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27 February 2006

Taking a Bite Out of New York

almond macaroon, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I will never understand why people complain that New Yorkers are rude. New Yorkers? They’re determined, assertive, and they know how to turn their shoulders to shimmy through a crowd of people on the sidewalk. But rude? No way. Some of the kindest strangers I have ever met live in New York City.

You want proof? How about this story. When I was in New York last week, I lugged a giant blue suitcase around with me nearly every day. Friends in several different neighborhoods, boroughs, and even states wanted me to stay with them each night. Eager to spend time in the sunlight of their smiles, I happily agreed. However, that meant hefting a suitcase full of clothes, presents, and my laptop up and down several flights of grimy subway stairs every time I moved to that night’s apartment. After a week of this, I have biceps of steel.

Silly me. I actually thought I could stow my suitcase in a luggage locker, somewhere in Manhattan, during the day, then stride down the streets freely while it waited for me. My friend Carlos had told me to make my way to Penn Station, after landing, because “...they have a place where you can put it.” This resonated with me, because I remembered Holden Caulfield renting a locker at Grand Central Station in The Catcher in the Rye. Of course, it might have helped if I had remembered that the book was written in 1946. Every employee at Penn Station whom I asked about luggage lockers looked at me with disbelieving eyes, shaking their heads. What was I, some hick who had just stepped off a plane? Well, yes, apparently. Finally, I approached a muscle-bound policeman, who had a bald head and long stare. Once again, I asked if there was any place in Manhattan where I could store my luggage for the day. He looked at me with pity, then said, in his thick Brooklyn accent, “Ma’am, there ain’t been no luggage locker in New York for years.” Hallelujah, I was home. New York is the only place where people call you ma’am while telling you that you’re an idiot.

(Oh, and if you’re looking for a place to rest your suitcase, you can do what I did: buy a ticket to the Natural History Museum on Central Park West, take a cursory look at the dinosaur skeletons, then stow your luggage at coat check all day.)

Silver Moon I

So there I was on Wednesday, day four of the great luggage lugging. I had begun the morning with a friend in Harlem, then had made my way downtown on the 1 train, emerging out of the 103rd Street station to look at my old neighborhood, just to make sure it was still there. (Rumors of condominiums to the contrary, my old brick building still stands.) There, I had popped into the Silver Moon bakery, an impeccable little bakery, filled with light, on 105th Street, which opened the last year I lived in New York. I had eaten more of their baguettes than I can bear to think of now. Of course, I never thought I would be going back there, now that I knew I had celiac. But my friend Kari had told me that morning that Silver Moon now makes a gluten-free loaf. Granted, the cross-contamination issues are probably rife, and I was taking my chances by grabbing one of the little loaves with currants. Nostalgia overtook me, and I took the chance to sit in the sunny bakery with a cafe au lait, looking out at the cold sunshine flooding my old neighborhood. The almond macaroons were so enticing that I actually forgot to take a photograph of the first one before I shattered half of it with my teeth. (Here’s a whole one, if you want to see it.) No matter. They were all delicious. And I didn’t get sick. Buoyed, I walked with my suitcase behind me to 65th and Amsterdam, where I met a friend for Ethiopian food. Later, the suitcase struggled up the stairs of the 66th crosstown bus with me, then down the stairs of the 6 train to meet another friend for coffee on 52 and 3rd. My friend Cindy is a sheer delight, so the diversions were worth the pushing and pulling. Still, after an hour, I was due at City Bakery in far too little time, and I had yet another subway to brave.

I was a little tired of my suitcase, at this point.

Walking into the subway station at 51st and Lexington, I couldn’t believe my luck -- an escalator. Resting my weary arms along the moving railings, I started to think pleasant thoughts and let myself be carried along. Then, I felt the telltale signs: a whoosh of warm air blowing back the hair around my eyes, a rhythmic roaring sound, then a clutch of people descending the stairs. A train had just come into the station, and I needed to be on it. Frantic, I started to run up the escalator, bumping my suitcase on every step. Suddenly, everything felt wonderfully light. I looked back to see that the man behind me had lifted the other end of my suitcase. Together, we started running up the escalator, trying to make the train. We picked up speed, my suitcase between us, as we neared the top, and then, as one unit, we darted in the doors of the train just before they closed. I looked back at him and said thank you, grateful and still in shock. He waved his hand, grinned at the ground, then moved to another car. I never saw him again.

That’s New York for me.

And the story feels like a metaphor for my trip as well. I went there dragging, and I came home unexpectedly lighter, buoyed up and hopeful. After weeks of feeling cramped and overworked, I remember who I am and where I am. Just in time.

It was a wonderful week, so full of laughter with friends, encounters on the street, and great meals that I didn’t have a single chance to update this site. Oh well. Here I am now, full of funny, wondrous stories.

There was the great, stinging wind that rocketed down the tracks and through my clothes as I stood on the open platform of the Howard Beach subway station, waiting for a train to take me to Manhattan. I was dressed in Seattle clothes, not prepared for 15° weather. But, by the looks of it, neither were the New Yorkers on the platform, who stamped their feet and wrapped their scarves around their faces to prevent their mucus membranes from drying out. At least I was suddenly awake after a long night of flying.

There was the backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera House that Kari took me on when I met her there. Since she’s a cellist for the Met -- and an amazing one at that -- she had access to every part of the rabbit-warren of a place. We peeked our heads into the wig shop, brushed our fingers along the racks of ornate costumes, and snaked our way through enormous styrofoam sets from dozens of years of operas. At one point, I stood in the orchestra pit, staring up at the lavish balconies on one side, and watching a full rehearsal of sixty people or more on stage a few feet above me.

cupcakes from babycakes

There was the suddenly warm sunlight on my last morning in the city, falling on my shoulders as I walked around the Lower East Side with my friends Gabe and Monica. We were investigating gluten-free bakeries on Allen Street, and one just around the corner from the Lower East Side tenement museum, and we couldn’t stop laughing at each other. A sudden flash of sunlight forced me to put the cupcakes down on the cement and take photographs. That prompted Monica to take out her camera and take a photo of me taking photographs of food on the sidewalk.

There was a delightful half hour with the dear Luisa at City Bakery. She enticed me to buy the hot chocolate, thick and rich, spinning consistently in a wheeled contraption that looked straight out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Of course I asked for the homemade marshmallow as well. But, as much as the hot chocolate filled me, Luisa’s company was even more delicious. We started laughing as soon as we met, and we just couldn’t stop. Why does she have to live in New York? And then, we were joined by the inimitable Jen, who arrived in an electric pink scarf tied around her head. Who could not love this woman? And oh, how I love food bloggers.

There was the spontaneous decision -- after thinking about it for a year -- to get my first tattoo. There are a dozen reasons as to this one (a quote from one of my favorite works of literature, a Beatles reference, a Buddhist paen, and an affirmation after nearly dying in the car accident, among others), and I love that I finally did it. Monica and Gabe followed me into the place on 2nd and 3rd, Monica sure, Gabe a little scared. “I think I need a shot of whisky to watch this,” he said at first. But it didn’t hurt, and it took about twelve seconds to finish. Clearly, the tattoo-festooned guy who branded me thought mine was a bit of a weenie tattoo. (When I asked him what I should do to take care of it, he said, “Leave the bandage on for the first couple of hours, then... whatever. I mean, you could probably throw dirt on this one, and it would be okay.”) But I walked out into the cold air, beaming. Yes.

<plum and walnut yogurt

And of course, there was the food. Thai food on Long Island. Greek chicken salads in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Impeccable vegetarian food presented with all the senses in the Village. Chicken sausages and carmelized apples in Cobble Hill. Marinated mozzarella balls from Murray’s Cheese Shop on Bleeker. Provolone-stuffed chicken breasts with spinach and oven-roasted tomatoes at Gennaro on the Upper West Side. The softest, falling-off-the-bone lamb tagine I have ever eaten on St. Mark's Place. Lentil stew and a great bottle of wine in Nolita. Plum and walnut yogurt from Gourmet Garage. More omeletttes than I have ever eaten in one week of my life -- eggs and roasted potatoes are the gluten-free girl’s best friend at breakfast. Gluten-free pizza at a glorious Italian restaurant designed for celiacs. Lemon cupcakes and madeleines that I can eat without a moment’s hesitation. Too many cups of weak or over-roasted coffee (what is the deal, New York? Why can’t you make a good cup of coffee?). Brazilian paolitas and gluten-free breadsticks. Fruit from a stand on the street. Even a couple of dogs from Grey’s Papaya -- without the buns, at a stand in the airport -- when I was already feeling sad about having to return home.

Papaya King stand

In the next few days, I’ll be writing more posts about my time in New York, focusing in close-up on the places where I was most easily able to eat gloriously gluten-free. Expect reports of cupcakes, avocado tartare, and corn tortilla with queso cheese and red peppers. I have so much to share with you.

But for now, I’ll just say it was a marvelous trip. Rarely have I eaten so well. Instead of feeling deprived because I had to eat gluten-free in New York, I felt inspired, by the food presented to me on beautiful plates, by the care with which every waiter and waitress took care of me, and by the experience of eating so much great food outside my kitchen. And, in spite of the moments when I walked down the street truly believing I might just freeze to death unless I found a seat at a coffee shop that minute, I feel marvelously warmed by my time in that glorious, dirty city. Laughing with friends so hard we made people on the subway look up to see the ruckus; walking down the street late at night, talking with people I love; jumping from one subway line to another with relative ease; looking at Central Park in the cold sunshine, remembering John Lennon and all the times I rollerbladed that path; wandering from one food place to another in the Village, taking all morning if I wanted, because I had nowhere to be — these were some of the best moments of a tremendous trip.

Certainly, lugging that suitcase up and down a thousand steep steps was worth it for all this.

18 February 2006

if all goes well.....

Empire State, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

...I will be on a plane tonight, winging my way to New York City.

In October, I had intended to make my way through my old, glorious home, walking fast and talking rapid fire in bantering sentences with people I love. And especially, eating great, gluten-free food with dear friends and new ones. It has been too long since I strode through that city, and I couldn't wait to step foot on its sidewalks.

Unfortunately -- and those of you who have been reading regularly will remember this -- my foot never stepped on New York City sidewalks in October. Instead, it broke the day before my planned trip, when I tripped down a staircase and spiralled into pain. Bye bye, New York City.

It is February now. So many lovely moments -- so many lovely meals -- have transpired since that day I winced in pain instead of walking onto the plane. And my foot? Aside from residual weakness, my foot is healthy and ready to walk down Broadway. (I'll bring the other foot along as well.) So, barring any unforseen accidents or twists of fate, I'll be flying through the clear black sky tonight, on my way to a week in New York.

Keep your fingers crossed for me. It probably wouldn't hurt to throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder either.

Rarely have I so looked forward to a vacation. I don't talk about my job here -- and I'm not going to in this post, either -- but let's just say I clearly need a break. It feels like August since I've had any proper time off. And August feels like worlds ago now. I have friends in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, the Upper West Side, the Lower East Side, and Pennsylvania who are awaiting my return. I just can't stop giggling today, thinking about it. Every step I take has a little bounce in it.

Broadway at 80th

And then there is the food.

This will be my first time back to New York since I have gone gluten-free. Of course, there will be no more slices from my favorite pizza place, or bagels from H&H, or loaves of bread from the Silver Moon Bakery. Sigh. But there is Risotteria and Happy Happy Happy, and homecooked meals. And of course, trips to my favorite food stores, including the one hinted at in the photograph above. (If you know it, shout it out.) With all the greenmarkets and coffee shops and specialty stores, I'm not going to feel deprived. I'll be trying out places, then sharing them with you. I might even update while I'm gone. We'll see.

In the meantime, if you have any suggestions of places I should go in New York for great, gluten-free food, leave me a comment. Or send me an email. And any lovely, New York food bloggers who might be reading -- how about a cup of coffee?

Start spreading the news: Shauna's back in town.

14 February 2006

the force that is born of love

chocolate love, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

When I walked into school this morning, I saw hundreds of red-foil-wrapped chocolate hearts strewn across the main hall floor. Every radio ad and television show beats with the pulse of romantic love (and the hope of instilling the sudden urge to buy diamonds/roses/expensive gifts in everyone within earshot). Hell, even Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is having a romantic marathon tonight.

Oh gad, it’s Valentine’s Day.

However, if you are expecting a rant about the horrors of Valentine’s Day and how bitter I feel that I don’t have someone taking me out for a candlelit dinner or giving me gifts — well, you’re going to have to read another site tonight.

It’s true that I’ve never been fond of this holiday, but not because I twist with impatience that no one else is in the room with me now. I don’t decry it, then go home and cry. Even when I’ve been in love, and had lavish bouquets of roses and boxes of chocolate truffles sent to my door on the 14th of February, I’m still not fond of this holiday.

As my friend Francoise said this morning, when I asked if she and her dear husband were doing anything for the night, she pushed out her lips and said, “No,” in her clipped French accent. “For us, every day is Valentine’s Day. Why make a big deal of it now?”

Damned straight.

You see, if I ever do get married, I don’t want a diamond. I certainly don’t want a Hollywood proposal (and if he does it on tv, then he doesn’t know me well enough to marry me!). And chocolate? I give myself that every day.

It is true, however, that I don’t have a particular love this Valentine’s Day. I’m not married. I’m not even dating anyone at the moment. Everything in this culture — and frankly a number of the blogs I’ve seen today — seems to suggest that I should be feeling sorry for myself right now. Or at least not talking about this. But I refuse to be silent, ashamed. I would love to meet someone who makes me laugh, has a kind mind, and loves to eat my cooking. (And if anyone out there reading knows someone for me, send him along.) But I just refuse to believe that hackneyed idea that I’m a ragged half perpetually searching for my other ragged half, waiting for that union to make us both feel smooth and whole. Why put my life on hold? Especially when I never know when that life might just disappear?

“Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”
—John Lennon

Instead, I believe in love itself. Satyagraha, as Gandhi referred to it — the force that is born of love. Each of us, connected together. Transitory moments, ephemerally aflame with love. Talking on the phone, late into the night, with my friend whom I have known since I was sixteen. Laughter with a new friend because I tripped over the curb on the way back from buying coffee. Listening to the stories of everyone I meet. Hugging my nephew when he smiles at me and lifts up his arms. Demanding that my students write clear drafts, even when they think it’s too hard. Cooking for friends on a Sunday afternoon, talking over my shoulder as I pat down the chicken with olive oil and garlic before I put it into the oven to roast. Giggling at the bus driver’s jokes in the morning. Smiling at the woman checking out my groceries.

And for me, love is really gratitude. If I think of everything for which I’m grateful, I’m going to fill up pages and pages with nouns and verbs. So I’ll restrain myself. Instead, I’ll just say:

I love...

the smell of fresh-cut ginger
the soft flesh of a mango slithering under the paring knife
the initial bitterness yielding to dark release of the first cup of coffee
the low, insistent sizzle of thin slices of leeks sauteeing in salted butter
the lurid red of a wide-open dahlia in August

I love those reassuring moments of being grounded in my senses. I’m alive.

What else is there, in the end?


And so, to all of you reading, I’m sending you chocolates and flowers. I hope you feel loved today, free from expectations and bitterness. If you don’t have a valentine, don’t feel bad. I’ll be your valentine any time.

12 February 2006

dramatic reds and sour sweetness without a story

blood orange VI, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Normally, I am full of stories. Every day, I start my classes with this: "Stories? Anyone have stories?" With only a few seconds of prompting, the students start splaying out stories, of falling and unexpected discoveries. I love hearing about their mishaps and abusrdities. They feel heard, and they hear each other. It creates community. Also, it makes me laugh.

Stories connect us all. If we truly listen to each other's stories, we cannot dismiss each other.

I have a thousand stories. I've lived a wacky life -- no doubt about it. There are stories about making pie for Jerry Seinfeld, falling down a flight of stairs in the Times Square subway station, drinking champagne out of gold-rimmed glasses, hiking up a mountain in Alaska, acting in commercials in Los Angeles, running across the Piazza della Signoria during a lightning storm, and waking up in a tent on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. There have been impossible love affairs, stumbling inanities, and always, ridiculous absurdities. I have a story for every situation, it seems.

Of course, when it comes to food, there are always stories. Food is never simply the ingredients or the tastes. Food, for me, evokes fond memories, urgent conversations, hilarious connections, and -- always -- the people with whom I am eating. Every day, and certainly for every post I put up here, I have a story.

But not this one.

blood orange V

Last week, I bought a dozen blood oranges. A winter gift: smooth orange skin with a blush, vivid against the grey skies. Cut through to find dark red juice cells bulging out from the knife. Hold a slice up to the light and August-dahlia reds and oranges pulse outward. A flourish, a citrus surprise, a Dali surrealism. When I cut one open, the fruit bleeds sweet juice down my tongue.

I've been eating them for days, knowing I wanted to write about them here. But I didn't have a story. I could have looked up the history, concocted a tale of eating them for the first time with friends in cold climates, or tried to remember the first time I ate oranges. But no -- that all feels silly here. There's no point in forcing a story. Sometimes, it feels good to simply appreciate.

Blood oranges. Yes.

Blood orange sorbet

blood orange sorbet

This recipe is remarkably similar to the Meyer lemon sorbet I posted here in December. There's something wonderfully satisfying about a creamy citrus sorbet in the winter, the smooth coldness, the tart bite, the sting of acidic sweetness. I could make a hundred variations and still not be done eating.

I made this particular sorbet with an egg white, for an extra creaminess, but it would work just as well -- or maybe even better -- without it.

(Oh, and...somehow, this photograph of the sorbet came out looking a little naughty, like one of those Victorian picture books where they'd have cut-out holes where one should put the knuckles to make a saucy image. I didn't intend it -- the light dictated the angle -- but I have to admit that I enjoy it now.)

one and one-half cup granulated sugar
two cups water
one cup blood orange juice
one egg white

Beat the egg white in a stand mixer until it is frothy. While you are letting it beat, boil the water and sugar together to make a simple syrup. Let the syrup boil for one minute, then slowly drizzle it into the frothy egg white.
Allow the mixture to stop steaming, cooling off just a bit.
Drizzle in the blood orange juice. Stir until just mixed.

Chill this frothy pink liquid completely in the refrigerator (at least one hour).

Put the chilled liquid in your ice cream maker and let it run for about fifteen to twenty minutes, or until it is forming a thick, frosty consistency. If you take it out at this point, before it's completely hard, it seems to make the taste all the sharper. Transfer the sorbet into a freezer-safe dish and freeze it to desired hardness. (I like to freeze it overnight.)

Appreciate this, fully, by slowly savoring it, from the spoon to your tongue.

09 February 2006

Come with me to the Casbah.

lamb tagine I, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Some sentences you just never forget.

When I was twelve, a beautiful boy leaned toward me and whispered in my ear, “Come with me to the Casbah.”

I can still remember the hazy sunshine I saw through the window as he said it. He smelled faintly of sweat, that day’s lunch, and Dove shampoo. I could feel my knees buckle beneath me. The cool water with which I had been rinsing the dishes rushed over my baffled hands. I couldn’t move. Mike Kelly had just said that to me?

Ah, Mike Kelly. My first real love, the crush that enveloped my entire being and left me trembling on a daily basis. For months, in his presence, I felt charged with hormones and content to simply sit and stare at the back of his neck. Remember that first real love of your life, when your heart really does throb in your chest and everything feels so wonderfully woeful? Aside from a few celebrities — Mikhail Baryshnikov, Paul McCartney, and even (I have to admit it) Sean Cassidy for two or three days — I had never been able to see a boy as swoony beautiful before. Until I met Mike Kelly.

We were best friends for almost a year, during the seventh grade, the tortured time. He came over to my house, every afternoon, to play Monopoly, listen to Steve Martin records, and throw the baseball back and forth with me in the front yard. He and my younger brother and I made movies with our Super-8 camera, slow-motion shots of us spitting milk out of our noses because we laughed so hard, mostly. But there were the damsel in distress films. Mike always played the hero.

The popular girls at my school hated me, because they wanted him. He was tall, blond, and easily graceful. I was suffering under the last remnants of a home perm I had never chosen, and my eyes looked tiny behind enormous, thick glasses. My family refers to this as my Albert Brooks period. Mike glided into rooms and everyone gathered around him. I preferred to utter as little as possible in large groups, for fear of saying anything wrong. Mike made everyone giggle. He quipped and bantered and danced with words. He threw sentences into the air between us and I fell down laughing. I was his best and favorite audience.

And then I had to go and fall in love with him.

There were blurs of excitement when he looked at me, fits of tears when he ignored me, and the tremble of wondering what would happen next. Everything felt highly dramatic. For weeks afterward, I lived on the memory of when we were in the darkroom together, developing photographs, and Olivia Newton John’s Xanadu came on the radio, and we danced together. And oh, the dizzying fever-pitch joy when Mike gave me my first-ever kiss, in front of the map of Disneyland hanging on my bedroom wall.

But when he leaned over to kiss the Casbah sentence into my ear as I did the dishes on a typical summer afternoon, I nearly lost my mind. With that little breath of wind, he wafted Morocco into my head. Visions of a warm sun, earthy spices, and langorous summer days spent eating olives with my twelve-year-old Charles Boyer. I didn’t know where he had picked up such a suave line, or why he said it to me that day, or rested his head upon my shoulder afterwards. But I know that I never forgot it. For ever afterward, whispers of Charles Boyer and Morocco meant romance to me.

This rose to my mind the other day when I was standing in Trader Joe’s. Tired from a long day, I meandered down the aisle with no fixed idea in mind. Above the rices and polentas, I saw a line of jarred sauces. Before I started cooking so seriously, I used to always grab a Trader Joe’s simmer sauce and throw it on some chicken, toss it on top of some rice, and eat without thinking. I had not resorted to this in months, and in fact, I didn’t even know if any of them were gluten-free. On instinct, I picked up a Moroccan tagine simmer sauce. At this point, I’m trained. I turned the jar and looked at the label, going into detetctive mode. Everything looked fine — no gluten lurking there, I suppose. I almost put it in my basket. But then I stopped and read it again, with a different trained eye. What was in it? Green olives, golden raisins, chopped tomatoes, garlic, onions, chicken stock — ah hell, I could make that.

So I did. Tender bites of lamb, layered in with piquant green olives, the supple sweetness of golden raisins lingering in with sharp tomato tastes. Every bite increasingly familiar, like a warm whisper.

Quick lamb tagine

lamb tagine II

All those years, I thought Mike was quoting a Charles Boyer film to me, when he whispered, “Come with me to the Casbah.” It’s only recently that I realized that Charles Boyer never said that line. It was said, instead, by Pepe Le Pew, the super-suave skunk who was perpetually trying to woo his diffident female skunk lover. The first love of my life was using the Looney Tunes to woo me.

That feels about right.

I’m certain that this dish of mine is probably the Pepe Le Pew of lamb tagine, in comparison to the Charles Boyer-authentic Moroccan tagine, slow-simmered for hours in a tagine pot. However, the same way that Mike’s whispered line worked just fine on the twelve-year-old me, this dish will fulfill that little craving and make you sigh.

three tablespoons olive oil
one white onion, finely diced
three cloves garlic, smashed
two thin shoulder steaks of lamb, cut into bite-size pieces
one teaspoon sea salt
one teaspoon pepper, cracked
pinch saffron
one teaspoon paprkia
one teaspoon cumin
one-half cup spicy green olives, pitted
one-half cup golden raisins
one cup diced tomatoes
one cup chicken stock

Put the high-quality olive oil into a braising pan heated on high. When it has warmed, throw in the diced onions and sautee them until they are starting to soften, about five minutes. At this point, throw in the garlic and stir it all around. (Don't forget to lower your nose toward the skillet and whiff in this heavenly smell.) Put in the pieces of lamb and add half the salt and pepper. Let the lamb cook for one minute or so, or until browned. Remove the meat from the skillet and set aside for the moment.

Add the spices to the onion and garlic simmering mixture and heat until the smell begins to waft by your nose. Place the green olives, golden raisins, and tomatoes into the skillet and cook until it all starts to sizzle.

Put the sauteed lamb pieces back into the braising pan, and add the chicken stock. Stir until you've made a lovely mixture. As soon as you have stirred it into a consistency, put the braising pan in a pre-heated, 350° oven. Let the tagine simmer and bubble inside the braising pan for at least an hour and a half, preferably two hours, until the lamb is meltingly tender.

Serve over brown jasmine rice.

05 February 2006

stumbling into gluten-free bliss

Volterra wine, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

It seems to me that all happiness arrives as a surprise. Work as we might to make things happen — exactly the way we conceive they should be — everything great happens by stumbling on it.

Last evening, my dear friend Meri and I stumbled on a spectacular restaurant, all because the Indian restaurant we thought we wanted to visit was too full. As we wandered in the cold— fresh from a long walk around Greenlake in the blustery wind — searching for somewhere to eat in suddenly trendy Ballard on a Saturday night, I remembered a piece I had read in a newspaper this summer. “Hey, I think there’s a new Italian restaurant down this street. I seem to remember something about the couple who run it once living in Tuscany. Wanna try it?”

Meri — my marvelous friend — always seems happy to explore with me. Life is an adventure with her. We never know where we’re going to end up, but we know we’ll be there laughing.

Last night, we ended up in a place we had never been, beautifully fed, wonderfully warm, and perfectly happy.

Last night was the first Saturday night I had been out of the house in far too long. All through the winter, I’ve been working. Hard. Not just at my job, on my writing, in the house — but I’ve also been working to keep my equanimity. The rains came down hard this year, and I’ve had the blues. I went into hibernation mode, somehow. This project I’ve been working on required all my attention, so I told my friends I’d have to be away for awhile, hunched in front of the computer. I’d come home from a full day of teaching, make myself some food, then sit in the corner, typing, listening to the rain on the skylights, and going to bed too late. I enjoyed it — writing makes me feel alive in a way nothing else can — but I had to shut out the rest of my life too much for my own taste. Everything geared toward the future, not enough for the moment. I know better, but apparently, I don’t. I wouldn’t recommend the regimen I’ve been on: no enough sleep; no real exercise; not seeing friends often enough; working all the time; pounding rain on my head; ten days of having the flu, in the end. Whew.

Deprivation can create satisfaction, however — the world looked bright and alive. After seeming months of rain, a crazy windstorm blew away the clouds, and suddenly everything seemed clear. We had a plethora of choices before us. So when Meri and I walked in the door at Volterra, we were already feeling fine. As soon as we saw the warm interior of the restaurant, and the tiny table for two open by the window, we knew we were in for something good.

A few days ago, I asked some of my writing students to describe their favorite meals of all time. There were tales of pesto lasagna in the Cinquaterra on the edge of the Mediterranean, spoonfuls of homemade hummus in a cafeteria in Israel, and sub sandwiches at the top of a mountain after five hours of hiking. We all agreed that those meals would never have tasted as good in a different setting. (That’s a foodie’s way for me to teach the importance of setting to students writing fiction, eh?) Well, last night, I looked around at the warm red walls, the chocolate brown tables, the white candlelight dotting the room — and I felt immediately warmed. I smelled garlic, prosciutto, chestnuts, and cappuccinos — and I was hungry. I sensed the happy bustle in the capacious back room, the well-dressed people crowding the bar, the murmuring noise level of a group of people satisfied and smiling — and I knew just how lucky we were to walk in and immediately sit down at a window table.

Volterra window scene

All right, Shauna, I can hear you saying now. Enough with the setting; get to the action. What about the food?

Ah, the food.

We ate well. To start, a warm prawn and roasted fennel salad: enormous prawns sauteed in garlic; slivers of fennel; lamb’s ear lettuce; mandarin slices; a light champagne vinaigrette; spicy green olives with an unusual bite. Meri ordered a warm lentil and pork jowl salad. Never in my life did I think I could write this sentence honestly: I just love pork jowl. Before you protest, imagine this: thin, crackling slices of the essence of bacon taste, crunching among tiny brown lentils, along with small shreds of radicchio and arugula. Ah, the taste of it. Meri and I both just kept looking at each other, smiling and amazed, then diving our forks back into the pile of lentils before us.

In between dishes, we sipped on our wine. The wine list featured wines from all over Tuscany — including the “Supertuscans” — with some far out of my price range. The one we ordered was, admittedly, the cheapest one on the list. However, I certainly didn’t feel deprived. We drank a spicy, full-bodied blend of Washington-grown Shiraz, Cabernet, and Merlot, blended specficially for this restaurant. If you don’t know about the power of Eastern Washington wines, you should try some. I don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to talk about wine well; I just know what I like. And this wine, I liked. Enormous personality, full in the mouth, and it simply deepened with every new dish. Or, as Meri said, about twenty times throughout the night, “Oh my god, the wine.”

And then, the entrees. By the time they arrived, Meri and I were already in ecstasies, but we simply weren’t prepared. She had the wild boar tenderloin with a gorgonzola sauce and sauteed rapini. Apparently, it was tender and not-at-all gamey. Judging from her little moans and sudden inability to listen to anything I had to say, I’m guessing it was ineffably good. However, I didn’t do that much talking, because my prawn and porcini risotto, with cream and lobster sauce, made me incapable of speaking. Oh lord — this was good. Every bite indelible, every spoonful a pleasure, every taste a measure of just how good food can be.

You may have noticed this: I don’t write about restaurants often on this site. For one, I don’t eat in restaurants that often, since I had to learn how to live gluten-free. Eating in restaurants is always a risky endeavor, and most of the time, I’m not willing to take the risk. Sometimes, I eat in places where I know I’m going to be safe: my favorite Indian restaurant; sushi when I bring my own bottle of wheat-free tamari; salads with friends for lunch. Nothing much to write about there, though. I want to only recommend a restaurant to those of you reading here if I feel like it’s spectacular.

Volterra is spectacular, not only for the fresh, creative food — an exquisite blending of the best of Tuscany and the Pacific Northwest — but also for the way they treated me when I told them I cannot eat gluten. Our wonderfully flamboyant waiter (Paul from Seville) understood me immediately when I explained my plight. He already knew about celiac disease, but he still went back three times to the kitchen to insure that flour didn’t lurk somewhere in places that neither one of us expected it. Later, he brought over one of the owners, the wonderfully voluble Michelle, who chatted with me about gluten-free food. She truly impressed me with how much she already knew. Later, Paul informed me that the chef wanted me to know that they keep Tinkyada pasta in the kitchen, in case any gluten-free customer wants to try one of the incredible pasta dishes. That’s a good restaurant — trying to keep every customer satisfied and safe.

Volterra panna cotta

Long before the desserts arrived, Meri and I talked about returning. But after the desserts, I knew I had found a new home. Ah, the desserts. I ate chestnut honey panna cotta, made with my favorite honey from Tuscany. Smooth and creamy, sweet without being overly sweet, the panna cotta was a little gift on my white plate. Slivered strawberries strewn around the top made it even more extraordinary. Fresh strawberries in February? This month is beginning well. Meri closed her eyes after she had spooned up some of her white pistachio gelato, and after a taste of the chocolate, she pushed the bowl toward me so I could have a taste. But when she dug into her scoop of peach champgne sorbet, she simply looked out the window, tears in her eyes. There were no words necessary.

The evening was simply perfect. We hadn’t expected this goodness at all.

Volterra Restaurant
5411 Ballard Ave Northwest
Seattle Washington 98107

01 February 2006

gluten-free goodness from around the world

quinoa I, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I’m so darned happy that it’s February.

It’s not because of bloody Valentine’s Day — I can tell you that right now. I have no special affinity with Groundhog’s Day. And February is certainly not spring yet — even if it’s not quite winter either.

February is not January. That’s why I love it.

January in Seattle this year was .... wet. It rained. And rained. And rained. And rained. There seeemed to be more days of rain than there were days in the month. It rained so much that I ran out of adjectives to describe the experience of being here: drenched hair; soggy skin; saturated clothes; drizzling clouds; patters of drops; puddly ground; damp cars; dripping eaves; sopping fingers; waterlogged brains; doused hopes of sunlight; sprinkled salutations; preciptated people. Damn — I don’t even know what to say anymore. It has just been aqueous around here.

Normally, I love the rain. I love the coziness of it, the tapping rhythm of raindrops on the skylights in my kitchen, the muffled quiet of it. But after 422 straight days of rain — and I know that’s hyperbole, but it sure doesn’t feel like it around here at the moment — I’m trying hard to like the rain.

Last winter, I think it rained ten days out of the entire winter. In fact, we had so much sparkly sunshine and clear-blue-skied days that we all grew a little panicked, worrying there would be a drought in the summer. There was, but we seemed to have withstood it. No chance of drought this summer. We’ll be as green as leprachauns around here in July. That’s what I keep thinking — July. Someday, it will be July again.

Honestly, though, I’ve sort of forgotten what sunlight looks like.

Until this morning. The first day of February this morning, and I woke up to sunlight streaming through the bedroom blinds. As I drove to work, I kept staring at the sky, astonished at the glimmering light above the buildings. When I sat in class first period, I could hardly keep my attention on the matters at hand, because my head swivelled again and again toward the window. Soft light, everything kinder. Shadows. Actual shadows on buildings and sidewalks.


The return of the sunlight feels like a physical metaphor for my tentative return to health. My head still feels clogged with phlegm, and I sound more like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer when he decided to wear a fake nose to disguise himself than I sound like Shauna. Never mind. I’m no longer confined to the couch. I don’t feel as though I’m going to cough up my lungs anymore. And I’m no longer delirious with fevers.

The rain has cleared.

Feeling better — and my enormous writing project finally finished; whoo-hoo! — I once again have time to spend quality time reading my fellow bloggers’ endeavors. I love this food-blogging community. I’ve missed you all.

I’ve found so many great posts from the past few weeks, and I’m eager to share them with you. We can all use the inspiration this time of year. Let’s break out of that winter gloom and start cooking again, everyone. It’s the first-week-of-February-gluten-free roundup.

° First on my list is the extraordinary wealth of gluten-free possibilities in the Great Quinoa Cook-Off over at Belly Timber. Last month's Paper Chef called for quinoa recipes, and people responded, in waves. Unfortunately, I was too darned busy to participate, but I did take a photograph of quinoa grains, to take the place of the dish I might have made. (You can see it at the top of this post.) Now, I want to make at least half these dishes. Not every one of them is gluten-free, but most of them are. Use your discretion and start cooking, after you stop laughing at Mrs. D's crazy sentences.

° Molly has outdone herself again. Just after Orangette was named Best Food Blog in the world -- yay for my friend! -- Molly put up this post, with scrumptious, fainting-spells-inducing photographs of Chocolate Featherweight Cookies with Walnuts and Cocoa Nibs. If you want a record of just how hallucinatory I was with high fevers last week, you can check out the comment I left, where I exclaimed that I would have to come up with a gluten-free version. Silly me -- these are naturally gluten-free. And clearly, delicious.

° If you are tiring of my references to cookies, however, and you're looking for gluten-free desserts with low-to-no sugar, check out the January 30th Sugar-Low Friday post that Sam put up at Becks & Posh. Bloggers from all over the world crafted desserts with alternative sweeteners, and some of the best are gluten-free. How about Lime Mint Flan or Lemon Flan from the lovely Bea? Or Fanny's Honey Semifreddo? Or, if you want a taste of Hawaii in the middle of winter, why not try Medjool Dates with Ricotta and Gingered Honey? Not all the recipes on Sugar-Low Friday are gluten-free, but so many of them are that it's worth your time to wander around on Sam's post. (Besides, she did such a gorgeous photo collage of them all that you have to click on it, just for that.)

Moving away from the sweets, it's time for meat. Melissa, at Traveler's Lunchbox, made a spectacular pork pate last week. The photograph alone sent me into paroxysms of happiness when I saw it. I can only imagine the sunny happiness of that first bite. Having been a vegetarian for ten years, I can also identify with Melissa's moving story of her choice to move away from eschewing meat.

Guess what? If you don't already know this, here's good news. I'm not the only gluten-free girl in Blogtown anymore. Karina, over at Gluten-Free Goddess, is doing a lovely job on her site of sharing gluten-free foods, particularly the simple, comforting foods. This recipe for Mexican Pumpkin Soup was inspired by her fellow blogger friend, FatFree Vegan Kitchen. Talk about thriving in the face of food restrictions -- going without gluten feels easy in comparison to that. Karina's version of the soup looks especially good with the chile cornbread she also concocted. See? There are plenty of us gluten-free gourmands out there.

Finally, here's a non-gluten-free post you should definitely read: David Lebovitz' loving homage to roquefort cheese. Look at the photographs at your own risk, those of you who must live gluten-free: these will make you crave the cheese. However, when you read David's explanation of how the cheese is injected with mold grown on old loaves of rye bread, you'll understand how insidiously gluten hides in places you'd never suspect. So, give a little sigh, then kiss roquefort goodbye.

I hope this round-up inspires you to cook all week long. Me? I think that after some pork pate, pumpkin soup, and cocoa nib cookies, I'll be ready to dance in the puddles and sing in the rain again.