Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bahama Breeze Fiasco

We spent Memorial Day in Cleveland and overall it was stellar. Bouncy house, swimming pool, sunshine, barbecues, playgrounds, new shoes, a pinata, cocktails, good friends and one bad restaurant experience. Having been on the other side of the food allergy equation, I'm usually willing to cut restaurants some slack. Feigning knowledge, however, is never a good idea when allergies are in play.

Here's a copy of my letter to Bahama Breeze corporate office.

Dear Boss Man (not really his name),

On Saturday, May 26, 2012, my family of five visited Bahama Breeze in Orange Village, OH. My four-year-old son has food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs. While we avoided the need for epi-pens and hospital visits, the attention we received in response to his allergies was abysmal.

I know that dealing with food allergies is a nuisance. I have worked in restaurants and am sensitive to the myriad unreasonable requests and demands we customers make.  Still, I wouldn’t be writing this letter if I didn’t sincerely believe it might help protect a future diner.

We purposely dined at an off peak time. I let our server, Tony, know of my son’s allergies immediately and asked if he would mind checking to see if the bowtie pasta from the children’s menu contained egg. Tony informed me that he didn’t need to check because all pasta contains egg. Obviously, as the mother of an egg-allergic child and someone familiar with food preparation, I knew this wasn’t true. I explained that generally only fresh pasta and egg noodles contain eggs, at which point Tony told me that Bahama Breeze makes all of their own pasta. How impressive for a Caribbean-themed family restaurant to make all their own pasta – and bowties at that! Still dubious, I opted not to argue further.

So, we ordered the grilled chicken instead. When I asked Tony to verify that the chicken wasn’t marinated in anything containing nuts or eggs, he told me that the chicken “should be good.” Well, “should be good” isn’t good enough when anaphylaxis is involved so I asked him to please check in the kitchen, but never heard back. When our food arrived the chicken was covered in a glaze. My husband questioned Tony yet again about how the chicken was prepared at which point Tony finally asked another server what was in the glaze. She responded “citrus juices and egg whites.” Thankfully my son hadn’t tasted his food yet. But what if he had? Fifteen minutes later Tony brought us a plain chicken breast but our confidence was shaky.

When we dine out we’ve learned that some restaurants are better equipped than others to deal with food allergies. That’s okay with me. But please have a plan in place even if that plan is to state that you do not accommodate allergy requests. When dodging a bullet, I generally prefer not to tip the shooter.

Thank you for your time.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Basil Corn Farro Salad

Our local farmers market opened this past weekend (woo hoo!), strawberry picking starts this weekend (wocka wocka!), and Cooking Light just put out their summer cookbook issue (yee haw!). I am overstimulated to the point of paralyzation.

I'm continuing to do my best to expose the munchkins to new foods and since they aren't yet regulars at the ancient grains table, how about a little farro? Not familiar with farro? It looks like this.
It's a kid-friendly grain on many levels. It cooks quickly (about 15 minutes, though you can buy it precooked too), has a mild flavor similar to brown rice, and maintains a chewy firmness when cooked. No pile of mush over here. I am confident the kiddos are going to dig it.

So here I go. Boil water, make farro, husk some corn, whisk up a little vinaigrette, pull the pork that's been marinating out of the fridge, slice corn off the cob, leave 3 ears intact to boil for the little tyrants who will revolt if I don't, saute the kernel corn, slice grape tomatoes, rinse the farro, toss the salad, chiffonade a little basil, and...c.r.a.p.
I forgot not to toss some farro with vinaigrette.

You might have noticed by now that when introducing newish foods to anyone under 7, my approach hinges on simplicity. Typically that means butter, salt, and occasionally Parmesan cheese. Hang on, don't judge me just yet.

I get that lots of kids out there eat cilantro creme fraiche on their lamb burgers and suck spicy mustard from baby bottles. I was going to have those children. But here's the thing. Those are not my children. Those children probably don't gag when a drop of Children's Tylenol grazes their lips or when a stray sliver of onion hasn't been strained from the marinara. Those kids probably hang out on normalized growth charts and don't need suspenders to sport American sized pants. Lemmings.

See, my kids need a little hand holding in the new food department. Launching them into farro-land with a full strength peppery vinaigrette didn't seem prudent. So guess what? Mufasa and I ate it all. Every last bite. And it rocked.
Basil and Corn Farro Salad
adapted from Cooking Light June 2012

12 ounces farro
2 ears corn, husked, kernels cut from cobs
2 tbsp. olive oil, divided
1/2 pint grape tomatoes
1 and 1/2 tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
1 and 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cracked black pepper
1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped

1. Cook farro according to package instructions. Drain and rinse in cold water. Set aside.
2. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in skillet and saute corn for three minutes.
3. Halve grape tomatoes. Combine farro, corn, and tomatoes in large bowl.
4. Whisk remaining 1 tbsp. olive oil, vinegar, mustard, garlic, salt and pepper. Drizzle over farro mixture and toss gently. Stir in basil.

Next time I'll try to remember an actual sample for the kids. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Fizzy Strawberry Limeade for Kids and Adults

It was hot here this weekend. Flip flops sticking to asphalt hot.

Mufasa and Bean braved NATO Summit public transportation security enhancements and 90 degree temps to go to the Cubs vs. White Sox game.

Meanwhile, Looly, Roo, and I lazed by the kiddie pool relishing our first sips of summer.

Strawberry Limeade

1 pint strawberries, washed and hulled
1 cup lime juice, freshly squeezed
1/4-1/2 cup agave nectar depending on desired level of sweetness
Sparkling water or for the adult version, sparkling wine
Lots of ice cubes

Place strawberries, lime juice, and agave nectar in a blender and process until smooth. Pour a few tablespoons into the bottom of each glass. Fill glass 2/3 of the way with your choice of sparkling water or for you thrill-seekers, sparkling wine. Stir gently. Drop in several ice cubes and garnish away with lime wedges and fresh berry slices.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cake Pops and Art Cupcakes

Looly turned six last week. Six!
Between her school celebration cake pops, chocolate dipped pretzel rods for Roo to take to school so he could participate in the 2 additional school birthday celebrations of the week, and Looly's actual birthday party cupcakes, I was a dipping, frosting, sprinkling fool.

Cake pops are the ideal kid assisted treat. There's plenty of measuring, pouring and mixing, but more importantly, there's cake smashing and mauling, both skills my children excel at. And, they're made of cake. And frosting.

I'm not going to provide a cake pop recipe here because you can really use any cake, frosting, or candy coating you like. The process is what matters. If you want more information, I highly recommend Cake Pops: Tips, Tricks, and Recipes For More than 40 Irresistible Mini Treats by Bakerella.

Carrot cake pops with cream cheese frosting are magical but more often than not, I end up using Cherrybrook Farms cake mix (vanilla or chocolate) because it's nut-free, egg-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, ridiculously easy, and tastes pretty good. There is a wide world beyond allergy-free vanilla and chocolate but I make a lot of cake pops for preschoolers with allergies so...
5 Steps to Cake Pops

1. Bake a cake. Any cake. Cool it. Crumble it into a bowl.
2. Mix in some frosting (homemade, store bought, whatever) until it resembles a sticky cookie dough. Chill for an hour or two.
3. Roll cake-frosting concoction into balls. Chill again for an hour.
4. Melt candy melts or candy coating. Dip lollipop sticks into candy coating and insert about 3/4 of the way into cake pops. Chill again.
5. Finally, dip cake pops into melted candy coating and add sprinkles or decorations before the coating sets. If you want them to stand up like lollipops, use a styrofoam block or cake pop stand to hold them once they are dipped.
After we ate all the cake pops, it was time for artsy cupcakes for Looly's baking-themed art party at Magical Minds art studio. I totally ripped this idea off Pinterest, and I believe All You magazine is the original source, but how freakin' cute are these "paint" cupcakes?

Just be sure to use gel food coloring. The colors become much more vibrant than with liquid.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Asian-Style Pork Mini-Meatballs

As much as I enjoy the company of my miniature kitchen laborers, there are days I prefer to work alone. This was one of those days. Company coming for dinner, no real plan in place, and honestly, I just wanted to sip my dinner-making glass of wine in silence. I sent the kids outside to play so I could get 'er done. Fifteen minutes later Bean, who just wasn't feeling the swing set, washed her hands, found her apron, pulled up a stool and stuck her hands in the bowl of raw ground pork on the counter.
It's possible, not having made adequate progress on my dinner-making Viognier yet, that I wasn't my usual delightful self. So, I scolded Bean for her tiny meatballs and shotty rolling technique.

See, she wanted baby meatballs. I tried to explain that they would dry out in the oven, but she was undeterred. So, I rolled my pan my way and she rolled the "kid meatballs" her way. Turns out she was right. Baby meatballs win with 4 and 5-year-olds every time.
Bean's baby meatballs

Asian-Style Pork Mini-Meatballs*
(because baby-meatballs sounds wrong)

1 lb. ground pork (or go crazy and grind your own if you like. We don't have a meat grinder)
1 cup Panko
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 tbsp. fresh ginger, minced
3 tbsp. soy sauce (lower sodium is fine)
1 tbsp. sesame oil
1 egg, lightly beaten** or 2 tbsp. Silken tofu

1. Combine pork, Panko, and remaining ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Bean and I prefer to use our hands. Roll into miniature balls, no larger than 1-inch in diameter if you want them to be true baby-meatballs.

2.  Broil or bake at 400 degrees for about 8-10 minutes, or fry in oil until cooked through.

3. Dip in assorted sauces of your choosing. Bean, Roo, and Looly like honey-soy sauce (50/50 ratio honey to soy). Their parents prefer sesame-soy-ginger, Sriracha, or hot mustard.

*This recipe is great for kids who don't like anything too spicy. They are lightly seasoned and rather garlicky. They can be modified easily to suit a more adult palate with the addition of a few tablespoons of chopped scallions and some 2 Tbsp. chili-garlic sauce (such as Lee Kum Kee).

**We omit the egg due to Roo's allergy and use tofu instead.Take your pick of one or the other.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Our Allergy-Friendly Restaurants

If you or someone you dine with has food allergies, trust me when I say I know how frustrating and downright dangerous it can be to go out for a meal. I could regale you for hours with stories of Roo's uncomfortable, but thankfully not lethal, restaurant adventures. Too many hives, tears, and fist-clenching tummy aches to count. And the vomit. So very much vomit I've taken to carrying a Tupperware container and washcloth in my purse. You think I'm kidding.

This is the list I wish I had three years ago. It's definitely not exhaustive, but I hope it might give someone out there a starting point for traversing the restaurant scene with food allergies.

Roo's current allergies include eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, peaches, and beef. I do not claim that the restaurants listed below have menu options suited to every person with food allergies because there are just too many variables to consider. In our personal experience, however, these standouts have gone above and beyond in helping our family enjoy a safe meal time after time. Perhaps more importantly than what's on the menu is the restaurant's attitude about food allergies in general.


California Pizza Kitchen
Our personal experience here has never been bad, dating back to the days when Roo was off all dairy and apple (in addition to the eggs, nuts, beef, and peaches). The waitstaff has always been willing to check labels, ask questions in the kitchen, and use foil under pizzas in the oven to avoid cross contamination. They've allowed us to dress our own pasta at the table, which sounds so small but when you're presented with a plate of glistening noodles in a bowl, how can you really be sure that's olive oil and not butter? Better still, here's a link to their allergy information.

Chipotle is our safety net. Did you know that Chipotle is a nut-free establishment? It took me long enough to figure that out. Did you know they have kids meals that include a cheese quesadilla (or taco or whatever), a side of rice, beans, and a small bag of tortilla chips? They make their allergy information readily available and are always willing to put on clean gloves or grab a fresh tub of beans to avoid the potential of cross contamination. Perhaps the best part about Chipotle is that they are ubiquitous. We can almost always find one in a time of need. One word of caution, however, if you suffer from a soy allergy, Chipotle is not your savior. There is soy in almost everything.

Seasons 52
Interestingly, owned by the same parent company as Bahama Breeze, but SO much better equipped to handle allergies. 

Steak n' Shake
Health food it is not, but the service and attention to allergies we get here is fairly awesome for a fast food joint. Managers routinely let us read any and all labels, deliver food personally, and make sure everyone is breathing and smiling. Read the labels because everything is not transparent (for instance there is egg in the milkshake base), but I love the attitude toward allergy disclosure at Steak n' Shake.

Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants
How freaking awesome is it that all the Lettuce Entertain You restaurants, and there are a lot, have allergy info available and a responsible protocol in place for dealing with allergies? Many offer a gluten-free menu too! The downside is that Lettuce restaurants are not everywhere. We are lucky here in Chi-town that we can choose from a vast array of cuisines and varying levels of fanciness within the Lettuce Entertain You family. But, unless you're in Chicago, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, or Washington DC, you're out of luck.

Honorable Mentions

Noodles and Company
Tasty pastas and noodles, allergy info is available online and behind the counter (just ask for the allergy menu) but be careful of cross contamination. Remind them to use a clean pan or clean the griddle and watch out for the nuts.

Red Robin
They talk a big game about allergy sensitivity and they have allergy menus available but they probably shouldn't need to run up to the office to print them out and then act uncomfortable when we choose to order something.

Cracker Barrel 
Not the most consistent in handling allergies, but we always seem to be able to find something suitable and safe.

The Not-So-Good

Buffets scare the crap out of me. There is just way too much potential for cross contamination.
Five Guys (in case the peanut shells on the floor weren't a clue)
TGI Fridays
Bahama Breeze - Yikes! Read about our Bahama Breeze fiasco here.

And no, that doesn't mean that these are terrible restaurants and that no one should ever go there. It's just that in terms of allergies, we personally have had one or more sub-par experiences there.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Crowd-Pleasing Middle Eastern Salad

Ok, y'all. In case you haven't noticed, it's Food Allergy Awareness Week. Also in case you haven't noticed, food allergies, or more accurately, cooking delicious meals for those with food allergies, is kind of my wheelhouse. And that, my friends, is why I love this salad.

Peanut-free, tree nut-free, egg-free, easily dairy-free (just skip the feta), soy-free, fish-free, shellfish-free, and wheat-free (without the pita), this Middle Eastern Salad is a bright, tangy, colorful crowd pleaser of a side.  

Middle Eastern Salad

1 English cucumber
20 grape tomatoes, halved
3 green onions, sliced, white and light green parts only
1 tbsp. flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 cup pickled beets, chopped
3 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled (optional)
1/4 tsp. ground sumac, or smoked paprika, to sprinkle on top

1. Combine cucumber, tomatoes, green onions, parsley and beets. Squeeze lemon juice over veggies and drizzle on olive oil. Toss to coat.
2. Portion onto plates and top (or not, depending on dairy tolerance) with feta cheese. Sprinkle a little sumac or paprika on top. Serve with pita triangles or rice crackers, as appropriate.

And as always, read your labels. I used Rick's Picks Phat Beets which state they are manufactured in a facility that handles wheat, soy, milk, peanuts, and tree nuts. For us, that's a risk I'm willing to take. But if you're not sure about the severity of the allergies of the crowd you're cooking for, the best thing you can do is keep all of your labels handy.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Nut-Free (and easily dairy-free) Granola

It's funny, though not in the ha ha sense, what a wreck I was back in 2009 when Roo received his first peanut and tree nut allergy diagnosis. No more hazelnut latte? No peanut butter cookies? No mid-afternoon hand full of chocolate covered almonds? What about Pad Thai? How about my favorite breakfast, granola?!

Today our nut avoidance is par for the course, and at this point it's so ingrained in our daily routine that I don't devote much energy to it. And you know what? With recipes like this, what's to miss?

Nut-Free Granola

Cooking spray or flavorless oil of your choice
1/2 cup honey
1 tbsp. butter (or dairy free margarine, such as Fleischmann's Unsalted Margarine)
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1 and 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
2 cups puffed corn cereal (or puffed rice, if you prefer)
1/4 cup dried cherries
1/4 cup dried mango, chopped
1/4 cup dried pineapple, chopped
2 tbsp. pepitas
2 tbsp. sunflower seeds
1 hand full of fresh berries

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray or grease with your oil of choice.

2. Place honey, butter, and brown sugar in a medium, microwave-safe bowl. Microwave 25 seconds and stir until butter is melted, sugar is dissolved, and honey is runny.

3. Toss rolled oats and puffed corn with honey-butter mixture. Spread on greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees 10-12 minutes, stirring often to promote even browning. Remove oat mixture from oven and cool completely.

4. Gently stir together oat mixture, dried cherries, dried mango, dried pineapple, pepitas, and sunflower seeds. Serve over yogurt, milk, or munch on its own as trail mix. For a dairy-free version, serve over soy milk or yogurt, rice milk, coconut milk yogurt, hemp milk, or anything else you like. Top with a few fresh berries or other seasonal fresh fruit.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Little House Party

Looly's 6th birthday is coming up later this week. I'll spare you the where has the time gone gush since truth be told, it hasn't been all hugs and rainbows. Sure she's decent kid now but I still haven't forgiven her for four months of colic. Or the Northwest Airlines diaper incident of 2006. She knows what I'm talking about.

Despite our rocky start, I've grown rather fond of the little moppet in recent years. And she has had some kick ass birthday parties, including last year's Little House on the Prairie Pioneer Camp Out.

Tin cup party favors, bonnets, and covered wagon models for all!
Fresh squeezed lemonade. Ma would have remembered to take the tags off the bottoms of the cups
I wore that pink dress as a flower girl in a wedding in the early 1980's and my grandmother sewed the red and gold number for my sister in the 1970's. That's right, baby. Vintage. Nana picked up the bonnets at an Amish market.
Sullen prairie girl. You'd think we made her live in a dugout.
Making beeswax candles

Setting up for the water pail relay. Girls v. Boys
Camping safety debriefing with Pa

Tent-pitching chaos
The frosting is tinted with a raspberry juice. No artificial dyes in LHOTP!

Looly Ingalls Wilder
This year she's doing it up with a baking-themed art party. Try not to fall off the edge of your seat in anticipation. Happy almost 6th birthday, Looly. Thanks for learning to use the outhouse.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy Food Allergy Awareness Week

And of course, a very Happy Mother's Day too!

In what was to be a most apropos kickoff of Food Allergy Awareness Week, the kiddos (with a little help from Mufasa) prepared me a lovely Mother's Day breakfast.
Yup, that's a sun dried tomato and feta omelet with fresh pico de gallo, berry fruit cup, hot coffee, and they did not overlook my propensity for carbs with a croissant and toast.
Roo chopping feta
Looly slicing kumquats for the fruit salad
Bean cracking eggs for my omelet

Roo's turn for egg-cracking
And then...

The photos don't do the hives justice since when he first started reacting I was much too busy overreacting to snap photos. The single drop of Benadryl we got him to drink did little to remedy the situation since it, along with a cup of freshly chewed fruit salad, ended up all over his shirt. Once I was fairly certain we wouldn't be celebrating Mother's Day in the emergency room, I managed to document the event for the allergist.

In retrospect we should have known better but this was his first time reacting to touching egg. He didn't actually ingest any at all.

Still, despite a few itchy spots, it turned out to be a tremendous Mother's Day. My kids, and their Dad, rock.

So like I said, Happy Mother's Day! And Happy Food Allergy Awareness Week! In our house you can't have one without the other.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Looly's Extra-Fancy Vietnamese Cinnamon Apples

After much anticipation, Looly finally got to put her Extra-Fancy Vietnamese Cinnamon to the test. Did I mention this is no ordinary cinnamon. It's extra-fancy. What separates extra-fancy cinnamon from regular cinnamon, you ask? A mini-tuxedo and top hat perhaps? Sadly no. But Penzeys claims their Vietnamese Cinnamon is the strongest, richest, and sweetest cinnamon around, so hold onto your top hats, people. Looly is understandably impressed.

Personally I've been craving rot your teeth, chisel out of the pan cinnamon rolls with cream cheese icing, but always the picture of moderation, Looly chose simple warm cinnamon apples instead. She is like her mother in other ways.

Hacking Peeling some apples
Grating the nutmeg

Go time!
Looly's Extra-Fancy Vietnamese Cinnamon Apples

6 Granny Smith (or other tart) apples, peeled, cored, and sliced into wedges
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tsp. Penzeys Extra-Fancy Vietnamese Cinnamon
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. butter

1. Combine apple slices, brown sugar, cinnamon, lemon juice, nutmeg and salt in a large bowl. Toss to coat.

2. Melt butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add apple mixture and cook until soft, about 10-12 minutes.

3. To make them extra-fancy, top with a dollop of whipped cream, sprig of mint and a bit of lemon zest. Dig in!
Pretty fancy, eh?