Ecliptic Brewing: A Stellar Addition to the Galaxy of Portland Brewpubs

October 16, 2014

20141015_130815Most brewpubs are mainly about the beer.  Even if the food is quality, the menu usually revolves around standards such as burgers and fish and chips, perhaps some hearty short ribs brewed in ale. John Harris’ Ecliptic Brewing, however, is equally about the food.  Executive chef Michael Molitor is turning out food that is way more than an adjunct to its liquid accompaniment.

Harris is as passionate about astronomy as he is about beer.  He names all his beers after astronomical objects and personages, and he celebrates the Earth’s annual orbit around the sun with beer and food menus that change every six weeks.  Some recent standouts include:  salt cod and potato fritters that are refreshingly high on the cod and low on the salt; fried green tomatoes topped with bay shrimp salad; two wonderful takes on  chicken (a confit drumstick in sweet chili sauce and celery root salad, and a pan roasted chicken celebrating the culmination of the summer vegetable harvest, with corn, zucchini, and a red pepper vinaigrette); and perhaps my favorite, a luscious fig-pistachio ice cream.

A caveat on my beer comments:  my beer tastes are not particularly refined.  I am perfectly happy with a Corona with lime on a hot day.  That said, Ecliptic clearly produces finely crafted brews with character.  The flavors of all their beers are crisp and distinct, reflecting the often unusual combinations of malts and hops used in their production.  I especially liked the Procyon Pale Ale, relatively light (as I like it) but with a tasty caramel overtone.  The Oort Imperial Stout is coffee-brown, rich and creamy, almost like a dessert, which is probably why it pairs so well with the fig-pistachio ice cream.  You can even mix the two together for an ice cream float.  You can order a burger if you insist.

Ecliptic is located on the outer fringes of the Mississippi Street area, in a renovated auto body shop.  The spare gray interior provides a pleasant enough space to eat but does not hint at the culinary delights within.  In warm weather, there’s a garage door that opens to the outside and plenty of outdoor seating, albeit adjoining the parking lot.

domestic detail, norwegian male style

October 7, 2014

My Struggle, a six book autobiographical tale by the author Karl Ove Knausgaard, is a runaway hit in his native Norway.  The first two volumes have now been translated into English, ready for American consumption.

Knausgaard, I suspect, is a “love it or hate it” proposition.  His books are long–around 600 pages each–and there are six of them.  Knausgaard goes into deep detail about the most ordinary of ocurrences, whether it be an adolescent plot to leave his parent’s New Year’s party (de facto boring) and sneak out, bearing a case of beer, to a cooler party in the next town, or whether its a kiddie music class or a three year old’s birthday party.  This can be tedious at times but more often it is strangely compelling.  My daughter, a buyer for Powell’s books, tells me that a lot of women in her office dislike the books because they think they’re only getting serious attention because they’re written by man.  This may well be true.  In the novel I’ve been writing, one of the main criticisms I’ve gotten from all readers, male and female is “cut the domestic detail!”  And here is domestic detail on steroids (Knausgaard is a house husband with three young children), from children’s colds to trips to the grocery store, getting reviewed by the New Yorker.

But I think that if it takes a man to draw attention to certain rarely articulated aspects of the domestic arena, so be it.  He writes with style and a deep honesty, unafraid to make himself look foolish or not so nice.  In his long chapter about the three year olds birthday party he articulates how it is possible to be very perceptive about people beyond his immediate family and interested in their stories, yet still detached,tiring of the constant pressure of conversation, preferring to retreat to the privacy of his own head (and ultimately his desk) and write down those stories.   Often he will abruptly switch from the utterly concrete –say, a diaper change–to the utterly abstract (what is the nature of time?  what is the purpose of us here on earth?).  You can see how he craves the concrete, the simple, straightforward love of his children and the simple straightforward tasks which go with caring for them, to anchor him in the real world.  At the same time, the endless flow of realistic detail conveys the hard work and tedium those days involve.

I can relate to all of this so completely!  So as another friendly introvert, and as someone else who loves the concrete and the abstract, with little patience for all the buzzing distractions in between, thank you, Karl Ove.  I will keep reading.

whiskey from New Scotland

September 30, 2014

20140929_205439When I was old enough to drink–or slightly before–my cocktail of choice was a whiskey sour.  Before long, this beverage, along with cocktails in general, went out of fashion, replaced by straight vodka, and of course, wine.  In the cyclical nature of things, cocktails have been ascendant for the past decade or so, but with a difference.  The cocktail, except in the most retro of settings, has transmuted into a  “craft cocktail” comprised of artisanal raw ingredients.

Whiskey is one of these.  Artisanal whiskey probably would not have appealed to my 17-year old palate. The whiskey sours of my youth were sweet, reminiscent of lemonade, the bland whiskey’s sole purpose to provide alcoholic kick.  Artisanal whiskey, even when diluted with mixers, speaks for itself.

Westland Distillery was started by 25-year old Emerson Lamb, the fifth generation of an Olympic Peninsula logging family.  His family still logs and runs pulp mills.  Lamb feels very rooted in the land in which he was raised, but has come up with a kinder, gentler way in which to interact with it. The spirits are distilled in Seattle but aged in Hoquiam, his ancestral home.  Apparently the Olympic Peninsula is America’s closest approximation of Scotland:  damp, chilly, always within striking distance of the sea. It even possesses a considerable amount of peat–essentially fermented moss–a substance I’d always associated with the British Isles.  Westland produces single malt whiskeys–a term that always sounded impressive, but whose meaning I didn’t learn until last night.  Single malt whiskeys are mixed–good whiskey comes from the mixing of numerous barrels–but are made only with a single variety of barley malts.  These barley malts are all grown in the state of Washington.  The production of whiskey requires a tremendous amount of grain–as opposed to the amount required, say, for pastry flour.  So Westland, by guaranteeing barley farmers steady business, is keeping land in healthy agriculture when it might be otherwise sold for development or planted with Monsanto GMO corn.

Lamb started Westland four years ago but it is only now that whiskeys are first ready for drinking.  The Westland team is currently touring the country showcasing three whiskeys in comparison with Scotch and Japanese whiskeys from which Lamb drew his inspiration.  The contrasts are interesting. All of these artisanal whiskeys are complex, but its clear how they are all intimately influenced by their terroir.  The Japanese whiskey, made largely from corn, has a cleaner, lighter tone than the musky, vanilla taste of Westland’s single malt.   On the other hand, their peated whiskey is much less intense than a comparable peated whiskey from Scotland.  The Scottish variety lingers on the tongue with a smoky overtone somewhere between a campfire and a cigar.  It is definitely an acquired taste, and I would not pair it with food.  Westland’s is more of a gateway peated whiskey, with an intriguing, but not overwhelming, funk.

Look for Westland whiskeys at Jake’s Grill and other locations in the Portland area. For more information visit their website at http://www.westland distillery.com

blogging for books: Bend your Brain, from The Minds Behind Marbles: The Brain Store

September 16, 2014

I thoroughly enjoyed Bend your Brain.

Bend your Brain is a book of mind-bending puzzles in five categories:  visual perception; word skills; critical thinking; coordination; and memory.  Each category begins with a brief description of which brain tasks are involved in each category, and why the skills are important.  The puzzles increase in difficulty in five increments, from “mind-warming” to “mind-blowing”.

The book reminded me of the “brain teasers” I used to enjoy as a child.  These entertainments (and board games that utilize related skills) are way less prevalent in the video game age.  The puzzles, even at the “mind-blowing” level are challenging enough to be stimulating but not so difficult as to be frustrating.  A few struck me as more tests of popular culture knowledge than brain capacity.  There was one exercise where you were supposed to recognize celebrity mouths.  Problem was, I’d never heard of half the celebrities, let alone being intimately familiar with their mouths.  The same went for certain consumer logos.

It’s interesting to see that even in the mind bending arena, the mind tends to run in familiar ruts.  For instance, I am very good at word games and play plenty of them without being confronted with this book.  The coordination chapter presented far more difficult challenges for me.  The memory chapter is an excellent exercise in mindfulness.

All in all, this is a great book to take along on car trips, plane rides,or any place you will have slack time and prefer to be stimulated rather than bored.

soylent green is dinner

September 16, 2014

I was thinking back to an article I read in the New Yorker last summer, about a techno-geek in the Bay Area who decided that eating was a waste of time.  He was referring to the whole shebang:  hunting and gathering, agriculture, grocery shopping, kitchens and their attendant equipment, dining areas, and, of course, all the time devoted to preparing and consuming food.  So he developed a product he named “Soylent”.  For those who aren’t familiar with this early seventies sci-fi classic, Soylent Green is set in the near future (actually, now, in 2014, very near in the future) where the world is terribly overcrowded and fresh meat and produce are a rarity as precious as diamonds.  People subsist on wafers known as “Soylent Green”.  No one knows what’s in the wafers, until Charlton Heston makes a startling discovery:  Soylent Green is people.

This real-life Soylent, I presume, isn’t made from people.  I don’t know what’s in it, I presume a mixture of essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and carbohydrates.  When I was a nutrition major in college, around the era of the movie, we referred to such compounds as “total parenteral nutrition”.  They were given intravenously to seriously ill people who could not take in food by mouth.  I certainly don’t know anyone who took it voluntarily.  Whatever this new Soylent isis, people do appear to be able to subsist on it, with occasional breaks for what the developer terms “recreational eating”.  It’s popularity has spread to small but enthusiastic group, largely college students and tech employees.

I have nothing against Soylent per se.  It sounds like a useful nutritional supplement, better than the old TPN, for those seriously ill people.  And if a perfectly healthy person wants to drink this yucky shake–the polar opposite of organic– instead of all the tasty treats available in this world, I suppose they aren’t doing anyone else any harm. But I do find their absolutist utilitarian mindset, a mindset I’ve seen echoed (albeit to a somewhat lesser degree) in the high tech industry, quite perturbing.

The main objection Soylent’s adherents have to old fashioned food is that its a “waste of time”.  And what do they do with all the extra time they’ve gained? They “work”, of course. What are they working on that’s so much more important than cooking or eating?  They don’t say and I don’t know. What I do know is that the major work of humans since caveman times has been the gathering and preparation of food.  Food is integral to all human cultures and religions, and a major component of most rituals and celebrations.  In fact, studies have shown that in pre-industrial cultures, people, despite their lack of modern “labor-saving” conveniences, actually have more leisure time.  Once they have gathered and prepared food they consider their work for the day to be done.

The developer of Soylent also believes clothing to be a waste of time.  To this end he wears two identical outfits until they wear out, then replaces them.  If food and clothing–two essentials–are a waste of time, I shudder to think how he views literature or music or art or any of the other ways we experience and express ourselves, and that lend our lives beauty and meaning.  Personally, I love to eat.  I view all my meals as “recreational eating”, from the coffee and smoked salmon rollup I enjoyed this morning, to the Sunday night dinners with my extended family, to the lunch of tasty leftover salad and tuna I am anticipating as soon as I finish  this post.  The developer of Soylent anticipates a future where drones will deliver Soylent to his front door and he can “refuel”.  Sounds like fodder for a dystopian fantasy for me, if creative writing wasn’t a waste of time.

What’s concerning to me is that this mindset is so popular amongst workers drawn to the tech industry (Google, Facebook, etal) who are gaining more economic power with each passing year and becoming the drivers of our culture.  We might want to think more deeply and critically of the vision of culture, indeed of the meaning of life, that they are holding up to us as an ideal.

a carnivorous day on Mt. Hood

September 10, 2014

A couple of years ago I attending another Nicky USA event, a tour of their then-new sausage-making facility on the Central Eastside. It was an unusually enjoyable press event, complete with a tour of the frigid, operating room-clean sausage making facility, lots of yummy samples, alcoholic accompaniment, and even free T-shirts. I wasn’t sure how I’d garnered an invitation, surrounded as I was by burly butchers and chefs with impressive tattoos.
So I jumped on the chance to attend Nicky’s “Wild About Game”, now in its 14th year in the Wy’East Lodge on Mt. Hood. Wild About Game has two parts: vendors offering interesting stories and luscious samples of their wares; and a chef’s competition featuring four cook-offs between a Seattle chef and a Portland one, each using a Nicky Farms protein. The event is open to the public, and draws a large crowd of both restaurant industry folks and foodies.
Nicky’s USA made its reputation on wholesaling game meat to restaurants. In recent years game meat has gained cachet as the truest free-range meat around, with minimal effect on the environment and a healthful fatty acid profile. The popularity of the paleo diet jibes with Nicky’s protein-rich ethos, though I doubt cavemen ever ate duck pastrami reubens. Nicky has also made the wise decision to broaden their partnerships beyond game, and works with food producers as widely ranging as Salt and Straw ice cream and Hama Hama oysters.
I found conversing with the vendors and trying their samples to be the most interesting aspect of the event. Some highlights: 1) Bee Local Honey, which manages beehives atop Portland roofs in various neighborhoods. It makes sense that honeys from different locations would have their own terroir, just like wine, but I never knew that honey from atop Mt. Tabor would taste so different from honey in Creston-Kenilworth, a couple miles away. 2) Tails and Trotters northwest hazelnut finished pork: I first tasted jamon Serrano, cured wild boar fed on acorns, in multiple small towns in Spain in 1996, and have never eaten its like since. Ultra-strict regulations on the importation of this ham have loosened somewhat, and Fermin (another Nicky client) sells a quality approximation. But Tails and Trotters feeds their hogs Northwest-grown hazelnuts instead of acorns, which tastes different but just as good 3) Manchester Farms Quail: The birds are for sale, yes (again, with a healthier fatty acid profile than most chicken) but the most interesting product they make are their cute, largely yolk, speckled eggs. They are high in nutrients and their shells protect against salmonella. I am not personally a big hard boiled egg fan but these sure look adorable. 4) Snake River Farms American Style Kobe Beef–This was one of the most delicious samples I tasted here. Yum. 5) Estancia Grassfed Beef: They sponsored a blind taste testing between their grain finished and grassfed beef. The grassfed beef is chewier (better mouthfeel, in my opinion) and more flavorful. No comparision. 6) Sasquatch Brewery: made a delicious and unusual black peppercorn beer. Slightly hoppy and slightly spicy, neither overwhelming. 7) Salt and Straw ice cream: they outdid themselves with bone marrow ice cream, but I couldn’t bring myself to taste it as all I could think of was clotted blood. The woodblock chocolate was as delicious as usual, though.
Compared to all these great samples of the basic product, the chef competition was underwhelming. Seattle won, and deservedly so, with a rabbit loin and blackberry dish, but frankly, while every dish tasted perfectly decent, none were stunning or even as exotic as their unusual proteins promised. The squab dish from Bamboo Sushi tasted like sweet and sour chicken. The rabbit pasta from Ava Genes tasted also, alas, like chicken, and made me feel even guiltier about eating the relative of my former pet bunny Ralphie than I already did. Jason French’s goat pasta (Ned Ludd) was rich and sumptuous, but not as good as the goat tacos offered directly at the Nicky USA booth. I voted for the Mexican soup with elk meatballs from Josh Scofield of Toro Bravo–they were delicious–but honestly, they could have been ground beef.
If anything, the afternoon was an advertisement for home cooking, using Nicky’s fabulous products and the products of their clients.20140907_132549

new orleans discoveries

September 10, 2014

I recently visited New Orleans after wanting to go there all my life. (my husband and I had been making plans go there when Katrina hit). Its’ always a bit scary to finally see someplace where you’ve built up so much anticipation: what if the reality doesn’t match the fantasy? But on the whole it did: sultry weather, overgrown gardens, hanging moss, fabulous food, music everywhere. All the “bad neighborhoods” we were warned about turned out to be largely hype. Some areas are creepily deserted, especially at night. I remember looking at a church and realizing it was only the shell of a church, with vacant lots surrounding it on all sides. But one effect of Katrina is that the devastation ripped apart the established social and racial structures of the city along with the physical ones, lowering prices so much that people of all demographics are moving in and creating a new, more integrated New Orleans with a remarkably vibrant attitude. And–we found pretentious farm to table small plates along with the etoufee, twenty five cent martinis and gargantuan shrimp po boys.
Here are a couple of discoveries to share:
1) The Art of Alabama Food: This was the name of a photography exhibit we saw in the French Quarter. To be honest, I still associate Alabama with George Wallace barring the schoolhouse door. It does not bring up images of trendy food to me. Yet there I was, looking at gorgeous images of trendy food served all over the state, with the epicenter seemingly in Birmingham, a city I definitely associate with some of the most unsavory events of the civil rights battles of the 1960’s. Many of the pictures are evocative presentations of the foods you might expect (ribs and white bread; baked grits with country ham and heavy cream; chicken in white sauce). But how about bouillabaisse (Birmingham) or sea bass in banana leaves (Orange Beach). Or the wonderful hybrid of PB and J in phyllo (Huntsville). Times change. Vive la difference. The Art of Alabama show will be touring nationally.
2) Old New Orleans Rum: We were walking along Magazine Street, hot and sticky, when we ducked into New Orleans only Whole Foods Market to enjoy the air conditioning and pick up a cold beverage. What should we find but a table sampling a just the right icy beverage–New Orleans rum, combined with pungent ginger ale, like a cocktail in a jar. It was eleven in the morning. They poured big samples. why not? We walked back on the street fully refreshed, and a lady handed us a bag of Mardi Gras beads, just because she felt like it. So far Old New Orleans rum (www.OldNewOrleansRum.com) has limited distribution outside of the area. It deserves a wider audience.

blogging for books: meat and potatoes

August 21, 2014

I confess, it took me a couple of weeks to test any of the recipes from Meat and Potatoes.  The ninety degree plus midsummer heat made heavy meat meals unappealing, and the stratospheric meat prices at the supermarket made meat-centric meals uneconomic.  But when I finally tried one of the “meat and potatoes” combos (New Mexico red chile and coffee crust tri tip, creamy blue cheese polenta and caramelized onions) my husband absolutely raved about it, comparing it to some of the better meals he’s eaten in local restaurants.  Fama, a self-taught chef and host of the TV show “meat and Potatoes”, organized his cookbook by meals, including two sides to accompany the protein of choice.  There’s lots of info on choosing and prepping different cuts of meat, with lots of emphasis on lamb and game.  The sides are an excellent aid to meal planning, especially for novice cooks, and balance the main dish well in taste, color, and texture.

I would recommend this book primarily for those novice cooks.  The recipes are very simple and easy to follow, using a short list of easy to find ingredients.  I found myself revising the recipes, both to add more nuance and to lower the excessive butterfat content.  In the tri tip meal I followed Fama’s suggestions for a superb rub utilizing chipotle chiles and ground coffee, but eliminated the butter.  The  accompanying blue cheese polenta, inspired by the taste of “corn smut” ( a fungus that grows on corn) had an appealingly funky taste but I halved the bleu cheese, eliminated the butter, and substituted 1 cup of milk and 5 cups chicken broth for the six cups of milk called for in the recipe.  I also used fresh ground polenta instead of instant.

On the next relatively cool day I made chicken arrabiata with mushrooms, roasted new potatoes and broiled broccolini.  Again tasty and simple, and this time lower in butterfat.  The combination of shitake and Portobello mushrooms in the chicken sauce was inspired but I did add a lot more red pepper than the 1 tsp called for in the recipe.  Even so, the sauce was hardly “arrabiata”–albeit mushroomy and satisfying.  The roasted potatoes and broiled broccolini scarcely justified a recipe but did taste good.

Several other recipes await cooler weather, most notably the parsnip/paprika fries and the paella with pepper bacon. 

THIS BOOK WAS PROVIDED FOR ME FOR REVIEW BY BLOGGING FOR BOOKS.

Blogging for Books: The Banh Mi Handbook

July 22, 2014

The Banh Mi Handbook, by Andrea, Quynhgiao Nguyen, demystifies the popular Bietnamese sandwixh.  One of the pleasant surprises of this attractively designed and useful cookbook is how simple it is to create a banh mi.  For one week, while evaluating this cookbook, I made banh mi sandwiches for dinner every night.  Dinner came together in a half hour max, and my family’s tastebuds were never bored.

This was hardly surprising as ‘banh mi’, far from being an esoteric label, simply is Bietnamese for “bread made from wheat”.  A legacy of French colonialism, the banh mi incorporates French imports (baguettes, aioli, pate) with Vietnamese flavors (cilantro, hot peppers, bright crisp vegetables).  As a sandwich it is by definition simple to assemble, and its general nature allows for considerable improvisation.

Nguyen, an acclaimed cookbook writer who is a contributing editor at Saveur magazine, constructs her cookbook in a very practical way.  she outlines the basic components of a banh mi, then gives you the tools to delve as deeply into the process as you want.  For instance, you can bake your own banh mi rolls or simply buy inexpensive French bread at the supermarket (it’s supposed to be soft).  You can make homemade aioli or substitute storebought mayo.  You can make your own sausage or buy it at the deli.  The crisp quick pickles are so easy and good there’s no excuse not to make them at home.  A “master bahn mi” recipe provides rules for construction.

I tested three filling recipes, all with excellent results:  the Hanoi grilled chicken, the pork meatballs, and the coconut curry tofu.  All were simple and delicious.  the citrusy red cabbage pickle was so yummy we now keep a jar in the fridge for general use.  Ditto for the sriracha and cilantro/maggi mayonnaise.  I confess I used Fred Meyer French bread and storebought mayo, to no ill effect.

Maggi Seasoning, a flavor enhancer with a powerful umami hit, was a French import that became a mainstay Vietnamese seasoning.  I was not overly eager to use this–It seemed more like an additive to me–but Nguyen offered a gluten free alternative made with Braggs amino acids that proved an excellent substitute.

Normally, I think that specialized one food cookbooks like this are a waste of money, but the Banh Mi Handbook is so helpfully and clearly written and explodes with so many menu ideas that it is well worth the purchase.

THIS BOOK WAS PROVIDED FOR ME FOR REVIEW BY BLOGGING FOR BOOKS.

warren weinstein website finally up

July 21, 2014

When I opened the newspaper almost three years ago and read that my mother’s friend, Warren Weinstein, a seventy year old economic development consultant in Pakistan, had been captured by Al-Qaeda, I assumed that this would be major news and that the Obama administration would make a major effort to ensure the return of this elderly man, who had worked in this dangerous part of the world for 30 years, supporting US interests.

Instead he languished in obscure captivity.  Most of the news articles I read about him were in the Indian press.  Several Indians had been kidnapped by the same branch of Al-Qaeda, but apparently the Indian government maintained an active interest in their release.  To the Obama administration, Weinsteins capture and suffering clearly represented acceptable collateral damage from their misguided foreign policy.

About six months ago, al-Qaeda released a video showing Weinstein, in a clearly deteriorated condition, pleading for his release.  Still no response from the government or a jaded and apathetic public.  Finally, his family, perhaps galvanized by the prisoner exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, has run out of patience.  they have put up a website and urge US citizens to pressure the government to negotiate for Weinstein’s release.  Is this “negotiating” with terrorists?  Yes, probably.  To live as a world citizen, one has to negotiate, even though that is more difficult than sitting at a computer screen and dropping drones on people a half a world away.

To help, please click on the following website  which provides more information on his case and links for emailing Obama and your senators and representatives.

http://www.bringwarrenhome.com/


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