Sunday, January 6, 2013

Forty Minutes to Home

Last night I had a wonderful dinner at Ned Ludd with my old cheese business friend Jessica. Ned Ludd is on MLK in Northeast Portland, just a mile or so from my college dorm room. Back then there were no Pacific Northwest American Craft Kitchens, explained thusly on their neatly-designed websites:

American  Of, relating to, or characteristic of the United States or its inhabitants
Craft  An activity involving skill in making things by hand
Kitchen  A room or area where food is prepared and cooked

There was a Taco Bell, a greasy pizza place, a taco truck, a barbecue place that has sadly been chased out with the totality of the neighborhood's gentrification. I have to search for clues when I drive through Alberta and Killingsworth streets nowadays, hints that my first taste of Portland life wasn't a dream. There is the Alberta Co-Op Grocery, and a jazz mural. My dorm room is still there, although the campus has undergone a complete overhaul in the last decade. Returning to Northeast Portland is coming home to a home that now only exists in my memory.

The charming Ned Ludd restaurant, next to an adorable Quirky Girls-inspired bakery called Bushel & A Peck, was meticulously designed to look rustic. Cords of wood around the patio (to light the showcase wood-fired brick oven, natch), tiny glass terrariums hanging from shelves and tucked onto tables, and--chickens. Chickens everywhere. I even spotted a framed black-and-white photo of someone's beloved goat, placed next to a table I wasn't lucky enough to be seated at. Ball jars held homemade pickles, just like the one on my counter. I was sitting in a Portlandian approximation of my own home, the place where all these heirloom jewel cherry tomatoes and pastured hens came from. The whole place made me feel close to my own cooking home, down to the little metal hen perched next to my head.

Maybe I wasn't quite as far removed from my culinary heroes as I had been thinking. Off in Hubbard, hidden by hazelnut groves and free-range bunny pastures, I often feel as though I'm a Portland community imposter. Like someone who lives in Federal Way and claims to be a Seattleite. But maybe I'm in the heart of something less flashy, less hipster-packed, but just as special in its own contribution to food culture.

Maybe. But I'll still keep driving forty minutes into the city to brush against the metropolis, just like Portland chefs will keep sourcing their inspiration from my neck of the woods.

And a fake chicken looks fabulous in ANY setting.

Tonight I created my own version of a Ned Ludd American Craft Kitchen dinner. I don't have the gorgeous oven, but I did just get my very own cast-iron skillet, which I used to sear the organically-raised pork chops in. The Pastured Heirloom Hog Thyme-Rubbed Pork Chops with Cider Pan Jus (I can write mile-long food porn menus with the best of 'em, btw) are more technique than recipe. Remove from fridge and rub a half hour before cooking (so they don't hit the pan frigid), with salt, pepper and dried thyme (in the winter, if you're cooking in the summer time by all means, go pluck something fresh.... how I miss that luxury! Remember tomatoes??). Heat the oil in the skillet, and sear on each side for 4 minutes. Turn the heat off and cover for 8 minutes, which allows the pork chops to cook through.

To make the pan sauce--I mean, jus--remove the pork chops from the skillet and deglaze with cider vinegar. Add about 1/2 cup of vegetable broth and a teaspoon of flour to thicken. Season with salt and pepper, and serve.

I've been sick of the potato-rice side dish rotation, so tonight I branched into holiday tricks with a Pacific Northwest rustic focus spin. This is a slightly modified recipe from Epicurious, shrunk down to not serve a holiday crowd. The apples are an inspired pairing for the pork chops, and the wild rice lends a wonderful alternate texture from the bread. I love how crunchy the top of this stuffing gets, from the high heat and butter drizzle.

As much as I'd love to, I can't go to Portland every night. The cocktail tab alone would kill me. But sitting at my vintage tablecloth table, in the shadow of my faux chickens, I didn't feel so very far away.

Wild Rice Dressing with Apples
2 cups water
1/2 cup wild rice
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups dressing bread cubes (yes, they still sell them outside of Thanksgiving)
1/2 stick unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoons melted
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced apple (I used a Granny Smith)
1 tsp dried parsley
1/2 tsp dried sage
1/2 tsp dried marjoram
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup chicken broth

Bring water to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan, then add rice and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until rice is tender and most grains are split open, 1 to 1 1/4 hours (not all liquid will be absorbed). Drain well in a colander and spread out in a baking pan to cool completely.
Put oven rack in upper third of oven and preheat oven to 350°F.

Melt 1 stick butter in a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat, then cook onion, garlic and celery, stirring, until softened, about 8 minutes. Add apple and cook, stirring, until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in herbs, pepper, and remaining teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and toss with rice, bread, and dried cranberries.

Increase oven temperature to 450°F and butter a baking dish.

Spread stuffing evenly in baking dish and drizzle with turkey stock and melted butter. Bake, covered tightly with foil, in upper third of oven until heated through, about 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake until top is browned, 10 to 15 minutes more.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


You know that feeling when you create something so perfect, so whimsical, so photogenic and creative and fabulous that you get butterflies in your stomach thinking about how blissful it will be to pin it on your Lovely Culinary Successes board? Flip that feeling upside down, and you've got that moment where you've just spent $30 on specialty ingredients (which will sit in your pantry for at least a year before you find them mentioned in another recipe again), several hours on your feet in the kitchen and the results look like something a kindergartner whipped out of the kitchen after chugging Mountain Dew and being blindfolded. You know that what you've got will probably taste good, but you also know that people are going to be laughing their asses off and whipping out their phone cameras behind your back to capture your moment of epic faildom.

This, my friends, is the moment you NAILED IT.

We all nail it. At least, those of us who try our hands at this whole "baking" thing do. Baking and frosting and getting everything to come out without falling over--it's hard, damn it! And after a long day at work when you're distracted in between reading recipe steps, and something in your head is telling you that a direction may not sound right but who are you to say (it's not like you're some professional Recipe Writer, after all). It's a recipe for heartache, really.

My biggest Nailed It moment of my life so far (and don't worry, I'm certain I've far from exhausted my supply) was last Friday. I rushed home from work to get a Black Forest Cake in the oven. You can see the glory shot right there of the desired end result. Matt had gone to the store to get the special ingredients the King Arthur Flour recipe called for, like cake flour and the "good" dark chocolate bars. I had a precious jar of my homemade cherry pie filling made over the summer set to use. I was making the cake for a late Christmas party I was hosting the next morning for my in-laws, and since I only entertain them once a year I wanted to at least have something presentable.

But I was tired. And dreadfully cranky. And I should have known that something was amiss when I stuck the two chocolate cake pans in the oven thinking "hmmm, that batter looked way too thin." Twenty seconds later I realized I hadn't bothered to add the sugar to the batter, so I quickly yanked both pans out, dumped them back into the mixing bowl, and made quick amends.

When the (now sweetened) cakes had cooled, the recipe instructed me to whip the cream to soft peaks and layer between the halved cake layers. Soft peaks seem really soft, I thought as I sawed through the perfect cakes. And did these really have to be halved? Would this thing stand up to all the soft cream and thin cake?

By layer number two, with the whipped cream spreading like soup, I knew I had a problem. When the last layer crumbled atop the Jenga puzzle of a dreamy layer cake, the cursing and feeble cries commenced. And as I lamely tried splashing whipped cream over the tipped sides, I knew I was completely effed.

Yes. That happened.

For a few minutes, staring at The Blob, I panicked. I was all out of cocoa powder and cream. I'd shaved all the good chocolate. My beautiful cherries were trapped inside the wreckage. Think, Tabitha! For Christ's sake!


Yes, the trifle dish! I dashed to the pantry and grabbed the glass pedestal dish from the top shelf, just as my phone was going off with a response text from my mom: can you turn it into a trifle?


I carefully removed the top layer with a spatula, and reserved it on a separate dinner plate. Then, layer by layer, I began inverting the ruined cake into the big bowl. Like a parfait. Skimmed cream, cherries, cake broken into brownie-sized pieces. Repeated until adding the last layer, carefully, so the chocolate shavings and cream layer tops off the whole deal. Is it as pretty? Not quite. But it tastes the same, and if you tell everyone they're having trifle for dessert, they're none the wiser.

"Trifle!" My mother-in-law said when I brought out the bowl, "now that's way more interesting than cake."


(stock footage of trifle, as I was sick of photographing my food by the time I was done. However, I can highly recommend a cocktail alongside these endeavors).