Feeling at home on the electric range was just the beginning of what seems likely to become a chain of surprises revealing themselves in my new home. This latest story of surprise and enlightenment has roots that go all the way back to when I was first diagnosed with MS in 1996. One of the first things I did after receiving the diagnosis was engage a fine naturopath up in Spokane. He did a series of several tests for me, including the ELISA tests. I can still remember a follow-up phone conversation I had with this kind man. It went something like this:
Him: “The gluten in wheat is not the problem for you. It’s the wheat starch you have trouble with.” (He said this as if I were to understand this as good news.)
Me: But how do you completely separate the two? It’s pretty hard to have gluten without any residue of the starch, right?
Me: (Interpreted the silence as an affirmation of my own conclusion.)
Of course he must have said something back to me, he was too kind and good a practitioner not to, but what I remember is the initial silence of hesitation, which I took to mean I had hit some kind of important nail on the head. The reason, even so many years later, that I eat gluten free and have designated my blog gluten free is not because I am celiac, or even gluten intolerant. It’s because of the starches that inevitably go with and cling to the gluten in wheat and rye. And unlike some people who tend to think that ” a little won’t hurt” I tend to stay on the side of being sure to go way out of my way to avoid that other proverbial time bomb, “the slippery slope.” It may be overkill, but in general, it’s worked quite well for me.
It would take something like the fine print in this FODMAPS PDF to arrive on the scene so many years later to explain why I also have always had trouble rotating wheat and rye back in, as the naturaopath had hoped I’d be able to do. And why I also had trouble in subsequent years digesting barley, and why I had to give up my once-beloved coffee substitute, Teeccino. Instead I went to straight chicory, thinking that would keep me safe from the gluten I might have somehow mysteriously developed a problem with. Or so I assumed. But it would take a FODMAPS list from Stanford, years later, to help me consider why eventually I also tossed out the chicory itself. It and wheat, rye and barley all have similar sugars in them that cause the kind of digestive cacaphony I had been so persistently trying to avoid.
So much has been learned since I was diagnosed with what the doctor then called “spastic colon” back in 1976. The way he explained it to me then was that while some people get headaches, I get digestive troubles in response to stress. He had me on an involuntary muscle relaxer, and I was to eat things like cottage cheese and hamburgers without condiments, chewing deliberately and slowly, and making sure not to eat with my family, who watched TV and yelled at it and each other more often than not. Although stress certainly is a factor, there’s still way more to learn about what causes these problems. But one thing that caught my eye on the FODMAP list was that spelt, although it is not gluten free, possesses a differently structured chemistry and physiology that does not contain the sugars that would make it a high FODMAP risk. So, according to some sources anyway, on its own, in bread or baked goods not combined with these other flours, it is considered inulin free and low FODMAP.
Something I’ve always enjoyed and longed to do as much as my drawing and painting is baking bread. In my teen years and early 20′s, I prided myself on expert pie crust learned from my grandmother. Her brothers ran a bakery, and I still own a pastry cloth passed down from them. But my ultimate baking joy was homemade bread, which my sister still remembers loving to eat. I reveled in the process of kneading and letting the dough rise. I daydreamed about working in a bakery. In fact while I was in college I remember standing in front of one and trying to talk myself into what it would be like to go in there and ask for a job, quit my classes and get up at 4 in the morning to go in and bake. I never made it up to the counter. Instead I followed my parents’ wishes for me to finish college. Such daydreams have been deferred to later in life, but I find with delightful surprise, they are no less dear, and the feel of bread made by my own hands is even more satisfying than I remember, like shaking hands with a long lost friend.
Being a former bread maker, I have often surfed through articles and mentions about how sourdough bread is more easily digestible than other kinds of wheat bread, and purportedly even some with celiac disease can eat it because of how the fermentation process alters the structure of the gluten. I thought back to a very hard time in my life when things were so tough for me I could hardly eat at all My adrenaline was on high alert too much of the time. But I always could have a very plain sandwich or toast made from sourdough bread. And of course, being Italian, it was often a preferred choice of my Dad’s. Sourdough and I were old friends. But should we try getting reacquainted, and if so, how?
I’m certainly game to perform what I wryly (and inaccurately) call “science experiments” on myself. In fact I prefer this to having someone else give me a list of foods to eat or not eat. I like the guidelines, of course, and they are necessary, but the true test is how my body feels when I do or don’t eat something. So I thought of buying some sourdough bread off the shelf. In fact I did, after standing there for 10 minutes and doing some rudimentary lymph testing on myself and it over and over. But in the end, I gave it to a friend without opening the seal. I decided to play it safe and start from scratch all the way down to a starter I made with pure spelt. After six years of no wheat and many more years of no wheat prior to that one year of experimentation with it, this would be the best way to know if spelt would work for me. There would be no question about whether it was the wheat or the spelt.
I’d tried spelt and kamut long ago in baking, but at the time, in efforts to recreate traditional family favorites, I was combining them with other ingredients like eggs or milk which I know now do me absolutely no good. So, with this new FODMAP information in hand, and my own hunch, I decided to give it the best shot possible–all by itself and in a sourdough context. (I’m not sure whether FODMAPS would endorse the fermentation of sourdough as low, but then again I am piecing my own healing quilt together, and using what I consider the best of both possibilities. So this is not a a fsatidiously researched “do as I do” or even “do as I say” or “try this at home” direction. I’m just telling you a bit of how my process went, and how I decided to trust and follow a hunch supported by some of the things I read on the internet.)
Many waves of surfing sourdough recipes and how-to videos later, I landed on a combination of two recipes. First I made this one, from The Sit Down Cook, ad then I made this one, from Breadtopia (there are two people who commented extensively following FODMAPS who are successfully making and eating this bread, so I considered that a good sign). Then I combined elements from both recipes to get this:
I owe both these recipe a letter of thank you, along with my neighbor who supplied the thumb-sized piece of rhubarb for the starter. (Don’t you just LOVE that?! I HAD to try it, just because. . .)
Now the real question is how did I feel after eating this bread? The shock of my life is this: I felt BETTER. I kept waiting for the lump in my stomach, trouble in my colon and the weak-in-my-legs feeling that has always accompanied the eating of most all wheat bread, but it never came. Not only did it not arrive, I was most certainly absorbing the touted nutrients like more B vitamins, higher protein, l-triptophan, and more I read about in this PDF. The water soluble nature of the fat in spelt was making it easy for my digestive system to make use of all these nutritional perks. I had more energy. I felt full without bloating. My legs felt stronger, not weaker.
So I didn’t stop at the bread. Buoyed on by my own sense of adventure and how absolutely good I felt, I tried my hand at this no oil sourdough pizza dough recipe and converted it to spelt. The first time I was wary, and added some gluten free flours. It came out rather flat and stiff, but alas, from trying to follow the directions to bake the whole thing on a sheet of baking parchment, it hit the floor somewhere between the oven and the counter I was aiming for. I scooped off the toppings and ate them with rice.
I went back to the drawing board in my mind and made some intrepid innovations in kneading and baking techniques. I heated up my Calphalon fryer in the oven and used it like a deep dish pizza stone. The result was the best pizza dough I can remember ever tasting. Here’s the picture I snapped as the battery in my camera was going dead, but you get the idea.
The nice thing about these breads is that I do not feel compelled to overeat them, which, to me, is a sign of the absence of food intolerance. Since I can tolerate the spelt, my body seems to know when it’s had just enough. That’s a minor miracle of its own.
A sandwich has to have something to go in it. So I wanted to share a filling that can be converted nicely into a spread. It’s a soy free version of the filling in Susan’s Spaghetti Squash Pesto Lasagna. This was such a delightfully tasty surprise the first time I subbed it in to go in the lasagna recipe that I knew I could use it as a spread on its own. The sandwich you see at the top of this blog post is a “panini” I stuffed with baby romaine and this spread, flattening it in my non-stick frying pan with an old Le Creuset lid, which works perfectly.
This effect can also be achieved with gluten-free bread or corn tortillas, or if you want to avoid all that, toss it with a hot grain and some veggies. Or make the lasagna with it. You won’t be disappointed.
White Bean and Basil Spread
I honestly did nothing much but sub out the tofu for the cannellini beans. You may be tempted to tinker, but the simplicity of this (and the fresh basil) is what makes it work.
1 1/2 cups cooked cannellini beans (or 1 can, rinsed and drained)
a generous cup of fresh basil
2-3 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika
2 tbs of nutritional yeast
Process the garlic cloves and the basil leaves in the food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients and process until you have a smooth thick spread. If you need a few drops of water or lemon juice to achieve this, use them, but don’t overdo. Use in a sandwich, as a filling in Susan’s delicious lasagna, as a pizza topping, or a dip for your favorite veggies. Or anything else your culinary imagination can dream up.
Sandwiches have many fond and loving associations for me. When my son was very small, he’d climb into bed with his Dad and me, and wiggle himself between us. “I want to be the peanut butter” he would say. And, playing the parts of the two pieces of bread, we’d squeeze him tight and he’d giggle with happiness. Our playfulness in acting out this metaphor has always reminded me of the times in my life there’s been nothing more comforting than a good sandwich. Even simple ones can be a meal unto themselves. The one I’ll never forget is the peanut butter sandwich on supermarket whole wheat my cousin Tom made me back in the late 70′s the night he insisted I come over to his apartment and tell him what was going on in my life. After he heard the horror story of the entanglement of my roommate in aiding and abetting an abusive relationship I was trying to get out of, he said, simply, “That’s it. You’re moving in with me.” And he made me a peanut butter sandwich and poured me a glass of white wine to go with it. It’s still the best sandwich anyone else has ever made me, because it came with the love and support I needed but had not been able to reach out for until that night.
My cousin Tom’s Dad, also named Tom, was famous in our family for his insistence on making anything he ate into a sandwich. I don’t think I’ll go that far, but I sure am glad I have the option, and that when I feel like it, I can savor the creativity of shaping the dough in my hands again, and foster the mysterious alchemy of the starter and the rise. Because like the song says, everything old is new again. Oh, what a wonderful surprise and enlightenment.
A note to my amazing readers: I want to assure those of who need to be completely gluten free that the lion’s share of my recipes will continue to be just that. If I do post an occasional baking recipe using spelt, I’ll also include a gluten free option, too, whenever possible.