As a kid, I used to teach television cooking classes in my mind. Ten years old and infatuated with Julia Child — oh, how I loved that outrageous woman, her high-pitched voice, and her gangly goofiness — I sometimes left my place before the TV and walked into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. Involuntarily, I imagined that a camera was trained on my hands as I spread margarine on Wonder Bread, and extracted orange slices of cheese product from their plastic wrappers. “This is how you make a grilled cheese sandwich,” I’d instruct, seriously, inside the confines of my mind. It was about this time that I began narrating all those activities, practicing to be a writer later, preparing for teaching.
A few years later, when I was an awkward pre-teen, with huge glasses, a ready grin, and the ability to read scripts quickly, I spent many an afternoon in a warehouse in Los Angeles. Surrounded by hundreds of other kids — who were surrounded by hovering parents, endlessly combing their hair to a dull sheen — I waited my turn for a one-minute audition. I haven’t talked about this here, but I was actually an actor in Hollywood when I was a kid. Oh, not big enough that any of you would recognize me from my roles, or seriously strange enough to warrant an E-channel “Where are They Now?” feature. Instead, my brother and I both had an agent, one of the leading ones in Los Angeles. The walls of her lobby were festooned with head shots of the Little House on the Prairie kids and the gleaming grins of the Brady Bunch. She sent us out on auditions for Norman Lear sitcoms, ABC Afterschool Specials, and educational films, the kind schoolchildren were forced to watch in cavernous cafeterias on rainy days. It was an endlessly fascinating experience, one that deserves another writing, later. But let’s just say that I was experienced enough with being on camera that I lost my self-consciousness and learned how to do my job.
This all came in handy when a seven-person camera crew showed up in my kitchen last week.
Last week, my childhood fantasy of teaching people how to cook on camera came true, for one day. A production company in Los Angeles has been asked by the Food Network to produce a show called The Power of Food. It will be a series of profiles of people whose lives have been changed by food. Has my life been changed by food? Oh yeah. And how.
It has been just over a year since I began this website. I didn’t mark the anniversary here, because I don’t feel like I hit my stride and started creating the kind of pieces I now think of as my standard until July. But I also didn’t have time to mark the anniversary, since life has become so fluid and expansive. I have always loved food. I have always been known for my passion for food. Somehow, food has always been inextricably part of my life. (In fact, one of my television roles was a part on the Rhoda show, where I played a girl named Amy Finkelstein, the girl who ate crayons.) But since I went gluten-free, and joyfully embraced my food fate, my life has grown larger and more passionate, hilarious and touching by turns. There have been countless dinner parties with friends. New friends who have become dear to me, whom I have met through their food websites. A free set of Le Creuset cookware. New foods I never imagined, their tastes tingling on my tongue in ecstasy. My passion for food photography. Writing opportunities. The IACP conference. A wonderful award for this blog. Friends who are chefs, and own gourmet kitchen stores, and lead chocolate tours of Paris. A sense of discovery, every day, about what awaits me next.
These are only some of the gifts of this year, a year guided by my passion for food. And there are some I have not shared here yet — gifts that have kept me from posting here as regularly as I once did — but I will share them, eventually. You’ll simply have to trust me: this has been the most extraordinary year of my life.
All because of food, glorious food.
So, a crew from Los Angeles flew up to film me. A wonderful director named Judy, an ebullient producer named Ingrid, and a hip, sophisticated director of photography named Patrick. And then there were four people from Seattle: Scott the sound guy; Jordan the assistant director of photography; Eddie the PA; and Cassy, all-around helpful person. They were all far more funny and real than I had imagined, based on my experiences as a child actor. We laughed and talked, which made the entire surreal experience far less bizarre.
This is why, if you live in Seattle, you might have seen me at the University District Farmers’ Market at 8:30 in the morning, raising my face the blue-skied day while Ingrid put makeup on me. Or when I walked through the market, pretending to saunter and act naturally with a transistor on the back of my pants, being followed by a boom mic. I talked with terrified farmers and bakers who were confused by the gluten content of spelt (yes, spelt has gluten; please don’t sell it as gluten-free), goat keepers who sell lovely local cheeses, and women who gather eggs on their farm and preach about the false advertising of “free-range” eggs. After awhile, I simply relaxed and enjoyed the warm spring morning at one of my favorite markets. Still, I had to laugh when two ten-year-old boys ran up to me, and said in loud voices, “Why are you being interviewed?” It was a pleasure to talk with an older woman who stopped me to ask the same question. When I told her about this website, her eyes grew wide. “Oh, thank you for doing that! I have a friend who cannot eat gluten, and I want to make her food. If I read your website, I’ll know what to serve my friend for dinner.” Moments like that cut right through the silliness and reminded me why I’m doing this all in the first place.
I don’t think I would have been able to do this if I hadn’t held in my mind that I was doing it to help other people. That honestly guides me in everything I do. I know that, when I was first diagnosed with celiac, I would have felt immensely better if I had been able to see someone on the Food Network talking about the joys of living gluten-free. I could have used a guide. So, I tried to be one instead. Who knows who will see this and feel recognized?
This thought allowed me to act at least somewhat naturally while I had have a camera trained on me as I took vegetables out of a bag. Usually, I do that alone. And when I cook, I’m normally in the kitchen by myself, dancing to music. But this time, as I slivered fresh leeks for a slow sautee, I had a massive camera three inches to my right, the cords behind it held by an assistant, a mic down my shirt, a transistor attached to the back of my jeans, and a boom mic operator to my left. And when I sit in my living room with people, they are not usually interviewing me on camera for an hour and a half, with various electrical and technological equipment strewn about the room.
Not my typical day.
And in the end, as exhausting and surreal as it all was, I did have a great time. To be honest, I’m a bit of a ham. An inveterate storyteller. And an experienced child actor grown up into a food writer. Given all that, how could I not love the chance to finally turn to the camera and talk about the joys of food?
Roast Chicken Juicy Enough for the Camera
Last year, when I started cooking seriously, I dreamed of making the perfect roast chicken. Simple yet elegant, roast chicken done right is a thing of beauty. I have ordered it in some of my favorite French restaurants around the world (and the Cuban/Chinese place down the street from me in New York) and have always been amazed. Crisp skin, juicy breast meat, a condensed chicken taste — nothing wasted, everything there. I crave it, constantly.
Earlier in the year, I wrote a post about the roast chicken my friend Francoise made for me. Later, I learned some tricks from Jamie Oliver, and shared those on this site. But I didn’t have the chance to perfect my roast chicken technique, because I was so busy trying new dishes. For months on end, I made something new every night, happily devouring as many tastes as I could, never stopping to double back and make something again.
Lately, though, I’ve been slowing down, just a bit. Slowing down enough to figure out how to test recipes more thoroughly and create some signature dishes. All spring long, for dinner parties and gatherings for two, I have been roasting chickens with lemons and fresh herbs on the vertical roaster. And I have to say, I’m pretty proud of this dish now. It is finally what I imagined. This spring, so many dreams have been coming true that I’m feeling a little dizzy. The succulent taste of this roast chicken grounds me in the midst of all this happy frenzy.
one vertical roaster
one roasting pan with two cups water at the bottom
one oven pre-heated to 425°
one whole roasting chicken, organic (tastes better), and as fresh as possible
one boiling hot lemon (see notes)
two tablespoons sea salt
zest one lemon
one teaspoon cracked black pepper
three tablespoons high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil
six cloves fresh garlic, peeled
six sprigs fresh rosemary
six sprigs fresh tarragon
Pour two cups of water into the bottom of your best roasting pan. Put the vertical roaster in the middle of the pan, upright.
Here a note about the vertical roaster: a friend of mine bought me mine, swearing it made the best roast chicken she had ever eaten. I was happy for the gift, but I was also dubious. This small, metal device seemed a bit like a gimmick. But she was right. The gaps between the metal slats allows hot steam from the bottom of the pan to circulate up through the chicken, making this one of the juiciest birds you will ever eat. Now, I cannot roast a chicken without it.
Set a small pot of water on high heat. When it has come to boil, drop a whole lemon (skin rinsed off, with a tiny slit cut in the skin to prevent it from bursting) into the water and let it heat for five minutes.
Using a mortar and pestle, grind the sea salt, lemon zest, and black pepper together. (If you want a more exotic-tasting chicken, you could add some smoked paprika here as well.) When they are ground into a paste, add the olive oil and stir it into the paste.
Hopefully, your fresh, organic chicken is already fairly clean, but double check to make sure. Remove the internal organs and do with them what you want. Impale the chicken on the vertical roaster — there’s really no other way to say it — and let it sit upright. Smear the salty, lemony olive-oil paste all over the skin, under the wings, and along the legs, until the entire chicken is smothered in the paste. Tuck the fresh herbs between the skin and flesh along the breast. At the last moment, throw the garlic cloves into the cavity of the chicken, then slide the hot lemon in. (If it’s large, you might have to cut it in half and put both halves in.) Because the lemon is already hot before you begin cooking, it releases its juices into the chicken immediately, making it extraordinarily juicy.
Put the chicken into the oven, with one rack on the lowest setting. Cook it at 425 for about fifteen to twenty minutes, or until you can smell the warmth of roasting chicken, and the skin has started to brown. Turn the oven down to 350° and let the chicken cook for another forty-five minutes or so, or until a good meat thermometer inserted into the breast reads at least 165°.
Pull the chicken from the oven and let it rest in the roasting pan for ten minutes before you begin carving. You’ll be amazed, when you make the first cut along the drumstick, at the amount of juice that comes pouring forth from the flesh.