Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Main Course of Action: Kristen Rugg Dovbniak’s Crash Course in Gluten Free Living

Chef Kristen Rugg Dovbniak
Even though it’s pouring rain, I’m contemplating interrupting my lazy Saturday to make the six block trek to the natural foods store. I suddenly need grapeseed oil. That’s what comes from reading Kristen Rugg Dovbniak’s Crash Course in Gluten Free Living (CCGFL): you want to improve your life immediately, even if in very small ways like dressing your salad with grapeseed oil. The book is inspiring in more ways than a typical diet or cookbook. Readers of her blog Cook Bake Nibble can attest to the power in Rugg Dovbniak’s personal account of struggles with digestive issues. Rugg Dovbniak is a relatively new convert to the gluten-free (GF) life, but her story and background as a natural foods chef bring immediate credibility to her work. She has effectively self-diagnosed her condition, single-handedly cured herself and now humbly shares her learning with readers. It’s the perfect example of how to turn life’s lemons into Lemon Cranberry Muffins (page 104), Tangy Lemon Frosting (page 177), or Lemon Almond Biscotti (page 192).

Everyone seems to have food sensitivities these days. Remember when a nut allergy seemed exotic? Not anymore. Now you can buy gluten free, dairy free, kosher, vegan granola bars at any neighborhood market. Twenty years ago, we ridiculed Meg Ryan’s character in When Harry Met Sally for ordering everything “on the side,” but now it’s a form of self-assentation to customize your Starbucks drink in 14 different ways. Rugg Dovbniak, though, is not jumping on the bandwagon for the trendiness. Nor does she encourage her readers to do so. CCGFL not only acknowledges how hard it is to live GF, but devotes the entire fourth chapter to “Living a gluten-free life” – dealing with family, friends, social events, and gluten in alcohol and personal hygiene products (who knew?).

Rugg Dovbniak’s e-book is subtitled Learning to cook, bake, live and embrace a gluten-free life. As promised, CCGFL delivers everything you need to know about making the lifestyle transition to GF. Personal experiences give way to an informed yet comprehensible overview of what gluten is and does. Tips on purging your kitchen of offending glutinous items and making smart substitutions in traditional fare prepare us for a myriad of GF recipes concocted by Kristen and her contributors, a veritable who’s who of the whole food blogosphere.

Rugg Dovbniak herself runs a successful food blog, serving as the perfect launch pad for this self-published e-book. Kudos to Rugg Dovbniak for not only sharing her story, but producing this course (it truly is a course rather than a book), which is more than a sum of its parts. On its own, each chapter and subchapter is little more than a well-researched blog post. Together, they map out a new way to live. The Gluten-free grain guide and Gluten-free flour guide are incredibly useful, if verbose and repetitive. The substitution suggestions are intuitive and easy to follow. The concluding glossary and list of resources are invaluable. Rugg Dovbniak almost has me converted to GF…until it’s time to get cooking.

The recipes, which ultimately allow us to walk the GF walk, are the book’s one minor fumble. Not that these recipes aren’t yummy: every dish I tried was delicious and the ones I didn’t looked like they would be. Vegan Baked Beans (page 165) were the perfect blend of spicy and sweet and Thai Coconut Curry Noodles (page 143) fulfilled the promise of becoming a favorite quick dinner. But here’s my beef. Many recipes were already inherently gluten free. It doesn’t take a culinary genius to create a mouthwatering gluten-free chili: most chills naturally contain no gluten. Rugg Dovbniak includes many such recipes. Although she quite rightly argues that these recipes are the easiest and tastiest way to begin a GF life, I yearned for something more inventive. On the other end of the spectrum, many baking recipes were totally grain-free and required me to rush out and buy half a dozen new ingredients like arrowroot starch and coconut flour. OK, so I didn’t want something quite that inventive (after my grapeseed oil splurge I have no money left for other epicurean delights). This is not to belittle Rugg Dovbniak’s recipes – if they’re delicious and gluten-free, she’s fulfilled her mandate.

As the title suggests, this is a lifestyle change. This book is not for the faint of heart or those wanting just to dabble in a GF cooking. There is no auditing this course. Although I appreciate Rugg Dovbniak’s honesty, well-researched explanations, and resourceful recipes, I don’t think I’d pass as her pupil. But for those of you ready to commit yourself to GF living, you can do no better than to follow Rugg Dovbniak’s course.

Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

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