Thursday, August 28, 2008

In praise of Coconut Bliss

Since I've been such an annoying whiny baby the last few days, I thought I should post some of the more positive aspects of this lovely, life-enriching food experiment. I want to point you in the direction of Coconut Bliss, a coconut-milk based ice cream that is totally okay for people who are on a dairy-free diet (it's also made with agave syrup, so that means any of you out there who can't eat cane sugar right now -that's you Julie!- should find this to be an awesome treat.) It's as luscious and rich as the sarcasm with which I began this paragraph.

Started by a little company in Eugene, Oregon, Luna & Larry's Coconut Bliss is one of the things I jot down on my list of good things to come out of my culinary martydom. I'm a big fan of their straight forward "naked coconut", but their dark chocolate almost brought a tear to my eye the other night. Arguably, the tear could have been from the bright glare of the freezer light in a dark kitchen at 2 in the morning.

The fact that this is a treat I look forward to when so many of my go-to treats are off-limits really can't be underestimated. With coconut milk dripping from my happy lips, I would like to take this moment to pay homage to the good things I've gotten out of this experience so far:

1. An appreciation for the web and the support it lends people - via blogging - for pretty much anything you might be dealing with. It's such a part of our lives that sometimes it's worth stepping back and really taking in how truly incredible the internet is and how it brings people together.

2. I like to think I'm constantly challenging myself to come up with new flavor combinations; however there is nothing like a list of 26 major food staples you can't touch to get you to really think outside the box. How does one develop flavor in food when every last sauce ingredient (pretty much) and almost all condiments known to man are verboten? This experience will make me a better cook.

3. It's trite but true: if all you ever knew was sleeping in and being on vacation, life would be quite dull. It is the contrast between work and play that emphasizes the joy in play. Similarly, sometimes it takes the act of stepping away from something you love to appreciate it even more or, as in the case of Coconut Bliss, discover something new.

4. Mostly I appreciate that they're coming out with a Chocolate Hazelnut Fudge flavor.

Cheaters never prosper.

I was so close to calling the whole thing off this past weekend.

It's like I had a "Come to Jesus" moment but it wasn't really Jesus, it was a bowl of my own homemade pasta.

I was doing a private dinner party for 11. This stock broker from L.A. arranged the dinner for his clients in Seattle. The host, a larger than life Sicilian-American with a name pulled straight from the Sopranos and a long past in Bayonne, New Jersey hired me to create my version of "momma's sunday italian dinners" gone upscale.

The menu:

Grilled eggplant with verde sauce of parsley, lemon and capers
House-marinated olives with herbs, fennel crackers
Slow-roasted fennel with rosemary and roasted red peppers
Charcuterie (Cullatello from the heart of the prosciutto, hot soppressatta and salami) from Salumi of local fame

Homemade Pappardelle with Braised Pork and Beef Short Rib Sauce with Red Wine (cooked at 225 degrees while we slept the night before the party - thanks to C. for sharing the recipe)
Broccoli Rabe (aka rapini) sauteed with garlic (my assistant extraordinaire tasted for me), pine nuts and golden raisins

Heirloom Tomato Caprese with Housemade Mozzarella (total failure, sub store bought at last moment), Basil and Balsamic

Roasted Fresh Figs with Red wine reduction, Homemade Ricotta with honey (salvaged from failed Mozzarella experiment)


Lemon-polenta cake with olive oil ice cream, raspberries and basil-rosemary sugar

I will tell you that I cheated on this particular evening. My doctor told me that - due to my particular professional needs - tasting was possible, spitting better. I tried the spit method until I made the pasta sauce and asked my wine goddess and my friend bg to taste it. I could tell by their expressions that it lacked a lot.

"*$^%% it!" I said. "I can't do my job and not TASTE my own food!" Tasting wine is certainly possible when spitting, but still not ideal. To truly taste food I think you really need to swallow it. There are taste buds for detecting bitterness at the very back of your tongue and those that detect sour start at the front and line the sides of your tongue all the way to the back. Perhaps, though, my difficulty truly tasting was due to my intense regret at having to spew such yumminess; the whole messy affair left my concentration a little lacking.

I cheated that night. I ate little tastes of pasta, little spoons of tomato sauce, and then... how the disciplined fall - little sips of wine - just to make sure the bottle was sound, of course (clears throat nervously).

Oh, how it all tasted so, so good. I felt self-righteous. I felt relief. Screw it, I said. I'm done with this bullshit.

The next morning my stomach felt bad for the first time in the last two weeks. Guilt? Maybe. Probably not. My wine goddess held my shoulders and reminded me that I can do this. That being disciplined is a good thing. The hardest thing. But worth it. Not only for what I'm learning but for the information this experiment will give me. If I give up now, I won't know if it could have worked. I won't know how my body reacts to foods individually.

And for anyone out there who thinks that when my 90 days are up I just start eating everything right away. Not so. After 90 days, I add one new food every 4 days and record how it makes me feel. No reaction? Back in my diet it goes. Reaction? Wait another 3 months and try again.

What will be the first thing I test? Brewer's yeast. That's right, as found in a glass of red wine.

Which leads me to a question:

If you were on this elimination diet, what would be the first food on the list you'd add back in? (Remember, you can't say pizza, because that would have wheat, tomato and cheese in it).

Sunday, August 24, 2008

This sucks!

When my wine goddess quit smoking, I got a first hand account of how hard giving up a physical and emotional addiction is. Some days it was painful for her. To tell you the truth, some days it was painful for me! She did it, finally... leaving me overwhelmed with pride at the discipline and mental toughness it required of her. Quitting a vice like smoking when you work in the restaurant business is extremely difficult. I also developed a bit of an on and off again smoking habit working in restaurants (sometimes it is the only pseudo-legitimate excuse to take a break). I quit alongside of her but was lucky to never become as addicted.

Addiction to food is another matter entirely. I've been eating ever since I was, uh, fetal. I have a feeling so were you. Never before in my life have I had to show any restraint or discipline when it comes to food. The other day I pondered the fact that this is the very first time in my life I've gone nearly two weeks without wheat. Pizza, bagels, english muffins, pancakes, sandwiches? They have been the starch of my life.

Not only am I, as my softball teammates call me, a veritable "sack of antlers" (and therefore guilty of that thing other women hate in a woman in her late 30's - namely, a metabolism that doesn't quit) but I am also a sensualist, drawn through life from one happy moment to another on the heels of pleasurable smells, tastes and textures. Deprivation is not really in my DNA. I may have tried it on for size as a kid, but that was a game and the fun part was the quick turn-around time to gratification.

I'm losing weight and I don't want to be. I'm grumpy, often, for denying my cravings. My bff quipped that she should join the "diet" with me to lose some extra pounds but then decided it would be a hell of a lot more fun to limit herself to only eating the foods on my "can't touch" list for the next 90 days. In my mind she sits at a huge Roman table mile-high with all of the foods I crave, laughing and cavorting, absent-mindedly dragging her finger through pools of butter sauces, sipping wine, sampling cheeses, biting off huge hunks from a prime rib. She stops momentarily to wipe her lips and throw her head back with a delighted laugh before resuming the bacchinalian feast. She belches. She sighs. And I hate her now.

I have another friend. We'll call her Rice, because that's pretty much all she eats. Rice has serious problems with food... most of it makes her feel sick. I asked her once if it is hard for her to watch people eat all these great foods. "It's easier now, " she told me, "because I know how those foods will make me feel. It's not only not worth it, I actually don't crave them anymore."

See, that's the issue here. This kind of food sensitivity testing most definitely has false positives. Hell, my doctor friend (in family practice) doesn't even think there's any real evidence that this testing in fact finds foods that your body has a problem with. Nonetheless, on my quest to eat garlic again, I'm willing to stop eating these things if it will ultimately help me. But, and here's the big BUT... many of these foods have never made me feel sick so I don't have Rice's association with them. Garlic, on the other hand... I don't crave anymore. I love the smell but I don't feel bad turning down food made with it. Rather, I feel like I dodged a bullet. Turning down a sip of wine, a slice of good bread, an heirloom tomato and that donut offered to me this morning feels like I'm shooting myself in the stomach.

See that baby in the photo pondering her little edward scissorhands thumb-sucking substitute? She isn't fooled by the little imitation fingers of rubber. She wants more out of life than being "satisfied without any harmful effects." And oh, yeah... that's a really bad way to teach a kid anatomy - 7 rubber fingers on each hand?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

I know it's still months away but it's on my mind. It's a holiday that I wish I would have invented; a holiday I love for two reasons:

1. If you believe your 3rd grade history teacher Thanksgiving brought people from very different cultures together around the table. (Of course, to think fondly of this moment in time it helps to pretend you don't know about the whole smallpox infestation and land grab thing.)

2. It's a holiday designed for appreciating what you have. It's even built into the name for people who need visual or auditory reminders. Still, people forget this. I sort of think we need to switch the words and call it Givingthanks, change it up a bit and refocus us all on what it originally stood for. This ploy just might confuse the airlines enough to make the late November rates almost affordable.*

It's not quite November and I'm not yet sitting around the table with my family, but I'm feeling particularly thankful today. My partner, aka my wine goddess, has been overly supportive of me while I try to figure out the food allergy/sensitivity thing... ordering things I can eat in restaurants, reading labels and making sure I stick to the plan. My best friend has gone up, over, and beyond what one should ever expect from a friend... helping me start this blog, and cooking me up a fabulous meal the other night - all things I could eat (grilled salmon, corn on the cob, string beans from her garden with toasted walnuts and lemon, arugula salad with cucumbers pickled in apple cider vinegar.) I felt and feel completely un-deprived. A dinner at Tilth last night to celebrate a friend's birthday found the gracious cooks happily crafting me a four course meal I could eat.

Today I also give thanks to my family for teaching me ethics and self control. Were it not for that, I may have actually acted out what was in my mind today, refusing to keep it tucked away in my personal lock box of private thoughts. Lacking such self-control I just may have drop-kicked that guy eating a croissant outside of the coffee shop, shoved the pastry in my mouth while he picked himself off the floor, buttery flakes of sweet wheat dough fluttering from my lips. Lord knows, he wasn't grateful enough for it.

*if you are a Saudi prince.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Baby Food

I got together with a bunch of old friends that I used to work with in the restaurant business the other day. In the space of 2 minutes I was offered a beer (no), wine (nope), gin (no...distilled from wheat, typically). I asked for water.

They all stared at me.

Then they pointed out the pork ribs (YES! and YUM!) slathered in barbeque sauce (shit. tomatoes, vinegar...NO). Within these 120 seconds I had basically outed myself as a freak. To deny alcohol among industry friends is highly suspect. To deny food is downright nutters.

I had done both.

I have a long track record of being a gourmand (or is the word glutton?). To deny myself food or drink is fairly painful although I'm trying, dammit, to find the silver lining on my empty plate. For now, I try to make my friends laugh as I put on my mini-martyr hat (all the rage) and kvetch and moan dramatically.

I'm trying to appreciate a whole new way of looking at eating.

For example, I put my new way into practice yesterday when I was walking next to Bob's Red Mill Burgers on Phinney Ridge. The common people were eating such silly foodstuffs as cheeseburgers, milkshakes and fries. I realized then and there that my new way looks remarkably like the view through the bars of a prison. A prison that serves tofu. With no sauce. With a view onto a park that serves pizza, cold beer, ice cream and grilled rib-eyes.

In a moment of optimism, I told my friend, "well... the good news is that my stomach has felt pretty darn good these last few days." He replied, "because it's easy to digest NOTHING." True, true I've been reduced to eating like a baby. Nothing processed, nothing artificial, nothing with a list of ingredients. Except for a PMS-induced bag of Zours (amazingly to all who know me I am not "allergic" to the one ingredient I've overdosed on my entire life: sugar) I've been eating carrots, blueberries, bananas, turkey and rice. My most complicated meal in the last 5 days was a very simple non-chile curry made with coconut milk, fish sauce, lime, pork, string beans and carrots.

In a well-respected article in the New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollen says a healthy diet might consist of not eating anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. Besides the Zours - a "phood" I don't even think my brother recognizes, I'm well on my way.

The silver lining on my plate turns out not to be on my plate, after all. It's in my glass. My doctor actually told me that I can have top-shelf triple-distilled tequilas. And wouldn't you know it, corn chips are a-ok with a dusting of salt and a splash of lime. Life is still good. Very good.

And just a little blurry.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Today my car was "egged". You remember that from your childhood, right? On Hallow's Eve those "rotten kids" as my grandmother might say would run around throwing eggs on people's cars.

I got into some mischief as a kid, but I never egged anyone's car. Why not? Because one time driving home with my dad - I must have been 8 or so - one hit the side of my dad's pride and joy - a 70's era yellow, Porsche 914 convertible - with little rust spots eating holes in the side. What happened next has been emblazoned on my memory forever. He stopped the car on a dime, ran over to the bushes, unearthed one of the kids (I've never before or since seen my father move so fast) held onto his shirt and screamed at him until I was convinced the kid had wet himself. I stayed in the car, parked askew in the middle of the road, doing my very best impersonation of a petrified egg.

Don't get me wrong, my dad's a good man, just rather imposing and intimidating at 6' 2" and prone to a mighty temper. Fast forward 9 years and that same Porsche was one of the first cars I got to test-drive, with him watching me like a hawk from the passenger seat as the sun beat down on us as we pulled away from the softball fields where I was his biggest fan. I can remember his words like it was yesterday, "wanna take it for a spin?" I almost dropped the keys that he threw my way.

I thought about this memory today cleaning the egg off the hood of my car, a ten year old maroon Toyota Rav 4, reliable but not nearly so flashy and fun.

Worth noting, however, is that my second thought when I saw the egg on my car was that I wished I could eat it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Last meal

It's sort of strange to admit to this now but when I was a kid I remember doling out only a very small portion of each item of food onto my plate and pretending I was a starving child in some remote country. It was a bizarre exercise in artificial deprivation and for the 3 minutes I conducted my upper-middle class experiment I fully savored each little bite.

I've always appreciated my food, but rarely make the time to be completely in the moment when I eat wonderful things. There is one exception. A hamachi hand roll from a great sushi restaurant will stop me in my tracks.

Sometimes I even close my eyes. My partner (in life and crime) does this every time she eats a fried egg with bacon on toast. If something is that good, it seems best to close out one sense to heighten another.

Perhaps taste buds prefer total darkness.

I did this unintentionally last night when I ate that avocado. Thank god it wasn't one of those total bummer of an avocados. You know the ones - they look perfect on the outside and then are completely black and nasty on the inside.

My last meal consisted of that perfect avocado dribbled with balsamic vinegar, salt and olive oil, a fried egg and some toast. To drink? I had a supremely lucky day yesterday. I almost can't say it again, but I need to give up wine for 90 days. My partner is a sommelier! I'm surrounded by lovely wines often! But I will not whine! I will not!

Except now, I really need to. Apparently.

But back to being lucky. And supremely appreciative. I was with some old friends last night and we all went to the Corson Building picnic. We started talking about favorite wines and I mentioned one of mine: Cayuse Vineyards Syrah. About 30 minutes later we're talking with another group of folks (most everyone at this picnic was involved in the food or wine business) and they are pouring each other glasses of my very favorite wine, a wine I have not been able to afford or get easily in the 5 years since I've coveted it. (It has achieved a somewhat cult status and there is a wait-list to order it). I am offered a glass and I can't think of a more perfect last glass of wine to have on this particular evening.

And yes, I closed my eyes.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A question.

Q: Name an ingredient that would be the worst food for a chef to be allergic to.

Wait for it.

A: That's right contestants. If you said "garlic" you'd be absolutely right.

Now we could begin a rather lengthy and controversial discussion about what constitutes an "allergy" versus a "sensitivity" but when push comes to shove it is pretty darn clear that when my body encounters garlic (especially in its raw form) it revolts. The bigger the amount of the garlic, the longer and more drawn out the revolution. I will spare you all the details but the general pattern goes something like this:

12:32pm - Decide to eat a Caesar salad.
1:00pm - Point out to dining companion how I might look were I five months pregnant.
1:10pm - Excuse myself to the bathroom (use your imagination).
1:20pm - Feverish without having a fever.
1:30pm to sometime the next day - Lay in bed exhausted, sick and miserable.

There's this chef who is allergic to garlic. It's like the opening line of a bad joke - and I haven't yet found the humor in it. Yet.

It hasn't always been like this. There were years and years of using garlic in my cooking, licking my fingers after pulling out tray after tray of lemon juice-doused roasted garlic chicken wings with lemon-thyme. Days of eating garlicky chorizo, mediterranean dips, roasted garlic dressings. Then, about a year ago, I started developing stomach problems. I thought I had food poisoning 7-8 times in one year alone.

I paid attention to what I was eating and how I was feeling. After several months of this I finally came to the truly terrible conclusion that I was the chef in the beginning of that joke.

I avoided eating garlic and raw onions (similar, but less severe reaction) like the plague for 6 months. I explained to my private chef clients that I need to refrain from using it because I can't taste what I can't eat and I can't serve what I can't taste. My partner stopped eating it for the most part so we could continue sharing plates at restaurants. My best friend who loves me only slightly more than garlic, started making me garlic-free food whenever I came over. When asked, I told my cooking students why garlic doesn't appear in my recipes any longer. Then, one day, (cue dramatic, over-wrought, after-school special music) a student in my class sends me an email that intimates that I don't have to avoid garlic for the rest of my life. That I can go see this doctor and take a test and continue to avoid it for a certain amount of time and then add it back to my diet later. It's worked for people she knows with other foods. She, in fact, is trying it herself.

You need to know a little something more about me to put this all in context.

I'm a cynic's cynic.

Perhaps it's my east-coast, scientifically-oriented upbringing where to ask questions is de trust or believe in anything unproven by the double-blind placebo controlled study is foolish. Believe nothing until proven otherwise. So, when my student gave me this information I had a whole lot of doubts, mixed in with a scant little bit of hope that bubbled up to the surface and was immediately squelched. And then, out of nowhere, I decided to try it all anyway. After all, how hard can it be to continue giving up garlic and onions for a few more months and then add it back? I was nervous to add garlic back into my diet in the future because it's sort of like someone putting a dish in front of you and telling you that it is contaminated with Salmonella and you may be sick as a dog for at least 24 hours, but go ahead and eat it anyway. Bon appetit!

So I got that blood test last week and I have the results. They appear to the upper right. Here I thought the test would come back confirming what I already knew... that I'm allergic to garlic and onions and lo and behold, 24 ingredients appeared on the list. Garlic? Onion? came back negative on the test. My inner cynic immediately scoffed. The doctor explained that it could be due to garlic/onion being an IgE mediated response (this test shows Ig-G responses) or that due to the fact that I have avoided it for many months my blood isn't showing any antigen reaction. I don't claim to understand this. I don't even claim to believe it. But until someone tells me differently, it's a path. A path that has been pointed out to me so that I might begin eating one of my favorite foods again and using it in my profession. It might not work. But at least it's something.

Little did I know, or expect, that my 90 day garlic and raw onion avoidance diet would expand to 24 additional ingredients including some major staples of my life. Wheat! Beef! Milk! Cheese! Eggs! Yeast! Brewer's Yeast (that's WINE and BEER and most vinegar)! Avocado (say it ain't so!) Tomatoes!! (and it's August and heirloom tomatoes are spilling from farmer's market tables). For the next 90 days I will avoid all restaurants, cook most of my own food (thank god I'm a chef), and then, one by one, bring back all my old, favorite friends and see which ones my body will embrace and which ones my body will reject.

At first, I thought...hell no, there's no way I'm going to do this. It's only garlic and onion that make me so sick..why give up these other ingredients? The doctor explained that these other ingredients may be weakening my immune system and creating a cascade-effect where more and more foods make me feel ill. I was poised to reject this out-right and so I went and in some form of bizarre rebellion, ate a whole bunch of ice cream and cheese. Which, I must admit, promptly made me feel bad. Not bad, as in I just ate a whole bunch of ice cream and cheese...not bad, like garlic... but bad, like my body is simply not dealing with this food well. I looked down at my developing food-baby (around 3 months pregnant I'd put it) and allowed this thought to come to me (tongue firmly in cheek): did I just love too much? Has my lifelong obsessive love affair with certain ingredients become dysfunctional?

I like playing this game with people. The one where you get to pick 10 foods to take with you to a deserted island. What's on my list? Red wine (nope), baguettes (nope), cheese (nope), greens (still okay), chocolate (strictly dark), ribeye (nope), peaches (thank god yes), olives (as long as they are not in vinegar), tomatoes (nope), avocado (nope).

I, just from experience and training alone, am better poised to deal with the next 3 months than anyone else. As a chef it is part of my job to work around people's food allergies, dislikes and sensitivities. It is one of the first questions I ask clients. I've just never had to answer the question myself. I wore the fact that I could eat EVERYTHING as a badge of honor and while it humbles me to admit to it now, I sometimes secretly doubted other people's food allergies. I even used air-quotes around the word "allergies".

Now, with my humility restored, I sit here watching an avocado approach perfect ripeness so that I can eat it out of hand on Sunday night. Monday morning I say goodbye, hopefully not for long, to 26 of my closest friends.