Scratch Cooking Advanced Kitchen Basics Part Two


Plate of scones on a colorful table cloth, with a small tea light lantern and a pot of fruit marmalade.
You know you’re ready for some advanced kitchen basic skills when you want to make more complex baked goods and dishes that you can’t customize anywhere else but at home. Read my three steps to making new foods with confidence and flair. Photo by Imei Hsu taken on an iPhone 7 Plus.

Note: This post is Part Two in a three-part series on Scratch Cooking and Kitchen Basics. If you haven’t had a chance, please skim Scratch Cooking Basics Part One to see what was covered. 

If you follow a medically-necessary diet and have been trying to eat accordingly, you have probably come to the conclusion that eating out and eating processed foods don’t just conflict with your diet, they can damage your health, reverse positive progress in your battle against your disease, and leave you fatigued, undernourished, or gravely ill.

All of that just sucks.

And so, one way or another, kicking and screaming, or perhaps with excitement mixed with fear,  you’ve decided to give scratch cooking a whirl. Maybe you’ve cleaned your kitchen, bought a few new cooking tools and gadgets, pushed a cart around your grocery store’s perimeter (where the produce, meats, dairy, and unprocessed foods are located), and gotten a bit more comfortable making a few simple ingredient meals.

This calls for some celebration and congratulations! You made it! You’re alive! Woo hoo! This is no small feat. Most of the people around you are cramming garbage food full of empty calories, unhealthy fats, and excess sugars in their pie holes, and taking pictures of decadent foods to put on their Instagram, while you hold a salad with a dried up piece of chicken diced on top, thrilled that you can eat an avocado without feeling sick to your stomach.

It’s one step. And I will applaud that step, because I know what it feels like to go from laying in my bed and feeling about as lifeless as a rock until my body was able to absorb nutrients and bring some energy back into me. Feeding yourself is a big deal.

What the rest of the world doesn’t understand — but painfully, you do — is that if you did not grow up learning how to cook from scratch, it’s a skill that isn’t easily adopted as an adult. We are more likely taught to use every shortcut as an advantage over time and effort. People are being taught that it’s not just easier, but somehow better living to drink your meal in the form of a replacement shake rather than learn how to balance your meals for vitamins and minerals.

However, in the real world people treat food made from scratch differently than industrially-made food. Case in point: at the Beat the Blerch running races, foods such as donuts, Nutella, candy, cookies, and cake are served at the start of the race, at the aid stations, and at the finish line. Most serious runners will refuse all sweet treats because it will do a number on their guts. However, I observed in 2015 and 2016 as a volunteer and as a runner that more people stopped to eat cake during the race when they discovered who had made the cake.  Once it was understood that the cakes were from a much-coveted local bakery that specializes in making cakes, the cake magically disappeared. People made an exception.

Our biggest challenge comes right after we have barely managed to  keep ourselves from starving by making about five to seven repeatable dishes. Around the end of the first month of eating the same meals, with just a few small variations (like chicken tacos instead of beef tacos, and a lime dressing on that shrimp dish instead of the usual cocktail sauce because you’re avoiding tomatoes), that you suddenly get the idea of investing some money in a cookbook.

Bam, you’re on Amazon, perusing the cookbook section using keyword searches, such as “Paleo”, “Food Allergies”, “Dairy Free”, or “Vegetarian Foods for Heart Health.” After about five attempts, you settle on a couple of cookbooks, order them, and with Amazon Prime and Same-Day Shipping, a package is at your door. You rip into the box, eagerly open the first book, start flipping through the pages, and select a recipe that instantly makes your mouth drip saliva onto the glossy photograph astride a pile of bricks that just happen to be next to a distressed picnic table with wooden spoons and checkered napkins.

Two hours and about half of the bowls, pots, measuring spoons, and three-quarters of all the available countertop space in your kitchen later, you have a main dish that doesn’t look anything like the photograph. And by description, it doesn’t taste anything like it was supposed to either.

Well, crap. You just wasted a good afternoon, a bunch of groceries, and you’re still hungry.

Why? You can’t eat a single one of the recipes “as is.” All-purpose flour has to be replaced with a gluten-free version that doesn’t make you sick. Milk needs a substitute without losing creaminess. You substituted brown rice syrup for pure cane sugar because pure cane sugar makes your tummy hurt. You took out the nuts completely, left out the nutmeg, added a little more cinnamon, and axed the garlic.

If you’re lucky, you eat a little bit of what you’ve made because it’s just barely palatable, and sadly slide the rest of it into the bin and call it a day.

This post is all about cooking from scratch at another level: developing your own substitutions and creating new dishes, with or without a recipe. Read on for more.

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Scratch Cooking Kitchen Basics Part One

How do you move from wanting to eat a healthy diet to actually doing it? Read here about the basics of the scratch cooking kitchen. Photo from Pixabay (no attribution required).

When people share with me what is the hardest part about eating well, no matter what their diet, medical condition, or limitations, most of them do not tell me that they don’t know WHAT to eat.

They tell me that they don’t know how to change their lifestyle.

It’s your lifestyle that is  getting in your way of eating well. They may have a list of foods, a meal plan set up by their nutritionist, and a doctor’s order to eat a diet free of grains and preservatives. They tell me that they get stuck on the how.  How do I actually eat the things I know I am supposed to eat?

The how  – that is, the lifestyle changes that makes eating healthy for your individual needs happen —  intersects with an important activity and location: cooking real food, and shopping for, preparing, and cooking that real food from the grocery store or your garden to your table. Since there are few shortcuts that allow you to actually do this correctly (even food delivery services cannot cater to the needs of food allergic or medically-based nutritional profiles), I thought it was high time to start at the very beginning, so that anyone could jump in and get started.

Ready? Here’s my first post in a series on the basics of The Scratch Cooking Kitchen for the person with food allergies, Autoimmune Disease, and other medically necessary diets.

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The Inconvenience of Avoiding Convenience Food

Food Allergies | Autoimmune Disease | Fast Food | Convenience Food | Lifestyles

The inconvenience of avoiding convenience food involves the loss of spontaneity, and planning ahead.
The inconvenience of avoiding convenience food involves the loss of spontaneity, and planning ahead. When you don’t plan ahead, “doing without” has its hazards. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

From the very beginning, I knew that writing about eating real food – let alone convincing anyone that eating real food is a viable, valuable, and vital activity — would be a hard sell.

All I need to imagine is the tired eyes of a work weary parent, or an over-worked employee at a corporation with flexible hours who never has time to get a proper meal, and I know that my most powerful statement, “Heal yourself with the medicine of real food” would likely be heard as an ideal to aspire to,  not an action to live by.

Why? Because we perceive that statement as a lofty goal, and not an achievable end-destination. We think it’s too inconvenient to live without the conveniences of modern-day eating, which offers taste, ease, and practicality.

And of course, there is a price to pay for that convenience. Just look around. I watch people coming in and out of food comas, over indulging on alcoholic and sugary beverages, and not understanding why they feel like crap all the time. “But I can get away with this,” says one friend, a reference to not feeling sick immediately after eating a favorite dish at a restaurant.

Since it took a long time to get where our nation is with convenience food eating, I don’t imagine it will go away quickly. There is much you would have to overcome. However, if you’re ready to try — or, like me, it’s “ready or not” because of a medical condition that requires you to change your eating habits now — here are a few things to consider.

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Trello For Meal Planning and Prepping

Screen shot of part of my Maui Menu Plan for the March Triathlon camp. I used Trello to help me prepare, including a shopping list for Day 1.
Screen shot of part of my Maui Menu Plan for the March Triathlon camp. I used Trello to help me prepare, including a shopping list for Day 1. Photo by Imei Hsu.

How do you keep track of your food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities? How do you track your Elimination/Provocation schedule? Do you have a way to systematically think about rotating in a new recipe, and getting the ingredients on your grocery shopping list earlier in the week so that you’re not caught making multiple trips to the store? How do you organize links from websites with interesting information about foods, supplements, and treatments for your gastrointestinal and allergy issues?

First of all, I want to tell you this: IT’S A LOT. To eat well, to eat healthy and clean, and to eat nutrient-dense food free of chemicals, and emulsifiers, processed ingredients and processing cross-contamination, sugars, and unhealthy fats and oils,  you have to do a lot of fancy footwork and planning.

For many of us with Autoimmune Disease and fatigue, we simply don’t have the available energy for those extra trips to the grocery store, let alone standing at the stove and oven, prepping, cooking, and baking. At the worst of my own disease process, just standing at the stove for five minutes left me too tired to eat. Even the joints in my feet ached.

At the time of writing this post, I was planning from a couch, resting from travel and a food “incident” on the return flight of my trip to New Orleans to deliver a presentation on food and mood. I started using as a project management system for my eating lifestyle in early 2016, and I love how I can use it plan out my week, month, and repeat previous week’s menus to keep my food varied, interesting, nutritious, and flexible to my changing needs. I can also use it to plan special events, travel food, and holiday meal planning.

Read on to learn about Trello’s features you can hack for your own eating lifestyle.

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Eat Like You

During the holidays, we think about what we're eating more than ever (or, we try not to think about it!). How do you navigate the world of food when you have food allergies, intolerances, or a GI disorder)? Photo credit: Imei Hsu (2016).
During the holidays, we think about what we’re eating more than ever (or, we try not to think about it!). How do you navigate the world of food when you have food allergies, intolerances, or a GI disorder)? Photo credit: Imei Hsu (2016).

Stop trying to eat like everyone else. Just STOP.

On any given week, I receive well-intended yet unhelpful suggestions from people who believe they can “help” me. Sometimes it’s from a well-meaning Vegan person who thinks my Paleo options are not only immoral and cruel, they are unhealthy for me. As usual, I kindly ask that person to design me a minimum 1538 calorie meal plan free from nuts, dairy, seeds, soy, legumes,  beans, gluten (including no corn), alliums, goards (pumpkin, squash, cucumbers), and certain oils,  certain sugars, plus more calories on my training days that are easily absorbed, do not cause my guts to rebel and fall apart, and deliver iron, protein, and healthy fat well enough that I don’t suffer a loss in cognitive processing.

Every person I’ve encountered who has looked at that list usually tells me it cannot be done without severely compromising my health.

And so, here I am again, stating the obvious: nutrition is an individual matter. Stop eating like everyone else.

Instead, eat like only you can, and only you should:. Eat like you.

Among my friends, they have a reply to newcomers who mean well when they suggest a food or new recipe to me: “That sounds safe, but is it ‘Imei safe’?

They say this because I am my own canary in a coal mine: if it isn’t safe for me to eat, it might not be so good  for them either. Why? Because while all of the ingredients in processed foods are FDA-approved for public safety, a good amount of them will still leave me writhing on the floor, vomiting, cramping, racing for the toilets, or leading to poor nutritional status over time.

Yet the real truth of eating well and transforming your life is a journey of discovery, trial and error, and extreme customization. What we’re learning more than ever is that a nutritional profile that works for one may not work perfectly for another.

The good news: there exists one shared food factor among those who have autoimmune disease and food allergies, one in which no health expert would ever argue against. It is a simple equation: eat a natural diet free from highly processed foods.

By doing so, you will not eat in the manner of everyone else.  You will eat like you.

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Simply Sous-Vide

Simply Sous-Vide

A sous vide circulator, clipped in place to a large pot of water on a stove top, stove is not on. A cord for the circulator is plugged in the wall. Photo by Imei Hsu.
Sous vide cooking is back in vogue. Circulating water at precise temperatures allows you to cook food to perfection, with little risk of overcooking. Like my sweat pants (reflection)? 

I became interested in Sous-Vide cooking last year at the International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle (October 2015). A dark-colored liquid in a sample bottle was in my swag bag, labeled, “Steak Aging Sauce.”

The word, “Steak” was enough to grab my attention. I never say “no” to a good steak, and in my condition as a person with Celiac Disease and multiple food allergies, I am constantly in need of eating nutrient-dense foods, as I am on the thin side of the weight equation (although I am working very hard to rectify this, as I write this post).

In my household, M grills the steaks. Why? Because M is the Grill Master, I am not. Not that I haven’t grilled a steak or two in my life — I’ve even managed to smoke a ham and a small turkey in a smoker grill — it’s just that I’m not very good at it. That’s not just my opinion; M also has told me I have “issues” with my “mise en place,” as well as getting all foods cooked and on the table at the same time.  I often over-grill things, either in my belief that it takes far longer to cook than it actually does, or when my patience wears thin after I’ve poked the meat a half dozen times, and the juices are still looking as red as my favorite color of Chanel nail color.

After IFBC, M watched me dump out the contents of the conference swag bag on the floor, and when I wondered aloud how the “steak” sauce could be used, he stated two important points:

  1. Don’t use it until I’ve looked at all the ingredients for food allergens, gluten, and preservatives that make my guts go ballistic, and
  2. That’s a steak marinade for sous vide.

“What exactly is sous-vide anyway?” I asked.

The rest of this post is about why the Sansaire Sous Vide Circulator is one of my favorite things. Sous-vide, simply sous-vide.

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Betty Crocker Syndrome

Who doesn't remember their first taste of birthday cake? Chances are, yours might have been made from a box. Is the flavor and convenience all that matter? Let's talk about how Betty Crocker Syndrome has influenced the way we think about cooking in the modern kitchen. Photo from Pixabay (no attribution requested).
Who doesn’t remember their first taste of birthday cake? Chances are, yours might have been made from a box. Is the flavor and convenience all that matter? Let’s talk about how Betty Crocker Syndrome has influenced the way we think about cooking in the modern kitchen. Photo from Pixabay (no attribution requested).

Do you remember the very first cake you baked by yourself?

I was in elementary school and had been signed up for the Brownies, the seven-to-ten-year old age group of the Girl Scouts. We were each given a mixing bowl, a round cake pan, spoon, two eggs, water, and a box of Betty Crocker chocolate cake mix to share between two girls, as each would make one layer of a two-layer cake with frosting.

Just add eggs and water! Mix, pour, bake, frost, and serve! Voila!

Within a few hours, we had Betty Crocker Supermoist chocolate cake and frosting on our plates, aprons, on the floor (how did it get there?), and on our mouths from licking the raw batter. The Brownie leaders took our cake pans and baked them in the oven, and within minutes of our cleanup time, our neurochemicals undulated to the beat of the Mighty Sugar King and his chocolate minions.

It was supposed to be fun! And it was! We made chocolate cake! We were goddesses of the modern kitchen in just a few hours. There were no tears, no frustration, and hardly a mixing of ingredients. We just dumped out the box into a bowl. What could be easier or more carefree?. From my childhood view, it was like watching a miracle spring out of a pan.

I did not understand what was happening to me as a kid in the 1970’s, when food producers had successfully overrun the slow cooking movement as well as the Home Economics agenda of the American school system. For several decades, homemakers had been targeted by powerful marketing and social pressure to convert their kitchens and larders into micro distribution centers of industrialized cooking methods, namely canned soups, TV dinners, and complete meals that could be poured from a box.

You had to be stupid (or paranoid) not to jump on the processed food bandwagon at that time. Why, food producers were handing women the keys to freedom from slaving away in the kitchen, while being mobilized to serve tasty food quickly for everything from a birthday party to an unannounced after-work cocktail soiree. These convenience foods made people happy. It made women look not only good, but competent. Products leaped off the shelves, and food producers happily hired chemistry geeks to create more food products to anticipate demand.

We were hooked. Cereals with high sugar content made children squeal with delight and finish their bowls in order to get seconds. A hot, four-course dinner came after thirty minutes of heating in the oven, not several hours of cooking from a tired but conscientious mother.

The food products were engineered  to be convenient, tasty, and calorie-packed. These very foods, including that Supermoist chocolate cake and Nissin Food’s popular Top Ramen and Instant Noodles, ended up killing me, one bite at a time. My love affair with grabbing an instant meal on-the-go, of throwing water in a styrofoam cup, or whipping up biscuits and pancakes  from a cardboard box, was irrevocably broken the way one’s heart is stolen across multiple acts of betrayal.

I got hurt. I fell, and I didn’t get up again for many years, trapped in a nightmarish cycle of illnesses.  Well, I guess I did finally get up. I dragged myself over to the toilet, day by day, losing weight and looking worse as the days went by. My lungs became a magnet for repeated upper respiratory infections, from common colds to pneumonia; my stomach stopped anticipating tasty foods because the pleasure was always short lived. Post Celiac Disease diagnosis and discovering all my severe food allergies and intolerances, I turned to real food for help.  When I removed the last of the convenience foods and processed foods from my diet, my health dramatically returned.

Recently, a woman who listened to my passionate arguments in support  of eating real food to heal the body delivered a fantastically frank and honest rebuttal. She simply said, “Unless people are as sick as you were on food, they won’t buy it. It’s just too hard [to eat that way]”. As a parent responsible for putting food on the table for more than herself, cooking and eating real food instead of convenience foods purchased at the grocery store or served to you at a restaurant sounds impractical and unrealistic.

In many respects, she is absolutely correct. I completely understand why people would turn to processed foods in hopes that some of these products — any of them, for that matter — would help make life easier. And guess what? Even people with newly diagnosed autoimmune disease often turn to these convenience foods too.  Why? Because the adage is true, desperate people do desperate things. And there is a horrible desperation about being sick, fatigued, and hopeless. Without a drop of energy to spare, wouldn’t you too just stuff that gluten free piece of bread in your mouth, praying that it will stay down, stay in, and give you some strength for another day?

Looking back at her statement, I think this is when I began thinking about one of my real battles with helping people today. People do want to get better, they do want to stop eating crap, and they are ever so trapped inside a sugar-coated,  sticky world  called, “Betty Crocker Syndrome” (BCS). We simply trade our dollars for convenience, and if it appears to work, we continue to do this, until it doesn’t work.

Today’s biggest food producers have all paid attention to new consumer trends. There are truly more people concerned about the amounts of fat, salt, and sugars found in their food. The FDA has recently added new rules for labeling that require transparency about the amount of added sugar found in a serving of processed food. More and more people indicate that they are reading labels, although it isn’t always clear if the buyer is rejecting a product outright by what they read on the label, or simply adjusting their serving size.

By now, I know you are aware Betty Crocker Syndrome isn’t a real disorder. It’s just a name I’ve applied to a dramatic change in the way we think about food, which happened in the last century yet has a profound effect on the way we think about food today.

Busy young professionals are taught that cooking at home from scratch is either an extravagance one does for celebrations, or something you purchase from a meal kit that gets delivered to your door after you’ve locked in your monthly subscription. For some, the idea of being able to eat all the nutrients you need in a shake which you need only add water is a modern breakthrough.

However, it’s a breakthrough until it isn’t.

I don’t think anyone would label the reliance on eating processed and industrialized food as a syndrome unless there was an undesirable consequence that the eater accepts, even to the detriment of his or her health. A syndrome, for example, is considered one when there is something  dysfunctional about the behavior of a person in regards to either a norm, or in relationship to behaviors that would be in a person’s interest, yet the person cannot seem to break out of pattern of behavior without significant effort.

This is what I encounter with those trapped in the Betty Crocker Syndrome. They recognize something is wrong with their health, such as troublesome GI symptoms, weight gain, problems with fatigue, sleeplessness, fogginess, and even changes in their blood lab tests that indicate disease and poor health. And they may choose to answer to those health indicators with another cup of caffeine, a packet of supplements, a packaged health food bar, or yet a different shake formulation.

To me, Betty Crocker Syndrome is exactly that — a syndrome — because once you become reliant on it, it’s hard to break free, even when you know something isn’t working for you regarding the food you eat and/or your relationship to that food.

All I want to share about Betty Crocker Syndrome is that it is real, it is here, and there are many of us trapped into thinking that conveniences in modern food technology have always improved our lives.

But in my next post, I’ll explore with you my thoughts about why I think it’s time that we heal ourselves from BCS, and get back to eating real food. Not just for the people with autoimmune disease. I mean, everyone. I’ll be revisiting Betty Crocker’s Supermoist Dark Chocolate Cake Mix, Top Ramen, and other convenience foods as part of a discussion around healing ourselves from the seduction of fast-food eating in the home (including your take out pizza and even your “faster food” meal subscriptions). When Momofuku Ando created a noodle dish you could eat by just adding hot water, he was just trying to make money and feed people in post-war Japan. He had no idea how his food changed the way we eat over 70 years later. And it’s time that we revisit exactly what that revolutionary idea did in relation to Betty Crocker Syndrome. If we understand what happened in the past, we have a better chance to change our future.

To my beloved Hungry Minions, I am still committed to making food fun again, even at the end of this oh so serious post. In my freezer, I’ve finished off Batch 1 of my protein-enhanced Chocolate Coconut Mint Ice Pops, and they are incredibly easy to create. I personally devoured three-quarters of a gluten-free pizza I baked myself from scratch, all in preparation for about twelve hours of triathlon training in preparation for Ironman Mont-Tremblant in less than sixty days. I have little time or bandwidth to prepare and cook anything too complex, so I am committed to keeping my recipes that I share with you as easy as possible, while keeping them clean, nutrient-dense, and fun, fun, fun.

For those of us where  food”cheats” leave us nothing but physically devastated, you’ve come to the right place and the right conversation.

Let’s eat well, shall we?