Thursday, June 18, 2009

No need to stay at home anymore ;)

Gluten-Free Menus on the Rise

Gluten Free
More and more restaurants are offering gluten-free dishes like this pasta dish at LA's Hugo's.
Photo: courtesy of the restaurant

When Tom Kaplan, owner of Hugo’s in Los Angeles, had a customer get sick after eating his white fish piccata, the seafood wasn’t to blame. It was the gluten in the bread-crumb coating that set off a week long bout of intestinal distress in the customer, who suffers from a genetically inherited, autoimmune disorder known as celiac disease.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It’s what gives bread its elasticity and structure. When people with celiac ingest gluten, it sets off an immune system response, which damages the villi of the small intestine. Once thought to be extremely rare, celiac is now believed to affect almost three million Americans, although up to 97% are undiagnosed. Eventually, it can lead to nutritional deficiencies, osteoporosis or gastrointestinal cancers. The disorder has no cure or treatment other than the elimination of gluten from the diet.

Gluten is ubiquitous in American cuisine – wheat flour is used as a thickener in sauces, a coating on meats and as an additive in soy sauce, salad dressings and even ketchup – and few restaurateurs have worked to offer alternatives on their menus.

But Kaplan is one of the happy exceptions: “The time seemed right to make a commitment to getting rid of all hidden glutens in our restaurant,” he recalls about his decision to develop an extensive, gluten-free menu at Hugo’s that includes french fries cooked in an uncontaminated fryer, and a variety of pancakes and desserts. Looking to replace the semolina pasta, his head chef came up with a recipe for vegan, gluten-free pasta made from rice, tapioca, and white and yellow corn flours.

Vanessa Matlin, Director of Programming for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, believes chefs shouldn’t view gluten-free cooking as a great challenge. “There are hundreds of ingredients that chefs can use in their dishes,” says Matlin. Her group provides training programs to help restaurants implement gluten-free practices in their kitchens, such as encouraging chefs to “store gluten-free ingredients above regular ingredients, use separate cutting boards and keep food prep areas clean.”

While restaurants that offer gluten-free options are usually conscious about avoiding contamination, in a hectic kitchen, things can happen. Someone who knows a thing or two about the risks this creates is Betty Alper, chef-owner of The Balanced Kitchen in Chicago, an entirely gluten-free, all-vegan restaurant (it’s currently doing catering and events only until it reopens in the eco-friendly business center Green Exchange this fall). A celiac herself, Alper says, “I’m really sensitive and always get sick when I eat out, so I don’t do it anymore."

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, Ms. Alper experiments with different flours and oils to find combinations that approximate the taste and consistency of conventional baked goods. Her greatest successes have come from using brown rice flour, tapioca starch and various nut flours: “I made graham crackers the other day using teff, and I also made funnel cakes.”

Restaurants that serve only gluten-free fare are paradise for celiacs. However, many eateries find it more practical to offer both a gluten-free and a wheat-intensive menu, to suit both celiac customers and their gluten-loving companions.

At the regional Italian restaurant Rialto in Cambridge, chef-owner Jody Adams says, “We plan the menu so that all of the dishes will be adaptable in some way.” This includes ensuring that a dish contains no hidden glutens, and that any obvious ones (such as pasta or bread) can be easily omitted.

Opus in New York offers celiac diners a dozen pasta dishes made with corn-based penne or spaghetti, but non-celiacs can still order traditional, homemade pasta. Brothers Enzo and Giuseppe Lentini also serve an array of main plates, beers and desserts, half of which are gluten-free. “We do this for people who say they haven’t had a good pasta dish or a good cheesecake in years,” says Enzo.

– Liz Curry

Hold the Gluten, Bring on the Flavor

Nearly 1% of the U.S. population is allergic to gluten – that combo of proteins and starch found in foods such as breads, ice cream and ketchup (it’s often used as a stabilizer in the latter two items). Fortunately, a few local restaurants have started to pay attention to the growing number of guests in need of gluten-free options, offering special dishes and, in some cases, special menus.

Legal Sea Foods: The seafood chain that helped pioneer the removal of trans fats from menus long before it was a criminal offense has had a gluten-free menu for a few years. Options include items like Caesar salad with gluten-free croutons, mussels fra diavolo (sans linguine) and a special treatment of fried seafood, including calamari, dipped in egg wash and coated with cornmeal rather than the usual clam-fry mix. The menu is available in the upwards of 30 locations along the East Coast.

Marco Cucina Romana: At his North End Italian, Marc Orfaly is serving gluten-free pasta dishes like linguine and littleneck clams in garlic, white wine and capers, as well as bread crumbs made with rice flour, special desserts, bread and more. The gluten-free ingredients are kept in a separate area so there’s no cross-contamination, and are prepped and cooked separately.

Skipjack’s: This seafood staple is also getting ready to launch its own gluten-free menu, which will be available for perusal on its website by the end of the month. In the meantime, the staff has been trained to field requests and chefs will create gluten-free dishes.

UFood Grill: The healthy hamburger quick-serve restaurant, formerly known as Know-Fat, will customize gluten-free items upon request.

Burton’s Grill, The Elephant Walk, Rialto and Wagamama also all offer gluten-free dishes or appropriate substitutions.

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