Wednesday, February 27, 2008

As Others See Us

"Lone Fir is the resting place of an astonishing variety of those who’ve come to be the city’s natives: along with pioneers and their descendants, there are Russians, Cambodians, Japanese, and Chinese whose families immigrated—some of them generations ago—and stayed," posts former Portlander and now Famous Publisher of the blog Rotund World in Puerto Rico. And though we're known for our rain, hippies and volcanoes, he says that they are merely "minor annoyances when compared to the city’s surpassing loveliness. Actually, the hippies are part of the charm, like colorful garden dwarves scattered amidst the tall firs."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Doing It Right

You all know how I love people who do the right thing in the right way for the right reason. This video, made by the folks at Cooking Up a Story, shows the Obringer family, who are making some of the most amazing sheep's milk cheese in the country at their Ancient Heritage Dairy in Scio, Oregon. And thanks to the Pacific NW Cheese project for another great tip!

Good Mex

All these years later, I still miss Cafe Azul. The depth and complexity of Claire Archibald's cooking, the regional dishes that I have yet to see on any other menu in town, not to mention the excellence of the bar (here's to you, Nancy!). Sigh. And my heart still skips a beat with anticipation when I hear talk of another "authentic" Mexican restaurant about to open. Could it be? Maybe? Please?

So it was with high hopes that we ventured to the latest entry in Portland's Mexican sweepstakes, Trebol on North Albina. And, to cut to the chase, I found it good. Some items were bordering on very good, though none I had on my two trips were great. Homemade tortillas, interesting sauces, lots of vegetarian options and a complete lack of yellow cheese.

Shrimp in chipotle chili sauce

I'd put it in the same category as Taqueria Nueve, a fun, semi-funky place to hang out, especially for drinks and appetizers. The guacamole was excellent with that creamy avocado flavor up front, not overly sexed-up with other ingredients. The jalapeno vinaigrette on the mixed green salad had just the right heat level to make it interesting but not overwhelming, and the shrimp in chipotle sauce was good if a bit lacking in the depth that chipotle chiles can bring to a dish. And the red and green chile sauces that accompany their tortillas were really some of the best things on the menu.

It should heat up when the outdoor dining season arrives, since it has a street-side patio that will give diners a front-row seat for people-watching. And maybe, just maybe, they'll step over that line from good to great. I'll certainly be hoping.

Details: Trebol Mexican Restaurant, 4835 N Albina Ave. Phone 503-517-9347.

Taking Cuts

With spring on the way and warmer temperatures in the forecast, eating outdoors again is looking like a possibility. Which is a good thing if you've been to Kenny & Zuke's lately. Finding a seat these days nearly always involves a wait, and if you've chosen to go at lunchtime, that wait may be considerable.

Luckily for you, if the weather gods are smiling upon you and the sun is shining (or even if it's just not raining), there is a deli at one end of the restaurant that carries nearly all of their meats (including smoked fish and pickled tongue), breads and salads at very reasonable prices.

A bialy and a knish

So you can get a homemade bagel with cream cheese ($2.75) or a bialy and a salad, head to a nearby park and, as your mother used to say, "Get out and get some fresh air. It's good for you!" She'd be so proud.

Details: Kenny & Zuke's Delicatessen, 1038 SW Stark St. Phone 503-222-3354.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Taking a Break

You know how Saturdays go. If you have small kids, there are the inevitable soccer-baseball-football practices or horseback-riding lessons, not to mention the housecleaning-dishes-laundry that's been piling up all week at everyone's house (including mine, even though I work at home), plus walks for the dog or trips to the grocery store. You catch my drift.

The perfect martini

But yesterday I decided to jump off the conveyor belt and take a couple of hours to ride Max out to the Expo Center with a couple of friends and listen to Michelle Kaufmann (see post, below), architect and green building advocate. Afterwards, it being 4 pm or so, we were in need of conversation, food and libation, and rather than heading to our respective homes to dredge up something for dinner, we had the bright idea to go together to (you guessed it...) a bar.

Clockwise from bottom: Salutation, Nootka, Chef's Creek. Not shown: Kumamoto and Fanny Bay

I hadn't been to the Alberta Street Oyster Bar & Grill since it had closed due to the owner's financial difficulties and reopened when the chef took it over and arranged new financing, keeping much of the previous (and excellent staff) intact. And am I glad we did. We started with an excellent Hendrick's martini and a dozen-and-a-half of the freshest, most lovely oysters I've had in a long time.

Mignonettes (clockwise from bottom): champagne; cucumber-horseradish; black pepper; orange fennel

The exotics were the Salutation Cove oysters from Bedeque Bay on Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, that had been described as creamy and briny. While excellent, they were a bit bland compared with the Northwest representatives, though we scarfed them all down in no time, completely ignoring the lovely and tasty plate of four mignonettes, any of which would be great on a salad with some nice olive oil.

Beet salad

We followed those, at K's insistence (don't you hate friends like that?), with Alberta Street's terrific fries and spicy aioli along with a salt-roasted beet salad with candied almonds and smoked duck. The fries were crispy and not at all greasy, and as for the salad, what's not to like about a combination like that except that it doesn't come with free refills?


Last but not least we had a big bowl of their blue mussels with pork jowl, black mustard and beer. Needless to say, the mussels were perfectly steamed and much sopping of broth was done by everyone. It was a little scary to have this much fun playing hooky from household chores, but we may just have to do it again sometime. And soon.

Details: Alberta Street Oyster Bar & Grill, 2926 NE Alberta St. Phone 503-284-9600.

Farsighted Vision

As you may have guessed by now, I get crushes on people quite easily. All they have to do is bat their eyelashes, knock me out with some paradigm-shifting, visionary ideas and all I want to do is sit at their feet and beg for more. Because it's people who think outside the box that really turn my crank, individuals like Muhammad Yunus, Hanan Ashrawi and Al Gore who don't let the way things are keep them from imagining, and then working to accomplish, what might be.

And as of yesterday I've added Michelle Kaufmann to the list of my personal heroes. She and her firm, Michelle Kaufmann Designs, have taken the idea of prefabricated housing, combined it with stunning design and a sustainable, environmentally sound process and come up with something that is turning the way we think about building homes on its head.

She has developed five principles of sustainable design that her firm uses on all its projects: smart design, eco materials, energy efficiency, water conservation and creating a healthy environment. What's remarkable is not just that, for instance, the end product is a home built from green materials, but that every step has been vetted to insure that it is produced in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

She believes that the way we build homes is broken, wasteful of resources and not sustainable. And that the way we sell homes is misleading and environmentally disastrous. She asks questions like, "How have McMansions come to embody the American Dream? Why are these cookie cutter, energy hording monster homes that force us into our cars and away from our families for hours a day so desirable that we are bankrupting ourselves just to possess one, if only for a fleeting moment? Can’t we as a nation dream of something better and aspire to something higher? Can’t we dream of homes that don’t just look good from the outside but that are also good for our health, our souls, and the environment?"

You can get more of this on the firm's website and from her blog. Can you see why I can't get enough?

Bipartisan Rumblings

The search for it has been going on at least since Homer's time. Books have been written about it and countless individuals have devoted years of their lives seeking out the perfect one. I'm talking, of course, about the quest for the ultimate homemade pie, that object of lust and admiration that has driven people to take to the road in the middle of the night.

And, dear readers, I hate to say it but you need go no further than the little boomlet that is Montavilla to find a near-perfect example of the art. To one side of the espresso machine at the Bipartisan Cafe is the small pastry case that, on my visit, featured several flavors ranging from apple to marionberry to mixed berry.

Now these aren't picture-perfect pies where every slice comes out looking like it had its own stylist to make it stand up just so with the edges crimped in triangular points. We're talking truly homemade pies where the berries moosh out because it's loaded with (duh) berries instead of thickener and the crust is bubbly and brown and flaky.

I'm tellin' ya, this is goooooood pie. Get a cup of coffee, grab a window seat and prepare to be satisfied that your hunt is finally over.

Details: Bipartisan Cafe, 7901 SE Stark St. Phone 503-253-1051.

Friday, February 22, 2008

All Hail, Kale!

Leafy, green, delicious and really good for you. What comes to mind?

A perfect head of butter lettuce, arugula, spinach. But kale? I never would have put it in that category. But now it's one of our favorite greens. So when Culinate asked me to write it up for their Produce Diaries column, I jumped on it.

You can read my paen to this seasonal staple here. It might just become your new favorite, too!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Saints Be Praised!

Each of us has a friend who is the source of all knowledge. The one you go to when you need the name of a reliable plumber, or a really good doctor or, if the dog is throwing up all over the carpeting, a vet who also does carpet cleaning. This friend has researched everything and is phased by nothing, like a saint who's got your back in dire situations.

My personal holy woman just turned 50 and, rather than having some humongous birthday pastry ablaze with candles that could be seen from outer space, opted for several dozen little cupcakes in about 20 flavors. Then her guests could pick and choose, trying as many as they liked without worrying that people would notice they were on their sixth or seventh one. (I'm not the only one who worries about that, am I?)

Saint Cupcake herself

Of course, this took much research and personal scouring on her part of the many cupcake establishments in town, but her favorite was declared to be Saint Cupcake for the quality of cake as well as frosting, both integral to making a truly great cupcake experience. And they even have two locations, one on each side of town, adding access to their list of attributes.

These cakey little bits of deliciousness are irresistibly flavorful, not to mention just plain fun. And the fact that you can get small ones called "dots" that are a single bite of cupcake perfection or in regular full-sized versions just makes the place that much more appealing. While the whole cupcake thing that's going on right now might be a passing fancy, I'm hoping these folks stick around for the long term.

Details: Saint Cupcake, 407 NW 17th Ave. at Flanders or 3300 SE Belmont at 33rd. Phone 503-473-8760 (Flanders) or 503-235-0078 (Belmont).

Monday, February 18, 2008

HUB Update: Bearded and Brewing

When I was a kid, it seemed like it took forever for highly anticipated events like Christmas, birthdays and summer vacation to arrive. My parents would throw up their hands in exasperation at the constant badgering and whining, the "When will we get there?" keening of children on a long trip.

In what's getting to be the longest tease in the history of Portland brewing, Christian and the crew at Hopworks Urban Brewery (HUB) have chosen a soon-to-be-released secret opening date. Until the day they throw open the doors, though, he and his compatriots in excellent brewing are committing themselves to the pursuit of the hirsute and will not shave.

You can go to the website and sign up for their e-mail newsletter, which they guarantee will carry the news of their opening date. We can only hope that with all the time they're saving by not shaving, they'll be open that much faster!

Photo, l to r: Assistant Brewer Ben Love; Brewer and Owner Christian Ettinger; contest judge Jules Ettinger; General Manager Lionne Decker; and Kitchen Manager Andy Litka.

Hopworks Urban Brewery (HUB), 2944 SE Powell Blvd. 503-201-8957.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fajita Fest

Aside from being the maestro of all things beer-related, my husband is a grand master of the grill. He's out there at Thanksgiving and Christmas, beer in hand, wrestling a 20-plus pound turkey into the Weber and tending it till it becomes a smoky, burnished beauty. Lately he's taken to watching grilling podcasts to pick up new techniques and recipes, and last night he was inspired by Jamie Purviance of Weber Nation to make fajitas.

As you may expect, he's done flank steak on the grill before, but it usually doesn't make it past the slice-it-and-throw-it-on-a-platter phase before it's consumed by the roving hoards around our dinner table. This particular preparation was rubbed with a brown sugar and cumin spice mix before throwing it on the grill, which gave it a caramelized spice quotient that lifted it from merely terrific to the much preferred "Oh-my-god" level.

He also grilled bell peppers and onions, then whipped up a side of guacamole to add a creamy sweetness to the mix. When wrapped in a warm-from-the-grill flour tortilla and topped with our favorite salsa from Emerald Valley Kitchen in Eugene, this was a little handful of heaven that we'll be seeing again. And soon.

Carne Asada Fajitas
From Weber Nation

2 ripe Hass avocados
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon pure chile powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cumin

1 flank steak, about 1 pound and 3/4" thick, trimmed of any surface fat
Extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, sliced crosswise into 1/3-inch slices
2 medium red or green bell peppers, seeded and cut into flat sections
4 flour tortillas (10 inches)
Tabasco sauce

1. Scoop the avocado flesh into a medium bowl. Add the remaining guacamole ingredients and stir with a fork until thoroughly combined. Cover the surface with plastic wrap until ready to use.

2. In a small bowl combine the rub ingredients. Lightly brush or spray the flank steak on both sides with oil and then season evenly with the rub. Allow the steak to stand at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes before grilling.

3. Lightly brush or spray the onion and bell peppers on both sides with oil. Grill over direct medium heat (350°F to 450°F) until tender, turning once. The onion will take 8 to 10 minutes and the bell peppers will take 6 to 8 minutes. Cut the onion and bell peppers into bite-sized pieces. Grill the flank steak over direct medium heat until cooked to desired doneness, 8 to 10 minutes for medium rare, turning once. Remove from the grill and let rest for 3 to 5 minutes. Wrap the tortillas in a foil package. Grill the package over direct medium heat to warm the tortillas, about 2 to 3 minutes, turning once.

4. To serve, cut the flank steak against the grain into 1/4 inch slices. Place the warm tortillas, sliced meat, onions, peppers, and guacamole in separate serving dishes. Let each person make their own fajita by placing the fillings down the center of each tortilla and adding Tabasco® sauce to taste. Wrap and serve warm.

Makes 4 servings

Note: At our house this would serve two. We grilled 2 lbs. of flank steak and used eight flour tortillas for the three of us. What can I say?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Every Woman's Waterloo

There are a few things most women can agree on. Periods suck. A lot. Paris and Brittany should have their one of their X chromosomes revoked. Or at least detained for questioning. And no matter what your preferences, George Clooney is hot. With two T's.

But the one thing that causes universal gasping and writhing among females of the species is having to buy a bathing suit. The mere thought of walking into a public place (like a store) and looking at racks of Hawaiian-print horrors with molded breastplates ala Wonder Woman is bad enough, but then having to look at yourself nearly naked under bad fluorescent lighting is the stuff of nightmares.

Unfortunately, the suit I've had for way too long (can you say decades?) was threatening to disintegrate the next time I tried to wear it, so it was with great trepidation that I found myself walking into Popina Swimwear, a store that carries its own retro-designed swimwear as well as a few suits by makers like Tommy Bahama and Miraclesuit ("Look 10 lbs. slimmer in 10 seconds!").

This unassuming storefront in Northeast Portland masks an interior of exploding colors and dozens of different designs, and with tankinis and halters, swim skirts and more conservative one- and two-piece suits, I was a little overwhelmed. But the very nice sales clerk asked my size and proceeded to load me up with a selection of designer Pamela Levenson's (left) nicely made suits, saying that it was better to try on a variety of styles to see which "worked best" for me.

Stifling a burst of laughter, and after a couple of trips back to the racks, I actually managed to find something that would do for a price that wouldn't break the bank. If you go in, there are also sales bins of marked-down items, a decent sale rack and a Grand Reopening sale on Friday, Feb. 22, with everything marked down 15%. It's as close to a positive experience as buying a new suit can be.

Details: Popina Swimwear, 4831 NE 42nd Ave. Phone 503-282-5159.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Little Boxes Addendum: Michelle Kaufman

In a short addendum to the post below, I just heard from Kathleen Nash, studio proprietor at DWR, that Michelle Kaufmann will be speaking at the Portland Home & Garden Show at the Expo Center next weekend.

She will be presenting an overview of her philosophy and the work that flows from it in a seminar titled "Let The Green In: The Work Of Michelle Kaufmann Designs."

Kathleen also says that if you go, check out the ideabox prefab (right) that DWR is showcasing in the Sycamore Canyon display garden at the show. It's a two-bedroom, two-bath home both Energy Star and Earth Advantage certified.

Details: Michelle Kaufmann on "Let The Green In: The Work Of Michelle Kaufmann Designs." 2 pm, Sat. (2/23) and Sun. (2/24); $10 general admission to the show. Portland Expo Center, 2060 N Marine Dr. Phone 503-246-8291.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Little Boxes

I've always loved modern architecture, from the sweeping curves of Alvar Aalto to the geometric precision of Frank Lloyd Wright to the utilitarian beauty of Charles and Ray Eames. Then there are contemporary practitioners like Philip Johnson, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and the mind-blowing (not to mention physics-defying) work of Zaha Hadid.

Though we've always lived in older homes, I've always dreamed of living in a clean, modern space with sweeping lines and walls of glass. So I've been looking longingly at the newest generation of modular homes, like Michelle Kaufman's Glidehouse, that are essentially snap-together modules. And now Design Within Reach (DWR) is featuring the Kithaus, a system based on 9' by 13' modules that can function independently or can be clamped together to make a larger structure.

Kithaus designer Tom Sandonato will demonstrate its eco-friendly simplicity at the DWR Portland studio at 6 pm on April 24 and, since seating is limited, it would behoove you to RSVP ASAP via e-mail. I'll see you there!

Details: Tom Sandonato demonstrates his Kithaus modular system. Mon., April 24, 6-8 pm; free. E-mail for reservations or call 503-220-0200. Design Within Reach, 1200 NW Everett.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

More House Concerts

The new schedule of spring Hollywood House Concerts just came in and it looks like there is a plethora of great music to choose from. All concerts are on Sundays, and the ticket price of $30 includes a light seasonal buffet by chef Sasha Kaplan. The March concert will start at 5 pm, and the rest begin at 6 pm (it shifts with daylight saving time...sensible!). Reservations are required and seating is limited, so e-mail your ticket request soon.

Mar. 2: Tim Ellis and Jim Walker, with Will West. Tim Ellis, a mostly unsung hero of Portland music, has worked with Spencer Davis, The Platters, The Ink Spots and Mac Davis. With his songwriting partner, Jim Walker, they comprise JVA. Will West opens.

Apr. 6: Michael Sheridan, RedRay Frazier and Lara Michel. Singer-songwriter Sheridan is a NYC transplant and leads the touring band National Flower. Another New Yorker, RedRay Frazier (pictured) and Dirty Martini vocalist Lara Michel join him.

May 4: Roz Corral with Dan Balmer and Phil Baker. In her only Portland stop on a tour of the Northwest, jazz singer Corral will be joined by Portland guitar legend Dan Balmer and Pink Martini bassist Baker.

May 25: Benny Green and Belinda Underwood. Green is just back from gigs in Europe and Japan and is paired with young singer-songwriter Underwood.

June 8: Jenna Mammina, a San Francisco-based singer who became a Portland favorite at the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival a few years back.

It's Just Too Much

A couple of months ago I wrote that a friend and I went to a new vegan restaurant in the neighborhood called Nutshell. In the post I jokingly referred to her as a "flexitarian," a word I'd run across that describes someone whose diet is mostly vegetarian but can also include chicken and fish.

It did get me thinking about the new words we're using to describe our eating habits, often in excruciating detail. I mean, we've had the term vegetarian for awhile now, and my mother is starting to understand what a vegan is (though it seems to confuse her that Dave's lactose intolerance precludes yogurt but not mayonnaise). And hopefully the people on raw diets will die from boredom before I have to explain that one to her.

It's understandable that omnivore is popping up thanks to the popularity of Michael Pollan's book but, really, did we need locavore (OED's word of the year last year)? And, please, don't even get me started on "retrovore."

Then this morning I'm reading a seemingly harmless Valentine's Day article in the NYT about couples who have different food preferences, and one woman says that she's been able to tolerate her husband's occasional need for animal flesh because she's not a "vegangelical." What?

Is this level of specificity just further proof that we're getting more and more narcissistic all the time (says the woman with the blog)? Do I really need to know that you only eat five-toed sloths in the month of January that have been pasture-raised by Zoroastrians within 100 feet of your house? All I can say is, "T...M...I!"

Cartoons from Toothpaste For Dinner.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Country Cat Makes Breakfast

I've decided that the Country Cat is one of my favorite new spots in Portland. Well-designed but unpretentious, I have yet to order something from their menu that isn't downright terrific. I'd been there for lunch and dinner, so when Dave suggested going out for breakfast on Saturday morning this place immediately came to mind.

Now, I'm not a big fan of breakfast as a meal. My idea of a perfect way to start the day is coffee (lots of it) and a nice pastry, preferably of the French variety, or a simple piece of toast and jam. Pancakes, waffles and three-egg omelets are very nice, thank you, but I end up feeling drugged for the rest of the day.

So when we walked in I was all geared for something simple, but then I saw a Bloody Mary float by looking oh-so-delicious. And when the menu came, what did I see but a hash of home fries and house-smoked meat on a bed of chard topped with two poached eggs. Needless to say, I was a goner.

As you can tell from the photo, I was well into my plate before I remembered to take a picture, it was that good. All I can say is, if you're looking for a perfect spot to have breakfast on a weekend morning, this is one of my top recommendations. And don't forget to get some of their house-smoked beef jerky for the ride home. Incredible!

Details: The Country Cat Dinnerhouse and Bar, 7937 SE Stark St. Phone 408-1414. Breakfast 9 am-2 pm Sat.-Sun.

Happy Hour, Indeed!

When my pal Dana suggested going to the opening of Tom Miller's show of new prints from his African Queens series at Augen Gallery, I was on board. It wasn't just because I love Tom's work, though that goes without saying. But when she mentioned stopping by 23 Hoyt for a drink and a nosh beforehand, it was a done deal.

In the cosmetically made-over location of the over-the-top, corporatized Balvo, this place fits its upscale location like a Donna Karan cashmere sweater. Low lighting and tall windows looking out on the street make you feel like you're part of the scene, and the prices of the appetizers (in groups from $1-6) are easy to scan and very reasonable.

I chose the drink special, an Old-fashioned, a slightly sweet version of this classic bourbon cocktail. Then we chose some roasted almonds and a bowl of spicy fried chickpeas, which I started scarfing like popcorn and enjoyed immensely. Then we chose a grilled goat cheese wrapped in radicchio with tapenade and bread and an order of Indian-spiced chicken skewers.

The goat cheese was warm and luscious, and the tapenade had that classic slightly fishy flavor under the salty kalamatas that complemented the creaminess of the chevre. The chicken skewers lacked character in comparison, but were fine if somewhat plain.

All in all, a successful outing, quick and satisfying. From the prices on the dinner menu it'll be awhile before (or if) we get there for dinner, but this fit the bill for a pre-event stop.

Details: Happy Hour at 23 Hoyt. Tues.-Sat., 5-7 pm. 23 Hoyt, 529 NW 23rd Ave. Phone 503-445-7400.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Farm Bulletin: Little Doves, Little Flowers or Le Popcorn

This week Carol and Anthony Boutard will be featuring their homegrown popcorn in addition to myriad heirloom dried beans, squash, dried peppers and roots at their stall at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market. Find them between 10 am and 2 pm on Sunday.

Popcorn: Amish Butter & Pink Beauty

This ancient whole grain snack is called palomitas, "little doves," in Spanish. In other languages, it is called "little flowers." To the French, it is le popcorn. Until the 20th century, Americans referred to it as "parching corn." Given the French epithet, we were surprised there was no regression to calling it "parching corn" during that dark, Francophobic "liberty fries" era of the early 21st century.

A separate class of maize, popcorn has many ancestral traits. The kernels are small, pointed and arranged in an imbricated manner on very small ears, similar to the way dominoes rest upon one another when they fall. And, of course, they pop. Some of the most ancient remains of maize found, for example in the Bat Cave of New Mexico that was occupied 3,000 years ago, have popping type kernels. Pre-Columbian popping varieties of corn were found from New England to Peru. The diffusion of popcorn was accompanied by the manufacture of special clay vessels to pop the kernels. They were designed to contain the explosions while allowing the moisture released in the process to escape.

An effort must be made to keep popping, sweet, flour and flint strains of maize separate as they easily hybridize via the wind, resulting in the popping types losing their explosive oomph, the sweet types becoming starchy and tough and the flour types developing a flinty nature. Pre-Columbian cultures did a good job of developing and maintaining clean genetic lines of these various strains. In his treatise, Corn: Its Origin, Evolution and Improvement, Mangelsdorf notes that the indigenous Americans were expert corn breeders.

In an interesting digression, Mangelsdorf ponders whether their sheer love of the crop overcame the challenge of managing its complex genetics. Here is a man educated in the age of genetics, statistics and analytical biology grappling the most magnificent achievement of plant breeding, yet it was accomplished by anonymous individuals guided by custom and folklore. Paradoxically, the 20th century "scientific" contribution to maize has been almost entirely negative. In the modern hybrids we have succeeded in dramatically reducing the protein, vitamin and mineral content of the grain, and its flavor to boot. The kernels must be coated with powerful fungicides to aid germination, and the growing plants demand a full arsenal of chemicals in order to survive. The only charitable thing to say about these hybrids is that they produce great quantities of the depauperate grain. There is little to love in the modern hybrids.

Most commercial popcorn produced today is from carefully selected modern hybrid seeds from a narrow genetic base. The commercial varieties have a yellow aleurone layer. At the present, there are no transgenic (GMO) varieties of popcorn in commerce. Old varieties of popcorn have been preserved, and the flavor difference is readily apparent. They also have a wide range of aleurone layer colors, including white, yellow, red, pink and black. We grow two excellent popcorn varieties well suited to the short Willamette Valley growing season, and completely lovable as well.

"Amish Butter," also known as "Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored," has been traced in the literature to the mid 19th century, though it is more ancient than that. Long popular among the Amish farmers of Pennsylvania, the variety was restored to the commercial seed trade by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in 1988. It is designated a RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) variety.

"Pink Beauty" is from the Sand Hill Preservation Center, the same people from whom we order sweet potato slips. The center, run by Glenn and Linda Drowns, functions as a source of genetic material for farmers, rather than a regular seed company. We are not sure what prompted us to grow it; Glenn simply notes that the flavor is good. The understated "tastes good" seems to hook us every time. Tasting it, we find the kernels are even more tender than Amish Butter, and the flavor is different as well. Very satisfying. With Pink Beauty, there are a few more popless kernels at the bottom of the pan. We hope to select out better popping ears for our seed stock.

Neither Amish Butter nor Pink Beauty needs anything more than a light sprinkle of salt. We pop ours in a pan with a small amount of grape seed oil, using a spatter screen in place of a lid to allow the moisture to escape. Our friend Beth noted that these older varieties are more tender and better flavored when cooked in a pan with oil, rather than an air popper. We bought an air popper last week as a tool for testing popping rates for seed ears, a critical factor when saving the seeds. We have to agree with Beth, the pan and oil is the better way.

The Beet Beat

There has been sugar from genetically modified sugar beets in your Hersheys bars for nearly three years now. And lest you Mars Bars eaters think you're off the hook, they've got GMO sugar in them, too. Though the sugar industry says that since the sugar doesn't contain any DNA, just sucrose, there's nothing to worry about. The candy people themselves aren't saying anything, hoping that the issue will just go away.

The sugar beet

The reason I know this is because there was a lawsuit filed last week by a consortium of organic-seed growers, organic farmers, and environmental and consumer groups against the US Dept. of Agriculture for deregulating the herbicide-tolerant "Roundup Ready" sugar beet seeds developed by Monsanto (read a summary I wrote at

Table beets

You may be saying, with good reason, "Why should I care? I don't eat candy bars." And you'd have a point. Except that the Willamette Valley is the primary source of sugar beet seeds in the country, and those Roundup Ready seeds are being planted this winter.


Again, you could say, "So what?" But, you see, the sugar beet is essentially the same plant, beta vulgaris, as the red and yellow table beets and chard that you serve to your family. All of these depend on wind-born pollen to develop seeds, and this pollen can travel (according to an EU study in 2001) as far as 5 miles away from its source.

And since Oregon only requires a 3-mile "isolation zone" between fields, the problem becomes evident. That's why the organic farmers and seed growers were so alarmed that they went to court to try to stop it, and why you should care. I'll definitely be keeping you apprised!

Read the other posts in the series: In The Wind, The Fight Begins in Earnest, The Wheels of Justice and The Wheels of Justice, Part 2.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

And In This Corner...

This writing thing is such a gas. When I heard that there were identical twin chefs cooking at two of this town's top ethnic restaurants, it was like someone had dropped a set of keys to a brand new car into my hand. Then when David Machado (owner of Vindalho, one of the restaurants) suggested giving them a box of identical ingredients and having a cook-off, all I heard in my head was, "Vroooooom!"

Today's edition of the Oregonian's FoodDay features that article, "Twin Chef Face-Off," with excellent photos by Michael Lloyd (which are not, alas, included on their website), a side-by-side comparison of their individual stats and recipes for you to make at home. Oh, and a little blow-by-blow of the competition just to make it interesting.

Thanks to Martha for buying the story in the first place (and for the great editing), and Lindsey for her most excellent coordination!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Want Chinese? Just say, "Ommmmmmmm..."

Growing up in Redmond, Oregon, there weren't a lot of choices when it came to eating out. There were the A&W and Pedersons's for hamburgers and The Brand steakhouse for those rare special occasions. The lone outpost of anything resembling ethnic cuisine was a little Chinese cafe downtown called Johnny's, whose owner had been turned down by every bank in town for a loan because no one would do business with a "foreigner" (though I'm sure there were other less kindly terms used).

My father, who had just started a community bank in town, saw an opportunity to help a promising young businessman get started and they struck up a friendship. So whenever my parents trooped in with their three kids, Johnny never failed to come to the table to welcome us. Though my brothers always ordered hamburgers and fries, I loved everything from the flashing neon pagoda on the front of the building to the menu that featured egg foo young, chow mein and fried rice, along with canned bamboo shoots and crispy noodles. The flavors were exotic and so different from anything we had at home, and it gave me my first taste of another culture.

I still crave Chinese food on occasion, so when my brother (whose palate has expanded greatly since his hamburgers-only days) blogged about a place called Om Seafood and said that his father-in-law-to-be had given it the Chan family seal of approval, I knew I had to go there. So with our neighbors graciously agreeing to accompany us on the foray, we ventured over to SE Powell to see if it was all that.

Compared to the upscale dinnerhouse decor of Wong's King, Om Seafood is definitely on the more casual side, but the food is rightfully what brings folks there. Our whole braised fish (top) was actually fried and then covered with vegetables that had been simmered in a sauce of star anise. And, just fyi, the crunchy, crackly fins are meant to be eaten as much as the tender flesh.

We also ordered the salt and pepper shrimp (above left), and when SEH asked to have them with the shells on, our waitress looked at her like she'd just grown horns. Apparently Anglo customers don't often request them that way, but after much convincing on our part, the shrimp were brought out. They'd been deep fried, and we were instructed to eat them whole, head, shells and all. Biting down, the shells shattered and the shrimpy goodness exploded in our mouths. Who knew?

The seafood medley was good, too, and the whole crab covered in sauce, while messy, was unbelievably fantastic.

I can't wait to have those shrimp again. And I hear their noodles and hot pots can't be beat. Then there are the sizzling rice dishes and, well, I guess we'll just have to go back. See you there!

Details: Om Seafood Restaurant, 7632 SE Powell Blvd. Phone 503-788-3128.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Cheese Benefit Pays Off

When you give people the opportunity, they can really come together to help out. Since the Black Sheep Creamery was inundated by flood waters in December, there has been an outpouring of concern for them and other farmers affected by the flooding in Washington and Oregon.

Last night, the Cheese for a Good Cause benefit for Brad and Meg Gregory of Black Sheep attracted more than 200 guests and volunteers to sample some of the Northwest's premier artisan cheeses, as well as beer, wine and food from some of the region's top purveyors. There were slides of the farm before and after the disaster, and it was heartbreaking to think that nearly all of the beautiful animals in those pictures were lost to the flood.

I spoke with the Gregorys, who were in attendance, and they said that friends and fellow farmers who had bought their lambs in the past would be donating lambs from this spring's lambing season, so Black Sheep's new herd would come from the same line of animals. They also said that the money from the benefit, which totaled nearly $7,500, would be a big help in rebuilding the farm.

If you'd like to contribute to the Gregorys or to other farm families that were devastated in the flooding, there is a list of places taking contributions here.