“Wait: no sugar, no alcohol, no dairy and no gluten?” That was the question that led to my love of cooking.
After five years of studying graphic design in college, where food was mostly an afterthought – eating bagels and pizza, and drinking beer – the Crohn’s disease I had been diagnosed with when I was 11 kicked in severely. Down 90 pounds in three months, with medication after medication failing, I was referred to a kinesiologist who put me on the restrictive diet. At the time, gluten-free products were not as widely available as they are now. Raised on macaroni and cheese, and chicken nuggets, living on carbs through college, I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to survive without all my favorite food groups.
For a few weeks, I happily subsisted on meat, more meat and a few vegetables, but that got boring, and the cravings for my old diet grew increasingly stronger. So, I learned to cook.
My health has been up and down in the five years since, including having most of my colon removed, but the love of cooking has remained. I hung up my hat as a graphic designer more than three years ago, replacing it with a toque, cooking professionally, most notably as owner of my own catering company, Please.
While catering various events in Northeast Ohio, including the Dinner With Strangers series created by Made in the 216 creator and Room Service owner Danielle DeBoe, I found many people were vegetarian and had specific dietary needs. I thus began developing menus that cater to a wide spectrum of dietary restrictions, allergies and sensitives, and that will be the focus of this column.
I will discuss subjects such as gluten-free baking and pizzas, but I'd also like to focus on sharing cooking insights and recipes for dishes that are overlooked as gluten-, nut-, dairy-, etc–free. I will introduce and explain some more modern cooking techniques, which include a lot of natural plant-derived ingredients. While this style of cooking typically falls under the terribly named banner of molecular gastronomy, it's not rocket science, and the recipes are applicable at home. Although often looked at in a bad light or as gimmicky, these techniques actually open up a world of opportunity for those with special diets, especially animal-free/dairy-free diets – no foams, no liquid nitrogen, just ways to make eggless custards, vegan jellies, flourless roux and more.
For this first column, the recipe was inspired by my time spent cooking at the Pittsburgh restaurant, Salt of the Earth. This apple-parsnip soup takes familiar flavors of autumn and presents them in a unique, satisfying manner. It's vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free (if omitting the chestnuts), and delicious. (Recipe on next page.)