Sweet Passover, Happy Easter

When I was in Berkeley, California, for a Mystery Readers International literary salon earlier this week with fellow author Brad Parks, a lovely lady named Laura-Kate Ruska baked a gluten-free chocolate cake for me. My friend Janet Rudolph, who runs the Dying for Chocolate blog (and who hosted the salon), has posted the recipe. Not only is the cake absolutely delicious, but it’s perfect for both Passover and Easter celebrations. Bon appétit (and thank you, Laura-Kate!).

I’ve written about gluten-free Passover treats before (in 2010 and 2011), but I haven’t mentioned the gluten-free Easter candy list. It’s a great resource, especially since we’ve learned that a “gluten-free” label doesn’t always mean that a product is celiac-safe (in particular, I’m thinking of Jelly Belly’s Peter Rabbit Deluxe Easter Mix, which is NOT gluten-free, in spite of an erroneous label that claims it is; the product has been recalled). Here’s to a healthy, safe spring for everyone!

(Photo above: Janet Rudolph and her husband, Frank, thoughtfully prepared special wine bottles with the cover of my new book, The Next One to Fall, and Brad’s latest, The Girl Next Door. Glad to say my bottle made it home safely from California, thanks to an invention called the WineSkin!)

Shopping in Southwestern Ontario

It’s starting to feel as if a gluten-free grocery store opens in Southwestern Ontario every other week. I used to make a trip to the Specialty Food Shop each time I visited Toronto, but with the number of options expanding, I’m checking out a wider range of places offering gluten-free groceries:

Cabbagetown Organics: The sign in the window advertising fresh bread from Aidan’s Gluten Free is what lured me inside. As the name suggests, the store’s strength is organic produce, but the gluten-free section is substantial. [address] 499 Parliament Street, Toronto [tel] 416-913-7296

Goodbye Gluten: This combination grocery store, bakery, and caterer opened this summer. Everything you’ll find here is gluten-free, and there are also nut-free, dairy-free, egg-free, and vegan options. [address] 2066 Avenue Road, Toronto [tel] 416-781-9191

Nut’n Gluten: This is a large store, especially when you consider that almost everything on the shelves and inside the fridges and freezers is gluten-free (there are products for people allergic to nuts, too). My impression — based on a single visit — is that some prices are higher than what I’m used to paying, but there are also brands here that I haven’t seen carried at any other shop. [address] 3120 Rutherford Road, Vaughan, Ontario [tel] 905-553-7901

Remark Fresh Markets: Whenever I visit my aunt in London, Ontario, this is where she goes to stock up on celiac-safe foods for me. Lots of choice, with both Canadian and international brands featured here. [address] 1190 Oxford Street West, London, Ontario [tel] 519-474-2561

Specialty Food Shop: Not everything in this shop is gluten-free — there are products for people with food allergies, metabolic disorders, cystic fibrosis, and other conditions. It’s small, but it stocks great staples and snacks and has registered dietitians on staff. [address] At the Hospital for Sick Children (main floor), 555 University Avenue, Toronto [tel] 1-800-737-7976 or 416-813-5294

A few other stores with plenty of celiac-safe options: Whole Foods, which has its own Gluten-Free Bakehouse products as well as items made by other brands; Noah’s Natural Foods, a small, health-oriented local chain with several locations; and Ambrosia Natural Foods, just north of Toronto in Thornhill, which offers some of the best prices on gluten-free goods that I’ve found anywhere. Also, a couple of websites offer shop listings (and, frequently, a lot more): Gluten-Free Ontario and Celiac Canada.

The Best of 2009 for the Gluten-Free

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One of my favorite things about the last week of the year is that it’s a good time to take stock of what’s happened over the past 360+ days. In 2009, I found that some posts got a great deal of feedback from readers — and I learned that sometimes it’s impossible to predict which ones will spark the most interest. Below are the posts that garnered the greatest responses, and if you missed them the first time around, you can still read them (and comment) now.

Thanks so much to everyone who took the time to e-mail me, follow me on Twitter, join the Facebook group, or make a comment on the site. I deeply appreciate your support, and look forward to hearing more from you in 2010. Happy new year!

Vacation Planning for Celiacs: Cruises

The irony for me was that, after researching different cruise options, I ended up going to Las Vegas instead. But my research wasn’t wasted: because I looked at the gluten-free options onboard different cruise lines, I was able to share what I’d found about Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, MSC and other companies. Better yet, so many readers contacted me about their cruise experiences (mostly with positive reports about dining gluten-free) that it inspired another post.

New York City Day by Day… for Celiacs

When I wrote the New York City Day by Day guidebook for Frommer’s, I was a newly diagnosed celiac. Fortunately, the book didn’t require full-length restaurant reviews; since it was intended as a cheat sheet to the city, and mostly filled with walking tours, I could get away with short mentions of favorite eateries. Of course, that list included many great spots for the gluten-free, such as Rosa Mexicano, Rice, Blue Smoke, and Pure Food & Wine. The book is now available as a download from the New York Public Library; for details, check out the original post.

Philadelphia’s Great Gluten-Free Initiative

Bravo to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness for training so many Philadelphia chefs via its Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training (GREAT) program… to the wonderful chefs who took part… and to the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation for being savvy enough to recognize this as a terrific tourism initiative.

Smart Businesses Support Celiacs

This was inspired by Starbucks’ “now you see it, now you don’t” gluten-free Orange Valencia Cake. Remember it? But the post was about much more than Starbucks. It was about making smart choices to support businesses that are responsive to their customers’ needs. One of the things I wrote last July was, “At a time when we’re all watching our budgets, I’d like to make a case for spending even more carefully. If a major corporation isn’t serious about serving the gluten-intolerant, I see no reason to support them.” I stand by that position.

Gluten-Free Fast Food at the Toronto Eaton Centre

This post was an accident. While I was in Toronto last June, working on the Frommer’s Toronto 2010 guidebook, a business lunch was canceled at the last minute. Since I was stranded near the Eaton Centre, my hometown’s famous shopping complex, I decided to explore the fast-food options there. The response from readers was overwhelming. It turned out that just about everyone wanted to know more about celiac-safe fast food. This post had an unexpected result: a Toronto reader wrote to tell me that the Druxy’s Famous Deli in Commerce Court had gluten-free bread. When another reader saw that, she contacted Peter Druxerman, Druxy’s vice-president of marketing, to ask if the company could make gluten-free bread available at their outlet inside Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital. In the blink of an eye, Druxy’s responded, adding gluten-free bread to its offerings at PMH. Remember what I said earlier about supporting businesses that are responsive to their customers?

On the Road With…

I love finding out the secrets of great travelers. Both Alice Bast, founder of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, and Sloane Miller, who writes the delightful Allergic Girl blog and runs Worry-Free Dinners in New York, were kind enough to share many of theirs.

Mail-Ordering Gluten-Free Groceries

First and foremost, the Gluten-Free Guidebook is about travel and dining out. But even if you’re on the road a lot, as I am, you need to buy groceries sometimes. I’m lucky to have some great spots near me in New York, but there are also some companies that I order from online. And it still surprises me that Amazon consistently offers some of the best prices on gluten-free groceries.

A Celebratory Gluten-Free Lunch in New York

For those of you who know me mainly as a travel writer and celiac advocate, it came as a shock that I have a dark side. My debut crime novel, The Damage Done, will be published by Forge in October 2010. I have been publishing short stories for a while, but I’m still happily surprised about my two-book deal with Forge. What I didn’t expect was that some criminally minded fiction types would be interested in the Gluten-Free Guidebook, too. David Cranmer, editor of Beat to a Pulp (one of the best places to find contemporary crime fiction), asked me about both my novel and my gluten-free travels when he interviewed me. Jen Forbus, the book blogger behind the wonderful Jen’s Book Thoughts, was kind enough to ask me to take part in her Six-Word Memoir project, in which she asked crime writers — including Dennis Lehane, Linda Fairstein, Joseph Wambaugh, Sue Grafton, Lee Child, Megan Abbott, Ken Bruen, and Mary Higgins Clark — to sum themselves up in six words. Have you read mine yet?

A Dedicated Gluten-Free Ontario Bakery

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A while back, I wrote about the impressive array of gluten-free groceries at the Specialty Food Shop at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The store isn’t just for celiacs, and not all of its products are gluten-free. But located in its aisles are gluten-free North American brands such as Glutino, Mi-Del, Enjoy Life, and Kinnikinnick, and international ones such as Australia’s Orgran and Germany’s Glutano. There are plenty of treats — cookies of all descriptions, ice-cream cones, snack bars — as well as healthier fare, including pastas, cereals, breads, soup bases and mixes, baking products, and frozen dinners.

The Specialty Food Shop introduced me to a Canadian bakery that I’d never heard of before, but a taste of El Peto‘s unbelievably delicious butter tarts made me want to get to know them better. Founded in 1988, the company is a Swiss-style bakery and a dedicated gluten-free facility. Since El Peto is located in Cambridge, Ontario — about an hour’s drive west of Toronto, close to the charming theater town of Stratford — I decided to visit the last time I was in the area.

El Peto is “free” of so many ingredients, I started to wonder what they do bake with. It’s not only entirely wheat-free and gluten-free, it also offers corn-free, yeast-free, milk-free, egg-free, peanut-free and trans fat-free foods. Their product range includes breads and pizza crusts, muffins and pies, hot and cold cereals, cake mixes and cookies, and their own milled flours, made with ingredients such as romano beans, chickpeas, quinoa, potato, and brown rice. Their company store also stocks gluten-free products from other manufacturers, such as pastas from Tinkyada and Gogo Quinoa (a Bolivian fair-trade company), waffle ice-cream cones and wafers from Barkat, and soup cubes from Celifibr.

Then there are, of course, El Peto’s wonderful butter tarts. It turns out that other types of tarts are also available — pecan, lemon, raspberry — and that there are unfilled tart shells, too. El Peto’s prices are reasonable, but the best news is that you don’t need to visit to shop there. You can order via the online store. El Peto’s products are also turning up more frequently in mainstream grocery stores — those butter tarts can now be found at the Loblaws Superstore in Toronto, along with breads, rolls, and mixes.

El Peto [address] 65 Saltsman Drive, Cambridge, Ontario [tel] 800-387-4064 or 519-650-4614 [fax] 519-650-5692 [web] www.elpeto.com

Smart Businesses Support Celiacs

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Back in May, I was excited when Starbucks introduced its first-ever gluten-free baked treat, the Orange Valencia Cake. But last week, the company announced — via Twitter — that it was no longer going to carry it. Instead, gluten-intolerant people would have to make do with KIND bars, one of those fruit-and-nut snacks which, in my opinion, are neither healthy enough to justify as part of a meal nor decadent enough to qualify as a treat.

To me, it was a great disappointment. It wasn’t that I was in love with the cake. I’d been in several Starbucks locations where the cake had been taken out of its packaging and set on a cake stand in the display case, alongside the wheat-based baked goods, entirely defeating the point of it being gluten-free. But I was surprised that such a major US chain would go to the trouble of developing the treat, stocking it nationally, then just ditch it within weeks. I’m not sure what Starbucks’ message to the growing number of gluten-free consumers was supposed to be, but it certainly wasn’t that they were committed to serving us.

Triumph Dining has organized an online petition to Starbucks, designed to get the company to bring back the cake. Personally, I’m choosing to focus on shopping at places that have consistently shown an interest in serving celiacs. The recession has made me more conscious about where I spend my money. With the growing number of empty storefronts in New York City, I want to support new businesses like HealthSmart of NY, which opened in Murray Hill a couple of weeks ago and which boasts a surprisingly huge gluten-free section for a relatively small store. I also like to buy my groceries at local stores like Natural Green Market and Fairway, or national chains like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, all of which have demonstrated a longstanding commitment to the celiac community.

My feelings about supporting businesses that serve celiacs extends to bakeries — such as Babycakes and Shabtai Gourmet — and especially to restaurants. When I’ve gone out lately, it’s mostly been to spots such as Bistango, Risotteria, GustOrganics, and Rosa Mexicano, all places with an impressive record of serving celiacs. (Rosa Mexicano doesn’t have a gluten-free menu, but over the course of many visits I’ve found them to be very celiac-aware.)

At a time when we’re all watching our budgets, I’d like to make a case for spending even more carefully. If a major corporation like Starbucks isn’t serious about serving the gluten-intolerant, I see no reason to support them. As Ethan at Gluten-Free Maps pointed out to me last week, Starbucks offers a gluten-free fair trade chocolate cake at its outlets in Great Britain. And this isn’t just about Starbucks; as Chris at Celiac Handbook has noted, McDonald’s restaurants in Finland have a gluten-free menu (as do the ones in Sweden). If these American-based companies can manage these feats overseas, they can do it here. No excuses.

Toronto’s Great Gluten-Free Store

On recent trips to Toronto, I’ve discovered that gluten-free grocery-store choices have multiplied. There’s Whole Foods in Hazelton Lanes (though its Gluten-Free Bakehouse options are more limited than what I encounter in the chain’s New York branches). Grocery giant Loblaws now has a specialty-food aisle in its shops that includes celiac-safe options. There’s also Noah’s Natural Foods, a small, health-oriented local chain, and Ambrosia Natural Foods just north of Toronto in Thornhill. However, my favorite in the city — the Specialty Food Shop — is located downtown at the southeast corner of University Avenue and Gerrard Street.

If you know Toronto at all, that location might have sent up a red flag. Right now, you’re asking yourself, Isn’t that where the Hospital for Sick Children is? Yes, and that’s exactly where the Specialty Food Shop is. I know that going into a hospital to shop for food isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but if you can get past that obstacle, this is a real find. There are aisles filled with gluten-free treats — cookies of all descriptions, ice-cream cones, snack bars — as well as aisles filled with healthier fare, including pastas, cereals, breads, soup bases and mixes, baking products, and frozen dinners.

The Specialty Food Shop carries brands many North American celiacs know, including Glutino, Mi-Del, and Enjoy Life, but there are some surprises, too. Who knew that there’s a fantastic Swiss-style dedicated gluten-free bakery called El Peto in Ontario that makes divine butter tarts and pecan tarts? An Alberta company, Kinnikinnick, produces Oreo-like cookies called K-Toos. There are also international brands such as Australia’s Orgran (which makes buckwheat pasta) and Germany’s Glutano.

The store isn’t just for celiacs, and not all of its products are gluten-free. There are also groceries for the lactose-intolerant and the food-allergic, people on low-protein diets, and people with cystic fibrosis. If you live in Canada but can’t make it to the store in person, you can place your order online or by phone instead (shipping is not available to the U.S.). If you do have the opportunity to visit, enter the building through the Elizabeth Street entrance (the Hospital for Sick Children is a massive complex; this offers the clearest route to the store). The store is open seven days a week; check the website for the most up-to-date hours. Its website also features extensive nutritional information and gluten-free recipes.

The Specialty Food Shop [address] At the Hospital for Sick Children (main floor), 555 University Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada [tel] 1-800-737-7976 or 416-813-5294 [web] www.sickkids.on.ca/specialtyfoodshop

Balenciaga and Baguette

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I’ve been a fan of the department store El Corte Inglés for years. What began as a flirtation with the ubiquitous Spanish chain when I first encountered it in 1999 in Madrid turned into a full-fledged love affair after a couple of subsequent trips to Barcelona, where I learned that the store doesn’t just carry souvenirs, clothing, toiletries, housewares, and electronics, but some of the most exquisite shoes I’ve ever seen. How could you not fall in love with a store that carries beautiful pumps by Balenciaga – and sells them at a reasonable price?

I couldn’t imagine that my passion for El Corte Inglés could get any deeper, but that’s exactly what happened on my last visit to Spain. While I was researching my trip (my first to Spain since being diagnosed with celiac disease), I came across the association Celíacs de Catalunya, which provides information for gluten-intolerant people who live in the Catalan region. In addition to recommended restaurants (which includes some information on other parts of Spain, too), the website provides a list of stores that sell celiac-safe foods, and I spotted El Corte Inglés on this list. After a visit to the store’s website, I was entranced. Was it possible that the department store’s supermarket division really stocked gluten-free croissants by Proceli, madeleines by Adpan, and baguettes by Special Line El Corte Inglés, with each product priced between 2 and 5 Euros? I suspected I was dreaming.

It turned out to be reality. While not every El Corte Inglés supermercado carried the full range of products that appear on the store’s website, every single one carried enough gluten-free goodies to thrill me and my taste buds. Not only was I able to enjoy baked goods sin gluten every day of my trip, but many of the products were vacuum-sealed and dated five months ahead (though once the package is opened, the contents need to be consumed within a few days).

In addition to my almost daily visits to the supermercado, I had to drop by the shoe department once or twice, too. Even with so many packages of Proceli croissants in my suitcase, I managed to find room for one more pair of Spanish-made shoes. The croissants are long gone, sadly, but the shoes are enjoying their new home in New York.

(A note on language and translation: The El Corte Inglés website is in Spanish, while the site for Celíacs de Catalunya is in Spanish and Catalan. You can translate some of the pages using Google. To view the options at El Corte Inglés Supermercado, you will need to enter a Spanish postal code. Can’t think of one? Type “1” in the box and a drop-down menu called “Centros de Recognida” will appear. Pick any option on that list and it will bring you do the main page for the supermarket. Because of the frames on this page, I find Google’s translator doesn’t work with it. Click on the first drop-down menu and select “Alimentos dieteticos”; in the second drop-down menu, select “Productos para celiacos”; on the third drop-down menu, click on each selection in turn to find gluten-free beer, cookies, breads, pastas, and other products.)