Monthly Archives: July 2008

On the Road: Kentucky

It’s probably just as well that the camera was still in my suitcase in the back of the rental car. Probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to be taking pictures while driving yesterday afternoon. There had already been a serious accident on I-64, a backup I’d soon be caught in. But I wish I could have captured a snap of those brown highway signs saying “Next Exit: Buffalo Trace Distillery” and Woodford Reserve and Four Roses. Truly a bourbon-lover’s delight, this place is. Though I hear folks come for the horses as well.

I’ve already learned a lot about Kentucky in my first 12 hours (part of which was sleeping in my cozy bed at Gratz Park Inn). The first culinary insight of note is that of “hot browns.” Never heard of this regional indulgence before. I understand the tradition is to toast some white bread and top it with a mound of sliced turkey (always) and ham (sometimes). Add a cheesy sauce, some sliced tomatoes and a couple slices of bacon, crossed in an X on top. Pop the pile under the broiler until it’s all bubbly, then dig in.

Chef Jonathan Lundy, owner of Jonathan’s at Gratz Park, helped introduce me to hot browns, telling me that it originated at the Brown Hotel in nearby Louisville. His version, which started my dinner last night, upscales the dish a bit, adding scallops. Rounds of toasted brioche are topped with sliced turkey and country ham, a sea scallop, a piece of bacon, finally tomato. The cheese sauce is pooled around the toasts. Delicious. In small doses. I can’t imagine making dinner of classic hot browns, as is the tradition around here.

My dinner mate and I split the fried green tomato salad, which was tasty, with its buttermilk dressing and garnish of crispy bacon (a theme!). Dinner was cola barbecued bison brisket for me (tender and really delicious) and peach glazed pork chop with grilled peach and cheesy scalloped potatoes (for her). Everything was luscious, tender, flavorful. For dessert the chef brought out a signature creme brulee that was flaming with a puddle of local bourbon on top. Quite a finale.

I’m off to explore some of the local spirits today, something I’ve been wanting to do for years now. Here was the little preview I found in my room when I checked in yesterday. Bodes well for a great couple of days before I head back to Louisville for the hard-core business part of the trip.

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Cooking at Home: Fresh Bay Leaves

Fresh herbs are the norm in so many recipes today, a very happy change from those days when all our herbs were from little tin cans in the kitchen cupboard. That comes thanks both to the availability of fresh herb bundles in grocery stores and more of us home cooks growing chives, thyme and rosemary in our windowsills or patio containers. But one herb seems still relegated to the dry state: the bay leaf. It’s not an herb I’ve ever seen in fresh bundles at the store, and at farmers markets only occasionally, usually then as a nursery plant for the garden.

But I haven’t had to shop for bay leaves for a number of years. Not since I got

My happy bay tree

My happy bay tree

myself a little start in a 4-inch pot a decade or so ago. Now the plant’s a few feet tall and keeps me in fresh bay leaves year round.

When cooking simple steamed rice, I’ll toss in a bay leaf (torn in a few spots to help release the aromatic flavor) into the boiling water with the rice for a distinct boost in flavor. Added to any stew or soup, you’ll gain a more pronounced flavor with notes of spice, using fresh bay rather than dried. And no chicken goes into the oven around here without a couple bay leaves nestled underneath, a couple more tossed in the cavity.

By far one of the most interesting uses I know of for fresh bay leaves is this surprising dessert: bay leaf crème brûlée. This recipe was sent to me by chef Jerry Traunfeld for my very first cookbook, The Northwest Best Places Cookbook, which came out in 1996. Jerry was the longtime chef at the celebrated Herbfarm restaurant, which then was still in its original, more rustic location in Fall City east of Seattle. In fact, it’s because of that recipe (and the testing I needed to do) that I bought that little bay plant at the Herbfarm’s retail herb shop (which they no longer have at their newer Woodinville location).

Jerry’s hard at work putting finishing touches on his new restaurant, Poppy, which is due to open in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in September. The web site shows some work-in-progress photos. He tells me that the bay plant he put in his home garden about 10 years ago is now 20 feet tall and nearly

Too bad this isn't scratch-n-sniff

Too bad this isn't scratch-n-sniff

taking over. And for an herb garden at his new restaurant, he just bought a new cultivar of bay, one with interesting wavy leaves.

If I can keep a bay plant alive for a dozen-plus years, anyone can. It sits on my patio in that pot year-round, no special treatment, no specific regimen of care. Once you start cooking with fresh bay, you won’t ever want to go back.


Bay Leaf Crème Brûlée (courtesy of Jerry Traunfeld)


2 cups whole milk

2 cups whipping cream

12 fresh bay leaves

1/2 vanilla bean, split, or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3 whole eggs

5 egg yolks

3/4 cup granulated sugar

Pinch salt

1/2 cup superfine sugar*


Bring the milk and cream to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Coarsely tear the fresh bay leaves and add them to the mixture along with the vanilla bean, if using. Remove the pan from the heat and let steep for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Beat the eggs, egg yolks, granulated sugar, vanilla extract (if using), and salt in a large bowl. Whisk in the steeped milk mixture until well blended. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, discarding the bay leaves and vanilla bean. Pour the custard into eight 3/4-cup ramekins and set them in a shallow pan filled with 1 inch of hot water. Bake the custards until just set but still slightly jiggly, about 40 minutes. Let cool, then chill the custards for several hours or overnight.

Just before serving, sprinkle the surface of each custard with the superfine sugar, pouring off any excess. Using a small blow torch, caramelize the sugar just until nicely browned. Serve immediately.

Makes 8 servings

* Superfine sugar will melt and caramelize more evenly than regular granulated sugar, but you can use the latter if you wish.

from The Northwest Best Places Cookbook, Sasquatch Books, 1996


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To Drink: Iced Coffee

It’s a summertime tradition, to be sure, though for me iced coffee has been a bigger part of the season than usual this year. Has a lot to do with the heat, no doubt. While I was in New York City early June, during that heat wave, I drank a few iced coffees each day trying to beat the heat. Problem is, they go down so much quicker and easier than hot coffee, I was extra-wired that week. But they sure tasted good.

On that same episode of Splendid Table that got me on a burger bent, there was a discussion of iced coffee as well. Here’s the recipe for success that the guest, Peter Giuliano from Counter Culture in Durham, NC, shared that afternoon. His trick is brewing the coffee directly over loads of ice, so it chills immediately and preserves a level of flavor that will be more pronounced in the cold state. I’d never thought about that before, but it does make sense. As we know, cold dulls flavor, which is why a chilled

All ingredients in place

All ingredients in place

soup needs a bit more flavor punch than a hot one might. Since I already use a cone filter to brew my coffee directly into a vacuum pot, it’s an easy enough technique for me to add to my iced coffee ritual.

My secret to ideal summertime iced coffee has long been to not use regular ice cubes in the glass, instead making ice cubes with leftover coffee. Voila, no more diluted ice coffee. Fill a glass with those coffee cubes, pour over a couple tablespoons of sugar syrup, fill near to the top with coffee (I’m usually using yesterday’s leftover coffee) and pour in a generous slug of milk. I love watching that swirling, marbling effect the milk makes…. Sugar? I would never add it to hot coffee, no appeal whatsoever. But for some strange reason iced coffee contradicts my anti-sweet-tooth and cries out for a touch of sugar.

A couple of days ago, I was at a small media event at a Starbucks shop in Seattle touting the launch of their new line of drinks, Vivanno (more on that soon). I diverted the conversation for a bit to the subject of iced coffee. One of the Starbucks reps excitedly began describing the different characteristics that origin-specific coffees will contribute to iced coffees, richness from one part of the world, citrusy character from another.

Geez. And I was just concerned about the technique to produce the best iced coffee, hadn’t considered getting into the geography of my coffee bean choices. But Mr. Giuliano had also mentioned the coffee from Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia as a favorite to ice; he says it has lemony-jasmine notes that play out well when chilled. Obviously, I’ve got some more research to do. Any new revelations, and I’ll be sharing them here.

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Out for Dinner: Via Tribunali

Open this week in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle: the third in the city’s mini-empire of outstanding Neapolitan pizzerias brought to us by Via Tribunali. This new outlet lands in a turn-around neighborhood that was a historic hub of Seattle a century ago. (Georgetown Brewing Company down the street, brewers of beloved Manny’s Pale Ale among others, is housed in the original malt house of the first brewers of Rainier Beer.) It became something of a forgotten fringe neighborhood framed by I-5, train tracks, Boeing Field and other industry over the decades. Today it’s enjoying a

A sign of new times in Columbia City

A sign of new times in Georgetown

renaissance with special emphasis on youthful, artistic, creative, innovative types. The other new spot in the neighborhood that’s the talk of town is The Corson Building, a unique dining experience from the deliciously creative mind of Matt Dillon, chef of Sitka & Spruce where I had a magnificent dinner with a bunch of friends last week. Have yet to check out the Corson, but it’s on the list!

The opening night festivities on Tuesday were a mad crush, but how could it be otherwise? This town is clearly hungry for more of what Via Tribunali has been serving at their first Capitol Hill and newer Queen Anne locations. I’m a card-carrying fan of VT and of Neapolitan pizza in general (check out this past issue of my newsletter for

The pizza oven was working hard tonight

The pizza oven was working hard tonight

my piece about my trip to the namesake Via Tribunali last year, a street with serious pizza history!). On tap to help celebrate the opening were Armandino and Marilyn Batali (of Salumi fame), as well as Scott and Heather Staples (Zoe and Quinn’s). Had a glass or two of Manny’s and managed to snag one delicious slice of mushroom pizza, then off to allow our few square feet of real estate to other patrons waiting outside.

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Seasonal Treats: Clafoutis

Some day I’m going to actually get around to this, checking on the earlier history of my Seattle neighborhood to see if cherry trees figured prominently back when. Our house is nearly surrounded by them. To one side an ancient, sprawling Rainier tree packed with cherries that I can spy from my seat here at the computer. In our own front yard a crazy-tall tree of sour cherries, far too tall to make access to the cherries at all reasonable. I just picked 3 ripe ones this morning, not enough to even make one tartlet! And best of all, across our backyard fence is another large tree that puts out the most distinctive cherries I’ve ever seen or tasted.

Cherry Pit Tree

Cherry Pit Tree

The couple branches that extend over to our patio only grant me access to a tiny selection of the fruit. And the birds, far more nimble and acrobatic than I, get to most of them before I do. Check out this crazy picture, they carefully eat the fruit from the pit while it’s still hanging on the tree, leaving remains that make it look like a cherry-pit tree! I was able to nab one single cherry this weekend that the birds had somehow missed, in perfect ripe form. The color of both the skin and the flesh is of a royal purple so deep as to be nearly black. It just explodes with juiciness and powerful cherry flavor. But I can see this never being a good commercial fruit, definitely tender and surely quite delicate once plucked from the tree. I split it in half to share with my sister. My single annual dose of a mystery heritage cherry until about this time next year.

Thankfully, there are other cherries to be had this time of year. Though it has been a particularly hard season for Washington cherry growers. Due in large part to the exceptionally cold spring, harvest is running at about half its normal levels throughout the Northwest. Which also means prices are a bit higher, but I’m willing to pay a little more to still get my summertime fill and to support the local farmers.

While eating great cherries as they are–heck, it’s good enough for all those birds!–is wonderful, there are a few recipes I love to pull out come cherry season. A particular favorite is clafoutis, a rustic French dessert that really couldn’t be easier. I included a clafoutis recipe in my Northwest Homegrown cookbook Stone Fruit, there using fresh plums instead. Cherries are traditional, however, the recipe I use based on that from a very dear friend, Anne-Marie, from France. I’ll surely revisit Anne-Marie in posts to come, she helped orchestrate the study abroad program I did in Dijon a couple decades back. Then, and in years since when I’ve spent time visiting with her and her family, Anne-Marie has provided some of the most memorable dining experiences of my life. That’s “dining” in a totally unaffected,

Clafoutis ready for the oven

Clafoutis ready for the oven

straightforward, start-with-the-best-ingredients-and-don’t-mess-them-up fashion. It proved a wonderful counterpoint to my more formal training at La Varenne.

So, back to the clafoutis. Rub softened butter over the bottom and sides of a gratin dish or similar shallow baking dish. Pit enough cherries to loosely cover the bottom (classically, pits are left in the cherries but I prefer pre-pitted); plums, apricots and ripe pears are other fruits I’d recommend, pitted/cored and cut into appropriate pieces. I think peaches would likely be too sweet for this recipe.

In a medium bowl, combine 1/2 cup sugar with 1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Fresh from the oven

Fresh from the oven

and a pinch of salt. Whisk to mix. In another bowl, whisk together 3 eggs, then add 1 1/4 cups milk and 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract and whisk to blend. Add the egg mixture to the dry mixture and gently stir with the whisk just until smooth. The result will look something like a thin pancake batter. Pour the batter into the gratin dish. Put the dish in a 425 degree F oven, immediately turning the temp down to 375 degrees. Bake until set and lightly browned around the edges, 30 to 40 minutes. In the book, I recommend dotting with butter at 30 minutes, sprinkling with 1 tablespoon of sugar and returning to the oven to create a sugary crust. But honestly, I prefer it unadorned.

An ideal summer dessert

An ideal summer dessert

The clafoutis will puff up as it bakes, then settle again as it cools. Don’t worry, that’s the intention! Not a dessert to eat hot, I prefer it at room temperature. This made for a perfect dessert last night on the patio, after a dinner of salade niçoise with grilled salmon and grilled tuna. Oh, and a bottle of Chinookwinery’s cabernet franc rosé wine. No more ideal summertime supper than that! Well, maybe tonight’s grilled burgers will be a contender. I’m fickle that way.

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Tasty Treats: Primo Chocolate

Such an unassuming little bag.

Such delicious treats inside! (And yes, I could have chosen to have my treats cradled in a box instead, but cost is a hair more and the bag was just going home to my own kitchen counter…)

I’d be surprised if any food-conscious Seattleite hasn’t yet heard of Theo Chocolates, as have surely many non-locals as well. They’re deliciously ensconced in the former Red Hood Brewery space in Fremont, making not only top-quality chocolate, but doing so by custom roasting their own beans purchased from only organic, fair trade growers. Restaurant menus, retail shelves, special events…Theo chocolates are showing up everywhere. Tom Douglas invited me to sit in on a day of this year’s Summer Camp week yesterday and they had a tasting of the chocolates late afternoon, just one other example.

So when we were strolling around Fremont Sunday and noticed the shop open, in we went. Their 3400 Phinney chocolate bars are fun and popular, premium chocolate studded with very interesting combos: coconut and curry (subtle and delicious), chai, cocoa nib brittle and hazelnut crunch (which has a pinch of salt in it) among them. But I veered right over to the pretty display case with their elegant chocolate confections instead.

I’d been at the Fred Hutchinson Premier Chefs dinner gala in May and each place setting had a little brown box with two Theo chocolates in it. I nearly fainted with delight when I found that one of the chocolate centers was peanut butter and jelly. I hit the jackpot because the other chocolate was pure peanut butter with a delightful surprise of crispy crunch.

For my treat later Sunday night I chose (clockwise starting from 11:00): burnt cream (silky creamy texture with hint of crème brûlée flavor), that decadent peanut butter version again, orange-thyme caramel and for the life of me I can’t remember what flavoring that last ganache-type chocolate had! All super delicious. And I couldn’t eat just one. Which is why I had trouble sleeping soundly that night!

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On the Road: Vegas, Baby

Yes, another trip to Vegas. This time mid-June with good friends John and Kathy Casey. Even bigger Vegas hounds than us, they have far more wee-hours stamina than I do, though one night I did manage to stay up until 2:30 am (woo-hoo) or so, thanks to a particularly fun run on a machine.

Lazy of me, I know, but have a look at this link to Kathy’s blog post about our trip, particularly our dinner at the delicious time-warp of a restaurant, Hugo’s Cellar, in downtown Vegas at the Four Queens Casino. Old school, one hundred percent of the way. (I swear, is that not Kevin Bacon serving up the salad on their web homepage?) It was a second visit for Bob and me, I prepared Kathy best I could but she was still blown away by the degree of the time warp effect!

Actually, I guess time warp was a theme of the weekend, having gone to hear Elton John and Bette Midler LIVE at Caesar’s Palace — both of which pulled out the stops on old-time favorites that make us feel like teenagers again.

Maybe that’s the whole thing about Vegas. It’s always some sort of out-of-body experience, whether it’s a trip back in time, a multi-sensory distraction from daily concerns, a chance to role-play as a high roller or starlet gad-about. Shallow? Commercial? Fake? Over-the-top? Yeah, Baby. In small doses, and only in Vegas, it somehow does us good. And it’s easy (perhaps even easier) then to feel grounded, responsible and real once we get home.

Next trip’s already planned! We’re each in a video poker tournament mid-August. More news surely to follow from that trip as well.

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