Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Weekend in Paris

Beast is not the kind of restaurant you're a "regular" at (unless you're making serious bank and living in the Concordia district).  It's the place a guy takes you if he really wants in your pants.  Or to marry you.  Or it's your birthday, and you have people around that are good planners.  Or your fabulous Bellevue friend Brynne comes to town, and fate sits you down at the last two seats on Saturday night.

I called Paley's Place and Park Kitchen first, all booked up.  I called Beast on a whim, and took the last 2 reservations for the night.  It was an hour until the first (of only two) seatings, so we rushed out the door and out toward Northeast Portland.

Another perfect example of what I'd mentioned in my Petite Provence post, this area has changed a lot.  When Brynne and I first visited this street, it was seven years ago.  I was auditioning for a theater scholarship with Concordia's now-defunct progam, and we stopped for lunch at the cafe on Killingsworth and 30th.  Then the Dahlia Cafe, the space is now the Cup and Saucer Cafe (stupid name, better food), the scary convenience/liquor store has vanished and the animal-rights group's low-rent headquarters is now crimson-colored Beast.  The Garmin took us to Alberta, so we had a walk in heels down to the minimally-signaged restaurant (Brynne was able to spot the big B crowning the small inlet). 

Two long, communal tables flanked the open kitchen and assembly prep area, with our two (painful) chairs waiting.  The menu was printed on small cards at each seat:




Also, vegetarians need not apply.
In a room without air conditioning on a 90+ degree day, the chilled soup was a welcome first course.  Very floral and fresh, it was a little too lavendar/perfume tasting to me.  Maybe because I don't have much experience with chilled soup or edible flowers.  Or I've never been to France.  If I'd go in a heartbeat before, now my heart simply beats to go.  We chose the pairing flight, which offered a small pour of a specifically selected wine with each course.  It's odd to have a Portland menu sans any Oregon wine (bordering on sacrelidge, actually), but paired so well with the simple, lovely food, it couldn't have been more perfect.
Beast's signature Charcuterie was delivered next.  "I'm scared of the blood sausage," I admitted to Brynne, my distrust of all foods British bubbling to the surface.
"I had it in France; try a little corner.  You'll like it."
She was right.  Everything, all the little bites I'd seen on Iron Chef America were now real and tastable, leaping from my perma-Food Network screen.  Blood sausage is rich, a bit smoky, like a deep country-style pate.  Loved the smooth, salty chicken liver mousse cut with a snappy house cracker.  The winner was the pork shoulder rilettes with Seville marmalade.  I could eat an entire trough of that candy.  Imagine the best pulled pork you've ever had, topped with a note of sweet citrus.  The fennel salad in the center, again, very welcome in the heat alongside the heavy.  Each bite is decadence squared.
In between this and the main course, we were treated to an "off script" intermission - a berry-something sorbet along with the DOMAINE MONTIRIUS VACQUEYRAS GARRIGUES wine.  I don't know how to say or spell that, but it's a red wine that tastes like jam and sunshine.  Those two playing on my tongue, basking in their season... probably my favorite taste of the night.
Beef Cheeks might sound like something you'd pick up in the "Others" bin at WinCo, but this is an elegant, mild and tender cut.  And with that cloud of horseradish cream and sea of flavorful jus, how can you not ravage it? 

It was right about this time Brynne gave me leaned over to whisper, "you have to see the bathroom, and I know it sounds weird, but take your camera!"  Beast's kitchen wall is a giant chalkboard, and apparently the theme continues into the bathroom.  Trying to look totally normal and not like some creepy psychopath taking my camera bag with me to the bathroom ("it holds LIPSTICK, asshole!!"), I left my cheeks to check it out.

OMG I LOVE Channai Masala!  It's the Indian restaurant I lived next to in Palladia.  Saw Bunk Sandwiches on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, the guy makes all of his food on, like, three hot plates on a counter.  I'm quite curious about this Potato Champion.  I would like to meet him, I say. 

The salad's Early Girl tomatoes tasted like some other breed of food.  Brynne put it best - "they taste like fruit."  I can't wait until I can start enjoying that true sensation with the green guys in my backyard.  I have one small grape-ish tomato (from the most wild, crazy, bountiful vine of the bunch) that's just about red.  The first tomato of the season, so close!  This served as a perfect prelude.

The cheese plate featured milder selections, including a very good French soft-ripened.  I haven't tried many of these; quite a few imports have a funk.  The scene was stolen by the candied hazelnuts, spiked with a flowery honey. 

By this time, the light is beginning to melt into candle glow.  I won't use flash, it's so rude.  Nothing worse than shelling out for an amazing experience and being blinded by the papparazzi.  Thankfully, I have PhotoShop.  We've been at the table for over two hours, drowning in conversation and flavors.  The point of the communal table was lost on our crowd - we were surrounded by unfriendly Portlanders (or maybe visitors from San Fran?  Portlanders are usually a *little* friendly), and they kept their conversations tightly to themselves.  But I was in such good company that I don't get to see very often, so seriously whatever.  It was probably better than having some couple from Fremont debating the new plastic bag ordinance.

After dessert, the bill was left with dark chocolate-dipped bacon.  It just doesn't get any more Portland than that.

The next morning, I felt French-inspired.  Fittingly, I'd already decided that I was making smoked salmon benedict.  I've never made homemade Hollendaise sauce.  Luckily, I found, it's all in the ingredients and technique.  Use the right amount of good-quality stuff, and take care of it while it's cooking - it works!  I whisked constantly as I slowly added the melted butter to tornadoed egg yolks, just teaspoons at a time, Matt helpfully holding the handle of my ghetto double-broiler to keep the saucepan from taking off the stove.  "It's actually getting thick!"  I exclaimed with delight!  "It's WORKING!" 

Goddess Julia was a little less generous with my poached eggs.  The first set broke and seeped all through the gently simmering water, and since I only had 4 eggs, Matt had to go down to the Food Mart to get another dozen chances.  We cranked up the pan to a no-bullshit boil, and in three minutes, the fickle pillows were ready to go.  On top of my pa in law's smoked salmon and English muffins, I felt like I could make a go of charging people $60 a plate and politely declining substitutions. 

"It was the best meal I've had all year," Brynne described to Matt, who was at the Portland Brewfest and eating Taco Bell right around our Charcuterie course.  From someone who eats all over the world and glam-happy Bellevue/Seattle, it's quite the hometown-pride compliment. 

I present it all as reason #4,384 to visit Paris.  Or at least Northeast, which is quickly becoming my very own Petite Provence.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Trip to Provence

This morning, I met my friend Kim for brunch at Petit Provence.  Kim was my thesis adviser at Concordia, a creative writing prof that I never got to have a real class with.  That doesn't mean I didn't learn a ton from her--without her support and advice (coupled with that of a few other wonderful, inspiring people I'm lucky enough to have in my life), I wouldn't even be thinking about getting my MFA.  I nixed paltry pedestrian Starbucks as the meeting point and suggested this, my favorite pre-noon spot in North Portland instead (Sorry, Milo's City Cafe...).

Alberta's Petit Provence lives up to its name, right down to the fleur de lis-shaped croissant pastries.  Every detail brings me into the France of my fantasies, as I've never been there (or anywhere) in reality.  Mugs of cappuccino with foam fans floating on top.  An affinity for brie.  The lovely black wood with yellow trim, adorning each table and fixture inside and out of the restaurant.  The friendly, chatty clientele that strike up conversations with you in front of the pastry case... believe me, this is a rarity in the rest of greater Portland, unless said conversationalist is a schizophrenic panhandler hitting you up for admission fare to a sliding-scale hotel for the night. 

I have not been anywhere else like it, and this includes the Petit Provence in Lake Oswego.  Thinking I was in for the same experience at a fraction of the drive time, I was sorely disappointed.  An old, cramped building that smelled of something not pretty and buttery (more like septic and pipe failurey), Lake Oswegans knocking me down in the name of a baguette, and aloof waitstaff.  No, this isn't something that even belongs in suburban sprawl. 

As usual, I was early to meet someone who's usually running ten minutes behind.  I took a table on the street, in the shadow of the bakery's fresh-baked loaves.  I ordered a mocha served in a sunny yellow mug, the restaurant's signature secondary color.  The pair of friends next to me ate their croissants with house strawberry jam, silent in the face of their fare.  This used to be my neighborhood, Alberta, Killingsworth, 33rd... almost a million years ago for this street, back in 2003.  Back then, the street was what a sheltered little white girl like me would call "a bit dodgy."  Church missions, radical lobbying/grassroots group offices, a vegan cafe where I saw real-life lesbians for the first time.  A LOT of taco stands, with menus I couldn't decipher.  It wasn't overtly dangerous, but it sagged with neglect and decay.  Paint faded and flaked off buildings and murals.  Signage was the realm of poster board and Sharpies. 

Since I moved out of my dorm and further and further away from NoPo, Alberta and many other neighborhoods have gone through controversial gentrifications.  Commercial space has been snatched up by the parcel, refurbished with new insides and new outsides, the buildings with the most vintage character restored with gleaming new colors and facades.  Boutiques sport hanging signs and sandwich boards with the most mod of pastel shades, their names spelled out in hip anorexic typeface.  Yoga studios, Thai food, eco-friendly clothing.  And Petit Provence.

I could be here every day, I realized suddenly, drunk on the fumes of croissant and coffee.  Every single day.  Wake up to buttery pastry and cappuccino, evened out by the bike ride here and back.  Watch the diners and the pedestrians, take notes, get back to a sunny home where a laptop and a Word document and an audience await a labor of love.  The dedicated life of an artist.

Kim arrived, late from finishing up my current short story. "It was so dense!"  She said, fooled by the deceptive 7 pages.

"I know; Windows 7 has this tiny new default font," I explained, "when I set it to Times New Roman double-spaced last night, it was over 15 pages already."

We talked about my latest piece, like contemporaries, like it really mattered.  Like this was real.  Our conversation meandered into my residency, where I started name-dropping.

"Pam Houston... have you ever read Pam Houston?"

A sly smile curled around her lips, stretching above the mug.  "Next time you see her, tell Pam that Kim says... hello."

"You know her?"  Well even I knew her, but only through the most ackward, stilted conversation I could muster in the face of pure talent that had transcended into tangiable success.

"She was doing some grad work while I was in my MFA program."

Later, after I was slicing into my grilled Monte Cristo...

"Bonnie Jo Campbell was giving us a talk on how to get jobs and stuff after the program."

"We were in class together."

She'd just emailed Debra Gwartney to set up a speaking engagement at Concordia.  Met Barry Lopez.  I realized, these aren't her heroes.  They're her coworkers!  Full-fledged, passport-stamped members in the world of literature and academia.  I flashed forward fifteen years, casting a shadow over some starry-eyed apprentice, listening to her gush over graduate studies.

"Leann Wendell was my workshop leader," she tells me with glee.

"Oh, tell Leann I say hello."

"You know Leann Wendell?!"

"Oh yeah.  We were roommates at Pacific.  She does a mean karaoke 'Like A Prayer'."

And hopefully, you know, vice versa.

I brought souvenirs of Provence back home to my lonely husband: tart tartin, fruit tart and some beautiful cake.  Little tastes of a world I burn for, can just see on the edge of a glowing horizon.  P.S., they are fucking delicious.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Power of Pectin

Last Sunday, my internal clock went off screaming at about 6:30 in the morning.  A constant routine, coupled with a lingering obligation, made sleeping in impossible.  You have strawberries in the fridge!  Every second off the mother vine is a second dying, dying, dying off into decay!

I couldn't argue with that.  I slid out of bed, into some ratty pajamas, and started gathering my supplies.  Ball Official Book of Canning.  Pint jars.  Fresh rings and lids.  Funnel.  Magnet wand.  Huge, black pot with the flecks that screams "Grandmas & Hipster Chicks." 

I wanted to learn to can, ever since I started getting serious about being serious about food.  What's more beautiful than those jewel-toned jars of suspended produce, defying time in a natural, chemical-free way that's been practiced since our grandmother's grandmother had a grandmother? 

However, I'm not someone that can just read a book, or look at some diagrams on a website, and be able to figure out an intricate process.  I have to see it, live, so I can touch and interact with it.  So, two (omg two!?  Christ...) years ago, my friend Kristine and I paid $100 each for a full day of canning class with the curator of Portland Preserve.  An earthy, eternal grad school type woman with a Northeast Portland culinary forest garden and raw milk connections, she showed us how to make strawberry jam, dill pickles, tomatoes and sauerkraut.  I had to bail after we reached the last lesson (sauerkraut); I had an insanely powerful sinus headache drumming behind my eyeball.  They always seem to pop up when I've made an investment in a memorable day away: the last one I remember that bad was when my dad was taking me to the Seattle Opera's production of Madame Butterfly.  But when I researched sauerkraut-making some months later, I discovered that I would never attempt making it--you have to keep a big crock of curing cabbage in your house for over a month, skimming crap off the top as it slowly pickles.  Uhhhh... I'm all for real food, but I draw the line at shit rotting in my house.

What I learned were the little lessons for safety and quality that stick in my mind and keep me successful every time.  Wipe every top with a clean towel before and after filling.  Never let the jars touch the bottom of the water bath pot; use towels at the bottom if you have to (this totally saved my last batch of pickles).  Always use fresh lids.  Keep lids and rings boiling until the moment you twist them onto the jars... and don't twist too tight.  Just until they stop turning freely.

After washing the gorgeous vintage Ball jars that my parents got me at the Pike Place Market last year, I stemmed the strawberries and started pulping them up with my immersion blender.  The immersion blender is a godsend for canning, souping, general mushing... otherwise, you have to mash them with, like, a potato masher or something.  Bad, sore-arms times. 

This is where things started getting a little sketchy.  I flipped the Ball jar cookbook open to the jam section, and started following the directions.  I was dumping sugar direct into the strawberry soup when I realized, hey.  This recipe doesn't have any pectin in it.

Pectin is a chemical derived from fruits, which is a natural thickening agent.  Powdered pectin, in those little yellow boxes, is the easiest way to make jam.  But some people (like Professor Canning) oppose it, since it requires more sugar in the recipe.  It's so much easier though, so I just always follow the recipe on the pectin packet.  Which requires you add the powdered pectin first, and then stir in the sugar after it's been brought to a boil.

Oops.  Looks like I'm rolling au-natural this time around.

Cooking without powdered pectin took a LOT longer.  We're talking 45-60 minutes of cooking down jam to the 'gelling phase' (when it starts sliding off a spoon in little sheets) versus 10-20 minutes.  It cooks down much lower, so you get a lot less out of a flat of berries as well. 

When I finally figured whatever was sliding off the spoon kind of looked like sheets and seemed thick enough to spread on toast.  Also, by this time Matt was already awake too and I was sick of stirring a pot of pulp.

Only three and a half pretty jars were needed to hold the jam, and needed only 15 minutes of low-maintenance boiling processing until they were complete.  Here, in the finest photography ever, funneling jam into pint jars leaving 1/4" head-space:

The next morning, Matt and I test-drove the experimental jam on Dave's Killer Bread toast.  Wow.  Without the extra 3-4 cups of sugar per batch, you can really taste the fruit.  I had read that pectin-free jams can sometimes have a 'cooked' taste, but I didn't find this present at all.  It was a much clearer sensation of spreading fresh fruit on bread, versus a sugary fascimile.  I'll just have to see how ambitious I'm feeling when raspberry season rolls back around.

A little raffia and farmer's market lavender, and I feel like a true artist; a guild rising once again in revolt against Stouffer's and Rice a Roni and Smucker's.  Maybe someday I'll be charging surrogate grandchildren $100 to sit in my yard and watch me can.  Until then, I'll just make my blog readers endure it.