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Awake at the Whisk: November 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008


Eating Seattle

I hate eating out. When I travel, dining out is always a gamble. Often, I end up settling for artery-clogging fare that I would never considering cooking for myself at home. Such indulgences are fine as a rare treat enjoyed sporadically throughout the year. But when I travel, and good food is hard to find, I end up feeling like I’ve gathered rocks in my gut by the end of the week.

Not so in Seattle! Good food is always easy to find here.

Portage Bay Café
“Grains”—there is an entire section of the menu dedicated to this king-of-the-food-pyramid. Even though the USDA recommends we consume tons of grains in our daily diets, they are often hard to find on breakfast menus, save for the bland, goopy oatmeal served at typical diners. (In fact, I have often had to settle for this. Once, I even paid a whopping $7 for a bowl of the cold, paper-machete-like stuff.)

You can imagine my delight upon discovering multiple varieties of porridge at the Portage Bay Café: chai spiced, fruit-studded, and nut-filled. My stomach growled with anticipation!

Other menu items included hearty grain flap jacks in every variety—including one for vegans. These all came with access to their topping bar, complete with fresh berries and fruits.

The first-rate menu also contained smoked salmon omelets, breakfast scrambles served up with veggies, and oodles of other enticing dishes. White bread was nowhere to be found—only wheat toast prevailed. And every table came adorned not with tiny packets of fruit and corn syrup wrapped in plastic. Instead, we enjoyed heaping containers of homemade preserves with chunks of fruit.

Our party of six waited over an hour to be seated, but some things are well worth the wait. Portage Bay Café is one of them.

Piroshky Piroshky
Speaking of waiting… don’t expect good food to come easy in Seattle. Piroshky Piroshky is no exception. You can smell the fresh flavors around the block as they lure you closer and closer to their source. There’s an air of sweet, spice, and haunting that plays tricks with your nose. But when you find the shop, there’s no denying you’ve come upon something special.

The street-side display case reveals dozens of pillowy pastries, each filled with a different treat. From potato to cardamom, you’ll have a hard time selecting just one. I’ve tried my share over a series of trips to Seattle, and I loved each one in its own special way.

The potato and onion warms the belly and satisfies all needs for pure comfort and savory bliss. The cinnamon, cardamom and raisin twist causes you to lick, lick, lick until every last bit of spice and sweet are removed from your fingers. The rhubarb surprises your mouth with its array of experiences—from the tart of the fruit, to the sweet of the custard-like filling, to the crunch of the sugar topping. And all are surrounded by a golden melting, wispy, buttery dough.

Hale’s Ales
Come hungry!—and thirsty. After an eight-hour hike, I was ready for some serious food. As I ordered a red ale, nachos popped off the menu. Minutes later, a plate of gooey, cheesy tortilla chips piled high with olives and jalapenos appeared along with our beers. The amber ale was smooth and rich with flavor while quenching my thirst. The nachos were pure salt, crunch, and chewy cheese—just like I like them. Slathered in hot sauce, chased by the freshest of ales, this was the perfect post-hike snack.

The most difficult part of the night was not my eight-hour hike. Indeed, it was selecting from the fulfilling menu. Eggplant lasagna, enchiladas, portabella mushroom burgers, classic three-cheese grilled cheese sandwiches, and pizzas studded the menu. This was bar food at its best, yet with the welcome twist of multiple options for vegetarians, including veggie chili.

Always in search of the best pie, I ordered their veggie pesto pizza. It arrived piled high with roasted bell peppers, olives, onion, and tomato atop a gooey cheese and salty, rich pesto sauce. The crust was cracker-crisp—my favorite! Every bite was the perfect combination of chewy cheese, crunchy crust, and tangy vegetables. We left, bellies full (but not sickeningly bursting), and taste buds deeply satisfied.

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Saturday, November 8, 2008


The Jungle Effect: A World of Good-for-You Food Tales

Grab your mosquito net and your whisk. You’re about to embark upon a culinary health journey the likes of which no other book offers.

The Jungle Effect by Dr. Daphne Miller provides medical evidence of the health benefits from eating seasonally, locally, and organically. We all knew these diets were good for the planet; Miller points out why they are good for people, too. Her travels take place in the world’s “cold spots:” regions with little prevalence of diseases like colon cancer, heart disease, or depression. What do their diets have in common with being disease-free?

Miller provides delightful tales of digging for wild greens on the hillsides of the Mediterranean or guzzling mountain-made sports drinks in Copper Canyon. You’ll learn of foods as unique as cactus and as common as the potato. Why are they so good for our bodies? How do we prepare them? Where can we buy them?

Don’t let the medical science scare you away from one of this year’s best reads. The Jungle Effect is easily digestible—both the reading and the recipes included. Each chapter carries you to a new corner of the world where neon yellow cheese in a box and foam-wrapped, fast-food burgers have yet to penetrate. (Did you know such places still exist?)

Cast all prejudices aside: this is not a wacky new health book preaching a fad diet. Based in nutritional science, foraged at the local farmers’ market, and brought to life in easy-to-prepare home kitchen recipes, the diet Miller suggests borrows heavily from what other locavores have been touting for years. If you have already been filing your kitchen pantry with the bounty of your garden or farmers’ market, you are already firmly prepared to incorporate Miller’s recipes. Even if you haven’t, you’re just a hop, skip, and a cabbage from making the transition. No international passport required.

For any true food nerd interested in why our bodies crave anti-oxidants, or what benefits we reap from pork, this book is for you! Do you know someone with a family history of breast cancer? Then you’ll want to lend her this book. Have a parent with arthritis? Read up before the next family dinner.

From Iceland to Okinawa, The Jungle Effect offers travel tastes from around the globe that will tempt your tummy. Put that together with the nutritional knowledge you will gain and you’ve got the actual recipes to a happy, healthy diet. As they say in Denmark: Ver så godt. Or in Paris: Bon appétit!

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Monday, November 3, 2008


Hidden Kitchen

“I manage to keep my gun out of the water…” The evening begins with lively conversation the likes of which you won’t find at any traditional dinner party. At least not one I’ve recently attended.

I’m at Hidden Kitchen, run by Dennis and Mary Kercher. They offer gourmet dinners from their home kitchen, seating no more than 10 folks at once. The couple got the idea from an article about local foodies running “Ghetto Gourmet” “pirate restaurants” in their basement. Instead of going to a traditional restaurant, costumers come to the owners’ home. There, up to 40 diners seated on pillows cram into the chef’s personal living quarters for a taste of true epicurean fare.

Dennis, whose father was a baker, loves to cook. He and Mary signed up for a meal with the Ghetto Gourmet, and with the twist of a fork, their lives were transformed. They now operate a similar model in their own home, minus the “ghetto.” Their meals begin with a complimentary champagne toast in their Land Park home. The evening truly begins as guests converse over fine food, seated at a regal dining room table complete with wooden chairs (no pillows on the floor for this crowd!). There’s absolutely nothing “ghetto” about the formal Hidden Kitchen experience, (and at a recommended $75 per person, I should expect not!).

I recently dined with one of the most interesting groups in town: fellow food bloggers. The gathering was put in motion by the ever-lively Garrett. Joining us were Elise, Hank & Holly, Ann Rolke and husband, Ashley, Kira O'Donnell, and fellow foodie, Lori. I had already been an armchair fan of each of these writers. Having the opportunity to sit across the table, sharing food tales with them was like sending Cinderella to the gastronomic ball. I learned from Hank & Holly that old squirrels really aren’t very tasty, while Elise informed me that morel mushrooms really can be found in Northern California’s wilds. I learned that Kira’s husband is now employed at the nonprofit I recently called home. The table was brimming with amazing conversation that was just as satisfying and original as the food.

Have I forgotten to mention the food?!

Dennis, poised elegantly in his black chef’s jacket, started the evening with my second favorite element of good food: story. (My first favorite being the eating, of course.) He shared adventures in eating at Le Cirque in New York. He had recreated one of their signature dishes, and we would later have the joy of eating it in his very own kitchen. He talked of the basil he plucked from his front yard garden, and of the button mushrooms he found on sale at a local farmers’ stand. He delighted us with anecdotes from his favorite TV show: Top Chef. He promised he had reinvented their winning dishes to woo us that night.

Poised with notebook in one hand, fork in the other, I set out to capture every food memory from the evening. We started with two paired goat cheese crostini, each smooth, creamy, and mouth-watering. One was smeared with homemade garden pesto, the other nestled beneath a luscious, slow-roasted tomato that left flavor notes dancing vividly from tongue to throat as I chewed. These toasts were paired with a fruity Sauvignon Blanc, compliments of Rail Bridge Cellars. The highly drinkable white met with compliments across the table.

Next course: a roasted vegetable ratatouille terrine, which was an artwork in both presentation and flavor. The zucchini, eggplant, and bell pepper each held a crisp bite, while resting graciously within a zippy tomato gelatin.

One of my favorite courses of the evening was the fennel and green apple slaw, served on top of a breaded pumpkin wedge over powerful gorgonzola fonduta. This dish stood out for its ability to capture everything a mouth craves in one bite: smooth, chewy, crunchy, and crisp, but also sweet, tart, bitter, and meaty.

We also enjoyed a rich, earthy mushroom broth that was served with the next two courses: foraged porcini ravioli and black cod wrapped in crispy potato over braised leeks. The cod was so moist it nearly melted in my mouth as though it were a mashed potato itself. These were paired with a bright, light Rail Bridge red called “Lattice 2004.” The hearty mushroom musk created deep flavors whose broad strokes filled my mouth, but which were light on the stomach.

Dessert landed on our plates like a poached egg on toast. This delightful play on the eye was actually an anise cake topped with lemon pudding and lemon curd. I preferred to enjoy each taste separately in order to prevent the anise from overpowering the lemon. The winner of my private contest was the happy lemon curd, skipping yellow and delight in a citrus swirl around my mouth.

The dinner was not over yet! Next, we savored donut-like bites of fried, moist ricotta that eased the palette with a hint of sugar, lemon, and nutmeg. This was accompanied by Dennis’s homemade cream liquors. I tried the almond, which I swore was made of chocolate. The roasted nuts and rich cream sent my mind back to chocolate milk shakes at the local diner.

I’m not sure which was most memorable: the food or the conversation. I still savor both. Dennis’s and Mary’s ability to create an atmosphere where each is a highlight of the meal is testament to their winning idea. This is an experience worth repeating.

Photo by Elise Bauer.

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