Amusements from the Snow Globe

Perhaps you've heard Seattle was bombarded with snow?

That's no joke.

I'm from the Midwest and certainly no stranger to snow, but this was something else entirely. The first few flakes were amusing...but as the DAYS wore on, snow just wasn't funny anymore.

Snowbound for 7 straight days, I passed the time away reading a slew of cookbooks and baking up a storm. In between batches of cloverleaf rolls and molasses cookies, I threw out a lifeline and called my friend Crescent.

Lamenting about snow to someone who lives in Vermont is...well...pointless.

Her response?

"Did you make snow ice cream?"

Our chat ended, and I immediately whipped up a batch! Some folks make lemonade out of lemons, I made ice cream out of snow. And what the hell? I broke out my best silver for the occasion!

I carved out a nice spot on my balcony. See how high the snow got? Little did I know, there was more on the way!

Take one perfectly portioned scoop of snow--be sure to break through the crust of ice from that momentary warm spell. Then, drizzle the top with a combination of condensed milk, sugar, and vanilla.

I giggled senselessly over the scene: snow, crystal, and a new use for my silver gravy boat (an irresistible thrift store find). The spell was broken when the thought struck me: It kinda looks pee.

Game over!

I went back inside...and endured another 4 days of snow.

A Conversation with Chef Jason Wilson

Crush is considered one of the top restaurants in the Seattle and with a well-earned reputation for excellence, they're firmly planted on the national radar. Chef-owner Jason Wilson has a long list of accolades, but just to name just a 2006, he received Food & Wine's prestigious Top 10 Chefs award. Then in 2007, Crush received Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence, and earlier this year, he was nominated for the coveted James Beard Award.

I'm extremely fortunate to be surrounded by incredibly talented people. Swirling around me are a number of conversations that are rooted in meaningful dialog...and this is one of them.

Working on a project for my Examiner gig, I contacted Jason to ask him a couple questions. Within seconds, the conversation delved deep into food and his culinary philosophy. I grabbed my laptop and began typing furiously.....

Chef Jason Wilson, Crush restaurant

How would you describe your culinary style?

It's personality-driven cuisine, based on a perspective of cooking. I use French technique and the style is modern American. Our approach is to use the highest quality ingredients, with good consciousness. We obtain the best quality, using ingredients that are reared properly and grown in the right dirt.

The dishes are not too far outside the range of what’s happening in America today. We use lamb raised in Montana. Short ribs raised in NE Oregon. Fish is American watered fish – Hawaii, Oregon, and Alaska. Lobster is from Maine. The only exception is exception is octopus, which is Portuguese. The quality of American octopus isn’t quite there yet.

Our culinary style is based on the principal: what is the highest level of quality we can get?

It makes a difference in the food.

I grew up seeing salmon everywhere. Salmon is seasonal and fish is being depleted massively. A live fish grown wild, I think, is better during certain times of year. Salmon has a peak season. Early in the season it still has full fat reserves, the further up stream they’re harvested—towards the end of their life cycle, it doesn’t have the fat and that affects the flavor. Wild fish – it’s imperative to use wild. Farm-raised fish just doesn’t have the flavor. We may serve Kampache, but that’s different. It’s grown in pens in the open ocean. And it’s killed to order.

What do you mean by using ingredients that are “reared properly?”

I was just reading an article about peaches, the pesticides and the chemicals they use to hide blemishes. It’s the same problem with the pesticides that are used on raspberries and strawberries. It’s a culture of pesticides.

But really, do you want to consume something like that?

I don’t want it around my food.

Crush serves a cuisine that is product-driven. What can we do to add finesse and engage the diner? By eliminating pesticides, it inevitably helps the food quality. It’s not the best you can get if they’re using pesticides. You want something that has a purity about it. Raspberries taste so much better when they haven’t been manipulated to ship longer distances and forced to grow uniform in size. Raise raspberries for consistency in size and durability and you lose flavor. Irregular is where the flavor is.

Think about a carrot coming up-mid to late-spring--it tastes of soil and it’s sweet. Compared to standard commercial produce, that carrot has unique aroma. But the point is, it smells how a carrot is supposed to. We’ve lost the ability to recognize that.

Find a potato that actually tastes like a potato. Take a bit of mashed potato—you'll’s so creamy and velvety. When you eat it, at first, you taste the earthen potato flavor and afterwards the flavor is just dramatic.

As a chef, once you’ve found a great product…you’re liberated even more....the potato chip is even better...the gnocchi is even better.

Our recipes are based on high-quality ingredient and a couple other things, but they’re not manipulated. The food is extraordinarily complex because of how it comes together. A dish may have 3-4 components, but they're simple and prepared in a unique way.

Like what?

Our short ribs are cured and then sous-vide for 24 hours. The sauce is prepared over 2-3 days. It’s a simple technique, but each process has an intense level of attention given to it.

Take, for example, our mashed potatoes. We always have some version of mashed potatoes on the menu. We use the best butter; our cream is organic from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. We use Alaskan salt. The Alaskan salt has no iodine and the flavor is so clean! It’s beautiful.

We use the best ingredients, but it’s the technique that takes it to the next level. We sous-vide carrots for 4.5 hours. It retains the flavor of the carrot and then we embellish it. The technique has no loss of natural water and maintains the flavors. When you bite into it, you say, “Now that’s a carrot!”

Working with the level of the ingredients that you do, how do you manage your costs?

Sous-vide exactness helps with cost control – especially with waste management. There’s not a lot of overrun with our products. We know we’re getting x number of fish in for x covers. And that’s it. No waste.

It’s about quality and if you want to have it as your moniker...people see that and understand it. They are driven towards it.

Cheap food has its place, but American culture has been lost by the wayside. I had a customer who brought her friend in from Germany. We talked about the food and the question came up: “Do German’s have a word for 'foodie'?” The answer is no, it’s a concept that is unique to America. He said, “The culture of food is how we live in Germany.”

You see, for Americans, it’s new to embrace food quality as an aspect of life. It might be a testament to how old the cultures are in Europe, but you think about Germany, France, Spain, Italy…food is a way of life there.

Our eggs are fresh from the farm. My mother-in-law raises chickens over on Vashon Island. It’s all organic. I know how the chickens are raised…heck, I’ve even killed a couple. So you pay 6 cents extra for an egg? In the overall scheme of things, what we provide is a unique experience.

What’s your take on Crush being considered an expensive restaurant?

We’re not. We had a customer bring in a menu from Outback Steakhouse. Nearly all our prices are on par with what you can get there, but it’s a much different dining experience here. I mean…what is expensive to you? We’ve been battling the “expensive restaurant” stereotype since the beginning.

[Crush restaurant is situated in a former home. The interior has wood floors, with modern white tables and chairs. It has been described as "stylized" and "chic".]

When you think about a place like (another local restaurant), their menu doesn’t use fancy words. They simplify the vocabulary, but our foods are all very similar when it comes to the growers. Sometimes they are even more expensive than dining here. The wood and the low lighting makes you feel like you’re in an everyday place. (In another comparison), they have wood interior and church pews for seating. It’s not special or precious. Our prices are the same, but the perception is different.

How do we battle the “expensive restaurant” stereotype? We embrace it. If people expect us to be special… then let’s be as special as we can.

When people come here, you feel good about what you’re eating.

2319 E. Madison Street
Seattle, Washington 98112

Book Hostage: Dolce Italiano

Seattle Public Library: The book is overdue.

Me: I know.

Seattle Public Library: Someone else has requested it.

Me: I heard. Thank you for the e-mail.

Seattle Public Library: The fines are accumulating.

Me: So it seems.

Seattle Public Library: We need the book back, Ma'am.

Me: I know, but I just can't seem to give it up. Have you seen the book?!? I want to make every single recipe! The cranberry tart was a huge hit at Thanksgiving. That polenta crust was so easy to work with...I'm just astonished! And the pumpkin custards were divine.

Seattle Public Library: You like the book, we get it. But you must return it now.

Me: But I still have dozens of recipes I want to try! The chocolate and tangerine semifreddo...the mosaic biscotti...honey clouds...chocolate kisses...I tell you, I'm not done yet!

Today, relief came with a thud. Tossed down a flight of stairs, the book smacked on my doorstep. Thank you Now I can release my hostage.

The Seattle Public Library will be relieved....

Honestly, I don't know why I ever bother to check books out of the library. My annual donations (read: overdue fines) accumulate into double digits. For me, books are tools. I scribble in the margins, flag recipes, and write copious notes to myself. No, books aren't for borrowing. Books are for owning. And there's a bit of me in every copy.

Checking a book out of the library is like...foreplay.

It's a long, slow tease before I cave into my desires and just buy the darn thing!

When a new book is in my hands, I confess...there's something soul-satisfying about....cracking the spine. Then I fix myself a cup of tea and pour over the pages, reading through every recipe. And when I'm done, the top is feathered in multi-colored post-it notes full of ear-marked recipes.

My book hostage was exceptionally bad this go around.

I mean really, how did Dolce Italiano slip under my radar? First published in 2007, all I can say is, I must have been in a coma! Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Babbo and her book is far more than a supporting character to the Mario Batali empire. Her writing style is engaging and yet packed with bits of information. Instantly, I wanted to befriend Gina!

But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. The first recipe I made was Pumpkin Custard with Rum-raisin Compote. The custard was smooth and creamy with a subtle hint of pumpkin. Easing the custards out of the ramekin was a breeze. Served with a sweet compote of plump raisins and a hit of was delish!

Cranberry season and a Thanksgiving invite led me next to the next recipe, a luscious Cranberry Tart with Semolina Crust. First let me say that the crust makes even a dolt like me have a small victory in the kitchen. And the end result is not only beautiful, but delicious and memorable. (Warning: the dough is so tasty, you'll be tempted to eat it like cookie dough!) The cranberry filling was a breeze and at Thanksgiving, this tart got high praise. It's an especially nice pop of color next to brown turkey, brown stuffing, brown rolls, and then...viola! A ruby red cranberry tart. It was like Mae West showing up at a coal miner convention.....

Now that I have a copy, I'll release my prisoner to the capable hands of the Seattle Public Library.

Roger that: crisis averted.

Chat Live with Flo Braker

Leite's Culinaria (winner of the James Beard Award for Best Food Website in 2006 & 2007) is hosting a live chat with legendary baker, Flo Braker.

Her new book, Baking for All Occasions, is a treasure trove of recipes and if you sign up for the call, you're automatically entered to win a copy of the book!

December 20st at 1:00 EST

Click here to register for the call. Spots are limited.

(Oh, and did I mention it's free?)

Come for dinner...

Japanese eggplant with ponzu and tempura bits

Nothing gives me more pleasure than bringing my friends around the table. Find a fantastic space, give a chef free reign to work their magic, throw in a diverse range of guests and stir. You've got the recipe for one enchanted evening!

My friend Kris is a woman committed to following her passions. After 20 years in the insurance industry, one day, she spotted an ad for a sushi apprenticeship. One giant leap later...and now she's a highly regarded sushi master who's hired as a consultant for many restaurants. Front of the house, back of the house, private events or splashy celebrity-studded film festivals, this woman has done it all.

We met at an event years ago, and then I was invited to her infamous brunch. The they history. Her fabulous home, perched on a cliff overlooking the water is the stuff of my fantasies. Kris' love for entertaining is equal to my own, and she has opened her home to my cookbook group, blogger rendezvous, private sushi classes, and last night...a dinner party that will live long in my memory.

Kris has decided to move on to other ventures, but before she moved out of her home, we had one last party. From her deck, we could see the rippling water bathed in moonlight, and across the shore, the city's skyline twinkled in the crisp winter air. Multicolored votives surrounded the room, and a blazing fire kept the chilly night air at bay.

Friends...old and new...joined us for Kris' final hurrah and the air was electric! Bloggers, chefs, cookbook authors, and other food-lovin' folk gathered around the table for a sumptuous dinner I won't soon forget. As watched the cacophony of conversation between a diverse range of friends, tears welled up in my eyes.

These are my most treasured memories....

Kris has deep roots in Asian cuisine and designed a menu that reflected a deliberate flavor experience. Prior to the meal, she discussed the menu, and noted how each dish was affected by elements in the preceding course.

The Menu:

japanese eggplant w/ ponzu & tempura bits

pecan salmon steaks

ohitashi (blanched spinach towers)

pork tenderloin medallions w/ mandarin ginger reduction

burnt asparagus w/ lemon & kosher salt

tiger eye (tuna & tobiko lightly fried)

stuffed figs dipped in chocolate served w/ cheese & fruit

Photographer & documentary filmmaker Scott Squire arrived with his camera in hand. He captured these beautiful photos with nothing more than candles and a bit of ambient light from the kitchen. (You may remember Scott & his wife Amy from the Doc Farm event back in August.) Scott has photographed for Nike; done documentary work in Kathmandu, Romania, and Cairo; and he applies that same aesthetic to engaging wedding photos.

Bloggers Dawn & Eric Wright have photos here.

And these are Scott Squire's photos:

The evening began with introductions...and a chat about the menu.

Robin, radiant in candlelight.

A bit of vino and the first course is on the way.
On the right, that's fellow blogger Dawn Wright of

Tiger eye (tuna & tobiko, lightly fried)

Kris, describing the progression of flavors on your palate.

Pork tenderloin medallions with charred rosemary sprigs,

served with a mandarin orange reduction

Phil and his flames, charring rosemary for the pork dish.

Rukshana, tapping into the secret behind
the meltingly tender pecan-crusted salmon.

Chef Hope Sandler (cookbook author, culinary instructor, and ghost writer...shh...she'll never tell who she wrote for!) and Kate McDermott. Kate has one food firmly planted in the food world --thanks to her husband Jon, but she is also an accomplished musician and music instructor.

As the night wound down, conversation flowed into the kitchen. (Doesn't it always?)

Still life, back of the house.


Whopper Virgins

I laughed when I saw Pizza Hut in the heart of Prague, and was shocked by proliferation of KFC restaurants in Bangkok. Now this....

Burger King is on the hunt for new test markets, and complied a film to document their efforts. In the spirit of those lavish Land Rover expeditions, it's stunning to see the lengths they went to. Burger King taste-tested their Whopper hamburgers among Hmong villagers in Thailand, Inuit tribes in Greenland, and villagers in Romania. The shot of a custom-made Burger King grill...being airlifted by helicopter is price less. I can't get the image out of my head.

Unfortunate Fortune Cookies

Rejects at the fortune cookie factory.

Unlike San Francisco and New York, Seattle's Chinatown is not a "living neighborhood". Very few people actually take residence in this quaint enclave, situated just blocks from the main downtown core. With the exception of bums and a few wayward restaurant patrons, the neighborhood rolls up early in the evening.

Over the years, waves of immigrants from Asia have set up bustling businesses in this neighborhood. Here, you can find everything from Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Korean restaurants. Those seeking a spam fix can satisfy their cravings at the Hawaiian BBQ joint just up the hill.

While the retail showroom isn't much to look at, I have a deep sense of satisfaction knowing there's a fortune cookie factory in the 'hood. On occasion, I'll buy one of these giant bags of "unfortunate fortune cookies." (The flattened discs are great served alongside giant scoops of ice cream.) And like a kid digging for the prize in a box of cereal, I go straight for the cluster of fortunes settled in the bottom of the bag.

Call me crazy.

I know.

I'm mining for a bag of rejected fortune cookies.

Maybe I am too optimistic.

I'm just saying....a handful of fortunes makes one feel very lucky!

Notes on the photo:
The retail showroom is closed on Sundays, which is why this is a through-the-window shot. (Notice the stop sign and neon dim sum sign reflected on the glass?)