Sunday, 7 October 2012

When gluten-free substitutes go bad

If you know me, or have read my blog, you'll know I don't waste much energy moaning about gluten-free food. The industry has moved on from concrete-blocks of bread and muddy-tasting pastas, towards fantastic gf baked goods, innovative recipes and products that are indiscernible from their wheaty brethren.

But this isn't to say that you don't occasionally find a gluten-free product so bizarre or tasteless that a hushed silence sweeps across the dining room table. It pains me to give a bad review to this couscous substitute, but I was almost in awe of how badly it turned out.

Couscous is a sneaky one for coeliacs. It doesn't immediately scream 'gluten' but it's made from a crushed form of wheat. It's not a forbidden carb that I've mourned - I tend to substitute quinoa if I fancy something with a couscousy texture, and I find saffron-tinged rice goes great with Moroccan style tagines. But I still snapped up a packet of gluten-free couscous-alike when I saw it on sale in a French supermarket. Made from 100% rice but with the fluffy texture of couscous: worth a try, right?

The first clue of a culinary disaster in the making was the cooking phase. Those plump little nodules of faux couscous seemed to disappear into a foaming mess of starchy water as soon as the temperature rose. Gluten-free pastas are sometimes guilty of being extra starchy, and needing an extra rinse to rid themselves of a gloopy coating, but this churning cloudy liquid was something else.

Worse, those couscous grains were impossible to free from the soapy-looking froth. My best effort to drain and strain the sticky stuff came to nothing. Nothing except ruining my shiny sieve and leaving me with an evening of brillo-padding the living hell out of the saucepans ruined by this tar-textured food experiment. It remained stubbornly soupy, and was so water-clogged it needed its own little ramekin to be served in, to stop it from splurging all over the rest of the plate, like a creeping evil slime.

Should have stuck with rice.
Pic by Effervescent Elephant,
CC Attribution-ShareAlike
And how did it taste? Like slimy, undrained rice. The whole cycle of effort behind this product felt painfully wasted. The manufacturers, grinding down rice and reforming it into couscous-style nubbins. Me, heating and draining and scrubbing pans. And the result was a vastly inferior version of the grain it was made from, lovely fluffy rice.

Maybe the lesson is that sometimes, the substitute you're looking for already exists. Serve up buckwheat, quinoa or rice, instead of chasing couscous. Your saucepans will thank you for it.

Have you ever had a truly awful gluten-free substitute? 
Or maybe you've had better luck with this couscous and can tell me where I went wrong? Let me know in the comments!