Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Living Gluten Free In Europe

Living gluten free is a joy in Europe.
I have wondered for a long time why it is easier to purchase delicious gluten free food in Europe than it is in the United States.  

By 'delicious', I mean food that tastes sinfully good.  

My litmus test for really good gluten free food is my husband, since he honestly doesn't like the taste of anything without gluten.  (I've been gluten free so long, I honestly can't remember the flavor of wheat... but he assures me it is amazing.)

He's the same guy that is still a little embarrassed by my diet, even now after ten years.  The guy that awkwardly jokes with every waiter, "I'll take her gluten," and sometimes threatens to print tee-shirts that say "I (heart) gluten."

So when he says he's impressed with something I'm savoring, it really means something.

We live in Europe now, but when we first came to stay here for an extended period of time with our kids two years ago, I had been really worried.  Would I be able to find any gluten free food?  What on Earth would I eat?  Would I have to cook everything at home... or would restaurants be able to accommodate my diet?

I wondered about this a lot; but my desire to see Italy was stronger than my worry about what I would eat while I was there.

As it turns out, Italy is an absolute mecca for insanely delicious gluten free food.  It was easier for me to find gluten free items at closing time on a Sunday at a tiny corner market in Lucca (when the entire town was shut down!) than it often has been for me to find it at your average Vons in California.  

Food is really important in Europe.  Not just what you eat, but how you eat it too.  

In Spain, where we'll be living for the next year or two, the entire country shuts down at lunchtime so that people can eat together with their family, friends or colleagues.  

Saturdays and Sundays are often day-long eating events, where large extended families and friends get together to eat (and drink, and laugh) all day long.  

It turns out that much of Europe views the need for a gluten free diet as something of a calamity that deserves support and attention.  If you cannot eat the delicious handmade pasta in Florence, it is a bit of a tragedy for both the waiter and the chef.  They feel terrible for you... they want to make it up to you... they work hard to create the best gluten-free meal for you possible.

I could weep when I think about the crazy-delicious gluten free pasta I've now eaten in Italy.  The pizza crust that had that perfect level of crispy and soft.  The cookies that melted in my mouth. Wow.

Grocery stores here have entire aisles devoted to allergen-free products, mainly gluten-free. 

Entire long aisles in grocery stores devoted to food allergies, with a special focus on gluten.
And so, while I haven't been blogging about my gluten free life for the past several years, I've been living it quite happily.  I'm grateful to have the chance to try out a wide variety of gluten free products not yet available in America... and I've decided to write about them from time to time.  

It seems like a handful of companies have a corner on the market for gluten free food in the USA, and every grocery store that carries anything gluten free has the same five products.  As someone living the gluten free lifestyle for almost 10 years now, this gets really old.

I'm going to try to introduce America to the really cool gluten-free food options I have found (and continue to find) here in Europe.  Maybe this will help pave the way for these other companies to find their footing in the U.S. market.  Better, maybe it will inspire more U.S. companies to figure out how to make better tasting gluten free food!

Honestly, I'd forgotten that food could taste this good. 

Even my husband now admits, from time to time when I give him a bite of my dinner or dessert, "Wow - that is actually really good.  I almost couldn't tell it was gluten free!"  High praise indeed.

Insanely delicious pastries from my favorite gluten free baked goods shop in Barcelona

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Plot Thickens:
Is your Xanthan Gum as harmless as it appears?

If you've baked with gluten free flours for any length of time, you undoubtedly learned very quickly that they don't hold together in the same way that wheat flour does.

Despite the best of intentions, you really can't substitute a cup of rice flour for a cup of wheat flour to make a loaf of bread.  That certain something special will simply be missing.

Similarly, your favorite cookies may turn into a burned, crumbled mess!

The gluten in wheat is what binds doughs beautifully; it provides the sticky cohesion that bakers and chefs love so well.

In order to achieve the same effect with gluten free flours, resourceful gluten free bakers typically rely upon a well known food thickening agent called xanthan gum.  Adding this substance to batters and doughs helps create gluten free baked goods and treats with the perfect level of viscosity.  They hold together with style.

So, what's the catch?

It might not be time yet to bust out the theme music from the movie "Jaws"... but as it turns out, there is a lot you may not know about the xanthan gum in your cupboard or refrigerator.

Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide made from the coat of a tiny microorganism called Xanthomonas campestris. Companies like Bob's Red Mill make it by fermenting glucose, sucrose or lactose with this bacterium, and then use isopropyl alcohol to "precipitate" it from the growth medium.  It is later dried and ground into a powder. 

These companies use the xanthan gum powder in a wide variety of products.  It works as a thickener or stabilizer for a diverse range of products and needs ranging from ice cream to cosmetics to thickening mud for drilling.  Xanthan significantly increases the viscosity of liquids and in most foods it is used at a concentration of .5%.

Here's something important that food manufacturers don't really advertise about xanthan gum:

Your xanthan gum has the potential in itself to trigger allergic responses if you happen to be sensitive to its growth mediums.

Do you know what the growth mediums for xanthan gum ARE?  Do you?

Because until today, I didn't.

The growth mediums are:  CORN, DAIRY, WHEAT, SOY

Yes, that xanthan gum you're using in your gluten free baking may actually have been derived from WHEAT.

In fact, it probably is!

I called Bob's Red Mill today and spoke with a representative, because I wanted to make sure that the xanthan gum I use for my gluten free baking was not grown from a soy medium.  I have an allergy to soy that I try to be really respectful of, and I strictly avoid all possible exposure to soy.

Imagine my shock to hear straight from the representative,

"Oh no, you have nothing to worry about.  We don't use soy.  Our xanthan gum is created using wheat starch." 

Dumbfounded, I responded - "But, it's supposed to be gluten free! It says so right here on the package."

"Oh, by the time the bacteria has done its work there are zero wheat proteins remaining," he assured me. "We grow it from wheat starch but it is gluten free by the time it gets to you."

I wondered how he could be so sure.

The label on the bag of Bob's Red Mill gluten free xanthan gum states:

"Bob's Red Mill Products Labeled Gluten Free are batch tested in our quality control laboratory.  We use an ELISA Gluten Assay test to determine if a product is gluten free."  (Emphasis added.)

Which means, in sum, that Bob's Red Mill is deciding for itself if its products are actually gluten free.  There is no independent lab involved, no third party testing.

Here is a quote from AllAllergy.Net which sums up my concerns as a gluten free baker:

"In the U.S. there are 2 major suppliers of xanthan gum.  One uses soy as the fermentation medium while the other uses wheat.  Residual wheat gluten has been detected on the xanthan gum made on the wheat substrate."

If residual gluten has been detected in even *some* batches xanthan gum grown from the wheat starch medium, what guarantee is there that ALL packages of xanthan gum from any company - including Bob's Red Mill - are truly gluten-free?  How often are they actually batch testing?  Do they test every week?  Every month?  Once a year? 

More importantly... can folks with a heightened sensitivity to gluten REALLY rest assured that they will not have an allergic response to the xanthan gum that they are baking with?

If you suffer from a known allergy to gluten, corn, dairy or soy I highly recommend calling the manufacturer of the xanthan gum product you like to use in your baking to find out exactly what medium they are growing it from.

You might be shocked to discover, as I was, that your friendly little package of xanthan gum is actually grown from a product to which you are highly sensitive... and that the company itself is doing its own ELISA testing without an external quality control.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick Or Treat? Gluten Free Halloween

Happy Halloween!

A lot of parents must be scrambling right about now to figure out what to do for their gluten free kiddos.

"Do we take them Trick Or Treating?

Do we take them to a movie and avoid the holiday?"

How do you explain to your hyped-up four or six year old that they can't have all of the same candy treats that all of their friends will be enjoying at local pumpkin patches and carnivals?

* * *

My three children eat a 'normal' diet, whatever that means. However, four years later I still eat strictly gluten free despite my supposedly negative HLA-DQ tests.

I *feel* better gluten free. During the handful of months that I 'broke' my gluten free diet in 2010, my health plummeted rapidly with autoimmune symptoms abounding. It didn't take long for me to realize that whether or not I have a celiac diagnosis, I have a better quality of daily life when I am gluten free.

So, I'm still a gluten free lady... and a gluten free mom.

I'm lucky though because at the age of 35 it is pretty easy for me to 'deny' myself gluten-filled treats. (It doesn't feel like deprivation at all!)

When people ask me,

"How do you DO that? Don't you miss eating normally?"

I reply quite honestly, "I love feeling well, and any food that makes me feel terrible really isn't something I miss in the slightest."


It would be really different if I were a little kid.

* * *

One of my dear friends has a darling seven year old daughter that suffers from ulcerative colitis. To help heal her gut, she has been on a very intense "Specific Carbohydrate Diet" which eliminates all sugar, refined grains and starch from the diet. Her daughter has been on the diet now for over four years, and is absolutely thriving.

Halloween, birthday parties, classroom parties, spontaneous snacks - these are all really difficult for my friend to navigate for her daughter though.

For Halloween, my friend came up with something really ingenious that I thought was so great, I've been using it with my own children.

She allows her daughter to go Trick-Or-Treating with all of her friends, with the strict understanding that she will not eat the candy but rather bring it back home.

Once her little girl brings the candies home in her bucket, she and her mother make a celebration of counting them out. For every ten small candies her daughter collects, my friend gives her the choice of a small toy from a bucket of toys she has collected over the years from 99cent stores.

Her daughter is elated by the chance to earn so many toys in one evening! She loves Halloween because she still gets to enjoy the costumes and fun, without feeling left out. She still gets treasures. She just doesn't eat all of the candy.

(My friend also makes sure that she prepares all of her daughter's favorite 'desserts' such as almond flour banana bread and special yogurt... so that her tummy feels 'treated' as well.)

* * *

Even though my children do not have food allergies, I loved her idea so much that we have now implemented it now in our home for three years.

We take our three kids trick or treating and then trade them toys for their candies. I bake gluten free cookies to have on hand, with ice cream. They are thrilled about the fun, the toys and the dessert. In the end, they always forget about the candy.

Still... for those who really love Halloween candy and don't feel like trading Hot Wheels for Hershey's, here are some good resources to help gluten free families navigate their way through gluten free trick-or-treating:

National Foundation for Celiac Awareness
(thanks to Sure Foods Living)

Gluten Free Candy List 2011

2011 Gluten-Free Candy List

Gluten Free Candy, as of October 2011

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ridiculously Sweet Carob Cookies

My nearly three year old child is still suffering from chronic gut problems and I feel compelled to create dairy, soy and gluten-free meals for him every day. So cooking without gluten will remain a way of life, at least for now.

My husband and I made the hard choice last night to try to cut all cane sugar, maple sugar and fruit out of our son's diet (in addition to the dairy, soy and gluten) for the next two weeks until we can at last meet with a pediatric GI. Our child has an incredible sweet tooth, and this may be a key to his problems. So today, after wracking my brains (and the internet) to find a recipe for cookies that would be free of gluten, dairy, soy and sugar (but still somehow yummy!) I came upon a recipe by Elana's Pantry for her scrumptious Chocolate Chip Cookies.

We've heard good things about carob and its effects upon the tummy, so I decided to adapt her recipe and create some almond carob cookies. OMG!!! You cannot even believe how sweet and decadent these morsels turned out to be. My main thoughts on the recipe at this point are that the cookies don't hold together as well when they are undercooked but they burn if overcooked, so you have to hit that timing sweet spot just right... in our oven, it turned out to be 9 minutes. Also, I recommend cooling the cookies completely before removing them from the parchment paper, so that they hold together well.

Sugar lovers will NEVER believe that there is no cane sugar in these cookies... they are the sweetest things I have ever tasted. You should have seen the look of bliss on our boy's little face as he took the first bite. Unforgettable.

Ridiculously Sweet Carob Cookies

What You'll Need...

1/2 bag dry roasted & salted almonds, finely ground (or, 2.5 cups of almond flour)
1/2 cup agave nectar
1/2 cup grapeseed oil (expeller pressed)
1/2 cup carob powder
1 tbsp vanilla
1/2 tsp baking soda
parchment paper and a cookie sheet

How It Works...

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cover cookie sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.

Using cuisinart or blender, grind your dry roasted salted almonds into a fine powder. Stop blending before the oil causes it to turn to almond butter. You can use a sifter if you want it to be finer. (Or, you may purchase blanched almond flour.)

In a large bowl, add 2.5 cups of almond flour to the agave nectar, grapeseed oil, vanilla and baking soda. Mix well. Finally, stir in the carob powder and mix for 60 seconds or longer to make sure all ingredients are well combined.

This dough will really spread on the sheet so using teaspoons drop small rounds onto your lined baking sheet leaving at least 1.5 inches space between each cookie. Our rounds were about 1 inch in diameter as dough, which formed cookies that were over three inches wide.

Bake for 8-10 minutes (in our oven, 9 seemed to work the best) until cookies are firm but not burned. Remove from oven and cool entire cookie sheet on rack until completely cool. Remove cookies when cool and enjoy! Just remember, a little goes a long way! These are the sweetest cookies I've ever eaten! They're also very light and soft.

Makes 18 - 24 cookies

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Green Bean Chicken

I decided to present for your dining pleasure one of our absolute favorite family recipes... Green Bean Chicken. A simple, hearty dish that will feed a family of four to six with ease! May it bring warmth to your stomach (and your heart) on this chilly December evening. As my health and energy continue to increase, I hope to be sharing more of our family favorites with you throughout the holiday season.

Green Bean Chicken

What You’ll Need...

Thinly sliced chicken breasts (approx 1 lb chicken)*
Long grain brown rice – 1.5 cups (although white rice is delicious too)
Chicken bouillon, 3 cups
3 shallots, thinly sliced
Garlic, 6-8 cloves
Several large handfuls fresh green beans (preferably organic)
Crimini mushrooms, 20 quartered or chopped into thick slices
Olive oil

Optional: replace 1 cup of bouillon for the rice with tomato sauce

*We also enjoy making this recipe with one lb of chicken thighs, although it is of course fattier and so less healthy

How It Works...

Heat a large glug of olive oil in a four quart saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. When oil is hot but not smoking, add thinly sliced shallots and saut̩ until they begin to caramelize. Next add chicken pieces (I cut up each thinly sliced breast into three equal portions) and sear both sides with the shallots, until the flesh is white on the outside but still pink in the middle. Add brown rice, bouillon and all whole (peeled) garlic cloves and bring to a boil. (If you are using tomato sauce with bouillon, add it now.) Once the liquid is boiling, add green beans (ends removed, remaining beans broken into 1 Р2 inch pieces) and all the quartered mushrooms. Dust with fresh ground pepper and salt to taste. Stir well with a wooden spoon a few times to completely integrate chicken, rice and vegetables as they boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 45 Р55 minutes or until rice is fluffy and soft and vegetables and meat are moist and cooked through. Chicken should be so soft it falls apart at the touch of a fork when finished.

Serves 4 – 6.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Spaghetti (Squash) with Meat Sauce

This recipe represents one more small step on my never-ending quest to feed my children and husband more healthfully. As I've mentioned before, as the resident chef here I walk a fine line between "healthy" and "too healthy". When any meal falls into what my children might qualify the "too healthy" category (meaning that they don't think it tastes delicious enough to merit the high vegetable intake) they will mainly push the food around on their plate a little before asking what else we have in the refrigerator.

Luckily, a mommy really can't go wrong with spaghetti. Whenever my kids ask me what we are having for dinner and I reply, "Pasta with red sauce", their little faces illuminate as though I have just told them that Santa Claus himself is coming to share the meal. There may well be many children out there that don't enjoy spaghetti, but in my house, it is an absolute favorite.

Thanks to this incredible good will in our home toward spaghetti I felt like I could experiment a little and push the envelope... so lately I've been working on this homemade ragout using spaghetti squash in lieu of pasta.

I hadn't really cooked much with spaghetti squash before. In general, I think I've always been a little intimidated by most winter squashes. Luckily my local grocery store places a little sticker on each squash with specific directions for how to cook it using either the conventional oven or a microwave. The first time I tried my hand at making a spaghetti squash, I definitely didn't cook it for long enough and so the threads of squash were more difficult to fork out of the rind and perhaps a bit too al dente.

My main advice with this recipe would be to make sure that you cook your spaghetti squash until the threads are soft and supple, and then be sure to saute them a little longer once you have combined them with your meat and vegetable sauce. I always know when I've cooked the spaghetti squash perfectly because my children don't ask me why their "pasta" is crunchy. (I think this is one occasion when it is definitely preferable to overcook rather than undercook the spaghetti!) When served fresh, warm and perhaps dusted with a bit of Parmesan cheese, this meal makes an ideal option for a truly heart-healthy yet traditional family meal.

Spaghetti (Squash) with Meat Sauce

What You'll Need:

1 spaghetti squash
2 tbsp grapeseed oil
1 lb lean ground beef
1 medium onion, minced
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 handfuls mushrooms, minced
3-4 small zucchini squash, minced
1/4 cup red Zinfandel
15 oz diced tomatoes
sea salt
fresh ground black pepper
Italian seasoning
garlic powder

How It Works:

With a cleaver or strong long-bladed knife, cut spaghetti squash in half width-wise. Place one-half of squash with cut end down in about 1/2 inch of water, in a glass dish. Cover with well with plastic wrap (so that plastic is well affixed to sides of the glass dish, creating a sort of air pocket all around the base of the squash). Microwave on high for about 12-14 minutes or until you can easily remove squash "spaghetti" strands from the rind with the tines of a fork. Repeat all steps with 2nd half of spaghetti squash. Pour squash spaghetti into a large bowl, cover it and set aside.


Pour grapeseed oil into the base of a large, deep saucepan and heat at a medium-high temperature. When oil is warm but not smoking, add ground beef and break up any chunks with a large wooden spoon. Stir beef while cooking, seasoning with salt, fresh ground pepper, garlic powder and Italian seasoning to taste. (I use about 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp ground pepper, 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning and 1/2 tsp garlic powder... but you should make it to suit your personal enjoyment and/or any health restrictions you may have.)

When meat has browned, remove it from the pan and place to the side in a separate bowl. Return your deep saucepan (with the same oil) to the stovetop burner and add minced onions. Saute for about two minutes, stirring constantly and then add garlic. Saute for another minute. When garlic smells fragrant (but has not burned), add the minced mushrooms and zucchini. (You may decide to add another glug of grapeseed oil at this point.) Combine everything well with your wooden spoon and then saute the vegetable mixture covered for 3-5 minutes. (Covering will release the moisture in the mushrooms and zucchini without drying them out.) Remove the cover, check your mixture. Stir, reduce temperature a bit and allow to continue sauteing over medium-low heat if the veggies seem too moist or raw.

When your vegetables have finished their dance in the saute pan, re-add the browned ground beef and combine well using the wooden spoon. Next add your diced tomatoes and stir them gently. Cook for the entire sauce for 2 minutes, and then add the zinfandel. Reduce heat to low, stir well, and allow to simmer uncovered. Simmer for a minimum of 10-15 minutes on low. Feel free to simmer longer, the flavor only gets more delicious with increased simmering.

As the time nears when you are ready to serve, add about 3/4 of your squash "spaghetti" strands into your meat sauce and combine everything on the stove over low heat for a few minutes to re-warm the squash strands and fuse all of the flavors together. (You may also prefer to serve the squash pasta as a "bed" with the sauce spooned gently onto its top.) If you enjoy cheese, try grating a bit of Parmesan cheese over the top of each plate before serving.

Serves 6. Just as delicious on the second day, makes great leftovers!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Betty Crocker's Cream Cheese Cookies

I grew up in the 1970s and '80s as the youngest of five children. Thanks to the spread in our ages, many of my siblings were already out of the house by the time I was a kid riding bikes, trading stickers and singing in the local elementary school pageant.

I loved listening to stories about my siblings and their adventures in the world, and longed to be as old as they were. I missed having them around. Being a youngest child with such a large age spread was a lot like being an only child - the house where I grew up was pretty quiet - and I looked forward more than anything to the holiday season when everyone would congregate back together in our parents' house to enjoy games, music, movies, laughter and lots (and lots, and lots) of food. And then there was the dessert... have I mentioned the dessert?

So many gorgeous, fabulous, decadent desserts graced our holiday table throughout the years. Of course we experimented with new recipes but certain sweet treats showed up annually by popular demand. These included sugar cookies, almond crescents (which would be fun to try making gluten free!) and our very favorite of all, Betty Crocker's cream cheese cookies.

My mom made most desserts from scratch and usually without a lot of sugar. In retrospect, that may have been part of the tantalizing allure of these fabled cream cheese cookies. Since they were made with yellow cake mix, the sugar had been pre-added by the cake company and mom couldn't tone it down or cut the proportions in half. The sweet result? A definite addiction to cream cheese cookies by all members of our family - most especially my dad :-)

Holiday meals and family gatherings have been a little more challenging to navigate since I first went gluten free two years ago. Food, usually such a uniting factor for my family, has been a sensitive topic. I get asked what people should cook, whether I will be able to eat the food they are bringing, and if not - why not.

I try in general just to enjoy whatever part of the meal that I can without putting anyone to extra trouble. This is rarely a problem as there are usually many tasty sides and vegetables that I can enjoy, and quite often the main course for holiday meals turns out to be fish. In a lasagna year, I bring along gluten free pasta or some kind of meat that has not been marinated.

The only real sense of loss that I have experienced in the last few years during the holidays has centered around the dessert table - so gorgeously piled with cakes, pies and cookies. None of which I can eat.

Which is why I absolutely FREAKED OUT when I read a few days ago that Betty Crocker is now making a gluten free yellow cake mix that can be purchased in major food chain stores all over the country. I was so excited that I did a happy dance AND called my mother to tell her that once again, I will be able to enjoy her famous cream cheese cookies at Christmas.

Of course I couldn't wait that long, since the holidays are still months away. I searched around my town until I found a grocery store that carried the magical goodies (Betty Crocker is also vending Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookie mix, Brownie mix and Chocolate Cake mix). As soon as my husband returned home from work I handed him our three children and set forth to claim my Betty Crocker destiny.

So here it is... the famous Betty Crocker recipe for cream cheese cookies that my family has used for the last thirty years or so. I won't lie, the gluten free version doesn't taste exactly the same as they did when made with regular white flour - but they are still light, fluffy, moist and delicious. Your gluten free family will love them! Happy Holidays to you all three months early :-) and thank you Betty Crocker! for bringing gluten free goodness to the shelves of 'regular' grocery stores everywhere.

Betty Crocker's Cream Cheese Cookies

What You'll Need...

1/4 cup butter
8 oz cream cheese (or 1/3 less fat Neufchatel cream cheese)
1 egg yolk
1/4 tsp vanilla
1 pkg Betty Crocker yellow cake mix

1/2 C shredded coconut or nuts

How It Works...

Cream butter and cheese. Blend in egg yolk and vanilla. Add cake mix (1/2 at a time). Mix well. If you're using a mixer, add the last part of the cake mix by hand. (If you decide to opt for the coconut and/or nuts, now is the time to add those too.) Chill dough 30 minutes. Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Either use a cookie press/ ungreased sheet/ 6-9 minutes or drop by scant tea onto an ungreased baking sheet and bake 8-10 minutes or until delicately brown.

Makes about 24 two-inch cookies.