1/4 cups water or stock (I used water)
1 tp salt, or to taste

Combine the rice, liquid and salt in a medium saucepan and turn the heat to a medium-high. Bring to a boil.

Turn the heat to medium-low and cover. Cook for 15 minutes, or until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender. At this point:

- If the rice is not absorbed but the rice is tender, uncover and raise the heat a bit. Cook, stirring (you can add a little butter or oil if you like to prevent sticking), until the liquid evaporates.
- If the water is not absorbed and the rice is not yet tender, re-cover and check in 3 minutes.
- If the water is absorbed and the rice is not yet tender, add a few tablespoons of hot or boiling liquid, re-cover,and check in 3 minutes.

This recipe represents a delicious and very material intervention on some of the FDA's arbitrary labeling practices. Contacting the manufacturer and distributor of your processed goods is one solid practice you can take on- it's certainly an extra step, but one that is incredibly rewarding.
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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Beantown, hold the nuts

I hope you have an uneventful dinner.

I never thought that such uninspired instruction would be music to my ears- but there you have it, after three attempts (of varying degrees of success) to locate a spot to dine in my first night in Boston, we landed at Elephant Walk.

For the winding path to Elephant Walk, we start with our first phone call.

Phone Call 1:
Hello, this is Elephant Walk

Can I please speak to a manager? I have a severe allergy to nuts and I have some questions about the menu

The conversation was quite pleasant and informative. Before I had even completed my schpiel, the manager informed me that they would be able to prepare my entire meal separately, with freshly cleaned implements and utensils, and the entire restaurant staff would be informed.

I can barely contain my excitement at this point- so receptive!

And oh-by-the-way-were-you-aware? it's restaurant week in Boston, but never mind that prix fixe-order what ever you want off the menu and we'll accommodate you.

A clear communicator, who fulfilled all my allergen needs in a couple of beats, and increased my options ten fold? I noted his name and informed him that I would call back for reservations. I felt a small rush of success, time for restaurant two!

Phone Call 2:
This psuedo French restaurant, while a bit pricey (hey it was my birthday weekend) held the lure of fresh and innovative fish dishes. Although the head chef got on the phone and assured me that all safe practices would be used, they could not vary from the prix fixe menu, which had all of one unappealing fish dish. Sigh!

on to Phone Call 3:
I knew from the get-go that this one was not going to win. It was loud in the restaurant and very difficult to hear the manager's abrupt "Yo" when he got on the phone. I neatly closed the conversation- this particular gastropub would not be hearing from me tonight.

First time's the charm, clearly- I was glad I called ahead for some options, and the next time I visit my friend in Somerville, I'll have a few more places I can return to.

Shortly upon arrival we checked in with both the manager and executive chef. I felt reassured, and excited to sample the fare at this Cambodian-French restaurant.

The first course, a Chilled Avocado Citrus Soup was a welcome reprieve to the steamy August evening. A tart and creative interpretation of a summer soup, with mushrooms that helped ground dish with their earthen texture and flavor.

My second course, Croustillants aux Poires et Crevettes Flambées aux Vin Blanc - Crispy wontons layered with warm Bartlett pear and scallion, topped with natural shrimp flambéed with white wine, leeks and garlic. This was crispy, sweet, with a well balanced flavor profile.

The combination of mint, savory beef, and vermicelli in my final entree was a revelation. Set atop some Boston Green Lettuce, this perfect wrap held together the sweet, savory and spicy mint flavors for a sensory experience that still leaves me craving this dish.

Three courses. Skip desert. Totally uneventful. Completely inspiring and satisfying.

Once I got into the habit of calling venues to determine whether they could accommodate my needs, I became instantly addicted to choice. I had long felt that my allergy-afflicted options were limited- select cuisines, dishes, ingredients-all seemed off limits. When I walked into a restaurant the task of carving out the menu into What The Allergenius Could and Could Not Eat was an overwhelming and anxiety provoking project. If, in addition to the nuts we toss out eggs, dairy, some seeds, some melons, sometimes-apples, kiwi, cherries, not to mention the hidden components of each in sauces, oils, seasonings and so- on eating out turns into a stressful experience. With the exception of cherries and nuts, none of these foods actually induce anaphylaxis, but they do bring on some pretty heavy duty gastrointestinal processes.

When I discovered that my dining-out options multiplied if I took a few minutes to make a few phone calls I found it an effective strategy to suss out a restaurant. Allergic Girl describes it as her "Cheers Experience" and I have certainly taken a page out of her blog.
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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Creamy Mashed Potatoes

Sometimes The Allergenius isn't such a genius when it comes to technology. Take this particular post. If you had checked it but mere hours ago, you would have come across some pretty gorgeous pictures indexed by my amusing short hand:




Enthusiastic, certainly, but perhaps a bit confounding. I’m still getting the feel of the blogger’s digital tools. Luckily, I’m much more adept with the tools in the kitchen, and love experimenting with them.

The other day I started out with some russet potatoes from my local food coop, intending to make mashed potatoes. I like my mashed potatoes especially garlicky, and I threw in a couple cloves of raw garlic before tackling the crumbly boiled potatoes with my hand blender.

Though I hadn’t added any butter, margarine or cream, the blender (which is also appropriately called a “wand” blender) was churning my potatoes into a creamy consistency, sans dairy!

My lactose intolerant stomach was thanking me before I even put the fork to my lips, and I assembled a gorgeous veggie spread with other fodder from my CSA.

Creamy Mashed Potatoes
(2 Servings)

1 LB (4-6 small or medium sized) diced potatoes, with skins on
2 cloves raw garlic, chopped
2 sprigs thyme
Salt and Pepper to taste
Chopped green onion

Drop diced potatoes gently in a pot of boiling water, and let sit for 25 minutes, or until the pieces just begin to crumble when you poke them with a fork.

Drain the potatoes in your sink, and let cool.

Place potatoes in a medium sized bowl with garlic, and tackle them with your hand blender until they are the desired consistency, then add salt and pepper to taste

Top with chopped green onion to garnish

Braised Purple Carrot and Fennel Salad
(4 Servings)

1 bunch carrots, peeled and sliced on the bias
1 medium sized fennel bulb, cut across the bulb (to prepare chop across the top to remove fronds, you can peel the bulb's outer layer if desired, but I usually leave it intact)
¼ cup apple cider vinegar plus more as needed for braising
1 bunch reserved fennel fronds

Set stove top burner to medium-high heat, drizzle 1 TB olive oil on oven safe skillet or pan
When oil is hot, toss in carrots and fennel, and let brown

Add apple cider vinegar and deglaze pan

Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Let vegetables cook until tender, when they can be easily pierced with a fork

Uncover vegetables and set heat back to medium-high, cooking off excess braising liquid, tossing vegetables frequently

Add reserved fennel fronds

Serve and Enjoy!

Garlicky Green Beans
(2 Servings)

½ LB green beans
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
Salt and Pepper to taste
1 TB juice from fresh lemon

Drizzle one tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet or pan, drop the sliced garlic and follow swiftly with the green beans. Cook for three to five minutes on medium high heat, tossing lightly every so often.

Squeeze juice from half a lemon onto skillet, season with salt and pepper to taste

Each of these dishes can be served as a delicious accompaniment to a main course, or served together for a hearty and nutrient rich meal!

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