How We Deal with Oral Food Challenges, and the Vegan, Top Allergen Free Chocolate Cookie Dough that Helps Us Cope

Food isn’t the answer to everything, but chocolate helps. It always, always helps. When it comes to tackling an oral challenge, chocolate is my best defense. (Well ok, chocolate and lots of prayer.)

Oral challenges are scary. Anxious thoughts and all kinds of What if’s? dance our heads dizzy. In the nerve-wracking times when we face challenges head on, we need something familiar to help us cope. Bringing items along that boost our confidence and bring us comfort us is key. For our family, this includes giving God our worries, standing on His promises, bringing a fully-charged iPad, and eating this vegan, gluten free, top allergen free chocolate chip cookie dough.

While eggs aren’t on our off-limits list at home (because EJ grew out of that allergy several years ago), I make this cookie dough without them so the kids can eat it raw. Sure, I could make a single serving of it and call it a day, but why do that when I can bake up a batch of freshly baked cookies for later? (Lord knows after a stressful day at the doctor, chocolate chip cookies help me too.) I pray as I make the dough: that things would go well, that God would protect my kids’ bodies, minds and hearts, and that He would give me peace and confidence that all will be well, come what may.

These cookies aren’t magical, but they are a miracle in my book. Not only do they give my kids something positive to focus on (Hurray! We get to eat cookie dough!), but they are also free of the top 9 allergens (when you use soy free vegan buttery spread like I do). No egg replacers necessary. Crisp on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside–these cookies hold together like a dream.

When allergy life makes you feel like you’re falling apart, maybe these cookies will help you hold it together too.


The Easy Way Out? or Sticky Orange Chicken (Top Allergen Free!)

One day when my kitchen counter was uncharacteristically clean and the dinner hour was quickly approaching, I posed a question to my Instagram friends: Should I follow through on my dinner plan and cook Sticky Orange Chicken (and thus keep my kitchen clean), or should I take the easy way out and serve cereal instead?

“Cereal!” the people cried. “Give yourself a break, lady!” they screamed.

I was so far beyond exhausted that the idea of serving cereal for dinner actually sounded appealing. Talk about easy clean up. But after taking a few minutes to consider, I decided to cook the chicken anyway.

I felt pretty bratty as I zested an orange that evening, fully ignoring the call to give myself a break. I swear I heard my Insta-friends shouting, “Show off!” as I ignored their advice. Truth be told, cereal doesn’t really do it for me. I needed real food, you know? And what I really wanted was Chinese take out, or pizza delivered straight to my door, or for Joey to come home from with a bag of sloppy burgers and crispy fries–anything that would keep the kitchen clean by minimizing clean up. But those options don’t simplify dinner. If anything, they complicate it even more than homecooked allergy-friendly food.

I wanted easy, but my people needed to eat. So off to cook chicken I trudged, bad attitude in tow.

As I diced up chicken and dredged it in starch, I thought about all the women who lived on this prairie long before I did–how did they feel about having to do dinner after a long days’ work? Did they cook up cornbread and beans with a chip on their shoulder? (Probably sometimes.) But they did it anyway because if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. Take out wasn’t a thing for them. Their idea of fast food was hard tack or dried buffalo meat.

Oof. Sautéing scallions and fresh garlic in my cushy kitchen suddenly felt luxurious.

My frustration flipped to thanksgiving in that moment of clarity. I had a well-stocked pantry with fresh, flavorful food. I have an indoor stove and a real-deal dishwasher that help lighten my dinnertime load. I have little hands learning to pitch in, and a husband who says my homecooked food is better than take out, anyway.

I saw my blessings more clearly that night. Whisking together fresh orange juice and coconut aminos is an extravagance that generations of prairie people before me couldn’t have dreamed up. My perennial nightly chore went from burden to blessing in an instant, and all my pent-up dinnertime stress melted away. Cooking felt industrious; crying about it felt indolent.

Did I still wish take out was an option? Well, sure, because I’m not a pioneer woman, and it hurts to watch the pizza delivery man deliver dinner to my neighbors and not me. But is my family better fed by the work of my hands? You bet, in more ways than one.

Food allergy life is physically demanding, emotionally exhausting and mentally taxing. Every upside-down kitchen is. Whether it’s an allergy or an intolerance or an autoimmune disease that renders some foods fundamentally off the table, unconventional food life places so much extra squarely on our shoulders, and it overwhelms us. Living in a time and place where convenience convinces us we deserve to take a break doesn’t help either. But when I get to that frazzled place where opting out of responsibility sounds better than orange chicken, I remind myself how easy I have it. Dinner could be corncakes and beans cooked an open fire every night, you know?

And ok, perhaps it’s not fair to compare my cushy kitchen to pioneer life. They didn’t have food allergies to deal with (did they?). But they didn’t have electricity either, so you know–perspective. And honestly? My orange chicken isn’t even hard. It’s my heart that tends to be.


A Gift I Didn’t Appreciate, and Almond Butter and Jelly Bars

Oh, the nostalgia one bite of these bars brings. Peanut butter and jelly are the classic kid food fondly remembered by allergy moms everywhere, isn’t it?

The irony is I didn’t grow up eating either of them.

Well, ok, that’s sort of true. I ate my fair share of plain old peanut butter sandwiches–sometimes speckled with a slice or two of dill pickles (Don’t knock it till you try it) and I greeted most days smearing peanut butter on toast, but PB&J’s were my last resort–a punishment, almost, as that was the only other option for dinner if my brothers and I rejected what was served. My parents bought Goober Jelly — peanut butter and grape jelly all in one convenient jar–once in a while, trying hard to sell PB&J as a fun food. But PB&J’s weren’t my jam. (Pun intended.) I couldn’t stand the combination.

It wasn’t until late high school I started really enjoying them. What changed? Who knows. My taste buds, perhaps. Or it could have been my vegetarian friend who seemingly only ever ate PB&J’s or macaroni and cheese. I ate them with boysenberry jam a time or two at her house and suddenly they seemed far cooler than Goober jelly ever made them seem. Go figure.

After that, peanut butter and blackberry jam was my favorite until I was a young mom pinching pennies and buying industrial sized jars of strawberry jam at Costco. My oldest daughter spent her toddler years eating many PB&J’s with me–until Mia came along and everything changed. Peanuts and gluten went on the naughty list and PB&J’s were a gift I didn’t appreciate until our go-to lunch together became a memory. We switched to Sunflower Butter, which neither of the girls really liked, until EJ joined the brood. At that point we switched almost exclusively to almond butter and we were thankful for that one safe nut.

We’re in a season of more transition around here these days. Mia and EJ are both on track to challenge peanuts in the not-so-far future, and I feel like allergy life as we know it is changing. PB&J’s might be back on rotation in the next couple years. Other things are changing too–Addie is wrapping up Elementary school and Mia isn’t far behind her. EJ goes to school full time and I’m still adjusting to a quiet house during the day. I’m feeling so much better–physically, mentally, emotionally–and I see my own life changing in positive ways up ahead. It’s all flying by, and I’m not ok. Looking at pictures of the kids when they were super little makes me cry because I desperately miss those hard, slow days, but I’m also glad they’re over. They were complicated and hard and exhausting. But I’m not there anymore. I’m in-between, and so are the kids. It’s weird.

I’ve been spending time revisiting the earliest years of mothering lately, reminding myself what it felt like to be a young mom who knew nothing about food allergies and had to learn on the fly while dealing with the domino effect of new diagnoses. It was a lot. I found myself longing for a few precious moments with my firstborn little girl during pre-food allergy life. Sharing a simple PB&J on whole wheat bread with my sweet little Addie is something I’m only thankful for in hindsight.

But the mom I am now knows ways to satisfy that craving using ingredients the younger mom wouldn’t have known even existed, let alone known how to use. Ready to prove how far I’ve come–if only to myself– I set out to make a soft and somewhat chewy snack bar that mimicked the flavors of the nostalgic PB&J to remember where we came from and celebrate where we are now.

And the best part? Addie loves them. Mia couldn’t care less about them, but there’s something about this little snack bar that makes Addie swoon, and I think it’s because it reminds her of a simpler time when food was simple and satisfying, not complicated or worrisome, back when she got my undivided attention.

Making peace with our stories is a process of silent long-suffering. Sometimes she suffering is loud too, to be honest. Crying tears of fear and frustration come naturally when what you know and count on gets snatched out of your hands without warning. Of course you miss what you knew. Breaking up is hard to do. Nobody understands the heartache until they walk through it themselves.

The good news is we wake up one day and realize we’re still ok, don’t we? We meet new things that help heal the wounds. Our hurt scabs over and scars perhaps, but we survive. You will survive. Your non-food allergic kids will too. And you might all even be better for it, in the end.

Almond Butter and Jelly Bars prove that to me.

Maybe these bars won’t prove it to you, and that’s ok. Something will. Someday you’ll be so confident with cooking differently that you will surprise yourself with how far you’ve come. You will certainly marvel at all the other glorious food options out there ready and willing to bend to your every whim. You’ll celebrate food differently, and that’s valuable in so many ways. And you’ll find new ways to connect with your most favorite people.

Oh, the joy one bite of these bars brings for so many different, delicious reasons.


Not Quite Carbonara, and the Easiest Bacon & Egg Pasta Skillet

One of the most challenging things about dairy free cooking is comfort food. So much of it is laden with cream and cheese, and truly: dairy free alternatives don’t do the real thing justice. But for those of us beleaguered by the unfortunate turn of events that says sayonara dairy, I have fantastic news: we can make a poor man’s rendition of creamy, comforting carbonara in under 30 minutes.

The idea for this recipe came from the cover of a fancy food magazine–you know the type: the ones featuring the sorts of recipes your single self just knew you would serve on the regular: things like Shaved Spanish Ham and Gruyere Galettes, Pappardelle with Arugula, Prosciutto and Pine Nuts; or Spatchcock Chicken with Chimmichurri. I rarely pay those magazines any attention these days in an effort to protect my still-fragile heart that misses the days I could cook anything at all.

But this recipe featured bacon and eggs and noodles–three safe, classic ingredients my irregular kitchen can handle. Mixing the three of them together didn’t make much sense, exactly, but the combinations in my kitchen rarely make sense. So I filed the idea away with a gulp and a prayer that someday my gluten free version of a bacon and egg pasta dish would make my family swoon.

That prayer was answered, people. This dish was a hit.

So ok, we still prefer bacon and eggs for breakfast, but this pasta is on point. Gluten free noodles lathered in silky, eggy sauce and dotted with crispy pieces of bacon, topped with chopped eggs and parsley? Definitely dairy free comfort food. If the idea of chopped eggs on hot pasta makes you think twice? I get that. Try topping your pile of noodles with an egg cooked over easy instead (or skip the egg on top all together. The pasta is delicious with the simple silky sauce and bacon).

It’s not quite carbonara, but it sure is an easy, satisfying substitute.


Always Hungry, and Homestyle Hamburger Soup

Cool weather finally showed up on our doorstep and no one was as delighted to greet it as I was. Trading shorts and salads for sweaters and soup pots is the best part of the year, in my book.

bed of white petaled flower

Cold weather always makes me hungry. I don’t know why, exactly, but I blame soup. Soup does more than fuel my body; it warms my bones. Once I start slurping, I almost can’t stop. It’s a matter of cold weather survival around here.

Chunky sweaters are part of the deal of Midwestern life, of course, but if I had to pick between hearty soups or trendy fall fashion? Soup would win every time. Cozying up with a bowl of it while dressed in leggings and an oversized sweatshirt does the trick too.

If I had to choose a favorite soup (and thank God I do not have to do so), Hamburger Soup might be my pick. It tastes like home to me. My mom made it all the time when I was young. She still does, I think. Don’t most moms have a version they serve on the regular? Gluten free, allergy life didn’t throw a kink in this familiar recipe, and I’m so thankful for that because it’s a dinner that connects our family table to the one I sat at when I was a child. We didn’t have food restrictions in our house when I was growing up, and yet I can’t recall a day when my mom’s version of this was served with a swirl of cream before serving. Simplicity makes this soup a star. Ground beef, onions, carrots and celery, and potatoes are almost all you need.

Well ok, you need beef broth too. And tomato sauce and Worcestershire sauce too, but this soup forgives you if you’ve got to leave them out. It’s flexible and fast and filling. If you’re cold and hungry and soup sounds ideal? Cook up buns for biscuits and stir up a pot of Hamburger soup. It’s not fancy, and that’s why I love it. I can cozy up with a bowl of it in under 40 minutes.

Simple and satisfying, this one tastes like home.


Comfort Food Reimagined and Gluten Free, Dairy Free Bacon Ranch Chicken Casserole

Casseroles are like McDonald’s: they get a bad wrap, but secretly everyone loves them.

Well okay, I don’t love McDonald’s–anymore. But gracious me, how I adored their french fries until I learned gluten’s evil reach extends to even them. French fries don’t need wheat to be wonderful.

The same is true for casserole. I know I’m not the only one with childhood memories of noodles and meat tucked into a sumptuous sauce, layered thick with gooey cheese and baked until golden and glorious, right? Casserole was pretty much my favorite, but now gluten is ornery and unwelcome at my table. Ditto for dairy, so clearly, casserole complicates my kitchen. I bet it complicates yours, too.

Allergy life handed us a whole bunch of adversity. Shoot, it’s just plain bananas sometimes, but I have learned to leverage the crazy and bake banana bread. In other words, I’m good at making the best of bad situations, but casserole creates a crummy conundrum. No matter how you slice it, alternative ingredients just don’t swap out the same way in savory dishes.

Even so, when cooler weather compels me to click on the oven and cook something cozy, casserole calls my name. I usually argue with the voice, saying things like “Dairy free cheese is disgusting” and “Gluten free noodles get gummy.” Casserole patiently nods its understanding, then nudges me to try again anyway, saying “I’m problematic, but possible.”

Over the years I have tried to prove my beloved food friend right. Try after disappointing try simply confirmed my opinion until I realized this: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is just plain crazy. Daiya does not–will not— taste like dairy Mozzarella no matter how much I wish it did.

That’s the problem: I’m expecting my taste buds to adjust to something I just plain don’t like. Many alternatives are frankly unpalatable. Others are acceptable, but some really are inspired. Sorting out the bad from the good is an exercise in patience and fortitude.

It’s exhausting.

Once upon a time Mia asked me to make lasagna for dinner. Rarely one to deny a request for comfort food, I hesitated, and it surprised her. I mean, lasagna is all about the cheese. The marriage of ricotta and mozzarella is a match made in comfort food heaven, so I panicked. But something switched that night and instead of asking How can I make that? , I asked myself How will I make that? Saying yes to her simple request taught me to re-imagine casserole instead of trying to recreate it.

Does gluten have to be involved at all? Does dairy? The simple answer is, of course, no. A casserole is really just “food cooked and served in a casserole [dish]” (According to Merriam-Webster, that is), which essentially means anything goes.

So I looked my girl in the eye and said “Let’s do it!” and we rolled out sheets of homemade cassava flour noodles and stirred together a filling of garlic-studded meat and spinach, and layered them together with a simple marinara sauce. Then in a fit of inspiration, I got out a can of black olives. As I sliced them, Mia asked if she could put them on by herself. I laughed as I watched her arrange them into a smiley face.

I can’t redefine casserole, but I can re-imagine it. Food allergy life taught me that. My kids don’t know the difference between a lasagna covered with cheese and one simply slathered with sauce. All they see is lasagna served with a smile. Isn’t that the point? Food doesn’t have to be fancy or familiar to feed my family well. If it’s served with a smile, it’s enough.

Yes, it means letting go of what I know. But it frees my heart from stress and burnout and gives me the gift of saying yes.

Casserole isn’t comfort food because it’s layered with cream or cheese: it’s comfort food because it’s home food, made with all kinds of creativity and love. Experimenting with alternative ingredients yields all sorts of casseroles with character, and cultivated a cuisine unique to our table and taste buds. We top them with olives or thinly sliced tomatoes, seasoned rice-crumbs or crushed potato chips or savory streusel or even gluten free crispy french-fried onions, and then cheer when it comes out crispy and golden. We even argue over who gets the corner piece.

I’m sure the same will be true for you, too, because casserole is a framework, an idea, a canvas for a culinary masterpiece.

This Bacon Ranch Chicken Casserole is top 14 allergen free proof that comfort food of my childhood is possible after all.

It’s not comfort food the way your Grandma would have made it, unless of course your Grandma was cooking for gluten free, dairy free folks, but my family thinks it’s every bit as comforting — and way better than McDonald’s.


Day in the Life of an Allergy Kid: Field Trip Edition, and Homemade Lunchables

My six year old son with multiple severe, anaphylactic food allergies climbed on a school bus and went on a field trip without me this week, and we both survived to tell the tale.

I’m still getting used to letting go when I hug him goodbye on regular school mornings, so dropping him off for a field trip felt even more awkward and emotional because, well–the What if’s? were loud that day.

For me, that is. Not for him. The kid was crazy excited.

I can’t blame him. He had never been on a school bus before, and he knew he would get to go on a bug hunt and pet a snake in real life at the science center that day. What first grade boy wouldn’t be excited?

But while other moms were slipping Lunchables into backpacks, slathering kids with sunscreen, and sending them out the door with a simple “See you later, sweetie!” I caught myself worrying whether I had done enough to prepare EJ for surviving two hours at a local science center without me dogging his every step.

A few weeks before that morning I asked EJ if he even wanted to go on the field trip, secretly wondering if he would feel too nervous about something so new.

“Oh, yes–I really want to go. It’s going to be so fun. And Mom, can you make a homemade Lunchables for my lunch that day? And put an Oreo in it too? ‘Cause kids take Lunchables with treats in them to school on field trip days.”

How did he even know that?

After assuring him I would pack him a homemade Lunchable, I double checked to make sure he felt comfortable and confident going on the trip without me. One simple “Oh, yes. I feel just fine about it,” and we moved on to reviewing all.the.rules and a reminder that God would be with him even when his dad and I could not be.

Years ago, back before we even know EJ had severe food allergies, Joshua 1:9 etched its way into my heart as his life verse: “Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord God is with you wherever you go” (NLT). God knew even all those years ago I would need courage to let my boy go live his own life–and EJ would need the assurance that God would be with him when I was not. So instead of keeping the kid home and assuring him he wasn’t missing out on anything anyway, I decided to listen to face everything and rise instead of forget everything and run.

It’s easy to run away from the tough stuff; harder to stand face to face with something scary. Lord knows I’ve done my share of running over the years. I’ve made decisions out of cowardice, and I’m sure you have too. But I don’t want to train EJ to make decisions based on what’s easy. I don’t want him to miss out on life because he lives his a little bit differently. I want to be courageous so he can be courageous too. If I had kept him home that day, it would have taught EJ life is too risky, he’s too different, and safety is what matters most.

Hear me: safety matters. Of course I did my due diligence: I talked to his teacher and confirmed she would carry his epinephrine along with them that day. We discussed when and where and how of food (none on the bus; morning snack at school as usual; sack lunches outside after they return). She knows his symptoms backwards and forwards and reviewed what to do in case of an emergency. Before he left for school that day, he slung his allergy ID necklace around his neck as usual, and I made sure his hand wipes were stocked and stowed in his lunchbox just like every day, and we went over washing hands and not sharing food and speaking up for himself if he felt anything funny at all one last time. In short–we covered everything in our power to prepare EJ for the first step toward managing his allergies independently.

That’s ultimately what I want him to do: manage his allergies, not let allergies manage him. A long time ago I had to make a choice whether I would worry my way through his life, hiding him away from danger in hopes of keeping him safe, or face each new day with courage, determined to let him live every blessed moment of his life to its fullest. Existing in the confines of home and missing out on a chance to see the wider world and discover all sorts of beauty out there isn’t really living at all, and so, by God’s grace and with his help–we are putting one foot in front of the other and walking into new territory, believing God is with us every step of the way.

As I packed EJ’s homemade Lunchables the morning of the field trip, I realized my job is exactly that: to give him the things he needs to be able to eat lunch safely away from me, not just on field trip days, but always. It is more than my heart can bear sometimes because he’s only six years old, for crying out loud. But someday, someday, he will be all grown up and in charge of his own choices, and my job is to empower him to do that. I need to make him lunch-able. That sort of thing is only ever homemade.

Here’s the big news: I wasn’t worried about him. I wondered how things were going, of course, because I’m a normal mom who misses her kids while they’re gone. (Yes, I had to distract myself all day so wonder didn’t turn into worry.) But my nerves didn’t overwhelm my heart. I had peace, and as soon as EJ set foot in the car, I had joy too because there we was, healthy and whole–and happy. For the first time in his life, he said, “Mom! Guess what?! I made friends.” (And guess what? One of them even has food allergies too!) What if fear had convinced me to keep him home that day?

This allergy mom life isn’t easy. Allergy kid life isn’t easy either. It presents a new, big challenge every time we overcome the smaller one that came before it. But gracious me, God is so good. He uses all the tough stuff to grow us and stretch us and prove he is true to his word. If we never went anywhere, we wouldn’t need courage, would we? And we wouldn’t need the promise that God would be with us wherever we go.

So until EJ grows up and moves on to a life lived outside of the confines of our house, I’ll keep doing everything I can to make him lunch-able, believing God will be right there with both of us every step of the way.


A Gift for This Moment and Wacky Cake (Gluten Free, Grain Free, and Top 14 Allergy Free)

Necessity is the mother of invention.

I remember hearing my folks say this sort of thing to each other as they sautéed their way toward dinner. I never quite understood what they meant because it never felt like we needed anything. Dinner was always awesome. My mom would dig out a few leftover baked potatoes and dice them, saggy skin and all, while my dad dug out leftover roast beef and heated up oil for hash. They chopped up onions for good measure, then tossed it all together in a hot skillet until the potatoes were crispy and golden. Dinners like that were some of my favorite, regardless of what food my folks wished they had on hand.

Now I know that our pantry sometimes got bare. Now I know my mom bought Hyrdox Cookies instead of Oreos and big tubs of generic vanilla ice cream instead of Breyers Vanilla Bean for one reason: they fit her budget better. But even those bargains were only sometimes treats. Even so, I don’t really remember going without. In fact, a bare pantry meant my dad jumped at the chance to bake a Wacky Cake–the dessert for which we always had ingredients. The fridge doesn’t have to be fully stocked with cream or eggs or milk or butter for a slice of his famous impromptu cake.

Last week I read The Kitchen Front, a novel about ordinary women struggling to cook palatable meals during WWII England. Wartime rationing redefined pantry staples, so pantry stockpiles looked awfully paltry compared to the way they looked before the war. Fresh eggs were limited; dairy products too. Food women used to take for granted were whisked away from them without their consent or approval, and before they knew it they were whirling together bits of stale bread and overcooked vegetables to make mock roast chicken. Some of their concoctions sounded just plain awful (mock anything makes me cringe), but I admired their resourcefulness and creativity nonetheless.

I imagine it was heartbreaking to have to forego serving a cake on a birthday because there weren’t enough ration coupons for eggs. Someone somewhere figured out how to make cake without it–necessity is the mother of invention, right?–and vegan cakes were born out of a different sort of necessity back then.

When I put the book down, I couldn’t help but see the parallel to my own cooking life, of course. Wartime rationing isn’t to blame for the changes in my kitchen, but outside forces beyond my control stormed in and bossed me around too, and I find myself staring at a smattering of ingredients that don’t feel like enough, wondering how to make familiar food out of mock versions of the real thing. Like them, I was frustrated and angry but powerless to do much else than slip into survival mode at first and just keep cooking something. Little by little, they learned to let go of what they didn’t have and how to make do with what they did have, and so did I, and in the process new things are born–like grain free, vegan cake that is familiar and delicious.

Wacky Cake proves that God really does bring about good things out of desperately difficult situations. All the harrowing hardship of the war didn’t change the fact that women wanted to serve something celebratory and sweet. I know what that’s like on a much smaller scale, of course, but imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t serve cake for your boy’s birthday and you might understand a little. This crazy cake made out of cassava flour, cocoa powder, sugar, oil & water makes a decadent, distinctly not weird confection that could be served to just about anyone. It’s flexible enough to accommodate all kinds of allergies–a feat women working in WWII kitchens couldn’t imagine, and yet somehow they secured it long before we ever really needed it. I feel a kinship with them when I make it, because even though allergies and intolerances and dietary restrictions weren’t really a thing back then (like they are today), they knew the frustration and heartache of going without.

I like to think Wacky Cake is a wartime gift God gave to women two generations before me during that dark, difficult season. Food doesn’t solve everything, but sweet balances out the bitter, so cake helps. God must know that; why else would he have made cocoa beans bitter and sugar cane sweet? This dessert uses both, without any of the dangerous ingredients that we can’t serve to our people this season. When I whisk this cake together, I whisper a prayer of thanks because I am certain God knew we would need this recipe for this moment, right now, when so many of us are wondering how to serve special foods to the people we love, too.

The best gifts just keep on giving, and this gift is for you too.


Back When, Until Then, and Vegan Scalloped Summer Squash

September can’t decide which season it is: one minute it’s crisp and cool and apple cider donuts call my name. The next minute it’s hot again and I silently judge all those other people stashing pumpkin everything into their shopping carts.

This in-between time puts me on a seasonal teeter-totter. There’s something inside me that’s really ready for what’s next, so in the cool of the morning I pull on a light sweatshirt and pair it with shorts, convincing myself it will be chilly enough to warrant my wardrobe choice. I head into my day wanting to make apple crisp and pumpkin bars and cider braised short ribs with sweet potatoes; I want to debate whether apple orchards trump pumpkin patches; and I want to order my Chai tea lattes extra hot. But none of that sounds appealing when it hits 88 degrees outside.

But oh, this Scalloped Summer Squash. It’s the perfect culinary bridge between the best of the summer season and comforting fall favorites. I don’t pine after pumpkin when I make it. I’m able to be perfectly present to the moment I’m in, right now. It points back to the beauty and bounty of summer and promises the warmth and wealth of fall.

It is a reminder of “back when” and “until then” in more ways than one. I used to cook with mainstream ingredients: back then I would have layered the squash with whipping cream and Gruyere; I might have added some breadcrumbs for crunch, and you know butter would have been involved somehow. Someday I’ll be able to cook with dairy again, but until then I’m finding ways to use what I have available right now to feed us well. I may be using uncommon ingredients this season, but there’s always something familiar from last season to combine them with. This casserole proves it.

Summer squash is a summertime staple, one that is still widely available during September. The stunning colors of the squash snuggle up beneath a warm blanket of velvety vegan cream sauce made with coconut milk and nutritional yeast, then topped with a little fresh thyme. The result is comfort food September is can be proud to call its own–but one taste and I bet you’ll make it all year, because oh, dear friends–it’s that good.

Of course the first time I made it I wondered whether my people would pout about a cheeseless casserole without noodles. I expected them to protest, but to my shock and delight they devoured every last bit of it.

I made it again last night and I paired it with pan-fried pork chops. When Mia came home for dinner, she walked in the door and and inhaled deeply, asking with a smile on her face, “Oh, mom–did you make that squash thing again? Ooh, and pork chops? Yay. This will be the best dinner ever.”

Back when and until then collided in a delicious, dairy free moment that had me celebrating the right here and the right now. I hope it helps your family do the same.


When the World Goes Bananas, Make Dessert (and Grain Free, Dairy Free Bananas Foster Bars)

I had two bunches of over-ripe bananas sitting on my counter last week. This is a rare occurrence because usually over-ripe bananas go straight into banana bread or the freezer. Two dozen at once overwhelmed me. “What do I do with all this?” I asked myself as I stood paralyzed, staring blankly at them.

For the briefest moment I considered throwing them away. Then I shook my head with a definitive “No way!” because what a waste. But my freezer couldn’t take any more, and a quadruple batch of banana bread wasn’t going to happen (because news flash: apparently I make banana bread a little too often and the freezer was stocked with that, too).

I had a choice: tuck them in the trash then go about my day pretending they were never there, or face the problem and do something.

So I did something. I started with thinking about Joey–the man who goes bonkers for bananas. “What would he like?” I asked myself.

Duh. Dessert.

At first I considered custard, then cream pie, and finally narrowed it down to cookies or bars until suddenly, out of no where, the memory of Bananas Foster barged in and changed everything. The first time I tried that miracle of a dessert, Joey sat across the table from me in the dimly lit, local Italian restaurant that made us feel ten thousand miles away from home. Neither of us was hungry for dessert, but when the waiter asked if we wanted to try Bananas Foster, we exchanged a knowing look and said an emphatic “Yes please.” One bite of the sticky sweet bananas doused in vanilla and rum and we were hooked.

And that’s when I knew: I would make Bananas Foster Bars. I didn’t know how to make them, or even if they were a thing at all. All I knew was I had a pile of bananas that had to be dealt with and I knew how to turn bananas and cassava flour into a moist, cakey treat, so that’s what I did.

As I pureed and measured and whisked, I thought about how so much in our world has changed since that first bite of Bananas Foster. I thought things were bad back then, but it’s bonkers now, right? Hard things are piling up and we don’t know what to do with them, and even if we did, would we know where to start?

It makes me think about the story of the widow and the oil–the desperate widow’s debts piled up. She knew what she had to do (pay the debt), but she didn’t know how to do that (with what money?). And the story of when disciples had 5,000 hungry mouths to feed, but they didn’t know how to do that either. In both situations, someone asks, “What DO you have?” The widow says “Nothing, except a little oil.” The disciples say “Just a few loaves and two small fish.” They realize didn’t have nothing. They had something. And when they used it, things changed.

Maybe that’s where we need to start too. If the world is bananas, let’s make some dessert, you know? We might not have all the answers: but do we have just one? We don’t have the loudest voice, but do we have a voice at all? We don’t know whose word to trust anymore: but we can trust what God says, always.

Maybe instead of looking at what we lack, we look at what we have, and then we use it.

I didn’t have a bunch of useless bananas: I had Bananas Foster Bars just waiting to be made.