Celiac.com 01/25/2009 - It’s a brand new year with a brand new vibe.  I’m excited to be launching a new year of education and advocacy on behalf of the gluten-free community, beginning with an upcoming speaking engagement.  On February 10th, I’ll have the opportunity to speak with and hold a gluten-free cooking demonstration for chefs-in-training at the Western Culinary Institute, in Portland, Oregon.  They may be a challenging audience, as I attempt to encourage them to think “outside the box” of more is better when it comes to exotic ingredients.  The trend of the past decade seemed to be “vertical food”, with a sauce, a base, a main ingredient, another sauce, topped by two or three garnishes.  While dishes resembling food-as-art may tickle the taste-buds, they are a minefield for those with food allergies and sensitivities.

The incidence of food allergies, which were once rare, has increased 18% in recent years and the numbers of people affected continue to grow. [The top eight food allergens are:  dairy (cow’s milk), eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts etc.), wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish – and corn is another top allergen]     Food allergies seldom come individually - chances are that the person allergic to peanuts is also allergic to eggs or dairy, or both.  So, what’s can a foodie with food allergies to do?  Forgo attending family events, parties, and other social engagements, or worse, bring their own food in an attractive Tupper-ware container?   Sadly, these are options that many of the food-allergic have to consider.

Handling a life with food allergies is a challenge for adults, and must be especially difficult for parents of kids with multiple food allergies, who bear the responsibility of safe-guarding their children's health.  It may surprise you to know that four million American children have food allergies - that’s a sizable portion of future consumers for any business to consider.   

Food sensitivities are also a big issue with many adults.  Lactose intolerance and gluten intolerance are problems for many people, and finding safe, healthy and interesting food choices is not easy.

Here’s a story that illustrates how we’ve had to adapt.  Recently we spent a ski weekend in Bend, Oregon.  I baked my own gluten-free bread, and brought along other treats to keep in our hotel room.  I asked the maitre de at our hotel to check with the chef about the preparation of foods in the breakfast buffet, so I would know what, if anything, I could eat.  Mostly I made do with tea, fresh fruit, and my home-made gluten-free challah bread.  Lunch was a no-brainer – there wouldn’t be much that I could safely eat at the ski resort, so I brought along some gluten-free Larabars – (ingredients:  dates, almonds, dried apples, cinnamon) and we planned an early dinner.  Later that evening, in a popular Bend landmark, I was happy to see a few choices I thought I could eat, with a few modifications.  When my entree of seared Ahi tuna arrived, my son commented, “Mom, you must be an expert on that dish by now – I’ve seen you order it in a dozen restaurants!”  He was right.  Plain seared Ahi tuna, coated only in sesame seeds, served on greens, with a rosette of pickled ginger and wasabi, is my restaurant stand-by.  I love Japanese food, but this popular dish is often served at seafood restaurants and sidewalk cafes too.  With a side of green salad, or maybe the vegetable of the day, I’m set.

I do wish there were more offerings to choose from, and it’s a shame that there aren’t.  Very fresh seasonal ingredients, simply prepared, are truly wonderful and full of flavor that doesn’t need to be covered up by crusts, sauces, or heavy spices.  A glance at the top eight is evidence that allergies to fruits, vegetables, or fresh herbs are less common than allergies to high protein foods.  So, why not use them in abundance? 

Here’s another story that illustrates my point.  While in Costa Rica a few years ago, my family had many wonderful meals.  The food was always very fresh, and naturally gluten and dairy free.  I never needed to check with the staff – I only needed to read the menu like anyone else.  But we all agree that the very best meal we had was the night we drove down a rutted dirt road to a shack on the beach, where the sun was just beginning to set.  The place looked deserted, with no lights and no customers.  I asked my husband, “are you sure this is the place?”  He said he’d followed the directions he’d been given.  My mind began to spin some of the scary scenarios I’d seen in movies.   As soon as our car pulled to a stop, we were surrounded by the ubiquitous barking dogs found in every village in Central America.  A screen door slammed shut, and a slightly built man came up to the car.  My husband rolled the window down and said in Spanish that we’d heard that this was a great place to eat. 

The gentleman led us into a gazebo, lit some candles, and seated us at a rickety table.  He did not hand us any menus.  Our host told us that he had caught two kinds of fish that day – swordfish and tuna.  He said we could have them prepared with either ginger or garlic.  He did not describe the method of preparation or what else came with the meal.    Since we were rapidly being devoured by mosquitoes, we chose our options quickly.  A few minutes later we were handed a can of “Deep-Woods OFF” Mosquito repellant, with a smile, and our host/fisherman, and presumably chef, left to prepare our dinner.

In about twenty minutes, he arrived bearing four large platters of steaming hot grilled fish, well-coated with our seasonings of choice and garnished by fresh grilled vegetables and greens, warm home-made corn tortillas, salsa, and rice.  Nothing else.  It was the freshest, most deliciously prepared meal I had ever eaten.  And I think it cost about twelve dollars for the four of us.

So, I’m going to talk with these aspiring chefs about the importance of including simply prepared but still delicious foods on their menus.    I may never tire of seared tuna, but it may not be someone else’s cup of tea.  Reasonable choices should be part of any menu, and can be, with a conscious effort.  At my husband’s Christmas party, I was pleasantly surprised by a buffet I could actually eat.  The menu consisted of three types of small kabobs:  plain grilled vegetables, grilled shrimp still in the shell, and grilled chicken, a huge tray of freshly prepared sushi, with ginger and sauces on the side, and another huge tray of Vietnamese salad rolls in rice paper wrappers.   I asked first about marinades, avoided any dipping sauces, and was just fine.  It was fun to be able to partake of the beautiful buffet, and I went out of my way to personally thank the catering crew. 

Some of the worst food from a nutritional stand-point, and certainly the worst from the perspective of someone with food allergies, has been served in the cafeterias of hospitals where I’ve worked or visited patients.. In these institutions dedicated to promoting health, nearly every entrée is breaded, sauced, cheese-coated, or poached in a pool of milk.  Thanks goodness for the salad bar.  Even the soups are suspect, as they are usually mass-produced, or made from a dry mix containing ingredients that the food-allergic cannot tolerate.  Surely our institutions and hospitals can do better.

Whether these future chefs work in a food service, or an up-and-coming tapas bar, I’m hoping to inspire them to use their creativity in a different way, to offer the freshest, healthiest food possible, and minimize the number of sauces and extraneous ingredients in at least a portion of the dishes they develop.   I’ll also talk about the growing epidemic of gluten-intolerance in this country and the possible impacts it will have on the food industry.  In fact, I think I’ve found the topic for my next article!

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