Best-kept secret in town: Lunch at Seattle Culinary Academy

Did you know?– the students in the Seattle Culinary Academy want to serve you lunch! The SCA, part of Seattle Central Community College on Capitol Hill, has three (three!) different restaurants staffed by chefs-in-training who prepare the food and serve it to you in style. On top of that, in the summer they offer a special small-plates menu, which I sampled a couple of weeks ago. It was a big moment for me!–Earlier this summer I had watched these very same students learn to grow the  ingredients I was eating. And therein lies a story.

My connection to the SCA actually goes back several years, when my friend Donna and I took a series of evening cooking classes in the professional kitchen there. (Donna was good; I was . . . learning.) What a series!–stocks, soups, sauces, poaching, steaming, grilling, roasting, braising (who knew about braising?), eggs, poultry, pasta, grains, veggies, seafood, dairy–chef Hope Sandler marched us through weeks of hands-on cooking, with (miraculously) no casualties, other than one or two minor cases of blood-letting and mutual burning.

You’d think after that I’d never need another cooking class in my life! But I keep signing up, and one of the best I’ve ever taken was a two-day class offered by chef Sally McArthur at La Conner Flats, an 11-acre English country display garden and working farm north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley. After a full day of cooking in the farm’s Granary, we ate our dinner alfresco at a long table on the lawn, then played boules in the garden’s beautiful allée.

But Sally gave us more than a cooking (and bowling) class; she also painted us a picture of the lush fertility of the Valley (which is on the same latitude as France’s Loire Valley) and of the careful stewardship that sustains it. Besides getting acquainted with garden owners Bob and Margie Hart, we harvested tomatoes for our meal at the  Hedlin Family Farm nearby, and tasted Pasek Cellars berry wines in the garden’s gazebo. We munched on cheese from Samish Bay Cheese with the co-owner Suzanne Wechsler. And we learned about the many projects of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, an activist farming organization that I’m dying to tell you more about (and will–but that’s another story!). Suffice it to say that I immediately joined SPF and have been an avid follower of their activities ever since.

Small world!–At the beginning of summer the SPF newsletter landed in my in-box with a front-page story about the SCA! The connection?–The SCA was about to offer a course on sustainable food systems practices, organized around weekly field trips up to (you guessed it) La Conner Flats. It turns out that Bob (who is also president of the SPF board) worked with SCA chef and instructor Gregg Shiosaki to develop the course, now in its sixth year (nobody tells me anything). And each year, Bob sets aside a plot of farmland where the students can learn the “best practices for sowing, cultivating, and harvesting vegetables and fruit.” Long story short, thanks to Bob and Gregg, this year I got to tag along. (I’m putting together a micro-movie about the experience; stay tuned.)

These students know how to work!–Every week, they plowed, pricked, planted, hilled, and dug like old hands. And each week they loaded up their bus with crates of the farm’s produce for the SCA larder, harvested in part from the same fields that they had worked.

Which brings us back around to my small-plates lunch at the SCA! These same apprentice farmers were now, crisp in kitchen whites or servers’ black-and-white, staffing an entire buffet restaurant, from host station to prep, line, table, and service. Here’s how it works: you stop at the host station by the front door and buy tickets for 75 cents each (I got 12); the plates range in price from one to say five tickets each. You then wander from buffet table to buffet table trying to compose your meal out of the bounty in front of you; finally, you drop some tickets in a bowl and add another plate to your tray.

Chef Gregg was all over the place, dropping a word of advice here and showing a small trick of the trade there. After watching Gregg demo its preparation, I had to have the seared salmon salad with oriental vinaigrette; Claire prepared my serving beautifully, all the while answering a barrage of questions from me about the ingredients (lots!–basil, mint, cilantro, frisee, candied orange peel, grapefruit, orange, lime, pecans . . . I’m forgetting some). (I’m guessing she wanted to crown me with that pan.)

Next I zeroed in on the Skagit Valley farm slaw, presided over by Ryan, who also happily ran through the list of ingredients (cabbage, carrots, shredded snow peas, Fresno pepper . . .) At that point, I had to sit down and eat! The salmon salad and slaw made a nice combo.

For my next round, after mulling over a number of possibilities I went with the borek (a puff pastry with potato filling, with a red pepper coulis and feta dill dressing) and a Thai cucumber cup with olive tapenade and pan au lait. Did I mention that these guys get high points for presentation? Earlier, chatting with Rachel (that’s her in the first picture of the SCA buffet tables), I learned that she had first studied art; she loves food styling and presentation. I don’t think she’s alone!

Now it was time to choose a dessert, which is no mean task; SCA has a killer Specialty Desserts and Breads program, and they were really piling it on. Racks of desserts kept rolling out of the kitchen, and the dessert table looked as long as a football field. A flan? A cake? A pie? Meringue, anybody? But my ticket stash was as nearly empty as I was full, so I settled on a scoop of lemon-basil sorbet. The perfect last bite!

In the dining room, Alice and Richard were serving, and at a slow point I got Alice to tell me a little bit about the program’s curriculum. One of their required courses explores the psychology of human relations; they really think about the roles that food and eating play in our sense of well-being. It struck me that they were doing a good job of translating a small part of that thinking into the concrete actions of unobtrusive, pleasant service.

So, for less than $10, I had an excellent meal prepared and served by a whole crew of diligent, delightful professionals-in-the-making. And afterwards, I strolled a couple of blocks over to the new location for Elliott Bay Books and spent a few minutes browsing through the new releases. A great way to turn a lunch hour into a mini-vacation!

The small-plates program is over for this summer, but the Square One Bistro opens on Wednesday October 5th and the One World dining room opens on Thursday  Oct 6th. The Buzz, open now, offers baked goods and pastries (and coffee, natch). (The days and times vary; before you go, check the website for details.) But this is one secret that nobody should keep–you can get a really great lunch at the SCA!

Mex auténtica: it’s all about your larder

A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Oaxaca, the Mexican city famous for its mole sauces. Of course, I ate more than my share of them!–and of the seven different traditional Oaxacan moles, mole negro became my favorite. Since then, I’m occasionally tempted to order chicken mole in restaurants, but I never really believe I’m as well fed as I was there.

Enter chef and cooking instructor Suzanne Hunter! (–that’s her in the white chef’s jacket). Last week I attended her Mexican cooking class (offered through Bon Vivant School of Cooking), and unbelievably, chicken with mole negro was just one of five different traditional Mexican dishes that we made. Why “unbelievably?”–traditional mole negro is very complex, and she doesn’t stray far from that path: her version has 27 different ingredients (five different kinds of dried chile!), and just about as many steps. As if that wasn’t enough!–We also made tamales, shrimp with tomatillo sauce, and two flans. But let’s talk about the showpieces!–the mole and tamales.

Authentic Mexican food wraps you up in its fragrances and flavors like a warm serape. I grew up in South Texas eating standard Tex-Mex fare, and I still love it and cook it all the time. But “cooking Mex” with traditional techniques and ingredients takes you to an entirely different world. I can’t walk you through all the details here (it would be a chapter, not a post, and anyway the recipes are Suzanne’s, not mine!), but let’s take a quick tour just to give you a feel for the (laborious!) process.

To make the mole, first you have some prep to do. To start, make about 10 cups of homemade chicken broth. (If you go with a store-bought product here, why not just buy a mole mix and save yourself the rest of the day?) Next, you are going to split your chiles (that’s about 25 separate pieces to work with), take out the seeds, and toast the pods. Then, after soaking the toasted chiles, puree them and press them through a strainer (then repeat). Now toast the seeds and give them the same treatment. Next, you toast your spices and grind them up fine.

Moving on to your aromatics, sauté your onion and garlic. Do the same to the tomatoes, tomatillos, herbs, and raisins, and puree them too. Toast the nuts (four different kinds). Then puree the nuts with the seeds you toasted earlier, and add enough broth to make a paste. Do the same to a banana and some fried bread.

Next you begin to layer your separate pastes and purees into the pot with broth, cooking each before adding the next, until you have a thick, dark sauce. Finally, you add the chocolate and cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Done! We had it over poached chicken–delicious.

I’ve actually left out lots of detail! But I hope you’ve gotten a feel for the meticulous layering of flavors that goes into an authentic mole. If you want to make it, search on “authentic mole“–I found a couple of similar recipes. Or, find the best, most traditional restaurant you can and order it there!

Compared to the mole, the tamales were a slam-dunk! (And there are good recipes out there in blog-ville.) We used fresh masa and freshly rendered lard to make the dough. To assemble, you spread a small amount of the dough on a banana leaf or corn husk, add a bit of shredded pork and a dollop of mole, and fold them up! Then you steam them for say an hour and a half. You can make homemade tamales easily; invite a couple of friends over, maybe whip up a batch of margaritas, and get an assembly line going! Make sure to make enough to eat now, with more to freeze for next time.

So, finally getting back to the title for this post, I’m guessing that by now you have a pretty good idea why I say that cooking authentic Mexican cuisine is all about your larder. Let’s review. For whole chiles, we had Pasilla Negros, Guajillos, Chilhuacles, Mulattos, and Chipotles. We had Mexican cinnamon (true canela, not cassia bark), Mexican oregano, and Mexican unsweetened  chocolate (Ibarra is one brand). The broth recipe called for adding the chicken’s feet. The flan recipe asked for Mexican brown sugar, called “piloncillo” for its cone shape, but also known as panela or panocha. The tamales called for fresh masa (although masa harina works), plus banana leaves or corn husks.

And lard.

Wait!–Don’t click yet! Let’s talk. Lard is rendered pork fat. It has less cholesterol than butter (and a higher ratio of good cholesterol), and it has the same good fatty acid as olive oil. Suzanne completely convinced me that lard is a good ingredient, but don’t believe us!–Google it yourself. The tub of lard (I know, I know) that you buy at the grocery store is hydrogenated, so it is better to home-render some.  (Suzanne home-rendered the lard that we used to make the tamales.) I haven’t tried to do it yet, but I will soon and write it up for you. Unless lard is a dietary taboo for you, I hope you’ll give it a try; it also does magic things for re-fried beans and (my baker friends tell me) for pastries and pie-crusts.

Suzanne gave us some leads on Mexican grocers in this area; it may take some research, but I bet you can find at least one in your area too. If not, a quick search will turn up a range of mail-order suppliers.

And if you are really lucky, you’ll find a great cooking instructor with the same total respect for ethnic culinary traditions that we’ve got in Suzanne!

Everybody’s talking about nettles

The stinging nettle! Nobody ever forgets that first brush with it. Especially not the poets, it turns out; for literary legs, the stinging nettle ranks right up there with the rose. But of course it plays all the bad-boy parts:

“In dreams, again, I plucked a flower That clung with pain and stung with power, Yea, nettled me, body and mind.” How Love Looked for Hell,  Sidney Lanier

“Fame blowing out from her golden trumpet a jubilant challenge to Time and to Fate; Slander, her shadow, sowing the nettle on all the laurell’d graves of the Great.” Vastness. Alfred Lord Tennyson

“But I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” Hotspur, in Henry the Fourth  Part I, Act II. Scene III. Shakespeare

And people figured out early on that where you find nettles, you are likely to find dock:

Of the old house, only a few crumbled  Courses of brick, smothered in nettle and dock. The House That Was. Laurence Binyon.

Which is a big mercy, because a crushed dock leaf can rub away the  nettle’s sting:

My pity bids the dock-leaves grow Large, that a little child may know Where he shall heal the nettle’s sting. Hertha. Nora Chesson

Even Chaucer was on to this–he quotes an “old charm” for curing the sting of a nettle:

“Netle in, dokke out”: ‘Nettle in, dock out.

Dock rub nettle out! ‘Troilus and Crisseda. Chaucer

So, you are thinking, where does this take us with the whole food blog idea?–Well, I went off on a foraging expedition to Vashon Island, and we bagged heaps of nettles! (And did find a use for a few leaves of dock while we were at it.) Apres foraging, trip leader Becky boiled up a huge vat of nettles, and we all had some of the broth as nettle tea. (Do you love spinach? You will love nettle tea.)

Trip leader Becky is chef and cookbook author Becky Selengut (www.CornucopiaCuisine.com) who organized the trip with Jeanette Smith, ecologist and outdoor adventure leader (http://www.backroads.com/). Also along to share her expertise was environmental anthropologist Melissa Poe (Institute for Culture and Ecology, www.ifcae.org). These people know their stuff!–We learned tons. Other parts of the landscape we munched on: sheep sorrel, dandelions, salmonberry flowers, chickweed, peppercress, Douglas fir (!–Doug fir tea, anyone?–delicious.)

Then, after a quick stop at Hogsback Farm for still more salad greens, a ferry ride back across the Sound, and a huge lunch at Spring Hill Restaurant in West Seattle, we made a quick stop at Mutual Fish to buy some halibut and went back to Becky’s condo.

While Jet and Melissa brewed still more teas and made a huge salad out of our foraged goodies and salad greens, Becky took us through making our first dish for dinner, nettle ravioli. Homemade pasta with a filling of our nettles (blanched and refreshed), goat cheese, ricotta, and a bit of balsamic vinegar. Plus a brown butter shallot sauce. Plus (here’s Becky’s poetry!) dress the dish with mint leaves and salmonberry flower petals.

On to the halibut. Portion the fish (I could spend a couple of pages on Becky’s technique), fire up a wok dedicated to smoking (as Becky says, her ghetto wok), and put some wood chips in there over high heat. Float a wire-mesh grill at the top third or so of the wok, place the halibut portions on it, and cover. Smoking ensues. (Suggestion!: put large fans at all your windows, pointing out.)

Now, you want to pull together the components to finish the halibut dish–nettle sauce, morel mushrooms, fried nettle garnish. So timing is everything. (Luckily, Becky and team were on it, because by this time I was having a glass of wine and reading Becky’s fish cookbook. Stay tuned for a review.)

But let’s focus on that nettle sauce. Basically, you put some of the blanched nettles, some parsley, and some yogurt into a blender and zap it until smooth.

Assembly time. The sauced fish would have been fantastic all by itself. But these folks are also poets of presentation!–beautiful fish, beautiful sauce, beautiful garnish of morels and fried nettle leaves.

And a big finish with Jet’s rhubarb star anise crumble. None of us wanted ice cream on top until we all did.

See some pictures by an actual photographer, Jennifer Durham, fellow forager (http://gallery.me.com/tennjd#101059). Also visit her company site: http://www.jenniferdurhamphotography.com/

Read more than you ever wanted to know about the botany of nettles:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stinging_nettle

Intermezzo: Cooking class–root vegetables

Root vegetables!–beet, celeriac, jicama, fennel, carrot, potato. sweet potato. Sitting here savoring the very first sunny days of spring, I had my doubts about this class. Plus, it was quite a drive away, way off in Kirkland northwest of Juanita Bay. But am I glad I went!

Chef Pam Samper (she’s the tiny person in the top photo) did a great job of steering about eight of us through a lineup of her recipes for soup, slaw, gratin, souffle, and salad, all made with root veggies. (I made the savory celeriac flan. No really, I did!–And it wasn’t that hard.)

The class (another offering from Bon Vivant cooking school) was hands-on; alone or in teams of two, at stations set up ahead of time in the kitchen of our long-suffering hostess, we proceeded to chop dice mince boil blend fry roast until we had the following fabulous dishes:

puree of roasted beet soup with creme fraiche
savory celeriac flan
miniature turkey burgers with jicama, fennel, and carrot slaw (with a remoulade to die for)
gruyere, shallot & thyme-infused potato gratin
mixed green salad with shaved root vegetables, citrus (in this case, beautiful blood orange) segments & citrus vinaigrette
individual sweet potato and ham souffles (proud cook taking a bow in the photo!)

Which we promptly ate.

Only one bowl of beet soup went flying; the victim and the floor were quickly swabbed down. And the layer of “prep gunk” covering the counters was cheerfully scraped up and dumped by Pam and her assistants.

A good time was had by all!

(Pam is Seattle manager and lead chef for Parties that Cook!,
http://www.partiesthatcook.com/seattle-chefs/)