Gluten-Free Comes to Dinner: Go against the grain with a few simple tricks

I can handle vegetarian guests at my dinner table any night of the week. Vegans? I don’t break a sweat. Got a coronary condition? We’ll stick to heart-healthy fare and work with low-saturated fats. But cooking gluten-free, that’s a whole new zone for me.

Living without gluten is a lifestyle that those diagnosed with celiac disease must adhere to. For them, any food containing gluten (a mixture of proteins found in specific grains) triggers an immune reaction that results in damage to the small intestine and malabsorption of nutrients. Some who don’t have celiac stick to a gluten-free diet because they’re sensitive or allergic to wheat. Others do it to improve their overall health.

When I found out that I needed to prepare a gluten-free meal, I promptly began the obvious online perusing to ascertain what could and couldn’t be on the dinner menu. While I knew that any dish that used wheat would have to be axed, I hadn’t thought about the fact that faro, graham, seminola and spelt were all wheat derivatives. Fine, since I am not wedded to those anyway. But, barley and rye? Out and out, with a sigh.

OK, so no beef and barley soup. No Reuben on rye. But there were still plenty of grains (and, by default, flours) I could put to work. Rice, corn, soy, potatoes, tapioca, beans, sorghum, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, arrowroot, amaranth, teff and flax were all in the safe zone, as were nuts and legumes. And apparently, though most celiacs can tolerate up to half a cup of dry, pure oats, many avoid them altogether since they are often processed in facilities that also process wheat. Cross contamination: lesson No. 1.

Next I learned that some ethnic cuisines could take some of the stress out. With the exception of most soy sauces, rice-centric Asian fare and legume-based Middle Eastern eats are naturally more gluten-friendly than most other cuisines. It was also good to note that fruits, veggies and typical protein sources like beef, chicken, pork and fish were all on the A (for acceptable) list. That meant I could go for roasted chicken, sautéed Brussels and some crisped potatoes. Everyone would be stuffed, satisfied and safe from a trip to the hospital.

It was around this time that my gluten-washed brain began wandering down the amber waves of wheat path – you know, the one with thick soups, fresh pastas and light and fluffy baked goods. Being the self-demanding, Type A cook that I am, I wanted to give my guest a meal that pushed my own culinary boundaries into the gluten-free zone: comfort foods typically made using wheat flour. I chose the road less traveled. I would make a thick bisque, I would figure out the pasta dilemma, and I would try my hand at baking a dessert with “exotic” gluten-free flours. I grabbed the apron. Things were going to get sticky, but in this case, that would be a good thing.

Numerous soups, chowders and bisques are thickened with a wheat flour-based roux. I needed something different. Heavy cream was an option if the gluten-free dinner guest wasn’t also following a dairy-free diet. But I’d come up with another solution just in case. Many foods, like cooked white beans, potatoes or cauliflower, can be pureéd with a bit of gluten-free stock to thicken a soup. Instant potato flakes would work, too, but I’m not a fan, as I find them bland and I tend to eschew most processed foods anyway. I am, however, in favor of calling on cornstarch, arrowroot or tapioca starch for taking soupy soups to a down-comforter-level of thickness. In his Gluten Free Every Day Cookbook, Robert Landolphi noted that these three starches have double the thickening power of standard wheat flour. And since they’re tasteless, they won’t change or overpower the flavor of the soup. There was just one caveat: I had to be sure to watch the pot. If I overcooked them, their thickening power would break down and cause the soup to become too thin. And so I found another solution: a nut “cream” (made by soaking nuts in water and then puréeing the nuts and liquid) to which I added rice. Finally, flawless success.

When it came time to plan the pasta dish, I was still stuck in my gluten ways of thinking. Pasta has and will always be made from wheat, right? And meatballs need wheat-based breadcrumbs or oatmeal to serve as filler. For advice on making a decent, gluten-free pasta dish, I turned to Kelly Patrick, co-owner of New Day Gluten Free, the only dedicated gluten-free restaurant in the metropolitan area. New Day, located in Ellisville, sells a variety of pasta entrées: lasagna; spaghetti and meatballs; a thick and creamy, satisfying macaroni and cheese – all gluten-free.

It turns out eating Italian in gluten-free fashion isn’t really all that hard. Thanks to the proliferation of gluten-free products, the gluten-free crowd can now, like the rest of time-crunched society, boil packaged, dried pasta instead of making it from scratch. Patrick suggested the Tinkyáda brand of pasta made from brown rice, noting that it doesn’t get mushy and even reheats well. Considering that Patrick herself is diagnosed with celiac disease and that two of her children have also inherited a gluten intolerance, I figured this mom had experimented with enough brands to know which tasted best. In the course of research, I also tried De Boles’ spaghetti, made from yellow corn flour. The bright yellow pasta withstood boiling well; tossed in a homemade pesto sauce, it received high marks from my kids.

My tomato sauce was already gluten free (Yours likely is as well if you make it from scratch.), but not my meatballs. Patrick’s mother, Anna Zaiss, kindly handed me the gluten-free meatball recipe she developed for her daughter. The substitution for the filler? Gluten-free bread crumbs. Why didn’t I think of that? I reasoned away my idiocy with a bit of self-righteousness: I would have guessed gluten-free bread crumbs to be the solution had I been a regular shopper of the packaged stuff.

During my visit to the folks at New Day, I had the chance to taste one of their house-made breadsticks. Brushed with oily garlic butter, these I-can’t-believe-they’re-gluten-less, chewy breadsticks can do battle any day with a gluten-laden counterpart. Best of all, New Day sells its breadsticks par-baked, so all I’d have to do is throw them into the oven just before serving with my spaghetti and meatballs. Italian crisis averted.

Making a fudgy, flourless cake for dessert felt like a cop-out. I wanted to bake something that rose – both literally and figuratively – to the occasion. Gluten is what provides structure and elasticity to dough. The replacement, explained Patrick, isn’t a single flour but a mixture of gluten-free ingredients that combine to create a similar texture and flavor. New Day stocks eight different flours, and for desserts like shortcake, gooey butter cake, cookies and moist cupcakes, pastry chef Megan Molitor calls on everything from brown or white rice flours to almond flour and tapioca flour, even sorghum.

Xanthan gum is a white, powdery flour that serves as a workhorse in gluten-free kitchens, doing triple duty as thickener, binding agent and even an emulsifier for sauces and salad dressings. For baking, it’s the magic ingredient that helps starches combine to trap gases, causing batter or dough to rise. Jackpot. But again, I couldn’t get ahead of myself. “Use too much, it’s gummy. Not enough and it dries out and crumbles,” Patrick cautioned. “You have to get right the combination of flours and xanthan gum. It’s so tricky as far as quantity and flours.”

Sounded like I wasn’t ready to go out on my own just yet. So I consulted Adam Prey, owner of area gluten-free baked goods company Wheatless Wonders, who agreed that achieving the right flour combination was a matter of trial and error. When I mentioned the “off” taste found in some gluten-free baked products, he suggested it might be attributable to excess rice flour. Prey’s final tip: Texture can sometimes be improved with olive oil, which he uses in his brownies, pecan brunettes and cookies.

Lastly, I checked in at Free Range Cookies, a dedicated gluten-free bakery in Ferguson. I was curious about the mesquite flour that, along with brown rice flour, potato starch, almond flour and tapioca flour, comprises the flour base for the bakery’s cinnamon-and-ginger-scented cranberry-oatmeal cookies. Mesquite flour is made from dried, ground pods of the mesquite tree, and owner Linda Daniels uses a bit of it in all of her baked goods. She likes how it enhances browning and its sweet flavor, especially compared to stronger-tasting soy and garbanzo bean flours, or brown rice and tapioca, which tend to fall on the bland side of the spectrum. “To get an ideal baked good, you want to use something that isn’t going to impart an icky flavor, but give personality,” explained Daniels. “Mesquite flour is vaguely reminiscent of chocolate, with caramel, malt-like overtones.”

Armed with this arsenal of baking tips and a bunch of new-to-my-pantry flours, I tried my hand at making drop cookies. For my first attempt, I went all out with from-scratch shortbread using a recipe of my own design. The dry blend included white rice flour, tapioca flour, almond meal, xanthan gum, baking power and ground cinnamon. I creamed together butter, brown sugar, honey, an egg and vanilla extract, then folded in chopped walnuts. This twist on a pecan sandie rose (Victory!) and delivered big on flavor, but fell short on the texture scale. Too grainy, too dry. Darned if all those bakers weren’t right about the whole flour ratio thing.

Time was running out. I succumbed to tearing open the all-purpose gluten-free baking mix that I swore I wouldn’t use if I didn’t really have to. At least I gave my cookies spunky personality by folding in some cooked red rice, which paired well with dried cranberries and lent another pinch of seasonality to the dessert.

By meal’s end, the cookies were gone and my gluten-free guest departed smiling, satisfied – and safe. Me? I breathed a sigh of relief as I hung up the apron, hoping that Kosher could just give me a couple of weeks before he came calling.