A Gluten-Free Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Something about this particular day brings me a sense of unbelievable comfort. The smells and flavors of traditional foods call to me 11 months out of the year, and throughout November, I focus all of my attention on the fourth Thursday of the month.

I enjoyed my family's traditional Thanksgiving fare — turkey, stuffing, candied yams and pumpkin pie — for nearly 28 years. In my 29th year, I fell mysteriously ill, and no amount of medical attention helped my condition. A chance meeting with one of my husband's co-workers changed my life; this new friend had a gluten allergy, a condition I had heard about only in passing. Turns out, a gluten allergy could manifest itself in all sorts of ways: fatigue, dizziness, various digestive disorders and a host of other systemic problems that tend to go misdiagnosed by medical professionals.

I wondered if it could be that my diet was to blame. I cut out gluten, and within a few weeks my body got stronger, my mood stabilized and I could suddenly think again.

Then a strange thing happened. I noticed that the world was not as accommodating to my new lifestyle as I thought it would be, and it became evident that cutting something so mainstream out of my diet threatened to alienate me from everything familiar. One night at a friend's house, everyone decided to order pizza. Later that year, my grandmother made me a big, beautiful, gluten-filled German chocolate cake for my birthday. Worst of all, though, was the fact that I would never, ever enjoy Thanksgiving dinner again.

About The Author

Stephanie Stiavetti is a food writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. A self-proclaimed literary gastronaut, she spends most of her time thinking about, reading about or writing about food. She can usually be found perusing the cookbook section of used bookstores and posting on her food blog, Wasabimon, or on Twitter under the username "sstiavetti."

My first gluten-free Thanksgiving, I ate dry, gravy-less turkey and dry, gravy-less mashed potatoes. That's it. There was no stuffing, no rolls, no green bean casserole, no pumpkin pie. Almost everything on the table had gluten in it, even dishes that defied logical explanation for it as an ingredient. I munched sullenly in the corner while the rest of my family chatted and ate. My brain whirred with fear — what was I going to eat for the rest of my life? Was this it? Was I going to watch other people eat the foods I love while I live on starches, dry meat and carrot sticks?

After a brief period of confusion and abject self-pity, perspective returned. I had survived, and this was my new life. Feeling hopeless in the face of such a recovery was unacceptable. So, I felt, was resigning to a life of buttered rice and plain potatoes. I focused on my first project: a gluten-free Thanksgiving spread.

Because Thanksgiving dinner is traditionally laden with flour-heavy foods, this meal in particular can be tough for those new to a gluten-free lifestyle or folks cooking for gluten-sensitive guests. Take heart, though. There is now a wealth of resources to guide us through this culinary minefield.

Cooking blogs such as Shauna James Ahern's Gluten-Free Girl have become wildly popular, and gluten-free artisan bakeries, such as Seattle's Flying Apron and Oakland's Mariposa are popping up in many major cities. Bookstores now stock a variety of gluten-free cookbooks, full of gourmet treats that even regular gluten-y folks will enjoy, and most major supermarkets are beginning to stock gluten-free foods and mixes that will tempt even the most discerning eater.

Now I look back on those initial months of hopelessness and laugh. My cooking life has become so much more rich and full than it ever was before I discovered I could not eat gluten, and I've learned there is very little you can't make without wheat products. For the past four Thanksgivings, I have had a lot to be thankful for, including Thanksgiving dinner itself. The discovery that I am not relegated to a life sans stuffing and pumpkin pie has been a gift unto itself.

Gluten-Free Jalapeno Cornbread

This lovely cornbread was adapted from a recipe by Shauna James Ahern and her friend Martha Woodard. For those new to gluten-free baking, xanthan gum is a thickening agent that can be found in specialty stores or online.

Gluten-Free Jalapeno Cornbread i i
Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR
Gluten-Free Jalapeno Cornbread
Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR

Makes 8 servings

1/4 cup sorghum flour

1/4 cup tapioca starch

1/4 cup potato starch

1/4 cup sweet rice flour

2 tablespoons sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon xanthan gum

1/4 cup shortening

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup low-fat milk, at room temperature

3 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced

1 cup yellow cornmeal

Butter or margarine for final rub

Place rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 425 degrees. Generously grease a deep, 9-inch square baking dish with nonstick baking spray.

Sift the sorghum, tapioca, potato and sweet rice flours into a large bowl. Add the sugar, baking powder, salt and xanthan gum, mixing well. Cut the shortening into the flours with a pastry cutter or fork, as if you were making a pie crust. The batter should be crumbly, with coarse crumbs that resemble small peas.

Combine the eggs and milk in a small bowl and beat with a fork. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the liquid, as if making fresh pasta. Stir with a rubber spatula until everything is combined. Add the jalapeno peppers and mix just until they are evenly distributed.

Stir in the cornmeal, whisking fast, until it is just combined. Do not overstir.

Pour the batter into the greased pan. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the sides of the cornbread are slightly shrinking from the pan and a toothpick stuck into the center comes out clean. Rub a stick of butter along the top of the hot bread to coat and soften the crust. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before cutting.

Variations: For regular cornbread, omit jalapeno peppers and increase sugar to 3 tablespoons total; cook as specified. For mildly smoky cornbread, omit jalapeno peppers and mix 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika, or pimenton dulce, into dry ingredients, then continue with recipe as specified.

Gluten-Free Stuffing With Autumn Fruit

Stuffing is a Thanksgiving favorite, and you should not have to go without just because you can't have gluten. Packed with fruit and nuts, this simple recipe makes for a great balance of sweet and savory flavors. I recommend using heavier gluten-free bread, such as brown rice bread, because it will stand up against toasting, mixing and soaking without falling apart. You can find brown rice bread in many health food stores and major supermarkets.

SelectFeatureRouting.do i i
Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR
SelectFeatureRouting.do
Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR

Makes 8 servings

1 loaf of heavy gluten-free bread, cut into 3/4-inch cubes to equal 5 to 6 cups

1 1/2 cups walnuts, cut into pieces

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 medium onion, diced

2 teaspoons dried sage, or 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh sage

1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme, or 1 teaspoon fresh thyme

2 stalks celery, chopped

2 teaspoons sea salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups stock (vegetable, chicken or turkey)

2 fuyu persimmons, chopped coarsely

2 pears, such as Bartlett or Asian pears, cored and chopped coarsely

Additional salt and pepper for seasoning

3 tablespoons butter

Place rack in middle of the oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Spread gluten-free bread cubes evenly on a baking sheet. Toast in oven for 20 minutes, flipping halfway through. Remove from oven and set aside. Raise oven heat to 375 degrees.

Preheat a large skillet over medium heat and add walnut pieces. Toast for 4 minutes, agitating every 15 seconds to allow for even toasting and to prevent burning. Walnuts are done when they are fragrant and have turned a few shades darker. Pour into a bowl and set aside.

In the same skillet over medium flame, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil until it shimmers. Add onions and saute until they are translucent and slightly brown, about 5 minutes. Add sage and thyme, sauteing for 30 seconds, then celery, sauteing for 2 minutes. Add salt, pepper and bread cubes and mix well. Drizzle in stock and remaining olive oil, mixing until bread cubes are coated. Remove from heat and allow to soak for 5 minutes, mixing once halfway through.

Gently stir in persimmons, pears and toasted walnuts. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then pour the whole thing into a lightly greased 9-by-13-inch pan. Dot the top with butter and bake uncovered for 45 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.

Gluten-Free Butternut Squash Pie

What's Thanksgiving without pie? This gluten-free version is every bit as delectable as those containing wheat flour, with a flaky crust and a creamy, spicy filling. Butternut squash pie is a fun departure from traditional pumpkin, but for purists, check the variations for the good old standard. This version has a bit of a kick and goes amazingly well with cold whipped cream on top.

Gluten-Free Butternut Squash Pie i i
Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR
Gluten-Free Butternut Squash Pie
Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR

Makes 8 servings

Crust

1 cup Gluten-Free Flour Mix (recipe below)

5 teaspoons sweet rice flour

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum

Pinch of salt

6 tablespoons cold salted butter

1 large egg

1 teaspoon orange juice

Prepare a 9-inch pie pan by greasing it with butter or nonstick baking spray and generously coating it with Gluten-Free Flour Mix (recipe below).

Mix flours, sugar, xanthan gum and salt in a bowl. Using a pastry cutter or fork, cut cold butter into dry ingredients until it becomes crumbly and resembles small peas. Add egg and orange juice, and mix with a fork until the dough combines. Form into a ball and place in the refrigerator, covered with wax paper, for 10 minutes.

Lay down a sheet of wax paper and place the ball of dough in the middle. Lay another piece of wax paper over the top and press down gently with your hands to flatten the ball. Roll the dough with a rolling pin until it is about 1/4-inch thick, making sure to keep an even thickness and fill in any cracks with dough from the edges.

Remove the top sheet of wax paper and place the dough in the pan, then peel off the remaining sheet of wax paper and gently press the dough into the pan. Take care not to puncture the dough with your fingers or fingernails. Crimp the edges and prick a few holes in the bottom of the dough with a fork. Cover pie pan loosely with wax paper and place in freezer for 15 minutes.

While the dough is freezing, place rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove pie pan from freezer and line crust with aluminum foil, making sure to seal the edges so they don't burn. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove foil and bake for another 10 minutes, or until crust is a pale brown. Remove from oven and set aside.

Filling

2 pounds butternut squash

3/4 cup low-fat milk

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

3/4 cup heavy whipping cream

5 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

Squash

Preheat to 425 degrees.

Cut squash in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds with a spoon. Lay squash facedown on a jelly-roll pan and pour 1/2 cup of water into the pan. Roast in oven for 1 hour, checking occasionally to make sure there is still water in the pan. Squash is done when a fork easily penetrates the flesh. Remove squash from oven, allow to cool and scoop flesh out with a spoon. You need 1 1/2 cups of mashed squash for the filling.

Assembly

Make a shield for the edge of the pie crust by cutting 3-inch-thick strips of foil and folding them over the edges of your crust to protect them from burning. The foil should not dip down into the basin of the pan. Make sure it just covers the crimped parts around the rim of the pie pan.

To make the filling, combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend on high for 1 minute, or until ingredients are liquefied. Pour filling into pie crust and carefully place on the center rack of the oven. Bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the pie comes out clean.

Place pie on wire rack until completely cooled. Slice and serve with whipped cream, which is nice with a little cayenne pepper.

Variation: For standard pumpkin pie, replace the butternut squash with 1 1/2 cups of fresh, unseasoned pumpkin puree. If you are roasting your own pumpkin, cut open the top, scoop out the seeds and split the body into four pieces. Roast according to directions above.

Gluten-Free Flour Mix

This flour mixture is light while remaining sturdy, and acts as a great alternative to wheat flours. Make up a big batch and keep it in your pantry for when you need gluten-free flour.

Makes 3 cups

2 cups finely ground brown rice flour

2/3 cup potato starch (not potato flour)

1/3 cup tapioca flour

Mix flours in a large bowl. Sift and store in an airtight container in the freezer.

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