Great Friends and Yogurt Bombs

I still have so many posts to catch up on from the last couple of weeks, but today I’d like to talk about my experience this weekend while it’s fresh in my find.

I flew to St. Louis this weekend to meet up with my amazing friends Lisa and Mandy. I can’t tell you how much I love these ladies and I can’t tell you how good it was for my soul to get to spend time with them. As an added bonus I also got to make some new friends and share laughs with Becky from Love Every Day Life and her husband Ben and Nilsa from SoMi Speaks and her husband Sweets and their ridiculously adorable son Gavin. You know how sometimes a group of people meets and it just clicks. This was one of those times.

All in all it was a great weekend, however there was a truly crappy food related incident at the end.

I don’t really talk much about how incredibly awful it is to have potentially fatal food allergies. The reason I don’t talk about it is simple; I don’t want to think about it myself. Make no mistake though, it is awful, but I still need to live my life so most of the time I need shut those thoughts off and just push through.

Traveling with food allergies is not easy. I’m sure that if you think about it for about 30 seconds you can think of the many ways in which it would be difficult for food allergic people away from home and you’d likely be right about all of them. What you may not think about though the actual travel itself, the getting there and getting back on planes trains and automobiles.

Getting there is usually not so bad as I can just pack a cheese sandwich and some snacks from home in my carryon. My return trip is another story. Often I don’t have access to a supermarket or refrigerator before my return trip which means buying food at the transportation hub. Sometimes I can find cheese or yogurt in a refrigerated section. Usually though I’m not that lucky. Most often the only things I can find that are safe for me are processed packaged crap. You know, the kind of stuff that I never eat.

After a day of travel that involves nothing than chips and pretzels I always come home feeling sick so imagine my excitement that the breakfast buffet at our hotel had 4oz containers of yogurt that I could grab. It wasn’t my favorite kind of yogurt as I prefer to buy plain Greek yogurt and mix in my own fruit, but still those 4oz of Yoplait strawberry was a God send compared to what I knew would be available at the airport.

Lisa’s flight was leaving from a different terminal so after saying our goodbyes to her, Mandy and I made our way through the security line. We both put our luggage on the conveyer belt and walked through the metal detector. At the other side of the detector though, we heard the TSA agent who was screening our luggage call for a rescreen. Another agent came over and picked up my carryon and brought it over. “Is this yours?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied and instantly I knew, it must be because I hadn’t taken out my iPad!

The agent unzipped my bag and reached inside as I prepared my apology. The words were just about to form on my lips when he said in a stern voice, “This is not allowed!” as he held up his hand to reveal … yup you’ve probably guessed it by now… my yogurt!

I was literally stunned. All I could do was stammer, “But it’s not liquid!” because, uh, it isn’t! I was rewarded with a sharp look and was informed that my yogurt would be thrown out and my carryon rescreened. I. Was. Pissed. But as all travelers know that the TSA and their arbitrary rules have you by the balls. I am not the type to keep quiet when I know I’m right, but in this case there was no point. If you argue with a TSA agent all that will happen is they’ll go all SEAL Team 6 on you, take you in to a room meant for dangerous yogurt wielding criminals and then hold up everyone else on the security line in order to prove a totally useless point so instead I just sat there and watched him throw my  yogurt away.

Mandy’s flight left before mine so after saying goodbye to her I wandered the terminal looking for something to eat. As expected there was no yogurt, no cheese, nothing remotely resembling real food that was actually safe for me. My lunch consisted of a bag of cheezits and a bag of pretzels. I felt like crap. Awesome.

So here’s a big ol’ thank you from this allergic traveller to the TSA for keeping the world safe from potential yogurt bombs. I’m sure everyone reading this will feel a little more confident next time they fly.

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Lincoln Ristorante

This is what awesomeness looks like.

This is the ticket my waiter received when my parents and I had Father’s Day dinner. Matt, our ridiculously awesome amazing waiter, showed it to me after our meal. Sorry that the qualities so poor, but down in the bottom it reads “ALLERGY,” which means Matt was prepped before he even got to our table. That translates to a fantastic and safe experience for me.

Lincoln, which I believe opened two years ago, is located right in Lincoln Center which is undoubtedly one of the prettiest structures in New York. Though I rarely comment on the ambience of a restaurant (I do notice, I’m just too lazy to blog about it), I have to give a Lincoln a shout out for utilizing their beautiful location. The walls on three sides (I think) are entirely glass so you really feel like your eating in the middle of Lincoln Center. Anyway, on to the food.

As Matt stood at our table taking our orders, he reviewed the ingredients of everything I ordered with me, assuring me he’d also of course make sure the kitchen was aware of all of allergies. Having a waiter who could run through ingredients with me and who was so attentive already put me at ease before a bite of food entered my mouth!

This definitely amused my bouche!

After ordering, a food runner brought an amuse bouche to our table and explained that these were toast rounds with a mushroom, herb and goat cheese mixture. As I’ve said before, restaurant often forget about food allergies when it comes to the amuse bouche — well not so much forget as one station forgets to tell the other– so I eyed the amuse nervously when I noticed our waiter, Matt, nearby. I called him over and he assured me that they were safe for me and that the kitchen was aware of my needs and wouldn’t send anything to the table that I couldn’t eat. Upon hearing that I excitedly grabbed for my goat cheese mushroom toast and found it to be delicious. I loved the earthyness of the mushrooms with the creaminess of the goat cheese.

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover

Next it was appetizer time. It’s soft shell crab season here on the east coast, a time that makes me very very happy! During the summer months blue crabs shed their hard outer shells leaving them “soft shelled,” which means you can eat right through the shell. I know that many people outside of the east coast have never seen soft shells and are a bit freaked out by the concept, but they are really delicious. The mean inside is, at it’s best, plump and juicy and the shell is really easy to chew through with just the slightest bit of crunch.

Left: mom’s prosciutto with artichoke mustard
Right: dad’s quail with barley, bacon, pickled currants

Lincoln served their soft shell crab tempura battered with pickled green tomato, cucumber, red onion, celery and tomato mayonnaise. It was basically like eating a northeastern summer on a plate. Though the crab looks heavily battered, the coating was so light and crispy with a hint of butteryness that highlighted the plump juicy crab inside perfectly. The vegetables were bright and crisp with just the slightest tang from pickling.

This is sexy food

The most frustrating part of my whole meal came early on when I had to order my entrée, the problem; too many awesome things to choose from! OK, I’ll admit that’s a great problem to have. With some helpful suggestions Matt  I decided on the Strozzapreti Neri Alla Puttanesca; squid ink pasta with shrimp, olives, caperberries and anchovies. Puttanesca is one of my all time favorite pastas and this was basically a crazy kicked up gourmet version. I wish I had the words to describe this dish.

Left: mom’s steelhead trout with polenta
Right: dad’s mixed seafood with fregola

The squid ink pasta itself was incredible. The pasta had such a fantastic texture I hesitate to use the word chewiness which might lead you to think that the pasta was undercooked and tough or over cooked and mushy, but the pasta just had a great feeling on your teeth. The sauce had a nice kick of heat with plenty of acidity and brightness from the tomatoes and that great salty kick of olives, anchovies and caperberries. The shrimp were fresh, meaty and perfectly cooked. I could eat this pasta every day and die happy.

Oops!

Fun fact- strawberries are my favorite food in the entire world. As much as I love going out for these artful meals and experimenting in the kitchen myself, if you simply brought me a giant flat of the freshest juiciest (organic and locally grown of course ;)) strawberries I would be yours forever. So you can imagine that when I saw the ricotta cheesecake with macerated strawberries, black pepper crema and strawberry sorbetto I looked no further. My dad shared it with me and shared some of my mom’s Zuppe Inglese with raspberries and lady fingers too. Matt informed me that there was usually something with almond on the dessert, I think maybe the crumbs underneath the sorbetto, but the kitchen would simply replace it with vanilla for me. Love!

Right: mom’s Zuppe Inglese, rapsberries, lady fingers
Left: 2008 Vintage Turnina to accompany the meal

When the dessert came I had a moment of panic, as is common with people living with food allergies, but Matt assured me that the kitchen had taken care and it was vanilla and not almond on my plate. Feeling reassured, I couldn’t wait and dived right in and ate and ate and ate, until there were two bites left and I remembered that I hadn’t taken a picture. Sorry! The cake was so light it pretty much floated in to your mouth. The strawberries were perfectly sweet while the cake had just a touch of sweetness so they played off of each other perfectly. For someone who is not a huge sweets eater and has a take it or leave it attitude towards chocolate, this is pretty much my perfect dessert.

Petit freaking fours for me!

Once our dessert plates were cleared, a food runner brought over a plate of petit fours and placed it between my parents. I found this really considerate since all I heard was walnut this and peanut that. I wasn’t paying much attention since I never eat the petit fours out of concern that they haven’t been vetted for me, when I noticed Matt coming towards me with a silver platter. He’d brough out special petit fours just for me! Some kind of caramels that were amazing (seriously I could’ve eaten a bag full) and a bite sized buttery raspberry crumb cake. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever eaten petit fours before because no ones ever brought me “safe” ones before.

 BEST. WAITER. EVER.

Seriously I wish that I could clone Matt and have him as my waiter at every place I eat!

As a broke ass non-profit do gooder I only go to these fancy joints when my parents are paying, but the food, service and atmosphere were so divine at Lincoln that I’m thinking of going back to grab a drink and an entrée at the bar. Thank you, thank you, thank you to Lincoln Ristorante and to Matt especially for making this allergic to everything gal’s experience so special!

The verdict:
Food rating: A
Service/food allergy accommodations: A+
Overall rating: OMG

Sweet Cheeks Q (Boston)

Barrrrbercuuuue!

Last week I had to be in Boston for work all week and conveniently one of my besties wedding showers was on Sunday so I stayed all through the weekend. It was an exhausting trip (though spending the weekend with some of my besties was awesome), but left me with some great food experiences because, as you may remember Massachusetts has awesome food allergy legislation that let’s me eat there with very little worry. Love!

My friend Nadira and I traveled to Boston together arriving around dinnertime on Monday. Having worked in the morning followed by a 4 hour train ride we were tired and hungry. We quickly dropped off our things and headed out to a nearby BBQ joint, Sweet Cheeks Q. The restaurant, which is fairly new, had been recommended by several people before our visit, but it wasn’t until we got there that I found out it was owned by Tiffani Faison, a finalist on Top Chef season one!

Don’t let that little one fool you, she is hot hot hot!

When we arrived all the tables were full, but the hostess informed us that we could sit at any of the counters along the window and would still get waiter service there. How cool! We chose seats, got comfortable and studied the menus as soon as our waiter handed them to us. Our waiter explained to us that Sweet Cheeks is a true Texas style BBQ which means everything is dry rubbed and you put the sauce on yourself. There were 3 sauces in front of us, Sweet Cheeks barbecue sauce, a HOT habenero sauce and a Carolina style vinegar based sauce.

House Bill 819, not your mama’s ice tea

Normally I’m not a big cocktail drinker, preferring beer or wine, but when the waiter recommended the House Bill 819, Nadira and I both decided to order one. The House Bill 819 is made from tea infuse whiskey with mint, lemon and simple syrup and, like all the drinks at Sweet Cheeks, are served in a mason jar. The drink was strong and delicious.

Pretty much a perfect meal

For our dinner Nadira and I both chose pulled pork on bulky rolls. For $6 more you can get one “cold scoop” side dish and one “hot scoop.” I went with the mac and cheese and sour cream potato salad and Nadira went with the potato salad as well and the barbecue baked beans. I had given the waiter my allergy card earlier and he went to check with the kitchen after I’d ordered. Our very sweet waiter returned to our table and told me that the kitchen wanted me to know that the food I ordered was safe, but since they do use a lot of the foods I’m allergic too they might be “in the air.” I politely replied, “But none of the things on my allergy card are in what I ordered and you segregate ingredients in your kitchen right? OK, than I’m good”

Mini-rant time: While I appreciate their vigilance let me clear up two misconceptions. 1. Reactions to airborne food allergies is extremely rare. Most of us with potentially life threatening food allergies can be near those foods with no problem, we just can’t eat them or touch them (and even touching them, if you immediately washed your hands would likely only trigger itching/swelling/hives and not anaphylaxis though I’m not picking up a handful of nuts anytime soon). 2. Again I truly appreciate that the restaurant is trying, but obviously if I’m eating at a restaurant, any restaurant, I already know that there are ingredients I can’t eat “in the air.”

A little while later our trays emerged from the kitchen and did not disappoint. O.M.G. I don’t even think I have the words to describe how good this was! The mac and cheese and potato salad were delish, but the pulled pork was the star of the show. It was everything you want in pulled pork; sloppy, juicy, meaty and slightly smokey. Nadira and I are both big fans of spicy food and the habenero sauce was not for the faint of heart. Neither of us had much interest in the Carolina style sauce instead dousing our sandwiches with the flavorful barbecue sauce which packed a little kick and then carefully adding a few drops of the habenero sauce (even for spicy food junkies this stuff was lethal!).

Heaven, otherwise known as butterscotch pudding

We both finished about half our trays and asked for the other half wrapped since we had a refrigerator where we stayed. We were stuffed yet somehow Nadira, who weighs approximately 15lbs, can somehow always find room for dessert. As you know I’m not a huge dessert person and even though when waiter described the butterscotch pudding with salted caramel top to Nadira it sounded like my perfect dessert I insisted I wasn’t having any. Then the waiter brought out the dessert and informed me that he’d double checked with the kitchen and it was safe for me and after that, and Nadira’s chiding me to split it, how could I resist?

The dessert came in a half sized mason jar which made it the perfect petite dessert to split. The pudding was smooth and creamy and not cloyingly sweet. The caramel on top was gooey, sticky perfection and the flex of sea salt played perfectly with its sweetness. I’d consider selling a kidney for that dessert. We left fat and happy with Nadira vowing she’d return on Thursday night before she left to go back to New York. Nadira does not make idle promises…

I forgot to take a picture before we dove in

On Thursday, after our day of meetings, Nadira headed back to Sweet Cheeks and Kate (yes vegetarians can sit in bbq joints) and I, who both had dinner plans later, joined her for a drink. Nadira ordered another pulled pork sandwich, Kate got the House Bill 819 and I went with a cocktail again, the Dollywood which was a mix of vodka, lemon cordial, lemon juice and sparkling wine. I forgot to take a picture of it, but I loved it even more than the House Bill. A few sips in Kate suggested she and I get a couple of biscuits with honey butter. The biscuits were enormous and neither of us could finish them which was sad because they were crazy amazing. A little crusty on the outside and buttery, soft and fluffy on the inside.

On Friday, after all of my meetings were over, my friend Heather picked me up so that I could stay with her and her husband Justin for the weekend. While we were talking I mentioned Sweet Cheeks which Heather and Justin hadn’t yet tried. We had tickets to a Sox game the next day and, after hearing my description, Heather requested that we go to Sweet Cheeks for lunch beforehand. That’s right people, I was there 3 times in one week! Does that say something about how amazing this place is? I didn’t bother with pictures at lunch, but I once again had the pulled pork with mac and cheese and this time coleslaw, Justin had the brisket on Texas toast with two sides and Heather had the ribs with two sides. Heather and Justin loved the food as much as I did and I made them promise me we could go back every time I’m in Boston.

The verdict:
Food rating: A+
Service/food allergy accommodations: A-
Overall rating: Made me want to lick my plate in public!

Why Massachusetts Is the Best Place to Eat Your Ice Cream

If I had to pick my favorite place in this country to eat I would say Massachusetts. No, not because of the quality of food (though trust me they do have plenty of great food there), but because of the amazing food allergy legislation the state passed two years ago.

A few years ago Ming Tsai, chef; business owner; part time Food Network star; full time hottie and father of a food allergic son, spearheaded an initiative in his home state of Massachusetts to pass a comprehensive and common sense food allergy law that all restaurants would have to comply with.

The law gives restaurants 4 steps to do, the first 3 are mandatory and the last is voluntary:

  1. On all your menus clearly print, “If you have any food allergies please notify your server before ordering.” If you are a food allergic person this should be second nature to you anyway, but it never hurts to be reminded.
  2. In all kitchen a pre-printed poster which lists the 8 most common food allergies as well as general information on food allergies and proper food preparation.
  3. Requires the viewing of a food allergy video as part of standard food service courses. In just the same way that restaurant workers learn that you can’t cut the lettuce with the knife you just used to cut raw chicken, they learn information on segregating ingredients, washing down equipment etc.
  4. Voluntarily create a “food allergy reference book” which breaks down all the food you serve by ingredients and provides a quick and handy reference guide for kitchen staff and servers.

I visit Massachusetts a  few times a year and it is a true pleasure to dine out there. I eat at places that I would never eat at in the rest of the country! For instance, it can be quite difficult to go to an ice cream shop with food allergies because they are constantly using and reusing the same scoop which mixes ingredients from tub to tub leading to cross contamination, but getting ice cream in Massachusetts is a food allergic persons dream. I just walk up to a window, hand the high school kid worker my food allergy card, which list my allergies, and they say “No problem,” check the ingredients get a clean scoop and a fresh tub and within two minutes I’m enjoying my ice cream.

Coffee Oreo. Quite possibly the greatest ice cream flavor ever invented!

Do you have any idea how awesome that is? Probably not if you don’t have food allergies, but trust me; it’s really freaking awesome. It’s not just ice cream shops either, I’ve had great experiences in all the restaurants I’ve dined at in Massachusetts in the last year has been just that pleasant and easy!

So thank you Massachusetts! You’ve made dining a pleasure for people who can often find it stressful. Here’s hoping that one day soon New York, New Jersey and the rest of the country follow suit.

C is for…China or Sh*t Dumb People Say

Chinese Flag

I made Chinese food!  You have no idea how excited I am. I don’t eat Chinese food. Correction, I can’t eat Chinese food or most food from the continent of Asia. Asian dishes are filled with ingredients that I’m severely allergic to; sesame, beans, sometimes nuts and a variety of fruits that are a no-no for me.

Someday maybe I’ll do a Sh*t Non-Allergic People Say to People With Food Allergies post about all the dumb (I should probably be nice and call it naive, but whatev) stuff people say to me about my food allergies. One of my favorites is when I mention that I don’t eat at certain restaurants, like for example Chinese, and someone says, “No I looked and there is one thing on the menu that you can eat.”

One thing on the menu coming out of a kitchen serving nothing but foods that have the potential to kill me. Does that sound like a good idea to you?

Let me put it to you this way; you walk in to a room one day and notice something innocuous in the center of the room, let’s say a bouquet of flowers. Now you obviously can live without the flowers though they might be nice to have, but here’s the problem; you notice that the rest of the room surrounding the flowers is rigged up from floor to ceiling with death traps. Everywhere you look is barbed wire, grenades, land mines. Now think, are the flowers really worth it? I didn’t think so.

So no I don’t normally eat Chinese food, but imagine my surprise and delight to learn that I safely could make Fried Rice and keep it reasonably authentic! After much Googling and confirming with my friend Janet, whose parents hail from Hong Kong, I’ve learned that Fried Rice is very traditionally Chinese though not necessarily the way we find it in American restaurants.

Fried Rice, I’ve learned, is basically a great way for Chinese moms to use leftovers. You can basically put whatever you want in to it which means I don’t have to put in anything I’m allergic to make it authentic. The only must for traditional Fried Rice is that you must use rice that’s at least one day old.

Though I wanted to keep the flavors Chinese, I didn’t want to buy entire bottles of Fish Sauce or Chinese Five Spice so I made “Fake A** Fish Sauce” and used the 3 out of 5 of the Chinese Five Spice Mixture that I had.

There’s not really a recipe here since I just Googled around for some methods and just threw together what looked good to me, but here’s what I used:

  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Mushrooms
  • Carrots
  • Baby Bok Choy
  • Scallions
  • Scrambled Eggs
  • Day old rice
  • Fake A** Fish Sauce with vaguely Chinese spices (anchovy paste, molasses, a tiny bit of hot water, black pepper, ground cloves, ground fennel and ground ninnamon)

Basically I infused the oil with the Garlic and Ginger first and then threw in everything but the sauce. When it was done I put the Fried Rice in a bowl and mixed in the sauce.

Fried Rice with Fake A** Fish Sauce

FINAL VERDICT: B+

This was a really fun thing to make since what you put in to it is entirely up to you. I believe strongly in limiting meat consumption and like to always have a stash of vegetarian recipes so, other than the anchovy paste, I kept this veg, but if I ever have meat leftover in my fridge I would definitely throw that in. Also, my friend Janet offered to give me some of her stash of dried shrimp which I would definitely like to try adding in next time.

All in all this is a great idea for repurposing leftovers so if you make it don’t be afraid to get creative. If you have kids this would be a great recipe to involve them in too. Kids tend to be more adventurous eaters when they’ve had a hand in the process so let them choose the vegetables they’d like to go in to the Fried Rice and, depending on their ages, have them help with some of the prep.