Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lobster Killer

While I'm on the heels of writing about tradition, I must give a few hundred words to writing about my dear, beloved lobster. From a taste perspective, it was one of my first loves. As a toddler, before I ate beef, or chicken, or pork, I ate lobster. The love affair has continued unabated since. Now that we live in Colorado, far from the Atlantic seaboard, getting reasonably priced live lobster (and sometimes, any lobster at all) is increasingly difficult. Before I continue, allow me to digress with a recent story:

Kelli requested I make scallops for her birthday dinner. It was to be a combined birthday dinner, and for my own meal, I planned on a steamed Maine lobster. Alas, I searched high and low, and nary a live lobster could I find in Colorado. I visited four markets. Two didn't sell lobsters at all. The two that did sold tiny frozen lobster tails at a price that equated to $48 per pound (when live whole lobsters are $8-10 per pound on Long Island, where my mom lives). (What's even more frustrating is that a few years back, Whole Foods stopped carrying live lobsters because of animal rights/welfare concerns about traveling conditions while the lobsters were en route from Maine to our market in Boulder, Colorado. And yet, Whole Foods doesn't bat an eyelash at selling uncooked, frozen lobster tails, which would have been torn from the bodies of live lobsters.) And so I balked at buying dry looking, frozen, horribly overpriced lobster tails, and resolved to wait until our annual trip to NY for the holidays. There I'd visit one of my favorite local seafood markets, buy fresh live lobster, and take them home to prepare for dinner. Which brings me back on track with the original story...

Having an annual lobster during trips to Long Island has become another holiday tradition. It's when I get "my fix," as Kelli says, and I look forward to it eagerly each year. This year was no different. We loaded up the car, went to our seafood market on the south shore of Long Island, picked up three 1.5-pound lobsters, and took them home to steam and eat. I must say, despite all the build up, despite all the potential for expectations not living up to reality, the lobsters were delicious. The meat was unbelievably sweet and tender and juicy. (I continue to affirm that the best lobsters I've eaten are the ones I've cooked myself...)

One day later, Kelli, my mom, and I sat down to watch the movie, Julie and Julia. (If you haven't read the book and/or seen the movie, I highly recommend you treat yourself to at least one, if not both...) One of the movie's classic scenes is one in which Julie, following Julia's advice, uses a knife to split the head of a lobster, instantly killing it and hence mercifully avoiding boiling it alive. There's just one problem: lobsters don't have a centralized nervous system the way you and I do, and so the "cleave the head" technique is an inappropriate analog. For me the whole scene, entertaining as it was, brought back to the forefront a long-standing debate about how to best kill and cook a lobster.

Boiling them alive is perhaps the most widely-used method, and therein lies the rub. Do lobsters feel pain and do they suffer? And if they do, Is boiling a live lobster a cruel and unusual form of torture perpetrated against an innocent and sentient creature, or is it a harmless (and painless) act in the course of preparing a tasty dinner? This debate has raged, almost certainly, for as long as people have both eaten lobster and cared about the suffering of animals.

David Foster Wallace did an excellent and eloquent job summarizing the debate in his essay, Consider the Lobster, which he wrote for Gourmet Magazine in 2004 after attending the Maine Lobster Festival. Since then, new scientific research findings have added to the debate, but not cleared up the debate, since various studies have sided with one side of the debate or the other. For example, a 2005 study out of Norway concluded that lobsters DON'T feel pain. A more recent study out of the UK conversely concluded that lobsters DO feel pain. And so the debate continues. (One writer summed it up succinctly, and I paraphrase: "If you eat lobster, they don't. If you don't eat lobster, they do.")

I, for one, am a fan of the precautionary principle. In the absence of clear evidence, it is best to err on the side of not inflicting pain, and so I'm quite interested in figuring out the best way (meaning swiftest, least painful) to kill a lobster before cooking it. Of course, this kind of dilemma applies primarily to those people who eat meat. Vegetarians and the like are absolved of wrestling with this type of culinary guilt and kitchen morality. Then there are people like me. I'm that brand of meat eater who cares HOW my food lives, and HOW it dies, but I'm apparently okay with the more basic fact THAT it dies in order for me to eat it. (To this degree, I like to buy certified humane eggs, and grass-fed beef from our local rancher, etc. when possible...)

I suspect that many of you out there are like me. We sit in a kind of moral nether-region. We care about the animals we eat, and wrestle with the ethical justifications for doing so. Meanwhile, when it comes to lobsters, there are strongly opinionated animal rights groups on one side of the debate (such as Lobster Liberation), and lobster industry groups on the other side of the debate (such as the Lobster Institute). Stuck in the middle are lots of confused and concerned lobster eaters who want to do the right thing.

At the end of the day, I think we all should be concerned with reducing the amount of pain and suffering in the world, no matter how trivial the suffering, or how seemingly insignificant the recipient of that suffering. Perhaps one day my own values and ethics will tip in favor of vegetarianism, or even veganism. I can't say one way or the other with any certainty. (And don't get me wrong...I'm not there yet. Not even close.)

I do know that I value the up close and personal killing I do in my kitchen when it comes to lobster. (It sounds twisted to say it that way, but hear me out...) Unlike supermarket meat, where we are detached from the life (and the taking of that life) of the animal we eat, when we bring live lobsters into our kitchen, we must come face to face with the reality of the act. It sounds corny to call it an homage to the lobster, but that's not far from the truth. Killing and eating a lobster, at least for me, is something of a solemn and reflective act (my enjoyment of eating it notwithstanding...). I respect the lobster, and I feel I pay some sort of karmic debt to it by doing the actual killing. It forces me to come to terms with the entirety of the act of eating lobster, and at the end of the day, I have to be okay with it in order to enjoy the meal.

That doesn't stop me, though, from continuing to try to settle the debate (at least for myself). I continue to try and sift through the bewildering network of science and opinion as to which method offers the swiftest, most painles death. If, and hopefully when, I figure it out, I'll let you know. But for now, I must go... we're having lobster for dinner tonight to end the decade, and I must attend to the task at hand.

- Pete

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Friday Foto: Orange-Cranberry Sorbet

From the outset, let me say it...this Friday Foto is being posted on a Saturday. But given that yesterday was Christmas, I'm hoping you'll excuse the 24-hour delay.

Let me also say how much I love fresh cranberries. The crisp snap of fresh berries, with their balance of sweet and tart, is wonderful. Sure, I love my Craisins, too (dried, sweetened cranberries). But they're no substitute for fresh cranberries.

My first experience with fresh cranberries didn't come over the dinner table at Thanksgiving, or as a garland on a Christmas tree. Rather, it was during a canoe trip down the Peconic River on Long Island. I must have been 12 or 13 years old. Most "rivers" on Long Island are modest, and flow either north into Long Island Sound, or south into the bays that line the Atlantic coastline. Not the Peconic. It flows from west to east, emptying into Peconic Bay between the Island's North and South Forks. For much of its length, the river meanders between tree-lined shorelines, but in one stretch the river widens dramatically. Its banks pull back, and that expanse of flat water is covered in cranberries, the remnants of a former cranberry plantation. A ribbon of open water cuts across the cranberries from end to the other.

My next intimate cranberry experience didn't come until college. I was a majoring in Natural Resources at Cornell University, and one of my upper level classes was a course in wetlands. We studied wet meadows and swamps and fens and bogs. The course included extensive field work visiting the different kinds of wetlands. One of our destinations was Chicago Bog, a beautiful intact wetland in the Finger Lakes region. Set within a decidious forest, the bog itself sits in a large depression that collects water. The defining characteristic of the bog is a floating mat of peat and other vegetation. A small moat of open water separates the bog mat from the shoreline. We'd take a set of wooden planks, lay them from shoreline to bog mat, and tight-rope-walk across to the peat. The floating mat of peat had enough buoyancy to hold up our entire class. Once aboard, we'd set off across the mat, bouncing as we went, studying the plants...and collecting fresh cranberries in Tupperware containers or Ziplock bags. Such was my love of fresh cranberries cemented.

No time of year to me seems more evocative of the cranberry than the stretch from Thanksgiving to Christmas. We serve a fresh cranberry relish on Turkey Day, and recently, I felt inspired to make an orange-cranberry sorbet with all fresh ingredients. Here's how I made it:

1/2 c fresh cranberry relish
1 1/2 c fresh squeezed orange juice with some pulp (about 3 large navel oranges)
1 c water
3/4 c agave nectar

1. To make the cranberry relish, start with about 3/4 c of fresh cranberries, and pulse them in a food processor until you have a fine relish. Measure off 1/2 c.
2. Add the orange juice, water and agave. Transfer to a blender, and blend until all ingredients are well combined and the agave is dissolved.
3. Add the mixture to your ice cream maker and churn as per its directions.
4. Enjoy the sorbet soft, or transfer it to a resealable container and pop it in the freezer to let it set up. Enjoy!

Not to toot my own horn, but Kelli declared this the best sorbet flavor she's ever had. It's super tasty, and has just the right amount of sweetness. This sorbet doesn't have the same pucker factor that my lime sorbet does. It's simply pure, fruity goodness.

Pete

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Food as Tradition

Maybe it's the old-fashioned romantic in me, but I love tradition. In fact, these days I think I've even made a tradition of talking about how much I love tradition. I've certainly mentioned it on this blog more than a time or two. For me, no season is more chock full of traditions than the holiday season.


It starts almost immediately after Thanksgiving, when we cut down our Christmas tree. Kelli and I both had this tradition growing up...her in upstate New York, me on Long Island. When we got married and lived in northern New Jersey, we continued the tradition, driving north into the mid-Hudson valley in search of our ideal tannenbaum. Now that we live in Colorado, the tradition has taken on my favorite iteration yet: we buy a $10 permit from the US Forest Service, grab our snowshoes and bow saw, and head off into the snowy Rocky Mountains to cut down a "wild" Christmas tree...usually a Colorado blue spruce.


From that point onward, the traditions come fast and furious. On December 6 we celebrate St. Nicholas Day, the Belgian Christmas. Each year I put out my wooden shoes, which are fully authentic, imported from Holland, and the third pair I've owned over the course of my lifetime. Kelli has a pair, too, which my mom decorated with hand-made stencils evocative of Antwerp where my grandmother grew up. Marin has a tiny pair now, as well. As my mom did for me as a child, Kelli and I filled Marin's shoes with gold-covered chocolate coins, a reminder of the stories behind the real St. Nicholas. (And as my mom often did, I used Hanukkah gelt because they were the only gold-covered chocolate coins I could find!)

Then comes December 13, St. Lucia Day, the Sicilian Christmas. There's a short respite, and then comes December 24, Christmas Eve, and then December 25, the American Christmas.

All of the events are tied together by the tradition of traditions...food. From the spread of appetizers we make for our tree trimming party, to the Polish mock cake I've written about recently, to the kolachkis Kelli's family makes each year, to tonight's Italian tradition...an elaborate spread of seafood on Christmas Eve (a feast bigger even than the one we'll eat tomorrow on Christmas day). Food is a connection to our cultural heritage, to family members past and present. It is also something passed on to new, younger generations, so that they may continue the traditions, and we become one link of many in those traditions.

When we go gluten-free, we sometimes risk losing those food traditions. We worry that they won't continue, that we can't take part... we feel isolated, set adrift from our previously-held connections to heritage and to family and to region. But it doesn't have to be so. In the beginning, perhaps those traditions will have to be modified to make them gluten-free. Over time, though, if we've learned anything about cooking gluten-free, it's that we can continue to enjoy all of the important foods that have defined our holiday traditions. Save for the meals being gluten-free, they're every bit as enriching, every bit as inclusive, and every bit as traditional as they've ever been. The value of that is beyond words.

And so please, I implore you, hold on to your food traditions. If you've given up a traditional food, make it your New Year's resolution to bring it back in 2010. If you don't know how to make it gluten-free, tell us about it. We love a challenge, and we'd be privileged to try and make a gluten-free version you can enjoy. I know how important traditions can be, and I know what it feels like to come close to losing them. I also know how great it is to retain them, or to regain traditions once thought to be lost.

- Pete

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Holidays

It's that time of year... when we lock up the house, pack our bags, and head east to see beloved family and friends for the holidays. The past year has been one filled with ups and downs, many of which we've shared with you here on NGNP. It's ending, though, on a wonderful high note. Two days ago, we baked an enormous loaf of delicious gluten-free mock cake (a Polish sweet bread with poppyseed filling that's a Bronski family tradition). Now, we're getting ready to head to the airport in less than 24 hours for our flight to New York.

I plan on blogging from the road, so I'm not signing off for 2009...at least not yet! But we did want to wish you all a Happy Holidays - no matter what holiday you celebrate - from our gluten-free family to yours. We hope your 2009 had more ups than downs, and we look forward to seeing you in 2010!

- Pete

Monday, December 21, 2009

AGFC Giveaway #2 - Winner!

For those of you who entered the second giveaway of our cookbook, Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking, I'm sorry to say that your odds weren't very good. We had the highest response of any giveaway we've done, so you can do the math...the odds of any individual person winning were smaller than ever before. But, there of course WAS a winner. And that person was Emmy C in Colorado. Congrats Emmy!

Thanks to everyone who tossed their name into the hat. Stay tuned for more giveaways coming in 2010!

- Pete

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Foto: Flatbread

Sticking with yesterday's theme of Marin's first birthday party, we served up a spread of appetizers for our (her) guests. They included crudites, a hummus Kelli whipped up, and a gluten-free flatbread that I made. (Motivated by successes with some of my recent pizza creations, I've been continuing to experiment with other types of breads...)

The flatbreads had a nice chewy texture, good crumb, and our gluten-free and non-gluten-free guests alike enjoyed it. (Whew!) Here's what you need to know:

1 tbsp sugar
1 cup warm water
1 tbsp active dry yeast
1 2/3 cups Artisan Gluten-Free Flour Blend
1/2 tsp xanthan gum
1 tsp salt
1 large egg
2 tbsp olive oil

1. In a medium bowl, dissolve the sugar in the warm water, add the yeast, stir, and set aside. Give it about five minutes or so to let the yeast activate and become foamy.
2. Beat the egg and olive oil together, and then add to the bowl.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, xanthan gum and salt. Then add to the bowl with the liquids.
4. Mix until all the ingredients are thoroughly combined. (I usually do this step by hand with a fork.)
5. Cover, place in a warm location, and let rise for about 20 minutes (until the dough has roughly doubled in size).
6. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and butter two 9-inch round cake pans.
7. Divide the dough into two equal parts, and using a spatula, evenly spread each half of dough into the round cake pans. (Coating your spatula with non-stick spray or olive oil helps.)
8. Bake for 25 minutes, or until done and cooked to your preferred degree of golden/brown-ness.

For the party, I transferred the flatbreads to a wire rack to allow them to cool completely, and then used a pizza cutter to slice them into wedges. Enjoy!

- Pete

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Looking Back on a Year

Those of you who've been reading NGNP long enough may remember a time B.M. - Before Marin. When we first started blogging about the gluten-free life, we were expecting our first child, and then, in December 2008, she arrived. This past weekend we celebrated her first birthday, and can hardly believe that a year has passed so fast. Marin, like me, is gluten-free, and so naturally, we baked a delicious gluten-free dessert to celebrate the occasion!

We thought it'd be fun to do individual cupcakes for everyone, and started with the recipe for chocolate cake from our cookbook (page 198). Obviously, instead of making a cake, we transferred the batter to a cupcake tin lined with paper sleeves. Then Kelli whipped up a batch of vanilla frosting and topped off the cupcakes. After we gobbled down (ahem...taste tested) one cupcake, we discovered that we were left with exactly enough cupcakes to write "Happy Birthday Marin." Kelli thickened some leftover vanilla frosting, added some coloring, and voila!

As we look back on the past year, I also wanted to you know about two updates to previous blog posts that appeared in the past few months. First, the review of New Planet Beer has been updated with photos and lots of new info. Second, the review of Mahogany Ridge Brewery & Grill in Steamboat Springs has been updated based upon a second visit to the restaurant.

Lastly, a reminder: we're doing the last giveaway of 2009...a copy of our cookbook, Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking. It's free to enter, so if you haven't yet, what are you waiting for? You've got nothing to lose, and if you win, postage is on us!

-Pete

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

AGFC Giveaway #2

Last month we gave away a copy of Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking, just in time for Thanksgiving. We said we'd do it again in December, and here we are! You know the routine: to enter, email me at pete@peterbronski.com and include "AGFC Giveaway #2" in the subject line. We'll use a random number generator to choose the winner from among all the entries. Deadline to enter is midnight, this upcoming Saturday, December 19. The winner will be announced Monday morning, and we'll ship the book that same day so it'll arrive in time to be under your Christmas tree come the morning of December 25 (assuming you celebrate the holiday, of course. If you don't, the book will arrive by the end of next week!). Please include your mailing address with your email entry so that we can get the book to you ASAP (not to worry...your mailing addresses will be discarded immediately following the giveaway... you won't receive any unwanted mail from us!).

- Pete

And the Triumph-ant Winner Is...

One week ago we reviewed Triumph's Essential Gluten-Free Grocery Guide. Triumph generously offered to send a complimentary copy to one lucky NGNP reader. We held a drawing (using our faithful random number generator), and the Triumph-ant winner is... Sandra D! Congratulations Sandra! Please email me (pete@peterbronski.com) your mailing address and we'll get your copy in the mail to you.

- Pete

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Scratch That

If you read NGNP regularly, then you (hopefully) know that you can count on several constants: 100% gluten-free recipes, brutally honest product and restaurant reviews, and much more often than not, an emphasis on from-scratch cooking. Every now and then, I like to stand on my gluten-free soapbox, food-evangelize a bit, and seek converts to our brand of scratch, gluten-free cooking. With our cookbook out - Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking - we've further cemented our roots in the scratch method of cooking.

Now, as we conceive and develop new recipes for the blog, I find myself unexpectedaly thinking (and worrying)... is this scratch enough? Are we staying true to "our brand?" Am I betraying readers, or my own ethic, if I stray from the from-scratch straight and narrow?

I do firmly believe there are strong benefits to cooking from scratch: absolute control of ingredients, influence of the nutritional content, a more intimate relationship to our food (including what we eat and why), the social process of making food with family or friends (and sharing the tasty product of our labors), etc.

Of course, there's the thorny question of how "scratch" is scratch enough? Unless you're eating a restaurant, where literally everything has been prepared for you, we're all cooking from scratch to one degree or another. It just depends what our respective starting points are... Is a store-bought all-purpose GF flour blend "less scratch" than a custom blend you mix yourself? If you make a sauce or a sorbet with orange juice rather than fresh squeezed oranges, do you lose "scratch points?"

It's easy, sometimes, to let the soapbox grow taller; to begin to paint things into a black and white (you're either "from scratch" or "pre-made, processed food"). Walking down this slippery slope creates a false dichotomy. It risks villifying all "pre-made" foods because they're simply not "from scratch" in our own kitchen. But that's hardly fair.

When you take a step back and think about it, it's interesting to note how staunchly we adhere to scratch cooking, when the "from scratch" ethic doesn't necessarily bleed into other parts of our lives. When my 1999 Jeep Cherokee with 202,000 miles kicks the bucket one of these days, I won't go and build myself a new Jeep from scratch. This winter, I have no plans whatsoever to knit myself a new sweater from scratch. If we one day sell our condo and move into a new place, I can almost certainly tell you that I will not be building a new house from scratch (though I did learn how years ago when I apprenticed with a general contractor...).

These are all examples of times when going the "scratch" route definitely does not pay. Why? Specialization. Other people can do it better than me, more easily, faster, and probably for less money (and at the very least, for much more convenience, which is not a trivial thing). Because they "specialize" in a particular discipline. (Such is one of the underpinnings of well-functioning capitalism...)

For a variety of reasons, though, we're often reluctant to let go and "outsource" our food. We cling to scratch cooking when we happily forego scratch living in other corners of our lives. I think that's partly because there's a much more emotional, cultural, and tradition component to food. We don't want to let go of our food for fear of losing some of those valuable attachments. I think it also comes down to sacrifice. When it comes to a sweater, or a Jeep, or a house, I can almost certainly guarantee that what I can buy will be higher quality than what I can make myself. That's not necessarily true in food. When we relinquish control of the ingredients and process, we may unwillingly sacrifice quality...of the product, of its nutrition, of our own health. Firmly holding on to scratch cooking keeps us in control of those factors.

But what if we find food specialists out there...artisan bakeries, Old World style delis, cheese shops, whatever...that share our values? What if those companies make their products from scratch in the same way I might make them at home? Should they be villified? Of course not! I've had the pleasure of reviewing products from some such companies, and I'm happy to sing praises where praise is warranted.

My take home message is thus: I remain a strong believer in scratch cooking in the house, but that doesn't mean there aren't noteworthy GF foodies and companies out there doing great things with food. They have a place in my kitchen, and yours. GF food isn't always about "us" versus "them," or "scratch" versus "not." GF food is about community (isn't all food?), and it's a real joy to find companies and products that align with your own values. And so I'd encourage you, please comment and let others know about your favorite GF foods, companies, bakeries, etc. But don't make it just a list...let us all know what you love so much about them!

I'll start: I love the rainbow cookies at Shabtai, because they trigger my nostalgia for the bakeries of my youth on Long Island, NY. I love Aleia's and Mariposa bakeries for their natural, familiar ingredients, and the quality of their baked goodies.

- Pete

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Foto: Cajun Mini-Meatloaf Burgers

What can I say about today's Friday Foto? It's a super simple recipe...few ingredients, quick to make, quick to cook (or in this case, grill). You've got Cajun flavors, meatloaf texture, and hamburger patty-sized individual portions. 'Nough said. Here's how to make it:

1/2 - 3/4 pounds ground turkey
1 tbsp GF bread crumbs
1 tbsp Cajun spices (see our recipe for custom "Crejun-style" Jambalaya seasoning)

1. Combine and mix all ingredients in a large bowl.
2. Divide the meat in half and form each into a patty.
3. Grill (flipping halfway through) until the turkey is cooked all the way through the patty / mini-loaf.

Enjoy!

- Pete

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Product Review: Gluten Free Bistro

About two months ago I posted a restaurant "non-review," about an unfortunate experience I had with a local pizzeria that in theory offered a GF pizza option. The pizzeria used a par-baked GF pizza crust from The Gluten Free Bistro, and I promised to do an independent, follow-up review of the Bistro that wasn't influenced by any of the pizzerias that use their crust. (For those who are interested, that list of restaurants is here.) At long last, the review is in:

The founders of The Gluten Free Bistro kindly donated three products for us to review: a par-baked pizza crust, a ready-to-use ball of dough, and a batch of their signature Bistro Flour Blend. I'll review them in that order (which also happens to be the order in which we used them).

Par-baked Pizza Crust

As expected, the par-baked crust is built around the Bistro Flour Blend, which uses brown rice, organic sorghum, buckwheat, organic coconut, and tapioca flours. For the pizza crust, they then add water, organic apple sauce, yeast, sugar, xanthan gum, garlic salt, and olive oil. As you can see, both the flour blend and the pizza are fairly unique in some of their ingredients. Notably, they are free of gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, and corn.

The par-baked crust, as you can see in the photo immediately below, is thin. Even so, after baking it with toppings for 15 minutes in a 400-degree oven, it retained a nice, chewy texture. I did taste a little bit of the applesauce coming through, but the overall flavor was excellent. My one complaint was that the crust lacked a lip around the edge that would help to retain toppings such as sauce and cheese. In the end, my tasting notes (and I) concluded that the Gluten Free Bistro par-baked pizza crust was better than the one at Uno's, and easily on par with Deby's Gluten-Free, which I had previously considered to be the best storebought, par-baked, GF pizza crust out there (at least that I had personally tried).

Dough

Next I tackled the pre-made dough. It was very wet and sticky, and even rolling it out between layers of plastic wrap, I had a little trouble. Transferring it from my wooden pizza paddle to the pizza stone in my oven proved even more problematic. Even with a ball bearing layer of corn meal, the pizza stuck to my stone and tore into a heaping pile of dough. After dropping an F bomb or two, I scraped it off the stone with a spatula. However, the act of doing so also collected the corn meal, which stuck to the dough. I re-rolled the dough, and the incorporation of the corn meal took up just enough moisture to correct the problem. The pizza turned out as good as the par-baked version.

Flour Blend

Lastly, we used the Bistro Flour Blend in some recipes from our cookbook. One such recipe was the one for Snickerdoodle cookies (pictured at the top of this post). In preparing the recipe, Kelli and I both noticed how fine the flour blend is. It didn't have much smell to it (a good thing), but then, as Kelli whipped up the cookie dough, the scent of coconut emerged from the batter. (That coconut flavor wasn't present in the finished cookies.) The cookies turned out wonderfully. They were a little crispy on the edges, chewy throughout, and had a nice crumb texture.

We of course are biased and think that the Artisan Gluten-Free Flour Blend in our cookbook is the best GF flour blend out there. But of the pre-mixed, third-party, all-purpose GF flour blends, I'm not hesitant to say that The Gluten Free Bistro is the best we've reviewed to date. This is a versatile flour blend that gets the job done.

The Bottom Line

Alas - for now, at least - the Bistro is a wholesaler, which means the flour blend and the par-baked pizza crusts aren't available to retail customers like you and me. Their products are available exclusively through restaurants and other such outlets. The good news is that they're developing new products as we speak. Also worth noting is that each restaurant that uses the Bistro par-baked pizza crusts receives a great little summary document with "recommended handling instructions," broken down into easy to read and easy to understand "do's" and "don'ts."

So, run out and enjoy one of these pizzas at the growing list of available locations. And hope that the Bistro will make its crusts and its flour blend available to the general public. (Of course, you could also whip up a batch of the Artisan Gluten-Free Flour Blend and make yourself a tasty pizza. The choice is yours!)

- Pete

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Product Review: Triumph Dining's Essential Gluten-Free Grocery Guide, 3rd Edition

From the first day you set foot into a grocery store after going gluten-free, you know what a gauntlet shopping there can be. I'm not talking about the crowded aisles and long checkout lines. I'm talking about finding foods that are gluten-free. The more you do it, the easier it gets, for sure. Reading ingredients labels becomes instinctual. What's more, as a group, we (the gluten-free set) tend to be brand-loyal, sticking with tried and true products that we like and that we know are safe for us to eat.

But how do you find those products in the first place? The folks at Triumph Dining have done much of the legwork for you. Their Essential Gluten-Free Grocery Guide - now in its 3rd edition - features more than 30,000 products from 1,100 brand names. That's a lot of options. Triumph sent over a copy of one of the guides for us to review, and here's my assessment:

Let me start out by saying that compiling a guide to gluten-free products in the grocery store is a truly monumental task. The sheer magnitude of the project, coupled with ever-changing product formulations and constant new-entrants to the marketplace make keeping each edition up to date a Herculean effort. Kudos to Triumph for attempting to slay that dragon.

Organization

The guide begins with a brief but handy introduction. It includes sections such as "Common Pitfalls to Avoid," and "Overview of New Food Labeling Laws." Usefull stuff. The remainder of the guide is broken down into ten major sections, each roughly corresponding to an area of the supermarket: dairy & eggs, beverages, baking aisle, canned and packaged foods, bread-cereal-pasta-etc., condiments, snacks, baby food & formula, frozen foods, and meat. Each section is further sub-divided by specific type of food product, and then within that sub-division, companies and their products are listed alphabetically. Throughout the book you'll find little icons that indicate further information about a product: Was it made on a dedicated GF line or in a dedicated GF facility? Does the company perform gluten testing? Are there cross-contamination concerns?

Pros

For starters, the sheer breadth and depth of the guide is impressive. Secondly, the organization of the 10 major sections - aligned roughly with a supermarket's organization - is a logical approach. (We often try to write out our weekly grocery shopping list in this way to expedite our time in the store...)

Cons

I do have a few criticisms of the guide. First, it's not as exhaustive as I think it could be. Triumph readily admits that the guide is not comprehensive. A company may be omitted if Triumph can't obtain reliable GF information on a product, for example, and "boutique" gluten-free companies (think: small-scale and not widely distributed) are omitted as well. This means that there are many more gluten-free foods out there that you'd miss out on if you stuck only to what's found within the pages of this book.

Second, many of the companies included in the guide are in there because they've provided Triumph with a list of GF foods they make. Or, Triumph has read the label on the product. (Icons indicate when a GF product is included based on Triumph's reading of the label only.) Of course, this opens up the can of worms that is gluten-free labeling in the United States. Because the term "gluten-free" remains, as yet, undefined, companies may apply differing meanings to the term. Because of this, the genuine gluten-free status of foods in the guide (or the risk of cross-contamination) may vary from product to product. Triumph has done its best to use the icons to help readers evaluate each product. At the end of the day, though, Triumph recommends what we've been doing all along: read the labels on the foods you buy and contact companies with questions. But this, in a sense, brings you back to square one. And if you end up there, then what value is the guide in the first place? I'd like to see Triumph more aggressively vet each company's products, their GF status, and cross-contamination concerns. (Even better, I'd love to see them independently test the products, though that would be prohibitively expensive. Or they could add another icon for products that are GFCO certified.)

Lastly, the index at the back of the book is organized alphabetically by food (i.e. soy and tamari sauces). However, as of right now, there's a bit of guesswork involved in trying to decide where in the book to look for a certain product. In addition, some products are distributed across multiple sections. Looking for a pizza crust? It might be in baking mixes... or in the pizza crust section of breads-cereals-pasta... or in the frozen foods section. I'd love to see a second index that lists all companies alphabetically. This gives you the option to approach the GF question in two ways: Decide on the food, and find companies that make a GF version... Or decide on a company, and see if they make any foods that are gluten-free. Both approaches are useful, and it'd be great for Triumph to offer the option.

The Bottom Line

As I've said in the past, we do much of our cooking and baking from scratch with fresh ingredients. As a result, Triumph's guide has diminished value for us, because frankly, we don't buy most of the products listed in there. I also think the guide has decreased value for gluten-free veterans. If you've been eating gluten-free for a while, chances are you a) read labels religiously, and b) are loyal to certain brands. Unless you're looking to branch out, the guide isn't going to tell you anything you don't already know. On the other hand, Triumph's Essential Gluten-Free Grocery Guide is a homerun for those newly diagnosed with Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance. We all remember those early days on a gluten-free diet, when the learning curve was steep, gluten seemed to be everywhere, and we walked the aisles of the supermarket with new eyes, thinking "My God, what can I eat?" If you're one of those people, Triumph's grocery guide is your bible.

The Giveaway

The folks at Triumph have generously offered to give away one free copy of the book to a lucky NGNP reader! We'll run the contest for one week, closing at midnight on Tues, Dec 15. Email me at pete@peterbronski.com and include "Triumph Giveaway" in the subject line to enter. Good luck!

- Pete

Monday, December 7, 2009

Visual Reality

Members of the gluten-free community understand how important it is to know what's in a dish (and just as importantly, what's NOT in a dish).  It can mean the difference between being safe and being sick.  But how do we know?  Especially when attending or hosting a dinner party where there are many dishes, many people, and likely many dietary needs?

Seldom are allergen ingredients obvious to the point of being readily identifiable with a quick glance at a plate of food.  Sure, you could print up little menu cards that list major allergens (or hope that the host does this...).  But you could also use visual cues to clue in a diner that a dish contains a caution ingredient.

Ming Tsai - acclaimed chef, owner of Boston's Blue Ginger restaurant, host of Simply Ming, and outspoken food allergen advocate - gave a useful example a few weeks ago on his TV show.  He was making a pad thai dish, which included peanuts and peanut butter in the sauce.  Once the dish was prepared and plated, it wasn't immediately apparent that it contained peanuts.  So he garnished with coarsely chopped/crushed peanuts.  It was a visual reality check / reminder for anyone with a peanut allergy.  (In this case, the peanuts also provided an additional texture to the dish.)

Shirley, our GF blogging buddy at Gluten Free Easily, recently posted another example.  She was sharing her recipe for a crab ball, which she likes to serve at holiday parties.  In the past, she has had guests who have had shellfish allergies.  And so Shirley serves up her crab ball in a serving plate that's shaped like a crab.  In this case, the visual reality comes in the form of the plate itself, rather than a garnish applied atop or next to the food on that plate.  But the effect is the same.

Of course, as gluten-free foodies, the defining element of our dishes is that they lack wheat (and barley and rye).  This complicates the whole visual reality thing.  You can't exactly garnish a dish with a stalk of anti-wheat to remind diners that your food is gluten-free.  But then again, that's not so much the concern here.  What we're really worried about is making diners aware of what IS in a dish in the event that they may have a life-threatening allergy to it.

It's not always practical or realistic to use such visual cues.  Especially when a dish may have multiple major allergens, or the dish doesn't lend itself to certain in-your-face garnishes as reminders.  But it's a useful technique to keep in mind when you're hosting large groups of people.  To the degree that you can reasonably do so, use visual cues to tell guests what's in your dishes.  Whether it's nuts or shellfish or any one of the other 8 major allergens defined by the FDA, your guests will thank you for that extra little bit of effort that lets them eat safely and with confidence.

- Pete

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday Foto: Lime Sorbet

Life has an ironic sense of timing sometimes. I spent nearly 30 years of my life largely dairy-free. That was due to a lactose intolerance I'd had for as long as I can remember. Then, two years into the gluten-free diet, I wondered: what if my lactose intolerance all those years was secondary to the Celiac? What if, with my intestines healed, I was once again producing the lactase enzyme on my own?

When it came to frozen desserts, I always went one of two routes: frozen yogurt, or sorbet. I decided to test the waters and give myself a serving of ice cream without taking Lactaid pills. No reaction. Incredible. 30 years of lactose intolerance had resolved with the aid of a gluten-free diet. I was free to enjoy cheeses and ice creams and other dairy-filled foods.

Then a funny thing happened. People around me started going dairy-free. We temporarily took Marin off of all dairy in an attempt to address a rash that had developed on her face. (That turned out to be nothing more than your ordinary run of the mill dermatitis, and she tested negative for lactose intolerance and casein allergy...) Our friend's son, John, who's now 18 months old or so, has been taken off of all dairy. And our buddy, Morgan, is dairy-free, too.

Of course, having been on the receiving end of so much dietary accomodation and love from friends and family, we wanted to do the same for these people in our lives. Which inspired me to start making homemade sorbets. (Admittedly, I also just plain love sorbet. Compared to the creaminess of ice cream, the light, refreshing flavor of a crisp, fruity sorbet really hits the spot sometimes...)

Since we always seem to have a refrigerator bin full of limes, I started there first...with a lime sorbet. I like my citrus sorbets on the tart side. Kelli prefers them sweeter, and my version has a bit too much pucker factor for her liking, but I include basic modifications below to make it more or less sweet to suit your preferences. Here's the recipe:

3/4 cup agave nectar
1 1/2 cups cold water
zest of 3 limes
1 1/2 cups lime juice with pulp (about 6 limes, or 1/4 cup per lime)

1. Whisk together the agave and water.
2. Add the lime juice and zest, and whisk to thoroughly mix.
3. Pour the mix into your ice cream maker as per its instructions.
4. Transfer the sorbet to a resealable container and let it set up in your freezer for one hour.

When the sorbet first comes out of the ice cream maker, it will be very soft. Letting it set up in the freezer for one hour or more will give you a firmer sorbet. If your sorbet sets up overnight or longer, it becomes more like an Italian ice (it took me right back to my childhood on Long Island eating Italian ices during the summertime). You can enjoy it as such, or let it melt slightly to soften.

For a sweeter sorbet, decrease the lime juice to 1 cup and/or increase the agave nectar to 1 cup. You can also make this recipe using simple syrup in lieu of agave. (To make simple syrup, dissolve sugar in an equal part water over heat and then let cool.) If using simple syrup, use 1 cup simple syrup to every 3/4 cup agave nectar. (agave tastes sweeter than simple syrup, so you don't use as much...) Enjoy!

- Pete

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Little (Tea) Shop of Horrors

By now I've been around the gluten-free block enough times that I know you'll find gluten in a surprising number of places, in foods you wouldn't normally expect it to be in. And yet, I still have moments of amazement, such as when we went to a local sports pub to catch a football game on the big screen, and I was informed that the hamburgers (not the bun) were not gluten-free because wheat gluten was used as a binding agent in the patties. Really? What happened to the days when a burger was made from 100% ground beef?

I recently had another such moment when a number of gluten-free foodies independently addressed the blogosphere with revelations that their favorite brands of tea (tea!) had varieties that were not gluten-free. Woe is me! Mind you, the tea isn't the problem. It's what's added to the tea to make elaborate flavors that cause the problem.

One example is Celestial Seasonings. The company has added a quite useful informational table to each tea's web page. Check out the page for Sleepytime, Celestial's all-time, number one best-seller, to see what I mean. The table contains a list of ingredients, a link to nutritional info, the tea's "gluten status," its caffeine status, and its Kosher certification. At first, I had a hard time finding any teas that weren't gluten-free. I felt like I had browsed the entire line, and it all seemed gluten-free, when I stumbled into the Special Occasion - Holiday Teas. There I found the culprits... teas such as Gingerbread Spice and Sugar Cookie Sleigh Ride were NOT gluten-free. Why? They contained barley or barley malt...in a tea.

For a second example, we can look to Bigelow Tea. The company conveniently and concisely lists its gluten-free and gluten-ous teas on a single page here. The three offending teas - Blueberry Harvest, Chamomile Mango, and Cinnamon Spice - all contain barley malt. However, Bigelow says that they "when tested, showed no results for gluten." So what's a gluten-free tea drinker to do? It'd be helpful to know what test they performed, and how accurate and precise the test was, before making a decision as to whether to try such a tea or not. Even so, to Bigelow's credit, they've disclosed the info, so that gluten-free tea drinkers erring on the side of caution can make a conservative decision.

Lastly (for this post), check out Tazo Tea. In the FAQ section of the website, they list the teas that are NOT gluten-free: Green Ginger, Tazo Honeybush, Lemon Ginger, and Tea Lemonade. Here the plot thickens. Take Green Ginger. Its ingredients list doesn't list any obviously offending ingredients. I'm forced to conclude that the gluten is contained in the "natural flavors," without knowing what exactly that means. Then there's the Tea Lemonade. The website doesn't list the ingredients for this one, so I can't analyze it. The Lemon Ginger and Tazo Honeybush don't offer much insight, either...except for the company telling us they're not gluten-free.

The lesson learned is a familiar one. Even foods (or drinks) that we think are a home run for gluten-free status sometimes turn out not to be. Yet again, it pays to read labels and check with companies.

And of course, there's the omnipresent concern about cross-contamination. I've toured the Celestial Seasonings plant, and I've seen the enormous sacks of different herbs and spices and tea leaves stored on gigantic racks in one large warehouse where cross-contamination during processing could be a concern. Truthfully, tea companies should probably describe their teas as being "free of gluten-containing ingredients," and also include some disclosure statement about the (probably small) possibility for cross-contamination. Of course, as I've written before, such advisory labeling is currently not required under FDA guidelines (though that will hopefully change soon...).

Now who's up for a spot o' tea?

- Pete

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Product Review: Einstein Bros. GF Bagels

The Goods

The title of this post (and the above photo) pretty much says it all: Einstein Brothers is offering gluten-free bagels! Now, before you go and get your bagel-loving self into a tizzy, hang on a sec... there's more to the story. First, I'll divide this product review into four parts: my own bagel background, my review of the product, the back story behind the product, and a few lingering questions.

So, for my bagel background... It's important to note, I think, that I consider myself something of a bagel snob. It's not my fault. I was born into it. I grew up on Long Island in New York, definitively home of the best bagel on earth. Seriously. They're boiled and then baked. They have a glossy, almost crunchy shell. And they have a moist, doughy middle. Some say it's the Long Island water that makes the difference. (In fact, I know of one transplanted Long Islander who moved to Florida, opened a bagel shop, and imported his water from the Long Island taps to make his bagels... No joke.) Okay, so my bagel snobbery being what it is, take the review with that context in mind.

A raw, plain bagel

Secondly, as for my review of the GF bagels themselves... They have a nice, brown crust, but rather than a glossy finish, they're matte. (Sounds like I'm reviewing painting, I know.) The interior is very white, and the texture is something like bagel-shaped bread. Even so, it has good crumb, nice moisture, and is very soft. I give it more than a passing grade, and you can bump my review up a notch when they're toasted. Delicious.

Ditto, toasted...

The bagels are made with: brown rice flour, tapioca starch, canola oil, egg whites, potato starch, sugar, tapioca maltodextrin, xanthan gum, tapioca syrup, yeast, salt, cultured corn syrup, and enzymes. (A few unfamiliar and tech-y sounding ingredients, but overall not too bad.)

Now, as for the story behind the bagels, here where it gets a little interesting... About one year ago, Udi's Gluten-Free and Einstein Bros. had initial talks about partnering to do a GF bagel. Einstein was often asked about offering such an option, and Udi's was interested in developing such an option. Earlier this year, those talks finally resulted in hard, concrete action.

For now, Einstein is field testing the bagels in three Colorado locations (in Highlands Ranch, Denver, and Broomfield). One week ago today I had the opportunity to attend a GF bagel tasting at the Broomfield location, resulting in this review. In a sense, Einstein is doing target market testing to gauge demand, and will make a go / no go decision on a nationwide roll-out based on that. (It's also a de facto test of Udi's ability to meet large-scale demand after moving into a new, larger facility.)

The bagels come in sleeves of 6, pre-sliced, for $8.99

But here's where the lingering questions come into play... First, despite the fact that Einstein is conducting market research on the GF bagels, the company is purposefully not doing any press. Aside from customer word of mouth at the three locations, and a handful of blog posts like this one, Einstein isn't announcing the availability of the bagels. Now, how you can expect to accurately measure market demand when your target market doesn't know about the product is beyond me...

Secondly, following the GF bagel tasting last week, I received a request (sent from Einstein via an intermediary) not to mention Udi's in any blog posts. Why? As you can see in the first photo above, Einstein's own packaging for the bagels prominently displays the Udi's logo. Me telling you about Udi's isn't giving you any priviliged information you wouldn't learn simply by looking at the package. (Thus far I can only think of two reasons why Einstein would make this request... either a) they're anticipating subcontracting GF bagels to bakers other than Udi's, or b) they want to brand these bagels as their own. Which is partly true. Udi's makes these bagels exclusively for Einstein, and you won't find them in the supermarket under the Udi's label, or on the Udi's website.)

And lastly, there remains an issue of cross-contamination concern if eating these bagels in a brick and mortar Einstein Bros. location. Probably because for now Einstein is market testing in a limited number of locations, it has done very little staff training about cross-contamination issues and handling protocols. As a result, if you do pick up a sleeve of bagels at one of the three Colorado locations, your safest bet is to take it home and consume the bagels there.

The bottom line, though, is that - in spite of the behind the scenes shenanigans - the Einstein Bros. gluten-free bagel is tasty and worth your while. Especially considering that bagels are something we tend not to bake ourselves at home. Let's hope the field testing is successful, and that the bagels become more widely available throughout the Einstein domain.

- Pete