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Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef

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23 September 2009

eating with Sharon

Sharon eating doughnuts

This is my dear friend, Sharon. If you've been reading this site for awhile, you've seen her face, and heard her name, a number of times. In fact, a few times she has appeared with me at readings and bakery meet-ups for my book, and people come up to her and say, "Oh my god, you're Sharon!"

She actually really loves this. So if you see her on the street, be sure to say hello.

Sharon and I have been friends since 1983, when we met in the 400 quad, in front of the freshmen lockers, at Claremont High School. Her older sister and I had been friends before I moved to London for the year, and Erica knew that I had met Paul McCartney, on Oxford Street. (It was, at that point, the peak experience of my life. I turned red as a plum when I talked to him.) Sharon came forward, shyly, wearing enormous glasses, and asked to hear the story.

We have been best friends ever since.

There's nothing like a friendship like this. After all, she and I have been close friends for 26 years, more than half our lives knowing the sound of each other's voices. We have an entire dictionary of inside jokes together, and almost no one else in the world knows what the hell kenocken means. But if one of us says it, the other bursts out laughing. Snorting, even. We have been known to snort.

Sharon loves so many things. Besides me, this woman loves food. Oh my, how she loves food. She inhales food, makes little moans, smacks her lips, and often lifts her head to ask, "Could I have a vat of that?"

Here, she is trying the little doughnuts sold at Pike Place Market, which we eat every time we go there. Scratch that. We used to eat them. Now, I watch her eat them instead.

And that's okay with me. Because this visit, my dearest oldest friend finally had the chance to meet my daughter. (Little Bean LOVED Sharon. We decided that Sharon is to Little Bean as catnip is to cat. She was often going crazy with laughter whenever Sharon walked into the room. Since this is the effect Sharon has had on me for 26 years, I often had tears in my eyes this week.)

Beyond that, we ate. In years past, I felt bad, a bit, that I couldn't share in some of the food Sharon ate. This time, she loved everything we cooked, never felt deprived, never really even talked about it.

Living gluten-free can taste that good.

smoked duck breast ravioli at Lara's house

The first night she was here, we ate these smoked duck breast ravioli. Danny smoked the duck, made the filling with fresh ricotta and lovely spices, and wrapped it all in these gluten-free ravioli.

(This is actually my sideways shot of the set-up that Lara was doing for this shot in our book.)

Sharon couldn't believe her luck, arriving on a day when we had a photo shoot for the book.

gluten-free flatbread crackers

And there were crackers, with air pockets even. With sea salt and lots of taste. We ate these with goat cheese.

omelets with the smoked duck breast filling

In the morning, omelets with the rest of the smoked duck breast filling.

Sharon was not complaining.

today's lunch with Sharon

She and I gathered heirloom cherry tomatoes from the farm stand, plus basil that had just been picked. Fresh mozzarella, plus pickled figs and peppers.

Sharon plated this, arranging it all to look most pleasing. That wasn't for the photograph. She just eats like that.

If you look at that, and tell me you feel sorry for Sharon that she had to eat gluten-free for a week, you need your head examined.

poached eggs on English muffins

The next morning, after being up late talking and watching Top Chef, we ate poached eggs on English muffins, with Danny's roasted potatoes, bacon, and goat cheese.

That was a good day.

carrots at the market

No visit of Sharon's would be complete without a trip to Pike Place Market, to look at the produce splayed out on the table.

radishes and beets at Frank's

I think sometimes she thinks I'm crazy, because I take so many photographs of my food. But look at that color leaping off the table at Frank's produce stand.

sharon showing me the doughnuts

Here, Sharon is showing me the doughnuts she bought. I could smell them.

I used to love that little doughnut stand. But now, with the years without gluten between me and them, I inhaled and smelled mostly grease. The longing is gone.

(Don't worry, those of you who are gluten-free and now want doughnuts. They're coming. Lara is writing a book about doughnuts, and she and I came up with a gluten-free doughnut recipe that will leave you reeling. Just look at it.)


Sharon said later she enjoyed this apple-rosemary bread we baked much more than she did the doughnuts. It was gone by the end of the day.

zucchini sliced for carpaccio

And after all that, we needed vegetables. In this case, zucchini sliced thin for carpaccio.

gluten-free pizza

Ah, but a few days later was my father's 65th birthday party (hi, Dad!). We brought the food: pizzas with sauteed chicken of the woods mushrooms, homemade pesto, and fresh mozzarella.

Everyone talked and laughed, and then called out how much they loved the pizza.

Gluten-free crust.

pumpkin pie

And pumpkin pie, with a gluten-free crust. My father's favorite pie.

tonight's BLT

On one of her last night's here, Sharon and I constructed a BLT from scratch. Danny made the bacon, we grew the lettuce, made homemade mayonnaise, and baked the bread. (okay, we bought the tomatoes.) You can read all about it here.

But suffice it to say that this was the first BLT I had eaten in nearly 5 years. Goodness (or goodless, for Sharon), that tasted sweet and salty, full of flavor, and a little teary for the fact I could share it with my friend.

Sharon loved it. She didn't even talk about the fact it was gluten-free. It was just a great BLT to her.

breakfast this morning

The last morning, just before she drove away, we ate this for breakfast. Scrambled eggs, roasted potatoes with cheese, smoked tomato salsa.

"I don't want to go," Sharon wailed. I didn't want her to leave.

A week with her, eating and laughing as we played with Little Bean, was one of the biggest gifts I have received this long, tumultuous year. We all had tears in our eyes as she drove away, even the little one.

There was no sacrifice on Sharon's part to stay with us and eat gluten-free. We were simply together, eating and laughing.

And those of you who are new to this? And wonder if other people will accept you? Just remember this. It's not the gluten that matters. It's the food.

Your friends will love the food you feed them, and you will be closer for the communion of the meals you share together.

14 September 2009

pickled figs

the pickled figs are ready

When I was eight, I sat at the piano, my fingers arched like spiders' long legs above the keys, trying to hit all the notes correctly. For years I had asked for piano lessons, imagining the joy of sitting at the keyboard like Stevie Wonder, pounding away and bobbing my head. Instead, my teacher droned on about music theory before he ever let me touch the keys. And my fear of doing things incorrectly meant I didn't really practice, which meant I never progressed beyond the first grade book of the John Thompson modern course for the piano.

I haven't touched the piano in a couple of decades now.

Baseball? I could hit a whizzing triple down the third base line nearly every time I stood at the plate. And don't bother trying to hit one past me at first base. I'd reach above my head and snag that line drive, then step triumphantly on the base before the surprised runner could turn back and hide. Double play, unassisted. I loved it every time.

But there's no improvisation in baseball. The lines are straight, the rules are clear, and one team always wins.

Cooking, however, is one big improvisation around central themes. For years, I thought that good cooking meant finding the right recipe and following it exactly. This made me an uptight cook, chopping garlic with a rigid intensity, my fingers arched like they were on that keyboard. That's not good cooking.

Sure, there are techniques and standard recipes and ratios to cooking. (And I would probably appreciate that music teacher's insistence on music theory more as an adult than I did at 8.) But good cooking is about far more than numbers and tradition. These past few years, I have realized, my cooking has improved because I have played.

Mostly, I've watched my husband dance in front of the counter, his head bent down in concentration, but all his muscles loose and enjoying. He has taught me to not worry about being perfect but to smell the food instead.

And he introduced me to The Flavor Bible.

I have written about The Flavor Bible before, so I won't repeat myself. Just know that this marvelous book lists most major ingredients available to home cooks, along with the other ingredients with which they pair. Pay attention to these flavor pairings and the techniques that work well with each ingredient, and you need never use a recipe again.

For example, if you have marjoram growing on your back deck right now, what should you do with it? Well, marjoram mixes particularly well with egg dishes, goat cheese, chicken, mushrooms, green salads, tomatoes, and thyme, among many others. What could you do with this information? You could make an omelet with goat cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and marjoram, along with a small salad of mixed greens, heirloom tomatoes, and a thyme vinaigrette. If you know how to make an omelet, and a vinaigrette, you're done. Just gather the ingredients and start cooking.

fresh figs on the island

Or say you are at the farmers' market, as we were two Saturdays ago, and you find fresh figs. The farmer who grew this luscious fruit tells you this is the last week she'll have them available for the rest of the season. One of your best friends brought these figs to the canning party and made fig jam. You could do that again. Or, you could do something new, since you have a jar still in the fridge.

Danny cut figs into the summer quinoa salad we ate. We sliced them thin to top ice cream. We ate them out of hand, their soft pulpy flesh sweet and yielding. And then he wanted to do something else.

He pulled down The Flavor Bible and started looking at the list of ingredients that please figs no end. (The best friends are in bold.) Almonds, anise, blue cheese. Cinnamon, cream, honey, lemon zest. Mascarpone, olive oil, prosciutto, brown sugar, vanilla, balsamic vinegar, walnuts...

Danny lifted his head from the book and gave me that look. The "excited as a kid at Christmas clutching his GI Joe to his chest just after unwrapping it" look. He knew what to do.

"We're going to pickle today."

And so he pulled out the balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. He ran outside to pick a bay leaf, some rosemary. He reached for the zester and de-nuded a lemon, quickly. I watched, laughing, learning more.

It has been hard to wait, the past week, for these pickled figs to be ready. But today, finally, Danny opened the jars.

"Oh mama," he said, his playful moan. "Try these."

Sweet and vinegary, clean and crisp. And oh, those seeds. They were sweeter in my teeth than I expected, punching out through the acidic taste. I was instantly addicted.

Now, we're just trying to think about what to eat with the figs. I'm thinking a good, crumbly blue cheese, with slices of prosciutto nudged alongside, and roasted hazelnuts. Maybe some honey ice cream and the figs, with a drizzle of balsamic. Or a tart made with mascarpone cheese and an olive oil crust, the pickled figs dotting the top.

I imagined all those because I was reading the fig list in The Flavor Bible.

This week, The Flavor Bible celebrated its one-year anniversary of being published, and its one-year anniversary of being in the list of top 100 bestsellers all year long. (Good god. Any writer salivates to think of that.) Think of it — a book like this making the bestseller list? We all must be cooking more at home now.

I love to think of it — people playing in the kitchen, at their ease with flavors and making pickled figs.

* * *

What has made you a better cook? (See this fascinating post on Metafilter to spark ideas. Danny and I talked about this all afternoon.)

And what do you like to eat with figs?

10 September 2009

please eat pie

peach and blueberry pie II

When I was in my first year of college, my best friend Sharon and I sat in my bedroom on a hot summer day and wrote letters to David Letterman. Not love letters, although we did adore him with a certain fervor. No, we wrote pithy messages, brief missives, hoping to make it onto the viewer mail segment.

They were ridiculous, of course. "Dear Dave, it's 102° here today. What do we do?"
"Dear Dave, would you like a hat?"
"Dear Dave, have a bitching summer. Stay as sweet as you are. Love, Sandra Day O'Connor."

(The saddest part of that one is that we were merely repeating a joke from his show. oh no.)

Perhaps my favorite — and Sharon's too, for how often we have said it to one another — was the shortest: "Dear Dave, please eat pie!"

Please eat pie. This isn't a sentence uttered to folks who have to eat gluten-free, mostly. But when our cookbook comes out next fall, that's what we will be saying to those of you reading.

Please, eat pie. How about some blackberry peach pie?

pizza dough rising

Have some pizza dough, rising by the window, soft and supple, ready to be shaped into whatever you want to make.

the latest gluten-free pizza
And have some pizza, crisp with a hint of chewiness in the middle. A pizza with flavor, that holds its shape, even when you put a creamy sheep's milk cheese, roasted tomatoes, and a farm fresh egg in the middle. Even when you put the pizza under the broiler at the last moment, to get a bit of char on the edge.

more gluten-free bread

Please, have some bread. Some crusty bread with olive oil and sea salt on the top. A bread that bends and doesn't dry up overnight. A bread made with whole grains, and so tastes healthy, but doesn't taste healthy, you know? Instead, it just tastes like bread.

homemade gluten-free pasta ready to be cooked

Have some fettucine noodles, piled on a plate, ready to be cooked. Five minutes before, I started mixing the flours. Five minutes after taking this photograph, I had the pasta in boiling water. Two minutes later, it was a perfect al dente.

gluten-free fettucine for lunch

Have pasta for lunch. Make up your mind in the moment that you want some. Sauté up some peppers, tomatoes, shallots and yellow squash. Mix in some homemade pesto and stir it up. Eat while laughing with your love.

Have some pasta.

flatbread crackers, first batch

Feeling peckish? How about some crackers? Homemade crackers that might go well with curried red lentil puree.

apple rosemary bread, still warm

Have some apple bread for breakfast. Warm from the oven, with the smell of Gravensteins, and a faint caramel taste on the crust, because it's finally baked correctly, without that line of dense moisture in the middle. It just tastes good.

pie in the morning I

I wish that I could share these with you now.

Sadly, I'll have to wait a year, when our book comes out. And that gives us time to tweak and bake again and have our friends make them too, to make sure they are foolproof for you.

We have been happily enmeshed in the final edits for our book these past two weeks, and will be for another few weeks beyond that. I might not be posting as much as I would like. And I cannot promise many new recipes, since we are so busy baking the ones for the book.

But I'd like to share with you, in pithy messages, as much as I can.

Please eat pie.