A month into my gig as the second banana at the Alpha Sigma Phi's frat house kitchen at the University of Washington, I continue to be blown away by the quality of the ingredients chef Darlene Barnes sources, and the care and integrity with which she prepares the surprisingly exotic meals for 70 perpetually hungry young men, including those who may have dietary restrictions.
After a scary trip to the ER this summer, sophomore Matt Hansen found out he couldn't tolerate gluten. So, Darlene has been making adjustments to recipes, cooking as gluten-freely as possible. Although it's no small feat, "It's a lot easier than last year when there was a guy who couldn't eat pork," she said.
Last week, during a special formal dinner for a visiting VIP, she hand cut ribeye steaks and made a bordelaise sauce from Washington state Merlot. The dazzling beef was accompanied by potatoes she gratineed with crème fraiche she made and sautéed organic kale from Full Circle Farm. But the bite that rocked the house was the appetizer: cambozola and bacon stuffed figs. "One of the guys was calling them little orbs of ecstasy," she said. Those porcine gems were fair game for Matt, who keeps a stash of gluten-free snacks in his room.
Unfortunately not gluten-free are the fan-freaking-tastic peanut butter-bacon cookies Darlene baked earlier this week, from a recipe she pulled off the Snake River Farms site. Although not a fair comparison, I brought Matt a piece of cake baked from a gluten-free mix recently introduced by Bob's Red Mill in Oregon and he said it was pretty good. I thought it was a little dry.
"Most of the mixes I've tried turn out dry," Matt lamented. "Pancakes I made from a Trader Joe's mix were like hockey pucks."
Like millions of people who cannot tolerate gluten, Matt said it has been a big adjustment because nearly everything contains gluten. But Darlene has been accommodating, even if it means making eggs while the rest of the guys get from-scratch mac-and-cheese. Earlier this week, I made two versions of marinade for bulgogi. (Yes, these lucky Dawgs had Korean barbecue)—the gluten-free version subbed tamari for soy sauce Darlene has also made a roux for her Cajun pork using rice flour.
The very day I watched her do that, I happened to bump into author/blogger Gluten-Free Girl, Shauna Ahern (also a contributor on Serious Eats, her chef hubby, Danny, and their darling daughter, Lucy, at Uwajimaya, an Asian supermarket in Seattle's International District. Naturally, I told them about the roux and Danny offered a great tip: Add the roux back in after a dish has cooked for a bit. Then, it retains its caramelized color.
When I was reviewing, readers were always asking for recommendations of restaurants doing gluten-free cooking. There weren't many, but those numbers are growing. I think it's probably one of the trends sure to gain traction as more folks discover they can't digest gluten.
About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been working in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She also blogs at LeslieKellyWhiningandDining.blogspot.com and recently launched a story-telling project for Northstar Winery following one wine from the vine to the table.