Monthly Archives: August 2008

Help Macrina Celebrate

I just got a notice about this week’s celebration of Macrina Bakery & Cafe’s 15th anniversary on Wednesday, August 27. The beloved Seattle bakery set down its roots in the Belltown neighborhood at a time when Belltown was still something of a wasteland. I love that while there is an endless stream of new places to keep us coming to Belltown–Txori, Tavolata, Branzino, Spur—we also have a few Seattle classics in this neighborhood that are still going strong. Macrina, Flying Fish, Shiro’s, Queen City Grill among them. 

Those of you in the Seattle area may want to take advantage of Macrina’s gesture of celebration, giving each customer a free brown sugar shortbread cookie that day, at their three locations: Belltown, top of Queen Anne and Vashon Island. Sounds like a tasty excuse for an excursion to me. They’re also–for the week of August 27 to September 3–selling their beloved Giuseppe bread (the recipe for which was recently revamped to incorporate local Shepherd’s Grain flour, made from sustainably-grown Eastern Washington wheat) at the sale price of $2.15 per loaf, usually $3.55.

Last but not least was news that owner Leslie Mackie will soon add a fourth Macrina location to the family, a combo production facility/café in SODO (1943 1st Ave South, just south of Safeco Field) due to open mid-September. Fifteen years and going strong!

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Found Treasure: Mom’s Banana Bread

It’s interesting those times in our lives when we realize a pleasant, unexpected outcome from an otherwise unpleasant event. My recent example is the untimely demise of our refrigerator. A week earlier I’d found the ice cream to be surprisingly soft and ready-to-eat, scooped my portion and happily forgot about it thanks to a few days out of town. Home again last week, I reached into the freezer for ice, only to find little sloshing puddles of water in the trays. Not to mention the larger mess gathering across the bottom of the freezer, and disarmingly tepid milk and mayonnaise in the refrigerator.

The fridge was replaced within two days and we’re back in frozen-ice-cream-and-chilled-milk contentment. But along the way, the exercise took me down a few different pathways as I cleaned and reorganized in and around the area, especially in storage area seldom accessed above the fridge. Some were practical adjustments: I forgot I had a back-up workbowl for my Cuisinart, so trading out my well-scratched bowl, it looks suddenly like a new machine. And a couple old enamel turquoise saucepans that collected dust on top of the fridge now hang in easy reach next to the stove.

I also found a few old cookbooks that should otherwise have been with the rest of my collection. A 1946 edition of The Joy of Cooking and an original (this edition has since been re-released) 1953 Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. Treasures, to be sure, even more so because of the notes my mother made on the crinkling, often dislodged pages, and the additional recipes she wrote or taped in the fronts and backs of the books.

And other slips of paper, notes, newspaper and magazine clippings tumble out of the books, too. I found this scrap that gives the banana bread recipe I grew up with. I’d asked my sister recently for Mom’s recipe (for years I’d used James Beard’s from his Beard On Bread book) and she was surprised that I didn’t have it. Technically I did. I just didn’t know to look in the copy of Betty Crocker’s Creative Recipes with Bisquickbook, from whose pages this fell. This dates to my dad’s service at the Naval Air Station (NAS) in Barber’s Point, Hawaii in the  1950s. I’m afraid I don’t know who Helen is.

Another find from that era was notes for the 4-Day Diet, which my mom wrote on the back of a statement from the Commissioned Officer’s Mess, c/o Fleet Postmaster in San Francisco. “Payment due for Cdr. Minner’s Aloha Party, totalling $3.88, duly paid on March 10 of 1956.” I wasn’t around yet, and have long been jealous of my family’s time living in Hawaii, complete with papaya tree in the backyard. Maybe that’s why I so love the 1956 house I live in now, and why I was devoted to turning the basement into our Lava Lounge party room, complete with tangerine orange walls and vinyl records played on a turntable? Living an era I feel a once-removed connection to.

I can’t tell if it’s a promise or a command: my mom wrote “Lose 10 lbs.” at the top of the page describing this 4-day diet, underneath which it says “no liquor (tea and lemon at cocktail hour)” — probably a more challenging dietary adjustment than the 1/2 grapefruit and black coffee prescribed for each morning’s breakfast. Otherwise no surprises. Actually, it doesn’t sound bad. Dinner one night says “steak, lettuce, pineapple juice;” lunch another day is scrambled eggs with a side of string beans and tomato juice. I just may give it a shot. As a little tribute to the memory of my mom, and that long-ago era that I harbor a yearning to have been part of.

So, the refrigerator gave out on us. It was an inconvenience that changed our planned quiet evening at home into a shopping trip. And it took time from my work to-do list, vacating the old fridge for hauling away, cleaning in advance of the new delivery, etc. Not to mention the unexpected dent in the budget. But this little present it’s given me, this forgotten trove, the echo of my mom’s voice through these recipes and notes? It’s the serendipity that can come from a broken down refrigerator.

Mom’s Banana Bread (aka Helen’s Banana Bread)

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
2 eggs
3 large ripe bananas, mashed
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch salt
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Cream together the sugar and butter until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the mashed banana.

Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. Stir this into the wet ingredients, then stir in the buttermilk and walnuts.

Spoon the batter into a well greased 9-inch loaf pan and bake at 350 F until nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 45 to 60 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly, then turn the loaf out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes 1 loaf


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A Vegas Highlight: Craftsteak

It’s a terrible thing to have to admit, but it’s not often that I get giddy with enthusiasm about a dinner out. Part of the reason is the simple reality that I’ve eaten out so many times for so many years–particularly while I was editor of the Seattle Zagat guide and food editor of Seattle Magazine–that eating out is not, in itself, particularly special. And so often we’re returning to a favorite restaurant for a reliably enjoyable, engaging meal but, by nature of familiarity, one that doesn’t hold a lot of surprise (places like Restaurant Zoë, Saito’s, Palace Kitchen, Rover’s).

Or it’s a highly rated restaurant that so seldom lives up to the hype, the attitude and/or the price. Which is the case with most of the “name” spots in Las Vegas. And which is why this recent meal stands out as such a notable one.

We’d walked by Craftsteak in the MGM Grand casino a few times in recent visits and a glance at the menu put it at least on my ‘places of interest’ list for a future trip. This past weekend we had been to see Zumanity at New York New York (so-so, I think the Teatro Zinzanni shows in Seattle and San Francisco deliver more interesting, if PG-rated, entertainment) and were in the market for a late dinner. Craftsteak won the draw.

We were seated in a matter of minutes, the large dining room surprisingly full so close to final seating. We’d seen their set menu posted out front, which would have been $60 each, 6 or 7 dishes served family style, including salad, grilled quail, steak, side dishes, dessert. The couple next to us ordered that and it was a generous amount of food that would have filled the bill. But we opted to go à la carte and spent just a little more than that.

After a generous Boodles martini with blue cheese stuffed olives (an optional extra I was happy to see), I started off with a “salad” of chilled braised baby artichokes in a creamy type of dressing with tarragon, really simple and perfectly delicious. I’m picky about artichokes, particularly when they’re poorly trimmed, leaving tough, stringy parts intact. These were among the best I’ve ever had, tender and wonderful. Bob began with the heirloom tomato salad, a colorful array of different shapes and sizes left to shine with little adulteration.

For entrees, red meat dominates the menu. They don’t just have wagyu beef, but wagyu beef from your choice of provenances: domestic, Australian and Japanese. Plus a number of more mainstream steak choices. Bison got Bob’s attention, the NY strip cut flavorful, juicy, perfectly cooked. I opted for a favorite standby, braised shortribs. Oooh baby, these were some special shortribs, off the bone, a slab of deeply marbled, rich beef that nearly fell apart on my tongue. Heaven. Our side dishes of choice were the roasted sunchokes (a+) and potato gratin with leeks and roasted garlic (wonderful, though the leek and garlic a bit subtle for my taste). That’s the best I can do for a critique of anything we tasted all evening.

No room for dessert. And no need for it. As we left, Bob noted that next time we see Tom Colicchio on an episode of Top Chef (which we don’t really watch, too close to home, subject for another post), at least we’ll know that the guy really knows what he’s doing in the kitchen. We’ll surely be back to Craftsteak on another Vegas visit, which is about the best review we can give any place in that town.

Craftsteak (MGM Grand) on Urbanspoon

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One Big Food Life List

I wrote a few months ago about the idea of a food life list, the one-of-a-kind eating experiences that make delicious goals for ourselves and ultimately add wonderful gastronomic richness to our lives. I was a bit stimied in trying to come up with my own to-do list of gotta-have foods, but something that landed on my doorstep yesterday may go a long way in helping me flesh out that list.

I’d almost forgotten about the 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die project I’d worked on last year. This book is very much a global look at (for the most part) interesting foods, from the Icelandic dark rye bread Rúgbraud to hop shoots (which some Washington hop growers sell) to morcilla dulce, a sweet blood sausage from Uruaguay. I contributed a dozen entries, one of the North American contributors for this British production. A few were subjects near and dear to me–geoduck, Dungeness crab–others more general players in the American repertoire, including brownies, maple syrup and Smithfield ham.

In many ways, this is like a mini encyclopedia of ingredients, focusing much more on raw products–vegetables, fruits, herbs, meats, types of dairy, nuts, legumes, etc.–than on prepared dishes, though there are a number of breads, cakes, candies included too. So it’s not quite “food life list” material in the way that, say, traveling to northern Spain for authentic paella would be. Or traveling side roads of Mexico and stopping for freshly steamed tamales with a glass of fresh pineapple juice (which I’ve done, and highly recommend). The collection of profiles, each a few hundred words, covers a lot more territory than my other go-to resources like Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz’ wonderful The Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices, & Flavorings, though each profile goes into far less detail than does such a book.

However, for cooks and travelers who want a handy, photo-heavy quick reference for a thousand-plus-one foods (most of which have ID shots), this will make for a solid addition to those already-full shelves.

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Julia Child, American Spy

That Julia, she was quite a woman. In many ways that we already knew: she was a trailblazer, a mentor and teacher, a proponent of eating well, a liver of life and entertainer to boot. And, as both my morning papers spelled out today, she had a hidden layer just being discovered: she was once part of an international spy ring.

Anyone who’s read about Julia’s background knows that she worked in the offices of the OSS (precursor to the CIA) in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the early 1940s. I wrote a feature article about Julia and her love of seafood while I was at Simply Seafood magazine. For the article, I had occasion to meet with Julia in her Cambridge, Mass., home, which was a thrill beyond belief. Not only did I get to stand in the famous kitchen that’s now recreated in the Smithsonian (and slurp a couple mid-morning Olympia oysters with her, a gift Jon Rowley sent me with), but I was also allowed to look through her files that included a lifetime of photos. And spend a couple amazing hours with the woman who has been such a giant in our culinary consciousness in this country.

I gave some background of Julia’s life in that article, including the snippet about her time in Ceylon. “When World War II broke out, Julia joined the Office of Strategic Services with romantic dreams of becoming a spy,” I wrote. “She was assigned as a file clerk and, after a short time in Washington, D.C., went on assignment to Ceylon.” So apparently she lived out more of her romantic dreams that we realized! And doubly so. It was in Ceylon that she met Paul Child, a man who not only had a big impact on her personal life, but who is really the reason that Julia–a confirmed indifferent cook–became the culinary icon that she was.

There are a number of books that delve into how Julia became Julia, but my favorite is My Life in France, which chronicles those experiences that transformed her into an advocate for cooking at home and for enjoying all the delicious things in life.

Julia really did have an amazing life. And I have a feeling that, current OSS news notwithstanding, we will never quite fully grasp what a rich, fascinating and well-lived life that it was. Here’s a toast to you, Julia, and how you manage to keep us inspired even after you’ve moved on to that great La Cornue stove in the sky. In fact, tomorrow, August 15, would have been her 96th birthday. Let’s all raise a glass in her honor!

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Capturing Seattle, in words and photos

It’s a fun surprise when I hear a friend’s name mentioned as part of the “coming up next on KPLU we’ll be talking to….” teaser during my daily dose of NPR radio. This morning, that friend was Joel Rogers, a Seattle photographer and writer whose book Seattlewas released last year. It was a project long in the making, encompassing a lifetime of experience in, and visual impressions of, Seattle.

Not just architecture and ferries and Pike Place Market (though all are included, of course), this book highlights many more layers of Seattle’s character. WTO riots. The Torchlight Run that closes lanes of the Alaska Way Viaduct. The Gay Pride Parade. Swearing in of new citizens on July 4. Locals reading books while waiting in line for a movie during the Seattle International Film Festival.

There is plenty of personal reflection in Joel’s writing. I love the story about his grandfather, of Swedish-Finnish background, who “had his own idea of church–renting a skiff at Ray’s Boathouse [back when it really was a boat house] and communing with the salmon of Puget Sound.” Joel taught me something new about this city in writing that Seattle ranks second only to nearby Portland in major American cities that has the least number of church-goers. At least “church” in the traditional sense. Joel goes on to draft his conjuring of what might constitute Seattle’s own set of Ten Commandments, including “thou shalt garden with native species,” “thou shalt partake of local microbrew,” “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s Subaru,” and–my favorite–“thou shalt love hiking in the rain,” which I do very much.

I always find it a bit odd to be on the receiving end of an interview rather than the one spitting out the questions. Joel contacted me while working on this book to get some perspectives on our Seattle-area cuisine. In his “The Northwest Table” essay in the book, I get to riff on one of my favorite subjects, what it is that constitutes “Northwest cuisine.”

While a Seattle coffee table sporting a Seattle picture book may seem a bit cliché (especially for non-conformist Seattle), this really is a book that locals will want to devour themselves, and have on hand to share with visitors. A view of the city through the compelling and studied lens of a native.

P.S. On a side note. A small grievance I just can’t contain any longer. A pet peeve that makes me crazy. It’s Pike Place Market. Not Pike Street. Not Pike’s Place. Just Pike Place Market. We walked by a parking garage downtown last night advertising that they served “Pike’s Place Market” customers. I vote for a law that fines Seattle businesses that can’t get the name of the city’s hallmark gathering place correct! OK, I feel better. Rant’s over.

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A Farmer Post-Script

I hadn’t yet opened this week’s issue of New York magazine before making yesterday’s post about the celebrity farmer (I do hope those of you in the Seattle area will try to make it to the Incredible Feast event in a couple weeks, “where the farmers are the stars”). A feature article in this issue celebrates “The Farmer as Cult Hero,” going ‘celebrity’ status a notch or two higher. Relating the trend in a similar fashion that I did, writer Susan Burton notes that “Just a few years ago, only a celebrity chef could have stirred up so much epicurean excitement.” The story highlights a few cult-status farmers in the New York area, including Ronnybrook Farm Dairy and Blooming Hill Farm (such lyrical names!).

Cult hero, huh? Makes me wonder who I’d put in that class around here. In my Seattle Magazine article, I’d featured George Page from Sea Breeze Farm, Brent Olsen from Olsen Farmsand Steve Hallstrom from Let Us Farm. Cult figures? I hadn’t thought of them in quite that light, but perhaps that’s just what they are. If you’re after unpasteurized milk, fresh-from-the-ground fingerling potatoes or exquisite uncommon lettuce, those are your guys (respectively). To the list I suppose I’d add Heath Putnam from Wooly Pigs (his mangalista pigs definitely have a following), Shelley and Mike Verdi at Whistling Train Farm (eggs sell out weekly but they sell loads of produce as well), Nash Huber from Nash’s Organic Farm (carrots made this farm famous). And others not immediately coming to mind.

Are you the devoted customer (perhaps event cult-like follower?) of any particular farmers in your neck of the woods? If so, I’d love to hear about them and what products of theirs that you crave.

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The Celebrity Farmer

Do you remember back when we used to just go to a restaurant, enjoy a meal, pay our check and head home without much thought at all to the talent back in the kitchen making it all happen? I know, it’s hard to recall such a time. There are many influences that helped bring the phenomenon of the celebrity chef to life, but suffice it to say that more often than not we now know more about the people cooking our restaurant meals than we do about our own neighbors.

Where we are now is in the early years of the newest incarnation: the celebrity farmer. Whether diners are hoping to see “Billy’s Tomatoes” on a menu (as we did recently at Sitka & Spruce, served in utter, delicious simplicity) or stand

Perfect, delicious simplicity

ready with their canvas bags, waiting for the market bell to ring the day’s opening so they can race to Rama Farm for amazing peaches or hit Whistling Train Farm before they run out of eggs. It may start with a love affair we develop for their products. But just as the separation between the front-of-the-house diners and the back-of-the-house chefs has found us yearning to get to know the people behind our meals, so has our love of certain ingredients made us want to learn more about the people on the other side of the farmers market stall. The farmers are becoming, more and more, the stars of the day. And it’s about time.

This is a phenomenon that many farmers are only slowly taking to. For my July article in Seattle Magazine, I met with and/or interviewed a number of Washington farmers who seem to begrudgingly be finding themselves in the spotlight. And drawn away from the farm. They clearly get a good dose of energy and satisfaction from interacting with shoppers at the markets, and making deliveries to restaurants, but most sounded as though they’d be just as content to be on their farms most of the times.

It’s one reason why the Incredible Feastevent around the corner (late afternoon of August 24 at Phinney Ridge Community Center) is such a treat. Sure there are top guest chefs from around the city, including John Sundstrom, Maria Hines, Holly Smith and Ethan Stowell. But it’s really the farmers who are the stars, each farm paired with a chef who will showcase the farmers products in delicious style.

On top of the great food and outstanding local products that are featured, there’s something of a carnival atmosphere at this down-home event, including games, live music and a wine and beer garden. A popular spot is always the balloon toss area. Take your chances, pop the right balloon and you may be going home with a restaurant gift certificate, a signed cookbook, outstanding local food products, you name it. Hope to see you there!!

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In Praise of Fat

Once again, being a food writer–while not the most highly paid profession going–proved itself for the small perks that come along the way. Today it was a box from Ten Speed Press which held in it a copy of the new cookbook from my pal Jennifer McLagan, the Torontonian who penned the awesome (and James Beard award-winning) Bones a couple years back. Her latest is called, simply, Fat and it’s really love at first site: decadently fat-endowed lamb chops on front and a lovely crock of butter on the back. I want some. Right now.

Jennifer had been telling me about this book in recent months and I’m so happy to finally have a copy in my hands. Flipping through a few pages made me realize a few wonderful, rich, fatty delights I’d had of my own this past week. Last Wednesday it was dinner at Holly Hill Inn in Midway, Kentucky (more on that trip soon), where chef Ouita Michel celebrated porky deliciousness with this plate that paired juicy pork tenderloin with amazing slow-cooked pork belly. A couple days ago, my husband and I made a visit to our favorite sushi joint in town, Saito’s, where the menu now sports skewered, grilled delights. We sampled the wagu beef imported from Japan, small cubes of utterly rich, melt-in-your-mouth meat that makes a marbled ribeye look like a lean piece of sirloin.

And yesterday after a most interesting hands-on class with other writers at Tilth restaurant, where Maria Hines took us through the steps of the wonderful alchemy of sous vide cooking (more on that one day soon as well), the chef set out an impromptu butter tasting. We sampled the tasty organic butter she brings in from Oregon, alongside the butter they make in-house as often as they’re able, using the organic milk from Fresh Breeze dairy in Lynden, Washington.

You’ve probably heard it a thousand times, and rightfully so, that fat carries flavor. But more than that, fat enriches dishes by keeping them moist, helping foods caramelize and adding thick rich texture. AND? On top of all that? The truth is that fat is not nearly the dietary evil that it’s been made out to be. I’m no nutritionist and won’t even pretent to play one on this blog. But Jennifer offers some great food for thought about the role that fat can, and should, play in our diets.

It doesn’t help that I opened this book after a trip to the YMCA and before having lunch. But I want to try EVERYTHING! Especially the Salted Butter Tart, Duck Rillettes and Dandelion Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing.

Funny thing, I was just making my way through the latter pages of the book and noticed a recipe for Bacon Baklava. Odd and freaky, you say? “I’ve had that!” I just said to myself. At Brasa, when Tamara Murphy did an all-pig dinner a couple years ago. In fact, Jennifer attributes that recipe’s inspiration  to a friend in Seattle who had recounted just that dinner. Her version sounds mighty tempting.

Here’s to pure, delicious, versatile fat and all the joy that it adds to our gastronomic lives.

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