Food, Allergies and Experimental Cooking

A photo of a red cutting board with 2 mushrooms, a chef's knife, an avocado, a cob of corn, some kale, and a red Anaheim pepper

I’ll tell you one thing, I did not start out by just randomly throwing foods together. Like most everyone else, I started with closely following recipes I found in cookbooks and then later, online. Recipes are nice because someone else has already done all that experimental work to figure out what goes together and in what amounts.

My first steps into experimentation with food happened because I had been a vegetarian since collage and I was motivated to make healthier versions of some of the baked foods I loved, namely cookies. This was like 20+ years ago, so the whole gluten free thing I don’t think was as big as it is now, but alternate flours have been around a long time. I’d do 1 to 1 swaps in Betty Crocker cookie recipes: 1 cup of a whole grain flour replacing 1 cup of white flour or 1 cup of date sugar replacing 1 cup of white sugar, that sort of thing. At one point, I realized I was substituting and modifying enough, I was pretty much making my own cookies.

Not all the substitutions were successful, but that’s also part of the fun of it in my opinion. Granted, wasting money on ingredients is never fun, but when you perfect a modified recipe it’s a real sense of accomplishment. My mom ate my heavily modified, healthy cookies and said they were good (and my mom is NOT a “health food” person). That’s when I knew I was on to something. But for a long time, all I custom-modified were cookie, muffin, bar and cake recipes.

Being miserable can be a strong motivator.

About 5 years ago, I did a total elimination diet in a desperate move to overcome lifelong, hay-fever like allergies that, after moving up to Oregon from Southern California, started to basically last year round. I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. It was suggested by a nurse practitioner friend of mine. At first I balked because in the past I’d tried going dairy free as well as gluten free to no avail. But like I said, I was desperate because I was miserable with a capital M. So I eliminated the following from my diet: all grains, all sugars, all dairy, all nightshade family foods (basically tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant …), all legumes, and all oils.

So what did I actually eat? For breakfast on the first day I had a plant-based protein and greens shake (If you’re interested, it was Maximum Vibrance), some almonds and I think some fresh blueberries. For lunch and dinner, it was steamed vegetables. Plain, steamed vegetables can be pretty blah, but I basically stuck to this and on day 3, something unexpected and amazing happened–my allergies stopped. Not just a little bit, but like, completely disappeared. I thought it was fluke. I thought, “this can not be”. I waited a full 2 weeks before I even told my friend that the elimination diet actually eliminated my allergies because I was still in disbelief.

I had literally spent years of my life trying every natural supplement on the market (because I have adverse reactions to over-the-counter medications) to try and overcome the allergies with little to no results. I had no idea that food could be this much of a problem for me. And not only had the allergies stopped, but other life-long issues, such as constipation and stomach pains disappeared while eating this way. It really was life changing. There’s no other way to put it.

I stayed on the minimalist diet for awhile. At the time I was basically 98% vegetarian and 2% pescatarian, so occasionally would have wild salmon, but was primarily eating tons of vegetables, some fruit, and some nuts/seeds. The only sugar I was having was from fruits or honey. Over time, I let just about everything food-wise back into my diet at some point, but some foods I do have to greatly limit (like the grains still set me off). And I’ve pretty much gone back to being a vegetarian and rarely eat dairy anymore.

I will say that realizing that eating tons of veg and eliminating a lot of other foods was the hot ticket to feeling better, it motivated me to really experiment with other foods. Even recipes in all the vegetarian and vegan cookbooks I’d amassed over the years often included lots of grains, oils, or other stuff that was on my initial “no” list.

My first step was to think about different ways to prepare vegetables. There was the steaming, of course, but also roasting, sautéing, and even grilling on the BBQ. I’ll tell you what the game-changer was though…

“The spice must flow.”

(Anytime I can use a Dune reference, you bet I’ll use a Dune reference.) Spice (not to be confused with spicy) IS a game-changer for food. It’s my number 1 piece of advice when it comes to experimenting with vegetables. Get yourself some spices that you’d like to try and literally just sprinkle some on different vegetables while they’re cooking to see what the result is. If you need some inspiration, think of foods you really like and look up recipes and see what spices are being used in them. Any types of food that can be specific to certain regions of the world can also give you some good suggestions for spices.

Spice is also highly individualized. For example, one person my love turmeric on something and someone else may not care for it at all. So again, you have to experiment to find what you like the most. Note that some spices can get pricy, so it’s best to do a little research first before buying (or check if one of your local stores sells bulk spices where you can buy much smaller amounts).

If you’re just starting out in the world of spice, here’s a small list of what I’d call “entry level” spices (I’m leaving salt and pepper off the list because just about everyone already uses those anyway):

  • Powdered Garlic
  • Cumin
  • Celery Salt
  • Paprika
  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary

And if you like spicy/hot:

  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Crushed Red Pepper Flakes

Fresh herbs are your friends.

Tons of spices are really just dried herbs but fresh herbs will elevate just about any food they touch. Try using fresh basil on top of pasta and the flavor is just incredible. The fresh herbs are always more flavorful or potent than their dry counterparts. Most grocery stores do have a little fresh herb section in the produce area but a lot of herbs are super easy to grow. Seed packets are pretty cheap and as long as you have a window sill that gets sunlight and you can set a little pot on, you can grow herbs. I’ve had a fresh basil plant in my kitchen window for most of the year. I’ve also got a couple large rosemary bushes growing outside (they seem to thrive in the kind of soil I have here) and often pick off a sprig or two to throw into roasted veggies. Just trust me on the fresh herbs thing and give them a whirl.

Make it up as you go.

I do recommend starting with recipes to get your skills up. Get the basics down of what you actually like to eat, what flavors go good together, different techniques of cooking, how to slice and dice and all that. But, once you gain a little confidence, go off track a bit. Try some substitutions. Give yourself a weekly challenge like buying a vegetable you’ve never tried before (or never cooked before). Or just buy some vegetables you like, pick out some spices, pick out a cooking method and get creative. They’re not all going to be winners, but you gain valuable experience each time you understand one of these experiments. And most of all, have fun with it! Eating a lot of vegetables can absolutely be tasting and filling.

This is what I made with mushrooms, corn, kale, pepper, and avocado …

A plate with sautéed corn, Anaheim pepper, mushroom, kale, refried beans, avocado, and corn tortillas

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