Monthly Archives: April 2008

Oyster Wine Winners

This is what I sat down to last Thursday afternoon:

oyster wine glasses


Twenty glasses, a judging sheet, a bottle of water and a pencil, with a platter of freshly shucked kumamoto oysters delivered forthwith. The tools of the trade for an oyster wine judging. This Seattle gathering at Anthony’s HomePort at Shilshole was the last stop of a three-city tour for the twenty finalist wines in this year’s Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition.  Souls more stalwart than I were part of a team to trim down the 200 entries this year to those twenty finalists the rest of us judges sampled.


After the rigorous judging, twelve entries won the “best oyster wines” distinction this year, earning the prestige of being the top picks to sip alongside a briny, fresh, crisp oyster from the Pacific Coast. Sponsored by Taylor Shellfish (their web site posts the winners and other competition information) and orchestrated by the inimitable seafood guru Jon Rowley, this is an elite dating service for bivalves and wine. And it is a focused process, to be sure. Before sampling each wine, we took one of the kumamotos into our mouth and chewed it well, following it with a sip of the wine.


Not a belabored study of the merits or qualities of the wine itself, Jon asked us all to judge instead on the “bliss factor” of the pairing. To me, this translated best in the moments where the wine emphasized the deliciousness of the oyster and the oyster’s strong character didn’t conflict with the wine. I generally liked all of the wines I sipped, though some were a bit too shy for oysters, succumbing quickly to the salty-minerally oyster flavor lingering on my tongue. Other wines were too bold, too tropical or too floral, ultimately overwhelming the oyster flavor.


Among those winning wines that were “just right” are Covey Run Winery 2006 Fumé Blanc from Washington, Willamette Valley Vineyards 2007 Pinot Gris from Oregon and Robledo Family Winery 2006 Sauvignon Blanc from California. Those also happened to be my personal top three picks. How Pacific Coast-inclusive of me (there apparently were no wines submitted from British Columbia).


All but one of my top ten picks from last week made the final cut, which was a surprise. Surrounded by many who have far more developed and knowledgeable wine palates than I–restaurant wine managers, wine shop owners, wine writers, all-around enophiles–I might have expected my palate to be a bit more skewed from consensus view. But I guess, when it comes to oysters and wine, when it’s right, it’s right.


One final thought. Remember that sparkling wine and oysters are also ideal partners. And bubbly goes beautifully with other seafoods too. When I was researching my Crab cookbook, Lane Hoss from Anthony’s very generously set me up with a chance to taste a dozen or more Northwest white wines with a few different preparations of crab to discern what some of the best pairing options were. And with each crab dish, we also sipped a ringer: Veuve Cliquot Champagne. Not every wine worked well with every crab dish, but the Champagne was a delight with everything. In fact, I’m not sure I have yet to encounter a food and sparkling wine pairing that didn’t work! Maybe I’ll set up my own little oyster and Northwest sparkling wine challenge at home one of these days.

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Another May Date: Patricia & Walter Wells

Suddenly I’m the calendar girl. This additional date for you to consider on next month’s calendar has me particularly thrilled. The memoir that Patricia and Walter have written, We’ve Always Had Paris…and Provence: A Scrapbook of Our Life in France, is being released early May and they’re setting off on a whirlwind tour of promotion, with Seattle on their itinerary

As part of the local Cooks & Books series, you can join Patricia and Walter for dinner at one of my favorite spots in town, Boat Street Café. There are two seatings, 6:00 and 8:30, on May 14. Call the restaurant directly (and SOON) to reserve your $95 place at the table. A preset menu includes asparagus salad, braised chicken with baby peas and baby turnips and meringues with strawberry-rhubarb compote. I’m there!

They’ll also be doing a book signing up on Orcas Island the next day, at Rose’s Bakery & Café in Eastsound. More details on the book and their nationwide tour are here on her web site. Hint: next time you’re heading to Paris, check out her site for great insider tips on best restaurants to work into your itinerary.

A little over 25 years ago, Patricia and Walter Wells made their way to Paris to work for the International Herald Tribune, him as an editor, her as the restaurant critic. Their life this past couple of decades has been the stuff of fantasy! Not only living in Paris, but exploring every nook and cranny of the city, and the country, doing important food research. Eventually, they bought a lovely, relaxed home in the south of France, complete with garden and vineyard, strolling through the town’s market, lazy dinners on the patio under the trees. (heavy sigh) Surely their book is packed with phenomenal, personal stories and adventures, I can’t wait to read it.

My history with Patricia is one that proves that with the right mentors, anything is possible. In college, while I still thought I’d be an engineer when I grew up, and throw great dinner parties on the weekends, I took one journalism class about features writing. Professor Ragsdale was right out of central casting…grizzled older journalist, floppy trench coat, ragged but sturdy leather valise, world-weary but jovial crinkles on his face, grey hair. I adored him.

I brought up in class one day that an area of personal interest was food, especially French food. He said, “You should get in touch with one of my former students, Patricia Wells.” I nearly fell off my chair. I’d been to Paris for a monthlong class with my French program and her Food Lover’s Guide to Paris was already my bible. I wrote her a goofy fan letter, told her I was beginning to think about getting into food writing. She wrote back the nicest note, very encouraging, said not to let anything get in the way of me realizing my dreams. That already would have been enough.

Fast forward a few years. I get to France to study at La Varenne cooking school and call or write her to say something like “hey, remember me? I’m in France now! Let me know if you need an assistant or anything…” Yeah, goofy again. She kindly said, not now, thanks. A year or so later, I get a phone call. From Patricia Wells. Telling me that her assistant was leaving and did I still want to work for her? Again, I nearly fall off my chair. I could only swing 6 months or so working with her in Paris, given work obligations I had down at Château du Feÿ in Burgundy (whine, whine). But it was a great 6 months! She was polishing off her cookbook with Joël Robuchon and working on updating the Paris guide. I relished every moment of my time working and studying at La Varenne. But to be able to inject that episode of my life with some time working for Patricia Wells? It was homemade rich vanilla buttercream frosting on the cake.

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Calendar Items: Food and Drink

I’ve come across a couple of interesting events that you might want to sign up for next month: one in Bellevue for the urbanites, another in the North Cascades if a little road trip sounds good.


First, the road trip. May 17 and 18, Maria Hines will be a guest in the Sourdough Speaker Series at the North Cascades Institute. Maria is the chef/owner of the amazing Tilth restaurant in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. She’s a dynamo, no doubt. A passionate chef, she’s devoted to foods and production practices that are as good for the earth as they are for our bodies. So much so that she’s had her restaurant certified as organic by Oregon Tilth, one of only a few restaurants in the country to gain such a distinction. I’ve been a fan of Maria from her time at Earth & Ocean restaurant (a stint during which she was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine) and it’s been outstanding to see her develop her own voice and personality as a chef now that she’s her own boss. Other accomplishments are noted in a previous post, she’s got some mighty momentum going. Her talk at the North Cascades Institute will reflect on her inspirations and motivations with regard to cooking and eating. A menu of her recipes will be served just prior to the talk Saturday evening, with a continental breakfast on Sunday and an opportunity to enjoy a couple of naturalist-led activities before heading home. Your overnight accommodations are included in the $95 per person price. Bunk beds and communal facilities, but really quite nice, we were very comfortable!


Last fall I had occasion to spend a weekend at the North Cascades Institute when good friend Christina Orchid, chef/owner of Christina’s on Orcas Island spoke in this same series. I had the honor of introducing her that night, for her post-dinner talk entitled “Recipes and Tales from a Northwest Island Kitchen.” We supped on arugula flatbread with Beecher’s Flagship cheese, roasted garlic soup, Cornish hens with squash risotto and dessert of apple fritters with buttermilk ice cream. What an evening of great food, great stories and more than a few laughs. It’s sure to be just as special next month, when Maria takes the “stage” (more an informal gather ’round discussion, living room style). Her menu will feature Skagit Valley foods, with Skagit River Ranch a partner in the proceedings.


After your dose of fresh mountain air and that wonderful farm-to-table dining experience in the Cascades, it’s time to sit down for a glass of wine in the big city! We’re longtime fans of Inside the Actors Studio, so the notice about the upcoming Inside the Winemakers Studio class particularly caught my attention. Seastar restaurant in Bellevue is in its fifth year of “Wine School,” this class the fourth and last in its current season. Erik Liedholm (his is the charming mug to the right), director of wine and sommelier at Seastar is joined by another of the restaurant’s sommeliers, Lars Ryssdal, and special guest sommelier Shayne Bjornholm (who was the celebrated sommelier at Canlis for a number of years, now education director for the Washington Wine Commission). They dub themselves the Scandinavian Wine Hacks, just to prove they they are resolute about not taking wine, wine tasting or wine education too seriously. Together these gentlemen know pretty much everything there is to know about wine, but all three are incredibly down to earth. Don’t be afraid to ask about rosé spritzers or what wine to serve with your grilled burgers.


This will surely be a dynamic, lively, fun class at which you’ll gain some insights about the world of winemaking from one of the best: Greg Lill, owner of DeLille Cellars. The first part of the evening will include a question and answer session, à la James Lipton. Then students will delve into sipping and sampling the outstanding wines that DeLille Cellars creates. An evening not to miss! I might even show up.

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On the Road: Muffuletta

The IACP conference gets into high gear later today. Yesterday was my last vestige of unstructured time before the agenda gets packed. After a productive morning of work in the hotel room, I treated central grocerymyself to a couple hours walking around the French Quarter. And after all that serious thinking and writing, I was famished. My chef pal Kevin Davis, owner of Steelhead Diner in Seattle (and a good Louisiana boy!!) had recommended Central Grocery for a casual lunch.

As you can hopefully see from the sign, hanging over their Decatur Street entrance (across from the French Market), they’re the home of the original muffuletta. This flavorful sandwich is something of a take on the grinder or hero: slices of salami, cheese (provolone, I imagine) and an olive “salad.” Definitely not to be confused with a tapenade, the green olives are chunky, accented with bell pepper, garlic, other goodies, and drippy with olive oil.

The bread was distinctive, I should have asked what they called it or where they got it. The crust is softer than that of a baguette or ciabatta bread, with firmer crumb texture than a hamburger bun, it was just right to snugly enclose the fillings while also absorbing the olive-oil goodness of the olive mixture.



My new favorite potato chips (and I am all about new adventures in the salty-crunchy realm!) are these Zapp’s below, flavored with tomato and heat of Tabasco sauce. Something like a Cajun barbecue potato chip, they’re really tasty. This shop is one of those amazing dusty, Italian groceries with shelves packed with every kind of tomato sauce, olive, condiment, biscotti, you name it. Plus some fresh pastas, cheeses, etc. Really a mini-musum of Italian culture, with a signature sandwich to boot. 




One added plus about Central Grocery is that the original Cafe du Monde is across the street on the same block. So if there’s any chance the muffuletta sandwich didn’t do you in completely, you can pop over there for some after-lunch beignets and chicory coffee. I didn’t (half of the “half” muffuletta was plenty for me). But a group of friends lunching next to me on the nondescript counters did just that. I was only a smidgen jealous.


Last night’s dinner at Cochon was really wonderful. But gotta run. More when I next can break away from the conference. Which may be when I get back home…..


COME ON DOWN TO NEW ORLEANS!! The eating is mighty fine.

central shelves



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Back to NOLA

I leave bright and early tomorrow for a week in New Orleans, where I’ll be attending the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. I’m on the board, so being at the conference is something of a command performance. But I’ve only missed one conference–San Antonio, for no particularly good reason–in the 16 years I’ve been a member. It’s a highlight of my year.


Returning to New Orleans for this year’s conference is big in a number of ways. Topping the list is support of the city. Conference groups much larger than ours have been patronizing NOLA for months now, but I don’t know that a food-focused organization has made a major appearance yet. It’s our honor to be giving back to the community well beyond our hotel and restaurant dollars. Different sectors of the organization, from food photographers to cooking school owners, have devised ways to give back through a range of activities. As a whole, we hope to all encourage food lovers to return to New Orleans in support of those people working so hard to rebuild their lives. K-Paul's bandAnyone reading this who’s within a crawfish-toss of New Orleans might want to consider attending one conference highlight open to the public: our Gumbo Giveback on Saturday evening April 19, benefiting the Crescent City Farmers Market.


For me, this is a nostalgic return to the site of my first conference as a member of IACP, back in 1993, which was also my first trip to New Orleans. I’ll never forget piling onto a bus for a pre-conference tour that took us into the surrounding region for a food tour. It was maybe 9:30 in the morning and we were all handed small paper bags of fried pork skin. They are serious about their food at any and all hours of the day in this part of the world! Our host was Paul Prudhomme, which was a huge treat. A phenomenal introduction to the area.


At the time, Emeril Lagasse had just a couple of restaurants there in town–Emeril’s and NOLA–and had just started (if memory serves right) his first show on the Food Network. He had not yet shot up to the stratosphere of culinary stardom. I’d had an interview with him early in the week for Simply Seafoodmagazine and returned for dinner another evening. It was a who’s-who of customers that night, including Julia Child. Mr. Lagasse was nonetheless incredibly gracious and kind to this fledgling magazine writer and editor; I remember he brought me a small glass of brandy to help relieve the discomfort from a raging cold I’d picked up. (I had the chance to meet with him again on a trip he’d made to Seattle a few years ago. The security detail was new, but he was the same warm, friendly, engaging chef I remembered.)


Enough with the reminiscing. I did make a quick trip to NOLA last fall for meetings in advance of the conference. It was good to reconnect with the city. The French Quarter/Riverwalk core where we spent most of our time was in fine shape, no visible remains of damage. The only visible hint of hurricane aftermath where I went was the random closed shops; many folks have chosen to leave town if the prospect of rebuilding overwhelmed. A friend from cooking school days works with Paul Prudhomme and we met for dinner one night at K-Paul’s (where he and I had lunched back in 1993; I had their Cajun Martini both times, a tasty tradition). He’s an upbeat guy, but the toll of Katrina was still in his eyes, and in the lower, slower tone of his voice when describing the previous months to me. His own home was thankfully not severely damaged. But the damage to the city, to his friends and family, colleagues, the psyche of his hometown–the ripple effects are clearly there. And it’s why even where you don’t see damage, there isdamage. Slowly rebuilding, slowly turning the corner, slowly regaining that “laissez les bon temps rouler” attitude. But they still need help. (This photo is one of the colorful caricatures from K-Paul’s. Up above is a shot of the band that paraded through the restaurant during dinner.)


Irene’s was a crazy-busy place, loud, bustling, too many bodies, not enough R & O'schairs. So frenetic I’m afraid I don’t much recall the dinner specifics. The next night we ate, thanks to deep-inside information, at R & O’s in nearby Metairie. So low on the radar, I can’t find a decent link to offer. No-frills, all the way. This photo gives you an idea. Napkins off the roll, baskets of saltines, bottles of Tabasco, eating with your fingers, deeply friendly service, pitchers of beer, an old boxy TV in the corner,  amazing seafood (a nearly empty plate of garlic shrimp below). Ask a local once you’re in New Orleans and surely someone can steer you in the right direction. BUT, it’s important to ENUNCIATE clearly. Or you’ll end up at Arnaud’s, a far fancier spot in central New Orleans where you’ll probably have to behave yourself.


I would give anything to be able to share a couple of other photos with you from that trip, but nightime shooting outdoors just didn’t work out. We walked one night to dinner at Irene’s after a reception at Bourbon House, both in the French Quarter. It’s like some civic stage manager yelled “cue the parade” as we wended through the streets. Out of nowhere came a marching band leading a crowd on a wonderful brassy march, tossing beads. Later on our way back to the hotel, we happened upon on a less touristy, far more arty parade that clearly was celebrating Day of the Dead. Large fabric and papier mâché figures, skulls, skeletons paraded through the quieter streets of the Quarter, bobbing gently to more somber but still spirited music, akin to that of a jazz funeral. It was mesmerizing.

The city is still mesmerizing, surprising, delicious, delightful–if operating at some fraction of its earlier level of frenetic energy and joie de vivre. But it’s coming back. Long as we all continue to return to the city, those who live there can work toward returning to their lives, many of which so bitterly disrupted.

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Dem’s Big Clams

This post proves that one person’s culinary curiosity is another person’s comfort food. Yesterday I was shopping for lamb shanks at the combo meat/seafood counter my (very) friendly neighborhood grocery store. (I’d tell you what I did with the shanks, but afraid it’s for a magazine article later this year, along with a bunch of other holiday development I did; I’ll let you know when it comes out.) The woman next to me was going ga-ga over the big clams in the seafood case. There, nestled between the local tiny Manila clams Quahogsand fillets of fresh halibut was a mound of big quahogs. These East Coast hardshell clams I recognized from my time as editor at Simply Seafood magazine, but I only knew them in an academic context. I’d never cooked them before. So after she’d nabbed her couple pounds’ worth, I bought myself some to play with. Four of the monster clams, each about 3 inches across, came in at one and a quarter pounds (that’s a quarter next to them in the photo). This classifies them as on the edge between large “cherrystones” or small “chowders,” from what I can tell after some quick research.  The store’s seafood supplier had an overage and the manager bit at the chance to bring some into the store. He’d been surprised at how quickly they sold; maybe I’ll be seeing more quahogs there on a regular basis.


My fellow shopper yesterday was the third or fourth East Coaster that day to go nuts over finding their favorite clam here in Seattle. She was rhapsodizing Quahogs2about how good they are raw (though preferably smaller versions) or in chowder. The fishmonger told me that a shopper the day before had told him about chopping up the clams, mixing them with a variety of things he couldn’t recall, then baking. I interpreted this to be a Clams Casino type preparation, inspiration for how I prepared the clams last night.


After scrubbing the clams under cold water, I put them in a skillet with a few minced garlic cloves and about 1/2 cup dry white wine. Covered, I simmered them until the clams opened, 4 or 5 minutes. When cool, I removed the clams, saving the shells and the cooking liquids. I chopped up the clams, added a good dose of chopped parsley, some more minced garlic, juice of 1 lemon, the cooking liquids and a couple shakes of dried bread crumbs. Spooned back into the shells, I baked the clams in a 500 degree oven for a dozen minutes or so. (I had some pancetta in the fridge that would have echoed classic Casino, but opted to leave it out so the flavor didn’t overwhelm the clams.) They Quahogs3turned out pretty well, though the clams were quite mild. I’d use less bread crumbs next time and keep the seasoning level low. Aside from trying a chowder one of these days, I would also use the chopped clams in a garlicky clam pasta dish, maybe a retro clam dip and baked on the halfshell with other flavor combinations.



Did you grow up with quahogs? If so, I’d love to hear your favorite way to enjoy them.


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Sunchokes, Part Two

As promised in a post last week, I picked up some sunchokes at the Full Circle Farm stand at the West Seattle Farmers Market Sunday. It follows in the heels of an event I attended where Andrew Stout from Full Circle joked that everyone in the room needed to develop five new recipes for sunchokes (no joke to this recipe developer!) I didn’t have quite the energy or time yesterday to tackle more than one to have with our little Sunday night supper.


Chef Seth Caswell from Stumbling Goat had told me at that same event that he cooks sunchokes in many of the same ways he cooks potatoes. And he often finds himself reaching for the bottle of hazelnut oil as a complement to the tasty tubers. Sounded like a great idea to me, the rich nutty oil echoing the nuttiness of the sunchokes. I don’t happen to have hazelnut oil open right now, but (because I’m spoiled) I do have pistachio oil and walnut oil in the fridge. I got a slew of samples a few months ago from La Tourangelle, a partnership between one of France’s oldest artisan oil producers and a California oil sunchokesmanufacturer. Their line includes a dozen-plus oils, from avocado to pumpkin seed, a few of which are organic. If I had some pistachios on my shelf, I’d have used the pistachio oil yesterday. But I went with walnut instead.


First I scraped the skin from the sunchokes using a small spoon; it’s a thin papery skin much like that of ginger root. I find a regular peeler is overkill. Be sure to have a bowl of cold water handy to drop the peeled chokes in; they brown quickly. With the oven preheated to 400 degrees, I drained and coarsely chopped the sunchokes. Tossed them in some walnut oil, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, into the oven for about 40 minutes. I tossed in toasted walnuts just before serving.


The roasted sunchokes were an ideal pairing for the skirt steak, which I marinated for a few hours in balsamic vinegar, minced garlic and olive oil. I’d picked up a bag of hearty greens at the market as well; the farmer pointed out that they were tender enough to eat raw as a salad, but I chose to lightly Sunchokesbraise them instead. Another wonderful thing I happened to have in the fridge was some leftover pork belly from an amazing pasta dish at La Medusa on Friday night. I chopped that up, sliced some garlic and started by browning those two together in a skillet. Added a splash (maybe 1/2 cup) of good chicken broth, tossed in the greens and cooked until they were tender and most of the liquid had evaporated.


This worked out to be quite a nice Sunday dinner. It’s gotten to be one of my favorite meals of the week thanks to my neighborhood farmers market.

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