Category Archives: review

Hungry Monkey

Pretzel & mustard 2

I knew I’d want to cook again, but I didn’t know exactly how I’d get started. It didn’t happen the way I expected—not with the ripe fragrance of strawberries on the counter, or a craving, or a taste, translated from tonguespeak to brainwave, like they so often do, into some sort of cookable fantasy. It was sound that brought me in.

There are a lot of new sounds in my life right now. There’s Graham, of course, who turns out to be part horse, whinnying and neighing in his sleep. There’s the thud of the mail in the bin, always right around 2 p.m. There’s the now-familiar squeak of our not-so-gently used rocking chair.

That chair is beginning to feel like part of my own anatomy. I feed in it. I read in it. I pump in it. And yes, occasionally, I sleep in it. The other day, I had Graham on my shoulder, rocking and patting. It must have been some seldom-seen hour, because as I listened, the thwattwhattwhat sound of my palm on his back morphed into the steady rhythm of a KitchenAid, beating its contents against the side of the work bowl with dutiful regularity. I am going crazy, I thought. I am imagining my child as a stand mixer. I could see the dough in the bowl, curling and cleaving around the white hook. I’m not generally that into bread making, so it sort of surprised me to find myself wondering what sort of bread I’d start in the morning. No, I thought. If you haven’t showered in 3 days, you may not make bread. I ignored the urge, but for days, every time I went to burp Graham, I thought about it. Thwatthwatthwat.

This chair of ours, it’s been a godsend in the wee hours, which I’ve decided to dedicate to all the baby preparation reading I never did before Graham was born. At night, after I feed him, I’ve been plunking him on a pillow on my lap, and reading and rocking to make sure he’s good and konked out before putting him back to bed. This worked like a charm for the first few nights, when I was reading one of those What to Expect books, which are roughly as entertaining as a grammar primer.
HungryMonkey_fin

Then I picked up Hungry Monkey. It’s ostensibly a book on raising a kid to eat well, so it qualifies for inclusion in my midnight reading pile. The only problem is that it makes me laugh so much—and I say makes, not made, because I keep picking it up to reread bits and parts—that I keep waking my kid up.

You know Roots and Grubs, right? It’s a blog, by Matthew Amster-Burton, another Seattle food writer. He’s fantastic; it’s one of the few blogs I actually read on a regular basis. When I’m in a funk—or worse, at a bad press event—Matthew always makes me laugh.

If I were to make sweeping generalizations, I’d say Roots and Grubs is about making his family dinner. It goes like this: He cooks something, and his daughter, Iris, says something hilarious. I’m not convinced he doesn’t make some of it up, because it’s always funny, and no one’s funny all the time. Except Matthew and Iris. I’ve never actually met her, but Iris seems to be a great advertisement for having children. And Matthew, it turns out, is a great advertisement for being a parent (in the food department, at least).

Hungry Monkey is Matthew’s first book—one I’d been waiting anxiously to read, because it chronicles his attempts to raise an Eater, capital E, within the restraints toddlerhood naturally entails (pickiness, unexplained changes in food preferences, preschool peer pressure, etc.). I plowed through my advance copy before Graham was born, chortling over stories about taking Iris to a Seattle sushi-go-round, teaching her to make pancakes on an Iris-sized griddle, and competing with other parents to make the most sensational preschool snack. Here’s the one about fish eyeballs that Graham lost sleep over:

One night I made stuffed trout for dinner. “And will the trout get very, very big when you stuff it?” Iris asked. She helped me stuff the trout with fennel, bacon, red onion, and fresh herbs.

Stuffed trout is easier to make than it is to eat, because you want to just cut off a hunk with stuffing sandwiched between two pieces of boneless fish, but there are many bones in the way of this noble intention. For this reason and because Iris is frequently more enthusiastic about cooking than eating, I figured she would forget about the trout by the time it hit the table and concentrate on the hash browns I served with it.

Wrong. Iris at the fish, the bacon, the vegetables, the potatoes, and even, well . . .

To say that she was undeterred by the fact that the fish’s head was there on the platter would be an understatement. “There’s the head!” she exclaimed. I found a piece of cheek meat and ate it, and Iris said,

“I want to eat some cheek.”

I said okay and rooted around for another piece. “There’s some check,” Iris said, pointing.

“No, that’s the eyeball.”

“I want to eat the eyeball.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.” She took a bite. “It’s gooey. Why is it gooey?”

“Eyeballs are just like that,” said Laurie.

Iris thought about this, then requested and ate the other eyeball.

Anyway. The first time through, I folded down page corners, like I always do with food books, promising myself I’d make potstickers, and larb gai, and gingerbread cupcakes, and duck hash. Then came Graham, followed almost immediately by fantasies about raising a kid whose plate sees as much action as Iris’s. I picked up Hungry Monkey again, and bought twelve copies (not joking) for friends celebrating (or about to celebrate) Mother’s Day.

So now, every day, I open the book to a random page, hoping to absorb the crumbs of parenting wisdom Matthew sprinkles throughout his stories—but after Graham’s asleep, so when my belly jiggles I don’t disturb him as much. This morning, frustrated by Graham’s introduction to breastfeeding, I flipped to the first chapter again:

According to Laurie, on our first night home from the hospital, I made one of our favorite dinners, salmon with cucumber salad. I have no memory of this, or much of anything from those first three months before Laurie went back to work. I remember Iris nursing almost constantly, day and night, and taking naps in our laps. She refused to be put down, ever, for twelve weeks. I’m not exaggerating for effect: we held her 24-7 for twelve weeks. I called her the Ice Princess, because she never smiled. Sometimes, when it had been twenty minutes since her last feeding and she was ready for the next one, I called her Hungry Monkey.

Ah. So it’s not just me. And it’s okay, that my child has no concept of time, and that I will have no recollection of writing this?

So nice to have a book on child-rearing that tells me I’m normal.

Yesterday, I flipped to chapter 13, and was reassured in advance that no parent can avoid being a sucker at the grocery store:

But shopping at the supermarket with Iris brings up the kind of stereotypical parent-child issues that I like to pretend I can opt out of. As in: Iris tries to convince me to buy some stupid product. I say no. She whines. I relent. When we get home we eat 10 percent of the product and the rest goes stale. This happened most recently with frozen pretzels, which I agreed to buy even though I make homemade pretzels and Iris loves to sprinkle salt on them.

Time out, I thought. He makes pretzels? As in, squishy, salty, Bavarian-style pretzels? It never occurred to me that they could be produced without a two-hour rest on some sort of spinning device under heat lamps. But there it was, a recipe for pretzels, right at the back of the chapter. Better yet, it looked easy—just required a quick knead in the stand mixer. Oooh, I thought. I can make bread without actually making bread.

These pretzels require very few ingredients and the attention span of a three-year-old. (Perfect!) Sometime mid-afternoon, I announced to Jim that I’d be baking them, and that yes, I’d let him dip them in mustard. He looked at me like he was going to go get prepared to clean up after me (emotionally or physically, I’m not sure), and mumbled some sort of acquiescence.

I measured. The KitchenAid mixed. The dough puffed up. I rolled it out into skinny little snakes, feeling almost a little guilty that I didn’t wait for Graham to be old enough to make them for the first time. I boiled them, flipping them with a fish spatula before transferring them to the baking sheet. I salted, and when the salt melted in a little, I salted again. (It’s best to use salting as a verb, so you get enough on there. Someday, I’ll have a toddler who can do this for me.) They looked like a line of grumpy old men with their arms crossed, standing guard on the baking sheet. In they went.

In about 20 minutes of actual work time, I had pretzels way tastier than what we buy for $4 a pop at the German pub down the street—soft, gorgeously crackled, gently blistery pretzels. Even better, they came out of the oven on the same baking sheet I put them in on, which meant something in my brain registered “hot” and I didn’t burn my fingers, like I do every single time at Prost. We ate all six of them immediately.

Honestly, I sort of fault Matthew for buying frozen pretzels now. I mean, I understand the in situ issue—gorgeous child embarrassing him in the grocery store, baying about how if he loved her he’d buy her frozen pretzels. . . but really. If you make these, and ever feel the urge to buy a frozen pretzel afterwards, I’ll buy you a beer. (If you remind me I said this when Graham’s 3, though, I’ll deny it.)

Of course, now that I’ve made them, I have to admit that I was wrong—the thwattwhattwhat sound I was remembering is the one the paddle attachment makes, whipping a looser batter, like for a cake. Kneading dough with the hook makes more of a grumbling noise. Which, come to think of it, Graham makes also. But whatever. All that happens in the middle of the night, and in a few weeks, I won’t remember any of it anyway.

Hungry Monkey pretzel

Pretzels (PDF)
Recipe by Matthew Amster-Burton, from Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater. Used with permission.

TIME: 2 hours, including rising time
YOU’LL NEED: stand mixer
LITTLE FINGERS: After I let Iris help shape pretzels, she invented this game where she curls a rubber band or piece of string into a squiggle and asks,” Would you eat a pretzel shaped like THIS? Yes or no?” Repeat a hundred times. Other than that and the obvious warnings about the electric mixer and the oven, I have no caveats about letting your children help make pretzels.

Makes 6 pretzels

8 ounces all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup lukewarm water
cooking spray
2 tablespoons baking soda
kosher or pretzel salt for sprinkling

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the flour, yeast, and salt. Stir the honey into the water until it begins to dissolve, then add the honey-water mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix with the paddle on low speed until the dough starts to come together, then switch to the dough hook and knead on medium speed (4 on the KitchenAid) for 4 minutes. If the dough is very dry (bits are refusing to incorporate) add an additional tablespoon of water. Spray a bowl with cooking spray and place the dough in it. Spray a bit more cooking spray on top of the dough, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let rise 75 minutes, punching down the dough after 45 minutes.
2. Line a large baking sheet with parchment and spray with cooking spray. Divide the dough into 6 pieces (about 2 ounces each). (It will be easier to form the pretzels if you cut the dough into strips with a bench knife rather than pulling off balls of dough by hand.) Roll each piece into a long (18-inch) snake and form into a pretzel. Place the formed pretzels on the baking sheet.
3. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Bring 2 quarts of water and the baking soda to a boil in a saucepan. Add 3 pretzels to the boiling water and boil 30 seconds. Flip the pretzels, boil an additional 30 seconds, and return them to the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pretzels. Sprinkle the pretzels with kosher salt or with pretzel salt (available from kingarthurflour.com) if you have it.
4. Bake 9 to 10 minutes or until deep golden brown. Cool pretzels on a rack and serve warm.

Pretzel & mustard 1

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Waiterly Conduct

Meyer Lemon Rosemary Tea

It worked. The Meyer lemon and rosemary and honey thing worked, and by noon yesterday, my voice had morphed back to normal, and when I stood up to read, my epithelial muscle bounced happily along my vocal chords; I sounded much more like a normal human being than I had 36 hours before.

Plus, my family was a big help. My mom showed up, flew in from Boise just for the occasion. And my brother left me a useful phone message: Hi. It’s your brother. Just wanted to give you a heads up for your reading tonight. If you go top to bottom and left to right, you should be all set.

Thank goodness he called.

But the highlight of the evening wasn’t standing up in front of a crowd, or wearing my new dress, or tasting how Tom Douglas interpreted courses from the dinner I read about. It was when a woman walked up to me and asked me if I have arthritis.

She seemed a little shy, at first, but her smile was kind. I read in your bio that you write for Arthritis Today, she said. Are you . . . She trailed off, uncertain what she should say next. She introduced herself, telling me she’s done some food writing, and also has rheumatoid arthritis. I told her I have lupus, and suddenly we were long-lost friends, yelling like crazy people about spoon theory, methotrexate, and hair loss, hands flying, voices trilling above the food talk around us. We hugged and promised to start our own support group, and I spent the rest of the night wondering how it had taken me so long to find her. Just last weekend, I finally admitted to myself and my husband that no matter how many people comfort me, support me, encourage me, something about having lupus makes me feel entirely alone. But now. Ahh. I found a buddy. And I don’t even know her last name.

Anyway. Here’s what I read (published over at Leite’s Culinaria), if you’re interested, a piece called Waiterly Conduct. (There’s an audio version, also.) It’s a shortened version of something I posted here in April. Click here for the original (and outrageously long) version.

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Twenty-seven hours of gastronomical fantasy

Here is a short list of foods, most of which (in their most “gourmet” preparations) I would consider outrageously rich, exorbitant, perhaps unsustainable, caloric, and/or worth obsessing over or possibly (at times) avoiding entirely: fois gras, truffles, lobster, game, rare/exotic fruits, heavy cream sauces.

These are foods whose allures I habitually claim immunity to, but when given the option of actually eating them, repetitively and in mass quantities, I always indulge. They are my fantasy foods. An incomplete list, to be sure. You must have yours.

In the last twenty-seven hours, I have eaten: fois gras, fresh Burgundy truffle, lobster, elk loin, possibly a full pound of chocolate, two croissants, soft culatello, quince prepared three ways, homemade pasta, farro risotto, creme brulee, fresh macaroons, Seattle’s best baguette, and many varieties of good wine, including more than a few sips of champagne (2 kinds), ice wine (2 kinds), albarino, gruner veltliner, pouilly fuisse, pinot noir, syrah, oloroso sherry, and port.

And yes, actually, I will be skipping lunch today, because I’ll probably be having pizza for dinner. I am currently in a state of gustatory and digestive shock.

Woah, you say. Back up.

Yesterday, my cell phone’s worst alarm tone ripped me out of bed at 5 a.m. I’d placed it across the house so that my ass had to physically leave the bed to turn it off, and as I stumbled through the dark toward the noise, it occurred to me that “5 a.m.” probably doesn’t sound like a good way to start any fantasy.

In the moment of heightened silence following my successful alarm diffusion, I remembered why I was awake: I’d be spending the day baking with William Leaman at Bakery Nouveau for an article I’m working on. Then my husband and I would spend the evening at Salish Lodge & Spa, a forced attempt at true relaxation that happened to coincide with the introduction of Chef Roy Breiman‘s new fall menu. So yes, it was to be a sort of gastronomical fantasy day, all in the line of duty.

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Tomorrow: Julia’s

Tomorrow, August 17th, is Indonesian Independence Day. I admit, it wasn’t on my calendar either, but yesterday, when I made my second trip to Julia’s Indonesian Kitchen, a new little mom-and-pop joint across the street from Whole Foods in Ravenna, Julia had put a little sign up. So now I know. And knowing is half the battle.

At Julia’s, half of the battle is learning when and when not to go.

Go when you want good, hearty Indonesian comfort food like deeply satisfying Javanese fried chicken, or risoles, essentially Indonesian chicken hot pockets that deserve a smothering dip in peanut sauce before you shovel them down.

Certainly do not go if you you’re in a big rush.

Go when you feel like you should eat a salad, but don’t really feel like all the healthiness that the word salad implies; in this case, order Julia’s gado-gado betawi, crisp lettuces topped with egg, tofu, puffy onion crisps, and a peanut sauce spiked with floral kaffir lime leaf.

Don’t go if you you’re afraid of fried foods, because if you walk in the door, you’ll need to order a plate of the supermoist Ayem Goreng Kremes Tante Julia (just order S3) for the table. (This is not optional.) This is another fried chicken, and it’s different from the Javanese-style chicken: it’s first braised, then fried, and served with hundreds of little shards of what tastes like a fried version of that miraculous fatty layer between a chicken’s skin and its meat, but is really chicken stock mixed with flour and deep fried. These bits, tiny, crisp versions of the very best part of a well-roasted chicken’s crackling skin, should be bottled and sold as a salad topping, if you ask me. After our meal (and a delicious black rice pudding), I found stray crispy chicken bits stuck to my forearm, where I’d pressed it into the glass tabletop. I ate them, of course. I’m pretty sure I’d eat them off the floor, given the opportunity.

Go if you want to speak Dutch. Indonesia was once a Dutch colony, after all, and the owner’s husband still speaks well. The first time, I went with a friend who lived in Holland until age 3, and she got a good earful.

Don’t go if you’re trying to lose weight: Even the lunch-size portions of the rijstafel are pretty filling.

Please, give me a call, and go when I go: On both occasions, I found Julia’s completely deserted, which surprised and disappointed me, given how much I liked most of the food. I think I’d enjoy it a whole lot more if it felt like a place more people wanted to go.

And for God’s sake, please don’t go via bicycle. That’s what I did. Made for a tough trip back up our hill. Fried chicken is not a cyclist’s best friend.

So now you know. You should probably also know that Julia is a friend’s mother, which is why I went (and tried Indonesian food for the first time) in the first place.

But go – it’s cheap, filling, and delicious, and the owners couldn’t be more excited about bringing Indonesian food to Ravenna.

Julia's Indonesian Kitchen in Seattle

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A Cure for El Groucho

Effing spectacular,” said my husband, who usually just comes right out and swears. I’m not sure if it was the romantic vibe El Gaucho‘s dark dining room has going or reverence for the Yukon River salmon we were eating that made him hold his tongue, but I appreciated it.

And he was right – the salmon was spectacular. I don’t mean good in a they-sure-did-cook-this-up-nice kind of way. That was part of it (it was cooked perfectly, still translucent in the center), but the salmon itself was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. See, Yukon River salmon has up to 30 percent fat, which is roughly double what Copper River salmon, the leading cause of outrageous expenditure at the Whole Foods fish counter, usually has. Double. We’re talking about butter, made out of fish. It was slippery in my mouth; the flesh didn’t so much collapse between my teeth as disassociate, the individual sheaths of muscle slipping past each other. It tasted sexy. Like satin sheets in my mouth, I’d say, if I’d ever slept on satin sheets. I chewed each bite so much longer than I usually do, trying to hold on to that rich silkiness.

“I feel like a kid from the East Coast skiing western powder for the first time,” said my husband. He kept staring at his plate, as if willing his 12-ounce portion to grow even larger.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We went to El Gaucho in the first place because we’d heard they were serving Yukon River salmon there. (Paul Mackay, the owner of Mackay Restaurants, of which El Gaucho is a part, worked a deal with the Yu’pik folks native to that area of Alaska, the only people who are legally allowed to fish the river. He buys the fish directly from the fishermen. No middleman, fair prices, the chef actually flies up there to pick the fish out himself, etc.)

Anyway, we’d stayed at the Inn upstairs, but I’d never actually eaten at El Gaucho. It’s basically a super high-end steak house, with a cigar room, waiters in tuxes, a schmancy bar, and lots of flaming food. I’d seen how dimly lit the dining room is, and labeled it a cocoon for men who either really love meat or really want to get someone into bed. (There. I said it.) Not really my thing. Right?

Wrong. I loved it. At least, I loved it as soon as my eyes adjusted to the man-cave’s darkness and I got over feeling like I’d walked in on a mob meeting. It served as a surprising, instant cure for the grouchiness I’d slipped into that day.

El Gaucho made me wish I hosted more (read: any) serious business dinners. The restaurant is a giant space that oozes masculinity (formerly a seaman’s union hall), with lots of dark red and black tones. Tables set up on multiple levels cascade down toward the kitchen, so that the people on the highest floor have a stadium view of the action down below.

And action there is: El Gaucho is known for steak, of course, but mostly for their “flaming swords”: Tuxedoed servers with serious faces walk around with fireproof gloves on, ladling flammable liquid over giant meat-laden swords (think Three Musketeers), pouring fire from one vessel to another, and setting still-flaming platefuls of food in front of gaping guests. As long as you’re not a vegetarian, this place impresses. And being seated up top, like we were, makes you feel important, even if you don’t order anything that needs to be set ablaze.

But like I said, I didn’t think I’d be into it. I never was a big circus fan. My husband and I ordered a Caesar salad, slightly annoyed that we’d have to undergo the pomp and circumstance of having someone prepare it tableside. I know what goes in a Caesar salad. But by the time we’d been plied with cocktails and started in on our bottle of wine, I forgot that I’d been in a rush, and edged closer to him in the little treetop nest our V-shaped booth was becoming.

The salad et. al. arrived, and I felt a little thrill seeing that our server had all the proper ingredients lined up on the rolling cart she’d be using to prepare our food. She even mashed the anchovies and garlic there in front of us. And when the salad hit our plates, I tasted it, that luscious texture great Caesars get from a coddled egg yolk, along with the deep (never fishy) flavor the anchovies lend. I decided I could get used to tableside service. Or, at least, food prepared just the way I like it.

In addition to the salmon, we ordered sauteed spinach, which came with an exuberant squeeze of lemon, plenty of garlic, and a hint of spice from red pepper flakes, and also a mushroom risotto. The salmon came surprisingly plain on the plate, next to just a few thin slices of cucumber topped with a dollop of sour cream. (Sounds strange, yes, but it worked.) Though the side dishes made the meal complete, I was so overwhelmed by the salmon’s flavor that I had trouble mentally processing anything else.

But the thing I liked about El Gaucho – more than the salmon, more than the old-fashioned dinner drama – was how slowly my dinner passed there. We were there for three hours, but I never looked at my watch. I gazed out at the other diners, and watched my husband gaze at the sign to the cigar room. Things moved in slow motion. Flames, everywhere, but never a hasty action. Every time a waiter passed, he paused slightly at our table, and smiled, as if to prove he wasn’t in a rush.

We lingered over the Roquefort platter El Gaucho sets out at the end of each meal. (I hesitate to use the word “complimentary,” because we certainly paid for it somewhere.) We fed each other pear slices. Cracked open whole nuts and laughed at how much better the squirrels are at it. Sipped coffee and chatted, well after we’d paid the bill.

Yes, it’s an expensive restaurant. But it was just what the doctor ordered.

El Gaucho in Seattle

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And the nomination for Biggest Burrito goes to . . .

Gorditos burritos

I’ve lived here for almost 9 months, and it took me until yesterday to visit Gordito’s. (Shameful, I know.) Now, I’d heard the burritos were big, but didn’t realize my arms would get tired carrying a few of them home.

I used to pledge allegiance to Anna’s Taqueria in Boston (which has made it to Wikipedia, by the by). I do miss the Soup Nazi treatment there, because who doesn’t like being screamed at when you’re starving and just want some food? But really, Boston folks: have you ever left Anna’s thinking that despite the gastrointestinal shock, you could almost order another one?

Not an issue at Gordito’s. Rather than writhing in agony after eating the entire thing (which was my first instinct – where does it all go?), I followed my friend Katie’s experience-based example and cut my delicious fish burrito in half (which still yielded two more-than-sensible portions) and ate half last night and half just now. I rarely eat Mexican food without putting myself into a world of hurt, so going to bed pain-free was a big step.

But then, I thought, maybe I could get a third meal out of a burrito. This is America, right? Size matters.

Do you know of any Seattle burritos that are bigger?

For comparison, the second (smaller) half of my burrito weighed in at over 12 ounces, so I’m guessing the whole shebang was just shy of 2 pounds when I started.

Gordito's Healthy Mexican Food in Seattle

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A trip to Bainbridge

If normal means staying within sight of Seattle, this past weekend was my first normal weekend in a long, long time. The highlight (besides gardening in the sushine all day yesterday) was a quick trip to Bainbridge Island, a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle.

Our first stop was The Living Room, a new wine bar on Bjune Drive. If IKEA designed a wine bar to sell its products, it would look just like this: clean, modern lines, fun lighting, gorgeous place settings, etc., but almost completely devoid of the character one might hope for given the place’s namesake. The deep leather couches are as inviting and soothing as any living room couch should be, but it’s hard to feel like you’ve just popped by your neighbor’s house for a quick sip when you’re staring at artless walls and an unimpaired view of what qualifies on Bainbridge as a strip mall.

My glass of wine, however, a Finca de Arantei Albarino singing of peaches and citrus, was fresh and light and summery, and somehow that and the Portuguese red my husband was swooning over both worked with a big slab of flatbread topped with fontina, caramelized onions, thyme, and truffle salt.

Thus fortified, we ambled down to the marina and poked around a bit before settling in at The Four Swallows, a restaurant in a little yellow house up the hill on Madison Avenue that reminded me of Abbicci. Now this is a living room.

There we met Jose, the polite and affable server who represents, to me, all that is good about career waiters. He had style. He shuffled in and out like a male geisha, relaxed but purposeful, conversational but never intrusive, and by the time our wine was poured I knew I needed his help ordering. I’d been waffling between the Penn Cove mussels in a sherry, leek, tomato, and smoked paprika cream sauce and the beef carpaccio, a perennial favorite of mine. But when I asked him for advice, he skipped the first two courses on the menu all but shouted “order the pasta pomodoro!”

It sort of surprised me – I mean, I don’t typically avoid Italian options at the bottom of an otherwise fairly Northwestern menu, but I certainly don’t gravitate toward them. So we decided to share the carpaccio, which was the same alluring combination of soft, clean-tasting beef, excellent olive oil, truffle salt, and Parmesan cheese that caught my palate’s attention the first time I ever had it, at Sweet Basil. I also ordered a shaved fennel and artichoke salad, and the pomodoro, because Jose had seemed so earnest in his recommendation.

The salad, a tangled nest of white flecked with chervil and parsley and doused with a perky lemon vinaigrette, also carried the slightest hint of truffle oil, a successful way of grounding what might otherwise be a dish with only high, bright notes. Also nicely balanced was my husband’s salad, a rather ordinary combination of pears, Point Reyes blue, candied pecans, and greens, done uncommonly well.

Jose’s suggestion was the best of the night: the pomodoro was a far cry from the anemic, thick, pink sauce I’ve unfortunately come to associate with some simple Italian classics. He delivered it with the little bow he seemed to use every time he left the table. A big scoop of cool, creamy mascarpone cheese balanced the pomodoro’s earthy, spicy tomato sauce. I twirled spaghetti and scooped up pine nuts and slurped sauce until I had not a square centimeter of space left in my belly. For hours afterward, it was as if someone had smashed a garlic clove and rubbed it over every surface of the inside of my mouth. I loved it.

We ended (somehow) with a vanilla panna cotta with fresh strawberries, delicious and soft-textured but served in a wine glass, which (to me) sort of skips the magic of how a panna cotta that’s been successfully eased out of a form can be so perfect and linear and yet so jiggly at the same time.

As we walked back to the ferry through the rain, realizing we’d just been on a date, I couldn’t help but wonder what the mussels might have tasted like. Last night I made my own version, which were surely quite different from The Four Swallows’ but will have to tide me over until I can get back to Bainbridge. Closed and raw, the mussels barely fit in my favorite pan, which meant that when I took the top off after steaming them for a few minutes, they all opened and expanded at once, carrying bits of bacon and onion and parsley with them as the whole pile grew up and almost over the sides of the pan. Here are the stragglers:

Bottom of the barrel

Mussels with Smoked Paprika Cream
Recipe 113 of 365

Look for big Mediterranean-style mussels; it’s fun to use their shells to scoop up the rich, creamy broth left at the bottom of the bowl. Serve the mussels with plenty of good, crusty bread and a simple green salad. Two and a half pounds of mussels makes about six appetizer servings, four dinner servings, or an all-out mussel feast for two. (You can guess which one we did.)

Make sure you have a pot with a tight-fitting lid before you start.

TIME: 20 minutes
MAKES: Varies

2 slices bacon, finely chopped
1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 – 2 large clove(s) garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon pimenton de la vera (smoked Spanish paprika)
1 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 pounds large mussels, scrubbed and debearded
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Note: “Debearding” a mussel is simply removing the little black hairs that sometimes protrude from the flat side of the shell – these are what the mussel uses to attach itself to its underwater habitat. To do it, just grasp the strings (technically called byssus threads) between a thumb and forefinger and pull.

Heat a large soup pot or a 3-quart high-sided sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add the bacon and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, or until the bacon begins to crisp. Add the onions and season with salt and pepper, and cook another 3 minutes, stirring. Add the garlic and the paprika, and stir until all the onions are coated with the paprika.

And the wine and bring the mixture to a simmer over high heat. Simmer for a minute, stir in the Dijon mustard and the cream, and season again with salt and pepper, if necessary. Add the mussels, cover the pot, and cook for about 5 minutes, or just until most of the mussels have opened. Transfer the mussels to a big bowl with a slotted spoon, discarding any empty shells or mussels that fail to open, pour the sauce over the mussels, and sprinkle the parsley on top. Serve immediately.

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A Reading Issue: Alinea

My first experience with molecular gastronomy was like so many of life’s great initiations: by definition, the first time can only happen once. Even before I got to Chicago, my anticipation was matched by a twin disappointment, a lurking acknowledgement that once I had experienced Alinea, I could never eat like a virgin again.

The difficult thing about Alinea is that for someone like me, someone who’s relatively used to judging food, it’s a little weird to be dropped into a situation where I can no longer tell whether something looks or smells or tastes right because I have nothing to compare it to. How am I supposed to know if a horseradish-infused cocoa butter ping pong ball has been well executed?

Click here to read the rest . . .

Ping pong ball

Click here for my own slideshow, or here for Alinea’s online photo gallery.

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I am an April fool

I’m wrapping up a visit with my oldest friend, Sari. She’s the kind of friend that understands me to my core without knowing even a quarter of my present life’s minutiae; we all have these friends. She can’t spell my married name correctly, but she knows when I’m getting hungry and how I like my oatmeal. If I have a button to press, she knows where it is. We’ve developed along vastly different paths since we met as, oh, toddlers, and even though we’ve spent a week living entirely out of sync (I take a nap, she wakes up, I wake up, she’s heading to bed, I heat lunch, she starts breakfast, I start working, she opens a bottle of wine), it’s amazing to spend time with someone with whom my past is so inextricably linked.

Tonight Sari (who I’ve mentioned before) woke up from a nap around 8 p.m., just as I was about to give up any hope of eating dinner with her. (Despite the fact that she’s kosher and almost vegetarian, we tend to have very similar food preferences.) She mentioned Indian take-out, and I was instantly on board. And since my husband’s plane hadn’t touched down yet, I figured it was a unique opportunity to give The Kabab House, the Indian place where we waited 90 minutes and left without our food last time, another try.

So I called. I waited two full minutes for the person on the other end to get organized, and ordered saag paneer without the cheese, garlic naan, chana daal, basmati rice, and one order of chicken biryani, which I hoped to save for my husband to eat late-night. They told me ten minutes. I told Sari fifteen. We took the dog, walked the long way, and arrived twenty minutes after I’d ordered.

Sari walked in and asked if our food was ready. I watched her get more and more exasperated, until finally she stormed out and asked me to deal with the owner, since I was the one who’d phoned in the order. Incredulous, I marched in. “We didn’t write down your order,” she said. “What was it you wanted again?”

I stared at her. I asked her if she was kidding. Then, in a fit of uncharacteristic rudeness, I asked her if she remembered me from the last time I’d been there, when we sat right there and had to leave after waiting an hour and a half for our main course to never arrive. But no, she wasn’t kidding.

I ordered again. Only this time, she seemed to listen. But when I got to the chicken, she refused, saying they only do biryanis on Friday and Saturday nights. I wondered if they habitually took phone orders for dishes they had no intention of preparing.

She told us ten minutes, so we walked for twenty. When I returned, there was no food in sight. A few minutes later, a server hustled it from the kitchen to the front counter, and after spending two or three full minutes sweeping invisible crumbs off an unused back counter while my food languished under my nose, she rang me up. For what I think is the first time in my life, I left no tip. (I always tip on take-out.)

When we got home, the food was lukewarm but delicious. The daal was deeply spiced and earthy, the saag came cheese-free, as requested, and the lamb seekh kebab we’d ordered in place of the chicken was tender and flavorful.

But oh how we simmered. Why the run-around? And how dare she slip their new take-out menu into the bag, knowing we’d had a bad experience?

As we were cleaning up, my phone rang. “Hello?”

A foreign voice responded. “Yes, ma’am, your Indian food is ready.”

I was floored. What, now they find the order? (Now) two hours after I called it in?

“Who is this?” I asked.

“This is Kalia Indian Cuisine, ma’am, on Greenwood and 85th.”

I looked down at the take-out menu. It read “Kabab House,” with an address on Greenwood and 83rd.

I had Googled “Indian-Pakistani seattle greenwood.” The first result had been Indian-Pakistani food on Greenwood and 80something, and I’d picked up the phone and called in the order without clicking on the link to make sure there weren’t (but in fact, there are) two Indian-Pakistani eateries within a block of each other in my neighborhood. I’d ordered from Kalia, marched into Kabab House, acted like a jerk when my unordered order wasn’t ready on time, then berated the owner for poor service and left without tipping her. Then I’d left another restaurant (which was admittedly also quite slow with my real order) completely high and dry.

I hung up the phone and looked at Sari in disbelief. I felt like the world’s biggest idiot.

Sari consoled me by telling the story of what had happened to her the previous night, when she and a friend had gotten lost driving to a wedding.

The friend pulled up outside a gas station so Sari could hop out and get directions, which she did. She rushed out of the building with the clerk’s instructions in her head and hopped into the car, babbling a series of lefts and rights to her friend while she buckled herself in and pointed out which turn they had to make.

Then she smelled cigarette smoke. “Hey,” she said to her friend, “why does it smell so funny in here?”

“Honey,” said a low, slow, scratchy voice. She turned to see a 70-year-old man looking at her sadly. “I think you got in the wrong car.”

We tried to call the Kabab House back, hoping to promise to return with a tip, but they were closed. How does one make up for such a gaffe?

During moments like these, when I feel utterly stupid and ashamed, I wish I had a tail to put between my legs. But I don’t; I just have a tale, which I’ve now told, to atone for my sin.

My apologies, Kabab House and Kalia. Here’s to hoping the third time’s a charm.

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A taste of summer

Eagle Soars on Blue Sky

Yesterday, when Seattle stuck its tongue out at its own rainy reputation and kicked my car’s thermostat to a gorgeous 71 degrees, I was lucky enough to have scheduled a meeting at Taste, the new cafe at the Olympic Sculpture Park downtown.

Somehow, I fell prey to the tricks of advertising and believed that Taste was an actual restaurant, so I was surprised when I walked in to find that it’s really a cafeteria, complete with roped line. But the food is better than most cafeterias – a lot like Kathy Casey‘s food at Dish D’Lish, if you ask me, just with less pomp and circumstance.

Taste Cafe (which doesn’t seem to have a website of its own, or at least one I can find easily(although here‘s a piece from the P-I)) is certainly pandering to local palates. They’ve sourced a lot of their food locally, and aren’t afraid to brag about it. This is a good thing.

I had a Grown Up’s Grilled Cheese (or something like that), made with deeply flavored cheddar and sandwiched on a panini press. But with sweet apples and caramelized onions, it might have been more aptly named Grilled Cheese for Grown-Ups with a Kid-Sized Sweet Tooth. My little side salad, which came festively packaged in a Chinese take-out carton, featured perfectly-dressed fresh (and presumably local) greens with just the right amount of real (crunchable) sea salt.

But oh, how I lament having forgotten to climb into one of the huge geodesic dome-like swings obviously put in the cafeteria to entertain littler people than me. Next time.

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This goat can run

As promised, we returned to The Stumbling Goat Bistro tonight, and with great relief and excitement I can report that the salty, stumbling Goat we met last month has shown us a most delightful gait.

We’ve been on a major eating-out binge, and this morning my mouth woke up tired. I bought a donut for breakfast at PCC and only ate half of it. I ordered Caesar salad for lunch, for chrissake, and we’re not talking appetizers. Even by the time we showed up for our 7 p.m. reservation, I wasn’t really in the mood for food. Please, I know what you’re thinking. I’m always hungry.

I ordered the wagyu beef tenderloin, served simply and effortlessly with roasted baby carrots, parsnips, turnips, and potatoes. No muss, no fuss, just a killer cut of beef with a nice (salted, but not overly salted) crust on the outside and satiny strands of animal on the inside that fell apart like pulled pork in my mouth. My husband’s albacore was seared just so, still cold to the touch in the center the way he likes it (he always touches it first), with an intriguing, slightly chunky pecan-arugula pesto.

We split the “lover’s cheesecake,” a 4″ round cheesecake for two based on chef Seth Caswell’s New York grandmother’s recipe, for dessert. (It should probably count as tomorrow’s breakfast, too.) It had the consistency of whipped cream cheese lightened with shower cream (I told you so), and because there was a significant amount of shower cream in the batter, it didn’t have the cloying aftertaste that makes me regret most cheesecakes for hours afterwards. Some people say cheesecake can be light, but until tonight I felt strongly that light cheesecakes were either a) made with lite ingredients or b) served in small portions. This is the cheesecake you have room for.

And now, after weeks of casting furtive glances in the Goat’s direction as I wait in the construction traffic across the street, hoping that our second encounter would overshadow our first unfortunate experience, I can finally drive by and announce that The Stumbling Goat Bistro is our neighborhood restaurant.

Stumbling Goat Bistro in Seattle

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Playing pretends

I was doing a pretty good job pretending all of the inn’s amenities were part of my regular life, but the hairdryer got me. The extension cord was wrapped so neatly around the thing; beginning at the base of the handle, it was impeccably wound around and around in the kind of perfectly flat, compact coil only someone with severe OCD determined to make a hairdryer look really nice could achieve. This is not what my hairdryer looks like at home. My cord would never behave that way.

But I’m not at home. I’m sitting in a corner room at the Inn at El Gaucho in Belltown, where my husband and I decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day a little late, pretending to be far away. I’ve never spent the night in a hotel in my own city before, and it really is a fabulous idea. The sounds and the light are so different from my the ones in my neighborhood, and despite the fact that I’ll just jump on the #5 bus to get home, and that I’m sitting here typing on my laptop with my work files on the floor next to me, I feel so far from home. There are no dishes. Someone else made the coffee. And whether it’s the connection here or my as-of-yet unpersonalized new hard drive, I can’t seem to get the wireless to work, so it’s just me and the coffee and the seagulls and the sunlight streaming through the wooden blinds onto the dark chocolate-colored leather couch. I’ve been here for 12 hours now, pretending this is my real life. Pretending that when I get home every day, the first thing I do is take my shoes off, throw my coat over a chair, flop onto a giant leather couch, and watch my husband pour me some champagne. I’m lucky if I get through the shoes part before I start doing something else. This morning I pretended I always drink coffee in bed with my head, back, neck, and arms comfortably propped up on fifteen million pillows.

We still don’t own a television. Which means that the first thing my husband did when we got here last night (after he poured the champagne) was pick up the remote, not because there was something he so wanted to watch, but because a 3 1/2 x 1 1/2 foot piece of spanky-new electronics fastened to the wall represents a challenge to him. He picks up a remote the same way most of you might pick up an iPhone – with awe, curiosity, and maybe a little trepidation.

While I was inspecting El Gaucho’s plush white chenille bathrobes, my husband had an epiphany. “Hey, guess what?” he said. “There’s more than one channel for all those channels now.” Hmm. Okay. I looked at him quizzically. “You know, like HBO and stuff. There’s more than one HBO channel.” Sometime in the last 5 years I’d picked up on this fact, even without a cable bill to review, but he’d missed it entirely. Oh, the novelty of television.

But where were we? Oh yes, playing pretends. It turns out that the Inn at El Gaucho is the place to spend the night if you have housewares fantasies. Like if you’ve ever stood in the bathroom fixture section at Restoration Hardware, willing yourself to remember how much you like the wannabe retro maybe-stainless-maybe-not shower fittings your home’s previous owners got at Home Depot, but really secretly wishing that the giant discoid shower head you’re staring at would just jump into your arms, screaming “take me home, baby!” The Good Shower Head lives at this inn. Or say you’re the type that’s tactile by nature, and maybe you might have once (in a big department store, where no one notices) run your hands along a tall stack of big soft-yet-absorbent white couture towels, thinking how cool and wasteful and somehow thrilling it would be to spend $200 on a friggin’ bath towel. Not that I’m a towel-toucher. But if you are, you’ll like the towels here. Oh, and a first for me: feather bed. Ahhhh.

In Mrs. Hanson’s 7th grade accelerated English class (or was it still Language Arts then?), we read this poem called Almost Perfect, by Shel Silverstein, which outlined a pompous, bratty little girl’s take on the things that weren’t perfect about everything. Here are my Mary Hume comments:

Our breakfast arrived with steaming hot strong coffee, the perfect brew for a Seattle visitor, but the only available additives were Splenda, Sweet-n-Low, and CoffeeMate (The Original). Sacrilege. I mean really, shouldn’t a place that offers “shower cream” from L’Occitane – which, as an aside, will be my new permanent name for sour cream, as in “please pass the shower cream” – be able to muster up a cold pitcher of real half and half for the breakfast tray?

The pastries from Macrina Bakery, which I’d never had, were superfresh and delicious, but to my horror the filling from one leapt quietly, deftly to the sleeve of my snowy robe, and then spread like a pink-spotted plague across my entire body until I noticed ten minutes later that I’d been attacked by a raspberry scone. They should really train their pastries better. I might have to buy the robe.

My in-laws arrive today, and I’m sort of regretting not putting them up here. It’s really convenient to the 99 and it’s boutique-y enough that I feel like I’m in someone’s very well-appointed guest bedroom rather than in a hotel. No fake plants. No doilies. No teal, just rich, warm tones and a photograph of Marilyn Monroe bench-pressing barbells next to the bed.

There’s no way I’ll get that damn cord back the way it was. I just tried, and despite my own strong OCD-tendencies, and I failed. Sigh. Guess it’s time to check out.

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Steeled for something worse

I took this photo when we were here in Seattle last spring, me for the IACP conference and my husband for his UW interview:

The old view of the coffee cup

How trite it seemed. How usual. But this picture can be taken no longer, because there’s now a bigger, flashier sign right above the cup for Steelhead Diner, which opened quietly on February 1st (right on time!).

I’ll admit I was hesitant to eat at Steelhead. Its killer location overlooking the market and the sound sort of guarantees it a spot in tourists’ hearts. I steeled myself for uninventive fish-focused fare and loud midwesterners. But when I went for lunch yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised.

First and foremost, Steelhead has captured the “upscale diner” atmosphere quite successfully. There are three long eating counters (one at a bar) with appropriately chrome-trimmed barstools, sure enough, but they’re sleek and black and I don’t think they’re pleather. Cool ocean tones, tons of natural light, and a big collage of soothing photographs that whispers sweet nothings about how much the place values local, sustainable agriculture really work in the big second floor space.

Sure, Steelhead offers enough of the tried-and-true tourist menu items like fish and chips to satisfy the masses, but it also gives a few wink-winks to Seattle that only local foodies will understand, putting it many notches above tourist traps (with admittedly nice views) like the Athenian Inn. And when they say local, they mean local – the menu is full of ingredients from Beecher’s, Chukar Cherries, and Uli’s Sausages, all within spitting distance of the front door.

There are a few requisite diner items on the menu – a double chocolate sundae, for one – but other than the Alaskan King salmon and the crabcake, there really aren’t too many items that I’d call boring, which is what I feared. Even the Caesar salad (which they call a Brutus Salad) seems to have gotten a face lift with a roasted pine nut gremolata. Must go back and taste it.

We started with crispy chicken spring rolls. I hate most euphemisms, but using “crispy chicken” in place of “fried chicken” is okay with me, because sometimes it’s best to sneak fried food into people’s diets (ahem, please excuse what I was saying yesterday). With the clean, fresh taste of spring roll wrappers and the deep, satisfying flavor of fried chicken, they were the ultimate Asian roll compromise. But here the menu stopped corresponding to the food that hit the table. The “whirred ginger vinaigrette” sent as a dipping sauce for the rolls was more of a pungent wasabi vinaigrette (with only a very little taste of ginger), the “green papaya salad” that came along for the ride looked to us like a fennel and red cabbage slaw. We asked the waitress for an explanation, and she said the green papaya wasn’t actually big enough to taste. So, you mean, it’s, like, in sauce form? She assured us it was in there. But when our Wagyu beef burger came accented with the same slaw, we decided that there was in fact a green papaya salad available somewhere; it just didn’t make it onto the spring roll plate. Too bad.

I was so excited to see Armandino’s air cured beef bresaola (how DO you pronounce that?) on the menu; I tried almost everything Salumi sells once when I was interviewing him for a piece for the Cape Cod Times but didn’t get to try the bresaola. The beef itself was great, and the apple/hazelnut salad on top was appropriately lemony and crunchy, but the whole thing had been so drowned in olive oil that my dining companion resorted to blotting the beef off on her (cloth) napkin before eating it.

We split the burger (which was identified on the menu as S.R.F. beef, hey maybe S.R.F. is the next E.V.O.O., go Idaho!), a perfectly grilled patty served with plenty of Beecher’s Flagship cheddar and nestled into fresh baguette halves. All of Steelhead’s sandwiches are served on these baguettes, but somehow they’ve avoided the baguette sandwich problem, where the sandwich looks appealing and the bread is tasty, but the sheer volume and crunchy texture of the bread makes the sandwich a) impossible to get the thing in your mouth and b) scrape against the roof of your mouth every time you take a bite, leaving you to wonder whether you’re drooling blood by the time you’re finished eating. Repeat, no baguette sandwich problems here. Next time I’m going for the Dungeness crab roll, which flirted with me when it walked by on its way to someone else’s stomach: “Jess,” it said. “You haven’t eaten Dungeness crab yet in Seattle.”

Anyway, we also ordered smothered collard greens as a side, which were appropriately smoky and just a bit spicier than I make them, which I appreciated. I’m hankering after their hominy cakes even though I’ve never tried them, just becuase I’m on this hominy kick (I think), so those’ll have to happen soon, too.

Anyway. It wasn’t perfect. But the rest of the menu at Steelhead Diner looks fabulous, and although there were some major inconsistencies between what was on the menu and what came to our table, I was happy enough with my meal to plan a return.

And the bresaola did turn out to be a good thing. I took home our leftovers, and fitted the bresaola slices into muffin cups, as my lunch companion had so cleverly suggested.

Bresaola Cup 2

To make bresaola cups:

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Arrange 12 thin bresaola slices (available at Trader Joe’s, I think) on a cuttting board, and spray them on both sides with a little olive oil spray. Fit them into each of a muffin tin’s 12 cups, using your fingers to gently press the beef into the corners of the cups. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the beef is browned and crispy, and drain on paper towels.

Fill them with cruncy stuff for appetizers or salad centerpieces: I made a quick mixture of chopped granny smith apple, chopped toasted pistachios, feta, lemon juice, and olive oil. How about fennel, parmesan, arugula, and parsley? Or even better: tomatoes, olives, capers, and goat cheese? Go crazy.

Apologies for the lack of links. I’m not sure why, but each time I enter them and save the post they seem to be erased automatically . . .


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Raving about a Reuben

I’m not typically a huge fan of Reubens. They’re in husband territory, along with gumbo and club sandwiches; I just don’t order them. But the other day we met some folks at Stevens Pass who raved about 74th Street Ale House‘s Reuben when they heard we lived a few blocks away. I finally tried it, and I am a changed woman.

Warm, salty corned beef is squished between two butter-infused, crispy, toasty slabs of rye along with melted Swiss, some sort of yummy mayonnaise-based saucey concoction, and a piquant red sauerkraut. It tasted more like sauerkraut than like pickled cabbage, but since I walk by the place every day and never smell the lovely stench that usually accompanies the sauerkraut-making process; I can’t be sure. Maybe they have a supplier for red sauerkraut (the Food Network has what looks like a quick recipe for that). Or maybe it’s just pickled red cabbage.

Here’s the history of the Reuben, as delivered by The Food Lover’s Companion:

Reportedly originally named for its creator, Arthur Reuben (owner of New York’s once-famous and now-defunct Reuben’s delicatessen), this sandwich is made with generous layers of corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut on sourdough rye bread. Reuben is said to have created the original version (which was reportedly made with ham) for Annette Seelos, the leading lady in a Charlie Chaplin film being shot in 1914. Another version of this famous sandwich’s origin is that an Omaha wholesale grocer (Reuben Kay) invented it during a poker game in 1955. It gained national prominence when one of his poker partner’s employees entered the recipe in a national sandwich contest the following year . . . and won. The Reuben sandwich can be served either cold or grilled.

Since I thought it might be suspicious if I showed up the next day to order another Reuben, I made my own pickled red cabbage. My Reuben, layered with turkey and Jarlsberg, was not quite as good (read: not as buttery and with no mayo, and probably with a lot less saturated fat), but perfectly adequate for my midday meal:

Grilled Turkey Reuben

And later the same day, pickled cabbage on salad:

Pickled Cabbage on Salad!

Recipe for Pickled Red Cabbage
Recipe 41 of 365

A most versatile of condiments. . .add this to sandwiches or salads, or even soups, for a crunchy topping with a good vinegar bite. It’s a great way to use up leftover cabbage.

TIME: 5 minutes, plus pickling time
MAKES: about 2 packed cups pickled cabbage

1/2 red cabbage
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar

Using a long serrated knife, slice the cabbage very thinly, then cut the shreds in half lengthwise, so no piece is longer than about 3 inches.

In a deep mixing bowl, toss the cabbage with the remaining ingredients, and let the mixture marinate on the counter for about 2 hours, stirring the ingredients every 15 minutes or so (or when you happen to walk by). The cabbage will begin to give up its liquid and color after about 30 minutes; it’s done when the cabbage is uniformly beet red.

Refrigerate the cabbage for up to 2 weeks, using as needed.

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A trip down Drury Lane

I have actually been to Drury Lane in London, and it doesn’t smell like muffins. It smells like a regular street. I was so disappointed.

A trip to Seattle’s new Volunteer Park Cafe last week put me in the mood for muffins. I got a scrumptious pear-cardamom number, with crunchy sparkling sugar on top, which was still warm by the time I got it home:

Pear Cardamom Muffin from Volunteer Park Cafe

Yum. So our current visitor really loves coffee cake, and we had plans to ski this weekend. (As an aside, we saw, from the edge of Powder Bowl at Crystal Mountain this morning, the following jaw-dropping peaks, and I wasn’t even cold: Mt. Ranier, Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker, Mt. St. Helens (or what’s left of it), Glacier Peak, the Cascades, and the Olympics, and many other difficult climbs, I’m sure.)

But back to coffee cake. I loved Volunteer’s pear-cardamom combo, and I’d bought these adorable, floral-tasting seckel pears at Trader Joe’s but I wanted to make something a little heartier, a little richer, and with a great crumbly coffee cake topping to bring skiing. So I made pear-cardamom sour cream coffee cake muffins, snuck in a little whole wheat flour, as I am wont to do (but you don’t have to), as well as some flax seeds and wheat germ (which are not in the recipe, but could easily be added, about 1/4 cup of each). The recipe made 12 big muffins, but you could always make more smaller muffins (they’d cook for less time, obviously).

I sense a baking kick.

Seckel Pears

Pear-Cardamom Sour Cream Coffee Cake Muffin

Oooh, and P.S. – I roasted a chicken with some of that Meyer Lemon-Rosemary Marmalade Butter under the skin, and it made for really juicy and lemony chicken breasts – yum.

Recipe for Pear-Cardamom Sour Cream Coffee Cake Muffins
Recipe 28 of 365

Inspired by a pear-cardamom flavored muffin at Seattle’s new Volunteer Park Café, these delicate, moist muffins are a shout-out to coffee cake, with plenty of crumbly coffee cake topping that fills the house with cardamom essence when it bakes. Since the muffins have a fairly light crumb, I found it best to let them cool entirely in the (well-greased) muffin tins, so that when you take them out you get whole muffins instead of tops and separate bottoms.

You can peel the pears if you choose (especially if you use a pear with a thick skin, such as Bosc), but unpeeled worked fine for me. I used six small seckel pears.

TIME: 30 minutes
MAKES: 12 big muffins

Vegetable oil spray

For the topping:
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the muffins;
2 medium almost-ripe pears, such as d’Anjou, or equivalent
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour (or more all-purpose)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup (8 ounces) sour cream

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Liberally grease a 12-cup muffin tin with the vegetable oil spray, both in the muffin depressions and on top of the tin, and set aside. (If you use muffin liners, grease the top of the muffin pan, as the muffins are large and will spread out onto the top of the pan – or use 2 muffin pans and make smaller muffins.)

Make the topping: combine all the topping ingredients together in a small bowl, mix well, and set aside.

Make the muffin batter: first, chop the pears (peeled or unpeeled) into 1/2” chunks. You should have enough to measure 1 1/2 cups. Place the flours, baking powder, baking soda, cardamom, and salt in a medium bowl and whisk to blend, and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or using a hand-held electric mixer), cream the butter and both sugars together on medium speed until fluffy and very light yellow, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, and mix again to blend. Add the eggs, one at a time, and blend on low, mixing between additions and scraping down the sides of the bowl when necessary, until the eggs are completely incorporated. Mix in the vanilla.

With the mixer on low, add first about a third of the flour mixture, then half the sour cream, then another third of the flour mixture, then the rest of the sour cream, and finally the last of the flour mixture, mixing between each addition until whatever was last added has just barely been incorporated. Remove the paddle or beaters, add the chopped pears (and anything else you might want to add, like nuts or flax seeds), and stir just until blended.

Spoon an equal amount of batter into each of the muffin tins (the batter will probably fill the cups a little more than full before you put them in the oven, unless you choose to make smaller muffins). Sprinkle the topping over the batter, using your fingers or a spoon, if necessary, to push the topping into the batter so it adheres better.

Bake the muffins on a middle rack for 20 to 25 minutes, or until well browned and a toothpick inserted into the center of one of the muffins comes out with just a few crumbs clinging to it. (If you make more smaller muffins, bake them only 15 to 20 minutes, and switch the pans top to bottom halfway through baking.) Let the muffins cool in the pans. Use a small spatula to cut between the muffin tops to loosen them from each other, and carefully pry them out of the pans. (These are not muffins that you can dump out of the pan by turning it upside-down.) Enjoy.

Store any uneaten muffins in an airtight container at room temperature, up to 3 days, or cool and freeze up to 2 months.

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Stumbling

On Sunday night we went to The Stumbling Goat Bistro, the restaurant on Phinney Ridge I’d imagined since moving to Seattle as the possible pinnacle of delicious, local food, served mere blocks from our home. Perhaps it’s the ingenious name – it was pulled from the brains of the proprietors just 2 days before opening, when a WA state health department someone told them they couldn’t name a restaurant “The Drunken Boat” because of Prohibition-era laws against using references to drinking in establishment names. (As the menu so smartly points out, Prohibition did end more than 70 years ago.)

The Stumbling Goat is known for its use of local, seasonal, and organic ingredients. I loved sitting down and learning something. I’m usually pretty fluent when it comes to restaurant menus, but on Sunday, when we sat down with another chef friend, all three of us were stumped by Fleur de Maquis (a French sheep’s milk cheese) and abalone mushrooms (like oyster mushrooms, only bigger and more slab-like, grown in Canada), neither of which show up on epicurious.com’s food dictionary or on wikipedia.com. What fun!

My husband – whose stumbling goatee has learned to walk, by the by – started with the day’s special salad, spinach with pancetta, hard-boiled egg, sweet house-picked peppers, and a warm bacon vinaigrette. Delicious, simple, perfect. But when I tasted my roasted cauliflower salad, an ingenious mix of roasted cauliflower, grilled oak mushrooms (the server told us these were synonymous with abalone mushrooms; in any case, they were wonderful), and arugula, with a toasted walnut vinaigrette, my tongue was seared with salt.

Now, let’s get something straight. I’m not afraid of salt. In fact, I’m a person with naturally low blood pressure on an additional medication that lowers one’s blood pressure even more, so as a general rule my body should crave anything that would cause even remote increases in the pumpitypump. (As a side note, I got a fabulous 16-tin salt sampler as a holiday gift; it’s a story for another time.) I lick my finger and put it in our wooden four-compartment salt keeper (also a great gift) at least once a day, which means a) yes, I’m double-dipping in the salt on a daily basis, which even my husband was not heretofore aware of, and b) yes, I have 5 different kinds of sea salt on my counter at all times, not to mention the kinds that are hidden elsewhere. I like salt.

But back to our dinner. I noticed the salt, and all three of us agreed it was a problem, but ate anyway, either out of stubbornness (becuase I rarely come across something too salty for me) or fascination; it was an incredible idea for a salad.

Dinner came. My giant pork chop, stuffed with (I think) barley and served with the kind of simple, seared Brussels sprouts that make me want to eat that vegetable only for the rest of my life, must have been caked with salt. It was cooked perfectly, but when I put the outside crust against my tongue, I had to sort of reach in with my fork and turn the piece around, so that the salted parts were folded onto each other to avoid literally burning my tongue.

The other dishes were similar – flawlessly cooked interiors, beautiful flavor combinations, unbearably salty exteriors. It was almost as if someone had played a trick on the chef, switching the top on a salt container from the little holes to the big hole. My husband’s hangar steak was unbelievably tender and melty – but again, that searing feeling (dare I call it pain?) on the tongue.

When the server returned after our dinner, we fessed up, which I don’t do often. She apologized, informed the sous chef (we were told the chef had the night off), and plied us with free tarte tatin.

The strange thing is that I’m somehow convinced we had a unique (and unfortunate) experience. The flavors were all there. My chef friend’s braised rabbit was great, albeit a little dry, but the curried mashed squash it came piled on was inspirational. I woke up yesterday with a raw tongue and multiple canker sores, yet somehow I have forgiven all.

It must be because I had my mind made up about The Stumbling Goat before we walked in. This is not normal for me, and not something I’m proud of. But I like this restaurant becuase I saw it the day we shopped for our first home; it represents all that is good about living in Seattle, in our neighborhood, in a town that supports local agriculture with an excitement that I deeply appreciate.

So I made another reservation. Hopefully, our second experience there will not be so stumbling.

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Red Wine and Purple All Over

Today I finally sank into a barstool for a late lunch at Purple Cafe & Wine Bar‘s 6-month-old Seattle location. But when I say sank, I really don’t mean it, because like the chairs at the regular tables, the ceiling, and even the napkin holders, the barstools are made out of gigantic metal basketweave. I’m not sure if it’s iron or some sort of ultramodern metal blend, but by the time my tired 3 p.m. body had wrestled the roughly 5,000-pound barstool out from under the bar, forcing my shopping bag (singular) to slide awkwardly down my arm and smashing my shin with the chair in the process, opened my napkin and dropped the heavy ring into my lap, this nice-looking woven iron deco bruised me purple in exactly three places.

But I made it into the stool without wincing out loud, and was immediately placated with a delicious, well-priced glass of jammy Italian Ognissoli primitivo, a.k.a. the original zinfandel grape. Starved by the snowstorm and the usual Tuesday afternoon lull, Purple was completely vacant, and despite the bad elevator music my friend and I revelled in the fact that one doesn’t often drink red wine mid-afternoon.

My burger’s interior was the perfect pink; the sweet potato fries that came with it were fabulously salty, and, miracle of the sweet potato fry world, even a little cruncy. My friend’s warm BLTA (bacon, lettuce, tomato, and avocado) on baguette was also great, but the accompanying salad looked like whatever must have been leftover from the lunch rush – lettuces of all kinds, a mix of cut large lettuces and baby lettuces, with an undersalted, strangely basil-flavored vinaigrette that did nothing to help the flavor of the half-dead lettuce.

But I’ll go back, hopefully at the right hour to have a cheese- and wine-tasting flight, and I’ll be prepared – earphones to mask the Yanni, a smart mouth to make someone else pull the chairs around for me, and a clean, hungry palate ready for more yummy red wine.

Purple Cafe and Wine Bar (Seattle) on Urbanspoon

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A Real Remedy

The other night I went to Remedy Teas, the cute new tea shop on Capitol Hill. I had a matcha latte, which caffeinated me for exactly four hours, just like the barista (tea-rista?) predicted. I strongly suggest a visit–they have something like 150 kinds of tea, and the place just oozes almost every one of the things a good mid-afternoon coffee/tea stop should offer: comfort, warmth, energy, inspiration, good smells . . .

Here’s a mini version of their “Roasted La Creme” Green Tea-infused cakes, made by Coco La Tida:

Green Tea-Infused Cakes at Remedy Teas

I feel better already.

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Suite Surrender

You know how there are bars that make you feel good about yourself, make you feel more rather than less stylish and chic, and then there are bars that make you feel hopelessly uncool?

A few nights ago we went to Suite 410, the hip new bar in Belltown where, it appears, all the 20-something Wall Street wannabes hang out. At Suite 410, the manly dark wood-panelled walls, oversized ESPN screen, sleek black furniture, and shiny stainless detailing make me blink a few times: am I in i-banker heaven? Why are there so many guys dressed like New Englanders, with their layers of popped collars, and ditzy girls fawning over them? It’s clear that this will not be our new Seattle hang-out, but the vibe is young and sophisticated, and somehow romantic.

My husband is dressed in a sporty button-down shirt and green corduroy pants, which represents a side of him more fashionable than either of us might have ever anticipated. I unconsciously reach to my throat, feeling somewhat smug about my decision to wear my new black turtleneck, a grey A-line skirt, and knee-high black boots, when a crinkling beneath my fingers reveals that I have in fact put the turtleneck on backwards. I roll my fingers into a fist, in case anyone with X-ray vision can see the (count them, two) layers of backwards shirts lying beneath my outwardly stylish appearance. I surrender any hope I may have had of feeling cool here.

The bartender approaches; I feign relaxation. We order a round of Hot Mango Love, the drink that brought us here for happy hour in the first place, but alas, they have no Hot Mango Love, so we must wait for another time to experience the jalapeno and mango vodka concoction we’d heard so much about. He gets a Pisco Sour, frothy and viscous with real egg whites, and I get a grapefruit cosmopolitan, which uses white cranberry juice to avoid that cliche cosmo color and deliciously fresh juice for real grapefruit flavor.

We order sushi. They’re also out of the sushi we want. What’s going on? Are we not cool enough to order from the regular menu? We order beef kalbi, skewers of slightly underseasoned Japanese-style beef with a crunchy, sesame-rich seaweed salad that somehow pairs so nicely with my cosmo. We feel better.

When we ask for the bill, the bartender comps our appetizer, and apologizes profusely for being out of everything we ordered.

Maybe we’re sort of cool after all.

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Filed under cocktails, commentary, review, Seattle

Cremant

House specialties exist for good reason; good diners order based on a restaurant’s strengths. Caesar salads are rarely excellent at brewpubs, which is why I always go for the wings or the burger. I don’t order fish at steakhouses, as a general rule, and I save my tortellini for true Italian restaurants.

A really good restaurant, on the other hand, only puts its strengths on the menu.

Last night we ate at Cremant, a French bistro in Madrona. Cremant qualifies as a really good restaurant–both because the menu encapsulates exactly what is so alluring about French cuisine without trying to change it (unlike another French-ish place across the street), and because the food, ambiance, and service were, in a word, flawless. And although the grey- and white-patterned wallpaper, warehousey cement floors, and butter yellow accents sort of made me feel like I was eating inside some French kid’s dollhouse project, I can’t really think of anything I’d change.

The food was perfect. I started with sparkling Normand apple cider, which reminded me of the kind my Parisian host family made on their farm in Normandy, and by the time my traditional French onion soup hit the table, I wasn’t sure where I was. The gruyere bubbled up and over the sides of the white ceramic bowl (yes, the kind with the lion heads on each side), forming a golden crust that I broke through to find just the kind of deeply beefy, onion-rich soup that makes me order French onion soup literally every time I see it on a menu (usually, this is a mistake–see above). As our waiter fluttered around us effortlessly, my husband and I found ourselves, quite unintentionally, on a true date. I gazed at him, he gazed at me . . .he forgot about work and I forgot about my day’s frustrations; we forgot life and got life back.

Then my lamb shank arrived. I think a lesser carnivore might call it an oversized portion, but realistically, lambs are decent-sized animals, and no one should be surprised when a shank arrives on a 14-inch platter. It was braised perfectly; the muscle fibers had the smooth, soft coating that meat gets when the connective tissue has reached ultimate meltability (think of the oysters on a perfectly roasted chicken). I savored the lamb and my husband’s seared hangar steak, alternating between my seared roasted potato and his crispy, salty frites, dipping all that I could into the accompanying aioli. We worked hard until we could eat no more. I think I broke a sweat.

The problem with being a really critical person is that when things go well, and I mean really almost perfectly, I don’t have much to say. If I were less focused on pointing out restaurants’ flaws, I’d write about the way the host treated us so goshdarn nicely, flatter the server for his excellent wine choices, and gush about how Cremant got all the silverware and place settings just right and so French.

But I’m critical, right? I wish I hadn’t worn my tall black boots, because my left calf cramped up driving my stick shift up and over Capitol Hill. I wish I’d ordered the creamed spinach and brussels sprouts, because I should have known a real French bistro would never put actual vegetables on the same plate as a lamb shank. And I wish that I’d remembered the remains of my lamb shank in its perfect little take-out box, instead of leaving it at the restaurant for someone else’s dog to enjoy.

But more than anything, I wish I could give the person who gave me the gift certificate to Cremant a giant hug. No matter how perfect the restaurant, it is rare that dinner turns into the proverbial night to remember, and rarer still that such a night comes when we need it most. Thank you.

Cremant on Urbanspoon

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