Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dumplings of Joy

My brother pretty much summed it up in a post about his first experience with soup dumplings in Shanghai: "As nice a husband as I am, if it came down to survival and that last xiao long bao could get one of us off the desert island alive, [my wife] may have regretted her marital choice. I'm talking not just dumplings here. I'm talking barely held together bundles of translucent doughy joy, filled with a dab of meat gelatin which melts upon steaming."

Since reading that I've had a serious longing, verging on jonesing, for one of those dumplings. I've had a few that came close to the transcendent experience I imagined, but they always somehow fell short. At one food cart, the soup had leaked out of several of them. At another place, the dough was too thick, and at a third the filling was a tasteless lump of some meat-like substance.

But today, today I finally had that experience I'd been waiting for, a xiao long bao worth singing about, and certainly worth going back for in the very near future.

Handmade noodles with beef.

I'd heard that Frank Fong, long famous for his handmade noodles at Du Kuh Bee in Beaverton, had recently taken over the late, unlamented location of Eagle Thai on NE Broadway. Retooling the interior and rechristening it Frank's Noodle House, he's featuring many of the Korean and Chinese dishes he was known for in Beaverton and adding a few new twists to the offerings.

I hope to explore more of his handmade noodle offerings on future trips, but at our lunch there my friend Ivy and I ordered two of his noodle dishes, which were toothsomely appealing, as well as a crispy-skinned fried mackerel that may well turn out to be another dish that will draw me back.

But I gotta tell you, it's those little dumplings of joy that are going to haunt my dreams for awhile. With enough structural integrity to contain the broth inside, the translucent wrapper is delicate enough to practically melt in your mouth when you bite into it. And the filling, a combination of tender ground pork and ribbons of greens, gives just enough heft to satisfy.

As my brother said after he had Frank's dumplings, "Mmmm-mmmmm."

Update, 10/11/10: I talked with Frank today and he said that his dumplings are not classic xiaolongbao, but are boiled dumplings. Though his eyes lit up when I said that XLBs are almost impossible to find here, and there's a huge pent-up demand for them. So if you go in, you might mention it…just in case he can be convinced!

Details: Frank's Noodle House, 822 NE Broadway. 503-288-1007.

Think Global, Buy Local…in Hungary!

Buying local products, shopping at farmers' markets and supporting your community are ideas that are catching on here in Portland and also around the world. This video from Hungary, by way of my friend Linda Colwell and her friend Emese Ilyes, could (and maybe should) run here. And I really want to try some of Rózsika's sour cherry jam!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Infinite Sauce

Picked up 25 lbs. or so of soon-to-be-saucy goodness at Ayers Creek Farm on Sunday, and got Anthony and Carol's instructions on saving the tomato seeds for planting next year.

Saving Tomato Seeds

Pick a tomato that is especially handsome and delicious, a paragon of tomato perfection. Scoop out the seeds, leaving them in their mucilaginous goop, and plop them in a container with a tight-fitting lid. Leave it out on the counter for a week or 10 days to ferment (it will be completely disgusting). Scoop them out onto several layers of paper towels, roll them up and allow them to dry thoroughly. Making sure they're nice and dry, scrape off the seeds into a zip-lock bag. If you have a packet or capsule of desiccant left from a vitamin bottle, toss that in as well to absorb any residual moisture. Store in cool, dry place.

Social Experiment

My mother loved to entertain, and I remember many evenings reluctantly trudging upstairs to bed, falling asleep to the sound of vehement discussions and laughter floating up the stairs. One of her rules was that she never tried a new recipe out on her guests, preferring instead to stay with the tried and true.

Me, I think there's no better excuse to try something new than having folks over. I first tried out a new (to me) sauce called "pesto" on guests, and over the years there have been myriad salads, braised meats and desserts that were, for the most part, great successes. Though I have to admit there were a (very) few that, how shall I put it, will never be spoken of, or made, again.

So when my friend Peter invited us to bring an appetizer for dinner the other night, I mulled over the usual suspects…dips, wings, crostini/bruschetta, etc.…but nothing really clicked. Plus I really didn't want to make a trip to the store. So I looked around and took stock: tomatoes and kale in the garden, onions, garlic and parmesan in the pantry. Then I remembered a photo of an amazing tomato tart I'd seen on the cover of a cookbook, and the deal, as they say, was sealed.

Made with all sizes and colors of tomatoes, it fit perfectly with what I had on hand, though it would have been great with simple red tomatoes, too. The thin layer of sautéed kale and parmesan tucked underneath was just the right bass note for the bright treble of the fresh tomatoes. And the dinner that night, with great food, wine and friends laughing and talking, was one my mother would have loved. Even if I broke one of her rules.

Tomato, Kale and Parmesan Tart

For the crust:
1 1/4 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. cold butter or margarine, cut into pieces
2-3 Tbsp. ice water

For the filling:
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
4-6 leaves lacinato (or black) kale, sliced into chiffonade
1/2 c. parmesan, grated fine
3-4 tomatoes, sliced in 1/4" thick slices (cherry tomatoes can be halved)

Preheat oven to 375°.

Put flour and salt in the bowls of a food processor and pulse to combine. Add pieces of butter and pulse until the texture of cornmeal. With processor running, drizzle in water until it comes together in the bowl. (I usually use 2 1/2 Tbsp. and it comes together well without being too wet.) Remove from bowl, adding in any stray bits, wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 1/2 hour.

Roll out dough on floured surface to make 12" round. Transfer to 9" diameter tart pan with removable bottom. Trim edges, leaving 3/4" overhang. Fold overhang in to form double-thick sides. Press tart edges to raise dough 1/8" above pan. Chill in refrigerator for 30 min.

Add olive oil to non-stick skillet and heat until oil shimmers. Add chopped onion and garlic and sauté till golden, stirring frequently to avoid browning. Add kale chiffonade and sauté till wilted. Remove from heat and set aside.

Line crust with foil and bake until golden, about 20 min. Remove from oven and cool slightly. Scatter kale mixture over the bottom of the crust, then sprinkle with parmesan. Top with single layer of tomatoes, arranging randomly. Place in oven and bake for 40 min. or until crust is browned and tomatoes are cooked through. Let cool slightly and remove outer ring. Slide off bottom onto serving platter. Serve warm or at room temperature. (And I hear the leftovers are great for breakfast the next day.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Doing the Wave

It's time for another episode of Shameful Kitchen Secrets, where I have to 'fess up to a transgression of the Ten Commandments for Foodies.

What is it this time, you ask?

The food gods have a special chair in a hot corner of foodie hell for those of us who use that appliance called a microwave. The mere mention of it in polite company has brought a gasp, with an accompanying look of consternation, from a dinner guest, as if I'd just admitted to letting the dogs lick the plates before setting the table.

I might be slapped lightly on the wrist and made to write "I promise not to use Satan's oven" 100 times if I only used it for heating the odd cup of lukewarm coffee or thawing the dogs' ground chicken when I forget to pull it out of the freezer in time for their dinner. But no, my sin is much greater, much more of the spend-eternity-cleaning-behind-the-oven-with-a-toothbrush kind of thing.

It is that…please don't be too shocked…I make risotto in the microwave.

There. I've said it. Are you still with me?

My excuse is that when I inherited the appliance from my mother, rather than taking it straight to Goodwill I made the mistake of plugging it in to see if it worked. And it did. Rather well. Plus I'd had a copy of Barbara Kafka's "Microwave Gourmet"moldering in the back of my cookbook shelf for years, and pulled it out to see what laughable wisdom she might have to impart. That's when I saw a section on risottos, one of my favorite comfort foods ever.

That Satan is a very sneaky character, no?

From there…well…from there it was a slippery slope to the chair in hell mentioned previously. The risotto turned out creamy with an ever-so-slight tooth to the rice, just like it should. And, while my brother would (and still does) disagree, I consider it a perfectly acceptable, not to mention quick and easy, alternative to the classic ladle stock, stir, ladle stock, stir ad infinitum method.

So now you know. I hope my confession has elicited pity more than condemnation. I do still make risotto the classic way when we have guests, since goodness knows I don't want them to know my dirty little secret and the damn dinging of the timer is a dead giveaway. But if you want to prove me wrong, to show me the error of my ways, I'm including a recipe below. Have fun (if you can handle the guilt)!

Spinach and Bacon Risotto

A couple of caveats about microwave cooking. Timing can vary depending on how powerful your oven is. It might be helpful to consult the book that came with your appliance for guidelines. My mother's oven is fairly old (mid-90s) but pretty powerful; experimentation is encouraged. Also, ingredients can vary widely…I've made a paella version with seafood and saffron and, god help me, it turned out great.

6 slices bacon, cut in 1" pieces
2 Tbsp. butter or margarine
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 red or yellow onion, chopped fine
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 c. arborio rice
5 c. chicken stock (or 4 c. stock, 1 c. dry white wine)
1 bunch spinach, chopped
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 1/2 c. parmesan, grated
Salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the bacon in a frying pan until the fat is rendered but it is still tender. Set aside.

Combine butter and oil in large microwave-safe bowl. Heat for 1 minute on high or until melted and quite warm. Stir in onion and garlic, coating with the butter and oil, and heat for 2 min. on high. Stir in the rice. Heat for 2 min. on high. Add the bacon, bacon fat, stock and wine (if using) and stir to combine. Heat for 10 min. on high. Add spinach and stir, cooking for another 10 minutes or until the rice has absorbed most of the stock but is still creamy. Add tomatoes and 1/2 c. of the parmesan and combine, adding salt and pepper to taste. Cook longer if it is still too soupy or add liquid if it is too dry…the rice should be very slightly al dente, not mushy. Serve with remaining parmesan.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My Dream Café

If contributor Jim Dixon of RealGoodFood opened a café, I'd eat there on a regular basis. The atmosphere would be convivial, with lots of conversation and laughter. The staff would be friendly yet professional, long-time servers who know (and enjoy) their customers and love food. And the ingredients would be first-rate, with Italian olive oils, grains and beans instinctively combined with the freshest seasonal produce to make simple, satisfying fare.

While I’m not really thrilled with the rain (September is usually Oregon’s best month, sunny warm days and cool evenings), it does mean more mushrooms. Some old friends have a cabin near Trout Lake, and they recently brought us a big bag of white chanterelles from the slopes of Mt. Adams.

Chanterelles and Corn

I cook mushrooms using the dry saute method from Dave Arora's "All That the Rain Promises and More,"a handy guide for funghi lovers. Chanterelles split naturally from top to bottom, so after washing and picking out the fir needles, I tear them into 3-4 pieces, then toss into a dry skillet over medium heat.

The mushrooms will quickly begin to give up their moisture. Watch them closely, and when most of the liquid has cooked off, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and cook for a few more minutes. A sprinkle of flor de sal and they’re ready to eat.

With these white chanterelles, I splashed a bit of white wine into the skillet and added a chopped shallot along with the olive oil.

I’d also picked up a few ears of fresh corn  at the farmers market, and while I hadn’t meant to combine them with the mushrooms, serendipity brought them together.

I cut the kernels from the cobs, tossed them in a skillet with olive oil and salt, and roasted the corn until nicely browned. Both the roasted corn and chanterelles were served as side dishes, but I couldn’t stop mixing them on my plate. The sweet corn and umami-rich mushrooms seem made for each other. While we should have chanterelles around for at least a few more weeks, fresh corn will be over soon, so pick up a few ears and celebrate the last gasp of our crappy summer.

Top photo from Langdon Cook's Fat of the Land, a terrific blog about foraging in the Northwest.


Whether we get it from TV or restaurant chefs or glossy magazines, one of the Big Lies of our current food-obsessed age is that you can't prepare great food or, heaven help us, entertain if you have anything less than a gourmet kitchen costing tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars. That kitchen, of course, must be filled with gleaming stainless steel appliances, preferably restaurant-grade. (Think Viking 6-burner stove and Sub-Zero refrigerator.)

The pickle bar.

But all you have to do to turn off the smoke machine and clear the air is to drop into Evoe some early afternoon and take a seat at Kevin Gibson's prep table-cum-chef's bar. With little more than a sharp knife, a mandoline and the same exact non-stick plug-in griddle my mom made pancakes on for most of my childhood, he turns out what I consider some of the best food in the city. I mean, the guy had to beg to get a stove, for gosh sakes, and got a household-grade electric one for his trouble! (Forget gas or a fancy, much less any, hood.)

More padrons, please!

The other day when my son and I dropped in for lunch—I was using up the last of my Christmas coupon for three lunches, his treat—we waited for a seat and pounced when two opened up. (Could it have been my drooling on their shoulders that caused them to leave in such a hurry?) We ordered our usual deviled eggs, Kevin's breathtakingly mustard-infused version dipped in bread crumbs and fried on his griddle till warm and vaporous.

And since I hadn't yet had my fill of padron peppers this year, an order of those was de rigeur, and a huge pile of the blistered gems soon appeared before us. The best thing to do at Evoe is to order your next plate when one arrives, so on Kevin's advice we ordered the whole sea bream stuffed with minced fennel fronds and with an array of sautéed whole cherry tomatoes alongside.

Octopus salad.

As we munched our peppers, Kevin disappeared into the kitchen and emerged with a fish, which he slashed crosswise and showered with salt crystals while it came up to room temperature. Turning on a burner (electric, remember?) he put a pan on the stove to get it searingly hot and moved to the chopping block, mincing up the fennel stuffing. When it was safely stowed inside the fish, he put the fish into the pan for it to brown for a few minutes.

At some point between flipping the fish to sear the other side and putting it into the oven to finish cooking, he added a bunch of cherry tomatoes to the pan. And that's the other thing I love about this place: it's like getting a master-level cooking class for the price of lunch, my idea of the perfect noon-time activity.

The sea bream emerged moist on the inside with salty, crispy skin (top photo), and we took Kevin's advice and pried out the cheek and head meat, leaving little but bones and a couple of fins on the plate. To finish off in style we went for the octopus salad, a concoction of more cherry tomatoes and chilled octo lightly dressed with a simple vinaigrette.

So while Kevin's got more raw talent in his little fingernail than I'll ever achieve, it's instructive to watch someone make food magic with the most basic of kitchen appliances. Instructive and delicious.

Details: Evoe, 3731 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. Phone 503-232-1010.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Farm Bulletin: Old McDonald Never Mentioned This

Cows, sheep, chickens…sure. Normal farm animals. Stretch a little and maybe you'll come up with birds, bees, bugs. Even coyotes or other predators. But contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston has noticed yet another creature that calls his farm home.

Moss Animals

Our trips to the irrigation pump are less frequent as temperatures moderate. We are starting to withhold water from the annual crops. For the berries, however, watering through September is critical so the primocanes, which will bear next year's crop, can put on as much growth as possible. Heavy canes bear better fruit. Winter crops like the cabbages, chicories and parsnips must also receive a good dose of water for good root development. When starting the pump, we watch the water carefully for any changes in quality.

This week, a new creature appeared near the pump station. A large moss animal, or Bryozoan, was drifting in water (top photo). A gelatinous mass about the size of a soccer ball, it is known to bryozoologists as Pectinatella magnifica (left, from Wikimedia). It is the largest of the 22 freshwater moss animals found in North America. Most are delicate creatures that go unnoticed by all but a handful of dedicated professionals. Pectinatella is hard to ignore, and brought us back to invertebrate zoology class.

The bryozoans are invertebrate animals with a nervous system and a gut, and in the same general evolutionary branch as sea urchins and lamp shells. They feed on bacteria and algae using feathery tentacles reminiscent of corals. Like corals, they are colonial animals, and the large mass drifting in our irrigation channel is actually a colony of individuals that are fused together in the gelatinous matrix. Ambling along the bank, we saw several other colonies ranging in size from a softball to a medicine ball. They need warm, clean water. As the water temperature drops below 60 degrees (15 C), the colonies will die. The species carries on by producing a resting stage called a statoblast, and next year these will grow into new colonies.

Most of 4,000 or so bryozoans are marine animals, and attach themselves to rocks, piers and ship hulls. Of the many animal orders covered in invertebrate biology class, we would nominate a bryozoan as an unlikely resident of a Willamette Valley farm. Obviously, we weren't paying attention to the mention of 50 freshwater species separated into the Class Phylactolaemata, and their preference for clean, still waters.

Water is every farmer's vulnerability. We fret constantly about the supply, delivery and quality. Seeing this stately creature drifting slowly in the water, with its ancestry stretching back 450-million years to the Ordovician Period, provided a comforting benediction on the irrigation ditch.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Get Thee To the Market!

The blessing (or silver lining, if you will) of this cooler NW summer is that the month of September has never looked better at Oregon farmers' markets, and October looks to be just as bountiful. Peppers of all shapes, colors and flavors are piled high on tables (Philomath's Gathering Together Farm being just one example, above), luscious heirloom tomatoes will be available for several more weeks and squash from small delicatas to large Cinderellas will soon be making an appearance.

And no matter the day of the week, you'll find a farmers' market open in the metro area with several to choose from on most days. A complete schedule with maps and links of Willamette Valley markets, including the 40 or so in the metro area is available here, so make plans to get out and get yours while the getting's good!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Livin' in the Blurbs: Celebrities and Class Acts

When my semi-regular bulletin came in from Luan at Foster & Dobbs, one of the city's best cheese shops squirreled away in NE Portland's Irvington neighborhood, I was floored. There, buried amid a plethora of can't-miss wine tastings, book signings and classes, were two names that sang out. One was Paul Bertolli (left), charcutier extraordinaire and the progenitor of the art of cured meat in America (no big salami jokes, please). The other was Zoe Brickley, the cave maven and "superstar affineur" of that center of all things cheesy and good known as Murray's in New York City. They'll both be at F&D in early October, and I urge you to get yourself in there for one or both sessions.
  • Cheese Science for the Enthusiast with Zoe Brickley of Murray's discussing cheese basics with samples of the cheeses included. Fri., Oct. 1, 7:15 pm; $25, reservations required.
  • Fra' Mani Handcrafted Salumi with Paul Bertolli, who will be on hand to share tastes and chat about his succulent cured meats. Sat., Oct. 2, 2:30-4:30 pm; free.
Details: Foster & Dobbs Authentic Foods, 2518 NE 15th Ave. Phone 503-284-1157.

* * *

The arrival of fall—and don't tell me you haven't been pulling up the comforter the last few nights—means that new class schedules have been jamming up in-boxes all around the Northwest. One of the most unusual schedules is from SweetWares, the baking supply shop-cum-cooking school in Hillsdale. From Indian curries to challah to Mexican Day of the Dead sugar skulls (I kid you not), they've got a great lineup of reasonably priced hands-on classes coming in the next couple of months.
  • Big, Fat, Tall, Luscious Layer Cakes with Melissa Carey Ragland. Thurs., Sept. 23, 1-4 pm; $75 with preregistration.
  • Day of the Dead Sugar Skulls with Andrea Nicholas of SweetPerennial Sugar Flower Boutique. Sat., Oct. 2, 10-11:30 am; $40 with preregistration
  • Decorating Your Fall Baked Goods with Chocolate Transfers with former Baker & Spice cake whiz and Sugarhouse Cake owner, Erin Fale. Sat., Oct. 23, 10-11 am; $45 with preregistration.
Details: SweetWares, 6306 SW Capitol Hwy. in the Hillsdale Shopping Center. Phone 503-546-3737.

* * *

And the final class act in this list is my brother, Bruce, the proprietor of Sellwood wine shop Vino and the always-insightful, pomposity-popping author of the blog Eat. Drink. Think. He's moving the shop (details here) to SE 28th, involving a month-long hiatus, meaning I'll be looking forward to reading many more posts on the blog (since he'll have all that time on his hands), yet I'll be missing his hilarious and pointed weekly tasting notices that never fail to stray from the matter at hand. From his final tasting notice: "The hardest part of this move and the ensuing closure is knowing that I will miss commenting each Friday on the next election cycle and all the juicy bits that entails. The myopians who are Tea Party candidates alone provide a full buffet of opportunity. Any political party who elects a bill-evading deadbeat like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware deserves every bit of ridicule they incur. Even Karl Rove called her out, saying "there were a lot of nutty things she has been saying that just simply don't add up." Look for a Big Sale on Saturday, Sept. 18, as he depletes his stock, the better to fill up the new shop with fresh deals!

Details: Vino, 1226 SE Lexington in Sellwood. Phone 503-235-8545.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Aw, Shucks!

My neighbor Ivy showed up on my front porch a few weeks ago and said I absolutely had to enter a contest to win a scholarship to a prestigious writing symposium in West Virginia. And the deadline was the next day. Oh.

The Greenbrier.

But the entry form was short, they only wanted two stories and the chance at a trip sounded kinda fun. In doing some research I found out that the Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Food Writers has been around since 1989, and is considered one of the best gatherings in the country for food writers, with a deep panel of speakers and mucho opportunity for networking. So I sent in my entry the next day, got back a confirmation and pretty much forgot about it.

The notification date for winners came and went without a word, so I figured I hadn't won. Oh well.

Then a few days later I got an e-mail telling me that I'd won a Special Mention for a brand new award, the "James Patrick McDermott 'Place at the Table' Scholarship for Social Change through Food Writing." While it didn't come with any money attached, and I couldn't afford to go without it (it's a couple of thousand bucks not counting airfare), I was thrilled to have placed in the competition, especially in that category.

Out of the 114 individual entries, the message from Antonia Allegra, founder of the symposium, said, "the judges LOVED your writing, Kathleen, particularly the Hmong cookbook story! [Both] your stories scored high throughout the judging, which was done by 7 highly skilled judges. I’m so glad you have received this recognition that says you are a fine writer."


Oh, and Ivy won the Chronicle Books Scholarship for Recipe Writing and is there right now, taking it all in. Congrats, Ivy, and thanks for encouraging me to get off my lazy arse and enter!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Fantastic Fungus

Picture this: a sauce that's as black as black bean soup, with an earthy aroma wafting up from it that's part truffle, part corn. It can be chunky or smooth. And, like mushrooms, it has that quality of umami that brings out the flavors of anything its served with, whether cheese, meat or vegetables.

In Mexican cuisine it's called huitlacoche and is a prized delicacy, especially when fresh.

Here in America, however, it's called corn smut or corn blight and has been targeted by the USDA as a disease of the corn plant that must be eradicated. Thus it is very hard to find in it's fresh state. And you know it's trouble when even an organization as revered as the James Beard Foundation, which hosted an all-huitlacoche dinner in 1989, couldn't raise the fungus's status. Sigh.

I'd had chunks of it in empanadas and as a smooth black sauce on steak when we were in Mazatlan a few years ago, but hadn't run across any since. So when I heard that my friend Kathryn LaSusa Yeomans of The Farmer's Feast had managed to cadge some from a local farmer who was wise enough not to plow under his field when he discovered it, I had to have some.

At the Portland Farmers' Market in Pioneer Courthouse Square on Monday she was spooning it into a steaming bowl of mushroom corn chowder. She had me taste the chowder alone, a lovely, rich broth with fresh corn and sliced mushrooms, perfectly fine by itself. But with just a small spoonful of the huitlacoche it was transformed into a blast of flavors, each one bigger and richer than it was by itself. Wow!

We can only hope that some enterprising farmer will take the smut challenge and realize that a field of huitlacoche will bring chefs and their customers flocking and throwing cash in his or her direction. Anyone willing to take this one on?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Market Report: Southern Accent

The end of summer and early fall is when we here in the Northwest start seeing crops at the farmers' markets that require lots of sun to mature. It's hard to believe, but a few local growers have actually managed to get okra to grow here, along with the peppers that are so much a part of Southern cuisine. Contributor Jim Dixon of RealGoodFood shares a recipe he collected on his trip to New Orleans last year.

When we ate at Cochon in New Orleans last year, I ended up talking to chef and co -owner Stephen Stryjewski. I mentioned that I sold olive oil, and I’ve been shipping both extra virgin olive oil and Katz vinegars south ever since.

The Cajun food served at Cochon is very similar to the simple, Italian-like stuff I like to make, but with a slightly different ingredient mix. Many dishes use a base of aromatic vegetables to build flavor, and what they call the trinity in Louisiana—onion, celery, and bell pepper cooked in fat—is basically the sofrito that’s the start of many Italian preparations.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. The Acadians expelled from Canada in the late 1700s were mostly French, and even before the Louisiana Purchase the area was being settled by German, Italian, Greek, and Irish immigrants. Working folks from these European cultures knew how to get the most from everyday ingredients. Mix in the influences from Spain (who sold the Mississippi delta area to the USA), the Caribbean, and Africa, and, with the right hands in the kitchen, you get real good food.

Fresh okra was available last week at the farmers market, and my sungolds are still getting ripe. Combine both with a little cured pork and put on some zydeco. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Okra, Cherry Tomatoes and Bacon
Adapted from "Real Cajun,"the Cochon cookbook

Cooking the okra separately in hot oil keeps it from getting that slimy quality. Slice the okra into one inch chunks and cook in fairly hot olive oil until nicely browned, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

Cut a few slices of bacon into small pieces and cook in a little olive oil until browned. Add a chopped onion, a pinch of salt, and, if you like a little heat, all or part of a finely chopped jalapeno or other mildly hot to incendiary pepper. Add a decent splash of Katz Gravenstein Apple Cider vinegar and cook for 10-15 minutes.

Slice about a pint of sungold cherry tomatoes in half. Add to the bacon, toss in the cooked okra, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Serve with Crystal hot sauce.

If you'd like to get Jim's e-mail newsletters with updates on what he's featuring each week at Activspace and at the farmers' market, send him an e-mail with "Subscribe" in the subject line.

Bitten Again

Mark Bittman must be a really busy guy. Aside from his weekly Minimalist column in the New York Times, he has a very active blog, regular speaking engagements that take him around the country and one of the hottest apps on iTunes based on his book, "How to Cook Everything."Not that he had much to do with the app…it was written right here in Portland by my friend, fab programmer and co-founder of Culinate.com, James Berry.

He used to have his own blog on the New York Times site, Bitten, but it's since been mooshed in with the newspaper's other food blogs and retitled Diner's Journal. (One might wonder if the Grey Lady was a little jealous of his traffic numbers and wanted to draft off his success. But I digress.)

Our own black cherry tomatoes simmering to perfection.

I've referenced Bittman's recipes multiple times on this blog, and realized recently that there was one that I hadn't told you about. It's one of my favorite easy dinners, especially during tomato season, and it calls for garlic, anchovies and cherry tomatoes. Yes, really, just three ingredients. Well, and pasta to put it on, optional red pepper flakes for zing and some grated parmesan. But it's that simple sauce that's the beauty part, rich and flavorful and the perfect combination of comfort and freshness.

Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes, Anchovies and Garlic
Adapted from Mark Bittman's recipe for the New York Times

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
10 garlic cloves, peeled
2 or 3 dried red chiles, optional
20 anchovy fillets, more or less [I usually use 1 tin, drained]
2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound cut pasta, like penne
Chopped fresh parsley leaves for garnish
Grated parmesan 

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Put olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat; a minute later, add garlic and chiles, if using. Cook garlic so it bubbles gently. When it is lightly browned all over, add anchovies. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about a minute, until anchovies begin to fall apart, then add tomatoes. Adjust heat so tomatoes bubble nicely, and cook until mixture becomes saucy, about 5 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary.

Meanwhile, cook pasta until tender but not mushy. When it is done, drain it, reserving a little cooking water to thin sauce if necessary. Pour sauce over pasta, sprinkle with parsley and serve with parmesan alongside.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Farm Bulletin: Up Close and Personal

Each year Anthony and Carol host a Field Day at Ayers Creek Farm. Last year's was not only informative but fabulous, and this year looks to be no exception. Mark your calendars now for Oct. 3!

We are planning a field tour for Sunday, the 3rd of October at 3 pm, rain or shine. It won't be a grand fête, but the tour will give you all a picture of the "worked over" farm stripped of its crops, and the transition to winter vegetables. There will be a fair amount of walking as this year the plantings are more scattered than usual. Map and directions here.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Setting a Big Table

"Clementine, the Catahoula leopard hound, has been anxious since dawn, not wanting to be too far from her owner, Clare Carver of Big Table Farm. Clare has been moody for the past couple of days. Even Clare's husband, Brian, has been giving his wife a wide berth. When Clare goes up to the hill pasture to sit with her pigs, Picnic and Pancake, Clementine stations herself with a good view of the road. She knows something is coming, something that is making Clare sad, and she wants to be ready."

A portrait of life on Big Table Farm in Gaston appears in this month's issue of NW Palate magazine, and I think it's one of the best things I've written lately. While the article is not available online, you can buy the magazine in Portland at B. Dalton, Borders, Chapters, Fred Meyer, Metropolitan Markets, 
Powell’s Books, Thriftway, WaldenBooks, Winco and Zupan’s, or subscribe for $15 for six issues a year. Other newsstands around the Northwest are listed on the website, so pick up a copy or three!

Livin' in the Blurbs: Kids, Cookbooks and Art

Once in awhile do you wish you could just drop your kids off someplace for dinner then go get yourself a nice cocktail? Well, this month at Salvador Molly's in Hillsdale your kids will not only eat free, but the proceeds from every adult entrée will go toward feeding homeless kids at the Community Transitional School (CTS). CTS runs a special curriculum and feeds their students 2 nutritious meals a day, and in addition it will run a contest for its students to compete for best attendance (their biggest challenge because of their circumstances) and win a meal catered for their class by Salvador Molly's. So let the kids sit at their own table, order a margarita and some food, and feel virtuous; because you're doing something not only for yourself, but for someone else!

Details: Salvador Molly's "Kids Eat Free During September" Event. Salvador Molly's, 1523 SW Sunset Blvd. Phone 503-293-1790.

* * *

Do you or someone you love suffer from the heartbreak of cookbook addiction? Then the Portland Culinary Alliance is having the event of your dreams when it hosts Eat My Words: Chef Cookbooks Symposium and Luncheon on Oct. 2. Portland and Seattle cookbook authors, including Ethan Stowell, Cory Schreiber, Vitaly Paley, Piper Davis, Robert Reynolds and Ellen Jackson, will discuss the particulars of writing a cookbook, followed by a lunch with dishes from their books, which will be available for purchase and signing. So drip some berry coulis on Rustic Fruit Dessertsand have Cory sign your copy!

Details: Eat My Words: Chef Cookbooks Syposium and Luncheon. Oct. 2, 9:30 am-2 pm; $65, tickets available online or by e-mail. Hotel DeLuxe, 729 SW 15th Ave. Phone 402-270-4604.

* * *

If a drive out in the country on a crisp fall day sounds as appealing to you as it does to me, the the first two weekends in October will be the perfect excuse to jump in the car and head out on the highway. Why? Because its time for the Art Harvest Studio Tour in Yamhill, featuring tours of more than 40 artists' studios with an opportunity to talk to, and buy art from, some fabulously talented folks. One is Clare Carver of Big Table Farm in Gaston, who's featured in an article by yours truly in this month's NW Palate magazine. So take a picnic and make a day (or more) of it!

Details: 17th Annual Art Harvest Tour of Yamhill County. Oct. 1-3 and 8-10; $7 for button to get into studios. Self-guided tour map and information available on the website. Phone 503-883-3050.

Salad Smackdown: Grain and Bear it!

I've decided I'm going to name my next cat, when I find it, Tabbouli. If it's a tabby, that is. And it probably will be, since I'm bound and determined to find a marmalade cat like our dearly departed Chester, one of those red-rather-than-orange types like Thomasina in The Three Lives of Thomasina.

Chester, unretouched.

My favorite movie as a child, I would weep through the whole thing, especially when she (of course) is returned to the child, Mary, at the end. It was only slightly ruined when I watched it with my son when he was four or five and he pointed out that Thomasina was played by two different cats with very different markings. So I told him that the Easter bunny and Santa were fakes. (Not really…)

Frikeh simmering on the stove.

What does this have to do with salad, you might ask? Well, I not only like the name Tabbouli, I also adore the grain salad with the same moniker. So when I ran across Eamon Molloy's recipe for a frikeh tabbouli in the Hillsdale Farmers' Market newsletter, I knew it was one I had to try and it didn't disappoint. It can also be made with other grains like farro, bulgur or couscous (not technically a grain, I know), but those obviously won't have the slightly smoky flavor imparted by the scorching of the wheat. (Frikeh has a notoriously short season unless, unlike me this year, you buy as much as you can and then freeze it for future use…d'oh!)

Frikeh Tabbouli

1 c. cooked frikeh (cooled)
6 Tbsp. olive oil
2 c. finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (about 3 bunches)
1/2 c. finely chopped fresh mint (about two bunches)
2 medium tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 cucumber, peeled, cored and diced
1/2 c. finely diced sweet onion or scallions
6 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

To prepare the frikeh, rinse the grains and then combine one part frikeh and two parts water in a pot of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for about a half hour. Frikeh can be used in recipes calling for rice or bulgher. Tabbouleh is simple summer salad where you can use frikeh. If using other grain, follow directions for its preparation.

Wash and dry parsley. Finely chop leaves and small tender stems. Wash and dry mint, remove leaves from stems and finely chop. Combine mint, parsley, onion, tomato and cucumber in a bowl. Add frikeh, olive oil and lemon juice.

Eamon adds a note at the end: "Tabbouleh recipes are, as Captain Barbosa in Pirates of the Caribbean would say, 'more like guidelines.' If you like more grain in your tabbouli, just add more frikeh."

More salads in the Smackdown: Kale Salad with Anchovies, Olives and Lemon and Panzanella.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Lovely Lincoln

Sometimes I'm a little behind. As in late to the party, the last to know, maybe even a little slow on the uptake. But better late than never, right? Right?

So it was that when friends called to see if we'd like to join them for dinner at Lincoln, I had to admit that, no, though it's a mere five-minute drive from our door to theirs, we had yet to have dinner at the now 2-year-old establishment. And we'd even heard very complimentary things about the food, the service and the Northwest-meets-midcentury design of the place.

We walked in right on time for our 7:15 pm reservation and found our friends already ensconced at the bar with drinks in hand (one of many reasons we love them), so we sat down and ordered a round for ourselves. The maître d' stopped by to let us know our table was ready, but said there was no hurry if we wanted to hang at the bar for a few minutes, and she was as good as her word.

We moved the party to the table, our drinks floating behind us care of the able staff, and ordered the octopus salad (meaty and delicious) and thyme flatbread with tonnato (a tuna-based spread), heirloom tomatoes and a spoonful of fennel salad…fresh and totally seasonal. I noticed that padron peppers were featured on another salad and, because our friends had never tasted them, I asked our waitress if the chef could possibly fry up a few for them to sample.

Within moments a plate piled with the peppers arrived and as we nibbled…who am I kidding?…inhaled them we ordered our entrées, two of us going for rabbit, one for albacore (two large pieces seared on green beans and bottarga, above) and the other rounding it out with a lamb ragu. My rabbit (above right), a confit of two legs on soft polenta with padron peppers and pimenton, was tender and juicy, a nice trick to pull off with the leanness of this meat, even considering it's the juiciest part of the bunny.

I found out later that this place is known for its housemade pastas, and our experience confirmed that in spades. The malloreddus pasta, which came with a rabbit ragu, was a new one on me, looking for all the world like a pile of little white caterpillars. Which put none of us off of it in the least, since we all passed bites around for the table to sample. Dave had also ordered a pasta dish, this one with sorcetti, similar to gnocchi and made with potatoes, that came topped by a lamb ragu. The rich stew was mixed with plenty of pecorino and was the sneaker hit of the evening.

The bottle of Chateau Trinquevedel Tavel Rosé that we chose was light enough for the albacore but had enough body and acid to take on the ragus, so the group was more than happy on that front. After dinner it was shots of scotch and __ for the guys (no cigars, alas…I love that smell with scotch!) and a dessert for the table, a light meringue layered with creme fraiche and slathered with blueberries (above left). A nigh perfect finish.

So though we might have been a tad slow to come to the table at Lincoln, we were more than pleased that we'd finally taken our seats there.

Details: Lincoln, 3808 N Williams Ave. Phone 503-288-6200.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Dining to Make a Difference

If the list of restaurants you'd like to try is as long as your arm but your wallet is looking a little thin these days, you'll want to check out Portland Eats Out. A discount dining club with a difference, it's got a stellar lineup of local restos that's growing by the day, and it offers a 15% discount on meals when you dine from Sunday through Thursday.

So what makes it different from other discount groups? Just this: ten percent of each $69 membership (that's $6.90 for you non-math types) will go to the Oregon Food Bank to help feed hungry Oregonians. Even better, the discount is good for a table of up to four people as long as one is a card-carrying member of the club.

It was started by local entrepreneur Stacy Stahl, owner of a couple of local talent agencies, who wanted to give back to the community and help out restaurants that are struggling in the tough economy. After announcing her idea at a dinner with friends (who heartily encouraged her), she went out and made it happen.

Chefs and restaurants are flocking to the cause, since it costs them nothing and fills empty seats on off nights, with the list ranging from top-flight destinations to those with family-friendly menus and even food carts. And who can't get behind that?

Details: Portland Eats Out. More information and memberships available online.

See the ad for Portland Eats Out in the right-hand column of this blog.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Farm Bulletin: Consider the Grass-Carrying Wasp

I was first captured by contributor Anthony Boutard's writing when I read his description of the barn owls on his farm: "Barn owl school started this week. You know the semester has started when you enter the barn and the ground is littered with dead mice and voles. We entered the barn early one overcast morning this week and disrupted class. The adults skedaddled into the box, leaving three of the immature birds fluttering around the barn in a state of panic. The fourth was calm and just watched us." I've been a fan ever since.

Ecce Isodontia

Against the dark foliage of the Douglas firs, long yellow wisps of dry grass float by against the wind. The scene could, at a glance, be one of Miyazaki's haunting animations. The creature animating each piece of grass is called the "Grass-carrying Wasp." These thread-waisted wasps belong to the genus Isodontia, a taxon distinguished by the grass-carrying habit. They are part of the larger Sphecid family which includes the mud daubers and digger wasps. The Sphecids are all solitary predators.

A grass-carrying wasp caught in the activity for which it was named.

The grass-carriers use existing cavities to build their nests, and those cavities may be part of your house. On our house, they nest in the space between the corner-boards and the shiplap siding. For the fields, we have built boxes with hundreds of bamboo segments to provide nesting habitat for cavity-nesting bees and wasps. We favor bamboo because each pole will have a range of cavity sizes, so we attract everything from the tiniest mason bee to relatively large wasps. They coexist happily. Bamboo is also more sanitary over time than the commonly used paper tubes, and it never gets soggy during the winter monsoons.  

The female Isodontia constructs the nest by lining the cavity with grass, and then provisions it with young grasshoppers, katydids and crickets. The wasp injects venom into the prey and cradles the insect between its legs, grasps  the antennae with its mandibles, then flies to the nest. She drags the insect into the hole, executes a U-turn, and comes out head first. A neat feat given the space constraints. Her wings are pretty ragged by the end of the season.

The poor prey must be thinking, "I have a bad feeling about this…"

She lays her eggs among the prey, then plugs the nest with more grass. The grass is carried the same way as the prey, one end in the mandibles and the other end cradled in the legs. As the grass blade is several times longer than the wasp, it streams behind her.

The eggs hatch and the larvae feed on the stored insects and then pupate over the winter, emerging next summer as adults. The last eggs laid grow into males and exit first, followed a week or so later by the females. Mason bees follow the same pattern. The males are smaller and built for the nuptial rites alone, while the larger female is left with all of the post-nuptial chores.

Hers is not easy work. As the wasp approaches the cavity, a yellow-jacket swoops down, hoping she will drop her prey. It hazes her whether she bears a cricket or a blade of grass, clearly unable to distinguish between her loads. At the nesting box, other smaller wasps scurry around. They may be "cuckoo types" that lay an egg on her prey in her absence, or parasitic wasps that feed upon the developing larvae themselves.

We seem to have at least two species nesting here. Some of the the nests are plugged neatly, looking just like the end of a factory-made cigarette. Other nests are plugged with the grass sticking out, Cheech Marin style. The wasps we see at the moment, with their reddish legs and wings, are probably the species Isodontia elegans. The adults are survive on nectar.

Like all other wasps, our grass carriers can inflict a painful sting. We live among a large number of wasps and bees on the farm, and the only one to sting us unprovoked is the domesticated honey bee. When nectar is short in late summer, honey bees become very aggressive. Over the course of the summer, we will be stung many times by the "gentle" honey bee. Other wasps and bees steer clear of us, and only attack when we actually disturb their nest.

Room with a View

When someone comes in from out of town, particularly if they haven't been out for a long time, it's good to take in some sights. My thoughts tend to run to the beach, Mt. Hood, Timberline, the Gorge…places that will put beautiful pictures in someone's mind, places that will give them not only a sense of how physically incredible our corner of the country is, but also the sensations of the place—the smells, sounds and tastes of the Northwest.

So when my sister-in-law came out from Vermont recently, we took her to Hopworks for some of our favorite beer. Owner Christian Ettinger came over to say hello, and when he heard we had a visitor from Vermont, he personally insisted on pouring her a full tasting tray. What a guy…and talk about making us look good!

There was also lots of food, including a requisite trip to one of our fabulous farmers' markets and a big dinner with friends in the back yard featuring some of Dave's signature smoked brisket. But when it came time for a drive, we were torn. Coast? Mountains? Fortunately, she's almost as crazy about beer as her brother, so it made sense to take a drive up through the Gorge to Hood River and Double Mountain Brewing.

Which allowed us the opportunity to take the old Columbia River Highway and stop at Vista House, a must-see for tourists but one I've avoided for just that reason. Though when we arrived, lo and behold the old viewpoint house, which had been shuttered and closed for many decades, was open and had been beautifully restored. Even the upper balcony that circumnavigates the building was open, allowing a view that is still one of the most breathtaking in all of Oregon (video, top).

After a stop at Multnomah Falls and lunch in Hood River, we headed across the river and drove down the Washington side to Stevenson, parasailors skidding across the sparkling water. Pulling over to experience the full force of the Gorge winds, we saw that a new kinetic sculpture, called Galaxy, had been installed at the city's waterfront park.

Crossing back to Oregon over the spectacular Bridge of the Gods, happy we'd decided to take another look at some old favorites and discovering there were new things to learn about them!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Livin' in the Blurbs: Bites, Birds and Bikes

If free Northwest hazelnut-finished prosciutto sounds appealing, there are several tastings in Portland this month that have your name on them. Aaron Silverman and Morgan Brownlow of Tails & Trotters want to get their product in your mouth so you'll get excited about their sustainably raised and Food Alliance certified pigs. They'll also no doubt mention a project to open a retail store with donations from fans of their product that's being funded through Kickstarter, a micro-financing platform that allows people to pledge any amount of money to help fund a project. Check them out:
  • Fri., Sept 10, 6-9 pm. Cook's Pots & Tabletops, 2807 Oak St., Eugene.
  • Wed., Sept. 15, 5-7 pm. Papa Haydn, 5829 SE Milwaukie Ave.
  • Wed., Sept. 22, 5-7 pm. Park Kitchen, 422 SW 8th Ave.
* * *

There's no time like Indian summer in the Northwest. Warm days, cool nights and changing colors make it the perfect time to get outdoors, and the Backyard Bird Shop has a series of expert-guided bird walks around the metro area coming up that look fantastic. Free to anyone who calls to reserve a spot, they're great for families and individuals who want to know more about birds, habitat, bird calls and migratory habits. Offered pretty much weekly through mid-December, the next few are:
  • Sept. 25: Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge
  • Oct. 2: Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge
  • Oct. 10: Jackson Bottom State Park
  • Nov. 6: Vancouver Lake
Details: Free Guided Bird Walks. 8-11 am; free with reservation. Check the website for details and more trips, or browse the GoodStuffNW calendar on the left for dates and locations.

* * *

You can celebrate the harvest and our community in classic county fair style at an Urban Farming Expo & Bicycle Rodeo sponsored by Grand Central Bakery. Coming on Sept. 18, it will have activities for the whole family including baking and preserving contests, a judging of urban grown produce, a bicycle rodeo and a wide array of baking, cooking and urban farming seminars and demos. Novella Carpenter (left), urban farming expert and author of "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer," will share her experiences with starting an urban farm at 11 am, with a Q&A to follow. Best of all, the modest entry fee will benefit Zenger Farm and the Community Cycling Center.

Details: Grand Central Bakery's Urban Farming Expo & Bicycle Rodeo. Sat., Sept. 18, 10 am-4 pm. Admission $5 adult; $3 child; $10 family. Grand Central Bakery, 714 N Fremont St. Phone 503-546-5311.