Allergy Friendly · Dairy Free · Dips and Sauces · Friendship · Side Dishes

Our People, and Summertime Fruit Dip

Dear Joey,

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Love,

Scratch

Summertime Fruit Dip (GF/DF/NF)

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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), or just 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. 

Ingredients:
  • 1-8 oz. tub Vegan Cream Cheese (such as Trader Joe’s)
  • 1-7 oz. tub Jet Puffed Marshmallow Fluff
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
Method:

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).

 

Allergy Friendly · Side Dishes · Wrestling with Reality

Macaroni and Cheese–or, More Rightly: The Problem, and Vegan Creamy Noodles (GF/DF/NF)

“Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?

Matthew 6:26

“My God will supply all of my needs according to the riches of Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:19

Dear Joey,

We have a noodle problem in our house. More specifically, we have a macaroni and cheese problem.

I made a vow a long time ago that I would only ever make homemade macaroni and cheese, sans the box–you know, until I had two kids under two and time came at a premium. The less time I could spend in the kitchen, the better.

Over the years, I admit I got lazy. Boxed macaroni & cheese is easier to make; all you really have to do is pull the darn thing off the shelf and boil some water. The rest basically takes care of itself. Homemade macaroni and cheese involves a little bit more planning ahead, meaning you sort of have to know you’re going to make it and make sure the fridge is stocked well enough with milk and cheese to make the dish in the first place (milk and cheese turn sour and moldy. Boxed macaroni and cheese lasts forever.) Plus, taking the time to shred the cheese myself was a minor stressor that I didn’t have time for. For a season, I chucked the guilt and embraced Annie’s brand organic Macaroni and Cheese, thankful there was an okay-ish option out there for moms like me who were just too tired to make good on our virtuous vow to avoid overly processed convenient foods with an inflated price tag.

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Of course, that season lasted a little bit longer than I thought it would. Boxed macaroni and cheese is just so stinking brainless–the kids cheer when it shows up on the table every single time. When you’ve got picky eaters as well as food allergies and intolerances, having a no-fail meal waiting in the wings at all times is priceless.

After I figured out gluten is my enemy, I switched over to the gluten free version because cross contamination is a problem. And then, once Emery was old enough for big kid food, it got harder and harder to leave those garish orange noodles off his plate, especially when his sisters got so excited about them. He was not too happy to be left out of the party, and I knew the days of serving the stuff regularly were numbered.

Soon after that, I picked up a box of So Delicious brand gluten free/dairy free macaroni and “cheese” and quickly discovered how much Emery loved it. I figured Hey! This will appease the boy and provide a quick-fix for the days when my brain is fried! Woo hoo! But goodness, that stuff tasted (and smelled!) atrocious to the rest of us. For awhile, I bit the bullet and made him his own special box of it anyway whenever I made some of the gluten-free-dairy-full variety for his sisters, but it got expensive and tiresome and confusing juggling two different batches of orange noodles. Plus, I have more time to spend in the kitchen now–it’s easier to get dinner on the table than it was in those first bleary-eyed days of motherhood. My excuses for leaning on boxed macaroni and cheese were flying out the window fast. But Mia. She loves the stuff the way I love chocolate, and breaking the hold it has on her has been pretty much impossible.

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Clearly, I had a problem. And so, I did the only thing I really know to do when trouble stares me in the face: I prayed. I realize it might sound strange that I would talk to God about something so trivial as my macaroni and cheese troubles, but I believe He cares about me–about us, and that no problem is too small or insignificant for Him. Besides, at its core, the problem facing me is far deeper and more complicated; it is about so much more than macaroni and cheese.

The problem is about our food system and how broken it is and how someone like me who used to be so against all the mumbo jumbo of the food industry throws at us–even I am guilty of falling into the snare of quick and convenient. It’s about food allergies too, and about the simple fact that I don’t understand why the good food that God made to nourish and sustain His creation turned on our family, so to speak. It’s about how angry this all makes me and how trying to navigate the food allergy world is frustrating because I am not able to ditch the boxed stuff and turn to the normal real food standbys and say, “Problem solved!”

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After Emery’s scratch test, this all came to a head. I was bummed out about food allergies and feeling the sting of the grocery bills; I was weary of making two versions of practically everything at mealtime and tired of a picky eater who rejects just about anything I make for dinner unless it involves a noodle. I started talking to God about it, telling Him how ill-equipped I felt to do something so basic as feed my family well.

A few days later, the anger abated and I forged ahead with a little bit of clarity and in those moments God showed me something as I was unloading my current haul of dairy-free staples: God always provides. Time after time after time, in the great stories of the Bible and in our own, far smaller life story–it’s what He does. Truth be told, we have never gone to bed on an empty stomach, and neither have our children. My feelings are real and true, it’s not easy to juggle allergies and preferences and stretch our dollars, but we have allergy friendly options available to us and we have dollars with which to pay for them. Beyond that, I am equipped me with the things I need to make all this work: a passion for food and for feeding my family well. Kitchen know-how (enough of it, at least) and the willingness to try new things there. The kitchen never used to scare me–why should it now? It’s as if God reminded me of who I am and how He made me, and then urged me to look at our family’s food allergy reality as one to tackle with with courage and creativity instead of something to sulk about.

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And then my attention turned to the Trader Joe’s Vegan Cream Cheese I just restocked, the one that is one of many dairy-free building blocks with which I am learning to construct new recipes, and I thought about that Alfredo-like sauce I made a few months ago, the one I made up on a whim because creamy pasta sounded warm and comforting to me that night. I tossed it with gluten free pasta, grilled chicken and broccoli, and we didn’t have any leftovers to speak of. It occurred to me that a simplified version of that sauce tossed with gluten free noodles might make a suitable substitute for boxed macaroni & cheese. Turns out, I was right.

No, the creamy noodles I came up with do not taste exactly like their boxed counterparts (which is a good thing, when considering the vegan varieties pretty much taste like cardboard covered with cheese that went bad a long time ago, in my very frank opinion), but they do taste good. They are quick, easy, and everyone eats them happily (and the house doesn’t smell like feet when I make it). I didn’t go so far as to add vegan cheese-like shreds like I wanted to because our girls don’t like them (yet…), but for now this recipe works for me. For us.

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Mia does not love them the way she loves boxed macaroni and cheese, true, and often I will sprinkle a little bit of Parmesan cheese on top of her plate to really sell them to her (once Emery is strapped into his high chair, at least), but I am weaning her off of that because they really do taste good without it. Plus, Emery started noticing this minor little difference between his plate and hers and lets us know he does not like being told Sorry buddy, no cheese for you. The whole point of these creamy noodles is to make a dish everyone can and will eat, so the days of Parmesan cheese are numbered indeed.

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In the days since Emery’s scratch test, I came out the other side, in some ways. I am not happy about his allergies. I am not happy about Mia’s allergies either, or about my own issues with gluten for that matter. I realize now that this is not God’s fault. We live in a fallen world where human choice spoiled God’s good earth. In His sovereign kindness, God still provides even in the midst of this ravaged land. I do not believe food allergies were part of His good plan for creation. I believe our bad choices messed it all up (maybe not our family specifically, but humanity as a whole), yet somehow, in the midst of it all, He still takes care of us just like He promises He will.

There is still one lonely package of gluten free macaroni and cheese out in the garage, way up on the highest shelf tucked all the way in the back, but I don’t plan to restock the shelf. These creamy noodles aren’t the answer to every problem food allergies brought to our table, and perhaps they aren’t the most clean/whole/organic/healthy/perfect alternative out there, but they are a choice I feel good enough about, one that I know I will lean on like a reliable friend in the coming years.

Love,

Scratch

Vegan Creamy Noodles (GF/DF/NF)

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This recipe screams Allergy Friendly Flexiblity.  As written, it is free of gluten and dairy, but feel free to swap out alternative ingredients based on what your family can tolerate (if you are dairy free but can tolerate gluten, use wheat noodles. If you are gluten free but can tolerate dairy, use regular cream cheese, butter and milk. Or if you don’t have food allergies at all, use both–the recipe will still work.) We use Trader Joe’s Brown Rice Fusilli, but clearly, use your favorite noodles. Also, I cannot vouch for the flavor profile if you use other brands of Vegan Cream Cheese, but I think it’d be worth a try if your family likes other brands. We prefer the Trader Joe’s Vegan Cream Cheese, so that’s what we use around here.  To round out a meal for the kids, I sometimes add diced ham and frozen peas. Let your family’s preferences let your creativity soar.

Ingredients:
  • 8 ounces brown rice pasta (such as Trader Joe’s Brown Rice Fusilli)
  • 4 ounces Vegan Cream Cheese (such as Trader Joe’s)
  • 2 Tablespoons Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Spread (you can use a bit more or less if you’d like. No hard and fast rules on this one)
  • 1/4 cup plain, unsweetened Rice Milk
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
Method:

Boil 8 oz. gluten free noodles according to package instructions.

Meanwhile, set a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Plunk in the Earth Balance and Vegan Cream Cheese and whisk until the two have melted together. Pour in 1/4 cup rice milk, vinegar, onion powder and salt. Whisk until smooth, then add the noodles to the pan. Toss to coat and serve immediately.

If you have leftovers, add a splash or two of rice milk to help re-hydrate the sauce when reheating the noodles.

 

Being Changed · Miracles · Side Dishes

Everyday Miracles, Being Changed, and Baked Brown Rice Pilaf

Dear Joey,

I know you have never contemplated a pan of rice cooking, and the miracle that takes place as those little grains simmer in the scalding hot water, expanding ever so slightly over until they become something else entirely.

I can’t blame you. Neither did I, really. In fact, I hardly even noticed rice until the past few years when I began cooking it more often since it’s, well, affordable. To me, rice was always boring, and far too lack luster to really summon up any true excitement over. Even with a good sauce or proper seasoning, it somehow just seemed too plain. Too ordinary to really enjoy.

I have learned the value of rice over the years, and I continue to play around with it because I understand its potential now. Perhaps on its own it isn’t much, but given the right environment, with a little time, care, and attention, it can (and does) transform from something forgettable into something memorable.

Like Baked Brown Rice Pilaf – the rice that I have made countless times this year. The rice that has forever made me think of rice as a true miracle food. Not only is it really quite good (why else would I have made it so often?), but it reminds me of the miracles we pray for, wait for, and even sometimes lose sight of until God reveals His finished work.

First, melted butter. It reminds me that we often feel like we collapse, unable to withstand the heat that we suddenly feel surrounding us. We survive, but we are changed – never to go back to what we were before.

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Next, the aromatics and the seasonings – things and people that surround us, join us, add to our lives (for better or worse) as we wait to see what God is doing. The outcome would not be the same without them.

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Then, the rice. The grains sizzle and pop as they brown.  Things are getting uncomfortable, and we cannot see how this will ever make us better, or how things will ever come to an end. We may even forget that a miracle is possible.

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Finally, the water. It swirls all around us, knocking us off our feet until we find ourselves submerged, somewhat at a loss for what to do next.

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But nothing can really happen until we let the heat change us. The lid goes on and into the oven we go, for a good long while, and behind the scenes a miracle is happening. Sometimes we’re the only ones who can see what’s happening, and sometimes we forget the truth of what is happening to us, focusing only on our current circumstances and losing sight of the hope for what is waiting on the other end.

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But then, when it’s time, it’s over. Out of the oven, the lid comes off, and the miracle is revealed.

So often everyday miracles involve the transforming power found in circumstances that are uncomfortable. The heat. The time. Feeling like we’re drowning and not knowing if we’ll make it to the other side of things in tact. When I make this rice, I remember that whatever hard thing I’m going through has a purpose. And when I wonder if I’ll come out of the heat in tact, I remember this: I will be changed for the better. 

Love,
Scratch

Baked Brown Rice Pilaf (GF/DF option/NF)

IMG_4286Inspired by this Simple Bites  recipe, this version uses short grain brown rice (or a brown rice/wild rice medley) along with celery salt, parsley and a bay leaf, seasonings that are somewhat versatile and pair well with many other flavors. This method doesn’t take much more time or effort than regular boiled rice, but it yields a side dish that is packed with flavor. It has become a go-to recipe in my house, which is a major surprise to me – a fairly reluctant rice eater. UPDATE: I use Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks instead of butter now, since dairy joined the list of allergens in our house when Emery arrived. If dairy is a problem for your family too, try using Earth Balance or grapeseed oil (or even additional olive oil) in lieu of butter.  

Ingredients:

1 Tablespoon unsalted butter (or use Earth Balance Vegan Buttery sticks, grapeseed oil or olive oil instead)
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 Tablespoon dry parsley
3/4 teaspoon celery salt
1 bay leaf
2 cups short grain brown rice (or a wild rice medley)
3 1/2 cups water (or chicken broth)

Method:

First, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Using a medium dutch oven, melt the butter and olive oil together over medium heat. Once melted, add the onion and cook for about a minute. Add the seasonings and cook for another minute. Next, add the rice and cook for about three minutes, making sure to stir so that rice does not scorch, and is coated well with the oil.

Then, add the water and bring to a boil. Once it does, give it a good stir, put the lid on the dutch oven, and place in the center of the oven. Bake for 40 minutes.

Take the dutch oven out and let it sit undisturbed for another 10 minutes. Remove the lid, fluff the rice, and serve.