When I first went gluten-free and rice-free, it felt like there was nothing to eat!
I’ve always been one of those freaks who absolutely LOVE to plan dinner menus and go grocery shopping, but suddenly thinking about what to eat for dinner meant fighting off a panic attack. Most gluten-free bread, pasta, crackers, etc. have rice flour as their primary ingredient and I hadn’t realized how heavily my meals depended on these starch elements, nor how much I loved making rice as an accompaniment to my main entree.
Yet I soon discovered a whole slew of other gluten-free grains — buckwheat, teff, millet, etc. — and started to get more creative in the kitchen in other ways as well. In this section, I’ll explore some of the items I like to keep in my “pantry,” because having them on hand makes figuring out what to eat for dinner SO much easier. This is also where you’ll find a wealth of information about how to choose quality items, as well as an in-depth look at a variety of different cooking oils and fats. To jump to a specific section, use the links below:
| Oils and Fats | Salt | Sweeteners | Spices | Condiments | Flours | Grains | Dairy & Eggs |
Oils and Fats
In my opinion, cooking with quality oils and fats is one of the most important aspects of eating well. Why? Because some type of oil is used in almost all hot dishes and many cold dishes as well. Granted, you’re generally using a pretty small amount, but think about how much that small amount builds up over time. If you use an average of four tablespoons per day (two to cook lunch and two to cook dinner), that’s 28 tablespoons in just one week, which is the equivalent of 1 3/4 cups! If I’m going to be consuming almost two cups of something every single week, I definitely want that something to be giving me health benefits, and not potentially endangering my health. So how do you choose quality oils? Here are some things to keep in mind:
Always buy oil in glass bottles – the darker the better. Exposing oil to light and air causes it to oxidize and go rancid much more quickly. Rancid oil is detrimental to health and should not be consumed! If your oil smells like crayons or tastes like spoiled nuts, it’s time to throw it out. (You might notice this happening when you are deep-frying or pan-frying – since high heat increases oxidation, you are supposed to change your oil periodically when frying. When do you change it? When it starts to smell like crayons!)
The Processing Method
When choosing an oil, the processing method is extremely important. You always want to look for the words “Cold-Pressed” or “Expeller-Pressed.” This means that the oil has been mechanically extracted and not chemically extracted. If those words are not present, chances are good that the oil has been chemically extracted (“solvent-extracted.”) Most solvent-extracted oils are extracted using the solvent hexane, which is a “food-grade gasoline,” neurotoxin, and EPA-classified hazardous air pollutant. Sounds lovely, right? Of course, manufacturers claim that the levels of hexane that remain in the oil after processing are too low to have any detrimental health effects. (Convenient, since using the solvent-extraction method is the most economically viable way to go if you are an oil company – it yields the most oil.) Since it seems there haven’t been too many studies conducted on the effects of long-term ingestion of low-levels of hexane, and common sense tells us to stay as far away from neurotoxins as we can, most people in the natural foods world avoid solvent-extracted oils if possible. Solvent-extracted oils are also heated to very high temperatures during the extraction process, which destroys most of the nutrients in the oil.
The Smoke Point
The smoke point of an oil is the point at which the oil (you guessed it) starts to smoke. When an oil reaches its smoke-point, this signals that the fat has started to break down and become unstable; in short, the oil is damaged. When this happens, harmful free radicals and carcinogenic compounds are created, which is something we definitely want to avoid! Thus, for high heat cooking, you always want to choose an oil that is stable at high temperatures.
Refined v. Unrefined
Refined oils are more stable at higher temperatures than unrefined oils and have a higher smoke-point. They are also more neutrally flavored. While they are less nutritionally rich, refined oils are recommended for high-heat cooking (because of their higher smoke-point) while unrefined oils are recommended for raw preparations like salad dressings or for drizzling on top of a dish after cooking is complete. It is important to seek out oils that have been naturally refined, not chemically refined, and that are free from additives. Refined oils are bleached (a process that uses clay to remove color, gums, etc.) and deodorized (a process that uses steam to remove odor) while unrefined oils are not.
Unfortunately, the most common cooking oils used in mass food production are corn and soy. Not only are these generally solvent-extracted, but they are also most likely derived from GMO corn and soy plants. Canola oil is also commonly genetically modified; however, you can find canola oil that is organic and/or Non-GMO. (The brand Spectrum definitely makes one.)
I try to buy organic whenever possible, because I prefer not to eat pesticide residue! Also, organic manufacturers are generally held to stricter standards in all aspects of production. For example, if a product is labeled 100 % Organic, you can rest assured that it does not contain GMOs. USDA Organic and Certified Organic labeled products are usually GMO-free but there are some loopholes. (See this article for more info.)
Specific Oils and Fats
I like to use a variety of different oils and fats in my kitchen, provided they are organic, expeller-pressed, and non-GMO. Below I’ve listed some of the fats I use, along with an explanation of the health debates surrounding each.
If you see an oil simply labeled “vegetable oil,” I’d bet money that it is solvent-extracted corn or soy oil. However, there are a bunch of other vegetable oils (sunflower, safflower, canola, grapeseed) that I do use sparingly in cooking, provided they are organic, expeller pressed, naturally refined, and non-GMO verified. These oils are controversial, however, and I encourage you to do your own research. There are many people who avoid vegetable oils all together because of their high levels of Omega-6 fatty acids; consuming too many Omega-6 fatty acids (relative to your Omega-3 intake) can lead to inflammation and disease. There are others who advocate these oils over saturated alternatives, because they can help lower cholesterol levels. A 2013 study suggested that up to 4 tablespoons per day of vegetable oil is beneficial, taking into account the consequences of consuming Omega 6 fatty acids in excess.
Opinions about cooking with olive oil are all over the map. My personal opinion is that extra virgin olive oil is a good choice for sauteeing or low-heat cooking but is not so great for high-heat cooking/frying. Because of its many health benefits and excellent flavor, I highly recommend using a high quality extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings, dips, and drizzling over finished dishes. I also feel comfortable using it for medium heat cooking – see this article for a thorough explanation. When choosing a quality olive oil, please keep in mind that there is a lot of misleading labeling going on in the olive oil industry. If you see words like “pure” or “light,” the olive oil is not extra-virgin. In fact, it may not even be olive oil. There are many “Pure Olive Oils” out there that are actually soy/canola oils colored and flavored to look and taste like olive oil! Even olive oil labeled “extra-virgin” may not be what it pretends to be. A UC Davis study shows that a very high percentage of samples from top-selling olive oil brands failed to meet extra-virgin standards because of damage/oxidation, use of cheaper/refined oils mixed in with the olive oil, or poor quality/spoiled olives. The study I linked to is from 2011 – also see their 2010 study here. Choosing a brand with a POD (“DOP” in Italian) or PGI certification or one that is certified by a national or state olive oil association can help ensure quality. For everything that you ever wanted to know about choosing olive oils, read this.
Coconut oil is all the rage right now, and for good reason. Because it’s a saturated fat, it’s actually much more stable at high temperatures than vegetable oils, which means it has a high smoke point. As such, you can use it for high heat cooking without worrying about releasing harmful free radicals. While it is a saturated fat, it is composed of medium chain fatty acids, which are suspected to contribute to weight loss rather than weight gain. Fifty percent of the fat in coconut oil is also lauric acid, which is antimicrobial and antibacterial. In addition to those benefits, studies have shown that lauric acid can help lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol. Coconut oil is the best source of lauric acid you can get – in fact, the only other place you’ll find lauric acid in nature is in mother’s milk! All that being said, coconut oil is still a saturated fat and it’s still very high in calories. So if you’re on a low-calorie diet or have been told to watch your saturated fat intake, you might not to want to jump on the coconut oil bandwagon with reckless abandon.
When choosing your coconut oil, please make sure it is organic, expeller pressed, and non-hydrogenated. If you prefer a coconuty flavor, buy “virgin” or “unrefined” coconut oil. If you prefer a neutral flavor (not coconuty AT ALL), buy “refined.” But please be sure your coconut oil has been refined without the use of solvents or chemicals. I personally buy Nutiva brand refined coconut oil because it is organic, non-GMO verified, expeller pressed, and non-hydrogenated. I also like that Nutiva is a certified B corporation. (By the way, I am not in ANY way affiliated with or being compensated by Nutiva – I’m way too new at blogging for that stuff to happen!)
Did you read Mark Bittman’s piece in the NY Times about the resurgence of butter? As he (or the intern who probably wrote his headline) so eloquently put it, “Butter is Back!” Again, butter consumption falls prey to the same debate as coconut oil – it’s a saturated fat. But some think that eating good quality (grassfed, organic) saturated fats will do more good than harm, provided, of course, that you haven’t been told not to eat them by your medical professional. Since (as a life-long vegetarian) I don’t eat what I consider to be the primary source of saturated fats (meat!), I feel completely comfortable including butter in my pantry (er..freezer) and using it on occasion. If you plan to do the same, I do recommend choosing organic butter from grassfed cows if you can. Butter does have a low smoke point so it should not be used for high heat cooking.
Ghee is clarified butter, which means it’s butter but minus most of the milk solids and sugars that burn and cause spoilage. As such, it has a higher smoke point than butter and is more stable when heated. Ghee has an excellent flavor and is used a lot in Indian cooking. It is also frequently tolerated by people who are casein intolerant, as generally only trace amounts of casein will remain after the clarification process. (You can also find some ghee that is certified to be completely casein free!) Ghee is generally stored at room temperature and does not need to be refrigerated. To be sure you’re getting the real deal (yes, ghee fraud is a thing!), I recommend choosing organic and grassfed ghee from a brand you trust.
Red Palm Oil
When I first saw this ingredient crop up on blogs I trusted, I was really confused. Palm oil?? Isn’t that supposed to be horrible?? The answer is that most of it is. You definitely want to stay away from palm oil in processed foods. Well, you want to stay away from processed foods in general! But palm oil is being used in processed foods as a substitute for hydrogenated oils and trans fats. While it’s great to get rid of those universally demonized (rightfully so) trans fats, the palm oil used in processed foods is generally solvent-extracted. More importantly, palm oil production has huge social and environmental consequences. Some of the environmental consequences include deforestation, extinction of rare or endangered species, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil erosion, while some of the social consequences include forced migration, unfair/illegal taking of land by palm oil production companies, horrible working conditions, etc. For more information, read this 2013 investigative report which also sheds light on the unreliability of the RSPO (palm oil sustainability) certification.
It is, however, possible to buy palm oil that has been sustainably produced. I recommend the Nutiva brand since it sources its oil from organic and fair-trade certified family farms and promises that its palm oil production practices do not contribute to deforestation. Here is their FAQ page. Of course, since RSPO was found unreliable, I guess you never really know. Since Nutiva is a brand I trust, and I find their FAQ page convincing, I do buy their red palm oil occasionally. (Again, I am not in ANY way affiliated with or being compensated by Nutiva – I’m way too new at blogging for that stuff to happen!)
If you do choose to purchase Nutiva palm oil, I can tell you that it has a deliciously buttery flavor and a beautiful red color. It is also high in Vitamins A and E. It is, once again, a saturated fat, and is subject to the same health debates as coconut oil, butter, and ghee.
It’s amazing how just a little bit of salt can be the difference between a dish that’s lacking flavor or pizazz and something truly remarkable. Because you need salt to bring out the flavor of whatever you’re cooking, it’s an integral part of every dish. As such, I like to choose salts that are mineral-rich and full of health benefits as opposed to those that are ultra-processed and additive laden. You’ll also notice a difference in taste!
I use two salts regularly in my kitchen: Kosher salt and Celtic sea salt.
Kosher salt gets its name because it is used for “koshering” meat; the name does not have anything to do with whether it has been processed under Rabbinical supervision. Kosher salt has a coarser grind and a flakier texture than table salt or sea salt. It is land-mined (comes from the land and not the sea), but it is less processed and generally does not contain added iodine. It sometimes does contain anti-caking agents, however, depending on the brand you choose. I use Kosher salt primarily for salting water, since it’s relatively inexpensive and dissolves quickly.
Celtic Sea Salt
Celtic sea salt is harvested by hand from the sea and dried in the sun. Since it’s not processed, it gets to keep its trace mineral content. The brand I like to use (Selina) claims that this salt contains over 80 trace minerals and elements – pretty awesome. Celtic sea salt also has an amazing flavor. I use it for everyday cooking and as a finishing salt. Selina also sells a line of flavored sea salts – I am very partial to their celery salt! One thing to keep in mind: celtic sea salt is milder than regular table salt so if you’re using regular table salt in a recipe where I specify the salt quantity, you’ll probably need to cut that quantity down a bit.
For optimal health, sugars and sweeteners should be used with extreme discretion, or not at all. But for optimal happiness (at least short-term), sugars and sweeteners are totally awesome. While I do believe that unrefined sweeteners are slightly better for you than refined white sugar, please keep in mind that they are far from healthy! That said, my sweeteners of choice are listed below.
I like agave because it’s a liquid sweetener, which means it can sometimes be used as the only liquid component in a recipe (no need to add milk, water, etc.) I also love its caramel-like flavor. In terms of health, agave is extolled by some for its relatively low ranking on the glycemic index, meaning it won’t cause blood sugar spikes as much as higher ranking sweeteners. (Eating high on the glycemic index causes blood sugar spikes that reduce insulin resistance over time, thereby increasing the risk of diabetes.) However, agave is also heavily criticized by many health experts because of its very high fructose content (75 percent!). Fructose does not trigger an insulin response; instead, it is broken down by the liver. As such, excessive fructose consumption has been associated with liver damage and obesity. The compounds formed when fructose is broken down can also cause harm to your body. Even though fructose is low on the glycemic index, studies have highlighted added sugar (specifically fructose) in the Standard American Diet as a major contributing factor to the rise of Type 2 Diabetes.
Since I avoid processed foods and strongly dislike all soft drinks and soda (the major sources of fructose consumption in the American diet) I feel comfortable using some agave in my baked goods. However, if you’re an agave avoider, you should be able to substitute maple syrup in most of my recipes with relative success. One additional note: please be sure to buy fair-trade, organic agave to ensure that your agave has not been adulterated with high fructose corn syrup to cut costs. I like the brands Wholesome Sweeteners and Madhava.
I like using coconut sugar in place of regular table sugar because it’s less processed, has a lower Glycemic index, and retains nutrients like iron, zinc, and antioxidants. It also contains the prebiotic inulin, which is good for gut health and can help slow glucose absorption and balance blood sugar. While there are obviously way better sources of nutrients out there than sugar (wouldn’t it be nice if we could get our iron by eating cookies all day), if I’m going to be eating sugar anyway, coconut sugar is a slightly better choice than refined white. Keep in mind that coconut sugar (approx. 39 percent fructose) is only slightly lower in fructose than white table sugar, which clocks in at fifty percent.
Honey contains small amounts of a wide variety of nutrients and antioxidants; however, heating it can destroy these little gems. Therefore, with honey, try to keep it raw. Darker honeys (ex. buckwheat) contain more antioxidants than lighter honeys. Honey has about the same fructose content as coconut sugar. However, it’s glycemic index value varies greatly depending on the nectar source. Local honey is thought to be helpful in treating seasonal allergies, as it contains small amounts of local pollen. Pretty cool, huh? Honey is also legal on the SCD diet, which prohibits all carbohydrates and sugars except for monosaccharides.
I like to use maple syrup in small amounts – drizzled over pancakes, in salad dressings, etc. I’m not a huge fan of maple syrup for baking because I think its strong maple flavor has a tendency to completely take over. That, and it costs a small fortune. Maple syrup is slightly lower on the glycemic index than table sugar, but not as low as coconut sugar or agave. Since it is 60 percent sucrose, which is a disaccharide made up of equal parts fructose and glucose, its fructose content is 30 percent. It’s also rich in minerals like manganese and zinc. (Again, there are obviously better sources of nutrients out there than sugar, but if I’m going to be eating sugar anyway, minerals are a plus.) When purchasing maple syrup, make sure you’re getting the good stuff. Buying locally is ideal – I get mine at the Union Square Greenmarket and it’s delicious! Beware of “maple-flavored” syrup – this is normally high fructose corn syrup with some maple flavoring.
Dried Herbs and Spices
The world of herbs and spices is infinite! Sadly, my kitchen shelves are not. While I will occasionally use spices and herbs in my recipes that don’t appear on this list, these are the staples that I always like to keep on hand. I’ve grouped them roughly by flavor-profile below, and listed some health benefits of each. Most of these herbs/spices are nutrient rich in other areas in addition to the ones I listed; I encourage you to do your own more-in-depth research. It’s also worth noting that studies/research have linked many of these herbs and spices to cancer prevention.
I always try to choose spices that are organic, which means they are free from pesticide residue and also have not been irradiated.
Basil – High in antioxidants and vitamin K
Oregano – High in vitamin K and manganese, anti-bacterial
Thyme – High in antioxidants and vitamin C, anti-fungal, can help soothe coughs.
Rosemary – Good source of vitamin A, B-complex vitamins, and minerals like potassium and calcium. May boost memory.
Sage – High in vitamin K and antioxidants, may boost memory
Garlic – Anti-bacterial, strengthens the immune system, good for cardiovascular health, anti-inflammatory
Dill – Anti-bacterial, good source of calcium
Caraway – Digestive aid, good source of dietary fiber, antioxidant properties, rich in vitamin C and potassium.
Paprika (regular) and Hungarian Hot Paprika– High in carotenoids, vitamin A, lutein, vitamin E, and iron.
Cayenne – Very high levels of vitamins and minerals including vitamin A and C, potassium, and B-complex vitamins. High in antioxidants.
Cumin – Digestive aid, good source of iron.
Coriander – Digestive aid, anti-bacterial agent, high in vitamin C, lowers blood sugar.
Mustard seed – Good source of vitamin E and B-complex vitamins
Fennel – Digestive aid/helps reduce bloating, breath freshener.
Turmeric – Contains curcumin, which is an anti-inflammatory compound and powerful antioxidant. Curcumin is not well-absorbed by the bloodstream, but consuming turmeric with black pepper increases absorption.
Chili powder – High in vitamin A, boosts metabolism.
Ginger – Anti-inflammatory, digestive aid.
Cinnamon – Digestive aid, helps regulate blood sugar. Please keep in mind that only Ceylon Cinnamon is considered “true” cinnamon. Most powdered cinnamon is actually from the cassia plant, which is also called “Chinese Cinnamon.” While cassia may share some of the health benefits associated with cinnamon, it also contains coumarins, which are toxic in large amounts. For more information, see this article.
Cardamom (green) – High in dietary fiber, iron and manganese. Digestive aid.
Cloves – Contains eugenol, an anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial compound. High in manganese and vitamin K.
Nutmeg – Anti-fungal, high in antioxidants, good source of copper, manganese, magnesium, and iron.
The addition of some of these condiments will make your dish taste like you labored away at it for hours, adding stocks and proprietary spice blends, whispering incantations, you name it. That’s because even 1/2 teaspoon of the right condiment can add an incredible depth of flavor to your dish – as such, cooking with condiments is a great shortcut! I stay away from condiments that contain artificial flavors or colors (this is more common than you’d think), or are heavily processed and preservative-ridden. Luckily, not all condiments are created equal, and I can usually find brands of my favorite condiments (listed below) that pass the quality ingredients test. If I can’t find something I like, I simply make my own!
Harissa is a spicy red paste commonly used in Middle-Eastern/North-African cuisine. Depending on your brand, the ingredients will vary – it is usually some combination of tomato/sundried tomato, bell pepper, chillies, olive oil, garlic, and spices. Common spices used are coriander, cumin, and caraway. Some harissa brands include smoked chilies – I always prefer the non-smoky varieties and I find that they work much better in cooking. (Harissa already packs a big flavor punch without any smoking!) I usually purchase Cava brand harissa, which is made from stewed tomatoes, crushed red pepper, and spices. I also sometimes buy harissa from Taim, a falafel place in NYC that makes and sells their own!
Harissa is absolutely delicious in salad dressing, veggie dishes, veggie burgers, tofu/tempeh, sandwiches…it’s seriously delicious in almost everything. Don’t be scared off by the price tag – a little goes a long way so one bottle will last you quite a while!
I always like to have a couple of good mustards on hand since I use them often in salad dressings, sauces, and dips. In salad dressings, mustard is a great emulsifier, meaning it helps the oil stay mixed with the vinegar. Without an emulsifier, your salad dressing will separate pretty quickly after mixing, since everyone knows vinegar and oil don’t really like to stay together! But emulsifying is pretty much the least of what mustard has to offer – its flavor is far more exciting!
I like to keep a dijon mustard and a spicy brown deli-style mustard in my pantry/fridge at all times. There are numerous brands to choose from! My favorite had been a spicy brown mustard made with apple cider vinegar from the brand Eden Foods (apple cider vinegar is considerably healthier than the standard “distilled vinegar” you’ll often see on ingredient labels) but I’m now boycotting Eden Foods because of their politics. As such, I’m still on the lookout for a new favorite mustard.
Like soy sauce, tamari is made from fermented soy beans and is often used in Asian cooking. It’s rich, salty, and delicious. While tamari typically contains less wheat than regular soy sauce, it can contain some wheat. The only way to be sure your tamari is gluten-free is if it is labeled gluten-free. (This is different from the label wheat-free!) Since soy is one of the most commonly genetically modified crops in the US, I always opt for brands that promise an organic, non-GMO product.
Coconut aminos is a product made from the sap of the coconut tree. It is fantastic used in place of soy sauce or gluten-free tamari, for those on a soy-free diet. My bottle of Coconut Aminos (made by Coconut Secret, which is my favorite brand) claims that “coconut sap contains 2-14 times the amino acid content of soy.”) Pretty cool, huh? Coconut aminos has a similar flavor to soy sauce or tamari but is milder and sweeter. I love using it in conjunction with tamari because its sweetness really balances the saltiness of the tamari and makes for wonderfully balanced marinades and stir-fries without the need for added sugar!
Toasted Sesame Oil
I am aware of three types of sesame oil: unrefined, refined, and toasted. Unrefined sesame oil has a subtle flavor and a fairly high smoke point, while refined sesame oil has an almost neutral flavor and a very high smoke point. The only type of sesame oil I keep on hand, however, is Kadoya brand’s Pure Sesame Oil, which has a dark amber color and an amazing flavor. That’s because the sesame seeds have been toasted! Toasted sesame oil is a fantastic “finishing” oil – it has a low smoke point, so it’s not good to use as a sauteeing oil. However, adding a tablespoon or two at the end of cooking will add a deliciously nutty, aromatic flavor that you should never miss out on. You can also use it in salad dressings or other cold preparations.
Toasted sesame oil is one of the items I make an exception for – since Kadoya’s oil doesn’t say “expeller pressed” on the bottle, it could very well be chemically extracted (see my Oils section above!) and the oil certainly isn’t certified organic. Be that as it may, the flavor is amazing, and it’s also much more cost-effective than the organic, expeller pressed brands I’ve found so far. Since I use it in small quantities (it’s incredibly flavorful!), I am okay with continuing to buy it…for now. However, you can find healthier, expeller-pressed versions of this classic condiment; just be sure they are labeled “toasted” – otherwise, you will end up with a very different product.
Thai Curry Paste
Red, Green, Yellow, Panang — I love thai curries in all their many color and flavor iterations. The two most important ingredients in a thai curry are the curry paste (this is where all the flavor is) and the coconut milk (this is what makes it creamy.) However, thai curry paste can also be used without coconut milk – it’s basically just a concentrated paste of thai chilies, spices, and aromatics. Many traditional thai curry pastes have fish sauce or fish paste in them, so if you keep a vegetarian diet like I do, you have to be a bit careful. I’m a fan of the Thai Kitchen and Maesri brand pastes because both brands offer a good number of fish-free varieties (though some of their products do contain fish, so always read your labels!) I normally buy the Thai Kitchen brand, because it tastes pretty similar to that quintessential Thai-restaurant-curry, which I like. It is also less spicy than Maesri, which means I can use more of it.
I use thai curry paste to make thai curries (duh!), thai peanut sauces, stir-fries, veggie dishes, etc. I have yet to use it in a salad dressing, but I’m sure it would be delicious.
Chili paste adds a great depth of flavor to Asian stir-fries, sauces, and other dishes. There are an infinite number of different chili pastes – from the Chinese-style chili/garlic pastes to the Southeast Asian sambal pastes. I’m a fan of the former, specifically Chili Paste with Garlic from the brand Lan Chi. I recently decided, however, to stop buying this paste due to the soybean oil. I like to make soy-free Asian food for people who can’t eat soy, so I wanted a soy-free chili paste. Also, since soy is one of the most commonly genetically modified crops in the US, buying a product with non-organic soybean oil means you’re probably ingesting some GMO-soy. I do enough of that when eating out, so when I cook for myself, I really want to be able to control what I’m eating!
Finding another chili paste proved more difficult than I thought, however. Most of the ones I found were of the vinegary-sugary Sriracha-like variety and did not have a flavor comparable to Lan Chi’s. I know that Sriracha is all the rage, but it’s really not my thing. I want to taste the deep flavor of the chilies, and for me, that means leave out the vinegar and sugar, please! Many of the chili pastes I found also had artificial colors and/or preservatives. After searching for a while, I eventually decided to just make my own. The process is really very simple, and it’s so satisfying to be able to choose your own flavor profile and heat level. I definitely encourage you to experiment!
Umeboshi paste is a Japanese condiment made from salt-pickled plums. It has a deep, tart, salty flavor that really helps to give your dish a flavor-boost. (I sometimes think of it as a kind of natural MSG!) Unlike MSG, however, umeboshi paste is very healthy. It is extremely alkalizing, which makes it great for regaining balance after eating a lot of sugary, acid-forming foods or just for energizing the body when you’re feeling fatigued. Many people also use it as a hangover cure! (Just mix about a teaspoon of umeboshi paste into a cup of boiling water and drink it like tea.)
I like to use umeboshi paste in grains, veggies, and salad dressings. Since grains are acid-forming, adding some umeboshi paste is a nice way to get some combative alkalizing action going on. And, as far as flavor goes, you’ll find that it adds a nice depth – almost as if you used a meat-based stock – to your dish. Keep in mind that umeboshi paste is very concentrated, so a little goes a long way.
One of the major differences between gluten-free baking and regular baking is the sheer variety of flour combinations you’ll encounter, and the necessity of using several different flours in one baked good in order to get the perfect texture. Sure, sometimes you can stick with just one flour type – but more often than not, mixing is your friend. There is a reason why all of the gluten-free all purpose flour blends are … well … blends. Instead of buying these all purpose flour blends, however, I prefer to keep a nice variety of gluten-free flours on hand so that I can mix and match as I please. It’s nice to have complete control over the final texture and flavor of the baked goods I’m creating!
The blog Gluten Free Girl and the Chef has fantastic gluten-free baking tips that you should definitely read. The two that I keep in mind the most when developing recipes are these:
-Use a bit of ground chia or flaxseed in place of xanthan gum or guar gum (traditionally used to make the texture of gluten-free baked goods more similar to gluten-laden goods).
-A good baseline ratio for blending flours is 70 percent whole-grain flours to 30 percent starchy flours. (You can also use a lot less starch, depending on the nature of the baked good, the other ingredients, and the texture you want to create.)
I use the flours listed below (my personal favorites) in a broad spectrum of recipes, from burgers to cakes. Note that many of these flours keep best in the freezer or fridge.
-Blanched Almond Flour (Grain-free, moisture-rich)
-Coconut Flour (Grain-free, requires a LOT of moisture as it’s very drying)
-Teff flour (Nutty flavor, dark/earthy)
-Buckwheat Flour (Nutty flavor, dark/earthy)
-Millet Flour (Light/mild)
-Oat Flour (Light/mild, good for binding, can be gummy if used in excess)
-Corn Flour (Light/mild)
-Sweet White Sorghum Flour (Light/mild, nutty flavor – good substitute for rice flour)
-Tapioca Starch (Usually interchangeable with arrowroot starch in baked goods, can be gummy if used in excess)
-Arrowroot Starch (Usually interchangeable with tapioca starch in baked goods, can be gummy if used in excess – also a fabulous binder/egg substitute)
There is a lot of controversy out there about whether grains should be favored or discouraged in a healthy diet. Since I follow a vegetarian diet, I am not about to stop eating whole grains. And I also recognize that they have numerous health benefits, which I hope (and many proclaim) would outweigh any negative aspects. That said, I do like to make sure I eat a couple of completely grain-free meals every week, as they tend to make me feel lighter and are easier (for me, personally) to digest. I’ve also found that variety is key! I like to rotate my grains as much as possible so that I can get the full range of nutrients without overloading my body with any one grain type. (After all, eating tons of rice after going gluten-free is the reason I can no longer tolerate it!) So my personal philosophy with grains is variety. I am also intrigued by the practice of soaking grains in an acidic medium, since this helps reduce phytic acid (often cited as a reason to avoid or minimize grains). Here are two opposing articles, for your reading pleasure, about phytic acid in grains and beans:
Article 1 – Weston A Price Foundation
Article 2 – Linda Carney, MD
Whatever you may believe about grains, I have to say that discovering new grains was one of the best things that happened to me after eliminating gluten and rice. There are so many interesting grains out there that rarely appear in the mainstream culinary world (in the U.S., that is)! When is the last time you walked into a restaurant and saw millet or kasha on the menu?! Of course, quinoa (once a little-known pseudograin) is quickly becoming the new rice, at least in the New York City area. So maybe millet, kasha, and teff are right behind – who knows?
A note about Pseudograins:
If you haven’t figured it out yet, a pseudograin is a food that is often thought of as a grain (because of its behavior and culinary use) but is actually not a grain at all! My favorite pseudograins are quinoa and buckwheat, which are both seeds. Some grain-free diets include these pseudograins and some prohibit them. Since quinoa and buckwheat are seeds, I do include them in some of my grain-free recipes.
Below is a list of some of my favorite grains and pseudograins, and a bit about each one:
Quinoa is quickly gaining popularity in the culinary world. And it’s no wonder: it’s incredibly versatile, quick to prepare, and packed with nutrients. It comes in three beautiful shades (white, black, and red), and each one is quite delicious. Quinoa contains all nine essential amino acids, is rich in Vitamin B, and has almost twice the fiber of most other grains. Before preparing quinoa, make sure to rinse it very well until it’s no longer bubbly – this will get rid of the saponins, which cause a bitter taste. (In fact, growing up, I used to hate quinoa because my parents never rinsed it!) Also keep in mind that the three shades of quinoa have different cooking times – white cooks the fastest, red takes a bit longer, and black takes the longest. As such, you probably don’t want to mix colors together when cooking them.
Millet is an ancient grain that is eaten ubiquitously in Asia and Africa. In the US, it’s probably most known for being the primary ingredient in birdseed! Millet is high in magnesium, which has been shown to help with asthma and prevent migraines. It is also a good source of manganese, copper, and phosphorus. In short, it’s a very nutritious (and very inexpensive) little seed that we shouldn’t just be feeding to the birds! (One caveat: If you have hypothyroidism, do be aware that millet should be avoided due to goitrogens.) Millet’s flavor is similar to brown rice, but it’s maybe just a bit stickier. As such, it’s fantastic in sweet or savory puddings, veggie burgers, or loafs. Since I don’t eat rice, I make “risotto” using millet because of its stickier texture. It’s also a great bed for veggies or bean dishes – you can use it in much the same way you would use rice or quinoa.
Teff is an ancient Ethiopian grain that is super high in protein. It’s also a good source of iron and calcium, and is high in a bunch of other minerals like manganese, copper, phosphorous … the list goes on. If you’ve ever had Ethiopian food, you may be familiar with injera (the spongy flatbread you get at Ethiopian restaurants), which, guess what, is made from fermented teff! (If you are gluten-free, do be careful: while traditional injera is made with 100 percent teff, most Ethiopian restaurants use a mixture of teff and wheat flour. Some of these restaurants, however, have started offering 100 percent teff injera for gluten-free diners upon request – woohoo! Even if you aren’t gluten-free, I recommend trying it since the flavor is very different – and superior, in my opinion.) I use teff primarily in flour form, since I’m not a fan of the texture of cooked teff. (It’s similar to amaranth). Occasionally, however, I’ll use the whole grain to make polenta.
Buckwheat bears no relation to wheat – in fact, it’s actually a seed that is related to rhubarb! Its health benefits are numerous – it’s great for your heart, it helps regulate your blood sugar, and it’s nutrient-packed (high levels of manganese, magnesium, and copper, as well as B vitamins.) Buckwheat is also high in protein relative to other grains and contains all nine amino acids. You can use it in its raw form (raw buckwheat groats), in its toasted form (kasha), or as a flour. Kasha happens to be one of my staples, as it is absolutely delicious! It has a nutty flavor and cooks super quickly (10-12 minutes!). If you’re not looking to make a pudding, make sure your water has come to a rolling boil before adding your kasha – otherwise it can be very mushy and unappealing.
Sorghum is an African grain that is also enjoyed in India and China. While it’s a good source of magnesium and copper, it’s primarily used in the U.S. for feeding livestock and also for ethanol production. (When will we catch on?) I use sorghum primarily in flour form – it has a light, nutty flavor and it’s a good substitute for rice flour in gluten-free baked goods. You can also puff the whole kernels or cook the grain like you would wheat berries. Sorghum has a lengthy cooking period, so plan ahead!