Shauna James Ahern, a.k.a Gluten-free girl, inspires me.
When I read her blog posts (She is also on Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr), I get a feeling as if life is one big, ongoing, happy celebration. There’s beautiful food, and fun with friends, parties, and picnics, and potlucks, living on a dreamy island with her husband, Danny, and her little girl, Lucy… But most of all I can feel the love and appreciation for one another in her words, food, and photos. Sometimes it seem as if Shauna’s life is glossy-magazine-perfect.
But wait, there’s so much more.
Shauna is a stay-at-home mom to a 2 year-old toddler and works from home, full time! I asked her a while ago on Twitter how does she do it all. She replied that her house is a mess. Well, my house is already a mess (at least 66.38% of it)—I kind of gave up on the idea that it will be tidy one day–but I can’t do even a 1/4 of what this woman is capable of…
In her post from April 2010, she let her readers know more about what’s been on her plate in the past year. There are difficulties and challenges:
“It has not felt like the right place to talk about terrifying life decisions, watching a baby in pain, living on the ragged edge of desolate sleep deprivation, worrying about cancer, taking a pill that saddens our lives into something we never expected, and coping with it all in old, familiar ways.”
Her candor and openness about her life amazes me. In spite of it all, she projects happiness and satisfaction—life is a celebration. The woman has incredible levels of energy and strength–or does she have super powers? Instead of letting hard times bring her down (I think this is how I would have reacted), she grabs life with two strong hands and embraces and squeezes the joyful moments out of it. Surely something I still practice doing.
Following Shauna’s work energizes me to get off my butt, go out and celebrate life, food, and my family. It encourages me to get out there and fight for the things that matter to me the most. To try again even when it feels like I failed, and not give up.
I wanted to know more, so I asked Shauna if she can answer a few questions and she has agreed to do an interview.
You should know, Shauna and Danny co-authored a cookbook that is soon to be in the stores. I don’t have to eat gluten-free food to be healthy and alive like she does, but I can’t wait to put my hands on their cookbook, “Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef”, for the stories if not for the gorgeous food that is probably in there…
(All photos in this post are used with permission and grabbed from Shauna’s Flickr photostream.)
1. You and Danny cook and work together and you have a new cookbook, “Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef “, coming out in September 28th, 2010. Can you share some tips about how you, as a couple, collaborate in the kitchen in ways that strengthen your family?
Danny and I love being in the kitchen together. Shortly after we met, we started cooking together. At first, I worried that he would think my skills were woeful in comparison to his (they were) and want to direct or correct me. But that’s not Danny. Instead, he enjoyed the chance to collaborate, to smell the spices, to slow down and enjoy the process. And stop for kisses, too!
Danny may have spent over 20 years in restaurant kitchens, and thus can chop an onion neatly in the time it takes me to remove the peel, but he is not interested in being the one who knows everything. Instead, we learn from each other. The first time we cooked together, I taught him a trick I had picked up from Jamie Oliver, about putting a boiling-hot lemon into a chicken before you stick it in the oven. The juices release immediately and make the chicken juicier than any other I have roasted. He loved it. He taught me how to roast peppers under the broiler and add them to mashed potatoes. That first meal we cooked together was a revelation.
Since then, we have cooked many meals together, including all the dishes in our cookbook (many times over!). There are times that I’m too busy writing to help Danny or he’s too exhausted from a long day at the restaurant to help me, but almost every meal means the two of us in the kitchen, side by side, working together, talking about the day and laughing.
And now there are three of us in the kitchen. We want to give our daughter this space, and the joy in the process, as well.
2. Have you cooked in harmony from the beginning of your relationship or did you have any bumps along the road? If you have had any cooking-together-hiccups, how did you overcome them and what have you learned about each other along the way?
For the most part, Danny and I have cooperated and enjoyed each other’s company in the kitchen. We’re human, though. There are times we irritate the heck out of each other!
It irritates Danny when I go fast and forget to put a wet towel under the cutting board. (This cuts the risk of the knife and board slipping.) I think he wishes I could do the dishes at night more often, but we’re all so exhausted near midnight after a day with the toddler and writing full-time. He’s tired after a day at the restaurant. We tackle them together at lunch the next day, as often as we can.
When we first began our time together, I asked him to be my teacher. It was so clear that I didn’t know the techniques that are muscle memory to him. At my behest, he gave me lessons. I wrote everything down in a little black book, like I was his Girl Friday. He loved it. So did I.
After a couple of years, however, I had learned enormously. I’ll never be as good as him, but I was confident in the kitchen. But he kept up the lessons, stopping me in the middle of cooking to tell me how I could do it better. We had a couple of months there where I’d refrain from saying anything, then had to ask him to back away. We were both kind of annoyed with each other. We had to step back and realize we were in a different space. I just wanted to cook, not have a lesson anymore.
Other than that, however, it has been easy. We really just love talking about food, planning meals, going to the grocery store, and cooking. Of course, the eating too. But it’s really the entire process that moves us.
Gluten-free pizza with barbequed duck breast, pine nuts, mozzarella, and cilantro
3. Your little girl, Lucy, who is only two years old, spends time with you and Danny in the kitchen. What do you do together? How can parents include their little kids in the kitchen action?
Lucy is the light of our lives. Every day, both Danny and I are amazed by something she says or does. She is delighted by life and reminds us to live to it too.
That is particularly clear in the kitchen. She stand on a chair at the counter with us as we cook. She has been doing this since she was just over one year old. She has great balance, so we never bought the tower that some families use (but they look great). By now, she uses the mortar and pestle to pound the spices we throw in there for her. She helps to stir fruit with a spatula when we are making pie. She loves to smell lemons and fresh-ground pepper and everything we are cooking. Because we spend so much time in the kitchen, she knows it’s an important place. She wants to be there.
She eats everything. I don’t think it’s entirely because we have her in the kitchen with us–some kids seem to just be born picky. But I think it has played a great part. When we were working on the cookbook, she was a tiny baby, sitting in a bouncy chair. But whatever we were cooking we would put under her nose to smell. I loved watching her eyes go wide.
(I’m working on a book about food and pregnancy and little ones right now. I learned that babies can smell what their mother smells as early as five months in the womb! You can give them a sensory joy before they are even born.)
We involve her in every step of the process, except for the part about working with sharp knives or burners on the stove. She loves food.
And we all eat every meal together, as we can. We three have breakfast together, and then lunch. She and I sit for her dinner before she goes to bed, and then I share some with Danny later too. As soon as she could sit in her high chair, we realized she would not eat unless we were sitting together. So we all take the time to turn off the computer and the thoughts of the day and sit together at the table.
I think this is the best thing we do.
4. Food-wise, what’s the toughest recipe or food project you have ever worked on?
Writing a cookbook was the hardest work I have ever done, aside from being a parent. (That’s in its own category.) I can make up a quick recipe for my website, throw it up there, and if there are holes or places that aren’t clear, I hear about it from people. And then I fix it.
But a cookbook is permanent. It needs to be filled with recipes that endure, that are clear, that inspire people to go into the kitchen and start cooking. Danny and I cooked and cooked, talked and talked, cooked some more, edited, and wrote down everything the best we could. And then we edited again.
Most of the recipes are ones that Danny had cooked as dishes in the various restaurants where he worked. It might have taken some pulling for him to put them into words, but it was a joy.
However, coming up with the gluten-free baked goods in the book? Those were a wonderful challenge.
We knew, no matter how much we talked about the foods that are naturally gluten-free, readers would feel the cookbook was a bit of a cheat if it didn’t have some bread and pasta. So, over the course of two years, we taught ourselves how to bake gluten-free. I thought I knew before. I was wrong. Everything became easier when I learned to bake by weight, instead of volume. (Everyone should buy a kitchen scale!)
I must have made the homemade pasta recipe about 58 times before we had it right. And then, after we had written it down and turned in the manuscript, we were working with our editor’s notes. I made the pasta again, exactly as written on the page. It was terrible! I flailed and despaired. Danny tried it. Still bad. I was apoplectic!
Then I read an anecdote in Heat by Bill Buford, where a visiting Italian chef is in despair because her homemade pasta didn’t work for a big banquet. Someone figured it out for her: grocery store eggs. Eggs that we buy in the store have more protein and weigh more. I had been doing all the original testing with eggs from our sister-in-law’s chickens! We realized that the recipe worked if you use 1 grocery store egg plus 2 egg yolks in place of a farm-fresh egg. Once I figured out that ratio, it worked every time.
Gluten-free homemade pasta
5. Where do you find your food inspiration?
I’m inspired by listening to my husband talk about his specials that night. By the latest vegetable to hit the farmers’ market. By a new spice we find and I try to pair up with everything we eat. By a book called The Flavor Bible, which tells you which foods complement other foods. By crazy ideas I get from reading about other people’s dinner on Twitter. By our daughter, who is new to everything and so excited that I remember just how beautiful blueberries are.
I’m very lucky. I’m inspired by food all the time.
Thank you, Shauna, for the Q & A.
And, if you haven’t already, go visit Gluten-free girl!