Planning a Gluten Free Vacation: Travel Tips for a Condo and Kitchen in Florida

February 28th, 2008 yum Posted in Gluten Free On the Road, Hotel Food, Travel, Valentine Day 6 Comments »

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floridafeast2.jpgMany of you may have seen my menu plan for our Valentine’s Day trip to Florida, and you may have wondered how or why I was planning on cooking during a vacation. Well, unlike vacations where one stays in a hotel and ends up eating out of the microwave and whatever gluten-free restaurants you can find, this time we were staying in a time share condo with a gorgeous kitchen and lots of counter space. Our everyday kitchen lacks floor AND counter space, so just staying somewhere with a nicer kitchen was a vacation all by itself. Of course the gorgeous palm trees (complete with coconuts), beach, and golf course outside our window, not to mention family all around, were the best part, but the kitchen was a definite perk.

Because we were staying on an island (Captiva, near Fort Myers), I knew that access to groceries would be limited. There are two (expensive) grocery stores, but their offerings are somewhat limited, so I thought it would be a good idea to bring some staples. Of course I brought along snacks for the plane, which was a good thing because in spite of the fact we were flying all night, cheap-o American Airlines didn’t offer us a thing, except for the opportunity to buy candy and potato chips from their stewardesses. I passed, and chomped on some prepared roasted broccoli (yes, really), roasted brussel sprouts (ditto), and Ener-g Foods Pretzels. It wasn’t great, but it was better than nothing. I also brought protein bars, a mariposa brownie, and some individually wrapped Pamela’s cookies. I also had, stashed in my suitcase, the following staples:

1 box polenta (corn grits) from Trader Joe’s
1 box arborio rice (for Risotto) from Trader Joe’s
1 box pocono buckwheat cereal
1 small bottle, sealed, of wheat-free san-j tamari
1 pkg Pamela’s pancake baking mix
2 pkg Chebe- one bread stick, one regular
1 small bottle of toasted sesame oil from an Asian market
1 package rice/tapioca summer roll wrappers
1 pkg Thai rice noodles (for summer rolls)

*I probably also should have brought some spice mixes because they are pretty pricey at resort areas, and limited.

Bringing all these goodies meant that as soon as we arrived at the condo, I could whip up some pancakes and have breakfast before collapsing in exhaustion. But what about our other meals?

floridaml1.jpg The first day we were there, Thursday, was Valentines Day. I planned to make summer rolls with peanut sauce, coconut rice, and grilled fruit with a coconut peanut sauce from my favorite book, Peanut Butter Planet. At the grocery store that first day I bought fresh veggies, fresh fruit a jar of natural peanut butter, coconut milk and pineapple juice, which allowed me to make all I wanted! Everything turned out pretty well, but the grilled fruit was only mediocre due to the very weak grill we used. The grilled pineapple was tasty, but the strawberries and plums ended up somewhat mushy. I think this recipe needs a bit of tweaking.

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Thai Peanut Sauce
Ingredients
1 sliced small onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cloves crushed garlic
3/4 cup NATURAL peanut butter or 1 cup dry roasted salted peanuts
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lime juice
Directions
Saute onion and garlic in oil til tender. Cool. Place in blender,
add everything else, and blend carefully. Slowly and carefully
add enough boiling water to form a thick paste. (I like it about
the texture of slightly thinned peanut butter.)
Coconut Milk Rice Recipe
Side Dish  Rice  Thai  
Ingredients
Coconut Rice:
2 cups (rice cooker measurement) short grained white rice
1/2 can lite coconut milk (or small regular coconut milk)
Directions
Rinse your rice until the water is no longer cloudy. Shake off the water and then put your rice in your rice cooker. Pour half of a can of coconut milk into the rice cooker and add water until the liquid reaches the two cup mark. (Or, just substitute coconut milk for half the water in your favorite rice recipe for stovetop preparation.)

floridadin3.jpgflorida.jpgThe next day I’d planned a Mediterranean menu. I used my entire box of polenta to make a dairy-free polenta with italian seasonings. Of course it was way too much for us, even with family members there, but as soon as I saw it bubbling away I remembered Erin’s polenta fries. I served half of it at the table and put the rest in a baking dish to cool and firm up for the next night’s dinner. Since there was broccoli and some tasty organic cauliflower in the fridge, I decided to make my roasted broccoli recipe with a twist- adding gorgeous cauliflower florets to the pan. I was feeling a bit anxious about having enough food, so not only did I make an old favorite recipe,Aunt Joan’s summer salad, but I also mixed up a batch of chebe rolls, using cheese for extra luxurious texture and flavor (and to make it more palatable to the glutenoids). The meal was a success! I did find that it is quite a bit different cooking for six than two- what seemed like a mountain of food vanished. Happily, there was still enough for a tasty breakfast the next morning.

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Chili-Garlic Roasted Broccoli Recipe
Ingredients
broccoli tops, equiv. to about one lg broccoli.
1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil or so.
5 to 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
dash of chili powder
1 tablespoon grill seasoning blend (I used Trader Joe’s)
Directions
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Place extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, chili powder and grill
seasoning in the bottom of a large bowl and add the broccoli spears.
Toss to coat broccoli evenly then transfer to a large nonstick
baking sheet. Roast the broccoli until ends are crisp and brown and
stalks are tender, 15-17 minutes.
Notes
I made this tonight with a baked potato(washed, dried, pricked and
baked in the oven on a bed of kosher salt), and my favorite southern
fried tofu recipe. (That recipe should be already in the recipes
file).. It was really satisfying. And I was just thinking that one
way to expand what we can eat is by expanding how we prepare what we
eat… Roasted broccoli is very different (to me) than steamed or
sauteed… So, give it a try. I thought it was delicious!

I’ve also enjoyed this recipe with half organic cauliflower florets. You can tone down or up the chili powder to taste.

Aunt Joan’s Summer Salad
Ingredients
1 can of corn, drained
1 can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 small jar roasted red peppers, chopped
1 english cucumber, peeled cut in half, with seeds scooped out, chopped
1/4 jicama, peeled and chopped
2 green onions, chopped
1 organic carrot, peeled and chopped
your favorite vinaigrette dressing
Directions
Combine all prepared vegetables in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Drizzle vinaigrette over all ingredients to taste. (Be sparing with it).

Enjoy as a side dish for a light, fresh, grilled summer meal.

floridafeast.jpgfloridafeast3.jpgFor our final meal in Florida, DH and I really went all out with a gourmet vegetarian feast. DH made risotto, with delicious, pan seared mushrooms, and I sliced the leftover polenta into fry shapes and then seasoned and baked them until crispy. I wanted to make roasted asparagus, but I’d forgotten it at the main store, and had to improvise because the island store had a VERY limited selection. The only fresh green vegetable I could find was zucchini. I hesitated, but then I remembered our succesful grilled zucchini salad that I’d made last year, so the menu changed from roasted asparagus to grilled zucchini salad garnished with fresh vegetables and seasoned with a vinaigrette and pico de gallo. And of course, no gourmet vegetarian grilled meal is complete without our favorite grilled tofu recipe! This meal was pronounced our best yet, and it truly was tasty. The polenta fries and risotto vanished in a flash- and some sibling rivalry fueled fighting over the mushrooms broke out, from the grown-ups, no less. haha. It’s always a good sign when people are fighting over your food! Not bad considering I was the only gluten-free vegetarian in the room- but everyone was happy!

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Grilled Zucchini with Tomato and Olive Salad
Ingredients
1 lb fresh zucchini and/or squash
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 tsp fresh minced thyme
1 medium sized tomato cut in small dice
1 lg garlic clove, minced
16 kalamata olives, pitted and sliced (or regular blk olives)
1 tbsp chopped capers
1 1/2 tbsp red wine vinegar
salt, freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp pine nuts
8-10 fresh basil leaves
Directions
Heat or otherwise prepare grill or grill pan. (charcoal or propane grill is best) Cut zucchini lengthwise 1/4 inch thick, baste in 1 tbsp olive oil and sprinkle fresh thyme until evenly coated.

Combine diced tomato cubes, garlic, olives, capers, and red wine vinegar in a bowl and put aside.

Salt and pepper zucchini or squash rounds and grill until marked with grill stripes (3 minutes or less depending on heat). Place on serving platter when done, spread tomato olive mixture on top and season with salt and pepper. sprinkle with pine nuts and attractively cut basil and serve.

Notes
DH and I don’t even like zucchini, and we gobbled this whole recipe up in a night. A good pizza-less “pizza”- very tasty tapa dish. Yum! Perfect for using fresh farmer’s market zucchini available everywhere this year.
Yummy Grilled Tofu
Ingredients
1 lb of firm tofu (Chinese Style is best for this kind of recipe)

2 tbsp GF soy sauce (preferably San-J Low Sodium Tamari)
1 1/2 tbsp maple syrup
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil (we like a Japanese brand)
2 pressed cloves of garlic

Directions
Drain water from tofu, and cut horizontally in thirds or half. Wrap in towel and leave for 30 minutes or so until water has absorbed into towel.

Mix marinade ingredients, and marinate tofu for at least 30 minutes. If possible, grill, if not, broil or pan fry.

Makes a wonderful protein addition to salads, sandwich fillings, and perfect with rich rice dishes like risotto.

Notes
I’ve been making this recipe for years and it always goes over very well at parties. Very flavorful and easy.

Can be doubled for a crowd.

You may wish to brush or spray grill with oil, as the tofu can stick.

I hope this post encourages you all to take your own gourmet vacation with a kitchen in the future. I know many people who are first diagnosed find the prospect of dining out and travel to be incredibly intimidating- and it’s true, it can be a hassle. You can research your area ahead of time to find any hidden gluten-free gems in the neighborhood, but sometimes, as with this vacation in a confined resort setting, there just isn’t going to be any specialty health food stores or restaurants. Regular restaurants CAN sometimes meet your needs, but when you have multiple issues, like vegetarian preferences or multiple intolerances, sometimes it’s just easier (and tastier!) to make your own food in a kitchen. You don’t have to have a fancy shmancy time-share either. Some quite reasonably priced hotels/long-term stay places (a week or more) have quite serviceable kitchen facilities. I loved our Austria trip and staying in a modern (kitchen-free) hotel worked reasonably well. However, the next time I go to Europe, I really think I’ll go out of my way to stay somewhere where I can cook meals, so I don’t have to be following my stomach and perpetually searching for the next safe meal when I should be sightseeing.

*
GF Travel Tip:
Packing those little extra GF carbs and sauces in your suitcase really helps too- you don’t have to go quite as crazy as I did, but just having your favorite meal staples ready and waiting for you as soon as you unpack really takes off loads of stress, and frees you from having to spend your valuable vacation time in random grocery stores searching for GF soy sauce to add the final touch to your meals. Just make sure to pack it in multiple plastic bags, one sealed, so that if those baggage handlers start playing keep-away with your suitcase, it doesn’t break and douse your clothing in eu de shoyu/tamari. Also nestle carefully in soft clothes, and make sure the suitcase is full- the less it moves around, the less likely it could bang into something and break.

Still worried about that airplane trip and the perils of airport restaurants? I don’t blame you. Why not pack a bento lunch so you don’t have to worry?
Read Biggie’s enlightening post about Packing your own Airplane Bento

I’d love to hear your personal vacation stories. What gluten-free staples do you bring with you on a trip, both for munching on the plane and for preparing later in your hotel? Any tips to offer our readers? Post in the Comments!

And, if you haven’t already, don’t forget to participate in our adopt a gluten-free blogger event

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Gluten-Free Dining in Agra India near the Taj Mahal: Review of Meals at the Amar Villas and Hilton

January 4th, 2008 yum Posted in Agra, Beverage Sweet, Hotel Food, Indian, North India, Travel, Vegetarian 5 Comments »

yumagra.jpgagrachana.jpg Delhi Hotel Food agraaloo2.jpg
On our second weekend in India we flew from Bangalore to Delhi on a cramped – flight. We got in late that Friday night and stayed in a fairly bleak hotel in Delhi. Our hotel was clean and basic, but overlooked an alley complete with wild dogs and a little campfire. We ordered room service, and got some basic aloo jeera (potatoes and cumin) and a chickpea curry with rice, but the food was nothing to write home about. (And presumably not something to post on a blog about, haha.) We’d arranged to have a driver, so the next morning at around 5am he came to the hotel and we began the long drive from Delhi to Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located. Unlike balmy Bangalore, Delhi was downright chilly, especially in the morning, so we ended up layering on clothing to avoid freezing in the cab. Our driver turned out not to speak much English, which was mostly a problem when he said “yes” and meant “I have no idea what the heck you’re asking but want to be agreeable.” He also had a fondness for bouncy popular Bollywood music. It was fun and atmospheric the first two hours, but after bouncing around in the backseat and listening to the accompanying cacophony of bleeting auto rickshaw horns and every other kind of vehicle horn you can imagine, it started to seem like a “Boris” soundtrack. (I’m not a fan of the movie, but the music reminded DH of his “theme song.”) I was starting to feel like my lungs were coated with exhaust and my brain was stuck with pins and needles of sound and my eyes felt tired by the time we got to Agra, which may be why when we had the opportunity DH and I jumped at the chance to grab a meal at the glamorous Amar Villa hotel.


What is this posh hotel, also known as the Oberoi Amarvilas like? You can get an idea from the Amar Villas web page. But Lonely Planet, our guide for the day, described the place as a “world class hotel [with an] elegant interior design . . . suffused with Mughal style as are the exterior fountain courtyard and the swimming pool set in a water garden.” (Lonely Planet India pg. 362) The book suggested that if we didn’t have the money to stay there (since we don’t own any small contries, we don’t, haha), we should visit this “modern palace” and have a beer at the posh bar. Our car dropped us off on the steps before the fountain, and feeling like dusty, grimy orphans we stumbled through the grounds in awe. The grounds were completely peaceful and beautiful in this gorgeous resort so far removed from the crowded, chaotic streets of Agra. Fountains gurgled tranquilly, guards in immaculate uniforms stood everywhere, and marble was everywhere. We found our way to the lobby where we got our first (Rather hazy) look at the Taj Mahal through their windows- admired the bar, and then somehow found ourselves in their restaurant downstairs, sitting and ordering cappucino before we knew it. DH feasted on the artisan breads at the table and encouraged me to order real food- so I ended up ordering a lovely paneer dish, despite my guilt at the inflated “world class” price. (See large photo on the left.) It came with rice and two small servings of other “curry” dishes, and as soon as I tasted the paneer I was glad I’d tried it. I’m fond of paneer, as you know- this homemade Indian cheese adds body and flavor to many vegetarian dishes, and is wonderful in a nice Paneer Pulao (rice pilaf with paneer), but most of the paneer I’d had so far was rubbery and bland, with little personality of its own. This dish was completely different. The paneer was soft and tender, melting on the tongue, and the flavor of the fresh milk sang through every bite. It had clearly been made freshly at the restaurant by someone using the best, freshest ingredients- it was the best paneer I’d ever had, even including the paneer I made fresh at my own house. The tomato gravy was similarly spectacular. I didn’t eat much of the dal, out of concerns for asafoetida and the fact that I’m not that crazy about yellow dal anyway, but DH ate it and proclaimed it “very good.” The cauliflower side dish was also very nice, but nothing could compete with the perfection of the paneer. Although the cappucino was not that great, being somewhat watery and bland, the meal was spectacular, and best of all, it caused me no stomach distress whatsoever and was the perfect antidote to travel exhaustion. After our meal we felt ready to tackle Agra once again, which mostly meant that we were ready to find and check into our hotel. (It turned out that the Taj Mahal was closed that afternoon for foreign American dignitaries..)


Although we’d gotten an inexpensive hotel in Delhi, we thought it might be worth it to splurge a little in Agra itself. All the budget or even midrange hotels we read about sounded either terrifyingly bad or… well, even worse. So, we ended up making a reservation at the Agra Hilton, which, while it might not be able to compare with the Oberoi, was still plenty nice and offered a welcome respite from ye old Agra tourist-trap madness.

agrahilton1.jpghiltonsalads.jpgWe thought about eating out, but Agra is overwhelming and tiring to the uninitiated, and after seeing the Taj Mahal we didn’t crave any more adventures, having satisfied our main goal for the trip. So, somewhat shame-facedly we made our way down to the brightly lit, modern, and cheerful Hilton bar for drinks. We had one of our favorite (non-alcoholic) drinks- a lime soda, sweet, not sour. It’s a simple recipe, and one all too easy to create at home. (See recipe below.) It’s funny, I’ve always enjoyed fresh lime juice, but it was in India, garnishing salads or as the base of a fizzy beverage, that I truly began to love the tang of lime over all other citrus. We drank our beverage in the modern lounge, looking around at other travelers- this early in the evening mostly American college students. Then, as we grew hungry, we moved to the dining room for a delicious surprise. It turned out that the Hilton largely prides itself on its extensive buffet dinner. I hear you groaning now, ugh, buffet… but this was a buffet like none I’d ever seen before. One of a pair of ultra-chic modern tables was covered in the best collection of crisp salads, most of which would be perfect as a dish of their own, not just as one ingredient. Its twin was covered with lovely European desserts- inaccessible to me but with a few promising fruit plates. The far wall of the restaurant had a sleek, modern bar with a special wood stove and bar surface stretching out with individual tureens of yummy looking food… There was either European or Indian fare, if you were so inclined, with extensive vegetarian offerings. hiltonbuf2.jpg I was a bit intimidated by the buffet- although the salad bar looked fairly safe, I wasn’t sure about the hot food. So, I approached the chef, not to be confused with waitors, who stood in his tall chef’s hat near the food, clearly in charge and clearly ready to answer any guest’s questions. agrahotel4.jpgWhen I told him I couldn’t eat gluten, he immediately started talking about CC and offered to make my own dish- it impressed me, but I had been braving the dangers of CC for weeks and I could see visions of law suits and anaphylactic shock dancing in his head. I explained that it wasn’t an anaphylactic reaction and asked what dishes were free of gluten, and we went down the buffet line together. I put together a plate, first of the cold salad items, and then later of the hot items. Meanwhile DH was in seventh heaven, enjoying a break from strictly Indian food with the joys of this more international cuisine. I was pretty happy myself. While I love Indian cuisine, after a week or so of long simmered curries I was ready for crisp, delicately seasoned green beans with creamy buffalo mozzarella and the crunch of thickly cut golden orange carrots. Of the hotel’s hot dishes, my favorite was the hot, plainly spiced potatoes, not their Indian cuisine, although their paneer dish was excellent with silky smooth, flavorful cheese almost as good as the Oberoi. While the Hilton didn’t seem to have anything amazing for a gluten-free dessert at first glance, when I got a plate of fresh and candied fruits from the dessert table, I was in for a lovely surprise.

hiltondessert.jpgWe had been enjoying the fresh fruit throughout our stay in India. The sweet and firm pineapple and half-sized bananas were favorites for breakfasts. The fresh fruit of the Hilton was good, but it was the candied fruit that amazed me. I don’t know how they did it, but the candied fruit had the sweetness of perfectly dried fruit but yet were still moist and sweet like honey, but even better. The entertainment for the evening was the robust Russian Rodney Dangerfield look-alike who made himself and his friends a huge Caesar Salad at their table- with lots of gesturing and chopping. Ah, good times. Despite that entertainment, our dinner experience was very satisfying and we left the restaurant feeling perfectly content, and ready for a good night’s rest in our bright and cheerful hotel room.hiltonbreakfast.jpg (The huge bathroom with bathtub and fancy bath products was particularly nice after our standing floor shower in Bangalore.) The next morning we toddled into the restaurant, excited and happy to have another great meal. We didn’t want another huge buffet meal, though- even one as nice as theirs. It was too much, when all we wanted was an omelet and maybe potatoes on the side. (DH coveted some toast, rather than the potatoes.) Unfortunately service was slow and everyone clearly wanted us to just order the darned buffet and leave them in peace. Whoops! We finally got our profoundly mediocre eggs/omelet, with a small serving of potatoes (DH lovingly gave me his) and a miserable tomato that should have been put out of its misery years ago. Oh, and that toast never did make it to the table, even though bread and a toaster were stacked and ready in the buffet line. Oops. Well, no place is perfect. I’m not sure what a better breakfast option would be, but that meal was a big disappointment after the yumminess the night before. It was gluten-free though, so all’s well that end’s well… even mediocre hotel meals!

If you find yourself making your way to Agra sometime in the future, needing both a gluten-free and possibly vegetarian diet, never fear. Indian food AND international hotels should have things to offer you, and with the latter, if you talk to the chef personally they very well may make you something special, so it’s worth the extra effort. Even a vegan diet shouldn’t be too hard in a large, international hotel- but large chain hotels do have their drawbacks. If you won’t be in India for long, and want to feel like you’re IN INDIA, not at a tourist resort that hides beyond tall gates flanked by security guards and is populated mostly by lucky tourists from afar- these big hotels may not be for you. We were exhausted from our travels and ready for a little surreal luxury away from the never-ending noise, so the Hilton was a welcome break. agrahotel.jpgHowever, another way to do it might be to take a rapid train straight from Delhi to Agra (faster than driving, with less noise and wear and tear), and stay somewhere situated more defiantly IN the city and not behind walls. The Taj Mahal was unforgettably beautiful and magnificent- and I’m glad we went, and I’m glad we planned the things we did- but when I went back to Bangalore I felt a little like Dorothy clicking my heels together, saying “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” Maybe it was the time of day, but the pollution seemed lighter (not a huge gray haze like there was in Agra), the honking of auto rickshaws sounded sweeter, and I got a whole lot less offers for a “chess set, extra cheap, just for you” back in Bangalore. And, in a first- our auto rickshaw back to our Bangalore hotel from the airport actually agreed to let us pay JUST the meter price- a first, that oddly enough made me feel all warm and fuzzy and doubly like I’d come home. Then I went and ordered some Aloo jeera and Paneer Pulao and Steamed rice and chomped it happily in our hotel room, and it didn’t even matter that the paneer probably came out of plastic wrap and the potatoes were a bit too oily- because I was home, even if it would just be for another week or so.

Sweet Lime Soda
Ingredients
1 1⁄2 tbsp. or more freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tbsp. or more simple syrup (equal amounts of sugar and water, boiled together and let cool)
3⁄4 cup soda water
Lime slice

Directions
Put your lime juice and soda water in a tall, clear glass. Add simple syrup, mix, and taste. Add more simple syrup to taste. Garnish with a lime. Enjoy!

If you like you can add ice, but we were generally skeptical of the water used for ice in India so enjoyed ours at room temperature or cooled, if the soda water had been refrigerated.

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