Saturday, May 31, 2008

Saturday on the mountain.

I am rudely awoken at what seems like an unbearable hour - actually only 8:30, which is late for me - and dragged off to Mt. Rainier. One flat tire (fortunately not too far from home) and a two-hour drive later, we are at Paradise. This time, sadly, we do not stop for McDonald's on the way. It is too late for an Egg McMuffin by the time we make it that far, having lost a crucial half-hour by having to examine the (rapidly deflating) tire and returning home to exchange cars (if not tires). It is almost summer, but on the mountain the snow is still ten feet hight on the trail, although the roads are clear, save for a few that remain closed. We have lunch in the dining room of the newly-remodeled Paradise Inn (currently mostly staffed by Singaporean exchange students here to make enough money to travel around the States for the rest of the summer), decent but uninteresting, and then head over to the visitor's center to look at the view, still somewhat obscured by the clouds. I have never been up to Mt. Rainier so early in the season, and it is discombobulating to see the trails and meadows covered in several feet of snow.

Back in the car, the talk turns to food. Our guests have been traveling in the United States for nearly two weeks now, and they are tired of American food, however much they enjoyed the dinner at Lark the night before. My mother proposes a stop at Ranch 99, with dinner at the restaurant next door, on the way home. I promise to make congee for breakfast tomorrow night, and to cook dinner another night next week, both suggestions which are met with a considerable amount of enthusiasm. We find ourselves at the Great Wall Shopping Center in Renton, just south of Seattle, and head into Imperial Garden for dinner. (Most excursions to Mt. Rainier begin with breakfast at the McDonalds in Spanaway and end with dinner at Imperial Garden in Renton. I don't know why).

The restaurant is a big room filled with round tables and elaborately carved chairs, easily divided by rolling partitions for large parties (weddings, banquets, and so forth); it is mostly empty save for a few families scattered around, with one birthday party holding forth at a corner table. There are tanks of live seafood and a small bar and a tv screen displaying various special dishes that are not on the menu. We order soup and live shrimp and live crab and simply cooked vegetables and some tofu dishes and talk about our day. I am not really expecting much from our meal, what with my lifelong fear of Chinese restaurants in America and their tendency to let me down. The best part of our dinner is the quickly boiled (or steamed) live spot shrimp, huge and sweet and just cooked through, with a slightly spicy-sweet soy dipping sauce. The crab is cooked with ginger and scallions, the celery stir-fried with dried tofu and shreds of pork, the Chinese broccoli cooked with garlic, all of them unnecessarily weighed down with a heavy, cornstarch-thickened sauce.

There is a beef soup with drops of egg white and the sharp sting of cilantro, bowls of rice, the long-grained white rice so different from the medium-grained Japanese rice I am used to, fluffy and sweet, instead of firm and clean-tasting. Y., who is half-Japanese, used to speak disdainfully of this Chinese rice as "popcorn rice. It is a good enough dinner, but it makes me long for simpler things made without cornstarch or MSG, a more refined kind of cooking. I remember a few days ago, D. accused me of not liking Chinese food. Which is not true; what I don't like is American Chinese restaurants, with their gluey sauces obscuring perfectly fine ingredients. There is good Chinese food to be found, but it is hard, and it is rarely better than home cooking. I live for my trips to Taiwan or China, or even up to Vancouver (although I find myself in Taiwan or China more frequently than I find myself in Vancouver), and dinners at home when my parents are here, and at the homes of friends.

After dinner we go to Ranch 99, a different world from the American supermarket, with aisles crammed with brightly colored boxes of candies and cookies and crackers, instant noodles of all flavors, shelf after shelf of soy sauces and hot sauces and vinegars and oils of all kinds. The floor seems to always look a little grimy; the fluorescent lights feel a bit more glaring. The meat aisle smells like meat; tanks of seafood burble away. We scan the aisle filled with cans and jars of a countryside's worth of pickled vegetables, looking for just the right one to eat with tomorrow morning's congee, stock up on rice wine for cooking and vinegar for dipping boiled dumplings and live crab or shrimp and soy sauce for, well, everything, and some tight-skinned fresh ginger for whatever I can think of in the days to come.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Friday Lark. dinner for four.

It is quiet in the restaurant when I run in for dinner on a Friday night instead of my usual Saturday, asking for a table for four instead of just myself. I slide into one of the booths that line the south wall of the restaurant, and settle in to study the menu. My mother and her friends are late, which leaves me plenty of time to think about what we should order. I look up and see my mother go past the window - she has forgotten where the restaurant is - and then come back as I call her (thank goodness for cell phones, saving me a mad dash out the door). Usually when I am here I just order whatever special is on that night, and perhaps a soup or some sort of vegetable, but since there are four of us tonight I can try all sorts of things from the menu.

There is just one special tonight, the softshell crab, and the choice of dishes is left to me, a tricky task. I have to weigh the tastes and desires of our guests, Dr. and Mrs. Q, against my own choices. No chicken, no foie gras, no pork belly. (I am shattered when Dr. Q tells me I should only eat foie gras twice a year, and never pork belly, and I refrain from mentioning all the pork belly baguettes I have been eating at the Baguette Box lately). Eating with other people, like eating alone, has its pleasures and drawbacks together. You can order all sorts of things, but then, you have to order all sorts of things. We choose vegetable dishes and seafood dishes and the confit duck leg (deciding against steak and sweetbreads and the beef tartare) and ignore the charcuterie and save the cheese list for later.

The softshell crab comes with a smear of saffron aïoli and a watercress salad, the shell crisp and melting like the sugar crust on a crême brulée. We order the yellowtail carpaccio, drizzled with a little olive oil and lemon juice and scattered with a salad of fennel and olives; it reminds me of the sea bass carpaccio I once ate on the outdoor patio of a seaside restaurant somewhere in the Cinque Terre, under giant canvas umbrellas and twinkling lights, and the dark evening sky far above. There are sautéed wild mushrooms, morels and perhaps fresh porcini or oyster mushrooms, mushrooms I can't identify mingling with the tiny morels. The asparagus comes with a poached duck egg on the side, the asparagus fat and tender, the stem carefully peeled to reveal the pale green stalk within.

The broccoli rabe is tossed with crunchy little bits of coppa and dusted with some finely grated cheese that melts like newly fallen snow. We have a crisp-skinned confit duck leg served with fresh peas, and it is, well, confit duck leg. The dourade is more interesting, a piece of white fish, sweet and melting into the puree of leeks that serves as its resting place. We take a breath, look around at the empty plates scattered around the table, and order two bowls of white asparagus and almond soup, which is strangely light and creamy without being too rich or too thick. It is smooth, but with a slightly grainy texture, warm in the black Staub soup plates in which they serve chilled soups in the summer and hot soups in the winter.

Dr. Q likes cheese, so we order three cheeses, one blue, one softer and slight creamy, and one firm cheese that tastes slightly sheepish (pun very much intended). Our server says their names very quickly, and so I have no idea what they are, but they are all good, served with bread and a dish of pale honey. It has the same graininess as the Italian honey I tried a few dinners ago, but has a lighter taste, cool morning sunlight rather than warm afternoon light. We share two desserts, the lemon parfait, a round of frozen lemon mousse floating in a creamy lemon sauce and topped with whipped cream and the lightest, thinnest tuile I have ever eaten, and the apricot tarte tatin, dried apricots nestled in caramel sauce, on a bed of buttery golden pastry.

Eating here with other people, ordering all sorts of things and sharing them together, is very different from coming alone and just having one or two things. It is more fun, but at the same time it is a little overwhelming. I like seeing how different elements from past meals have appeared on the table tonight, like the saffron aïoli that I once had served with simply boiled shrimp, or the duck with peas that had been tossed with a creamy pasta instead of served on its own. Walking home I turned the tastes of the evening over and over in my mind, comparing them to other meals past, and imagining what might be in store the next time.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The 20-minute-meal. dinner for one.

We leave work early, and C. drops me off across the street from the grocery store near my apartment (saving me a ten minute walk). There are now four hours before I have to leave for the airport to pick up my mother, and there are drains to be unclogged, magazines to be shelved, and clothes to be put away. I run into J., who offers to let me hide any books I need to at his place, which makes me laugh and calms me down a little before I sprint through the supermarket, collecting asparagus and tomatoes and jugs of juice and triple-chocolate Dove bars in my headlong rush. Fifteen minutes later, I am home and running between bedrooms with piles of clothing and stacks of magazines. I shove things onto shelves and under the bed and into closets, haul things out of storage and down to the recycling bin and move more things into storage and sit down to collect myself. Two hours to go.

There is dinner to be considered. My mom will be jetlagged, and presumably they will feed her on the plane. But just in case, I should probably cook something she would eat if she got hungry, which means I need a little more something than just a piece of steak. Rice, I think, and some vegetables, and perhaps some scrambled eggs with tomatoes. It only takes a moment to wash a few cups of rice and get the rice cooker going in between sorting out the recyclables and putting away last week's mail. And then I realize there is only a little more than an hour before I have to leave; time to cook something and wolf it down. I have to plan the cooking out in my mind, to figure out what to cook first, how to organize things so everything is ready at the same time. The steak first, so it can rest while I scramble the eggs. The asparagus next, because it can sit at room temperature, and I can do other things while the water comes to a boil, and finally the eggs-and-tomatoes.

I put a pot of water on to boil before trimming a bundle of asparagus stalks and heating the grill pan for my steak. I think of Edouard de Pomiane, who tells you to put a pot of water on the stove as soon as you come home, because you will probably need it for something during the course of your dinner preparation, whether it be for blanching vegetables or cooking potatoes or what have you, and it is nice to have it ready when you are (I believe this comes from French Cooking in Ten Minutes). The steak goes in the pan, and I let it sizzle quietly as I slice the scallions finely, on the bias, and chop the tomato. Halfway through I find that there are only two eggs left. Whoops. It will be scrambled tomatoes with egg, but that will be fine; I'll just eat a little bit and save the rest for my mother. The asparagus is done as soon as the water comes back to a boil, and after I set that pot aside I use the same burner for the sauté pan, heating a little oil and cooking the scallions, then the tomatoes, sprinkling them with salt and a few grinds of pepper before adding the eggs.

The rice is done, waiting quietly in its space-age-looking white plastic cooker. The steak is just medium-rare, a nicely browned exterior striped from the grill, a ribbon of pink running throughout the interior. I slice off a piece, plate it with some rice and a spoonful of the tomato-and-eggs and a bundle of the slender bright asparagus. Exactly twenty minutes have passed since I turned on the stove, pulled the chopping board from its cupboard hiding place. (Although I did have to start the rice well ahead, but it only took a minute to prepare). And I have a perfect little dinner in front of me, rice, steak, scrambled eggs, and asparagus. I even have a little more time to finish tidying up before heading off to the airport.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The first barbecue of the year.

Yesterday brought sunshine, clear skies, and the first barbecue of the year. It would be at A.'s house, as most family gatherings are, a grand house on the lakefront designed with large parties in mind. At least forty people can be accommodated at the tables in the formal dining room and various eating areas in the huge kitchen. And then there is the terrace, on which Y. is busying himself with piles of coal and heaps of food. D. has prepared a vat of chicken wings, marinating in ginger and wine, piles of pork chops seasoned with soy sauce and more wine, and huge bone-in steaks heady with cracked black pepper and 18-year-old Chivas Regal. (I am not making that up).

Before dinner K. and I set off in the kayak, paddling against the current and occasionally finding ourself being turned around in circles, and the entire time I worry about tipping the boat over (which does not happen). When we come back (helped along by the current), people are in the kitchen threading bright chunks of peppers and onions with shrimps and scallops onto skewers, and Y. is grilling away madly outside. The first platters of grilled steak and pork chops head into the kitchen, amongst bowls of green salad and potato salad and loaves of garlic bread. I grab a little of everything, take my laden plate out to the terrace, with the view across the water before me. The pork chops are perfect - Y. is a master - and the steak is terrific, peppery and intense.

After the first few waves of steaks and chops and wings and kebabs comes off the grill, the grill comes off and the younger generation - by younger I mean under 30, including myself - descends on the barbecue (one of those Weber kettle grills) with hot dogs speared on long skewers, held over the hot coals. This is what they refer to as Hong-Kong-style barbecue, where the skewered food is held directly over the coals instead of placed on the grill, and it is terrific fun. Even though I am nearly full, I succumb to a hot dog, perfectly browned by the coals, the skin just crisp in the soft bun. Later there are spicy hot links and more ginger chicken wings, drizzled with honey, but I am full, and there is still dessert to come.

Finally, it is time for s'mores. I've been waiting all winter for these, for the chance to spear two marshmallows on the prongs of my barbecue fork, turning them over the coals until browned on all sides, squishing them between two graham cracker squares along with a piece of (dark) chocolate, crunchy and soft and sweet. The first marshmallow catches on fire, as it always does, but I manage to blow it out before it blackens beyond recognition. I eat one, and then another, and then another. At last, I am unable to eat another bite, and it's time to go home. D. sends me off with an extra (uncooked) steak, which I will save for another night. I regret that I did not eat any chicken wings or hot links slathered in honey. But it is only May, and there is a whole summer of barbecues left ahead. I can't wait.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Baking bread. part two.

I have been baking bread pretty much nonstop for the past few weeks, much to the amusement (and, hopefully, delight) of everyone around me. My narrow galley kitchen is permanently dusted with a fine layer of flour and wheat bran; my favorite Le Creuset pot is probably never going to be the same again. Having removed the knob (replacing it with a twist of aluminum foil) for the lid so it wouldn't melt in the blisteringly hot oven, I will probably never be able to find it again. Bags of flour litter the countertops, crumbs are scattered far and wide across the marble floor. Sachets of yeast pile up in the cutlery drawer; half-empty bottles of beer (the recipe calls for beer) litter the refrigerator. My pants feel a bit tight, unaccustomed as I am to eating large quantities of bread. (The one drawback to this bread is that it does not keep well, and as I cannot stop baking it, I always have some on hand, which I then have to eat).

I baked another loaf of bread tonight, mixing together the dough the night before, letting rise for some twenty hours before kneading it again, dividing it into two loaves, and letting them rise again. One loaf went, wrapped in parchment paper, into the fridge so I could bake it another day; the second one went into the oven. I love the soft whoomp of the dough as I drop it into the hot cast-iron pot, quietly settling in as I slash a big X across the top; I can see it begin to rise from the heat, and it will rise even more once in the oven. The recipe I have been using deviates somewhat from the original New York Times recipe; this one is from Cook's Illustrated (by way of The Seattle Times and Nancy Leson's blog). It calls for less liquid (which makes the dough a little easier to control) and replaces some of the water with beer and a little vinegar. Some people feel that this recipe is easier to handle and produces a more flavorful loaf, yet no one who has tasted my versions of both recipes seems to be able to tell the difference. I am not sure if that was because of how I made them, or if we just all lack taste buds.

As soon as the baked loaf was cool enough to handle I sliced some to eat with a little butter and strawberry jam, although it was so good it didn't really need anything at all. As I bit into the thick, warm crust, I thought of Barbara Kingsolver's description of a loaf of bread in Animal Dreams, "nearly spherical, with a deep brown crust and a steaming interior, it tasted like love." Like her heroine, Codi, I ate half a loaf by myself; like everyone at the dinner table who saw Codi and her half-loaf of bread, my friends have taken to calling me the Bread Girl. And nearly fifteen years after I first read those words, I realize that nothing on earth tastes more like love than fresh bread, still warm from the oven.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Taste, memory. ¡Ay carambola!. (on exotic fruits).

I saw a photograph of a New Zealand red tamarillo the other day, and it brought back sudden memories of the trip I took to Taiwan last year. We had seen them at a fruit stand and bought some because they were so beautiful. The fruits were plum-shaped, a deep tomato red, with a thin skin (like the skin of a plum) stretched tight over a jelly-like flesh surrounding tiny seeds (much like a tomato). It was a little sweet, with a clear taste that I have no idea how to describe. I came home to Seattle, home to glossy clementines and baggy-skinned satsuma oranges with their dusty leaves, and those strange red fruits were consigned to the far reaches of my memory.

Most of my encounters with exotic fruits happened during childhood vacations in the Far East. Perhaps the earliest memory I have is of eating lychees in the shade of weeping willows, on the shore of a little lake that held the tomb of a long-dead imperial concubine. Or something like that. I have forgotten the rest of the story, or even where we had been (probably somewhere outside of Xi'an), but I remember the red-brown pebbly skin of the lychees that peeled away to reveal translucent white flesh and the smooth, shiny dark seeds within. For years afterwards, fresh lychees were unavailable in the United States, and I only ate them during those hot summers in Taiwan. Even now they are inextricably tied to my childhood, like the carambola, more commonly known as starfruit.

The starfruit is my second favorite exotic fruit, with its green-tinged yellow skin and flesh, and sweet-tart juiciness. It is most likely that, as a small child, I loved how the fruit fell into perfect star-shaped slices more than I loved the taste; I would eat each piece point by point until my plate of stars was gone. Years later I would sometimes find them at the supermarket and buy one or two, but somehow they weren't the same. I had the sense that they were not nearly as sweet or as juicy as I remembered them being, more green than yellow, and it was then I began to understand that with food, there is a sense of place. The starfruit belonged to childhood summers, to the heat and humidity of a Taiwanese summer, as did everything else I ate in those days, the lychees, the bell-shaped lian wu (known in English as "wax apple" or "bell fruit") that had a pinkish-red skin and a crisp white flesh.

So now I save my longings for lychees and starfruit and lian wu for when I am in Taiwan again. I would not try to find them here; they belong to that faraway place. But that is fine with me. Here I have red-tinged Fuji apples in the fall and clementines and Satsuma oranges in the winter and pink-flushed golden Rainier cherries in the summer. The best of both worlds.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dinner for two.

G. messages me to say that she was coming for a visit and would I be available for dinner one night, and could we have Japanese food. I am always available for dinner, particularly if it gives me an excuse to go to Nishino, where I never venture alone. I head over to the university district to pick her up, and realize that it has been over a year since we last saw one another. Our friendship has been always been an intermittent one, linked mainly by our parents, who were friends at university, and now she lives in Austin. But as always conversation comes easily as we talk about when we last saw each other, and everything that has happened since.

Nishino is nearly empty when we walk in, only a few tables and seats at the sushi bar are occupied. But it appears that all the tables are booked for later, and instead we take two seats at the sushi counter. Usually I come here with my family, and my father does all the ordering. With the choices left up to me, I am lost. We start with ikura sushi, made with bright orange salmon eggs, each about the size of a pomegranate seed. I eat mine in one bite, and feel the eggs pop in my mouth, clean and fresh and a little salty. We order at random, hamachi (yellowtail tuna), kampachi (another kind of tuna), and unagi (grilled eel). We order amaebi, the big sweet shrimp whose bodies are served raw, the heads deep-fried and served on the side.

We turn our attention to the main menu and order "dynamite," a dish of sautéed scallops, geoduck, and mushrooms, covered with mayonnaise and broiled until browned. I order the grilled hamachi kama, tuna collars, lengths of bone filled with rich, fatty meat. G. has become the kind of person who takes pictures of her food, and I turn the plate to get the best angle of the crisply broiled fished arranged artfully atop the cabbage salad. The restaurant is now busy, with hopeful diners waiting patiently just inside the door, every table occupied, every seat at the counter taken. It is a Tuesday night, even, and Nishino has been around for a long time, over ten years now. I am amazed at their longevity, but at the same time, not surprised. Their food is consistently excellent, occasional new additions breathing life to a menu of favorites. For nearly fifteen years this has been one of my favorite restaurants, and its place in my heart has never wavered.

We are nearly full, but there is still dessert to consider. I had meant to head back over to Trophy and buy some cupcakes, but there wasn't time. I suggest crêpes, and G. agrees. We drive home and walk down to 611 Supreme, about ten minutes from my apartment. Inside it is quiet and dimly lit. I waver between the chocolate-mousse-filled crêpe that I usually order, or the Nutella-filled one that beckons. G. can't decide either, and at last I choose the Nutella-filled one, while she goes for la Pomme Nord, filled with fresh apples. We share our respective desserts, mine filled with the chocolate-hazelnut warmth of Nutella and the coolness of vanilla ice cream, hers bursting with crisp, cinnamon-dusted apple slices and caramel sauce and more vanilla ice cream. It is so good I want more, but I have to stop.

Somehow we wind up at QFC so G. can buy breakfast things for the rest of her visit. It occurs to me later that dinner with her always ends with us standing in the cereal aisle of QFC at 9:30 pm while she debates over Cocoa Pebbles versus Rice Krispies and pajama-clad students shuffle by with baskets of Pop-Tarts and potato chips.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sunday Lark.

The phone rang at 9:30 this morning. Ordinarily I would be awake by now, I would be drinking my tea and reading the paper cross-legged on my bed, with the tv on and turned to the Food Network. But yesterday was hot, and the night was stuffy, and I lay awake until quite late, later than I had been awake for a long time. So when the phone rang, I was deeply asleep, in that deep sleep that makes you feel like you are being sluggishly dragged from deep water by your hair when the phone rings. Without my glasses on I fell out of bed and groped my way across the room, only to find that the phone was not in its cradle. By the time I made my way to the kitchen - still with my eyes closed - and found the phone, it had stopped ringing. And then my cell phone - somewhere on the floor next to my bed - began to ring. It was the boss*. I had to go to work. She only calls me if she is desperate. I didn't really want to go to the movies, anyway. Nor did I want to spend the day cleaning my apartment. Besides, if I went to work today - a rare Sunday off - I could go to Lark for dinner.

Again it is quiet. People must be on vacation; there are empty tables and only four servers. The chef must be off tonight; there are no specials, which allow me to go ahead with my original plan: a nettle soup, the steak tartare. My waiter is rather startled, and then amused, when I tell him that I am glad there are no specials tonight; they are too distracting. The soup is creamy, green against the crisp, golden sunchoke chips. As always, there are two kinds of bread, a baguette and some sort of earthy levain. I prefer the baguette, and manage to eat nearly all of it when my main course arrives. The steak tartare comes with a little salad - I am glad I did not order another one and had the soup instead - and triangles of buttery toasted brioche. The beef is rich and flavored with bits of onion and capers, capped with a tiny quail egg, which I stir into the chopped steak before spreading it on the still-warm toast, and the first few bites have that exquisite contrast of hot and cold, soft and crisp. Last time I had it the steak tartare came with crackers; the brioche is a better match, I think, warm and light and just firm enough to hold the steak without collapsing, but still soft inside.

Again I have the coconut sorbet - it is as good as I remember - and chase the bits of mango around my plate with a spoon, wishing they served the sorbet layered in a bowl instead of spread across a plate. Perhaps I will ask them about it next time.

*A true story about the boss. One weekend several years ago, when my mother was out of town, and I was either so deeply asleep that I didn't hear the phone or was also out of town, my father was woken by the telephone around 8:30 on a Sunday morning. He managed to find the phone, but the other person had hung up. Of course, he was now awake, if reluctantly. Half an hour later, the phone rang again. This time, when he answered, he was greeted by a perky Oh good, you're awake! on the other end. Even this is not a true story, it is something that I can easily imagine happening.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A day off.

When I was five, I took ballet classes, like just about every other girl my age. After ballet class my mom would often take me to the Wallingford Center, a small shopping center in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. (Or perhaps after kindergarten classes were done for the day and the rest of the afternoon was still before us. After more than twenty years, it is hard to remember all these details). In those days (when I was tiny and cute and had bangs, none of which applies now) the Wallingford Center was as big as a world, big enough to get lost in for hours. I have not been back for many years, and it is with a shock that I find it to be so much smaller than I remember. Now it seems that there are only a handful of shops (selling fancy yogawear and children's toys and the sort of vaguely Asian home furnishings that people buy for extraordinary amounts of money so their houses look like they belong to someone cultured and well-traveled). The past rolls over me like a wave, and for a moment I am so drowned in memories I want to sit down and weep.

But I am hungry, and it is lunchtime, and I leave the past behind, heading downstairs to the Indian restaurant for buffet. There are only a handful of tables occupied in the large room; it is nearly one in the afternoon on a Tuesday. Two buffets are laid out; one with salads and other cold things, another with the hot foods. There are curries and rice dishes, all sorts of things in drippy sauces that I can't identify, flat half-moons of naan. I grab some chicken korma and vegetable biriyani, soupy dal and tiny beef meatballs in some creamy sauce, add some naan to sop up all the sauces. I eat my lunch - it is all very good, even if I am not sure of what I'm eating - and listen to the conversations around me, and watch the food network on the tv hanging over the bar. But the real reason for my pilgrimage to the Wallingford Center - not a visit to my past, not Indian food, not buying vast armoires made of dark wood and detailed with brass fittings - is upstairs. Cupcakes, from Trophy Cupcakes and Party.

Facing the entrance on the main level is Trophy, open to the main hall and another outside exit in the rear, a gleaming counter that curves around to display trays of cupcakes of all kinds. There are a handful of choices that are available every day - vanilla with chocolate icing, chocolate with vanilla frosting, red velvet, and triple chocolate - and another rotating roster of flavors, and I am dizzy with choice. I choose one peanut-butter-and-jelly one for myself, and a vanilla-frosted chocolate one for C., and then, impulsively, choose two tiny ones to eat immediately, a green tea one, and a chai-cardamom one. There are old-fashioned diner tables and chairs (upholstered in pale aqua) behind the racks of cards and party favors and games (they sell party supplies as well as cupcakes), each table sporting a little nosegay of fresh flowers.

The green tea and chai cardamom cupcakes are wonderful, one cool and with the slight dustiness of green tea, the other sweet and a little spicy. The cakes are moist and the frosting creamy but not too rich. I have to struggle to save the other cakes for later. It is not until after dinner that I give in and eat my peanut-butter-and-jelly cupcake, which has a plain yellow cake, with a dab of jelly and peanut butter at the bottom, and peanut butter frosting capped with jam frosting. Heaven. I wish I had not told C. that I would bring her a cupcake tomorrow. But I have had enough, perhaps more than is good for me. I will just have to go back again for more.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Saturday Lark.

Just before lunch today, the sizzle and smell of frying radish-cake (made with shredded Daikon radish, rice flour, and bits of ham or sausage) was filling the air, making me drool. I stuck my head around the door to tell my boss that the thing I will miss most when she moves out of the living quarters attached to the lab (long story) and back into her remodeled home is when her cleaning lady makes lunch for us. She laughed. But it's true. I will miss lunches of brown rice and stir-fried vegetables and those soft squares of radish-cake with a crisp, fragile crust seared on in patches from the hot pan. It's different from the radish-cake (or turnip-cake) you get at dim sum restaurants, lighter and crisper and less greasy, and instead of a few squares to be shared with the rest of the table, there is a mountain of it, enough for you to eat as much as you like, but not too much, because there is still dinner ahead.

And then it is time for dinner, as always, at Lark. I have time to run home and change into something marginally more presentable, to exchange my backpack for a handbag, to grab the grocery list so I can go shopping afterwards. K. is not there. F. remembers that I was there for the Whole Beast dinner some weeks ago, asks if I liked my dining companions. I told them that they were wonderful, and he tells me what I have only recently begun to understand, that the company is as important as the food. It is true. Fifteen courses would have seemed an eternity if I had been seated with stuffy bores, or arrogant assholes, but the people I had dinner with that night were lovely, warm and friendly and vastly entertaining.

One of the specials that night was a twist on shrimp cocktail, shell-on shrimp served with a trio of sauces, half a pound or a whole pound. The shrimp are small and sweet, some still filled with their roe. The sauces are ginger lime, saffron aïoli, and freshly made cocktail sauce. The ginger lime is a little spicy and a little sweet; the aïoli is creamy and intensely fragrant from the saffron - so intense it seems to seep straight into my skin - and the cocktail sauce is, well, cocktail sauce (but very good, house-made). I fling bits of shrimp shells far and wide, it seems, until J. rescues me with a damp napkin. It feels vaguely gluttonous to sit here with a plate of shrimp all to myself, but then, that is the triumph and the tragedy of dining alone.

For my main course I choose the gigli pasta, frilled on one side and straight on the other, curled around fat green English peas and shreds of duck confit, with tiny caramelized onions and a creamy sauce. Perhaps the sauce might have been better had it been less creamy; it overwhelms the other ingredients with its richness. Still, it is very tasty, perhaps better than very tasty, and I eat every last bite of pasta, every last shred of duck confit, chasing the fat green peas around the bowl with my fork. Time for dessert.

For once I can't make up my mind, whether to have the chocolate madeleines - the memory of those lemon ones still lingering in my mind - or the lemon parfait, or the malt ice cream. But I go for the coconut sorbet. It is thrilling, a little creamy, but not too creamy, and very smooth, atop shaved coconut, crunchy sweet black rice, tiny cubes of fresh mango, capped with a paper-thin slice of dried mango, crisp and tart, against a background of exotically colored and therefore unidentifiable sauces splashed across the plate. I'll be back for more, soon.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

This bread will change your life.

It started with an article in The New York Times, back in the fall of 2006. Mark Bittman had (and still has) a column entitled The Minimalist; what could be more minimalist than bread? Flour, water, some sort of leavening, salt, and time. And yet I never made bread; I don't have the patience, I hate kneading, and I hate messing about with yeasts and warm water and worrying whether the water was too hot or too cold, or if the bread would rise or not. Any bread-making experiment tended to leave every surface of the kitchen scattered with flour and a mountain of dirty bowls in the sink. I would run over to the rising dough (left on the dining-room heater; the radiators in our house were covered with wooden cases that made convenient benches and places to pile magazines and clothes) every ten minutes or so to see if anything was happening. Besides, artisanal bakeries were opening all over Seattle. Why make it at home when you could get a crusty loaf just about anywhere, even the supermarket?

Mark Bittman's recipe, adapted from Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery, promised no-fail bread that produced a golden, crusty round loaf with a stupefyingly simple recipe that combined a very wet dough, a very long rise, and absolutely no kneading. It seemed easy enough. I had a Le Creuset french oven, which would work for baking the bread (the recipe calls for any cast-iron, enamel, ceramic, or Pyrex covered pot). But somehow I never got around to it. Other recipes appeared, in
Vogue, in Cook's Illustrated. I started taking the idea of making bread seriously. But it was Nancy Leson, of The Seattle Times, who wrote about her version - the Cook's Illustrated version - and told her readers to go forth and bake this weekend. And this time, I did.

I went to the grocery store Saturday night after dinner, ticking things off my list, fruit, vegetables, bacon, sausages, juice, flour, yeast. Ice cream. I came home and began measuring flour into a bowl, water in a measuring jug. Whisked the flour together with yeast and salt, poured in the water, stirred it all with a spatula. It came together in a shaggy mass, just as the recipe said it would, and then gathered itself into wet ball of dough. I covered it with plastic wrap, set it in a warm corner near the water heater, and went to bed. In the morning it had started to bubble and spread out in the bottom of the bowl; when I came home in the afternoon (some eighteen hours after I had first mixed it together) it had swollen into a loose, bubbly mass. I turned it onto a floured wooden board and folded the wet dough over onto itself a couple of times, pulled it into a ball and somehow scraped it onto a towel. It was fun.
The bread rose for a second time, dusted in flour and wheat bran, covered in a towel, this time on the warm windowsill for almost two hours. I preheated the pot in the oven, which alarmed me a little, since the plastic knob on the lid isn't supposed to withstand anything higher than 400º, and I had the oven cranked up to 450º. Never mind. I poured the dough into the heated pot and slashed a big X on the top, gingerly replaced the lid, and shoved the entire thing back into the oven.

The smell of baking bread, of toasted wheat bran and flour, filled my apartment. The timer went "ding," and I ran to check. It had formed a perfect round loaf, with a crisp, golden crust, and I put it back to bake without the lid until it had browned further. I let it cool for at least twenty minutes before I could stand it no longer and sliced the bread open. It was perfect - a thick crust, an airy, white interior with a light crumb. The bread was soft and warm and the crust crackled between my teeth; I ate one slice, then another, and then a third. It could have been higher; I could have used more salt, added whole-wheat flour. Next time it will be even better.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Thursday Quinn's.

I often wind up at Quinn's on Thursday evenings. They open for dinner at 5, which means I can swing by after Pilates for a burger or fish-and-chips or their gnocchi with oxtail before heading home. Already I have eaten there so often it seems like I could walk there with my eyes closed, find my way through the door, past the bar, to one of the tables downstairs or in the upstairs mezzanine. The menu is full of familiar things, the tasty homemade pretzel with cheese sauce, the wild boar Sloppy Joe. It feels like this wood-lined, airy space with large windows onto the street has stood on this street corner for as long as I can remember, even though it has only been about six months since my first dinner here. I wonder if I should try something new, or if I should go back to one of my old favorites. Then I notice the rabbit pot pie on the menu, and I feel myself waver. My server tells me that it is fantastic, and she is so enthusiastic I believe her.

The rabbit pot-pie arrives in a white ramekin on a long, rectangular plate, the pie capped with a biscuit that is like no other biscuit I have ever seen. Less like a biscuit and more like a golden puff of air. Sprinkled with sea salt, it dissolves into golden flakes as I bite into it, and I turn instead to the savory rabbit stew beneath. It is a little like the rabbit shepherd's pie I had at Lark recently (only at Lark the pie was topped with mashed potatoes instead of biscuit), the same creamy sauce that seems to have a little mustard in it, only here the rabbit is cut into chunks instead of shreds. I wish I had some bread to dip into the sauce, or perhaps another biscuit, but I am distracted by the baby vegetables arranged like a still life on the other side of the plate. There is a spear of asparagus and some cauliflower florets and baby carrots and what appear to be radishes, gently roasted until just crisp-tender.

Meanwhile the dining room has been filling up with other diners, steady regulars and newcomers, and the din rises, as it always does. I have finished my rabbit pie but don't feel like something sweet; instead I order a pretzel. I love their pretzels, soft and chewy, sprinkled with coarse salt and served with a cheesy beer sauce, or a beer-y cheese sauce. I break apart my pretzel and eat it, dipping each bite into the cheese sauce, listening to the different threads of conversations around me, invisible to others, tucked into my corner table. I have a book but leave it unread in my bag; I don't need it. I can be alone with my food, and be happy.