Monthly Archives: March 2009

Seattle’s Top Restaurants

I count this among the small pleasures in life: flipping through the day’s mail, as I did last week, to see that it includes a copy of Seattle magazine’s annual “Best Restaurants” issue. Not only because I’m an adamant fan of our local restaurants and love to see what’s on the radar, which spots I need to add to my “gotta get there” list. But also because, for just over six years, I was the food editor at Seattle and that restaurant issue was by far the biggest project of the year. It pulled together the culmination of a year’s worth of restaurant experiences, homing in on what really stood out as the very best of Seattle-area dining destinations. Fun, challenging, super detailed, tough decisions. To be honest, I enjoyed the process while it lasted but it’s a treat now to just have the magazine show up in my mail slot.

And it’s nice to know, perusing this year’s honorees, that I’m not too far out of the restaurant-scene loop! In fact, I’ve been to all five of the year’s “Best New Restaurants,” three of which I’ve blogged about in recent months: Spinasse, The Corson Building, Poppy— and Olivar and Spring Hill are on my too-long to-write list!

Because I’m such a fan of celebrating the story, and history, behind the food, I was jazzed to see that the article gave some solid attention to restaurants that have stood the test of time, going back even 100-plus years with Maneki (which I’m embarrassed to say I have never been to!). A few dozen other restaurants are featured in other benchmark categories, such as 30+ (including Ray’s Boathouse) and 20+ (Rover’s among them). Then still a few more pages of quick-hit highlights of the year, from “most convincing argument that cauliflower is not a vegetable” to “best $11 you’ll spend on dinner in Seattle.” Sorry, I’m not giving everything away. You have to flip through the magazine to find out all the gems of the year.

Funny to see what the husband of current food editor, Alison Austin Scheff, has to say in a sidebar titled “Married to the Job.” My own dining cohort (for nearly 25 years now) has waxed on occasionly about the joys and challenges of being married to a food writer. But never had an opportunity to have a public platform for his perspective. Maybe I’ll let him make a guest posting one of these days. But–for the most part–I’m pretty sure the scales weigh more to the positive. Even if some evenings he’d rather pick his dining destination. Which is often home.

Way to go, Alison (and your cohorts). I know from experience what a big job that annual issue is. This one is a winner.

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Incredible Edible Books

When you hear “Edible Book,” what comes to mind?

Me, I guess I’m just too literal for my own good. When I got an email a couple months ago about next weekend’s Edible Book Festival, I thought it was just a colorful, creative way of referencing a gathering of cookbook writers and buyers.

But others? They hear Edible Book and think “One Hundred Spears of Solitude,” “20,000 Leeks Under the Sea,” “The World According to Carp.” And when they interpret Catcher in the Rye, it’s with Yogi Berra and rye crackers in mind.

They, and plenty like them, participate in this annual celebration that takes the book into–literally–edible territory. You can find more about the background of, and international scope of, the event here. Similar comestible book-related curiosities will be on display in many other cities early April. There are some great images from previous Seattle events here as well. I particularly love The Milagro Bean Dip War and Snow Falling on Cedars (featuring a sifter of powdered sugar that dusts cedar sugar cookies with snow).

This year’s event will be held Saturday April 4 from 1:00 to 3:30 at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford, with a suggested donation of $10 at the door (funds will help support Seattle Center for Book Arts). BUT, if you have some creative concepts coming together already and you might want to add your own interpretation to the mix, you need to register here by April 2. And you get in for free!

The event’s been gaining serious steam in recent years, so be prepared for a crowd. Wish I could be there this year, but alas am out of town. Maybe between now and next year I can come up with some clever culinary interpretation of a favorite book. Maybe “Atlas Sugared”?

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A New Treat at Theo

Like I needed one more decadent treat to have on my list of favorite vices…. But I found one anyway.

I had an errand to do at Theo Chocolates in Fremont yesterday (honest, I really did). While there, couldn’t help reliving a couple of my favorite bites from a previous trip. I’d picked out my PB&J, gianduja, cardamom caramel and lavender-jalapeno caramel to take home in a plain little brown paper theobig1bag.  Just about to pay and my eye spies two boxes of treats I hadn’t seen before:  Big Daddy confections that were introduced during the holiday 2008 season. The marshmallow version features a square of the white fluffy confection atop a layer of homemade graham cracker crust and rich caramel, the trio coated in both dark and milk chocolates. I’m not a big marshmallow fan, so I opted for the peanut butter version, with peanut butter praline where the marshmallow would be. There are three individual (generous) pieces in each package. Not individually sealed, however, so there’s a distinct risk that you might be compelled to eat more than one. Try theobig2to have friends around when you open the box, to avoid that temptation. I managed to stop at two. Just barely.

Oh, and for your earth-loving peace of mind, know that these Big Daddies are among the organic confections made by Theo. And Fair Trade as well.

The Big Daddy items are not in wide distribution right now, available only at their Fremont shop-and-chocolate-factory and online. Worth a visit, either way. What a delicious indulgence.

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On the Calendar: Cask Ale Festival

Wow. Ten years already. I was at, if not the first, definitely the second Cask Ale Festival put on by the Washington Brewer’s Guild. In fact, I think this festival was among the earlier ventures the Guild took on after forming in the late 1990s. The first cask festival had a couple dozen breweries participating and they quenched the thirst of about 400 beer lovers. The first year I went with a pal who’d done some homebrewing in the past (which describes about 1/3 of the Seattle population, right?). Much as I loved the chance to sip, savor and contemplate the wonderful cask-conditioned ales, I could tell he was getting an even bigger kick out of having a couple dozen brewers on hand to chat with about the finer points of beer craft.

This isn’t just an average beer festival, not like any “beer garden” you may pop into at a big festival. This is special beer. In many cases, it’s beer that is made just for this event. Any beer lover worth their weight in hops and barley should make a point of getting to this event!

Cask-conditioned ales are considered by many in the world of beer to be the “real ales.” For the first two-thirds or so of the beer making process, all beers are made in pretty much the same way. But that last third—final fermentation and the conditions under which it is served—are what gives a beer much of its character. Cask ales go through second fermentation in the cask and because of the active yeasts in these casks, the beer requires special care in how it is handled and served. It’s why you won’t see cask-conditioned beers at every corner tavern. But when you do come across one, know you’re in for something special.

In addition to the casks that individual breweries bring to the festival, there are special commemorative casks made in honor of Washington brewing legend Bert Grant, who founded Grant’s Ales in Spokane at the forefront of the 1980s microbrewery evolution. Grant passed away in 2001 and his colleagues salute his contributions each year by collaborating on a special cask to remember all he contributed to their craft and their business. In fact, this 10th anniversary year has spawned 10 different casks of Herbert’s Legendary Cask Festival Ale, a treat indeed for attendees.

This year’s eventwill be held on March 28 at the Seattle Center. There are two sessions of four hours each (that’s plenty of beer-drinking time, don’t you think?). The one at noon is showing “sold out” online, another starting at 6:00. The web site shows brewery locations selling tickets as well, it’s possible some of them have noon tickets available. Definitely best to not  count on a last-minute entry at the door. I see the event’s got a handful more brewers on tap, about 36, than in the first years. But I bet it’s every bit as much the low-key, relaxed, sip-and-swap-stories kind of event. One thing about brewers, they’re hands down some of the best folks to share time with. I may be rubbing elbows with them myself!

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Dinner at Home: Yogurt-Marinated Chicken

This is one of the easiest, tastiest dinners that has become a reliable favorite on nights when I don’t have inspiration for much more. Like last night. Just three things to buy at the store: chicken thighs, yogurt (and no, you can’t use nonfat yogurt for this, not allowed) and a bunch of cilantro. Maybe fresh ginger if I remember, which I didn’t yesterday. Everything else is at home on the shelf.

The only caveat is to plan ahead at least a few hours so the chicken has time to marinate and take on the delicious flavors. A couple hours will do in a pinch.

For starters, I shake lots of ground cumin and coriander into a bowl just large enough to hold the chicken thighs (I typically cook 4 thighs for the 2 of us). In goes a pinch of something spicy, whether dried red pepper flakes, cayenne or (as last night) controne hot pepper. Garlic, and keep it coming; sometimes pressed but I usually Microplane it to get the most of its garlicky juiciness (sometimes finely grated ginger as well). A good dose of salt and freshly ground black pepper too. Then I add a few big spoonfuls of plain yogurt (about half of a 32 oz container) and a generous handful of chopped cilantro, and stir all the deliciousness together.

Before....

Before....

I’ll usually take just a moment to trim the thighs of any excess skin and fat from around the edges, but keeping the skin on for cooking is paramount in my opinion. The thighs get tossed around a bit in the marinade to be sure all are thoroughly coated, then covered and into the fridge for a spell.

You’ll see I line my baking sheet with foil, also paramount when it comes time to clean up. Cut a generous piece, fold up the edges and crimp the corners, since the yogurt and juices will spread and brown to a sticky delicious mess as things cook. You’ll thank me later.

The baking portion I do at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes or so. Then I crank up the broiler and let it work to brown the skin for a few minutes before serving. The yogurt adds wonderful tang and juiciness to the chicken

...and after

...and after

meat, but the skin can be bland and flabby without that extra step to brown and crisp it. In truth, the skin ends up being one of the best things about this dish.

While constructing the marinade, I was echoing the ingredients in a smaller bowl, with a higher yogurt-to-seasoning ratio for a side salad. In goes a peeled, seeded and sliced cucumber, the salad chilled to serve alongside the easy entree. Not a bad dinner–with some simple steamed broccoli alongside–for a no-energy Monday.

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A Reverie of Kir

Last weekend, in the midst of our mingling and visiting before sitting down to dinner here, a friend pointed out my bottle of cassis from Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon, noting what an extraordinary example of the traditional black current liqueur it is. Yes, I agreed wholeheartedly. And despite the fact that it was Open That Bottle Night (technically exactly the time to open and serve precious bottles), I wanted to cry out “don’t you be touching my Clear Creek cassis!”

I’ve been visiting Clear Creek for a number of years now, happily following owner Steve McCarthy in the growth and development of his phenomenal spirits and liqueurs. In fact, there are a few special bottles of Clear Creek products on my shelf that I really should be more generous about cassis21sharing. (After all, I can always buy another bottle when one of them goes dry!) They include a beautiful pear-in-the-bottle pear brandy (in the spirit of poire williams from France) and a unique Douglas Fir liqueur that he concocts through a detailed process that includes a couple trips into the Cascade foothills to capture the most pure essence of the fir.

On one visit with Steve, he offered a sip of what–at the time–was one of his newer products, this amazing cassis.

I have a bit of a sentimental connection to cassis, and its most popular manifestation, the kir. During my college years at University of Puget Sound, I went on the school’s inaugural study-abroad program at the University of Dijon. Burgundy is the heartland of cassis, and Dijon is the heart of Burgundy–if there were an official beverage of the Dijon, it would likely be a kir. The blend of cassis and white wine is named after a former mayor of Dijon, though the simple  combination had been enjoyed for many years prior.

So I lifted that small glass of Steve’s cassis to my nose and was astonished at its power. The rich, deep purple color; the distinctive fruit (rather than syrupy) aroma; the truly lush presentation it made, transporting me back to Burgundy. Even in France I rarely met a cassis this ideally balanced and deliciously crafted. So I keep the bottle tucked away, for some crazy reason. Wanting to keep the memories and that transportation back to Dijon for safe keeping, perhaps.

But just last night, I pulled the cork from the bottle and took another big sniff. I poured a generous drizzle of cassis into a wine glass. And I had a bottle of Chinook sauvignon blanc chilling in the fridge, which proved itself an ideal choice for a kir. In Burgundy, the traditional wine would not be one of the elegant chardonnay wines from the distinctive wine villages of the region. Instead, the lesser-known aligoté white wine is partner for a classic kir. I tend to prefer a wine that has some tart, citrus elements to contrast the light sweetness of the liqueur. And a wine without heavy oak or other strong elements that would overpower the berry character.

For a kir royale, the slight upgrade to a bubbly version, it’s not really the time to pop the cork on a fancy Champagne. Though for a truly regal kir royale, sure, pour a vintage Dom Perignon if you wish. It will be a knockout. Your friends will love you even more.

Otherwise, less expensive and/or domestic sparkling wines can be perfect for a kir royale, of the brut or blanc de noir style. I would like to think that, in keeping with the Burgundian roots, the local crémant de Bourgogne  would be the perfect choice. “Cremant” is a term used in France for regional sparkling wines made in the style of Champagne but not in the region of Champagne. Crémant de Loire and crémant d’Alsace are a couple other delightful examples.

While I studied and worked at La Varenne at Château du Feÿ in northern Burgundy, the “house apéritif” many evenings started with Anne Willan’s husband Mark cracking open a bottle of crémant from nearby Caves de Bailly (a very interesting visit, if you’re ever in the neighborhood). Guests had their choice of traditional cassis to add to the glass, or other local liqueurs such as one made from pêche de vigne or blackberry. Ahh, la belle vie! An ideal way to start any evening.

Unable to find a reference to the early development of the kir royale, I turned to friend (and one of my favorite sommeliers) Jake Kosseff. He pointed out that it was more likely a barman in England or the United States who concocted the ‘royale’ version. Someone who, he points out “may well have invented it when every sparkler said ‘Champagne’ on the label, further complicating things!” So, perhaps it is more sentiment than actual history that leans my sensibilities toward that Burgundian bubbly.

In Anne’s wonderful book, From My Chateau Kitchen, she devotes some time to the cassis made by Madame Milbert (including her recipe), the wife half of the caretaker-couple that kept guard over the chateau and the garden, not to mention those of us who lived and cassis1worked there. It was a very cold, grey, misty day when I left the chateau in December of 1991, heading to the airport for my return home after 2 1/2 years of being in France. Though I’d already said my formal farewell to the Milberts the day before, Madame came running out to the car that morning as we slowed to pass through the big iron gate. Through the car window, she handed me a bottle of her homemade cassis. I was overwhelmed. In part, honestly because I was wondering to myself “how the heck am I going to wedge this into my luggage…” But more truly, the gesture of the gift meant the most. And I still have that bottle on my shelf, too. The few fingers’ worth left in the bottom of that recycled vodka bottle are just too precious to use up. It’s one bottle that I will not be able to replace.

When it comes to the ideal recipe for a kir or kir royale? It’s not something I think needs quantifying. Both in France and in the States, I’ve been served kirs (regular or royale) that range from a gentle dose of cassis for something of a rosé wine effect, up to a deeper mahogany-purple tone that can suggest more cassis-with-wine than the inverse. Ultimately it’s a question of how dry or fruit the wine may be, the quality of the cassis, and your own personal taste. It’s not the worst thing in the world to experiment a bit, is it? As for those recipes I found online that include a lemon twist or (heaven help me) ice cubes — no thanks. I prefer my kir in the style you’d find in a nondescript country bistro in France: served very simply, without pretention or garnish, in a small balloon glass.

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Rich and Spicy Hot Cocoa

Yes, we are going to “spring forward” tomorrow. And the vernal equinox is just two weeks away. But the little crocuses blooming in my planter boxes can not drive away the winter chill. Earlier today at my house in West Seattle (very near the highest point in the city) it snowed for a few hours, though thankfully now all evidence is already gone. 

So regardless of what the calendar may say, it’s definitely been more like hot chocolate season than the cusp of springtime might usually propose.

A few weeks ago, just before Valentine’s Day, I received a little box from Lisa Dupar, owner of Pomegranate Bistro, with a homemade heart-shaped marshmallow accompanying a small bag of the restaurant’s signature hot cocoa mix. It’s what I’ve been warming myself with as an occasional afternoon treat these past few weeks, whisking a couple tablespoons of the mix into warm milk (enriched with a splash of half-and-half when I had part of a pint sitting in the fridge, even better!).

I’m typically not a bit fan of commercial hot chocolate, so often sweet and cloying, seldom letting the character of the chocolate come through. While I was working for Patricia Wells in Paris 15-plus years ago, one of my tasks was researching the hot chocolate spots in town. Granted, in Paris that was a pretty fantastic assignment! I remember the chocolat chaud at Angelina’s as being so thick and rich it was more like a crème anglaise sauce than a beverage. Delicious but not my, um, cup of tea.

This batch from Pomegranate, however, has a lovely chocolate character without being too sweet. And the surprising zing of spice from cayenne livens things up, emphasizing the toasty, nutty character of the chocolate. An uncommon afternoon pick-me-up.

Spicy Hot Cocoa Mix

(from Pomegranate Bistro)

1 cup milk, soy milk or almond milk

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

2 tablespoons vanilla sugar (or regular granulated sugar)

1 teaspoon cayenne or ancho chile powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pour the milk into a small saucepan and warm over medium heat. Whisk in the remaining ingredients once the milk is hot (but not boiling). Take the pan from the heat and let sit 2 minutes before serving.

You can do as Lisa did for the Valentine’s treat and pre-mix the dry ingredients in bulk and keep on hand for a shortcut cocoa to make at whim. If you use 3/4 cup each of cocoa and sugar, 2 tablespoons chile powder (less, to suit your taste, this would be spicy!), and 1 tablespoon of cinnamon — you should have enough mix for 6 cups of cocoa.

Just the thing to tide us over until all those spring blooms kick in and winter really does slip away.

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