Weighing In on Gluten-Free

My Pumpkin Cranberry Bread is great with gluten-free flour.

It's nearly one year since I made a major change in my diet and became gluten-free. I wasn't suffering from celiac disease or even suspecting that I had a gluten intolerance. My gluten-free friend Kathy was visiting, and showed me the swollen joints on her fingers, resulting after she ate something in her travels which she didn't suspect had gluten - french fries with a breading. I had never seen such a reaction. Soon after that, another friend recommended I read Wheat Belly, a best seller about why modern wheat is causing so many of us to develop gluten sensitivity. By the time I finished the book, I decided that even if only 1/4 of the negatives the author attributed to gluten were accurate, I would be healthier without it in my diet. Now I am ready to report the positive side effects I directly relate to being gluten-free which have motivated me to stay on this regimen forever.

First I should admit that I am blessed with incredible good health. Other than a cataract in one eye at the young age of 43 and in the other at age 58, I have little more than a few occasional aches and pains to complain about. Certainly, factors such as genetics, environment, regular exercise, high activity, low stress, good sleep habits, preventive medicine, active social life, good living environment, normal weight, and medical screenings (mammogram, colonoscopy, dermatology body check) are part of my overall well-being. Undoubtedly, spending 24/7 with my best friend, business partner, and husband of 37 years, Rick, has an enormous positive effect on my life too, as does happiness in general. I count my blessings.

As the "Welcome" section of this blog states, my lifestyle diet for over 20 years has vastly differed from the prevailing American diet. Around the early 90s, my mother was living with Lupus, and Rick had been found to have abundant Epstein-Barr antibodies. So I plunged into learning how to strengthen the immune system with lifestyle choices. I researched healthier ways of eating, and eliminated foods and ingredients with artificial ingredients/colorings/preservatives, and those which are processed, genetically modified, raised in toxic conditions, irradiated, and/or void of nutrients. I was learning to cook all over again, substituting alternatives for refined sugars, trimming the fat from our diets, and experimenting with previously unfamiliar ingredients and recipes. Over two decades, my "eat"  and "don't eat" lists are frequently refined; I avoid foods raised inhumanely and in unhealthy environments. I don't buy imports from certain other countries, such as seafood from China, Thailand, or Vietnam. I favor locally grown, organic, seasonal, and wild harvested foods. I organically grow, preserve, and cook an increasing percentage of my diet every year, and I enjoy the process of "cooking from scratch." I buy beef, eggs, honey, chicken, and goat cheese from local friends and farmers. I buy monthly from an organic food coop, helping stock my pantry with good ingredients. About 18 months ago Rick and I also began drinking a green smoothie in place of one meal 4 or 5 days a week, using fresh greens and flavorful culinary herbs from my own gardens plus a variety of fruits and berries. Last November we started doing a daily glass of organic apple cider vinegar and local honey (served hot or cold) - which I think helps stop painful "charlie horses" in my leg muscles, among other attributed benefits. I drink water, green tea or herbal tea, and not much else except an occasional glass of red wine. So my diet definitely is a major positive factor in my overall health.

So what has the gluten-free diet done for me? Here is a list of my personal health changes I directly attribute to eliminating gluten:

Who's that chunky baby with my Dad - heavens, it's me!
Weight Loss - I don't own scales, but I knew my body was changing within weeks of going gluten-free by the fit of my clothes. For years, my 5'3" carried ±125 lbs., after peaking in the 130s in my late 20s. On two different doctors' office scales (that kind with the weights which don't lie) in the past 3 months - fully clothed, with shoes on, and after eating lunch - my weight holds stable at 115. I was never skinny - my thunder thighs as a baby turned into to "chubby" sizing in pre-adolescence. I'm not trying to brag, but it's nice to be back to my high school graduation weight. I haven't eaten sugary dessert type foods much for many years, but, since so many are made with wheat flour, staying gluten-free also helps me resist temptation. Coffee ice cream and extra-dark chocolate are still on my short list of occasional indulgences!

Weight Shift - For years, I've been unsuccessful reducing my "tummy" with diet or exercise. I never had a pregnancy, so stretched muscles were not my excuse. As the book title "Wheat Belly" suggests, and the content describes, modern wheat causes body fat to be stored in the "belly". After going gluten-free, my belly flattened.

Skin Improvements - I'm fair skinned with skin cancers in both parents, so I try to avoid sun exposure and get full body skin exams. I had had an itchy rash along my neck-hairline for decades which the dermatologist didn't indicate was anything too serious, but it was irritating to me. Dandruff shampoos, cortisone creams, and other treatments failed; going gluten-free nearly miraculously reduced the rash right away. My skin overall has a better feel now too.

Fast Healing - From a deeply sliced finger which happened about 1 week into the gluten-free diet, to any other healing my body required over the past year, all indications are that my immune system is quickly reacting and providing rapid healing. Even cold symptoms rarely last more than 1 day.

Improved Digestion - My stomach no longer "churns" or "gurgles" when I lie in bed at night, and I very seldom have any gas in my digestion any more. My first colonoscopy three months ago revealed just one small polyp.

Check my numbers: early this year I had my annual GYN physical, included a fasting cholesterol and full blood profile. My HDL (good) cholesterol was the best in the 13 years I've been keeping track, at 74, and the ration of cholesterol/HDL, which should be less than 3.5, had dropped from 3.3 in 2004 to 2.59. My glucose was down from 85 a year earlier to 80. Incidentally, I don't take any prescription medications; daily I take a 81 mg aspirin, red yeast rice, fish oil, lutein, and other vitamin/mineral/herb supplements.

I won't lie - being gluten-free is sometimes challenging and has required me to educate myself. Since I don't suffer from the very serious intolerance of celiac disease, I don't have to be "pure" so I can make a few exceptions. I won't turn down an invitation to eat homemade pasta! My friend Ken, who first share Wheat Belly with me, is owner/chef at a lovely New Hampshire bed and breakfast. He was so thrilled with his results of going gluten-free that he decided to make his business gluten-free, giving those with any level of gluten intolerance a great lodging alternative. He has also been successful in making his menu gluten-free offerings so delicious that guests who don't care or might be turned off by "gluten-free" don't even notice. We design and administer his website, and I learned a great deal when I helped write copy for his gluten-free info page about the complex process of eliminating gluten, not only from the menu, but from the entire facility and preparation process. It's amazing what was involved; read about it here.

Quinoa flakes are one of my new grain discoveries.

I'm gluten free at home and I make careful choices when eating out. At lunch, I've discovered that many restaurants will accommodate my requests for their sandwich offerings to be served without the bread. At home, I've eliminated wheat, rye, and barley flours from my kitchen staples, in addition to other ingredients where gluten hides, such as:
  • soy sauce [I buy San-J wheat-free tamari]
  • salad dressings [I make my own]
  • ice cream [beware of flavors with add-ins like cookies]
  • beer [I don't like it anyway]
  • spice blends [I mix my own from individual spices]
Being gluten-free forced me to discover alternate grains, which are delicious additions and substitutions in my recipes and meals - like quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, and black rice. I truly haven't really missed yeast breads, and I've had fun experimenting with gluten-free flours in my old favorite baking recipes (like biscotti, gingerbread, quick breads). I've ground my own flours from gluten-free grains, beans, seeds, and nuts - even from coconut. I've tried many new recipes for homemade crackers, pizza dough, pie crust, English muffins, and other baked goods which are usually made from gluten ingredients, and I'll continue to share my favorites in this blog. My trials have not all been successful, but I'm gradually creating a big file of delicious gluten-free recipes.

Big food companies are quick to jump on a bandwagon, and "gluten-free" is a new buzz word. Processed food and drinks labelled gluten-free fill the supermarket shelves, but they are not necessarily healthy foods. As with any packaged, prepared foods, you have to watch the ingredients. Many gluten-free baked goods substitute starchy flours or add stuff you don't need to make them taste better. I'm still discovering some gluten-free products which give me the best results in my recipes; Bob's Red Mill is a great brand, and their GF All-Purpose flour is my favorite flour mix (Pamela's GF flour made everything I baked with it too chewy); Thai Kitchen Stir-Fry Rice Noodles work well in stir-fries as well as in my oriental cold salads. Tinkyada is another good gluten-free pasta maker. Of course, the list of foods which are naturally gluten-free is long (fruit, vegetables, dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, beans, etc.), so there's still plenty of great food to savor!

I don't fool myself with thinking that my diet will prevent me from ever getting a serious illness or disease. I've witnessed sickness and aging enough to know that my youthful wish for a long life has to be edited to a wish for a long healthy life. Unfortunately, we live in a very toxic world, where our air, water, soil, livestock, poultry, cleaning products, health & beauty aids, produce, and more are laden with poisons and chemicals. It's impossible to live a normal life and avoid such a list. I figure teh best I can do is to try to reduce my exposure to such things, while sharing my knowledge to help people, like you, become more aware, better educated, and able to make smarter choices to make your life healthier.


The Proof is in the Pudding

This pudding recipe is one of my favorite concoctions to make in a Vitamix. The basic recipe is for Mint Chocolate Chip pudding, but I've also come up with variations for turning it into ice cream, and for flavoring tips to change it into Mocha Pudding or Chocolate Mint Pudding and other delights. I'll never get tired of it!

The surprising main ingredient is avocado, but you'd never know it by tasting a spoonful of this rich, satisfying dessert. The avocado adds a creamy texture - of course, in addition to adding a boost of good nutrients. The avocado creates the green color to the basic recipe, or blends with chocolate in the recipe variations to make a rich cocoa cream.

If avocados are not in your diet, out of season, or too pricey for a splurge, see my substitution of tofu. Many other substitutions in the basic recipe are noted. The coconut oil is an ingredient you won't want to change however; it is liquid at temperatures above 75 degrees, but hardens below that temperature, so, when this pudding is refrigerated or frozen, the texture thickens partly because of the coconut oil. Besides, coconut oil is very beneficial and nutrient dense.

Mint Chocolate Chip Pudding

2 ripe avocados
1/2 c unsweetened almond milk
3 T honey
1 T coconut oil, warmed to liquid consistency so it mixes well
2 peppermint herbal tea bags
2 oz. dark chocolate bits (or broken pieces from a bar)

Remove the avocado skin and seed, and put the pulp into the Vitamix. Add everything else except the chocolate chunks into the Vitamix, tearing the tea bags to use the dried peppermint.

Run the Vitamix on 10 (the highest speed), mixing with the plunger tool, for 30-45 seconds, until a smooth green mixture forms. The mixture might get warm from the friction of blending, and this is the reason for not adding the chocolate chunks yet. (Actually, I made this mistake and it lead to the creation of some of the variations below.) Scrape the mixture out (this is the only hard part) and into a refrigerator container. When it has cooled, mix in the chocolate chunks. You can spoon the pudding into individual serving bowls to serve. If you are not ready to serve it right away, lay a piece of wax paper or plastic wrap over the surface or the avocado may oxidize and turn the top brown. You can alternately freeze the mixture and serve it as an ice cream, but I've found the timing a bit tricky… too long in the freezer and it's too hard. I'd suggest you try 30-45 minutes of freezing before serving.

Chocolate Pudding: Eliminate the peppermint. Add the chocolate chunks to the Vitamix with all the other ingredients.
Chocolate Raspberry: Eliminate the peppermint. Add the chocolate chunks to the Vitamix with all the other ingredients. After the pudding is spooned out, stir 1/2 cup of fresh or frozen raspberries into the pudding and continue to cool or freeze until ready to serve.
Mocha: Eliminate the peppermint. Add the chocolate chunks (or 2 T of unsweetened cocoa powder) plus 1 T of Roma or Cafix coffee-flavored grain powder to the Vitamix with all the other ingredients.
Mint: When I have fresh herbs from my garden, I eliminate the peppermint tea bags and use 1/4 c of fresh peppermint, spearmint, or chocolate mint leaves. Of course, you can substitute peppermint extract (try 1/2 t) for the dried or fresh mint leaves.
No avocados? Use 1 cup of organic firm tofu for the same creamy consistency. Use organic to insure the tofu is made from non-GMO soy.
Guar Gum:  This is a natural thickener and volume enhancer, sold as a powdery substance, made from a seed. If you don't have any, you might try using agar-agar flakes, arrowroot powder, or xanthan gum - but I haven't tested these other gelatin-like ingredients.
Chocolate: You can substitute 1/4 c of unsweetened cocoa powder for the chocolate chunks, and this can be added to the Vitamix with all the other ingredients. For a caffeine-free version, I usually use 1/4 c of unsweetened carob powder instead of the cocoa powder, so we can enjoy our pudding in the evening.
Almond Milk:  You can substitute unsweetened rice milk, coconut milk, organic soy milk, or nonfat organic cow's milk. You might even try fruit juice in place of all or some of the milk, like cherry or orange.

Other Flavors: 
Experiment with other flavorings… how about Chocolate Orange by adding orange juice in place of some of the milk, plus dried or fresh orange peel or orange extract? Or mix some chopped nuts into the chocolate variation. I plan to try the chocolate variation and adding some fresh cinnamon basil, anise hyssop, or lemon balm leaves from my garden. The possibilities are many - let me know your favorite!


Keep Birds From Stealing the Harvest

You can see the Flash Tape on my thornless blackberries
We love our songbirds, hummingbirds, wild turkeys, and other feathered friends - but not when they eat our berries!

This year I purchased "Bird Scare Flash Tape" when I ordered seeds from Southern Exposure. It is basically a shiny Christmas-type ribbon, 1/2" wide, red on one side, silver on the other. You twist it and wrap it around what you want to protect, and it looks like fire or sparks when the wind moves it, and scares the birds from landing there.

Last year I lost the whole crop of sour cherries from my little 5' Montmercery tree. When I saw the cherries begin to ripen a few weeks ago - and mockingbirds landing on  the branches - I ran out and wrapped the tape around it. Look at the fabulous bucket of ripe cherries I was rewarded with!

So far this tape has kept the birds from eating my blackberries also - next I'll be wrapping my blueberries, then my Concord grapes. If you are careful, you can remove it in one long piece and re-use it... I like to get my money's worth!

My friend Hal used a similar tactic to keep deer from eating his newly planted fruit trees. He bought a cheap used VCR, pulled out the dark tape, and wrapped it around the tree branches. So far, it is working to keep the deers from nibbling!
We enjoyed the cherry harvest this year, keeping the birds from eating them, as they did last year


My Edible Yard

My nine-month project of re-planting the sloping front of the house as an edible landscape is nearly complete - yeah! The area only spans about 65 feet x 20 feet, but I've done an enormous amount of work. Rick, with his tractor, initially broke up the hard yellow clay soil and brought in bucket-loads of fabulous soil from other parts of our property. I'd estimate that 95% of what I've planted in this new area has been transplanted from other gardens. And that was the point - to consolidate so that I don't have so much to take care of. The other 5% were new treasures, accepted from fellow gardeners or too irresistible as new purchases. I am also a strong believer in the theory that the closer to the house I plant the garden, the more likely I'll keep an eye on it and harvest its bounty. I get such pleasure walking down my steps and along the footpath, gathering flowers for an arrangement and cutting fresh herbs to go immediately into my kitchen concoctions.

Below is a list of what I've planted in the front yard. In many cases I know the variety name of specific plants, so this list makes a good personal record for me as well. I've also noted names certain plants are "also known as". These days, I label everything I plant… it's too easy to forget. And since I'm eating lots of this stuff, I want to be sure I know what I'm picking! It is a surprise to me that this list of plants is so long. It just goes to prove that you can grow a lot in a small area. Admittedly, I've planted things fairly close, but I wanted it to fill in fast since that cuts down on weeding.

This garden isn't limited to edibles; I added lots of perennial flowers and ornamental shrubs to accent, adding color and variety. I love flowers! In my list below, I have placed an asterisk (*) before anything which has edible parts. For this post, I won't go into whether the fruit, flowers, leaves, and/or roots are the edible parts. In the herb list, in particular, are many intense culinary herbs, but I've also planted quite a few medicinal herbs. You'll also notice a couple of common "vegetables" - I just popped those in since I had more than I wanted to put in the official vegetable garden! Note, my photographs are not all taken at once - perennials flower at different times, and this collage shows a variety of my favorites in the new front yard garden.

* edibles

Berries & Fruit
* Blueberries (7 shrubs: including both rabbiteye and high bush varieties)
* Blackberries - thornless Arapaho
* Red Raspberries - thornless Killarney
* Strawberries - June-bearing varieties: Tennessee Beauty and Chandler
* Pear - Keiffer
* Elderberry
* Goji Berry
* Garden Huckleberries - Chichiquelite

* Mint, including regular mint, chocolate mint, spearmint
* Hyssop - Anise and Lavender
* Lavender
* Lemon Balm
* Lemon Grass
* Dill
* Chamomile
* Comfrey
* Borage
* Sage
* Oregano
* Creeping Thyme
* Rosemary
* Stevia
* Perilla (Shiso)
* Garlic
* Lamb's Quarters
* Marsh Mallow
* Beets - Bull's Blood
* Bloody Dock (aka Red Sorrel)
* Tomatoes - Matt's Wild Cherry
* Fennel
* Chives
* Garlic Chives
(my basils and parsleys are in the main veggie garden)
* Grove Pepper
Stinging Nettles
Ornamental Shrubs
* Lilacs - One old-fashioned and 2 hybrids: Tinkerbell & Dark Knight
Forsythia - Lynwood Gold
Weigela - Wine & Roses
English Laurel - Otto Luyken
* Roselle Hibiscus (for tea) - Thai Red

Flowering Perennials
Bearded Irises - 6 varieties, my favorite is yellow "Total Recall"
Flag Irises - yellow, purple, white
Wild Irises
* Wild Violets
* Pinks (aka Dianthus)
False Indigo (aka Baptisia) - yellow and blue
Yarrow - yellow
Ajuga (aka Bugleweed)
* Daylilies (4 varieties)
* Shasta Daisies
* Rudbeckia (aka Black-Eyed Susan)
Creeping Phlox - white, pinks, purples
Garden Phlox - pink
Sedum - Yellow Stonecrop
Sedum - Autumn Joy
Purple Coneflower
Showy Evening Primrose (beware - invasive!)
St. John's Wort (beware - invasive!)
Red Poppy
Wild Orange Poppy
* Chrysanthemums - many colors
* Bee Balm - lemon
Lunaria (aka Money Plant)
* Pansy - Swiss Giants
Lenten Rose (aka Hellebore)
Wild Columbine
Sage (salvia) - Hot Lips
Lily of the Valley
Lilies - deep magenta
Liatris (aka Gayfeather)

Foliage Plants
Blue Flax
Lamb's Ears
Hens & Chicks


Slip Sliding Away

Note to self: start sweet potatoes on March 1st.

Sweet potatoes, a fabulous garden crop here in the Southeast, are planted as "slips", which are individual pieces of the leafy sweet potato vine, just a few inches long. These days it is possible to buy bundles of sweet potatoes, ready to plant. But old timers would keep a few potatoes from the previous year's harvest, and grow their own slips from them in early spring. The mature potato would be used to sprout these vines in early spring either by:
• planting the sweet potato in loose fertile soil (in a pot or in the ground) and watering it
• submerging a portion of the sweet potato in water

Either method will stimulate the "mother" potato to sprout leafy branches, each of which grows its own root system at its base. When these short sprouts are a few inches long, they are carefully pulled off the "mother" potato to be planted in the garden or in individual pots awaiting transplanting when the weather warms.

My efforts to grow my own sweet potato slips in the last few years have been marginally successful, using the "planting-in-soil" method. So this year I switched to growing them in water, and, VOILA, I have successfully grown my own slips.

I started this project at the end of February, by buying organic sweet potatoes at the health food market. I searched the bin carefully until I found two potatoes which had some dry stringing roots already hanging off one end. By the way, there are many many varieties of sweet potatoes (different colors, different textures, different number of growing days, etc.) but the most common supermarket variety is Beauregard. One year I grew about 5 different varieties, and Beauregard was one of the top two for taste and productivity.

I saw the instructions for suspending the sweet potato so the bottom portion would be under water, with room around the potato for roots to grow easily. So I speared each one, found suitable containers, and sat them in my south-facing window where my other garden seedlings were growing. And nothing happened.

Patience is a virtue in this process (or being too busy with other stuff works too!) After what was probably a few weeks, I began to see some tiny green growth. On one of the potatoes the sprouts only formed on the very top, and that's all it has done over the last 2 months. (I recently turned it upside down and the sprouts, now submerged, are sending out roots!) On the other, the sprouts burst forth from the sides, and quickly sent white strands of roots into the water. As each sprout on this second mother potato got longer, I twisted it off at its base and transplanted it into a pot with loose soil.

Fast forward to the end of May. The first potato continued to grow little vines at the very top, none sending out roots of its own. The second potato has provided me with over a dozen slips! So I consider this experiment a success, and plan to use this method each year, perhaps starting from my own stored potato next year.

I wait until the weather is very warm before I transplant the sweet potato slips to the garden, meanwhile letting them harden off in pots I keep next to the hose so I won't forget to water them. Last year I covered my sweet potato patch with thin mesh fabric which successfully kept the grasshoppers from devouring the vines over and over (which ruined my harvest of the potatoes themselves), and also helped to restrict the spreading of the vines over a large area. If you live in the south and you haven't started sweet potato slips yourself, go buy some and get some nutritious, easy-to-grow sweet potatoes in the ground!

P.S. It has been a long time since I did any posts on this blog, and I have an excuse... all my "spare time" has been spent in the gardens. We took on two major gardening projects:
1 - making our front yard into an edible garden
2 - removing all my winter crops from the veggie garden, rotatilling it (for the first time in 3 years), enlarging it, moving it, and replanting it
3 - number 2 above also lead to the creation of a new "border" flower garden, to define the new edge of the veggie garden.

The photo on the left below is a portion of the new front yard. We moved blueberries, strawberries, red raspberries, and thornless blackberries there last fall. Since then I have also relocated many many perennial herbs and flowers. I have too many gardens all over the yard, so it's an effort to consolidate. My iris and daylily beds, along with other perennial flowers, needed dividing and thinning, so I've had no trouble filling the new space - except to find time to do it all! In the end, I think the front yard will be like an English country garden. And the re-done veggie garden, with its new bordering flower bed (shown on the right below) is finally coming along. I'll be reporting more on that in future posts. Happy gardening!