WND – Are You Paranoid Enough?

August 21, 2008

After many years of cooking for groups of people I have to say I agree with the sentiment:  It’s not whether you’re paranoid, it’s whether you’re paranoid enough.

I have a running list in my head of everything that everyone who comes to Dinner regularly is allergic to, and what they’ll eat but rather wouldn’t, and what they’ll carefully pick out of any given dish.  I also have a running list of substitutions, additions, subtractions and the point at which I don’t care if they pick it out of a dish and leave it on the side of the plate.  On the other hand, if you haven’t been to Dinner in more than six months, I’ve probably forgotten what your food quirks are and will require reminding.

Case in point, when a friend and her boy came up to visit last month I sent about five emails checking to make sure that they ate meat/eggs/dairy products.  The final response was more or less an exasperated, “Yes.  Do your worst woman.”

When I was little I was allergic to everything.  I’d grown out of most of my allergies by the time I was old enough to be aware of eating restrictions, and even then most of them were easily avoided.  I was allergic to rye flour for years which chiefly meant that I couldn’t eat ontbijtkoek when we went to visit relatives in the Netherlands.  This was in fact traumatic since ontbijtkoek is one of Holland’s great gifts to the world, but since we only visited about once every other year it wasn’t a constant source of trauma.  I couldn’t drink milk in quantity which was mildly problematic in 1st grade when snack time involved drinking a carton of milk every day.  I’m not sure if my parents told me I was allergic to olives because I was actually allergic to olives, or because they were looking for a way to prevent me from eating an entire jar of olives in a single sitting.  But, overall I’m fairly lucky and I get to dislike food just because I dislike it, not because it’s something that’s going to make me ill.

I don’t remember people having food allergies when I was little.  This is silly because logically everyone I know who has a food allergy now probably had that allergy when they were kids.  Possibly it’s the kind of thing that you just don’t notice as a kid, or possibly the incidence of food related allergies is higher in the US than it is in Europe, or possibly we’ve just become more aware of allergens and have gotten better about making sure that other people are aware of them too.  Or possibly it’s some combination of all three.

I do know that food allergies are a big deal these days – and a deal which frankly I wish food magazines and food TV would occasionally address because I’d like to know what the right substitute for ground almonds is in a recipe.  I’ve come across a lot of competing theories to explain why we’re seeing a much higher incidence of allergies now than we have previously, and why people are starting to be allergic to more and more things.  It used to just be shell fish, or nuts and now it’s gluten and corn and dairy.  One of the more believable theories I’ve seen has to do with our wildly increased exposure to certain kinds of ingredients like high fructose corn syrup which turns up in just about everything.  We’re becoming allergic to things because we’re eating too much of them and our bodies can’t handle it.  Another theory that I’m fond of is that we’re breaking down our bodies’ natural immune system by trying to eliminate all sources of germs and bacteria that we might come into contact with on a regular basis.  In trying to cut down on the sources of disease in our environments our bodies are starting to read perfectly natural things as dangerous and reacting to them.

I’m fond of this last theory at least in part the series of Clorox ads in which a smiling mother assiduously cleans her already spotless counters with Clorox wipes as her frighteningly clean children run around behind her always annoys me.  Heaven forbid that children come into contact with dirt at any point in time.  I’m not saying you should chop carrot sticks on the counter where you’ve just cut raw chicken, but I don’t think you need to sterilize every surface in your house every half hour.

I’ve been thinking about this because there was a last minute addition to Dinner of plain (uncheesy) baked pasta because one of the guests is lactose intolerant.  Normally I’d either change the menu, or add a couple of things to the table to make sure that there was enough non-dairy protein for them to eat.  But, this week I already had 20 manicotti in sauce sitting in my fridge and it wasn’t really an option.  I hate singling people out with special food at Dinner because I feel like it’s unwelcoming, that is says that their dietary concerns are too troublesome to adjust to when clearly they do it every day.  However, this week it just wasn’t possible, and I felt bad but the baked pasta was a better option than making her very ill for the next few days.

Roasted Garlic Bread

It feels a little sacrilegious to be using canned tomatoes and frozen spinach when we’re at the height of tomato season and fresh spinach can be had for the asking.  However, America’s Test Kitchen recipes work as written, and very rarely accept substitutions gracefully.

2 – 28 oz cans diced tomatoes in juice
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp fresh basil, chopped

Pulse 1 can tomatoes with their juice in food processor until coarsely chopped, 3 or 4 pulses. Transfer to bowl. Repeat with the remaining can of tomatoes.

Heat the oil, garlic, and pepper flakes (if using) in a large saucepan over medium heat until fragrant but not brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt and simmer until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. Stir in basil; adjust seasoning with salt.

3 cups ricotta
4 oz parmesan cheese, grated
8 oz mozzarella cheese, shredded
2 eggs, lightly beaten
10 oz chopped spinach, squeezed to remove excess water
2 Tbsp fresh basil, chopped

16 no-boil lasagna noodles

Combine ricotta, 1 cup Parmesan, mozzarella, eggs, spinach, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, basil, and nutmeg in medium bowl; set aside.

Preheat oven to 375.

Pour 1 inch boiling water into 13 by 9-inch baking dish, then add noodles one at a time. Let the noodles soak until pliable, about 5 minutes, separating noodles with tip of sharp knife to prevent sticking. Remove the noodles from the water and place in single layer on clean kitchen towels; discard water in baking dish and wipe dry.

Spread the bottom of the baking dish evenly with 1 ½ cups sauce. Using a spoon or your fingers, spread a generous ¼ cup of the cheese-spinach mixture evenly onto the bottom three-quarters of each noodle (with short side facing you), leaving top quarter of noodle exposed.

Roll into a tube shape and arrange in baking dish seam side down. Top evenly with remaining sauce, making certain that pasta is completely covered.

Cover manicotti with aluminum foil. Bake until bubbling, about 40 minutes, then remove foil.  Sprinkle manicotti evenly with remaining 1 cup Parmesan. Continue to bake until cheese is spotty brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Cool 15 minutes, then serve.

You can make this up to three days in advance.  Just cover with parchment paper or wax paper and then tightly cover with foil and refrigerate.  It can also be frozen for up to a month covered in the same way (making sure it’s fully thawed before you cook it).  Remove parchment/wax paper before baking.  Increasing the cooking time to 1-1 ¼ hours.

Notes:  I increased the recipe by ¼ because I was feeling oddly paranoid about having enough.  To do this I added a 12 oz jar of roasted red peppers to the sauce, and increased the quantities of the filling by ¼.  This goes against the general rule of never trying to mess with an America’s Test Kitchen recipe, but it worked out this time.

Roasted Garlic Bread
I know bread is little redundant with a pasta dish, but it’s traditional, and who doesn’t love garlic bread?

I pan roasted the garlic this time, for no particular reason other than that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Drizzle a little olive oil in a pan and add as many garlic cloves as you’d like – still in their papery shells.

Roast over a very low heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until the garlic is soft, about 20 minutes.  Pop the garlic out of its shell and puree with 1-2 cloves raw garlic, butter, salt and pepper.  Spread on bread and bake wrapped in aluminum foil until hot and toasty.

I was feeling amazing amounts of guilt over the canned tomatoes when we’re in the middle of August and all the farmer’s market tomatoes are so enticing.  So, I put them in the salad instead.  I even bought lettuce at the farmer’s market and you’d have to understand how much I hate washing lettuce to get how big a deal this is for me.  The things I do to appease my conscience.  I was, predictably, the only person at the table last night who thought that this had been a necessary gesture of appeasement.



  1. Just so you know, as I will be coming to Dinner someday (someday!), I am not actually allergic to bananas. I tell people I am allergic because bananas are nature’s version of vile and disgusting baby food on a stick. So, while they do make me barf, it is not for any kind of physical reason. It’s because they’re gross.

  2. […] talked before about how they exist in this vacuum where nobody has food dislikes or food allergies, more than once in fact. These are two not new exactly, but recently reinforced pet peeves courtesy of a series of […]

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