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28 April 2008



I spent at least an hour this morning, photographing eggplants.

Ah, the joys of a day off, after feeling so pressed last week. After writing that piece on Thursday, my mind has eased, my muscles slowed down. Having felt so shaky, I wondered if I should publish it. But I remembered again what my Buddhist teachers helped me to see: true warriorship is allowing yourself to be vulnerable. So the fact the piece exists is its own reward. Your kind-hearted comments and compassionate letters helped too. I never expected such an outpouring, and I thank you. Writing is an act of catharsis, a release of its own kind. Having a few days to breathe is another.

And pregnancy hormones really do have a swarming-like-a-hive-of-angry-bees effect sometimes. There are moments when I feel Little Bean kick at me, and it's as though my entire stomach is dropping down into my body. I stand there, and gasp, and hold my belly for a moment. Those are the times I remember -- pregnancy is hard work. When I impose my old order on this new world, that's when the hormones take over.

Much better to give over part of a morning to photographing eggplants.

The Chef was in the kitchen, roasting potatoes and whistling away. Outside, the light played like a small child on the grass. Sprightly and laughing, sunlight spilled over all of us. Lambent. Luminous. Leaping. I had no choice but to grab the camera, to capture the white pear blossoms dancing against the sky, the frail chives still alive after the long winter. And two Japanese eggplants the Chef and I had bought at Uwajimaya a few days ago.

I never did capture them the way I imagined, but that's fine. Just the sight of those lustrous purple skins was enough to make me smile.

So did imagining bowls of smoky eggplant raita, the spicy moussaka I learned years ago from the Moosewook cookbook, silky baba ganoush, and of course, ratatouille. (A dish made even more famous by the cartoon movie with the rat, which we already know we want to buy for Little Bean someday.) As I tried to make the light play with the eggplant nicely, I could almost taste heaping spoonfuls of warm eggplant parmigiana: thick slices of tender eggplant sauteed in good olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and handfuls of basil, soaked in plum tomato sauce, and covered in breadcrumbs (gluten-free, of course).

"Honey, when is breakfast going to be ready?" I called out, suddenly hungry.

But there are so many more possibilities with eggplant. Tomorrow, I think I'll finally use these beauties, on the grill.

(We finally set up the barbeque! After writing about how much the pieces strewn across the kitchen bothered me, we just sat down and finished it. It may have been nearly dark when the entire contraption sat on our grass, and we may not have eaten our barbequed t-bone and asparagus until nearly 10 pm, but no matter. It's finally done, in working order.)

I'm imagining a marinade of tamari, honey, rice vinegar, and ginger. (That, of course, after I salt the eggplants and let them sit, then squeeze the water out and pat them dry. It turns out that step really does matter. I used to skip it before. No more.) We'll let you know how it tastes.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear: what are you imagining with eggplants?

24 April 2008

the sweet surprise of strawberries

strawberries in April

“Hey sweetie?” I called from the couch into the kitchen. I rubbed my eyes, trying to wake up.

“Yes, my love,” he said as he stood in front of the coffee pot.

“What day is it?”

“Thursday,” he said, coming toward me with a cup.

“Danm.” I reached for the warm cup he stretched toward me.

“What’s the matter with Thursday?” he plopped down on the couch and reached for the newspaper spread out on the coffee table.

“Blog post day. And I don’t have anything. I just completely forgot.” I could feel the tears rising from my throat.

“It’s okay, love.”

I gulped them back, these tears that had nothing to do with a lack of recipe. “It’s just that I’ve been thinking more about the post I’m putting up next week than the one for today. I’ve been reading asparagus ideas, and making more arepas, and I just don’t have anything for today.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, hon.” He put his hand, warm and strong, on my shoulder.

I put the heels of my hands on my eyes to shrug back the tears.

“Sweetie?” he asked.

I sat there, silent for a moment, feeling overwhelmed.

“What is it?”

I stuttered and stumbled, always comfortable with him. “It’s just that….there’s so much going on. I have the appearance at Met Market tomorrow, the speech in Lake Chelan this weekend, the writing class on Tuesday, the reading on Wednesday, and the conference in LA next weekend.”

He blew air through his lips, slowly, feeling for me.

“And I’m happy about all of them, honored really. But I’m tired.”

“You’re pregnant,” he said, putting a hand on my belly.

“I love that.” I put my hand on top of his. “I just wish I could slow down a little more.”

“You will. Start saying yes to that,” he reminded me.

“I will.” I felt better, just letting the tears come.

“What else?”

“Well, there was another nasty review on Amazon. And I know I shouldn’t pay attention, but some of them are so vitriolic, and personal.” I shook my head, not wanting to let it bother me. No use in pretending. It did.

“Oh man,” he sighed. “I hate that.”

“Me too. And this one went on and on about how I’m a food snob, because I said I want to eat local asparagus, in season, instead of through the year.”

“But sweetie, you know that’s ridiculous.” He leaned in for a hug, his arms folding me in.

“I know. And I hate truffle oil, and people keep claiming that I’m espousing a life in which everyone must buy some. I just don’t understand.”

He held me for a moment, close.

“You’re just like me, you know. A dining room full of happy people, and one person wants her fish cooked more well done, and I’m convinced that everyone hates the food.”

We laughed at ourselves, the vibrations in his throat trembling the top of my head.

“What else?” he said, waiting for me.

“Oh, I don’t know. I mean, the house is a mess, and we never got time to finish putting together the barbeque so it’s sitting in pieces in the kitchen, and I haven’t had time to do laundry in days. And I don’t know if we’ll ever get to Little Bean’s room. I mean, I’m 25 weeks tomorrow, and LB will be here in 14 weeks, and fuck, that’s just around the corner.” I stopped for a breath, my head ducked into his chest.

He breathed, without talking, waiting.

“And, it’s grey outside again, and reading the newspaper is all doom. The aftermath of Pennsylvania primaries, and stabbings in south Seattle, and the world is running out of food.”

He pulled my head up and looked at me.

“And then I just feel dumb for complaining about any of this, when people are starving for lack of rice. I sound ridiculous right now!”

He held me again, trying not to laugh at my hysterics and my doubt of it all. At least he resisted tickling me. Because he didn’t say anything, I heard myself.

“Wow,” I said, pulling away to look at him, wiping away the tears. “I really must be hormonal, right?”

“Probably,” he laughed softly. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not real. You just need some time off.”

“Actually, I just need another hug, and some breakfast.”

He hugged me, of course. And then he stood up to put some asparagus in to roast.

I breathed. I try to live in gratitude. In that moment, I was swept away by the gratitude I felt that he was in the house with me. How long had I lived without him?

“Hey you,” he said, settling down again. “Feeling better?”

“Yeah,” I said as I put my feet up on his lap.

“Good.” He leaned down for his coffee cup.

I reached for the paper again. And then stopped. “But I still don’t have a blog post.”

“Oh yeah,” he giggled. “It did all start with that.”

“Are you making anything at the restaurant I could share?”

“Well, there’s the crab salad, and the blue cheese cheesecake…”

“But we have to save those,” I said immediately.


“Hm….” We both sat and thought for a bit. We had been eating homemade corn tortillas all week, lots of cheese, asparagus at nearly every meal, roasted chicken, poached eggs, black bean soup, salads with goat cheese and sunflower salads, oatmeal with prunes (that one was for me)….. All of it too mundane to share, or done before.

“Did you get anything in from Charlies’ that inspired you?”

His eyes went wide. “Strawberries. First of the season.”

My nose perked up. I could almost smell them. And then I stopped. “Oh, but they’re not in season here yet.”

“They are in California. At least it’s not Chile.” He taunted me with this, his little teasing voice.

“But I so much prefer when they’re from Skagit Valley. You know that I just like supporting local farmers…”

“Shauna,” he stopped me, his voice commanding. “I agree. And we’ll eat those all June. But sometimes you have to bend. You need strawberries.”

I laughed. What a funny thing to be rigid about. And we always seem to cheat a little, about a month before fruits and vegetables arrive in the farmers’ markets, and have a single plum in April, or strawberries from California, just as a taste of things to come.

“Okay,” I said laughing. “But what are we going to do with strawberries?”

“You leave that to me,” he said, as he leaned his face down to my belly. “Let me surprise you.”

I surrendered. I trusted him.

“Besides, Little Bean needs some strawberries too.” And he put his lips near my belly button and shouted out in his silliest voice. “Hi Little Bean! Would you like some strawberries?”

I felt that kick inside me, a pulse like a gulp, somewhere near my bladder.

“I guess that means yes,” I said, laughing.

“Well that solves it then,” he said. “Strawberries.”

He kissed my belly and rested his head there for a moment, eyes closed in pleasure.

I put my hand in his hair and patted his head. In that moment, everything felt like a yes again.

strawberries, balsamic, blue cheese


When I came back to the restaurant after buying him a cup of coffee, he flourished a martini glass at me. “Here you go. Strawberries.”

I looked down in amazement. He had been right. It was just what I needed in that moment.

Pt. Reyes blue cheese is one of the few artisanal blue cheeses I have found that’s gluten-free. Funny that the Chef doesn’t care for blue cheese, and he can eat any of them. And me, who hungered for it, went without it for years because of the gluten. Bless you Pt. Reyes cheese people.

The longer I cook, the more I realize — with the Chef’s help — that it’s just about the ingredients. A smidge of good cheese, ripe strawberries, balsamic vinegar reduced down to a thick syrup: tangy sharp bites with sweetness and a prickle of seeds. It’s not intended as snobbery. This really doesn’t cost that much. But such a distinctive taste. It sweetened the rest of my day.

½ cup decent balsamic vinegar
1 cup ripe strawberries, tops off
¼ cup blue cheese

Put the balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan. Simmer it gently on medium-low heat until it has reduced to 1/8 cup. Remove from heat.

(If you happen to own some aged balsamic, the great stuff that is already its own syrup, use that instead.)

Chop up the strawberries and put them in a bowl. Crumble the blue cheese above them. Drizzle with the balsamic reduction sauce.


Feeds 2.

21 April 2008


asparagus for sale

Finally. Finally.

The other morning, when the Chef and I were driving to work, we stared out at the window at the prickles of snowflakes hitting the ground. We looked at each other in confusion. And then we laughed.

There’s no explaining this fickle, freezing spring. These past few weeks have been like a small tired child, changing his mood every few minutes. He’s tired, and he just doesn’t know what to do. And so, it hails, and then snows, and then the sun breaks through the clouds with one of those smiles that make you stop moving and just breathe it in. And then the grey clouds lower, and in the distance, black rain moves over the hills and starts falling on the neighborhood next to this one. From what I have heard, Seattle has not seen this kind of weather — and especially this cold — since the 1920s. Winter, we really want to be done with you. Why don’t you just surrender and lie down for a nap?

Before we left the house, we had been watching that week’s episode of Jamie Oliver’s show. For more than twenty minutes, we sat and watched that ebullient man grow even more joyful for sitting outside in a summer garden. Enormous lavender plants, paths of thyme and oregano, and solid sunlight shining down — oh my, the world really does look like that sometime. Little Bean kicked and kicked (you won’t believe this, but LB really does kick during his show, every single week), and we beamed, thinking of what is coming this summer. And all show long, the lovely man made lovely concoctions with asparagus. Oh, we sighed together. Maybe someday asparagus will show up here.

That afternoon, as I walked into the grocery store where I was making a public appearance for the book, the Chef called me. “Guess what I have?” he taunted me.
“Locally grown asparagus.”
“Oh thank goodness. We can finally eat it.”
And when I hung up the phone, and walked through the produce section, I spotted some. Stalks of green, bunched together with purple bands, their woody ends resting in an inch of water. Almost as far as my eye could see — asparagus.

The snow flurries outside no longer bothered me. Spring is here, dammit. Asparagus has arrived.

The Chef and I, we’re a little stubborn. California asparagus has been in the store for weeks. If we lived in California, we would have celebrated weeks ago (and probably have tans instead of pasty white skin). We both happen to think that asparagus grown east of the mountains in Washington tastes better than that grown in California. At least it does here. Eating asparagus that has been picked only a day or two before? Its bright green taste, the fibrous texture, the way the tips are tender and the stalks need a fork and knife to cut right through — these are best when the asparagus has only recently left the earth.

It’s here! It’s here.

Later that afternoon, I stopped by the Chef’s restaurant to say hello. He swooped a plate down before me: crispy seared halibut with soft white meat inside, lying on a bed of roasted asparagus. Drizzled on top of it all a thick balsamic reduction sauce in Jackson Pollock spatterings. Need I say how good it tasted?

Oh, but I’m not focusing on that meal, as much as it lingered. I’m just excited about every possible way I can eat asparagus for the next two months, now that it is here.

(Of course, asparagus has not shown up yet in the farmers’ markets. Snow keeps the farmers’ away. But soon, oh soon, I’ll see what I saw in this photo I took last year — stalks and stalks of asparagus in a white plastic tub. And since I waited until the end of the day to take a photograph of the bunch we have sitting in our kitchen, I was thwarted by the dreary rain clouds again. So let this photo be something to dream by, for all of us.)

What will you be doing with your asparagus soon?

17 April 2008

leapfrogging from food to food

black bean goodness II

When we were kids, my brother and I loved playing word games with our parents. I always loved one called The Minister’s Cat, a Victorian parlor game we learned from the Albert Finney version of Scrooge. Everyone in the room claps rhythmically and chants, “The minister’s cat is a _______ cat.” When it was your turn, you had to quickly shout out an adjective that began with the letter of that round. A cantankerous cat! A comical cat! A caring cat! And inevitably, someone would grow flustered and tongue-tied, and end the round with “…a c… c. cat?”” There was much roaring and applause, and then we began again. I loved the idea of searching my brain for adjectives that fit, fast.

Of course, we played Mad Libs until all the spaces of every puzzle were filled with slightly naughty nouns and body parts. I think that I have never laughed harder than at certain games of MadLibs when I was eight years old. There was a towering stack of word games to play: Scrabble; Boggle; word searches; crossword puzzles; hangman; jumbled letters; anagrams. We never ran out of words.

But one of my favorites was easiest in the car. Rolling the words off our tongue in time with the scenery rushing by, we played a game that piggybacked words and led us places we never expected to go. It’s simple. Start with story. The next person must say a word that begins with the last letter of the previous person’s. Story becomes yellow. Yellow becomes waning. Waning becomes giggle. And so on, round and round. Sometimes, after the first ten rounds, we were stumped. Sometimes, I just couldn’t think of another word that began with y. (Yes, Shauna. Yes.) But inside that green VW rabbit, we were imbibing words, swallowing them whole, learning how to describe our worlds.

Cooking feels like that to me these days.

The first year I was gluten-free, I wanted to try a new recipe every day. Every afternoon felt like an Adventure. I can make jam! I can create chimichurri! Braised lamb shanks are not beyond my reach! That time dazzled me, and I recorded most of it here. Without really knowing it, I felt compelled to come home and create, knowing that I would put everything up on the blog. Quickly, I began cooking for the internet. Every day, I felt compelled to seek out new ingredients and make dishes that had nothing to do with each other. The refrigerator groaned with the weight of wasted food. I lived at home, alone, and I had friends who were happy to eat my food, but really, I was cooking for you readers.

At a certain point, however, it was like a culinary game of Minister’s Cat. “The Gluten-Free Girl is cooking… ah, uh, ahhhhh, ugh.” There was no round of applause and laughter then.

And then along came the Chef.

Food flew into the house and onto the site again. He and I made veal goulash, and I had something to photograph. Everything he taught me, the techniques and the recipes, felt like fodder for this place again. We shared our love through food on this place, and we were too excited to stop. The recipes grew much, much better. (Honestly, I’d say now that you should take every recipe before May 2006 with a big grain of salt. I didn’t really know what I was doing then, not like I do now. This is why some of the recipes in the book feel like repeats from the blog. They’re not. The Chef made every one of them better.)

But after awhile, the game comes to a halt. As you have probably noticed, I post far less often here these days than I did that first year, or even the first year of loving the Chef. But now, everything is deliberately chosen. I love the ingredient posts on Mondays, because I’m not the expert. Oh my, do I grow inspired by people’s suggestions for beets, avocadoes, and Savoy cabbage. (This week? A salad of raw, julienned golden beets and carrots, with cilantro, walnuts, golden raisins, and a brown rice vinegar vinaigrette. Oh yes.) I hope you are too.

Mostly, what I notice now is that our food life feels like that leapfrogging word game. One dish leads to another, round after round of new bites that help me learn how to describe this world.

And mostly, now, I’m cooking for the three of us: the Chef, Little Bean, and me.

Man, that’s a lot more relaxing.

We pay attention to the seasons around here. As much as I love asparagus, I’ll wait until the end of May to experience the fat, green stalks of locally grown. The anticipation makes a simple roasted stalk, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and a pinch of Parmesan, the most beautiful food in the world. If we cook in season, however, we’re going to end up using the same ingredients, over and over, in every dish. By the end of June, I’ll be exhausted with asparagus again.

This way of cooking is a cozy settling in, a chance to drop into deeper muscle memory. Those quotidian foods don’t make for a scintillating daily blog entry. But they’re much more satisfying to eat.

The other day, I was at the Market with our dear friend Nina. We both, somehow, had a couple of hours to wander and talk. (Life is moving full pace these days.) Over coffee and lentil soup, we caught up in person. And then we wandered through shops, not knowing what we needed, but knowing we’d recognize it when we glimpsed it.

We walked into a little Mexican grocery store and looked up at the neat rows of dried hominy, Jarritos sodas, dangling chiles, and coconut candies. I needed a new bag of P.A.N. flour, to make more arepas. She wanted to try some too. Nina glanced over at the bottom shelf and spied something silver. “A tortilla press!” She owned one already. Somehow, even though I have been making fresh corn tortillas since the summer of 2005, I had never bought one. Fifteen dollars. That’s all it cost. I picked it up.

If I was going to make tortillas, I needed maseca. What else? I spotted Goya black beans at the other end of the store. When I lived in New York, I lived off Goya canned beans for weeks at a time. Much juicier than other canned beans, the black ones are especially flavorful. All right, dinner that night would be black beans and tortillas.

Nina had to leave, when she realized with a jolt that the meter on her car was winding down. I wandered through the Market by myself, dawdling at Sosio’s. Hm, red peppers. Glowing yellow grape tomatoes. Cilantro. Fresh garlic. A fat yellow onion, its papery skin peeling. Cumin and ginger nudged into my head, and I walked down to World Spice.

That’s how I came up with the recipe you see below. My goodness, we ate simply and well that night.

The Chef liked it so much that we ate the leftover beans, with fresh tortillas, and scrambled eggs for breakfast. He never likes leftovers.

Left the next afternoon with the makings for more tortillas, and our mouths hungry for more, I looked around the kitchen to see what we had. A roasting chicken in the refrigerator. Some grape tomatoes still in the blue pint box. An avocado growing soft on the shelves.

Tortilla soup. I just needed to make stock, and find some lard, and we had dinner on our hands.

And next? Well, some of the stock is growing richer on the stove as I simmer it again. Red quinoa is calling my name. Simmered in stock, and topped with fresh cilantro, toasted pine nuts, leftover seared chicken breast, and local goat cheese? That’s going to be a fine meal at midnight.

Tortilla and beans to tortilla soup. Tortilla soup to red quinoa. I’m sure that the rest of the goat cheese will yield something more.

The Gluten-Free Girl is eating ___ tonight?

I don’t know yet. I’m less inclined to blurt out an answer fast, these days, in order to win that round.

black bean goodness


I can hardly call this a recipe, since it came from dicing and tossing, trying and liking. Many of you already have a way with making black beans that works for you. But all I can say is the Chef sat up in bed at nearly midnight, ecstatically happy in his groans, after eating these. And this morning, he wanted the leftovers for breakfast, with scrambled eggs. That rarely happens around here.

Play with these. Make them your own. But if you hewed pretty closely to the dish these words could build, I think you'd be pretty happy too.

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 large red pepper, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh-ground cumin
1 teaspoon fresh-ground ginger
1 tablespoon brown rice vinegar
2 cans good-quality black beans
1/2 teaspoon each kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1/2 cup water
10 yellow grape tomatoes (or whatever you like)
1/2 cup Monterey Jack cheese

Sauteeing the vegetables. Bring a deep skillet to heat. Add the canola oil. When it swirls around the bottom of the pan like water, add in the onion pieces. Listen to them sizzle, and then give them a stir. When they have softened and become translucent (about 10 minutes), add the red pepper and garlic. Saute them all until the smells rush to your nose.

Playing with spices. Spoon in the cumin and ginger and stir. When those spices entice you with their smells, splash in the brown rice vinegar. Stir it all up.

Cooking the beans
. Add the contents of the two cans of beans into the skillet. Stir it all around. Season with salt and pepper. Let it all bubble around together.

Break it down
. If you want the final dish to be thick and somewhat dry, leave the beans to cook as they are. If you'd like a little more of a stew feeling, add some water to the mix at this moment. Stir it all up, occasionally.

Let the bean mixture simmer for a couple of hours, for full flavor. When they are done, serve them up in bowls.

Topping with tomatoes and cheese. In a super-hot pan (I use the one in which I grill the tortillas, and it's smoking hot), add a bit of oil. When it is hot, toss in the tomato halves. let them bubble and sear until they have almost melted. Throw them on top of the black beans. Immediately, grate Monterey Jack cheese on top. When it has melted, serve the beans with fresh corn tortillas.

Feeds 4.

14 April 2008


beets are beautiful

I wanted so much today to write about a light, crunchy spring vegetable.

We had high hopes on Saturday. The day bloomed brightly, the sunlight entering the bedroom before our eyes awoke. For half an hour, we just wandered around the backyard, breathing in the smells of bushes bursting with flowers. Every spring, I notice this new: the earth has a smell again. For months on end, everything lies under damp and grey soil, hiding. When spring begins, everything gives up its smell.

Walking to the farmers’ market, the Chef and I held hands and laughed. He was in a short-sleeve shirt; I was wearing a sleeveless maternity blouse. Everyone looked happy, even the street kids slouching against doorways. The Ave is nearly as scrungy as it was fifteen years ago, all the edges scuffed. But on days like Saturday — the temperature a startling 79* — everything looked beautiful as we walked into the farmers’ market.

Musicians played fiddles and guitars, small clutches of children dancing before them, a man coming forward from the crowd to launch into a harmonica solo. Three times as many people shuffled between stands as a few weeks before. Children ran from mother to vendor, eager for treats. We all convinced ourselves, for a few moments, that spring had passed us by, and we had landed in the middle of summer.

And then we looked at the produce available at the stands.

Rutabagas, red kale, Savoy cabbage, and sunchokes. Oh my.

The sun went behind the clouds.

It makes sense. Heavens, only a few weeks ago, the skies rained down hail and sleet on the befuddled citizens of this city. It’s never winter this late in Seattle. The ground full of spring vegetables must have been confused as well. We simply have to wait.

But oh goodness, for a moment, everything deflated. More winter root vegetables?

And so what choice did I have but to buy more beets?

This derisive passage about beets in Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book (At Table) made me laugh out loud: “It is not an inspiring vegetable, unless you have medieval passion for highly coloured food. With all that purple juice bleeding out at the tiniest opportunity, a cook may reasonably feel that beetroot has taken over the kitchen and is far too bossy a vegetable. I have never heard anyone claim it as their favourite.”

For years, I would have agreed with her. I’ve written about this before, how I hated beets. The acrid tangy smell of canned pickled beets put me off their possibilities for years. Since I went gluten-free, however, I am now a committed convert.

However, other than roasting beets and using them as crackers for goat cheese, or enjoying them in salads, I still haven’t explored them fully. Really, I can’t believe this fact is true and that I’m admitting it: I’ve never even eaten a bowl of borscht.

So let’s help each other out here, folks. It may be spring by the calendar, but it’s not yet spring in the markets. And today, the weather was in the 40s, aggressive raindrops splashing in puddles once again. Like it or not, we’re still going to be eating beets for awhile.

How are you still eating your beets, impassioned?

10 April 2008


homemade arepas

One of the gifts of going gluten-free, continuously, is discovering foods I never knew existed.

This strange paradox strikes me, nearly every day: when I thought I could eat everything, my diet was fairly limited. I ate the same twelve or fourteen meals, in some semblance of order, over and over. Restaurant experiences provided me tastes that puzzled my mouth until I figured out what they were. But that's where adventurous eating stayed: restaurants and visits to other countries, occasionally. At home, I ate tentatively, safely.

(I never felt well enough to dance in the kitchen.)

Now, knowing that I cannot eat any gluten, I reach out my hands for foods I may never have seen before. If I know a food does not have gluten, I'm trying it. And how my world has broadened.

Sometimes people write to me and say, "Your recipes sound lovely. But sometimes they just seem so...exotic. And extravagant. Why do I need all those extra ingredients?" Well, you don't need ume plum vinegar or teff flour or pomegranate molasses to live well. But once you've had a taste, you might never return to that narrow place you were sitting.

And the funny thing is — once you taste the foods that seem "exotic," you realize that some of them are so simple in their preparation that can't imagine how you haven't been making them all your life.

Like arepas.

arepas - white cornmeal

I heard about arepas first through Matthew, who remembered a visit to Caracas with his grandfather. Corn cakes? No gluten? I want some. But I couldn't quite picture them, having never eaten one. I stored the idea in the bulging file closet in the back of my mind, and moved on.

And then, a few weeks ago, our friend Karen placed a basket full of oven-hot arepas before us when we went over for dinner. The warm corn smell, the steam rising to my nose, and the thick little hockey-puck shape made me lean toward that basket, willing dinner to be ready, now, so I could eat some.

A single bite with butter and cheese made me hunger for one of these, every day.

Yesterday, Karen kindly invited me into her kitchen again, and allowed me to take photographs as she prepared some arepas. She and I both agreed: everyone should be eating these, and not just those of us who are gluten-free.

(Except, of course, for the folks who cannot eat corn. Sorry about that one.)

Karen's mother is from Venezuela, where people eat arepas with every meal. These little cakes made of white cornmeal show up on every table, all day long. Karen spoke eloquently of little roadside stands with a perpetually fresh batch of arepas, where people who need a little hit between meals can stand outside and sigh in that smell.

When Karen's mother moved to New York from Venezuela, when she was about 10, she hungered for her daily arepas. But her family couldn't find the pre-cooked cornmeal needed to make these, the way their hands remembered. Karen's mother only ate her arepas when her family came from Venezuela for a visit. And as she grew older, and she returned to her home, she always come back to New York with a suitcase stuffed full of foods she needed for meals to feel familiar.

Luckily, now, the pre-cooked white cornmeal is fairly easily available in the US now. Karen told me to advise you: look for P.A.N. in Latin markets in your town, and online. If you like what you see here, I suggest you find some. (Here in Seattle, the little Mexican market in the middle of Pike Place generally carries this brand.)

So, how do we make them?

arepas - making the dough

"Start with 2 1/2 cups of lukewarm water," Karen told me. "Not so hot to burn your hand, but not at all cold."

Add a pinch of salt, a burble of vegetable oil. And then start pouring in the cornmeal.

"Why are you mixing it with your hand, instead of a spoon?" I asked her.

She looked at me over her shoulder, with a devilish grin. "You know already. You're the same kind of cook as me. You need to feel it."

With your hand, you can feel the lumps dissipating into the water. Just get in there and do the work.

"Ladies, take off your rings. This is messy work."

Be sure to keep one hand out of the water while you're mixing, so it's not sticky with dough as well.

arepas - use your hands

"I'm just guessing this," said Karen, "because I don't know the scientific reasoning. But I just know from my hands that you don't want to overwork the dough."

You don't want the dough too dry and starchy, because even when it seems to be entirely mixed, it stiffens as it sits.

The final mound that you pat into place should feel like wet clay, but a bit grainy.

arepas - this dough is too wet if it sticks to your hand

And if your dough is too wet, it will stick to your hand, like this.

Avoid that.

arepas - rolling the dough

If you want, you can allow the dough to sit for awhile before making the arepas. (I don't really know why you wouldn't eat them right away, however.) Be sure to lay a wet cloth over the top of the bowl, so it doesn't all dry out and crackle.

This dough will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days. But no longer. After awhile, you can smell it fermenting, and that's rarely appetizing.

Once you start making them, says Karen, you will eat them every day. So it's good to have a mound of ready dough within easy reach.

When you are ready to make the arepas, form a small ball in your hands, about the same size you see above.

arepas - flattening the ball

And then flatten the ball into a little puck, like the one you see above.

If the dough is too dry, the edges of this cake will start to crack. Start again, add some more water, and form a coherent and easy-to-work-with ball this time. If the dough is too wet, add a small amount of flour, just a touch, and mix it in. "If you add too much, you'll have to add more water, and then more flour, and then more water. You could go that way all day long."

"It takes practice," said Karen. "It really does. You might not get this the first time. Don't worry. Try again."

arepas - smooth the sides with the side of your hand

"It took me until I was in my 20s until I started learning how to make these well. I was always intimidated by the process. And I knew I could always get my mom to do it, if I was hungry."

Karen told me this as she deftly smoothed the edges of the arepa with the side of her hand. I just loved watching the care she took, how slowly she paid attention to every inch of the edge.

Making food by hand like this? It's an entirely different process than eating convenience food.

arepas - this is what they look like when they are ready to cook

This one is ready.

The finished arepa cake should be nice and round. "Not too thick, or it will take you a million years to cook the damn thing," Karen laughed.

arepas - put them on the griddle

Put them on a griddle pan, if you have one. "My mom uses cast-iron, with just enough oil to wipe the bottom of the pan." But if you don't have one of those, a good non-stick pan will work fine.

Make sure you use something that can go into the oven. Oh, and turn that on, at this point.

The heat of the burner should be mild, no more than medium. Too hot and the arepas will scorch. You don't want that. The outsides should form a little brown crust, a firm surface, but the insides need to cook as well.

"Be patient," Karen said. "It's worth it."

arepas - time to turn these over

When the bottoms have become firm and lightly golden brown (on Karen's stove that was about seven minutes), flip them over, carefully.

The second side will take awhile, too. Perhaps another ten minutes. If the arepas are starting to smell strongly of corn, turn the heat down. You need those insides to cook as well.

arepas - you need some butter and cheese

And then the arepas have to cook in the oven for awhile. (Oops. I forgot to tell this. Set the oven on 350°.) Sigh. There's that patience thing again.

While they are baking, sit down at the table with your friend. Karen sliced up tomatoes and covered the juicy redness with fresh garlic and basil. The sun appeared outside, from behind clouds. Life was fine.

Especially when she put butter and cheese on the table.

arepas - the inside is a little doughy

Finally (okay, they were probably fifteen minutes in the oven), the arepas were done. Karen sliced one open with a small, sharp knife. (I think it's possible she only uses it to cut open arepas.)

See how the insides are slightly doughy? Enough that just a bit sticks to the knife? That's what you want. Baked any more and the rest would taste dry.

And you can tell when the arepas are done by tapping on them. If they sound hollow, it's time to eat.

arepas - and some cheese

"I always, always put butter on them," said Karen. "Not matter what else I put on top, it's butter first."

Really, you could stuff your arepas with anything you want. The morning after we ate dinner with Karen and Shawn, the Chef and I filled our leftovers with the corned beef we had intended to eat for St. Patrick's Day. Oh god. We also dipped these into cumin-spiced black beans that had been simmered for hours. Karen said her mom makes a sweetened version of arepas with anise seeds and brown sugar. "It will rock your world." So, apparently, will the traditional tangy chicken salad with avocado called reina pepiada.

But really, the possibilities are limitless.

"Arepas taste like crispy fluffy pockets of joy to me," said Karen, laughing at her inability to express it in any other terms. "When I eat one, I think of all my visits to Venezuala with my mother. They taste like those visits, a reminiscence. Every visit comes out in each bite."

Watching her face settle into calm as she talked made me want to visit Venezuela, with her, as soon as possible.

"I'm so satisfied by the fact that I can do this for myself and other people," Karen told me. "I've very recently become proud of my ability to make them."

We both hope that, soon, you will be proud of your ability to make them too.

arepas - these were fresh from the oven


2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups pre-cooked white cornmeal (Karen recommends P.A.N.)

As far as the technique goes, oh, I'm not going to write it all out again here. Check out the photos above and follow along. This is a physical experience, not one of words. Try these, and then try them again.

You won't be disappointed.

07 April 2008


avocado i

Look at that avocado. Really, do I need to write anything else?

I heart avocados. I realize that using heart as a verb in that sentence leaves me sounding like a seventh-grade girl from Southern California. Ah well. I don’t mind. Avocados do that to me.

In the backyard of the house where my family lived for most of my childhood, an avocado tree loomed over the dry dirt we stamped down with our feet. The pomegranate tree I wrote about in my book lived by the patio. But the avocado tree stood as the centerpiece of everything around it: pyracantha bushes; eucalyptus trees; and the remnants of the tiny replicas of Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm that my brother and I made out of mud. The tree arched to the smog-covered sky, two twin trunks that formed a broad V. One of those years, my brother whacked the heck out of the base of the trunk with a croquet mallet, which left a permanent dent in the poor tree. But the fat black fruits that rained down in the summer? They never suffered.

I can’t believe now that I grew up with ripe avocados in my own backyard. What I wouldn’t give for that now.

If I could, I would eat an avocado every day. It’s not that I hesitate for health reasons. Contrary to popular belief, avocados are actually healthy for us. No, it’s the expense. This year in particular, avocados are higher in price than they are in fat. Have you seen the prices? Some of the pebbled-black-skinned beauties are $2 each. The California wildfires earlier this year wiped out much of that state’s avocado crop. I feel great empathy for those who lost their houses. But the avocados? That’s not fair. [And here, I want to clarify. Of course those homes are more important than the avocados. This is meant to be a disparaging comment on my own selfish thoughts, really.]

There’s nothing like the flesh of an avocado. Creamy with green exuberance, pliant as the knife cuts down, soft as pap and as comforting as mother’s milk — avocados could make me write for pages, and still never allow me to describe them right.

Sometimes, I don’t need anything else but a perfectly ripe avocado — the one that gives to the fingers but doesn’t squish — and a sprinkling of salt. For a more decadent snack, I splash a little balsamic vinegar into the cup left by the removal of the pit. That’s satisfaction.

Small slices of radishes, shreds of mozzarella, a few corn chips, some fresh fruit, and segments of avocado, splayed out on a white plate — that may be the perfect lunch.

And of course, there’s always guacamole. This afternoon, after I took the photograph you see above, the Chef and I smashed up the avocado, smooshed in some salt, mixed in some startling pico de gallo, and a dollop of sour cream. Our fingers pushed against each other, fast, in a race to finish that bowl full of green goodness.

But avocados are meant for more than simple slices and guacamole. This month, the Chef is making a kick-ass salad for the restaurant: Dungeness crab, cucumbers, avocados, and papaya, with a tarragon vinaigrette. Everyone who eats it moans.

And one of the best ice creams I have ever eaten was the one my friend Traca made last summer: avocado ice cream, from David Lebovitz’s recipe. Oh yeah. You really do have to try this.

So here’s the question for you. What can we do with avocados, beyond eating them fresh and making guacamole?

03 April 2008

surrendering leads to creme fraiche

homemade creme fraiche

Do you remember the last flying dream you had? The green cliffs far below you, the ocean only a faint roar, and the air blowing through your hair. Everything is slow, and just the right speed. There is no fear.

That’s how I feel these days, being pregnant. Except, instead of flying, I feel as though I am swimming in warm, still waters. The way is clear, but I can’t see the point at which I will surface. I don’t want to know it yet. Being under the water, and moving my arms and legs like a guppy, I’m smiling in a primal state, deep inside myself. There’s someone else inside myself. Someone is swimming with me, and I am trying to bring us to shore, slowly.

Life has become much quieter these days.

Oh, I am teaching cooking classes, sometimes with the Chef, nearly every week. Standing in front of people, asking them to share their stories while I demonstrate how to make gluten-free bread, leaves me happy, and exhausted. I have days that leave me on the town for hours, meeting people for lunch, running errands, writing in coffee shops. Those days of energy, I carry Little Bean with me everywhere I go, and pat my belly while I listen to someone else talk. But as I move through the grocery store, I think more about what to make us for dinner than the little being growing inside me.

But on more and more days, I am at home by 4, shutting the door on traffic from the freeway, things I should do, places I could go. The light gathers on the hardwood floor of the living room, and I curl up on the couch and lay my head down on the pillows. Sometimes, I nap. Not nearly as often as I did that first trimester — that was three naps a day. Instead, one brief release into sleep leaves me rested for the rest of the day.

But even after the nap, I move slowly. I walk over the clutter on the living room floor and enter the kitchen. I’m hungry. A small ball of fresh mozzarella with Maldon salt. The red bowl full of rice. A cold glass of milk. It doesn’t take much to satisfy me these days. Just enough to fill my belly, a belly that is already fuller than I have ever seen it.

I write, sometimes for hours. (And there is some juicy news to share with you soon, the reason I am writing far more than shows up on this site.) But the prickles start in my wrist, and I fear that I’m starting into carpal tunnel. So many friends have told me stories of their hands seizing up toward the end of their pregnancy that I raise my hands above the keyboard in surrender at the first sign of stiffness.

It really is about surrender these days.

trust and surrender

These two prints in the photograph above are by the amazing Nikki McClure, whose keen eye and kind heart move me every time I see her work. On the left, trust. On the right, surrender. These two hang on our bedroom wall, and I look at them every day. I’ve never been through this process before. If this had happened ten years before, I would probably have been filled with fear and hourly trepidation. But for now, I simply know to trust: my body, the time passing slowly, and the days when I need to simply surrender and do not much.

Surrender is such a dirty word, in some people’s minds.

But surrendering to the slow moment? That’s where discoveries come.

Last week, I made crème fraiche from scratch. Before I went gluten-free, and before I met the Chef, I would have thought that was impossible, not to mention crazy. In fact, I’m not even sure I knew what crème fraiche was, until after I had removed the gluten from my life. It was one of those fancy foods that felt far beyond my reach.

However, on my first taste, I was left hungering for more. Thick as pillows punched down on the bed, slightly tangy but not as lip-puckering as sour cream, crème fraiche lightens and smooths, removes the bitterness from foods with one swirl of its sweet creamy self. It doesn't curdle, but remains as attentive as morning light just after dawn. After I discovered it, I began to dollop it on top of fresh strawberries, or stir some into chicken dishes for sauces. And of course, when I met the Chef, I embraced crème fraiche too. He’s classically French trained. He’d been working with it for decades.

Still, it wasn’t in our home that often, because of the exorbitant prices that grocery stores charge. I passed by it in the dairy aisle, looking back in longing. Another time.

Two weeks ago, I made butter for the first time. Yes, that’s right. I made butter. Yellowy, fresh butter, which stayed soft and slathered itself on bread. For days, I walked around in a daze. “I made butter,” I kept saying to the Chef, who kept laughing.
“Yes, my sweet. You did.”
But he didn’t understand. Having grown up on margarine tubs, and only graduating to the real stuff well into my thirties, I never imagined I could make butter. Butter!

These slow, soft days all seem to be leaning toward making me more domestic. (Well, maybe not with the housekeeping.) We’re going to start a garden soon. I still want to learn how to sew. We walk hand in hand through farmers’ markets, and I take fewer photographs and bring more bags home. And I’ve started feeling like an Amish woman (with a KitchenAid): I made butter.

What else could I do on the next slow afternoon but make crème fraiche?

It's so amazingly simple to make.

Find some really good cream (I’m ridiculously partial to this one). Let it sit out for a bit, so it’s not cold anymore. (But not too warm, either.) Letting it come to room temperature may be hard these days, but it’s worth the effort.

Combine the warmish cream and few tablespoons of buttermilk in a small saucepan. Heat the mixture until it is about 85°. Pour this in a jar. Put on the lid.

Let it sit in a warmish place for a day or two (more if it’s cold in your house). Stir it every day.

One day, you’ll lift off the lid, put in a spoon, and let out a gasp. Gosh! Crème fraiche.

(If you would like a more detailed explanation of what to do, check out this tutorial on The Splendid Table.)

I’m sure we’ll be doing plenty of science experiments with Little Bean one day. This feels like a good place to start.

Slow, low, swimming and sliding through the days. Life is moving within me. It’s moving without me too.

These are good days to spend hours making a food I have never attempted before.

After August, there probably won’t be much time.

lemony creme fraiche pasta


Of course, there was the next question: what to do with the crème fraiche?

One of those slow afternoons, I came home and peered into the refrigerator. Glimpsing my latest creation, I grabbed the crème fraiche and decided to make something up with it, on the spot. My tastebuds remembered a lemony crème fraiche sauce over chicken I had made many times before, based on something I read first on Luisa’s site. In the first weeks of our relationship, I made some for the Chef, and he approved.

But I didn’t want chicken. I wanted pasta.

The first trimester may have meant all protein. But this trimester includes some starches, too. Rice, of course, abounds, once we bought the rice cooker. But lately, I’ve been wanting pasta.

My favorite gluten-free pasta of all time is a rice pasta from Italy, called Il Macchiaiolo. Soft and pliable, with a long stretch shape to hold sauces, this is impeccable pasta. Made by artisans, Il Macchiaiolo has been brought into the US by the good folks at Ritrovo.

Ilyse and Ron bring beautiful foods from Italy, mostly organic and certainly made in the tradition of grandfathers on the same land, to us lucky enough in the US to find them. And to my surprise and honor, they recently asked me if they could put a sticker on the packages of the rice pasta: Recommended by the Gluten-Free Girl. Of course.

This means that when I go to a grocery store here in Seattle, I reach for the rice pasta, and then stop. I laugh. This cracks me up. Recommended by me, bought by me.

Really, I do recommend it.

And so, with a jar of homemade crème fraiche in my hand, I began heating and stirring, making it up as I went along.

Lemony singing with homemade butter, creme fraiche nuzzling in, adding another harmony. This is slow afternoon food.

I’ve eaten this dish three times this week.

I think you’ll like it too.

1 knob of butter
zest of 1 medium lemon
juice of 1/2 that lemon
dollop of creme fraiche
1/2 teaspoon potato starch
1/4 cup water
pinch of salt and pepper

Slowly, heat up the butter until it has melted, but is not boiling. Throw in the lemon zest. Watch the little yellow curls dance. Add the lemon juice and bring it all to a lovely simmer. Dollop in the creme fraiche and stir.

At this point, the sauce will be delicious, but it might be a bit thin. If you wish, mix up the potato starch and water in a glass to make a little slurry. Splash in a bit of the slurry at a time, and then stir the sauce. Pretty immediately, the sauce should start to thicken. Stop before it becomes paste.

Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Toss this with the prepared pasta of your choice.

Feeds 1 (well, perhaps 1 and 1/2). Double and triple if you want to feed more.

Suggestions: lately, I'm loving this with olives. (What don't I love with olives right now?) But when asparagus season hits, I'm going right for this with roasted asparagus tips. Artichoke hearts would be delicious. So would be a little crab. Try whatever food you like with lemons. Oh, and goat cheese on top.