Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
The Celiac Awareness Tour comes to town this weekend. But it would appear that everyone's knowledge of the subject is exponentially greater than it used to be.
Celiac disease is an auto-immune disorder caused by gluten intolerance, leading to intestinal problems and pain; people who have it are supposed to avoid all gluten, or grain proteins.
And celiac sufferers aren't the only ones eating gluten-free. Others now believe that gluten-free diets help them manage a variety of medical conditions as well.
A decade ago, many of us never had heard of it and wouldn't even know if our lunch boxes were packed with food that contained gluten. Now, gluten-free sections are springing up not only in health food stores, but also in your neighborhood grocery and stores like Wal-Mart. Gluten-free products are now one of the biggest growth sectors in the grocery department even in a down economy.
Packaged Facts, a food market research group, reported that United States sales of gluten-free products totaled $1.6 billion in 2008; the group projects $2.6 billion in sales this year.
The Celiac Awareness Tour is put on by a company with the same name, working with gluten-free food companies and vendors across the nation. Pittsburgh is the tour's first stop; the rest are:
Louisville, Ky., Feb. 25; Indianapolis, March 24; Philadelphia, April 28; Columbus, May 26; Cincinnati, Sept. 22; Chicago, Oct. 13; and Cleveland, Nov. 17.
Search "Celiac Awareness Tour" on Facebook for additional information about Pittsburgh and some of the other upcoming stops.
Judy Dodd, a Giant Eagle registered dietitian who will speak at the tour Saturday at the Doubletree in Monroeville, has worked with celiac patients for 20 years. She says people today are much more aware of celiac than they were two decades ago. She now speaks routinely to school nurses and food service workers about going gluten-free.
Levon Kurkjian, vice president of marketing for Kettle Cuisine ( kettlecuisine.com ), a soup company that will have a sampling booth at the Celiac Awareness Tour, said his company went gluten-free with trepidation because market-watchers initially thought it was just a fad.
Kettle Cuisine has been making gluten-free soups for about 15 years but didn't start marketing them as such until 2008. Now, Mr. Kurkjian thinks gluten-free consumers are a stable and growing market presence.
He divides those customers into three categories. The first is celiac sufferers, now estimated (by groups such as the Celiac Disease Foundation) to be one person in every 133.
"For them, gluten-free is their only option, so that market is never going to go away, and it will even increase as awareness develops."
The second group is the gluten-intolerant group. Maybe they don't have celiac, but these consumers find that gluten-free diets help them feel better. This group includes some people who have digestive problems, autism, ADHD, and even arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Mr. Kurkjian thinks this group will continue to grow, too.
The third category is what he calls the "Oprah Effect" group -- people who go gluten-free without a medical reason or for weight loss. This is the group he sees as being short-term and faddish, although he finds a particular subcategory of this group interesting:
Professional athletes such as NFL star Drew Brees, who believe eating gluten-free helps them play better.
The growth in the gluten-free market has spawned a rise in small, niche-market companies making gluten-free products. The owners of two such companies, Naomi Poe of Better Batter ( betterbatter.org ) in Altoona and Jules Shepard of Jules Gluten Free ( julesglutenfree.com ) in Columbia, Md., will speak at the event.
Ms. Poe started her company in 2006, packaging her flour blends at a small facility in New York State and distributing them from Altoona.
Better Batter's annual growth rate has been huge. Now the company is selling 150,000 pounds of flours per month, but struggling to keep up with demand, sometimes selling out of certain products within 24 hours of availability.
It's not only more products that people are demanding, it's better quality. Gluten-free flours of yore were notorious for grittiness.
Ms. Shepard reports going through "the stages of grief" after her celiac diagnosis. Part of the problem was that "anything that's social has to do with food" -- think business lunches, dating, parties.
"I had always been an avid baker, but I couldn't bake anything that tasted good to me, much less that I would serve to anyone else."
She also was diagnosed with lactose intolerance, and aside from a small amount of seafood, she eats no meat. It got to the point where she felt like she was eating rice, rice cakes and one brand of cereal and that's about it.
Finally, pregnancy and the birth of her son prodded her to seek alternatives.
"I realized I had to be healthy for this kid and give healthy food to this kid," she said.
So she started from scratch.
"The conventional wisdom at the time said you should use rice flour in place of wheat flour. But I think rice flour is gritty, dry and crumbly."
So she tried other flours, but she never found one single flour that allowed her to "get back to that all-purpose flour nirvana." She knew she had to develop a flour blend.
For two years, she baked and blended and baked some more.
She'd find a blend that worked well for cookies but not for cakes. Or a blend that worked for cakes but made bad bread.
"I wanted one flour," she said. One true "all-purpose" flour.
She finally hit upon it, and in 2006 she published her flour blend recipe in her first cookbook, "Nearly Normal Cooking for Gluten-Free Eating."
But she heard from readers who wanted to buy the flour blend premade -- hence the start of her company, Jules Gluten Free.
She's tweaked the blend a tad over the years, though it has stayed roughly the same.
She'll use her flour in a ravioli recipe demo Saturday.
Ms. Poe tells a similar story of searching for the right flour, though her gluten-free lifestyle started with autism rather than celiac.
Her older son, Zion, has autism. She started the "autism diet" and her son shifted from low-functioning autism to high-functioning Asperger's syndrome, Ms. Poe claims.
In the process, the family discovered that Ms. Poe, her sisters, her father and other family members had gluten intolerance. And when her younger son, Caedon, began exhibiting autistic symptoms, she shifted him to the diet also. (He does not have an autism spectrum diagnosis.)
Ms. Poe has a background in food science and nutrition, and she uses scientific product development for all her mixes except the initial all-purpose flour blend.
She described herself as "tired and broke" after shelling out for expensive mixes and products, trying to come up with gluten-free foods that tasted decent.
One night, she prayed, "I just want to be able to make my mom's apple pie."
"Seriously, that was my prayer," she said. She then went to sleep and dreamed about creating a flour blend. When she woke up, she scrawled down the recipe, tried it immediately and it worked "the first time out."
At Better Batter's booth at the Celiac Awareness Tour, Ms. Poe plans to demonstrate recipes from Martha Stewart, Taste of Home, allrecipes.com and other mainstream outlets, with one change -- using her gluten-free all-purpose flour in place of wheat flour. She'll also debut a "Gluten-Free Twinkie Clone" recipe.
Neither Ms. Shepard nor Ms. Poe describes gluten-free living as easy. Ms. Shepard will tote gluten-free trail mix and protein bars when she travels to Pittsburgh this weekend.
And Ms. Poe says she must do a lot of advance preparation to keep her sons gluten-free, including baking gluten-free versions of snacks served at school activities and birthday parties.
"It's getting easier," she said. "So many of their friends have some form of allergy" that teachers and other parents understand her sons' needs.
"It's a lot easier than it was five years ago."
All three women note that even though things have gotten better, there's progress yet to be made.
The biggest area? Product labeling.
The United Kingdom has enacted gluten-free labeling standards, but the U.S. has yet to do so. That can be a real bugaboo for gluten-free folks because gluten "hides" in many product additives. Sometimes products share processing lines with gluten substances and can become cross-contaminated. And many don't even realize products such as soy sauce, vanilla extract, lunch meat and bouillon cubes can contain gluten.
When Ms. Dodd speaks on Saturday, she'll emphasize how to avoid cross-contamination at home.
"People don't realize that there can be gluten on your knife or your cutting surface or your toaster," she said, adding that friends and family need to know that, too, when they cook for someone who has celiac.
But while you can take steps to avoid cross-contamination at home, she thinks product labeling standards are needed before people can truly feel confident about living gluten-free.
Giant Eagle, she said, stocks about 1,000 products that are technically gluten-free, but some are not yet labeled. The company is reluctant to change its labels before the government establishes national standards.
"The U.S. has languished in its food labeling laws," Ms. Shepard said. She and a New Jersey baker built the "world's tallest gluten-free cake" in the Washington, D.C., area last year.
The media event attracted politicians and, she claims, helped to spawn a Food and Drug Administration comment period that closed in October, bringing the nation one step closer to gluten-free labeling laws.
"Simply picking up a package that says 'gluten-free' and putting it in this one section of the store" doesn't cut it, Ms. Shepard said, until parts-per-million rules become standard.
Aside from the food labeling issue, the other future concern facing companies is simply continuing to develop more gluten-free products. Ms. Poe's products-in-development include a whole-grain flour that she claims will taste and behave like whole wheat, a self-rising gluten-free flour ("a big deal" in the South, she said) and a gluten-free gingerbread house kit for Christmas.
This year, however, her goal is simply to keep up with demand.
"Since April, we've been sold out of something every month."
Penny's Apple-Brown Sugar Coffee Cake
- 1 cup plus 2 teaspoons gluten-free all-purpose flour, divided
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar, divided
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 2 large apples, cored, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch pie plate.
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 cup flour, baking powder and salt.
In a small bowl, stir together the remaining 2 teaspoons flour, 1/2 cup brown sugar, walnuts and cinnamon.
In another small bowl, whisk together the eggs, granulated sugar and remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar until smooth. Whisk in the oil and vanilla. Stir into the flour mixture until just combined. Pour half the batter into prepared pan, top with half the apples and half the crumb mixture; repeat with the remaining batter, apples and crumb mixture. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes.
-- Adapted from "Taste of Home," Oct./Nov. 2010
Homemade Ravioli or Tortellini
All gluten-free all-purpose flours are not created equal. Each company uses its own blend and proportions of flours, resulting in varying flavors and textures. We didn't have any Jules Gluten Free flour at home, so we tested this recipe with Bob's Red Mill gluten-free all-purpose flour. It tasted good but yielded dough that was prone to cracking. We used a biscuit cutter to cut round ravioli instead of square.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
- 1 1/2 cups Jules Gluten Free All-Purpose Flour
- 1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup very warm water
- Pesto, hummus, tapenade, cheese, roasted peppers, sweet potatoes, seasoned chopped tomatoes or other fillings
Pour flour into a large bowl and form a shallow well in the flour. Add the oil and water a little at a time into the flour well and mix until it comes together into a smooth ball. Wrap in clear plastic wrap and rest it 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Bring a large pot of water to boil with salt. Remove half of the pasta ball and leave the other half wrapped. Roll it into the shape desired: ravioli, tortellini, lasagna, etc.
For ravioli, prepare a clean counter or pastry mat by dusting with gluten-free flour and roll into long strips, cutting into equal-sized squares. Drop a dollop of filling in the middle of every 2 squares, dab edges with wet fingers, and press the 2 squares together to seal. Drop into boiling water. Cook for 2 to 4 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon and drain.
For tortellini, fold the dough over itself, 1 corner to the opposite, then pull the other 2 corners together and dab with water to make them stick. Follow the directions below for boiling as you would ravioli.
-- Jules Shepard of Jules Gluten Free
Gluten-Free Twinkie Clones
Naomi Poe of Better Batter developed this recipe for use with her company's brand of yellow cake mix. Gluten-free flour blends and baking mixes vary widely in composition. We didn't have a Better Batter mix, so we subbed a Hodgson's Mill yellow cake mix. The texture was good -- not grainy at all -- but it didn't seem sweet enough, and it was too dense. We should have used a full cup of water instead of 3/4 cup and reduced the baking time by about 10 minutes. If you're looking for a truer Twinkie Clone, you probably should plan ahead and order (or locate in a retail outlet) a Better Batter yellow cake mix.
If you like, you can test this recipe using cupcake pans and then invest in a cream canoe pan if you think you'll be making Twinkie Clones often.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
- 1 box Better Batter gluten-free yellow cake mix
- 3/4 cups water
- 1/2 cup vegetable shortening or organic solid shortening such as Spectrum
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (most pure vanilla extract is gluten-free; some imitation extracts contain gluten)
- 1 drop lemon extract
- 1/8 teaspoon molasses
- 1/4 teaspoon salt dissolved in 1/4 cup hot water
Grease cream canoe pan lightly. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In bowl of mixer, combine cake mix and water. Mix on low speed for 30 seconds and then on medium speed for 2 minutes or until smooth. The batter will be thick and sticky.
Divide cake batter evenly among 10 cream canoe molds. Bake 30 to 40 minutes or until sides are golden and top is firm. Note that the color of the cake mix may remain light. When cakes are done, remove from oven and allow to cool in molds about 10 minutes. Then remove cakes from molds to a rack to cool completely.
To make filling, in bowl of mixer beat together shortening, powdered sugar, vanilla, lemon extract and molasses until very smooth. Add salt water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until all water is incorporated. Beat on high speed for at least 3 minutes and up to 10 minutes. Place filling in a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip.
When cakes are cool, gently use a toothpick or skewer to form three holes, evenly spaced, along the bottoms of the cakes. Use the skewer to gently enlarge the spaces within the cake to allow for filling.
Pipe 1 to 2 teaspoons of filling into each hole. You will see the cake expand slightly and may hear a small "puff" as the cavity fills. Stop when the filling begins to come out of the hole around your decorating tip.
Eat Twinkies within a day or 2, or store, covered, in refrigerator for up to 1 week.
-- Naomi Poe of Better Batter
Tapioca Dumplings with Beef and Shallots
Warning: The cookbook notes that the dumplings' "unique, slippery consistency could be somewhat challenging to Western palates." My son and I liked them; my husband's comment, after a long silence, was, "Well... um... I guess I could get used to them." They're interesting, but they're not for the unadventurous.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
- 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
- 1/4 pound ground beef
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup tapioca flour, plus more for dusting
- Scant 1/2 cup just-boiled water
- 4 green onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
- Nuoc Cham, for serving
To make the filling, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large, nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, until it starts to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the ground beef and cook, breaking it into very small pieces (large pieces will tear the dough) with a wooden spoon or spatula, until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Transfer the filling to a small bowl and season with the salt and pepper. Wipe out the pan and set it aside for finishing the dumplings.
Combine the tapioca flour and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Pour the just-boiled water and 1 tablespoon of the oil over the tapioca and stir with a fork. Keep stirring until it forms a dough; it should come together after about a minute or so, but if it needs more water, add about 1 tablespoon.
Dust hands and counter with some tapioca flour. Knead the dough until smooth, about 2 minutes, and then roll the dough into a 3- to 4-inch-thick rope. Cut the dough into 16 pieces and transfer them to a gallon-size resealable bag. The dough will dry out quickly; make sure it stays covered.
Lightly oil a dinner plate. To form the dumplings, working with 1 piece of dough at a time, flatten dough into a circle with the heel of your hand. Pick it up and rotate the dough in your hand, pressing it between your fingers and thumbs, to form a 21/2-inch round. Spoon 1 teaspoon filling into the center of the dough round.
Lift the sides, forming a half-moon shape around the filling, and seal the edges by pressing them together with your fingers. Transfer the finished dumpling to the prepared plate. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling, forming 16 dumplings.
You can refrigerate the formed dumplings, covered with plastic wrap, until ready to cook, up to 6 hours.
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add a splash of vegetable oil and half the dumplings to the pan; simmer gently until the dumplings float to the surface, about 2 minutes. Turn the dumplings with a spoon and cook until nearly translucent, 2 to 3 minutes longer. Remove the dumplings with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a bowl of cold water to remove excess starch; the dumplings are very sticky. Repeat with the remaining dumplings.
For serving, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in the nonstick frying pan over medium- high heat. Add half the green onions and cook until sizzling and wilted, about 1 minute; lower the heat to medium-low.
Remove half the dumplings from the water with a slotted spoon and add them to the pan. Do not crowd the dumplings or they may stick together. Turn the dumplings to coat with the onions and oil and then transfer to a serving plate. Repeat with remaining oil, onions and dumplings. Serve with nuoc cham (recipe follows).
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup very warm tap water
- 1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
In a small bowl, combine the sugar and water. Stir until sugar dissolves. Add remaining ingredients and refrigerator until ready to use. The sauce will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks.
-- "The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen" by Laura B. Russell (Celestial Arts, Aug. 2011, $22.99)
Rebecca Sodergren: email@example.com . First Published January 26, 2012 5:00 AM