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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.

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.

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.

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.

Double chocolate disappointment

23 Jul


I had a chocolate craving Tuesday night. And usually, for this common occurrence, I have a bag of M&Ms or a container of Kozy Shack pudding in my refrigerator. Lately, however, my fridge has been bare.

But fortunately, an eclectic, fairly new neighborhood cafe that serves food as delicious as its name, Honey, has made an extraordinary effort to cater to gluten-free patrons. I can’t express my delight, my confidence, my comfort in browsing their daily menu of specials and finding a gf beside several of their flavorful salads and soups (Much, much more on their specialities later).

The restuarant’s gluten-free sweet selection, however, had for a long while been limited to crumbly yet rich, chewy peanut butter cookies. Then, Honey mentioned they would be offering cupcakes on “gluten-free Tuesdays.” I saw beautiful vanilla cupcakes—topped with formidable coconut—last week, but this week, Honey had their double chocolate cupcakes.

Although the three I selected are no longer in my refrigerator, they weren’t as good as their perfect frosting—or their slightly exorbitant price—promised they’d be. The cake’s flavor was distinctly gluten free, belying a hint of bean flour, and the frosting, while “normal,” was far too sour for my taste. Still, the texture was wonderfully dense, and I admit I licked each wrapper.

So perhaps I shouldn’t complain. After all, not every restaurant is as conscientious as Honey. And not every bakery has a little gluten-free sign resting on a tray of double chocolate cupcakes . . . just waiting to satisfy my every craving.