A Sweet Passover for Celiacs

What does it say about me that one of the holidays I most look forward to is Passover, and I’m not even Jewish? But I do live in New York, where the holiday is widely observed. Many grocery stores have a special section set up for the occasion, and that’s normally a goldmine for gluten-free items. Passover — also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread — generally prohibits the consumption of grains (rice and beans are also on the forbidden list for Ashkenazi Jews). I say “mostly” since one staple of the regular Passover diet is matzo, an unleavened bread that’s made from wheat. That means anything made with matzo — such as matzo-ball soup, gefilte fish, and any product made with matzo meal — isn’t celiac-safe.

Still, options abound, especially when it comes to treats. Passover desserts range from traditional macaroons to raspberry rolls, chocolate-covered marshmallows to fudge brownies, and marble loaf cake to chocolate-chip cookies. One brand that I’ve grown to know well over the past few years is Shabtai Gourmet, a bakery that is entirely gluten-free; they are also dairy- caesin- and soy-free, and their products are certified kosher. If you live in the continental USA, they offer free mail-order delivery of their products. Take a look at their offerings at [web] www.shabtai-gourmet.com, or call [tel] 516-652-5671.

There are other companies that prepare gluten-free items for Passover, such as Manischewitz (which makes potato starch noodles) and Dr. Prager (which makes spinach-and-potato pancakes). Nancy Lapid, About.com’s celiac guide, prepared a great list of items to watch for in “The Jewish Holiday of Passover: A Gluten-Free Bonanza.”

Finally, thanks to Google, I’ve learned that there’s even gluten-free matzo available now. Created by a rabbi based in England, Shemura Oat Matzos are gluten-free and meet the strict requirements of Passover foods (the oats are literally watched as they’re baked, to ensure that they don’t rise). The product is available in the US and Canada, as well as Australia, South Africa, Belgium, England, and Israel. Shops that sell it in North America include:

Kosher Cajun [address] 3519 Severn Avenue, Metairie, Louisiana [tel] 504-888-2010 [web] www.koshercajun.com

Fishman’s Delicatessen & Bakery [address] 4100 Minnetonka Blvd., St. Louis Park, Minnesota [tel] 952-926-5611 [web] www.fishmanskosher.com

Also, Kosher.com will ship orders anywhere in the US. I wish everyone who celebrates the holiday a very sweet Passover.

UPDATE 04/03/2010: I’ve found a few articles — and recipes — that are well worth checking out:

The Gluten-Free Guidebook Turns Two

On Monday, the Gluten-Free Guidebook celebrated its second anniversary. That seems like forever in blog years, and I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to write to me, make a comment on the site, join the Facebook group (745 members and growing!), follow me on Twitter, and subscribe to the e-mail digest. I’m especially grateful to those who’ve sent me Reader Reports about where they live or a place they’ve visited. There are now reports on celiac-friendly restaurants and shops from Paris to Buenos Aires, from Amman to Edmonton, and from Oahu to Las Vegas. All of your suggestions are appreciated — often by more people than you may realize.

Since an anniversary is a good time for reflection, I want to share the rules that guide me while I’m on the road:

  • The trip starts when you’re still at home: Before you hit the road, you need to spend some quality time researching your destination online. Starting with a basic Google search is fine, but check out sites that list restaurants that cater to a gluten-intolerant clientele. Some of my favorites include Gluten-Free Maps and Celiac Handbook; I also love city-specific sites, such as Gluten-Free in SD (San Diego) and Toronto Celiac. Look for local celiac-awareness groups via Clan Thompson’s Celiac Site and the Association of European Coeliac Societies. Also, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness and the Gluten Intolerance Group have great information for travelers to, or within, North America. Don’t overlook local blogs — these can be invaluable.
  • Getting there is half the battle: When I arrive at my destination, I know that I’ll find some restaurants that are willing to feed a celiac (even if they’ve never done so before!). On the other hand, my experiences in trying to get gluten-free meals on flights has been dismal (a couple of bright spots for me have been LAN and British Airways, though I haven’t flown either one recently). I’ve told you already about my awful experience with American Airlines, and you may have seen the news that Continental has just eliminated its gluten-free meal option. When I interview people for the “On the Road With…” columns, I always ask how they handle the issue. Everyone brings food with them. You can take a look at the archive to get ideas of what to pack — just don’t go empty-handed, or you’ll likely end up with a very empty stomach.
  • Celiac dining cards go everywhere: They fit into your wallet, weigh nothing, and are life savers. Need a card in a foreign tongue? Head over to Celiac Travel for an amazing selection of free cards (in 47 different languages) that you can download and print. While you’re there, print out a couple in English, too. That can save you from repeating your dietary restrictions to each member of the restaurant staff, and the card can be left with the chef for reference purposes.
  • Remember that you need to relax: When I’m traveling, sometimes I feel worn down by having to explain my dietary restrictions at every breakfast, lunch and dinner. That can be exhausting, especially when you’re doing it in a foreign language. Find ways to make it easier for yourself. If you find a restaurant that does a terrific job of accommodating you early in your stay, visit it again before you leave. If you’re at a hotel with a helpful concierge, have him or her call the restaurant and explain your dietary restrictions in advance. Go to a local supermarket and buy foods you can stash in your room (fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt) so that you have snacks on hand, or even breakfast for the next day. Travel is all about new experiences, but that doesn’t mean that every meal has to be a fresh challenge.

I’d love to hear what helps you when you’re on the road. Here’s to the year ahead, and to making plenty of new discoveries.

An Unexpected East Village Find

I’ve been spoiled lately. So many restaurants have started offering gluten-free options that it’s becoming increasingly rare for me to need to explain the diet when I go out. While I love the convenience, I realize that I’m gravitating to the same places, over and over again, rather than finding new ones.

This really hit home last week, when I was at a lounge, Three of Cups, in New York’s East Village. I was there because the lounge’s basement bar is home to the monthly “Sweet: Actors Reading Writers” events, a literary series created by Shelly Oria and Annie Levy. I’d been invited to participate because my debut crime novel, The Damage Done, will be published by Forge in October 2010. (I mentioned my two-book deal with Forge in a previous post; if you want to read more about my fiction, the terrific Steve Weddle of Do Some Damage recently interviewed me.) It was an exciting opportunity, particularly since a very talented actress, Maria Portman Kelly, would read from my book.

It turned out to be a wonderful evening. There were five different actors reading works by five writers, and the space was packed. (If you’ll be in New York anytime soon, I’d encourage you to check out the series; the next reading is April 1st.) My editor asked me and my husband to have dinner afterwards with a couple of other editors from Forge. They were planning to eat at Three of Cups, and I immediately balked at the idea. All I’d seen on the menu at the restaurant above the bar was pizza and pasta, and I was sure I wouldn’t find anything to eat.

I was wrong. It turned out that I had options — not a long list of choices, but a few dishes that were very simply prepared — and that the restaurant’s staff was very accommodating. For a gluten-free appetizer, there was grilled calamari (not breaded, just treated with a little salt and oil), a caprese salad (tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil, and oil), and prosciutto with Parmesan (literally, just those two wonderful ingredients on a plate); we ordered all of them for the table to share. For my main course, I had roasted chicken, seasoned with rosemary, salt, and oil and served with potatoes and string beans. It was a wonderful meal for many reasons: great company, terrific food, and an important reminder that gluten-intolerant people have a wider range of options than it might at first seem.

Three of Cups [address] 83 First Avenue (at Fifth Street), New York, NY [tel] 212-388- 0059 [web] http://threeofcupsnyc.com

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Speaking of The Damage Done, the design team at Forge did an amazing job on the book’s cover. Also, I’m excited to announce that three of my short stories have been nominated for Derringer awards: “Insatiable” appeared in Beat to a Pulp,Stepmonster” in Thuglit, and “Family Man” in Crimespree.