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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!

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.

Cucina Cosmo

7 Sep


One of my favorite pastimes is reading magazines.

I subscribe to Marie Claire for its exceptional personal essays, to Glamour for its hilarious dos and don’ts, to Real Simple for its peaceful layout, to Elle for its comprehensive fashion coverage, and to Cosmopolitan for its hip sex advice.

So I never expected the bedroom Bible to become the authority in my kitchen.

But surprisingly, Katie Lee Joel’s new food column, though a seeming ploy for publicity, has offered some easy, exciting, and, most important, gluten-free friendly recipes.

Her Lasagna Spirals in the September 2009 issue may be meant for a double date, but they proved an ideal dish for my candle-lit solo dinner date with my boyfriend a couple of weeks ago.

I followed most of the magazine’s instructions, including the sputtering trick of adding olive oil to the pasta water, exactly, save for my addition of extra garlic cloves and a few more basil leaves to compensate for the miniature-sized leaves of my very own basil plant seated on the radiator beside my dining-room window.

(A few weeks ago, I was surprised at the $2.99 whole basil plants sitting in the spot usually occupied by plastic containers filled with only basil leaves at my local Trader Joe’s. I’ve been even more surprised, however, at my ability to keep this delicate herb seemingly satisfied.)

My only other alteration to the Cosmo recipe was, of course, the substitution of gluten-free lasagna noodles by Tinkyada. I boiled them for the full 15 to 16 minutes, as recommended on the packaging, and although several of the noodles unfortunately broke in half, they avoided that awful taste usually associated with al dente rice pasta.

The broken noodles, however, proved fortuitous. “I want one of the small spirals,” my boyfriend requested for his third and final helping—a compliment to the recipe since he’d also enjoyed his favorite Texas toast with the lasagna.

Although I didn’t make a corresponding garlic bread for myself, I found a generous helping of salad—composed of greens, black olives, carrots, cucumbers, mushrooms, and tomatoes, topped with Safeway ranch dressing—to be a satisfactory side. It was also a welcome filler during the 10 extra minutes needed to fully heat the spirals’ centers, still cold after the recipe’s suggested 20 minutes in the oven.

But then, I’d enjoyed a cold bite or two as I was preparing these delicious spirals, so I couldn’t complain. And my usually selective boyfriend didn’t say a word, either. In fact, he even took a couple of spirals to work for lunch the next day. I, however, saved one to savor during a leisure moment that weekend as I read my favorite magazines.

Pass on the pizza

2 Sep

“Hey—I saw on ur fb that u went to pizza fusion. How is their GF pizza????”

The moment my brother’s text arrived in the middle of a workday earlier this week, I rushed him my reply: “Not very good. The crust has a weird, chewy taste . . . kind of sour, too. Why do you ask?”

I wanted to halt any possible plans to take his new girlfriend there on a date.

My boyfriend and I had tried our local strip-mall location of the chain, now in 11 states, on a lovely Sunday night this past summer. We’d both done some research first, and while I’d enticed my left-leaning love with facts about the company’s admirable environmental friendliness, he’d excited me with an even better discovery: The crust came from an out-of-state bakery, and I’d never eaten any of its products before!

I may never eat any again. While I did relish the normalcy of enjoying pizza in a bustling pizza joint next to my boyfriend relishing a delicious portobella grill sandwich, I found the gummy, bitter thin crust far from normal.

The additional $7 (if memory serves me) for that special crust brought my rather petite plain cheese pizza to $20. And even on my (probably final) return trip there with my mom a few weeks ago on “buy-one-regular-pizza-get-one-small-pizza-free” Monday night, the price seemed unwarranted. “Thursday night is ‘gluten-free night,’ so there’s no extra cost for the crust,” my helpful waitress had told me during my first visit, however. But after letting my final leftover piece languish in the office refrigerator until the cleaning service’s monthly fridge scouring this past Friday, I know better than to return.

The only possible allurement might be Pizza Fusion’s Fresh Homemade Brownie, which, according to the same helpful server, is gluten free. Served with amazingly rich vanilla ice cream, the brownie could almost transport an adult back to the chocolate birthday cake and ice cream of childhood. Alone, however, the brownie is puckeringly bitter and dry.

So I didn’t tell my brother about the dessert. He’s not much of a sweet tooth. And besides, enduring the pizza to get to the dessert is surely not worthwhile.

Grilled-cheese goodness

13 Aug


One of the worst lunches of my childhood was grilled-cheese sandwiches.

My sister would begin with tasteless whole-wheat bread (or, worse yet, halved dry kaiser rolls), drop on slices of mozzarella cheese, stick the open-faced sandwiches under the broiler, and serve up abrasive, burnt cardboard topped with bubbling, scorched goo.

I thought I’d endured my last grilled-cheese sandwich after I waved goodbye to my college-bound sister.

But then, a decade later, in the weakness and conciliation of new love, I agreed to try my boyfriend’s speciality: grilled-cheese sandwiches. Awed, I watched him slather butter into every crevice of soft, white bread, then fry the sizzling pieces in more butter before squeezing slices of orange American cheese between the squishy layers.

I’d fallen in love with grilled-cheese sandwiches—and him—just before I had to give the former up forever.

Or so I thought, until I sampled a sandwich at Rose’s Wheatfree Bakery, and duplicated that grilled-cheese at home to create a sandwich even better (Dare I say?) than my boyfriend’s.

The secret is Rose’s amazing, addictive seeded sandwich bread. I’d always thought of bread as the platform for the cheese in the sandwich bearing the latter’s name. But with so much distinctive character, with the chewy texture of the myriad seeds and the surprising lightness of the dough, this gluten-free bread becomes the celebrity of the dish.

Consequently, almost any cheddar cheese will do. I used Lucerne 2-percent, reduced-fat, mild cheddar for my most recent sandwiches, but I prefer the smoothness and taste of Trader Joe’s mild cheddar.

Fry the bread with a generous amount of butter. Then add thin slices of cheddar, close the sandwich, and press. Next—a trick from my boyfriend—cover the pan until the cheese is mostly melted. Then carefully open the sandwich and add thin slices of fresh tomato (My boyfriend prefers to add these at the beginning with the cheese, but I enjoy my tomatoes still slightly cool.). Cook, flipping as needed, until desired. I’m always careful to leave the bread buttery soft, most likely because I’m haunted by my sister’s burnt concoctions. This bread, however, can withstand a slight crisping of the edges.

Then enjoy the richness and comfort of these combined flavors, and let them take you back to your childhood . . . or not.

Pizza Perfect

15 Jul


I never liked pizza. Especiallynot the salty, crispy Villa Nova’s thin crust I endured as a child during my family’s weekly visits to cut the lawn at my Grandma’s house. I shifted my thinking slightly, however, when I accompanied a college friend to visit her boyfriend during his shift waiting tables at Gino’s East and tried the cornmeal crust of Gino’s extravagant deep-dish cheese pizza.

But, ironically, I didn’t become a true, pizza-loving Italian until I ordered a gluten-free pizza from Rose’s Wheatfree Bakery in Evanston, Ill. And I shouldn’t have been surprised. This charming bakery and cafe, though somewhat lacking in service expertise and organization, serves the most flavorful, authentic-tasting gluten-free goods available. (Bakery hours, menu items, and hours when serving specific menu items, namely pizza, seem to have varied constantly during my year and a half of making the long drive to dine there, so I suggest calling ahead before visiting.)

Enduring these shortcomings, however, is worthwhile for the pizza, available in a personal or large size. The texture and thickness of the crust are superior to any wheat- or cornmeal-based crust’s. And the taste, perfectly accented by flecks of a unique—if still mysterious to me, though my boyfriend’s guess is rosemary—green herb throughout, is divine. (Next to this crust, other gluten-free options such as Kinnikinnick’s don’t deserve a mention. After trying Kinnikinnick’s crust with various vegetarian toppings at restaurants including Aurelio’s Pizza and Stillwater in Downers Grove, Ill., I’ve decided the only way to enjoy this slightly sweet crust is sliced, toasted, and complemented by delicious whipped butter, as served at Stillwater. As for the numerous frozen-pizza options in my local gluten-free grocery store, I learned to ignore the recommendation of the store owner after she admitted to never having tried Rose’s pizza.) The sauce is simple but delicious, the cheese melts to the perfect consistency, and the toppings, even if they merit an additional charge, complete the experience.

That experience, however, is best at home. The chefs at Rose’s cook the pizza too well for my liking and burn the crust’s edges into sour crispiness. But with an uncooked pizza taken home, frozen until desired (The pizza’s center becomes soggy if frozen for more than a week or two.), and then baked in a 425-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, the pizza is perfect for enjoying immediately or rewarmed later in the microwave.

In addition, I have two frozen crusts from Rose’s in my freezer right now. The cost was less, though not significantly so, and the middle may not prove soggy in this method. It’s a new experiment for me (and, presumably, a relatively new option offered by Rose’s), but I may enjoy choosing my own sauce, cheese, and fresh mushroom topping. Either way, I know I’m going to like it.