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28 April 2006

an old tradition made new

bagel with lox II, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Every Sunday morning, the last two years that I lived in New York, my friend Sharon and I had a definite Sunday tradition. We always rose late and sleepy on a Sunday, me in my bedroom close to Broadway, the street noise so familiar it had the lull of the ocean from seven stories up; Sharon in the middle bedroom of the apartment with the king-sized bed, the street noise muffled by the window facing east. Generally, we had both been out until two or three the night before. Sometimes we spent Saturday nights together — dancing our way to sweaty happiness with a group full of girls determined to dance without the boys intruding. Most of the time, we were both out with different people, listening to thrashing live music on the lower East Side or at a dinner party in Harlem. Coming home late on the subway, tired and alive from another week of living in the most sensory-overload city in the world, I always felt safe. I walked down Broadway at night by myself, knowing I was home. And knowing the safety of what awaited me on Sunday morning.

So, when we rose, Sharon and I greeted each other in the kitchen. Without saying anything, we went to our separate rooms for our shoes and wallets. Then, we descended the back elevator (the one that always smelled like a thousand corn chips) and walked the shiny tile floors of our building’s lobby to the front door. Turn right, then right again. Up Broadway, six blocks, past Mama Mexico, the Starbucks across the street, the dollar store, the greengrocers with the Italian ice cart in front in the summer, our favorite video store (the one that delivers in the snow), the Irish pub, and hundreds of people. There we were: 107th Street. Absolute Bagels.

Every Sunday, with the regularity of a chiming church bell, Sharon and I performed this ritual. Some mornings, we talked fast about our nights and the endless machinations of relationships and friendships. Most mornings, we didn’t need to talk. We just walked, side by side, uptown to our favorite place. Once inside, we waited in line, along with the rest of the Upper West Side, to buy our bagels. The word was out — this tiny shop run by Thais had the best bagels in the city. Wire baskets piled with fresh bagels lay within steamed-up glass cases. Every three or four minutes, a slightly-sweaty employee brought hot bagels to the cases on an enormous paddle. The man at the counter barked out the orders, and someone else snapped a paper bag and filled it with warm, chewy goodness. Sharon and I deliberated every week. Should we try the onion bagels? The sesame seed? The everything bagels, studded with seeds, dried onions, and little mouthfuls of herbs? Futile discussion, because every Sunday we called out our order like a well-worn litany, a text we had studied for years and knew by heart. Two cinnamon-raisin bagels, each. One with cream cheese and lox. The other with lox cream cheese. Two cartons of orange juice. When they put the warm bags, twisted up at the top into our hands, we turned on our heels and snaked our way through the crowd, past those still waiting to receive their communion. We emerged into the humid air, the sounds of the street, the towering buildings, the sliver of sky, the hum of humanity — our New York.

Then, we walked home, resisting the urge to break into the bags on the street, eat one of the bagels on the corner of 103rd. We waited, patiently. We raced up the seven flights as fast as we could make the elevator go. We burst through our front door. And then we assembled the ritual.

Paper bags flattened out, both bagels splayed. Sharon put on water for her King George tea. I made a pot of hot, strong coffee. I unwrapped the New York Times from its rubber band, and separated out the sections we had no intentions of reading. Secretly, I always enjoyed this small act. It had the satisfaction of ordering the world, laying out my pleasure, in a tactile fashion. We poured our orange juice into glasses. Then, we sat down. Every week, the only difference was this: do I eat the bagel with the lox first? or the bagel with the lox cream cheese first? This was the small delight awaiting me, that decision. Then, there was the eating.

lox with knife

The first bite was always the best, because our senses were keening for it. The salted oily texture of lox, the smooth milkiness of cream cheese, and the warm dense chewiness of a proper bagel. I’m pretty sure we both stopped in the middle of that first bite to look at the ceiling and exclaim at the taste. Every week. A sip of strong coffee, another bite of lox goodness, a glance at the Sunday Styles section, another bite. That first bagel went quickly.

We would sit and read, across the circular kitchen table from each other, the weak sunshine filtering in through the building across the street and the haze, into our kitchen. We would remark on news, read each other crazy stories, and laugh about ridiculousness that emerged from our heads. Most of the time we were silent. Unless one or the other of us drank too quickly or ate too big a bite. At that point, an enormous, rolling belch would erupt from one of our throats. We didn’t even comment on it anymore. We were that comfortable in our kitchen together, to let it all roll out.

(Sharon is a spectacular belcher. Dainty and feminine, with blonde hair and slender wrists — you would never know she had it in her. But spectacular she is, and she taught me how to belch without fear of embarrassing myself. My mother is still horrified.)

And so, our Sunday morning slowly unraveled, with section after section of the paper staining our fingers with ink, coffee cup drained, tea drunk to the dregs, and the second bagel just as satisfying as the first. Maybe more, because we ate it much more slowly. We sat, in companionable silence, reading and eating, feeling at home, together.



Sharon and I gathered again in a kitchen on a Sunday morning, this time in Seattle. The light coming through the windows was only filtered through green leaves this time. Sharon drank Irish Breakfast tea this time. The New York Times was missing the Metro section, since it doesn’t arrive bundled on the porches of homes outside of New York. And this time — of course — the bagels didn’t come from Absolute.

This time, I had made them.

The week before Sharon’s visit, I remembered our Sunday morning ritual, and I knew I needed bagels. Of course, I can’t eat traditional bagels anymore. But if there’s only one gift of this gluten-free life (and of course, there are many more), it has been my confident playfulness with food. I had never made bagels before finding out I should avoid gluten. But now, when faced with necessity, I felt comfortable throwing teff flour around and boiling dough for the first time. (In fact, I had been thinking about this for awhile. Urban legend claims that NY bagels are so indelibly good because of the tap water. On my trip to NY two months ago, I almost brought back a water bottle filled with the murky liquid. But I didn’t.) Turns out — this is fun. And surprisingly simple.

Of course, they didn’t taste like traditional bagels. But we were making a new tradition: me being able to eat bagels without having to take a two-hour nap afterwards. Nothing tastes better than good health, and sharing that with my friend.

We agreed — the plain bagels I made had no real taste. But these bagels I made with teff flour? They weren’t the consistency of traditional bagels, but they were chewy and pleasant. They tasted — strangely — like a dense, homemade wheat bread, with a hint of pumpernickel. They are smaller than NY bagels. They need to be toasted, twice, before they can be eaten. But they are, no question, an excellent receptacle for cream cheese and lox.

And for a Sunday morning with Sharon, they were a revelation. A new tradition.

gluten-free bagel IV

Gluten-free Bagels

Let me warn you properly — these do not taste like traditional bagels. I’m going to keep experimenting, but I just can’t imagine that any gluten-free recipe will ever yield the kind of chewy, dense texture of an Absolute bagel. However, they are chewy and tender, in their own way.

Normally, I’m not fond of egg bagels. In fact, that eggy yellow color was my first experience with bagels, in a Jewish deli in my southern California town. Even then, I just didn’t understand the taste. But I found that adding egg whites to this mixture binds the flours together better than not. And since they are egg whites, you will hardly taste the egg. Decide for yourself if you want to brush the tops of these with the yolks — it will make the bagels shiny, but it will impart a bit of that egg taste.

Finally, there is the boiling. Boiling the bagels before baking them gives the crust the crunch you want, before you find the softness inside. The molasses in the water yields a slight sweetness, almost imperceptible, which cuts the teff well. Besides, it’s fun to watch the bagels bobbing in the boiling water.

one packet dried yeast (Red Star is gluten-free)
one tablespoon brown sugar
three-quarter cup warm water
two cups brown rice flour
one cup tapioca flour
one cup teff flour
two egg whites (reserve the yolks for later use)
one tablespoon salt
one and one-half cup warm water
two tablespoons molasses

Place the yeast in a warm bowl, then gently pour in the water. Stir in the sugar until it is dissolved in the mixture. Allow the bowl of yeast to sit and grow, foam and rise, until it has doubled in size. (This should be about five to ten minutes.) If the yeast mixture does not expand, you have dead yeast. Start again.

Mix the gluten-free flours together, then add the yeast mixture, egg whites, salt, and water. Allow these to mix in your standing mixer for awhile, until they have formed a dough. This dough should be not too sticky, and not too dry. (Actually, in its ideal state, it has the same tender texture as a baby’s cheek.) Divide the dough into eight balls of equal size. Poke your finger through the center of each ball, then twirl the ball around and around your finger until you have created a bagel shape. (Enjoy this part — it’s a tactile pleasure.) Cover the bagels-in-waiting with a tea towel, then let them rest for an hour. (Remember that this is gluten-free dough, so it’s not going to rise, really. But it does like to rest before you pull and shape it into bagels.)

Pre-heat your oven to 425°. Fill your favorite saucepan with about four inches of water, then stir in the two tablespoons of molasses. Bring the beautifully murky water to a boil. Gently, place four of the bagel-shaped dough balls into the boiling water, and allow them to bob to the surface of the water. After one minute, turn the bagels over and allow them to boil for one minute on the other side. Remove the bagels with a slotted spoon and gently place them on a wire rack. Repeat this process with the remaning four bagel doughs.

Place parchment paper or a silpat on your favorite baking sheet. (You could also lightly grease the baking sheet, then sprinkle it with cornmeal.) If you wish, you can brush the tops of the bagels with some of the reserved yolks of the egg, mixed with just a touch of water. Place the bagels on the baking sheet and slip them into the oven. Bake for about twenty minutes, or until they are browned and have the thump of bagels.

23 April 2006

healing a broken heart with food

tomato-fava salad, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

My dear friend Sharon has a broken heart.

For those of you who have been reading for awhile, you might remember that Sharon and I have been close friends since we were in high school. And in November, her boyfriend flew me down to Los Angeles to surprise her for her birthday. It was a time filled with great food, much laughter, and a Paul McCartney concert. At the time, who could have predicted that by April, Sharon and the boy would be no more? Well, unfortunately, I could have, and I did. Why? That’s between them. I have to be circumspect here. Let’s just say that, as sad as the sudden absence makes my lovely friend, it’s really for the best. In time, Sharon will see that. With her act of bravery, she has opened a door to her new life. However, right now, she’s only looking back. Right now, she is enormously sad.

And so, what could I do? All our lives, in essence, we have been each other’s consolers. In long telephone conversations, silly inside jokes, and frequent visits throughout the year, we have listened to and loved each other. There was nothing else for me to do but fly her up here and hold her close. We’ve been watching familiar, ridiculous British television, taking walks in the warm spring air, and going to the movies. We have stayed up late talking. We have sat on the couch, crying. We have gone to every local coffee shop for tea. We have been together.

But mostly, there is food. Sharon and I have always shared food. There have been sudden stops for slices of rhubarb pie, greasy breakfasts in Wyoming, citrus salmon with herbs, steaming plates of Phad Thai with chicken, cider doughnuts, summer peaches, baked brie at New Year’s, bowls of cafe au lait, and spare ribs that make us grin at each other through mouths stained with barbeque sauce. We have eaten in London, New York, Ireland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Ashland, and Shipshewanna Indiana. Not only have we spent almost twenty-five years eating meal after memorable meal, but we have taken photographs of many of them. We have reminisced about every one of them. We have taken notes, and kept food journals, to remind us of what we ate, and we have discussed every food we love in vivid detail. When I gave up gluten, I worried I would lose some essential part of myself, because Sharon and I could no longer stop for burgers and pie on road trips. But there is plenty of other food I can eat with Sharon, and she has supported me through it all.

And so, I am doing the only thing I can to do to take care of Sharon: I am feeding her. Like the best (non-Jewish, not-a-mother) Jewish mother I can be, I am feeding my friend. All year long, Sharon has been envious when she hears about the meals I am making for the friends gathered in my kitchen. So, we have gone through the website, and my edible memories of the year, and we have chosen the best of the bunch to cook again. Roast chicken and rosemary potatoes. Gluten-free pancakes and apricot sausages. Tart Meyer lemon sorbet. Gluten-free fig cookies, the figs marinated in port and pomegranate juice for twenty-four hours before. A pork roast salad with butternut squash, this time served warm on a bed of sauteed spinach. Cauliflower roasted with cocoa powder and smoked paprika. Popcorn made with truffle salt for the movies. We also made a few new favorites from other food blogs. Molly’s habit-forming radicchio-radish-endive salad. And the lemon-creme-fraiche chicken thighs that Luisa wrote about last month. (Yum.) We have woken up late — I have been on spring break this week — eaten breakfast with our strong black coffee (me) and Irish breakfast tea (Sharon), while watching something silly on tv. Then, we clean the kitchen and start preparations for lunch. A trip to the Market, a walk in the neighborhood, and then it’s time to start making dinner.

(Hopefully, you will understand, therefore, why I have been silent on this site the past week. I’m too busy cooking and eating to write about it right now!)

And there have been forays to food experiences outside my kitchen as well. A big breakfast at Glo’s. Steaming spicy goodness at Thai Tom. An indescribably good sampler of six different types of salami from Salumi, which we ate slowly, moaning, in the sunlight, on the bus ride home. (We both declare the small slice of mole salami the best we have ever eaten.) There was even a chocolate milkshake from Dick’s.

I think it has been helping. But she has a long road ahead of her, and she is entitled to her sadness. So, rather than declaring that she should just be in a better mood, I have gone out of my way to make sure she has every bite that appeals to her right now. Including — gasp — a handful of gluten treats.

Now, don’t misunderstand. I have not been eating gluten. I love my friend, but she wouldn’t want me to be sick for the days of her visit. But it has been a little sad, going to Top Pot doughnuts on 5th, and watching her eat a blueberry-cinnamon cake doughnut without me. Or walking through the crowds at the Market on a Saturday to make sure that she can have a little bag of the fresh-made doughnut holes at the best little stand in the world. I grew so immediately sad at the delectable smell, and the knowledge that I could never eat another one, that I had to duck into DeLaurenti’s and hide. (Then again, they had the first lactation goat’s milk cheese of the spring. I quickly forgot the doughnuts.) We walked to Macrina Bakery almost every day, and she bought delectable treats each time: little apple tartlelettes; Scottish oat cakes; brown sugar cupcakes; pear clafoutis. Luckily, I had tried them all before I had to stop eating gluten, so I could remember them. I didn’t feel bad. Later, she tried the Matiz olive oil crispbreads with sugared almonds and fennel that I have been seeing everywhere. Since they arrived after I stopped eating gluten, I didn’t have the sense memory of them in my mind. I longed for them. Luckily, Sharon is good at describing the taste of food, so I had some sense of them. But still, I know, it’s not the same. I felt a sudden sadness I only rarely feel: I can never eat gluten again.

But as soon as I felt it, I remembered to let that inform me. Sharon’s sadness at never being with her boyfriend again — suddenly, I felt a small sliver of what she must be feeling. And I hugged her even closer the next time.

ganache cupcake with peanut butter

(Also, Macrina has a chocolate ganache cupcake with a little slug of peanut butter inside — no flour here — so I wasn’t entirely deprived.)

Sharon and I started riffing last night on the idea that she could be the only person in the world allergic to teff. What if her visit here is the first time that is revealed to her? What if eating in a gluten-free household was as dangerous for her as eating gluten is for me? What if her body desperately needs gluten to stay alive? I was grateful for the silliness — this was one of the few times in the visit that she has been able to laugh.

I don’t know how much this visit has helped her, although I hope that it has done her some good. That is my sadness — not being able to take away hers. After all, time really is the only healer on these matters. But in the mean time — and I intend that phrase in the literal sense of the words — I can make sure she feels love, in the form of hugs and a full belly.

spring trees

Fava Bean/Tomato Salad

Spring is, quite naturally, the season of re-birth. Trees that had been bare for months suddenly sprout pale lavender buds. Two weeks later, seemingly overnight, they are full in green leaf. How did it happen that I’ve been watching the trees intently for the first sign of spring, and then I look above my head, and there it is?

Healing a broken heart goes the same way. We carry the sadness around on our shoulders, sighing into it, day after day after day. Then, suddenly, we look up, and we can see the light slanting in through the window, instead of only our sadness. And then we are free.

With all this in mind — and as a palliative against some of the richer foods we were eating this week — I made Sharon a version of this springtime salad I made up a few weeks ago. Fava beans are leaping into season here in Seattle. The first grape tomatoes made their way from California to my produce stand. And the gruyere and prosciutto? Well, they’re just always good.

Sharon seemed satisfied with this salad. I certainly was happy to see her smiling. I’d like to believe it helped to lift some of that sadness with every bite.

twenty grape tomatoes
one pound fresh fava beans
one-quarter pound finest prosciutto
one-quarter pound gruyere
three tablespoons fruity olive oil
one tablespoon white vinegar
one-half teaspoon cracked black pepper
pinch sea salt

Set a pot of water, with a pinch of salt, to boil. Put a bowl of ice water in the sink. As the water is coming to a boil, shuck the fava beans. How to do this? Snap and extract. There should be three or four beans per pod. (Be sure to feel the inside of the pod, which is as soft as dryer lint.) When the water has come to a boil, plop all the shucked fava beans into the pan and let them bob there in the boiling water for thirty seconds. After that, immediately drain them and plunge the fava beans in the ice water. After a moment, take them out and let them chill in the refrigerator for a few moments.

Meanwhile, slice the grape tomatoes in halves, lengthwise. Cut the gruyere into small squares, about the same size as the fava beans. Make up a simple vinaigrette, by combining the olive oil, white vinegar, salt, and pepper. Toss everything together, with the fava beans, then thread small slivers of the prosciutto in among the beans, tomatoes, and cheese. Eat with the small sigh of spring.

15 April 2006

the making of another foodie

Selene with the tuna rolls, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I remember the first meal I ever made.

I was only eight years old, or so — memory is only guessing at best, sometimes. By that age, I knew how to make grilled cheese sandwiches, or heat up a can of soup. Macaroni and cheese from scratch -- that was becoming my specialty. I could tear open a package of frozen spinach and heat it up in the microwave. When we ate chili or spaghetti with meat sauce, my mother had me fry up the ground beef, since she had developed an aversion to the sight of the red juices and browning meat after being pregnant with my brother. And I stood on a kitchen chair and watched my mother bake, often. So I was slowly becoming conversant with the kitchen.

One weekend morning, I decided that I wanted to make breakfast in bed for my parents. I’m not sure where this came from — somehow I decided that they were overworked and needed a rest. Perhaps it was Mother’s Day, or someone’s birthday. I don’t remember all the details. What I do remember is this — turning back and forth between the orange and avocado green counters in the rectangular kitchen of our house in southern California, trying to convey a ladleful of pancake batter across the linoleum floor to the hot, plug-in skillet sizzling with butter. I was making pancakes, from Bisquick, and they were thick. Pancakes, to my mind, should be thick and stiff as a stack of dollar bills, but far more chewy. So I made pancakes with crisp brown edges, trying hard not to burn them, piling them up on a brown Pfalzgraff plate. I lay out two more plates, for serving, forks and knives, paper towels I tore off the roll, and the squat jug of Aunt Jemima maple syrup.

But somehow, just pancakes didn’t seem like enough. We didn’t have any bacon in the house, which was a weird occurrence, since there always seemed to be a plastic pack of Oscar Mayer bacon in the bottom drawer. I didn’t really know how to make eggs yet, poached or even fried. So, I made the only other breakfast food I knew how to make: toast. As the pancake pile grew, I made a stack of white bread toast (I’m pretty sure it was Wonder bread, or something like it) on a saucer. I dragged a table knife glommed with butter across the top of each slice, the shuffle and brush of crumbs against knife a sweeping sound in my ears. Finally, it was all done. Proudly, I carried the tray full of food to my parents’ bedroom, where I lay it down with a flourish.

They laughed at me. Who makes pancakes and toast together, they wondered?

I was crushed. When they saw my face, they immediately started cooing their apologies. I have this image of them pouring on syrup and attacking the pancakes with their forks, in a rushed attempt to show just how much they loved my breakfast. But I never forgot it, obvlously.

(And how weird is it that the first meal I made was an all-gluten diet?)

Ah well, we all have to start somewhere.

A few weeks ago, I was at the home of my dear friend Francoise. I've written about Francoise and her family before, and in that post I put a photograph of everyone in the family, except Selene. Somehow, she didn't make it in, then, and I've always felt bad for slighting her. Selene is one incredible kid. She’s a writer already, fiercely devoted to her craft. Over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to read her imaginative stories, and I can safely say that we’ll all be reading her books, sooner rather than later. I think that her best story from this year, Shok and Loppy, should already be published.

To go along with this, Selene is already becoming a foodie. Now, she’s blessed with parents who truly appreciate great food. In her humble way, Francoise is one of the best cooks I have met, and Adrian makes succulent salmon on the barbeque that leaves me speechless. Selene, and her wonderful sister, Camille, eat nearly everything with gusto. (Except fruit. Oddly, Selene simply doesn’t like fruit.) When I go over for meals, we talk about ten hundred topics, but we always circle back to food, somehow.

So, when I was over there a few weeks ago, Camille was on a white-water rafting trip for the weekend. This meant that Selene had all our attention. She shared more stories, and she spoke with wide eyes and a darting smile about her schoolwork. But the first thing she told me was about the tuna dish she and her friend had invented that afternoon. “And it’s gluten-free!” she told me, gleefully. They had been bored, and found themselves in the kitchen. So they started experimenting, tossing in bits of this and spoonfuls of that. They tasted and nibbled along the way, until they felt done. She was proud. I was astonished.

When I was Selene’s age, I would never have thought to cook without a recipe. I’m not sure I would have been allowed. But now, I realize that recipes are really only a rough estimate, like memories, at their best. One of my Buddhist teachers in New York once told me — when I was troubled by the fact that language can never be experience, and thus why was I a writer if it was only a pale imitation of life itself — that words are simply a finger, pointing out the path. And recipes? Yes, like that.

So feel free to experiment, like Selene did. Make your food by tastes and nibbles, not by the bible of recipes printed out in neat columns. Play in the kitchen, with the confidence of a ten-year-old girl, alive to the possibilities and unafraid to make mistakes.

But don’t make the same mistake I did: pancakes and toast don’t really go that well together.

Tuna Rolls, from Selene Canter

celery seed

You might think this sounds strange, at first, but trust me. When Selene told me that she and her friend tried celery seed in their creation, I knew these would be good. Celery seed! What fourth grader cooks with celery seed?

And then the friend rang the doorbell and walked into the house, bearing a plate of these “tuna rolls.” I took a bite tentatively, ready to roll out appreciative noises on demand. But they came naturally instead. These were unexpectedly light and clean, like a Thai salad. Memorable. I’ll make them again. I really will.

one can white tuna
four tablespoons crunchy peanut butter
steamed carrots, shaved into small slices
steamed asparagus, shaved into small slices
one tablespoon celery seed
one-half teaspoon salt
one-half teaspoon pepper

five leaves of iceberg lettuce
five leaves of cabbage

one tablespoon balsamic vinegar
three tablespoons olive oil
one-quarter white onion, finely diced

Mix the can of tuna with the peanut butter, stirring until they are mixed completely. Add in the carrots, asparagus, celery seed, salt, and pepper. Stir well.

Roll the tuna mixture into the iceberg-lettuce leaf, tightly. Wrap that in one of the cabbage leaves. Set on a plate, then arrange with the rest of the lettuce rolls.

Drizzle the balsamic vinegar/olive oil/onion combination over the top of the lettuce packages. If you desire, you can add some sliced green onions as well.

09 April 2006

springtime, in Seattle, with IACP

IACP conference, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

A bulging green bag is resting against the bookcases in my bedroom. It’s stuffed with a weird array of disparate items: a bottle of vanilla syrup for espresso drinks; hastily scrawled notes from long seminars; chocolates from around the world; a menu for a gala dinner, with an antipasti platter from Salumi, Duck Three Ways, and a parfait passionfruit trifle; a wild Alaskan salmon refrigerator magnet; a glossy booklet filled with recipes from some of the best chefs in Seattle; an umbrella; and a pamphlet for pork recipes, printed in Spanish. (That last one I picked up by mistake, but I don’t mind.) Somehow, even though the IACP conference ended a week ago, I haven’t had the heart to dismantle my goody bag. (Or the time, frankly. This is one of the last weeks of the grading period at school, which is one of the reasons I didn’t post at all this past week.) I just didn’t want that experience to end.

If you don’t know what the IACP stands for, don’t worry. I didn’t either, until a few weeks ago. It’s the International Association for Culinary Professionals. In other words, Shauna’s new idea of heaven. Being around people who cook, take photographs of, and write about food? Bliss. Even though I’m not really a culinary professional — yet — I just couldn’t resist the chance to attend a conference like this. After all, it was taking place in my city, by some lovely chance. And some of my favorite food people in the world were going to be there. So, I handed over a chunk of change, took off a few days from work, and walked into the Washington State Convention Center, ready to learn.

The umbrella was tucked into the welcome bag for all the participants. Because, of course, this is Seattle. Joke’s on them: no one in Seattle actually owns an umbrella. We all just brave the rain. Even better, every day of the conference, the sky was filled with sunshine outside. No darkness here.

The scrawled seminar notes? Those are the remnants of hours and hours of classes I took, on food writing and how to make a career out of food and how to use the five senses to describe the food we eat and the art of the food memoir and the politics of food. I have pages and pages of notes that seem strange out of context: the #1 food search term online is chicken; googlizing; culinarians; the fluctuations of oven temperature; kill fees; how to enrich the life of the reader. After the third, hour-and-a-half-long seminar of the day (and especially on the third day in a row of this), I thought I would be enervated and squirming. Nope. I was the student sitting forward on her chair, vigorously nodding, awake without coffee, writing it all down. I dread faculty meetings and education conferences; I’m usually the student at the back of the room writing scurrillous notes about the drone in the room. But at IACP, I just couldn’t drink it all in.

There were so many highlights from the classes. Denise Landis, the chief recipe tester for The New York Times, talking about the perils and discoveries of testing other people’s recipes in your own home kitchen, then being paid for it. (I want her job!) Barbara-Jo McIntosh, owner of the cookbook store, Books to Cooks in Vancouver, talking about the elaborate estivities they hold to celebrate the publication of cookbooks. Betty Fussell, author of The Story of Corn, and Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt and Cod, talking about the essential “truthiness” of writing food memoirs, the notorious inaccuracies of food history, and the general joys and exigencies of being a writer. (My favorite quote about the life of the writer? Writers write because “...they can’t do anything. They can only do what they do.” Yep.) And, perhaps my favorite, the ever-feisty Marion Nestle, ranting eloquently about the politics of food. She reminded us that, no matter how they might try to make it look, the food companies are interested in only one thing: profit. Food companies are now arguing that they have First Amendment rights to advertise junk food to children. Ms. Nestle left me laughing and energized, determined to do what I can to spread the gospel of whole foods.

Tom Douglas cooking

The glossy booklet of recipes from Seattle chefs? Ah, someone put that into my hand Wednesday night, at Pike Place Market. This was one of the highlights of a juicy week — a gala evening at the Market, with 1400 people stuffed into the long hallways and surging around the stalls, plastic cups of wine in hand, standing close and talking fast. We were told this was the first time in one hundred years that the Market allowed a party of people to gather for an evening event like this. Behind every low table filled, during the day, with arts and crafts for sale, stood one of the top chefs of Seattle, cooking spectacular food on small burners. That blurred photograph above is of Tom Douglas, dancing around woks, making Szechwan salt-and-pepper prawns for people. Vodka-infused salmon with Douglas fir syrup and the top of a fiddlehead fern (from Cascadia). Fresh-made smores with marshmallows and graham crackers made from scratch (from the chefs at Crush, who were kind enough to make me a smore without the graham cracker, on the spot). Gorgeous, ineffably good cinnamon-basil ice cream from the Herbfarm. Seared Alaskan sea scallops with beluga lentils, bacon, and truffle salt, from John Sundstrom at Lark. I could hardly make my way around the square of stalls, for all the people pressing up against each other like rush hour on the subway in Manhattan, but I was happy and well-fed.

The next morning, some of the top chefs in the world spoke at a symposium over breakfast. (Terrible irony? With the exception of the nibbles at Pike Place and the gala dinner the last evening, the food at the IACP was universally bad. Rubbery and without taste. Conference food.) RW Apple, one of my favorite curmudgeonly journalists, moderated a discussion with Fergus Henderson from Smithfield in London, Charlie Trotter from Charlie Trotter’s, Traci des Jardins (wow! a woman chef!) from Jardiniere, and my new food crush, Dan Barber from Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Once again, I was happily rapt, listening to a discussion about whether or not rescuing the rutabaga can be a creative act.

chocolate grinder II

And then there was the free stuff. Friday afternoon, I discovered, was the time for the food exhibition. Hundreds of stalls of food producers, all of them handing out free stuff. Crates of mangoes, bags of cheese, free recipes, spice rubs, chocolate bars, free lattes, pork t-shirts, maps and pamphlets and handouts, cherry juice — you name it, there it was. I’m not going to mention any names, however, because that would make me a shill for the food producers, and Marion Nestle warned me not to do that. So there. Besides, my favorite stall of all contained this chocolate grinder, which had been whirring for nineteen hours straight. The tiny plastic spoonful of fresh, warm chocolate tasted better than anything from a bright package.

chocolate from David

The best part of all of this — as always for me — was meeting the people. I met more alive, interesting people in one place than I have ever met before. Some of my favorites were fellow food bloggers, of course. The inimitable David Lebovitz — who brought me the delectable chocolates from France that you see above — was a constant source of amazement to me. Sweet and tart both, he made the best breakfast companion I’ve had in a long time. (Although, I was a mite embarrassed that the only restaurant open for breakfast in Seattle was a faux Parisian bistro. The man lives in Paris — what was I thinking? The eggs with gruyere and ham were too oily.) And I felt enormously lucky to have bumped into him at the Market party, not only for his presence, but also because he seemingly knows everyone in the food world. The fabulous Heidi from 101 Cookbooks was also at the conference, with her Leica camera and a ready smile. And Cindy, from Food Migration, was one of the best lunch companions I could have hoped for on a Friday afternoon. We ate Vietnamese food at Green Papaya, then walked around the food exhibit with our mouths agape, almost wishing we hadn’t eaten first. She’s a delight. They all are. I love the food blogging community.

And I met people I didn’t even know existed, people who have become my new-found favorites. The hip and friendly Becky Selengut, who runs the excellent website, Seasonal Cornucopia. Dylan Bigelow, director of chocolate for Fran's Chocolates, the impeccable local chocolate makers who concoted my favorite chocolate treat, the grey sea salt caramels. (David told me something that had never occurred to me, and Dylan confirmed it: eat the caramels upside down, so the salt lands on your tongue. Hm. I might have to buy some more now. And Linda Carucci, whose book -- Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks -- was nominated for an IACP award (and has been my bedside reading since the conference finished)? Possibly the nicest woman on the earth.

So, in essence (and obviously, I like the details as much as the essence), I learned one lesson over and over again at this conference: food people = good people.

I left the IACP conference with bags stuffed full of goodies, and my head stuffed full of ideas. It's going to take months for my head to clear out. But that bag? Maybe it's time to clean out that bag. Or else, knowing me, it will still be sitting against the bookcases by the time of next year's IACP conference in Chicago.

Seared Ahi Tuna with Sugar Snap Pea Salad and Avocado Creme Fraiche, adapted from Ethan Stowell of Union

ahi tuna salad

One of the lingering pleasures of having attended the IACP conference is perusing the little booklet full of recipes from the Pike Place Market gala. Of course, these recipes were some of the best these chefs have to offer. And, with a few exceptions, they were all naturally gluten-free. (Not only did I ask about ingredients, but I could watch the chefs make them in front of me.) So, now, I'm having a heyday, trying to make them at home.

This dish sounds and looks impresssive. In the making, however, it's remarkably simple. And the taste? The snap peas crunch with a lemon bite, the ahi tuna slithers down the throat seductively, and the creme fraiche and avocado roll together in the mouth. Gorgeous.

I've adapted this, only slighty, from the mighty Ethan Stowell. His restaurant, Union, is one of the finest in Seattle. Just a few blocks from the Market, this sumptuous restaurant with creative tastes and fresh flavors has been praised throughout the food world. You can have a few mouthfuls in your kitchen, right now.

two tablespoons olive oil
one pound sushi-grade ahi tuna, skin removed
one-half teaspoon kosher salt
one-half teaspoon cracked black pepper
one-half pound stringless sugar snap peas, ends cut off, cut into two slivers each
zest of one lemon
juice of one-half lemon
two tablespoons fruity green olive oil
salt and pepper (same measurements as above)
one tablespoons creme fraiche
one-half avocado, cut away from skin and mashed

Season each side of the tuna steak with salt and pepper. Bring the olive oil to near-smoking heat. Sear the tuna for thirty seconds on each side. (Time this. Seriously -- you're going to think that's not enough time. It is.) Remove the tuna and set it aside on a plate to cool.

Throw the cut sugar snap pease into a large pot of salted, boiling water. Cook them for about thirty seconds, or until they have turned a bright spring green. Immediately plunge them into a bowl of ice water waiting in the sink. Drain them immediately in a colander.

Toss the blanched sugar snap peas with the fresh lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Arrange a bed of snap pea salad on a plate, then place thin slices of the tuna, appropriately. Before you allow anyone to eat, mix the creme fraiche and mashed avocado and dollop a bit on top of this gorgeous spring salad.

02 April 2006

slow and easy, Sunday morning

poached egg on spinach, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Sunday mornings are supposed to be slow. The past four days, I’ve been away — in my own city — on a food-filled, fantastic adventure. I’ll tell you all about it soon, but today is not the day. Today, I need to move, sloth-like, through the afternoon, watching movies and reading the Sunday New York Times, one section an hour. All this week, I woke up extra early, worked at my job, then ran to the Convention Center in downtown Seattle, only coming home to fall into bed. So today, I barely rose out of that bed. Time to reconnect instead.

And this morning, as I rose, with sleepy-caked eyes, granular light shifting softly through the bedroom-window blinds, I only wanted one thing: a plate of poached eggs.

When I lived in London with the CFP (and for those of you new to this blog, that’s the Crazy Famous People; and no, I’m still not going to tell you who they are), I ate fabulous food for months on end. Truffles flown in from France. Caviar sent on a plane from Russia. Enough good champagne to fill a bathtub. But perhaps the best bite of food I ate when I lived in London was a simple poached egg on toast.

Toward the end of my time there, when Mr. CFP was off in another country, filming for a week, Ms. CFP decided we should all go on a raw foods diet. She was a lovely woman, a healthy size 8. But she was haunted by the skinny specter of the gaunt gamine girls of Hollywood. After all, Mr. CFP refused to marry her, and that infused itself into everything she did. He loved his food. So did she. But when he was away, she decided that she would lose a lot of weight in one week. And she insisted that everyone else in the house follow her.

Raw foods were just coming into trendy existence. She heard snippets of information about the health benefits of vegetables untainted by steam or the grill — she was convinced. Suddenly, she became the expert, lecturing everyone who listened about the evils of cooking. Ms. CFP convinced the family’s personal chef to prepare us platters of carrots and celery and pile them around the kitchen for easy access at all times. There was no fruit, except for a small sliver of orange in the morning. Ms. CFP’s personal trainer had warned her about the dangers of becoming addicted to fruit, and she listened. So there I was, living in a luxury home in Highgate, surrounded by decadence, nibbling on zucchini slices, all day long.

If we were good, raw tofu dip appeared before us for dinner.

Now, you may be wondering: why did I listen? Well, there was nothing else in the kitchen. I wasn’t allowed to fire up the Aga on my own. Madame made it a moral imperative to eat our food au naturel. She was the raw food police. This is how my only visit to The Ivy — one of the best restaurants in London — was ruined, because I was only allowed to suffer with a salad.

By day three, I couldn’t take it anymore. My head throbbed with pain from the lack of protein or calories. I felt myself growing crabbier by the minute. And I was becoming aware — acutely — that I was in the wrong place. I had to leave there soon. So, on the Sunday morning of that week, I left the house in my walking shoes. I rambled through Hampstead Heath, moved by its expanse and the chance to be in open air after the stuffiness of that house. The enormous vistas and lovely grasses cleared my mind. And by the time I had made it into Hampstead proper, I knew what I needed.

I walked straight to Giraffe, my favorite little restaurant in London. With its vivid orange walls, wide-open windows, and long wooden tables with communal seating, Giraffe invited me in. World music from the Putamayo label danced in the background of the vaguely African-inspired decor. Everyone in the place looked awake and relaxed, not a hint of the desperate frustration of the house I had just left behind. And on the menu: omelettes with goat cheese, organic sausages, and stacks of blueberry pancakes. Everything fresh and healthy. Everything cooked.

In the end, I decided on something simple: a plate of sourdough toast and poached eggs. When they arrived, along with a mug of hot, dark coffee (something else I had been forced to do without for days), I nearly cried. Perfect poached eggs, hot and waiting for me to eat them. I nibbled them, slowly, crunching and thinking, my mind slowly easing. By the time I had sopped up the pepper-flecked, yellow liquid with my last bite of toast, I had made my decision.

It was time to go home.

I left London a few weeks later.

Not every poached egg can be that cathartic. But every poached egg can taste that good. Of course, I can no longer eat poached eggs on toast — the toast would make me more ill than the week of raw-food diet I endured in London. But on this slow, Sunday morning, I enjoyed poached eggs on a bed of sauteed spinach. I thought of that morning in London, how trapped I felt. And I felt grateful that my gluten-free life in Seattle — more expansive than Hampstead Heath could ever be — is all mine.

Poached eggs on spinach

poached eggs

If you’re missing the toast underneath your poached eggs — or if you’d simply like to experience a new taste — try this, one of my favorite breakfasts. This time of the year, spinach is arriving at produce stands a muscular green, as dark green as the expanse of trees on the Olympic Peninsula. The taste of that green — faintly acrid, with all that nutrition packed into one bite — slithers with the salty liquid of poached eggs. I love to pop the thin veil of white of a poached egg, and watch the yellow yolk come slowly pouring forth, pooling at the bottom of the bowl with the bed of green.

Some foods demand to be pristine, presented perfectly. But not poached eggs. They spill and rush, the colors blending, the warm liquid mixing with the wilted greens.

For years, I was too embarrassed to admit to people that I didn’t really know how to poach an egg. It seemed too complicated and simple at the same time. I waited until I reached restaurants to eat them. But we all have gaps in our cooking education. That has been one of the joys of the past year for me — acquiring all this cooking knowledge. Thanks to The Best Recipe, I acquired my foolproof method for poaching eggs. Now, I enjoy my own poached eggs nearly every Sunday morning.

four cups of water
two teaspooons rice-wine vinegar
one teaspoon salt (I like kosher salt for this job)
two eggs
one tablespoon olive oil
one bunch of organic, well-washed spinach
pinch of salt and pepper

Set a deep skillet, full of water, on high heat. Add the rice-wine vinegar and salt. (You can also use white vinegar or white-wine vinegar, if you wish. The exact measurements aren’t so important here. You can use an approximated splash of vinegar and pinch of salt, if you wish.) Bring the water to a boil.

Break the two eggs into a small bowl. Turn off the heat and immediately slip the eggs, at the same time, into the now-simmering water. Put the lid on the skillet and set the timer for four minutes.

(A note here: I like my poached eggs mostly cooked, with just a bit of runny yolk, as in the photograph above. If you like them harder, cook them for four and a half minutes. Runnier? Three and a half.)

As the eggs are slowly poaching, fire up a second skillet on high heat. Add in the tablespoon of olive oil. Chop up the spinach, in rough pieces, then throw it into the hot oil. Remember that the spinach will wilt and shrink in the cooking process, so don’t be afraid to use the entire bunch. This makes your breakfast extra nutritious. When it has wilted into a dark green pile, take the skillet off heat.

Fill your favorite bowl or plate with the wilted spinach. Use a slotted spoon to lift the poached eggs from their skill and drain off the excess water. Place them down on the spinach. Eat.