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18 August 2008

a recipe for friendship

Nina and Judy

Take one best friend from sixth grade on, add an amazing woman who writes about food and being gluten-free. Mix vigorously during a Food Network shoot in Seattle, and deliver the delicious results to my life. Oh, and save my husband in the process.

Readers of Gluten-Free Girl, you may recognize me as Nina, or La Niña, or the other half of Nina and Booth. I have been blessed by Shauna, Danny, and now Lucy entering my life. By trade, I am a children’s book author and illustrator (you can visit my site here), but this is a different sort of story I am about to tell… and yes, there is a recipe, too.

The back story:

In a nutshell, I grew up in the New York City metro area. My parents were both artists: creative, cultured, and volatile. When I was eleven years old we moved from Rego Park, Queens, in New York City, to a two hundred year old farmstead in Rockland County, about thirty miles north up the west side of the Hudson River. My father never moved in. He ran off with my brother’s first grade teacher, leaving my mother, brother, a menagerie of animals, and me to fend for ourselves. I was an outcast in many ways, and I had to enter sixth grade, the last year in elementary school, when friendships were already formed, protected and locked with a clique.

Enter Judy Korin. Tall, redhead, also an artist. A friendship sprouted.

Fast forward:

Judy’s and my friendship blossomed, grew, and we have remained friends through all these years, through relationships that have come and gone, through moves all over the country (me) and the world (her), and we’ve shared not only our artistic quests and accomplishments, but we’ve always shared a love, a passion, an obsession for food. (And we’re both Capricorns… goat girls all the way)

You may have read in Shauna’s archives about her being filmed for the Food Network. Judy’s company, Seesaw Studios, did a wonderful series for the Food Network called “The Power of Food,” and Shauna was featured in May of 2006. Judy lives in Los Angeles and she flew to Seattle to film. Of course she stayed with me. Judy did part of her shoot at the Seattle University District Farmer’s Market, and I used to shop there every Saturday, so I did my shopping, watched Judy filming, and briefly met Shauna, who had just started dating “The Chef.”

After Judy wrapped her shoot, she did something she had never done before: she played “matchmaker.” Not in the conventional sense, mind you. I’ve been happily married and with Booth for almost twenty years. Judy had just spent days with Shauna, and she had decided that we both were writers, we both loved food, and we both lived in Seattle. It was a recipe for friendship.

Shauna and I hit it off immediately. We walked, talked, rollerbladed, and ate. We had dinners at our home in Seattle, and at our cottage on “the island.” I was, like most people, completely ignorant of celiac disease, but Shauna educated me, and Booth and I (both of us cook) carefully prepared gluten-free food when we hosted Shauna and “The Chef.” At this point, the extent of our knowledge of wheat and gluten allergies were superficial, but the proverbial yeast was in the dough, and it was about to rise.

My husband, Booth, has always been a very physically active man. He loves the outdoors, and he loves taking in life in huge gulps. He also shares a similar affection for hoppy microbrews, crusty bread, my baked goods, pastas with pesto, and food on gourmet gustatory levels. For most of his life, with me, and before me, he was healthy. Robust, you might say. But something had shifted, and a few years ago he started having a mystifying set of symptoms… some of which had always been a part of his life, but he chose to ignore them. “I have a very active system,” he’d tell me. Our doctor diagnosed him with arthritis because of his joint pain, and she said his rash was psoriasis. She was wrong.

Last Thanksgiving, November of 2007, things came to a head. After the feast that I had spent three days cooking and baking, Booth broke down and cried. He was in so much pain, and though he had tried to diagnose himself on the internet, he just could not figure out what was wrong. He did not want to live like this, and I was desperate to get him healthy again.

Shauna and I met for coffee in a little café in Queen Anne, a lovely neighborhood in Seattle that I get lost in easily. This was two days after Thanksgiving, and I was totally at a loss for what to do about Booth. I told her all of his strange symptoms, and when I mentioned his “active system,” she looked at me seriously and said, “He has Celiac. Get him tested.”

Long story short:

Booth has celiac. Shauna saved his life. Judy brought us together. There is no better cure than friendship. We all add so much to each other’s lives.

It’s not about the food, it’s about the love.

Nina's blueberry tart

Nina’s Gluten-Free Berry Custard Tart

I have baked since I was in junior high. The first pie I made was a French apple crumb affair that my brother tried to steal before we had dinner. I whacked him in the back with a kitchen chair to keep him from eating it too soon. I’m very protective of my desserts. However I’m not protective of the recipes. My biggest challenge when we went gluten-free was baking. Baking is in my blood. My Russian grandmother taught me to make her chocolate chip cookies as a child. My most proud moment was figuring out how to make the best gluten-free chocolate chip cookies I could. Shauna featured them on this site.

Two weeks ago Judy and her friend John came to visit us on “the island.” We bought eleven (yes, eleven) pounds of blueberries from a local farm, and I made a gluten-free blueberry custard tart. Judy took the photo. We all ate it like wolves…

Tart Crust

¼ cup sugar
1/3 cup almond flour (Trader Joe’s sells this)
½ cup Teff Ivory flour
¼ cup flax seed meal (Bob’s Red Mill)
¼ cup sweet rice flour (Mochi)
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) butter, chilled, cut into small pieces
1 egg
parchment paper
butter for parchment paper
pie weights or raw rice

Process the sugar, flours, meal and salt in a food processor briefly so they are combined. Then add butter and process until it has a crumbly cornmeal texture. Add the egg and process just until the dough comes together.

Put a 9” tart pan with removable bottom on top of a baking sheet. (I use a non-stick tart pan.) Cut a circle of parchment paper with scissors to match the bottom of the tart pan. Save this for later. Plop the dough into the middle of the tart pan and using your hands, form it against the sides, and then the bottom of the pan so you have an even layer. If the dough sticks to your hands, stick it in the freezer for a few minutes. Most recipes say to let the crust sit in the fridge for an hour before baking, but I’m not that patient.

Preheat the oven to 400ºf. Take your saved circular piece of parchment paper and butter it generously on one side. Flip the buttered side down on the raw crust dough. Put pie weights or a pile of raw rice on top. This will keep your tart dough from rising while baking. Bake until the top edge is lightly browned, 16 minutes or so. Reduce oven heat to 350ºf. Remove the tart shell from oven and let it sit for 10 minutes. Take out pie weights or rice, then carefully lift out parchment paper with any remaining rice on it. Repair any damage in crust by pressing, then bake the crust 8 to 10 minutes until bottom is lightly browned. Let cool.


1 cup milk (I use ½ cream and ½ 1% milk)
½ cup sugar
3 Tablespoons sweet rice flour (Mochi)
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks, slightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla

Heat milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until hot, but not boiling. Mix sugar, rice flour and salt in a bowl, stir in the hot milk and whisk until well-blended. Pour back into pan and keep stirring over low heat for 4-5 minutes until thick and smooth. Add egg yolks, stir until well-combined and cook a few more minutes. Cool, stirring occasionally, and add vanilla and mix.

Berries and finishing

1-2 cups fresh berries (raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, or a mix)

Spatula custard into cooled tart shell. Artistically place, or dump berries on top of custard. Remove outer ring from tart pan carefully… cut and serve!

05 August 2008

home again, home again, jiggety jig

all the berries from friends

We are home. All three of us. The little family. Home.

After eleven days of being in the hospital, we drove to our little house with great, quiet glee. Exhausted and not believing our luck, the Chef and I held each other close that night, our little one by our side, and whispered to each other in bed. We had barely spoken above a whisper for nearly two weeks. It took until the next day to start using our normal voices.

Normal. That's a funny word, isn't it? What the hell is normal, anyway? Life will never be the same as it was before. It's infinitely richer, and nothing like it was.

Healthy. Little Bean is healthy. That's the only word we care about right now. She began eating on the pediatric unit -- one step down from the ICU -- and we had days and days with her, watching her grow bigger, changing her diapers, listening to her coos. When your daughter has a breathing tube down her throat for five days, blocking any sound she wishes to make, you really don't flinch at the sound of crying. We love hearing her voice.

We won't go into the particulars of her health -- she really doesn't have a choice to have that published on the internet. Suffice it to say that what caused her breathing problems was small and entirely fixable. Now, she's home, rocking in her swing, eyes open for long periods of time, more awake every day. And there are no cords or monitors or blood draws anymore. Someone left us a comment on the previous post that stuck with us: we have a wireless baby!

She's gorgeous and funny and alive. And now, she's just like any other newborn. Crying at times. Sleeping most of the time. In our arms. At home.

The first evening we returned home, the Chef went right to the kitchen and began cooking. After twelve days without once putting his hands on food, he needed to stand in front of the stove and create. I watched him bustling around in there, as I fed the baby on the couch, and smiled. There he was, removed from fear, in his element. Life was finally settling into a new place, a place without dread.

Oh, did we eat well that night.

The dread and terror of those interminable days are fading now. We've consciously chosen to not relive them with stories galore, or me writing any of it down. We're just present, with this baby, in this moment.

And we are focusing on the light.

So much goodness came out of this. Dear friends visiting us, buoying us with their hugs. Fiercely kind nurses, showing us what a force compassion can be. Time with our daughter, learning her habits, under the watchful eye of hospital staff, so that we are home with her without any worries of how to take care of her. And after twelve days of staying within six feet of each other, and sharing a twin cot with metal railings, under the most terrifying conditions of our lives — the Chef and I still managed to laugh and not snap at each other once.

I think we'll keep each other. And her.

Still, it was a hard, hard time, more aching and scary than anything than either one of us has ever experienced. In the midst of it, literally, your comments and emails, suggestions and exhalations kept us going. We were lifted up by all of you who left stories of your sons and daughters who had suffered like ours. Every time we opened the laptop, we found more beautiful hopes and sustenance than we ever dreamed possible. Thank you. You are reading these words in your own home. But just know, if you left us a comment, from Cameroon or Australia or somewhere in the middle of America, we breathed in your words the way we wanted our daughter to breathe. Reading that all across the world, people were taking deep, conscious breaths because of our girl? That made us teary, continually. ("A good cry," as the Chef would say.) Our gratitude knows no bounds, and has no words. Other than thank you.

And thank you, as well, for those of you who willed her to eat, from somewhere in the world. Now, she guzzles and delights in the food in her mouth. We hope she'll grow up knowing how vital those first sips were. We want our Little Bean to know that food is more than sustenance. It is the joy of being home. It is the relief of being alive. It is the connection with all the human beings whose words upon the screen are actually people in their homes.

But now that she is home, and thriving, we are going to go back to our original plan, and quietly close the door of our internet home to this story, for a time. The Chef went back to work today. I dealt with the delights and mystifying sleep patterns of a newborn by myself for the day. We need some space to simply be, without having to share. And we did say we weren't going to publish more photographs of her. (Except this last one, for those of you want to see: Lucy on her two-week birthday.) The guest posts will begin next week. We'll be back in a month or so, with more recipes and stories.

But I want to leave you with this story, for the time being.

When we were in the hospital, friends stopped by with food every day. Restaurant meals, lovely salads, homemade baked goods, and whatever else they could put in our hands. In a time of need, there is always food. And since it is summer, and we were missing two weeks of the farmers' markets, our close friends brought us berries.

Golden raspberries, fat strawberries, ripe blueberries, strange gooseberries, the first blackberries of the season. We ate as many as we could, and the rest we saved in a refrigerator in the ICU.

The first time we went home, I stepped through the front door and burst into tears. Our girl wasn't with us. She should have been there. We were only inside for an hour, to take showers and find new clothes, and then shoot back to the hospital. The second time we went home, we knew she would be all right, and it was only a matter of time before we returned with her. That time, we brought all the berries back. The Chef arranged them on a tray and put them in the freezer.

When we were home for good, he pulled out the berries. We let them thaw, until their juices ran red. And then, while Little Bean took a nap, we chopped and pureed, stirred and added vanilla bean and lemon juice. On our second day home, we made a big pot of seasonal berry jam. We threw in every berry that friends had given us, the ones they rushed to the hospital, and turned them into something sweet and wholly good. All that time condensed down into one rich red bite. All that sweetness rushing in.

There are twelve jars sitting in our freezer right now. Later in the fall, when Little Bean is bigger, we'll be able to pull out a jar of thick jam and remember this time fondly. When she was two weeks old, and we were finally home.