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...