Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Happy News about Blue Cheese

Recently, the question came up about whether or not blue-veined cheeses are gluten-free. It's a fair question to ask, given that blue cheeses (Roquefort in France, Stilton in England, Gorgonzola in Italy, Danablu in Denmark, and Maytag Blue in the U.S., for example) are made using mold derived from the Penicillium bacteria. That mold, in turn, is traditionally and historically grown on bread as the substrate. And bread, of course, means gluten. Right?

In instances where bread was used to grow the mold, yes, gluten could (and did) find its way into the cheese. Nowadays, for artisanal blue cheeses still made according to historical guidelines, gluten remains a concern, and not all blue cheeses are gluten-free.

However, today many (if not most) blue cheeses are gluten-free, by virtue of the fact that the molds are now developed in a laboratory setting with a chemical substrate free of gluten. So, to offer three examples (hardly an exhaustive list), the Bel Gioioso cheeses, Point Reyes cheeses, and Rosenborg cheeses are all gluten-free. And there are many others.

If your favorite blue cheese company doesn't have a gluten statement on their website, your best bet is to check with the particular company that makes the cheese in question – they would be able to definitively answer whethere or not the cheese is gluten-free. While more and more companies are making gluten-free blue cheeses, not all do, and so the safest route is to ask. The fact remains, though, that most blue cheeses will be gluten-free. So if blue-veined cheeses are your thing, rejoice!

(Thanks to one of our readers, Mike, for writing in with the question!)

- Pete

Saturday, January 24, 2009

GF Dehydrated Meals in the Backcountry

Well, another day at the winter outdoor retailer is under my belt, and frankly, I'm exhausted. But I did find out some useful information about GF offerings in the dehydrated meal category. Several companies make a full line of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, desserts and side dishes that are dehydrated. Typically, you add boiling water, let stand for a given period of time, and eat.

Of the three companies with which I'm personally familiar, only one is in attendance at the show: TyRy, Inc., which makes the Alpine Aire and Natural High brands. Backpackers Pantry and Mountain House are both MIA. Regardless, here's the scoop:

Mountain House
Unfortunately, none of the meals in the MH line are gluten-free. Avoid.

Backpackers Pantry
BP offers an extensive line of meals, many of which are gluten-free. You can download a PDF of allergen information here. It lists each meal and the major allergens contained within, including gluten. Or, for a succinct list of all the gluten-free meals compiled onto one sheet, scroll to page four.

Alpine Aire
AA also offers a pretty extensive line of meals, many of which are gluten-free. Also, thanks to demand from consumers, they're actively expanding their meal line in the GF category. You can see a regularly updated list of their GF meals here. I had a great conversation with one of their reps at the show, and he'll be sending me some GF product samples to review on NGNP, so stay tuned in the coming weeks for our assessment of the AA offerings!

- Pete

Friday, January 23, 2009

GF Outdoor Athletes and Energy Chews

This blog post finds me in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I'm attending the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market trade show, hosted by the Outdoor Industry Association. If you're into outdoor adventure sports, this is the place for you! Imagine taking all the companies that deal in climbing gear, ski gear, camping gear, outdoor technical clothing, and lots more, and putting them all under one very large roof. That's the winter outdoor retailer!

Many companies use the show as an opportunity to unveil their newest products that either just have hit the market, or will do so soon. Earlier today, I wandered the show floor doing some gluten-free reconnaissance specifically related to energy/sports chews. In a previous blog post, I've touted both Sharkies and Jelly Belly's Sport Beans (you can read my assessment of them both by scrolling to the bottom of this post). However, based on what I've seen at this year's winter outdoor retailer, Sharkies and Sports Beans have some competition.

First, there's Honey Stinger, a company based out of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. They've introduced organic energy chews, which are both gluten-free and dairy-free. The Organic Energy Chews are currently available in two flavors - Fruit Smoothie (which contains cherry blossom, orange blossom, and mixed berry) and Cherry Blossom. In April 2009, they've also planning to release a new flavor option: Pomegranate Passion.

Second, GU has unveiled its new GU Chomps, touted as "pure performance energy chews." These puppies are so new they're not on the website yet. Like the Honey Stinger chews, these are also gluten-free and dairy-free. When they hit stores, they'll be available in four flavors: blueberry-pomegranate, orange, strawberry, and cranberry-apple.

Lastly, there are the Luna Sport Moons. These puppies are being billed as the "first women's organic energy chew." They come in three flavors: pomegranate, blueberry, and watermelon. (For the men, Luna is made by Clif, which also offers Shot Bloks. These come in seven flavors.) UPDATE: While neither the Luna Sport Moons nor Clif Shot Bloks contain gluten, they are made in a facility that also processes wheat, and thus has the potential for cross-contamination. Anecdotally, I've personally never gotten sick from them, but that's no guarantee that it couldn't happen in the future. UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: 3/3/09 - The Clif website is out of date, and the company has confirmed for me that both Luna Sport Moons and Shot Bloks are GLUTEN-FREE, and are made in a dedicated, allergen-free facility. Enjoy!

So there you have it, gluten-free endurance athletes. Whether your thing is ski mountaineering racing, Xterra, triathlons, marathons, or anything else, there are an increasing number of gluten-free energy chews out there to help fuel your body, and the newest offerings to come to market will make for some stiff (and tasty) competition for the old standards.

- Pete

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Clearing up the debate about Everclear

I was recently at a restaurant in Boulder on assignment for a magazine, writing about the chef and his approach to cooking (more on that and a GF review of the restaurant after my article comes out). After dinner, I sat at the bar chatting with the bartender, who makes many of his own liquors - amaretto, triple sec, sambuca, and more - from scratch. To oversimplify the process, he does it by making infusions...of almond for the amaretto, of orange for the triple sec, and of fennel for the sambuca. (The amaretto and triple sec were good. The sambuca was exceptional.)

The base for the infusion is Everclear, a neutral grain spirit. Neutral grain spirits are a class of alcohol characterized by their clear, colorless, and flavorless qualities. They also have very high concentrations of ethyl alcohol (ethanol) - we're talking very high concentrations, on the order of 150 to 190 proof. Taken straight, this stuff is like jet fuel and can do serious bodily harm. Used for a higher good though (such as an infusion), and neutral grain spirits have a rightful purpose.

Within the GF community, products like Everclear have typically raised a red flag, and they've been widely debated about whether or not they're gluten-free. First, it's worthwhile to note that Everclear is sold in two strengths: 190 proof (which is banned in some states), and 150 proof (sold where the higher proof is outlawed). The debate comes from the word "grain," and the fact that neutral grain spirits are typically derived (distilled) from cereal grain. I've already covered the ins and outs of distillation here, so I won't belabor that point. It's also worth noting that corn happens to be the most common grain used for neutral grain spirits, so there's no gluten to be concerned about in those instances.

To be doubly sure, I contacted the folks at Luxco, the parent company for Everclear. They confirmed that Everclear is derived from corn, and that their version of neutral grain spirits is gluten-free. So whether you're using Everclear for infusions of homemade liquors, or for other purposes, rest assured that it's gluten-free.

- Pete

Friday, January 16, 2009

Panchero's Mexican Grill

I'm writing this blog post from the road - from a hotel room in Montrose, Colorado, to be exact. Thursday began a whirlwind tour of western Colorado, and I'm just about at the halfway mark, having completed stops in Durango, Silverton and Montrose, and with stops in Aspen, Glenwood Springs, and Grand Junction still to go.

I often find that traveling is an opportune time to reflect on my gluten-free diet, since I've left the comfort and security of my home kitchen and pantry behind. For me there's an uncertainty to eating on the road - where will my next meal come from? Will I be able to find good gluten-free food? Or will I get sick from a contaminated meal eaten at a restaurant?

To combat such uncertainty, I've adopted the practice of traveling with a soft-sided cooler bag filled with GF foods. I've written about it before on this blog, so I won't belabor the issue. But consider it my culinary security blanket. (Anecdotally, I also find that eating from my travel bag, and replenishing it with stops at supermarkets along the way, is cheaper, healthier, and on the whole, more enjoyable.)

As I rolled into Montrose earlier today, the community - on the face of it - didn't strike me as one that's particularly friendly to the gluten-free diet. I sat in my hotel room pondering dinner, and reconciling the restaurant listings in the phone book with internet searches for gluten-free dining. My search didn't turn up much, but I did find a healthy serving of Mexican restaurants here in town.

Over time, on the average, I've found Mexican cuisine an agreeable way to go. Some restaurants, like Mi Casa in Breckenridge, have dedicated GF menus. At many others, it's pretty easy to follow the GF straight and narrow with 100% corn soft tortillas, meat and veggies, and rice. That hasn't always been the case, though. One particular instance really comes to mind...the night before a ski mountaineering race in Snowmass, when the owner of the restaurant emphatically insisted I was okay to eat the food, and that turned to be very much not the case.

I was tempted to eat at one of the local family run Mexican restaurants tonight, but part of the reason why I'm on the road is because I'm racing in The Heathen Challenge at Sunlight Mountain Resort on Sunday. It's the first ski mountaineering race of the season for me, and I don't fancy the idea of getting sick 48 hours before the event. In the end, rather, I decided to eat dinner at Panchero's Mexican Grill.

Panchero's has locations in almost 20 states, including two restaurants on Colorado's Western Slope (here in Montrose, and also in Grand Junction). I couldn't believe I hadn't heard of it before tonight! In many ways, it's like Chipotle, serving burritos and burrito bowls with a choice of meat, rice, beans, salsas, etc. And also like Chipotle, they had a basic gluten statement on the website. Notably, almost everything on the menu at Panchero's is gluten-free, with the exception of the tortillas and the chicken (whose marinade isn't GF).

For my dinner this evening, I settled on a burrito bowl (of course) with Spanish rice, steak, tomato-based salsa, and a corn-cilantro-lime salsa. It was delicious, but I ate the meal with some nervousness. Unlike Chipotle, where I've eaten without incident oodles of times and consumed more burrito bowls than I can count (with one glaring exception of cross-contamination over the last two years), Panchero's was virgin territory for me. And I did see potential for cross-contamination with how the ingredients were handled and prepared.

Enough time has passed this evening that I know I'm in the clear and in all likelihood won't get sick, but I do have the distinct feeling of having dodged a bullet. My recommendation to you: Panchero's is a realistic option for good GF Mexican food in the Chipotle style, but while you're waiting in line behind the customers ahead of you, watch how the burritos are prepared, and judge for yourself the potential for cross-contamination. If in doubt, it might be prudent to bow out.

- Pete

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gatorade Remains Gluten-Free

For as long as I can remember, I've relied on Gatorade as my electrolyte replacement sports drink of choice. It's one of the few exceptions I make to my personal "no high fructose corn syrup" rule, and the nutrition section of the Gatorade website explains their seemingly sound rationale for using HFCS in their sports drink formulation.

Of course, one of the benefits of Gatorade for me is that the product is gluten-free. (I'm fiercely loyal to the original Holy Trinity of Gatorade flavors: lemon-lime, orange, and fruit punch.) On my most recent trip to the grocery store, I couldn't help but notice a total overhaul in the labeling, which has coincided with Gatorade's new image and switch to the "G" logo with the orange lightning bolt through it.

Concerned that this new label might also indicate a change in the formulation of the drink, I quickly checked the ingredients list. Sure enough, I found something new that wasn't there before: modified food starch. As you know, MFS can often be a hidden source of gluten in foods, so I immediately contacted Gatorade customer service.

I heard back earlier today from Gatorade Customer Relations. The modified food starch is used "to help thicken our products," I was told. (Why they need to thicken a sports drink, I don't know.) However, they also explained that their MFS is corn-based, and that their drinks remain gluten-free. So, without belaboring the Gatorade issue longer than I need to, the take home message is this: drink up, gluten-free athletes. Your sports drink is safe.

- Pete

Friday, January 9, 2009

Distilling the facts about Distillation

The last 24 hours have been interesting for me, gastrointestinally speaking. Last night, Kelli made a delicious batch of sugar cookies from scratch. A short time after eating a few cookies from the first batch, I had a reaction that was suspiciously reminiscent of a gluten cross-contamination episode. The funny thing was, there was no gluten in the recipe, and we don't have gluten-containing products in the house...or so we thought. It turns out we had a traitor lurking in our midst, hiding in plain sight in our spice cupboard.

The offending product was supermarket-brand almond extract, which I had bought while grocery shopping earlier in the week. The problem, it turns out, is not the almond, but rather the alcohol listed on the ingredients list for the extract. (If you read our post about the hidden source of gluten contamination at our Whole Foods cooking demonstration back in 2008, I feel stronger than ever that the problem then was the brand X vanilla extract, which would have had the same problem - gluten-contaminated alcohol used in the extract.) Allow me to explain.

First, let me make clear that this is a discussion about distilled alcohols. Fermented alcohols such as wine and beer are another story entirely, and don't pertain to this discussion. We're talking here about distilled spirits, which include most vinegars, as well as many of your harder liquors - vodka, gin, brandy, scotch, whiskey. When it comes to answering the basic question - Is there gluten in my distilled spirits? - the answer should be cut and dry, yes or no. Unfortunately, there are many shades of gray, and it all comes down to the very dissatisfying answer: it depends. Here's why...

At the outset, it's important to ask whether or not the source grain for your alcohol is one that contains gluten in the first place. If we're talking about corn-based or potato-based or rice-based alcohols, then gluten isn't present in the grain, and therefore, also shouldn't be present in the alcohol derived from that grain. (Most vinegars are made from red or white wine, apple cider, or rice wine, so they're all safe. The exception is malt vinegar, which both contains barley AND is typically not distilled. Hence, malt vinegar is NOT gluten-free.) But what if the source grain is something like wheat, which is chock full of gluten?

For years, there was debate as to whether or not the distillation process removed gluten and left us with a gluten-free alcohol. The science of the distillation process is sound - distillation does remove gluten from a grain alcohol. More accurately, distillation leaves the gluten behind. Distillation is a process whereby two or more liquids with differential boiling points are separated from one another. The mixture is heated to the boiling temperature for the lowest-boiling-point liquid, which becomes a gas and is subsequently condensed. Because alcohol has a relatively low boiling point, it boils off first and leaves the gluten behind. When it later condenses, you're left with a purified alcohol free of gluten. (Also, the more distillations an alcohol undergoes, the purer it becomes.)

However, we know from overwhelming numbers of anecdotes that people with Celiac Disease or especially sensitive cases of gluten intolerance may still have a reaction when consuming distilled spirits that should be gluten-free. Tests have subsequently confirmed that gluten is sometimes found in certain distilled spirits. The fault, though, is not with the distillation process. The theory and the science there are sound. The problem is with the practice of distillation in a real world setting.

For one, although distillation removes gluten from gluten-containing spirits, the source grains may still be present in the facility, and present the possibility for cross-contaminating the gluten-free final product post-distillation. (This is the same reason why GF beers should be brewed in a dedicated facility, so as to avoid cross-contamination with barley and wheat used for other beers.)

Secondly, distillation can't solve the problem of ingredients added to an alcohol after the distillation process. Those ingredients, added later, may include barley malt or colorings or flavorings that contain gluten (this is sometimes the case with certain vodkas, brandy, scotch, whiskey and gin).

In the end, then, what are we to do? You have several options: 1) use only extracts, vinegars and spirits that are labeled as gluten-free (such as the Rodelle Vanilla Extract). 2) contact the manufacturer of a product and find out the source grain for their alcohol and other ingredients. 3) If you're a gambler, you can try different products and see how your body reacts to them. (For me, this hit-or-miss gastrointestinal version of Russian Roulette isn't worth the consequence.)

The biggest lesson, perhaps, is that when it comes to distilled spirits (and extracts and vinegars), the best posture is one of buyer beware. Products that are labeled as gluten-free inspire a welcomed level of confidence, and once you find a product that works, stick with it!

- Pete

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Recipe: Chicken Curry

Earlier this week we traveled to the Far East with our Asian-inspired noodle bowl. Today we're following the Silk Road, in a way, west to the Near East and a stop in India with this version of a chicken curry. The sauce has strong undertones of tomato, but also has a wonderfully complex and depth of bold flavor from the curry spices. It has great spice flavor, without being too spicy (in a burning-your-mouth-with-heat kind of way). And the combination of tomato, cayenne and turmeric meld their red and yellow colors to yield a vibrant orange dish.

2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed
2 tsp salt
1/4 c olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1/2 c water
1 14.5oz can tomatoes
1/2 c yogurt

  • Sprinkle the chicken with 1 tsp of the salt. Brown the chicken in olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Set chicken aside.
  • Add the onions and garlic to the skillet and sautee. Stir in the ginger, cumin, turmeric, coriander, cayenne, and one tbsp water. Stir well for about a minute.
  • Add the tomatoes, yogurt, and remaining salt. Puree the sauce with a handheld immersion blender.
  • Add the chicken back in, along with the remaining water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and let simmer for 20 minutes.
  • Serve over rice.
- Pete

Monday, January 5, 2009

Recipe: Asian-Inspired Noodle Bowl

For a good while now, I've been fond of making what I call my Asian-inspired noodle bowl. The dish borrows from Thai, Japanese, and Chinese culinary traditions, and it's a little different every time I make it, depending on available ingredients and my mood on a given day. But it's almost always delicious (unless the ratios in my sauce are way off).

This particular version uses a base of wide rice noodles with chicken and green peppers. It was dinner last night, and unless Kelli beats me to the leftovers, it'll be lunch today, too! Here's how I make it:

Start with one or two boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and slice the meat thin. Season with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Sautee in a frying pan or wok in olive oil. When the chicken is mostly cooked through, add the juice from one freshly squeezed lime (the citrus brightens the flavor, and you can experiment with using lemon or orange, as well). Set the chicken aside, and sautee one sliced green pepper. Also set aside.

At this point, boil a pot of salted water, and get your rice noodles cooking. Meanwhile, in the fry pan or wok, start to make the sauce. I always make my sauce on the fly, tasting as I go along, so I don't have hard measurements. Estimate. Begin by adding a quarter cup or so of water to the pan, followed by several tablespoons of soy sauce (tamari wheat-free version, of course). Add a spoonfull of red curry paste, another of red chili paste, and several tablespoons of honey. Lastly, dissolve one or two spoonfulls of corn starch in a small amount of cold water, and add that to the pan as well. Mix thoroughly, and bring to a light boil. Important: you want to boil it enough for the corn starch to thicken the sauce, but no so much that you evaporate too much sauce and make the dish overly salty by concentrating the soy sauce.

Turn down the heat to medium-low, and add the chicken and pepper. When the noodles are al dente, strain them and flush under cold water. Add to the sauce, chicken, and pepper. Toss it all together to evenly distribute the sauce, and serve! Enjoy in your favorite noodle bowl, and eat with a pair of chopsticks (not a requirement).

- Pete

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Hapa Sushi, CO

Sushi, and Japanese cuisine more generally, is one of those things that can be really easy to eat gluten-free... or not. It all depends on the restaurant. In theory, the execution of a gluten-free meal is easy - Japanese cuisine is grounded in rice, not bread, and tends to incorporate fresh fish, vegetables, and meats. Stick with rice noodles, and avoid the wheat-based soba and other noodles. Stay away from traditional soy and teriyaki sauces, and stick with tamari wheat-free soy sauce. And stay away from the tempura, which is typically battered in unfriendly flour (though not necessarily so).

It surprises me, though, how many times I've walked into a sushi restaurant, asked if they have tamari wheat-free soy sauce, and they respond with a puzzled look as if I'd just asked for an enchilada. Such a response always raises my "possible gluten contamination threat level" to orange or red. Thankfully, though, there are some sushi restaurants that are in the know about gluten-free dining, and happily, Hapa Sushi Grill & Sake Bar is one of them.

Hapa has a handful of locations, all in Colorado. I've been dining there for years, since long before I was diagnosed and switched to a gluten-free diet. The restaurant serves high quality, fresh sushi, and the inspired menu offers up a phenomenal blend of Japanese and Hawaiian influences. Much to my delight, Hapa offers tamari wheat-free soy sauce, and the knowledgable wait staff and sushi chefs have easily informed me in the past as to which sushi rolls are and are not gluten-free.

Recently, Hapa made the gluten-free dining experience exponentially easier with the addition of a new gluten-free menu. Its diverse offerings span appetizers (i.e. edamame), salads, and a wonderful assortment of sushi rolls. You'll find many of the more straightforward rolls, like tekka maki (tuna), negihama (yellowtail with scallions), and California rolls (made with real crab meat). You'll also find more elaborate sushi rolls, as well as my Hapa favorite - the Rock N Roll (rock shrimp with cucumber in a spicy sauce). And to wash it all down, Hapa is serving Bard's Tale GF beer.

Hapa is one of those delightful instances where you'll find great food that will please both the gluten-free and the gluten-ous palate. If sushi is your thing, make haste to Hapa.

- Pete