Eighteen years ago, before gluten was the buzz word it is now, Marla Koentop, of Batavia, felt awful and didn't know why.
"A team of physicians couldn't figure out why I felt so terrible. Then one of them suggested I go on a special diet." Marla didn't want to eliminate gluten from her diet, but she was desperate to try anything in order to feel better.
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"I cried for two days. I had two little girls at home and the only alternative flour I could find was at the health store and it was really expensive! But, when you have to, you roll up your sleeves and get busy!"
Within 8 weeks, Marla had lost 40 pounds and finally discovered what it was like to feel good.
"I completely revamped my diet," Marla said. In the 18 years since her gluten-intolerant diagnosis, Marla has developed a full repertoire of gluten-free recipes to rival any "regular" recipes. Witness the Portillo's chocolate cake left standing at the end of a recent event; Marla's gluten-free cake had been quickly devoured.
Luckily, when Marla was diagnosed she was no stranger to the kitchen. As one of seven children growing up in rural Ohio, Marla was used to lending a hand in the kitchen and garden.
"When you grow your own food you learn so many things." Marla prefers organic fruits and vegetables and washes all her produce carefully.
"I love to make colorful meals -- red, green, blue, yellow and purple."
Fruits and vegetables are one thing, but cooking with no gluten is tricky, especially when baking.
Many of those hours in her mother's kitchen were spent baking and she still loves to bake, even with her restrictions.
"It's not just a matter of leaving out the flour," explains Marla. "The most important thing is to replace the gluten -- a mixture of proteins that react to sugar. When you're converting a recipe, you have to watch the fluids." Marla uses rice flour or tapioca starch, but she also uses other products like xanthan gum to help with the stickiness for baking.
Marla has reworked several favorite recipes, such as the chicken potpie she shares with us today.
She assures us that the gluten-intolerant population has it much easier than when she was first diagnosed. Most major restaurant chains offer a variety of gluten-free options and grocery stores have shelves dedicated to gluten-free products.
"There are some awesome cookbooks out now. They are really changing and are very user-friendly. Just put your thinking cap on and try something. If it flops, it's OK -- just do it again."
Marla offers some advice for coping with being gluten-free in our society.
"Where ever I go, I call ahead." Once, at a dinner held in a banquet hall, Marla called about her special diet needs and later, when dessert was served, Marla's dessert was the envy of everyone there.
"I was served a gorgeous parfait with fresh fruit served in a tall glass. My dessert was so healthful compared to everyone else's!"
A careful examination of food products is important as well.
"I read every label. Labels are much more informative now. You have to be so careful," Marla says that Trader Joes does a nice job with labeling.
Another tip is to have cards made up with your diet needs, or allergies, and have your server take the card back to the kitchen.
And never make assumptions. While most corn products are gluten-free -- which would lead you to believe that tortilla chips served in a Mexican restaurant would be safe -- not always! Marla discovered the hard way that some tortilla chips are made with wheat flour as well!
"It pays to double check. Some people ask me, 'can't you just take a pill?' It doesn't work that way, but you don't have to starve!"
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