When I first met Shauna James Ahern last spring, she was in New York City to promote the book she wrote with her husband, Daniel, and she had gathered a group of fans and fellow food bloggers for a stroll through the Union Square Greenmarket. As I walked up to Shauna, (she has a hard-to-miss beaming presence), I realized that she, Daniel and their two year old, Lu, were literally swarmed by fans. Shauna, or Gluten-Free Girl as she's known to her adoring followers, is a star.
When her book came out last fall, I thought she'd be a great subject for a Kitchen Tour, and since we're covering gluten-free cooking this week, it is Shauna's positive-energy-filled kitchen that I feature today.
When you meet Shauna, it is not the burden of having celiac that comes through — quite the opposite. It is her relentless upbeat attitude that seems to guide her through her days. She writes and cooks beautifully, informed of course by her need to avoid gluten, but without it feeling burdensome. In fact, Shauna says that the what influences her cooking most is what is in season.
"Living on a rural island has made our food much more humble and better, I believe. We have a few farm stands on the island that we visit often. There's never anyone there. We just put our money into the coffee can. I never thought kale could be so exciting!"
Shauna and her family live in a rented house on Seattle's Vashon Island. "It feels so much like home that we forget it's not ours," Shauna says. Their last kitchen was a long, dark galley. "It looked a Rembrandt painting all the time," she explains, "all that pale northern light barely seeping in. This one is still darker than I want it (I dream of a big white kitchen with skylights), but it's much bigger."
The family recently put in a huge effort to organize the room, and now Shauna feels like it's so much easier to cook there. "Our kitchens together have always been a bit of a happy chaos. Now, we're just happy."
"I love that everything in our kitchen has a place now. Those are just the utensils need for baking projects. And Danny finally let us buy hot pads! (Like any good chef, he just wanted bar towels. They live in the baking drawer for me now.)"
Back to Shauna's fantasy of the perfect kitchen. Like most of us, she would love more light. "I just live for light," she says, "and since we spend most of our time in the kitchen — especially because it opens into the dining room and living room, so it's one big space — I'd love more light." The big bay window is the only window in the kitchen, so they gravitate toward it.
These open shelves were where the cookbooks used to live, but Shauna says it felt too heavy. "We took them down and put up pretty things, but that felt like a waste of space. So now, we have all our plates, saucers, bowls, glasses, and cups up there. This encouraged us to let go of all but eight of each thing. We have a lot fewer dishes to do now!"
Shauna and Daniel do love their cookbooks. Here are all the books (both cookbooks and memoir) written by people they know. "Five years ago I was a high school teacher. I never had any idea I would call David Lebovitz my friend, or that Dorie Greenspan would hug me at a food blogging conference, or even that I'd be in the same room as Amanda Hesser. So, as useful as these book are — and we pull one down every day — it's also a reminder of how extraordinary these past few years have been for us both."
Biggest downer? Their side-by-side stainless steel refrigerator: "We can't stand it! It looks big but there is really no space inside. The fridge feels cramped immediately." Shauna brightens it up with a photo of their daughter, Lu, eating strawberries for the first time.
I asked Shauna what makes a well-stocked gluten-free kitchen. Not surprisingly, she says it's mostly the essential ingredients for any kitchen: good beans, oils, vinegars, rice, fruits and nuts, salts, peppers, and lots of of spices. The Aherns especially love whole grains, so they have an entire drawer filled with containers of millet, quinoa, teff, red quinoa, wild rice, black rice; all gluten-free. Her baking cupboard — and don't think for a second that a gluten-free person needs to deprive themselves of baked goods — is stocked with at least ten different flours at all times.
Friends Anita and Cameron (of MarriedWithDinner.com) were the masterminds behind the recent organization effort, and insisted that they buy several lazy Susans to make "mise en place stations." "We found lovely glass bottles for all the oils and used the label maker. We keep them close at hand to the stove (but not so close that they grow hot) and can cook immediately."
"I love to play. The more the variety of foods, the more interesting the meals will be. We're really interested in this right now -- how to create a great pantry and cook from it. We're learning that we save a lot of money if we keep our pantry stocked instead of going to the store every day."
When I asked if there are any tools or equpiment that makes cooking without gluten easier, Shauna said that a kitchen scale is essential, since all the different gluten-free flours have different weights. "If you try to convert a regular gluten recipe with cups, it may not work. If you work with grams, it works every time" She also uses her KitchenAid stand mixer a lot. "I love that machine. I've had the same one since 1995 and (knock on wood) it shows no signs of going out yet."
Where does the Grande Dame of gluten-free living shop? "We love restaurant supply stores for cooks' tools. The equipment is solid and without flash and thus far less expensive. It's meant to last. Ingredients? We love our local seafood market, a good butcher that sells local meat, Pike Place Market, our farmstands and garden, Chef Shop, Anson Mills, Rancho Gordo, and any farmers' market we can find."
• Find the book: Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef (Wiley; September 2010) $19.77 at Amazon.
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(All images: Shauna Ahern and Daniel Ahern except family portrait taken by AJ Bates)