Monday, December 28, 2015

Homegrown Zucchini Lasagna

I'm finally back!  I've been meaning to post something for a while now, but between work, school, a toddler, cooking, and life, I haven't had much spare time for anything.  The great news is that the semester is over, and I passed my classes (as if not passing was ever a possibility ;)).  Hopefully, I only have one semester to go before I get my English Language Arts endorsement.  Then, I can teach full time.  Yay!!

In the midst of all the crazy stuff happening, the harvest from the garden came in.  I was super excited for it this year because my daughter was recently diagnosed with an allergy to the arsenic found in pesticides.  Additionally, because we live in Murray next to what used to be an old smelter and refinery site back in the early 1900's, the ground also has a higher arsenic content than it normally would (Thank you previous generations).  Needless to say, my daughter's eczema has been out of control all summer long with arsenic being the main culprit in a long list of other environmental culprits.  An abundant supply of pesticide-free food was just what I needed.  We got tons of carrots, zucchini, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers.  My grandmother even gifted her entire vine of concord grapes to me, which I used to make grape juice.  My daughter loved the gardening experience, especially pulling the carrots right up out of the ground and eating them.  I already have a list of food to plant next year including artichokes and pomegranates in addition to more of what we planted this year.  Got to keep that no-spray produce coming!

We don't have much freezer space at our house, and although we loaded up my grandma's freezer with fresh produce, we still had a ridiculous amount of zucchini left over.  When my daughter got sick of it, I had to come up with more creative ways to use it.  I did try to hide it in a few things (muffins, bread, meatballs, etc.), but I still had a ton.  I had gotten a paleo book from the library that had a recipe for raw zucchini lasagna in it, and decided to try it.  After all, I had practically everything I needed growing in my back yard.  I had seen recipes for zucchini lasagna before, but had never even considered making it.  Pre-allergy era, I made a mean lasagna.  Several people had told me that it was the best lasagna they'd ever had.  It was one of the foods, that I actually mourned it's loss when I found out that pretty much everything in it was on the do not eat list.  I also mourned nachos and French toast, but not like I mourned lasagna.  Any descent Mexican restaurant in town serves amazing nachos, and French toast was never one of my favorite breakfast foods, so I only miss it occasionally.  It's next to impossible to find good lasagna though.  Even the best Italian restaurant falls short of making a good lasagna, and almost all of them are loaded with meat, which just doesn't appeal to me. I really wanted lasagna back, and even though I'm no longer breastfeeding and can eat anything I want, I still had all of this zucchini sitting on the kitchen table waiting to be eaten.  The paleo lasagna out of the cookbook was actually really good.  I made it a few times, and then decided to try making it using my old lasagna recipe as the baseline.  It isn't allergy friendly for my daughter, but 2/3 of the ingredients came right out of my garden.  I figure I can't be the only person with too much zucchini and not enough freezer space, so here it is, my homegrown zucchini lasagna that tastes every bit as good as my original recipe.  It's guaranteed to help you use up all of that extra zucchini.  As a bonus, I also get to show off the fine China that was gifted to me by a friend in Virginia.  It's been in a box ever since I moved back, and I was delighted for an opportunity to show it off.

Homegrown Zucchini Lasagna

For the sauce
3 garlic cloves minced
1 small onion diced
2 cups mushrooms
1-2 teaspoons olive oil or butter
4 cups of fresh tomatoes
2 tablespoons oil packed sun dried tomatoes
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon dried basil (1½ teaspoons fresh)
¼ teaspoon dried marjoram (¾ teaspoon fresh)
¼ teaspoon dried parsley (¾ teaspoon fresh)
1/8 teaspoon celery salt
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce (optional)

For the cashew "cheese"
1 ½ cups cashews or macadamia nuts soaked, rinsed, and drained
1-2 teaspoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
1 clove garlic
splash non-dairy milk

To assemble the Lasagna
2 large zucchinis sliced lengthwise**

*I like roma tomatoes because they are less watery than other kinds. However, you can use whatever you have on hand.

**I used a mandolin slicer to slice the zucchini.  I like it slightly thicker so that it retains a bit of a crunch when it is done, but any thickness will work.  If you don't have a mandolin slicer, you can just slice it by hand or chunk it up and mix the whole thing together like a casserole.


To make the sauce:
  1. In a saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and garlic and sauté until tender.  Add the mushrooms and sauté 1-2 minutes more. 
  2. Lightly blend the tomatoes and sun dried tomatoes in a food processor.  You want them to be smooth, but not liquefied.
  3. Add the tomato mixture, all of the herbs and spices, and the Worcestershire sauce (if using) to the onion, garlic, and mushrooms.  Bring to a boil.
  4. Reduce the heat, cover the pan, and simmer for about 25 minutes.
To make the cheese:
  1. Toss the garlic in the food processor and process until minced
  2. Add the nuts, lemon juice, salt, and a splash of milk.  Continue to process until a paste is formed.  Add more milk as needed until you get the desired consistency.  You want it to look a bit like ricotta cheese. 
  3. Add salt to taste and set aside

To assemble the lasagna:
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
  2. Spoon a small amount of sauce onto the bottom of a 12x12 casserole dish so that the bottom is covered.
  3. Layer the zucchini on top of the sauce so that the zucchini slightly overlaps.
  4. Spread the cheese over the zucchini and cover with sauce.  Then, top with more zucchini, cheese, and sauce.
  5. Repeat this process until all of the sauce, zucchini and cheese is gone.  You should end with the sauce on top so that your lasagna won't dry out in the oven.
  6. Bake uncovered for 40-45 minutes or until bubbly and the zucchini can be easily pierced with a fork.
The lasagna will hold its shape better if you allow it to cool down a bit. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

PB&J Banana Tot Dots

I've been meaning to post this for almost a year now, but time has a funny way of getting away from you, especially when you are trying to focus on being a mom, a 5th grade teacher, and a college student.  This idea actually came about while my daughter was going through a particularly difficult teething stage last summer.  There are all kinds of fantastic ideas out there for teething babies, but very few of them met all of the allergen requirements we needed.  My favorite treats were the frozen yogurt dots that are floating about on many blogs and recipe sites.  Of course those were out of the question due to her allergies.  Then I discovered vegan banana soft serve.  It's basically just frozen bananas and peanut butter (optional) blended up in a food processor and served cold.  It's really tasty, and really easy to make, and my daughter really likes bananas and peanut butter so it only made sense to use this to my advantage.  I decided to spice things up a bit and add jelly to the mix, and consequently ended up with a pretty amazing teething treat.  I would imagine you could pour this into a popsicle mold and have a treat for older kids as well, or you could just eat it straight out of the food processor.  I won't judge.

PB&J Banana Tot Dots
2 frozen bananas
2 Tablespoons peanut butter or other nut or seed butter of choice (Optional)
2 Tablespoons jelly or pureed fruit of choice (I used pureed blueberries)
  1. Line a baking sheet with wax or parchment paper
  2. Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth
  3. Place in a pastry bag or plastic bag with the corner cut off
  4. Dispense in small dots on the cookie sheet.  Remember that you are making them for a toddler, so you want them to be fairly small.
  5. Place the pan in the freezer. 
  6. Once the dots are completely frozen, you can move them from the pan into a separate container.  These melt VERY QUICKLY so I recommend using Tupperware lined with wax paper to separate them out in layers.  Otherwise, you will have a big gooey mess on your hands.   
*Notes: The bananas do not necessarily have to be frozen when you put them in the food processor.  However, they will be easier to work with if they are.  I found it very difficult to control the size of my dots with un-frozen bananas.  Also, because these melt so fast, you will only want to give a few at a time to your toddler.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Orange Creamsicle Smoothie

As a kid, one of my favorite summer treats was the infamous orange creamsicle; a delightful orange flavored shell with a creamy vanilla inside.  If I happened to be eating the Creamies brand of creamsicles, there was that fantasitc message written on the stick that told me to, "have another creamie," and of course I would.  I'd eat as many as my parents would allow in one sitting, which usually wasn't more than 2 (if I was lucky).  At some point, however, I lost my appetite for them.  Even before my crazy breastfeeding diet, that fake orange flavor with a whitewashed vanilla inside had stopped appealing to me.  Truth be told, frozen desserts in general had stopped appealing to me (with the exception of Ben and Jerry's).  I loved the idea of frozen orange and vanilla in a popsicle, but I preferred to have real orange and vanilla as opposed to something that had been chemically engineered to taste like it.  In fact, I forgot about orange creamsicles altogether until I was thumbing through a book by "The Blender Girl" and found her version of an orange creamsicle smoothie.  Of course I was intrigued by the idea of creating my own orange creamsicle, I just needed to create one that was allergy safe for my daughter.  I had recently used a vanilla bean to make nut milk for the first time (a truly marvelous addition to a household staple) and wanted to do something meaningful with the nut pulp (those vanilla beans are expensive).  Thus the orange creamsicle smoothie was born with real vanilla, real orange, and no cream.  While it didn't pass the 2 year old taste test of approval, it did bring back fond memories of chowing down on orange flavored Creamies and treating myself to another as per the request on the stick.  Only this time, I got to indulge guilt free with all the health benefits that real food has to offer.
Orange Creamsicle Smoothie
3/4 cup nuts soaked or nut pulp (I used macadamia)
1/2 a banana frozen
1 peach or apricot
1/2 cup mango frozen
1 Orange
1 1/4 cup orange juice
1/2 a vanilla bean (optional)
Sweetener of choice to taste (optional I didn't use any)
Place all ingredients into a blender and puree until smooth
* Note: If you are using soaked nuts instead of nut pulp, add the nuts, vanilla bean, and a portion of orange juice to the blender first and lightly blend before adding the other ingredients to ensure a smoother texture.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Guide to Living with a Corn Allergy FAQs

For a long time, I thought we were eating corn free, but my daughter's eczema said otherwise.  The chapped and peeling skin on her face, the scars and scratches all over her body from her constantly clawing at herself in a futile attempt to make the itching stop, and the late night screaming all pointed to dietary problems that I wasn't even aware we had.  Add in all of her other allergies, and it was a non-stop, round the clock problem that had me wishing I could become anorexic so that I wouldn't have to deal with it anymore.  While eating corn didn't physically affect me, it created a parenting nightmare in terms of taking care of my daughter that turned me off from food completely, especially corn. 
You'd think that having a corn allergy would have a simple enough solution; just stay away from corn.  While that works for other foods, it almost never works for corn.  Anyone who has to deal with a corn allergy will tell you that being allergic to corn is about the most complicated thing you will encounter in your life.  Even after all of my research and efforts I still wouldn't say that we eat corn free.  We are corn lite at best and to really be corn free would take and exuberant amount of time an money; something that I just don't have.  Thankfully we can get away with being corn lite.  I don't know what I'd do if we weren't that lucky.

FAQs About Corn Allergies
(My attempt to simplify a really complicated allergy)

What is a corn allergy?

A corn allergy is basically the same thing as any other allergy.  It is an immune response that occurs when corn or something made from corn comes in contact with the body.  Much like other allergies, the symptoms can range from bloating, itchy, watery eyes, to rash, fever, vomiting, and even anaphylactic shock.  Some corn allergic people also report symptoms such as migraines, depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, and other mental health problems as a result of being corned.

How do I know if I have a corn allergy?

A corn allergy can be identified similarly to other allergies via a blood and/or skin test.  My daughter's allergy was identified by a chiropractor who does muscle testing and laser treatments for allergies.  Some with a corn allergy report that their allergy could not be identified by medical testing, but that they tried eliminating corn and felt better as a result. 

Why is a corn allergy so difficult to manage?

The biggest reason why a corn allergy is so difficult to manage is because corn is literally in everything.  It's in almost all prepackaged foods in the form of corn derivatives and/or cross contamination.  It's fed to the livestock that provide us with meat, eggs, and dairy.  It's in the sprays and washes used on fresh produce.  It's in medical supplies and medications, including vaccines.  It's in soaps, household cleaners, plastics, latex, fabrics, toilet paper, disposable diapers,  and pretty much anything else you can think of.  It's even in the air we breathe due to the ethanol used in gasoline and the enormous amount of corn we have growing on farmland at any given location at any given time.

Another reason why a corn allergy is so hard to manage is because it's been processed and changed into dozens of different derivatives, many of which are synthetically, and chemically processed to add flavor, texture, and shelf life to food.  It's not uncommon for a person who is allergic to corn to be ok with eating one corn derivative while another one will send them to the hospital with a severe reaction.  Most corn allergic people have no idea which derivatives are safe for them to consume and which aren't so we all just make it a point to avoid them all.  The same goes for certain brands of things.  One person can consume one brand of something with no problems while another cannot.  Some people react to all corn and corn derivatives.  This makes it very hard to try new things or even eat a balanced diet at times since most people with a corn allergy also suffer from other allergies and health problems as well.

Lastly, living with a corn allergy is very costly.  The non-corn version of many foods is usually double the cost of their corn containing counterparts.  This further limits people with corn allergies because many are on a budget and cannot afford to make a lot of corn free items a staple.  In our house, we eat a lot of beans and potatoes because they are cheap.

How can I avoid corn?

Avoiding corn is not easy.  To be truly corn free is almost impossible and takes a lot of time, money, and dedication.  People who are really sensitive cannot shop at traditional grocery stores and must rely on either growing their own food or local (and sometimes not local) farmers to provide the rest.  However, there are some things you can do/ look for to help ensure that you are not getting corned.  Disclaimer: none of these suggestions ensures that your food will be corn free so be sure to read labels, do research, ask questions, and trial carefully.
  • Grow your own food:  The only way to ensure that your food comes from somewhere safe is to grow it yourself.  If you have the space and the means to do so, you can also raise your own livestock on a diet that is not corn based.  Most livestock is not biologically engineered to eat corn anyway (especially cows) so you will be doing the animals a favor.  Be wary of store bought soil, however, as some of it is corny.
  • Buy local:  Many local farmers do not use the pesticides and washes on their produce that commercial farmers do.  They also tend to raise their livestock on a corn free or corn lite diet.  Being able to talk to the farmer directly is hugely helpful since they can tell you exactly what they use on the farm and some may even be willing to work with your allergies even if they do use corn products.  Plus you will be buying local and helping the environment which is a total win.
  • Look for labeling that is organic, Non-GMO, kosher, and foods that are free of added flavors, preservatives, and colors:  While this does not guarantee that your food will be free of corn or cross-contamination with corn, it will save you a lot of label reading.  Please note that labels that say no added artificial flavors, colors or preservatives are often corny.  You want the food that has none of that.
  • Avoid food with ingredients that you don't know what they are: If it sounds like an element off of the periodic table you had to memorize in 9th grade science, it probably came from corn.  Most ingredients that you can't pronounce and have no idea what they are are chemically synthesized in a lab.  Even if they don't come from corn, they aren't the healthiest thing to be eating and you probably want to avoid it anyway.  Fake science experiment food doesn't sound appetizing after you start really looking at ingredient labels.  Trust me, you'll get it after you've been doing it a while.   
  • Be mindful of vegan and gluten free foods: Don't get me wrong.  There are tons of fantastic vegan and gluten free foods out there that are safe for corn allergic people.  However, once traditional ingredients such as meat, dairy, and wheat start coming out, the corn products start going in as a replacement.  Just be sure to carefully read the labels on these and trial with caution.
  • Look for short ingredient labels:  Ever wonder why a store bought loaf of bread has an ingredient label that's half a page long and sounds like it was written in a foreign language?  Because all those extra ingredients are corn added to enhance the flavor, shelf life, texture, and nutrient density of the bread.  When avoiding corn, the shorter the ingredient list, the better.  Look for ingredients that are similar to those that you would use if you made the item at home.  For example, a homemade loaf of bread only has a few ingredients, therefore, the loaf of bread you buy at the store should also only have a few ingredients (and you should be able to easily identify all of them).  
  • When in doubt, make your own: This is by far the most frustrating thing about this allergy.  Making your own everything is time consuming, expensive, and even with the best of intentions, you will sometimes still fail at it, especially if you are using new ingredients that you've never tried before.  However, it still remains the best way to ensure that your food is safe for you.  This also applies to soap and other household products.
Can I eat at restaurants?
As a general rule, restaurants are not a good idea.  Pretty much every chain restaurant has corn in their food and the staff will not know what they are looking for in terms of helping you find and check food labels.  That being said however, some corn lite people can occasionally eat out.  Here are some options that might work for you:
  • Salad Bars (you will want to bring your own dressing)
  • Baked potato bars
  • Farm to table restaurants
  • Small, locally owned restaurants where the food is made from scratch and the chef can make modifications for you.
  • Chain restaurants where you can order a plain salad, plain fruits and veggies, and plain meat.
Some of our favorite eat out places are Whole Foods, Sweet Tomatoes, and Sizzler.

What about traveling?

Most corn allergic people pack and freeze their food and toiletries to take with them or ship in advance.  They try to stay in condos or hotels with kitchen access, and do a lot of research before they leave to ensure that they have a safe supply of water, emergency food, and toiletries.  Some of the restaurant suggestions mentioned above may also work for someone who is traveling.

How can I get corn free medication?

Corn free medication has to be compounded.  This can be tricky in the United States because you need both a prescription and a pharmacist who knows what they are doing.  Both of those can be hard to come by.  Compounded meds are usually not covered by insurance so it can also be expensive.  Most medication can be easily compounded but some cannot, including vaccines.  Talk to your healthcare provider to find something that will work for you.  You may need to speak to multiple healthcare providers since many are unfamiliar with the ingredients in medications.  Some herbal supplements are corn free and may work for you as well.  At our house, we usually go with the herbal supplements before we try other medications, but you should always do what works best for you.

Where can I get more information?
Corn Allergy Girl: A blog containing information about traveling, emergency room and medical advice, suggestions for possible safe products, and tips on everyday living with a corn allergy.
A list of corn free products (please note that even though these products do not have corn listed as an ingredient, they still might be cross contaminated with corn.  Do your research and trial carefully)