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27 May 2009

at home, with potato salad

chicken on the grill

After returning from a week in the hospital with our baby, we sat around in a bit of a stupor for a day or two, holding her close. We watched her giggle and crawl, clapping at everything, her eyes open and her smile wide. She rebounded more quickly than we did.

Seeing her thrive, we revived. The rainclouds lifted. The sun shone through. We moved into the garden and started pulling up weeds, planting beans, laughing at the black dirt on our hands. Summer's coming.

Time to put chicken on the barbeque. Time for a picnic.

garden-grown lettuces

Good friends came to our home on Monday. (Like many of you, we fired up the grill for the first time on the holiday marking the start of the summer season.) It was an impromptu party, planned over Twitter. (new social media, indeed.) Casual and nothing fancy. Just a few of our favorite women, Danny, and Little Bean, out in the backyard. Sitting on a picnic blanket, eating good food.

It doesn't take much to make us happy now.

Like this beautiful bag of lettuce, which Kim grew in her garden. (Our lettuce seems slow to start. I don't know if I did it right.)

she loves her sock monkey in the box

Kim made Little Bean happy by bringing her this sock monkey-in-a-box. Taken aback by the leaping, at first, Little Bean spent most of the afternoon exploring the edges with her hands.

(We love her intent gaze. And the fact that she can see.)

barbequed ribs

Danny bought 5 pounds of spareribs from SeaBreeze on Friday, brined them on Saturday, braised them on Sunday, and coated them with barbeque sauce on Monday.

I think they were gone in 10 minutes.

tossing the salad with ranch dressing

Whitney dressed the salad for us with the jug of fresh ranch dressing I made a few days before. The flavors blended and grew together over that time. We've re-discovered the joys of buttermilk ranch dressing around here. Simple. Garlicky. Greens from the garden make it all taste better.


And then we sat in the backyard, under the cherry tree, next to the daisies. We talked about books and children and photography and publishing and neurotic authors and New York and the splendors of summer.

It felt good to put on my skirt again and sit in the grass.

rhubarb compote

When everyone arrived, we hacked rhubarb stalks from the enormous plants out back. Danny chopped and simmered them with vanilla bean, a pinch of sugar, lemon zest, a bay leaf, and a touch of water. Melting soft, but still with chunks of rhubarb, soft to the touch. From garden to our plates? 1 hour.

tea among the daisies

Bones littered white plates. Watches off. Feet bare. We lounged at our leisure, lifting our faces to the sun for the first time all year.

Little Bean bent her legs on her papa's lap, bouncing up and down, wanting to be thrown into the air one more time.

Tea wore her straw hat and sat against the daisies. Just seeing her there made me grin.

picnic on the grass with flan

As the sun started to shift toward the west, we ate Tea's almond cookies with raspberry jam. And Viv's gorgeous flan, spread with Argentinian dulce de leche, topped with the rhubarb compote.

Of course, everything we ate was gluten-free. We didn't talk about that. It was just good food.

Our guests left for an evening ferry, sighing with relaxed happiness. We all agreed — it was the best afternoon we had experienced in a long time.

We really are home from the hospital.

potato morel asparagus salad with a basil vinaigrette

Potato Salad with Morel Mushrooms, Asparagus, and Basil Vinaigrette

I love potato salad. I'll eat it in the middle of winter, but I never can settle into it during a January meal. Potato salad means picnics on the grass, sun-warmed skin, the smell of chlorine from swimming pools, and long evenings not dark until 9. This season. Right now.

We all have a different platonic ideal for potato salad, I'm sure. Mostly, I'm partial to creamy potato salad with mayonnaise and yellow mustard. Little slivers of celery too. You know, the throwback kind, the salad my mother made in the 70s. That's still my first definition. Molly has a recipe for potato salad from her father that throws a couple tablespoons of ranch dressing into the mix. We've tried it. We approve.

Danny was playing on a variation of a basil vinaigrette he has made for years, since we grabbed several bags of glossy green basil at the farmers' market the day before. When he tasted it, he danced to the other side of the living room. That means good. He dressed this potato salad — dotted with morel mushrooms and just-blanched asparagus — with the vinaigrette and I danced too. Our guests each had two helpings.

This one's worth making, especially if you are planning a picnic on the grass for this weekend.

6 large russet potatoes, peeled quartered and cubed (1 inch)
1 bunch asparagus, 1/4 inch chopped
1/2 pound morel mushrooms (or whatever mushroom is in season)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 Walla Walla sweet onions, sliced (if you don't have these, then 1 medium white onion)
3 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, fine chopped
salt and pepper

Boiling the potatoes. Fill a large saucepan with cold water. Add the potatoes and a ton of salt. Turn on the heat. Boil the potatoes until a fork slips into them easily. Take the saucepan off the burner.

Blanching the asparagus. Throw the cut-up asparagus into the boiling-hot water, just after you take it off the burner. Swirl the water around, gently, for a few moments, to give the asparagus a quick blanch. (This gives the asparagus a slightly tender bite for the salad.

Strain the potatoes and asparagus.

Sautéeing the mushrooms. Bring a large sauté pan to heat. Add in the oil and butter. Sauté the mushrooms until they start to soften, and then add the onions and garlic. Cook about 1 minute or until the onions and garlic start to soften. Throw in the thyme and cook until it is fragrant. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Mix the sautéed vegetables with the potatoes and asparagus. Spread them all out on a baking sheet to cool.

When the potato mixture has cooled completely, mix it together with the basil vinaigrette. Serve.

Feeds about 10.

basil vinaigrette

1 cup basil leaves, packed firm
1/4 cup Italian parsley
1 shallot, chopped
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/8 cup red wine vinegar
1/8 cup white wine or champagne vinegar
3/4 cup grapeseed oil (or canola)
salt and pepper to taste

Put all the ingredients in a blender except the oil. Turn on the blender to begin pureeing everything. Drizzle in the oil slowly. Enjoy.

24 May 2009

at the heart of it

apricot-lentil soup

Let me begin with this: Little Bean is fine.

We were silent here for a time because we were in the hospital. I thought about writing posts before we left, sunny and breezy, about ranch dressing and being imperfect. But as the days counted down, and all we wanted to do was sit on the couch and hold our girl close, recommendations of yet another gluten-free bakery felt ridiculous. So I left the space empty, instead.

Ten days ago, Little Bean had major surgery. It was planned from the week after her birth. The terrifying clang of her breathing troubles the night she was born continued to reverberate for months afterward. We knew this was coming since she was 5 days old. I'm going to hold off on explaining the procedure here. She's too young to decide if she wants this story told. Suffice it to say that she has always been delightful and healthy. And she needed this surgery to give her brain room to grow.

And so, ten days ago, Danny and I sat in a waiting room, whiling away the long hours with bad magazines and great-stupid internet sites. We held hands and made ludicrous jokes. We paced. We drank too many paper cups full of bitter coffee. And we tried our best to stave off the image of our little one on an operating table.

The gas they gave her, as I sang to her while she drifted into sleep, smelled like strawberries.

9 hours we waited. 9 has always been our lucky number. This time, we weren't so fond of it.

She emerged, alive. She opened her eyes when she heard our voices, just as we entered her ICU room. And then she slept again, for most of the next two days.

We lived in the hospital for almost a week, watching her return, bit by bit, each few hours. Those were hard days. I've never known such stomach-wrenching agony, watching our child in pain.

We stayed by her side the entire time, one of us sleeping on the couch by her bed, the other in a chair or on a hard bench in the hallway for a few hours. That doesn't make us heroes, just her mom and dad. Every room around ours contained recovering children and huddling parents. Even though we hated watching her suffer, we knew it was temporary. In the pantheon of that hospital, we were small voices.

During her surgery, when we wandered every hallway of that hospital, we walked into the parent resource center to ask about the wifi connection. A tired-looking man with a red baseball cap pushed down over his eyes volunteered information.
"Wow," I said. "You know what you're talking about. How long have you been here?"
"Seven weeks," he muttered, as his weary fingers turned the scheduling pages for parent massages.
Danny and I looked at each other. "Is there any hope in sight? Soon?"
"Ahm, about six more weeks, if we're lucky."
He walked out the door.

I couldn't give him a massage. But I wish we had seen him again so I could have offered him some of our food.

Why am I telling you this, other than to answer the questions of those of you who have been kind enough to worry about our absence? Because this experience made me realize two things about food (and entire worlds of other lessons I'll keep to myself).

Sometimes I tire of talking about being gluten-free. Every word and meal on this site contains no gluten. But to only talk about substitute baked goods or the new Betty Crocker gluten-free mixes (yes, it's true) bores me to tears. There is so much more to life.

And then I stepped into the cafeteria of the hospital where Little Bean had her surgery.

It reminded me of my high school cafeteria, except smaller, with more breading. Every bit of food offered came in a bun, with crumbs, or under a layer of flour. The bowl of wilted and rusty lettuces contained croutons. The hotel pan full of heavy melted cheese for the nachos could have come from a factory that processes gluten, as could the corn chips. And the sign next to the row of metal lids said, in big letters: "Our soups contain gluten."

I was left with a small bag of Cheetos and a packaged vegetarian sushi roll.

I'm lucky. We discovered this early, during one of the many pre-op appointment days we had at the hospital. We made other plans. But while we were there, I kept thinking of the kids sitting in hospital beds, receiving breakfast trays from this place. Were the ones with celiac getting anything to eat? Or were they growing sick from cross contamination and chicken nuggets?

This was at one of the best hospitals in the nation. This is a health issue.

We have to make the awareness of the need for gluten-free food even greater. I'll keep doing the best I can.

And finally, food.

As you can imagine, I didn't think much about food that week. I could have gone days without eating, not missing the taste in my mouth. However, we have wonderful friends who planned ahead for us, made a schedule, and brought us meals in waves. And we were grateful, to see them in the waiting room of the ICU, and then in the more relaxed post-surgery ward. We needed the bits of news from the outside world, the full embraces, the unexpected space to joke and hear their stories.

Now we're home, and I've been thinking about the potato-leek soup and chocolate cupcakes and carrot salad put in our hands by loving friends. It's easy, in this blog-writing, food-critic world, to think about bests and essential experiences and big awards. I can ponder long moments how to describe the taste of strawberries and the shared pleasure of rhubarb memories. I think about the smell of ginger and yuzu together and try to step out of the way of my brain to let the association flood in.

However, the week we were in the hospital, I didn't think of any of that. Instead, food became a series of solid senses, a chance to remember what is important again.

When Tea sat with us in the waiting room, we three sat around a bench the height of our knees, plucking up yellow lentils and spicy lamb kitfo with torn pieces of injera bread. That was familiar in the midst of great uncertainty. Kim's basket of goodies — quiche with roasted carrots and asparagus; Marcona almonds; banana bread; blood orange juice — was a bright splash of sweetness in the morning after a night without sleep. Lorna and Henry's lion's head meatballs woke us up in the afternoon, when the nurses shooed us out of the room of the sleeping baby and told us to revive ourselves. A few slurps of Pia's warm hazelnut white bean soup (from Eat Local gave us both enough sustenance to go back again when she couldn't hold down anything she was drinking. Francoise's block of oozy Brie cheese felt like comfort on the tongue late that night, when the worst of it was over. The spread of salmon, crab, and salads that Danny's cousin Tasha made for us tasted like family. The Vietnamese pork dish that Molly and Brandon brought from Green Leaf felt like celebration, because she was seeing the world and singing by then. Becky's chocolate cupcakes with ganache were triumph — we were going home that morning. And Rebekah's thick Greek yogurt with homemade rhubarb compote, which we ate in the car as we raced toward the ferry? The one that made Little Bean so excited to see that I spooned some of it in her mouth, and she smiled? That was good.

And now, at home. As I write this, Little Bean is sitting in her highchair, watching her papa mash up an avocado with a fork. She is clapping, a new habit she picked up after the surgery. She seems to be saying, all day long, "Hurrah! Hurray! We made it here." There is still some recovery to go, but she's doing splendidly. She needed the surgery — we can tell the difference. All day long, she chatters and crawls, giggles and wriggles out of our arms.

She's alive.

And as I watch Danny spoon that avocado into her mouth, the only thing I can say about that food is

thank you.

22 May 2009

Bob's Red Mill corn products

bob's red mill corn stuff

We have a story. A story of why we've been gone so long. A ragged story, one that ends well.

I'm too tired, at the moment, to tell that story. And I'm not even sure how much I want to tell, yet.

So instead, I want to share this with you:

Bob's Red Mill now has gluten-free corn products.

Now there's a joy, like late-afternoon May sunlight falling through the living room windows when you have been cooped up inside for a week.

You know Bob's Red Mill, don't you? The good company from Oregon that believes in whole grains and wants to sell them to you. If you are gluten-free, you know Bob's Red Mill. They make the little bags of flour that line the pantry shelves of folks who try to bake gluten-free breads and cakes. That little symbol on the bag — the grain of wheat with a big red line through it — serves as an instant comfort in the grocery store. I can eat this.

However, for years, I haven't experienced that comfort with Bob's Red Mill corn flour or corn grits. At the farmers' market recently, I had to politely decline an offer of grilled polenta with local goat cheese and sauteed spinach. Why? They had made the polenta with Bob's Red Mill cornmeal.

You see, Bob's has two separate facilities in their factory: gluten-free and not. This is the great solace for us. Because the amaranth is made in the gluten-free half, we don't have to worry about cross-contamination when making chocolate chip cookies. However, until now, the corn products have been processed in the not half of the factory.

I'm sure many of us grew sick from the cross contamination because we failed to notice the absence of that wheat grain with the red line.

Now, however — triumph! Bob's recently moved to a larger facility. That gave them the space to produce the corn products in the gluten-free half of the factory.

Corn flour. Cornmeal. Corn grits. Gluten-free.

Homemade pasta. Cornbread. Pizza crusts with a little bite at the bottom. Shrimp and grits.

Bob's has shown a huge dedication to us gluten-free folks. I could not have baked and cooked without them these past four years.

(This week, this website turns 4 years old. Wow. We're just about ready for kindergarten, this site and me. That feels about right for how much I still have to learn.)

Now, there will be even more experiment and play in this kitchen.

Thanks, Bob. Always.

11 May 2009

Hungry Monkey

hungry monkey

Do you have a kid you're trying to feed? Thinking about having one? Love food? Or just want to laugh so hard that your belly hurts?

Come on over to Gluten-Free Girl Recommends to find out why you want to read Hungry Monkey.

07 May 2009

a thing for pickles

pickled things

I have always had a thing for pickles.

(When I taught high school English, I wrote a list on the blackboard at the start of every September, words that the students were not allowed to use: thing, stuff, get, very, nice, really, pretty, extremely, and cool. By the end of the first month, they could rattle them off like a chant. And by the end of the year, they had usually eliminated sentences such as "It was cool, because I got some very nice things" from their writing. But not always.

Now, whenever I write the word thing, I feel a little delicious thrill. Ha ha! I want to say. I'm breaking my own rules. But that was always the point, to teach them rules so they would know when to break them. There are times when thing is a really nice word.)

Pickles always worked for me.

There's this audio tape my parents made for my grandparents, up in Washington, when we were sweltering in southern California heat. My brother and I answered questions from my father, talked about our favorite meals ("The drink I like, is lemonade!" my little brother nearly shouted in his four-year-old voice), and wondered what we would grow up to be some day. (Apparently, I was going to be a scientist.) One of the highlights — albeit embarrassing — is when I burst into song, in a key much too high for my tiny cracking voice, and sang the first verse of the theme song for a sitcom called Lotsa Luck:

"Oh, I used to buy a pickle
it only used to cost a nickel
the bus ride only used to cost a dime!
Now these days are long forgotten,
the world has gotten rotten,
lotsa luck. lotsa luck. lotsa luck!"

(And before you ask, I have no idea why a seven-year-old girl in LA loved this show about the manager of the New York City bus system's lost and found department who lived with his mother. But I did. I'm pretty sure the late Dom DeLuise played his best friend.)

At Disneyland, which we visited twice a year, or three if we were lucky, I loved many rides with the fervency of a sunburned girl with pigtails wearing tube socks up to her knees. But I think there was another experience I loved even more. I've already written about how much I loved those sour pickles that floated in large wooden barrels at the General Store, so I won't repeat myself. Just go read and see if you don't want a pickle now.

Egg salad sandwiches, a saucer full of cherries, a glass of iced tea, and a fat green wedge of dill pickle on my plate. That was my favorite lunch, for years.

I cannot stand bread and butter pickles, however. Get that thing away from me. Pickles should be sour and mouth-puckering, briny and dripping, no hint of sweetness. I want pickles that make me sit up straight and suck in my breath. Pickles should be crisp and unexpected, a little quiver of green, slickness and then a hiss of ooohhhh what's that? Or maybe pickles should just taste good.

Danny made pints and pints of dill pickles from scratch for the family party before our wedding. Our soon-to-be nephew, James, is still talking about them.

Less than two weeks later, I stood in the middle of a field, watching Molly and Brandon walk among their friends and family in summer-blue light. We were at a picnic together, disguised as their wedding rehearsal dinner, and we were all smiling. Tea and I talked about our dear friends, who would be married the next day, and our happiness at being part of this. We sat down at long tables dotted with mason jars filled with flowers that could have been picked from the field an hour before. Pulled chicken, roasted vegetables, tomatoes and basil, fingerling potato salad were banked on the buffet table, enticing us to come over. But I couldn't leave, just yet. I had to eat two or three more pickled carrots, the ones that Molly and Brandon had pickled themselves. And if ever there had been a moment when no one was looking, I might have swiped one of the jars of pickled grapes with cinnamon (adapted from the Boat Street pickled grapes, which you can now buy). Damn, those were good.

Other than pickled ginger with sushi, I didn't know until I was well into my 30s that I could eat any other pickled vegetables than cucumbers in briny liquid. Now, I can't stop thinking of things I want to pickle. Danny made me pickled red cabbage for Valentine's Day once. Brandon left a tall glass of pickled sunchokes on our front porch soon after he found out I was pregnant. (Those disappeared fast.) We have pickled parsnips with great success, and there are pickled white beans and pickled golden beets floating in liquid on the door of our refrigerator. We have so much rhubarb growing in the backyard that we're thinking of pickling some this weekend — mmm, so good with salmon. And this summer, I'm finally going to try pickling apricots, which I have been thinking about for three years. (maybe with allspice, and a bit of brandy?)

I can't be stopped. I love pickles.

Last week, Little Bean sucked on a dill pickle for a few minutes, interested in the experience.

It looks like the cycle of pickles will continue.


pickled jalapenso, carrots, and cabbage


Before I met Danny, I thought that pickles were the impossible dream, something far beyond my abilities. Not at all true. Find the right proportions of water to sugar and salt, some spices you like, and a touch of something with vinegar, and you're on your way. And then you wait.

These pickled jalapenos and carrots are so easy to make that you might just keep replenishing them in your refrigerator after you make them the first time. Taco night just grew much more delicious around here.

And if you'd like to see Danny's recipe for carnitas, please click here.

1 quart water
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons mustard seed
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
pinch red pepper flakes
1/2 bunch thyme
2 jalapeno peppers, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and julienned
1/2 head green cabbage, thinly sliced
1 cucumber, sliced

Making the pickling liquid. Put the water, garlic, salt, sugar, 1 tablespoon of the mustard seed, the apple cider vinegar, red pepper flakes, and the thyme in a large saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil and allow it to boil until both the sugar and salt have dissolved. (This is important.)

Pickling the vegetables. Pour the liquid, through a strainer, over the jalapeno peppers, carrots, and 1/2 the cabbage. (Choose a large bowl — you don't want the liquid spilling over.) Add the remaining mustard seed to the vegetables. Allow the liquid to come to room temperature before moving the vegetables into the refrigerator.

Refrigerate for at least 1 day (and no more than 3 days) before eating. Toss in the second half of the cabbage about an hour before eating the pickled vegetables.

These pickled vegetables would work well with any Mexican dish: carnitas, tacos, enchiladas. I also like them on top of plain white rice, frankly. Danny thinks they would work with cheese plates or pâté. Or, if you're like me, you can eat them right out of the refrigerator.

04 May 2009



My friend Daniel has a garden that intimidates the hell out of me. Every patch of land blooms with color, some of it spiky, some of it subtle. Towering tree-like plants from South Africa bloom next to a low shrub from Argentina. He has traveled the world and brought back seeds from nearly every country. In his Seward Park backyard, he has re-created the world, as he has seen it, in lush density. Every time I visited, he gave me a tour of the new plants, brushing up against the old ones as we walked — fuschia rhododendrons; crayon-orange dahlias; fireworks spread out along the ground as pink daisies. As we touched each plant, he trilled off the long Latin name of each one, relishing the hard consonants of the dead language in his mouth.

Mostly, I just nodded and smiled. And smelled the flowers that looked appealing to me.

Really, I know so little about the plants around me that it's embarrassing.

The summer after I graduated college, I couldn't find work. Do you remember that time, 1990, all the bright young things suddenly brought down to earth by the dearth of jobs and the disappearance of alluring careers? And those were the business majors. Me? Double major in English literature and creative writing. Useless, in other words. Bound to get me work.

When I wasn't crafting terrible stories and sending them to The New Yorker, I looked for something I could do that would help me leave my room. In desperation — and some Thoreau-like wish to return to nature — I applied for a job at a nursery in my town. Unfortunately, the morning of the interview, I lost my contact lens down the drain of the bathroom sink. This left me like Cyclops, one eye working, and frantic. The supervisor led me down rows of potted plants under a white tent, and asked me to name each one. Squinting, I took guesses, based on the names of plants I had liked for their sounds. I had no clue.

I ended up working at a bookstore in a mall, instead. I don't really think about that year much, now.

Yesterday, the sun shone, and the sky seemed to suggest the light would last for hours. We put Bean's bouncer underneath the cherry tree and let her dance up and down in her bare feet. Danny dragged out the push mower and went back and forth over the green. I found a hoe in the garden shed, then heaved it to my shoulder and let it fall to the ground. One raised bed, weeded. That's all I wanted for the afternoon.

Hands in the dirt, I pushed apart the weeds and pulled them up. Potato bugs emerged and then waved their spindly grey legs in the air, then arighted themselves again. My skin grew faintly pink from the sun. Music played from an open window next to the lilac tree, suffused with light when I stood in the right spot. Little Bean kept bouncing.

For a moment, everything felt as drawn in black lines as the dirt under my fingernails.

Within a few moments, I gave up the goal. I just wanted to keep working. Clods of earth, long tendrils of frilly grass gone from the patch, rocks, and old plant tags buried in the black dirt — they grew in the pile next to the wooden borders. When I stopped to smear sunscreen on my arms with my dirty hands, I saw that the bed was nearly cleared.

After a kiss on Bean's head, and a ridiculous conversation with Danny, I put small leaves of lettuce, like tentacles waving, into the dirt. Black Tuscan kale. Magenta chard. Curls of arugula. Cilantro seeds.

I have no idea if they will live. There's a hard wind blowing tonight. All the plant starts could be trampled by fat raindrops by the morning. And even if they survive, I really don't know what I'm doing.

I'm just excited that I planted them.

And later in the afternoon, Shannon came by to show us the garden, each peony bush and kiwi vine something she had planted with her hands in the years she lived here. Purple species rhododendrons like paper-maiche dresses, alpine strawberry plants dotted along the side yard among the apple trees, red currant bushes with tiny green berries that will ripen into red within a few weeks. (And we might be able to eat them, if the deer don't get them, or the territorial raccoons.)

"What's this?" I pointed to the green leaves vaguely shaped like the Canadian maple leaves. Danny and I had been trying to figure it out. I was stuck at celery.
"Lovage," she said, smiling and proud.

I've never used it. Never eaten it before. All I could think — and my head kept repeating it — was "Lettice and Lovage," the name of a feisty funny British play that starred the fiercest actress alive, Maggie Smith. (Seriously, if you have never seen one of her movies, rectify that mistake.) Once again, I knew the literature, instead of the thing itself.

But it's in our garden now. Soon we'll snip some leaves and figure out what to do with it.

Do you have any ideas?

I hope you have the chance to put your hands in the dirt soon, too.