A Pizza Praise

I know I JUST wrote a post about how we feel bad when we eat things that aren’t homemade, but I wanted to be sure I wasn’t scaremongering. No matter where you live, there are some wholesome choices you can make outside the home. You can find restaurants with sustainable, fresh, local ingredients, who do not use chemical-laden products because the real thing is so much better, and who care about your specific dietary restrictions or concerns. There are restaurant kitchens you can learn to trust nearly as much as your own.

This post isn’t about them. This post is about pizza.

Pizza is one of my favourite foods. I love love LOVE pizza. One of my favourite silly jokes is even about pizza:

How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizza?
Deep pan, crisp and even

You’re groaning now, but you know you’ll tell someone later. Anyway, I sorely miss good pizza (and even bad pizza).  I haven’t yet perfected a gluten-free pizza dough myself. A lot of pre-made bases are chewy, and I never remember that I need an extra hour before baking for boxed doughs to proof. The frozen pizzas offered in the Tesco and Sainsbury’s shops here vary wildly, and, when I found one I really liked, it disappeared forever. What’s a gluten-free girl to do?!

Last year, Dominos UK announced they were rolling out gluten-free pizzas to all their stores by 1 November. All staff would have to take gluten informational training to know about cross-contamination. A couple of days before the 1st, we decided to give them a try. If the Belfast branches were waiting until the 1st to roll out, I figured the worst that could happen was we would be told to wait a few days to order. Wrong. CB phoned, and it went something like this:

CB: Do you offer your gluten-free pizzas yet?
Dominos employee 1: I don’t know what that is. I’ll get the manager.
Dominos manager 1: We did have gluten-free bases, but nobody ordered them. We binned them.
CB: You binned them? You didn’t even advertise them. It wasn’t on your menu.
Dominos manager 1: You can call another branch and see if they have them still. Tell them I told you to call over.

Second branch:

CB: Do you offer your gluten-free pizzas yet? One of the other branch managers told me to phone over to you.
Dominos employee 2: I don’t know what that is. The manager isn’t in, but I’ll phone him and have him phone you back.
. . .
Dominos manager 2: I’m not sure if we have them. What is gluten?
CB: In short, gluten is something that’s in wheat and other grains that some people are allergic to.
Dominos manager 2: Really? Can you tell me more about it? What does it do?
CB: [proves he actually listens to me and spends about 3-4 minutes talking about Celiac and gluten]
Dominos manager 2: Wow. Thanks. I’ve never heard of that. We don’t have anything gluten-free, I don’t think.

While the employees and managers were really nice, they had no idea what was going on (and I have to assume the bit about having binned them was a panic-driven fabrication). At that point, I wasn’t even so bothered they didn’t have the bases — I was prepared for that possibility since it was only rolling out — but I was very concerned by the fact that the information was so sparse and different. They clearly had not be trained about gluten cross-contamination if one of the managers didn’t even know what gluten is. As you may know, I like to have my voice heard. I got in contact with the national Dominos folks and discussed the issues we discovered in the Belfast branches. After a bit of back and forth, we agreed that it was best they pushed the roll-out date back a few weeks and work on employee education. I was later offered a voucher for my assistance and trouble and to try the new pizza when it came out and give feedback.

A few weeks later, voucher in hand, I tread onto the Dominos website. There is a big GF on the choice of bases. There are comments about which toppings are not gluten-free, which, it is good to see, are very few. I double- and triple-check everything before I place the order. I half-expect the phone to ring, and they will tell me they still don’t have them in Belfast. Not even three minutes later, an unknown number calls. I answer.

Dominos employee: You ordered a gluten-free pizza?
Me: (sighing) Yes, I did.
Dominos employee: I just wanted you to know there is egg in the base. Some people are allergic to eggs, and I wanted to make sure that was okay.
Me: Absolutely. Thank you so much for asking.

What a difference. Less than a month prior, no one in the shops even knew what food allergies were. Now they’re phoning to make sure I’m not allergic to eggs?! How wonderful! The delivery driver explained that they always make sure the pizza boxes marked with a gluten-free sticker sit on top of the others, just in case something could fall down into it somehow. Some drivers choose to leave off the dips because they aren’t sure about the content and don’t want to give out something that might have gluten (They don’t; I checked). I was overwhelmed by the allergy-attentive service by a take-away pizza chain!

The Dominos pizza is good and tasty, but it’s not fantastic. It relies a lot on corn, which results in a heavier crust than their usual fare. It is crispy, which is a big problem with gluten-free doughs, and it isn’t too chewy. It only comes in one size (9″), but, in all, it makes for a good indulgent take-away, especially since they added spinach back to the toppings choices! The next hurdle I see for them is understanding that, because of some recent recipe changes, not a single side item or dessert is gluten-free. Currently, the only gluten-free option is the pizza itself.

Dominos Pizza delivered

Dominos Pizza delivered, pre-spinach return

Only a few weeks ago, Pizza Express announced their new gluten-free range (It’s even on the main page of their website!). After doing my research on how they are meant to be trained for cross-contamination (and knowing that I expect a little more from them than I would from Dominos), we decided to give them a try. The menu clearly marks items which have “NGCI”: Non-Gluten-Containing Ingredients. There aren’t a ton of options, but there are a few starters (including a lovely white wine and butternut squash risotto), at least one dessert, and a beer. (Their extensive online allergen menu (PDF) makes suggestions on how to make other items suitable for X allergy.) Nearly all of their pizzas can be made on the gluten-free base without any topping adjustments.

The service astounded me. I always fear the worst when someone questions the gluten-free thing.

Server: Oh, are you gluten-free?
Me: Yes, I am.
Server: I will alert the kitchen.

Rather than being made to feel a picky eater, she let me know with that simple statement that my dietary needs would be taken seriously. One table over, I heard the same server discussing with the mother of a young Celiac girl the changes the company had made in every kitchen for the gluten-free range. They have a completely new and gluten-free portion of every kitchen. Nothing ever goes on that side that has touched the other foods. They have a new oven that is only for gluten-free pizzas. In the cases where they are forced to utilize the same shelf space, the gluten-free items are all on higher shelves so that no errant flour can fall onto them. They are clear when they deliver the pizzas to the table which is gluten-free, but the setting is just the same — it sounds like such a little thing, but, when something is obviously different from others, it draws attention to it when you’d rather just get on with eating.

Pizza Express does have a superior crust. I would expect that. They have quality ingredients with responsible sources. The crust looks and tastes like a regular pizza crust. I’m shocked to say that I almost forgot I was eating a gluten-free pizza. Every once in a while, if I let my mind wander while eating, I’ll come back to the meal with a sudden paranoia that I have made a massive mistake and WHAT HAVE I EATEN?! That panic lasted a second longer when I realised there was pizza in my hand and it looked so good.

REAL pizza from Pizza Express!

REAL pizza from Pizza Express!

Pizzas from Dominos and Pizza Express lead completely divergent existences in the pizza world. Though Dominos did stumble at the beginning, eventually both chains impressed me. I can’t expect for any employee or company to know everything straight out of the gate, but a true willingness to learn and a commitment to respect go a long way in my book.

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Slowly Simmered Dreams

I have finally achieved one of my goals in life: I have a slow cooker. I know. I know. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is a really huge development for me as a person.

Isn't she pretty?

Isn’t she pretty?

There are some things you just can’t make without a slow cooker. You can live without those things, but your life would be devoid of joy. You may think you are happy now, but there is happiness you can’t even imagine on the other side. CB asked me last night if our slow cooker has been off since we got it, and I was able to answer ‘yes’ only because I haven’t done any overnight experiments yet.

I’m convinced that my slow cooker can time travel (it is parked next to the TARDIS) or, at least, look into the future. When I first set it on the counter on Monday, I stared for a moment, contemplating what I should first make. It reached out to me, explaining that chicken noodle soup was truly the only option. I even had leftover roasted chicken from Sunday’s dinner! How did it know that, the very next day, I would feel bad and need something comforting and wholesome to eat? It’s magic!

One of the most appealing things about a slow cooker (and the real selling point for CB) is that I can make dinner at any time during the day. I sat down to write this post at 10:30am, and tonight’s dinner is already done. It is, honestly, a matter of practicality. In my ever-growing quest to understand my body, I had to realise that I don’t always have the energy to make dinner at dinner time. When it gets to be about 5pm and I’m not sure I can roll myself off the couch to cook, it makes the option for unhealthy take-away that much more enticing. If I’m brimming with energy at about noon, why not make dinner at noon? A slow cooker gives me the flexibility to create a healthy meal without undue strain on my body. I also already have three slow cooker meals in the freezer, ready to be thawed whenever we want them. I made almost an entire week’s worth of dinners in one day. One busy afternoon — without too much pressure because they didn’t have to be on the table at any particular time — and I had one dinner for that night, one for the fridge, and three to be frozen. I was inordinately proud of myself and intend to integrate it into a weekly ordeal.

Last night, I also made this apple pie risotto from our gfree life.  I added two tablespoons of flax meal to the recipe (I just can’t help myself).  It was amazing — sweet without being too sugary, dessert-y without being heavy, and filling enough that CB had some for breakfast instead of his usual porridge.

CB kept calling it "crumble" because that's what it smells like.

CB kept calling it “crumble” because that’s what it smells like.

Slow Cooker Chicken Noodle Soup

Ingredients:

1 lb boneless chicken, pre-cooked and shredded or uncooked (It will cook along the way)*
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
dash of cayenne powder
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/2 small white onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 big handful kale, roughly chopped
1 1/2 cups broccoli, in small pieces
1 bay leaf
1/2 tablespoon dried cilantro/coriander OR 1 tablespoon fresh cilantro/coriander, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon dried basil OR 1/2 teaspoon fresh basil, finely chopped
Choice of noodles/pasta — I used 2 cups of brown rice shells; eyeball how much you need and remember they will expand when cooked

*You can use bone-in chicken if you take the weight into consideration and understand that you may get loose bones in your soup. It does add a certain richness in flavour, but I don’t like taking the chance.

Hardware:
Slow cooker
Measuring cups and spoons
Cutting board and 2 forks, if uncooked chicken is used

Directions:
Dump all ingredients EXCEPT noodles/pasta into the slow cooker. Stir together and cook on low for 6 hours.

Choose your own adventure:

A. If using precooked chicken, stir in your noodles/pasta and cook on high for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf and serve.

B. If using uncooked chicken, remove it from the slow cooker at this time. Place it on the cutting board and carefully use the forks to shred the meat. Return to slow cooker with noodles/pasta and cook on high for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf and serve.

I was so excited for this soup.

I was so excited for this soup.

Tiny Tacos

There is a new favourite in our household, and it goes by the name of Tiny Tacos. It has been long-established that a sure-fire way to market any product to me is to make it smaller. You wouldn’t believe the little knick-knacks I have just because they’re small and adorable. I used to make paper cranes out of Starburst wrappers; then, I realised I could use the scrap from it (cut off to leave the wrapper square) to make even tinier ones. The smallest I got was just under 1cm tall. I’m a bit mental.

I bought these.  I don't need them.  But they're tiny.

I bought these. I don’t need them. They’re tiny.

Regardless, Tiny Tacos are very tasty, and they are reasonably quick to throw together. I’m in the home stretch of essay-grading, but every moment spent away from the red pen feels like it needs to be justified. We’re also nearly a week through the Love Your Greens Challenge, and it has made a truly exciting addition to our diets. While Tiny Tacos aren’t exactly bad for you, they’re not the best healthy food, either, so the green smoothies have made me feel less guilty about putting these things on a plate. If you’re at a loss for how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo today, knock out some easy Tiny Tacos and feel very fake-Mexican, indeed.

Tiny Tacos

I think I could successfully market these things to myself.

I think I could successfully market these things to myself.

Ingredients:
2 chicken breasts, skinless and boneless, diced into small cubes
1 teaspoon cumin*
1/2 teaspoon paprika*
1/2 teaspoon black pepper*
1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder*
1/2 teaspoon garlic*
a few leaves of fresh cilantro/coriander, chopped
1 15oz can refried beans (or make your own. no judgment either way.)
2 cups grated cheddar or blend of cheese, divided
1/2 cup medium salsa
about 10 chopped black olives, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
bag of gluten-free tortilla chips
sour cream
lettuce, chopped
* If you have a taco seasoning mix or packet that you like, go for it instead of the spices listed here. I prefer to make my own spice mixes, but I am well aware that not everyone does.

Hardware:
Chopping board
Medium saucepan
Medium frying pan
Casserole dish
Cheese grater
Wooden spoons
Spatula
Knives
measuring cups and spoons
stove
oven

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C. Crush enough tortilla chips to cover the bottom of your casserole dish. You don’t want to put too many because they will get soggy; the idea is to form a bit of a crust, not to have a crunchy bottom.

Very helpful Matryoshka

Very helpful Matryoshka

In the saucepan, stir together the refried beans, 1 cup of cheese, and the salsa. Warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally to prevent it sticking and burning (as there is very little liquid). When warmed through, stir in the chopped coriander/cilantro and spread across the tortilla chip base in your casserole dish. Smooth with the spatula.

It's not pretty, but it's relatively smooth -- Casserole dish after two layers

It’s not pretty, but it’s relatively smooth — Casserole dish after two layers

After spreading the bean mixture, put the olive oil, cumin, paprika, black pepper, cayenne, and garlic in the pan. Heat the pan over medium heat to infuse a bit of the spices into the oil. Add the diced chicken and completely coat with the oil mixture. Cook until done, at least five minutes depending on the size of your chicken bites. Add the chicken evenly on top of the beans in the casserole dish.

Top with remaining cheese and chopped olives. Bake for about 10 minutes — everything that needs to be cooked is already cooked. You just want to make sure everything is warm and the cheese is melted.

If you have thick handmade or handmade-style tortilla chips, you can toss the toppings (sour cream and lettuce) right on and eat it like a dip. Our chips were not so sturdy, so I scooped each bite onto a chip with a fork and topped it like I would a taco. After all, they are Tiny Tacos.

Megon Comes to Visit — and Brings Chicken Salad

I first met Megon more than twenty years ago (eep!). Her sister, Heather, was my very first best friend, and, thanks to the magic of the internet, our families have reconnected.  A wee while ago, we met up with some other ladies at Heather’s house for a seed swap.  I brought that peanut butter pie I made, and the only other thing I could eat was Megon’s chicken salad.  Once I tasted it, I didn’t mind so much!

One month ago today, Megon made the commitment to her body to do what she knew she had to do and stop eating gluten.  She may have gone kicking and screaming, but she never looked back.  In the past month, she has had medical and personal developments to show her that gluten-free was the way to be.

Leaving gluten behind is not easy.  Through watching her, I realized that, even though I am 100% aware that it’s what’s right for my body, I don’t know if I could go through it all over again.  It is brutal.  In honour of her strength — and the strength of all you gents and ladies who have gone through the same thing — I’m sharing her chicken salad recipe.  Even better is that the recipe is super-easy.  Eat it up.

Megon’s Coronation Chicken Salad

Ingredients:
1.5 lbs cooked chicken breast, shredded
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon curry powder
2 tablespoon apricot preserves
1/4 small yellow onion, finely minced
1/4 – 1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
juice of half a lemon
2-3 tablespoons honey
salt and pepper to taste

Hardware:
mixing bowl
knife
wooden spoon
food processor

Directions:
Pulse the apricots in the food processor.  Dump all the other ingredients except the chicken into the food processor to combine.  When fully integrated, empty into the mixing bowl and stir in the chicken.

It’s great served with crackers or tortilla chips . . . or on bread . . . or on a spoon.

CB Likes Food, Too

Sometimes I’m so selfless, I make food for people I can’t even eat! Now that I’m truly getting better from my surgery, I’m trying to do more things when I’m not grading essays.  This week, I made a lunch (and dinner) for CB that had prawns — a food I am VERY allergic to — but was actually gluten-free.  I made myself a dinner out of the non-prawny leftovers with a wee bit of chicken cooked with the same flavours but with olive oil instead of the butter.  I’m pretty sure this would be tasty without any meat if you amp up the veggies a bit more.  Any veggies could go well with it, I think.  If you substituted the butter, you could even make it vegan!

Prawn and Veggie Quinoa

Ingredients
prawns — 8-9 per person, I cheated and bought peeled & cooked, but it was to be sure I wasn’t in too much contact with them
1 cup quinoa
2 cups water (plus some in a bowl)
1 vegetable stock cube (optional)
handful of black olives, pitted
handful of cherry tomatoes
handful of green beans
half-head of broccoli
1 lime
little gem lettuce — or small romaine leaves
fresh coriander leaves — cilantro on that side of the ocean
a few tablespoons of butter
garlic powder
chili flakes
black pepper

Hardware
mixing bowl
a couple of pots and pans (at least one pot with a lid)
stove
bowl
fine mesh strainer
colander
assorted metal cooking utensils
knife

Directions
Pour the quinoa into the mesh strainer and rinse under water for about two minutes, rubbing the grains within your fingers.  This step is important because quinoa can taste bitter and woody if you don’t remove the natural outer coating.  Some quinoa comes pre-scrubbed, but I still give it a go-over.  In a decent-sized pot, melt enough butter to coat the bottom. Toss in the quinoa and stir vigorously until you get a nutty scent.  If, like me, you have spent most of your life nasally-impaired, this takes about 45 seconds to a minute.  Pour the water over the quinoa and stir.  When the water begins to boil, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.  If there is still water in the pan, re-cover and let it continue to simmer until all the water evaporates.  Turn off the heat and let it stand uncovered for five minutes.  Dump it into the mixing bowl and fluff with a fork.

Boil water in another pot with a bit of sea salt.  Chop broccoli into bite-sized pieces.  I cooked the broccoli and the green beans together because, well, I don’t see why not.  Cook to your desired consistency, drain, and dunk immediately in a bowl of cold water for a minute or so.

Cut the green beans into manageable pieces.  Drop it and the broccoli into the mixing bowl with the quinoa.  Cut the olives in half and toss in the quinoa.  Chop the coriander roughly (I used herb scissors I got as a wedding present that made me feel very special indeed) into the mix.  Toss it all together until it is well-mixed.

Ok, I tried to get a little fancy with the tomatoes.  I cut them in half and put them in a very hot, heavy-bottomed pan — NOT flat side down.  If you put them flat side down, the heat will pull the seeds out and get gunky. But, the magic is, if you leave them down on one round part and leave them there for a couple of minutes, they will char on that side and create a sweetness throughout the whole bite.  Just make sure to remove them before they start smoking and dump them in the mixing bowl.

Now for the prawns!  I don’t generally cook things I’m allergic to, so I’m glad these came out as well as they did.  I put a fair amount of butter in a pan — more than I thought was needed, actually.  Toss in the garlic powder, chili flakes, and black pepper. Squeeze half the lime (don’t worry about trying too hard) into the butter and spice mixture and stir it all around.  When it’s nice and bubbly and coating the entire pan surface — and then some! — place the prawns in one at a time.  I like to place them into the pan clockwise, so I know what order to flip them.  After about 30 seconds, swirl the pan around.  After another 30 seconds, flip them over.  Do the same again.  Obviously, if you have uncooked prawns to started, you’re going to need to cook them more.  I have no idea about that.

Place the lettuce leaves out on a plate. Spoon the quinoa mixture on top of them. Place the prawns on top.  Offer up lime wedges for an extra tang.

Here is CB’s lunch box for Monday. It may not look like it, but there was a TON of quinoa packed in there (and a lime wedge in the wee box).

prawn quinoa