Greetings, Old Friend
Oregon—Portland, specifically—is home. Growing up, it meant summer afternoons spent picking from neat rows of small, glossy strawberries or tangles of blackberries, which left my hands stained purple and forearms stinging from crosshatched scratches. In the winter, we would trudge up snowy forest roads deep into the Mt. Hood National Forest, insulated bottles of hot chocolate (and the requisite permit) in tow, until we found the perfect Christmas tree. The ocean, mountains, high desert, and idyllic pastureland were all within an hour or two, and we took advantage of them all.
Originally known as “Ouragon,” Oregon is beautiful country, but I left it in 1998 in exchange for a state known for its turnpike, shore, and the gnarled accent of its citizenry. It is a good state, and I grew to appreciate it, defend it, even. But after four years, we moved north to Rhode Island and farther north again to Vermont. Eventually, my face grew tired of burning from the unrelenting winter winds and dripping from the summer stickiness, so we went west, as young women have been advised to do since at least the nineteenth century. To San Francisco we moved, where I became a lawyer, had a baby, and immersed myself in the culture of the great state of (Northern) California.
All the while, I returned to Portland often. I would come for family and friends, of course, but I would also come for a four-story bookstore that takes up an entire city block and took up many rainy Sundays as a child. Plans for outdoor summer concerts and picnics at the rose gardens gradually gave way to sipping hoppy beer, the result of two brothers’ passion realized, tasting fruit brandies painstakingly made in the Old World style, and trying Burgundian varietals on the deck of a 1970s ranch house (I missed out on “cupping” in exchange for old-fashioned coffee drinking). This old guard of Portland’s do-it-yourself beverage culture eventually made room for another generation of beverage artisans. I came to Portland often during this period and was able to keep up with many of these new libations craftspeople.
Then my parents moved from their urban neighborhood to the coast, limiting my Oregon activities to long walks on dramatic, empty beaches and ferreting out the freshest sources for oysters, clams, and fish. Not too shabby a way to pass the days, no, but such activities did not feed my thirst for Portlanders’ creative culinary output. As it were, during the time when I’ve been in Portland less often, the food culture has surged ahead, capitalizing on the state’s bounty—wild mushrooms, berries, game, apples, and salmon, for instance—to fuel an even more serious food scene than I had previously known.
We happened to be back in Portland for a few days in late December, so, naturally, I had to do some investigating of both the new and the old. This time, though, I did it with a one-year-old, which means my schedule gives way to Elinor’s schedule. It also means that you wake up at 6:00 in the morning. It just so happens that Stumptown, one of the founding fathers of direct-trade, micro-roasted coffee, was also open at 6:00 am on our first morning there, so we walked across a silent downtown Portland, the moon still bright overhead, and cozied up with some of the more delicate, nuanced Swiss Water Processed coffee I had drunk that week. We took our coffee in the adjacent lobby of the hipster-certified Ace Hotel and couldn’t resist a couple rounds in the photo booth. One among us couldn’t resist two of Stumptown’s flourless chocolate cookies, chewy, rich in chocolate, studded with chunks of creamy walnuts, and as big as a salad plate. I meant to get the recipe, but a legendary omelet beckoned.
Once we were fully (de)caffeinated and ready to proceed, we walked down to Bijou Cafe, a Portland fixture and breakfast spot for businesspeople and dawdlers alike. It’s also one of those organic-, local-fare places that makes me happy. I never look at the menu before ordering because there is only one option for me: the oyster omelet with sharp cheddar. Its siren song is loud and and clear and calls to me in San Francisco often and with great intensity. However, that particular morning, it was an empty enticement: Johnny wasn’t able to deliver the oysters. Though I was deflated at least as much as a souffle ten minutes out of the oven, I reluctantly opened the menu and happened upon an offering for a wild mushroom omelet, also with sharp cheddar. When in Oregon, eat wild mushrooms, they say. And so I did—to my complete satisfaction. All the best elements of the farm and forest were enveloped in a pillow of egg. Elinor agreed.
It was only 8:00 am.
Then we got quite stop-happy. We walked around a quiet little neighborhood with thoughtful shops and restaurants scattered about. For whatever reason, Bar Avignon, a European-inspired cafe whose owners apparently like Portland, pie, and accordions, among other intrigues, wasn’t open at 10:00 am on a Friday. A sweet little patisserie had just opened, as in for business; we didn’t stop, but admired the name, St. Jack, and the neat, dainty interior. Eco Baby Gear had a well edited selection of organic baby accoutrement, including a brown felt mustache that I was certain Elinor would find comical. But she stared at me blankly when I put it on. Even so, I discovered a superlative Christmas gift for her, meaning that she is still interested in it more than three weeks after the big day. All the while, I was sipping from the most elegant kombucha I’ve ever had, bought at the unpretentious neighborhood co-op. Brew Dr., who have indeed doctored their teas remarkably well, cultures white peony tea with rosebuds and hibiscus. It’s like a deconstructed bouquet of English flowers. In your mouth. With bubbles.
On our way to lunch, we did a quick stop at House Spirits, that distillery I’ve told you about before. Elinor and I picked out a few little things for Dave’s cocktail-themed Christmas gifts from the thoughtfully stocked tasting room, where all sorts of bar supplies and serious books on mixing classic cocktails are laid out in one tiny space. I particularly like the 12-page guide to “home cocktailing” in which Portland bartender Lydia Reissmueller advises on key spirits and glasses to have on hand, the essential elements of a respectable drink, and some base recipes that the mixer can tweak to her own liking. (Try as I did, I could not find an online source for Ms. Reissmueller’s book, The Livingroom Bar: A Simple How-to Guide for Mixing Cocktails at Home; call House Spirits to order one.) I also picked up a reprinted copy of The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, a compendium of cocktails, wine, and, as it turns out, “help in case of accident,” the latter including advice about how to respond to lightning, fainting, or cinders in the eye. This book, heavy-papered, raw-edged, and weighty in the hand, catalogs the drinks of Frank Meir, Head Bartender at the Ritz in Paris, who worked alongside Auguste Escoffier in the 1920s and 1930s.
During the afternoon, we relaxed and rested and looked at the Christmas tree that was lit and strobing and might not have been but for the FBI. We did not make it to The Meadow to admire its so-called classical pleasures of sea salt, chocolate, wine, and cut flowers. Nor did we sip cocktails or sample Benedict in a speakeasy-cum-brunch spot hidden behind a crepêrie storefront. A casual meal at the new French bistro with a Portland twist, Little Bird: also missed. Motherhood tempers overambitious planning. Thank God. It’s about time something reined in this tendency born of college trips abroad.
But we did still manage to eat dinner at Olympic Provisions. They do big flavors with restrained ingenuity in a casual space. And they do meat, pretty meat, as in boudin blanc, salumi, and rillettes. They make orangettes. And they serve sardines. They do a smoky hunter’s stew with kielbasa, cabbage, and mushrooms that evokes stone cabins warmed by wood heat. When they are quite busy, they seat you on industrial steel stools at the bar, which overlooks the kitchen, a wall of exposed red brick, and pendant carbon-filament gray light bulbs. And if you are accompanied by a one-year-old, say, they are more than happy to situate the high chair under the bar, where the child will jabber at the handbags hanging on hooks for a good hour straight.
This leaves the rest of the party to inspect the kitchen, where one particular member thinly slices individual Brussels sprouts and nutty sunchokes by hand on a mandoline then tears flesh off of the lacquered grass-green olives known as Castelvetranos. He gently massages a substantial dressing into the feathered sprouts, white discs, and meaty olive morsels just before gently piling it on a plate and sending it out to slaughter. He does this over and over before it becomes obvious that I need to order it. And so I do. It turns out that the dressing, a brash, weighty emulsion of spicy garlic and a bit of salt-cured anchovy for depth, is the real pièce de résistance. No, the anchovy didn’t deter me one bit; rather, it made the whole seemingly biotic salad sing and was barely detectable as a distinct essence. It was playing one of those “what is that flavor?” supporting roles. I had the hunter’s stew as well, but it was the salad that kept running through my highlight reel the morning after. I could get used to this New Portland food.
They say that Portland is where young people go to retire. Apparently retirement leaves plenty of time for puttering around the kitchen.
A Winter Salad of Raw Brussels Sprouts with Castelvetrano Olives, Sunchokes and a Mysterious Vinaigrette
For the dressing
2 teaspoons minced salt-cured anchovies
2 pinches unrefined sea salt
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons of bright extra-virgin olive oil
For the salad
1 pound Brussels sprouts, stems removed
1/4 pound sunchokes, preferably narrow
1/4 pound Castelvetrano olives
C O O K .
- Make the dressing. Zest the lemon and squeeze the juice from one half of the lemon; put both in a bowl. Combine with the anchovies, salt, and garlic. Let stand while you prep the salad, then pour in the olive oil and blend in a blender or a small food processor. Blending the dressing makes it more uniformly consistent, velvety, and disguises the anchovies, but the flavor will be just as commanding if simply whisked with a fork.
- Prepare the salad. Using a mandolin or a knife, slice the Brussels sprouts vertically as thinly as possible. Do the same for the sunchokes (no need to peel them). Finally, tear the flesh from the olives with your fingers.
- Assemble. Pour half of the dressing over the salad and massage gently. If the sprouts aren’t fully coated and the dressing’s punchiness isn’t immediately apparent upon taking a bite, massage more dressing into the salad little by little until it’s hard to ignore. Gently pile the salad into pyramidal piles and dust with some gray sea salt.
D R I N K . Try Austrian Gruner Veltliner, which I am told has magical powers when paired with difficult companions, like asparagus, artichokes and, yes, a salad of raw Brussels sprouts with anchovy vinaigrette.
R E F I G U R E .
- Cook + mild feta. This salad’s second life is a quick cooking over medium-high heat with pieces of mild, less salty sheep’s milk feta scattered on top.
- Soup. Night three: Cook some onions and lard or butter over medium heat until soft and glassy; add the leftover salad and cook until barely softened; pour in some chicken or beef stock and simmer for 20 minutes; puree with a stick blender; serve with last night’s feta crumbled on top, a few pieces of crispy, fried garlic, and a glug of extra-virgin olive oil. Soup + crusty bread + a salad of winter chicories = dinner in 30 minutes.
L I T T L E E A T S . For Elinor, I gave this a quick chop and cooked it with some lard (pastured-raised is loaded with coveted vitamin D) over medium-high heat for a minute or so just to soften it a bit (raw winter greens are a much more laborious affair when encountered with only six teeth)—success! From the crunchy, white sunchoke discs to the briny olive flavor, there’s lots of novelty going on here, and novelty usually gets us at least to the second bite.
Text and photo © Blue Egg Kitchen 2010Print This Post