Tuesday, September 10, 2013

food as medicine

Photos by A.V. Crofts

I have two friends who have recently spent time tending to their fathers in the hospital.

In one case, it was an unexpected illness that landed my friend's father in the ICU. I opened my computer one morning to learn that she'd been at his bedside for three days continuously.

I texted her immediately to tell her that whatever I could do, I would do for her.

She replied:

Pie always helps.

Now that's one smart friend. And a wise one: ask for what you need. Later that day, I wrapped up a freshly baked pie and drove over to Seattle's Pill Hill neighborhood, where we conducted a hand-off outside the hospital.

Later that day I heard from her again.

What kind of pie is this?
We're sharing it with a couple in the ICU with us.
They are from Wisconsin.
They thank you.

An ICU wing becomes a community that seeks strength in the face of fragility.

My second friend's father had a different hospital experience: his visit was planned months in advance and was for a specialized operation. My friend traveled across the country to accompany her parents through the process and help get them settled back in their Wenatchee home.

She stayed with me the night before the operation, and she was due to the hospital before dawn. In the wee hours of the morning as she readied herself, I puttered in my kitchen, packing a picnic she and her mother could enjoy over the course of what was going to be a long and emotional day. 

Fresh bead.
Chocolate. (Of course!)

Fast forward three days later. My friend returns from Wenatchee, her father happily healing, and presents to me a bounty of hot yellow peppers and tomatoes straight from her parents' garden. Dinners the last two nights have featured a large plate of fresh sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, salt, pepper, and olive oil. 

Food heals, but it also binds. 

This is one of the many reasons I love to give it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

peachy keen

Photo by A. V. Crofts

Where have I been all summer?

Eating peaches!

Monday, June 24, 2013


Photo by Intrigue Chocolate Co.

I first tasted truffles from Intrigue Chocolate Co. in 2007.

At the time I was in charge of securing mouth-watering desserts for a large reception on a microscopic budget. Our caterer recommended Intrigue, as founder and chocolatier Aaron Barthel had just started his business and was offering remarkable chocolate truffles at reasonable prices.

We ordered 200.

When they arrived, I must admit I was momentarily skeptical. Two hundred truffles sounds like a lot, but when you line them up (at the time Intrigue was producing dome shaped truffles, a little bit larger than a quarter), well, it looked a bit meager in size.

Then I bit into one of his basil chocolate truffles.

The skies parted. Angels trumpeted. You know the drill. Quite simply put, Intrigue’s basil chocolate truffle remains to this day one of my singular chocolate experiences. It also remains one of Intrigue’s bestsellers.

Part of that is attributed to the unexpectedness of biting into a silky smooth truffle and tasting basil. It’s not the vehicle that typically delivers basil to our tongue. But as soon as our taste buds recover from the fact it’s unusual, all they can focus on is the unforgettable combination.

And this is one of Barthel's superpowers. 

With over 180 truffle flavors up his sleeve (about a dozen are available at any given time at the shop in Pioneer Square), Barthel excels at creating the unexpected. When I visited Intrigue for a truffle making class this month with Kristy Leissle, aka Doctor Chocolate, this was our charge: create an original flavor combination for a chocolate truffle. 

To do so, we first had to survey all the possibilities. Intrigue’s kitchen is stocked with dozens upon dozens of herbs, sweeteners, and teas, all fresh and in small batches. Aaron carefully let us sniff them all—with the exception of the Ghost Chilies which we opened and carefully waved our nose over from a safe height.

After winnowing down a short list, we began the process of identifying possible pairings. Ultimately, Doc of Choc and I decided to try creating a truffle cocoa nibs, coconut, fenugreek.

Fenugreek? Yup. I was surprised too.

Fenugreek sold us on its rich toasted taste—reminiscent of caramel. Before infusing the cream with the three ingredients, we first steeped a few spoonfuls in hot water to see how the three reacted to heat. All of us agreed the beverage was delightful. So after lightly toasting the ingredients in a thick bottomed sauce pan, we added heavy cream, brought the heat to a low burble, took it off the heat and let it sit, then strained it and added it when still hot to the bare base chocolate.

Vigorous whisking later, we had ribbons of glistening chocolate, ready for chilling. An hour after that, we were easing our chilled chocolate out of silicone pans, cutting it carefully in squares or triangles, and dusting them in Dutch processed cocoa powder.

The results were heavenly. Try to eat just one.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

antarctic menus

This month I had the chance to hear Jason C. Anthony read from his sparkling new book, Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Arctic Cuisine. Anthony has taken a land renown for its inhospitable climate (read: nonexistent "growing season") and stitched together tales of meals consumed across generations in this outpost of adventurers, scientists, and eccentrics.

I arrived to the reading under the erroneous impression that hoosh referred to the sound a vac-pac made when opened--which also illuminates my own preconceptions of what one eats in Antarctica. I was soon schooled that hoosh is something far more provocative than bland military rations: it is a staple of early Arctic explorers that consisted of dried meat, fat, and a grain of some kind or crushed biscuit.

While hoosh is not what I would choose to order for brunch, if it was keeping me alive I'd dig in. Very often, it was the only thing that prevented explorers from perishing. Many did. You can be sure those that did not had hoosh to thank in part.

As someone who has spent significant periods of time working in Antarctica, Anthony is able to bridge its history of meals up to present day. There are marvelous passages set in more contemporary times that outline menus, the value of "freshies," and the story of one enterprising man who had pizzas delivered on an airlift from New Zealand. Each pie was worth its weight in gold.

Out of the Arctic isolation comes a renewed appreciation for the variation we so often take for granted at our kitchen tables.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

rome rituals

Photo by A.V. Crofts

I realized yesterday that I have been back in Seattle six weeks, which is the same amount of time I had spent a Roma. Certain moments of my time in Italy remain sharply in focus: an overnight in Tuscany with snow dusted hills, the bells chiming outside my apartment window, my love affair with a six-speed, and the verve of my students and colleagues.

I miss it all.

But I also miss the rituals around food and drink. Morning cappuccinos taken standing at a marble bar, cheek by jowl. The best pizza I have ever eaten in my life in Naples. Gelato by the gallon.

Before traveling to Rome, I was not a habitual coffee drinker. Within a week of my arrival, I was an addict. More than that, I was a discerning addict.  I hit the jackpot when my colleague introduced me to Bar del Cappuccino, where the drinks are sold by the mother, shots are pulled by the father (in a bow tie no less) and then served by the son. My regular spot became my gold standard.

My second day back in Seattle, I walked a block to my local coffeehouse, Lighthouse Roasters. These baristas know what they are doing. Trust me. I ordered a cappuccino and drank it at their seated bar, trying to replicate my Rome ritual.


So I gratefully returned to my morning tea habit, but with a twist: I drink it from a mug I bought myself the last day I was in Rome. Pictured above, its cityscape design acts like a chalk drawing on a sidewalk for me. I wrap my hand around the mug and dive back into Roma.

I know that when the time comes again for me to walk the streets of Rome, the city will be waiting for me, whispering:

Welcome home.

Monday, January 28, 2013

pasta nirvana

Lunchtime at Da Enzo's
Photo by A.V. Crofts

There will be no hyperlinks in this post.

This update is about a restaurant that has no website, no menus, and no sign hanging outside their entrance. You either know it exists and where to find it, or you do not.

Luckily, I now fall into the former category.

For nine years, my friend Arielle has been singing me the praises of Napoli. It's a magic city, she assured me, don't let Naples be defined for you by the stereotypes of mafia and mountains of garbage thanks to sanitation worker strikes.

So I took her advice to heart. I advocated hard that we travel there with our students. The UW Rome Center, though initially skeptical, came along. A scouting trip was in order, so this past Friday and Saturday, my colleague and I crisscrossed the city, eating our way through Naples.

Yes, we had sfogliatelle, the delicate pastry that crumbles in your mouth. Yes, we sipped un caffe of seriously high-octane goodness at Cafe Mexico with the statue of Dante looking down on us from the piazza that bears his name. Yes, we sipped falanghina white wine. Yes, we indulged in a pizza margherita from the hallowed pizza haunt "Gina Sobrillo."

But the meal we'll never forget was at Da Enzo's. Arielle's favorite pasta in Naples.

Da Enzo's is a mom and pop operation tucked away on a cobblestone side street. We had only a few instructions to go on: the neighborhood, its location relative to an ospedale and a mercatino, and the fact that you entered the restaurant via a storage room. We had no street name, no phone number, and no question in our minds we were going to find this place. I love a challenge.

And find it we did.

This place feeds the neighborhood. Tables are set with blue and white paper tablecloths and the menu, recited in person when you sit down, consists of four pasta dishes, two vegetable side dishes, water, and house wine. A basket of fresh bread is also provided. The kitchen is the size of a closet.

My spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) was the best I've ever tasted. Each dainty clam was the size of a locket necklace, split open as if clapping for me as I twirled the pasta on to my fork. Napoli peppers gave the dish some heat and the butter garlic sauce disappeared thanks to the chewy and wonderfully salty bread--perfect for sopping up the sauce. My colleague got the ultimate comfort dish photographed above: cannelli beans and tomatoes with macaroni noodles.

The space was filled with regulars. Orders were shouted in lively and congenial fashion as patrons entered the dining room. An enormous octopus sat on the kitchen counter, as if taking a nap.

I slurped my last spaghetti noodle, patted my chin with a paper napkin, and marveled at the wonder of it all.

Friday, January 18, 2013

the rules of romance

Photo by A.V. Crofts

Twenty-two years ago this month, I landed in China as a wide-eyed college junior. The country fed me full in ways I'd never experienced before. Today, I get to watch my students be fed by la bella Italia

A few things I have learned since arriving a Roma:
  1. It is possible to balance a cone of gelato in one hand, while using the other hand to unzip your wallet and fish out money to pay.
  2. Size matters, but it's not bigger is better. Good things come in small packages: espresso, torte, and twizy cars. 
  3. Turn the wine pairing over to the house. You will not be disappointed.
  4. If you see a bakery, it's a perfect time to stop. Perche no?
  5. Paprika flavored Pringles are addictive.
  6. If you get an impromptu invitation by a donna into her kitchen to watch her make pasta, by all means do.
  7. Every dinner should start with Prosecco.
  8. A single soft boiled Italian egg can make the perfect meal. 
I'm a modern day Marco Polo, bridging Asia to Europe and always ready for my next meal.