Monthly Archives: August 2009

My Dinner with Julia

Julia Child’s birthday was on August 15, the towering mentor to generations of food lovers in this country would have been 97 years old. Usually it’s an annual event that garners plenty of its own attention, with media tributes and themed dinners in countless homes across America.

But this year was a little different. THE movie — Julie & Julia — was released a week prior. An overflowing stockpot of discussion, reflection, praise, and controversy flowed in virtually every outlet from Twitter to Newsweek. And it began a few weeks earlier with the first wave of preview screenings (one of which I attended in Seattle). One of my food writer pals was a surprised participant in the hubbub when ABC News called following a blog post of hers to quote her on the food world’s perspectives on the film.

Man. It was all anyone (at least in my circles) could talk about for a few weeks. It took the launch of season three of Mad Men to change the subject (on to retro cocktails and cigarettes!!). And it unfortunately made Julia’s birthday this year seem something of an afterthought. I did toast her with a simple dinner of butter-sautéed sole fillets here at home.

I really didn’t want to join in the chorus of dissertation on the film, though I will say that I LOVED it and was very impressed with how the two vastly different lives and stories (based on My Life in France and Julie and Julia) were chronicled in such an engaging fashion.

I did, however, want to join those who used the opportunity to celebrate Julia’s impact on us by telling a personal tale or two about interacting with the larger-than-life culinary inspiration.

juliaandme2As it happens it was my birthday, the first day that I met Julia. Not only met her, but cooked for her. I was working at the Château du Feÿ in northern Burgundy and Julia was traveling through France, due to drop in for a day to visit her longtime friend, and my boss/mentor, Anne Willan.

I got wind of this a couple of weeks earlier and figured it would be about the best birthday present possible to be able to spend time with Julia while she was here. But how was I going to squirrel my way into this? (On a later occasion, Leslie Caron came to visit with Anne one afternoon. Ms. Caron was just moving into neighborhood, setting up an auberge in nearby Villeneuve-Sur-Yonne.  I offered to make them tea so Anne could devote her full attention to her guest; she slyly commented “I don’t recall you making me afternoon tea before!” Busted.)

Ends up I didn’t need to scheme much to be able to spend time with Julia during her visit. Anne juliamenuinvited five of us La Varenne graduates to put together the dinner that evening. And what a glorious evening it was. I did up some menus for the occasion, which Julia kindly signed for us all. My contribution was, thankfully, not a starring role of the meal, which would have made me too nervous. I drew from a dish I’d created for my “mystery basket” final exam for the Grand Diplôme I earned from the school: flan de courgettes. Blanched thin slices of cucumber lined individual ramekins that were then filled with a rich zucchini custard (I think I spiced it up with saffron and/or cumin).

Randall serving the Surprise to Julia

Randall serving the Surprise to Julia

My La Varenne pals rounded out the menu, as you see here, with delectable treats from blinis with caviar to braised wild boar done up hunter-style. The dessert was truly a show-stopper. Randall went all out with a huge, beautiful “Surprise Danubius” — a riff on Baked Alaska (or perhaps more correctly omelette norvegienne since we were in France!). There were a couple different cake flavors–poppy seed (hinting at time Randall spent cooking in Budapest) and chocolate–with at least 2 ice cream flavors, he recalls perhaps ginger and lavender. All lavishly coated in meringue and browned to a toasty finish. It was spectacular.

I really wish my tired old memory box could recall a slew of specific details about that evening. Alas. But the whole experience was a whirlwind of thrill that I’ll never forget. I did later have occasion to spend a few hours with Julia in her Cambridge home, doing an interview for a cover story in Simply Seafood magazine. That was amazing too. If it’s possible to have two once-in-a-lifetime experiences with the same person, I feel fortunate to have had just that with Madame Julia Child. Here’s to Julia!

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A Market Basket Cook-Off

What a phenomenal Saturday morning it was yesterday. It was such an honor to be asked to judge the Ready Set Go…Cook (friendly) competition at the University District Farmers Market, an annual affair that pits two Seattle chefs against each other using their pick of items from market vendors. My cohorts on the judging panel were Joe Gruber, Executive Director of the University District Food Bank and Joane McIntyre from Rents Due Ranch, a longtime market vendor. We were introduced by Mayor Greg Nickels who had moments earlier been part of a ceremony celebrating the city’s purchase of the University Heights building and property, under a banner that touted “celebrating community and supporting local farmers.” It’s a phenomenal step forward in helping ensure that at least one of our city’s neighborhood farmers markets has a permanent home to count on for years to come.

One proviso for the cook-off was that each dish–serving four–should come in at or below a $10 cost. An new this year was the added challenge to integrate pantry items provided by the nearby University District Food Bank, in an effort to show shoppers how well you can eat without having to bust your budget on expensive gourmet products.

The two contenders yesterday were Rachel Yang, chef/co-owner of Joule restaurant in Wallingford and Juli Guillemette, a just-recently-departed sous chef at BOKA downtown (she’s headed off on a road trip adventure back to Vermont where her family has a dairy farm–best wishes for that Juli!). Here’s how each provisioned their kitchens for the cook-off, best as I could note.

Rachel’s market products included fennel, small Asian eggplants, zucchini and yellow squash, hazelnuts, eggs, zucchini blossoms, purslane, honey, goat yogurt and (coolest product of all) zucchini stalks, which included crunchy stalks, tender tendrils and leaves. From the Food Bank pantry she used vinegar, cider, rice, mandarin oranges, and …. Spam!!

Juli’s choices from the market stalls included purslane, Walla Walla sweet onions, green beans, tomatoes, peaches, cucumbers, garlic, oregano, basil, and chicken livers. And from the Food Bank pantry she opted for flour, vinegar, tuna, oil, and maybe one or two other items I missed.

Oh, and each chef was allowed to bring a secret ingredient.

Juli presented her dishes first. She noted a love for meat and fruit combinations, pairing the chicken livers with peaches. The peach halves were lightly sugared and caramelized cut-side down in a cast iron pan (she’d have grilled them if that had been an option). Then cut in pieces, the peaches were partnered with chopped basil and sautéed Walla Walla sweets tocookoff3accompany the crispy pan-fried chicken livers. Her secret ingredient went to use here as a simple sauce: exquisite aged balsamic vinegar. I’m not, unfortunately, a fan of meat-meets-fruit, but do really like chicken livers. And I appreciated the creativity of this combination, particularly given the more savory basil and onion elements.

The second dish Juli served was a twist on salade niçoise, with the tuna, tomatoes, blanched green beans, cucumber and purslane, topped with a vinaigrette that included minced garlic and fresh oregano.  What’s not to love, great fresh bright flavors, quite summery, and nice to show how much you can dress up an inexpensive can of tuna.

Rachel followed with her first of two dishes. The halved baby eggplant and cookoff2pieces of fennel bulb had been marinated (honey-soy) and cooked in a grill pan, served with a salad of purslane and mandarin oranges, a sauce of yogurt and honey with chopped fennel fronds alongside. Delicious.

For me, the star dish of the day was Rachel’s second, a zucchini congee. Congee is, as Rachel simply put it, a rice porridge, typically savory. She noted that giving the time constraints of the competition, cooking the rice congee-style was a quicker option. The long grain rice soaked in cold water for maybe 20 minutes, then she whirled it in the blender with water for a bit, tossed it all in a saucepan to cook. Later she added grated zucchini, sliced zucchini stalks and zucchini leaves. For a finishing touch, she sautéed diced yellow squash and Spam to spoon over.

Rachel put her secret ingredient–soy sauce–to unique use, curing egg yolks from the beginning of the competition (about 1 hour before serving). A cured raw egg yolk was then added to the center of each bowl just before serving, which then oozed deliciously into the congee as you eat it. The lastcookoff1 of many flourishes in this dish was a small piece of lightly fried zucchini blossom on top, a lovely crisp contrast to the silky rich texture of the dish. Wow.

Both chefs did such a great job, really got into the spirit of the challenge and into the pleasure of sharing their favorite ingredients and techniques with the crowd. But Rachel prevailed to take away the coveted blue ribbon first prize for this year’s Ready Set, Go…Cook!

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Weekend Eats: Pulled Pork

It was going to be a busy couple of days this past weekend and I was determined to not try to do it all myself. Our annual summer party sees a good crowd come to the house, but I’m also in prime training for the Breast Cancer 3-Day in a month’s time, so couldn’t give up my 16-mile Saturday training walk to cook for that night’s party. I planned to prep a bunch of salads, desserts, dips, etc. on Friday, simply grill salmon Saturday and buy a load of pulled pork from a local barbecue joint for mini sandwiches to round out the menu.

Then I got a wild hare and decided to make the pulled pork myself. Spurred in part by having found great looking pork shoulder (aka pork butt) at Costco, and for a steal (about $15 for nearly 11 pounds).

pork1

Just before going on the grill

Never having attempted a serious pulled pork endeavor before, I turned to a favorite barbecue source: Steven Raichlen. The pulled pork recipe in his wonderful The Barbecue! Bible cookbook takes some tips from his bbq colleague with North Carolina roots, Elizabeth Karmel. The recipe is also available here in online form. I (almost) religiously followed the recipe and man-oh-man the results were delicious. Friends raved. I’d make that again in a heartbeat. When I have a couple of days and a whole slew of people to cook for.

One minute down, about six hours to go

One minute down, about six hours to go

I amended the dry rub a bit, based on what I had on hand, using sweet and smoked paprika, celery seed, garlic powder, onion powder, ground white pepper, cayenne, dry mustard, brown sugar and salt. And I made quite a bit more than the recipe recommends, since I had about 11 pounds of boneless meat (in two portions) to cover. Because they were pretty big, I also seasoned them a full day before barbecuing.

Next day, I set up the beloved classic Weber kettle grill for some indirect cooking action, shoving the hot coals into two sections at opposite sides of

About halfway there, adding more coals and chips

About halfway there, adding more coals and chips

 the grill. I knew I had some smoking chips in the garage, ends up they were alder instead of hickory, guess that just added a touch of Northwest flair to this otherwise North Carolina recipe! By the way, whoever devised those flip-up flaps on the grill grate to make adding more chips and coals later…genius! Made a tray out of double-thickness foil; given how much dripped off the meat in the ensuing hours, that is definitely NOT a step to skip!

On went the meat at about 1:45 in the afternoon. The key, according to Steven via Elizabeth, is cooking to 195 degrees interior temp. One hunk of the pork was ready at about 7:30, the other about 45 minutes later. I’d added more coals and more chips 3 or 4 times while they’d been cooking. I transferred the beautiful, juicy, aromatic pieces of pork deliciousness to a baking sheet covered with foil to cool for a hour or so, then on with the plastic gloves and on with the pulling, discarding excess fat and any hyper-charred bits along the way. Wow, that pork was just perfect! Some of it so tender I

Fresh from the grill, ready to rest

Fresh from the grill, ready to rest

swear you coulda fed it to an infant….. I did my best to snag just a few little bites along the way. Done “pulling” around 10:00 that night. But every step of the way it was worth it.

A simple vinegar sauce was tossed over the meat–cider vinegar, ketchup, salt, pepper, cayenne, just a touch of brown sugar (I personally don’t like ‘sweet’ in my meat, ketchup seemed already sweet enough to me). Then into the fridge for the night,  reheated the next evening as friends started arriving.

I’m sorry to not have a picture of the full spread, but alongside was a salad of

One delicious mess of pulled pork

One delicious mess of pulled pork

roasted corn, tomato and roasted chiles in a lime-cumin vinaigrette; old-fashioned potato salad; classic coleslaw; grilled sockeye salmon with green goddess sauce; crudites with romesco sauce, potato chips with blue cheese dip. Perfect food for a lazy, fun evening celebrating summer with friends!

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Drinking Well: Sambar

It was the perfect refuge for a hot summer’s evening. Eight of us gathered onsambar5 the cool, shaded garden patio of Sambar in Ballard for drinks, some snacks and some wonderful quality time catching up with friends. Few places make me quite so happy, eating and drinking so well in such a lovely, calm, engaging setting.

Sambar is the younger, hip sibling of the beloved Le Gourmand restaurant next door. Chef/owner Bruce Naftaly first opened the doors at Le Gourmand in 1985, helping set the stage for the delicious melding of “eat local” and “fine dining” that was just a twinkle in a few chefs’ eyes back then. From day one, Bruce was noting on his menus the sources of ingredients he used, whether it was plums from a backyard tree in the neighborhood or grape sambar6pressings from Chinook winery that he used in a sauce. There are a lot of stars in Seattle’s current culinary firmament. But Bruce was among the first to wrench Seattle’s fine dining scene out of the Continental motif and into a celebration of local bounty. In fact, one of the earlier articles I wrote while food editor of Seattle Magazine was one for the January 2000 issue, challenged to pick a chef worthy of millennial props. I chose Chef Naftaly.

Bruce and his wife/chef/partner Sara opened Sambar five or six years ago, adjoining Le Gourmand, with a mod, colorful, contemporary decor in contrast to the (then) pretty sort of Monet-style French motif of the elder (since updated to be clean, bright, white, with cool mirrors and artful puppets on the wall). The cocktail menu is outstanding, distinctive, taking best advantage of premium and seasonal ingredients. On this recent visit, with so many of us around the table, we had occasion to sample a number from the current list. I startedsambar4with a cocktail of gin, Dubbonet rouge, grapefruit juice and a touch of cardamom; outstanding, Ravana I think it was called. Others tried La Rose (Hendricks gin, rose syrup, Champagne and rose petals), Celeste (light rum, rosemary, cassis, lemon, Champagne) and the Vercour (Hangar One Citron, yellow Chartreuse, lemon, jasmine blossoms).

We nibbled too, of course. The swiss chard gratin was out of this world, with garlic and a rich cheesy sauce. Mussels simple and perfect, “just like Paris,” said one of my friends. Another had passed on sampling the mussels, figuring they were pretty basic and not far from what she could make at home. But we prodded her to give one a try and her eyebrows involuntarily rose while taking in the glorious sambar2flavors. I waited a bit too long to take a picture, but this tells how much we loved them! Extra bread, please, to sop up those amazing cooking juices. And frites! Can’t come to Sambar with out an order (or two, or three) of the great frites.

Couldn’t have been a more perfect Friday evening out in Sambar’s garden with the gals. Come winter, we may just have to do it again, buoyed against the grey and chill by the color and dynamism Sambar holds inside as well.

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