RB: I always talk about options and substitutions. I’m trying to pass around the word quanto basta, which is basically this principle from Pellegrino Artusi in L’Arte di Mangiar Bene, a book that has been in print for 170 years in Italy. He uses in many of his recipes, as I have as well throughout Autentico, q.b. – quanto basta – meaning “as much as is enough,” “as much as is needed,” or “as much as you like”.
I was listening to the most recent Splendid Table episode on my way home from Paraklesis last night. It’s not something I would have really ‘sought out’ to listen to, but I find myself listening to it most Wednesdays as I drive home from Church. We don’t have a classical station anymore and most of the radio stations around here leave a lot to be desired. I’ve slowly become a fan. It also makes me ridiculously hungry for dinner, as I usually haven’t eaten when I’m listening! Ha.
This particular section of the episode fascinated me, as I had never heard of cold rice salads. But it was Rolando’s note on “quanto basta” that really got me thinking.
One of the interesting side effects of our forced gluten free lifestyle is that we truly know what food tastes like now. It would surprise you how bland your palate becomes if you’ve mostly been accustomed to the standard American diet. Even if only a third or a fourth of your overall diet is processed, the general thrust of what you eat is just so bland and has so many fillers in it, all robbing the food of its real taste.
We were fascinated by this as we began to cook mostly from scratch. Things suddenly had taste! And lots of it. Take spaghetti sauce out of the jar. We have to be careful because gluten fillers are often used as a thickening agent (sign #1 that you’ve taken too much out if you need help to thicken it!)- gluten is just literally everywhere in things you’d never imagine. Like toothpaste. And lotion. And cheap chocolate chips. Spaghetti sauce out of the jar is ‘good’. It works in a pinch. And I still use it sometimes. But, if like us, you have to make it from scratch until you find a ‘safe’ jarred version, it will blow your mind. It’s beautiful little explosions on the tongue. The garlic! The oregano! It just pops.
Anyways, quanto basta was so interesting to me because I actually knew what he was talking about, for once. It is a very real thing, and even more interesting, it is completely different for each cook. I used to watch my good friend, an eminent foodie, cooking. He would season and taste, season and taste, and he would mutter not enough. Taste. Heat. Stir. Season. Stir some more. Taste. Mutter. And then all of the sudden, boom. He would call it enough and move the dish along to its final stages. It was utterly mystifying to me! I was truly stymied watching him, because, how the heck do you write a recipe from that? I tasted the same stuff as he did and I could never tell the difference. I’d make it exactly how he did, and follow his instructions, and it would never come out right.
Understanding quanto basta has nothing to do with cooking or even recipes- it has so much more to do with your palate, your sense of taste and smell. You have to develop the palate before quanto basta ‘clicks’. You’ll know by the taste and smell of things if it’s where you want it to go, or if it has farther to go. You’ll also quickly know if you’ve over-seasoned or pushed it too far. You can smell it before you even taste it.
Again, though, it’s taken four years of me cooking this way (and learning basic cooking skills like saute-ing) for my palate to get to the point that I can do this from muscle memory…and a bajillion mistakes along the way. In cooking, you learn so much more from the mistakes than when you actually get it right. It takes patience. I never, ever, wanted to be a cook. I’m not a foodie. Cooking dinner for my family will always be a sacrifice for me because it is just not something I like to do. All that said- it has been so worth it to truly learn the cooking arts. It makes the sacrifice easier, I guess you could say. It reduces the time I have to spend in the kitchen. It has reduced the guesswork and the flops and mistakes that used to put me in tears because dinner was late and everyone was growling and tired. It has reduced the visits from the pizza guy. It also makes it so much easier to create something from nothing when the pantry and refrigerator get sketchy.
I just love the idea of “as much as is needed”. I am seeing so many connections, not just in cooking, but life in general. The only way you’ll know quanto basta in your cooking- and in life? Pay attention. Stay in the moment. Taste and see.
Feeding my large family is always well, interesting, but it got so much more…erm…challenging after Elliana’s Celiacs diagnosis. Oh my word, that first grocery bill afterwards! I still shudder when I think about it. I realized very quickly what a friend of mine meant went she said “we eat beyond gluten free”, echoing Joel Salatin’s “beyond organic” quip. If you buy the gluten free counterparts to your normal processed food (like macaroni and cheese), you will pay double and triple what it usually costs, and don’t even get me started on gluten free “bread” that runs $6-8 dollars a loaf and tastes like, well, cardboard. Over half of the things we bought her that first month she never ate because it tasted so bad.
Then we tried to have two separate cooking areas and cooking her meals separately from ours. This never worked properly. Up until recently, she was extremely sensitive to cross-contamination. For her, cross-contamination meant at least twenty four hours of severe gastrointestinal upset and high fever for three or four days. It was not. fun. For her or for us. It also felt doubly expensive to me, and much of her food would sit in the refrigerator until it was eventually thrown away because she was only one small kiddo with a near toddler sized stomach and never could fully eat even the single sort of portions we’d make for her.
The only option left, as my friend gently and teasingly tried to tell me, was for us all to eat gluten free from scratch. We figured that out about oh, month two.
It’s taken me FOUR years to finally get a handle on it. Our grocery budget has been all over the place over the intervening years. I’ve tried all sorts of gluten-free and vegan cookbooks (vegan/vegetarian cookbooks are often easy to make gluten free). It’s been a mess. What’s also been a struggle for us, too? The unpredictability of our schedule. I always meal plan and shop for the week (our finances would never survive without it), but there have been times that a whole week’s worth of food rots in the refrigerator because someone has been admitted or something else unexpected and without James or I available, the meals planned can’t be made. It was always one thing when we knew that something was coming up- there would always be caregiver friendly meals on the plan- frozen, crockpot, simple type things. I swear, though, that seemed to happen only one time out of five. It has been a formidable thorn-in-my-side for years now.
On one such occasion sometime in January of this year…an ER visit, if I’m not mistaken…a nurse heard me bemoaning this very aspect. I can’t remember if I was on the phone with someone or if I was speaking to my husband as she came in or out but the bottom line is, she said that she overheard me talking about the whole gluten free, kids, meal-planning thing, and “had I ever heard of Trim Healthy Mama?” She said, their “plan” aside, the cookbooks were chock full of kid friendly gluten free (or almost gluten free) recipes “and a lot of them can be frozen ahead of time”.
Y’all, I wish I had her name. I could literally kiss her and name my first grandkid after her. It has been a tremendous life saver, and we are finally on track in both meal prep and planning and our grocery budget. Actual predictability? Sanity? What is this rare bird of which you speak? <weak grin>
We have yet to hit a THM recipe that my kids have hated. Do you have any idea how impossible this is? Do you know how many ‘gluten free’ meals I’ve made from recipes over the years have sat poked at and barely eaten and some we’ve just given up and thrown away because none of us could stomach them? It’s like angels are singing somewhere, seriously. We also choose to eat vegetarian due to religious reasons during parts of the year, and it was, quite literally, something that would leave me in tears trying to deal with and plan for. For something that was supposed to reduce distractions, it was a profound distraction. Not anymore. Glory!
Obviously, we started using the THM recipes just for survivals sake, not worrying what it was (E, S, FP, or XO)- I didn’t even look at that! We just wanted good food that didn’t cost an arm and a leg and was relatively easy to make. I have ever so slowly been transitioning my family “on plan” since about half of us have some weight issues we need to deal with, and I’ve found it very doable. That being said, I noticed right out of the gate using those recipes just for dinner that it started making a change in my kiddos. They were fuller, happier, and calmer, and some health issues started to shift. And that was one meal a day. It will be interesting to check in again in another six months to see what we think with us eating on plan. The best part, though, is Elliana. She loves the food- she eats seconds and thirds and fourths sometimes, a miracle I never thought I’d see. She gets ‘bread’ that she likes. (We like it too.) My child is eating! Can I put it in all caps? MY CHILD IS EATING.
Most of the meals can be made and frozen ahead of time. We take an afternoon one Saturday a month and have at it. No more grabbing food on the go, no more caregivers being caught in a lurch, it’s already there, easy to pull out when it gets all harum-scarum. Cue angels singing again.
Our favorite book, of course, is the Trim Healthy Table that came out just over the last year. It is especially geared to families. The Trim Healthy Mama Cookbook is good too (and it has some single-serving recipes that might be helpful if it’s just one person), but it doesn’t seem to have as many kid-flavor friendly recipes, so if you’re debating with kids in mind, go with Trim Healthy Table first. I recently checked out the actual Trim Healthy Mama Plan book from the library, and I’m learning tons. My favorite online sources for help? Breezy Brookshire’s mom, MamaShire, and Briana Thomas. I have a crazy artist crush on Breezy, but that’s a story for another day. If you have diet/allergy meal issues, I can’t recommend these cookbooks enough. They’ve already done all of the hard work for you, and it’s one less thing you have to puzzle over. Whether or not you ever use ‘the plan’ itself, they are worth every penny.
Now that the school year has begun in proper earnest, I’m starting to realize that having three preteens and three elementary aged kids is a whole lot different (at least when it comes to stomachs) than having a passel of toddlers. Sure, toddlers eat all day long, but at the end of the day the total amount of what was actually eaten is quite small. But preteen boys, sweet honey child. They can eat. And eat. And eat. Let’s have a moment of silence in honor of growing young men’s growling stomachs. And the way they can grow six inches in less than a month or two. Hum.
I lean heavily on the experience of mamas gone before, and here’s the magic number you’re looking for- protein + quick + handy. Muffins, protein bars, protein balls, no bake cookies. You want sweet but not overly sweet- just a touch. And certainly not much that could melt or otherwise muss up the hand that’s holding it, because teenage boys will suddenly notice dirt. Also a surprise from the formerly totally happy to live in a mud puddle set. I take a page out of Elise’s book, though I most often am going through this same routine in the evening after everyone is tucked in.
Here’s what I make on a weekly basis (or a daily basis, depending on growth spurts! HA):
Some version of granola (We really like this Pumpkin Spice Granola in the Fall)
No Bake Cookies (We make ours from GF oatmeal, and not quite so much sugar as is called for in most recipes)
What are your favorite go-to snacks?
Our never ending quest to find gluten free recipes for our large family is, well, never ending. It’s a constant thing, no? And we’ve found quite often our favorite recipes haven’t come from a book but from Necessity, the mother of invention. Isn’t that the way of it? This one came about one night when we realized there was only a smattering of leftovers and no full meal in the pantry. James dived into the refrigerator and came up with this, and it’s fast become a favorite, made from other nights’ leftovers. (We now make sure to make a bit extra on the normal nights.) It has become our “pizza night”- when we’re too tired or too low on pantry or funds. Fast, easy, yummy.
One of the amazing gifts God gave this summer: an eighth of a grass-fed beef share- some 25 lbs of free organic grass-fed super healthy ground beef from a local farm. We rarely buy beef because it has to be grass-fed (grain-fed has enough gluten to trigger) and it is so stinking expensive. It’s been a tremendous blessing!
Daddy’s Mexican Casserole
soft GF safe/corn tortillas (enough to cover a 9 x 13 pan twice)**
8 oz of your favorite salsa
1 lg can refried beans (or 2 cups home made/pre-cooked)
1 large bag of stirfry veggies (peppers and onions- sometimes this is called fajita mix)
1 large bag frozen corn**
2-3 cups leftover cooked rice
leftover taco beef (seasoned) around 2-3 cups (1/2 to 2/3 lb.)
2 cups shredded cheese
Preheat your oven to 350 F. Layer the ingredients like lasagna, subbing the tortillas for the “noodles”. It’s fine (and especially helpful) if your soft taco shells are getting a bit dry. This is a great way to use them up. We cover the top layer of corn tortillas with just shredded cheese, making a nice crusty, nacho like top when cooked. Cook at 350 F for 30-35 minutes. Since all of the items have been pre-cooked or frozen, you’re basically looking to warm it up and melt the cheese. If you don’t have leftover taco meat or rice, you’ll need to cook that up separately and then layer it in to the casserole. When it’s done in the oven, we top with sour cream and diced green onions, if we have them, sometimes some torn up fresh spinach. The great thing about this? Choose your own fillings! We’d add black olives and etc if it was just us older people- the younger kids don’t like them. It stretches a bit of meat and a bit of tortillas really far.
**Just a note, as we explore more of the auto-immune protocol diet, and from what we already know, we try to limit corn for Ellianna to only once or twice a month. There are some studies showing that corn is causing many of the same problems for Celiacs, and Elly’s dietician recommended this approach. We will often make her something “safer” if we’ve already had this a couple of times that month. We rarely cook separately for her, but it does happen sometimes. All of our main meals are gluten free to prevent cross-contamination.
It’s not a surprise to me that after an intense period of upheaval there is an almost equally intense period where everything gets cleaned or scrubbed or cooked. It’s my way of making sense of the world, putting things to order. Some of it is practical of course- things tend to fall by the wayside and need to be put to rights. But mostly, it’s my way of nurturing both myself and my family back to a more even keel. I have been expanding my repertoire in the kitchen quite a bit this go round, inspired very much by Sarah Britton’s My New Roots cookbook and her blog. A dear friend of mine gifted me her Plant Based Nutrition class and it has gone miles towards making me more comfortable in my gluten free kitchen. The artist in me simply loves all the color and texture that is the hallmark of Sarah’s recipes- and the knowledge that they’ll all taste good. We haven’t found a one of hers we haven’t liked yet. I’ve also been ever so slowly editing our belongings over a period of six months, inspired mostly by Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s just something about the way she wrote it, her question- does this bring joy? that has helped me let go of many things that no longer need to be in our home or life. The last stand, of course, is all the paper and memories. As my efforts accelerated over the last few weeks, my little studio/office space became the landing spot for all the paper. I did that intentionally- I knew it would keep the fire under my bones to finish. I am so very close now- I’ve dealt with almost all the piles you see above and have only the medical paperwork and art supplies to finish. I’m sure I’ll be done by the middle of this week, and it feels wonderful to know I have crossed the finish line.