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31 August 2005

the first apple of the season

first apple, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Today is the last day of August. Sigh.

I know that here in the US, most people mark the end of summer by Labor Day weekend, which starts on Friday. And somewhere in September, there will be the ephemeral flare of brilliant warmth and clear light of Indian summer, and everyone will pretend it’s still summertime. But for me, the last day of August really marks the end of summer.

Tomorrow, I have my first meeting for school. Granted, it will be on the piazza in Daniel’s garden, with three other team members, all of whom I love. We’ll eat rice crackers and tapenade, fresh pesto on brown rice pasta, and beautiful fruit salad. (Daniel has been a vegan for 28 years, and of course, I can’t eat gluten, so cooking for the two of us together makes everything interesting.) I’ll make some of my kalamata-olive hummus, which Daniel loves so much that I promised him, for his birthday present, to make him a batch every week. And there will be great wine, because Daniel insists on the best. We’ll laugh. But still, we’ll be working out the plan for 11th-grade Humanities for the year. And school will soon begin.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a high school Humanities teacher, as well as being a writer and lover of food. Humanities means that I teach 20th-century American history and literature, creative writing, and journalism. I adore teaching—I bring to it the same passion and sense of exploration that I bring to this website’s endeavours—but it certainly is a different life than the one I live during the summer. In the summer, I sleep in late, spend hours writing to my heart’s delight, and sail through the days in the sunlight. And this summer, in particular, has been brilliant. Finally healthy, after years of mystery exhaustion and illnesses, I have been kayaking, biking, hiking, swimming, and smiling through it.

And best of all, my favorite new love—this blog. I’ve been keeping it for everyone who cannot eat gluten, because there’s no reason to despair, and I want to show people what a joy this can be. And for everyone who loves food, and the deeply creative process of making it every day. I realized this morning that I have written a post every day in August, each about 1000 words, some more. This means that I have written over 30,000 words in one month. And I’ve never been happier.

So of course, when I woke up this morning and realized it is the last day of August, I felt a little sigh of melancholy. It’s nearly over. All these days of freedom.

roast chicken with figs

But then I opened up the box of organic foods I found on my doorstep yesterday evening, after a glorious long hike in the mountains. Last night, two friends came over, and we made roast chicken with figs, spontaneously, concocting a recipe with the fruit and vegetables we found on the top layer of the box. But this morning, I started exploring more. And I found this apple.

This is a Sansa apple, from the Columbia Gorge, the first apple crop of the season. Delicate and pink, it is wonderfully crisp, with a gentle apple taste. The color struck me so fully that I stopped to take a photograph before I took my first bite. And then something else struck me: the tastes of fall.

And suddenly I imagined the air growing cooler, and the heat of the oven no longer seeming like an intrusion. My mouth imagined the taste of butternut squash soup with ginger and toasted almonds. Roast pork with apples and sauerkraut. Roasted garlic, potatoes, and fennel. Pumpkin bread (gluten-free, of course). And the joy of shopping for the vegetables in season at the Market, sniffing and testing. Coming home from a day of work, feeling good about teaching teenagers just a little bit more about how to write well, then chopping and singing in the kitchen, a new soup bubbling away on the stove, and the smell of something unexpected wafting from the oven.

And I was fine. Happiness, for me, comes from opening my arms and welcoming the world, all of it, as it arrives. Summer may be slipping away, but I’m ready to greet the fall.

All from the taste of an apple.

Afterwards, I opened up my email, to find dozens of new messages. And a quick check of perhaps my favorite blogger in the world, Clotilde of Chocolate and Zucchini. Imagine my surprise to find my own website listed on hers! Today is Blog Day—around the world, we’re all recommending five blogs we have been reading lately. Clotilde recommended mine. To be honest (at the risk of sounding silly), I bounced up and down on the exercise ball I use as my office chair. I felt like a teenybopper, excited by a letter from her favorite rock star. (For those of you in the US, of a certain age, imagine Marcia Brady, thrilled to find that the lead singer from the Monkees was going to play at her prom!) I cannot express how grateful I am to be listed on her blog. And for the hundreds of new people who have been stopping by because of her recommendation, welcome. I hope you come by again.

So, I don’t know if my recommendations will mean as much to anyone else, but here are five of the food blogs I’ve been reading lately. (These on top of the ones I recommended on Friday.) I’m sure they’re not new, as I’m pretty new to this. Maybe you’ve all seen them before. Still, I’ve been enjoying them for their photographs, writing, recipes, and clear personalities:

Chubby Hubby: This sumptuous blog is written by a Singapore foodie with exquisite taste. Based on the luscious photographs, the endless array of impeccable dishes, and the baking training in Vienna, life in that house in Singapore is pretty great.

Cook Sister!: It's not just that she lives in London (where I lived twice), and loves her native South Africa (where I've always wanted to visit) that draws me to this wonderful woman. I also love the way she saluted the world's oldest food blogger lately. And like me, she seems to participate in every food blog competition there is! But mostly, I love the way she connects me to Africa through her blog. AND, she hosts EoMEoTE (End of Month Eggs on Toast Event) every month. How can you not love this woman?

Delicious Days: Nicky and Oliver in Munich seem to take the same pure delight in perusing food that I do. The photographs are stunning. The close-up shot of a stack of pancakes dripping with pure maple syrup made my mouth water more than any other food shot I've seen online. Oh my. And they made homemade apple crullers for the frying competition!

I'm Mad and I Eat: First of all, how can you not love the title of this blog? Cookiecrumb, who lives outside of San Francisco, considers herself a happy, tomato-ranchin' bum, and I don't see why not. Beautiful photographs and a clean design make this site easy on the eyes. And I love how she understands that how we eat is actually a political act.

Prepare to Meet Your Bakerina: I know, I must be a glutton for punishment, perusing a site that regularly extols the virtues of baked goods, with photographs illustrating exactly what I can't have. But I'll learn how to adapt all this wonderful woman's recipes. I love her plucky spirit and the wonderful, open grin on her profile photo. With her trips to the farmers' markets and dedication to making pies, she reminds me a little of myself. Aren't we always drawn to that?

With all this fabulous reading on my computer screen, and new apples to eat (and make into apple paste--see below), how could I be melancholy about the end of summer?

APPLE PASTE, from Chez Panisse Fruit, p. 13

3 pounds of apples (about 8 medium)
1 1/2 cups of sugar, plus more for tossing
juice of one lemon

Wash the apples, quarter them, and cut them into one-inch chunks; they don't need to be peeled or cored. Put the apples in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pot and add water to a depth of about 1/4 inch. Cover and cook the apples over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the fruit is soft and starting to break down, about 15 minutes. Pass the mixture through a food mill or sieve.

Return the puree to the pot and add the sugar. Simmer over low heat, stirring constantly, for about 1 hour, cooking the mixture into a paste. the mixture should be thick and hold a mounding shape; large bubbles should appear. If the mixture starts to stick to the pan before the texture is right, turn off the heat and let it rest for a few minutes before stirring again; when you do, the part sticking to the bottom will release. When the misture is cooked to the right consistency, stir in the lemon juice and remove from the heat.

Line a shallow pan measureing at least 8 by 10 inches with parchment paper. Lightly oil the paper with light vegetable or almond oil. Pour the past onto the paper-lined pan, spreading it into an 8-by-10 inch rectangle, about 1/4-inch thick. When it has cooled completely, invert the sheet of paste onto another piece of parchment paper. Carefully peel off the upper, oiled parchment paper. Let the paste dry uncovered overnight. (It if it not firm enough to cut at this point, try drying it out in the oven for an hour at 150°, or the lowest setting.) Once the paste is firm and cool, cut it into 1-inch-square pieces. Store uncovered in a dry place. Just before serving, toss the pieces to coat them with sugar. Keeps for one week.

30 August 2005

Feeling like Mr. Rogers

Ener-G donut holes, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Do you remember watching those Mr. Rogers’ episodes where he led his television audience through a factory that made toys or bass cellos or our favorite foods? I loved those. And last week, when I visited the Ener-G foods warehouse and company store, I felt like I was in the middle of a Mr. Rogers episode. In the best way, of course.

A few weeks ago, Kathy from Ener-G Foods emailed me. She’d been reading this site, and she liked it, but she was disappointed to find that Ener-G Foods wasn’t on my links list. This was, I assured her, a simple oversight on my part. I already loved Ener-G Foods. In fact, when I was handed my celiac diagnosis, their sesame pretzel rings were the first gluten-free food I ate that gave me hope about my new diet.


I bought a package at Fred Meyer, along with a dozen other packages of gluten-free foods in their impressive little section. Afterwards, on the way to the Flying Apron bakery to buy some gluten-free treats, I was stuck for a long time at a stoplight. Impatient and a little hungry, I rustled around in the shopping bag on the seat to my right and grabbed out the small bag and opened it. Tentatively, of course. The first gluten-free replacement foods I tried at first were a little dusty, a little dry, a little disappointing. And I love pretzels. So I popped one in my mouth, determined to set my face with false appreciation and reassure myself, “Oh, this won’t be so bad.” I wish I had a picture of my face in that moment. Pure, joyful surprise. Small and studded with sesame seeds, these pretzels are better than replacements. They’re fabulous. In fact, at this point, after having eaten, oh, say forty bags of them, I can say this safely: these are my favorite pretzels of all time. No exceptions.

And so, I emailed Kathy back, telling her this, and fixing my links list that night. So when Kathy wrote back to me, asking if I wanted to come down to the plant for a tour, I jumped at the chance.

Ener-G food outside

I always imagined that food production warehouses would be mechanical places, sterile, run by chemists in white coats. Maybe most of them are. But Ener-G foods, which is down in the industrial warehouse section of Seattle, long past Safeco field, is friendly and accessible. In fact, after buying their foods and looking at their website, I expected a gargantuan place. I couldn’t believe how small and human it was. When I realized that this is the nation’s largest producer of gluten-free foods, I was even more astonished at how homey and comfortable it is. With only forty employees, the office felt more like a family room than a workplace. And Kathy turned out to be one of the natural, honest people I’ve ever met, open and full of stories. And lord knows I love stories. She’s been working for the company for over fifteen years, lately as the distribution manager. And she can eat gluten, so she doesn’t have to eat this food. But she still does. To a point. “If one of my customers calls in to order food, and wants one I don’t think tastes good, I’ll tell them.” You have to love that.

Kathy told me about the groups of people she works with who need to eat gluten-free. It’s not just celiacs, after all. Parents of autistic children are increasingly putting their kids on a gluten-free diet. They’ve realized that, for reasons we are just starting to understand, gluten works on people with autism like a drug. “Like heroin,” Kathy told me. It addles their minds, makes them lose their focus, and only aggravates what is already going on. (And this makes sense to me, because when I was at the height of my celiac suffering, I felt as though I walked around in a brain fog at all times.) Of course, the medical community is only just starting to understand this, slowly. Mostly, parents have to network among themselves to spread the word. They organize conferences across the country, to share ideas of what works. Kathy goes to almost all of them, and she’s built up a network of connections and friends this way. She’s also the company’s liason for people who suffer from PKU, which is about 1 out of 2000 people in the US. Born without an enzyme necessary to digest protein, those with PKU must not eat meat, cheese, eggs, or tofu. And gluten, being high in protein, is off limits as well. So Ener-G foods isn’t just a food company. For some people, it’s a vital part of life.

One of the parts I love most about this food journey I’m on is meeting people like this, hearing their stories, and learning how to help. Writing this blog is an enormous amount of fun, more every day. But for the most part, I’m keeping it to help people. And I like food companies that are doing the same.

So Kathy gave me a tour of the warehouse. She showed me the enormous mixers required to spin the gluten-free dough into bread and cookies, as large as small cars. Everything made in the factory is completely gluten-free, so there’s never any cross-contamination, and most of it is free of dairy and other allergens. It’s clear the company, founded by a father, now run by his son, is dedicated to making life more comfortable for people with food intolerances. People like me. We walked through the rooms with enormous ovens, which work nonstop, 24 hours a day, to make loaves of yeast-free bread (for those suffering from candida), tapioca loaves, and the new flaxseed bread they are developing. She showed me the delivery room, where they send out shipments to all different parts of the country. Another plant on the East Coast handles their European deliveries, which are multitudinous. And they’ve even been sending shipments to Iraq, where kids with PKU have no supplies. I guess I had never thought of that.

My favorite room, however, and the one most like the Mr. Rogers show, was the one where two men were packaging Egg Replacer. Used by people with PKU and vegans alike, this egg substitute powder fell down from the ceiling in a snaking tube, plashed into a plastic bag, and was then sealed and shoved into a box, which was then closed. All by little mechanical hands, in methodical fashion. I could have stood there for hours, watching the white dust rise up, the rhythmic sway of the pushing and sealing. Whoever invented that was pretty damned cool.

And so was my visit to Ener-G foods. It impressed me to see so many (how do I say this without it sounding weird) non-white faces in the place. After all, Seattle can look pretty homogenous. But the head baker was a small Vietnamese man with a kind face, and he’s been working there for twenty years. I saw men from Africa and women from Asia. When I asked Kathy about it, she told me the company makes a point of hiring people from the International Rescue Committee, so they can give people new to the country their first jobs. The man from Afghanistan they brought over two years ago was able to bring his family to the country this year, and now they are expecting another child.

Ener-G cookie

As we walked back to the front of the warehouse, I was surprised to see how full the display shelves were of foods I had never seen. Strangely, Ener-G foods seems to not have great distribution to Seattle grocery stores, so most of their tastiest foods were a mystery to me. But no longer. Now, I can just drive down to 1st Avenue South and buy myself some cookies. On that day, I didn’t have to, though. Kathy grabbed a plastic bag when we walked through the warehouse and loaded it up with warm cookies for me. They were scrumptious: soft, pure chocolate flavor, and no strange aftertaste, the way I sometimes feel other gluten-free cookies have. And they were just as good two days later, which I know because I forced myself not to eat them all in the car.

Here are some of my favorite Ener-G products:

°cinnamon crackers. Thin, slightly sweet but not too much so, with a real crunch. These are wonderfully unusual.

°corn bread. Not the thick cornbread we think of with chili, but a loaf of bread made with corn. It’s a solid white bread, just okay when cold. But put it in the toaster, and you’ll find the magic elixir: a good, gluten-free bread that crunches when you toast it.

°doughnut holes. Are you kidding me? I thought I’d never eat doughnuts again. I followed Kathy’s advice and put these in the microwave for thirty seconds, and sprinkled them with a little powdered sugar. I had to hide them from myself before I ate them all.

°raisin bread. Dense and moist, studded with raisins, this makes an impeccable French toast.

°granola. Another revelation. Other commercially produced granola is off limits, because of the oats. But this is free of anything suspicious. Made mostly of dates, it’s pretty rich. One-quarter cup on top of good yogurt will do it. But it hit the spot. Also, I've just realized I can use it as a substitute for oats in crisps and crumbles.

As you know, if you’ve been reading this blog, 90% of the time, I like fresh food I made myself, from scratch, from local, organic ingredients, dense with taste and free of guilt. (Except, perhaps, for the butter and cheese.) But sometimes a girl just needs a snack. And these are good ones.

Ener-G foods

I have to be honest and tell you this: before I left, Kathy loaded me up with a box of free food. Smart idea, because now I’m recommending some to you. But I would have done that, on my own, even if she hadn’t given them to me for free. I really believe in this company, and my taste buds don’t lie.

Still, this isn’t a bad gig, really. Meeting great people, learning new facts, and free food!

Mr. Rogers would be proud.

GRANOLA-GINGER COOKIES (from the Ener-G website)

Makes 36-48 cookies
1 cup of dark brown sugar
1/2 cup of butter or margarine
1/4 cup of shortening
1 egg
1-3/4 cup OF Ener-G Rice Mix 20 oz box
1-1/2 tsp of ginger
1 tsp of cinnamon
1/2 tsp of cloves
1/2 tsp of salt
1 tsp of baking powder
1 cup of Ener-G Granola Mix

°Cream the brown sugar, butter or margarine and the shortening together. Beat in the egg. Mix well and set aside.
°Stir together the Rice Mix, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, salt and baking powder. Mix the dry into the butter/shortening mixture. Stir well and add granola. Drop by teaspoonful unto lightly greased cookie sheet. When done allow to sit on cookie sheet for 3 minutes to cool. Cool on plates.
°Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.

29 August 2005

grilled cheese with amaranth leaves

grilled cheese deluxe, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I love how meandering in the market can change the way I eat.

Yesterday, when Meri and I were at the Ballard farmers’ market, I walked by a stand selling Chinese spinach. Leafy green like spinach, but thinner, more ornate. And in the middle of each leaf, a burst of purple, a splotch of color unlike anything I had ever seen. Three stalls down, another pile of the unusual greens. Apparently, they came into season this week, because every third stall was selling them. I had never seen them before, but I knew I had to have some. Fascinated, I asked the young girl behind the table where these came from, originally. She shrugged her shoulders; she didn’t know. I handed her a dollar bill and took it home, determined to find out.

Chinese spinach

Thank goodness for the internet. Thanks to a fabulous website called the Cook’s Thesaurus, I was able to locate Chinese spinach almost immediately, along with a photograph of it. There it was. And when I started reading, I was even more excited. Amaranth? Chinese spinach is actually the leaves of one species of the amaranth plant, the same plant that produces the gluten-free grain I’ve most been wanting to try.

Amaranth was first grown domestically seven thousand years ago, in Mexico. For the Aztecs, it was a sacred grain, used in almost every aspect of their lives. Historians believe it was as important as maize to the Aztecs—they used it to feed themselves, their animals, and their blood sacrifices. At least, the Conquistadores claimed that the Aztecs used amaranth in ritualistic killings, mixing amaranth, lime, and blood to form little idols that would be eaten in the middle of ceremonies. Is this true? We’ll never know for sure. And it’s not clear if the Conquistadores made it a crime to grow amaranth or simply looked down upon it. Clearly, they didn’t approve, because amaranth nearly disappeared forever over the next century. If it hadn’t been grown secretly on farms high on the Andes or in hidden pockets of Mexico, amaranth would no longer exist in the world.

But I’m glad it does. This grain fascinates me. I have to admit that I’m actually quite humbled by how little I really knew about food before I was handed my celiac diagnosis. Eating gluten-free is forcing me to look outside my own little sphere of knowledge and reach out to the rest of the world. As I have done so, the world feels wider and smaller at the same time. And I love learning that, and sharing that with you.

In my research on the grain this morning, I learned that amaranth is actually eaten all over the world, especially in some of the poorer places. In Nepal, people mill amaranth flour to make chapatis, which they eat daily. People in Peru have learned how to make beer out of amaranth. (At the rate I’m going, I’ll probably start making it soon!) And in Ecuador, women drink a distilled liquid of amaranth grain to regulate their menstrual cycle. It’s no wonder that amaranth grows so prolifically in those countries—each plant can produce 40,000 to 60,000 seeds, making it an economically efficient crop. It’s high in iron and fiber, as well as being a complete protein. Wow. I’m starting to wonder why Americans are so stuck in a rut with wheat. It’s about the least-interesting grain in the world.

I also found a wonderful company called Nu-World, which sells amaranth products. It has all the qualities I love in food producers: a family-run business, which keeps health in mind, tries to help people, and produces food that tastes great. Here’s a quote from their website:

Amaranth, though an ancient food and a staple of the Aztecs, was introduced into this country about 20 years ago by the National Academy of Sciences who researched over 400 foods that had been in humankind’s food supply. They reported that amaranth, because of its incredible nutrition and flavor, would be an outstanding food source for today.

Enter, Larry Walters, Food Scientist and principal Founder of Nu-World Amaranth Inc. Larry was introduced to amaranth by John Rodale who sponsored a food industry conference on amaranth. At that time there was 100% market potential but a US production base of 0% and 0% worldwide availability. Amaranth was not ready for the consumer food market! Larry saw the benefits of amaranth as a nutrition boost to the US diet though. He decided to experiment with raising it, got seed from John Rodale (Rodale Press) and he and his brother, Terry grew a few acres. The following spring a story appeared in Organic Gardening Magazine listing them as one of four growers in this country. As a result of that article, Larry and Diane’s (his wife) mail box was inundated with people who wanted to buy it, grow it and learn more about it! That’s how our business began.

I’m going to look for some of their products at PCC the next time I go.

popped amaranth cereal

But in the meantime, luckily, I had some amaranth on my pantry shelves, since I had bought some in bulk a couple of weeks ago. And I remembered reading a recipe in The Splendid Grain for popped amaranth cereal. Always on the look for a whole-grain breakfast to take the place of my oatmeal, I turned on the stove and waited for my skillet to heat up almost to the point of smoking. When it grew so hot I thought I’d set off the smoke alarm the next minute, I threw in 1/4 cup of the tiny amaranth seeds and waited to see what would happen. I didn’t have to wait long. They began popping, jumping off the skillet, dancing and fluttering. The smell that wafted to my nose made me pop a little too. It smelled a bit like popcorn, with more warmth, woody, a little more depth. The entire kitchen smelled of it, like I had made an entire meal. (And when I returned from the swimming pool, hours later, I could still smell it as I walked up the stairs to my house.) I couldn’t wait to eat it. I find that I love foods that make me feel like I’m playing, like a kid, when I cook it. And this is definitely one. After about two minutes, most of the grains were toasted a darker brown, letting off this delicious smell. And the rest had stopped popping. I spooned the hot grains into my favorite red bowl, filled it with soy milk, a tablespoon of maple syrup, and a a few spoonfuls of my blackberry jam. And ate. Ah, the decadence. It doesn’t taste like anything else I have ever eaten. I can really taste the little seeds in my mouth, and they are crunchy and mushy at the same time. Easy going down, but quite clearly a whole grain, as well. And all morning, afterwards, I felt energized and clean.

I’m having more tomorrow.

blackberry jam

(And oh, yes, I made that blackberry jam last night. I finally redeemed myself—Meri and I went out picking yesterday afternoon, after the farmers’ market, at Discovery Park. And yes, my hands were stained purple and filled with scratches from thorns. And the plastic bags we used to hold the berries leaked little drops of juice, which are still splattered on my floor. The first batch we made turned out great, because we used Sure-Jell, which provides the easiest jam-making experience I can imagine. But when we realized we had enough berries for more jars, I ran across the street to Ken’s for more Sure-Jell and found only Pomona Pectin. Maybe I’m not good enough to use this stuff, but it seems extraordinarily too complicated. And inadequate. Those jars have little chunks of congealed pectin in them, so only Meri and I can eat them. But the first batch are ready for toast tomorrow. Come on over.)

And so, for lunch, I wanted more amaranth, the leaves this time.

It’s starting to be autumn around here. Oh, the day outside my window is gloriously blue-skied, but there are giant, puffy clouds blotting out parts of the blue. The heat is thinner than it was in July. And last night, as we were making jam, Meri and I looked out the window and noticed it was dark. At 8:30 pm. Damn. Don’t get me wrong—I love autumn too. I love the crisp air, the fresh crop of apples, the coziness of sweaters. But the start of fall means the start of school. And I’m just not ready to go back to teaching yet. Oh, I don't want to talk about it yet.

But this celiac diagnosis is a blessing in disguise, in so many ways. And among other lessons, it’s only reaffirming what I had learned in the rest of my life: accept life as it arises. Don’t deny it. Dance with it instead. So the air outside the window is cooler than it was before, and Emily Dickinson’s certain slant of light is coming through too. That just means it’s time for grilled cheese sandwiches.

Slashfood is hosting yet another blog competition, this one for grilled cheese sandwiches. I just can’t resist the chance to participate again. Now, according to the various lists I consult online, American cheese is gluten-free. Or can be, depending on the manufacturer. But after making popped amaranth for breakfast, I couldn’t just have a mainstream sandwich. So here’s what I did:

I toasted some Food for Life raisin-pecan bread first, because GF bread can be a little hard to brown. (It's also denser than regular bread, and quite small, about half the size of a regular piece of bread, so this is a condensed sandwich.) I spread the thickened, leftover blackberry sauce I made the other day on one side, then piled little slices of gooey brie, some soft goat cheese with herbs made by Les Fromages D'Anne Marie, a local, artisan cheese maker, and a half-goat, half-sheep's milk cheese that tastes a little like Havarti, made by the same local cheesemaker. I piled on some of the amaranth leaves (or Chinese spinach, as you’ll find it at farmers’ markets). Put the other piece of bread on. And then, I just rubbed a small smidgen of butter over the bread. Actually, I just ran the end of the cube over the bread. Because it's already toasted, I use less butter that way. (Of course, this isn't a low-fat sandwich!) And then I put it in the sautee pan on medium, and put a souffle dish on top of it to flatten it a bit. (Don't laugh. It was the closest heavy object at hand.) Eight minutes later, and I had to restrain myself from eating it, because I had to take pictures first.

I have to say: it was damned good.

So there you have it, my adventures with amaranth. But not quite, because I'm planning on using the rest of the leaves tonight, in a stir-fry with tofu and the organic zucchini I bought at the market yesterday too. I love how much I look forward to the next meal.....

28 August 2005

the satisfying crunch of homemade potato chips

quite a few potato chips, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Obviously, I’m in a potato mood.

A few days ago, it was the potato gratin. A couple of days before that, it was some gorgeous horseradish potatoes at Buckley’s, on lower Queen Anne, so rich and happily gluten-free that I made noises as I ate. (That could also have something to do with the medium-rare rib-eye that was perched on top of the potatoes.) And this morning? Well....

Did you know that most commercially produced potato chips have gluten on them? Certainly, the salt and vinegar chips are always going to be gluten-filled, because the malt in the malt vinegar comes from barley. That’s two ways I can’t eat fish and chips in England anymore, and that makes me a little sad. No standing in front of the little takeaway just off the Camden Town tube stop, shaking my fingers from the heat and grease, gulping down chunks of flaky, breaded fish and thick-cut chips with an ounce of malt vinegar and about a pound of salt. When I lived in Highgate with the CFP, I used to get off the tube, late at night, a few stops early, just to buy those fish and chips. Eating salt and vinegar chips (crisps in England, of course) always makes me remember those moments. But now, I can never have them again.

But it turns out that I can’t eat most potato chips either. Or at least, I have to tread carefully. Because some companies, like Frito-Lay, publish lists of gluten-free products online. (Thank goodness for the internet, on so many levels. Having to live gluten-free is infinitely easier with google than it must have been fifteen years ago.) But when I scan them, I see some varieties are gluten-free. But most are not. Terra Chips, the gourmet chips with exotic vegetables, should be gluten-free. But some of the varieties are not. I learned that the hard way, earlier this summer. Tim’s Cascade chips, which I believe are the best-tasting, packaged potato chips in the world, have quite a few gluten-free varieties (phew), but some are not. Did you know that the bulk of potato chips have wheat starch on them? Probably to make the flavorings stick. Most of us don’t care. I know I didn’t, for years. But now, I need to care. So many of us do. And if I want to buy potato chips, I have to go to the supermarket with a printed-out list of products I can eat. This sort of takes the spontaneity out of it. After all, eating potato chips is only a sometime indulgence anyway. (Or at least it should be.)

So this morning, in honor of the latest food blog competition, hosted by the lovely Linda, from At Our Table, I decided to make my own potato chips. Why not? If they’re going to be an occasional indulgence, why not truly enjoy the indulgence?

As with everything else I have made this summer, I’m shocked at how uncomplicated and satisfying is the process of making foods by hand that I have only ever bought before.

Thanks to my handy mandoline, it’s easy to slice the potatoes fairly thin. I had a Yukon gold potato, a red-skinned potato, and a sweet potato. Why not mix? `

potatoes in water

It’s important, I found out from reading, to soak the potato slices in water. This way, they slough off their starchiness. Why is this important? Well, according to Meri, when she makes her tortilla de patatas, the dish comes out creamy from the starch. But the starch would just make a potato chip flubby. And no one wants a flubby potato chip.

Meri came over to help me. We were going to the Ballard Farmers’ Market later, our little paean to late summer, meandering around the market, marveling at the varieties of tomatoes and peaches. But when I told her I was making potato chips from scratch, for the first time, she jumped at the chance to help. “I remember my grandmothers making potato chips,” she told me. One lived in the Bronx. The one who lived in Ecuador made her chips over a coal stove. I love that cooking connects me to the rest of the world. What I wouldn’t give to see what Meri has seen: strolling the streets of Riobamba, watching women cut slices of potato and flipping them into black cauldrons full of hot oil, then serving them to you, immediately.

According to stories told for centuries, the first potato chips sold in the United States were made by a Native American chef named George Crum, in a fancy lodge in upstate New York. Some wealthy customer (supposedly Cornelius Vanderbilt) complained that his fried potatoes were too thick. The chef made them thinner, but that plate was sent back too. To spite the customer, Crum sliced the potatoes impossibly thin, so thin that the customer’s fork was sure to shatter the potato, and thus ruin his dining experience. However, Rich Guy loved them. That’s how the potato chip was born.

Thank you, Mr. Crum.

potato chips frying

So Meri and I dried off potato slices with paper towels, while we listened to Daler Mehndi and danced in the kitchen. I threw some safflower oil in my trusty skillet and waited for it to heat. There. Finally. I had no idea just how much joy I would take in hearing the sizzle of potatoes in the skillet. We watched them curl and buckle, turning darker as they heated. (And once again, I’m struck by the thought: how many chemicals must be in packaged food to keep them all such perfect blond yellow?) I kept asking Meri, like a little child, “Do you think they’re ready yet? Are they ready?” Thank goodness for her patience and experience. She persuaded me to wait a few more moments.

lots of potato chips

The first batch was fantastic. The second batch was even better, because the oil was scalding hot. And by the third batch of potato chips—golden; dark brown; shriveled, imperfect; studded with sea salt and pepper; slithering with taste; absolutely right—I had made my decision. I’m never buying another bag of potato chips. Who needs them, when I can make my own, one perfect chip?

potato chip

I’m lucky I stopped to take pictures of the chips on the counter by the skylights. Because they didn’t last long. I’m pretty sure Meri and I ate them all within five minutes. And we walked around the Ballard market afterwards, sighing with happiness.

Ballard farmers' market glorious


This Spanish dish, sliced and topped with aioli, would be great for a tapas meal.

--one large white onion, chopped fine
--2 1/2 pounds of Yukon Gold or Russet potatoes, peeled, and sliced 1/4-inch thick
--8 eggs, beaten
--1/4 cup of olive oil
--salt and white pepper to taste

°Saute the onions in the oil, until translucent.
°Drain the oil from the onions with a sieve.
°Keep the remaining oil to cook the potatoes.
°Fry the potatoes until they are golden-brown.
°Let the onions and potatoes cool on separate plates.
°Mix the potatoes and onions in with the beaten eggs.
°Transfer the mixture to a cast-iron skillet. On medium to low heat, cook the mixture until the potato, onion, and eggs are set.
°With a large, flat plate covering the skillet, flip the pan, then move the mixture back into the skillet, with the bottom side up.
°Cook until brown.

Eat away, my dears.

27 August 2005

look what I had for breakfast

broiled figs, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

The more I cook, the more I want to cook. It’s a self-regenerating process, deeply creative, and also fairly addictive. Thank goodness I’m addicted to figs, slow-roasted tomatoes, and fresh goat cheese instead of some other substance. And as I keep noticing, and remarking on in here, I’m paradoxically less addicted to food than ever before. As with most American women, I went through a chunk of years eating for emotional reasons, never truly tasting my food, stuffing myself for some other reason than pleasure. But now, I want every taste to be exquisite. I don’t want a single taste to be wasted. And when I insist on mindfulness in the kitchen, everything else glows, gloriously.

Case in point? Take a look at what I had for breakfast this morning.

In those years before my celiac diagnosis, food would often languish in the refrigerator. I’d plan elaborately for a big meal, and then be too physically exhausted by the process to cook any more for days. Vegetables would shrink into themselves in the crisper drawer. The corners of hunks of cheese would start to crack from dryness. And leftovers would wither into some strange concoction that would make me turn my head and wince when I went to throw it out. I wasted food, and I always felt guilty.

Not anymore.

First of all, I’ve really adopted the European village method of shopping. Daily jaunts to my favorite little stores—A & J Meats for meats and eggs; Wild Salmon Seafood Market for all my fish; McCormick's for choice wine purchases; the Market for fruit and veg on days when there are no farmers’ markets going on—instead of one big shop on a Sunday. I waste less food this way. But more importantly, I’m also more creative this way. Figs are fresh today? Okay, I’ll come up with something for those.

This morning, I found the leftover figs from the dinner party on Thursday. I should have used them yesterday, but I was too busy grinning at the Rufus Wainwright concert (ah, that boy’s voice) to make dinner last night. In fact, I just brought the lefttovers from the party as a picnic with my friends, Daniel and Jeff. They were suitably impressed, and then perhaps a little overwhelmed, as I pulled one dish after another from my big black bag. It was a good night.

But when I woke up this morning, and the coffee was brewing, I saw the figs. And thought of Christa.

I first met Christa at the door of a penthouse apartment on 66th and 5th in Manhattan. I had just been sent by the tutoring agency—where I was working at the time, tutoring child actors on movie sets—to be the emergency substitute weekend nanny for the year-old child of a famous movie actor. I was a writer, tutor, and book editor, broke after a summer, because no kid has to study during the summer. So of course I took the job. I had no idea that babysitting would lead to a book-editing gig. This is how I met the Crazy Famous People (CFP for short), to whom I allude sometimes. Through these strange circumstances, I became the editor of a destined-to-never-be-published gardening book, working with them for three months in New York, and then living with them in London for five months in Sting’s house. (I was only the babysitter for three days.) But all that was in the future. All I knew when I stood at the door of the penthouse apartment is that I was somewhat curious and mostly, already disgusted by the thought of working with these celebrities. I grew up in LA. I’ve seen too much. And I hate the way we venerate famous people in this culture. But it was money. And sure enough, it was going to be a story. When the door opened, my eyes took a quick sweep of the rooms before me. And of course, I saw an enormous living room, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Madison Avenue. And what was on the table but six champagne flutes and an open, bubbling bottle of champagne. I almost chuckled. And then I took in Christa.

Christa is now one of my favorite people in the world. Blunt, funny, and deeply kind (as long as you don’t let her know that you know it), she had been cooking professionally for nearly forty years when I first met her. Originally Polish, but moved to Germany when she was two, she barely escaped WWII, although her mother did not. She thought her father had died, all her life, but he suddenly reappeared when she was forty. This is an incredible story I should tell another time, or in another place. After all, it’s hers. I didn’t know all this when I first met her. I just knew that she came with the fancy apartment the CFP were renting. She had been cooking for the same man and his family for decades. He moved out of his penthouse apartment to an even better one, which left this one open. What to do? Of course, rent it to the CFP! Unfortunately for her, Christa came as part of the deal.

I say unfortunately because the CFP drove Christa to distraction. She abhors pretension of any kind, and they were oozing it. Madame would call from the living room, in her deliberately syrupy sweet voice, “Christa, coffee?” Oh, but not just any coffee. It had to be a fresh latte, done just right. If, when Christa brought it in, grimacing, it didn’t have a perfect head of foam, Madame would ask for it to be done again. I’d always shrug my shoulders behind her, trying to establish unity with Christa instead. There were three hundred little trilling demands to Christa per day. The poor woman, over sixty years old, walked in a perpetual sweat, her greying hair in damp curls around her face.

She and I became friends through this, bonded by the searing experience, both of us a little too fascinated by the story and human drama to completely pull away. And in the end, we were both just too damn tenderhearted, trying to redeem these people, to no end. But long after we both cut our ties to the CFP, we have remained friends. When I still lived in New York, she would invite my best friend Sharon (who eventually worked for the CFP for awhile too; it was hard to resist at first) and I over for dinner in her little apartment on the Upper East Side. She’d plie us with prosciutto and melon, little spinach tarts, smoked salmon, tuna sushi, and gorgeous desserts. And plenty of really great wine.

Damn, that woman can cook.

Christa is the best chef I have ever met, bar none. She has impeccable taste, an extraordinary eye, and the ability to make beauty mundane, in the best way. I miss her. I haven’t been to New York in awhile, which means I haven’t had the chance to sit at her small dining table with Sharon, drinking great wine and listening to her gruff talk, while she drinks her beer and asks, about every three minutes, “You like? It tastes good?” And Sharon and I always nod, vigorously, our mouths full of bliss. Of course, she had cooked all day for us, and we would beg her to just eat at a restaurant, to spare her the work. But we were always secretly happy that she wanted to cook for us. We felt loved.

I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately, now that I’m choosing my food mindfully, insisting on the best, now that I must eat gluten-free. And when I saw the leftover figs in their little green basket on my dining table, I knew what I had to do.

Christa made these broiled figs often in the penthouse apartment. Madamde CFP loved them. And so did I. Ridiculously easy to make, they tasted decadent, like gourmet candy and expensive restaurants at the same time. So I put little dabs of leftover goat cheese on the figs I had sliced in half, then put the tray under the broiler. Five minutes later, and I was sighing with pleasure as I ate. Softly sweet, with a crunch of seeds, everything melting into one, the smooth taste of goat cheese spreading into the sweetness, and all of it over in thirty seconds. But the taste lingers and fingers its way down to my stomach. I’m happy and absolutely awake.

Food is never just the taste. It’s the memories of the people I’ve eaten it with, the stories in my mind, the places I have stood and eaten these foods, all combined with the sensory pleasure. It all swarms in my mouth and my mind. And frankly, even though most of this crazy country swoons at the idea of being near a celebrity, I would much rather be in my spacious little kitchen in Seattle, eating figs with the memory of Christa in my mind, than anywhere near that penthouse apartment. Because this one is mine.


Christa always used brie with the figs, and I agree. I just had leftover goat cheese. It sure wasn’t bad.

--twenty fresh figs, split in half
--dabs of your favorite soft cheese (a really good brie or cambozola works best)

Put on the broiler. Assemble the figs. Broil them for five minutes or so, until everything is bubbly. Eat. Just try to save leftovers. It’s not going to happen.

25 August 2005

food blogs delight

food blogs delight, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

These days, I’m spending a lot of time drooling on my keyboard.

No, there’s nothing wrong with me. Instead, I’m spending more time than I’d like to admit reading food blogs in my little writing nook by the window. There’s a world outside that window, but there’s also another world online: the foodie world. Across the country and the globe, people entranced by food are writing luscious phrases about the taste of heirloom tomatoes, dark chocolate, and locally made cheeses. We’re bonded together by our shared love of food. Actually, we’re bonded together by our shared obsession. Most people just wouldn’t understand, so we write out our hearts and show off our photographs, the ones we took by arranging whatever is fresh out of the oven on the kitchen counter closest to a natural light source and pressing the shutter on the camera two inches from the top of it. Most of us like to eat, but some of us like every single aspect of food. Especially writing about it.

So lately, I’ve been spending more time with Molly, Megwoo, Clotilde, Heidi, Sam, and Rachael than I am some of my friends. I marvel when they visit new restaurants I wish I could eat in. I gape at their new cooking implements. And I wish I could be with them at their latest feast. Some of them live in Paris or Los Angeles or San Francisco, so it’s my way of visiting other places from my little window nook. And some of them live in Seattle, which is the funniest part. We’re all typing away, several miles from each other, but we’ve never met. No matter. I’m still grateful for their presence in my life. Of course, it’s a cyberspace relationship, but it’s a good one.

And for those of us who must eat gluten-free, because of celiac disease or otherwise, food blogs are an unexpected wealth. Instead of feeling in a rut with recipes, explore the world of people who are constantly tweaking recipes and walking through farmers’ markets with cameras in their hands. (The links list to your right has a good smattering of them.) While I’m happy to provide information here about how to live gluten-free, really, I’m just writing a food blog. After all, good food is the path to healthiness for all of us, whether we have to eat gluten-free or we can eat gluten. And nothing makes healthy=happy faster than a lovingly prepared meal.

So with that in mind, I decided to concoct my own little tribute to my favorite food bloggers by throwing a dinner party with recipes I had read online. Three friends came over tonight: my dear friend Meri and two lovely new friends, Anne and Rick. All of us foodies, and all of us comfortable enough with each other that I could break the cardinal rule of hosting: never make a dish for people coming over for the first time that you have never made before. Everything I made today (and it did take an entire, blissful day of cooking to make this meal) was something I made for the first time.

And it was all spectacular.

Here’s the menu:

--pecorino with chestnut honey (that’s via my friend Sharon)
--slow-roasted heirloom tomatoes (from Molly at Orangette)
--cold melon soup (from Rachael at Fresh Approach Cooking)
--fig, prosciutto, and arugula salads (from Megwoo at I Heart Bacon)
--fresh herb muffins (from Clotilde at Chocolate and Zucchini)
--Yukon gold and sweet potato gratin (from Ruth at Once Upon a Feast)
--broiled basil peaches (from the recipe I found at the New York Times)

Why such a feast? Well, why not. It’s the end of summer, almost, and everything
these days is throwing out a refulgence that smells of blowsy over-ripeness. Soon, it’s going to be fall. Soon, school starts again, and I won’t have a free day to make food all day, dancing in the kitchen when I feel like it. Anne has been a more enormous help with my writing than I could elucidate here. And besides, my friends are cool, and they deserve it. Even more, right at the core, since my brush-with-death car accident last year, every day is a feast day.


I’ve been slowly consuming the honey I bought on Friday, in yogurt and on toast. But last night, when I was talking on the phone with Sharon, she told me: “Oh, buy some Pecorino.” She had been in Tuscany in May, and she said that every day, everywhere they went, Italians handed them chestnut honey on pecorino. The drier the better, she said.

So tonight, we started with a plate full of small slices of a good pecorino romano I found at Whole Foods. And a drizzle of chestnut honey. Everyone who took the first bite made the same moany sound. Anne said, “This shouldn’t be good. It feels unnatural. But it’s so good.” Yes. We were off to a good start.


slow-roasted tomatoes

Molly at Orangette put up such a lovingly prepared post about these a couple of weeks ago that they have been lingering in my mind ever since. She’s always putting put up lovingly prepared posts, meditations on savoring food and walking slowly enough through life to experience it. I adore her. And so, in her honor, I’ve been looking at fat heirloom tomatoes with slow-roast aspirations, but somehow I hadn’t made the time. Until today.

Turns out, this is one of the easiest paths to bliss you’re ever going to find. Just cut up the tomatoes into fat chunks, sprinkle some good olive oil, and the herb of your choice. I didn’t have any coriander, as Molly suggested, so I used thyme and basil instead. And my trusty herbed sea salt. Put them in the oven for six hours at 200°, then try to restrain yourself from eating them all in one gulp before your guests arrive.

They taste like tomato candy. The juices pool in the shrunken sides and burst into your mouth in one, condensed taste. You’re not going to believe them, and you’re going to want to make them all the time. I will be. I can only imagine them on pizza or in a tart.

These were a hit, the best kind of food to make at a party: easy to prepare and spectacular. I had them on a lovely plate and kept passing them around to everyone in the kitchen. We all looked a little mournful when our fingers reached for the last ones.


summer melon soup

I have to admit this: I discovered this recipe on Rachael’s blog because she had hosted the ravioli food blog competition. It actually wasn’t a competition, more like a sharing. I so enjoyed that process that I started to explore Rachael’s site more closely. Anyone who urges the world to make ravioli in the same week has my vote of confidence. The fact that she called me amazing when it was all over was even more lovely. But the best is her site. Clearly fascinated by food and all its permutations, she has a whimsical touch and a thousand suggestions as to what to eat. I’m dying to try the manchego cheese and quince paste combination she wrote about last week.

But this melon soup just looked like fun, especially in martini glasses. I don’t have the proper dishware for proper dinner parties, but I do have fun, mismatched pieces. Why not throw in some martini glasses? Probably not so smart to buy them at Whole Foods, where everything costs 20% more than it should, but what the hell. It’s a celebration.

I used galia melons instead of canteloupe, because I could smell them from across the produce section at Whole Foods. They taste a little like canteloupe, but they have green flesh like a honeydew. And paired with yellow heirloom tomatoes and sweet Walla Walla onions (plus the exquisite Sicilian olive oil), this was fantastic. I made a quadruple batch, four little pulses in my tiny food processor. (Someday, I’ll have the big Kitchen Aid. A girl can dream, can’t she?) And then I let it sit in the fridge all day, gathering coolness.

Beautiful. I left it a little chunky, which tasted great in the martini glasses. Paired with a crisp white wine, the soup was perfect in the hot kitchen. (Because, of course, we spent the first hour in the kitchen, leaning against the walls and counters.) I recommend it highly.



How can you not love a girl who calls her blog I Heart Bacon? Well, I do. Megwoo (the name that crops up as her signature on comments) clearly knows how to design web pages and eat with equal mastery. Her adventures in restaurants leave me longing to visit them too, even though I probably couldn’t eat in most of the places these days. And a couple of weeks ago, she threw a 40s-70s party, complete with dishes from tacky cookbooks of the time. Way to go!

I knew I had to make this salad when I found it on her recipe search. I adore figs. Adore them. Okay, so I can’t eat fig newtons any more, but that’s no loss when I can have fig, prosciutto, and arugula salad instead. And the broiled figs concoction at the bottom of this post.

For the dressing, I made a quick vinaigrette with olive oil, fig balsamic vinegar, and shallots. I’ve been a shallot fan lately, after Francoise taught me that the French use shallots for their simple salad dressings. Simple, perhaps, but gorgeous. And with this salad, exquisite.


fresh herb muffin

Ah, Clotilde. The mother of food bloggers, even though she’s only 26. Her Chocolate and Zucchini was probably the inspiration—both in its clean design and lyrical voice—for thousands of blogs. It certainly was for mine. She approaches food with an ineffable pleasure, treating sandwiches made with little rolls from the corner bakery and decadent desserts with the same intensity. And she lives in Montmarte. Oh my goodness, she’s adorable.

I hope that she doesn’t mind, but I’ve copied her philosophy of food here, because it’s mine as well.

As for the philosophy, well, it boils down to this : I love food. The shopping, the looking, the talking, the reading, the thinking, the planning, the preparing, the cooking, the baking, the tasting, the plating, the serving, the sharing, and of course, the eating. But being concerned with health and weight as I am, I am very particular about what goes into my mouth. Mediocre or bland just won't do. Every meal should be an extraordinary experience in taste and aesthetics, every dish a subtle yet powerful combination of flavors, every bite an explosion of layers of savor. I am aware that this level of perfection is hard to reach, but it's what I strive towards, and the challenge makes me happy.

I know I’m not reaching perfection. I’m just trying to live life aware, with all its gluten-free challenges and beautiful moments of discovery. And Clotilde certainly helps me with both.

So the other day, she posted a recipe for fresh herb muffins, and I knew I had to make them. I made the pesto early in the day, then folded it into a mix with gluten-free flour. (I just used a direct substitution, with GF Pantry’s French bread mix. Ha!) Even when they were in the oven, they enticed me. I just couldn’t wait for them to be done.

We cracked these open while we were eating the salads. For a few moments, there was silence in the room.

My only hesitation about these was in my own preparation. I only have the jumbo muffin pan, and so these were enormous. I believe the daintier ones would be even better, a smaller portion to savor. Now I know my next cooking purchase....


potato gratin

Ruth. I’m starting to feel like we are friends—we leave comments on each other’s blogs almost every day; we try each other’s recipes; and we look forward to reading about each other’s adventures. (At least I know I do. I’m assuming she does too.) This is, of course, silly, because she lives in Toronto, and I have never met her. But who cares? She loves to cook for her friends and explore the farmers’ markets, like I do. And her posts are a wonderful combination of breathless excitement and thoughtful writing. I visit her every day, at least in cyberspace.

A few days ago, she made up this gratin, with potatoes left sitting in her kitchen. Resourceful, Ruth. It looked so scrumptious that I had to try it with the Yukon gold potatoes left sitting in my kitchen. I’d never made a gratin, so of course, on a day when I’m cooking and cleaning for hours, let me make something I’ve never made! With my handy Zyliss mandoline, this was a cinch. I love that machine. And now that it’s stored spaciously on my new kitchen shelves, I’m bound to use it more.

After all the decadence, we had to pause for awhile before we reached the gratin. Conversation flowed with the wine. But when we were ready, we enjoyed it, thoroughly. Yum. Yum.

I’m bound to make many more gratins, especially this winter when it’s cold and the days of this summer are a mere memory. I think a gratin would be great with goat cheese or kale or yams or a few slivers of smoked salmon....


broiled peach with basil

The piece de resistance. This is the recipe I found in The New York Times, in the article on cooking with toaster ovens. (See yesterday's post.) I prepared them before, hollowing out the centers to hold the basil/butter/brown sugar mixture. And a dash of cinnamon on top. At the end of all our feasting (or near it), I threw the pan into a 400° oven. After fifteen minutes or so, the butter was sizzling, and the peaches had made their own sweet, syrupy pool. Time to eat.

They almost tasted carmelized. The basil gave a dusky bite to the rich density of peach taste. And the peaches were perfectly soft, yielding to the fork, begging to be eaten. Ah.

Meri said that this was her favorite part of the entire meal. And there were a lot of favorites.

Sadly, the evening came to an end too soon. The food, the wine, the laughing conversation—it was all that a dinner party should be. There’s always a touch of melancholy at the end of a day of cooking. All the preparation, the food that filled the shopping cart, the hard labor and the hopes—all gone.

But of course, not really. Not if I can write about it.

24 August 2005

two loves, both a bit silly, but I'm besotted

new kitchen shelves, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Okay, I have far more than two loves. After all, I’m a woman of passions, as you can read on this website. However, here are the two loves of today.

I’m in love with my new kitchen shelves.

My kitchen has been making me happy all summer long. I swing my hips as I dance in front of the stove, creating new concoctions, like the blackberry sauce recipe from last night that made me nearly moan and stamp my feet this evening as I actually ate it. I lean my feet against the cupboards as I sit sideways in my chair in the little kitchen nook, under the skylights with the morning light showering upon me. And I unload the dishwasher again, because there always seem to be dishes these days. Good parties always happen in the kitchen, people leaning against the counters with food in their hands. Cluttered or clean, I’m always happy to be in my kitchen.

But now I really love being in my kitchen, because now I can look at my new kitchen shelves.

Yesterday, I spontaneously stopped at Dick’s Restaurant Supply store, on 1st Avenue South. I was on my way back from a secret recognaissance mission (you’ll read about it on Friday) in south Seattle, and I saw the sign while I was waiting at a stoplight. With a name like that, I had to stop. As you know, I’ve been obsessed with all things to do with the kitchen lately. It was only a matter of time before I stopped in a restaurant supply store.

Plastic pitchers, red menu covers, tortilla warmers, giant coffee makers, and napkin dispensers—these are the real stuffs of working restaurants. Everyone behind the counter talked like a short-order cook. A female customer was complaining about someone in her restaurant: “You know, she came in and ordered six sandwiches at once, and then she asked for a discount. And I told her, ‘No! It’s not as if I’ve ever seen you before.’” Um, I don’t think I want to go to her restaurant. I felt like an interloper. I sidled around corners and investigated. It looked as though most of the items there were meant for sandwich shops and places with plastic tablecloths. I thought I was probably done. But then I started looking at the shelves.

Whenever I walk into gourmet kitchen shelves, I feel at ease. The gleaming chrome shelves let in light and air. Everything looks more beautiful on these bakery display shelves. Sur la Table is packed with them. Les Cadeaux Gourmet stores cookbooks on them. And Macrina Bakery piles loaves of now-forbidden bread on them in the windows. Somehow, they always seemed beyond my reach, a piece for professionals. But yesterday, I looked up and knew what I wanted. I asked the guy holding an ice cream scoop, “Do you know where I could get these?”
“Well, we sell them,” he said.

And so I bought some.

This morning, I started putting them together. It wasn’t that hard—there were no long screws or complicated tools involved. But I was so eager to have the gleaming shelves erect before my window that I started unpacking the boxes before I had my coffee. Still in my pajamas, still in my smudgy glasses. The living room cluttered with shoes and papers strewn across the floor. And the sticky tape from the ripped-open boxes kept clinging to the bottom of my feet, so that I had to keep kicking it away. The finished set is over six feet tall, so trying to place each heavy shelf and guide it down all four poles at the same time was nigh impossible. One side would slip down the pole and the rest catch at an awkward angle, and I was left shoving and swearing until it all came clattering down. Sometimes, I’m like my own Laurel and Hardy film over here.

But finally, it was done. And this afternoon, I disemboweled the cupboards of my kitchen and placed every beautiful object on my new shelves. In the late afternoon sun, everything shone. Limpid light through pale green glass looked like happiness to me. And now, with most of my cooking supplies out on display, cooking seems even more enticing.

In between finishing the shelves and stocking them, my day was wonderfully full. Almost too full. Taking Elliott to the Seattle aquarium for the first time was a delight more wonderful than I can write. And I especially liked when he put the tortilla basket from El Puerco Lloron on his head and called it a hat. That boy is my constant, every-day, can-never-see-him-enough love.

But in one of the few moments of silence in the day, I sat down in the green chair in front of the living room window and read The New York Times.

Writing about how much I love this newspaper would take up more space than this post can hold. But I remember the first time I learned to fold it the proper way to read it on the subway, just after I moved to that city. That’s when I felt like a New Yorker. It has been my constant news source for decades, still scintillating after all these years. And what can I say—the Seattle newspapers are best used for lining the bottom of my friend Jessica’s birds’ cages. Seriously. I’ve been subscribing to the Sunday New York Times for the four years I’ve lived in Seattle, and it has become one of the week’s best rituals. A slow pot of coffee and the paper spread out before me. I looked forward to Sunday all week.

But this summer, I’ve been finding the blue-wrapped paper on my doorstep every morning. Someone from the Times called last month and said I could have the daily paper for the same price. Of course. And of course, now I’m hooked. And do you know why, in particular?

The Wednesday section on food, of course. Dining In, one week, and Dining Out, the next—it’s always filled with fabulous stories of people living for food. This morning, I was fascinated with this piece on fresh, local food making its way into college cafeterias across the country, and how astounded kids are with the taste. God, all I can remember is dipping limp broccoli in ranch dressing in my college cafeteria. And drinking Starbucks coffee with hot chocolate from a mix. Not exactly spectacular. Maybe we are really starting to change in this country.

But my second-favorite weekly section of the paper is the Science Times. I’ve always been a science geek, and in fact, I thought I was going to be a doctor when I graduated from high school. The human body fascinates me, and that’s part of the reason why this celiac diagnosis and the effects of eating gluten-free captures my attention so fully. Yesterday’s section included an article you simply must read: “The Other Brain, the One with Butterflies...” Did you know that the enteric system, otherwise known as your guts, has its own sensory cells, neurons, and connections? And that the intestines and your brain are the most-alike organs in the body? Or that 95% of the serotonin made in your body is produced in your intestines? 95%! The medical field is just beginning to understand this and investigate more fully. It’s no wonder that full-blown celiac often seems to be accompanied by depression and brain fog. It sure was for me. And now, with healing intestines, my mood is far more even, and my spirit indefatigable. I’m convinced—when we talk about a “gut instinct,” we’re not talking in metaphor.

And I love that The New York Times seems to always mirror what’s going on in my mind.

This evening, my neighbor called up from downstairs. She had spotted the new shelves through the window. “Hey, those look great. The food channel is going to be calling soon.” I called her up instead, to show her the new layout, sample the fancy olive oil I bought at ChefShop today, and taste the cooling blackberry sauce. She appreciated it all, but she also had that look in her eyes. The look that said, “Um, you might be a little bit crazy.”

Yes. Yes I am. I’m in love with kitchen shelves and a newspaper. What else would you expect?


Every week, the dining section of the Times offers up several recipes I'm eager to try. This one arrived in a piece about how to cook with toaster ovens, but I've translated it for the conventional oven. I have plenty of basil in the house, and it's truly peach season in Seattle, so I'm going to make this tomorrow:

3 tablespoons of unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons of dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons of chopped fresh basil
a pinch of ground cinnamon
a pinch of salt
4 ripe peaches, halved and pitted

°Pre-heat the oven to 425°.
°In a small bowl, mash together the butter, sugar, basil, cinnamon, and salt.
°Spoon the mixture into the cavities of the peach halves. Arrange the pieces stuffed side up. Bake until the peaces are softened and the butter is bubbling (about fifteen minutes).
°Serve hot, with creme fraiche or sour cream.

23 August 2005

a sad confession

blackberries, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I did a bad thing.

I bought blackberries.

Oh, there’s nothing wrong with blackberries. In fact, there’s everything right with them. Nothing can match the full-on explosion of sweet tartness, warm spikiness, indelible pleasure on the tongue. Rolling waves of taste and memories jumbled into one. And the summer sun on dust and black sugar kindness, and I’m waving hello to them all as I pick them. I love blackberries.

No, the problem is—I bought them.

I’m so ashamed.

Whenever I’m on my bike on the Burke-Gilman trail, my nose goes first. Fat cascades of blackberry bushes tumble down the hills around me, and I’m swathed in scented heaven. Seattle smells sweet in the summer. There are moments when I’m convinced I smell wild dill and basil among the blackberries. This place amazes me. But somehow, I always forget to wear my backpack stuffed with plastic bags as I bike, so I can hop off and pick enough berries to makes pies and cobblers all summer. I just keep rolling, enjoying the smell.

Discovery Park has a plethora of bushes, just off the loop trail. Walk among old-growth forests, ahhing at the canopy of leaves above your head, then feel your body open wide as the trees fall behind, and you’re looking at the expanse of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. The chance to pick blackberries among this experience is almost like gilding the lily. Except you want it. Dive into the bushes, wearing long-sleeved clothes and possibly gloves, because the thorns are going to catch you. No doubt about it. I’ve come out of every blackberry-picking session with scratches on both arms and hands, as though a pack of feral cats were waiting in the bushes instead of blackberries. Every summer since I moved to Seattle, I’ve been in Discovery Park, happily scratched. But this summer, I have been so busy, cooking and tasting and writing and re-doing my kitchen (oh, there’s more on this coming) and keeping up with this blog every day, that I haven’t made it out to Discovery Park for blackberries yet. And I fear I am too late.

There’s always Vashon. When I lived on Vashon, nearly a decade ago, every street yielded a fresh patch of blackberries. Tita and I always go picking, filling old yogurt containers and little plastic buckets and jars full of the gorgeous black fruit. And the juice runs down our fingers as we pick, and eat, so that our nails are stained dark purple for days. Afterwards, we’d walk back to her house, happy and sun-washed, talking away. And we’d crowd into her small kitchen and make a blackberry pie, immediately. Then play parcheesi with John, laughing into the evening. But this summer, Tita has mono and can’t do much. I haven’t been over to see her enough, because of it. And we couldn’t make a pie in her kitchen anymore. So, no blackberry stories there.

When I walked into my brother’s house the other day, he looked at all the food from the farmers’ market in my hands, and said, “Shauna, you didn’t buy blackberries, did you?” I hung my head a little, and admitted that I had. He spends half his time on their property, trying to cut down blackberry vines, because they scramble fast and take over land. But it’s a losing battle, and they’ve been picking blackberries for weeks.

But not me. I had to buy them.

I nearly didn’t. There they were, offering up their burnished beauty in little green boxes at the West Seattle farmers’ market. I passed by stall after stall, feeling too guilty. But at one, I just couldn’t resist the smell. And these seemed particularly juicy and plump. I told of my guilt, almost as a way to apologize for not buying them from the affable man. But he said the magic words: “Oh, you couldn’t pick these by the side of the road. They’re sweeter and have fewer seeds. And you know there are no pesticides or animal tracks on them...”

Okay, I bought a pint. Or two. So sue me.

Orangette wrote the most lyrical post on picking blackberries and making jam anyway, so I wouldn’t want to compete with her. Instead, I’ll just offer up my humble apologies for not covering this Seattle food tradition in suitable style. And offer up this photograph, and a couple of recipes, in its stead.

Besides, hand-picked among thorns or bought with clean cash, blackberries please the mouth, enormously. And I could still pick some. It might not be too late. I might just go this weekend. You never know....


I love sweet and salty together. Time was I went to the movies and bought a tub of popcorn and tossed in a carton of Milk Duds. Strange, but fabulous. But now, I can't have either one for the gluten. And I'm probably better off for it. But still, I love that taste combination.

So all day, I was dreaming up this blackberry sauce atop sauteed salmon. I had it all planned in my mind for dinner. But the day took its own turn, deliciously (you'll hear more about that later), and I had to eat something else. Still, I'm going to post up this recipe of my own concoction, without having tasted it. And if you make that face when you try it, let me know. I'll apologize, then change it.

1/2 pint of fresh blackberries
1/4 cup of water
juice of one lemon
1/4 cup of brown sugar/less of high-quality honey (like the chestnut from Tuscany)
two teaspoons of cornstarch
pinch of cayenne pepper (for punch)
splash of balsamic vinegar

Cook the blackberries and water in a saucepan until the berries are soft and starting to fall apart. Take off the burner and put the blackberries into a sieve. Push through until you have extracted all the liquid. Put the liquid back into the saucepan and bring to heat. Throw in the lemon juice, the cornstarch, the sweetener of your choisc, the chili pepper, and the tiniest splash of balsamic vinegar. (I'm going to try the fig balsamic vinegar on my shelves.) Heat until it's thickened, slightly, and you sense it's done. Immediately spoon over sauteed salmon.

And if it all falls down, well, you can always console yourself with a blackberry-lime margarita, from Gourmet magazine:

2 cups (about 11 ounces) blackberries
2 cups ice cubes
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
3/4 cup white Tequila
1/4 cup sugar

In a blender puree blackberries. Force puree through a fine sieve into a small bowl and discard solids. In a cocktail shaker combine 1/2 cup puree and remaining ingredients and shake well. Strain drink into 4 stemmed glasses. Makes 4 margaritas.

(Yes, tequila is gluten-free, since it's made from the blue agave plant. Whoo-hoo!)


oh my god. I know I'm not supposed to say this, because I'm the one who made up the recipe, but my god that was good. It needed two teaspoons of cornstarch, instead of one, and a little time to rest and thicken up on its own before putting it on the fish. But it exploded in my mouth with joy, just the way something with blackberries should. I recommend it.

sauteed salmon with blackberry sacue

22 August 2005

a house full of friends, and food

BANANA BREAD, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

“I think I’m going to start up my own website,” Meri said to me at the end of the evening. “Friends of the gluten-free girl.” I laughed and handed her a big bag of fresh pasta salad to take home.

Thankfully, she joked about starting another website as a record of gratitude at being the recipient of all my food experiments. Come over to my house lately, and you’re going to eat. The kitchen will be cluttered with recently used dishes, and I probably didn’t have time to wipe down the counters before you come in the door. But something will be baking, the warmth emanating from the kitchen, drawing you up the stairs. And there is probably cheese already laid out, ready to gobble with gluten-free crackers. Bring a bottle of wine and stay all evening. You’re always welcome in my kitchen.

This evening, as per usual, tumbled into a living room full of people. Tuney and I had agreed to have coffee last week, on Sunday morning at 10, at my favorite little coffee shop on Queen Anne (I have to write more about that place later. Remind me, will you?). We said resolutely, as we parted ways, “Same time, same place, next week.” Well, at 9:30 yesterday morning, she called, and I jumped. Of course I had forgotten. I’ve been working on an important piece of writing, and all my forces were marshalled into its existence. “Oh Tuney, I’m sorry,” I spluttered, before I could hear that she had nearly forgotten as well. No big deal. That’s one of the things I love about Tuney. Nothing is ever a big deal. But I did invite her over for dinner this evening.

This afternoon, I sent the important piece of writing off in the mail. Elated, and at the outer edges of nervous, I needed to move. So I grabbed the bike and pedalled fast up the Burke-Gilman trail. The sun shone like porous tissue on my skin, and I was riding fast. I have to pedal harder when it’s early Michael Jackson on the headphones. And daily, almost hourly, I’m grateful for the discovery of this celiac diagnosis. For nearly two years, I could not have imagined the strength in my legs as I rode my bike this afternoon. Teaching a full day at school used to exhaust me, entirely. Now, I feel energized by life, instead of beaten down. And every day, I want to use my newfound body. I ride like the wind and grin as I do it.

Coming home, I planned a meal. Stopped at the PCC to marvel at the light coming through the windows. I bought some heirloom tomatoes, even though they are more expensive than the perfect red globes. Why? I sniffed the tops of the organic Northwest tomatoes, and they smelled faintly of plastic. No tomato smell at all. Even the good grocery stores have tomatoes running out of taste. What happened to our tastebuds? When did we become so purely visual instead? The heirlooms are fat and squishy, every one of them a different shape. Some starburst reds and yellows, some small and green. But all of them, at the top, where the leaves sprout out, smell peppery and biting, that sweet, sharp tomato smell. I grabbed two.

And came home to make pasta salad. Unintentionally, everything we ate tonight would have originally needed gluten. But I’ve hit a groove now. I wouldn’t even think of using regular flour. I never even look at it in the store. With Tinkyada pasta, why would I use anything else in a bag? So I piled in all the fresh vegetables I could find in the kitchen: crisp zucchini; sweet red and orange peppers cut into slivers; broccoli tops; chunky carrots; heirloom tomatoes, including cherry ones; fresh basil, which I tore by hand and threw in on top. Kalamata olives. Garlic-herb tofu. And a gorgeous nettle gouda I bought at the West Seattle farmers’ market yesterday. Toss it with a vinaigrette with shallots, good olive oil, and the tomato vinegar—watch the happiness spread.

So Tuney came over, arriving in that high, clear light the start of the evening brings, arriving ever earlier these days. It was dark by 9 pm tonight. Darn. We snacked on a wonderfully runny goat-cheese camembert, another cheese made by a local, artisan cheese maker that I bought at the farmers’ market. (What will I do without them when the summer ends? Those little collections of white-canopied stalls and friendly folks have become my grocery store. I’ll be so disappointed when they pack up until next May. Later. Later.) And as we ate, Tuney oohed in pleasure and said: "Well, no one could ever suggest that you're deprived."

She's right. I'm certainly not deprived by eating gluten-free. In fact, I'm quite sure I've never eaten so well in my life.

And then Meri came in, out of breath and happy from walking up the hill. We chatted and ate basil hummus I threw together in the food processor. A bottle of wine opened, and we were happy.

Dorothy and David stopped by, just as we were finishing up the last of the pasta salad. More wine flowed. Gosh, if I had known I was going to have so many house guests, I definitely would have vacuumed the living-room rug....

And of course, we talked about food. About how much easier it is when you do it every day, instead of thinking about it. About making jam, and using a mortar and pestle to grind spices, and how to bruise basil leaves, and the incredible taste of roasted garlic, and baking without a recipe. As Dorothy said, when you first start cooking, you’re tentative and follow every recipe to the letter. And then, you start throwing in spices, and dancing with ideas, and smell every step instead of checking the book. Let each recipe be a rough sketch and your hands fill in the outline.

Well, I must be feeling comfortable with gluten-free baking now, because I made banana bread from scratch, with some major diversions from the recipe below. Because of my trusty Kitchen-Aid (ah, now what would I do without it?), I can beat the butter, sugar, and eggs for five minutes, until they are whipped high and light. Everything tastes better when you begin with that. The recipe called for milk, but I had run out, so I used non-fat yogurt instead. It said four bananas, but I had five, and I like my banana bread to taste of bananas. And strangely, there are no spices besides vanilla in this one. And I’m a cinnamon girl. So I threw in clumps, with no thought of measuring spoons, and grated my own nutmeg into the mix. It turned out delicious. I’d porbably use less sugar next time, perhaps a touch of the chestnut honey instead. But everyone took a piece home willingly. And we forgot to remark on the fact that it was gluten-free. I guess that’s a given now.

So everyone left full. And I surveyed my kitchen happily, determined to do the dishes tomorrow. And tomorrow night, more friends over for food. Ah, this is the life.

BANANA BREAD, inspired by Karen Robertson's Cooking Gluten-free

1/2 cup of unsalted butter, softened
1 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
2 eggs
5 medium, ripe bananas, peeled and mashed
1 tablespoon non-fat, plain yogurt (I used Trader Joe's French village yogurt)
2 cups of gluten-free flour mix
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1/4 teaspoon of salt
cinnamon and fresh nutmeg to taste

°Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease a loaf pan.
° Cream the butter, sugar, and vanilla in your best mixer, on high speed, until the mixture is light and pale.
°Beat in the eggs, one at a time, slowly.
°Mix the bananas, yogurt, and spices separately, until they are one mushy whole.
°In another bowl, blend the dry ingredients.
° Keep the mixer running all this time. You want that butter and eggs whipped up.
° Blend the dry ingredients into the wet ones, then add the bananas.
°Bake for one hour. It's done when you can insert a knife or toothpick and it comes out clean. Cool it on a wire rack and keep your friends' hands away from it until it's no longer hot.