Everyone has to go astray. It’s how we find our way.
For the last couple of months, I thought gluten-free girl was gone. We closed our gluten-free flour business. We stopped taking sponsored posts. We freed ourselves from having to post something every Wednesday and finding time to promote it all on social media. I wasn’t prepared for how much relief I would feel. “It lasted longer than the Beatles,” my brother said and I laughed. True. How much longer did it need to go on? How much longer could I go on with gluten-free girl when I wasn’t really enjoying it anymore? (Luckily, Danny and I were not fighting, so there was no Lennon-McCartney tension here.)
I let go of gluten-free girl.
And now it has come back, anew.
This past spring, I started thinking, “What if I just got a job? A job with benefits? A job where my writing and being gluten-free girl didn’t matter?” I decided it was time and started writing a resume. My dear friend Tita, always my guru, said, “Why don’t you get a part-time job at Thriftway? They’re union. They offer benefits. You wouldn’t have to ride the ferry and come back home in time only to put the kids to bed. You could still be on the island.”
I thought and thought about it. Would it be weird to have won a James Beard award and then work a $15-an-hour job at a grocery store, shelving bread I couldn’t eat?
When has weird and unexpected ever stopped me?
So I started working at our grocery store in September. And to my surprise, I love it. It’s the best job I have ever worked. I see my community. I walk about 12,000 steps a day. I am doing work mindfully that doesn’t require my intellect, which frees up my mind to write while I put muffins on the table. I like my co-workers, most of whom I had never encountered in my social circle. (Several, including my manager in the bakery department, are my former students who are now in their late 30s.) And for the first time in a decade, our entire living is not dependent on my inventing new ways to work on the internet and hope we earn enough to make our expenses for the month. Working three days a week gets health insurance for the entire family. Bless a union job.
After a couple of months, my calm and clarity was so obvious that Danny started thinking about getting a kitchen job again. He began cooking at Gravy, a new restaurant on Vashon, a couple of months ago. He’s so happy — it’s clear he’s never going to work anywhere else. He works four days a week. I work three days a week. Our lives are a little like a Jenga game, but we’re laughing as we slide the pieces around.
After working at the grocery store for awhile, I started to notice something, more and more. Most people aren’t eating the kind of food that shows up on Instagram stories or YouTube channels. (In the first draft of this, I wrote “food blogs” and then I laughed. How old-fashioned of me. No one looks at food blogs anymore.)
What do I see as I put groceries in bags for people, when I work up front? Every order has something from the produce department. Some of them have more produce than others. Most of them have meat. Sometimes chips and a treat from the bakery. Some soda. A little chocolate. Burritos and fried potatoes from the deli. Mostly, rice and beans and spices and some kind of milk. Yogurts. Canned soup. Some bags are filled with packaged foods.
About once a day I’ll see someone whose entire order is chia seeds, naturopathic oils, kombucha, and goji berries. But 90% of the orders I see are people buying basic ingredients to make dinner for their family that night. About 1 order out of 10 is a parent shopping for the entire week at once.
This has only confirmed what I have been feeling for years: most recipes online are aspirational. And the creation of those recipes come from a different urge than feeding people. They come from the need to create a recipe no one else has done before, to rank higher on a Google search. (Today I saw someone on Twitter talking about “pink peppercorn brownies with salted caramel honey-coconut oil frosting.” It gave me a headache to think about the path that led to that.) And the desire to keep making money off a website/social media presence/empire of one means keeping quiet about anything but sweet treats and appealing recipes most people won’t ever make.
“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, can never bring about a reform.” — Susan B. Anthony
The fact is, now more than ever, knowing how to make good, simple food from scratch? It matters. Knowing how to shop on a budget and make good choices for our family on basic food? It’s vital. Keeping a garden and buying food in season and inviting friends over for a big pot of soup and salad instead of a dinner party? It is necessary.
For the past year, Danny and I have been looking hard at how we spend money. In the silence of not writing about food for a living, we could hear our conversations more clearly. After a few months off from gluten-free girl, after nearly a year of trying to figure out how to finally live on a budget after years of spending too much on food, we knew what we wanted to do.
Gluten-free girl is back. And this time, she’s on a budget.
Great food doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Having food in the refrigerator and a well-stocked pantry, thanks to a solid structure for shopping and cooking, plus recipes we trust, makes our lives better. It helps keep our bank accounts a little more solid, not so close to precarious.
And so, we’re going to start writing posts about the structures we have taught ourselves about how to shop and cook gluten-free on a budget. We’re tackling the tricks we have learned from our dear friend Tita and other people who are much better at saving money than we have been before this. We’re going to be offering recipes for good, simple food here every week.
And we want to emphasize this: having a budget is a privilege. Having a budget means you have regular, expected money coming in, as well as the time and inclination to figure out a structure that works for your family. It’s impossible to be methodical in shopping and meal planning when you are truly impoverished. So we won’t be offering suggestions for how to buy the cheapest ingredients and make them stretch for days. Instead, we’re talking about how to create a commonsense way of buying and cooking food that can last through life. These are the guidelines I want to teach my children.
I’m writing these pieces as a legacy for my children, so that someday they can do better than we have until this year. I want them to start off grounded. In fact, after today’s post, I’m going to be compiling all the pieces I write onto a page about cooking on a budget. Essentially, I’ll be writing letters to my kids.
However, I’m writing these pieces for myself, so I can learn more fully by teaching. I’m writing the pieces about living gluten-free on a budget for those of us privileged enough to have a budget, those of us who want to save more money so we can help others.
So let’s dig in. As Sam Sifton wrote in today’s New York Times Cooking Newsletter: thrift is the new take-out.
Let’s cook together.
gluten-free cauliflower fritters
It took us awhile to embrace cauliflower rice.
You might have seen references to cauliflower rice around the internet the last few years. It’s big with folks who eat low-carb. It’s just like rice! I’ve seen some people write. To which I want to write, No, it’s not. Cauliflower is not rice, even if it’s the same shape. It’s still cauliflower.
Tell truth, I’ve never been a fan of claims that say a substitute is just like the real thing. Why can’t we accept things for what they are? Can’t we celebrate the homely, the second-run, the things set apart?
So I’ve been resistant. When I want a bowl of soft fluffy white rice, I eat it. When I want cauliflower, I roast it.
Luckily, I like to keep an open mind.
I still don’t like cauliflower rice as a rice substitute. It’s not a rice substitute. It’s a great way to eat cauliflower.
All you do is cut up a head of cauliflower, then throw it into the food processor. If you don’t own a food processor, set to work with a knife. Whirl them around for a few minutes and you have particles of cauliflower. (Yes, take them until they look like rice.) Now, caramelize them with onions and pour gravy on the top? You have a deeply flavorful vegetable dish with the taste and heft of Thanksgiving stuffing. Or, if you’re like us, you’re going to want to use the entire, enormous head of cauliflower to make platters of cauliflower fritters.
Our kids love these. If we are working to make a good meal and skip a trip to the store, we grab a handful of the cauliflower we riced earlier in the week, mix it up with the inch of gluten-free flour we have left in the bag, eggs, baking powder, and some salt and pepper. A skillet with a skim of hot oil? Easy peasy. It doesn’t require much money to make good food.
To make the cauliflower rice.
Cut the cauliflower. Cut the woody bottom part of the stem of cauliflower away from the head.
Using a sharp large knife, cut the head of cauliflower into 1-inch thick slices.
Process the cauliflower. Working in batches, fill the bowl of the food processor half full with cauliflower slices. Turn the power on high and let it whirl until all of the cauliflower is broken down into small pieces the size of grains of rice. Pick out any large parts that did not break down. Toss them or put them into the next batch.
When you have processed the entire cauliflower, put it into a large storage container. You can use it all through the next few days. (Remember that the smell of cauliflower is strong, so you might want to hold your nose when you open the storage container by day three. It’s still fine. Just strong.)
For even more colorful dishes, use orange or purple cauliflower.
for the fritters
Make the fritter batter. Put 1/2 the riced cauliflower into a large bowl. Put the almond flour, eggs, baking powder, oregano, and salt into the bowl. Mix them up until the fritter batter is a wetter form of the cauliflower by itself.
Cook the fritters. Set a large skillet on medium-high heat. (Cast-iron or nonstick are best here.) Pour in enough oil to cover the bottom of the skillet. When the oil is hot, form a patty with about 2 tablespoons of batter and firm the patty up in your hands. Carefully place the patty in the hot oil. Repeat until you have 4 to 5 patties in the skillet. Do not overcrowd. Let the patties cook until the bottoms are browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Flip them, carefully, since the top part is not set yet. Let the fritter cook until the bottoms are browned, about 3 minutes.
Repeat with the remaining fritter batter.
Feel like playing? These are good on their own but you can also top them with roasted red pepper aioli or herby green sauce or sour cream and scallions. You’ll know. And you’re going to make lots of these so play each time. You could also replace half of the cauliflower with riced broccoli as well.