Unless she’s planning on doing creative marketing for Pittsburgh companies, she’s from North Hills Liz Fetchin has her hands in the kitchen and cooks allergy-friendly food for her family. Liz recently launched Octofree, a blog sharing recipes for everyday meals and comfort foods without the top eight food allergens. Product reviews for their favorite ingredients, snacks and kitchen utensils; and guidance on navigating life with food allergies and intolerances. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Liz’s egg-free, dairy-free Easter quiche. (📸: @octofree)
Why did you want to start your allergy-friendly food blog Octofree?
I come from a family with many food allergies and intolerances. If there’s an allergy or intolerance out there, we’ve probably got it covered. I’ve been cooking meals free of the top eight food allergens (dairy, gluten, peanuts, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, soy, and eggs) for over 15 years, and for much of that time I thought our family was unique.
After I had my son and started talking to other mothers, I found that many other families control life with food allergies or intolerances. In the United States alone, more than 32 million people, including 5.6 million children, have food allergies. There are so many of us facing the same challenges. Finding groceries quickly and easily can be stressful, and we often feel that our allergies – which can be life threatening – are burdensome or bothersome to others. I realized that the recipes and tricks I had learned from my own experience with food allergies could help other people.
My mission at Octofree is to normalize and celebrate food allergies and intolerance by providing beautiful, calming resources that enable people to prepare safe, simple, and delicious meals, address the challenges of food allergies with ease, and themselves to connect positively and supportively with one another
How did you get your food allergies?
I was on a field trip in elementary school when I took a bite of a chocolate chip cookie and suddenly my lips and tongue swelled up. The biscuit turned out to have walnuts, so my parents took me to an allergist and that’s how I discovered my anaphylactic allergy to walnuts and pecans. I discovered that much later, in my early twenties, I had a milk intolerance. I had debilitating abdominal pain for years and a doctor recommended that I cut out dairy products. It was easier said than done. So many meals, especially in restaurants, have hidden milk ingredients, but when I got the hang of it and eliminated all products made with cow’s milk, my stomach ache went away.
Do you have lessons for our readers on how to dramatically change your eating habits?
It gets easier as you learn how to master ingredient substitutions (sign up for my emails at octofree.com/subscribe and I’ll send you a free substitution table for common ingredients like butter, flour, nuts and eggs) . At first, however, it can definitely be overwhelming. After my husband discovered that his eczema was the result of gluten and soy allergies and that I already had a milk intolerance, I remember standing in the supermarket thinking, “Okay, what can we eat?”
But once you get used to cooking for allergies, it gets a lot easier – and in many cases, just as delicious. There are now so many wonderful brands out there making gluten-free, dairy-free staples like flour, cheese alternatives, bread alternatives, etc. that make it a lot easier to prepare an authentically tasting meal without allergens than it was when I started out. It doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. Most of the meals I prepare take 30 minutes or less, and many can be pre-cooked and frozen.
Liz’s sesame chicken tender with four ingredients. (📸: @octofree)
Check out some of your favorite recipes or upcoming features to look forward to on your blog.
The four-ingredient sesame chicken offerings are so simple and a real crowd-puller for the whole family (including children). And a delicious surprise came in the top 8 free scalloped potatoes, which started as an Instagram challenge. Next week, I plan to post a roundup of the eight best recipes to keep your freezer stocked for spring and summer. I’m especially excited about this because I think it will really help people to have convenient, fresh, safe, and homemade meals on hand.
How do you overcome the restrictive food allergy mentality and instead focus on embracing allergies with a more abundant mentality?
This is a great question and it really sums up how I like to think about living with food allergies and intolerances. I’m an optimist by nature and I like to focus on the possibilities of what I can eat and create rather than complain about what I can’t. I’ve cooked this way for so long that it’s second nature; I see a classic or beloved recipe and immediately think about how to change it so that my family and I don’t miss it. There are also many shortcuts I’ll be including on my blog like preparing frozen meals, buying top 8 free certified snacks, building trusted relationships with local restaurants, and preparing meals that require minimal effort. A positive, creative attitude goes a long way.
What is your goal for Octofree?
I would love to create a space where people can feel like they are getting great advice and recipes from a trusted friend. I also want it to be a place where people can develop a sense of camaraderie and shared experience. Finally, I’d like to create an Octofree seal that can be used on product packaging and in the windows of participating restaurants to identify products and restaurants that are safe for allergy sufferers, as well as an app that makes it easy to access and sort content. My goal for the near future is to hopefully bring out an e-cookbook in January 2022. Stay tuned!
Where would you like to get allergy friendly food in Pittsburgh?
Interestingly, I don’t know of any restaurants here that are officially in the top 8, but there are plenty of great options that are suitable for allergies. With COVID-19 restrictions, we didn’t eat at any restaurants in the past year, but as the restrictions wear off, I can’t wait to try out Bar Botanico in Lawrenceville, which I’ve heard is very accommodating.
More exciting news this month: Gluten Free Goat is relaunching as a wholesale / retail kitchen, and you can get their pastries at the Adda Coffee & Tea House, Mediterra Bakehouse, Speckled Egg, and other cafes and breweries around town. I love that they also offer a service where you can order pastries for pickup or delivery straight to your home and add curated local artisan products like honey, tea, spices and specialty coffees.
We couldn’t live in the North Hills without Naturally Soergel’s – they have all the good stuff in stock, including items I can’t find anywhere else.
And consider the Lilys is a top 8 free bakery in New Castle that I’ve ordered many novel desserts from lately, including pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving and adorable bunny and chick biscuits for Easter.
During the month of April, we will be showcasing sustainable practices and companies in The Incline. Tell us how you incorporate sustainable practices into your kitchen.
Absolutely – it’s important to me to be as sustainable as possible in my home kitchen. I plan food every week and buy groceries accordingly so that we never have a lot of waste. We also cook almost everything at home, which saves on reusable take-out containers, and we use glass straws and cloth napkins. I try to support local farmers and manufacturers as often as possible and cook locally according to the season to reduce my carbon footprint and almost always buy organic ingredients. Of course, we recycle everything we can – and try to find creative ways to use up ingredients. When in doubt, it can probably go in a soup or a pan!
What else do you like to do at Burgh when you’re not in PR or on your blog?
The pandemic has helped me realize just how easy joys can be so rejuvenating – walking and hiking with friends in North Park, and spending time outside at McConnells Mills and Moraine State Park with my husband and son. There are so many wonderful attractions in Pittsburgh, like the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which also have a very welcoming café. the Andy Warhol Museum; the national aviary; and the Carnegie Museums. And I’m a big bookworm – I like to finish every day with a good read.
Which local business do you think deserves a reputation (and why)?
412 Food Rescue – for the work they do to combat food waste and hunger. You are able to get perfectly good fresh food from grocery stores and restaurants directly to the people who need it most. During the pandemic, they created new programs including a home delivery service that works like a DoorDash and Community Takeout, which pays restaurant and service industry employees to prepare nutritious meals for unsafe foods. Co-founder and CEO Leah Lizarondo is such an inspiration and is always working on innovation with her team. I can’t say enough about it.
What project are you working on (large or small) and how can Incline readers help you with it?
The main project I’m working on right now is building my audience through my email list and Instagram. Sign up for an email at octofree.com/subscribe and find me on Instagram at @octofree.