For a year, Bast didn't go to restaurants. When she dared venture out again, she found her menu options lacking.
"My husband would get his food and it would be this amazing-looking and -tasting dish and I'd get this . . . thing on my plate, a piece of chicken or a piece of fish with steamed vegetables and nothing on it," recalled Bast, executive director and founder of the Ambler-based National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, who has lived with celiac disease since 1994.
My, how things have changed.
Now all kinds of restaurants - from ethnic to fine dining - are making extra efforts to offer gluten-free dishes, and proving that a lack of wheat doesn't have to mean a lack of flavor. Some menus - like those at Lolita and Distrito - are almost entirely gluten-free. Others - like those at Osteria and Rouge - offer a wide variety of gluten-free choices.
"The biggest challenge is we've grown up thinking in a wheat-based society, so the immediate challenge is the fear," Bast said. "There's a perception that gluten-free is not going to taste good, and I think that scares and worries some restaurants."
But gluten-free can be delicious, and catering to the approximately 1 percent of the population that has celiac disease can be profitable.
NFCA is working to make Philadelphia a model for gluten-free dining, but that's not to say it wants a gluten-free city. (It's impossible to imagine Philadelphians without their soft pretzels, even though Bast said she recently sampled some delicious gluten-free versions.) It simply wants restaurants to be friendly to gluten-free diners.
To that end, NFCA offers a Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training (GREAT) program, free of charge. During the course, restaurant workers are taught what ingredients contain gluten, and what substitutes can be used instead. They learn that even a hint of flour in the air can be dangerous to some people, and that reusing utensils or pans that once touched gluten is a no-no.
Restaurants that complete the training can put a GREAT sticker on their door, signaling to diners that the chef has been properly trained in gluten-free protocol. Bast hopes that one day the GREAT sticker will be as common as Zagat or "Best of Philadelphia."
Chef Marcie Turney, co-owner of Lolita and Bindi in Center City, completed the GREAT program. She was largely unfamiliar with celiac disease until a patron called about arranging a private, gluten-free party. She later befriended the customer and her family.
"I knew people were celiacs. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know people died from it," Turney said. "When you put a face on the disease, it becomes a little more real."
Turney found it relatively simple to ensure that most dishes at Lolita were gluten-free since the cuisine is Mexican and often calls for corn bases and ingredients like Maseca corn flour. When it came to desserts, she found Domata, a gluten-free flour, an easy cup-for-cup substitute, with, to her palate, no difference in taste.
At Maggiano's Little Italy in Center City, executive chef Jim Birkback prepares wheat-free pastas, thickens some sauces with butter instead of flour, and uses polenta to bread chicken for his gluten-free diners. When a customer requests a gluten-free meal, a chef will come out and speak with the table and then oversee the entire meal.
"We make it in a different part of the kitchen, with different saute pans, so there's no cross-contamination," Birkback said. "We've got the system pretty much refined now and we're used to it, getting four or five gluten-free people a night. Last year, it was more like four or five a week."
Nancy Lozoff of Queen Village has found local restaurants more than willing to accommodate her dietary needs. She's been known to take one chef a bag of "bread crumbs" - really rice crumbs - so she can enjoy his crispy chicken livers when she dines at his establishment. The crumbs are expensive, she said, but she encourages the chef to use them for any gluten-free diner who visits.
"If I keep him supplied in bread crumbs, he'll do it," she said.
After being diagnosed with celiac disease in 2006, Lozoff hated eating out.
"I was very nervous," she said. "I would order a plain steak, a plain salad with no salad dressing, a plain piece of fish."
Then her husband, restaurant-world veteran Greg Ostrofsky, started talking to his chef friends, telling them exactly what his wife could eat and about ingredient swaps they could easily make.
"As a diner, you really don't want to feel like a special-needs person. You still want to go out, and restaurants still want to have customers," Ostrofsky said. "The right information makes it easy for the restaurants to accommodate them."
Ostrofsky is so passionate about changing the world "one chef at a time" that he played a major role in organizing NFCA's 5th annual Appetite for Awareness event at the Wachovia Center in September. More than 30 restaurants that have gone through the GREAT training offered their wheatless wares, including Pasta Pomodoro in Voorhees, which was honored with a "People's Choice" award for its gluten-free menu.
"I want people with the disease to be able to dine like everyone else," Pasta Pomodoro chef Pasquale Masters said after the event. "They are discriminated against from the servers to the kitchen and they are paying customers. Restaurants need to cater to them."
Bast said NFCA is now working with the 76ers and the Phillies to help them add gluten-free foods to their stadium fare. She looks forward to the day when a child suffering from celiac disease can go to the ballpark and enjoy a traditional hot dog in a bun just like anybody else.
"Baby steps," Bast said. "We're still looking for that perfect bread" - (Marc Vetri reports he is working on a gluten-free loaf) - "but it's getting better and better."
Jenna Oskowitz contributed to this article.
For a list of restaurants that have been certified in gluten-free cooking, go to www.celiaccentral.org/Programs/GREAT/GREAT-Food-Service/204.
Marc Vetri's Chocolate Polenta Souffle With Vanilla Gelato
Makes 6 servings
3 tablespoons heavy cream
3 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate, preferably 58 percent chocolate
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Chocolate polenta souffle:
8 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate, preferably 58 percent cocoa
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, plus extra for greasing
1/2 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons polenta
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large egg yolks
4 large egg whites
1/4 cup sugar
3 cups vanilla gelato
1. For the ganache filling, put the cream in a very small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Put the chocolate and butter in a bowl and add the hot cream, stirring until the ingredients melt and blend together. Cool slightly, then refrigerate until cold, about 1 hour or up to 8 hours.
2. For the chocolate polenta souffle, butter six 3/4-cup souffle cups or other molds. Put the chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler and stir over simmering water until melted and smooth. Remove from the heat.
3. Meanwhile, in a separate medium saucepan, combine the milk and polenta. Cook over medium heat just until the polenta absorbs all of the milk, 5 to 8 minutes. The texture will resemble a loose porridge. Stir the polenta into the chocolate, then gradually stir in the egg yolks one at a time.
4. In the bowl of a mixer, whip the egg whites on medium speed until just beginning to hold their shape. Add the sugar and whip until the whites form loose, soft peaks when the beaters are lifted, about 1 minute. The egg whites should not be beaten stiff because they could cause the souffles to rise too high and fall out of their molds. Gently and gradually fold the whites into the chocolate and ladle the mixture into the buttered molds until about two-thirds full.
5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Dip the large side of a melon baller into hot water and scoop out round balls of the ganache filling. Keep the filling as round as possible to prevent it from leaking out one side of the souffles. Place a ball in the center of each mold, pushing gently until the ball is mostly but not completely covered (it will sink in the rest of the way during cooking). Put the molds on a baking sheet and bake until puffed, about 12 to 15 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through the baking time. Serve immediately with a scoop of gelato.
- From Il Viaggio di Vetri (Ten Speed Press, 2008)
Per serving: 606 calories, 10 grams protein, 57 grams carbohydrates, 45 grams sugar, 42 grams fat, 167 milligrams cholesterol, 189 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
South Indian Lentil Bread
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1/2 cup mixed legumes (yellow lentils, yellow split peas, yellow mung beans)
1/4 cup basmati rice
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 jalapeo chile, stemmed and seeded, minced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon red chile flakes
1/4 cup scallions, chopped
1 cup baby spinach leaves, washed and sliced thin
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
Water as needed
Vegetable oil for cooking
1. Mix legumes together and rinse in water. Put in a bowl and add enough water to cover the legumes by an inch. Rinse rice and put in another bowl, add enough water to cover. Soak for 3 hours.
2. Drain the rice and legumes and add to a food processor with the ginger, garlic, and chile. Grind until the lentils are pureed but have not turned into a paste. Add water as necessary to create a muffin-batter consistency. Place in a bowl.
3. Stir in the cilantro, chile flakes, scallions, spinach, salt, and pepper.
4. Heat a griddle or nonstick saute pan over high heat until very hot. Reduce the heat to medium-high and add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Add 1/3 cup of batter and spread into a 6-inch round; it should be as thick as a pancake. Let cook for 2 minutes until the underside is crisp and brown. Turn the lentil bread with a flat spatula. Add more oil if needed and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove to a plate to keep warm and continue with the remaining batter.
5. Serve with minted cucumber raita (see accompanying recipe).
- Courtesy of chef Marcie Turney
Per serving (based on 6): 109 calories, 5 grams protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 3 grams fat, no cholesterol, 653 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.
Bindi Minted Cucumber Raita
Makes about 2 cups, enough for 8 servings
2 cups yogurt
1 cucumber, peeled and seeded, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 jalapeo, stemmed and seeded, minced
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
8 mint leaves, sliced thin
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
1. Mix all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
- From chef Marcie Turney
Per serving: 56 calories, 3 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, 9 milligrams cholesterol, 277 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 8 gorditas, or 4 appetizer servings
1 3/4 cups masa harina (corn flour available at Latino markets or Whole Foods)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, ground fresh
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 jalapeos, stemmed and seeded and sliced into julienne strips
2 shallots, peeled and sliced into julienne strips
1/2 cup shredded manchego cheese (or Monterey jack, mozzarella, etc.)
Charred corn-avocado salsa (see recipe)
1. Mix the masa harina, water, kosher salt, and black pepper to form a dough. Wrap in plastic and set aside.
2. Heat a saute pan over high heat. Add the oil, peppers, and shallots. Saute for three minutes over medium heat. Set aside to cool.
3. Divide the dough into eight balls, each the size of a small plum. Using your index finger, poke a hole in the dough, opening it up slightly to form a pocket. Fill the hole with the peppers, shallots and some shredded cheese. Close the hole and smooth the seam with your fingers. Repeat with all the balls of dough. Flatten the balls into 1/2-inch discs.
4. In a saute pan over high heat, add 4 to 5 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add 4 to 5 of the gorditas and cook over medium heat until golden brown. Flip with a flat spatula and repeat for the other side. Remove to a paper-towel-lined plate and keep warm.
5. On a plate, place two of the gorditas and garnish with charred corn-avocado salsa and lime wedges.
Per serving (without garnishes): 159 calories, 5 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 7 grams fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 339 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Lolita Charred Corn and Avocado Salsa
Makes about 8 servings
2 ears of sweet corn, shucked and silk removed
1/2 small red onion, small dice
1 red pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded, small dice
3 plum tomatoes, seeded, small dice
1 avocado, pitted; use a spoon to release the flesh from the skin, small dice
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
4 tablespoons scallions, sliced thin
3 teaspoons kosher salt
1. Over a grill or gas burner, char the ears of corn, rotating often with tongs.
2. When cool enough to handle, cut kernels from the cob. Place the corn and the remaining ingredients in a bowl and mix. Serve with gorditas, over grilled fish, or with tortilla chips.
- Courtesy of Lolita
Per serving: 80 calories, 2 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, no cholesterol, 657 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.