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29 September 2005

that rich red thread of connection

spicy tuna, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Sometimes a girl just needs her sushi.

Or, in my case, her sashimi.

I vividly remember the first time I ate sushi. 1984, my junior year of high school, late in the year, in Claremont, California. One of my best friends that year was a bubbly girl who laughed behind her hands, an exchange student from Japan named Haruko. We met in the first days of school, because I was the head of AFS, the foreign-exchange group at my high school. Why? Well, I had spent the previous year in London, and I had just started learning how wide the world really is by living away from my home. And I had been lonely there, terribly lonely. So when I returned to good old CHS, I thought I could make life easier for other kids who came to our school. This explains why I ended up at that year’s Sadie Hawkins dance, complete with jeans shorts and cowboy hat, with the shy, gangly boy from Brazil, the one who was clearly gay. And on top of that, I was an inveterate over-achiever, over-reacher, deciding to join everything and help everyone after a lonely year in London. This explains why I was on the Academic Decathalon team, the College Bowl team, the school newspaper, the softball team, student government, and the German club. (I still can’t believe that one. What a geek.) Oh, and I also started the campus’ Beatles Club. Don’t laugh--we had 85 members in our yearbook photo. Thank goodness I had a sense of humor about it all, or else I would have collapsed. I had too many projects planned at one time. (Hm, this is starting to sound familiar...)

But Haruko quickly became more than a project. We connected, in the giggly, intense way that two smart, slightly odd teenage girls can. She felt out of place in America, and I felt out of place in Southern California. She and I, along with our clutch of close friends, danced to Beatles songs in my bedroom, talked about boys, and acted manic. And I became her English translator, fairly quickly. Every day, she came running up to me in the 400 quad to ask a question. “Shauna, what does ‘run down’ mean? Shauna, what does ‘beat’ mean? Shauna, what does ‘free as a bird mean’?” One lunch, I sat in the overheated, vibrating-with-the-hormones-of-500-teenagers energy of the lunchroom, eating my yogurt and snow cone. Haruko ran through the double doors at the top of the stairs, ran down them frantically looking for me, spotted me, then shouted loudly: “Shauna, what does fuck mean?” All heads turned toward me, and I turned the red of the flimsy Yoplait lid.

But I forgave her.

By the end of the school year, she missed her country’s food terribly. Sushi really hadn’t made an entrance into daily American life yet. We take it for granted now, and pick up flubby sushi at the grocery store. But in the early 80s, sushi started to become more widely known. Oh, I had seen sporadic scenes in films, where the American couple awkwardly sits on the floor in socked feet, staring as the Japanese woman dressed as a geisha slides open the bamboo-paper door to place raw fish on the table between them. But that seemed more foreign to me than Kurosawa films. My family never delved into food from foreign lands. Even when we lived in London, we’d drive down to Harrods to buy Lucky Charms and dill pickle chips from the food court, for exorbinant prices. (I know. I’m so embarrassed. But I remember missing pickles so much that I couldn’t wait through the long car ride home to Streatham. Neither could the rest of us. So we parked the car in front of Charles Dickens’ boyhood home and dipped our fingers into the briny liquid, again and again. We emptied the entire jar, the light-green liquid dripping from our fingers, then drove away without once visiting the home.) Never once did we visit Chinatown in Los Angeles for Asian food. I know it must have been there, but it might as well have not existed.

So the first time I ate sushi was in a strip mall place in Pomona. Haruko wanted to share the food of her culture with me, my parents, and my little brother, who had been her proxy family in the US. Sharon came too, which was the source of some tension. Haruko grew threatened that Sharon and I had been growing progressively, indelibly, no-going-back closer, quickly falling into best-friend-love state, with no signs of slowing. (Ah, dear Sharon, who is my all-these-years, continuous friend, still a dear-daily phone call, twenty-one years later. And these days, she’s jealous that she can’t be here, eating these meals I prepare every night, for other people. I’d give anything to have her here.) And with Haruko a week or two from leaving, I tried to focus my attention on her, but I couldn’t help laughing with Sharon, convulsively, about wordplay I never had to translate.

So it was an odd evening. But now, I can only laugh at it, because I’m no longer 17. (Thank goodness.) And we had just returned from the Montclair Plaza, where we had seen—wait for it—Give My Regards to Broad Street, Paul McCartney’s directorial debut. At the time, we were so swoony and determined to like it, that we all agreed, in high, strained voices, that it had been great. But really, it was just very, very awful. (Paul, if by some weird chance, you ever read this, please forgive me. I loved you fiercely enough to overcome that dreck and dross.) So we walked in this little strip-mall restaurant, lit with paper lanterns, and settled into a high-backed booth, laughing and recounting the movie.

The sushi and other Japanese food was gathered along a buffet line, under bright lights. My mother took one look at it and announced she would never eat raw fish. She glared at me when I said I would, because she was convinced we would all die of food poisoning. Instead, she ate chicken teriyaki, well cooked and coated in gloopy sauce. Haruko urged me to try a variety, along with seaweed slices. I ate the papery, dark green seaweed first, my teeth shattering it on first bite. It tasted more salty than the pickles in London, with a thread of darker taste, something from the sea, something my body viscerally didn’t want to eat. My mind flashed on all the times I had swum in the sea at Laguna Beach, and I had squealed when the green ropes of seaweed wrapped around my legs. The seaweed appetizer tasted of that: the sea, the squeal, the seals I imagined swimming around me. I wanted to stop, but Haruko waited for my approval, so I smiled through the last bite, green shards falling from my lips.

Next, I took a bite of the octopus piece Haruko had picked out for me. It took all my tensile teeth strength to bite through it, because it bounced back as rubbery as those flat pink erasers we used in math classes. To me, it had no taste, just texture, and I didn’t really like it. So far, this sushi experience loomed as a terrible disappointment. What was I going to tell my friend?

fatty tuna sashimi

But then there was tuna, silky smooth and meaty, light as air and ravenous making. It was like nothing I had ever tasted, and I wanted more and more. We ate salmon, which had been partially cooked, drizzled with a spicy brown sauce, and I could have eaten forty pieces. Suddenly, with my mouth and my zeal, I could see the appeal of this, why an entire nation ate sushi every day. I paused for rice with squares of cooked eggs, but i went back for more sushi, Haruko dancing with happiness at my side.

I haven’t stopped since.

I’ve eaten thousands of pieces of sushi by now, in London and New York and Los Angeles and Seattle. I’ve eaten sushi I’ve grabbed fast from Uwajimaya, the crowded cathedral of Asian foods in Seattle, ripping off the plastic lid to reach my ungagi. And I’ve eaten sushi of such a fine grade, at Shiro’s, on 2nd Avenue in Seattle (by rumor, where Ichiro eats his sushi) that it slid down my throat with such ease it might as well have been breath. But mostly, now, I remember a dozen hundred meals of sushi with Sherry, at a little place on 77th and Broadway, where they brought us hot towels before we ate our meals, and we gorged on gorgeous sushi while we talked about boys and laughed with our hands flying through the air. Dear, dear Sherry, who is now in New Hope, Pennsylvania, awaiting the birth of her second child, perhaps reading this as she waits out the days, and knowing that still wish we could be sitting eating sushi together. On my last night with her in New York, we sat at a table on the sidewalk outside our other favorite sushi place, on Amsterdam, eating tender eel and spicy tuna, and split a small bottle of perfect chilled sake, toasting the journey we were both undertaking. I still have the bottle. It’s sitting on the windowsill of my office at school, filled with dried flowers I bought on my first trip to Pike Place Market, the day I got back to Seattle.

Ototo sushi

A couple of days ago, tired from a long week, and wanting a break, I drove over to Ototo, my favorite sushi place on the top of the hill. Much fancier, and the food much better, than that strip-mall sushi place I visited first, it has those high-backed booths that remind me of that visit. I ordered pieces of sashimi (sometimes I don’t want the rice clouding the taste of the fish): fatty tuna, spicy tuna, salmon. And others. No unagi, because almost every sushi place has it pre-made, with that syrupy brown drizzle that contains soy sauce. So I have to say goodbye to it. Never mind--there’s much, much more to explore.

I returned home, happy, stopping only to take pictures. And then that melting, satifying taste on my tongue. Taking sashimi home means I can smear wasabi with my fingers, if I want. And I could eat a crate of pickled ginger, if given the chance. It was gone in mere minutes.


And somehow, it was all in every bite: the lonely life in London; the AFS club; giggling with Haruko in our sleeping bags; laughing with Sharon in breathless bursts; my mother turning her nose up at sushi but still driving us there; my little brother, now a father, but still sometimes a young teenage boy in my mind; summer skies above Manhattan; being on both coasts at once; falling in love with my friends; and every piece of sushi I have ever eaten, all piled on top of each other on my tongue.

Food is the thread that connects together all the parts of my life.

28 September 2005

the best crumble you will ever eat

plum crumble, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Last night, I made the most exquisite crumble I have ever eaten. I’m not kidding. The first taste I took made me moan and nearly fall to my knees in the kitchen.

I’m not going to say much about this one. I’ll let the pictures do the talking, and the recipe should lead you to making it immediately.

ginger candy

I found it in last week’s New York Times, in an article called “Plums and Pumpkins: Autumn’s Lush Bounty Arrives.” The writer, Marian Burros, led me down the plum crumble path with this writing:

“In fact, it was as good as—no, better than—a plum torte recipe I created that was published in The New York Times nine times between 1984 and 1985, until the day an editor said: ‘Enough! We’ll print it extra large and tell your readers to laminate it and stick it on the refrigerator.’
The plum crumble, made with the little dark plums called Italian, prune, or purple, uses most of the same ingredients as the torte, but doesn’t require a mixer—a fork and fingers will do—and contains bits of crystallized ginger and ground ginger. It has a cruty top with a bit of soft cake underneath, enrobing the plums.”

Since her description of the plum crumble is so wonderfully evocative of the actual taste, I’m not going to add to it. I can’t. I just want to run back to the kitchen and taste it again.

Today, I took a significant chunk of the crumble to school with me, to share it with people there. And to keep it away from me. I’m not kidding—I had to work hard last night to not just stand at the stove and spoon the entire crumble into my mouth. It’s that damn good. So I took it to school and spooned it into the mouths of my colleagues instead. One of them, my dear friend who is a vegan, approved of it, even though it’s full of butter. Everyone made that little moan. Most of them asked for another bite. But it was gone fairly quickly. And one of my students, the boy who loves to cook, took one bite and said, “I can’t tell the difference between this gluten-free flour and regular flour.” Bingo.

Suddenly, I’m thrilled that it’s autumn. I couldn’t have made this crumble in July. But I’m going to make it again this weekend.

And I suggest you do the same.

plum crumble (close-up)


2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2 tablspoon plus 1 cup gluten-free flour
1/2 plus 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
2 heaping tablespoons of finely chopped candied ginger
12 Italian plums
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 well-beaten egg
1/2 cup unsalted butter

°Heat oven to 375° degrees, with rack in center.
° Thoroughly mix brown sugar, 1 1/2 tablespoons flour, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, ground ginger, and candied ginger. Add to plums an dmix well. Arrange, skin side up, in ungreased, deep 9-inch pie plate.
°Combine remaining sugar, baking powder, flour, cinnamon, and salt. Mix well. Stir in egg. Then, using hands, mix thoroughly to produce little particles. Sprinkle over plums.
°Drizzle butter evenly over crumb mixture and bake for 30 to 35 minutes. The crumble is done when the top is browned and plums yield easily when pricked. Remove from oven and cool.
°Serve warm or refrigerate for up to two days or freeze well covered.

26 September 2005

but then again, there's always meat

apricot sausage, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Sometimes at lunch these days, my colleagues ask me, “What did you do last evening?” These are the ones who don’t know me well, the ones who just happen to sit next to me in our large, happy lunchroom because there is an open seat, the ones who haven’t really talked with me since the beginning of the school year. My friends, the ones who teach Spanish and French, Humanities and Calculus, cut right to the point: “What did you cook last night?”

We’re all starting to drag a bit. It’s clear that school being back in session is no longer a dream, a sweet little experiment. We’re in for the long, long year, and summer vacation feels evanescent now, almost made up. In conferences today, students answered questions with desultory answers, until I urged them to wake up and tell me what they were thinking. By the end of today’s faculty meeting, at 5 pm, every staff member desperately wished for a little vacation. But none is to be had. No break until Halloween. We’re in for it now. And everyone looks tired.

But not me. I’m feeling healthy and full of energy. Yoga helps. Full nights of sleep help. But mostly, I’m driven forward by the happy urge to return home and start cooking. Cooking, for me, is deeply creative. When I walk into the kitchen, I can’t drop my bags fast enough before I start chopping. Music on, school clothes off, the bus ride a good transition between work and home—I’m making food. Lately, I’ve been realizing more deeply that I love cooking and taking photographs and eating and writing about food because it makes me feel awake. It’s hard to truly let my mind wander when I’m chopping carrots or squeezing limes or pureeing fruit in the food processor. These simple physical acts keep me grounded, deeply. Far below that conscious mind, before any neuroses or habits of worry, there is smell. Did you know that our sense of smell is located in the limbic system, the one developed generations before the cerebral cortex? Smell cuts right through our intellectual surface and pokes at our primitive mind. And when I’m cooking, I’m smelling, suffused with memories that feel fully a part of me, not a hidden surprise. All of me is involved in the process. And I remember those moments far more vividly the next day, or next week, than I ever will the droning of a faculty meeting.

“We remember the moments we were alive to, even the painful ones.”
--Vincent Passaro

Cooking, for me, like writing, is a constant process of discovery. I had no idea, when I sat down at the computer, that I was going to write about this. I thought I was going to write about sausages. But it all comes spilling out. The same way I’ve been making up recipes.

Last night, I concocted a recipe I’ll gladly repeat, based on one by MC for barbequed salmon and sausages, as posted by The Pragmatic Chef, for Food Fight Four. (You have to love the name.) The idea was that we would all send in our own creations—mine was the grilled cheese sandwich with amaranth leaves and blackberry sauce from August—then receive someone else’s, and either re-create it or re-invent it. Since I’ve already been trying to teach my new students that the process of revision is to look at something new (re-vision), instead of just changing the bad punctuation errors, I thought I’d start fresh.

Also, I have no barbeque. As much as I love my spacious, second-floor apartment (the top of a house, actually, with windows in every room), I’m starting to mourn the fact I don’t have a little plot of land for a garden or a deck for a grill. Then again, it’s autumn now, and everyone is putting away the barbeque. And besides that, Scott asked everyone to interpret the recipes, so away I went.

The basic ingredients of the recipe were salmon, marined with lemons and lime juice. I bought a half-pound of Washington state troll-caught king salmon. (I know that all my Alaskan friends would disapprove of my fish’s home state, and normally I only eat Alaskan, but my fish guy at the Wild Salmon Seafood Market recommended it to me on Sunday.) Plus creole seasoning. MC seemed to specify a certain brand, but I didn’t own that one. And I still had some of my own mix left over from the New Orleans red beans and rice I made a few weeks ago. So I doused the salmon in lime juice (temporarily out of lemons), and shook the pungent creole seasoning on top. And then I set it aside to marinate for hours. Toward the end of Sunday night, I sauteed it on high heat and resisted the urge to gobble the entire fillet down in that moment. I may have nibbled some of the rosy pink bits on the ends of my fingers, but that’s it. And then I put it in the refrigerator.

salmon with creole seasoning

A & J Meats, here on the top of Queen Anne, makes these indescribably-good-but-I’m-still-going-to-try-because-they-deserve-it apricot sausages. Apricot? Yes, and blueberry. During the holidays, apparently, there are cranberry sausages. I don’t eat them often, because I shouldn’t make a regular habit of eating sausages, but when I do have some, I’m thrilled. And temporarily speechless. They’re filled with rich sausage taste, but not too fatty, with a mild sweetness. I wish I could eat them every day. So even though the woman behind the counter raised her eyebrows when I said I was going to combine them with salmon, I still bought them anyway.

So I made up a frittata, based on a basic recipe. I bought an ear of corn, but somehow I forgot to make it. After all, the kitchen was a bit of a mess and I was just home from school. Writing’s like that too. I think I’m going to address something specific, and then I find, in the act, that my original, stubborn point just wasn’t that important. So there was no corn, but I threw in fistfuls of basil, another summer staple.

While it was cooking, my friend Dorothy came over for a cup of tea. We hadn’t seen each other in weeks, since she had been in San Francisco for a massive computer conference. (And of course, the first thing I asked her was, “So, how was the food?”) But we never did have that tea. Instead, we talked about food and cooking and favorite recipes and Cooking Light vs. Saveur. And since I couldn’t find a canteloupe this late into September, I spontaneously decided on a watermelon sorbet for this meal. And since Dorothy has made many more sorbets than I have, I asked her for advice: “So, can I just put in sugar? Or do I need to do something different?” She immediately stopped me, warning that just putting in sugar would make sorbet gritty. And no one wants gritty sorbet. So I grabbed the only clean saucepan in the kitchen and mixed half a cup of water and half a cup of sugar. Once it boiled, I threw it in the freezer to cool down.

Frittata’s done!

salmon sausage frittata

It looked golden gorgeous, filled with chunks of salmon and lovely shreds of sausage. The basil had all risen to the top of the frittata, leaving flecks of green. We ate it, hot from the oven, along with a bowl of the heated-up tomato-fennel soup, much, much better the second day. Even more beautiful than when I wrote the post last night.

After eating, and savoring, we threw the chopped-up watermelon, lime juice, and the sugar syrup into the food processor, then poured the chunky mixture into the ice cream maker. I learned this trick from Nic: run the mixture in the maker for only fifteen minutes, then freeze it completely in the freezer. This makes the sorbet taste fully of the fruit, just short of bliss. But Dorothy and I had to eat some before it went in the freezer, so it was more like a granita. We munched on the pink icy treat in martini glasses and giggled.

watermelon sorbet

So that was my version of MC’s summer salmon recipe. Salmon/sausage frittata and watermelon sorbet. I’d happily make it again. And I’m happy to participate in Scott’s competition. He’s a wonderful guy, that Pragmatic Chef. Early this summer, I wrote to him, responding to a post he did about celiac disease. And since then, we’ve been writing, about gluten-free foods and the joys/frustrations of having celiac. Because of this connection, Scott sent out his marvelous Survival Spice out to be tested, and I’m happy to report that it’s certified gluten-free! And therefore, you should all buy some. Now. Seriously.

It was, spontaneously, a wonderful evening with Dorothy. I love how life unravels in ways you don’t expect. Whether it’s cooking a new recipe from a skeptical set of ingredients and loving it, or meeting someone online who works to make his product gluten-free because of me, or writing something and feeling the sense of completion down in my toes when I thought I was just going to write something short this time—life always amazes me.


1/2 pound salmon fillet
2 limes
2 tablespoons of creole seasoning
3 apricot sausages (or closest equivalent)

6 eggs
1/2 cup grated pecorino romano
1/2 cup grated pargigiana-reggiano
splash of light whipping cream
dash of salt
fistful of shredded basil

° Sautee a half-pound fillet of wild-caught salmon, after marinating it in fresh lime juice and creole seasoning, in excellent olive oil, and a touch of salt. Sautee on high heat for three minutes on each side. Refrigerate for use the next day.
°Cook three sausages in an inch of water in a small pan in a 400° oven, for about thirty minutes. Drain from the water and sautee the sausages. Set aside for use later.
* Line a pie pan with parchment paper. Lay down your favorite fresh herbs (I used fresh thyme). This will be the top of the frittata.
°Mix the eggs, cheeses, cream, salt, and basil in an electric mixer until well mixed.
°Add the sausages and pieces of salmon to the egg mixture and stir gently.
°Pour the mixture into the prepared pie pan. Bake at a 400° oven for 25 minutes or so. Let the frittata sit for five minutes and watch it sag into the finished piece.


1/2 fresh, ripe watermelon (seedless, if possible)
2 limes
1/2 cup of sugar
1/2 cup of water

°Prepare a sugar syrup by heating the sugar and water together until the sugar has dissolved. Cool, in the freezer or refrigerator until cold.
°Chunk up the watermelon into one-inch pieces and place it in the food processor, along the juice of two limes. Turn on the food processor and watch it liquify. As the pieces become liquid, pour in the sugar syrup.
°Pour the chunky liquid into an ice cream maker and turn on for 15 minutes.
°Place the sorbet in the freezer, if the sorbet makes it there!

eating vegan with tomato-fennel soup

I don’t find it hard to eat vegan. I really don’t. I don’t think you would either.

For years, I was a vegetarian. I wrote about that already, so I won’t repeat myself. But for about four months this year, before I was diagnosed with celiac disease, and just after, I became a vegan by necessity. Why?

Well, for seven weeks, I could barely eat anything. I lay on the couch, languishing away, bloated and infused with searing pain. No one knew why. The doctors kept guessing, with the aid of expensive tests, and still no answer. If I ate more than a tablespoon of food at a time, I felt as though my stomach would explode. And there were plenty of more ailments and dramas. If you haven’t been following this blog from the beginning, you can read this if you want to know more. (And since this has become, ostensibly, a joyful food blog now, I won’t go too deeply into the bodily functions. Even though they fascinate me.) When you’re that ill, hunks of meat just don’t appeal. And cheese fell out of favor, because anything with too much fat made me ache with pain. I won’t even talk about the horrid morning of the avocado. So slowly, I winnowed it down to the foods that felt easy. Crackers, olive bread from Macrina Bakery, popsicles, canned chicken noodle soup, and ginger ale. With the exception of the ginger ale, everything I ate, one tablespoon at a time, contained gluten. Ah, that’s why I was so sick.

When I did finally have the answer, and stopped eating gluten, I felt enormously better, almost immediately. But by this time, my small intestines were damaged rather badly. You see, celiac disease means that my body reads gluten as a toxin, and thus, sends out fierce antibodies to attack it when it enters my system. Unfortunately, the antibodies attack the villi, the small hairs in the intestines responsible for absorbing vitamins, minerals, and all the other nutrition. When a swath of villi are flattened, they can no longer absorb what I need from food. And when that happens, the intestine no longer produces the enzyme necessary to digest lactose. And therefore, celiacs become, by proxy, lactose-intolerant. In fact, from what I understand, some people come to realize they have celiac disease because they suddenly can no longer digest cheese or milk.

The most incredible part of healing from celiac disease is that all it takes is great, gluten-free food. I haven’t taken any drugs or had any surgeries. I need never have either. Instead, the body heals itself. After six months to a year of completely avoiding gluten, I will have healthy intestines, as though none of this had ever happened. Years of damage will simply disappear. I will never stop being amazed by this.

It fascinates me, this process. I’m still learning, more and more. And since I once planned to become a doctor, when I was seventeen, it seems fitting that I now spend my days learning about the body and how it works. I’m perpetually in awe of our bodies. And if you would like to learn more about celiac disease and lactose intolerance, I’d suggest you read this.

But for the first couple of months after my diagnosis, I didn’t eat anything meat or dairy. Meat just seemed to hard to digest, and dairy just didn’t go over well. As soon as I learned about celiac-induced lactose-intolerance, I knew I needed to avoid the stuff. Even though I love good cheese more than a girl probably should. But I had been feeling rotten for so long, so long, that I happily avoided both, just happy to be eating again, having an appetite. So, for about two months, I was a gluten-free vegan.

Actually, if you’ve just been diagnosed with celiac, I might even suggest becoming vegan for a month or two. When you can add meat and cheese back in, you’ll be amazed at how many food choices you have.

But you know, even if you’re a vegan, there is so much great food out there. Think of all the foods you already eat that are gorgeous and indispensable to your life, the foods that happen to not contain meat or dairy: warm spinach salads; crisp carrots with a wonderful crunch; the first real apple of the season; broiled tofu with peanut sauce; juicy watermelon on a hot summer’s day. The broad red bowl on my chrome kitchen shelves is perpetually filled with fresh fruit and vegetables. My kitchen table is almost always mounded with herbs, vegetables ready to be chopped, and fruit just begging to be made into crumbles and sorbets. Fresh produce is the heart of my diet.

And I really do love tofu.

So when I read that Sam of Becks & Posh was hosting a vegan-themed blog competition, I knew I had to throw my hat into the fray. And I knew what I needed to make: soup.

chopped carrots

The air is cooler each day around here. And each evening, the sun seems to sink behind the Olympic mountains at least ten minutes earlier. Fall is no longer approaching. It’s here. And yesterday, in planning and preparing food for the week, I knew it was time for my first serious soup of the summer.

I’ve always loved the Fields of Greens cookbook. When I lived on Vashon Island, ten years ago, I lived from this book. And I have always dreamed of eating at Greens, the gourmet vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco (and Chez Panisse), mostly because every recipe I tried blew my mind. And the quote on the back of the book says it all: “It is a major culinary landmark, elevating vegetables and grains to a new art form.”

My first major foray into cooking was inspired by the Greens cookbook. At twenty-six years old, I had just begun making food seriously. And one Saturday afternoon, I spent nearly all day making mushroom stock from scratch, and then building that soup from the bottom of the pot. Hours later, I took my first sip and nearly fell on the floor. It tasted so damned good, a thousand layers of taste. I dined on it for days.

So last night, too late for common sense, I started making this tomato-fennel soup. I chopped onions happily, cut up the carrots, opened a can of roasted tomatoes, and smiled at the smell of the fennel slowly simmering with the garlic in the pot. Days earlier, I had made a spontaneous roasted vegetable stock, based on a suggestion that kitchenMage had left me in the comments section. I threw in everything I had left, haphazardly, including shitake mushrooms and eggplants. Unusual, I know, but the final stock was as dark as rich mushroom stock, and it tasted like the best of roasted vegetables. So in it went. And after it had all burbled, happily, for nearly an hour, I took it off the burner and took my first sip. Once again, I nearly fell on the floor. Smoky and slithering, slightly sweet from the anise, crunchy from the carrots—this soup makes autumn worth it.

And there’s not a hint of anything in it that would make a vegan mad.

tomato-fennel soup

TOMATO-FENNEL SOUP, from Fields of Greens cookbook, p. 86

1 quart of vegetable stock (see below), with 2 cups of canned tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon of fennel seed and 1/2 teaspoon of anise seed added
1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 teaspoon of anise seed, ground
1 teaspoon of fennel seed, ground
4 garlic cloves, chopped finely
2 medium-sized carrots, diced, about one cup
2 medium-sized fennel bulbs, quartered lengthwise, cored, and thinly sliced
1/2 cup of dry sherry
2 pounds of fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and pureed

°Make the stock and keep it warm over low heat.
° Heat the olive oil in a soup pot and add the onions, 3/4 teaspoon salt, the anise, and the ground fennel. Saute over medium heat until the onions are soft, then add the garlic, carrots, and sliced fennel.
°Cover the pan and cook the vegetables until very tender, about 5 minutes.
°Remove the lid, add the sherry, and cook for 1 or 2 minutes, until the pan is nearly dry.
°Add the tomato puree, one quart of stock, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Cover and cook over low heat for 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add a few pinches of sugar if the soup tastes acidic.

For vegetable stock, try this suggestion from our own dear kitchenmage:

"I've taken to making small batches whenever I have things lying around that could stand to be used quickly, resulting in lots of different vegetable stocks to go with the critter-based ones. The routine is almost mindlessly simple: Look around kitchen and gather up all the vegetables that will be getting marginal within the next day or two. Clean and roughly chop, sprinkle with salt, toss in oven at 325 for until it smells like there's something in the oven (30-90 min depending). Transfer to stockpot, cover with water, add herbs, simmer for a while. When it tastes like something you'd want to eat, remove vegetables and cool.

Here's my personal favorite trick: once you have stock, reduce it to about 1/4 the original volume before freezing. If you freeze this in ice cube trays, it's like instant semi-demiglace for sauces. Just pop in a cube or two to add depth to sauces."

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24 September 2005

eating roast chicken with my favorite family

roast chicken, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

A Friday night, and I felt just fine.

The first full week of school fatigued me, but not so utterly as usual. In years before, I reached late Friday afternoon with a pounding headache and no desire to do anything, other than go home and flop on the couch. But those were the days before the celiac diagnosis. Now, an elated energy, a surge of enthusiasm, and an even, peaceful feeling all day—these are the rhythms of my life now. And this year, I have vowed to not bring home a single piece of grading, but stay at school instead, working in my corner office, the light falling through my window. So far, so good. I haven't left later than 4 any day. And when I do walk up the steps to my lovely upstairs apartment, I feel relieved. My second life begins.

Usually, I begin cooking, right away. After all, late-afternoon light can be particularly heartbreaking in the autumn, and I don't want to take photos in the dark. So I wash my hands, put on some bouncy music, check my email, and start chopping and checking recipes. Within a few moments, school feels remarkably far away.

And there were a hundred connections, laughter, and a connected walk around the neighborhood with my senior writers, in silence, for half an hour. I do love teaching.

So I left school on Friday afternoon with a song in my heart, kicking at the golden leaves on the sidewalk like I was in a movie montage moment.
Happy at last, the images show. And besides, I knew I was headed to Francoise's house for dinner.

autumn leaves

I've already written about my adoration of Francoise and her dear family here
. I don't want to babble too much about how happy and grounded they are; how capacious in kindness their house feels, even if the physical layout isn't big; how I love Francoise's joyful French gesticulation and Adrian's calm demeanor to balance each other; or how utterly in love I am with their stupendous children, smart and enaged without a whit of arrogance. They are, besides my own dear family, my favorite family in the world.

And besides, Francoise was making roast chicken.

When I walked in the house, there were cries of "Shauna!" The girls ran to hug me, and I danced on the hardwood floor to embrace the two adults. Late-afternoon sunlight beamed through the windows, landing on all the countertops, so I knew I had to take photographs, immediately. With them, I feel comfortable, so I laughed with them as I bent close to the cheese platter (handmade in France, with a little slot to fit the knives) and take photos of it in the the liquid light. But when I showed them this photo, they stopped laughing.

cheese platter

Francoise always has the best cheeses in the house. (Bien sur.) She buys them at Whole Foods and has a little platter available every time I come to the house. That night, she offered a St. Andre (gorgeous), a Roquefort (I couldn't dare it, because it might have been made with bread), a San Nectare, and this gorgeous ewe cheese from the Pyrenees:

French cheese

Thank goodness my temporary lactose intolerance, induced by the celiac, has now drifted away. I couldn't imagine an evening with Francoise et al without little nibbles of delicate, squishy, creamy, so-good-I-start-to-moan cheeses.

Camille in the kitchen

Camille and Selene danced around the kitchen. We all snacked off the fresh guacamole and corn chips on the counter. And Adrian, bless his heart, made a cornbread, with cornmeal and gluten-free flour. When he told me they had bought GF flour and tried this recipe, just for me, I wanted to cry with gratitude. Those of us with food allergies and intolerances know what it is like to have people disregard you, make fun of you, and insist on feeding you the offending food, "just in case you're no longer allergic." To have someone ask about the biological reasons why I had to be lactose intolerant for awhile, and care enough to make sure that I had great food that wouldn't make me sick? It made me want to kick up those golden leaves again.

fennel with olive oil and lemon

And then there was this fennel, which was simply dressed in olive oil, organic lemon juice, salt, and pepper. It took me a few minutes to see it (the cheese seemed to seep into all our minds), but when we did spot it, the plate was full for only a brief time. The girls and I dipped our fingers into the plate, over and over, until Francoise had to tell us to stop. We had to leave some for the table. But they were more addictive than French fries. I'm not kidding.

I love how Francoise switches back and forth between French and English, the French becoming more frequent and faster as the evening proceeds. The girls understand her, Adrian understands her, and even I'm starting to understand her. It feels fluid, being with them.

Francoise and the pressure cooker

One more check on the "haricots verts" in the pressure cooker (I'm coveting that one), and then it was time for dinner. We sat down, with orange juice and enormous smiles. Succulent slices of roast chicken. Golden-orange drippings, infused with paprika and the chicken cooking. Simple lemon fennel. Crisp green beans with sea salt.

And after dinner, the girls practiced pratfalls on the hard wooden floors, their socks sliding, their faces never hiding their bounding energy. Francoise and I recounted favorite pratfalls from our lives and laughed so hard we cried. Adrian did the dishes in the kitchen and listened with a benevolent smile. And later, as we talked about the uselessness of gyms, the pitfalls of cable tv, and our definitions of success, we sipped on tea made from sage and Moroccan peppermint, which Camille had grown in her portion of the garden. With a dollop of chestnut honey.

It doesn't take much, really. This was the first night in two months that I hadn't cooked at all, and it was lovely (and strange) to take a break. The food was certainly not fancy. We were all pleasantly tired on a Friday night. But the tastes were sensational, and the company even better.

That's all I need: great food, much laughter. and being with people I love.


"This is basic French cooking," she told me, with a wave of the hand as though, of course. "It's perfect for guests. In fact, you would have this for Sunday lunch, and have guests over." I'd be at that Sunday lunch every week if I could.

1 whole chicken, anywhere from 3 to 5 pounds
1 white onion, sliced
12 or more garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
bouquet garni of rosemary, thyme, and sage, tied with twine
olive oil
sea salt

°Remove the fat from the chicken, but leave the skin.
°Place the whole chicken in your favorite roasting pan.
° Scatter the sliced onion and as many garlic cloves as you can take around the chicken.
°Lay the bouquet garni around the chicken (later, you'll tuck it inside the chicken)
°Smear the top of the chicken with olive oil.
°Sprinkle paprika over the top of the chicken, liberally. Come on, pour a bit more.
°Scatter sea salt around the chicken, but NOT on it.
°Place the chicken in a pre-heated, 400* oven. Cook for twenty to thirty minutes, until the onions begin to carmelize.
°At this point, pour a glass of water around the chicken, then baste the chicken with this water.
°Lower the temperature to 350*. Cook the chicken at least another hour.
°In the last half hour of cooking, rub sea salt into the chicken (this will salt the chicken without drying it out).
°Move the bouquet garni to the inside of the chicken.
°You'll know when it's done. The chicken will fall apart a bit. (Technically, it's when you poke a fork into the leg and the juices run clear.)
Put the juices and softened onions in a bowl and set it beside the chicken, for drizzling. Carve the chicken and eat it immediately.

22 September 2005

quinoa salmon salad in the fading evening light

quinoa salmon salad, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I took a big bowl of quinoa salad out onto my porch this evening, set it down on the stone steps, then hunched over it to take a photo. I know that I must have looked a sight to the cars driving by, but I didn't care. I'll do anything for a good photograph of food.

All my life, I've loved to write. Since I was two years old, I've been jotting down stories, words I like, and phrases that stay in my head. In my family, there's a running joke about how, no matter what my future career plan as a child, I always said, "And I'll write about it." (Especially when I was going to be the first woman in the major leagues.) I'm working on a novel, and I've written essays for years. I've had blogs for the past two years, and I've loved the semi-daily writing, the semi-frequent feedback, and the chance to tell my stories. So I'm not surprised that I avidly look forward to the chance to sit down and write here every day.

But you couldn't have told me how much I love taking photographs.

Oh, now that I think about it, I should have seen it coming. Photographs of family, friends, and places I have been adorn nearly every wall of my home, and my office at school. Friends have always told me, "You have a good eye." And I've always soaked up photographs of other people with a fervent curiosity others rarely share. I swear, I could look at vacation photos of strangers. I love the way photographs reveal our lives, especially the unplanned ones. I know more names of groundbreaking photographers than the average person. And most importantly, taking photographs mimics the way I write: close observation, an ephemeral moment in time, and something unexpected in that space. The mundane made beautiful.

Digitial photography, of course, has made my life infinitely richer. Because now, I take photographs. In the days of only film, I just couldn't afford to take shots of interesting textures or splotches of red. And half of them came back out of focus when I did splurge on film. A disappointment. But now, I can simply draw my tiny Nikon from my bag and surreptiously snap something that catches my eye. I do it all day long now. I feel more alive for it.

But even in the midst of this, I didn't know how much I would love taking photographs of food. Like this photograph of smoked salmon, which I took just before I cut it up for the quinoa salad:

DSCN3247smoked salmon

I don't consider myself anything more than an enthusiastic amateur, but that's how I feel about my cooking too. I don't need to be perfect. I don't even need to be great. I just think, with a rampant glee inside my increasingly wide mind: I have so much left to learn!

And in the end, that's one of the main reasons I'm alive.

But the light is dwindling these days. It feels as though it grows darker at least ten minutes earlier every day. At this point, it's hard to believe those days in June, when the light lingered in the sky until nearly 11 o'clock. Every year, this saddens me. But this year, I'm panicked. If I'm at school until 4, and walk to the bus in the dark, how am I going to take pictures for the blog? This is actually what I think about these days.

In fact, the other day, I was vacuuming the north main hall at school. (We have an Environment program, in which every kid and teacher comes together for fifteen minutes, three times a week, to clean the school in teams. I teach at a funky place, of course.) Meditatively running the vacuum back and forth, I was enjoying the patch of warm sunlight on the worn brown carpet. And then I thought, I know! In January, I'll bring in containers of food with me to school, and then I can take pictures of it in my office during breaks! I broke into laughter at myself—I've clearly become obsessed. The assistant head of school walked by me at that moment, and he complimented me on my vacuuming. I think he wondered if I was enjoying myself too much.

But that's what this blog has done to me. I think about food. Talk about food. Read recipes on the bus. Imagine dinner. Compare notes on great places to buy spices with friends. Peruse other food blogs. Spend hours every evening chopping happily in the kitchen. And mostly, I think about how to photograph that quinoa salmon salad, so it still looks good at 6 pm, even though the light is fading fast.

Quinoa Salad with Smoked Salmon and Capers, from Stephan Pyles’ Southwestern Vegetarian

1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 tablespoon of unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup of quinoa
2 teaspoons of salt
2 1/2 cups of vegetable or chicken stock
6 ounces of sliced smoked salmon
1/2 cup capers, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons of prepared horseradish
2 tablespoons of sliced fresh chives

In a saucepan, over medium-high heat, heat the oil and butter until the butter melts and begins to foam. Add the garlic and quinoa to the pan and toast until the quinoa begins to pop, about two to three minutes. Add the salt and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pan, and cook for fifteen minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat, pour the mixture evenly onto a cookie sheet, and refrigerate for up to one day.

Once the quinoa has cooled, add the salmon, capers, horseradish, and chives, and toss to combine well. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

21 September 2005

thank goodness coffee is gluten-free!

Caffe Fiore, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I live in Seattle, the fair city of evergreen trees, looming mountains, and tremendous food. But when I tell people from other places that I live in Seattle, they always ask me two things: “Doesn’t it rain a lot there?” and “So, do you drink a lot of coffee?”

No, not so much. New York City actually has more inches of rain per year than Seattle. And when was the last time you actually listened to the gentle pattering of rain on the roof? And when was the last time you actually splashed in puddles with utter abandon, like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain? There’s nothing like it. If I lived in a place where the rain was merely sporadic, I’d feel bereft. So it rains, but not as much as the bad press likes to claim.

And coffee? Why yes. Yes I do.

Early in the morning, when I stumble into the kitchen at 6:02 am, the blat of the alarm clock still ringing in my ears, I’m only thinking of one action: flipping the switch of the coffeepot, which I have already filled with water and put in the filter mounded with rich, dark coffee grounds the night before. And when I hear the burbling, the gasp of air, the hiss and sigh, and then I smell that dark, biting euphony—it’s only then that I know I’m going to be able to make it out the door on time. Because before that, I’m in doubt.

Thank goodness for coffee.

I still haven’t become a wine snob--too complicated, too snooty, and too expensive for my taste. But a coffee snob? Definitely. I insist on clean, dark tastes, not a hint of bitterness. Full-bodied, with a resonance that lasts all morning. I don’t like coffee to unnerve me. I don’t want to slurp up an acrid syrup at the bottom of the cup. And I want it to be so strong that I could stand a spoon in it, but so gentle that I could drink more and more of it. No milk--just black. That’s when you know that a coffee really works, when you can drink it black. And on top of that, I want it to be organic and sold under fair trade agreements. I drink enough of it that I want it to be right.

Fortunately, in Seattle, I have my choice. Last year, I was walking to school in the morning, and for some reason, I started counting all the places I passed where I could buy a cup of coffee. It’s a three-mile walk, from the top of Queen Anne hill to the bottom, through downtown and up to Capitol Hill. These are some of the most vital parts of Seattle, where people think of when they talk about Seattle. Can you guess how many of them there were? 62. In three miles, I passed 62 places where I could have bought a cup of coffee. And that didn’t count restaurants. Eight of them were within six blocks of me. I never lack for coffee.

Starbucks isn’t my choice, even though that’s what most people picture when they think of Seattle coffee. But it’s not for me. And it’s not because they’re a giant corporation, taking over the world. When I lived in New York, where coffee was certifiably putrid, I was almost happy to see a Starbucks on nearly every corner. And my dear friend Dorothy, who works at the corporate headquarters, has been teaching me about how much Starbucks gives back to the community. And I appreciate that. No, for me, it comes down to taste. (Doesn’t it always?) To my palate, Starbucks coffee tastes burnt on the tongue. Drip coffee there is acrid and bitter. No thanks.

I buy local, instead.

With all these choices, how do I choose? Well, I have my favorites. Arosa, on Madison, wins my money when I’m teaching, because the friendly Swiss man named Hans who owns the place flashes you a genuine smile when you come in th etiny shop. And he makes his mochas with real Swiss chocolate. I buy organic coffee from PCC and Trader Joe’s. And I love El Diablo coffee shop, on Queen Anne, a Cuban-style shop with cafe con leches, fruity batidos, and caricatures of elongated red devils on the walls. You can find me there often.

But now, if you’re looking for me in a coffee shop, there’s only one place you’ll find me.

organic coffee house

Oh joy! (
she says as she claps her hands There’s an organic coffee house in my neighborhood now. And it happens to be my favorite micro-roast coffee in Seattle: Caffe Fiore.

I stumbled by it on Saturday, stopping by Trader Joe’s on Galer. Wide-open windows, reflecting the blue sky, with blond-wood Adirondack chairs out front, just beckoning me inside. I was intrigued by the organic name. What did that mean?

Inside, burnt sienna walls, with enormous black and white photographs. Dark wooden tables, with comfortable chairs. Beautiful hardwood floors, burnished to the color of a peach pit. Tall, hardwood countertops. An enormous menu behind the bar, lit from within, book-ended by amber stained-glass panels. Clean and wide. Inviting. Spacious. I had to walk in.

Now, I know coffee shops well, and I can size them up just by looking. And this one was going to be good. I stood at the counter, waiting to give my order, just taking it in, slyly grinning a little as I watched the employees smile giant enthusiasms. It was only their second day of business—everyone was excited.

Of course, the display case full of baked goods made me feel a little depressed. My body has come to the point of equanimity: I look at traditional scones and cookies and breads with not a hint of desire. On a visceral level, I’m so aware of how horribly ill gluten makes me that I’m not even interested in it. But what I do often feel, in situations like these, is left out of the choice. Since I was on my way to Trader Joe’s (essentially next door to this shop), I knew I wouldn’t suffer hunger pangs for long. But still, it will be a blessed day when every coffee shop offers gluten-free treats to dunk into my latte.

Still, I adore Caffe Fiore, so I knew the coffee would be good. Roasted in Seattle, in small batches, this coffee plays on the tongue and dances down the gullet. I’ve been drinking it for years, stumbling on it when I first returned to Seattle from New York. Drinking my first cup of it was like hearing small voices singing in my ear: “Welcome back!” And it turns out that the parent of one of my students years ago started the comapny, so sometimes I’d walk into my office, suddenly especially awake, to find a pound of coffee sitting on my desk. Also, Hans the Swiss man uses Fiore in his lovely coffee shop, Arosa. So having a Fiore spot near my home was reason enough to feel happy.

Just as I was ordering my coffee, this man with blond hair like Samson and a direct gaze asked me, “And would you like anything to eat?”

“Ah, thanks, but I can’t,” I said, prepared to go into my little dance. “You see, I can’t eat gluten....”

He rushed around to the back of the display case and grabbed a bar I had overlooked. “This is from Flying Apron. Can you eat this one?”

I nearly fell to the floor. Flying Apron is one of my favorite places in the world, here in Seattle. Started by a father and daughter team several years ago, they began baking vegan treats, almost all of them gluten-free. I’ve shown some of their cupcakes here, in photographs and words. And I need to write about them more fully, a separate time. Suffice it to say that any time I find one of their treats outside of their little corner spot on 50th and University, I’m thrilled to bits.

It turns out that the bar the owner offered me had oats in it, so I couldn’t eat it. But their stock was depleted, since they had been serving grateful customers, surprised to find a new coffee shop in their neighborhood, for two full days. What’s better, however, is that Deming (I quickly learned his name) leaned down over the counter and asked me to explain why I couldn’t eat oats. He already knew about gluten-free treats, but he needed to know which ones I could eat. I told him about celiac disease, the vagaries of eating oats, and the apricot thumbprint cookies. And he knows coffee and customers well, since he was the manager of Uptown Espresso, and then the Caffe Lladro stores before striking out on his own. Rarely has anyone in food service listened so attentively to me before.I left with a foamy latte and a big smile.

I went back tonight, exhilarated after a bike ride, just before they closed. (They’re open from 6 am to 7 pm every night.) Deming recognized me right away, came over to shake my hand, and immediately said, “The apricot thumbprint cookies are on order. They should be here on Friday.” Yeah! But I looked over to see that my second-favorite treat, berry tea cakes, were already in place. Of course I had to have one.

berry cookie

Everything in the shop is organic: the coffee; the whipping cream; the chocolate. Numi teas have a delicate taste, not the pounding-down too much of most American teas. Dagoba chocolates are some of my favorites, especially the lime and cherry, and they’re stamped gluten-free on the back. Even the syrups used to flavor the coffee are gluten-free. Apparently, Monin experimented with making batches of organic syrups, but they didn’t sell because of the extra cost. Deming told me that he found out the stash of organic syrups were sittting in a warehouse in Florida, and he bought up the lot. The milk for the coffee drinks is hormone free, but customers have to ask for the organic because it is quite a bit more expensive. But it’s there, in the refrigerator.

This place excites me. Not only because the coffee tastes damned good and they have gluten-free treats. But also because I believe so deeply in organic foods, in authentic tastes, and in people who start small businesses with the idea that they’d like to do something right in the world.

And it’s ten blocks away from me. The first Fiore coffee shop is in Ballard, and Deming told me that people would drive from Queen Anne just to buy the coffee. Luckily now, I don’t have to make that trek. “This neighborhood feels like it knows good food,” Deming told me. Yes we do. And we’re happy to have this place be our neighbor.

coffee and laptop

So I sat down with a happy sigh, watching the west light arcing down Galer. A gluten-free treat, an intricate leaf arced out in thick foam, and the chance to write. What more does a gluten-free girl need?

20 September 2005

sometimes, the ugliest food tastes the best

Jabba the Hut red pepper, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I swear, sometimes the squashed fruit tastes the best. The nectarine with the dull sheen, the lumpy tomato, the apples with holes in them. Lately, I’ve been realizing more and more deeply how obsessed we are in this country with everything looking pretty. I don’t know how it is in the rest of the world—I’m sure that polished and shiny appeals to a wide swath of people—but it seems to me that in this country we sacrifice taste for appearance, again and again. You don’t believe me? Walk into any Safeway in this country and meander through the produce aisle. Everything gleams, vividly, from a distance. But step up to the neatly stacked pyramid of tomatoes and pluck one from the pile. Bring it to your nose and smell. What, you say you don’t smell anything? Well of course. That’s the modern-day tomato: all style and no substance.

A few weeks ago, I was at the Ballard Market, and I heard the organic, heirloom tomato guy, the one who sells the puffy, chunky, funny-looking tomatoes, say this: “It’s just like America. We’re far more interested in what things look like than what’s inside of them.”

Organic food just tastes better. That’s why I buy it. Yes, I want to support the farmers who grow it, the stores that stock it, the people who eat it as an attempt to do something good for the earth. I’m all for it. But in the end, my sybaritic tastes take over, and I want the enormous, lumpen tomato with the funny knob on the end, the one that oozes juice through my fingers as I cut it, the one that tastes like perfection with just a bit of sea salt. And I don’t need anything else.

And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a deformed red pepper in the bunch that looks like Jabba the Hut. Like the one above. I found it at the Market on Saturday, and I just had to buy it. I knew it would taste better than those waxy substitutions at the agro-business conglomerate.

I think about food all day long. While I’m busy teaching, listening, grading, conducting conferences, having conversations with colleagues, and planning for the next day, I’m present to what I’m doing. But always, in the back of my head, I’m thinking, “Should I roast those eggplants tonight? What about sauteeing those shitake mushrooms? I could try that fig tapenade that Rachael suggested.” It’s a delicate balance: staying in the present moment, then letting it go for the next one. For me, food is one of the best physical ways to enact this, as often as I can. This evening, I feel sated, pleased with the day, listening to the quiet murmur of music in my living room and the thrum of the dishwasher in the kitchen. Soon, it will be time for bed, where I can sleep well and deeply. And already, I’m thinking about breakfast tomorrow.

If I weren’t buying the best ingredients, I don’t think I would be enjoying this so much. And for me, best does not mean most expensive or most exoctic. It means the freshest, the closest to home. And sometimes, the most imperfect.

Life is consistently, continuously imperfect. We long for the lives we’ve imagined in our minds, but they never turn up. Instead, as Henry James said, “These are the days we must live.” And I seem to live them better when I don’t expect anything from them, other than what they want to give.

This past week, I’ve been holding conferences in my back, corner office. One by one, my new students come in to tell me about themselves, their experiences with Humanities, their expectations of themselves. And one by one, the first time, they come in cringing. Withered into themselves, like a self-protective hunch, they say, immediately, “I know I’m not a good writer.” Or, “That paper sucked. You don’t have to tell me that.” It saddens me, to see them at sixteen already convinced of their own terrible flaws. And over and over, I tell them, “Writing is messy. It’s an act of discovery. You’re just learning. Why would you expect to be perfect? Just throw some words on the page. Let it be urgent. And then let it take you where it wants to go.” They look at me with disbelief, as though they can’t believe a teacher is saying this. Aren’t I supposed to be yelling at them? Telling them they’re not good enough? Well, I can’t. Because I know how imperfect I am. And also, because I am a writer. Every evening (or afternoon or morning), when I sit down to write these entries (or work on my novel or other pieces), I have only a visceral idea of what I’m going to write. Certainly, no thesis or structure rests solidly on the struts of my mind. I just have sensory images, phrases that have popped up during the day, a clicking cadence for the opening of the sentence. And then I start typing. Every day, every day, I’m surprised, and amazed, at what emerges. If I had begun writing with the rigid sense that I needed to know what I was writing, and it had to be the best piece of writing I had ever done, I would never make it through a page. And so, I’m trying to convince my students of that, coax them out of their protective shell of perfectionism, and just learn to write with abandon. Life tastes far juicier this way.

plum II

And then I have to come home and practice what I preach in the kitchen.

Last night, I returned home from a long day at school, satisfied but tired. Mondays always take me by surprise. The long weekend of cooking and feasting left my kitchen a mess, and me too tired to clean it thoroughly. I walked in the door to meet a mound of vegetables on the kitchen table, a floor that needed sweeping, and a buzz of possibilities for dinner in my mind. With all this imperfection, I could have just sat down on the couch and stayed away from it, had a bowl of yogurt and figs and went to bed. But not last night, because I had invited one of my friends over for dinner, the week before. And she had been hearing me talk about all the meals I had been making, reading my website and drooling over the photos. I felt I owed her. I wanted to wow her. But she was due in an hour, and there was no time to make gluten-free pasta from scratch, a stunning risotto, a fabulous new dish from my favorite new cookbook. I needed to start cooking now, and my kitchen was already a clutter. I felt a bit of panic rising in my chest, that old perfectionism creeping back. But then I started flipping through cookbooks, and the physical act calmed me. And then I ran across this quote from Jamie Oliver, in one of his books, one among many from the library strewn across my living room floor these days: “Just remember, it’s not about being a professional chef, weighed down with facts and figures and be creative, give it your best shot, and, as always, have a laugh.” I love him. That was just what I needed.

I popped across the street to Ken’s Market (how lucky am I to have a fabulous corner store stocked with gourmet items, forty yards from my front door?). I grabbed some avocados, soft to the touch. Some Beecher’s cheese, which is made here in Seattle, in Pike Place Market. Now that they have been open for over a year, their cheeses are really starting to burst forth with the flavor. I picked up their Mexican cheese, which is white with red threaded through it. That made my decision. A bottle of wine, some already peeled garlic cloves, and some lemon-pepper chicken slices, already cooked. For a moment, I felt like a fraud, buying some items pre-made. Especially the salsa, which seems ridiculously easy to make, but I’m still buying it in tubs. (At least it was Sonoma salsa, which tastes like fresh.) But then I remembered again what I had been saying all day: allow yourself to be imperfect and watch where it takes you.

So I walked home, put on some bouncy music, tied my Harrods apron around my waist (a present from a dear friend, years ago), and started chopping. I chopped up the deformed-looking red pepper, ten juicy Roma tomatoes from the Market, half a white onion, four cloves of garlic, and one green jalapeno pepper. I cut up the chicken, grated the cheese, and opened the salsa. The more I cook, the more comfortable I feel making up dishes, based on the tastes of the moment. I’m starting to trust my palate. Turning toward the kitchen shelves, I grabbed a big pot, filled it with water, and waited for it to boil. Ten plums went in, ready for blanching. Because, at this moment, I decided to make the fresh plum sorbet I had read about on Baking SheetBaking Sheet. In the midst of the chaos comes creativity. Reaching into the refrigerator for something else, I noticed the chicken I had bought on Saturday, for stock, and decided I neeed to make it that moment. So, soon, a stock began bubbling on the back burner, too.

When Tuney came in, I had red plum juice staining my fingers as I took off the skins. There were bits of vegetables littering the tile floor. The stock was boiling, the peppers were definitely done, and I was still nowhere done cooking. I could have panicked, if I were the kind of person who needs life perfect in the kitchen. But Tuney is one of my best friends. She didn’t care. She just wanted to be there. She opened the bottle of wine, and we began talking.

Soon, it was all bubbling away, all in its right place. I made a stack of homemade corn tortillas as we talked, and then we loaded our plates with pepper/tomato/onion/jalapeno/cumin/sea salt/paprika/cilantro/avocado/chicken/salsa dish I threw together. It looked like hell, not neat and tidy. And I have no idea what to call it. But damn, it tasted good.

We enjoyed it.

plum sorbet

The plum sorbet was terrific, the plush texture of real plums, that fragrant taste distilled down into icy goodness. If there were a few chips of plum core in it, because I had chopped them roughly and nicked a few of the stones into the mix, we didn’t care. We sat back, relaxed, happy with our evening, and the chance to spend it together.

And I have to tell you: the imperfect, unnamed, didn’t-come-from-a-book leftovers tasted great for breakfast this morning.

made-up Mexican dish


1/2 white onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, chopped
1 large red pepper, minced
10 roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 large fistful of cilantro, torn into pieces
dash of cumin seeds
paprika to taste
a splash of good olive oil

1/2 breast of cooked chicken, sliced (or try a white fish or tofu)
2 avocadoes, chopped
4 ounces of truly good cheese of your choice, preferably Beecher’s Mexican
strong, clean salsa

2 cups of masa harina
1 cup of water

Chop everything and lay out on plates.

Heat your skillet and pour in some good olive oil. When it is heated, throw in the onion and cook until it is translucent. Toss in the garlic and jalapeno pepper, then the cumin and paprika. Cook for a few moments, until it has all melded. Throw in the red pepper and cook until softened. Then, put in the tomatoes and cook until they have almost fallen apart. Throw in a fistful of cilantro and let it wilt a bit. Take off the burner and put onto a plate, ready.

Combine the masa harina and water to form a dough. Roll out balls between layers of plastic bags until they are thick and approaching a round shape. Throw into a hot skillet and cook for thirty seconds. Turn, then cook for thirty more seconds. Take them off the burner. Keep cooking the masa dough until you have a stack of corn tortillas.

Assemble at will. Eat to your delight.

19 September 2005

a perfect pumpkin pie

pie I, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

As I drove down the main highway of Vashon Island yesterday afternoon, heading toward my brother’s house for a family feast, I caught it: the first whiff of woodsmoke coming from the side of the road. Sweet with branches and leaves, a little acrid, and deeply familiar, like an old longing suddenly sprung to life again. And immediately, all the walls I had built up against the coming of fall—they all came tumbling down. And suddenly, I saw Central Park in October, the leaves brittle and brilliant, enflamed in that moment before death. The air cool along my arms, the world more vivid for a few weeks before the grey of winter. And I could feel, in that moment, all the images of autumn come tumbling at me: fat pumpkins waiting to be carved; a patch of leaves, bright red against a pale blue sky; and the light. Autumn light in Seattle is thinner, lower, and more piercing than summer light. In summer, the light in Seattle is like liquid, spilling on everything generously. But autumn light is a little more reticent, more concentrated, and in the end, more beautiful for it. This morning, as I walked toward my bus stop, I looked toward the east and saw a shaft of just-past-dawn sunlight, streaming through the windshields of the cars parked along the street. And the dust on the windows gleamed like gold. There’s no other light like it. And yesterday, smelling that woodsmoke for an ephemeral beat of time, I knew, without a doubt, that it was autumn.

Time for pie.

Yesterday, I drove to Vashon, one of my sacred spaces in the world, for a celebration of my father’s birthday. My dear brother, fabulous sister-in-law, and my incomparable, so-tremendous-I-don’t-know-how-to-write-about-him nephew live on Vashon, on a five-acre property. The same place I wrote about in August, the one where the roosters woke me up from camping at 5 am. I adore being there, especially in the day time when the roosters can’t wake me. At the beginning of my teaching career, I lived on Vashon and taught at the high school there. It was the start of my awakening, my gentle unfurling into the world. I love it still.

And of course, any time I have the chance to play with Elliott, I am happy. He grins wide when he sees me and runs to me from across the room. I jump up and down in anticipation, then grab him to twirl him around. We dance to Daler Mehndi, hit the tee-ball outside, play with colored sand on paper plates, and have long conversations about memories and dreams. He’s only two. He’s my favorite person in the world. And I have so much to say about him that I’ll have to do a separate post soon, because I love introducing him to new foods. But for now, I’ll console myself at not being with him by showing you a picture of him yesterday, just after we had played tug-of-war with a Williams and Sonoma tea towel, and I had covered him in kisses and blown raspberries on his stomach. And thus, he is giggling:

Elliott giggling

My parents adore him as much as I do (well, I find it hard to believe they could love him as much as I do, but they say they do!), so the perfect present for my dad’s birthday was the chance to spend the afternoon with all of us, at Andy’s house, with Elliott. And since eating out is expensive for all those people, as well as problematic for me, I decided to make a feast for my father in his honor.

Meri spent her last evening in Seattle with me on Saturday. I say last because she travels for her job, recruiting students for her university, and she is now in Eastern Washington for the next two weeks. So on Saturday, we cooked. We made a scrumptious ceviche (if you don’t know what that is, look here, then make one. Now!). A fritatta. A batch of pesto. Some more figs and goat cheese. Green beans with almonds and pecorino cheese. And we ate little nibbles along the way, sampling everything once, sometimes twice, but leaving the bulk of the food for the party the next day.

But the best part of all was making pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie is my father’s favorite dessert. He has always loved it, which is part of the reason that Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday. But pumpkin pie is so ridiculously easy to make--after all, the recipe on the back of the Libby’s can, which I have been making all my life, calls for a can of pumpkin, evaporated milk, eggs, sugar, and lots of spices. I usually go heavy on the cinnamon, which turns the pie darker, and far more memorable.
Before my celiac diagnosis, I had making pie down pat. In fact, for years, one of my nicknames was Pie. I learned to make them years before, at the knees of my mother, who learned to make them from her Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother. For reasons I could never fathom, people seem frightened of making pies. “Oh, I could never make the crust,” I’ve heard at parties. Too daunting, apparently. But since I had been learning to make pie crust (and cinnamon rolls and cookies) from my mother before I could consciously remember, I never understood the fuss. The secret to great pie dough is patience. Understand that pie dough can be a little stroppy, a little quick to wilt or turn tough. You really have to listen to it with your hands, with a deft touch and a pause before continuing on to the next step. In time, I had perfected the process, and I could roll out out a pie dough and pop it in the oven faster than it would take to drive to the store and buy a frozen pie. I knew pies.

And when I lived in New York, I made pies, all the time. Since relatively few people in New York even cook (at least in Manhattan), this made me something of a celebrity. One weekend, after a trip to the Catskills with friends, the car full of fresh-picked apples, I threw an apple pie party at my apartment. I started in the morning and spent all day in the kitchen, averting my mind from anything but the task at hand. The counters were covered in flour, and there were bits of half-baked dough in the gas burners of the stove, but by the early evening, I had seven pies, steaming, waiting for my guests. I invited all my friends over and poured them all glasses of milk. And cut them hunks of pie. They all moaned with happiness, exclaimed about the taste, and said the same thing, “You didn’t make the crust, did you?” I just laughed, happy they were enjoying it.

Once, I made a cherry pie for a dinner party at my friend’s apartment on 84th Street. Since I lived on 101st, I knew I wouldn’t have far to go, and I was just too cheap to take a cab for that little distance. So I planned to take the M104 bus. But planning ahead with food, so the pie is not only made but perfectly cooled before I climb on a big-city bus with a pie, has never been one of my strong suits. I dashed around the kitchen, checking on the state of the fruit beginning to bubble softly in the slits of the top crust, and took time to dust the flour from my nose. One look at the clock told me I didn’t have time to wait any longer. So I grabbed my purse, than pulled the pie from the oven, and went down the elevator with a hot cherry pie in my oven-mitted hands.
Now granted, I’m sure this isn’t a typical sight on the Upper West Side, but I had no idea what a commotion I would make. My doorman started first, craning his neck to see where that indelible smell was coming from, down the hall. When he spotted me, he shouted, in his thick Albanian accent, “Hey! Can I have some?” I smiled genially and passed on by. The guy on the stoop, the one who always hung out at the stoop, grinned up at me as I passed, the only smile he ever gave me, and murmured, “Ah, pie. Now that’s a woman.” As I walked onto the street, I saw hungry eyes following me, fixed on the pie. When I walked into the crosswalk, a trucker leaned down on his horn and startled me so much I nearly dropped the pie. He laughed and pointed at the pie, as though he were catcalling a beautiful girl.
Shaking my head and laughing at the scene, which felt like it came from a surrealist movie, I climbed onto the bus when it came. Fumbling with my Metro card and trying to balance the pie on the card reader, I didn’t look at the other people on the bus for a moment. But when I looked up, I saw that they were all staring at me. Every one of them. Even the guy in the back who usually sat slumped against the window, drooling. Every one of them was looking at me. No. They were looking at my pie. Suddenly shy, I ducked my head and walked down the center aisle, sometimes nodding at people as I went by. But I could tell—their heads followed me. When I finally found a plastic blue seat open, I scrunched down into it. The woman next to me fake moaned, “Oh, you would have to sit next to me!” And then she said, “Can I have a piece?” To which I gamely smiled and half laughed, the way I was supposed to. But I’ve always wondered—what would happen if I said, “Okay!” then took out a knife and cut her a slice? (And I’ve always wanted to try it. Another time.)
Just as everyone seemed to have settled down and grown used to the pie, we stopped at 96th Street. Something shifted in the air. An angry passenger climbed onto the bus. Full of frenetic energy, and angry at the world, the lithe man bent his body to bang on the card reader. Short of change, he grew furious at the driver, who finally let him just go to the back without paying. As he walked down the aisle, the man muttered to himself, and to us, about the state of the world and his victimhood in it. Loudly. With vile language. And a hint of violence in the way he walked. Everyone froze. We all looked down at our laps, which left me looking at my steaming cherry pie. I know the rule in New York: don’t make eye contact with a crazy person. It will only make for trouble. And in my mind, I kept thinking, “Please don’t take my pie.” But after a few more stops, I noticed that everything had gone quiet. And the air felt like it was moving again. What had happened to the angry man? I looked up to see him by the back door, a smile across his face, his eyes suddenly delighted, all trace of violence gone. And he was pointing at my lap, then laughed, and said, “Pie!”

It seems that nothing brings New Yorkers together like a fresh-out-of-the-oven pie.

And once, a famous television comedian said that I made the best apple pie he had ever eaten. But I can’t tell you his name, or the quite-hilarious story, because it was a strange, Cyrano de Bergerac tale with pie (me being the writer, of course), and I don’t want to be sued for libel. But if you ever meet me, ask me to tell you this one. It’s a doozy. And he still has my pie plate.

So you can see that, for a woman with this many pie stories, and a dozen others, being told you can never eat gluten again was quite the crushing blow.

Or not. Because now, I have discovered the secret to gluten-free pie crust: chill the dough, for a long time, before you roll it out.

pie slice

For my dad’s pumpkin pie, I used the Gluten-free Pantry Perfect Pie Crust Mix. I’ve used it before, for the salt cod tart, and one other attempt, which I didn’t write about here, because it failed. But before, I rushed it, or didn’t have all the ingredients. Wheat flour is fairly remarkably forgiving. But gluten-free flour is persnickety. It’s one of the few food substances where you have to use the exact recipe, in the order they give you, or else it will wilt.

So on Saturday, I spent time with it, coaxed it into shape, consulted the back of the package many times as I made it. I used cider vinegar and eggs, as it called for, even though the old, pie-making me screamed at the thought of such foods in my pie crust. I did it. And this time, I actually chilled it, the way the package stated. I left it in the fridge for two hours, covered, and tried to forget it.

When you roll out a gluten-free pie crust, don’t expect it to stick together. That’s what gluten is for--the sticking together. Instead, treat it gingerly, rolling bit by bit. And when it breaks, because it will, don’t despair and try again. It’s done. Instead, take the large pieces in your fingers, and with the same delicacy and firm command as though you were creating a sculpture, place the pieces in the pie pan, then stick them together. (Gluten-free crust is soft, unlike gluten flour, and that is its magic.) Eventually, this Frankenstein creation will turn into pie crust. And then, you’ll be smiling.

Yesterday, when I arrived at my brother’s house, I greeted Elliott with a giant twirl, a raspberry on the belly, and a big smooshy hug. And then I hugged everyone else. Elliott wanted to know what I had brought, so I walked him over to the bulging box of food and opened it up. He bent his head down to look inside, then pulled it up to look at me, with delight, “PIE!” He shouted it, with great glee, at the thought of eating it, and the joy that he recognized it. “I likes pie!” he told me.

That’s my boy.

I’m not going to brag. Let’s just say that everyone enjoyed the food. I pulled more and more dishes out of that magic box of food, and everyone oohed and ahhed. The fritatta was a hit. The pesto vanished, presto. The salads and figs and green beans and cheese made everyone full, to bursting. But it was the pie that fed them best. My dad took one bite, and looked up at me with the same delight that had been in Elliott’s eyes. “Shauna, this is really good. It’s just a really good pie. Who cares that it’s gluten-free? Anyone would love this pie.”

And when I drove home, hours later, I couldn’t help but smile, in the smell of woodsmoke, in that piercing golden light, at the thought that I had finally learned to make a great gluten-free pie.

Shauna happy after pie


Now, there are ways to make an excellent gluten-free crust without buying a mix. And I'm certain that I'll be doing that soon too. But sometimes, buying all the individual flours, plus the xantham gum, can be a little spendy. However, if you have them in your house already, or you want to make the investment, here's the recipe that Melissa from Traveler's Lunchbox left me in the comments yesterday. It looks fabulous, and it comes originally from here.

1/2 cup tapioca flour
1 cup sweet rice flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup potato starch flour
1 rounded tsp xanthan gum
1/2 tsp salt
dash sugar optional
1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup butter flavored crisco
1 egg cold
1 Tblsp. GF vinegar
4 tablespoons of ice water
sweet rice flour for rolling

Blend together the flours, xanthan gum, salt, and sugar. Cut in the margarine and Crisco in small dabs until you have shortening the size of lima beans (not cornmeal).

Beat the egg using a fork; add the vinegar and ice water. Stir into the flour mixture, forming a ball. You may knead this a bit, since rice flour crusts can stand handling. Refrigerate the dough for an hour or more to chill.

Divide dough and roll out on a sweet rice-floured board (or on floured plastic wrap, for easier handling). Place in a pie tin. If using plastic wrap, remove it to the pie tin and invert the dough into the pan. Shape before removing the plastic. Bake as directed for the filling used.

For a baked crust, prick the pastry with a fork on sides and botton. Bake the crust in a pre-heated 450 oven for 10 - 12 minutes, or until slightly browned. Cool before filling. Makes enough pastry for a 2-crust 9" pie plus 1 pie shell.