The most common thing people say to you when they find out that you’ve been diagnosed with coeliac disease is this: ‘well, thank god it’s happening to you today, and not ten years ago. There are so many gluten free options now.’
It’s meant to be helpful. A kind statement to offer a sense of reassurance as you begin your path through the joyless, run-down end of Flavour Town. But it ignores two fundamental truths. First, that almost without exception, gluten-free alternatives are significantly more expensive and absolutely nowhere near as tasty. And second, that you are not capable of seeing the positive side, because you are in mourning. You have just lost the ability to enjoy good pasta, pizza, or bread that comes in slices larger than a cream cracker. A cream cracker that you also cannot eat, for that matter.
Telling a newly diagnosed coeliac that they’re lucky the supermarkets now stock three types of shit biscuit is a bit like telling a recent widower to be grateful that their winter fuel costs will be more affordable now they only have to heat the house for one.
All of this is to say hello, my name is Stephen. Two months ago I was diagnosed with coeliac disease, and I’m still fuming.
Gluten is one of those invisible qualities in food that exists almost everywhere, has a phenomenal impact on the texture and quality of what we eat, but is also barely ever thought about by anyone who doesn’t absolutely have to. It rocks up in all the obvious places – anywhere you might reasonably expect flour to be involved. But it also works its way into foods you would never necessarily think of, like soy sauce, crisps and even, thanks to shared factory environments, Dairy Milk chocolate.
I’m lucky in one way I will happily admit: I’m already confident in the kitchen and know my way around lots of the simpler gluten-free substitutes. I also have a fairly decent amount of cookbooks that are filled with recipe ideas that are, in many cases, naturally gluten free. But one of the biggest issues facing coeliacs, and those with gluten intolerances, is that of convenience. Sufferers aren’t able to grab any book off the shelf, select the dish that looks best in the moment, and dive straight into cooking. There are ingredients to check, and processes to adapt. And so, to this end, gluten-free cookbooks offer many a lifeline.
The undisputed queen of the gluten-free cookbook world right now is Becky Excell, an influencer who was herself diagnosed with IBS in 2009, and has since released four titles aimed at enabling those on gluten-free diets to enjoy the sorts of food they might otherwise have considered forever off the table. Her latest, Quick + Easy Gluten Free, specifically offers up a range of meals that will take less than 30 minutes to cook – a godsend when takeaways are almost entirely inaccessible for those avoiding gluten.
Like her previous books (which have included How to Make Anything Gluten Free and How to Bake Anything Gluten Free), Excell’s book focuses on offering authentic-tasting versions of dishes that traditionally would feature unworkable ingredients. Her approach of replicating those much-missed takeaway staples like crispy Vegetable Spring Rolls or even a Gluten Free Boneless Banquet inspired by KFC is an inspired change from the health-kick leanings of many other GF cookbooks, which often cater more to fad dieters than they do to those forced to give up their favourite foods.
Quick + Easy Gluten Free isn’t perfect by any means. Excell’s writing is firmly stuck in blog-mode, and she relies too often on recipe introductions that simply tell us how much she used to enjoy eating the dish before her diagnosis got in the way. Listen: I get it as much as anyone. We’re all mourning here. But Becky, you’ve got this, and there’s no need to tell your readers how good a dish once was when you’ve generally managed to create a near pitch-perfect copy.
There’s a good variety in Excell’s book, too – from Swedish Meatballs to a Sticky Jerk-Style Chicken that isn’t authentic but is absolutely delicious nonetheless. Too often gluten free cookbooks end up offering the same small rotation of dishes – uninspired, unoriginal, and limited to exactly the drab corners of the food world that you feared upon initial diagnosis. Quick + Easy Gluten Free avoids this – but another recent addition to the free-from bookshelf manages to absolutely destroy any notion of gluten-free eating restricting your diet.
I have long-standing issues with Phaidon’s global cookbook range, and was predictably wary about The Gluten-Free Cookbook, which was released at the beginning of the year. Phaidon’s books are notoriously low on both pictures and descriptions of the dishes they feature, which means home cooks often have to undertake an additional Google, or simply hope for the best when undertaking a recipe. At the same time, though, Phaidon is always on the money for authenticity, and so a sprawling volume featuring over 350 gluten-free recipes from around the globe will prove hard to resist to anyone who, like me, has no intention of letting coeliac disease get in the way of ambitious, fun cooking.
Organised into broad chapters (‘Breakfast’, ‘Meat and Poultry’, ‘Desserts and Sweet Treats’), the recipes in Cristian Broglia’s book rarely seek to replicate more troublesome dishes, à la Becky Excell. Instead, the majority are already naturally gluten free favourites from every corner of the globe. Even the ‘Bread and Wraps’ chapter focuses almost exclusively on recipes that traditionally use alternative flours, from Serbian corn bread to the teff of Ethiopia’s injera. This is a joy: the opportunity to explore international flavours freely, without worrying about what’s going into the dish is what every person on a gluten-free diet dreams of.
Unfortunately, one of Phaidon’s common problems does get in the way here: too often in these huge recipe tomes poor editing leads to mistakes getting through into the final edition. In other cookbooks, this isn’t a huge issue. But here it could cause major discomfort for readers. At varying points throughout the volume, ingredients like Shaoxing cooking wine, Worcestershire sauce and gochujang are called for but all of these generally are not gluten-free, and nowhere does Broglia give adequate warning. Still, this is a relatively easy issue to fix, and given how useful the title will be to those on a gluten-free diet, one hopes there’ll be many future editions in which these amendments can be made.
For now, then, readers will just have to undertake a little extra vigilance as they work their way around the world through The Gluten-Free Cookbook’s pages. There’s a phenomenal range to choose from: Belgian roasted potato soup, shrimp pad Thai, Canadian poutine, and several of Brazil’s most famous traditional dishes, including moqueca, pão de queijo and feijoada. Ingredients aren’t always easy to source, but that will prove no obstacle to an audience well-versed in digging around to find gluten-free goods that don’t taste like cardboard.
It’s never going to be easy going gluten-free, but Becky Excell and Cristian Broglia have each offered up a spectacular cookbook that will make life a lot easier for thousands upon thousands of people. Either one of these titles could well claim to be the only gluten free cookbook you’ll ever need, but together they represent an absolutely indispensable gluten-free cookbook shelf.
Suitable for: Beginners, confident home cooks
Quick + Easy Gluten Free Review Rating: Four stars
The Gluten-Free Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars
Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas