Thursday, January 25, 2007

Think for myself? I think not!
As this month of new cooking experiences comes to its conclusion, the temptation is strong to fall back on the old reliable recipes that you can knock out with your eyes closed, especially when one is not really in the mood to try, or even think, of anything new. Such was the case yesterday, where after spending the previous evening wolfing down pizzas with friends at Apizza Scholls (more on Apizza in a future post) we were really in the mood for something a bit lighter. The question was what to do when you don't want to think? Of course, that's why they invented the internet! Shrimp was sounding good, but nothing on epicurious was really grabbing my attention. So on to Food Network, to see what celebrity chef might inspire the evenings intake. Do you watch Food TV ever? Has there ever been anything more annoying than that fake smile on Giada De Laurantiis' face? It's like they botoxed her entire skull so that thing remains plastered on.....creepy. Anyway, I ended up coming across a recipe from food hunk Tyler Florence for linguine with shrimp that not only sounded delicious, but after a quick stop at New Seasons, was very simple. Now I know that "light" and "pasta" don't always go together. But this was exactly that: just shrimp, shallots, garlic, olive oil, parsley, and a bit of butter for depth. Really good, really easy, and exceptionally satisfying.
One thing I've learned to do with these online recipes is read the comments and reviews from others who have made the dish. In this case the suggestions to double the sauce recipe (except for the olive oil and butter) were spot on. You should give this one a try....delivers big for the minimal effort expended. It's like I didn't have to think at all!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

As big as all outdoors!
Being the avid outdoorsman that I am.....okay, maybe more of an aspiring outdoorsman....I made the most of a rare Saturday respite from the grueling wine business, with all its attendant drinking and alcohol enabling, by taking a little field trip up to Washington with w and the Chops for some snowshoeing fun. We drove 25 miles north of Carson in the Wind River wilderness at about 3000 feet elevation. The snow was in abundance, the traffic very light, and the scenery awesome with the sun playing hide and seek with clouds. We did a two mile loop, the last half of which was a continuous incline that had me fantasizing about the post-shoeing beer at Walking Man Brewpub in Stevenson. All in all a great day that once again served to remind me that we live in the most beautiful place in the world! Here's some adventure pics....
w and Chops in their outdoor finest!

Chops blazing the trail

When I get outta here I want a beer this big!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Our Italian Vacation!
It was with great anticipation that w and I drove through the slushy streets last night for a dinner rendezvous at Alba Osteria on SW Capitol Highway. I hadn't been in over a year, and had been telling myself for months to get after it and pay another visit to owner/chef/Piedmontese fetishist Kurt Spack's homey outpost of Italian comfort food. For some reason in my mind it always seems like a trek to get there. But it really isn't, and from my place on N. Mississippi we were walking in their warmly welcoming doors in ten minutes. And I would almost drive ten hours to eat food this good! Kurt makes regular trips to the Piedmont to check out what's going on, do some cooking, and get fresh inspiration. It shows and this is perhaps the most authentic regional Italian food in town.

We were seated at a table in the cozy dining room by the kitchen. A tasty basket of bread was dropped along with the menus and a couple of glasses of fizzy prosecco, and we commenced drooling. I love places where I want to order every single thing on the appetizer list. But more prudent heads prevailed, and we settled on sweet peppers wrapped around delicious tuna salad and Jerusalem artichoke in a bagna cauda sauce. Both were delicious, the sweet piquancy of the peppers playing beautifully off the rich tuna, and the garlicky bagna cauda sauce was eagerly sopped up with bread when the artichoke gratin ran out. We were swooning. Here it is....

Next up was a primi course which we split. In this case a light, dreamy dish of tajarin with butter and sage sauce. All pasta are made in house, and Kurt has the lightest touch, his pastas a perfect balance of meltingly tender but with just enough bite.
Then it was on to entrees, and although no one in town knows sweetbreads like Kurt, and I've loved them in the past, I had to go with the Barolo braised beef, especially since I'd brought along a bottle of 1997 Brezza "Sarmassa" Barolo. w ordered the roast duck breast and confit leg, and it was stupendous.
The confit was perfect..crispy outside, tender and very flavorful inside. The duck breast had crackly skin and that beautiful layer of fat surrounding the meat. My beef was fork tender, served over polenta, and dreding both through the Barolo sauce was an exercise in pure pleasure, especially washed down with sip after sip of the Brezza.

Just in case you have any of this nectar in your collection, the wine opened up beautifully....all earth notes, with dark cherry and tarry fruit with those wonderful rose petal overtones that great Barolo develops. We had the bottle open over the course of about 90 minutes, and it just kept getting better and better. So good, and so satisfying.
We were quite stuffed, as the portions of everything are very generous, kind of what your fantasy Italian grandmother might put in front of you. But we rallied and managed to happily tuck into a light hazelnut torte with house made chocolate gelato. After a quick chat with Kurt, who is one of the nicest people going in the local food biz, we drove home happy, full, and looking forward to a return trip. If you can't get to the Piedmont, this is the next best thing!
A side note: you know it's a compliment to the chef when other chefs show up to get their grub on, and seated close by was Greg Higgins, he of the eponymously named restaurant, who obviously was somewhat of a regular and was enjoying every bite of his dinner.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Paradise home!
Very few local restaurants make food that I can say I actually crave. Maybe the sensuous sopes at Nuestra Cocina. Definitely the burger at Castagna Café. Maybe the thing I've had on my must-have list longer than anything is the Penne alla Vodka at Three Doors Down. This is a fabulous dish of pasta (right up there with Marcella Hazan's Spaghetti alla Carbonara) as food I never want to live without. I used to order it almost every time I went in to Kathy and Dave's soul satisfying outpost at 1429 SE 37th, to the point where Kathy would just roll her eyes and say "Again?!"
Well, now the pressure is off, and I can explore the rest of their fabulous menu, because the recipe (along with several other treats you'll recognize from the menu, including that cursedly addictive white bean spread) is available on their website. In this month of new food that w and I are caught up in this was on our menu last night, and it was just as delicious as at the restaurant. Grab some sausages (preferably at Pastaworks), some Pearl Bakery ciabatta, and other fixings and get ready to indulge. Oh, and don't tell Kathy and Dave I told you!
Forgive me Father, for I am thirsty....

Those brothers of beer have done it again, and perhaps better than ever. Brian and Mike McMenamin have just opened their newest brew joint, the Chapel Pub at 430 N. Killingsworth. This is to me by far their coziest little pub. The converted an old Little Chapel of the Chimes into a wonderful place to have a refreshing malted beverage. I know Mcmenamin's tends to be love it or hate it for a lot of people. For me, I really like their IPA, not so much most of their other beers. And then there's that nagging feeling that the food and service (especially) can sometimes be an afterthought.

But I have no quarrel with their renovations of some of the northwest's finest historical structures. At the Chapel Pub, there is ironwork throughout done by O.B. Dawson in the 1930's. Dawson was the man responsible for much of the incredible ironwork at Timberline Lodge.
You walk into this place and immediately feel warm. With a wood burning stove, a cute ;little corner fireplace tucked away in a side room, and a great oval bar in the main room, everything fits. I love what they've done here in North Portland, and feel it is their best, warmest, most Euro-feeling pub yet. Check it out!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"Curse you Ming Tsai!!!"

Yesterday another foray into uncharted food waters. Water was the dominant theme here last night, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively because this dish was a take on the island nation of Singapore's famous street cart noodles, made with chicken and shrimp and fresh veggies. Literally, because the rice noodles that soaked in water for two hours, per the instructions of tonight's culinary muse, Ming Tsai, were nowhere near soft enough which involved the quick boiling of more water. Now I don't know if our man Ming actually tried these noodles before he wrote up his instructions, but he did call them "Pop's Noodles". Maybe his dad was a shitty cook...I don't know. But after a few well placed invectives hurled his way, considering our unfortunate discovery came at a critical juncture of the whole dinner process, we regrouped and pulled it together. Luckily, after a hasty and very annoying dumping of those first noodles, w went all David Copperfield and made an extra pack of noodles appear from the depths of her pantry.
But I have to say in the course of my cooking career, sometimes you wonder if these people really ever tried the dishes they recommend, and if they did and assuming the recipe worked, did they leave something out of the recipe...maybe something like "cook the fucking noodles after soaking"?
Anyway, as I said, we hustled and the finished product was actually quite satisfying. Would probably do it again with a few adjustments besides the noodley one...a little more curry, and wait a bit before tossing the shrimp into the wok. The best part was it reintroduced us to w's wok, which is sure to get a regular workout in the future. Here's some food porn photos of the operation....
A few of the rather attractive ingredients awaiting their turn in the wok.

The actually tasted better than it photographed, but you get the idea......

Monday, January 08, 2007

Getting In the Soup

Who doesn't like playing with new toys? It appeals to the five-year-old in all for us. It translates particularly well when you love food and are jumping into a new realm of flavors. Last night in our ongoing month of new, w opened up her culinary toy box and found all sorts of fun stuff....lemongrass, Thai fish sauce, coconut milk, Thai red curry paste....and ended up putting together a killer bowl of Thai chicken soup that would make the flavor masters at Chaba Thai proud. This was rich, silky, spicy, and and comes together more easily than you would think.
Here's some photos of the process....
Flavorizers...aka lemongrass, shallots, and parsley

Fish sauce...the secret weapon!

The results.....who needs chicken noodle?!

This is month of new food is turning out to be a great experiment in horizon broadening. Tonight, celeb chef Ming Tsai is providing inspiration for Singapore Noodles...stay tuned!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

New food is good food!

So here's the challenge: Spend the entire month of January adding to the food repertoire. Sounds pretty simple. Get away from all those fall back dinner staples, the things we can make with our eyes closed. Maybe even open some of those cookbooks that have been largely ignored since their purchase. It's kind of exciting actually...a leap into the culinary unknown. Spending the entire month of January, every time we prepare diner at home, making a new dinner entrée.

So here we are, one week in, and because of previous social commitments and sudden invitations, I have to say we've only done three things. But the success rate is encouraging. Two definite successes, one so-so result. Nothing inedible, and one thing that will definitely be in the permanent rotation. The first thing we did, a braised chicken thigh recipe from Gourmet mag, was the ho-hum dinner. Good, not anything exciting. Our second dinner , from the same recipe section of the Jan. '07 issue, was a resounding success. Tilapia steamed in a foil pouch with lemon slices, capers, grape tomatoes, fresh thyme, and a dash of olive oil....delicious, aromatic, light, and incredibly satisfying. The recipe called for sea bass, but as my New Seasons fish guy reminded me, somewhat disdainfully if I may: "We don't carry sea bass. It is endangered, you know." Uh, okay...but can I have some anyway? Apparently not, so tilapia it was. Great meal with a side of rice to help soak up the juices.

Then last night's attempt at porcine perfection, which I finally remembered to get photographic evidence of, a recipe from Cook's Illustrated for perfect pork chops with a mustard-sage sauce.
I love Cook's illustrated. They take a scientific approach, and sometimes make things 30-50 times to get it just right. Plus who doesn't like product comparisons? This turned out really well, although I left the chops on a smidge too long, missing that seeming microsecond window when pork goes from medium-rare perfection to medium-well over doneness. But the chops still came out juicy, the sauce was savory and delicious, and with a side of brussel sprouts and my personal food fetish, roasted fingerling potatoes, plus a couple glasses (or so) of wine, all was good.

Stay tuned for further adventures in the food wilderness. Tonight: w tackles Thai Chicken Soup!