t occurs to me that I have been so exuberant about good foods, good friends, and stories about Disneyland lately that I haven’t written anything about foods specific to celiacs or those who must eat gluten-free. And I’m fine with that. As I told my writing students today, you have to write what compels you, fearlessly. Or else, it will only be obligatory, and safe. Boring. Besides, I’m eager to share this with everyone: eating gluten-free isn’t about buying special mixes and packaged cookies all the time. Being gluten-free is about being free, free to eat well, cook gorgeous foods, and feel well. Man does not love by bread alone, and this woman doesn’t even live by bread. Give me sauteed mushrooms, saffron risotto, and a square of dark chocolate any time.
But lately, I have been experimenting with some specific, gluten-free flours, and I thought I’d share the results with you.
On Friday night, I came home exhausted. Flummoxed with all the responsibilities facing me, all the pressing problems I had still bulging at school, I just wanted to flop. The head cold that has been passed from clutches of people to another threatened the back of my throat. So, instead of going to the potluck I had planned to attend, I stayed home. Looking out my kitchen window, past the rain, I saw Malena’s tacos, my favorite little Mexican restaurant, on McGraw, here in Seattle. A tiny shack of a place, tucked next to a yoga studio, and run by people newly arrived from Mexico, this marvelous place has fed me more times than I can remember. When I first moved into this place, I fell prey to its intoxications at least twice a week, maybe more. Their fish tacos fall apart in the mouth, all the spices blending and diving on the tongue. And their chile relleno is the best I have ever tasted. Many a time I have taken people visiting to the little place down the street, the one with the windows perpetually steamed up, and they leave smiling. On Friday night, I was tempted to walk down there again. But I haven’t been in awhile. Even though I can see the grill behind the counter, and they mostly use corn tortillas, I just didn’t want to take the chance of cross-contamination. With a cold coming on, who needs to be glutenized?
When I lived in New York, I lived on 101st and Broadway, in the building above Mama Mexico. They opened the same year I moved there, so I took it as a good sign. Horribly expensive by west coast standards, the place was constantly packed. Late at night, I’d still mariachi horns wafting up to my room on the seventh floor. Their margaritas knocked me on my ass. And their food exploded on the tongue, the spices layered, the tastes deep in me. But one of the best parts of going, with friends and lovers over the years, was the guacamole. If you ordered guacamole, the waiter wheeled over a tray with little bowls filled: tiny diced tomatoes; small, pungent chiles; ground cumin; slices of lime. He’d ask how you wanted your guacamole, and you pointed. I’ll some of that. More chiles. Less onion, please. And he’d expertly extract the avocado from its shell, then spoon it into the black, earthy mortar. With a quick flick of the wrist, he’d grind it all, the lime juice springing, the green mash forming. And within a minute, the best guacamole I’d ever tasted. Every time, I exulted in it. And every time, my companions and I would close our eyes and moan into our corn chips.
I had to have guacamole.
But not just guacamole. Salsa. Black beans. Chiles. Beecher’s cheese with flecks of red pepper. Little sprigs of lettuce. Fresh corn tortillas. And spicy strips of chicken.
Luckily, I know how to make the corn tortillas in my sleep now. Since I first made them in August, and wrote about them here, I’ve perpetually kept a bag of masa in my refrigerator. I’ll never buy packaged tortillas again. Thick and hot, slightly singed from the skillet, fresh tortillas burst with flavor. I like to eat them straight from the stove, nothing on them, just the satisfying taste of corn and lime. But on Friday, I made a little stack of them in preparation for my spontaneous feast.
Just before I was diagnosed with celiac, I figured out the easiest way to make perfectly sauteed chicken breasts. Cover them, lightly, with flour, just a thin dusting on each side, before putting them into olive oil on medium-high heat. The veneer of flour keeps the juices of the chicken inside the breast, instead of in the skillet. It also keeps the meat from burning. It’s not fried chicken. Instead, just a hint of crunch, a small memory of something else. Every time I make it this way, my chicken tastes entirely memorable.
But then I had to stop eating gluten. And I didn’t eat meat for several months either. Only recently have I returned to making chicken. Wonderfully, I have found that most gluten-free flours work just as well as traditional wheat flour for this purpose. And on Friday, I used Tom Sawyer’s Gluten-free Flour, which had been sent to me by the people at My Gluten-free Store. Lovely people with two children who have to eat gluten-free, Mike and Cherin are just starting their web venture. I applaud any small company that wants to make the world more safe for those of us who can’t eat gluten. They may be just starting, and their website is clearly a little handmade, but they still deserve your attention. They have partnered with a flour maker in Arizona who has just invented this mix. It has various rice flours and starches, and they insist we can use it as a direct substitute for traditional flours. I made some biscuits, some gingersnaps, and this chicken with it. For my taste, it doesn’t work as well for baking as the next flour I’m going to mention, but for savory foods, it’s just fine. The binding agent in this mix is gelatin, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for vegetarians. (And I have to say that it didn’t sit that well in my innards either.) But it’s a good flour, put together by good people.
And on Friday, I dredged my chicken in the Tom Sawyer flour, mixed with some of my Survival Spice. This mix is quickly becoming one of my favorites—it colors everything beautifully. With the combination of these two, my gluten-free chicken just gleamed. And with the fresh-made guacamole, and the local cheese, these taco concoctions were just what I needed to start off my weekend right.
I don’t know what came over me. I haven’t eaten pancakes in months, not since my birthday in August. And I’ve been so focused on foods that are gluten-free in their natural state that it just didn’t occur to me to make pancakes. But I’d just returned from a vigorous Hydro-fit class, I was not going to be home for hours, and I had a bowl full of farm-fresh eggs from my brother’s chickens. Pancakes it is.
On top of it all, I wanted to try out a new flour I had bought the week before at Minglement, the lovely health food store on Vashon Island. Pamela’s makes some of the best gluten-free cookies on the market (along with Ener-G and WOW baking). And they’ve been making these cookies for years. Now, they’re selling their baking mix flour, in small bags, and in four-pound bags. Wow, it’s almost like regular flour! You know, I’ve been feeling slightly guilty that I don’t make my gluten-free mix from scratch. And someday, I might. But then I think, “Wait a second, Shauna. When you thought you could eat wheat, did you insist that you make your own flour from scratch?” Nope. And what I’m finding is that these gluten-free mixes, in bulk, are only just a bit more expensive than the fine flours I used to buy before the celiac diagnosis.
Pamela’s baking mix is truly meant for just that. It’s a combination of rice flours and the usual suspects, with the addition of cultured buttermilk and almond meal. This makes for a freckled, slightly brown flour. And the slight sweetness that ground almonds can have. When the call for pancakes came, I listened.
Ah, these were truly spectacular. I just couldn’t flip them off the griddle fast enough. Thick, filled with density, deeply flavorful–I forgot that they were gluten-free in three bites. I just started gobbling them instead of thinking. I ran out of maple syrup and switched to powdered sugar–just as good. I paused only to take photographs, as well.
So there you have it: my favorite gluten-free flours, along with the old standby, the Gluten-free Pantry’s French Bread and Pizza Mix. Isn’t it good to know that there exists such a plethora of choices for us?