Gluten: Friend or Foe?
At its extreme, we have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder where the immune system has a severe reaction to gluten. In my opinion, gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance and other more common food allergies are often the symptoms of a compromised digestive system. These days, our digestive systems are bombarded with a host of substances that can put a lot of stress on a system that's designed to break down and assimilate whole, natural, unadulterated foods that provide nourishment to our bodies.
Digestion begins in the mouth, where the enzymes in the saliva start to break down our food and prepare it for the next stage of digestion in the stomach and small intestine. Many of us, in our rushed states, gulp down our foods, putting a lot of stress on the rest of the digestive system. The result is that our foods do not get properly digested and assimilated. For any digestive complaint, my first piece of advice is always to take time to chew your food. (This is also important if you're trying to lose weight, as you will fill up more quickly, tend to eat less and gain more nutritional benefits from your food if you're chewing it thoroughly.)
If your digestive system is weakened, then digesting gluten may prove problematic. Wheat is the most common source of gluten, but it is also a component in other grains such as spelt, barley and rye. It is a sticky substance and not soluble in water.
Wheat and other grains containing gluten are such a big part of most of our diets, showing up in everything from bread, cakes, crackers and cookies to pastas, packaged breakfast cereals, soy sauce and beer—and the list goes on. There are many wheat derivatives, such as semolina, used for making pasta, bulgur, used for making tabbouleh, couscous and graham flour, which are all high in gluten.
If you experience symptoms such as bloating and gas, fatigue after eating, headaches or aching joints, poor concentration or "fuzzy brain" and emotional irritability, you may in fact be intolerant to gluten. If you feel you may be gluten intolerant, it's a good idea to have this verified either by blood tests or by omitting gluten products from your diet for at least a week to see if you get any relief from your symptoms.
When faced with the dilemma of having to omit gluten from the diet, people can end up feeling deprived of some of life's greatest pleasures. Who doesn't love to sit down to a comforting pasta dinner, followed by a delicious slice of cake? Eating out can also be problematic, as it's quite difficult to find dishes that contain no traces of gluten. The good news is that you don't have to give up your comfort foods, as there is a growing range of gluten-free alternatives on the market these days.
I have had several clients who are sensitive to gluten and have had to come up with many delicious alternatives to the foods that they enjoy so they don't feel deprived, especially on special occasions such as birthdays and holidays. In most of my recipes for cakes, cookies and similar desserts, I offer a gluten-free alternative in the variations, for this very reason.
Grains that do not contain gluten are rice, oats, corn, millet, amaranth and teff. You can also use flour made from chickpeas, lentils, tapioca, coconut, nuts or seeds for baking.
Gluten, because of its sticky nature, has a binding action when used in baking, so when using gluten-free flours, there are several ways you can avoid having a dry, crumbly result.
For nonvegans, eggs of course will help bind and add moisture. You can also make an egg substitute by blending one part ground flaxseeds with three parts water for about a minute, then set the mixture aside for at least an hour. You can substitute this for eggs in baking—a quarter cup of this mixture is the equivalent to one egg.
You can also add 1/2 to 1 cup of applesauce to your cake mixtures and alter the liquids used in your cake recipe accordingly. This will add moisture, and you can cut down on the amount of oil used when adding the applesauce if you want a cake with less fat.
Many health food stores also carry a range of gluten-free breads, but if you prefer to make your own, I've found that rice, corn or millet flour all work well, with the addition of some higher starch flour like potato or tapioca flour. Adding a cup of leftover cooked rice or millet gives a nice texture and adds moisture to the bread. You can also find gluten-free flour mixes, which can be used to make bread, cakes or muffins.
The flip side: The goodness of gluten and how to make your own seitan
For centuries, the Chinese have been making a meat substitute from the gluten in wheat, known as seitan. These days, seitan can be found in the refrigerated section in many health food stores, or you can make your own from whole wheat flour (see below!).
I once taught a group of women in Jamaica how to make homemade seitan, and after we had made it, they invited me to dinner. They had created a range of delightful local dishes in which they substituted the seitan for the meat they would normally use. The children who ate the meal with us devoured it without even realizing they weren't eating meat!
Make Your Own Seitan
Put about 8 cups of high-gluten, unbleached wheat flour (also called "strong wheat flour") into a large mixing bowl and add enough water to form a dough—about 2 cups.
Once the dough has come together, transfer to a work surface and thoroughly knead it to activate the gluten. It should be earlobe consistency. Return the dough to the mixing bowl and cover with cold water. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes, during which time you can make the stock for cooking the seitan.
In a saucepan, combine 4 to 5 cups water, 1/2 cup tamari, about 12 slices fresh ginger and a 3-inch strip of kombu seaweed. Bring to a boil and simmer on a low heat for about 10 minutes. Set the stock aside to cool. It's important that the stock is cold when the gluten is added, as hot water will cause the gluten to expand and result in a bread-like texture. You can make different stocks to cook and season your seitan, depending on how you want to use it.
After the dough has soaked for 10 minutes, start to rinse the starch out of the dough, alternating between warm and cold water. The warm water loosens the dough and makes it easier for the starch to be released, and the cold water tightens it and brings the gluten together, so make sure the final rinse is in cold water. The gluten can tend to fall apart when you start rinsing it, but with practice it gets easier—I had a few disasters before I finally mastered the technique myself!
Once the stock has cooled, add the gluten—you can add it as one piece or break it into smaller pieces, depending on how you want to use the final product. Bring it to a boil, then cover the pot and simmer for about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces.
The seitan is now ready to be used in a range of dishes from stir-fries and casseroles to meat-free bolognese and my Sizzling Seitan Burgers.