a bumper crop

A bumper crop of gourds.  It’s the one crop that flourished this year, despite little attention.  Now, I can’t complain.  With my wonderful group of waterers, everything in the garden survived The Great Summer Catastrophe of 2012, but because I fractured my knee in the beginning of the gardening season proper, and wasn’t able to tend to anything all of July and most of August, it wasn’t a terrific year.

I did have a respectable crop of green beans, a gorgeous purple and green striped Swiss variety that I loved so much last year, and my tomatoes and peppers are coming along slowly like everyone else’s in the PNW.  Strawberries were good; fall raspberries are coming on now.  I had marvelous gooseberry, currant, and haskapberry crops; elderberry and tayberry had problems with pollination.  I managed to freeze pounds and pounds of purchased cane berries, so I’ve got plenty for jam, but using my own cucumbers for pickles wasn’t even a possibility, given the failure of the soaker hose in that row.

But what grew wonderfully in all my carefully planned food garden beds, besides the tangling vines of anxiety?  Gourds.  I had bought a bunch last fall to enjoy before turning them over to the squirrels, who promptly took them to the soft, leafy, garden beds, and, well, planted them.  The plants sprung up early and took advantage of the early heat spike in June, then managed to crowd out all the squash I actually wanted to grow: pumpkins, Oregon heirloom sweetmeat, romanesco zucchini and plain crookneck summer squash, and saddest of all, farmer Paul Atkinson’s special sweetmeat-like squash that I loved last winter.  I was so thrilled when a friend gave me a few cherished seeds, so I planted them twice, only to have the crows demolish them before they even got a chance to grow.  Grand total of the entire squash bed: four zucchini, one the size of a baseball bat.

And dozens of inedible gourds.

I’ve found a few recipes online for eating them, but quite frankly, I already have a giant baseball bat zucchini, I don’t want any more woody, tasteless cucurbit flesh, thanks.

So, come harvest, I’ll be the one with the highly decorative porch.  This is the first of many glamour shots.

fall preserving classes with the master food preservers

The fall classes for the Lane County MFP program have been announced and are filling up as we speak.  Interested in low-cost Friday night cooking classes or hands-on classes on cheese-making or smoking meats and other delectables?  Check these out…

CHEESE-MAKING
Saturday, October 13, 2012, 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Join the Master Food Preservers and learn to create several soft cheeses: mascarpone, uncooked cream cheese and farmer’s cheese.  The cheese you make goes home with you to enjoy later.  Lunch (with cheese, of course) is included, as are recipes. Class is limited to 12 eager cheese makers. Class fee $50.

SMOKING BASICS
Saturday, November 3, 2012, 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
Smoking may be detrimental to your health? Not if you learn to smoke with the Master Food Preservers — meat, fish and cheese, that is. We’ll teach you about the necessary equipment and demonstrate safe techniques for making delicious smoked products. Class is limited to 25 students. Class fee $25. Includes recipes and samples for lunch.

FRIDAY NIGHT SPECIALS SERIES

JUICES & CIDER. October 19, 2012: learn to use a steam juicer and press cider, pasteurize the product for safety, then freeze it or can it.

SUSHI. November 9, 2012: learn the history of sushi, see classic varieties made, then make your own California rolls to enjoy at the class or take home. Some hands-on.  (Note to CE fans: I’ll be discussing sushi history and skills!)

HOLIDAY BREADS. December 7, 2012: learn an easy bread dough, then turn it into special holiday treats such as, tea rings, filled braids, monkey bread and teddy bears. Some hands-on.  This is one of our most popular annual classes!

Class fee: $15 each or $35 for all three.  6-8:30 p.m.  Includes instruction, recipes and samples.

All classes are held at the Community of Christ Church, 1485 Gilham Road, Eugene.  To find more information about all of these classes and how to register, visit this website or call 541-344-4885.

indigo rose tastes like a tomato

A few years ago, I reported on the new ‘Indigo Rose’ tomato being developed at OSU by vegetable development specialist, Dr. Jim Myers.  At the time, he was soliciting names for his purple tomatoes, which looked much purpler at the time in controlled conditions. Then unnamed, the tomato captivated visitors interested in the process of hybridization and Jim’s claims of a gorgeous aubergine color and some anecdotal and research-supported health claims. It’s now completing its first year on the market.

Unfortunately, the marketing for taste still hasn’t caught up to the marketing for color and health buzzword of the day. Back then, Jim didn’t have a good answer for the single pressing question asked by several people at the demo, and I’m sure thousands of people since then.  He still didn’t when my husband asked him last weekend at the Lane County Farmers Market:

What does it taste like?

His response: it tastes like a tomato.

He was absolutely right: it tastes like a tomato. There’s nothing particularly distinguished about the taste, but it’s not bad, either.  It just wasn’t bred for taste, and I think that’s a shame.

‘Indigo Rose’ doesn’t have the acidic zing and sweetness of the “black” varieties like ‘Black Krim’ or ‘Cherokee Purple,’ which turn a greenish brown color.  The ‘Indigo Rose’ isn’t as dull as a supermarket tomato, but a regular beefsteak in the heat of summer beats the pants off it for flavor.  The size is great — it is a bit bigger than your average large cherry tomato, but smaller than a plum.  I think they call them “salad tomatoes” in the biz.

Ah, it can’t be denied that you sure are pretty, ‘Indigo Rose’.  The ones I’ve seen in the farmers’ market (mine aren’t ready yet) are not purple but a mix of red and aubergine in color, like the ones depicted above.  The chemical reaction with anthocyanins that causes the purpling is cool; it’s rather like those sun prints one makes in childhood with photosynthetic paper.  If the tomato is shaded, it develops a purple color; if not, it develops red.  The tomato in front, for example, has little stripes that I imagine were caused by the calyx.  It looks great in a mixed tomato salad because of its unusual coloration.  Is this enough, though?

Have you grown or tasted this tomato?  A discussion has begun on my Facebook wall (you need to request to be “friends” but I don’t turn anyone down except that chick who was trying to link me to her porn site).  Folks mention the tough skin, which could be beneficial in a stuffed tomato recipe.  What do you think?

apple pectin stock jelly

This year, I was gifted with a bag of just underripe Gravensteins, so I decided to make French jam maven Christine Ferber’s recipe for apple pectin stock jelly. This is one of those nose-to-tail recipes that please me greatly, like corncob broth or overgrown cucumber mustard pickles or Japanese spinach crown salad, because it emphasizes how one can keep costs under control when cooking with high quality fresh produce.

I’ve been making a quince pectin stock for the past couple of years, and the apple pectin stock is similar — you just boil down the fruit with its peel, core, and seeds, until it is mushy, then gently strain out the fruit and boil it down again by a third or half before freezing in 1/2 cup chunks. Tigress in a Jam has a good, free-form recipe for apple stock pectin with no sugar if you need it.  I prefer quince stock pectin, because I find apple juice unpleasant and like quince, but keep in mind that quince has a very unique and persistent flavor that will be evident in your jam.

But Ferber takes the simple boiled apples or quinces to the next level with her jelly, which is shelf-stable and can be used to glaze a fruit tart or roast as well as to fortify jam with low-pectin fruit.  The flavor is extremely mild, so it’s not really your go-to morning jelly for toast; it’s more about the texture and pectin powers.  Plus, mine turned a pretty salmon pink, slightly oddly given the green juice.  (You’ll also notice that there are hundreds of tiny bubbles in mine — this is due to not letting the jelly sit for 5 minutes before canning.  Not a big deal unless you are sending it off to the fair.)

To make the pectin stock jelly most potent, use underripe fruit.  Any apple will be high in pectin, but you’ll get the most bang for your buck if you use “green” apples, not Granny Smiths, but underripe apples of any variety.  Hence, it’s a good use for apples that need to be thinned early to encourage good fruit on your own trees.  In the Willamette Valley, you can start as early as June with our early-ripening ‘Transparent’ variety.  Northern Californians might try Gravensteins, which have short stems that want to abort young apples anyway.  Dunno if the variety alters the taste.

Ferber uses a cup per kilo (about two and a quarter pounds, or one batch) of fruit for her preserves, but I’ve seen reports of using anywhere from one to one-half cup on the Internets.  Do keep in mind that this jelly has sugar in it, and it’s intended for a full sugar/French-style preserve.  It’s also beautifully natural and dependent upon the ingredients and seasons, hence relatively unreliable, so you should plan for softer or firmer sets when you experiment with adding it to recipes.  For low-sugar jams, I’d stick with Pomona pectin.

We’ll be using it with our lavender fig preserves on Monday.  I’ll let you know what happens!  Edited to add: Worked like a charm.  We added 1/2 cup to a double batch after it was boiling heartily, and the gel set rather quickly — I might try a full cup next time.

Interested in a full-flavored apple cider jelly that’s the essence of autumn, made with the season’s first crisp cider?  See my award-winning recipe here.

Ferber’s Green Apple Pectin Stock Jelly

Slightly adapted and annotated.  Makes about 4 half-pints.

  • 7 cups water
  • Juice of one large lemon, with one tablespoon separated out
  • 3 1/2 pounds underripe apples
  • 4 2/3 cups sugar

Fill a large, squat stockpot with water and one tablespoon of lemon juice.

Wash apples, remove stems, and pare away bad spots.  Cut each entire apple into quarters and drop it immediately into acidulated water in pot.

Bring apples to boil and simmer for about 40 minutes, occasionally mixing to break up apples.

Strain apple pulp in chinois or sieve lined with a double layer of regular cheesecloth.  Do not press down on apples if you would like a clear juice (not important if you will be using it for a dark jam).  This may take several hours.

Add 4 1/4 cups of the juice into a preserving pan with the rest of the lemon juice and  sugar.  Bring to a boil and cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes or until it is set.  Let sit for 5 minutes and skim any foam, if necessary.

Ladle jelly into hot, sterilized canning jars with 1/4 inch headspace, and fit with properly prepared two-piece lids. (Refer to a canning basics guide if you don’t know what this means.)  Process for 5 minutes in a waterbath canner.

food for thought interviews on canola and eugene dining scene

If you missed our interview on Food for Thought on KLCC on the canola planting controversy in the Willamette Valley with the very articulate and informative Andrew Still of Open Oak Farm and Adaptive Seeds, you can download the show here.  It’s about halfway in.  And keep listening for our second interview, in which Mark Kosmicki of PartyCart fame discusses new trends and exciting happenings in the Eugene dining scene.  Thanks for coming on, guys!

best of eugene 2012

It’s that time again, when the good businesses and creative outlets of our little town beg their friends, fans, and associates to vote for them in the annual Eugene Weekly readers poll, The Best of Eugene.  This blog has been voted “Best Blog” for two years running, and I’d love to make it a triple crown, if you are willing to vote for Culinaria Eugenius again.

This year, the category is a bit confusing: “Best self-published literary item (blog, zine, etc.).” Vote here: www.bestofeugene.com.  We’d also very much appreciate a shout-out for Food for Thought on KLCC, our radio show and labor of love.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many categories you need to vote in to make it a valid ballot, but you do have to register with an email address (that won’t be used for anything else by EW).  They have had problems in the past with ballot-stuffing.

A final caveat:  Unfortunately, EW has decided to apply headache-inducing animated sparkles to its online logo for Best of Eugene this year.  When I mentioned it might be causing damage to their readers, their response was a shouty and puerile “EW LOVES SPARKLES!” Have a little respect for your elders, Powerpuff Girls.  If you have epilepsy, I’d suggest the paper poll instead.

And thanks so much for reading.  It’s always a pleasure to bring you my honest and forthright thoughts on the local food scene — warts and all — and to share my recipes and adventures far afield.  Like those with “Velveeta” (2003) by Linda Dolack, Museum of Fine Arts, above.

niblets: fair food edition

  • If you’re anywhere within hearing distance, you already know the Fairgrounds have turned in to that fried food glory palace known as the Lane County Fair.  These shots are from last year, since I haven’t been yet, but I’m willing to bet there’s a similar line up.
  • And in very different food fairness news, join us on Food for Thought on KLCC this Sunday at noon for developing coverage on the canola planting controversy in the Willamette Valley.  More resources about the temporary rule change — and the stay of the action in appeals — here.  We’ll be joined by Andrew Still, a farmer and seed developer in Sweet Home.  He co-owns Open Oak Farm and Adaptive Seeds, who will be affected by canola cross-pollination.  We’ll also be joined by Mark Kosmicki of PartyCart fame, on to talk about the locavore cart and its latest experiments in both food and cart management.
  • Congratulations to Chef Jeff Strom, who won not only the Iron Chef Eugene competition but also the coveted Iron Chef Oregon title for 2012!  He did us proud last weekend up in Portland.  Strom joins Iron Chef Oregon 2010 Gabriel Gil, who represented Eugene for the win two years ago…

…and is currently cooking Mexican-American cart food at PartyCart as a special guest chef for the week.  You still have until Friday to check it out — some wonderful stuff, including the octopus-jicama-cilantro-cucumber salad and little cheesy dumplings with spinach, mushrooms, and a rust-red chile sauce.

Word on the street is that Chef Gil’s former home away from home, Rabbit Bistro, will be opening at its new location downtown in October under a new name with a fabulous new menu that allows Gil the ability to prepare innovative PNW cuisine.  We can’t wait!

  • NEW RESTAURANT ALERT!  Bon Mi, at 8th and Oak, is a Vietnamese-French sandwich shop featuring bahn mi, the delicious delicious Viet sandwiches that usually consist of marinated pork, pickled daikon and carrot, cucumber, lettuce, and a slice of soft organ-meat cold cut.  Bon Mi makes it more Eugene-friendly, allowing paté as an add-on to very respectable pork, beef, or tofu bahn mi on extra fresh and crusty baguettes.  The pho isn’t quite as good, but the broth is better than others in town.
  • As you may have seen in the Register-Guard, Brails is under new stewardship.  They are offering more classic diner food at dinner time.
  • Falling Sky Brewery now has an industry discount on Monday nights.  Inquire within (their Facebook page).
  • And don’t forget that Marché restaurant is offering Julia Child at 100 specials for the next few days.  See a menu and more information here.

  • Interested in trying your hand at canning?  The Lane County Fair judges say there’s been an upsurge in young people entering items at the fair.  You can try out your hand next year if you win some canning equipment being raffled at the Springfield Farmers Market (Sprout) tomorrow.  5th and A Streets at the Library Fountain Plaza, 3-7 p.m.  Good luck!

on julia child at 100

Since my trip to Boston this spring, I’ve been reading and thinking quite a bit about Julia Child, who would have been 100 years old on August 15.  The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute, which holds her papers with veneration, is hosting a conference in September in her honor.

There are so many ways to cook, and cookbooks navigate routes through culture in ways we’re only starting to understand.  They’re the great overlooked genre in literature, with so much to teach us, and I am grateful I got the chance to read and learn from some of the oldest ones in existence at the Schlesinger workshop on historic cookbooks in June.  Among these, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is without question a masterpiece.

But we love Julia not mainly, I’d argue, for her cookbooks but because of her personality: her rough edges, her adventurous spirit, and her late start in life.  She was 37 when she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, and hadn’t had much direction in life prior to that, even with cooking.  Unlike the legions of chefs and artisans who were born into the biz and learned to whip cream with maman and shuck oysters at their grandfather’s knee, she gives us hope that those of us who spooned Cool Whip out of a plastic tub and dipped fish sticks in ketchup in our formative years might just find ourselves nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, in the middle of the journey of our life, on the right path.

Julia changed everything, the critics assert.  And yet, for those of us who grew up in stubbornly resistant anti-food suburban America, unfazed by her cooking shows and fancy French food, she didn’t.  But I watch her shows and read her writing now and see what a powerful message she had, had we been watching:

PBS’s Mashup of Julia Child

“What makes a great chef?” she asks in the first scene of the clever PBS mashup. “Well, training and technique, of course, plus a great love of food, a generous personality, and the ability to invent hot chocolate truffles.”

The hot chocolate truffles, of course, are the delight of the formula, and she delivers the punchline with a little smile.  But we shouldn’t overlook the qualities she slips in before the truffles, the ones that make us able to share that smile, and ones in short supply — now and then — in America.

A great love of food and a generous personality.

These two characteristics need to go hand in hand.  If you just love food, you’re a glutton. If you just have a generous personality, you are one of those people bringing salt-free, leaden pasta salad studded with a few chunks of green pepper to our endless Eugene potlucks. (But it’s vegan!) It’s difficult to love food and not hoard it from the heathen masses, the ones who don’t appreciate a perfectly ripe fig or burrata that slips out of its covering and quivers on the plate. (Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean, food lovers.) And it’s difficult, if you’re kind and loving, not to feed others whatever you have in your cupboard, even if you’re admittedly not that interested in cooking.

So I’d urge you, in the spirit of Julia Child, to work on the side that challenges you. (And if you have neither a great love of food nor a generous personality, then heaven help you.  You poison the world, and if there’s any justice, someone is soaking up your misery to feed it back to you.)  Most of us err on one side or the other.  Yes, work on technique and innovation, but don’t forget the other good stuff that made Julia great and can make us better.

first impressions: riffle nw in portland

I’ve never been satisfied with the realities of the seafood restaurant, perhaps because the concept is so promising but the execution so terribly difficult.  A new restaurant in the Pearl, Riffle NW, takes on the challenge.  The menu is promising with very fresh fish entrees, a handful of raw offerings and small plates, and simple sides.  I like it that they restrain from the temptations of a huge selection, or worse, taking the lazy route of the deep fryer.

Riffle seems as if it’s been around longer than just a few months.  The restaurant is not too loud, which is nice and surprising given the concrete floors and open design, but there are some kinks in service and communication that will be worked out over time, I’m sure.  One can see the raw bar and a brick oven from the dining area.  The bar is small and hard to approach if patrons are clotted at the bar tables, but it looks like a very friendly, open space once you get there, with a projection of old cooking shows on one concrete wall.  The main restaurant seating is slightly too crowded, with some seating around the side of the restaurant perched on platforms that give me vertigo (something exacerbated by my wheelchair vantage point, no doubt), and an area that opens out to the street that looks better.

I’m not sure the drink menu slid into a wooden bar that slides into a slot on the tabletop is a good idea, but they’ll figure that out once someone spills a glass of merlot down through the slot and on to her Jimmy Choos.

The cocktails are mature and sophisticated, unsurprisingly given the team behind the bar. And this country bumpkin is still enchanted by gigantic ice cubes.  I’m not too proud to admit it.  I was also tickled to see my darling Becherovka incorporated in an interpretation of a Beton called a Room D (rye, Becherovka, tonic water, and lemon and grapefruit).  We also enjoyed a Riffle Collins, which incorporated another of my cocktail favorites, celery juice, with gin, lime, and absinthe, and comped Vieux Carrés, a perfect version of the classic, when our entrees were late.  Excellent waiter.

If I have only one suggestion, it would be to boost the boldness of the sides and sauces, and work on matches made in heaven.  The seafood is very good, but the mains and sides seemed not to have much chemistry, and I suspect stronger spices and vinegared salads might complement some of the lighter fish. I don’t think this is a cardinal sin by any means, just a quibble, since the food is good and can be even better.  It’s miles better than the last new place we tried, Smallwares, which had the extremely odd problem of having too much umami in everything — the chef is enamored with seaweed and fish sauce and other glutamates, enough so that it blunts the palate and makes you want to wash out your mouth with fresh water.

But at Riffle, everything we had was mild, including the beet-cured salmon carpaccio with a bacon aioli, ice lettuce, and hazelnuts.  The beet flavor wasn’t even noticeable and it would be wonderful if it was — perhaps with a beet salad instead of the insipid, broken aioli?  The mackerel, allegedly served with a “summer vegetable salad,” had a red pepper-fennel slaw that was bright and cheery and excellent with this deliciously strong, oily, fish, but also a weird, slightly sweet and taupe vegetable purée of some sort that didn’t work at all.  We ate clean, cold little kusshi oysters with a “bloody mary” sauce, which was too much like cocktail sauce to be interesting.  Just a lemon would have been better, now that I think of it.  We both loved the smoked tomato broth with the ling cod, but wish the fish had been poached in it, as the broth didn’t really permeate the flesh, and it was difficult to eat the full-length frenched green beans nestled under the fish.  The kale and beans side was our fault — it didn’t work with anything, but it was tasty, if not Miss Oregon 2012.

Probably the star of the night, which negates much of what I’ve said about stronger flavors and even fish, was the giant mountain of shredded brussels sprouts with walnut, a citrus dressing, and some kind of snowy white cheese that might have been pecorino or a relation.  I would have been happy just eating that all night.

Desserts looked appetizing for the sweet tooth, especially if “semifreddo” doesn’t mean “half a baguette” as Retrogrouch claimed it did (thank you yet again, Google), and instead is a frozen chocolate concoction.  We opted for sugared donut holes with a very vibrant, raspberry-forward raspberry curd, and we were glad we did.

I’ll be watching this restaurant with curiosity.  It’s the first new one I’ve seen in a while in PDX that seems like it has potential for longevity.  Tonight they’ll be debuting “Neighborhood Night,” which really does seem like fun: they’ll serve house-made spicy sausage with a melange of peppers on a semolina roll with a salad.  Next time I’ll have to come up for that…I’ll be the neighbor from the wrong side of the tracks, or the poor relation, or something.  Best of luck, Rifflers, and see you again!

partycart takeover with gabriel gil’s mexican food!

In the many hours I’ve sat at the bar listening to the food talk at Rabbit Bistro (now closed and soon to reopen downtown, we hope), I’ve only longed helplessly for one thing I thought I’d never have: Chef Gabriel Gil’s staff meals.  He often, it was reported, made food influenced by his Mexican grandma and all he soaked up by her side in the kitchen or out in the neighborhoods of Southern California.  So many times, I heard his entranced staff recount, enraptured, the staff meal they had eaten that week…and then they’d fantasize about other things Gabe said he’d make in the future.

Exhibit A:  The Tijuana Hot Dog.  As described in this charming illustration, the midcentury creation known south and north of the border as the Tijuana hot dog is a fiesta in a bun: hot dog wrapped in bacon with pico de gallo, pineapple, avocado, grilled jalapeno, crema.  I can’t remember if Gabe served it to his staff, or if they just WANTED IT.  But I very clearly remember that I wanted it, too.

And here’s my — and your — chance.

Next week, August 14-17, the chef will be taking over PartyCart‘s cart, to give the hardworking Partiers a rare couple of days off.  He’ll be making Tijuana hot dogs and a host of wonderful Mexican specialties that you’ve probably never heard of.  Throw away all your Norte prejudices and Tex-Mex paradigms, and come party with Gabe.  If you love good food and have an open heart, you won’t regret it.

This is the menu, as it stands.  (There might be changes over the weekend as they finish the prep.) He is keeping the PartyCart format of smaller and larger plates.  I don’t have a list of prices, but I’m sure they’ll be reasonable.  Don’t know what something is?  Google it! You’ll be happy you did.

Chef Gabriel Gil’s PartyCart Takeover Menu — August 14-17

-smaller-
*elote mexicano
*soup: summer squash, epazote, green chile
*salad: heirloom tomato, cactus, melon, radish, habanero,
*salad: vanilla octopus, jicama, pineapple, cilantro, cucumber

-bigger-
*Tijuana hot dog
*red chile noki, mushroom, spinach
*tacos de lengua
*pork tenderloin, papas nortenas, manchamantel

And Eugeniuses, if you want something particular that is not on this menu, something that fits your specialized, food-phobic, hyper-nutritious, elimination-insistent, or otherwise selective tastes, please don’t bring your complaints to the cart next week.  Go somewhere else.  There are plenty of places around town that will cater to your whims.  This is our opportunity to enjoy a great chef’s personal pleasures at a venue that works hard to bring new and unusual local food to Eugene.  Understand that this kind of thing doesn’t happen anywhere else.  If you can’t dig it, go away.  I can’t say this more kindly. Live in the moment, just as the Buddha would.  Seize the day like a Roman poet. Just do it, sayeth our Nike overlords.

If it goes well, and I’m SURE it will, perhaps PartyCart will do more takeovers in the future.  And how cool would that be?