cooking your own dinner makes it taste better

This morning, I started teaching at this excellent writing program, one of the best in Seattle. I’m thrilled to be back to teaching writing—it’s like breathing for me, and even with the beautiful indolence of summer, I start to feel as though I’m holding my breath after awhile—but it was profoundly strange to wake up to an alarm clock this morning. And I’ve grown wonderfully comfortable with spreading my arms out to the afternoon, deciding what to do on the spur of the moment, knowing I have nowhere else to be. And plenty of time to shop, read recipes, and cook.

But it’s a wonderful program. The day flew by. The students wrote startling pieces and shared themselves honestly. How could I not love that?

We’re there all day, from 9 to 4, and the center provides breakfast and lunch for the students and faculty. Of course, that means trouble for me. Starting this new routine reminded me of the ease I once had in eating. “What’s for lunch?” was the extent of my question. Or perhaps, “Is there more?” But now, of course, I can’t be so blithe. This morning, I stepped into the kitchen with the program’s cook, a lovely young woman with all the best intentions. I told her that I can’t eat gluten, that it makes me terribly ill, that even the smallest cross-contamination could make me miserable for two days. Her eyes widened. I could see that I had ruined her easy week. But to her credit, she said she would be careful and try her best. “So, what’s gluten, exactly?” she asked me, a bit tentatively. I went right into my spiel, made even easier by writing the entry here the other night. Since she is making everything from scratch, I assumed this would be pretty easy. But then she asked me this question: “So, can you have eggs? What about nuts? Lettuce?” I didn’t know what to say. Since I had explained that gluten mostly comes from wheat, I had assumed she would know I could have vegetables.

But I can’t blame her. This is how many people respond to my dilemma. Hearing I can’t eat some foods, they assume I can’t eat anything interesting. And we’re all so hooked on easy wheat products. She said at the end of the conversation: “I’ll do my best to make you food, but I really can’t promise the entire time will be gluten-free. The kids would just grow so bored.” I nodded, decided to let go of that battle. But I’m not letting go of it here.

Life is not boring without gluten. In fact, it has bloomed even more fully for me now. I pay attention to food, mindfully, delightedly, in a way I never did before. I took it for granted before I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Now, I find the choicest ingredients, smelling olive oil for hints of warmth, insisting on fresh vegetables, searching for the best local sausage makers and chocolates. Now, I actively look forward to every meal, knowing that it will make me that much healthier. Good life is abundant, all around me.

Driving home, I was tempted to flop onto the couch, heat up some leftovers, spend the entire evening watching tv. But I changed my mind before I reached Queen Anne. I drove to Metropolitan Market, and bought a fresh piece of halibut. (I would have gone to the Wild Salmon Seafood Market, which is truly the best in the city, but they are closed on Mondays.) The friendly butcher took off the skin for me, cheerfully. I bought a new wine, Wrongo Dongo, because of the ridiculous name and the reasonable price. And I came home and started cooking right away.

It saddens me to hear people say, “Oh, I never have time to cook.” America binges on fast food grease and frozen forlornness. Somehow, most of us have lost the urge to roll up our sleeves and dirty our hands. For the past two years of being sick, I didn’t cook much. I missed it. Now, I turn on KUOW and listen to the news as I chop up vegetables. Or crank up whatever is in the cd player (k.d. lang and Emmylou Harris at the moment) and sing as I stir something new. Tonight was fairly easy. Spinach salad with goat cheese from the market. And sauteed halibut with the green-olive relish. And the wine was perfectly pleasant.

Now, at the end of the evening, I’m sated and ready for more tomorrow. Flopping on the couch with leftovers just wouldn’t have made me happy. Come on, everyone—let’s promise to spend time in the kitchen. Nothing boxed or delivered could ever taste so good.

SAUTEED HALIBUT

For years, I broiled fish, with a bit of lemon and a smoosh of garlic on top. It tasted fine, but a little dry. Only recently have I started sauteeing, and I’ll never go back.

First, buy a great piece of fresh fish. In Seattle, this is ridiculously easy. In the rest of the country, you might have to work a little harder. Find out where the best restaurant in town buys its fish. Buy your fish there too.

Sprinkle the fish with good sea salt and a dash of lemon. Nothing more.

Heat the skillet to medium-high. Wait until it’s smattering hot, almost too long.

Drizzle in high-quality olive oil. Nothing cheap or standard. Only the best.

Gently lay the halibut down to sizzle in the heated oil. Set the timer for three minutes (this was a ..35 of a pound. Wait a bit longer for a larger piece of fish.)

Turn the fish carefully. Halibut is delicate, and it falls apart as easily as a teenage girl in love.

Sautee for another three minutes. No longer.

Put the fish on an elegant plate, even if you’re sitting in the kitchen alone. Top with the green-olive relish of last night’s post. Sit down. Pause a moment before you take your first bite. Go.

Ahh.