PLATTSBURGH — When Peter Zielinski was first diagnosed with celiac disease in 2005, he had mixed feelings.
Naturally, the Cliff Haven resident was relieved to learn his symptoms, which included severe anemia, massive weight loss and a potassium deficiency, weren’t being caused by something much worse.
But on the other hand, Zielinski couldn’t help but feel embarrassed to have a condition that, at the time, so few people were familiar with.
People with the autoimmune disorder are adversely affected by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Over time, ingesting the allergen causes damage to the small intestine and prevents absorption of some nutrients.
This, of course, can make dining difficult for celiacs, especially in situations where they haven’t prepared the food themselves.
At first, Zielinski felt guilty having to inform his dinner hosts that he couldn’t partake in the delicious, gluten-riddled meals they had gone through the trouble of making and so eagerly wished for him to enjoy.
“You’d go over to their house, and you really couldn’t eat anything they had,” he said.
While celiacs are bound to encounter such situations year round, they tend to do so even more frequently during the holiday season, when sharing baked goods and homemade feasts is tradition.
And the best way for those with a gluten allergy to navigate the edibles at a social gathering, is to not be afraid to “ask lots of questions,” said SUNY Plattsburgh senior Maria Dominguez, who was the president and co-founder of a food allergy nutrition group on campus that worked with the college’s dining halls to provide more meal options for students with food allergies.
People are typically friendly, she added, and willing to field inquiries about the ingredients in the dishes they have prepared.
“I have no qualms now about asking, ‘what’s in this,’” said Zielinski, who eventually came to realize his allergy wasn’t his fault and was nothing to be ashamed of.
When hosts aren’t sure if there’s gluten in a store-bought item they are serving up, he continued, he’s quick to ask if they still have the original packaging, so he can read the ingredients and judge for himself.
Now that celiac disease has received some media attention, Zielinski added, more people are aware of it, which makes things easier. His friends and relatives, some of whom also have the condition, are mindful of Zielinski’s dietary restrictions and usually put out something he can eat.
Dominguez said she generally informs people of her allergy before she goes to their home for a meal, not so they will prepare something special for her, but just so they aren’t taken off guard when she declines to eat their food.
“When I do mention it, people do go out of their way to make something for me, but it’s definitely not expected,” she said.
Of course, Dominguez continued, it doesn’t hurt to “ask if you can bring something yourself.”
When it comes to traditional holiday meals, there are usually at least a few staple dishes that are naturally gluten free, Zielinski said.
The good news is turkey itself does not contain the allergen; the bad news is stuffing is brimming with it.
“I miss stuffing,” Zielinski admitted, as he recalled the days when he too enjoyed the Pepperidge Farm variety served at many holiday tables.
Still, gluten-free stuffing starter kits do exist and can be found at some grocery stores.
Mashed potatoes, meats and vegetables are generally safe, Zielinski noted; though, celiacs should keep an eye out for seasonings and sauces that may contain wheat flour and not hesitate to ask to see a seasoning’s original container or inquire about what was used to thicken a homemade sauce.
For example, Zielinski said, many people choose to thicken their gravies with wheat flour; though, cornstarch does the job just as well and contains no gluten.
Tossed salads without croutons are typically safe for celiacs, he continued; however, it’s wise to consult the list of ingredients in salad dressings, as some do contain the allergen.
For many allergic to gluten, though, it’s the course served after the main meal that usually provides the fewest options.
After all, wheat flour and desserts go together like Chinese food and soy sauce, which, by the way, also typically contains gluten.
Dominguez will sometimes bring fruit to a social gathering to ensure there is something sweet she can munch on while others partake of cookies, pies and the like.
But celiacs don’t have to go without baked goods altogether.
Macaroons, for example, can be made without flour, noted Sue LeBlanc-Durocher, owner of Plattsburgh’s My Cup of Tea, a cafe and tea room located at 317 Cornelia St.
“Those are a great holiday cookie,” she said.
LeBlanc-Durocher often cooks for celiacs at her establishment, which also provides catering services.
In addition to giving customers the option of sandwiches on gluten-free wraps, My Cup of Tea offers a variety of gluten-free soups and baked goods, including daily white-chocolate apricot scones.
When cooking for someone with celiac disease, LeBlanc-Durocher said, it helps to “think outside the box.”
For example, she discovered that quiche can be just as tasty with a crust made out of hashbrowns as with one made from wheat flour.
“I was surprised how good it was,” she said.
Still, gluten-free flour blends are easily accessible and can be substituted for wheat flour in just about any recipe, Dominguez noted. Though it’s best to do a trial run before serving others, as alternative flours can sometimes alter the taste.
Bakers should also be aware that non-wheat flours often give food a different texture, LeBlanc-Durocher added.
However, when done right, gluten-free baked goods can be enjoyed even by those without an allergy.
“Usually people can’t tell,” said Dominguez, who regularly feeds gluten-free cakes to her gluten-tolerant friends.
Email Ashleigh Livingston:firstname.lastname@example.org
Sue LeBlanc-Durocher, owner of Plattsburgh's My Cup of Tea, shared her recipe for gluten-free macaroons.
▶ 5 1/2 cups flaked coconut
▶ 1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
▶ 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
▶ 1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
Directions Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).
In large mixing bowl, combine coconut, sweetened condensed milk and extracts; mix well.
Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto aluminum foil-lined and generously greased baking sheets.
Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned around the edges.
Immediately remove from baking sheets.
Store loosely covered at room temperature.
Drizzle melted chocolate across top of macaroon, let set in refrigerator.