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inspiration strikes in the strangest places

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08 February 2008

inspiration strikes in the strangest places


Sometimes, all it takes is a little change of scenery.

As much as I love Seattle, even in the midst of winter, it’s good to go somewhere else. Three days in Los Angeles — with my oldest friend in the world, driving under blue skies — was just what I needed.

Three days away from the Chef still strain my heart. We sent each other a hundred dozen text messages and burbled stupid sentences into each other’s ears through the phone. Still, he was terribly busy at the restaurant, and I had work to do. We can handle it. We did.

And walking up the street from Sharon’s apartment one afternoon, heading to the car, I stopped. Vivid orange against green against blue sky. “My god, they’re growing kumquats in their front yard!” Sharon shrugged. She sees it every day.

That vivid orange color has sustained me through the windy, sodden days since I returned home, and the last two days of struggling with a cold. (Traveling takes its toll now.) For a couple of days, my eyes saw blue skies.

Spring can’t be too far off.

Since we were in our teens, Sharon and I have been eating together, and comparing notes. We lingered over omelets at Madame Matisse. We sat in her living room and watched Jane Austen on Masterpiece Theatre while eating brown rice pasta with tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella. We oohed again over sea salt caramels from the Little Flower Company, and bought good goat cheese at the Silverlake Cheese Store. Every time I visit her, I eat a sweet corn and tuna salad from the Casbah Café. It’s like my own neighborhood spot now, the one I visit once a year.

Being with her inspired me to start thinking about food again.

We ate a rosemary chevre gelato, late at night, even though the air was cold outside. Rosemary chevre? And white chocolate with ginger, too. As soon as the weather turns warmer, I’m experimenting with both of those.

breadsticks at the Sensitive Baker

Sharon and I shared the joy of sitting at The Sensitive Baker, the sweetest little gluten-free bakery in Los Angeles (well, Culver City, technically). I smiled for two hours straight, with the chance to meet so many of you. And as much as I focus first on the foods that are naturally gluten-free, I sank my teeth into warm gluten-free breadsticks, just out of the oven, and sighed with pleasure.

I need to work on those too.

Strangely, one of the places in which I found the most inspiration was the freeway. You have to understand — driving on the freeway anywhere near Los Angeles means taking your life into your hands. Even after midnight, the black roads are awash in a thick sea of red headlights. The side streets are snarled with impatient drivers and potholes that leave tires flat and drivers cursing. Truly, I still don’t understand why anyone lives there. (Sorry, Los Angeles fans.)

Sharon feels deeply ambivalent about the city in which she has lived the past five years. And she expresses this by muttering and growling at every single driver that annoys her. They all annoy her. This continual tirade is how she survives every drive.

I survive it by turning up the radio.

Driving back to Silverlake on the 10 freeway, we were moving fairly slowly. Sharon flipped the station to give herself something to do, and she stopped on NPR. The warm dulcet tones of Lynne Rossetto Kasper came trilling out of the speakers. I love this woman, and her show The Splendid Table, every weekend. (And I make no attempt to hide this — oh, how I’d love to be on that show.) But under a dire traffic situation, her voice sounded especially soothing, like a nursery school teacher reading us a story before nap time. So I turned it up, and we settled into her world of food.

I sat up and forgot the traffic when I heard her describe a dish of polenta fries she had recently eaten in a restaurant. Creamy polenta, cooked slowly, perhaps forty minutes, and then set out to chill. When the polenta was cold, it was cut into French-fry size. Rolled in egg yolk, and then bread crumbs, and then fried.

Sharon and I both sat forward in our seats at her description. As soon as she went to break, I turned to Sharon and said, “Oh my god, I’m making those.”

The day after I returned home, filled with sunshine and happy to be back on Seattle’s placid roads, the Chef and I rolled polenta in eggs in his kitchen. The sun broke through the clouds for a moment, and I started snapping pictures.

You never know what’s going to inspire you.

polenta fries I


This recipe is wonderfully easy to make, and the rewards are rich. But it does require patience. Instead of using quick-cooking polenta, please find authentic cornmeal. (And just a quick reminder — Bob’s Red Mill makes cornmeal, but it’s packaged in the gluten facility.) Stir and stir, savoring every physical sensation for 30 to 40 minutes. That means low, slow heat. You can’t make this as quickly as you want to eat it.

And then you wait. Wait for the polenta to chill. Really, you should probably refrigerate it overnight. And this means being patient enough to plan ahead the night before. It’s worth it.

When these are finished, they are wonderfully crunchy on the outside, with the creamy give of hot polenta inside following close behind. All that patience paid off.

1 batch of creamy polenta (please click here for our recipe), with sage in place of rosemary, chilled in a shallow pan
¼ cup canola oil
½ cup cornstarch (for dredging, this measurement is an estimate)
4 eggs, whipped well
1 cup gluten-free breadcrumbs
½ teaspoon each kosher salt and cracked black pepper

Heating the oil
. Put the canola oil in a deep skillet and bring it to heat. (Keep kids out of the kitchen, at this point.)

Preparing the polenta fries. Take the chilled polenta out of the refrigerator. Cut it into French-fry-size shapes. (You don’t want shoestring potatoes, but you probably don’t want giant wedges either. Aim for the middle.)

Setting up an assembly line
. Dredge the polenta fries in the cornstarch, coating well. Coat the fries in the eggs. Finally, roll each of the fries in the breadcrumbs. Make a plate of prepared fries.

Frying the polenta fries. Carefully place the polenta fries into the oil. Let them bubble away happily until they are browned, about three to four minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place onto a plate covered with a paper towel.

Suggestions: Before serving, top the polenta fries with a bit of lemon zest, for a quick taste of sunshine. These also go particularly well with a parsley pesto as a dipping sauce.

Feeds 4.


At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will definitely be making those, correctly! :D To make living in L.A. (or even visiting it) such a thing of beauty is a talent - and you have done so in this post!

eko (a newish reader)

At 11:40 AM, Blogger SML said...

Around our house we serve our sticks of fried left-over polenta with sunny-side-up eggs and dip them in the runny yolks - perfect kid food.

At 1:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my lord......those polenta fries are definitely going to be on my Valentine's day menu! I am salivating already....might have to do a couple of test runs just to get them right! :) Thank you for posting!

At 1:23 PM, Blogger Beth said...

I'm so sorry I missed your book signing in LA. I'm really excited to know about the Sensitive Baker though. It's close to where I work, so maybe I'll even stop by next week!

At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, just surfing the web and fond this web site, great!! My 12 year old daughter was diagnosed three months ago and we are still in the process of learning...
Hope to use a lot of your recepies :)

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Debbie said...

I have made several of your recipes and love them. My ladies' Bible study ate the Sorghum Currant Scones and didn't mind that they were gluten free. What would happen, though, if I decreased the butter? I love the pancakes! I have made them both sweet with blueberries and savory with onion, garlic, oregano, basil, and thyme. Better than any sandwich bread that I have ever had except my own homemade.
I make polenta in the morning as a hot cereal and I could never cook it as long as 20 minutes. It is thick in about 3 min. I use 1/4c cornmeal to 11/4c water.

At 8:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh my gosh these remind me of the polenta fries at Joseph's Table in Taos, they are amazing. I think he serves them with some sort of a blue cheese sauce- irresistable.

At 3:48 AM, Blogger sweetpea said...

So, what brand of cornmeal do you use?

At 7:51 AM, Blogger Cannelle Et Vanille said...

These fries look so delicious even at 10 in the morning! I have heard a lot about the sensitive baker and I'd love to visit. I am posting a gluten free, dairy free and soy free chewy chocolate chip cookie this week and I hope you have a chance to read it. I'd love to hear your opinion!
I check your blog everyday and I was missing your posts... Such an inspiration.

At 9:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kumquats alone were my inspiration the other day. I couldn't find my needed ingredients in our two tiny markets, but I did find kumquats. They were such a bright spot. I was delighted to bring them home and find that my daughter and her friends were not just eating them, but really tasting them. They would nibble on the outside, then inside, and finally chew the whole thing. They are a simple pleasure and gift of goodness.

Citrus trees of your own are almost reason enough to live in LA.

Thank you for sharing your goodness.

At 9:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOW Girl! These are definitely on my MUST try list! They sound absolutely dee-lish ~ wonder how they would taste with Karina's Winter Pesto? Hmmm...I think FABULOUS O! I must find some good GF bread crumbs first. Do you have any recommendations? Thanks again girl, for Every tasty little thing! :)

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Debbie said...

I use Quaker yellow cornmeal.

At 4:38 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Wow - those sound amazing. I'm thinking a little grated parmasan too? Can't wait to try them. My son looks for fries in any form. He and I will love them together.

At 6:55 PM, Blogger Hapamama said...

I remember eating fried mush as a child that is much like this recipe, not so savory though. We chilled the polenta "grits" overnight and then fried it and poured syrup over it!

At 12:09 AM, Blogger beastmomma said...

Oh splendid table, what a treasure! I just made the recipe from her weekly e-mail. It was fabulous!!!

At 7:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, do those ever look wonderful! I will certainly be giving them a try. For a moment I misread "sage" as "saga" and now I have it in my head to try making them with a bit of saga blue in them. So you're right-- you really do never know where you'll find inspiration!

At 5:56 AM, Blogger Melissa Morgan-Oakes said...

I am a new author (knitting book) and have been relatively gluten free for over a year. Your blog has become my new favorite. I am a foodie, and constantly feel in peril when eating out. I've tried to describe the feeling that comes from eating safely. Two weeks ago on a Disney cruise the chef prepared GF Eggs Benedict for me. I cried.

I hope that you will be at Book Expo in LA in May. I would love to meet you, possibly hug you, and maybe kiss your feet for the recipes.

At 8:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many thanks for introducing me to both polenta and turnips. My tastebuds thank you! Keep up the good work!

At 10:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sounds like a lovely time - so enjoy your writing.....

At 12:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I made those after hearing her talk about them too!!! Isn't her voice the most silky, smooth and inviting voice you've ever heard???? So glad our California weather perked you up!

At 5:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i absolutely love your post and have been following for a while. you write beautifully and love life which is infectious. i've passed your blog along to one of my gluten free friends and she found it a bounty - espec. since her 6-year old daughter has since been diagnosed w/ the same. btw...congrats on being on the nytimes front page (web) today!


At 6:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice photo of you two in the NY Times!

At 7:41 AM, Blogger Anna said...

Your picture is currently on the front page of Wow! Congratulations!

At 8:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your gorgeous mugs are on the front of the New York Times website! Love it.

At 8:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow the NY Times!

At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice little shoutout in the times! and the pic of you and the chef is just lovely.

At 8:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just saw the article in the New York Times Dining Section with your picture! Great exposure! Congratulations!!
My 16 year old son has celiacs and I make just about everything for him from bread to twinkies. I love reading your blog and forward it onto all newly diagnosed celiacs who feel overwhelmed. It is positive and uplifting.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger Barbara Palmer said...

Shauna, you look gorgeous on the front of the Dining Section of the New York Times! (must be all that offal :)

I have been meaning to ask if you ever thought of posting about shampoo and other personal care products. I thought my blow dryer was making my face red until I realized my face was red right after I got out of the shower! It took me a long time to find good products .. I'm still looking for good body lotion and moisturizer.

You just glow!

a big fan,


At 9:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just saw the piece in the NY Times:
I'm glad they use your story but kinda outraged they refer to you as "gluten-averse" -- as if it's a matter of taste vs. health. Isn't that the kind of definition you fight so hard against?

At 10:06 AM, Blogger tannaz sassooni said...

a lot of comments. let's see here...

i'm an occasional reader here (first time commenter. hi!), but stopped by after seeing your photo in the ny times this morning. excellent!

so sorry i missed you on your LA stint. i'm glad you were in silver lake -- it's a good ambassador for our city. i have to ask about the gelato -- did you have those lovely flavors at Pazzo or at Scoops? I do hope you made it over to Scoops...

and finally, i have to take issue with 'why does anyone live in los angeles?' i'm a stalwart champion of my city. it's true, the transportation issue is abhorrent. but still, there is so very much to love about los angeles. a rattled off list doesn't do it justice: you know, diversity, weather, coastline, culture, food opportunities galore, etc. i encourage you hop over to my blog (or any number of awesome blogs that cover other corners of LA) and poke around -- hopefully our enthusiasm might change your mind!

At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I just read the NY Times article which mentioned you, the Chef, AND the polenta fries! Congratulations!

At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How fun to crack open my NY Times and see you two on the cover of the Dining section! Happy Valentine's Day. Can't wait to hear what the Chef put on his menu. Oh, duh, I'll check the Impromptu website... [pause]...I'll take the foie, the lobster risotto (wow!), and the beef, no, the lamb, no, the scallops... hmmm, how about a sampler plate of all the entrees? Pretty please. Blood orange cake for dessert, thank you. Congratulations again to you both!

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Shelby said...

I just saw your mention in the Times - so exciting! You're truly famous!

At 3:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your NY Times exposure! You guys look too cute!

What a wonderful blog! My boyfriend has celiacs (so I'm wheat-free by default.) As a foodie and avid cook myself I've loved the challenge of cooking gluten-free. For most things it's pretty easy, (I even did an exceptional pizza crust!) except for good crusty loaves of artisan bread. I saw the picture of the bread on the LA GF bakery site you linked. Oh my goodness!!! Do they do mail order for those?? Would they share the recipe for those of us 3000 miles away who would love bread like that??

At 3:44 PM, Blogger nicole said...

congrats on the times mention :)

At 7:48 PM, Blogger the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said...

Wow, How delightful to see you and The Chef smiling up from the paper this morning! Congratulations!

At 3:57 PM, Blogger Apostle to Suburbia said...

Hey, we ate at Impromptu last night! It was our early valentine dinner combined with a trip to the "big city" to see my gastroenterologist downtown. Loved it! Thanks to your chef for a great dinner. :) We'll definitely go again.

At 12:04 PM, Blogger Rachael Narins said...

Heh, heh. Your picture of the fries is WAY better than the one in the NY Times! LOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


At 5:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you haven't already heard...there is a new gluten free bakery in Kent, WA. It's been wonderful getting cookies! We live in South King County but hoping to make it to your restaurant one of these days :) Found you randomly on the web!

At 7:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Shauna,
I tried to leave you a comment earlier, but it does not appear here. So I guess I haven't got the knack of your comment board. I'll try again.
Thanks for your inspirational writing! I've been wheat-free (corn-free, soy-free) for six weeks now, and you've really helped me embrace this lifestyle. It sounded like a monumental task at first, but I'm learning!

At 7:01 PM, Blogger AudreyO said...

Wow, great blog. I found it listed on the blogger blog roll.


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