Exploring gluten-free food off campus a fruitful search

By Kira Scammell

Two weeks ago, I filed for divorce with Pitt’s Dining Services.

Market Central will… Two weeks ago, I filed for divorce with Pitt’s Dining Services.

Market Central will accommodate food allergies without additional charge, but I found that I just wanted more options than were available in the dining hall. Gluten is a difficult allergy to have because it is in so many foods, and while I’m a little distressed at the idea of not being able to use the campus dining facilities, I know that for my own personal health, it would be best to be without a meal plan.

In the meantime, I’ve been looking around for other options around Pittsburgh. Since my intolerance was diagnosed in November, I have found many gluten-free cuisine choices around the city and some helpful hints for eating out.

Just steps off campus, Red Oak Cafe provides a safe haven for the gluten-sensitive. Appropriate receipts are marked ***GLUTEN FREE*** to ensure there are no discrepancies in the kitchen. It also supplies vegetarian and vegan options such as seitan stroganoff and an assortment of wraps and sandwiches.

Squirrel Hill also caters to a gluten-free clientele.

The bakery Gluuteny specializes in gluten-free baked goods and mixes that customers can take home and use to make their own goodies. Although the texture of gluten-free sweets isn’t entirely the same — they tend to be grainy and often very dense, but moist — the flavor is on par with how desserts should taste.

Just across the street, Lucci’s Pizza makes the most of its gluten-conscious neighbor and uses Gluuteny’s pizza dough to make delicious crusts.

A bit further out in East Liberty, a cluster of restaurants proves a haven for the gluten-intolerant.

Plum serves up Asian fare and has an entire gluten-free menu. I’d recommend the shrimp fried rice — it’s got plenty of vegetables — and the large portion sizes mean I can enjoy it for lunch the next day.

Right across the street, the Ethiopian restaurant Abay serves all of its dishes on this thin, spongy cross between bread and a tortilla called injera — which believe it or not is gluten-free. There’s a variety of vegetarian options and often they’re vegan. My favorite dish, tikil gomen, consists of cabbage, carrots, onions and tomatoes stewed in a mild sauce.

Some restaurants make it a point to cater to gluten-intolerant customers, but not all restaurants have separate menus.

Navigating a normal menu can be difficult, but it’s always better to ask than to order blindly. For instance, if a burger place uses all beef — so, no fillers that might contain gluten — you can ask to substitute lettuce for the bun. And although gluten is in many foods, even just in small quantities, there are usually ingredient substitions you can request. For example, cornstarch can be used instead of flour in many recipes, and rice noodles can substitute for regular noodles.

Gluten allergies and intolerances are more common in recent years, and those in the food industry aren’t blind to this fact. Most restaurants will cater to your dietary needs, but there is a surprising amount of food that is naturally gluten-free — so get informed before dining out.

Another option for fast eating is pre-prepared supermarket foods.

If you travel down Centre Avenue you will come across Whole Foods. This grocery chain marks items that are gluten-free with little green flags, so they are easily visible to the aisle peruser. Its prepared-foods section and bakery also label allergens.

But even with these options, I still felt restricted when I was eating outside of restaurants, as most packaged gluten-free foods rarely have the taste and texture of the foods they try to imitate. So, at the end of January, I traveled to Monroeville for the Celiac Awareness Tour, hoping to discover new options and food choices.

I found myself smack in the middle of a gluten-free heaven. All the things I had been craving were in a single spot: doughnuts, pizza, soft pretzels, even pierogies. Things I thought I would never eat again were all here. All of the food was stationed in one large ballroom containing about 20 vendors. Stand after stand was stocked with safe samples, providing a diverse feast fit for a gluten-free king.

Although they weren’t exact matches for the tastes and textures of the foods I’d been craving, the featured foods were much closer to the originals than what I’d been eating.

From trial and error, I can tell you that most gluten-free substitutes are subpar at best, and usually I end up disappointed with my food purchases. The foods at the Celiac Awareness Tour were different. It was evident that people who missed and craved these foods were the ones making them, and they were as close to their wheat-containing counterparts as they possibly could be.

Fortunately, when the tour isn’t in town, the food can still be found in Pittsburgh.

All of the food items are sold at Eden’s Market in Mt. Lebanon. Eden’s Market is a natural food store specializing in gluten-free and allergy-friendly items.

Jeff Weiner, the owner of Eden, suffers from celiac disease and is adamant about spreading knowledge about it. Weiner gives out his personal contact information to anyone with further questions and encouraged those with gluten allergies to come to informational sessions hosted by the Gluten Intolerance Group.

GIG is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing accurate and scientific information about celiac disease.

Eden’s Market isn’t the only place that’s been trying to make a difference in the gluten-free realm. Over the last two decades, Giant Eagle has expanded its nutritional services and has hired 25 nutritionists in various stores. A nutrition specialist will walk through the store with a customer and point out all of the gluten-free foods, free of charge. Additional nutritional consultation is also available for a small fee.

“We ensure that our gluten-free foods are labeled and that there is no cross-contamination, which is rare because it is not required by law,” said Judy Dodd, the community relations corporate nutritionist at Giant Eagle.

I left the Celiac Awareness Tour with my stomach full and my options expanded. And now, I have some delicious snacks to eat.

Look out for tasty recipes for chocolate chip cookies and other sweet treats in the next edition of Gluten-Free, Me?

West Penn Allegheny Health System will house the next GIG meeting on Monday, Feb. 27 at 6 p.m.

Who makes the best ______?

Pierogies — Conte’s Pasta Co. (www.contespasta.com)

Soups — Kettle Cuisine (www.kettlecuisine.com)

Bread — Udi’s (www.udisfood.com) and Rudi’s (www.rudisbakery.com). Similar names, different companies.

Deli Meat and Cheeses — Dietz & Watson (www.dietzandwatson.com)

Noodles — De Boles Pasta (www.deboles.com)