Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Allergy-free feast no longer a daunting task

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THE holidays, with their special once-a-year treats and food-centred get-togethers, can be challenging for people with food allergies. Shortbread, savoury stuffing and mashed potatoes with gravy can be off-limits to people who must avoid eating common foods like nuts, eggs, milk and wheat.

A decade ago, allergy-friendly foods were few and far between at holiday parties. Cooks who wanted to make "safe" foods for people with food allergies had few recipes to choose from, and the food didn't always taste very good. People with allergies often made do with a few naturally allergy-free foods, or brought their own food to celebrations.

Things have changed over the past few years. Today, it's easy to find cookbooks filled with recipes that people with food allergies can safely eat, and that taste great. Non-dairy substitutes for milk, cheese and cream can be found in major grocery stores, along with the rice, potato, tapioca and other gluten-free flours that can replace wheat.

Making a holiday meal for people with food allergies isn't a daunting task anymore. After much trial and error over the past 10 years, and some unforgettable disasters -- including a spectacularly inedible gluten-free stuffing, and sugar cookies that spread out over the cookie sheet, ending up hard as a rock -- I've mastered a Christmas dinner that is safe for anyone with nut, dairy, wheat or shellfish allergies. With some tinkering, it could be made egg and soy-free, too.

Here's how to do it.

We like to get in the Christmas spirit by baking Christmas cookies. Shortbread, sugar and gingerbread cookies are out for us since they use butter and wheat flour. Last year, using dairy-free margarine and a gluten-free flour mix, we made some great cookies that rolled out nicely for cutting into holiday shapes, and baked up and tasted like a traditional sugar cut-out cookie.

Next, the turkey. Make sure your turkey is not pre-basted because butter is often used. You can flavour it yourself by brining it in a salt and sugar solution, and basting with olive oil, salt and pepper.

We've tried many gluten-free breads in the traditional stuffing, but haven't found a really delicious one yet. Instead, we use a great wild rice stuffing featuring the traditional celery and sage flavours. Bonus: it tastes great with gravy, and reheats well.

For the mashed potatoes, season plain boiled potatoes with olive oil, chicken stock or dairy-free margarine and soy or rice milk to replace the usual butter, milk or cream.

Cranberry sauce is naturally free of the top nine allergens: peanuts, sesame seeds, eggs, milk, tree nuts, wheat, soy, shellfish and sulphites. And it only takes about 10 minutes to make: Dump a 340-gram bag of cranberries into a small saucepan, add one cup of water and one cup of sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

My dad is the gravy master of our Christmas dinner, and he has been subbing rice flour for wheat flour as a thickener with excellent results year after year.

We usually include a salad at our Christmas dinner to make us feel less guilty about the mashed potatoes and gravy. It could be a tossed green salad or a Greek salad omitting the feta for people with milk allergies and the olives for people allergic to sulphites. We'll be having a quinoa tabbouleh, crunchy with lots of fresh herbs and vegetables.

And: the piece de resistance. A traditional bªche de Noel has been part of our holidays for years, and when we first began avoiding wheat and dairy, I thought it was one that would have to be left by the wayside. But with a little tinkering, I was able to adapt a recipe from British chef Nigella Lawson -- yes, she of the butter and cream extravaganzas -- for a bªche de Noël that is decadent and delicious.

It might require an extra shopping trip, and some close reading of food labels, but it doesn't take much extra effort to prepare a delicious holiday meal that won't be off-limits for your guests with food allergies.

And that is something to celebrate.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2012 D5

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