Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Food For Thought: Rethinking Wheat

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I’ve been meaning to share this recent food-related development, but I’ve also been waiting for the right time…so here it goes: Since right after the holidays, our household has been experimenting with eating gluten-free. I know, I know. In a million years I never thought I would even consider a gluten-free diet. For better or worse, I tend to frown (mock) any and all dietary fads or restrictions. Yes, I know some are legit. I have a girlfriend named Megan who has a pretty severe dairy-issue and literally passes out if she has too much; which is a shame because she didn’t develop this intolerance until she was in her twenties, which meant she had years to develop a love affair with cheese before it was taken away from her. Years ago, when we were roommates in NYC (this was before marriage and children and text messaging), I didn’t initially take her issue too seriously— perhaps I had seen her get blotchy once after she ate a piece of cheddar, but I thought that was the extent of the problem. Then one day I brought home a flourless chocolate cake that I’d made in cooking class, which I failed to mention contained about a pound of butter. Megan ate most of the cake and then got woozy, went into her room (a mattress behind a curtain in our living room), and took a nap that lasted like 24 hours. I got the message after that incident, but still, part of me always thought that many of the other people proclaiming themselves gluten or dairy free, or embracing Paleo, Atkins, eat-for-your-blood type, etc., were probably not truly allergic or at-risk, they were just looking for a new way to make eating and food more complicated. But then recently, I started to pay attention to some issues Belle was having—tummy aches, foggy brain, headaches—and a light bulb went off. I did research, I stepped back and took a forest-for-the-trees look at her diet, talked to people, read this great blog, and realized that perhaps Belle’s situation could in fact be gluten related. Many of her symptoms matched up with gluten-intolerance, and when I took a micro-look at her diet—lots of good stuff, obviously, and no processed foods ever, but also lots of pasta, potato rolls, pancakes, pizza, etc.—I realized that she was getting a gluten-overload. This is what a typical day looked like:

Morning→multi-grain waffle with jam and almond butter

Lunch→apple, piece of cheese, turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread

In-School Snack→Clif Bar

After-School Snack→a slice of homemade pumpkin bread or grapes with cheese and crackers

Second Snack While I’m Not Watching→another slice of pumpkin bread

Dinner→Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce and a side of roasted Broccoli

Dessert→Finish off the pumpkin bread.

So as you can see, it was a gluten orgy. Initially, when I was trying to link her diet to her tummy issues, I thought, “well, it can’t be what she’s eating because there’s fruit, and vegetables, and whole grains, and everything is from scratch!”. But then after some reading, I realized that maybe it didn’t matter how much good stuff she was eating, if it was getting cancelled out by her digestive system struggling to process all of that wheat.

I emphasize here that my understanding of all of this is still evolving. I’m open and learning and I honestly don’t think that wheat is some kind of villain; if anything, I feel like it’s the kind of mass-industrialized variety of wheat that we are now ingesting. But I can say that, once I started swapping the wheat for gluten-free flour, pasta, and breads, I almost immediately saw a difference. Belle’s stomach aches and headaches are gone. And because I don’t want her to feel like she’s being singled-out, all of us in the family are going along. Although I’m not completely militant about swapping every gluten product for a gluten-free one (I want this to be a gentle transition and let’s face it, I am never giving THIS up), it hasn’t been that difficult to make the switch. There are great gluten-free flours for making breads, pizza doughs and pancakes (three of our favorite things), and a blogosphere full of recipes. What I thought would be the biggest torture to relinquish— real durum wheat pasta—has been a happy surprise. I’m now obsessed with this brown rice pasta that is nothing like the gummy whole wheat pastas that I tried in the past (THIS is the variety I like the best so far, and this is not a product-endorsement). As my buddy Leslie said, our timing could not have been better—this is a great time to be gluten-free because the market has stepped up to create quality (edible) ingredients.

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One of my fave gluten free dishes at the moment is sauteed kale with lemon zest and red chili flakes tossed with this brown rice pasta. I make it for dinner and have the leftovers for lunch because I think this variety of pasta actually reheats better than regular pasta (although the tip on the packaging to rinse the pasta immediately after cooking and draining it is a good one, the pasta holds its texture better this way). For this dish I basically do the following:

GLUTEN-FREE PASTA WITH SAUTEED KALE

Cook your gluten-free pasta of choice per the package’s directions, reserving some of the cooking water before draining and then rinsing with cold water. Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, saute a couple of cloves of garlic, finely chopped, with a pinch of red pepper flakes in olive oil until fragrant (include an anchovy as well, if you’d like, just smash it with a wooden spoon as your combining it with the oil and garlic so it can melt into the sauce). To the skillet add a few big handfuls of kale (or a green of your choice—chard, spinach, collards—leave a bit of the water on the leaves after you rinse them). Continue to saute until the greens are just wilted (do not let the kale cook for too long because it will get tough). Add the zest of a lemon and a squeeze of the juice and then add your cooked pasta in the skillet, along with a nice glug of olive oil and some of the pasta cooking water. Toss a few times, grate some pecorino on top, toss some more, taste for salt, pepper and more lemon juice, then serve.

Gluten-free? Not so bad.

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