Monthly Archives: February 2009

Dinner Out: Spinasse

Interestingly, it was Bob’s idea that we go for the menu degustazione on Saturday night. He’s definitely not a picky eater but for health reasons has to be a little selective about what’s on his plate. Maybe he was just feeling indecisive. Or adventurous. Or maybe this was just one of those rare occasions when literally everything sounded good.

I was surprised by the suggestion, but it only took a moment for me to agree. Usually when a marathon meal is in the cards, it’s something you plan ahead for (i.e. light lunch, long walk).  In fact, we’d kind a pre-functioned a bit already, which I’d have skipped had I known. We had a few bites at Ethan Stowell’s brand-new Anchovies and Olives, opened the day before, just a block away. More report on that later, we need to go back for a broader menu tasting. But the raw mackerel with toasted pine nuts, sliced radish and tiny beet sprouts was outstanding.

So what the heck. We took a deep breath and got ready for a sampling of everything on the menu at Spinasse.

It was kind of a last-minute decision, this dinner out. I had, of course, been wanting to get there for months, soon as I began to hear friends try to find superlatives to describe their meals. One more pal raving last week got me to stop whining and get over there. A lucky Saturday afternoon call secured 2 spots at 7:00 that night. No recession signs here, the place was packed and bustling, loud in a convivial sort of way.

The communal table setting can make conversation with your partner across the way a little challenging, but it all works out. And no chance you won’t have at least some interaction with folks next to you. In fact, it was sometimes hard not to pipe up with our neighbors as if we were dining partners. The husband sitting next to me ordered a martini with Aviation gin and was telling his wife that he thought it was from Oregon. It was everything I could do to not lean over and confirm that indeed it’s from Portland and wax on about the great gin and my friend Ryan, who’s part of the team behind it. (I just noticed that on their new site, the story behind Aviation cites “a small tiki party in West Seattle” as part of the early history of this Northwest gin. That little party was at my house!)

Under “menu degustazione” on the menu, it says “everything – $75 per person.” And they do mean everything, aside from the contorni (vegetable sides), one of which was part of an entree anyway.

The seven antipasti selections came on three narrow oblong plates that sat like hash marks between us. Artisan salami with roasted leeks, simple as it was, was a favorite of us both. The salad with chicories, pheasant and walnuts was a winner too. And while I do not (typically) like beef tartare, the carne cruda Piemontese was heavenly: rich but mild, pure and simple. But the vitello tonnato, anchovies with green sauce and egg yolk, farro with yellow foot mushrooms….nothing was anywhere near a dud.

Then followed the three pastas of the night. I’ve never had a finer, more delicate pasta than the tajarin al ragù, whisper-thin strands tossed with a simple meat ragu. And the ravioli with nettles and ricotta, tossed with sage butter and toasted pine nuts–amazing. Not that the maltagliati with chickpeas and prosciutto was a slacker but the other two prevailed. In fact all three were delicious leftovers a couple days later. There was no way we could clean these plates and make it through the next and final round, our secondi.

The pork sausages with lentils and lacianato kale were–yet another–highlight of the evening. Simple, homemade sausages burst with unadulterated pork flavor, the earthy accompaniments an ideal foil for the sausages’ richness. And braised duck leg fell from the bone with the slightest touch, tender and delicious, served with juniper scented savoy cabbage.

Ok, so dessert actually isn’t included in the degustazione either. And it shocked me that I felt like a little bite of something sweet after such a grand parade of delicious Piemontese dishes. Spinasse deserves an extra gold star for having something as simple, and small, as brutti ma buoni (which I’m pretty sure translates as “ugly but wonderful”) available. The delicate hazelnut meringue cookie–which seemed mostly hazelnut, just enough meringue to give some structure–could not have been a more ideal finale for this wonderful meal.

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Doing Good: Support Yukon Salmon

These days more than ever, it’s nice when you can make a dollar spent go farther. If you’re a fan of wild Northwest salmon and have an interest in supporting the livelihoods of the people who work to bring food to your plate, here’s a delicious opportunity for you to do good by eating well. Thursday February 26, Elliott’s Oyster House is hosting a Yukon Salmon Feast to benefit the families where the Yukon River flows, source of those spectacular Yukon salmon.

It’s not what you’d think of as traditional salmon season, but thanks to an unfortunate twist of circumstances (namely economic), salmon is on our radar now. Many people are–rightfully–concerned about the plight of the Yukon  fishing communities nearly 2000 miles from Seattle.  (And you know by now, I hope, that frozen fish is not the antithesis of fresh fish. You can buy “fresh” never-frozen fish that’s pretty awful and you can, likewise, enjoy previously frozen fish that cooks up to be indistinguishable from fresh.)

Elliott’s Oyster House on the Seattle waterfront has stepped up to the plate to help out. All this month, they’ve been donating 25% of every Yukon keta salmon entrée purchase to a fuel fund set up to support the Yup’ik Eskimos in Emmonak, on the Yukon River delta. The most basic necessities have been hard for families to manage in recent months: fuel, heating oil, food. CNN has a detailed item about it here.

A special push of support for that same fund will result from the dinner on  February 26, at which $25 of each attendee’s fee ($65 plus tax & tip) will go to the fuel fund. More information on both here. And you can check out a preview of the menu for the 26th. Call soon, seating’s limited!

yukon4I know there’s no shortage of economic grief to go around these days. And so many fundraising invitations come our way as well. But this is one cause in which I take a particular interest. Because I’ve been to the village Emmonak, traveled to many of their fishing camps, visited other fishing villages in the area. I saw first-hand how remote they are, how incredibly meaningful and important the salmon is to the locals’ lives, how few other economic  resources  they have to draw on.

The business of wild salmon harvest and distribution is a huge and complex subject and I definitely do not profess to have a solid handle on it. I just know what I’ve learned and observed from the travels and research I did while an editor at Simply Seafood magazine, and in years since working on yukon2my Salmon cookbook and other projects. My trip to the Yukon River, which thankfully came shortly before my Salmon manuscript was due, was by far the most eye-opening.

My travel partner was great friend, and great photographer, Scott Wellsandt (these photos are all his). Some of his shots showed up in a New York Times article a couple of weeks later, written by Timothy Egan. The article included a photo of me holding a sizable Yukon king, though the shot I include here in the post is an outtake. Is the fish heavy? Yes. But it’s also alive, so I was having a heck of a time holding the monster and not accidentally dropping him back into the river. We were on a skiff with some Department of Fish & Game folks, they were checking their test-nets for a sampling of the salmon traffic to help determine seasonal openings. When people see that photo, they usually ask if I caught the fish, but I cannot tell a lie. I did not.

I thought I knew what “remote” meant; only after that trip did the word’s meaning really sink in. The airplanes got progressively smaller, from Seattle to Anchorage, Anchorage to another lay-over, then on to Emmonak–population 700 or so–in maybe a 16-seater. The only way in or out is by air or by water. ATVs and motor bikes are the key mode of land transport in town (this time of year it’s snowmobiles, of course), a few really beat-up cars puttering around. We heard an awful lot of those ATVs, even to 2:00 in the morning with the sun still brightly shining and the kids thrilled to have extra hours of play. Do they never sleep during summer??

The “hotel” we stayed in was a series of rooms above what amounted to a combination city hall/community center. After checking in that first day, it was maybe 5:00 or so, and we set off to figure out dinner options. We found there was no restaurant in town, just a small counter at the back of the all-purpose mercantile that sold everything from couches to fishing gear to cheerios. And the store closed at 6:00. If we’d been a bit later, we may have had to go door-to-door in search of supper that night! As it was, we splurged yukon1on a couple of frozen dinners and heated them in the hotel room’s microwave, sipping Elijah Craig and watching George Wallace on the TV. It’s one of those snap-shot moments I don’t think I’ll ever forget. (Another memorable moment from that trip was a killer game of cribbage: playing three-handed, I not only beat both opponents but skunked them both as well. Four games ahead in one fell swoop! Boy that was a rush.)

We were there early in June. The commercial season was not due to open for another week or two, but some subsistence fishing was going on.  Over the next few days, we covered a lot of territory, traveling between fish camps to chat with folks, see their set-ups, watch them methodically cleaning, gutting  the fish. We spent most of our time with folks from Kwik’pak, the buyer/processor based there to handle the fish caught by local families during commercial openings.

In those fish camps, we often saw three,  sometimes four, generations together doing the work of the day, mending nets, cleaning fish, tending to smokehouses, whatever needed to be done. Fish they’d caught were being smoked, dried and yukon3otherwise cured to save for the winter. It was quickly clear that the subsistence fishing is by no means just a traditional ritual the Yup’ik observe. It is a vital means of supporting themselves on the flip side of the calendar, when the river’s long frozen and food provisions are far less easy to come by. I naively assumed that a research trip to the Yukon River while fish were being caught would mean some pretty phenomenal eating opportunities. But it didn’t take long to understand that the freshly-caught fish were far too valuable to just toss on the grill for dinner. We didn’t have one bite of salmon the whole trip, and I didn’t mind one bit.

yukon5The people were all just wonderful, friendly, serious about the work at hand but quick with a welcoming smile. So generous. It broke my heart when news began spreading about the dire straights they’re in now. Both the subsistence catch and the commercial catch are vitally important to those communities. The former allows them to feed their families in months to come. The latter not only allows us to enjoy the glorious salmon from the Yukon, but provides cash income for the very high cost of living in remote reaches of Alaska. If you’re so moved to lend a hand, pick up your fork and find yourself some Yukon River salmon.

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A Love for Endive

I fell in love with endive while at cooking school in France, one of many ingredients I’d had little interaction with before embarking on that adventure. Among salad greens, endive has a bit more character and flavor endiveidthan everyday lettuce, not as bitter as radicchio, and is more versatile than many other greens. As I mentioned in this post, one of the fail-safe dinners in my tiny Paris apartment, with its two-burner kitchen, was sautéed endive with rotisserie chicken from the neighborhood butcher.

And a favorite traditional bistro prep with endive is going to be dinner here soon. Heads of endive (baked or steamed first, until tender) are wrapped in good sliced ham, arranged in a gratin dish and topped with a rich béchamel sauce that’s embellished with a good dose of grated Gruyere cheese. Boy, does that sound delicious right about now!

My all-time favorite salad is composed of sliced endive, toasted walnuts, crumbled blue cheese tossed with a vinaigrette made with red wine vinegar and walnut oil. I swear, I could eat that every night and not tire of the delicious combination.endiveduck1

Another beautiful thing about endive is that it’s one of the very best edible serving pieces. Having friends over for some game-playing? Consider a clean-fingers menu item served in whole endive leaves. Spoon some shrimp with Louie dressing, crab with cocktail sauce, chicken-tarragon salad or other tasty mixture into the broad end of the leaf. Guests can pick up the leaf by the tapered end and enjoy the treat without dirtying their fingers. This past weekend I did just that for a cocktail snack, using leftover roasted duck from the night before. I added some hoisin sauce, soy sauce, chopped cilantro, sesame oil and a splash of sake. It was a big hit. Endive to the rescue, yet again.

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Artisan Cheese Festivals

One of these years I’m going to make it down to the Artisan Cheese Festival myself, though this probably won’t be the year. I first learned about this cheese-lover’s dream weekend when doing research on Sonoma County food events for a magazine article. I’ve actually done a couple of articles on Sonoma County, both very much making me wish I could spend more time down there.

Tickets are now on sale for the 2009 proceedings, which happen March 20 to 23 for this third annual festival. Most of the activities are based in and around Petaluma, California. Many of the experts and cheesemakers featured are from California, but there’s good representation from Washington and Oregon as well. This year Beecher’s and Estrella are among participants, and the Oregon Cheese Guildwill be featuring a number of their cheesemakers as well.

Those of you hoping this might be a Seattle-area event, sorry. It does mean a quick hop south to California. Not such a terrible hardship, right?

What you can look forward to in the Seattle area is the Seattle Cheese Festival set for May 16 and 17 this year (its fifth), again based at the Pike Place Market. Details for this year’s program are still being worked out, check the web site for updates over the coming weeks. But I have a couple of details in preview.  Among the seminars planned is one on Washington’s Artisan Cheese Renaissance, with Tami Parr, author of Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest: A Discovery Guide. And cheese experts Daphne Zepos (from Essex Street Cheese Co. in New York) and Janet Fletcher (California-based author of Cheese & Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing, and Enjoying) are on tap to share their insights as well.

If you have a killer grilled cheese recipe you think could stand up against some stiff competition, now’s the time to fine-tune that recipe. Click here to find out more about the contest and where to send in that distinctive creation of yours.

Praise be to cheeses. And praise, too, for a couple of stellar destinations for cheese lovers to get their fill of tasting and learning about one of their favorite food groups.

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Open That Bottle Night 2009

This wine “holiday” has become one of the highlights of the year around our house. For me and my friends, it will be Open That Bottle Night number three, though the occasion is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. I was just slow to catch on!

Open That Bottle Night is a celebration of wine developed by the wine writers for the Wall Street Journal, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher. Here’s this year’s call-to-arms, getting readers in gear for the spirit behind OTBN.

Some highlights of two previous OTBN dinners

Some highlights of two previous OTBN dinners

And one of the first blog posts I made after launching this time last year offers an accounting our second OTBN gathering.

So, if you have a bottle of wine or two tucked away in the basement or hall closet for which you’ve been waiting for a momentous occasion to open, consider this your excuse. The thing about holding on to those bottles for years on end is building up–sometimes unrealistic–great expectations about the “wow” power the wine will have when you open it. Not fair to the wine (which may well surpass its peak drinkability), nor to you! Why wait? Open that bottle.

Here’s a lesson: at a recent gathering of colleagues for a meeting, one had brought a special bottle of wine she’d carried home from a trip to Italy. It was meant to go into an auction lot, but unfortunately got mixed in with bottles brought for us to sip that evening. Out comes the cork and soon comes the anguish of the lost auction item. The twist was that the bottle was actually corked! So the mistake inadvertently kept an “off” bottle from the auction line-up. It’s an experience that echoes Gaiter and Brecher’s annual reminder that you have back-up wines on hand, in case your prized bottle is also corked or otherwise over the hill. Sometimes we hold on to them longer than we should, waiting for some miraculously-perfect moment.

Our OTBN dinner table has 12 friends gathered around. And just because it makes me so happy to do so, I cook up a multi-course dinner to accompany all the great wines they show up with. We start around 5:00 and linger over each bottle, and each course, wrapping up some time around midnight. But by all means, a simple meal of grilled steaks or spaghetti and meatballs is just as valid. As is a smaller, more intimate group. Whatever floats your boat and creates an engaging, enjoyable setting in which to uncork wine that has just been waiting for an invitation to dinner.


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Dinner at Home: Freestyle Portuguese

“Come over for dinner tomorrow night, why don’t you?” I asked a friend Friday. “Sure, sounds great. I’ll bring the wine, I was recently at a tasting of Portuguese wines and have a couple of bottles to share,” she tells me.

Oooh. Portuguese. That sounded like fun.

My plan for dinner had been simply to follow whatever random inspirations hit as I made a tour of the market–which is the way I approach any dinner party that has no predetermined focus. When I’m cooking for fun, it’s all about going freestyle. I spend many of my work days meticulously testing recipes, noting every extra teaspoon of this, every 5 minutes more time needed, every shift in oven temperature. I spend as much time editing portwinerecipes over and over again, a sometimes eye-glazing task making sure steps are clear and accurate, phrasings are consistent, no ‘i’ remains undotted. When that work switch goes into “off” mode, I run in the other direction and get my giggles from unscripted cooking.

But Portuguese. That’s not a cuisine I have much inherent comfort with. I think about seafood, pork, …., port? Not enough to inspire a whole menu. So I turned to my ever-trusty Foods of the World Time-Life series, and the Spain and Portugal book set me on my way.

Yes, I kind of broke my own off-hours rule: I referred to some recipes. But just for ideas. It’s almost impossible for me to really follow a recipe by the letter when I don’t have to!

Our first course was a soup, based on a garlic soup recipe I’d read. I started with finely minced onion and lots of minced garlic nicely sautéed in olive oil (not just tender, but lightly browned). I added 4 cups good organic chicken broth, 1 drained/rinsed can of chickpeas and a splash of white vermouth. While that was happily simmering away, I plucked a generous handful of mint leaves from their sprigs and blended them in the food processor with a good drizzle of olive oil until smooth. When serving the soup, I added a spoonful of the mint oil, which perked up the  simple soup wonderfully.

portdinnerI came across a number of pork recipes, often braised. I opted for a simple concoction that began with large-cubed pork butt, first well browned in olive oil. Out comes the pork, in goes a chopped big onion and (again!) lots of chopped garlic. Sautéed until partly tender, then I added a good dose of pimentón de la vera (smoked paprika), some thyme and good pinches of salt and pepper. I added a couple cups of chicken broth, on went the lid and into a 275 degree oven for nearly 4 hours.

Preferring to serve this not in a stewy fashion, I scooped out all  the meat and reduced the cooking liquids a bit, keeping the meat warm (covered with foil) in a low oven. Parsley was meant to go in the soup too, but I wanted the mint to shine there, so saved it for the main dish.  To cap off this dish, I combined a small handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves with a couple spoonfuls of Mama Lil’s pickled peppers. No, they’re not Portuguese. Made in the Seattle area with beautiful peppers from Eastern Washington. But I love those things and felt they were in the spirit of Portuguese cuisine! Spooned on top of the tender, aromatic braised pork, the parsley/pepper combo made for a perfect fresh, bright complement. (Braised Pork à la Portuguese with Paprika, Parsley and Pickled Peppers. Try saying that 10 times fast!)

To accompany, I served simple sautéed kale, embellished with toasted pine nuts and a sprinkle of lemon juice just before serving. And sautéed potatoes (delicious bintje potatoes I’d bought at the farmers market that afternoon) tossed with more pimentón de la vera. It all combined into a great main-course medley.

For dessert, I found a porto pudim flan recipe that was beautifully straight-forward. But of course I had to make some alterations! For starters, I heated 3/4 cup each of milk and heavy cream  in a saucepan. Same time, sugar (I portflanused about 1/2 cup) was caramelizing in a separate pan. I poured some of the deeply colored caramel into the bottom of 4 ramekins. Then I carefully poured the warm milk/cream mixture into the rest of the caramel, stirring until the caramel is fully dissolved.

In a medium bowl, I whisked 3 egg yolks for a minute or so, then added the warm caramel-milk (start with a small drizzle to temper the egg yolks, warming them gently to avoid cooking them). The custard went into the ramekins, then the ramekins into a baking dish. I poured some boiling water into the baking dish and the custard baked at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or so, until set. (I’d probably cook them at a gentler 300 degrees for a bit longer next time.) After they were cooled to room temperature, I covered the ramekins with plastic and refrigerated to fully chill. Nothing better than a dessert that takes just a moment to unmold after dinner!

So, my “hey let’s have dinner together tomorrow night” became a little more involved than I’d initially imagined. But boy, did I have fun. Exactly my kind of busman’s holiday, cooking up a storm but just for the pleasure of the moment. And not one little note written down. Just this recounting for you. Sometimes the emphemeral meals are the best.

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Seattle Chefs Table dinners

I don’t think anyone will complain about there being too many chefs in the kitchen for this upcoming dinner series. The brainchild of Thierry Rautureau, chef and owner of Rover’s restaurant (with whom I wrote the Rover’s cookbook!), at these dinners the same six chefs will collaborate on the meal, each of them hosting one of the dinners in their own restaurant over the course of the series. Brilliant! And how much fun for the diners to have a sort of progressive dinner at each event.

The other participating chefs in this delicious venture are Jason Wilson (Crush), Holly Smith (Cafe Juanita), Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez (Harvest Vine/Txori), John Sundstrom (Lark/Licorous) and Maria Hines (Tilth).

The series kicks off with dinner at Rover’s later this month, February 25. Future dates are March 16 at Tilth, April 14 at Harvest Vine, May 18 at Lark, September 21 at Cafe Juanita and October 19 at Crush. Plus a yet-to-be-determined November date to kick off the holidays and wrap up the series. This link on the Tilth site offers a preview of the various menus (though I wouldn’t be too surprised if there are tweaks between now and then).

For each of the dinners, the host makes appetizers and dessert, the others contributing the other courses. Cost is $90 (tax, tip and wine extra) and reservations for each meal should be made directly with the host restaurant. I have yet to pick a date or two to sample the series, but surely will join in the fun at some point.

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