To Eat or Not to Eat? That is the Question.

IMG_0779

Just a quick post about the difficulties facing a person who must avoid certain foods for medical reasons and what they face when eating out.

Q–“Is there dairy in the potato salad or cole slaw?”
A–“Just the potato salad.”
Q–“Do you add sour cream or buttermilk?”
A–“No. Just egg.”

Apparently some people are so used to seeing eggs in the dairy case at the grocery store that they extrapolate that to meaning eggs are dairy! Really. This is why patrons who have food sensitivities must ask questions and why restaurants must train their staff.

Same restaurant, different issue. The meal came with two sides. Green beans seemed the safest bet to be gluten free. Right? A green bean is just that. One ingredient. However, when they are roasted in a pan that gets stirred by hand (literally a vinyl-gloved hand) that goes back and forth between making sandwiches and touching bread, to swishing a hand in the pan of green beans, they become hopelessly glutenified.

This is a mine field that people with food allergies, gluten intolerances and celiac disease face every time they do not control the food that goes into their bodies. It is not limited to restaurants, it also affects all social situations.

There is such a lack of true understanding of how chance encounters with the offending food product can cause such illness. And so we ask questions. And watch food handlers. Because we must.

Is It Too Much To Ask?

IMG_0730It started as a very simple idea. I wanted to create something delicious with blue cheese and then share it with you all. But I wanted to be responsible. I wanted to make sure that something that I recommended as being safe for a celiac or gluten sensitive person would be based in fact. Not hope. And, as I understood it, blue cheeses were still in the questionable category for gluten free due to the fact that some of the mold used to create the blue veins were started on a bread product. So I set out to research blue cheese and what I found is this. Some companies take customer service seriously and some, well, seem to view customer service as either a burden or something that they have to run by the legal department first.

I reached out to a company that is an umbrella company for many different cheeses and brand names. They are well known and have a large market share of the cheese business. And I played a version of “hmm, I just don’t know exactly what you are asking for, could you be more specific?” And I was more specific. Me: “Please let me know which, if any, of your blue cheeses contain gluten?” Them: “we have a lot of different products. Which products specifically do you have questions about?” Seriously. So I researched all the cheeses in all their brands that specified blue vein, gorgonzolas and roqueforts and blues and bleus. You get it. And sent the email again. And got a response that looked a lot like. “Oh, thank you for that list. It will make it easier to research now. We’ll get back to you.”

And that was good, right? A company that wanted to respond to their customer base. So I waited. And waited. And after more than three weeks, wrote back. And finally got a response. Which is as follows.

Thank you for your interest in Saputo Specialty/DCI Cheese Company.

We would prefer you ask your followers to contact our office with any specific questions they may have on specific items. Our product lines can change over time, whether it be new item introductions or enhancements to current items. The potential for information to be out-of-date is too great and we don’t want to take any chance of misleading consumers. We thank you for your interest and your understanding.

Please visit us at http://www.dcicheeseco.com/

My followers refer to the fact that I stated I was writing a blog and trying to compile a list. Well the list so far is small. The companies I did find that expressly list on their website as having gluten free blue cheese are Belgioioso, Rosenborg and Point Reyes. To these companies, I thank you. For not making me go through a lengthy back and forth of emails to try to get you to know your products and disclose their ingredients. For having either a clear FAQ page or a clear description of your product.

This is not a trivial matter. Please all of you food producers and restaurant chefs understand this. We do not aim to make your life more difficult. Really. We just want to eat food that will not make us sick. And while we absolutely know that we can cook all our own food, from single ingredient produce and meat, sometimes, just sometimes we would love to be able to go to a restaurant and order off the menu. Or create a meal at home using a prepared/processed ingredient. Without asking questions. But we cannot. So I beg you to at least be able to answer our questions, without all the legalese. But until then, I’m taking back the little container of blue cheese in the above picture, and cooking at home with ingredients I trust. Such is life. And I ate a dinner that had no blue cheese-at least until tomorrow.
IMG_0734

GF? Or Not So Much?

IMG_0015IMG_0009IMG_0229

There are many trends in our culture that come and go, and get replaced by the newest fad and so it should come as no surprise that gluten-free eating has started gathering attention. The gluten-free prepared foods business is exploding and many restaurants are taking notice and adding gluten-free items to their menu.

Which is a great thing for those people who have medical reasons for eating gluten-free, and have been stuck in our own kitchens for far too long. But many of these menus also have disclaimers printed somewhere (usually in small print) that state that while they offer gluten-free choices, their kitchens are not set up to be gluten-free and cross contact with gluten containing ingredients may occur.

Now if this is just a disclaimer advised by a corporate lawyer it is perfectly understandable, but it seems that it is an indication that a kitchen is pushing the proverbial ‘easy button.’

For all your patrons who must eat gluten-free and rely on the gluten-free label for making their safe choices, what good is a gluten-free label if it really doesn’t mean ‘safe to eat?’

If you are a restaurant owner or chef who have added gluten-free choices to your menu in order to capture some of the revenue being generated by all the folks who have decided to go gluten-free as a lifestyle choice, that is just good business.

But I encourage you to take the extra step of preparing the items designated as gluten-free in a manner that will allow them to stay gluten-free, and therefore safe for all of your customers who have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity to eat.

And while the new FDA rule governing gluten-free labeling is set to go into effect in August of this year does not hold restaurants to the same standard as manufacturers, the wording is such that it encourages restaurants to follow the same guidelines. Which could mean in the future the law might extend to include restaurants.

Law or no law, passing fad or not, your gluten sensitive customers will still need to eat somewhere. Shouldn’t that be your restaurant?

Mojito Monday (with a side of Limoncello)

It is that time of year again where the long-ago planted mint makes its proud appearance in my garden despite the fact that I have pulled it up many times. It refuses to be contained, even growing up between the boards of my deck. I will dry some to be added to teas in the cold, dreary winter months, but I also am compelled to make mojitos.

I have to confess that the first mojito I had tasted like toothpaste, and I have since come to the conclusion that everyone has their own ratios of lime to mint to sugar. So I am not going to give an actual recipe here, more a list of ingredients for you to play with.

1. light rum
2. 5-6 leaves mint
3. simple syrup
4. lime juice
5. club soda
6. crushed ice.

Muddle mint leaves in cocktail glass, add rum,syrup, and lime. Fill glass with crushed ice and pour club soda over concoction. Stir and garnish with lime. Very cold and refreshing.
IMG_0633

Limoncello Cocktail

I first had Limoncello at a little farm in Italy. It is too strong and sweet for me to drink straight, but it is great as a cocktail. It is easy to make your own and there are plenty of websites with recipes. Once again, I look over recipes, then go from there.

1. Vodka (they say 100 proof is better, I used 80)
2. peel from a bunch of lemons-use a vegetable peeler for yellow part only

Soak in Mason jar for at least a week (I did 4 weeks)

Strain out lemon peel. Make simple syrup and add to vodka. You choose how sweet to make it, but traditionally is very sweet. Store in fridge or freezer. Will last months. I made the cocktail with some of the syrup and crushed ice and club soda.
IMG_0640

A word for restaurant and bar owners. Please make your cocktails fresh! I know there are a lot of mixes out there that could cut your time and effort, but they suffer on fresh flavor. And most of them use high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener. And many people (gluten free and otherwise) are trying hard to avoid this substance.

Have Pecans, Will Travel

Recently I had the occasion to travel for a family event. Traveling can be extremely anxiety producing when you happen to be gluten free, as all of your meals must be eaten away from home. And that is stressful. Someone who is gluten free never just orders the food item that they are in the mood for, or sounds good, they order the item that they think will not cause them to get sick.

We scrutinize the menu, reading the tiny print and then question the servers about how the food is prepared, and whether or not the kitchen staff understand cross-contamination issues. It is exhausting and frustrating and one of the reasons that the gluten free person does not dine out a lot.

But when you’re traveling you just don’t have the option of staying in and preparing your meals, unless you’re in a condo-type of situation. And although we all travel with our little stashes of safe foods, like nuts and fruit and gluten-free bars, those do not substitute for an actual meal for very long.

So I encourage all restaurants to attempt to accommodate the gluten free diner, but especially those that are located inside hotels, resorts or casinos where the option to go home for dinner is off the table. (pun intended)

Here is a glimpse of one menu where the food could be made gluten free, but we were met with blank stares from the staff when we questioned whether the grill could be cleaned or a clean pan used to cook our salmon or steak. They didn’t even seem to understand not wanting buns.

IMG_0580

So I’ll close with a big thank-you to the chef who took the time to walk the buffet line with us one night. That was great customer service and we appreciated your time.

Eggsactly

IMG_0557

 

For all you restaurant owners who want a quick addition for your breakfast menu that will accommodate your gluten free customer, pull out your muffin tin and get creative.

In lightly greased muffin tins:

I used leftover baked yellow potatoes and put a few chunks on the bottom, then toss in any or all of the following:

bacon, sausage, ham (verify they are gluten free)

veggies like mushrooms, spinach, red or green bell peppers

cheese (omit if you wish to keep dish dairy free)

herbs such as basil, chives

Then whip eggs till frothy, season with salt and pepper, pour into the tins. It usually takes about 13-14 eggs per 12 count muffin tin. Bake at 350 till eggs are set but not dry.

 

What a Bartender Should Know About Gluten Free

As more and more people are adopting a gluten free way of eating either as the result of a medical diagnosis, or a lifestyle choice restaurants are scrambling to adapt their menus to accommodate them. And that is a good thing. This blog is designed to give restaurant owners and chefs some helpful and practical ways to do that.

While it is primarily designed for establishments like restaurants,most of the information can be helpful for schools, hospitals, day cares or other places that feed a large number of people. Except for this post! Because in this post we are going to look at gluten free from the adult beverage view point.IMG_0543

There used to be a big controversy about whether or not hard liquor was gluten free due to the nature of the grains used, but this is no longer the case. Distilled alcohol is safe for your gluten free customer. As is wine. But, alas, regular beer is not. Think of all the Super Bowl parties and backyard barbecues that the newly diagnosed gluten intolerant stayed home from on that fact alone, and try not to roll your eyes when someone asks for a gluten free beer.

Because, while we know we can always have a glass of wine, sometimes we just want a beer. And while we know that we will never get to sample all the great microbrews out there, we are really trying to be a good sport about it and willing to settle for a faux beer. That is, if you stock it.

Awhile back a few of us did a non-scientific taste test of every gluten free beer I could get my hands on. Some of them are foreign and not readily available, and most are a little pricey. And the consensus seemed to be for Redbridge, which is an Anheuser Busch product which should make it easy to obtain and stock.

Another company that makes a traditional beer using a proprietary process that they declare removes the gluten is the Omission line of beers. I have had these a few times and never gotten sick, but definitely let your customer peruse the label and decide for themselves.

So we’ve established that wine and hard alcohol is safe and beer is not, but what else should a bartender and wait staff know to keep a gluten free customer safe?

Wine coolers and liqueurs may not be safe. These could have added gluten from sources like barley malt for flavor or color, so do not use a liqueur in any drink without disclosing it on your menu description.

Also, if you do something fancy like rim a cocktail glass with a graham cracker/sugar concoction, please list that on your menu. Your customer cannot know to avoid ordering something when there is no mention of it.

One additional thought is to be aware that beer foaming up and sloshing against otherwise clean glasses is enough to cause problems for your gluten free customer.

So let’s recap:

Safe:

Hard alcohol, wine, gluten free beer, Angry Orchard hard cider, some liqueurs, some flavored hard alcohols.

Unsafe:

All regular beer, some liqueurs, some flavorings, some wine cooler or hard lemonades, some flavored hard alcohols. The most popular Bloody Mary mix. Any garnishes that contain flour/cookies etc. (for garnishes stick to a piece of fruit or vegetable.)

Cheers everybody!

 

A Spoonful of Sugar

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, or so the song goes. For the gluten intolerant the medicine  is the food. And a restaurant dinner would not be complete without a little something sweet. But desserts are probably the hardest dishes to do gluten free well.

Oh, sure there are plenty of gluten free flours and mixes out there, but the sad truth is gluten is to baked goods what salt is to meat. You can use substitutes but it does suffer a little, or a lot in the end result. But I do not say this to discourage you pastry chefs. Experiment with some of the excellent flour blends out there. They have come a long way in the last five years.

But if you are a restaurant owner or chef debating whether or not to offer gluten free choices and think that baking gluten free sounds too daunting, please do not give up. There are other desserts that are naturally gluten free and some might even be on your current menu.

I will give you a couple of great ideas to get you thinking.

Creme brûlée: Who doesn’t love these? Creamy, sweet comfort food, yet elegant.

Ice cream: If you make your own, you know everything that goes into it. If you buy a commercial product you will have to check the label or verify with the manufacturer. Some companies have an excellent understanding of cross-contamination and run their gluten free products first thing in the morning and then their gluten containing ice creams afterward. Then they clean their equipment for the next day. Ice creams that contain gluten are (but not limited to) cookies and cream, cookie dough, cheesecake, etc.

Sorbet: These shouldn’t contain any gluten and you could get creative and grill a pineapple slice and serve the sorbet in the middle. Yum.

Fruit crisp: Easily adapted with gluten free oats and a flour blend. Serve with ice cream or whipped cream.

Shakes and floats

Puddings and custards

Crustless cheesecakes: Cheesecake recipes usually have a small amount of flour added, and using a gluten free flour blend does not affect the result.

Chocolate mousse: I’ve had one that had a hint of cinnamon and cayenne that was alert-the-presses delicious.

These are just a few sweet ways to end a lovely meal at your restaurant that will have the gluten free customer returning again and again.

 

 

 

Apparently Appetizers Appease Hunger

Ah, the appetizer. The food we eat before we eat some food. Not to be confused with dessert, the food we eat after we eat some food. Excuse me a second; my mind was wandering.

Okay, I’m back. So let’s discuss what to do about those pesky gluten free diners who want not only a yummy entree but also an appetizer. Gluttons!

But we aim to please. So. Really appetizers shouldn’t be a hard thing for an accomplished chef to come up with. I can think of a bunch without even putting my mind to it.

Nachos: Clearly a no-brainer. Tortilla chips, cheese and some other goodies. If you avoid the pre-made stuff, you’re in the clear. Toss on some avocado, onions, tomatoes, cilantro and jalapeños and maybe even a scoop of black beans and you have a great gluten free option.

Shrimp cocktail: Shrimp are naturally gluten free. And you can make your own cocktail sauce and know exactly what went into it, or a good gluten free one is Crosse and Blackwell.

Mushroom Something: Mushrooms were made for stuffing. Who said what goes in there has to have gluten? Think bacon and broccoli. Think cream cheese, scallions, white wine and tiny shrimp. Think anything other than bread crumbs!

Soup: A warm cup of cream of asparagus soup. A creamy butternut squash soup. A clear chicken/ginger broth soup.

Salads: There is so much you can do with a salad that does not contain gluten. You could have a spinach and pear salad with goat cheese and a raspberry vinaigrette. Salads are so easy. But watch out for commercial dressings and please, please avoid those croutons.

See how easy this is? It’s not that hard to come up with something savory and delicious that omits bread, pasta or flour. And remember there are plenty of gluten free products now available that will easily substitute for the gluten containing ones.

I leave you with a salmon cake. I substituted gluten free bread for regular bread, otherwise it is a typical salmon cake, with canned salmon, egg, scallions, parsley, a few drops of hot sauce for a kick and served with a creamy yogurt/mayo scallion dill sauce. Bon Appetit!IMG_0409

What Restaurants Should Know About Cross-Contamination

Cross-contamination. A topic I never even thought about until recent years, but here I am writing about it. And to do it justice I will most likely have more than one post about this, because it’s that important for restaurants to understand.

The first thing to understand is what do I mean by cross-contamination? Well, it is when any amount (even as tiny as a crumb!) of a gluten containing ingredient gets introduced into a gluten free diner’s food or drink. That’s right, a crumb is enough to cause illness in a gluten intolerant or celiac customer.

I will highlight some areas of concern.

  • Prep areas. Cutting boards and counter tops may have flour, bread crumbs etc. on them and should be cleaned thoroughly before using to prep a GF meal.
  • Toasters. Impossible to get all crumbs out. If you’re going to offer a lot of GF toast, get a separate toaster.
  • Grills-clean before placing a GF food on them and do not allow other items nearby to touch or run into the GF burger, etc.
  • Always use clean utensils ie tongs, spatulas, spoons.
  • Never double dip. This is a biggie, folks. Think how often you might use the same spoon for potato salad that you just used on the macaroni salad. Or stir gravy then check the doneness of the boiling potatoes with the same fork.
  • Which brings us to frequently double-dipped items like mayo, butter, jams, etc. You might want to consider having separate GF containers of these. If so, label them clearly. If not, open a new one for your GF patron.
  • Pasta water must not be used interchangeably between your regular pasta and GF pasta.
  • Designate one colander GF and never use it to drain regular pasta. Pasta is so sticky and is nearly impossible to get all that residue clean.
  • Cascading flour from baking or pizza making. Where does all that flour land? Look around your kitchen. Do you have uncovered food items or prep surfaces? Be aware of this.
  • In the fridge-store items of GF foods on top shelves, where they won’t be dripped into.
  • Watch out for your garnishes. I’ve had a perfectly fine steak ruined by some crispy (battered) onions sitting prettily on top. And vanilla ice cream that had a cookie stuck in the middle.

This is not an all inclusive list. Obviously, I can’t know how every restaurant’s kitchen is configured, what ingredients you use and how you store them. But hopefully, this has given you some food for thought. Take a look around your establishment and try to see where cross-contamination might occur. Your attention to detail will be greatly appreciated by the GF community.