Monday, September 29, 2008

Love letter

Pike Place Market at dusk

It was exactly this time of year 13 years ago when I first laid eyes on Seattle. Oh, what a looker she was on that day; a day so remarkable, the cloudless sky and razor sharp edges of two mountain ranges made a girl feel woozy taking in all of the beauty. I had been living in Washington, D.C. at the time and came out West to visit an old friend who was on a one-woman mission to make Seattle my home.

Two experiences led up to my decision to go back to D.C., call U-Haul and get packing. First, I carelessly left my wallet in a cab. When I realized what I had done, I called the cab company and asked them to keep an eye out for it. Three hours later the phone rings. A passenger in the cab turned it in to the driver who insists on personally driving back to return it to me; does he need my friend's address? "Not at all," he tells me, "I remember where I dropped you off. I'll be right there." When he arrived, I gushed with gratitude and tried to slip a $20 into his hand to thank him. He handed the money back, smiled and wished me a lovely stay in Seattle.

Baby artichokes at the Ballard Sunday Farmer's Market

The other experience that sealed the deal was when I was walking with my friend along a quiet street in Madrona. It was early fall and the sun hit our faces at an autumnal angle, close enough to warm but far enough away to feel the crispness in the air. As we walked, my friend casually picked fruit off of the trees that lined the streets. She handed me an Italian plum with dusty white-purple skin that shined up after a few passes on my jeans. "Is this illegal?" I ask her, scanning the streets for security cameras. She tells me there are oodles of overflowing fruit - too much to eat - while she lazily kicks at the rotting plums in the grass to make her point. On the next block she tugs a perfectly ripe pear off a branch and now I know she's just showing off. I move my line of questioning to personal health, "What if it has pesticides all over it?" "I doubt it," she tells me, "people care more about their food here." And by way of explanation she states simply enough, "It's Seattle."

A vision of the "Soviet Safeway" where we shopped in Adam's Morgan, D.C. comes to mind, so named for the perceived scarcity of quality produce in certain inner city neighborhoods. After years of living in dirty urban areas, it's hard to adjust to eating a piece of fruit right off the street. You'd have to be totally out of your mind to contemplate eating anything off the street in most urban areas, unless it's a hot dog or a pretzel or you are supremely hungry. Let's be real - you're not even given the opportunity in most urban areas. Unless you are in Seattle or a similar Urban-Eden, there would be no chance to earn those blackberry scars on your arms, shallow, pencil lead-thin scratchings from joyous forays into the heart of the bushes come August. You wouldn't have to contemplate whether or not to gather up spring nettles in one of the city's numerous public green spaces to make soup. You wouldn't know that figs, heirloom apples and Rainier cherries could be so abundant, falling at your feet as you walk the streets.

Cheese squash (white), Hubbard (green) and unidentified (orange)

Now, after so many years, I know these truths intimately and it's hard to remember a time when the word "city" meant something very different to me. Today, Seattle, I send you a love letter for opening my eyes and teaching me that a city can be rich with beauty and generosity, natural and man-made.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Marbles and flowers

I was finishing up teaching a cooking class the other night when I get a text from my wine goddess. "I'm making you dinner!" it says. This might not seem so strange but to put this into context, in the time we've been together, there has only been one other occasion I can remember when these particular words have ever been strung together and uttered from her lips.

No. Scratch that. It was a lunch she made me that time. I had never heard these words before.

To further contextualize the moment, imagine you were with a chef and you were deciding what to make them for dinner. No one wants to cook for me save for my best friend and, to be fair, the wine goddess and I both work nights, rendering dinner together rare in the first place. When we do have a night off I'm more than happy to whip something up or go out.

I'm actually, surprisingly, easy to please. I love a simple grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup. I love pasta. I swoon over everyday things, like mac and cheese and anything grilled. Just throw a steak on the grill for a minute and I'm perfectly happy. Cheese, bread, tomatoes, steak, pasta.... none of it I can eat right now. However, now is when the wine goddess decides to make me dinner. "You're getting too skinny!" she says, "I need to DO something!" It's such a sweet gesture that I rush home excited to be cooked for, happy to sit down and let her serve me a meal.

On the top step of our landing, I smell the food of my ancestors: chicken in a broth, carrot, celery...a touch of... but wait, what is that? Something Indian? Floral?

I walk in the front door and a moment before I hear her voice I see a wooden spoon standing straight up out of our small pot on the stove. Like a funereal chopstick defying the laws of gravity, it seems to signal something ominous. "I think I screwed up the rice!" she yells down the hall.

My wine goddess is a walking encyclopedia of all things grape, music, and pop culture. She can sing like an angel, charm the pants off anyone and do a mean Cher impersonation.

A cook she is not.

This is not to say she hasn't mastered a few things in her time here on earth: popcorn, fried eggs, bacon, toast and a strong cup of coffee are her culinary calling cards. When she cooks, she cooks by feel. She loathes directions and poo-poos recipes. She moves through life lifting her nose to the wind and sniffing out her next move. I use the word "sniffing" in strictly a metaphorical sense as allergies leave her actual sniffer at times compromised.

Times such as now.

When she noticed that the rice seemed bland and mushy, intuition moved her to my spice wall, where magnets hold little containers of unlabeled spices with see-through windows so that I can identify what it is I'm grabbing for. The bright color of turmeric caught her eye and several tablespoons made their way into the cooked rice, garishly transforming it before her eyes. Not entirely satisfied, she reached for what she thought might be thyme (but she's not entirely sure). "This will teach you to LABEL your spices!" she teasingly scolds me later. As a final flourish, she added a pinch of my truffle salt and hoped for the best. That's when I walked in the door.

We sit down to eat and I'm grinning from ear to ear, touched by her obvious love and effort. On our plates: baked chicken legs with sage, steamed broccoli, carrots and celery. I'm forcing back a smile at the sight of the rice, a yellow beacon of a pile, heaped up high against its chicken fence. It takes all of the love in my heart to swallow my bite of rice down. In that long moment from pulling it off the fork (no easy task) to my hard swallow I realized a few things. First, she doesn't have ANY rice on her plate. Second, it dawns on me what that overwhelming floral scent is. The "thyme" she thought was thyme was lavender. Lots of it.

What does Turmeric and Lavender rice taste like? Imagine eating ground marbles and dirt mixed with soap and flowers. I can't help but think the analogy rivals some of her most esoteric wine descriptions. I offer her a small bite. She forcefully shakes her head, smiles and says, "HELL no!"

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Soy sauce is so totally last month

Perhaps I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. I don't believe in heaven but if I did it would look distinctly like a sushi bar. My bar stool would have a gilded hamachi hand roll on the back. The place wouldn't be called "Cheers" - that wouldn't be right. It's in Tokyo, after all. Perhaps "Kampai!" and yes, everyone would know my name.

So when I sat in my naturopath's office waiting impatiently for the "list" while he danced around the food allergy elephant in the room, all I could think about was sushi. I believed in that moment I could go without a lot of things for 3 months: friends, money, shelter, no problem. Could I go without sushi? I didn't think so.

There's this magazine for food allergy folks. It's got this very sad little name. It's called: Living Without. I first learned about this magazine when I was hired as a consultant to a family with many food allergies. They wanted help with recipes and resources. I almost couldn't stand to point them in the direction of a resource called Living Without. That was in the halcyon days when I was naively awash in Living With and thought that it was terribly depressing of the publishers to focus on the Without. Then my doctor tells me I can't have vinegar or soy sauce because they are fermented with yeast. Rice vinegar is what makes sushi rice so yummy. Soy sauce is the ketchup of Asia! Damn my doctor.

No matter! I can devise a work-around and work around I do!

It goes like this: I order a take-out deluxe sashimi dinner from my local sushi bar. Miso soup please, no onions thank you. When I get home my lab and cocker spaniel run to their invisible marks at my side, acutely aware of their roles in this now semi-weekly play. I feed the lab the egg and the cocker the snapper-ish/bass-like fish that I haven't been able to properly identify and my limited Japanese is no help. I throw the pickled ginger and the daikon radish in the compost and try not to sigh when doing this. I pull out a bag of my own nori and cut it into quarters. I take the side of plain steamed rice they give you and make my own sushi rice by adding a few capfuls of apple cider vinegar, some sesame seeds and sea salt and a little bit of agave syrup for sweetness. Next, I grab a small bowl and squeeze half a lemon into it and stir in some sea salt. Now it's show time. I grab the nori and make my own hand rolls. Some rice, some hamachi, a little bit of shiso leaf, a smear of wasabi and I roll it up like a big fish cigarette and dip it into the lemon-salt.

It's fabulous.

It's so fabulous I hardly miss the soy sauce and its inherent wheat and yeast. After all, everyone knows Lemon Salt is the new Soy.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Smells of chestnuts

Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars

T.S. Eliot

I keep reading about people who have lost their sense of smell. My friend Seattle Tall Poppy told me about a chef/writer who was blogging about her fledgling culinary career; out for a run one day she was hit by a car and as a result of a skull fracture lost her sense of smell.

Although she is slowly recovering it, bit by bit, there are many others who never do. A friend of mine (the woman, not the dog, pictured above) has such terrible allergies and asthma that she hasn't smelled anything in years. One day, her smell came back and she ran around sticking her nose into everything. A few days later, it was gone again.

I think about these people when I smell bagels that I can't eat or when I inhale the scent of pizza cooking in a wood-fired oven. I think about them when I remember how - for a second - I wished I couldn't smell the foods I can't eat, to relieve myself of my temptations. I think about them when I realize that I would never wish this upon anyone, and I shouldn't wish it upon myself, even temporarily.

Smell is so intimately connected with memory. Passing by a bakery tempts me on one level, but it also triggers my nostalgia and connects me to places I may have long since forgotten. The scent of bread baking takes me to the Cabbagetown Cafe in Ithaca, New York, near where I went to college. I'm slurping up some vegetarian chili and eating a hunk of fresh baked bread. The smell of one sprig of curly parsley finds me instantly in my grandmother's 50's-era canary yellow kitchen where she hands me a bit after a meal and tells me it is "nature's breath mint". The smell of chestnuts? Vancouver, B.C.: We're walking along the water holding little wax bags of hot chestnuts. It's dusk and my brother is far up ahead of us. We can hear the distorted, surreal sounds of his trumpet as he practices.

There's another chef I heard about: she had a sinus infection and used a nasal gel product that contains zinc. Apparently these types of medications, of which Zicam and Cold-Eeze are examples, have been associated with the onset of anosmia: a condition that can permanently affect one's sense of smell and taste. There have been law suits and the makers of Zicam settled out of court. The woman was a private chef and culinary instructor. She had to quit her jobs.

In a few months I'll begin to know which foods I shouldn't eat anymore (I'm thinking garlic, onions and dairy). I will mourn these foods. I will miss them like you do old friends you love but realize you don't have much in common with anymore. I will miss their presence in my life even though I know the relationship has changed.

All the same, when I feel wistful, I can lean forward and breathe them in and touch a part of my past. For that, I'm lucky.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Never trust a skinny chef

I may have mentioned that my softball team calls me a "sack of antlers". Recently, one of my buddies on the team thought she located a vestigial dorsal fin on my spine, which led to much speculation that I used to be a dolphin or perhaps a snapper. Before long, I started to hear "let's go BONES" when I'd get up to bat.

Alright, so I'm skinny. And quite tall.

A tall drink of water, as they say in the south.

As a chef, this is a liability. Let's all say it together: "Never trust a skinny chef." Here's another saying, newly developed, "Never trust a chef who won't eat her own food." Or this one: "Never trust a chef who develops hives shortly after eating her own food."

Last night at the Redmond PCC, I was teaching a recipe that involved braising short ribs in coffee and spices. It's finished with 70% dark chocolate swirled into the pan juices. A take on mole, it is utterly irresistible. Not wanting to spit out my own food in front of the students I took a micro-taste of it, along with a similar baby-sized teaspoon of the mashed potatoes (finished with butter, cream and sour cream). Before the night was over, I also sampled a tiny bit of a chanterelle soup that had some butter and cream in it.

Fast forward an hour later, I'm home relaxing when my abdomen, back and arms break out in hives. I've only had hives one other time in my life. This is highly unusual for me and I can't help but think my body is now very sensitive to whatever it is I'm allergic/intolerant of. I now believe my doctor is right about one thing. Garlic is not the only problem.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Crazy Purse Lady in Reverse IN ACTION!

I wish I had video of this. If I did, the soundtrack would be the theme song to Benny Hill.

Picture this. Group of 8 out at their favorite Mexican joint in Shoreline. Beers and margaritas are ordered. I get my now signature sipping tequila (Corralejo this time around).

I order the Shrimp Salad. I tell the waiter to hold the tomato, hold the onion, hold the avocado, hold the cheese. Just hold all the f-*&$^* flavor. Thank you.

As soon as my plate of iceburg lettuce and flacid boiled shrimp arrive and the waiter leaves, the Crazy Purse Lady in Reverse tm (with retractable hand and piercing whine!) is put into action. I reach for my bag, grab for my tortilla chips (not fried in canola) crush them up and chuck them on my plate. Ignoring the jeers and laughter of my dining companions, smug with their sour cream and carne asada, I reach in my bag for more. Out comes some green olives (not marinated in vinegar - most types have brewer's yeast in it) BAM! they go on. Then, for the dressing... a bit of sea salt and then out comes a little eye dropper of extra virgin olive oil (not to be found at a mexican restaurant) and a squeeze of lime.

The waiter comes back, looks at my plate, looks away and then does the most classic double-take: "Oh!" he says, "that looks beeery nice!" and silently laughs at the crazy gringa freak and her green olives.

To purchase your very own Crazy Purse Lady in Reverse tm, send me an email. Included in the purchase price:

1. Mini eye-dropper filled with high quality olive oils.
2. Emergency rice bars to stave off the hangries.
3. Wallet-sized list of foods you can't eat.
4. Airplane bottles of Hornitos.
5. Limited edition Freak Flag

Friday, September 5, 2008

Is there cheese in that?

Probably the hardest part of this experiment in food deprivation is realizing one of my age-old fears; namely that I will turn into that person (you know the type) that keeps a server at the table for 15 minutes asking them every last ingredient. The kind of person who makes their food "issues" everyone else's issue. The kind of person who feels the need to blog about their food issues.

You know the type.

I classify these kinds of people into 6 distinct categories:

Type #1: (a classic!)
"The Sometimes-a-tarian"
We used to see these types in the restaurants all the time. They come in, state emphatically that they are a vegetarian, claim the restaurant doesn't have enough vegetarian choices and then we see them eating meat off their spouse's plate. These people give actual vegetarians a bad name. They should be shot and sold as steaks.

Type #2:
"The Prosecuter"
This type tends to hold up lines grilling the teenager taking their coffee order about every ingredient in every food in the case (even though the ingredients are listed on the labels). The Prosecuter is never satisfied with the answers and seeks to fluster the teenager/defendent into admitting they don't really know what's in the food. My favorite example of this type happened just this morning. A woman approached the counter and asked, "is there cheese in that bagel??" pointing to a pizza bagel. "Yes," said the teenager. "What about that one?" pointing to an asiago bagel. "Yes," said the teenager. I began to feel a sort of empathy for the woman, assuming she can't eat dairy. The teenager tells the woman that there are other bagels not in the case that don't have cheese on them. The woman nods and keeps up the inquiry. "Is there cheese in that?" "Is there cheese in that?" Finally, she nods, points her finger and says she'll take the pizza bagel.

Type #3:
"The Reading is Fundamental Poster Child"
My wine goddess loves this type. When she used to wait tables she often dealt with customers who from either sheer laziness or perhaps legitimate illiteracy would point to an entree that says, "Chicken stuffed with goat cheese" and ask, "Is there cheese in that?"

Type #4:
"The Bait and Switch"
This type will often say, "I like everything!" when invited over to your home for dinner. Once there, they dramatically unfurl their figurative parchment scroll of allergies and food sensitivities. Amazingly, they can't eat exactly what you prepared for dinner.

Type #5:
"The Crazy Purse Lady"
This type is very close to my heart as my grandmothers, aged 96 and 99 and still kickin', gave me my first insight into the telltale characteristics. They tend to have fistfuls of peppermint candies in their purses taken in huge amounts from local restaurants. When asked about them they tend to say, "well we PAY for them, now don't we?" Seek treatment for the afflicted if you notice wads of crushed saltine packages in the bottom of the purse, as they are another indicator that the diagnosis is accurate. The discovery of little butter pads is a distinct sign that this type is well beyond reasonable treatment options.

and finally...

Type #6
"The Crazy Purse Lady in Reverse"
That's me. I go to restaurants and my bag coughs out some food I can actually eat.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Full Belly

Last night my wine goddess' restaurant blew a transformer and they had to shut down. An unexpected and rare night off together found us strolling the local co-op shelves looking for dinner. My bff (a fabulous cook, in her own right) inspired me with her suggestion of taking my one alcohol (TEQUILA!) and combining it with roast chicken, black beans and mango.

Last night we ate heartily.

Last night we ate well and wow, not one of those 26 ingredients played a part. Most food elimination diets inevitably end up dairy, wheat/gluten, and egg free as they are common ingredients people might have a problem with. If anyone out there is trying to figure out food allergies/sensitivities and you have a similar list of ingredients you need to avoid, try this for dinner.

Caribbean-style Chicken
with Coconut Black Beans,
Greens and Sweet Potato Fries
Serves 4


1 pound Chicken Thighs, bone-in -- leave the skin on
Extra virgin olive oil -- as needed
½ tsp Coriander, ground
½ tsp Cumin Seed, ground
¼ tsp Cinnamon, Ground
Salt and Pepper to taste -- as needed
¼ cup Tequila -- divided
2 medium Sweet Potatoes -- peeled and cut into long, 1/2" by 1/2" rectangular fries
1 bunch Kale, Lacinato (my favorite) -- strip the leaves away from the stalks, discard stalks
1 can Black Beans -- drained, rinsed
1 ear Corn -- kernals cut off, corn "milk" scraped from cob with a spoon
1 bunch Cilantro -- chopped (cut the stems right along with the leaves)
1 tablespoon Raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar -- or more to taste
1 can Coconut Milk
Limes -- as needed


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet pan with foil. Trim the chicken thighs of excess fat but leave some on the top (I'm trying to keep some meat on my own bones here, people). Mix about 1 tablespoon olive oil with the spices, salt and pepper and half of the tequila. But first, taste the tequila and make sure it is palatable. Taste again. Rub the tequila and spices all over the chicken pieces. In another bowl, mix the mango slices with the other part of the tequila, or pour some more if it's already gone. Add some salt to the mango. Set aside.

Line a second sheet pan with foil. Mix the sweet potato pieces with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.

Open the oven door and throw in the tray of sweet potato fries and the tray of chicken. Roast the chicken until the skin becomes golden brown and the meat is cooked through (about 30 minutes). Halfway through the cooking time, add the mango pieces to the pan, all around the chicken. The fries should be done at the same time as the chicken; you want them to be golden brown in spots.

In a large pot, add a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the chopped greens and saute for a few minutes until they wilt down. Add some salt and pepper. When wilted, add the black beans, corn and corn milk, cilantro, apple cider vinegar, and coconut milk. Stir and cook while the chicken and fries are in the oven. Season to taste with more vinegar, salt and pepper before serving.

This is best served in wide, shallow bowls to catch the coconut broth from the beans. Scoop the beans and greens into the center of the bowl. Top with a piece of chicken and some mango. Stack a bunch of sweet potato fries to the side of the chicken. Instruct your guests, your loved one or yourself to squeeze some lime wedges over the whole bowl. Eat heartily and note that you don't miss a damn thing.