At first glance it may seem like eating gluten-free foods is a recent diet trend, but my interest eating "g-free" eating started more than 20 years ago, when my niece Emily was diagnosed with celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disorder characterized by a toxic reaction to gluten and is not a food allergy. Gluten is a combination of proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley that gives bread its chewy bounce and elasticity, and cakes their moist, delicate crumb. Without gluten, baked goods turn out dry and dense.
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Early on I thought gluten was limited to flour, but I quickly learned it lurks in many foods we eat every day like soy sauce, seasoning mixes and some fat-free salad dressings. I had to become an avid label reader, a food detective of sorts.
I also started looking for recipes I could make that would be safe for my niece to eat and initially found very few cookbooks and products available. Over the last few years there's been a surge in availability of both, as well as required labeling noting the presence of gluten in packaged foods, a big help for us label readers. Now most large grocery stores carry gluten-free versions of pasta, flour, breads and cake mix.
My most recent g-free expedition led me to Elisabeth Hasselbeck's new cookbook, "Deliciously G-Free." In the book Hasselbeck, diagnosed with celiac disease as an adult, documents her struggle to find gluten-free versions of childhood favorites like her grandmother's baked ziti, spaghetti and meatballs and Egg "Doll" Biscuits. Her story mirrors that of my family, so I started cooking.
The first recipe I made, and one of my favorites based on my love of Italian food, is Mama's Spaghetti and Meatballs. The meatballs were moist and flavorful and easy to make with simple substitutions for the usual gluten laden products, and the sauce was delicious. Hasselbeck doesn't make brand recommendation for the g-free spaghetti, so I used Schar, our favorite brand, and was happy with the outcome. The meal's taste and texture were not unlike other spaghetti and meatballs I've made; a sure sign of success.
I also tried Hasselbeck's Pork Pot Stickers, which includes a recipe for g-free won ton wrappers made with a blend of tapioca starch, potato flour, cornstarch and xanthan gum. Once again the recipe was a success.
My experiment wouldn't be complete with trying something sweet. Her Double Chocolate Brownies looked especially interesting with its inclusion of sweet white rice flour, black bean flour, xanthan gum and plenty of chocolate that resulted in a fudgy, and yes, deliciously g-free, brownie.
As with other gluten-free cookbooks, "Deliciously G-Free" includes recipes for flour blends that are used with other recipes. I find this a bit frustrating as each cookbook has its own blends. Premixing flour blends and having them ready to use may sound like a lot of work, but I'm willing to make the investment due to the success I had with Hasselbeck's recipes and believe I will make them again and again.
I find myself excited to make these new recipes for my niece, especially the pot stickers, as she has never been able to have them before. Cooking for others is a way of showing them you care, and I find this especially true when cooking for Emily.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the Daily Herald's Cook of the Week Challenge in 2011.