Today, I realized, with a start, that it has been six months since I stopped eating gluten. Actually, it’s a little over six months, since it was April 30th when I officially started living gluten-free. It’s a marker of just how easily I have adapted to this, how joyfully, that I forgot to mark the occasion. I feel like a pro now.
This doesn’t mean that I stop thinking about it, ever. I have to check the label of everything I eat. I have to be a nuisance in every restaurant I visit. And keeping this site keeps me on my toes. Especially when so many of you who are newly diagnosed write to me for advice, or celiacs from the around the world write to share recipes with me. I’m daily grateful for these connections. And I feel a responsibility to research the latest details, cook more fabulous food, and take the most luscious photographs I can to remind everyone of this: living gluten-free is not a punishment. In fact, it’s a path to freedom.
On yesterday’s post, cookiecrumb left a comment that set me thinking: “It’s so brilliant, reading your blog, to learn of the things you can eat that are gluten-free, yet carby and delish. Corn. Beans. Fruit. Bet you aren’t really missing much with your new diet.” Well, exactly. Thank you, cookiecrumb, for putting it into the words I had forgotten to find. I’m not deprived at all on this diet. I’m just alive.
So, in the spirit of sharing the joy, I’d like to show you a few of the meals and treats I ate in Los Angeles this weekend with my dear friend, Sharon.
SWEET CORN SALAD AT THE CASBAH CAFE
Sharon lives in Silverlake, just off Sunset. The hipster capital of the world, seemingly. Everywhere slouched tremendously slender young men and women, dressed in thigh-hugging pants, holey shirts that probably cost a hundred dollars, gigantic sunglasses, soft-soled shoes, and fabulously dissheveled hair. Oh my. And of course, everyone looked tremendously bored, suffering for perpetual ennui. All the while they furtively worked on screenplays, or talked to their agents on their cell phone. Ah, LA.
But one of the best parts about Silverlake is the Casbah Cafe. A small corner store on Sunset, this place is cool without trying too hard to be so. The back half of the shop is filled to the brim with Moroccan shirts, yerba mate cups, and glittery pink slippers. Filled with light and slow moving, the Casbah feels like an oasis of sanity in the midst of the throngs pressing against the inevitablity of aging and not being famous, just outside.
And their coffee is pretty great. That’s saying something for a Seattle girl in Los Angeles.
Since Sharon and I woke up late enough Friday morning (after talking and laughing well into the night on Thursday) that breakfast had blurred into lunch, we walked straight to Casbah. And even though the menu, written on the glass cases filled with dates and olive breads, was mostly off limits to me, I found what I wanted pretty quickly. A sweet corn salad, with black, wrinkled olives, fresh tomatoes, and tuna. It arrived in an enormous bowl, mounded with vegetables and a light vinaigrette that danced on my tongue. With the sunlight filtering through the bamboo blinds, and Sharon across from me, this was a deeply satisfying meal.
THE CHEESE STORE OF SILVERLAKE
Later, after strolling through small stores with hip clothes, intriguing antiques, and startling window displays, Sharon and I felt a bit peckish again. And she was eager to share her favorite food store with me. The Cheese Store of Silverlake is stocked from floor to ceiling with gorgeous gourmet foods from around the world. Vosges chocolates. Arborio rice from Italy. Apricot toffee. A local candy maker called The Little Flower Candy Company that makes sea salt caramels, vanilla caramels, and (my favorite) cinnamon-sugar marshmallows. Ah. Barrels of olive oils. Persimmons. And then, the cheeses. Sharon and I bought two small slices of two cheeses, each. I found some Drunken Goat, from Spain, which I simply adore, and Sharon had never tasted it before. She wanted me to try the Bar Durro, a hard cheese with a nutty quality. We stocked up on little gifts of food for ourselves, and we nibbled on them all weekend.
Have you ever tried the Vosges fire-red chocolate? If not, then you should. Rich, deeply textured chocolate, layers of taste, with a little zing of spice at the last. Heaven.
Since I had been so richly treated to this glorious weekend by Sharon’s dear boyfriend, Matt, I wanted to give Sharon my own birthday present. What else could I give her but food? I decided, spontaneously, to treat her out to a lavish dinner at one of the best places in Los Angeles. (Well, the best within our price range.) But which restaurant? She likes one called Blair’s, in Silverlake, but it didn’t open for dinner until 6. And we had to be eating at 5:30, in order to make it on time to Matt’s sketch-comedy show at the Friars’ Club in Beverly Hills. (Yes, I do have a strange life.) Well, we consulted a charming guide book called Eat. Shop. LA, written by a charming woman from Portland, who writes a series of Eat. Shop guides for major cities on the West Coast. I love the Seattle book, so when I saw a copy of the LA guide at the Casbah, I convinced Sharon to grab it. After much consultation, and staring at the photographs of the food, we chose Angelina Osteria, ostensibly because the writer explained that her pickiest food friend in LA liked only one restaurant, and this was the one. How could we resist?
When I called in the early afternoon to make a reservation, the woman on the phone announced cheerfully, “I’ve got nothing open tonight.” Nothing? Not even at 5:30? Maybe she heard the disappointment in my voice and took pity, because after a beat, she said, “Okay, if you arrive exactly at 5:30, we’ll fit you in.” Hurrah!
And hurrah it was, because this was an extraordinary meal. Angelina Osteria is a warm, Tuscan place, with exquisite food based on what is fresh and in season. So many choices, including gluten-free choices. I told our ridiculously handsome Italian waiter that I couldn’t eat anything with gluten in it, and he looked a little confused, but we made our way through it. How to choose? Luckily, Sharon and I are sharers. Our entire time of knowing each other, 23 years now, we innately decide to order two separate meals and split them down the middle. So that night, we ordered two appetizers:
warm octopus salad on a bed of arugula, with baby cherry tomatoes (pictured above)
braised artichoke hearts with garlic, olive oil, and parsley
By the time these had arrived, Sharon and I were already wonderfully happy. To be in such a place, together, unexpectedly. And then we tasted our food.
“Oh god,” Sharon moaned. “This is really good. You have to try it now.”
She was right. The artichokes were deeply flavored, perfectly tender. And the octopus was better than I had ever eaten before, not a touch of rubber eraser texture to it. We ate a few bites each, then traded plates, back and forth, until we had cleaned our plates entirely. I would have licked up the artichoke marinade if I could have.
And the entrees? Well, you can see them on the table between Sharon and me on this table:
warm duck breast with balsamic vinegar, with a side of perfectly sauteed spinach
seared ahi tuna drizzled with parsley pesto, with a side of eggplant and wild mushrooms
Everything tasted wonderfully fresh, the textures outrageously dense and light at the same time, in season, just picked, made for us. We couldn’t stop cooing over our food.
And dessert? Ah, dessert. Well, Sharon had a simple panna cotta, topped with a raspberry. The best one she’s ever eaten outside of Italy, she said. And I had three small scoops of vanilla gelato, with a perfectly pulled espreso poured on top. We didn’t talk for awhile. We even stopped sharing. We just leaned over our food and ate intently. My god.
We walked out onto Beverly Boulevard, happy and humming.
The next morning, Sharon and Matt and I went to one of their favorite breakfast places, Madame Matisse. A tiny sliver of a restaurant on a corner of Sunset, this French bistro-style place had a red and white awning and little tables outside. Since this was November in Los Angeles, the air was about 74 degrees. Of course we’d sit outside. In the middle of the menu, I found what I wanted, immediately. An omelette, with spinach, mushrooms, goat cheese, and salmon. Sharon had one too, but with asparagus instead of spinach. Matt ordered the meat and cheese extravaganza. We sat and chattered happily, watching the hipsters go by, discussing the previous night’s show, sipping our coffee eagerly. The food arrived, and we all dug in. Not extraordinary. Just damned good. Everything fresh, again. And by this time, we were so hungry that I almost forgot to take a picture of it. I managed to save a small corner for the shot above.
And play with the reflections in my coffee cup.
SILVERLAKE FARMERS’ MARKET
I can’t visit a city without visiting a farmers’ market. Just down from Madame Matisse was the block-long Silverlake Farmers’ Market. Small in comparison to my local stomping grounds (Ballard or the University Farmers’ Market), this one was still sweet. Even sweeter for being in the middle of LA, somehow. Sharon stocked up on fresh corn and flowers. And I stopped to sample fresh bean curd at the Vietnamese Soy Cafe stall. Wow. I’d never tasted such supple, subtle bean curd, lightly flavored with ginger. I thought about ordering a glass of pennywort juice, since the woman running the stall told me it would clear out every toxin. But in the end, I chose more toxins: Vietnamese coffee, with sweet condensed milk. Ah, a small slathering of heaven.
Sharon thought we were going to be making dinner together Saturday night. After all, she reads this site too, and feels jealous of all the other people coming over to eat. But Matt had told me there would be a surprise party, and I assumed that meant dinner. But we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Still only 4:30 or so, too early for restaurants to open, where were we going to go? Matt insisted that he wanted to find us a snack, to tide us over for dinner. Sharon and I were both a bit confused——why a snack when we were going to eat a big dinner——but we trusted him. Of course, it turns out that he wanted to sneak out to fetch the Paul McCartney concert tickets he had bought for us, and slip into Sharon’s car to leave us further presents in the glove compartment. And he needed something fast. So he picked us up some food at Baja Fresh.
Now, it’s hard to imagine eating gluten-free, and eating well, at a fast food restaurant. All that batter and breading and dipping and oil. But this chain, which I really didn’t know well, specializes in fresh Mexican food. No preservatives or months-ago boxes of ingredients. Sharon suggested I try the bare burrito, all the ingredients of a burrito——spicy chicken, black beans, rice, pico de gallo, and cheese——without the tortilla. As we sat in the living room of their apartment, eating from the bags Matt had brought us, I was impressed. Fast food never tastes like this.
And then we shrieked when we realized the surprise.
So now, the taste of Baja Fresh will always be associated with the joy of knowing we were going to see Paul McCartney in concert, and Matt had given this to us.
You see? There’s no deprivation in living gluten-free.
[If you’d like to see more of my photographs of my trip to LA, click here.]
3900 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90029–2242
The Cheese Store of Silverlake
3926–28 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, California
7313 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, California
3536 W. Sunset Blvd., L.A.