How do you live without bread? Pasta? Cookies? Beer? Chicken Lo Mein?!
Alas, my friend Elizabeth has been forced to do without these, and much more, after being diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune reaction to gluten. All wheat products are out. Nonetheless, I made dinner plans with her, confident that I could handle another restrictive meal. I had done vegetarian. I had done kosher. But of course, my confidence hit me right in the gluten-filled butt. Gluten hides in everything.
Before menu planning, I'd boned up on the basics of the disease at the Celiac Disease Foundation's Web site, parts of which read like a battle cry, capitalization and bold lettering popping off the page: "... these proteins are found in ALL forms of WHEAT ... and related grains RYE, BARLEY, and TRITICALE and MUST be eliminated!" (Simmer down now, Celiac Disease Foundation.)
While chat boards were atwitter debating the "Oat Controversy" (whether or not pure oats are dangerous to a gluten-free diet, a.k.a. the Oat Conundrum, or as I've dubbed it in casual conversation, "The Great Oat Conundrum of 1804"), I was not discouraged. Elizabeth had offered to handle the dessert, and I felt fine eliminating wheat and oats from the appetizer and main course.
I decided to start with a rich pureed soup to salute the last gasps of winter, and follow with a shrimp and vegetable stir-fry over coconut jasmine rice. I took my shopping list to the grocery store. And then my troubles began.
The chicken stock posed my first problem. Some brands contained "hydrolyzed wheat gluten protein," which was clearly out of the question, but other ingredients were more confusing: "chicken flavor," "garlic extract," "autolyzed yeast extract"? Is garlic extract gluten-free? Is yeast? I strained to get service on my phone in the depths of the store and learned that some types of yeast are gluten-free, but not all. So much for that. I had planned to marinate the shrimp in soy sauce, garlic, and ginger, but a quick scan of soy sauce ingredients—wheat was in all of them—nixed that as well. Other products were made in the same facilities as gluten-filled products. What was I supposed to do with that information?
Shopping took three times as long as usual, and I felt the plight of the celiac crowd. I was thankful for leftover homemade chicken stock—I had just enough to make the soup.
When I got home, I stuck a large NO FLOUR reminder sign above the stove and got to work, which, once I'd vetted my ingredients, was quick and simple. Everything was ready in under an hour, and though I almost offered Elizabeth a beer when she walked in, I caught myself and opened some wine instead. Party foul averted.
The soup and shrimp were hits, but, as I soon realized, the real rub for the celiac population comes with desserts. You can forego a sandwich for salad, substitute rice for pastas, drink hard cider or wine instead of beer, and eat rice noodles in your chicken lo mein. But cookies, cakes, ice creams, and candies become harder. Elizabeth brought over gluten-free chocolate-ginger cookies, which were surprisingly good, all things considered, but they still lacked the right texture. Something was off.
After dinner, I looked up some gluten-free pastry recipes to see how others had tackled this problem. One cake recipe contained tapioca starch, potato starch, corn starch, corn flour, white rice flour, amaranth flour, and xanthan gum.
Hats off to you, celiac disease population. I'll never look at bagels the same way again.