Uncorked: Quivira 2007 Syrah Hommage a Ampuis

October 25, 2012

Several years ago, while attending the first Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Rosa, I had the chance to tour Quivira Vineyards and Winery, in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley outside of Healdsburg. I remember a gorgeous late September day, leaves turning on the hills and harvest winding down in the vineyards, the smell of fermenting wine rich in the air. Our group was fortunate enough to get a private tour through the winery’s gorgeous biodynamic estate vineyard, taste the current releases, and have a lovely, locally-sourced lunch on the patio before hitting the road again.

My visit to Quivira made a lasting impression on me. I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about the principles of biodynamic winemaking.  Gnome houses in the vineyards? Burying ram’s horns full of green manure on the equinox? Some of these tenets seem fanciful at best, and unlikely to improve wine quality. But I can also appreciate the wisdom of a (non-biodynamic) vineyard manager I respect, who often points out that time spent in the vineyard is time spent improving growing conditions – and so the time-consuming vit practices of Bio-D acolytes like the folks at Quivira probably do account for some sort of increased quality. At the very least, these practices don’t hurt.

And the wines from Quivira, which I’ve revisited over the years, are indeed quite enjoyable. We opened a 2007 Dry Creek Valley Syrah from the cellar to pair with an ancho-spiced grilled skirt steak. In this bottling, “inspired by blends from the French village of Ampuis,” a small percentage of Viognier is co-fermented with the Syrah grapes, giving the wine some lovely floral notes and a tannic structure that remains balanced even five years on. I got a lot of blackberry, white pepper, lilac, and vanilla off the wine on that first night, along with some surprising heat. It paired well to the smoky adobo flavors, and had enough acid to hold its own against the rich fattiness of the meat.

Two days later, we finished off the bottle with a simple pot roast. The wine had really opened up, keeping its structure while offering up more blueberry and cocoa-covered cherry flavors and a mellow, mouth-filling juiciness.

One Night Only: Chef Mark Fuller and Georgetown Brewing

October 18, 2012

Launched earlier this summer, the One Night Only Project, brainchild of Julien Perry and Melissa Peterman, takes the supper club dinner party concept to a new level: participating chefs create a special menu, available for one night only, for around 40 guests. Each chef is paired with a winery, brewery, or mixologist to create pairings for the food, and the dinners are held in offbeat locations which can include event spaces or private homes.

The stand-alone nature of ONO events allows for some very creative themed pairings: past dinners have included Josh Henderson of Skillet stepping away from diner food for a night to prepare a meal of upscale seasonal favorites paired with wines from Efeste and Manuel Alfau of Blind Pig Bistro and  La Bodega preparing a Dominican pig roast paired with rum cocktails by Rob Roy’s Anu Apte on the patio at Bottlehouse, Madrona’s awesome wine shop-tasting bar.

Manny Chao of Georgetown Brewing and Marjorie Chang Fuller of Ma’ono discussing the menu and beer pairings.

When we heard that the latest ONO dinner would feature Chef Mark Fuller of West Seattle’s Ma’ono (formerly Spring Hill) cooking up a six course Mexican feast paired with beers from Manny Chao of Georgetown Brewing Company, we knew this would be an evening not to be missed.  We were right!!

First Course: smoked clam salsa on a porky crouton, with a tequila aperol cordial

The dinner was held at VUDE (Velvet Underground Dining Experience), a very cool private event space and dining club in South Lake Union owned by the Seattle-based proprietor of Argentina’s Hand of God Wines. The candlelit South American vibe of the room – paintings of Eva Peron and matadors, dark wood tables, and swaths of brick red paint on the walls – along with the mellow tunes spun by Andrew Means provided the perfect atmosphere for Fuller’s inspired menu, which paired perfectly with Chao’s beers. What’s better than great Mexican food and beer, right?

While every course was delicious, the standout courses for me came early in the evening. A rich and satisfying pork meatball soup with slices of smoky sausage, preserved tomatoes, and avocado was paired with Georgetown’s Belgian Ale for a light palate refresher to cut through the rich fattiness of the sausage and meatballs; and the undeniable star of the night, Fuller’s crispy pork shoulder tacos, served simply on corn tortillas with  chopped onion and cilantro, a drizzle of smoked tomatillo sour cream, and a crumble of housemade brined cheese. The tacos were served family style on a platter that would have defeated our table even if we hadn’t already consumed huge bowls of soup, and paired with Manny’s namesake crisp and malty Pale Ale.

Second course: pork and rice meatball soup with sausage, avocado, and preserved tomato broth

Third course: crispy pork shoulder tacos with housemade cheese, tomatillo sour cream, onion and cilantro. The showstopper of the evening.

One of our fellow guests opined that these were the best tacos he’d ever eaten in Seattle, and I’d have to agree they they definitely beat anything I’ve had in a restaurant here in town. We stuffed ourselves and consequently were not able to appreciate the final three courses – grilled skirt steak with pickled peppers, corn cakes stuffed with lard-fried beans, and a cucumber shrimp salad; Beecher’s jack cheese tamales with chocolate mole sauce; and dulce de leche rice pudding with Corn Pops (yes, breakfast cereal!) and horchata – nearly as much as they deserved. And trust me, everything Fuller and his team of cook-helpers prepared deserved a lot of appreciation.

Chef Mark Fuller (second from left) and his team hard at work

Hostesses with the mostest: ONO Project founders Melissa Peterman and Julien Perry

In the end, we could eat no more, and literally rolled ourselves back out onto the street, clutching the stylish canvas Ma’ono tote bags and growlers of Manny’s IPA that served as takeaway gifts and hoping against hope that Mark Fuller will someday open a Mexican taco joint somewhere in town – preferably in our neighborhood.

The next One Night Only dinner will be held November 3rd with Chef Eric Hellner of the Metropolitan Grill – who I can attest smokes some of the best ribs this side of the Mississippi – and the Met’s Master Sommelier Thomas Price. I highly recommend you check out this or any ONO event. Information and tickets here

Breakfast at the Brave Horse Tavern

October 13, 2012

The Elvis Pretzly sandwich at the Brave Horse – peanut butter, banana, and bacon.

I visit Tom Douglas’s Brave Horse Tavern in South Lake Union for lunch a lot: it’s close to my office, offers service that can be quick or more leisurely depending on your needs, and the upscale pub food menu of pretzels, burgers, and beer is fun, filling, and inexpensive by neighborhood standards. It’s the perfect clubhouse, and it’s always packed and lively.

Not content to rest on their laurels, the team at the Brave Horse have been expanding their offerings lately. On a recent lunch visit, a platter of tender grilled beef skewers, braised greens, spicy smashed potatoes, and lemony feta spread was a bright mix of exotic and comforting flavors, and a variety of pretzel sandwiches with toppings including pork schnitzel and house-smoked ham, are tasty alternatives to a burger.

In another burst of creativity, the Brave Horse folks recently introduced a weekday breakfast menu to complement their weekend brunch program. One morning last week, I met my friend Robyn, who works in marketing for Tom Douglas Restaurants, to try out some of the new offerings.

Pretzel French toast sticks (front) and breakfast sandwich

Chewy, salty German-style pretzels are a star of the Brave Horse menu, and breakfast is no exception. One of my favorites from the Brave Horse brunch menu, a peanut butter, honey, and bacon pretzel sandwich known on the weekends as the “Elvis Pretzly,” is also available on the weekday menu ($7). I couldn’t resist ordering one, although the cream cheese and marinated Prosser Farm green tomatoes ($5) and braised kale and fried egg ($6) pretzelwichs sounded great too.

From there, we dug into a Cheesehead breakfast skillet of scrambled eggs, cheese curds, housemade bratwurst, and crispy potatoes ($8), a Texas Toast egg sandwich with scrambled egg, pimento cheddar, and bacon ($7), and pretzel French toast sticks with mascarpone and maple syrup ($6). Everything was fresh, delicious, flavorful and filling. The star of the show, again pretzel-based, was the French toast: toothsome and custardy, with just enough saltiness from the pretzel crust to balance perfectly with the sweet syrup and creamy mascarpone.

Bacon, egg, and pimento cheddar cheese on Texas Toast from the Dahlia Bakery

I was also impressed by the breakfast sandwich, which was elevated above the ordinary by the addition of cheddar pimento cheese cooked into, rather than smeared on top of, the egg, and thick cut bacon. Breakfast sandwiches start at $4 for a basic egg on toast, with optional add ons including cheeses, caramelized onions, braised kale, bacon, or house cured ham, which I would highly recommend.

For those looking for freshly made, locally sourced, fast and inexpensive breakfast in South Lake Union (Amazonians, I’m talking to you!), the Brave Horse can’t be beat. I look forward to heading back there soon.

Photo credits: Robyn Wolfe

Meyer Lemon Madness

March 20, 2012

Special Delivery from CA: Meyer lemons

One of the things I miss most about living in California is the abundance of winter citrus. Walking the streets of my mom’s suburban residential neighborhood in January and February is like strolling through a grove of lemons, oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit, which seem to grow in nearly every front yard.  The brightly colored fruits and deep green of the leaves, as well as the gentle way they perfume the air, says home to me.

When I was a kid, we had a Meyer lemon tree growing in our front yard. In those days we didn’t think of these orangey-skinned, aromatic hybrids as anything special, and used them in everything from lemon bars to seafood to hot tea. It was only long after I moved away, and mom replaced the lemon tree with flowers, that I realized how lucky we were to have a consistent supply of these little gems, which up here in Seattle tend to show up very briefly, in small and costly quantities, around February.

Luckily for me, I have some great friends and colleagues in Lemon Country, and one of them, Tina, surprised me with a huge box of Meyers sent express mail from her backyard tree. If the number of lemons I got is any indication, Tina had a bumper crop this year!

After much deliberation about what to do with this “pot o’ gold,” I decided to try my hand at marmalade, while Carl used a few to make a killer lemon meringue pie. I was also excited to make a batch of Meyer lemon bitters, the recipe for which I found in Brad Thomas Parsons’ awesome (James Beard Award-nominated!) book, Bitters.

First up was the marmalade. The recipe in my Gourmet Cookbook called for using the whole lemon, which appealed to me as I am not a big fan of removing pith and sectioning out citrus. This lemony, sweet and bitter jam really couldn’t have been easier, from stovetop to jar.

After a few batches of marmalade I went out and gathered up all the ingredients for the bitters – you know, things like cardamom pods, gentian root, dried hops, and lemongrass. Mix it all together, shake the jar ever day for a few weeks, and pretty soon we’ll have some pretty awesome cocktail fixings.

Meyer Lemon Marmalade

Adapted from the Gourmet Cookbook

Ingredients:

1 1/2 pounds Meyer lemons

4 cups water

4 cups sugar

Method:

1. Slice lemons crosswise into thin slices, then quarter slices. Remove seeds and tie into a piece of cheesecloth.

2. Combine lemon slices and bag of seeds with the water in a pot and let stand, covered, at room temperature overnight.

3. Chill two small plates for testing marmalade, and sterilize jars, lids, and screw bands.

4. Bring lemon mixture to a boil over moderate heat, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered until reduced to about 4 cups.

5. Stir in sugar and boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until marmalade tests done: drop a spoonful of marmalade onto a chilled plate and refrigerate for one minute, then tilt plate; marmalade should stay mounded and not run.

6. Discard cheesecloth seed bag and ladle hot marmalade into jars, leaving head space at top, and lightly tap jars onto counter to release air bubbles.

7. Seal jars and process for 10 minutes.

24 Hours in Portland, Part Two: Brunch at Beast

March 6, 2012

Brunch menu at Beast

I usually try to keep these “24 Hours” entries to one post, but we had so many fun adventures during our trip to Portland, and brunch at Beast is such a special experience, that I thought this trip warranted two.

We first visited Beast about three years ago, and now it’s a tradition for us to eat Sunday brunch there whenever we are in Portland. Yes, rock star chef Naomi Pomeroy is justifiably sort of famous, and yes, the place has gotten tons of great press in the years it’s been open, and that is part of what led us to our first visit.

But why do we keep coming back? We like that it’s a little bit off the beaten path. It’s cozy, and I love watching the cooks plate each course on the massive butcher block in the center of the dining room. There’s a fun atmosphere among the communal tables. And most of all, the food is wonderful.

First course: Plum clafoutis with whipped cream and maple bacon

Over the years we’ve been visiting Beast for brunch, the menu has followed a reliable and delicious pattern, starting with a sweet custard, bread putting, or, this time, clafoutis topped with what I think of as one of the restaurant’s signatures: maple-glazed bacon that tastes like sweet salty candy.

Next up is a hash, filled with seasonal local veggies, braised meat, and topped with a perfect poached egg. On this trip, pork belly, brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and parsnips were topped with a  truffle hollandaise sauce, which was just divine: so rich, yet so light and not at all cloying.

Second Course: Beast Hash with truffled hollandaise sauce

After these two decadent courses, it’s nice to take a minute, sip a mimosa, and enjoy a little bit lighter treat: the prettiest cheese and course from the Cheese Bar, formerly known as Steve’s Cheese, which I used to like to go visit when it was a counter in the back of the Square Deal Wine Company in NW Portland. I was a big fan of the creamy sheep’s milk cheese, which had the consistency of brie with a bit more zing and paired nicely with the tangy Sauvignon Blanc vinaigrette on the winter greens salad.

Third Course: cheese and salad

Brunch at Beast finishes with a flourish – always in my experience a rich, often chocolaty treat that fulfills every childhood fantasy of eating dessert with every meal. On this visit it was a simply prepared and plated square of chocolate truffle cake, dense and fudgy, delightful with the last sip of coffee, the sugar enough to push you up and away from the table and out into Sunday afternoon.

Fourth course: Chocolate truffle cake

Funnily enough, we’ve never actually had dinner at Beast, and now that the place is moving in August we might have to make a plan for evening dining in the new digs. It will be hard to beat Sunday brunch there, though, which is just what you would want it to be: comforting, filling, delicious, fresh, served with good cheer amongst new friends. It’s not an every weekend spot, but an occasional and memorable treat.

24 Hours in Portland: Part One

February 22, 2012

Porland, Oregon: one of my favorite cities. The home of Powell’s, the famed “City of Books,” it’s also a City of Coffee, City of Parks, and City of Food, with restaurants, butchers, bakeries, and bars serving up every kind of delicious delicacy the mind (and the stomach) can desire.

Pearl District, Portland

A few times a year, we roll down I-5 to get our fill of book browsing, urban wandering, eating and drinking in the City of Roses. On this trip, we decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day a little early with a quick overnight stay, no agenda, and a rough plan to try to hit as many new spots and old favorites as our time and appetites would allow.

Our first stop after rolling into town was an early lunch at Pok Pok, James Beard Award-winning chef Andy Ricker’s original outpost of Thai street food. I’d been wanting to eat here for ages. Prepared for a crowd (Portlanders seem to enjoy waiting in line even more than Seattleites),we timed our drive to arrive right as the doors opened and were rewarded with a two-top near the bar in the tiny main dining room.

After settling in with refreshing, fruit-infused drinking vinegars, we ordered several specialties of the house including Kai Yaang,  game hen stuffed with lemongrass and spices and roasted over one of the restaurant’s charcoal-fueled outdoor rotisseries; green Papaya Pok Pok salad; spicy fish sauce-glazed chicken wings; and coconut milk-basted pork loin skewers served with peanut sauce and, interestingly, hunks of grilled bread.

We were not disappointed. The green papaya salad was crisp, crunchy, sweet, salty, and spicy at once, a perfect pairing for the fragrant and mild game hen. And those chicken wings . . . it’s easy to see why they are among Ricker’s most famed and beloved menu items. Marinated in fish sauce and sugar, then caramelized to a peppery, lip-burning crunch. A plate of those and a cold Singha beer could be the happy ending to many great nights.

Bubbly and chocolate cookies at the Hotel Deluxe

After lunch we headed across town to check in to the Hotel Deluxe, our favorite home base while in town. Located in an old hotel building in spitting distance of both the Pearl District and Nob Hill, the Deluxe exemplifies mid-century glamour. From the oversized black and white portraits of  classic movie stars in every hallway to the incredibly helpful, violet-clad front desk staff, from the plushly elegant lobby to the chiff0n-draped rooms, a stay at the Deluxe feels like a journey to a more civilized time.

On this visit, we took the pampering a step further and booked the “My Chocolate Valentine” package, which included, among other sweet treats, a gift certificate for a hot chocolate tasting at Cacao, a very cool little chocolate shop on the edge of the Pearl District.  We tried a trio of rich, frothy drinking chocolates – cinnamon, dark chocolate, and a smoky spicy dark chocolate – and browsed the chocolate offerings sourced from around the world before heading back out into the cold sunny day.

Drinking chocolate trio at Cacao

Portland’s Pearl District is a great place to amble away an afternoon. After checking out cards and stationary from local artists at Oblation Papers & Press and picking up some spices at Penzey’s, we headed a few blocks north to Tanner Springs Park, one of the network of open spaces developed along with the Pearl – originally the site of a wetlands and lake, and later tanneries and warehouses – in the 1990s.

Walkways through the marsh at Tanner Springs Park

The park features a large marsh area, which serves as a habitat for waterfowl and native plants and is crisscrossed by raised walkways, benches for contemplation, and public art. The entire square block park is surrounded by the modern highrise condos of the present-day Pearl District, creating a unique urban oasis and a great place for a chat, picnic, or stroll.

An urban oasis at Tanner Springs Park

Of course, no visit to Portland, no matter how short, would be complete without a lengthy visit to Powell‘s, one of America’s greatest bookstores.  Stepping through those doors, into the throng of people of all ages clutching stacks of books, renews my faith in us as a society of readers every time.

On this visit, we ventured for the first time to the top floor Rare Books Room, home to treasures including several books from the personal library of Anne Rice (including a copy of “The Last Temptation of Christ” complete with snarky margin notes) and a ten-volume, white leather and gold-leaf bound set of L. Ron Hubbard’s “Mission Earth” series, housed in its own white laquer bookcase with glass doors.

Overwhelmed, we decided it was time for a drink, and headed back down the block to the bar at  Oven & Shaker, where bartender “Cool Hand” Luke poured us the hot spot’s two most popular cocktails. The Pineapple Trainwreck, a tropical storm of rum, ginger, pineapple, and bitters, perked me right up, while the combination of rye whiskey, lemon, ginger syrup and soda in The Presbyterian worked wonders on Carl.

Pineapple Trainwreck at Oven and Shaker

From there, we strolled downtown and had a quick Alpine-scented cocktail at Gruner before heading back to the Deluxe to finish off the night at my favorite bar in Portland, The Driftwood Room.

Nestled away in off the hotel lobby, the dark and cozy Driftwood Room harkens back to the days of the Rat Pack and “Mad Men,” and I always feel like I should enter wearing a cocktail dress and long gloves.  The curving bar is the perfect place to nurse one of the Room’s signature champagne cocktails or Manhattans, and the intimate back tables are ideal spots for a late night rendezvous. In the past, I’ve really enjoyed (and re-created at home) the Portland ’85, a blend of locally produced Clear Creek pear brandy and Pear liqueur topped with bubbly, as well as the Springtime in Paris, a heady tipple of sparkling wine, St. Germain, and rhubarb bitters. On this visit, our favorite bartender Mike, who has taken care of us on every visit since we began coming to the Deluxe and the Driftwood Room three years ago, tried us on two new drinks. The Frieda Kahlo showcases barrel-aged bitters and cassis in a tequila, orange, and grapefruit juice concoction, and tasted of sunny drives across the Southwest desert in spring. My favorite, though, was a special cocktail created for the Portland International Film Festival, which was being held that week in town. The rosy-hued Roman Holiday, a mix of hibiscus tea-infused simple syrup, Campari, and grapefruit juice topped with sparkling wine, was as fresh and exciting as its name implied, and a perfect way to end a long and enjoyable winter day in the City of Roses. Stay tuned for Part Two: Brunch at Beast!

Tuna Tinning With Slow Food Seattle

January 31, 2012

For the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as a board member for Slow Food Seattle, our local chapter of the international organization dedicated to, among other things, preserving local food traditions, increasing awareness of and interest in the foods we can grow and enjoy in our own backyard, and promoting the use of good, clean, and fair practices in food production.

Our group puts on several hands-on events each year, and without a doubt my favorite is the annual “Time to Tin A Tuna” workshop, coordinated by SFS’s resident fisherwoman Amy G, and presided over by Bellingham fisherman Jeremy Brown.

Once a year, Jeremy comes down to Seattle with about 1000 pounds of Northwest wild Albacore tuna,  and  guides a group of Slow Food members and friends through the steps of breaking down the fish and processing it into 8-ounce jars. The result is, in my opinion, the best canned tuna you’ll ever have,  and so a few Sundays ago I put on old clothes, picked up my chef’s knife, and headed down to Gourmondo‘s South Seattle catering kitchen to get my tuna on.

Step One: skinning and cutting tuna into boneless chunks.

 

Step Two: trimming tuna chunks and stuffing into jars

After the first team breaks down the tuna into fist-sized chunks, removing large bones and skin, the fish is taken on large trays over to a second station, where a group of us trimmed it into smaller, even pieces and removed the smaller bones and cartilage. Then another group packed it into jars with about a quarter cup of olive oil, pinch of salt, and the secret ingredient – a chunk of carrot. Why carrot? It adds a hint of sweetness and keeps the fish from developing a tinny taste when it’s cooked at high temperatures. 
 
After their rims are wiped clean, the jars are sealed and placed on racks, awaiting their turn in the line of pressure cookers that Gerry and his team man throughout the day. The jars cook for 90 minutes and come out sealed and shelf-stable. 
 

Step Three: Clean rims, seal jars, and place on racks to await cooking

 

Step Four: Cook the heck out of the tuna in a pressuer cooker to make it shelf-stable.

 
Step Five: Check seals, wait for tuna to cool, take home and enjoy!

All in all, the tuna tinning is a great afternoon with a bunch of fun people and, as I mentioned, there really is no comparison between the finished product and the stuff (even the good stuff) you get in a grocery store.

Last year I bought two cases of our Slow Food tuna and gave several away as Christmas gifts. This year, I hope to keep a bit more of it for myself  and use it in healthy, delicious recipes like the one below, which I have made several times for a quick, filling dinner. In the spring, I substitute chopped asparagus for the olives and you could also probably use spinach.

My Slow food buddies are a great group of people and I highly recommend checking out your local chapter. If that chapter happens to be Seattle, I hope you’ll join us for our next event!

Lemony Tuna Pasta

Serves 3-4 with leftovers

Ingredients:

1 lb. penne, bowtie, or rotini pasta

 8 ounce jar or 2 cans tuna fish

juice and zest of 1 lemon OR dice of one preserved lemon

1/2 cup kalamata olives, chopped

2 tbs parsley, chopped

2 tbs olive oil

salt

pepper

parmesan cheese

Method:

Bring water to boil in a large pot and cook pasta as directed.

While pasta is cooking, drain tuna and mash with a fork in a bowl with olives, parsley, and lemon zest. Add lemon juice to taste.

When pasta is cooked, drain and return to pot. Add olive oil, tuna mixture, and more lemon juice to taste. Season with salt and pepper. Serve topped with parmesan cheese.

 

Oyster Picnic at Hog Island

January 25, 2012
 

I am extremely lucky to have a good number of adventurous, food-loving friends who think nothing of dropping everything to travel hundreds or thousands of miles for the promise of good grub.

Kerry drove through a blinding blizzard in Vermont once to get us to Montreal for beer and poutine. Leslie orchestrated a trip to Memphis just so we could ride her coattails through the Memphis in May barbecue championships. And Ku? Ku guided five adults and a cranky toddler through several neighborhoods in Beijing so that we could try authentic hot pot before heading back to the U.S. Stressful? Nah, they live for this stuff, and it’s my luck to sometimes get to come along for the ride.

This is how, on a rainy Sunday in November, I found myself spreading old newspapers on a damp picnic table at the edge of a sandy spit jutting out into Tomales Bay, California. We were at Hog Island, and we were ready to eat some oysters.

View of the flats at low tide

How did we get here? My intrepid friend Kerry, the aforementioned beer-loving snow driver, began planning this picnic as soon as we’d finalized plans to meet at my mom’s place in Northern California for Thanksgiving. Kerry also loves oysters, and Hog Island is one of the most renowned local purveyors of the briny bivalves. They also have a very cool picnic area at their Marshall farm, where you can buy oysters straight from their beds to eat raw or cook up on the grill. The Hog Island folks provide shucking knives, lemons, a delicious mignonette called “Hog Wash,” and sell wine, beer, and assorted other snacks from an upended boat-turned-snack bar. What more could you ask for on a winter’s afternoon?

There was the matter of the rain – pounding down in sheets as we meandered up Highway 1 – but we were undeterred. After a quick stop  in Point Reyes for some dried fruit at Toby’s Feed Barn and delectable Mt. Tam triple cream cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, we tooled up the road, parked on the shoulder, and hauled our goodies – including a magnum of bubbly, a given with the menu and the presence of the Diva – to a table facing the bay, breathtaking even in the fog.

Our picnic.

 Once we got things set out and picked up three dozen Hog Island Sweetwaters and a dozen Kumamotos, we got down to the serious business of shucking. Luckily, Carl is a former professional, and Kerry, Sean, and the Diva were quick learners. I acted as supervisor and cocktail waitress.

Sean: shucking is serious business.

 

Carl shows Diva Armida how it's done

After a while, the picnic area filled up with other groups celebrating birthdays, early Thanksgiving, and generally having a fun time. The sun came out and the whole place took on the air of a great big oyster hoedown, helped along with numerous bottles of wine and the good cheer of our hosts and fellow picnickers.  As we discarded our trays of shells and packed up to head back across the county, full of oysters and smiles, I was once again reminded that good friends – and good food – are worth more than gold.  
 

No sun? No problem! Happy picnickers in front of "The Boat"

 

Aftermath of a great afternoon

 

24 Hours on Whidbey Island

January 8, 2012

The harbor at Coupeville, Whidbey Island

We needed to get away. After months of grey skies, the sun was shining and sweaters were finally shucked, but summer was quickly coming to an end. I was dreaming of an island getaway, something short and sweet and new. Somewhere we could smell the salt water and hear the clanging of buoys and eat from the sea. So on a cool but clear Friday morning, the last of the summer, we packed up the car and headed up I-5 to catch the Mukilteo Ferry to Whidbey Island.

From Seattle, Whidbey is the perfect quick getaway for a day, night, or weekend.  It’s nearby but feels like another, more relaxed world. There are a variety of outdoor activities from beachcombing to hiking to boating, and a surprising number of places to stay and tasty spots to eat. I was also excited about checking out the island’s thriving farm and gardening scene.

After a short hop up the highway and onto the ferry at Mukilteo (we thankfully got to the dock before the weekend crowds arrived and lines for the boats got long), and a quick trip across the Sound,  we arrived at the southern end of the island. From there it’s a 10-minute drive to Langley, where we stopped to get our bearings and poke around the shops on First Street.

One of my goals for our trip to Whidbey was to try as many of the local specialty Penn Cove mussels, from as many different sources and in as many preparations, as possible. I started my quest over a leisurely lunch on the sun-dappled deck at Prima Bistro, a recommendation from a food-loving co-worker, where we enjoyed mussels “a la mariniere” steamed with white wine, shallots, and garlic. These mussels were served in their own little cast iron pot, and the simple preparation allowed their fresh brininess to shine through.

Burrata and salmon rillettes plates at Prima Bistro in Langley

Fresh preparations seemed to be a hallmark at Prima, where we also enjoyed a flavorful and light wild salmon rillette and a toothsome and satisfying duck leg confit over lentils dressed with a bacon vinaigrette. The tomato, basil, and burrata plate could have been improved with riper, more flavoful tomatoes (even in this late-blooming summer, delicious heirloom varieties are ripe all over the region), but the burrata itself was elastic and creamy, set off nicely by a light drizzle of sea salt and balsamic vinegar.

Duck Leg Confit at Prima Bistro - delicious!

Full and feeling good from our lunch in the sun, we continued north up the spine of the island towards the Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens in Greenbank, where I had heard a big Labor Day sale was in progress. We’ve got a beautiful pink rhody right in front of the house and thought it might be fun to get another one to go with it.
 
Turns out we went searching in the right place. The Meerkerk nursery is located in a wooded glen behind the public gardens, and on this day rows and rows of plants of all different colors and variations were available for sale, including several different hybrids created by local hybridizer Frank Fujioka. After a lot of debate we picked a lovely orange and silver “Seaview Sunset” from Fujioka and strolled out for a quick look at the gardens before heading back up the road.

Meerkerk Gardens in Greenbank

 Our next stop was just down the road. Greenbank Farm is a former working farm that now houses several small shops and galleries as well as the Whidbey Pies Cafe, known for pies made from local loganberries and other fruits. We shared a slice of huckleberry pie a la mode at a picnic table overlooking a tranquil duck pond, then headed for our final destination of the day.
 
Located about halfway up the length of Whidbey Island on the banks of Penn Cove, Coupeville has a tiny, two-block long commercial strip along Front Street, a wharf with a pretty great coffee shop out at the end of it, and many original Victorian era homes, some of which have been turned into charming B&Bs. We stayed at the Lovejoy Inn, a cozy three-room lodging two blocks up from the water. Mitch, the innkeeper, spent several years working at the nearby state park and seemed to know every cranny of the island. Our first floor room was small but sweet, with a large walk-in shower and comfortable bed.

The Lovejoy Inn in Coupeville

After a walk around the corner to check out Bayleaf, a cute gourmet food and wine shop, we took Mitch’s advice and popped in next door to Christopher’s for an early dinner including a second round of mussels. This version was steamed in a creamy, garlicky white wine sauce that nicely offset the plump, juicy oysters. With a basket of warm bread, it would have been a meal in itself but, intrigued by the European-influenced menu, we ate some more. And some more.
 
First linguine in a surprisingly light smoked salmon cream sauce, then a paprika-scented Austrian chicken and spaetzel, and finally a delicate chocolate mouse and lemony cheesecake. Overindulgent? For sure. But we were on vacation! A leisurely stroll down to the harbor and we were ready to call it a night.

Sunset over Coupeville harbor

 The next morning, we were up early for a tasty hot breakfast prepared by Mitch and a visit to the Coupeville Farmer’s Market, where we stocked up on home-brewed root beer, local berries, and honey before heading out to Ebey’s Landing for a hike along the beach and up the bluff, where farmland meets coastline with spectacular views of the Puget Sound and Mt. Baker.

Bluff Walk at Fort Ebey State Park

 After our walk it was time for one last sampling of mussels, this time at Toby’s, a classic tavern on the water back in Coupeville. Juicy and basically unadorned, accompanied by thick pieces of garlic bread and icy beers, they hit the spot and Toby’s, like Whidbey Island itself, was comfortable, unpretentious, and fun. On the drive home north through Deception Pass and back down I-5, we were already plotting our return trip.

Fried Chicken at Spring Hill

August 1, 2011

Much has been written about Spring Hill‘s acclaimed Monday night fried chicken dinners, at which a group of four could nosh down on a feast of fried chicken and a variety of sides, and then stumble out holding their sides, for just about $25 each.

Sadly for us finger lickers, the restaurant discontinued the Monday night tradition this summer (you can still get an excellent meal there any night of the week). Luckily, they gave plenty of notice, and in late February our friend Gina was able to secure a table for one of the last chicken dinners in early June. (Really!)

Fried chicken, spaetzle, blasted brocoli, and mashed potatoes at Spring Hill, shortly before the carnage began.

You may be thinking to yourself – isn’t 25 bucks a little steep for some chicken and potatoes? Well, friends, this was no ordinary chicken and potatoes. The platter carrying two chickens’ worth of pieces, fried to crunchy perfection, glistened in the fading sunlight from near our table in the front window. Surrounded by platters of mashed potatoes and gravy, herbed spaetzle, blasted garlicky broccoli, refreshing cucumber salad, and moist jalapeno cornbread with honey butter, it was a feast fit for the King himself.

“You’ll never be able to finish the whole platter, there’s always tons of leftovers,” laughed owner Marjorie as she stopped to see how we were doing. We took it as a challenge, and I think even Elvis would have been impressed at the wreckage of our table once we finally called it quits. A few lonely pieces of chicken, a swipe of creamy potatoes, some cornbread crumbs.

We may have seen the last of Spring Hill’s fried chicken, but I’m looking forward to seeing what new and delicious replacements Mark and Marjorie come up with next.


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