When Shauna James Ahern’s first book, Gluten-Free Girl, came out, I could relate to it on so many levels. Her new book, Gluten-free Girl and the Chef, in which she collaborates with her chef husband, Danny Ahern, offers the reader a glimpse into the world of “foodie” gluten-free cooking. It also touches on the love story of the authors which makes it more of an addictive read than most cookbooks (of any kind) on the market. As busy as Shauna (aka Gluten-free Girl) is, she was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.
TJ: Shauna, your first book “Gluten-Free Girl” offered an insightful glimpse of your journey to a long awaited celiac diagnosis and how you consequently learned to love eating gluten-free foods. What do you think is the most common misconception about what gluten-free food actually tastes like?
GFG: Thank you for what you said about my first book! I’ve been honored for the past couple of years, and amazed, to hear from people who say the book has helped them to eat better and accept their diagnosis with more grace (or maybe just with a sense of humor). This has been an amazing experience.
You know, most people who are new to this think of gluten-free foods as compressed sawdust! There are great gluten-free baked goods out there (and in our cookbook, as we have been told!), but there are also some unfortunate ones.
It’s natural to focus first on what we are missing, so people strive to replicate the same baked goods they ate as children. However, using gluten-free flours cup for cup, and particularly the really white flours, in an attempt to make cookies is usually a disappointment. Learning how to bake gluten-free is a lesson in letting go of what you knew before and playing with your food. Learning to bake by weight makes a huge difference. (Everyone should buy a kitchen scale!) Learning new gluten-free flours, like teff or millet or amaranth, allows you to open to a new world of food you might not have known existed before.
Once you miss the act of baking rather than specific baked goods, you go into the kitchen with the desire to make your own scones and muffins. Wonderful foods can appear.
The other half of this is that much of the world’s greatest foods are naturally gluten-free! Think of grilled asparagus with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and a bit of grated Parmesan cheese. Sweet Italian sausage seared in a pan and tossed with warm quinoa, roasted peppers, and fresh mozzarella. Meringues with warm raspberries.
When we think of “gluten-free,” we immediately think of the lack. But think first of what we can eat? Everything changes. What does gluten-free taste like? It can taste like great food.
TJ: As you know, it’s easier to dine out in many other parts of the world than in the U.S. Your husband, Danny Ahern, is a talented chef who can safely prepare interesting meals for gluten-free diners. What do you think gluten-free patrons can do to help increase awareness regarding their dining needs at restaurants here at home?
GFG: I find that it has grown easier and easier to eat gluten-free in good restaurants in the U.S. than it was when I was first diagnosed, five years ago. The more awareness we spread, the more we make it possible for other gluten-free folks to eat at restaurants safely.
The first thing we can all do is educate ourselves. Know where gluten might show up in a restaurant, in ways that the server or chef might not think about. My husband, Danny, has helped me to figure out the questions to ask. For example, some people might not know that French fries are probably fried in the same oil as the fried calamari or onion rings, which contain gluten. Danny has taught me that the oil in most restaurants is not changed for days. Therefore, when you have crisp, hot French fries, you are also having the remnants of floured foods too. You’ll get sick. Don’t do it. (And patronize the restaurants that have a separate fryer for the gluten-free foods.)
The next thing we can do is educate the chefs and servers at the restaurants. Tell them what you need, clearly, without apologizing. Don’t just pick something on the menu, like a salad, that seems like it should be gluten-free and then be upset with the kitchen when it comes with croutons. (However, if you explained everything clearly and the salad comes with croutons, make a fuss.) We’re responsible for our own health. Advocate for yourself.
And when we help one restaurant to understand the importance of cooking our food safely, without any cross contamination, deliciously, we are only paving an easier path for the next gluten-free person to dine at that restaurant.
TJ: Many of your followers do not follow the gluten-free diet. You are someone that everyone seems to be able to relate to. Your award winning blog, “Gluten-Free Girl”, appeals to readers of all ages, from all over the world, regardless of their dietary needs. To what do you contribute your mainstream success?
GFG: Wow. I don’t know! That’s a hard question to answer.
For me, as a writer, being gluten-free is only a lens through which I look at the entire world. Finally feeling well, for the first time in my life, has allowed me to be joyful in a way I only dreamed in my 20s. Once you feel well, it’s easier to love your life. Once you love your life, you start loving other people more fully. And once we love other people, and act on that, great things start happening.
I’ve been told, by people who have written to us, that they love hearing about my saying YES. It’s tattooed on my wrist, as a reminder. We can choose the moment as we live it. Do I want to mope or whine or wish it was something different? Or do I want to be here? Well, I need the reminder sometimes, but I want to be here. No matter the moment.
Also, I just love food. I love how food can be an organizing principle of our days. What’s for breakfast? is one of our first questions of the day, every day. It can be the first sensory pleasure of the day, the first nourishing. And if you think about it, every single one of the most pivotal moments of our lives seem to involve food — casseroles we bring to parents of newborns, first birthday cakes, packed lunch for the first day of kindergarten, the first meal we make for our parents, graduation parties, first dinner parties, potluck picnics to celebrate a raise, wedding buffets, Sunday suppers with the family, and even the casseroles and desserts we bring to funerals. We eat because we are alive. I think we are alive because we eat.
So our website doesn’t focus on “gluten-free” food. We like to create great food that just happens to be gluten-free.
Also, having a chef in the house doesn’t hurt!
TJ: Do you believe that many people simply feel better if they stick to eating whole foods that have been minimally processed, regardless of their dietary needs from a medical standpoint?
GFG: I think if people eat food, real food, they are bound to feel better. Pluck a tomato off the vine in your own garden and eat it – the entire experience is going to be better than anything that comes in a box and lists “tomato flavoring” on the side.
Since I started eating foods in season, for example, I’ve developed such a big crush on knobby root vegetables and produce most people wouldn’t choose the first time they see it. In the dead of winter, celery root – with its thick skin and strange protruding tentacles -can be the best thing to slip into soups. Cook it well and mash it up with potatoes, a little water you boiled it in, a touch of butter, and some salt? Great puree for winter night dinners. I never would have appreciated this before going gluten-free.
So, should people eat more vegetables? Learn where their food comes from? Make conscious choices about what to eat? Find local farms where they can buy meat from their neighbors? Of course! It feels as though we are collectively moving in that direction. It’s all good.
However, all things in moderation. I don’t want to be a food snob. If a friend cooks me dinner with mostly fresh ingredients and some things out of cans and packages, and brings out a carton of ice cream from the store? As long as it’s gluten-free, I’m going to eat it. Also, I still love a great potato chip once in awhile.
TJ: What types of gluten-free recipes will readers find in your newest book “Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef”, which you co-authored with your husband Danny?
GFG: Good ones! We worked on these recipes over and over again until we were sure they would work in your kitchen. That process taught me so much that I want to do it again and again.
The book has both solid recipes for the home cook (and some of them quite simple, for the folks who are just beginning to cook) and much more complex recipes, based on Danny’s life as a chef. Our hope is that people will truly cook from this book. You can make multigrain waffles for breakfast, warm rice salad with artichokes for lunch, and roasted poussin with red quinoa for dinner. We want the pages of your cookbook to be stained with food!
Most of the recipes in the book are naturally gluten-free, so anyone can cook from the book. In fact, most of the people who have picked up the book and looked at it have said to us, “This doesn’t even look gluten-free!” Yes! That’s what we want. Much of the book is about Danny’s life as a chef and what he knows about food, what he has taught me, and thus what we might teach the reader. Chefs really love playing with their food. However, they also know lots of tips and techniques to make life in the kitchen easier. So the recipes will give everyone a chance to learn those techniques.
And the recipes that do use gluten-free flours are the staples we wanted in our kitchen: pizza, crusty bread, fresh pasta, peanut butter brownies, pancakes, focaccia, etc. We worked on some of those recipes for three years before we let the book go to print. Danny and I are both thrilled to be hearing from people that they are making fresh pasta, by hand, for the first time in their lives. And they are having great success!
So, what kind of recipes do we have in our cookbook? Recipes that will help you become more comfortable in the kitchen.
OK folks – if you want to learn how to make your own fresh gluten-free pasta, bread or even simpler dishes that Shauna and Danny have thoughtfully created, this is your lucky day. The publisher is sponsoring a give-away of a copy of the hot new gluten-free cookbook. Enter a comment below for your chance to win. The shipping address for the winner can be in ANY of the 50 U.S. states. The deadline to enter is Monday, November 8th at 12 midnight (EST). Good luck!
UPDATE 11-10-10: Congratulations to Lisa V who won this fabulous cookbook!
*In case you missed it, you can read Kim Bouldin’s detailed review of this special book here. Special thanks to Shauna James Ahern for taking time to answer my questions and to Wiley for sponsoring this great give-away for our readers!