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.

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.

A Reason to Celebrate, and Sweet & Smoky Chicken Skewers

Good grief I’m tired. Summer can’t come soon enough.

It’s weird to say that because last summer stretched on forever, and when it was finally over I swore up and down I never wanted the hot, sticky season to come again. Summer is supposed to be slow, but it was more sluggish than a snail last year. The lack of momentum made it feel static, not serene. And that was tiring. I feel like I only just started recovering from it, yet here I am ready for another one? It’s a strange tension.

Today I’m tired in a different sort of way–the best sort of way. The weekend swept me up in a swirl of food and family and fun, and the whirlwind wore me out. I fell asleep on the couch last night recovering. Remembering, too: the smile on Mia’s face as she turned nine. The way she laughed and played and drank it all in–the swimming, the silly jokes, the small cans of Dr. Pepper that are special treat indeed. It almost didn’t matter what I served; the people surrounding her made it the most special, especially after last year’s lockdown.

Her birthday last year was different. We celebrated, but separately. Reality got skewed and our circle got smaller and eventually summer stretched on for days on end. We grilled our way through the long, hot months, trying to enjoy the low pressure days, but secretly stressed out with waiting and wondering what would happen next. This recipe was born out of the lonesome days of lockdown, a time when life was slow and sweet in its own way, even though the world seemed to burn around us.

The days at home were good, but the strife outside our doors made it hard to guess what would come next. This recipe for sweet & smoky chicken reminds me of those days. It gave me hope for a day when we would fill our table with family and friends again–and that day came right along with Mia’s birthday. They remind me of last year when we couldn’t share meals together like this–and why it’s so important we do so again.

A shared meal is never just about the food: it is always about fellowship with the faces that share the food with us. It’s about acknowledging our need for fuel and friendship at the same time; it’s about feeding people’s stomachs and souls by giving them a reason to slow down and savor. Food is so much more meaningful when it’s shared.

And so, as a new summer knocks on our doors and asks to stay for awhile, let’s invite it in with open arms–and along with it, let’s welcome each other again. Let’s find a reason to celebrate and gather around tables together, laughing alongside each other as we pass platters filled to the brim with good things. Let’s feed each other with the sort of welcome that says “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Let’s remember the way it was for awhile and be grateful it wasn’t forever, because eating together is something sacred indeed.

Comfort Food and Grandma’s Chicken & Noodles

Dear Joey,

I deserve an award for making it through the day yesterday on very little sleep, only one cup of coffee, three poopy diapers, one vomiting baby, an unexpected bout of loneliness, and facing one of my fears–all done without crying.

It all started when Mia got up super early and didn’t want to go back down until Addie woke up. I’m telling you–they’re out to get us, Joey. They’re testing our resilience, and some days, I’m convinced I’m failing.

But as I’ve told you many, many times (when you ask why in the world I start buzzing around the kitchen before finishing a proper cup of coffee), I wake up to the day much better if I just keep moving. Yesterday was no different. But boy, did I choose the wrong thing to keep me occupied. It seemed to curse me all day long, it’s fragrance mocking my efforts and making me come this close to declaring myself a vegetarian.

Grandma’s Chicken & Noodles. Sounds innocent enough, right? In some ways, it is. And my memory of it takes me back to more innocent times of my life when a simple bowl of those plump, juicy noodles set down in front of me made me feel that the world was an ok place to be.

Growing up, it was Grandma who was the master of Chicken & Noodles, although my mom made it for us on several occasions. Still, Grandma’s version always tasted a little bit better than Mom’s (I’m sure my mom would agree with me). But Grandma, when we asked for her secret on how to make it, would apologize for the way it always turned out, frustrated that the noodles soaked up all the broth. (Told you I come by it honestly.) But I digress.

The recipe was simple enough: boil a chicken, cook the noodles in the broth, shred the chicken, add it to the noodles and ta-da! You’ve got Chicken & Noodles. A simple, kid-friendly dish that fit right into my current plan for getting Addie to eat more than just chicken nuggets or PB&J. Yesterday was the perfect day to do it, too, since we  were up early and didn’t have plans to leave the house. (Simple as the dish is, it takes a bit of time.)

Perhaps it was my sleep-deprived state that made me stupid enough to think I could face my fear of chicken on the bone and tolerate working with a whole chicken. Then again, being sleep-deprived could be responsible making me more sensitive to working with a whole chicken. Maybe it was both.

In any case, touching a raw, whole chicken and putting it in the pot was hard, but it wasn’t anything compared to taking the meat off the bone. I’ll spare the grisly details, but let’s just say that when (if?) I make Chicken & Noodles again, I will not be doing it the way Grandma always did it.
Truth be told that when it came time for Addie to eat the finished product for dinner, I couldn’t blame her for not really wanting to eat it. After working with a chicken on the bone, I was so grossed out that I had a hard time even watching her eat it.  (Sorry, Grandma. I’m not made of the the same stuff you are.)

At first, I thought she liked it. After the first bite, she declared, “Good. More?” After just two more (small) bites, though, she refused to even look at the stuff anymore. And then, of course, she threw a fit when I took away her bowl. One of the many joys of having a toddler.

Oh well. There are worse things than a child not eating the meal you slaved over all day. Like having the sort of day that makes you realize how badly you need a friend around, the kind who is close enough (and willing) to come over and de-bone a chicken for you when you just don’t have the stomach to do so, or who would scrub baby vomit from the living room floor while you rocked the over-tired baby to sleep, or who would even just come over to bring you an Iced Soy Chai Tea Latte because she could hear it in your voice that you were desperate for one when she talked to you for the fourth time that day.

That’s why after both girls were in bed and the house was finally cleaned up and quiet, I told you that I didn’t know about you, but I was having popcorn for dinner.

Lucky for me, you said that sounded good to you, too.


Grandma’s Chicken & Noodles

This dish is really a simple chicken noodle soup in which the noodles have absorbed all the broth. Apparently Grandma didn’t intend for the noodles to do so the first time she made it, but it was a happy accident that resulted in one of her classic recipes. There aren’t any veggies in the original, but you could easily add some if you wanted to (I added peas to ours, and it turned out quite good).

Although not the way Grandma did it, you could really use about four chicken breasts if you don’t have the stomach for working with a whole chicken. It won’t have the same amount of fat in it (and thus, it will change the richness of flavor), but on the upside, it would be lower in fat.

1 whole chicken
1 pkg. egg noodles
Put the chicken in a large pot; cover with water. Give the water a good bit of salt, and bring it to a boil. Simmer the chicken for at least 1 1/2 hours. When it’s done, remove the chicken and strain the liquid, reserving the broth. Do not skim off the fat.
Return about 4 cups of broth to the pot. Bring to a boil and add the noodles. Boil for about 10 minutes, then turn down the heat and let the noodles simmer until they absorb all the liquid. 
Meanwhile, once the chicken has cooled, shred the meat. Add all of it to the noodles. Add salt & pepper to taste. Add frozen peas (or other vegetables) if desired.