A Calvados by any other name….

To anyone following the saga, our little bottle of distilled apple happiness made it to Ohio.

To celebrate, we finally cracked open our liquid lovelies and sampled side-by-side: the Calvados we procured on Ernie’s quest, an apple eau de vie from Brittany (a “calvados” that can’t be called calvados because it wasn’t made IN calvados…it would have to be called “Côtes d’Armor” which, while poetic, sounds like something that would include vanilla, strawberries and honey…*), Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery eau de vie, and to mix things up, Laird’s applejack.

Not to be all francophile, but the U.S. contestants were so far in the basement we didn’t want to sip them with a ten-foot straw. As a cocktail mixer, if the somewhat caramel / vanilla flavor of the Applejack doesn’t interfere, we actually preferred its taste…not to mention price…over the Clear Creek offering.

But did we LIKE the two bottles we’d schlepped (and when I say “we” I mean K) back from France? Both bought at small farms with hand-written signs pointing up their driveways?

Oh HELL yes.
I mean, oh enfer oui.

They were very different but both delicious. The “Quest Calvados” has a darker color and quintessential Calvados nose of apple and brandy, with a hotter finish. The “Fine Bretagne” has an amazing apple nose, and is completely smooth going down. Though not sweet, it has an aspect of sweetness on the tongue. While both are excellent for sipping, only the heat of the true Calvados would suffice for a trou Normand.

K, the traditionalist, preferred the Calvados. bb, the diplomat, wouldn’t declare a favorite, b2 held off on a pronouncement…I suspect so that he’d have to come back to try them again. And wishy-washy me didn’t have a favorite: different drinks for different moods.

To do a true scientific test, we’d need to buy a few Calvados’ of different ages (I thought the quest bottle was an eight-year-old, but it’s hors d’age, which Wikipedia tells me means aged at least six-years), and a few bottles of Fine Bretagne, to see if the differences are truly regional or just age, distiller style, barrel wood, etc.

Next time. Next quest……

*Côtes-d’Armor, a department (like a county) in Brittany, has nothing to do with love nor armor. It’s derived from ar mor, which means “the sea” in breton. Makes sense. Here’s a shot from our walk less than ten minutes from where we bought the Fine Bretagne apple eau de vie.

Le Cannonball Run – the Calvados Connection

As I write, a small lonely bottle of Calvados sloshes its way cross country in the back of a UPS truck. Will it make it intact? Will rough treatment do it in? Will its liquid state make it suspect, leading to its destruction at the hands of the ATF or homeland security, hauled away on the last leg of its long journey?

Plucked from an apple orchard in the brilliant green and yellow Norman countryside where it was grown, distilled, and aged to eight years, it made the journey to Paris with a few of its brothers in the back of a rental car. Wrapped tenderly in dirty socks, scarves and coats cast off in the early spring heat, it was gently nestled into luggage, dragged across cobbles to the #68 Clichy bus, to l’Opera and the Roissybus, to CDG and into the hands of uncaring baggage handlers, into Iceland, over the pole, and landing in the Pacific Northwest to become a US citizen. One bottle stayed in the rainy NW, while the other still has 2,400 miles to travel, over mountains, across prairies, past cornfields…into the open arms of its adoring new papa.

How did this intercontinental adoption story start?

As with all great love stories of the 21st century, it began with the internet.

Obsessively planning (as I do) for two weeks in France led me to the Chowhound board (of course…the first stop for food obsessed travelers to get a local community’s first-hand advice and opinions), and searches for Bayeux / Normandy / Caen led me to this August 2010 cry for help:

Alert: I am in need of a favor from anyone traveling to Bayeux
To whom it may concern;
There is a farmhouse (dds note: more like an impossibly ramshackle chateau) outside of Bayeux where I bought a bottle of Calvados some time ago. I am now down to my last glass and I am in desperate need. I know precisely where the farm is but I am unable to contact the owner as he speaks no English. For anyone traveling there from the States, please help me procure another few bottles. If you are interested or able to help, I will happily furnish you with the requisite info and capital. If you are unfamiliar with the area, I can also provide you with some favorite places in the area and meals that I enjoyed.
My sincere thanks! E. Diamond

Several Chowhound posts ensued, with helpful advice, possible couriers, aborted trips and Google satellite identification of the farm. Six months later I happen along. (You can see the whole string on Chowhound here.) Hmm, think I. Our Normandy/Brittany to-do list looks something like this:
- Mont St. Michel
- Calvados
- Omaha Beach
- Oysters
- Scallops
- Galettes de Pleyben
- Salt-marsh lamb

Calvados is already on the agenda, maybe I can help.

I fell in love with Calvados as a college freshmen in a basement restaurant in Les Halles—I even remember the glassware: tiny white ceramic cups, akin to a thimble-sized sake set. “Down the hatch!” says Dad, “To burn a hole and make way for the rest of meal.” It was smooth and appley, and the taste coupled with the surprise and ceremony of this fiery amuse bouche cemented the Trou Normand in my memory and affections.

This was 1981, and let me tell you, Calvados was cheap back then. Maybe it was the franc-to-dollar rate, maybe it was more commonly produced, maybe we were drinking younger stuff, but even back in the States I remember being able to buy it for the price of a mediocre brandy. Fast-forward 30 years and our classic cocktail habit (see Dr. Cocktail, see Boozehound) had us scouring Oregon liquor store shelves for Calvados again, only to find $70 French stuff and more affordable but not-quite-right Clear Creek Distillery apple eau de vie (sorry guys, I respect what you’re doing but you still have a ways to go, imho) made right in our own back yard.

So of course, E. Diamond’s request caught my eye.

“I’ll take the recommendation and the adventure on,” says I, “but selfishly, we may not be able to give your bottle any precious luggage space, since I anticipate stuffing our extra suitcase with cheap eau de vies of varying fruits, Galettes de Pleyben (a story for another post), and calvados.” “No worries,” says E., “do what you can. Enjoy, take some pics, and eat here, here, here and here.” (All his restaurant recs were closed on the Wednesday night we were in town…of course…oh those wacky French. But I’ve posted his email below, for anyone else traveling to Bayeux.)

After a beautiful albeit drizzly night in Bayeux (where we broke into an okay but young Calvados from Honfleur), we piled into the car, wrinkled directions clutched in sweaty fists, four navigators hollering directions to one poor, mussel-poisoned driver. “It says exactly three miles from where the D6 and the N13/E46 intersect, on the left.” “Yeah but I googled it and only saw a farm on the right there. Maybe it’s 3 kilometers.” Maybe it’s on the right.” “Wait! There’s a bunch of trees!” “No, those are elms.” “Okay, we’re at 3 km…nothing here.” “Wait! There it is there it is! On the left! We’re at exactly three miles! There’s the orchard! Here’s the sign!”

You’re right Ernie, we never would have been brave enough to get out of the car if not for your instructions.
Ramshackle, deserted, and save for THE sign, no sign of Calvados. But then the door opened, a sweet old dog trotted out, followed by a woman in her rubber boots, motioning us in while she changed into her slippers, and the 10 a.m. Calvados tasting ensued. It was everything I remembered and everything our local apple eau de vie is not, though with the weak dollar, it also wasn’t cheap at 30 euro a pop. In non-existent French my sister and I tried to convey the story of who and what brought us to her doorstep: food obsessions, a complete stranger seven states away, Chowhound, Google satellite…. Lord only knows what she understood, though the internet made it through the translation somewhere (her children use the internet, but not them, oh heavens not them).

Et voila, the deed was done, handshakes were made, did we want more to drink?, and back out into the light we stumbled. Adventure complete, a fun form to our French wanderings, and now all that’s left is to wait patiently to see if the-little-bottle-that-could finishes its journey intact. Ernie, let me know when it arrives, and we can raise a glass simultaneously on nearly opposite ends of the country. Maybe the old dog at the Calvados farm will prick up his ears, and Mme. and Mssr. Calvados will grow restless in their sleep, dreaming of strolling in an American apple orchard.

Bernard’s Postcard from Paris

Here’s how it goes in Paris. We remember the sour faces when we were young, and remember the changes after the turmoil of ’68. Those “young” people, now 60, have raised a generation, and what a difference! And then I look at us…returning in our 70s….

QUESTION: What happens in Paris when rain quits, drops stop, puddles dry, and sunshine explodes over the city of light? What happens in Paris when the spirit of winter retires and the spirit of spring arrives smiling and bright?

ANSWER: From nowhere people appear like blossoms on naked branches, from everywhere like green leaves on hibernating trees. In the midst of this fantasy, how to imbue the magic and join the festival of color and dance and extravaganza?

By taking to the streets old man! Bathe in the Paris fountain of everlasting youth, a Shangri-La youth still young at 900 years!
Walk! Walk along Boulevard de Clichy, but don’t stop for a dozen oysters at Wepler’s sidewalk cafe. Continue past the Moulin Rouge toward tawdry Pigalle down the four-lane park dividing cars and buses and raging motorcycles.

Find a street going south toward the center, always the center.
Maybe rue des Martyrs with Montmartre and the mushroomed domes of Sacre Coeur at your back, among mouthwatering, nosetempting, eyepealing shops—bright red strawberries neatly arranged in vertical boxes, cheeses of every region, color and odor, meats bold and red or subtly shaped, folded, encased in unidentified membrane, restaurants new and brash of plastic and neon or old and warm with scripted paneling set in shining walnut frames that say history, continuity, tradition.

Or perhaps sur le rue d’Amsterdam, cleaned up since Jacque Brel sang about it at the Gare St. Lazare,

Or turn left on rue Clichy at the corner near our apartment, pass theaters, wine shops, boutiques,

Always heading to l’Opera or Rivoli or the Louvre, Concorde, Tuileries among sun happy crowds walking with a spring or sitting-sipping in cafés released from the cold hold of winter rigor. Infused with heated vigor, the world opens like overenthusiastic tulips, pistils shooting skyward.

And if you’re lucky, pass through passages with exotic ware into tiny squares you’ve never stumbled on: this restaurant, that café or the other bistro tempting you with tongue teasing tidbits.

But you have already stopped for lunch or coffee or beer to see what world passes by when you look.

Later sated, arrive at the river or perhaps Place St. Eustache, at the foot of a monumental church, filled with families sitting on grassy steps watching children kicking balls or just running for the joy of running,

Or a grassy tree-lined confine like Place des Vosges. Having stood in long lines to pick up a falafel in the Marais, spread out now in view of Victor Hugo’s home and not far from the intimate “hotel” filled with work by Picasso.

That’s when you might decide to head home: by bus through the crowded ways you’ve already passed, by speeding through dark tunnels of the Metro, or if your “dogs aren’t barking” you might just rewind the experience on foot.

Because finally, in the end, the heart of Paris for any visitor, is in the character of his sole.

Bernard della Santina
(aka Dad)

Ernie Diamond’s Generous Bayeux Rec’s

Addendum to the Calvados Connection, via email before the trip

DDS: Am I right in thinking (if you know, or have an opinion) that the place to eat in Bayeux is Le Pommier?

ED: Le Pommier was very good. I was trying to do the local thing as much as I could so I had the tripes a la mode du Caen there. Fantastic. I must say, though that if you are looking for good food and a quirky setting, Fringale is excellent. It is very casual and rustic in all the right ways. When we were there, the crowd was very small and so the owners spent as much time in the dining room with us as in the kitchens. I had the Andouillettes du Troyes (there are many different kinds of andouillettes) when I was there and won major points for my selection. The owner and I had a very impassioned pantomime conversation in equally broken French and English about andouillettes following the meal.

My meal at La Rapiere was good, very good actually but I didn’t find as many local (read rustic) offerings on the menu as I wanted. I did, however have a slice of foie gras from a terrine that was the inverse of the foie to bread ratio you generally see here; the foie was as big as a piece of texas toast, the bread came in the form of three small dominos. Outrageous.

In order of ambiance, from nicest to casual, it went;
Rapiere
Pommier
Fringale

In order of preference, from favorite to least, I may inverse the order. I liked Fringale. I desperately wanted to get to La Table du Terroir but wasn’t able.

If you are looking for provisions in Bayeux, there are two very good charcutiers in town. Just ask around, you can’t go wrong with either. My very first move when I arrived was to buy boudin noir, a bottle of cider and some pommeau (apple juice fortified with calvados). Boudin noir, by the way is very good cold. Oh! Just remembered! You may be able to find jars of babas au calvados, which is babas (little cakes) soaked in a syrup of sugar and calvados (think baba au rhum). These were an absolute treasure. They can be found in those clamp top mason type jars around town, maybe even at the charcutier. Save room for at least one jar as a souviner. I held mine for as long as I could before succumbing to temptation. They are dessert and a stiff shot all in one.

As far as cider, it is for sale everywhere as you might expect and the best kinds are cheap, local and light. If you snoop around, you will probably be able to find farms that sell it for far far less than what it is sold for in the stores and cafes. Not to be too gross here but if you drink solely cider, as I did then your pee will smell like apple skins. :) Don’t kill the messenger! It’s an interesting phenomenon! Cost from local producers might top out at four euro for a 750ml bottle. I paid almost half that for bottles that were still sticky from filling. The good stuff is only 3-4% alcohol, sometimes less so drink up!

(DDS: And so we did. Our favorite was the less sweet Brut, with a seriously funky smell that offset the apple sweetness. Fantastic! We paid about 4 euro a bottle and it was about 5% alcohol.)

On to calvados! The place was DEAD when I arrived. Don’t be put off if there is no one around or things appear closed. When we finally got the attention of someone, he was in the garage and came out covered in grease. I am still unclear if he was the owner or a caretaker or what but he happily let us in, showed us around and poured us samples (of which he took one or two) before selling us a bottle.

I hope you find this helpful. I LOVED my trip to Bayeux. It is a beautiful town in a fantastic setting. The best thing you can do there is get yourself hopelessley lost and then look around for good food. You can’t help but to find it.

Vroom vroom…..

Testing…testing….is this thing still on? Okay, time to oil the old girl up and take her for a test drive…..

This is Me on Brevity

I talk too much. I definitely eat too much. And I write too much.

Back in July I vowed to do shorter posts. Heh…see the novellas that ensued. But since the excess of Christmas looms, let’s try this again. We rented a cottage on Hood Canal for Thanksgiving. It was adorable, well appointed, a great deal and takes dogs.

BB did the bulk of the cooking, and I’ll respect his first rights to blog fodder as he brags about his insane short-ribs, lamb shank pasta, turkey and mashed potatoes. Much of them are already here at Eat. Think. Drink. but I think he should brag some more. If nothing else, about w’s crazy pumpkin cheesecake and ginger snaps.

I just wanted to share two things:
1) The grilled stix lunch / app we put together, inspired by snax at Biwa and Tanuki. Simple, quick, all using some combo of: lime, fish sauce, garlic, brown sugar, chili, soy. Pretty unanimously I think they ranked: pork belly #1, quail #2, tofu #3, scallops #4. Last-minute-pickled Japanese turnips, turnip tops and Chinese spinach added a bit of acid. Together, they were a nice complement to refreshing beverages provided by our in-house mixmasters.

2) The oysters, we plucked off the beach just steps from the cottage. The triplet we threw back.

The bowl we ate. At 10 pm. After a huge dinner. (Tides were super high during the day, so we had to wait til night.)

That’s cool: a dip in the icy waters and a salty slide down our throats is just what we needed to chill out between heated rounds of Mille Bournes.

Banh and Beyond

I have a banh mi fetish. There, I’ve said it. After too many “meh” experiences (and stomach-aches) from Stumptown samples, I set out to make my own. My ideal? The crusty, spicy, sweet, chewy, meaty, herbacious monster sold at Saigon Banh Mi, combo sandwich shop/jewelry store in New York’s Chinatown. (You know what they say, nothing goes together like pearls and swine.)

My first foray was a banh mi canapé riff (mini-mi? banh mi slider?) for the ever-delightful and deserving Bruce Bauer’s 50th birthday celebration. I threw everything but the kitchen sink atop rounds of toasted white bread and results were good…if a visual mess. Mini-Mi I also suspected the complexity (marinated and fried pork belly mixed with the pork butt) could be dialed back with no discernible ill effects.
←Tastier than it looks

Then Jade Teahouse & Patisserie moved into Sellwood and the impetus to make my own disappeared. They’re not classic, and in fact after one bbq pork sandwich I switched, at April’s suggestion, to their sublime Vietnamese meatball banh mi, and have never looked back. Yes, the veggies are awkwardly chunky, but the baguette…oo-la-la, tres jolie. And the spiced pork is light as air and bursting with flavor. Not to mention the warm vibe, great tea selection, $5 salad rolls and addictive sesame balls. If they’d always steam their bao instead of microwaving them? It would be my perfect escape.

But wait, this is all about “mi”.

A Sunday potluck cocktail party to warm the house of ethereal E. provided the perfect excuse to try again. And this time I did my best to document a recipe. Cyndi, Billie and Judy, this is for you! Remember, it’s all by feel and taste, so take the measurements with a grain of salt. (Or is it two?)

The Gist
Simmer pork butt with spices until it’s fall-apart tender. Shred, marinate and fry the cooked pork, shred and marinate julienned veggies, and assemble. Whether you put them on Wonder bread, baguettes or kaiser rolls doesn’t much matter (imho); as long as the bread’s tender enough to bite through, crisp enough to support and hold the fillings, you can’t go wrong. Active cooking time is 1 to 1.5 hours. The more pre-shredded veggies you get, the faster it goes.BanhMiResize
Simmer Stock:
Cover a (4 lb?) pork butt / shoulder (as much as you get, you’ll eat, trust me) generously with cold water and add:
- 3-5 star anise
- cinnamon stick
- large chopped onion
- chunk of ginger
- 4 rough-chopped cloves of garlic
- a generous splash each of soy and fish sauce (nam pla)
- a rough cut jalapeño pepper
- whatever else you want to make the stock tasty. A stalk of celery and a carrot are fine, maybe even a bay leaf. Though I think star anise is critical, you can substitute it and the cinnamon stick with a generous pinch of Chinese 5-spice.

Simmer covered for about two hours, uncovering it halfway through if you have plenty of liquid and want to start reducing your soup (more on that bonus later). When it’s fork tender and pulls apart into shreds, remove from the liquid and cool.

The Veggies:
Cilantro is critical, Thai (or plain) basil are good, and mint used sparingly would be nice. Simply clean and remove the biggest stems. Set aside. Peel, seed and julienne a cucumber. Twice I’ve done jalapeños, once plain and once pickled, and neither time did anyone eat them. So do what you think is best.

Pickle a melange of julienned vegetables: carrots are critical, daikon is classic. I had high hopes for a Fubonn (local Asian grocery superstore) tub of pre-sliced carrot and daikon, but found it too daikony and badly julienned. But their finely shredded green papaya? A cheater’s dream! Instant crunchy fabulousness. Cheat as you see fit, especially if you don’t have a wondrous knife or mandolin.

For about 2 cups of julienned veggies, mix in:
- Fish sauce (4 T?)
- Rice vinegar (quarter cup?)
- Juice of 1 lime (why lime and vinegar? Because I’m not sure which I prefer so I split the diff. You can use one, the other or both, lime is slightly more sour)
- Asian sweet chili sauce, found these days everywhere—even Safeway—5-10 “plops”. If you don’t have any, add 1-2 T brown sugar and 1 tsp chile sauce, such as olek sambal.

Taste and correct the balance of salty, sweet and sour. If it tastes yummy? It’s right. I keep the cucumbers out of the shredded veggies because of the water they give off.

The Meat:
Shred the cooked pork into medium-sized chunks when it’s cool enough to handle. The smaller your bread, the smaller the meat. Toss any chunks of fat, drain off liquid that’s collected. Assuming you have about 4 pounds of pork, mix with:

- 4 cloves chopped garlic
- Fish sauce (4 T?)
- Soy sauce (3 T?)
- The juice of 1 lime
- Sweet chili sauce (1/4 cup?)
Taste and correct the balance of salty, sweet and sour. If it tastes yummy? Yeah…you know.

Heat a frying pan with 3T peanut or canola oil. Dust the meat with cornstarch, toss, and transfer a single layer to the hot pan. Turn as it carmelizes (2-3 minutes), transfer to a paper towel, repeat til all the meat’s fried. Replenish oil if needed. Is frying necessary? Probably not, but I’m trying to duplicate the chewy, fried texture of the Saigon banh mi, and this was the least decadent way to do it. Would a sandwich be good and quicker using just the spiced meat? Yup.

The Secret Ingredient
And here it comes, the critical component………garlic mayo. All the trouble we’ve just gone through and it’s mayonaise? Sad but true. Without garlicky mayo, the whole thing would fall flat. Crush 2 cloves of garlic in a half cup of mayo,and spread it on anything you can lay your hands on.

The Bread
While some claim bread is the key to a great bahn mi, my standard is simply that the bread not suck (too dry/hard to chew/crumbly). As long as it serves as a neutrally crisp receptacle for a massive amount of filling / topping, I’m happy. If you happen to be lucky enough to live near Jade, you’ll see Mom Lucy’s baguettes—simultaneously toothsome, tasty and ‘bite-able’—are the exception that proves the rule.

If you’re making a full-sized sandwich, err on the side of a softer…but crisp on the outside…bun that can mold itself around your fillings and hold things in place. You don’t want a rigid bread or they end up too dry. For the cocktail party I split and toasted up Trader Joe’s mini baguettes, about the size of a large breadstick, five to a bag. Perfect with a parchment paper wrap and a toothpick. (Keith ate my photo sample. I’d yell at him but it’s his birthday. Oh wait, I did yell at him. “Dude, seriously, you ate my prop?”)

Assembly
Toast your bread, slather with garlic mayo, heap on meat and pickled veggies, slide in cuke, a few sprigs of cilantro and basil, smush together if it has a lid, “fluff it” if you’re trying the canapé.

The Soup
IMG_1715Aside from the sandwich, here’s your reward for all your hard work: steaming hot, flavorful pork broth. Strain out the flavoring agents, add a bunch of watercress and boil til cooked. Or just eat the broth refreshed with lime and maybe some green onion or cilantro. Eating it makes you feel like you’re healing things you didn’t even know needed healing. In fact, I think I’m going to finish off the pot right now to try to stave off this sore throat. Sorry Bruce…I’d planned to bring it down to you.

Mmmm, better already.

Fifteen Friends, Florence, Felcetto, Food and Fun (among other things)

Nope. I didn’t just get back from Italy. [Dammit.] But my sister and her group of college friends did, and she’s in charge of this week’s guest post. rsz_chiantilaundry
Italy was wonderful. We spent the first three days with two other couples hiking the Cinque Terre trails. Though they can be hiked in a day, it’s a great place to unwind from traveling, and more days means more time to eat seafood, drink the local white wine and fill up on pesto. We next sped through Pisa, picked up a car in Florence, and finally, met up with the rest of the group for a week in Chianti.

kitchenThe farmhouse was rustic but perfect: the kitchen large enough to all cook together. We ate well out as well as in, going to the butcher and farmer’s markets for amazing meat and produce. We took side trips to neighboring San Gimignano, Montalcino, the Church at Saint Antimo, and Florence, but much got left undone, like hiking trails through the villages from Gaiole to Sienna, leaving some for the next trip back.

Cinque Terre
Vernazza Vernazza is all that it’s billed to be, with its pastel buildings, clear water, blue and white fishing boats “parked” in the harbor, barrels of fishing nets alongside the narrow streets where cars aren’t allowed except the delivery trucks early in the mornings before most tourists have arisen. English was more prevalent than Italian, which was a little disconcerting, but that made it an easy entrance to the culture and language. Early on, we observed that the “thing to do” was to bring a bottle of wine to the harbor (perhaps even a picnic) so, like good tourists, we followed suit. The weather was perfect, giving us a beautiful show both evenings as well as a swim on the last.

The Millers and Lambertys had already checked into their modest but clean and perfectly located rooms (Francamaria Rooms, 70 & 80E). Our room was down the alley a bit, also clean, small and all we needed (BBGemmy, 70E). Breakfast was supposedly included, but we were up and out earlier than our hosts, so we were never able to take advantage.

Our first dinner was at Gianni Franzi, which seems to have a monopoly on the town square overlooking the water. Portions were tiny but the food was outstandingly fresh. Was it because we’d been on planes, trains and automobiles for 24+ hours, or that the food in Italy is simply better? It turned out to be the most expensive meal of the trip, partly because we were ripped off by three grappas for 18E and because the cover charge was 3E pp. Such was our introduction to the practice of the copertino.
IMG_2945- Salted anchovies
- Fresh anchovies
- Mussels
- Octopus and potatoes
- Pesto pasta (ugly quills)
- Fish ravioli with ink pasta
- Pesto ravioli
- House wines, white and red

We hiked from Vernazza to Corniglia (not the town to stay in; something like 400 steps from the train station to the village, cute but not as much personality as the others). We had a coffee and continued on to Manarola (Ed note: where K and I stayed in 2001) where we decided to have lunch. Starving, we almost made the “mistake” of eating on the waterfront. Instead we had a beer (always a good choice) with some nuts and crackers, to think about our options. With something in our tummies we were able to hike up the narrow streets looking for a place called Trattoria del Billy. With a name like that, we were unsure of what to expect. Though not cheap…or easy to find…it was worth the effort.

As they were telling us the catch of the day, we had to wait a few minutes. New, fresher fish was on its way up the hill from the harbor, and it remained to be seen what was included. “It will be here in a minute….”
FreshFish
We sat on the terrace overlooking water, hills and town, enjoyed our wine, and listened to…a train? No, rolling thunder. Fortunately, the enormous umbrellas protected us from the downpour as we enjoyed a delicious meal served by Billy himself…aged 60? …running up and down the two flights of stairs from the kitchen to the terrace. He served, sang, and told stories of being born and raised in the hills around us, and about the snails they would pick after rains such as this, to cook up and eat.

- Mussels in white wine
- Grilled eggplant and zucchini
- Black (squid ink) pasta with all kinds of shellfish as below
- Pasta of the sea
- Mixed grill of seafood including variety of whole fish and shellfish razor clams, mussels, vongole, etc. BilliSeafood

On the short walk to Riomaggiore we shared a pint of limoncino…for dessert. At Riomaggiore we had a round of beers to celebrate a successful hike and looked for the ferry to return us to Vernazza, to get a waterfront perspective of the villages clinging to the cliffs. Though we saw it running along the coast it never came into our teeny, rocky cove, perhaps due to the wind, so we trained back to Vernazza, bought some wine and watched a spectacular sunset show: thunderheads mixed with orange sky and the setting sun’s rays.

A “light” dinner was at the unlikely named Blue Marlin. The food was reasonably priced and very, very good. Scott chose it because of all the Italian kids hanging out and eating. Some may argue, but I thought this was the best pizza of the trip. For 60 E, for six people, we had:
- 2 Margarita pizzas
- 2 prosciutto crudo
- 2 mussels a la marinara (not the freshest, but we were forewarned it was the bottom of the barrel)
- 3 salads
- 2 liters of vino rosso

FigSquashCigs

The next day we headed to Pisa enroute to Florence. Checking our bags at the bagliagi deposito, we wandered the city, had some cappuccini, ate a few panini, took pictures at the leaning tower, duomo, baptistery…it was more beautiful than I remembered in spite of the overcast, drizzly day and our slightly hung over states from the six bottles of wine the night before. Hmm, and the two at lunch. And the limoncino, and the beer…. In addition to the tower, I highly recommend using the beautiful bathrooms at the train station. Seriously, pay the .60, it’s well worth it!

Amassing in Panzano and the Podere Felcetto
The Kulies will have to tell their own story, but suffice it to say they had an adventure finding our house, Podere Felcetto, in the wilds of Chianti (outside the village of Panzano). Jet lagged, they picked up their car, started driving…and driving…four hours on the Autostrada, 11 euros of tolls, their incomplete directions eventually got them “home”, bobble headed, but the first to arrive.

After stocking up on fresh mortadella and a couple salumi and bread in Pisa for the trip to Florence (Ed note: what is that, Cyn, like a whole hour and a half? Good thing you weren’t without some cured meats to sustain you!), we were back on the train. In Firenze we met the Fransons and separated into a bus group and a rental car group. By the time the drivers had rented the car, found the farmhouse, unloaded, picked up beer, wine and a few other staples at the local co-op, the bus-ers were having beers on the square. (Even after a two-hour wait no thanks to a bad schedule.)

Around this time, we got a call from the missing Heynes and Estrems. Their rental car had broken down an hour outside of Rome, just before Spoleto. They were stranded on the side of a busy highway for hours, trying to get help. Thanks to Mark’s gentle nature, Debbie’s refusal to accept anything less than a final destination of Panzano and Estrem’s support of each of those approaches, they were loaded on a flatbed truck, girls in the cab, boys in the car on the flatbed, wound back through the precarious roads to Rome, handed a different car, turned back around and headed north again.

ButcherPanzano We weren’t sure if it was the right thing to do at this point, but we had 9 pm dinner reservations at the famous Butcher of Panzano’s (Dario Cecci) Solociccia restaurant for 30E pp. Since we had no food and it was too late to cancel, we stuck to the plan. And we’re glad we did; what a show! Well worth it: course after course of food, wine from their own vineyard, and good cheer continuously flowing.

First, we met Dario at his butcher shop, where he served us very good Chianti from his vineyard, lardo bruschetta, and fresh bread with olive oil with his special salt. We were then welcomed across the street into his new and modern restaurant. The 15 of us settled into our private room just off the kitchen and started with raw vegetables in baskets and cups of their own flavored salts, ground to a fine, fine grain.
CarpaccioMeatballs Then the courses started flowing: smoothly, efficiently, and with perfect timing:
- Fagioli (best white bean ‘soup’ we had all week)
- Slices of bread with generous portions of Bolognese, dubbed by our table, (forgive the sacrilege) Sloppy Joes
- Raw beef meatballs (crudo) flavored with olive oil, salt and pepper
- Deep fried eggplant, zucchini, fennel, carrots (not the best)
- Braised beef and cabbage stew, slow, slow, slow cooked. Great flavor
- Olive oil cake! So good!
Digestivo- A selection of four “military digestivi”, including grappa, amaretto, licorice and…hmm…oddly fuzzy at this point.
- Bottomless carafes of wine which we expected to pay for after the first few complimentary, but no, they were all included. (Ed note: In the future, when hit with a reservation from Minnesotans, they’ll know to tack on a surcharge.)

Though the food wasn’t all spectacular, it was good, plentiful, fun and well worth it. For the next people who go, it may be worth paying the 55E pp for the beef dinner across the street and up the stairs, on a deck facing the city parking lot.

Sunday in Panzano and Greve
The next morning was the Panzano Farmer’s Market: artichokes, a vast variety of fresh greens, fruits, fruits and more fruits…I could have spent hours at one stall alone. It was organized chaos: take a number and watch the show. We didn’t have a plan for the day but figured we could just ‘get shit’. We were going to buy prepared meats from the large food cart which had chickens of all sizes on the rotisserie, stuffed rolled porchetta, fried or roasted coniglio (rabbit) but Roberto of our farmhouse told us we shouldn’t buy the meat at the market. If we wanted chicken, we were to go to the butcher in the old center of town. And with chicken? No pasta! It MUST be roasted potatoes! Okay, okay!

Why would we want old, mass-produced chicken when we could get young fresh locally grown ones from the market, we wondered? But going against our instincts, we took his advice and located the Macelleria de Checcucci. The chickens were really yellow, the skins were dry (I always have to wash and dry a chicken for 24 hours in the States before seasoning it to roast, but already dried out chicken?). They had the heads on, the feet on and were filled with pin feathers. But we finally decided, once again against our better judgment, hell with it, we’re in Italy, ‘when in Rome’…so we bought three chickens. (Or was it four?) They asked how we were going to cook them. Roast? No, a la griglia. Would we like them to spice them? Um…sure? They took them in back and we waited…then smelled something. Ah! That oh-so-familiar smell from my childhood days of singed pin feathers. Then they split them in half, sliced into the breast, smashed the halves to flatten slightly and filled the meat with their own herb-flavored salt. How glad we were we hadn’t walked out of there chickenless!

Wall of ProsciuttoWe then went to Greve for wine tasting on the square (also stipulated by our farmhouse “general”, Roberto), while some had beers and pizza in the square. We went to the fantastic, not to be missed, Antica Macelleria-Norcineria Falorni. Go there for the viewing and the wine tasting adjacent to the place, though the little macelleria down the street has better cured meats

Back home, outdoors on the beautiful terrace overlooking the vineyards and old building on the faraway hilltops, we had a family meeting over antipasti and vino and prosecco to discuss who wanted to see what on the trip. We made our choices, slimmed down the list and assigned days. Scott made-do with a small grill and no charcoal for the chickens, while we roasted the flavorful potatoes, fresh artichokes, and a mixed green salad with four kinds of lettuces. We dressed the salad as we would every night at the table with olive oil and flavored salt we’d purchased at Dario Cecci’s. Some added balsamico, others didn’t. A FINE, Sunday dinner on the terraces of Podere Felcetto, Panzano en Chianti!
DiningAlFresco
Monday in Panzano, SanGimi & Radda
Monday started out warm and rainy, and by early afternoon it was blustery and COLD! Poor Pete was sick in bed, some went to San Gimi and others kept it local. We thought we’d check out a few local villages in Chianti, but only got to Radda in Chianti. We walked the cobblestone streets, appreciated the view, and when it started pour, found a warm and cozy restaurant in the old part of town. The smells coming out of La Peghera di Baccio increased the rumblings in our tummies. By this time it was 2 pm and they were slammed but happened to have enough space to seat us. The owner and other help were scurrying around, taking care of three large tables in two separate rooms, running up and down the stairs from the kitchen to the dining rooms. Service was uneven, the food took too long, they were apologetic, they forgot to bring my soup, (I didn’t need it) but what we did get was superb and we weren’t disappointed. It was rainy and cold outside, cozy and warm inside, with no agenda. Prices were typical (soups and salads 5 E, Antipasti and primi: 7-8 E, Secondi 12-16 E):
- Pulpi carpaccio with some sort potato tartin. Simple and delicious, in part, thanks to the amazing, local olive oil
- Pasta al funghi, mushrooms were not the most flavorful
- Zuppa di Fagioli, scrumptious!
- Lasagna, scrumptious!
- Ensalata Mista

HomeCookingAfter a couple beers at the local bar/restaurant and a visit to the Radda co-op to stock up on more groceries, we took the craggy hilltop, scenic route home…unintentionally: rocky dirt roads across the hilltops looping around past a cypress-lined driveway to an estate called Camprollo (some locals stopped on their way by as we were taking pictures and gave us the name as if it were to mean something to us?) down past Montefioralle into Greve. We got home about the same time as the San Gimi group, made fresh pasta…YUM!…which we served with shredded leftover chicken, stewed fresh tomatoes, sautéed onions, zucchini, garlic, basil, rucola and grated, aged pecorino. YUM! And, green salad. YUM!

Tuesday around the Podere Felcetto
AlbolaVineyardGary had kindly used one of his connections to set up a private wine-tasting and tour of the Albola estate, a popular imported Chianti wine. Before departing, ever mindful of our next meal, we quickly skewered lamb on rosemary branches and left them to marinate for the day with some olive oil and salt. The tour was informative and beautiful of a grand and ancient estate with gorgeous views of the surrounding Chianti countryside with a warm sun in spite of the cool air. The wine was extremely good, it was accompanied by platters of meats and cheese, olive oil and bread, and the tasting was a great thing to do early in the week so everyone could establish what characteristics we liked, and learn about what we’d be drinking all week long.
LambSkewersWe had planned to hit another winery, Verazzano, which was highly recommended by the del Mastio’s (farmhouse owners). By the time we found it and got there, however, we realized it was a huge tour bus destination. Spoiled by Gary’s fine, private tour, we simply looked around then took off. A stop at the ‘leather factory outlet’ in Greve was also a bust, but it was a wonderful day nonetheless.

With head chef Debbie in the kitchen, Scott back at the grill, and a dozen willing assistants, we had grilled skewered lamb, grilled eggplant piled high with barely cooked sautéed zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and herbs, starting of course with a ubiquitous antipasti of cured meats, sheep cheeses of various ages, prosecco and wine. Another delicious meal.

Wednesday, from Panzano to Florence
We took the bus from Panzano to Florence (minus poor, sick Pete and Beth), splitting up after touring Santa Maria Novella by the station. Scott and I searched for and found the two food markets: Mercantale Centrale where we shared a bowl of pasta and meat sauce and the Market at San Ambrogio which was closed by the time we got there. We shared a tomato soup and bitter green salad at the café of El Cibreo, to check out if we should suggest coming back with the gang on Saturday. The answer? Yes. We loved the Piazza San Spirito outside the San Miniato but, unfortunately, Denise’s ‘free and fab’ church was closed for renovation. When it re-opens it should be even more fab…but maybe not free…. This side of the Arno seemed to be the place to be in the evening; especially on a Saturday night. Unfortunately, we never made it back…something for next time.

BaldiBack in Panzano, we went to the Enoteca Baldi for beer and wine…and eventually dinner. The pizza place we’d hoped for was closed on Wednesdays. On Monday it had appeared closed, when really, it just hadn’t opened yet. Enoteca Baldi was JUST what the doctor ordered. Delicious, aromatic, fresh, creative cooking, friendly and welcoming by the owner/chef. Some of our favorites:
- Bruschetta mista: chicken livers, tomatoes and olive spread
- Herby and fragrant white beans and sausage,
- Panini of tomatoes, basil, mushrooms, cheese
- Salad piled high in the same style as the Panini with melted cheese

Thursday in Panzano, Montalcino and Castellino
SantAntimoInterior While some went to Castellino and others to Radda, Kim, Scott and I went to Montalcino and the Abbey of San Antimo, where we arrived in time for the 12:45 Sext service. Upon entering the old, Romanesque chapel, we could still smell the incense and candles from the 11:00 mass. After a 20 minute service of Gregorian chanting (them, not us) we wandered and appreciated the columns, almost pagan in their design, and the grounds. It’s a wonderful, self supporting abbey with vineyards, grazing cattle and its own town built up around the castle. If we weren’t starving (as always) (Ed note: What, no cured meat and fresh bread in your pockets? Shocking!) we could easily have spent more time checking out the monastery complex and little town. Bring a snack/picnic, come for the mass and tour the grounds and castle. Or, better yet, stay in the rooms, join the brothers for a meal, and visit Montalcino from there! (Ed note: This is one of my all-time favorite churches, and certainly the plainest. Its butter-soft walls seem to glow, the crucifix over the altar is rough-hewn and primal, and the carvings are, as Cyn said, practically pagan. This place is the epitome of calm.)

Our meal in Montalcino was one of our best in Italy. (Ed note: So jealous. Loved the town, but when we stayed overnight everything seemed closed.) Trattoria l’Angolo is a tiny, cozy, fragrant (aren’t they all?) place with mostly Italian speaking people. It used to be called Trattoria Sciame (Ed note: Monkey?! Really? Excellent.) The large group next to us had all ordered grilled steaks.
- Antipasti platter of bruschetta and prosciutto
- Scott splurged and ordered the special of the day, tagliatini with tartufo bianco, fresca, thinly sliced and generously scattered all over his plate along with a glass of Brunello.
Kim and I took it down a notch (not much) by splitting the
-Strozzapretti (“priest stranglers” pasta) with Brunello bolognese sauce (8E) and
- Mixed grill of meats charcoal grilled pork chop to die for, chicken, sausage, beef fat and gristle on a skewer that only I could appreciate (12E)
- House wines, 3E for ¼ liters, 7E for a glass of Brunello
- 2pp copertino for a total bill of 70 E

We walked around town, visiting the ramparts, climbing to the top for spectacular views of the surrounding Montalcino countryside (Kimmer, I owe you for that, BTW), tasted/bought Brunello and some vino rosso from the area, visited a couple churches and made it back to Podere Felcetto in time for happy hour before heading in for pizza (finally!) at Conca del Oro.

ConcaPizza2Conca del Oro
, according to some, is the best pizza in Italy (I maintain my vote for Blue Marlin’s pizza). We proceeded to eat our way through the menu of pizzas ranging from 8-16 E. The chef was “trained and certified in the methods of Italian pizza making”. Crusts were chewy, almost hard and….tough? (Ed note: Curious as to how you’d rate it against Apizza Scholls’ crust?) The best part, imo, were her home made desserts that she gave us compliments of the restaurant. They were so good, we ordered two more of each: a flourless chocolate torte and a custard in a cheesecakey, eggy crust to die for.

Friday at the Podere Felcetto in Panzano and Lucarelle
The last day was slated to ‘hang out’ in the area, and we tried out a restaurant recommended by a fellow tourist at the Butcher of Panzano: Osteria le Panzanelle in the nearby village of Lucarelle. Outstanding!

Rabbit – Eggplant rolls with cheese, tomatoes and capers
- Crostini misti
- Sformatino di cavolfiore (warm cauliflower torte)
- Fagioli all olio
- Insalata mista
- Patate fritte
- Spaghetti with sausages and wild mushrooms was the best mushroom flavor I’d tasted to date. First time I wasn’t disappointed by the lack of wild mushroom taste
- Lasagne with a ragu and cheese so chewy and wonderful with a rich béchamel
- Roast Coniglio (rabbit) con olive, capers and anchovies, KILLER good!
- 3 liters house red
- Copertino 2E pp, 7 E pastas, 6 E wines / liter, 3-5 E sides

One of the wines we really liked at Enoteca Baldi was from La Massa, right down the road from our house. But because of the sudden cold snap, they were too busy harvesting to give us a tour. They don’t make a business of doing tours, but maybe next time?
ColdSnapGrapeHarvest
BisteccaFiorentinaWe wandered around Panzano, bought a few more veggies for a last “light meal” in the farmhouse kitchen. Ha! Somehow, we found ourselves back up to Macelleria de Checcucci, purchasing three-3 inch thick bistecca to make Bistecca Fiorentino
- Antipasti misto and prosecco
- Leftover roasted potatoes and rosemary
- Huge salad with par boiled string beans
- Steak
- Vino rosso
- Biscotti, vin santo, limoncino

Last Day, in Firenze
ChiantiPathWe said our goodbyes to the famiglia del Mastio and off we went on another adventure: three cars following each other, making moves through the autostrada, incomplete directions, and high hopes that we’d all end up at the hotel together to check in, drop off bags, return the cars to the airport and get back into Florence in time to catch lunch at the Mercato.

Florence Miraculously, and with minimum fiasco, we did. We saw sunset atop the Piazzale Michelangelo, had wine and beer on the south side of the Arno, Teri and Kim went to the Uffizzi, Teri managed to keep from melting at the Hemingway Tea Room / bar (which she strongly recommends). We shopped at the artisan market set on the Piazza della Signoria Saturday afternoon (recommended) and, finally, ate at the Trattoria El Cibreo, which surpassed expectations. It was a five star meal for a three star price (284E for eleven people; unbelievable). We were served with cheer, humor, efficiency and aplomb. They included extra plates of menu items to ‘sample’, such as a fish soup, the likes of which I’ve never tasted – even the expensive soup de poisson in the south of France – and complimentary desserts in addition to the five we ordered. And no coperti!
ElCibreo
Antipasti 6E
- Insalata Trippa: vinegar and olive oil, cooked with onions, cold
- Crostini di Pate
- Gelatino di Pomodoro two more gratis!
Primi 6E
- 2 Polenta alle erbe Verdi
- Minestrone di pane
- 2 Minestrone di pesci
- Fish stew, gratis!
- Zuppa di Funghi with the most mushroom flavor of the week!
Secondi 14E
- Cold veal loaf with pistachio
- Chicken…something…
- Eggplant parmesan
- Rich wine sauce and squid w/pasta
- De-boned and stuffed chicken leg
- Cold chicken loaf
Dolci
- Chocolate torte
- Cheesecake
- Bavarian crème coffee custard
- Bavarian crème vanilla custard
- Panna Cotta
- Chocolate pudding
- 2 additional desserts, gratis
- 4 liters of wine, 3 of water

Deemed by many their best meal ever. What an end to a wonderful trip to Italy. And Scott and I weigh in at less than when we left. I was going to say, perhaps it’s the fact that we were eating fresh and unprocessed foods…but can we really call all that salumi unprocessed?

Thanks, everyone for being such a fun, loving, (and fun-loving), game, go with the flow, ‘we’re in Italy!’ jump in with two feet, make the most of it, group of great friends. Thanks Denise, for your recs of Enoteca Baldi, El Cibreo, Piazza Santo Spirito, Santa Maria Novella, Abby de San Antimo, Marcellario in Greve, and all the others too!)

And thanks Cyndi, and for letting us live vicariously…and Beth for the extra photos!
rsz_1italianhotties

A Cut Above, from the Man I Love

Knife_ReposeThis is a love letter to my new knife.

Keith, who gave me this weapon of delicious destruction is pretty great too, but he’ll have to wait for a Hallmark-sanctioned holiday to get his love letter.

He loves tools. I’m notoriously cheap. You can see the collision course. I’ve been perfectly content with the same knives for 25 years: a Chicago Cutlery 8″ chef, 6″ chef and paring knife (of which, whether slicing a roast or coring an apple, I pretty much only use the 8″ ). K keeps them meticulously sharp and I hone them in between with Grandma’s 10 pound steel, so the fact that they’re ancient, thick and clunky hasn’t been an issue. Friends with badass blades frequently exclaimed over my finely honed edges, and the accolades of others was enough for me.

But then I have a birthday (insert scary pipe organ: dum-dum-dum) and my tool-loving husband goes into a last-minute-must-buy-something-after-work panic. I wince when I open the package. Internal dialog: don’t need this, jeez it must have been expensive, omg he got it at Sur la Table: r-i-p-o-f-f, aren’t they awfully brittle I’ll probably break it…  

But it’s awful darn pretty. And maybe it IS time for me to have a big-girl knife. And besides, wouldn’t it be nice to be grateful for a gift for once, rather than being a practical bubble-burster?  Out loud: “Thank you darling, I love it.”

And oh. my. god. How I love my Shun 8″ Chef Knife. My poor Chicago knives have been cast aside like so much refuse, as unwanted as copyediters at The Oregonian. My former nemisis, the carrot? We’re having an affair. I relish the mire poix. I melted carrots into stroganoff last night (Tzar Nicholas is spinning in his grave-y) just so I could fine-dice a carrot. See?

MirePoix

I know America’s Test Kitchen says a $24 Victorinox is all you need, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Wielding my Shun I feel invincible. I am Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Volume 2. The insane schoolgirl killer and her gang? Just so many carrots.

Heard it through the Grapevine

Although what I’d really like to do is publish another homage to tomatoes, I figure everyone’s relishing the last of their summer fruits, soaking in every last ray of sunshine on their tongues in a sweet-tart-dance of happiness. You’re doing your own smoking / roasting / canning / slicing / milling / stewing and swooning…you don’t need to hear about mine. So down into the cellar we go, deep into the bowels of the earth, to whisper a rumor from my very own ‘Deep Throat’. (Not my throat…my Deep Throat.)

small_TwoBuck

I have it on good authority that a combination of economic crisis and harvest have conspired to create another Central Valley / Central Coast grape glut. From my trench-coated, rubber-booted inside informant (with no stake in sales) comes this:

For obvious reasons, sales of pricier wines have suffered over the past year. For many, it makes no economic sense to spend the money bottling new juice that will simply end up being severely undervalued.* With the harvest coming up, the rubber’s hit the road and wineries are being told to clear out their stored juice from, where else? Charles Shaw. With its millions of gallons of storage (oak barrels and stainless tanks) and massive bottling plants, Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wines operation (aka Charles Shaw) is once again in the catbird seat, buying up juice for pennies on the dollar.

The good news for us is that this $15 to $20 wine-worthy-juice will soon become Three Buck Chuck.

For some, no number of “really’s” before “good” can make a $3 Chuck good enough. It’ll always be swill and you’d rather stick with a reliable $15 Cotes du Rhone. I get that. But I’ll also be picking up periodic cabs and merlots (I don’t know if this affects all varietals or one in particular) along with my milk, yogurt and tunafish, especially after the “2008″ on the label switches to “2009″. If it’s swill, the bottles will still make a respectable braising liquid for winter short-ribs, oxtails and pigs’ feet.

*Why higher end wineries don’t just bottle their juice and sell it for cheap, I don’t know. Brand dilution, perhaps?

P.S. Pssst! Look at this gorgeous bowl of tomatoes! Our bedraggled little plants have been cranking fruit out heroically since the first of July. Okay, couldn’t resist. Now pretend you didn’t see this. IMG_1636

A Little Summer Nostalgia

MedFlowers
Despite the 90 degrees broiling up outside, I’m aware of fall creeping in like never before. Without kids to send to school the seasons usually pass seamlessly, one to another, year after year, me glued to a computer 12-hours-a-day. Like everyone, I’d wake up periodically to, “Oh crap, Christmas is in four days and I haven’t bought anything.” Or, “If we don’t get a dry day soon I’ll need to add a fourth raincoat to my repertoire.” Or, “Hmm. Mid-July. Perhaps time to swap the shorts’ box from the basement with the sweater drawer in the closet.”

But this summer’s been different. Except for a slight Twitter and blog addiction, the computer’s been a choice, and I have been aware of every blissful long, warm, sunny day. And the occasional stormy one. I didn’t do a single house project that I should’ve, but we had a steady flow of guests, parties in the backyard, countless bottles of rosé. And the dog and I bonded. Almost every day we’d walk through the quaint streets of Sellwood, along the train tracks, through the ‘forbidden field’, under the Springwater Corridor, through Oaks Amusement Park, down the stairs to the beach, along the water, up into the Monkey Trail, out to the dog park, back up along Oaks Pioneer Church, and home. We’ve watched green turn to gold, gray to blue, brown to purple, and every day I’m amazed that this is my neighborhood.

So one day not long ago I grabbed my camera in an attempt to capture a little bit of this urban oasis that my stubborn, socially inappropriate, bully of a dog has forced me out into. Thanks Koko.

P.S. I’m a terrible photographer and I don’t even have the rudimentary ability to crop. If you want great photos, go to my friend Leslie’s site…holy mama! But this is my story (and I’m sticking to it).

P.P.S. There’s not a crumb of food in this post. And I’m breaking a self-imposed rule not to talk about my dog. Next thing you know I’ll be sharing feelings…God help us all.

Since Koko’s not great with other dogs it’s best to burn off some energy before she mingles. Walking along the tracks and into the Forbidden Field (so named because of the giant Dogs On Leash signs…but Koko never, er, hardly ever, chases the birds) is perfect for this. Plus the ever-changing wildflowers and weeds are always amazing.

A quiet moment in the forbidden field…phpo8DYahPM
…awaiting….
SpeedMed …Koko to pass through at the speed of a bullet train. “Lab mix” my ass, dear humane society. She’s half pit, half jack-a-lope.

CloudsMed There was great cloud action, turning the sky from brilliant blue to gray in the blink of an eye, one minute illuminating the newly-frescoed Mausoleum, the next turning it hulking and ominous.

Across the field I got a flash of purple from the wetlands, and walked through the trees to this.WetlandsMed

PurpleCloseupMedWalking into it we were surrounded by a six-foot-tall forest of purple. The stereoscopic buzzing clued me into the teeming bees surrounding us, as I delicately backed out.

Then under the trestle to that magical white-trash wonderland that is Oaks Amusement Park. I particularly love it in its abandoned winter state, but summer brings its own treats too…..FerrisCrop

Like this Little Miss Sunshine moment.LilMissSunshineMed

WavesMed But now to Koko’s playland where she can run off-leash again. Downtown’s on view from one end of the beach and the Sellwood Bridge anchors the other. Did I mention this is all one walk? It amazes me every time.

ChapelMed And looping back up to the chapel, again with the iPhone because at this point Koko was in the doghouse and we were booking miles. I have no idea what this couple was doing. She’s in jeans, with ribbons and a veil. At one point he was on one knee. Gotta love this town.

And so we end. This is my thanks to you Koko, for getting me out every day to enjoy the summer and this amazing neighborhood. We have our battles, you and I. Your sense of loyalty is severely misplaced. I despair of you ever learning what, “Get your kong!” means, or learning to fetch. And some day your bullying ways will will land you, not just me, in hot water. But you do have your moments. HeartCrop

RIP, Mark…You’ll be Sorely Missed

MakersMedIs there a sadder sight? To see through to a crystal-clear center and beyond, a mere shadow of its former self, no mellow gold to hide the glare….

From humble beginnings in Loretto, Kentucky to the shelves of a California Costco, smuggled lovingly into Oregon…such provenance…we lay our cherished friend to rest.

You were like a grandfather, embracing, warm, good for a lot of laughs, mellow in a glass after dinner. But you could be sassy, too, with a shot of sweet vermouth, a cherry breaking your icy surface. And loverlike, surprising, Benedictine heightening your natural sweetness, leaving behind a rosy glow and the desire for a smoke.

We celebrate your 1.75 liter, larger-than-life…life, as we mourn your demise. Kicked to the curb to join the crush of the hoi polloi, to be reborn…as what?

You lived a good life, you amassed good karma. I predict good things.

You shall be missed.

Just Plum Delish

img_1378

Thanks ladies at exercise class for the giant bag of perfectly ripe Italian plums. Of course they turned into a crisp that used an entire cube of butter and nearly a cup of sugar, thereby negating a month’s worth of senior aerobics, but what the heck.

img_1404K said it was the best ever. Using, once again, a variation of the crisp topping I found on Eat. Think. Drink., which bb found on blazinghotwok, which Darlene modified from Ina Garten. Phew. When summer fruit season ends it’ll be back to store-bought-cookies and ice cream for our guests. Poor guests.

(Modifications, since K is trying to cut down on sugar, included 100% of the butter, half the sugar throughout, and half the flour though 100% of the lovely oats and almonds. And I made it in an 8×8 square pyrex instead of individual ramekins. What can I say? It was midweek and not for a dinner party, we were being casual.)

Le Tomato-Love, a la Jacques

img_1373

The Flavel Street “farm” has one crop…tomatoes. (K grows pumpkins but primarily for their big, showy leaves that he lets run rampant across the lawn. We’ve never actually eaten one…he grows attached. That would be a-kin [heh] to murder.)

But back to tomatoes.

It’s been a weird year. Some people had blight before the fruit could ripen, we had the smallest crop on record. And the earliest. It seemed that ours were the only plants to hit their stride in mid-July; oh how we cackled with glee over the 2009 plan to under-water. It was working! True, the plants were sad, bedraggled little things, but the tomatoes were delicious, early (for Portland’s wet spring), nicely sized, with skins not overly tough (as ours usually are). But then…

The fruit got smaller and smaller until normally small Stupice shrank to the size of cherry tomatoes. The beefsteak? Roughly the size of a golf ball. Lemon boy? Like a junior baseball.

The flowers? Very few flowers. And by mid-August, very few tomatoes.

We started sneaking water.

Then madly dousing to coax along the few green ones left on the vines.

img_1329We have a healthy crop of Romas on the way, the Sun Gold’s continue indestructable as usual, and time will tell if the others rally. With the extreme heat, this may not have been the year to experiment, but really, can one complain about a steady stream of delicious fruit over several months? And as ours peter out? I figure friends will be looking for a home for their excess.

< Here's what a July haul looked like.

For YOUR extras, here's one of my favorite Jacques Pepin recipes from 1992′s Today’s Gourmet. I’ve made it countless times, and the proportions and herbs are endlessly forgiving and flexible. I’ve even cut up regular tomatoes to make up the difference, if the cherries measure short. Bon appetite!

Cherry Tomato Gratin
1 1/4 pounds cherry tomatoes (approx 3.5 cups)
3 oz day-old french bread (about 3.5 cups) cut into 1″ cubes
4-6 cloves garlic, peeled & sliced (about 2 T) (interesting; had forgotten these were sliced. I’ve always chopped)
1/2 cup coursely chopped flat-leaf parsley (mixing basil and parsley is nice)
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 T virgin olive oil (I use a bit more, usually)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (even good w/o this)

IMG_1469 Preheat the over to 375. Wash tomatoes and discard stems. Mix tomatoes and all ingredients in a bowl. Transfer the mixture to a 6-cup oven-proof dish. Bake at 375 for 40 minutes, serve immediately.

Four servings: 185 calories; 6 gm protein; 21 gm carbohydrates; 9.4 grams fat; 2.1 grams saturated fat; 5 mg cholesterol; 506 mg sodium.

Part 3 of 3: Fear and Small Plates (Tanuki)

Tanuki…oh Tanuki…your dark mysteries call. A little fear makes the thrill that much stronger, and yours are the ties that bind.

lanterlogotext2I wandered in an innocent, a fool, a virgin, though the “No kids, no sushi” sandwich-board sent a frisson of warning up my spine. Tiny, I knew, but not a single four-top? With only half our party on hand we meekly backed out the door, bowing and scraping, vowing to be Johnny-on-the-spot should adjacent two-tops open up. (Okay, bb is never meek, but even HE was on good behavior.) Out in the sun, away from the cold cynicism of weary eyes, I was once again able to draw a deep, clean breath. But after a whiff of your darkness, it tasted a little saccharine, a little too bright.

Attitude can come in many forms and have many causes: ignorant youth, flat-out-stupid, a surfeit of shallow beauty, undeserved strokes, a lifetime of paying dues, a singular vision. I was well-primed to find the source of Tanuki’s brashness, and prepared to enjoy the ride.

Just as our Basta happy hour snacks were set on the table our fourth arrived and frantically flagged us from across the street. Four chairs together! Ready! Team RacoonDog deploy now! Slamming drinks and money on the table, ignoring the food (well, I may have snagged a calamari) we scampered across, and though nothing was said, I detected a hint of approval that we’d so obviously hustled to play by the rules. We were ready–nay eager–for whatever Tanuki wanted to dish out.

And dish it out, it did.

The spirit of our $30/pp omakase meal’s well documented at Eat. Think. Drink., but it took a team effort to recall everything we ate. Edamame, dried anchovy and seaweed salad paved the way as we discussed and poured sake, settling more deeply into our seats. Skewers of bay scallop, shrimp (overcooked, unfortunately), meat (beef? heart?) and Portuguese sausage helped ease us into the dark universe. Then a plate each of hamachi with white miso and uni slammed us into Tanuki-land. No color commentary needed beyond OMFG. (Pics over at bb’s, with his money shot borrowed below, and a fantastic catalog of shots at The Goodist. Tim’s reviews are what first put Tanuki on my radar.) Followed fast by raw oysters with kimchee ice, all we could do was hold on. Hold on, taste, revel, and bask in the fresh flavors and the adventure of not knowing what was next.

dscf3678And what was next? In no particular order, a large fillet of unagi, with salty-sour umeboshi to cut the sweet bbq sauce, a fresh and flavor-filled clear soup with raw…nearly raw? razor clam, a slightly sweet rice-dish of clams, sausage and cherry tomatoes, and another of vegetables with monkfish liver. bb has a photo of salmon tartare with cuke and green onion…how can I not even remember that? I’d accuse him of hiding it on his lap but the variety of food was so generous, there was no need to covet. Out of this bounty there was only one item, which I’ve dubbed “Band-Aid Flavored Soup” that was not to my taste. K opined that the meal, like Moulin Rouge, had a brilliant first act but then got a little messy. That may have been our fault for increasing the server’s recommended $25 budget to $30, but for a first visit, I don’t regret having had the variety. In the famous words of, well, pretty much every hedonist, “Too much of everything is just enough.”

So what makes one server’s snark and another’s ditzy misstep (Shared Plates post part 1) so off-putting, while Tanuki’s rules and attitude draw us in like a magnet? Why did Park Kitchen’s foie mess leave such a lasting impression, while bandage soup was easily shrugged off? Perhaps it’s ascribing a price to a whole meal rather than valuing individual dishes…or even courses. If we’d gone with the prix fixe PK menu, we may well have been happier…but the dishes would still have been overworked. Tanuki, at its most successful, showcases a hero, and then supports, frames or twists it for added depth. I’ll leave the debate of “authentic”, etc. to others. All I know is that I like a hero, especially when it rides in on white miso. Or sleeps on a bed of home-made kimchee.

Finally, there’s the whole vibe, the ability to embrace one’s vision and lock it down in a death grip. Which MBA program instructs biz owners to taunt its detractors and potential customers via social media? (“Dear Idiot…” “Please don’t breed…” “Bite me…”) If such a program doesn’t yet exist, it should. When you run 10 to 12 tables it’s your world, your rules, your vision, your domain, and “bite me” sounds like a pretty good idea with food this good.

Tanuki, you’re a black-hearted bitch. Delectably skewered and grilled, and I want more.

BTW, our server was lovely. Recommended a great sake, kept water flowing, and unobtrusively shuttled full plates to, and empty ones away from, our table. No exaggerations in this post should reflect on her. I hope we tipped well…but between my food drunk and the flying cash due to the rule against split tabs, I can’t say I remember.

Part 2 of 3: Big Experience, Small Plates (Beaker & Flask)

beakerflask3Drinks and dinner at Beaker & Flask, other than too bright at a non-shaded table, was a nice surprise: comfy circular booths in a soaring space, minimalist but smart decor, and unique cocktails. (While “unique” is great, I need to remember to integrate some clean classics amongst the plethora of chartreuse, absinthe, cynar and blueberries. No doubt they’d mix up a stellar classic cocktail, and sometimes a break from so many bold, interesting flavors can be a relief.) In any case, as GoodStuffNW stated, it really was “… the food here [that] was the surprise…” I didn’t expect anything beyond the ordinary and instead found a dining experience that was a cut above. (One of the “cuts”, beef, to the left.)

beakerflask2Four of us shared the trout deviled eggs, corn on the cob, fried oysters, spot prawns, which, from left to right were: good; good and fun but the thrice-promised knife would have been helpful; great/crunchy/moist/ woulda done NOLA fried oysters proud; fabulous, especially the half of the dish that was the raw prawn. For shared entrees C&S had the grilled beef shoulder: nice, though my bite of meat was under-salted and the carmelized cauliflower looked like the best thing on the plate. And K & I shared the barely seared tuna with aioli on…hmm…greens, bacon & croutons? Too many Walk Don’t Run’s by then (White Rum, Grapefruit/Wormwood Soda, Angostura Bitters). In any case, it was delicious. (But can I channel my mom here for a moment? Prices felt a tiny bit steep.)

beakerflask With so many great places to eat in town, both old and new, it’s time to compile some lists to keep myself both branched out and on a budget. While their happy hour selection isn’t amazing, making it far too easy to stray onto the dinner menu, Beaker & Flask is a delightfully civilized way to unwind after a busy day of…err…unemployment.

Part 1 of 3: Big Attitudes, Small Plates (50 Plates & Park Kitchen)

Early July was an extravaganza of shared plates (Park Kitchen, Tanuki, 50 Plates, Beaker & Flask), and for a household in which the small-plates ban has recently been lifted? That’s quite a list. Between SF visitors and a birthday there was a lot to celebrate, and some of the meals were even celebration-worthy.

Aside to Portlanders: Remember early July? Temps in the mid-70s, cool breezes that we mindlessly accepted without a whit of gratitude? Sleeping with a sheet…or jammies at the very least? (Our poor, unfortunate neighbors. Open windows, no clothes or blankets, we’ll just leave that mental picture unfinished.) Cooking, running the dishwasher, hopping a bus, sitting out on the sidewalk sipping lattes, going to a restaurant without first calling to see if the a/c is working…ah the good old days.

Happy hour at 50 Plates was pleasant but forgettable. Not much enticing in the way of drink specials and the plates were hit and miss. The mushrooms on toast and shrimp ‘n grits, both dishes I’d loved before, were again fantastic: rich and bursting with mouth-filling flavors. The silver dollar sammies were a mixed bag (and a tiny clutch-sized bag at that, they take the silver dollar part very literally): forgettable pulled pork, but a great little kobe burger. The artichoke roll was bland and lifeless with no discernable artichoke, the crab jalapeno poppers had no crab flavor…nor any pop…and the Not a Cobb was not only not a Cobb, it wasn’t much of anything else, either. Simultaneously watery and gooey, it was a bland disappointment after the Not a Cobb at Quinn’s in Seattle. Our elevated sidewalk seat was great for people-watching, but the 70s rock classics blaring from the speakers and the slightly snarky-but-not-in-a-clever-way service didn’t really go with the white wine thing that was happening at our table. I’ll definitely go back for real food, but it’s not knocking Andina off the top of my Pearl happy hour list any time soon.

PK-logoDinner at Park Kitchen was also a mixed bag. (Adore their logo. No mixed feelings about that at all.) Having gone to Toro Bravo with out-of-towners twice in June, we were determined to branch out. So we shortlisted: Park Kitchen, Laurelhurst Market, Le Pigeon, Toast and Nostrana. All are pretty and / or unique, and they seemed a good variety of off-beat, new and hot, tres Pdx French, neighborhoody and solidly good. From websites and menus our guests both put PK at the top of the list. Having had great meals there in the past and having neglected them for the past year, we all felt good about the decision.

We started at the bar with two white wines, a refreshing and unique Violette (Meyer’s rum, crème de violette, Cointreau, orange bitters, lime twist), and an excellent Trace Bourbon Manhattan, and soon moved to our table. Is there any better location on a balmy evening than a Park Kitchen sidewalk table? Our four-top was just outside the rollup door where we could experience the buzz of the room and the ever darkening shadows of the trees in the park, as we perused the menu. Due to one slightly particular eater, we ordered a la carte, though the $40/pp chef’s choice looked like a great deal when all’s said and done.

Let’s do this laundry list style:

    Crisply brown salt-cod fritters seemed overly large and…the greater sin…overly potatoey after Toro Bravo’s, and the vinegar was fine but pooled on plates that we had to keep for several more courses.

    The fried green beans were delicious, though somehow we’d all envisioned an Asian dried-fried thing rather than tempura bean fries in a glass. Once we adjusted our mental picture they were consumed with relish (well actually with aioli, but you know what I mean).

    Grilled prawns: Forgettable and a waste of a course.

    Razor clam salad with sea beans and favas: Unique, flavorful and seaworthy, exactly the kind of eye-opening dish one expects here.

    Smoked sturgeon, currants and nasturtiums: Flat-out yummy. Smoky, salty, sweet, but all with a light, balanced touch.

    Roast pork entree: Nicely done. It didn’t blow my socks off but any time I can get a pink and juicy loin, hats off!

    Foie gras with pickled strawberries, pistachios and baby beets: Completely misleading (it was better described on the bill than menu), baffling and disappointing. With paper-thin shavings of foie (apparently…they were hard to locate), on cooked strawberries in a thick tasteless sauce that turned out to be the pistachios, it was softness on mush, topped by shavings of melty. With nice beets. A misstep can happen anywhere, but this one got compounded by the server’s dingbat response to our honest but polite assessment. In an attempt to stem her misplaced gushing I pronounced the dish “a mess”. SO not Portland-nice of me…oops. She stalked away and handed us off to another (more seasoned) server, but there was a lot of meal to go and we all felt the effects of my tactlessness. May I suggest that if you’re going to ask how something is, one should listen to the (unanimous, btw) answer? And not take offense? I’m not at your home and bound by the “everything’s delicious” rule. (Oh wait, I don’t even do that at people’s homes unless I mean it.)

    Nothing on the dessert menu called to me, though I thought the olive oil cake with summer berries was very nice. The boys also had chocolates from Xocolatl de David, which they dubbed “interesting”.

K. pronounced the pork and green beans a hit. A. really liked the lavash-style crackers in the bread plate. “Nothing else? Not even the sturgeon?” “Well, the bread was good, too.” Ohhhh snap! Ouch. J and I appreciated the creativity and effort but agreed it was an uneven experience for the pricetag. At meal’s end we noticed by chance that they’d comped the pistachio-sauce course. While wonderful and appreciated, a verbal acknowledgment would have gone a long way to putting things into perspective. As it was left, this debacle of a dish and the server’s handling of us left the biggest impression.

Next, a little additional color commentary on Tanuki, reviewed on Eat. Drink. Think., and a small shot of Beaker & Flask also recently reviewed by GoodStuffNW.

Guest Post: Adventures of a Ninja Chef

First, who’s Ezra?

A friend and new Portland transplant who writes things like:

“Cooking
Like jazz
(Like all art, really)
Is an expression of love, joy, pain and sorrow.
The delicious sustenance that results is almost an afterthought.”

He’s also an Excel whiz. And he doesn’t like to be bound by the constraints of pre-figured directions or maps (which, considering that quote, shouldn’t come as a surprise), as I found on a recent field trip to Uwajimaya. The next time I get turned around in the US-26 / downtown spaghetti tangle I’ll try to remember I’m not lost at all, merely “riffing”.

What else to know? My dog loves him. She has no use for Google maps either.

I don’t know if Ezra would have needed extra inducement to Koko-sit during our Seattle trip, but I figured that opening the pantry and pointing out all the weird foodstuffs he could play with wouldn’t hurt. And indeed, that clinched the deal.

Now let’s be clear: Ezra has a large, gorgeous kitchen at his disposal, filled with healthful, vegetarian products, while mine is tiny, battered (mmmm…batter) and sullied by all manner of questionable ingredients. But he kept his eye on the adventures that he could concoct within this small, tiled space, transcending physical limitations, ethnic boundaries and, once or twice I’m sure, common sense.

In this guest post, Ezra describes his time. “A lot of ideas really crystallized for me during that week.” says he, and for that I’m so glad!


The Space
I pause for a moment at the entrance to the kitchen. It’s the same whenever I enter an unfamiliar house. I’m thinking about how this room reveals the soul of the house and of the people who have made it their home. I cross the threshold and suddenly I’m an anthropologist. What do I know about the inhabitants? What is their relationship to food? What traces of life do I sense in this place?

A quick tour of the garden, pantry and cellar reveals that these folks have a healthy and positive relationship with their food. I’ve cooked in many kitchens, but this one is set up perfectly for an improvisational cook. The utensils are in their proper place. Spices and herbs wait patiently in their containers and packets. This is a kitchen where good food is honored.

The Preparation
Before cooking I envision the food to be created. I breathe in the smells of the kitchen, orienting myself among the shelves, racks and cupboards. I feel the temperature and humidity in the air.

For me cooking is about creating and maintaining optimal conditions for food. I enjoy the prospect of creating food out of whatever’s available. This kitchen is bursting with possibility. Wherever I turn there is culinary inspiration.

Eating
Eating is one of my favorite aspects of food. It’s easy to take this step for granted. But it is just as important as all the other parts. And it is equally rewarding.

Cleanup
There’s an old saying, “when you are finished eating, clean your bowl.” This is most true when practicing food preparation. A fundamental aspect of cooking is care for utensils. They are for the cook what brushes are for the painter.

When I’m finished eating I lovingly clean every knife, bowl, spoon and pan. Ingredients are replaced in their original location. A ninja chef, I leave the kitchen with barely a trace behind me. Perhaps the space has been altered subtly by this process. But everything is just as I found it, ready for another food adventure.

P.S. Two other things came to mind as I was writing this. Big surprise, they are both about food and are both Japanese. Hmmm… I definitely see a pattern emerging here.

Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto) is one of my favorite books. A major theme throughout is food in general, but especially the energy created by the kitchen space and different types of people and kitchens.

Tampopo (Juzo Itami) is one of my favorite movies. It’s all about food, cooking, eating, food culture, the art of food, etc. Basically it’s two straight hours of Ramen. Every time I watch it I want to make miso soup with noodles.

Editor’s Note:
“But what did you MAKE, Ezra?” I wail.

“The trouble is I don’t know what I made. I know what I used, what I did, and it was all really good. But I was aiming for *formless* food (ed: and by this he means without boundaries or limitations, not literally formless), going by what I know about the way the food works, and whatever inspired me. So I could list the ingredients, the specific processes. But in a sense these are accidental and it’s the finished product which matters. These are meals which will never, can never, be made again.

Perhaps this is an unsatisfactory answer. Or maybe I’m just trying to maintain an air of mystery. But I really am trying to develop an approach to cooking which is scientific, creative and focused on the larger issues of what food is all about.”

img_1288(What I do know is this: our aged, DOC balsamic hand-carried back from Italy in 2002 had been shifted. My, what good taste he has! And the jar of South African salted, green papaya was open in the fridge. As long as he didn’t use them together, I’m pleased.)

“Not unsatisfactory at all, Ez. Just hard for a process-oriented, don’t-like-to-get-lost person such as myself to accept. But okay. There. I’ve just accepted it.”

To read more of Ezra’s posts, check out his eclectic thoughts on cooking, movies and inspiration here.

Summer Bounty Followup: Corn Soup Recipe

img_1277Here’s Michael Chiarello’s recipe for the corn soup served at our recent vegetarian dinner party. If you want to keep it veggie, disregard my thought that some chicken stock might be nice. Also, IMO, sauteeing a bit of onion and corn in butter would do more than the small of amount of cream he adds, but I haven’t tried it this way; it’s just a guess.

Summer Corn Soup
Michael Chiarello (italics=dds modifications)

4 c corn kernels (~5 ears corn; reserve cobs)
6 c water (or 2 c low sodium chix stock/4 c water)
1 onion, chopped, divided into 2 piles
1 celery rib, chopped
1 bay leaf
3 T butter, preferably unsalted
1/2 c heavy cream (optional)
Salt
Topping / garnish of choice

Cut corn off cobs and set aside. Cut cobs in half and add to water with celery, half the onion and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes; remove the cobs.

Saute the remaining half of onion in butter until soft, add corn and salt, saute another minute, add to stock. Bring to a boil until the corn is tender, about 3 minutes. Remove bay leaf, adjust salt, add cream.

Transfer in batches to a blender and blend thoroughly (start at a low speed & then ramp it up to avoid lid eruptions). Strain through a fine mesh sieve placed over a clean pot, pushing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible.

Reheat the soup gently to serve; do not allow to boil! Serve warm, cool or cold, and top with garnish. A dollop of pesto, creme fraiche, basil or tarragon leaves….

I also froze a bit of this, stirring as it hardened to produce crystals. Delicious corn ice resulted, but I have yet to think of what to put it on. Not interesting enough to stand on its own. I keep thinking about chorizo…..

Flavel Street Farm Report

A tweet from Ruth Reichel (Gourmet’s editor) pronounced: “10 vegetarians to dinner. Too bad it’s not corn and tomato season.”

By coincidence, I was having vegetarians to dinner the same day, and tomatoes (cherry) and corn (soup) were most in-season on the west coast, and precisely what were on the menu. But that’s neither here nor there, since we bought both and this was supposed to focus on eating what our garden produced. Damn my wandering attention span…

flex-012And the winning plant for first ripe tomato of the year (last week) is….Stupice! Once again. Tiny even for a Stupice but we’ll take it. And the Sungold cherry tomato plant is starting to squirt out some ripe babies. Mmmmm, tomato candy. And in third place, after this weekend’s heat, Stupice plant #2 has red clusters galore. Tomorrow I’ll be able to slice them on toast with olive oil, pepper and salt…the best breakfast in the world.

Because I keep forgetting to use it, we had enough lettuce to feed six for a first course on Saturday. My typical French vinaigrette weighs down the tender leaves, so we had a semi-successful light dressing of lemon, oil, worcestershire and salt. [Oh gads! Just realized that's not vegetarian! A thousand apologies...it was just a dash.... So much for mindfulness.] Had intended to add whole parsley leaves along with the thinly sliced radishes, something my Persian cousin does which is so simple but unique, but it got left behind in the flurry of plating. (Which is more acceptable than the post-bbq marinade that got left off shish-kebabs the week before, but that’s a subject for a different day.)

Whole “needles” of fresh garden tarragon adorned a simple vegetarian corn soup for the second course of that same dinner. Bright and licoricey, and a nice change from basil. I can share that super simple recipe (actual recipe! From a book and everything!) if the experienced vegetable eaters thought it was tasty enough. Cold the next day, on a palate unpolluted by raw garlic & tomato drenched bread, it tasted richer. Next time I’d double the onion and saute it and the corn kernels in a bit of butter and salt. Cuz y’know, what’s not better with a bit of butter and salt?

A cup of home-grown basil provided the base for course #3′s pasta sauce: basil blended with two cups of cherry tomatoes (courtesy of New Seasons), toasted almonds, garlic and oil. Cooks Illustrated said to mix a half cup of parmesan into the pasta, but I think it dulled the bright taste of the “pesto”. Thanks to Skip’s shrimp pasta, I thought to mix in a big batch of raw arugula, which leant a peppery, fresh bite.

flex-006 All boy flowers on the pumpkin so far. Except for the first girl back in June…before there were any boy flowers for fertilizing. Isn’t that just the way it is in love and life? Well, I suppose if we get no pumpkins we’ve at least enjoyed the vines carousing across the lawn. Next year I know I’ll be brave enough to harvest the blossoms. It’s one of my favorite things to eat but I have a mysterious block against picking and cooking them. (The photo at left is two weeks old. After consuming a boot and a neighbor’s cat, we reigned in the vines with a climbing corral.)

flex-011Ah, and a footnote, appropriate because it’s directly related to Oregon’s bounty. I made this Berry Crumble for the second time, this time using local blueberries and boysenberries from New Seasons. It was, once again, spectacular and I can’t wait to make it with peaches. The boysen wasn’t as bright as the raspberry, even after adding extra lemon and cutting the sugar by 1/3, but it still killed. After seven years in Portland, I still can’t get over the size, flavor and variety of these monsters.

What I Did on my Summer Vacation (Seattle Tourist Tweets)

Yeah, this falls under “unclear on the concept”.

Problem #1: Half my Twitter followers (ascetics / vegetarians / intellectuals), only do it because @Havi put me on a list. And I can guarantee they don’t want their iPhones gummed up with endless tweets of my eating excesses.
Problem #2:
I can’t manage to do a post shorter than a thousand words. As Havi says, “I feel compelled to write 10 pages about everything.”
Problem #3: It takes me ten ridiculous days to write a post.

So instead of a post I saved up unsent tweets. Ha! So there! (But the laugh’s on me because it still took 10 days to get this up. Sigh.)

Space Needle through the eyes of Gehry & Paul Allen.

Space Needle through the eyes of Gehry & Paul Allen

7 Starbucks in 4 block radius and nary a food cart to be found. Not an auspicious start. (the linked pic was snapped 2 days later)

Researching Seattle from the room instead of out exploring. Duh. And on the iPhone to-boot rather than paying $9.95 for access that’s only valid til 3 pm.

5 more Starbucks spotted on the way to a corner grocery.

Bud and peanuts await mah man’s return for swanky cocktails en suite. V nice 10th floor corner room at the Paramount. Recommend, aside from the annoying connectivity (even the iPhone needs continuous log in).

img_0947Finally out in the world! Tom Douglas’ Serious Pie for meh flatbread pizza (good sausage/pepper, bland-ola tomato/basil). This is no Apizza Scholls. Fabulous branding/graphics, convivial, and 3 excellent starters though…

…1) artichokes, proscuitto, baked egg; 2) duck proscuitto, pickled apricot, arugula; 3) baby lettuces, radish, muscatel vinaigrette. I’d recommend for the salads, vibe, pizza as a snack, and e-z proximity to downtown.

Breakfast a bust. Typical in-room coffee (can you say “coffee-mate”? mmm. When I open MY hotel, the honor bar will be stocked with free cream). Llandro “bakery” and cafe across the street has no baked goods to speak of.

Out in the 3-D world. Hooray! Belltown is deserted and more…barren?…than expected. So many “For Lease” signs, ouch.

There’s Lola, Dahlia Lounge, Flying Fish, but I’ve got my eye out for Macrina Bakery recommended by a local friend…voila. Adorable.

img_0953Small cappucci off to a shaky start, though it would be a good tiny latte. Coffees in Seattle? 4. Great coffees? 0.

Semi-related pet peeve: not correlating # of shots with the size of the cup / milk. Especially places that should know better (Pdx Bar-cough-ista).

Hmm, sandwiches were recommended but I’d rather sample more variety. Quiche velvety, liquid-feeling eggs that hold together beautifully. How’d they do that? Piadina (proscuitto & cheese in toasted flatbread) so-so. Indifferent service but nice stop.

Help…too…bright…need shade…forgot my sunglasses. Curse you Seattle and your blue skies. (ed. note: #seattlerainconspiracy)

Walkin’ walkin’ walkin’

My Sculpture Park Tour:

Ellsworth Kelly: “I’m not interested in the texture of a rock, but in its shadow.” Excellent save on explaining that rust stain (been living with a public art conservationist too long). The “stain” is great, actually, and intentional I think…

img_0969Rawhrrr! Calder’s Eagle eats the Space Needle. “Help! We paid $16 to get up here and now I’m being…a-a-aiyee!” Chomp chomp chomp.

img_0970Oldenburg (and Coosje van Bruggen)’s Typewriter Eraser. If you’ve used one of these raise your hand. Time for the nursing home for us. “Racing” down to erase the freeway and cars.

img_0961Love the Sculpture Park, but the red chairs are my favorite thing. What a bumpkin.

Walkin’ walkin’ walkin’

Piers to my right, freeway, parking structures and self-storage to my left cutting off town from the water. Like the Embarcadero pre-quake.

Good God! 20-story cruise ship dwarfs everything in the bay. It’s too easy to heckle the snaking line of cruisers waiting to get back on, so I’ll resist. Mostly. (Honey, pour a gallon of aloe on that expanse of sunburn and maybe spend tomorrow in the casino.)

Walkin’ walkin’ walkin’.

img_0975Finally, a free bus the last 6 blocks to Pioneer Square. Blessed shade. Bricks, ivy, trees, this is how I pictured Belltown for some reason. More “For Lease” signs but a great stop for a cool beverage. #Sanbitters.

img_0972A crochet lesson. “Hey, I’ve never done this before!” as I’m busted taking his pic. I’m not here to judge you, sir.

I resist going into Grand Central Bakery, despite the inviting ivy-covered walls. img_0971

International District looks bleak. Too tired to see if I’m missing some magical street so it’s Uwajimaya and out. Even I can’t muster up the appetite for kalua pork at Aloha Plates or noodles at Samurai. What good is an enormous belly if it can’t rise to the occasion?!

Four hours to get here, three minutes to free-bus it home through the tunnel. Sweet.

Poor monorail, so worn and dated. Seattle Center public spaces not bad on a warm evening. I wander as K and the convention ‘swells’ swill drinks at a $50 gala.

Conference tidbit: In what area of life besides green awareness would “sustainable” be an acceptable goal? “How’s your marriage?” “It’s sustainable.” “Excellent.”

img_0984Chef Ken-san Yamamoto, marry me? Geoduck & shitakes in butter…[insert Homer’s drooling sound] Tempura shrimp heads! Toro! Sake! Hamachi! Amaebi! Ikura…and another Hamachi for dessert.

Shiki
4 W Roy
Queen Anne

Thank you Yelp. I take back all the bad things I was saying about you.

We should have bbq pork bao for breakfast every day. Is there something about the water in Portland that renders them impossible to make? Even this day-old guy is spectacularly yummy. Like a donut…with meat.

With two special exhibition galleries closed for changeover, the SAM seems like the perfect size for 3 hours. Intriguing contemporary, quality “old stuff” without the filler (IMO) of PAM.

dogtagsArtist Do-Ho Suh’s “military dogtag” robe spectacular. I love this whole contemporary section.

Titus Kaphar exhibit an oversized gem of wit and tragedy.

Why an atheist is so drawn to the religious paintings of the Renaissance is a conundrum worthy of some prayerful meditation.

Wall-filling South African video “Shadow Procession” riveting. “Things that seem whimsical, incidental, inauthentic may be trusted to provide entry into the heart of one’s material.” William Kentridge, artist.

From the visually stimulating SAM to Cafe Campagne’s palate stimulating oeufs en meurette. Sublime poached eggs on brioche, a-swim in a sauce of pearl onions, pancetta, wine and emulsed foie gras.

The less said about the sad croque monsieur, the better. Fortunately the eggs and accompanying pommes frîtes to swab up the sticky, rich leavings are (rich) enough for two. #didImentionit’srich?

img_1005 Fortified, we enjoy the new downtown library. Agreed: the atrium is spectacular & the womb-like meeting room floor interesting. K admires the moxy, I worry about how this slanty / slopey / tilty building will wear.

I seem to have shaken off my identification as a San Franciscan. Comparing Seattle more often to Pdx, and home is coming off very favorably. That’s a nice realization.

If a martini says, no returns on the menu, how stupid does one have to be to order it?

About to embark on a $3.50 (non-happy-hour) martini. Hold me, I’m scared… [real tweet]

“The Dan” is on the sound-system, penants on the ceiling, the hair is big, and the world’s cheapest martini ain’t bad. 3 big olives, too. [real tweet]

Kaya Korean: A tragedy in 2 acts. The Hero? Spectacular meat at good prices. The downfall? Hubris (appalling service leads to missing panchun & lack of flavor.) The victims? 4 of us who drove to fumbuck Aurora on a rainy night. SO sorry, J&J!

(Ed Note: Frustrations just taken out in a Yelp review; must save others from a similar fate. Will probably get hate mail. I should write a letter to the Seattle Weekly, too…their rave is what steered us wrong.)

Steak, pork belly, and a few kalbi. How could something so right turn out to be so wrong?

Steak, pork belly, and a few kalbi. How could something so right turn out to be so wrong?


We try to salvage the night with much-vaunted donuts at Dahlia Lounge. Coconut pie more successful. Comfy space to relive the evening’s indignities.

013 Brunch at Tilth nearly washes away the bad taste of last night. Charming, light yet flavor-packed, first good coffee I’ve had in Seattle. Very good, and they left the pot. The kitchen was backed up and we didn’t even care.

010Sous vide eggs on a crab benny…scrumptious. French toast more like mini squares of unctious bread pudding…perfect to share. Even the oatmeal was delicious. Oatmeal, for crying out loud.

This is where J wanted to eat last night. Guilt over Kaya settles even deeper.

Pike’s too crammed; should have come at 7 am. I recall my 16-year-old self’s visit here in minute detail. If only I’d known what to do with the bolt of energy that hit me as I wandered the food-laden halls lo those many years ago.

Delighted to see friends on Bainbridge Is. I feel like I’m in a Crate & Barrel photo shoot: beautiful people, charming children, glorious old farmhouse dusted lightly with impeccable taste. Even the neighborhood dogs gather here to play.

Dinner at Quinns, brother (literally) to Restaurant Zoe. Nice gastro-pubby (loud) space, the beer list and our waiter’s vast knowledge of said list truly impressive. Not a wrong note on the menu, but execution….

Good/competent. Ribs tasty but overcooked, mussels fine, boar sausage bizarrely dense, cobb with creamy egg and pork belly great. (I’ve had more eggs this trip…all delicious. Could it be the barometric pressure? Seattle sous vide au natural…)

If there’s a next time we’ll try the steak tartare and sloppy joe. Worth another trip for that and beer. Appreciate our thin, healthy local friends’ ordering compromises; left to our own devices we’d be dead under the table.

Saw my first twirling pasties at the Pink Door! And at my advanced age…sad really. Drinks pretty awful. Oops, another ferry to Bainbridge missed.

Heading home. The seats are hard but the view lovely from the top deck of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. [real tweet]

Damn you bus #70 and your screwed up schedule! It’s too hot to be dragging a suitcase a mile down SE 17th.

img_1061PigCat Pale (deLIcious!), home-made challa, & a happy dog, all thanks to @ezra_brooks, @richardMiller & @Havi. #BestHomecomingEver [real tweet]

I’m giving Seattle a B / B-. I give MY visit to Seattle a B/B-. There are treasures a-plenty to be savored, I’m sure. Will try again (and next time I won’t fight restaurant recs just because they sound too predictable).

A Tale of Two Visits: 24 Years, 4 Tacos and a Burrito

img_0873The real reason for the drive to San Francisco was to visit a dear friend of…ack…24 years…in the hospital. So my days were spent at surreal Laguna Honda, a sprawling long-term care hospital, hospice and rehab center for the uninsured on the western slopes of Twin Peaks. It’s the oldest nursing home in the state, pre 1906 earthquake, and it looks it. Most of the complex is condemned (which doesn’t stop it from being fully inhabited): peeling paint, gorgeous old tilework, stairways to nowhere, WWII missiles (5’ tall steel oxygen tanks on refrigerator-bearing dollies) lining the halls and wheelchair-bound, panhandling patients assembled along the walkway to the parking lot. It’s Terry Gilliam’s Brazil meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

img_0854But the therapy-giving, shit-swabbing caregivers have hearts of gold and probably work for lower wages than a Nordstrom perfume sprayer (without the clothing discount), and where would the indigent and uninsured go otherwise? I’m glad they’re there for you Yona, and I hope you get the hell out of dodge soon.

Every day as I stopped by Tower Burger for Yona’s daily milkshake (Mitchell’s ice cream, but only chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, no avocado, tamarind or purple yam here) I resisted the lure of the organic Niman Ranch burgers that Yelpers seem to love. After all, I had to save my appetites for burrito testing. It’s been many years since I’ve known the best haunts for Mission carne asada and carnitas, and after six years in Portland it seemed high time to reacquaint with my addiction.

As I awaited my first burrito on a warm, slightly foggy Thursday afternoon, I did the math on the big burrito test and realized it wasn’t going to add up. There was no way to cover enough ground detouring through the Mission from the East Bay (homebase) to Twin Peaks (hospital) three days in a row. Especially at odd hours: a super burrito, even shared, takes some serious appetite. Even the rip-off $8.50 burrito at Pancho Villa, which was shockingly slender…no bigger round than my wrist…was too big to eat alone if I was going to taste anything else in the name of scientific research.

With JP’s help, we split two tacos and the burrito, and readjusted the test. Though the Mission burrito is still my great love, with limited opportunity to taste, we’d have to make tacos the testing ground. Price aside (double the price of memory, though I admit I’ve officially become my mother, who refuses to pay more than $24.99 for a double motel room because “that’s how much they’re supposed to be”) Pancho Villa still got our disgusted thumbs’ down. The carne asada wasn’t bad, with a bit of smoky char and lots of salt, but the al pastor was mortifying: bits of dry pork overly spiced with cumin and chile powder to make up for the total lack of fire-kissed flavor. The saving grace was the salsa bar, even salsa fresca, which is portioned out like gold in Portland but is self-serve at every self-respecting taqueria in SF.
mission-sanjose3

For my second opportunity I picked two of the most highly rated Yelp spots, which were also conveniently located across the street from one another. Taqueria San Jose (2830 Mission, see photo left) had the requisite, abundant, serve yourself salsa bar and excellent $2.45 tacos. Foregoing another al pastor tragedy (“Duh” Rule: no rotisserie, no al pastor) we stuck to one asada and one carnitas. The beef was probably slightly better at PV but the carnitas here were delicious (chewy, crispy, moist) and the tacos overall superior. Across the street at La Taqueria the $3.50 tacos were somewhat less traditional. (Overly) large and stuffed, the carnitas had a very pure, clean pork flavor, but without the crispy edges of San Jose. No salsa bar and lackluster salsa threw my vote across the street, though JP gave it the slight edge. We both agreed that a trip back for the insanely large, golden-bubbly-crisped quesadilla was the way to go.

Overall, I was glad not to have been leading a group of out-of-towners for “awesome” Mission food. And it was a good exercise to readjust my yardstick. Though I’ve never been proud of being a snob about PDX Mexican (and Chinese) food, it had never occured to me it was misplaced snobbishness.

So did I come home disappointed and unsated? Or did I perhaps have an ace in the hole? Was there some secret spot, some unexpected venue, that had kept my illusions of The Perfect Burrito alive all these years?

Call out the trumpets. Cue the fanfare. Saddle up the white horse…

Marin delivered where the Mission failed.

san-francisco-2009-029Um, excuse me, what did you say? Marin County? Home of hot tubbing yogi-wannabes, mountain-biking cell phone talkers, and formerly liberal multi-millionaire lawyers?

The very one. Nestled under the 101 freeway in San Rafael shines a burrito beacon in the form of Taqueria San Jose (no relation, I don’t think, to the Mission’s San Jose). $5.50 brought forth the burrito of my dreams. The size of a small child, with a thin layer of cheese fused to the steamed tortilla, carnitas simultaneously crisp, clean, flavorful and porky, perfect proportions (aka not too much) pintos and rice, and fresh lettuce, salsa fresca, guac and sour cream oozing forth. Two meals, easy, one if you’re making up for some indignity suffered in your youth. Though carnitas was the clear winner, the carne asada was deemed worthy of a gold star as well. The salsa bar, though fewer choices than the other SJ, had the two I crave, fresca and tomatillo, and the chips were warm and fresh.

Ahhh. Finally. Sweet release, though not in the “Mission-ary” position I’d expected. Yona was on the mend, and though my assumptions had been rocked a little bit, I could now face the 11-hour drive home with a smile on my face and a half a burrito belted into the passenger seat.

In Which I Fail to be Brief: Jade Tea House Review

Since it’s obvious a “real” post didn’t write itself last week…and neither is it going to get written this week…over the next few days I’ll try to do quick hits of some recent eating out. No stories, no sarcasm, no sudden epiphanies, just food (with maybe a little melodrama sprinkled on the side…I’m condiment queen after all…).

Jade Teahouse & Patisserie
Let me just start by saying I was biased against Jade. Yes, the tastebuddedly talented BB of Eat. Think. Drink. anointed it with his stamp of approval. Yes, I’ve traveled the length and breadth of PDX looking for a decent banh mi. Yes, I’d even resorted to making my own. Yes, Jade is conveniently located just blocks from home. (Perhaps that’s the best reason of all not to want to like it…imagine having great banh mi so close by? Lovostatin take me away!)

So why black marks against it even before stepping foot across its threshold? First of all, it’s far too pretty to make a decent banh mi. I’m used to walking past the jewelry counter and sitting on the stoop on Mott Street for my favorite banh mi (in New York). And cutesy shop-laden 13th Avenue is no grimy SE 82nd, where I expect to have to venture in Pdx. But the real reason for my distrust? Twice they’d denied me. No one likes rejection, and you know that old “hell hath no fury” thing. On my first attempt, excited as a schoolgirl on a first date, despite the wide-open doors and sandwich board outside announcing its open status they brusquely sent me away saying the hours didn’t apply and they were closing. I felt betrayed. And hungry. Hyperbole aside, something about that really pissed me off.

To add fuel to the fire, the next time we thought to go….yep….closed again. This time it was a legit closing at least, Sunday after 5 p.m. We probably arrived at 5:05 and though I resisted a Dustin Hoffman / Graduate pounding on the window scene, I did leave greasy nose-prints all over their clean glass door.

san-francisco-2009-002But I’m northern Italian, not Sicilian, and eventually we forgive. Especially if there’s the potential for good food involved. So I made a lunch date with the erudite Ezra, baking adventurist and ponderer of life’s mysteries. Weekday? Check. Acceptable lunchtime window? Absolutely. National holiday? Not a US one at least. Ez is a vegetarian so there was no sharing, but based on my bbq pork sandwich, I’m officially a fan. Damn them and their cute little mother / daughter routine.

Having only had the sandwich and a sesame ball, perhaps from here on out Wednesdays should be designated “eat your way through Jade’s menu” day.

It’s not a textbook banh mi. The pork isn’t deeply marinated and then fried, but the classic red-on-the-outside, greyish-on-the-inside Chinese variety. The divine baguette is closer to a real baguette, chewy and narrow rather than airy and crackly. (And better for it, if you ask me.) The vegetables are in large chunks rather than finely julienned (my only real criticism, making it cumbersome to eat and necessary to deconstruct to get veggie and pork in every bite). Perhaps I prefer a bit more cilantro, and I wonder if they have jalapenos upon request? But oh the flavors! Succulent, salty, garlicky, sweet, crunchy, oozing just a bit of garlic mayo to play off the sweet daikon / cuke / carrot marinade…this is $7 well worth spending. (And for me to pay $7 for what’s typically $3.50? Huge.) Never again will I have to drive across town and tempt a stomach ache from Best Baguette (though if I find myself hungry out on 82nd and Powell, I can’t swear I won’t relapse with a $3 sandwich).

It’s going to be hard to branch out to taste the other offerings, so dates willing to share should call, text, or tweet. Truffle fries at a teahouse? I haven’t had a good truffle fry since 1999…. @rockinroxys?

Jade Teahouse & Patisserie
7912 S.E. 13th Avenue
Closed Monday

Ezra's veggie rice noodles, which he pronounced very good. My head was so deeply buried in my sandwich that I forgot to ask for a taste.

Bad iPhone photo of Ezra's veggie rice noodles, which he pronounced very good. My head was so deeply buried in pork that I forgot to ask for a taste.


Damn, I failed again. Blathered on instead of just pronouncing the food good and moving on. Ah well. Coming soon…or someday…a tale of 1400 miles and four tacos.

Kali the Gardener

Mmmmm, that sun feels great on my back. And the belly-laughter from the kids next door…is there a greater sound on earth? My hands turn slimy brown as they root around in the cool earth. Koko snoozes in the sun as I encourage little lettucey life forms that will be tasty later in the summer, and until consumed, will help our planet breathe easier.

It’s extremely satisfying to push the shovel (oh I get it, shove-l) down into the heavy, damp clay, levering the long handle to pull up ten weed bulbs in one scoop. I squat, break up the clumps, pull out the bulbs that have multiplied like rabbits on Chlomid over the winter.

Such are my observations during the first five minutes in the garden. Then my feet fall asleep.

img_1228I stand up and wait for the dizziness to pass, working the shovel for a second scoop. This time, the bulbs lie just below my shovel tip and the shiny green stems snap off crisply, leaving the offenders buried deep in the clay. I squat again, breaking apart the hard clumps searching for lost bulbs that range in size from onions to pearls. My back starts to hurt and the dog moves into the shade.

Again I stand, supported heavily by the shovel as the blood rushes back to my feet and a blackout moment passes. Childish laughter has turned to squabbling as I unearth another batch of noxious weed bulbs (one shovel’s worth at left) and encounter a hard root that refuses to budge. I tug and see the razor sharp blackberry bramble across the yard rattle. I hack away and manage to break the root in half. Next year it will undoubtedly return at twice the size and strength. A bleeding finger and bafflement as to where the bramble originated temporarily take the focus off my throbbing back and tingling feet.

Giving up on the digging, I move to the less perilous task of pulling knee-high grass out of what used to be a planting bed. The roots rip satisfyingly easily out of the damp ground, though I’m feeling distinctly resentful at how well the grass thrives here in comparison to our bald, brown patch of “lawn”…much like the toxic blue flowers that have squeezed out my brother’s carefully planted daisies, dahlias and columbine. I ponder the perversion of weeds. So like humans to elevate anything labor intensive to that which is desirable. Tomatoes are divas (if pampered correctly, they’ll repay you with transcendence), dandelions the Everyman. And when the rosemary goes ballistic and takes over the herb bed and needs to be hacked back with a saw resulting in an unsightly mess? Brittany Spears. Or LiLo…take your pick.

I go back to digging to give my knees a break. I’m pretty sure I can hear my lower back creak as I stand. Done with the bugs, the mounting hysteria from next door and my audible groans, Koko the traitor moves inside. I picture the grass clippings and mud clumps she’s tracking through the house and onto the couch. I wonder if she’s mastered the remote and found the America’s Next Top Model marathon on cable.

Another shovelful of tops only, no bulbs. The earthworm carnage is getting critical (and no, cutting a worm in half doesn’t create two worms). My karma quotient is falling. The ranting in my head is getting shrill….or is it the child’s tantrum coming from over the fence? My back is officially in pain, I have a headache, it’s hot, I’m bleeding. I’ve now been gardening for 15 minutes and I’m completely over it. The space beyond the back door is once again officially dead to me. In a couple of years perhaps, lulled by the pretty pictures in Sunset Magazine and the delighted successes of friends, I may venture back out. But for now, I see it clearly.

If the kitchen is God’s workshop, the yard is the devil’s playground.

img_1234The fragrant Sellwood brilliance that effortlessly surrounds us is a torturous hallucination…move along now, this is not for you. You will always be the new homeowner who dilligently weeded out the Columbine, leaving just one plant to laugh in your face come May when it flowered. Make peace with the blue-flower bulb weed, because it’s the only flower you’re ever likely to cultivate.

Gardening is a dangerous past-time. Look at the cuts and bruises you’ve amassed in a quarter of an hour. You actually stepped on the rake and bonked your head like a Laurel and Hardy cliche, for chrissakes. Look how gardening managed to kill your dear, cherished 90-year-old neighbor last year. She worked in her fabulous garden every day, and where did that get her? (Or was it the sight of your ever-disintegrating yard that did her in? I’ll always wonder.) You tried and failed, nature has beaten you down once again. Character flaw, cosmic conspiracy, karma, call it what you like, but your 15-minute brush with a self image of nurturer, sower of beauty, giver of life is over.

Even the vitriol-fueled mental post composed in staccato bursts of loathing as I hacked, crumbled, picked, yanked and panted my way through a 2’x2’ patch of overgrown land is lost. In the cool of the house, with Tylenol in my system and a sweating glass of scotch rocks in my hand, the fire and brilliance wrought of extreme suffering has faded. I’m just a beaten woman with swollen wrists and new motivation to get a job. Gardeners cost money, you know.

Hapa Haoli* Chronicles: Condiments Redux

April is hereby designated Asian Experimentation month.

I’m not sure if it’s the in-between-ness of the seasons (time to put braising to bed, too wet for bbq, haven’t yet hit the farmer’s markets to be inspired by spring veggies…), or the fact that we’re on a budget, but I’ve been cranking out my peasant Italian-French-Korean version of Asian food lately.

Mom’s chicken long rice is my perfect comfort food; if I’d grown up white and in a trailer, this would be my mac and cheese. If I’d grown up in Korea, it’d be called Jap Chae. In Hawaii (where b1 grew up), it’s chicken long rice. With a million variations, ours/mine uses dark, on-the-bone, skin intact chicken (to give it some stickiness), shitake mushrooms (so in love with pre-sliced dried shitakes I could marry them), “long rice” (Korean yam noodles), which aside from being a gloomy gray manage to be delightfully slippery, bouncy and toothsome, and the ‘essential 5’ of Korean cooking: garlic, soy, ginger, onion, sesame. Brown up salted chicken, toss in a sliced onion, add loads of chopped ginger and garlic, add softened noodles and shitakes (and some of the soaking liquid) , throw in a slightly scary amount of soy and sesame oil, slap it on a plate, top with kimchee or peperoncini and turn on the Hee Haw reruns.

From old standard to bastardized newcomer, my version of mapo tofu was a complete shot in the dark, but tasty enough to warrant a rerun.

img_1116I don’t even know what real mapo tofu is, other than a sense that it’s spicy, porky, silky and in bad Chinese restaurants, frequently served with peas. Armed with that scholarly wisdom honed to a fine edge by meticulous imaginings, and thinking k deserved something he liked after putting up with chicken long rice (despite Irish / Polish genes he adores tofu and anything pepper-hot), I set out to pair my new favorite cheater food…ground lap cheong…with tofu. Lap cheong (Chinese sausage) is the secret ingredient behind company-appropriate fried rice (as in, “Hon, set aside the possum, we gots company at the door”), how to get hubby to eat slightly bitter gai lan (Chinese broccoli) in oyster sauce, and, in a bizarre collision with some Frenchie thing b2 used to make, sauteed with thinly sliced and fried potatoes and snow peas. And now these slim packets of fat / sweet / salt come chopped up. Hooray, life just keeps getting better for the lazy and undeserving. Using lap cheong in place of ground pork, a tablespoon of crab paste and a hefty dose of pepper paste and red pepper, and dinner pretty much made itself. Toss in frozen peas or chopped up gai lan stems (a little lap goes a long way, so it got made twice) and voila! Gotta say, it was pretty tasty, though I shudder to think about how unhealthy it must be, even pushing the tofu-to-pork ratio. (A run to the fridge shows no MSG in the crab paste, phew, but “crab fat” is called out separately from the crab meat. Crab fat? Crab FAT? Woot.)

*Hapa Haoli a Hawaiian term used these days to commonly mean a half (hapa) white (haoli)/ half Asian person.

Minnesota Morel Mania

Since my planned post was a giant snooze, thank god c stepped in with some food porno on her Facebook page. This time in the form of the mighty morel mushroom.

cynmorels2They stumbled upon what appears to be a forest of fungus on the way to visit family in Southern Minnesota. (What happened to Oregon morels? c&s usually put a pound on our doorstep… Did I miss the whole season?)

While some are getting partially dried then frozen for future use, some gave their life for dinner: lightly dusted in flour, sauteed in butter, shallots, Italian parsely, with a shot of heavy cream. “Died and went to heaven!” sez c. And today, more went into an omelette with shallots and mozzarella, with a fried tomato on the side.

Damn.

And I had oatmeal.

If anyone needs more recipes, here’s a site dedicated to “The Great Morel“. I’ve never had them battered and fried, but their platter of golden crisp morels looks pretty freaking amazing. And for something a bit more sophisticated, bb dishes up a poster child of spring, Morel & Fava Risotto. Oh the creamy deliciousness….

A few of the drying trays.

A few of the drying trays.

Staggering Towards the Finish Line: An Onslaught of Excess

fire-pitSpring on SE Flavel heralds a plethora of buds, birds, an occasional warm breeze and lots and lots of out-of-town company. Whereas the hardy Minnesotan relatives are happy to visit in winter (and find keggers in the snow a perfectly natural past-time, see left), the Californians are all mysteriously busy until April. But then the spring flood hits, and continues in a steady stream through summer. When SF’s chill, gray blanket of fog uncoils its damp grip, no less fierce for its cottony softness, the deluge slows back to a trickle. Coincidence?

This isn’t a post complaining about houseguests. We love every one of them (mostly) and can’t wait for them to come (usually) and are sad to seem them leave (…). It’s just that when the doorbell rings before we’ve had time to put the previous occupant’s sheets into the dryer, dry out our bloodstreams, and replenish our bank balance, we know the clusters have hit critical mass. The recent onslaught of visitors and birthdays has made us put one-pot chicken dishes aside and head into the land of excess. One non-profit arts administrator’s salary? Recession? 11% unemployment? 20 pounds overweight? Never mind all that, we’re goin’ out!

After a few months of the austerity program, I gotta admit it’s been fun. And in the spirit of a neverending party I wasn’t exactly my usual critical, note-taking self. But here are a few highlights.

Toro Bravo two Sundays in a row? That says a lot…both about our shameless excess and how solid their food is. We went at 5:30 and 9:15, and got in both times without a wait, though there was enough buzz in the room to not have it feel deadly. The fact that KML (who views tapas / small plates as the enemy of all self-respecting men who have a god-given right to: 1. know exactly how much they’ll get to eat in any given sitting 2. own their personal property, and 3. defend such property by any means necessary) was willing…nay, happy…to go, speaks volumes about how generous and tasty the food is. Will he go with more than four people? No way. Memories of $100 group tapas meals that netted him one potato brava and a half an olive will take time to exorcise. And since he obviously spent a past life in prison or as one of those starving waifs we all heard about growing up (or both), who am I to push, when those freakishly delicious light / chewy / crispy / creamy / salty cod fritters await?

img_1177A few of their other standouts were the green salad with boiled egg (what do we say to eggs on salad, bb? Hell yes!), hazelnuts and roasted asparagus (didn’t even need the asparagus with such perfectly dressed greens), the brussel sprouts, succulent drunken pork, the scallops, and some roast beef with polenta dish that I never would have ordered, so kudos to K for that! Missteps were shrimp that tasted predominantly of asian sweet chile sauce and heavy, gummy squash “fritters” that accompanied the pepper lamb, but out of 14 dishes or so, who’s tracking?

Another dining standout was a party for 18 at Alexis Greek restaurant downtown. So it can get deafening, and sometimes smells of bathroom cleaner. So their moussaka topping is more akin to plastering paste (though their meat spicing is dead-on)…that just makes it like 90% of the tavernas in Greece. If you order their lamb chops (lamb pops as they’re fondly known to img_1163 the fam), lemony roasted potatoes, kalamarakia and tiropita (though I love spanakopita, try their cheese triangles instead; they’re special), it’s an instant party. Even their tzatziki is the best in town imho, though why so skimpy with the cheapest dish on the menu is a mystery. Like properly made Thai food or dim sum, it’s easy to overlook the genius of great food when it’s inexpensive and not served in a fancy-pants setting. Not that $25 pp plus tip and drinks (opa! ouch…) ended up being a bargain, but Jerry and the one knowledgeable waitress (got to get her name one of these days, for now I’ll call her Monica…patron saint of patience) didn’t even consider charging a cake fee when we used their plates and utensils. Now that’s old-school I can get behind.

Then there were the cocktails of the past few hazy weeks. Ouzo, retsina, tasty cab flights at Vino aside, we had some slamming drinks. Andina’s happy hour (sad the prices went img_1672up but it’s still a deal) yielded pisco sours, caipirinhas with acai to tart things up (literally and figuratively), and a ginger-lime-grapefruit thing called a Ron Iki On that I liked but was too gingery for its original owner. Toro Bravo served up a respectable array of sazeracs, a slightly too-sweet cocktail that the server warned me may be too medicinal…it wasn’t…and a Papa Doble (rum, grapefruit, lime). And then there was the Teardrop Lounge. Why oh why didn’t anyone ask us when they were naming the place? “Tincture Bar” suits these mad mixers with their eye droppers, spritzers, sprayers, potions and poisons so much better. “Teardrop” jibes with what I find to be a very mid-90’s decor, though the deep U of the bar is beautifully convivial, as are the boys behind the bar. G-man had his first fling with gin, which proceeded into a long-term relationship of three Last Word cocktails. Nearly as good as the ones Mr. Eat. Drink. Think. mixes up. I also tasted my first genuine Singapore Sling, which was a revelation, sipped a splendid Burro Punsch (reposado, ginger beer, sweet vermouth), KML loved his rye “My Druthers” and regretted straying, though not terribly, and I have no clear recollection of the drink I swore would be my new go-to Teardrop drink except for the fact that it was a perfect balance of acid, sweet, alcohol and bitter. Perhaps a Leite, since I remember Lillet and lime, but “leche de pina”…really?

In an effort to recount, this has turned into a mere laundry list, and really, how interesting is that not? Rather than a stagger, it reads like a march. A merciless march complete with mind-numbing drum-beats leading us towards destruction…destruction of brain cells, good sense and future financial security.

We get one more week to dry out before another visitor hits. By that time I’ll once again have to decide between bites at Evoe and Toro, burgers at Slow Bar or Castagna, or lowkey at Apizza or Nicholas’. Times are rough, but I’m up to the challenge.

Flexing Your Mussels

Why do I constantly need to “rediscover” mussels as the perfect weeknight meal? How silly to pay $15 at a restaurant for something that’s dirt cheap, ridiculously fast, and even slightly special feeling. At least it’s hot, unlike my other “go-to” fast meal of tuna sandwiches. (Mmmm…tuna sammies…we kind of love tuna sammies night.)

Uninspired and running late, tiny Washington mussels for $2.99 a pound caught my eye at New Seasons yesterday. I dipped back to produce for a tomato and parsley, ran through the monsoon that had hit in the ten minutes between cavorting on the sunny banks of the Willamette with the le-Beastowicz and snaking through checkout, and 45 minutes later had a steaming bowl of mussels ready to go.

img_1184A two-day-old sourdough boule handily gave its life for garlic toast (slice thickly, toast, rub with raw garlic, spread on butter), so pasta wasn’t even necessary. And remembering our moules in Bandol, I rooted through the liquor cabinet for something licoricey. No Pernod, but plenty of ouzo, and in went a capful. (Really cool what it does to the flavor, and it’s subtle. You only notice it if your’e looking.) That’s the beauty of mussels. As long as you have some flavorings, liquid and acid, you can pretty much do what you want.

My base is sauteed onions, garlic, enough dry white wine to make a broth, and tomatoes, parsley and dash of salt at the end. But you can replace wine with clam juice and lemon, use stock, lemon and wine for more soup, add cream, replace onions with shallots or leeks…as long as your mussels are good (and clean) it’s hard to go wrong. Though a handful of shoestring fries with aioli would have been welcome, we made do with a big green salad and the remaining wine.

KML’s standard sign of approval is, “I’d pay $xx for this meal at a restaurant.” In this case it was $22. Not bad for ten bucks in groceries and 25 minutes…most of which was spent cleaning the mussels and the world’s dirtiest lettuce. (Our yard inherited a ladybug in the deal…now that’s a full-service organic grocery store!)

Confessions from the Pantry Part II: Sibling Revelry

cynbrynisenaeSiblings b, c and I couldn’t be more different (pictured here with cousin Renae on the right). At least it seems so to us. While the outside world may see three self-reliant, factually careless critics, we see a decisive impatient, a gregarious persistent, and an unsure complacent. But we do have one or two areas of commonality beyond that pesky “why wouldn’t everyone want to know our opinion?” thing. Even after living apart for over 30 years, I can guarantee there’s a pantry in Jacksonville, one in Portland and another in Minneapolis that are genetically linked.

I can probably guess the foodstuffs I’ll find in my siblings’ kitchens with 90% accuracy. And we’re not talking eggs and milk, or even balsamic and soy. All families probably have this: a common peanut butter brand, an inexplicable fondness for Grape Nuts, galangal in the spice cabinet…. For us, it’s capers and Korean black bean paste (kochujung). Red pepper paste and pickled peppers. Smoked oysters, sardines, chutney. A pound of herbes de Provence, a gallon of sesame oil. The peppers may be of a slightly different bent —one woman’s sambal olek is another’s sriracha— but there they are in various pasted and pickled forms.

Our spouses have managed to influence us slightly, so while b’s fridge may sport South African salted mango, mine holds sauerkraut, and c’s has three shelves (at least) dedicated to the pickled accoutrement necessary for getting one’s self pickled.

It’s not just the condiments. Years ago at a family gathering I was handed some tomatoes and told to make a salad. At first bite, my brother’s girlfriend’s eyes grew wide. “Oh my god it tastes exactly like his!” Who knew? Apparently the taste memory of tangy/sweet, oily/salty, oniony/tomatoey lies deeply embedded. And perhaps we hold the same conviction that the point of a tomato salad is to saturate great hunks of bread with the remaining juice, and for that, the proportions have to be just so.

And though we grew up with mayo on top of the dressed tomatoes, we’ve each independently discontinued that practice (except for once in awhile). Similarly, when I shared with sis that I was making our family’s bastardized version of curry for j’s birthday (a lamb concoction topped with fruits, nuts, sweet and savory treats), she laughed and said she’d just made the same dish to use up leftover Easter lamb. Only, she confided, nowadays she adds coconut milk. Scary. Years ago I’d modified mine exactly the same. (Note to self: because the coconut milk mellows out the flavors, kick up the heat quotient. Made intentionally mild for the birthday girl, there’s got to be enough heat to give the apples, oranges, bananas, raita and raisins a raison. d’etre, that is.)

Today, gray salt, dijon mustard, truffle oil and wasabi are ubiquitous, so our genetically related pantries are less unusual than back in 1985. But there’s still some comfort in knowing that if we serve feta, it will be sliced, sprinkled with herbes de provence and black pepper, and drizzled with olive oil. That if you’re asked to cook dinner at someone else’s house, you’ll not only find toasted sesame seeds, anchovies and lap cheong, but you’ll find the “right” kind of mustard and plain red wine vinegar for the “right” vinaigrette.

Opinionated? Who, us?

Confessions from the Pantry Part 1: The Awesome Power of the Condiment

I can’t follow a recipe worth a damn, even when I try. And I’m an incurably lazy cook. More than 3 pots…hmmm, I have another pot around here somewhere…. More than 4 steps…oof…how about I just start with canned chicken broth? It’s a shameful thing for a food-lover and admirer of the farm-to-table / slow-food movement to admit, but there it is. A not-so-well-kept secret. I’m a quarter French, and in France we pick cassoulet up over in Aisle 12. (Okay, some are raising ducks, rendering fat and growing their own beans, but those industrious genes went to my siblings.)

My kitchen talents lie in creating something palatable from the random elements of a picked-over pantry. The Top Chef challenge I’d have a shot at? The Quickie Mart competition. Let’s see, corn nuts, blue Icee and gum…I’m thinking an appetizer of opposing tastes and textures. Okay so maybe not, but at the risk of sounding like a certain chicken-nugget-spewing “semi-homemade” Stepford wife on the Food Network, the right staples and condiments are my key to banging out decent unplanned meals.

My fridge holds a battalion of encrusted jars of mysterious origin and frightening expiration dates. The basics, of course: Worcestershire, Tabasco and oyster sauce. Pepperoncini, olives, pickles (kosher, dill, bread & butter). Fermented black beans, green curry, sambal olek, crab paste and tamarind juice. Cheap lumpfish caviar (thanks for the Ikea tip, Cyn!). Tahini, that must-have for emergency hummus, and with which I’m still trying to replicate Al Amir’s roasted vegetables.

And on and on……..

img_1092Tubes of emergency salvation (paprika paste, tomato paste, anchovy paste) that invariably slide down behind the jars, losing themselves for months (oh hell, who am I kidding? years) behind the walnut oil, kimchee and green peppercorns.

How long will an open jar of sun-dried tomatoes in oil keep? No, not what does the label say, how long do you REALLY think they’ll keep? They’re priceless for topping crostini for unexpected guests (and there are always feta dregs and pinenuts in the crisper…). Five of those suckers whizzed with a half-glass of old red wine turned mediocre pasta sauce into something quite delicious the other night. And admittedly, it only takes a few minutes to roast and peel red peppers, but what if you’re staring into a vacant fridge for inspiration and are not willing to battle the store? Or weren’t willing to pay a ridiculous dollar-a-pepper? Or finally unearth the pepper you remember seeing, only to find it sadly shrunk, shriveled and shivering in a forgotten corner of your fridge? Or the dried tomatoes in oil have developed mold and because you love your friends and don’t want to be responsible for their death, you need a replacement? What was the point of this paragraph? Oh yeah, jarred peppers.

tagu1Then there’s the king of the condiments, tagu. Whether you think of it as squid candy or hot, sesame jerky, even timid eaters love this sticky, orange, chewy, sweet, spicy, sesame-oil drenched Korean treat. An ambitious chef would undoubtedly make her own, building character—and muscle—shredding the dried fish. I, however, buy it at Pal Do (61st and SE Foster) for $4.99 and “fix it” with more sesame oil and hot pepper. Roll it into a strip of seaweed or lettuce, dollop on some pepper paste…. BB, your assignment is find the perfect cocktail accompaniment to this bite of delight. (And thank you for the beauty shot…dried squid has never looked so glam.)

Since (wo)man can’t live on the pickled and fermented alone, my micro-pantry (a two-shelf, thigh-high corner spinny-cabinet) hides cous-cous, canned hominy, coconut milk and tuna. A range of canned beans: white bean salad with olive oil tuna? Dinner’s ready! Black bean and corn salad with cilantro and salsa? Three-bean salad, hummus, chili? Done, done and done. I have stacks of dried legumes too, admittedly so much better, but those take forethought and don’t fit the sleazy theme of this post. And on to noodles…pastas covering the Italian heritage, gray Korean yam noodles, Japanese rice noodles and Chinese lo mein supporting my Asian bits.

Ohhhh, did I forget to mention premade sauces? (What would a “confession” be without the really embarrassing admissions?) Although the collection has shrunk in recent years after reading labels and trying to avoid MSG and hydrogenated oils, I wouldn’t know how to make my quick pozole without those tiny cans of Herdez tomatillo and casera salsa. And how could I make a five-minute meal with leftover chicken bits and frozen peas without Trader Joes Masala sauce? No peas? No chicken? No problem, there are always garbanzos and frozen spinach at hand. And while I can make a legit Thai dressing when backed into a corner, who will know that you’ve plopped that disgusting sweet chili sauce (I’d guess 5 plops) into the fish sauce, ginger, garlic and lime juice in place of cane sugar and chiles? I’ve even resorted, on occasion, to topping the salad with pre-roasted, salted peanuts rather than frying my own, and god help me, k. prefers the short-cut version. Polish heretic.

Are there lows even I won’t sink to? Yes. (Fake lemon juice and pre-peeled garlic come to mind.) But we each have to find our own way, and answer to our own higher power.

Odd to celebrate laziness / shortcuts / unhealthy habits during my “year in the slow lane” (if you talk to k., do me a favor and call it 10 months). I have NO excuse for a fridge devoid of fresh veggies, sides of meat in need of butchering and an array of tinctures from which to make my own sauces. But bad habits are hard to break. And since someday I’ll be back to 65-hour-workweeks (won’t I? someday?), it would be a shame to get rusty. Plus, I am taking this time to ditch some truly disgusting habits, and work out some new 15-minute dinners. I recently found an even more convenient form of one of my convenience food staples (oh the wonders of the modern world!) but that’s a topic for another day……….

My Thoughts are in Italy

A love of Italy (and some genetic roots) have kept my thoughts close to those affected by the earthquake this week. I’ve followed it on the radio and hadn’t seen images until I searched online; if you’re not saturated, here’s a poignant slideshow. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30066973/displaymode/1247/

The nearest I’ve been to L’Aquila was a prosciutto pilgrimage to Norcia, an hour or two north through the rugged mountains. That 2001 three-week visit took us from Umbria through Emilia Romagna, and cemented my undying love and appreciation for the country, its people, and all things Italian.

It’s such a cliché. News flash! Middle-aged woman loves Italy. Whoa! No freaking way!

The transcendent, deceptively simple, micro-regional food. The rainbow of ochres embedded in weathered textures of tile and rock. The man-made treasures, by turns soaring and quietly pious, from the polished perfection of Ravenna’s mosaics to a seemingly endless treasure trove of worn frescoes. Gardens etched out of tiny plots of land, brimming with lemons and towering artichokes, temples of a different sort, and perhaps a more direct means of worship.

Italy: the home of my favorite meal, favorite church, favorite picnic, favorite ‘drinking beers standing on the sidewalk’ afternoon. Home to the waiter who changed into work-clothes between courses to serve us lunch…when the restaurant didn’t actually open til dinner. It all boils down to the warmth and generosity of the people—people who will communicate through any means necessary, and who, if I may make a sweeping generalization, seem to understand grace at a cellular level.

Compared to the tsunami or Katrina this earthquake is small potatoes. But this week, memories of just-caught cozze, frizzante mornings and spontaneous home-made lemoncello and grappa tastings are mingling with recollections of walking home to the Haight after the ’89 SF quake. Wading through a Union Square drenched in shattered glass, joining clusters around car radios, moving with the crowd of silent walkers spilling west, north and south from downtown, gathering breath before hustling under an overpass, cresting Buena Vista to see the smoke and fires pouring up from the Marina… But all I faced was an entry system that relied on electricity, a collapsed chimney across the street resting heavily on someone else’s car, a broken vase with rancid water. We spent our evening drinking on a friend’s stoop (vodka tonics, if I recall), shaken, freaked out by the pitch dark and thumping helicopters overhead, and sick for those in the Marina and under the collapsed concrete of the east bay. But we still had a place to sleep, to work, to live. Our shallow roots were undamaged.

Hearing today that a friend’s family is actually from L’Aquila cements my sorrow at what they must be suffering. Her relatives have been accounted for, so they’re “lucky”. But their homes are destroyed, their 4hproscuittobusinesses gone, their town extinct…in 30 seconds…and this in a land where roots run generations deep.

I keep thinking that the act of caring enough can psychically absorb a piece of their shock and trauma. Stupid, really. But until something more useful comes to mind, I’ll pay homage thinking of unprepossessing Norcia with its squat, cement buildings, graceful and functional fountains, women in silk stockings taking their passeggiata with suited beaux of 40 years. Truffles and cured meats aside, this isn’t a spot on a tourist map, just a town where people work, eat, sleep, laugh, live and die. Perhaps a bit like L’Aquila.

Consolation
by Billy Collins

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

There are no abbeys here, no crumbling frescoes of famous
domes and there is no need to memorize a succession
of kings or tour the dripping corners of a dungeon.
No need to stand around a sarcophagus, see Napoleon’s
little bed on Elba, or view the bones of a saint under glass.

How much better to command the simple precinct of home
than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.
Why hide my head in phrase books and wrinkled maps?
Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyes camera
eager to eat the world one monument at a time?

Instead of slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice,
I will head down to the coffee shop and the waitress
known as Dot. I will slide into the flow of the morning
paper, all language barriers down,
rivers of idiom running freely, eggs over easy on the way.

And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone
willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal
what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car
as if it were the great car of English itself
and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off
down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.

*I found this forgotten Billy Collins poem in my Italy notes as I was looking for a photo to include. It’s like Collins was on my trip, and in my head for weeks after our return.

Seasons Collide in Sellwood

The weekend heat was luscious. We sucked up vitamin-D-rich rays like eggplant absorbs olive oil. Like onions in butter, we sweated lightly, turning over occasionally, without urgency, browning slowly. Warm breezes slid over skin like strawberry sauce over vanilla ice cream, coating palest white with a rosy blush.

But all was not well in Stumptown.

A week earlier, amidst chill rains and unrelenting gray, a dinner date had been set: Family. Sunday. Lunch.

There’s a lot to be said for the Terrarium where b1 and b2 reside, but good food isn’t usually one of them. So being a dutiful daughter, I considered what they’d like to eat. What wouldn’t institutional chefs typically serve to good, God-fearing seniors? What couldn’t the b’s easily cook in their own small kitchen? What might I already have in the freezer? (No, I swear that part was just a coincidence. A happy coincidence I thought at the time, but now I wonder what nefarious spirit was at work.)

Though I don’t watch the weather, even I’m aware that winter’s coming to a close, and with it braising season. So what better occasion to cook up the gorgeous oxtails recently purchased at my Korean grocery? b2 craves rich, saucy dishes regardless of the season, and if they include membranes, marrows and the chance of mad cow disease, so much the better.

You can see where this is heading. The perfect storm. The tragedy that was Sunday.

img_10991Thawed Friday night and started Saturday for defatting, there was no going back, even as the mercury continued to rise. In the oven, the Le Crueset gathered steam, simmering mirepoix, wine, thyme, tails, merrily away, sending yeasty wafts out the open doors and windows to mingle with the neighborhood scents of fluid-drenched charcoal, sizzling burgers and newly shorn lawns. On Sunday, I pushed ahead, like a lamb to the slaughter, adding roasted mushrooms, fresh slivers of carrot, a sprig of rosemary and more wine for a final hour of folly.

“But wait!” you cry. “Replace the carmelized zucchini side with lemon-spritzed, reggiano-topped asparagus! That’s spring in every bite.” Oh but how b2 detests asparagus.

“Okay then for god’s sake ditch the mashed potatoes and boil up some pasta instead.” Disgust has crept into your voice. Don’t deny it. I hear it behind that facade of helpfulness.

But my pantry had let me down. I had pappardelle enough for three, maybe four, but not the five I needed. And besides, what would I do with four pounds of potatoes? I’d finally tossed the remaining Christmas russets abandoned in the basement…russets, for chrissakes…good for so little… And though I’m infamously cheap, the coffin was nailed: I had a real reason for not switching starches. The horns of the dilemma on which I sat were as pointy as the oxtails themselves.

1) Can one, in good conscience, toss a pile of bones onto a silky nest of pappardelle? Even if you deboned half, how could you achieve the proper per-mouthful proportion of chewy, succulent meat with slippery, starchy noodle? Where might the grated cheese land and melt? How could one manage the complexity of twirling a fork with one hand while maintaining a good grip for gnawing with the other?

2) And if I chose to pastacize properly, could I live with having denied my family the domed gel caps of semi-soft cartilage, the nooks, crannies and spines just begging to be sucked and scraped? Rich sauce is all well and good, but it’s the cartilage that makes life worth living.

And so it was. Out in the blazing 2 o’clock sun we faced our demons, sweating and laboring, battling lunch and attempting to quench our thirst with a rich bottle of Sicilian red that held its own as it morphed from cellar-cool to lukewarm to hot over the course of 20 minutes.

Bees buzzed.

The dog snoozed in a shady patch of dirt.

Oblivious to our pain, BB texted his glee at his first G&T and grilled steak of the season.

Like Spartans rushing headlong to certain death at Thermopylae, we soldiered on.

In the distance, children laughed.

Extra! Dish in mourning as tragedy strikes.

Trader Joes has stopped carrying Plugra European style butter. Curse them and their fickle ways! I’ve yet to get over the loss of Marcel et Henri pate de campagne, and now this blow?

Being lower in moisture and higher in butterfat than conventional butters…thus taste-transporting me to Europe with a single bite…is all well and good. Being barely more expensive than commonplace, skinny-bricked butter is an added bonus. But fitting perfectly into my new butter dish, hand-carried from France? Priceless.

Bought Kerrygold Irish butter instead (extra wide as well) but at twice the price and half the height, I’m heartbroken.

Ode to A French Butter Dish (with apologies to Keats)

blog
Thou new unwrapped bride of distant Carre Four
Thou receptacle of sleek supple shape
O sylvan platter that canst now embrace
A brick more sweetly than dishes of yore.
What churn-ed history can your sheer width trace
Of pats, dollops and bricks neath yon domed pate?
From a land drenched in aubergine, grape-vines
Sweet porcine perfection and lore, what chance!
That lowly milk curdled belongs in the dance
And now, on wooden splendor reclines.

Tasted treats are sweet but those well slathered
Are sweeter still. Therefore ye cooks rage on!
Entice the sensual bud with glee
Whether blanc’d, emulsed, bernaised or ghee.
If but one spread for eternity rather’d
I, choose this cream, this fatted Don Juan.
“O happy fat! Most happy fat!” I utter.
Kept salted or un, cold hard or soft warm,
Twixt dough for the flaky or left intact form—
Fat is flavor flavor fat. None other truth. Truth, in butter.

3/11: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost…

It’s been over for a month. Thirty days exactly since we were last together. 720 hours since our pre-dawn parting. And here I sit, trying to pick up the pieces of my life without you.

Friends beg me to move on. “Get over it already! It wasn’t healthy for you; we all know that.”

I stare at photos of us together…no one else cares…you, all sparkling blue sea, curvaceous hillsides studded with winter-sleeping vineyards, me standing shyly by your side. You again, this time a steaming bowl of mussels, me watching you lovingly, longingly, hungrily.

We were so happy together.

But things change. An ocean…a continent…a language…stretch between us; spring floods your shores with birdsong and bougainvillea, all the while dancing further away from me on frigid, sleet-bearing winds.

The memories have been warming, but if I’m to move on with life, the magic of meals past must move aside – be relegated to an amuse bouche – to make room for an entree of living in the now.

So I’m opening the drawer and putting them away. Notes about our beloved home-away-from-home, Mas St. Anne, and its spirit guide Roxanne will never get posted. p1040438 No one will ever learn how she’s spent her life sharing all she has with friends and total strangers alike, landing b1 and b2 in a villa in the late 80s based on an email that began, “Dear friends of Harry and Sharon, I can’t recall your names but understand you may be interested in living rent-free in the South of France for a year….”.

The poetry of my Cotes d’Azur-inspired prose will never see the light of day (and for that let’s all give a silent prayer of thanks): “Red tile roofs clatter up the steep hillsides from the coast….Yellow buds vibrate against brilliant skies, trees hang pregnant with oranges, gnarled olive trees shimmer silver over palm-tree-green; Matisse’s color palette in context, in the flesh.” (Watch for the romance novel in 2018.)

Meals will go unreported, stuck forever as incomplete notations in an unformatted Word document: “Jolly dinner of cheese at the fromagerie in Crest with the self-proclaimed King of Cheese.”… “Amazing lunch of veal crepes in Grignan…how so light & crisp under all that sauce?”… “Disappointing splurge, except for the truffle creme anglaise soup with sliced truffle and foie gras; definite second course front-runner in my all-star dinner lineup.”

And what about all the home cooked dinners we enjoyed? Jackie’s chicken and green olive tagine, Anne-Marie’s slightly Asian and yet-so-French lamb and pineapple stew, b1’s mouthwatering rabbit in white wine, and b2’s succulent veal chops…one of the best things eaten on the trip and definitely my all-star dinner main course pick. And dollar-a-pound Belgian endive?! Everywhere?! Am I to let those memories die along with the notes?

Can the grieving heart find a way to move on? To revel, rather than wallow, in what we had?

Because of this economic train-wreck-thingy you may have heard of in passing, reviewing restaurants on a daily basis, even on that bargain-basement-currency known as the dollar, is out. Besides, this is Portland. Don’t get me wrong, I love Portland. But in a little nephew, ‘aww, isn’t that so super cute, and look how much you’ve grown!’ kind of way, not a, ‘I lust after your lusciousness’ kind of way.

Besides, the playing field is a bit muddier here. It’s nearly impossible to buy veal in this town, and last I checked, the Willamette River wasn’t kicking out many sea urchins. But some of the best foods come from simple beginnings: chicken, eggplant, potatoes… fall-bounty-11 Since I can’t recreate the magic I’ll simply have to find a way to pay homage to our time together. Lame electric stove, New Seasons, Trader Joe’s, here we come.

Fortunately, Bruce the Vinous One has taken care of my first stateside cooking post over at Eat. Think. Drink. I don’t really understand why he can’t just keep doing them but he whines about having a business to run, his own writing, blah blah blah okay whatever. For now, he’s captured one attempt to spread the joys of France via a meal of: frisee tarragon salad with Polish-poached egg, grandma’s chicken in white wine sauce, better-than-grandma’s creme caramel, and a truffle potato appetizer invented as a stand-in for deviled quail eggs (it was envisioned as an all-poultry menu) when An Dong Market stopped carrying the miniature gems. Thanks / damn you An Dong! And thank you Bruce.

As for the future? We’ll see how gracefully I manage to let the afterglow of my mid-winter love affair fade as I try to build something new and tasty with the ingredients at hand. (If that fails, I’m told there’s always an audience for the latest antics of a badly behaved dog.)

Coming next? Why renaming the blog, of course.

2/24: I’m no frog’s toadie.

p1040155Lest you think me some kind of crazy francophile employed by the French government to usher food-obsessed tourists across their borders, let this post reinstate some credibility.

#1 I had pretty mediocre food here in 2005. Same route (Provence, Cote d’Azur), same budget (not very large). In fact, if it hadn’t been for the lure of free lodging…and lovely friends…I’d have laid bets on not returning to the South of France for a good long while. So what made the difference? I have a few theories:

       a) Frigid temps and no tourists, so the chefs have nothing better to do than stir sauces on/by the fire. Whereas in Fall 05 the air was balmy, the grape crush underway, and speaking of crushes, the recently departed hordes had probably trampled the spirit of the locals.

       b) I have a weakness for winter foods: salty, meaty, stewy, braisy, more comforting than finessed. But the food of Provence isn’t what you’d call sophisticated, so ratatouille, frites and green peppercorn sauce are pretty much a year-round thing. And would I complain about a spring lamb stuffed with spring onions on a bed of spring peas? Never mind, I just talked myself out of theory b.

       c) This set of travel companions wanted to eat one large meal midday, vs the 05 gang who wanted breakfast and then weren’t hungry til dinner. Biologically I prefer the latter, but intellectually I know the former is the way to go when traveling on a budget. Midday eating allows you to take advantage of more courses for a lower price, better prix fixe menus, and frankly, better company in the dining room. There’s something convivial about sharing a buzzing room (or is that sharing a room with a buzz?) with a bunch of daytime frenchies having their midday meal, rather than a hushed night-time restaurant sparsely peopled with other tourists.

       d) Though I don’t travel with picky eaters, it’s still a treat to dive headfirst into platters of the smoked, pickled, raw, internal and bizarre. And no one loves the nasty bits more than b1 and b2. So the compromises were more akin to, “tripe again?”, rather than what to have on the pizza.

#2 reason not to love the south of France? I’ve got two words for you: turkish toilet. Am planning a trip to Turkey next to see if they’re as prevalent there; suspect the Turks are getting a bad rap with what should be named a french toilet.

#3: Telephone showers. Let me get this straight. This is the birthplace of Coco Chanel, Catherine Deneuve and Jaques Pepin (well he’s glamorous to ME). 80-year-old women still don stockings and heels to go to lunch. The women under 65 all seem to sport long hair, skinny jeans tucked into boots, and an endless variety of Christian’s (project runway) conquistador chic jacket. But to bathe, they crouch in a cold porcelain bowl in an underheated room, using just one hand to lather, scrub and squeeze, while the other hand futily tries to direct a spray of water to the soapy bits and not outside the imaginary boundary of the tub.

Perhaps THAT’s the incentive for staying so thin? After my 5 minutes of bathing bliss my knees are bruised, the toilet paper across the room is soaked, and my bits are still soapy. Get a shower curtain and hang the damn sprayer up, people.

#4 Thinking of the trail of soggy rolls of tp I’ve left behind, not to be all ugly American, but how has Charmin not made inroads in France? Appreciate your enormous rolls of cushiness, because across the pond millions are making do with tiny rolls of pink industrial grade bond paper.

#5 Since it’s too late to reclaim my dignity let’s talk about the language. Do I feel ashamed for coming to their country, accepting their hospitality, and making them speak MY language? Absolutely. And it’s not as if English doesn’t have its share of silent letters (‘neighbor’ and ‘though’), multiple meanings (doe, dough and doh!) and the always pesky ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ distinction. But I slipped back further than ever this trip. Being with so many French speakers wiped away the foggy sense that I had a clue and replaced that with the realization that every “rule” I’d ever learned about French pronunciation has 166 exceptions…and those are the ones you’ll encounter the most frequently. In my shame, I realize I either need to learn the damn language or get moving on that trip to Turkey where expectations are nil. (Plus, having had a Turkish roommate in college, I already have a leg up, knowing that the ‘c’ is pronounced ‘j’. Her favorite movie star growing up? Rojk Hudson.)

2/7: Quien es mas macho? Battle of the “perfect” French meals.

Marseille brought us La Garbure, “les richesses gastronomiques du Sud-Ouest”…aka duck heaven. But the hills above Nice gave my eyes, nose and stomach the Auberge de Caussols. Adorable? Check! Mouthwatering menu? Check! Bucket of butter? Check! But I’m getting ahead of myself. p1040388

After four hours on the autoroute from Crest we arrive at Mas St. Anne, jump out of our Yaris and into the backseat of an equally tiny car to be driven up (by a former rally car driver) impossibly steep, windy, narrow (“this is for two-way traffic? really are you sure?”) country roads above Grasse, above St. Paul de Vence, and well above the perched village (“I spit on your meager elevation!”) of Gourdon, above the clouds and fog, into the snow and blazing blue skies, past the sledders, the skating rink, the farmhouses, to the wide spot in the road known as Caussols. p1040334An inauspicious building was nested into the snowbank, through whose icicle-hung doors lay a fairyland of food…a warren of warmth…a tempting temple of tastes.

Apparently on Sundays the lines are out the door with families out for a drive, cold and hungry from sledding, skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, or like us, uh, from sitting on their butts in a car. But our party of seven was happy to be ushered directly into a cozy room with a blazing fire, an old wooden bar and a few other occupied tables. (CSK: it reminded me slightly of Il Maladroit in the hills above Ravenna.) p1040335

There’s a set menu with three courses of choices for 30 euro, add a fourth course for 45, and possibly even a fifth for another 10…but I can’t remember for sure as the range of choices was too distracting. You know those menus where you can find two apps that sound great but then you struggle with a main dish that calls to you? Or the desserts sound wan and uninspiring? Not so much the case here.

Would it be brandade in a cold mint and olive sauce? pigs feet gribiche (a sauce of chopped capers, cornichons, garlic, olive oil…yum, yum, omg, yum!), a charcuterie platter (jambon cru, mortadella, multiple types of salami…)? Confit du canard, beef cheeks, lamb shank, whole local trout, salmon with sorrel…I’m kicking myself for not retaining the other choices (many) but the seduction started immediately as plates of wood-fire-toasted bread p1040339 with tapenade, vats of home-made pate, and buckets of fresh, sweet butter started covering the table. What? Who ordered these? No one? They’re just part of the fairyland magic? Alrighty then, bring it on!

If more than one person orders a dish it’s served family style, but what you can’t know ahead of time is that whether two, three or four order a dish, such as the roasted, milk-fed lamb, charcuterie, and pork gribiche in our case, they give you enough of each for a party of 12. So in addition to a Christmas-dinner-sized platter of roasted lamb, we had enough cassoulet so laden with duck confit you could barely find the beans, lamb shank in a wine reduced to black syrup, and beef cheek stew (Guy’s cheeks in my shank sauce would have been the penultimate braised dish against which I’d measure all others for eternity, so it’s probably best they were separated) to pass around (much to the bewilderment of our French friends who were by turns amused, disturbed and overwhelmed by the flying plates, forks and camera). And did I mention that, like the pate, they dropped platters of home-made ravioli, roasted potatoes, and transcendent ratatouille on the table for our “side dishes”? Would I be kicked out of the pork club if I admitted that while I succeeded in limiting myself to just one hunk of pate, a half slice of cured meats, and one ravioli, I had seconds (okay perhaps thirds) on ratatouille? (Note to self, get into the kitchen and work on your rendition. Make sure there’s plenty of olive oil on hand.)

Pieds du porc gribiche...for 3.

Pieds du porc gribiche...for 3.


And while the generous servings were cause for hilarity, there was nothing funny about the food. Intense flavors, complex sauces, glowing country-casual presentation…no square, spare, white plates here…and succulent meats (though to b2’s disappointment, the lamb was in the fall-apart-tender roast style, rather than the bright pink of a Sunday gigot d’agneau).

Enough, you say? Cry uncle for god’s sake? To my delight, we didn’t have to make the painful choice between dessert OR cheese. Though I love cheese beyond all reason, at the end of a meal such as this I usually opt out in an effort to stem the flow of salt. But at the Auberge, bless its heart, one doesn’t have to even think about doing the “right thing”, for what’s a French meal without the cheese course? Out comes the cheese, a sensible and wondrous mix of blue, brebis, soft and smelly / hard and tangy, not too much but just what was needed to accompany the remains of our 14 euro bottles of local (really, really local, called “Auberge de Caussols”) red wine.

And then dessert. It was part of the three set courses (remember? this was a three course lunch? Someone in the kitchen has to work on their counting skills). Now let’s be honest. We all know that even in France, dessert on a prix fixe menu can sometimes be uninspiring: a runny creme caramel, a gluey eclair, a soggy tart du pomme (strike that, I only had awesome apple tarts on this trip). Plus, I’ll pick salt over sugar any day of the week, and though this may surprise you? I was pretty much full. But in honor of my p1040363beloved K, at home struggling with single parenthood with le beast-o-wicz, I ordered a simple creme brulee. Like won-ton soup at a chinese restaurant, creme brulee is often my litmus test of a decent french restaurant at home. To me, it’s a pretty clear line between, “this is good” and “yuck”.

But now a new line has been added beyond “good”. WHAT makes it transcendent? Once you’ve hit creamy and delicious with a burnt sugar crust, where else can you go? But on this day, at this place, this little flat bowl (practically crema catalan depth) had the perfect proportions of vanilla that your brain knew was there but your tastebuds couldn’t single out, egg that coated your tongue / mouth / throat / brain but managed not to taste eggy, cream that kept the consistency soft and supple (I know some prefer a firmer custard, but this is MY perfect creme brulee and it was supple, I tell you!). Oh, and b1’s lemon tart, which she ordered after much negotiation with Roxanne and me so we could get a perfect dessert triumvirate was freaking awesome as well. Tart! Bursts of fresh lemon! Another vat of butter…one for the shortbread crust and another for the lemon curd! And Roxanne’s chocolate fondant was perfect as well, though it didn’t set a new bar for any other perfect flourless chocolate cake encased in a thin sheet of bittersweet ganache. (Well, perhaps the fact that it was insanely rich without being very sweet did set a new bar…let me think about that.)

p1040374What more is there to say? We stumbled out into the blinding blue light…wtf? it’s still light out?…stuffed ourselves back into the tiny car which now felt microscopic, wound back down the mountain, and fell about the house in various inelegant angles of repose. Curiously, no one spoke of dinner that night.

2/5: Toe jam and innards…it’s a good thing.

Went for a country drive through the Drome (with two blind people stuffed into the backseat of our rented Toyota Yaris), the dramatic landscape accented by fast-moving clouds. Fifteen shades of beige, rocky fields with small bunches of new lavender starting to bush out above the furrows, wheat, a few vineyards for Clairette, then fruit trees in the higher plateau, backed by striated cliffs with flat tops, backed further by craggy snow-capped mountains.

p10402631It looked bleak and freezing out and the wind was blowing, but it was strangely warm, having switched from a frigid north wind to something blowing up from Algiers.

As we’ve done throughout most of the trip we had our main meal midday, today in the shadow of the cathedral in Die (pronounced Dee, thankfully). It was a warm and charming place where we’d hoped to meet up with Manouche’s brother, an old hippie, ex-chef/restauranteer, and apparent all-around character.

B2 and Manouche had sweetbreads in a creme fraiche sauce, M. with a side of ubiquitous frites and dad with a beautiful (and massive) plate of veggies: endive, ratatouille, zuke, string beans…. The French don’t share bites and pass plates around, more on that later, and Dad, guarding his personal space like a longtime resident of San Quentin apologized between bites that no one was getting a taste of his (though he was strangely generous with his greens). I was torn between outrage and pleasure that he was enjoying it that much. I love sweetbreads, but like foie gras, I want a taste, or an appetizer, not a full plate. And it’s a sad fact of life in the US that you’re only going to find sweetbreads on the menus of fancy restaurants, not some casual lunchtime place in the shadow of a 16th century church.

A light midday repast of rognons in phyllo and mustard cream.

A light midday repast of rognons in phyllo and mustard cream.

B1 had kidneys (sorry to the faint of heart for our penchant for odd cuts of meat) in a crisp phyllo drenched with an ambrosial mustard cream sauce, and I the full menu for a mere 13 euro: dressed frisee topped with a poached egg wrapped in an eggy crepe (I’ve decided everything is better with a poached egg); chicken leg and thigh in a half french (creme fraiche and butter) half morrocan (bitter lemon and cumin) sauce that was utterly unique to my tastebuds, overcooked but tasty zucchini, so-so apple / pear tart, and a personal pitcher (two glasses) of ridiculously good vin rouge du maison.

I swear most days we only eat one meal a day…though I’m still managing to feel sausaged into my baggy jeans. With my heart out so much and the b’s inability to walk much, this has definitely been a most sedentary trip. Even by my standards.

Afterwards, for a bit of exercise (heh) we went to a caveau to taste and buy their local specialty, Clairette du Die. By chance, the caveau we selected had a petite musee complete with 70’s store mannequins dressed in peasant garb attending to the various stages of growing, bottling and consuming the local sparkling wine. Usually fairly sweet (my preference) from being mixed with Muscat grapes, the Clairette Brut alone was surprisingly good…toe jammy and just how b2 likes his champagne.

Blasting from the motion-detection speakers, in what Manouche cackled was a heavy local accent, long-sideburned, lifesized Malibu Ken #1 bellows: “Beh…I am the bottler. Without me there would BE no wine!” “But without me,” says the pinafored peasant woman, “no one would get any work done!” So true, but so hard to take seriously with her bright blue eyeshadow and Farrah Fawcett hair.

As in Vacqueyras, tasting was free and copious, and the bottles were all under 7.50 e.

2/4: “When I play zee flute I open zee eyes very vide to ear the full music bien!”

p10402961
She’s got chimes in the halls between the bedroom and kitchen, bathroom and office, that tinkle as she brushes past. Though blind for the past 30 years, brilliant paintings cover the white walls, books are stacked on the tables and every surface in Manouche’s (born Louisette, dubbed Countess Manouch by fellow students at the Paris blind rehab center where b1 met her) home holds treasures and oddities. 

Quite the contrast to Mireille, our angry OCD “hostess” in Marseille! But you take what life hands you, including your genetic disposition.

So what if, after two years in the hospital you come home (without any eyes) to find your husband has moved his mistress into your house, with your three young kids…and won’t move her out? Or if he then takes you to court to contest the insurance settlement because he “obviously” suffered more than she from the effects of the accident? Well look who’s gone and who’s still living life to the fullest.

Puffin' the hooch.

Puffin' the hooch.

1/30: What? Enough of family observations? Get back to the food, you say?

p1030783Scrumptious dinner with Pierre et Baby pronounced “Bahbee” so not quite as obnoxious as it appears in print), b2’s second cousin on Grandma’s side, after an exhausting day of sightseeing. SW french food from the Toulouse region, so specializing in all things duck: confit du canard, magret du canard, smoked proscuitto-like cured canard, gizzard of canard and of course, the liver of canard, the king of the innards, foie gras. (Balfour, stop reading right here, though I choose to believe these are gently and humanely raised giant-livered happy geese.) We climbed down a steep spiral staircase into a whitewashed cave with a very low stone ceiling (note to Bruce, Skip and other tall persons…duck! ar ar ar) lit unfortunately with 100 watt bulbs.

The gratis glasses of chilled, late-harvest muscat (gorgeously floral and syrupy with enough acid to keep it clean in the back of your throat) helped to mellow the wattage and illuminate instead how cozy and charming the two small rooms were. The women were handed menus without prices…whaaaa?! Is this cave a magical world that just transported me five decades into the past? Disturbing. Bizarre.

Peering over b2’s shoulder I received another shock…at the reasonable prices. (Hmm, maybe we have been transported to a few years past.)

Our hosts, who have a combined weight of 120 dripping wet, each ordered an entree and plat, whereas b, b2 & I split their special app of the day, brouillade: eggs whipped with truffle. A gray color with the consistency of gluey oatmeal and little truffle flavor that I could detect—though studded generously with flecks and shavings—it was strangely delicious. Though I was a wee bit jealous of Baby’s dinner-sized plate of dressed frisee, loaded with thin slices of cured duck and four large rolls of chevre fried till crisp, then drizzled with honey while hot, creating a chewy, sweet crust. Oh la la. I’ll be trying that one at home, though recreating that texture isn’t going to be possible. Pierre’s gizzard salad really was delicious…but it too was generous to a fault, which is perhaps a tiny bit of a fault when one is talking gizzard salad.

The tasty bowl of truffle goup was followed, por moi, with fresh pasta dressed simply in butter, topped with a couple of slices of light-as-air fried foie gras and ringed by prime-rib-rare and tender slices of duck…heaven on earth in every bite.  

Duck-a-licious.

Duck-a-licious.


b1 made it through half of her duck rolled in pate in turn rolled in a French phyllo, lightly sauced with a rich cream and jus reduction. You could have replaced the center duck with a napkin and it would have been delicious. b2 ducked the trend and had veal kidneys…with foie gras…and like the gizzards it was delicious but a bit too kidney-esque for my tastes. Baby continued the duck fest with a duck scallopini topped with morels in cream sauce (I believe there was a slice or three of foie gras tucked in amongst the bounty), and Pierre had their special of the day, magret with curry and pears. Curry seems to have taken southern France by storm – Jill take note. 

Dessert ended with b1 and me splitting an apple crepe “purse” in caramel sauce, pear sorbet floating in a glass of poire william for Baby, and b2 and Pierre quickly regretted the insane decadence of their preneaux glace (whoever heard of a too-creamy ice cream, but there you have it) drenched in Armagnac, poured over the ice cream at the table from a magnum, yes a magnum, of aged Armagnac.

Armagnac action shot.

Armagnac action shot.

With a bottle of 05 St. Emillon, out the door for $45 per person? Ridiculous. And happy. Oh, and the day in Marseille? Fantastic. But more on that in another post…maybe…..