slugs, mollusks, and storms: culinaria eugenius in yachats

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It’s raining again, and I feel like this banana slug, who like us escaped the forest to head out to the beach over Spring Break.  You know things are bad when even the slugs abandon ship.

Unfortunately, neither of us had the sense to go to a warm beach.  Oh well. Yachats was lovely in the storm.  We stayed right on the beach and watched the furious waves.  I tried to spot whales, reportedly on their spring migration all along the central Oregon coast, but it was a fruitless endeavor in sheets of rain and whitecaps as far as the eye could sea.

The seagulls and I shared meals of mollusks — they ate mussels, and I ate panfried razor clams at The Drift-Inn, a great little place in Yachats that’s been around for decades as a dive bar but has been gentrified, to the delight of a packed house.  They play live music every night (not updated on the website, unfortunately): jaunty old-timey fiddle and guitar duo that night.  Very pleasant.  I sang along.  And the menu is endless, featuring all the expected seafood specialties one might need and more.  We started with a slightly sweet hunk of house-smoked salmon, served with grapes, hardboiled egg, red onion, Ritz crackers, and a dried-parsley rolled cream cheese ball.  I don’t even know when last I saw dried parsley, much less a cream cheese ball rolled in it, but I kind of dug it in a retro way.

We (Retrogrouch, not the seagulls, and I) also shared a cup of the not-very-smoked salmon chowder and a much better special, a delicious hedgehog mushroom soup with caramelized onions, presumably with local hedgehog mushrooms.  Retrogrouch had the crab-breaded halibut. Service was a bit haphazard, given the huge crowd on a terribly rainy night that I’d imagine was a surprise.  I kind of wish we had sat at the bar, a lovely old wood wraparound number lit by dozens of colored glass lamps.  One of these days I’m going to chronicle these old Western bars.  Really one of our regional treasures.

And I heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

We also ate at a much newer local spot, the Luna Sea Fish House, owned by a fisherman, Robert Anthony, whose boat and recent crab catches are captured on video that plays on one wall.  Much better than a football game, if you ask me.  This tiny place features Chinook salmon, albacore, and crab he brings in himself, other local fish and shellfish in season from the Oregon coast, and standards from further afield.  There’s a small fish counter that had clams, crab, and a few varieties of fish whose origins were noted on a chalk board.

As difficult as it was to avoid the fish and chips almost everyone was eating on that stormy day, I opted for some mild but tasty marinated mixed-fish tacos made from trim, served with guacamole and a vinegar fresh vegetable slaw, colorful as the buoys we saw lining a fence nearby, and seasoned fries.  Add your own hot sauce, any of several on the table.  Retrogrouch had a salad of decent lettuces (it is winter, after all) topped with delicious  Chinook salmon at an outrageously low price for fish that had been pulled out of the sea by the restaurant owner.  The slumgullion, a clam bay shrimp chowder with melty strands of white cheeses that oozed off the spoon with each bite, looked pretty darn good, too.

On our way home, we chanced into sushi in Florence, a meal that ended up being my meal of the week last week on Food for Thought. Friendly, casual, promising Aloha Sushi operates out of the kitchen at Riley’s Steakhouse, right on 101 just north of the 126 junction, and serves up the wild and often sauce-drenched fusion sushi rolls I don’t like but they take them to the level of high kitsch (the surf and turf roll I spied at another table was a particularly egregious example).  Ignore these and instead focus on the subtle Hawaiian touches Chef Christian Jakobsen (a Hawaiian by birth and training) brings to very fresh fish in the standards.  He’s young and exuberant, which accounts for some of the wild fusion impulses, but it’s clear that he has been schooled well at his chef-father’s well-known restaurant.  The sushi menu is vast, with every possible combination one can think up (including guava jelly).  Again, don’t be scared away — easy to ignore if you’re not into fusion rolls, and if you are, heaven help you, you can enjoy some fascinating possibilities.

We had the best, silky salmon belly sashimi I’ve had in a long time, draped over seaweed salad, followed quickly by the mixed fish poke (above), a colorful melange of raw fish and cephalopods, onion, green onion, sesame, and garlicky soy vinegar dressing.

And the cucumber and cabbage sunomono salad, on the menu as pickled vegetables, made even less Japanese and more Hawaiian by the inclusion of furikake, a crunchy topping of nori and sesame spices, was quite nice too.  Retrogrouch had a huge bowl of miso soup with cabbage and tofu, and I enjoyed a surprising roll of mackerel with seaweed salad and grated ginger, a combination I had never seen before…but it really worked.

One thing to keep in mind about Aloha Sushi is that Urbanspoon is not updated with its new location.  It is now in Riley’s Steakhouse at 1161 Highway 101, roughly across the street from its previous host, a small seafood shack that is a former gas station.  And I see why. So once again, here’s a link to their website. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a link to their menu on the site and hope they fix that soon.  (And more unsolicited advice: hold the mayo and rice, please, on the more classical preparations like the sashimi and poke.  We’re in it for the extremely fresh fish!  And replace the green tea immediately.  It’s wretched.)

I managed to jump out of the car to snap a shot of a patch of pretty skunk cabbage blooms, and we made it back to Eugene just as the road crews were putting up high water signs on Highway 126.  More branches had fallen in our yard.  What a mess of a spring.  Hope you’re staying warm and dry.

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oxtail and colcannon: luck o’ the irish

Edited to add:  Want to hear me discuss this dish on the radio?  Listen in to today’s Food for Thought on KLCC program by downloading the archived show here.

Warning: gruesome tail image below. Vegetarians avert your eyes.  No, really.  I’m not joking.

I’ve been doing so little cooking lately that I consider my kitchen time sacred.  I miss playing with my food.  Our freezer is still 3/4 full of the 1/4 grass-fed cow we bought from a local farmer last fall, thanks to my crushing schedule and my husband’s sudden decision not to eat much meat anymore after the order was made.

St. Patrick’s Day seemed like the perfect time to change all that.  I had a package of oxtails, so thought I’d make a traditional Irish oxtail braise.  Oxtails used to be a cheap cut of meat — a leftover part for the poor.  But now that the wealthy have figured out that it’s rich and delicious, you see it on chi-chi restaurants on both sides of the Atlantic.

What better time to experiment with a wild green colcannon that wild foods expert Hank Shaw posted on his blog the other day? Colcannon is fancy mashed potatoes, usually made with spring onions and kale or cabbage, that the Irish serve with a pat of melty butter.  Hank brilliantly realized this humble side dish would be enhanced with wild greens like cow parsnip or nettles.

As for me, I used the wild onions that spring up in the grass in March in Oregon, and some arugula that had gone feral in my garden.

If I were to change anything in his recipe, I’d blanch the greens first before sauteing them in butter alone, and I’d emphasize strongly that they should be chopped very finely.  No one wants a tough tongue of limp arugula in their mashed potatoes.  And I know from personal experience.

As for the oxtail, well, it’s a good thing I’m not squeamish, because they included the whole damn tail, not just the lovely meaty chunks up higher toward the business end.  (One more chance to avert your eyes)

Holy snakes, St. Pat!  And not cutting through the thing…that was just cruel.  So into the soup bone bag in my freezer the wiggler went, and the meaty part became my braise.

When making any kind of tough, collagen-rich meat braise, you really don’t need a recipe, since they’re all basically the same.  You can’t really mess up as long as you go low and slow.  Preheat the oven to 300, then cut the meat in chunks, salt and pepper it, then sear it on all sides in vegetable oil or lard (I often save bacon fat for this task), then place it in a dutch oven. While the searing pan is still hot, sweat down chopped onions, carrots, celery and parsley, then add it to the meat in the dutch oven.  Lacking a carrot and celery, I used parsnips, rutabagas, and cutting celery instead this time.)  Add liquid and a bay leaf almost to cover the meat.  I often use half red wine and half chicken stock, but beef stock is better.  Cook for several hours, or until the meat falls off the bone. During cooking, taste for salt and pepper.

When it’s ready, remove it from the stock.  You have a couple of choices, based on time.  You can strain the juices and put them in the freezer until the fat rises to the top and you can remove it.  You can scoop the fat off the top with a spoon and then strain.  But either way, you’ll want to return the juices to the pan and cook them down and taste for seasoning.  As I do this, I whisk a couple of teaspoons of flour into the reducing sauce to thicken it and add a bit more red wine to brighten up the flavors, but that’s not necessary.  All you need to do is have a lovely, concentrated sauce to go with your braise.

And that’s it!

It’s even better the next day.  I suggest turning the leftover colcannon into colcannon latkes. As James Joyce would say, contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality!

meal of the week: portland izakaya shigezo

Unbeknownst to me, my partner in crime Retrogrouch had bought tickets to a concert in Portland this past weekend, so we journeyed up there for one last fling before school started.  Concert was not great, but we did enjoy our meal of the week at Shigezo, an izakaya (Japanese pub) that apparently is the Japanese chain’s first U. S. location.  I didn’t find it chain-y at all.  We enjoyed the sushi and robata grill tsukune (meatballs), homemade bacon, and ume shiso chicken breast skewers.

But the nicest stuff?  The cold apps.  We noshed on hiyakko dofu (cold tofu with ginger and bonito flakes), a wonderful dish of quick pickles, an octopus/cucumber and a seaweed sunomono (vinegared salads) over a tall cool Ninkasi on a wonderfully warm evening.  And I got to look at my handsome husband, who makes hipsters seaweed green with envy with his stylish ways.

meal of the week: garden tomato caponata and puttanesca

I like the Food for Thought on KLCC “meal of the week” feature so much I think I’m going to start posting images of my own meals of the week.

Here’s last week’s, a delicious appetizer of caponata, the eggplant spread with my own garden tomatoes, basil, onions, and dehydrated tiny grapes; and a main course of pasta puttanesca, made all the more delicious with a fresh tomato sauce and marjoram.

The tomatoes in both are ‘Amish Paste,’ an amazing paste tomato that grew much better for me this year compared to last year.  Several of the tomatoes are near 1-pounders!

Want the recipes?  The caponata is Mario Batali’s Sicilian interpretation made deep and thick with balsamic and cocoa.  Use the version in the comments that is from his cookbook (more tomato sauce and oil, and I’d omit the sugar completely since it’s already too sweet). The puttanesca was inspired by a New York Times article.  Fresh tomatoes and high quality anchovies are key.