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National Restaurant Association - Cooking up gluten-free cuisine

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Cooking up gluten-free cuisine

Given the amount of naturally gluten-free products — including vegetables, fruit, meat, legumes and nuts — chefs have numerous options when designing gluten-free dishes.

Although wheat, barley and rye are off the table, many grains are gluten-free, including rice, wild rice, corn, millet, sorghum and teff. Many “pseudo grains,” which aren’t biologically members of the same group as cereal grains, also are gluten-free, including amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.

In addition, manufacturers have stepped up their efforts to develop gluten-free products from pancake mixes to pizza crusts. Flour alternatives abound, including rice flour, cornmeal, almond flour, potato starch and even a manufactured product that uses egg whites as a key ingredient.

Discover six restaurants committed to ensuring gluten-free diners have top-notch experiences at their operations:

O’Toole’s Restaurant Pub, Queensbury, N.Y. Creating a gluten-free menu at O’Toole’s took months of research, including countless calls to suppliers to identify suitable products. But it was worth every moment, says Bummer McIntosh, the restaurant’s food and beverage director. Aside from the satisfaction of knowing that the restaurant is serving the needs of those with gluten concerns, O’Toole’s has profited financially. “We’ve had thousands of dollars in increased sales,” says McIntosh.

Customer favorites include chicken tenders breaded in rice flour and cooked in a gluten-free fryer. “For someone with celiac disease, these tenders are like a piece of heaven,” McIntosh says. The outsourced tenders also serve as the base for a chicken parmesan sandwich and a buffalo chicken salad. O’Toole’s worked closely with suppliers to find gluten-free alternatives to items like salad dressings and partnered with a local bakery to offer fresh gluten-free bread.

Gregorio’s Trattoria, Potomac, Md., and Reston, Va. After first sampling a variety of rice pasta and corn pasta, Gregorio’s management team selected a quinoa variety for its gluten-free menu. “It holds up the best,” says managing partner Gregory Kahn. “It has that same al dente texture of wheat pasta—unlike rice pasta that gets mushy.” Unable to find the product through its local distributors, Gregorio’s sources it from an online supplier.

In addition to the dishes listed on Gregorio’s gluten-free menu, several items from the restaurant’s main menu can be modified to be gluten-free. “If we have the ingredients, we will make it the way you want it,” the menu notes. Nearly all Gregorio’s base recipes —including sauces and stocks — are gluten-free, giving the restaurant more flexibility in providing gluten-free options. “Although many restaurants thicken their stocks with flour, we do it by reduction,” says Michael Soltes, director of operations. “It takes more time, but it makes a better sauce.”

Pica Pica, San Francisco and Napa, Calif. At Pica Pica, everything on the menu is gluten-free. Specializing in Venezuelan cuisine, the restaurant focuses on traditional dishes made largely with four ingredients: corn, plantains, yuca and taro root. Customers started requesting gluten-free offerings almost immediately after the restaurant’s first location opened in 2008. The core ingredients were naturally gluten-free, so the owners decided to go completely gluten-free. “It eliminates the chance for error,” says co-owner Adriana López Vermut.

Pica Pica’s signature dish is the arepa, a grilled corn pocket, similar to a pita, stuffed with savory items like beef, chicken and pork, complemented by sweet plantains, bean spread and more. One of the arepa varieties originally included some wheat flour, but Vermut adapted the recipe so it no longer contained gluten. Other Pica Pica specialties include empanadas (made with precooked corn flour), and buñuelos, fried dough balls made from yuca and queso fresco.

Mehtaphor, New York City. Dining gluten-free shouldn’t mean you’re eating an inferior product, says chef Jehangir Mehta of New York City’s Mehtaphor. A former runner-up on the “Next Iron Chef,” Mehta taps into a mix of herbs and spices — including coriander, curry leaves and turmeric — to flavor his eclectic gluten-free dishes. His favorite flour alternatives include tapioca starch to thicken sauces and chickpea flour for breading items like his “Chickpea Crusted Squid.”

For baking, Mehta recommends almond flour or a mixture of almond and rice flour. Other nut-based flours work well, including hazelnut, Mehta says. He suggests coconut flakes instead of bread crumbs to give “breaded” chicken a crunchy texture.

Blue Ginger, Wellesley, Mass. Celebrity chef Ming Tsai serves up gluten-free versions of what he calls “East-West” cuisine at Blue Ginger restaurant. “Nothing is dumbed down; it is still Blue Ginger food,” says Tsai, who produces and hosts the public television cooking show “Simply Ming.”

The gluten-free menu features “Sake-Miso Marinated Sablefish” and “Grilled New Zealand Lamb Rack with Blackberry Tamarind Sauce.” The same dishes also are favorites on the regular menu. “Usually only one or two components of the dish need to be changed to make it gluten-free; we keep the integrity of the dish,” says Tsai. Minor modifications include using tamari and wheat-free fish sauce, rather than a wheat-based soy sauce.

TaMolly’s Mexican Kitchen, 11 locations in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. Gluten-free favorites include beef fajitas and grilled fish tacos served in corn rather than flour tortillas (which are available on the regular menu). The flour tortillas are outsourced, minimizing airborne flour. Unlimited gluten-free corn chips and salsa complement any gluten-free order. The chips are prepared in a dedicated gluten-free fryer.

When TaMolly’s launched its gluten-free menu four years ago, management systematically scrutinized each ingredient, rooting out hidden sources of gluten and identifying suitable substitutes. For example, they found a replacement for a buttery oil that contained a barley derivative. In 2012, TaMolly’s ownership launched the fast-casual operation Chiladas. “From the get-go, 75 percent of the menu items have been gluten-free,” says COO Bob Strate. He notes that it’s easier to limit gluten content when you’re starting out fresh with a menu.

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