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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, “WhatDO 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.
“Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.”
-1 Thessalonians 5:15 (NIRV)
The Goobie girls had another Snow Day this week.
They went from cheering for them and luxuriating in the low pressure days at home to groaning at the mere possibility of them. They tire of each other quickly when we are all cooped up inside, stepping on each others’ toes for days on end. They love each other, of course, and they even get along beautifully most of the time, going out of their way to be thoughtful and considerate of each other’s feelings. Lately though–yikes. I wish the snow would melt away so I could send them outside for some much needed space.
You were on call this morning, so you were at the hospital before the sun woke up. And I’m so sorry you missed it: a miraculous combination of cooperation and quiet that yielded me a chance to try out a new recipe. After stumbling downstairs with three hungry Goobies in tow; after digging through the freezer to find something other than cereal and bananas to feed their empty bellies; after settling on a combination of sliced strawberries, frozen waffles and hash browns (and letting them each choose whatever they wanted), they were full and happy and ventured off on their own to unleash their creativity before the sun was all the way up. There wasn’t any squabbling or pestering, either–just the happy sounds of happy kids. In the quiet, I was faced with a dilemma: sit and drink my coffee in peace, or take the opportunity to make a batch of muffins?
If I eat what is served to me, grateful to God for what is on the table, how can I worry about what someone will say? I thanked God for it and he blessed it!
1 Corinthians 10:30 (MSG)
When Emery was first diagnosed with his dairy allergy, we let the girls eat the cheese-laden stuff around him all the time. He was an infant, after all, small and snuggly and on a liquid diet. But once the kid showed interest in what we were eating–and then when he started walking and reaching and climbing, we panicked. (The sippy cup incident taught us our lesson). Clearly, we ditched the dairy.
22 “[…] Your business is life, not death. Follow me. Pursue life.”
23-25 Then he got in the boat, his disciples with him. The next thing they knew, they were in a severe storm. Waves were crashing into the boat—and he was sound asleep! They roused him, pleading, “Master, save us! We’re going down!”
26 Jesus reprimanded them. “Why are you such cowards, such faint-hearts?” Then he stood up and told the wind to be silent, the sea to quiet down: “Silence!” The sea became smooth as glass.
Matthew 8: 22-26
Well goodness–yesterday when we are smack dab in the middle of a severe Midwestern thunderstorm, all those voices warning me that Midwestern weather will take some getting used to are echoing in my ears. I’m not sure the dreadful din of thunder will ever lull me into a peaceful sleep (like it does for you), but I suppose I’ll get used to it. I think. I hope.
I admit I panicked yesterday–not because tornadoes threatened to sweep us up and whisk us away from the new house we have still yet to fully unpack (although, I wondered if that was imminent…), but because black clouds clapping their tinny hands feels threatening, and let’s face it: hiding felt like the safest thing to do. I watched out the front window as those bulbous clouds stormed their way northeast, the direction you would be driving in a matter of minutes to start afternoon clinic. Next I paced up and down the kitchen, feigning calm and scolding the impulse to barricade myself and the kids in the basement, and wondering if the sky was that peculiar shade of green Sarah taught me goes hand in hand with an imminent tornado.
Maybe reading these stories were too hard on my tender heart still recovering from the trauma of feeling like we almost lost Emery a few weeks ago. Granted, the Epi Pen did its job and Emery is perfectly healthy in the aftermath of that ordeal, but in those tense moments when his floppy, swollen body failed to respond to us, panic saw an opportunity to slip right in, convincing me to live in a constant state of fear.
I know I am not alone in this fight against fear: 5.9 million children in the US have food allergies, so clearly millions of other moms face that same fight every day, and let me tell you: fear is a vexing foe indeed. You know its true, because dads deal with it too. And grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends and teachers–goodness, the teachers. 5.9 million kids translates to one in 13 kids, which means roughly two kids in every classroom across America brings a food allergy to school with them every day. Moms like me have to stare fear down and tell it to go away even as we watch our kids walk out of our sight and into the care of others.
Fear whispers, You really think they’ll be safe out there? If you can’t even keep your own kids safe, how can you possibly trust anyone else will? I want to keep the kids at home forever and cook everything from scratch and magically all the food allergy threats disappear in the illusion of a homemade utopia that just plain doesn’t exist. Instead, the best I know to do is this: take an honest look at what we do to keep our own food allergy kids safe and figure out what we can do better. And goodness, we can do better.
Remember how we banned peanuts from our house after Mia’s diagnosis? Somehow Emery’s allergies haven’t carried the same weight around here, not even in the aftermath of administering the Epi Pen or the subsequent trips to the ER. I’m not really sure why, other than peanuts are easier to avoid, and we don’t miss them nearly as much. Dairy is far trickier (especially since cheese is the one food that Mia will eagerly eat) because unlike peanuts, it is a ubiquitous pantry standby. Plus, we miss it when it’s gone. We eat cheese and drink milk and top our tacos with sour cream while a little boy with a severe allergy to the stuff watches, all while assuring him he doesn’t want any dumb old sour cream because it would make him sick– which I imagine is nothing short of confusing to a not-quite-three year old boy with a deep sense of justice.
To be clear, we are not lackadaisical about Emery’s dairy allergy. We learned how to swap out dairy ingredients for non-dairy alternatives; we make meals that are dairy free; we keep dairy ingredients out of Emery’s reach; and we have rules about when and where the girls are allowed to enjoy dairy products; and we make sure foods are free from all-the-allergies on big days like Christmas (like Katz donuts for breakfast!)–but perhaps we are not as strict as we ought to be. We do not let peanuts or sunflower seeds or gluten into our kitchen (except for a few gluten-full cracker varieties for the Goobies), but we continue to allow milk products into our home despite the glaring fact that Emery has suffered allergic reactions and been rushed to the ER three times because of ingesting dairy (first milk; next whey; and then cheese). He’s been poked with the Epi Pen twice; spent days upon days hyped up and completely unlike himself as a result of steroids that ward of rebound reactions, pumped full of Benadryl countless times for additional minor incidents, and been subjected to disappointment every single day, watching his sisters eat cheese and begging to have some for himself only to be denied time and time again.
The obvious answer is ban all dairy from our home. Why is it so hard to do that? We tell Mia peanuts could cost her her life and our actions (rules, procedures, preparedness) show her we mean business. As a result, peanuts are not allowed in our home, period. But what about dairy? Love makes us say, “Sorry buddy, you can’t have sour cream on your taco because it will make you very sick,” but those words don’t mean anything to a preschooler who shouts “No fair!” and pouts.
1 John 3:18 tells me words are not enough, and that action infuses words with meaning. Without action, words are empty. Clearing out the kitchen of offending foods and eating dairy free in front of the boy would be far more loving than eating the stuff in front of him. Plus, choosing to forego the stuff will help Emery understand the severity of his allergy and assure him of the security of our love (wouldn’t it?) Keeping the sour cream off the table and out of our home communicates love far more than simply saying “No sour cream for you, bud” as we dollop the stuff on our own tortillas.
I can make my peace with foregoing sour cream on taco night, and I imagine you and the girls could do the same. It’s the cheese that poses the biggest problem around here. What on God’s good earth would Mia eat if we cease to allow dairy in the house? Then again, what awful fate might Emery suffer if we continue to keep it around?
The good news is this: in the nearly three years since Emery first started showing signs of his allergy, we have built an arsenal of delicious dairy free alternatives that help us make everyone around our table happy. This is a big deal because while dairy free products are not hard to find, finding delicious ones is far more difficult. What I love lately, though, are dairy free alternatives that actually make the Goobies cheer–all three of them.
For example, the So Delicious brand is my hero because, true to its name, their products are actually really yummy. The Goobies cheer when you announce there’s ice cream for dessert, which happens on a fairly regular basis around here. (We do our best to keep these kids feeling normal, and darn it if a scoop of chocolate coconut milk ice cream helps them feel like regular kids? So be it.) Ditto for their take on non-dairy whipped topping CocoWhip, a treat that redeemed the idea of non-dairy whipped topping in my book because not only is it truly non-dairy (Cool Whip is not non-dairy!), it is also made of better ingredients than its dairy-laden competitor. Also, Emery is pretty smitten with their lunch box size Chocolate Coconut milk boxes, which he’s lovingly dubbed monkey juice. Everyone around here likes it, actually–a triple win!
Maybe the biggest win in our quest toward a more dairy free household is Follow Your Heart vegan cheese, which gives creamy dreamy comfort food a chance to grace our table again. Before we discovered it, Grandma Teague’s famous Golden Potatoes were relegated to memories of Christmas past, but I’m happy to report Grandma’s Golden Potatoes are back. Even better than the shreds, though, are the American cheese slices that make Daiya brand vegan cheese taste as bad as Mia insists it is (and honestly, we don’t disagree). Follow Your Heart slices make grilled cheese sandwiches that fool even our toughest critic in our house. The sheds and slices both melt fantastically over a pan of hot gluten free elbow noodles too, making a fast and inexpensive (and yummy!) dairy free mac & “cheese” that makes me believe miracles can happen. (I just toss in a handful of cheddar style shreds or a few torn pieces of the American style slices into a hot pan of drained gluten free noodles along with a tablespoon or so of our favorite dairy free butter alternative Earth Balance Buttery Spread and a splash of plain rice milk and stir until smooth.)
Food speaks to the soul, so let’s use words and actions, both. Together they can nourish the body, soothe the spirit and make our kids us feel loved. Serving safe foods that taste delicious is the one of the most loving things I can think to do for our food allergy family. I am thankful for these few dairy free foods that help convince us all that sacrifices don’t have to leave us feeling unsatisfied or left out.