Cooking around allergies

I’m right in the middle of wedding cake cookery right now – the cakes are cooling, and tomorrow I’ll be decorating them.  I may also have a new recipe or two for you tomorrow, if all goes well, as well as a lot of pictures.  But in the meantime, I thought I’d share with you a thought I had the other night.

As I have previously mentioned, I’m vegetarian for Lent.  (As I may not have mentioned, it is making me crazy and I am counting the days until Sunday, and not for wholesome religious reasons, either…)  And so I’m having the salutary experience of living life as someone who can’t eat certain things.  And let me tell you omnivores out there, it’s definitely illuminating.

The part where I cook without meat isn’t really a problem.  I mean, yes, there are certainly days when it would be so much easier if we could just have sausages for dinner, or roast chicken, or even fish and chips, but this is all manageable.  I have, these days, a reasonable repertoire of vegetarian foods that Andrew and I both like, and some of them are even quite fast to make.

Eating out at cafés or restaurants is more difficult, or rather, more frustrating, but not insurmountable.  Most places we go to have only one or two vegetarian dishes on the menu, and I can generally make them better and more cheaply at home.  Moreover, if I’m eating out and other people are having the chicken or the steak, I assure you that I, too, want the chicken or the steak.  Mostly, I’ve been dealing with this by not eating out.  (And if we had been eating out and I had control of the outing, I was all prepared with my Melbourne Veg Food Guide.)

The really tricky part, though, is eating out at other people’s houses.  A lot of my friends are vegetarian or have other dietary requirements or allergies, so vegetarianism is considered fairly normal and non-scary in our circumstances.  I tend to forget that for some people, coming up with a vegetarian meal, or a gluten-free meal, or a meal that doesn’t contain nuts, or eggs, or what have you, is actually quite stressful.

But it shouldn’t be.  Because most of us eat (and cook) vegetarian or allergy friendly food all the time.

Here are some foods you have eaten which you probably never noticed were vegetarian:

  • baked potato with cheese, sour cream and coleslaw or tabouli
  • omelette, frittata, scrambled eggs, eggs florentine
  • almost any vegetable soup you can think of (most of these are vegan and gluten-free, too).
  • an awful lot of pizzas
  • pasta with napoli sauce, four-cheese sauce, pesto or with any number of other sauces; canneloni with spinach and ricotta
  • dhal and quite a lot of curries
  • nachos
  • felafel
  • ratatouille
  • any dessert that doesn’t contain gelatine
  • pretty much all cakes and biscuits

I could go on.  True, a lot of these are light meals, but not all of them.  And they are just a starting point.  We’ve all eaten vegetarian meals – of course we have. Even the most hardy carnivores don’t generally eat three meat-based meals per day.

How about gluten-free foods, then?

  • baked potatoes with anything at all on top of them
  • the aforementioned soups, provided you avoid croutons
  • egg and potato frittata (also frequently known as tortilla)
  • nachos, tacos, enchiladas, and just about any other food that starts with a corn tortilla or corn chips
  • risotto and paella
  • good old chicken and rice
  • … or good old steak and chips
  • … actually, the whole British meat and three veg thing is pretty safe, provided you don’t go out on a limb and make crumbed cutlets or start using foreign ingredients like pasta in your side dish
  • ice-cream and frozen yoghurt
  • jellies
  • custard (at least the traditional kind; some use cornflour or flour as a thickener, and not all cornflour is made of corn, so watch that…)
  • pavlova!!!  Also, meringues
  • praline, chocolate
  • flourless chocolate cake, flourless whole orange cake (not in everyone’s repertoire, but they seem to be pretty ubiquitous in cafés now)
  • macarons
  • if you’re Jewish, (nearly) anything you eat at Passover… (I have been reminded that Matzo meal is kind of traditional and gluten-y.  Oops.)

Again, this is not even the start of a complete list, but again it serves to show that gluten-free food doesn’t have to be weird or scary or unfamiliar.

Given time, I could probably make similar lists for a lot of common dietary preferences, sensitivities or allergies, though some are easier than others.  Most of the vegan food which the average omnivore has eaten does come under the heading of side-dishes, soups and snacks… though this does depend on the nationality of the omnivore (lentils with rice and onions, for example, is a very popular and everyday dish in a lot of the middle east, and it’s vegan *and* gluten-free, but in my experience the sort of people who find vegetarian food intimidating tend to find legumes a bit outré too).  Nut allergies and egg allergies, on the other hand, are fairly simple in this regard, until you get to dessert – though in real life they are a pain when you are eating out because of the way peanut oil gets used as a general cooking oil, and eggs as a thing that sticks things together, not to mention the ubiquitous blob of mayonnaise…

I’m not going to pretend that this sort of listing is much use to someone who actually has the dietary requirements in question.  Anyone who is gluten-free probably just looked at the list above and noted the obvious absence of bread, pasta, biscuits, for example.  And there are ways around these things, of course.  But I do think this sort of list of common foods might be of use when dealing with people who don’t live with your diet day to day but who still want to share meals with you. It’s unintimidating.  It’s familiar.  And a glimpse of the things you *can* eat rather than the things you *can’t* might make the whole thing less scary…

(Which doesn’t, of course, change the fact that it’s vastly annoying not being able to eat the things that everyone around you eats.  But if I had the answer to that one, I probably wouldn’t need to write this blog…)

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5 comments for “Cooking around allergies

  1. Iestyn
    April 5, 2012 at 1:58 am

    I HATE the “blob of mayo”/Aioli habit, particularly as it is often not mentioned on the menu. Or they think that adding garlic or chili or (and I’m not making this up) Hummus to it somehow stops it being Mayo. Or that various Yogurt based sauces, like Tatziki can be made with Mayo instead.

    Going to try a deep fried spicy Rabbit pieces for Sunday…..

  2. April 5, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Yes, I went out to lunch with another egg-allergic friend and this happened. It would save them a lot of time if they did put it on the menu, because then people with allergies could ask them not to include the mayo, rather than sending the plate back and needing them to make it again from scratch…

  3. April 5, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    I agree that there are often lots of basic foods that we already eat which fit into these ‘special diets’. I think what makes me nervous when making food for other dietary conditions than my own is the worry that I will inadvertently add something forbidden – I have seen people make what they think is a gluten free meal only to find they have used soy sauce with gluten in it.

    One thing that I hate as a vegetarian is going out for soup and finding it has meat stock – there are quite a few meals which can be effortlessly vegetarian if only people are aware of some of the pitfalls and are upfront about what is included. Then I could have avoided a recent experience of ordering sauerkraut and finding it full of bacon bits!

    Not long til easter – I imagine there will be much catescates feasting!

    • April 8, 2012 at 7:06 pm

      Who puts bacon in sauerkraut? *shudders*

      Yes. My style of cooking tends to be very much from scratch, which gives me a lot of control over these things (and because I don’t tend to cook asian foods, I don’t use many sauces I haven’t made myself), but it’s been tricky eating out and wondering whether the vegetable soup has a chicken stock base or whether the sandwich in fact has tuna in it.

      The one I’m terrible at is people who don’t eat onions – I put onions in everything, and I don’t even think of them as a separate ingredient, so I forget that I’m putting them in things! The number of times I’ve bought onions or even got as far as chopping them up before realising that I can’t actually use them on this occasion is rather alarming.

      • Iestyn
        April 10, 2012 at 12:34 am

        Can one cook without onions? As I must slow cook my proteins I tend to have onions in all dishes and roast them along with my potatoes, Parsnips et al. Stock without onions? Salad without raw, or a Mezze without pickled?
        Even onion gravy.

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