Eric Akis: Comfort food, hold the gluten, dairy

Eric Akis

A few readers have been asking me for a creamy pasta recipe with two caveats. Due to dietary concerns, it had to be free of gluten and dairy.

Obtaining pasta to create such a dish would not be a problem. Every grocery store these days sells gluten-free pasta made from gluten-free flour, such as rice, quinoa or corn flour.

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Making a sauce for that pasta that looked and tasted creamy without using dairy products would be tricky, though. For example, it would obviously exclude me from using the whipping cream and Italian-style cheeses I normally use when making pasta with alfredo sauce. I also could not use whole milk, thickened with a roux (flour and butter), as I would when making white sauce for macaroni and cheese.

I decided the place to start creating a creamy-style sauce for pasta that was dairy and gluten-free was to first choose a suitable liquid to anchor it. After considering products such as soy beverages and almond beverages, I opted to use a coconut beverage. Coconut beverage is more viscous than those products and has a creamy, cow’s milk-like white colour. And, unlike products such as canned coconut milk, and coconut water, it has quite a subtle coconut taste, which made it a fairly neutral base for my pasta sauce.

I lightly thickened that coconut beverage with some gluten-free cornstarch, which gave it a cream-like consistency. I also flavoured it, Italian-style, with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, red pepper flakes, oregano and basil.

For a cheesy taste without adding cheese, I stirred in some nutritional yeast flakes, a yellowy product made from yeast grown on molasses. The yeast is then removed from the molasses, heated and dried, which deactivates the yeast, giving it no frothing or leavening ability.

According to one producer, Bob’s Red Mill, nutritional yeast is a good source of B vitamins. More importantly, when it came to my recipe, it also has a naturally cheesy, nutty flavor, making it ideal for sprinkling on, or mixing into, savoury foods, such as popcorn, pizza and pasta.

You’ll find nutritional yeast for sale in bags, small containers and in bulk at health-food stores, many supermarkets and at bulk-food stores. When purchasing, just double check that it does not also contain whey, which some makers add to this product.

I was pleased with my creamy-style sauce. When I tossed in some gluten-free linguini, I found it to be as appealing as pastas I’ve made with whipping cream and cheese. Well, almost as good — I do love dairy products!

For added colour, taste and interest, I also added some snap peas and crispy bits of gluten-free, bacon-style salmon to my pasta. The latter is a flavourful, smoky/sweet, not overly fishy tasting, award-winning product made from wild salmon that’s formed into strips. It’s made by a B.C. company called Simply West Coast. For locations selling it, go to simplywestcoast.com.

Creamy-style Gluten-Free Linguini with Snap Peas and Bacon-style Salmon

The sauce for the linguini has a rich alfredo sauce-like taste, minus the cream and cheese normally used to make it. Make a nice dinner by serving the pasta with a simple green salad topped with a selection of raw vegetables.

Preparation: 20 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Makes: Three to four servings

1 (340 gram) box gluten-free linguini (see Note 1)

2 Tbsp plus 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil (divided)

4 to 6 strips bacon-style salmon, cut into small cubes (see Note 2)

2 cups unsweetened coconut beverage (see Note 3)

2 Tbsp gluten-free cornstarch

1 to 2 large garlic cloves, minced

1/2 tsp dried oregano

• pinch red pepper flakes

1/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes, plus some for sprinkling

32 to 40 snap peas, blanched (see Note 4)

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 chopped fresh basil or Italian parsley

Bring six litres of lightly salted water to a boil in a large pot.

While it comes to temperature, heat 2 tsp of the oil in a skillet set over medium, to medium-high heat. Add the bacon-style salmon and cook until crispy, about three minutes. Drain the bacon-style salmon on paper towel and set aside for now.

When the water is boiling, add the pasta, return to a boil, and cook until just tender, about nine minutes. Stir the pasta occasionally during cooking to ensure each piece separates from each other.

While the pasta cooks, place the remaining 2 Tbsp oil in a 12-inch-wide skillet or shallow pot set over medium heat. As the oil heats up, place the coconut beverage and cornstarch in a bowl and whisk to combine.

When the oil is hot, add the garlic, oregano and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 60 seconds.

Add coconut beverage mixture to the skillet, bring to a simmer and simmer until mixture lightly thickens, about one minute. Add the 1/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes and whisk to dissolve them into the sauce. Add the bacon-style salmon and snap peas. Season the sauce with salt and pepper and then reserve on low heat.

When the pasta is cooked, reserve 1/3 cup of its cooking liquid, then drain the pasta well. Add the pasta to the sauce with the basil (or parsley), toss to combine and let it cook 30 seconds more. Thin the pasta with some of the reserved pasta water, if you find that it’s not saucy enough.

Divide the pasta between bowls. Serve pasta with additional nutritional yeast flakes, for sprinkling on at the table.

Note 1: I used Catelli brand gluten-free linguini when testing this recipe.

Note 2: Strips of Simply West Coast bacon-style salmon are sold frozen. Thaw before using. I bought it at Thrifty Foods.

Note 3: Coconut milk beverage is sold at most supermarkets in the aisle where other beverages, such as soy and almond, are sold. Don’t confuse it with thicker canned coconut milk or thinner canned coconut water.

Note 4: To blanch snap peas, plunge into boiling water for one minute. Lift out of the water, cool in cold water, and then drain well. You can blanch the peas in the boiling pasta water before cooking the linguini in it.

Eric’s options: For a simpler, alfredo-style linguini, omit the snap peas and bacon-style salmon from this recipe. Or replace those ingredients with others that appeal more, such as frozen peas, blanched small broccoli florets, small shrimp, crab meat, small cubes of cooked chicken, regular bits of crisply cooked bacon or any other item you think will work here.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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