Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"If I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood." -Rocky

Recently, I did a lot of thinking about the cultural and geographical importance of food. Where we live, who we live with and around, and what we eat help define who we are. Obviously, this takes place on a grandiose scale and manifests itself in a whole host of really awful chain restaurants and brings to light some broad ethnocentric questions (What does "Qdoba" mean in Spanish? What does the P.F. in P.F. Chang's stand for? Does everyone in Australia wear khaki?)

But it takes place on a much smaller, regional scale right here in our own backyards. What sociologists refer to as "urban neighborhoods" have defined human behavior since early civilization. In these areas, residents seek to socialize youth, maintain social control, and, more often than not, share common values, traditions, and culture, such as music, religion, and cuisine.

Philadelphia, especially, is a city made up of neighborhoods. Second only to "Eagles fan" and "Phillies fan," Philadelphians often define themselves in the context of their geographical location. "Northern Liberties," and "Fishtown," denote a much different (and often smellier) demographic than "Rittenhouse" or "Queen's Village."

I have recently myself become a "South Philadelphian," and along with a two bedroom home, walk-in closet, and basement washer and dryer unit, also adopted the cultural context, and plenty of hackneyed "Yo Adrienne" jokes which came along with my new neighborhood. I find this endearing, and have decided to fully embrace it.

How, you may ask?

Step One: Pimp my 2'x2' concrete backyard.
Well, not really "pimp" it, but at least let everyone know that I am a die-hard Eagles fan (I'm not), I bleed green (I don't) and that I would sell my kidney on the black market to sit on the 50 yard line and dump my beer on a Cowboys fan right before I beat the crap out of him in front of his kid. Or his grandkid.  

Step Two: Hit up the CVS on 10th and Passyunk and round out your collection of "Horses Thundering Across The Ocean" paraphernalia with this blanket, designed to be, what I suspect, is an exact replica of something off the set of Rocky III. It is honestly, the best $2.50 we have ever spent

This week on MTV's Cribs...

The last step was going to be a bit trickier.  

See, this is the view of Cheesesteak Vegas from our house:

Seriously. Walk out our front door and inhale and you, too, can experience the sweet smell of fried onions and tourists in the morning. Last week, we walked outside and the line at Pat's wrapped around the entire building twice. Twice! Because who comes to Philadelphia and doesn't eat a cheesesteak? And yet here I was, masquerading as a South Philadelphian, never having had one.

Honestly, I never really got too stuck on it before. I didn't really think I was missing out. In college, my roommates used to get drunk and bring back Larry's cheesesteaks at 3:00 AM, and it never really smelled like something that I wished was gluten free. The cheese wiz was all congealed and a gross orange color that even I would be questioning of, and the meat was always a curious shade of gross. I mean, with all do respect to everyone who gets wasted and craves greasy mystery meat deviously nestled in a day old bun- I'm sure the grill drippings do wonders at slowing down your Blood Alcohol level, but I just didn't feel...well, jealous.

But when you see and smell something every single day, you tend to become a bit curious. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't curious enough to take the plunge and commit glut-icide just to eat mass produced meat crap (Revelation: I think I may actually be evolving into someone with a pseudo-adult palate), but when Paesano's ran a cheesesteak special, I had to order one.

Their sandwich, the "Gizmobocuz" officially puts all of the other cheesesteaks (yes, none of which I have actually eaten, but have certainly smelled and seen smashed on my sidewalk, so I feel comfortable making a blanket declaration here) to shame. I mean, Holy. Shit. It is a rib eye cheesesteak with bits of chopped salami mixed in, slathered in garlic mayo and cheddar herb spread, warm roasted tomatoes, sauteed onions, and broccoli rabe. If that isn't enough to have you salivating over your keyboard, it is all glued together by warm, gooey, delicious melted provolone. And, it's all on a gluten free bun.

I really think that the invention of the basic principal of food mathematics which states that bread+meat+cheese = happiness was a revolutionary concept which modernized the way that man enjoyed food. And I really think because that the first bite of cheesesteak I took, when soft, cheesy goodness and the tender, salty harmony of ham and beef hit my tongue sent electric waves bouncing around my cranium was a taste bud rebirth. I have been walking around this city blind to the beauty that is the cheesesteak. And now I can see.

The garlic mayo and herb spread elevate your basic cheese plus meat equation to a level thats quantum physic-like. It adds a lucious herbatiousness that lingers with every bite, taking the grilled ribbons of meat and skyrocketing them to the top of the flavor spectrum. And the onions, with their carmely, syrupy deliciousness, are as subtle and unassuming as fried onions can be- unobtrusive to the basic flavors of the meat but bursting with mouthwatering flavor that coats your mouth as you chew.

So this is what everyone has been talking about all this time.

Some people can't believe that I have lived in the Philadelphia area my whole life and had never had a cheesesteak until I was in my 20's. I, for one, am glad that my cheesesteak exposure has been closely monitered, as I now feel that I have expierenced a cheesesteak in it's purest form, and now would be a crime to consume anything less. I don't care how drunk I am. I can say "witout" (oh, come on...I had to) a doubt, that it's just not worth it.

Really. Stop reading and go to Paesano's before they change their special.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

"You can't have Thanksgiving without Turkey. That's like Fourth of July without apple pie or Friday with no two pizzas" -Joey Tribiani

Every Celiac I know has a "First Thanksgiving" story.

I know that there's a real "First Thanksgiving" Story, thank you very much. I, too, stapled construction paper feathers to a paper headband in Kindergarten and learned all about the Autumn of 1621, when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag slaughtered a turkey and sat down to celebrate the English Colonists' first successful harvest (a story which, unfortunately, ended about as well for the Wampanoag as it did for the turkey).

My First Thanksgiving has less historical importance, and certainly much less ethnic diversity, but it is, nonetheless, something I think about religiously every November.

I mean my first Thanksgiving after my diagnosis.

For Celiacs, the cultural significance of food will always be a struggle. The table is a mecca for family, friends, laughter, tears, celebrations, and, of course, holidays. Each one of us has unique, individual ways of celebrating Thanksgiving. Some dust off the good China and dress up in their Sunday best and crowd around a beautifully decorated table. Others pile their paper plates until they sag in the middle and file into a basement or garage filled with folding chairs. Some only eat cranberry sauce out of a can, pull the wishbone after dinner, watch a football game, pray, dance, or play drunk charades. But all of these celebrations typically revolve around a table filled with a cornucopia of gluten, and often, the first one we experience after Celiac doesn't always give us that warm, fuzzy, Thanksgiving-y feeling.

For me, that first November, my diagnosis was fairly recent. It was hard for me to wrap my own head around the idea, much less explain or expect my family to understand. To be honest, I don't think anyone even stopped to think how a holiday centered around food might be at all problematic for me. I remember my heart sinking as I stood in front of a delicious buffet, the warmth of the oven and smells enveloping the kitchen in homey warmth and holiday cheer, and came to each gut-wrenching realization, one by one. All I needed was a Sarah McLaughlin tune humming softly in the background to complete my sad little montage of food that I would not be enjoying that year. Cue the music: The turkey was stuffed. With bread. The mashed potatoes were from a box, which someone dug out of the trash and announced had wheat starch in them. The Brussels Sprouts had bread crumbs. The gravy was thickened with flour. The dinner rolls and stuffing were obviously, out of the question. As was my grandmother's pumpkin pie. And her apple pie. And pretty much all pie moving forward. It was absolutely crushing.

I walked back to my seat at the table, my gold trimmed Lenox China Plate piled to the top with the only thing I could eat that year: peas. I decided once and for all that I hated Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, unless you are one-quarter Wampanoag, it's hard to boycott a holiday that your entire family insists on celebrating. And my dad, so wracked with guilt about the sad little sight of his favorite (sorry, Catherine) daughter sitting hunched over a chair pushing peas around her empty plate, vowed to never let me experience another disappointing Thanksgiving again. And so, first, we learned how to scrape together a mostly-edible gluten free dinner with boxed and pre-purchased products from Whole Foods. Then, we learned how to make pretty decent gluten free food from scratch. And now, thanks to almost ten years of trial and error product testing, some amazing recipes, and, of course, the help of Aaron's culinary skills, the gluten free Thanksgiving that my family has managed to create is something that I genuinely look forward to for eleven months out of the year.
So, Aaron and I put together some tips for a delicious gluten free Thanksgiving.

  • We do NOT stuff the turkey any more. You can tell the rest of your friends and family to quit bitching because it dries the turkey out anyway.
  • When translating a regular stuffing recipe to a gluten free stuffing, you need to increase the amount of liquid by 10%-15%. Gluten free bread absorbs significantly more liquid and has a tendency to dry out. Whole Foods Gluten Free Bakehouse makes a toasted gluten free stuffing mix, or you can dice one loaf of Schar Bread and transpose it to your favorite stuffing recipe.
  • Mashed Potatoes are made from scratch, or, use Betty Crocker Potato Buds. ALWAYS check the label of any boxed mashed potatoes, as wheat flour, starch, and other glutonious evils often hide out there.
  • Aaron's Brussels Sprouts prove once and for all that if you put enough bacon in anything, you do not need bread crumbs. He slices them in half and adds them to a pan of rendered bacon fat (just cook bacon, remove, and keep all the juicy love thats left). He adds shallots and apple cider vinegar, removes them from the pan, and transfers them to a baking sheet. He roasts them for five minutes and tops them with the crispy bacon.
  • Aaron also makes Creamed Pearl Onions that I literally begin dreaming about sometime around August. He sautees peeled onions in that glorious rendered bacon fat (are you sensing a trend?) and olive oil at medium-low heat until they start to carmelize. He adds heavy cream, nutmeg, chives, and finishes with crispy bacon. Seriously, I would go gluten free for this dish.
  • For gravy, mix about two tablespoons of all purpose gluten free flour with a quarter cup of ice cold water.  Whisk the mix into one cup of the simmering turkey drippings. Finish with your favorite herbs like fresh chopped thyme, rosemary, and a tablespoon of heavy cream. Trader Joe's also makes a gluten free gravy that you can pour right out the box (way more my style)
  • Pies are no longer out of the question. Whole Foods Gluten Free Bakehouse makes an amazing frozen pie crust that you can dethaw and fill with your favorite pie filling. It is flaky and delicious and the texture is just right. My dad makes a killer pumpkin pie using the recipe from Libby's Pumpkin Pie mix. I also make (that's right, I am officially using the words "I" and "make" in the same sentence) a Pumpkin Cheesecake with a Pecan Shortbread Crust. For the bottom, I crush an entire box of Pamela's Pecan Shortbread Cookies with a two teaspoons of butter and bake for 10 minutes.Then, I fill the pan with Betty Crocker's Pumpkin Cheesecake recipe (omit one egg for a denser cheesecake)
Above all, make sure you talk to your friends and family about the importance of incorperating gluten free recipies into Thanksgiving. Understand that the first Thanksgiving, well, it will probably suck. Don't get discouraged, even if you expierence your own version of what I like to call "The Year of The Peas." And just remember, it gets a lot better for us than it ever did for the Indians.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"I feel a very unusual sensation- if it is not indigestion, I think it must be gratitude." -Benjamin Disraeli

It took me a long time to realize that I was lucky.

I was sixteen years old, hormonally unstable, riddled with teenage angst and, quite frankly, a huge pain in my mother's ass. I glared at the woman in the lab coat as she read off the metal clipboard in her hand. "Your endoscopy confirms the diagnosis," she said, in a tone that I still remember being irritatingly chipper. She began to explain the disease, lapsing into medical jargon that seemed way more interesting when it was coming out of McDreamy's mouth on Greys Anatomy, and I intentionally (and indiscreetly) tuned her out. I turned my head and fixated on a spot on the wall where the paint was peeling. "...oats, barley, rye..." Fuck her. "...processed foods, modified food starch..." Fuck this disease bullshit. "...pastas, pizzas, cereals." I snapped back.

It was there, in that cold, sterile, metallic doctor's office, as the list of foods I could no longer eat hit my ears with a dull thud and fell to the floor, a useless pile of past pleasures at my feet, that my world, much like the bottom of my food pyramid, dropped out from under me. I pouted. I sobbed. I screamed and yelled and cursed at every Dunkin Donuts I passed. I didn't feel lucky. I felt hungry.

Nine years later, I wish I could go back and apologize to that doctor. It wasn't her fault and I was, by all accounts, a total bitch. It's Celiac Awareness Day, and I feel lucky. No, I'm not lucky to have celiac. It's not a "great way to cut carbs," and it irritates the hell out of me when people say it is. It's an incurable autoimmune disease, and it sucks. But it sucks a lot less now.

It sucks less because there are people in my life who have worked hard to raise their own awareness, and it never ceases to impress and amaze me. This awareness goes beyond my parents and Aaron, who as I have said countless times in my posts, have offered me more love, support, and gluten free food than I could ever have asked for. I try to thank them every single day.

But there are others in my life who I don't always take the time to thank for being such a huge part of stabilizing my post-celiac world. My family members- grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins- for whom the terms "celiac" and "gluten free" are now second nature. I am so grateful for the first Thanksgiving dinner which my grandmother made entirely gluten free, the freezer full of Schar's bread that my aunt keeps stocked at her shore house, or the watchful eye of my cousin who caught me just in time as I, deeply engaged in dinner conversation and on my third glass of wine, blindly reached for the "gluten butter."

My best friend Ciara, who has known me before, and after my diagnosis, and who has been one of the most supportive to my cause. I mean, how many other friends would bake a trial cake the week before your birthday just to make sure it tasted good? I have never been struck with such an amazing appreciation of her unwavering friendship as I was when she told me she likes to order gluten free food when she goes out to eat because she wants to raise awareness. She muddles through as many gross gluten free products as I do trying to find the pastas and pizzas and chocolate cake mixes that taste the best.

Birthday Cake 2.0

And all of the other friends and coworkers who I have met along the way and who have, even in the smallest and most seemingly insignificant ways, educated themselves and me: passed along restaurant recommendations or websites or recipes, and have made this journey easier and infinitely more fun. Servers and chefs who I don't know, but who have taken a genuine interest in making it less challenging and more delicious to dine out on a gluten free diet. And anyone who is hanging in there reading this, you too, have unwittingly entrenched yourself in this sappy post and learned a little more about Celiac. 

I'd like to say thank you, from the bottom of my little gluten free heart.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Dining with one's friends and beloved family is certainly one of life's primal and most innocent delights. One that is both soul-satisfying and eternal" -Julia Child

This post is not about food.

I know: you're doing a bang up job, Emily, writing a food blog that isn't about food.

Well, it is about food, in a way. But more importantly, it is about why food matters.

Some people say that scent is the strongest sense tied to memory. Here, I must disagree. I believe that it is taste. Let me explain: The act of eating is one that is both primal and communal, and has brought so many people together, it is no wonder that we often associate food with our past. Meal time is such an elementary universal truth. Sometimes, something so simple, so elegantly uncomplicated and downright pedestrian, can bring the joy of taste-bud memory, which hits your tongue like a lightening bolt and sends an electric shock all the way to your Temporal Lobe, triggering immediate warm and fuzzy thoughts of your grandmother as you bite into a warm piece of apple pie. Tasting your past is just so much more corporal than recalling a memory on your own.

For me, one such memory had laid dormant in my cerebrum for the past 9 years.

My dad used to take me camping. He was proud of the fact that we were "real" campers- no trailers, air mattresses or portable grills hitched to the back of your car. We camped at French Creek State Park with tents, sleeping bags, and stuck our dinner into the campfire because, damn it, we are outdoors and that is what you do.

I have so many memories of camping with my dad. The time we forgot the tent poles and had to tie the tent to a group of trees with laundry line. The time we could only get one tent up before it poured rain, and so my dad, my uncle, and five of us cousins crammed into a four-man tent and waited out the storm. Hiking, and looking for Sassafras plants, which, my dad explained, when you bit into the stem, seeped out a sap that tasted just like root beer. The smell of the campfire clinging to my hair and to my dad's flannel shirt as we zipped up our sleeping bags and I, a somewhat precocious child, asked, for the millionth time: Are you absolutely positive there's no bears?

But my favorite part was the S'mores.

I mean, come on. What kid doesn't like S'mores? It's a chocolate and marshmallow sandwich, and you get to light shit on fire.

For me, eating a S'more was always about more than the sticky sensation of gluing one's fingers together with melted marshmallow. It takes me back to A-42, our campsite at French Creek, and I can smell that musty, charcoal smoke of the campfire all over again, feel the heat of the blaze on my cheeks, hear the dull, hollow drill of a woodpecker in the distance, and remember being with my dad, proud of the fire we'd built, and the fact that I could be like him, a "real camper."

I didn't think I was ever going to have something that tasted even close to a S'more ever again. I did not have high hopes for gluten-free graham crackers- it's hard to find a way to recreate a brand-name product which is so instantly recognizable. Some flavors are just too ingrained in us to reproduce.

The Grainless Baker however, surprised me. They make a graham cracker cookie that is pretty damn close. It's denser, and not as flaky as its glutenous equivalent, but flavor-wise, it was pretty dead-on. It's more substantial consistency makes it more durable, so the S'more doesn't break apart as easily. I bought them at Wegmans, one of my increasingly favorite place to shop for gluten-free brands.

I roasted my marshmallow over the open-flame of our gas stove which, by all accounts, does not even come close to the perfection of a campfire-char, but hey, I'm working with what I have right now. I gingerly slid my toasted beauty off the kabob skewer which I had improvised as a stick, and layered it carefully between two perfectly portioned pieces of Hershey's Milk Chocolate and smushed the pieces of graham cracker down so that the warm, gooey marshmallow insides exploded and began melting the chocolate on contact.

One bite, and I'm there again, in the middle of the woods, crickets chirping and whirring around me, listening to my dad tell his favorite ghost stories, and keeping a constant, watchful eye out for bears.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"Do you have anything here besides Mexican food?" -Chevy Chase

I was going to begin this post with a disclaimer: The fact that I worked for Garces Restaurant Group is in no way directly correlated to the fact that I consistently recommend their restaurants to anyone, but particularly those in search of a good gluten-free meal.

I had this whole brilliant manifesto penned in my head. I was going to write passionately and with conviction about how I do not speak highly of Chef Jose's food because I worked for him, rather, it was being given the chance to work around his dishes, and his employees, that made me care about food in the first place. I was going to offer my word that as I write about my meal last weekend at Distrito that I would absolutely give my impartial, unbiased opinion. It was all ready to go, and it sounded pretty damn good if you ask me, but when I sat down and started to type, I was struck with the overwhelming realization that it was all a bunch of bullshit.

I am not impartial. I have had the unique opportunity to pull back the curtain. I have seen firsthand how the dishes are prepared and the kitchens are run. I know with certainty that when my or any other ticket rings through to the kitchen with the words "GLUTEN FREE" printed in bold type-face that every single person in the kitchen knows what this means and, furthermore, will not sacrifice your dining experience because of it. I cannot offer an unbiased opinion because my opinion is unquestionably colored by a well-deserved, complete trust in each person in every restaurant in his organization.

Chef Garces' first restaurant, Amada, opened in October 2005 and since then he has opened 6 more restaurants in the city. Spanish, Peruvian-Cantonese, Basque, American, Mexican- Garces' current lineup reads like a culinary United Colors of Benetton ad. Each restaurant offers a distinct menu- rich in both cultural and seasonal influence, meticulously designed and executed by extremely talented Chef de Cuisines, yet all tied together by a commonality which can only be attributed to Garces' immeasurable talent and passion.

After a fairly terrible meal the previous night at a neighborhood Mexican restaurant, I left work last Saturday overcome with the urge to have my faith restored South of the Border. When Aaron came home later that evening, top button undone and tie askew, I asked innocently, "Rough day?" He dropped his briefcase on the floor. "Yeah." He sighed. I nudged him. "Tequila?"

Enough said. Five minutes later we were in the car on our way to University City. Distrito has always been one of my favorite Garces Restaurants to visit because, like so many other Mexican restaurants, the menu lends very naturally towards gluten free. In fact, with the exception of a few fried dishes, the menu is almost entirely devoid of flour.

Here's the deal. When little baby mushrooms are born, they grow up wanting to be one of two things.

A SuperMushroom

Or a delicious morsel of love laid to rest on the Los Hongos Hurache. Because, if you are going to die a slow, fiery death followed by masticational dismemberment, you are going to want to do it surrounded by cheese and chopped black truffles.

The hurache is a traditional Mexican pizza which uses masa, a corn-based dough made from hominy, and black beans. It is topped with an array of melted cheeses which work together to create harmonious mouth- joy, earthy, delicious Forrest mushrooms, corn shoots, a huitlacoche sauce (don't look it up, just try it) and of course, those beautiful chopped black truffles. The dough is naturally gluten-free, which earns it major points to begin with, but one bite of this delicious pizza and you will understand, gluten-free is the least of it's selling points. Its salty, cheesy and mushroomy without being too mushroomy- and it's savory flavors linger on your jawls long after the last few crumbs have been discreetly licked from the plate. This thing puts pizza to shame.

The Queso Fundito, besides being ridiculously fun to say, is another one of my absolute favorite dishes. Beware, this dish, on it's own, comes with flour tortillas. However, just let your server know that you are gluten-free and they will gladly substitute a basket of warm corn tortillas. Trust me, it's worth it. I mean meat + cheese = delicious, right? It's basic math, really. The queso fundito is just that: slow roasted duck confit and strips of poblano chilis happily lounging like little old naked men in a sauna of bubbling hot melted cheese. It arrives to the table in a cast iron skillet, the cheese sizzling and browning to perfection at the edges as it struggles to resist the pull of my spoon, clinging to the steaming hot edges in long elastic strings and crisping to utter perfection. Cradle a spoonful of this in a corn tortilla, fold, and try not to burn the shit out of your mouth as the duck falls apart in your mouth and sends little sparks of ecstasy bouncing throughout your brain waives.

The Atun Ceviche is a dish that I can't quite seem to wrap my head around the words to describe. Yellowfish Tuna is presented simply and uncomplicated-ly: served rare with bite sized tortilla chips and tomatillos, atop a Serrano-Coconut Sauce which is mind-numbingly good on it's own. However, the dish reaches it's "but this one goes to 11" moment when you manage to somehow squeeze a bite of the lime sorbet onto your fork. Holy. Shit. The sorbet is like a miniature margarita for your tuna- it gives it that tangy bite that you know is going to make it take off it's clothes later in the night.

Chase it with a shot or two from their over-the-top tequila list, and work doesn't seem so bad after all.

But don't take my word for it...
Check out Distrito Restaurant and see if you agree

3945 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia PA 19104


Friday, July 29, 2011

"A hot dog at the ball park is better than a steak at The Ritz" -Humphrey Bogart

I am not a sports fan. Although I grew up in a large, Irish Catholic family, with lots of uncles who insisted we sing “Fly Eagles Fly” after saying Grace on Christmas Eve, this love of all things competitive did not pass directly on to me.

In fact, I know so little about sports that one night at Amada, when a handsome blonde gentleman came in and requested to sit in a certain section of the restaurant, I smiled apologetically and told him it was unavailable at the moment, but that I’d do my best next time he came in. He graciously nodded, and followed the hostess, who returned, wide-eyed and said incredulously “I can’t believe you just told Chase Utley he couldn’t sit there.” I stared back at her. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that was Chase Utley!”  Aaaaaaand, I’m an asshole.  (Chase, if you are out there: Really sorry about that. I Google Image-ed you, so it won’t happen again)
So no, I did not get drunk, take off my clothes, climb traffic lights, riot or destroy anything around me when the Phillies won the World Series a few years back. I was pretty sure an “outfielder” was a mathematical term for something on a graph. And, for my limited knowledge and attention span, baseball is about 7 innings too long for me to watch on TV.
But Aaron seemed convinced that it was “un-American” or something for me never to have been to a baseball game. Point. Counterpoint: After surviving without pizza for 4 years of college, isn’t it just cruel and unusual punishment to take me somewhere where beer and hotdogs circulate like currency? I had him there.
Citizen’s Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, had other ideas, however. My friend Phil, who, although he himself is a lover of gluten, is constantly on the look out for gluten free spots for me (and thus, well-deserving of a blog shout out and big thank you), works at the park and informed me excitedly that things were changing for glutenless Phillies fans. Aramark, the company which handles the concessions for 14 MLB teams and 10 minor league clubs, has taken a personal interest in expanding their market to include gluten-free products at many of their ball parks and other venues. Kudos, guys.
And so, I donned my new Cole Hammels t-shirt (I figured, I hadn’t offended him yet) and wound up at my second Phillies game ever (the first one doesn’t count- it was freezing cold, it rained, they lost 0-9, and we bailed halfway through).
Our first stop was the South Philly Market, located behind Section 128. They have gluten-free beer and cider, as well as hot dogs on gluten-free buns. The buns come right out of the bun warmer and are soft and textured to perfection, just like, I imagine, a ball park hot dog should taste. “I want a beer,” I said, surprising myself even.  I typically pass up the gluten-free Estrella Damm Daura or Redbridge that Aaron sometimes buys to cook with, instead preferring a glass of white wine or a mixed drink. But something about drinking a beer there just seemed so… right. I got my hotdog and plastic cup, loaded up on the condiments and napkins, went to my seat and thought I am eating a hot dog and drinking beer. I felt downright American, damn it.
And Bogie was right. It was the best hot dog I have ever tasted. There was just something about being a part of this crowd, lost in a sea of red and white-clad fans, all cheering for the same team which, although I knew nothing about, I felt strangely… loyal to..., eating a hot dog and drinking my beer just like everyone else around me. For me, that is one thing that I really miss. It sounds so silly, doesn’t it? Doing what everyone else is. Like something your mother warned you against. But it is oddly comforting to experience this sameness again.
I still got lost somewhere around the 6th inning, was excited when it was announced that Brian Wilson would be pitching until I realized that a) he was not the bass player from the Beach Boys and b) he played for the other team, and almost got smacked in the face with a foul ball because I was busy taking pictures of my hot dog. Oh, and they lost. But honestly, I had an absolutely amazing time. I get it now, the whole “America’s past time” thing.
I even waived at Chase Utley from our seats behind the dugout, but he pretended not to know who I was. I guess I deserved that.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart." -Erma Bombeck

Desserts matter. I hold this truth to be self evident, because for me, the entire fate of the meal hinges upon that last, delicious morsel of food which you put into your mouth. It is the taste which lingers on your palate long after the meal is over. It is the last scent, memory, and thus, representation of the repast. So yeah, desserts matter.

I will, occasionally, post solely on the topic of dessert. It is one of the trickier things to alter sometimes, because baking is so notoriously temperamental; the unforgiving, unwavering, strategically-minded military dad to cooking’s artsy, hand-holding, herb-loving hippie aunt.

College Is About Breaking
Boundaries In The Study Of
 Human Anatomy...
And Dominating In Wine Pong

That being said, whenever possible, I will always order dessert. 17 course tasting menu? Dessert please. Whole roast pig? What do you have that’s chocolate? I could pretty much put away anything and still have room for something sweet. I was mildly self-conscious about this fact until a roommate in college introduced me to what she called “The Chamber Theory.” You know how cows’ stomachs have 4 compartments? Well, Adrienne postulated that we have chambers in our stomachs as well, and, even though your “entrée chamber” might be full, your “dessert chamber” is still wide open. Additionally, I should point out, in college we both made really compelling arguments in favor of a “wine chamber.”

This week, after a particularly delicious grilled steak dinner, my dessert chamber’s needle was still hovering on empty, and Aaron decided to introduce me to his southern roots. By “southern roots,” I mean, “lived in West Virginia for two years and ate a lot of biscuits.” And peaches.

Until recently, the only thing I really knew about “peach” was that she gave blondes a bad name.

Apparently, they also make a delicious cobbler.

Aaron picked up some white peaches at the farmers market which were so fresh and delectably fuzzy looking that they would have warmed the cockles of Roald Dhal’s heart. The perfect patches of pale pink blended seamlessly into a warm yellow that was absolutely picturesque just sitting in a bowl on the kitchen counter, glowing in the warm summer sun, like a page right out of Little House on the Prairie.

He sautéed the peaches in a little bourbon (because why the hell not?) and sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, and Gluten Free Pantry’s All Purpose Flour Mix (Whole Foods). I find this mix to be one of the most accessible, and can be substituted cup-for-cup in almost any recipe. He layered this warm, sugary, nectar-y love into buttered ramekins and topped it with the recipe for biscuits found on the back of the box of Gluten Free Bisquick.

Let me pause for a moment to give mad props to Betty Crocker for making gluten free baking accessible to anyone who lives in a 20 minute radius of Acme or Superfresh and can combine eggs and butter. They now offer gluten free cookie, cake, and brownie mix, along with gluten free Bisquick, dumbing down baking to a level even I can usually manage to not screw up.

This was my first experience with the Bisquick, and the biscuits on top of the cobbler puffed up like little moist pillows of what my incredibly limited experiences with illegal substances force me to only assume must be laced with heroine. Seriously. Biscuits should be considered narcotics and regulated by the Board of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Dangerously Addictive Carbohydrates. They were crispy on the outside and delicate and flaky and buttery on the inside.

But it was the prize which lay unassumingly beneath the layers of fragile, crumbly goodness which was the real reward. Layers of sweet, sugary peaches basked in the glory of their sachariferousness, coated in the crystallized granules of goodness. Bits of biscuit clung to their syrupy flesh, reveling in the sticky, saccharine juice, soaking up every bit of nectar they could before they dissolved onto my tongue.
Next thing you know, I’ll be found in an alley somewhere, heating up peaches on a spoon with a lighter, a makeshift tunicate tied around my arm, laying in the filth of my own half-eaten biscuit crumbs, with a look of sheer bliss forever imprinted on my face.

This is what true love tastes like, with ice cream on top.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

"You better cut the pizza into four slices, because I'm not hungry enough to eat six" -Yogi Berra

Aaron went out and bought a grill this week. I say that with a laugh, as if any man could just "go out and buy a grill." No- this was not a spur of the moment purchase, like a pack of gum and a Cosmo at the food store, or the time when I decided that I wanted a puppy (twice). This was a process. A process which began precisely 10 months ago, when it became clear that the harsh Philadelphia winter had been less than kind to his old one- and ended last Sunday, after no less than 4 trips (that I know of) to Lowes and roughly 20 hours of online research. Hopefully, he puts this much thought into my birthday gift (if you are reading this, dear, I'd like a pair of black satin peep-toe Louboutins please). A man and his grill have a very special bond- which I guess I should respect, as he has never uttered one complaint about the "bond" that my shoes have with our guest bedroom floor after they reached a number which could no longer be contained in the closet (but one more won't hurt, so...)

So anyway, he got the grill set up and we (of course) had to take it for a spin. We (I) decided that we (he) were going to make one of my most favorite things in the world: pizza.

Pizza was the first thing I really missed after my diagnosis. I tried all different kinds of frozen pies, pre-packaged crusts, and couldn't figure out why it just didn't taste right. After much (mainly failed) experimentation, I was forced to admit something to myself: If you are gluten-free, you can kiss the concept of a deep-dish pie away. I will rarely ever admit defeat here. The whole purpose of ths exploration into the culinary world was to prove to myself, and others like me, that gluten-free does not have to be the determining factor in your choice of cuisine. That there is really amazing food out there that is either naturally gluten-free, or designed with us in mind. I don't want to be Debbie Downer, here. But, and I am certainly willing to retract this statement if proven wrong, all evidence points to the fact that my days of doughy-pulled-apart-cheesy-stuffed-crusts are gone.

DON'T STOP READING! THERE'S GOOD NEWS. Turns out that Pizza Hut and Domino's, when they bake and fill their fluffy flour-filled shells of glutenous death, are not always making the most culinary-forward pies. Sure, they might appeal to the masses and look great on TV, but they have a limited pizza scope. Apparently, there's this whole world of flat bread pizzas out there- and it's ours for the taking. In Spain, they are called cocas, and their crispy deliciousness know no bounds. Cocas are made with thinly rolled dough that not only does not need the elasticity provided by the gluten protein- they actually benefit from not having it. They are typically wood-fired to create a crunchy, grilled texture.

The gluten-free version of this crust which I have found works best is Gillians, available in your local Whole Foods freezer aisle. We usually plan our pizza nights in the beginning of the week so we can take the dough out of the freezer the night before and let it thaw out in the fridge. A little bit of flour on the counter, and Aaron rolls it out so it is nice and thin. The dough typically yields about three oblong pizza crusts which are cut into four one and a half inch slices. Aaron brushes the dough with olive oil and par-bakes it in the oven for about 10 minutes until firm (pause for an obligatory 'that's what she said' joke). Then, we add the toppings.

If there is one thing I will dare not to impose my opinions about, it is this subject. Pizza topping preferences are so fiercely held by each individual that they are on par with religious beliefs or political affiliation. Pepperoni, Sausage, Peppers, Olives, Anchovies, Pineapple: I believe in a world where an individual is free to top regardless of race, creed, gender or sexual orientation. I will not proselytize. I'll give you the rundown, on what we made, so you can make your own, informed decisions on this hot-button topping-ic (get it?).

Tonight, we are making two kinds. One is fresh and simple- fresh pulled mozzarella from the amazing Wegman's cheese counter, some regular-ass-but-still-delicious shredded mozzarella on the pizza, and healthy gobs of ricotta. The second pizza gets shredded mozzarella, Asiago, and some short rib that Aaron braised with baby carrots, cipollini onions, and rosemary in the toaster oven (sounds way more ghetto than it is, I promise). This pizza also gets a sweet onion marmalade which he made by doing something that looked way more complicated than just opening a jar of marmalade (which is what I would have done), but is freaking delicious.

Then, we head outside. Aaron fires up the grill and places the pizza on a wire rack which goes right on top of the grill. Close the lid and let it cook for about five minutes, until the cheese is melty and the bottom starts to char. He rotates the pizza to the other side, and fires the grill up again.

When they are cooked all the way through, we top our cheese pizza with thinly sliced heirloom tomatoes and fresh chiffonaded (that's the technical culinary past tense) basil and a few cracks of red Hawaiian sea salt. For the short rib pizza, a thin drizzle of horseradish sauce and fresh shaved Asiago cheese. I am so excited I can hardly wait for the cheese to stop bubbling. I size up my slice, weigh my options, and decide that a few singed taste buds are worth the instant gratification. "Mmmmyum" I mumble incoherently, my mouth glued together by cheesy goodness. "MmthisisthebestpizzaIhaveeverhad."

I manage to swallow and stop and think for a minute. I mean it. This is literally the best pizza I have ever had. Not the best gluten-free pizza, but the best pizza period. It's crispy and crunchy and cheesy and the tangy, tomato-y acidity pops as each crystal of salt dissolves on my tongue. The short rib literally melts in my mouth and is perfectly balanced by the unbelievable silky sweetness of onion marmalade, swaddled in creamy folds of melted cheese. The flat bread even bubbled up a little in certain spots from the grill, creating delicate, delicious pockets of air sporting char marks like a badge of honor, a sight that I literally thought I'd never see again, and actually makes me a bit teary-eyed, and the crust makes a ridiculously satisfying crunch with every bite.
It is a huge deal for me to say this pizza, in front of me, which just happens to be gluten free, is the best pizza I have ever had. It is why I want to share this with you: the fact that something which should taste like it is missing an integral ingredient, could be better than any slice I'd ever eaten BC.

Suck it, Dominos.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

"Heart disease has changed my eating habits, but I still cook bacon for the smell" -George Carlin

When I was first diagnosed with Celiac, one of the things that I missed the most was the options. Not the food options, per se- more like the life options. I felt held hostage by the fact that my dining world now fell into two very black and white categories: cook at home or eat somewhere with grilled chicken, fish, or steak on the menu. And while that's nice and all, what if you don't want to eat somewhere with a grill menu? I mean, isn't that the culinary counterpart of Big Love? Sure, it may seem like you have options, but in actuality you are just gastronomically running train on a series of three dishes which, although they might be the protein equivalent of a blonde, brunette, and a redhead, at the end of the day, all taste the same.

One time, in college, a fellow scholar and intellectual drunk guy at a party asked me "Do you ever just like, get drunk and eat wheat?" Uh, I don't know, do you ever get drunk and drink drain cleaner? Being drunk doesn't make me eat something that kills me. But that doesn't mean I don't want to. What if it's late at night and I just wanted to go to a bar and have a drink and eat regular-ass bar food like every other person in the world? I missed the ease of such non-committal dining. I longed for a time when going out to eat didn't have to be such a pre-planned production. I wanted my own gluten-free version of Cheers- a place that required absolutely no commitment or pretense, yet was always there for you- warm, welcoming, and open until 1 AM.But everywhere I went had late-night bar menus consisting of chicken fingers, sandwiches, and all the deep fried, breaded love a glutenous drunk could ask for.

So when I moved to a street located directly across from the Pub On Passyunk East, I was not exactly hopeful. From the outside, it looked like a typical neighborhood hang out- the kind of place where twenty-somethings who are so painfully hip that they could not possibly be bothered with everyday, mainstream nuisances like showering go after a hard day's work at American Apparel to swap war stories about their chest tattoos and give each other hair styling advice.

The first time we went, it was just to get drinks. The bartender left a copy of the menu, and when Aaron excused himself to go to the bathroom, I picked it up and busied myself with it, trying desperately to distract from the fact that I was the only person there wearing actual pants. I perused the words mindlessly, reading but not really retaining anything. All of a sudden, the words jump out at me off the page. "All sandwiches available on gluten-free rolls and bread." Holy shit. Could this be it? Could this be my Cheers? You know, if Norm only drank PBR and Cliff had a half-sleeve and a plaid shirt.

But you know what, forget all that. Hipsters and all, the P.O.P.E. has become a regular hang-out for me. The staff is amazingly friendly and helpful They are open late. They are right across the street from my house. They have gluten-free food. And not just any gluten-free food. Gluten-free drunk bar food. They have a BLT for Christ sake.

The BLT is quite honestly a thing of beauty. I mean, come on. It's a sandwich that is so great, they tell you what's in it right there in the name. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato. And that's it. At the P.O.P.E., it also comes with basil mayo, which is a delicious blend of herbaceous flavor and artery-clogging mayonnaise-y goodness. It is the perfect compliment to the sandwich: an uncomplicated symbiotic relationship that takes nothing away from the primitive pleasure of bacon on bread. The bacon is grilled to perfection, nestled with juicy, plump tomatoes and fresh green lettuce between three slices of crispy toast. It is unpretentious in it's simplicity.

Sometimes, it really is the little things in life. The bartender who is typically there on weeknights seems bemused by my new found fascination with something most people pass by without a second glance. I pick up my BLT gingerly, as though it were an ancient relic dug up by historians from a far away date in time BC (Before Celiac) and bite into it, unquestionably relishing every bite. "Why do you guys have gluten-free bread?" I ask him, as I am always inexplicably fascinated by the "why"- dare I hope to imagine the fact that this new trend might someday become the norm, or is there some more realistic rationale behind it, like a family member or employee with Celiac? He smiled at me and asked how my sandwich was. "Ohmygodsogood" I manage to get out between bites. "Well, that's why we have it," he said, and turned back to his other bar guests.

I couldn't have asked for a better answer.

The Pub On Passyunk East
1501 East Passyunk Ave
Philadelphia PA 19147

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"There is one thing more exasperating than a wife who can cook and won't, and that's a wife who can't cook and will" -Robert Frost

The key is to set the bar low in the beginning of a relationship. With cooking, I mean. Do you remember that scene in Clueless when Cher unrolls the entire bag of cookie dough and plops it onto the sheet tray?

That's me.
Anyway, after four or five culinary failures of epic proportions, it was unanimously decided that Aaron would do the cooking in our house.
The problem isn't just that I am a bad cook. The problem is that Aaron is an amazing cook (well, the problem for him at least- I'll take comfortably-full dish duty any day of the week). Luckily for me, Aaron enjoys cooking as much as I enjoy eating. Gluten-free has been like a fun challenge for him- like when they tie one hand behind their backs in the Top Chef Quickfire Challenge.

Sunday, he went to the farmer's market and bought produce and veggies that were so fresh and tasty that even I, who, if left to my own devices, would live entirely off of food that has a pre-programmed microwave button, fell immediately into food lust.

I can't tell you how to make the dishes- but I can tell you what was in them. And give you a few pointers on the best dish detergent to use after a manicure. If you are a cook, you can build them in your own way. If you are not, I highly recommend dating one.

Pan Seared Scallops Over Jersey Corn and Red Scallion Risotto with Yellow Oyster Mushrooms

The scallops were cooked to utter perfection. The outside sear was light and buttery and the inside literally just melted into a fit of taste bud delectation. The Jersey Corn is not yet fully in season, so the kernels were small, but each one bit with the satisfying snap that only flawless timing and temperature can produce, and was so satiatingly sweet and juicy that I think the other vegetables were actually jealous. The red scallions added just a bit of heat, and the yellow oyster mushrooms were earthy and uncomplicated, a simple, yet harmonious addition.

Heirloom Tomato Salad with Charred Onion Vinaigrette, Whipped Lemon-Ricotta and Gluten-Free Migas

Tomato Season is rapidly becoming a full-blown holiday in my book. If I worked for Hallmark I would start mass producing cards, tomato-grams, and heart shaped candy boxes filled with little cherry tomatoes for loved ones. The salad was dressed with a Charred Onion Vinaigrette made from the same red scallions as the risotto- light and tangy and unobtrusive, it's flavors gracefully becoming one with the juice which oozed out of the tomatoes themselves. And then, there was the cheese. Fresh ricotta cheese which was lighter and creamier than anything that I've ever seen lay dormant under the plastic film of a grocery store carton. It was buzzed with lemon juice and heavy cream and dolloped in little gobs of rich, salty love onto each plate. Aaron made the gluten-free croutons using Miller's Asiago Cheese bread, drizzled with olive oil and garlic and toasted to a crispy finish.

Roasted Lamb Chops with Rosemary and Parmesan Red-Skinned Potatoes and Lemon Cucumber Tzatziki

The lamb was simple and paired perfectly with the Lemon Cucumber Tzatziki Sauce, which is the absolute perfect summer hook up. Apparently, you can tell how much a person loves you by how much time they put into their condiments. Lamb chops and tzatziki sauce was the first dish Aaron ever made me when we started dating. Later in our relationship, one night I asked if he had changed the recipe. Surprised, he looked at me and said no. "Oh," I said. "The sauce tastes different than the first time you made it. That's all." He laughed. "The first time I made it, I was still trying to impress you. I pureed the cucumber and blended it directly into the yogurt. Now that we've been together so long, I just chopped it. I didn't think you'd notice." Uhhh thanks. In fairness, I guess that's how I feel about shaving my legs. Last night he must have been feeling the love though, because the sauce was cool, crisp and refreshing. Fresh lemon cucumbers were buzzed with Chobani Greek Yogurt. The potatoes were oven-roasted in olive oil and chopped with rosemary and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. They were hot and crispy, and each bite coated your mouth in a salty, cheesy goodness that was as familiar and comforting as only a childhood favorite can be.

And then there was dessert.

Shelly, creator of Moondance Dessert is a genius- pure and simple. Her cheesecake crusts are made with, as far as I can tell, pecan, shortbread cookies, sugar, and crack cocaine. They are unbelievable, and come in perfectly portioned individual sizes at Whole Foods. We got their classic cheesecake, and Aaron made a blueberry compote with fresh lemon juice and sugar for a sweet, fruity compliment to the smooth, creamy cake and buttery crust.

I love dessert.

In the end, our little division of household labor really works out in my favor. It pays to have a blonde moment or two and sacrifice some burnt sheet trays to the greater cause. It's my turn to take care of dinner next, so look forward to an update on local gluten-free take out.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"Too Few People Really Understand A Good Sandwich" -James Beard

New Yorkers call it a "hero." In New Jersey, it's a "sub." If you are in Philly, you'll only get it if you call it a "hoagie." 

For Celiacs, it doesn't matter what it's called, we can't eat it anyway, so everyone just shut the fuck up about it already.

At least, that's how my life used to be.

And then, like the shadow of an action hero emerges slowly out of the wreckage towards Camera 2, back lit by bursts of flames and buildings collapsing in the background, one man came into my life.

His name is Chef Peter McAndrews.

And he believes that sandwiches, whether you call them hoagies, subs, heros, grinders, blimpies, or poor boys, are a basic, inalienable right which cannot and should not be stripped from any American, regardless of race, creed, color, or intestinal ability.

McAndrews owns several restaurants in Philadelphia, all of which I will rave about in separate, and most likely multiple future posts. Two of his children have Celiac, and all of his restaurants are super gluten-free friendly. I'm not just talking about some crappy gluten-free menu omitting all the good stuff, informing the reader in an exasperatingly cheerful type-face that they can eat "any of the above sandwiches without bread" (thanks guys, I could have never made that intellectual leap on my own). I'm talking about gluten-free dishes that are so amazing and delicious that the first twenty words you would use describe them would not even include "gluten-free" because their gluten-freeness becomes just another inherent composition of the dish, like "beef" or "pork" or "chicken."

So, anyway, we will start off with the basics. And the basics for me are that I live in South Philadelphia, home of Pat's, Geno's, John's and Bill, the old Italian guy who lives down the street from me, and I had not had a freaking sandwich that was any good in at least eight years.

Which brings us Paesano's. They have two locations- one on S. 9th Street in the Italian Market and one on Girard at 2nd.

Walk into Paesano's from the bustle of the Italian Market- cars triple parked, wayward bicyclists weaving though vendors and carts, and the smell of cured meat and fresh seafood- and you will be greeted by a chalkboard hanging over the counter, framing the small kitchen which echos the sound of metal spatulas on a sizzling grill. The guy behind the counter will usually be wearing a grey houndstooth fedora cocked to one side and a blue t-shirt with yellow text proudly posing the question to end all questions: "Jaeatyet?"

Today, I'm going with the basics. The Daddywad. $7. On gluten-free bread of course.

The Daddywad is an Italian Hoagie made with delectable layers of Mortadella with Pistachio, Genoa Salami, Sopressata Cappacotta and Prosciutto Di Parma. To me, these words strung together are strangely reminiscent of something that your Great Uncle Sal starts mumbling when he has one too many shots of Sambuca (I grew up in an Irish-Catholic family where lunch meats were simply referred to as "ham" or "turkey.") But this salty, delicious, slightly spicy blend of meat is cushioned by thick slices of Sharp Provolone and is pretty much the best thing ever. The sandwich is finished with arugula, tomato, onion, and both sweet and hot peppers, and it's oily, hoagie-y deliciousness seeps all over the thin sheets of deli paper like little drizzles of happiness as you struggle to strike the perfect balance between enjoying it as it should be, and not ruining your shirt.

But let's be real here. We know the sandwich rocks. For people with Celiac, the meats, the veggies, the cheeses could be hand-crafted by Jesus Christ himself and we would still raise an eyebrow and ask skeptically, "Okay. But how's the bread?" The bread holds up to the sandwich in a way I have not seen anywhere before. It stays intact, which, as we all know, is a huge check in the "Win Column" for gluten-free breads off the bat. It comes lightly toasted, but is still as spongey as gluten-free bread can get. The gluten-free rolls are a bit smaller than the regular rolls, so there is some lunch meat carnage, but nothing that can't be scooped up and rescued into the ends of the sandwich roll. It even holds in the refrigerator really well for one day if you can only eat half your sandwich (I should clarify: I don't actually know if it holds well for longer than one day because I have never been able to wait more than one day to eat my leftovers). Because it doesn't seep the oils into the roll and get soggy, I actually feel like it holds up better than regular bread. I am not sure what its main ingrediant is, but it is one of the best gluten-free sandwich rolls I have had.

And so now, I can officially join the debate. It's called a hoagie.

Visit Paesano's
(Word of advice: just call ahead and ask if they have gluten-free bread because sometimes they run out)

1017 S. 9th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

152 W. Girard Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19123