There isn't a speck of Italian blood in me. Allegedly. No blood lines (even faint ones) to trace back to Italy's flavor and culture rich boot. I claim no Italian grandmother with deft, gnarled hands who could roll out ravioli dough in her sleep. No puttering, gardening grandfather who offered me my first taste of a sun warmed tomato straight off the string-tied vine. We didn't have lasagna on our Thanksgiving table. Or baked ziti. My mother never mixed me an almond infused Italian soda after a rough day at school.
So why is Italian food- forever, for me- the ultimate comfort food? Hungry, angry, lonely, tired- what do I crave?
Spaghetti slick with garlicky olive oil. Bubbling hot lasagna. Fresh baked focaccia. Bruschetta. Risotto. Baked stuffed shells.
The tough part is- living gluten-free AND dairy-free can seriously crush your Italian gilded comfort food dreams.
Back in the day, there were no gluten-free lasagna noodles or stuff-able GF pasta shells (not in my neck of the woods, anyway). Though times have changed, pasta-wise- thank goddess. Most supermarkets now carry gluten-free pasta in all shapes and sizes. And if you cook it just right (in salted water, till al dente) and immediately drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil- most of it tastes mighty good. And if you are among the agriculturally evolved among us who can digest milk, your cheesy world still glitters with buttery glory (cream, butter, and cheese go a long way to improving the flavor of gluten-free recipes, let's be honest). But.
If- like yours truly- you have to live without the salty flavor punch of Parmesan or creamy tang of fresh goat cheese, comfort food can turn into one big, ho-hum yawn. Vegan cheese is no substitute (yes, I've tried them all). Unless your concept of cheese involves an aerosol can, plastic-shiny slices in peel-away shrink-wrap or orange powder you added to hot milk (no offense to corporate giant produced fake foods, or anything). In that case,
Maybe because I was lucky. I had two years of Home Economics class. I cooked my own whole milk white cheddar sauce for baked macaroni and cheese (the first thing I learned to cook, at 13, stirring a white roux with flour and unsalted butter). Post honeymoon I shaved velvet slivers of golden Parmesan from precious wedges of Italian Reggiano, thanks to two weeks in Italy. And I spoon-stuffed pasta shells with a classic blend of ricotta and shredded mozzarella thanks to an armful of hippie-vegetarian cookbooks.
So, yes, there are days I miss dairy food. Especially in winter.
And thus, began experimenting, inventing ways to make up for the loss of genuine cheesy goodness. The first part was easy. I turned to organic soft tofu for a ricotta substitute (my mainstay for years as a vegetarian goddess). I may as well admit I not only tolerate tofu, I love tofu. And lucky for me, this fermented bean curd stuff loves me, too (I know this is not the case for everyone- and for those of you with a milk allergy AND soy allergy, I truly feel your pain).
For the topping I use a blend of Italian seasoned bread crumbs (I use Udi's gluten-free white sandwich bread processed into crumbs with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and herbs) and almond meal (almond meal has a soft, powdery mouth feel faintly reminiscent of grated cheese) with sea salt for a salty-cheesier taste.
The latest version (created back in West Hollywood) was a winner- and we've been making it ever since. The family loves it. Even the gluten-eaters.
All I know is there is never a scrap left over.
Which as any cook knows, speaks volumes
Gluten-Free Baked Stuffed Shells RecipeRecipe posted January 2013 by Karina Allrich.
These gluten-free dairy-free Italian stuffed shells are lighter than traditional cheese-stuffed shells- and so fresh tasting. Chopped herbs, garlic, and crunchy bread crumbs work serious magic. This recipe is our current favorite comfort food. We make it once a week. Perfect for a chilly winter's night.
1 8-oz box gluten-free grand pasta shells
4 breakfast sized sweet Italian sausages, chopped
2 cups baby spinach leaves, stemmed
1 14-oz tub organic soft tofu, drained, pressed to release water
1 large free-range organic egg, beaten
2 tablespoons Vegenaise (just trust me)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon mild GF curry powder
Sea salt and ground pepper, to taste
16 ounces good marinara sauce (Italian red pasta sauce)
2 slices gluten-free sandwich bread, torn into several pieces
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
2-3 tablespoons almond meal
Sea salt, to taste
Chopped fresh parsley
Bring a large pot of salted water to a medium rolling boil, add the GF shells, lower the heat to medium-high and cook on high simmer for 6 minutes, gently stirring now and then, till softened but still firm. Drain well, separate the shells and set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 350º.
In a skillet, saute the sausage briefly, till golden and starting to brown a bit.
Rinse the spinach leaves and drain well. Add them to the sausages and stir till wilted; remove from heat.
Place the drained tofu in a bowl and use a potato masher to break up the tofu into "curds". Add in the egg, Vegenaise, parsley, nutmeg and curry. Stir briefly to combine. Season with sea salt and ground pepper, to taste.
Add in the sausage-spinach mixture and lightly stir.
Pour 3/4 cup marinara sauce into the bottom of a medium-sized baking dish and spread evenly.
Spoon the tofu mixture into the par-cooked shells and place them in the baking pan stuffing side up. Cover with remaining marinara sauce. (The sauce will help cook the partially cooked pasta shells.)
In a food processor, make the topping by processing the gluten-free bread into crumbs. Add in garlic, dried basil and thyme. Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil into the crumbs and pulse until the crumbs are moist and fall away from the sides of the processor.
Sprinkle the top of the sauced shells with the breadcrumb mixture.
Sprinkle with almond meal; season the topping with sea salt.
Sprinkle with extra chopped parsley.
That's a lot of sprinkling. Welcome to my world.
Cover with a piece of foil and bake in the center of the oven until the shells are tender, the stuffing is piping hot, and the sauce is bubbling.
Makes 4 generous servings.
Recipe Source: glutenfreegoddess.blogspot.com
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GFG Notes:Yes, you can use moo-cow dairy cheese instead; blend 14-ounces of ricotta cheese with a cup of shredded mozzarella, and use grated Parmesan on top.
If you must be egg-free, omit the egg from the filling.
To keep this vegan, omit the egg and Italian sausage. You might have a few unstuffed shells.