If this isn't nice, what is?

Blueberry lemonade, Volunteer Park Cafe (Seattle)

Excerpt from Kurt Vonnegut's commencement speech, Rice University, 1998:

...every graduation address I've delivered has ended, and this one will, too, with old stuff about my Uncle Alex, my father's kid brother. A Harvard graduate, Alex Vonnegut was locally useful in Indianapolis as an honest insurance agent. He was also well-read and wise.

One thing which Uncle Alex found objectionable about human beings was that they seldom took time out to notice when they were happy. He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and he would interrupt the conversation to say, "If this isn't nice, what is?"

So, I hope that you Adams and Eves in front of me will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud: ''If this isn't nice, what is?''

Seattle Food Writer Round Up

Seattle has cultivated a number of serious food writers....and if you've been following Gluten-Free Girl, Orangette, or Roots and Grubs, here's an event you won't want to miss.

Hope to see you there!

I'd like to buy the world a Coke

2008 was packed with monumental moments....but for me, the most significant highlight was being invited to speak at Antioch University.

Last fall, Antioch's Center for Creative Change offered a master's level class titled, the Political Ecology of Food & Eating. Through a variety of channels (readings, videos, and an "interpretive feast"), students examined the impact food choices have on natural systems, cultural practices, and political economic structures. Topics ranged from food production, distribution and consumption and the effects they have not only nationally and internationally, but also on the human body.

Seattle PI journalist and James Beard Award-winner, Rebekah Denn and I were asked to address a number of points, but I found myself mulling over one question in particular: "What brought you to this point where food and eating is so integral to your career, life and passion?"

This Coca-Cola commercial represents a significant early influence.

As a kid growing up in the '70s, my mother had just entered the job market. Babysitters took the form of TV, and my brother and I watched endless hours of television. I was raised in Peoria, Illinois--a sleepy Midwestern town bordered by the Illinois River, with corn fields and soybean crops as far as the eye could see. Bombarded by commericals and middle-American values, Coca-Cola was the "everyman" indulgence...and we consumed it by the case.

During those countless hours of television, this commercial played repeatedly. My girlfriends and I would roller skate in front of the house--decked out in Princess Leigh braids and tube socks, singing the Coca-Cola jingle over and over again.

"I'd like to buy the world a home...and furnish it with love.
Grow apple trees and honey bees...and snow white turtle doves.

I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.
I'd like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company. "

Then, I was infatuated with pre-teen love and a romantic notion idealized by apple trees, honey bees, and turtle doves. And maybe some small part of me believed it could be obtained through a bottle of Coca-Cola. Advertising is powerful.

But it is the visual image that lives with me today. Picture a diverse group of people, gathering together over the slightest common unifier.

What else do they have in common?

We're not sure yet.

Let's bring them to the mountain top and find out.

In this example, the opportunity began with something as simple as a Coke. What about our world today? Where does the dialog begin?

My career has come to signify many things...but ultimately, you could say: I proactively seek opportunities to bring relevant people around the table. And food is the catalyst. It is the reason we come together, but is far from the final outcome.

Flash forward to today.....

Until recently, my eating habits were highly influenced by advertising. Thanks to early imprinting from my childhood...food meant more than fuel to nourish the body. Food was comfort--a substitute for nurturing...and it came in the form of industrialized products and fast foods, American-style.

When I moved to Seattle, a whole new world opened up. Local, seasonal and organic are so embedded in our society, it's almost passe. Then I took a hard look at my eating choices...and Coca-Cola was the first thing to go.

I became serious about food and it manifested itself in a number of ways. Over the years, I've worked with chefs and farmers, politicians, journalists, fishermen, chocolatiers, food writers, photographers, bloggers, and foragers. Their passions became an extension of my own...and I began to realize, directly or indirectly, we all have an impact each other.

Apple trees. Honey bees. Snow white turtle doves.

My mind kept reverting back to that commercial. A hilltop in Italy, drawing people from diverse backgrounds.

What if....

What if....we identified the common bond among leaders in their field...and extended an invitation to the table? What if...we provided a forum for meaningful dialog? What if...a meal...was the catalyst that finally brought us together?

An idea was born.

My background is extremely varied, but all roads came back to food. Whether I was working for the House of Representatives, a non-governmental organization, or one of the top brokerage firms in the country, food was my "true north." For staffers or brokers, interns or elected officials, a plate of brownies or a pint of homemade ice cream greased the skids and bonded us together on more than one occasion.

Food fueled my passions.

Today, I take every opportunity to draw people together--whether it's dinner for 20 in back room prep kitchen, Chinatown Grub Crawls, or a series of tastings in the cupping room.

I have a dream....that as food & travel lovers who are curious about the world, that's all the bond we need. United together over a hilltop in Italy, or the brotherhood of bacon, you have something to share...and we have something to learn. If I can provide that connection...and tip the balance, for me...there is no greater joy.

Blue Moon

Back of the delivery truck. [Spotted on my way to lunch with New York Times columnist & author Mark Bittman.]

A Chat with Iron Chef Challenger Sabrina Tinsley

Pietro Borghesi (co-owner) and Sabrina Tinsley (chef and co-owner) of La Spiga, Seattle, WA

Chef Sabrina Tinsley was recently featured on the Food Network's Iron Chef Challenge and I had the opportunity to speak with Sabrina about her experience. We discussed everything from culinary influences to regional Italian cooking, and of course...got some scoop on what it's like to compete against the Iron Chef!

Traca Savadogo: How long have you been cooking? What started your journey into food?

Sabrina Tinsley: I grew up around food. My mom was always cooking and trying new things—very exotic things, not necessarily traditional American. But she would go around the world with her cooking. We had a huge garden growing up, so she would obviously cook from the garden. We were in Alaska, by the way, up in Fairbanks. It was a nice growing season because of the light all night long [i.e. this is the land of the summer midnight sun] and she would cook out of the garden. We had these huge zucchinis and would have to figure out ways to use it. So we got very nice, well-rounded hands on point of view of food. We had small livestock as well, so we were introduced to butchering at a young age.

I didn’t realize I had such a passion for food though until I left home and went off to college. I started experimenting myself with cooking and realized what a wonderful thing it is to manipulate the food to taste the way you wanted it to taste—like EXACTLY the way you wanted it to taste, or EXACTLY the way you remembered it. So I just went from there.

I didn’t go to formal cooking school, but I ended up going to Europe. That was my dream—to travel, and Europe was certainly a destination. So I went to college in France and I experienced French food first hand, and then I landed a job in Austria. I lived there for a year, so I experienced that cuisine and moved down to Italy after a year because I’d met my husband…or my husband-to-be, at that point. We met in Salzburg in a café and after a year of back and forth, I moved down to Italy. So then I was in Italy for five years and that’s where I picked up the Italian, obviously.

My husband had a job that took him all over Italy, so I would get to travel along with him. I got to experience quite a bit of the country and I just understood how diverse Italy is from region to region—and even within a 20 mile radius, it changes—the dialect, the food, the culture. Everything changes so drastically.

Traca: The style that you’re cooking now, what region is that from?

Sabrina: Emilia-Romagna.

Traca: What made you focus on that particular region out of all the different styles that are represented in Italy?

Sabrina: Well, that’s where Pietro [her husband] is from. We’re kind of on a mission here because Emilia-Romagna is a huge tourist area, but not necessarily for Americans. We want to put Emilia-Romagna on the map. People know products from that area…they know prosciutto, they know balsamic, they know parmagiano, they know tortellini. They know all these things, but they don’t realize that it’s from Emilia-Romagna. Casual tourists don’t visit that area too often.

Traca: Really? Why do you think that is?

Sabrina: They know Venice, Rome, Naples, Milan—the big cities, which also have their own culture but they don’t have piadina, for example. And piadina is a big thing for us.

Traca: What is piadina? Can you describe it?

Sabrina: It’s a flat bread and it’s grilled instead of baked. It’s considered the food of the Emilia-Romagna people and it was once considered poor man’s food because it was all that they could really put together as far as bread.

They didn’t have formal flours, so they couldn’t make a leavened bread—that was saved for the rich people. They would end up making piadina from whatever they had. That would be fava meal, chickpea meal, cornmeal…anything that was considered a poor man’s food. I’ve even read accounts where they’ve used saw dust, because that’s all they had during that time period.

Originally piadina was something they were kind of ashamed of, but after the War, the ladies started setting up their little shops where they would make it on the street and start selling it. And people got over that feeling that it was a ‘poor man’s food’ and started to be really proud of it.

Now, there are piadina shops on every corner. Every Romagnolian has their favorite shop that they go to. Some people make it in the home, but it’s so easy to get and it’s so inexpensive that they generally just go buy it because it’s a lot easier.

Traca: Is it topped with anything?

Sabrina: Oh yeah! They make sandwiches out of it. It depends on what your purpose is. You can buy piadina plain…in which case you’ll take them home in the whole round disc, or cut in half. They’re generally cut in half. Or they’ll make a sandwich out of it and you’ll eat that as your lunch or midday snack or as your dinner.

They also make crescione [creh-show-neh]. It’s the same dough as the piadina, but they fill it before they cook it, so it’s like a little pocket—like a little hot pocket. They make all different variations of crescione. It’s very filling, so generally if you have one of those, you don’t eat lunch too. During the market, they’re open early in the morning. It’s a very traditional bread.

We had a shop in Italy where we were selling piadina, but it was outside the piadina region…a little bit further south. We also had a frozen yogurt shop. We opened up a piadina shop and it did very well. People loved the bread.

We came over to Seattle because we were ready for a move. We had the businesses for almost five years and we were ready for a change. Either we were going to continue with piadina and move down to Rome and set up a chain of piadina shops, or come to Seattle and open up a restaurant.

Traca: What brought you to Seattle?

Sabrina: My sister had been living here for about 12 years at the time and we had come to visit a couple times and we loved the area. We thought the Seattle public was open-minded enough to be able to accept something a little bit different--not the Italian-American cuisine that’s so commonly found but a real, authentic thing…and piadina. Our original concept was based primarily on piadina.

Traca: Are you still doing piadina?

Sabrina: Oh yeah, we still do piadina! We used to have about 30 [piadina] sandwiches on the menu, and now we have one [it’s topped with roasted wild boar, caramelized shallots, taleggio].

Traca: So the menu has changed…what’s the focus now?

Sabrina: Now we do homemade pasta. People were requesting pasta, pasta, pasta and we were planning on making pasta, but we thought it was going to happen later on in the process. Originally we were going to wait a couple years and start making homemade pastas, but with the demand, we ended up bringing it in 4 or 5 months after we opened. We’ve been opened for 10 years now.

Traca: When you import a cuisine, critics cry out...”It’s not authentic.” Are you having any issues sourcing ingredients to replicate foods from the home country?

Sabrina: I had to make some adjustments. We use whole foods and raw ingredients for most of our cooking, so that’s not an issue because I know what the food it supposed to taste like. If I need to alter [a recipe] somehow, I pretty much know what I need to do to change it.

I’ve noticed, for example, that celery here in the States is a lot stronger than celery in Italy. Garlic…I noticed it was a little bit stronger there…and the variety they have is more flavorful.

We had minor adjustments to make—a little bit less of one product or a bit more of the other. For example, in my sauce, I use a combination of fresh and canned tomatoes to achieve the same flavor that I got in Italy. It’s just a matter of tweaking things.

As far as cured meat, for example, we can always get prosciutto so that’s not an issue. The most difficult thing for us to find is salami. They can’t import it. Only recently have we found a really nice salami that’s very traditional…and it’s in fact, made by an Italian. It’s Creminelli Brothers. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. But it’s really nice. The one that we’re getting -- Felino is really soft like it’s supposed to be, not super aged. Sometimes they want to speed up the air dry process—or it always seems like they do—by either putting heat on it or airing it so that the salami often has a very inconsistent aging process. It will be really hard and tough around the outside and a lot softer in the middle. But this new vendor we found, theirs is very soft—the way it’s supposed to be.

Traca: As far as finding your ingredients, are you working with the local farmers? Are they growing anything specific for you?

Sabrina: I’m going in that direction. It’s been a challenge for me especially with the move [to their new restaurant location, which is in a much bigger space].

I’m definitely going in that direction and I have a few sources. We have the opportunity to have Willy Greens grow whatever we want on a plot of land on their property. And we have some very specific ideas of products we can’t get here, but I may have to provide the seed. I have some of the seeds, but we’re working on that.

We buy organic whenever we can and even our meats…through our purveyors, I don’t work directly with the farmers themselves, but though our purveyors, I try to buy hormone-free, antibiotic-free meat, and humanely raised.

Traca: Are there any changes you had to make to cook for the American public? Are there any dishes that wouldn’t fly here in the US?

Sabrina: No, not really. They’re real minor things. For example, the piadina. When you got to Italy and you buy a filled piadina, you get a whole round disc that’s cut in half and then filled. Here we do half a disc, that we slice in half horizontally because our piadina is on the thicker end. Even that ranges in thickness, depending on where you are in Italy. It’s a lot thinner the further south in Romania that you go. We slice it in half horizontally so it’s not so much bread, and it’s not so filling because we wanted people to try a couple different thing—not just the piadina. This way, it’s served more as an appetizer than an actual meal. Other than that, we haven’t made any changes.

Customers [acclimated to the more familiar American-Italian restaurants] will comment, “Why don’t you get real bread?” And in the beginning, customers would comment that the portions were small. We were serving an Italian-sized portion, not an American-sized portion. People would ask for chicken alfredo or shrimp alfredo…or spaghetti and meatballs, that’s not traditional.

But we’ve held strong and I think people that really understand the Italian culture appreciate that.

Traca: Can you tell me about your influences? You mentioned your mother….It sounds like she was cooking during the Julia Child era.

Sabrina: My whole family on my mother’s side is really into food. Her grandmother did cooking in Canada so my mother would go stay with her every summer on her farm. They would cook meals for couples that were stopping along the road. They would come in and my mom would help prepare the food. My great aunt--my great grandmother’s daughter, she had a catering business and cooked for a family. That was a big influence as well.

Traca: What cookbooks were you influenced by?

Sabrina: I started cooking out of the Moosewood Cookbook and Silver Palate, and there was a book that was given to me when I graduated from high school and it was from a dear friend of my mother’s…it was a catering book called Glorious Food. It’s a catering company out of New York.

You know when I look back on it now, I’m so impressed how well-researched [Glorious Food] was. It was always very authentic no matter what culture they were cooking from. They always presented a very authentic version of it. That was huge for me. I read that book cover to cover, probably a million times.

And then there was a bread book that I cooked a lot out of. I cooked a lot of breads. My mom cooked a lot of breads.

I also did a bed and breakfast during my college years. We had a vacant house in Alaska, so I would go up and provided a bed and breakfast there during the summer. I did a lot of cooking during that time. The bread book was very handy because I made breads for breakfast. And the Cake Bible, that’s another great book.

Traca: What books are you reading right now?

Sabrina: Not a whole lot, it’s been pretty busy. I’m trying to think about what I want to get my hands on though…I don’t even know. It’s been a long time. I just finally finished Fast Food Nation, which took me a while to get through.

I’m into learning about the health aspects of food, for sure. I’m thinking about what kinds of poisons we’re putting into our bodies on a daily basis. There’s only one pure way of cooking and it’s actually very dangerous for a restaurant, which is [cooking with] glass. Because everything else…all the metals impart some kind of poison or other into the food. So I’m really researching that, and I’m researching ways to keep our food as chemical-free as possible. I’m pretty successful at home with the kids—I have two kids, but it’s really difficult. So that’s the direction that I’m going right now and the things that I’m researching.

Traca: What inspires you? Do you draw inspiration from other chefs...other cuisines?

Sabrina: All the above. I think the biggest inspiration comes from when I’m actually eating food. When I’m eating, it recalls memories or it brings about ideas. Whenever I’m out to eat, I’m always observing and if I’m not able to try something on a menu, it still sparks an idea or a memory about something I may have had in Italy.

Traca: Do you keep a food journal? Or how do you capture all those ideas?

Sabrina: I don’t. It’s all in my head! And it’s funny because even recipes and so on…often times cooks in my kitchen will ask where a recipe is and I’m like, “It’s in my head. I can show you how to make it.” I think that it’s interesting that you ask that as well because I do have a journal and recently I’ve had this urge to keep it up and start getting everything down. It’s not just food related, but everything that goes on in my life.

Traca: I journal too. For me, it seems to help balance things out. So, do you have any guilty food pleasures?

Sabrina: People always laugh at me when I say this, but I know that it’s completely wrong…even though it’s not 100% unhealthy, but I love strawberries in the winter time.

I’m not into junk food…at all. I grew up with a dad that was very conscious about health—he’s a physician and has seen what the results of smoking, drinking…even sugar was a big thing for him. Don’t eat too much sugar. Even though I was rebelling at a certain point and eating all the sweets I could, at this point in my life, I tend to eat what makes me feel good, so I have a good association with healthy food. I don’t indulge too often. I just feel bad afterwards. I feel horrible. My body feels horrible. So that’s my guilty pleasure.

Traca: Are you finding flavorful strawberries in the winter?

Sabrina: No, that’s the problem! That’s the crazy thing. I use them as a fruit in my cereal or whatever. It’s more of a food enhancer. That’s the point, to get that little fruity tartness that I feel goes really well with those things. (We’re cracking up here…)

If this helps at all, I love fatty meat like oxtail, but I really only indulge in that once in a while. We have that on the menu now. And we’re doing a pork belly confit that’s absolutely out of this world, but I can’t eat that much of it because it just doesn’t make me feel good. Yeah, I do like the fatty meats. Absolutely.

Traca: Let’s talk about Iron Chef. How did that come about?

Sabrina: Wow. It was just a call out of the blue. After I got the call and started watching the program. I heard about some chefs that were competing in an Iron Chef competition to be able to get to the show, or maybe they worked with one of the former Iron Chefs at another restaurant. That’s why, to me, it was so out of the blue because I thought that could never happen…or happen to me. I never applied or tried to get onto that show. Though Iron Chef…the Japanese version was one of my favorite shows of all time, I’d never really watched the American version. It was definitely a call out of the blue.

Traca: So how did they find out about you? Any ideas?

Sabrina: Yeah, I asked them that. They said they read an article in either the Seattle Times or the Seattle Weekly and I guess they just did their research from there. Mario Bartoli knows of us because when he came to Seattle, he did one of his episodes at La Spiga [her restaurant]. You never know how they actually hear about you. Maybe I just fit the profile…a woman in Seattle.

Traca: The show is airing this weekend, but when was it filmed? Sometimes it can take a while to get on the air.

Sabrina: It was in June. Last year, mid June.

Traca: That’s exactly what happened when we filmed the "No Reservations" episode with Tony Bourdain. We shot it in June and it aired in mid January. It takes a while. I’m curious about the rules for Iron Chef. What were the parameters and how many people did you bring?

Sabrina: We brought two people.

Traca: That’s a tough choice. Who did you bring…and who did you leave behind? I’m sure you had to leave somebody talented behind to run the restaurant.

Sabrina: It was a tough choice. I took Jon Langley, and Jeff Konkle. Jon is my sous chef, so that was an obvious choice. And then Tony Mueller was left behind in the kitchen. He was our senior line cook at the time. He was a little nervous about us being gone at that time, but he did well. It was only 3 or 4 days.

Traca: So you flew out to New York and the next day you shoot? Or how did that work out? What was the timeline?

Sabrina: We intentionally got out there pretty early—2 or 3 days ahead of time, so we could adjust to the time change (3 hours behind us in Seattle) and to get into the mode. We went to a viewing of Iron Chef the day before our battle, which is a requirement. That was actually the first day of filming. We shot the second day of filming, so it was helpful that I had a chance to see how the battles take place.

Traca: Watching a taping of Iorn Chef was a requirement?

Sabrina: Yes. They want you to see a battle beforehand.

Traca: Once the cameras are on, you really only have an hour, is that right?

Sabrina: It’s only an hour.

Traca: I talked with Tom Douglas [another Iron Chef competitor from Seattle] and he mentioned that it took a long time for the battle to get started, but once it began, you really only have an hour to get it all together. Was that your experience?

Sabrina: They kept mentioning that we were moving along pretty quickly. It took a while, but I was very into the moment, it didn’t bother me at all. We didn’t have that many takes and moved along pretty quickly.

Traca: What do you mean by “first takes”? What did they cut into takes?

Sabrina: It was for the beginning part…where there’s a lot of smoke and the Iron Chef comes from behind. The smoke has to be just right. They assured me it was okay to be inhaling all that smoke, but I breathed in a lot of that. We had to get it just right and there were a number of takes for that. But as far as me interacting with Mark (The Chairman), that went pretty smoothly and pretty quickly.

Traca: Did you have any idea about the secret ingredient…or what the range of ingredients could be? How do you prepare for Iron Chef?

Sabrina: Well, there are strategies…but I’ll decline to say what they are because it could ruin watching some aspects of the show. But there are strategies, for sure.

Traca: Are you able to request certain ingredients be available or can you bring your own?

Sabrina: You are allowed to request ingredients…a few things. If you’re used to working with a certain type of olive oil or you definitely want to try to include a certain ingredient, than you can request that.

Generally, you’re not supposed to bring anything in unless they absolutely cannot find it. They will source your ingredients, so there’s a lot of work behind it. You know the ingredients and what equipment is available.

Traca: Working in an unfamiliar space is tough and it’s nice to have things that you’re familiar with. Were you able to bring anything besides knives?

Sabrina: If we needed a special piece of equipment, we could bring it. We just had to have it approved ahead of time.

Traca: Alton Brown seems to get really excited about the ice cream machine. Did you use the ice cream maker?

Sabrina: No. No, we didn’t.

Traca: There are some heavy hitters associated with the Iron Chef. Is there anybody in particular that you were looking forward to meeting? What was that like?

Sabrina: Yeah, I’m a really big fan of Alton Brown. I watch Good Eats all the time, so I was really looking forward to meeting him. I was curious about meeting Mark, the Chairman. And I was really happy to have met Bobby Flay.

It’s no secret at this point who I battled. Bobby is awesome…and a very nice person. He gave me his contact information and said, "If you ever need anything, call me…" -- that kind of thing. We had a nice conversation off camera. I was really happy to have met him.

Traca: I’m glad to hear you say that because a lot of chefs hate Bobby Flay for some reason.

Sabrina: I know!

Traca: On camera, Bobby Flay comes across as smug.

Sabrina: To him, Iron Chef is a job and he does more shows than any of the other guys. And it’s taxing to him. I mean, he gets just as nervous about the battles as everyone else. He wants to do a good job….and it’s not just a given that he wins. He could very easily loose and it’s not necessarily a good thing for his reputation to loose either. It was interesting to hear that perspective and see how real of a person he really is. He was going to Italy after he was done taping the season and we talked about that a little bit..It was really nice.

Traca: So how was Alton? Is there anything that struck you about Alton Brown?

Sabrina: No, I wish I had more opportunity to talk with him. He was concentrating and focusing on what he had to do. Off camera, he was preparing for the shoot, focusing on what he was going to say.

It would have been nice to talk with him as well. I have always a million science questions to be answered and it would be exciting for me to have time with someone who cooks from a scientific point of view to be able to bounce ideas off of.

Traca: I won’t ask you want the secret ingredient was, but sometimes when you watch the show, it’s a really obvious ingredient…like parmesan. And then I talked with another Iron Chef competitor and she got crawfish. Until the Iron Chef battle, she’d never cooked crawfish before!

Sabrina: That’s funny because I always figured they chose an ingredient that they knew the challenger was familiar with. Because Tom Douglas got salmon.

Traca: I know, it’s crazy. So you got an ingredient you were familiar with?

Sabrina: Yes.

Traca: So how was the judging? Did you get any sense of home team bias?

Sabrina: No. It was interesting to hear Jeffrey Steingarten’s reaction to my dishes because a lot of the criticisms that he usually gives, they didn’t even get mentioned. It was interesting to hear his thoughts. And then one of the judges was a vegetarian, so that was interesting.

Joe Bastianich was also a judge, who is Lydia’s son. He was by far the most objective for the type of cooking that I was doing. And it was refreshing to hear some of his comments. He understood where I was going with everything, so that was really nice. He also invited us out to lunch afterwards and there were 10 of us that went over to his restaurant.

Traca: What’s Joe Bastianich's restaurant?

Sabrina: Del Posto, he owns it with Mario Bartoli. It was so good! We just let them choose everything. There were lots of small plates and appetizers. Amazing food.

Traca: So what’s the next step? What’s on the horizon for you?

Sabrina: As far as immediate things for La Spiga, we’re looking into doing a kids menu. My daughter, who is 7 years old, has been pushing for the kids menu for 2 or 3 years now. She’s on the computer and she’ll type out what she’ll put on the menu…and then she’ll draw pictures. We have a whole portfolio of pictures that we can make a coloring book out of. We’re inventing kids drinks now. We’ve got the Mickey, which is fun. The Mickey is orange juice, sprite and a splash of cherry juice with a cherry. And we’re in the process of inventing the Mini for Martina. So we’ll have a drink list for kids to kind of give parents a reason to come enjoy the food and make it fun for kids. Hopefully it will be educational. Mini has a character called the Piadina Man. People know piadina through La Spiga here, but it’s nice to kind of reinforce that.

We’re also going to put together an internship program this year, where we’ll have four interns per year for a 3 month program. At the end of the year, we’ll choose one of those interns to go over to Italy to further their internship. Included in that trip to Italy will be a staff member from here as well—someone who is going to be with us for a while, obviously, and who we feel deserves to the trip and who we want to learn more about Italy. So that’s in the works.

Pietro [ Sabrina’s husband and partner in La Spiga] is looking at doing tours over in Italy. They’re looking at May for a tour. He and one of our friends, GianPietro Ottolini, who is a wine importer who used to work for Elliot Bay [restaurant]. They are putting a tour together for a trip to Emilia-Romagna.

These are all things to reinforce our concept and to educate as much as possible about that area—about Italy in general, but also about Emilia Romania and to always improve. We’re always looking to improve. We never relax as far as that’s concerned.

One more project that we’re working on is our loft space that we have next door (corner of Pike and 12th). We do private dinners there and cooking classes.

Traca: You do cooking classes at La Spiga?

Sabrina: We’ve always done them—even at our old location. Here it has been a lot more challenging because there’s always someone in the kitchen. With the loft space, we’ll be able to do the cooking classes. We already have 1 cooking class scheduled per month for the whole year. And that particular series is the pasta and wine series. We’ll teach a type of pasta, make a sauce, and taste wine.

Traca: That’s awesome! How do I find out more about that?

Sabrina: It will be on our website.

Traca: You’ve got some great things going.

Sabrina: It’s going to be a full year!

Traca: I’m thinking you have a cookbook on the horizon too. (She said, hopefully!)

Sabrina: That’s been in the back of our minds, absolutely.


La Spiga
1429 12th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98122-3905
(206) 323-8881

6 Great Discoveries in the Web World

Over the past few weeks, I've been discovering a slew of good stuff on the web. And in the interest of sharing...I'll show you mine...if you show me yours!

Got a favorite website...culinary or otherwise? I'd love to hear about it.

TED: Ideas Worth Spreading - The best and the brightest are represented here...including a number of people influencing the culinary landscape in America: Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Dan Barber...just to name a few. And if you're looking for a little inspiration, don't miss Bono's Call to Action. Andrew, I'm hopelessly adsicted to TED. Thank you!

Eric Ripert - Extraordinary chef of Le Bernardin restaurant and author of a new book called On The Line, Eric's site has well-crafted of video demos...with recipes. Thanks for the tip, Heather! http://aveceric.com/category/gettoasted

Cooking Up a Story - "A show about people, food, and sustainable living." This site was recommended to me at DocFarm. Combining interviews and short films with thought-provoking topics, I'm a frequent visitor here. http://cookingupastory.com/

Gordon Ramsey's The F Word - Those Brits have some great TV, and thanks to You Tube, you can view the F Word on line. Ever cooked with horse milk? Want to know where foie gras comes from? Watch Gordon hunt for king crab...diving in the icy waters of Norway and hand harvest fresh scallops. Brian, I'm with you...these shows are great!

Leite's Culinaria - I've been a big fan of this site for a number of years...and it just keeps getting better! Take one small idea, and systematically build on it...over and over again. David Leite's writing can be seen in a slew of national publications, and he's teaching culinary writing at New York's Institute for Culinary Education....and like me, he's got a side project that mushroomed! Find food writing, recipes, and look for upcoming author visits here. (PS. David's site won the James Beard Award for "Best Food Website" two years in a row!) http://www.leitesculinaria.com/

Art & Soul of Baking - You may remember my rendezvous with author & baker extraordinaire, Cindy Mushet. Art & Soul of Baking is one of my favorite books from 2008. Smart, informative and a fireball of energy, meeting Cindy was definitely a highlight. Between teaching at LA's Cordon Bleu and a hectic tour schedule, who knew she had time for a blog?! http://www.surlatable.typepad.com/

A schoolin' in starch from 'food sleuth' Shirley Corriher

Shirley Corriher is the stuff of legends. Formally trained as a chemist, she takes that knowledge into the kitchen, and demystifies the science of cooking. Known as industry’s “food sleuth,” Shirley’s rich and illustrious career spans decades. And when it comes to science in the kitchen, the likes of Alton Brown and Harold McGee tap into Shirley’s wealth of knowledge.

Shirley makes frequent appearances on the Food Network with Alton Brown and is the author of a modern day classic, “Cookwise.” Her long-awaited book, “Bakewise” was released in October, 2008.

I have turned into a woman obsessed with ice cream, and when I had a questions dealing with the role of starch, all roads pointed to Shirley. Her easy going Southern hospitality is ever-so-charming, and the depth and breadth of her knowledge is astounding. I am a devoted fan and clearly under her spell.

SC: You wanted some starch information?

TS: Yes ma’am I do!

SC: Okay, the two main categories for starches are root starches and grain starches. The grain starches—this would include rice, wheat, and corn. You know…corn starch…all of these. The root starches are tapioca and arrow root are the ones we’re most familiar with. And now you’ve got potato starch which is neither fish nor fowl. It’s a tuber…and not a true starch.

Let me just go over some of the differences. The grain starches set very firmly like a coconut cream pie so that you can slice it perfectly, you know? They are crystal clear hot, but they’re cloudy when cold. You know a cherry pie made with corn starch will have that yucky, cloudy look to it? They’re clear hot, but yucky cloudy-colored cold. Another disadvantage of the grain starches, is that the freeze miserably. They form a network and what happens is…you have this network there and when you thaw it, it looks like an empty sponge with this big puddle of water around it. So they do NOT freeze well.

On the other hand, the root starches freeze and thaw beautifully. If you’re going to do something that needs to be frozen, you definitely want to use a root starch like tapioca—and now this is tapioca, not the pearls but the fine starch. The best place to get tapioca starch is at an Asian market because they’ll sell a whole bag for 79 cents, or so. Arrowroot will cost you $3 to $4 for a few tablespoons in the grocery store. So tapioca is the easiest root starch to use.

Now it is crystal clear hot or cold, so it’s beautiful. It swells and starts to thicken at a lower temperature than the grain starches. The grain starches don’t start to thicken until around 200, or 190 degrees F – up close to boiling point. But these root starches start to thicken around 160 degrees F. The disadvantage of the root starches is that they have a beautiful thick coating, but they don’t form something solid enough to cut just by itself, like flour or corn starch like in a coconut cream pie issue. You can cut it in a slice and unfortunately tapioca doesn’t set so thick that you can cut a slice of it.

What some commercial pie manufacturers do, they use mostly tapioca for that beautiful crystal clear effect so the fruit shows magnificiently and then they put a little bit of corn starch to make it set a little firmer, but not enough to mess up the color.

Potato starch is something all its own. It is much clearer than the grain starches hot or cold. It swells more than any other starch. I mean, it just gets HUGE! It’s granuals do (ssloooop!). It soaks in water like crazy! Pastry chefs love using a little bit of potato starch in a pound cake, because it swells like crazy and holds moisture, so it’s going to make the pound cake more moist. And you can do it with a pound cake because the structure is so tight—you know how tight-grained a pound cake is? So it doesn’t matter if the potato starch loosens that structure just a tiny bit. It won’t look real course or anything. It will still look like a pound cake. Luce Healy, a pastry chef in Denver, he wrote the “Art of a Cake” and in his pound cake, he substitutes 10% potato starch for part of the flour. In other words, he takes his weight of flour, calculates 10% and subtracts the flour and substitutes 10% potato starch. You get a moister pound cake.

Those are some of the basic things, but what specific questions do you have?

TS: Basically I’m working with several types of ice cream. And I’m curious to learn about the role of starch when it comes to ice cream. I’ve seen a variety of different methods used and I’ve done a little bit of trial and error, but now I’m stumped about the various starches and their properties.

SC: In making the custard for the ice cream?

TS: Correct.

SC: Some things I know about ice cream are vital to heat the milk to a certain temperature because you change the proteins in it, and you get a much smoother, creamier ice cream. I’ve got more about that in my book, “Cookwise” if you can lay your hands on that.

TS: I have a copy and I read that. That makes sense. Basically, I know Alice Medrich in her book, “Pure Desserts” she uses corn starch in some applications, and then I just recently met an ice cream maker who uses flour in her ice cream base. I thought that was odd, and that sparked a discussion with Alice about the different roles of starches. She was thinking that it might be interesting to use corn flour—as opposed to corn starch. But based on the discussion that we’ve had about the role of grains, I’m thinking that it probably wouldn’t work.

SC: I have a feeling that what might really be interesting is to use potato starch. You should use a little less. See potato starch thickens more for its weight than any other starch, so you would want to use less of it than corn starch. I don’t know whether tapioca starch…I just have no idea what would happen in using that in freezing. I would think that you would get a great texture with a tapioca starch in ice cream.

TS: And then it wouldn’t set up so hard, right?

SC: What are your thoughts on potato starch and how that holds on to moisture and then freezing it? Do you think that might make a granular texture out of that?

TS: I honestly don’t know. That’s something to think about…definitely.

SC: I would try tapioca. Go to an Asian market and get a sack of tapioca. The call it either tapioca flour or tapioca starch. And normally the difference between a flour and a starch is, the flour is the whole thing ground up like technically, potato flour is the whole potato. And the starch is just the starch with the protein and anything else removed. So many of these things, they’re mostly starch, so there’s not much difference between the flour and the starch.

TS: Thank you so much! That sets me on the right path. I really appreciate your help.

SC: I’d be very interested in hearing what all happens, and which one you think works best.

TS: Okay. I need to get in the kitchen and play mad scientist!I’m curious to learn more about your book that’s coming out this fall. Are you still slated to have that come out this fall?

SC: It’s in, and it nearly killed me! But it’s completely done. The editing, after the copy editor makes changes, you get one crack at it to change back what she’s got all wrong. And the pressure on that is just phenomenal.

TS: I’ve heard about that.

SC: Oh, shoot! It’s minute-to-minute. We have 80-100 pages and we go over them frantically and the next morning we call the editor and sometimes have a three hour conversation , giving her the things to change back because she knows all those marks. I thought I knew copy editing but boy, they had marks I never heard of! She enters it so the guy setting up the page gets it right. But anyhow, it was a wild, high-pressure experience!

TS: So tell me about the tail end of that process. From the time that you submit it and the time that they edit it and go over the revisions, what’s that timeline look like?

SC: It’s a couple of months, but you just go crazy. You get it back from the copy editor and a lot of her things are perfectly fine—the changes she makes. But some of the changes are not fine at all. She wanted to do pan sizes, writing out the word “by” as in, an “8 by 8” instead of an “8 x 8”, you know, the way you normally write a pan size? So I had to correct all those.

Sometimes it’s a little thing like I said, “Beat baking powder, flour and salt together vigorously.” And she changed it to “Stir.”

I said, “No, no, no! I don’t want you to stir it, I want you to beat the hell out of it!”You see, because sifting doesn’t really blend the baking powder evenly with the flour. And you get much better blending of the ingredients if you beat with a hand mixer or even with a fork, than by hand. Just beat well. That’s what I was trying to get across and I had written, “This beating is really important or you’ll have holes in your cake.” So anyhow…

TS: I’m excited to read it!

SC: It will be here soon.

TS: Will you be going on book tour?

SC: They don’t do book tours. Those days are gone forever. You go out and sell your book by teaching all around the country. So I definitely am teaching around the country. I’m going to Chicago and Long Island for Viking, I will eventually get to the West Coast, but I don’t have anything lined up at the moment. I’ve taught for Sur La Table.

TS: Interesting. I don’t know if you’ve talked with them recently but they’ve changed their format over the last couple years. They don’t host as many author visits anymore , and some of the authors have been really affected by that. They’ve scaled back quite a bit.

SC: Nick Malgeri has just done me a favor. He’s having me come up to New York for Baker’s Dozen. They give a copy of your book with the attendance and they always have about 80 people. I’m looking forward to that because I really enjoy speaking with bakers.

TS: When is your book released to the public?

SC: October 28th, 2008.

TS: Thanks Shirley, I’m looking forward to getting you out here and hopefully we can plug you into Vancouver and Portland as well.

SC: I’ve taught in Vancouver. There might be a few people who still remember me.

TS: Oh please….(deep sarcasim!)

SC: Thank you so much!

TS: Thanks Shirley. We’ll talk with you soon.

What's wrong with what we eat?

Many thanks to Andrew for pointing out this video on TED.

New York Times columnist and best-selling cookbook author Mark Bittman, addresses a critical question in food consumption: What's wrong with what we eat?

Answer: Far more than you might imagine.

Interview with the First Lady of Chocolate, Alice Medrich

Alice Medrich is a legend in the pastry department. Dubbed “The First Lady of Chocolate,” Alice is a two-time winner of the coveted James Beard "Cookbook of the Year" award and was nominated again last year for her book, "Pure Desserts." Her work has had a ripple effect throughout the nation's top pastry chefs.

In 2008, I was invited to judge the Seattle Luxury Chocolate Salon, and Alice graciously agreed to give me some tips. What follows..touches on everything from the art of tasting chocolate to molecular gastronomy and an eye-opening discussion on various ingredients.

Alice has style and substance, and a careful study of her work reveals a wealth of information.

TS: This year for the first time, Seattle is hosting Taste TV’s Seattle Luxury Chocolate Salon and I’ve been invited as a judge. I would love to talk with you about chocolate and your experience. When I bake and test recipes and my palate gets blown out so early. With that in mind, I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to work my way around this event.

AM: I haven’t done a huge amount of that kind of judging but I do know that…what I’m going to say is contradictory. On the one hand, trust yourself and your first taste. Then I’m also going to say, sometimes when you go back around, things taste different. For most judging and contests, a huge amount of what you’re going to taste is not going to be as good as the small amount of things that are really should be the focus of your attention…at the top. So you go around and just eliminate. You determine, “No, no, no.” Then you go back to the better things that capture your attention.

It means really teeny tiny little tastes. If it’s chocolate, it means a little warm water. Sometimes I’ve used things like matzo or unsalted, unflavored crackers to clear up your palate.

I was chatting with a really good friend of mine who used to work in my stores with me way back, and she told me something I just never paid attention to or never knew about. When she felt like she was eating too much chocolate just from being around it so much, she used to eat an apple.

TS: Really?

AM: I’ve never tested it myself specifically but I was just remembering that she said that the other day. So I don’t know if that’s worth it. I’ve never seen that done in a tasting or anything.

Are you going to be rating, describing, and ranking [the chocolate]? Or are you just going to be running around picking what you think is best?

TS: I’m not sure what to expect at this point. Based on the other people participating, I don’t think that they’re expecting me to be too verbose on articulating the nuances. You know how you can describe chocolate with a lot of the characteristics similar to wine?

AM: I’m assuming that they want you for your impression. So it’s not like you have to be a highly skilled taster. You have a palate, you have opinions, you write about food and people are interested in what you think. Rather than be intimidated by the fact that it’s a chocolate tasting, just go in there with what you’ve got. Take the tiniest little tastes on the first go around – really tiny. Take the time that it takes. If you can give [the chocolate a sniff], and don’t write with a pencil or anything that’s going to make your hands smell.

TS: Oh! I didn’t think about that.

AM: Yes, pencil lead in your hand…will smell like graphite. If you try to smell the chocolate…cupped in your hand or warmed, you’re going to smell the graphite. And don’t wear any scented lotion. Keep your hand as neutral as you can so that you can get a sniff.

TS: That’s good to know.

AM: You know that technique of warming a little piece of chocolate and rubbing it with your thumb or something, where it gets a little melted so you can smell it? And cup it around your nose? And when you get [the chocolate] in your mouth, rub it with your tongue against your palate with minimal chewing at first to let it kind of melt…rather than just chew, chew, chew, swallow. When you’re tasting, you’re going slow and paying attention. With chocolate, you want to get that melting going on.

TS: That makes sense.

AM: Just go slow. Don’t let all the pressure and the people distract you—otherwise you’re going to end up eating more than you want to get your impression. Do whatever you have to do to stay focused…whether that means turning around and closing your eyes. I’ve seen people do all kinds of stuff to blank out the hub bub in the room. Who knows if you’re going to do this in a quiet setting with just the judges or you’re going to be mingling with people. We don’t know that, right? I know that I always, always eat more than I want when I’m too distracted and not paying attention. And when I let any kind of stress around who else is there get in the way.

Then there’s the whole thing about whether you start out with the sweeter varieties and work towards the bitter, or not. That’s controversial.

TS: What are your thoughts on that?

AM: I’ve gone different ways. If you start with the sweeter chocolates, as you taste more bittersweet, it heightens the bitterness. But conversely, if you start with the bittersweet, and then move towards the sweet…they’re going to taste really sweet. And actually, I switched my preference over the years. Either way, it’s going to intensify the other experience by making one end of it too sweet or one end too bitter. What else can I tell you?

TS: Everybody is doing truffles and bars. Do you find that there’s a difference with truffles, should I be paying attention to the exterior vs. the interior?

AM: Oh my god, you mean you’re going to be tasting confections too?

TS: Yes. That too.

AM: And bars?

TS: Yes.

AM: Okay, let me think about a few things if you’re tasting confections. Oh, that’s really hard.

TS: Yes, because there’s a huge difference right? Sometimes the filling is good but the exterior is off, and there’s the snap and a number of factors to consider, right?

AM: On confections, if you were writing about them, you’d be descriptive and you would notice, “I love this filling but I feel it could be offset better.” I mean, you can notice all that stuff but if you’re judging, you’re judging on the overall success of the piece and how it all goes together.

Going back to what I was thinking before, I’m thinking it would be best to start with the bittersweet and go to the sweet. If you could do the confections after the bars, that might be better because the confections are going to have sweeter fillings--they’re going to have caramel, toffee, and ganache and all that kind of stuff. I’m tempted to say even though it’s all going to taste sweeter in the end, you’ll still want to finish with the sweet. I hope, with a break.

TS: That’s what I’m hoping for too. You know, I was reading in Sherry Yard’s book and she mentioned that her staff carries toothbrushes with them at work, so they can cleanse their palate throughout the day. So I’m packing a toothbrush. And you mentioned hot water? What’s the deal about hot water?

AM: If you sit down at a chocolate tasting, normally the glass of water that’s there to cleanse your palate will not be cold water. Because there’s so much fat in chocolate, it coats your tongue. The reasoning is that the warm water helps to get [the fat] off your palate. If [this event] is a wandering around kind of thing, maybe you should microwave your water. Don’t go for cold water.

TS: I’ve got a couple more questions for you, if you don’t mind?

AM: Go ahead.

TS: I’m curious to know…how do you keep up on your skills? What do you do to build you’re A game? I know you’re writing and tasting, but what are you working on these days?

AM: I am writing more cookbooks, but for tasting I think you just keep on doing it and paying attention to it. I also notice since I’ve been doing this for a really, really long time, it’s gotten important for me to pay attention to all the younger voices. We’re learning from all these new tasters coming in who have a different palate and grew up with different flavors and who are sensitive in different ways. I find that an infusion of new information for me…helps to pay attention differently.

TS: How do you get access to those people that you’re learning from?

AM: You talk to them, or meet them at different places. You don’t assume that everyone you meet doesn’t have something new to offer because you’ve been in the business for so long. I have a daughter who is younger and I’ve had younger assistants. I started noticing it when my assistants were younger and I thought they were really smart. So I started paying attention to the kinds of things that they were noticing. And as a result, I really like having much younger assistants. All of this contact with all the new people, and bloggers are one way for those of us who are a lot older--because there weren’t blogs, first of all, so there’s a whole bunch of people now weighing in on stuff who wouldn’t have had a stage to do that.

TS: Whose blog do you read?

AM: I’m embarrassed to say I’m totally new. I can’t even give you a list. It started out with me meeting them and getting curious. So I met you at the party in Seattle, and I met Molly (Orangette), and Matthew Amster-Burton (Roots & Grubs) and people like that. But I’m really not that savvy with all the blogs, I’m really not. I’m way more open to it than I was…because I realize how important it is and what those people are doing, seeing, tasting, eating.

TS: I heard you had a chance to spend some time with my friend Dana Cree while you were in town?

AM: Oh yeah! Dana…you see…there’s a good example. When I have the opportunity to meet the younger pastry chefs, I really pay attention to what they’re up to and what they’re excited about because it’s like bringing in fresh air. It’s impossible to keep up with everything now, I think. So that’s a way, you [keep up with things] though other people.

TS: I agree. And it’s interesting to bring everyone together because Dana adds a whole new perspective. She’s done a stage with the pastry chef at WD50 in New York and she worked at The Fat Duck. And I’m fascinated by her interest in molecular gastronomy.

AM: I got excited when I talked with her about [molecular gastronomy] because I thought “Ah well, that’s what these other guys are doing and I’m not doing that. I’m not so interested.” But after talking with her, I did get interested. Also because Elizabeth Faulkner is an inspiration.

TS: Your book (“Pure Desserts”) talks about the interaction of flavors and how the ingredients work together. Molecular gastronomy addresses that too, they just take it to another level.

AM: It’s true.

TS: When I made this pumpkin ice cream from Saveur, the texture was just incredible. Dana pointed out that the starch in the pumpkin makes a big difference. If I remember right, one of your recipes also has starch in it. Is that right?

AM: Yes, the Sicilian gelato-style. I’m crazy about that. I think starch is a fascinating way to get creaminess without fat and extra stuff, you know?

TS: I agree. Dana was telling me they made a taro ice cream at WD50 and you know taro has a high starch content. After then, they started putting starch in all their ice creams to get that texture. The texture in that pumpkin ice cream was unbelievable…I’m so excited about that.

AM: I’m excited to try some other substances that have starch in them, or fiber. With that pumpkin ice cream, you’ll notice that fiber has the same outcome as starch. That’s why mango sorbet is so creamy, because the mango is so fibrous and I imagine the pumpkin would be the same way. And I’m really big on the thing that’s the opposite of what everyone is saying…is that less fat makes more flavor, to a certain extent. Doing ice creams [with starch or fiber] is a way to achieve that and I really enjoy it.

TS: I’m glad you said that. I’ve been making a lot of ice creams and sorbets and I find that I’m happier with the flavor on the sorbets, more than I am on a lot of the ice creams.

AM: Yes, the flavor is so much brighter and cleaner. And sherbets, too. I’ve rediscovered sherbets because they’re kind of in between [gelato and ice cream] and they still have those really bright, clean flavors. It’s just a constant exploration and discovery.

TS: Do you travel out of the country much for your work?

AM: I haven’t much. A lot of my beginning was because I was out of the country and exposed to different ideas, different ways of doing things and new ways of thinking in France, but that was a long time ago. I love to travel; I just haven’t done any recently.

TS: I was just reading a book called “The Culture Code” and they were discussing the impact culture plays on various aspects. For example, he says that Americans basically kill their cheese. It’s pasteurized and mummified in plastic. I was just wondering if you’ve had any experience on a pastry level from that perspective.

AM: I definitely resonate with the cheese talk because there are certain cheeses that I never buy here because I have such a total memory of eating them where they are originally made and they’re so much better. I just don’t bother buying them here because of the disappointment level. Although we have some wonderful cheese makers doing some wonderful things here too. But on the pastry and dessert level…

TS: I was thinking about how France has various different butters…”dry butter” vs. regular butter.

AM: France has all those different gradations of things and the ingredients are used for different purposes. That’s fascinating. We don’t have a highly developed sense of it yet. That’s interesting. I’d forgotten about the butter.

TS: I’m intrigued by the different flours you’ve been using.

AM: I love to use these alternate flours as flavor ingredients and the fact that they taste delicious as opposed to “Oh you’re supposed to eat these.” I’m not trying to sneak these flours into desserts as a form of “stealth health” but the different varieties of flour impart much more dynamic flavors.

Back to your question, you know, there are some places that have such an appreciation for simplicity that we still don’t have here. One example that comes to mind: A few weeks ago, in our San Francisco paper, Janet Fletcher—she’s a lovely writer who writes articles and cookbooks and has a great profile, she has a regular cheese column and another column in the San Francisco Chronical food pages.

And she was writing about a really common recipe in Italy-- a really simple sautéed steak that is served over arugula and drizzled with a little olive oil. And she wrote about it—she wrote very well about it and the deliciousness of the meat and how the juices mingle with the salad and the oil and maybe there’s a little vinegar, I forget, but it just creates this wonderful, simple dish.

Then she interviewed chefs around town who were doing versions of this and reproduced some of the recipes. But what she said was that for all of the chefs, the really simple, incredible version that you get in Italy is just too simple for the American public.

TS: It doesn’t sell?

AM: It’s just that they do more to it. Chefs have to make it a little bit more involved and more complex to sell. And they sell out of it, but they don’t do it in that pristinely simple way that the Italians do. I find that to be true about a lot of food that comes over here. It gets translated into an American version…and sometimes—this is shocking to me—that the American version gets translated back to Europe, so you get a more American-style of things that used to be European. A good example from the old, old days…you know that really simple baguette sandwich in France? It was just a split baguette with butter and a really thin layer of really good ham or salami. Just thin, overlapping rounds of salami—not like 2 inches of meat, and that was a fabulous sandwich! A really good baguette, really good butter, maybe some mustard, and a really thin layer of some good ham or salami or some delicious cheese. It was all beautifully balanced.

Americans have to have their sandwiches chock full of meat—you know 2 inches of meat! The deli sandwich where they have to add tomato, lettuce, mayo and all of those things. Now when you go to France, you see this American-ized version of sandwiches with many more things in it. The bread’s not as good anymore and the whole pristine concept is just lost.

TS: It’s funny, the chef I used to work with…he loves serving crudos and everything is very simply prepared. What’s interesting to me is how hard that guy has to work to get his inventory because he actually changes his menu every single day, depending on what is available. Not only is that stressful, but he’s got a constant flow of purveyors coming through the door. If he receives mushrooms at 3:00, they’re on the menu by 5:00. The fact that he’s doing an exquisitely simple preparation helps make doing that kind of menu easier.

AM: Right, but you have to have the guts to do it…and you have to have the perfection of ingredients.

The other story that comes to mind is, a couple years ago, I took my 80 year old mother to Italy and we’re meandering around the market…it has fruits and vegetables and it has bras and girdles on one end and miscellaneous cookware, whatever. It was one of those outdoor markets that you see in towns all over Europe and we’re walking along and we see this truck and the truck is selling pork sandwiches. And it’s mid-morning but you know…it’s pork sandwiches. It’s a specialty from this region, we should get this.

We go over and here’s this big hunk of pork and it seems to have herbs around it, but he’s slicing it and putting it on the plainest bread. There’s no sauce. No lettuce, tomato or anything like that. He’s putting these sandwiches together with nothing but this meat on the bread and I thought, “We mide as well try it. We’ll get one, cut it in half and eat while we wander around the market. It will be our mid-morning snack.” He gives it to us and you know, I don’t have high expectations –it looks so, so, so plain.

My mother and I are walking along and suddenly I realize, there’s been several minutes of silence. We’re both eating our sandwiches. I look over to her and say, “It’s really good, isn’t it?” She said, “It’s terrific!”

And it was just this wonderful herbed pork that had probably been cooked long and slow and it was just sliced and put on plain rolls and that’s all it was. It was just everything it was supposed to be!

TS: I agree. I had a similar experience in the International District recently. It was nothing but crispy skin pork, but it was fabulous!

One other thing I’m curious about is how you develop your palate?

AM: There are plenty of people with good palates who have been brought up on horrible food. I think it just all adds up and maybe your genes are helpful in predicting what you’re going to be sensitive to and what you’re going to notice and what’s going to appeal to you. I think your palate is about a lot of experiences. Just keep tasting.

Word for Today: Wanderlust

Longtail lunch vendor on Bangkok's Chao Phraya River

Today's dictionary.com word of the day:

wanderlust \WON-der-luhst\, noun:
a strong desire to wander or travel

by 1902, from German Wanderlust, literally "desire for wandering"
Dictionary.com Entry and Pronunciation for wanderlust

There are as many explanations for acute wanderlust as there are Travelers who suffer from it. But common to them all is the desire to break through the protective bubble that surrounds ordinary tourists as they move from one homogenous, CNN-wired hotel to another.-- Steve Hendrix, The Washington Post, 1998-12-27