Down-Home Cooking on a Gluten-Free, Wheat-Free Diet
How it all began
A month before our wedding my now spouse was diagnosed with a severe sensitivity to gluten. Within the next two months, both of us lost our stable, good-paying jobs. This left us with an interesting challenge: how to eat on a budget while avoiding many of the low-cost foods that had gotten us through other financially tight spots.
Creative thinking, a lot of internet searches, and some trial and error have gotten us through the past year. Since the issue of gluten intolerance is becoming more and more prevalent, I have put together a few tips on switching over to gluten-free cooking for those of you who, like myself, have little time and few resources to sink into a dietary overhaul.
One word of caution: These tips are from my family experience only. If you have or suspect any serious food allergies or a health condition such as Celiac disease, you should consult your doctor first before following any dietary suggestions.
Overhauling the pantry
When going gluten-free, some careful examination will need to be made not only on items you now buy at the grocer’s but also on any pre-packaged items that currently reside in your pantry. Unless specifically marked as certified gluten-free, all those handy “cream of” soups will need to go (Stay with me, I’ll give you some ideas for replacing them later.). Take a careful look at labels on any tomato sauces or soups. Anything with modified cornstarch, maltodextrin or maltodextrose needs to be replaced as well. Of course, most pastas and breads will also need to be removed.
If some individuals in your family can still harmlessly ingest gluten, using the pre-packaged foods from your pantry can be done with care. Make sure any gluten-filled leftovers are not stored in porous containers that will be later used by the gluten-intolerant family member since unseen gluten residue can cause reactions. Also refrain from using ground wheat flour in the same kitchen as you are preparing gluten-free dishes. Sometimes food that has had even a “long distance telephone call” with gluten can be an irritant. The best way to purge your pantry of the gluten may well be to pack all the cans and packages into a box and donate it to your local food pantry.
New items will become staples in your pantry. I couldn’t do without corn flour these days. Rice flour, although more expensive, is also a good staple to keep around. Corn starch can be kept to replace wheat flour as a thickener in gravies and soups. Tapioca flour, again a little more pricey, is another good alternative.
Our biggest adjustment has been switching from gluten-filled pasta to other affordable starches. While enriched wheat macaroni and cheese can feed a family on a couple dollars per meal, gluten-free pasta is not only much more expensive but often comes in textures and flavors that are, frankly, an acquired taste. Any household preparing for freedom from gluten will be well-advised to invest in a rice cooker. Spanish rice, with or without seasoned hamburger, is a great inexpensive meal that can be whipped up in half an hour or less. Cheesy rice and broccoli is another great option. We even enjoy piles of white rice with our eggs and sausage on Saturday mornings; and with a good gluten-free soy sauce (also called “tamerin”), stir fry over rice has become another family favorite. The Italian peasant food polenta is also a great replacement for pasta, but I have found that even using the pre-prepared polenta (It comes in yellow tubes, usually found in the produce section of your grocery store, along with salad vegetables.) takes 45 minutes or more, longer than I want to spend preparing dinner after a long day at work.
Practical weekday meals
Now that you have purged your pantry of all those handy soups and quick-preparation staples, how can you keep dinner preparation down to a manageable amount of time. As I mentioned earlier, a rice cooker comes in handy, and if you haven’t learned to use a crock pot before now, I would suggest you pull it out and dust it off. It will become your second best friend (Your best will be the rice cooker.). Those of you on a tight budget, will need to make your own soups from here on (unless you find a great sale at the local market).
My favorite way to keep the household fed is by cooking up a few batches of gluten-free food over the weekend. These foods vary from homemade mushroom soup, which can be refrigerated or frozen and used in the same way that we used to use the store-bought variety, to Spanish rice to a nice batch of baked potatoes that can be packed and taken as lunches during the following week.
The internet is full of great gluten-free recipes beyond what I can include in this brief introductory article. To get you started in the right direction, here are a few substitution options that can help you adapt some of your own favorite meals to the new needs of your family:
When breading fried chicken, I replace the wheat flour in my family recipe with half corn flour and half rice flour. For a slightly more crunchy and flavorful result, I have also used half cornmeal and half rice flour. My breading for pork cutlet is similar: a fifty-fifty mixture of corn flour and rice flour with the addition of rosemary and thyme to bring out the flavor in the pork.
For gravy, simply replace wheat flour with a half portion of corn starch.
Homemade soups are a great way to eat throughout the winter months.
A quart of leftover turkey broth and a quart of water combined with a 16 oz package of lentils (rinsed) and about a cup of chopped carrots tossed into the crock pot on low or medium heat in the morning will provide a great, warm supper about 8 hours later. To speed up the process, cook on high for the first hour and then turn down to low.
Replace that cream of tomato soup with this homemade version: Simmer 1 16 oz can of tomato puree (Hunt’s tomato sauce is gluten free.), 16 oz of milk, a tablespoon of dried basil over medium heat. Add a half stick of butter (direct from the refrigerator). Stir frequently. Soup is ready when the butter is completely melted. For a complete gluten-free meal, serve with popcorn instead of bread or crackers.
To your health
Whatever your reasons for choosing to go gluten-free, I wish you and your family all the best. Your habits will change, but your grocery bill doesn’t need to change along with it. Most important, your health should improve; and your mood should too, especially if you remember that ice cream is still an option (Breyer’s All Natural is our favorite.).