Thursday, July 17, 2014

Safe Travels in Japan - Conbinis



Convenience stores - 'Conbini' - 7-11, Family Mart, Sunkus, etcetera

One of the first places we stopped to grab a bite to eat in Japan was a 7-11. As it turns out, convenience stores are everyone where in Japan. In Tokyo, it seemed there was at least one on every block. On the first day, I was still carrying around a bunch of kind bars as a backup. I wanted to try a bunch of new things in Japan, but getting sick my first day wouldn’t do any good. I picked up some Salmon Roe Onigiri, Peach Yogurt Drink, and Hagen dahz vanilla ice cream. A perfectly balanced meal if ever there was one. The peach yogurt drink, and hagen dahz I knew would be safe. On the other hand, Onigiri could have soy sauce. We looked up all of the kanji for soy sauce, and gluten that we knew of and checked the ingredients. Not feeling confident in our very first ingredients check, we also managed to confirm our findings with the clerk in our broken Japanese.

Of course what we thought was Salmon Onigiri, turned out to be Salmon Roe Onigiri. Salmon being the fish, and Salmon Roe being the fish eggs. It would probably be a good to take a moment and explain Onigiri. Onigiri in its simplest form is white rice, shaped and wrapped with dried seaweed. The rice usually has some form of sugar to help it keep the shape. Finally, it comes with all kinds of different fillings. Some common gluten free fillings we encountered were salmon, salmon roe, pickled plumb, and shrimp with mayonnaise.

The peach yogurt drink was really good, but definitely an interesting experience texture wise. It comes in a plastic cup, with a plastic straw you stick through the foil on the top. Since you are drinking it through a straw it comes through very inconsistently, with bit of peach getting stuck momentarily before shooting up the straw at precisely a billion miles an hour. The taste by itself was like a normal peach yogurt.

The salmon roe onigiri was my favorite part of the meal. The dried seaweed is just so crunchy in Japan, that it makes the perfect wrapper. Not to mention I enjoy white rice already, but salmon roe added a nice salty taste to balance the sweet rice. Aside from the taste I will say the hold together much better than one would imagine, which makes them easy to eat on the go with no mess. I’m not sure if I am just technically challenged, but I found the onigiri wrappers to be incredibly complex to unwrap. They come preshaped, but yet the seaweed is still wrapped separately from the rice. This makes perfect sense, as it can keep the seaweed nice and crispy, but also means I have to unwrap the seaweed without breaking it and without spilling\dropping the exposed rise, then put it together again. It’s hard to describe without actually trying it once, so I hope each and every one of you gets the chance one day to look as silly as I did.

I don’t have too much to say about the vanilla Hagen Dahz. It tasted just fine, but came in a disappointingly small container. As it turns out, I would be in the mood for ice cream this entire trip so I found myself picking these up almost every night.

On future trips, besides sampling all sorts of onigiri, we found that most convenience stores had store brand dried fruits that were gluten free. Not raisins or prunes- there were dried and lightly sweetened strawberries, mangos, mandarin oranges, and many other tasty variations. On the more savory side of snacks, we found dried squid was often safe- think dry jerky, but it tasted like, well, squid. And on the really safe side, every convenience store carried Soyjoys. Completely gluten free and in a dozen or so flavors, these were by far the easiest thing to load up on and carry around as emergency rations.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

AFK Elixers & Eatery Review

(As of the posting, the main website is under construction, but the AFK Tavern site has a very similar menu)

Jason here. Recently we took a trip down to Renton to eat at AFK Elixirs & Eatery. If the name sounds familiar that is most likely because it is the sister restaurant to AFK Tavern up in Everett. Known for its popular geek references, and free board games which you can play while you eat. I’ve heard about AFK since the moment we moved out here, so we were happy to finally have one open a bit closer to home. 

As the menu and waitress explained, the restaurant only just opened up a few months ago, so some of the kinks are being worked out. With that said, it’s important to note the main sign to the restaurant is not up yet, so there is a smaller sign closer to street level. It’s a bit hard to see and we actually drove right passed it the first time. The restaurant is located on an easy to find road, with plenty of parking so that was no issue.

The first few things I noticed while entering the building was the Link’s sword and shield from the Zelda series, and Farscape playing on the TV in the waiting area. If geek\nerd culture is your thing, then you will feel right at home at AFK E&E. References to everything from Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar, to your favorite video games, and many more are all represented. 

It was busy the night we went, but we were still shorted after just a short wait. I was happy to find many of the tables around us playing various card and board games. One group even brought their laptops and were playing League of Legends. 

The drink menu is just a fantastic read. Even if you are the DD and don’t plan on drinking that night, at least read through the menu. 

It took while for our food to come out, but we had a blast just chatting and laughing and discussing references in the menu. I don’t really count the meal taking a while against AFK because your experience is designed around playing games and having a good time. If your came in looking for a quick traditional meal, then your expectations were off to begin with. There are plenty of board games which are all completely free to play. Just remember a board game does not mean it has to be a 2 hour game of Risk or Monopoly. If you’re not sure what to play, just ask your waiter and they can recommend you fun group games which are easy to pick up, and have a great time right out of the gate.

For my drink I ordered a Mana Potion and later a Demon Hunter. The drink menu is laid out so you can quickly find Sweet, Fruit, Bitter, and other drink types. Both of the drinks lived up to their descriptions, and I found myself a bit tipsy by the end of the night. 

While the menu does not have items individually labeled as gluten free, it does specifically call out that gluten free pasta is available as a swap for $2 extra. The waiter also answered our questions and went and verified with the chef anything she was not immediately aware of. 

For my meal I ordered the Firebat Penne, with bacon and mushrooms, and a spice rating of 3. We arrived to AFK far later than original planned, so luckily I was starving when I received the huge bowl of pasta. Normally I would have definitely had some left overs, which is great. I always appreciate when a meal more than fills me up and I am able to take some in to work the next day for lunch. 

It was sufficiently cheesy, and a spice that added both taste and heat. At a spice rating of 3, it was not immediately burning, but did build up some eat as I began to finish. I can definitely see reordering at that rating, or a bit higher if I’m feeling up for something spicier. There was no shortage of sauce, filled with mushrooms and smaller strips of bacon. The mushrooms definitely added some taste and texture to the meal. The bacon on the other hand, I will probably leave out next time. The bacon flavor was mostly overwhelmed by everything else, and the texture did not really add to the meal. It was an extra I added on, so no points against the Firebat itself. 

Kayleigh here. This place is a must-visit if you think you might enjoy the theme, or if you are starting to feel bored of regular dining-only restaurants. Even if you don't plan on pulling out a game to play yourself, the regulars at nearby tables are entertainment enough with what they choose to bring. Try to name the references to your favorite franchises (or internet jokes) on the menus and decorations, or get a seat near the bar to watch whatever nerdy show they have on that night.

As for the food, the gluten free pasta is directly called out on the menu, but the burgers can also be served without buns. The soup does change periodically, but it was gluten free when we went and our waitress mentioned that the salad could be made gluten free as well. We did not ask about the other entrees, but several appeared to be gluten free from the descriptions and there were a couple of dessert options to be found. As Jason pointed out, though, the drink menu is well worth a read-through, and we found quite a few unique cocktails that we will have to try on future visits!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Safe Travels in Japan- Foreword



Jason here. Kayleigh and I are back from our fantastic two weeks in Japan. It was an amazing experience getting to see the modern sites of Japan like the Tokyo electronic district Akihabara, and the fashion district of Harajuku, but also the various museums, gardens, temples, and shrines. The food was definitely no exception. It really did not matter where we went, the service was always great and the food presentation was fantastic. It never dawned on me before, but we have not really spent much time discussing presentation on this blog before. I feel like the dishes we have had in the past have all been fairly standard with maybe a simple garnish or two. Japan seems to be the opposite. Nearly everywhere we went took great lengths to present the food. There was also more of an emphasis on enjoying the meal rather than trying to quickly eat and get out. For instance, it was a common occurrence to order smaller dishes throughout the meal, rather than everything all at the start.

Seemingly contradicting the previous statements, restaurants felt a lot more streamlined. Now granted it could be because we entirely misunderstood social situations, but it was common practice to call the waiter/waitress over and ask for the check, or to order a new dish. Many places brought the check out immediately after each order and left it on the counter. Most of the time you paid at the register at the front. This made the meal feel extended, and the waiting around to pay and get change almost nothing.

Kayleigh here. The experience of dining really was something different. Like Jason said, menus tended to consist of smaller dishes that you would mix and match to make your meal out of. So instead of ordering a roasted chicken that comes with a salad and two sides, you could pick whatever you thought would go well together. I actually think that may have made things easier for us, since the wait staff could construct a gluten free meal for Jason without having to substitute sides or parts of the dish.

If you are anything like us and have a very limited understanding of the Japanese language, then there are a few tools that will be essential. First, bring a card in Japanese explaining what gluten intolerance is and what you can and cannot eat. There are several companies devoted to creating allergy cards in all sorts of languages, but we settled on printing out the information on this blog onto an index card- we thought that it did a great job mentioning all the most common gluten-containing foods, and it ended up working one hundred percent of the time for us.

For when you just want to pick up something prepackaged, come prepared with a way to translate the ingredients on the label. We used a translator app on our phones, but you could just as easily use a thorough pocket dictionary or a written list of words to check for. Unfortunately, you will not find any warnings if they have been processed in a gluten-containing facility, and there are several ingredients that can contain hidden gluten- starch syrup (found in sweets) and food starch (blanket term for any blend of flours and starches) being the common tripup terms. Do a bit of research before traveling to become familiar with what you need to look for, and make sure to check for the hiragana or katakana word as well as the kanji. Finally, if you find something you like that doesn't poison you, take a picture or save the wrapper! It will save you from having to search through the shelves, trying to remember which labels you had already checked and which were safe.

Oh, and it seems to be commonly spread around the internet that you may be kicked out of a restaurant when you explain your allergy. We were met with nothing but kindness and excellent hospitality wherever we went, and it probably helped that we researched a dinner restaurant for each day we were there, plus a few more just in case (we turned to convenience stores for breakfasts and lunches most days). Even so, we were very politely turned away twice over two weeks of constantly eating out, so it can happen. Just remember that gluten intolerance is not nearly as widespread an issue, so the restaurant may not have the knowledge or ability to make a safe meal for you. Really, it was better that we got turned away than Jason got glutened.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Making Grill Parties Safe


Kayleigh here. Every summer, we all look forward to that unique flavor in foods that can only come from dragging out and firing up the old outdoor grill. For many, it is the chance to perfect that burger recipe, or to figure out how to sear that salmon steak to lock in all the juices. For most, it's a great excuse to have a few parties and enjoy some outdoor time with good friends and neighbors. For gluten intolerant folks...those hotdogs look tasty, but when was the last time that grill was even scraped down, much less cleaned?

An interesting fact to note- gluten can actually be removed from a surface if it is thoroughly heated for a good length of time, like the cleaning cycle on your oven. Short of requesting that the cook heats the grill up to 500 degrees for a half hour in between their food and yours, the best thing you can do is sacrifice getting pretty grill marks on your food and ask that they cover a small section in aluminum foil to keep your stuff separate from the rest. Bring your own utensils for them to use, to avoid stray crumbs, and make sure the cooked food goes straight onto your plate and skips the serving tray. It may sound a little pushy, but it is a lot better to be safe than to get glutened and have your buddy feel bad about it.

We do have some good news out of this- there are loads of good gluten free cookout foods available pretty much everywhere. Most sausages are completely gluten free, and will often say so pretty predominantly on the front of the label. Gluten free preformed hamburgers can be a little trickier to find, but looking for ones that are labeled as 100% beef can quickly narrow down the playing field, so you just need to check the back to make sure their facility did not contain wheat products. As for veggie burgers, most of the main brands are unfortunately out, but a trip down the organic/natural foods aisle should grant you at least one safe variety. Finally, fresh produce should be entirely safe, and most common condiments are as well (just double check the label). Do stay away from the teriyaki burgers (unless they were made specifically with gluten free sauce), and opt out any spice mixes that you do not get to okay in advanced- stick with the one ingredient spices.

Finally, as with making all gatherings safely gluten free, try to get anything you want from buffet-style tables first, before they can get cross contaminated through people double dipping or spilling a few crumbs here and there. If you brought a dish to share, save out a little portion for yourself in another container just in case. And offer to bring your own buns or bread, so the host does not need to get anything special for you- you probably already have some on hand anyways. Worst comes to worst, you can always use a bed of lettuce or tortilla chips on the plate and take a fork to it.
 
Jason here. I’m pretty lucky in that sausage hot dogs are my favorite cookout food. They are easy to find in a variety of different flavors, so getting two or three means pretty much everyone will find something they enjoy. I love getting together with some friends, so bringing a sheet of tinfoil and some gluten free buns is never an issue. 
 
On the days where the cookout gets rained out, be sure to have a backup plan. Sometimes it’s as easy as throwing the sausages in the oven or stovetop, but other times it takes a bit more creativity. I’ve found that brining some nacho’s with salsa or cheese dip to be a great back up plan. They can be picked up last minute from a grocery or convenience store, and require zero prep. If you have a little extra time, you can always throw to together some homemade dip. Our friends always seem to enjoy it when we bring over our spinach queso dip.
No matter what your style, don’t let gluten scare you away from spending some times with your friends and enjoying a cookout.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Cinnamon Rolls Recipe



Kayleigh here. I will make no secret of it- I occasionally get a massive craving for a big, gooey cinnamon bun. Cinnamon raisin toast or cinnamon oatmeal with cream cheese just don't quite do it at these times. I need a real deal spicy, icing- covered sugar bomb.



This recipe came into being when I was trying to figure out a way of making one of those decadent giant cinnamon rolls you would get at a diner. Making a whole dozen would just make me feel guilty by the end, so I whittled the ingredients down to make just four of the monsters. Next time you feel like really treating yourself on the weekend, try this recipe out. Make it the night before, then reheat it and add frosting in the morning- it will still taste just as good the next day.

Cinnamon Rolls Recipe

Ingredients:

For the rolls:
1 Medium Russet or Golden Potato (slightly larger than your fist)
2 TB Butter
1 Egg
1/4 Cup Sugar
1 ½ ts Baking Powder
¼ ts Baking Soda
½ ts Xanthan or Guar Gum
1 ts Apple Cider Vinegar
2-3 drops Almond Extract
1 Pinch Salt
1/3 Cups Warm Water
½ Cups White Rice Flour
½ Cups Sweet Rice Flour
½ Cups Tapioca Starch
1 ½ ts Instant Yeast

For the Filling:
3 TB Butter, room temperature
1 ts Maple Syrup
1/3 Cups Brown Sugar (lightly packed)
2-3 ts Cinnamon

For the Icing:
½ Package Cream Cheese ( 4 oz) at room temperature
½ Cups Powdered Sugar
¼ ts Vanilla Extract
Splash of Milk


Directions:

1) Well in advanced, peel the potato and cut it into rough 1 inch cubes. Boil them in water until very soft, then drain and mash with a fork. Add the butter to let it melt in.
2) If you have the time, then just leave the mashed potato out until it reaches room temperature- you can put the butter and cream cheese next to it to start warming them up. If you're shorter on time, throw it in the fridge until they're simply warm, or place their bowl on ice for 10 or so minutes.
3) To the mashed potatoes, add the ingredients from egg through salt and combine well (no lumpy potatoes!). Add the water to the mixture, then the flours one at a time. Add the yeast last, to make sure it doesn't start losing potency before you're done forming the rolls.
4) Set the dough aside, and combine all the filling ingredients in a smaller bowl. Grease an 8x8 inch baking pan and set aside.
5) Lay out two strips of plastic wrap, then coat one side of each with cooking spray or melted butter. Sandwich one of the dough balls in between the buttered sides, then use a rolling pin to flatten it into a roughly 10 x 12 inch rectangle.
6) Remove the top layer of plastic wrap, then cover the dough evenly with the cinnamon sugar filling. Roll it up carefully and evenly, then using a wet knife cut the log into four equal rolls. Place these in the baking pan.
7) Set the rolls aside for roughly one hour, or until the bottoms of them have spread to cover the whole pan. Sprinkle the outsides with extra cinnamon if desired. Then, in a 400 degree preheated oven, bake them for 20 minutes or until the tops are brown.
8) Optional- Five minutes before the rolls are done, you can take them out and brush them with additional melted butter. Or, as my parents like to do it, drizzle some maple syrup on top and sprinkle chopped walnuts- the baked maple syrup will help them stick.
9) While you wait for them to cool, combine all the ingredients for the icing. Spread it on slightly warm rolls just before serving.



Alternate rolling method:
When I made this last batch, I really did not feel like dealing with the plastic wrap and rolling pin method, so to save on time I tried rolling them by hand- they don't roll out as thinly or evenly, but that doesn't change the taste! And I'm sure that kids would love doing it, if you divide the dough into eight and gave them kid-friendly portions.


So, to start, wash and dry your hands thoroughly, then spray one with a thin coating of cooking spray. Pick up one quarter of the dough and stretch it out across your greased hand- I got mine to about 2 1/2 inches wide and 8 inches long.

Spread the filling onto the face up side, then roll it from your fingertips downwards into the right shape. When you are ready to move onto the next roll, be sure to wash and dry your hands thoroughly and recoat one in oil to prevent sticking.

Jason here. I realize now, I have missed many breakfast items since I have had to cut all gluten from my diet. There were pop tarts, various cereals (captain crunch I’m looking at you), toaster strudels, and cinnamon rolls. Well luckily for my Kayleigh has been amazing and always trying to fill that gap, including these tasty cinnamon rolls.

The taste is definitely what I remember with a sweet cream cheese icing, and a different kind of maple and cinnamon sweet bun. The only missing factor was the stretchiness which gluten tends to add. I was very happy that we got to use one of Kayleigh’s Christmas gifts which was Ceylon Cinnamon. Ceylon has a lighter taste, without the bite of standard cassia cinnamon. The reduced sharpness lends itself to a sweeter taste for me, which makes it perfect for dessert recipes like ice cream and these cinnamon buns. If you haven’t tried Ceylon Cinnamon (true cinnamon), we highly recommend you pick some up.