“It’s so good to meet someone else with this,” she said to me, gratefully.
“I know!” I said. “I mean, with whom else could we talk about the state of our intestines on first meeting?”
Amal laughed across the table. She and I have been trading fart jokes for years. It seems to be the mark of a true friend — the one with whom you can discuss your inner workings without any hesitation.
My new friend — the one Amal brought to meet me on Friday night — is Anna. She was born in Trento, Italy, and she only found out that she has celiac disease four years ago. Part of our discussion on celiac and the pitfalls of living gluten-free was retracing our steps and discovering how sick we had actually been, before we knew.
When she was nine, she had stomach attacks and intestinal problems so bad that the doctors told her she had colitis.
When I was a kid, my mother had a bottle of worm medicine on the door of the refrigerator, perpetually.
When she grew sick as an adult, she drank barley coffee, a specialty of her area of Italy, thinking it would be better for her than regular coffee. Barley coffee!
When I was sick before being diagnosed, I lay on the couch and ate loaves of bread from Macrina Bakery down the street.
When she was diagnosed, she felt something lifting that had been on her shoulders, all her life.
When I was diagnosed, I finally felt free.
There’s something extraordinary about talking with someone else who has celiac. Of course, just because two people have celiac disease doesn’t mean they will like each other. But it’s common ground, a shared story. The gratitude at finding out we are not alone is enormous.
We were sitting in the Chef’s restaurant on a Friday night, laughing about our intestines and becoming friends.
She and Amal met in Kabul, when they both worked for the United Nations. Imagine trying to live gluten-free in Kabul. It makes the slight struggle of Seattle seem even less.
Strangely, however, it seems Anna struggles almost as much in her new home of Washington DC as she had in Kabul. Now, she works for the World Bank, and the massive cafeteria at her work cannot seem to serve her well. She has found, to her dismay, that when she asks if the food is free of wheat, she receives vigorous nods. When she asks if any flour lurks in there, she is told, “Oh yes. A little. But only a little.” She hasn’t been able to find the restaurants that can serve her safely, yet.
This is why she was so grateful to be sitting with us that night. When I first met her, she showed me an orange book, The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide. She and Amal flipped, excitedly, to a bookmarked page, where the book had listed Impromptu as being gluten free: “Chef Dan is particularly friendly to gluten-free customers.” We all giggled. Anna felt like she was meeting someone famous.
So there we sat, eating roast chicken with braised cabbage, mashed potatoes, and an apple-cider sauce; sautéed escarole with a blood orange-butter sauce; seared albacore tuna with saffron lentils and a beet-horseradish vinaigrette. There were the remnants of a cheese plate and sprout salad in our minds. We laughed and talked with our hands and couldn’t believe our luck at being together, in this place.
Just as the evening began to come to its close, the Chef emerged from the kitchen, hiding something behind his back. From above our heads, he lowered the white plate to the table between us. We gasped, a little, and then smiled. Chocolate-lavender tart, with a gluten-free crust. We were silent. Amal was happy because it looked so damned good. But Anna and I had a different reason to feel grateful. Neither one of us, when we were diagnosed with celiac, ever expected to be sitting in a restaurant, eating this food.
Dark chocolate with a deep thrill of lavender, a tiny hint of that herbal note of spring. The crust tasted so flaky that no one could ever accuse it of being any less than superb. We tried to slow down, hover our forks over it in silence, but the tart was gone in a few moments.
After the bill was paid, there were hugs all around, especially for the Chef. Anna asked him for his autograph, in the book, which made him blush. Beaming at him, I knew what this meant for a man once shy, who no longer has a choice but to smile and talk to everyone that comes to meet him.
We were all connected, that evening, through food and friendship, sharing our stories.
CHOCOLATE LAVENDER TARTS, adapted from The Herbal Kitchen
This recipe is only slightly adapted from one of our favorite cookbooks at the moment, The Herbal Kitchen, by Jerry Traunfeld. Head chef of the famous Herbfarm, Traunfeld has a meticulous sense of fresh produce and how to combine fruits, vegetables, and herbs into something truly spectacular. The only downfall of the book in February is that all the sumptuous photographs were clearly shot in summer light, which makes some of the recipes seem improbable. This one, however, set the Chef thinking and creating, almost immediately.
The original recipe called for peppermint, rather than lavender. I’m certain that would be delicious as well. However, I have never been a big fan of chocolate mint, for some reason. And both the Chef and I just love lavender. (Did you know that lavender is one of the most enticing smells to men?) Here in Seattle, there is a little stand filled with all goods lavender in Pike Place Market. Sometimes, the woman who runs it goes off for lunch and leaves the stand on the honor system. We just grab a bunch of dried lavender sprigs and leave cash under the tip jar. It always seems to work out.
One gluten-free pie dough recipe (see the link here), omitting the cinnamon and using one cup sorghum flour and one-half cup rice flour instead.
¾ cup whole milk
¾ cup cream
¼ teaspoon dried lavender buds
7 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate (Callebaut or Scharffen Berger here), chopped into small pieces
4 large egg yolks
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons baker’s sugar (extra-fine white sugar)
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Form the tart dough according to the recipe. Let it chill for a few moments in the refrigerator before working with it. Pat the dough into a tart shell (or, in the case of these, into a dozen tiny tart shells), attempting to make the bottom of the tart as thick as the sides. If the dough becomes unworkably sticky, put it back chill. When you have finished the tart dough, set it aside, preferably in the refrigerator.
Poke some holes in the bottom of the tart shell, lightly, with a fork. Bake the tart shell in the oven for about thirty minutes, or until it has turned golden brown. Remove it from the oven and set it aside to cool.
In a small saucepan, bring the milk and cream to a boil. Add the lavender, stir the buds in, and take the pan off the heat, immediately. After the lavender milk and cream have rested for ten minutes, strain the liquid of the lavender. Turn the burner on medium. Return the milk-cream to the saucepan and put the chocolate pieces in the liquid. Let the chocolate sit and melt for three minutes, and then whisk the concoction together.
In a mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together, gently. When they have come together, pour in the chocolate-cream mixture, slowly, whisking all the while. When this has become a coherent mixture, pour the chocolate filling into the tart pan. Fill the tart just enough to come to the top.
Chill the tart in the refrigerator for at least an hour, and preferably more, before serving it. Take it out of the refrigerator an hour before serving it, so that it is not icy when you try to cut it.
Here’s a trick for not smearing chocolate from one slice to the next: dip a sharp knife in hot water between each slice.