Cough, Cough

Five years ago, right around this time, I started coughing. I coughed in the morning, I coughed in the afternoon, I coughed in the evening, and when I put my head down at the end of the day, I coughed even more. Nothing seemed to help; in fact, lozenges, hot tea, and sips of water only seemed to aggravate it. Some doctors thought I had asthma and began treating me with steroids. Others suspected it was a nervous cough that would go away once I got married that June. But after our wedding day, while we were on the cruise ship for our honeymoon, the coughing seemed to be even worse.

In August of that year, after enjoying a rich meal at the French restaurant Sel De La Terre during Restaurant Week, my cough was worse than usual. “You know,” Rich began, “I don’t think you have asthma. I think eating is making you sick.” And he was right. It turned out I had severe acid reflux – Gastroesophogeal Reflux Disease or GERD, to be more precise. Basically, the coughing was me choking on stomach acid. I know, gross.

Having figured out what was wrong meant I could start treatment and get better, but we soon discovered just how sick I was. Nearly everything I ate ended with me coughing. And I started to cut back on foods that made me sick, which, as it turned out, was pretty much everything I put in my mouth. Sure, there are certain trigger foods – chocolate, citrus, mint, spicy foods, alcohol, pickled things, caffeine and fat — but most fruits, and even many vegetables, were making me cough.

I settled into a diet of plain rice, grilled fish or grilled chicken, sashimi, rice cakes with a shmear of jam, pretzels, and because they were fat-free, jelly beans and black licorice. I saw a nutritionist who recommended quinoa and amaranth, grains that would keep me healthy and wouldn’t irritate my stomach. But overall, my diminished options led to me losing a lot of weight. On June 24, 2007, my wedding gown was a size 10. By January 2008, I was a size 4. I was thin, but I was absolutely miserable.

Slowly, I began adding foods back into my diet and gained back some weight. But by February 2009, the coughing came back and was even worse than before. I went back to my horrible diet, and again lost a ton of weight. Things seemed to have found a proper balance for the next two years, but by August 2011, I was coughing again. I ignored it as best I could, but my coughing was once again being disruptive.

I finally saw my ear nose and throat doctor on Thursday afternoon who informed me my throat was as irritated as it was the first time she met me in 2007. “I know what to do,” I sighed. “But I really don’t want to. I have a food blog. What’s the point of a food blog if I can’t eat food?” My plan was to keep on cooking food and to pretend I wasn’t sick. But since this is going to impact what I’m able to eat (and cook), I’ve decided to come clean.

Hi, I’m Molly Parr, and I have acid reflux so bad, that there are times in my life I can’t eat. I don’t want to stop eating through this newest course of treatment, so you’re coming on the journey with me. I might offer a recipe with notes suggesting how a dash of Aleppo or Srichacha can kick things up a notch, but I will most likely ignore my own advice.

I told my doctor how the winter time, with all its low-acid roots, would make things less difficult this time. But then I remembered all the nice citrus that brightens cold January mornings and I started to get whiny.

It will definitely be a fine line at times. A mellow garlic in a soup will probably not irritate me as much as a garlicky dressing brightening up a raw kale salad would. There will be more grains this year, harkening back to the nutritionist’s advice of an ancient grain diet. This past weekend I made a dish of a parboiled onion, chickpeas and boiled turnips and carrots which was all tossed together with some low-fat Greek yogurt. I ended up having to pick out all the onions because they were too pungent for me. This isn’t going to be easy, I know that for certain, but it will be an adventure. I entertained while I was sick and plan on continuing to do so. I think there will be more braises and stews in my future, which is just fine for January.

This recipe from Cook This Now, the newest cookbook by Melissa Clark (she of the stuffed pumpkin fame), is the perfect example of a dish that can be altered to combat reflux. One can skip the minced raw garlic step as well as ignore the suggestion of sprinkling Aleppo when serving. We decided to throw caution to the wind tonight and added the minced garlic: the result was extraordinary. We had a slew of Parmesan rinds in the fridge which we added to our pot, but if you skip the cheese, this dish is vegan.

White Bean Stew with Rosemary, Garlic and Farro

Ingredients

1 pound dried cannellini beans

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling

5 garlic cloves, peeled

1 celery stalk, cut in half crosswise (reserve celery leaves for garnishing)

1 large onion halved lengthwise from root to stem so it holds together

1 whole clove (stick in the onion half)

2 rosemary sprigs

2 thyme sprigs

1 bay leaf

Piece of Parmesan rind, if you like

2 ½ teaspoons kosher or coarse sea salt, more to taste

1 cup faro, rinsed (We used wheat berries which I first soaked and then cooked for 30 minutes in the pressure cooker)

Flaky salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel

¼ teaspoon Turkish or Syrian red pepper such as Urfa, Maras or Aleppo

Chopped celery or parsley leaves, for garnish (optional)

Lemon juice and/or Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)

Directions

If you have the time and would like to soak your beans ahead, this will shorten your cooking time. Put the beans in a large bowl and cover with several inches of water. Let soak for as long as you can. Overnight is optimal but even a few hours will hasten the cooking.

When ready to cook, drain the beans and place them along with the oil, 3 of the garlic cloves, the celery, and the onion in a large pot over medium-heat. Bundle the rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf together, tie securely with kitchen twine, and throw it into the pot (or just throw the untied herbs into the pot, though you will have to fish them out later). Add the Parmesan rind, if using. Cover everything with water and stir in the salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and allow to simmer, partially covered, until the beans are soft. This can take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours, depending on how long (if at all) you soaked your beans and how old your dried beans were when you go them.

A test of doneness is to place a bean in your palm and blow on it (the natural thing to do since it will be hot). If the skin breaks, it’s ready. Of course, tasting is a better way to tell. If your bean pot starts to look dry before the beans finish cooking, add more water as needed. At the end of cooking, the water should not quite cover the beans. (If it’s too liquidy, ladle the extra out and discard.)

Meanwhile, while the beans are cooking, prepare the farro. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the farro, pasta style, until softened. This could take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending upon what kind you use. Drain well.

Mince the remaining 2 garlic cloves

When the beans are cooked, remove and discard the onion, celery, herbs, and Parmesan ride if you used it (you can leave the garlic cloves in the pot; they are yummy). Ladle half of the beans into a food processor or blender, add the minced raw garlic, and puree. Return the bean puree to the pot. (You can skip this step and just stir in the minced garlic; the broth will be thinner but just as tasty).

Serve the beans over the farro, drizzle each portion with plenty of olive oil, then sprinkle with good flaky salt, red pepper, and celery leaves or parsley. If the stew tastes a bit flat, swirl in some lemon juice at the end to perk up the flavors. Grated Parmesan cheese on top is also nice. But make sure not to skimp on the oil, salt and red pepper when serving, unless you have reflux.

  • You can really substitute any dried bean you like for the cannellini beans. This basic bean recipe will work with any of them, though cooking times will vary.
  • Look for semi-pearled farro. It cooks more quickly than whole farro – 20 minutes instead of an hour.  If you can’t find farro, you can substitute wheat berries.
  • To add some color and turn this into more of a whole meal, add a bunch or package of spinach, or a small bunch of kale (torn into pieces). Simmer until the greens wilt before serving.
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19 thoughts on “Cough, Cough

    • Hi Kerstin,
      I don’t actually know Kristina, but definitely visit her blog from time to time. I’m trying to look on the bright side of things and perhaps I will tap into the reflux crowd of people out there who still love eating.

  1. Wow, thank you for sharing this Molly but I am so sorry to hear that you are afflicted with this. I come from a family replete with digestive disorders and difficulties so I am somewhat familiar with the related hardships. That soup sounds wonderful for anyone. I wish you an easy winter.

  2. Can totally relate. Last Jan I was diagnosed with allergies to Gluten, Dairy and Yeast which had been causing me terrible rashes and debilitating joint pain. Yeast is particularly difficult bc it means nothing fermented (wine, soy sauce, vinegar) and no sugar. Eating out is the hardest.

  3. Thanks for sharing. As someone who also has trouble with eating food due to a similar condition, I look forward to some helpful guidance from this blog. Not that I ever cook. But I do occassionally eat.

  4. Happy to go on your journey with you – although sorry to hear what is motivating it. Thank you for sharing and I hope you discover more dishes for easier eating and enjoyment.

  5. Molly, although I am sure this has been frustrating to the point of tears at times, it is very inspiring that you are sharing. Food folks are not immune to digestion issues and there are a whole lot of people who are short on resources for reflux-friendly blogs and recipes. Good Luck, looking forward to reading more!

  6. Molly – I just found you from Smitten Kitchen and it must be meant to be. I have been struggling with cooking for a husband with gerd for over a year now – his is not nearly as bad as yours sounds. I still struggle with the loss of tomatoes – I found a low acid tomato sauce which worked for him to eat but the loss of flavour made it pointless in my opinion. He can tolerate cooked onions and some garlic but no lentils as I discovered this week when I made a lovely roast carrot and lentil soup which I thought was going to be the answer to what can I replace my roast carrot, tomato and lentil casserole with – but sadly not. I look forward to reading about what is successful for you as I try and tweak for us. Good luck with your journey!

  7. oh my gosh, what a journey! i hope this time you find some better options… this soup certainly sounds delicious, and one that i hope set well with you too 🙂 Thinking of you!

  8. Nexium has removed my symptoms of GERD and changed my life. I know some are wary of popping pills every day, but it brought the joy of cooking and tasting and eating back into my life. Oh there are webpage ramblings that will try to scare you away from it, but personally, I’ve had no side effects at all. I don’t have low magnesium levels or poor digestion or any other side effects, and I have a full physical with bloodwork every 6 months. Now I take it about 4 times a week instead of every day, and it still works great. I’m slooooowly backing away… maybe I’ll go to three days a week soon, and keep reducing it until I settle to a point that I know it’s needed to manage the symptoms. I’ve tried the OTC “equivalents”, but for me Nexium works best.

    • Scott,
      Thank you SO MUCH for your comment. I am not scared of popping pills; my doctor has me on Prilosec TWICE a day and has told me she can’t prescribed any more than that. I know I’ve brought up trying a new drug with her in the past, and when I see her next month I will ask how she thinks I’ll do on Nexium.

  9. I came across this post after you commented on my blog. I have my own digestive problems and am no stranger to food sensitivities. Although hard for anyone, I can relate to how difficult it is for those who live to cook and eat. I’m not nearly as disciplined as you are, and I have not completely eliminated the foods which give me such trouble. I’m glad you shared this. Best of luck with the rest of your journey. It sounds like you’ll be creating a lot of satisfying foods that agree with you, and I look forward to reading about it.

  10. Hi, I’m sorry about your GERD!
    My mom has also been dealing with this severe cough due to GERD and she coughs 24/7. It’s horrible! But in the past two weeks or so her cough seems to better. I’ve been making her a juicing of kale, celery, cucumber, carrots, radish, beets and spinach. I mix them all in a blender with a bottle of water. She has been drinking it twice a day and her cough has been significantly reduced! Try it !! She also eats small frequent meals and doesn’t mix solid with liquid. Please feel free to contact with any questions.

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