Friends call to say, “Hey, what you been up to?
“Cooking,” I say. “Oh, and writing.”
And then I start gushing about Sicilian olive oils and sea salt from Venice. I tell them about web sites I’ve visited with chocolates from France I’m dying to try. Or I tell them about my escapades with making ravioli. They laugh, a little warily, perhaps because of the excessive enthusiasm in my voice. But they all want to come over for dinner.
Food has always entranced me. But for the past ten years or so, I’ve staved off my gourmet experiences until I enter a restaurant. I make peasant foodthat’s what I’ve always said. Spontaneous stir frys, chicken and dumplings, pasta with interesting sauces over a bed of arugula. That was more my standard fare.
That was before the celiac diagnosis.
Here’s what I’ve realized, at least for me (and perhaps for you, too): having to eat gluten-free has turned me into a gourmet.
I can’t eat out as often as I like. But I also can’t rely on pre-packaged food, even if it is labeled gluten-free. Don’t get me wrongI’m thrilled that these gluten-free crackers, pretzels, energy bars, and cereals exist. They’re good in-between foods for me. But for my daily meals? My exquisite tastes? Give me gourmet foods that are naturally gluten-free.
This is why I love Les Cadeaux Gourmets, on Queen Anne Avenue. And why I fear it, because I’m bound to be in it every week, picking up some new delectable. My checking account will be going down, but I will be happy for its existence in the world.
Late Friday afternoon, bone tired from two weeks of teaching, I drove up Queen Anne Avenue, determined to find a pleasantly dumb movie for the evening, and flop into bed. But as I made my way up the hill, my eyes landed on that green sign and the alluring store front. I stopped and wandered inside.
Fauchon chocolates in tiny pink purses. A line of lotions that truly smell like fruits and vegetables, instead of saccharine-sweet imitations of them. A corner of lavishly illustrated cookbooks, all of which I covet. Fine china in a dark-wood cabinet. Skillets from Switzerland. Aprons, wine-bottle covers, Mariebelle hot chocolate, kitchen soaps, photographs for sale on the wallsall of it enticed my eye.
And then I saw the food in the back.
I asked for a sample, and the couple who run the place were happy to oblige. He, it turns out, used to be a professional chef, in New York and Los Angeles. She, as it happens, used to work for a production company that produced shows for the Food Network (which plays, without sound, on a giant, plasma-screen tv behind the counter as you shop). Friendly without being obsequious, knowledgeable without being snotty, direct without being affectedthey made me feel comfortable, right away. And they really know their food.
Seis had me drink some vinegars, in little paper cups. The tomato vinegar tastes of tomatoes warmed in the sun. There was apple vinegar, blueberry vinegar, and a gorgeous one called Noble SourI could have drunk a glass of it. (In fact, it is labeled as a drinking vinegar by the company, Gegenbauer, from Austria.) As he poured some for me, he also poured a little splash for his three-year-0ld daughter, who loved it so much that she spent the next few minutes clinging to his legs, saying, “More vinegar, Papa?”
“I’ve never seen that before,” I laughed.
“Ah, she’s a chef’s daughter,” Pia said.
He and I started talking about these specialized ingredients, pricy but stunning in taste. And he said something that really resonated with me: “You know, the difference between home cooking and good restaurants isn’t really the preparations. It’s the ingredients.”
That was to enough to convince me. I bought a bottle of the tomato vinegar. And a jar of chestnut honey, from Tuscany. Dark and sweet, without a hint of bitterness, it truly tastes of chestnuts. Honey, it turns out, tastes of the flowers the bees suckled. Of course. But being a standard American for years, I thought all honey tasted the same. Not this one.
In fact, yesterday afternoon, my dear friend Francoise came over for a visit with her daughters. They had been in France for a month, so there was much to share together. But when I gave her a taste of the chestnut honey (she dipped in her little finger), she needed some too. So we all went to the Avenue for lemonade and batidos at the Cuban coffee shop, then walked down to Les Gourmet Cadeux. Francoise immediately took to it, calling it “warm, but clean.” She always says the best things. It’s true. There’s an immediate warmth to the place, but it’s filled with clean lines and meticulous little groupings.
Lord knows I love Sur la Table. But sometimes I feel about it the way I feel about the Strand bookstore in New York City. With eight miles of books piled into one relatively small space, I feel excited to enter, at first. But after about twenty minutes, I’m just overwhelmed, by all the people, as well as all the books I need to read. Sur la Table makes me feel the same way. Oh god, I need that and that and that and that. After awhile, I just feel as though I’m going to swoon. But Les Cadeaux Gourmet is like a great, independently owned bookstoresumptuously decorated, but manageable. And of course, even more enticing for it.
So I’ll be back. After all, I’m not really spending my pocket money on anything other than great food. (Except I bought the beautiful new album by Bill Frisell, which I’m in awe of, actually.) I already have my eye on that $30 bottle of olive oil. The Zuni Cafe cookbook. The sour-plum vinegar, so sweet you could drink it. The foaming milk bath. The Mariebelle Aztec hot chocolate. The fig caramels…..
GOAT CHEESE WITH BI-COLOURED VINAIGRETTE (FROM THE GEGENBAUER WEBSITE)
|Marinated Goat Cheese:|
|4 pieces||fresh goat cheese||roll in|
|8 tbsp.||herbs like rosemary, thyme, basil or similar herbs.||Marinate the cheese with|
|3 tbsp.||Grape Seed Oil Schilcher|
|2 tbsp.||Antara Olive Oil||and|
|4 tbsp.||Early Balsamic Vinegar||and season with|
|salt and pepper, fresh ground.|
|Coat the cheese, cover, set aside and marinate for 20 minutes.|
|Preheat the broiler!|
|1 bunch||green asparagus||baste with|
|Sunflower Seed Oil||and season with|
|salt and pepper, freshly ground||place in a flame-proof pan, place under the broiler and cook for several minutes, or until the asparagus slightly chars. Remove the asparagus and set aside at room temperature.|
|1 large||ripe, red tomato||and|
|1 large||ripe, yellow tomato||cut into small cubes and mix with|
|5 tbsp.||Tomato Vinegar|
|10 tbsp.||Antara Olive Oil||and|
|salt and pepper, fresh ground.|
|Divide the asparagus fanlike on 4 plates, place one piece goat cheese on each plate and drizzle with remaining marinade.|
|Spoon the tomato-vinaigrette over the asparagus and serve immediately.|