Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind was beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza" -Dave Barry

I remember distinctly what one of sixteen-year-old-me's first reaction to my diagnosis with Celiac was. Allergic to pizza and beer? College is going to suck.

And it did suck, at first. Sitting in the dining hall with an entirely new group of people and explaining why you are eating a sad, plain grayish colored piece of grilled chicken that's been Saran-wrapped and sitting in a hot box for three hours instead of pasta and waffle fries like everyone else? Having the, "It's not an allergy, it's a chromosomal malfunction... (sigh) sure, kind of like an X-Man... I guess...Wheat monster? Gluten girl? Wow, yeah those are funny...I'll think about it...Uh, I have to go..." conversation with weirdos at the allergy station again and again? Your face melting into about four shades of red and utter mortification when, at your first party, a drunk upperclassman stands on a chair and announces to the entire room "NOBODY GIVE THIS GIRL A BEER. SHE WILL DIE!!!"? I probably could have done without those.

But eventually, I figured it out. A little too well, maybe. My roommates were always good about the separate pots and pans and toaster rule (to their credit, even when hammered), and eventually became gluten-free experts in their own right. We even managed to get priority housing one year thanks to my...disability. I started packing a lunch to take to the dining hall, avoiding the "allergy station" (and thus, uncomfortable comic-book-based conversations) all together. And, I developed a highly efficient system of dumping a  handle of tequila into one of those margarita party bags and sticking a straw in it for parties.

My sister (also gluten-free) is a freshman at University of Delaware this year, and I know she is stuck figuring it out too (if you are reading this Mom, I didn't tell her anything about the margaritas). Athough judging by her recent appearance wearing a toga in my facebook mini-feed, she seems to be adapting quite well.

Fortunately, for her, and future generations of college-bound students, it's getting better. Like, a lot better. A ton of schools now offer gluten free dining options (Check out this website for 14 Colleges That Cater to Gluten Free Students or, add your own on this posting).

In addition to that, the resources for gluten free pizza are becoming gloriously abundant. Some of my personal favorites include Jules Thin Crust Pizza with locations in Jenkintown, Doylestown, and Newtown PA, and Georgio's on Pine in Philadelphia. I was also super excited to hear news that my favorite person (you know who I'm going to say here, right? Peter McAndrews, owner of Paesano's, Monsu, and Modo Mio) is opening a brick oven pizzeria in Media in the fall. For a more complete list of pizza places in and around Philadelphia, the always awesome Gluten Free Philly blog has the best compilation of gluten free restaurants that I've ever seen, separated by cuisine (just click on Italian and Pizza).

And then there's the issue of beer. I was twenty-three when I had my first beer, a dark, lager-style Redbridge at the National Foundation For Celiac Awareness' Appetite For Awareness event (which occurs every September and is amazing, if you live in the Philadelphia area you should really go). My dad was so proud he looked like he was going to cry. And, as you all know from reading my past posts over and over again, I did enjoy a beer at Citizen's Bank Park at a Phillies game (and, more recently, at the Wells Fargo Center for a 76ers game), but I have never really been a big beer drinker.

But Dogfish Head Craft Brewery might have changed all that. The Delaware-based brewers have introduced Tweason'ale, a certified gluten-free beer that's sorghum-based, and light and delicious with notes of strawberry and honey. And man is it good. It's incredibly easy to drink, a beautiful blend of almost-effervescent sweet and tart, but with a distinct dark and (faux) malty complexity thanks to the buckwheat honey. I ordered a glass on tap at South Philly Tap Room last night and enjoyed every minute of it. Best of all, it doesn't taste like a gluten-free beer. The sorghum taste is all but non-existant, thanks to the subtle nuances and fruity flavors that have been so delicately crafted to create a glorious sympohny of 6.0 ABV.

So, for you gluten-free college students playing beer pong with craft ales and margarita buckets, I say, stay classy... From what I've smelled of day-old Natty Light on the floor of a frat house, you aren't missing out on anything.

Monday, February 13, 2012

La cucina piccola fal la casa grande -Italian Proverb

Thank God for TiVo.

Got invited to a work function on a Thursday night and were too embarrassed to tell your boss you really can't miss this week's episode of Jersey Shore? No problem. Spoiler Alert: This week, Snookie gets drunk, Ronnie and Sam break up get back together break up, Mike and Pauly try to smash with girls at the club, and everyone gets melanoma.

Not that I have much room to record much of anything, what with every single episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations saved by Aaron. He likes to keep them, watch them over and over again, and you know...get inspired. Last month, it took everything I could do to convince him that buying a white linen suit and fedora and booking a puddle-jumper from Miami just to get an authentic Cuban sandwich might not be the most thought-out plan ever. "But Tony did it...."

Well, fortunately for me, last night he watched an episode where Tony goes to Naples, and it inspired the shit out of him. Now our whole house smells like garlic and tomatoes, a delicious scent which, by the way Febreze should really consider adopting for their next line of air fresheners. I'd rather smell pots of house-made marinara and sweet garlic and basil than Yumberry Sangria or Glistening Alpine any day.

So Tony visited someone's Italian mother in Naples who stood over a pot that had been simmering since like, ten in the morning, chain smoking a cigarette and speaking rapid fire Italian as she chopped onions and as the beautiful, rich red TV-screen sauce bubbled, spattering itself all over the stove and the sink (which, if you look closely, is on top of the washing machine) we knew that we had to have Italian tonight.

Forgive the redundancy because I know that I just posted about Italian food, but after seeing this woman move so deftly and with such incredible purpose and intent in her natural element, Aaron was inspired enough that I came home and had a weird de-ja-vous moment of seeing an identical pot blub-blub-blubbing on my own stove and I immediately knew two things: First: I was going to have to get up early tomorrow and go to the gym because second: it was going to be a very very very good night. It didn't hurt that I also saw this...

...which is pretty much the carnivorous equivalent of a Jenna Jameson movie. So I had the feeling that it wasn't going to suck.

But, to appease the middle part of the food pyramid that mentions something about vegetables and leafy greens, we started with a salad. Annie's sells an amazing Buttermilk Ranch Dressing (available at Whole Foods) which not only puts all other Ranch Dressings to shame, but locks them in the bathroom and steals their clothing just to make a point. Toss some lettuce, cucumbers, feta cheese, hard-boiled eggs, oh...and that crispy pancetta in the picture that your cursor keeps accidentally grazing, and the end result is a salad that is not so much a healthy prelude to a meal but a salty, creamy homage to green stuff drizzled in delicious stuff that hits every note of perfection and sticks it's tongue out at those commercials where stick-thin models spray their salads with what appears to be zero calorie sunscreen.

This dinner was partially about the fact that Aaron is a freaking amazing cook, and partially about the fact that the availability of really great gluten free products has hit a level of epic proportion. Whole Foods now carries RP's, a brand of fresh-made gluten free pasta made with brown rice flour, potato starch and egg. It can be served al dente, and instead of that mushy texture that a lot of packaged gf pasta has, it has a toothy, chewy mouth feel that is reminiscent of semolina or durham flour. Aaron browned some beef and stewed it in his big pot of red sauce concoction, and the result was a gluten free pasta that I would swear tasted like it stepped off the boat, registered at Ellis Island, and set up shop in the Italian Market. I was actually surprised that it didn't smack my hand with a wooden spoon and yell at me in a foreign language.

The fine people at Grandma's Grotto (see posting below) sent me home with a goodie bag of frozen foods, which included a loaf of garlic bread which we took great pleasure in heating up and sopping up tasty morsels of ground beef popping with acidic, tangy, tomato sauce in a crispy blanket of melted butter and garlic.

And then Aaron, in his infinite wisdom and knowledge of all things glorious, pounded out two top round steaks until they were thin and layered ricotta cheese, gf bread crumbs, shallots, basil and Parmesan cheese on top, and rolled it up like a cannoli, tying it with butcher twine (see photo above). He seared the outside of the meat and then placed it in a small oval pan and covered it with red sauce and let the inside of the meat cook through. The braciole came out of the oven, ricotta cheese bubbling and browning like a little ode to lasagna, topped with fresh picked basil leaves and cracked crystals of sea salt. He sliced the meat down, and it perched on my plate, amid melty gooey ricotta cheese, next to the pasta, a silent watchdog keeping guard over pasta and delicately crafted sauce.

All in all, it was a wildly successful dinner. I'm going to need a little more "G" (as in GTL) in my life after eating two plates of pasta and almost an entire loaf of bread. But most importantly, Aaron brought a little taste of Naples, sans the heaping piles of glutenous pastas and breads to our kitchen. Which does not include a washing machine.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"Leave the gun. Take the cannoli" -The Godfather

There are certain things that I have resigned myself that I will never be able to go out to a restaurant and order. Onion rings. Mozzarella sticks. Chicken fingers. Garlic bread.

I thought maybe I could bribe Aaron with a bottle of Makers 46 into coming up with some recipes, but I'm afraid to mention it for fear that we will end up with a top of the line deep fryer in our already-crowded kitchen next to the remote-controlled rice cooker or the voice-activated salad spinner.
Now, I don't have to. I found Grandma's.

Grandma's Grotto is a little New York-style Italian restaurant in Horsham, PA, located off of Easton Road. It's the kind of place I would normally drive right by, with a sigh and a wayward glance back in my rear-view mirror as I lament the myriad of fried foods and Italiany goodness that I will never enjoy again.

Or so I thought. Turns out, Grandma has gone gluten free.

They are doing their entire menu gf. And when I say entire, I mean entire. I walked in to find this:

If you are wondering if that is a giant display case entirely filled with shelves upon shelves of gluten free pastries, the answer is a resounding, sugar-fueled yes.

It's not just the pastries, though. Grandma's Grotto is committed to providing a full menu of items that have traditionally been off-limits. And we will start with the most delicious, melty, cheesy, deep fried food of all: mozzarella sticks.

That's right. I love mozzarella sticks. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I mean, who thinks about dredging creamy mozzarella cheese in eggwash and breadcrumbs and then deep frying the whole damn thing? Someone with my disregard for the health of their arteries. As a teenager, I lived on deep-fried fast food. Ciara and I spent hours after school at the local pizza place taking advantage of our not-yet-crapped-out metabolisms by enjoying oil soaked complex carbohydrates and greasy goodness. It's been nine years since I've had one though, and I was beginning to worry I wouldn't remember how delicious they were. Or worse: what if my taste buds had changed and would somehow not recognize the inherent greatness of fried cheese. But, when I took my first bite into the hot, crunchy crust and felt it cave in and melt with gooey, warm, stringy cheese, I knew that it was love. Again.

Next up, chicken fingers. It's been kind of a while since I've had chicken tenders that weren't shaped like dinosaurs (not a sophisticated first-date food), so I was happy to experience a more, shall we say, adult version of this crowd-favorite

 And then, in an instant, my life changed. I ate my first onion ring.

Most people probably don't remember where they were when they ate their first onion ring. They probably don't remember the way the sweet, slightly soft onion slid out of it's crispy, crunchy, salty casing and created a feeling of deep fried joy and love. Then again, most people probably aren't in their mid twenties the first time they had an onion ring. I was officially in my happy place.

Those were just the appetizers.

For lunch (yes, all of this food was consumed over the course of one, very delicious lunch followed by one, not at all productive rest of the day spent wishing my pants had an elastic waist band) the main courses were ravioli and penne with vodka sauce.

The ravioli was delicious- smooth ricotta cheese snugly nestled into beautiful little pockets of pasta and smothered with huge chunks of tomato sauce. The vodka sauce was creamy, and the perfect compliment to another delicious side dish: buttery, crispy, toasted garlic bread.

This is how Italians designed bread to be eaten. Smothered in love and dragged through marinara sauce. God bless them for that.

More than that, though, the staff was friendly and helpful and clearly knew their shit. It's always nice to know that you are in the company of those who won't accidentally kill you. These guys are seriously dedicated to making sure that their menu stays completely gluten free. All of their products are made in-house, so that they are fresh, delicious, and constantly changing and developing.They work with some great vendors like Mr. Ritts and Katz and and sell flour mixes, breads, frozen pizzas, cinnamon buns, and pretty much everything else you could ever want out of their store as well.

But before we were done, there was still one more thing to take care of. There was still that tiny matter of the pastry display case in the beginning....

Gluten free cannoli?

Cheese? Check. Cream? Check. Chocolate? Check. All rolled together in a delicious flaky pasty dough and topped with powdered sugar?

Dear God, yes.

The cannoli is a thing of freaking beauty. It might surpass The Birth of Venus or the Mona Lisa on the scale of Italian masterpieces. It is a delicious slice of heavenly pastry that would have been lost of my palate if not for the fine people at Grandma's.

I owe them. Grazie, guys.