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There is something about seafood, shellfish in particular, that seems so decadent. Even the most simply prepared pot of mussels can elevate a meal, and a platter of raw oysters with a squeeze of lemon is a delicacy I imagine few would turn down at a cocktail party. Never mind that it was not long ago that oysters were reserved for the proletariat, and lobsters were eschewed as undesirable bottom-feeders. At the banquet of life in the twenty-first century, seafood is king.

Whenever in doubt what to feed company, I turn to the vast oceans.  Grilled jumbo shrimp cocktail. Mussels cooked in a saffron broth, or in wine and cream. Lobster pot pie. The choices are endless, and require very little time or fuss, since seafood is best highlighted with only a couple of extra flavors in order to let its specialness shine through. What could be easier than a throwing a few scallops into a pan with a knob of butter, or tossing some clams and spaghetti together with garlic and olive oil?

When I came across this recipe for Bay Scallop Gratin by Ina Garten, it instantly became one of my best-loved and oft-cooked recipes. It combines several of my favorite ingredients: scallops, butter, shallots, and panko bread crumbs. And of course, it’s gratineed. I think I would eat my shoe if it were gratineed.

Serve these scallops in individual gratin dishes alongside a salad and a loaf of crusty French bread and you have an elegant meal that will impress even your most important dinner guests. Follow it with creme brulee for dessert and you’ll knock it out of the park. Not bad for half an hour in the kitchen.

Ina Garten’s Bay Scallop Gratin

Serves 6

Ingredients:

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

6 large garlic cloves, minced

2 medium shallots, minced

2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, minced

4 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, plus extra for garnish

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 tablespoons Pernod

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

6 tablespoons good olive oil

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

6 tablespoons dry white wine

2 pounds fresh bay scallops

lemon, for garnish

Directions:

1) Preheat the oven to 425F. Place 6 (6-inch round) gratin dishes on a sheet pan.

2) To make the topping, mix the butter in a bowl with an electric mixer on low speed. Add the garlic, shallot, prosciutto, parsley, lemon juice, Pernod, salt and pepper until well combined

3) With the mixer still on low, add the olive oil slowly as though making mayonnaise. Fold in panko with a rubber spatula.

4) Place 1 tablespoon of the wine in the bottom of each gratin dish. Pat scallops dry with paper towels and distribute evenly among the dishes. Spoon the garlic butter evenly over the scallops.

5) Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the topping is browned and sizzling and the scallops are barely done. Turn on the broiler and bake for 2 more minutes for a crusty, golden finish.

6) Drizzle with lemon juice and sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately.

Imagine that you are a foodie of epic proportions. You spend all your time making food, eating food, or thinking about making or eating food. Your mailbox is regularly filled with issues of Bon Appetit and Food & Wine magazines. Browsing the cheese section at Whole Foods is your idea of a good time. You’re convinced that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, because that’s the way to yours.

Now imagine that you are also long-plagued with mysterious medical ailments and that you have noticed strange symptoms randomly take hold of your body. You drift from doctor to doctor, who all brush you off or look at you like you’ve gone senile, until one comes up with an answer that actually makes sense: you have food allergies. Not only do you have food allergies but you are also (gasp!) gluten intolerant!

Quel horror! What a disaster. Can a worse fate befall such a committed foodie?

No. I am here to tell you that it cannot.

Not long ago I was sharing some pate de campagne on crusty French bread with a foodie friend. We were rolling our eyes and mocking all the poor souls who claimed to have all sorts of food allergies, intolerances, and enzyme deficiencies. We agreed that these people actually suffered from food phobias that were manifestations of a deep-seated fear of gaining weight or dying from cancer. We also agreed that these people were generally a pain to eat with.

Now I am one of those people.

I have been told that I am intolerant of several foods, some of which I rarely or never eat–like kidney beans and cola nuts. Other things I gorged on daily, in one form or another, like wheat, milk, and eggs. Not surprising, since these items all fall in the list of top seven allergens. But excuse me! How do you live a life void wheat, milk, and eggs without moving to the Himalayas and subsisting on brown rice and yak butter?

For the last couple of months I have been finding out how.

The first week of my avoidance diet was a living hell. I found myself repeatedly breaking down in tears or throwing pans across the kitchen a la Gordon Ramsey, wondering what in the world I was going to eat. No more pasta carbonara. No more Quiche Lorraine. No more almond croissants the size of baseball mitts. Soon I pulled myself together, however. I was feeling so lousy and nothing else had helped that I told myself I had to give this an honest try.

I began by eating foods that were naturally gluten-free. I bought Egg Replacer and found a delicious Greek style yogurt made from goat’s milk. I switched to Manchego cheese, the deliciously pungent Spanish cheese made from the milk of sheep. Slowly I began to find my way.

The first month I felt terrible. I actually felt even worse than I had before. But after five weeks, six weeks, I began to feel amazingly well. I bounded out of bed with energy. I smiled more. My belly no longer looked like I was carrying around a five-month-old fetus. I even lost some of the weight that I’d been finding so impossible to get rid of.

I don’t know if I totally buy into this food allergy thing. I think that very few people have actual food allergies but sensitivities seem to be another issue altogether. Because our food is grown in such depleted soil and so many of us are exposed to chemicals and pollution that even environmental allergies are increasing exponentially, it makes sense that many of us would react to certain foods. I don’t know if I am willing and able to cut out all these cherished foods forever, but knowing that I feel so much better when I do has made it so much easier to stay away from them. Furthermore, the couple of times I have cheated, I broke out with hives on my face, which makes those little cheats seem hardly worth it.

For weeks I have sat here wondering how I was going to continue to post on my blog. I didn’t want to change the format or the content. I didn’t want to become another gluten-free blog. The great thing about blogging, though, is that I have expanded my repertoire and have learned to look at food in broader terms. There is a lot you can eat even if you can’t eat wheat or dairy. Even old favorites can be revamped with a little bit of ingenuity and know-how. (Also, I still cook for other people and see no reason to deprive them. You’ll continue to find those recipes here.)

Not knowing if I could forgo my daily baked good, I did a fair amount of research in gluten-free baking, which lead me to Annalise Roberts’ wonderful book Gluten-Free Baking Classics. Annalise has come up with a blend of flours that substitute beautifully for wheat flour in a lot of recipes. Many of the things I have made from this book have been a close approximation of the “real thing”. In fact, Gourmet magazine once wrote about this book … “we dare anyone to detect that they [chocolate chip cookies] weren’t made with traditional wheat flour”.

I don’t know if I would go that far in terms of these scones, but when faced with the prospect of going without, I would say that for gluten-free, they’re pretty dang good.

Annalise Roberts’ Gluten-Free Baking Mix

2 parts brown rice flour (i.e. 2 cups)

2/3 part potato starch (i.e. 2/3 cup)

1/3 part tapioca starch (i.e. 1/3 cup)

Gluten-Free Cranberry Scones

Ingredients:

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup dried cranberries

2 cups rice flour mix (see above)

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

2 large eggs

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 425F. Position rack in center of oven. Line heavy baking sheet with parchment paper.

2) Combine milk and cranberries in a glass measuring cup and set aside.

3) Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, xanthan gum, and salt in a large bowl of an electric mixer. With mixer on low, cut butter into flour mixture until it resembles a coarse meal. Alternately, use a food processor. Put mixture in a small bowl and set aside.

4) Beat eggs in the same large bowl of electric mixer until very light and foamy. Add milk and flour mixture and mix at medium-low speed for 1 minute. Use lightly floured hands to pat dough into a large 1-inch thick round on a lightly floured surface. Cut out scones with a 2 1/2-inch round cookie cutter or a glass. Press dough scraps together and repeat.

5) Place dough on prepared baking sheet and put in center of oven. Turn oven temperature down to 375F and bake for 20-25 minutes until golden and cooked through. Serve with warm butter or preserves.

Makes about 9-10 scones.

Note: When measuring the flour mix, do not scoop up flours with measuring cups as this will pack the flour down too much. Measure each flour by scooping it into the measuring cup and leveling with a straight edge. Measuring accurately is even more crucial in GF recipes than in others. Combine all of the flours in a plastic container and shake to combine. Large amounts of flour can be mixed for later. The flour mix is best kept refrigerated, as it can go rancid after four months or so.

Given a chance to live a life other than my own, I would choose to live Laura Calder’s, the quirky yet charming host of Food Network Canada’s French Food at Home. Despite its ups and downs, I don’t often wish my life to be any different from what it is. What would be the point? I’m also one of the least jealous people around, but can I just tell you that this woman’s CV sends me into paroxysms of envy?

Although she is currently a popular television personality and a cookbook author, Laura Calder began her career trajectory in journalism and public relations, after studying linguistics as an undergraduate and acquiring a Master’s degree at the London School of  Economics. Laura soon realized that this path was not for her and enrolled in a program at a well-respected culinary school in Vancouver. Her diploma led to work in the Napa Valley and subsequently France, where she worked for British cookery writer Anne Willan at her school in Burgundy.

Laura ended up staying in France for the better part of a decade, which is where she wrote her first cookbook and contributed to a variety of magazines such as Gourmet, Vogue Entertaining and Travel, and Gastronomica. Finally, she returned to Canada and began shooting for the Food Network.

What I find so fascinating about Laura Calder, and so many other well-known chefs and food writers, is that she achieved a high level of education and career success before considering a life in food. Ina Garten also has a Master’s degree and used to work on energy policy for the White House. Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten was once a lawyer. Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic for the New York Times and editor of Gourmet magazine, has an M.A. in Art History. When you have an all-consuming passion for food, it calls out to you. Food comes first. You cook it, eat it, read about it, talk about it, and spend all your money on it. It’s one of those passions that can’t be ignored. You may start off wanting to be an economist, a teacher, to work in banking, but sooner or later … food is going to get you.

So here I sit at forty, on the verge of my third career change, a career that has nothing to do with food, a part of me regretting that I hadn’t taken a different path. In the meantime, I have been writing about food: blogging, pitching magazines with a modicum of success–success I hope to build upon. I don’t know where it will lead, but hopefully somewhere. It’s always been my firm belief that when you work hard at something and have a passion for it, you can’t possibly fail. You just can’t give up too soon.

Laura Calder’s Coq au Riesling


Ingredients:

6 chicken legs, split at the joint

salt and pepper

1 tablespoon each of butter and olive oil

4 shallots, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tablespoons Cognac

1 cup Riesling

1/2 cup stock

1 tablespoon butter, more if needed

1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered

1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream

chopped parsley or tarragon, for garnish

Directions:

1) Season the chicken legs with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil and butter in a saute pan and brown the chicken on all sides, working in batches. Remove it to a plate and add the shallots and garlic to the pan. Cook for one minute.

2) Pour the Cognac in the pan to deglaze. Put the chicken back into the pan. Pour the wine and the stock over the chicken. Cover and cook until the chicken is tender–about twenty minutes-turning once.

3) In the meantime, melt a bit of butter in a frying pan and cook the mushrooms until golden. When the chicken is cooked remove it to a platter and keep warm. Boil the cooking liquid down to sauce consistency. Stir in the cream and mushrooms. Correct the seasonings. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Scatter with parsley and serve.

It’s hard to believe that a year ago today I started my little blog. I wasn’t sure if anyone would read it; after all, there are so many food blogs out there. I wasn’t looking for thousands of readers. What I was hoping for was a loyal following that would enjoy reading what I had to say and be inspired to cook something new. I was also developing as a food and travel writer and thought a blog would be a good forum for me to find my voice as one. Most of all, I wanted to really learn how to cook. To some end, I think I have accomplished these things. I’ve also made some wonderful friends who love food as passionately as I do. This was an unexpected benefit–icing on the cake, if you will.

Lately, I haven’t blogged as much as I would like to. Work, friends, family and the mundane details of daily life sometimes keep me away. Plus, there’s the book.

I have started a new novel. The last time I started a novel was ten years ago, in graduate school, when I was working on my Master’s degree in Creative Writing. I had been working on this novel on and off since then when a few months ago I met a man, an accomplished artist, who gave me this piece of advice: start something new.

At first, I balked. I had already started over again once before and was almost three hundred pages into the manuscript. How could I just start something new? It would feel like quitting. But after I thought about what he’d said, I realized he was right. The novel wasn’t working. Starting something new didn’t mean I would never finish it. Maybe one day I would be able to go back and look at it and figure out why it wasn’t working and fix it.

In the meantime, the new novel feels right. It’s still early days but it’s going well. Being my own worst critic and a perfectionist, I’m usually unhappy with whatever I write until I have revised it over and over again. But this is different. It’s only the first draft, but I like what’s on the page. The characters are alive, the story has layers. When it’s done, I think it will have guts. It’s already shaping into kind of story I like to read.

So I’m celebrating today–with chocolate cake. After all, what can be more celebratory than that? It seems to me that once you start baking, you’re always searching for the perfect chocolate cake. For me, a chocolate pudding cake is such a cake. Rich with deep chocolate taste and a center so moist it borders on gooey, it’s dessert nirvana.

This recipe is from Canadian Living. It’s one of those magazines where everything is tested a bazillion times, so the recipes are reliable. It’s simple yet delicious. I wanted something festive today, so I made a layer cake and frosted it with caramel icing, but you don’t have to do anything like that if you don’t want to. It’s delicious just as it is, or with a dusting of cocoa or icing sugar.

Chocolate Pudding Cake


Ingredients:

3/4 cup (175 ml) packed brown sugar

1/4 cup (50 ml) cocoa powder

1 cup (250 ml) boiling water or hot coffee

3/4 cup (175 ml) all-purpose flour

1/3 cup (75 ml) granulated sugar

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking powder

1/3 cup (75 ml) milk

1 egg, beaten

2 tablespoons (25 ml) butter

1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla extract

1/2 cup (125 ml) chocolate chips

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 350F. In a bowl, whisk brown sugar with 2 tablespoons cocoa powder. Whisk in boiling water or coffee until smooth.

2) In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, 1/4 cup cocoa powder, and the baking powder. Add the milk, egg, butter, and vanilla. Whisk until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips.

3) Spread flour mixture in greased 9-inch cake pan. Pour liquid mixture evenly over top.

4) Bake in center of oven for 30 minutes or until the cake is firm when gently touched.

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QUOTE

"Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet." -Julia Child

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Photos and text copyright 2009 by Darina Kopcok
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