Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Featured in the Cincinnati Enquirer: "Gluten free ... but full of flavor"

Gluten free ... but full of flavor

Erin Swing Romanos uses chemistry to cook first-class dishes

By Polly Campbell • pcampbell@enquirer.com • June 23, 2010

As Celiac disease and other food intolerances become more common, everyday cooks are learning to prepare food without some of the most basic building blocks: flour, eggs or milk. Figuring out what works instead involves more than everyday food science. You practically have to be a chemist to understand how to cook around intolerances.

Fortunately for Erin Swing Romanos of Clifton, she is a chemist.

In 2003, she was working at Procter & Gamble as a formulation chemist when her persistent skin rashes and intestinal problems were finally explained by a diagnosis of gluten intolerance. She had to give up gluten forever. That meant not only forgoing many grains and anything made with any kind of wheat flour, including bread, pasta, cookies, but a surprising number of other products that contain small amounts of gluten.

Maybe hardest : "I'm a Cincinnati girl, and the first thing going through my head - I have to give up goetta and Busken iced cookies?"

Giving up gluten didn't just clear up the symptoms; it was the beginning of a new way of life for Romanos. She combined her knowledge of chemistry and interest in food, starting down a path that took her to culinary school, to a foundation in Spain founded by famous Spanish chef Ferran Adria, and to starting her own business.

When Romanos first began eating gluten-free, she tried commercial products and found them lacking.

"They make you feel like a second-class citizen, like the manufacturers have just decided to give you something you can eat, but it doesn't matter how it tastes," she said. "Some are just unpalatable, they dissolve like sand, or are mushy or gritty."

She realized then what she says every gluten-free eater has to eventually discover: "You're going to be cooking a lot more."

She was already a good cook, but she began to apply the principles she used at work to formulate recipes in her kitchen, keeping track of what worked and what didn't. She found that she could create improvements and came up with recipes she liked. Then, she began to write a cookbook.

"But I looked at my bio and decided I was going to have to go to culinary school," she said. So she left P&G and enrolled at Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College in 2008. She adapted the entire curriculum to her needs as she went.

"I did a crash course in sauces and soups and became familiar with the gluten-free materials," she said.

She worked with pastry instructor Kat Kessler to come up with wheat-free desserts and breads and graduated in November.

Then she heard about Alicia Fundicio, an institute in Catalonia, Spain, that is dedicated to the combination of alimentacio (food) and ciencia (science). It was founded by Ferran Adria, the world-famous avant-garde chef and owner of El Bulli restaurant in Roses, Catalonia.

Adria's known for bringing scientific principles of chemistry to food, creating avant-garde restaurant dishes that play with innovative combinations of textures and tastes. But the foundation is also dedicated to addressing people with specific dietary needs.

"He's really passionate about that. They were working on a project for cancer patients, trying to make traditional Catalonian foods that they didn't have to chew, for instance," said Romanos. She went there for an internship to explore gluten-free cooking, one of only five Americans who've ever done an internship there.

It was a wonderland for Romanos, working with excellent chefs alongside scientists, and meeting Adria.

"With gluten-free, you rely on modifiers a lot. Adria is known for using texturas, which is what they call modifiers: gellifiers, emulsifiers, thickeners. There were so many possibilities that had never been exploited."

She had two goals: to create a gluten-free, crusty European bread and a gluten-free puff pastry. She discovered modifiers that enabled her to create a chewy, crusty bread in a rustic European style. It's not quite the same - a little spongier, without the big air pockets and airy texture - but it's quite good.

She debuted it at the 7 Days for SIDS fund-raising brunch, held at the Midwest Culinary Institute, rubbing it with tomato pulp, Spanish-style. Her puff pastry used a new technique, she said, instead of new ingredients, to get the result she wanted.

She came back with recipes she's very satisfied with and ideas for many more to formulate.

"I'm dreaming of homemade ravioli," she said. She hopes to develop them into commercial products, making them available locally at first. So she's not parting with those recipes yet (or her gluten-free Busken-style sugar cookies).

But she is willing to share others she has developed, including cookies, tabbouleh and corn dogs that are distinctly not second-class.