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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

bacon from A & J Meats

bacon from A&J's

For the past ten months, we have been on the search for the perfect bacon. We've tried organic bacon, applewood smoked bacon, bacon from Whole Foods, bacon from the Market, imported bacon, and the cheapest bacon available at the grocery store down the street. They have all pleased us — it is bacon — but not one has been the platonic ideal of bacon that our mouths have been imagining.

Why is it that we sometimes have to go so far from home before we realize what we have?

A & J Meats sits six blocks from our home. When I walk into the wood-panelled room with glass display cases, I feel like I have walked into a butcher’s shop from the 1950s. The tops of the cases are lined with bottles of locally made tartar sauce, barbeque spices in tins, and an old-fashioned ticket dispenser for the customers who throng into the place. Milling about the store are neighborhood moms and dads, their toddlers running toward the hot dogs. If it is Saturday morning, then the woman in her eighties comes in for a single lamb chop; she is given preferential treatment, because she has been a customer at the shop longer than some of the butchers have been working there. Behind the counters walk friendly men and women in crisp white aprons, ready with smiles and advice. I ask my favorite butchers — one of whom is a woman — what is good that day. This curiosity and trust led me to cook my first flank steak, pork tenderloin, and duck breast. Every time, the butchers walked me through the process of searing or roasting, both with their handouts copied on colored paper and their murmured words of encouragement. Even if the meat shrink-wrapped in supermarkets is slightly cheaper, the personal service I receive at A&J’s is worth the extra cost.

And the bacon? Oh, the bacon. It is dense with meaty flavor — how do I name the flavor of bacon? smoky? earthiness? a certain chew? In the days when I was a teacher, I probably would have brought bacon in for my students and asked them to chew some and describe it. But me? I'm stymied. There's some elusive depth that is beyond my comprehension. Maybe that's why I go back to it. Exploring the infinite wisdom of bacon.

Have you ever noticed how much fat is in commercial bacon? Some brands, it seems that each slice is swathed with white fat, with only a thin thread of pink meat to make it seem that you are eating bacon. But A and J's? Well, look at it. Of all the bacons I have eaten lately, this one is the most bacony.

The other day, when I stopped by for another half pound, I asked a silly question of one of the butchers. "Where do you find this stuff?"

He looked up at me, puzzled, and then said, "We make it ourselves." Take some pork belly, brine it in sugar and spices, let it sit, and then slice it thick.

Oh that's right. Every butcher used to do this — make their own meat.

If you live in Seattle, no matter what part, it's worth a trip to A and J's. Aside from the apricot pork sausage and the house-cured brisket and the top sirloin so juicy it just glistens? You really just need to buy some bacon.

In fact, with all this writing, I just figured out what we're having for breakfast tomorrow.


Beneficial Design

For the past couple of months, I have had the pleasure of working with Kaytlyn Sanders, who runs Beneficial Design. We met after I put up a little ad on Craigslist, asking for help. There were numbers of offers. When I met her at my local organic coffee house, I knew within two minutes that she was the right one. That's how the best people seem to enter my life — immediately and deeply. Her open eyes, gentle laughter, and keen design sense made me feel comfortable. This website is my baby. I knew I could hand it over to her without fear that she would drop it.

We have been conferring over emails and cups of coffee, laughing at life and becoming friends, in the process. She's lovely. She understood that I wanted a clean, clear look, with plenty of white space, and a readable font. (finally!) I had taken this website as far as I could, alone. But now, I know: there's no need to go it alone anymore.

Without Kaytlyn, this website simply couldn't exist.


Super Natural Cooking

the cover of Heidi's book

If you still have the idea that grains other than wheat are "weird," that healthful food has to be boring, and that only out-of-fashion old hippies eat wild rice and millet, then you need to change your mind.

Luckily, Heidi Swanson will change your mind.

You may already know Heidi from 101 Cookbooks, or Mighty Foods, two of my favorite food websites. I've beeen an enormous fan of Heidi's gorgeous photographs for years. In fact, she was one of my inspirations for pointing my camera toward my meals in the first place.

Heidi's second book, Super Natural Cooking, has hit the stores. I feel lucky; I already have my own copy. Heidi sent it to me in the mail, as a thank you for testing the recipes. You see, I had to keep this quiet when the book was in production, and I certainly couldn't take photographs, but I had the honor of testing a few recipes for Heidi, and giving her feedback. (You can even find my name in the page of acknowledgments!)

I can say, therefore, with no qualifications, that you should own this book. The photographs are stunning, the header notes are filled with interesting stories, and the recipes yield bright, alive food. This food is good for you, true. But you will want to eat it, and then eat some more.

And for those of us who are gluten-free? This book is a godsend. Heidi has an entire chapter on grains beyond wheat, with fascinating capsule descriptions of grains such as amaranth and teff, and even mesquite flour, available to us. Even the few recipes that involve whole wheat can fairly easily be adapted to be gluten-free.

Don't believe me yet? Listen to these recipes:

Millet Fried Rice
Red Indian Carrot Soup
Winter Rainbow Gratin
Quinoa and Corn Flour Crepes

Those are just some of the ones I tested. Oh, yum.

Add to that Heidi's sexy, attentive photographs, filled with color and a sense of play, and you will quickly be drawn in to reading, more and more.

In the mornings, the Chef likes to read the entire newspaper. Me? After a few minutes, I usually switch to a cookbook, perusing recipes and figuring out what to cook for him that night, my mind enticed by all the ideas inside the pages. I can promise you this — for the next few days, I'll have Super Natural Cooking by my bed. Grilled teff wedges, here I come.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Comfort restaurant

the perfect Manhattan (in Richmond)

And for dinner? A Southern comfort restaurant I stumbled on, in Richmond, Virginia, unexpectedly.

After my rapid-fire visit to Manhattan, I flew to Richmond to prepare for the Gluten Intolerance Group’s annual conference. Exhausted from all the traveling, I thought of just eating the energy bars in my bag and crashing in my hotel room. But downtown Richmond called.

My lovely hotel — formerly a row house from the 1820s, with a courtyard and rocking chairs on the porches — was in the dilapidated area of downtown Richmond. Most stores were closed, or going out of business. But the streets had character, and the stores that were open convinced me at one glance that I was in the South. Humid air and vivid colors, people congregating on the street in chattering clutches, and movie theatres from the 20s — Richmond called me out of my room.

Lunch had been eight hours before, and even though that meal at Gotham had been one of the best I had ever eaten, the stomach still grows hungry. The guy at the front desk of the hotel recommended some restaurants. Everything he recommended sounded cheesy, and meant for tourists. No thanks. “There is this place called Comfort,” he drawled, a little reluctant to tell me. “It’s Southern food.”

I was out the door.

Wherever I go, I like to eat the food of that culture. There’s something inherently depressing about going to a chain restaurant and having the food taste exactly the same as it does 2400 miles away. And whenever I travel, it seems, the best restaurants are the ones that hotel folks are a little reluctant to recommend.

When I walked into Comfort, I felt right at home. High ceilings, cool colors, ivy growing up a wall of windows — this place exuded cool. I sat at the bar and smiled at the bartender.

These days, I don’t have much chance to walk into a restaurant by myself, particularly one where I don’t know anyone. At one point in my life, I felt prickly with nervousness at being alone in a public place. Now, I revel in it.

The bartender made me a Manhattan, after I asked him what was his favorite drink to make at the moment. He was right. It was spectacular.

When I asked the bartender about the gluten issue, he asked for help. The owner — wonderfully friendly and eager to please — came over to ask me how he could help. I walked him through everything. He went back to the kitchen to check. He came back to tell me about the cornmeal they use, stone ground in a mill only a few towns away. One more check, and we had a plan. (That’s what I love about the best restaurants — they make me feel like I’m a guest, and they are thrilled to serve me.) What was for dinner?

Barbecued pulled pork, fried okra, and cheddar cheese grits.

Hello, I’m in the South.

I called the Chef to share it with him. When I told him the meal that was coming, he said, “That’s my girl.”

Everything was heaven. My mouth still waters at the thought of that pulled pork — spicy, but not enough to emblazon my mouth; slightly sweet; subtle in the layering — clearly made slowly, with love. And those cheddar cheese grits? Oh my goodness, how have I never made grits? Time to rectify that. Okra? I had never eaten it. But okra fried in cornmeal? I’ll be eating that again.

(Here I must leave an important note. A wonderful woman I met at the conference the next day emailed me a few days later. She said she had been to Comfort, on my recommendation, the next day. The waitress that night informed her that the cornmeal in the fried okra is mixed with a little wheat flour. The owner swore to me that wasn’t true. Who to believe? I didn’t feel sick immediately after my meal, as I always do when I get gluten by mistake. The next day I felt a little off, with some familiar intestinal troubles, but I thought that was the airport food, which is a story for a few days from now. If you go to Comfort, ask carefully, and make your own judgments.)

Within a few moments, people to my left and right spotted my camera, and my pen. They asked me I was doing a review. Of a sorts. And within ten minutes, we were all chattering away, talking about food and love. By the end of the meal, I had made new friends.

A fabulous dinner, a decadent cocktail, and conversations with everyone around me? That’s my idea of comfort.

200 West Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23220


Gotham Bar and Grill

I ate at Gotham Bar and Grill.

Now, this was no random occurrence. For weeks, I had been anticipating this lunch. You see, I was meeting my editor at Wiley, and the person in charge of marketing for my book. For days, I had been saying with a straight face, “Oh, I’ll be in Manhattan, meeting my editor and marketing person.” It didn’t take me long to start giggling. How is this my life?

My wonderful editor and I have been talking for nearly a year, laughing on the phone about food and cultural mishaps. Most of the time, we’re eagerly tumbling our words over the other’s, connecting and agreeing, ready with another story. Most of the time, we weren’t even talking about the book. We just talked. I remember the moment I knew I liked her, in the first conversation we had back in the fall. When I commented on how much I liked the sound of her ebullient voice, she said, “You know, I’m just a happy person. People keep waiting for me to be jaded or angry, but I’m just happy.”

I love my editor.

When I told her I was going to be in New York for part of the day, she asked me where I wanted to have lunch. Within a minute or two, I knew. Gotham Bar and Grill. The Chef and I love Alfred Portale’s approach to food: seasonal, fresh, and always surprising. When I met the Chef, I also inherited two of Portale’s books. I’ve been inspired by those books more times than I can say. I knew it, instantly: Gotham Bar and Grill.

The Chef was so jealous.

After the suitcase story and the subway ride laughing, I walked down 12th Street toward the restaurant. Everything looked familiar. There’s a funny thing about New York: no matter how long I have been gone, as soon as I set foot on the sidewalks of that city, I am home. There was the Jewish temple where I volunteered every Saturday morning, feeding people who needed a meal. Over there the Quad Cinema, where I stood in line with friends to watch documentaries. And there was Gotham Bar and Grill, which I walked past countless times before I knew how tremendous it was.

Plus, they have a coat check where a lovely girl let me keep my bag for the duration of lunch.

And when I first saw my editor, we both squealed a little, and gave each other a big hug.

The lunch felt like it lasted minutes, instead of three hours. Jen, the wonderful woman in charge of marketing for my book, felt like a friend within four minutes. We talked about my book, eventually, but mostly we three talked about food, farmers’ markets, Michael Pollan, the confusions of the label “organic,” fresh fruit, and everything to do with food. (Oh, and dating and the weird vagaries of working for the overly rich.) They made me laugh and they gave me hope.

They also really like my book.

And if the conversation didn’t do it, we certainly bonded over the food. Asparagus salad with a poached egg. Black bass ceviche with chiles and avocado. Roasted duck breast with fermented plums, port sauce, and fava beans. Spinach custard with baby carrots. Everything gorgeous, and everything presented beautifully on enormous plates.

(Sadly, the photos I tried to take were simply too dark to post up here. I won’t do the place injustice by putting up ugly photos!)

That meal made me miss the Chef.

My editor had called ahead to ensure that I could eat gluten-free. And as I suspected, they took care of me, just fine. This is one of the rules I have learned throughout this journey: if you choose the restaurant where they truly care about food, you can eat gluten-free. Our wonderful waiter — half obsequious, half sarcastic — walked me through the menu to inform me of what I could eat.

However, I was surprised to find that a meticulous staff in one of the best restaurants in the city still didn’t understand the gluten issue. When the waiter gestured toward what I could not eat, he said, “Of course, you cannot have the risotto.”
Surprised, I asked him, “Do you use flour in your risotto?”
He looked just as surprised and said, “Can you eat rice?”

Later, toward the end of the meal, I was thrilled to find that Gotham has a warm chocolate cake, completely flourless. And it was served with lemon thyme ice cream! Of course, I wanted that.

“Well,” said the waiter, “the kitchen says you cannot have the lemon thyme ice cream. We can offer you cherry sorbet.”

I love the tang and soft surprise of lemon thyme. Wait, why? Do they put flour in their ice cream? Don’t tell me that they use commercially produced ice cream at Gotham Bar and Grill.

Curious, I asked the waiter, “Okay. But just for curiosity’s sake, could you ask your chef what it is in the ice cream that prevents me from eating it?”

When he returned, he said, “The ice cream has glucose in it.”

Glucose. Gluten. Same thing, right?

The good news is — I ate at Gotham Bar and Grill without a snitch of sickness. No gluten in me during that meal.

Life was good.

Gotham Bar and Grill
12 E. 12th Street
New York, NY 10003


Redbridge beer

Redbridge at the party

In development for years, Redbridge is a response to the loud clamoring of those of who have to live gluten-free: we want beer! This company is smart — we are a growing consumer base, in business speak. Current statistics say that only 3% of the three million people living with celiac in this country are even diagnosed, but that is changing, on a daily basis. As awareness of the need to eat gluten-free grows (and I’m doing everything I can on that front), more products are emerging on the market.

Anheuser-Busch is the most mainstream company in America, so far, to acknowledge the gluten-free market. Beer. They made us beer.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Angie Mingis, product manager for Redbridge, and Kristi Zantop, head brewmaster for Redbridge. I’ll admit it — I had contacted Anheuser-Busch, looking for some free beer. As much as I had heard about the elixir, it hadn’t shown up in my stores yet. I wanted to try some and tell you about it. It turns out that Washington State law prevents anyone from sending beer through the mail. Hm. But, in the conversations, a lovely woman in customer service asked me if I would like to talk with this pair. Sure. Frankly, I loved the fact that I would be talking with an all-woman team.

The enthusiasm in their voices was unmistakable. One of them told me about a childhood friend who had recently been diagnosed with celiac, who was “…absolutely elated.” Another told me of a terrible irony — one of her brewing professors at UC Davis has been diagnosed. He is so happy about Redbridge that he wants to be their national spokesperson. These two women were proud of their work. They should be. Earlier versions of the beer — made with buckwheat — simply didn’t work. Even when they decided to switch to sorghum, the African grain that makes thousands of gallons of backyard beer on that continent, the earliest batches were too tart for their taste. “It was a challenge to have the perception of malted barley without barley,” Kristi told me. Of course. What they wanted to conceive — and we want to drink — is a beer that tastes like beer. Not a specialty item, or a slightly sweet substitute, but a beer.

I never was much of a beer drinker before I found out I have celiac. Whenever I drank a beer, I grew blotchy red and sleepy. Why did anyone like the stuff? But I have to admit, since I found my first six-pack at Whole Foods (a few hours after my phone interview), I have been drinking more than my fair share of Redbridge. Ay god, I love the stuff.

This is a full-bodied beer, with a little note of citrus in it. It is rich, without a hint of bitterness at the back of the throat. It flits through my taste buds. Kristi, the brewmaster, had other words to describe it: hopped; hearty; malted. I’m not enough of a beer aficionado to say what those mean. I only know this: every time I drink a Redbridge, I have a tickle at the back of my throat. It is part giggle and part disbelief. I’m drinking a beer.


Saigon cinnamon from World Spice

Saigon cinnamon

Cinnamon harvested in Vietnam is actually called cassia. ("True" cinnamon is actually much milder than what we have grown accustomed to, in this country.) In small villages in Vietnam, people grind the older bark that is lower to the ground, rich in pungent oils and just more so than the branches above it. This ground cassia is shipped to Seattle, and sold to me at World Spice.

It sits now in our kitchen, a pinch ready to mingle amidst apples to make a truly extraordinary pie. If we need cinnamon, for Moroccan dishes, we use only this "Saigon cinnamon" from World Spice, now. The cinnamon I lived with for three decades before this feels flat and dulled on my tongue.

We try to buy it in tiny amounts, however — Saigon cinnamon is so strong that only 1/8 of a teaspoon spices an entire dish — so that we can have that experience, again and again, of returning to the spice store, together, to share new tastes.