The best quality and most satisfying food in the world comes from home kitchens. It’s no coincidence that some of the best experiences in life do too. The same is true of gluten free cooking. It's through food that we connect with family and friends, partake of and pass on traditions, learn and teach our children the old family recipes and maybe some new ones that will become the traditions of the future. Think of the aroma that will fill your house as you stir and perfectly season a hearty soup, stew or sauce, opening the oven door to aromatic fresh bread, muffins, pies and tarts. A fragrant stock simmering on the stove all day long. An wait until you apply your new gluten free cooking skills to the next holiday meal or dinner party!
If all that sounds a little old fashioned and idealistic, it may be because little by little, we’ve outsourced the job of cooking. Soup comes from cans; sauces come from bottles and jars. Bread comes from long slim plastic wrappers clasped with little plastic tabs. And what goes into these items? We don’t know. We don’t need to know. It all tastes good, it’s readily available, relatively cheap and best of all takes almost no effort to get a hot meal on the table in the midst of our busy, busy schedules.
I'm not here to make you feel guilty. We all need a break and most of us use these convenience foods or even takeout to take a bit of the stress out of our lives. But the cost of this convenience is steep and we are paying with our health. You're here reading about gluten free cooking, and I'm writing about it for the same reason: food allergies and intolerances are on the rise! Though there is no agreement in the scientific community as to the cause, I’d be willing to wager a whole lot that the move to all these processed foods is at the root. The companies that manufacture our food are more concerned with profits and productivity and market share than nutrition or wholesomeness. The ingredients they’ve added to those traditional recipes were added not for the benefit of our health but to extend shelf life, to improve manufacturing processes and push our primordial buttons that crave sweetness and salt so we keep on buying.
We're all starting from different places. If you're already a good, or even competent cook, the switch to gluten free cooking will be fairly easy. You'll learn to substitute ingredients and will soon be comfortable converting your favourite recipes to delicious gluten free meals.
If you're a little less comfortable in the kitchen then the need to learn gluten free cooking can actually be a big opportunity! It’s the chance to get back to basics. You may have noticed that you’ve gotten a lot closer to your food lately. I know I have, almost to the point of obsession. I need to know exactly what’s in absolutely every morsel I put in my mouth. You may also have noticed that the danger and confusion lurks in all of those bottled and canned products. You can and probably will put some time into seeking out some gluten free brands that you like and feel you can trust, but if you’re anything like me, the food you’ll trust the most is the food you cook yourself in your own kitchen.
Cooking means different things to different people. Before I went gluten free I was probably like most other people in my generation. If my great grandmother came into my kitchens, she wouldn’t recognize what I was doing as cooking. She might see it more as an assembly of pre-made ingredients. Our grilled steak was marinated in a packaged marinade, rubbed in a pre-mixed seasoning blend, then once cooked it’s topped with a bottled sauce. I'm embarrassed to admit that my favourite cookbook had canned soup as the basis of every recipe. Even salad dressings and gravies, two of the easiest things to make from scratch came from bottles and packages. Don’t believe the commercial, Club House really isn’t better than scratch ;)
It's my hope that as you navigate your own journey you'll discover as I did that the better way doesn't actually take that much more time. With your new gluten free cooking skills you'll feel better and you may even find you save some money.
To get you started and feeling comfortable with gluten free cooking, I’ve included some of my favourite recipes here. Try a few and see if
they become your favourites too. You may
find as you get used recognizing what foods contain gluten and what you can use as a substitute, your own favourites can easily be converted to gluten
free with just a few small tweaks. A
good gluten free flour blend can be substituted cup for cup with wheat flour in
most main dish recipes. (Gluten free
baking is a little trickier but you’ll get that knack of that too.)
If you like adding grains such as barley or spelt to soups and salads, you can easily substitute gluten free grains like buckwheat, millet or quinoa. Gluten free pasta can be added to a soup so long as it’s going to be eaten right away. (It doesn’t do so well if it sits in the broth too long.) The big breakthrough in my opinion is learning a bit about fresh herbs and spices. A little fresh thyme adds a beautiful subtle flavour to most soups and sauces, and topping it off with a sprinkle of freshly chopped parsley just give it that beautiful finishing touch.
Another opportunity is to leave the comfort of our own shores and explore some international choices. Many of the worlds cuisines are naturally gluten free and most of the ingredients you need are available at your local supermarket.
This may be the most important aspect of gluten free cooking. If you or a family member is on a gluten free diet because of Celiac disease then you need to be careful about cross contamination. Everyone has a different level of sensitivity and for some even the tiniest bread crumb or grain of flour can cause a reaction. Still, it is possible for a Celiac to live harmoniously with ‘glutenous’ family members. Once you’ve set up your kitchen and organized your pantry, the tips below should help to keep everyone safe and happy.
Cutting boards are an excellent opportunity for cross contamination. They have little grooves in them that gluten can stick in and be difficult to get out. If you use a wooden board, the porousness of the wood could be an issue as well. This is where I say better safe than sorry. Have your own, either a different colour or label it “Gluten Free”.
If you are cooking two items in on the stove or in the oven, one with gluten and the other gluten free, be careful of splash over. If the water from the pasta or the grease from breaded fish or chicken splashes onto your food you have cross contamination. Just keep the wheat pasta turned down so it’s gently boiling. If you’re still concerned keep your food covered. If you’re cooking gluten free and "gluteny" food together in the oven put the gluten free item on the top rack so it’s above anything gluteny. If it’s going to splash grease, cover the gluteny item. Another option is to cook them separately.
Gluten free cooking on the grill can be a bit tricky. At home we always use gluten free burgers, sausages etc, so
we eliminate the cross contamination risk on the grill. If you are cooking gluteny and gluten free
together I suggest wrapping your food in foil.
As things get flipped and moved to different locations on the grill I
think the risk is a little too high that your gluten free chicken breast will
land in the spot where the bread filled sausage
just was, or that the grease will spray onto your food. If I’m attending a barbecue at someone else’s house I usually take my own meat wrapped in foil. You don’t get the crispy on the outside affect or the attractive grill marks, but you do get to stay healthy.
Say you’re making pancakes for yourself and the family, and the Glutenous Ones want wheat pancakes. You can use a separate pan for yours of course, or you can simply do the gluten free ones first, keep them warm in the oven while you cook the regular pancakes. Same with say pan frying breaded fish. Do the gluten free pieces first.
So many people say they don’t like to cook. I think that’s a combination of lack of time and lack of confidence. Once you learn the basics you can plan your meals to suit your schedule. One dish quickies for weeknights jammed with activities, or long slow braises can do their thing while you spend your Sunday catching up on household chores or catching up on your reading and napping.
Cooking is something that doesn’t take up a lot of space in your head so it gives you a chance to use your mind for other things. Plan your vacation, work through relationship issues or come up with that Dragon’s Den idea that’s going to make you rich ;)
For the same reason, cooking is a great communal activity. You can involve the kids in peeling, chopping and stirring. Get them to add some of the seasonings and ingredients and taste test as you go. It will inform their palates, they’ll learn a skill that will remain with them for life, they’ll feel the pride of having contributed, and it’s great together time.
My own children are young adults and cooking together provides a great chance to catch up. The conversation flows through the challenges of exams, the intricacies of relationships and the excitement of plans for the future while we chop and sauté and stir. My daughter will be moving into a house with a group of other students in the fall and will be responsible for cooking her own food for the first time. So this summer she is creating a book with all the recipes she can make herself. I’m really proud of how she’s embracing this opportunity and I’m enjoying every moment of cooking together and sharing the stories of her life. My son on the other hand is a little older and on his way to becoming an accomplished cook in his own right. He and his girlfriend often cook together and he and I share the little tips and tricks we learn along the way.
Here's a tip: If you want to share a meal with date but don’t want to spend a lot of money, choose a recipe, make a trip to the market together, grab a bottle of wine on the way home and cook together. You’ll have the confidence that your meal is gluten free. You’ll have way more fun than sitting awkwardly across the table in a restaurant waiting to be served and you’ll learn so much more about each other as you create a meal together that will be much more personal and memorable than any pricy restaurant meal.
I think Michael Pollan said it best in his book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” when he said that the answer to most of the questions that occupy his mind is the same: cook. I couldn’t agree more. Whether it’s how to be healthier personally, how to contribute to the health of the planet or how to connect with your friends and family; to cook is as good an answer as any. Enjoy!
Check out this collection of gluten free recipes I've curated just for you.
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