Sunday, May 31, 2009

Berry of the Month - May

In the summer, it is easy for me to track time based on which berry is available. I thought this would be a fun monthly blog feature - a berry of the month club, if you will.

I made it in just under the wire for May, but on Sunday I thankfully had time to head down to the creek behind our house and pick salmonberries.

Salmonberries are unique to the Pacific Northwest, though I understand they grow as far North as Alaska and as far East as Idaho. Not many people actually know about the berries, since they are not cultivated and are too fragile for transporting or freezing. You can find them growing along the road, especially in shaded, woodsy areas. They are not as prolific as blackberries though and the period they are ripe is just a couple of weeks.

My friend Maria came by Sunday afternoon and we lazed in the sun on my deck for awhile before we realized we needed to get up and move. We both had a case of the lazy Sundays. With basket in hand, we headed down to the creek.

There is something so satisfying about picking berries. We were both wrestling branches and risking a fall into the creek to reach the fattest, brightest berries.

Our efforts were well rewarded though. We managed to get about a cup and a half of berries in just 15 or 20 minutes. I love how the berries range in color from pale orange to hot pink.

The berries have a really mild flavor. They are best eaten right away, promptly upon plucking them from the bush in fact. They are named 'salmon' berries, since the shoots were eaten by Native Americans as a side dish alongside salmon. Perhaps the name also references the color as well or that they ripen near the time salmon are returning to streams in late Spring.

I decided to make a simple syrup with the berries, as I did last year. We were having fish tacos for dinner, so had our heart set on margaritas. By mixing up the salmonberry syrup with some triple sec, fresh lemon and lime juices and some tequila, they ended up being Salmonberry Margaritas. Olé!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Feasting Friday: Local Edition

We have a restaurant in Lake Forest Park. Granted, it isn't anything "gourmet" or anything...but a bona fide restaurant nonetheless. And can you say "Void. Filled?" Look at this line-up of people!

We picked up a menu last weekend and learned that this new restaurant is owned by the same folks who have the Greenlake/Eastlake/South Lake Union Bar and Grill restaurants. Those are decent enough places. Good, but not great.

There was a bit of wait for a table, but we managed to snag one in the bar. It was loud and boisterous, probably due to the fact that the place was packed. They have a good selection of beers on tap and some decent wines too. The cocktail choices however are horrible. Totally unacceptable. Especially since this is Robert Hess's neighborhood. They were all sweet concoctions made with various flavored vodkas and rums. Not a savory cocktail in site.

I had a craving fish and chips and Gavin got the burger. Both the fish and the burger were surprisingly good and fresh. The fries on the other hand were terrible. Gavin didn't even finish his. The colder they got, the worse they tasted. Such a shame, especially considering the great fries we had for last week's Feasting Friday.

Last summer, on a trip to the Yakima Valley, we ate a a brewpub in the area. It looked promising, the pub was cute and the beer was delicious. The food however, was terrible. We joked then that the restaurant must have ordered the "pub kit" from FSA. Food Services of America trucks are those ones you see delivering to restaurants all around.

I don't really think a "pub kit" exists, but if it did there would be "ready-for-fryer" items like onion rings, french fries and chicken wings. There may even be variations on the pub kit, like the Italian pub kit: the basic pub kit plus mozzarella sticks, mini pizzas and Caesar salad (with grated parmesan!). Perhaps a Mexican pub kit: the basics plus taquitos and jalapeno poppers. I could go on...but I think you get my drift.

So, I suspect the Lake Forest Bar & Grill uses many items from FSA. The fish was fresh and the burger hand-formed, but those fries were straight out of the freezer for sure.

When I Don't Want to Cook

Thankfully, my love of cooking has rubbed off on Gavin quite nicely. At times, it is irritating, because I suspect his palate is better than mine plus he never, ever uses a recipe. Other times though, when I'm drained and hungry for example, I am really thankful that Gavin will whip up a meal for me.

He excels at cooking many things, but is definitely my go-to guy on two: The first is gravy. I can bake just about anything, yet have an irrational fear of gravy. Gavin loves gravy and has therefore mastered it. The second is omelets. The two are probably related, since they both require patience.

Gavin is a masterful omelet maker, I must admit. He heats to pan on medium-low and gently beats a couple of eggs with a little cream. Then, after melting some butter in the pan, he pours in the eggs, adds some salt and pepper and waits. Waits. WAITS. This is where I usually say 'fuck it' and make scrambled eggs.

I'm thankful for a true omelet once in awhile though, especially when it's late and I am tired and hungry. Then....I get one of these.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Feasting Friday: Frites

Seattle has become a great french fry town. What makes a great french fry? It's the double fry. That's right - the double fry. The first fry cooks the potato just fine, but it's the second fry that gets them superextracrispy and that my friends, is the key to great french fries.

Last Friday, Gavin and I went to Restaurant Campagne down at Pike Place Market. We had a gift certificate that we've been meaning to use for months. Actually, it was a "discount" gift certificate we bought online. We decided to sit at the bar rather than the restaurant because a) we could maximize our budget by taking advantage of the happy hour prices and b) we actually find their bar menu more appealing.

It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, so the place was empty. They offer free "snacks" in the bar on Fridays (crostini, Marcona almonds and the like), but I was in a carnivorous mood. Gavin got the Steak Frites and I ordered the lamb burger. I have to mention that Gavin will ALWAYS order a Steak Frites if it's an option. He didn't think he liked French food until a couple of years ago. He's a french fry afficionado (hence my knowledge of the "double fry"). Once he realized that French restaurants often have fries on the menu (even though they are Belgian...but I digress), he was all for it. Throw in a nice steak and consider it DONE.

The lamb burger was delicious. I've only started to eat lamb recently, and even then only the mild cuts. This burger was a bit gamey, but you know what? I liked it! The meat was so tender and juicy. The burger came with a mountain of semi-pickled red onions and of course those incredible fries. I was pleased to see it made Seattle Magazine's Best Burger list

The bar was definitely easier on the wallet than the restaurant, yet we still received A-plus service. I'm a sucker for good service and Campagne does it right. We declined on dessert, but were pleasantly surprised to get a sweet treat with our check...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My Obsession with Juniper Berries

It started at the Zig Zag Cafe. I thought I hated Gin, but then I had it without tonic. It turns out that I hate tonic. The Zig Zag is an amazing bar with an equally amazing bartender. About a year ago, my friend Robin and I got an education from the bartender, Murray, on all things Gin. I had a cocktail that night called the Aviation. It's an old recipe, but one that highlights the great aromatic qualities of Gin. It's mixed with Creme de Violette, lemon and Maraschino liquor. Murray also gave us a taste of Dry Fly Gin from Spokane. I liked it. A lot. There was something appealing about the woodsy, floral - almost eucalyptus, flavor of Gin that really surprised me.

A few months later, I tried a Vesper cocktail. Again. The Gin. Plus some Vodka and Lillet Blanc mixed in for an amazingly sweet but herbal cocktail.

Next, I bought some Gin for my home bar. Then, I started drinking Gin martinis. I was hooked on Gin, without entirely realizing that a large part of its appeal comes from juniper.

I tried mixing Gin with soda, but found that Gin really came to life when mixed with something with enough floral flavors to stand up to the flavors of Gin. Sure, a slice of cucumber or lemon twist helps, but I knew there had to be something more interesting than soda - but less disgusting than tonic - to mix with Gin.

Enter Dry Soda, based in Seattle. I first read about this company a couple of years ago and have seen their sodas popping up on menus around town. I bought a sampler of their four initial flavors last summer: lemongrass, lavender, kumquat and rhubarb. They were all amazing. I'd say I liked the lemongrass and lavender flavors the least, but could see how they would be tasty with the right meal or mixed into the right drink. The rhubarb was good, but then I tried the kumquat. And then I tried with kumquat guessed it, Gin. Bingo. They were born to be together.

So, with my appreciation for Gin fully matured...I started noticing it everywhere. My February/March issue of Fine Cooking came in the mail with a cocktail recipe. They hardly ever have cocktail recipes in that magazine. But they did in that issue, a recipe for a Gin cocktail. The Martinez is thought to be the predecessor of the Martini. It is made with Gin, sweet vermouth, Maraschino liqueur and bitters. It looks like my beloved Manhattan, but pow! It's Gin. And it's delicious.

In February, Seattle Magazine had a great article about the craft distillery explosion taking place in Washington State. Turns out that Dry Fly isn't the only local distillery making Gin. It also turns out that I can support local businesses and enjoy Gin at the same time.

It's now been over a year since I first embraced Gin, and I have started to take it for granted. I got a bottle of Hendricks for my birthday and have been ordering Gin cocktails (instead of my usual Bourbon) for months. In the last week though, a veritable onslaught of juniper bombarded me. Notice I say juniper and not Gin.

It started when I went to buy some Dry Soda and noticed a new flavor on the shelves...Juniper. It took a quick inner monologue for me to realize what I was dealing with. It went something like this, "Juniper, that's that hedge most people want to rip out of their yard. Oh, and there are juniper berries too. My parents sometimes use those in Scandinavian dishes. Juniper, yeah. Wha...wait. Juniper...that is what's in GIN." Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!

I tried the juniper Dry Soda - plain, out of the bottle last night. It was delicious. Kind of subtle and more sweet than I expected. Of course, I expected to mix it with Gin, but decided against it. I will definitely buy it again...perhaps in bulk, as I can imagine myself sitting on the deck on sunny Saturday afternoons sipping on Gin/Juniper cocktails. Gin and tonics are so 20th century...

The onslaught continued when the newspaper had an article about craft distilleries too. A distillery in Woodinville - practically my backyard - makes Gin. And good Gin at that. Somehow I missed this distillery in the other article. It's so close I could even ride my bike there!

Then, the food editor of the newspaper wrote about Dry Soda's juniper flavor on her blog. She suggests substituting it for tonic in your Gin cocktail too.

And finally, in the Sunday paper there was an article titled Juniper berries can add pop to everything from sauerkraut to virgin gin. That did it. Juniper is part of my culinary zeitgeist now. I may even try making the virgin gin recipe from the article. It would at least make Vodka more interesting....

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday Feasting: Road Food

I am heading out the door, but had to write something about "road food." Gavin and I used to pack a bag of hoagie rolls, a bottle of dijonaise and two kinds cheese: pepper jack & cheddar. That was back in the days when Gavin had a '76 VW camper van though...and I was a vegetarian.

Fast forward to today, we still have a VW but it is a bit sportier (not to mention faster) than the camper van. Also, I only lasted as a vegetarian a few years.

Road food today has evolved to turkey, bacon, cheddar and ranch wraps. We make them before we hit the road and pack them in the cooler.

Today I am hitting the road to Eastern Washington with the girls, so I had to pack us some "road wraps." The cooler is packed and we are rolling out of town in 3, 2, 1!

Feasting Friday: Sonjapalooza Report

I owe you a report about Sonjapalooza and it has taken me a week to get to it! I have to admit, it kind of kicked my butt this year.

I am leaving in about 10 minutes for the annual Girls' Weekend at Crescent Bar, so I have to make it short. This may give you an idea of why this year's Sonjapalooza wiped me out.

Tuesday: I kicked off my birthday week on Cinco de Mayo - as I normally do. Gavin and I went to see The Shins at the Showbox. Great show - kind of mellow, but good sound.

Wednesday: Barb brought over a bottle of our favorite Bourbon - Basil Hayden. Need I say more?

Thursday: Yay! My actual birthday. I met Kathy for lunch (burgers and beers at Buckleys), then went to my parents after work for "appetizers." It ended up being a feast of crab, baked potatoes, grilled chicken, angels on horseback (see below) and cake.

Friday: Gavin and I met Robin at Sambar for cocktails. This is such an adorable bar and they have great drinks (and food)
After Sambar, we continued on to The Copper Gate for some Akvavit cocktails and Swedish meatballs. On the way home, we stopped by Jens and Jami's house for a beer and to hang out by the firepit.

Saturday: The home stretch. I had a hair and nail appointment and then went shopping. They were giving free makeovers at Nordstrom (aren't they always though?), so I got my make-up done too. Gavin and I had reservations at Spring Hill in West Seattle. It was a divine meal, topped only by the view we had into the kitchen. It was fascinating to watch them work. In short, I had oysters, lamb and ice cream. I really need to just write a separate post about that restaurant. It was divine.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Angels on Horseback

Yesterday was my birthday...but don't fret if you haven't sent birthday wishes my way yet. I like to celebrate multiple days of my birthday. In fact, my friend Kathy started calling it Sonjapalooza. It's like a week-long festival.

I tried talking my parents into going out for happy hour but, in my dad's words, "I've got the best happy hour at my house." Um, OK.

I will admit that I don't know any restaurant that makes Angels on Horseback: oysters wrapped in bacon and broiled until the bacon is crisp. It's about the only way I like cooked oysters (I prefer them raw). The only other time I've had them other than at my parents' or a friend's house is at the annual oyster festival in Shelton. Is this a streetfood niche I need to consider starting in Seattle?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cinco de Mayo

I know Cinco de Mayo isn't as important a Mexican holiday as their independence day, but hey - Mexican beer, tortillas and avocados are on sale so can you blame me for craving Mexican food?

North of Seattle, where we live, is filled with ethnic eateries and markets - including several good taco trucks. We recently discovered a little market near one of these trucks. Behind the El Carreton taco bus on Aurora and about 150th, there is Lupe's Tienda. I kid you not - that is really the name. It is the kind of shop that sells everything from pinatas, Mexican candy and long-distance calling cards to those Catholic candles with the saints on them.

One day Gavin happened to stop in there and check it out. In the refrigerator case, he found 8-oz. unmarked containers of muy autentico salsa for $2.50 each.

The green salsa is the most mild, followed by the deep red one (though it has a mighty kick) and rounding out the trio is a pico de gallo that is so spicy it will make your eye lids sweat.

Monday, May 4, 2009

When Accidents Happen: The Icing on the Cake

It's confession time...again. Sometimes (*gasp*), I cook something that doesn't quite turn out like I hoped or thought it would. I feel obligated to tell you this, because it is just too tempting to only tell you about the things that do turn out. So, it looks like this may need to become another regular blog feature..."When Accidents Happen."

Generally, when accidents happen the results are still edible. They just aren't that pretty. Or, not as pretty as they could have been. Remember the poundcake accident of 2008?

One of my 2009 cooking resolutions was to tackle cakes. I just don't eat much cake, but I love how they look. I have been making baby steps. Cheesecake I can do. Cupcakes, no problem. My favorite recipe so far is a single layer chocolate cake with a ganache on top. What I really had in mind though was one of those multi-layered cakes with fruity filling and fluffy white icing.

My freezer is small, so every month or so I need to assess the contents and use up what has been hibernating inside. I had some Meyer lemon juice leftover from Arlene, so something lemony was in order. I keep all my old issues of America's Test Kitchen, and came across a recipe for a layered cake with lemon curd and fluffy white icing. Perfect.

Let me start by saying that the lemon curd turned out perfectly. The rest...not so much. It was tasty, but was not the prettiest cake by the end.

The trouble started with the cake. The layers turned out really thin. So thin in fact that I needed to call in the craftsman (Gavin) to evenly slice each layer in two. The recipe said to cut a notch in each layer, so I could line them up after spreading the lemon curd between each layer. Good tip, but I still ended up with a lopsided cake.

On to the icing. The recipe was for something called 7-minute icing. In the depths of my memory, I recall hearing something about this icing. It called for cooking the eggs whites and sugar over a double boiler first. To 160 degrees. Sure - easy peasy. I've cooked various custards and egg-based sauces, so I wasn't too scared about this step. My thermometer however, either was not accurate or was not shoved deep enough into the pot. By the time I realized this, The egg white mixture was at 185 degrees.

The thing still looked OK. So, I whisked it in with the other ingredients in my stand mixture for 7 minutes (see, that's where the name comes from). I whisked it for about 15 minutes though but it never reached "stick peaks." Fuck it. It was thick enough and company was arriving any minute.

I had my cake layers stacked, with layers of lemon curd in between and was ready to begin applying the icing. I've watched Martha frost enough cakes to have absorbed some knowledge and recalled something called "the crumb coat." So, I started by applying a thin coating of the icing. Thing is, this stuff was more like marshmallow fluff than frosting so it kept pulling up crumbs with it. Gah! Eventually I got ahead of the crumbs though and managed to apply all the icing. It wasn't fluffy and it wasn't pretty, but no crumbs were showing either. It was a little lopsided, but otherwise looked OK.
When we sliced into it though, the lemon curd had not spread to the edges of the cake. A testament to my perfectly thickened curd? I'm afraid not. Looks aside, it tasted great and was devoured.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Feasting Friday: Fire Up to Grill

Driving home from work last night...I could smell the sweet, mouthwatering smell of charred meat. I love barbecuing year-round (which is why I bought a Weber Genesis two years ago). Something about these early days of Spring however, give me grill-fever.

Last night was the Dine Out for Life though, so while we feasted on Red Mill burgers, we plotted a scheme for firing up the grill on Friday - a forecasted 70-degree day. We had a coupon from our local grocery store for buy one, get one free bone-in rib-eye steaks from Painted Hills Farms. And, one thing we've noticed recently - on trips to Chicago and The Met - is that we LOVE bone-in rib-eye steaks. I used to be a well-done steak lover. Then, I liked medium rare, but filet mignon or New York steaks. The rib-eye steak however, is the ultimate journey to Flavor Country.

So, it's Friday. We arrived home from work and immediately took the steaks out of the fridge, salt and peppered them and let them get up to room temperature. I've been reading Ruhlman's The Elements of Cooking, in which he says that steaks can be salted as soon as you buy them. It not only prohibits the growth of microbes, but it also allows the salt to distribute itself throughout the meat. I should have thought about that last night...but at least the steaks got a good hour of salt.

One thing we've learned in our samplings of great steaks is that char is key. Our grill will get up to about 700 degrees, about half the temperature of the smoking grills at Gibson's. For us however, that appears to be plenty-o-heat. The trick is to throw the steaks on the grill, shut the lid and walk away. For. Two. Minutes. Then, open the lid, flip the steaks, shut the lid and walk...away. Again. For...two minutes. Then, assess. Depending on the thickness of the steaks, you can move them to a cooler part of the grill or remove and let rest. I am a fan of the finger test for doneness. When they are near your desired doneness, remove from the grill and tent with foil for 2-10 minutes.

So, it's Friday. There is something SO comforting about meat and potatoes. We fired up the grill, cooked the rib-eyes, baked some potatoes and opened a nice bottle of Washington wine. And then, we feasted.