Rachel Riggs likes to say she’s the OG of quarantine. If you think you had it bad stuck at home for 15 or more months before being liberated by a vaccination, consider that Riggs has been mostly housebound for nine years. She has a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) that has, among other things, compromised her immune system and leaves her extremely fatigued.

According to the Mayo Clinic, where Riggs finally got an accurate diagnosis in 2015 after a misdiagnosis of multiple sclerosis, EDS is a group of inherited disorders that affect the body’s connective tissues — primarily skin, joints and blood vessel walls. The experts explain that connective tissue is a complex mixture of proteins and other substances that provide strength and elasticity to the body’s underlying structures.

“In essence, my body is built entirely of faulty materials,” Riggs explained. “So, I have been incredibly debilitated.”

Riggs was raised on and off in San Diego when her father, a Navy chaplain and social activist, was stationed here. She grew up to become a huge food enthusiast — especially smitten by cheese. When she and her husband Joe Vidal, a biotech scientist, moved in 2006 to Bellingham, Wash., Riggs opened a cheese shop she named Quel Fromage Artisan Cheese & Accoutrements — even getting assistance from San Diego cheesemonger Gina Freize of Venissimo Cheese, where she did an internship. After six years, Vidal’s job ended and they returned to San Diego. By then, Riggs was too sick with a collection of disparate ailments to work, and she became housebound. Treatments have been sketchy in their effectiveness, but in 2014 a doctor suggested a stringent elimination diet for three months.

“It was really hard, but eventually the tide turned,” Riggs said. “I had to learn how to feed myself. Eventually, I began developing recipes that surprised me that I loved.”

It’s not that Riggs has food allergies. She has a condition as part of the EDS called mast cell activation syndrome, in which activated mast cells — a type of white blood cell — release too many chemicals that cause allergic symptoms.

So she’s always in search of foods that, while they don’t make her better, they, do help her from getting worse. But even that can be inconsistent. She can eat some ingredients for a while and then they can go sideways on her.

It also put her on the road to writing a cookbook centered on clean eating recipes.

“My inspiration for writing the cookbook was that with this new diet, there were no resources,” Riggs said. “I thought, well, I know my way around the kitchen. I’ve got this. But Joe and I went to Whole Foods with our list in hand and we left with almost nothing — maybe some brown rice and salmon and avocados. I felt lost. There was this really steep learning curve. I never thought I’d feel passionate about food again.”

Her turning point came when she made pot de crème and realized that she could eat good food — and she came to realize there needed to be a resource for people like her.

“If I’m creating these recipes for myself and I’m really putting in a lot of attention to getting them right and perfecting them, why wouldn’t I want to share them?” she said.

At the same time, Riggs was also making meals using her clean eating regimen for a longtime friend who had put on weight and was desperate to lose it. With her food, he was able to lose 60 pounds in three months. And, for the past five years, she’s also been a volunteer with the Naviaux research lab at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. Initially, she worked with enrolling patients in a myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) study. Now, she said, she takes calls from a variety of patients seven days a week, ranging from anguished parents of children with autism to desperate people with long COVID.

“It’s restored my sense of purpose,” she said.

Despite her limited energy, the book is progressing. Riggs said she’s close to completion with about 15 to 20 of 70 recipes still to go — and be photographed. On Instagram she found a photographer in Arizona with whom she worked remotely during the lockdown for the first 30 recipes. She’d send 10 at a time and they’d strategize the plating, then collaborated in real time during the shoot, tethered via text, phone and email. She’s now decided to work with someone more local and is in search of a photographer in San Diego or Los Angeles. And, of course, she’s looking for a literary agent.

Riggs’ vision for her recipes is primarily ingredient-driven. It could come from an alternative to salmon, like black cod, which she’s working on now. Or it could be a salad from Trader Joe’s that has ingredients she can’t eat but wants to adapt to her clean eating diet. She explained that she has a good muscle memory with her taste buds, but husband Joe is also available to taste the original and compare her version to give feedback.

Riggs describes clean eating for herself in the most stringent way possible: “I don’t do gluten or grains or pork, soy, no obscure flowers like cassava or arrowroot, no shellfish, no peanuts, dairy, nightshades like tomatoes and peppers, no refined sugar, no artificial sweeteners.”

The list goes on. What she does eat is pasture-raised beef, organic chicken and pastured eggs, wild salmon, maybe a bit of tuna here and there, and for sweeteners, dates, maple syrup and honey. And produce, of course. Her flavor twist is what she describes as “CalMed,” with lots of citrus, herbs, olive oil, garlic and anchovy.

“It’s not vegetarian, but it’s taking a nutrivore approach,” she said. “It’s basically how you get the most nutrients in your body. It means eating the biggest quantity of vegetables you can. And the key to consuming a lot of vegetables is great sauces, great dressings and coaxing flavor out of them through grilling or roasting.”

She also likes to grill the meats she can eat, such as her grilled marinated flank steak. If you’re a carnivore, that’s a basic. But consider that a typical recipe calls for a long marination in a soy-based dressing. Riggs can’t consume soy. To get that umami, she discovered coconut aminos and blends that with garlic, balsamic vinegar and maple syrup. She lets the flank steak bathe in that in a zip-close bag overnight in the refrigerator and then quickly grills it over high heat for about 4 minutes on each side, depending on thickness.

Her wild rice and blackberry salad with a fish sauce vinaigrette offers a full marriage of flavors and textures. There’s chewiness and heft in the rice paired with crisp Persian cucumbers and vibrant, herbaceous tarragon and parsley, along with the sweetness from the blackberries. The dressing is a party of flavors — blackberries again, but also garlic, olive oil, honey and bright Champagne vinegar invigorated by the complex umami of fish sauce.

Riggs is very specific about her ingredients. She doesn’t use conventional kosher salt because the saltiness and weight can vary between brands. Instead, she opts for Himalayan pink salt for its consistency. Don’t sub out English cukes for the Persian — their texture, she says, is different. And stick with Champagne vinegar instead of white wine vinegar to really get that bright acidity.

You might think that someone on such a strict diet eschews sweets. In fact, she joked, she’s trying to cut back on some of her dessert recipes for the book to create more balance. Riggs is known in her circle for her glossy, deeply intense 4-ingredient, 2-layer flourless chocolate cake, which I can assure you is stunning. “La Cake,” as she calls it, is 15 grams of protein and she eats it every day — but for now, at least, she’s keeping that recipe to herself.

What she has offered is her dark chocolate pots de crème, the one that gave her back her food mojo. A dark chocolate fanatic, Riggs uses 72 percent chocolate that she gets in the Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bar, which she says is rumored to actually be made by Callebaut — so, it’s a deal. Instead of cream, she uses Trader Joe’s reduced-fat coconut milk, her coconut milk of choice because of its flavor and lack of additives. Maple syrup is her sweetener, and the Himalayan pink salt is also a part, if a small part, of the recipe. Like conventional pot de crème, it’s remarkably simple to make — simply heat all the ingredients but the raspberries together in a saucepan over medium-low heat, gently whisking until smooth. Then pour the mixture into ramekins, let cool for 25 minutes, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate to set at least 4 hours.

Riggs has become a wizard at discovering unique ways to incorporate clean ingredients into everything from muffins to lemony fennel soup topped with grilled salmon. You can find her on Instagram, at @cleaneatingfoodist, with new posts only in Stories.

Golden is a San Diego freelance food writer and blogger.

A white bowl holds a wild rice and herb salad with a fish sauce vinagrette.

Wild Rice + Blackberry Salad w/Fish Sauce Vinaigrette blends flavors and textures and incorporates Persian cucumbers, tarragon and parsley.

(Food styling by Rachel Riggs; photo by Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Wild Rice + Blackberry Salad w/Fish Sauce Vinaigrette

The melange of textures and flavors in this herbaceous summer salad delivers the seasonal freshness we crave. The wild rice provides some heft and a toothy bite, and the vinaigrette unites it all. We enjoy this salad paired with black cod, but it would be a great accompaniment for any type of grilled meat or hearty white fish such as halibut as well.

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients:
1 ½ cups (uncooked) wild rice blend — I use Lundberg Wild Blend
½ teaspoon Himalayan pink salt (to salt the water)
2 – 6oz packages of ripe summer blackberries (set 4 berries aside for the dressing)
2 Persian cucumbers, very thinly sliced, preferably with a mandolin
2 cups roughly chopped flat leaf parsley
½ cup whole tarragon leaves (stems removed)
flake salt for finishing

FOR THE DRESSING:
4 blackberries
1 large garlic clove, finely grated on a Microplane
2 tablespoons Red Boat (brand) fish sauce
3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons honey

Make the dressing: Place 4 blackberries in a small bowl and use a fork to mash them. Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl and whisk until combined. Refrigerate until ready to use. Making it a day in advance is fine and allows the flavors to meld.

Cook the wild rice: Cook 1 ½ cups of the wild rice blend (plus ½ teaspoon of Himalayan pink salt) in a medium pot according to manufacturer’s directions. Transfer the cooked rice to a large mixing bowl. Fluff it with a fork and allow it to cool to room temperature. Once cool, assemble the salad — or cover and refrigerate until ready to use. The rice can be made a day in advance if you’d like.

Assemble the salad: when ready to serve, add the cucumbers, parsley, and tarragon to the bowl of rice and toss gently to combine. Add the vinaigrette and toss again to coat. Divide it between 4 plates and top each one with blackberries. Sprinkle with flake salt and serve.

Recipe notes: for best results, I recommend you don’t make any substitutions. In developing this recipe, I tried using white wine vinegar instead of Champagne vinegar, but the dressing lost its brightness. I’ve also tried using English cucumbers, but the texture of a Persian cucumber is much more suitable for this salad.

A marinated/grilled flank steak is sliced on a plate next to a knife.

Because Riggs is unable to eat soy, her Grilled Marinated Flank Steak draws umami flavor from a marinade that includes coconut aminos — a salty, savory sauce.

(Food styling by Rachel Riggs; photo by Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Grilled Marinated Flank Steak

As June gloom gives way to summer’s full glory, our grills are out in full force! This simple flank steak can easily step in as a summer staple. I give it a 24-hour flavor bath and then it’s onto a scorching hot grill for a quick sear. Flank steak is a particularly lean and flavorful cut of beef and is readily available at any grocer.

Makes 4 servings

1 ½ pounds grass-fed flank steak (I prefer grass-fed)
3 garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
½ cup coconut aminos

Marinate: up to 24 hours before grilling.
Add the grated garlic, balsamic vinegar, maple syrup and coconut aminos to a large zip-close baggie. Place the flank steak in the baggie and swoosh it around until all surface areas are coated. Press the air out of the bag and place it on a plate in case there are drips. Store it in the refrigerator until ready to use. You can do this the night before grilling, and then flip it over in the morning to make sure the other side gets its share of the marinade.

Grill it quickly on high heat. Flank tends to get chewier the longer it’s cooked, so cooking it to medium rare is ideal. Grill on high heat for about 4-6 minutes per side depending on the thickness — until an instant-read thermometer indicates it’s reached an internal temperature of 135 degrees. Taking it out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before grilling will help it cook more evenly.

Let your steak rest for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting into it so the juices can redistribute.

Slice it against the grain. This is critical to keeping a cut like flank nice and tender.

To serve: Sprinkle liberally with your favorite salt and add freshly ground pepper if you’d like.

Recipe notes: I prefer Big Tree Farms brand coconut aminos (original). Look for a brand that only contains coconut nectar, water and salt. Coconut aminos is a great substitution for soy sauce if you’re adhering to a soy-free diet.

Glass dishes hold dark chocolate pots de creme with fresh raspberries.

Dark Chocolate Pots de Crème are “ridiculously easy” to make, Riggs says, but toppings can be customized to suit your taste.

(Food styling by Rachel Riggs; photo by Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Dark Chocolate Pots de Crème

These irresistible pots of creamy dark chocolate are ridiculously easy, and are the perfect way to punctuate a meal — especially during the summer months when a few bites of something sweet is often enough. Chocolate and raspberry are a classic coupling! But you can customize to your taste by topping each one with fresh cherries, strawberries, toasted hazelnuts or coconut flakes instead. Serve them straight from the fridge or they will melt in the summer heat.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

13 ounces of 72 percent dark chocolate (I use Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bar)
13.5 ounce can reduced-fat coconut milk (I use Trader Joe’s)
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon Himalayan pink salt
12-ounce container of fresh raspberries

Break the dark chocolate into squares for easier melting. Heat all the ingredients (except the raspberries) in a medium-size saucepan on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate begins to melt, 3 to 4 minutes. Use a whisk to gently stir until completely melted and smooth (stirring vigorously will produce bubbles). Do not allow the mixture to reach the boiling point — you just want enough heat to melt the chocolate.

Once the mixture is looking really smooth, use a rubber spatula to scrape any chocolate from the bottom of the pan that the whisk is unable to reach, and incorporate it into the mixture.

Pour into small (3 to 4 ounce) ramekins, or vessels of choice. Leave enough space at the top for the raspberries! For ease of pouring, transfer the mixture to a glass measuring cup with a pour spout. Or, if you’re OK with a few drips here and there, you can pour the chocolate directly from the pan.

Let them sit undisturbed for 20 minutes before covering each one with plastic wrap and refrigerating. Allow to set fully — about 4 hours. Add fresh raspberries or the topping of your choice just before serving.

Recipe notes: Trader Joe’s canned coconut milk is my coconut milk of choice because it’s delicious and additive-free. Their “Pound Plus” bar (make sure you choose the 72 percent) is rumored to be made by Callebaut, which is a well-known Belgian chocolate company. And at around $5 for over a pound of chocolate, it’s an incredible value. If you’re using the Pound Plus bar and don’t have a kitchen scale, you will need 29 squares. If using unsweetened coconut flakes as your topping, I recommend lightly toasting them in the oven for a few minutes at 350 degrees until slightly golden.