Backyard to Table: A Cooking Reminder

Finding good food in Portland does not seem like a difficult task. Everywhere you turn offers a craft cocktail, a beer brewed up the street, fish fresh from the coast and mushrooms handpicked in the misty wildwood of the Oregon back country.

But after a while, the delicious food scene either numbs your palate to deliciously prepared, well-sourced delicacies or you start to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of restaurants to try.

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Don’t get me wrong– I adore the food scene in PDX. I’ll even give you a list of my handpicked favorites to try should you ever visit.



And believe me when I say the food scene out here is the best in the US. If you think you’ve had good wings, you absolutely haven’t until you’ve tried Whiskey Soda Lounge‘s fish sauce wings. Those would probably be my last meal should I ever leave this place.

Despite all of this goodness, you know what resonates the most with me these days?

The tiny garden in the backyard.

Portland can tell me all day long (and it does) that they ‘source locally’ and ‘pick from the garden’ and establish ‘farm to table’ connections. But despite their best efforts and their tremendous successes, there is nothing that can compare from a fresh red tomato plucked off the vine, still warm from the sun.

Their farm to table and my farm to table are tremendously different. Those were seeds we dug into the wet ground a few months back. (By ‘we,’ I will admit, my green-thumbed roommates did the heavy lifting since they don’t kill plants like I do.) Now they’re vegetables, big and ripe and bursting with wonder.

So, for the past week, I have made all meals at home. Despite one late-night run to the greasy spoon diner in Southeast after a ceiling-splitting worship jam from the talented Matthew Zigenis at Bridgetown Church, there has been no money spent at all on food this week.

I am lucky enough to know — and take advantage of– the wonderful folks at a local bakery who give me their day-old breads in exchange for coffee. I never have a shortage of thick, fresh, crusty loaves within reach. This is the springboard for every wonderful sandwich and toast imaginable.

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Pie, made with the fresh apples from the tree in the backyard. Also, arts and crafts day with the roommate. We are working on floral wreaths.

I am remembering with startling familiarity how wonderful it is to cook, elbow-deep in something crafty, tasty and new.

Plus, it’s cheaper. My wonderful fella and I are trying to hit up some overseas countries for some crazy Jesus-loving missions work in the next few months and are saving every penny possible to get there. Eating deliciously seems an easy way to do so– its hardly a sacrifice at all.

We’ve even gone so far as to build campfires and construct gourmet ramen noodles with one kettle and some random ingredients.

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Gourmet fire ramen. 

Here’s to the friendly reminder that food doesn’t come from grocery stores. Food doesn’t come from restaurants. Food doesn’t come from well-meaning companies that send gift boxes.

Food comes from the earth, and it’s delicious that way.

 

To A Tea

A cup the size of a thimble was nudged in front of me. Its contents yielded, much to my surprise, a pale yellow liquid that tasted uncannily like heavily steeped dried seaweed.

It was a Japanese green tea from Jasmine Pearl, a Portland-based tea company priding themselves on a plethora of incredible, intricate teas.

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“How did you learn about all of this?” I asked our showman/tea bartender. He was busy serving us whatever tea our hearts desired, steeping them in a tiny quartet of pots, pouring them into small ceramic tasting cups. His explanations were loaded with more facts than my brain could process all at once, sounding more like an intriguing lecturer than anything else.

“For the first two or three months, we get extensively trained,” he explained. “I used to be in coffee here in Portland, but… I don’t know, tea is pretty exciting.”

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I surveyed the quiet room, described by several polite little signs as a tea sanctuary, where use of electronic devices was heavily discouraged. Tea lined the walls, gadgets filled the shelves. Small tins, held magnetically to an angled frame, held sniffable samples of various teas.

One side held herbal teas, floral and pretty. The tins revealed tiny flowers among a dried forest of green leaves and stems. It looked like potpourri and smelled like perfume.

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The other side held black and green teas, their leaves curling in dark, exotic spirals.

Jasmine Pearl offers the unique experience of tea tasting, and you are free to sample to your heart’s content, guided through the experience by a bartender of sorts. Ours was a welcoming, plaid-clad gentleman named Bruce, who was more than enthusiastic when offering us various teas and facts.

“Here, smell this one.” He opened a black tin and held it under our noses. “Straight campfire. Right?”

He was right. It smelled like tobacco and hickory smoke.

“Can I sample the sticky rice one?” I asked. The culinarian in me was intrigued by the idea of a food-nuanced tea.

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He grinned and pulled out a little box of tiny pucks.

“There’s an aroma of sticky rice to this,” he said. “Totally different plant than actual rice, though. It smells and tastes like sushi rice, but is completely unrelated. We have a tea made with brown rice, and you’ll get the same flavor note from both teas– this one, though, is it’s own plant.”

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He was right. It smelled like sticky sushi rice. It was faintly sweet and starchy. The taste was nearly identical to the smell, and for the first time in my life I fell in love with a tea. It wasn’t overly floral or sweet, it was savory and deep and undeniably starchy. It would warm the soul and fill the belly.

I couldn’t bring myself to leave without a bag full. It was sold in pucks rather than loose leaves. Apparently these leaves can be re-steeped several times, meaning they’re practical and wonderful, lasting a long time provided you don’t let them mold. Plus they’re wrapped in exotic, oriental squares of parchment sealed with a square sticker.

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I left, nearly an hour later, full of various teas and newfound knowledge. To visit Jasmine Pearl is truly to experience Portland at its craft-culture best.

Restaurant Review: Luc Lac

I cannot tell you how glorious it is to type, “Late Night Eats” into my Google search bar and achieve a list of results.

Not one or two dingy places serving greasy-spoon breakfast fare or soggy burgers. Oh, no. This is Portland.

When I first caught wind of a late-night Vietnamese joint, I knew there would be a visit in my near future. I can’t get enough of the strange plethora of Asian cuisine here in the Pacific Northwest.

Enter Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen.

Their website self-describes them as, ‘one big, pho sling’n, fish sauce cookin’, cocktail pourin’, Portland lovin’ family.’

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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.With a sleek interior décor that is both modern and tiny bit pretentious, they obviously do a lot of business, cramming plenty of hungry diners into their limited space.

They’re particular about seating. The evidence is, literally, written on the wall: no seating of incomplete parties, please order at the counter and, above all else, wait to be seated.

Luc Lac is open late, which is great once the dinner rush ebbs around nine. Deluging hungry audiences with bahn mi, vermicelli and more pho than you can imagine, Luc Lac takes evident pride in their fast-paced, high-quality food. Most days they remain open until midnight, on Fridays and Saturdays they are open until 4 AM.

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To dine here late is a relief. You won’t get any greasy spoons, heavy midnight indulgences or snacks dripping in fryer oil. The atmosphere is sleek, a little indulgent and a warm, dimly-lit jewel among the grey rainy buildings.

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.Personally, I enjoyed the heck out of a vermicelli bowl. Laden with various samples of chicken, shrimp and pork, I somehow managed to consume the entire bowl.

They pride themselves on unique drinks, both virgin and alcoholic, of which I selected a coconut ginger ale concoction that was both pleasant and confusing to the palate.

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I can guarantee without a doubt this will become a regular late-night occurrence. Luc Lac has been praised by the likes of Bon Appetit and is obviously no stranger to floods of crowds.

If you’re in the mood for late-night eats (or any time, really!) this kitchen stands out among Portland’s sea of Vietnamese restaurants. Check them out here!

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Coffee Tours: Ristretto Roasters, Portland, OR

Stepping through the doors of Ristretto Roasters on Nicolai Street is like watching my inner hopes and dreams materialize. In an old, historic building of brick, factory windows and warm gloom, it is as though every old novel I read in elementary school came to life.

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Portland, well known for that sticky, cement-grey, foggy gloom, hides this bright little gem in the industrial district. Edison bulbs of bare perfection illuminate all the windows, luring in those who are ready to get out of the damp drizzle and enjoy a great cup of coffee.

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Nestled in the front of the Schoolhouse Electric building, the vast stretch of blond wood flooring is taken up mainly by vintage-style, 40’s-inspired industrial home décor for sale. Wall hangings, classic couches and pretty knickknacks harken back to an era that only exists in the imagination. Cafe seats are built upon colorful library drawers — remember the Dewey Decimal System? Everything is bright and cozy and illuminated by more old-school lightbulbs than can possibly be counted.

For those poking around the building (raise your hand if you’re a snoop like me!) train tracks run directly behind the building, the heavy rumble adding to the surreal industrial atmosphere.

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Part library, part home, part factory, part schoolhouse, this lovely space couldn’t be more conducive to productivity. It’s like settling into the living room of a nice librarian.

The music is upbeat and eclectic, playing plenty of Johnny Cash and Ella Fitzgerald. And the coffee is ridiculously good. Ristretto Roasters is known for having several shops, but this particular atmosphere can’t be beat.

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All in all? This is proving to quickly be one of my favorite hangouts. It was the second coffee shop I visited in Portland when I visited back in September, and I can recall settling into the warm space, watching affirmation after affirmation pile up after meeting our first encouraging local.

Now, two months later, the space has stayed the same and I have changed. This time I can walk back to a tiny apartment nearby and come and go as I please.

For anyone looking for good coffee and friendly ambience, I can’t recommend it enough.

Roadtripping PDX: Part Four (AKA, the Best Sandwich I Ever Ate)

I promised sandwich stories, and I shall deliver.

Behold the gem of our national roadtrip: the Bleubird Turkey and Brie Sandwich. We stumbled across the cutest, brightest, most incredibly delicious sandwich stop in Boise, Idaho. And I want to tell the world.

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It had been a long stretch of grey morning as we drove from Salt Lake City, Utah into Boise, Idaho. The view was dotted only by the occasional majestic mountain range and plenty of windmills.

We stumbled into Boise ready for coffee. The District Coffee House was our aim, a hip spot with a disappointing cappuccino. Fairly dejected (is good coffee too much to ask? Are we just snobs?) we went in search of lunch. Directly across the street we found lunch salvation.

Bleubird.

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It was a light, airy little sandwich shop boasting handcrafted sodas and a blackboard full of sandwich options. Our eager cashier, who introduced himself as David, recommended the reuben for Isaac while I took a turkey and brie.

And that is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

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Is there anything better than a sandwich no one skimped on? Dissect these layers of goodness: Dijon, fig jam, fresh apple, turkey, a massive, floral slice of brie and some arugula.

Almost as heavenly was the reuben with a bacon potato salad.

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Not to be overshadowed, the side salad that came with my sandwich was sprinkled with a snowy avalanche of cheese and toasted peanuts, which proved to be literally the best salad I’ve ever had. Period.

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So, if you’re ever in America’s heartland looking for a bite to eat, drop everything you’re doing and snag a sandwich here.

If only I had more excuses to be in Boise.

(I did take the second half of my sandwich to go and ate it as we crossed the Oregon border into the most glorious sunset. It felt like heaven.)

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If you get the chance, check it out:

home

224 N. 10th St.

Boise, Idaho

83702

Picking Up On Japanese Culture (With Chopsticks)

“So.” Ben, sushi master of the Japanese fine-dining restaurant where I work, leaned over the cold line. “What was it we just made?”

I felt like a kid in school under the strict gaze of a respected teacher.

“Battleship style,” I said, grasping at the little knowledge I’d retained. Japanese names eluded me. “Gun… gunk… uh…”

“Gunkan,” he corrected. “But I’ll accept Battleship Style. How about those hand rolls?”

“Party rolls!” I exclaimed. “Temaki?”

He nodded. I felt a rush of accomplishment. “And what do we put on octopus nigiri? Or more slippery nigiri toppings?”

I grinned. “Seatbelts!” I exclaimed, referring to the thin strip of nori wrapped around certain nigiri rolls. He laughed and conceded–acceptable enough for today.

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A few months ago, I accepted a job cooking with several incredibly talented guys in a small, independent fine-dining Japanese restaurant. All of them had years of experience and clever tattoos. At first, they regarded me the way most restaurants have when I walk in the kitchen. Are you lost, little girl?

Fortunately, I get along well with them. They’ve nicknamed me ‘E’ and have been teaching me the art of plating, quality preparation and food puns.

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“Get rich, E,” said our ramen master as I dunked tempura shrimp in hot oil, “Or die frying.”

Working the station alongside me is an experienced line cook and chef who plates dishes as though he’s curating artwork. His octopus dish is flawless and ethereal. On the days he doesn’t work, he is replaced by another experienced cook who, using the same technique and cooking style, plates his dishes the way a Disney villain would–dark colors, a streak of ichimi across the plate to contrast the purple tentacles on a bed of kimchi.

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This is my first experience working with Asian food, which is a considerable accomplishment having been taught strictly French techniques.

Sauces don’t require reducing and hours of time. They’re easy, thrown in a bowl and mixed, or steeped with kombu, cooled and stored.

Walking into the back and studying the shelves for the first time, I felt as though I’d somehow ended up in another country. I didn’t understand a word. Brightly colored boxes with unusual characters were stacked to the ceiling.

It was initially overwhelming a bit. What on earth was ponzu? Which box with a tap would expel mirin, and where would I find kombu? Most importantly… which of the many seaweeds needed boiling to remove toxins? Could I kill someone with my ignorance?

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Now, having been there long enough to avoid death by wakame, Asian foods are starting to make sense, especially in relation and comparison to the European techniques I’d been taught. Despite the differences, food culture across the globe is all related, some way, some how. In fact, I found a lot of useful information on the topic in a few books, including On The Noodle Road, by Jen Lin-Liu (book review blog post coming soon!)

As the only girl in a kitchen of all pretty badass men, I’d say things aren’t looking too shabby. In fact, I’ve never consumed information (or ramen!) so fast, and my chopstick skills are improving vastly.

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There’s a whole world of food culture out there to taste and I’ve barely scratched the surface!

Hip Times in One-Horse Towns

Born and raised in Wyoming, I have a good feel for small towns with wide spaces.

Occasionally I return home, welcoming the blank vistas with the wan appreciation of someone who acknowledges, yes, this is home, but I’m glad to just be visiting. I have gotten too used to the soaring emerald Rocky Mountains perpetually on the edge of my vision. The sage green waves of Wyoming hills make me feel too exposed to the sunlight, the wind and the watchful eyes of the hawks that soar by.

I recently spent my weekend with my back to the mountains, visiting family in the wide open plains of Cheyenne. It was a lovely visit, full of family and food and laughter.

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However, since beginning work at a third wave coffee shop, I have become a coffee snob. I found myself ridiculed by my family for doctoring my Seattle’s Best dark roast with enough cream to flood a small village.

I couldn’t spend a single weekend without catering to my caffeine addiction, so I found myself stopping in Laramie, Wyoming on my way home to the mountains in search of a good coffee shop.

“Come check us out sometime!” I recall a chirpy pair of girls saying as we served them lattes in our shop back home. “We’re in Laramie!”

And there it was, at the end of Grand Avenue, right next to the train tracks: Coal Creek Coffee.

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We sipped our respective drinks, critiqued their latte art and reveled in the warm, brick-wall hipness of a college hangout. We left re-caffeinated and almost ready to continue the drive.

Wandering around in the sunshine up and down the lower half of Laramie, the wind blew as though the town were abandoned. Every shop was closed for Sundays, leaving nothing but hot pavement and the ever-present Wyoming wind.

“Hey,” my co-wanderer said, stopping me short. “Check this out.”

A chalkboard for a pizza place stood in front of us, under a striped awning.

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“I’ve just got a good sense for this place. I’m not even hungry, but let’s go in there.”

Foodie senses alight, we entered the joint. Immediately a good omen greeted us: a giant painting of Bill Murray’s character in the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic.

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(We’re particularly big fans of Wes Anderson.)

Sitting down at a bar table in view of the open kitchen, we were able to watch and converse and observe about all we saw. The kitchen was staffed by three sauntering employees, turning out good food at their own pace, grinning and joking behind the line. Our waitress, heavily lipsticked and beaming, took her sweet time taking our order, but we didn’t mind… there was no rush, no need to turn tables here. Everything just was what it was when it wanted to be.

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Our pizza, when it finally arrived, was delicious. A Greek pizza labeled ‘The Billhook,’ featured crumbled lamb, roasted and blistering tomatoes, feta and tzatziki. Something about the warm lamb, the cooling tzatziki and the crispy thin crust just hit the spot.

“I love these kinds of places,” we kept exclaiming. “Holes in the wall in the middle of nowhere.”

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So if you find yourself wandering Laramie, alone in the middle of Wyoming, waiting for a killer slice of pizza or a cup of coffee, now you know where to go. Sometimes the best places exist off the grid.

Check out Coal Creek Coffee and Crowbar and Grill!