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.

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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?

the last thing we need: gmo canola oil in the willamette valley

Edited to add:  Sign the signon.org petition here!

Attention kale lovers and anyone who grows cole crops!  From the farmers and seed saver entrepreneurs at Open Oak Farm/Adaptive Seeds comes a disturbing call to action.  A coalition of organic and other small farms in the Willamette Valley are joining together to fight an ODA decision to greenlight canola, a commercial, often GMO-seeded crop that cross-pollinates with other brassicas and will thus destroy the pure seed cultivated in our valley. Until the past few months, we’ve had a canola exclusion zone in the WV; let’s work to keep it that way.  Read more here.

Your haste is appreciated: write to the legislators listed below by Friday, August 10.

We here at Open Oak Farm are not big on sending out mass e-mails, but have made an exception today: There is an immediate threat to our food supply because the Oregon Department of Agriculture has fast-tracked the approval of canola production here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

As many of you may know the Willamette Valley is one of the top 5 places in the world for growing and supplying specialty seed and maintaining seed diversity. Seed grown here not only is sold by local Oregon companies, such as Adaptive Seeds, but is also bought by other seed companies such as Johnny’s, Fedco, and lots of others both nationally and internationally. Basically, seed grown here supplies the world with food.

One of the specialty seeds that the Valley is perfect for is brassicas, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, arugula, rutabaga, turnip, radish, kale, cabbage, etc. Canola is also a brassica but spreads rampantly and cross pollinates with a lot of other brassicas with detrimental effects. Oregon State University has conducted research proving that canola will cross pollinate with many different crops including turnips, broccoli raab, some kales, rutabaga, and possibly radish and broccoli. Meaning the presence of canola production in the Willamette Valley will definitely contaminate and destroy those other seed crops. Without doubt.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) has previously maintained a canola exclusion zone in the Valley. However, in the past few months there have been a series of meetings held behind closed doors to change this zone to allow canola (including genetically modified canola) to be grown in the valley unchecked and with disregard to existing seed pinning map isolation guidelines. ODA only just released a press release on Friday, August 3rd saying they will grant a temporary rule to allow canola this Friday, August 10th. By issuing a temporary rule the ODA is avoiding the requirement for public comment and therefore behaving unilaterally with only special interests in mind. Not only does this decision harm seed growers but GM canola cross pollination will also potentially threaten the livelihood of any of the certified organic growers in the area. There are good reasons why canola has been banned in the Willamette Valley by ODA up to this point, and pressure on ODA to lift these bans needs to be countered.

Please contact the ODA and Governor Kitzhaber yourself and make your voice heard! It does not matter if you are not an Oregon resident, this decision effects everyone in a huge way and they need to be reminded of that.

And spread the word!

ODA phone number: (503) 986-4552
ODA Director Coba: KCoba@oda.state.or.us

Governor Kitzhaber: (503) 378-4582; or email [on his website form.]

Remember, we only have until this Friday, August 10th to change this decision!

food for thought today with sandor katz and christina canto

We’re thrilled to welcome two special guests on Food for Thought on KLCC today.  Boris and I will be joined by Christina Canto, Rogue Track Town’s new head brewer, and Sandor Katz, master of all things fermented and the author of a new definitive work on fermentation, The Art of Fermentation.  Listen in today at noon (PST) on 89.7FM in Eugene, or its sister stations in Oregon, or live on the web.

Edited to add: Listen to the show’s audio archive.

concrete kiss: a czech classic cocktail with an apricot chaser

I’m excited to participate in Food in Jars‘ Drink Week this year.  It features various preservation bloggers putting their creations to use in brand new drinks, and every single cocktail is worth a try.)

My Drink Week post takes us far, far away from Oregon and all the way to the small spa town of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, where they’ve been manufacturing Becherovka herbal liqueur since 1807, served as an apéritif or digestif usually straight up, like this:

At the Joyce symposium in Prague a few years back, we were served complimentary Becherovka shots as we boarded the boat cruise along the Vltava river.  A habit that would be charming imported to the Willamette and the McKenzie, if you ask me.

From Prague, I decided to take the waters in nearby Karlovy Vary, a spa town long known for such activities.  One bathes at spas (as I did, here, hilariously) and lazily strolls along the canals and through lovely nineteenth-century parks, stopping at the many public fountains with mineral waters from various springs.  And once the rather unpalatable water makes your stomach start to rumble, one stops at the Becherovka stand for some healing for the healing.

But one need not just drink Becherovka straight.  The second most popular Becherovka drink is an adaptation of the gin & tonic called “Be-ton,” and it combines, of course, Becherovka with that most British of healing liquids, tonic water. (The Beton is usually a rather herbal mix, but you’re looking for a gentler version of the classic, try this recipe from The Kitchn.)

Beton is a play on words — it means concrete in Czech, so I thought I’d try to soften up the concrete with a little apricot kiss from the remaining jar of brandied apricots I put up last summer.  Don’t have brandied apricots?  Try poaching apricot halves in a simple syrup instead, then use the syrup for the drink.

The syrup and the apricot mellow out the herbs in the bitter tonic, and the apricot garnish smiles up at you like a sunny-side-up egg until you slurp it up and it slides, icily, down your throat.  The perfect summer drink.

Concrete Kiss

  • 1.5 oz. Becherovka
  • 5 oz. tonic water (I used Schwepps but a finer, less harsh tonic would be much better)
  • 1 oz. syrup from brandied apricots, or substitute a sweet apricot brandy (like Hungarian Fütyülos)
  • 1/2 brandied apricot

In a highball glass filled generously with ice cubes, add the Becherovka and tonic, then mix gently.  Pour the apricot syrup on top and garnish with a perfect brandied apricot half.

grilled albacore tuna with rosé, ginger, and charred scallion

Oregon albacore are in range of our fishing fleets on the coast, so it’s time to get busy!  I put together a quick set of links that will help you buy, cook, and can your own.  Our albacore are not only an important part of the state’s fishing industry, they’re a fish that’s sustainably caught wild, the only type of albacore tuna and one of very few types of tuna that meet the “Best Choice” distinction in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They are caught young, so there’s no mercury build-up issues, either.

You can buy your fish at any of our local fish markets, who get them from the fleets on the coast.  Or, if you are in the neighborhood, head down to the docks where the boats are moored, and buy some on your own. You can see what catch is in, and where, in this updated guide from the Oregon Albacore Commission sent to me by a Facebook friend.

This video guide from the Oregon Sea Grant will tell you, if you’re feeling shy, how to buy off the boat.

If you’re interested in canning albacore, which will make all other canned tuna seem like  cat food, click for my tuna guide.  It’s an annotated and illustrated version of the MFP handout on canning tuna, with a load of tips.

And if you just want to grill some albacore, try this recipe, an adaptation of one of my favorite tuna recipes, tuna with ginger sauce.  In college, I received my first New York Times cookbook, and would make tuna with ginger sauce when I lost the battle to be economical at the old Berkeley Bowl. It was a gorgeous recipe invented by the chef at Huberts in New York, a man who lived the dream and left teaching English to become a chef.  It called for fresh tuna marinated in the surprising combination of ginger, red wine, red wine vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil, paprika, and the surprising ingredient of scallions charred over a stove burner.  Then the fish was lightly grilled and served with a sauce that blended light versions of the ingredients in the marinade — white wine, rice vinegar, shallots — and finished with cream and butter.

But because it was just for me, and I couldn’t be bothered with a fancy sauce opening two (two!) bottles of wine, it became Tuna with a Ginger Marinade and Some of the Marinade Boiled Down with Butter to Make a Sauce.  I present an only slightly more sophisticated version here, and I apologize about the picture, which features a piece of tuna grilled a bit too long.

Tips: This is a recipe that is made to approximate, really.  I just eyeball the amounts, and I’ve even used (egads) pickled ginger instead of the real stuff.  You really want to aim for very rare in the middle for the maximum flavor and texture.  I like rosé better than the red wine called for in the original recipe, as the red wine does that purple dye thing that always looks unpleasant.  I’ve increased the marinade time considerably, which only salutes the strong, bold flesh of the albacore.  I have marinated and grilled tuna steaks, a whole loin, and little sashimi-quality medallions.  It’s foolproof.

Grilled Tuna with Rosé, Ginger, and Charred Scallions

Serves 4.

  • 1.5 to 2-lb. albacore tuna loin
  • 2 cups dry rosé on the darker side of pink (Spanish, cruder So. France are nice)
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, best quality
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce, best quality (I use low-salt Japanese soy)
  • 1/4 cup sesame oil
  • piece of fresh ginger about 2 inches square, grated with ginger grater
  • salt and pepper
  • 4-6 fresh scallions

Cut the loin into four pieces.  Salt and pepper the pieces, and place in a Ziploc bag.  Add the wine, vinegar, soy, sesame oil, and grated ginger.  Wash and trim the roots off the scallions.  Turn on a stove burner on high, and place the whole scallions on the burner.  Char the scallions, both green and white parts, all over; about 25% should be black.  Add scallions to marinade bag.  Place bag in a larger bowl or dish, and refrigerate.

Marinate from 12 to 24 hours, flipping the bag every so often.

When you’re ready to grill, remove the fish from the marinade and cut it carefully into medallions.  The size and number will depend on the fish, but aim to serve two medallions a person (the picture above shows that it will fall apart if you don’t cut the fish into medallions before grilling).

Preheat and oil your grill, then sear the tuna pieces over high heat for one or two minutes on each side.  Aim to serve very rare in the middle.

Prepare the sauce, if you like.  Strain the ginger and scallions from the marinade and bring to a boil on the stove.  Reduce the marinade by half.  Melt a pat of butter in a hot skillet, then strain the marinade into the butter, whisking gently.  The best way to serve it is to slice tuna into strips and arrange on the plate like a little fan, then pour sauce over tuna and serve.  I usually just serve the medallions and pour the sauce over, though.

Great with rice and rice pilaf, with a side of steamed spinach.