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Old loves

17 Apr


My ex was married yesterday.

And as I slogged through my Saturday chores of sweeping my floors, washing my towels, and dusting my furniture, I–for some masochistic reason–envisioned him straightening his bow tie, admiring his bride, and embarking on his honeymoon . . . .

And then I relived the honeymoon of our own relationship–ended just a little more than a year ago–as I recalled his first admiring gaze across a P.F. Chang’s dinner table, our third date to a favorite Chinese carryout spot with tofu and crab pot stickers, and his first time cooking grilled cheese sandwiches for me.

In fact, almost every one of my favorite dishes and restaurants evokes a memory of him.

But he wasn’t the one who came to mind yesterday as I made my favorite new breakfast . . . and brunch . . . and, sometimes, late-night dinner.

Instead, this dish evoked memories of cold nights spent cooking in my warm, cozy kitchen with my new boyfriend. He’d been the first person–since my father, who used to fry up the family’s Saturday morning breakfasts–to make me French toast.

The thick fluffy slices, dusted in powdered sugar and drenched in real maple syrup, proved even better than my father’s so long ago. And unlike his, these were gluten free.

Udi’s gluten-free breads, available in a white sandwich variety and a faux whole-wheat “whole-grain” version sold in nonspecialty local grocery stores such as Dominick’s, have given me back countless pre-Celiac bread-based meals, including breakfasts of toast and Welch’s grape jelly, lunches of imitation Quiznos veggie sandwiches (more on these later), and now, late-night dinners of omelets and French toast.

And during those late-night dinners, my boyfriend gave me–an egg-scrambling, omelet-frying failure–yet another gift: the recipe.

7 to 8 slices of Udi’s white sandwich gluten-free bread

3 eggs

about 1/4 cup of milk or cream

dash of vanilla

generous sprinkling of cinnamon

1 to 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter

various toppings (powdered sugar, maple syrup, sliced strawberries, oranges, and/or bananas)

If bread is frozen, microwave it until soft. Then whisk together eggs, milk or cream, vanilla, and cinnamon. Dip both sides of each bread slice in egg mixture and fry in unsalted butter until slices are browned on both sides.

Then top with sugar, syrup, or fruit, and share with a new–or old–love.

Sweet sorrow

30 Dec

“I just want to be friends.”

Those words startled me midway through a magical second date this past summer.

It had already become a season of endlessly empty encounters–from the rushed affair with the overly eager engineer to the coffee date with the already involved lawyer–but none of the inevitable endings had surprised me as much as this abrupt revelation.

“I felt as if I’d been sucker punched . . . in the stomach,” I told my mom the next morning as we crossed the quaint, sunshiney streets of downtown Hinsdale, Ill., and parked before a tiny new shop named Sweet Ali’s Gluten Free Bakery.

And because I leaned across one of their few small tables to recount the past night’s confusing particulars–the initial awkward conversing, the gradual lengthening of gazes, the midnight swinging . . . and touching at a deserted playground, and then the sudden shifting of his behavior–I will always associate Sweet Ali’s with sadness.

But what could soothe the sorrow of that summer infatuation–or my frustrating diet limitation–better than an impossibly light angel food cake paired with an equally airy whipped cream? And what could dissolve the stress of subsequent workdays better than a thick, chewy chocolate chip cookie delivered by my mom during lunch breaks?

For breakfasts at my desk toward the end of summer and then into fall, the flavors of carrot and pumpkin muffins proved as deep and complex as a kiss from a new man. He took me for magical dates filled with comfortable conversations, long gazes, midnight walks–and caresses–in secluded parks, and then a pledge of his commitment.

His consistent sweetness has lasted into the holiday season of red velvet cupcakes, iced sugar cookies, and m&m treats that have inspired my New Year’s Day dessert–to be compiled with the reasonably priced flour mix responsible for the enigmatic authenticity of Sweet Ali’s entire product line.

But its most delicious offering–the tomato focaccia–is the most anticipated element of my New Year’s Day meal. Expected to accompany the gluten-free lasagna, the inconceivably elastic dough of this cheesy roll rivals any pre-dinner bread ever enjoyed at Macaroni Grill during pointless past dates.

So to celebrate the sweetness of my next magical date–and erase the sorrowful memories of 2010–I might share a Sweet Ali’s focaccia . . . or cupcake . . . or cookie with my best friend: my boyfriend.

Stolen sandwiches

31 May

“Do you want to go out to eat?”

My answer to that question is almost always “yes.”

Sure, I usually decline my family’s invitation to dine at The Clubhouse, given their bland flavorings and limited gluten-free menu (featuring some admittedly rich mashed potatoes and delicate gluten-free buns), and I often reject my mom’s pleas to join her at Egg’lectic Cafe, given their paltry gluten-free selection and painful reminders of now-forbidden breakfast favorites (Banana Bread French Toast, anyone?), but I’m always eager to meet my brother at Chipotle or join my best friend at Honey.

After all, Honey has reliably satisfied my comfort-food cravings with their “not-just-grilled-cheese sandwich” for months.

But lately, the recipe has changed: a gummy new gluten-free bread forms the sandwich’s base, and an increasing amount of grease saturates each slice.

With a loaf of my favorite Prairie Bread from Whole Foods, however, I’ve stolen—or, rather, adjusted—Honey’s amazing recipe to create an even better homemade grilled cheese.

2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 slices of Whole Foods’ Prairie Bread, thawed
2 teaspoons of Trader Joe’s Pesto Alla Genovese
Several thin slices of Trader Joe’s Raw Milk White Cheddar
1 slice of tomato
1 handful of baby arugula

In a nonstick skillet, fry the bread in the olive oil until slightly browned. Coat one side of each slice with pesto, add the cheese, press the sandwich together, and cover the pan to melt the cheese. Insert the tomato slice and arugula and fry uncovered to wilt the arugula slightly. Then enjoy a restaurant-quality lunch or dinner—without even going out to eat!

Sweet as love

24 May

“Food is love,” wrote one of my myriad new pen pals acquired throughout my recent adventures in online dating.

And during the sometimes stilted, sometimes sizzling conversations I’ve exchanged with various strangers both in person and over e-mail, IM, and text throughout the past four months, I, too, have remarked a certain conflation—or, perhaps, confusion—of love and food.

The requisite “how do you like your coffee?” chat, a staple at that jittery start of each first date, has segued into countless culinary conversations, including an odd “why I once was a vegetarian” discussion and a fascinating low-fat chocolate-chip cookie recipe exchange.

But the most unusual—and memorable—of these dialogues occurred not on an extended date, but on a brief instant message encounter. The writer seemed far too young and far too far away for a possible relationship (the presumed objective of dating site users), and, unsurprisingly, he wanted to discuss not a relationship with me, but his relationship with food.

“You’re gluten free?” he began. “I just started the diet a week ago!”

Remembering the initial confusion and frustration of the Celiac Disease diagnosis, I offered the expected platitudes. “The diet gets easier.” “You can find gluten-free options at more and more places.”

And my first recommendation of those providers was not, to my own surprise, the long Trader Joe’s gluten-free list or the online ordering form for Rose’s Wheatfree Bakery and Cafe.

My immediate suggestion was Whole Foods. And their unsurpassed vanilla cupcakes.

“You just like the frosting,” my mom recently told me after one of my inordinately lengthy monologues on these cupcakes’ indescribable perfection. “No,” I retorted. “I lick the wrappers.”

After all, the last gooey crumbs of the impossibly delicate yellow cake easily equal the icy sweetness of the decadent frosting spirals. And both components, unlike those of too many other gluten-free desserts, prove just as satisfying when eaten alone as when eaten together.

The combination of calories (480) and grams of fat (22), however, may give pause, but with all the deprivations inherent in this sometimes trying diet, everyone—especially boys just going gluten free—deserves a frequent indulgence.

And for my next one, I’m planning on Whole Foods’ chocolate cupcakes—recommended by yet another recent online date.

36 hours of gluten-free fare in suburban Chicago

20 Mar

Trendy and suburban may seem as unlikely a pairing as chocolate and French fries, but in the unique neighborhoods surrounding the Windy City, several enterprising restaurants are setting the rather stylish standard in the popular new trend toward gluten-free dining.

As the number of Celiac Disease patients unable to tolerate a certain protein in wheat, barley, and rye has risen, the knowledge of locally owned—and even franchised—restaurants has increased, while the length of those once rare gluten-free menus hidden among the chefs’ “normal” offerings has grown . . . sometimes even to include potatoes crisped in a dedicated fryer and molten chocolate cake baked without the flour.

FRIDAY
4
p.m.
SPECIALITY SHOP
If, like most Celiac Disease patients, you’re nervous about gluten-free dining options in an unfamiliar locale, stock up on staples and snacks at the western suburbs’ only Gluten-Free Grocery (1922 South Mannheim Road, Westchester; 708/483-8785; www.gfgrocery.com). This two-year-old store, owned and operated by a Celiac Disease patient, offers a variety of flour-substitute mixes combined by area manufacturers and an abundance of frozen pies, brownies, and cookies prepared by local bakeries, leaving you nervous about only the calorie count. (Note: Unfortunately, the Gluten-Free Grocery closed at the end of 2010. Just in time, however, at least one local Whole Foods has expanded its gluten-free groceries . . . now including delightful individual gluten-free servings of Lincoln Park’s Swirlz Cupcakes.)

7 p.m.
PERSONALIZED PASTA
When so near a city with rich Italian heritage like Chicago’s, almost anyone on a gluten-free diet would crave a deep bowl of forbidden pasta. Fortunately, the acceptable options are myriad on the recently expanded gluten-free menu at the casual Biaggi’s Ristoranti Italiano (2752 Showplace Drive, Naperville; 630/428-8500; www.biaggis.com), one of several locations in 12 states. Here, the signature green spaghetti, color coded for gluten-free identification, tastes as authentic as any wheat version, and the various dishes featuring this staple complement the menu’s additional offerings of a delicately subtle thin-crust pizza, an emphatically bold caprese salad, and numerous other rich Italian flavors.

9:30 p.m.
CHOCOLATE COMBO
Most gluten-friendly establishments end a meal with a whimpered offer of sorbet or ice cream. Not White Chocolate Grill (1803 Freedom Drive, Naperville; 630/505-8300; www.whitechocolategrill.com). This restaurant, with three locations in three states, finishes—or, in this case, begins—with a bang: molten chocolate soufflé cake, a warm disc of soft sweetness surrounded by a circle of rich crème anglaise and topped with a mound of plain whipped cream. But while this flourless cake may prove to be the most delicious such item available in the Midwestern states, it’s no match for the equally rare find of gluten-free fries, prepared in a dedicated fryer uncontaminated by flour-battered items. “Some people who come here haven’t had fries in ages,” one of the servers reports, convincing even the most calorie-conscious guest to sample that unlikely pairing of fries and chocolate for the evening’s explosive finale.

SATURDAY
11:30 a.m.
BREAD ’N’ BREAKFAST
Even if you’re an early riser, wait until brunch to visit the charming northern suburbs—set above the rocky shores of Lake Michigan—and Rose’s Wheat Free Bakery and Café (2901 Central Street, Evanston; 847/859-2723; www.rosesbakery.com). Because, when you see the chalkboard menus and wide glass display cases filled with completely gluten-free temptations ranging from dairy-free cheesecake and vegan carrot muffins to crisp grilled-cheese sandwiches and smooth tomato bisque, you’ll want to try breakfast, lunch, and then several different desserts. Take a box of bakery for more dessert later in the evening, and be sure to buy a loaf of Rose’s soft, vegan Seeded Sandwich Bread, as well as a frozen pizza crust speckled with a mysterious aromatic herb, perfect for a delicious brunch on a future late—or early—weekend morning.

7 p.m.
PESTO PERFECT
Go gluten free, and you’ll probably have little energy to go vegan or raw or green. But at Prasino (93 South La Grange Road, La Grange; 708/469-7058; www.eatgreenlivewell.com)—a new family-owned destination situated among chic shops in a bustling suburban downtown—green, gourmet, and gluten free all mingle on the same extensive and delicious menu. Although several items, including pancakes on the breakfast menu, boast a convenient GF beside their names, the exquisite gluten-free pasta with pistachio pesto and asparagus deserves your full attention. Just don’t neglect to admire the spare, eco-friendly décor after your green meal.

SUNDAY
10 a.m.
HONEY DO
That rare breed of hip churchgoer, native only to the communities surrounding the overtly religious Wheaton College, is on full display during the Sunday morning rush at the equally hip Honey (499 North Main Street, Glen Ellyn; 630/469-0000; www.honeycafe.net), a modern comfort café serving its quaint suburban downtown area for the past two years. As you look out on the quiet streets and smile at the mix of hipsters and families around nearby tables topped with fresh flowers, you can enjoy an unparalleled breakfast of syrupy French toast, delicious despite the café’s reliance on frozen gluten-free bread, or you can sample one of the menu’s many lunch items and daily specials, either marked GF or appropriately converted, as in the case of Honey’s white cheddar and arugula grilled-cheese sandwich—itself a religious experience.

2 p.m.
PIZZA SURPRISE
Perhaps the most attempted—and annihilated—gluten-free fare, pizza should be left to the pros: Aurelio’s Pizza (11 Calendar Court, La Grange; 708/579-0900; www.aureliospizza.com). With franchise locations in six states, this pizzeria recently upgraded from a small, somewhat sweet rice-based crust to a thick, personal-sized one topped with an appropriately sugary sauce and luxuriously chewy cheese. Served on a traditional red-checkered table, this pie has garnered Celiac patients’ admiration for “tasting like the real thing”—high praise applicable to all of these Chicago-area providers’ trendy new gluten-free fare.

Tofu-burger stir-fry

10 Nov

I just received an excessively early renewal notice for Glamour magazine.

And I made a mental note to consider cancelling the remaining time on my subscription.

Not only do I already have too large a pile of waiting-to-be-read magazines (and other recently read ones partially responsible for my long absence on this blog!), but I detest Glamour’s new focus on reader-driven content. “I want advice from experts! And well-crafted first-person essays from thoughtful writers!” I’ve mourned while enduring yet another list of patched-together paragraphs solicited from myriad “regular” women.

So I reminded myself to support only the best in the foundering magazine business when I heard, a few weeks ago, about the demise of Gourmet—a magazine I’d always perused in the grocery-store checkout line but never given my full attention. I’m unsure of the magazine’s policies on reader- vs. expert-driven content, but I’m assuming a commitment to the latter since I encountered a link—on, of all places, a food blog—to this impassioned article by my PBS favorite Christopher Kimball.

The America’s Test Kitchen host blames the death of Gourmet on the growth of food blogs. And then, in his final two paragraphs, he eloquently illustrates the main reason for my initial hesitation about entering the blogosphere. “Google ‘broccoli casserole,'” he challenges New York Times readers, “and make the first recipe you find. I guarantee it will be disappointing. The world needs fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise. . . .”

So, in honor of the expertise of America’s Test Kitchen and my own continuing uneasiness with the instant “publication” of amateurs’ writing via the Internet, I’m posting one of my first self-developed gluten-free recipes with this disclaimer: I am an amateur “cook-er.” I tried this recipe four times, but I never felt complete satisfaction with the inconsistent results. Yet still I found the dish delicious. And, as hoped and anticipated, it reminded me of my pre-gluten-free favorite takeout order from a special nearby spot called Jin’s China.

2 Trader Joe’s Organic Tofu Veggie Burgers

10–15 snow peas

1 and 1/2 handfuls of carrot chips, cut lengthwise

4–5 white cabbage leaves, torn into large pieces

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 cup of uncooked rice

Boil the snow peas, carrots, and cabbage in water seasoned with garlic salt. In a separate pot, add 2 and 1/2 cups of water and 1/4 teaspoon of salt to the rice and bring to a boil; then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until finished.

In a nonstick frying pan, saute the garlic in a generous amount of olive oil. When the vegetables are soft, add them to the garlic and continue sauteing. Then chop each veggie burger into approximately nine pieces and add to the pan. Add more oil, as well as a dash of the leftover water from the vegetables, if needed. Season with a generous amount of garlic salt.

(My boyfriend, quite unlike me, found the veggie burgers in need of a dousing in San-J Tamari Sauce. In previous “tests” of this recipe, I did try that soy sauce substitute, as well as dashes of vegetable stock, honey, and cornstarch. I returned to the garlic salt alone, however, for I believe it to be a wonderfully subtle complement—unlike the overpowering tamari—to the harmonious flavor of these veggie burgers. In fact, I’ve reread the simple list of ingredients—tofu, sunflower or canola oil, yellow onion, carrot, kale, tapioca starch, sea salt, and garlic powder—countless times as I’ve tried to discern the secret to these amazing concoctions.)

Allow the ingredients to simmer and the vegetables to absorb flavor from the burgers. Spoon rice into two bowls, top with the vegetable/burger stir-fry, and enjoy an expertly written article from a favorite magazine subscription. (May I suggest Marie Claire?)

Prima pasta

18 Sep

I’m an Italian.

No, I don’t possess swarthy skin, I don’t speak Dante’s language, and I don’t think I’ll ever visit my father’s homeland, but I do love pasta.

In fact, my favorite dinner after a long day at work used to comprise angel hair pasta, a touch of olive oil, and grated parmesan cheese—all devoured directly from the pot during one of my many beloved, addicting television shows.

I haven’t enjoyed that meal, however, since I started my gluten-free diet. No acceptable pasta seems able to hide its nonwheat identity with the scant dressings of my favorite at-home conconction.

Nevertheless, with a few cloves of garlic, a generous portion of tomato sauce, a heap of parmesan cheese, and a sprig of basil, some delicious replacements have emerged. So here are my selections for the three best gluten-free dried pastas.

1. Mrs. Leeper’s rice spaghetti: I took a risk on this spaghetti a few weeks ago when I was rushing through my local grocery store and searching for an easy date-night dinner. “I’m not sure if this pasta is going to be any good,” I warned my boyfriend. After all, its corn-based rotelli relative, never again purchased after disappointing me on my first foray into gluten-free nearly two years ago, had hardly recommended this spaghetti.

But the ultra-slender stalks beneath the clear packaging beckoned to me. And although they, like all gluten-free varieties, required the accompaniment of a hearty tomato sauce (I’ve recently been partial to Prego) and parmesan cheese, these noodles, the thinnest of any gluten-free pasta in my experience, proved deliciously close to real angel hair.

2. Trader Joe’s organic brown rice spaghetti: I shouldn’t have been surprised to find these packages, marked with that familiar little g, in the pasta aisle at the gluten-free friendly Trader Joe’s. But, a creature of habit, I’d already picked my go-to gluten-free pasta, and I’d never even considered the existence of other brands. In fact, such shopping around seemed equivalent to cheating!

How ironic, then, that a spur-of-the-moment fling led me to such a stable, dependable, matter-of-fact specimen. This unremarkableness is actually an incredibly desirable trait in a gluten-free pasta. Not too sticky, not too slimy, not too soft, not too hard, not too tasteful, not too tasteless—this pasta was simply, normally, wonderfully pasta.

3. Tinkyada brown rice lasagna noodles and brown rice spirals: I may have new lovers, but I still want to be friends with this, until recently, undisputed favorite. These spirals dazzled in several date-night preparations of a beloved baked pasta dish including sauce, black olive slices, and parmesan, topped with melted mozzarella cheese. And even recently, these lasagna noodles slipped beautifully into place in both my traditional layered dish and the delectable new spirals. In fact, the depth in the rice flavor may have even improved my old wheat-noodle lasagna recipe.

But this staple also disappointed: the undercooked elbows once rendered my attempt at a macaroni salad inedible, and the thick, gummy spirals sometimes naggingly reminded me of my diet limitations. So I imposed some of my own limits on this mostly dependable brand.

And in these classifications and evaluations and, finally, revelations, I’ve rediscovered the joy of eating—and being—Italian.

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