Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Simplified Pantry - A Schoolhouse Crew Review

Simplified Pantry has published two cooking guides: Simplified Dinners and Simplified Dinners: Gluten Free/Dairy Free.  Each is available as a PDF download and costs $12.99.  Both are self-admittedly less of a traditional "cookbook" and more of a guide to help simplify meal planning and grocery shopping.  Each focuses more on combinations of flavors and the processes of cooking than providing actual recipes. The goal is to create a number of meals, combining and recombining pantry staples, to keep dinners interesting and fresh without needing to constantly run to the grocery store for specialty ingredients.  Makes sense to me, so I was definitely looking forward to this review.

Simplified Dinners by Simplified Pantry
If you are an experienced cook, these books are  pretty good.  If you're new to cooking, or are not an "instinctive" cook, you may find them frustrating.  I tend to be a "toss it in" type of cook - I've cooked enough, read enough cookbooks, and watched enough Food Network to have a general sense of what flavors go together and roughly where the line is between "can't taste it" and "overkill."   If you're looking for new ideas and combinations, these can be good resources.  However, if you're a new cook just learning, this series may leave you frustrated.  When Luke tried to make the Margarita Marinade (to flavor a flat iron steak we were having for dinner), his first question was "How much meat do I need? It doesn't say."  He's right; it doesn't.  The literal answer to his question is "You need to prepare the entire piece that I bought; there's five of us eating it and two of you qualify as teen boys and therefore we need enough for twelve since I want leftovers," but I see where he's coming from. The recipe makes about 3/8 cup of marinade, but it doesn't tell you proportions; ie, is this enough to marinate 1 pound of meat, and does he need to triple it for the larger steak that will feed our family, or is one batch enough, or what?   In the end, I told him to quadruple it (the meat was just over 3 pounds) and it was about enough.  The proportions given in the recipe provided for a good flavor without using a lot of weird ingredients, so if he was starting his own household, this book could be a good resource for filling his pantry.   However, many recipes did not give "Serves this many" indications, so you were left guessing how far the recipe would go.  Not knowing how much something made frustrated him, and for a new cook could would lead to either an empty belly or too many leftovers.

Simplified Dinners, Dairy/Gluten Free version
I really wanted to get a lot of use from the Gluten Free/Dairy Free book, but it just did not work for us.  Part of my dislike was the same reasons I didn't care for the original volume.   However, a good bit was that I am an experienced allergy cook -- I've been cooking gluten, dairy, and various other foods free for over eight years, so my perspective very likely is skewed. I've made my fair share of not-great meals; Neal will push food around the plate and politely say "It's good for what it's supposed to be," which is really code for "Do not ever ever ever make this again."  Finding a cookbook that works for us can be very hard, because many recipes use substitutes we cannot.  (I can't wait for Daiya to make their non-soy cream cheese so we can have cheesecake and Irish Potato candy again!)  I'm always on the lookout for new recipes; I'm as tired of cooking some things as everyone is of eating them, so new ideas are always welcome!  However, from an allergy perspective, there were some things I especially did not like about the book:

  • It recommends using Gluten Free flour mixes, instead of purchasing individual flours, as a way to streamline the pantry and cut costs.  I can say from experience that this is "Penny wise, pound foolish."  First, different gluten free flours behave differently, and "all-purpose GF mix" really is a bit of a misnomer.  I know many people who have found that particular flours work well in some applications, but not in others.  Secondly, pre-mixed flours are VERY expensive - they generally run around $4 or $5 per pound, though I've seen some that have cost upwards of $20. per pound.   Yikes!  If you are just starting out and testing a gluten free lifestyle, a flour mix might well be more economical.  However, over the long term, purchasing individual flours and starches and mixing them yourself is often much less expensive.  The book also eschews binders like xanthan gum.  I made the rice flour muffins as listed in the book, to see if the egg was enough binder.  Luke's fifth grade science fair project involved substituting various gluten free flours in a vegan applesauce cake that had no eggs or gums for binding, and most of the cakes fell apart, so I was skeptical.  It wasn't, and they fell apart.  While some people do have a preference for one gum over another, xanthan and/or guar gums, or more than one protein-laden egg white, is usually necessary to maintain structural integrity in gluten free baked goods.  If you were new to gluten free cooking, the baking recipes would definitely be frustrating and off-putting. 

  • There is no acknowledgement of the 2004 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act Any food manufacturer that operates within the jurisdiction of the FDA is legally required to label in plain English the presence of dairy (or wheat) as an ingredient in a food.   Listing natural or artificial flavors as "ingredients that could contain dairy" or stating "semolina may contain gluten" (semolina is wheat flour and must say "wheat" on the label) may not only confuse people but could lead them to avoid a number of foods unnecessarily.

  •  Many foods on the list that have potential cross-contamination issues are flagged (and that is not regulated by the label law, so definitely something to be conscious of).  It's never a bad thing to be alert to potential problems -- and in the allergy community, the mantra is "Every label, every time," and many families I know actually read a food's label three times (once in the store before putting it in the cart, once when putting it away at home, and once when taking it out to use it) to ensure the product is as safe as possible.  However, one staple in many recipes listed in this book is tamari sauce, as a substitute for soy sauce (many contain wheat/gluten).  While gluten free tamari sauce does exist, not all tamaris are gluten free.  The last time I saw/heard of wheat starch used as an anticaking ingredient in powdered sugar was around 2008 (though it is possible that there is a smaller brand out there that uses it, the major commercial brands now use either corn or tapioca starches).  FALCPA does not cover foods regulated by the USDA (meats, dairy, etc.) so meats are something that probably should be flagged (especially anything processed, like sausages, etc.) to be checked more extensively (especially with the rise in ready-to-cook premium meat and seafood products that can cause cross-contamination in the manufacturers' kitchens).  

  • One of the recipe listings was for quesadillas.  Dairy free quesadillas are not impossible -- we eat them pretty often in this house!  However, the ingredient listings omit cheese/substitutes as an ingredient entirely.  I am the first to admit some of the substitutes are not great (I think we've tried darn near every one out there!),  but there are some that behave very much like dairy cheese (Daiya is a top 8 allergen free cheese that we use practically by the case).  A quesadilla without cheese is just a sandwich on a tortilla shell, so I thought this section was a little bit of false advertising.   While it sometimes seems impossible to keep up with all the products being released, an acknowledgement that dairy-free cheeses exist would be helpful, especially since the "pantry list" includes non-dairy liquid milk substitutes.  I know from experience Daiya also works great in soups, mixed into biscuits or cornbread, as an ingredient in an omelette or frittata, etc. so it would be a really good pantry staple for those who like items with melty cheese.

  • "Fruit salad or fruit tray" is listed as a "gluten and dairy free" dessert.  Strictly speaking, yes, it's a low-allergen, post-entree course, but to me, a fruit tray is not a dessert.  I would prefer to see inclusion of recipes like a Pavlova shell filled with fresh fruit,  fruit poached in a spiced syrup, or a caramel fruit dip make fruit feel more special.   There are lots other of simple recipes that exist, like vegan chocolate fudge or even semi-homemade desserts that work with items found in the regular mega-mart and have more of a "Wow!" factor for helping people transition to a long-term gluten/dairy free lifestyle or are more likely to impress the skeptical relatives who think "allergy foods are either gross or boring."  The dessert section really feels like an uninspired afterthought.

We will probably continue to use these books for menu planning ideas, but I will definitely have to either sit down in advance and work out quantities, or work closely with Luke when he prepares dinner, in order to be able to use them as more than an idea springboard.  Many of the gluten and dairy free recipes are the same as in the regular book, so I think that will likely be more of our go-to; where a substitution needs to be made to make it safe for us, we will just write it in the margin. 

The Crew reviewed three titles for Simplified Pantry: 
Simplified Dinners   
Simplified Dinners: Gluten Free/Dairy Free
Paperless Home Organization 

The author of these books, Mystie Winkler, is offering a discount code for my blog readers.  If you'd like to read any of these yourself, enter TOS2013 at checkout to receive 30% off! This discount is valid through June 3, 2013 for all of her eBooks.  Simplified Pantry also has a mailing list signup, if you'd like to receive periodic emails (about 3-4 per year) about special deals or new eBooks.    

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