Sunday, October 8

Something Old, Something New....

I want to take a second in between my posts of my Europe trip from last October and slip in some news from now. Pastry Chef Dana Cree (Bickford) and I are teaming up to prepare a 12 course menu October 22nd for Gypsy. I am terribly excited not only about the opportunity to create and execute a Gypsy dinner, but about the collaboration with Dana, an extremely talented and innovative artisan. One doesn't need to wait to see her career take off; it does each and every time she places a plate down in front of someone.

Whether we like to admit it or not, chefs, artists, writers... all people who create for a living are in need of bursts of inspiration to avoid getting into a rut. Sitting down with Dana over a delicious bowl of Beef Brisket and Wontons with Noodles at Canton Noodle House provided me with just that bit of inspiration. Below is a tentative menu for our dinner. There are 18 openings, not sure how many are left currently. Contact the Gypsy website if you are interested.

Celery root crostata
Parmesan and buttered leeks

Parsnip Soup
Apple ice cream, parsnip chips

Piquillo pepper, Seafood Mousseline
Pistachio-olive tapenade, preserved lemon

Seared Hamachi
Shiso, Plum salad

Beans and bacon, tomato confit

Grilled Squab
mushrooms, huckleberry sauce

Braised Spiced Short Rib
Farro with kabocha, seared fall greens

Cheese Course
Pastilla of Pecorino and quince

Autumn Fritters
Bay ice cream

Honey'd chocolate cake
Pears, Hazelnut Cocoa Ice cream, Honey Sabayon

Campfire Apples
Smoked seasalt caramel, burnt sugar ice cream, candied oats

Monday, October 2

The Food Tour Begins...

an impromtu lunch in Piemonte

This is the next installment of my Europe travels that I started previously with Arrival in Milano.

Torino, October 2005
I boarded a train this afternoon from Milan to Torino (aka Turin, the capital of Piedmont, or the region of Piemonte) to meet with my friend Kayleen, the illustrious tour director of the ten day food and wine tour that I joined. I neglected to look up the cross streets for where exactly in Torino the hotel was where I was meeting Kayleen (a day before the actual tour begins). This is not-so-subtle dramatic foreshadowing.

I negotiate my way from the central train station to an internet cafe where I can find out where the hotel is, only to find that it closed despite its listed hours in my tour book and on its sign. I walk to a nearby bar and ask the man there if he knows the hotel I’m looking for. He doesn’t. I show him the address but it rings no bells. I start to leave and then (commence story number 1 of 200 of incredibly generous Italian folks) he proceeds to spend the next 30 minutes on the phone for me, running up and down the street asking friends, and eventually procuring a taxi for me as it turns out the hotel is in a suburb of Torino, a 20 minute drive away.

I meet up with Kayleen (who, incidentally, just barely found the place herself) and we have what turns out to be the cheapest, most delicious bar food of my trip so far. We sit down at some regular enough looking place we came upon in this fairly working class town outside Torino. We order two glasses of red wine and they bring us 4 plates of snacks (free with drinks) consisting of various cheeses, fresh pork salami, ham, olives, pickles, delicious little bits of bread with cheese and tapenade, and strangely, potato chips. Kayleen orders an espresso and I have some sparkling water. Our bill? 4 euros. This amounts to about 5 bucks. A comparable meal in Seattle would easily come to 30 dollars, if not more.

The following day...
We meet up with Mario, the very patient, hilariously understated man who will be our driver for the next 10 days. He's 65, from Florence, claims he doesn't smoke or drink much so he can spend more energy on his third vice, women. We head off to meet the others, full of anticipation and excitement and immediately the van grinds to a halt. It sounds like the entire ignition has dropped out. Kayleen and I just stare at each other. It turns out that Mario drove right over an orange construction cone and it has gotten itself wedged underneath the car. It takes the three of us and 20 minutes to free it.

We're off (again!) to the town of Pollenzo- a small, small town outside of Bra (which is a small town). Basically there are 3 things in Pollenzo, the gorgeous hotel we are staying at, the University of Good Taste (the first University of Gastronomy in the world) and a Michelin starred restaurant called (in all seriousness) Guido.

I meet the rest of the group, 6 in all. We eat that night at an excellent osteria in Bra, Osteria Boccondivino- the food is incredible. I have a wild mushroom risotto, plus a capon salad with balsamic.

The next morning we meet with a representative of Slow Food Italy and get a tour of their national office in Bra, also home to Boccondivino. Afterwards we get to take a tour of the university (including the wine library where there are approximately 100,000 bottles of wine from all over Italy). They have preserved an ancient aquifer running through the cellar. We peer down through the grates in the cold floor at the gray stones and breathe in the scents of old, old, water that flowed beneath our feet.

We drink coffee at this great bar in Bra, Cafe Converso, which won an award for being the best coffee bar in Italy last year. We sip our espressos with a small scoop of gelato on top and eat naughty little pastries. We smile, hold our cell phones to our ears and pretend we’re Italian.

a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek, photo of the cheesemaker for a food calendar

Then we are off to meet Lorenzo, a local cheese maker and seller in his little shop in Bra. He gives us samples of his local cow’s milk cheese, plus a few pecorinos (sheep’s milk cheese), and then a drippy, oozing, perfectly ripe gorgonzola. After the tastes, Lorrenzo takes us to the cellar where he has a small museum of cheese and 20 or so Parmigiano Reggianos which are being aged. Samples are given with flutes of Prosecco.

tools of the cheesy trade

I interrupt this report to give you the very important gelato accounting for today:

1 coconut cone
1 cup of hazelnut and chocolate
2 scoops of vanilla

I now see that these journals are going to be all about food but then you probably expect nothing less from me.

The next two nights we eat at restaurant Guido which I mention above. I have a feeling I will compare all meals to Guido for the rest of my trip. Without a doubt, simply the best seafood I have ever had in my life. This restaurant is so special we all agree to come back the next night if we can get a reservation- despite how expensive it is. The dish I nearly cry over is a seafood dish that consists of the following: a single perfect scallop in its shell, a huge, beautiful prawn (with head fried on the side), several langoustine tails, and squid all cooked perfectly in butter flavored with just a bit of garlic and bay leaf. Nothing so fancy, but quite literally the best tasting seafood I’ve ever had. Sweet, briny, smelling like the sea, fresh, buttery, and lovely.

I start the meal with a carpaccio of sea bass with radishes and lemon and since I seem to be mentioning the dishes backwards, the very beginning amuse bouche was a perfect little piece of a local soft goat cheese suspended in a foam of pumpkin mousse. The wines are equally outstanding...a local Barbera d'Asti one night and the next a Dolcetto, plus a few white wines that I can’t remember the names of. Although, it hardly matters; it all is so good. My two new favorite words: bianco and rosso.

The next day we get a tour of the Barolo region in the Langhe, as well as a tour of a local winery, with of course samples and food. I have never had so much wine so early in the day before and with no great surprise find the afternoon siesta unavoidable and much enjoyable.

After the tour we meet Gianni (pictured above), a truffle hunter, who gives us a short lecture on the methods for procuring truffles. We meet his truffle dogs at his “university of the truffle hunting dog” which cracks me up because the university consists of three dogs, with three dog bowls and three dog houses.

one wonders if they have a phd program...

Gianni plants a truffle in the hillside to show us how he trains the dogs and how they dig them up. "Lady", a Jack Russell type and a bit fat, is especially good at her job because she is extremely fond of truffles. Lady digs it up so fast that it is in her mouth before Gianni even realizes it. He is just barely able to get it out of her mouth. We nickname her "truffle breath". I'm left wondering if the je ne sais quoi of the rare underground fungus people all over the world covet is due to the tour the truffle has first taken around the truffle dog’s mouth. Sort of redefines the whole debate about whether or not to wash your mushrooms.

a truffle dog in training

The next day we say goodbye to Pollenzo. Goodbye to the hotel we have fallen in love with; the church bells that wake us in the early morning; the pigeons and their sounds of resting and flight; the cappuccinos, frothy and light; and goodbye to our warm-hearted hosts Federica and Luca. I leave, also, enriched with a new card game: Scopa which I am now completely addicted to playing.

my room with a view

We have just enough time in our itinerary to check out Slow Food’s Cheese Festival in Bra, which brings together cheese makers from all over the world. The atmosphere in the city is festive and circus-like with small white pointed tents as far as the eye can see. The smell is nothing short of pungent and the samples are offered freely. I spend a great deal of time in the Casa dei Capri (the house of goat cheeses).

We sample a cheese later on that was so truly horrible that we would have wiped our mouths out with terry cloth had we had the good fortune to have some at hand. The taste still lingers as we load ourselves into the van for the only hectic day so far on the trip which was a winding, winding, drive to the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. In retrospect, we probably should have omitted this from our trip because we only had a few hours there (it rained the whole time) and then we had to get back in the van for another 3 hour stomach churning drive to the Chianti region. I learn the important phrase "se non rallenta, vomito" which means "if you don't slow down, I'll vomit." We finally arrived in Greve in Chianti, our stomachs in our throats. We eat a late light dinner in the hotel and hit the hay.


Today we go to a famous salumi place in Greve where we have a cured meat tasting and oh, of course, a wine tasting (did I mention it is 11:00 in the morning?) Then, we stop on the way back to -that’s right- a wine festival. We sing oh solo mio with Mario the whole way back to the hotel.

I briefly consider the warning signs of alcoholism. Then I think better of it and go sleep off my hangover.

Tuesday, September 26


I remember hearing my fellow blogistas tell me that they loved the writing but hated the pressure of having to produce all the time. That their readers would start whining if more than a week went by without a post. I, on the other hand, have resisted all pressure from my 4 readers and have produced nary a word in over 2 months.

I apologize. Is it now excuse time? Would a breakup of a 12 year relationship, a home sale and moving be enough of an excuse? I do believe now I'm the whiner. It's been a rough summer and early fall, but I feel the beginning ripples of a resurfacing and with that, the desire to start writing again. I'll try hard to avoid the overwrought analogy model... but things really do go in waves and as I attempt to get myself off the ground, dust myself off and jump back in the saddle I have high hopes for posting some of the career highlights I've been fortunate to experience throughout it all. There's that. And that is a lot to be grateful for.

Friday, July 28

Arrival in Milano

(Below you will find the start of a multi-part European journal-mining retrospective starting in Milan and ending in Paris that took place last fall. I hope you enjoy the stories.)

Milan, Italy (September 2005)
I'm never coming home. I love it here. I'm sure any of you who have been to Italy are not surprised whatsoever.

I arrived in Milan with no problems. The biggest logistical difficulty was in Brooklyn when, for some unexplained reason, my subway just ended prematurely and we were all shuttled out en masse onto some street where we waited and waited for a shuttle bus to take us to a different part of the line. An hour later I was back on track... and just got to the airport on time only to find the plane was delayed anyway.

I had missed the opportunity to study here during college when, instead, I thought blowing out my knee and spending a year on crutches in upstate New York was preferable to studying art in Florence. Fast forward 14 years to this moment.

It was pouring rain and with the help of some nice folks, I found my hotel. My hotel room redefined the word quaint. What I most loved was the French doors that were wide open upon my arrival, the view of the side of some gorgeous building, the rain coming down and within 10 minutes of my arrival the most beautiful woman's voice singing opera. Turns out I didn't realize that my hotel is 2 doors down from La Scala, the famous opera house. I napped to a free 1 1/2 hour concert.

Afterwards I had a shower in what has to be the smallest stall shower in history. I joked to my Dad and step-mom that 75% of Americans would have to be airlifted in and out of that shower. No wonder there's so little obesity in Europe; no one would be able to shower. I had the unfortunate misstep of dropping my soap and then the jet lagged notion that I should bend over to get it and promptly smacked my head into the door. I had to turn off the shower, get out and get the soap and then get back in. And I won't even begin to tell you about how fascinating the toilet arrangement was to me.

Spent a day on my own in Milan where the highlight was touring this amazing arcade with 4 huge arches on all sides, a massive domed ceiling in the middle, a mosaic on the floor on each of the four corners. Most notably, facing the direction of Torino, a tiled bull where I noticed many Italians with one foot pointed on the bull's balls and spinning clockwise 3 times. A nice man explained to me in Italian (and I barely understood) that this practice was for good luck, one spin for health, 2 spins for wealth and 3 spins for sex. The lady at the hotel had a slightly modified explanation saying that the third spin is good luck for love. Ah, different interpretations. Apparently they replace the mosaic every year and a half because it gets so worn down.

(next installment: on to Turin/Torino)

Tuesday, July 25

We interrupt this blog to bring you a real life moment.

I apologize for my absence over the last few weeks. I'll keep this brief and real. I'm going through a break-up of a 12 year relationship, a home sale and moving. Blogging has taken a back seat for a spell. However, tomorrow I start posting my culinary Europe flashbacks that should tide you over while I'm short on current creative energies.

In the meantime, as well, I point you to my friend Traca's new blog. In her very few initial posts, I became instantly hooked into her writing style and insider knowledge of all things relevant to the Seattle food scene. A vivacious, joy of a woman, Seattle Tall Poppy is worth following.

Saturday, July 8

France vs. Italy

Today in World Cup finals action, France takes on Italy. I have no idea who to root for. Why? Because in September and October of last year I took a 2 month trip to just these two countries and journaled at the time I entered France (specifically Paris) that I felt like I was cheating on Italy. Ultimately, though, I never arrived at a firm stance on which country I preferred. And let's get to the point: what I'm really talking about is which country's food did I really go more crazy about.

I've just taken you back 2 years ago to my Quillisascut farm school experience. Question to readers: would you like to see, over the next month, France v. Italy in these pages? I'm happy to continue Hardtack Goes Retro and post bits of my Europe journal. Or, would you rather I keep you in the present moment and not live in the past with my sordid tales of fine cheeses, wines, handmade pastas and cured meats. Prefer to hear stories of current dalliances with jam-making (as I'm doing today with a friend) or do you lean towards a nostalgic meandering through fall 2005? Let your voice be heard.

Until then. Go Italy! Go France!

Friday, July 7

Retro Musings from a Goat Cheese Farm, Part III

(This is the last part of a 3-part journal about my experiences studying at the Quillisascut Farm School in Eastern Washington in 2004. As another warning to squeamish folks I continue to discuss butchering in detail in this final part.)

6:30 am, Day 3: Morning milking
Well, technically morning milking was at 6 am, but little miss sleep deprived slept right on through the farm’s alarm clocks. Wool sweater on, fleece cap pulled low over my ears I jog up to the milking room just off the back of the goats fenced in area. “Just in time Becky,” says Rick, as he pulls another goat up the ramp and secures it to its holding bar.

It’s simply amazing to me that there I am milking a goat and just 5 minutes earlier I was sound asleep. This one is named “Pamelot” and she hardly has any milk at all. She’s so sweet Rick and Lora Lea can’t possibly get rid of her; this confirms that Pamelot is an honorary member of the "special farm". She finishes her alfalfa while I’m still struggling to figure out this whole teat-milk-pail relationship. Milk is running down my arm and soaking into my sweater. I can barely hear myself think over the explosive sounds of milk hitting the side of a pail that Lora Lea is making.


I’m breathing hard and a distinct cramp is forming in my hand. Meanwhile Pamelot is nuzzling my ear for more alfalfa. I think I’m in love.

We finish the milking and all these black cats show up from every corner of the farm (until this moment not one of us has seen any of these cats) to drink the foam left in the bottom of the pails. One runs off with a paper filter they use to trap any sediment. Rick says this same cat consumes the entire filter every morning. Their furious licking scoops froth all over each other’s backs.

Meanwhile, Jet, the puppy, runs back and forth with a lamb hoof in her mouth.

8:45 am: This ain’t no Chick-Fil-A

So it’s chicken butchering time here on the farm and back home at this time I’d be hours from waking up. Regardless, here I am handing over 10 pound plus chickens to Rick as he lays them down over a 2x4 and while his left hand holds them by the legs, his right swings the hatchet. It’s a difficult maneuver that requires a lot of dexterity and a very sharp hatchet. He wishes the hatchet were just a bit sharper. I mean, the head almost came off in one chop. Some of my queasier comrades walk down the hill. The rest of us stand there sort of amazed, disgusted, in awe. I thought I wanted to kill a chicken myself. I thought it would be the right thing for me to do. You know, complete the circle of life. I wimp out. I just had these bad scenarios playing over in my head and none of them were pretty.

So I learned two things about chickens this morning. I always heard that chickens still move around when they lose their head. But I imagined that to mean some reflexive movements, sort of subtle-like.

Lesson one: chickens go freakin’ crazy. Head off, Rick holding their feet, the chicken is flapping it’s wings FULL FORCE, for a disturbing minute, at least.

Lesson two: if you unintentionally (or later, intentionally) press down on a chicken’s cavity when plucking it, it can cackle aloud just like a live chicken. Apparently, their voice box or voice box-equivalent does not need a head to function. This happened inadvertently to someone’s chicken on the table where we were working and we all jumped back in horror!

We dip the chickens in scalding hot water to loosen the feathers and fix to pluckin’ them (which takes a really long time). Where the lamb was very clean to butcher, the chicken is dirty, dirty, dirty. The only real way to remove all the internal organs is just to dig them out carefully with your hands, trying really hard not to puncture the intestines. I am treated to an unexpected surprise when I pull my hand out and see two small oval sacs. “What are these?” “Oh, great! Those are chicken balls. They’re a tasty delicacy.” says Rick. Later, I fry them up in butter and learn another important lesson…always poke a small hole in chicken testicles before you fry them. Basically they just got bigger and tighter in the pan until I exploded them, spreading hot butter all over myself and anyone in a 10 foot radius. What was left was certainly tasty though.

Meanwhile, Jet, the puppy, runs back and forth with a chicken head in her mouth.

Picnic Lunch at Roosevelt Lake
We carry a couple of large picnic baskets down to the beach and lay out blankets. It’s sunny and warm and the food is wonderful: mugs of borscht and gazpacho, sandwiches of all types, rose hip iced tea, and Italian plum salad with grapes and elderberry syrup.

Reluctantly we pack up and go on a farm visit to Cliffside Organic Orchard. We tour through the peach, nectarine, apple, and pear trees and watch the family and crew sort and box up the apples for a wholesaler who will take the fruit to Whole Foods, PCCs, etc. in Seattle. We eat the best Jonathan apples.

Some time later ...
Back at the farm, we salt the hard grating cheese and set it out for drying. I’m on evening chores so I help feed the turkeys, chickens, and quail. I run out to the garden by myself for some chard for the evening meal. In order to get to the garden you have to go through the goat pen. First, you disengage the electric fence, climb over, reengage it and then walk the 20 feet over to the garden gate where there is a combination lock and two latches, one a metal slide and the other, a metal clip.

I mention all these details so that you will understand the predicament I find myself in. There I am standing at the garden gate, in the goat pen, my right arm held high in the air, my fist wrapped tight around the chard stems. With my left hand, I’m trying to shoo the goats back and slide the slide, clasp the clasp, and reconnect the combination lock. One look from the border collie puppy and the goats retreat 50 feet. I try to look menacing. I lower my voice. Now one has jumped up on my back and has grabbed a few leaves of chard. This emboldens the others. Within 30 seconds, there are 15 goats around me and I’m sunk for sure. I am just about ready to give up when I see Rick down the road. In as dignified a manner as possible I squeak out a plaintive “help?” Laughing the whole way, he comes and rescues me and mentions that it’s always best to take a friend on garden trips. Got it.

Dinner that night:
End of summer rosemary zucchini soup with borage flowers
Smoked Cornish Cross chickens, foraged mushroom jus, farro squash risotto, savory scones, creamed spinach
Italian plum crisp

Day 4: Quillisascut Meat Festival
Today is a kitchen day, all day, all night we process all the foods we’ve harvested, including putting up apple butter and green tomato ketchup. We butcher and freeze most of the chickens and break down the lamb. In one day, I eat 10 plus different cuts/parts of meat.

Here is my list: simmered beef tongue with mustard, sauteed beef heart with greens and dragon tongue beans, country pate (with lard, lamb heart and meat, chicken hearts), duck and chicken gizzard prosciutto (from a previous group), stuffed lamb loin like we do at the Herbfarm filled with chard and mushrooms stuffed in lamb caul fat, an amazing handmade tagliatelle (made partially with spelt flour) with oxtail ragout, watercress and shaved curado, lamb moussaka, chicken liver mousse, lamb sausage and way too much wine that night. Oy.

Last day on the farm
We take a tour of Riverview organic orchard that also has a small business as a coffee roaster. I try my new favorite type of plum called a French petite. We gather together back at the farm for our last meeting and talk about being grateful for the week. We wrap up our many conversations about what is means to be “sustainable” and what we’ll take with us from this experience.

I mention how amazed I am at how little garbage I personally produced in 5 days. It could fit in the palm of my hand. That’s truly incredible. In a typical day in Seattle I probably produce 10x that amount, if not more. In the Quillisascut kitchen they have 7 bins, the first is for pig scraps, then down the line, cat and dog scraps (all protein), goat scraps, compost, glass and aluminum, paper and finally, the smallest bin, trash.

We load up our cars, say our goodbyes to head back to the city, each and every one of us reluctant to start our cars.