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21 May 2006

being filmed for the Food Network

As a kid, I used to teach television cooking classes in my mind. Ten years old and infatuated with Julia Child — oh, how I loved that outrageous woman, her high-pitched voice, and her gangly goofiness — I sometimes left my place before the TV and walked into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. Involuntarily, I imagined that a camera was trained on my hands as I spread margarine on Wonder Bread, and extracted orange slices of cheese product from their plastic wrappers. “This is how you make a grilled cheese sandwich,” I’d instruct, seriously, inside the confines of my mind. It was about this time that I began narrating all those activities, practicing to be a writer later, preparing for teaching.

A few years later, when I was an awkward pre-teen, with huge glasses, a ready grin, and the ability to read scripts quickly, I spent many an afternoon in a warehouse in Los Angeles. Surrounded by hundreds of other kids — who were surrounded by hovering parents, endlessly combing their hair to a dull sheen — I waited my turn for a one-minute audition. I haven’t talked about this here, but I was actually an actor in Hollywood when I was a kid. Oh, not big enough that any of you would recognize me from my roles, or seriously strange enough to warrant an E-channel “Where are They Now?” feature. Instead, my brother and I both had an agent, one of the leading ones in Los Angeles. The walls of her lobby were festooned with head shots of the Little House on the Prairie kids and the gleaming grins of the Brady Bunch. She sent us out on auditions for Norman Lear sitcoms, ABC Afterschool Specials, and educational films, the kind schoolchildren were forced to watch in cavernous cafeterias on rainy days. It was an endlessly fascinating experience, one that deserves another writing, later. But let’s just say that I was experienced enough with being on camera that I lost my self-consciousness and learned how to do my job.

This all came in handy when a seven-person camera crew showed up in my kitchen last week.

light in the kitchen

Last week, my childhood fantasy of teaching people how to cook on camera came true, for one day. A production company in Los Angeles has been asked by the Food Network to produce a show called The Power of Food. It will be a series of profiles of people whose lives have been changed by food. Has my life been changed by food? Oh yeah. And how.

It has been just over a year since I began this website. I didn’t mark the anniversary here, because I don’t feel like I hit my stride and started creating the kind of pieces I now think of as my standard until July. But I also didn’t have time to mark the anniversary, since life has become so fluid and expansive. I have always loved food. I have always been known for my passion for food. Somehow, food has always been inextricably part of my life. (In fact, one of my television roles was a part on the Rhoda show, where I played a girl named Amy Finkelstein, the girl who ate crayons.) But since I went gluten-free, and joyfully embraced my food fate, my life has grown larger and more passionate, hilarious and touching by turns. There have been countless dinner parties with friends. New friends who have become dear to me, whom I have met through their food websites. A free set of Le Creuset cookware. New foods I never imagined, their tastes tingling on my tongue in ecstasy. My passion for food photography. Writing opportunities. The IACP conference. A wonderful award for this blog. Friends who are chefs, and own gourmet kitchen stores, and lead chocolate tours of Paris. A sense of discovery, every day, about what awaits me next.

These are only some of the gifts of this year, a year guided by my passion for food. And there are some I have not shared here yet — gifts that have kept me from posting here as regularly as I once did — but I will share them, eventually. You’ll simply have to trust me: this has been the most extraordinary year of my life.

All because of food, glorious food.

So, a crew from Los Angeles flew up to film me. A wonderful director named Judy, an ebullient producer named Ingrid, and a hip, sophisticated director of photography named Patrick. And then there were four people from Seattle: Scott the sound guy; Jordan the assistant director of photography; Eddie the PA; and Cassy, all-around helpful person. They were all far more funny and real than I had imagined, based on my experiences as a child actor. We laughed and talked, which made the entire surreal experience far less bizarre.

This is why, if you live in Seattle, you might have seen me at the University District Farmers’ Market at 8:30 in the morning, raising my face the blue-skied day while Ingrid put makeup on me. Or when I walked through the market, pretending to saunter and act naturally with a transistor on the back of my pants, being followed by a boom mic. I talked with terrified farmers and bakers who were confused by the gluten content of spelt (yes, spelt has gluten; please don’t sell it as gluten-free), goat keepers who sell lovely local cheeses, and women who gather eggs on their farm and preach about the false advertising of “free-range” eggs. After awhile, I simply relaxed and enjoyed the warm spring morning at one of my favorite markets. Still, I had to laugh when two ten-year-old boys ran up to me, and said in loud voices, “Why are you being interviewed?” It was a pleasure to talk with an older woman who stopped me to ask the same question. When I told her about this website, her eyes grew wide. “Oh, thank you for doing that! I have a friend who cannot eat gluten, and I want to make her food. If I read your website, I’ll know what to serve my friend for dinner.” Moments like that cut right through the silliness and reminded me why I’m doing this all in the first place.

morel mushrooms

I don’t think I would have been able to do this if I hadn’t held in my mind that I was doing it to help other people. That honestly guides me in everything I do. I know that, when I was first diagnosed with celiac, I would have felt immensely better if I had been able to see someone on the Food Network talking about the joys of living gluten-free. I could have used a guide. So, I tried to be one instead. Who knows who will see this and feel recognized?

This thought allowed me to act at least somewhat naturally while I had have a camera trained on me as I took vegetables out of a bag. Usually, I do that alone. And when I cook, I’m normally in the kitchen by myself, dancing to music. But this time, as I slivered fresh leeks for a slow sautee, I had a massive camera three inches to my right, the cords behind it held by an assistant, a mic down my shirt, a transistor attached to the back of my jeans, and a boom mic operator to my left. And when I sit in my living room with people, they are not usually interviewing me on camera for an hour and a half, with various electrical and technological equipment strewn about the room.

Not my typical day.

And in the end, as exhausting and surreal as it all was, I did have a great time. To be honest, I’m a bit of a ham. An inveterate storyteller. And an experienced child actor grown up into a food writer. Given all that, how could I not love the chance to finally turn to the camera and talk about the joys of food?

Roast Chicken Juicy Enough for the Camera

roast chicken

Last year, when I started cooking seriously, I dreamed of making the perfect roast chicken. Simple yet elegant, roast chicken done right is a thing of beauty. I have ordered it in some of my favorite French restaurants around the world (and the Cuban/Chinese place down the street from me in New York) and have always been amazed. Crisp skin, juicy breast meat, a condensed chicken taste — nothing wasted, everything there. I crave it, constantly.

Earlier in the year, I wrote a post about the roast chicken my friend Francoise made for me. Later, I learned some tricks from Jamie Oliver, and shared those on this site. But I didn’t have the chance to perfect my roast chicken technique, because I was so busy trying new dishes. For months on end, I made something new every night, happily devouring as many tastes as I could, never stopping to double back and make something again.

Lately, though, I’ve been slowing down, just a bit. Slowing down enough to figure out how to test recipes more thoroughly and create some signature dishes. All spring long, for dinner parties and gatherings for two, I have been roasting chickens with lemons and fresh herbs on the vertical roaster. And I have to say, I’m pretty proud of this dish now. It is finally what I imagined. This spring, so many dreams have been coming true that I’m feeling a little dizzy. The succulent taste of this roast chicken grounds me in the midst of all this happy frenzy.

one vertical roaster
one roasting pan with two cups water at the bottom
one oven pre-heated to 425°

one whole roasting chicken, organic (tastes better), and as fresh as possible
one boiling hot lemon (see notes)

two tablespoons sea salt
zest one lemon
one teaspoon cracked black pepper
three tablespoons high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil

six cloves fresh garlic, peeled
six sprigs fresh rosemary
six sprigs fresh tarragon

Pour two cups of water into the bottom of your best roasting pan. Put the vertical roaster in the middle of the pan, upright.
Here a note about the vertical roaster: a friend of mine bought me mine, swearing it made the best roast chicken she had ever eaten. I was happy for the gift, but I was also dubious. This small, metal device seemed a bit like a gimmick. But she was right. The gaps between the metal slats allows hot steam from the bottom of the pan to circulate up through the chicken, making this one of the juiciest birds you will ever eat. Now, I cannot roast a chicken without it.

Set a small pot of water on high heat. When it has come to boil, drop a whole lemon (skin rinsed off, with a tiny slit cut in the skin to prevent it from bursting) into the water and let it heat for five minutes.

Using a mortar and pestle, grind the sea salt, lemon zest, and black pepper together. (If you want a more exotic-tasting chicken, you could add some smoked paprika here as well.) When they are ground into a paste, add the olive oil and stir it into the paste.

Hopefully, your fresh, organic chicken is already fairly clean, but double check to make sure. Remove the internal organs and do with them what you want. Impale the chicken on the vertical roaster — there’s really no other way to say it — and let it sit upright. Smear the salty, lemony olive-oil paste all over the skin, under the wings, and along the legs, until the entire chicken is smothered in the paste. Tuck the fresh herbs between the skin and flesh along the breast. At the last moment, throw the garlic cloves into the cavity of the chicken, then slide the hot lemon in. (If it’s large, you might have to cut it in half and put both halves in.) Because the lemon is already hot before you begin cooking, it releases its juices into the chicken immediately, making it extraordinarily juicy.

Put the chicken into the oven, with one rack on the lowest setting. Cook it at 425 for about fifteen to twenty minutes, or until you can smell the warmth of roasting chicken, and the skin has started to brown. Turn the oven down to 350° and let the chicken cook for another forty-five minutes or so, or until a good meat thermometer inserted into the breast reads at least 165°.

Pull the chicken from the oven and let it rest in the roasting pan for ten minutes before you begin carving. You’ll be amazed, when you make the first cut along the drumstick, at the amount of juice that comes pouring forth from the flesh.

Bon Appetit.

16 May 2006

a fabulous blast of an evening

blowtorch on the brulee, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

(We're thrilled that this recipe is being featured at's roundup of holiday recipes for 2009. For more of our featured posts, visit today.)

Throughout this past year, my home has been thronged with friends, laughing and talking, sharing stories and listening. And of course, mostly eating. Everyone is welcome in my kitchen. I don’t have only female friends. I love men. Oh boy, do I love the men in my life. And throughout the year, my home has been filled with men and women alike, an amalgam of ages and backgrounds, no discrimination based on sex.

However, sometimes, there’s nothing like having a room full of fierce, alive women, laughing together, unabashedly. And last week, in one of the best food evenings I have enjoyed all year, my home was filled with seven fabulous women.

It all started with the IACP conference. At this festival-of-food gathering, I met so many people I liked that I walked around feeling dazzled. But some people stood out even more vividly than the others. Becky was the most vivid of the bunch. I was standing in front of the booth for PCC at the food expo, introducing myself to the women in charge of teaching cooking classes. When I said the name of my website, this hip woman with sharp eyes blurted out, “You have the funniest blog!” I turned toward her, we talked for ten seconds, and then we were friends. Sometimes — in one of those gifts in life one can never analyze or explain — people arrive in front of you, and you know instantly that you want that person in your life. Becky is one of those people for me. I felt like the geeky seventh-grader, trying to be friends with the cool kid at the best lunch table, when I said to her, fairly quickly, “Here’s my card. We should hang out. You’re clearly amazing.” Luckily, she felt the same. And here we are — friends. Becky is a brilliant chef, having spent three years at the Herbfarm, and now teaching classes and working as a personal chef. A few days after my party, she walked onto a yacht, to serve as the chef for a three-week cruise, up from Seattle to the Inside Passage in Alaska. If you want to follow her adventures (and oh yes, you do. She has the funniest blog.), you can find her at Hardtack at Sea, right now. (And if you should want to know what is fresh and in season, right this minute, in the Pacific Northwest, check out her professional website, Seasonal Cornucopia.)

Traca had been at IACP, but apparently she was in the bathroom when I first met Becky. Turns out she was also a fan of this site, and she wrote to me just after the conference. A fan letter, but with a twist. I’m grateful for all the letters I receive from readers all over the world, but rarely do people write from Seattle and invite me to lunch. Traca and I began writing emails back and forth, fast and furious, about food and friends who care about it. She is, unofficially, the Grand Poobah (or Poobette) of the food scene of Seattle, since she knows everyone and likes them all. When we met for lunch, we were already friends, and we hugged each other with enormous warmth. She has a laugh that fills the room, a huge desire to learn and live, and an enormous, generous urge to connect people together.

Traca led to Dana, whose blog, PhatDuck, I had been reading for awhile. She is the pastry chef at one of the better restaurants in Seattle, with a precise vision of how matters should be in the kitchen. Her stage at the Fat Duck, the restaurant in Maidenhead, England that was named the best restaurant in the world in 2001, compelled her to begin a blog. Later, her writing was picked up by the Guardian, in London. So, when I met her at the Green Leaf, the Vietnamese restaurant in the International District in Seattle, where she, Traca, Becky, and I were meeting for lunch, I was surprised to find how young she is. How could she be so accomplished already? Having read her website, I wasn’t surprised to find her quirky and intelligent, a live nerve ending, alive in the room.

At lunch that day, Dana asked me about Molly, my dear friend who writes Orangette. “I think I’ve seen her in Whole Foods!” Dana said with excitement. “Is she the woman with that fabulous poncho?” Well yes, she is. It’s hard for me to remember that I once did not know Molly. She has become, indelibly, a huge part of my life. And of course, we met through our websites. (My god, this generous world of food blogs.) We have eaten well, and talked fast and laughing, swapping stories of love and writing. We don’t have to explain much to each other, since we are both writers. We understand. I love her laugh, her sassy sense of humor, and the way she looks at the world. She is dear to me. And when Dana asked, with a sense of awe, if we could invite Molly to my party, I felt like the cool kid that time.

The night of the party, Traca brought along Fiona, one of the most outrageously alive people I have ever met. She walked into the kitchen with a massive bouquet of spring flowers for me, and she was welcome, immediately. She has an enormous laugh, wide-open eyes, a bawdy sense of humor. No sense of shame. She is in the world, quite clearly. If she started a food blog, we’d all be reading it. (Fiona? Are you listening?)

And then, of course, always, there is Meri. Dearest, darling Meri, who has been my food friend and best buddy in Seattle for years, who has shown up on this blog multiple times. My first taster. My constant listener. My farmers’ market strolling partner every spring and summer. No one knows how to pronounce her name at first — (it’s a soft d instead of an r; her full name is Merida, which is from the Spanish) — but they all end up loving her joyful spirit, her great sense of life.

You see why I was so happy to have this dinner party?

However, I was a bit nervous. A few days before the event, when I was planning the menu, I suddenly thought, “What the hell am I thinking of? Why am I cooking for a bunch of professional chefs and foodie professionals?” But in the end, I remembered what I always tell my students about writing: write to connect, instead of to impress. Cook to connect, to give people joy. After that, I was fine. (Besides, both Becky and Dana said people are afraid to cook for them, so they don’t have that many home-cooked meals.)


And so, this is what we ate:

-- goat cheese marinade with capers, tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar

-- black olive spread with gluten-free crackers

-- Tomme de Chevre cheese with fig spread

-- ceviche with sea scallops and snapper

-- thin-grilled, goat-cheese polenta with fennel-sage sausage

-- Molly’s addictive salad

-- an asparagus-spinach soup, made with fresh greens and a touch of cream

-- a raspberry-pomegranate molasses-sumac sorbet I created the previous weekend

How does that sound?

Well, everyone seemed to enjoy it. We stood in the kitchen, all seven of us, leaning against the countertops, sipping wine and taking little nibbles of everything. That’s when you know it’s a good party — when no one leaves the kitchen. We had to spread out each course as far as possible, just to make room in our stomachs for more. This is why it wasn’t until 11 pm at night that I fired up the skillet again and browned the polenta I had made the night before, sunny yellow and fillled with first-lactation goat cheese from Idaho, studded with fresh basil. I topped each little square with fennel-sage sausage, and we ate once again. No one seemed to complain.

At some point, the seven of us talking freely and laughing in the living room turned into an episode of Sex and the City, with giggling and tumbling sharing of stories. One of us made a gesture to illustrate a point that will remain indelible in all our minds. There were even drawings proferred. We laughed late into the night.

Toward the end of the evening, Traca powered up the blowtorch and burnished up some butterscotch creme brulee. The roar of the flame and the smell of the burning sugar excited us all. The taste? Ah — powerful. Outrageous, fierce, alive sweetness. Just like the women in that room, in that fabulous blast of an evening.

Butterscotch Crème Brulee, adapted from an Herbfarm cooking class

butterscotch creme brulee

Before I stopped eating gluten, I would never have dreamed of making creme brulee. Cracking the burnt sugar top with my spoon was a sensory pleasure reserved for special occasions in restaurants. But watching Traca finish these, and hear her tell of how easy they were to make, convinced me I could do it. Eating these -- the delicate sweetness, mellow with an unexpected depth -- convinced me that I need to make them again soon.

One and one-half cups heavy cream
Six tablespoons dark muscovado sugar
Two tablespoons turbinado sugar
One-quarter teaspoon salt
Six tablespoons water
Four large egg yolks
One-half teaspoon vanilla extract
Eight ramekins

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees, with the one of the racks in the middle of the oven.
Pour the cream, muscovado sugar, and salt into a small saucepan. Put the pan on a burner already heated to medium heat. Stir the mixture, gently, until the sugar has completely dissolved. (You’ll know this has happened when the creamy mixture feels smooth, when your wooden spoon can no longer find any grittiness.) Set aside for a moment.
In another saucepan, bring the tablespoons of water and turbinado sugar to a boil on medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Keep cooking this mixture, stirring fairly frequently, until it has browned and become bubbly. (This should be about five minutes.) Remove this pan from the heat. Slowly, savoring every smell, pour the hot cream mixture in a drizzle. Whisk this continuously until it has all combined.
In a separate bowl, mix the egg yolks and vanilla extract until it has become a custard. Pour this custard through a fine strainer, slowly. Remove any foam from the remaining custard, then portion it equally into the ramekins.
Place the ramekins in a baking pan just larger than the ramekins, then pour in enough hot water to fill the baking pan halfway up the side of the ramekin. Bake in the 300° oven, uncovered, until the custard has set around the edges, but the centers are still just a little aquiver. (This should be about forty minutes.) Transfer the ramekins to a wire rack, then place this in the refrigerator to cool.
After a few hours, remove the ramekins from the refrigerator to find that the custards have firmed up.
Now — here’s the fun part. Spread a thick layer of turbinado sugar over the top each custard, covering the surface entirely. Shake off any sugar that has not stuck to the top of the custard by turning each ramekin upside down over the sink. Taking care not to burn yourself, switch on your blowtorch. Hold the flame about four inches from the surface of the custard and slowly move it back and forth across the custard until it has become caramel brown. Be sure to pay atttention to the sounds — a rush, a roar, a wonderful wind. (And if you don’t have a blowtorch, put the ramekins under the broiler. Be sure to watch them closely. You definitely don’t want these to burn.)

Put a spoon in the brulee, lift it to your mouth, and be prepared to moan. .

07 May 2006

the markets are open and all is well with the world

farmers' market III, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Spring is definitely in the air. All around the city, ebullient-looking couples are holding hands and staring into each other's eyes. People talk about summer vacation as though it is just around the weekend. Even the air feels sprightly.

The world is alive again.

And for me, one of the best signs of this exuberant time happened yesterday morning: the University District Farmers' Market opened for business at nine am.

All winter long, when I drove by in the rain, I looked forlornly at the empty parking lot on 50th Street. Winter is necessary, I know. How else could everything grow without the dormant time? I try to live every moment fully, not longing for something else. However, when I saw that empty parking lot, I'd have a little pang of sadness. It's not springtime yet. Summer is a fading memory. There is no farmers' market to attend.

Seattle has spectacular farmers' markets. All throughout the spring and summer, dahlias bloom in plastic buckets in profusion. Greens lie on wooden tables, pungent and just pulled from the earth. Fresh goat cheese awaits us. Every Sunday afternoon in summer, I stroll through the Ballard farmers' market, an entire city street blocked off, the sun shining through red and yellow banners, music playing. Moving slowly, I look at every stall, ask questions of every farmer, sample all the foods I can eat. The farmers’ market is a social occasion for me. I introduce friends to the joys of local and organic, as we stroll around with cups of coffee or glasses of fresh cider. I make new friends every week, over the beauties of broccoli or the joys of juicy raspberries. And I learn the stories of some of these farmers, stories of making goat cheese every week east of the mountains or growing arugula near the city. I love buying produce from the same hands that have pulled it from the ground.

farmers' market II

I learned how to eat well from the farmers’ markets of Seattle. I have always been an enthusiastic cook, but I didn’t really start to explore until I had to stop eating gluten. When first faced with a life without wheat, rye, or barley, I was not daunted. Strangely, I feel lucky that I had been so violently ill for months on end. When I cut out the gluten, I felt better within three days. As soon as found my strength, I was greeted with spring sunshine and a world of possibilities. I started wandering through the farmers’ markets and buying anything that called to me, any fresh food that did not contain gluten. In the past, I might have simply bought the vegetables I knew I liked, the easiest fruits to eat whole, and gone home with one bag. But with my blossoming health, I began opening to new foods. Chinese spinach. Kale. Beets. Slow-roasted tomatoes. Every week, a new vegetable seemed to show up on every stall, and I was convinced to buy it, whether or not I knew how to cook it. I learned and learned and ate and learned. As my health began to feel as strong as July sunshine, I realized that I would never go back. I was alive.

Knowing this, you might understand why it was I wanted to skip into the University District farmers’ market on Saturday morning. The first day of the market being open after months of dormancy, ready for business at 9 am? My dear friend Dorothy and I were there at 9:04, our senses open and our wallets ready.

And we’re off. Baby leeks. Vivid tulips. First lactation goat cheese. Chervil. Strawberries. Women with babies. Men in Tevas. Families ready to eat. The breeze was still cold on our faces, the sky was overcast and grey, and summer is too far away to even begin to hope. But the farmers’ markets are open now.

Three cheers for spring and the farmers’ markets of Seattle.



My favorite way to cook, now, is to simply wander through the farmers’ market, find the surprise of something sitting on a stall that I wouldn’t have thought of cooking that morning, then make up something when I go home. Yesterday, I found sorrel, lovely lemony herb that I haven’t cooked with much before.

And at University Seafood Market, just down the street from the farmers’ market — fresh halibut cheeks. Rich and meaty, clean and slightly sweet, halibut cheeks are a decadent treat. Pair them with any fresh herbs, really, for a gorgeous spring supper.

Eight halibut cheeks
One bunch fresh sorrel, minced fine
One bunch fresh basil, cut into a chiffonade style
One tablespoon olive oil
One tablespoon butter
One teaspoon sea salt
One teaspoon cracked black pepper
One tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Put the olive oil in a sautee pan already heated to high. Set the cheeks into the hot oil, and sprinkle with sea salt and pepper. Cook on high heat for three minutes, or until the halibut cheeks begin to smell aromatic. Turn the halibut over, and strew the sorrel and basil onto the top. Add a pinch more salt and pepper.

After three minutes or so, or when the fish is crispy brown, remove the halibut cheeks from the heat. Sprinkle the lemon juice on the fish and eat. (Do not add lemon juice to halibut until just before eating. If you put it on the fish before cooking, you will break down the fish's natural proteins and make the fish taste stringy.)

For extra decadence, smear a little first-lactation, basil goat cheese on one side of the fish before removing from the heat. You won't believe how good this tastes.

03 May 2006

a ride along the twilight sky

ferry dock

I love to cook. This cannot be a surprise to anyone who has visited this website more than once. Still, it’s worth stating. I love the process of cooking. I love the smells that arise from below me as I cut and sliver and sautée. I love the sight of a knife slicing into a tomato, a leek starting to soften in a skillet, a soft cheese clinging to the utensil that holds it. I love the sounds: sizzling, dripping, splattering, burbling. I love the texture of silky olive oil on the tongue and the rough-hewn feeling of meat crumbled into a pan. And the tastes? Well, that should be fairly obvious by now. Here I am.

For the past year, I have been chopping meditatively, rocking my knife through winter vegetables and waiting for the spring to eat fresh fruit again. Cooking has become so deep a part of my day — a place without words, primal and alive — that by four pm, when I’m headed home from work, my fingers actually start itching to be in the kitchen again. I cannot imagine a better evening than one in which I’m standing at the stove, laughing at stories with someone I love nearby.

However, there are nights when the kitchen does not call me. When a quick bite appeals to me instead. Evenings when — hard to imagine it — something other than food shouts for attention.

Last night was one of those nights.

This evening, just when I returned from work, my friend Quinn arrived on my doorstep. We started talking fast and moving out the door, down the steps, across the street, toward the other end of the block -- to Malena’s Tacos.

Just because I didn’t cook doesn’t mean the evening was devoid of food.

Malena’s is one of my favorite little places in the world. These days, I don’t eat in restaurants that often. It’s not because I’m afraid of growing sick, so much — I seem to have figured out how to make my way through the dining-out experience with safety. Instead, I’ve learned how to cook food in my kitchen — with the freshest ingredients, in season, grown locally — that tastes better to me than most restaurant food I eat. I don’t want to waste my money on a meal I could have easily made at home, and for half the price.

Instead, I only eat in a restaurant when I know the food will be extraordinary. Or, when I can eat a cuisine I haven’t learned to make in my kitchen yet. Outrageously good Thai food. Delicate, kick-in-the-pants Vietnamese food. A veggie combo platter at an Ethiopian restaurant. Sushi.

Now, I could probably learn to make asada tacos, but they just wouldn’t taste as good as they do at Malena’s. The women in the twenty-foot-square storefront have been flipping tortillas and grilling peppers for years longer than I have. And since they use corn tortillas for almost everything, and I can watch them cooking on the grill in front of me, I feel assured eating there, at one of the tiny tables with the wobbly legs. They bring salty corn chips, made on the premises, in a red plastic basket with red-and-white checked paper, like the kind in which fish and chips might arrive in a bar. The salsa bites the tongue, then dances around it lightly. Not aggreessive to the point of pain, but also not so bland as to disappear. Smooth, like a real sauce, instead of the American-salsa-in-a-bottle, with chewy chunks of pale tomatoes floating in a light liquid. This one is dark red. It means business. Order a side of fresh-made guacamole and you have corn chip heaven: green softness that clings to the chip, then a splash of salsa. Ah.

asada tacos

Last night, I ordered the asada tacos: chunks of tender beef, seared, with onions, little tomatoes, salsa, guacamole, and fresh cilantro. I try to order something different every time I go in, but I always end up with those tacos again. Quinn had a pork burrito with guacamole, and he seemed happy. It certainly disappeared quickly. We talked about food, of course. He had just been to Vancouver with his girlfriend, and they had eaten some magical substance: hot frites with cheese curds on top, then beef sauce poured over it all. Ay god, I wanted some immediately, even with those lovely tacos in my hand. There were discussions of wine, bad art, broken-down cars, promising second dates, upcoming events, and the students we shared. Time always passes quickly with Quinn.

We could have kept talking, but at the end of our meal, Quinn looked at me, and said, “Well, let’s go climb on that big bad motorbike.”

You see, Quinn has a motorcycle. He may be a fourth-grade math teacher, so one might think him geeky intelligent. (Super sharp, this man is. Ridiculously so.) But if you know Quinn for two minutes, you know he’s a lot more complex than that. For example, he has a motorcycle. A few years ago, he had another one, a lovely Virago, with not as much power, and a slightly smaller seat. I had ridden it then — the only time I had been on one — squealing with delight on every street. But that was on a December day, and the wind nearly sheared off my cheeks on the ride. Now, Quinn has traded that one in, for an Italian lovely beast of a motorcycle, named Francesca. Francesca has a tall windscreen in front, enough power to obviate the need to use fifth gear on the freeway, and a capacious seat, big enough for two.

Since these early days of May in Seattle have been idyllic — high blue skies, light that could break your heart with its beauty, light until 9 pm — Quinn and I had decided. We needed to go for a ride at twilight.

As I strapped on the thick white helmet Quinn had handed me, and slid on my largest sunglasses to prevent the wind from drying out my contacts, Quinn told me: "The only way to do this is to relax. Hold on to me, but relax, like it's a Zen exercise." I can do that. And so, I threw my leg over the seat, sat back, flung my arms around Quinn, and readied myself.

And we were off.

A vibration between my legs, the rattle of wheels on the road, the wind against my shins -- mostly, the beautiful, frightening roar as we thrummed down the street. Quinn pointed the bike straight down my street, racing past the houses with trim lawns and white picket fences, hurtling toward the stop sign. We turned, then turned again, until we were riding into the golden light of the seven pm sun. Turn left, and our bodies were swaying with the curve of the old boulevard, the enormous houses giving way to a small stone wall. Beyond it, the blue of Puget Sound, stretched out before us. Ferries chugging to the islands. A cluster of sailboats huddled in the harbor. All that blue water, the sky enormous and wide. I just giggled and giggled.

Then, we roared past Kerry Park, the skyline-of-Seattle view they use in all the postcards, Mount Rainier so enormous and white, half the size of the sky, that it looked as though someone had painted a backdrop to try and fool us. In a buzz and flurry, I saw it pass us, like a dream.

Suddenly, we were headed down Queen Anne Avenue, the hill so steep and towering that neighborhood teenagers grab their sleds at the first sign of a major snow and hurtle down to the bottom, to terrifying stop, until the cops come to close down the hill. It's the hill that buses jacknife down, then skid the rest of the way until they can go no longer, when the roads ice up and Seattle traffic is at a standstill. But last night, the sun shone as warm as an apple pie just out of the oven, and we were racing down the hill, my laugh trailing behind me the entire way.

I could hardly talk for giggling with glee.

Quinn wound us around the city streets until we reached Alaska Way, along the blue, inviting waters of downtown. I wanted to wave to all the tourists. I wanted to shout to everyone: "What are you doing walking when you could be on one of these?" I wanted to throw my fists into the air and exult at the freedom of it all. But I also really didn't want to let go of Quinn, for fear I might fall off. I simply imagined it all.

Quick turns. Up to Pioneer Square. Elliott Bay bookstore. Safeco Field (hi Kenji!). Blue sky. Warm air. My friend's body a windblock. And all was fine with the world.

Without warning, Quinn pointed the bike toward the on-ramp of 99, the highway that rises to the level of the tall stories of the buildings downtown. The viaduct that opens out to the vista of blue water, dark-green islands, and the craggy peaks of the Olympic mountains. At that moment, the sun had just set behind the mountains, so they glimmered light lavender, the sky above them pale orange. Purple mountains majesty, indeed. Never have I seen that view with nothing blocking it. I felt entirely part of it all, just one connection in a world alive and thriving.

As he revved up the engine, faster and faster, until we were going nearly 70 on the freeway, I squealed a long, loud shriek. My sunglasses kept slipping, and I kept jamming my nose against Quinn's shoulder, so I could scrunch them up my nose and not lose them. I could have felt scared. After the car accident I had two years ago, you might expect that I would have been quaking.

But somehow, I did feel utterly relaxed. I’m no daredevil, but I trust my friend. And once I made the choice to swing my leg over the motorcycle, I had to accept it. No fear. Just experience. Living, fully alive, in the moment, squealing with laughter, talking with Quinn over the sound of the wind in our ears.

Finally, we powered up that hill. These last few weeks, I have been riding the bus everywhere, since my car died, and I haven't found another one yet. Up this hill, the bus lurches and shudders, crawling up the inevitable incline. On the motorcyle, it felt good to flatten the road with our tires and arrive faster than anyone else.

One final roar down the road, the sunlight fading to my left, the motorcycle familiar under my legs. Home. As I took off my helmet, I said, “I’m a changed woman.”

As Quinn likes to say, “There is no day so good or so bad that it couldn’t be better with a motorcycle ride.” Now, I know what he means.

And at my house, waiting for us, a bottle of Chianti, some luscious chocolate cherries, and a video made by Rowan Atkinson, demonstrating the joys of physical comedy. What more could a girl want?

I guess some things are worth giving up an evening in front of the stove.

Malena's Taco Shop

620 W Mcgraw St
Seattle, WA 98119-2837
(206) 284-0304