Three Great Gluten Free Resources

By: Rachel Sircy

In this post, I thought I would take a break from documenting my own personal gluten free and high cholesterol woes to share with those of you out there with gluten free needs some resources that have helped me through the years.

One of the first blogs that I came across when I was first diagnosed was The Gluten Free Girl blog. This blog helped me understand what it meant to be gluten free in a way that all the medical pamphlets and jargon couldn’t. It really encouraged me to read something written by someone who was a celiac and who wasn’t depressed about it. Shauna James Ahern enjoys life and her blog helped me to realize that my life wasn’t over just because I had celiac disease and could no longer eat fried chicken and doughnuts. I would particularly recommend starting out with her post entitled, “Yes.” It’s about her engagement, but it’s also about saying yes to all aspects of life no matter if they’re good or bad.

You can find her blog at: https://glutenfreegirl.com.

While I enjoy reading The Gluten Free Girl for inspiration and some tips, the truth is, a lot of her recipes have been too expensive and too complicated for me to really want to try. The first cookbook that I received after being diagnosed that had recipes that I wanted to return to again and again was Simply…Gluten Free Quick Meals, by Carol Kicinski. Her meals were, as stated, quick to prepare and pretty easy. They were also fairly easy on the budget, and the ones that were a bit too expensive could easily be prepared with cheaper substitutes and ingredients could also be left out without affecting the overall flavor too much. I love her falafel burgers, but I have never made the tahini sauce that she makes to go with them because I would never use the tahini for anything other than these burgers. The burgers still taste great!

Also, Kicinski’s cookbook had one of the first “stocking your gluten free pantry” sections I had ever seen. This was a huge help to me, and it might be to you, too. I would visit her website first to make sure that you like her cooking and her advice before you go out and buy her book. Her website is chock full of recipes and advice.

You can find her website at: https://simplygluten-free.com.

Last but not least, for those of us who suffer from the expense of a gluten free diet, there is Nicole Hunn’s blog: Gluten Free on a Shoestring. Hunn makes simple gluten free meals that are also affordable. Her recipes have been collected in at least one cookbook and they’ve also been featured in Delight gluten free magazine. She has a section on her website that deals with stocking a gluten free pantry as well. Because going gluten free can mean learning to cook all over again, I highly recommend looking at these resources to help you know what you need (and what you DON’T need) in your gluten free kitchen.

Nicole’s blog is located at: https://glutenfreeonashoestring.com.

Good luck and great reading!

New Beginnings

By: Rachel Sircy

As I sit writing this post I am eating one of my new favorite snacks: plain toasted walnuts. That’s right, there is absolutely no seasoning, no salt, no anything on these walnuts. I bought a bag of walnuts from the baking section of my local Aldi and simply toasted them in a dry skillet. And they are delicious.

walnuts

I know what you’re probably thinking, because it’s the same thing that I tend to think when I read health food blogs. You’re probably thinking that I am either deluding myself into believing that plain, slightly burnt walnuts are really good OR I’m just pretending to like them so that I can lord my good health habits over all of you out there who are reading this while eating potato chips. Since I’m usually the one who’s out there eating potato chips, I tend to believe the latter about people who write health food blogs. While I can’t give you a 100% guarantee that I’m not delusional, I can promise you that I’m not making this up. There really are healthy foods out there that actually taste good. The trick is just finding out what tastes good to you.

Right now, I’m on an exploratory journey to find healthy, low-fat foods that taste good to me. I wasn’t planning taking this journey this year. I mean, I wanted to lose some weight, and I thought that eating a little healthier might be a part of that. To be honest, I thought I already WAS eating healthy. I thought the extra weight I was carrying around was just a natural consequence of the fact that I HATE exercising and that I snack too much. But a recent letter in the mail detailing the results of my most recent bloodwork revealed that my cholesterol was over 100 points higher than I had expected. Clearly, I wasn’t doing something right.

I still don’t know if my high cholesterol is due entirely to my diet, or if it could be a side effect of the gluten free diet that I’m on because of the celiac disease, or if it’s genetic. Really, that knowledge is of secondary importance to me. I know what I need to know. I know that my cholesterol is high. I know that people with celiac disease may be up to twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery disease according to a recent study by the American College of Cardiology. And, most importantly, I know that I have a chance to change my fate with a change in diet and by increasing activity and exercise in my life. Sometimes diet and exercise alone don’t work – yes, I’ve seen those cholesterol medication commercials, too. But sometimes they do and they don’t come with the nasty side effects of some medications. I worked for six years answering phones in a doctor’s office and I’ve heard people describe the hardships of life on medications. If there is anything that I can do to avoid those hardships, I am going to do it.

In my last post, I said that I was going to talk to my friend, Tiara, who has her PhD in nutrition, about what to do and what to eat to get me started on this path to lower cholesterol and a healthier life. The gist of what she told me was what I expected, but really didn’t want to hear: vegetables are good and Cheetos are not. I told Tiara that I usually get all my junk food from various health food stores around town. I thought that that fact alone should have made a difference in my health. And do you know what she told me? Junk food is junk food regardless of whether or not it has a label that says it’s organic. Gluten free junk food is some of the worst junk food on the market – it’s low on fiber and other nutrients and high on fat and salt and sugar, more so than many gluten-filled products.

So, there’s really nothing to be done other than to get rid of the junk and find some wholesome food that I like to eat. I’m starting with one of the foods that the Harvard Health Newsletter states will help to lower your cholesterol: nuts. And, of course, I have to start to find an exercise routine that I like and that I will stick to. This evening my husband is taking me to our local park to attempt to teach me how to play tennis as part of his Valentine’s day gift to me. (I’m not going to say which park because I don’t feel like being totally publicly humiliated.)

And, since I enjoy recommending books to read, I’m going to share one that I have just started reading myself: The Daniel Plan. It’s a book by Rick Warren (and others) that outlines a method for a total lifestyle change, one that is supposed to be healthier for mind, body and soul. You may like it, you may not. I haven’t read it before, so I can’t vouch for it. I haven’t committed myself to the Daniel Plan diet, but I’m at least considering it. (Actually, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, I scoffed at the ideas in this book when my mother-in-law first bought it a few years ago, back when I was still nice and thin. Well, fat happens and I’ve changed my mind since then. We’ll see how things turn out.)

Until my next post, I wish you all happy reading and health(ier) eating!

Hurdles

By: Rachel Sircy 

Since my last post – the one about New Year’s resolutions and losing weight and all that – I have encountered a very unexpected obstacle in my path to health and happiness.

Every Woman Blog - Heart Health

I recently had some lab results come back in the mail with some bad news. My overall cholesterol levels were well over 100 points higher than I had expected them to be. My LDL (bad cholesterol) was way up and my HDL (good cholesterol) was way down. I actually dropped the results in horror when my eyes lighted on those awful numbers.

**Side Note: I should state here that my numbers, while high, are not so high that I have to take immediate action or that I must start medication right away. But they were pretty high for a person my age and they do require me to make some permanent lifestyle changes. **

Now, truth be told, I haven’t had my lipids checked in about 6 years. The only reason that I had labs drawn last month is that I get them for free during the month of my birthday by virtue of being a Lexington Medical Center Employee. The last time I had my levels checked, my cholesterol was only slightly elevated. Since that time, I had thought that I was eating a healthier diet overall. I have certainly become a better celiac – better at keeping myself safe from gluten. True, I have had a child since the last time I had my cholesterol checked, and I have retained the baby weight. But could an addition of 30 pounds really cause such a jump in cholesterol? Or, could it be genetics? Could it have something to do with the subject of this study by the American College of Cardiology, which found that celiac patients following strict gluten-free diets may be twice as likely to develop coronary artery disease? The study also found that celiacs may have a slightly higher risk of having high cholesterol levels while maintaining low blood pressure (which is the case with me). Could it be – and I hate to admit it – the fact that I loathe exercise?

I have no idea at this point what could have caused this change in my body. However, I do know that I am the kind of person who fixes things that are broken. And that is what I intend to do with this situation with my health. I am starting the process with this: this Saturday I am having dinner with a friend from church, Dr. Tiara Rosemond, who has her PhD in Nutrition and Public Health, to see what I should and should not be eating.

I am inviting every reader to follow along with me as I start this investigative journey and make some huge lifestyle changes. I’ve never had such a long list of resolutions in my life. This will certainly be a year to remember!

New Year, Old(er) Me

By: Rachel Sircy

Being born in December is weird. You don’t start the New Year looking forward to a birthday. Instead, you start the new year having recently survived a birthday and all of the complicated tangle of emotions that go along with that. At least the emotions that follow me after my birthdays always seem complicated and tangled.

But, every January I – along with countless others – put the cherry on top of our emotional confusion sundae by making New Year’s resolutions. I have so many this year that if I achieve them all I will be a completely different person by my next birthday. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers different. That will really complicate my emotions. But what’s life without a little melodrama, right?

Anyway, personal goofiness aside, I have made some New Year’s Resolutions that I intend to keep, especially those relating to health. I have retained all the baby weight since my gluten free weight lossdaughter was born. She was also a December baby and just turned two. I am ready to lose some weight and get healthier. And so, for those of you out there who, like me, are attempting to get into shape this year and have to also remain gluten free, I wanted to write some words of advice and encouragement.

Firstly, for those who are unaware, a gluten free diet is NOT a low calorie or low fat diet. Gluten free convenience products (such as breads, cookies, pasta, frozen entrees, etc) are usually higher in fat, salt and sugar and have far less fiber than conventional products. I have been approached by a number of people who have told me that they are “going gluten free” in an effort to lose weight. Unfortunately, switching to gluten free convenience products will only help to keep you from losing weight and they may cause you to gain weight. In the case of anyone who is not a celiac, it may be better and healthier for you to eat whole wheat products than to turn to gluten free options.

For those of us who are celiacs and can only eat gluten free products, we all know that cookies and waffles are never the key to losing weight anyway. Unfortunately, the best way for celiacs to lose weight (and to make sure that we stay safe from contamination) is to cook for ourselves. Of course, that is probably true for everyone. If celiacs want cookies or pasta, it’s better to make our own and control the amount of fat, salt, sugar and fiber that we put into these foods. (Fiber can be added to foods in the form of ground flax and by making sure that we try to use whole grain pasta like brown rice or quinoa.) And there are cookbooks available that have recipes that are both sugar and gluten free. For Christmas I received a cookbook by Kelly E. Keough titled Sugar-Free Gluten Free Baking and Desserts, which offers healthier recipes for things such as pizza crusts, cookies, and cakes by using alternative sweeteners such as fruit juice and stevia.

Secondly, better and healthier products are available to celiacs (and gluten free enthusiasts) for less money. I used to pay approximately $12-13 per week for two loaves (small loaves!) of a high fiber gluten free bread. Who can afford that? But if you have no other choice, then you have no other choice. Here is where I am going to shamelessly shill for Aldi BECAUSE now we do have another choice. Aldi sells really good bread, both white and whole grain, for half of what I used to pay for my high fiber bread. Now, that is still not dirt cheap since they also sell regular bread for less than a dollar sometimes. However, 3.99 for a loaf that is big enough to last me an entire week is the best deal I’ve found since I was diagnosed. Also, most Aldi stores sell ground flax seed and good quality organic brown rice and quinoa pasta. Healthy gluten free eating is becoming easier and more affordable.

So, go out and conquer your healthy New Year’s resolutions! You can do it!

New Christmas Traditions

By: Rachel Sircy

My husband and daughter and I are in Ohio visiting my family for the holidays. On the way up we listened to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, read by Patrick Stewart. I’ve seen several different movie versions of A Christmas Carol and my husband and I listen to the book on CD every Christmas that we drive up to Ohio. Needless to say, it’s a story that I know a-christmas-carolpretty well, and I’m pretty sure that anyone reading this blog post will be equally familiar with it. Most years that we watch the movies or listen to the book read aloud, I think of it as just one of those quintessential Christmas stories, one of those stories that’s told so often that Scrooge and Humbug and the Spirit of Christmas have become bywords in our culture.

For some reason as we listened to it this time, the story’s bizarre nature struck me like a blow to the head. It’s a Christmas horror story, really. I mean, the parts about ghosts wailing and rattling their chains is fairly reminiscent of hell. I started to wonder why on earth Dickens decided to tell a story about Christmas in this way, and why the public ate it up in the way that they did. How did this weird little spook story become such an inseparable part of our modern idea of Christmas?

According to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge) Dickens wanted to use people’s awakened interested in Christmas (in his day Christmas traditions were changing; Christmas trees were becoming popular as were Christmas cards) to promote awareness of poverty and social injustice. So, he created a strange story about a tight-fisted misanthrope being scared straight just in time for him to spread some Christmas cheer.

I have said all of the above to say that I have been thinking about the new Christmas tradition that Dickens created, and that has got me to thinking about creating new Christmas traditions of my own. Since my daughter – I’ll call her HRH (short for Her Royal Highness) – was born, I have been trying to find ways to simplify the holidays, honor the memories of loved ones, and teach HRH the true “reason for the season.” Here are three new traditions, two I have tried and one I want to try next year.

  1. Homemade Christmas Gifts: One way that I have been trying to simplify Christmas is to make each child on my list a gift rather than just buying a billion toys that will get thrown into the corner to collect dust after the child plays with them for a week. I want each child in my family circle to have something meaningful, something that Mommy or Aunt Rachel made them that they can keep and pass down. The work that goes into a homemade gift is personal. I think about each person as I make the gift, and that thought is part of the gift. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely buy a few toys as well, but my main gifts are almost always something I have made.
  2. Honoring Loved Ones: My husband’s grandmother passed away in 2012, and her passing was keenly felt by all the family. This year I wanted to revive a tradition that Grandma Sircy started during her lifetime – making a personalized ornament for each member of the family. I began this year with a simple project, wrapping styrofoam balls with fabric, yarn or tulle. I suppose this falls in the same category as the homemade gifts, but this particular homemade gift is really a tribute to Grandma Sircy – something to remind us of her.
  3. Making the story of Christmas come alive for children: My brother and sister-in-law found a Christmas activity on Pinterest that I absolutely love, Joseph and Mary on the Shelf. The idea behind this activity is basically the same idea behind Elf on the Shelf: you make it seem like toys (or Nativity set pieces) are moving around the house while the children are asleep. However, this particular version of this activity comes with the added bonus of teaching children the Christmas story. My brother and sister-in-law partially set up their Nativity scene, putting up the stable and adding the animals to it, BUT they left out Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus, the wise men and the shepherds. They began the month of December by reading their children the Christmas story from the Bible and that night and each night afterward, the children have to find Mary and Joseph who are somewhere in the house, making their way toward the stable in Bethlehem. One night, Mary and Joseph were found on the kitchen counter “eating” some of the kids’ chicken nuggets to sustain them for their continued journey. Mary and Joseph arrived in the stable on Christmas Eve and Jesus, the shepherds and wise men were waiting for them on Christmas morning.

So, these are my new Christmas traditions, ones that I hope will bring the spirit and the reason for this holiday season close to my family. If anyone has any traditions that they have created for their family, or that their parents created for them, I would love a comment about it!!

Suggested Reading: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

Buckeye Nuts

By: Rachel Sircy

buckeyes

If you ever want to get a hysterical laugh going in my family, especially around the holidays, just tell someone near to you that there are Buckeyes in the kitchen. This inside joke works best if my mother is just within earshot – my mother will become indignant and everyone else will start laughing.

The story behind this joke is the famous Christmas when our family was inundated with gifts of Buckeye candy from my mother’s friends. For those of you unfamiliar with this treat, Buckeye candy is made to look like the nut of a Buckeye tree. I don’t know how popular they are in South Carolina, but in my home state of Ohio (the Buckeye State) these chocolate peanut butter confections are the staple candy gift at the holidays. For some reason that Christmas my mother’s best friend and her husband decided to make countless dozens of them. When they realized they had more than they could handle, they foisted them off on us. We had candy coming out of our ears. My mother harassed the whole family and all of our guests that year trying to get us to eat the candy just so that she could be rid of it. By the end of the season we were so sick of chocolate we couldn’t stand to hear the word “Buckeye,” and still my mother harped, “Hey guys, if you have a sweet tooth, there are Buckeyes in the kitchen.” Nobody had anything resembling a sweet tooth for months after that Christmas.

Nevertheless, if you are looking for a delicious, easy to make edible gift, Buckeyes are great choice. The best part is that they are gluten free!

Since my family threw out all our recipes for Buckeye candy after the famous Buckeye candy incident of ’03, I am going to share a link to the Allrecipes website. This is a pretty authentic looking recipe and it will make quite a bit of candy.

Getting Through the Holidays Gluten Free

By: Rachel Sircy

thanksgiving

Growing up it was Thanksgiving, not Christmas, that was my favorite holiday. Thanksgiving was always a big deal in my mother’s family. All of the family gathered at my great-grandmother’s house which stood at the end of a little holler just outside of Portsmouth, Ohio. Her house was tiny and there were nearly always at least 40 people in attendance at this feast of feasts, so to say that it was crowded and chaotic would be an understatement. People ate in the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, one or two would stand up next to the washer and dryer and used them for makeshift tables, and there were always people on the porch and porch steps and scattered around the yard. It was too much for the adults to try to control the kids, so we generally ran around the house like wild hillbillies (which is in truth what we were). The food was always good and plenteous. There was enough for 40 people to eat it for at least two days (because Thanksgiving then was the entire weekend, not just one day). All that running, playing, screaming and eating were so much fun that Christmas day (which was spent at home with just my parents and sisters), even with all its toys, just couldn’t compare.

The first Thanksgiving after I was diagnosed as a celiac, I divided my time between my mother and my grandmother’s houses trying to smile while I choked down a gluten free version of my mother’s homemade chicken noodles. Chicken noodles or beef noodles is the Northern substitute for macaroni and cheese at Thanksgiving. The only version of this dish worth eating is the homemade version where someone has made the egg dough and cut and dried the noodles a day or two ahead of time. When put in with the chicken and the broth, the noodles puff up and are essentially just thinner and longer versions of dumplings. My mother’s noodles were sort of famous in our family, and they were my favorite thing to eat. No one in my family had ever heard of celiac disease or the gluten free diet before my diagnosis and our early efforts to work with gluten free flour often went awry. Case in point: in an effort to not leave me out, my mother made a small batch of gluten free egg noodles and set aside a bowl of chicken noodles just for me. They were horrible. Despite the fact that the noodles were really gritty, they were melting into the chicken broth and becoming one big pile of goo. As a celiac who has loving, helpful family members I have had a lot of practice pretending that food made specially for me – food that’s just oozing with love and is also just oozing – is delicious. You can develop the ability to smile so hard that it stifles your gag reflex. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at hiding my disappointment that first Thanksgiving and I think I ended up crying into my sad little bowl of egg noodle ooblec.

Well, now that I’ve gotten that depressing little story off of my chest I’m going to share some helpful hints for gluten free holiday cooking and eating:

  1. DON’T forget to remind everyone of your specific dietary restrictions. If you’re a celiac, make sure that everyone who is bringing food is well aware of what that means. There are a lot of people who are on the gluten free diet because it’s the latest fad, and this is bad news for celiacs because it makes the disease seem less serious. However, if you’re a celiac this is your life at stake. Don’t take it too lightly just because you don’t swell up and go into anaphylactic shock any time you eat something you shouldn’t.
  2. DON’T budge from your diet. Sometimes you eat things because you don’t want to hurt Aunt Martha’s feelings or because Nana makes the best banana pudding there is. Remember, your health is worth more than someone getting all huffy because you snubbed her dish and, despite what you may feel at the time, there is more to life than banana pudding.
  3. COOK your favorite dishes yourself. I bring my own dressing and pies to Thanksgiving. It’s just easier that way. I know that my kitchen is totally gluten free and safe. Your friends’ and relatives’ kitchens are not totally gluten free and therefore their dishes will never be totally safe for a celiac. (I will share some tips for gluten free stuffing/dressing. And you can make any family recipe for macaroni and cheese gluten free simply by substituting gf pasta for regular pasta). If you are able, you might offer to make all of the questionable dishes for the dinner (by questionable, I mean anything that contains bread, breadcrumbs, pasta and any pastries.)
  4. BE SURE that gluten free serving utensils are kept separate. Again, I bring my own. Mine are distinct enough from everyone else’s that they’re not easily mixed up. I hate to break it to you, but if your little sister removes the serving utensil from the regular dressing and sticks it in your gluten free dressing, you can’t eat that dressing anymore. A real gluten free diet is beyond strict, but remember, you are doing this to keep on living and being well. This isn’t a hippie health food craze. It is your life.

Most of all, remember to be grateful. That can sound totally stupid on your first or second Thanksgiving as a celiac, but, in time, when your body has healed itself, the gratitude will come more easily. You will look back on the years of sickness and understand just how blessed you are to have a disease that can be cured simply by eating differently. I always think to myself that I could be lying in a hospital receiving chemotherapy, but I’m not. I am just eating food made from funky ingredients. Those funky ingredients have made me well and whole. Thank God.

Tips for Gluten Free Dressing:

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Lately, gluten free ingredients are really holding their own against what we call “regular” or “normal” food. You can purchase gluten free flour that can be substituted cup for cup for wheat flour in any recipe. Only people who have been gluten free long enough to remember the umpteen-gazillion little bags of Bob’s Redmill flours (almond, rice, amaranth, soy, etc) and the 8oz bags of Xanthan gum that sold for 12 bucks can really appreciate how amazing that is. So, if you like to make your own pie crusts (I never did), it’s now easier than ever to do it gluten free. You can also buy pre-made pie crusts from Whole Foods that are pretty decent. (I recommend the Whole Foods brand.)

For dressing or stuffing (whatever you want to call it), gluten free bread works pretty well. I think that you could use pretty much any family recipe that you have for dressing. The only thing I would suggest is if you don’t toast the GF bread before using it, watch the liquid to bread ratio. While GF bread is so dry that it’s impossible to eat right out of the bag, it also has a tendency to fall apart and melt in too much liquid. I don’t mean get soggy, I mean it can melt in too much liquid. So, if you want to make a really moist stuffing, you might want to lightly toast the bread first, just so it holds up to the liquid a little better.

Also, I know that the holidays can be expensive no matter how you cook, but gluten free cooking is really expensive. I used to pay about $6 for a loaf of gluten free bread because I thought that the cheap stuff just wouldn’t taste as good. Cheap gf bread is about $3.50 a loaf, and keep in mind that the bread slices are about 2/3 the size of a regular slice of bread and the loaf is maybe half as many slices as a regular loaf. I was buying two loaves per week at $6 each for myself at one point – that’s a staggering $12 per week on bread for just myself. At the time I didn’t make $12 an hour at work. For those of you trying to do a gluten free diet on a shoe string budget, I feel you.

Good news, though. Aldi actually makes gluten free bread now. Their slices of gluten free bread are actually bigger than most other brands, though the loaves are still kind of small. BUT, the best part about this news is that Aldi’s gf bread is actually the best gf bread I have ever tasted. It still has to be toasted before being eaten, but after it’s toasted it’s softer than any other gf bread I’ve tried. That six-dollar-a-loaf bread was so thick and cardboard-like that after I toasted it, it would dry my mouth out and sometimes cut my gums in a way that looked like I had somehow scraped the inside of my mouth on the sidewalk. I have also made some of the best dressing with Aldi’s bread. The stuffing for the chicken pot pie casserole that I made a while back was with the Aldi’s bread and it was by far the best part of that dish.

gluten free breadcrumbs

Another cost saving measure that I started a while ago was saving the heels and crusts of my bread. I have never eaten heels of bread and gf bread crusts (even Aldi’s) can be seriously dry and unpleasant. So, after a while of getting physically ill over the money I was wasting throwing those heels and crusts away, I decided to start grinding them down to make breadcrumbs and cubes that I have used in other dishes. No more waste and no more buying packaged breadcrumbs and whole loaves of bread just to make dressing. I stock quart freezer bags in my pantry and whenever I cut crusts or grind up heels, I just toss them into one of the bags (I often measure them as I put them in the bags to make recipes more precise) and put them in the freezer. They keep really well and are such a handy cost saver!

Well, those are all my holiday food tips for this post. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section and I will be more than happy to answer them or find an answer for you!

Suggested Reading: “Simply…Gluten Free Quick Meals” by Carol Kicinski. It’s not literature, but it’s so amazing for any gf cook. She does a whole Thanksgiving meal in this book with really simple recipes and ingredients, plus she has a section about basic flour mixtures and how to stock a gf pantry. This is my go to recipe book.