Asuka in Bloom

Spring is here!

The first hint of spring has me daydreaming about Skagit Valley. It's a short 6o miles north of Seattle...but it feels worlds away. Picture lush fields carpeted in spring bulbs. Here you can bring your bicycle and enjoy miles of flat terrain...with a riot of colors following you all along the way.
The Tulip Festival officially begins April 1st, but the daffodils are in bloom now.
Last year, my friend Asuka and I went whale watching. It was a lovely day out on the water and we spotted the local Orca pod frolicking just off the coast. On the way back, we detoured through the Skagit Valley.
Just before the camera died, I snapped this picture of Asuka. This photo perfectly captures her essence...and I adore it!
You see, Asuka had a brain tumor the size of a golf ball. It went undetected until one morning, while eating breakfast, she collapsed on the floor. At the time, she was living in a small fishing village in Japan. She was medically evacuated to a larger city far from her family, creating a hardship both on her and the family finances.
At the hospital, they operated immediately and thankfully, spared her life. But at 19 years old, she had to learn how to walk and talk all over again.
Once she recovered, the tumor served a constant reminder that life is short...and precious. This was the catalyst that fueled her desire to embrace every opportunity.
Although she finished later than her peers, Asuka did graduate from college. She also took short trips whenever possible...Australia, New Zealand, England, Thailand, China, etc. Contrary to Japanese tradition, she'd travel alone or met up with friends in other countries. On one of her legendary trips, she even took a tour, traveling from LA to New York City in 30 days. That's when she fell in love with the United States.
Next Asuka decided to study English.
Against her family's wishes, she left a coveted teaching position and moved to Seattle. Asuka rented a small room near the university and advanced her English skills.
As our friendship grew, we'd meet and discuss everything from what it means to be a woman in Japanese society (and America) to family values, religion, WWII sentiments against the US, and a wide range of other things.
Asuka had a love for life and was game for anything. I was at my creative best and shared all I possibly could.
She has since married her longtime boyfriend, Martin. When they met, he was a British anthropologist studying the impact of nuclear energy in her village. Together, they've built a beautiful life around a love for learning and challenging eachother. She's now living in London while he completes field research in Japan. Martin is finishing up his PHD...and they will be reunited soon.
The times I shared with Asuka are some of my most treasured memories. And it makes me smile to remember the day we tiptoed through the tulips...enjoying the patchwork of rainbow colors. is good!

If you happen to be visiting the Skagit Valley with your sweetie...for the ultimate in romance? Try hot air ballooning over the tulip fields.

Cocktails with The Gatekeepers

The Rainier Club

Miss M has the most powerful contact list in Seattle.

No doubt.

And when you're invited for cocktails with the go.

It had been a particularly sloppy, rain-sodden day when I pulled up to my destination. Hoping no one would notice I didn't use the valet parking (street parking will do just fine, thank you), I dodged umbrellas and puddles, mercifully seeking cover under the awning. It was the kind of night where I would have preferred soup and TIVO over social obligations...but then again, when Miss M comes go.

The private club reeked of understated V.I.P. and I regretted not polishing my shoes.

We made quick introductions in the lobby and then headed upstairs for "Nibbles n' Cocktails." Club chairs and a cozy fireplace set the stage for our inaugural book club gathering.

Did I mention that?

All this was for a book club.

I quickly learned that when Miss M flips through her Rolodex, slouches need not apply. Gathered were the women behind Seattle's most powerful men....high profile politicians, international think tanks and trade centers.

You want the man in charge?

First, you have to go through The Gatekeepers.

(Good luck)

But all pretense dropped by the wayside when we delved deep into Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love." This fabulous book is so artfully written...I want to give a copy to all my girlfriends. It was an excellent choice for our first night getting acquainted. While we discussed specific events in the book, our own stories became woven throughout.

The ladies were in tears...laughing I described meeting with a Shaman in Mexico. It looses something in the re-telling, but let's just say, I wanted to see the light!

I really did want to identify with the Shaman healing experience...but it was difficult to focus as he pressed himself against me. I wasn't quite clear about the process, but I'm pretty sure... groping was NOT part of the "traditional healing."

The plot thickens boyfriend was actually there!

That boyfriend and I have since parted ways, but while all this was going on with the Shaman, my boyfriend stood close by with his eyes shut, claiming to see a kaleidoscope of colors! He was totally oblivious to what was going on with me.

When our "session" with the Shaman ended, I was irritated and confused. Meanwhile, I looked longingly at my boyfriend...who wore the look of perfect calm and utter peace.

Whining, I thought to myself, "Just my luck...I go looking for internal peace...and instead, I get hit on by the Shaman. Lovely."

Okay, back to the present.

I must say...drinks with The Gatekeepers was an eye opening experience. In a way, I felt like we broke down some barriers that night. The stodgy private club masks an unspoken "old boy's world." Yet, for at least one night, it was dominated by riotous women who filled the rooms with laughter.

Over cocktails and discussions of a great book...we found our place: real women, sharing real experiences...despite the surreal environment.

The Reality Check

Lest you think all is calm and smiling faces in my world, let me inject a bit of humility....I'm FREAKING OUT! (Notice I've been doing a lot of baking? That's my latest work titled "Productive stalling.")

Oh a duck, things may seem placid, and maybe even a little serine above water.

Below the surface, I'm swimming like mad!

What's up?

Well, I'm a firm believer in assessing the current situation before launching a new plan. Sounds reasonable enough, right?

Then I said it out loud.

This round the world dream I've been harboring for a while now...the words escaped my mouth, I've launched it into cyberspace, and now I need a plan.

But when I put pen to paper and started to asses my current state...things started to get a little shaky.

Quite laughable, really.

I can hear the financial planners of the world collectively frowning and with a loss for words...simply utter, "Tsk, tsk, tsk."

The ghost of my mother...who, I might add, is still that gentle, yet disapproving voice nudges me, "Oh honey, be reasonable."

Good ole' Mom.

She's the first person to say it's impossible.

It can't be done.

And consequently, now she's the last one to hear about my plans.

In fact, she makes a mean cocktail that'll bring you to your knees (Careful here, it sneaks up on you):

Mom's Advice
One part legacy of fear (aged 60 years)
Mixed with a dash of morbid curiocity
Shake well
Garnish with a twist of my father's reproach

Suddenly, Mom's nagging voice is in my head again, "And how do you really think you're going to make that happen?"

Good question.

Short answer? I have no idea.

You's the deal. For the past year, I've been living the dream life. Truly. If I told you everything, you'd never believe me.

For the experience of a lifetime? I happily paid my admission.

But to put it mildly, let's just wasn't exactly a lucrative year. (Insert laughter here)

I was okay with that...until I decided to get greedy and ask for an even better year...sometime in the not-too-distant future.

So call me greedy.

I figure you've got one shot in this world, and I'm going for it. Besides, I've already reconciled with the fact that I'll never be rich.

But when the reality check set in and I looked at the damage from the past year...the mounting credit card debt, student loans, and a few other miscellaneous details beginning with dollar all looks quite daunting.

Said reality check was further enlightened when a friend of mine asked innocently, "So, how much do you think you'll spend on your trip?"

Um. I don't know.

Never mind that the person asking...was someone I've dined lavishly with over the past year. And that's the same friend who spends more on his discretionary lifestyle than I earned the two previous years combined.

Yes, I've been playing with the high rollers.

And moderation is in order here.

But when I finally embark on this journey, do I really want to live so lean...that I never eat at a fabulous restaurant? Not really.

So, you see, the reality check hit home.

At this moment, I really want to be like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.

She's a fallen from grace Southern Belle...out standing in a barren field under the hot sun. Fully aware that she has no real prospects...other than certain and daunting challenges ahead. In the depth of her family's despair, everyone turns to her for an answer, "But Scarlett...what are we going to do?"

Exhausted, she replies, "I'll think about that tomorrow."

And that's exactly what I'm going to do.

I'll think about it tomorrow.

Macrina's Nuts

Sweet & Spicy Nuts

This recipe comes from Leslie Mackie, owner of Seattle's fabulous Macrina Bakery.

Yes,this is the same Leslie Mackie….currently nominated by the James Beard Foundation as America's "Outstanding Pastry Chef."

Leslie is a true dynamo and I can offer no valid reason why her cookbook has languished on my shelf for so long. But this weekend, I pulled it out and quickly earmarked dozens of recipes I want to try: Olivia's Old-Fashioned Chocolate Chip Cookies, Sour Cherry Shortbread, Chocolate Cherry Pound Cake and the list goes on....

Since the bakery also serves lunch, she offers recipes for some of my favorite savory dishes too….Butternut Squash & Apple Gallette, Tuscan Tomato & Fennel Soup with White Beans, and her wonderful Bacon, Leek & Gruyere Quiche.

For my first foray, I started out with something simple...Sweet & Spicy Nuts.

Let me tell you....these nuts are fantastic!
I have a small burn on my finger because I absolutely could not wait. The wound is a small price to pay for a taste straight out of the oven. YUM!

With a touch of sweetness and just enough spicy warned...these nuts are positively addictive!

Sweet & Spicy Nuts
From Macrina Bakery & Cafe Cookbook

(Makes 4 cups of nuts)

1 cup whole almonds
1 cup whole peanuts
1 cup whole pecans
1 cup walnut halves

1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup light corn syrup

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, then brush top of the parchment paper with canola oil. (This method is better than using a Silpat. As the nuts coos, the coating gets quite syrupy and ran underneath my Silpat. Lesson learned. Make it easy on yourself...go with the parchment.)

Combine nuts in a medium bowl.

Combine spices in a small bowl. Mix well with a spoon, then pour the spice mixture over the nuts and toss together thoroughly.

Combine honey and corn syrup in a medium saucepan and place over low heat. Stirring frequently, heat just until mixture is warm. Pour the warm mixture over the nuts and toss together (it's best to use your hands) until nuts are evenly coated.

Pour the nuts onto the prepared baking sheet and spread them into a single layer (mine was not quite a single layer and I spent a lot of time breaking nuts apart. Do your best to get them in a single layer.) Bake on center rack of oven for 15-20 minutes, or until nuts take on a rich mahogany color.

Let nuts cool completely. At this point, they will have formed a single, crispy layer in the baking sheet. Break the nuts apart with your hands and store in an airtight container. Note: heat will melt the syrup on the nuts and make them sticky again. Store in a cool place.

The One

Butterscotch Crème Brulee

Like a lover who easily settles into your day you wake up, and you just know it. He's here to stay...and no other will do. Sure, a passing fancy may catch your attention here and there, but when you have the total package, really...why bother?

This crème brulee is so good, I stopped looking.

When the razzle-dazzle desserts become too high maintenance...or fail to deliver when you need them the on this crème brulee.

Yes, looks are deceiving.

At first glance, it may appear a wee bit too humble. But rest assured....what lies beneath the a creamy heart of heaven.

And when you gather a few notable food bloggers...THIS is the one that makes the ladies swoon!

Butterscotch Crème Brulee
From the Herbfarm Restaurant

6 Servings
1 ½ Cups Heavy Cream
6 Tbsp dark Muscovado sugar *
2 Tbsp Turbinado sugar (aka Sugar in the Raw)
¼ tsp salt
6 Tbsp water
4 large egg yolks
½ tsp vanilla
6 (4-8 oz) ramekins or custard dishes
* Dark Muscovado sugar is available at Whole Foods and some upscale grocery stores. Online, you can order it at or
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 300 degrees Farenheit.

Bring cream, Muscovado sugar and salt to a simmer in a small heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved.

Bring water and Turbinado sugar to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and bubbly, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and slowly add the cream mixture, whisking until combined.

Mix the yolks and vanilla in a large bowl, then whisk in the hot cream mixture in a stream. Pour custard through a fine-mesh strainer and into a 1-quart measure. Remove any foam with a spoon.

Portion the custard into the ramekins. Arrange ramekins in a small baking pan and pour in enough water to reach halfway up the side of the ramekin. Bake uncovered, until custards are set around edges but still tremble slightly in centers, about 40 minutes. (Traca's note: When in doubt, pull them.)

Immediately transfer ramekins to a rack with tongs and cool in the refrigerator. The custards will become firm as they cool.

When they are cool and you are ready to serve, spoon a generous amount of Turbinado sugar over the top of the custard ensuring the entire surface is covered. Tip upside down and shake off excess. Be careful not to allow the sugar layer to get too thick lest it burn away when you try to brown it. If you have a blowtorch, light it and hold the flame about 4 inches from the surface of the custard. Slowly move the flame back and forth across the sugar until it is caramel brown.

If you do not have a blowtorch, place the custards on a cookie sheet and place them under the broiler in your oven. They will brown quickly so watch closely.

Note: if you like crème brulee, it pays to buy a blowtorch. Forget the $60 kitchen torches. I bought mine at the hardware store. For a mere $20, get yourself a plumber's blowtorch--and be sure to buy the model that self-ignites. Trust me, you'll use it more than you think.

Spotlight: Eating With Strangers

Scenes from "Desperately Seeking Susan" keep passing through my mind... She's Madonna. I'm Rosanna Arquette. She's impossibly cool and confident. I'm in awe and lusting for another life.

Road tripping across the country...headed for the American Cheese Festival in Portland. With a few days to spare, Nathalie Bouffe detoured 4 hours north to Seattle.

She almost snuck into town.

Lucky for me...Nathalie wanted to EAT.

By way of introduction, a friend forwarded Nathalie's e-mail. It basically said: Will trade fabulous lecture on cheeses for equally fabulous meal.

Intrigued, I answered.

Nathalie's pedigree includes a stint at the famed Neils Yard Dairy in London...and a clear obsession with all things cheese-related.

Catching up with her...en route...somewhere in the Rockies, the plan unfolded, "Gather the cooks and I'll give a lecture with samples. If it's good, I'll come back later that night and eat on the house."

What can I say?

Nathalie was astonishing! And at dinner...Chef spoiled her rotten.

Then she was gone....

Nathalie has been traveling around this great world of ours on a non-stop journey since 2004. Along the way, she's had a stunning array of experiences and people crossing her path. Now, as best as a traveler can, she's put roots in New York City.

Take a peak into Nathalie's world with her new blog, Eating With Strangers. She spins one hell of a tale...and proves a philosophy I've held for a long time. The everyday encounter...can be truly extraordinary.

The Pursuit of...Organic Labels

Food Processors Are Hot on Organic*

Check out this diagram (double click for a bigger view).

As of November 2006, these organic brands have been acquired by the big boys in the food industry (General Mills, ConAgra, Heinz, Kraft, Hershey's, Coca-Cola, etc.)

This opens a startling array of questions...and answers a few too. No wonder my local grocery store is touting their own private label organics.

Is it time to go beyond organic?

*Diagram by Dr. Phillip Howard.

XO Marks the Spot

Espresso Walnut Toffee with Cocoa Nibs

Bridging the miles between friends...nothing says love like a care package!

I'm sending confectionary hugs with this delicious toffee...all dressed up in a beautiful box from Nashville Wraps.



This simple recipe is gets rave reviews every time. It also stores easily...making it a great candidate for traveling care packages.
Inspired by a toffee recipe on, my version coats the entire top with semisweet chocolate, walnuts, cocoa nibs, and a final dusting of Kosher salt. Salty, sweet, and bitter are in perfect balance here.

Tip: Once your toffee is ready, things move very quickly. Mise en place is key, so get yourself properly set up before you begin.

Espresso-Walnut Toffee with Cocoa Nibs

2 cups walnuts
1/2 cup cocoa nibs
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup packed golden brown sugar
2 tsp instant espresso powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp salt
1/3 cup water
1 Tbs dark unsulfured molasses
9 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely choppped (Valrhona 56%)
1 ¼ cups (2 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Spread walnuts and nibs on a cookie sheet and toast in the oven until the walnuts are fragrant, about 5-10 minutes, making sure they don’t burn. Allow to cool for ten minutes; then coarsely chop. Remove 1 ½ cups to a bowl. Finely chop remaining ½ cup; then place in a separate bowl.

Prepare your mise en place: in a medium bowl, combine sugars, espresso powder, cinnamon, and salt. In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine water and molasses. Place chopped chocolate in a separate bowl. Butter a sheet pan or line with a Silpat.

Melt butter in a heavy 2 ½-quart saucepan over low heat. Add sugars, espresso powder, cinnamon, salt, water, and molasses; stir until sugar dissolves. Attach a clip-on candy thermometer to side of pan. Increase heat to medium; cook until thermometer registers 290 degrees (and no less!), stirring slowly but constantly and scraping bottom of pan with a silicone spatula, about 20 minutes.

Remove pan from heat, and quickly stir in 1 ½ cups coarsely chopped nuts. Immediately pour mixture onto prepared pan; do not scrape saucepan. Spread toffee to ¼-inch thickness.

Sprinkle chocolate over hot toffee. Let stand one minute. Using the back of a spoon or an off-set spatula, spread chocolate evenly. Before chocolate cools, sprinkle with reserved ½ cup finely chopped walnuts (and cocoa nibs, if using). Press lightly across the top to ensure nuts and nibs adhere to the warm chocolate. If you prefer toffee salty-sweet, dust the top lightly with kosher salt.

Refrigerate until toffee is firm, about one hour. Break toffee into pieces then store in an airtight container.
For those days when you need a taste of something sweet...I keep a bag of toffee in my freezer. It's delicious chilled or at room temperature.


Tavolàta's house-made extruded pasta

Fearing a backlash from conflict of interest, I've been pretty hush hush about Chef's work up until now. But the premise behind blogging is personal, and this is my experience. I'm incredibly proud to be in Chef's all PR allegiances goes....

About a month ago, Chef opened his second Italian joint called Tavolàta. My job was easy. No official statements, no hype. When they were finally ready, he simply opened the doors. Within days Tavolàta was experiencing 2 hour waits and cranking out pasta for over 100 covers a night.

So what's the story?

After working late nights in the restaurant biz, and having few places to go after work, two longtime friends came together and created their kind of restaurant. Young, hip, and urban...the goal was to create a place their friends would enjoy.

The basic criteria would not be had to be a casual environment, open late (so cooks could drop by after work), and the food had to be great. No question.

So, over late night drinks, the concept for Tavolàta was born.

The food

Chef is known for working with the finest ingredients available and Tavolàta is no exception. All the pasta is made fresh in house. A grinder is being custom built and eventually, they plan to even grind their own wheat!

For extruded (shaped) pasta, the machines were delivered earlier this summer. While the guys worked on dough recipes, friends of the house were sent home with copious bags of fresh pasta.

Meanwhile, I tried to get up to speed on Italian cuisine. Chef has 20 different dies (shapes) he can use for extruded pasta, and depending on how long pieces are, warrants yet another name in Italian. Mama mia!

How far does Chef go for fresh ingredients? Buffalo milk is imported from Italy to make the house-made mozzarella. They're currently sampling a variety of wheat crops to find the perfect source. And I was deliriously happy to learn some of the salumi comes from the master, Paul Bertolli of Fra Mani in San Francisco.

Testing recipes for pasta dough

The space

Tavolàta means "table" and it refers to the 30' long communal table running through the center of the restaurant. (Chat it up with your neighbor...or not.) The table is made out of a single piece of fallen tree, hewn by Tavolàta's co-owner, Patric Gabre-Kidan. It's huge! And it was amazing to see him work on this piece from the beginning.

Speaking of the beginning....the restaurant space has served many businesses in its lifetime, but most recently, it was a furniture store. My first look at the space...I could hardly envision the place it is today. We went after work and with no power...used illumination from cell phones to take a tour!

Work horses, saw dust and cold beers.

It was a night I'll never forget.

Back where the bathrooms are now...that was live-in quarters for the former owner...and included a shower! Where the kitchen is? A washer and drier were in the corner. Stairs leading up to the loft were uneven and rotted...and came from an entirely different direction. Downstairs, the glow from cell phones spotlighted critter remains...and another washer and drier. It's now a top of the line prep kitchen. Portions of the floors are original and the rest is a mix of reclaimed wood that Patric sourced. And an office used to be above the gutted to highlight the lofted ceilings.

Media comes calling.

We were contacted by the Food Network in Canada for a feature on the show "Opening Soon." (In America, the show runs on the Fine Living channel.) The application process was long and required a video interview with both Ethan and Patric.

Opening Soon jumped on the project...but in the wonderful world of media, it was nixed when the restaurant project was delayed. They have their deadlines...and ours fell short. Unfortunately, that's the way it works sometimes.

Opening a restaurant is not easy.

Permit delays, change of contractors, cement strikes, shortages of this or that...and the frustration of dealing with things entirely out of your control....

For the accomplishments you see on the surface, and the grief overcome behind the scenes, I'm proud of these two guys. At long last...they have built exactly the kind of restaurant where I want to be.

(On a side note...I'm quite excited to see the first reviews out this week.)