Thursday, December 20, 2012

Seeking Comfort... In Food And Friends

Since the tragic, shocking, heart-breaking shooting last week, I've been feeling like so many human beings: hopeless, deeply sad, super pissed. I have stewed about what I could do to try and make a difference, making me feeling more morose.

It certainly didn't feel right to be plugged in to my usual social networking community. Tweeting about what I was eating would have been beyond insulting to the memories of those victims, to the little children and the grow-ups who died trying to protect them. Each time, I see a new photo of one of those poor, sweet children, it stabs me in the heart. How can I post Facebook photos of a batch of English toffee?

So, I stayed away. Or, I tried to. When I did check in on Twitter, it was awash in links to anti-gun petitions and more sad, sad news that was hard to read. And then, on Sunday, there was another shocking loss. Poet Jake Adam York, the brother of my friend, Joe, died after having a stroke. He was just 40 and such a bright spirit. If I lived near Joe and his lovely wife, Kathryn, I would make them a casserole. The universal sign of sincere sympathy.

Cooking -- and eating -- always brings me such comfort. A way to show I care and I love to share. So, I made cookies. I took myself out to lunch, to be surrounded by the happy buzz of conversation, a scene that made it seem as if anything was possible. Don't you love how food brings people together? That feeling of community is what I love about connecting online, talking turkey and bacon and barbecue, cookbooks and delicious blog posts and controversial lists.

Maybe dissecting every bite and photographing each dish might be over-the-top, but there's another way of looking at things: There's nothing wrong with a little diversion. I'm not going to stick my head in the compost and ignore what's going on in the world. But maybe talking about food can be kind of like a balm. Like that casserole I long to deliver to my friends, an edible gesture to show I care.

I will not forget about those sad stories, the loss so many families must face. But I'm slowly indulging my need to connect with that online food community. Will I see you there?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Best Bites of 2012, Part 2

Let's call this batch the home cooking edition. I made a promise to myself to try more new recipes this year, but it's so easy to fall back into comfortable old habits. I do not like following recipes, which makes it difficult to learn new tricks.

Yet, I love to be shown how to do something. That means everything from watching Jacques Pepin make a terrific chicken dish at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic and recreated it back home. His recipes make you look like a hero. (Wish I had a photo of JP and me, but that's me with Marcus Samuelsson at the event instead!

The most fun I had, though, was watching my friend Takako make sushi, family style. Takako spent the better part of June living in our spare room. She's the friend of a friend, who happens to live in the neighborhood. Takako is 73 and she met my friends Trinity and Robert a few years ago while hiking in Spain. She lives in Osaka, a retired school teacher, who once taught Yu Darvish, a pitcher on the Texas  Rangers. He was naughty.

We went shopping at Uwajimaya for fish and produce, but Takako had brought rice with her from Japan. She showed me how to cut up the fish, season the rice, make platters that looked pretty. We placed it all in the middle of the table and she showed us -- me, John and Claire -- how to assemble our own hand rolls. It was a lovely meal.

I also loved the time Claire's friend Izzy came over for a fried chicken lesson. When I asked her to pick up some lard, she brought Crisco. Close, but...

What were some of your most memorable meals this year?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Best Bites From 2012, Part One

What a wonderful, very filling year! Was reviewing my food snaps from the past 12 months, and, dang,  there were some mighty memorable meals.

I traveled to Hawaii and gorged on poke, mango and drank from a coconut every day I was there. Then, there was a star-studded trip to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, an epic road trip that stirred up powerful waves of nostalgia for early days in my newspaper career in Colorado. Los Angeles was a blast, especially the brilliant bites at Mexicatessan in Eagle Rock. Oh, those crispy duck skin tacos!

There are still lots of days on the 2012, but I doubt anything can top the competition barbecue I pigged out on at the Kingsford Invitational in Belle, Missouri. So, so tender/smoky/messy good!

Still, no matter how from home I roam, I come back to Seattle so pumped about the amazing food here. The spectacular ingredients, the chefs and kitchen crews with heart and drive, the stunning settings in which you can enjoy these incredible edibles adds up to a vibrant food scene that just keeps getting better all the time.

Photos from top to bottom:

Wagyu carpaccio at Metropolitan Grill.

Madison Park Conservatory's superstar chefs Zoi and Cormac (one of Food & Wine's best new chefs this year... yay!) impressing the hell out of the crowds in Aspen.

Beet "tartare" at Steelhead Diner.

The Tom Douglas catering crew making some kick-ass barbecue brisket sandwiches.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Congrats to Yazoo's Delta Q, Winner of Kingsford Invitational

Melissa Cookston and her stellar, three-person team won the "best of the best" competition, held in Belle, Missouri, last weekend. The first-ever Kingsford Invitational was like no other contest I've ever been to, as it was pretty teeny tiny. Just eight teams were vying for first prize, winner takes all of the $50,000. But these were the top teams in the nation, having won big in other competitions throughout the season.

The first clue that the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest Grand Champion was going to come out on top of the heap was when the team handily won the quick-fire one-bite challenge on the first day. Each team was charged with coming up with a compelling appetizer using just five ingredients. Yazoo's Delta Q made grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with cream cheese and jalapenos. Winning the challenge was worth $5,000 and an extra point in the finals score.

On Saturday, five judges with some major BBQ chops evaluated teams on pork, beef brisket, ribs and chicken. Before the prize was announced, the panel gave the crowd a juicy preview, agreeing that it had been a mighty tough decision.

After all the boxes were turned in to the judges, Melissa and her crew invited the crowd to come do a little pig picking, with chunks of beautifully smoked meat from her whole hog placed in containers for everyone to try. A very generous gesture! It was so, so, so delicious, moist and incredibly flavorful. I tried some loin and a bit of shoulder meat, but my favorite was the meaty part of the belly, also known as bacon. Oh man.

The ribs were also out of this world, thanks to teammate and sometimes fellow competitor, John David Wheeler, whose team Natural Born Grillers is a perennial winner at Memphis in May.

Congrats to all the teams for making it to this prestigious competition! Can't wait to see who makes the cut next year!!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Top 5 Things I Learned At The Kingsford Invitational

Spent a long, very filling weekend in and around St. Louis, at the inaugural Kingsford Invitational Barbecue Competition, a "best of the best" cook-off that featured eight excellent teams that had won prestigious prizes this season. For those of us who love barbecue competitions, it was like the Super Bowl, World Series and Indy 500 all rolled into one, with a little bit of Iron Chef tossed in to keep things interesting.

The action took place in a cow pasture -- no kidding, I've got the cow pies on my boots to prove it -- in Belle, Missouri, a two-hour drive from St. Louis. Teams rolled their rigs in, unloaded their various cooking contraptions and did what they do best: treat meat with TLC, low-and-slow over Kingsford competition briquettes (yes, they make a charcoal for heated cook-offs, but consumers can buy it, too).

Rules were slightly different for this go-round, during which teams cooked beef brisket, chicken, pork and did a one-bite quick-fire challenge. The eloquent Chris Lily was the master of ceremonies -- somebody give that man a show on the Food Network! -- who introduced the all-star lineup of judges and walked us through the painstaking process for coming up with the winner. Instead of the traditional 9-point scale, judges were charged with giving the most perfect bites 13. A hedonic scale, explained Meathead, aka Craig Goldwyn, the author of, and the man who cooked up this novel approach. (With the help of a professor at Cornell University!)

While all this cooking and judging was going on, the group of old school journalists and new world blogger types Kingsford flew out to cover the event took tours of the historic Anheuser-Busch Brewery and of the charcoal plant in rural Belle. It was fascinating!

Here are the Top 5 Things I Learned on this calorie-packed trip:

1. Kingford's charcoal briquettes are made from sawdust, a mountain of it. (Pictured above.) Pretty cool way to recycle a waste product, don't you think? The mostly automated plant at Belle runs 24/7 and the crew takes great pride in their record of clean emissions. It was neat to see the whole process, walking through that vast facility, where the sawdust is cooked down to the rock-hard briquettes before being bagged and stacked on pallats that soar two stories high in a 20,000 square foot warehouse. I've always been a Kingsford fan -- I have tried most of the other brands and experimented with lump, too -- but this made me even more enthusiastic.

2. A sprinkle of orange Tang gives grilled chicken a perfect golden hue. So says Los Angeles based cooking champ Harry Soo, aka Slap Yo' Daddy BBQ. Can't wait to use try it.

3. Grilled pickles! Chris Lily's ridiculously delicious grilled bread and butter pickles made me jump for joy! Wow, how freaking novel is that? That pitmaster also impressed the thirsty folks at the bar with his Smoked Lemonade, spiked with Makers Mark. Fill 'er up, please.

4. White Lily flour is no longer made in the South, but milled in Ohio. I went searching high and low for the best material for making biscuits so I could tuck it into my suitcase, but came up empty.

5. Barbecue brings people together. Actually, I already knew this, but it was reaffirmed during this two-day contest. There's nothing more special than talking to team members who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of the perfect bite of Q. Most of these folks have day jobs, but spend every spare moment working on their craft. I met guys from Detroit and a seasoned pitmaster from Virginia, who are white-hot passionate about what they're doing. It takes an amazing commitment of time and money to compete, and while teams might stress as they're putting together the "blind box" that's going to be set in front of distinguished panel of judges, you can tell that part of the reward is hanging out and talking barbecue, right down to the most minute detail. It's easy to see how you could get hooked. I'm happy as a pig in you-know-what to be an observer and a chronicler of this "sport." Go teams!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jury Duty Is Loads Of Fun

Just spent three days sitting in a courtroom of the King County courthouse, a grand old space with lovely marble floors and glacially slow elevators. I was the last juror seated in a civil case that involved testimony from a doc who thought he was a stand-up comic. Judge Marianne Spear finally had to tell him to keep his answer succinct. He did not, even though he kept complaining that he needed to get out of there. He had patients to see. Well, he was trying our patience with his long, rambling answers. Oh, and part of one of his long, rambling answers involved taking personal responsibility for paying bills: "I have patients that pay me in homemade jams and sausages. I've got a guy who's washing my car for the rest of his life to pay off his debt."

The wheels of justice creak in strange ways and I really didn't want to be there, nudging Juror No. 8, who fell asleep and trying not to fall asleep myself or roll my eyes too obviously at the inept lawyers. OK, one was inept, the other was condescending beyond belief. She even winked at the jury and baldly laughed at the poor, pitiful plantiff. Come on. Still, I felt good about fulfilling my civic duty and it was exciting to find myself in a group dynamic that somehow worked like it's supposed to work. There were no obnoxious divas, nobody who hogged the floor when it came time to talk.

If this were an episode of some legal drama, the case would have been sensationalized as cop hits man, who was driving while black. The plantiff was suing the city of Seattle for injuries sustained in a low-speed rear-ender. The city admitted liability, but Mr. E wanted more. He wanted a paycheck, so said the snarky defense attorney. Oh, the accident happened nearly five years ago, and the plantiff went to prison shortly after for domestic violence and witness tampering. He was from an abusive family and was on anti-psychotic drugs. He was not exactly a credible witness. He went to a chiropractor for treatment and the defense contended that those manipulations aggravated the injury to his neck and shoulder.  A pathologist on the jury had examined post-mortem patients who died as a result of chiropractic adjustments. Holy crap!

While we sat in the jury room, deliberating, I stared at the poster in the photograph, thinking about these weighty words. This call to action to do something, anything to contribute. I try. (See item below.) The older I get, the more it breaks my heart to see the pain and suffering in the world. The guy in the wheelchair with a ratty cup from Subway, begging for change. The woman sitting on the street corner, who said thanks but no thanks when offered leftover pizza. She couldn't eat it because she had no teeth. These things haunt me. I don't want to hear about how people make choices. People don't choose to be born into poverty and have abusive parents and end up on the street.

It's certainly much more complicated than dumping a bunch of change into a ratty cup or not trying to wiggle out of jury duty. I want to support the Occupy movement, but still do not quite understand what the goal is there. Oh, and then, there's this: I am constantly hustling to get work that pays something beyond peanuts so I can make my mortgage payment. I am too busy for do-gooding, right? Wrong. One powerful reason I want to do more is that I can picture myself on the receiving end of that help.

So, yeah, here comes the pitch. It's really not hard to contribute to one of my favorite charitable causes. The University District Food Bank helps feed 1,000 people a week, many of those numbers are children of working families. Please consider "walking in the light of creative altrusim" by making a donation online.