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.