Gluten-free philosophy


POSTED: Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chicken soup might be good for the soul, but sometimes food itself can be the trial in life, as those with food allergies can attest.

Chef Robert Landolphi understands that well: At 29 his wife, “;a bright, enthusiastic woman,”; slowly but progressively became ill. She suffered from fatigue, unexplained pain, digestive problems, muscle weakness, headaches and hair loss. Eventually, her reproductive system shut down.

After three years of misdiagnosis, the Landolphis were told “;basically to get her affairs in order,”; he says. Then the couple heard about celiac disease, an auto-immune condition triggered by gluten that compromises the small intestines. Ingesting gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, causes inflammation in the intestinal cells of those with the disease and results in the body being unable to absorb nutrients properly. With no medical remedy, the only recourse is to avoid gluten. Celiac disease affects an estimated 1 percent of Americans, the National Institute of Health reports. Not all people affected by gluten have celiac disease; some just have a sensitivity to it.

After experimenting with a gluten-free diet, Landolphi's wife's health improved rapidly. The next hurdle: eating—and enjoying it—gluten-free.

“;Being a chef, I jumped in,”; says Landolphi. “;I thought she shouldn't have to give up anything just because of her diet.”;

The chef set the bar high: Recipes had to pass the taste test of those who eat gluten. “;If they didn't notice the difference, it was a success.”;

Landolphi found lots of that, and soon he was out presenting cooking demos and handing out recipes.

Fans of his cooking frequently told him, “;You should do a cookbook.”; So he did.

In “;Gluten Free Every Day Cookbook,”; Landolphi includes more than 100 quick, easy recipes for soups, entrees, side dishes, desserts and even breads.

What makes the cookbook most user-friendly, however, is its rundown of alternative flours and starches, and basic directions for how to combine them effectively in various recipes. Combinations that would make for a good cake, for instance, wouldn't necessarily be right for a pizza crust, Landolphi said.

The cookbook comes at a time when the demand for gluten-free products is high. Traditionally, markets most likely to carry such specialty items are health-food stores, and this seems true in the case of gluten-free food. Locally, Down to Earth, Kokua, Umeke and Star markets carry items such as gluten-free flours, pastas, pastry mixes and snacks.

“;Actually, gluten-free cooking is very easy except for the baking part,”; says Francesca Bishop, vegetarian chef for Down to Earth. “;The challenge comes when one starts to bake, because it's the gluten ingredients that bind other ingredients.”;

While a cookbook like Landolphi's educates a home cook about appropriate flours and flour combinations, Bishop says another hurdle to gluten-free cooking can be the expense.

“;Some of these flours—chestnut, almond and coconut, for example—are very pricey,”; she said.

Luckily, many markets carry ready-made bags of all-purpose, gluten-free flours that take the math and expense out of the picture.

“;Bob's Red Mill brand, for example, is an all-purpose flour that contains garbanzo, tapioca, fava and potato starch in the right proportions, because too much of one flour can cause strange flavors,”; Bishop says. “;And it's $4.50 for a 1-1/2-pound bag. That's not too bad.”;

In navigating grocery items beyond those specifically labeled gluten-free, “;the main thing is to become at expert at reading labels,”; says Tandis Bishop, Down to Earth nutritionist (and Francesca's daughter-in-law). “;Processed and packaged foods sometimes have a lot of hidden ingredients that contain gluten.”;

Modified food starch is one such common ingredient. Look out also for malt syrup and brown rice syrup.

Tandis Bishop says items such as gravies, sauces, soup bases and even nutritional supplements are likely to contain gluten.

“;Pay attention to processed anything,”; she advises.

Another alternative is to eat less processed food, says macrobiotic chef Leslie Ashburn, who uses primarily whole foods in her menus.

“;It's important for people to know that there's a large variety of things they can cook,”; she says. “;They're not doomed. It just takes a little exploration.”;

Landolphi agrees.

“;I always ask, 'What does flour taste like?' and people say, 'Nothing.' So you combine gluten-free flours for the right texture and layer flavors ... with herbs and seasonings,”; he advises. “;My recipes are very simple and they're all delicious.”;

What is gluten?

Think of gluten as the “;glue”; that holds together modern packaged foods. A brew composed of grass-related proteins gliadin and glutenin—found in wheat, rye and barley—gluten is considered a source of additional nutritional protein. When used in wheat flour it contributes elasticity and chewiness to the baked product. That's why supermarket bread loaves all have the same shape.

Bread flours are generally thick with gluten while cake flours are thin, and increasing the wetness of the dough also boosts gluten formation. It's also added to pet food to make it protein-ier.

When added to broth, gluten absorbs the liquid, including the taste, and firms up, and so it's widely used as a meat substitute among vegans.—Burl Burlingame, Star-Bulletin