August 8, 2007

A Talk with Carol Fenster

Carol, an author, cooking instructor, recipe developer and gluten free advocate, has written a new cookbook, Gluten Free Quick & Easy. Building on her background, she’s created numerous recipes for gluten free cooks of every skill level. The book contains over 200 recipes, as well as menus for entire meals, a variety of GF cooking tips, and details on a new idea she calls “Plan Over” meals. I think her new book can assist anyone who needs help in the kitchen, and I’ve purchased my own copy for future reference and menu planning.*

Sometimes planning ahead for meals is something I don’t feel like doing. On a busy evening filled with lessons for the kids or afternoons when I’m just too exhausted to cook, it would be nice to have a nutritious meal readily available. Carol’s new book provides a method for anyone to plan ahead and gives tips on how to make your efforts successful. Her method can be used not only for her recipes, but all your favorites as well. With her plan, build your chart of menus, create a shopping list, and cook your planned-overs. Then, for those times when you need a quick and easy meal, you’ll have everything you need to put dinner on the table in a few minutes.

I got an opportunity to ask Carol a few questions about her book, but I wanted to ask her about more than just her book. I’ve been gluten free for three years – she for more than 20! I wanted to talk with her about the early days of GF cooking, her culinary successes and failures, and her insights into future issues for the gluten free community.

Sheltie Girl: You have been eating gluten free for a number of years. How are the ingredients we have available to cook with today different from what was available when you were first diagnosed?

Carol Fenster: Today, there are MORE ingredients to work with and these ingredients perform BETTER than the older ones. For example, when I first started baking gluten-free items we only had rice flour, potato starch or cornstarch, and tapioca flour. Today, we have more flours to bake with and those flours produce a better texture (e.g., sorghum flour) with a higher nutrient content.

We also better understand the culinary traits of these ingredients so we can use them in new ways that capitalize on their traits (such as sweet rice flour in pie crusts to add greater suppleness and pliability rather than just as a thickener). Part of what I do is experiment with different ingredients and writing these cookbooks has been a study in chemistry.

Some new ingredients help us capture the texture and appearance of gluten-containing items. For example, I now use modified tapioca starch, called Expandex, quite regularly in my breads and muffins. It became available to me in 2006 (too late for Gluten-Free Quick and Easy) and I use it liberally in my forthcoming book, 1000 Gluten-Free Recipes (Wiley, 2008). It makes the texture of breads and muffins less dense and more like “normal” baking. The holes in the crumb are irregular and airier, and less like the dense “cake” texture we often get in GF baked items.

SG: We have all had kitchen disasters and I loved the story you shared about your hair and an electric hand mixer. Was this your worst gluten free cooking disaster?

Carol: In terms of my personal safety while cooking, yes this was it. In terms of flavor/seasoning disasters, I once soaked chicken breasts in a salt-brine and absent-mindedly added more salt during cooking. The result was chicken breasts so salty that we couldn’t eat them. Most of the other disasters involve dropping a pan of batter on the way to the oven.

SG: What was your first gluten free baking success?

Carol: My first success was converting my mother’s chocolate cake recipes to be GF. She baked that cake at least once a week all through my childhood and it was a big void in my life when I had to stop eating it. She has been dead for a long time, yet I think of her every time I bake that cake and it was so rewarding to have that cake back in my life.

SG: What success led you to developing cooking classes and writing cook books?

Carol: There was no one single success, but rather the dawning realization that I could feed myself with my revised recipes and perhaps others could benefit from this knowledge as well.

SG: In your new book Gluten Free Quick & Easy, I particularly liked the chart for menu planning. The concept of planned-overs and premixing certain ingredients to speed the dinner or baking process was simple and easy to implement. What inspired you to develop this concept?

Carol: The need for speed! Up until recently, GF food had to be prepared from scratch and took a lot of time. There are so many TV shows and cookbooks today that emphasize quick and easy cooking, yet all are “mainstream” and often irrelevant to the GF cook. That––coupled with the new labeling laws that took effect on January 1, 2006, requiring clear disclosure of wheat on the label––made it possible to provide GF recipes that are truly quick and easy, using more store-bought foods that are clearly marked GF.

I would like to think that while mainstream America has Rachel Ray or Sandra Lee and their wonderfully quick recipes, the gluten-free community now has Carol Fenster and her equally wonderfully––but gluten-free––recipes.

SG: Gluten Free Quick & Easy is sprinkled throughout with tips to help the gluten free cooking process. Which tips are the most important for someone who is new to gluten free cooking?

Carol: The tips on planning ahead are the most important for the new cook. In talking to cooks all around the nation, many have grown accustomed to leaving dinner decisions to the last minute, then throwing something together at the last minute. Studies show that ¾ of us don’t know what we’re having for dinner that night at 4 PM that day!!! We gluten-free folks can’t be that casual about our dining, yet many newly-diagnosed patients haven’t learned how to plan ahead, schedule their time, etc. to make sure there is a healthy, safe meal on the table that night. Just keeping a pantry of safe staples, such as gf pasta, marinara sauce, etc. would help them immensely on those nights when they just can’t think of anything to fix for dinner.

SG: In combination with your other cookbooks Wheat Free Recipes & Menus and Cooking Free, you have provided the framework for many gluten free dinners. Do you have any recommendations on how to add these recipes into the Quick & Easy menu planning process?

Carol: Choose your favorite recipes from those books, preferably those with meats that aren’t heavily seasoned or sauced so the meat is more neutral and more adaptable to a second meal. Then, anytime you cook a steak, pork chop or tenderloin, or chicken breast, think about how it can be reincarnated into another meal and cook extra, if necessary, so you have leftovers. Freeze the leftovers in easily accessible packages, in easily-portioned amounts. For example, I often cook two pork tenderloins and freeze the second one, cut in medallions, so I can remove just as much as I need for a second meal such as green chile stew or pulled pork sandwiches. The same principle applies to chickens: I often roast a whole chicken even when I know the two of us can’t eat the whole thing at one meal.

Another way to approach this is to decide how many servings your recipe yields. Decide how many servings your future or second meal requires and cook enough to have food for both.

SG: I particularly liked that you continued your weekly planned-over presentation from the planning chart through to the recipe section of the book. What steps should we go through when doing our own calculations for how much food we will need?

Carol: Determine serving size chart at WebMD. Then compare the serving size to your recipe yield to figure out how much more food you need for the second meal. So for example, if one medium pork chop is a serving and I serve four people at a meal, then I need to cook 8 pork chops so I have 4 for the first meal and 4 to freeze for the second meal.

SG: Baking bread is one of the first challenges many of us undertake when becoming gluten free and our first attempts are not always successful. You have included a number of bread recipes and mixes in Gluten Free Quick & Easy. What are the most important things to remember when attempting to bake gluten free bread?

Carol: 1) Remember that the dough will be very soft––much softer than we expect––but don’t add more flour (as I did the first time I baked GF bread) to make it look more “normal”. 2) Bake the bread in a nonstick pan for the best browning and texture. If the bread doesn’t brown well on the bottom, sides, and top then the insides can’t rise as nicely and have a wonderful texture. 3) Bake the bread long enough to be done inside—registering 205 degrees with an instant-read thermometer. Under baking is the chief reason for fallen bread; the bread may look nicely browned on the outside, yet undone on the inside. If the bread browns too quickly on top, lay a sheet of foil over it.

SG: In Gluten Free Quick & Easy you included a number of menu suggestions. What things should we consider as we develop our own gluten free menus at home for eating healthier?

Carol: Incorporate as many fruits and vegetables as possible, avoid hydrogenated fats (transfats), and use sensible portion sizes. Also, think about how the food looks on your plate. If you’re serving a main dish that has lots of colors and textures (such as a casserole) then the vegetable and/or side dish should be a plain color (such as broccoli or corn) rather than a mixture of vegetables.

SG: Many things have changed in the last twenty years of gluten free cooking. What are the biggest things you have seen happen and where do you see the gluten free food industry going in the next ten years?

Carol: The biggest thing to happen in the last twenty years is the collective recognition by the medical profession, the food industry, and the media about the importance of a gluten-free diet. When I first became GF in 1988, I didn’t know anyone who ate like I did. In fact, having a food sensitivity back then was viewed as an odd defect that would eventually “go away” or as a means to gain attention. Today, with events like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conference in 2004 that defined celiac disease and its treatment and then the FDA labeling laws that took in January, 2006, we took giant strides forward. Also, the formation of the American Celiac Disease Alliance (of which I am a member) gave us a lobbying influence on government and the food industry.

In the next ten years, we will see GF labeling on all foods sold in supermarkets and health food stores. More restaurants will offer GF options, making it easier to dine out. I see gluten-free being as commonly accepted as diabetes, at least in terms of people recognizing what it is. The entertainment industry (movie theater concession stands, cruises, entertainment parks, etc) will offer GF options.

Once the term “gluten-free” is defined by the FDA in August, 2008, we’ll probably see many more BIG NAME manufacturers offer GF options. We all feel that many are waiting until the definition is very clear before attempting it. Nonetheless, many small entrepreneurs will continue to enter the market with books, foods, and services oriented to the GF consumer.

We will see more conferences and other events dedicated to GF food. In the past, these conferences have been medically oriented, but now we have Suzanne Bowland and her GF Culinary Productions. She organizes lecture series and next month (August) she’s having the 2nd Annual Gluten-Free Culinary Summit in Denver where chefs from all across the nation will offer GF demonstrations, etc. It is a strictly food-oriented event.

We’ll see lots more info on the Internet, such as blogs, which are growing in popularity. I HOPE we’ll have a show on the Food Network, PBS, or some other channel dedicated to people with food sensitivities. The Food Network asked me to write a GF page for the web site, so that’s a step in the right direction.

SG: I read an interview you did with Today’s Dietitian (“Putting the Healthy into Gluten-Free” by Sharon Palmer, RD, April 2007, Vol. 9, No. 4, P. 40) about nutrition concerns for those who maintain a gluten free diet. What gluten free dietary issues do you see being addressed in the next few years?

Carol: Dietary Issue #1: Nutrition:

I hope that we can move beyond the focus on the safety of our GF food (which, of course, is critically important and always will be) to include the issue of nutrition. Much of the original GF food from years ago––whether in cookbooks or manufactured food––was made with rice flour which is very low in nutrients. Today, we have healthier flours to choose from (such as sorghum, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, teff, etc.) plus some manufacturers are beginning to fortify foods which I think is a terrific step in the right direction. Non-GF cereals and breads are fortified and I think many non-GF persons assume they’ll get their nutrients from breads and cereals. However, most GF versions of store-bought breads and cereals are not fortified so there is a dietary gap there.

Also, I hope we’ll emphasize the healthiness of whole grains in our diet, for example the super-grains such as quinoa and amaranth. They rival wheat in nutrient content and are rarely stripped of their vital fiber and nutrients, as wheat is. I heartily support the Whole Grains Council in their work to encourage us to eat more whole grains and just because we can’t eat wheat (the major whole grain) doesn’t mean we can’t eat whole grains.

Dietary Issue #2: Obesity

We once thought that all celiacs were skinny. But that image is misleading, since celiacs can be overweight. In the future, I hope we will emphasize the importance of healthy eating, with less emphasis on foods that are made with unhealthy fats. You will notice that I don’t use transfats in my books and always offer healthy substitutes for butter (although doesn’t everything taste better with butter!!!!) such as non-hydrogenated spreads.

I also hope we will emphasize appropriate-sized portions of food on our plates. Many celiacs think they can continue to eat as much as they want, possibly from years of overeating and not absorbing the nutrients. I am continually appalled at the HUGE portions served in restaurants. For example, just last week my daughter-in-law ordered a Caesar salad (she’s not GF) and it came piled on a plate that was really a serving platter and there was enough to feed 4 people. All of the entrees were HUGE, as well. This only encourages people to eat far more than is necessary, so it is no wonder that we are a nation of increasingly overweight people.

Dietary Issue #3: Exercise

This may not be a matter of the food we eat (or don’t eat) but it goes hand-in-hand with good health. Eating wisely and safely is terribly important, but exercise is very important for everyone. It is critically important for persons with compromised autoimmune systems (and celiac disease is an autoimmune condition), because there are so many other complications that go along with celiac disease. We need to keep our bodies healthy.

Dietary Issue #4: Dining in Restaurants

We will see more restaurants take an interest in providing GF food for diners. The New York Times article last week was proof of that, plus the Gluten Intolerance Group ( works with the Gluten-Free Restaurant Program (Outback Steakhouse is an example). We’re seeing more chains adopt a GF menu, such as PF Changs and it’s getting easier to request a GF meal and feel confidence that it will truly be safe. Another example is Maggiano’s (in selected locations such as here in Denver).

Carol’s new book is published by Avery Books, a division of Penguin Group USA. You can buy the book from the Penguin Group or from, Books-A-Million, Barnes & Noble or your favorite local book seller. You can find out more about Carol and where she will be next from her website, Savory Palate.

* Jennifer Schlesinger of Avery Books provided me with a promo copy of the book so I could ask Carol questions prior to publication. I have donated the promo copy to Spread the Bread for their gluten free bread giving program.


Lea Ray said...

Very nice interview. Thanks for sharing.

Sheltie Girl said...

Lea - Thank you very much.

Sheltie Girl

ChupieandJ'smama said...

Great interview!! I love Carole Fensters Cooking Free. I'll have to check out Quick and Easy.

Jean Duane said...

Hi. I love Carol's book too, and Carol has been a helpful mentor to me and my business. I am writing to ask if you would like to review Bake Deliciously Gluten and Dairy Free Cookbook? It contains over 150 GFCF recipes with substitutions for other allergens. It focuses on WHOLE grain gluten free baking whereas most GF baking is done with highly refined starches. For a video overview, please go to If you are interested, please contact me at