slowly, so softly

Once, before there was Desmond or Lucy or Danny, before there was a gluten-free flour business or a James Beard award or the New York Times, before there was a food memoir and two published cookbooks and a third one coming out soon, before there was Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Periscope (have you tried this thing? Oh, this could be fun.) — before any of the gifts and dins that came after — there was this site. Ten years ago this spring, I sat down to type, to hear the click of my fingers on the keyboard and watch the little black letters emerge onto white screen. I had been so sick, so bloody awful sick for months, and pretty darned sick for years before that. Now, for the first time, I felt alive in my body. I danced and did yoga and strode through the Ballard farmers’ market in a grinning daze of happiness.

But mostly I sat down to write.

Writing made sense to me. Staring at a blank white paper, then pressing a pen down in a rush of thoughts and tangled adjectives? It’s how I lived. Years before my diagnosis, I wrote a personal journal, buds of red or purple words strewn across thick white paper in a black bound book. (There are boxes of those pebbled black sketchbooks, sealed shut, in our garage right now.) By the time I was diagnosed with celiac and started this site, I had moved past that solipsistic daily practice of writing out my thoughts and feelings for myself. (Oh, so many feelings!) By 2005, I wanted to tell stories.

So I did.

I started writing online about the way my body felt — bursting into bloom after years of lying dormant. I wrote about kayaking Lake Union and discovering the taste of sauteed amaranth leaves and eating at Café Flora in Madison Valley after months of thinking I’d never eat in a restaurant again. Joyful and bold, shorthand sometimes and verbose in others, that writing surged out of me. I didn’t think anyone was going to read those pieces. Even though I wrote the first few month of entries here as though I was writing letters to friends — and really, I still do — I was shocked the first time someone left a comment. Who is this person?

Soon those comments came in cloudbursts then a steady stream. I had been parched before. Writing is a solitary act. Suddenly, there was community.

I found Molly, who became a friend immediately. I couldn’t believe the beauty of Heidi’s world. David Lebovitz charmed me and pushed me back to baking. I wrote to my friend Sharon about Clotilde immediately: you have to visit this site. It’s a woman who lives in Paris! And she loves food as much as we do! Adam and Chubby Hubby and Shuna — these interesting people in vastly different worlds arrived in my life through the computer. Even though I could no longer eat gluten, I still loved Everybody Likes Sandwiches. Elise enticed me to cook. All these lovely people were weirdos like me: we loved sharing stories and writing down recipes and we took pictures of our food. (This was before the nightly parade of dinner shots on Instagram began.) Finally, after years of feeling like an oddball, I had found my people.

That’s how I met Tara O’Brady, through her wonderful site, Seven Spoons.

blueberry snacking cake

If my writing sometimes feels like torrents of thoughts, sentences slinging down in sheets, then Tara’s feels like gleaming drops on petals after the storm. Slowly, so softly, she draws you in. There’s no intention to edify or prove. She has swung open the door of her home and asked you in. There might be warm blueberry snacking cake on the counter and a thick ceramic mug of tea waiting for you too. As Molly wrote when she blurbed Tara’s cookbook, “Tara O’Brady could write a book about re-grouting bathroom tile, and I would still want to read it.” Look at this sweet piece Tara wrote about discovering her love of cookie recipes after finally unpacking the last of the boxes from their move two years before. (We just finished unpacking our last ones a couple of days ago. Ahem.) Here she expresses, with such ease, the melancholy mixed feelings I have about the new year. And this photo essay about her visit to Seattle — we were deep in the dregs of running a Kickstarter campaign and I couldn’t get off island to see her — where she lays out all my favorite places with her gentle phrases. “The guava ginger beer at Rachel’s reminded me of India, my grandfather’s house, and sitting on the dark green hood of his car eating guavas from the tree in the yard.” Don’t you want to be there now?

north Indian baked eggs

And her photographs. They’re clear and elegant without being the kind of standard overblown ready-for-Pinterest photos I see on so many blogs now. She knows how to compose a shot, how to plate food on simple grey dishes on a baking sheet splattered with stains from real use on a concrete surface — and everything feels just so. Every piece she posts feels like only she could have created it.

Whenever I need to learn more about how to photograph food to capture light, and not plunk down the dish and be done with it — and let’s face it, that’s every day — I look at Tara’s shots sometimes and wonder how she did it. And then I pick up the camera again.

seven spoons

So I’m mighty pleased to share with you that Tara’s first book, Seven Spoons: My Favorite Recipes for Any and Every Day, has finally been published. True to form, it’s a lovely book. We’ve been cooking from it for weeks now, diving in for more food. This is the food of an accomplished home cook who has a well-stocked pantry and a voracious curiosity for spices and oils, flavors that might change a basic dish into something memorable. Even after all the cooking we have been doing from our now-food-stained copy, we still have our eyes on the glazed eggplant with shallots and greens, the celeriac soup with green horseradish oil, and the turmeric fried okra.

Danny and I only spend one day a week working together these days. On Mondays, Desmond is in daycare. (Tuesday through Friday, Danny and I are juggling. You go to the studio and work, and I’ll watch him for a bit until he goes down for a nap. Meet you back here at 2.) I bake in the morning. Danny cooks for hours. And then we photograph every dish we liked so we can share them with you eventually. On Mondays, the first days of writing this site feel like more than a decade ago.

On Mondays, two trusted friends who are helping us with our business come for the meetings and stay for lunch. The week we cooked from Tara’s book, we offered them slow-simmered red lentil dal strewn with warm shallots and shreds of cilantro, north Indian baked eggs (a kind of shaksuka flavored with Kashmiri chiles, turmeric, and garam masala), and gluten-free naan, made with our gluten-free flour, based on Tara’s recipe.

That warm naan tore apart softly, slowly, like Tara’s prose. Our friend Trish took a bite and her face beamed relief. She thought she would never eat naan again, since she’s gluten-free. Luckily, it’s easy to make now.

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 preset

Plus, this. Tara’s bee-stung fried chicken, made with our gluten-free flour. She drizzles it with a hot honey butter, mixed with Korean hot pepper paste. We made it with Siracha instead.

Danny lowered the platter of fried chicken to the table and we all just stared. And then hands flew to pick up pieces, squeeze lime over them, and dredge it all in that spicy honey-butter sauce. Teeth crunched through the coating, a shower of crumbs falling below, and then a little moan. What is this? Seriously? I didn’t know I’d ever have fried chicken this good without the gluten. After every bite, I kept dragging my piece through that diminishing pool of orange-red sticky sauce on my plate. Eventually, I just grabbed a spoonful from the bowl of it Danny had laid down on the table too — that Danny. he always knows — and smeared more on my plate. This chicken is like the dream you have of fried chicken in the middle of winter. This fried chicken is why people go to fast food places and buy a bucket with grease smears on the inside, because they’re hoping they could have this crunch, this salty play with tender juicy meat, this experience of throwing away decorum and giving into hunger. This is not a dainty dish. Give up any notions of being neat and tidy while eating this chicken. Damn, this is good chicken.

You think you know a writer after reading her for ten years. She’s soft and graceful slow shots and composed. And then you eat this chicken and realize you underestimated her. Keep going.

gluten-free naan

gluten-free naan, adapted from Seven Spoons: My Favorite Recipes for Any and Every Day

Tara says in her book that the requirements of a good naan are “…char, chew, and pillowy doughiness.” While this bread might not have the exact same texture as naan made with wheat flour, it certainly has char, chew, and pillowy doughiness. Everyone who has eaten it has been happy. 

The secret to making this? Well, we think one is our gluten-free flour. The other is psyllium husk, which allows a slow-rising dough to go from wet and tacky to kneadable and soft as traditional bread dough. The yogurt adds tang and softness. Finally, letting it rise slowly, with a tiny pinch of yeast, not rushing but letting the dough make itself ready? That slowness leads to softness. 

Tara suggests a cooking technique: brushing a bit of water on the top of the shaped dough, then cooking it in the skillet with the lid on, to create steam. We love the steam oven effect, but we found these naan cooked even better with a bit of oil instead of water. However, you want a pastry brush barely damp with oil (we used olive oil but ghee would be even better), then dab the brush quickly over parts of the dough, not over the entire surface. That helps create those charred spots you see. 

1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 cup warm water (about 110°)
385 grams (about 2 3/4 cups) gluten-free all-purpose flour
7 grams (about 1 tablespoon) whole psyllium husks

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 cup whole milk yogurt

ghee or oil for cooking the naan

Proof the yeast. Gently whisk together the yeast, sugar, and 1/2 cup of the warm water in a small bowl. Let them mingle together for 10 minutes. If the mixture isn’t frothy and increasing in size, start again with new yeast.

Make the dough. Whisk together the flour, psyllium, and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the ingredients. Pour in the yeasty water and yogurt. Start stirring the dough with a rubber spatula, in small circles from the center, slowly incorporating more of the dry ingredients into the dough. When everything is combined, the dough should be tacky and a bit wet, like a slightly wet cookie dough. It should not have the consistency of traditional wheat bread dough. If the dough is too dry, splash in a bit more of the water until the dough feels right. (If you want, you can do this in a stand mixer too.)

Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and set it in a warm place. Allow the dough to rise and hydrate. A gluten-free dough will never rise as high as a wheat dough might. But this time allows the dough to fully hydrate and let the psyllium do its work. The dough is ready when you can move it around in your hands and knead it like a traditional dough, about 4 hours.

Prepare to cook. Move the dough around in the bowl and put it onto a clean work surface. Knead the dough to work out the air bubbles and make the dough smoother under your hands. Cut the dough into 8 pieces. Shape each piece into a tight ball by rolling it around under your hand. (And it will feel just like traditional dough!) Cover all 8 pieces with that damp towel and let them rest for 5 minutes.

Set a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Let the skillet grow hot while you shape the dough balls. Use your hands (or a rolling pin) to flatten the dough into a circle about 1/8-inch thick. Very lightly, dab the melted ghee or oil over some parts of the dough. Lay the dough into the hot pan. Dab the ghee or oil over the top and put a lid on the skillet. Cook until the naan has bubbles in the dough and the bottom is browning and lifts easily off the pan, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip the naan and put the lid back on. Cook until the underside is browned with a few charred places, 1 to 2 minutes.

Move the naan over to a plate. Drape a kitchen towel or napkin over it to keep the naan warm. Continue with the rest of the naan.

Eat right away.

Feeds 8.

Feel like playing? We haven’t tried this yet, but I bet a dairy-free yogurt (unflavored) might work just fine here. For real decadence, brush the naan just off the skillet with a little melted ghee. We topped ours with a tomato-ginger chutney Danny likes to make. Any topping you like works just fine here.

17 comments on “slowly, so softly

  1. Brenda

    Shauna, I’m truly glad you decided to write and share your stories, trials, and tribulations with “us”, your community of fans and friends! Congrats on a successful ten years of heartfelt, creative writing! And because of you, I have learned so much, and have been inspired by so many of YOUR inspirations through others’ recipes, books, and blogs you have shared.

  2. mary

    Psyllium husks – I cannot find this in my local stores…haven’t tried the specialty stores…is it any different than the psyllium found in the fiber section of my local drug store? THANK YOU I love naan, and too thought it was out of my life forever!!

    1. Mary

      Amazon has it – it says “colon cleanser” on the container…LOL…but it’s the right thing. Just search for psyllium husk and you’ll find it.

  3. Stephanie

    I echo Brenda — so glad you’re here! I still remember when I first discovered you with a recipe for GF chocolate chip cookies back in 2008 . . . They changed my world and now I think this naan bread will, too!

  4. Robin Southworth

    Shauna…thank you for this blog. I found it nine years ago. It gave me hope. Hope for eating well when you have an on-going illness. Hope for living. Hope for loving. Keep eating, living, loving…and writing! In peace…

  5. MaryAnn

    Since 2009 when my cooking world turned upside down I have found solice in your writings, laughter in your stories, great recipes to make and the wonderful feeling that I am not alone in this ” whatever it is”. I love the way you share. On to making naan with your wonderful GF flour. Thank you for all the work you and your family put into this GF life.

  6. Ken

    Shauna,

    Your writing, great stories and food have been an inspiration to me in so many ways. You are my go to GF food site and I’ve recommended you first whenever anyone asks me for how to start GF cooking and baking. One of the best things is how real you are. I was thrilled when I got to meet you and Danny when you did your pot luck tour (and was amazingly thrilled when you said my Brown Bread made you rethink your own recipe!). Thank you for inspiring me to try new things, not only in baking, but in life.

  7. Jennifer

    Hey I love your food blog! Check out mine and let’s connect? My food is Gluten-free and Paleo.

    swedishcavegirl.blogspot.com

  8. Tekla Bach

    Well you have sold the book 😉
    That goes on the list of books to get, unfortunately it will probably be difficult to get it in Denmark yet 😉
    But the Naanbreads will defintely be tested one of theese days 🙂

    Thank you very much for all the good recipies and inspiration, i really love to read your writings.

  9. Diane L.

    I do not have celiac, but when a rare collagen disorder made me crushingly ill, your site became a source of great solace. It made me realize that although chronic illness is awful, it doesn’t have to engulf me. Your writing and vibrant personality were, and remain, a touchstone.

  10. Bernadette

    I was there reading what your wrote 10 years ago and was so happy to have found someone who “got” it. Meeting you in Maine was such a treat and I’m so grateful to be able to keep on reading and trying out all of your recipes! You have come so far both professionally and personally! Happy for you!!

  11. Elisabeth

    AHHH!!! Gluten free NAAN?? Oh, sorry…got a bit carried away. I have just (literally last week) been diagnosed with Celiac and I have been sick for 2 months (which is already enough to make me start to lose it…I cannot imagine years). I am just starting this journey of figuring it all out and trying to make all the substitutions…And I so love bread that I am delighted to find this!

  12. Ruth

    I think it fantastic how over the years the possibilities for gluten free baking have kept growing and developing. Years ago being gluten free meant a boring, boring, boring diet with very few alternatives available and even fewer recipes. it is brilliant to see how the world has change – thsnk to people like you and many others besides.

  13. Anne

    Ten years – wonderful.

    I must have found you 4 or 5 years ago – I was not gluten free, but your cooking never seemed limited, and I enjoyed the writing. And as you wrote about cooking and food, I learned from your approach to recipes. (Thank you for _Ratio_!)

    So then, last year when I ate seitan, and reacted, and learned what was behind the odd symptoms I’d been developing over the previous few years… it wasn’t frightening. I can handle this. I’ve seen you do it…

    Thank you for your cooking, your writing – and the confidence that I can cook and eat real food…

  14. Brenda

    OMGlutenfreegoodness! This naan rocks! I made these and served toasty warm with a fresh tzatziki sauce and greek salad. I have visions of hummus, baba, pizza, nutella, everything, dancing in my head. And the dough was so easy to make. The ghee-spotted-char, chewy, and pillow-y goodness, is to die for. I wrapped each in wax paper, in a large freezer baggie, and pull out as needed, then toast in toaster. They taste as fresh as the day I made them. This is in my top ten GFG recipes! Thank you lotses! xo

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