As we (okay, I) accept more and more that we live an urban lifestyle---one of my choosing, in fact!---we have moved from growing our own items (darn those squirrels) to shopping the weekly farmer’s market to considering support of one of the many local CSA options. But, in a family with dozens (at least) of food allergies between us, is a CSA really the right move?
CSA, if you don’t yet know, stands for community-supported agriculture. Where I grew up, this was just called shopping. The groceries were filled with local items (especially the smaller grocers, Italian or otherwise), and sometimes neighbors swapped foods for others that they didn’t grow themselves. One of my early memories in our “new” house when I was 10 was giving peppers from our garden to other people and getting brown bags of fresh-picked corn from a local friend/colleague of my parents.
In cities, CSAs are the organized move to support the nearby farming communities and to show them that we city folk still appreciate them and want to rely on them, not global preserved shipments, for good food.
I’ll be honest: I’m a tough mom who makes my kids eat foods that aren’t their favorites at the dinner table. So the variety of foods, and the lack of well-in-advance notice about the box contents, was not ideal for planner-me, but it was not a large barrier.
The bigger problem really was the cost. I like to plan my budget, so having a weekly payment was nice on one hand. On the other, though, was that I was locked into a weekly payment. In a house with a government salary (read: not going up or getting bonuses anytime soon) and a freelance “salary” of mine that varied by the day, months of a weekly payment for anything is something I like to avoid.
Even if the CSA cost is less than I might possibly spend at the farmer’s market or grocery, I like the idea of being able to spend at those places and support those businesses more when I am earning more, but less when it doesn’t work for us that week.
We’ve considered splitting a CSA, because I really do think it’s cost effective in the long run, and having a partner to swap with seemed like a good compromise to the cost, frequency, and quantities. But we never really found an ideal partnership for that.
Now that we’re removing wheat from my diet, and our dishes are starting to center more on the veggie and less on the grain, I decided to give CSAs another hard look. It’s almost the end of summer here in the DC metro area, and our local market will wind down soon. Having fresh options to pick up or be delivered to our door would be a wonderful self-birthday gift to last all winter, and it would be a great way to celebrate my 1-year anniversary of heart surgery, too, to keep a healthy diet going when it’s just too darn cold to go out!
Locally, the CSA options are varied enough to make your head spin, though. All, or at least most, seemed reliable, often organic, and principled. As far as convenience to us, I wanted, at the very least
I used localharvest.org as well as good old Google searches to determine what fit our needs. From options like Kuhn’s order-as-you-go to Groundworks' on-farm membership, I got down to these few that met our needs:
What we ended up with, though, was none of these, at least not this year. Instead, we’re trying Washington Green Grocer, a CSA collaborative, so to speak. Washington Green Grocer delivers products from different local farmers in a single box right to your door. Choices include a vegetable-only box, a standard fruit and veg option, an organic-only box, and small-business add-ons like eggs or vegan waffles. At least two box sizes are offered, each at a flat fee.
Unlike a CSA, there is no member enrollment in WGG; instead, you pay weekly when you order a delivery. There’s no requirement to order each week, either. So far, the only downside from my point of view was that all items appear packed in a shared box, so allergic foods could be jostled with safe ones.
So what convinced me to give this a go? WGG orders are set online, within 1-2 weeks ahead of delivery, and the site offers a detailed “never order” and “always order” page. Yep—I can never get those highly allergenic bananas, even if they’re scheduled to be in the box. Never and always selections can be entire food groups or just single items.
And it gets better: If you don't want the planned box that week but don't want to skip it entirely, you can opt for a different size or type of box, or you can even build your own custom box! When I sent a question about my first order to their email address, I received a text response directly from Zeke within the hour. So I already feel like my family is in good hands, before we even get our first delivery.
This somewhat personalized CSA-like option sounds too good to be true for food allergy families. We’re trying our first box on August 16th, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out. Look for an update here this fall!
Update 1: August 26, 2017
Oh my, is everyone in the house awfully happy with our CSA pick. For week 2, we opted for a small box custom-revised to include only a handful of food types instead of the usual variety. We got extra romaine lettuce, extra ginger gold apples, and some beautiful orange tomatoes---and we're packing it all for our beach vacation!
Also included, sweet potatoes and fresh green beans. Check out the lovely heart-healthy fries we had for our dinner side last night:
Update 2: September 7, 2017
To start off the school year, after a couple of weeks of low work on my end, we stuck with a small farm box from WGG. I definitely feel like we get more bang for our buck with the larger boxes, but I love the chance to downgrade when I don't want all that's offered or I only have a few days' need before our own local market comes.
Our new favorite safe-for-everyone dinner for the fall seems clear already AND relies on this week's fruits, veggies, and starches from WGG: Lean pork loin roasted with diced sweet potatoes and apples, crusted with fennel and sprinkled with cloves, cinnamon, and coriander. Fresh green beans sauteed for the side. It's already gone, so there's not even a photo to show it off!
This spring, I tried to get out of my safe-recipe rut (you know, when you just keep making the same old stuff that is good, and allergy-friendly, but you could do it blindfolded by now?) by seeking out new recipes to convert. I could browse food magazines for hours, and I hit upon a zucchini bread recipe and a cookie cake recipe that each had very little egg in the originals. At the time, I gave a quick mention on the blog and promised a recipe. Finally delivering (this is about my normal timeline for such things these days)!
I've been changing a lot of my diet to wheat-free/yeast-free products this month. Oddly, that gave me the push I needed to really wrap up my collection of quick breads (with all-purpose wheat flours). Knowing that I have to tackle more kitchen experiments with alternative flours was the kick in the pants to get me to write down my traditional (for us: still egg-free, dairy-free, nut-free, and seed-free) versions.
This zucchini bread is light and moist on its own, but a spread of homemade jam wouldn't hurt a bit!
I was inspired to make and actually finish this recipe by my allergy shot nurses. I rely on them a lot to keep me healthy, and I tend to show my love and appreciation for others through food. They were a great help in settling on a strawberry bread recipe, and I got particularly good feedback about this mild zucchini bread, too.
Click on the image below to open or pin the zucchini bread recipe!
Just a few days after my standard jam making (with Sure-Jell pectin), I gave Pomona's Pectin a try with the leftover berries. The difference was really remarkable. Check it out:
Instead of following the Sure-Jell directions for a single-berry jam, I decided to combine our picked, washed, and frozen blueberries and cherries this summer. My Sure-Jell adapted recipe set up nicely and made at least 5 pints of spreadable jam. I'd heard so many good things about Pomona's, though, that I had to give it a go.
The Pomona's pectin box touts lower (and different kinds of) sugar, a variety of batch sizes, instructions to adapt to different fruits, and more. It comes with a packet of pectin just like Sure-Jell, but it also has a packet of calcium powder. I followed the directions for freezer jam for each type. They differed all around---in method, setting, taste, texture, storage, and maybe even cost.
Taste and texture
Have you ever made jam? What pectin do you like, and will you ever experiment with another method?
You know something that is naturally gluten free? Not to mention free from milk products, eggs, nuts, tree nuts, seeds, soy, corn, fish, and all of those other persnickity food allergens? JAM. Specifically, fresh berry freezer jam. Doesn't even need a vehicle, just a spoon (or a surreptitious finger).
It turns out, a lot of people have never made jam before. They picture boiling canning jars, bacteria worries, hours in the kitchen. But it doesn't have to be so! I started making jams a number of years ago, exactly the way that my mom always did for me when I was young. I didn't know at the time that she followed the Sure-Jell freezer recipe every single year after her outing for strawberry picking.
I'm not one to leave well enough alone, though, so I started exploring other berries, and other jam methods, after only a year or two of my own strawberry jams. Recently, I've tried the cooked method. No one here liked it as much. That fresh-from-the-fields taste of a freezer jam done well just can't be beat.
Strawberry season has come and gone here (as has our jam supply from that). This year, we added blueberry picking into the summer, and I measured and froze washed berries in the hopes of making a midsummer berry jam. Today was that day! Or at least the first of the days. I ended up with enough blueberries, and a stash of pitted cherries, to make another round of jam after this one sets. Again, not content to stick with what works, I'm going to give Pomona's Universal Pectin a try on the next batch. Its instructions seem just as easy and more flexible than other options, and expert canners rave about it.
I'm posting my "recipe" for this thick and yummy cherry blueberry jam because I had to wing it on the berry and sugar quantities. If you've ever used Sure-Jell, Certo, or other jam-making pectins, you'll know that winging it is highly discouraged. But I set myself to some math calculations, crossed my fingers and toes, and got lucky.
Here it is inline (aiming for a pretty printable added in later), with some notes inside and at the bottom for this version specifically and for jam making in general. I'm not an expert at canning anything, but that just shows how easy this freezer spread really is. Enjoy! :)
2 cups mashed (between 3 and 4 cups whole) blueberries (I use a potato masher and a large Pyrex measuring cup)
1 cup chopped pitted sweet cherries (I use the same measuring cup, and I use kitchen shears instead of a knife and block)
2 tsp lemon juice (I use a bottled version, and it isn't required for these berries but does help the pectin activate; I use it more often when I'm using thawed fruit I picked at least a month earlier)
5-1/2 cups sugar (don't be alarmed; it comes out to about 2 tsp per serving, which is how much some people use in their tea or coffee anyway)
1 box Sure-Jell original pectin (not the low-sugar version; currently, original is a yellow box and low-sugar is a pink box)
3/4 cup water (this mixes with the pectin, and I like to have it ready ahead of time)
Items to have on hand
a 4-cup liquid measuring cup (note that my liquid cup measures equal to a solid cup; test yours or scoop your prepared fruit with a solid cup instead)
a 1-cup liquid measuring cup
a small saucepan
a very large mixing bowl---the largest you own
a large spatula for the berries
a small spatula for the pectin
washed and dried containers (I don't have consistent pint jars here; I have some of them in addition to some 3-cup jars, some 1-cup BPA-free plastic freezer containers, and an odd assortment of other glass containers that I use as small gifts after they're filled)
Follow the Sure-Jell directions (and estimated final quantity/container preparation) exactly, but use the different ingredient quantities listed above.
I like to start with preparing the berries (add them into the large bowl). Then, I set the pectin into the saucepan and measure the water (setting it aside). At this point, I also set my timer for 1 minute so that it's ready to go when I turn it on. Now, I'm ready to add the sugar.
About 7 minutes into the 10-minute sugar set, I start the water and pectin to high heat.
As the mixture starts to boil, do not stop stirring! Turn on your timer at the rolling boil stage and don't let it linger long past that 1-minute mark.
I have rarely stirred the pectin and berry mixtures for 3 full minutes, but it won't hurt to do so.
Fill the containers as directed.
Cool all of the filled containers loosely covered on the counter overnight. Then, stack your jars into the freezer for using and gifting all year long, whenever you are missing summer flavors.
Blueberries (and cherries) are sometimes made without any pectin at all, because their natural pectin content can thicken them pretty well. That means my Sure-Jell version is already nice and thick even though it's just been a few hours. So, I'm off now to take my smallest jar, still slightly warm, and scoop it over my (finally) successful wheat-free dairy-free egg-free nut-free chocolate brownies waiting for me. Don't worry, that recipe is coming very soon, too!
Check out the round 2 update, made with Pomona's, and my comparison with it against the first (Sure-Jell) go.
I've been away from posting and media for a couple of weeks. After all of this time getting comfortable with allergy-friendly recipes, we are adding more restrictions: no yeast, poultry (maybe all types, maybe just chicken), or wheat (notice, not gluten).
When a medical condition is diagnosed, patients usually need some time to absorb the news and adapt---to regroup. It's a normal adjustment period, when expectations are reset and new habits are started, but normal doesn't mean it isn't scary!
In these early weeks, writing out recipes is the last thing on my mind. Instead, I'm just trying to keep a nutritional balance while I explore different products, ingredients, flavor combinations. Brown rice and lean sausage, a salmon and celery salad, a sweet pineapple sheet cake, and some oat and almond flour pancakes have been fairly successful meal and treat attempts so far. (Plus I threw in another loaf of zucchini raisin bread, with a nearly perfected wheat flour recipe---coming soon!---for the kids.)
Despite all of my family's allergies, I consider us very fortunate. We haven't had to cope with severe physical or mental impairments, or bigger health crises like cancers. Removing or replacing a food (even an entire group or subgroup) isn't without its challenges, for sure, but it's bounce-back-able. That's even truer because of the enormous online support system.
This latest hibernation and reset was a bit different than our first foray into food allergy living: Unlike my daughter, who has anaphylactic reactions to many top allergens, I can be around mine, and around wheat in particular. Rather than have the entire family adjust to the allergy, I can adapt my meal safely from theirs.
That means I'm not eliminating all of my wheat-based treats, snacks, and breads. But I am going to have to get creative to make some of my own safe options. I also don't want to eliminate all gluten just because of a wheat allergy---why remove healthful ingredients and limit my diet even more?
As I add this journey to our well-tread dairy/egg/nut-free path, I'll be sure to include the resources and tips I start to rely on in my coming blog posts. And I'll grow my family cookbook even more, in a direction that I never expected.
If you have any great resources for cooking and baking without wheat---but with other gluten or non-gluten sources like oats, barley, and bean flours, I'd love to hear your ideas!
If you’ve read any of these blog posts or come to my place for food, you’ll know that I rarely follow recipes even for baking and that I often try out random combinations on visitors and on my family. Sometimes this fails miserably, mostly it’s at least tolerable, and sometimes the results are just wonderful and worth keeping.
Now that I’m look for ways to replace poultry in my dinners without adding on more of the same red meat and pork options, I’ll finally start writing down and posting some recipes for regular meals, not just treats and snacks. Like my earliest baking posts, I’m short on photos and, frankly, short on directions so far, too. But it’s a start!
This week, I stuck with beef, but a variant: lean ground veal. I used pasta as a vehicle, to stay in my comfort zone, and made a quick ragu that was hearty but also light enough for early summer.
If you’d like to give it a try, here’s a quick how-to:
1-2 pounds ground veal
4 raw carrots, peeled, sliced, and diced
1/2 yellow onion, peeled, sliced, and diced
extra-virgin olive oil (for sauteing)
fresh garlic to taste (I used 1 clove)
fresh thyme to taste (I used 3 sprigs)
red pepper flakes to taste
1 pound boxed dried pasta (I used macaroni to capture the ragu), cooked al dente and drained/ready to use.
1/2 can tomato paste, diluted with water until able to stir easily
*optional: salt or seasoned salt to taste (or replace with pecorino cheese at the end if you aren't a dairy-free household)
In a medium saucepan, saute the onions and carrots on medium heat in the olive oil until softened but not brown.
Add the garlic and saute only briefly. Then move all ingredients to the side of the pan.
Add the veal to the pan and stir to break up large pieces. Slowly incorporate the onion, garlic, and carrots into the veal.
Sprinkle the mixture with the thyme and stir to incorporate.
Add the tomato paste (I used just enough to lightly coat the veal, not enough to make a heavy ragu.) and red pepper flakes. Turn the heat to medium-low and stir until warmed.
Add the cooked pasta to the veal mixture and coat the pasta with the ragu. Serve with extra red pepper flakes and some fresh basil.
I’d like to add more fish and veggie/bean options down the road, but I think baby steps are called for right now. Next week, I’m trying loose sweet Italian sausage (lower fat for heart health than in casings, especially if you drain the cooked meat) in cannelloni shells. My thinking is that I can make enough to have leftovers for me on the days that my family eats chicken. If I have to eat pasta more days a week, I’m sure that I can suffer through it! ?
Hi, I'm Nicole.
ABOUT THE BLOG
An apothecary is a person or a place. Either one implies healing and relates to pharmacy in its truest sense, as a source of treatment and advice.
This blog is my way of uniting my pharmacy training with my efforts to provide a healthy and safe lifestyle for my family. In true apothecary form, I research and prescribe alternative ingredients that work just right in each specific recipe, and I would like to share the results with anyone who needs help making their own family’s kitchen allergy safe and heart healthy.
Nicole Van Hoey's books on Goodreads
Bakery Bites: Breads and Treats Without Dairy, Eggs, Nuts, Seeds, or Soy
ratings: 1 (avg rating 5.00)
Kitchen Adventures With Multiple Food Allergies: A Recipe Collection for Celebrations Without Dairy, Eggs, Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Seeds, or Soy