October 3, 2010

The Willows Inn on Lummi Island

Thanks to a tip in Seattle Magazine, yesterday we found ourselves on a tiny island watching a beautiful sunset, enjoying a fantastic meal of pristine local ingredients. And the team preparing the meal? Led by a young and talented chef, Blaine Wetzel, returning to Washington after 18 months as a sous chef at none other than Noma, Copenhagen's gastronomic icon of intensely local and indigenous food, to lead the kitchen at the Willows Inn.

Why was this one of the most exciting meals we've had in recent memory? Maybe it was the spectacular setting of the property... the amazing sourcing of ingredients from the gardens adjacent to the property and from the waters viewable from deck... or the techniques and flavor combinations expressed in the dishes we enjoyed... perhaps the time taken by Chef Blaine, his sous chef Jason, and Riley Stark (the proprietor of the inn) to hang out after the meal to talk about what they are trying to accomplish with the food at the inn.

What I do know is that the first bite of each dish had a bit of revelation, sparking an interest and anticipation for what might be coming next.

September 26, 2010

tajarin al burro e salvia

In 2006, Perbacco opened in the Financial District of San Francisco, giving a legitimate option for Piemonte cuisine just a few blocks away from my office. It was at Perbacco that I first heard of, and tasted, what was to become one of my all-time favorite pastas: tajarin.

Tajarin comes from the Langhe region of Italy, an area known for its Barbaresco and Barolo as well as its white truffles. The pasta itself is simple but decadent: flour, egg yolks and a pinch of salt. Nothing more.

September 19, 2010

weekend eating

It's been a very good food weekend for us, starting with a particularly terrific meal on Friday night at Spinasse. On a stormy night, few dining rooms in Seattle are as warm and comforting.

Salt-roasted local spot prawns. Sweet and succulent, one of our favorite things to eat.

First of the season porcini mushroom, two ways: broiled and caramelized and shaved raw with parmesan. Unreal depth of flavor.

Crispy pig trotter on sauteed beet greens. Crazy rich and decadent, a fantastic contrast of textures.

And of course, the always phenomenal tajarin al ragu, to which LaV has professed her undying love and devotion.

As much as we loved Spinasse when it first opened, Jason Stratton has really elevated the restaurant to the next level and made it his own. He's maintained a fantastic team and has a great sense of the flow of the restaurant, taking regular stints serving in the dining room to stay connected to that side of the operation. Super gifted, super humble, and an all-around terrific fellow who deserves all the accolades he has received. This is one of the restaurants that makes Seattle feel like "home" to us.

Inspired, the next evening we walked into the garden to harvest the ingredients for a dinner with some good friends.

Saturday's menu:

avocado and green tomato gazpacho
blistered corn, black cherry tomato, pickled red onion

salad of garden tomatoes, five varieties
mozzarella, japanese cucumber, apple-mint

roasted beet salad
bacon, baby arugula, chevre, roasted walnuts

skillet-roasted baby carrots
caramelized onion, medjool dates, harissa-spiked yogurt, honey
(a dish inspired by the good folks at Sitka+Spruce)

san marzano tomatoes, garlic, pepperoncini

chocolate zucchini cake
d'ambrosio hazelnut gelato
(gotta do something with all the zucchini we're getting...)

Then came today... a day which somehow turned out to be a bit busy and tiring (for a variety of reasons), but with pockets of relaxation and rest. Looking for a way to close out the weekend, I put together a simple sunday supper:

*caprese salad
*marinated raw zucchini with walnuts and crisped prosciutto (following a tip from Chef Stratton... this may be my new favorite way to eat zucchini)
*risotto of beet greens
*caramelized figs with chevre and honey

Just enjoying a meal with LaV in the peace of our home, sitting on our deck for the last few minutes of sunlight... I wish those minutes would last an eternity. They're a great reminder of how much we have to be thankful for.

We're keeping our fingers crossed for some mild weather this week... our garden still has a TON of tomatoes on the verge of ripening. With any luck, the rain will be sporadic and we'll just need to fend off a few hungry slugs...

September 13, 2010

chocolate zucchini bread

Somehow, in the blink of an eye, we are already in mid-September, the last vestiges of summer starting to give way to autumn. The sun is setting at 7:30 pm instead of 9:30 pm, temperatures are mellowing out, and all the kids (and teachers!) are back in school.

But our "summer" garden is still chugging along.

It wasn't a spectacularly warm summer like last year here in Seattle, so most of our tomatoes are only now beginning to hit their peak. The carrots and beets have been very good, the lettuces and arugula were more productive than we ever could have hoped/wanted, and we actually have peppers this year! We're getting some nice delicata squash, the sugar snap peas were fantastic, and the kale and chard keep on going. A big surprise hit this year was our parsley... really delicious parsley, believe it or not.

And then there's the zucchini.

Every year, we plant one summer squash or zucchini. We do this knowing full well that it will be more productive than we can handle and take up more space than we want. But we plant it anyway. Last year, the summer squash grew to extend more than 20 feet, wrapping itself around the garden plot. Thinking we were clever, we opted this year for a "smaller" variety of zucchini. Whatever. Crazy growth has still resulted. When we didn't pay close attention last month, one of the zucchini grew larger than 5 lbs! We've grilled a bunch and given a bunch away, but the plant keeps producing! We can't keep up!

When life gives you an overabundance of zucchini, make zucchini bread.

To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of zucchini bread. Sure, it's moist, but most recipies tend to lack depth of flavor. Then I ran across this blog post about a Zucchini Chocolate Loaf and I was sold. I'm not going to reprint the recipe here because I just followed Asha's recipe with two exceptions. I omitted the basil from the batter (but I think it's a great idea to add it upon plating), and put in 3/4 cup of chopped walnuts.

The loaf is light, with a delicate crumb, yet super moist and flavorful. Try it for yourself. You won't be disappointed.

July 18, 2010

Chelanman 2010 race report

One thought kept running through my mind: "Why the heck am I doing this?"

It all went back to that fateful evening on September 10, 2008. It was a Wednesday night--our usual C-group gathering--and I had just told Nicole H. that I wouldn't be doing the Kirkland Sprint Triathlon because I was crazy out of shape and hadn't trained at all. Nicole looked at me with these sad, huge puppy dog eyes and said "What do you mean you're not going to run the triathlon?" You see, I'd convinced her to do the race with me, and in her enthusiasm, she'd gotten a co-worker to enter the duathlon that day as well.

The sad puppy dog expression was powerful. Too powerful. I convinced myself that cramming in 10 days of training would be enough. Two Sundays later, we did our first triathlon and I was hooked.

Last November, after running an olympic triathlon with Riley, a thought flickered in the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, I could try to survive a half ironman... Part of this dated back to my early college days when I had a secret dream to someday qualify for Ironman Hawaii (even though I'd stopped swimming, didn't own a bike, and hated running). Reality eventually set in and I didn't give it another thought... until I found myself planning and registering for the 2010 Chelanman Half Ironman.

Fast forward to yesterday, around 11:45 am. I'm finishing mile 5 of the run at the Chelanman, and the unimpeded sunlight of a 90-degree summer day is really starting to kick my butt. We don't get heat and sun like this in Seattle. My legs feel like deadweights, my strength ebbing away with each lumbering step. And the only thought pulsing through my mind with every breath is "Why the heck am I doing this?"

* * *

A few moments later, I made it to the next aid station and grabbed two ice cold cups of water. I downed the first and poured the second onto my head... the refreshing shock of the cold water snapped me out it a bit. I plodded on slowly, walking whenever I started to overheat too much, and keeping my thoughts on friends and family. At 11.5 miles, I could see the buoys in the lake from the swim earlier that morning... a happy sight. Not too much later, I finally, FINALLY, came down the home stretch and crossed that finish line. Relief!

So how was the race? Pretty brutal. I've never felt so physically exhausted, and I definitely underestimated how challenging it would be to run a half marathon after 56 miles on the bike through hills. But it was also super gratifying... when I saw the finish line and heard the cheers of LaV, Shane, Jason and Kelly, a shot of adrenaline rushed through my body and for 15 seconds all of the fatigue disappeared. And then it was done! 6 hours, 20 minutes, 50 seconds. Missed my original target time of 6 hours (from before I learned of the climbs on the bike ride), but pretty happy with the result considering the way I felt at the beginning of the run.

All in all, a great venue with amazing friends coming to watch--and some running the 10k at the same time! And about that 10k: Jason ran his first race and got 16th place, Shane ran a personal best, and LaV came out of retirement to run the race... Nice!

And there's definitely a huge upside to running a race in Washington's newest AVA for post-race hydration...

Big thanks go to:
  • Nicole, whose disappointed expression in 2008 made me do my first triathlon
  • Riley, getting me to do my first Olympic tri and for telling me to go w/ the two-piece outfit to make bathroom breaks easier (wise man... it came in handy at mile 2 of the run!)
  • Shane, for all the training runs and motivation over the months
  • Chris, for good half ironman advice and taking me on a good training ride
  • Nancy, for magically finding the perfect accomodations for combining the race & Jason's b-day festivities
  • Emily and Daniel, for the best sign ever
  • Brian and Nicole, for making it to Chelan on their way back to Colorado

And, of course, to LaV, for patiently putting up with all the training, equipment-buying, and sleepiness, and for being my motivation... you are a trooper.

Race Summary

Venue: Hot, but spectacular. Lake Chelan and the surrounding area is a beautiful backdrop for a triathlon... It felt like we were in California. A very well run race.

Swim: The water was 71 degrees--ideal for going FAST. But winds picked up that morning and the waves were some of the choppiest I've experienced in open water. Following the rope trail under the buoys also wasn't ideal because the winds had pushed the buoys into a curved route. Sighting after the turn was challenging because we were headed straight toward the sun. Still, the lake is terrific, making it a fun swim.

Bike: Fun, but brutal, at least for me. The first half of the course was rolling mild hills along the lake--nice and fast... and a surprising amount of solitude. Not too many people passing me, and a lot of space between riders. It practically felt like a solo ride for the first hour. At about 25 miles, I was still in the top 50. Then the first real climb hit (and my rank plummeted). I've never biked on a route with hills of that length, but I downshifted, found a good pace that wouldn't kill me, and enjoyed the views. A good downhill, probably close to 30 mph, only to be followed by a short, steeper climb, then a seemingly neverending gradual climb. Pain. Fatigue. A false summit, followed by another short steep climb. I've never ridden a bike so slowly. Then, when all hope seemed lost, a blistering downhill (30+ mph?), but with one speed-killing hairpin turn. I beat my target for the bike, but my legs were absolutely burned, even though I was trying to conserve energy on the ride.

Run: Pain. Right out of the transition, my legs were dead tired... but I found a good slow pace to crank it out. After 5 miles though, I had to stop and walk for a while. At noon, it got HOT, and a 10 min/mile pace was tough. It was hard to run unless I had someone to pace off of. At mile 8, I was struggling big time and walking a lot. I swore to myself that I'd never do this again. I'm guessing it was a combination of lack of bike-run distance brick training, the heat, and a larger calorie deficit than I should have allowed. Eventually, that finish line finally showed up.

Awkward moment: Trying to encourage someone I was running with at mile 7. I said, "Just think of the huge, juicy, delicious burger you're going to have when this race is over." She replied, "I'm vegetarian."

May 26, 2010

sitka & spruce, reborn

Back in late October 2006, I was preparing to fly up to Seattle for a job interview. Having never spent any significant amount of time in the city, I figured I'd send an email to two local food bloggers to get recommendations for restaurants to check out. Dana Cree (@deensie) and Molly Wizenberg both emailed me back recommended that I check out Sitka & Spruce, a tiny little restaurant in Eastlake that had opened just a few months earlier. I checked out the website, saw that they did Sunday suppers, and gave them a call to see about stopping in the evening before my interview, on November 5th.

Too bad---there wasn't to be a Sunday supper that particular evening due to a private party. I ended up having a perfectly lovely meal at Tilth that Sunday evening. But the desire to try Sitka & Spruce haunted me for months.

I ended up accepting the job and relocating to Seattle in February 2007. Two months later, I finally found myself dining solo (LaV hadn't yet moved to Seattle) on a Wednesday evening, enjoying a brightly dressed tuna crudo and an unctuous plate of braised beef cheek with gremolata. I remember Matt Dillon coming out of the kitchen in the midst of a very busy service and saying in a gentle voice, "How is everything?" I told him it was terrific---that his food reminded me of everything I loved about eating back in the Bay Area, and that the gremolata on the beef cheek was a remarkable accent that really made the dish shine. He thanked me for noticing the gremolata accent, then disappeared back into the kitchen. At that moment, I had two feelings: First, I couldn't wait for LaV to come up and try this place. And second, with restaurants like this, Seattle was going to be a great place to live.

Over the course of the next two and a half years, Sitka & Spruce quickly became my favorite restaurant in Seattle. We were eating meals of such simplicity, resplendent in their remarkable balance of flavor and purity of ingredients. With two of my all time favorite servers/hosts (Matt and Megan), every meal at Sitka & Spruce felt like an intimate evening with friends... and we happily brought all of our visiting friends to this neighborhood gem, tucked between a Subway and a teriyaki joint in a micro strip mall, to show them why I've enjoyed eating in Seattle more than I ever enjoyed eating in the Bay Area.

That's right, I said it. More than I enjoyed eating in the Bay Area. Not by much, but undeniably so. That proclamation drives my friend Riley nuts.

I love this place so much, but I've never wanted to blog about it before. There was already enough press about how great this place was, and far better photographers had already documented the restaurant in their photos. Besides, I long ago lost any ability to be objective about the food and the people of Sitka & Spruce. I was totally content to just sit and enjoy each meal.

Then, out of nowhere, came the news that Sitka & Spruce would be moving to Capitol Hill. No! This place had become so near and dear to us... would the relocation change things? Would the restaurant have a different feel, a different crowd? Would we miss the things we'd come to love so much about the place, like its quirky location, the bright green walls, the beautiful chalkboard menu?

The farewell event was on December 30, 2009. We enjoyed a communal spread, said our goodbyes, and waited for the new location to be completed. Almost six months later, LaV ran into Matt at Bauhaus, and he let her know that the opening was just weeks away. At last! And tonight, Sitka & Spruce reopened.

And man, was it worth the wait. A big round of hugs from Matt at the entry. So good to see him and Megan running the floor. A wonderfully designed space... open, airy, yet cozy and intimate. Killer open kitchen. I mean REALLY open kitchen... with a wood burning hearth/oven. Big communal table. Lots of natural light. Wow.

And then the food. Lenrimmad halibut with creme fraiche, honey and fennel. Our first bite from "new" Sitka, a "wow" moment for me as I pondered the nuanced composition of flavors, the kiss of honey adding an unexpected but perfect waft of sweetness to the richness of the creme fraiche and the pristine flavor and texture of the halibut. Warm vegetables with anchovy brown butter. Grilled asparagus with piparras and a six minute egg. At this point, Sitka & Spruce is showing up big time.

Live sidestriped prawns and grilled bread. Plucked from the waters of the Straight of Juan de Fuca yesterday, doused in olive oil and cooked until the sweet flesh was just done, the oil infused with the flavor of the shells. Oh man, I could eat this all day, soaking up all the oil with good, crusty bread.

A half chicken, roasted in the hearth, with yogurt and harissa. This team has a way with roasted chicken, and they've never surpassed how perfectly cooked this one was. Outrageously moist and tender... I have no idea how they got such precision from the wood burning stove. This expert touch, this respect for the ingredients is what makes their food sparkle.

A simple dessert of olive oil gelato with olive oil cake and outrageously delicious strawberries with a hint of rose water.

Sitka & Spruce is back. It's as good as it ever was... maybe even better. As much as I adored the randomness of the old location, the restaurant finally has a remarkable space to match its food. Service is still warm and personal. After six long months, my gastro-universe has its anchor back and order has been restored. Pretty impressive for their first evening back.

And really, the only thing I miss is the chalkboard.
Sitka & Spruce on Urbanspoon

May 16, 2010

firing up the grill

We've had a week of fantastic weather up here in Seattle---prime time to bust out the grill and enjoy the warmth and sunshine.

There's nothing like the first opportunity to eat outdoors after a long winter, the promise of summer just around the corner. The garden is taking off, and we're already getting to enjoy the first batch of lettuces.

Here are some pictures of what is to come...

May 8, 2010

Garden 2.0

With lots of things going on at work and a good amount of time set aside for triathlon training, it has been a LONG time between blog posts. That's not to say that there hasn't been time for some great food experiences, from decadent cakes made by friends to our favorite spots--like Miyabi and Spinasse--continuing to surprise and amaze us. And I still need to put up a long overdue post about one of the coolest guys I've met and the unbelievable chefs knives he makes.

For now though, my attention has been on our garden. We've expanded our square footage to double the size of last year's plot, and we've got some grand plans and high expectations. Last week was the Seattle Tilth edible plant sale, which has become one of my favorite Seattle events each year. There's such an astounding variety of plant starts, you can't help but be filled with anticipation and excitement at the potential for the output of the summer garden.

Here are some quick snaps of what we've got going on. The little guys survived a couple of chilly nights early this week (except for the poor Japanese cucumber casualty) and are being rewarded with pure, unobstructed sunlight all weekend long.

Here's what we've got in the ground:


arugula (2 varieties)
black zucchini
celery root
edible flowers
bok choy
brussel sprouts
fava beans
lettuces (4 varieties)
pole beans
sugar snap peas
sweet peppers (2 varieties)
swiss chard
tomatoes (6 varieties)

Grow baby, grow!

February 8, 2010

making the time for handmade pesto

With all of the modern conveniences we have at our disposal, our first impulse might be to pick up a container of pesto from the market rather than make it from scratch. Even if we do decide to make pesto at home, we're usually thinking of using a blender or food processor to speed up the process.

But there's definitely something special about making pesto with an old school mortar and pestle: a softness to these otherwise strong, pungent flavors that you can't get with a blender... a slower integration and smoother, silkier texture to the pesto... more of a natural sweetness from the garlic.

More importantly, making the pesto with a mortar and pestle engages all of your senses and connects you to the ingredients and how they come together. You actually breathe in the sweet aroma of fresh basil, see the way the texture of the salt helps break down the raw garlic, and understand how crushing the pine nuts into a thick paste releases the oils that help emulsify and integrate the garlic to the basil. The 15 minutes of effort is well worth the end result, which can be transcendent.

Classic Pesto

2 tightly packed cups of fresh, unblemished basil leaves (stems removed)
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 cloves garlic
1/3 cup mild extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano
pinch of kosher salt

Using a mortar and pestle, crush the garlic and a pinch of kosher salt together until a paste is formed. Chop the basil into a rough chiffonade---don't chop the basil too finely, because you want to do most of the crushing and pulverizing with the mortar and pestle. Add the pine nuts and a small handful of the basil to the mortar and crush together with the garlic to form a fine paste. Add the remaining basil and continue crushing until well integrated. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, stirring constantly. Add the parmigiano-reggiano and stir to combine.

January 31, 2010

The simple pleasures: Beef with Thai basil

As we wrap up another month of frugality, I have to admit that this year was much easier than previous years. I didn't miss eating out all that much---it helps when your favorite restaurant is closed to move to a new location---and I only really craved a drink whenever I watched an episode of Mad Men...

With all of the cooking we did at home, we cycled through lots of the old favorites: hot pot, chicken poached in sake, tagine, pizza... and the thing I noticed most was how truly delicious the simplest dishes can be. Sure, it's nice to have an opportunity to eat a perfectly prepared sous-vide beef short rib with peanut and broccoli puree with a dehydrated gelatinized sheet of Guinness, but there's something special about the pleasure of simple, well executed dishes. No production, no esoteric flavor combinations, no unexpected twists. Just undeniably tasty food...

...like a 15-minute bowl of spaghetti, adorned only by brightly flavored San Marzano tomatoes and a bit of garlic, basil and chili flakes. Maybe a rich, warm soup with good crusty bread on a cold winter evening. Or hamachi kama, always a favorite, dressed only with a touch of salt and oil before being broiled for 10 minutes to crispy goodness in our toaster oven.

A good stir fry is also always a winner: quick, simple and satisfying. For me, stir frying is all about knowing the different temperature zones of your wok so you can be sure to get the best caramelization and flavor you need to make the dish sparkle.

We had some really nice Thai basil on hand, with a bit of good quality, thinly sliced beef, so I threw together this quick dish for lunch. The Thai basil is the star here, its sweet, enchanting aroma and flavor enveloping the tender, seared beef.

Stir-Fried Beef with Thai Basil

1/2 lb beef top round steak
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons ginger, finely chopped
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 green onions, cut into thin strips
1 red pepper, finely diced
1 bunch Thai basil
1 teaspoon chili sauce or chili oil (optional)

Cut the beef thinly against the grain. In a bowl, combine the soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and corn starch. Add the beef and marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour. Drain.

Heat wok over high heat. Add the oil and heat until smoking. Add garlic and ginger and cook for 10 seconds. Add the beef and cook until caramelized, about 2-3 minutes (depending on the heat of your wok). Remove beef and set aside. Reserve 1 tablespoon of oil in your wok.

Bringing wok back up to high heat and stir fry yellow onion (with a pinch of salt) until softened, approximately 2 minutes. Add red pepper and cook for an additional minute. Add the beef and green onions and stir fry for 60 seconds. Add Thai basil leaves and chili sauce/oil, toss well, and turn off heat.

Serve with steamed rice.