Creative Comfort Food
How to: Danville’s Danielle Walker whips up hearty fare for a grain-free diet.
Jennifer Skog Photography
The low point in Danielle Walker’s battle with autoimmune disease came in 2008, when she learned she couldn’t get the blood transfusion she so desperately needed while laying on a plank in a bare-bones Ugandan hospital.
“By the time I got there, I was in a really bad state, and this hospital didn’t even have food or water, so there was no way we could do the transfusion,” she says of her ill-fated humanitarian trip to Africa with her husband. After a week, they decided she had to go back. “It was so bad; I just remember getting pushed through the airport in a wheelchair.”
A year earlier, at the age of 22, Walker had been diagnosed with a disease similar to Crohn’s, which affects the digestive tract and can result in severe flare-ups. Seeking solutions after returning from Africa, she realized that diet played an enormous part in maintaining her health. So the Danville resident began to restrict what she ate, going gluten-free and transitioning to progressively more restrictive diets that eventually eliminated refined sugars, dairy, and most importantly, all grains.
It was not an easy transition for this foodie, who had grown up learning to cook from her Italian grandmother.
Grain-Free Diet Crib Sheet
Gluten-free: Generally practiced by people with celiac disease, this diet cuts out any food containing gluten, the protein found in wheat. Alternative grains and starches such as corn, potatoes, and quinoa are OK.
Paleo: Also known as the “caveman diet,” paleo is modeled after the presumed diet of Paleolithic humans: fish, grass-fed pasture-raised meats, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts. No grains, legumes, dairy, or processed or refined foods.
Specific Carbohydrate Diet: Often practiced by sufferers of gastrointestinal diseases such as celiac and Crohn’s, this diet cuts out complex carbohydrates as well as all refined sugar, starch, and grains.
“My grandmother is a phenomenal cook, and in college, I always fell back on spaghetti and a jar of spaghetti sauce, which was now totally out of the question,” she says. “For me, it was a huge mental battle. I was like, gosh, I can’t imagine giving up everything that I know how to cook and everything I love to eat. I felt really alone.”
The long, painful process paid off health wise—she’s been practically flare-up free for more than a year—and motivated Walker to start her runaway popular food blog, Against All Grain. By relaying her struggles and successes in creating basic, hearty, and above all comforting recipes for those on restrictive diets such as gluten-free, paleo, and Specific Carbohydrate Diet, Walker touched a nerve. In just a year, the site has grown from 15,000 to 350,000 views per month—and has spawned a cookbook set for an international release in November.
“What readers tell me is that they love that they can still enjoy eating things,” she says. “It’s not just grilled chicken and broccoli every night.”
You don’t have to suffer from an autoimmune disease to benefit from a grain-free diet, Walker says. Many of her readers are just seeking healthier food options or looking to lose weight. “The whole philosophy behind it is eating things that aren’t processed,” she says. “We focus a lot on eating organic and grass-fed meats, and I think that’s absolutely beneficial to anyone.”
Comfort Food Substitutes
It takes a little creativity to make grain-free comfort food. Here are three of Walker’s favorite ingredients.
Zucchini noodles: Made from peeled zucchini run through a spiral slicer (Walker recommends the World Cuisine slicer, about $35 on Amazon), these “zoodles” can closely mimic a spaghetti-like texture and taste. Spaghetti squash can also be used.
Almond and coconut flour: Walker loves to bake and finds these to be the subtlest, least overpowering of the nut flour substitutes. They’re perfect for
re-creating cookies, pizza crust, and sandwich bread. Note: Regular flour to nut flour is generally not a one-to-one ratio and will vary by recipe.
Cauliflower rice: Walker runs cauliflower through a food processor to dice very finely. Once cooked, it mimics the consistency of rice and can be used as a base in such dishes as seafood paella and chicken tikka masala.
Through trial and error, Walker has perfected grain-free substitutes for staples like lasagna, enchiladas, and sandwich bread. She challenges herself to make quality versions of popular foods, trolling sites like Pinterest to find the most “pinned” recipes.
“I figure those are the dishes that people want, and I just go into the kitchen and try to re-create them.”
Walker has come a long way from that Ugandan hospital, even if she admits that she still struggles with self-control. (“After six years, I’ll still grab a french fry from my son’s plate.”) She’s also been lucky to receive plenty of support from her family.
“We went to my grandmother’s house the other day, and she had prepared four recipes from my website just so I could have something to eat,” Walker says, with a catch in her voice. “For someone who has so many years of cooking a certain way … to do that for me, it’s just the sweetest thing.”
Learn more at againstallgrain.com.