At the end of a hard, interminable, raw winter day a while back, when it was too late to schlep to the store, in need of a quick hearty feast, I invented an easy, unorthodox cupboard-supper version of puttanesca: I opened a 24-ounce can of fire-roasted tomatoes, simmered these with herbs and lots of red pepper flakes, a minced onion, a nice fat dollop of red wine, two tins of sardines, an oversized handful each of chopped black olives and chopped marinated artichoke hearts, a pound of chopped spinach, and a chopped bunch of parsley. Meanwhile, I boiled some broth, whisked in some polenta and herbs, added lots of parmesan cheese and butter, then baked it in the oven for 45 minutes at 350. The spicy, insouciant, brackish sluttiness of the dish cheered me up more than I would have dreamed possible.
The above paragraph contains not one letter “g,” and I did that on purpose to make a point – I’m fairly sure the omission is unnoticeable. Cooking without gluten is akin to writing without a crucial letter: it’s tricky to do, but if you succeed, no one should notice or feel deprived. It’s a minor trick, and when it works, it’s invisible. The only real payoff for the effort is my own relief at knowing I will be free, for another meal, of the dreaded reaction to gluten.
I discovered my intolerance to gluten in the summer of 2003 reluctantly, with the help of a naturopath. Soon after I gave it up entirely, I recognized that gluten had been the cause of my foggy brain, insomnia, and ongoing deep depression, as well as my constant, distressing stomach bloat. Of course, after giving up wheat bread, semolina pasta, and pizza, my subsequent sense of loss caused a whole other form of grief, and for a long time I went through the classic seven stages — denial was a self-defeating, pointless blip on the radar, anger lasted longer than any of the others, and acceptance arrived in stages, hard-won.
Then came a brief, shining respite: in March of 2009, shortly after Brendan and I fell volcanically and precipitously in love, I took the train up from New York, where I lived, to Boston. Brendan picked me up at South Station and we drove the long miles north to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, high and floating, with loony grins. We turned onto the dirt road that runs by the lake — it was the end of March, mud-and-ice season, starkly beautiful. Wet sunlight shone on bare mountains through charcoal clouds; the lake surface was choppy in a stiff, cold breeze. We turned into a dirt driveway, pulled up to a barn, and walked across frozen grass to a cozy farmhouse.
Inside, Brendan opened a bottle of chilled orvieto, pulled a peperonata out of the refrigerator, and then he wrapped cantaloupe in prosciutto and assembled a caprese. We fell on this cold feast, eating with our hands, standing up by the counter. It was still winter, but to us, it was torrid tropical spring. We drank the first bottle with the food, talking and talking, and then we drank another, sitting by the fire, and here the Victorian curtain goes down.
Luckily for us, even in our handicapped condition of intoxicated, jibbering mania, we could talk – and eat, and cook. In our early days, I made a chicken tagine, which didn’t come out so well, and then a merguez and lentil stew with artichoke hearts, which did. Brendan made pork tenderloin in prune and rosemary sauce, then orechiette pasta with broccoflower — at his urging, I ate it, and nothing happened. Apparently, the love drugs protected me. I have since, of course, regained my gluten intolerance, but the immunity was wonderful while it lasted.
This bitter, savory green is perfect alongside any traditional pasta dish.
Wash and trim the stems off 1 pound of broccoli rabe. Chop coarsely and steam in a big pot, covered. When it’s wilted, remove and, on a large wooden cutting board, chop to smithereens with a mezzaluna. In a large skillet, sauté 4-5 halved garlic cloves in plenty of olive oil until they begin to brown. Add the very finely-chopped greens. Salt to taste. Let sit over low heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spatula, until it turns soft and dark green.
Orechiette with Broccoflower
Chop a broccoflower (a neon-green broccoli-cauliflower hybrid with dizzyingly otherworldly conical whorls that looks like a Star Trek vegetable) into bite-sized pieces. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add broccoflower and simmer for 5 minutes. Add 1 pound orechiette to the broccoflower in the water and follow directions on package for cooking, usually 11 minutes.
Meanwhile, peel 8 cloves of garlic. Chop roughly and sauté in hot olive oil in a large skillet on low heat. Add salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. Let the garlic just begin to brown – don’t overcook.
Drain the pasta and broccoflower and add to the large skillet and toss with the oil and garlic. Add generous amounts of parmesan, more salt, black pepper, and crushed red pepper to taste, stir, and cook on low heat for 2 minutes. Serve hot with more cheese and pepper. This simple but luscious meal serves 2 voracious people.