December 31, 2008

my top 10 for 2008

Happy New Year everyone! It's about this time that we start seeing the ubiquitous "top 10" lists for the year... top 10 films, top 10 songs, top 10 news stories... heck there's even a "Top 10 Predictions for Virtualization in 2009" (if you're into that sort of stuff... and I know of at least one person who is).

After reading Jonathan Kauffman's "Top 10 Dishes of 2008" I thought I'd compile a list of my ten favorite bites from the past year. Looking back on the food experiences we had over the last 12 months, I'm reminded of how exciting and vibrant the local food scene is here in Seattle and surrounding areas (including Vancouver, of course). So, in no particular order...

1. Charcoal ramen at Motomachi Shokudo: What are you supposed to say if someone wants to put charcoal powder in your ramen broth? Intensely dark, the broth's flavor is strikingly complex and balanced, with just a whiff of smokiness. The beauty of this bowl of ramen is only amplified by the perfection of the ramen's texture and the unctuousness of the slab of simmered pork. And yeah, it's good for you too.

2. Anything with octopus at Sitka and Spruce: I'm trying not to show any bias here because this is our favorite place in Seattle, but the first time we ordered octopus here, we were completely blown away. Impossibly tender, the meat of the octopus practically melted in our mouths... so much so that I had to ask if there was some special way they were cooking it. The answer? Nope, just sauteed simply, with the knowledge of precisely when to take it off the heat. In subsequent visits, we ordered octopus whenever it was on the menu so often, we had to make a consious effort to branch out. Revelatory.

3. Pupusas at Tacos Patzcuaro: I'm a sucker for a well-made pupusa. And I can't say I've had any better than the ones at Patzcuaro... Their fried exterior is both crispy and slightly chewy at the same time; the interior is pillowy soft... made to order, piping hot, and served with an engaging combination of warmth and pride by the friendliest folks you'll meet. Euphoric simplicity.

4. Penn Cove mussels at Toby's: This wins the award for most unexpected deliciousness. Toby's is an old school tavern in Coupeville. We only encountered it when we asked the father of one of the local winemakers where he liked to grab a bite to eat. And what we found were steamed mussels that were so good, our mouths were literally gaping after the first bite. Insanely fresh, insanely good.

5. Top Secret Cupcakes: The cupcake fad seems to have some staying power, and I've never had cupcakes that match the ones made by this local expert. Truly artisan, truly small batch, impossibly moist and tender... they'll make you a believer in cupcakes all over again.

6. Blood sausage at Olivar: This one almost didn't make the list because I've never had blood sausage before. But the flavor of this dish was incredible, unlike anything I've had. Made of pigs blood, fat and rice, the sausage was bold and intense in its captivatingly savory flavors, richly spiced for a symphonic taste that I still have yet to pull apart in my mind. I've been cautioned of the spine-shuddering flavors of poorly-made blood sausage... but with this dish, it's one of my new favorites.

7. Tajarin at Spinasse: One of the dishes that still haunts my memories from our days in the Bay Area is the tajarin (pronounced tai-yah-REEN) with 5-hour pork sugo at Perbacco... a truly beautiful dish. Justin Neidermeyer's tajarin with a ragu of pork, beef and veal is just as magnificent, but in a slightly different way. The texture and flavor of his pasta is more developed, but the ragu is more rustic. Phenomenal pasta texture--impossibly thin and delicate, but with enough structural integrity so you can sense every strand in each mouthful.

8. Kushi oysters on the half shell at the Corson Building: How have I never had a Kushi oyster before? Thankfully, these oysters are sourced from waters not too far north of Washington state. These Kushis were served with just a dab of grassy, zesty olive oil and a touch of fleur de sel... perfect for their sweet, buttery flavor. It's like what I always wished kumamotos could taste like...

9. Soup dumplings at Chen's Shanghai: More magic from our friends to the north. The quest for the ultimate xiao long bao is a life-long journey. And there is perhaps no better place to embark on that journey than the dynamic Chinese food scene in Richmond, B.C. Most people swear by the xiao long bao at Shanghai Wonderful (which are fantastic, no doubt), but the version at Chen's are transcendent. The dumpling wrapper is the most delicate I've ever seen, melting away in your mouth upon your first bite. The broth is clean and pure, bursting with glorious seasoned pork flavor... but not at all heavy. Amazing.

10. Sanma nigiri at Miyabi: It's always exciting to try a new kind of fish. It's even better when its flavor and texture vault it immediately to the top of your favorites list. Masa-san, the hard working artisan at our absolute favorite sushi restaurant in Seattle (ahem, Tukwila), encouraged us to try sanma (pike mackerel) during the autumn, when the fish was in season. Supremely fresh, slightly sweet, with a firm texture and tasting like the purest spray of ocean mist... one of those bites that changes your perception on things.

Runners up: Roasted Romanesco Cauliflower and Bagna Cauda at Spinasse, Jason's sweet baguette, raw octopus at Kingyo, cavatelli and mussels in a parsley pesto broth at Union, Kurodai crudo at How to Cook a Wolf, salad of local greens and beef tongue with roasted rainier cherries and chevre at the Corson Building, Vivace espresso ice cream from Molly Moon's.

Yep, it was a terrific year of eating, with both familiar and entirely new taste experiences.

What were some of your favorite dishes this year?

December 21, 2008

quest for a perfect omelette

All of the snow that has been hammering us over the past few days has given me a lot more opportunities to cook -- mostly really warm, rich braised dishes that are the epitome of comfort food.

We awoke this morning to even more snow... really huge flakes drifting down slowly and covering everything with yet another several inches. Seemed like a good day for making a perfect, decadent omelette.

But what makes a perfect omelette? That's a hard question; it's all about personal preference. Some people like to add a bit of milk to get a fluffier texture... others like to mix all the ingredients together with the egg before adding to the pan... still others are fans of cooking over higher heat to get some color to the eggs.

I tend to go for the simplest omelette possible. No milk, just a few ingredients, and cooked just until the egg has set on the outside while the inside stays warm and custardy. You've got to have a good non-stick pan, use a good pat of sweet cream butter, and cook it slow... real slow... never above medium high. The egg stays rich, moist, and almost sweet, and melds nicely with the ingredients folded inside.

This morning's omelettes had caramelized shallot, crisp bacon, sharp cheddar and slices of crisped mushroom (cooked in the bacon renderings). A bit of baby arugula dressed in meyer lemon juice and olive oil, some crusty bread, and brunch was set.

What's your perfect omelette?

December 14, 2008

easy, no recipe baked apple pancakes

Back in college, I experienced some of the coldest winters imaginable. During my first Chicago winter, the temperature dropped down to -27 degrees F, with a wind chill of -75 degrees F. That kind of cold pierces through the thickest down jacket, past the layers of wool and thermals, straight to the core of your bones... not so great for a native Californian.

One of the ways we'd fight off the cold on the weekends would be to take a trip to the local pancake house and order huge mugs of pipping hot coffee and the epic baked apple pancake. Pillowy soft and steaming like cinnamon-infused molten magma, this behemoth of a sugar bomb was really more than any one person should consume alone... but it was exactly the kind of thing that would keep you warm long after you left the pancake house.

This morning, we awoke to the season's first snowfall... a good 2-inch blanket of serenity covering everything. While nowhere near the cold of a real midwest winter, the snow left me craving some baked apple pancakes. There are dozens of ways to make apple pancakes, but I didn't feel like going with an actual recipe. I wanted something simpler, faster, and with no measuring required.

So here's what I came up with: I took buttered two mini cast-iron casseroles (large ramekins would work as well...) and filled them each half way with pancake batter (your favorite batter recipe will work fine without modification... a good pancake mix will work as well). I then added a few slices of apple and topped the batter with a mix of sliced almonds, a sprinkling of brown sugar, cinnamon, and a few small bits of cold butter. Into the toaster oven set at 325 degrees F for 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Lightly sweet, crusty on top and fluffy in the middle... just the thing for a cold snowy morning.

December 7, 2008

the simplicity of baked eggs

Today was a lazy Sunday morning, with a thick layer of clouds hovering over all of Seattle promising rain showers throughout the day. I woke up in the mood to eat souffle, but not in the mood to put in the effort required. Dragging myself downstairs, I rummaged through the refrigerator and didn't find a whole lot to work with either... just some free-range eggs, parmesan cheese, bacon and two english muffins.

But that would prove to be just enough.

We have these tiny ramekins that hold maybe 1/3 of a cup of liquid. I started by beating an egg with a bit of cream, a good little heap of shaved parmesan, salt and pepper, and poured the mixture equally into two buttered ramekins. I then cracked an egg into each ramekin, drizzled just a bit of olive oil on top of each, and placed them in the toaster oven at 400 degrees for 6-7 minutes.

The result is a rich, satisfying breakfast that takes practically no effort. The egg and cheese custard fuses with the egg white as it cooks and sets, surrounding the yolk and keeping it warm and liquidy. Meanwhile, the olive oil and cheese help the top develop a nice golden crust.

With some good jam, a hot cup of coffee and the Sunday paper, I was left wondering why I don't bake eggs more often...

November 30, 2008

foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: a special meal of thanks

Thanksgiving is such a fantastic time of year---getting together with friends and family and reflecting on the many things we're thankful for. Like most folks, usually we eat until we've expanded our waists a few inches, sit on the couch for a few hours, and get back up to eat more.

This year, I wanted to do something a little different... to give thanks for what we have through our actions as well as our words. With so many food banks in need of support at this time of year (particularly given the current economic situation), Lav and I thought we would throw a small dinner party to raise some money for Northwest Harvest, a state-wide hunger relief agency here in Washington that supplies 18 million pounds of food annually to almost 300 partner food banks and meal programs.

The idea would be simple. We'd invite eight friends over for a formal dinner. Each person would make a contribution directly to Northwest Harvest in exchange for a five course thanksgiving meal, prepared and served by us. By doing this, the simple act of eating would be raising some much needed funds for a good cause.

We were lucky enough to have our idea selected as part of's "24 Meals, 24 Hours, 24 Blogs" event this month. Our hope is that other folks out there who also enjoy cooking and hosting dinner parties might be interested in doing something similar in their own homes.

The evening started off with a few aperitifs---a "holiday spice" martini and sparkling wine scented with rosemary---with Paul serving as our visiting volunteer mixologist/server.

Rather than serving a traditional "thanksgiving" meal, we created a menu based on some of our favorite dishes this past year and dishes that would be seasonally appropriate, given what we were able to find at the Ballard farmers market. I'm also taking part in Urban Hennery's Dark Days Eat Local Challenge, so we wanted to try to make the meal with at least 90% local ingredients.

the menu
shaved fennel salad, apple, beet, parmesan, crouton
romanesco cauliflower, bagna càuda
riccioli, parsley pesto broth, totten inlet mussels
18-hour braised short rib, parsnip, jerusalem artichoke, chanterelle, sage
chocolate cake, molly moon vivace, lace cookie

For the first course, we wanted to start with something light and refreshing. We shaved a bulb of fennel and a few stalks of celery almost paper then, dressing them in a white balsamic vinaigrette. For a lightly sweet counterpoint, we added added matchsticks of fuji apple and thin slices of roasted beets. We then topped it off with shards of parmiggiano reggiano (a non-local, imported ingredient).

I wanted to add something decadent and rich to bridge the diners to the next courses, which would be much more robust and dense in flavor, so we added a toast point with caramelized shallot, bacon, swiss chard and gruyere... topped with a fried quail egg. Just a small bite of crunchy richness for a chilly evening.

The second course of roasted romanesco cauliflower was based on a delicious dish we had at Spinasse here in Seattle. The romanesco cauliflower itself is a sight to behold... you can get lost staring into its fractal patterns. I'm not sure why these fascinating vegetables aren't more popular in our everyday supermarkets.

It took me a little searching to finally locate the romanesco cauliflower (thanks to PCC markets, sourced from a local farm less than 30 miles away), but it was well worth it. We sliced it into wedges and pan-roasted them in a cast iron skillet with some olive oil, salt and pepper until the exterior was nicely caramelized and the interior was just a bit tender.

Earlier in the day, I made the bagna càuda by putting 8 tablespoons of olive oil in a small pot over very low heat. Into that, I added three anchovy filets and 4 cloves of garlic, sliced. As the olive oil slowly heated, the anchovy could be broken up and eventually dissolved into the oil while the garlic softened and permeated the oil with its flavor. Lastly, I added a few healthy pinches of red pepper flakes for a light heat. Once the romanesco cauliflower was cooked, we plated it with some toasted pine nuts and drizzled the bagna càuda all over it. The cauliflower gets a fantastic nutty flavor from the roasting, which matches well with the anchovy-garlic seasoning of the oil.

The third course is a riff on Union's spectacular cavatelli and mussels in a parsley pesto broth. Using the same parsley pesto recipe that I blogged about earlier, we had these fantastic fresh-made riccioli from the farmer's market and insanely fresh, plump Totten inlet mediterranean mussels from Taylor Shellfish.

I can't ever get tired of braised short ribs. This particular dish was special for a couple of reasons. First, we went with the 18-hour slow braising method (trying to keep a constant temperature of no more than 68 degrees C), which creates a meltingly tender texture without overcooking the meat. Second, we sourced the short ribs from two amazing local providers: Skagit River Ranch and Olsen Farms, whose cattle are grass-fed and pasture raised.

To finish, we made a simple chocolate cake and matched it with an almond lace cookie and my absolute favorite coffee ice cream: Molly Moon's Vivace Coffee (a local artisan ice cream shop in Wallingford).

But enough about all this food. The more important thing is that we were able to raise $860 for Northwest Harvest (after factoring in corporate matching and some Foodbuzz funds). Not a bad way to spend an evening!

A special thanks goes out to Leo Chen, an incredible photographer who volunteered his services for the night to take these beautiful pictures. His perspective and images tell the story of the evening in a way that my words simply cannot.

If you find this idea interesting and would like to learn more, please check out our separate blog for this ongoing project, fishes+loaves. There, you can find out more about the theory behind the project and see some pictures from a previous meal that took place earlier in November. This was our second attempt at this kind of a meal, and there will be more to come. If you'd like to get involved with a similarly structured meal for charity, we'd love to hear from you!

November 20, 2008

parsley pesto broth

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon the Dark Days Challenge from Urban Hennery. Basically, the challenge unites a bunch of bloggers in an effort to cook at least one meal a week featuring 90% local ingredients. And each week, a recap is done of the ideas and creations from participating bloggers. What an awesome idea.

So here's my first submission; a fairly simple dish where everything except the olive oil and pecorino romano was sourced from the Puget Sound... even the dried pasta was locally produced (from Papparadelle's in Pike Place).

One of our favorite places for a late night meal in Seattle is Union downtown. The bar serves a terrific menu after 10 pm, the cocktails are carefully and expertly crafted, and the prices are absolutely fantastic for the quality of the food.

Among my favorite Ethan Stowell dishes is any pasta he makes with his parsley pesto broth, often paired with pristine mussels. Most recently, we tried a preparation with cavatelli that was outrageously good...

So tonight, I made a first attempt at replicating the dish at home. I followed a standard pesto recipe, but substituted the basil with parsley leaves and used grated pecorino romano rather than parmigiano reggiano for its more assertive flavor and saltiness.

The best part of Stowell's parsley pesto broth is its dilution. Rather than dressing his pasta with straight pesto, he dilutes it (either with broth or cooking liquid from the pasta) to make a much thinner consistency. The flavor still envelopes the pasta, but you get a beautifully green lingering broth that oozes out, robust and packed with flavor, keeping the pasta from getting clumpy or greasy from the pesto.

parsley pesto

1 large bunch flat leaf parsley (roughly 4 cups of leaves)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts
2 large garlic cloves
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino romano
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Combine first 4 ingredients in blender, discarding the parsley stems. Blend until paste forms, stopping often to push down the parsley. Add pecorino romano and salt; blend until smooth. Transfer to small bowl.

pasta and mussels in a parsley pesto broth

2 servings of dried pasta (cavatelli and orichiette work very well)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 lb. large mussels (roughly 8-10, rinsed and debearded)
1/2 small onion, finely diced
1 strip of bacon, diced (optional)
1/4 cup white wine
2 tablespoons of parsley pesto

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente.

While the pasta is cooking: In a saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and gently saute until translucent. Add bacon and continue to cook until the bacon is crisp. Add mussels and toss to coat. Deglaze the pan with wine and put lid over pan. Cook until the mussels have steamed and opened, approx. 2 minutes.

Once the mussels have opened, remove them from the pan. Add parsley pesto to the pan and heat to loosen the pesto and incorporate the broth in the saute pan. Add pasta to the sauce and toss to coat, adding pasta cooking liquid to the pan to further
loosen the pesto as needed, until the pesto has a viscous, soupy consistency (like potato leek soup). Add mussels back to the pan and toss again to coat. Remove from heat and serve.

Serves 2 people.

November 9, 2008

quick and easy chocolate cake

I woke up yesterday morning to a fleeting beam of sunlight that was overcome by gray clouds of intermittent rain, and the first thought to enter my head was how fantastic it would be to have chocolate cake... for breakfast. Lav quickly concurred.

As luck would have it, while scrolling through some Associated Press news headlines on my iPhone (still in that mental fog between sleep and full consciousness), an article popped up with what may be the easiest chocolate cake recipe I've ever seen. Now I'm not much of a baker--that's more Lav's domain, given my lack of that all-important combination of precision and patience--but this seemed absolutely foolproof... and from an authority like Francois Payard, no less.

Sure enough, less than an hour later we were enjoying a proper breakfast of moist, rich chocolate cake and coffee.

from Francois Payard's "Chocolate Epiphany," 2008

Start to finish: 35 minutes (15 minutes active)

Servings: 8 to 10

baking spray (cooking spray blend of oil and flour)
10 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 ounces 60 percent cacao chocolate, chopped
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour

Place a rack at the center of the oven. Heat the oven to 350 F. Use the baking spray to coat the sides and bottom of a 9-inch round springform pan.

In a small saucepan over medium-high, bring the butter to a boil, stirring several times to prevent it from burning. Remove the pan from the heat and add the chocolate, stirring until melted and smooth. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar. Add the flour and mix well. Add the chocolate and butter mixture, then mix only until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan.

Bake the cake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 300 F and bake for an additional 8 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and let cool completely in the pan. Unmold and serve.

November 8, 2008

the magic of spinasse

A friend of mine at work constantly laments over the lack of good italian restaurants in the Seattle area. And I was inclined to agree--until our dinner last night at Justin Neidermeyer's gem of a trattoria, Spinasse.

Economic uncertainty may be slowing down restaurant traffic, but you wouldn't know it by the bustle of euphoric diners in the confines of the cozy dining space--perfect for a typically rainy fall evening in Seattle.

(Pardon the crude mobile phone pictures... I've decided to avoid bringing a camera when dining out... it's just too obtrusive). Once you're seated and salivating over the menu's rustic offerings, you're provided with a few tiny bruschetta (this night, we had one with marinated chanterelles and another with rabbit liver pate and balsamico) whose robust flavors emerge from the simplicity of the approach... foreshadowing the meal to come.

We opted for a four course meal, comprised of two antipasti, a primo and a secondi... not realizing how much food we were ordering.

Our first antipasti was a chicory salad with poached rabbit, porcini mushrooms and parmesan... a beautiful dish. The slightly bitter edge of the chicory balanced perfectly with the simply seasoned rabbit, the almost sweet porcini and the rich parmesan shavings, drizzled with just a touch of balsamico to tie it all together. The second antipasti was the special of the night: roasted romanesco cauliflower with bagna couda, the classic piemontese accompaniment made of crushed anchovies, garlic, olive oil and sometimes chili peppers... a soulful, robust addition to the caramelized goodness of the cauliflower. The dish was showered with shavings of local black truffles as well, but truffles from the northwest tend to have an incredibly mild, faint flavor--here, they afforded just the faintest whiff of musky richness to the dish.

Ah... then the pasta. There was no doubt on what to order here: the tajarin with a ragu of pork, beef and veal. The first time I ever had hand-shaven tajarin was at Perbacco in San Francisco--their insanely delicious rendition is served with a velvety-rich five-hour pork sugo. One bite and you'll be forever addicted. Spinasse's tajarin is fantastic in a simpler way. Phenomenal pasta texture--impossibly thin and delicate, but with enough structural integrity so you can sense every strand in each mouthful--with a ragu that aims only to be the most unobtrusive of accompaniments, adding flavor only as an accent to turn attention back to the pasta. I could eat this endlessly.

Our final course was the pan roasted quail with lentils and kale. Sadly, our appetites had already hit the wall by the end of the generous portion of tajarin... the moist quail was dressed perfectly with the pan jus over the earthly lentils and kale... but we barely made a dent before we had to call it quits. No loss--just a great lunch for today.

Justin Neidermeyer is a magician with pasta... He easily deserves all of the accolades and recognition for his abilities as a pastaiolo. But even more, he deserves enormous thanks for creating the heart of simple, amazing italian food in Seattle. He's put together a restaurant whose food deeply satisfies from beginning to end. Service was the right combination of casual, friendly and professional, and the atmosphere of the space strikes just the right vibe for a sense of shared experience. We'll be back. Often.

Cascina Spinasse on Urbanspoon

November 3, 2008

fishes and loaves

Some cross promotion--I'm trying something new here. Check out the new blog I'm starting. Lots more detail on the way.

October 29, 2008

the best cupcakes ever

A few days ago, we got the November edition of Seattle Magazine in the mail. The cover article? "Best Desserts: Where to find the 95 richest cakes, creamiest pies and most decadent desserts for every craving"... accompanied by a simple picture of three of Trophy's gorgeous Chocolate Graham Cracker with Toasted Marshmallow cupcakes...

Now there's a lot to like about Trophy. They make a mighty fine cupcake--a clear cut above the other cupcake bakeries in the Seattle area--good enough to wow Martha Stewart... a local business we can be proud of.

But Martha hasn't had a chance to taste the decadent chocolate cupcakes from the greatest cupcake maker I've ever encountered.

For Lav's birthday, I got two dozen of her all-time favorite cupcakes, half with vanilla buttercream frosting and the other half with raspberry buttercream. Phenomenal chocolate flavor, unbelievably moist and tender... and topped by decadent frosting. The vanilla buttercream used to be my favorite, but the purity of the all natural raspberry puree flavor in the raspberry buttercream was insanely good. These cupcakes are really without match, surpassing even Trophy's version of the chocolate cupcake. Don't worry, we didn't eat them all by ourselves--although we probably could have made a significant dent on our own.

Where can you get these cupcakes? Well, it's pretty much an underground operation for now, but if you're in the Seattle area, you can always try your luck at Maybe for next year's dessert issue, Seattle Magazine can get the scoop on this one...

October 19, 2008

more signs of fall

Not that it hasn't been pretty apparent already, but this week it really sunk in that the fall season has fully arrived. Leaves are changing color all over the place and there's a new, denser quality to the chill in the air. Now, on a clear day like today, there isn't quite the same warmth to the sunshine... plumes of steam shoot out of the side of our house as we run the dryer, and it gets harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning.

But with the onset of this cooler season, I'm looking forward to the return of slow roasting and braising, the use of a richer palate of flavors and textures, and the pairing of dense, brooding wines.

Lav picked up some cranberry beans from the market recently, which I've never worked with before. Even fresh, it takes a good 15-20 minutes to boil these beans down to a tender, creamy consistency, unveiling their slightly sweet, slightly nutty flavor. What struck me most was the stunning colors of the pods and the beans themselves.

Like an explosion of fall foliage... maybe less sun, maybe a bit chillier, but lots to look forward to.