'I think about what I can eat," says Jeanine Friesen. "Not what I can't eat."
When she was diagnosed with celiac disease five years ago, the Steinbach-based food blogger and cookbook writer was determined to stay positive.
"It's a simple fix," Friesen points out. "I didn't need surgery. I didn't need medication."
"I just had to change the way I eat. And that's doable."
It's doable, but it can be challenging. May is Celiac Awareness month, which is part of a larger campaign to educate Canadians about a disease in which gluten proteins cause damage to the small intestine and interfere with nutrient absorption. Wheat, rye and barley all contain gluten, so it's found in most conventional breads, pastas, cakes, cookies, cereals and pizza crusts. And while baked goods are the obvious culprits, many foods contain "hidden" gluten. According to Friesen, gluten can pop up in anything from ice cream to chicken broth. That means a lot of label reading.
It also means a lot of trial-and-error for everyday meals. After she was diagnosed, the mother of two started testing gluten-free recipes for herself and her family. When recipes worked, she would post them on her blog. "People would be getting back to me, saying, 'Thanks, we got pizza night back,'" says Friesen. "You realize that it's more then just you."
Friesen now blogs regularly on food and gluten-free living at www.thebakingbeauties.com. In March, she published her first cookbook, The Everything Guide to Living Gluten-Free (Adams Media, $18).
Going gluten-free does require some adjustment. "It's a totally different mindset," according to Friesen. "You have to think of things in a different way. A gluten-free dough will never be the same as a wheat-flour dough."
Gluten-free baking involves using a combination of flours and starches, often derived from potatoes, rice and corn, plus something like guar gum or xanthan gum to hold it all together. While there are all-purpose gluten-free flour replacements on the market, Friesen prefers to tinker with different blends. "You can't use an all-purpose mix and get a decent result for bread," she says.
Once found only in specialty and health food stores, gluten-free products are now widely available. Friesen can find what she needs at the chain stores in Steinbach. People living with celiac disease and others who are gluten-intolerant have been driving the demand for gluten-free foods. There has also been a recent surge from people who are following trendy Wheat Belly diets ("lose the wheat and lose the weight") or Paleolithic regimens.
Friesen has mixed feelings about the new gluten-free bandwagon.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword," she says. "We can find things in the grocery store we maybe couldn't find before. But at the same time people are maybe not taking it as seriously as they should. For us, it's not a lifestyle choice."
Friesen advises anyone starting a gluten-free diet to begin with the basics. "Fruits and vegetables and unprocessed meats are gluten-free," Friesen says. "Steak and potatoes are gluten free." And you don't have to replicate everything at once, Friesen points out: "Focus on what you can do, and slowly replace the things you really miss."
For Friesen, the things she missed most were cinnamon buns and pizza crust. Reclaiming those foods was a learning experience. "Oh, the pizza crusts we went through," she laments. "My poor family." After a series of tough, dry, heavy and almost inedible crusts, Friesen finally developed two tasty gluten-free versions, one crispy and one chewy.
Finding good gluten-free recipes can be hard work, Friesen admits, but it's worth it. "This is the way I'm going to eat for the rest of my life," the upbeat food writer declares. "So why wouldn't I meet it head on?"
This recipe contains quinoa, a quick-cooking, gluten-free grain that comes in handy when pasta and couscous are off the list.
Southwest Chicken Mango Quinoa
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) quinoa, rinsed and drained if necessary (some brands say "pre-rinsed")
750 ml (3 cups) gluten-free chicken broth
2 chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
15 ml (1 tbsp) olive oil
5 ml (1 tsp) salt
2 ml (1/2 tsp) black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
60 ml (1/4 cup) diced red onion
1/2 red pepper, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, finely diced
10 ml (2 tsp) chili powder
30 ml (2 tbsp) lime juice
1 mango, diced
125 ml (1/2 cup) chopped cilantro
In a medium saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a boil. Add the quinoa and stir. Turn the heat to low and place the lid on the pot. Cook for 15-20 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed. In a large skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat, saut© chicken in the olive oil until nearly done. Season with salt and pepper. Turn the heat to medium and add the garlic, red onion, red pepper and jalapeno pepper. Saut©, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the chili powder and stir. Place the cooked quinoa in a large bowl. Add in the chicken and onion mixture, lime juice, mango and cilantro and stir until mixed. Serve immediately, or allow to cool and refrigerate until ready to serve.
-- Adapted from thebakingbeauties.com
Tester's notes: This fast and easy dish is packed with fresh flavours, and it offers protein, grains, vegetables and even fruit in one bowl. Rinsing the quinoa is an important step -- it removes the grain's bitter outer coating -- and some cooks recommend rinsing even "pre-rinsed" versions. Using a fine-mesh sieve, rinse quinoa under cold running water, making sure to stir well, for two minutes.
Friesen's gluten-free sugar cookies snagged first prize in the My Cookies Are the Best contest sponsored by the Manitoba Canola Growers. These vanilla-infused treats even won out over regular gluten-y baking.
Gluten-free Sour Cream Sugar Cookies
60 ml (1/4 cup) sour cream
125 ml (1/2 cup) canola oil
310 ml (1 1/4 cups) granulated sugar
10 ml (2 tsp) vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
325 ml (1 1/3 cups) white rice flour
150 ml (2/3 cup) potato starch
150 ml (2/3 cup) tapioca starch
45 ml (3 tbsp) cornstarch
7 ml (1 1/2 tsp) xanthan gum
5 ml (1 tsp) baking soda
5 ml (1 tsp) baking powder
1 ml (1/4 tsp) salt
Preheat oven to 175 C (350 F), and line baking sheets with parchment paper. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together sour cream, oil, sugar, vanilla, egg and egg yolk until smooth. Set aside. Place all the remaining dry ingredients in a separate mixing bowl and whisk to combine. With the mixer running on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Mix on medium speed until completely blended.
Scoop 10 ml (2 tsp) dough on baking sheet, leaving 5 cm (2 inches) between cookies to allow for them to expand while baking. Dampen your hands with a small amount of water and roll the scooped dough into a smooth ball. This will give finished cookies a nice round shape. Bake cookies in preheated oven for 12-13 minutes, or until just slightly browned around the outside. Allow cookies to cool for a few minutes before moving them to a wire rack to cool completely. Only frost cookies when they are completely cooled, or frost the cookies just before serving them, so that the icing does not cause a problem when storing. Store cookies in an airtight container. Makes about 45 cookies.
(Cookies can be rolled in sugar before baking. Just spoon the dough into a bowl of sugar, and roll dough to coat. Form dough into balls and bake as directed.)
-- Adapted from thebakingbeauties.com
Tester's notes: These are different from sugar cookies baked with flour, but sometimes different is good. The chewy-tender texture really works. Friesen frosts these cookies with pink icing and sprinkles because that's the way her husband's grandmother made them, but they're also swell plain.