Monday, September 29, 2008

And the beet goes on. kitchen adventures.

It is later than I would like when I get home, delayed by work and an unexpected run-in with R., who is in the fashion business, always looks impeccable from head-to-toe, and tactfully manages not to wince when confronted with my messy hair and baggy sweaters over jeans and sneakers. He advises me on what to wear with the new shoes I just bought, and double-dog-dares me to wear them to work. (Not happening). The conversation brings a laugh to my lips that buoys me all the way home, into the kitchen where I lean against the open refrigerator door and try to decide whether to experiment with the beets from the market or just settle for some frozen pizza of uncertain provenance. Even though it is nearly six, and I don't know how long it will take to roast the beets, I plump for a dinner of roasted beets and tiny new Yukon Gold potatoes, since I am alone and don't have to worry about dinner companions who might consider this a rather peculiar sort of meal.

I scrub the beets under running water and trim them a little, leaving about an inch of the stalks at one end but removing the raggedy tail and any stray rootlings. The fat purple beets go into a small roasting pan with a slosh of olive oil and some sea salt, and then into the toaster oven. Unfortunately, I have put too much olive oil in the pan and it is making unnerving spitting sounds after several minutes, so I move the beets into the range oven and leave them. The little potatoes are also scrubbed and trimmed, thrown into a Pyrex dish and tossed with more olive oil and sea salt and shoved into the oven on the rack beneath the beets. More spitting sounds ensue. I peer into the oven to see that the beets have shriveled a little, the skin darkened in spots, but when I stick a fork in, I meet with resistance. I stifle the urge to call up J. and ask him how long and at what temperature I should have roasted them. It is my own fault for not asking yesterday at dinner. A little while later, they seem tender when I pierce them with my fork. The skins have loosened, sagging away from the flesh, and it takes only a moment to peel and slice the beets, revealing a fuchsia-and-white striped interior. These are Chioggia beets, an Italian variety, and I regret that I had not sliced them crosswise to reveal concentric rings of color. Whoops.

Then the potatoes are done, their fragile skins peeling away, and I slice them in half and toss in a little butter and a scattering of Maldon sea salt. Dinner is ready. The beets are more delicately flavored than the red or golden ones I am familiar with, an interesting sensation. I sprinkle half of the thick wedges with a little more salt, and leave the other half plain (save for a bit of olive oil) so I can compare the two, and think of how Laurie Colwin wrote about how wonderful things tasted when they were left to themselves. I find that the beets need nothing, not olive oil, not salt, and I am glad I resisted the urge to add balsamic vinegar, or anything else that would distract from their flavor. I turn to the potatoes, which are hot and buttery - even the bits that didn't actually get any butter on them - and taste the way I never knew potatoes could taste. And even after the last bite, I find myself wanting more.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday. crêpes and more.

As I do every Sunday I have to work (provided I get up early enough), I head down to the Essential Bakery for a bacon-and-Swiss crêpe and a caffé mocha. I grab a loaf of bread and a "carrot-cake" cookie for later, and settle in with an Angela Thirkell novel and my hearty breakfast, and it keeps me going through the morning. Hours later I eat my cookie, which is in fact two chewy carrot-cake "cookies" enclosing a hefty blob of cream-cheese frosting, nearly as much frosting as cookie (or so it seems). My heart racing from sugar, I settle in for another several hours of work, until the clock ticks well past five and I realize that I am hungry again. Time for dinner. I call C. from the office phone, after finding that my cell phone has run out of batteries and I have been incommunicado all day. Italian sounds good to her, so we head out to Spinasse, just around the corner from work.

As usual, every seat at the three communal tables (plus one small four-top) is booked, so we squeeze into the bar (with myself wedged in uncomfortably against the wall) and say hi to the owner, who is busy making ravioli behind the counter. I ask him how business is going - it is booming, and last night they sold out of everything - and tell him that the last time I was here, I noticed that his hair got higher and messier as the room got smokier and more crowded. This appears to amuse him. We order prosciutto with fresh plums (it is the season) and the ravioli (for me) and cavatelli (for C.), and our server brings us a small plate with two kinds of crostini: one is heaped with marinated chanterelles, which are unto pickled mushrooms as Château Latour is to Two-Buck Chuck, and the other a rabbit pâté with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The chanterelles are those tiny ones that every restaurant seems to have and that I can never find in the market, and they are magical. There is bread, which I ignore, and then the prosciutto, which is every bit as delicately (and yet intensely) flavored as I remember, only better, now that I am here without my grandfather, who does not willingly consume prosciutto when such things as jamon Iberico exist on this planet.

We watch J. make ravioli and eat our appetizer, until every scrap of rosy-pink ham and sweet dark fruit is gone, and then he heads back into the kitchen to cook our pasta (but not until he suggests how I should cook the beets I got at the market - dry-roasting them with sea salt and olive oil, simply sautéeing the greens). The hum of voices has become louder, and when I turn to look over my shoulder I see nearly every seat is occupied. I love this ravioli even better than the last one; the beet greens are tender but have more flavor than, say, spinach, without the sharpness of the rapini that I had before. They are simply tossed with some sage, a dusting of cheese, and a scattering of pine nuts. I steal a bite of C.'s cavatelli, sauced with just enough cheese and cream, rich without being overwhelming. It is like some sublime form of macaroni and cheese, and for a moment I wish that I had ordered it instead, until I take another bite of ravioli, and reassure myself that I had made the right choice. We plan to come back again, because it is the kind of food we like best, simple and pure, good food, without fuss or frills or pretentiousness of any kind. I am glad to see that it is so busy, that business is good, and I am even gladder that it is so close to work.

We head out the door, intent on dessert from another quarter: Ice cream, from Molly Moon. They have a new flavor, Baracky Road, their own twist on Rocky Road, possibly one of my favorite ice cream flavors of all time. When we get to Molly Moon (having snagged a rare open parking spot across the street) there is a line out the door. Even in times of financial hardship, people still need ice cream. It is what we call a "cheap luxury," made with organic, all natural ingredients with exotic flavors like lavender honey and balsamic strawberry and sea salt caramel. A single scoop on a regular cone is $3, a bargain compared to the $20 pasta we downed an hour before. I have a scoop of the Baracky Road, chocolate ice cream bursting with hazelnuts and homemade marshmallows and chunks of dark chocolate. It is so good I nearly head back for more. As we walk out with our cones the line has spread down the sidewalk, a few doors down. If it had been shorter I might have gone back for another scoop.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Saturday Lark.

It is a little later than usual when I leave work and head to Lark, and the room is half full when I walk in. The server who comes forward to greet me is new and does not recognize me, but I fold myself onto the hard wooden bench with the same anticipation that I always do. As I look over the menu I hear snatches of conversation floating out of the general hum of my fellow diners, debating over menu choices or presidential candidates or the merits of various cast members of Dancing with the Stars. Another server, one who does know me well, arrives with a tall glass of water and the night's specials. I waver between the lasagna - they do pasta so well here - and the sturgeon, and finally settle for a beet salad (another special of the evening), and the sturgeon.

The beet salad is composed of sweet tender beets, a deep red, and crumbled bits of Fontina, creamy white, with potato bread croutons, a toasty golden color, all bound together with a cherry (he did say cherry, didn't he?) vinegar, olive oil (I think), and tiny bits of shallots (maybe) and chives, which glisten and sparkle like jewels in the last of the sunlight that streams through the windows. When I am done, I scrape the remaining bits of shallots and chives into a messy heart to express how much I loved it, which amuses my server no end. Then I eat all the bread and butter on my plate, some slices of plain baguette and walnut baguette, shedding crumbs in all directions.

Then my fish arrives, and I see that the table next to me has ordered it as well. Actually, I see that many people dining tonight have ordered the same thing, a procession of identical plates circling around the room. The sturgeon is served on a bed of white cabbage and apples and onions and bacon, perhaps a few slices of potatoes, like a German slaw, slightly sweet and salty and tart and flavored with some unknown herbs and spices. Caraway, perhaps, or a touch of mustard. (Most likely I am completely off base). It is unusual and slightly exotic, the way unfamiliar things are exotic, taking the traditional cabbage-onion-apple slaw and tossing it up in the air, so to speak. Which is what I like about eating out, seeing how a good chef can take something familiar and perhaps boringly traditional and transforming it entirely.

While I eat my dinner I watch the other people around me, eavesdrop on their conversations. The couple next to me ask our server if the current financial crisis has affected business at all. It has, he tells them, to a certain extent, but they are somewhat cushioned by a good reputation and nationwide press. Still, there are a few empty tables tonight, which used to be unheard-of on a Saturday evening. Fewer people are coming for dinner as dinner, and more for special occasions such as an anniversary or a birthday. It is a sobering realization of the ripple effects of an economic downturn, and sometimes I feel a sense of guilt for being able to afford this dinner when other people are weighing the cost of gas against the cost of groceries, of health insurance, of bills that seem to come from thin air. When I take it for granted that having to fix my air-conditioning will not affect my food budget for the month, when I take it for granted that there will be enough left over for a new pair of shoes that I don't actually need.

I notice that fewer people are ordering dessert, as I tuck into my fig tart, all chewy fruit and crisp, flaky pastry, doused in warm caramel and a cool chêvre sorbet that melts faster than I can eat it. They linger over coffee, or decline any sweets and simply pay their bill and go. Perhaps they are watching their waistline, or their wallet. Or both.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Market Friday. dinner for two.

Sometimes, before late fall sets in and washes the city with gray rain blanketed in gloomy clouds, there are a few beautiful sunny days scattered through September. Bright and warm, but not too hot. Today was one of those days, one of those lovely days when we get out of work early and have the late afternoon before us, and we come out into sunshine and the realization that it is market day. The last farmer's market of the season. We pull into the parking lot of the Grocery Outlet (in the window are cases of Shasta soda, which I last drank, surreptitiously, in the school cafeteria as a seventh grader) and are accosted by a clipboard-wielding woman who asks us if we are old enough to vote. This sends me into giggles, as I have been a registered voter for exactly ten years now. (The other night, someone asked me if I was in high school. This is the downside to adult acne, I feel, as well as my daily uniform of jeans, a backpack, and sneakers).

The tables are heaped high with vegetables and fruits of all kinds, although now the carrots and beets are bigger than they were a month ago. Cherries and strawberries and blueberries have been replaced by apples and peaches and blackberries. There are still bundles of chard and kale and heads of escarole and all sorts of lettuces. I buy fat purple carrots and chioggia beets at one place, onions, potatoes, beans, and tomatoes at another, and escarole, shallots, kale, and chard at a third. I buy a small log of chevre, two tiny lemon scones, and a big jalapeño-cheddar scone for breakfast tomorrow. C. finds a bunch of beautiful flowers, but I pass. I buy some lemonade from a very serious, business-like boy who looks about nine years old, who asks us if we want ice and how much, before neatly filling up paper cups and handing them over. Just outside the entrance to the market, I buy one of the baskets that I have been eying all summer. It is made of some pale, clean-smelling grass, with a handle wrapped in leather for comfort. I plan to use it next summer, when the market reopens.

We head home, me with my backpack sprouting beet greens as though they were wings (which C. regards with the same poker face that saw me falling off a balance ball in my building's exercise room a few nights ago). While watching two episodes of Mad Men (season 1) and the presidential debate we eat the lemon scones (incredibly light and airy) and then the cheddar-jalepeño one (so much for breakfast tomorrow) before our hunger can no longer be ignored and I go off to cook dinner. I slice the dark kale and the shallots while the water comes to the boil, find a hunk of guanciale in the fridge (from last week's trip to Salumi) and then slice some of that, too. It is harder and drier than pancetta or bacon, and easier to slice finely. The guanciale goes into the pan, cooked until the fat becomes translucent, although its translucency seems to have a different quality than that of bacon or pancetta. The flavor is different, more intense. I throw in the shallots, and when they are soft I add the chopped kale. As it wilts down I add some chicken stock, made from last week's roasted chicken and onions; it makes a brothy sauce for the orrecchiette that is bubbling away on the stove.

Soon, everything is ready. I scoop the pasta straight into the guanciale-spiked vegetables, toss it all together with a handful of grated grana padano cheese, and divide it between two shallow bowls. I think about how I would do it different next time - chop the kale more finely, cook it longer, add more cheese - but then I start eating and everything else fades away. It is very good, and nothing else matters.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Leftovers. dinner for one.

Desperately in need of a snack, I come home and rummage around the fridge in search of something to eat. Dinner is still a few hours away, too soon for some cold roast chicken, and I am hungry now. There is the remainder of a loaf of bread, rapidly going stale. Some salami, wrapped in layers of paper and foil. A small piece of mozzarella, looking slightly forlorn in its clear plastic tub, floating in water. A handful of slightly wilted basil in a plastic box. It only takes a few minutes to cut four thin slices of bread, each a little larger than the palm of my hand, then squeeze the mozzarella dry before slicing it and dividing it between two slices of bread. On go a few leaves of basil, a couple of pieces of salami, then the last two slices of bread. I pour some olive oil into a small skillet, brush a little more on top of the assembled sandwiches. When the heat rises I slip the sandwiches in, let them sit there and sigh quietly until the sigh becomes a sizzle, and the bread turns a toasted golden brown.

I think about Amanda Hesser making grilled cheese sandwiches (made with good Parmeggiano-Reggiano and "grains of paradise" instead of the standard black pepper) for her then-boyfriend (and later, husband), standing over the stove the way I am now, spatula in hand, feeling the heat rise from the pan, the tv on in the background, my book abandoned on the sofa. (The difference between us is also that she was cooking for someone else, her Mr. Latte, and I am cooking for myself). She served her sandwiches with a glass of chilled white wine, but I think I will have a tall glass of iced orange juice with mine. I flip the sandwiches over, let them sizzle a little while longer while I clean up the kitchen. The cheese has melted, the salami is warm. Out they come, onto a paper-napkin-lined plate, which I carry back to the living room, folding myself down on the floor. The bread is crisp and a little oily, giving way to melted cheese, almost bland-tasting but for the spicy bite of salami, the bright sweetness of basil. I brush away crumbs and settle back in to while away the hours until I am hungry again for dinner.

Much later I find myself again in the kitchen with half a cold roast chicken and the leftover vegetables from the other night. I love the taste of cold roast chicken almost more than I do roast chicken hot from the oven, much the way I like leftover cold pizza for breakfast. It makes me think of Laurie Colwin, who loved roast chicken in all forms and who used to roast a chicken in the morning on hot summer days, and leave it in the fridge, to eat cold for dinner. I like the solidified juices pooled in the bottom of the plate like a savory jelly, sticking to every bite; I like the cold roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts and carrots straight from the pan. Other times I would make sandwiches or chicken pot pie or a pasta salad with cherry tomatoes and bits of mozzarella cheese and fresh herbs and olive oil and perhaps a splash of balsamic vinegar. But tonight I just want the cold meat, that taste of chicken which somehow becomes intensified by the chill of the refrigerator, the prickle of freshly ground pepper and the sweetness of onions that were roasted alongside the bird. Dinner, for one, in front of the tv.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dinner for two. Roast chicken.

I have been craving roast chicken for a while now, and finally last week I decided that it would make a good Sunday dinner, with perhaps some roasted vegetables on the side. I think roast chicken may be one of my favorite dishes. I have tried all kinds - brined or rubbed with butter or stuffed with lemons or garlic or herbs (or all of the above), basted with white wine or left alone, roasted on a rack in a roasting pan or without a rack on a Le Creuset casserole resting on a bed of onions - but I find simpler is better. Tonight's roast chicken is laid on a bed of sliced onions in my newest Le Creuset pot, an oval casserole (my last birthday present from D.), and seasoned with generous amounts of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. I mean to crush several cloves of garlic and toss them in the pan, but somehow I forget, distracted by the movie I was watching between cleaning up the kitchen and getting ready for dinner, an early Merchant-Ivory production filmed in India.

Once the chicken is in the oven and the smell of roasting onions begins to emerge I turn to the vegetables. As I clean out the fridge I find carrots and potatoes and a bag of Brussels sprouts. I love Brussels sprouts. I think, lazily, that perhaps I will take a shortcut this time, throw them together in a pan and bake them in the toaster oven, instead of cooking the Brussels sprouts in my usual way. They are on the large side, so I merely trim the stems and outer leaves, then split them in half; none of this poncing about with paring knives, carving neat X's in their bottoms, always a dangerous task. I don't bother to peel the carrots, or the potatoes (although I do scrub off the rougher bits of the latter), only chopping them in more-or-less evenly sized chunks, not bigger than the Brussels sprout halves. Into a bowl they go, sprinkled with olive oil and more sea salt and tossed by hand, poured into one of the many Pyrex baking dishes that are stacked precariously in my pantry, slipped into the ridiculously large toaster oven that is very useful for things like this.

About halfway through, the roasting chicken gets flipped breast-side up (I always start with the chicken breast-side down), sprinkled with a little more salt and pepper. The roasting vegetables get stirred up a bit as the ones on top start to brown. Sooner than I think possible (it helps that I am distracted by a movie) it is all ready. The chicken is deeply browned, the breast smooth and almost round beneath the paper-thin skin. It looks perfect, but I cannot resist wrecking its dark perfection by stealing a few bits of skin. I eat the liver and heart and giblets straight from the pot, rich and intensely flavored with onion. C. arrives before I start eating in earnest, and we sit down to plates of chicken and roast vegetables and the first season of Mad Men on dvd. I think again of how good roast chicken is when it is merely sprinkled with salt and pepper, nothing else, except perhaps the lingering aroma of onions. It tastes like chicken, no other spices or herbs or aromatics to confuse the palate, obscuring the real flavor of the meat.

After all that I feel that we ought to round the meal off with some fresh brownies hot from the oven and a glass of milk, and C. concurs. It takes only minutes to throw together a pan of brownies, stick it in the (toaster) oven, set the timer. In about half an hour they are ready, warm and a little bit on the squidgy side, oozing chocolate (I had thrown some chocolate chips into the batter) with every bite. A bite of brownie, a sip of milk, warm and cold all at once. And I am happy, curled up on the sofa under a fuzzy blanket, a moment of rest before the grind of the week begins.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dinner for eight. Poppy.

For many Seattle foodies, Jerry Traunfeld, chef and writer of several cookbooks, (formerly of the Herbfarm, probably the most renowned Pacific Northwest restaurant) is something of a god. They swear by his recipes for unusually spiced vegetable dishes and herb-infused ice creams and when he announced that he was leaving the restaurant that made his name to open his own place, the city (or it seemed to me) was in a fever of anticipation for several months. This was particularly exciting for me, since I have never eaten at the Herbfarm, because my mother found it pretentious. It had a long waiting list for a reservation, an even longer list of instructions for dining there, and a menu that seemed to go on forever. Once, she went as far as booking a table, but when they started telling her all about the restaurant over the phone, she got fed up with all the details and canceled our reservation. Years went by, and somehow I never got around to trying it on my own. Now I was intrigued by the news that not only was Traunfeld opening his own restaurant, but that it would be in Capitol Hill, where I do most of my eating.

First, we heard that the restaurant would be called Poppy. Then, I read that it would occupy space at the north end of Broadway and would serve an Indian-inflected menu, inspired by Jerry's recent trip to that far eastern subcontinent. I would drive past the huge windows and see the ongoing construction inside. Opening dates were bandied about; rumors of a soft opening floated around. At last, the opening night was confirmed - last Saturday - and a few days later, G. called. G. is a friend of my mother's, and one of the few in her mostly conservative Taiwanese circle of friends who is eager to seek out and try Western food. Her son is a friend of mine, and he is a chef/foodie extraordinaire. (Whenever we meet, we spend the entire time talking about whatever restaurants we've tried since we last saw each other). When she invites me to dinner, I say, yes please. This is perfect. If it were left to me weeks, or months would pass by before I ventured out to the far end of Broadway to try this new place.

I am early, so I choose to wait at the bar, and instead of nervously sipping ice water or asking for a lemonade I throw caution to the wind and recklessly order a cocktail. When I ask the bartender for a recommendation, he asks if I want something from the menu, or if I want him to create something for me. Why not? Exotically beautiful bottles appear in front of me, shaken together with vodka and ice and strained into a frosty glass, adorned with a fat curl of lemon zest that looks like a goldfish swimming around its bowl. It turns out to be a martini scented with framboise and elderflower liqueur, not too sweet, slightly fruity and floral, somehow exactly what I needed. The rest of my party arrives, and I close out my tab and head towards our table. We are in a far corner of the airy, open space that looks like a Design Within Reach exploded in a Scandinavian Modern house, all pale wood with touches of bright colors, white pendant lamps, modern without being cold.

There are several appetizers - we order three of them in multiples, 'cause that's the way we roll - and then the evening's menu. There are two set menus, one "Thali" (with vegetarian options) with ten or eleven dishes, and one "Smali" with five or six dishes. A thali, apparently, is an Indian meal served in many small bowls or plates arranged on a round tray. The details are a little blurry, but this is what I remember: Eggplant "fries," salty-sweet and a bit squishy. Little tartlets of Taleggio cheese, leeks, apples, and dill, with a meltingly crumbly crust. Deep-fried mussels, crisp outside, soft inside, apparently a signature dish. The "Thali" arrives, with all sorts of exciting things in little dishes. The largest dishes are a saké-marinated cod with a cucumber salad, sweet and warm and cool and spicy all at once, and a piece of braised pork belly served on a bed of shredded Napa cabbage, probably some of the best pork belly I have ever eaten in a restaurant. In the middle is another bowl of rice capped with a flap of oven-blistered naan sprinkled with tiny black seeds. There is a sweet-tart gazpacho made with some sort of melon, a bowl of chickpeas in a light dressing, watermelon-and-lime pickle, Romano beans with hazelnuts, and sweet little beets. (Does no one trim the ends of beans anymore? Is it just me?). There is not too much of anything, but just enough so you are satisfied with the range of flavors and textures before you. It is like the grand menu at a fancy restaurant, but only better, because the atmosphere is friendly and casual, and everything comes at once, instead of in an interminable procession of courses. And then it is time for dessert, which none of us can resist.

We pass around a "rocky rose sundae" made with chocolate sorbet, Marcona almonds, marshmallows, rose-water syrup, and whipped cream, and another glass of chocolate malt ice cream. I have a plum tart oozing cream on top, with a sweet version of that same meltingly crumbly crust that supported the apple-dill-Taleggio tart from the beginning of the meal. Someone hands me a bite of a deep-dish pear tart, wrapped in a pastry scented with, I think, celery seed. Everything is gently flavored with all kinds of mysterious (mysterious to me, at least) herbs and spices, most of which I can't quite identify, and it is somehow strange and exciting all at once. I am dizzy with food (and with framboise-and-elderflower spiked vodka) and cannot wait until I come here again. Soon. I say this all the time, and I hope to mean it, for once.

We walk out to the car through the back door, past raised garden beds planted with herbs and greens, all still young and tender. I am sure they will find their way into the kitchen, and onto our plates, the way the food here has already made its way into my heart.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

More Salumi.

On my way home from work I ran through the supermarket, collecting a loaf of bread and a chicken (for roasting, later in the week) along the way. I ask J. if he wants any of the salami I bought at Salumi yesterday; he sends back a text: No. Something's come up. Fine. More for me. Moving on, I can see my dinner coming together in my mind: a Caprese salad, some crusty bread, a selection of salami, perhaps some fruit to follow. The short blocks between the supermarket and home seem to disappear. It is early, but I had a late breakfast and no lunch, and I am hungry. First: the salad. There is half a tomato in a bowl in the fridge, and half a ball of mozzarella bobbing around in a plastic tub filled with water. I slice the tomato, first, and then the cheese, arranging the tomato haphazardly across a plate and laying the cheese on top. I forgo olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and forget the basil, though I remember to sprinkle everything with a generous amount of sea salt.

The crunch of the salt brings out the sweetness of the tomatoes - and they are incredibly sweet, rippled irregular blobs of heirloom tomatoes. Sadly, they were plucked from bins arranged beneath the cold fluorescent glare of the supermarket aisles instead of the warmth of someone's garden, or the farmer's market. But the mozzarella was made fresh yesterday morning, hand-pulled and twisted into a bumpy white orb. It has a texture to it, a springy bite, without being too hard or rubbery. It feels the height of luxury to sit at my dining table and eat a whole plate of thickly sliced tomatoes and mozzarella, instead of a few delicate bites artfully arranged on a white plate and drizzled with some essence of this or that in some restaurant, having to share these sweet morsels. It is like having a whole jar of caviar to oneself, a whole truffle to shave over a plate of pasta or stuffed into an omelet. I feel greedy, in the best kind of way. But there is more to come.

The bread is good, too, a country loaf with a crackling crust and a soft, but not too soft, interior. I slice enough to make three small sandwiches, one of each kind of salami, and then slice each little sandwich in half. I suppose I could have used mustard, or butter, or cheese, some kind of green, more tomato, but really all I need is the salami and the bread. The hot sopressata is spicy and peppery, terrific. I think I like it best. The Agrumi is scented with orange zest and cardamom, and it is unexpectedly sweet (but non troppo - not too much so), which I find slightly unnerving. It is very good all the same, though. The molé is darker, more intense, a little spicy with ancho and chipotle peppers, rounded out with chocolate and cinnamon, which give depth and flavor without sweetness. No, maybe I like this one best. Actually I like them all, and I cannot wait to try more.

I head downtown for a spot of retail therapy and return home with a shopping bag bursting with all sorts of things (but they are not food related, and therefore unimportant), as well as a small tub of frozen yogurt, only a little melted by the short journey home. Red Mango recently opened an outpost downtown, and their plain frozen yogurt is the perfect end to the evening, slightly tart, sweetened with chunks of ripe mangoes and strawberries. And a good night to all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


It started with one of those conversations with J. first thing in the morning. I have been awake for less than hour; my tea is still untouched and my eyes are not exactly all the way open, and somehow we are talking about a newish restaurant in Queen Anne that he wants to try. The talk turns to Armandino Batali and his Salumi, the tiny Pioneer Square deli where eager lunchers wait in line for hours to have a hot sub of braised pork cheeks or meatballs or a cold sub stuffed with housemade salami or other cured meats. I have never been there, because I rarely have the day off during the week, and I loathe standing in line for anything. One magical day some years ago, the boss dispatched the minion of the moment to collect a dazzling array of sausages and smoked meats (I believe there were braised pork cheeks and meatballs that time, too) for one of the best lunches ever, but that was my first and last experience with Salumi.

Then came the conversation of the morning that led me to take advantage of an unusual confluence of events. One: I had my car at work. Two: I had to go to Chinatown (hence the car), and since I was headed to Chinatown anyway, I may as well head a few blocks farther west and a little to the south for some salami. Three: I was off work by three o'clock, and Salumi does not close until four. I had no choice except to head out there as soon as I left work. It was inevitable. It was also inevitable that I would get lost, circling around the outer edge of Pioneer Square and pulling over to call D., who knows where everything is. She directs me to the proper place, and I pull into a handy space (street parking! Sign number four!) and trot another block or two to my destination, too excited to care that some crazy driver has managed to hit on me and nearly hit me, simultaneously. You have to admire someone with that kind of skill.

At half-past three in the afternoon, the narrow storefront that makes up the retail part of Salumi is nearly empty. (An open door at the far end gives a mere glimpse into the area where all the sausage-making takes place). There is a small counter by the front window with a scattering of stools for lunchtime diners, and then an impossibly narrow aisle leads past the counter, into a sort of dining area with two tables, one large, one small, for anyone who is lucky enough to grab a seat during the midday rush (legendary in these parts, apparently). At this late hour, many things are sold out, the meatballs, the pork cheeks, the lamb "prosciutto." I am sad, but manage to select three different kinds of salami and some guanciale for spaghetti carbonara later in the week. The kind woman who takes my order warns me that it will take some time to get it all ready, but I am in no hurry. I buy the hot sopressata, the molé, and the Agrumi, which is scented with orange peel. I hear the staff talking about how they need to put up signs for the mozzarella, because no one bought any, and ask for two balls of the fresh cheese, made this morning, which are placed in plastic tubs filled with water. I will have to rethink dinner, to buy tomatoes and fresh basil and dig around for some decent olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

For dinner I make fried rice (requested by my grandfather), the new way, and slice the tomatoes and mozzarella cheese for a Caprese salad, sprinkling it all with torn basil leaves, sea salt, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. I arrange the salami on a platter, a little of each kind, and wish that I had some bread. Tomorrow will be soon enough.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Dinner for three. Sitka & Spruce.

I had skipped out on dinner the previous night, but tonight we are headed out again to Sitka & Spruce. Last summer when my grandfather was here I was working a later shift, and never managed to join them for an early dinner. But tonight I make my escape early (although I am still a little late), and zip across town to that tiny strip mall where Sitka & Spruce occupies a small storefront just off Eastlake. Again I am fortunate enough to find a parking space (this time doing a terrible job of parallel parking between two other cars, facing the wrong direction, I mean me, not them) in the lot. Again, I go in to find the rest of my party already seated, though this time they have not yet ordered. Uncle leaves the job of ordering up to me, and we lob choices back and forth as my grandfather grunts a yes or no to every suggestion. Finally, we settle on five dishes for the three of us, two vegetables, a pasta, and two meat dishes.

The menu tonight is similar to the last one we saw a few weeks ago, beginning with a salad and ending with grilled "Wagyu" flank steak, with one pasta choice and several seafood and poultry options, perhaps a dozen in all, written on a huge blackboard in slightly illegible handwriting, loopy and cramped all at once. We pass on the quail, which we had last time, and the tomato salad, because it does not come with mozzarella, and I have the general impression that either is unacceptable without the other, in my grandfather's (all-abiding) opinion. I embarrass myself by not being able to pronounce "poussin," and then have to explain the difference between "poussin" (young chicken) and "poisson" (fish) to my uncle, who is familiar with the latter but not the former. What a lovely language French is, I think to myself, full of tongue-twisters and silent letters. Makes Mandarin Chinese seem easy by comparison.

Tonight, there are still empty spaces at the big table, and three more spots at the six-top we are presently occupying, no hungry diners arriving to be turned away, surprising on a Friday night. We have a simple salad of some curly-headed lettuce, sliced into wedges, anointed with lemon juice and fragrant with herbs, all scattered with fragile shavings of Parmegiano-Reggiano (or something similar). The herbs add a certain something to the cool crunch of lettuce, and there is not too much cheese, just enough. Next is the grilled (or roasted, I can't tell) eggplant, sprinkled with pine nuts and more herbs and dressed with tangy yogurt and olive oil, which pools onto the plate (I dip my bread in, and would have wiped the plate clean had I been alone). My grandfather likes it, and I relax a little.

The taglietelle is a tangle of wide noodles with beans and tomatoes. I like it, but not as much as the lardo-tossed tajarin we had the last time we ate here. The bricked poussin is crisp-skinned, served on a bed of the best vegetable dish ever, sweet corn and tiny chanterelles. I eat more than my fair share, hoping no one will notice. Grandpa gets up for a smoke, and I make off with the last spoonful of corn that tastes like candy mixed with the buttery chanterelles. I could have just eaten this for dinner. Last is the flank steak, with fingerling potatoes and sweet-tart huckleberries and shards of crisped lardo. It is also very good, better than very good. We forgo dessert and head home to bowls of ripe cantaloupe. Another time I will be back for more.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Non Nova, sed Nove. (Not New Things, but New Ways).*

Say that I have been making fried rice twice a month since I was thirteen years old. Two times twelve times fifteen means that I have made three hundred and sixty pans of fried rice in the past fifteen years. Give or take. Nearly all have contained scallions, peas, and eggs. Most have had bits of bacon or ham. Sometimes garlic would take the place of scallions, if none were available; occasionally there would be leftover smoked salmon, or no meat at all. When other people are here it forms the base of a meal; when I am alone, it is all I need, a one-pot dish, the leftovers packed into a plastic box for lunch the next day. It always looks so pretty, white rice speckled with pink ham or bacon, green peas and scallions, yellow shreds of egg, like a spring garden. Early on I would often be criticized for not slicing the scallions sufficiently fine, not chopping the fried eggs into small enough pieces, not breaking up the clumps of cold leftover rice so each grain is separate. Time and experience have erased those small transgressions. Most of the time.

At some point in my fried-rice-making education, my grandfather (who does not cook, but has no shortage of opinions on how other people should) suggested that the eggs should be stirred into the hot rice instead of fried separately. Supposedly a really skilled cook should be able to scramble the rice and eggs together in such a way that each grain of rice is coated in a layer of yellow egg. I have never seen this done, nor have I been able to manage it. But now I do pour the frothing beaten egg into the rice and stir it madly together with a spatula as the egg gently cooks in the hot pan. Now I add the scallions last, instead of browning them first, which is how my mother prefers it. (That my dad prefers the scallions lightly browned is of no consequence). For many years now I have been making my fried rice this way: frying the peas with whatever meat I plan to add to my fried rice, then adding the rice and breaking up the lumps with a spatula, then pouring the egg in, then at last the scallions, and finally, seasoning with salt and pepper. But suddenly I wondered if there might be another, better way.

So. Tired of eating out, I have proposed a simple dinner, fried rice and perhaps some vegetables (there is a head of cauliflower lurking in the produce drawer) on the side. I like to minimize the mess as best I can, and to wash as few pots and pans and knives as possible. First the cauliflower is washed and sliced into bite-sized florets, then the scallions are finely chopped into translucent white-and-green rounds. Meanwhile, before any of that happened, I put the bacon into the freezer to chill. By the time everything else is ready, vegetables in colanders, eggs broken into a bowl and gently beaten, the bacon is firm enough to slice evenly instead of falling all over the place into ragged chunks. I leave it on medium heat to cook, and this time the heat is low enough to render out nearly all the fat before the meat begins to burn: perfect. I scrape all the bacon (and the grease) into a bowl, and cook the cauliflower, which can sit comfortably on a plate while I finish making the fried rice. I will try a new method, cooking the peas and scallions separately, then the rice and eggs, before combining everything together and seasoning it.

First I heat a little more oil, then pour in the defrosted peas (which hiss softly as they feel the heat) and the scallions. When they are just cooked through I scoop them into another bowl, and add more oil to the pan. The rice goes in, cold and hard and lumpy, but when I bash them down with a spatula the grains break apart and soften a little. When the rice is hot, I pour in the eggs. I have miscalculated the ration of eggs-to-rice, and it becomes an uncontrollable, wet mass of rice suspended in egg. After I stir it all madly with another spatula, the eggs begin to scramble most satisfyingly, yellow and deep gold against the white rice. In goes the peas and scallions, the bacon bits, a few sprinklings of salt and freshly ground pepper. It is as close to perfection as I have ever come, each grain of rice separate, all the ingredients evenly sliced, everything shot through with tiny bits of egg. So I have not enrobed every grain rice in a golden cloak of egg. I will never be a master chef. But the peas are cooked just right, the bacon not too tooth-shatteringly crisp, the scallions tempered by the heat. It is a little more trouble to make fried rice this way, but worth it.

Not new things, but new ways.

*When I was in fourth grade, our teacher read The Twenty-One Balloons aloud to the class, one chapter a week. It has stayed with me all my life. This motto is emblazoned on the coat of arms of the Krakatoa government, formed by the forty families that gathered on this volcanic island in search of a new, better existence.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Dinner for three. Spinasse.

Earlier my grandfather descended on me, sort of unexpectedly, but yet not quite. I knew he would be here, I just didn't know when, or for how long, and when the phone rang to say that they were nearly here it took me about five minutes flat to shove all the mess and disorder that accumulates when I am left to my own devices into various closets and drawers and finish my late-afternoon snack. I head upstairs to say hello, and a fog of cigarette smoke has already formed in the one-bedroom pied-à-terre my family owns several floors above me. (Ostensibly it was purchased for my parents to use when they visited, but it evolved into my uncle's personal crash-pad, fitted with a large flat-screen tv and various iPod accoutrements, the cupboards filled with his wine and beer and soy milk, the freezer bursting with favored snacks). For dinner my uncle suggests Spinasse, where I had eaten so well last week, and we head over there to grab a quick meal.

It is rather busier than last time, the tables all booked, three of the eight seats at the bar already occupied. The chef remembers me from last time, and says hello, as does the waiter who served me when I was here. There is already a large party at the long table; the host looks familiar, and I wonder who he is. But I have my own worries, which is whether my grandfather will like this place. I had forgotten how critical he could be, how he prefers the Spanish jamón Serrano to the Italian prosciutto di Parma; how he likes mozzarella-and-tomato salad, but loathes parmiggiano-Reggiano sprinkled on his pasta. Too late now. He approves of the rabbit pâté crostini, but not the one spread with fresh ricotta. I take another gulp of wine, and order the tajarin with ragú and a green salad for my grandfather, ravioli (with rapini and pine nuts) for myself, some prosciutto with melon, and the tajarin with roast lamb shoulder to follow for my uncle.

My grandfather does not like the salad (which in my mind is perfect, only lightly dressed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil), nor does he like the prosciutto. Whoops. Luckily he finds the bread acceptable, good, even. My uncle is enjoying his pasta, fortunately, because otherwise I would be a nervous wreck. The dining room behind us becomes more and more packed; we are eating with our elbows bumping with every bite, and the din is terrific. As the kitchen becomes busier and busier, the chef's hair gets messier and messier. I wonder if by the end of the night it will all be standing on end, and resolve to ask him next time I come in. There are no more seats at the bar; one guy is standing and talking to a friend with a glass of wine (eventually he orders some pasta, and eats standing up), and three more people are leaning against the wall with their drinks, waiting their turn.

Our second courses arrive, and my grandpa would be pleased with his tajarin if only they had not sprinkled it with cheese. He feels that my ravioli was likewise ruined by its own dusting of cheese, but in my mind it is just perfect, the nutty savoriness of the cheese contrasting with the tender golden pasta, the slight bitterness of the rapini (also, I believe, known as broccoli rabe), the sweetness of pine nuts. My uncle offers a bite of lamb shoulder, tender and rich and juicy, heady with garlic and herbs on a bed of chard and possibly chickpeas, or garbanzos (I can never tell which they are). We finish our meal and head home, and I decide that in the future, I will remember to order pasta for my grandfather without cheese, even if the waiter thinks me insane.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Saturday Lark.

Originally I had planned to scrap my usual Saturday after-work dinner at Lark and headed instead to Boom Noodle. It was bright and sunny, still warm and summer-like, and I thought perhaps a bowl of chilled Japanese noodles would be a good dinner. I was foiled by the hostess, who left me standing and unacknowledged for longer than necessary, and then swept me past the dining room into the bar, where I perched uncomfortable on a stool at one of those counter-height tables near the window. A bartender would be right with me, she said. The minutes ticked by, and no one appeared. The bartenders were assiduously avoiding eye contact, so finally I said to hell with it and stomped out. So back to Lark it is. I know the food will be good, the service welcoming, and with a lighter spring in my step I continue a few blocks south along 12th.

Tonight the dining room is completely empty. Even the staff is still slowly trickling in as I pore over the menu, rushing in with wet hair and street clothes and disappearing into the wine cellar to return neatly coiffed and wrapped in a long black apron. But when I am here alone reading the menu is always a fruitless (although interesting) exercise, particularly tonight as the specials include some sort of chicken (I'm not sure exactly how it is prepared, but I think tangerines and pine nuts are involved) and grilled sardines. (There is also gnudi with duck confit, but I pass on that). Sardines and chicken it is, then. I eat my bread and butter and eavesdrop on the conversation by the bar, where the staff have gathered to fold napkins and taste the night's specials (or so I assume, shielded as I am by a gossamer curtain that hangs from the ceiling).

The three sardines are stacked on a bed of halved baby tomatoes (grape, cherry, whatever) and tiny cream-colored beans, firm to the bite. Well, two of them are stacked. The third has made an attempt at escape, and appears to be trying to swim off the edge of the plate. The fish are crisp-skinned and soft-fleshed and I have the unnerving feeling that I have swallowed a fine-needled porcupine. As I pull the meat away from the skeleton with my fork and knife a delicate sort of rib-cage of hair-thin bones springs out, but I fear I have swallowed at least a quarter of them. Still, the soft sweetness of fresh sardines is worth that momentarily prickly sensation.

My chicken is served in a tagine, which the servers ceremoniously bring to my table and unveil before me, boned and arranged over a bed of couscous. There are some spears of carrots to one side (both brilliant orange and deep plum) with a few deeply glowing tangerine slices, a pool of curry-yellow sauce on another, and a scattering of green olives. The meat is tender under still-crisp skin, the couscous soft and fluffy and very finely grained. It is so good that I am grateful that I have it all to myself, that I am not sharing it with four other people and fighting over the last bite of chicken, the last mouthful of couscous. I love the word couscous. I bring it up in conversation whenever I can.

Thinking of that meal a few weeks ago I order the summer pudding. The tarte tatin is for a cool, gray day, when all you want to do is bathe in warm caramel. But it is a bright, sunny day, the last of summer, and I want that sweet mélange of crispy bits of buttered brioche and juicy berries, all dolloped with a drift of whipped cream. No cherries this time; that season has passed. Summer is almost gone. But fall brings its own pleasures, and I look forward to what is to come.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Dinner for two. Smith.

Smith is on the eastern side of Capitol Hill, a few blocks out of my way and therefore mostly untrodden territory for me. Like the other main arteries spreading across the hill 15th avenue boasts cafés and bookstores and grocery stores and restaurants and pubs and funky little shops selling goodness knows what. I have been meaning to haul myself over here to try this new pub for a while now, but it has not been until tonight that I (and my usual dining companion, C.) finally made it here. I remember this space from when it was a barbecue place with flat-screen tvs in the corners of the room; the bar is in the same place, but instead of televisions on the walls there are taxidermied animals and boring oil portraits. Apparently the owner - who has some other bars and clubs around the city - is fond of decorating with stuffed animals. The taxidermied kind.

We slide into one of the booths that line one wall (long trestle tables set with mis-matched chairs run down the middle of the room) and think about our dinner. I choose the pork shank. It is crisp-crusted and tender inside, the meat falling from two slender bones, into a pool of parsley sauce. (Later I find out that the pork shank is brined for two days, soaked in duck fat, and then deep-fried to order, which accounts for why it was so tasty). I need some vegetables, so I order the tomato salad, flower-like slices of heirloom tomatoes topped with fine curls of arugula, fresh beans (inexplicably still with ends on, which would never have been allowed in my mother's kitchen, or indeed mine), and bacon bits, unfortunately rather overwhelmed by a lake of olive oil that completely obscures the otherwise perfect vinaigrette.

For dessert, C. suggests ice cream. There is a new place in Wallingford that we have been wanting to try. (I had heard about Molly Moon from those same bloggers that steered me over to Spinasse a few days ago). They use organic, locally sourced (whenever possible) ingredients and offer flavors like Lavender Honey and Salted Caramel. When we get there the shop is busy, full of young couples and families with very small children. It is a narrow, high-ceiling space, Scandinavian Modern, all light colors and pale wood and pendant lamps like frosted milk bottles. C. is more restrained and orders two scoops of ice cream in a waffle cone, but I go all the way and have a chocolate ice cream sundae with vanilla bean caramel and hot fudge sauces, all topped with whipped cream. It is the perfect way to end a beautiful evening, and as I drive home I can still taste the caramel and chocolate, and I am already wanting more.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Dinner at the pasta bar. Spinasse.

I heard about Spinasse through another food blog. The writers are serious foodies who make me look like a rank amateur, and when they write about something, I sit up and take notice. This place promised handmade pasta and authentically rustic appetizers and when I realized it was merely around the corner from work instead of Fremont or Ballard or Ravenna or Belltown (nearly impenetrable far-flung foreign places to me) I knew I had to haul ass there posthaste. I was slightly delayed by a) the long weekend and b) the fact that the restaurant closes on Tuesdays. It used to be a funky vegan café called The Globe, which served great vegan biscuits with mushroom gravy, with a side helping of scorn. I have been meaning to duplicate their mushroom gravy, but have never actually gotten around to trying, given that I am not vegan, and enjoy sausage gravy like nobody's business. But I digress.

Now there are lace curtains, dark painted wainscoting, and rustically mis-matched chairs. Shelves are lined with bottles of wine and glassware; pasta-making tools of all shapes and sizes hang from the wall. They are not for show; someone is making ravioli by hand at the bar, which is actually half bar (with all the usual bottles and faucets and half-zested lemons and limes) and half pasta-making station. (When I leave and grab a few business cards from a bowl on the bar, they are gritty with flour). The tables are all communal: one very long table that seats about twenty people, and two shorter tables that seat six or seven, and one small table for four. There are another eight seats at the bar, and this is where I pull up a wicker-seated stool and settle in for dinner.

While I look over the menu a tiny plate arrives with two crostini, one topped with fresh ricotta, the other with a rabbit pâté, both drizzled with the darkly tart-sweet intensity of balsamic vinegar. I order the chicory salad, a roughly chopped confetti of heirloom (meaning variously-colored) chicory and slices of rabbit, all topped with shavings of cheese. The chicory is only just slightly bitter, slicked with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Meanwhile the man in front of me (later, I find out that he is the chef/owner) continues making ravioli by hand, arranging blobs of some golden cheese filling on a long sheet of homemade pasta dough, laying another sheet of dough over the top, pressing around each blob of filling to ensure that no air bubbles are remaining, then trimming and slicing the ravioli with a ruffle-edged cutter. His movements are quick and decisive, and at first glance it seems that each ravioli is identical; when I look closer, I can see that they are not, the way snowflakes make seem to be identical, but are only similar in size and shape.

The chef - who has been chatting politely to me all the while - leaves off making ravioli in front of me and goes back to the open kitchen beyond to cook my dinner. I can see him scooping pasta into boiling water, twirling it in a pan with some sauce, then plating it and handing it off to someone to sprinkle with grated cheese, before presenting it to me. This tajarin is nothing like the one we ate at Sitka & Spruce last week, which were like translucent narrow ribbons of pasta. These noodles are irregularly cut, some as fine as slivers, others about the width of a strand of spaghetti, with just enough hearty meat ragú, but not so hearty as to overwhelm the delicate pasta. It is delicious, and I tell the chef so, which seems to please him. It is his signature dish, and he has been making it for a long time.

For dessert I have some cheese, which I forget the name of, but described to me as the Italian (Piedmontese, rather) version of a Tomme de Savoie. What appears in front of me is a (rather large) wedge of semi-firm cheese with a lightly bubbled texture, salty and just a little sharp, which goes well with a scoop of grape mostarda on the side. I would have preferred honey, but this is very good all the same. I pay my bill, tell my waiter that I will come again, soon. I hope this will be true.