If you truly want to set my mind racing, ask me about my favorite foods. If you want to see the Chef concentrate, his forhead furrowed above his eyes, and then listen to his silence for long moments, ask him about the foods he most likes to cook. They are impossible questions. How can we choose? Strawberries in early June? Braised beef ribs in poblano pepper sauce? Good goat cheese crumbled on top of scrambled eggs? Lamb chops with lavender and dijon mustard? The possibilities are endless. Every day, we are discovering new tastes we adore, together.
So, when I read a few weeks ago that Melissa at Traveler’s Lunchbox had set a new task for the world’s food bloggers, I balked at first. Good god — how could I possibly lay out the five foods everyone must taste before he or she dies? Five? Five?! I adore Melissa, but really — what was she thinking? That seeems a cruel and unusual punishment for those of us who love food. I could be scratching away at that answer until I am on my own death bed. (Which, of course, I hope is decades worth of tasting and wondering and writing.)
However, when I teach students how to write, one of the first lessons I give is this: first thought, best thought. First uttered by one of my most influential teachers, a Tibetan lama named Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, this aphorism has been informing my work for years. Seized by the need to be perfect or impress others, we freeze. When we trust our first instincts, the image that shimmers to the surface of ourselves, unbidden, we start to walk down the right path. Continuously, I have trusted “first thought, best thought.” It has guided me in my life, mostly from a place of joy. When I met the Chef, I knew at first glance that I loved him. Second thought would have been doubt, fear, naysaying, and “Don’t be silly, Shauna.” Luckily, I had enough practice to stay with the sentence that sang inside me before I could begin to question it. I simply loved him.
And so, the other day, as he sat on the couch beside me, after one of our late-morning breakfasts, I posed this question to him: “What five foods should everyone eat before he or she dies?” He looked at me askance, as though I had suddenly lost my mind. When I explained it was a blog task, he understood more. We floundered for a moment, and then I said, “Let’s limit it to foods from Seattle.” And naturally, we both agreed they should be gluten-free.
(This lovely man. He has adapted to my gluten-free life so quickly. It would never occur to him to list foods that I could not share with him.)
In the end, it really wasn’t that difficult a choice. There are so many extraordinary foods in the world that never contain gluten, foods that make Seattle extraordinary. You would think we would have deliberated for hours. However, it is only an exercise, something to make us all hungry. These answers tumbled out of us in two minutes. Gratitude always comes fast for me.
1. The “oh my god” peaches at Sosio’s produce stand in Pike Place Market.
Seattle — late summer. I am wandering through the Pike Place Market, almost drunk on the smell of dahlias, the intense blue of the sky outside, and the sounds of people thronging in the aisles. When I stop at my favorite produce stand to see what they have in store for me today, I gasp. They’re here. The “Oh my god, they’re so good” peaches. (They actually do label the peaches that way.) I catch the eye of my favorite produce guy, tilt my head toward them, and he knows. He picks one up, tenderly, and gently cuts off a slice, then extends it toward me with juice-dripping fingers. I take a bite and close my eyes to experience this more fully.
Summer sweetness, a rich flesh — the taste of indolent freedom.
In summer, when they’re in season, I eat peaches every day. Most of the time, I simply bite into the fuzzy skin and let the peach juice dribble down my chin.
2. Washington-grown asparagus, available in May and June.
That dusky fresh taste, acidic and green. Roasted and slathered with olive oil, these entice the mouth to bite down. Perfectly browned, the tips crips, the stalks still juicy.
Sure, we can buy asparagus any time of the year, if we don’t mind the miles it has flown to meet us. And in early April, the asparagus travels up from California, bearing the harbingers of spring upon its stalks. But nothing matches the taste of local-grown asparagus, grown by Washington farmers, driven twenty miles to the farmers’ markets after it was picked that morning, in my hands by noon, then nibbled up by two in my kitchen.
I am willing to wait for that taste.
3. Dungeness crab legs, cooked, then chilled, and eaten with drawn butter.
We are in Tucson, or just outside of it, in the home of the Chef’s parents. Outside, the desert terrain, a glowering sky, threatening lightning. Inside, two beautiful people, the ones who raised my love. It is his birthday, and we are eating one of his favorite foods: crab.
The Chef’s mother, Rosemary, has boiled the enormous crab legs, in preparation for our feast. She lays it out before us: little bowls of warm butter; Dungeness crab legs, already cracked; empty plates soon to be covered in bits of shell. His father, GW, sits patiently, awaiting. And the Chef squirms in his chair, eagerly anticipating the first taste of this food he loves, the food he has requested for every birthday dinner since he was a child. And this year, for the first time, I am beside him, sharing in the sensory pleasure.
We bite down, together. Ahhhh, the gift of a taste. Mild sweetness, tender meatiness, something solid, something of the sea. Cool flesh against warm butter, and the saltiness drips down our throats. No matter how many bites our forks grab, we want more. Everyone is quiet, the sign of a good meal. And now, it is clear — we are all part of the same family.
4. Salmon, in season, done any number of ways.
“Do you think Copper River salmon is over-rated?” I ask the Chef, beside me.
He nods, vigorously, then returns to reading the paper. There is no need to discuss it.
Once a year, around here, all the grocery stores go mad, selling salmon from the Copper River in Alaska with enormous banners fluttering above the entrance, and a $30 per pound price tag on the fish. The season only lasts about a month, and everyone seems to hunger for it, and so the prices rise every year. It is good — lip-smacking good — but there are salmons just as good. The Yukon River salmon. The sockeye fillet sitting in my freezer right now, which my friend Pete caught himself, when he was in Chignik, Alaska. The bright-red flesh of the fish I ate in Sitka, caught the day before by the Wilbers’ father. And even salmon caught off the coast of Washington, sometimes. They don’t cost nearly as much as Copper River salmon, and it feels good to be eating a secret.
However, for me, any salmon, any way it’s done, is good. Homemade gravlax cured with salt, sugar, and dill. Salmon baked on rock salt. Salmon on the barbeque. Or even a small fillet, seared on both sides for one minute in a skillet, then thrown into a 500° oven and cooked until it is medium rare. Any way it is cooked — as long as it is not overdone — salmon satisfies. Its oily flesh and cheerful pinkness always makes me happy. There’s something rich, with unexpected depth, every time, about a great piece of salmon. I feel as though I am eating the Pacific Northwest — the green trees; the briny sea; the wind in January; the blue skies of August; the Olympic Mountains at sunset; all that life — whenever I eat salmon.
5. Blackberries, warmed by the sun, right off the vine.
Last week, I was walking with my nephew, Elliott, in the wilds of the woods behind his house on Vashon Island. His parents were both working, and I was babysitting him for the day. He swung his arms from side to side as he walked down the path, his sturdy little three-year-old body guiding him toward goodness. He led me to a blackberry patch, still yielding life, even though summer was nearly over.
He put up his hand, his fingers reaching for the fattest, blackest berry. He plopped it in his mouth, then chewed down. Upon his face, a sweet smile like sunrise on a Sunday morning. I grabbed one, as well, feeling the warmth of the sun on my fingers, the prickles of the berry trying to prevent me from eating it, and the juice already spilling from the purple pockets. Slowly, trying to enjoy the moment, I raised the berry toward my mouth. Aching beauty. Dark sweetness. A bit of tartness. The entire summer of freedom and loving and laughter and long nights concentrated into one taste. One glorious taste, of blackberry.
Elliott turned toward me, and said “Blackberries are just my favorite, favorite fruit.”
And I agreed.
Then, he reached for another one.
There is no way to stop the summer from leaving. Believe me, if there were, I would have found it. However, there’s really no need, since the autumn brings its own bounties. And without autumn, there would be no cold mornings that call for gluten-free toast and blackberry jam.
Meri made this for us, late in August, the last of the berries, full of flavor and almost weeping with sadness at the summer being over. And the joy of being alive.
Three cups fresh blackberries, crushed
Five cups of sugar
One cup of water
One package of pectin
Crush the blackberries, one cup at a time, in a large bowl. Add the sugar — yes, you will need that much, because blackberries can sting you with their tartness. Let this stand for ten to fifteen minutes, to become juicy and combined.
In a small saucepan, bring the water and pectin to a full boil. Be sure to stir it, constantly, for at least one minute.
Add the hot pectin and water mixture to the fruit and sugar. Stir and stir and stir, for at least three minutes. This is how you will combine this mash into a jam. Be patient.
Carefully, spoon the mixture into jam jars, leaving a bit of space on top for air. Twist on the caps, then set the jars on your counter for a few hours. This will allow the jam to set. Afterwards, put most of the jam jars in the freezer, and a few into the refrigerator.
This should make about six, eight-ounce jars. Use the jam up to three weeks after you have put it in the refrigerator. (You won’t have any problem eating it that fast.) The jars in the freezer can remain there up to one year.