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31 January 2008

trying to be inspired in the middle of winter

lemon curd tart II

Everywhere I have been outside in the past two days, people have been shivering and shrugging. The man who opened the car in front of the restaurant made a guttural noise, and then said, “It’s cold.”
I laughed and said, “It’s January.”
“True,” he said, and then drove away.

It really isn’t that cold, folks. It’s in the upper 30s, and it’s spitting cold rain. But we usually enjoy much milder winters around here. However, this really is not that cold. Every morning, the Chef reads me the low temperatures of every place we have been in the past two years. Everywhere but Rome and Los Angeles is colder than Seattle. Poor Gunnison, Colorado (several of the Chef’s nieces and nephews went to college there). It consistently ranks as the record low in the country that day. In terms of winter, we’re pretty lucky in Seattle.

It’s not the cold that leaves me shrugging. Instead, it’s just that….it’s still winter.

Oh, winter. Why do you last so much longer than any other season? Spring flashes upon us and turns to summer in a moment. Summer seems to pass in the time it takes to sneeze. Autumn fades a bit more slowly, but look up and all the trees are suddenly bare. But winter? Oh winter. You stick around forever.

For the first couple of months, I enjoy winter. The crisp air. The decadent pleasure of slipping on a sweater for the first time that year. The roar of the heater beneath my feet. But let’s face it — winter slips into us far earlier than it says on the calendar. Since early November, it has been grey and sodden and silent around here. And there are still two more months to go.

I like the silence. It reminds me to slow down. Summer rushes through me and I just want to move. We probably need to hibernate, hunker down, and hum at a lower tone. I love being inside, and winter compels me to stay in and make my home.

Still, there’s one part of winter that frustrates me no end.

It’s harder and harder to be inspired by food.

Oh, we still eat well. Two nights ago, for dinner, we ate pork chops roasted with apples, sage, and Taleggio cheese. Last night brought black cod and mashed potatoes, with a tamari-butter sauce and some of Brandon’s pickled sunchokes. We don’t eat leftovers (the Chef isn't fond of them). Every day brings something delicious.

But in every other season, I bubble with ideas of foods. One walk around the farmers’ market in summer, and I scrawl pages in my food notebook with meals to create.

Last week, we went to the farmers’ market, as we do every Saturday, and the Chef and I were both sad to see only seven stands, huddled together, in that nearly empty parking lot. Even the potato guy had gone home.

There just isn’t much this time of the year.

Alfred Portale refers to spring as the true start of the year. It’s when the world returns to full bloom. Maybe that’s why so many New Year’s resolutions fail. People are trying for fresh starts in the deadest part of the year.

But there is still so much aliveness. I just have to look harder to find it.

OM in watery winter light

This morning, it rained all morning, an unceasing patter of splattering drops in already overfull puddles. The morning felt long, the sky loomed low. When I left the bed to get the Chef another cup of coffee, I turned idly toward the front door. A sudden burst of sunlight shattered through the rain. And this watery light, bouncing off the puddles on the side porch, illuminated the OM sign above the door. The light stopped me. I grabbed the camera.

I hadn’t taken any photographs in days. Today, I took them everywhere I went.

Beauty hides in bare trees and bowls of guacamole. The world doesn’t have to be lush to deserve our attention.

Later in the morning, I went to wash the dishes. Another flash of sunlight shone through the window and landed on my skin. Suddenly, I felt warm. For a moment, it felt like spring in the small of my back. I stayed in the kitchen for awhile, stirring scrambled eggs more slowly than I had in weeks.

And in the quiet cold season, there is more time for perusing cookbooks. Lately, after breakfast, I’ve been sitting on the couch, my feet propped up on the coffee table, reading Jamie Oliver’s How to Cook. (That’s where the pork chops with sage and apples arrived.) The Chef checks his email, and looks over and smiles at me when I shout out a new idea, like warmed olives with lemon zest and garlic from Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food. The words becomes dinner in a matter of hours.

During the summer, I don’t adapt that many recipes. They simply appear beneath my hands from the bounty of long sunny days.

In the winter, I go back to the craftings of people who know much more than me. I have so much to learn.

It’s good to be humbled by winter. To remind myself to try harder, to dig beneath the surface of puddles to find the earth again.


* This weekend, I will be in Los Angeles. It’s just me, this time. The Chef has to stay here, to keep the restaurant running. Oh, I’ll miss him, but Sharon will be happy. We haven’t had a girls’ weekend alone since the long days ago when I didn’t know the Chef.

I’d love to meet you, if you want to come out for gluten-free food and community.

Sunday, February 3rd, 1 to 3

The Sensitive Baker
10836 1/2 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232

Eugenie and the good folks who run this lovely bakery will be providing gluten-free brownies for everyone who wants to come along. Okay, okay, it’s during the Super Bowl, but surely there must be plenty of you who want to avoid that spectacle. We’ll be laughing and eating, and I’ll be giving a reading. I hope to see you there.

Monday, February 4th, 12 to 2

Whole Foods on Fairfax
6350 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90036

Here, I’ll be giving a talk about gluten-free living, a love affair with food, and how to eat well (even during winter). Books will be for sale, and I’ll be signing them. There will be fresh chocolate banana bread for everyone who makes it. Stop by during your lunch hour and be part of the community.

I hope to meet so many of you this weekend that my face will hurt from smiling.

* The Chef, god bless him, continues to be inspired by food, in spite of the dearth of fresh produce in the winter. On Valentine’s Day, he’s serving a special menu, one he worked on for weeks. He wanted to make it celebratory and seasonal at the same time.

And of course, everything will be gluten-free.

Impromptu Bistro
Valentine's Day Menu 2008

First Course

Mache Salad
hazelnuts, blue cheese, & raspberry vinaigrette

Shrimp Bisque
salmon roe caviar

Seared Foie Gras
toast points, blood oranges, & Port wine

Second Course

Lobster Risotto
saffron & endive

Third Course

Pan-Roasted Beef Medallions
mashed celeriac, fried oysters & baby carrots

Pan-Seared Colorado Lamb Chops
baby artichokes, white beans, & warmed olives

Vegetarian Platter
winter root vegetable risotto, roasted potatoes, & creamed spinach

Pan-Seared Prosciutto-Wrapped Sea Scallops
Napa cabbage, heirloom navel oranges, & wild rice


Blood Orange Cake

with Chantilly cream

Chocolate Mousse

with Grand Marnier

Ice cream or sorbet

Cheese platter

If you live in Seattle, and you want to come in, I’d make a reservation right away. (206.860.1569)

* I find this hard to believe, but ostensibly Martha Stewart is letting the people decide what her next big project should be. Several of her top enployees pitched ideas, and she couldn't decide. So it's open to the public fray.

One of the top seven ideas is a magazine for people with food allergies. This would, of course, be the most mainstream, consistent coverage seen so far of those of us who have to avoid certain foods. (And clearly, we are gaining strength.) I wouldn't have thought I would suggest that people visit Martha Stewart's blog, but if you go and vote, perhaps we can beat out the other top contender: a magazine devoted to crafts for your pet.

Please, people. Go vote by clicking here.

lemon curd tart

Gluten-Free Lemon Tart with Bittersweet Chocolate, adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques

One of the ways the Chef and I both are inspired most wildly is by eating at other great restaurants. We can’t do this often enough because of the budget — he’s a chef; I’m a freelance writer. But when we go to Crush, or one of Tom Douglas’s restaurants, or Tilth, we come home bursting with ideas.

A year and a half ago, when we were in Los Angeles, the Chef and I took Sharon to Lucques for her birthday. We’re still talking about that meal, this many months later. The seasonal food, exquisitely prepared, danced on our tongues and made us laugh with joy. (And we especially love that when the waiter brought Sharon the surprise birthday cake we had whispered as a suggestion, it came topped with a trick candle that refused to blow out!)

We’re both equally inspired by the Lucques cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques. As elegantly as the food is presented at the restaurant, these meals could easily be made at home. This is food from the hearth, from the heart. And since this is very much the way that the Chef cooks too, we both turn to this book for hits of inspiration.

A couple of months ago, I spotted a recipe for Meyer lemon tart with a layer of chocolate. “Ooh,” I turned to the Chef. “Can we make this?”

He did. He changed it a bit, used a gluten-free tart dough, and served it at the restaurant this month as one of the desserts. People just gobbled it up.

One note about the tart dough. Lately, my favorite combination of gluten-free flours has been equal parts of:

Sweet rice
Tapioca flour.

In fact, I’m using this combination for nearly everything I’m making. And it’s working. So try this dough recipe, but substitute that flour combination. See if you like it.

1 tart dough, pre-baked at 375° for about 30 minutes

1 ½ ounces bittersweet chocolate
4 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
1 cup baker’s sugar
1 cup lemon juice (you could also use a mixed citrus juice to make this a citrus curd)
10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
½ teaspoon kosher salt

Melting the chocolate. Melt the chocolate over medium-low heat. (You can use a double boiler, if you have one, or a stainless steel bowl over a pot of boiling water.) When the chocolate has melted, pour it on the bottom of the crust and spread it evenly with a rubber spatula. Chill the dough in the refrigerator until the chocolate has solidified.

Making the curd. Whisk the eggs, egg yolks, sugar, and lemon juice together in a large saucepan, on medium heat. Be sure to stir continuously. (Suzanne Goin suggests starting with a whisk and finishing with a rubber spatula, for a smooth curd.) The curd is done when you can run your finger through the thick curd on the back of the spatula, and it parts like Moses just parted the Red Sea.

Finishing the curd. Remove the curd from the heat. Add the butter to the curd, bit by bit, and stir to make it all smooth. Pinch in the salt and you’re done.

Finishing the tart
. Allow the curd to cool completely. Pour it into the tart shell. Chill the tart in the refrigerator, ideally overnight.

Serve to the delight of many.

Feeds 8.

17 January 2008

misbegotten vegetables

celery root

“I’m going to eat up my vegetables.
I can’t get enough of vegetables.
I love you most of all,
My favorite vegetables.”

-- The Beach Boys, Smiley Smile

I remember being sixteen years old, in the corner of a bedroom in our house in London, big puffy headphones on my ears. The rest of the house was quiet, the world far away. I was listening to the hiss and crack of music on vinyl, the record quietly moving forward and spinning songs into my head.

I had found a pile of Beach Boys albums in this bedroom, in the strange house we called home for a year. My father, the English teacher, had won a Fulbright exchange to the United Kingdom, a prestigious gig that made us all proud. But it also meant we uprooted our lives and switched places with a family in south London. At times, I felt lonely, bereft of anyone my age. Music always brought me back to centered.

Now keep in mind, I was a Beatles girl. Their music had woven itself throughout every year of my life. But at 16, just before we left for London, I had lost my mind and heart to them. I remember spending the entire summer of Rubber Soul, the headphones pressed to my ears as I tried to memorize the harmonies. When we left for London, I left nothing to chance in packing. We couldn’t bring much, but I brought all my Beatles albums. I played those discs so many times that I wore them down. (That’s what happened to my father’s first edition Sgt. Pepper’s record, which he purchased on the first day it had been for sale. But was it my fault that he let me play it on my Fisher Price record player when I was seven, and danced to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds so often that I scratched it beyond repair?)

The Beach Boys were always a pale comparison to me. But I grew up in Southern California, and in cold and clammy London, “Surfin’ USA” felt like home. I missed it, all that I knew before, even the parts I had never liked. So I listened to surf music, in a row house in Streatham, in 1982. “Sloop John B” condensed all my melancholy into three minutes, and I listened to it five hundred times.

And then I found Smiley Smile. Oh lord, that album was weird. Songs meandered into endings that faded out of earshot. Warped melodies wavered between notes. And the lyrics made no real sense. What had happened to those clean-cut boys gone surfing? I almost put it away after listening to the first side. My virgin ears just couldn’t comprehend anything beyond the three-minute pop song.

But something stuck — some stubborn curiosity — and I just kept listening. This was headphones music, the kind that makes you close your eyes, and press your back up against the side of the bed as you sit on the floor and try to drink it all in. Every note was there for a reason. I didn’t understand. But I tasted something strange, a little note that could lead to something more. I kept listening.

And then I heard the vegetables song. A little jaunty chant, a Moog synthesizer behind it, the singer bopping along seriously to a song about vegetables. I laughed out loud. I didn’t know that songs could be so damned sarcastic and beaming with satisfaction at the same time.

I started the record again.

Music was never the same for me. Hell with the tidy pop song. (The Beatles had already paved the way for me, of course, but I thought they were the only ones.) Give me meandering, ridiculous, and far-more-interesting-than-top-10 music. I wanted more.

* * *

I didn’t know it would transpire then, but that’s exactly what happened to me with food. It took me longer to expand my tastes, to still keep chewing in spite of that initial “weird” feeling, than it ever did with music. But now, without a doubt, I am hooked.

Vegetables — as the Beach Boys sang? I love you most of all. After a childhood of canned peas and iceberg lettuce (that’s how most of us ate at the time, after all), I have broken out into the world of real vegetables, the produce equivalent of “Smiley Smile.”

Behold, above, the lowly celery root. (Did you know that’s what the photograph at the top shows you?) I’ll be honest. I didn’t even know that celery root (or celeriac), as it’s also known) even existed before I met the Chef. He reached for this strange root one day at the farmers’ market, and I nearly shouted, “What the heck is that?”

Look at it. That’s no one’s idea of pretty. It’s bumpy and lumpy, like a kid with bad acne. The bottom has long, protruding threads, like the stubborn hairs on an old man’s chin. It’s knobbly and humble, no one’s idea of gourmet food.

But peel it and boil it, mix it with spuds to make a potato-celeriac mash? Heaven. Roast it up with other winter root vegetables and serve them with a jalapeno aioli? Yes, please. I’m still exploring all the corners of my mouth with my tongue.

Some vegetables are easy to love. Carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers in season? These are no-brainers. Summer vegetables are like those young women who wear shirts with nothing left to the imagination and their pants hanging too low. It’s easy to see what those have to offer.

But winter vegetables, all the knobbly roots? They’re like the smart girl in school, the one with her own sense of style: thrift-store button-down shirts; old slacks; wacky suspenders; a bowler hat. You think she’s too weird for your time. But when she starts talking, and you find out she’s a smart ass, and she doesn’t give a damn if you even like her? Suddenly, she’s far more attractive than that other one.

Summer vegetables are like modern movies. Winter vegetables are witty-banter movies from the 1930s, where dialogue and long looks smoldered. The kiss in that final scene was far sexier than too much skin, any day.

(I don’t where this came from. I’m just going to leave it.)

* * *

Next weekend, the Chef and I are having another ingredient potluck party with our friends. November was potatoes. December was citrus. (That was, perhaps, the only time in my life when I thought, “Okay, no more lemons today.”) This month is knobbly winter root vegetables.

Rutabagas, turnips, parsnips, celery root, and sunchokes. Potatoes will do. Ginger is technically true. I know there are others. We don’t know what we’re making yet. We can’t wait to see the table laden with dishes made from the misbegotten vegetables.

What would you bring, if you were coming? Parsnips roasted with smoked paprika and honey? A sunchokes mash with garlic and mustard? Ginger juice sprinkled on top of fried turnips?

If only we had the room for you all.

* * *

But here’s my suggestion for you. This week, just once, try a winter vegetable you have never eaten before. Who knows what one bite of a rutabaga could start for you? Twenty-five years later, you could still be humming that note in your mind.

brussels sprouts, kale, and bacon

Brussels sprouts, kale, and bacon

On Christmas Eve, the Chef stood in my parents’ kitchen and made us all a memorable meal. Juicy pork roast with a sour cream and horseradish sauce. Potatoes roasted in duck fat. We could hardly wait for him to come to the table.

So how could we have predicted that our favorite bites of the night — for all of us — would be this dish he made from lowly Brussels sprouts and kale?

Of course, bacon helped. We brought some particularly fatty, tender shoulder bacon from Wooly Pigs, for the day. But really, your favorite bacon with the taste of porky goodness would work here.

I hated Brussels sprouts when I was a kid. I had never heard of kale. Who could have told me that I would crave them both now?

We have no way of knowing how we’ll change. We might as well be open to it.

3 strips bacon
1/2 medium yellow onion, small diced
1 teaspoon garlic, fine chopped
1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
12 Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed and cut in half
1 bunch lacinato kale
1 teaspoon each kosher salt and cracked black pepper
freshly grated Parmesan

Cooking the bacon. Put the bacon strips in a large skillet. Cook it until the fat has rendered and the bacon has reached the crispiness you desire. Take the bacon out of the pan and leave the fat.

Sautéing the vegetables
. Add the onion and garlic to the pan and cook on low heat until translucent. Throw in the rosemary. Toss in the Brussels sprouts halves and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the kale. Toss and cook the entire batch until the kale has wilted.

Finishing the dish. Toss in the bacon pieces and stir. Season with salt and pepper and taste. Remove from heat. Top with the Parmesan. Serve.

Feeds 4.

10 January 2008

knowing him through his home town

Breckenridge, seen from his front yard

There are so many ways to know a person, it seems.

The sound of his high-pitched guffaw when he really lets go. The twitchy dance he does when it's time to go to the restaurant. The touch of his fingers on mine as we drive in the car. The rapid tumble of words he uses to describe his day. The taste of a thick piece of salmon, seared on the skin side and juicy to the fork's touch, which he made late at night after cooking all day long. The closeness in the dark, under the warm covers.

Every moment with him approaches a deeper knowledge of the man I married.

But I found an even deeper knowledge when we stood in the front yard of the house he once called home ("Big Brown," his family called it, even though it's now painted blue) and looked up at the mountains of Breckenridge. The quaint buildings, the small churches, the same people walking by every day. The fingers of land cut into the green trees, tiny ant people skiing down them. The peaks of the ten mountains arching up to the sky.

"No wonder," I thought. "No wonder he is the man he has become."

There is nothing like visiting the hometown of someone you love.

the pond where he broke his wrist

The Chef has a long, pale scar on his right forearm, etched into his skin. I noticed it, right away, and asked. When he was 13, he went ice skating on the pond downtown. He slipped, he fell, and broke his right arm, badly. The local priest had to take him home -- six blocks away -- and he was so traumatized by the experience that the Chef's mother offered the priest a shot of whiskey when they walked in the door.

The Chef didn't sleep that night. There was no hospital in town. The family waited until the morning to drive on icy roads to the nearest medical center -- "That was the longest night of my life" -- where the doctors said his break was so bad they had to operate. Poor Chef's mother. Three of her five children were in the hospital at the same time. Pat had broken his collarbone, while competing for the US ski team. Kathy was giving birth to her first child. And the Chef underwent emergency surgery.

A few days later, he held his first niece in his arms, even though his right arm was in a cast up to his shoulder. He says, today, that he knew, in that moment, he wanted to be a papa someday.

And he has told me, many times, in grateful moaning, just how good it felt -- three months later -- that first night they removed the cast. "I've never slept so well in my life as I did that night."

So there we stood, on the edge of the pond where all this started. I could see it, carry the image with me, instead of trying to imagine it. "You want to go ice skating?" I joked.

"No, thanks," he said.

We walked off to find lunch.

reflection in the door of the house where he grew up

It meant so much to him — to be in Breckenridge with me. Everywhere we walked, down the snowy sidewalks and in all the local haunts, someone called out to him. He hadn't been home in three years, but still everyone knew him. (Well, except for the tourists, but none of the locals pays attention to them.) His family? They seem to run the town. His parents — before they moved to Arizona for the warm air — had been the county assessor and town clerk. Before they left, the entire town turned out to roast them. (The Chef missed the party, because he was off at his first year of culinary school. Whenever he watches the video, he tears up.) Today, his brother is the head of the ski patrol. His sister-in-law is head of lift maintenance. And his sister works for the county, for the town clerk, in charge of elections. You can't walk down the street without running into an Ahern.

Whenever the Chef turned around to locate the voice that called him, he smiled. He beamed, actually. Someone from his childhood, or his time working at the Horseshoe, or an old friend of the family reached out to hug him. "How are you?" they asked.
They could tell from the size of his smile.
And then he extended his hand and pointed to me, "This is my wife."
I beamed too, every time.

All throughout the book tour, people came up to meet me. And then they'd exclaim, "Oh, it's the Chef!"
I loved walking around Breckenridge by his side, playing second fiddle, smiling shyly and listening.

When I showed him this photograph of the two of us, in the reflection of the front door of the house where he grew up, he instantly declared it his favorite. There we were, the two of us, in his hometown.

downtown Breckenridge

Of course, Breckenridge has changed since he was a kid. Ten times more buildings crowd the small streets than existed when he was small. Main street has more t-shirt shops than I could count. Clutches of 20-year-olds toting snowboards throng the roads. This is clearly a tourist destination.

For gosh sakes, there are horses and carriages waiting for you, with plaid blankets in back to wrap around your legs.

Still, he could see the town he knew through it all. The place where the ballfield used to be. The firehouse. The wooden Catholic church where he waited on the steps for services to begin, when he was an altar boy. The parade that went through town on the Fourth of July.

I swear, I think he grew up in a Frank Capra movie.

he grows teary at the elementary school

Here he is, in front of his elementary school.

When he was little, the Chef had crossed eyes. He wore a black patch on one eye, with a shock of brown hair sticking out around it. I saw the pictures on this visit -- he looked like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn combined, with a little eye patch. Every morning, he did exercises to strengthen his eyes, following the path of a worn-down tennis ball swaying from a string in the kitchen. (It wasn't until he turned 14 that the doctors realized none of it was helping and did surgery on his eyes.) His house was three blocks away, so he walked every day, at the last moment ("School starts at 8:30? I'd leave the house at 8:25."). He was a rascal, a little troublemaker, but the teachers all loved him. And above the school, a significant slope, where the students sledded at breakneck pace, and then hiked up the hill to do it again.

Life wasn't like this for me in Pomona, California, growing up. (But I did have huge thick glasses that made my eyes look small and watery.)

Now, here was the man, fully grown, standing in front of his elementary school, with tears in his now-straight eyes.

Love expands. Every time I think I love him as much as I can, I learn that I'm wrong.

in the gondola

Breckenridge is a ski town, after all. The Chef walked out of his house every winter, after school, with skis in hand, took a bus to the ski area, and skied all afternoon. I, however, have never been on a pair of skis. And frankly, I just didn't want to start on this trip. (It wouldn't do to walk into the Tattered Cover on crutches, after all.)

But we did ascend the mountain in the town's gondolas — ten minutes of soaring for free. The Chef's oldest niece, Emily, the one he held in his arms when he had the cast, joined us on a break from her job at the ski area. We laughed so hard I thought the gondola might shake off its wire.

Seeing the earth in front of us, like that? I could suddenly see why people ski.

(However, the thronging crowds at the base of peak 8, most of them wearing ridiculous hats and an over-eager expression to attack the mountain again, made me comfortable with my choice.)

the mountains

Perhaps one of the best times of our visit involved the mountain, darkness, and an enormous machine.

The Chef's brother-in-law drives one of the CATS, a monster hulking vehicle that plows through the snow on the way up and glides a smooth path the way down. (Before we arrived in Breckenridge, I made the Chef laugh so hard he hit the floor, when I told a friend we might go up on the machine that "polishes" the snow. How should I know?) Joe took us up one early evening, when the snow was lightly following from a low cloud cover. Huddled together in the passenger seat, the Chef and I could not talk. Everything glowed white, the sky a yellowy shade, the snow settling around us. I felt like I was in a moving igloo.

Slowly, Joe moved the vehicle toward the top of peak 8, nearly 13,000 feet. We looked around and could see nothing else but mountain, sky, snow, and ourselves. I felt like we were on the moon. I felt utterly small, in all the best ways. We really are pretty insignificant.

The piercing headache from the altitude I suffered afterwards? Worth it. The insomnia and nausea and exhaustion that plagued me all week from being up in thin air, leaving me short of breath as I walked down the street? Not a problem. I had been up on top of the world, with the Chef by my side.

(And going down the mountain was an act of trust, as Joe pummeled down steep curves and sharp edges. "He knows what he's doing," I kept chanting in my head. And he did.)

Mi Casa's gluten-free menu

As much as the power of the earth, and old memories helping me to know him better, were the forces of this trip, you know there was something else. Food.

It turns out to be absurdly easy to eat gluten-free in Breckenridge. The first day, we stopped at Empire Burgers for lunch. I asked for a burger without a bun, and I went through my spiel. Before I could finish, the waitress said, "Oh, is that gluten intolerance?" She understood. I didn't have to finish.

Food Kingdom, which -- let's face it -- is a really dinky little grocery store with half-empty shelves and snowboarder guys for checkout clerks, sold gluten-free pasta, flours, bread mixes, and brownies. What is happening? Are we finally moving into the mainstream?

And then we walked into Mi Casa, a middle-of-the-road Mexican place in downtown Breckenridge. It's the kind of place where the lobby walls are lined with skiis and snowboards with snow still clinging to them. Mexican food is usually pretty easy in which to eat gluten-free. But when we peered at the menu, I nearly jumped out of my seat.

A special gluten-free menu?

fresh grilled tortillas

When our waiter approached the table with the chips and salsa, I said to him: "I have to eat gluten-free, but I can can have the chips, right?"
"No," he said, waving his hand. "There's something in them that has gluten. I'll find out why. But just don't eat them." And he scooted away to find me an answer.

I looked over at the Chef, and we both had tears in our eyes that time. I always feel so grateful when someone feeds me safely. And he was moved that someone in his hometown actually understood.

Turns out that the restaurant makes its own chips, and they fry them in the same oil as flour products. (Can I just say wow? That they had thought about it that deeply?) But he felt bad that I couldn't eat anything with the salsa, so they grilled up some corn tortillas for me.

He got a big tip.

The food? Great. A soft pork tamale with the meat spiced so well I wanted three more. Fish tacos. Beans and rice. And the warmth in my belly from knowing I was eating well.

We asked the waiter, "How did this happen?"

Turns out that one of the locals has celiac. He came in every night and asked for chicken wings, naked, and a taco in a corn tortilla. The staff started asking why, and he informed them about gluten. And then they noticed that other people, in steady streams, were coming in, and asking for something gluten-free. The kitchen manager went out to every table, when a gluten-free request came in, to make sure they were fed safely. But when he had to do this three times a night, he asked the owner. "Can't we just have a gluten-free menu?"

That's all it takes. All of us who have to avoid gluten? Tell every restaurant you know. Go back to the ones that feed you safely. Who knows? They might just make a special menu for us, one day.

Wouldn't it be an awakening if every one of us could go back to our hometown and eat gluten-free, safely?

Breckenridge sky

The food fed us well. Every night, we ate dinner with the family: pork roast with horseradish-sour cream sauce; a tasty Mexi-bake; barbequed chicken; a tender beef roast with smashed red potatoes. No problems there.

But on this visit, believe it or not, the food was only a secondary note, a high harmony in the background.

Instead, this visit was about home: returning there, and finding him there, and knowing it for the first time, and new again. We were alive under the sky, holding hands. I know him better now, for walking through the streets of Breckenridge.

And I love him even more.

steak salad with avocado ranch

Avocado Ranch Dressing

One afternoon, the Chef and I ate lunch at the Kenosha steakhouse, which advertised itself outside as: "Bbq. Booze. Burgers." Well, I like truth in advertising, and I was craving some meat. (All that fresh air, I suppose.) We sat down, and a chipper young waiter -- who looked like a younger version of Seth Rogen in "Knocked Up" -- came to take our order.

Not only did he understand the gluten thing (again, astounding), but he made it his job to oversee my entire meal. I ordered this steak salad. What kind of dressing? Well, I said, which one is your favorite of the dressings I can eat.

His eyes lit up. "Avocado ranch."

He was right. Oh god, as soon as I was done eating it, I craved even more. So I came home and made some.

Now, let me tell you about this recipe. I made it up as I went along. I used my taste memory, and the inspiration of several recipes I read for ranch dressing, and it all happened in the moment. I'm only putting down measurements reluctantly, because I want to encourage you to try your own version. But this one, served with seared salmon and red quinoa, worked just fine for us the other night.

1 medium shallot, rough chopped
1 clove garlic, rough chopped
1/4 cup dill, chopped
5 sprigs, lemon thyme, leaves removed and chopped
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoons each kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup canola oil
5 tablespoons dry buttermilk powder
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup sour cream
2 avocados, peeled and pitted

Put the shallot, garlic, herbs, mustard, and salt and pepper into a blender. Whirl them up.

Slowly, add in the two oils, while the blender is running. This will help emulsify the dressing.

Add in the buttermilk powder, milk, and sour cream. Blend it all up. It should be thickening at this point.

At the last moment, put in the avocados and whirl it all up to a thick, lovely green dressing.

This dressing goes well on spinach salads, steak salads, as a topping to fish, or a dip for vegetables. Really, you'll want to eat it.

Makes enough for 2 people for a week.

01 January 2008

a love letter to 2008


Dear 2008,

Even though you are only a fledgling of a year, a mere few hours old, we’re already quite fond of you.

Yesterday, we anticipated your arrival by walking around Greenlake with friends from here and there. The sun set yellowy against grey skies around 4:30, or just a smidge later. That’s one reason we like you — the new year means the slow subtle shadings of the return of light. Later, we ate a leisurely dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, at the totally un-hip hour of 5:30. We wanted to eat our creamy polenta with wild mushroom ragu in peace, not jostling with other folks at the bar. But still, the place was packed. People sure do gather in excited clumps and inebriated groups to celebrate your arrival.

After a quick stop at the warm-lit home of dear friends to say hello, we drove home, hours before the drunken rush. You see, we are nothing close to fashionable. This was the first year in nearly a decade that the Chef didn’t have to cook at a restaurant for New Year’s Eve. I kept asking him, “Do you want to do something spectacular?” But he just looked at me and said, “I can’t think of anything more spectacular than being snuggled up with you.”

Oh, 2008, I sure am happy we could welcome your arrival together.

curtains at Tea's house

But actually, I fell asleep for a couple of hours before you could come. There was a South Park marathon on. The Chef didn’t mind my slumber. He woke me up twenty minutes before you appeared. We kissed and hugged, mumbled Happy New Year in each other’s ears, and watched fireworks on television. (They didn’t work so well in Seattle. They stopped and spluttered off the side of the Space Needle. Kind of embarrassing, really. I hope you don’t take it personally.)

For decades, I ached for a way to ring in the new year in some exciting fashion. A raging dance, a party thronged with fabulous people, a handsome man to sweep me across the floor and dip me down for a dramatic kiss at midnight. That never did happen. Does it for anyone? (You must grow tired of all the expectations people have for your arrival.) I never knew that happiness at the stroke of midnight meant holding my husband, while wearing his pajamas, in our bed with the sheets that should be changed, kissing and falling asleep ten minutes later.

Oh, 2008. You are my 42nd year on this earth — I’ll be officially 42 in August – and I can’t tell you how happy I am to meet you. Every year that I have met in this life, I love even more. Each year is more forgiving, a little kinder, a lot sloppier, and far more filled with joy than the year before.

shauna and the chef at imagine ii

However, I have to tell you — you’re going to have to work hard to outdo 2007.

2007 was, in an imperfectly spectacular fashion, the most dramatic and fabulous year that either one of us has ever lived.
I mean, just the big events alone are enough to astound me. In 2007, we:

Sent the manuscript of my first book to the publishers

Celebrated every month’s anniversary with great food

Edited the manuscript of my first book in 14 days, cutting 7000 words in one day

Traveled down to Arizona for the Chef’s father’s 80th-birthday party

Started the first of a round of dizzying publicity with a food fight photo shoot

Tested recipes so that people across the country could enjoy the food along with us

Worked on the last edits, cuts, changes, and questions for the book and let go of it

Found our new home and moved into that beautiful space, gleefully

Changed the venue for our wedding two weeks before the date

Married each other

Lived in Italy for 11 days on our honeymoon, gladly eating and loving

Stared in amazement at a beautiful newspaper story with photographs of ourselves and recipes we created

Flew to New York for the publication of my first book

Visited Portland, Chicago, and San Francisco, in a whirling daze of events

Appeared on television and the radio and laughed through it all

Watched the Chef’s restaurant swell with grateful customers after all the publicity

Soldiered through a bad infection and exhaustion to find ourselves at the holidays, grateful and grinning.


the Chef in Gubbio

There is no question —we have been dazzled by this year. Never, in our lives, has a year been so dramatic, so action-packed, so public and filled with love. We adored meeting each and every one of you. Your faces are emblazoned on our hearts.

But you know what, 2008? We really wouldn’t mind if you were just a bit quieter than 2007 was. Or even a great deal quieter.

Oh sure, we’re still going to be doing events for the book, traveling places to meet people and have the chance to read and cook and teach. In fact, here on this first day of you, 2008, the Chef can barely contain his excitement. Tomorrow, a mere two days into 2008, we are climbing on a plane, early in the morning, and heading to Colorado.

We will be spending days in the Chef’s hometown, visiting with his family. He’s so excited to show me the place where he grew up — ask him where he is from, and he’s likely to immediately say, “Breckenridge!” — that I don’t see how he’s going to sleep tonight. When he thinks about walking me around the town, crunching our boots in the snow, and meeting his friends on the sidewalk, he grows a little teary.

2008, you have been much anticipated.

(For those of you in Colorado who are reading, here’s where we will be.

Saturday, January 5th, 2 to 4 pm: Whole Foods in Lakewood. We’ll be teaching a cooking class together.

Whole Foods Market
444 South Wadsworth Blvd
Lakewood, CO 80226

Monday, January 7th, 7:30 pm: Tattered Cover on Colfax. I’ll be giving a reading and answering questions.

Tattered Cover on Colfax
2526 East Colfax Avenue at Elizabeth Street,
directly across the street from the East High School and the City Park Esplanade.

Please come out to see us. We’ll both be beaming.)

And we will be in Los Angeles the first weekend of February, with plenty of events I will share later.

We can forsee plenty of great stories already.

i love winter light in seattle

However, as grateful as we are for all these opportunities, we would both love some more ordinary days, some quiet moments by the fire, some long mornings with nothing to do.

And mostly, I would love months that are not already planned. Everything arrives as a surprise, but many of our surprises came on schedule this year.

2008, are you already bombarded with fervent, earnest promises, people vowing to change today?

I’m not going to bore you with that. We all know that locked-knees resolutions often fall by the side of the road by the end of this month.

Instead, I like the fresh start of your arrival, the chance to look at the last yea and gently nudge our minds into creating what we might like of our lives.

baby carrots

This year, I would like to learn how to sew. Seriously, I have no idea. I can’t even put a button on the Chef’s coat when it falls off. Home economics in the seventh grade scared me off. But more and more, I like the moments of my life where I can use my hands. I wish that Amanda lived closer —I would bring cookies and ask her to show me how to start, and she wouldn’t make fun of me. But if anyone has suggestions of books I could try? I’d like that.

With our large yard, and the richness of Seattle soil, I can’t wait to start gardening for the first time in my life. This summer, we planted our first herbs in terracotta pots, and we were hooked. (Plus, our landlord is a master gardener, and he loves to share his knowledge.) Fresh arugula, perhaps potatoes, rainbow chard, baby carrots — my mouth is watering at the idea of that fresh produce. But I also want to start gardening because I really know nothing about it.

It’s good to try something at which I am no good. Failing is good. Faltering, and not knowing, and fumbling with my fingers until it feels more natural — that keeps me alive.


That’s why, this year, I’d like to learn how to make:

Homemade marshmallows
Beef bourguignon
A kick-ass yellow curry with chicken and potatoes
Really great gluten-free biscuits
Sea salt crackers with sorghum flour
Pim’s pad thai
Gluten-free Dutch babies
Custard, plain and simple

You know, the Chef knows how to make most of those, without even needing a recipe. But me? I want to learn them on my own. I want my hands to know how to make the foods that move me, without looking over my shoulder and saying, “Sweetie, how do you do this?”

the island - artichoke

Who knows what our lives will be like at the end of your tenure, 2008? We have no way of knowing.

Mostly, though, I want to be open to it all. I do know that I want to walk around in wonder, allowing myself to be surprised. With the Chef holding my hand — and laughing with me at the most ridiculous asides — I know that I will be fine.

I keep singing these lyrics to “Mushaboom” by Feist today:

“I’ve got a man to stick it out and make a home from a rented house. We’ll collect the moments, one by one. I guess that’s how the future’s done.”

the heart in Buddha's hands

Dear 2008, we are in your hands. Please hold us safely. We promise to appreciate you.