29 July 2010

Lingering Questions of My Gluten-Free Existence

An article in the San Francisco Gate caught my attention this week. "I'll have the BLT - no bacon, lettuce or tomato" touches upon restaurant diners with specific dietary preferences and if/when chefs are required to meet their requests.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, adjusting to dining out has perhaps been the most difficult aspect of my new gluten-free lifestyle. Granted becoming unemployed around the same time as my diagnosis definitely helped me quit my habit of $30+ entrees at Boston's best restaurants pretty much cold turkey, but it's still been a challenge. Meeting friends for a quick, cheap meal like a burrito or sandwich is no longer possible; even salad dressing often has gluten in it. I've taken to suggesting ice cream or coffee (which I do not drink) instead. In case of emergencies (or snack attacks) I bring food with me everywhere I go (I even chowed down on a LaraBar while rocking out to Wolf Parade at the House of Blues earlier this month).

As a passionate foodie and aspiring chef, I have the utmost respect for chefs with the talent, skill and stamina to work 18 hour days in tiny, windowless sweatbox kitchens. So even though I am paying good money to dine at their respected establishments, I find myself feeling terrible when inquiring about the gluten status of menu items. For the most part, my servers have been attentive to my dietary needs and I have not had any issues. But not wanting to inconvenience anyone in any way, I still wonder how servers and chefs truly feel about needs of their patrons. So much preparation is done long before a diner even sits down at the table that many modifications are not possible. The SF Gate article combined with a Reader's Digest article (shared with me by my dear friend Jessica) titled "20 Secrets Your Waiter Won't Tell You" (sorry, industry folks, apparently RD does not like the term 'server') has me in quite a untrustworthy tizzy. I already knew quite a few of these so-called secrets (one not mentioned: don't order pasta after 9pm - the water has been used for dozens of other patrons and is quite nasty). It's apparent blatant lying to diners is quite rampant.

When debating these issues in my head, my first thoughts relate to people who make choices about their dietary restrictions vs. people told by a doctor to restrict certain foods and ingredients. For example, I know a great number of vegetarians and vegans who choose not to eat animal products. I also know many people who are lactose or gluten intolerant, or have medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease which affect their ability to consume certain foods; they have no choice but to restrain. But this is the United States of America and we live in a modern world where people have the freedom to elect special diets; we also have amazing medical care which is helping people lead longer, healthier lives than previous generations. So whether by choice or by fate, what rights do we have to request special treatment when dining out?

I don't really have the answer to this question, but absolutely agree with Chef Charlie Hallowell's statement "When people come to Pizzaiolo and say, 'I don't eat wheat or cheese,' I'm like, 'Why did you come to a pizzeria?'". As much as I miss ordering delivery from The Upper Crust, I understand there is absolutely nothing they can do to create a pizza I can eat. So I make my own pizza at home and try to forget about the perfection that is Upper Crust thin crust. (Expect me to soon trek to Cambridge to try gluten-free pizzas at Zing! Pizza and Stone Hearth Pizza). So for someone allergic to shellfish, wheat and dairy to attempt to eat an upscale restaurant with a busy kitchen, then get angry about the restaurant's inability to accommodate them, is mind-boggling to me. Accept the dietary hand you have been dealt and find ways to enjoy foods you can still eat.

The other issue these questions brings up is the responsibilities of food service establishments who are boldly and kindly offering allergen-friendly options on their menus. While many places I have been take extreme care to prevent error, we're all human and mistakes are made. Unfortunately, I appear to have been mistakenly "glutened" yesterday when visiting the very new, very hip Treat Cupcake Bar in Needham. Treat is not just another cupcake shop popping up on the corner; Treat is a cupcake BAR, where customers can either order pre-made cupcakes or create their own flavor combination at the bar (a sort of Coldstone Creamery for cupcakes). They also very thoughtfully offer a gluten-free cupcake variety every day which can be customized with their gluten-free, dairy-free vanilla buttercream frosting. Obviously, it was worth a trip to adorable Needham Center for this cupcake queen. The bakery is gorgeous, the staff is friendly and the cupcake was divine. Too divine.

My midnight snack after a wonderful evening at the DCR Hatch Shell for a free performance by the Boston Landmark Orchestra and Boston Lyric Opera, I was blown away by how much like a 'regular' cupcake it tasted. It was not granular or heavy, but moist and light. I thought to myself "This can't be gluten-free." And sure enough, my stomach agreed with me this morning. And all day long. My terrible headache, shaky hands, achy body and exhaustion further proved to me that there was a mix-up at Treat and I got my wish for a 'real' cupcake. Be careful what you wish for, as they say. As the cupcake from Treat was the only food I ate yesterday not prepared by me in my kitchen and I was feeling completely fine earlier, I have to attribute my illness to the cupcake (oh, how it pains me to write that).

I contacted Treat via email and received a very apologetic response within hours. I will absolutely go back to Treat again soon and give them another chance (anyone want to tag along?) but the incident only fuels the fire of my distrust of food service establishments and their inability to accommodate patrons with special dietary needs (especially when advertising they can do so). But despite my concerns, I am not going to let it impede my appetite for life, and gluten-free food. And I'm very curious what others with self-imposed or medically diagnosed dietary restrictions think about these issues - please comment!

23 July 2010

Quinoa Lime Salad with Tomatoes, Corn and Black Beans

Last night I participated in my first Somerville Road Runners Cook-Off. My running club does these contests seasonally and this summer's theme was "Summer Side-Off" -- entrants must prepare a cold side dish suitable for a summertime barbecue. My thoughts immediately turned to a cold quinoa salad. Quinoa (pronounced 'keen-wah') is a flower/seed similar to couscous and has been popular in South America since ancient times (it was the meal of choice for Incan armies). A very versitile superfood with a nutty flavor, quinoa is a complete protein containing all eight essential amino acids, is rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and lucky for me, is naturally gluten-free. I consulted many recipes and brainstormed flavor combinations to achieve maximum refreshment and satisfaction (it was being judged by hot and hungry runners, after all). Although my recipe was good enough to place third in the contest (yay me!), feel free to adapt/adjust ratios and ingredients to your preferences or what's on hand -- also tastes great with feta cheese, peppers, onions or scallions in place of shallots, garlic, lemon, shrimp and so on. Happy eating!

Quinoa Lime Salad with Tomatoes, Corn and Black Beans
  • 2 teaspoons grated lime zest
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 cup quinoa, cooked to package directions
  • 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 3 medium ears of corn, cooked and off the cob
  • 2 medium tomatoes, diced
  • 1/4 cup shallots, chopped
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
Whisk together lime zest, lime juice, butter, oil, sugar with 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl. Cook quinoa on stovetop according to package directions. Add cooked quinoa to lime dressing until fully absorbed, then mix in remaining vegetable ingredients. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Serve cold.

20 July 2010

Gluten-Free Breakfast Favorites and An Important Clarification

Breakfast truly is the most important meal of the day. I'm definitely a morning person and I attribute part of that to my consistent consumption of delicious breakfast (or brunch) meals.

Van's Natural Foods Wheat Free/Gluten Free Waffles -- Since I am unemployed and can leisurely prepare breakfast each morning, 3-4 days per week I simultaneously prepare one Van's Natural Foods Wheat Free/Gluten Free Waffle topped with fresh berries and pure maple syrup, two scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and a small glass of either skim milk or orange juice. The Van's waffles really are the star of the show -- all flavors I have tried (Apple Cinnamon, Blueberry and Flax) are terrific, and only $2.99 per box of six waffles at Whole Foods. They are very allergen-friendly (wheat/gluten free, dairy free, egg free) and sweetened with fruit juice, but believe me you would never know the difference (I had a couple waffles left when leaving my family's summer house and my father eagerly gobbled them up as I was packing). If I really need or deserve a treat, sometimes I also fry up some bacon (although I officially decided today I do not like turkey bacon -- I think it tastes like hot dogs!). I buy medium or light amber maple syrup (if you grow up in New Hampshire, you really have a distinct preference) and expensive cheddar cheese from small local farms to enhance my culinary experience -- I deserve it! Although this meal may sound indulgent, it's actually fairly nutritionally balanced and a fantastic way to start the day (a recent Runner's World Magazine article confirms my analysis).

Trader Joe's Gluten-Free Dairy Free English Muffins -- I discovered these English muffins by chance and they've become a staple of my new gluten-free diet. I use them for hamburger/veggie burger buns as well as breakfast and snacks. When eating them for breakfast, I usually toast to a golden brown (they don't taste very good otherwise), spread with almond butter and top with a quartered banana -- great fuel for any activity. The only complaint I have about them other than the need to be toasted well is that all the packages for sale are nearly always near expiration and therefore I usually find myself cutting bits of mold off the crust despite keeping them in the refrigerator. In typical GLB fashion, I will be contacting Trader Joe's customer service department (nicely, of course), especially since they are $3.49 for four.

thinkThink Bars -- As mentioned in a previous post, I've been a nutrition bar addict for years. Wheat protein and other gluten ingredients are obviously a huge component of these energy snacks, leaving most of my favorites literally off the table for me. Thankfully not thinkThin bars. They are like candy bars to me. Candy bars containing 20 grams of protein, no sugar, no gluten, no cholesterol, no trans fats. The seemingly magical soy and whey protein substance they are made of is phenomenal. Don't be alarmed by the name either; I'm not trying to lose weight. They are called thinkThin because they are made of a slow-digesting protein designed to keep you fuller longer; some people use them for portion control. My favorite flavors are White Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Covered Strawberries and Chunky Peanut Butter. They also come in a smaller, 100 calorie variety called thinkThin Bites which I used to bring to work to eat on the drive home pre-run/workout -- all three flavors (Chocolate Toffee Nut, Cookies & Cream and White Chocolate Raspberry) are fantastic.

Trader Joe's Maple Cranberry Nut Granola -- In my gluten-consuming days, I ate a lot of granola for breakfast and snacks (please someone eat a huge bowl of Cascadian Farm Organic Dark Chocolate Almond Granola with strawberries in my honor -- you can thank me later). Gluten free granola I saw in stores was beyond expensive (over $6 for a small bag) so I decided to stick with other breakfast options and try it some gainfully employed day. Then browsing in Trader Joe's a few weeks ago I noticed they suddenly had two varieties of gluten-free granola, for only $3.49 per bag of the exact same size as the more expensive brands! I was sold. I had a bowl as soon as I got home and fell in love with the mix of crunchy corn cereal, nuts, flax seeds, dried cranberries and maple flavor. And guess what I noticed in Whole Foods today? It's the exact same appearance and ingredients as Bakery On Main Nutty Maple Granola which sells for nearly twice the price! I suspect the same goes for the Extreme Fruit and Nut variety which Trader Joe's offers a similar flavor I have yet to try. I have deduced that Trader Joe's is buying granola from Bakery on Main to package as their own -- do not be fooled, friends.

I also realized something today that I should clarify. I have not been doing a very good job discerning between truly gluten-free items and items which do not contain gluten ingredients. Confused? Ever look at the nutrition facts and ingredients label on a product and see a warning such as "Manufactured in a facility that processes wheat, soy and nuts"? The government requires food manufacturers not only to clearly label the product as containing one of the top eight food allergens (wheat, milk, soy, dairy, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, shellfish), but also state if the item is produced in a facility where other allergens are present. This is because some people's food allergies are so sensitive they could become ill or die from microscopic traces of an allergen (prime example: peanuts). And this is why you see asinine food labels of a jar of mixed nuts with a label saying "contains tree nuts." As I do not have full-blown celiac disease and my body is intolerant to gluten, I do not tend to heed these wheat warnings (it is listed as wheat, not gluten, but wheat is not the only food element gluten is found in). Now this certainly could affect me very negatively someday, but until I get "glutened," I am going to carry on as I have been. I would just hate for someone to read about something I have posted and believe it to be 100% gluten free when it may not be (although I know my fellow gluten-free friends are naturally quite thorough in their food choices). I will try to be better about this going forward.

Great to be back in the blogosphere. Looking forward to sharing my delicious, nutritious and gluten-free recipe submission to the Somerville Road Runners Summer Side-Off on Thursday night -- wish me luck!

19 July 2010

Summertime and the Livin' Is Easy?

As you may (or may not - I won't be upset) have noticed, I took a mid-summer hiatus from this blog endeavor. It was not intentional -- the days and weeks just slipped away from me, as they too often do in summertime -- but today marks 75 days gluten-free, it's a rainy Monday night in Boston and I think it's time return and reflect upon my summer thus far...

The past few weeks can be described so many ways -- chaotic, frustrating, exciting, interesting, confusing, inspiring. My discovery of my gluten intolerance came right after losing my job, leaving me feeling defeated, lost and confused. I have so many interests and want to be many things. Some are realistic (pastry chef, sports broadcast journalist, attorney, novelist, wife, mother, marathoner); some not as much (ballerina, farmer, Olympic swimmer, lobsterwoman, opera singer, manager of the New York Yankees). How was I supposed to decide my next steps when so emotionally downtrodden? Lucky for me, I am incredibly blessed with an amazing support network who helped give me strength and guidance to dig deep and find my way.

My decision to go back to school to become a registered dietitian came on suddenly, a tidal wave of clarity. I really cannot imagine a better overall career for me. I have always been interested in nutrition, food science and gastronomy -- I'm basically a vacuum of nutritional knowledge. Part of this stems from my 10+ year battle with eating disorders; if asked, I can still eerily accurately account for my daily caloric consumption from years of subconscious memorization. As as runner, yogini, hiker, swimmer, kayaker and fitness addict, I'm fascinated by how the human body converts food into fuel, for better or for worse. As a talented home cook and baker, I love experimenting with new ingredients and techniques for the benefit of myself, my friends and family. I'm not sure which direction my studies will take me -- school lunch programs, obesity, athletic training, cancer care, eating disorders, celiac disease and other food allergies and so many more facets of the field fascinate me -- but I am beyond enthusiastic to learn more.

My life is coming full circle and I've chosen to return to Simmons College this fall to pursue a degree in Nutrition & Dietetics. I attended Simmons for my freshman year of college, where I was fortunate enough to meet some amazing women whom are still some of my dearest friends who understand me best. Although I claimed to "hate" Simmons while a student there, the wisdom of adulthood combined with time and distance has shown me I would not have been happy at any college or university during that dark time of my life. I was an anorexic, bulimic, exercise addict who hated herself, her body and her life. Transferring to the University of Connecticut was not the cure to anything I felt at Simmons, and it was in Storrs where I met more incredible people and started down the road to recovery. I will be returning to Simmons College as a Dix Scholar, a grown woman with years of real world experience. Everyone in the Simmons community has been more than welcoming, encouraging and supportive as I explored and committed to my decision to return to school. As much as I don't want the summer to end, I am beyond excited, anxious and ready to start classes! I still have lingering doubts that maybe this is not the answer either, perhaps I am not smart enough to successfully conquer such a rigorous academic program, can I really do this? But I've learned by living that there are no guarantees in life and the best I can do is give it my best. If I fail, at least I tried.

So what have I been doing with my summer amidst these major life decisions? A LOT!

Of course, I've been eating a lot this summer (probably too much). Last week I had my first hamburger in a restaurant in nearly three months at Burtons Grill. Apparently one of the restaurant chain's owners has celiac disease, and therefore their menu features many gluten-free options. I had the Burtons Burger, medium rare, with applewood bacon, sautéed mushrooms, onions and cheddar cheese on a delicious gluten-free roll, French fries on the side -- Heaven! I had a sub-par dining experience at Legal Sea Foods in Chestnut Hill in June. Their gluten-free menu seemed full but was really just bare, underseasoned modifications of regular menu items. Although their gluten-free rolls were perfect, I almost wish they didn't have them, as if I've gotten so used to not filling up on bread before my entree. After a few cocktails on the Fourth of July, I baked a gluten-free cake amateurishly decorated with strawberry and blueberry American flag. Much to my surprise, it was a big hit with all 17 people at our summer house in the 1000 Islands for the holiday. Three days later on my brother's birthday, the server at our restaurant did not even know what gluten was (scary) and I was very ready to return to Boston the following day.

Next month I'm running the Falmouth Road Race on the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute team, so I've been reveling in training uphill in HHH weather (you can donate here). Last week I registered for the Boston Athletic Association Half Marathon in October, so no downtime after Falmouth. Barring any illness or injuries which have sidelined me in the past, I will be running my first half marathon this fall. After months of interest, I finally gained the courage to join a running club, Somerville Road Runners. My assumption everyone in the club is lightning fast has been disproven, and I have been welcomed into the organization with open arms over the past few weeks. The best part of the club (other than a fantastic running community) is their seasonal cook-offs. I have tackled the Summer Side-Off challenge of this Thursday's contest with a Top Chef mentality, and win or lose, I will share my delicious recipe later this week (warning: it's addictive).

Other highlights of my summer include a ten glorious days in the 1000 Islands with my family, a very exciting night of babysitting when Lucy lost a tooth, kayaking on the Charles River, attending Boston Symphony Orchestra opening night at Tanglewood, waiting in line for four hours for the new iPhone 4 (only to have it break six days later), meeting former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, having a Starbucks cup thrown at my Jeep by an angry automobile passenger, getting a little too "barefoot and crazy" at a country concert on Lake Winnipesaukee, hosting a meeting of the Beantown Book Club, celebrating my baby brother's high school graduation and 18th birthday, experiencing Delta Spirit live at the Middle East Downstairs from the front row plus lots of napping, reading and socializing. September will be here before I know it so I'm ready to pack as much gluten-free fun into the rest of my summer as possible! More posts soon...