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Dining at the Gluten-Free Summit

September 15, 2009

GF Summit 025

“We don’t eat, we dine.”
– Larry Dickenson, Master of Ceremonies, Day One

The quote above sums up the experience I enjoyed this past weekend when I had the pleasure of participating in the 4th Annual Gluten-Free Culinary Summit, which was hosted by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY.  Bolstered by the Summit’s popularity over the last three years, this year’s Summit was split into two editions, one for the East Coast and one for the West.  Seeing as Denver is a bit of a drive from Boston, I was only too happy to drive down to the beautiful Hudson River Valley for this unique two-day event.

We at the Whole Grains Council know all about the challenges so many people face when following a gluten-free lifestyle.  Phone calls and emails come to us every day on the topic of gluten intolerance, and the WGC is only too happy to impart our collective knowledge and experience whenever we can.  There are more gluten-free whole grains than there are gluten-containing grains, yet this fact always seems to surprise. And that is a shame, for a varied diet that incorporates these nutrient rich whole grains is proving to be more and more important for the gluten-intolerant.  I had the honor of presenting on this very subject, for although I myself am good friends with gluten, the number of people in my life who aren’t keeps growing.  Many of the attendees to this weekend’s Summit were celiac patients, so although they may have had some knowledge pertaining to gluten-free whole grains, my mission was to fit as much information as possible into my 15 minutes of fame.

After all, the star of this weekend’s Summit was the food.  How could it be otherwise?  My fellow presenters were some of the CIA’s top culinary professors, award-winning chefs, or acclaimed cookbook authors.  Each chef-instructor who stepped behind the red marble counter of the CIA’s kitchen amphitheater had years of culinary experience tucked beneath their chef hats.  And as should be expected at a culinary summit of this nature, every one of them had vast experience cooking for special diets.

Best of all, every gluten-free recipe they demoed, we tasted.  The angel food cake was airy and light with the chewy, almost spongy mouth feel identical to every angel food cake I’ve ever eaten.  There was a chocolate version too, and when we tasted it all rolled up with a chocolate ganache, it was a perfect Swiss roll.  The focaccia was firm and springy and not at all dense, and the caramelized onions in the recipe gave it just the right subtle sweetness.  The buttermilk biscuit was, in a word, heaven!  It was the perfect savory-or-sweet dough that carried the buttermilk’s soft tang to my pallet without any sour, and its texture was so close to a madeleine that I would’ve been thrilled to eat it as a dessert. The todi serpent, a very traditional Italian sweet, was nutty and complex with a fluffy crumbly texture and so much moisture it reminded me of banana nut bread.

And those were just the cooking demos!  I missed Day One’s breakfast and lunch (thanks Mass Pike!), but the meals I enjoyed included garlic-thyme soup with crispy oysters, roast quail with quinoa and fennel sausage stuffing (pictured), bruschetta with bell pepper and gorgonzola, pasta with a pancetta Bolognese, and charred corn and quinoa ravioli.  And the desserts… oh, my sweet tooth!  We were served a deconstructed apple pie, fresh doughnuts, a choice of tartlets including lemon and caramel pecan, peanut butter truffles filled with peanut butter ice cream, beignets served with berries, and a black pepper strawberry ice cream in fresh waffle cones.

Of all the details about our meals, nothing impressed me more than learning every recipe had been prepared and was presented by the CIA’s graduating class. They were our servers, our chefs, our demo assistants, and they designed and prepared the entire menu for our dinner Saturday night.  They even participated in a recipe contest that took place over the course of both days, devising their own gluten-free recipes for us to sample and judge.  Many of the students confessed to knowing next to nothing about gluten-free cooking prior to this year’s Summit, and they conducted themselves with enthusiasm and appreciation for the very serious ramifications a single gluten contamination might cause.  It’s one thing to fear a failing grade, but it’s quite another to know you have the health and comfort of 50+ total strangers resting in your oven mitts.

Beyond the recipes and the experience, I did of course come home with some fantastic tips and pointers I want to share with you:

  • First, a new trick for cooking and cooling grains. After boiling, strain and spread the cooked grains on a cookie sheet for at least 30 minutes, fluffing several times with a fork to fully separate the individual grains.  This will improve the texture of your recipes and ensure your whole grains impart as much of their own natural flavor as possible.  Once cooled, grains can be frozen, refrigerated, or put immediately to use in a cold salad.
  • Refrigeration is your friend when working with any gluten-free dough. For cookie dough, bread dough, pie crusts and pastries, dough will be easier to shape and form if you chill them first, even if only for 15 minutes.
  • When adapting any recipe, look at the list of ingredients and ask yourself, “What is the function of this ingredient?” For example, wheat flour contains gluten which provides binding and rising action and provides protein, so substitute with a binding agent plus leavening plus protein.
  • Pinto flour or any other bean flour works very well for pastas, so well that you can even run the resulting dough through a pasta machine.

As I mentioned, the Summit will also have a West Coast incarnation, so there’s still time for interested participants to register for the Denver festivities.  Just click here to visit The Gluten-Free Lifestyle’s registration page to sign up today.  If you live gluten-free, trust me, you don’t want to miss this opportunity to learn how you too can move from just eating to truly dining.

– Kara

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