By Linda Bassett
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I’m sure everyone knows someone with gluten allergies or intolerance. At holiday gatherings, they are the guests sadly surveying the buffet table for something they can eat, or picking the croutons out of a salad so they can eat the vegetables. They study restaurant menus intensely seeking a sauce not thickened with flour. Their very real health concerns cause intense discussions with hosts and waiters. People with gluten allergies, intolerance and outright life-threatening celiac disease don’t try to make life miserable for cooks. They are seriously suffering.
Yes, we all know a few folks latched onto gluten-free eating to be with the cool kids. They are most vocal about dietary preferences. For them, it’s a trend; they’ll soon move on to the paleo diet. And while I can get downright grumpy about those trendy complainers, I get truly irate with hosts or chefs who make light of their guests’/customers’ needs.
In a nutshell, a person who cannot tolerate gluten is unable to deal physically with a food product containing wheat. Since I’m not a physician or a dietician, I offer this as the most basic description. And if the solution seems as simple as cutting out bread, think again. Wheat means flour, not just bread. It means the many sauces that begin with a roux, the classic thickener of flour cooked in fat. It also means the stuffing in so many birds, from pheasant to turkey to quail, as well as in vegetable dishes such as stuffed mushrooms, never out of fashion. And crispy toppings on those voluptuous casseroles called gratins, the partners of roasted meats. A happy solution will make yours the most hospitable house on the block this season.
Here, without a lot of scientific reasoning, of which I’m incapable, are hints that I use to avoid those sad, searching faces at my table.
First, get yourself a small bag of gluten-free flour. Hide the regular unbleached wheat flour for the season. (Yes, it is more expensive, but you don’t need a lot.) Usually ground from corn or rice or other grains or mixtures of grains, look for it (on a higher or lower than eye level shelf) with the other baking products or in a separate gluten-free section of the store. When you thicken a sauce using this flour, I guarantee no one will know the difference. It will just make everyone at the party comfortable.
Second, buy a loaf of gluten-free bread. Find it with the wheat bread, or in the frozen food section, or in a gluten-free section of the market. (Every market handles the products differently.) Do not look for it in the bakery. You won’t find it there, because the wheat flour can contaminate it. Buy a few loaves and freeze them. Now, when you make stuffing or bread pudding or French toast or a hearty peasant soup thickened with bread, use this. Again, no one will taste the difference.
Third, when you are making any of the above recipes, you will likely cut the crust off the bread. Do not throw it away. Do not feed it to the birds or the ducks at the pond. Put it in the food processor and make crumbs. Scatter them over a casserole or gratin before putting it into the oven. Soak them in milk to roll into meatballs or incorporate into a meatloaf.
If you use any of these tricks, don’t announce your secret. Quietly tell anyone you know to be avoiding gluten. They will appreciate it.
Fourth, buy gluten-free pasta. This is not as easy. Since it’s expensive and usually bought in small batches, you will want to make two pasta offerings, wheat and gluten-free, and toss them with the same sauce. Remember to boil the pastas in separate pots.
And, last, gluten-free baking. Look for a mix. There are a lot of good ones out there for cookies and pie crust and cakes and muffins and pancakes and waffles. Even a non-baker, like me, can use these successfully. If you are an expert baker, try a gluten-free cake flour. I would never attempt this as I can barely get a cookie to turn out right using old-fashioned wheat flour. I recently tasted a made-from-scratch gluten-free pie crust and I could not tell the difference.
Here I offer a warming bread-thickened soup. Since gluten-free bread tends to be a bit dry, it works beautifully here and is nourishing as well. It is the season to offer kindness to others.
Makes 6 servings
Use gluten-free bread for the thickener. No one will know the difference. And, please note, this recipe is vegan-friendly as well.
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
4 carrots, coarsely chopped
a 32-ounce can plum tomatoes with their juices
salt, pepper, to taste
3 to 4 large russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 cups canned white beans (cannellini)
pinch crushed red pepper flakes
3 quarts water
1 loaf bread, cut into large chunks
1 large bunch greens — chard, kale, or spinach — stems removed
Heat oil in a deep pot. Add onions, celery, carrots; cook over low heat for 10 minutes, stirring, until onion is tender. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Add potatoes, beans, pepper flakes and water. Bring to a boil, and simmer for 45 minutes until vegetables are meltingly tender.
Add bread and spinach. Bring to a boil; stir. Season. Ladle into bowls and drizzle with hearty olive oil and sprinkle with coarse sea salt for good measure.
Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@aol.com. Read Linda’s blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.
Kitchen Call: Hints for gluten-free holidays
By Linda Bassett