Monthly Archives: December 2010

Quick Snacks: Puff Pastry Straws

The unexpected White Thanksgiving we experienced here in Seattle certainly threw us all some curve balls. The end result at my house was that–for the first time in many years–my Thanksgiving dinner table didn’t include any of my blood relations. Brother sick, niece working, sister stuck on Queen Anne hill, nephew on the east coast….. I was surprised how much that fact bummed me out. I guess it just proves how much emotional attachment I have to this holiday! But I was thrilled some dear friends (who might as well be family) were able to join us. So that 13-pound turkey I brined and grilled out in the chilly garage certainly didn’t go to waste!

But it did mean that my supplier of pre-dinner snacks suddenly wasn’t showing up with the goods. Time to improvise. Time to grab some frozen puff pastry out of the freezer. You DO have some puff pastry in the freezer, right? No? Well you should. It’s one of the cook’s very best-best friends. Need a dessert in no time flat? Cut it into squares, add a small mound of jam to the center of each, fold over, pinch edges and bake. Voilà, turnovers for dessert!

Or, in the case of a dinner party with no cocktail-hour snacks, in a matter of minutes you can have these puppies in the oven and be serving your guests an elegant nibble sooner than you can say “where’s that bag of Doritos?” Who needs Doritos when you’ve got these?

Now, I realize that some–if not most–commercial puff pastry sheets come folded up in little packets. Which, ideally, should be thawed slowly in the refrigerator to maintain the dough’s integrity. Those folds are pretty brittle in frozen form and you risk breaking the dough rather than unfolding it if attempted while still chill. If you try to thaw it too quickly–like at room temperature, maybe under the hot lights of your stove?–the dough becomes pretty soft pretty quickly and the layers risk sticking together. So those commercial packets only help so much in terms of spontaneity.

 

My answer? I buy puff pastry in flat sheets that thaw in a matter of 15 to 20 minutes on the counter. No worry about persnickety folds. I happen to find mine at Big John’s PFI in Seattle, a beloved destination for all types of specialty foods from bulk cranberry beans to vanilla extract and amazing cheeses. Check out specialty or gourmet food shops in your area; an added bonus may be finding all-butter puff for the very best flavor. I always pick up a sheet of puff pastry when I’m at PFI, whether it’s officially on my shopping list or not. As is the case with about half the things in my cart by the time I’m checking out. Some cool cookie from England. San Marzano tomatoes. Quince paste. Loads of things I didn’t know I needed until I got there…..

So, Thanksgiving morning, I pulled that emergency puff pastry out of the freezer. After a bit of  distraction from other dinnertime prep, the sheet was thawed. I beat an egg with a bit of salt in a small bowl and lightly but evenly brushed the surface of the dough with the egg, creating a foundation for the next step. (Egg works best, but a light brushing of water or melted butter will do in a pinch.) I then grabbed a few jars from the spice rack. In this case sweet paprika, poppy seeds, sesame seeds. But it could just as well have included cumin (ground or seeds), fennel seeds, curry powder. Two or three items that add aroma and flavor is what you’re shooting for. Quickly sprinkled a relatively even dusting of each over the dough, then grabbed my handy pizza cutter. The rolling blade makes really easy work of cutting strips from dough in cases like this (or making lattice for a pie topping, any similar situation).

Arrange your 5-minute creations on a baking sheet that’s lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper. Bake in a 400 degree oven until puffed and nicely browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Let cool a few minutes, pop them into a tall glass or other serving dish. And friends will marvel at your creativity and start feigning guilt after they reach for the third or fourth one of these easy-to-love pastry straws.

Matter of fact, you might want to bake up two puff pastry sheets’ worth. They’re going to go fast!

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A Great Get-Away: Portland

Much as I like to think I’m an organized person, inevitably there are trips when I realize too late something that I failed to pack. Usually remedying the problem just takes a trip to the drug store for some toothpaste, or relying on the room’s alarm clock rather than my favorite travel version. But last weekend when I unpacked at the hip and wonderful Hotel Modera in Portland, as I was hanging up the cute tops I’d brought for dinnertime outings, I realized a more significant omission: the pants I’d planned to wear them with. And no, the casual blue cords I wore on the train just wouldn’t cut it.

Off to Nordstrom we went, where I scored a great skirt that filled the bill, plus a couple sets of fun tights to go with it.

So despite the fact that I don’t seem to have born with that love-to-shop gene that many women have, I ended up doing some prime tax-free shopping while in town. The extent of shopping I do while in Portland is usually inspired by  the great spirits available. Previous trips it’s included Aviation gin or one of the amazing eaux de vie from Clear Creek Distillery. This trip was no different, I also picked up a bottle of Ransom Old Tom gin at a downtown liquor store.

Instead of the shopping, what’s been drawing me to Portland most in the past few years has been work-related events. Preparing for and attending the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Teaching a class at In Good Taste. Doing a bit of promo for a cookbook, like my recent Gourmet Game Night event at Cafe Nell.

But last week’s trip was intentionally different. No work, all play. Finally a tourist in this city I so adore. At oh-dark-thirty the morning after Thanksgiving, my husband and I boarded the Amtrak Cascades train down to the Rose City. And we packed those couple days with great meals, meeting with friends, exploring the city in a relaxed fashion.

Little surprise that meals served as the foundation of our itinerary. Friday, after dropping our bags at the hotel, we walked across downtown to have lunch at Kenny & Zuke’s. I had once popped in here a couple of years ago, to pick up a bagel for the train trip home, but never sat down to try their famous housemade pastrami. Lunch was well worth the 30 minute wait, I tried the reuben made with that pastrami (instead of the traditional corned beef). It was outstanding, as was the simple potato salad alongside, light and flavorful, not drowning in mayo. Bob loved his PLT (pastrami-lettuce-tomato) sandwich, which showed off the pastrami even better.

Our post-lunch stroll took us through the Pearl District, where we found the Museum of Contemporary Craft, one of the new things I got to do on this visit. The small museum currently has a very cool exhibit featuring creative interpretations of “the book,” not to mention a really great gift shop with wonderful arty items. Our museum entry was gratis, thanks to the coupon in the Portland Perks booklet we were given when we checked into the hotel. There’s a special promotion going on now through December 20 at a couple dozen hotels in the area, with a 2-night stay you’re given the coupon book–to spur some of that tax-free shopping!–along with (believe it or not) a $50 bill to get you started. Details on the offer are here.

Dinner was a treat, a long-overdue trip back to Nostrana where Cathy Whims and David West have created a warm and welcoming room for enjoying comforting food that showcases Northwest ingredients with Italian sensibilities. Given that bounty of chanterelles the Northwest is experiencing this year, we tried the chanterelle trio: with farro and borlotti beans, in a leek sformato and baked with Scarmoza cheese in the wood-fired oven. All delicious. I recall in the pre-Nostrana days the degree of research and experimenting Cathy was doing to perfect her pizza prowess, so we couldn’t let pass a taste of her margherita pizza. I’d like to do that “Bewitched” wrinkle-wiggle of my nose to make one appear on my desk right now….. Outstanding grilled leg of lamb with tapenade and celery root gratin, scallops with rapini, a very delicate and rich lasagne verde, the entrees all shined. With little room left for dessert, we sated ourselves with the butterscotch budino (pudding) and a small scoop of vanilla gelato with Faith Willinger’s Tuscan chocolate sauce. Perfetto.

Saturday’s meals took us to Pok Pok for lunch and Paley’s Place for dinner. What’s not to love about Pok Pok? Aside from perhaps the chilly wait outside this time of year. But it made warming up at our table in near the bar that much more delightful. We skipped the beloved chicken wings, instead opting for some items new to me: muu sateh, Carlton Farms pork marinated in turmeric and coconut milk then grilled; the Northern Thai herbal salad; wide rice noodles with Chinese broccoli, pork and egg. So flavorful, bright, delicious. I’ve loved every meal I’ve had at Pok Pok.

Dinner was a little step back in time, I hadn’t been to Paley’s Place in ages, over ten years. I love the setting, the cozy house-turned restaurant on a quiet corner in the Northwest of Portland. Vitaly and Kim Paley have been taking great care of Portland diners for over 15 years, unstuffy and personable, focused on regional products cooked with a light hand, letting the ingredients shine. Carrot soup, local oysters, a sampler of charcuterie started off our meal with friends. I set with a classic for my main course, Paley’s rabbit ravioli served with chanterelles, bacon and butternut squash. Both husbands had the seared tuna, the fourth opted for beef tartare.

Oh, and carless in Portland? No troubles at all. We took a free MAX ride from the train station to the hotel, no more than 2 blocks to walk at either end. Dinner at Nostrana and lunch at Pok Pok made me think the Tri-Met system plans routes around the city’s top restaurants: no transfers needed from downtown and we landed no more than a block from either. (Major plug here for the Google Maps app I’ve got on my Blackberry, not only a great map tool but the “directions” option includes public transit, with reliable bus numbers and departure times…. LOVE IT!) The Portland Streetcar took us directly to the corner where Paley’s Place is found.

The only problem with this great weekend in Portland was that it was simply too short. But we’ll return before long to hit places we missed on this trip, like dinner at Country Cat, a stroll through the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, cocktails at Beaker & Flask. And maybe some more of that shopping!!

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Filed under Northwest character, regional treats, travel