Sunday, July 31, 2011

It's Chinese or something...

I was laying in bed earlier today, failing to take a nap, but day dreaming about what makes Chinese food so darn tasty. Those thick voluptuous sauces that are so sweet and salty, and so delicious - I needed to attempt to recreate this. I've long been skeptical of using straight granulated sugar in savory foods, convinced that I could coax the sweetness out of vegetables. But it never quite compares to some of the sauces served at restaurants. After consulting my Chinese cookbook I convinced myself that plain old granulated sugar is the answer.

I put two pans on the stove; one for searing Skagit Valley Ranch pork country-ribs, and the other for sauteing veggies. While the pork got nicely browned, I sauteed onions, garlic, ginger, carrots, and summer squash. When the pork was perfectly browned on all sides I added some Bragg's Liquid Aminos (soy sauce), chicken demi-glace, and a splash of water. Then I put a lid on it and let it all simmer. Just before the veggies were done cooking I added some chicken demi-glace, Liquid Aminos, fish sauce, a pinch of granulated sugar, a small dollop of molasses, paprika, cinnamon, star anise, szechuan pepper, and salt. At the very end I added some chopped boc choy and turned off the heat.

Sugar is the answer. It works with the salt and other spices to create a truly well rounded flavor profile that fills your mouth with a comforting intensity. Oh and I made some wild rice pilaf to go with the pork and veggies also. Here it is basking in the sun and garnished with basil:

Sunday, July 17, 2011


I worked under Chef Jerry Traunfeld when he was at the Herbfarm, so I've been wanting to check out Poppy ever since it opened a couple years ago. When I was at the Herbfarm, it was during Jerry's final years there and I could tell he was suffering burn out. He used to talk about how much he hated the excessive decor of the Herbfarm and he dreamed of the day when he would have is own restaurant with simple minimalist decor. I strolled by Poppy right after it had opened. As soon as I saw the bold 4-color scheme (red, yellow, black, and white), bare walls, and simple tables - I knew this restaurant was everything Jerry had been wanting to do, but wasn't able to as long as he worked for someone else. This revelation is quite exciting, knowing what a phenomenal chef Jerry is. I could only imagine what culinary magic he would create when given complete and total freedom.

The way I understand it, the story goes like this: Jerry Traunfeld worked at the Herbfarm for 17 years and then left to go travel around India for a year or so. When he returned from India, he created Poppy following the inspiration he had gained from India. Naturally, at the Herbfarm, Jerry was all about herbs, herbs, herbs. The food at poppy is a meditation on spices with a foundation of herbs and simple, delicious food.

The method by which food is served is unlike any other fine-dining experience I've had. There are appetizers and then there are thali's. The waiter warned us the thali's take a while, so we ordered some appetizers to start.

Fried Eggplant with Honey (and cardamom?!) and Goat Cheese Stuffed Squash Blossoms with Borage and Nasturtium flowers. The fried eggplant blew Alex and I away. The eggplant flesh melted into silky smooth mush within it's crispy fried outer shell. Despite the fact that everything was fried, that fresh-picked from the garden flavor and texture still came through. Almost as if the frying was merely to add a crunchy outer shell and nothing more.

Next we dove into the thali's. A thali is a selection of several dishes served at once on a large round platter - each dish is only a few bites and contained in it's own little bowl. The long time trend in fine dining has been to serve small plates, one at a time, and in a particular order. Essentially, the fine dining restaurant dictates what you will eat when. However, with a thali, you receive everything all at once and you get to decide how to go about eating it. I feel like the original purpose of Poppy was for Jerry to have a place where he could publicly play with spices. But by serving the main attraction as a thali, he welcomes the public to play and explore spice and flavor as well. Alex and I had a lot of fun eating each dish on the thali in different orders and experiencing the way flavors influence each other. Here are our thali's, apologies for the awful pictures, my camera was not happy about the lighting situation and I'm not one to use flash in public.

Each platter contains 10 small dishes. In the foreground is my platter which had the following:

morel mushroom, english pea, and sage risotto
gothberg goat cheese agnolotti with fresh porcini and favas
carrot and black cardamom soup
cucumber raita with caraway and almond
radish, and grilled spring onion salad
beets with spice bread and mint
zucchini and basil gratin
local roots broccoli with oregano
bing cherry pickle
nigella-poppy naan

Alex's platter is on the opposite side of the table:

quillayute king salmon with pinot noir sauce, sea beans and bacon
tails and trotters pork loin with green sauce and corona beans
chilled fennel yogurt soup
cucumber raita with caraway and almond
radish, and grilled spring onion salad
snap peas with lemon thyme
beets with spice bread and mint
zucchini and basil gratin
mango, strawberry and peppermint pickle
nigella-poppy naan

Each dish was only a few bites, but it was still a LOT of food! Without realizing it, we spent nearly 3 hours trying to finish eating everything and we were on the verge of being painfully full by the end of it. As we were eating, we tried to put the experience into words, and final ended up drawing a graph. Complexity is on the x-axis, and Number of Dimensions is on the y-axis. If you plot each dish on this graph, I believe you would come up with a distribution that has it's mean at a very low level of complexity, but high number of dimensions. Like this:

This is the magic of Jerry Traunfeld. He takes the simplest things, like broccoli, and creates a multi-dimensional masterpiece. Broccoli might be my favorite vegetable, and Jerry coaxed out the very essence of broccoli, while partnering it, and not over powering it, with salty, smokey, spicy flavors that dance around your mouth in concert with freshest most beautiful broccoli flavor and then finishes with a peppery warmth in the back of your mouth. The simplicity of Jerry's food gives it a distinctly not snobby feel. It seems like he just found the best broccoli (or any ingredient), barely cooked it to perfection and sprinkled some spices on it. It's all about the details though, and that is where Jerry's talent is. It's not just Jerry though, it's all the chef's in his kitchen at Poppy that create this incredible food night after night. Mmmmm, Poppy!

P.S. I almost forgot the icing on the cake: at the end of the meal, the check was delivered in a POCKET PROTECTOR!! So hilariously random, I'm speechless.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Edible Flowers

There's something really exciting about eating flowers. Maybe it's because they're so intricately beautiful, or because it's not usually something you find at a restaurant or the grocery store. Even the farmers market rarely sells edible flowers. I have to say I feel rather special when I have space to garden. And with edible flowers I can have my pretty flower and eat it too! So here is what's on the menu today:


Calendula is in the sunflower family and is also called "pot marigold". I love to pick all the petals off and sprinkle them on salad like yellow (or orange) confetti. They have a fresh crunchy taste with slight bitterness, very reminiscent of mild lettuce.

Violets and Pansies

Pansies and Violets are all edible members of the genus Viola. The ones shown above in my garden have a mild flowery sweetness to them, almost like a rose.

English Daisies

Another sunflower family relative, these are in the genus Bellis and have a flavor almost like celery with a mild bitterness.


Dianthus is a genus in the Carnation family and has a surprisingly sweet and bitter flavor that makes your tongue tingle almost as if each taste bud is saying "it's sweet! not it's bitter! sweet! bitter!"


I love nasturtiums (NESS-ter-SHUMS), both the flowers and the leaves have a thrilling sharp bitterness to them and the seeds can be pickled to make capers!

Squash Blossoms

Here's a flower I hope most people have had. Stuffed squash blossoms can be a popular seasonal dish. Squash make two different kinds of flowers; male and female. The female ones make squash when they receive pollen from the male flowers. So be careful to only eat the male flowers if you want to get any squash. (Look for the powdery yellow pollen inside the males)

Brassica oleracea

B. oleracea could be anything from cabbage and brussel sprouts to broccoli, mustard, and bok choi. The flowers can be diverse, though they all have four petals which won them their original name of Cruciforms. They're colorful and have a mild flavor.


Cilantro flowers make coriander when they go to seed, but the flowers are incredibly flavorful also. I swear the flavor is half way between coriander and cilantro - super yummy!


Borage has a mild flower that is a beautiful addition to any salad. UV radiation from the sun causes these flowers to turn from blue to purple to pink.

Some other flowers to note that have already bloomed and died this year: most herbs (i.e. sage, rosemary, thyme...), onions/chives, and peas.

Mmmm pretty!

Monday, July 11, 2011


Spring is official as soon as the morels start popping up. Morels are easy to identify, but that doesn't mean you can just go picking anything that looks like a morel at first glance. If you're foraging early in spring and think you've found the first morel of the year, chances are it's actually a Verpa. Some people eat Verpas and love them, others think they taste gross, and some people get violently ill from eating them. There have even been reports of people eating Verpas for years, and then one day, suddenly developing a violent allergy to them. So, eat them at your own risk (they wont kill you), but here is how to tell them apart:

On the left is a true morel (Morchella esculenta) and on the right is a Verpa (Verpa bohemica). They look pretty similar, especially since they can both vary in color. The difference is how the wrinkly cap attaches to the stem. Morels caps are continuous with the stem making sort of a single hollow tube. Whereas Verpas have the wrinkly cap more or less draped over the stem and not as connected. It can actually be hard to keep the stem and cap connected on a Verpa, they fall appart easily. But morels will stay intact unless you take a knife to them. Here's a picture of a morel and a Verpa cut in half to show the stem attachment:

It's morel on the left and Verpa on the right again. Also, notice how the morel stem is nice an smooth on the inside, whereas Verpas can have cottony-looking tissue filling the stem.

So why go to all the trouble of finding and correctly identifying a mushroom? Because it's DELICIOUS.

Here are some morels sauteeing in butter with some spring onions and fresh garlic.

Morels and butter make excellent pasta sauce.
(In addition to the onions and garlic, I also added Italian sausage and sea beans.)