by Bonnie Halper
A friend stopped by for dinner a week or two after having returned from an extended stay in Italy. I decided to serve pasta.
“Oh, sweetie, this looks great, but I just found out that I’m gluten intolerant,” she informed me.
Huh? How did this woman manage to live in Italy for six months and avoid pasta?
She didn’t. In fact, she had been enjoying it almost daily: the breads and pastas in Italy didn’t seem to affect her, which was not the case when she attempted to replicate that lifestyle upon returning to the States, for some strange reason.
Actually, the reasons aren’t that strange at all.
Ask most people what gluten is, which Jimmy Kimmel once famously did, and they’ll often answer, “a chemical that’s added to flour.” Which it isn’t, as you no doubt know. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, ‘Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat (wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and einkorn), rye, barley and triticale – a cross between wheat and rye.”
While people with Celiac Disease, a genetically-inherited autoimmune disorder that can be confirmed through genetic testing, must avoid gluten in all of its many form – bread, pizza, cakes, and even certain sauces, such as soy sauce, where wheat is sometimes, but not always, added – gluten-free products have hit the market and have become big sellers in the last few years, and the number of people who feel that they’ve developed a ‘gluten intolerance’ has skyrocketed, whether they’re self-diagnosed or it has been suggested to them by a doctor, nutritionist, dietician or a friend. Or they simply avoid it because it sounds like something that's bad for them and should be avoided at all costs.
With all due respect to the medical community, doctors study nutrition for three weeks in medical school, and we don’t know how many of them do the grocery shopping and read the ingredients list on the products they buy – or recommend to their patients - or the nutrition labels.
Celiac disease aside, why this matters is that in the majority of commercially available gluten-free baked goods, wheat flour is often replaced with a combination of rice flour and potato starch, or some other carbohydrate-laden gluten-free alternative. The question is: would you sit down to a bowl of rice, potatoes and sugar, in the case of gluten-free cakes, or rice and potatoes, in the case of breads and pizza dough, for example? By eliminating the wheat, you’ve greatly increased your intake of carbohydrates which, over time, is potentially a Type 2 diabetes epidemic waiting to happen.
The reason why my friend could enjoy the breads and pastas of Italy but had a strong physical reaction to those products Stateside is that, unlike unbleached flour, the wheat in all-purpose white flour and enriched flour not only loses most of their nutritional content as a result of the bleaching process, essentially reducing it to a form of sugar: they also contain additives that have been banned in many countries around the world as they are known carcinogens, or have been known to lead to other health problems. As an added bonus, the chemicals used to bleach or ‘enriched’ flour do not need to be included in the ingredients list on the package, perhaps due to the fact that they are part of the bleaching process, rather than added to the flour during the packaging. This can include:
Azodicarbonamide, an industrial chemical that has been used for decades as a flour bleaching agent and dough conditioner. It’s also found in yoga mats, synthetic leather, shoe rubber and plastics, in case you’re interested. In the United States, azodicarbonamide has generally recognized as safe status and is allowed to be added to flour, but has been outlawed in Australia, the UK and most of Europe, as it has been known to cause asthma.
Azodicarbonamide also increases the irritability of gluten: when bread dough is treated with azodicarbonamide, it can break down the gluten and make glutenin and gliadin more immediately available, rather than allowing the body to naturally go through its digestive process: for every action, there is a reaction, which may be one reason why wheat products are affecting you negatively.
Another common additive in all-purpose flour is potassium bromate, a powerful oxidizing agent that chemically speeds up flour’s aging process and improves the dough’s elasticity, and who doesn’t want to buy perfect bread or bake a perfect cake?
For the record, while the National Institute of Health issued a report on the Toxicity and carcinogenicity of potassium bromate--a new renal carcinogen, the FDA has merely advised, rather than required or mandated “moderate use only and proper labeling of this substance,” which has been linked to cancer in laboratory animals and long banned in the UK, Canada, China and most of Europe. In their book, Rich Food Poor Food: The Ultimate Grocery Purchasing System (GPS), nutritionist Mira Calton and her husband, Jayson Calton, Ph.D., put together a list of the top 13 chemical additives that are being used in the US food industry, which have been banned by foreign governments, including potassium bromate, which has been associated with kidney and nervous system disorders, as well as gastrointestinal discomfort, and which is another possible reason why you’re ‘gluten intolerant.’
For the record, my newly-returned guest was able to enjoy the pasta dinner I had prepared. My husband is a Type 2 diabetic who happens to love pasta, but before we had gotten his glucose levels under control, dry, store bought pasta was literally off the table, as it would make his blood sugar levels spike. So I experimented, using his glucose monitor, taking before and after readings, to measure the effects, making home-made pasta first with all-purpose flour, which caused his blood sugar to spike, then, using the same recipe, made it with unbleached flour, whose resulting pasta did not cause any significant change in his blood sugar level, or his glucose monitor. I can’t say for sure precisely what was in the all-purpose flour that effected that change, but I can tell that using unbleached flour, which I also use to make him bread, pizza dough and pretzels, made a significant difference.
Far be it from me to demonize a gluten-free lifestyle, especially in the case of Celiac sufferers: merely pointing out possible reasons for your gluten-intolerance and in the case of Celiac Disease, sounding the alarm about the effects of an over-saturation of rice flour and potato starch, or other high-carbohydrate wheat substitutes, in your gluten-free diet, as a result of those ingredients being the primary go-to in many of the commercially-available gluten-free baked goods currently on the market. And note to self and caveat emptor: while living with Celiac Disease might be something of an inconvenience, Type 2 Diabetes, which does take time to develop, is a killer.
GLUTEN FREE TABOOLI SALAD
Tabooli salad (no matter how you spell it) is traditionally made with bulgar wheat. Here are two alternatives to the classic, made with gluten-free alternatives. The differences? Kasha will produce a more earthy final product, while Quinoa will produce a milder result, and one with a very different texture than the traditional bulgar-based classic.
2 cups boiling water
1 cup kasha (or quinoa)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 tomatoes, diced
2 cucumbers that are peeled, seeded and chopped
5 green scallions, chopped, or one small red onion, diced
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
½ cup broad leaf parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil, or to taste
In a small pot, combine the boiling water, kasha (or quinoa*), garlic and salt. Cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 12 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork and let the grain cool or spread out in a large bowl to speed the cooling processes.
Combine the tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, olive oil, lemon juice, parsley and sesame oil and mix with the cooled grain.
Wrap in lettuce leaves, or enjoy it as a side dish.
*I’ve found that cooking quinoa can be tricky, so I put it in a pot, along with the water, and let it sit for 15 minutes before cooking it. Add additional water, if necessary.
CECINA (GF TUSCAN FLATBREAD)*
Ceci is the Italian name for what we call garbanzo beans or chick peas. Rumor has it that the bread was accidentally invented off the Tuscan coast, when a ship carrying ceci flour was caught in a storm, soaking the bags of flour. Not wanting to let it go to waste, some olive oil was added (it was Italy, after all), the concoction was baked, and the rest is culinary history…with maybe just a bit of lore and legend thrown in.
Makes about 35 two-inch squares
2 1/2 cups garbanzo bean flour**
3 1/2 cups cold water
1 generous teaspoon kosher salt, and grinds of black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
Optional flavorings: a generous teaspoon of dried herbs (triple the amount for fresh) — I used an “Italian Seasoning” blend;
Optional topping: 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Special Equipment – a baking sheet, approximately 17"-12" or a large pizza pan
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, water, salt and pepper. (Don’t worry about lumps — these will dissolve during the resting period.) Cover with plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature for 3 hours, or overnight in the fridge.
Set the oven rack at the lower-third position; preheat oven to 350°F.
Pour the olive oil on the baking sheet, and spread it about with a pastry brush.
Give the batter a quick stir; stir in the optional herbs.
Pour the batter onto the baking sheet, and bake until set and barely golden — about 30 minutes.
Serve as is, or top with the optional Parmesan cheese. Place under the broiler until the cheese melts — 3-5 minutes (watch carefully to avoid burning).
To serve, cut the bread into 2-inch squares. If desired, cut the squares into triangles.
*Cecina can also be used as a stand-in gluten-free focaccia, adding your favorite toppings, after baking, and placing them into a 350 degree oven for 3-5 minutes, depending on the toppings
**To make your own garbanzo bean flour, grind garbanzo beans in the blender or spice grinder, ¼ cup at a time, until smooth. Strain the flour, using a metal strainer, to remove larger bits, which you can then regrind.
BASIC BREAD/PIZZA DOUGH
Makes one loaf of bread, or one pizza crust
3 1/2 cups unbleached flour
2 1/2 teaspoons or 1 envelope active dry yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 ¼- 1 ½ cups hot water, 120°–130°F)
Add all the dry ingredients to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until mixed, about 5 seconds. With processor running, slowly add a cup of water; process until dough comes together and rides up over the blade, about 30 seconds. Continue processing, adding more water, if necessary until dough becomes soft and smooth, not wet and sticky or overly dry, or with a rough surface - about a minute or so more.
Transfer dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl, oiling the top of the dough as well, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let it rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. NOTE: I place my dough in the oven, with the light on.
Punch dough down.
If you’re making pizza, the dough is now ready. To make bread continue as follows:
Turn onto a lightly floured surface. Shape into a loaf and place in a greased 9x5-in. loaf pan. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 30-45 minutes.
Preheat over to 375°F.
Bake at 375° for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown and bread sounds hollow when tapped. Remove from pan to wire rack to cool.
NOTE: If making Italian bread, since we have a theme here, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the food processor when initially adding the water. Once the dough has risen, shape into a 12-inch loaf, and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Cut 3 (1/4-inch deep) slits across top of dough with a sharp paring knife to release interior steam and prevent the loaf from splitting at the sides. Bake in a 400°F oven for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on wire rack.