Friday, May 29, 2009

Friday Foto: Biscuits

One phrase comes to mind this morning: TGIF. Despite the fact that it's been a short work week (thank you, Memorial Day) the last four days have been uber busy. Magazine article deadlines, new book projects in the works, and I'm 36 hours away from leaving on a 4-day ski mountaineering traverse of Colorado's Sawatch mountain range on assignment. Inevitably, such trips have me thinking about durable eats...the kind of gluten-free foods that not only taste great, but that travel well, too. Biscuits fit the bill, and these delectable goodies are great on their own, with butter, honey, jam or however you like to serve up your biscuits.

2 cups GF flour
1 tablespoon GF baking powder
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold butter
1 cup milk

1. Preheat the oven to 450°F and grease a baking sheet.
2. Mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients using a pastry blender or your hands, until the mixture looks like coarse crumbles.
3. Stir in the milk to form a batter.
4. Drop rounded (heaping) tablespoons of dough onto the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 10 – 12 minutes, until the biscuits are golden.
5. Serve warm.
Enjoy, and see you next week post-traverse!
- Pete

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Restaurant Review: Beau Jo's Pizza, Colorado

This is a post (and a review) that's been a long time coming. A few months ago I was prepping to do a write up about BeauJo's Pizza, a local restaurant with nine locations throughout Colorado. Kelli warned me that I'd been blogging about pizza a lot lately, and that "people are going to think you only review pizza places." Wary of making NGNP too pizza-centric, I put BeauJo's on the back burner...until now. (In my defense, I went back and looked at the NGNP archives - I reviewed pizza places exactly twice...once in February with the Flatbread Company, and once in March with Uno Chicago Grill. But I digress...)

BeauJo's is known for what it calls Colorado-style pizza. The signature pizza is a Mountain Pie, with a thick, chewy crust. (They serve bottles of honey on the table for you to enjoy your massive quantities of crust with!) They also serve Prairie Pies, which is BeauJo's-speak for thin-crust pizzas. And, I happily report, they serve gluten-free pizzas, made with a base crust from Deby's Gluten-Free in Denver. (BeauJo's also does a promotion called Wheat Free Wednesdays, where you can get their GF pizza and some RedBridge at a good price.)

Because the GF pizza is a thin crust, it falls under the Prairie Pie category at BeauJo's. You can finish off the crust with a wide array of toppings, including your choice of cheese, sauce, and toppings. I almost always opt for the signature tomato sauce, whole milk mozzarella, turkey pepperoni, and fresh basil. Here's the bottom line: of the many GF pizzas I've tried, BeauJo's is my clear favorite, standing head and shoulders above the competition. It tastes more like "real" pizza than any other I've come across.

I know there are a lot of GF pizza places out there across the country, but if you're ever traveling through Colorado, you owe it to yourself to give BeauJo's a try. Plus, you'll be experiencing a long-time Colorado tradition, particularly if you stop in at the original location in Idaho Springs, which spills over with hungry skiers traveling I-70 to and from Denver and the ski resorts. Eating at the Idaho Springs BeauJo's is a right of passage for all of our out of town come on by and visit - we'd love to take you out for pizza! =)

At the Idaho Springs BeauJo's recently - Kelli with her leg elevated out of frame, Marin hiding behind a bottle, and me with a mouth full of GF pizza.

- Pete

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Very GF Memorial Day Weekend

It's Tuesday morning, and already, we're one day into the work week... thanks to the long Memorial Day holiday weekend. Throughout the weekend, the weather here in Boulder hasn't exactly been very summer-like - cool, overcast (we average more than 300 days of sunshine per year...did it have to be cloudy for a long weekend??), often rainy, and sometimes stormy (a house in our neighborhood was hit by lightning!). With the blah forecast, and Kelli less mobile than usual, we opted to stay close to home to enjoy the weekend.

It all started with a trip to downtown Boulder, and the annual Boulder Creek Festival, which was bigger this year than any we can remember. Food vendors, musical acts, artists, local non-profits, lots of businesses, and mega-quantities of crowds. We strapped Marin into her stroller, Kelli saddled up on her knee walker, and we braved the melee. Of course, one of the great things about festivals - no matter where you are - is the festival food.

I couldn't help but notice how Boulderites (us included) happily shed our typical local, seasonal, organic, blah blah food ethic, and dive head first into tacos, philly cheesesteaks, dumplings, funnel cakes (fried dough), BBQ, giant turkey legs, you know the routine. Typical American festival food. The challenge for us, naturally, was find safely gluten-free festival food. We kicked off chow time with a giant bag of kettle corn (two photos above...popcorn, sugar and salt cooked in a massive kettle - yum!). Then we made our way to the main food court area (above) where I found some awesome french fries cooked in dedicated fryers (below). I was feeling a bit greased out after eaing the whole basket of fries, but it was worth it.

Memorial Day itself included the Bolder Boulder, a 10k road race and one of the largest road running races in the country. This year, the BB had nearly 52,000 registered runners. By comparison, last year's NYC Marathon - the largest marathon in the world, I believe - had just under 39,000 runners. The first wave starts at 7:00am, and a continuous sea of runners stretches out along the course for hours on end. There's an unbelievable energy to the event (I ran it last year and proudly placed in the top 6% of racers overall. This year we went as spectators to cheer on our friend, Emily.).

A continuous sea of runners streams into Folsom Field and the finish line
at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Outside Folsom Field with the Rocky Mountain foothills and
the Flatirons in the background.

Last year's goodie bag for racers didn't include all that much that I could eat (there was a bottle of water, however). This year, the Bolder Boulder was more GF racer friendly, with a gluten-free snack chip from the Boulder Canyon Natural Foods company. The flavor was rice and adzuki bean. Admittedly, I had never had of an adzuki bean, so I had to look it up - domesticated/developed in China, popular in Japan, prized for its red color and slightly sweet taste, which makes it popular in East Asian confections.

Curiously, the ingredients label listed "adzuki beans and/or black beans." Which means that the Rice & Adzuki Bean snack chips might have adzuki beans...or not. Regardless, it's great to see mainstream events serving more post-race foods that are GF. It's a positive trend I hope we'll see continue!
So how did you spend the long Memorial Day weekend, gluten-free style? Do tell!
- Pete

Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday Foto: Orange Chicken

Lately we've been making a lot more Asian dishes. I can't say exactly why. Perhaps it's a family-wide craving. Regardless, one our recent dinners was orange chicken. In the photo above, we've paired it with brown rice, though we just as often pair it with Jasmine rice. Have a great Memorial Day Weekend, and enjoy!

⅔ cup orange juice
¼ cup tamari wheat-free soy sauce
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 teaspoons ginger, minced
Rind of half an orange, julienned
4 chicken breasts, boneless, skinless, cubed

1. Mix together the orange juice, tamari, brown sugar, dry sherry and cornstarch in a saucepan. Stir to dissolve the cornstarch. Heat over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.
2. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the garlic and ginger until fragrant.
3. Add the chicken and sauté until brown and cooked through.
4. Add the orange sauce to the chicken and heat through.

As an alternative to using julienned orange rind, you can also zest an orange and add that to the sauce. It's an equally tasty modification.

- Pete

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Is Franchise a Four Letter Word?

Over the course of the last six months, we've reviewed a lot of restaurants with gluten-free menus, ranging from local one-offs to major national chains and franchises. Looking back over the comments and other responses to those reviews, a commonality seems to emerge. You, the readers, (and me, too, for that matter) express a general aversion to national chain/franchises. Local = good. Big chain or franchise = bad.

The reasons for adopting such a posture usually fall along one of several lines... A) We prefer to support local restaurants, keeping our dollars in the local economy. B) We prefer healthy foods, and the franchises don't qualify (this usually applies when thinking about the McDonald's, Burger Kind, Wendy's, etc. fast food family of franchises). C) Franchises/chains contribute to the homogenization of food in America - by eating at these places, we cease to experience the regionality inherent in America's food system. And I'm sure you could rattle off a few more reasons.

But here's the rub: we support a local restaurant, hoping for them to succeed. And if they do succeed, maybe they open a second location, and then a third. And if they become successful enough, at some point, maybe they become the national chain or franchise we profess to despise. What happens then? Do we suddenly stop supporting them, because the local restaurant that we wanted to succeed actually did and became too successful? Did the restaurant and its food change, or just our attitude? Where's the critical threshold where that shift takes place?

It's like when someone is a big fan of an independent music group that no one's heard of, and then that group suddenly explodes in popularity. The once-fan ceases to like that group, because "they've sold out," or "they're too popular." But nothing about that band changed. Only the fan did...and you have to ask yourself, what were they really a fan of? The music? Or the independentness of it? When it comes to national chains and franchises, I challenge you to ask yourself the same questions. Whether we're talking about the fast food family, or other chains/francises such as Chipotle, Outback, PF Chang's, Maggiano's, or a long list of others, evaluate each on its own merits. It would be unfair to lump them all together into one large slush pile.

Here's good example of the process in medias res. In February, we reviewed Larkburger, an atypical burger joint in Edwards, Colorado. At the time, Lark had just the single location. But it recently opened a second location in Boulder, with a third coming online in Denver. I strongly suspect that the new locations will be as successful as the first, and that, in turn, will yield even more Larkburgers. And although I can't predict with absolutely certainty, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if at some point in the distant future a Larkburger location comes to a town near you. And when it does, will I stop eating their burgers and throw my support behind the latest local joint to win my affection? Hardly. I think the world could use a few more Larkburgers (for reasons mentioned in the review), and I'm happy to support it. (The same pattern, it should be noted, happened to Chipotle, which started as a local Denver burrito joint that opened additional locations, and look at how successful it has become!)

For all the criticism we place on franchises/chains, they do have some important, redeeming, positive attributes. For one, because of their size (both in scale - lots of 'em - and in scope - they're in many places), franchises/chains have power. They can exert demand-side influence. And in so doing, they affect the supply side of our food systems. If a restaurant wants more natural, humane beef, or organic produce, or gluten-free foods, suppliers will shift their supply to meet the demand of what ultimately constitutes a major stakeholder or client of their business. In this way, franchises/chains can throw their metaphorical weight around to positively influence America's food supply chain. (This has partly been the story of Chipotle.)

For another, one of the fundamental attributes of the franchise/chain restaurant model is that it provides consistency, standardization, a set of known expectations. (When viewed through the lens of homogenization, this isn't necessarily good.) But when viewed through the lens of gluten-free dining, this is a huge plus. For me, there's a degree of comfort knowing exactly where I can reliably find a gluten-free meal to eat. When I'm traveling on assignment for a magazine, oftentimes one of the first things I'll do in preparation for the trip is a basic Internet search to see if there are any Chipotles, PF Chang's, or Outbacks in the surrounding area. Perhaps this is my shortcoming, my failure to more earnestly seek out a local joint with a gluten-free menu. But I prefer to think of it as a commendable trait of franchises/chains.

I hope you'll agree with me that, by taking a step back and looking at the big picture, franchises and national chains aren't all bad. Sure, there are some concerns and issues of which to remain aware and vigilant. But there's also a lot of good that can come from those same franchises and chains. Evaluate each on its own merits, and decide for yourself whether you'd like to eat there or not. Franchise isn't necessarily a four letter word, even if it feels that way sometimes.

- Pete

Gluten-free Grilling

Here in Colorado, it feels as though spring/summer has finally arrived. We've had sunny weather, and a string of days with temps in the low 80s (at least down here in Boulder... in the mountains it's another story).

With my mom in town helping out for a few more days, I was able to sneak away for part of Saturday (without feeling like I was neglecting Kelli and Marin) to climb and ski a peak with my buddy, Josh. We set our sights on Hagar Mountain, which is the farthest peak in the back left of the photo above.

From the summit, it's more than 2,500 vertical feet of descent back to the car. Amazingly, we skied literally off the summit, taking a line down the south face of the mountain. From the base of the summit face, we traversed to another long snow slope that descended into Dry Gulch. And from there, it was a quick, easy shot down valley back to Josh's truck. (For a full photo gallery from the climb/ski, you can check out pics here.)

Of course, it's not fair if I have all the fun while Kelli stays at home on virtual house arrest. So on Sunday, we packed up the Jeep and headed to a local park for an afternoon barbeque. Turkey burgers. Asparagus. Potatoes. Watermelon. We don't have a portable grill, so we picked up a bag of charcoal to use at the park's public grills. Which brings up an important gluten cross-contamination question: how to safely grill gluten-free? This is especially important at public grills where you're sharing a grill that's previously been used by someone else. But the answer to the question is also useful if you've recently switched to a gluten-free diet and you're concerned about properly sterilizing your grill at home.

Warning: heavy science content. Gluten-free grilling all comes down to protein. I'll explain. Gluten, as you probably know, is a protein. And proteins, in their myriad forms, all have the same basic structure. Primary structure refers to the actual sequence of amino acids that comprise a given protein. Secondary and tertiary structure refers to how that string of amino acids twists, turns and folds to create a three-dimensial molecule. And quarternary structure (not all proteins have this) refers to multiple 3D protein "subunits" bonding to one another.

All but the primary structure are held together with relatively weak bonds. And breaking down those bonds of the quarternary, tertiary and/or secondary structure is referred to as "denaturing" a protein. Whether you realize it or not, you do this all the time when cooking. For example, when you beat egg whites into peaks, you're denaturing the proteins (this particular type of denaturing is reversible). For another example, when you cook your eggs and the "whites" of the egg turn from clear to white, you're also denaturing the proteins (this type of denaturing is definitely NOT reversible...unless you're a magician and know how to "uncook" an egg).

One of the most common ways that we denature proteins in cooking is with heat. Gluten, though - it turns out - is a tougher protein to denature than most. And even if we're able to denature a gluten protein to the point of breaking down its quarternary, tertiary and secondary structure, we're still left with primary structure. In other words, it's still gluten, and it can still make us sick. What we need is a way to break down the primary structure.

In grilling, the best way to do this is with intense heat for a prolonged period of time. What you're basically doing is incinerating the gluten... denaturing the proteins to the point that you've broken the peptide bonds that link the amino acids. So how much heat is enough heat?

The recommended minimum temperature is 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on who you talk to, you should maintain that temp for between 20 minutes and one hour before cleaning the grill grate with a wire brush, and then cooking your food over whatever temp you want. In practice, the important thing is that whatever food residue was left on the grill grate becomes fully charred (blackened). This is your guarantee that you've done the deed (fully denatured/incinerated the proteins, including gluten). Then, it's happy grilling!

- Pete

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday Foto: Molasses Cookies

Kelli's dad is a huge fan of molasses cookies (sometimes also known as ginger snaps). He prefers cookies that are crunchy throughout. Our version is something of a hybrid - a crunchy edge, with a delightfully chewy center. We recently made a batch for the one year birthday of our friend's son, John. But of course, we couldn't resist hanging on to a few cookies to enjoy ourselves at home!

2 ¼ cups GF flour
2 ¼ teaspoons xanthan gum
1 cup packed brown sugar
¾ cup butter, softened
¼ cup molasses
1 egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ cup granulated sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
2. Cream together the brown sugar and butter in a mixer. Add the molasses, egg and spices.
3. Stir in the flour and xanthan gum.
4. Put the granulated sugar in a small bowl. Shape the cookie dough into 1-inch balls and roll them in the sugar to coat. Place them on a cookie sheet about 2 inches apart.
5. Bake for 8 – 10 minutes. Let the cookies rest out of the oven for 5 minutes. Then, remove from the cookie sheet and cool on wire rack.


- Pete (& Kelli... my silent partner... who made these cookies...)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Science of Eating Food...Love It, Hate It

I've always thought of myself as something of an intuitive eater. What foods I eat, in what combinations, how they're prepared, when I eat all happens on its own, in a way, without a lot of explicit thought. At least, not the kind of explicit thought that people give to food when they're on a Diet (i.e. South Beach).

My own diet (little "D") is informed by multiple sources: my family heritage (Italian, Belgian, Polish); my dietary restrictions (gluten, lactose); my love for travel (which I might lump with my heritage and simply call "culture"); my ethics (local, organic, humane, seasonal); and the regions where I've lived (the Northeast, the West). By and large, though, you'll notice that science is absent from that list - I don't depend on scientists and research studies to tell me what's good and bad for my body, and what I should and should not eat.

This, I think, is a good thing (by good I mean staying away from a heavy dependency on science for eating food). For one, such "wisdom," as in parenting, constantly seems to be changing, or the advice is self-conflicting (are eggs good or bad?). For another, "science" has given us such regrettable "foods" as modified food starch, high fructose corn syrup, imitation foods, and heavily processed foods. For yet another, science has limitations - by necessity, it is very good at looking at one very specific thing (lycopene as an antioxidant in tomatoes, for example), but very bad at looking at whole, complex systems (such as the foods we eat in combination). And, most lamentably, science has, in a way, taken away the social and cultural and historical context of food, and replaced it with a dry, intellectual, detached approach to eating.

To elaborate on the tomato-lycopene example... As scientists have continued to research antioxidants (and espoused their health virtues), those same scientists have a) taught us that lycopene is in tomatoes, and therefore tomatoes are good (was this in question?), and b) have developed lycopene supplement pills so that we can pump ourselves full of the stuff and maximize the perceived health benefit. More recently have we realized that such an approach was putting the cart ahead of the horse, in a way, and that we didn't yet understand the full picture. We've since come to learn (thank you, diligent scientists) that the unique combination of tomatoes and olive oil is a powerful combination that unlocks and magnifies the power of lycopene in the human body. This effect is not present in the absence of olive oil, and isn't present if we substitute another oil (say, sunflower) in place of olive oil.

But does the tomato-olive oil combination sound familiar to anyone? Of course it does. It's ubiquitous in Italian cooking (at least since Italians went whole hog for tomatoes when it arrived in Europe from the New World). In short, Italians have been cooking with and eating tomatoes and olive oil together for several hundred years. They didn't do it because science told them to. They did because intuitively, they simply knew that it "worked."

Another example of science acting as an intermediary between us and the foods we eat is the advent of the glycemic index (and its cousin, the glycemic load). The glycemic index refers to a food's impact on blood sugar levels. Foods with a high index cause a rapid increase in blood sugar (a spike, or sugar high). But that spike in blood sugar also triggers a release of insulin, which causes a similarly rapid plummet in blood sugar (the crash). Conversely, foods with a low glycemic index don't cause that spike, instead releasing lower levels of sugar into the blood over longer periods of time. (The glycemic load is a way of prorating a food's index based on serving size.)

Now, I'll begrudgingly admit that there is some real practicality to understanding and utilizing the glycemic index and load, especially in certain populations of people. For example, because the index and load focus on blood sugar and insulin, knowing the values for different foods can be a literal life-saving tool for diabetics. Understanding the glycemic index and load is also valuable for endurance athletes, who want to fuel their bodies sustainably, and avoid an energy crash (bonking) mid-race.

But beyond those examples, I don't much like the idea of having to evaluate my meals using a massive spreadsheet of glycemic index and load values. It takes much of the fun out of eating. And, it removes or supplants or interrupts the intuition...the learned cultural and historical and ethical contexts that inform what we choose to eat. What's more, as I said above, science is very good at looking at one very specific thing (in this case, the glycemic index for a given food), but not very good at looking at complex systems. For example, the glycemic index of a given food can vary widely depending on how the food is prepared (is that potato boiled, baked, mashed or fried?). For another example, the glycemic index of a given food varies just as widely depending on the combination of foods with which it is consumed. In the end, where does that leave us? I'm not exactly sure.

In the same breath that I criticize science and what it tells us (or doesn't tell us) about eating food, though, I also have to praise it. Science is what discovered that the gluten family of proteins in wheat, barley and rye is what makes my body sick. And science is also what gave us xanthan gum, an invaluable tool when it comes to gluten-free baking. This simultaneous criticism and praise doesn't make me a hypocrite, or guilty of talking out of both sides of my mouth, or indecisive. It simply means I have a love-hate relationship with it. That doesn't inherently make the relationship good or bad. It just is. As with the rollercoaster of life and gluten-free living, there are pros and cons, ups and downs, the good and the bad.

I've stood on my soapbox, but what do YOU think? How does science influence (or not) what you eat. Is it good, bad, indifferent? I'd be curious to hear your feedback!

- Pete

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Gluten and Pro Cycling

Fans of pro cycling will know that today is Stage Four of the Giro d'Italia, Italy's version of the Tour de France. Yesterday, VeloNews, a magazine about competitive cycling, published an interesting article about rider Christian Vande Velde. The guy is a heavyweight in the world of pro cycling...he placed fifth overall at last year's Tour de France, to name just one of his many accomplishments. (He was also wearing the pink jersey in this year's Giro, indicating he was the lead rider, until a crash yesterday caused him to pull out of the race with two broken ribs and a back injury.)

The VeloNews article, to my astonishment, was about gluten and Vande Velde's diet. In short, VdV had largely abandoned traditional bread and pasta in favor of gluten-free alternatives. (To be clear, his adjusted diet would be more accurately described as a low-gluten diet than a no-gluten diet.) His rationale was that gluten in the diet is related to inflammation in the body. Inflammation, in turn, affects performance...stamina, peak power, recovery time, etc. In VdV's eyes, a gluten-free diet equates with an anti-inflammatory diet.

This link between gluten and inflammation caused me to raise an eyebrow. My good friend, Jess, has been on a gluten-free diet for the same reason as she has battled a long recovery from hip surgery. The VeloNews article was the second time I'd seen gluten linked to inflammation. It's an interesting way to view the gluten-free diet, since the vast majority of the time we come at it from a much different perspective...Celiac Disease, gluten intolerance...where it's all about autoimmune disorders or gastrointestinal trouble or digestion and nutrition. When we start talking about inflammation, on the other hand, it provides a whole other point of entry to the gluten-free diet for people (especially athletes) who might otherwise not consider it.

The only part of the article that rubbed me the wrong way was VdV's concluding quote: "You know, I might look back in 10 years and say ‘I can’t believe that I believed in that fad’, but right now I think it is the right track for me to be on.”

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - the gluten-free diet is not a fad. Sure, VdV was thinking about it in terms of inflammation and its link to performance in pro cycling. And perhaps from that perspective the gluten-free or low-gluten diet has gained popularity (and may lose popularity in the future...time will tell). But for the rest of us, we're gluten-free for a much different reason. One that's with us for the long haul.

- Pete

Monday, May 11, 2009

Restaurant Review: Maggiano's Little Italy

This past Saturday I attended the bachelor party for my buddy, Sam, who in June is marrying my good friend, Sara. (In fact, I'll be officiating the wedding!) It was one of the more organized bachelor parties I've been to, in the sense that I received an itinerary via email ahead of the event, so I knew what we'd be up to hour by hour.

3:00pm - Watch the Denver Nuggets at Lodo's, a sports bar in downtown Denver
5:45pm - Dinner at Maggiano's Little Italy
8:00pm - See the new Star Trek movie
Late into the night - party like rock stars

When it came to dinner at Maggiano's, I did my research ahead of time so I knew what I'd be getting into in terms of eating gluten-free. I extensively browsed the website, but couldn't find any statements about gluten or gluten-free menu options (save for one small comment about GF pasta option prepared upon request buried in a far corner of the website). A section about Maggiano's philosophy - and in particular its chefs and scratch kitchens - sounded promising, though: "since every dish is made from scratch, it's prepared exactly how you like it." I was liking the sound of that, but we were talking Italian food. Could they really prepare it how I liked it, and how I needed it? Or would I end up ordering a massive bowl of salad? Thanks to other GF bloggers who have also reviewed Maggiano's (there are restaurants in more than 20 states across the U.S.), I knew that Maggiano's offered a wide array of gluten-free options.

Arriving at the restaurant, however, I discovered a possible wrench in the works. Because we were a party of 12, Maggiano's defaulted us into the family-style dining. (Coincidentally, my bachelor party - in Manhattan in 2003 - also included dinner at an Italian restaurant served family-style.) Large platters of food shared by the whole table. Yikes. Not exactly conducive to ordering a specialty meal. I called the waiter over and explained my needs (and that my buddy, Andrew, who sat across from me at the table, would also be eating gluten-free). The waiter sent the executive chef out to speak to me directly.

The chef was friendly and knowledgeable. He guided me through which appetizers were and weren't gluten-free. Ditto for the salads (all the Maggiano dressings are gluten-free). Ditto again for the pastas (any tossed pasta - spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine - can be substituted with corn or rice pasta). What's more, he told me that he would personally prepare the gluten-free dishes, and would make small family-style portions for Andrew and me, even though the table was ordering a variety of other family-style dishes that weren't gluten-free. In all, Maggiano's was very accomodating.

Andrew and I settled on mussels diavolo and sausage and peppers for our appetizers, and a Caesar salad without croutons for the salad. For dinner, we had GF spaghetti with meat sauce, and GF linguine with clams in a white sauce. Not only did the chef personally prepare the dishes as per our GF needs. He also brought them out to the table himself. I was impressed.

The food was delicious all around, and I'd rate Maggiano's one of the better gluten-free dining experiences I've had. I'm the kind of guy that can be fiercely loyal to or completely turned off by a restaurant, depending on the quality of the food, the nature of the dining experience, the service and how I've been treated. By all those measures, Maggiano's has earned my business. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Maggiano's to others...whether you're gluten-free or not. Mangia, I say!

- Pete

Friday, May 8, 2009

Friday Foto: Baked Salmon with Dill

Ever since I returned to Colorado from my trip to Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula, Kelli and I have been cooking more seafood, including salmon. It's not exactly local, but as a native East Coaster who grew up alongside the ocean regularly eating fresh seafood, sometimes I just need to get my "fix." One classic combination of flavors is salmon with dill. (If you really want to go nuts with the pairings, add a glass of Pinot Noir to the mix!) Our version of a baked salmon with dill dish is simple, healthy, and delicious. Have a great weekend!

1 lemon, juiced
1/3 - 1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped
1/4 cup sweet onion, diced small
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Salmon fillets
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Mix together the lemon juice, dill and onion in a small bowl.
  3. Rub the salmon fillets with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Place the salmon in a shallow baking dish or pan, and pour the dill mixture over the fillets.
  5. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the salmon is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.

- Pete

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Not-So-Random Acts of Kindness

Switching to a gluten-free diet, for whatever the reason, can be quite an adjustment at first. Usually, the focus is on the person who has had to alter his or her diet. But lately, I've been reminded that the adjustment also affects the people around us - a spouse, child, parent, family and friends. Going gluten-free is not a solitary act. It's a social act that impacts others, the ripple effect when a pebble is dropped into a pond, resulting in concentric circles of tiny waves.

When I shift my gluten-free focus from my own dietary needs and look outward to those around me, I realize that the people in my life have been infinitely accomodating of my needs. In so doing, they've made acts of love, acts of generosity, not-so-random acts of kindness. All because they want to see that my restrictive dietary needs are met, that I stay healthy, that we all have a place at the table without discrimination.

It's a beautiful thing, to recognize this outpouring of support and generosity. Looking back on my own gluten-free journey, it is a path that has been punctuated by many such not-so-random acts of kindness. As when Kelli voluntarily went gluten-free, so that we could cook and eat meals together at home, and eliminate the possibility for cross-contamination in our kitchen at home. Or when family prepares gluten-free food for family dinners and holidays. Or, when Kelli was hospitalized with post-partum complications on Christmas Eve, our friends - Greg and Emily, and Jess and Dave - cooked up gluten-free dinners that I could take to the hospital, because they knew I'd have a hard time finding Pete-friendly food in the cafeteria. Or when Kelli was in her recent car accident, and our friend, Rebecca, brought by a pot of gluten-free chili so that I wouldn't have to cook dinner one night.

Two other examples, similar to one another, come to mind. As I've mentioned in other posts, Kelli and I live in Colorado, but we're both from New York originally. As far as Colorado is concerned, this makes us transplants, non-natives. And we're hardly alone. More than half the people who live in Colorado's Front Range are transplants. The vast majority of those people are Easterners who have come west. When I look within our social circle here in Colorado, that trend pans out. We know a scant few native-born Coloradans. The rest are transplants like us...from New York, Vermont, Tennessee, Michigan, Indiana, Virginia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and a few other states I'm surely forgetting. We've all come west for similar reasons - for the quality of life, the lifestyle, the landscape, and the outdoor recreation opportunities it affords.

That commonality between us bonds us...not just as friends, but as a type of surrogate family. It's an important family to us, in part because, in a sense, we've left our "real" families behind. We call these friends our Colorado Family, and the bonds between us are strong. We babysit one another's dogs (and soon, children). We shuttle one another to doctor visits, and share holidays, and cook dinners together.

For Kelli and me, our Colorado Family is largely divided into two groups: the Monday night group, and the Wednesday night group. The Monday nighters are couples and singles we know through our church. We get guessed it...on Monday nights. The host house rotates, and provides dinner and dessert. The Wednesday nighters are much the same, without the connection via church. They're friends we've met and grown close with here in Colorado. And as with Monday night, the host house rotates and provides dinner and dessert. On a busy Monday or Wednesday night, we may have 12 or more people in attendance for dinner.

And here's the amazing and wonderful thing. After my diagnosis and switch to a gluten-free diet, both groups shifted what they made for dinner and how they prepared it. In short, on those nights each week, they cooked gluten-free. And when they had questions about what to do, or what was or was not safe for me to eat, they asked. Because they wanted to be sure, they wanted to get it right and keep me healthy. I didn't ask them to do it. In fact, in the beginning I insisted that they didn't, because I didn't want to be a burden, didn't want them to have to make too many accomodations for me. I'd just plan to eat before I went, I figured. But these friends did it anyway. It was a beautiful and much appreciated not-so-random act of kindness.

It's a special thing, to be on the receiving end of such love and generosity. But it's not enough to receive it. We must also give it. And for me, giving it back starts with a simple show of appreciation, of saying "thank you." I've done it before...sometimes verbally, sometimes with a quick email, and sometimes with a handwritten note sent in the mail. I've done it, too, with this post, since I know many of those friends read this blog. But it's always worth repeating. Thank you. It means much.

And for the rest of NGNP's gluten-free readers, I encourage you to say "thank you" to the people in your life who've made their own not-so-random acts of kindness toward you and your gluten-free diet. Whether you've said it recently, said it long ago, or never said it all, the time is always right... go ahead and let them know how you feel.

- Pete

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Crazy for Koko (not the Puffs)

Just before the proverbial poo hit the fan in the Bronski household...with Kelli's car accident and Marin's eating challenges...I was out of town on assignment for Denver Magazine. My buddy, Dave, and I headed to western Colorado to do an unsupported ride of the 142-mile Kokopelli's Trail, a mountain bike route through the desert and canyons of western Colorado and eastern Utah from Fruita, CO to Moab, UT.

My buddy, Dave, on Day Three of our trip, past the halfway mark of the journey

My account of the trip will appear in the upcoming June issue of the magazine. Meanwhile, I wanted to offer a little insight into how I plan for and manage food on expedition-length trips like this one. From a food standpoint, one of the main challenges is how to meld my gluten-free dietary needs with a trip partner who adheres to a very different diet that's off limits for me. On short day trips, this isn't a big deal - everyone carries his or her own food. But on expedition-length trips, certain group gear is shared...tent, pot, stove, fuel. And when sharing cookware, that immediately brings up the concern about gluten cross-contamination.

The most common scenario, and the easiest to deal with, is when my trip partner(s) bring dehydrated backcountry meals (like those reviewed here). They only require boiling water, and they're "cooked" in their own bag. I'll boil enough water for my partner's meal and mine, pour one half of the boiling water into his or her bag, and use the remaining water to cook a gluten-free meal for myself - usually a rice noodle soup supplemented with extra goodies.

Arriving in the Fisher Valley, Utah

When planning for what foods to bring overall, I follow a maxim I learned years ago in my early days of high altitude mountaineering: sticks, twigs and logs. The analogy refers to how quickly and for how long a given fuel burns on your "fire." Sticks burn rapidly, providing immediate and quick bursts of energy. Twigs take a bit longer to burn, tempering the spikes of energy that can be associated with sticks. Logs take the longest to burn, providing sustained energy. The three types of fuel roughly translate to simple sugars, complex carbohydrates and some proteins, and proteins and fats.

How that works out in practice on a trip like the Kokopelli's Trail is that I brought: bacon, fresh apples and oranges, dried fruits (like raisins), nuts (like peanuts), GF chocolate, tuna fish, rice noodles, GF energy bars (the Balance Pure, which I reviewed here), and since this was an endurance trip, I also brought along some energy chews like those reviewed here. The combination of foods kept me feeling strong day after day.

As a final note, I wanted to offer some feedback about the gluten-free energy chews for endurance athletes (Sport Beans, Sharkies, GU Chomps, and Honey Stinger). While my previous posts about these chews talked about which ones are and are not gluten-free, what flavors they come in, etc., I hadn't yet had a chance to field test all of them. Now, I have, and I have some pretty strong opinions about which ones are best.

First, I rated them based on three criteria: performance (how well did they fuel my body), taste, and texture. Texture is an important component, because it varies with environmental conditions such as temperature. I've used the energy chews in conditions ranging from 80 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny (on the Kokopelli's trip) to 5 degrees Fahrenheit with a subzero wind chill (in ski mountaineering races this past winter).

My overall favorites are the GU Chomps and Honey Stinger. They offer the best combination of all three variables. Honey Stinger's cherry was the best rated purely for flavor. GU Chomps rated a close second. Some of GU's flavors are intensely sweet - too much so to be enjoyable if you tried them at home - but in the context of an endurance activity, you don't notice. Sharkies, while tasty, had a habit of sticking to my teeth, making it difficult to eat them, making me thirsty, and taking my focus off the race. Sport Beans got much too hard in the cold - their texture is too variable based on weather.

- Pete

Friday, May 1, 2009

Friday Foto: Strawberry Soup

Kelli and I both attended Cornell University in Ithaca, the heart of New York's Finger Lakes region. (Kelli's also from Ithaca, so she can lay double claim to the area...) Ithaca sits at southern end of Cayuga Lake, bounded by gorges and forested hillsides on three sides, and the lake on the fourth. If you drive up the west shore of Cayuga Lake, you'll eventually come to Taughannock Falls State Park, which - not surprisingly - is home to its namesake waterfall, which is the tallest in New York State. Just before you come to the state park, though, you first come to Taughannock Farms Inn. The Inn has a restaurant known for its strawberry soup, served chilled as an appetizer. Our strawberry soup is unabashedly inspired by the Inn's, though we prefer our own all its gluten-free goodness.

1 quart strawberries, hulled
1 cup GF vanilla yogurt
1/4 cup honey
1 cup half and half
  1. Combine the strawberries, yogurt and honey in a food processor and blend until smooth.
  2. Pour in the half and half while continuing to blend until combined.
  3. Serve chilled.

- Pete