Monthly Archives: August 2015

A chutney of found objects

My friend Gwenn Baldwin drove out from Portland today with a brown grocery bag full of Brook’s plums from the tree in her yard. I walked through the Hood River Farmer’s market this afternoon and bought two red Italian frying peppers from Quercus Farm. Stu came home from windsurfing this afternoon, and gave me two huge yellow onions, grown by his friend Bob Danko, up Parkdale way.

Now they are sitting on my butcher block. Tomorrow I make chutney.plums

This is a mysterious thing to me, a thrum, a subsonic hum, making it’s way through the human history of cuisine. Who made the first chutney in India? Was it a mother with six hungry children, an onion, two peppers and a bag of plums? How did that inspiration for some combination of fruit, spice, vinegar, herbs, peppers, onions and garlic, find itself repeated in Mexican salsa, Spanish romesco, English pickle relish, French persillade, Italian salsa verde, Indonesian sambal? And on and on through cuisine after cuisine?

Is there something in the human psyche that just can’t stand to lay a slab of meat on a plate and pass it down the table, naked, gray, left to its own devices? At Nora’s Table, we looked at our plates like a drag queen’s make-up artist. We walked around them, twiddled our fingers on our cheeks, tilted our heads, hands on hips: something’s missing. It needed SOMETHING. Not a garnish, some wasted sprig of chive or dusting of pepper. It needed a ding-dong: that thing that popped, that banged against the plate so loudly of umami, of crunch and chew and sweet and salty and hot and sour.

In those days, I combed the pages of recipe books and traced the history of cuisines, always looking, always stealing, always on the lookout for a great dingdong, the crow jewel, the legitimate heir to the throne resting atop the slab of meat, the bowl of lentils, the poached fish, the grilled lamb chop.

I’ve never stopped wondering how they came to be, essential to so many cuisines, eons before a Burmese chef could Google a Mexico City chef and steal his ideas.

And so here is my chutney of today’s found objects. Tomorrow, who knows?

Plum Chutney

1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon nigella seeds
six cardamom pods, lightly crushed with the side of a knife

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a small saute pan. Add the spices and stand stalk still till the seeds begin to pop. Set aside

In a two-quart saucepan, bring the next five ingredients up to medium high heat and stir until the sugar melts, then turn the heat to low and cook until the onions are translucent:

1/2 cup minced yellow onion
2-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 Italian frying pepper, minced

Add 1/4 cup water, your popped seeds, and the last five ingredients:

¼ teaspoon cinnamon
six whole cloves
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
zest of half a lemon
2 cups diced Brooks plums (prunus domestica)

Simmer for 15 minutes. Add:

Generous pinch of salt
2 tablespoons apple cider or other sweet vinegar.

Remove from heat and let cool.

Lunch: it’s what’s in the veggie drawer

It’s Tuesday, 97 degrees, and I’ve got to get rid of some eggplant, potatoes and green onions.

What could these things possibly have to do with each other? Tuesday is the day I jump in the car and head down to Kickstand Coffee at 4:00 to pick up my weekly CSA from Wildwood Farm. On Sunday night each week, I start the frantic consumption of vegetables: everything from the previous Tuesday’s CSA that I have not yet managed to put on someone’s plate. And since it’s summer, and we’re off flitting around at friends’ houses for dinner, or getting a wild hair and going out for same, sometimes there is a lot of last-minute consuming to do.

Today for lunch, I see a big, shiny Globe eggplant in the vegetable crisper mocking me: Eat me now, baby, or I will be brown and flaccid and ready for the compost heap in a matter of hours. I pull it out thinking: baba ganoush on a sandwich? eggplant tapendade on a sandwich? grilled eggplant and feta … on a sandwich? See what ya do to me, eggplant?  When I pull it out, hiding underneath are some new red potatoes, and a head of wonderful romaine lettuce I haven’t even tackled yet, and some scallions, and I start thinking: hot, too darn hot for a sandwich. How about salad? Maybe … a curried eggplant and potato salad on that lettuce with a nice curried yogurt dressing, and then I see, out of the corner of my eye, a brown paper bag on which Stuart as scrawled, “Pears ripening” and the whole thing just goes “BING!”

So, I cut the eggplant and potatoes into nice, bite sized pieces, and because it is 97 degrees and no fool would turn on the oven, I fire up the gas BBQ out on the deck, toss the potatoes and eggplant with olive oil and garam masala, and pile them (along with a couple of whole serrano chilies) into a vegetable bbq basket, and leave them out there, banked off to the side on indirect heat in the 97 degrees, with another 400 degrees on the ‘que, for eggplant saladabout 45 minutes.

When they are crispy and brown, I bring them in and let them cool a bit. In a bowl, I toss them with a diced pear, yogurt, sliced green onions, sliced grilled serranos, salt, pepper, more garam masala, and a squeeze of lemon juice. I pile a big scoop on the chopped lettuce, and sprinkle some dry roasted peanuts on top.

Now that’s a hot day lunch. And two empty vegetable drawers to boot.

Barwikowski settles in

Jason Barwikowski is no ass. And that makes him somewhat unusual in the swaggering world of successful young chefs. He has the hipster glasses, and the eager, quick hands of a talented cook,  but his ego is Baby Bear sized: just right.

And so refreshingly so. Jason (first name on second attribution? yep, I can only type Barwikowski so many times without misspelling it) is the new executive chef at Vintage Grill. We had dinner there last night with friends, the kind who will let you stick your fork into their plates for tastes. More on that taste thing in a minute.

Jason has a difficult road ahead of him. He’s been dropped into a menu and a restaurant that haven’t got much respect of late. It’s the tight-rope walk of the executive chef: put your own shape and creativity on dishes, when the menu isn’t exactly yours. I’ve seen plenty of chefs in Jason’s position leave a swath of destruction as they move through a new kitchen, shredding an existing menu, and then quitting, leaving the owners in panic mode trying to keep the new dishes afloat as their creator ascends into heaven.   But restaurant lessor Brian Kemp (who is leasing the space from the Hood River Hotel) and Jason are coming at this from a position of mutual respect. Jason is slowly, week by week, adding his own hand to the somewhat Southern US focused menu. Last month’s collard greens are now a silky, tamed collard green pesto, layered under fresh corn and cornmeal-crusted Oregon rockfish, for instance.

Which leads us back to that taste thing. The crowd last night, a smattering of local foodies, show that word is getting around town: there are plenty of good reasons to traipse back into Vintage Grill. In addition to the Oregon rockfish, there’s a confit of pork shank, fork-tender as a summer thunder cloud, with yellow runner beans and a peach and pepper sauce. A wedge salad, not of iceberg lettuce, but of a Wildwood Farm romaine, gets a light vinagery blue cheese dressing,  tomato confit, and a big plank of bacon.  And those crab cakes (see my piece on these at Stu’s “Biz Buzz” blog) so plumb with Oregon Dungeness that it’s a bit scandalous.

Time for a reservation, no?

Where I’m going

Nora’s Table is a sweet … and savory … memory. The building is still there, but the wicked

Kathy Watson, plating up breakfast at Nora's Table, back in the day.
Kathy Watson, plating up breakfast at Nora’s Table, back in the day.

good food, the cooks, the hiss of the compressors, the diners, the broken lock on the bathroom door … history.

But I’m still cooking and eating, and I hope you’ll do both with me here.