13 June 2010

More Gluten-Free Favorites

As my adventures in gluten-free living continue, I keep experimenting with new products, recipes and foods to round out my diet...

Trader Joe's Chicken Meatballs -- In my gluten-eating days, I was a huge fan of Trader Joe's frozen turkey meatballs as an easy, relatively nutritious meal addition. Obviously breadcrumbs are a primary component of meatball recipes, so I was so pleased to discover gluten-free chicken meatballs when browsing the aisles of Trader Joe's on Memorial Drive in Cambridge. They are located in the refrigerated, prepared foods section of the store for $4.99 for a small package. But these are well worth it, as these meatballs have quickly become a staple of my diet. Packed with spicy flavor and lean protein, they heat up in about a minute straight from the freezer, as they are fully cooked at purchase. I usually pair them with gluten-free pasta, but sometimes I just eat them by themselves with a little tomato sauce and I'm a happy gluten-free camper. Click the link for a list of all gluten-free products at Trader Joe's -- very convenient.

Glow Gluten-Free Cookies -- I came across a review for Glow Gluten-Free Cookies during a Google search when I first realized I was gluten intolerant. The store locator section of their website indicated the only Whole Foods Markets they are available at in Massachusetts are the Newtonville and Newton (Walnut Street) locations. I usually go to the WFM on River Street in Cambridge, but I've recently realized popping over to Newtonville is so much easier (there are just as much annoying shoppers in Newton as Cambridge, FYI). Despite being priced at $5.99 per adorable carton of 7 cookies, I decided to give the Chocolate Chip variety a try -- my sweet tooth has not been appeased lately so I treated myself. I tried my first cookie at halftime of a recent Celtics-Lakers game and I was beyond pleased with my purchase! The cookies are the perfect texture -- crunchy with a bit of chewiness -- and even have my personal preference of palate-detectable salt (I am known as the "Queen of Sweet and Savory" because I can never have enough chocolate/bacon, proscuitto/melon, etc. combinations). And the best part is they truly tasted like regular chocolate chip cookies; they would pass any taste test. Although I am not a huge fan of store bought baked goods, I can't wait to try the other varieties (Gingersnap, Snickerdoodle and Double Chocolate).

Amazing Grass SuperFood Powders -- I found out about Amazing Grass products through one of my old real estate clients, whose sister is gluten intolerant and has a great blog Jackie's Kitchen. As a full canister is around $28, I tracked down some individual packets ($1.49 each) at Whole Foods to test them out. I was admittedly a bit skeptical, as I am not big into drink mixes, protein shakes, etc. But the chocolate flavor was actually quite tasty mixed with skim milk. It certainly did not taste like traditional chocolate milk as it had a distinctive "green" vegetative aftertaste, and was a bit granular. Despite following the instructions to mix the powder with an ounce of water before adding it to the milk, it still did not mix well and I found myself stirring the beverage throughout my consumption. But I overall enjoyed it and will consider buying a full container to add to my daily meal plan soon. The original green and berry flavors were also enjoyable, but not favorites.

Justin's Nut Butters -- One of the food addictions I am know for is my addiction to peanut butter. I have nearly 10 jars of peanut butter in my kitchen cabinet right now, I kid you not, mostly from the Peanut Butter Company in NYC. At the encouragement of one of my best friends, Alysa, (who in addition to her wonderful Life Beyond The Postseason blog has also started a fantastic lifestyle new blog Girl Vs. Food), I decided to try Justin's Nut Butters. And wow was she right -- it's a match made in nut butter lover heaven. Being a New Hampshire girl, I am especially a huge fan of the Maple Almond Butter flavor. My new favorite snack is a banana with almond butter -- it truly rivals peanut butter and banana as a fantastic food pairing. A great thing about Justin's Nut Butters is they are available in single serve squeeze packs in addition to jars. Not very green, but very convenient for today's on-the-go lifestyle. I definitely see myself packing these for upcoming road races, hikes, vacations and more.

Annie's Gluten-Free Rice Pasta and Cheddar -- I always try to keep a box of macaroni and cheese on hand for lazy days, rainy days or sick days (I never seem to crave it otherwise). Annie's has always been my favorite, and I was pleased to discover they offer a gluten-free variety featuring rice pasta. At $3.49 per box, it's pricier than regular macaroni and cheese (then again, it's not like anything gluten-free is at the same price point as traditional products). The main issue I have with rice pasta is that no matter how much I salt the water (I even tried olive oil, a no-no for real chefs) the pasta becomes sticky and the water becomes a cloudy, gooey mess. And somehow this stickiness seems to seep into the cheese sauce, and the finished dish is almost reminiscent of plastic. However, I tried the Trader Joe's version of gluten-free macaroni and cheese (priced at a much more reasonable $1.99 per box) and Annie's was the clear winner. I may start experimenting with my own macaroni and cheese recipes, but that will take away from the convenience factor which has me reaching for the box in the cabinet in the first place.

Additional posts this week will feature more reviews and recipes. Thanks for reading!

10 June 2010

Gluten-Free Restaurant Review: Glutenus Minimus Bakery

As an aspiring pastry chef diagnosed with gluten intolerance, I've definitely had some ups and downs coming to terms with not only my diet changes but my life dream changes. Many people have asked me why I have not enrolled in culinary school since I am now unemployed and was accepted to a prestigious program last summer. Believe me - if I could be perfecting my pastries in a professional culinary program right now, I would be there with bells on. Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible for me to pursue a traditional culinary education. A major requirement of being a chef is tasting the food you are preparing, not only after a dish is plated and about to be served to guests, but throughout the cooking process ("Does this need more salt?", "Oh no I forget to add the shallots!" and so on). It would be completely ridiculous for an instructor to grade me on the taste of a cake that I had not even been able to taste myself. And so my unshakable goal to attend culinary school has died, at least for now.

Many people have also asked me why I don't open a gluten-free bakery. I love everyone's support and enthusiasm, saying gluten-free is my ticket to real success as a chef. Obviously this thought crossed my mind nanoseconds after I solved my dietary crisis. If I had the capital and resources to do this, I would be the happiest girl in Boston (or Seattle or Nashville or wherever my bakery would be located). So my dream to own a bakery/ice cream shop is still very much alive, just modified. Fortunately for me, I have a fantastic example of a gluten-free bakery very closeby.

Glutenus Minimus Bakery in Belmont began in Spring 2008 and sells wonderful gourmet gluten-free foods. Located on Belmont Street, a mostly residential street on the Watertown/Belmont line, I finally made my first visit today after a trip to the Watertown Public Library. When I walked into the shop, I was immediately greeted by a very friendly, energetic staff member who informed me she could answer any questions I had. I told her I was recently diagnosed and had been craving a muffin for weeks (true - ask just about anyone who has checked in with me about how I'm doing with the diet change and my main answer is "I just want a MUFFIN!" which is odd because I really only liked muffins when I was sick in my gluten-consuming days). I immediately selected a blueberry muffin, and also chose a chocolate toffee cookie. Together the cost was $3.75 but I would have paid much more than that for delicious, freshly baked gluten-free pastries!

It took all my willpower to not scarf down the treats on site or on the drizzly drive home, but I survived (I had to take pictures for my blog, after all). It was definitely worth the wait. The blueberry muffin top had that inexplicably delectable sticky, gooey muffin top texture that I had been missing. The interior of the muffin was moist and full of sweet blueberries, but was a bit dense for my muffin texture preference. However, I am not one to be particularly picky when I have been craving a food for weeks! I was quite happy with the muffin, as well as the cookie which I had for a pre-Celtics/Lakers snack. The cookie was chewy, chocolately and absolutely would have passed a taste test vs. a cookie made with traditional wheat flour. Glutenus Minimus owner/baker Natalie McEachern truly has perfected the very fine, scientific art of gluten-free baking.

In addition to the muffins and cookies I purchased, Glutenus Minimus also sells cakes, brownies, cupcakes, pizza dough mix and other baking mixes. They even sell a gingerbread house mix/kit, which I think is just wonderful for the holidays. I will also be picking up one of their adorable tee shirts soon (FYI I collect bakery tee shirts during my travels near and far). They have a large, bright and lovely space with an open kitchen. The staff working there while I was in the shop were all very happy and having a lively conversation while preparing more treats, which added to my enjoyment of the experience - I truly think food tastes better when it is prepared with love, as cheesy as that may sound. I have a feeling a trip to Glutenus Minimus is going to become a part of my regular routine, not only to feed my sweet tooth but pick up ideas for my gluten-free bakery.

06 June 2010

Gluten-Free Restaurant Review: Cherry Bomb Bakery

When I learned a few weeks ago via Grub Street Boston that a new cupcake bakery was opening in Brighton Center literally up the street from my apartment, I was overjoyed. When I learned they would carry gluten-free items, I was over the moon.

I not-so-patiently waited for the grand opening of Cherry Bomb Bakery, owned by Chef Colin Cunningham, a veteran of several upscale Boston area restaurants. I was very disappointed when I walked over after church their first weekend to discover no gluten-free options that day (and only one vegan option). Since their website advertised both special diet options, I was admittedly frustrated (I'm a huge stickler for outstanding customer service).

My friend Em, a fellow Brighton resident and blogger (Girls Geek Out) and I had been planning to check it out together. I called the bakery today (on my way home from a 3+ mile run at the Chestnut Hill Reservoir in classic Gina fashion) to inquire about their gluten-free option status and was happily told they had a gluten-free Red Velvet Cupcake offering today. I quickly showered, attempted to hydrate and refuel, hopped in my Jeep and picked Em up for some quality catching up over cupcakes and coffee.

The bakery was des(s)erted when we arrived and the friendly counter staff assisted us with our selections. We snagged the sole table (there are also chairs along the front window and barstools along the back wall) and proceeded to dig in to our respective confections. My Red Velvet Cupcake was quite delicious. Being a loyal patron of both Sweet Cupcakes and Kick*ss Cupcakes, I was admittedly skeptical, especially since this was my first gluten-free cupcake consumption. But I was quite happy with the moist texture and very light yet decadent buttercream frosting. It was also topped with a delicious dark chocolate hand-rolled truffle. This being one of the first true desserts I had eaten in weeks, I was very happy with the cupcake (as was Em with her glutenitious Banana Peanut Butter cupcake).

The only issue was I had just been for a run in the hot, humid weather and had not recovered properly. Consuming pure sugar and fat was not wise. I had fully intended to take my cupcake to go, but once I was standing in front of the bakery case, my sweet tooth took over. I started to fade fast and had to cook some chicken when I arrived back home to get some protein into my system. But this obviously had nothing to do with Cherry Bomb Bakery - it was purely my fault for feeling sick!

My roommate also visited the new bakery today and was quite pleased with the box of cupcakes she brought back to our apartment, as was our other roommate. If you are ever in the mood for a treat when in Brighton Center, Cherry Bomb Bakery is a great new option for both gluten-free and regular diets. They also have some amazing looking cookies, scones, muffins and flatbreads, and also serve coffee, lattes, etc. Check it out!

(Accidental) Gluten-Free Restaurant Review: Charley's Eating and Drinking Saloon

As those who know me can attest, one of my absolute favorite things to do is go out to eat. I have spent exorbitant amounts of money on food and wine at some of Boston's best restaurants. The ephemeral experience of enjoying a perfectly seasoned and executed dish is worth every penny to me. I am almost certainly accompanied by some of my favorite people on these occasions which make the occurrence even better.

When I lost my job, I obviously had to change my habits. Add a huge life-altering diet change to the mix and it's virtually impossible for me to enter a food service establishment without my heart sinking. Words can't even begin to express how my heart and stomach ache for a piece of warm bread with olive oil, a hearty sandwich, juicy cheeseburger on a grilled bun or big bowl of pasta prepared in professional kitchen. The few times I have been to a restaurant in the past few weeks have simply not been memorable, except for the sad feeling I tried to keep from my dining companions. You can bet that one of the first things I will do when I am gainfully employed again is dine at Sel de la Terre, Hungry Mother, Craigie on Main or one of my other favorite Boston restaurants to celebrate (let's not even get into all the new restaurants I have yet to grace with my presence).

I am not abstaining from one of my favorite pastimes all together. Last Friday evening I had plans with my dear friend Joy, who coincidentally was also recently diagnosed with gluten intolerance, as well as lactose intolerance. As you can imagine, finding a place for both of us to eat with both our dietary restrictions plus trying not to spend a fortune was quite a challenge. We met in Kenmore Square on an absolutely gorgeous early summer Boston evening and proceeded to walk up Commonwealth Avenue toward Back Bay. Our mission was to find an outdoor table for drinks and appetizers and we knew it would be quite a challenge. With no luck on Boylston Street we looped around onto Newbury Street. We spotted a couple empty two-tops on the patio at Charley's Eating and Drinking Saloon at the corner of Newbury and Gloucester. We immediately inquired about the menu and were flabbergasted (yes, that is the correct word) to find that they have gluten-free pasta, pizza and other options on their menu.

Not soon after we ordered our drinks (a very potent rum runner for me and a glass of sangria for Joy) the manager of the restaurant, Jake, stopped by to introduce himself and discuss the gluten-free menu with us. I was truly shocked by their wonderful hospitality and willingness to accommodate us. Several restaurants in Back Bay Restaurant Group were my customers at my last job and although they are quality establishments, I honestly did not expect that level of service from them. To feel welcome and dietetically safe at a restaurant was something Joy and I had both been struggling with, so this was quite refreshing and unexpected.

Charley's has a scratch kitchen so they were easily able to accommodate our ingredient restrictions as well as our menu modification requests. Joy and I decided to share a margherita pizza on gluten-free crust, but Joy's half did not have cheese and we also had chicken as another topping so we could get some protein (we're both big runners and Joy is also training for a sprint triathlon). It was certainly not the best pizza I have ever eaten, but considering I have not eaten restaurant pizza in weeks, it more than passed the test. The crust was a good combination of soft yet crispy which I have not yet been able to master in my own gluten-free homemade pizza. It definitely had the gluten-free flour taste I am becoming accustomed to, but I think anyone would overall enjoy a slice.

The manager came over again to be certain we were satisfied with our meals, and we stayed for over two hours chatting. Our server, Steve, was also very friendly and attentive. Overall my accidental gluten-free dining experience at Charley's was terrific. Joy and I have definitely found our new summer spot -- if we are ever lucky enough to snag an al fresco table again!