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26 February 2009

the grace of salisbury steak

salisbury steak I

I once knew a girl named Grace.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I didn’t really know her. I sat across from her in Mr. Lester’s fifth-grade class. She knew most of the math problems we figured out on the chalkboard. She had an odd, intermittent giggle, like helium escaping from a small balloon slowly. And when she did smile, which wasn’t often, she tilted her head to the side, as though it would slide off her face and disappear.

Mostly, though, I saw that she was different than the rest of the class. Her small beige face hidden by giant grandmother glasses, Grace wore handmade dresses, patchworked with crooked squares of paisley or polka dots. The hems dangled at odd angles, puckered from quick sewing. Her socks often bunched just above her chunky, sensible shoes, the elastic unraveling at her ankles. And often, she smelled faintly of pee, as though she had wet the bed in the middle of the night and ran out the door for school, disheveled and late.

Often, I felt different than the rest of the class as well. Bookish, with equally large glasses as Grace, but in then-fashionable soda-pop orange, I hid behind my books and watched everyone else. My progress report at the beginning of the year suggested that I try to read 25 books that year. The copy of the end-of-the-year report, in smudged mimeographed ink, reads “Shauna has read 178 books this year!” Most of the time during tests, kids on either side of me tried to crane their necks to look at my paper. I just curled my arm around the vocabulary quiz and scribbled furiously, annoyed that this was when they wanted to be my friend.

But I had bursts of assertive energy, like when I demanded that my fourth-grade teacher allow me to play softball with the boys during P.E., instead of skipping rope with the girls. (Jumping up and down on the same patch of grey cement, underneath the awnings outside the door of our classroom, seemed like infuriating monotony to me.) I clutched a few friends to my side, mostly the rest of the Math Olympiad team, or the girls who fought with me over who could sit in the yellow beanbag in the sunlit corner to read our Beezus and Ramona books. (I read Of Human Bondage that year, although I can’t claim I understood a word.) I wasn’t as alone as Grace.

Grace moved in her own small circle, skirting the edges of the classroom before leaving for the day. Once, my parents drove us down a considered-dangerous street in Pomona, and my mother pointed out a house. The lawn looked as though it had been bitten down and the tips burned by the sun. The house sat slumped, small and worn down at the edges. On the lawn, a giant, hand-painted wooden sign: “Tarot cards read here.” My mother said, “That’s where your friend Grace lives.” I peered at it, hard, trying to comprehend what it must be like to live there, with only a mother, with such an embarrassing sign emblazoning the front. I looked down as we drove away.

Until a few days ago, that’s how I felt about Salisbury steak, as well.

My only memory of Salisbury steak is a plump hunk of meat sitting in pale gravy, side by side in plastic with bright orange macaroni and cheese, both of them overheated and bubbling over the tray. My family and I sat eating, each of us with a metal tv tray, as we watched Happy Days, and then Laverne and Shirley. (The Chef and I can still sing the theme song to the last one, today.)

I didn’t sit there disdaining the meal. I loved tv dinners at the time — all that fat and salt. But Salisbury steak was my least favorite. Instead, when we did have tv dinners (not every night by any means, but in a regular fashion), my hands clapped over the fried chicken dinner, with a spoonful of mashed potatoes, a small gathering of lukewarm corn, and the volcanic cherry dessert that resided on the top. Thank goodness I waited until the end for that. When I tried to eat dessert first, I burned the roof of my mouth into shreds.

Later, I fell in love with French bread pizzas we slid into the microwaves and waited for them to twirl into bubbling-cheese heat. Much later, I forced myself to buy some lean and healthy tv dinners, trying to lose weight, not knowing I was eating a salt-lick’s worth of sodium with every small tray full of tepid food.

But Salisbury steak? I knew that one was the cheapest. It tasted of it too.

Around here, Salisbury steak has been only a joke. Whenever someone mentions it, the Chef intones, in his best Darth Vader voice, “Salisbury steak.” He’s imitating Chef on South Park, who was killed, and then brought alive as a mechanical Chef, along with James Earl Jones’s voice. Whenever he says it, we laugh.

The other day, as we filmed the mushroom gravy video, we started talking about what we would eat with all that leftover gravy. Pasta? Roast beef? “Salisbury steak,” intoned the Chef, joking.
“What the heck is Salisbury steak, anyway?”
We raced to look it up, in cookbooks and online. Like most foods with proper nouns for names, it has a funny history. But looking at the photographs, we both thought, “It looks like meatloaf, in a patty.”
“Let’s make some.”
So we did.

The Chef plunked down a plate on the table, so I could take a photograph of the seared meat, the quartered mushrooms, the smudge of gravy across them both. We waited. And then we dug in with our forks. And to both our surprises, we loved it.

“I could eat this all day,” he said to me, just after finishing a bite.
“Me too. Why haven’t we eaten this before?”

Granted, we made it with local grass-fed beef and fresh herbs. We also cooked it to medium heat. (All the Salisbury steaks for tv dinners had to be cooked to charred, to make sure no one grew sick.) But this was a tender piece of meat, threaded through with fresh herbs and the satisfying taste of onions sautéed slowly. It tasted fresh, not heavy. We realized we had never really eaten Salisbury steak before. Anything in a tv dinner tray isn’t really food. This was food, made in our kitchen, the baby sitting in the sunlit corner in her highchair, watching us cook and banging happily with her hand.

And it was, by far, the cheapest meal of the week.

Some foods deserve a second look.

I wish that I had really known Grace.

salisbury steak II

Salisbury Steak

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, peeled and fine chopped
1/2 cup fine-chopped mushrooms
1 teaspoon garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fine-chopped fresh sage
kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1 1/2 pound ground beef
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon fine-chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (we used Trader Joe's brown rice bread, made into crumbs)

Sautéing the mushrooms. Bring a large sauté pan to heat. Pour in the oil. Tumble in the mushrooms, onions, and garlic. Stir them around a bit, intermittently. When the mushrooms and onions start to brown a bit, add the sage. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. Allow the mixture to cool.

Making the steak. Combine the mushroom mixture with the ground beef, eggs, rosemary, and breadcrumbs. Season with salt and pepper beneath your fingers (maybe about 1 teaspoon of each. Use your own senses). Make into oblong patties, about 1 inch thick, each.

Searing the steak. Bring the sauté pan to medium-heat again. Pour in the remaining oil. Put the patties into the hot oil. Cook about 3 to 4 minutes, or until the patties have grown a lovely brown. Flip them over. Brown on the other side. Cook until you have reached desired temperature for how you like your meat cooked. (We like medium for these, or an internal temperature of about 160°.)

Serve with mushroom gravy (see this video if you would like to learn this) and sautéed onions. You can also grill these, if the weather where you are allows it.

Feeds 4

25 February 2009

how to make gluten-free gravy (a video)

Good gravy!

We're thrilled that so many of you enjoy the videos we have been making. We giggle so much in the kitchen when we make them that we would love to keep going.

So, this week's video is how to make gluten-free mushroom gravy.

This is a slightly longer video, only because the Chef has packed in a number of techniques here:

-- how to make a gluten-free roux (and it looks quite different than you might think)

-- how to make a cornstarch slurry

-- how to make gravy with each

-- how to sauté mushrooms with onions, garlic, and rosemary

-- how to make a red-wine mushroom gravy

This should give you plenty to do this week!

And after shooting, editing, and watching the video, we realize that we clearly have to clean the stove.

We hope you enjoy this.

24 February 2009

Nature's Path Whole O's (gluten-free)

gluten-free cheerios

Wondering what to give your little one if he or she cannot eat gluten, and thus no Cheerios? Wonder no longer. Come on over to Gluten-Free Girl Recommends and read all about it.

23 February 2009


we are making preserved lemons

Time's funny. You know?

Yes, I'm aware that's hardly a profound sentence for how many times it has been uttered. But sometimes words fail to describe the absurd rubber-band and snap back with a boing in the eye and where the heck has all that time gone when it feels like just three minutes ago way that time shifts in and out of life.

Nearly the first photograph I ever posted on flickr was one of lemons, lined up on the kitchen windowsill, on a grey spring day. April 21, 2005. I had a tiny Nikon camera, a point and shoot no bigger than the palm of my hand. For months on end, I had been feeling sluggish, sometimes terrible, all the time confused as to why I felt 80 years old and perpetually on the couch. When the calendar slowly shifted and one more month's page shrugged off to the floor, I looked up to realize I had missed the coming of spring in between doctor's appointments and sleeping under heavy quilts. Exhausted and in pain, I forced myself to walk out my door and take photographs of what I saw around me. Tulips in bloom, rocks piled placidly, small green plants at the roots of a large tree — they captured me, in those three blocks of walking. Alone, feeling more alone than I had in years, I returned home and found three lemons on the countertop. I saw them, as beauty, as the same objects of affection I had been regarding with quiet eyes outside. I snapped the shot.

That's one of the reasons I started taking photographs of my food, that shot. Nine days later, I stopped eating gluten. A week after that, I had my official diagnosis. A month after that, I started this blog. A month after that, one of the administrators of the school where I taught at the time asked me to stop publishing a personal blog I kept for my friends, because I had inadvertently used the full name of a student there, who googled himself, found it, and read about my life. Tame, let me tell you. Nothing salacious there. But parents complained -- apparently because I had not written in praise about their students -- and there I was in an administrator's office, being chastised. So I decided, that day -- why don't I give my full writing energies this summer to writing about living gluten-free? No one will pay attention to that, probably.


"Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat."

I remember hearing this song on one of the Peter, Paul, and Mary albums my father owned. Lovely song, but it puzzled me even then. Lemons aren't impossible to eat. They're just tart, and mouth-puckering. Not what we expected.

At the time I took that first lemon photograph, I would have given anything to leave it. Alone, eyes-hang-dog-sick, no answer to the medical mystery in sight, depressed, teaching when I wanted to write full time, too tired to do anything I dreamed — that was one sour time. But I wouldn't trade it now for anything. If I hadn't lived through that acidic era, I wouldn't be here now. I wouldn't be the person I am without those lemons.

Why do we run away from the sharp acid times when they make us who we are? Why don't we embrace them, welcome them in, and say, "Oh thank goodness you're here. Without you, where would be the zest?"

I have to remind myself of this all the time. When I took the photograph of lemons above, waiting to be preserved, life felt acetic again. My mother was awaiting surgery for breast cancer. I sat in front of the computer, nine hours a day, doing work I love, but too much in the face of it all. Stress and aches and a familiar feeling of being unwell crept along my bones. All I wanted was to be sitting here a month later, eating those preserved lemons, in hummus or pasta with olives, knowing it was all over.

I'm here.

But in the moment, I wished away an early January with my husband, the one who preserved the lemons for us, and our daughter, who grows so much each day I feel like I blink and I miss it. I itched for inches of my life to disappear. What was I thinking?

You've heard the phrase before. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Me? I tend to make Meyer lemon sorbet, lemon cream puffs, and lemon tart with bittersweet chocolate.

But right now, in the middle of winter, I'm trying to remind myself to suck on the lemons instead.

And you? What do you like to do with lemons?

20 February 2009

friday food photo

Beef Bourguignon, marinated overnight.

Last night, he marinated the beef. This morning, he put this in the slow cooker. When we returned home this evening, the beef was so tender that it shuddered against the tongs.

Oh, this is going to be good for dinner tomorrow night.

19 February 2009

all the candy we ate as kids

caramel corn

At Halloween, I always fumed when I reached the bottom of my bag and found Smarties. Ugh. Little discs of sugar in a twist-on cellophane wrapper. At least SweeTarts had a bit of tartness, but they didn't have much pucker. Nothing but sugar. Does it make any sense to me, therefore, that I loved Pixy Stix? Paper straws filled with soft sugar in different colors and artificial flavors. Remember how the pile of falling sugar burned a hole in your tongue eventually? And the annoyance of not being able to retrieve even more because your mouth had wetted the opening of the straw, making it so damp that the sugar clumped just beyond your reach?

Maybe that's why I liked Pixy Stix. They were playing hard to get.

I never understood the point of wax lips or the little coke bottles filled with viscous liquid. They both tasted like brittle Silly Putty, with a smudge of sweetness along the edges. Eating wax lips was like collecting the drips of a pillar candle at the end of one of my parents' parties and holding it over a flame to melt them into a ball, and then dipping it in sugar. No thanks.

But Pop Rocks? Oh yeah. Like a science experiment in my mouth.

Dots stuck to my teeth, with a far more muted taste than Jujyfruits. Red Hots made me open my mouth to air it out like a dog eating peanut butter. Boston Baked Beans were entirely useless, as far as I could see. And Sugar Daddies just frustrated the hell out of me, either because they shattered under my teeth, if they had been stored in a cool place, or they stretched out as long as my arm and still wouldn't let me take a bite.

Willy Wonka Bottle Caps? I could eat those little coca-cola discs all day.

I never once was able to eat a Candy Button without a thin tail of the paper stuck to it. Mike and Ike's tasted like Hi-C, to me, which was a good thing, believe it or not. My mother used to buy packages of Whoppers the size of milk cartons. I loved turning them over and rattling them out, listening to the sound to gauge how many were left.

Fireballs were horrible. Astro Pops helped me through many a long car trip. Necco Wafers tasted like dust compressed and sweated with chalk.

The Chef loved Kit-Kats and Twix, both of which he ate by nibbling along the top layers of chocolate and caramel like he was playing the harmonica, leaving the cookie part, which he crunched up at the end. He often chose Whatchamacallits. And he loved Bubble Yum gum.

(So did I. From the age of 7 until I was about 15, I always had a giant pliable mass of Bubble Yum, sometimes Watermelon, sometimes plain, going in my mouth. I like to think of the two of us blowing bubbles simultaneously, two years apart and several states away from each other.)

Milk Duds made movie popcorn more exciting. Reese's peanut butter cups were the king of candy, the triumphant grab of Halloween night. And no matter how many times I ate them, I never, ever grew tired of Abba Zabba bars.

Until I was an adult, and my parents sent a box of them to me and Sharon for one of our fall weekend trips to Vermont, as a gift. We eagerly wrapped the black and yellow ziz-zag packages and bit in. The nougat was too sweet, the peanut butter paste was stuck in clumps to our tongue, and we wanted to gag after three bites. We didn't have the heart to tell my parents that we threw them all away on the second day.

I couldn't eat most of these candies now, even if some of them are gluten-free. Some of them don't exist anymore. The others I wouldn't touch. (Okay, I'd still eat a Reese's peanut butter cup, but that's about it.) My tastes have changed so much since I was a kid.

I wonder what Little Bean will eat with delight that later she will find horrifying?

caramel corn II

Caramel Corn Baked in the Oven, adapted from 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes

There is one treat I will always eat this time of the year, when the sun stretches out longer into the evening, and the grass is starting to be splendidly green, and the first pitchers and catchers have stepped onto the field.

Cracker Jacks are gluten-free.

However, it's even more fun to make your own caramel corn, sweet and crunchy at the same time, and far easier than you think. (And this has no trans fats or weird preservatives.) I like dark corn syrup here, rather than the light corn syrup the original recipe called for, because I like a more nuanced sweetness. And I start the caramel corn at a low heat, to bake it slowly, and then raise the heat to give the treat more crunch.

All I need is a baseball game (the Kid is back in Seattle!) and a long afternoon with the Chef and the Bean to make another tray of this. Or maybe just tomorrow.

5 cups popped corn
6 tablespoons butter or non-dairy substitute
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup dark corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Preparing to bake. Preheat the oven to 200°. Place all the popcorn in a bowl big enough that you can stir and shake and still not have it spill over the sides. Put a silpat down on a sheet tray.

Heating the ingredients. Put the butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt in a medium saucepan. Set it on medium heat. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to low. Cook the mixture, stirring occasionally, about 3 minutes, or until the caramel sauce has reduced and thickened a bit. Remove the pan from heat and pour in the vanilla, cinnamon, and baking soda. The caramel sauce will foam, so don't let it foam over the sides of the saucepan.

Baking the popcorn.
Pour the caramel sauce over the popcorn and stir it immediately, and evenly. When all the kernels are darkened and sticky, spread the popcorn out on the prepared sheet tray. Bake for 15 minutes, and then stir the popcorn. Repeat this twice more, for a total of 45 minutes of baking.

At this point, there will probably be so much liquid that you won't believe I have written this recipe correctly. Ah, but here is where you turn up the heat. Change the temperature to 375°. Watch the popcorn carefully, to make sure it does not burn. Stir it occasionally. After about 15 minutes, the liquid should have tightened into the kernels of the popcorn, which will be crunchier than before. Bake until the popcorn has reached the texture you desire.

Remove the sheet tray from the oven. Spread the caramel corn over a piece of parchment paper and allow it to cool. Try not to eat it all the first day.

Makes 5 cups of caramel corn.

18 February 2009

how to make chicken stock (a video)

My goodness, everyone. Thanks for all the love about the video last week, when the Chef showed you how to break down a chicken. Your comments were lovely and made the Chef feel excited about doing one of these every week. He giggled hard when he found out that The Guardian newspaper, in the UK, named his chicken video one of the 5 most interesting links on the internet last week.

(Goodness, Great Britain. You've certainly been treating us well lately. Yesterday, the London Times named this little site 1 of the top 50 best food blogs in the world. Wow.)

But what meant the most to us both were the letters from those of you who braved the new and broke down a chicken this past weekend. The triumph! That's what we want — that you will feel comfortable enough in the kitchen to attempt a task that has intimidated you in the past.

And so, today, based on your requests (and as a follow-up to last week), the Chef shows you how to make chicken stock.

A few notes:

-- For the two different pots of stock, we used 10 pounds of chicken bones. In this case, they are chicken backs, but you could also use leg bones or wing bones. If you break down a few chickens, having learned the process, you can throw the carcasses in the freezer as you go. When you have two or three carcasses, make a big pot of stock.

-- You'll hear Little Bean chattering in the background in the first half of this video. Please don't worry that she's crying. She's talking along with her papa. At a certain point, she grew hungry, so we stopped to feed her and put her down for the nap. That's why you won't hear her in the second half.

-- We tried to show the entire process, but we were disrupted by guests (a welcome interruption) and the appliance repairman (our oven has stopped working, and we're still not sure why. Yikes!). So, if you have any questions, or anything that didn't feel clear, shoot us a question in the comments.

-- By the way, we both got haircuts yesterday. Thank goodness. As you can see from the video, the situation had grown rather desperate.

Here we go.

17 February 2009

The School of Essential Ingredients

The School of Essential Ingredients

Come on over to Gluten-Free Girl Recommends to find out why I loved this book so much. You could also win a copy!

16 February 2009


Matthew's amazing Koren noodles, gluten-free!

I have that old song Dr. Demento used to play stuck in my head: "Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads. Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up, yum." Except, in my head, it sounds like: "Noodles, noodles, soft and slippery noodles. Noodles, noodles, slurp them up, yum."

My brain, you see, is nearly as wet and useless as an overcooked noodle. Our editor (lovely, meticulous man) sent back the first edits of our cookbook manuscript only three days after we sent it in. Wonderful that he's paying attention, but my goodness. We wouldn't have minded some time off. For the past nearly two weeks, I've been back at the computer, tapping away, hunched over, wanting it to be over. Just a few moments ago, I sent it away. I'm free.

For a few days, or weeks, perhaps.

So the post I planned on noodles will have to exist in my imagination. I can tell you that we have been in a noodle mood here lately, from last week's spontaneous "ramen" to the buffalo and wild mushroom noodle soup we ate today at lunch with Anita and Cam of Married with Dinner and our dear friend Tea. So much joy in the sunlight.

And yesterday, our good friends Matthew, Laurie, Judy, and Iris came through the door bearing gifts for Little Bean (Iris's kid-size kitchen, made of sturdy wood!) and a plate full of these Korean noodles. Japchae, a stir fry with beef and "a riot of vegetables," to quote Matthew, are made with dangmyeon noodles, which are made from sweet potato starch. That makes them gluten-free! Matthew was kind enough to make the dish entirely gluten-free, so I could dig in. We wound the slithery noodles around our forks and sighed. What a day.

(And if you want to make Matthew's recipe, and you do if you look at that photograph at the top of this post, see it right here.)

Noodles make me happy. It's hard to take ourselves too seriously with noodles in our mouths.

So tell us — what are your favorite ways to eat noodles? What do you to emphasize their silliness, and their satisfaction?

13 February 2009

Friday food photo

boulangerie potatoes

Boulangerie potatoes, baking in the oven.

taken by the Chef.

12 February 2009

the smell of fresh ginger

spontaneous ramen with Kurabota pork

The other day, the Chef and I pushed our grocery cart through Uwajimaya. We're always a little dazzled by the place, the red bean curd desserts, the tiny Japanese ladies pushing past us on a mission for the right fish, the shelves of Kewpi mayonnaise and Pocari Sweat. When we drive there, we quote our nephew Elliott, who said, a few years ago: "When I am in Seattle, the place I like to go is called Uwajimaya." (He was only 3 then. For those of you who have been reading this site for awhile, you might be as astounded as I am to find that Elliott is turning 6 next month.)

Little Bean, it seems, was just as dumbfounded as we were to be there. Normally chattering away, in her multi-syllable babbles and chants, she stared up from her car seat attached to the cart, taking in all the cans of coconut milk, the tempting shelves of notebooks in the bookstore, the cases full of sushi made that day. She drank in everything with her eyes.

The Chef and I discussed what to have for lunch later that day. Silly as this sounds, we sometimes forget to eat lunch. I don't know how this happens, since the mere fact we can eat three times a day is pure delight. But we eat breakfast late, usually a plate full of potatoes and eggs, or a big bowl of something hot. And then Little Bean distracts us. The computer pulls me away. He's working at something in the kitchen — pomegrante sherbet; six-hour brisket with horseradish cream; a yellow split pea soup with the ham hock slowly shredding in the simmering liquid. And then we leave the house to run errands, and Little Bean needs a nap, and we find ourselves laughing about something else instead... And then we're ravenous.

So we stood there, discussing something to eat. There are so many possibilities, always. On this afternoon, we happened to be standing in front of bags and bags of Taiwanese rice sticks. "I love this kind of noodle," he said.
So do I. And they're gluten-free.
"Ramen," we both said.

We went straight for the produce department, throwing Daikon sprouts and mushrooms in our cart. While the Chef went in search of baby bok choy, I reached for the ginger.

The smell of fresh-cut ginger is one of my favorite sensory experiences in the world. Lean down toward the cutting board and drink in the sharp whiff of sweet perfumed sharpness and everything else fades into darkness. No matter where I am, or how foul a mood I am in, that smell brings me right back to now. I had to give Little Bean that experience.

Since she was two weeks old, and home from the hospital, we have been putting herbs and spices under Little Bean's nose. During those first few weeks, she lay in a large Moses basket as we cooked on the other side of the kitchen. Now, she sits in her highchair, kicking her legs in time to the music playing and we are all singing together. At first, sniffing was a passive experience. Now, she leans in, takes real whiffs, repeatedly, and smiles. She's not fond of raw onions or citrus fruits. But roasted carrots, hot coffee with milk, and fresh thyme? These make her eyes go wide, and she leans back in for another smell.

I snapped off an arm of the ginger root, tucking the other part in the bottom of our cart. Removing a fibrous thread or two, I sniffed the fresh ginger, and then passed it under Little Bean's nose. Her nostrils flared as she gulped in the air before her. She looked at me, and then moved toward the root, landing her nose on it. She sniffed and sniffed, transfixed. And then she threw her head back and let out a high-pitched squeal, a singing sound of pleasure and amazement.

The Chef rushed back, carrots in his hands. "Was that her?"
"It was," I said, tears in my eyes. "She loved this smell."

We wish for her a lifetime of smells she always remembers, pleasant or not. The surge of fresh-cut grass on a baseball field in March, just before the first sounds of Play Ball. The dank mass of water swirling next to the curb on a corner in New York City, in July. The aroma of onions simmering in oil, garlic and fresh herbs waiting. A whiff of the sharp tinge of green stem at the top of a tomato, warm in the sun. The whoosh of exhaust from a city bus she has just missed. The unmistakable smell of cool air and wet pavement after a hard rain, long awaited, when she can almost smell the clouds. The reek of a bag full of dirty diapers, desperately needing to be taken out the garbage. The smell of a wood-burning stove, outside the house, in cold air. Tart apples mellowing in the oven, cinnamon among them, crisp topping browning in the heat. And hopefully, someday, the sweet cake batter smell of her own daughter's skin, just days after being born.

All of those hopes were there for me, in her barbaric yawp after sniffing fresh ginger for the first time. Little Bean, we hope you experience them all that awake.

p.s. If you have not read this yet, you simply must read Molly Birnbaum's piece from The New York Times, "Finally, the Scent of the City." Molly's blog, My Madeline, has always been one of my favorites for her poignant, pointed writing. But this piece of hers condenses a profound experience into such a small space that it will have you experiencing the world differently all day after reading it.

Spontaneous Pork Ramen

As the Chef said after we finished eating, and he couldn't stop exulting: "This is just one of those dishes where you want to eat and eat and eat. You want a little bit of hunger left over at the end of a meal, and you do here, because it's light. But my god, I haven't had anything like this in a long time."

I could eat this at least three times a week.

2 cups chicken stock
couple glugs fish sauce
1/2 tablespoon oyster sauce
couple glugs tamari
pinch chile flakes
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
3 ounces thin sliced pork
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 small onion, fine diced
1 large garlic clove, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup sliced mushrooms, sliced and then julienned
1 baby bok choy, leaves chiffonade, bottom sliced thin
1 tablespoon Thai basil, chiffonade
1/2 package rice sticks
1 tablespoon sliced ginger
1 carrot, peeled and julienned
handful daikon sprouts
1/2 cucumber, peeled and julienned

Flavoring the stock. Heat up the stock in a large saucepan at a medium simmer. Add the fish sauce, oyster sauce, tamari, chile flakes, and rice wine vinegar into the stock. Keep it bubbling, at a slow simmer, while you finish the rest of the dish.

Searing the pork. Season the pork slices with salt and pepper. Bring a large sauté pan to high heat. Get it screaming-ass hot, as the Chef likes to say. Pour in the oil. Put the thin strips of pork in the hot oil. Sear one side of the pork pieces, and then the other. Remove the pork from heat. Drop the pork into the simmering stock.

Sautéing the vegetables. Bring the sauté pan back to medium-high heat. Drop the onions into the leftover oil and goodness from the pork. When the onions have started to soften, put in the mushrooms, garlic, and the roots of the bok choy. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion has become soft and translucent. Add the Thai basil. Cook until it releases its fragrance. Spoon all the sautéed vegetables into the stock as well.

Cooking the rice sticks
. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. (The water should taste like the ocean.) When the water is full roiling boil, drop in the rice sticks. Cook about 5 minutes, or until they are soft with a bit of bite left (al dente). Drain the rice sticks. Put them in the fragrant pork and vegetable stock now too.

Finishing the ramen. Put the ginger into the stock and bring the liquid to a boil. Taste the broth. Is it what you want? Season with salt and pepper, if necessary, plus any flavorings you feel are missing. Toss in the bok choy leaves and remove the pan from the heat.

Divvy up the ramen into bowls. Toss in the julienned carrot. Top with the daikon sprouts and cucumber.

Feeds 2.

11 February 2009

how to break down a chicken (a video!)

What seems like a lifetime ago, the Chef and I put together this photo tutorial on how to chop an onion. We had only been married a month, Little Bean was just a hope in our hearts, and he was still the chef at that restaurant where he used to work. We loved putting together that post, because so much of cooking is about having the confidence that comes from knowing the right techniques when working with food. Your responses were pretty voluminous too. We planned to do more. Many more.

But life intruded. We went to Italy. My book came out. We went on tour to promote it. Little Bean was conceived. I was pregnant, joyfully. She arrived, with some tremors, and then singing with health. The Chef quit his job and came home. We wrote a cookbook. Little Bean amazes us every day.

And then we bought a video camera, to record her squeaks and giggles. Every day, she does something astonishing. She's talking now. She deliberately says Mama! when I leave the room, a gentle call to say, "Hey! Come back!" When I put my face around the corner, she smiles a grin like this. The other day, she was laying on the Chef's chest, her head under his chin. And she looked up at him, and said, "Papa!" with wonder in her eyes. We both had tears in ours. Suddenly, when she wants to eat, she looks at us with great intent and says "Baba! Baba!" This talking thing sure makes it easier to know what she wants.

We don't want to miss a moment.

So we bought a video camera, this miraculous little video camera called Flip Video MinoHD. Oh my goodness, we're in love with it. Small as a cell phone, which makes it far more portable than more expensive cameras, it comes with a USB arm embedded in it. Push a button, out it comes, and we can plug it into the computer to download videos every night. The grandparents are ecstatic. We love it too.

And then we looked at each other and said, "Hey, let's make some food videos!"

So we have. We filmed these in our kitchen, the other day, as Little Bean took a nap. And we had so much fun that we're going to continue. Every Wednesday here, you'll find a video of the Chef demonstrating a technique with food. It could be basic, it could be fancy. It could be him showing you how to make a recipe on this site. Most of them won't be surrounded many words. Just today, I wanted to share.

This first video is a long one, with no cuts or edits. It's the Chef talking you through the process of breaking down a chicken. (I realize this might be the first time that some of you hear his voice, except in writing.)

Those of you who don't eat meat will not want to watch this. It's a clear demonstration, with bones and sinews. (And I'm sorry that the static shot is one of raw meat. I don't know how to make that change. I'm new at this.)

And so, I give you: the Chef breaks down a chicken.

This next video is the same process, but close-up, more slowly, and without words. Again, the sounds are real. If you are a vegetarian, you might not enjoy this.

But we wanted to show this in component parts so that, if you are new to this, you can watch it in snippets, pause, and do this yourself. Be sure to wash your hands before you touch the computer again.

So there you go. A little sliver of life in our kitchen. There will be many more in the weeks to come.

Here's the question: what would you like to see demonstrated on video next?

10 February 2009

GaGa — gluten-free

gaga? oh yes.

Want to hear more about this creamy goodness? Come check out today's post on Gluten-Free Recommends.

(For those of you who have been wondering, yes — that website went dormant for a time. It turns out that having a baby, writing a book, and keeping up one website was enough. But now that the book is done, the recommendations are back! Watch this space every Tuesday for a new bit of food, a book, a restaurant, or something else delightful.)

08 February 2009


Leg of lamb from Sea Breeze

Today's ingredient post is brought to you by the Chef, in his own voice:

Pick an ingredient. Any ingredient.

Something simple. It doesn’t have to cost a lot. Lamb shanks. Start with the best lamb you can find, hopefully from a local rancher, grown humanely. They taste better. Truly.

What goes well with lamb shanks? Garlic, thyme, mustard, mint, black pepper, sea salt, and red wine — all simple ingredients as well.

How do you want to cook the lamb? Well, it’s the dead of winter, so plunking it down on the grill doesn’t feel appropriate. Winter is braising weather, a long slow cook in a liquid.

Drop the lamb shanks in a big Dutch oven, or the biggest bowl you own. Chop up two carrots, two celery stalks, one large onion, and 5 or 6 cloves of garlic. They don’t have to be perfect. Take your time but don’t fret. Splash in a bottle of red wine and slide that pot into the refrigerator overnight.

Most of the best parts of cooking happen when you are not looking.

The next day, remove the shanks. Strain the red wine. Save the mirepoix. Pat down the lamb shanks and season them with sea salt and cracked black pepper. Get a sauté pan hot, screaming hot, almost hotter than you think is reasonable. (Turn on the fan above your stove.) Pour in some oil. Sear the shanks, browning them on all sides, making sure the oil doesn’t spit on your wrists. Plop those seared shanks back into the Dutch oven, waiting.

Drain off the fat. Add in the mirepoix. Caramelize those vegetables — they might flame up at first, so don’t let it scare you — which means they’re lovely warm and brown, softened and yielding. Throw in some thyme. Dollop in some mustard. Coat all the vegetables, and then toss in 5 or 6 sprigs of mint. Pour in the wine. (See how much of these tasks are the same, again and again?) Scrape up all the goodness from the bottom of the pan — you don’t want to lose that. Reduce. (So much of flavor comes from waiting for the food to do its mysterious dance, over which we have no control.) Pour in some stock, maybe lamb if you have it (you probably don’t have lamb stock lying around the house) or chicken stock. Homemade is best, but sometimes the good boxed stuff is okay. Life is imperfect. Bring the liquid to a boil.

Plop in those shanks again. Cover the pot. Slide it into an oven (oh yeah, you should have preheated it long before, to 350°.). Let the shanks braise for 3 hours, during which time you can leave the kitchen to dance with your husband or write an essay or talk on the phone or contemplate the early dark afternoons. Come back and test the shanks. When you take the tongs to them, and the meat is tender all the way to the bone, take them out.

You’re almost there.

Set the shanks aside. Strain the liquid of all the vegetables and herbs, until it’s smooth and pure. Put it back on the burner and reduce. Wait. Reduce. Skim the scum from the surface as it arises. Taste it. Don’t wait for a certain amount of time or until someone else says it’s done. Taste that sauce. It should taste like the mustard, the mint, the lamb, and the seasonings. And all the anticipation while you waited for it to be done.


It all started with the lamb.

Hi, it's Shauna again:

After I fell in love with the Chef and started to learn to cook with him, I relaxed. And then I realized something that broke it all open for me: recipes are stories.

A recipe is the story of you standing in front of the stove, turning on the burners and chopping onions. Maybe there’s music playing, maybe you have tension in your shoulders, maybe your kids are running around your feet. One of the burners isn’t working and you only have red onions, not white. No one could ever cook the same meal from one recipe. Recipes are suggestions, verbal guideposts. Words can only be a finger pointing toward food on a plate.

I wish that I could write all recipes in this relaxed, narrative fashion the Chef just dictated. What would you think if they were?

And how do you like to cook lamb?

p.s. We're both aware that the photograph above is of a leg of lamb, not shanks. But it's so striking, the photograph of this lamb from Sea Breeze farms, and so delicious, that we had to share. If you'd like to see how we took this leg of lamb from raw to cooked, click here.

05 February 2009

twittering our way to a meal

oatmeal for breakfast on big days.

As I sat at the computer, Little Bean taking a nap, I slipped the cursor underneath my Word document and opened up Firefox again. Even though I had only forced myself to close that window fifteen minutes before, I could not resist the lure of checking my email one more time. Maybe Meri wrote to me. Sharon wrote her 25 things list — surely there would be new comments on her fist-closed, furious rant about noisy neighbors. A new You Tube video I just had to see? There is always another editorial at The New York Times. Oh god, I haven’t looked at Andrew Sullivan since this morning!

The Chef walked into the room and saw me checking Facebook again. He stopped and looked at me, his hands wet with dishwater.

“I’m just…. I have to see.”

He smiled and walked back into the kitchen, shaking his head.

If you write, you are probably a good procrastinator.

I don’t mean the kind of procrastination where you call yourself a writer but don’t actually write anything finished for years on end. That was me in my 20s, when the sum of my writing was a shelf of big black sketchbooks filled in hurried scrawl, one after the other. I don’t regret writing down every feeling — well, okay, maybe I cringe at the solipsism of the day I tried to write down every single stream of thought I had in 12 hours; trust me, nothing was that interesting. Every sentence I wrote pushed me toward better sentences, some of them like a good kick in the back of the knees. However, I look at those journals now and see something once enticing now unpalatable, like black licorice grown sticky in the sun. (When we moved into our home, I shoved all those journals in a big box and labeled them “heavy.” Molly picked up the box and gave me a quizzical face, since the box was physically pretty light. “I must have meant they were emotionally heavy,” I told her, laughing.)

No, I don’t mean the kind of the-thought-of-doing-what-I-want-scares-me-so-I-won’t procrastination. I mean the quotidian, standard-issue procrastination in writing. Write a phrase, go away. New ideas emerge while folding the clean sheets, warm from the dryer, so I drop them onto the bed to rush an entire paragraph onto the clean white page. Think and belabor a sentence to death, and then read a request for a gluten-free, dairy-free loaf of bread. Come back to the hacked-up sentence and immediately see, “I wrote it in passive voice. I don’t even do that. No wonder it’s so flaccid.” Hey, I wonder if Dooce has a new post up yet? Leta turned 5? Score. I can read this and sob, thinking about Little Bean turning five someday and not write for at least 15 minutes.

It sounds a little crazy if you don’t do this. Maybe it is.

One of the most fascinating parts of the past three months, with the Chef at home and the two of us working on the cookbook, has been the chance to learn each other’s minds even more deeply. We work differently, in mighty broad brush strokes of difference. For the past 20 years, he has been on the line, on his feet, on the run. When he worked at Impromptu, he sometimes went 10 hours without once sitting down. My job requires a lot of sitting, staring at a single fixed point on a computer screen. His work is elemental, physical, and rewarding for the direct results. If the Chef sets to chopping an onion, within a few moments he has a mound of evenly sized white cubes, ready to be sautéed. One task leads naturally to the next. All he has to do his put his hands in the food, and he’s off.

But writing is rarely that direct. Creating sentences from the ethers of my mind requires a kind of blank state, a receptivity that allows me to hear the small noises rumbling, an idea forming. I can only listen to music without words, or music I have heard so many times before that the lyrics sound like a low background hum. Words tumble down on the page, in a panting rush, and then I look back at them and erase them all for their flibbertygibbet nature. But those words lead to the next set, the ones that make more sense.

When I taught high school, it was easy to spot the student who had clamped down too hard on the stress of the test before her and blanked out all the answers. Her feet jiggled rapidly, she chewed on the end of her pencil, and her face scrunched up in a scrim of worry. Most of the time, I’d walk close by her, and whisper toward her ear, “Think sideways.”

“What?” she’d startle, struck out of her anxious reverie by my odd sentence.

“Think about something else, and it will all come flooding back. What did you have for breakfast?”

Being such a good student, she would do what I had told her. Face softened into the memory of toast with melted butter and strawberry jam, or a bowl of oatmeal piled high with raisins, she sat for a moment, enjoying it. Inevitably, she’d jump in her chair, point her pencil toward the ceiling, and start writing again.

That’s what writing is like. I just have to remind myself to think about breakfast sometimes.

Sometimes I wish that I could simply bear down and chop at sentences the way the Chef attacks those onions, never sitting down, always on to the next sentence and not looking back. But writing will never work that way. I’m always going to need the distractions, the chance to look sideways, and sadly, the underlying panic that I’m not going to make it this time, or that I don’t have anything left to say. After having completed two books, I’m at home in the process. This is just the way it is.

Besides, if I didn’t need the procrastination, I would never have found Twitter.

Most of you have probably discovered it already, this community of people eager to share their sentiments and pictures, in 140 characters or less. (It’s like those essay exams, all over again, but with less stress.) As Anita phrased it to me in a message the other day, “It's lovely to have our big watercooler.” Those of us working at home without the hilarity of colleagues in cubicles nearby need that social interaction, somehow. You can follow gossip on politicians, watch how friends construct their days over a series of small messages, and read about people’s dinners. And besides, being forced to limit myself to 140 characters made me even more careful with my word choices. I think Twitter has made me a better writer.

Goodness bless Twitter. Without it, and my twelve favorite websites I check in a round-robin fashion while I am trying to describe the taste of veal stock in a mustard sauce, I would never have completed this book.

The Chef thought, at first, that I was being a little lazy, commenting on friends’ status updates instead of completing the headnote for the latest recipe, immediately. But I think he sees now (and perhaps even more after this essay) how I need to look sideways before I write forward, boldly leaving footprints of words behind me on the page.

If you would like to follow me on Twitter, my name there is glutenfreegirl.

And the Chef is hooked now too. You can follow him on glutenfreechef. In fact, if people are interested, he will do some intermittent time online, answering cooking and food questions for people who ask.

Also, I have created a Gluten-Free Girl page on Facebook. Come on over and join in the conversation. I'm posting daily news items, photographs, recipes I like from other bloggers, funny tid-bits, and places to buy and eat gluten-free food. If you'd like to friend me there, look for Shauna James Ahern.

dinner last night

Roasted chicken with kiwi, blood oranges, and ginger

And Twitter gave us this meal.

A few days ago, when I was sitting on Twitter instead of finishing an essay, fabulous Deb of Smitten Kitchen wrote that she had three blood oranges left over. What should she do with them? Eager to take a break from sitting, I ran into the kitchen, where the Chef was cooking and Little Bean was bouncing in her chair. Bending down to kiss her head, I asked him, "What would you do with three blood oranges?"
He thought for a moment, and then said, "
a sauce with duck stock, creme de cassis, kiwis, and the blood oranges. Serve it with duck breast and wild rice."
I just stared at him. How does he do this?
We didn't have any duck or creme de cassis, but we had the rest. (He gathered his ideas from what he saw spread out on the kitchen table.) And so, we had this dinner that night.
So can you. I recommend it. It's just so good.

The Chef calls for a "dark chicken stock" in this recipe, which is simply a chicken stock in which you roast the bones before you blanch them. Feel free to substitute at will.

1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 onion, fine diced
2 teaspoons garlic, thinly sliced
1 small nub lemongrass (about size of your thumb), smashed
1 1/2 cups Italian black rice
4 cups dark chicken stock

4 whole chicken legs, drumstick and thigh combined
salt and pepper
6 tablespoons canola oil
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 cups dark chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups mixed mushrooms, ideally whatever is at the farmers' market in this moment
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, fine chopped
2 kiwis, peeled and quartered
4 blood oranges, peeled and supremed
zest of 4 blood oranges

Preheating. Turn on the oven to 500°. Bring 2 cups of the chicken stock to a boil.

Cooking the rice. Pour the sesame oil into the large saucepan. Put in the half the onion, half the garlic, and lemongrass. Stir the vegetables briefly to coat them with the oil, and then cook until the onion and garlic are soft and translucent. Pour in the black rice, followed by the hot chicken stock. Simmer the rice, stirring once in a while, until it is tender, about 20 minutes. If there is any liquid left over, strain it. Set the rice aside on a back burner, covered.

Preparing to cook. Smear each chicken leg with oil. Season the chicken legs with salt and pepper.

Roasting the chicken. Bring a large sauté pan to heat. Pour in 2 tablespoons of the canola oil. When the oil is hot enough to run around the pan, put the chicken legs in the pan and slide it into the oven. After 10 minutes, turn down the temperature of the oven to 425°. Roast the chicken until the internal temperature of the leg, right at the joint, has reached 185°, about 25 minutes. You'll also be able to tell by the warm roasty smell emanating from the onion, enticing you over.

Remove the chicken from the oven and place the legs on a plate in a warm place, nestled next to the rice.

Making the sauce. Drain the grease from the chicken pan. Pour in the the rice wine vinegar and honey and cook it on medium-high until the liquid has reduced by 1/2 its volume. Pour the chicken stock into the pan. Allow the stock to reduce. When the sauce begins to thicken, about 10 minutes, swirl in the butter.

Sautéeing the mushrooms. Bring a large sauté pan to high heat. Pour in the remaining canola oil. Put the mushrooms into the hot oil. Cook them quickly, stirring occasionally, until they have some color and have wilted a little bit under the heat. Put in the remaining onion and garlic. Cook for a few moments until the onion and garlic are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Throw in the thyme and cook until the herb starts to release its fragrance, about 1 minute. Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper.

Mix the mushrooms and rice together.

To serve, make a mound of the mushroom-filled rice on each plate. Perch a chicken leg on top of the rice. Swirl some of the sauce around the plate. Place the fruit in the sauce. Top with the blood orange zest.

Suggestions: you can also make this dish throughout the different seasons. Use figs and pears. Mangoes. Raisins and prunes. Grapefruit segments. Whatever you imagine might be good.

Feeds 4

02 February 2009


celebration dinner

We sent the book into our publishers.

Oh, what a sweet, sweet sentence.

On Friday, at noon, three fingers pressed down on the mouse to hit send: mine, the Chef's, and Little Bean's. I'm sure she had no idea what she was doing, but we did. We sent our cookbook off to our editor, all the recipes, techniques, headnotes, and hard-won essays.
We're proud of it, even though it will need editing. (It took me years of writing to realize that a first draft is never genius, and a tough editor with a red pen is a gift indeed.)
We can't wait to see it in print, with the gorgeous photographs, even though it won't be published until spring of 2010.
We cannot believe that we wrote an entire cookbook in 9 months, when we had our first child in the midst of it and sometimes wrote in the middle of the night when she woke up at 3 in the morning and didn't feel like going to sleep for an hour. And the last three weeks, I have been living on the computer for nine hours a day, trying to write when Little Bean was asleep, but sometimes having to turn my back on her while she played with her papa.
It seemed, at times, that we would never finish that book. But we did.

We did it.

Better than that, my mom is doing great. I made some allusions here, last month, to someone we love not doing well. I can tell you, now that we have a happy ending. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, just before Christmas. We were all terrified. Writing a book didn't feel that important. We set it aside, for a time, to focus on her. Wonderfully, joyfully, now we know — she is fine. Two weeks ago, she endured surgery, and she's still recovering from the brutality. However, the doctors got it all. A few days ago, she relayed to me what the surgeon told her: "You're cured." I cried harder than I did when we finished the book.

So, it seems, we had a few reasons to celebrate around here. And celebrate we did.

We had lobster for dinner on Monday evening.

I first watched Annie Hall when I was 11 years old, and I fell in love with Woody Allen's neurotic nebbish, the witty quips in movie lines, the dirty streets of Manhattan I saw buzzing by Diane Keaton's car as the two recited droll dialogue. Sometimes, when I park the car in a sloppy fashion, I look at the sidewalk and say, "I can walk from here." Imressionable as hell, I wanted to fall into the middle of that movie and never come up for air. So of course, I adored the scene where Alvie and Annie chase lobsters around the kitchen, thwacking brooms behind the refrigerator, Annie grabbing her camera and the two of them laughing so hard they immediately fell into bed after trapping the lobsters underneath the lid of a pot of hot water. That, to me, looked like good love. (Never mind that they don't work, in the end. He lurved her.)

On Friday afternoon, with Little Bean bouncing in her seat in the kitchen, I grabbed my camera as the Chef pulled the live lobster from the box. Oh, we took a few funny photos, with him raising the claws to his lips, balancing it with a lemon in the other hand. But it turns out that killing a lobster isn't nearly so funny as it is in the movies. (Damn movies. They disappoint me again.) At a certain point, I turned my back and blocked Little Bean from seeing the crazy flailing tail of the lobster just after it had been pithed. I stopped taking photographs. We weren't laughing.

So I thanked the lobster before we ate it (in beurre monter, with steamed artichokes, roasted potatoes and cabbage, sparkling pear cider, and warm apple crisp). And I remembered again how complex life is — mortality and celebration all mixed up together, side by side, unexpected, all the more beautiful for being so complicated.

And then we fell into bed. To sleep. Oh lord, we are tired. But happy as hell.

Now, we'd like to know. What do you eat when you truly want to celebrate? And if it's lobster, what do you do with it?