Quality Is Worth It (Let the Gluten Go #11)

How food, diet, and dieting affected my writing and my life.  And maybe effects yours…

There’s something you will notice after a while, when you stop eating gluten.  You’re going to need less of the standby taste modifiers:  salt, sugar and pepper.  You may catch yourself wanting your coffee less intense, your chocolate not quite so dark – you may be surprised at how your taste buds will change.

Pure chemistry has a lot to do with how foods taste to you.  That’s how a food item with artificial everything, and not a speck of dairy in sight, can actually taste like butter. Food scientists are working hard to find newer, cheaper ways to deliver flavor to you in your favorite mediums.  It may be a seasoning on a corn chip, or it might be an ingredient in a sauce.  They want to bring you intense, exciting flavor in a neat meal portion.

But for your gluten-free experiment, the closer you can stay to the Real McCoy, the more authentic the taste, and the less you will spend on low nutrition items like flavored water, cheap chips and monotonous bakery items.  You have four or five major taste notes to experiment with, as well as a host of lesser ones.  Taste is both relative and is nothing without the sense of smell, as anyone who has lost their sense of smell can tell you.

Food is essential for life, and you’ll spend the rest of your life eating something.  Why not make it worth your taste buds’ time?

It’s an exchange, and here are some of the places to put that money saved.  Quality is worth it.  You just need to know where to start investing.

* Don’t use imitation vanilla. Do you know what is in it?  It might have gluten.  It probably does not have any real vanilla, and real vanilla is a joy.  There are even different vanillas, because the beans raised in Mexico taste different than the beans from Madagascar.  Mexican vanilla is extra spicy, while Tahitian vanilla is called sweeter and more flowery.  If you like to use whole vanilla beans but wince at the price, try Madagascar Bourbon Island Vanilla Bean Paste from The Spice House.  It’s cost effective, tastes grand, and I’ve had a jar of it in the fridge for ages, because I was so ill I wasn’t baking.  When I returned to it?  Stirred it up, and it tasted wonderful.  The vanilla at Spice House is gluten-free.

*Don’t use margarine. If you’re a vegan, try one of the gluten-free oil spreads like Earth Balance Natural.  You’ll get that rich taste without dairy or gluten.  Coconut oil will also be a good substitute, in many recipes.  Currently I like Carrington Farms Organic Virgin Coconut Oil.  If you want butter?  Why not try a butter tasting?  Pick several of them, and set them out on a plate to come to room temperature.  There are butters that taste fine the first day, but by the end of the week, they may surprise you with their loss of flavor.  Get your hands on something like Kerrygold Irish butter, and see how Cultured Cream should taste.  Savor that butter — a little bit is bursting with flavor.  Remember, salted butter is for spreading – unsalted is for cooking.  This allows you to control how much salt taste goes into the food being prepared.

*Buy spices in bulk. Purchase tiny amounts until you know you like a spice and will keep using it.  In many cases, like nutmeg or cardamom pods, it’s better to buy whole spices and grind what you need.  But you don’t have to go that far yet.  Just experiment with them.  Take a step up from grocery store spices, and discover the difference between Ceylonese cinnamon and Vietnamese “Saigon” cinnamon.  They’re not even the same spice!  Ceylonese cinnamon is the delicate, true cinnamon the British hoarded during the world wars.  Saigon cinnamon, on the other hand, is a cassia bark, as is Indonesian and Chinese cinnamon.  They smell different, taste different, and are all sold in the USA.

I actually recommend trying one spice at a time as a seasoning, perhaps on a vegetable.  See what it tastes like on its own, and in harmony with food.  The time will come that you will be able to detect every spice in a multi-spice mix – each one rolling out its flavor at a different point in your meal.

*Buy herbs as fresh as you can get them. Unfortunately, a packet or bunch of fresh herbs is often very expensive (I find myself thinking up more than one recipe to use them in.) If keeping a small window garden of your favorite herbs is difficult right now, once again, buy tiny amounts and use them as quickly as possible.  Those huge bottles of freeze-dried herbs at the warehouse stores are only worthwhile if you’re mixing up a ton of dips or something, and will go through half the bottle in one weekend.  The rule usually is, 1 teaspoon of a dried herb equals 1 tablespoon of a fresh herb.  And researching first is advised!  Rosemary, for example, is a powerful herb.  I used to sprinkle a pinch of crushed rosemary leaves over four large chicken breasts before baking them in chicken broth.  That was all that was needed for intense rosemary flavor.

*Don’t buy cheap oil. In my path to healing, one of the big lessons I’ve learned is, cheap oil is never cheap.  Your body knows it’s cheap, because it doesn’t have nearly as much of the nutrients in it that it should have.  Or it’s what I call dead oil, without the intrinsic elements the oil had before being processed – whatever processing may have been involved.  The difference between a bottle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil or Organic Sesame Oil and a mixed supermarket brand is astounding.  You won’t believe how varied olive oils can taste.  Your brain essentially is made of oil–give it something to work with!

*Then there’s salt. Salt is either from the sea recently, or mined from an ancient, long-dry sea deposit.  There are people who know and care about the slight but real differences in salt taste, but for most of us, the difference is texture.  Flaky kosher salt will dissolve faster on the tongue or in your food, and the result will be bursts of salt flavor.  It also takes up more room, which is why kosher or even some sea salts will take up more room in your measuring spoons than granular salt will.  So – kosher salt is not a direct substitute in some recipes.  Most boxes of koshering or kosher certified salt will give you conversion tables for using in recipes.  If you don’t eat seafood or seaweed, remember that salt has added iodine for a reason.  Iodine is as essential to human diet as salt.  If you use a lot of salt?  It’s worth reading up on the subject.

*Pepper is not just for salt-free diets. There was a time that a chest of peppercorns was a king’s ransom, because pepper is an excellent food preservative.  Sometimes called the “king of spices,” pepper, used carefully, adds a lot of depth to a savory dish.  And it can be quite surprisingly good in sweet dishes, too!  There are places known for pepper, and the drying process determines whether you have green, black or white pepper.  I’m very fond of Tellicherry pepper, and grind it myself.

*Vinegars – oh, the vinegars! One time at Central Market here in Texas, I walked in to find them having a balsamic vinegar tasting.  Diced fresh nectarines were being served in tiny cups with crème fraiche and a few drops of a new, expensive balsamic vinegar the store had been given to hand out as samples.  Central Market cleverly had another good balsamic vinegar there, too, to compare against.

The rare one I stumbled into was something like a $71.00 bottle of vinegar, the other a $15.00 bottle of vinegar.   Both vinegar bottles were around 12 ounces in size.  I tried the expensive one first.  If it was possible to have a symphony played across your tongue, that was what that vinegar was like.  For the first time, I understood how a vinegar could have the complexity of a wine.  Sweet and savory, fruity, spicy – even a touch of nuttiness.  It was life-changing.

Then, when I felt like I had experienced every exploding flavor the vinegar had to show me, I tried the second vinegar.  It, too, was lovely – but if I may be allowed to mix my metaphors, it was the difference between a Monet painting and a fine work done by an advanced art student.  The second would be special for using at home, but the first?  The first was like a tasting at a 5 star restaurant.

I was strong, and actually managed to take back a sample of the first to my boyfriend.  I consider it an act of pure unselfishness that the sample was still there when he got home.

Vinegars can be like that.  Get yourself a balsamic vinegar, and a sherry vinegar, perhaps, and then think about something special to try – there’s an inexpensive pear vinegar you might like, or try a pomegranate vinegar.  You don’t need to go nuts buying them, but start with a small bottle.  Allow yourself to play with them.  Eventually, you may find a modestly-priced sherry vinegar you adore, and then have two or three different balsamic vinegars, and which one you use depends on what you are cooking (or not cooking!)  My current favorite is a blueberry balsamic vinegar from Texas Hill Country Olive Company.

All these items are the first things that jump to mind when I think of outfitting a kitchen for cooking.  The trick here is not to dwell on the food you no longer can have.  The secret is to dive into things you’ve never given yourself a chance to explore.  If your idea of vinegar is distilled white, and you never have tried a fresh, unheated oil, now’s the time to experiment.  A world of condiments awaits, and you can mix a lot of them yourself.

Go for it.  Wait until you see all the mustards!

Cat Kimbriel is a fantasy and science fiction writer with a practical streak, a passion for great characters, and a focus on justice and compassion. Her current ebooks can be found over here.



Quality Is Worth It (Let the Gluten Go #11) — 2 Comments

  1. Spices are cheaper in ethnic grocery stores. Around where I live there are South Asian markets that are miles cheaper than the big chain grocery stores.

  2. Yes, I’ve bought a huge bag of cloves quite cheaply at my local ethnic grocery. It’s not the best solution if how the spice looks is a big deal — the star anise may be broken, for example — but if you’re just using the flavor, it can be a big help. I was trying to make spiced decaf tea.