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Planning a Gluten-free Thanksgiving

Cranberry sauce is delicious, but you can eat more than that if you're on a gluten-free diet.
Cranberry sauce is delicious, but you can eat more than that if you're on a gluten-free diet.
©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Imagine sitting down to the traditional Thanksgiving feast. Mounds of stuffing, lakes of gravy, baskets of rolls, slabs of pie all go round the table -- and past your plate. Your turkey is undressed; your mashed potatoes, a barren desert. Even your salad is unadorned. As for dessert -- well, does cranberry sauce count?

Celiac disease is an intolerance to gluten. Gluten is found in foods made with wheat, including bread, pie crust and flour-thickened gravy. But people with this condition don't have to feel like Oliver Twist on Thanksgiving. Between ready-made products and a creative, resourceful cook, a gluten-free feast can be as sumptuous as any other -- and (don't tell) more healthy.

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First, let's get to know the enemy. Then we'll talk ways to defeat it.

Bread with gluten is off the menu for those with celiac disease.
Bread with gluten is off the menu for those with celiac disease.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Gluten is the elastic substance formed when certain proteins in wheat, rye and barley mix with water. Gluten is what allows baked goods to rise. It adds flavor and texture to processed foods like malted milk and soy sauce.

In people with celiac disease, however, gluten triggers an autoimmune response. The body attacks its own digestive system, destroying the villi, which are tiny "fingers" that absorb nutrients through the small intestine wall. Immediate symptoms include diarrhea, constipation and cramps; in the long-term, there's anemia, depression, seizures and other complications of malnutrition.

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Coping with celiac disease is a lifetime challenge. Thanksgiving presents the added challenge of tinkering with time-honored tradition to fit a gluten-free diet. It may also be a test of vigilance: To prevent cross-contamination, gluten-bearing foods and their utensils can't mingle with gluten-free fare.

With that in mind, we're ready to revamp the holiday table, starting with that most revered icon: the stuffing.

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Get adventurous with stuffing ingredients.
Get adventurous with stuffing ingredients.
©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

You can make stuffing with gluten-free bread, but any starchy food that absorbs the flavors of the other ingredients can be a stuffing foundation. Take rice: cajun dirty rice, made with sausage and cayenne, or a Lebanese stuffing seasoned with cinnamon, raisins and pistachios. Rice works in chestnut dressings, too.

Don't forget wild rice (which is actually a marsh grass). Add cranberries and pecans for a truly North American dish. Toasted oat stuffing is quintessentially Scottish: suet is the preferred fat, and onions and parsley are among the simple seasonings. But beware: Oats are often cross-contaminated by other grains during harvesting or processing. Make sure yours are labeled gluten-free.

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Feeling adventurous? Explore the Internet and natural food shops for "ancient" grains, like amaranth and quinoa. Also, know that buckwheat, despite the name, is not a type of wheat -- but spelt, bulgur and couscous are.

Next, we'll rise to the occasion with gluten-free breads.

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Gluten-free banana bread or pumpkin bread can let you hold on to that traditional Thanksgiving feeling.
Gluten-free banana bread or pumpkin bread can let you hold on to that traditional Thanksgiving feeling.
©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Just as stuffing can be made without bread, bread can be made without wheat flour. Store-bought baking mixes are specially blended to balance the distinct qualities of different types of flour. Here are some tips for making your own:

  • Legume flours are high in protein and fiber, and add a "beany" flavor. Thus, they're better for sturdy breads than light pastries.
  • Corn, oats and rice products come in grinds ranging from gritty meal to powdery flour. Finer grinds create a lighter texture. Cornmeal is suitable for cornbread, for example; corn flour is good for desserts.
  • Gluten-free baked goods benefit from other ingredients that shore up their structure. Egg whites add protein. Xanthan gum supplies elasticity. Even then, use loaf pans or muffin tins to hold their shape.
  • Keep grain and nut flours refrigerated. Their oil content makes them prone to spoiling at room temperature.

Next: getting on (or off) the gravy train.

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Try something different this Thanksgiving, like chutney.
Try something different this Thanksgiving, like chutney.
©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

For a lot of people, the best turkey, biscuits and mashed potatoes are all better when doused in gravy. Gluten-free flours come to the rescue here, too. Swap them out for wheat flour in your favorite recipe. Cornstarch makes a smooth gravy, but it'll look more glossy than milky, which may disappoint traditionalists.

For pure turkey essence, serve the bird au jus, with the pan drippings simmered to intensify the flavors.

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Maybe you're ready for something different this year. How about offering a choice of chutneys, those sweet-hot fruit relishes of Indian cuisine? Peppers, apricots, apples, tomatoes, ginger, cinnamon, cloves -- homemade or store-bought, the combinations are practically endless. Or there's an assortment of mustards, infused with anything from honey to horseradish.

Finally, we come to the last course: desserts for anyone celebrating a gluten-free Thanksgiving.

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You can have your pie (or torte) and eat it, too -- as long as it's gluten-free.
You can have your pie (or torte) and eat it, too -- as long as it's gluten-free.

Traditionalists can have their pie, with two caveats. First (you knew it): the crust must be made with either gluten-free flour (which some people say makes it flakier) or a non-flour substitute, like ground nuts or oats. You could also forego the crust completely: instead, serve pumpkin pie as pumpkin custard.

Second: fillings must be thickened with a gluten-free starch. Cornstarch, tapioca or gluten-free flour may work in homemade pies, depending on the recipe. Check store-bought mixes or fillings for wheat starch in the ingredients list. Again, you can dodge the thickener issue entirely with pecan pie.

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Feeling ambitious? Try a flourless torte, a mousselike cake of ground nuts, eggs and butter. Stuff a pumpkin shell with its cooked flesh, mashed and mixed with chopped apples, raisin and nuts, and sweetened with maple syrup. Cook fruits with sugar into a fudgy, Middle Eastern halva. Top a meringue shell with fruit for the Australian specialty, pavlova.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Boyd, Christine. "A Closer Look at Gluten-Free Labeling." Living Without, April/May, 2010. (Oct. 8, 2010)http://www.livingwithout.com/issues/4_7/closer_look_at_labeling-1945-1.html
  • Brown, Alton. I'm Just Here for the Food. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2002.
  • Davidson, Alan, ed. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press: 1999.
  • Hamlyns of Scotland. "Oatmeal Stuffing." (Oct. 6, 2010) http://www.hamlynsoats.co.uk/recipes050005.htm
  • Hillson, Beth. "Gluten-Free Flour Power." Living Without, Dec/Jan 2010. (Oct. 9, 2010) http://www.livingwithout.com/issues/4_1/gluten_free_flour-1073-1.html
  • Lapid, Nancy. "Tips for Baking with Gluten-Free Flour." Nov. 28, 2009 (Oct. 9, 2010) http://celiacdisease.about.com/od/cookingglutenfree/a/FlourBasics.htm
  • Mehas, Kay Yockey, and Sharon Lesley Rodgers. Food Science: The Biochemistry of Food and Nutrition. Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2002.
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. "Celiac Disease." September 2008. (Oct. 6, 2010) http://niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/index.htm
  • Nelson, Jennifer, and Katherine Zeratsky. "Why Aren't We Seeing 'Gluten-Free' on food labels?" April 21, 2009 (Oct. 7, 2010) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/gluten-free/MY00640
  • Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency. "Development of safe foods for Celiac patients -- A multidisciplinary approach." Food For Thought. May 2010. (Oct. 6, 2010) http://www.nfia.com/ffft/201005/article7.php
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Food Allergen Label and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 Questions and Answers." July 18, 2006. (Oct. 6, 2010) http://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/FoodAllergensLabeling/GuidanceCompliance RegulatoryInformation/ucm106890.htm#q1
  • Wright, Clifford A. "What Is Couscous and How Does One Prepare It?" (Oct. 8, 2010) http://www.cliffordawright.com/caw/food/entries/display.php/id/58

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