If you have just started on a gluten-free diet, you may be finding the simple act of preparing meals much more stressful and confusing than before you eliminated gluten.
In this blog series, I’m going to be talking about moving forward easily (and fearlessly) with all things gluten-free, sharing some of the tips and ingredients I’ve learned in my experimenting with gluten-free cooking and baking.
As a bit of background, I am not on a gluten-free diet, but I do a fair bit of cooking and baking for folks who do need to be eating gluten-free. In addition, my husband, who has Crohn’s disease definitely benefits from eating less gluten (he’s still a holdout on the pasta and bread fronts though!).
In this day and age, where so many more people are staking a claim as being gluten-free, there is also the practical matter of cooking food that is accessible to as wide a range of people as possible – there is nothing worse than watching someone arrive at a food-related event only to look through the options and discover there is nothing they can eat! In my role as a personal chef and gluten-free baker, it’s my job to provide the tastiest food I can to meet my clients’ dietary needs, and for them to feel like they are fully satisfied, not just “settling”. In my role as a caterer, I find that offering gluten-free options even for clients who aren’t gluten-free is merely one way of ensuring that they can offer their hospitality to the largest number of their guests possible.
In recent years, we are hearing much more awareness about gluten, and the conditions for which a gluten-free diet is a must. In my experience, I see and talk to:
- people who are Celiac, for whom eliminating all traces of gluten and preventing cross-contamination is a must;
- those who have allergies to wheat (often severe);
- those with gluten-intolerance who know they feel physically and mentally much better when they avoid gluten; and,
- parents of children with Autism, who know their children feel better when they eat a gluten-free, casein-free diet.
I often have people asking me about gluten-free diets. They hear the buzz around it, and automatically assume they should be going gluten-free because so many people are talking about it. I’m not a physician (nor do I play one on TV), but for those of you who are Celiac, or have life-threatening wheat allergies, the answer is unequivocally YES – not to do so is hazardous to your health, with the only “treatment” being to avoid gluten altogether. For those of you in this position, eating safely means going beyond the ingredients on the label and finding out what else has been processed in the same facility, and sometimes where the ingredients originated.
For the rest of you, my answer is pretty simple – if you feel better going gluten-free, then do it! There is still a lot of mystery around what exactly gluten does and doesn’t do floating around in our systems, and there are also big differences in the way we consume wheat and other gluten-full products than 100 years ago, that may also be contributing to the increasing numbers reporting gluten intolerance. For folks like my husband, it means he feels better, just like when he cuts most dairy out of his diet. For the most part, feeling less than great is just not worth it.
The only caveat I would add, is if you decide to go gluten-free, make sure you are aware of what base ingredients go into your foods. Many of the commercially available baked goods achieve a fluffy texture by relying heavily on starches, which are high in carbs and have little nutritional value. One of the reasons I started playing around with baking gluten-free breads was in an effort to achieve the magic combination of great texture with a bit more on the nutritional front.
So … all that being said, one of the biggest benefits of adopting a gluten-free diet, is that you become acutely aware of what you are ingesting, and end up eating much more home-cooked food! The pervasive inclusion of gluten in so many prepared food products means that for people avoiding gluten, not only are they eliminating the obvious things like wheat-based bread and pasta from their diet, but also most pre-prepared sauces, frozen dinners, foods with breading, and most pre-packages soups (as a start!). Fortunately, most of these can be made fairly easily at home, without gluten, and often better tasting and nutritious.
The drift away from cooking for ourselves and the benefits of home cooking are only just being realized. Food writers such as Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan and Michael Ruhlman have been talking about this publicly for a few years now, and just this fall, the new US Food Guidelines have stated that people not only need to be cooking more at home, but are lacking the skills to do so. Home cooking is about nourishing our families on a daily basis – we’re not talking Top Chef kind of stuff here, but simple, good food, made with good ingredients, and prepared simply. It can be easy as a pot of soup, a salad with dressing made in a mason jar, or a chicken that roasts in the oven while you help the kids with homework, fold the laundry, or unwind with a glass of wine.
Most folks assume that living on a gluten-free diet will be a deprivation, but consider that at any given time, I have between 20 -25 gluten-free flours in my stash of baking supplies, and 10 or more easy alternatives to pasta. (Relax, you won’t need that many, I have the good fortune to be able to try out a lot of the gluten-free options that are available on the market in the name of R&D).
As you start to explore the world of gluten-free, you’ll find you will be one of the first on your block to try things like black quinoa, thai fish sauce, pomegranate molasses, and teff flour! Also remember that many foods such as Asian style foods, many South Asian foods and Raw foods are naturally gluten-free, requiring little or no modification — there are so many options these days that it’s no longer a matter of “what CAN I eat”, but rather “How am I going to decide what to eat?!
Stick with me through the coming weeks and we’ll talk about setting up your gluten-free pantry, getting started with some basic recipes, everything you wanted to know about gluten-free baking, and even things you might not have thought about like gluten-free sourdough breads!
You’ll be trying foods and thinking “I can’t believe it’s not gluten!!!
I’m going to leave you with a quick and easy recipe that is naturally gluten-free and will get you in a fall/winter frame of mind.
(If you use stock from a box for this, just double-check the label — brands like Pacific Natural Foods available in your supermarket are gluten-free). If you are vegetarian or vegan, omit the bacon, and use vegetable stock in place of the chicken stock. Remember, it’s just soup, and it’s your soup! Take a few extra minutes to brown the onions and bacon and develop the flavours, and it’s all good…
A hearty, satisfying lentil soup for those chilly winter days. If you want to make it vegan, omit the bacon, and use vegetable stock instead of chicken stock. You can also add 1-2 cups of diced carrots before you lock the pressure cooker lid on. If you make this without the bacon but still want a smoky flavour, you can add about 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika to the onions and garlic while they are sautéing.
If you don’t have a pressure cooker, you can make this in a 4-5 quart dutch oven or stock pot. The process is the same, just increase the cooking time to 1 hour. This recipe also doubles easily in a large heavy-bottomed stockpot, and freezes well.
- 3-4 strips bacon, cut into lardons
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 3-4 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup French Lentils (Lentils de Puy)
- 1 14 1/2 oz. can diced tomatoes (low sodium)
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 1/2 cup white wine (optional)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 whole bay leaves
Over medium heat in a pressure cooker at least 4 quarts, cook the bacon until the fat is rendered out and it starts to brown slightly. Add the onion, garlic and salt and sauté until the onions are translucent and browning slightly. Add all the other ingredients and lock the lid on the pressure and cook under pressure for 25 minutes. Bring the pressure down and remove the lid.
- 1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar or Balsamic vinegar
Taste for seasoning and add more salt if needed. Stir in the vinegar just before serving.