Healing with foodPublished on December 6, 2008

  • Shirley's Quinoa Salad. Photo by Etienne Ranger

  • Shirley's cookbook, Finally, Food I Can Eat! Photo by Etienne Ranger

  • Shirley's food allergies and her search to find answers eventually led her to help others with the same issues. Photo by Etienne Ranger

Shirley Plant’s enthusiasm for food belies the many years she’s struggled to eat. As a sufferer of multiple food and environmental allergies, not to mention chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, she has spent years trying to find the right recipe for her own life, while avoiding a lengthy list of common ingredients including wheat, eggs, dairy, yeast, corn and sugar.

“Even when eating properly I have to be really careful not to overdo things, but I guess spending six years and thousands of dollars creating tasty, healthy recipes suggests I didn’t stick to that plan,” she confesses with a laugh. Shirley’s years of experimenting with tasty alternatives culminated in the publication of Finally . . . Food I Can Eat!, her highly acclaimed dietary guide and cookbook. “I think the book’s success speaks to how aware people are becoming and how much the food industry wants to be more accommodating to various needs,” says Shirley.

1. Would you have considered yourself a ‘foodie’ 10 years ago?

Absolutely not! I grew up eating mostly meat and potatoes. When I was in my 20s and not feeling well at all, allergy testing proved I needed to change my diet and eliminate many common foods, leaving me with a very limited spectrum of things I could eat, or so I believed at the time. I remember thinking I was going to starve before I ever figured things out.

2. Can changing what you eat really make a difference in how you feel?

Yes! We are what we eat, and if you have allergies or food intolerances of course your body is going to feel and perform better if it’s not being constantly bombarded with ingredients it can’t tolerate. Many people don’t realize how bad they felt until they make changes to their diet and start to feel better. Eating the right foods isn’t a cure-all, but it can certainly help a lot.

3. How did you learn about alternative foods?

It was mostly a lot of trial and error " I threw a lot of food in the garbage at first. Dishes either looked or tasted unappetizing " sometimes both. I realized I needed to learn more so I took a few cooking courses at (Ottawa’s) Green Door vegetarian restaurant, macrobiotic courses elsewhere, and did a lot of research online.

4. What inspired you to write your cookbook?

I had bought specialized cookbooks for wheat-free, dairy-free and sugar-free cooking, but couldn’t find anything for multiple food sensitivities. I knew I couldn’t be the only person grappling with this issue and after speaking with naturopathic doctors and people at natural food stores they confirmed there was a real need for the book I had in mind.

5 What do people say when they taste your recipes?

I love to cook for my friends because they make the best orgasmic eating noises! Most other people just say that things are really delicious and they are relieved to learn that you don’t have to compromise when avoiding certain foods. The other thing I hear repeatedly is that my recipes are not too complicated and don’t involve a lot of special ingredients. I’m happiest when I hear people say that my dishes don’t taste like health food or allergy-free food.

6 What kind of response have you had to your cookbook?

Much of the feedback I get is from people who’ve bought the book and are truly grateful to finally be able to enjoy eating again. I think it’s also doing well because the recipes were really well-proofed before they made it into the book. First, I used family members as my taste-testers, and then I reached out to neighbours and even strangers, including people with and without food sensitivities, because I wanted recipes that were equally appealing to both camps.

7 What’s the hardest part of adapting a recipe for people with food intolerances or allergies?

Because cooking really is all about chemistry, you have to be really careful to preserve the right proportions of wet to dry ingredients, especially as you start substituting, as well as considering the properties of any ingredient you remove. If you’re taking out the gluten that gives dough its elasticity, you need to add in baking soda or agar gum, for example. Again, it’s a lot of trial and error. You need to be prepared for a lot of flops before you succeed. I’m constantly experimenting " and thinking about maybe putting together a second cookbook.

8 What services do you provide through your consulting company, Delicious Alternatives?

My business partner and I create individualized education sessions and detailed meal plans, as well as doing some meal preparation and specialized catering (go to www.deliciousalternatives.com for more information). So many people are either trying to cook for a family member with special dietary needs, or simply cook in a more healthy way for themselves, so they are very grateful for a little assistance and creativity to make it work.

9 Can you tell me about a recent memorable cooking experience?

I was preparing some meals for an elderly client with congestive heart failure who couldn’t have sugar and salt. I made her beef stew, sweet-and-sour chicken and blueberry banana muffins. She told me she was so delighted to finally eat food that tasted like food should, not bland and uninteresting.

10 Whom would you love to cook for and what would you serve them?

I’d love to meet and cook for Paul Finkelstein, a former chef who’s now a high school teacher in Southern Ontario. He’s working to transform school cafeterias and teach students all about healthy eating. I’d make him my famous sweet-potato muffins and healthy Krispie treats because both would be great cafeteria items that kids would love.

Quinoa Salad

A recipe from Shirley’s cookbook, Finally . . . Food I Can Eat! “I love this recipe because it’s simple to make and tastes so fresh and flavourful. It tastes like summertime, even in the middle of winter,” explains Shirley, noting that it may remind some of tabbouleh. Quinoa, pronounced “keenwa,” is an ancient, versatile grain that has become extremely popular lately; it’s a good source of nutrition and high in protein. “While this recipe is ideal for those who are seeking to avoid dairy, wheat, yeast, corn, sugar, eggs, nuts and gluten, chances are nearly everyone will find it tasty and satisfying, either on its own, or to accompany a soup,” she says. “If you’re lucky, you’ll have leftovers to pack for a lunch or two.” 1 cup quinoa 2 cups water ½ tsp sea salt ½ cup fresh mint, finely chopped 2 cups fresh parsley, finely chopped 1 bunch green onions, finely chopped 1 carrot, diced 1 red pepper, diced, or 2 tomatoes, diced


1 tsp sea salt 1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil 1/3 cup lemon juice 2 cloves garlic, minced


Wash quinoa well and drain in a colander. In medium pot, cover quinoa with 2 cups water and ½ tsp sea salt, then bring to a boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes or until grains are just tender. Once done, remove from heat and fluff cooked quinoa with a fork; set aside to let cool. When cool, place into a large bowl. Mix dressing ingredients together until well-blended and pour over the cooled quinoa. Add chopped herbs and vegetables and mix well. Serve quinoa on a bed of lettuce and radicchio, or just on crackers or bread. Makes 8 cups of salad.

Try these tasty alternatives Check out some of these fantastic alternative grains that Shirley explores in greater detail in her book. They can be found at local health food and bulk food stores. Amaranth is high in proteins and minerals but low in fats and cholesterol. Gluten-free, when ground it makes a great flour substitute; the seeds can be popped like popcorn or used in energy bars. Barley has a delightful flavour and makes a great addition to soups. It’s a good source of protein, potassium and other minerals. Barley flour is a great wheat alternative and makes nice pie crusts. Buckwheat contains almost as much protein as eggs but no cholesterol, is high in potassium and B vitamins and is gluten-free. It’s actually a seed, is not related to the wheat family and is great for cakes or pancakes. Kamut has a rich, buttery flavour. It is a relative of durum wheat and is a member of the grass family; it may be tolerated by people who have a wheat allergy. High in magnesium and zinc, it has no fat or cholesterol but does contain gluten. Kamut is great as a pasta. Millet is full of proteins, vitamins, and minerals and is gluten-free. It has a lovely nutty flavour, is easy to digest and is least likely to affect people with sensitivities. It’s cooked in the same way as rice. Quinoa is a high-quality protein with natural sugars, essential fatty acids, B vitamins, and trace minerals. Gluten-free, it is very versatile and can be used in many recipes. Spelt contains more protein, fat and fibre than wheat and can be tolerated by some people with wheat allergies. Rich in vitamins A and B as well as potassium and trace minerals, spelt flour is excellent in baked goods such as breads and muffins. Teff has a lovely taste, is great in cookies, muffins, and pancakes and is gluten-free as well as a good source of iron, calcium, and B vitamins. Written by Paula Roy

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