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Remarkable Dinner at the Willows Inn (Lummi Island, WA)

19 Jul

Since reading about Blaine Wetzel at The Willows Inn a few years ago (a good article, from earlier in its existence before he’d won the James Beard award), I’ve always wanted to eat there, but getting to a restaurant on a small island a three hour drive and ferry ride north of Seattle was always logistically tricky.

Last week I finally made it happen… and it’s up there in my list of memorable meals and dining experiences. A dinner of 15+ small courses, each based around a few incredibly fresh ingredients, almost all caught, foraged, or grown on the island and prepared with care. I’ve never tasted squid so tender and tart (raw, fresh from the ocean, with oil and bright, intense flowers picked off herbs), such smooth and buttery cabbage and razor clams almost the same texture, squash blossoms so delicate (with a grassy green sauce from the stems), or anything like some of the drink pairings (an earthy mushroom-infused vermouth, a fermented rhubarb juice).

And eating those and more while the sun set across the ocean, highlighting green in the water and the shadows of the San Juan islands, with the hint of smoke from the outdoor grill, the sound of the waves, a large eagle flying by like that’s nothing unusual, and a great dining companion… these too made a difference.

A few photos (click to enlarge):

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After many courses, a break for some soothing, relaxing tea made from birch branches:

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The breakfast the next morning was also remarkable– with a toothy, coarse porridge of various whole grains, a salmon cured in fennel, brown butter brioche, even cheese from a “dairy with a mere 9 goats” on a nearby island:

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And in a weekend on the island arranged around this dinner, there were hints of the source everywhere, from the dense, biointensive garden grown just for the restaurant nearby (talking to the farmer, she meets with the chefs every fall to plan out what plants, leaves, fruit, roots, and flowers they want to cook with the next year), to the restaurant pantry packed with dried, preserved, and fermented ingredients from across the island (cured venison heart, smoked egg yolk, bundles of birch branches, fermenting garlic, berry syrups), to seeing several of the chefs walking that corner of the island before dinner the next day (whether scooping up buckets of water from the ocean to lug uphill or picking flowers and leaves and tucking them away in an array of little plastic bins to bring back to the kitchen)…

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…to even the breadth of berry foraging available when we took a walk in the woods– picking up thimbleberries, blackberries and relatives, huckleberries, salmonberries, and salal berries for dessert in our apartment the next night:

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Smoking Brisket (on a small charcoal grill)

9 May

Two Hour Tacos? Why not Ten Hour Tacos, with a slow-smoked brisket, hand made tortillas, pickles, and a creamy BBQ sauce?

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We threw a dinner party inspired by a weekend trip to Far West Texas, and this is the story of the brisket.

I’d never actually smoked meat before, though I knew the general principle of indirect heat / “slow and low”. It became clear it wouldn’t just be a “set and forget it for 8 hours” process, and that there was a whole range of intuition, tweaking of the fire, and experience needed to get a good smoke. Well, there’s no real way to learn but by doing… so after browsing various online forums and getting pointed at this Saveur article, I had a general plan.

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I’d use a charcoal grill with the coals on one side and a pan of water on the other, a whole 5lb brisket with the fat still on, with lid vents above the meat to draw smoke across it, while adjusting temperature primarily with the bottom vents to try to keep the smoker between 200 and 250F. Since I didn’t have good intuition (or experience with the grill I was going to be using), I splurged on a dual probe wireless thermometer where I could leave one probe in the brisket itself and another in the air within the grill/smoker, to let me know when the temperature was getting too high or low:

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I also spent a few evenings before the weekend  getting sucked into web sites discussing the pros and cons of different styles and types of wood (for example: “Amazing Ribs: The Zen of Wood“) and even the Wikipedia page on charcoal itself. I settled on a common approach of using charcoal for the steady heat (since the porosity and composition of charcoal makes it much easier to adjust burn temperature by modulating airflow, compared to wood which would burn hot and fast), combined with a handful of wood chunks to produce the smoke (not chips which would require too frequent replenishment over what I expected to be an all-day affair). For the wood I chose a mix of mesquite for traditional flavor, cut a bit with milder hickory and sweeter applewood as there seems to be active debate whether an all-mesquite-wood smoke imparts too much bitterness over a long slow smoke like a brisket.

Many hardware stores only carried charcoal and wood chips, but I found chunks of mesquite at the Cole Hardware on Mission St, and the OSH in Berkeley had an impressive entire aisle of wood chunks and chips of various types. For future smokes– I also read about BBQ Galore in San Rafael and Lazarri’s in Bayview (SF), though Lazarri’s is only open weekdays and I didn’t have time to make it over.

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The night before the smoke, I made a dry rub for the brisket (I considered keeping it salt-and-pepper-simple for my first time, but ended up with a light rub mostly from that Saveur article– salt, pepper, paprika, brown sugar, mustard, cumin, coriander, and thyme):

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The next morning, I was ready to go. After a few hours letting coals burn down and fiddling with the fire (the inlet vents on the old Weber were rusted open, making it hard to restrict oxygen flow enough to get the temperature down below 300F, which would have been disastrous for slow-cooling– eventually I wedged sheets of foil into each inlet vent which I could move side to side with a chopstick to control airflow) I was able to toss on wood chunks and the brisket and start the smoke. A few hours from the course of the next 6 hours as I fiddled with airflow and added wood whenever the smoke died down:

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Out of curiosity, I kept notes on the temperatures of the smoker and the internal brisket temperature over most of the day–  here’s a graph of those notebook scribbles:

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Once the brisket hit an internal temperature of 160F, I took it out, poured half a beer over it, and wrapped it in thick aluminum foil before tossing it back onto the smoker. This helped it cook the rest of the way through and form a nice crust around the edge:

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Finally, after 8 hours outdoors in the mild sunny Bay Area weather tending meat with a beer on hand, it was done. I let the brisket rest an hour still wrapped to reabsorb its juices, then opened up the foil and diced it into cubes for the tacos.

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Moderate success! It tasted great, with a strong but not overpowering or bitter smokiness, and when paired with some handmade tortillas, onion, cilantro, and barbecue sauce it was an excellent part of the meal:

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The texture was certainly “chewy”– not unreasonably so, but not as tender as I’d imagined, so I still have plenty to learn…

Side note– the barbecue sauce I made was a hit, so I’ll jot the recipe down here. As a Northerner I claim no authenticity, but it was loosely based on a few online recipes for Texas BBQ sauce that highlighted tomato + vinegar + sugar as the base:

  1. Saute half a diced onion in a substantial amount of butter (maybe 3 Tbsp)
  2. Add a bottle of ketchup, plus perhaps half a cup of cider vinegar, salt, pepper, cayenne, smoked paprika, cumin, and marash chili flake
  3. Puree with an immersion blender

I don’t have quantities as the spicing was done to taste, but the vinegar, paprika, marash chili, and butter in particular came together to make an interesting, rich sauce with a background of slow-burn smokiness.

Two Hour Tacos

5 Apr

Relaxing at home by making a few tacos:

Handmade tortillas. Quick-pickled carrots, radishes, and jalapenos. A rare ribeye steak. Some sauteed onions and padrones.taco1And then, a few days later, repeating for dinner-for-two, swapping in chicken rubbed in hot paprika and dry-poached, pickles briefly blanched before chilling (more mellow), and grapefruit-mezcal-lime-honey-campari cocktails (Paloma-esque).

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Icelandic Cocktail Party

21 Feb

We threw a cocktail party / trip slideshow inspired by the food and drink of our trip to Iceland, squeezing about a dozen people into my tiny apartment.

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It started as an excuse to share the Brennivin (somewhat harsh icelandic schnapps with caraway), Lava Smoked Imperial Stout, and a cocktail centered around Birkir, the excellent birch-branch-infused liquer we’d carried back in our luggage (Birkir + lemon juice + simple syrup + soda water).

And then the planning spiraled a bit out of control, as tends to happen with dinner parties– we decided we needed to make individual-serving-size appetizers based on various combinations we’d seen in Iceland (lamb + rutabaga, arctic char + fennel + apple + dill, salmon + horseradish + cheese). Fortunately we were able to find char in one of the bay area fish markets.

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We tried a few ways of cooking rutabaga and ended up boiling and then deep-frying thick chips of it to layer carrot puree, lamb, fried onions, and salt on:

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The salmon (house-cured gravlax — raw salmon packed in sugar and salt and dill and let sit) with cheese, pickles, onions, dill on rye. This was all inspired by a dish at the “Unnamed Pizza Place” in Reykjavik operated by the Dill team that in retrospect I think was a substitution– the menu said it was salmon and fennel, but the first night we went there it came with cottage cheese and pickles and horseradish instead, which ended up being a great combination.

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Parnsip puree, arctic char (pan fried in butter), salmon roe, fennel (pickled and fresh), dill:

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A dessert hannah created visually inspired by the snow-covered lava boulders– Icelandic Skyr + dry chocolate cookies (almost sables) + a licorice caramel.

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More of the spread, before people showed up:

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All surrounded by souvenirs (lava, wool, volcanic ash) and a slide show of some memorable trip photos:

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Gas Station Cooking, Iceland

25 Jan

In Iceland, in a cabin on a snowy horse farm half an hour outside a tiny 350-person town on the day after Christmas. The two restaurants in the area were closed. As was the only grocery store we could find.

A gas station beckoned– we took it as a challenge. This collection of tins/boxes:

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Became spaghetti with peas, sardines, tuna, fried onions, and the salmon rub spice pack Alaska Airlines had inexplicably given me as I disembarked and which I’d been carrying ever since. Not bad, actually. With a candle lit with an emergency firestarter and flint (we didn’t have matches) surrounded by bits of lava from the beach.

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Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur

23 Jan

Iceland’s most famous food:

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Mostly-lamb hot dog in a snappy casing, with the pentalogy of condiments: raw onion, deep-fried-and-dried onion, ketchup, pylsusinnep (sweet mustard), and remoulade (mayo, capers, herbs).

Legit. I regret I only had two in my time there.

Floreria Atlantico, literally underground cocktails in BsAs

25 Nov

A week and a half ago, I was here.

Walk into a flower shop:

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Head through the back door and down metal stairs:

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Have a drink:

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Just one page of the loosely themed menu:

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One of the best cocktail bars I’ve been to in my life, by far. Every single cocktail was remarkably good, and distinctive– glass jars of eucalyptus, cocktails infused with smoke from the grill, beer and amaro, a cocktail in pieces you combine as you drink… but none of it felt ‘conceptual-cute’ or forced. Really well executed cocktails that happened to have some structure to the presentation. I’m in awe.