Note: We've offered a small amount of gluten-free recipes on SE in the past but have never had a specific column devoted to the topic. That changes today. This post marks the Serious Eats debut of Shauna James Ahern. You may already know her from her blog, Gluten-Free Girl (one of the most popular gluten-free cooking blogs out there), or her book of the same name. We're pleased to welcome her to the site. Take it away, Shauna!
A few weeks ago, on Top Chef Masters, Michael Chiarello quaked at the announcement of a blind taste test. The show's host explained that the chefs would have to guess at foods such as umeboshi plum. Chiarello, who prides himself on his extensive knowledge of Italian cuisine, uttered a load groan. "I don't even know what that is," he admitted in the personal interview.
Really? I've been using umeboshi vinegar (also called ume plum vinegar) for years now, splashing it into stir-fries and adding it to brining liquids for crisp pickled vegetables. Bottles of it sit in the Asian section of most of the grocery stores here in Seattle. I've started to take it for granted.
But when I started to think about ume plum vinegar and why it's in my pantry, I realized how lucky I am.
I can't eat gluten.
You see, when I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2005, my entire life changed. Told that I could not eat gluten--the elastic protein in wheat, rye, barley, triticale, and spelt--for the rest of my life, I rejoiced. I had been so sick and laid up with malaise for years that I celebrated having an answer. More than that, I saw how lucky I am. Given the choice of diseases and auto-immune disorders I could have, give me the one where I can heal myself solely by eating great food.
Pretty quickly, this became my motto: If it doesn't have gluten in it, I'm eating it.
Before I stopped eating gluten, I had never tried pomegranate molasses, yuzu, fava beans, or oysters. I didn't shop at farmers' markets. I ate tomatoes in January. I had lived my life without smoked paprika, agave syrup, grapeseed oil, or sorrel.
When I thought I could eat everything, I ate about the same 10 meals, over and over, saving my food adventures for the restaurants I visited. After letting go of gluten, I have opened my palate to the entire world's foods.
'I Don't Miss Gluten'
It always amuses me when the people who find out I can't eat gluten exclaim in sympathy: "Oh you poor thing! I'd die if I couldn't eat bread."
(I do eat bread, of course. It's made with sorghum flour, tapioca starch, potato starch, and sweet rice flour. It may be different than yours, but it's home-baked and warm nearly every morning in our house. And I had never experimented with those now-familiar-to-me grains before I began living this way either.)
I don't miss gluten because I don't miss the stomach pains, the achiness, or the lethargy that left me unable to cook. Before my diagnosis, I was relegated to the couch in the evenings, too tired to do anything other than warm up a tv dinner in the microwave.
Do I want that baguette? No thanks.
As soon as I began feeling better, I began cooking. I started making stock from scratch. I attempted recipes I had never dreamed of making before: chimichurri, braised lamb shanks, and blackberry jam without pectin. For the first time in my life, I felt confident in the kitchen.
After I married a chef, I ate even more dishes. My husband, Danny, introduced me to veal goulash, pork rilletes, and melted leek coulis. But since he had been trained in classical French cuisine, he knew only his retinue of foods. He had never eaten teff or millet or quinoa, which I made for him to taste. Bringing new foods to our table helped us open to each other.
Before I met him, Danny had never eaten ume plum vinegar.
Depth and Lightness
This magenta-red liquid comes from the fermentation of ume plums, which are a Japanese delicacy, akin to apricots. The plums are packed with salt and red shiso leaves and left to ferment. The pickled fruits are called umeboshi. The juice that sluices out over the fermentation period is ume plum vinegar. (Technically it's not a vinegar, because salt is added, but it's labeled that way on the bottles.
(If you'd like to see a tutorial on how to make these yourself, see this post at Just Hungry.)
You may be thinking: That doesn't sound that appetizing. Give it a try. Ume plum vinegar is tangy like vinegar, with a light touch of sweetness. The saltiness gives it an umami quality too. It simultaneously has more depth and lightness than most vinegars. I'm hooked.
I'll put ume plum vinegar in anything that needs a little salty zing. A bit of it dashed into miso soup. Several splashes in jasmine rice before cooking. How about a ume plum vinegar-blackberry vinaigrette over seared tuna? I want to try a savory panna cotta, with ume plum vingar, shiso, and Thai basil? Danny thinks that sounds a little weird. Maybe it will be. But I have the freedom to try it.
One of the gifts of cooking gluten-free is that I feel free to move away from traditional uses. If there's no gluten in it, I'm trying it. Even if my latest attempt ends up a kitchen disaster, at least I've learned something from it.
I have a feeling I know why Chiarello had never heard of umeboshi plums before. When you have a cuisine you favor, you tend to stay there. I adore the rustic taste of fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, a splash of balsamic, and great green olive oil. But I also love injera bread with spicy lamb kitfo, tortilla de la Espanola with roasted red peppers, and fragrant pho with beef tendon.
What's my cuisine? Gluten-free. And for me that means eating almost every food in the world.