Once upon a time, I had a surprising encounter with gluten-free vegetarian bacon at Memphis Taproom in Philadelphia. At first I was certain that I had either been served meat or faux meat that would have, no doubt, been laden with wheat gluten as most faux meats are. Alarmedly, I flagged the waiter who assured me it was both vegan AND gluten-free, made from jackfruit.
I played it cool. "Oh, of course," I murmured. I had no clue what the heck a jackfruit was.
I have to digress a bit here and say that I never ate in a Chinese restaurant or had a bagel (and then a not-very-good bagel) until I went to college. My mom was a product of her upbringing in Oklahoma and a product of her generation. This means that the "Chinese" food I ate as a kid was Chun King sweet and sour sauce from a can poured over chicken and rice and baked. Or maybe it was cooked in the electric skillet or crock pot. At any rate, it did not count as Chinese food. I still cannot bring myself to eat anything that is described as sweet and sour.
I should also point out that Oklahoma has a lot of cows and pigs. When I first proclaimed my vegetarianism in 1991 after I had moved to the east coast, some of my homefolk took it personally. It's like choosing to drive an electric car in the land of oil. [My dad was a petroleum engineer and had bumper stickers to hand out during the 1973 oil crisis that read "A country that runs on oil can't afford to run short."] I take great comfort in knowing that mostly nobody spends a great deal of time thinking about what I eat, or imagining that I am indicting them for causing the demise of Elsie or Arnold. I'm really not.
Quite a journey from there to here! Not only do I now know what a jackfruit is, I'm making pork-like food from it. If you are wondering where to get it and you live in a major metropolitan area in North America, look no further than your nearby Asian or Indian grocery store. If you do not have access to such a market, you can get it from Amazon. For this recipe, you need a can of young, green, unsweetened jackfruit in brine. My can cost $1.99.
Oh, and before we go further, it was my intention to make faux bacon and leaned heavily on this recipe. I used maple syrup in the marinade, which made it a little too sweet to be the bacon I sought. The outcome was quite like I remember pulled pork, so instead of calling it a failure, I'm calling it a discovery. I'll try bacon again later, without the maple syrup. If you like a sweet bacon, try this! Feel free to change the name to vegetarian gluten-free maple bacon! It can be your own serendipitous mealtime adventure.
Vegetarian Gluten-Free Maple Pulled Pork
1 can of young green jackfruit in brine
2 Tablespoons of gluten-free liquid smoke
1 Tablespoon of gluten-free tamari sauce
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 Tablespoons real maple syrup
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
ground black pepper to taste
Drain the jackfruit. Slice it thin. Its consistency reminded me of canned tuna. Blot it with a paper towel to absorb some of the excess liquid. Put it in a bowl.
Thoroughly combine the remaining ingredients into a marinade and pour it over the jackfruit, stirring gently. Let the jackfruit stand in the marinade for 20 minutes to half an hour until absorbed.
While the marinading is happening, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. When it's time, spread the jackfruit on the baking sheet in a thin layer. Bake for 30 minutes or until browned, stirring occasionally while it's baking to be sure to not overcook it. Remove it from the oven and use it as a flavorful addition to sandwiches, pizza, nachos, beans, or eggs. I made an open-faced cheese and faux pork sandwich with mustard. I put under the broiler until the cheese melted and the gluten-free roll got toasty. Delish, and a very fun departure from my usual lunch!
My family has a new restaurant to enjoy together. I'm sure I have mentioned that my two boys, ages 10 and 12, are big fans of Olive Garden because of the unlimited bread sticks. I appreciate that Olive Garden offers a gluten-free menu, but honestly? Their gluten-free pasta is just so boring. I hate torturing the kids with my pick of restaurants, but sometimes it's got to be about me, right?
Last week was my 50th birthday. Jenn took me for an awesome and auspicious dinner at Alma de Cuba. The joys of Alma would definitely be lost on the kids, and sooo not worth the money to take them there. Our challenge then was to pick a restaurant for a different birthday dinner that would be birthday-worthy and please the entire family, bread sticks not withstanding. Enter the chain restaurant, California Pizza Kitchen.
As noted in this news story about gluten-free offerings on menus, CPK had a bit of a misstep in their original foray into the gluten-free market. Their toppings on their gluten-free crust weren't necessarily gluten-free, and the possibility of cross-contamination with wheat flour was high. They pulled the gluten-free options for over a year and worked with the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America to overhaul their gluten-free menu and gluten-free food handling procedures. New protocols include managerial oversight of preparation in a designated gluten-free area of the kitchen; packaged, sealed gluten-free crusts; clear labeling of utensils and ingredient bins that are strictly for gluten-free sauce and toppings; and a really big thing: Using rice flour to dust the regular crust so that the flour in the air doesn't cross-contaminate the gluten-free food.
CPK offers a designated gluten-free menu and I've had and very much enjoyed the Margherita Pizza and the White Corn and Guacamole and Chips. Good stuff! The pizza is definitely in the running for my "Best Gluten-Free Pizza Crust from a Chain Restaurant" award.
Rant Warning: But CPK also puts an amusing? disconcerting? note on their small plates menu, with a heading "Stuff Our Lawyers Make Us Say," which says (right above the gluten free symbol of GIG) that they might accidentally poison me with gluten: "'Gluten-free' designations are based on information provided by our ingredient suppliers. Warning: normal kitchen operations involve shared cooking and preparation areas. We are therefore unable to guarantee that any menu item is free from gluten or any other allergen, and we assume no responsibility for guests with food allergies or sensitivities." CPK, I do believe that your lawyers encourage you say that, but for heavens sakes, who's really in charge there? Stand behind your obvious extensive efforts to make your restaurant safe for me to eat! End of rant.
And yes, I've eaten at my local CPK twice, had a great experience, and will go there again. So there.
So the restaurant Alma de Cuba (or just "Alma", as the waitstaff call it), is packed with ambiance, and I wouldn't dream of using flash photography in a swanky place like this, so my apologies for not being able to convey a better pic of the yummy gluten-free dinner I had in celebration of my 50th birthday. I've wanted to eat at Alma since I met one of the chefs at the 2012 Appetite for Awareness event put on by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Alma is a Stephen Starr restaurant, and all of the Stephen Starr restaurants offer gluten-free options and have a solid knowledge of safe gluten-free handling procedures. It is so nice going to a place in which I can have complete confidence that the food I order will be delicious AND I will feel fine afterwards.
[Last year I opted to not blog about the aftermath of the dinner I had in a Midtown NY restaurant for my 49th birthday celebration. Suffice to say that despite my rigors in identifying a restaurant that could accommodate my gluten-free needs and my due diligence with the restaurant staff, I enjoyed the majority of a Broadway production afterwards from the bathroom and the lobby. Not pretty. At least I got a pretty good story out of the experience. Always gotta find the bright side, right?]
So, the quick Alma facts:
1. They have a gluten-free menu, though this link is a bit dated and not all of these items were on our gluten-free menu last week.
2. They bring gluten-free rolls (croquettas de arroz, actually) to the table, just like it's a regular thing. Love that!
3. The staff is friendly and not pretentious, which is always my worry in a restaurant where the entrees top $20. Our server was so charming as she waxed poetic about the chocolate flourless cake that we almost invited her to join us for dessert!
Jenn and I both had Gloria's Black Bean Soup to start, because really, can you go to a Cuban restaurant for the first time and not get the black bean soup? We also both had the spicy Crisp Rice and Black Lentil Cake with curried vegetable stew, carrot chimichuri, and chayote squash salad, with an additional side of carrots. For dessert we split the flourless chocolate cake and I had a Cafe Havana, a sweetened coffee with coconut milk. I loved the food! I ate it all! I was so full! And happy! I wouldn't have minded having a deeper selection of vegetarian options, but for y'all omnivores, there is a wide selection of yummy-sounding food. And when I go back, I'll feel a little more adventurous in ordering off the menu. Or as Jenn suggested, maybe we'll go back for dessert and coffee only -- a great way to get that Alma ambiance without dropping a full purse for the experience.
This was definitely a restaurant worthy of a 50th birthday celebration. Thanks Jenn! Thanks Alma de Cuba!