“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.
One of the hardest parts about moving was putting distance between ourselves and our people. But one of the easiest parts about moving is being close to our other people again. But my heart is divided because to be there means being with those people. To be here means being with these people. I love them all.
There are people here, there are people there–shoot, we have people all over the place. We have people right across town, over the hills, up the valley in Napa and down the road in San Diego; we have people in the Midwest and people up North and down South and people all close enough to the Atlantic to go for a quick dip if the mood struck them. Our people are everywhere.
But distance makes it difficult to see them very often–even the ones across town–and proximity matters when it comes to building friendships. It’s the people nearby that we end up living our lives with. Friendship is forged in the trenches of the daily, and enough small talk over time builds into something much bigger. Strangers turn into people we trust enough to pick our kids up from school in a pinch, and before we know it, they’re the people we live with, lean on, and love. It’s hard to say goodbye to that sort of security, even harder to start over.
When I think about all our people, I wonder which ones will dissolve into a fuzzy memory as the years continue to slip by and which ones will remain a fixture in our hearts and home. Whose kids will our Goobies remember growing up with? Which ones will eek their way into their hearts and become their people? Who will we call at midnight when an emergency jerks us out of sleep? Which ones will hop on a plane if tragedy strikes? Who will show up to wave goodbye if our story leads us elsewhere and we move farther away than just across the hills? Who would pick up the phone at 10pm to settle an argument over cult classic movies and laugh with us as we bicker over whose favorite nostalgic movie was more important in the scheme of things: Mall Rats or Shag: The Movie?
People move, and people move on. Out of sight, out of mind because what’s right in front of us demands our attention more than keeping up with people who aren’t in our immediate, day-to-day circle. The demands on our time shout loudly above the need of our hearts–to connect–and sometimes, friendships falter because of it. Keeping up with all the people all the time is hard. I wish I could be in both places (or really, all the places), all the time. I can’t, of course, but I think about all the people all the time. And I also wonder what new people are out there ahead of us, waiting for us to open our circle and extend our hands to them.
Maybe that’s why we made the hour long drive to see our not-so-far-away people to swim and grill and indulge in their hospitality, pretending we’re far away and on vacation together. Maybe that’s why we keep asking our local people to come play at a moment’s notice, grilling and letting kids play outside until well after bedtime. Maybe that’s why I’ve made this fruit dip so many times this summer: when I’ve felt displaced, unsettled, and uncertain about where to plant my heart, this dip steadies me. Some people look at old pictures of the people they love (I seldom remember to snap them); others pick up the phone and call (I always feel like I’d be an inconvenience), but me? I cook because making recipes like this one is like grabbing the hand of an old friend while extending the other hand to a newer one, and I am safe, balanced right there between them both.
Summertime Fruit Dip (GF/DF/NF)
When one of our people came to visit this summer, it just felt right to whip up a batch of fruit dip–a creamy, dreamy wonder to which she introduced me well over ten years ago (thanks Felicia!). I couldn’t make her dip the conventional way (with regular old cream cheese), but I found a way to make a dairy free version that fooled my own mother. I’ve made it several times since that early summer morning well over a month ago now and one thing proves true: everyone loves it (not just the kids: it’s become a guilty pleasure among adults in our circle who tend to have difficulty with self-control around this stuff.) I recommend the Trader Joe’s brand Vegan Cream Cheese because I’m pretty much devoted to its clean, non-vegan flavor, but you could certainly substitute other brands that are accessible nationwide (such as Daiya), but DO NOT SKIP the lemon juice if you go the non-dairy route–it adds that little bit of zing regular cream cheese usually gives the dip. Of course, use regular cream cheese if your people don’t have issues with dairy. If you use another brand, taste and tweak as needed until the end result suits your fancy.
1-8 oz. tub cream cheese (try dairy free!)
1-7 oz. tub Jet Puffed Marshmallow Fluff (or try homemade vegan fluff using aquafaba!)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice (a MUST when using dairy free cream cheeze!)
Whisk together all ingredients until fully combined. Chill for an hour or so to help firm it back up again. Serve with an assortment of fruit (strawberries, pineapple and cantaloupe are our favorites).
You are the sweetest, most thoughtful man alive. When challenging days threaten to push me over the edge of insanity (and steal my kitchen mojo in the process), you offer to rescue me by bringing home take out. (Or maybe it’s you that’s saved, because let’s face it: walking through the door with take out in hand saves my sanity and saves you from bearing the brunt of my bad day. You’re an automatic hero.)
Lately I’ve been declining the offer, and no, it’s not because my days are any less frazzled than they have been lately. On the contrary, they’ve been just as harried and frustrating as ever, and I imagine they probably will be for the foreseeable future. Here’s the thing: I just don’t trust take out–not right now, at least.
Since my body was ravaged by gluten over the past several months, even the tiniest bit of it sends my body reeling, and I have to press the reset button again and again and again. The timing couldn’t have been worse, really: keeping a house clean enough to show to potential buyers on a whim is pretty much impossible when you have to still, you know, live in the house (and cook in the house). Between staging and photography; showings and open houses; inspections and more inspections, the stove sat idly by while we took the Goobies out to eat so many times they started whining about it. “A restaurant? Again?”
More often than not, neither of us ate a thing, opting to eat hummus and veggies or sheet pan nachos after the kids were in bed because actually getting food into our own mouths while cajoling the kids to eat makes exactly zero sense, not to mention the fact that trying to decipher menus requires fluency in a language we are both still trying to learn. It’s hard being a food allergy family. When the five of us go out to eat, we have no fewer than eight foods to avoid, and while Mia’s peanut and pine nut allergy has become increasingly easier to manage; avoiding dairy and casein is trickier, but possible; and gluten becomes harder and harder to weed out.
Even so, the allergen information and gluten free menus at our go-to places have worked well enough for us, mainly because we’ve gotten used to what is safe and what isn’t so safe for each of us individually. Over time, and without a definitive positive result for Celiac Disease, I grew a little lax with my standards for gluten free fare in restaurants–mostly because a girl’s still got to stay sane, right? (And people “out there” keep reassuring me that people with a mere gluten sensitivity don’t have to be quite as strict about adhering to gluten free fare.) The gluten free items were gluten free enough for me, until suddenly, after the vitamin incident, they weren’t anymore. The tiniest speck of the stuff throws my body into an uproar now, maybe because I’m still healing, and maybe because after being gluten free for so long, reactions are easier and more contamination I did the only I knew to do, of course: speak up. Ask questions. Dig a little deeper. Be particular. Don’t take labels at face value, but look them in the eye, challenging them to prove it. In the process, I found answers that both disturbed and angered me.
Like that afternoon we took the Goobies to a favorite Mexican spot for lunch. I felt ok enough about going there. We’ve eaten there before and the menu clearly states that most items on the menu are gluten free, but if in doubt, ask the server for more information. Not taking any chances, I chose three “gluten free” items and asked our server about them. After he told me the chicken in the first two dishes had been marinated in beer, I didn’t even want to hear about the third. I stopped him, pointed at the gluten free note, and tried my best to calmly help him understand that the note is misleading, and dishes labeled gluten freearen’t gluten free if they’ve been marinated in beer.
The server got defensive, of course, saying that the chicken can be substituted with something else that is gluten free, and I do understand special markings indicating which dishes can be modified to be gluten free. Here’s the thing: That’s what should be captured in the note (“The items marked GF can be modified to be gluten free. Please ask your server for details.”) As it stands, the note about gluten free menu items means absolutely nothing at all. From that point on, I trusted not one more word out of his mouth. I may have skipped lunch that day, but I learned two valuable lessons: 1) Always ask for clarification, on everything, every time; and 2) Emery is a salsa fiend. Both are equally good to know.)
Sensitive is such a soft word, and saying I have a “gluten sensitivity” makes me feel like I sound like a wimp. People like me are gluten averse, gluten antipathetic–not sensitive, for crying out loud. (And while we’re on the subject, restaurants with a “Gluten Friendly” menu just don’t get it, do they? Talk about a misnomer.) Menus like that just aren’t all that helpful anyway, especially when accompanied by a note that clearly states “Food in this kitchen is exposed to cross contamination. Not recommended for people with Celiac Disease or Gluten Sensitivity.”
This matters because cross contamination is a thing. It is very real. I know how nutty it sounds that foods like scrambled eggs cooked on a griddle shared with pancakes, or french fries cooked in the same oil as chicken nuggets aren’t safe, or that they could wake up the body’s anti-gluten army and make the next several days miserable. But that dastardly gluten is teeny tiny, and it likes to stick around, and so how could a gluten free bun toasted on the same surface as its gluten-laden counterpart not come into contact with the stuff? Even the most minute amount can hurt people who are sensitive to it. Not just, like, cause a little tummy ache, but actually damage the body and incite an array of problems that make a simple tummy ache seem preferable.
I still don’t understand it all, of course. I’m learning too, right along with you. But what I know is this: eating food prepared anywhere but our own kitchen is risky right now because my system is sensitive. (Blech.) Sure, there are many Celiac Friendly restaurants (and I am thankful for them), and I want to trust folks who do their best to provide menu items that really are gluten free. Bless them for the extra effort it takes to do such a service. But the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of restaurants are not friendly for gluten averse folks like me. It makes me sad and angry and frustrated and defeated we can’t just pile the Goobies in the car on a whim and head out to our favorite spot for a sloppy burger with a big ol’ mess of fries to celebrate an ordinary Friday night. It makes me even angrier that my limitations limit you, too, and that our kids are missing out on some of that stuff along the way as well.
We’re adapting, of course, because that’s what we must do if we’re going to survive, right? And besides, there are worse things in the world than cooking and eating at home. Like having bare cupboards. Or not having a home. Or not having a way to feed our family at all. Really, being able to cook food at home is a blessing, and not a bad thing. In fact, it really is the best thing for so many reasons, and I love most of those reasons, which I suppose I can even poke fun at ourselves every so often (Like when I said, We watched that little bunny scamper toward a bowl of what looked like amazing ice cream, and as you salivated, I said, “Now there’s something that would kill three out of the five of us,” and we laughed and laughed and laughed because it felt so true.)
So the next time you offer to bring home take out, please don’t be surprised if I say “No, thank you.” It won’t always be this way, and you really are my hero: your offer is almost as good as a break from cooking itself. I wish I could say yes with abandon, plop down on the couch, throw my feet up on the coffee table and let you serve me. (Wait a second–who says that can’t still happen? Don’t underestimate the power of a man in the kitchen. If I stash plenty of real gluten free (and dairy/casein free; and peanut/pine nut/sunflower seed free) foods in the freezer, sending you in to cook them might be sort of like take out, right? All you have to do is take it out of the freezer and heat it up.
Hm. Let’s try that.
Easy Oven Baked Meatballs, Two Ways (GF/DF/NF)
This recipe was born out of frustration that my kids loved meatballs, but they took a ot of time to make, and buying prepared gluten/dairy free convenience foods comes with trouble all its own. Pictured here are Italian Style Meatballs, perfect to drench with marinara sauce, but if spinach freaks your family out, leave it out or try the other, more basic version that follows, (which is delicious smothered in barbecue sauce). Either way, coconut flour is my favorite grain-free binder for this recipe because it adds body to the meatballs without too many added carbohydrates, plus it absorbs moisture like super sponges.
Ingredients for Italian Style Meatballs:
2 pounds ground turkey
1 pound frozen spinach, thawed, drained, and most moisture squeezed out
2 Tablespoons coconut flour
2 eggs, lightly whisked
4 teaspoons onion powder
4 teaspoons Italian Seasoning (or 2 teaspoons each dry oregano and dry basil)
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste
Ingredients for Regular Meatballs:
2 pounds ground turkey
2 Tablespoons coconut flour
2 eggs, lightly whisked
1 Tablespoon onion powder
3 teaspoons dry parsley
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil and spray with coconut oil non-stick spray.
Next, dump all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and smush them together (don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty). Once the meat is thoroughly mixed up with the spinach and spices, wash those hands and get scooping, using a 2 T/ 1 1/2 inch scoop (which makes the job quick). Line those meatballs up like little soldiers, about 24 to a pan. Bake them as they are, or smooth them out a bit (like they are in the picture above) by rolling them gently between the palms of your hands. Either way works fine.
Pop the trays into the oven and bake for 18 minutes.
For the freezer: Let the meatballs cool, then plunk them into a two labeled gallon sized zip top bags (for two batches of 24 meatballs, each), or use one batch now and save one for later. Your call.
I am such a traitor. There is a chocolate cake cooling on the counter, springy, beautiful and almost in tact, except for the place where it’s not in tact anymore because I couldn’t muster up enough self control to wait and taste it right along with the Goobies. My curiosity (or the fact that it’s lunchtime) threw my willpower out the window and I cut into that thing without thinking about my promise.
It all started when neither Addie nor Mia wanted to finish the last bit of their lunch–the sliced cucumbers part, specifically–so I told them they could save them and finish them later on before they ate their afternoon snack. Their protests were met with a promise of my good example, and I virtuously preached about how I would be loading up with veggies myself in just a few minutes because my body wouldn’t be healthy if I didn’t eat vegetables every day, but here I am struggling because I totally broke that promise. Magic sauce didn’t even help.
Magic Sauce–or, Ranch Dressing, as most folks call it–was born out of the need for a ploy to get the Goobies to approach the idea of eating raw vegetables with any sort of cooperation. Like most kids, ours didn’t make the switch from gnawing on soft, steamed veggies to crunching on big kid ones all that easily, and despite my vow to bring up children who wouldn’t just eat their veggies but enjoy them too, it took a little coaxing to get those girls to try them in the first place.
Before actually having kids, I swore up and down I would raise kids like Julia, a little girl who lived across the street from me when I was in early Elementary school whose eating habits made all the other moms around jealous and confused at the same time. I mean, this little pixie of a thing toddled around our backyard happily munching on baggies full of raw cauliflower. I can’t imagine how her mother got her to do that.
The thing that finally made raw veggies sort of an ok thing in Addie’s book was dipping them in homemade ranch dressing. I just couldn’t bring myself to give her that famous store-bought version that apparently makes kids faint with hunger at the sight of a bowl full of raw celery, but when I figured out how to (easily) make my own homemade version? Ranch dressing became a thing.
When we visited family in Kansas City a few years ago, we discovered your brother uses the same ploy to get his kids to eat veggies too, but he goes a step further by calling ranch dressing something else entirely, a name that captures kids attention and makes them excited to try it: Magic Sauce. They wanted to know, What does the saucedo? and, Why is it magical? The grown ups exchanged knowing looks that said, It makes your veggies disappear.
When we came home, we brought that name with us and it has worked for years. We came to count on the jar always being stocked, but once we found out about Emery’s dairy allergy, I knew its days in our fridge were numbered. As I suspected, that boy eventually started noticing it, and then asking for it, and then getting angry that he couldn’t have what his sisters got to have. And so, magic sauce disappeared from our kitchen and I wasn’t sure how the girls would cope with its absence at our table.
Ketchup worked a little bit: Addie liked to dip carrots in it and Emery liked to dip green beans in it. Mia–with a more refined palate, perhaps–opted for aioli, a fancy name I gave to a very simple mixture of mustard and mayonnaise. Eventually neither sauce worked anymore.
And then one day, sort of out of nowhere, I realized making dairy free Magic Sauce at home was something I could totally handle. Out came the same supplies I used to use: homemade ranch dressing mix, mayonnaise, and milk–only this time, I used a combination of rice milk and vinegar instead of buttermilk. I whipped it all up and was almost happy with the result. The only problem was it was a bit runny, but I knew how to fix that: xanthan gum would thicken it up in a snap. (Being gluten free sure does come in handy–sometimes.)
Magic Sauce made a come back in our house, true, but the real question was this: was this dairy free version any good–and not just good enough, but you know–like, yummy? The answer? Yes. All the Goobies happily eat it, you happily eat it, and we have a gaggle of disappointed kids when the bottle runs out. Magic Sauce indeed.
Every time I pour that speckled white sauce into tiny little bowls and nestle them alongside whatever veggies the kids request at mealtime (or nuggets, or pizza–because they’re kids, after all), I feel like I’ve done something good to bring a taste of normal childhood to the table. It’s a simple pleasure, but one that is important to me. I hate it when our kids feel like the other, you know? But I digress.
Addie just came in and saw the rest of that nibble of cake sitting on a plate beside me. She eyed it. I smiled and whispered, “Want to try it?” She nodded and ate the whole piece in five seconds, flat.
“It’s good,” she said with a smirk.
“I’m so glad you like it. Now? Cucumbers.”
Magic Sauce, or Dairy Free Ranch Dressing
1 cup full fat mayonnaise
1 cup water
2 Tablespoons white vinegar
1/4 cup chopped dry onion
1/4 dried parsley
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
Put all ingredients into a high speed blender and whiz until combined. The dressing will be runny at first, but will thicken as it chills. Pour the mixture into an airtight container (like a big mason jar or an empty ketchup bottle) and refrigerate.
You may have noticed I made a Roasted Sweet Potato and Sausage Casserole a couple times in the past several weeks. I have my reasons for so much repetition, of course, and bless your heart–you never seemed to mind when your question of “What’s for dinner?” was met with “Well, there’s more of that sweet potato-sausage-spinach-egg thing in the fridge …” Nights like those don’t bother you at all as long as you can slather warmed up leftovers with your beloved Green Dragon sauce, which is part of the reason I toss a bottle into the cart at my weekly trip to Trader Joe’s even if we still have a full bottle at home. There’s no such thing as having too much of that stuff.
In your defense, sometimes hot sauce–Green Dragon in particular–saves the day when my kitchen experiments don’t go very well. It launches otherwise forgettable food into the realm of fun food for you, so clearly having bottles stashed every which where in the kitchen bodes well for me, especially since my experiments usually progress like this: disaster, mediocre, pretty good, keeper. (It’s true–I tend to make the same recipe over and over and over again until I get it just right. I don’t know why I can’t just leave well enough alone.)
Ok so fine–this means I sometimes run a recipe into the ground, making it so many times that eventually the kids feign a still-full stomach from lunch or an upset tummy to avoid having to eat it for dinner–again. It’s a compulsion, I guess: tinkering with recipes until I find it, that secret something that launches a recipe’s status from meh to it’s a keeper.
In my defense, I don’t do this to all the recipes. It usually happens when I try a new one and I either 1) despise the finished product, even while still believing in the idea of it, or 2) love the recipe so much that I want it to be perfect. Either way, I end up fussing over the thing ad nauseum–sort of like how you get excited when you come home to a clean house and immediately start wiping down the counters again after I already scoured the darn things. I used to get offended when you did this because I really thought you were telling me “You suck at cleaning. I better come in and do the job right.” I was mistaken. You’re a clean freak, yes– but not a judgemental one. You take what I’ve done and take it a step farther, tinkering with it a bit until it meets your own unique set of expectations. In the same way, when I tinker with a recipe, it’s not because I think its a bad recipe. On the contrary, I tinker because I care. I tinker because I think the recipe has merit, promise–a future in our family’s recipe rotation.
To those concerned, rest assured I get acquainted with each new recipe before I go messing with it too much. I follow the rules at first because you’ve got to know the rules before you can get away with breaking them. And so, when a new recipe comes my way, I let it lead, and where it goes, I follow. As soon as I’ve gained its trust, that’s when the recipe starts confiding in me, whispering about how it always wished it could have just a pinch more salt or another drop of vanilla, or how it never liked ground ginger anyway and would much prefer the real thing, thank you very much.
Remember that sweet potato-sausage-spinach-egg thing I talked about earlier? It is an example of taking a really solid recipe and making it my own, launching it from already really good to a definite keeper. The first time I made it, I liked it a lot–so much, in fact, that I couldn’t imagine being more satisfied with the finished product. The second time I made it, I started tinkering. I rounded the measurements of sausage and sweet potato out of laziness, really, and I started to wonder what would happen if I used an even dozen eggs instead of the 10 it called for. As I cracked the tenth egg into the bowl, the other two eggs in the carton just looked lonely, staring at me with sad eyes that seemed to say, “What about us?” I didn’t have a good reason to leave them out of the fun, so I caved and let them join the party. So I sprinkled a little more salt and stirred them up, making the eggs mingle and dance as the whisk did its job.
And so, my own version of this very delicious in its own right recipe was born. It’s a keeper around here, one that halts Emery in the midst of his morning outside playtime, one that he actually cheers for (“Yay! Yay! Yay!“) while he’s waiting for me to fill his bowl with another helping. The spinach didn’t even deter the kid. True: this recipe didn’t need tinkering in the first place, but it established this breakfast casserole as a staple in our home. And that, of course, is the whole point of tinkering anyway.
Roasted Sweet Potato and Sausage Breakfast Casserole
(I credit Juli at PaleOMG for this recipe and honestly–the original version is perfect as is. I just can’t help but tinker.)
I made this recipe the first time I hosted an If: Table at my house, and I was a little nervous about it because I don’t usually make a new recipe for the first time the day I intend to serve it to other people. But the ladies around my table that morning assured me it was delicious, and Lisa has even asked for the recipe. I take that as a compliment, of course–but alas, I can’t be credited with the original idea. I love this recipe for so many reasons, but the main reason is: it is naturally gluten and dairy free and it is delicious. This is a big deal, people! Especially when you want to make something the food allergy people in your life can actually eat. So Lisa, this one is for you, and Michelle–you too, and all the other ladies who have yet to join our conversation. Because If: Tables can happen around breakfast tables, and because yummy allergy friendly foods exist, and because making food for food allergy friends shouldn’t be make you sweat.
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1″ pieces
1 pound breakfast sausage
1/2 cup yellow onion, diced
12 large eggs
2 cups fresh spinach leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt (+ more to taste)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
coconut oil, melted (or other fat of your choice)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a 9 x 13 glass baking pan and set aside.
Toss the peeled and chopped sweet potatoes with the melted coconut oil, sprinkle with salt, and toss to coat. Spread the sweet potatoes into an even layer on a cookie sheet and pop them into the oven for about 20 minutes. Take them out and set them aside to let them cool a bit.
Meanwhile, cook the onions and breakfast sausage together in a skillet, breaking the sausage up into smallish pieces as you go. Cook until the meat is no longer pink. Remove from heat and spread the mixture in the bottom of your 9 x 13 baking pan, then move on to the eggs.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs together, then add the salt and garlic powder and stir to combine. Toss in the roasted sweet potatoes and spinach and gently mix them into the eggs. Pour the mixture over the cooked sausage. (In hindsight, of course, I realize you could mix the sausage right in with the eggs and sweet potatoes and sausage–feel free to do so. Tinker.)
Bake the frittata at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, or until the eggs are well set, puffed and golden and perfect.
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
I piled the Goobies into the car and drove through that windy canyon over to the other side of the hills to take the girls for a visit to their new school. It was a whole month ago now, on a Friday when another storm decided to swoop in and pound California with more rain. This particular visit was a strange combination of serendipity and providence. The Goobies’ were off of school that week, strangely, for Winter Break, and while so many other people (all the people, it felt like) were trading dank gray clouds for sunshine and fresh air, we hunkered down and spent a week cooped up at home for what felt like no reason at all-until that Friday when God used something ordinary to teach me a lesson in obedience and faith.
Like most things lately, I didn’t have such a good attitude about it at first: just thinking about Winter Break and ten days spent inside with three spunky kids teased the last string of my already frayed sanity loose. I normally scoop those Goobies up into my arms as soon as we tumble through the garage door after all those hours spent away from each other, smothering them with kisses and cries of “I’ve missed you all day long!” even as they try in vain to hang up their jackets and backpacks. Imagining ten days of so much togetherness made me want to run and hide myself away until Winter Break had come and gone again.
Winter Break came anyway. The sun decided to poke its head out early that week and blue skies beckoned me to come out of hiding. Fantasies of setting up camp under a blanket in a quiet corner of the house (where hopefully no one would find me) evaporated, and before I knew it those Goobies stole my heart all over again as we spent those few beautiful days just being us, here, together.
Winter break turned out to be a break in Winter, and that strange, out-of-the-ordinary week was a gift I didn’t know I would need: one last beautiful week spent here in our home before change became reality and took up residence with us. It was Valentine’s Day that week, and I decked out the table with bright colored hearts and pink Strawberry Pancakes, and we spent hours outside blowing bubbles and playing red light green light and flying upside down on the swings those Goobies love so much. I said yes as much as I could, and remembered the days before Emery joined our brood, the days when I spent everyday entertaining those girls here at home without the pressure or restraint of schedules. Those days slipped by without me really knowing they could, and I think I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that they are almost gone. For one lovely week, I got to experience that joy again, and remember.
Friday came and winter came back with it, bringing another pounding rain storm. The week was over and reality set in and I put on my brave face as I piled those three pajama-clad Goobies into the car and drove West, weaving my way through a wet, windy canyon, toward change.
What a feat to pry those kids off the couch and settle them happily in the car before breakfast. None of them really wanted to trade their cozy little spot on the couch for a cold car seat and a long, gloomy drive through that windy, soggy canyon. On a day they could be marathon-watching Goldie and Bear and munching on chocolate chip banana muffins, they somehow managed to hear my voice above the din of Disney Junior and heaved their pajama-clad selves into the car without complaining. They munched on baggies full of dry Trader Joe’s O’s and listened to music and played quietly among themselves without arguing once.
I couldn’t get over the fact that they didn’t complain. They complain in the best of circumstances, but on that particular morning when I forced them into the car without a warm breakfast in their bellies, and raced them toward a new unfamiliar reality, they kept quiet. These kids aren’t shy about letting us know when they feel insecure or frightened, so even though they may have been a little unsure about visiting a new school, they didn’t show any outward sign of concern. They were quiet. Their hearts were quiet. They were sure we were headed somewhere good and safe and they were certain I would get them there in one piece. They knew their job was to simply be still and let me do my job. They had faith in me. They trusted me.
And then it hit me: I was not at peace with getting up and moving because I hadn’t been still and let God do His job. I didn’t really have faith in Him. It started months ago when uncertainty set up camp in my heart as I watched the future fly toward me faster than I thought possible. Instead of running toward it with outstretched hands, I wanted to yell “Duck!” and run away and hide. My feet were firmly set, my heels dug deep in the place I thought God planted us. I felt like a tree, tall and strong enough to endure whatever storm came. But last Fall, I realized just how weak I was. The mere idea of change–of losing this place and the life we’ve built up around it–undid me. I wasn’t seeing what I hoped for, really, and what I was certain about was everything I wanted was being taken away from me.
Winter brought sadness, and I didn’t think peace or hope could ever really return. I took cover in the safety of familiar things I could count on–like God, and His goodness and love; and in you and this time we have with these kids, here, now. I clung to joy and pleaded for peace because change is scary and I was afraid. The new year came, just as it always does, and the soil of certainty turned soggy when the sky opened up and new things began pouring down. Your Midwestern roots keep you calm when thunder rattles the windows, me. The grumbling clouds unnerve me even while while their sad song is a symphony to your heart.
Winter brings death, and Spring brings life. I know this very well, of course. Doesn’t everyone? But in the middle of Winter, everything seemed so dank, gray, and just so… final–even here in California where Winter just means cooler weather and leaf-bare trees outstretching their bony fingers toward barren gray skies, as if praying, and the hope of Spring seemed impossible.
This all lasted until that last Friday of Winter Break, when everything suddenly came into focus as my own children showed me what pure trust looks like as they let me lead them away from comfort and into the unknown. They didn’t really want to get up and go–but they trusted that something really, really good (like fluffy scrambled eggs and wind-up robots, and a visit to see a new school where they could see their Papa’s office from the playground) was on the other side of the journey, and they put their faith in action by getting into the car and letting me drive. That’s what God is asking of me: to listen to his voice, to get up and go, and to trust Him to get me there safely.
Now, a whole month later, Spring is here. Blossoms appeared on the gnarled old apple tree this morning, suddenly, and the changes I saw coming so many months ago are very much here now. A big beautiful demonstration of new life stares me in the face, and I can’t help but see hope.
My feet are not firmly set anymore; they are loosening and small steps are leading to bigger ones as I walk in obedience and faith. And so, transition is taking up space all around us. The bare walls look like closed eyes now, as if the house has fallen asleep. I tiptoe through the hallway trying not to disturb it, and its echo reminds me that this place is ours only for a few more weeks, really.
Every day another box gets packed and another piece of furniture disappears and the Goobies wake up to a house that looks increasingly less familiar and they ask, “Why does our house look so different, Mama?” I wipe my eyes and smile through the tears, reminding them again and again we are getting ready for the big adventure God is taking us on- because in the end, isn’t that what this is? Most of the time they squeal with delight, but every once in awhile their tears come, too. “Will I get to take my bed with me? What about the swing set? Are you and daddy going to come with us? Will we ever come back to visit this house?”
Obeying isn’t easy, nor is faith. It’s hard. I would much rather stay where I am, nose nestled under piles and piles of blankets, comfy and warm, in a place I’ve grown to love more than I thought I ever could. But I’m swinging my legs out from under myself anyway because like you taught me all those years ago: faith isn’t just in the knowing, it’s also in the going. I know now the challenges ahead will be worth it because the God who is calling us to a new life this Spring is faithful and trustworthy. The Goobies reminded me of that on that glorious gift of a Winter Break. I am ready to head through that canyon again with you in the weeks that will be here before I know it, because I know who is doing the driving, and with Him, we are safe.
Pink Strawberry Pancakes
I spent Valentines Day with my Goobies at home this year, since they were off of school for Winter Break that week. But I hadn’t really planned a special breakfast and since it was the day before pay day, the pantry was a pretty sparse. But pancakes are an empty pantry wonder-food, and I used them as a canvas for coming up with a way to make the morning feel a little more festive (because if any day of the year calls for a little whimsy, it’s Valentine’s Day, right?). As with all my recipes, substitute real milk for the dairy free milk if you aren’t dairy free and use regular all purpose flour too if you aren’t gluten free.
1 1/4 – 1 1/2 cups unsweetened (vanilla or original) almond milk (or rice milk, or regular dairy milk)–start with 1 1/4 cups and drizzle in up to another 1/2 cup if your batter seems to thick
1/2 cup organic strawberry spread (or strawberry jam)
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon white balsamic vinegar
3 Tablespoons refined coconut oil, melted
a drop or two of red food coloring (either a natural one, like this one from India Tree, or a conventional one from your local grocery store)
Whisk the flour, baking soda and salt together in a large bowl. Add the eggs, almond milk, strawberry spread and vanilla and mix well; then drizzle in the melted coconut oil and stir to combine. Drop the food coloring in little by little, and stir; add until you get the shade you desire. (Natural food coloring yields a paler, more earthy shade of pink, which is pictured above; conventional red food coloring yields a bolder, more noticeable shade of pink, which the kids prefer because the color is far more noticeable.)
Over medium high heat, warm up a griddle and spray with coconut oil cooking spray. Scoop 1/4 cup of the batter onto the griddle at a time and cook until the edges have set and bubbles emerge on top. Flip gently and continue to cook until golden.
Serve warm, with syrup or not. Sprinkled with powdered sugar or not. Topped with whipped cream and strawberries or not. The Goobies tend to eat straight from the plate without toppings, just as they are. Your call 🙂