Discover more from dine well
Food and friends in the PNW
Plus how I got into cooking, and a great weeknight recipe.
Last week I took the (harrowing, tbh) 6 hour flight to Seattle for a little road trip through my old stomping grounds, the Pacific Northwest. Although I’m a Bay Area native through and through and fully settled in my new chosen home of NYC, the PNW is really where I came of age. It’s not just where I went to college and began to blindly grope my way into burgeoning adulthood, but also where my passion for food, cooking, and food/cooking as it relates to nature was born. For this reason- along with the staggering rugged natural beauty unmatched anywhere else in the world- I hold the PNW very near and dear, and I’ll look for any excuse to go back for a visit.
Back in November my college roommate Heidi, who lives in Spokane with her partner Isaac, had a baby! Perfect excuse!! So after the Flight From Hell and the requisite 24 hours of recovery time in Capitol Hill, I hopped in the car for the 5 hour trip east to Spokane.
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My time living with Heidi was really the starting point of my life spent cooking and in connection with food. I met her after she answered a roommate ad on Craigslist (does anyone do that anymore?) and together we inhabited the bottom floor of a cute weird duplex in West Olympia, about 15 minutes drive from The Evergreen State College where we both were students. Heidi was in a food and agriculture program; I was heretofore completely ignorant of all things food and agriculture. Our house had a giant, gorgeous yard, and Heidi pleaded for months with our very ornery landlord to let her hand-build raised beds for a garden- her first ever (she is now an extremely skilled and accomplished gardener). And she absolutely KILLED it. In the summer we ate gorgeous plump tomatoes, strawberry spinach, and huge squashes, and in the winter we ate our fill of brassicas and other wintery greens. It was heaven.
We were both broke as hell, so we were often working together to eat well on a shoestring budget. We both qualified for food stamps (something I highly recommend to any working college student) so we would go to the local co-op and Grocery Outlet together to pool our resources for peak grocery efficiency, as well as take trips to the food bank downtown and even go on the occasional dumpster diving expedition (also pretty highly recommended, although sadly somewhat less accessible these days). Then we would bring our bounty home and get organized, planning joint meals and the scheming the best ways to make our groceries go the farthest. Unsurprisingly, this began to require some culinary skill and research. I think this is the first time I really picked up a cookbook.
TW: eating disorders. To somewhat complicate matters, I was only in year 2 or 3 of recovery from anorexia, a process I’d begun at age 17 with a nightmarish nine months of continuous hospitalizations and treatment. My doctors and my mom had only reluctantly allowed me to move away for college and at this stage, my weight and health was still in a somewhat precarious place. Losing five pounds or so would happen literally overnight, without me trying, and too much weight lost could land me in a very bad situation- at best, needing to leave school and go home to focus on regaining it; at worst, back in the hospital for what felt like the zillionth time. Learning how to make food for myself that actually tasted good- so that I would actually eat it- became imperative, vital. I was determined to stay in school, stay independent and not derail the life I was building… and eating really really well was my ticket. So, I learned to cook.
I started reading cookbooks like they were novels, just for funsies. Heidi and I scoured the internet for yummy recipes to try. I started getting interested in the medicinal properties of different foods and herbs, and getting familiar with plants indigent to western Washington. I began making my own pasta sauce from scratch, roasting whole chickens, experimenting with duck eggs, and cooking everything in delicious rich butter and reserved bacon fat. We made giant curries and stews, feeding our visiting friends and family. We found some straw placemats perfect for rolling sushi, and learned to make sushi with the amazing salmon that’s so abundant in the PNW. We learned to make summer rolls. I thrifted a huge stockpot and started making my own bone broth (before it was cool!!) in order to make all my favorite soups from scratch- chicken noodle, pho, minestrone, lentil.
Heidi and I often ate together and hosted friends for dinner. We ate extremely well, we learned a ton and we had a blast. There’s truly no better way to nourish yourself, inside and out. Gradually, I realized I’d actually discovered a new creative outlet. Cooking was an art form! My little right-brained, free spirited self, who had long been a dancer, an actor and a writer, was beyond stoked. The idea that something as functional and mundane as feeding oneself could also be fun, creative, expressive, a source of joy and wonder- it was a revelation. And the rest, as they say, is basically history.
Naturally, I was super excited to visit Heidi- not just to meet baby Cy and see Isaac too, but to cook and eat with her because it is always just pure magic. The thing about living in a place like Spokane, WA is that everyone has yards, so people have GARDENS, and it’s surrounded by farmland so local ingredients abound. We made a big breakfast each morning complete with local farm eggs, CSA veggies and amazing delicious thick bacon. We used copious amounts of Heidi’s homegrown and hand-dried garlic in every meal- the most beautiful and delicious garlic imaginable, only like 5 cloves to a head and SO easy to peel. I really wanted to give these superstar new parents a bit of a break (the benefits of having childless friends!), so I somewhat tyrannically took over dinner a couple times with my cheerfully bossy iron fist. One night I played my favorite game, “Look In The Fridge And Just See What We Can Do With What We Have Here”. They had a big side of wild salmon (ok, swoon) and some golden beets from their CSA that they weren’t really sure what to do with (let’s be honest, no one ever knows wtf to do with beets unless you’re actively Russian). So I threw together this pretty fast, very easy weeknight fridge clean-out meal of maple-mustard crispy skin salmon with roasted beets and carrots that I will share with you at the very end of this here post 🙂
My last night there Heidi and Isaac invited some friends over and we had a really fun little dinner party. Like me, they exclusively associate with people who really really love food, so it was glorious. No dinner party would be complete without a Trader Joe’s app spread, and we were not remiss: Heidi’s friend Chelsea brought TJ’s spinach dip OF THE GODS and I might have eaten the whole thing if dinner had taken any longer. We sat down to a beautiful wintery salad made by another friend Max, replete with spiced candied pecans, dried currants, pear, apple, and a perfectly tart vinaigrette. Heidi and I teamed up on the mains: we did my herby crispy stovetop chicken thighs with tons of Heidi’s garlic, which I’ll share a recipe for someday. Alongside it was a really simple but totally dreamy winter squash purée using a Hubbard squash someone had given them from THEIR garden. EVERYONE HAS GARDENS. We finished the evening off with a gf/df almond cake from my friend and colleague Julia, topped with a raspberry compote made with vanilla, a little cardamom and frozen raspberries from Heidi’s summer crop. Like are you kidding me?? I could eat like this every single day and die happy.
Saturday I was due to drive to Portland, Oregon, so Heidi, Isaac and Cy took me to a bakery they frequent called The Grain Shed to finish off my visit with some breakfast. This place is unreal. It’s a part bakery, part brewery, and they use local Washington state heirloom wheat (most of which is grown a fairly short distance away in a really cool farming region called the Palouse), as well as natural leavening aka sourdough in their breads. Here is my Ted Talk on why this is awesome. Heirloom wheat is hardier, more flavorful, and often more nutrient-dense than the bred-into-oblivion-for-selection modern wheats more suitable for monocropping. Since they’re grown in smaller quantities by smaller farms and require more careful attention, heirloom crops are often more compatible with regenerative farming practices that preserve soil health, biodiversity and ecosystem integrity. Sourdough bread (which is the way all bread was made pre-industrial revolution) is a legit lacto-fermented food like kimchi or sauerkraut. As such, sourdough is both beneficial for gut health and is more nutritious than chemically leavened bread, since fermentation makes more bioavailable various nutrient compounds found in wheat. Additionally, fermentation metabolizes a fair amount of the gluten, so those with gluten sensitivities might not struggle so much with a true sourdough… AND it can last for weeks without molding. Finally, heirloom wheat and sourdough bread both taste freakin delicious. Win/win/WIN.
Anyway, I got the most amazing breakfast sandwich with house zhug and habanero sauces (they also make and sell their own muhammara and labneh??), and took some whole grain biscuits (!!) and a sprouted rye with sesame seed loaf to go. As a Certified Bread Superfan, I was utterly in heaven. Please, please go support them if you’re ever passing through Spokane!
So…. this is actually part one of a two part post about my trip, because this one got insufferably long. Stay tuned for part two, where I will talk at length about our visit to Lilia Comedor, an incredible new restaurant in Portland. Til then! Xx
Recipes and methods:
Maple-mustard crispy skin salmon with roasted beets and carrots
Time: about 45 minutes
Materials: medium pot, wire rack and baking sheet (optional), cast iron or other oven-safe pan, large baking dish
salmon filets, cut into portions if applicable
approximately equal parts dijon mustard, maple syrup, olive oil
a few cloves finely chopped garlic (for salmon)
fresh dill and parsley (dried will work too but fresh is preferred), roughly chopped
a few medium beets (i prefer golden because they’re not as messy!) and a few medium carrots, cleaned of any dirt
a few cloves smashed and roughly chopped garlic (for veg)
salt, pepper, more olive oil
Preheat your oven to 400, and place a medium pot of water on the stove to boil. Dry the salmon skin very well on paper towels, then sit them skin-side down on more paper towels on a plate OR on a wire rack over a sheet pan to keep them dry while they marinate. Salt the flesh well. In a bowl, whisk together mustard, maple syrup, olive oil, some salt, pepper, garlic, and most of the herbs. Drizzle marinade over the filets, distributing equally and using a brush if necessary to cover all the flesh. Let sit, marinating while you work on the veggies. You can also do this hours in advance for a longer marinade time.
Add a pinch of salt to the boiling water. Add the beets and let them par-boil until just beginning to soften, about 10 minutes. Drain and discard water and let beets cool until safe to handle (if you prefer your beets and carrots peeled, now’s the time to do it!). Then chop both beets and carrots into roughly equal size sections and place in a large baking dish. Add the garlic, a generous pinch of salt, pepper, and olive oil; toss to coat. Put in the oven and let roast until largest beets are totally fork-tender and have a little nice browning, between 20-35 minutes depending on the size of your sections.
When veggies are nearing doneness (check every ten minutes or so and give em a toss/flip if needed), heat a large cast-iron or other flat-bottomed oven-safe pan over medium-high heat. Drizzle a tbsp or so of olive oil in the pan, swirl to coat. Place salmon filets in the pan, skin-side down, and let them sit undisturbed for about ten minutes. Turn on your oven fan or open a window- it might get a little smoky! When filets release fairly easily from the pan, they’re nice and crisped and ready for the oven. Turn your oven on broil, remove your veggies, and put the entire pan of salmon in the oven to finish cooking. Check after 3 minutes, then every minute or so after that- the filets should be just barely flaky and firm to the touch. Cook time will depend on the thickness of your filets, so just watch them closely. It shouldn’t take more than 6 minutes or so.
When salmon is done, remove from oven. Plate, garnishing with the remaining herbs along with the veggies and a simple green salad or a starch. Enjoy!
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