Report on 2008 San Francisco Gluten-Free Cooking Spree- GF Product Reviews, Dish Summaries

cookingspree16.jpgcookingspree21.jpgOn February 2nd, DH and I drove through a wintery, rainy San Francisco night to get to the Gluten-Free Cooking Spree held at the West Bay Conference Center. When I f irst heard of this gloriously Gluten-Free event, I was immediately hooked. It sounded like a new take on an American Iron Chef, with a dinner theme, a bar stocked with GF beer and hard cider, live music, and a whole party of other gluten-free folks to enjoy it with. What’s not to love? From my experience, few people can enjoy good food like gluten-free folks, and a whole party full of catered food we didn’t have to make sounded amazing. Not only that, but proceeds were to support Celiac research. A good cause AND good gluten-free food, what more could I ask for?

cookingspree19.jpgWe arrived at the convention center and found ourselves in the lobby with the coat check and reception desks. Those with a VIP pass were allowed first dibs on the main conference room and its goodies, as well as champagne. Unfortunately DH and I hadn’t splurged on a VIP ticket, so we got our goodie bag (Containing Bob’s Red Mill GF Oats and an individual serving of Bob’s Red Mill GF cereal… there might have been another small item but I can’t quite remember), and cooled our heels in the lobby.

Delicious smells were wafting out into the hall when finally they let us in to the main room full of yummy food. The first thing we saw was a buffet table piled high with cookies and a gorgeous, decadent chocolate fountain. Marshmallows and fresh fruit were piled all around the chocolate fountain. Those chocolate fountains are usually off limits due to the prevalence of wheat-based dippers, but this time all the offerings were completely free of all gluten, so it was fair game.

The theme for the night was “pasta.” Chef teams composed of nutritionists, chefs, and doctors concocted a variety of dishes based around this theme.

Competitive dishes included:

cookingspree9.jpgcookingspree8.jpgUnGlu’d Mac’N'Cheese *there was some unfortunate confusion over this dish. Apparently one version was vegetarian and the other contained bacon. Confusingly, both times it was listed in the ingredient lists the recipe included bacon. C’mon guys, do you NEED the brown crackly stuff? If I were to make a dairy-decadent mac and cheese for an event like this, I’d personally go a bit more gourmet with it and choose a white rice pasta or at least use Tinkyada brown rice pasta and pair it with smoked cheese or more exciting cheeses than just cheddar and parmesan. To me it was a bit on the bland side.

Risotto Salsicia, a meaty dish that didn’t stand out for DH.

Chicken Schnitzel Schloss Solitude DH’s hands down favorite, a dish reminiscent of our Austrian experience

Poached Salmon with Pappardelle & Meyer Lemon Crème Fraiche garnished with brussel sprout leaves (photo on right). The pasta was overcooked, but the brussel sprouts were tasty.

and Prosciutto Wrapped Salmon with Herbed Polenta, Kasha, Dried Fig & Balsamic.

In case you were wondering, the two salmon dishes won the competition- and the mac and cheese won with the kid voters. Hmmm…
Unfortunately, while I love the idea of the competition, some of the competition dishes were only fair, especially those using the pasta. It is very difficult not to overcook pasta, and non-gluten free chefs may not realize the importance of rinsing the pasta in cool water to remove excess starch, not only stopping the cooking process but also removing excess gluey starches. Luckily there was no shortage of dishes, such as Bell and Evans gluten-free non-veg nuggets, Organic Bistro frozen meals (non-veg and not my personal favorites), and some rather plain fried rice (non-veg). Things were looking pretty bleak for the vegetarians in the audience, but luckily the Brazilian Cheese Bread Company was there to save the day.

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I first encountered the Brazilian Cheese Company at the Gluten-free mecca, Harvest House in Concord, California, where they sold frozen rolls for about $12.00. It was a steep price, but I tried one pack of their garlic cheese rolls. They were tasty, but ultimately, I couldn’t justify the expense so I haven’t made them part of my regular diet. However, the rolls at the gluten-free cooking spree and the cheesy, cheesy pizza they served were out of this world and I enjoyed every bite. My favorite was the sun-dried tomato cheese bread “pão de queijo,” closely followed by that yummy pizza. Apparently they will soon be offering the pizza crust in retail stores near you, so look for it! (And prepare yourself for the probable sticker shock, sigh).

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cookingspree15.jpg cookingspree1.jpgWhole Foods also generously provided a full array of pies (alas, after I was too full to eat any more!), tons of gorgeous and yummy cookies and bread. I do love their Gluten-free baked products. There was tons of different bread slices but no sundried tomato bread. *sniff* Too bad. They had…

Honey Oat Bread (Nope, I didn’t try it, but I’m REALLY curious)
Sourdough Bread
Chocolate Chip Cookies (yum! too bad I was so full!)
Peanut Butter Cookies (double yum! too bad about the being full thing, really got in the way!)
Apple, Cherry, and Pecan Pie

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cookingspree231.jpgAzna offered gluten-free AND vegan treats for those who are lactose intolerant- a breath of fresh air for those who couldn’t eat many of the very dairy-centric dishes offered at the cooking spree. Personally I’m not sure pinto bean flour is my favorite flour base, but they offered:

Double Chocolate Brownies that looked pretty good- if only I had been hungry at that point
Scones and
Cinnamon Rolls (interesting idea but they were a bit on the flat, heavy side)

ricebread.jpgcookingspree7.jpgCharlotte’s Bakery had some pretty tasty bread, too. It tasted like home made rice bread, freshly baked and with no need for toasting, at least fresh out of the package. I’m not sure how it would hold up over time, but right then it tasted pretty good. They offer:

Rice Bread
Banana-Nut Bread
Cinnamon Raisin Bread
Cranberry Orange Bread


Thai Kitchen, Mr. Krispers, and SoyJoy all had tables with free samples. The Thai Kitchen noodles available weren’t my favorite (I like Onion or Garlic), so I didn’t take any. Mr. Krispers baked rice crisps were ok, but not really the kind of thing I go for either. And Soyjoy- well, I took some, but when I tried them later I regretted it. Basically think 1960s health food- bad texture, bad flavor, and totally uninspiring. If I was starving on an island somewhere, maybe I’d eat one- but otherwise, it’s the kind of GF snack you open, sniff, take a bite of, and then leave in the package to get all dusty. Sometimes you have to wonder if food companies actually TASTE their product before selling it. I didn’t take a picture, but Mariposa also brought boxes of their gluten-free brownies that were promptly snapped up by everyone in the know. Man, those things are good! I saw a few old ladies stuffing them in their purses- and who can blame them! (not like any of us were remotely hungry at that point- the sheer volume of food, especially desserts, offered was ridiculous!)

cookingspree6.jpgPamela’s was also there with a huge spread of cookies and cupcakes guaranteed to send you into a sugar coma with the first bite, as well as some tasty samples of espresso-chocolate chip cookies. They aren’t quite on par with Whole Foods GF bakehouse, but you also don’t have to call them “whole paycheck cookies” either, so I guess it must balance out. Bob’s Red Mill was there, too, but didn’t have samples for tasting, to memory. All together there was a great variety of gluten-free goodies to try and enjoy. I think the highlights, for me, was getting the chance to meet people from the Celiac Bay Area Yahoo group, and of course, being able to EAT (and DRINK) every single thing there. Nothing like kicking back a Gluten-free Redbridge Beer or Hard Cider with some tasty gluten-free hot food with some gluten-free people and friends, listening to some crazy music and watching a gluten-free iron chef drama unfold… So, if the Gluten-free Cooking Spree’s coming to your town, why not pick up a ticket and see what new gluten-free goods you can try?

Note: Although I really enjoyed the event, some with multiple food intolerances had somewhat limited options, as many dishes contained dairy or some other allergen. One Celiac naturopathic doctor in line with me commented on it- “Don’t they know how many Celiacs have problems with dairy?”* While there was a little more available that was dairy free that was not immediately apparent, there were quite a few main dishes that contained dairy. Also, a bummer for the vegetarians, almost everything savory except for the vegetable plate, tapioca pizza (and dairy-free cheese quesadillas) contained non-veg ingredients. However, unless you have severe multiple allergies, it is quite unlikely that you would go hungry at this event- I’ve never seen such VOLUME of GF foods in my life. I also was a little surprised to be approached by a freelancer advertising their holistic doctor’s services- the Celiac equivalent of being propositioned by a rose vendor in Italy, I suppose. But, these peculiarities aside, I was really glad I went, and I’d love to go again next year!

*I actually thought this was a bit of a snarky comment, but ironically, it was said in front of the Organic Bistro stand, which he ignored. Must have been the microwave. haha.

**According to Vanessa Maltin, the organizer of the event, the following dishes were dairy free:
Proscuitto Salmon
The Fried Rice (unclear about the butter issue)
Pasta with Ground Turkey Marinara Sauce
and the Frozen meals: Wild Salmon, Ginger Chicken, Chicken Citron (offered by Organic Bistro)
the entire cheese plate
and many desserts (many, many desserts- if you like GF desserts, let me tell you this Is your event!)

Check out this:
Celiac Central Review
Gluten Free Guide’s to the NYC GF Cooking Spree
Glad to Be Gluten Free’s Atlanta GF Cooking Spree

Here is my previous review of Mariposa Bakery in Oakland, California.
And here are my reviews of Pamela’s GF Products

Did you attend the GF Cooking Spree This Year? Tell us about it in the comments! What did you think of the meal and GF food samples??

Didn’t make the SF Event? No worries! Attend one of the other Gluten Free Cooking Sprees taking place all over the US in 2008!


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19 Responses to “Report on 2008 San Francisco Gluten-Free Cooking Spree- GF Product Reviews, Dish Summaries”

  1. I could not attend so thanks for that writeup! It all looks very good.

  2. Vanessa Maltin Says:

    Hi–

    I was the organizer of the SF Event, and I just wanted to give you more information so that you can post accurate info about the Cooking Spree. There were 200 copies of the ingredients list available at check in and at the NFCA info table that detailed the ingredients in every dish. There were several vegetarian options and multiple dairy-free options. Two of the chef competition dishes were dairy-free and almost all of the other dishes had a dairy-free option. The Fried Rice, Pasta with Ground Turkey Marinara Sauce, Wild Salmon, Ginger Chicken, Chicken Citron, and the entire cheese plate was dairy-free. It was a soy-based cheese made specifically with celiac who are dairy-free in mind. The quesadillas were made with this cheese too!! Also, there were both a vegetarian and non-veg version of the Mac’n'Cheese. AND, good deal of the desserts (All of the Pamela’s items, Azna items, the Peanut butter cookies, and all of the fruit) were dairy-free as well. All of us at the NFCA are very familiar with other food intolerances and went out of our way to ensure that there was a wide variety of food for people to eat. At least 10 people called us in advance of the event to let us know about their specifiic concerns with other allergies. To prepare them for the event, we sent them ingredients lists in advance and planned with them what they can eat.

    I would just hope that you would encourage people to talk to us—the organizers– if they have a concern. We truly do understand the needs of the community and in almost every case, are able to adapt the dishes served at the event to accomodate any special diet.

  3. I have problems with gf pasta sometimes, and I didn’t know to rinse it in cold water. Thanks for the heads up on that!

  4. Thanks for the thorough review. I wish I’d known about this, I’d have taken my Celiac on a vacation. How do you find out about these things? I get the newsletter but never read about the SF one until after the event. I do know it wasn’t listed on their original list ‘cuz we were miffed since the closest one was St. Louis.

    “Whole paycheck cookies” That’s hilarious. But true. I’m going to have to go check out all your links now. See if I can get myself any nummies. :-)

  5. Joe- you’re very welcome.

    Vanessa,
    Overall this is a positive review intended to document the experience of attending this excellent event. I am very appreciative of the effort that went into making this a successful event and I am personally a rabid supporter of any and all Gluten-Free groups including the NFCA.

    All I can do is record my impression of the event as an honest, impartial observer, using information provided to me at the event (the ingredient list). It was fairly tricky to figure out which mac and cheese had bacon in it and which did not. It does seem that there was more savory food available to dairy free folks than was apparent from the ingredient list (the cheese wasn’t listed as a menu item in the ingredient list, among other things). I have trouble counting the frozen meals, though.. ;) As a heads up, I don’t think anyone I talked to realized that the quesadillas were dairy free (including me, obviously..) According to the ingredient list I have, the Fried Rice contained butter, so would be ok for lactose intolerance but perhaps not so good for a dairy allergy. Actually, it might be really terrific to include “cheat sheets” in one of the handouts given to guests with a list of all dairy free, nut free, and vegetarian items so once we’re there it’s more clear which dishes conform to our specific dietary situation. Or, a check list like many companies have with the name of the dish and checked allergens might be really useful, too.

    Everyone I talked to at the event enjoyed it, and the overall response was “Wow! I can eat everything.” I know just from hosting local gluten-free groups how difficult it is to cater to these complex dietary needs, and sometimes it is downright impossible to address every issue. I do think that it would be nice to have more (non dessert) main, savory, vegetarian dishes, and I’ve heard this comment from other attendees as well.

    I will add the products you mentioned to my post, but I would not characterize my initial post as inaccurate. This event has been very successful and it is my hope that additional publicity from blog posts, forum postings, and other web media will draw more attention to this very important cause and raise interest in attending the event.

    Sally,
    You are quite welcome.

  6. Sara, I’m SO glad you mentioned this. It made me realize I forgot to put a link to the other NFCA cooking spree events! It’s not too late- you can still go to one! Enjoy the links. :)

    -Sea

  7. *company response*

    Thanks for your review of the GF Cooking Spree and your comments on Organic Bistro Whole Life Meals. I am the founder (and also a naturopathic physician) of Organic Bistro and there are a few details I’d like to share about our food. We are the only frozen meal maker that is dedicated to creating healthy, gluten-free meals. Additionally, most of our meals are dairy-free. Some of our meals have walnuts and almonds, but have some nut-free options. Later this year, we will debut our first vegetarian meal (also dairy free). I’m not sure how we ranked “not a personal favorite” as we have many GF-celiac fans who are thrilled to have a company making something besides baked goods for them. Baked goods are great, but they don’t have protein, healthy fat, vegetables or fiber rich quinoa and rices. From my medical practice work with celiacs, I found that helping folks to think beyond gluten to “what nutritious foods do I need to eat to stay healthy?” was critical. Gluten-free living and eating must also include nutrients like Omega 3 fats, iron, calcium, B vitamins (found in sufficient quantities in either animal protein or supplements), fiber and lots of anitoxidant rich veggies and fruits.

    If anyone wants coupons to try our meals, please contact us on our website and we will be happy to mail you coupons to try our meals.
    Also, we support any celiac support group with coupons, product information and will be happy to have a registered dietician fluent in GF come and talk with your group at our expense. If there are other GF Cooking Sprees in the western US, let us know! We would gladly support them.

    Kindly,
    Dr. Laryn

  8. Julie Mueller Says:

    Great review! I feel you’re pretty much right on in your comments, and I too had a great time. The amount of food was amazing, trying so many tasty things without worry was fantastic.

    You mentioned the bread from Charlotte’s Bakery: I took home a loaf of their plain rice bread and found it fabulous! I put the loaf in the fridge and used it for sandwiches for about two weeks. The bread held up nicely even though it feels delicate, and did not go gross despite being moist. By the time I got down to the last four slices the bread had dried out just enough that it wouldn’t hold together for a sprout and tomato sandwich, ashamed to say I just sort of ate the last bits. The bread has a slight sweetness to it and is nice to munch on. If it shows up in a store around here I’ll definitely buy it.

    Still working through those Mariposa brownies…. ;)

  9. Dear Laryn,
    Thank you for your response. Taste is subjective, and for every person that dislikes a certain product, alternate opinions exist. I’d be happy to hear from non-affiliated readers who happen to enjoy the Organic Bistro products. I choose not to eat meat or chicken, and rarely consume seafood. I have tried the seafood options offered by your company, and did not care for the taste of the wild rice and salmon- it smelled “fishy” and I didn’t like the flavors of the wild rice pilaf or sauce. I like healthy, hearty meal options as well as the next person, and in fact prefer whole, healthy meals to baked goods. I think the idea behind your company is excellent and I would be happy if in the future products were developed that suited my individual palate. If the OB products work well for some Celiacs, I think that’s great- but I don’t think you can expect them to appeal to every Celiac. Despite that, no publicity is really bad publicity, especially if it brings you and your product into the public eye.
    Thanks.
    -Sea

  10. Thanks Julie! I’m ashamed to say I went through those brownies at lightning speed- it’s an addictive, addictive product, isn’t it? Thank goodness I can’t afford them regularly.

    Thanks so much for the report on the rice bread. I love hearing feedback on how a product works over time. And you know, I think if the price were right, I’d buy a loaf myself. So here’s hoping they get it in the area. :)

    -Sea

  11. Sea — I went to the NYC Cooking Spree (flew all the way from Golden, CO for it). I think it may have been the first one they held. It was a year or so ago. Your photos and description of the SF one makes me think yours was much more of an “event” than the one I went to. It’s all good though; the point is to raise funds and increase awareness.
    Melissa

  12. Just wanted to let you all know that I loved Charlotte’s Banana Walnut bread- it lasted about a week in the fridge and was great as a snack in the morning- sweet but not too sweet and the texture was great. I would buy it again in a heart beat.

    I got a chance to try WF’s Chocolate Chip cookies near the end of the night and they were so good- guess I’m going to have to save my loose change to pick up a pack sometime soon. I also loved Pamela’s table- how great was it to bring home small sample packs carrying two cookies each? Perfect for a packed lunch!

    What a great event! I will def. plan to be there again next year if SF is lucky enough to host the event again!

  13. Hi Michelle- Thanks for the update! I’ve heard nothing but good things about the Charlotte’s products- it’s really making me wish I had picked up a loaf or two. :D Those WF cookies are great, aren’t they? Just a shame they’re so pricey over here on the West Coast. I also love the small packs of Pamela’s cookies- such a great idea. A really good snack.

    It was truly a great event, and I would also love to go next year.

    -Sea

  14. [...] Mix Don’t despair if you missed the San Francisco Gluten-Free Cooking Spree! Check out my review here (and come next year, or go to one of the other Cooking Sprees scheduled across the country) [...]

  15. After reading your review, I checked out the NFCA website. They have one about 1.5 hours away from me in DC! When I told my daughter about the event, she nearly jumped out of her pants in joy. “You mean I wouldn’t have to be careful of anyone else’s crumbs? I can eat anything? We HAVE to go!!!!” So, I just registered. We’re going April 11th. I’ll let you know how it goes. And, thanks to all the comments here, I’ll be sure to watch for ingredient lists since she can’t have dairy.

    ~Mars

  16. I’m here in beautiful british columbia,Canada and was truly inspired by the artisan commitment and creativity of those of you meeting the foodie and comfort needs of celiacs. I do buy Pamela’s and spend a pay check here and there at Whole Foods just to get my fix. I’m a nutritionist and a chef, so I’m baking some specialty artisan foods to sample at different events and bring to our 2010 Olympics for athletes that may be celiac. Wish me luck.

  17. Thank you for doing such a thorough write up of the cooking spree you went to. I am on the East Coast and I just found out about the event in DC that is next weekend (April 11) and I bought tickets! Now after reading about all the foods you got to try I am even more excited to go and try new products. The Gluten Free world is getting tastier and tastier. I have suffered for so long like many of us have without much to eat at large events. I plan to do do a review on my blog as well when I get back. Happy eating!

  18. Hi!

    Was just reading through your site — your recipes look amazing! I printed a few out to try… Thanks!

    Also – the GF Cooking Spree is coming to Boston this September (yay!) and I’m going to get as involved as possible… I will have to post on my site, but your review was great.

    Also – Have you tried the Whole Foods Honey Oat Bread yet? I think it’s one of the closest tasting breads to real bread, no toasting needed — and it’s also not too fatty/high in calories!

  19. Hi Mars- Wonderful! I hope you had a great time with your adorable daughter.

    Lynn- Isn’t it great? I hope things go well for you at the Olympics.

    Hi Andrea- You are completely welcome- I’m so glad it was helpful to you and inspired you to attend an event!

    Hi Allie- thank you so much. Have fun at the cooking spree! I still haven’t tried the oat bread but think I may have to soon- it gets such great reviews!

    -Sea

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