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24 December 2007

quiet on Christmas eve.

Christmas pecans III

Life’s pretty quiet around here.

Oh, don’t misunderstand —there’s plenty to do. The Chef’s restaurant has been packed with people who leave the front door rubbing their bellies and proclaiming to the cold air how happily full they feel. I have been writing and planning and creating, to the point that it’s sometimes hard to find time to clean up the kitchen. We’ll have some lovely new developments to announce in the new year, about this site and writing. Life hasn’t slowed down that much since we returned from traipsing across the country, promoting the book.

But this time of year, for me, now brings out a lovely calm. All around us, hordes of people are rushing frantically down rainy sidewalks, desperate to reach the next store to plunder, in hopes of finding the gift that will release them from the list. Inside the few stores I have stepped foot in during the past week, hands reach for anything with a red sales tag, lines linger long past the point of patience, and every other person seems to be in angry tears.

Oh dear.

About a decade ago, I was the perfectionist Christmas fairy. I started mailing out cards before Thanksgiving. I made dozens of batches of rolled-out sugar cookies, so that I could choose the most symmetrically shaped ones, scraping off the excess frosting with the back of a spoon to keep it all smooth. And I spent so much money on gifts for everyone I had ever met —just to make sure I didn’t miss one — that I mostly ate rice and beans all of January.

One year, I baked and rolled cookies into balls and filled little green and red paper plates with powdered-sugar treats, for weeks on end. Every morning, I picked up the carefully arranged piles of goodies and handed them to friends or acquaintances at school, like I was the Christmas fairy dispensing sugar and sprinkles. I drove myself so hard, grading papers and making holiday goodness happen, that I sat in front of the fire at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve, wheezing and finding it hard to breathe. By the end of Christmas day, I lay on their couch, delirious with fever and mumbling lines from J.D. Salinger novellas through my blue-tinged lips. The next day, the doctor diagnosed me with double pneumonia —one lung completely infected, and the other one half-way there. Apparently, if I had waited three more days to come in, I would have been dead.

I learned to relax after that.

Turning 30 helped. So did turning 35, undergoing emergency surgery, surviving a car accident, and finally being diagnosed with celiac. Life throughout the year, the tiny miracles everywhere, feels more profound than Christmas ever did before.

The thing is — I didn’t really enjoy those Christmases past, when I gave my spirit to the season so entirely that I nearly passed out. It all felt so obligatory.

Besides, now those cookies would make me sick.

So, the Chef and I talked about sending out Christmas cards, before Thanksgiving. We have so many people in our lives now, and we would love to thank them all, profusely. I intended to make a few batches of gluten-free baked goods and send them to friends and family. Visions of mix cds and jars of pear butter danced in my head.

Life happened instead.

(Raise your hand if you didn’t send all the Christmas cards you intended. Raise your hand if you were still thinking of presents a few days ago. Raise your hand if you didn’t bake perfect cookies this year, all lined up and gleaming. Look around. That’s a lot of hands in the air.)

So we’re feeling pretty quiet around here. Within the hour, we’re leaving for two days of food, Elliott, and Nintendo Wii with my family. We have all bought or made one present for each person. Not one of those presents sums up how we feel about that person, distilled. But I think each will like that book or the photograph. The Chef has a couple of days off from the restaurant, so the only cooking he will be doing is making food for six people he loves. I’m certain we’ll all take time off for naps throughout the afternoons. (Well, maybe not Elliott. He’s too excited about Spiderman these days to sleep much.) This would never make a Hallmark special.

But the older I grow, the more I feel that this is what it’s all about. I’m a Buddhist, so this really isn’t about the birth of Jesus for me. As religious as I get is that moment in A Charlie Brown Christmas when Linus comes onstage to explain the meaning of Christmas. (“Lights, please?”) His simple story in that sweet little kid voice truly does tear me up every year.

In our busy lives, we rarely have the chance to spend two straight days with family, laughing and playing board games, sharing food together and teasing each other. Something about this feels more holy than any plate of baked goods or presents.

We have been blessed this year. This has, without a doubt, been the best year of our lives, for both of us. So much of that has to do with you, the one reading right now. Thank you.

Merry Christmas, everyone. We hope your days are filled with calm connection.

(And please don’t bake yourself unconscious. Take it from me —it’s not worth it.)

Christmas pecans I

Rose Ahern's candied pecans

We won't be bereft of baked goods this Christmas. The Chef is looking forward to eating my mother's cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. I can't partake, but that's okay. Everyone loves them, and I want them to be able to eat. And I can't imagine eating anything with gluten anyway. My mother would tell you they aren't that great, but that's not true. Someday, I'll adapt them.

But I have fudge and holiday fruit and nut balls and candied pecans. The Chef's mother sent out two packages of baked goods this year: glutenous cookies went to the restaurant, and the fudge and candied pecans went to our house. Believe me, I did not miss those cookies. We're calling the pecans candied crack around here. They are that addictive. The Chef says you could put these candied pecans in a bowl and pour milk over them — they remind of him of eating cereal when he was a kid.

Luckily, the Chef's mother shared her recipe with me this year, and this is our gift to you.

1 teaspoon cold water
1 egg white
1 pound large pecans (4 cups)
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt

Beat water and egg white until frothy., Mix well with pecans. Combine sugar, salt and cinnamon. Mix well with pecans. Spread on a cookie sheet. Bake at 225 degrees for 1 hour. Still occasionally. ( I stir every 15 minutes).

17 December 2007

sweet menu for hope

a bounty of gluten-free baked goods

It's the season of giving, of sweet baked goods and reunions with family. Too many people try to make this into the season of stress and frantic, last-minute gifts. But really, it's all about sharing food and stories.

This year, I am once again honored to be participating in Menu for Hope. I'm a little late to join this year -- due to unforseen circumstances — but I'm so honored to be part of this effort of food bloggers across the world.

The incredible Pim has organized this extravaganza of compassion for the past few years, beginning with efforts to raise money for the devastating tsunami in South Asia and continuing with jaw-dropping amounts of money for the UN World Food program. For the past two years, I have been a small part of this, and I cannot miss the opportunity this year.

This year, the monies raised for Menu for Hope will go through the UN World Food Program to the school lunch program in Lesotho, Africa.

I'm particularly moved by this idea. All of us who have food blogs and write about food? We're trying to help the world in the way we know how. But there are times that I (and all of us) have to stop and think, "My goodness, I am blessed. Does it really matter what I ate for dinner?" There are innumerable, far-too-many, dizzying-to-the-mind-to-try-and-comprehend children going hungry in this world. If we can help ensure that some kids can have lunch, so they have the energy to stay in school? Heaven knows what those beings will grow up to do, how they will help the world in their small ways?

Look at these faces. How can you resist?

Please donate, as much as you can, by December 21st. If you would like more details about how all this works, please click here.

menu for hope

Of course, it's not just about giving money away. There are also prizes!

Really, it's dizzying and incredible how many prizes have been offered. There are cooking classes in Umbria, a personal tour of the EBulli kitchen laboratory in Spain, a Paris market tour and lunch for two, a KitchenAid mixer, an eating tour of Bankgok, a bag of the world's hottest chiles, meals at some of the best restaurants in the world, and books galore. Truly, you can find something for everyone in your family this way.

(I can't possibly list all the prizes. Click here to see everything available.)

And what are we offering?

The Chef and I would like to bake for you.

If you donate money to our prize, which is UW39, we will send you a tin full of gluten-free baked goods. You can tell us what you want. Lemon olive oil cookies? Blueberry muffins? Peanut butter cookies? We can provide. We can also work with any other food allergies you might have, to ensure that you can eat to your delight.

(Or perhaps you would like to bid on the prize for someone you love.)

As well, we'll throw in an autographed copy of my book. After reading it, if you have been feeling trepidation about gluten-free baking, you will want to start, and soon.

If you would like to give, and you would like to eat great gluten-free baked goods, then please place your bid for UW39.

(And since I am late on this, there are only four days in which to participate. The bidding ends on December 21st. Move fast. And tell everyone you know to help out too.)

To Donate and Enter the Menu for Hope Raffle

Here's what you need to do (according to Pim):

1. Choose a prize or prizes of your choice from the Menu for Hope page.

2. Go to the donation site at Firstgiving and make a donation.

3. Please specify which prize you'd like in the 'Personal Message' section in the donation form when confirming your donation. You must write-in how many tickets per prize, and please use the prize code.

Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket toward a prize of your choice. For example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for EU01 and 3 tickets for EU02 - 2xEU01, 3xEU02. (And you really want to donate to UW39!)

4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so we could claim the corporate match.

5. Please check the box to allow us to see your email address so that we can contact you in case you win. Your email address will not be shared with anyone.

That's it. See how easy it is?

Giving just feels good.

13 December 2007

Oatmeal cookies, again.

oatmeal cookies I

The warmth of brown sugar, wafting to the nose. Crisped edges, chewy centers, a tug of something more substantial than simply flours and sugars together. Flecked through with raisins or wondrously crunchy with walnuts? It doesn’t matter to me. Sometimes, I like them plain and simply. Two kinds of sugar, fat yellow eggs, a pinch of nutmeg, a twirl of flours, and the secret ingredient. That’s all I need on a rain-soaked afternoon.

Oatmeal cookies.

Before this week, I had not eaten an oatmeal cookie in nearly three years.

In every gluten-free cooking class or appearance I have made in the last few months, at least one person has asked, “What about oats?” When I was first diagnosed, I mourned the loss of my morning bowl of thick rolled oats. Even though pure oats do not contain gluten, almost all oats produced in the United States are contaminated. They are made in giant factories that also produce wheat (flour on the conveyor belts), stored next to wheat grains, and grown in fields next to wheat. Did you know that if oats are grown in the same field that contained wheat the season before, those could be contaminated?

It all seemed so daunting. I just assumed I would never eat oats again.

Last winter, I posted this recipe for gluten-free granola. At the time, I had begun eating McCann’s steel-cut oats, nearly every day, after hearing it was safe. However, I found myself feeling grumbly in the stomach, and a little unwell. I gave up on the McCann’s.

Back to no oatmeal.

gluten-free oats

This fall, however, I am singing with oats still stuck in my teeth. Bob’s Red Mill has begun selling certified gluten-free oats, both the thick rolled oats and the steel cut. This has been in the planning for years. They have been working with over 200 farmers, in the United States and Canada, to ensure that pure oats are grown and transported. And then they are tested, and tested again. By the time they reach us, in those wide plastic bags, they are safe for celiacs.

(With one proviso. There is a tiny percentage of folks with celiac who react to gluten-free oats as well. Something in the protein structure of oats reacts badly with those folks’ systems. So sorry, if that is you.)

The thing is, I think that McCann’s probably is safe. My mistake was this. In my glee to eat oats again, I ate them every single day for weeks. Heaping bowls of oatmeal on some mornings and granola on other days. You know what caused the grumbling in my stomach? My system just wasn’t used to all that fiber!

So if you are eating gluten-free oats for the first time in awhile, go easy. Have a ¼ cup the first morning. Wait a week. Have a little more. Build up your system. You want this. It’s worth the wait.

And when you can eat oatmeal so easily that you have almost forgotten the days when you mourned the loss of that morning bowl, set aside the afternoon to bake oatmeal cookies. Rain pounding on the roof, the light fading fast in the sky, and cookie dough sticking to the back of the spoon. Don't try to resist licking it. You will.

Oatmeal cookies. What a comfort to have them back again.

* * *

In a little gleeful p.s. —

I have to profess my humble happiness at being nominated for three Food Blog Awards this year. Three! Honestly, this year has been so tremendous, and busy, that I simply haven’t been the active member of the food blog community that I have been in the past. I really didn’t expect this. I’m dead chuffed.

I’m also honored. Look at this group of fierce, funny people, writing their hearts out, and taking photographs that astound me. Many of these people have become my dear friends.

Being here is plenty.

But I will say this, for all the gluten-free folks (and the people who love them) who happen to be reading. When the words “gluten-free” are attached to awards, people pay attention. That means more awareness for all of us.

(This is especially important when people leave comments on the nominations like this one: "This whole gluten free eating is a scam. It is a way to draw attention to oneself. Many physicians agree that it is a fad, that’s all.")

And so, if you would like to vote, click on the following categories:

Best Blog Post of the Year: Do You Have Celiac Disease?

Best Writing for a Food Blog

Best Food Blog of the Year

Voting closes on Friday night, one minute before midnight (EST), so time is of the essence.

Thank you, to everyone, who has been reading.

oatmeal cookies II

gluten-free oatmeal cookies, adapted from The Best Recipe

These lovely cookies take just a bit of coddling. Mixing slowly and not too much; refrigerating the dough; turning the tray halfway through the baking; sitting through the agonizing wait until they have sat, cooling, outside the oven, before you can eat them.

Don't be swayed by this. Make these. Curl up on the couch with your sweetie (or yourself), with a hot cup of tea and one (or two) of these. Wonderful comfort.

1/2 cup sorghum flour
1/4 cup brown rice flour
1/4 cup teff flour
1/2 cup tapioca flour
1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 sticks butter (16 tablespoons), softened
1 cup brown sugar, packed in
1 cup organic cane sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups certified gluten-free oats

Mixing the dry ingredients. Mix all the flours together, and then add the other dry ingredients. If you have a flour sifter, you can sift the dry ingredients for an even finer flour mix.

Creaming the butter and sugar. Put the softened butter into your favorite mixer and beat it, just a bit. Add in the two sugars. Mix until just combined. Add the eggs and vanilla. When it has all combined, coherently, stop the mixer.

Making the dough. Slowly, add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Add one-quarter of a cup at a time, then mix. Repeat until all the dry ingredients have been incorporated. Add the oats and mix it all up.

Refrigerating the dough. Put the oatmeal cookie dough into the refrigerator. Chill for at least two hours.

Preheating the oven. Turn the oven to 350°. When the oven has come to full heat, pull the dough from the refrigerator.

Baking the cookies. Scoop some of the dough with that 1/4 cup measuring cup and plop into on a parchment-paper-covered baking sheet. (or, as you can see, I used a Silpat. Thank you, Bronwyn!) Leave a lot of room between the cookies. These will spread a bit. Slide the tray into the oven. Bake for 9 minutes. Turn the tray around (and if you are doing two trays at once, switch places between the bottom and top racks). Bake for another 9 minutes. Check to see that the edges are crisp and the centers still just a bit squishy. Take out the cookies.

here's the hard part. Let the cookies sit for at least 30 minutes before serving them. (I know. Good luck.)

Makes approximately 20 cookies.

10 December 2007

hands hard at work making food

local pig

These days, it seems, my best ideas for food comes from other people’s hands.

Have you ever watched the hands of someone who really knows how to cook? Ask him about how to prepare a recipe, and he’ll start pinching salt in the air. He scoops up sausages and flings them into hot fat, flicks his wrist to fill the bowl with two cups of sorghum flour, and pushes the skillet back and forth on the heat. All in memory, his hands curving shapes in the air.

Once, I thought that being a good cook meant finding the perfect recipe. I searched for great food through my head. Now, I know: it’s all in the hands.

Watch someone who loves food talk about it. Did you try that chocolate toffee? (Fist clenched, up against the mouth, trying to taste it.) That meringue was light as air. (Hand open, spinning around like a cotton candy machine going at full whirl.) That was the best meal of my entire life. (Palms against eyes, as though she can’t look at the rest of the world for a moment, to better remember it.) It’s all in the gestures.

Two days ago, the Chef and I stood at the farmers’ market, answering questions about food and signing books. Whenever there was a lapse in conversation, I watched the hands of everyone who went by. Gnarled hands gripped around a bunch of parsnips. Smooth hands with pink polished nails reaching for braising greens. Wrinkled hands with tufts of hair between brown liver splotches, pointing out the homemade pies at the next stand over. We cannot hide our hands.

It started to make more sense to me, that day, why it is I love farmers’ marketsso. It’s not just because the price of the food is so much better than what I find in grocery stores, imported from 1500 miles away. It’s not only for the camaraderie, and the chance to talk to farmers and butchers and bakers every week. It’s just that food tastes better to me when the hands that planted the seeds, watered the plants, and pulled those vegetables up from the roots are also the hands that place the food in my hands.

People who respect the food know how to make it well.

As we stood there talking, the man who runs Taylor Shellfish came up to say hello. The recent rains had obliterated his chance of catching clams that week, so he was walking around the market as a shopper, for the first time in years. Naturally, he began talking about food. “I have some baby back ribs marinating,” he said, stirring with his right hand. “I put tamarind paste, brown sugar, mangoes, and red chiles in there.”
“When is dinner?” I joked.
“Yeah, I know,” he laughed, his hands relaxed at his sides. “I’ve also got this persimmon sauce I’m going to try tonight. One of the girls who works at that stand over there told me about it.”
A minute later, we were talking of something else, when he blurted out: “Hey, that’s her!”
A young woman with a print skirt and bags full of produce stopped to talk with us.
“Hey,” I said, gesturing with my hands to grab her attention. “I heard you made this amazing persimmon sauce. What did you put in it?”
She grinned, and then stretched out her hand, squinched up her eyes, and tried to recite it. “Well, it was mostly persimmons….” At this she put her hand over her eyes, as though to block out the entire world. Her other hand started adding ingredients to a pot.
She looked up at us, hands open in a gesture of defeat. “You know, I don’t go by recipes. I just stand at the stove and make food.”

We all laughed and agreed. Then we waved goodbye to each other, our hands open, not frozen.

apple cider braised pork shoulder

Apple-cider-braised pork shoulder

While we were at the farmers’ market on Saturday, blowing into our fists to warm them, our friends Pete and Kristi came up to say hello. It only took us about two minutes to begin talking about food.

“I made this braised pork shoulder the other day,” Pete said, gesturing to the west. “I got the meat from that stand down there.”
“What did you do with it?” I asked him.
He mimicked cutting up onions, searing them in the skillet, and glugging out apple cider from a jar.
The Chef groaned beside me. I could tell he wanted to eat it.
So at the end of the morning, we mosied over to Sea Breeze Farms for a pork shoulder. These folks grow their pigs and slaughter them humanely on Vashon Island, approximately 15 miles away from that stand. The pork was pink and fleshy, ample portioned and gleaming fresh. We had to buy it.
On the other side of the market was Wade from Rockridge Orchards, who makes the rich, thick apple ciders that taste of autumn and twinging tastes of nutmeg and allspice. For a week, I have been drinking giant mugs of hot cider as I sit at the computer. Swaddled around a pork roast? We both sighed at the thought of it.
A stop at the stand run by the man with the most weather-worn hands for the season’s best shallots, and our favorite stand for herbs for a clutch of thyme, and we were ready to cook.

Frankly, you don’t need this recipe. You could take all these ingredients, stand over the stove, and make beautiful food with your hands.

But if you want a starter recipe, here’s one we think you’ll like.

¼ cup dijon mustard
¼ cup whole grain mustard
2 ½ pound pork shoulder roast
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
3 tablespoons canola oil
6 small shallot bulbs, peeled and rough chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and fine chopped
3 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed and chopped
½ gallon of best apple cider you can find

Preparing the pork shoulder. Mix the two mustards together, then add the salt and pepper. Stir. Slather the entire mixture over the pork shoulder. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350°.

Searing the pork shoulder. Bring a Dutch oven (or cast-iron skillet) to medium-high heat. Add the canola oil and bring it to heat. Lay the pork shoulder down in the sizzling oil. Allow it to sizzle and pop for about five minutes, or until that side has browned. Carefully, turn the shoulder over and brown the other side. Take the pork shoulder out of the pan and set it aside.

Sautéing the shallots and garlic
. Turn the heat down to medium. Put the shallots into the hot oil. Cook, stirring, until they are soft and translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the thyme and cook until it releases its fragrance, about 1 minute. Add the pork shoulder back to the Dutch oven.

Braising the shoulder. Pour the apple cider into the Dutch oven. Put the lid on the pot and slip it in the oven. Cook until the warm pork and cider smell makes you lose your mind unless you take it out of the oven right now, about 3 hours, with the internal temperate between 150° and 155°.

Serves 6.

06 December 2007

mucking about in the rain

clouds lowering above

You may have heard. Western Washington is wet.

Splashing in puddles, squelching of tires, slapping drops on the top of our heads — we are sodden around here. For days, the skies splayed grey and the sump pump in the basement groaned with the extra load of work. People, every myth you’ve heard about Seattle and how much it rains? This week, myth became reality.

Even Orpheus and Eurydice might have slipped under the River Styx, rather than surfacing to this.

For those of you who have been calling and writing, we’re fine. Seattle is merely drenched, and not flooded. About an hour and a half to the south of us, a twenty-mile stretch of the freeway is submerged in murky waters. Houses are floating, Wal-Marts are surrounded by sudden lakes, and people are canoeing to work. For those of you around there, we salute you and send you bus towels and dryer-vacs. But there’s something funny about the national news. They flash images upon the screen, rapid-fire, and intone disasters. To outsiders, it looks as though the entire western half of the state is now ocean.

The last year I lived in New York, I came home one night, after a long busy day of writing, tutoring, and riding on subways. On my phone, at least twenty voice mails. Every one of them came from a friend in the city, with the same message, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry about Seattle.” Once I heard five of those, I hung up and called my folks. No answer. I called my brother. Dead silence. I gulped in sharp points of air, trying not to panic. I ran to the television, anticipating video of Seattle slipping into the sea. Nothing. Regularly scheduled program ran in all its inanity. I sat through the commercials on CNN, and through the top three stories. Finally, they showed it: an earthquake in Seattle. I sat in horror as they showed buildings rocked and tumbled. No wonder my family could not answer the phone.

But then I leaned in closer. As the announcer droned in deadly tones, I watched the images, again. I saw the shot of a storefront with bricks dislodged three times in one minute. And was that the Starbucks building, still standing, with one crack? I started laughing. I know Seattle. Nothing had fallen down. No one had died.

But the news had made me lose my family, for a few moments.

So up here, in the city, we are merely shaking out our wet hair like dogs in the backyard.

Really, it’s the perfect weather for cooking.

In the last few days, I’ve stirred up a beef stroganoff and poured it over rice pasta, stood at the stove and turned butternut squash and potatoes into a silky orange soup, made apple-cider pancakes in the morning and a Dutch-oven roasted chicken at night. This is what I love most about winter. It makes me return to the kitchen.

And every night this week, when I sat down with the Chef at nearly midnight to eat the simple dinner I prepared for us, he took one bite, looked up at me, and grunted. “This is good, sweetie,” he trilled at me. And then he curved his hand around the bowl and dug in for more.

It's simple - I love feeding him, and seeing him happy.

Thanks, rain, for making me stay inside the house.

* * *

If you should feel like leaving the house, Seattleites, I will be reading at the University of Washington bookstore, on Monday, December 10th, at 7 pm. The Chef and I would both love to see you there. (Mondays are his days off, so he’ll be there, beaming.) Friends, fans of this site, fellow writers — lend me your ears.

With all of the extraordinary experiences I’ve had in the last few months, I have yet to do a traditional reading at a bookstore. This is the first. I’d really love to see you there. It’s free!

And the Chef and I will be bringing cookies…..

chanterelles from Jeremy

Mushroom duxelle for stuffing fish

There’s one good quality to all this rain. More mushrooms will be dotting the grasses and rich dark dirt in the mountains around Seattle, soon. The Chef and I buy our mushrooms — for the restaurant and our home — from Jeremy at Foraged and Found. We don’t know where he obtains them. He never releases his secrets. We just know that we love the spongy, toothy umami taste of our favorite mushrooms.

Whatever mushrooms are available around you, try them in this lovely mushroom stuffing. Certainly, it exudes enough charm to stand alone. But if you find a great white fish, or a plump shiny eggplant, you’re going to want to tuck this stuffing under it and let the tastes emerge, like the earth re-appearing after a long, soaking rain.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds mushrooms, chopped fine (try chanterelles and button mushrooms)
½ medium yellow onion, minced
5 cloves garlic, fine chopped
1 tablespoon thyme, fine chopped
½ cup dry sherry or white wine
½ teaspoon kosher salt and cracked black pepper (or to taste)

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Put in the onions and garlic. Sautée on medium heat for five minutes.

Add the thyme. Cook for one minute.

Add the mushrooms and cook for five minutes, or until they have released their juices and softened.

Pour in the alcohol. Cook this mixture until it is dry, being careful not to burn it.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

You can use this as a stuffing for a flat fish, such as petrale sole or ruby-red trout. Lay each piece of fish flat. Put a tablespoon or two of the duxelle in the middle of the fish, and then roll the piece of fish tightly around the duxelle. Cook the fish as you normally do.

Feeds 4.

03 December 2007

back in Italy (if in memory only)

at the end of the Ponte Vecchio

It has been nearly three months since we returned from our honeymoon in Italy. (And the book has been out for nearly two months?!) Life continues to amaze us with its pace. Tonight, the Chef and I stood behind a table at Palace Ballroom, for hours, surrounded by some of the best chefs and writers of Seattle. I signed books, and the Chef scooped out portions of gluten-free macaroni and cheese, and then shaved slices of black truffle on top.

I’m pretty sure we sold some books on the basis of those bites alone.

The smell of black truffles melting into rice pasta and four kinds of cheese? It reminded us both of being in Italy. And on the way home, we started talking about our day in Florence.

And then I remembered that I had never shared with you, dear readers, our extraordinary day with Judy Witts-Francini. My god, she was so kind, and the day so memorable, that I just can’t let this year end without showing you photos of our experience.

(Plus, it looks like our camera needs a professional cleaning, so no new photos for a few days.)

fashionable children in Florence

One early morning — before 5 am — we left our apartment at Brigolante and stumbled into a waiting cab. We were headed toward the train station, to climb aboard an express train from Assisi to Florence. The Chef slept most of the train ride, but I stayed awake to watch the green hills of Umbria slide into the slightly drier land of Tuscany.

I had only been to Florence one time before, alone. For three days, I had wandered the streets, clambering up the steps of the Duomo, eating smoked mozzarella cheese, and watching mimes make fun of all the passersby. This time, I left the train station with my hand in the Chef’s.

The moment you start walking in Florence, you notice something: this city is incredibly fashionable. Leather bags polished to a high gleam are offered for sale on nearly every street corner. Young women ride bikes to work wearing slit skirts and stiletto heels, often while talking on the cell phone. And even children must be clothed in the proper, haughty attire.

they sell this at the hardware store

But also in Florence, it seems, food flourishes everywhere, at reasonable rates and in humble abodes. These lentils and beans, in various vivid hues, were offered for sale in bulk bags at the hardware store.

Here is what still resonates for us about Italy, in our mouths and minds. No one is really a foodie there. The moniker is not necessary. Everyone reveres food. We didn’t see junk food or convenience food, at all. Everyone seems to eat well, and slowly. Passions abound. No one is indifferent when it comes to food. And if you talk about great ingredients, and the best way to braise beef, no one thinks you are being elitist. They simply join in the conversation.

As Judy said, when someone asked her why the food tastes so much better in Italy than it does in most other places, “You can get anything want in America, but the ingredients just don’t taste as good.” No hormones or antibiotics in the food. Chicken goes bad fast, in a day or two.

It’s about the best ingredients. Not the most expensive — the freshest. Most of the food we ate in Italy was simple in preparation. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

“Spend more time shopping and less time cooking,” Judy said.

Judy leads our tour

And who is this Judy, you may be wondering?

This is the inimitable Judy WItts-Francini, better known as the woman who runs Divina Cucina. Garrulous and passionate, knowledgeable and kind under a flinty exterior, full of hearty laughs — this woman leaves an indelible impression.

You see that face? You want to see it in person.

If you ever go to Florence, you can do what we did on our honeymoon. Book a class with Judy. She has a snug little apartment across the street from the Mercato Centrale, where a handful of people gather around her table. Judy greets you with her book of recipes from the Central Market, which she has spent years gathering and writing. Luckily, she left plenty of pages for notes in the back. You’ll need them.

Descend the stairs to the streets of Florence and wander through this food-loving mecca, with Judy by your side.

butchers don't try to hide anything in Italy

The Mercato Centrale is an equal mix of tourist attraction and real food lover’s grocery store. It’s a little like Pike Place Market that way, except with far better prosciutto and balsamic vinegar.

Judy led us from one stand to another, allowing us to sample bloomy cheeses, slices of Parma ham, truffle salts, and fruity olive oils that slither over the sides of your tongue like a sweet stream in spring.

We met a Sicilian chef with a wizened face and black-dyed hair, standing command at the corner shop of the market. Her two sons work with her, her granddaughter waits tables, and they have all been at it for years. Everyone in the class ate little bites, one after the other, sighing and softly speaking together, our voices hushed by the taste of the food. As we left, one of the sons slipped me a little sliver of crispy roast porchetta. I could have eaten that and been happy for the rest of the tour.

But there was more. We walked past a man hand-rolling Tuscan cigars, a wine merchant where you leave money and go back later for green bottles filled with house wine, and more meat than I could ever write about here.

And as you can see from the photo above, the butchers in the Mercato Centrale certainly don’t try to hide where meat comes from. Here, we buy our chicken in boneless, skinless blobs, wrapped in plastic. In Italy, you know that it’s really a rooster you’ll be cooking.

marzipan candies

But there is plenty of shiny, perfect-polished food, too. Look at this marzipan, shining from a store window.

what a face

The best part of the tour — as is always true for me — was meeting the people who made our food. Everyone I meet who works in food? Good, good people.

Look at that face, for gosh sakes. Don’t you want to meet her?

(And in case you’re wondering, that is a regular bakery we stopped in. I couldn’t eat anything there, but it sure smelled good.)

dried porcini

And there were baskets of recently dried porcini mushrooms. Everywhere, funghi. Oh, yes. Just imagine how great mushroom soup would taste made of these.

here is the Chef in the Mercato Centrale

After an hour and a half of being in the market, I turned to the Chef and saw this look on his face.

We were all astonished.

(And we had just been in the meat locker of Judy’s favorite butcher, where the Chef saw entire sides of cow curing. He could barely contain himself.)

coffee is ready

We revived him with a shot of espresso. We all needed one.

I loved watching this older man lining up little cups — dozens of posters of Italian soccer players lining the wall behind him — and pouring that thick, viscous liquid into them a few moments later.

(I miss Italian coffee.)

in Judy's apartment

After a couple of hours, our bellies filled with bites of great food and bags of vinegars and oils to take home, we made our way back to Judy’s apartment.

And then it was time to cook.

There were seared pork shoulder chops with the Tuscan herb mix (rosemary, sage, garlic, and salt) and fennel pollen, deglazed with vin santo.

Truffle salad with black rice, chickpeas, chili peppers, and cherry tomatoes.

Great cheeses, like Tonino.

Real vanilla panna cotta with fresh berries.

steam on the artichokes

And this: stewed artichokes with orange rind, orange juice, and cherry tomatoes.

making gluten-free cookies

We didn’t just eat. We all cooked, together. We gathered in Judy’s little square kitchen and put our hands in the food. (The book in which I took notes is splattered with oil and garlic, pork juice, and almond flour.

Here, we are making ricciarelli, little almond flour cookies. I love that flurry of hands.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re wondering, everything we made and ate was gluten-free. Judy arranged the day so that I could eat everything.

I was more grateful than I could say that day.

look at this fruit

Look how beautiful those berries are. I love the way the light dapples upon them.

And again, look how simple it is. Fresh and in season. Eating gluten-free like this? It never feels like deprivation.

cantineta dei verrazano

After six hours, the class finished. We could eat no more. We could learn no more, for the moment. Judy is such a fount of knowledge, expressed in such an earthy, hilarious way, that you never feel bombarded. When you put your hands in the food with her, you feel like it’s all possible.

But the Chef, who has been cooking professionally for the past twenty years, came away reeling, filled with ideas for food in the future. (some of it he has been making at the restaurant ever since.)

We were especially lucky. Since Judy and I know each other through blogging, she took me and the Chef out to some of her favorite places in Florence. This is Cantinato dei Verrazano, which I mentioned in my first piece on our honeymoon. A chickpea crepe (which they called Cecina in Florence), filled with prosciutto, roasted, and topped with truffle butter. I wanted to eat everything in the place, but my belly couldn’t fit one more bite in.

Well, until we went to GROM, and I ate fig and chocolate gelato.

At least we walked a lot that day.

this is what the day felt like

The restaurants of Florence dazzled us. But truly, the best food we ate all day was the morsels we prepared with Judy, in her well-worn kitchen, and ate at the table with everyone else, sun gleaming upon the plates.

This is what the day felt like.

So if you are going to Florence, be sure to register for one of Judy’s classes. I’m sure she’d love to feed you.

You'll be thinking of the experience months later, as we were tonight.

black rice salad with chickpeas

Black rice salad with truffles
, from Judy Witts-Francini (used with permission)

This recipe comes directly from Judy, in her words, from the blog post she wrote about our visit. Rather than adapting it, I want you to see her way. Her language, and the way she writes her recipes, is so much her own, and so Italian...

By the way, the Chef is not included in this recipe.

"Pretend you are Italian and in the kitchen with me, no cookbooks, no measuring cups, just friends hanging out. Here is what we made.

First cook Riso Venere:
(I use Italian Antica Pila Vecia,from the Ferron family)

Boil the rice in plenty of salted water until tender, 30-40 minutes.

In a large saucepan, cover the bottom of the pot with extra virgin olive oil.
Add sliced garlic and some crushed chili peppers and heat the pan.

When the garlic begins to sizzle, add cherry tomatoes, sliced in half and raise the heat. Sprinkle with salt to taste.

Add some basil leaves, just torn with your hands.

Drain a can of chickpeas, and rinse them off. Add to the pan.

Add the drained Riso Venere (forbidden rice)

Stir well to mix all the ingredients.

Add a whole jar (30 grams) of sliced truffles and the liquid in the jar.

Stir and serve!"