Thursday, February 23, 2012

Is Gluten Free Healthier for Everyone??

Yesterday I appeared on Paula Sands Live! and she asked me point blank should someone who doesn't have a gluten sensitivity or Celiac Disease eat a gluten free diet. The short answer I gave her is no. The long answer requires a little more discussion. While eating a completely gluten free menu isn't going to harm you, if you don't need to eat gluten free, you shouldn't go out of your way to do so. The bottom line is that in recent years Gluten Free has become somewhat of a fad diet and many people are jumping on the band wagon without proper diagnosis, without a gluten sensitivity or intolerance and without considering the long term health benefits/detriments.

1 in approximately 133 individuals is affected with Celiac Disease. Celiac disease is defined as someone who cannot tolerate gluten. The gluten attacks the villi in their small intestine, which are the small hairlike protrusions that actually help to absorb nutrients, causing them to shrivel up and thus instigating a host of medical ailments ranging from gastro-intestinal problems to iron deficiencies to skin rashes to migraines. These individuals when taken off of a diet including gluten can regrow the villi and resume a normal life sans symptoms.

Wheat allergies, intolerances and sensitivities are not necessarily related to Celiac disease but are legitimate allergies nonetheless which also require an individual to remain on a gluten free diet. Symptoms again can range from mild skin irritations and stomach discomfort to full anaphylaxis. The bottom line is, the need to live gluten free exists. BUT, that being said, many believe that eating gluten free is somehow healthier for you. They equate gluten free with low fat, low carb, low glycemic or low sugar. This is often not the case. Many of the carbohydrates that are often included in a gluten free diet, i.e. rice, potatoes and corn, can often be higher in starches and sugars than flour and may in fact cause weight gain, not loss.

There is also a significant problem with many gluten free products that are being marketed to consumers. Gluten free is big business and many manufacturers see it as an opportunity to make money. While these products may be gluten free, they are not made with your overall health and wellness in mind. If you actively read labels you'll notice that often pre-packaged gluten free foods and snacks are actually quite high in fat, sugar, sodium and carbohydrates as well as a host of other ingredients that are included to create a certain mouth feel or texture people associate with like products with gluten in them. You might not get sick, but you may in fact create a myriad of other problems by eating these products like hypertension, diabetes and obesity.

I think the rule of thumb is that you should not self diagnose. You should consult a medical practitioner to determine if you have a legitimate allergy or Celiac disease before restricting anything from your diet. A simple blood test is needed to identify if you have a preponderance toward Celiac Disease, after which an endoscopy or biopsy may be performed to confirm the disease. One quick note: if you have already begun eating gluten free, you may test with a false negative even if you have it. You must be consuming gluten for the test to be accurate. As far as a wheat/gluten allergy, intolerance or sensitivity, there are various skin prick tests that can be performed to confirm such an allergy, but often a doctor will recommend you do an elimination diet to test your sensitivity to wheat or gluten.

Eating gluten free is not a diet plan. Case in point. Last year I attended a fairly well known Gluten Free Expo where a registered dietition was appearing as an expert in eating gluten free. The dietition was well over what I consider to be a healthy weight and if indeed she was practicing what she preaches, she was the poster child for the fact that consuming gluten free foods without need or without consideration of overall health and wellness will not make you lose weight. If you think you are doing something good for you by eating an entire bag of gluten free pretzels over the non gluten free ones because you think they won't make you gain weight, think again. Ultimately you have to read labels, know your body and know that there is no miracle short cut to losing weight, especially not a gluten free one. I always say, moderation is key, exercise is a must and knowledge about what you are putting into your body is necessary. Disappointing I know, but if it sounds too good to be true, it is, especially when it comes to losing weight.

Chef Monika is the author of "Let's Party: Gluten Free Entertaining for Everyone"

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Messing with Mushrooms

Portabello mushrooms are one of my favorite vegetables. They can be stuffed, grilled, roasted, sauteed, you name it. They are incredibly versatile. I happen to love them in practically anything but they are particularly great as a meat substitute because of their uniquely robust umami flavor. Unfortunately I find that many people say they hate mushrooms. My theory on this is that they have never had them prepared properly. The biggest complaint tends to be texture and when they are treated with care, this mushy quality can easily be avoided.

First, take the mushroom and remove the stem. This is where most of the dirt resides and they are hard and woody anyway. If you happen to be making soup, clean them well with a damp cloth and you can use them in the stock for the soup. Otherwise, I simply discard them.

Next, peel the mushroom. As you can see there is a flap on the inside of the mushroom cap after the stem is removed that you can easily grab onto and pull the skin away. This step provides a double whammy. One, it removes the outer layer where there may be dirt and residue. Two, it helps to eliminate one layer of mush and leaves the mostly meaty layer of just the flesh of the mushroom. If you are still concerned about any remaining dirt, you can wipe the mushroom with a slightly damp cloth but DO NOT submerge the mushroom in water. Mushrooms become water logged very easily and then you really have mushy mushrooms. Note: This procedure applies to any mushroom. I always peel them.

Third step, scoop out the gills of the mushroom. This is mostly unique to portabellos and some larger mushrooms that have very pronounced gills. To me they have a distinct dirty taste and I just prefer them to be removed. I use a teaspoon and gently scoop away until most of the gills are gone and you have a clean surface to work with. I find this step particularly important when you are stuffing the mushrooms. The gills muddle the flavor of the stuffing you use and again, make the final product rather mushy.

That's it! You now have a clean, great textured mushroom to work with. From this point, grill, roast, saute, stuff, soup or whatever you'd like away! What I did with it this weekend was to grill it for a Vegetable Napoleon with Garlic Aioli, Capicola Crisp and Parmesan Tuile. Here's the Recipe:

While a Napoleon is historically a pastry filled with custard, I developed this recipe as a play on words. The grilled vegetables act as the pastry layers and the aioli as the custard. It is a wonderful salad course that you can use as an alternative to a caprese salad in the fall or winter when tomatoes aren’t exactly ripe. It also has spectacular stage presence. Just a lovely presentation that always impresses guests.  
Yields: 4 Servings

4 Portabella Mushrooms, stems removed, peeled and gills cleaned out
1 Large Red Bell Pepper, Seeds Removed and Cut Into 4 Slices
1 Small Red Onion, Cut into 4-1/4” thick slices
1 Small Eggplant, Cut into 4-1/2” thick slices
3 tbl extra virgin olive oil, for grilling
4 Slices Capicola or Sopressata
1 Head Garlic
1 Tbl extra virgin Olive Oil
½ cup Hellmann’s Mayonnaise
2 Tbl Whole Milk
Pinch Salt and Pepper
½ cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 cup shredded parmesan cheese

For the balsamic reduction: Place balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered until the vinegar has reduced by 2/3. Cool.  

For the Capicola or Sopressata Crisps: Place on a baking sheet and bake in a 350 degree oven approx. 10 mins or until crispy like bacon. Cool.
For the Parmesan Tuiles: Divide parmesan into 4 equal piles on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Place in a 350 degree oven for approx. 10-15 mins or until the parmesan has melted and become crispy. Cool. 

For the Roasted Garlic Aioli: Remove any of the outside paper of the garlic as possible. Place on a sheet of aluminum foil and drizzle liberally with olive oil. Seal foil tightly and place on a baking sheet. Bake in a 350 degree oven for approx. 1 hr. Cool. Squeeze all the roasted garlic out of the head into a bowl and combine with the mayonnaise, milk and a pinch of salt and pepper. Chill.  

For the veggies: Brush liberally with olive oil and place on either indoor or outdoor grill until grill marks form and the veggies are cooked just al dente.

To assemble napoleon: Place eggplant on the bottom, red onion next, portabella mushroom next and top with the grilled bell peppers. Top each napoleon with about a Tablespoon of the garlic aioli. Drizzle the balsamic reduction around the napoleon and garnish with one sopressata crisp and one parmesan tuile. Serve immediately.