Saturday, July 25, 2009

Click Happy

Some may have noticed the return of photos to Rutabagastories, which can only mean - drum roll, please - I have a new camera! The good news is, I think I've found a keeper (although Costco does have a 90 day return policy, so I'm not locked in yet). The not so good news... it didn't come cheap. After playing around with a few point and shoot models, I came to realize that what I really wanted, what I've in fact wanted since I bought my original digital camera about six and a half years ago, was an SLR.

The fact is, I love setting up a shot the old fashioned way, looking through a viewfinder. And I love the option of a true manual focus. But on a typical point and shoot model the viewfinder is woefully inaccurate, and the manual focus, if it exists, is a joke. A DSLR, I figured, would give me the control I craved, and allow me room to grow as a photographer. The only downside, really, is that a DSLR is much larger than a point and shoot, making it too unwieldly for certain situations. We may just buy an ultra compact, inexpensive point and shoot to have on hand for such occasions.

I haven't had much of a chance to play with my Nikon D5000 (the model I chose after extensive online research) yet, but managed to bring it along while walking Lucy this afternoon. Initially Lucy wasn't too keen on stopping for what was, to her mind, no reason whatsoever, but overall she was extremely patient with her dog mommy's strange behaviour. While the lighting wasn't always great and our neighborhood isn't the most thrilling place for photography, I did get a few nice shots. Here's a sampling:

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


While Michael continued his quest for a Capitol Hill parking spot, I took my place at a charming table decoratively turned out from ribbons of corkwood. Scenes of long ago Russia filled the walls, despite the fact that in its current incarnation this spot, now called Olivar, is a Spanish restaurant. I perused the menu and the specials listed on the blackboard, thinking that I could at least steer us in the right direction once Michael arrived.

First up was sangria, quickly followed by a tray of sliced baguette served with green olives in a pool of seasoned oil, just waiting to be mopped up by the bread. Bright an peppery, the olive oil really hit the spot. Out simple salad of greens, lightly roasted tomatoes, and shards of fresh garlic croutons was also pleasantly spicy and perfectly dressed.

The next dish provided the only disappointment. Don't get me wrong, the sauteed mix of mushrooms was excellent, again just a little spicy and perfectly cooked. The oversized gougere they were served in , however, cleverly appearing on the plate like a carefully mussed burger, was lacking in flavor and just too dry. We ate up the mushrooms eagerly, thinking they would have been better served alongside a few simple slices of fresh bread or toast.

For my main dish, I chose the herby risotto, a bright jewel green pool that came topped with a poached egg just waiting to be poked so it could ooze into the rice below, a dollop of cool, rich tomato quenelle (and honestly, I have no idea what "quenelle" means, but it was tasty) to be stirred into the warm dish, and a lacy Parmesan crisp. Mmm... I didn't miss seafood, my typical restaurant choice, at all with this dish, although by the end of it I was more than full. Michael, on the other hand, enjoyed one of the evening's specials: ribbons of fresh fettuccine with oregano, served with a sort of Spanish take on cordon bleu made of thin pork cutlets with Serrano ham and manchego cheese, breaded and fried.

Full we were, but since this was actually my birthday meal (yes, I am loathe to admit to turning a year older), dessert seemed in order. A lovely warm semolina lemon cake served with sour rhubarb compote and some sort of unidentifiable sorbet that brought it all together made for a sweet end to the meal.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

King of Crab

Third time's the charm - for our third night at the grill this weekend, Alaskan king crab legs were the star, brought to us by Michael's grandfather, Chad. After a change of plans this afternoon, we convinced that family they should come to our place for dinner - bringing the crab legs with them, of course - offering us an opportunity to show off our house and our Lucy dog to Michael's Aunt Robin and Chad's son, Scott.

Precooked crab legs are the epitome of simplicity when it comes to preparation: simply thaw and serve, or throw onto the grill to warm them up before eating. But it's in the eating, you see, that crab becomes messy, and I admit to squirting my tablemates once or twice in my effort to pull out every last piece of succulent crab meat. Fortunately they were good sports about it. And seeing as we were all in the same boat, passing around kitchen shears and digging into the flesh with our forks, it really could have been any one of us. Due to its size, however, king crab does have one advantage over Dungeness. It may be messy, but you get to your reward much faster than with the smaller Dungeness, and with legs the size of Lucy's , you do reap a substantial reward.

Some enjoyed their crab in salad, while I reveled in simply pouring melted butter over the exposed flesh. OK, that came out sounding a little cruder than I intended, but crab brings out my gluttonous side. Perhaps that's why God made eating crab such a chore - it keeps us from overindulging, unless you pay the high price for prepared lump crabmeat. But there's a certain satisfaction in working for your supper, at least when that supper happens to be crab.

The Bessings of Barbecue

The barbecue got a workout on Friday night, when our house made room for about a dozen guests - nurses, their families, and friends, everybody glad to get together away from the VA Hospital (and who could blame them?). Michael was proud to grill up racks of baby back ribs, glazed with a sweet balsamic sauce from the pages of Gourmet's July issue. The July issue of Gourmet is always a hit - is there a better time of year to enjoy cooking and eating than this very month? I'd say not, although I admit to being prejudiced.

The ribs were eaten clean, only a pile of bones left in a bowl by the time the evening was over. Supplemented with sangria, salads (we must make an effort to be healthful - while still enjoying good eats), bourbon mint tea, chips, beer, ice cream treats, and the burgers that Michael couldn't resist picking up at Whole Foods, I don't think anyone left hungry. I, for one, ate far too many Tim's Cascade Jalapeno chips. They put something addictive in that flavor, I'm sure of it.

And even though I abstained from the ribs myself, being generally a non-eater of mammal meat, I have to admit they looked very, very tasty. How could one resist? But even a turkey burger cooked over mesquite charcoal and topped with a slice of Tillamook vintage white can taste like heaven on a sunny summer night. With that in mind, I wasn't too disappointed when we fired up the grill again last night for a fresh batch of burgers. In Seattle, you have to enjoy it when you can.

Monday, July 13, 2009

San Sebastian, Seattle-Style

One rather unfortunate fact about urban restaurants is that they can often be "trendy". This is not to say that the trends themselves are bad - after all the recent emergence of Capitol Hill as a homemade ice cream hot spot (can you reasonably call anything related to ice cream a "hot spot"?) is nothing to complain about. The unfortunate thing is that trends come and go, they can be exclusive and uppity, and they can put a false focus on food as a hip lifestyle accessory, as opposed to, well, simply good food.

Take small plates: it's only logical that this trend should lend itself well to tapas bars, and even, in the case of Txori, a real San Sebastian style pintxos bar in Seattle's Belltown. Along with fellow foodie John, we visited Txori for the first time tonight, and had a wonderful meal of pintxos, those little bites I have been craving since I left Spain in May. Owned by a Basque, the food at Txori (meaning "bird" in Euskera, the Basque language) really captured the spirit of Donostia (aka San Sebastian). The atmosphere, on the other hand, was typical Seattle: spare walls, people casually sitting at postage stamp-sized tables with cocktails and ordering off a chicly minimalist menu.

Of course, I knew this would be the case. It's impossible to transport an entire culture of evening pub crawls, with hundreds wandering the narrow pedestrian avenues, filling the streets with chatter and stopping in at their favorite haunts to reach through the crowds and pluck their pintxos of choice from the platters laid out in all their glory across a hundred year old bar. That this is not what Txori is is hardly Txori's fault, and no reason to avoid the place. I'm just saying that if you ever have the chance, go to San Sebastian, because nowhere else in the world can recreate that scene.

But, as noted above, Txori does an excellent job recreating the food, and our smiling waitress, although not herself Basque, made me fondly recall the gracious Maria and Anna, desk clerks at the Hotel Parma in San Sebastian, who always greeted me with a smile and pleasant conversation. The mushrooms were outstanding, the squid in its own ink was unbelievably tender (How do they do that?! Is the ink the secret?), and they even had txakoli, a barely bubbly Basque wine, although it wasn't quite as tasty as what I remembered from my travels.

Definitely, I want to go back. But I couldn't help but feel a little wistful for the pintxo bars of San Sebastian, where some bars are high end and some bars are divey, and while they are always competing for what's new and novel, the concept of pintxos themselves will never go out of style and are enjoyed by all. How many people are going to enjoy Txori, and how many would look at the fact that it serves blood sausage and octopus and $10 cocktails and never set foot inside? If Txori is still here ten years from now, will it be out of fashion, the hipsters and foodies having moved on to the latest craze, or will it grow comfortably into someplace that everyone knows, where everyone goes to get an evening bite with friends both young and old, foodie or not?

I hope it stays. I hope it continues to delight people with unexpected tastes, while keeping old favorites, and proves that so-called small plates are more than just a trend here. Because ultimately, it should be about good food and good company, and taking a little time out of the day to slow down and savor the good things in life.

So Txori, stick around. And hey, homemade ice cream, you can stay, too. Good food is good food, no matter what.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Play Days

One of the best things about Seattle in the summer is that there are so many free events happening. It's as though, since we spend more than half the year under cloud cover, apprehensive of grey skies that could suddenly morph into rain, we have no choice but to take advantage of even the possibility of sun by spending as much time outdoors as possible.

This weekend, Seattle outdid itself with the free events - the Chinatown Street Fair, Green Lake Milk Carton Derby, the Outdoor Theater Festival at Volunteer Park, concerts at the Locks, and West Seattle Summerfest, just to name a few. Waking up to gloriously sunny skies, and shirking our household responsibilities, Michael and I packed a picnic lunch into the car yesterday morning, picked up David, Joan, and Hazel from their current house-sit, and headed to Green Lake with Lucy nervously digging in to Michael's lap in the front seat.

Starting with the milk carton derby, we watched as boats ranging in design from viking ships to clownfish to a human powered "hamster wheel" took to the water with only milk cartons (and the occasional orange juice carton, I noted) as flotation. Leslie met up with us in time for lunch, before we headed to the other side of the lake for a free (donations accepted, of course) performance of Noel Coward's "Hay Fever".

"I don't think we'll be able to get seats," Michael was pessimistic when we found ourselves getting to the playhouse later than planned. "There are too many people here."

"Yes, but on a day like today, people are here for the park - not an indoor play," I responded. Sure enough, the playhouse was nearly empty, and we enjoyed front row seats. My theory proved correct.

But what if you could enjoy a play and the outdoors together? That, doubtlessly, was one of the inspirations behind the popular "Shakespeare in the Park" performances that pop up every year. Even after one play, Michael, Leslie, and our friends Stephanie and Sandy decided they were still up for a performance of The Comedy of Errors at Volunteer Park. Heading to Capitol Hill also gave us the chance to try Bluebird, the newest of the popular homemade ice cream shops that have been multiplying this summer. Michael and I split a cone with a deliciously creamy scoop each of northwest strawberry and peanut butter.

One things about plays, however, is that they don't afford much opportunity to visit with your friends, unless you arrive early. And not all of our friends (ahem) are known for punctuality. Fortunately, a trip to B&O after the show, where they open the windows on the north end of the cafe to the sidewalk in good weather, gave us a chance to chat.

It turns out the timing for the day's events was perfect, as storm clouds rolled in overnight, leaving me rushing to take the laundry down from the porch in the morning rain. Still, a little spot of rain should never stop a true northwesterner from enjoying their summer. After an indoor brunch this morning at Curio Confections (which I highly recommend), my friend, Lewissa, and I braved possible showers and headed out to the West Seattle Summerfest to explore more bakeries, drink a little booze, do a little shopping, and listen to Kim Virant perform. And the rain? After a few noncommittal drops, it disappeared, leaving us with familiar grey skies and pleasantly temperate temperatures.

Tomorrow it is back to work - and supposedly sunnier skies. How I wish summer weekends in Seattle could last all week long. But perhaps it's better this way - after all, I need some time to plan and prepare for the next one!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Very Vaughn Fourth

A narrow inlet off of the Puget Sound, Vaughn Bay seems the perfect place for family picnics come the Fourth of July. Having lived there her entire life, Michael's grandmother is one of the lucky ones, with a house overlooking a small bay of her own that fills with salt water as the tide comes in and leaves behind a tidal flat perfect for clam digging when the tide is out. In the early afternoon as the floating dock began to rise with the incoming tide, Uncle Ronnie was ready at the boat launch, prepared to join the other Bayliners that zipped down the length of the bay towing waterskiers and innertubers. His grandchildren, a gaggle of boys aged six and under, along with one lone curly-headed girl, were perhaps the most enthusiastic of the boaters.

Lucy the dog had her own fun with the help of a stick found on the rocky beach. Throw it out into the sound, and Lucy would fearlessly bound after it, dog-paddling determinedly back to shore in hopes of more. The weather was even hot enough that few people seemed to mind when she shook out her saltwater-logged fur in close range.

The weather, in fact, couldn't have been better, especially in a region famed for sometimes dreary Independence Days. In the shade on the lawn, looking out across the deep blue bay under a baby blue sky, the ridge of fir trees changing from evergreen to golden as the sun sank towards the horizon, it was difficult - no, impossible - to imagine any setting more beautiful.

As twilight came and the bay turned from brilliant blue to a silvery shimmer, more and more firecrackers could be heard echoing across the water. After nightfall, a call and response of elaborate (not to mention illegal) pyrothechnics vied for attention as house after house set off mortor shells and Roman candles, with some displays so elaborate that there was talk that at least one of the neighbors must have hired a professional. Down by the dock at Grandma Dulcie's, the blast of a mortor shell would cause everyone to look up in time to catch a brilliant shower of gold or crimson, raining down over our heads. Only Lucy missed out on the show - she lay quivering in the backseat of the car, too frightened to even chew her favorite bone.

For hours the fireworks continued, while some of us headed back to the house to roast marshmallows over the fire for s'mores, still with a view of the shells bursting in air, but without quite as much noise and smoke. By now the sheen of the pale golden moon appeared as if behind a thin, gauzy curtain, as the smoke from the night's celebrations floated lazily by.

It was time to head home, or rather, head back to the cabin on Hartstene Island for the night. As a few final firecrackers signaled an end to the festivities around midnight, we drifted off to sleep, closing our eyes to the beautiful view of the Sound lapping peacefully, framed by the Douglas firs and madronas that line the shore.

It had been a good day in Vaughn Bay.