FOOD EDITORS are just like everybody else. Except they eat more. Or at least more often. They do, after all, have research to conduct.
So when nearly 60 of them gathered in Portland, Ore., two weeks ago for the annual Food News Forum of the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association, they spent much of their time combing the city for good things to eat and good foods to write about--this, of course, in between digesting research reports and attending cooking demonstrations. At least briefly, Portland became a three-day dinner table.
Seafood-rich and produce-lush, this Pacific Northwest city is an appropriate site for such a feast. But for some food editors, the conference became a search for the elusive smoked salmon. Smoked salmon there was, but from Scotland, from Ireland, from nearly everywhere, it seemed, except Portland. Instead, the native specialty was apparently the croissant. French pastry shops have so infested the city that there is an entire guidebook devoted to them. Cafes serving espresso and croissants weave through downtown, muscling into the territory of skid row. Baguettes and bums share the sidewalks of Portland's Old Town. Western clothing stores huddle against patisseries. Portland is serving les nouvelles in a frontier setting.
The French pastry shops serve early enough for a leisurely round of espressos and pain au chocolat before the 11 a.m. opening of Dan & Louis Oyster Bar. That's where one goes for a Yaquina oyster cocktail, its tiny oysters not much bigger than a pearl themselves, served out of the shell and tasting as briny-sweet-metallic-wonderful as the best belons, even though they come doused in cocktail sauce. After oysters--only $1.75 for a remarkable tasting experience--there is still room for a bowl of oyster stew, creamy and buttery, though its diced Pacific oysters had a peculiar spongy texture and not nearly the zest of the Yaquinas. For that, $2.
First on the food editors' program was a tribute to Northwest foods by Jimella Lucas, chef of The Ark restaurant situated a couple hours up the coast in Washington State. One of the new generation of American chefs who place great emphasis on "exactly when and where" ingredients originate, Lucas delivered an ode to Yakima asparagus, Northwest cranberries, tiger-stripe prawns and oysters just hours old. She told of the first time she saw a whole Pacific ling cod, and how different it tasted when the fish was prepared a few hours out of the water rather than from a city fish market the next day.
Lucas talked of chefs today learning about the various conditions of freshness--they've learned that fish must be handled well on the boat before it arrives at their restaurants.. And chefs share their knowledge with their colleagues. Her peers are "developing a Northwest cuisine that is becoming unique in its own style," which in her case means pairing local salmon with fresh peaches, lime, brandy and cream, then topping it with a dollop of cranberry pure'e. She serves oysters prepared 10 different ways, bakes everything from sourdough bread to hamburger rolls, smokes and pickles her own fish. Another of this country's chefs who is building a new American tradition.
Richard Nelson, once assistant to Oregon's culinary patriot, James Beard, introduced the group to what were easily the best strawberries anybody had tasted this year, perhaps any year, on this continent.
So cool a cook is Nelson that he wore a necktie and a spotless, monogrammed apron to demonstrate fish cooking. "I've cooked so much, I could cook in a garbage can in the living room," quipped Nelson, when asked if he preferred a gas or electric range, though he later admitted that next time around he would buy a gas range.
These food writers were after West-Coast fish, so Nelson showed off petrale sole, saute'ing it in three flavored butters--lemon, tarragon and fennel--for just one minute on each side and turning it with tongs and spatula. "I never use a fork for anything except to eat," he advised the audience, explaining that forks poke foods and let the juices run out. Fish and chicken, he went on, should be treated nearly identically; though chicken cooks a little longer, they take to the same seasonings and the same cooking methods. To accompany the fish, Nelson cooked shredded zucchini, insisting that he is bored to death with that vegetable and was cooking it for this group because, "It just gets rid of a little bit more."
"We are only developing a cuisine in Oregon," said Nelson as he tossed zucchini with his tongs. "We have Oregon foods but not yet a cuisine, except for Indian baked salmon." As for native ingredients, there are plenty: Dungeness crabs, razor clams, salmon, all of which Nelson fears are going to become extinct. Wild mushrooms, astonishingly good and varied berries, Seaside peas from the tiny nearby town of that name (available only four weeks of the year, they cook in only 10 seconds), are among other excellent vegetables.
"We've been fussy about vegetables for a long time." What brings out the best of these products? "The least. The least is the best," Nelson said of preparing Oregon foods.
Nelson likes strong-flavored fish, such as Oregon's ling cod, to be poached in milk. Dungeness crab should be simply boiled with six halved lemons and pepper. But Nelson--much as he hated to say it--has found one gussied-up version of salmon that "is superb"; Slather the inside of a whole salmon with one part brown sugar to one part mayonnaise, wrap it in foil and bake at 500 degrees for 10 minutes for each inch of thickness of the fish.
He also gave instructions for breadcrumbs that can be stored on the kitchen shelf for a long while: Shred one loaf white bread and one loaf dark bread in a food processor. Melt a half pound of butter in a kettle and add the crumbs, stirring constantly over medium heat until the butter is absorbed and the crumbs are dry. Keep in a tightly covered container. Do not store in the refrigerator.
If the search for exquisite salmon was not to be fruitful, the visiting food editors were to discover and rediscover the unsung Oregon strawberry. Enormous and sweet and as perfumed as any from the woods of France, the strawberries have, some say, been even improved by the ashes of Mount St. Helens. Nelson churned them into ice cream, warning cooks to leave the stems on the berries until they are just ready to use, and to wash them in a basin of water--not in running water--only at the last minute. He never uses this ice cream recipe for raspberries, he says; "Just eat them off the vine.
A break offered an opportunity for a few editors to dash over to Jake's Famous Crawfish restaurant to look at the 26 fresh seafood offerings, from thresher shark to sturgeon caviar, and to taste Oregon crawfish, Dungeness crab meat and steamed butter clams, unfortunately all a little washed-out tasting for a restaurant of such stellar reputation.
Time next for cocktails, a reception at Nelson's rambling hillside house, with pa te' and more strawberries. And a chance to regroup for dinner. Those intent on fresh salmon went on to Jake's, some of them for the second time; another group splintered off to Le Cuisinier, a very small and spare French restaurant that promised Olympia oysters internationalized with slices of Irish smoked salmon and creme fraiche. In today's mode, the waitress not only recited the specials, but their ingredients: salmon with tarragon from the chef's own garden, chocolate ice cream made with Guittard chocolate. Good food, those local mussels sauced with cream and apple brandy, that tiny loin of Oregon lamb rolled with herbs, olives and pimientos. And though the fresh salmon with tarragon beurre blanc was nowhere near as silky as one would hope, it was accompanied by fresh peas more heated than cooked. In all, Le Cuisinier's cooking was more satisfactory than newsworthy until it came to dessert, a startlingly delectable bing cherry-almond tart, which turned local ingredients into a cuisine-worthy creation. Ah, yes, the pastry era is at its height in Portland.
Berries showed up again at breakfast, in the form of food editor Barbara Durbin's own Oregon strawberry jam for the hotel's French toast. And the day was capped with what was meant to be Portland's culinary highlight, Indian barbecued salmon. But again the great Northwest salmon escaped its pursuers; this was fishy and overcooked, leaving diners to turn to Indian fry bread, local asparagus and more of those becoming-legendary strawberries for solace.
An early morning stroll to the Bijou Cafe found more strawberries, a big white cereal bowlful, with cream. Passed up the waffles and orange muffins--again signs of Portland's age of bakers--but jolted awake to the sight of a group at a formica table, at 8 in the morning, drinking sparkling wine on ice.
By the last breakfast and a business meeting, some editors were feeling the rare sensation of being hungry. They may have found the city bread basket burgeoning with croissants and muffins, but surely there was more to the Portland larder. So as soon as the coffee break was called, several dashed into a cab for a whirlwind culinary tour. Custom Chocolates, a chocolate-truffle shop that opened 2 1/2 years ago, has struggled through finding suppliers of real vanilla (directly from the manufacturer at $78 a gallon) and high-quality chocolate (from Burlingame, Calif.). Twenty-three flavors, from cognac ganache to whiskey raisin, up to 50 pounds of truffles a day, selling for $16 a pound. Raspberry and Grand Marnier truffles are the hit of Portland, but nougatine didn't sell. The country's best they are not, but a serious attempt at quality.
Portland is also discovering food as a major source of conversation. Two taxi rides turned up two becs fins among the drivers. A Saturday market of crafts and food has become a Saturday and Sunday market. And now it includes enormous culinary variety: elephant-ear pastries, teriyaki and lemonade, as well as German, Vietnamese, Indian, Turkish, Mexican and Lebanese food. A downtown carnival included perhaps more different foods than rides, again in dozens of ethnic guises.
But look at what all those cooks have available: Corno & Sons supermarket has local strawberries at 59 cents a pint, plus Hood River d'anjou pears, homegrown asparagus, large local mushrooms and fieldgrown rhubarb. The local radishes are large and brilliant red or long and icy white. There are mint, watercress, scallions, parsley from nearby gardens. From Washington State, corn on the cob and fresh peas, the whitest and cleanest of leeks, lovely turnips and beets with their green tops. Then all of California to draw on for produce.
At last, though, local fish was found, the salmon smoked locally--as well as sturgeon, halibut, ling cod, black cod, herring and swordfish, all smoked. But all smoked hard and strong, not what delicate Eastern palates might expect. And all at Troy's Seafood Market, with four branches that make it the city's largest retail chain. Troy's has tanks full of live Dungeness crabs and ruffly Pacific oysters, prehistoric-monster-looking geoduck clams and moon snails. On ice were glistening shad, running in June though transplanted many years ago from the East Coast, where their season ended months ago. Troy's has its own pickled herring, salmon and rock cod; it has three kinds of sole, and scampi as large as some lobster tails. The market sells salmon bones for 25 cents a pound, crab and shrimp cocktails to go. And in the corner the steamer is cooking crabs and prawns. It will custom-smoke a customer's fish. But in season, 50 percent of the shops' business is selling salmon.
The most interesting cooking tips of the day came from the taxi driver: Dungeness crabs can be cooked in the shell or cleaned before cooking by taking off the backs and breaking in half, then boiling in sea water. But he prefers to cook them in the shell because the crab butter left in the shell makes a dip for the crab meat. Although he claimed the smaller fish shops have the freshest fish, his experience is limited. He, after all, dives for his own scallops, catches his own sturgeon, fishes for his own salmon right off the back porch of his cabin. Two out of two, both taxi drivers fishermen.
One could get very envious. We didn't dare ask whether they had a strawberry patch. SALMON A LA LUCAS (From The Ark Restaurant) (1 serving) 3 tablespoons clarified butter 1/4 cup flour For each serving: 6 ounces fresh salmon cut into 1/4-inch-thick fillets Squeeze of lemon juice (1 wedge) Salt and white pepper 1/4 cup sliced fresh mushrooms Pinch of minced fresh garlic 3 tablespoons brandy 1/2 cup heavy cream 1/2 teaspoon dijon-style mustard 1/2 fresh peach, peeled and sliced* 2 teaspoons cranberry pure'e (recipe follows) Freshly chopped parsley for serving
Dust salmon lightly with flour. Heat butter in skillet; put the salmon in and season lightly with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Brown slightly on one side; turn and add the mushrooms and garlic. Let the second side brown, moving the fish in the pan to keep it from sticking. Deglaze the pan with the brandy (don't remove the salmon). Add the cream, mustard and peaches. By moving the pan in a circular motion you will be able to marry the mustard and cream properly. When these ingredients are mixed well, the salmon will be done. Remove the salmon to a serving "casserole" dish and pour the sauce over, arranging the peaches on top attractively. Top each serving with a dollop of cranberry pure'e. Sprinkle chopped parsley over the pink of the salmon for color contrast, if desired. Serve with white rice.
*Note: If peaches happen to be not at the peak of their flavor, add 1 tablespoon of peach-flavored brandy to the sauce as it cooks to enhance the flavor of the peaches.
For making 2 or more servings, it is not necessary to increase the sauce accordingly. For four servings, for instance, doubling the sauce ingredients should be sufficient. CRANBERRY PUREE (Makes 1 cup) 1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries 1 teaspoon sugar Squeeze of lemon juice
Put all ingredients in the container of a blender or food processor and pure'e well. JIMELLA LUCAS' BARBECUE SAUCE (From The Ark Restaurant) (Makes 1 to 1 1/2 quarts) 3 cups tomato sauce 3 cups ketchup 1/2 cup liquid smoke 2 cups white vinegar 1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce 1 small onion, finely diced 3 tablespoons prepared mustard 3 large cloves garlic, minced 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and mix well. Bring to a rumbling boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Cool at room temperature; cover and refrigerate. Will hold up to a month if properly covered and kept refrigerated. Good with oysters in the shell and prawns in casserole, or spread lightly on salmon fillets with a bit of white wine around the bottom and baked for about 12 mintues at 425 degrees (for a 6- to 8-ounce fillet). Also good with beef and chicken. NORTHWEST SALMON BARBECUE (8 servings) 1/4 cup butter, melted 2 tablespoons lemon juice 2 teaspoons parsley, minced 1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce 1/4 teaspoon garlic salt 1/8 teaspoon each pepper and bottled hot pepper sauce 2 to 3 pound salmon fillet
Combine all ingredients except salmon. Tear heavy-duty aluminum foil at least 2 inches longer than salmon; perforate with table fork every 2 inches. Grease foil; place salmon, skin-side down, on foil. Brush with butter mixture. Form a tent with another piece of heavy-duty foil over salmon; seal edges. Barbecue over hot coals 8 minutes. Uncover salmon and baste with butter mixture. Recover with foil and barbecue 7 minutes longer or until salmon flakes easily when tested with a fork. (Total cooking time of 10 minutes per inch of thickness measured at its thickest part. In a broiler, however, it might take considerably longer.) Baste with remaining butter mixture. RICHARD NELSON'S BROILED LEG OF LAMB WITH ORANGE BUTTER (6 to 8 servings) 6 to 7 pound leg of lamb, trimmed and butterflied 1/2 teaspoon rosemary Oil Salt and freshly ground pepper 1/4 pound butter Zest and juice of 1 orange
Trim and butterfly the leg of lamb. Rub the meat with rosemary and oil. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Place the lamb on broiler pan, skin side up, and broil 6 inches from heat for 20 minutes. Turn the lamb and broil 15 minutes. Meat will be nicely pink.
Melt 1/4 pound butter with the zest and juice of the orange and let simmer for a few minutes. Pour over the lamb just before serving.
Note: For variation add 3 tablespoons dijon-style mustard to the butter-orange zest mixture and whisk to blend well. RICHARD NELSON'S GRATED ZUCCHINI (6 servings) 8 medium zucchini 2 tablespoons butter 1 small onion, chopped (optional) 1 teaspoon garlic pu'ree (optional) Juice of 1 lemon Salt and pepper to taste 3 tablespoons buttered bread crumbs
Shred the zucchini. Drain and press out the moisture. Saute' quickly in butter for 1 to 2 minutes, adding onion and garlic, if desired. Squeeze the juice of 1/2 lemon over it and season with salt and pepper. Top with buttered crumbs. RICHARD NELSON'S FILLETS OF SOLE IN HERBED BUTTER (6 to 8 servings) 2 pounds fillets of sole Salt and freshly-ground white pepper Herbed butter (recipes below)
Melt desired amount of herbed butter in hot skillet. Quickly saute' fillets for 1 or 2 minutes per side--do not overcook.
Fennel butter: Combine 4 tablespoons soft butter with 1/4 teaspoon ground fennel and let stand a few minutes.
Tarragon butter: Combine 4 tablespoons soft butter with 1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon and let stand for a few minutes.
Lemon butter: Combine 4 tablespoons soft butter with 1 teaspoon lemon zest and let stand for a few minutes. RICHARD NELSON'S STRAWBERRY ICE CREAM (Makes 1 gallon) 3 cups heavy cream 3 cups milk 3 cups sugar 3 cups pureed strawberries Juice of 1/2 lemon 1/2 teaspoon salt
Combine cream, milk and sugar in ice cream maker for 10 minutes. Add strawberries, lemon and salt and crank in mixer for 10 minutes longer. Freeze and serve. LIVELY LEMON ROLL-UPS (8 servings) 2 tablespoons soft butter 1/4 cup lemon juice 2 teaspoons chicken-flavor instant bouillon or 2 chicken bouillon cubes (low-sodium if possible) 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce 1 cup cooked rice 10-ounce package frozen chopped broccoli, thawed 1/2 cup chopped scallion 1/2 cup sharp low-fat cheese, shredded 8 fish fillets (about 2 pounds), sole works well Paprika
In small saucepan, melt butter. Add lemon juice, bouillon and hot pepper sauce. Heat slowly until bouillon dissolves; set aside. In medium bowl, combine cooked rice, thawed broccoli, scallions, cheese and 1/2 the sauce. Mix well. Divide this broccoli mixture equally among fillets. (Place any remaining mixture on bottom of a shallow baking dish.) Roll fillets up (secure with toothpicks if necessary) and place seam-side down in baking dish. Pour remaining sauce over roll-ups. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or until fish flakes with fork. Spoon sauce over individual servings; garnish with paprika.
From "The Best From the Family Heart Kitchens" and "A Guide to Low-fat, Low-Salt Cookery."