Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The return of local meat to Western Washington

Every once in awhile, I get the opportunity to take chef education road trips. There was the one to Quillisascut which was formative, to say the least. There was the yacht trip that I cheffed on where we followed the Inside Passage to Alaska. There were international trips, to Thailand, Central America, Argentina, France, and Italy.

Then there are the trips where I don't even leave my house; when chef friends come over, we cook together and I suck every last bit of knowledge out of their brains and make it my own.


This week's trip found me with Chico (a private chef), some buddies from TASTE at the Seattle Art Museum, and Seattle Tall Poppy*, among others, down at Heritage Meats, south of Olympia, with the charismatic Tracy Smaciarz (rhymes with, oh hell, I have NO friggin idea). Just call him my new hero. He's the Western Washington butcher equivalent of a rock star and he hangs with the queen of pork, aka Cheryl the pig lady, who's like Norma Rae and Alice Water's love child, if parthenogenesis were possible.

Why have they earned such high praise? Well, kids, pull up a chair, and I'll tell you. I'll bet you're of the Twitter generation (or will soon become a member) so I'll keep this brief - to under 140 characters, specifically. Here I go:
Farmland shrinking. Animals slaughtered inhumanely. Scared. Terrible conditions. No local butchers. Now, Tracy gets USDA cert! Cheryl pig lady rocks, leads push to get mobile slaughter unit! Meat stays local! Restaurants can get local meat, cut the way they want, grown the way they want! (Oh shit, I'm 171 characters over my limit.)
Anyway, the longer story, worth reading, can be found here in this fabulous article that gives most of the back story. Then, when you are done with that, you can read this tribute to Tracy here by the good meat ambassador Carrie Oliver of the Artisan Beef Institute. If you're as interested in the local meat movement (that sounds really gross) as I am, then look for an article I'm writing in Edible Seattle Magazine this fall. In a few weeks, I'm going to be conducting a blind beef tasting with 4 local chefs. I'll be using rib-eyes from 5 Washington ranches, some 100% grass fed, some grain finished. I'm thinking about slipping in a Safeway feedlot steak to see where it gets ranked.

The basic point is that, as far as I see it, most of us who care about the environment can see that eating less meat is probably (no, definitely) better for the earth. If I'm going to limit my steak habit, I better pick wisely and carefully - cause ain't no one gonna take away my steak.

Soap box. Me stepping off it.

And......back to the field trip.

Here's Tracy telling us about one of the many machines that help him and his staff do their job. This one is particularly cranky and if you look at the bottom of the pic you can see how they feel about it.

I got the chance to operate a commercial meat grinder and because
I'm a total food nerd, I was giddy to get the opportunity.

After our tour of Heritage Meats we took
a drive down to Janet and Tom Schultz' farm where they raise lamb and cattle.

Thanks to the hard work of these folks, soon we'll have signs that say
Western Washington Lamb from Western Washington Land.

Still life in Tom's barn.

For the record, Tom's wife Janet was somewhat horrified that
we were all hanging out in Tom's cluttered barn, but I found it rather fascinating.

Edible Seattle has this great feature in their magazine called "Ice Box" where they write up the contents of some local chef's refrigerator. It's sort of titillating in the "will we find processed cheese spread and olive loaf?" vein. Michelle Clair, manager of Taste, quipped that we had stumbled upon the farmer/rancher equivalent when we traipsed through Tom's barn. Here he is, posing handsomely, along with a jar of pickled green beans he removed from his rolling rack of random bits and pieces. Like your kitchen's junk drawer on steroids, Tom's junk rack had the most bizarre assortment of oddities I've seen in awhile. Never did ask him, but you got the sense he knew where everything was, so in a moment he could produce the golf ball, the anti-worming meds, the canned vegetables or the (hysterical to me for some reason) tin of Crown Prince smoked oysters.

Put it this way: If the shit hits the fan and swine flu or global warming or whoknowswhat descends upon us, you'll find me huddled in his barn, sucking on Glenmorangie Whiskey and eating smoked oysters, one by one, and he'll be the one laughing then.

There they are, the smoked oysters right near the microwave popcorn and above the work gloves, of course.

Ok, I admit it, I moved the striping paint just a wee bit closer to the whisky for this shot but trust me, it wasn't very far from it. I suppose if Linnaeus had bothered to categorize this kind of stuff, striping paint and whiskey would probably be in the same family.

Lamb: the other, fluffier white meat. Except it's red. And really cute. Damn.

Many thanks to Tracy, Cheryl, Mike and everyone at Heritage Meats, as well as Janet and Tom for opening up their places and showing us city-folk how it's all done.

*as you have probably gathered by now - most cool experiences begin soon after I pick up the phone and STP is on the other line. There is a reason why I have nicknamed her the grand poo-bah of the food world.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sauteed stomach butterflies, side of intense fear

Words of wisdom: If you volunteer, half-jokingly, to make dinner for a famous chef in your house, make sure the half of you that wasn't joking is prepared to follow through. When I say follow through, I'm not talking just about producing the meal, I'm talking about not bloody freaking the hell out with nerves prior to the meal.

Seattle Tall Poppy, as she is often in the position, was given the supreme task of taking Mr. Famous Chef out to dinner. I, via Twitter (of all things), in less than 140 characters as Dana of Tasting Menu pointed out, planned a 6 course menu with Dana handling the dessert, making this the most succinctly formulated dinner party ever.

As my nerves mounted, my most wonderful friends/support team stepped up to the plate. My assistant Elaine helped prep, Ashlyn from Tilikum Place Cafe, volunteered to cook (on her day off), Jet (of nettle "fame") pitched in both front and back of the house, and April scurried home from, uh, just the little matter of getting a restaurant open, in order to pour wines (graciously donated from A&B Imports. Thanks Vito!).

Ashlyn, me, and Jet (aka the kitchen "bitches")

Dana Cree and April start the evening off with some bubbly

Shucking some gorgeous Kumomotos donated by Taylor Shellfish (thanks Bill!)

Kumomotos with spring onion mignonette,
Virginicas with champagne gelee and sea beans

Port Madison goat cheese tart with port-soaked cherries, leeks,
thyme and pickled red onion

Ladling on the ginger-vermouth fumet for the third course

Dungeness crab and apple sandwich, ginger and vermouth fumet,
Skagit River bacon and shiso salad

Just prior to adding the wok-smoked halibut, pictured here are fiddlehead ferns,
stinging nettle dumplings, porcini, and nettle sauce

Foraged miner's lettuce salad, rhubarb-thyme jam, dandelion crackers, Estrella Creamery cheeses

Dana Cree's wildberry sherbet with DuChilly hazelnuts and cocoa caraway streusel

Jet striking a pose

Chef de cuisine of La Provence Erik Loos, April, William Leaman,
Owner of Bakery Nouveau, me, Ashlyn, Chef John Besh, Andy McShea,
Theo Chocolates COO and Head Scientist,
Jet, Andrew Daday,
Operations Claudio Corallo Chocolates, my dog Bubba

Chef Besh was a gracious guest, an all-around nice guy and a pleasure to cook for. You come back soon now, ya hear?

Many thanks to Ashlyn and Traca for taking the photos.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

PCC Cooks takes IACP honors, acronyms rule day!

First off, let me just say how proud I am of PCC Cooks, the avocational cooking school I've been teaching at for the last 4 years that just took the 2009 Award of Excellence at the International Association of Culinary Professionals Conference (IACP). Huge kudos to Marilyn McCormick, Jackie DeCicco, Rachel Welker and Alicia Guy for making the program the huge success we always knew it was. Now, it appears, everyone else will be in on the secret; PCC Cooks just may be the best avocational cooking school in the country. We've already taken Seattle. We'll soon take over the world. Mwah-ha-ha-ha.

L-R: Jackie DeCicco, PCC Cooks Writer; Marilyn McCormick, PCC Cooks Manager;
Alicia Guy, PCC Cooks Program Assistant; and Rachel Welker, PCC Cooks Program Specialist, all looking rather studly, don't you think?

Now, for those who don't speak acronym, PCC stands for Puget Consumer's Cooperative, a collection of 9 organic markets scattered around the Puget Sound region. PCC Cooks is the 25 year old cooking school that has taught our community how to boil water, make sushi, cook pho, bake gluten-free, celebrate the Pacific Northwest in food and wine, and showed Seattle's kids how to get involved in the kitchen.

I may be biased (shamelessly so, I'm afraid) but I have always said that PCC is one of the best places to teach cooking. The kitchens are beautifully set up, gorgeous product is at your fingertips and generous, hard-working volunteer assistants, two helping you at each class, allow the teachers to work seamlessly and efficiently.

Finally, I just want to point out how much the group photo at the top looks eerily similar to my 3rd grade class photo, albeit made up of a bunch of folks who - apparently - just kept flunking and flunking and flunking elementary school. Marilyn, thanks for holding up Mrs. Talmadge's 3rd Grade Class Sign, er... I mean our IACP Certificate of Excellence.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Stinging Nettle Trips a Huge Success! Tour Leader Only Casualty.


Or, as the Wine Goddess says, “the war between winter and summer”. It’s a time, she offers, filled with "hesitant optimism".

For me, spring means one and only one thing: Stinging nettles.

In this war between winter and summer, I fancy myself a culinary warrior and healthful, delicious nettles are my booty, the spoils worth the stings.

This spring we led two foraging adventures on Vashon Island to harvest stinging nettles and other woodland treats. Join us below, in photos and captions, on our first annual adventure “Culinary Warriors 2009 - Nettle Edition”.

But first, meet the cast of characters:

Jeanette Smith, aka “Jet” : Ecologist, tour guide, pilot, cook, woman of too many talents to name.

April Pogue, aka “Wine Goddess”, giver of all things liquid and grape, GM of the soon-to-be-open GrandCru Wine Bar, hostess with the Most-esse, chanteuse and Karaoke queen.

Me, Becky Selengut, chef, teacher, writer, cheap sonabitch always ready to harvest a free lunch. In this shot, I’m no doubt waxing poetic about some little green edible thing, but more importantly notice my hot pink foraging gloves.

Also starring (dammit, forgot to take group pictures!) our army of foragers, 16 fabulously adventurous individuals -8 on each trip- over 2 consecutive weekends. Also, I must mention our anonymous Vashon hosts: 2 generous families who donated their land for our spring forays.
And... last but not least, without whom this adventure could not have occurred, that's right: The Stinging Nettle, one mean, nasty, nutrient-filled chartreuse profusion of toxicity.

First, in the wild.

Next, on the plate, uncooked, no less painful.

In what should be the beginning to any woodland adventure, a thrill-ride on an awesome tree swing.

Twisted, older than the hills, Doug Fir on our friend’s property that held my body weight and sassy pink gloves. This tree is massive and you have to be underneath it, looking up, to feel the mysterious calm that envelops everyone who visits it.

In case you didn't feel the vibe, Buddha was there for some spiritual inspiration.

There was one and only one "extreme" foraging moment (tongue totally in cheek). A 6-7 foot drop by rope to get to the best area for picking. Shannon, at the top, takes photos.

Sarah modeling perfect salmonberry blossom picking technique.

One of our guests, Brook, smiling to the camera. (Thanks for taking all the great photos Brook and Shannon!)

Bags and bags of nettles, as well as required gloves for protection.

Tea with a view. We steeped up the fresh, green brew overlooking the Southworth ferry.

Close-up of foraged spring beauty. We used this in the salad with champagne vinaigrette that Jet made for us later.

Brian Lowry, manager of Hogsback Farm on Vashon Island, gave us a tour of the farm. Here he is telling us the tall tale of the gi-normous daikon radish that got away. "It was THIS BIG."

Brian showing us the greenhouse. Just off camera, chickens, one rooster and one white goose make quick work of some culled turnips and okay, one Annie's cheddar bunny I threw it.

A quiet moment on the farm, in early spring. Peas just planted are about 2" high.

I take one for the team. Always curious to see if “dock” leaves, crumpled up and rubbed on nettle welts can relieve the pain and itching, I willingly rub my arm on a bunch of nettles. Our guests question my sanity. And frankly, so do I.

The cure, Dock. After 5 minutes, the pain recedes. After twenty minutes, the welts fade. Normally, the irritation from the toxin in nettles stays with me for at least 12 hours. Conclusion: Masochistic science experiment declared a success! Dock cures what nettles irritate!

Before heading back to our house for our foraged cooking class, we lunched one weekend at La Boucherie on Vashon Island and one weekend in West Seattle at Spring Hill.

Below, Jet creates a “memory plate” for our guests to remind them of the things besides nettles we collected during our trip. Going clockwise starting at 1:00, spring beauty, salmonberry blossoms, sheep sorrel, dandelion and peppercress. We also foraged for chickweed (not pictured).

Preparing the wok for smoking some spring halibut. April is just behind me thinking, “did we or did we not get fire insurance?” Jet is in the far background, head down, in anticipation of the smoke about to engulf her.

Wok-smoked first of the season halibut with nettle sauce, morels and fried nettle leaves.

Stinging nettle Hershey kisses. Not your average childhood treat.

Sealing the ravioli helps to remove air bubbles. This limits the embarrassing “ravioli blow-out” syndrome whereby you are left with a pot of floating flat squares that have spewed their fillings.

The finished dish of nettle ravioli with brown butter mint and shallot sauce with salmonberry blossoms.

What it's all about, ultimately, is conviviality shared around the table. Thanks to all who helped make these trips so incredibly enjoyable. For more information, please check out Rebekah Denn's article that appeared just days before the Seattle P.I. bit the dust (r.i.p. p.i.). Sign up here if you'd like to be on our mailing list for future trips. Until next time.


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