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Dishing Up Washington (or, the state I’ve been meaning to tell you about)

Cuddling with lambs at Alpine Lakes Creamery (photo by Lara Ferroni, the book's photographer)

We’re back from vacation. It’s a little sad, like it always is. First we went to the Olympic Peninsula for a few days, where we rented a cabin on a bluff and spent the hours not counting hours, searching out sea urchins and starfish and soft serve ice cream instead. Then we hopped on a plane and went to the wedding in Pittsburgh, where we danced and laughed and discovered a vibrant, engaging city where we thought there might just be remnants of an old, crumbly one. We drove to upstate New York to see the oldest of friends, who centered, and cured, and refreshed me in a way only old friends can. It was lovely, so lovely. But it was wicked humid, and the whole time, even in the fun, I so missed Seattle.

As far as states go, you see, I’m afraid I can no longer claim objectivity. I’ve developed a bit of a favorite. I’ll give you a hint: it’s square, mostly, except for a bit of a ruffle along its western edge. It looks like a Wyoming with a bite taken out, only the bite was put back, the way my son does when he doesn’t like something and wants to pretend it never happened.

Okay fine, I’ll tell you: that state is Washington. Next week, we’ll have lived here five years, and in that span of time, I’ve crisscrossed the state more than I ever suspected I would. Writing has led me to places I never might have otherwise found—to Cave B Inn, where you can do yoga on a bluff overlooking vineyards and the Columbia River. (The fact that the wine’s good seals the deal.) To the top of Turtleback Mountain, on Orcas Island, where you can trace the path Orca whales take as they migrate each summer. To the state’s southwest coast, to dig for razor clams. To potato farmers in northeast Washington, and fruit farmers smack in the center. And to my favorite place—my own neighborhood.

If you stand atop Seattle’s Phinney Ridge on a clear summer day, near where the windmill sign keeps watch over folks in line for one of Red Mill’s famous burgers, you’ll see a panorama of what makes Washington food fantastic without moving your feet. Down the hill to the left, just half a block away, is the kind of local farmers’ market that Seattleites rely on to feed their families—big, bustling, bursting with produce and pride. In rolling red wagons, toddlers fight tufts of carrot tops and bags of berries for sitting room. Moms munch on thin-crust pizza from the giant clay wood-fired oven Veraci Pizza tows to the market each week, while Eddie Alvarez, of Alvarez Farms, explains how to cook his beans.

Look up a little, across Green Lake and toward the Cascade Mountains that sawtooth south toward Mt. Rainier, and you’ll see the slopes that provide the same market’s freshly foraged mushrooms. Beyond the Cascades, you can imagine the broad, flat plateau that stretches across the rest of the state, where fertile soil and sunny days provide perfect growing conditions for the market’s tree fruits, like cherries and peaches, and for the grapes that make the state’s wines so popular. A little farther to the right, just south of Seattle, you can make out the Duwamish River basin, home to RockRidge Orchards, which grows some of Washington’s world-renowned apples (and ginger and bamboo, if you’re looking for them).

Due south of where you’re standing lies downtown Seattle. It’s only about ten minutes from us by car, but some of the city’s most celebrated chefs don’t always come to this farmers’ market—or any market—for their ingredients, like they do in so many cities. Washington farms are often drawing chefs to visit them, boosting the stature of and respect for farmers across the state.

Let your gaze travel a bit more to the right, and you’ll see the Ballard Locks, where fishing vessels coming home from trips up Puget Sound and along the coast, into British Columbian and Alaskan waters, patiently wait their turn to dock and unload salmon, halibut, crab, and shrimp. All the way west, beyond the hip streets of Ballard, the still-white peaks of the Olympic Mountains tower over the cold waters that produce the nation’s tastiest oysters.

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I know, I know, I’m starting to sound preachy. Maybe I’m boasting. It’s a killer view, to say the least, just ten blocks from where I sit typing now—and it represents a state whose agricultural wonders make eating here almost absurdly enjoyable all year round. Which is why I’m writing a book about it. But all this travel, to and fro and to and fro, made me realize I haven’t told you much about it.

Pane D'Amore, in Port Townsend, WA

Dishing Up Washington: 150 Recipes from The Evergreen State brings the foods that make the state an eater’s paradise to you. About half of it will be my own recipes, inspired by the state’s foodways—things like a mint-crusted halibut roast, elote-style corn salad, and squash blossoms stuffed with local gouda. Of course, taking great ingredients and turning it into something even better is a process I love; it’s why I do this. It’s great, but it’s not new to me.

But so far, I’ve been surprised by how much I’m enjoying the other half of the book—the half made of chefs’ and farmers’ recipes. Sure, there are some famous names in there, but more than anything, I’m loving how those famous names link me to people who aren’t so famous. The saffron clam chowder from Lisa Nakamura at Allium changed the way I think about clam chowder, and taught me how to cook with saffron grown and harvested by big, gnarly hands that belong to one of the sweetest men on Earth. I also thrill to find each town’s micro food economy. The Sammy Shack, a new little sandwich truck on a rural corner of Port Townsend, makes a stacker called the Chetzamelta; eating it is like taking a tour through the town’s best food producers. There’s bread from Pane D’Amore, cheese from Mt. Townsend Creamery—it’s the same sort of thing that happens in Seattle, but seeing it in towns I don’t know as well highlights how chefs and producers work together to make things delicious.

Chetzamelta Sandwich at the Sammy Shack

There will be writings, too—essays, and a few fun DIY projects (lebnah, anyone?), and profiles. But my hope these days, writing and calling and testing and interviewing and tasting, is that I can somehow put this big square state into a book that will drive you not necessarily all the way to Washington, but into the kitchen to cook. And then, you’ll visit for sure.

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