I was in charge of all pre-trip planning and coordination as the co-host of one of Loretta Paganini’s gastronomic trips to Italy. This one was going to be like no other: We had been chosen to create a tour of Italy specifically for the American Dietitians Association.
Twenty dietitians were paid, packed, and days away from leaving their homes all over the country to join us in Rome, and begin the gastronomic education on healthy but delicious Mediterranean cuisine. However, one of the dieticians had celiac disease and wanted to know what accommodations could be made for her condition.
The trip featured amazing restaurants, tours of chocolate factories, bread shops and vineyards. A daylong summit at Casa Buitoni, the pasta producer, was also on the itinerary.
Lucille Gallad, a registered dietitian and culinary instructor who shares gluten-free recipes at the Loretta Paganini School of Cooking, states that celiac disease is a growing health concern. “In a nutshell, celiac disease is the body’s response to the protein in gluten. The body actually rejects the protein found in wheat, rye and barley, and can cause damage to the small intestines. People with this allergy must eliminate all foods with this protein, which usually means missing out on popular foods like pasta, pizza, cakes, cereal and cookies.”
Would the dietician with celiac survive in Italy – the land of wheat, whether it’s pasta, breads or pastries? A conversation with the dietician revealed that her family is Italian, and it had been her dream to go to Italy. I cautioned her that the chefs in Italy may not like the idea of changing their dishes for one person, and that she may be eating a lot of vegetables. She understood the potential setbacks, and agreed to pack some rice crackers, but was definitely coming with us on the trip.
When we landed in Italy and began visiting the various food shops and restaurants, I was blown away at the hospitality of the Italians. I learn that celiac disease is a growing problem in Italy, too. Unlike some carb-conscious Americans, however, Italians will not go without pasta.
Italians will never purchase industrial made gluten-free products. Instead, they explored the use of alternative flours until they found a from-scratch recipe that matched the authentic flavor of the original pasta dish – and in many cases surpassed it.
The Italian chefs loved that our guest with celiac was a dietitian. On various occasions, they happily invited our group into their kitchens to see all the alternative flours they would use to make breads and pasta. In the end, the rest of the group was envious of the gluten-free creations. I don’t think the dietician ever opened her box of rice crackers.
Galland says she has seen similar enjoyment of gluten-free recipes in the cooking classes she teaches with Loretta Paganini. “Response to non-wheat based pastas has been hugely popular. They allow people with celiac disease the ability to enjoy a great tasting pasta from scratch, and from wholesome ingredients, without sacrificing flavor.”
It opened up for all of us the idea that an allergy didn’t have to mean a sacrifice - that to get the same type of food didn’t mean one had to resort to a non-wholesome alternative. Instead, with a little experimentation and a lot of taste testing, great recipes can be created with alternative flours.
Gnocchi di Polenta con Burro, Prosciutto e Parmigiano (Polenta Gnocchi with Butter, Prosciutto and Parmigiano)
Recipe by Loretta Paganini
Corn meal gnocchi are a refreshing change from the potato-based gnocchi one normally encounters.
2 cups finely ground corn meal
4 cups whole milk
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup melted unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
3 oz. prosciutto, shredded
2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano
Salt, white pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
Bring the milk to a boil in a deep pot and sift the corn meal into it, stirring briskly. Season the mixture with a healthy pinch of salt, white pepper and a grating or two of nutmeg (1/16 tsp), then mix in the melted butter and stir forcefully making sure the mixture doesn’t stick to the sides of the pot, for a half hour. Then remove the pot from the flames.
Lightly beat the yolks with a Tbsp. of milk and mix in the shredded prosciutto. Moisten your work surface with cold water. Mix the eggs and 2 Tbsp of grated cheese into the polenta, and turn it out on your work surface; spread it to slightly more than a finger thick with a broad-bladed knife dipped frequently in hot water and let it cool completely. This will take about an hour.
Using a 2-inch or so diameter round cookie cutter, cut the polenta into rounds. Use the remaining butter to butter a baking tin, and then layer the polenta rounds in it, spreading each layer with a little melted butter and some grated cheese. Continue until all is used up, then bake the polenta in a 375° oven until it is heated through and the top is browned. Serve at once.
Fresh Pomodoro Sauce (Tomato Sauce)
Recipe by Loretta Paganini
1 cup soffritto (finely chopped celery, carrots and onions)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 cups tomato sauce
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly grated pepper
1 tsp. fresh basil, chiffonade
In a large non-reactive saucepan, cook soffritto and garlic in olive oil until onion is transparent.
Add chopped tomato and sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
Simmer for 20-30 minutes to thicken at medium heat. Add basil and cook for a few minutes.