Sunday, August 31, 2008

Heather's Heat and Flavor

Hudson is one of those cute Ohio towns. The ones that actually seem like the Midwest: quaint, quiet, and kind. The kind of town that hosts a family friendly Labor Day crafts and food fair on Main Street. (Seriously.)

Anyhow, fairs of any kind are all about friendly vendors. People sit in booths or outside their shops making chit-chat with passersby trying to sell their wares, trying to outshine their competitors without being overbearing. Sometimes they do it with genial personalities, some with their attractive products, but sometimes, vendors make a sale with a right place at the right time personal story. That's how I met Karen. 

My mom and I were walking away from the fair, back to our car, when we past Heather's Heat and Flavor where the manager and mother of the owner, Karen, stood outside selling carmel corn and candied almonds. I picked up a package of almonds and notice it had an allergy warning sticker. Karen noticed us looking at the sticker and the "what are you allergic too" conversation began. As it turns out, she could personally verify that the nuts were gluten free as she was gluten free, too! What luck, right?

Karen told us there were quite a few things in the shop that were gluten free, not everything, but a lot. And for a store that sells the widest array of hot sauces and barbecue sauces I've ever seen, that's actually pretty cool. We asked if she'd be able to direct gluten free people to the products best for them and she answered, "Probably. And if not, we'd just spend hours reading labels until we found something that worked. That's what we do anyway, right?"

Of course it is; being gluten free is all about taking the time to make sure your eating safe. But if you're going to be spending all those hours looking at labels, best to do it with someone who's sympathetic to your situation and actually knows what you're talking about. 

If Hudson is too far for you, there's also a Heather's Heat and Flavor at Legacy Village in Lyndhurst. 

(P.S. if you get a chance, do try the almonds. A perfect mix of sweet and crunchy, they made for a really satisfying snack on the way home. I was too much of a chicken to get the spicy ones, but if you muster up the courage, be sure to let me know how they are!) 

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Jack's Deli

Who doesn't love deli food? Jack's Deli has been a staple in the community, and thus in my family's dining out plan, for years and years, so when my mom suggested it for dinner, I figured, why not. Surely I could find something and if not, well I'd eat a plain bake potato and some salad and let her enjoy the knishes, or giant sandwiches made with thick rye bread, or the challah french toast, or the matzo ball soup, or the blintzes....

To begin with, as always, there were pickles, a bizarre complementary appetizer if ever there was one. The thing is though, growing up around it, the idea of pickles - particularly delicious, cold, crunchy dill pickles - as a pre-meal snack doesn't seem that odd at all. Maybe it's a Jewish thing. Now, there has been a lot of talk about whether or not pickles are safe, what with the vinegar and all. But I've been told personally by Dr. Peter Green that pickles are an acceptable part of a gluten free diet, so that's all I have to say about that. ...Oh. That and yum. I mean, look at them. 

Anyway, if there's one thing non-celiacs take for granted, it's their ability to open up the plasticy pages of any menu and order the first thing that catches their eye. It took my mom, who had decided to go gluten free this evening, several minutes to settle on the stuffed cabbage (stuffed with rice and meat, and smothered in a tomato sauce). The dinner came with two sides -  of the many side dishes, lots of them being naturally gluten free, she chose the cooked carrots and string beans - as well as a choice of soup and her choice of coffee or tea. Since the cabbage was that night's dinner special, her gluten free feast came to her at the incredibly affordable price of $10.99. 

This is especially note worthy as eating gluten free usually comes at a high price. Our breads and pastas are 3 times the price of everyone else's and for what we pay for flours, we might as well own bakeries. So being able to get a meal enough for two days at a reasonable price? It makes Jack's quite a find. 

I was able to order basically off the menu, too:  an omelet with spinach, avocado, and alpine Swiss cheese. My dinner came with two breakfast sides, too, but our adorable waitress Charisma, who was particularly food allergy sensitive, knew enough about how the food was prepared to steer me clear of the french fries and home fries. Instead, she offered to swap out the potatoes and toast in favor of a fresh fruit cup and sliced tomatoes. 

After dinner, I had a short conversation about the gluten free offerings on Jack's menu with one of the owners, Alvie. After a little who's on first type of "what is gluten" education, Alvie offered up several gluten free options - "you could eat a hamburger! or a hot dog! or...!" 

You're right, Alvie. There are lots of gluten free options available at Jack's. But it's more than that.  Jack's touts itself as authentic deli food, and I have to say that I judged every New York deli I ever went to on how it compared to the food I remembered from here. It's good, no, great, to know I can still get hearty meal here, celiac or not. Jack's Deli's easily adaptable menu, the knowledgeable and friendly staff, and the quality food makes it a place that really should be on your gluten-free restaurant Rolodex. 

Jack's Deli on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 29, 2008

Cleveland Clinic Cafeteria

When it's meal time in a hospital (and you're not inpatient), celiacs are often relegated to the least objectionable offering from a vending machine. Never mind that it might've been there six years, somehow a six-year-old Sinckers is a more health conscious choice than the make your own salad bar - a veritable gladiator match of accidental gluten-ing

Anyone who knows me knows on the best of days, I have luke-warm feelings about the Cleveland Clinic. To be polite, I consider that hospital the way one considers an unwanted relative at family gatherings: a necessary evil seen only because tradition (or in my case insurance) mandates it. So you can imagine I wasn't particularly hopeful about my lunch options. 

And yes, I was nearly validated by the hamburgers and fries, the beautiful, extensive, but ultimately unsafe salad bar, the spanakopita, the pizza, and even the yogurt that, of course, contained modified food starch. I was ready to give up and go with the Snickers, when a little alcove of prepared food caught my eye....

Pre-made salads without croutons, fifteen different varieties of prepackaged sushi (vegetarian and non), precut fruit cups, cottage cheese, and prepackaged grape leaves with the ingredients on the label. 

I settled on the grape leaves and the cottage cheese, and here's the thing, it was actually good. I'm not saying that I'd run back there any time soon to get a meal and I don't think the Clinic spends much time thinking about their celiac clientele, but it is nice to know that if you're going to be at the hospital, at least one of your concerns doesn't have to be brown bagging it. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are...

Celiac disease seems to be sprouting up everywhere I look. At the time of my diagnosis, the only thing I knew of gluten was that it was a pretty tasty meat substitute - which was probably more than most, leave it to the vegetarians to know about the weirdo food stuffs. 

Anyway, I came to learn about all things gluten, gluten free, and celiac related through the joy of the Internet. I bought a copy of the gluten free bible (it lived on the shelf next to my Oxford English study bible I had to buy for some class - the spine of which was significantly less cracked). Doctor after doctor, website after website kept telling me how lucky I was to be diagnosed in the Internet age, with information so readily available. 

And yet I felt, and still sometimes feel, like such an outsider. A crumbly gluten free cracker in a sea of plump dinner rolls. That is until today. I stopped by my local CVS to have some prescriptions filled and, deciding it was worth the wait for the drugs, milled around the aisles of useless junk.  I came upon a row of books on various health conditions, skimmed them as usual, and was shocked to find a bright yellow copy of "Living Gluten Free for Dummies".  A book on celiac disease? In a Beachwood, Ohio pharmacy? Had I wandered into the twilight zone? 

A further surprise came from a pharmacist tech, who, upon my asking if there was gluten in my new prescription, remarked that he was confused by so many people asking him that lately, as he'd failed to find a single drug that listed gluten in it's ingredients. (Apparently, he's never heard of The fact that it could sneak in as modified food starch or wheat protein aside, it lead me to wonder, where are these east side Cleveland celiacs? 

I pondered this as I shopped in Whole Foods. Like good friends, the signs at Whole Foods point the way to the best in gluten free options. But to whom are they pointing; where are these fellow gluten freers? Still hot on the trail, but yet continuously a few a step to late, I found further proof of my ever present, yet invisible brethren...

There! You see it! Shopping guides for all types of food allergies and yet the gluten free one has been nearly picked clean! (Picture is a bit fuzzy yes, but the one gluten free guide is second from the left.) Proof positive for the existence of Cleveland celiacs! 

I feel like an anthropologist doing detective work on a lost civilization. 

So here's my question Cleveland: you're shopping at CVS's, talking to pharmacists about your accidental gluten ingestion fears, but when it comes to education, activism, and cuisine, you're nowhere to be found. Has no one realized a gluten free restaurunt could clean up in this town? It's time to get it together and get together. ...It looks like I might have my work cut out for me.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dippin Dots - Ice Cream of the Future!

I had my first experience with what I will always call "space ice cream" at a science museum when I was young. If you've never had it, this gimmicky ice cream is compiled of little ice cream balls (the so called dots) about a centimeter in diameter. I'm not sure what exactly makes it ice cream of the future, other than it's presence at science museums and planetariums nationwide, but it's billed as the ice cream of astronauts and other space men, and that's good enough for me. Imagine my surprise then when I found out that there are not one, but four locations of Dippin' Dots at non-science educational sites in the greater Cleveland area. 

My astonishment doubled when, upon walking into the Dippin' Dots on Miles Road, I came face to face with a whole slew of allergy information. I scanned past information on the usual suspects - nuts, milk, soy - and was pleasantly surprised to find information on gluten. The ice cream itself does not contain gluten, but like any good establishment making sure it doesn't get sued, it maintains it cannot attest to the flavorings of it's third party vendors. 

Well. I guess I'll get vanilla, I thought, plain ordinary vanilla. But the two women behind the counter saw me reading the allergy information and asked what I was allergic too. I explained my situation and the manager asked which flavor I was most interested, offering to personally check the ingredients for me. I scanned the offerings and selected Moose Tracks - I mean, who can turn down peanut butter and chocolate? 

A few moments later, she returned, bringing the bag of dots out for me to read, saying "you probably know what you're allergic to better than I do".  I always appreciate that, when people know their limitations and respect your knowledge of your own body. 

As it turns out, the moose tracks was gluten free, well as far as I can tell anyway. That third party vendor line always leaves me questioning myself, but in this life, sometimes you've got to take risks. Especially if it involves space ice cream. 

(I'm being a little glib here, but it's for the same reason those catch all, noncommittal warning labels exist. The fact is, I think it was okay, but I have no solid proof. I'm very careful about these sort of things, but one never knows.) 

The moral of the story is, Dippin' Dots was a fun and delicious outing. And I learned, once again, that it never hurts to ask for a little special treatment; you'd be surprised how willing people are to work with a food allergy. In the world of the future, we'll have cars that run on solar power, world peace, and easily understandable allergy information every where we go. Until then, I guess I'll settle for ice cream of the future. Especially when it's this yummy.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Sans Souci

I think it has something to do with watching too many seasons of Top Chef, but I always find talking to a restaurant's kitchen staff rather intimidating. Not that I don't like the show, or others like it, but it grows a little old when season after season of high and mighty foodies with self proclaimed excellent pallets, tout their untouchable "art" - and god forbid anyone questions the ingredients in the food they've made,  much less suggest something different. 

I'm waiting for the day one of those shows does a gluten-free challenge. But that's another story for another time. 

My point is, when I called up Sans Souci at the Renaissance Hotel, I wasn't expecting any miracles. Even though I'd checked the menu out online before calling, and even though it looked promising, I couldn't help but wonder if my request for a gluten free, vegetarian meal would get me laughed off the phone, or worse, met with a sigh of annoyance - an I really can't be bothered with your problem. 

But Chef Anna Kim is not that kind of chef. Not only did she personally speak with me over the phone, assuring me with confidence my request could be easily met, she came out to my table upon my arrival - without me even asking to speak with her. Chef Kim explained that she handles a gluten intolerance about once a week (not to mention other food allergies and vegans), and said she could adjust most items on the menu to make them gluten free - adding this was particularly easy due to their Mediterranean influence.

She offered to make me something using any vegetable I desired - saying they had scores of fresh produce in the kitchen -  and honestly seemed a little disappointed when I opted for a dish already listed on that night's menu. Chef Kim, it seems, is up for a good challenge. 

With an addition of sauteed asparagus to my oven roasted eggplant (made complete by a red bell pepper and tomato ragu, feta cheese, and pine nuts), I had a Mediterranean gluten free feast that really did taste as good as it looks and sounds. (My food allergy free, and generally picky, father tried it as well and really liked it, too.)

Though full already, we ordered dessert; we had too - as a blogger with a responsibility to the Cleveland Celiac community, how could I not? We ordered the flourless chocolate cake and the creme brulee - but were suprised to learn that the flourless chocolate cake was in fact not gluten free. Thankfully, I was notified before it got anywhere near my mouth. Even more thankfully, the creme brulee was crunchy, creamy, and delicious - and so good that I felt no remorse over the misnomered cake. 

Sans Souci offers an excellent menu with excellent service - but I suppose I should note that such things come along with a price tag to match. So unless you can afford to break the bank regularly - or perhaps own one - in my opinion, San Souci is more of a special occasion place. 

Overall, not only did I enjoy my dinning experience and my meal at Sans Souci, I would welcome the chance to give Chef Anna Kim a real, off the menu gluten free challenge. (Plus, several of the meat dishes listed a few types of risottos as sides, any of which I'm sure could be turned into a dinner.) The whiny chefs of reality food TV might make impressive plates using foams and nitroglycerin, but if it came down to a food allergy challenge, something tells me they'd have nothing on Chef Kim.  

Sans Souci on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 22, 2008

Same Gluten Free Question, New Gluten Free Answer

"Where do you want to go to eat?"

Few other questions can so easily turn my stomach. Especially when I"m in Cleveland.  Not that there aren't good restaurants in Cleveland - there are, tons. But good, or even decent, places that cater to a celiac or otherwise gluten free population...?

So I shrug at the question and offer a noncommittal, "I don't care. Wherever you want." From there, my dining companions predictably wilt, roll their eyes, and utter the five most difficult words ever heard: "Well, where can you eat?" 

Though I developed the condition at around four years old, I wasn't diagnosed with Celiac disease until I was twenty - a full sixteen years after it's onset, giving the disease ample time to play ding dong ditch with my immune system. But that's the bad news. The good news was that I was lucky enough to get diagnosed in the heart of gluten free living: New York City. There, specialized restaurants stretch as far as the eye can see over a city filled with people that have as many food allergies as they do opinions. 

However, I had very little luck (and a lot of gluten accidents!) when it came to finding a place to eat in my hometown. Eventually, I sucked it up and gave up on trying to find restaurants in Cleveland that would offer me more than dressing-less iceberg lettuce salads and settled for cooking all my meals at home. I figured, I only visit this city for two weeks or so at a time; glorified rabbit-hood isn't so bad. 

At least, that was my attitude before my short stays suddenly turned into a four to six month living situation. Since then, I've googled "Cleveland" + "gluten free" or "celiac" more times than I can count, but I always come back with the same result: other people, on other websites asking "where can I get a good gluten free meal in Cleveland?"

I'm determined to answer that question for myself - and for you, dear Cleveland Celiacs and / or gluten free tourists. I've decided to make it my mission to find and write about local restaurants and chefs that allow us to dine with our friends and families without feeling like second class citizens. I like to think of it as gluten-freeing Cleveland. 

So check back for my adventures, pictures of what I've found, and all things free of gluten in the greater Cleveland area. Above all else, hopefully the next time someone says "well, where can you eat?" we'll all have some answers. 

Saturday, August 16, 2008

About This Blog

At the moment, there's not too much to say. I am creating this blog to help clevelands' celiac and otherwise gluten free population connect with greater Cleveland area resturaunts.

My goal is to collect information on local resuraunts who offer gluten free options or who can provide a safe environment for celiacs. Most importantly, my goal is to write about places that a gluten free person can eat with friends and family without feeling like a dining pariah.

Please check back often for my adventures of gluten free dining in Cleveland!
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