The challenge of cooking gluten-free
February 26, 2008
WASHINGTON – Adam Streisfeld says you can call it fate, kismet or serendipity that he and Jen Thompson wound up in the same place at the same time on the only night that either of them has ever set foot in the Washington bar where they met. He calls it extraordinary.
The two had little in common. He was a corporate management consultant who smoked cigarettes, lived in a group house in Virginia and ate everything except cottage cheese and hard-cooked eggs. She was an anti-smoking, nonprofit-working, Harvard-educated vegetarian from Kentucky who lived on Capitol Hill.
Five years later, Streisfeld, 29, and Thompson, 28, live together. He stopped smoking; she eats meat. The time has come for his parents to meet hers, and it’s up to Streisfeld to make that happen over a home-cooked meal in his and Thompson’s English basement apartment here.
This time he’s not relying on kismet.
In his e-mail to us, Streisfeld described himself as a pretty decent cook but admitted that he’s not good at gauging how to prepare multiple dishes and have everything ready at the same time.
And there are some dietary constraints: Streisfeld’s father is allergic to nuts and uncooked alcohol, and none of the parents can handle anything remotely spicy.
Oh, and Thompson learned a few years ago that she has celiac disease, which means she cannot tolerate gluten and has had to expunge wheat, barley, rye and any product that includes even a trace of those grains from her diet for the rest of her life.
For this challenge, we enlisted Janis McLean, 49, the chef of Washington’s romantic Morrison-Clark Inn. McLean is a graduate of and teacher at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Md., and worked with Anne Willan at the renowned La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy, France. McLean’s repertoire of American dishes based on French technique suited Streisfeld’s requests to a T.
“Here’s the concept of the menu,” McLean explained when she showed up for her students’ lesson. “Having your two sets of folks meet is about making people feel comfortable and welcome, and there is nothing better than just doing a perfectly roasted chicken.” With that she cheerfully handed her students a shopping list to use as a guide for their future dinner, then taped a prep list and timeline of the day’s work to the kitchen cabinets at eye level.
The gluten-free menu included tea-smoked trout and spinach salad; lemon-scented roasted chicken garnished with baby turnips, sauteed kale and roasted carrots; a side dish of quinoa pilaf; and citrus-roasted pineapple with mango sorbet and toasted coconut.
“The recipe for the quinoa calls for almonds, but you can leave them out,” McLean said, remembering that one of the guests had nut allergies. Otherwise, the dishes met all of Streisfeld’s requirements, including the celiac constraints.
According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, roughly one in every 133 Americans has the condition, but few know they do; celiac disease is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms vary widely and can resemble those of other disorders, such as colitis or irritable bowel syndrome.
In Thompson’s case, it was exhaustion that led her to consult a doctor during her first semester of grad school in 2004. She had lost 15 pounds in a month, had no energy for the gym and was malnourished, despite eating regularly. When doctors tested for celiac disease, the numbers were off the charts, and gluten became verboten. For someone whose childhood diet had consisted mainly of pasta, cheese and whatever her mother could grind up and sneak in between the two, that news was pretty devastating.
“There was definitely a mourning period,” Thompson said. At first she tried eating substitute foods intended to mimic their glutenous counterparts. But the difference between those and the real thing, especially bread, seemed so stark that she decided to eat foods that are naturally gluten-free.
Streisfeld got on board quickly, determined not to let the disease become an obstacle to happiness. For Thompson’s six-course birthday dinner, he prepared gluten-free acorn squash ravioli by making the pasta out of several kinds of rice and potato flour.
Is that love or what?
“Maybe I was biased because I hadn’t eaten ravioli for so long,” Thompson said, “but they tasted just as I remembered them.”
McLean was not as successful in her efforts. She had tried to make gluten-free shortbread to go with the pineapple dessert. “I have five different versions working at the restaurant,” she said. “I tried it with rice flour, cornmeal, cornstarch. They are all … gluten-free. That’s about all I can say about that.”
Then she focused on her lesson, starting with the dessert and working backward. Within 20 minutes a raspberry coulis was made, coconut was toasted, cider for the salad dressing was reduced and the pineapple was denuded, cut free of eyes and placed in the oven to roast.
“Moving on!” McLean chimed. She showed the couple how to peel the turnips and carrots and prep the kale, constantly reminding them to keep everything clean and do as much as possible ahead of time.
“You trim these turnips the day before, put them in cold water and store them overnight,” she advised. “Makes your life less stressful.”
Before long the turnips were blanched, trout fillets were smoking over tea leaves (be warned: smoke alarms will go off), salad greens were prepped. “Always keep up with your mise en place!” McLean reiterated, referring to the French term for having ingredients measured and ready before starting to cook.
“What is it that you said to me, Adam?” Thompson asked. “There’s no mise in your place?”
“Yes,” he confirmed. “You’re all over the place.” He even tattled that Thompson puts dirty pots and pans in the dishwasher and he has to go back and clean them later.
Thompson rolled her eyes. “That’s what a dishwasher does. It is a magical machine that cleans everything!”
The banter continued. Throughout the day, McLean would start tasks by working in between Streisfeld and Thompson, but somehow the couple kept ending up side by side through the roasting of the chicken, the preparation of the quinoa pilaf and the final platings.
“Serve everything on big platters, family style, rather than restaurant style,” McLean urged. “Because it’s all about interacting, the parents meeting each other, the two families coming together at the table.”
As if. When that dinner takes place, there will be six people in the room, but only two in the whole wide world.
David Hagedorn is a chef and former restaurateur.