Ten Lessons Sans Carols: #8 Gluten Free Food Is Good

When people find out I have celiac disease, they react either with horror or pity, and both stem from the mistaken belief that food free from wheat, barley, rye or oats can’t possibly taste good.

“Oh, you poor thing. That’s awful! I couldn’t eat like that,” they say, managing to sound both sympathetic and superior.

I like introducing them to good gluten free food.

The Friday before Christmas, to celebrate the start of the kids’ two-week holiday school break, we made cookies. We had to skip my mother’s time-honored and beloved cookie recipes because they call for copious quantities of white wheat flour and other glutinous ingredients. I won’t even try to handle white flour because that stuff has incredible hang time. Add the sifted flour to wet ingredients in an electric mixer and watch how it billows from the bowl, wafts through the air, and sticks like snow on every proximal surface, including the baker’s hair and clothes. There’s no way not to avoid contamination, unless one pops into a hazmat suit with filtered ventilator and then turns the fire hose on to clean up afterward.

I can’t afford a hazmat suit and breathing apparatus and I wanted to share the holiday joy of making cookies with my family so I picked up Betty Crocker GF Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix from Publix and Immaculate Food’s GF Sugar Cookie Mix from Target. Both sell for slightly more than $5 a box.The results were both yummy and pretty, and well worth the upcharge.

We used Smart Balance Light Margarine Spread in place of butter. It’s GF and has about half the calories and fat of butter. We baked the sugar cookies in molded cookie pans so each cookie looked like a snowflake. We had to cut back on the Sean Cookie Mouth 2014amount of dough put in each mold because the dough really puffed up as it baked. My niece and two nephews did a great job adorning the sugar cookie snowflakes with GF holiday sprinkles and GF Betty Crocker white icing tinted with GF Betty Crocker food coloring and piped through a cake decorator’s bag. They also made peppermint icing by adding McCormick’s pure peppermint extract to green tinted white icing. You can see the results in the picture on the right, as well as proof of how yummily edible they are.

The chocolate chip cookie dough, dropped by rounded scoops onto a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet also spread and puffed nicely, creating a chewy cookie with a golden bottom in about eight minutes. My niece said she liked these chocolate chip cookies better than regular ones because the chocolate flavor really stood out. Dad agreed. The mix contains semi-sweet chocolate chips, the best for cookies.

At the holiday village party, people devoured them and then were surprised to learn they had enjoyed something completely gluten free. Other party snacks included cheeses and Sabra hummus with Nabisco Original Rice Thins and Crunchmaster Original (my furniece, Abbey, loves to steal bites of these crunchy crackers chock full of whole grains and seeds) crackers, plus my favorite, Sea Salt Pop Chips. My sister made my mother’s special cheesecake cupcakes, which are naturally gluten free and finished with a smooth, sweet vanilla sour cream topping. I’ll share that prized family recipe someday.

Christmas Dinenr Close 2014On Christmas Eve, the family feasted on Honeybaked turkey and ham, homemade potato salad, fresh candied sweet potatoes (after boiling the sweet potatoes, peel and slice into thick slices; arrange them in a deep baking dish pour a mixture of 1/2 cup each of maple syrup, light Karo syrup and brown sugar evenly over the potatoes; and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes), teriyaki green beans, fresh beets, and fresh pineapple sliced in rings and baked with a dusting of brown sugar and dotted with maraschino cherries. The entire meal was gluten free, although I suspect the Honeybaked hams and turkeys get cross-contaminated at the store. I can’t say for sure that’s the case, I just know I get symptoms of being glutened whenever I eat either. That’s frustrating because the turkey is just so yummy. Oh, we had the canned jellied cranberries because everyone else loves them and fresh cranberry sauce because I love it much more than the canned product.

Everyone enjoyed the meal before tearing into the gifts we had procured or made for each other. My sister and niece crocheted beautiful scarves, hats, and headbands for everyone, which will come up again in a later post. My younger nephew turned a butterfly drawing of his into pins, keychains, and garden flags for us.

When it came time for Christmas dinner, which always is at my house, I opted for a non-traditional but beloved favorite: pasta. With green veggies and red sauce and white pasta, it’s the perfect color palette for Christmas…and palate pleasing, to (Santa) boot.

Here’s how I made my Red and White Christmas Pasta Casseroles:

I started with one box of Barilla GF penne, cooked al dente in ten minutes. The drained pasta got divided among one large (9”x13” lasagna pan) and two smaller baking dishes (one 9-inch square and one 9-inch round baking dishes). While the pasta cooked, I sautéed a package of sliced fresh Portabella mushrooms plus a 12-ounce bag of Birds Eye frozen tri-color bell peppers and onions in a third of a cup of GF low sodium chicken broth (I always use either Pacific Natural or Trader Joe’s). Into the pan with the veggies went a package of al fresco Country Style Chicken Breakfast Sausage links sliced into small circles. They cooked for about eight minutes or so. I use a large skillet with a glass lid to keep everything juicy.

I divided the sautéed mixture into the three baking dishes, although I kept the smaller round dish mushroom free because not everyone in my family likes shrooms. I then wilted a package of fresh baby spinach leaves in the still hot sauté pan. The spinach also was divided among the one large and two smaller dishes.

Next came the sauce. I mixed the contents of one jar of Classico Four Cheese Alfredo Sauce with the pasta, veggies and sausage in the square baking dish. I then mixed two large jars of Classico Tomato and Basil Pasta Sauce with one small jar of Classico Traditional Pizza Sauce. That sauce mixture then mixed with the contents of the remaining two baking dishes. I topped the two pans of red sauced pasta with one bag of Daiya Mozarella Style Shreds. I covered all three dishes with aluminum foil and popped the larger pan in the oven preheated to 375 degrees. After ten minutes I put the smaller two pans of pasta into the oven and all three baked for another 20-25 minutes.

The big lesson here is that I don’t have to feel left out or different from or less than just because I am gluten free. I have choices. I can feel sorry for myself and feel resentful because others can’t cater to my dietary needs, or I can take on the task of joyfully making the meal to ensure there are delicious dishes I safely can eat and everyone can enjoy. I even bring some of my own cookware and prepware to my dad’s house because I know his old pots and pans have cooked more than their fair share of gluten-laden meals (never cook GF pasta in a pan that’s cooked regular pasta and don’t use anything but a dedicated GF colander to drain your GF pasta or else you’ll cross-contaminate your GF pasta). It’s no big deal to pack a few bags to take with me to use and it makes me feel much more relaxed and happy when we all sit down to eat. Plus, I’m a pretty good cook and I like cooking, so double bonus for everyone!

When we give thanks for each other and for the meal, I give extra thanks in my head to God for gifting me with a positive attitude of gratitude to replace the self pity that for too long stupidly made me miserable. It’s easy to choose the happiness that comes from self-care mixed with service to those I love over self pity and resentment because I have a strange chronic illness. It’s an odd gift but I love how it keeps me giving and growing!