My cousin, Branwen Hunolt, is a master homemaker. She specializes in herbs and their uses but she is learning to sew her own clothes, homeschool a daughter, raise chickens, embroider, and cooks and bakes incredible things! I asked her some questions about her entertaining style, food choices, and allergy problems.
What is your favorite meal to make for your family and/or friends?
This is a tough one as I like to make many different foods and it depends on what meal it is! When we have company Jason and I usually team up and we bust out the grill to BBQ something. There is usually fresh bread involved and a salad of some sort. Last time someone was over I made fresh Foccacia bread and turned it into a spicy apricot BBQ pork rib sandwich with greens and pickled red onion (quick pickled on the stovetop in white vinegar, water, sugar, allspice). When I have trouble thinking of sides and filler foods for company, I like to ask myself “What would Grandma Johnson cook?” which usually prompts me to make deviled eggs, beets, chicken salad, fruit salad, etc.
How have your food habits or traditions changed or modified since getting married or having a child?
Well, the first year of being parents we were eating a lot of comfort foods—I’m talking meatloaf and pierogis, gnocchi, etc. We were happy but stressed—we moved a couple times, were very short on sleep, working hard, and scraping by on what few dollars we had. Once our daughter got a little older and we began to get more sleep we started eating fewer comfort foods and straightened that part of our diet out. We both eat better and more balanced meals now than we did before we had a child. Having a kid forces you to set a good example.
Side note–toddlers are incredibly picky eaters—as babies they will eat many foods, and after the toddler stage they realize they love many foods again after you argue with them and threaten them with losing privileges, etc. if they don’t eat their food (and other clever tactics), but toddlers have a very poor palate, one I call the “toddler diet” which seems to consist of mostly carbs. The struggle is real.
What has most changed in your food habits and traditions since learning about your food allergies?
Absolutely everything about the way that I cook. For one, I realized dairy just makes everything taste better and I had actually, and I think most people do this, been unknowingly relying on dairy to make a dish taste good. I used to cook with butter, milk, cream or cheese in most things. This epiphany hit me as post-dairy allergy I would taste my dish as I cooked along and I would find myself thinking “this would be perfect with a pat of butter” or “some Gouda cheese would really throw this over the top!” I would go to restaurants and see almost every dish had cheese or cream to make it luscious, or well, around here…palatable. At first I got angry that I couldn’t eat any of it, but then I realized everyone uses dairy as a crutch to make food delicious. Read the content of most dishes…then omit the dairy and imagine how it would taste without it. Would it really be good without that? Probably not.
So I knew I had to figure out how to make dairy-free food not need the crutch of butter or cream. Food must be able to stand on its own without the cow! I tackle every dish from this angle. I am proud to say I make better apple pie and biscuits today than I did with dairy products. (And for those wondering, I do not use hydrogenated oils. Blech.)
Now, I am tackling remaking the foods I thought I would never have again. I abhor all of the commercial diary substitutes and replacements available. They are primarily gums and emulsifiers…because of my consumption of almond milk I discovered I am allergic to xanthan gum. It causes me to get bubbly eczema on my hands from most soaps and shampoos! I finally found a brand that uses locust bean gum instead of xanthan gum and that resolved the issue. We just aren’t meant to eat that many gums and emulsifiers in food-group-portion amounts. In fact, they now know that those gums in large amounts act like detergents in the intestines.
After trading in one problem for a-lackluster-nother one, I have tackled head on recreating dairy free cheeses and other products as free of that crap as possible. Which is quite wildly possible with a bit of creativity. I have been making good strides. My most recent addition to my arsenal is a dairy-free Caesar dressing that I am mighty proud of. Might need a few tweaks but it is pretty spot on.
The key in diary free cooking is to remember that nothing replaces cow cheese or other dairy products. It is unique, creamy and delicious. It does amazing things. But there are some things that are very good in their own right and don’t deserve to be considered a dairy substitute. Making them shine and ditching the fillers is my job.
How has growing your own food and learning more about the nutrients and uses changed your ideas about food, eating and entertaining?
Well, I’ve discovered some wonderful other edible bits of plants that I never knew of before…such as leaving the radishes to go to seed…those seed pods are tasty when they are in the middle of forming! They are juicy with a great crunch and taste like a greener radish. They are fabulous in salads and pickled. Don’t wait till they are fully formed, then the pods are pithy and no good to eat.
I’m a fan of letting the weeds grow—purslane is a heathy and delicious garden weed loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. It is a tangy succulent and so good in salads and quiches. Lamb’s Quarters is another tasty and nutritious garden weed and it cooks up like spinach.
I love to lactoferment things (which is an ancient and formerly common technique of food preservation gaining resurgence. It is essentially the probiotic preservation of foods with the naturally occurring lactobacilli.). The garden provides lots of possibilities there with beets, carrots, radishes, garlic, onion, peppers, tomatoes, etc.
Food is always more nutritious when it is fresh and grown in soil that is alive. Pesticides kill the soil life and lock up nutrients so if you spray your plants with commercial chemical pesticides, they are not able to source as much as they need and will be deficient in many nutrients. Not to mention pesticides dock on your estrogen receptor sites in your body. Glyphosate in particular is also a patented antibiotic and a chelator of heavy metals. Pesticides are also, according to a chemist friend of mine, “literally one molecule away from being full blown nerve agents.”
When guests come over they love to know we are eating good, clean and fresh food from the garden or eggs from our chickens. It’s a bit of a novelty these days, which I find sad. Nothing tastes better than food picked just before you eat it. It’s almost like the extra life in it has its own flavor.
What advice would you give to others when it comes to food, eating and entertaining?
First off I would always ask if any of your guests has a food allergy. 1 in 13 children today under the age of 18 has a food allergy and many adults do too. Some of them are scarily serious allergies. Food allergies are skyrocketing. So that is important. I also think it is important to consider the age of the people who will be eating. Children like food bland and deconstructed. They are suspicious of things like sauce.
When entertaining it is good to keep things as simple as possible and to time out your prep work over the course of the day to make your life easier. Mix bread dough first thing in the morning, set the timer for the end of the first rise so you don’t forget. Meanwhile, run around and do other things like clean the bathroom, run to the store, etc. Buy a nice microgreens salad mix and to make your life easier and add some other elements—something with crunch, something with tang, something with protein, possibly toasted—pine nuts, sunflower seeds, etc. Dress your salad at the last minute so it does not get soggy and wilted. Steam your eggs instead of boiling them for deviled eggs and they will peel like you have always dreamed/wished they would. Have several beverage options, age and lifestyle appropriate as people might have different preferences. People like that.
Have a dessert. And if you need some dairy free recipes that are actually yummy…buy my forthcoming but not yet finished or published cookbook! 😉