Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Balance Pure


Recently, I spent a day snowcat skiing on assignment for a Colorado magazine. The premise of cat skiing is thus, for the uninitiated: You are skiing in the backcountry (read: no lifts, unpatrolled, unmaintained, no avalanche control work) on either telemark, alpine touring, or downhill ski equipment. Instead of having to climb to the top of each run (as with traditional backcountry skiing), you use a motorized (and heated) snowcat to shuttle skiers from the bottom of a slope to the top.

As I boarded the snowcat at the start of the day, each seat had a bottle of water and an energy bar awaiting its respective skier. I reflexively prepared to offer my bar to another skier, assuming I wouldn't be able to eat it, when I noticed the words "gluten-free" prominently displayed on the front of the label. What a pleasant surprise!


Photo courtesy of Steamboat Powdercats.

The gluten-free bar in question was a Balance Pure, made by the Balance Bar company and touted as being "made from simple ingredients." The ingredients are indeed simple, especially when compared to the often complicated ingredients lists on other energy bars.

The Balance Pure bars come in two flavors: Cherry Pecan, and Chocolate Cashew. Both are moist and chewy. The Cherry Pecan flavor tastes vaguely fruity (not strongly of cherry in particular), and almond comes through strongly as well. This is a good thing, if you like almonds (I do), but it was also surprising, since the flavor is Cherry Pecan (almonds are in the ingredients, however). For the Chocolate Cashew, the cashew flavor is there, but takes a slight backseat to a raw chocolate flavor, which for me is what comes through most. Overall, I give both flavors, and the bars in general, high marks.

- Pete

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Lactose Lowdown

Back in October 2008 I wrote about how people who are gluten-free also frequently have diets that are free of other things as well: lactose, refined sugar, all dairy, etc. For me, that includes lactose, thanks to a lifelong lactose intolerance.

According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. (With some very rough math, that makes it about 17 times more prevalent than Celiac Disease, for point of comparison.) Not all ethnic groups are equally lactose intolerant, though - African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans are disproportionately lactose intolerant, while Americans of northern European descent have very low rates of prevalence.

In short, people with lactose intolerance don't produce enough (or any) of the lactase enzyme, which enables the digestion of lactose, also known as milk sugar. Without the lactase, you can't digest the lactose, and that results in all sorts of gastrointestinal unpleasantness, not to mention other side effects, such as calcium deficiency. Additionally, lactose intolerance often co-indicates with Celiac Disease. This isn't surprising - your body makes lactase in the small intestine, and since the small intestine is chronically damaged by gluten in people with CD, it then stands to reason that your ability to produce lactase would be hampered or sidelined entirely. (By this same reasoning, people with CD sometimes lose their lactose intolerance and regain the ability to diget lactose once they've been on a gluten-free diet and their small intestine has had time to heal.)

Treatment of lactose intolerance usually includes some dietary modification - namely, avoiding high lactose content foods such as milk, ice cream, and many cheeses. (Yogurt, on the other hand, is usually okay, since the live, active bacterial cultures aid in the digestion of lactose.) But it can also include taking over-the-counter dietary supplements that supply your body with the lactase enzyme. I've followed that route when indulging in things like a slice of GF pizza. And more often than not, I go with the name brand: Lactaid. They make several versions of the dietary supplement, not to mention milk, cottage cheese, ice cream, and during the holidays, egg nog (delicious!). Most supermarkets also sell a house brand X of the lactase dietary supplement. But read on...this is (another) cautionary tale.

Kelli and I were recently doing some recipe development and testing for a GF, from scratch, Chicago-style deep dish pizza. As usual, I popped a few lactase pills to cope with the mozzarella cheese, and heartily chowed down. Within ten minutes, however, I was sick with symptoms that were unmistakeably gluten-caused. That was puzzling to me, and to Kelli, since we made the pizza ourselves from scratch with certified GF ingredients. There couldn't possibly be gluten in the pizza, could there? (As it turns out, the pizza was perfectly fine.)

Thinking that I must not have taken enough lactase pills to compensate for all the cheese on the three slices of pizza I ate, I went to the bathroom cabinet and reached for the pill bottle. Instinctively, I spun the bottle around and began to read the label. Then I saw the dreaded words: "Contains: wheat." Gasp! I had "poisoned" myself. I was in shock - I immediately threw out the bottle and explained the snafu to Kelli, who was equally taken aback. Really? Wheat in a lactase pill? I think I was particularly disturbed given the fact that lactose intolerance and Celiac Disease are often present in the same person. Knowing this, why would a company make a product that in theory would be used by a certain population of people (lactose intolerant Celiacs), and then include an ingredient that excludes them from using it (gluten)?

Thanfully, the name brand Lactaid pills ARE gluten-free. It's the brand X supermarket versions you have to be careful with. For me, it was a hard lesson learned, but a mistake I won't make again. Hopefully, now you won't either.

- Pete

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For...

...because you just might get it!

It used to be that I had a pretty easy time telling gluten-free foods apart from their traditional, gluten-containing versions. This was especially true when it came to breads. Regular bread was soft and moist and chewy and had good flavor. Gluten-free bread was typically dry, crumbly, somewhat flavorless, and to me, at least, most palatable only when toasted.

But as gluten-free breads have gotten better and better (largely thanks to the superb gluten-free bakeries popping up around the country), it has gotten harder and harder for me to distinguish gluten-free bread from "evil" bread. Normally, this would be a wonderful development. Tasty gluten-free bread is a welcome addition to the GF cornucopia. I've discovered, though, that there are also times when good or great GF bread is a double-edged sword.

During my recent trip to Quebec, and in particular, during my time in the Parc National du Gaspesie (where I stayed at the Gite du Mont-Albert), I spent my days in the backcountry. Each day, the kitchen staff at the Gite prepared a bag lunch that I could take with me in my backpack. Then, later in the day - usually sometime around noon or one o'clock - I'd open the bag and see what they'd packed for me. Often, there was a sandwich - maybe ham, or turkey, or tuna salad.

I knew that the kitchen staff were aware of my gluten-free dietary needs. But as I held the sandwich in my hands, staring at those two slices of bread, I began to second-guess the meal. Had they remembered to use GF bread? You see, the GF bread from their local bakery in Saint Anne des Monts was so close to the "real thing" that I had a hard time telling the difference. It was only seeing a Glutino-brand snack bar also packed in my lunch that gave me the confidence to chow down on the sandwich.

And there's the rub. Normally, I'd praise such good GF bread (and I'm still praising it, even if it doesn't sound like it right now). But there have been times when it's a mixed blessing. Those times are typically when someone else has made the meal for me. Because whereas in the past I could easily tell if they'd used GF bread or not, now the distinction was getting harder to pinpoint. I'm now having to take it on faith that they did the right thing, and that I won't get sick. By and large, this is a good problem to have, but in some twisted way, I miss the nasty old GF breads...if only because I confidently knew that they were, in fact, gluten-free.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever found yourself second-guessing whether or not a food was gluten-free, because it looked and tasted so much like the traditional, gluten version? If so, do tell!

- Pete

Friday, March 20, 2009

Gluten-free in the Gaspe


Travel is often an uncertain endeavor when it comes to dining gluten-free. This is especially true when outside of the country, in a place where English is not the dominant language (or spoken at all). It was with this degree of uncertainty that I recently traveled to Gaspesie, a region of Quebec, on assignment for several magazines.

The Gaspe is a peninsula in eastern Quebec, bordered by New Brunswick to the south, and the St. Lawrence Seaway and Atlantic Ocean to the north. Gaspesie - and most of Quebec, for that matter - is French-speaking. (Spanish is my primary second language. My French is poor, but slowly improving.) Prior to flying to the Gaspe, I brushed up on one crucial phrase: "Je ne peux pas manger gluten ou lactose." Translation: I cannot eat gluten or lactose.

As I discovered, the Gaspe has a rich culinary tradition and a pride of place that evidences itself in the abundance of local produce used in cooking. Given the proximity to the sea, it came as no surprise that fish and other seafood figure prominently. Tiger shrimp, scallops, snow crab. But the real local specialty is smoked Atlantic salmon. Every restaurant I visited served it on their menu. Many smoked the salmon themselves. Those that didn't sourced it from one of several esteemed local smokehouses, including Atkins et Freres, in Mont-Louis. I had their smoked salmon...it's divine. I even went through the trouble of bringing some home to Colorado, packing it in ice as a carry on across three flights!

My trip began at the Gaspesiana, a motel in Saint Flaive where I spent the night before finishing my journey to the Chic-Chocs Mountains, the ultimate destination of this recent trip. The Gaspesiana was a simple motel whose restaurant serves exceptional food that far exceeds the expectation you have based on the exterior appearance of the building. My dinner of scallops and shrimp was very satisfying, and it was here that I had my first of many smoked salmon appetizers (and learned of Atkins et Frere).

The majority of my time was spent at the Gite du Mont-Albert, a high-end mountain lodge located in the heart of the Parc National de la Gaspesie. The dining room is open for guests and non-guests alike, and eating here was one of the genuine pleasures of my trip. First, the entire kitchen and server staff have been trained in food allergies, including gluten. In fact, one housekeeper at the Gite has Celiac Disease, and the restaurant receives three to four requests per week for gluten-free cuisine. They keep gluten-free bread on hand, baked at a boulangerie in Saint Anne des Monts, as well as a variety of Glutino brand crackers, cookies, and bars. In addition, the Gite went out of its way to have GF cereal and soy milk on-hand for my visit. Granted, I was openly there as a journalist, and so the Gite had a vested interested in making my stay the best it could be. But in observing other guests, I got the sense that my experience was what anyone could expect there.

Dinner was where the Gite du Mont-Albert really shined. A breadbasket of GF bread and crackers began the meal, followed by an appetizer - smoked salmon, salad with maple vinaigrette. The appetizer was then followed by a soup - carrot, broccoli. And then there were the entrees, which were truly divine - rabbit with shrimp, trout with chanterelle mushrooms, caribou, striped bass. Each meal was incredible, but the caribou deserves special mention. The animals are hunted by the Inuit in northern Quebec, and the meat is sold to restaurants like the Gite. The meat is lean and very tender, and a deep red almost to the point of purple, like elk. Because the caribou eat lichen, rather than vegetation, the meat doesn't have a gamy flavor. In fact, the caribou was one of the best wild game meats I've eaten anywhere.

Lastly, there were the desserts - GF cake with meringue, orange-mango sorbet with fresh fruit and a sugar and chocolate sculpture, you get the idea. I rattle off such a list not to brag and say, "Ooh, look at all the cool things I ate." But rather to show the range and diversity of gluten-free cuisine at the Gite. Director David Dubruiel said it best to me: "We want you to feel like a real guest here." The Gite doesn't want guests to have a compromised experience, and by my estimation, they succeed admirably.

Leaving the Gite behind, I traded in the luxury for very rustic accomodations at the Motel Mont Saint Pierre, which is located in a small coastal village of 215 people. Here, the proprietors had less knowledge about gluten specifically, but demonstrated an earnest desire to know what they could do to provide safe meals for me, and readily offered many suggestions, even if it meant a drastic departure from anything on their restaurant's menu. Beyond that, they were concerned with not just providing a GF meal, but with providing a well-rounded meal that would leave me satisfied.

In the end, I ate 3 meals a day for 7 straight days at restaurants. Not once did I get sick from gluten contamination. That is a streak I have yet to approach in the United States. Supermarkets typically had a small GF section. When it came to restaurants, in general I found a very high level of gluten awareness, and an earnest desire to meet the needs of customers like me with unique dietary needs. Going gluten-free in the Gaspe proved not only easy to do, but also very enjoyable. I hope your travels, wherever they take you, are filled with the same pleasures, whether in the Gaspe, or elsewhere.

- Pete

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Aleia's Gluten-Free Bakery

Increasingly, it seems, gluten-free bakeries are popping up in all regions of the country. Having tasted samplings from many such bakeries, I have to say that, on the average, I've been impressed. Aleia's Gluten-Free Bakery, based in Branford, Connecticut, is no different.

Aleia's founder, Kim Snow, got her start in the restaurant and baking business some 17 years ago (her background includes training at the Culinary Institute of America). Then, four years ago she was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. That diagnosis led directly to founding Aleia's about two years ago. As with many of us, Kim's passion for baking gluten-free stemmed from a desire to create tasty, gluten-free versions of foods she knew and loved, and foods that were part of her family story.

In the two short years since then, response to Aleia's has been overwhelmingly positive, so much so that the bakery is moving into a larger, dedicated GF facility with more ovens, increased production capacity, and a new packaging design. Here's out assessment of Aleia's offerings:

General

Right from the get go, one thing that Kelli and I loved was that Aleia's recipes were straightforward, made with simple ingredients and without artifical preservatives, trans-fat-filled shortening, or overly complicated ingredients lists. For example, the almond horn cookies contain almond paste, sugar, egg whites, and almonds. That's it. Nothing more, nothing less.

Cookies

Aleia's offers a wide variety cookies. From our perspective, the flagship cookie is the Almond Horn Cookie. In short, it is divine. Great chewy texture, incredible almond flavor. If you love almonds, you will love this cookie. The Pignoli Nut Cookie was equally good for all the same reasons. Aleia's offers to versions of macaroons: a Coconut Macaroon and a Chocolate Coconut Macaroon. Both had nice coconut flavor, but they were fairly dense. Our preference is for our own, homemade macaroons, which have a light, airy texture. Admittedly, our macaroons - because of the light texture - are fragile and wouldn't transport as well, so a denser macaroon like Aleia's may be pragmatic. The Peanut Butter Cookies had great peanut butter flavor, and the dusting of granulated sugar on top was a nice touch, especially for those with a strong sweet tooth. The Chocolate Chip Cookies were crunchy, almost reminiscent of the original Chips Ahoy style of cookie. The Ginger Snap Cookies and Snickerdoodle Cookies were both good, though we prefer our own versions over the Aleia's version.

Bread Crumbs, Croutons and Stuffing Mix

Aleia's offers two kinds of bread crumbs: Plain and Italian Seasoned. The plain version was surprisingly salty. The Italian seasoned version was excellent. We used the bread crumbs to make chicken parmesan, mozzarella sticks and meatloaf, all with very successful results. The croutons - offered in Plain and Parmesan flavors - and the stuffing mix - offered in Plain and Savory flavors - were all variations on a central theme. Fortunately that central theme - a bread cube - is a good one. The parmesan croutons were great over salad. The Plain croutons and Plain stuffing mix were fairly similar (and probably interchangeable), and a nice option if you want to spice things up with your own custom blend of spices and other flavors. The savory stuffing mix was very nice - a good blend of salt and herbs and spices.

Conclusion

Although we liked some things better than others in Aleia's line of products, we rated everything good to great, and give an enthusiastic two thumbs up. We wouldn't hesitate to recommend Aleia's to someone looking for a great GF bakery.

- Pete

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Arico Natural Foods Company

A little while back, we were contacted by the friendly folks at the Arico Natural Foods Company, a Beaverton, Oregon-based maker of gluten-free foods. They offered to send us some product samples to review here on NGNP. While waiting for the samples to arrive, I did some background research about the company, and I liked what I was finding. Arico has a pretty strong environmental ethic, and what's more, the company donates its products to be handed out at events such as the Portland and Seattle marathons, as well as numerous Celiac and autism fundraisers. Kudos to Arico especially for the product donations - having competed in a wide variety of races, I find that it's seldom that the post-race offerings are gluten-free.

The package of samples that arrived included products from across Arico's three food lines: cassava chips, cookies, and cookie bars. Here's our assessment of each:

Cassava Chips
Cassava, also known as manioc, is a shrub with a starchy root. Native to South America, it is widely cultivated around the world in tropical and subtropical regions, and is an excellent source of carbohydrates. Whether you realize it or not, you've probably used it in gluten-free cooking, since the flour made from the cassava root is known as tapioca. However, the root can also be sliced and fried or baked to create a chip, much like is done with potatoes.

Arico's cassava chips come in four flavors: original, sea salt mist, BBQ Bliss, and Ginger on Fire. Kelli and I had differing opinions about the chips. She thought they had a funny aftertaste, and never grew to like the chips. I agreed that my first bites of the original flavor did have a mild and unexpected aftertaste, but I thought the chips were very tasty. The original, sea salt mist, and Ginger on Fire were all subtle variations on a central theme - a salty cassava chip. The Ginger on Fire flavor packed a bit of heat, but in a good way. Curiously, they don't list ginger on the ingredients, and the heat seems to come from onion, garlic, leeks and sea salt. The BBQ Bliss chips were very good.

Cookies
Neither Kelli nor I were big fans of the cookies. It was partially a taste issue, but more a texture thing. They also tended to be dry. Our least favorite was the Chocolate Chunk, followed by the Peanut Butter, which was a little better. The Triple Berry flavor, while still a little on the dry side, had better texture and a nice berry flavor. It reminded me a little bit of a Fig Newton. The Almond Cranberry flavor was very good, and I actually preferred this cookie after I let it get a little stale, so that it had some crunch, like an almond biscotti. Lastly, there's the Lemon Ginger flavor, which I really enjoyed. It had a great lemony zing, and bits of candied ginger added a little something extra.

Cookie Bars
I tried the cookie bars in the Almond Cranberry and Peanut Butter flavors, and didn't enjoy either as much as enjoyed the corresponding cookie flavor.
Note: Arico has issued a voluntary recall of its Peanut Butter cookies and cookie bars, because the peanut butter used in those foods was sourced from the Peanut Corporation of America, which has been identified as the source of a salmonella outbreak. Arico has had no reports of illness due to its foods, has destroyed its remaining peanut inventory, and no longer uses PCA as a supplier.
- Pete

Monday, March 2, 2009

Update: Uno Chicago Grill

Back in early December, we posted about how Uno Chicago Grill was adding gluten-free pizzas to its menu. Initially, those GF pizzas were available only in the New England region, where Uno was field testing the pizzas before rolling them out more broadly. Well, those reviews must have gone well, because the pizzas are more widely available. We have them here in Colorado, and spot checking the Uno website, I also found them on menus in Florida and Wisconsin (but not in southern California, best as I can tell).

Of course, we felt obligated to do our due diligence and get our hands on the pies in order to review them. Last night we pulled the trigger, ordering both the plain cheese and tomato and the pepperoni gluten-free pizzas. Here's our verdict:

Like many GF bloggers/reviewers, overall we were very impressed with the pizzas. In the hierarchy of restaurant gluten-free pizzas, we'd put the Uno pizzas near the top of the list. The crust was soft and chewy (unless overcooked - which we did when we left a slice in our toaster oven for too long - at which point it becomes very hard, like a cracker). While very good, the crust did prove to be very fragile, and the taste was a little bland - some salt, garlic, oregano and basil would do wonders for it. The straight cheese and tomato sauce pizza was very tasty. The pepperoni pizza is just the cheese and tomato with a few pepperoni added. For my preference, the pepperoni were too few and far between. Gimme more!

In the end, though, Uno Chicago Grill has created a winning GF pizza. If you have a chance, give it a try.

- Pete