Sautéed Dates + Seattle

What’s the point of vacation? It’s expensive. It’s often difficult to come by the time, especially here in the United States. Going on vacation can be complicated, with multiple moving parts and elaborate logistics. It’s unfortunately easy to put off, deciding that instead of going through all the fuss you can treat yourself nicer in your own place. There are many, many reasons to put off going on vacation. But once you’ve talked yourself into doing it after a long vacation-dry spell, and you arrive, and you walk on new streets and breathe air that feels different than the air at home. You eat new food and meet new people and see new sites and you exhale. Because the point of vacation isn’t so much the going as the being.

Seattle, with its looming mountains and vast expanse of water, was beautiful. It felt possible but not quite probable that there are people who actually live there- people who have thirty plus foot pines in their backyards, who commute to work on ferries, who hike up and down the hills to run their daily errands. It’s a very different background to daily life from my lovely but admittedly flat Midwest. If Minneapolis is Miss Congeniality, Seattle is the pageant queen.

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Aaron and I primarily explored Seattle the way we’ve come to prefer- on foot. At 26, neither of us have ever rented a car. That may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you ask. Instead we got from the airport to our AirB&B via the light rail and some on-foot trecking. It takes up time, and energy, but there’s a way that you understand a place by walking that you simply can’t get by driving. I’ll take inconvenience of walking any day.

But we did explore by car when we couldn’t walk to our destination. At the exact midpoint of our vacation we woke up early (for restaurant people) and packed up the car my cousin Danielle loaned us, then drove south. We went down the interstate, then the state highway, then a country road, until we were at the wooden gates of Mount Raineer National Park. And then we drove a further half hour through switchbacks, over stone lined creeks, in the golden shade of evergreens, and occasionally at the edge of cliffs before reaching our destination- Paradise.

I’ve scarcely seen a place more aptly named than Paradise. Over a mile above sea level, we were well below the tree line and the towering summit of Mount Raineer, but were quite possibly higher than I’ve ever been outside of an airplane. The stop was full of meadows, with flowers in bloom, and waterfalls. We hiked around on the lower elevation trails for an hour, and were humiliated by being passed by seniors using canes. I felt much less prepared than the hikers with alpine poles, and backpacking gear, but somewhat more prepared than the woman wearing wedges and a maxi dress.

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The peace was astonishing. We had no signal or coverage, which was both frustrating (if you don’t Instagram it, did it really happen? and all that) and liberating. There is something to be said for simply being there, in the calm, with the nature in all its majesty and terror. It was a privilege to be in the mountains. As we drove away back through the switchbacks and rocks and trees we decided that over the course of our marriage we wanted to visit every national park. For whatever our flaws, America is beautiful.

When we weren’t hiking mountains we could be found eating and drinking, because that’s what we make (much) of our money in and we love it. From handmade pho noodles in the ID (International District, which seems like a more appropriate name than Chinatown, which we also heard it called) to woodfired pizza in Ballard, from a different coffee shop every morning to afternoon beers in local breweries, we had them all. Here are some of our favorites.

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Canon
We drank here the day after our anniversary in celebration. There were hundreds of whiskeys stored everywhere, fog machines used to create drinks, and a vintage radio mystery program playing in the bathroom. We had made reservations, and a good thing too. When we tried to go again (because the drinks were that good) without reservations we couldn’t get in.

Rumba
Rumba had the best tiki drinks I’ve ever tasted with just the right amount of kitch. The walls were covered not in paint or wallpaper but in vintage tropical post cards, and the seats were turquoise leather. It would have been an easy place to love even without the killer piña coladas and daiquiris.

Starbuck Reserve Roastery
Touristy, but fascinating. You can choose from a variety of ways to make your coffee here, or do a side by side tasting. One of the walls bore a story of searching for beans, which ended with the line “It may be a labor of love. But it’s mostly love.” As cheesy as it is, I’ve adapted it as my new mantra.

Delancey and Essex
For crisp but not cracker-y woodfire pizza, for bourbon peaches, for before dinner drinks of mezcal, blackberry, and honey (me) and side by side Americano tastings (Aaron), Delancey was the neighborhood spot everyone should be so lucky to have.

Dong Thap
We found this place because the our neighbor at the pizza bar in Delancey recommended it, and afterwards I was so upset we couldn’t go to every place he listed. Dong Thap is that killer. Pho with housemade noodles, everyone. The broth was rich and savory and the noodles were perfectly chewy. I had only had pho once before, a sad specimen that turned me off to it for years. Thanks to Dong Thap I’ve seen the error of my ways.

General Porpoise
A chef-y donut shop that sells donuts, caffeine, and champaign. All of the donuts are yeasted and filled, and all of them are excellent. This is the only place our whole trip we visited twice, because I couldn’t get over their housemade chai (it was made with saffron!)

The Whale Wins
We celebrated our anniversary here, in the bright and cheerful space. The food was incredible-pickled raisins! Halibut butter on sourdough! Roast carrots and fennel with harissa and yogurt! We had a long, luxurious evening here, topped off with two desserts and champaign. The blueberry shortbread with crème fraîche ice cream was delicious, but it was the sautéed dates that really killed it. They were satin-y in texture, and tasted of caramel. I would have ordered them twice if I had known how good they were- once as a starter and once as a dessert. Because I didn’t, and because I missed this space I’ve brought back the recipe for you as a gift.

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Sautéed Dates

adapted from The Whale Wins, with guidance from A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus by Renee Erickson

This is more a template than a recipe, and like all templates relies best on you paying attention and using your judgement. I bought some lovely “fresh” dried dates (the sort that are already wrinkled and brown, but are soft and stored in the produce cooler) to make this recipe, and they were luscious and silky, the sautéed sides shattering like a shell when we bit into them. But as an experiment I also tried this with some withered old dried dates, and they loosened up with the heat. They did not have the same luxurious texture, but the taste was more intense. All this is to say, whatever you have is good with this recipe.

Olive oil
Dates (I used Medjool dates for both tests)
Flaked salt such as Maldon

In a heavy skillet warm a slip of olive oil over medium heat. Once the oil is warm place your dates into the oil. Watch and listen carefully, and don’t walk away. Once you start to smell sugar rotate your dates with tongs and place it gently on the other side. It should take about 30 seconds to a minute for the first side to be done. Rotate again to a third side once the second smells of caramel, and then let the dates sit for another 30 seconds. Remove from heat and place the dates onto a serving tray. Sprinkle with salt. If you want to be dramatic with the presentation you could drizzle the used olive oil over the dates, but that’s not necessary. Eat while warm.

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Gazpacho

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Hello from beautiful Seattle! Aaron and I are here for the week as we embark on our first ever grown-up vacation alone. It’s pretty pathetic that it took us this long, since we’ve been married for 2 years now and together for almost 8. And yes, if you’re doing the mental math, that means that we did not take a honeymoon, but that’s a story for another time. My plan for this week is to walk until we’re hungry, eat until full, then repeat. Aaron’s plan is to hit up an extensive list of cocktail bars. I think we’ll more than exceed our expectations.

It feels a bit strange to be writing all this now because… I’m not in Seattle yet. I’ve decided to make this a computer-free vacation and try out this fancy, futuristic Schedule Post function that WordPress has. I’m writing this Saturday night while the laundry is working and my nails are drying, and we’re flying out early Sunday morning. By the time this goes live we’ll have been in Seattle three days. We’ll definitely have had our anniversary dinner at The Whale Wins, and I’ll have worn the intimidatingly sexy dress I bought for the occasion. Aaron’s absolutely going to have drank the carbonated negronis at Dino’s Tomato Pie. I hopefully will have kept my vow that we’ll hit up a different coffee shop every morning, and gorged myself on cherries. Aaron will likely be trying to persuade me to move to Seattle. I’m more relaxed than I’ve been all month just thinking about it all.

I plan to return here next week with plenty of pictures and a recipe or two inspired by our trip. But for now I’m here with gazpacho.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t even know cold soup was a thing until I was an adult. It took working in restaurants that until I tried cold soup. Before I tried it cold soup just felt wrong, like hot ice cream. The purpose of soup was to be warming and fortifying. Why would you want it cold? Cold soup contradicted the reasons of its existence.

But experience makes fools of us all. After trying cold soup, I learned it make sense for hot summer days when you need to be fortified in a completely different way. Not only that but I actually liked the thing. Light and bright on the tongue, cold soup is centering on a steamy day. And in the spirit of these steamy August days that just won’t quit (no matter how many times I wear jeans in protest, only to surrender and change a few hours later) I offer this gazpacho recipe.

Gazpacho is easy. Chop up the vegetables, blend them up, season and add oil, and chill. It comes together in less than five minutes, which makes it excellent for those hot mornings when you know you won’t want to cook dinner. The salt and sherry vinegar are needed for those days when you’ve sweat so hard you just need some salt and acid in your food, but they’re not aggressive. You taste the tomatoes and the cucumber and the onion and pepper and garlic, and they all meld into something better than the sum of it’s parts.  It’s a smooth, balanced soup that goes down easier the hotter it gets. I’d get on this now, if I were you- we may not have many scorching days left. 

Gazpacho

You could use any tomato you like for this gazpacho. I used Roma tomatoes, because they’re relatively inexpensive and still flavorful. Different tomatoes have different acidity levels, so you may need to adjust the amount of sherry vinegar you add. 

Serves 4

Adapted from The New York Times

2 pounds Roma tomatoes, quartered and hard centers removed
1 medium cucumber, roughly chopped
1 banana pepper or other sweet frying pepper, stemed and seeds removed, roughly chopped
1 small sweet onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 clove garlic
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup good olive oil, plus more as necessary

In a blender combine the tomatoes, cucumber, banana pepper, onion, and garlic. Start the blender on low and blend until it’s all a liquid, then switch the blender onto high and blend until it’s all smooth. Add the sherry vinegar and salt, and blend again. Taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary.

With the blender on medium slowly pour in the olive oil. The gazpacho should get darker and thicker as you add the olive oil. After you add half a cup of olive oil, stop the motor of the blender and check the gazpacho. It should be slightly thick, like the consistency of a vinaigrette. If it’s not there yet, add more olive oil by the tablespoon with the motor running.

Transfer the gazpacho to a glass container. Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for at least six hours, or overnight. Serve cold, preferably in a glass, drizzled with olive oil.

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Basil Lemon Italian Ice

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Italian ice. Wikipedia keeps telling me that it’s the same as a granita or sorbet, but it’s not. It’s finer than a granita and coarser than a sorbet. It’s a smooth mound of flavored ice crystals that are packed together as tightly as ice cream, with a bright tart taste and a velvety mouthfeel. It’s the thing to eat in the summer when wandering around outside.

Italian ice always makes me think of some strange combination of nostalgia and homesickness. My peak Italian ice consumption is directly liked with zoo visits. Like many other managers of small humans, my parents had a zoo membership for many years to make visiting the zoo a frequent and affordable event. We would always pack our own lunches (see: affordable) but whenever it was hot we would buy frozen treats for snacks. The kids would choose some variety of cartoon shaped popsicles, my dad would get a decadent something with chocolate and nuts, and my mom always chose a stately and demure lemon Italian ice.

What a treat. It was the most refreshing thing I could imagine on a hot day. It was smooth and tart, with just enough sweetness to make the lemon even more pronounced. I started off ordering a strawberry Italian ice once I was old enough to appreciate its charms. Soon enough that strawberry had morphed into a lemon Italian ice. My mom and I would wander around the zoo, both of us scraping at our Italian ices with tiny plastic spoons as we watched peacocks prance about trying to impress peahens. That Italian ice was not as sweet as a Sailor Moon Crescent Moon Wand Popsicle with bubblegum, but it had its own charms.

Like many childhood treats it’s difficult to find as an adult. Italian ice, which was so plentiful in Chicago summers, is uncommon in Minneapolis. The easiest and most efficient solution is to make my own. But when making my own Italian ice, I wanted to add something a bit different. Basil is abundant and cheap from where I stand and so I threw in a large bunch of basil with the lemon juice, lemon, and simple syrup. I loved the green color and the anise-y, herbaceous taste that resulted.

If you’re not feeling basil, this could be an easy template to swap in the classic strawberries. Or you could make an offbeat variation yourself. Tarragon and cherry, perhaps? Lime? Piña colada? There’s still summer enough left for all your Italian ice dreams.

Basil Lemon Italian Ice

adapted from The Chicago Tribune

Makes about 10 scoops

This Italian ice is on the tart side. If you’d like a sweeter Italian ice, you should make and use more simple syrup. Simple syrup is sugar that’s been  dissolved into water. It’s used in many cocktails, a handful of desserts, and some upscale coffee bars to add sweetness to cold presses. It’s easy and cheap to make, and scales up or down well. If you like to mix cocktails or add sugar to iced coffee it may be something you’d like to keep on hand. Just be aware that the more sugar you add, the longer the Italian ice will take to freeze.

3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 large or 2 small lemons, quartered and with seeds cut out
1/2 cup basil
4 cups (about 24) ice cubes

First, make the simple syrup. In a small pot combine the sugar and the water. Bring to a simmer, and stir while the sugar dissolves. Once the sugar has all melted turn off the heat. Let the simple syrup cool down to room temperature.

In a blender combine 1 cup of simple syrup (you will have a bit left over), the lemon juice, the whole lemon, and the basil. Blend on high until everything is well mixed. Taste, and add more sugar if necessary. What you taste now will be more muted once it’s cold, so if it’s perfectly sweet now you’ll want to add a bit more simple syrup.

Chill, either in the refrigerator or freezer until cold.

Return to the blender and add the ice cubes. Blend until the ice cubes are broken down smoothly and evenly. While doing this I needed to carefully increase the speed at even increments, but you know your blender best and how it works. Transfer to a shallow pan, and pop into the freezer.

Freeze, stirring every hour or so until firm but scoop-able. In my pan in my freezer this took about 3 hours- it will likely vary according to the pan you use and how cold your freezer is. It will be best the first day it’s made. Scoop into small bowls, and eat with abandon.

 

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Peach and Tomato Sourdough Panzanella

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As a kid Summer was the king of seasons. It was the season of staying up late (sometimes even until 10!), going swimming in the neighbor’s pool, and eating freezie pops by the dozens. It was the time for grilling out, for s’mores, for vacations where we’d sleep in cabins and bathe in lakes. Summer was the pinnacle of experiences. Until it got old. Every year I’d secretly start to long for structure. I wanted days spent doing things other than alternating between Sailor Moon reruns and Harry Potter rereads. Every year, around early-August, I’d start to long for school.

My school days have since past, but about this time every year I start to long for fall. Summer was great and all, but it’s starting to wear out its welcome. I’m tired of the heat, I’m tired of the sweat, I’m tired of wearing shorts. I’m fed up with needing fans upon fans upon fans to sleep. I’m bored with pulling my hair up in a ponytail and drinking iced tea. I want crisp nights and sweaters and hot toddies. I want squash and kale and falling leaves. Does anyone else get bored of summer? Or am I  just some freakish anomaly?

Summer’s here for at least another month, so I can either keep complaining or make the best of it. Likely I’ll do both. That means it’s time to take advantage of the few parts of summer I’m not sick of yet. It’s time to drink more rosé, hang out around some lakes, and indulge in the best part of summer- summer produce.

There are many, many good recipes out there for tomato salads. They often involve basil and copious amounts of olive oil. Sometimes they are excellent. Sometimes they are good. And there are many times that they hit the spot. But I wanted to make something that would stand up as a meal, and would pair tomatoes with mint, which is one of my favorite underrated food combinations out there.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t technically a true panzanella. An authentic panzanella tosses cubes of stale bread in water, then wrings them out before adding them to tomatoes. I toss toasted sourdough croutons with the juices of the salad and the dressing instead, and I think it makes a satisfying substitute. If this version of panzanella offends you, I’m sorry. My only excuse is that I’m an American, and our national cuisine is based on the adaptation, borrowing, and stealing of great ideas around the world.

Authentic or not, this is an excellent dinner salad. Ripe peaches and tomatoes are tossed with shredded mozzarella, mint, and sourdough croutons in a shallot-balsamic vinegar dressing. The sourdough croutons drink up the dressing, which leaves them deeply flavored but not soggy. The tomatoes and peaches play nicely together, making every bite a combination of sweet and acidic. The mint keeps things cool, while the mozzarella adds a creamy, indulgent note.

Whether you’re done with summer or are already mourning it’s approaching end, this panzanella is an excellent way to celebrate the season.

Peach and Tomato Sourdough Panzanella

Be sure to taste your dressing and add as much salt as necessary- it’ll be the difference between a salad that sparkles and a salad that falls flat.

Serves 4

2 slices sourdough bread, roughly torn
olive oil
salt and pepper

4 peaches, pits removed and sliced
4 medium tomatoes, sliced
8 ounces mozzarella, torn
a small bunch of mint, chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 shallot, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
flaked salt such as Maldon, for serving

Preheat the oven to 350. Combine the sourdough with a healthy drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper on a sheet tray. Toss well to combine. Bake until the sourdough croutons start to go golden around the edges, about 20 minutes. Set aside and let cool.

In a large salad bowl combine the peaches, tomatoes, mozzarella, and half the mint mint. In a small bowl or a jam jar combine the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and shallot with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Stir or shake well, then taste. Add more salt and pepper as necessary until the dressing tastes brightly acidic but not unpleasantly harsh. Set aside.

Add the cooled croutons to the salad. Shake or stir the dressing again, and drizzle over the salad. Use your hands to toss well, so that everything is evenly coated. Top with the remainder of the mint and sprinkle with flaked salt.

It’s best to eat this shortly after it’s made. The longer it sits the more dressing and juices the bread will soak up. However, if you like soggy bread, then let this sit for as long as you’d like.

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Corn and Quinoa Patties with Chives

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Several months ago I asked my dear friend Danielle what kind of recipes she wanted to see. She thought about it for a moment, and then said she was always looking for easy recipes. And quinoa. Dani, this one’s for you.

Danielle’s answer tripped me up way more than it should have. Easy is subjective. What’s easy for me may not be easy for you and vice versa. I like to think easy indicates simple technique, small time commitment, and not a lot of ingredients. Easy isn’t always easy to create. There’s no long simmering sauces to develop flavors, no dressings with ten ingredients to create the “what is that flavor” sensation, no using four separate bowls and pans to make one dish. There’s nothing to hide behind. An easy dish either works or it doesn’t.

But as tricky as easy is, it was the quinoa that really stumped me. I have dozens of uses for farro, but exactly one for quinoa. Cook it when you’re out of rice, serve it as a side to round out the meal. I add a liberal amount of butter and eat it contentedly, but I never think “Quinoa. That’s what I want for dinner.” That’s not quinoa’s fault, but we still have a tentative relationship.

After months of thinking, enter quinoa patties- cold cooked quinoa mixed with corn, chives, eggs, olive oil, shallots, and spices. If you wanted to get really fancy you could add some chilis or feta. I made these yesterday for a quick before-work lunch about noon, and did not feel the need to snack at all before family meal at 9pm. That’s a remarkable feat. The quinoa pairs nicely with the corn and chives, and frying them brings in some caramelization to the corn and quinoa both that tempers sweetness and brings in a lovely savory note. And I was reminded of the best reason to eat quinoa while making these patties- the pleasant pop that you get when you take a bite.

I wouldn’t say that quinoa’s my new favorite grain just yet, but I was wrong to stick it in the “rice substitution” category. What’s your favorite way to eat quinoa?

Corn and Quinoa Patties with Chives

These patties are slightly delicate, so take care while flipping them. I found that using a healthy amount of olive oil for frying and letting the patties get a good sear before touching them helped them hold together much nicer. If you don’t already have a preferred quinoa cooking method, I would rinse the quinoa well under running water and drain. Combine the cleaned quinoa in a saucepan with its equal volume in water (so for 1 cup of quinoa, 1 cup of water) and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer until done, about 15 minutes.

Makes about 10 patties

2 eggs
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for cooking
1 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, cooled
1 cup corn kernels
1/2 cup minced chives
1 shallot, minced
3/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

In a large bowl beat together the eggs and olive oil. Add in the quinoa, corn, chives, shallot, and spices. Mix well so everything is evenly distributed. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add in a good amount of olive oil- you want a glugg, not a drizzle. Scoop the quinoa batter, a quarter cup at a time, into the pan, leaving enough space so that the edges of the patties don’t touch. Let the patties get a nice sear, about three minutes, on the bottom before flipping. When the patties are cooked on one side flip and cook on the other, about two minutes. Serve warm.

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