Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Recap: Whole Foods GF Cooking Class

Well, our GF cooking class at Whole Foods ended about one and a half hours ago, and here I am blogging about it, not for what went well, but for what didn't. More specifically, within twenty minutes of leaving the store and heading home, I got very sick (still am) with a gluten reaction. To the wonderful people that attended the class, I sincerely hope that you've been spared...that perhaps you're less sensitive than me, or that my source of gluten contamination had nothing to do with the class.

Kelli and I have replayed the evening over in our heads, trying to determine where gluten could have found its way into the food (assuming, of course, that the source of contamination did in fact come from the class). Here's what we can think of:

For one, we were in an unfamiliar kitchen. How well had the mixing bowls and measuring cups been washed from a previous demonstration that may have (or likely had) gluten?

For another, at least two ingredients were different from what we typically use at home. First, we use strictly Bob's Red Mill flours for our blend, which are all certified gluten-free. The store didn't have the brown rice flour, so we used the Arrowhead Mills brown rice flour instead. I double-checked their website, and they list the flour as gluten-free. Secondly, we used a different vanilla extract than usual. I don't recall the specific brand that we used tonight during the demo. This could have been a problem, though there's no way to know at this point. However, for your own reference, at home we use Rodelle Pure Vanilla Extract, which is both superb and gluten-free.

On a positive note, we had a wonderful time at the class. Thank you to Janet at Whole Foods for inviting us, and thanks to everyone who attended. We truly enjoyed having you there, sharing our recipes with you, and chatting about all sorts of gluten-free topics, from the finer points of xanthan gum, to recipes and restaurants and much more. If you have any follow up questions, don't hesitate to let us know. And as promised, we'll be posting additional recipes in the near future.

- Pete

Xanthan Gum, Demystified

If you read the ingredients label on gluten-free baked goods, check our recipe for a gluten-free flour blend, or otherwise spend time with gluten-free baking, you're almost certainly bound to come across xanthan gum, one of the secrets to successful GF baking. But what is it, and how does it work?

Xanthan gum is named for the bacteria, Xanthomonas campestris, which plays a crucial role in this description. Technically speaking, xanthan gum is a polysaccharide, which is just a fancy way to say "a string of multiple sugars." (Starch, in its myriad forms, is a polysaccharide.) To create xanthan gum, the Xanthomonas campestris bacterium is allowed to ferment on a sugar. In the United States, corn sugar is typically used as the base for the fermentation. The result is a "slime" (there's no other way to put it) that is then dried and milled to create the powder xanthan gum you buy at the store. It's expensive, but thankfully, a very little bit goes a long way!

Xanthan gum has a number of powerful properties. First, it works as an emulsifier, encouraging liquids that normally don't like one another to mix together. For this reason, xanthan gum is often used in salad dressings to prevent the oil and vinegar from separating. Second, it works as thickener, increasing the viscosity of liquids and batters. Third, it can create a creamy texture. For this reason, it's sometimes added to ice creams and dairy-free recipes that want to emulate the creaminess of milk.

Thanks to those reasons - outside the world of gluten-free baking - xanthan gum has found a devoted following in the realm of molecular gastronomy, in which chefs do unconventional things with conventional ingredients. For example, imagine expecting to bite into an egg yolk, but instead getting the flavor of mango! Chefs can use xanthan gum to increase the viscosity (thickness) of a mango puree to help it to mimic an egg yolk. Or, if you've ever watched Iron Chef America on the Food Network, you know that the chefs are often fond of making flavored foams. Those foams are often not possible without the addition of xanthan gum, which gives the base liquid enough viscosity to be able to hold the form of the foam bubbles without popping and releasing the air inside.

In the world of gluten-free baking, on the other hand, xanthan gum plays the crucial role of imitating gluten. How? In baking, gluten is what makes dough "doughy." It gives the dough elasticity, as well as viscosity. Those properties help to hold a cookie together while it bakes on a sheet in the oven, and they enable cakes and breads to hold onto the gas bubbles that form inside them - this allows them to rise and take shape. If gluten didn't help the dough to retain those air bubbles, they'd escape and the cake (its gas bubbles based on baking soda or baking powder) or the bread (based on yeast) would fall.

Prior to the use of xanthan gum, these were the primary problems with GF flours and baking recipes. Without the gluten, how do you prevent those problems from happening? Xanthan gum provided the solution - by increasing the viscosity of a GF dough, xanthan gum enables the dough to hold together while baking, and to retain the all-important gas bubbles that form during the process.

The gluten-free flour blend we've developed has a baseline level of xanthan gum that makes it a great all-around flour mix. It's perfect to use in pancake and waffle recipes. But we've discovered that other recipes - such as cookies - require an additional quantity of xanthan gum.

The photo above shows two identical chocolate chip cookies, both made with identical recipes and both made using our gluten-free flour blend. The only difference is that the cookie on the left has no additional xanthan gum, while the cookie on the right has a small amount added to the dough prior to baking. You can see how dramatic the results are. Without the additional xanthan gum, the cookie on the left spread paper-thin while baking. With the additional xanthan gum, the dough for the cookie on the right maintained enough viscosity to withstand the baking process, resulting in a cookie that had great thickness and texture.

For sure, xanthan gum isn't the only gluten substitute you'll find in GF baking. Guar gum is another common ingredient, and there are others. But we've found xanthan gum to be a powerful ingredient in our flour mix and recipes, and have been more than happy with the results!

Finally, a reminder: tonight Kelli and I are teaching a GF cooking class at the Whole Foods in Littleton, Colorado. It starts at 6:30pm. Please come by and say hello!

- Pete

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Boar's Head

After enduring several months of renovations, our local grocery store (the King Soopers at Table Mesa and Broadway in Boulder, if you're ever in the neighborhood) has finally completed the overhaul, and the store recently celebrated its Grand (Re)Opening. Happy to have the full store up and running again, I strolled up to the deli counter to order some Applegate Farms Black Forest Ham (thinly sliced, please).

Much to my dismay, I didn't see any Applegate Farms meats...or any other meats, for that matter. With one exception: Boar's Head. The person behind the counter must have sensed my concern at being unable to find my beloved Applegate. "We've switched over and now only carry Boar's Head products," he explained. Then he quickly added that Boar's Head was just as high quality as Applegate, and that Boar's Head is certified as heart-healthy by the American Heart Association.

To be honest, I've never really questioned the quality of Boar's Head products (nor have I ever truly considered the heart-healthiness of my cold cuts (or deli meats, if you prefer that term)). I grew up eating Boar's Head - my mom bought it precisely because she said it was high quality meat. Often, we'd get it from Pete's Deli (no relation to yours truly) in Farmingdale, NY, where they made their sandwiches in true New York piling the meat three inches high before getting started with any toppings. And I'll admit, the Boar's Head of my childhood tasted pretty good, and I wouldn't mind reliving those days of my youth.

Thankfully, all Boar's Head products - meats, cheeses and condiments - are gluten-free. That's the good news (and so is the meat's heart healthiness, I suppose). The bad news is that I buy my deli meat based on more than nostalgia for my childhood. I also buy my meat based on its environmental impact, based on the humane and ethical treatment of the animals that are ultimately killed to feed me, and based on the quality, simplicity, and all-natural character of the ingredients. Boar's Head doesn't say much about its meat on those points, which typically means that they don't have much positive to say about it to someone like me, for whom those factors are important when deciding what meat to buy.

Which leaves me between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, there's the convenience of shopping at my local store, where Kelli and I do the bulk of our food shopping (other than the farmer's market, which closes at the end of this month). On the other hand, I'm committed to buying my meat from folks like Applegate Farms, who share my ethic and deliver on it. How the situation will resolve, I don't know yet. But I do know that Boar's Head is gluten-free, and so for now at least, I'm reliving the days of my youth, lunching on tall stacks of thinly sliced Black Forest ham.

- Pete

Monday, October 27, 2008

A GF Oktoberfest

It's an annual tradition here in the Bronski household that we host an annual Oktoberfest. Kelli and I have been doing it for years, and we love ringing in the fall season with our usual menu of kielbasa, bratwurst, German-style sausage, homemade applesauce, sauerkraut, German potato salad, and an assortment of pies. Our Oktoberfest has once again come and gone, and looking back on it, we wanted to offer a little insight into how we executed it gluten-free.

The kraut and applesauce were naturally gluten-free, and the potato salad was easily made so using GF flour, so that was no big deal. For the meat, we used mostly sausages from the Boulder Sausage Company. It's local to us here in Boulder, Colorado, and they happen to make some pretty tasty, all-natural, and gluten-free sausages. I've been a big fan of their Italian sausage for years. For this Oktoberfest, we used their bratwurst and their German brand sausage. With the lone exception of the beer bratwurst (which is made with gluten-containing Colorado beer), the Boulder Sausage Company's entire line is gluten-free.

Of course, no Oktoberfest (or fall feast, for that matter) would be complete without a hearty pie or two. We made two GF pies. The first was an apple pie made with McIntosh apples, cinammon-sugar, and a crumble topping. (Which I guess technically makes it a Dutch apple pie.) The crust was made using our GF flour mix and pie crust recipe. It was delicious! What's more, both the general manager and chef at Kelli's hotel in Denver couldn't tell it was gluten-free - quite a compliment!

And then there was the pumpkin pie, made with the same pie crust, but obviously quite a different filling! I don't recall whether Kelli used honey or agave nectar to sweeten this pie. In either case, this pumpkin pie is both GF and refined sugar-free, since our friend, Jess, is on a GF, SF diet.

A great night filled with good friends and good food was had by all. And pulling off a GF Oktoberfest was no big deal! Prost!

- Pete

Thursday, October 23, 2008

GF Beers in BeerNW Magazine

This month I have a new article out in the Fall 2008 issue of BeerNW magazine. After some requisite background about Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance for readers, I discuss how some of the local breweries in the Pacific Northwest are championing GF beers. Places like Widmer in Portland, OR and Deschutes in Bend, OR. At the conclusion of the article, I include a description of many of the widely available GF beers in the United States in an extensive sidebar. If you've read some of our previous blogs about GF beer, some of the info in the article will be redundant. However, if you're looking for one-stop shopping when it comes to GF beer information, the article can be a great resource.

- Pete

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Yogurt is yogurt. Right?

A little over one month ago, Gluten Free Steve - another GF blogger here in Colorado - made an interesting post about his search for a gluten-free, high fructose corn syrup-free yogurt. That search led him away from his standard Yoplait, and toward the Weight Watchers line of yogurts. It got me thinking about my own transition in the world of yogurt.

Yogurt has been a big part of my diet for as long as I can remember. I've had a severe lactose intolerance since birth, but thankfully, the live active cultures in yogurt help my body break down the lactose that would otherwise cause trouble. As a consequence, yogurt has been an important - perhaps even my main - source of calcium.

Growing up, there was only one brand of yogurt you'd find in my family's refrigerator: Dannon. One flavor in particuler took up more than its share of shelf space - blueberry fruit on the bottom. In a word, it was my favorite, by a long shot. My mom would literally go to the supermarket, find the manager of the refrigerator section, and have him bring out a case of Dannon blueberry fruit on the bottom yogurt.

In more recent times, however, my diet isn't what it used to be. For one, I'm strictly gluten-free. For another, I've made the switch away from high fructose corn syrup, and more generally, I've shifted toward foods with shorter, simpler ingredients lists, and away from foods that have longer, more complex ingredients lists that read like a chemistry kit. It was with this new dietary perspective that I one day spun my cup of Dannon yogurt around to read the ingredients list: right after milk and blueberries, it read sugar, fructose syrup, and high fructose corn syrup. Holy sweetness attack Batman! Farther down the list, the ingredients became less and less recognizable. Were my Dannon days over? I'm sorry to say, yes. Literally decades of Dannon-eating tradition had come to a close.

It was just as well. Apart from the high fructose corn syrup, which is a separate issue, the ingredients list had no obvious sources of gluten. But when I double-checked that impression against the Dannon official statement, the picture suddenly wasn't so clear. On the topic of gluten in its yogurt, Dannon says: "DANNON yogurt products are not formulated to contain gluten, but they can't be considered gluten free. The natural system for stabilizing flavor might contain ingredients derived from gluten sources. Since there is a current lack of consensus on individual sensitivity levels to gluten, and there are no accurate tests to detect the presence and amount of gluten, DANNON yogurt cannot be classified as 'gluten free.'" Those sounds like fightin' words to me.

So began my quest to find a tasty, gluten-free, high fructose corn syrup-free yogurt. It wasn't nearly as easy as I'd expected it to be. Some yogurts that fit the bill tasted too sour. Some lacked the right texture. (I'm not that picky...really.) Brown Cow, which is all natural, certified gluten-free, and which has a nice, simple ingredients list, had potential. But when I tasted the Cream Top Blueberry, all I tasted was maple (pure maple syrup is the second ingredient, and it overpowered all other flavors).

Finally, after much searching, I found a trio of winners. First, there's Stonyfield Farm. For one, it's organic. And for another, the entire line of yogurts is gluten-free (most are certified as such; those that aren't yet certified are currently undergoing that process, but are already gluten-free). Then, there's Wallaby Organic Yogurt. Again, they're organic. All the milk comes from pastured cows that live on small, family farms in northern California. And of course, the entire line of yogurt is gluten-free. Finally, there's Rachel's Wickedly Delicious yogurt. While not certified as gluten-free, the yogurts don't list any sources of gluten. In theory, they're 100% gluten-free, although the Rachel's website contains a standard precautionary statement. If you have concerns, contact them.

Such has been my quest to find a tasty, gluten-free, high fructose corn syrup-free yogurt. At the beginning, I would have thought that yogurt was yogurt. But oh, how my eyes have been opened!

- Pete

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Schar Update

Late last night I received an email from Julio, one of our readers. Julio had recently "discovered" Schar GF products during a two-week trip to Italy. Upon returning to the States, he searched for Schar products, which took him to our blog entry, the Gluten Free Mall, and the Schar website. He was shocked to find literally everything in the Schar online store listed as "temporarily unavailable."

I placed a call to Schar USA customer service this morning, and they explained that because the online store was a new feature of their website, they're still waiting for the products to come into stock. The current estimated waiting period is two weeks. Schar products also appear to be out of stock through Amazon. You can still buy them through the Gluten Free Mall, as well as at your local grocery store, if you live within their current distribution area.

Thanks, Julio, for alterting us to the current situation! Hopefully this is a unique and one-time circumstance, and not something that will repeat itself in the future.

- Pete

Friday, October 17, 2008

Chipotle Mexican Grill

Ever since moving to Colorado in September 2004, I have to admit that I've been addicted to burritos. But not just any burritos. Chipotle burritos in particular. And seriously, what's not to like? The company started locally, in Denver. It's a leader in the realm of using organic veggies and natural meats (part of the company's Food With Integrity and sustainability initiatives). And the food is pretty darned tasty.

It's also really easy to eat gluten-free there. Basically, as long as you avoid the soft flour tortillas (large, burrito-sized or small, taco-sized) you're fine. Just go with the burrito bowl, and you're good to go. The rest of the ingredients are a-okay. That includes the chips, which are 100% corn.

The language on Chipotle's website still contains a few requisite cautionary words: there is the chance for cross-contamination since they work with flour tortillas all day. They also mention the possibility of gluten in the fresh corn, since the corn might co-mingle with wheat "out in the field." But I've never seen this as a concern with corn before, and frankly, it doesn't worry me. Similarly, they mention that the hot red tomatillo salsa has a small amount of distilled vinegar. That shouldn't be a problem at all. There's a big difference between distilled vinegar and malted vinegar, which would have barley listed as an ingredient.

In the end, Chipotle is very accomodating for folks who can't eat gluten. If you're particularly concerned, you can always ask the server to change their gloves. But after eating countless burrito bowls, I can confidently say that I've never gotten sick from eating Chipotle, and I don't hesitate to chow down on my favorite combo of fixin's - burrito bowl, no beans, extra rice, barbacoa meat, salsa verde, and lettuce. Yum.

Oh, and did I mention that Chipotle's presence is ever-expanding nationwide? Find one near you, and go order yourself a burrito bowl, pronto.

- Pete

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cornbread and Chili

The nights continue to get colder here in Boulder. Earlier this week the temperature dipped into the high twenties when I went out to walk the dog early in the morning. If there was any doubt before, there is none now - fall has arrived. And with it, so has our craving for more warm-your-soul foods. Like meatloaf, which we blogged about recently. And cornbread and chili, today's topic.

I can't take any credit for this delicious meal we ate recently - it was all Kelli's doing. She used our GF flour mix to make cornbread muffins, and using her ever-skillful intuition for concocting "dump, don't measure" recipes on the fly in the kitchen, made a delicious pot of chili. It had tomatoes, kidney beans, ground turkey, red bell pepper, and a blend of herbs and spices.

What are your favorite fall dishes? When it's cold and rainy or snowy outside, what foods make you want to curl up on the couch under a blanket with a hot bowl of [fill in the blank]? Do tell!

- Pete

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Mariposa Baking Co.

After reading our review of Shabtai Gourmet, one of our readers suggested we review the Mariposa Baking Company, in Oakland, California. Following up on that lead, I contacted Mariposa and requested samples. The founder, Patti, happily obliged.

Mariposa came into existence in 2004, shortly after founder Patti Furey Crane was diagnosed with a gluten allergy. Adhering to the GF diet fixed the problem, and also eliminated many of her multiple sclerosis symptoms. But it didn't fix her sweet tooth, so she set out to develop gluten-free bakery items that fit the bill.

Patti surrounded herself with a small team of folks that assisted with recipe development, focusing first on brownies and biscotti. Since then, Mariposa has expanded to include squares, bagels, pizza crust, breads, croutons and coffee cake. The bakery has also literally expanded, into a building in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, where Mariposa features a storefront bakery for customers, and a cafe that features pizzas and breads.

We received six products from Patti: the almond biscotti, sour cream coffee cake, coconut lemon square, mocha truffle brownie, triple chocoloate truffle brownie, and pumpkin bread. Right off the bat, I looked at the ingredients list and noticed two things. 1) Mariposa uses butter in its recipes, not margarine or other forms of shortening that contain trans fat. 2) Mariposa's lists of ingredients were deliciously simple to read - they contained familiar ingredients, most of which I might expect to find in any baker's well-stocked pantry at home. These were both comforting facts. But how did everything taste?

Almond Biscotti
The almond biscotti had great flavor - a definite almond presence, without it being too overpowering. The twice-baked recipe resulted in a perfect texture. The biscotti were crunchy and airy, and when paired with a cup of coffee or other drink, they're perfect.

Sour Cream Coffee Cake
The sour cream coffee cake was moist, with wonderful "nuggets" of cinnamon sugar and nuts throughout. It's not crumbly at all, and holds together well. The texture is excellent - you'd never know this was gluten-free.

Coconut Lemon Square
The coconut lemon square had a sweet lemon flavor. The coconut flavor was much more subtle, with the shaved coconut providing an added textural element, along with the pecans.

Mocha Truffle Brownie
The mocha truffle brownie had a rich, chocolate flavor. The texture was nice - moist in the middle, with a harder, drier "crust." We still love our own homemade brownies, but this is excellent.

Triple Chocolate Truffle Brownie
The triple chocolate truffle brownie was good. Not quite as good as the mocha truffle brownie. But still very good. The chocolate flavor was more straightforward, and the triple chocolate truffle brownie had a thicker "crust" on top.

Pumpkin Bread
From the moment we open the package, the pumpkin bread smelled strongly of pumpkin spice - specifically, cinnamon and cloves. It is beautifully rich and moist, and raisins added a nice touch to the pumpkin flavor. It tasted homemade in the best sense of the phrase. In a word, this was delicious.
If you've read some of our other reviews, you know that we can be tough critics, hard to please, and that we're not afraid to point out when something doesn't live up to our expectations or standards. But to be completely honest, Kelli and I can find no such criticisms with Mariposa Baking Co. Our review of their foods is universally positive. Do yourself a favor, and place an order.

As a final parting word, I'll reminisce. As a native of Long Island, I grew up eating and loving bagels. In fact, I'll come right out and call myself a bagel snob. I know what a great one tastes like - they have to be made right, and the kind you buy in the grocery store just don't cut it. Alas, I haven't had a bagel in years, good or bad, thanks to my GF diet. But I can't help noticing that Mariposa makes a bagel. You can be sure I'm placing an order. My standards will be high, but if anyone can meet them, I'm guessing it will be Mariposa.
- Pete

Monday, October 13, 2008

Great American Beer Festival

Late last week - October 9-11, 2008, to be exact - Denver hosted its annual Great American Beer Festival. It's a truly mammoth event that holds the world record for the most number of beers on tap under one roof. Last year, I attended the GABF on assignment for 5280: Denver's Mile-High Magazine. That assignment resulted in my article, "The Happiest Hour: A beer lover discovers a new favorite in gluten-free," which appeared in the March 2008 issue.

It was a fun assignment - my goal was to find the needle in the haystack, to find the literal handful of GF beers from among the thousands of beers on tap. There were the predictable beers - RedBridge, New Grist - and also others, like Bard's Tale and Shakparo. And in the middle of the convention center, they had the Beer and Food Pavilion, where throughout the festival they held different cooking seminars, including one co-hosted by Elise Wiggins, executive chef of Panzanno in downtown Denver, about cooking gluten-free. Last year's GABF was notable because, for the first time, GF beers competed in their own category. Previously, GF beers were entered in the experimental beer category, where anything goes and they were up against an incredibly wide variety of entrants and styles.

This year's 2008 GABF proved equally mammoth in its proportions - 46,000 attendees, 472 breweries in the competition, 432 breweries on the tasting floor, 2,902 beers in the competition, and 2,052 beers to taste. Of course, very few of those beers are gluten-free. In fact, this year's gluten-free beer category had 10 entrants (up from 8 last year). Anheuser-Busch's RedBridge took the gold, while LakeFront's New Grist took the silver (thus repeating their one-two finish from 2007). Deschutes Brewery's Chinquapin Butte Golden Ale took bronze.

To be completely honest, I'm disappointed by this year's result. RedBridge is once again on top, and while Anheuser-Busch makes a great GF beer, which is distributed nationally, and which I've drank...a lot, I'm tired of seeing it at Number One. There are other great GF beers out there, and I'd like to see them earn some accolades so that people can find out about them, people can drink them, and they can grow in popularity, hopefully increasing demand and availability. I'm especially disappointed with New Grist making it onto the medal podium...again. They've been there since GF beers were in the experimental category, and I still can't figure out what judges like so much about New Grist. For me, it's always had a funny aftertaste. I've never tasted Deschutes' Chinquapin, but in my pre-GF days, I loved many of their beers, and I'm happy to see them win the bronze.

But there are two other beers I'd like to see get a mention: Bard's Tale Dragon's Gold, and CB Potts Don't Be A Gluten. I wrote about Bard's in the current October 2008 issue of Missouri Life magazine. And you can read about CB Potts here on our blog.

Do you have a favorite GF beer? Know of a local GF brew you think others should know about? Leave a comment or let us know!

- Pete

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Appetizers for Dinner

Every now and then it's fun to turn dinner on its head. Like when you make "breakfast for dinner" - you know, pancakes or waffles or scrambled eggs for dinner. Earlier this week, Kelli and I were watching football and suddenly got a craving to make appetizers for dinner. In particular, we had a hankering for grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp and pigs in a blanket.

We had the shrimp and bacon on-hand, but the pigs required a trip to the grocery store. Our local supermarket is still undergoing renovation, so the meat department has been a little off-kilter lately. This time around, there were no Applegate Farms hot dogs to be found. Instead, we went with Coleman Natural beef hot dogs. They're gluten-free, of course, and lots of other good things, similar to Applegate. Happy, we checked out and went home to cook our feast.

For the bacon-wrapped shrimp, I first partially cooked the bacon, so that the grilling wouldn't overcook the shrimp, which wouldn't take nearly as long. Then, I wrapped the shrimp in bacon and put them on wooden skewers. After a few minutes on the grill to cook and crisp up the bacon, they were ready!

For the pigs in a blanket, we cut the hot dogs into two-inch long segments, and wrapped them in our pastry dough, rolled out very thin. Then, we popped them in the oven on a cookie sheet until they were lightly brown and the hot dogs were cooked through.

Our appetizers-for-dinner dinner wouldn't have been complete without a tasty dessert to top it off. We opted for a Dutch apple pie - pie crust on the bottom, crumble topping, with McIntosh apples (this time around). It was delicious!

The pie didn't last long. After munching on it throughout the remainder of the football game, not much was left. The rest was gobbled up for breakfast the next morning (does that make it "dinner for breakfast?" Or just leftovers? Or neither?). At any rate, cooking and eating should be fun, and I hope our appetizers-for-dinner has inspired you to play around and get creative in the kitchen!

- Pete

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Outback Steakhouse

It's pretty well-known within the gluten-free community that Outback Steakhouse offers a gluten-free menu. But, it's worth repeating here in the hopes that someone who wasn't aware of the GF menu will be after reading this post. The menu was developed with the assistance of the Gluten Intolerance Group. It's not a GF menu in the strictest sense - you don't turn to your server and say, "I'll have the gluten-free [insert dish here]." Instead, the menu provides instructions for how to order menu items so that they'll be prepared gluten-free. For example, "avoid both dressings" on the seared Ahi tuna, or "request no croutons on salads."

My favorite (and by favorite, I mean favorite to gently ridicule) is the Cinnamon Apple Oblivion. "Vanilla ice cream topped with warm cinnamon apples and cinnamon croutons, pecans and homemade caramel sauce. Avoid cinnamon apples and cinnamon croutons." Italics mine. But if you take away the cinnamon apples and croutons, what are you left with? A scoop of vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce on it. Makes me chuckle.

Regardless, I'm a fan of Outback Steakhouse, and here's why. You're pretty likely to find one while traveling, the food is consistent from location to location, the food is tasty, and I've never had a problem with cross-contamination. In fact, I'm confident enough in Outback that I will eat there as my pre-race meal the night before a competition (like earlier this summer, when I had the side salad sans croutons with tangy tomato dressing, Outback Special steak cooked medium, and garlic mashed potatoes the night before I competed in the Xterra Beaver Creek).

Perhaps best of all, when national and international chains like Outback cater to the needs of those on a gluten-free diet, we can hope that their leadership role will help other restaurants to follow.

- Pete

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Recipe: Fresh Salsa

What to do when you have a surplus of ripe tomatoes that are going to go bad if you don't use them? Make salsa, of course! Such was our "predicament" recently, and here's how we made our salsa:

3 vine-ripened tomatoes, diced
1/3 medium onion, chopped
1/2 jalapeno pepper, chopped
1/3 bunch cilantro, rough chopped
lime juice (1/2 lime, freshly squeezed)
garlic powder

  • Combine the tomato, onion, pepper and cilantro in a medium bowl. Add as many, or as few, of the jalapeno seeds as you like, depending on how spicy you want to make the salsa (a little jalapeno can go a long judicious!).
  • Add the spices to taste.
  • Enjoy!

- Pete

Monday, October 6, 2008

Schar USA

Several weeks ago, Kelli and I received a package of gluten-free products from Schar USA. Since then, we've slowly been making our way through the comprehensive sampling, and at last, we're prepared to offer you our assessment. But first, a little background on Schar:

The Italian company gots it start in 1922 making infant food. Then, in 1982, it expanded into gluten-free foods. Schar's popularity grew, and so did its range of distribution throughout Europe. Today, it is the #1 selling GF brand in Europe, as measured by market share. According to Donna George, vice president for Schar USA, the company pulls in 50% of the gluten-free market share averaged across the 35 countries where Schar is sold. Impressive.

Over in Europe, Schar actually sells under four different brand names, and "Schar" is the name they've chosen to bring here to the United States. As far as Schar USA is concerned, the company's distribution is primarily on the East Coast. They'll be slowly expanding into the Midwest in the near future. Those of us further west, however, will have to wait. Schar USA has no immediate plans to be in stores on the West least not yet. However, you can also order Schar products direct through the company website, via the Gluten-Free Mall, and via Amazon.

It's interesting to note that Schar USA recruited Anne Lee into the company ranks as the staff nutritionist. Lee was formerly a nutritionist with the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, and is a respected authority on CD and gluten intolerance.

Now, as for the review, a disclaimer (if you've read our review of Shabtai Gourmet this will sound familiar): In general, Kelli and I are predisposed against pre-made, store-bought products. Read our food philosophy, and you'll know that we think that the food we make from scratch at home with simpler ingredients (and ingredient lists that don't read like a chemistry kit) is healthier, tastier, and higher quality. But there are times when the ease and convenience of pre-made, store-bought products will have appeal, and Schar delivers.

In particular, it's amazing to see such diversity from one company. Schar sent us its full line of 13 GF products currently available in the U.S. (the company plans to unveil five more, for a total of 18, in the near future). Usually, a GF company will specialize in either breads or pastas or pastries. Schar serves up all three. It's one-stop shopping.

A final word on the reviews: we've tried to weigh Schar against three criteria. 1) How does it rate against what we can make ourselves? 2) How does it rate against other GF companies? And 3) How does it rate against "regular" equivalents of the same foods?

At last, the reviews:

The Classic White Bread was somewhat flavorless (but isn't all WonderBread-style white bread?). It fell victim to our standard complaints regarding pre-made, store-bought GF tasted stale, dry, and crumbled too easily. If using this bread, our recommendation is to turn it into French toast, where the milk, eggs, vanilla and cinammon will add needed flavor and moisture. The Multigrain Bread, while still poor on texture, had great flavor. It makes excellent garlic toast, which happily complemented a meal of spaghetti with meatballs and marinara sauce for dinner one night. The Classic White Rolls were very similar to the Classic White Bread. I pulsed them in the food processor to make GF bread crumbs and used those for other recipes, like meatloaf and chicken parmigiana. One last word about breads in Schar's defense. Presently, all the company's GF breads are baked in Europe and then shipped to the U.S. This introduces a freshness issue for the company (not to mention the environmental impact of that long-distance transport). Schar has plans to open a bakery in the United States, which should help circumvent the freshness issue in the breads, and will reduce the eco-impact. Both good things!

Schar makes its pastas using a blend of corn and rice flours. Kelli and I were both very impressed with both the texture and the flavor of the pasta. The Spaghetti and the Fusilli were delicious, and we used them to make spaghetti with meatballs and marinara sauce, and fusilli with a white wine clam sauce. Schar also makes a Penne pasta, but we only had a label from the box, and not the actual pasta to try. Based on the others, I'd expect it to be very good as well.

In a word, Schar's pastries were yummy. The Chocolate Hazelnut Bars had a light hazelnut flavor, with so-so milk chocolate, and wafers that were light and crispy. On the whole they're a tasty treat. The Shortbread Cookies were very good, with nice texture, and a flavor that was almost spot-on. The Chocolate-Dipped Cookies were delicious. I ate my way through too many of these in way too short a time period.

Other Products
Schar makes a pre-baked Pizza Crust that's ready for toppings and a quick bake in the oven. I'll admit, neither Kelli nor I had high expectations for the pizza crust. I'm happy to report that we were pleasantly surprised. The pizza crust had nice texture, with good flavor. Our only complaint was the crust's small size - one crust was too small for us to share, but too big for one person to eat alone. Lastly, we tried Schar's Italian Breadsticks. These were very good - great flavor, with a nice, crisp texture. Alas, the breadsticks had an ingredient list that read the most like a chemistry kit - Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, anyone? Or how about some Diacetyltataric Acid Esters of Mono- and Di-glycerides of Edible Fats?

Final Analysis
Firstly, if you're counting, we mentioned 13 Schar products, but there aren't 13 reviews. I didn't list our assessment of every last product here - we've provided an overview with enough detailed reviews for you to get a good sense of the Schar USA brand. Our sense is that, on the whole, Schar is a winning company, and I'd expect the brand to grow in popularity here in the United States as word gets out. We'd like to see some of the ingredient lists migrate more toward the legible, natural and simple. Some of the foods could be more healthful (the chocolate hazelnut bars have 200 calories each, 110 from fat). But looking across the full spectrum of products, Schar serves up a high quality and diverse offering that misses the mark in some places, but hits it superbly in others. I suppose that makes Schar a jack of all trades, master of some.

- Pete

Friday, October 3, 2008

Upcoming Event: GF Cooking Class

Kelli and I have been invited to teach a gluten-free cooking class at the Whole Foods in Littleton, CO. The one hour seminar is titled "Great and Gluten-Free," and we'll be sharing our GF flour blend with attendees. Then we'll use that blend to make delicious pancakes and Belgian waffles from scratch. The recipes and shopping lists will be provided for each attendee. Please come join us! The class is on Wednesday, October 29, at 6:30pm.

Cheers, Pete

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Degrees of Free-dom

As I've scoured the Internet, sifting through the posts of other gluten-free bloggers, I've noticed a great degree of variety. Not only in terms of each blogger's unique experiences, recipes, and stories. But also in terms of their degrees of free-dom. What exactly do I mean? This: it seems that seldom is gluten-free the only dietary restriction.

I'll use myself as an example. In addition to my gluten-free diet, I'm also lactose intolerant (since birth), and thanks to a meticulous dietary journal I kept for the first few months of 2007, I've also eliminated caffeine and grapefruit from my diet as well. If you bounce from GF blog to GF blog, you'll find a similarly wide range of free-doms: gluten-free, casein free, dairy free, lactose free, meat free, refined sugar free, nut free, and the list goes on. You get the idea.

In addition to simply adding variety to the family of GF blogs out there, these degrees of free-dom also make a practical difference in the kinds of recipes you're likely to find on a particular blog. Here on NGNP - thanks to my gluten-free plus lactose-free requirement - you won't find much in the way of recipes that use cheese. When we do use cheese (for example, on our pizzas), we use it sparingly, and we opt for mild cheeses like mozzarella (plus a helping of Lactaid).

I've often scratched my head over the whole grapefruit intolerance thing. I know I have it - my dietary journal doesn't lie. But I wondered how common it was, and what the root cause was (grapefruit is known to have a chemical that can interfere with certain medications...could that be the cause?).

In my searching for an answer, I turned up two very interesting articles. The first appeared in 2007 on the BBC News website. A poll conducted by the company YorkTest found that of the 12 million people in the United Kingdom who claim to have a food intolerance, fewer than 25% have actually been formally diagnosed. The article went on to explain that 40% of survey respondents thought it was trendy to be intolerant. Trendy?! The suggested implication was that some people merely thought they were intolerant to something, even though they weren't, and that they were unnecessarily restricting their diets.

The second article came out just two months ago on Medical News Today. YorkTest Labs, the same folks that conducted the survey cited by the BBC in 2007, compiled a list of the top ten food intolerances in the UK. Cows milk (lactose intolerance) came in at Number One, affecting 64% of the population. (That's a lot of people!) Wheat and gluten ranked fourth and sixth, respectively, affecting 34% and 26% of the population. The article also had a list of "friendly fruits," those to which people are least intolerant. Of course, grapefruit was on that list, affecting only 0.5% of the UK population.

I still don't have a definitive answer on the grapefruit intolerance. But whether you've been formally diagnosed or not, and whether you have layers of restrictions or just one, I think there's no doubting that you know when a food just doesn't agree with your body. Gluten-free, lactose free, it doesn't matter what - for the millions of us out there who have a dietary restriction, we don't think we have it, we do have it. And it isn't trendy, either. For us, it's just life, and we make of it what we will...bad or good, ugly or great.

- Pete

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Recipe: Pastry Dough / Pie Crust

Over the last few weeks, Kelli and I have posted a variety of mostly-complete recipes for things like empanadas and apple pies. The missing piece of the equation has been our recipe for pastry dough or pie crust. Well, here it is!

2 1/4 cups GF flour mix
1 tsp salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold, unsalted butter
1 large egg
1/3 cup ice water
1 1/2 tsp apple cider vinegar

  • Sift the flour with salt into a large bowl. Cut the butter into half-inch cubes, and use your fingertips or a pastry cutter to blend the butter into the flour until the mix has pea-size butter lumps.
  • In a separate bowl, beat together the egg, water and vinegar, using a fork. Then, add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture, stirring with a fork just until everything has incorporated.
  • Turn the mixture out onto a lightly floured (GF) surface, and knead gently with the heel of your hand a few times. Don't overwork the dough.
  • Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.

A few additional tips about working with GF dough: With traditional pastry dough or pie crust, you'd let the dough chill in a refrigerator for at least one hour. This period of cold rest is meant to allow the gluten proteins to relax. Since GF dough doesn't have gluten proteins, this chilling period isn't strictly necessary. However, we find that allowing the GF dough to chill in the fridge for at least 15 minutes makes the dough much easier to work with.

GF dough is fragile, and can be frustrating to work with if you're not patient. Whether you're making a pie crust, forming empanadas, or using it for some other purpose, follow these rules of thumb: When you begin rolling out the dough, place it between two sheets of plastic wrap (both to protect the dough and to prevent it from sticking to and tearing on the counter). Once the dough is rolled out to the width of the plastic wrap, remove the top sheet and place it parallel to and slightly overlapping beneath the first sheet. Then continue to roll out the dough across the second sheet to your desired thickness. If you're making empanadas, you can cut out the discs directly from here. If you're making a pie, leave the dough on the plastic wrap, invert it into your pie tin or Pyrex, and then peel away the plastic wrap.

- Pete