Great-tasting options for gluten-free guests
No more bread, pasta, cake, beer and junk food?
No more going out to eat?
A celiac disease diagnosis, marked by a severe, negative reaction to gluten, can feel like a part of your life is ending, said nutritionist Bruce Homstead.
There can be panic, too, Homstead said, about how a person with a limited diet can get by in a society that increasingly has less time for food preparation.
"What I tell my people in the support group is `You're fine, you're going to live through this and eat well and live well — you're just going to ask more questions."
And read more labels, lots and lots of labels.
Besides, Homstead half-joked, "Wine doesn't have gluten in it, same with rum. We can survive."
When Homstead says "we can survive," he means it. The registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist has celiac disease. Based in Springfield, Homstead has been working with Elder Services of Berkshire County and The Nutrition Center, both of Pittsfield.
Homstead wants people to know that they can have fun, delicious lives on a gluten-free diet — but it's going to take some work.
It takes courage on the part of people living a gluten-free life. They have to be constant advocates for their health and always take time to go over with staff how food is prepared outside the house. And it takes dedication among loved ones to find ways to eat, drink and be merry with their gluten-free buddies.
"It takes guts to do that at a [restaurant] table of four or six people and have to ask, `Is this gluten-free?' and have to ask all the questions, but this is your health," he said. "The thing I suggest to people is call in advance and see if it's possible for [you] to eat gluten-free."
However, Homstead's most important piece of advice to people with celiac has nothing directly to do with food: Don't isolate yourself.
"Let's understand that not only is [eating] necessary, I'd go so far as to say it's one of life's essential delights and we should enjoy it and it shouldn't be a chore. It should be fun and enjoyable and something you look forward to."
Zucco's in Pittsfield gets a good number of people each day calling about the restaurant's gluten-free options. Over the past four years, the staff has been trained in how to prepare and serve gluten-free fare by Chef Richard Zucco. The Italian restaurant started providing a few gluten-free options several years ago when Zucco's sister was diagnosed with celiac disease. Those entrees became some of the restaurant's most popular dishes.
"People seemed to be dealing with it a lot so I thought how about we make a gluten-free soup, then a dessert, then an entree or two. Then it was let's at least have one gluten-free beer on tap," said Elizabeth Zucco, who co-owns the restaurant with her chef husband. "At one point, I just had to make a separate menu."
The restaurant now has a full-page gluten-free menu featuring appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts. Many of the dishes are the same as what's being served on the regular menu, but with a tweak. For example, the gluten-free red mussels are the exact same item as the regular menu mussels, but cooked with designated gluten-free pans, pots and utensils and served over a bed of gluten-free pasta.
"It started taking off a little more than I expected a year ago," Elizabeth Zucco said. "Now a lot of people come in for the gluten-free meals."
Making a meal for someone who eats gluten-free is a challenge for most home cooks due to inexperience, Elizabeth Zucco said.
"I think a lot of people and restaurants could do what we do, but it takes time," she said.
Gluten is tucked into prepared foods you might think are safe, such as salsa, dry roasted nuts, chocolate, sausage and soy sauce.
Preparing a gluten-free meal for someone who prefers a gluten-less diet can be as simple as serving potatoes instead of pasta, but if the person is avoiding gluten due to having celiac disease, more care needs to be taken. If possible, don't use plastic or wood items in the kitchen as these can scratch and harbor gluten.
"The host and hostess is going to be strung out over this issue because they're not practiced and they've got doubt about it," Homstead said.
"What happens is the person with celiac or gluten intolerance will be uninvited to all these functions. [...] People are afraid to have me over for dinner because they don't think they can cook like I do, but I need to eat. I need to socialize. I'll just eat around whatever you're making."
In a kitchen that usually indulges in cakes, breads, pastas and snacks, a gluten-free meal starts with a question for the chef: Do you want to make everything from scratch or use some pre-made items? And a question for the guest: Because there are many ways to eat gluten-free, it is important for the host to ask the guest about her or his dietary needs.
If the decision is to go the pre-made route and purchase gluten-free packaged food from the store, know that it needs to be heated up and served on dishes, pots, pans, utensils and cutlery that have been washed with a clean towel. In the oven or microwave do not heat up gluten-free dishes alongside gluten-filled dishes to avoid cross contamination if possible.
If you decide to cook something gluten-free you have many options, but you do need to start with a thorough cleaning of all the surfaces, cookware, utensils and service items to be used.
Gluten-free foods include fruits, vegetables, rice, potatoes, beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, unprocessed meat and fish and most dairy products. Labels must be read on all food. Everything must be checked, even small ingredients such as cooking oil, herbs, spices and extracts.
Prepare the meal with the cleaned items and serve on clean plates.
And if all else fails, Homstead advises gluten-free dieters bring a dish to each dinner party.
"You'll know you'll have something to eat," he said, "and you can share."
Pan Pizza Crust
(Recipe courtesy of Celiac Disease Foundation. Note: Look for the baking and pancake mix in the gluten-free section of your grocery store. Let your gluten-free guests decide on the toppings!)
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