Eighteen years ago, I met my future mother-in-law in a Grand Rapids, Mich., hospital room shortly after she had received a diagnosis of celiac sprue, then a little-known autoimmune condition. No one seemed to have heard of celiac, or gluten intolerance, or even gluten, and each time she visited a restaurant, she had to carry a card explaining what she couldn't eat. Even so, she never knew when she would find herself in serious trouble thanks to an undisclosed ingredient.
How things have changed since then for the gluten-sensitive. Gluten-free products fill the supermarket aisles. Mainstream restaurants offer reliably gluten-free options. Gluten-free bakeries and gluten-free cookbooks pop up with frequency. And gluten-free bloggers have risen to national prominence.
Perhaps the best known of those is Shauna James Ahern, a.k.a. Gluten-Free Girl, whose accessible blog, flavor-forward recipes, and three cookbooks (written with her husband, chef Danny Ahern) have firmly established her as an authority for those eating their way through the gluten-free life. In their newest, Gluten-Free Girl: American Classics Reinvented (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt), the Aherns look at favorites - the thickened, the battered, the crusty - that typically are off-limits to gluten-avoiders.
London's Susanna Booth writes the "Free From" column for the Guardian, focusing on special diets. Gloriously Gluten-Free: Fresh and Simple Gluten-Free Recipes for Healthy Eating Every Day (Hamlyn) is her first foray into cookbooks. Would it give its transatlantic counterparts a run for their money? Would it survive the conversion from metric?
In testing, neither book was glitch-free. All sorts of issues can cause any home baker to stumble, such as varying measuring techniques and humidity levels in the kitchen. I wondered whether those might be exacerbated further with the use of gluten-free blends, in which three or four types of wheat-free flours might be pressed into service. A few of the recipes in these two cookbooks were solid hits. As for the rest, I suppose there is a certain comfort in knowing that none of them will send your gluten-free loved ones racing to the hospital.
The Aherns have different ways of thickening creamy soups. Their New England clam chowder, constructed on a fairly typical yet dairy-free flavor base, calls for the Aherns' gluten-free flour mix. Bacon is rendered to kick-start the whole process, then is removed. (The recipe doesn't say anything about what should happen to the bacon afterward, but I added it back in, anyway.)
Tamari is a godsend for those who need to eat gluten-free; it provides all the umami and salt of soy without the wheat. A mirin (a rice-wine condiment), tamari, and pineapple marinade provides a fast infusion of flavor for grilled "teriyaki" chicken, giving good results in even just an hour's soaking time.
A quick-broiled salmon relies on a similar tamari-based marinade. There's no indication of how thick the fillet should be or how far from the broiler it should sit (which has an impact on the cooking time), but it's an effective weeknight preparation.
Every gluten-free book has a substitute for all-purpose flour, and the Aherns' is no exception. Theirs is a blend of millet flour, sweet rice flour, and potato starch (though Shauna provides alternatives, and a formula).
I tried it in a recipe for rosemary-thyme crackers that involved about as much fuss as any wheat-based bread recipe I've ever made: a sponge, kneading, several hours of rising time, plus rolling between layers of parchment paper. The dough wanted to crumble rather than "slump" off the mixer paddle; the crackers were a bit thick and pliable, not brittle and thin. I found myself wondering how long I would have had to go without wheaten crackers to find these GF versions attractive. Crisped up in a toaster and paired with some brie, they were palatable.
Hazelnut banana bread, by contrast, rocked the house. It called for the Aherns' grain-free flour mix (buckwheat, almond, flaxseed), and though the rise was ominously low, the loaf was tender, moist, and just cohesive enough.
Soaked dried dates and shredded coconut made for a surprisingly effective crust in the Key lime pie. The mixture didn't "form a large ball" around the blade of the food processor, but the clumpy masses pressed into the pan cooperatively enough. Egg yolks and condensed milk made for an easy weeknight lime curd, mild and fragrant from Key limes.
Tapioca flour, olive oil, and grated Parmesan are the secrets behind Booth's garlicky, light, and brittle flatbread in Gloriously Gluten-Free. It didn't get "puffed up and browned" exactly, even after five extra minutes in the oven, but the crisp texture was reminiscent of pita chips.
What's not to love about shrimp tempura you can make easily at home? Don't be fooled: It's not the pale, crunchy, batter-draped behemoth you get at your local sushi joint. But the gluey rice-flour batter, flavored with chives and ginger, does transform into a gilded uniform coat over precooked shrimp. Ten ounces among four people will disappear in an instant.
The prime directive of stir-frying - don't crowd the pan - is ignored completely in a sweet-and-sour-pork dish. A pan full of vegetables and pineapple with a ketchup-vinegar "sauce" brings back memories of an age when chop suey ruled the menus of Chinese restaurants. Will it be entering my weekly repertoire? Not likely.
A coconut-and-lime chicken curry has a slightly more refined appeal: It's fast work on a weekday. Without ginger or shallots or lemongrass, it was really just a quick sketch of more authentic curries you have known and loved.
Booth's biggest hit was a coffee-and-walnut cake, with a liquid batter that made a puzzler of the directive to "smooth the top" in the pan. It was a very low cake, barely filling half of the pan when finished, but a coffee buttercream filling and coffee icing made it moist and memorable. (There's not enough water to dissolve the confectioners' sugar for the icing, though, so you'll have to use your judgment there.)
Shrimp in Spicy Tempura
Makes 4 servings
Sunflower oil, for shallow-frying
10 ounces cooked, peeled medium shrimp (defrosted if frozen), rinsed and drained
1/3 cup brown rice flour
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons finely chopped chives
1 teaspoon ground ginger
4 teaspoons chili oil
2 large egg whites
1. Pour the sunflower oil into a wok or large saucepan to a depth of about 1/2 inch. Heat to 340 degrees over medium-high heat. Line a large plate with paper towels.
2. Meanwhile, pat the shrimp dry with paper towels.
3. Stir together the brown rice flour, water, chives, ginger, chili oil, and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk the egg whites in a separate mixing bowl (that is totally grease-free) until frothy, stopping before they get to the soft-peak stage. Whisk in the rice flour mixture just until no dry spots remain. Stir the shrimp into the batter.
4. Test the oil by dropping in a bit of batter, which should sizzle. Use tongs or chopsticks to gently lower about 8 shrimp into the hot oil; fry on one side for about 1 minute, until golden, then turn them over and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until golden brown all over. (The shrimp should bubble gently with a constant sound of gentle sizzling and without violent spitting.)
5. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the shrimp to the paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Repeat with the remaining shrimp. Discard any remaining batter. Serve right away.
- Adapted from Gloriously Gluten Free: Fresh & Simple Gluten-Free Recipes for Healthy Eating Every Day, (Hamlyn Books, 2015)
Per serving: 203 calories; 19 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; no sugar; 9 grams fat; 149 milligrams cholesterol; 249 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.
Hazelnut Banana Bread
Makes 8 servings
For the grain-free flour mix:
21/2 cups raw buckwheat flour
Generous 2 cups almond flour
93/4 tablespoons finely ground flaxseed meal
11/4 cups potato starch
11/2 cups arrowroot flour
For the Banana Bread:
Vegetable oil, coconut oil, or butter for greasing the pan
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
1/2 cup maple syrup
About 1/3 cup coconut oil, liquefied
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 ripe bananas, mashed
About 1 cup chopped, skinned hazelnuts
1. For the grain-free flour mix: Combine the buckwheat flour, almond flour, flaxseed meal, potato starch and arrowroot flour in the bowl of a food processor or stand mixer. Whirl them together until the mixture is uniform in color. The yield is 2.2 pounds. Reserve 13/4 cups for this recipe; store the rest in a large jar or container at room temperature for up to 3 months.
2. For the banana bread: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with a little oil or butter.
3. Whisk together the reserved grain-free flour mix, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a mixing bowl.
4. Stir together the eggs, maple syrup, coconut oil, and vanilla extract in a separate bowl. Add the mashed bananas, whisking until everything is combined well.
5. Add the dry ingredients a bit at a time, stirring as you go, to the egg mixture. Once all the flour has disappeared into the batter and you can't find any more hiding at the bottom of the bowl, stir in the hazelnuts. Pour the batter into the loaf pan; bake until the banana bread is springy to the touch, the edges are pulling away from the pan, and the top is browned, 45 to 60 minutes.
6. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then run a round-edged knife around the edges to dislodge and release the banana bread. Transfer it to a wire rack to cool completely, inverted, so the bottom of the loaf doesn't collect too much moisture.
- Adapted from Gluten-Free Girl: American Classics Reinvented (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)
Per serving: 410 calories, 7 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrates, 21 grams sugar, 24 grams fat, 45 milligrams cholesterol, 250 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.