Aura at Nita Lake Lodge in Whistler

Whistler is like a second home for me, I grew up flying down its slopes and was raised on the what little great food was available there in 1989. Not to sound too much like an old-timer, but when people ask me for a restaurant recommendation in Whistler, both the places I suggest have been open since the mid-80s, Sushi Village and the Rimrock. Now I have a third suggestion. Though I’ve been there a tiny fraction (okay, the once) of the times I’ve been to the others, I’m inspired and hopeful about the ambitious, innovative and yet totally fitting menu that Aura, at the new and already under new management restaurant at the Nita Lake Lodge.

Like so many restaurants, Aura had an off-season prix-fixe menu that was a great value. We ended up there because my father had been previously for cocktails and snacks on the porch and was impressed, meanwhile the Rimrock was closed for a private party and the Bearfoot Bistro (another place I’d heard good things about and is not affordable in-season) couldn’t be bothered to answer their phone. I mentioned on Twitter that we would be checking out Aura, and the restaurant wrote back, excited. I mention this only because some of the treatment we got is (most likely) not normal. After talking with the manager I learned that he and the chef had previously worked together at the famed Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino. It made sense that the adventurous yet locally focused food had a history in Tofino, as between the Wick Inn and Sooke Harbour House, that’s what the town is building a name around.

You can see for yourself that the menu is ambitious and creative. While I was sad that they didn’t have the chicken oysters in savory oatmeal while I was there, I enjoyed my appetizer which was the a duck confit agnolotti afloat in a mushroom broth so rich that  Robin Hood would have been eying it. The pasta on the agnolotti was rolled thicker than ideal, but it held up to the broth because of this, and once opened, the soup was further enhanced by the meat. My dad had a seafood ceviche trio that was fresh and bright, accompanied by angostura bitters foam (mandatory eye roll for foam), compressed watermelon (hitting food trend nail on head) and my favorite part, the granulated local honey. The sweet of the honey and fruit matched up well with the seafood, but it was the texture of the granulated honey that I thought made the dish, that little bit of crunchy sweetness with the soft seafood.

After our appetizers and our ridiculously cheaply priced and good cocktails, the chef came out to say hello. He mentioned that he was doing all his charcuterie in house. I know that my face lit up. I love cured meat like a fat kid loves…well, cured meat. He very kindly brought us a charcuterie sampler which was accompanied by a lovely fruit beer (not my usual style, but it paired perfectly). My favorite from the platter was the veal cheek pastrami, though the pickled tongue was also delicious.

As part of the off-season, prix-fixe, $41, 3 course menu (in season, the chef told us, there would be more options, but it would be more expensive), we got the previously mentioned appetizers, as well as mains and a dessert. The amuse bouche was a nice touch, though not overly memorable. For our mains, my dad’s tongue twister of a dish was charred arctic char with swiss chard (hardy har har). A perfectly cooked piece of fish with lovely accompaniments but my braised veal with buttermilk spaetzle was unbelievably good. My dad refused to believe that such flavor came from simply grilled and braised meat could be so good and was asking for what spices were used. I just continued to fork off pieces of meat. Did I mention the amount of meat on this dish could have fed a family of four? We finished up with dessert–or in my case a cheese plate of local varieties, which was nice, as I had never tried any of them before.

Overall, the meal was an incredible deal and while I will definitely be back for the prix-fixe menu for as long as it remains such a good value (three courses including an entree big enough for leftovers for $41). Most of all, though, the $7-10 cocktails and the charcuterie plate really stood out for me, which means I think I know where I’m going drinking next time I’m up in Whistler. As is often the case with ambitious chefs, I worry that the crowd willing to put down the cash for the food will be too stodgy for the creativity it offers and that by the time I return in the next off-season for a second helping, the chef will have been stifled. All I can do for now is keep my fingers crossed and plan my next meal.

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Alterna-Thanksgiving: Peking Turkey

Somehow, somewhere I got the idea that I needed to make a Peking Turkey for Thanksgiving this year. It was extravagant, cross-cultural, a project. It was perfect. Most people just looked at me sideways as I excitedly described my plan. I even found evidence that someone had done it before and was able to use their recipe to guide me. My parents left town for Thanksgiving, and left to my own devices, I took over their kitchen (nicer than mine–and there’s a dishwasher), and created a feast with my friends.

Peking Turkey

Photo by Valentina Vitols

I was also lucky enough to have the amazing Valentina at Thanksgiving dinner, so she is responsible for the incredible photos of the meal. We set the turkey on a bed of sliced radishes and scallions, and sliced it in traditional Peking duck style, with the skin separated from the meat. Coming from a girl not really enthralled by traditional roast turkey, this was my personal favorite preparation of turkey. It took a little bit of work, but not much more than a brined bird–about 20 minutes the day before and two hours plus prep and resting time on the day of.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Photo by Valentina Vitols

This is my sweet potato gnocchi, from an old recipe, sauteed with sage. I’m a sucker for dough-based items, so this was a great alternative to traditional mashed or baked sweet potatoes.

Roast beef roll ups

Photo by Valentina Vitols

K and T brought these super easy and quick appetizers. So easy that since the kitchen was in such heavy use, K was able to prepare these while sitting on the floor with a cookie sheet! Just unroll a sheet of Pilsbury crescent dough, spread with cream cheese, top with a a layer of roast beef and a little arugula. Roll up, slice and bake. Not my usual route, but they were delicious and I could definitely see doing riffs on this with herbs and horseradish for extra zing. They were a huge hit.

Arepitas with avocado sauce

Photo (& food!) by Valentina Vitols

“These would be even better, if only we had a little bacon” Someone said. Perhaps it was R, Valentina’s husband, as she crafted these little arepitas, mini Venezuelan corn pockets. Bacon was procured (We had to add it to butter for the oyster stuffing, if I’m honest). Arepitas were stuffed–Beecher’s cheese curds and bacon–and then consumed. I’m impressed that Valentina managed to snap a photo, but she’s good like that.

It wasn’t a traditional Thanksgiving by any means, but it was a delicious one, with good friends, good wine and great food.

 

Chanterelles with Rosemary: A Foraged Feast

Chanterelle PastaSeattle has a reputation for constant rain. Natives such as myself know that isn’t true–it only rains in fall, winter and spring, and even then, just a light drizzle. Regardless, we natives also know that the rain brings us treasures in the form of chanterelle mushrooms.

As our short summer wound down last week, I watched the rains begin–along with the complaints from those who have moved here from cities with summers that go past labor day. As others complained of the wetness, my head danced with visions of the reward we Seattleites get for enduring the rain.

Freshly foraged chanterelle mushrooms.

There is something that I love about going out and finding the most delicious foods, whether it’s locating an underground izakaya in New York or digging my own razor clams from the ground. I can’t put my finger on just why food is so much more delicious when I’ve spent time, effort, possibly far too much of both, seeking it out. So there I was, bright and early on a fall-like Sunday morning, walking about in the rain, with a silly, oversized basket, brushing my hands about on the forest floor.

For all the dreary rain, though, these dots of golden color coming up from the ground provide the perfect antidote. A chilly apartment can be easily warmed with the smells of chanterelles sauteing on the stove. There are any number of things you can do with chanterelles, but for my first foray of the season, there was only one dish I could do.

Simple Chanterelles with Rosemary and Fresh Pasta

Rosemary grows everywhere around Seattle, my backyard included, so I start by warming up butter, heavy handedly adding the herb. Meanwhile, I start the water boiling for the fresh pasta. We (B does much of the work for pasta making) used the recipe in this post, though used some whole wheat flour for extra flavor to stand up to the strong texture and flavor of the mushrooms. The mushrooms go into the butter, along with a pile of salt and pepper–again, with a heavy hand, these will bring out the natural flavors of chanterelles. When the mushrooms soften, I throw the pasta into the water, and everything comes together. I take the pasta out, move it into the pan with the mushrooms and add a little pasta water. The heat does its trick and the whole dish comes together, textures, and flavors, perfectly, delightfully.

The thick chew of the mushrooms, the light give of the pasta, the strong herb from the garden. This dish warms the room–and the season.

L’Shana Tovah and Happy Shakshouka Season

A glass of wine, thick, crunchy bread and a pot full of shakshouka is all a girl needs to get through fall. I hadn’t timed my serving of this Israeli (breakfast) stew to match with the Jewish new year, the holiday of Rosh Hashannah, but perhaps it was all on my mind, so I’ll embrace the timing as I tell you the story of this delectable stew.

Shakshouka is a soul warming dish, a centerpiece to a table around which strangers or family can gather and dip their bread together. One of those dishes that can call people to dine with aroma alone, as it wafts from the kitchen. The weather was decidedly fall like and B’s mom was in town, our vegetables from the garden were going gangbusters. It is shakshouka season.

I make no claim on the authenticity of my shakshouka, I simply know how I make it and my own love for this recipe. I learned it from a pair of Israeli girls in a beach town in southern Ecuador during the national holiday there. I had taken a mini-break from my job and traveled to the beach, planning to spend a few nights in Puerto Lopez, then move south to Montanitas. In Puerto Lopez I was told I’d be crazy to think I could get a hotel room in Montanitas, so I traveled south a day early to make arrangements for the next night. Truly, there was not a room in the town, but this pair of Israeli ladies heard me bargaining with the hotel owner (he was trying to charge me an obscene price to sleep on the couch in the lobby, with nowhere to lock my stuff). They had an extra bed in their room, I could stay there. Arrangements were made with the hotel owner and I left, to return the next day to my room.

It was a different town the following night. For months in Ecuador I had seen no sign of wealth, Americanization or western fashion, suddenly the town was filled with Ecuadorians in Prada, Gucci, driving BMWs, it was a surreal world. Restaurants were packed, offering dinners at five times the normal cost. The Israeli girls and I were joined by a Canadian gal and we wandered the street in search of a reasonably priced dinner. None was to be had. Passing a random, somewhat sorry, vegetable stand, the girls declared that they would cook for us. We picked up a few ingredients and within 15 minutes, these ladies had turned about a dollar’s worth of ingredients into one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had.

At its absolute simplest, Shakshouka involves this:

5 medium sized tomatoes, in chunks
1 Onion, sliced
Olive oil
Garlic
Salt and Pepper
2 Eggs
Bread

(Serves 2)
You simply saute the onions and garlic in the olive oil, season with salt and pepper (lots of pepper–its the main flavoring here), add the tomatoes, stirring until soft, simmering for a few minutes, then break the eggs over the top, allowing them to poach in the liquid. When the whites are no longer translucent, pull the dish off the stove and serve with crusty bread, breaking the bread off and picking up stew and eggs with it.

That was the version (I think we may have added a few bell peppers) that I ate that night in Ecuador. I have made a grand variety of versions since then, for large groups of hungry college students, for picky eating children, for anyone, and it is always a hit. Last night was the most extravagant version I’ve ever made.

(Serves 4)

4 medium sized tomatoes, in chunks
1 zucchini or summer squash
2 carrots
6 cloves of garlic
1 pound ground lamb
a handful of various types of hot and sweet peppers
1 teaspoon of cumin seed
1 small can of tomato paste
1 Onion, sliced
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper
4 Eggs
Bread

This version is made in much the same way as the basic version. Saute the peppers, onions, garlic, tomato paste and cumin seed in olive oil, add the tomatoes, lamb, carrots and squash, season with salt and a lot of pepper, let the whole thing simmer for about ten minutes, then add the eggs to poach, serving with crusty bread.

Locanda Verde and Staple and Fancy: On Restaurant Design

The other day, as I sat in Staple and Fancy Mercantile and tried to pin point exactly what was so pleasant about where I was, it suddenly hit me: Like Locanda Verde in Manhattan, it seemed to be perfectly designed as a restaurant. Staple and Fancy is the latest addition to Ethan Stowell’s restaurant empire in Seattle, while Locanda Verde is my favorite stop from an epic eating adventure I recently had in New York

Locanda Verde Interior

Locanda Verde, New York City

From the moment I stepped into Locanda Verde, I felt like it was the best designed restaurant into which I had ever stepped. Each design element (like, say, the random silver champagne bucket in the picture above) seemed to be so beautiful in its own right, yet so purposeful. B thought there was too much stuff on the walls, but to me, keeping the wine bottles, cookbooks, glasses and spices displayed showed off what they have to offer while impressing with the perfection and organization. Then there was the perfect lighting. Bright, as it was day, yet warm and soft, giving an intimate feel. The division of the large room into various sections by way of tall leather seating helped that feeling. Yet the smooth floor and open kitchen indicated the casual feel expected from diners.

Locanda Verde Ricotta

Sheep's Milk Ricotta at Locanda Verde

At Locanda Verde we enjoyed their signature dish, the ricotta shown above, and one of the most perfect renditions of steak tartare I’ve ever seen, alongside a few beverages. This was one of the few moments on an eating tour I’ve desired nothing more than to sink into a chair and order everything else on the menu. To spend my day awash in the perfect lighting, exploring the restaurant and its menu. But alas, we moved on to other places–more to come on those in a future post.

When I first arrived at Staple and Fancy it immediately struck me as being, like Locanda, perfectly lit. Also a large space, the booths that divided the room from the kitchen were designed well to both be a part of the room and break it into smaller spaces. The exposed brick along the opposing wall could be a cold element, but when paired with glass walls on both ends–one facing Ballard Avenue, one towards Renee Erickson’s Walrus and Carpenter Bar, it was quite fitting with the rest of the room. The orientation of the chairs, the booths and the open kitchen allow each table to view either the kitchen or one of the two windows, so despite the odd room shape and solid walls, it felt both spacious and comfortable to have a long, leisurely meal. Which is just what we did on a recent Friday night.

I don’t remember what each part of the four course ‘Fancy Menu’ included–other than the fact that it was more than four courses. There were tiny plates of tartines, treats of all types and nibbles coming from every direction. We had the sommelier pair up half glasses of wine for us, which were all incredibly good, including one which I had to write down so I could find it again. From the small plates we moved on to a pasta course (an example of Stowell’s incredible gnocchi), a meat course (an enormous chunk of wonderfully grilled pork) and a dessert course, all of which were excellent. Let me pause on the dessert, as B and I are not normally sweets people (I’d trade most desserts for a second pasta course in a heartbeat). There were choices for dessert (the rest of the Fancy menu is Chef’s choice), though for both of us the Ricotta Cheesecake was the easy option. It was so light, so savory, and yet so perfectly drizzled with berry sauce, that in an instant we both became dessert people–the kind who fight for the last crumb of crust, licking the final bits of whipped, light, cheesecake from our spoons. I’d like to get back there again, as I am not comfortable passing a strong judgment (like that this may be my new favorite restaurant) on some place I’ve only been once. Given that it would only be stealing the title from one of Stowell’s other restaurants (Anchovies and Olives), I’m only hesitating a little. Unfortunately, it seems word has escaped about Staple and Fancy, as reservations were not as easy to come by as I’d hoped when I tried to return.

Both Locanda Verde and Staple and Fancy dazzled me with their beautiful, comfortable interiors and made me want more of their delicious food. To have had such a wonderful experience in the capitol of dining out (Manhattan) and to come home, and a short while later have just such a meal here in Seattle means that I’ve now got evidence to support my claim of what a great food city we’ve got here in Seattle.

Staple & Fancy Mercantile on Urbanspoon

Locanda Verde on Urbanspoon

Simple Summer Salad: Radish

One of the great things I’ve learned by eating as an adult is that salad is a vague term, and it can be a great one. Growing up, salad meant one thing: Mixed greens and a bottle of Newman’s Own Caesar Dressing. I know, compared to the evil salads that exist out there, it is not so bad. But for every dinner of my childhood, this sat out on the table and I came to hate it. I went through phases. Sometimes I thought I hated dressing (perhaps I only hated ones that came in bottles). Other times I thought I hated lettuce (though I think it was more the bitter radicchio). It only got worse when the most dreaded answer to “what’s for dinner” came: “A big salad.”

I’d panic: “and then?”

“No and then!” Wait, I seem to have gotten my childhood mixed up with “Dude, Where’s My Car.” But the point is: Adding tomatoes and croutons to the salad did not make it a meal (sorry, Mom), and it just furthered my hatred of salads as I knew them. B’s family has an entire other meaning for the word salad (one that I’m not all that big a fan of either): thick, mayonnaise based dishes, sometimes with jello, canned fruit or pasta. That’s the thing about salad, it’s a flexible term.

Since I’ve had the garden this summer, I’ve learned that making a salad can change things up. We ate our way through literally hundreds of radishes, plain as snacks, or on fresh from the oven baguettes, with sea salt and butter, roasted and served with proscuitto, yet still, radishes were coming. So I broke down and did it. I made them into a salad. That word that I so dreaded.

This salad was nothing like the ones of mine or B’s childhoods, though. I once read somewhere that children liked any vegetable they grew themselves, so you should plant a garden if you can’t get your kid to eat veggies. Maybe that’s why I like my own salad. Or maybe its because I got to put it all together myself and there was no radicchio, no bottled dressing and no mayonnaise. Whatever it was, this salad shined up from its plate, called to me, to let me know how delicious it would be.

Radish Salad

Slice a few bunches of radishes on a mandoline, top with any fresh cheese, top with chopped chives and mint. Dress with olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt and pepper.

An Event, A Thought on Cheese, A Product and A Recipe

There is a back log of things I want to post on and I’m just going to let them all go right here, for your enjoyment: a fun event this weekend, murmurs of what is being called a ‘burrata crawl’, a new product I love and the recipe for a dish that I’ve eaten for 4 straight meals.

Farm to Table Food for Thought

The Kitsap public library was kind enough to invite me out for this ‘gourmet picnic’ and I’m actually really excited about it. In addition to talks by a number of local food writers (Molly of Orangette, Shauna aka Gluten-Free Girl and Lorna Yee of Cookbook Chronicles), there will be food provided by Monica Downen of Monica’s Waterfront Bakery and Cafe, local wineries and breweries and Kitsap food chain information. Tickets are $50 from here. We are going to walk onto the Southworth ferry with our little puppy because this is a dog friendly event! Oh, hey, did I mention I got a puppy?

A Thought-a on Burrata

I love burrata and have loved this creamy, delicious cheese since I first tried it at Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco. I used to bring it back with me, unable to find it here. It has since become available all over the place, though only Delancy serves the brand that I like from California. Metropolitan Market carries some expensive Italian stuff, and it just is not fresh enough. Calf and Kid (which I love!) carries a kind that I find doesn’t mix the outer mozzarella portion with the inner mascarpone part, meaning it seems to have a skin.

In the last few weeks I’ve heard that Lark is making their own burrata and that Marjorie also has burrata on the menu. Where else carries it? I’m hoping to organize a taste test of all of them so I can establish a regular source around here! Leave me any burrata knowledge in the comments.

Korean Pancakes EVERYDAY!

I recently have discovered a product called, fittingly “Korean Pancake mix”. I had to put a picture up so you can see, that is really its only name in English. I got it at Uwajimaya and this stuff is awesome. You just mix with water and it really tastes like the Korean pancakes you get in restaurants. I’ve mixed all kinds of things in: squid, shrimp, chives, chard, kimchi, asparagus, you name it. I love a quick easy meal that can have meat, veg or be adaptable and ready in minutes, I’ve eaten these savory pancakes for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I know this little tidbit is ridiculous, but I’m really excited about the product. I swear they aren’t paying me or giving me product or anything. Seriously, this stuff is good.

Chili Crab Recipe

Speaking of things I’ve eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we caught a full limit each (6 a piece) of red rock crabs on Sunday and I made a crab each into chili crab. We were only able to eat half a crab each because they were so big and rich! I then proceeded to eat leftover chili crab for all three meals yesterday, including as chili crab fried rice (in the wok with rice and egg). I did not get any pictures, but I thought I’d share the recipe in case you have a hankering! Or so I can go back and look after I next go crabbing.

There are no amounts, but it is a very forgiving recipe, so don’t worry about it!

You’ll need:

Garlic
Ginger
Hot peppers of some type (I used dried local cayenne, because it was what I had)
Soy Sauce
Chicken or other stock
Chili black bean paste
Sesame oil
Tapioca flour (or cornstarch if you prefer)

Steam the crabs for about 5 minutes, so they are almost entirely cooked, then break them down: pull off the top, let all the juices and innards run into a bowl. You can save the top for presentation, or throw it away. Pull off the dull grey gills from the body and discard. Cut the body in half and set aside. Do this for however many crabs you have.

Heat a bit of sesame oil in a wok and add the minced garlic and ginger and thinly sliced peppers, letting them get fragrant and release their flavors before adding the chili black bean paste–which you can get at any Asian market. I had a Sichuan kind that had about two tablespoons left in the jar, so I used that much. Another minute or so on the heat and add about half the stock (I used a can, it’s not super important here), bringing it to a slight boil. Add back in both the crabs and the reserved crab liquid and innards. Also add just a dolop of soy sauce–it’s only there for some salt content. Add the rest of the chicken stock, but you only need enough to cover the crabs. Let this simmer for two minutes or so, getting the flavor into the crabs. Sift about a quarter cup of tapioca flour or cornstarch over so the sauce thickens and sticks to the crab, then serve!

A note on tapioca flour: It is very important to sift it in, if you don’t it will congeal and form balls and instead of crab sauce you will have crab bubble tea!