Seattle: Day Two

This trip was extra special in the food indulgence area because we opted to stay at a bed and breakfast instead of the usual chain hotel.  At the Villa Heidelberg, our hostess serves what she calls a “hearty breakfast,” which consists of coffee or tea and fruit, followed by a hot dish that changes every day.  As we ate this hot dish the first morning – a croissant stuffed with Canadian bacon, cheddar cheese and sliced, cinnamon dusted apples, then coated in egg and baked until the pastry was even toastier and flakier than before and the apples were just softening – she explained that she has almost run out of room in her kitchen for her cookbook collection.  Other bed and breakfast establishments have five or six standby breakfasts they alternate between or cycle through, but she said that early in her career as innkeeper she got tired of making the same things week in and week out.  She keeps adding and adding to her repertoire, and with a side of maple syrup to absolutely drench this croissant in fantastic sticky decadence, we were well set to begin our adventures.

Despite this incredibly filling start to the day, when thoughts of lunch started to percolate as we strolled through Pike Place, I knew almost immediately what I wanted.  The smells in the marketplace were so good that you’d think it would be hard to decide.  But I knew.

The fish stalls here were impressive, and when I say that the place smelled like fish, I mean this in a positive way.  Even raw, the fish was so fresh and so reminiscent of the salty spray of the Pacific that even N. admitted it smelled good.  It didn’t hurt that the aromas of smoked salmon and fried seafood lingered around us as well, and this became my lunch quest: fried shrimp.

For $7.99, the sardonic but chatty expediter at one stall sold me this beautiful portion of beer battered and fried prawns with French fries.  It was like heaven.  Since N. doesn’t like shellfish, we never eat it at home.  Not only were these fresh, plump, perfectly toothsome prawns, but they were coated in delicious rich batter and fried until they had soaked in just the right amount of grease.  Enough to coat the fingers and shine suggestively in the corners of my mouth.  Not quite enough to weigh me down.  Perfect.  Well, perfect if I’d had a beer on the side.  Maybe a nice wheat beer with a generous lemon wedge.  And bringing the expediter home, where he would become our local bartender.  Then I could call it perfect.

Dinner this night was to be our belated anniversary dinner.  Since I’d just celebrated my birthday, I decided it could do double duty.  We chose Purple, a bistro and wine bar right downtown, and entered the enormous, dimly lit room slowly.  Solid heavy doors and ceiling to floor windows protected a huge spiral staircase winding around a column of shelves packed with bottles.  While I was still gaping at this collection of wine, we were seated and handed a binder full of beverage choices.  Our poor server had to come back three times to get our order, as I, still a bit of a wine novice, was completely intimidated by the gratuitous supply and tremendous number of options.  I selected a nice citrusy Gewürztraminer while N., always the beer man, had an Old Rasputin Stout.  He gave me a sip and I was surprised by its dark smokiness.

With so many wine choices, I was almost dizzy with the rush of having to choose accompanying food.  I get nervous at restaurants when I have a plethora of choices.  Do I opt for something comforting, familiar, guaranteed to be good, or do I branch out and order something that sounds adventurous – a startling mix of flavors that might be outrageously good… or a slight disappointment?  Here, though, I needn’t even have opened the menu; the first special on the front page was too good to pass up: risotto with roasted tomatoes, spinach, and Greek feta.

The poor quality here is due to the dim lighting, but I could just as easily claim it was thanks to my hands quivering from delight.  It sounds so simple, and as I looked down at my plate I feared I had been too cautious, but I was wrong.  The blend of flavors was stellar.  The rice was tender and flavorful, the tomatoes had sharp tanginess that matched well with the feta, and the whole thing had that unbelievable magical creaminess risotto gains from twenty minutes of tireless stirring while the rice grains – little sponges that they are – slowly suck in more and more broth.

While my fork danced around my plate, N. enjoyed a more hands-on experience, ordering a gorgonzola and fig pizza, replete with walnuts and rosemary, and a shy sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.  The thick purple slices of fresh fig looked so alien on pizza, as did the hefty chunks of walnut, but the finished product was tasty and intriguing.  In my plans for recreation, I may try making a rosemary foccaccia dough as a base, and then replacing the fresh figs for dried.

Because it was a special occasion, and because our server told us the desserts were “tapas sized,” we decided we had to splurge.  With options like these, there was simply no leaving before we had a sample or two.  We decided to share two desserts: the red velvet cake with lavender cream cheese frosting, and the blackberry cheesecake with blackberry coulis and candied lime zest.  Despite being barely bigger than golf balls, both were triumphant.  The cake was moist and rich, and the lavender sprinkled atop the frosting was an unexpectedly good touch.  It had a sophisticated flavor somehow and a light perfume, making this more than just good cake.

The cheesecake was rich and exceedingly smooth, and I found the perfect balance was a generous dip of blackberry coulis and a sliver of candied zest.  I like a bite of sour citrus with my cheesecake, and without that tart, slightly bitter chew, this perfect little cylinder might have been bland.  As it was, if I were slightly less polite I would have licked my plate.  Hell, I would have licked both plates.

Thanks, Seattle, you were that good. 

The Week of Magical Eating, Day Five: Phoebe-Phriendly

I realized recently that if I lived alone, I would not cook the way I do now.  I would eat scrambled eggs, I would eat yogurt and granola and pasta.  I would cook occasionally, but what I do now built out of a desire to care for my then-boyfriend, now-husband.  Some of it was, admittedly, to impress him, because he was eating microwave dinners and frozen bagged teriyaki concoctions.  But some of it was born from a desire to nurture him, because he was eating microwave dinners and frozen bagged teriyaki concoctions!
Somewhere along the line, I discovered that I really liked this whole cooking thing.  It became challenging but fulfilling, stress-relieving and relaxing, but also a self-induced obligation.  Deep within these seemingly-contradictory-but-somehow-harmonious-co-existing attributes, the urge to feed and nurture remained.  I cook because I love.  It is the best, most sincere, heartiest way I know how to show my deep affection and fierce warmth.  If I cook for you, it means I care about you.
As I have mentioned on this blog before, I have a friend Ph. who presents some challenges to my ordinary routine.  She is a good friend.  I care about her.  Therefore, I want to feed her.  But her particular dietary needs present me with unusual requirements.  Not only does she eat gluten-free, but dairy-free, corn-free, and nut-free.  This has, much like the Caesar dressing in my previous post, become a minor obsession for me.  I never realized how much of my love involved cheese, milk, and butter, to say nothing of wheat products.  But I care, and I feel driven, and I want to cook for her.  It has become a kind of mission for me.  So I have been educating myself; experimenting with alternative flours, rejoicing in olive oil, learning about how soy milk reacts differently than cows’ milk.  I have done some reading, found some new “friends” online, and discovered with delight how many flour and starch options exist in the bulk foods section of Market of Choice.
Despite all this, I haven’t done much baking yet.  I find myself a little intimidated because I don’t like failure.  I don’t know how these new ingredients react to each other yet, and I dislike the idea of presenting substandard or imperfect food.  But I bucked up my courage recently and made my way through my first bag of rice flour.  One semi-triumph was a version of Elana’s “Magically Moist Cherry and Apricot Cake” from Elana’s Pantry.  Since Elana uses almond flour as her primary gluten-free alternative, I cannot use her recipes verbatim.  Ph. cannot eat tree nuts.  Additionally, Elana uses alternative sweeteners, and I have not yet delved into the mysterious world of agave nectar.  So some amendments needed to be made.
For a girls’ TV night, to which Ph., ironically enough, was not able to attend, I attempted Elana’s cake.  I used white rice flour instead of almond flour, and sugar instead of agave.  Since the resulting clumpy, bumpy batter would not have poured, per the directions, if I’d pointed a gun to my bowl, I added a few splashes of soy milk until things loosened up a bit.  I smoothed the dough out in my pie plate and stuck it in the oven.  Thanks, I suspect, to the soy milk addition, I had to up the cooking time by ten minutes or so, and when I took it out of the oven, it certainly didn’t look like Elana’s.  Hers looked moist with a lovely crumb and a golden crust.  Mine hadn’t lost the spatula-smoothing strokes I’d used to even out the batter.  I broke off a clumpy edge and took a taste.
It was tasty, if different.  Rice flour seems to contribute a grainy texture that I’m not thrilled with, so I know that more experimentation awaits.  But the cake was not as dry as I had feared it would be.  Finally, a baked good that Ph. could eat safely and enjoy (she loves dried fruit).  Since, as it turned out, she was not able to partake on that evening, I broke all my rules to make the dish completely Ph-Phriendly, and made a yogurt glaze to drizzle over the top.  Vanilla yogurt, defrosted frozen blackberries, and a tiny splash of creme de cassis.  This added just the moisture the cake seemed to need.  A few days later I had a slice spread with cream cheese.  That was good too.  Oh what would I give for nondairy cream cheese?
So experiment #1 is complete.  Next up, new flours, mixes of flours, and maybe a fruit crisp.  Doors are opening, and I’m on a mission.

Homecoming

I know I’m going about this a bit backwards, but I just wanted to show off what was weighing down our plants in the back garden when we returned from our California trip:

IMG_1711Just look at that!  I love how the cherry tomatoes are still clinging to their stems, though less than five minutes later I was thrilled to liberate them.  Our friend K., who was just one of the delightful people who helped us produce this harvest by watering the garden in our absence, told me that the sungolds are like tiny little jewels of crack.  I concurred.

Oh, and don’t forget the blackberries, my inspiration for this blog in the first place:

IMG_1713They are already chilling in the freezer, waiting to be made into blackberry mojitos.  There are honestly enough of them to experiment with other concoctions, but really, why mess with a good recipe?

Derridean BBQ

Call me a post-structuralist, but since arriving in graduate school and submerging myself in contented and sometimes even enthusiastic nerdiness, I’ve become intrigued with the idea of slippage. How can words with clear definitions become other words? On a lesser but related note, I’ve always been fascinated with what must be the gradual process of how nouns become verbs and vice versa. The focus of this discussion, of course, is Barbecue. It being Labor Day weekend, the natural assumption to this Oregonian is that barbecues will take place. However, barbecue is, rightfully and literally, neither the name of an event, nor is the accurate word for the type of cooking that I assume will take place at the gathering I have just been to. Before we get to the food, let’s have a brief history lesson, shall we?

Thanks to the ever faithful Food Network, and of course the estimable wisdom of Wikipedia (yes, I’m a bad graduate student!), I know that there are primarily two methods of outdoor cooking in the US. Barbecue generally refers to a slow, often all day process of indirect heat and smoke, often achieved within a large, enclosed apparatus that looks nothing like the “BBQ” you can buy at Home Depot or Target. Grilling, on the other hand, is the process that involves placing meat on a rack over charcoal or propane heat and cooking it quickly, directly over the flames. Why, then, do we not say that we’re going to a grill? Perhaps because the tradition of barbecue as a slow process is uniquely American. Perhaps this is a square versus rectangle argument. Perhaps I should start telling people that I’m going to a grill, and add this new noun to the dubious regional dialect I find myself immersed in.

So, for the Grill that I attended last night, I decided to go simple and, knowing there would be ample meat for the tasting (and glorious glutting), I made a panzanella salad. Stepping this traditional bread and tomatoes salad up a few notches with the addition of local mesclun greens, basil, cannellini beans, and parmesan cheese makes it almost fit to be a meal in itself. But I still ate one of the hand made lamb and goat cheese burgers.

Panzanella salad

Toss together in a large salad bowl:

4-6 cups bagged mixed greens (I used a mesclun mix from the local Farmers’ Market)

1 pint cherry tomatoes or 3-4 tomatoes cut in bite-size pieces (I used Sungolds from the Farmers’ Market)

¼ cup julienned basil (from my backyard basil plant)

1 can white beans, drained and rinsed

½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1/3 cup balsamic vinaigrette (my recipe follows)

2 cups freshly baked sourdough croutons (my recipe follows)

Vinaigrette:

Squeeze of spicy brown mustard

A few tablespoons balsamic vinegar (To make it extra special, I use a locally made Raspberry Balsamic)

Whisk in enough extra virgin olive oil to equal 1/3 cup of dressing

Croutons:

Cut about ½ of a sourdough baguette into bite size chunks, scatter onto a cookie sheet and spray liberally with an olive oil cooking spray. Bake in a 400° oven for 10-15 minutes or until all pieces are golden brown and crisp to the touch.

In addition to the lamb burgers, which were cooked only to medium and therefore excruciatingly delicious (N. likes his meat very well done, and pink interiors make him nervous, which means the pink and juicy center is reserved for special occasions for me), we ate a delicious spicy cream cheese dip on tortilla chips, a pesto and cherry tomato pasta salad, locally made (I think) vegan peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies, and a cocktail I invented with the help of my backyard bounty; essentially a blackberry mojito without the mint. I was encouraged to name my creation, and told in no uncertain terms to remember it so I could make it again, and so my rough estimates follow below.

Blackberry Crush

6-8 very ripe blackberries

1 TB sugar

1 TB lime juice

1-2 oz. white rum (or to taste)

Ice

Club soda or other sparkling mixer

Muddle together the blackberries, sugar, and lime juice at the bottom of a pint glass. Add rum, ice, and top up with club soda. Garnish with a lime slice and a few whole blackberries, skewered and balanced on the edge of the glass.

Happy Labor Day weekend!

Of new blogs and backyard berries

Prince Harry and Falstaff banter about blackberry picking and blackberry eating in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part I. Alchemically, blackberries have properties of promoting wealth and protecting the eater from evil. Galway Kinnell’s poem Blackberry Eating, from which this blog’s title is taken, remembers the propensity of swollen, shining black blackberries, overripe and almost frozen on a cold morning, to fall unbidden to the speaker’s tongue. Then he curiously likens this involuntary offering for digestion to words, especially “certain peculiar words” that sometimes emerge. Now that September approaches, now that several substantial harvests have kept me in blackberries through the summer, I know that those small clusters of berries only beginning to flush red today will come full and ripe at the end of next month, and perhaps I can experience Kinnell’s comparison.

For today, however, the likeness between late September berries and unexpectedly summoned words will have to suffice as an analogy for this, a blog focused on sharing my culinary and gardening adventures. Welcome. Enjoy.