Monthly Archives: May 2009

Andrew Zimmern and Not So Bizarre Foods

A couple of months ago my husband and I were at Etta’s enjoying a Saturday dinner, sitting at the windows watching a lovely sunset unfold before us. I looked up from my crispy shrimp spring rolls to see a bald fellow fiddling with a bunch of luggage or equipment at the back of a van parked in front of the restaurant. After watching him for a few moments, I pointed one of the spring rolls toward the gentleman and said to Bob, “that guy looks a lot like Andrew Zimmern.” He looked up from his (delectable) albacore tuna sashimi and quickly determined that it was, in fact, Mr. Zimmern.

A few moments later he and some of his crew were heading into the restaurant, clearly not there just for a bite of Tom Douglas’ take on Northwest seafoods. I couldn’t help myself. I started working mentally down the menu we’d looked at just a few minutes earlier and wondered “What’s bizarre enough here to merit a spot on his television show?”

Ends up I’d unfairly pigeonholed the poor guy. He does not, in fact, live by Bizarre Foodsalone. When chatting with him and Tom a bit later, Andrew told me that it’s getting so he can’t eat out with his family for a little pizza or a burger without someone coming by, gesturing toward his plate and making some hardy-har-har comment, asking what’s so bizarre about his meal tonight. Geez, that must get really old. And very fast.

I’ll admit that I can’t bring myself to watch Bizarre Foods, at least not for more than a few minutes flipping around the stations, hopefully landing on a segment more about an unusual wild mushroom in Chile than one about some big fat winged insects being fried up in Southeast Asia. I do not have an adventurer’s stomach, much as I hate to admit it. I don’t care how much you try to convince me that it tastes just like a potato chip or something I’m supposed to already love….  (I had to laugh when I read in the bio on his web sitethat he’s the “international spokesman for Proctor & Gamble’s Pepto Bismal brand.”!! How wildly appropriate.)

Thankfully he and Tom weren’t going to be cooking up any sea cucumbers or jellyfish (yes,  yes, I know…both are delicacies somewhere). The subject instead was mussels.

The segment, about 5 minutes long, from Zimmern’s new Appetite for Life series went live earlier this month on msn.com. The “road trip” concept has him starting up on Whidbey Island with Rawle Jeffords at Penn Cove Shellfish. Then Andrew drives his haul down to the Etta’s kitchen where Tom whips up a perfectly Seattle, straight-forward, flavor-packed stovetop recipe with the delicious bivalves. There are five other cities featured to date, including Palm Springs and Portland.

The show’s part of a new wave of new media, created exclusively for the web. Televisions? Who needs them these days. I was talking with friends recently about Netflix and the growing number of immediate-download movies and shows that are now available, just click and watch on your computer screen (eco-friendly wide LCD screen, right? nah, me neither, but surely will be the norm before long). I, for one, spend FAR too many hours each day at my computer screen already. Come evening, no way I want to sit in front of it with my knitting and glass of wine. I’m still a fan of retreating to the comfort of my living room for that.

I digress, as often happens. It was fun to run into Andrew that evening and have a couple moments to chat with him before the crew needed him in the kitchen. And nice to know that he does indeed get his fair share of opportunities to enjoy some good old mundane foods now and then.

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Cooking at the Barn: Returning to Orcas

A week from today I’ll be in one of my favorite places on the planet. Oh, how I wish it were Paris! But a very close second to Paris in terms of places that make me happy, serene, inspired, and revived is Orcas Island. Right here in my own back yard, a short drive and glorious ferry ride away.

Orcas from a kayak's perspective

Orcas from a kayak's perspective

I’ve been going to Orcas for most of my life, it’s a place that evokes the most profound and soul-feeding memories for me: learning to play golf at the Orcas Island Golf Country Golf Course, riding paddle boats on Cascade Lake, walking around the tippy-top of Mt Constitution, skipping stones and roasting marshmellows on the beach at North Beach Inn where we always stayed. Not only summers, but also the occasional Thanksgiving when we headed to the island instead of our other holiday destination: Harrison Hot Springs.

So it’s with a lot of anticipation that I look forward to returning to Orcas next week. I’ll be teaching a cooking class at Christina Orchid’s “Red Barn.” Orcas regulars will recognize her as the founder of the amazing Christina’s restaurant in the heart of Eastsound. She opened the restaurant over 25 years ago, and sold it a year or two ago — able now to devote time to a range of other projects and activities, which includes teaching at the Seattle Culinary Academy at Seattle Central Community College, and devoting more time to the Red Rabbit Farm on her Orcas property.  She and her husband Bruce have put a huge amount of work into the barn, used for cooking classes and special events of all kinds. I read on the site just now that next year they’ll be offering farm-stay experiences beginning next year, guests cooking and exploring by day (clamming, foraging, visiting local farms), staying on the property by night. Sounds amazing. Sign me up.

Next Tuesday evening I’ll be teaching the first of Christina’s June series of four “celebrity guest chef” classes. My recipes will draw from books in my Northwest Homegrown Cookbook Series, including salmon with sorrel sauce

Sunset from Beach Haven on Orcas

Sunset from Beach Haven on Orcas

and clafoutis made with plums. I’m not sure how registration’s going, but if you want to find out more, here’s the class information with contact info too.

Cost of the class is $100, which includes the class, a dinner following, and wine! And proceeds go to Orcas Island Children’s House, an early learning childhood center that’s been in operation since 1969, fulfilling the needs of working families on the island to provide their young children with education-oriented preschool services. Hope to maybe see you there!!

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A New Project: Tasty Fun and Games

I’ve had a Blondie comic strip tacked just above my desk for a while now. In it, Dagwood’s playing poker with his pals, shuffling the cards only to have them all fly out of his hands with a P-R-R-R-T (one of those clever comic sound effects). The others decide that Dagwood’s not allowed to shuffle the cards with those greasy-pizza fingers of his ever again.

gameclosetGames are big in this house. The photo here is just a couple shelves of our “game closet,” where most other people would keep their towels and linens. Before seeing that Blondie strip, the germ of an idea for a cookbook full of game-friendly foods had already planted itself in my head. An idea that the strip’s sentiment perfectly echoed. The recipes would feature items that don’t require you putting down your cards to pick up a knife and fork. Plates that won’t take up so much table space that the dinner is competing with the dominoes. Foods that won’t leave traces of sauce or juice or oiliness on your fingers, so you can go about sculpting Cranium clay, rolling dice or–are you listening Dagwood?–shuffling cards without messy mishaps.

The date on that comic strip? May 2, 2002. It’s an idea that’s been growing and developing for a number of years now, finally in full gear. I’m deep into testing and writing of my latest project, Game Night Food, which will be published by Ten Speed Press early next year (the same folks who published the lovely Rover’s cookbook I co-wrote with chef Thierry Rautureau a few years ago).

I  love a lot about my work as a food writer. Okay, not so much the endless hours in front of the computer screen taxing my story-telling skills in crafting an article or essay or other narrative exercise. That’s still hard, though rewarding when it’s all done and submitted.

But what I really love is sitting at my computer and dreaming up recipes, gameplatethen going into my kitchen to test, hone, polish and develop into a delicious, relatively fail-safe candidate for a project such as this. With, in this case, the added creative challenge of preparations and presentations that fulfill the ultimate goal of the book: a game night dinner party that isn’t about having dinner then playing games, but an evening in which dinner and games intermingle perfectly.

What I really, really love is that this book is truly fun and games. Not only is cooking and creating the recipes enjoyable in itself — for this project I’m putting the recipes through real-world rigors as much as possible. Which means gathering friends and family around the table often for work-meets-play Game Nights, to sample the recipes and offer their feedback, while also confirming that they’re game-friendly, tidy and ultimately satisfying as I hope they will be. So far not too many duds thankfully. Some early favorites include mini gameslamb burgers with feta, chilled avocado soup with roasted poblano cream (served in an espresso cup or tall shot glass) and large pasta shells stuffed with kale and ricotta.

I’ll surely be sharing a few more details with you as the project progresses. But in the meantime, do you have any favorite game night stories or scenarios you’d like to share? A great new game you can recommend (my editor turned me on to The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Game, which is a hoot), or a longtime family favorite that never fails to entertain and help you unwind with your friends? Bring on the fun. And may all your game nights be delicious ones!

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James Beard Award Highlights

Oh, to have been in New York City these past few days, where the culinary world has gathered for the annual James Beard Awards. I was there at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center last year for the glitzy festivities–complete with red carpet interviews and celebrity sightings. But couldn’t swing the trip this year.

Instead, I followed last night’s gala proceedings by way of Twitter updates, rather than sitting in the audience. But at least the Twitter moment-to-moment updates of winners and quotable quotes was more fun that simply reading the static list of winners this morning. Check out this link to the Beard blog for some video clips from this year’s red carpet, include one with Seattle’s favorite chef, Tom Douglas and his wife Jackie. Quite a whirlwind trip of restaurant visits they’d been on.

Rebekah Denn, late of the Seattle P-I, now sharing her insights and investigations at www.eatallaboutit.com, won a journalism award for her P-I feature “High on the Hairy Hog: Super Succulent Imports are Everything U.S. Pork Isn’t.” Her win came in the category of Newspaper Feature Writing with Recipes. Interestingly, delectable pork was also the topic of the winner for Newspaper Feature Writing without Recipes: “The Pope of Pork” for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis. Need any further proof that pig is big??

Thrilled, thrilled, thrilled that my pal Jennifer McLagan–whose kinda edgy cookbook Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes came out last year–won not only in her single-subject category but also garnered the Cookbook of the Year award! This follows her also-award-winning Bones: Recipes, History, and Lore from 2005. The big question is what will follow to make this a delicious, inspiring trilogy?!

On the restaurant front, we can be very proud of Best Chef Northwest winner, Maria Hines from Tilth. She was a busy lady last night, not only on hand for the award presentation but also invited to be among the chefs who prepared food for the after-party. Alas, as I suggested last year, and must again this year, it’s “maybe next year” for Tom Douglas’ honor as Outstanding Restaurateur, which he lost this year to Drew Nieporant. But at least it should mean another invitation to New York for Tom next year, and another chance to troll all those great restaurants the city has to serve up.

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Putting Recipes to the Test

They say that the proof is in the pudding. And I say it’s also in the skillet-roasted chicken, the green gazpacho, the risotto with asparagus and peas, the braised lamb shanks with olives and the hazelnut soufflé.

The proof I’m talking about is how well the recipe does its job. Preparation steps and cooking techniques all clearly spelled out? Ingredients all accounted for and in order? Cooking times accurate, descriptions of what “done” means easy to understand, the final product delicious?

Ultimately it’s about how dependable the recipe is. This is one of the key tasks in the work I’ve been doing for over 15 years. Making sure that when I sign off on a recipe and it goes out to the world, that everyone who uses that recipes stands a fighting chance of having good results.

I hate the image of a reader in his/her kitchen having just dutifully followed every step carefully and meeting with some less-than-delicious or -successful outcome, who thinks to themself that they must have done something wrong. Too often, it’s the recipe that did something wrong.  My hope is to be the source of that scenario of frustration as seldom as possible. It’s why I test recipes like mad to work out as many kinks as possible before they get in anyone else’s hands.

Having just done some math in my head (oh…okay, I admit I used a calculator), there are about 1000 recipes in the eleven cookbooks I’ve written and/or tested recipes for in the past dozen or so years. Some recipes were my own (my Homegrown series), many of them collected from a few hundred different restaurants (the Best Places cookbooks), two came from working in close collaboration with a co-author (Rover’s and Memorable Recipes). That number doesn’t count multiple tests of a single recipe, nor the many dozens that were tested but didn’t make the final cut. I’d say that easily doubles (maybe even triples) the figure. Lots and lots of recipe testing.

Recipe testing is one of the most important skills that was packed in my tool kit when I came home from my time at La Varenne in France. I had the phenomenal good fortune of having picked a culinary school whose owner, Anne Willan, was (and still is) a prolific cookbook author. As part of my editorial stagiaire (like internship) duties, I helped with a number of cookbook projects doing recipe research, writing….and testing. I learned that–done right–testing is a really detailed process that takes a lot of careful attention and note-taking. Every minute of sauteing/baking/reducing time is carefully monitored, descriptions of specific techniques scrutinized, tastes along the way to verify the flavors are building as desired. Careful testing cloaks the recipe in confidence of its reliability.

I am going to be on a recipe testing rampage for the next few months. In a near-future couple of posts, I’ll tell you more about the specific projects in question. In the mean time I just wanted to bend your ear about this behind-the-scenes part of the cookbook process that I figure most readers aren’t too aware of.

And I have a question. Do you ever stand in the kitchen in the midst of a recipe and hit a wall, whether it’s a technique not well described, an ingredient you don’t know how to approach, a piece of equipment you don’t have, an expectation by the author that isn’t reasonable in your home kitchen? I’d love to hear any of your recipe-frustration stories. To better understand the challenges that pop up in “real world” situations outside my own home kitchen. And to get a little bit better at making sure my own recipes (a random sample of them are here) avoid those pitfalls.

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