My first Santa Cruz Food Swap

A couple of weeks ago my friend Andrea and I hosted a food swap at the commercial kitchen space she shares on Front Street in downtown Santa Cruz. Unfortunately, despite the number of people who RSVP’d, turnout was rather low. I’m going to blame it on the fact that it turned out to be such a lovely day. Maybe an evening would be better than an afternoon. Still, it was a fine first outing and I’d love to hold another one later in the summer when people have lots of great garden bounty.

We ended up with a nice assortment of items: eggs, lemons and lime, bundles of fresh herbs, my limoncello and orangecello, spiced chocolate ganache by Andrea, French chicken soup also by Andrea, red onion jam, marmalade, dried wild mushrooms, sauerkraut and kimchee, chive blossom vinegar, coconut chips, a variety of pickled veggies, membrillo (quince paste) and persimmon chutney. I might be missing something.

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Sweet Cheeks Santa Cruz: A gluten-free baking company for gluten eaters

Meet Rose Calucchia.

The Brooklyn transplant runs her own gluten-free baking company, works as a personal trainer and also practices Chinese acrobatics and aerial arts.

Sounds like a perfect fit for Santa Cruz, no?

Calucchia started Sweet Cheeks Bake Shop back in 2009 while she was living in Brooklyn. Though never formally tested for celiac disease, the Ohio native has been eating a gluten-free diet for about 12 years after she began suffering numerous health issues. Eventually, through process of elimination, she realized gluten was the culprit.

At first, Sweet Cheeks produced both gluten-containing and gluten-free items.

“I really liked baking and was always trying to figure things out,” Calucchia says of her reasons for starting the business.

She started out small, baking for friends, relying on word of mouth and eventually getting gigs at weddings and places like the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

She relocated to Santa Cruz about a year ago after 10 years in New York City and decided to forgo the gluten all together. Still, she says, she doesn’t like to make a big deal out of being gluten-free. She wants to make delicious items that just happen to be gluten-free.

“I don’t want people to have preconceived notions about it,” she says.

So far, it seems to be working.

After tasting her wares at events, people will often tell her afterwards “Wow, that was gluten-free? I couldn’t tell!”

She’s catered a recent wine release party for Beauregard Vineyards in Bonny Doon,  had her baked goods incorporated in an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Art and has provided the goodies for a  number of weddings. She’s also hoping to be able to start selling her baked goods to local stores soon.

Her stuff is not vegan, however, as many have asked.

“I really like using butter and eggs,” she says. “I make the real deal – just without the gluten.”

Currently she shares a commercial kitchen space in Capitola with other small food producers, including Friend in Cheeses and Family Famous Food, a which specializes in kiwi salsas. Sharing the space with other producers has led to some fun collaborations, such as finding ways to incorporate Friend in Cheeses jams and preserves into her baking, Colucchia says. For a recent winery event, she cooked up a batch of chocolate cream cheese thumbprint cookies with Friend in Cheeses’ strawberry tarragon jam to pair with a merlot.

Being in Santa Cruz allows her the opportunity to work with so many wonderful local ingredients, and she says the local citrus has been playing a big role in her baking – she’s been making dozens of lemon bars, for instance. She also loves the friendly nature of Santa Cruz, and the numerous opportunities for collaboration.

When not busy whipping up delicious cookies, cupcakes and pastries, Calucchia is a personal trainer at Equinox Gym in Palo Alto. She’s also looking to get more involved with Chinese acrobatics locally, a passion she was actively involved in back east. (She also was a dance major at Sarah Lawrence College.) Though she hasn’t found much of a scene for this locally, she has begun working with folks in San Francisco and Oakland.

And while it might seem contradictory for a personal trainer to also run a baking company, Calucchia says she believes she’s reached a happy medium with the two. While sweets aren’t always the healthiest snack, she strives to produce good, old-fashioned “real” foods that can be enjoyed without reservation — in moderation, of course. Maybe you shouldn’t hoover the entire plate of cookies… (Eds. note: I wanted to. Badly. The chocolate chip cookies are as close to Tollhouse style as I can remember since going gluten-free.)

Oh, and if you wondered, the silhouette of a woman doing a handstand in the Sweet Cheeks logo? Yep, it’s based on a photo of Calucchia – a nod to her  love of dancing and acrobatics.

“I spent days and days in New York, drawing pictures and coming up with words,” she says of the design and her company name.

A friend suggested the name and it stuck. It was cute, kitschy but not too twee.

“It wouldn’t be me if it was too twee,” she says.

Interested in ordering some baked goods for your next event? Contact Sweet Cheeks here. 

Cross-posted at 

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Road trippin’: Gluten-free fried pickles at Hot Mama’s in Eugene, Ore.

GF fried pickles!

After the previous day’s fried food indulgence, I’d caught the itch.

We planned to stop in Eugene for lunch on our way back to Brookings. A quick Yelp search turned up Hot Mama’s Wings. Many of the menu items — including the wings and the fried stuff — are gluten-free.

It was hard for me to decide what to get. The chicken fried bacon? Onion rings? Mac n’ cheese?

I ended up going with the fried pickles because I had never ever had them, even before I went gluten-free. And just because it had been a long time since I had such a thing, I got the basket of chicken tenders and tots.

I also shared some of BK’s hot wings. The daytime special was nine wings, fries and a drink, so he had that.

Chicken strips and tots

I thought everything was really tasty. Having never had fried pickles, I was very pleased with them. I was concerned they’d be overly soggy but somehow the ones at Hot Mama’s maintained their crisp. The chicken was very well-breaded and the tater tots were extra crispy. I’m used to oven-baking them, which is a touch healthier, but deep-frying them certainly makes them more delicious.

Wings, minus Paul McCartney

I ordered far too much, of course.

I was so pleased to find all of these gluten-free options in Oregon. Such a nice treat. It’s probably good they aren’t closer though, because I think I might have gone into fried food overload if I had any more. It’s delicious once in a while, but I think that’s my limit.


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Road trippin’: Gluten-free fish and chips at Hawthorne Fish House in Portland

I have reached gluten-free fried food nirvana.

As any strict gluten avoider knows, finding good GF fried food is like finding the Holy Grail.

OK, maybe not quite that dramatic, but hey, it’s pretty damn special, right?

The last time I was in Portland, which was back in ’07 I believe, I made a trip to the Hawthorne Fish House. I remembered it being quite tasty so I went back last week. They use a brown rice flour coating to bread the fish they serve up.

I like that HFH and its sister location, Corbett Fish House, don’t make a big deal about being gluten-free. It’s refreshing to not have to ask for a special menu or feel like an outsider. Their stuff just happens to be GF and yes, they promote that fact a little bit but it’s definitely not a huge thing. I like that. It allows me to feel normal.

Anyway, BK got an actual beer while I opted for a hard cider and we shared a number of items.

We started out with the fried cheese curds, which I loved. I’d never had fried cheese curds before so admittedly I didn’t have much point of comparison, but I enjoyed these. I like how surprisingly light they are and I get a kick out of the slight squeak of the curd.

Deep-fried cheese curds!

We also shared the standard fish and chips made with Pacific cod, as well as an order of the clam strips. Yum! Such a treat but so much food! We ordered the smaller portions and it still felt like a lot.

They also offer a gluten-free beer battering, if you’re so inclined, as well as a whole array of GF desserts. I was far too full to even consider having dessert too.

GF fish and chips
GF clam strips
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Road trippin’: Gluten-free breakfast sandwich at Fried Egg I’m in Love in Portland

I’m such a sucker for a good pun…and I also like food trucks. Portland’s Fried Egg I’m in Love manages to combine both of these and offer their delicious breakfast sandwiches on gluten-free bread. Win-win! I went for the Free Range Against the Machine, which featured a fried egg, avocado, tomato and havarti. Bk’s sandwich, while not on gf bread, had an arguably better name: the Yolko Ono. Yum!

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Road trippin’: Gluten-free and amazing at Pok Pok in Portland

Tamarind whiskey sour at Whiskey Soda Lounge

I was thrilled to read online that famed Portland eatery Pok Pok is actually quite friendly to food allergies. I’ve been wanting to go there for awhile but assumed it would be laden with soy sauce.

The way they handle it makes a lot of sense to me. You can request a special menu that in bold letters states what allergens each dish contains: seafood, gluten, dairy, etc. It made it much easier for me to pick a bunch of dishes that BK, my girl Michelle and I could all enjoy.

Before dinner, however, we stopped off at Pok Pok’s sister cocktail lounge across the street, Whiskey Soda Lounge. I’m kicking myself for not trying the salted plum vodka collins, although I generally do not like vodka. I also sampled the Stone Fence, which is made with their house drinking vinegar (the apple variety.) Pok Pok has its own entire line of drinking vinegars called Som. I’m not sure I’m sold on it yet.

At Pok Pok, we ended up going for a catfish dish, the spicy flank steak salad and the smoky eggplant salad, all of which were really delicious. The Saa Phak, a combo of veggies, Thai eggplant, Albacore and olives — well, I’d skip that next time. BK and Michelle also shared the spicy fish sauce wings. Everything was delicious except the Saa Phak and it was awesome to have so many options to choose from. What’s cool for us living in California is that things in Portland are quite cheap, comparatively. Considering the amount of food we had, I believe that with tip it came to about $35 each. That’s not dirt cheap but for a restaurant as widely regarded as Pok Pok, I was amazed at how affordable it seemed. I can’t wait to go back.

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Road trippin’: The tiny town of Brookings, Ore.

While en route from Santa Cruz to Portland, we stopped for a night just over the Oregon border in a small town called Brookings, population roughly 6,000.

The room we reserved through AirBnB had a beautiful view of the coast and a hot tub overlooking said coast.

Brookings does not have a lot in it. We picked up some wine at the local outlet of the Fred Meyer grocery chain, which is a grocery store that also sells electronics, clothing and housewares, in addition to having it’s own jewelry store-within-a grocery store called, appropriately, Fred Meyer Jewelers. There is something oddly appealing about the idea of being able to simultaneously purchase a television, a diamond tennis bracelet, a bottle of wine and a package of bacon. I think. It’s kind of weird to me actually. Oh, there’s also a location of the chain “Ray’s Food Place,” which for some reason I think is the funniest name for a grocery store. I appreciate the lack of euphemism or excess wording. It’s concise and straightforward. I can appreciate that.

I digress. It was recommended we try the “nice” restaurant in Brookings, which is also a vodka distilling company. And what pray tell is the name of this establishment? Super Fly!

As you might imagine, many Curtis Mayfield jokes were made while dining there, much to the chagrin of my dining compatriot.

Super Fly appears to have once been a pizzeria that is now trying to be a chichi cocktail lounge and restaurant with a bit of nightclub-esque blue lighting thrown in for good measure. It appears to be something of a “meet market.” Jokes aside though, the food wasn’t bad and everything was very affordable. I was amazed by the low price of $6 “martinis,” though if we are being accurate, none of the drinks on that list could really be classified as a martini. Instead, they were mainly an array of various bright-colored or chocolate-y drinks with sugared rims made using the restaurant’s own potato vodka (also called Super Fly.) I rarely drink vodka and I never drink most cocktails ending in “tini” but not starting with “mar,” but….when in Rome? Er, that is, when in Brookings, you do as they do, I suppose. I got the day’s special, a blood orangetini. Once I wiped off all the sugar on the rim, the drink wasn’t bad though I remembered how dangerous those sweet vodka drinks can be. I switched to a dirty vodka martini for round two.

The food was simple but not bad and quite affordable. I had a pork loin that came with a green salad and fries for $10. I cheated a little and ate the fries without asking about the fryer contamination issue. It wasn’t a good idea. Still, Super Fly was pretty decent.

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Road trippin’: Gluten-free sandwiches at Ukiah Brewing Company

Despite “losing” my job, bk and I decided we’d still go on our previously planned vacation, though we scaled it back. Instead of our intended plans to go to to Portland, Vancouver and Seattle, we chose to drive up the California-Oregon coast and stay in PDX for a few days. I personally do not like driving very much but the boy really wanted to see the coast so, away we went.

On our way, we stopped in Ukiah for some lunch, where I found the Ukiah Brewing Company. UBC touts itself as being “America’s first organic brewpub.” In addition to, you know, beer, they have a cider on draft and more importantly, GLUTEN-FREE BREAD.

Yes, that’s a damn good Reuben! With homemade ‘kraut and corned beef! Hallelujah!

From there it was on through the redwoods we went. The small towns that Highway 101 passes through are a bit fascinating to me. There were more little shops selling “burl” and carved wooden bears and dragons than I have ever seen before. Who exactly is buying all these items?!

There were also several herds of elk and a number of places where you could pull off and look at them. Obviously I wanted to do this.


I also insisted upon stopping to see the giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Crescent City, California, obviously.


Posted in beer, california, cider, comfort food, gluten-free, gluten-free bread, lunch, oregon, Portland, restaurants, road trip, travel, ukiah, vacation | Leave a comment

should you go gluten-free?

I’ve complained before how the apparent trendiness of gluten-free diets drives me crazy. I appreciate the fact that it seems to have helped increase awareness and availability of gluten-free food. I don’t, however, like that it seems to have had a negative affect on perception. I’m concerned that many people will now take someone’s gluten-free less diet because they will think it’s just a stupid fad or something.

Sure enough, the gluten-free backlash is here.

Slate has a piece about why going gluten-free isn’t good for everyone as does Scientific American, which states more decisively that most people shouldn’t eat gluten-free. To be fair though, that latter piece was reprinted on FoxNews as well and it’s attributed to the dubious-sounding MyHealthNetwork.

Honestly, I don’t think everyone should go gluten-free. I do think people should cut back on their white flour and sugar intake, which is what I think a lot of people who go gluten-free for diet purposes don’t seem to quite get. It’s not the gluten that’s making you fat (usually, obviously we celiacs can contest that) – it’s the doughnuts, the crullers, the massive deli rolls and all that.

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