Enjoying New Foods in your Gluten-Free Life
“It’s just a matter of your approach and the philosophy you take with you when you step into the kitchen . . .” Jenn Oliver
If you’re like most of us, you eat the same foods over and over again. I know I’m in a rut. I walked past broccolini in the store the other day and had a flash of interest before moving on. I might be missing something wonderful there or with the parsnip that’s in my fridge. (I got bold and bought it. But haven’t cooked it.)
Jenn Oliver enjoys trying new foods and shares that lifestyle with us on Jenn Cuisine. She’s an American living in Switzerland, cooking gluten-free for her husband. Some find cooking gluten-free to be a burden. Jenn doesn’t. Read on to see her take on new foods. And enjoy the beautiful photos she’s shared with us here.
Q & A:
Your website says, “Food is deeply connected to how we define and see ourselves, and how we relate to others.” How does food define who you are?
To me, activities surrounding food are inherently social, and growing up food was always enjoyed together, with friends and/or family. There is a ritual and sharing that I found through enjoying food with others, and always viewed cooking and eating as a time for making bonds and connecting with other people. I believe much of our culture is defined by how we interact with others, and so I see those activities relating to food as a deep reflection and reinforcement of those cultural values – and eating is a daily activity – I believe the more we eat and share food with others, the richer our lives become.
Most of us have the same meals and eat the same foods over and over again, month after month. You embrace the new – quail eggs, truffle oil, chanterelle mushrooms. Share with us the path to trying new foods.
I think I have always been open to trying new foods – I never was a picky eater, and I’m willing to give anything a shot at least once – and I fully understand that if I don’t like something it may not be because I don’t like the food, but that I just didn’t like the way in which it was prepared.
When I got to college and started cooking more on my own, it became a grand daily experiment, and that’s essentially how I taught myself to cook – I would walk around a market or grocery store, pick up some produce item that I had no idea what it was, and see what I could make with it. I still do that from time to time, and it’s a fun activity living in a foreign country where there are lots of foods available here that I normally would not be able to find so easily in the U.S. And when I met my husband and learned he was gluten free, that introduced an entire world of brand new-to-me ingredients that I might not have ever taken the time to notice or play with otherwise.
Also when we eat out, I try to go for dishes that I would not cook at home – and often ones with ingredients I might not normally pick up. For ex., that’s how I learned that I like Jerusalem artichokes – we spent Christmas in Austria this year, and Jerusalem artichoke soup was always on the menu when we ate out – so, intrigued, I had to give it a try – and then once we came back home I was determined to find them and figure out how to cook with them, because I loved their flavor. I guess I just generally take the philosophy that I’ll probably like most anything, and so I don’t approach new food with trepidation but rather a sense of adventure – it’s certainly more fun that way.
Do you research the time it takes to cook a quail egg or the uses of truffle oil before working with them?
Sometimes, it depends. I did look up cooking quail eggs because they were a bit pricey and I didn’t want to waste them by botching them up. But other things I will just “wing it” and see what happens. I may browse the internet for a variety of recipes just to see how other people use them or what they are paired with, and then just keep that as a general idea in the back of my head when I go to cook something.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I really do enjoy playing the game of “well let’s see what inspires me at the market and we’ll plan from there.” When I go shopping, I always go to the market first because I find the quality and freshness is generally superior compared to what I find in my local grocery store. I’ll choose things that sound good, and then from there my husband and I usually chat together as ideas start to flow about what we should create with what we just purchased – and that will often influence the rest of our market purchases or help define our grocery list.
Living in Europe, I’ve found produce availability is much more seasonally dictated than when I was living in the U.S. – I can’t just buy whatever I want any time of the year, and those things that are out of season that are available (from far away) are really not awesome in flavor. So it’s easy for me to want to choose fresh/seasonal ingredients at the market, because they simply taste the best (and they are much much more affordable which also helps.)
You say on your website, “Learning and discovering the main concepts behind making gluten free food has been surprisingly freeing.” Many would think anything gluten-free was difficult, not freeing, so what do you mean by that?
To me it’s all about attitude – I could focus on all of the things that I can’t make because of my husband’s gluten issues and be depressed about it, or I could embrace what we can make and set ourselves on a path for discovery of new flavors and foods. To me it’s a simple choice as to which is more enjoyable. And really, there isn’t that much I find that is lacking from our day to day diet.
Learning about gluten free did a lot to get me cooking from scratch rather than from a box. It taught me how to experiment, try new techniques, and become a more educated home cook. Don’t get me wrong, some parts about gluten free food are difficult – for ex. I have yet to come up with a bread recipe that I am completely happy with, and I still have yet to tackle other traditional baked goods to satisfaction, such as biscuits or puff pastry. But really I would not know nearly as much as I do about cooking and baking in general if it weren’t for my husband’s gluten issues.
Before I knew about gluten free, I was stuck in a paradigm that regular AP [all-purpose] flour was the only way things could be made. Since learning how to make GF food, I have discovered that flour can be used to flavor a dish just as much as any other ingredients – buckwheat, almonds, chestnuts, beans, quinoa, coconut, they all can impart flavor directly into the baked good by using their flours, and so baking GF has opened up a brand new set of options for flavoring a dish. I encourage people who do not need to be GF to try baking with some of the GF flours, if for no other reason than to see the multitude of tastes and combinations that can be made by incorporating some of the GF ingredients.
Gluten free got me out of my comfort zone in the kitchen and to it helped me to view limitations as opportunities rather than challenges – and that is when real creativity and discovery can happen.
Not long at all. At first there was the dilemma of “hmmm now what in the world am I going to cook for this guy?” and so I started cooking dishes that were naturally gluten free, i.e. those that required no alterations that I could make just like I’ve always made. That was a great discovery experience for the both of us, because before he met me he was just as clueless as to how to enjoy a GF lifestyle, and so we experimented and learned together. And then I gradually started using all-purpose GF flour mixes to try to recreate versions of some conventional baked items, such as pizza, etc., as well as simpler things like gravies and soups. Just knowing those things worked out great for us for a while, and we could make a number of flavorful meals knowing just those things – but curiosity got the best of me and I kept looking at the options available to GF home cooks/bakers, and have continued on that path of discovery ever since.
The feeling of creating a successful dish is just so exhilarating. I remember making a GF peach pie for my father-in-law (who is also gluten free) – I think it was the first peach pie he’d eaten in years and he was over the moon about it – it’s such a wonderful experience to know that a simple act of preparing food can bring such joy to someone. I think it all can be fun. It’s just a matter of your approach and the philosophy you take with you when you step into the kitchen – and as with any cooking, it’s always more fun cooking with others.
You don’t have to eat gluten-free but have chosen to embrace this life for your husband. Is your home gluten-free? Do you have any tips for others in a similar situation?
Our home is not completely gluten free, but our system works for us. Not being a doctor, I won’t claim that what we do works for everyone, and I am sure there are several people who do need to live in a completely GF environment. And once we have children, depending on their allergy issues, we may decide that we need to change our methods a bit.
As it is only my husband who needs to be GF, I do keep “evil gluten granola” and “evil gluten pasta”, and even “evil gluten bread” from time to time. Those are the only gluten things in our home, and mainly that is for cost reasons more than anything else – we do buy some GF products, and those things are expensive – for ex. the GF bread my husband can find here amounts to over $1 per slice of bread! That bread is a treat for him, and I cannot in my mind think it ok to take that away from him by eating his bread when I know I can eat the “evil gluten bread” without issue for myself for one tenth of the price. If we were rich and could afford that price for everyone, it would be a different story.
To prevent contamination, we keep the gluten ingredients well separated and/or sealed away. If I am going to use a gluten ingredient for myself (like say, pasta), I will make his first and serve it to him to get it out of the kitchen, and then make mine and clean the kitchen thoroughly. Right away. I clean the kitchen a lot. Even a few stray crumbs can create a gluten contamination, so by choosing to have gluten in our home, I am extra vigilant in doing everything I can to prevent that from occurring.
I will spoon jam into a separate container for myself for spreading on gluten bread, so there is no risk of double dipping and contaminating the whole jar. Same for any other condiments. Certain utensils don’t get shared between gluten and GF foods. And I would never ever ever ever bake with gluten-containing flours, because flour can hang in the air for extended periods of time and thus the risk of contamination is way too great. Besides, what fun is baking a gluten-filled cake if I can only share it with myself?
Obviously, it is easiest if we both eat gluten free. And that is what we do most of the time. I have no issue with eating GF food, and most of what we eat on a day to day basis is naturally gluten free anyways – lots of veggies, rice, potatoes, meats, eggs, dairy, fruits, it’s amazing the diversity one can cook without ever having to reach for an ingredient to replace gluten.
I tried two of her recipes, I’d never made pesto or a reduction so I stepped outside by comfort zone for these. And I really enjoyed trying something new. My photos aren’t yet at Jenn’s skill level
The pesto is simple to make and was good on chicken. I did have to substitute for the pine nuts because I didn’t find them at the store. I used cashews – one little white nut substituting for another – and it was quite good. Update: I put this on a hamburger patty and it was great there, too. I see many possibilities for this pesto.
The strawberry balsamic reduction was fun to make. My strawberries didn’t have a huge amount of flavor, even though it’s spring, so the dressing was light on the strawberry flavor. Next time I make this, I’m going to make sure they’re flavorful strawberries.
I’ve watched hour upon hour of the Food Network for years so I’d seen pesto and reductions made many times. I’m glad I finally tried them.