In Celebration of the Tomato

Tomatoes, like grapes, benefit from suffering, as though depriving them of what they seem to need most provokes a deeper search through their own rooted resources. - Paul Bertoli, Cooking by Hand 

I've got Chef Paul Bertoli's essay on my mind as I trek to the 4th Annual Tomato Festival at Cedarbrook Lodge. In the waning days of summer, Cedarbrook throws a fabulous ode to heirloom tomatoes on the back lawn. While I've yet to dine or stay at the lodge, I've kept a close eye on their Executive Chef, Mark Bodinet who's hosting the event. An alumn of Thomas Keller's French Laundry, Bodinet took took top honors at Lamb Jam both years I judged the event. 

A celebration of tomatoes in the hands of some fabulous chefs? I'm in! Arriving before the crowds, I had a chance to chat with the chefs and picked up some terrific tips along the way. Let's check it out...

A cause for celebration! Let's Whole Foods prices, I bet there's over a $1,000 in heirloom tomatoes here.

Pike Brewing Company, one of the pioneers of the microbrew movement, is the first tent I spot. It's always a good time when you see these folks! 

Family-owned Pike Brewery's Space Needle IPA is made with five varieties of Washington State Yakima Valley Hops. Its "golden color with floral notes and assertive hop character" was a perfect quencher for the unseasonably warm day. 

Kicking off the event: James Beard Award-wining chef Holly Smith with a Pike Brewery michelada. Holly, chef-owner of Cafe Juanita, nabbed the Best Chef Northwest award in 2008, and in 2012 was nominated for James Beard's Outstanding Chef in the US. 

 My favorite dish of the day: Cafe Janita's Pappa al Pomodoro. Exquisite simplicity, made with heirloom tomatoes, bread, and olive oil. 

Bar Sajor restaurant in the house! Chef de Cuisine, Edouardo Jordan, served Beef Tongue Pastrami with Tomato Vierge, Sunflower Seeds, and Leek Jam. Jordan is known for his "edible oddities." Noted.

Bar Sajor's Beef Tongue Pastrami

Heading to the Copperleaf table with a flat of still-in-the-dirt microgreens.

Copperleaf' Restaurant featured Heirloom Tomato Foccacia served with a trio of sauce options: Green Tomato, Ratatouille, or Garlic Cream. Love the slate-on-wine-box presentation. 

Who could resist this? Joel  Handshuh, Copperleaf's Chef de Cusine.

Going in for a closer look at those layers: Smoked Tomato Panna Cotta, Parmesan Mousse, a dollop of Basil Cream, and a dusting of Olive Nougatine and Microgreens. 

"Chef, tell me about that olive nougatine. How do you make it?"
"We dehydrate olives for two days, then grind them up. Next, we make a caramel and add the ground (dehydrated) olives. Pour the caramel on a silpat until it dries like toffee, and crush it for a garnish." The result? An intriguing sweet, salty, crunch. 

Trace at the W Hotel, represented by Laura Jacques Hardy and Executive Chef Stephen Ariell.  Impressive chefs have come from Seattle's W Hotel--including James Beard Award-winners Jonathan Sundstrom (Lark) and Maria Hines (Tilth, Golden Beetle, Agrodolce). Then came an extensive remodel, a name change for the restaurant, and a new chef. The remodel was a disappointment, but the chef? One to watch.

An Eclair with Heirloom Tomato Jam and Kurtwood Farm's Dina's Cheese. And then there's the dish that stretched my mind and made me think of tomatoes in a new light: Tomato Sorbet Served in a Hollowed Orange w/ Basil Buds and Flaked Salt. Amazing! 

Serving the tomato sorbet. Each guest got a slice, topped with flaked sea salt and 'basil buds.'

"Chef, what did you do with the orange flesh?"

"Used it for something else. For this dish, all I wanted was the rind."

At the helm of Barking Frog restaurant on the Woodinville wine trail, Executive Chef Bobby Moore.

Stunning heirlooms, no?

Chef Bobby Moore and Barking Frog's sous chef, Chris Smith

Chris Smith was the mastermind behind this dish from Barking Frog. Here we have a Compressed Watermelon, Balsamic 'Paper', Burrata Foam, and Micro Basil.

"Chef, what is 'balsamic paper'?"
Chris Smith explained:  "It's made with all-natural gellan gum.*  First, you puree the gellan gum and balsamic. Bring it to a boil so the gelatin properties kick in. Let it set until it becomes like jello. Then you put it in a blender and turn it back into a liquid. This breaks up the gell into super small pieces so you can spread it out. And then you, dehydrate it." Voila! Balsamic paper.

* Seaweed-based gellan gum is used as a stabilizer, emulsifier, thickener, and gelling agent. 

 West Seattle's Blackboard Bistro owners: Chef Jacob Weigner and his wife, Ginger Weigner.

Blackboard Bistro's Yogurt Cilantro Flan w/ Curried Tomato, Crispy Lentils with Sun Dried Tomato and Greens.

"Chef! What's the story about those crispy lentils?"
"At some point, everything ends up in the deep fryer!"

An eye-catching presentation, no? This is Semiahmoo Resort's Heirloom Tomato Push Pop with Blueberry, Espelette, Aspic (consume w/ gelatin), and Fresh Mozzarella. 

A closer look at those layers: Mozzarella, Heirloom Tomatoes, Blueberries, Heirloom Tomatoes, and another layer of Mozzarella topped with Espelette.
"Chef, blueberries and tomatoes? What's the story?"

In  a heavy French accent, Semiahmoo's Culinary Director, Eric Truglas offers, "What grows together, goes together, no?' Truglas adds, "You get tartness from the tomato and sweetness from the blueberry." He's right. It's surprising how well they go together.

Here we see another play on Chef Truglas' blueberry/tomato theme: Heirloom Tomato and Watermelon Skewers with a Blueberry Vinaigrette. 

Semiahmoo is a seaside resort situated this side of the Canadian border. With four restaurants on the property, they went all out for Tomato Fest. Here we have what Chef Truglas calls the "Porterhouse of Tomatoes." It's a skinned and cored Heirloom Tomato, Stuffed with Halibut Rillettes, and White Anchovy Vinaigrette. 

 Chef de Cuisine Martin Woods takes a moment to tell me about this garnish. This is a sprouted popcorn shoot. It adds a beguiling sweet and bitter component to the dish. I also like the visual appeal. Striking, no?

A peek inside: Heirloom Tomato, Halibut Rillettes, Sprouted Popcorn Shoot, and Microgreens

Garnishes: micro and sprouted 

Tomatoes transported stuffed side up, then inverted for presentation. Beautiful array of heirloom tomato colors, eh?

Good times with the chefs of Semiahmoo: Eric Truglas (Culinary Director), Martin Woods (Chef de Cuisine), Kevin Benner (Sous Chef) 

And at the center of the Tomato Festival is a terrific side-by-side tasting of over 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. A perfect end to a late summer celebration of tomatoes!

Crave-worthy Charmoula Fried Chicken

I wish every meal was great. Truly. I want to sing from the rooftops about magnificent moments in dining, but the truth is, even for a seasoned restaurant veteran, those moments are rare. Maybe not pink-unicorn-in-the-forest rare, but let's just say...stellar moments in dining are not an everyday thing. 

When a dish, or better yet, a restaurant stands out in my mind? I'll spend the next couple months, dining there at every opportunity. VIPs from New York or LA? We go here. Meeting with the folks from Saveur magazine? Do not leave town without trying the butter chicken wings here. Pastry and bread gurus? First stop? Here. You get the idea. 

My latest obsession is Charmoula Fried Chicken at The Old Sage. Succulent and packed with flavor, this chicken has haunted me since the first bite. And wouldn't you know...I forgot my camera. But as I've said, this obsession runs deep, and I was able to cobble together images from three different people for this post! Reporting deliciousness? It takes a village.

I'm a huge fan chef-owners Dana Tough and Brian McCracken. The Old Sage is the latest in their stable of restaurants including Spur, Tavern Law, and Coterie Room. (Food & Wine magazine dubbed their first restaurant, Spur, one of "the most outstanding, must-visit restaurants in the world.") Earlier this month, Keren Brown collaborated with Kitchenbug and The Old Sage for blogger meet up, and I jumped at the opportunity.

This haven on Capitol Hill is dark and moody with a "thinking man's" vibe. 

Old Sage's kitchen is open to the bar, so cooks can see what's happening in the dining room, without being completely exposed. From the dining room, it provides peek into the kitchen-as-theater element. Pictured: Chef de Cuisine Mathew Woolen and cook Kirby Snyder. 

Chef Mathew Woolen addressed the crowd of bloggers, food stylists, and photographers. When the passed apps came around, the food was familiar, and yet, every dish had an element of mystery. Succulence like I've never known before. A spice blend that lingered, calling up memories of souks and spice bazaars. "Chef, how would you describe your culinary style?" Woolen builds flavor with old world, forgotten techniques (souring, sprouting, smoke, fire) and spice trail ingredients (urfa biber, etc), with a contemporary spin (sous vide). The magical. 

During the social hour, I stepped in the kitchen to say hello. The tiny chef's station is compact--no bigger than a boat kitchen. And yet, two steps from the line is a Wood Stone-fired oven, Below rests a tub of yeast-risen dough, at the ready for freshly-fired breads. To his right is a small smoker. All within reach. 

Fire it up! Pork belly BLT's and puffs of yeast-risen bread. 

As luck would have it, prep was underway for a batch of their Charmoula Fried Chicken.

Something about this prep caught my eye. "What are you doing?" Cook Kirby Snyder explained, that fall-off the bone element is enhanced by first, cutting the skin and pulling the meat back "like a meat pop." 

The key here is to cut the tendon above the joint. It's the tendon that makes the meat seize up. Once you cut the tendon, it relaxes and adds to the tenderness. Genius! (Ever wonder what the difference between restaurant food and home food is? Tips like this.) 

For more on the technique, I rang up chef-owner Dana Tough. Here's the how to:

Once all the meat is prepped, season it liberally (like a rub) with salt and pepper. Let it rest for an hour. 

Next, completely submerge the seasoned chicken in yogurt and charmoula. Braise it in this flavor-packed liquid at 300 degrees for 2 1/2 - 3 hours. 

Cool the chicken to room temp in the braising liquid. Chef says, "A big mistake people make is taking the meat out of the braising liquid. Flavor penetrates the surface of the meat during cooking, but to get that deep penetration of flavor, leave it in the liquid." 

When the chicken in braising liquid is cool to room temperature, fish out the chicken and set it on a resting rack. Meanwhile, heat a deep fryer to 360 degrees.

Season the braised chicken with ras el hanout ("a Moroccan spice blend with saffron, coriander, rose petals and 20 other spices.") 

Then deep fry the chicken until golden brown. 

Once the chicken is out of the oil, lightly season with salt immediately. Chef Tough adds, "There's a very short window for seasoning fried food. If you miss it, the salt won't stick."  

After the event, chef Matthew sent this shot. See the "meat pop"  element?  And the sauce? That's  the turmeric-infused braising liquid, strained. Beautiful, isn't it? 

And if you're not up for brining, braising, and then frying your own chicken? Head over to The Old Sage. Their food is a cravable adventure in dining, worth singing from the rooftops. 

As  I mentioned, gathering all the pieces for this post was a huge collaborative effort. Thanks to Megan Reardon (Not Martha), Keren Brown (Frantic Foodie), Deanna Rivaldo, Dana Tough, Brian McCracken, Mathew Woolen, and Kirby Snyder. 

Rethinking Vegetarian-based Meat

First off, let's get something straight. I'm a carnivore. And while I toy with the idea of going vegetarian, I never made the leap.

But being a carnivore presents a number of challenges, and the future of meat has me asking some big ethical questions. Beyond issues surrounding humane living and dying conditions, did you know the meat industry produces more greenhouse gasses than transportation or factory production? According to a UN report, "current production levels of meat contribute between 14-22% of the 36 billion tons of 'CO2-equivalent' greenhouse gasses the world produces every year."

Meat. It's far from an efficient system. NPR's Morning Edition, noted that, "meat has more of an impact on the environment than any other food we eat. That's because livestock require so much more food, water, land, and energy than plants to raise and transport."  It's a powerful piece illustrating the resources that go into a mere 1/4 pound of hamburger:

6.7 pounds of feed and forage
52.8 gallons of water
74.5 square feet of land for grazing and raising feed crops

While the environmental debate rages on, I think about my own contribution. I've written a lot about: know your rancher, whole animal butchery, and ethical meat. And I'll be honest, it's something I still struggle with. I eat less meat. I eat better meat. But I bump against my own limited finances. In a perfect world, I'd love to buy a cow share. At this juncture, it's not feasible.

Grappling with these issues, I explored another option.

Have you ever heard of Quorn? UK-based Quorn is a non-GMO meat alternative. Until a dinner invitation landed in my inbox, I'd never heard of Quorn. I quickly learned it's one of the top 40 food products sold the UK. Distributed in 10 countries around the world, Quorn's annual sales top $214 Million. This was worth exploring.

I could extol the benefits of Quorn: lower carbon footprint, protein level on par with meat, cholesterol-free, economical, and freezer-friendly. But the real question does it taste? The texture reminds me of meat, brined and slightly spongy (thanks to the Mycoprotien). It's a significant leap to other "meat alternatives" I've tried, an the most closely resembling "meat."

At our dinner, the "Grounds" - Quorn's answer to ground meat, was presented in a luscious bolognese. Truth be told, I'd never know the difference. I'm anxious to play with it myself, envisioning a Quorn-based version of my mama's meatballs.

By the third course, I was a believer. Chef presented a goat cheese ravioli, featuring a light sauce with cherry tomatoes and diced Chick'n Tenders (non-breaded). According to their website, you can cook "Quorn products in the oven, grill, microwave, or on the stove, as you would meat our poultry." The tenders hold a lot of promise in my kitchen..specifically as an added protein source on top of salads, or in this case, as an addition to pasta dishes.

While the meat industry battles it out, I'm excited to discover another option:

Quorn products, spotted at Target. Photo credit: Nancy Croisier

Cook the Book: Homesick Texan Cookbook

Have you heard about Cook the Book? I've got a book club, based on cookbooks. Each month, we pick a cookbook and have a potluck based on it. It's an ongoing project that has been both challenging and enlightening. We often cover ethnic cookbooks, but recently, we've started exploring regional American cookbooks. As a longtime fan of Lisa Fain's Homesick Texan blog, I was thrilled when her book was selected for January's Cook the Book.

For the uninitiated, Lisa is a seventh-generation Texan who moved to New York City. After a fruitless search for tastes of Texas in NYC, she took matters into her own hands. Collecting recipes from friends and family, Lisa streamlined and revised a treasure trove of recipes. Those craveable Texan flavors came alive in her kitchen. What I love about Lisa? The stories behind her recipes offer a touching and personal anthology, tracking memories through food.

My current roommate is from East Texas and I showed him the book. Opinionated and full of bravado, his response took me by surprise, "That's 'high-falutin' food!' We like simple food in Texas. What is this? Migas?" He reads the headnotes, "Ah, that's from Austin. That's  not Texas." 

"It's not?" 

"No. That's The Republic of Austin. It's different." 

While there are plenty of traditional favorites, you'll find Lisa's imprint throughout the book. Think of it as Tex-Mex, with a twist. Here, down home food is revised. For the better. A favorite potluck dish--green beans with pesto get's a Texas spin with cilantro and toasted pecans. Tex-Mex Meatloaf skips the traditional  slather of ketchup, in lieu of a smoky chipotle and tomato glaze. It's by far the best meatloaf I've ever eaten.

This month's Cook the Book was an epic feast! With a heaving table of options, we ended up dining in stages...drinks and appetizers, the soup course (three soups!), and a frenzy of passed dishes at the table. Lee Hochberg put his camera to good use, firing off a terrific set of images. Our Homesick Texan dinner looked like this:

The full Homesick Texan menu:

- Bacon-jalapeno Cheese Ball*
- Cinnamon-chipotle Pecans
- Cranberry, Orange and Cilantro Salsa*
- Pickled Shrimp*
- Fuego Salsa
- Avocado Soup*
- Corn Chowder with Roasted Jalapenos and Bacon*
- Seven-Chile Texas Chili*
- Pan de Campo
- Chorizo Empanadas*
- Biscuits*
- Sawmill Gravy*
- Red-eye Gravy
- Tomato Cobbler
- Green Beans with Cilantro Pesto*
- Ancho Cream Corn*
- Texas Caviar
- Tamales with Rajas
- Spinach & Mushroom Enchiladas with Tomatillo Salsa
- Coffee-chipotle Oven Brisket
- Lamb Barbacoa
- Lavender Brownies*
- Mexican Chocolate Chewies*

Note: a handful of these recipes are from the Homesick Texan website (linked). My favorite dishes are marked with an asterisk. (*) 

Final thoughts:
While I can't say I loved everything (I like Naomi's tamale recipe better), what I did like, replaced my own tried and true favorites (like the meatloaf). All three soups were a hit, as were both the desserts. For the Cinnamon-chipotle Pecans, I should have pulled them out of the oven a few minutes earlier than the recipe stated. The dough on the empanadas? A new favorite, as is the pickled shrimp. Lisa's cheese ball is the stuff of legend. And both the corn and green beans were welcome additions to my side dish file. 

There are many more recipes in the Homesick Texan cookbook I plan to the Gorditos, Chicken-fried Steak, and Grandma's Chocolate pie. It should keep me busy until Lisa's new book, The Homesick Texan Family Table, comes out in April!

Belly of the Beast: A Tour of Safeco Field with Executive Chef Dave Dekker

Earlier this year, I attended an event with celebrity chefs Tom Douglas and Rick Bayless. Keeping a sharp eye on the audience, I've learned...sometimes who's in the as compelling as the talent on stage. Towards the end of the event, I spot two guys in chef jackets, bearing the Mariner's baseball team logo. "What's up with those jackets?" A broad smile is quick to follow.

As luck would have it, I met Dave Decker, the Executive Chef of Safeco Field, home of the Mariner's baseball team. He jokes, "Most chefs do 100-200 covers a night, I do 45,000!"

Truth be told, when you think of the trajectory of a chef, I never thought about sports. I was quick to learn, stadium food is big business. Beyond hot dogs and garlic fries, the stadium houses multiple restaurants, the "golden ticket" Diamond Club (more on that later), and when the team is away, a slew of private events. Dinner for 1,200 on the field? He makes it happen.

Before being recruited for the Mariners, Dave was an executive chef for 5-Diamond Hotels. Overseeing large-scale operations with multiple moving parts? That's his specialty.

When I asked, why baseball? Why not football or basketball? It's evident he has a love for challenges, and managing moving parts. Major league baseball teams play 162 games a year. From April through the end of September, they host over 80 home games. At that pace, it puts a lot of pressure on the kitchens. He's a high energy guy who thrives on the pressure.

For baseball, the kitchen crew typically has 1-2 days to prep for games. Football...there's only sixteen games/season. With just eight home games, "In football, you have a whole week to prep!"  Baseball's a more challenging season, and for him, that's the appeal.

Overseeing a seasonal staff of 150 is not easy. Open hiring calls, Farestart, and the Millionaire Club provide the bulk of his staff. Every kitchen interview begins with a single test, "Show me how you cut an onion." If they don't use "the claw" to protect their fingertips, he moves on to the next candidate, or finds them a place in concessions.

What's a typical day like? "On game days, I don't really cook. I govern...and do a lot of paperwork." Overseeing all the food in the stadium--from concessions to suites means that for a sell out game? He feeds over 45,000 people. It's a physical job, that requires a ton of walking. On average, he wears through a pair of shoes every four months.  

As luck would have it, the team was in town and Dave offered a behind the scenes look.

Score! Suite seats off 3rd base.

                                                 An excellent vantage point near the press.
Family fun for these Mariner's fans...taking in a game for dad's birthday.
Homemade cupcakes caught my eye....

Look at this garnish! Cupcakes flagged in a series of "This is your life" photos.

They're double sided! This side includes wedding and primary school photos.

Safeco Field is situated near the water. Thanks to the retractable roof, our sunny evening game was accompanied by salt air and seagulls screeching overhead.

My friend, Ed Sargent, and I met up with chef at Hit it Here Cafe. Off right field, there's a full service restaurant and bar, offering pork belly BLTs, pulled pork sandwiches (smoked in-house), and one of the best burgers in the city. During a 3 hour game? They prepare over 800 burgers. Premium local ingredients include beef from Painted Hills raised on a "never ever" program--no steroids or hormones. Chef is quick to point with pride, "Every burger in this building is made with grass-fed beef!"

Grab a seat along the bar at Hit it Here Cafe, and never miss a minute of the game.

Chef Dave Dekker and Hit it Here culinary supervisor, Yuvonka Wilkins

Mike Medrano; Safeco Executive Chef Dave Dekker; and Roots Sports announcer and 13-year Major League Baseball catcher, Dave Valle. During a break from the booth, I got a chance to catch up with Dave Valle and learn about his non-profit, Esperanza International. Giving back is the goal. Operating in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, they provide microfinance, healthcare and education.  

As we walked and talked, I learned about Chef's mission to drive the stadium's food program, using local ingredients wherever possible. Relatively new in town, he credits chef Ethan Stowell for helping build relationships with vendors. Throughout the stadium, you'll find Shepherd's Grain flour, Carlton Farms pork, Draper Valley chicken, and Painted Hills beef. Still, I was surprised to see several vegetarian options at the stadium, including this one, specializing in smoothies, veggie hot dogs and burgers. 

Stadium food and vegan options? You bet! Vegan dining at Safeco Field includes steamed buns stuffed with either black vinegar-glazed portobello mushrooms or gochujang (Korean chili paste) glazed eggplant.

Steamed buns ready for stuffing.

The golden ticket? Close. Tickets in the Diamond Club run around $450/seat. What's that buy you? Seats so close to the mound, players could sweat on you! And steps away...a series of decadent buffets exclusively for Diamond Club ticket holders including carving stations, live action stations, and the occasional celebrity chef. And did I hear that right? Unlimited alcohol. I visited during the tail end of the game and found at least three dessert stations. 

Diamond Club seats. Notice the hitter on the left? That's the pitcher in the middle. 
Welcome to the good life!

Birds-eye view into bullpen. 

Chef Dave has his fans too!

Coming up the stairs, I catch a whiff of smoked meat. Two giant smokers top the landing. On average they smoke 1,400 pounds of brisket per game.

Fresh off the smoker

Llarell Ezell, Diamond Club lead cook, working on prep. Suckling pigs are salted and chilled overnight. The following day, they'll be roasted and featured on the Diamond Club's carving station.

"Chef, what do you serve for those 1,200 person private events?" He whips out his phone, showing me a number of dishes from salmon to rack of lamb (pictured here).

In the belly of the beast. Chef's wraps up his evening, preparing spreadsheets and dealing with paperwork. Above his computer? His version of a story board. 

A closer look at Chef's story board--plating ideas, recipes, and several thank you cards.

Every day is not a home run....

On our way out, I spot this sign. "Can we take a look?"

How many times have a I seen the evening news feature this room? Half an hour after we left, this room was filled with journalists and camera crews. 

        Baseball, and a slice of Americana. Perhaps one day, these guys will take the field. Or rarer yet, maybe one day, they'll be a stadium chef.