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Alimentary, My Dear

Gluten Freedom: Something for Everyone The Road to Gluten Freedom

By Tamia Nelson

September 18, 2012

I've been lucky. I have no food allergies, and I've never had to cope with an autoimmune disorder. Indeed, I sometimes wish my body were a little less efficient at extracting every last calorie from the food I eat. I put this down to "peasant genes," an inheritance shaped by many generations of hardscrabble, feast‑or‑famine existence. But not everyone is so fortunate. For the growing number of paddlers whose digestive systems are less accommodating, every mealtime can be an anxious trial. I was reminded of this a while back, when I got a letter from a reader who was struggling to craft a menu that would satisfy all his buddies, one of whom had celiac disease. He wondered if I could help, and when I realized I didn't have much to offer, I embarked on a course of self‑education. The result was "The Gluten‑Free Paddler." I knew that I still had a lot to learn, though, so I ended that column with a request:

Now you have a few ideas to get you started. This article isn't the last word on the subject, however. In fact, it's only a brief introduction. Do you have a gluten‑free recipe you'd like to share? A tip or two you'd like to pass along? A trip‑tested menu plan? If so, why not drop me a line? I look forward to hearing from you. And so do the many gluten‑sensitive paddlers among us.

The response was heartening. I soon had more than enough material to warrant another article, and this is it. The take‑home message? A gluten‑free menu needn't be boring. It's not a life‑sentence. It's a life‑enriching alternative to conventional meal planning. To put it another way, …

Anyone Can Enjoy Gluten‑Free Food

After all, you probably eat gluten‑free meals every day. Eggs and potatoes. Steak and rice. Yogurt and berries. But that's just the beginning. Read what Michael Henderson has to say on the subject:

Fortunately, I have no gluten allergies. ... Having clarified that, I do enjoy some gluten-free side dishes while on the trail or trip. I have started eating more quinoa and rice in the past few years. One recipe I like on the trail is Orange Rice with Cranberries. This was developed as a backpack meal, so I use instant rice, (enough for a serving per person), dried cranberries, and a powdered orange drink mix.

Here's how to make it: In your pot, bring enough water to a boil to cook the rice. When it boils, add the orange drink mix, the instant rice, and one-quarter cup of dried cranberries per serving. Stir, cover, remove from heat, and wait five minutes. Remove lid, stir again, and serve.

When canoeing, I use orange juice in place of the orange drink mix and water. Sometimes I top this with pan-roasted pine nuts or almond slivers. I also serve this at home as a side dish with fish tacos or grilled fish. Sometimes I serve it just because my girls like it. Let me know if you try it and what you think.

I tried it. And I liked it. In fact, I liked it so much that it now makes regular appearances on my menu, both in camp and at home.


Of course, for gluten‑sensitive folks, meals like this aren't just an occasional treat. They're everyday fare. Here's how one In the Same Boat reader and his wife are …

Meeting the Challenge

Come to think of it, though, "making the most of the opportunity" might be closer to the mark. In any case, Rod speaks from experience:

Good to read your article on gluten-free paddling. My wife was diagnosed with celiac disease several years ago, so we have faced all the challenges you mention. Evening meals are generally not the problem, since we can usually substitute gluten-free pasta for regular pasta, or cook with rice. Lunches are the big challenge, since we always used to make traditional sandwiches. Here are some of our lunch alternatives:

Bean Salad  Combine one tin each of garbanzo beans, kidney beans, black beans, and green beans, plus some banana peppers for interest, and mix with balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

Crackers and Cheese  Gluten-free crackers (easy to find these days) and goat cheese, or any gluten-free cheese spread.

Guacamole and Gluten-Free Tortilla Chips  Guacamole doesn't keep too long, so it's best to use this on the first day, or take the avocados with you and make it fresh.

If we have access to a stove at lunchtime, then anything with eggs can be good -- an omelette, scrambled eggs, even a breakfast (lunch?) burrito, made with a gluten-free tortilla.

Our favorite evening meal when camping is a red Thai curry prepared from these ingredients:

1 can coconut milk
1 tablespoon (vary amount to taste) Thai red curry paste
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 pound pork, chicken, or tofu pieces
1 can mixed Asian vegetables

Just mix together and cook until the meat is done -- about 10 minutes -- and then serve with rice. I measure out the curry paste and fish sauce at home and pack them in small plastic bottles.

Needless to say, I'm in Rod's debt for his mouth‑watering ideas. His letter certainly dispels any lingering notion that a gluten‑free diet has to be a hardship tour.


What about snacks, though? These vital refueling stops loom large in the active paddler's day. Well, readers also had ideas about …

Gluten‑Free Snacking

This was my particular bugaboo, since crackers and bread — almost all of my favorites are made with wheat — form the spine around which much of my eat‑on‑the‑go menu is structured. But my way isn't the only way, as In the Same Boat reader Gail points out:

We have two gluten-sensitive people in my family. My Mom makes "party mix" (usually posted on the Chex boxes during holiday seasons) using only rice squares and rice-corn cereals, so they can enjoy this treat along with the rest of us. I don't think the two family members are so sensitive that very minute amounts of gluten affect them, because they tolerate this combo of cereals. For a different flavor, we sometimes dust the cooked mix with Parmesan and garlic powder while it's still warm.

You could start with this idea and add nuts prior to cooking, then add craisins, raisins, etc., to make a pretty good snack after the original cooked mix has cooled. It's also light weight, depending on how many and what type of nuts you add. I just googled "Chex party mix" and found tons of ideas and recipes that could be modified for those who can tolerate these cereals.

This hit home. Chex party mix was one of my earliest moveable feasts, and while many of the recipes online include taboo ingredients like pretzels and bagel chips, there's plenty of opportunity for substitutions. It just takes a willingness to experiment.


OK. A reader's letter awakened my interest in gluten‑free foods, and my first column on the subject followed in due course, though I'm afraid it came too late to help John. Still, I was more than a little curious to hear how his trip had gone. Was his gluten‑sensitive‑safe menu a success? I hoped so, but I didn't know. And then he sent me this …

Post‑Trip Follow‑Up

The executive summary? It worked!

We had too much food. We got into camp and everyone was absolutely BEAT. We'd have the main meal, no side dishes (except two nights), and we had dessert only three times. Aside from this, the menu was a hit. There were clear winners, and there were no major losers. The two definite dinner winners? A spicy Thai peanut chicken and khao soi [a curry-noodle dish from northern Thailand – Editor].

For breakfast there were no losers, with scrambled-egg hash, apple corn cakes, and scrambled-egg frittatas scarfed down readily.

I picked up some gluten-free pizza dough mix for pizza night. Everyone enjoyed the pizza, but we had big issues with the dough "inflating," rather than staying more flat. If I'd cut the mix down and used more water, that might have taken care of the problem.

Gluten-free is definitely doable for a canoe trip, but it comes at a cost. You won't get nice, light, prepackaged, "add boiling water and you're ready" meals. Our method of choosing what to eat any given night was "Which is heaviest?" And that's what we ate. The Thai peanut chicken was the first to go, and was unanimously voted the favorite meal of the trip.

We never had bannock, Irish soda bread, or scalloped potatoes. Just not hungry enough (or maybe it was "too worn out to cook"), but another winner was the Hudson Bay Bread, baked in advance of the trip. Absolutely delicious and a major energy booster.

I like a happy ending, don't you? And Chef John certainly served one up. But so can you and I. It takes a bit of planning and a slight attitude adjustment on the part of diehard wheatophiles like me, but neither of these is a real obstacle. It doesn't hurt to have "too much food" on a trip, either, whatever your menu. Having once paddled for two days on a handful of raisins and a couple of squares of chocolate, I can assure you that ending a trip with some leftover food is a damn sight better than running short several days early. The advice of Victorian writer Jerome K. Jerome is always worth heeding on this point: Be sure to pack your "boat of life" with "enough to eat … and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing." I'm sure we can all drink to that!


Gluten Freedom!

Has a friend or family member learned that she (or he) is gluten‑sensitive? Are you afraid this means an end to shared meals on the trail? Or a hardship tour of bland and tasteless dishes? Well, I've got good news for you: Eating gluten‑free can be liberating, freeing your menu from the tyranny of old habits and the constraints of conventional meal‑planning. Surprised? So was I, when I first tackled the subject. But with a little help from In the Same Boat's invariably well‑informed readers, I've come round at last. I don't have to eat gluten‑free meals, but that won't stop me from sampling the delights of gluten freedom from time to time, both at home and under way. What about you?

And yes, I know I've still got a lot to learn. So if you have a gluten‑free recipe to share — or any other kind of recipe, for that matter — or if you simply want to pass on a tip or two, just drop me a line. I always enjoy hearing from you.



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