Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Should I Eat Here? Dealing with Food Anxiety and Eating in Restaurants

It's a hard thing to decide when and where to eat when you have celiac disease. I have a reaction to gluten so severe that I've had to leave restaurants in an ambulance. People often say to me "well, why bother going out to eat?" To them, it's not worth the risk.

I've had a hard time reconciling this. Sure, common sense dictates that I should just avoid going out. But I refuse to be a slave to my disease. For one, it would mean shutting myself off to many social events. Whenever setting up a date with friends or family, the first thought is "so do you want to grab dinner/lunch/brunch?" Our culture and socialization revolve around food.

I also just love food. Sure, I consider myself to be a good cook. But I can't cook a lot of stuff, and I want to eat what I want to eat. Most restaurants can offer at least one gluten free option -- in fact, catering to food allergies is the law in Massachusetts. Restaurants must provide allergen awareness training here, and I love that.

More than anything else, what kind of life is it to live in fear the whole time? Obviously, I exercise common sense and don't take risks. But I'm not going to live as a shut-in, not when there are so many restaurants that really get it. There are some restaurants where I KNOW I'll be safe, and if I'm feeling nervous. I will eat here:
It's hard not to have anxiety about food when a mistake or carelessness can land you in the hospital. This happened to me at Rancho Chico in Plainville, MA. Despite their insistence that they understood celiac disease, I was clearly exposed and had a seizure at the table. They put me in the hospital, and the manager insisted that I must have brought outside food in, and forced my party to pay for my food (I was in the ambulance so I couldn't pay), saying that if they didn't cough up, the server would have to cover the cost. 

I didn't eat solid food for a few weeks after this incident, because I was just so afraid and I'd start to panic whenever I looked at food. But I came to realize that this was no way to live -- food is amazing! It's just about going to places that aren't run by megalomaniac douchebags who still won't own up to it. So do your research! Be educated, and don't be afraid to ask for the manager or to speak to the chef. It's your body and you are the consumer -- be your own advocate and don't eat anything you're not comfortable eating. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Gluten-Free Chinese Food: Uncle Cheung's in Framingham

I love Uncle Cheung's. We eat here at least once a month, and as someone who is Chinese, finding gluten-free Chinese food is a big deal. I miss being able to go out for dim sum or to meet my family in Chinatown for a big feast, but this is as close as I can get, and it's pretty damn close.

The day I found out there was gluten in soy sauce, I died a little inside. I am CHINESE, people. We live on soy sauce, and it's everywhere in a Chinese kitchen. This is also why I'm afraid to eat at a Chinese restaurant. The prep areas, the woks.. soy sauce everywhere! I'm also hesitant to trust a restaurant like this, because when there's a language barrier, I don't feel confident in my safety.

Then I discovered Uncle Cheung's. From what I understand, the owner's family has celiac, so they take it very seriously. They can make most of the items on their menu gluten free! As an extra bonus to me, they have an authentic Shanghai menu for Chinese people, with all of the classics that I grew up and love, like beef tendons, pea shoots, rice cakes, and steamed whole fish in ginger and scallions. They use water chestnut flour for frying, and they also use gluten-free soy sauce.

I've never gotten sick from eating at Uncle Cheung's, not once. I am VERY sensitive, so even the slightest error would send my stomach into a conniption fit, and that has never happened here. Is the food the best Chinese food in the world? No. But it's pretty solid, and I feel completely safe eating here, which is worth every penny. It's a little bit expensive compared to most Chinese joints in the area, but it's very tasty and the safety is well-worth the extra money.

Items to try:

  • Garlic spareribs. Fried with hot peppers and super delicious. They also do fried calamari in a similar manner.
  • Sauteed pea shoots. Delicate and flavorful.
  • Shredded beef and leeks. Sweet and pungent, this is fantastic over rice. 
  • Steamed whole fish with ginger and scallions. This tastes like my childhood!
If you're in the Boston area and are looking for a safe place to eat Chinese food, run, don't walk, to Uncle Cheung's. Even better, they're open on Christmas! My family and I did Christmas here last year, and it was wonderful. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Boom Chicka Pop White Cheddar Popcorn Review

I am a snacker. I can't go more than three hours without eating something, so I always have two KIND bars in my purse, or a banana (is that a banana in your purse or are you just happy to see me?). My cubicle at work is lined with gluten-free snacks, so much so that it has been dubbed the "snack corner" of my office. Everybody is clearly jealous.

I recently discovered Angie's Boom Chicka Pop, as it was on sale at my local grocery store. It's certified gluten free and though not dairy free, it doesn't seem to affect my lactose-intolerant belly. There are only 60 calories per cup, but really, who only eats a cup of this stuff at a time?

It's really tasty. It reminds me of Smartfood, but not nearly as intense in flavor. On sale, I've gotten it for $2.50 a bag, so it's not terribly expensive either. The other flavors didn't interest me as much, but I'd be willing to try them. I'm guessing this would be delicious tossed with M&Ms or chocolate chips! The only warning I will throw out there is that the powdered cheese gets all over your face, and I gave myself a minor heart attack when I looked in the mirror and thought I had face dandruff.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Zucchini Boats with Ground Beef

Summer is underway and my garden is out of control! In the second week of July, we ended up picking close to 10 lbs of raspberries. Seriously.

Another common overgrowth item is zucchini or yellow squash. The problem with overgrown zucchini is that once it reaches a certain point, sauteing or grilling isn't really optimal -- the seeds are too big and tough. What I like to do is make cute little zucchini boats! Here's what you need and what you need to do for a yummy trip for your taste buds (get it? because they're boats?).

2 large zucchini
1 lb ground beef
2 cups pre-cooked rice or quinoa
1 large tomato, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 cup baby spinach, fresh and raw
1 can of cooking spray
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp paprika
1/2 cup cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 a lemon

Preheat the oven to 375, then line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Halve the zucchini, then use a spoon to hollow it out, removing the seeds, until the desired shape of a boat. Spray with cooking spray, sprinkle with salt, and put in the oven for 12 minutes. You can start the next step while the zucchini are in the oven -- remove when the 12 minutes are up or the zucchini begins to brown.

In a cast iron skillet, start the olive oil on medium heat, then add the onions. Sprinkle with salt and stir until translucent. Add the garlic and saute for another 30 seconds. Add the beef, plus salt, pepper, and paprika. When the beef is browned, add the tomatoes. Continue to stir until tomatoes soften, then add the rice or quinoa. When the mixture is thoroughly mixed, taste and adjust with salt and pepper as needed. Add the juice of half of a lemon.

Use a spoon to scoop the mixture into the boats, making as high as you want. Pop into the oven for 10 minutes, then remove. Sprinkle with cheese. Put back in the oven for another five minutes or until the cheese melts. For extra flourish, you can top with chopped basil or parsley.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Gluten Free Review of El Pelon Taqueria: The Best Mexican Food in Boston

I don't just mean gluten-free Mexican food, too. I mean of all time. Ever. Famed statistician Nate Silver analyzed Yelp reviews of burrito joints across the U.S., and using some sort of metric that I will never understand (though I got an A in Statistics 115 back at BU!), calculated that El Pelon has the fourth best burrito in the country. Yup, sounds about right.

I've been eating at El Pelon (two locations: one in Brighton near Boston College and one in Boston proper near BU) since college, long before I was diagnosed with celiac disease. I was so sad that I would never be able to eat it again. To my surprise, much of what I love at El Pelon is gluten free! The only thing I can't eat are the burritos (cruel, considering the statistic above). However, the rest of the food is phenomenal and I don't feel like I'm missing a damn thing.

First off, the chips and guacamole (which is amazeballs) are gluten free. The limited menu means that they don't fry anything else in the fryer (except for some select other items that are also gluten free, and I'll get to that in a minute). The plantains are gluten free and perfect. They're not crispy, but they're the soft squishy fried ones that I believe are green, because they are not that sweet. They're served with a smoky red salsa, perfect for dipping.

My other favorite appetizer is the taquitos -- corn tortillas rolled up with shredded beef inside, served with a pico de gallo and the same intoxicating guacamole. These are a real treat -- perfectly fried and crisp.

But the piece de resistance is the fish tacos. Cornmeal-crusted whitefish in a corn tortilla, topped with limed onions and pickled cabbage with a squirt of arbor chile mayo and cucumbers. Absolute heaven, and by far the best fish taco I've ever had. The fish is fried, but as previously mentioned, there is no contamination in the fryer. Everything that's fried is corn-based!
Here is a picture of Brian's birthday meal this past weekend at El Pelon. The best part? All of this was less than $30.