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31 December 2005

Let's celebrate!

Scotch III, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

When I was a kid, I wasn’t much of a rulebreaker. In fact, I pretty much did what I was told. Homework done, chores accomplished, goals met: I was regular and plodding as bleached white bread. Well, not entirely. Not internally, where I lived a wild life. But on the outside, I was the model student and model daughter.

Believe it or not, I actually waited to start drinking alcohol until I was 21, just like the law said I should.

Oh my.

It’s only as an adult that I’ve learned how to make trouble. Now that I’m the loudest one in the room (at least when I laugh), my friends don’t believe me when I say I suffered from mortifying shyness through most of my high school years. And when we used to go out for drinks, and I’d be sipping at my inch of dark-amber Scotch, no one ever believed I’d been such a goody two-shoes, waiting, primly, until the state said I could imbibe.

I’ve always been a Scotch girl. Actually, that isn’t specifically accurate, because that lovely slithery liquid is only allowed to be called Scotch if it’s entirely distilled and aged in Scotland. I love Irish whisky, with its beautiful blends - it always makes me think of green fields, rousing good music in crowded pubs, and James Joyce. So I should say I’m a whisky girl. But really, with apologies to the memory of dear, obfuscating Mr. Joyce, I do prefer Scotch.

The first whiff rushes at the back of the nose. Sniff too hard and take a big cough -- this stuff could eat right through you, if you’re not careful. Peer into the clear brown liquid and take a moment to pay homage to the journey it has taken from its barrel to your hands. It must be aged for at least three years before it’s allowed to be called Scotch. (And I have a feeling that no Scotch lover would ever drink a three-year-old spirit.) Depending on how old you are, this Scotch may have been maturing with you, half your life, just to reach your lips.

And when it does? That first little sip of Scotch prickles at the edges of the tongue. Immediately, heat rises up. What was clear and thin suddenly fills the mouth. That sharp bite at the back of the palate. There’s a slight sweetness, but only so slight, followed by an insistent angularity that spreads over the tongue. Everything burns for a moment. Everything widens. The lips tingle. And then there’s that slow, cool burn, down the esophagus. It fills the entire chest, which feels as though it’s breathing Scotch. A pleasant warmth, everything soft and sharp at the same time. And the tongue darts out, over the lips, for one last taste. Until the next sip.


The word whisky comes originally from a Gaelic word, meaning breath of life. Indeed.

As someone has written on a website called Whisky Web:

"Of all the spirits mankind has distilled, refined and enhanced from nature’s huge store of goodness, Scotch whisky is the noblest. It is a natural drink, a distillation of the riches with which Scotland is so abundantly endowed - of fields of golden barley and wheat; of clear waters tumbling down glens of granite and over moors of peat; and of the cool, pure air of Scotland."

Wait, say that again? Golden barley and wheat? Wait a minute. I have celiac disease. I can’t drink Scotch anymore.

Or so I thought. Like that long-ago good girl, I followed all the rules laid before me. I’ve never “cheated” on my gluten-free diet. That’s never made sense to me. Who am I cheating but myself? So, following the tenets written in the celiac literature I had read, I resolved to cut whisky and beer out of my diet for the rest of my life.

Beer truly wasn’t much of a loss. I liked a good beer, on a hot day, particularly an Alaskan Amber. But drinking beer always meant a nap afterwards, and an overly full stomach. Until my celiac diagnosis, I thought everyone in the world grew red-faced, bloated, and really, really sleepy after drinking beer. Now, I know it’s the gluten. So, no more beer. And no more gluten reaction.

But Scotch? That was a loss. Now, before you start forming the wrong idea of my alcohol habits, you should know that I’ve only been truly drunk about three times in my life, and each time was increasingly unpleasant. Apart from one glass of full-bodied red wine with a great meal, which I have three or four times a week (as recommended by the medical field now), I just don’t drink. But there are times of the year, or certain people, that make me want to sit in a capacious bar, laughing hard and sipping my inch of great Scotch, neat. (And it always seems to impress the boys, when a girl drinks her Scotch neat, no water, no rocks. Just straight up Scotch.)

Oh well.

But no more. What's wonderful about the increasing awareness of celiac disease is the increased research on what we can eat as well. A friend of mine, about a month ago, listened to me say that I can never drink Scotch again, and was appalled. In fact, he went home and spent some time researching on the internet. He found out some good news for me. My non-Scotch diet was now outdated. Here’s part of what he sent me on a BBC site on the gluten-free life:

Beers, lagers, stouts and real ales must definitely be avoided by coeliacs. However there are a number of gluten-free beers and lagers now on the market. Wine, champagne, port, sherry, ciders, liqueurs and spirits, including whisky, are all gluten-free. Although whisky comes from barley initially, the distilling process involved in its production means it is suitable for coeliacs to drink, as there is not
gluten present in the end product. Of course, as with everyone, coeliacs should only consume alcohol in moderation!
I stared at my computer screen when I read his email, then whooped out loud. Of course, before I went out to buy a bottle, I did my own internet research, and found this little ditty from

"The new standards set in this publication conform more closely with current international standards. Included on their safe list are items that have been on's safe list for over five years, including: amaranth, buckwheat, distilled vinegar (no matter what its source), distilled alcoholic beverages (including rum, gin, whiskey and vodka), millet, quinoa and teff."


So, to celebrate, another friend of mine brought over a bottle of Macallan. We ate my homemade shepherd’s pie with ground lamb and poured ourselves stiff drinks of Scotch. Gad, but it tasted good.

Of course, tonight, I hope that no one drinks too much. That’s no way to celebrate the start of a new year of our lives, everyone. And please, don’t drive if you’ve been drinking. Just don’t.

But, I have to say, when I’ve tried to adust to not having many foods I took for granted, and overcome that with joy, it’s wonderfully unexpected to have something given back. My life feels even richer now.

Cheers to that.

Braised Chicken with Scotch and Major Grey Chutney

chutney chicken II

If you don't like drinking Scotch, I'm sure you wouldn't mind eating something simmered in it. Last week, when some friends came over for dinner, I made up this recipe, using what I had in hand. In joyful experiment mode after finding out I could drink Scotch, I splashed some of the amber liquid in the pot and came up with this. Two of my guests were under twelve, but I felt fine serving them this, since the alcohol burns off in cooking.

More and more, I'm cooking meals based on what's fresh that day, and what my internal taste sense tells me should go together. Earlier that day, when I was strolling through the aisles of my favorite food store, I reached for a jar of Major Grey chutney. Made with mango and ginger, this has been a standby of Indian cuisine for decades. It's slightly sweet, slightly hot, and a surprising combination of flavors. And this brand I bought is gluten free. This chutney, along with Scotch and wasabi mustard, works beautifully with chicken.

eight chicken thighs, preferably organic and locally produced
two tablespoons high-quality olive oil
one medium onion, diced
four cloves of garlic, finely minced
one cup of Major Grey chutney
one tablespoon wasabi mustard (I use Amy's organic) or a good Dijon
one cup of Scotch
one cup good chicken stock
salt anc cracked pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350°. Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized, cast-iron Dutch oven, then throw in the diced onion on medium to medium-high heat. Sautee the onion until it starts to soften. Add the minced garlic and stir it all with a wooden spoon, continually.

Lay the chicken thighs on the sizzling onions and garlic and brown them on one side. Turn, then brown on the other side. Set them aside in a large, wide-mouthed bowl. Spoon the onions and garlic on top of the chicken thighs, then add the chutney and mustard. Stir to mix it all together, until the chicken is coated.

Return the chicken thighs to the pan, then splash in the Scotch and chicken stock. Put the lid on the pan and put it in the oven for one hour, or until the chicken is tender at the bone, and the liquid has simmered into an intoxicating concoction. Serve immediately.

29 December 2005

happiness: lemony squash and roasted pork

butternut squash pork salad, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Happiness arrives on a rainy afternoon, after a long walk through the neighborhood. Happiness steps forward on a break from waiting, waiting for the words to fall through my fingers. Happiness emerges shyly, then stays, brazenly, for a few moments.

Walking west on Galer, the grey clouds taking a break for ten minutes. Light blazes through yellow leaves, stubbornly sticking to black branches. A single note plucked on a guitar string. Resonance -- that old feeling. High up on the scale. Ineffable.

Watching my hand reach for a small pork top round roast, just under a pound, from Niman Ranch. Organic. Sustainable. And tenderness -- nothing like the shrink-wrapped at the grocery store. Pork roast memory redolent on my tongue from two days before, I carried it to the check-out counter. That familiar percolation -- what could I make of this food?

Fat crackling. The kitchen smoke singing. Slices falling away from my knife.

Lemon salt expanding. Dark pumpkin liquid spilling from a tall green bottle. Little globs of goat cheese, falling from my fingers. Wild greens twisting to meet it all.

Sigh. Happiness.

Pork roast and butternut squash salad

This salad emerged from my mind two days ago. Struck by the thought of more pork roast, I had to create something. Trader Joe's sells not only Niman Ranch pork -- considered by many foodies to be the best pork available nationally -- but also little bags of wild greens for one.

That's me: wild greens for one.

Roast some butternut squash with this pumpkin seed oil -- lately my favorite oil -- with some Meyer lemon sea salt, and listen to it sizzle in the oven.

Do you have sunflower seeds on hand? Throw those in there too. The sweet salt puckers the mouth around the squash, and it all rushes from that spot into you. Becomes you. Literally.

one small pork round roast
a splash of rich, green olive oil
enough herbs de provence to cover the top of the roast
Meyer lemon sea salt, to taste
cracked black pepper

one half of a butternut squash, seeds removed
liberal splashes of pumpkin seed oil
more Meyer lemon sea salt

two good handfuls of wild greens
dibs and dabs of herbed goat cheese
a sprinkling of sunflower seeds, salted

Lap waves of pumpkin seed oil on the cut-open half of butternut squash. Sprinkle with sea salt. Roast in a 400° oven for forty-five minutes, or until the flesh yields to your fork. Take it out of the oven and let it cool.

Smear the top of the pork with olive oil, Meyer lemon sea salt, the herbs de provence, and cracked black pepper, enough to make a crust on top. Roast it in a 425° oven, or until the meat thermometer reads 140°. Don't worry if your oven smokes.

Slice the pork roast into large bites. Save half of it aside for the next day's festival of eating.

Lay down a bed of wild greens, then arrange the pork neatly on top of it. (Who am I kidding? Just throw the pork in there, because you're only going to eat it.) Layer chunks of soft butternut squash, gobs of goat cheese, and more pork on the greens. At the last, sprinkle some sunflower seeds on top.

You probably won't even need dressing. Everything else is so richly textured and five-thousand tasted that anything else would be overkill.

27 December 2005

the little gifts of Christmas

grape chutney, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I love Christmas as an adult. With no hint of religious guilt (I'm a Buddhist and I'm celebrating what?) or need to buy all the gifts in the world to prove my love (my family and I finally decided on calm, with one or two presents each), Christmas this year was just the chance to relax, lay on my parents' comfy couch reading our new books (this one I bought for my sister-in-law was the most popular, with loud guffaws coming intermittently from the living room), and play with my nephew.

Oh yes, there was plenty of time on the floor with Elliott, throwing balloons at the Christmas tree, sharpening pencils, and giggling at the phrase "flippity flip." I didn't say we had a normal Christmas. We had our Christmas.

Aside from the books I bought for the family, I also gave a different Vosges chocolate bar for each adult: a Black Pearl bar with ginger and wasabi for my brother; a Barcelona bar with almonds and grey sea salt for my mother; the Red Fire bar for my father; and a Naga bar for my sister-in-law, with curry powder and coconut. And, I also made a small jar of Meyer lemon sea salt for everyone. This is the easiest gift in the world, a trick I learned from Jamie Oliver when I was laid up with my bad ankle. Simply crush your favorite plain sea salt in a mortar and pestle with the zest of two Meyer lemons. When it's all bashed up and blended, lay the lemon salt on a baking sheet covered in aluminum foil and let it rest overnight. Or, if you're in a hurry, bake it for a bit in a 200° oven, until it has all dried. It's slightly sweet and deeply redolent of lemon. And you could do this with any fresh herb you like. Impress your friends. And make your salmon sing.

My mother didn't quite know what to do with herself when I showed up on Christmas Eve afternoon with four boxes of food and condiments from my kitchen. She's a great cook -- she's the one who taught me -- but she has been in pain these past few years, and she never really cooks. My dad tries, but, you know. Since I couldn't count on their kitchen being stocked, I brought my own with me. And, as I do here, and with all my friends, I danced around, showing them all my finds. "Have you smelled this sea salt? Look at the color of this pumpkin seed oil! Oh, and we'll have to make this hot chocolate, because it's just transcendent with the chiles and cinnamon." My parents were a little dazzled, and delighted. My mother ordered my father to write down all the names. Who knows? Maybe they'll start cooking again soon.

But the find of the week for me was this spectacular grape chutney from Tuscany. When I had stopped in at Les Cadeaux Gourmet, my favorite gourmet kitchen shop on Queen Anne Avenue, a few days before, Seis opened a jar of this, pulled out a spoon, and had me try some. (He's a talented chef with an abiding love for food, and I never grow tired of asking him for suggestions.) That's all I needed. A densely spiced chutney from the Piedmont region of Italy, it's filled with pears, quinces, fig, pumpkin, and plenty of grapes. And it's spectacular. That one taste danced on my tongue all day.

This chutney is only one of the many spectacular food finds imported from Italy through Ritrovo, an importing business in Seattle, dedicated to small farms and long-standing food traditions. From their website:

RITROVO imports are distinctly “small farm” products created by food artisans throughout Italy who emphasize organics and small-batch production. They champion the use of local, often limited crops and heirloom varietals. Many raise the ingredients for their products on their own farms using family recipes.

I love supporting any company that puts money into organic, local growing. And especially one that brings me food this good. I've been living on their Dr. Pescia honeys since August, and I recently started using this fruity, green olive oil. It makes everything taste of summer. And next, I have to try their truffle salt. Ach. This is what I have discovered on this gluten-free odyssey: splurging, just a bit, on the very best ingredients, makes everything taste extraordinary. I never miss bread rolls or cookies. I've never eaten this well. Ritrovo is halping to make the food from my kitchen spectacular. You should try some of their foods as well.

So, I cooked for two straight days. Pork roast with sour cream/horseradish sauce, plus the grape chutney from Tuscany. Mashed potatoes. Sauteed slivered brussel sprouts with Meyer lemon zest and poppy seeds. Butternut squash with smoked paprika. Chocolate financiers. Pancakes with gluten-free flour. Cranberry sausages. Slow-cooked scrambled eggs. Standing rib roast with an herbed sea salt and cracked pepper crust. Braised fennel. Seared broccolini with pumpkin seed oil and slivered almonds. And gluten-free sugar cookies. Everything tasted great, even though the sugar cookies spread faster than bad news in a small town. (Maybe if I'd read this post by David Lebovitz first, they would have been wonderfully still.)

And best yet, I didn't grow even a bit sick. Everything made me feel wonderfully whole. This is the first Christmas of my life in which I didn't feel totally bloated, logey, and ready to nap at 3 pm. I've never felt so good on a holiday. After Christmas Eve dinner, I felt fed. I felt happy. I felt like there was still a little room, because I didn't eat that much. The tastes were outrageous, and that was enough. And I finished out the evening later than everyone else, who had retreated to bed long before. So I lay in the bedroom at my parents' house, reading Ruth Reichl and feeling grateful for my health.

Making gluten-free feasts for the people I love, starting new food traditions, and ending up wonderfully well? That's one hell of a good Christmas.

24 December 2005

may you have a house full of laughter

poinsettia, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

In just a few moments, I'm leaving my home to climb in my car and join the masses trekking south on I-5. It's Christmas Eve morning, and I'm going to my parents' house.

Normally, I adore Christmas. For years, my parents referred to my brother and me as the Christmas Nazis. (I'm sorry. That's a horrible reference, but it's true.) Why? Because we insisted on watching all the same specials, on all the same nights. Rudolph. Santa Claus is Coming to Town. That one with the Heat Miser. Even Frosty the Snowman, although it was just dopey. (We did draw the line at Rudolph and Frosty's Happy New Year, because Christmas had already passed.) A series of Rankin and Bass, eerie cartoons, with awkwardly modelled figures moving jerkily through space, and an obviously gay elf. This doesn't sound much like Christmas, does it? Well, it was for us. But that was just the start. There were the fourteen different versions of the Scrooge story, the incessant watching of It's a Wonderful Life (sometimes in Spanish, when we flipped past that channel), and even such little-known classics as The Gathering, a heartening tv movie about a gruff dying patriarch, played by Ed Asner. We watched A Child's Christmas in Wales, parts of Jesus of Nazareth (the first bits, in the manger), and even the Our Miss Brooks Christmas show, from the 1950s, because it played on PBS the year we got our Beta machine. Andy and I insisted on watching all of them -- well, maybe The Gathering was my mother's idea -- and in the right order. We grew up in a bit of a chaotic household, and we needed order somewhere. It wouldn't be Christmas without those familiar jingles and cartoons, right?

Thank goodness we're past that phase now.

Now, I can still watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (and the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack is the one piece of Christmas music I can actually listen to all Decmeber long). And the Grinch, even though I didn't see it this year. I still choke up at the end of It's a Wonderful Life, but I don't have to watch more than those last fifteen minutes. And Pee Wee Herman's Christmas special, which I own on dvd, still delights me, entirely.

But better than that, our family is no longer chaotic. (Crazy, but relatively calm.) We adore each other, and play endless word games on Christmas. And these years, of course, we've re-captured the true spirit of Christmas: our mutual adoration of Elliott, my nearly-three-year-old nephew.

On Monday night, I participated in the only overtly Christmasy event of the season: the community Christmas carol sing-a-long on Vashon. Now, you have to understand, Vashon Island is the same geographic size as Manhattan, but only 9000 people live there. There are no stop lights on the island. Everyone's a kook. (If they're not, they don't last long.) And every Christmas season, people gather in the little movie theatre to sing Christmas carols together. And this year, like every other, it was spectacular. A dinky movie theatre filled with people in Santa hats, singing to lyrics from a Power Point presentation made years ago when that technology was cutting edge, projected with half the words off the screen. Half the time, the movie screen just reads: no digital image detected. Santa himself seemed snookered. There were 12-year-olds in flute ensembles, a harp orchestra, and about a hundred toddlers.
Elliott ran up and down the aisles in great delight with his little friend Evan, and climbed on the stage at one point. Santa scares him, but this year he understands the concept of presents, so he warily accepted the red, fat man's presence. I just laughed and laughed at it all, happy to have Elliott nearby.

And that night, at one point, after I had brought out a big bag of potatoes I had brought for the little family, Elliott said to me, in a plaintive voice, "Could you sit down and look at pertaters with me?"

And we really did look at them. We examined the white ones, the red ones, the purples ones, at great length. And then, Elliott said to me, "Let's sniff....fooooooood!" And then we pretended to make birthday soup, with his wooden fruit and vegetable set.

Elliott chopping

He makes me laugh and dance to Daler Mendhi and coaxes me down on the floor to play wih diggers and asks me to "Talk to those words on that page," (which is what he cals reading now, and it makes sense) and speaks in funny voices and laughs at himself and makes me really, really appreciate the moments I'm alive, because there are no other when I'm with him. Who couldn't use a little of that?

I can. And so, I'm off.

Except, to tell you, that this holiday, I'm doing all the cooking. I couldn't be happier about this. After the Thanksgiving gluten epidsode, I'm making new traditions. Who says that good life has to be about baked goods and stuffing? Instead, I'm just going to make it about great food with my dear family. So, as a preview, here's what I'll be making for Christmas Day dinner:

standing rib roast, medium-rare, with carmelized onions and au jus gravyroasted roasted potatoes with rosemary and olive oil
wild greens with pomegranate seeds, goat cheese, and toasted almonds
braised leeks and brussel sprouts with browned butter and white wine
homemade vanilla bean ice cream with Scotch poured over the top.

I don't think we're going to suffer.

And, if you're still looking for recipes for tomorrow, try Molly's eggnog (and her white bean recipe) or Melissa's egg nog, from December 14th. And if you have piles of cranberries lying around, and you are feeling ambitious, you could still make Heidi's gorgeous cranberry jam. And at the bottom of this post, since so many of you have been asking, I'm going to put a recipe for gluten-free sugar cookies.

But no matter what you are eating, or where you are eating it, or with whom, I hope you have a brilliant holiday. No matter what the holiday. Merry Christmas. Happy Hannukah. Joyous Kwanzaa. Hooray for the Winter Solstice. We're alive. Let's eat.

May you have a house full of laughter, spectacular food, and people you love.

Gluten-free Sugar Cookies

Even though I advocate finding joy in foods that are naturally gluten-free, it is the holidays. And I still like some traditions. No matter what, I still like roll-out sugar cookies, thick and threaded through with vanilla, cut into Christmas-tree shapes and frosted with buttercream frosting.

This is a recipe I adapted from Sonya Joseph's gluten-free cooking class I took at the beginning of the month. They work. They'll fill that need.

2 1/2 cups of your favorite gluten-free flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons of xanthan gum (omit if your gf flour mix already contains this)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup butter
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla (make sure it's gluten-free. Use only pure vanilla, please.)
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

After you have preheated the oven to 350°, mix all the dry ingredients together and set that bowl aside.

Cream together the shortenings and sugar, preferably with a standing mixer. Then, add the egg and vanilla. Beat these as long as you can. The more airy and whipped they are, the better the cookies will taste.

Add the dry ingredients, along with the nutmeg.

Chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least one hour. This is essential for gluten-free doughs.

When the dough is properly chilled, roll it out to 1/2-inch thickness and cut with your favorite cookie cutters.

Bake on an ungreased baking sheet (preferably with a silpat), for 12 to 15 minutes, depending on your oven.


22 December 2005

Just a quick reminder...

a menu for hope, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Hey everyone, tomorrow is the last day to donate to A Menu for Hope. I know that we're all a little stretched thin, here in the holiday season. But this is a good reminder to focus on just how much we do have.

There are so many wonderful prizes. And a surprising number of them have not been claimed yet. (Everyone wants tea with Clotilde! And dinner at Manresa!) You could win something fabulous with only $5.

But more importantly, this is all going to help the victims of the Kashmir earthquake. They need our help.

So click on this, and then donate whatever you can. And if you'd like some grey salt caramels, some Copper River salmon, and some down-to-your-toes good coffee, then just ask for the Seattle basket. I'll be happy to provide.

Thanks, everyone.

21 December 2005

and finally, there's teff

tef flour chocolate bread II, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Today is the darkest day of the year. Outside my window, rain splashes down in furious puddles on the Seattle streets. People walking by look harried, clutching packages and bags with fraying handles, their hands loaded down by last-minute presents. We’re all fighting the darkness with lights and action. And what am I doing to deal with the shortest day of the entire year?

I’m staying in and baking.

Actually, that’s not all. I’m working on an enormously important writing project. School’s finished for two weeks, which means I can sleep in and really dive into my writing. So I pace around the living room, looking at the Christmas tree, and humming, words thrumming through my mind. When I’m in this space, all is right with the world. The dishes may be undone, the bills are yet to be paid, the presents I’ll need under the tree in four days remain unknown —— never mind. What does any of that matter when I have the entire day to create?

And when I’m writing, doing the work I love, I suddenly feel even more of an urge to cook. Cooking is a deeply creative act, after all. When I’m stirring something in a deep pot, the smells wafting up to my nose, it feels the same as the pen drifting across the page. Deciding what to cook, then watching it emerge from underneath my hands feels like something from the deepest part of me, where it’s dependent on my awareness and entirely out of my control. Washing the dishes feels like scratching out the unnecessary words.

These days, I’m cooking less often with recipes. For months, I studied every good cookbook I could find with a fervent attention normally only reserved for the work of scholars. And then I’d try to replicate the vision I had formed in my mind on the plate. I’m glad for all that time trying to follow other people’s minds, because it led me to mine. Now, more and more, I imagine a taste, and then throw in ingredients that feel right. What happens if it all falls apart? Oh well. It couldn’t taste too terrible. Even if it does, I have a garbage disposal. But I’m finding, again and again, that trusting my foodie instincts leads me to places I never knew existed. If I needed it all to be perfect, I’d be doing something else. It’s the experimentation that I remember best.

“The only stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”
--Julia Child

And so, with a what-the-hell attitude firmly in mind, I decided this morning to make some banana bread. With teff flour.

Teff (also spelled tef or t’ef) is the staple grain of Ethiopia. Packed with protein, calcium, and iron, tef is also one of the gluten-free grains, along with amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and quinoa. In fact, one cup of cooked tef contains as much iron as the USDA recommends for adults in one day. It’s nutritionally rich because most of the grain is made up of bran and germ, where the nutrients live. The whole grain is made into flour. It takes 150 teff grains to equal the weight of a single wheat grain. The name, in Amharic, means “lost,” perhaps because each individual grain of tef is so small that, if dropped on the floor, it would be lost. Perhaps this explains why it’s so soft in the mouth, almost melting away immediately.

Teff was almost lost to the world. Grown exclusively in Ethiopia for thousands of years, teff was cultivated by Coptic Christians in Ethiopia. Isolated by their geography and religion from the rest of Africa, the teff farmers did not trade their grain, which is also quite labor intensive to grow. After the death of Haile Selassie, in 1974, the socialist military government insisted that the farmers grow less labor-intensive crops, such as wheat, to export to other countries and make more money for the state. Teff farming was beginning to die out. An American from Idaho, Wayne Carlson, was working as an aid worker in Ethiopia in the 1970s. Fascinated by the growing practices he witnessed, and having fallen in love with Ethiopian food, he took some of the teff seeds back home with him when he left. From there, he started growing teff in Caldwell, Idaho, then selling it to the Ethiopian communities in US cities. Today, the Teff company has a thriving business. I can find bags of teff flour fairly easily in Seattle.

tef flour

And thank goodness for that. I adore Ethiopian food. We have a number of Ethiopian restaurants in this fair city, and I have visited most of them. My brother and sister-in-law and I have come to rely on Amy's Cafe on 29th and Cherry, which looks ramshackle, and even boarded up, from the outside. Inside, the windows are steamed up from the cooking, and almost everyone at the tables is Ethiopian. They don't even offer menus. You have to know what you want, or ask the kind waitress to explain in her broken English what she thinks you should eat. When I introduced a new foodie friend to his first Ethiopian meal recently, he couldn’t believe the taste. “It’s fantastic. And it doesn’t taste like anything else I’ve ever eaten. The spices are just different.” He’s right. In case you have never eaten Ethiopian food (and you must rectify that soon, if it’s true), you should know that various spiced lentils and vegetables arrive arrayed on a large platter, which is covered in injera bread. Injera, which has a slight sourdough taste, and a texture like a yoga mat, is made from teff flour. (Gluten-free readers beware: at some Ethiopian restaurants geared toward typical Americans, they might mix the teff with wheat flour. Be sure to ask.)

In order to reach the tiny little cafe (six tables, no more) at Amy's, you have to walk through the Ethiopian grocery store. All the spices you could need to make your own veggie combo at home, plus big bags of pure teff flour for $5.99! Plus, Ethiopian dvds, should you want them. All of it enshrouded in clouds of incense smoke.

I’ve eaten so many warm, beautifully spiced Ethiopian meals that I cannot imagine my life without them. It’s a communal eating experience, because there are no forks involved. Instead, everyone tears off portions of the injera bread and pushes it into the cooked cabbage or spicy lamb. All formalities disappear. You can’t help but talk and laugh as you bump fingers over the Ethiopian cheese or chicken wat or beef kitfo. The bread satisfies, deeply. And after a few moments, it’s all gone. And you feel wonderfully sated.

You should find an Ethiopian restaurant today.

So I knew about injera bread before my celiac diagnosis. But it wasn’t until I was told I had to go gluten-free that I realized I could buy teff flour, or that I could make other foods with it. Nutty in flavor and fine in texture, teff actually makes an excellent baking flour. I’ve been eating it for months. Teff makes an excellent pie crust, when you cut it with another gluten-free flour. In fact, it might be the best pie crust you’ve ever tasted.

This morning, revved up from writing, and eager to begin cooking, I noticed some bananas growing soft on my windowsill. And somehow, I realized I had never written about teff here before. Oh, I wrote about a sweet corn quiche with a teff flour crust, based on a recipe from 101 Cookbooks. But I barely knew how to post photographs then. (The dark days of this website.) Shame. And I knew I had to rectify that situation, immediately.

I’ve grown comfortable enough with gluten-free baking that I felt safe making up my own recipe. I threw together some bananas and plain yogurt, butter and eggs. And in a separate bowl, I stirred in half gluten-free flour mix, half teff flour. Plus, unsweetened cocoa powder. And plenty of cinnamon. Other stuff too. You’ll read it in the recipe. I was just throwing in food that felt right, in the spirit of that “what the hell” quote I have stuck to my refrigerator door. Humming along, eager to see what would emerge, rather than worrying about following a recipe correctly.

Would it be terribly gauche of me to say that it turned out spectacular?

tef flour chocolate bread

Teff flour, being so soft, and slightly gelatinous when it cooks, makes a perfect ingredient for baking quick breads. This one tastes a little like a cake, in that way. A touch of cinnamon. Dark chocolate threading through. And the bananas emerging, bright, but not too much so. A good crumb, solid structure. And mostly, just a brilliant taste of something light, on the darkest day of the year.

You see what happens when you throw caution to the dark, rainy winds and just cook?

Chocolate Banana Bread with Teff Flour

In making this bread, I used a round enamelware pot, instead of a loaf pan. This lent itself to the cake-like quality of the bread, which I found I loved. If you want a more traditional quick bread texture, then try the loaf pan.

1 cup of gluten-free flour of your choice
1 cup of teff flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons high-quality, unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
3 overly ripe bananas
1/4 cup plain yogurt (make sure it's gluten free)
2 large eggs
6 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350° degrees. Move the rack to a position in the lower half of the oven. This will prevent the crust of the bread from burning. Grease the pan you intend to use.

Stir together all the dry ingredients, making sure to tame the lumps of cocoa powder with a fork. Set aside.

With a standing mixer or hand mixer, beat the eggs lightly. Then, add the yogurt, vanilla extract, and melted butter. When this assemblage is completely mixed, then gently add in the dry ingredients. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the dry ingredients until they are just mixed.

Scrape the dough into your pan. Pat down the top to make a flat surface. If you wish, toss a few pecans or walnut halves onto the top. Place into the oven and bake for about forty minutes, or until the knife you insert gently into the bread comes out again clean. Let the bread sit in the pan for five to ten minutes, then turn it over onto a wire rack. Serve warm, with cream cheese, if you wish.

18 December 2005

what gifts come out of the air

Le Creuset, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

For the past week, I've been keeping a secret. Giggling behind my hands, I've been wanting to share. But I have to admit, I've also been a little reluctant to shout this one out, because I feel a little guilty. I mean, what did I do to deserve such largesse? And am I compromising my standards as a writer by accepting such gifts?

But finally, I just can't stand it any longer. I just have to tell you.

Okay, back up. Last month, just after I broke my foot and had to miss my trip to New York, I splurged. Being a high school teacher, I don't have a lot of extra money. Especially for the kind of cookware I'd love to own. When I walk into Sur la Table, I ogle the pots and pans. I ooh and ahh over the lovely ladles and spoons. I wish for a patron to stock my kitchen. But slowly, over the years, I have been accruing the basics of a good kitchen, to support my insatiable cooking habit. Last week, after years of suffering with a dull one, I bought myself a truly fine knife. What I've been realizing this past year is that "luxury" is sometimes necessity. And for those of us who have to eat gluten free, who cook almost all our own food, sometime splurges are no longer decadence. Honestly, I can't imagine my kitchen without the wonderful Kitchen-Aid mixer I received as a gift a full decade ago. And now, the knife.

So, in that spirit, the week after I broke my foot, I bought myself a tiny little Le Creuset pot. For years, I have been coveting this cookware. It's cast iron covered by enamelware, and it's beautiful. My dear friend Tita received a set for her wedding, over twenty-five years ago, and she's still using it on a nearly daily basis. I'm not married, and there's no one in sight. So waiting for a wedding to receive some Le Creuset seems terribly far away. Hell with the wedding. I bought myself some. Of course, I could only afford the mini cocotte, which fits into the palm of my hand. But it was enough. I roasted garlic in it and wrote about it happily, back in November.

Well, here's where the secret comes in. You see, someone (who shall remain nameless) read that little joyful post of mine, and decided to take fate into her own hands. My fairy godblogger, without my knowing it, sent that little post to the people at Le Creuset. She told them about my gluten-free exploits, how I've been extoling the virtues of cooking at home, and specifically, how much I love Le Creuset. They read it, liked my site, and agreed with her. I needed some more pots and pans.

And so, dear readers, this is how an entire set of Le Creuset, gorgeous and shining twilight blue, showed up on my doorstep last week. Out of the air, just before the holidays, unbidden, and glorious. My gleaming metal kitchen shelves are now festooned with the most beautiful cookware I have ever owned.

I've just been bursting with joy ever since.

My friends in Seattle have heard all about this, and have even seen my lovely new pots and pans. (There was plenty of oohing and aahing at Sunday's party.) I even told my writing students about this: "You see? When you write from the heart, the images that need to emerge, urgently, goodness comes back to you." And I've been dabbling with dishes. Eggs slowly scrambled on my cast-iron skillet. The minestrone re-heated in the five-quart pot. Everything tasted so good.


But my last week has been so packed-in busy at school that I hadn't really had a chance to cook anything from scratch in my new Le Creuset. Last weekend, in preparation for the party, I cut my finger with my new, sharp knife, by making mushroom stock at 10:20 at night. I managed to finish making the stock, then stuck it in the refrigerator, gave up on the soup. The party survived its absence. But it had been plaguing me. I had to use this stock. It's rich and flavorful and full or porcini mushroom essence. So when do use it? When do I cook with my new Le Creuset? Why, today, of course. When I have 54 student evaluations and five more letters of recommendation to write. The perfect time.

Okay, so I decided to make a densely tasted, many-stepped mushroom soup to stave off writing evaluations. I've written some, others are waiting. It's going to take all day, and I'm balking. What else is new? I know the drill by now. Do some, then cook.

The sun was coming through the skylights, forgiving and kind. A soft, yellowy light, high northern light, Rembrandt light. And it feels good. It had been a raw week, as some of you already know. Stresses. Too much work. Overwhelmedness. Blah. By yesterday, I seemed to have blown most of it out of me, but there's still that little dance of tremulousness, the evaluations waiting.

carmelizing onions and mushrooms

So I'm in the kitchen, dancing with the light. Patty Griffin is on the stereo, and I can't help but singing. The onions are carmelizing in my mighty Le Creuset. Shitake and white mushrooms are searing in the skillet on the back burner. It's all coming together. I can feel it turning into food I'll want to eat. Perhaps even write about later. And I'm ready for the stock, to deglaze the pans. So I reach into the refrigerator for the giant tupperware container, and turn toward the stove....

and it spills from my hands. No, it tumbles. No, it rushes, dances, spins, and then, SPLAT! It crashes to the floor, the lid pops off (perhaps it wasn't on, really, and that's why it fell, but no matter), and mushroom stock splashes up. No, it fountains up. No, it surges, leaps, dances, then spins. All over the kitchen. We're not talking a tiny spill. A little bobble. I mean, the entire floor is suddenly puddled in rich shitake stock. My sheepskin slippers have dark splotches on them. My orange pants are a wet sienna. The coffee pot drips brown. My face is splattered with stock. And of course, the pan is now deglazed, because there's stock all over the stove.

I pause for a moment, frozen in my spot. And then I start to laugh, as stock drips down underneath my shirt. I start to giggle, then move and almost slip in the pool of brown liquid at my feet, then roar at my own almost pratfall. So I stand in the middle of the kitchen, dripping, stock gone, the morning possibly ruined, except it's not. Because I'm laughing, in waves of giant giggles, then deep belly laughs. Waves of laughter, strong enough to knock down any of my remaining walls of resistance, anxiety, silliness, and worry. Rolls of hoarse, from-the-core-of-me laughter, bouncing off the windows, extending to the Olympic mountains.

And I'm fine.

Because that's how life works for me. A magnificent gift, a bounty from the world I love, and then I spill stock all down the front of me. And I'm laughing. How could I not?

And the soup? Well, I just used some leftover beef stock from a carton instead, and it tasted fantastic. I could taste the Le Creuset gift and the laughter in it. And I could taste the first splatterings of winter-vacation freedom on my tongue.

mushroom soup

Winter Mushroom Soup, adapted from Fields of Greens

I first made this soup years and year ago, when I was first learning to cook. At the time, it felt like an all-day accomplishment, a feat to be conquered. And the taste of the soup only justified all that work. Now, it's many years, and innumerable meals cooked, later. And I decided to throw it together on the spur of the moment. Without spilling stock all over the floor, the recipe takes far less time to make than I had remembered. The only lengthy part is making the stock beforehand and carmelizing the onions. (For great tips on how to carmelize onions, check out Rachael's post.) Remember, great food doesn't come from speed. Spend some time in the kitchen, dancing with the light, if possible. Hours later, your tongue will be happy.

This is adapted rather freely from the most excellent Fields of Greens, which has, in my opinion, the best recipes for soup of any cookbook out there. Every single one tastes decadent, even though they come from simple sources. I've used far more mushrooms than the original recipe calls for, because I like a thick mushroom soup, where every spoon has chewy bites of different mushrooms. The original also called for soy sauce, but wheat-free tamari substitutes quite well. Perhaps even better.

6 cups of mushroom, vegetable, or beef stock (preferably homemade)
1 ounce of dried wild mushrooms, soaked in warm water for fifteen minutes first
3 tablespoons of high-quality extra virgin olive oil
2 large onions, sliced thin (try this on the mandoline, but watch your fingers)
salt and pepper to taste
8 garlic cloves, sliced thin
2 pounds of white mushrooms, caps only, sliced rather thickly
1 pound of shitake mushrooms, sliced thick, stems included
1/2 cup of dry sherry
a splash of wheat-free tamari
1 medium-sized potato, peeled and sliced (Yukon gold will work well)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs: basil, oregano, or Italian parsely
crumbled goat cheese

Heat one tablespoon of the olive oil in your best stockpot on medium heat. Add the sliced onions, a pinch of salt, and a dash of pepper. Saute the onions until they begin to soften, then add the soaked wild mushrooms (but not the water) and half the garlic. Turn the heat down to medium-low and allow the onions and mushrooms to slowly carmelize. This should take about half an hour. Stir once in awhile to avoid the onions sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Meanwhile, saute the white mushrooms with olive oil in a skillet on high heat. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Then, step back and let the mushrooms sear. You're going to worry that they're burning, or that they'll be stuck to the pan permanently. Wait. Keep searing them over high heat until they are golden, or until they begin to squeak. Stir them, gently, then keep cooking for one more minute. Add the shitake mushrooms, several tablespoons of the sherry, and a splash of tamari sauce. Cook for a minute or so, until the shitake mushrooms are quite tender. At this point, they'll smell like the essence of mushroom. If they are stuck, a bit, deglaze the pan with some of the stock.

(If you don't have a large skillet, it will probably be necessary to sautee the mushrooms in this way in two batches. In that case, use half of each ingredient for the process, then repeat.)

Back at the stockpot, add 1/4 cup of the sherry, and the potato slices. Cover the pot, turn the heat back up to medium, and let it all bubble away for fifteen minutes, or until the potatoes yield easily to a fork. At this point, transfer the contents of the stockpot to your blender or food processor, and puree it until it's a dark-brown mushroom color, one consistent liquid. (And if you're lucky enough to own one of those wands you can put directly into the pot, well, you know what to do.) Pour the puree back into the pot.

Add the sauteed mushrooms, as well as the stock of your choice, into the puree in the stockpot. Throw in your favorite chopped herbs. Cook for another 30 to 45 minutes, allowing the soup to take on its own rich taste.

Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle it into bowls, and swirl in a small splash of especially green, vegetal olive oil. Dabs of crumbled goat cheese on top make this complete.

17 December 2005

the unexpected pleasures of a label on a package

gluten-free baking powder, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Yesterday was the crazy dance of the last day of school. We're on break for two weeks, and everyone's feeling fine. Certainly, there are stories. Dozens and dozens of stories. But I can't tell you about school, even though I'd love to share the place with you. It entrances me. Wackiness. Kindness. Extraordinary moments. I love that wonderful school. But I've been asked not to share stories of it here, and I understand. It's best to keep the two lives separate.

But I can tell you this, because it's true of any school on the last day before the winter holiday break, in every pocket of the country. My goodness, everyone was swooping down on the sweets. Everywhere, students clutched candy canes and homemade cookies. Teachers were diving into their gifts of Godiva chocolates. At the end of the day, the top of the faculty room table was dusted in doughnut detritus. Half-eaten cookies were ground into the carpets. After all, it's the holidays, right? Usually, by the end of that last day, I'm ready to collapse with exhaustion, weary past the point of coherence. And this year? Well, I was fairly tired, and thrilled to leave the building (not because I don't love teaching, but who doesn't love a break?). But this year, for the first time, I wasn't the kind of spirit-crushing, headachy, I-feel-as-though-I-need-to-lie-down kind of tired I have been for most of my life. Why? This year, I had to wave away all the homemade fudge, striped candy-cane cookies, gingerbread men, and sugary treats. They could all contain gluten, you see. Before, I would have succumbed to them all. It is the holidays, after all. And normally, I'm just plain tuckered out for most of the holidays. It's no surprise to me now that whenever I caught pneumonia (six times in my life) or grew tremendously, terrifyingly sick, it was just around the holidays. Why? All those damned baked goods.

Now, I'm entering this winter break with an energy I never thought I would have. Oh sure, last evening, I was exhausted, but so were all my colleagues. It's hard to convey to anyone outside of teaching, but those last two weeks of school before the winter break are like walking through cold, sludgy molasses. (At least it's probably gluten-free.) But today, I'm a new woman. Give me a solid night's sleep and the solid understanding that school is actually over, and I'm back. Who was that the last two weeks? Well, I know that not being able to exercise had been playing with my mind. (The broken foot has kept me from fully using my body for six weeks. But it is, happily, quite well healed now. Thank you.) Today, I feel fierce and alive. I've been cooking, writing, singing, taking photographs, looking at the light, dancing, talking with friends on the phone, seeing other friends, and even doing a little work for school. (We may be on vacation, but we're not done yet. We teachers have all the student evaluations and letters of recommendations to write.) And there's the pesto I just made for the gluten-free pasta that's cooking, plus a friend's party soon. Life's feeling good.

Still, it's hard to turn down all those treats. Why is it that people seem to feel as though you are attacking them personally if you don't eat their home-baked goods? Do we all have to express our love in big bites this time of year?

In one of my classes, for the last-day-of-classes party, a student had made fudgy chocolate chip cookies for the rest of the class. Of course, they knew I couldn't have any--anyone who knows me knows about my gluten-free glories---so I passed the plate, politely. A few minutes later, one of the students, after taking a bite of one, said, "Shauna, would you get sick if you had one bite?" When I laughed and explained that, yes, I would, and I'd probably feel lousy for about three days, she said, "It would almost be worth it. These taste so good."

Those of you who can eat gluten have no idea what it's like. I know. I didn't, before this.

Even the people who are looking out for me ask me questions that baffle me now, questions that I would probably have asked before. You can't eat sugar, right? (No, sweetie, that's glucose.) Is there gluten in rice? Do beans have gluten? When I demurred on eating the potato-cheddar soup a friend had bubbling on the stove at her party last night, another friend said, "Oh, that's because of the potatoes, isn't it? How do you live without starches?" (Actually, potatoes do not have gluten. And I only passed on the soup because my friend had bought it at a store, and she didn't know if it had been thickened with flour.) I can tell from the panicked search questions that lead people to this website--"Does eggplant have gluten in it?"; "gluten in pomegranates"--how little real knowledge is out there.

Of course, I'm doing what I can.

Why is it that one out of five people I meet seem to have some sort of food allergy——lactose intolerance; problems with corn; violent reactions to tomatoes; instant reactions to tropical fruits——and yet, those of us with food allergies are regarded as some sort of cranky freaks? Complainers. Too sensitive for our own good. And I'll be the first to admit it: before I was diagnosed with celiac, I thought people with food allergies were...a little questionable. Aren't you just trying to draw too much attention to yourself?

Come on, what harm would one bite do?

Well, last week, a 15-year-old Canadian girl with a severe peanut allergy died because her boyfriend kissed her, after he had eaten a peanut butter sandwich nine hours before. Apparently, she never told him, because she was embarrassed about being seen as too unusual for him. And no wonder. When I was searching for this story online, the first page of hits included one newspaper that had put this story in its "Odd, Weird, and Quirky" section. Thanks. The girl dies, and that's quirky.

Anyone who reads this website knows how joyfully I approach this entire endeavor. I try not to complain, because there is so much great food for my discovering. Rarely do I feel deprived, particularly in the face of real suffering in the world. But every once in a while, I grow annoyed, a little saddened, at feeling like the odd eater out. And gluten intolerance is really not that hard to understand. I want everyone in the world to be educated about this, so that we don't have to feel like freaks anymore. But especially, so that we don't have to be sick anymore.

Luckily, we're at a turning point right now. This culture does seem to be waking up about gluten intolerance in particular, food allergies in general. I can't imagine how hard it must have been to be a celiac twenty years ago, with the dearth of products and awareness. Now, there are hundreds of gluten-free products out there. Last week, at my party, people brought dozens of them for the gluten-free potluck. I never thought I would promote them, but WalMart recently announced that it is requiring their private-line foods to be labeled gluten-free. And the Food Labeling Act of 2004, which goes into effect in January of 2006, requires food manufacturers to list the presence of the eight leading causes of food allergies: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soy-beans. Notice that it doesn't list gluten. That's another four years, at least. But having wheat listed on a package will help. We're on the right path.

Before my celiac diagnosis, I never thought that two words (or one hyphenated word, if it's before the noun) on a package of food would ever make me so happy. Gluten free. That's all it takes to make me happy in a grocery store.

If food producers were smart, they'd all start labeling this way. Those of us with celiac (or with other reasons to avoid gluten) leap at any product with the gluten-free label. We're a fiercely loyal bunch. And we need this food. We'll buy it, in droves, if it says gluten-free. I don't know about everyone else, but I feel recognized, even appreciated, when I see a product with gluten-free on the label.

Annie's gluten-free

Now, if you've been reading, you know that I don't even eat many packaged foods anymore. Whole, fresh, in season, homemade--this is my food. But on the bus ride home, after the last day of school before the winter break, I had (temporarily) run out of ideas. Suddenly, I just wished I had a tv dinner in the house. Or a quick take-out place I could call. But of course, there's no gluten-free Chinese take-out in Seattle.

Walking up the steps, I saw that my mailbox was bulging with a package. It is the holidays, after all, so I wasn't shocked. But when I picked this one up, I heard it rattling. Looking at the address, I softened into a smile. Alison, from Alaska. Every summer, I teach creative writing at a fabulous fine arts camp in Sitka. And every year, Alison has taken my poetry class. We've become wonderfully close, even though we only see each other for two weeks out of the year. But I hadn't heard from her in awhile. I've been busy too. Seeing her name made me happy.

Opening the package made me happier. Why? Because she had sent me photographs, a rambling letter, and a package of Annie's gluten-free macaroni and cheese. She'd seen it in the store and thought of me. So, she sent me that night's dinner.

I love macaroni and cheese. In fact, mac and cheese from scratch was the first dinner I learned how to make as a kid. And even now, I can make a damned fine one with Tinkyada pasta, gruyere and smoked cheddar. But sometimes, you just need a box of mac and cheese. And how damned great is it that, finally, there's a gluten-free package of cheesy goodness and recognition?

Sometimes, all it takes is two words on a label to make me feel loved.

14 December 2005

gleaming bright in the dark night kitchen

Wusthoff, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

A confession: for the past decade, I’ve been doing all my cooking with a lousy $20 knife.

I bought it when I still lived on Vashon Island, when I was teaching at my little island high school and living in a pre-fab apartment behind the fire station. I was 29 years old, just on the verge of life as I know it. There’s a big difference in that decade. Since then, I’ve lived in Manhattan; moved to London with the CFP; met the Dalai Lama; started yoga; sat meditation every morning for years; made dozens and dozens of friends who are dearly important to me; moved back to Seattle and started teaching again; nearly died in a car accident and learned how to live; suffered for months in inexplicable pain; found out my celiac diagnosis; started this website; and changed my life once again.

And that’s only the outline.

And through it all, I’ve been using the same cheap, crappy knife.

On Vashon, I set up my first real home, a never-lived-in apartment with two bedrooms. The kitchen was a squashed rectangle, with all-new appliances and pewter-grey counters. After having subsisted on hand-me-downs and thrift store buys alone, I was thrilled to finally buy new supplies. So I bought a knife set at Fred Meyer and started cooking seriously for the first time in my life. I made recipes from Laurel’s Kitchen, the Moosewood library, and every vegetarian cookbook I could find. I made homemade bread every week. I also cut open the base of my thumb with that knife, by quickly ripping open a package that Sharon had sent me from France. I knew it contained fabulous olives and expensive sea salt, and I wanted to see them. And then the tip of the knife slipped, and my skin slit open...I can still see the little white crescent scar in the light, to remind me. Mostly, I thrilled to make meals come from my hands, with my flashy knives.

I shipped the biggest knife in my boxes to my apartment on the Upper West Side, in 1997. In a city where I knew no one at first, opening the box with my kitchen supplies was what made me feel like I was home. I chopped vegetables, trimmed the edges of pie crusts, and sliced the first Thanksgiving turkey I made on my own with that knife. I threw apple pie parties, made stews by the dozens, and learned how to cook with truffle oil. Of course, so few people in New York City actually cook that my first roommates in that apartment were perpetually freaked out that I had such a big knife in the kitchen.

And when I moved to Seattle, I set up my kitchen again. A tiny gas stove, a small counter space, open cupboards, and a humming refrigerator that never shut down. I made basil goat cheese pasta on beds of arugula for the boyfriend at the time, along with slices of mango marinated in brown sugar and lime. I finally learned how to cook salmon well. Enormous salads, quinoa for the first time, and always, fabulous baked goods.

And through it all, I always felt a little sick, a lot run down, never quite well. I didn’t know it was the pies and pasta and baked goods.

And through it all, I chopped with that same, flimsy knife. I’ve never sharpened it. I can’t even see my own reflection in it anymore. It’s dull and barely worth it.

Anyone else would have bought a really good knife, long ago.

But good knives just seemed so darned expensive. $50 to $150 for one knife just felt like decadence, in the last decade.

However, if I’ve learned anything about cooking in the last year--and oh boy, have there been plenty of lessons--it’s that a few “expensive” kitchen essentials make the entire experience more worth it. And since my celiac diagnosis, I mostly eat at home now, in my wide, spacious kitchen that feels far more permanent than any place I’ve ever lived. Spending most of my disposable income on fresh ingredients, slightly exotic spices, and truly great olive oil, I still save more money than the days when I ate in restaurants without really thinking. Making my own food saves me money and simply enriches my life.

So I decided, last month, to buy a truly great knife. I asked my compatriots, at Food Blog S’Cool, what they thought of knives. Some of them have been to culinary school, and some of them are simply dedicated amateurs, like me. But every one of them had an opinion. If you’d like to see some of the names they offered, take a look. You might be as dazzled by the options as I was. And excited. Rachael also offered her insightful guide for how to care for knives. After reading, I felt confused. But everyone seemed to give the same suggestion: go to the store and hold some.

So I did. I held some Ken Shun knives at my favorite local kitchen store, Les Cadeux Gourmets. They felt good, but a little light. One of the knives rode funny on my palm. That wasn’t the one. But I kept them in my mind.

Well, last Monday, I went to Sur la Table. And not only did I have the ineffable joy of taking a cooking class from David Lebovitz, but I arrived early enough that I could ask to test some knives. I had no intention of buying one that night. It’s the holiday season. I should be spending my money on other people. And at first, I felt removed. The Globals felt flimsy in my hands. I’m certain they’re great knives, but after a decade with my cheap knife, I wanted one with heft. The Henckels felt fine, but just all right. And then I picked up an 8” Wusthof.

Wusthoff II

It was like falling in love at first sight. I held it in my hand, and I never wanted it to leave. It just felt good. Heavy, but not burdensome. Whole and solid and perfect. Holding it, and then chopping some potatoes with it, I knew that I needed to own it. Why look further when you’ve already found it? I trust my gut. I bought the knife.

I took it home and looked at it. Took pictures of it. Slid it in and out of its cover and listened to the sword-like tzwing sound it made when it emerged from its shell. At first, I didn’t want to use it. It’s so pretty. But then, I broke that barrier and started chopping.

Here’s a friendly warning for you, if you’re planning on buying yourself a really good knife (and you should. You really should.): respect the knife. When I started slicing vegetables, I was in awe of the knife. I’ve never chopped so slowly in my life. Everything simply fell into small slices and tender nibbles without the least bit of trouble from me. Eager to cut and chop and dice and slice, I took every vegetable I had in the house, and watched it transform into magic under my hands. I was mindful and kind and watching and alive. It felt good. The minestrone soup that grew from a mound of vegetables filled me, entirely.

But a few nights later, in trying to prepare for my impending party, I started making mushroom stock at 10:20 at night. The counters were covered with foods yet to be prepared. My large cutting board was yet to be washed. And I was in a hurry. So I started slicing onions, fast, on a small cutting board, precariously balanced on one of the stove’s burners. Forgetting the knife’s power, I used the same force I needed for my old one. Without a single minute of warning, I took off a chunk of the top of my ring finger. Just gone. And suddenly bleeding.

Another lesson learned.

I’m okay. I stopped it. Bandaged it. Went to bed. By now, it’s just slightly red, fading into a scar already. After I stopped ingesting gluten, I heal so quickly I almost feel superhuman.

But let me tell you, I’m not going to take that knife for granted. It’s a beautiful knife. Whisper sharp and gleaming in the dark night kitchen. I plan on owning this one for at least another decade. And I can’t wait to eat all the meals that will appear, underneath my hands.


MINESTRONE SOUP, adapted from The Best Recipe

This is the easiest, tastiest minestrone recipe I have ever made. After I discovered it last winter, I must have made it a dozen times in two months. Each time, eager friends asked for second and third bowls. When I made it last week, as a way of chopping vegetables with my new knife I had an enormous pot of soup bubbling away on the stove in no time. Since it's only me in the house, I had bowls and bowls of it leftover. On Sunday morning, I set it on a slow simmer and served it to my guests that afternoon. They kept asking for more bowls as well.

I've written the recipe with my customary vegetables, but really, you could use any winter vegetables you like in this one. The trick is the parmigiano rind.

2 leeks, washed, white and light green portions chopped
2 medium carrots, diced
2 small white onions, peeled and sliced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 medium potato, peeled and diced (I like Yukon gold)
2 zucchini, sliced
1 large bunch of spinach
1 can of whole tomatoes, packed in their own juice (try Muir Glen or San Marzano)
1 rind of good parmigiano-reggiano cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 can white beans, drained (cannelini or great northern beans work well)
1/2 cup pesto (homemade is best, of course)

Chop, dice, and prepare all the vegetables with your best kitchen knife. Treat it gently. Do it mindfully. Believe it or not, this care will show up in the taste of the soup.

Place all the vegetables (including the canned tomatoes), the rind of cheese, the salt, and eight cups of water in your best stockpot. Bring this to boil. Once it has boiled, turn the heat down to low (or medium-low, depending on your stove and your pot). Simmer the mixture for an hour or so, or until the vegetables are starting to soften while still keeping their shape.

Add the beans and cook for ten minutes or so, until they are cooked through. Remove the pot from the heat source. Immediately, fish out the rind of parmigiano, because that would be quite the discovery for some unsuspecting guest. Add the pesto and stir it into the soup.

Ladle the fragrant soup into bowls and serve immediately. For decadence, top with grated gruyere.

12 December 2005

a chance to help with hope

a menu for hope, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

In September, just after the Katrina devastation, I felt futile, being a food blogger. This avocation of mine felt useless in the face of such suffering. Finally, I wrote this post, which at least posed some questions and helped me to quell the feeling of frivolity. And I've still been following that situation, doing what I can. Two of my students are flying to Mississippi this weekend, to spend their Christmas vacation in the wake of that hurricane, cleaning up rubble and helping people. We can all do something.

But today, I'm thrilled to be a food blogger, doing my part. Because, today, the ever-fascinating Ms. Pim is hosting the food bloggers' Menu for Hope II. This consortium of food bloggers, from all around the world, are donating delicious gifts and enticing food books, all in the name of charity. Last year's Menu for Hope raised money for the tsunami victims. And this year, we are doing our best to raise as much money as possible for the victims of the earthquake in the Kashmir region of Pakistan and India. They need our help. There are still thousands of people trapped in the mountains, and the bitter winds of winter are descending.

Each participating food blogger has donated a prize particular to his or her gifts. For example, Clotilde of Chocolate and Zucchini is offering the chance to sample Pierre Herme pastries and tea with her in Paris one afternoon. The incredible Heidi Swanson is offering a one-hour lesson on how to take food photographs (if you are near San Fransisco), or a signed copy of her marvelous cookbook. Have you seen her photographs? I hope I win that one. I'd take a trip to San Franciso just to learn from her. And, in perhaps the most fitting donation, Brett from In Praise of Sardines is offering a starter kit full of the ingredients necessary to cook a Kashmiri feast.

And there are dozens more, which you can read about by clicking here.

Well, of course, I had to donate something. I thought about a basket full of gluten-free goodies, to go with the theme of this website. But in the end, I love writing about great food, food that just happens to be gluten-free. Along with devotion to the joys of gustatory experiences, I'm thrilled to say I live in Seattle, where we always eat well. Wild blackberries, salmon, and Tom Douglas restaurants. Fran's gray salt caramels. The best coffee in the world, some of it even organic. For me, the taste of food is also the taste of the place.

And so, for my donation, I'm offering a basket full of some of the best foods Seattle has to offer. A box of Fran's gray salt caramels. A pound of organic Fiore coffee. Smoked copper river salmon (the richest salmon in the world, from Alaska, but we do love our Alaskan salmon here). And a copy of Tom Douglas' fabulous cookbook. And, if it just so happens that the person who wins the raffle for my prize needs to eat gluten-free, well, then I'll throw in some of those gluten-free goodies and recipes along with the rest of it.

If you'd like to donate, and win the chance for this Seattle basket of goodness, then click on this: the FirstGiving donation page for A Menu for Hope II. (First Giving is acting as a conduit for us to Unicef, the highly respected relief organization.)

°Donate as much money as you can afford.
°Specify the prize(s) you would like to win. Each $5 donation gives you a chance to win something.
°Tell your friends about this fabulous opportunity.
° Feel good that you have done something good for hope.

Donatations will be taken until December 23rd, and the winners will be announced after the New Year.

I'd love it if everyone who read this post donated at least $5. Let's raise as much money as we can.

It's so good to be a part of this community.

donate to Unicef

(Photo credit for Menu for Hope: the inimitable Heidi Swanson)

11 December 2005

being alive

good, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I had to nearly lose my life to write this essay.

In the back of the ambulance, I kept falling out of consciousness. The medic shouted questions at me, to keep me from fading away. “What is your name?” The urgency in his voice cut through the fog.

I didn’t know my name.

I didn’t know much of anything.

I knew that my arms and legs felt useless. At the best trauma hospital in Seattle, the nurses piled on eight or ten emergency blankets. But nothing stopped the trembling at the core of me. Deep under, I heard the urgent confusion in the nurse’s voices—they wondered why they couldn’t warm me up. From a great distance, a thought arose, “I’m dying.” But the thought vanished, along with any fear of it. My mind didn’t have the energy to care.

In December of 2003, two years ago today, my life spun around after being hit by a car. It could have been worse—people who saw the crumpled car were amazed I survived at all. There was a terrifying day in the hospital, deep in shock and feeling close to death. And a year and a half of medical treatments, debilitating pain, and time for reflection.

Ample time for reflection.

After having survived it, and studied up on it, I know that, in deep shock, all the blood rushes from the extremities to protect the inner organs. That’s why my arms felt so foreign at my sides. That’s why my thinking nearly stopped. That’s why I can only remember it now in flashes of disconnected images.

But the studying didn’t ameliorate the feeling. It felt like death. Or, at least, it feels like that’s what death will be like. I feel it deep in my core. And what did it feel like? Utterly anonymous. Everything that was individual, attached to the world, or what I identify as Shauna? It didn’t exist. It slipped away. And it was wonderfully easy.

There was no struggle. No regret. There was no great epiphany, no white light. I was simply fading out.

Everything in our culture says we have to rush, to accomplish, to be better and bigger than everyone else. We don’t know how to slow down. Nothing like a near-death experience to make you stop rushing, and really live, instead.

While I was in bed for months, recuperating incrementally, I did hours of lying-down meditation. And everything I had studied about Buddhism, concepts I believed deeply before—-letting go; loving-kindness; the illusion of a fixed self; that clinging and expectations cause suffering—-were really only ideas before my car accident. Now, they are in my body.

It has been a bigger blessing than I could ever express.

I’m here now, in vivid colors.

But death has been sitting inside me ever since. And in some ways, that has been scary. Difficult to convey. After all, every attempt with words is a failure.

But in other ways, it has been an enormous grace. This presence has meant that I can’t wrap myself in senseless fear or stress. I know that all those trivial details will slip away someday, so why waste my time with them now?

And there’s a comfort of having gone down to the core, knowing that I don’t have to struggle. Or try to control anything.

What if life isn’t about accomplishing anything? What if it’s just about being alive?

I’m so grateful to have this life, as it is: complicated, quirky, and destined to fade away entirely. Because I know, now, what I am. Not words. Not my memories, my to-do list, or my accomplishments. And not my hopes for the future.

I’m not me.

What am I?

Just life. Breath. Consciousness. The ability to hear the din of noise in a room full of people eating, feel the sudden flush of the oven on my face when I open it, smell the fresh-cut ginger rising to greet me, taste the soft lemon-garlic bite of roasted potatoes, or see the craggy Olympic mountains rising high in the pale blue sky from my kitchen window.

A beating heart. An alive mind. This moment.

Right now.

The miraculous fact that we are alive, able to take breath, and take in images of the world, is all that we need to connect us. When we truly understand, in our bodies, that every single being shares this, we have no choice but to love each other.

And this knowledge in my body informs everything I do. I know that if I hadn’t been spun around, turned toward death, I would never have been able to accept having celiac disease with such joy. Eating gluten-free, while sometimes an annoyance, and once in a while a loss, is a joyful freedom in comparison to the terrible headaches and nagging pain I suffered for years. And mostly, after nearly losing it, I know, down to my toes, that I want to say yes to life, instead of no.

And so, today, I said yes. To being alive. Friends gathered at my house for a “Hey, We’re Alive” party. A recognition, and a celebration. The house filled with people, many of whom I didn’t know two years ago, and, if circumstances had been different, would never have met. They started arriving in the morning when the sunlight splashed through the kitchen skylights. Lights from my Christmas tree glittered against the darkened windows by the time the last people left. We laughed and talked and sat on the kitchen counters, dangling our legs in happy unison. And of course, we ate. Minestrone soup. Goat cheese marinade. Lovely Thai concoctions with lime and coconut, wrapped in lettuce leaves. Six different kinds of cheese. Roasted potatoes. Chocolate financiers. Flaxseed chips. Lovely bottles of wine. Lime water. Three-bean salad. Lemon meringues. The sigh of ginger. The happy whisper of people filling a room.

The tastes danced on my tongue. I was surrounded by people I love, and I felt alive.

What more could I need?

07 December 2005

I can't believe I forgot my camera.

David takes my photo!, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Okay, I'm so in love with David Lebovitz now. The man is hilarious, like David Sedaris hilarious, with a thousand tiny asides that made me squeak with laughter in the middle of his chocolate cooking class, sometimes too loudly. And then, oh my god, he knows how to cook everything with chocolate, including recipes without flour, just for me. Can you imagine how handy he would be to have around the house?

I'm in love.

Okay, okay, maybe I'm exaggerating. But seriously, you didn't meet the man. It's not just that he was the pastry chef at Chez Panisse for twelve years. (And even though I have never been there, someday, in my dreams, when I'm celebrating something really, really special, I'll fly down to Berkeley to eat at the restaurant, and smile hard all evening.) And it's not just that he wrote these gorgeous cookbooks full of spectacular desserts, especially Ripe for Dessert, which has juicy possiblities for those of us who can't eat gluten. And it's not even that he makes part of his living by giving chocolate tours of Paris. Sigh. It's just that he's so damned cool.

In the middle of his fabulous chocolate cooking class at Sur La Table on Monday, David pointed to me, then said, "Do you mind if I do this?" Well of course not. And then, like the mensch he is, David declared for everyone in the audience, "I'd like to point out the Gluten-free Girl. Shauna and I met online." Pause. Another beat. "We're going to be married on Sunday!" Oh goody! I get to marry David Lebovitz.

Seriously, though, it really moved me that he made a point of talking about food substitutions and working with those of us who can't eat gluten. Actually, it impressed me that many of the recipes he made that night didn't require any gluten at all: spiced nuts with fleur de sel (just omit the pretzels, if you can't eat gluten); Parisian hot chocolate (my oh my); and Gateau Bastille, which involved lots of tiny pieces of prunes, bittersweet chocolate, and heavy cream, but no flour. Yum.

But best of all, because I was in the audience, David sweetly decided to make chocolate financiers without any flour. Instead of the one tablespoon of flour that the recipe originaly called for, he just used another tablespoon of Dutch-processed, unsweetened cocoa powder. And let me tell you, they were fantastic. He told us that in Paris, people eat these tiny little chocolate perfections as a late-afternoon snack. Just a few rich, chocolate bites, with no hint of cloying, tides everyone over until dinner. That's an afternoon tradition I could sustain.

One of the best parts of the three-hour class was David's running patter of food facts and fabulous stories of chocolate. I scribbled notes as quickly as I could--and with a pen that had been in a cold car for too long, so it exploded blue splots all over my fingers--learning something every few moments. Here are a few choice facts for you:

--Stock up on almonds, right now, because the price is about to skyrocket.

--In spite of all our best hopes that we could chocolate as a way to health, the higher-quality chocolate actually has fewer antioxidants than the lower-quality ones you don't really want to eat.

--However, the tradition of putting little chocolates on hotel pillows started because people believed there was something in chocolate that helped to prevent tooth decay. And recent studies have shown it might be true!

--If you cook for yourself, without ever using processed or packaged foods (and certainly avoiding fast foods), you'll only eat about 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt per day. This is certainly not too much.

--Italian hazelnuts taste the best.

--Sift your dry ingredients when you are baking. "You don't have to sift. You also don't have to wear shoes, but I recommend it."

--Don't try to melt chocolate chips for recipes. They don't contain as much cocoa butter, so they simply won't melt.

--Brown sugar is just white sugar with syrup on it. Therefore, it's no better for you.

--Making vanilla extract is the most labor-intensive process in the world.

--Clabber Girl baking powder contains aluminum, and thus will make your baked goods taste tinny. Use Rumford instead.

But mostly, I loved what he said about stocking your kitchen. "It's okay to spend a little money on yourself." As he melted butter and stirred up recipes, David said he's always surprised when people ask him how restaurants make everything taste so good. Is it magic recipes? No, it's simply that they use the best ingredients. "If you cook with better ingredients, you'll change your life." I've certainly see that come true in my life this year. I recommend that everyone do the same.

So I had a wonderful time, savoring little bites, laughing with Dorothy by my side, and talking with David before and after the class. Once again, I'm amazed by this food blogging world. Here I am, just writing out my enthusiasms, and suddenly I'm in a room with David Lebovitz, listening to our wedding announcement.

But I can't believe that I forgot to bring my camera with me. I bring my tiny Nikon with me everywhere there might be food. When did I become such a dumbkopf? So I wanted to show you luscious close-ups of all the foods he made for us, and a photo of the man himself. Instead, I have to share that picture of me holding the Gateaux Bastille with Creme Anglaise, which David took on his camera, grinning, goofy gaping, happy as can be.

p.s. Sam in San Francisco is claiming that David proposed to her in the cooking class there. But dear, I have to say, I met him first. And you have Fred. He'll just have to be mine.

chocolate financier

Gluten-free Chocolate Financiers, courtesy of David Lebovitz

These can be made in Fleximolds and are meant to be bite-sized snacks, eaten often in the late afternoon in Paris.

6 tablespoons (3 oz/90 gr) unsalted butter
1 cup sliced almonds
4 tablespoons Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/3 cup egg whites
1/4 teaspoon best-quality almond extract

Preheat the oven to 425°. Lightly butter the financier molds, mini-muffin tins, or Flexipans, placed on a sturdy baking sheet.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and set it aside until room temperature.

In a food processor or blender, grind the almond with the cocoa, salt, and powdered sugar. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl. Stir the egg whites in the ground almond mixture, then gradually stir in the melted butter until incorporated and smooth.

Spoon the batter into the molds, filling them 3/4 full.

Bake for ten to fifteen minutes, until slightly puffed and springy to the touch. Remove from oven and cool completely before removing from molds.

Once cooled, financiers can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week.

Makes about 15, one-inch financiers.