The haul from my inaugural PDX Food Swap.

Things I Learned from My First #PDXFoodSwap

Food
The haul from my inaugural PDX Food Swap.

The haul from my inaugural PDX Food Swap.

Just a few years ago, I was what I would call a foodie, but I actively avoided cooking. I lived with someone who loved to cook, and I was so deep in the middle of a depression that I wasn’t motivated to “play” in the kitchen. Today? Not only do I really enjoy cooking, I’m now inspired to expand my preserving repertoire.

This latest twist is thanks in large part to two things – an extremely productive garden (including the neighbor’s ignored fruit trees) and attending my first PDX Food Swap.

First, a bit of background on the food swap thing, since I got a lot of “huh?” on Facebook when I mentioned it.

I heard about the PDX Food Swap group from my friend Bethany, one of the co-founders. Participants register in advance and bring their homemade goodies to the swap, ready to trade with other swappers. It’s conducted sort of like a silent auction – you set out your stuff, then make the rounds seeing what everyone else has brought (sampling where people have thoughtfully allowed for this), and write your name (and what you’re offering to trade) on their swap sheets. After a period of time, you review the offers you’ve gotten on your own swap sheets, make any trades you’d like based on the list, and – if you’ve got leftover goods – circulate again to make any other trades you can.

After this summer’s bumper crop of figs, I made a huge batch of fig freezer jam and this extraordinary (and extraordinarily simple) fig coulis that’s a terrific sauce for poultry or pork. I signed up for the September food swap, designed some cutesy labels, and even clipped fig leaves to bring to the swap as part of the presentation.

I thought I would be styling.

The room was super crowded, I’m not even sure I got to see everything on offer during the time allotted, and then when I got back to my station to review my offers I had received only one. That was disappointing, to say the least, and the most disappointing part was that the sole offer was for the fig jam, not the fabulous fig coulis.

In the end, by carrying containers of fig coulis around the room (with some help from L, the 9-year-old) and explaining how wonderful it is, we managed to find enthusiastic new owners for every container of coulis we brought. We still ended up coming home with a lot of our own jam, however.

I want to be clear that I’m not in any way complaining. We traded for a great assortment of stuff, including two kinds of homemade butter and a coconut miso caramel sauce that is – I kid you not – one of the most interesting things I’ve tasted in ages. I also came away inspired and motivated to be ready for the next swap with something that might just mean my station is the crowded one.

With that in mind – and yeah, I admit there’s a little bit of my competitive side coming through – here are some of my takeaways from my first food swap.

4 Things I Learned from My First #PDXFoodSwap

1. Jam isn’t (necessarily) gonna cut it.

Jam is basically entry-level food swapping, as it turns out. Since I didn’t cook much of anything a few years ago, the fact that I made a whopping huge batch of simple fig jam makes me proud – but it’s nothing compared to the homemade brie that had people salivating at the food swap.

Not all jams are created equally, however, so if you’re going to bring jams or jellies, you’d best make sure they are either made of something that’s nigh unto impossible to get around here or they’ve got a flavor twist that’s inventive and interesting. Case in point? We came home with a jar of fig absinthe jam that I’m in love with.

2. The name on the recipe might not be the name to stick with.

So, about that fig coulis. What the hell is coulis, anyway? A nondescript container of murky beige, umm, something with a fig on the label and a vague note that it’s good on chicken – this is not enough, I found out.

When we first started picking the neighbor’s figs last summer, I hunted for every interesting-looking fig recipe I could find on the internet, and the fig coulis was the biggest hit. It’s stupidly simple – figs, EVOO, and balsamic vinegar (salt and pepper added to taste), and it’s now our favorite thing to eat with chicken. Another swapper had made a fruit-based sauce to go with red meat, and the label for that said “Burger & Steak Sauce,” with a helpful image of a hamburger. If I ever bring the fig coulis again, I’m going to need a more descriptive name for it. And, perhaps, samples.

(Because, seriously, it’s so good, you guys.)

3. Marketing is key.

As I said, we were able to trade all the fig coulis at the end, but it wasn’t because of my cute fig leaf presentation or my good penmanship on my swap cards. It was because we walked up to other swappers and, extolling the virtues of the coulis, asked whether they wanted to trade some for one of their goodies.

When we were packing up, two of the organizers came over separately to say they really liked how we were doing active marketing. I hadn’t thought of it as marketing at the time, honestly, I was just eager to go home with fewer of our things and more of everyone else’s, but I suppose marketing is a good term for it.

And it turns out that although marketing might be key (especially if you don’t have the hot item of the night), it’s actually pretty challenging to do when you’re out sampling everyone else’s stuff and not at your own station to tell people what the hell coulis is while they’re standing right in front of you. Which brings me to…

4. Next time, I’mma make my own swap sheets.

Organizers send out a PDF of the swap sheets in case people want to fill them out in advance, which – naturally – I did (hello, firstborn over here). But, as I mentioned, since I wasn’t standing right there to answer questions or “sell” the idea of the coulis, it didn’t generate any interest on its own. I had to do that one-on-one after the initial session was over.

And that’s why, next time, I’m going to make my own swap sheets. Assuming I’ve got the time, that is, I’ll scan the official sheets and incorporate them into a one-pager about my goodies, so that I can still be there (sort of) to “sell” my stuff at the same time that I’m out seeing other stations and leaving my name on other people’s sheets.

Crazy over-preparation? Maybe. But I think it will let me focus on seeing and sampling everything else without constantly feeling like I need to check on my list or hover over anyone looking at my station.

The Plotting Begins

No sooner had we walked out the door of the swap than we were already brainstorming what to bring to the next one in early December.

Maybe the boyfriend will get enough deer or even an elk this fall, and we’ll have game jerky. Maybe I’ll use some of his grandmother’s canned fruits to make my mother’s curried fruit recipe, always a favorite at the holidays. L is even excited about making her own contributions next time, so she can get whatever she wants (i.e. she’ll be the first in line for that big pound cake she was denied this time).

All in all, I’m calling it a success. And I’m really looking forward to the next one.

Bourbon Curious by Fred Minnick

Bourbon Curious: A Book Review

Food

I am a voracious reader, and I happen to adore brown likker. So when I got an email some months ago asking whether I’d like to be sent a review copy of a book about bourbon, I sent a pretty enthusiastic yes in reply. Here’s my review of that book.

Bourbon Curious by Fred MinnickI was a very late bloomer when it comes to drinking. I’ve never much cared for beer, didn’t start drinking wine until I was 26, and barely dipped my toe in the syrupy cocktail end of the pool by the age of 30. I don’t even recall the path that got me from there to the place I am now – a 43-year-old who likes what my mother calls “boozy” drinks.

Not only do I like boozy drinks, I especially love the alchemy that happens in a cocktail glass and the stories behind historic drinks. I suppose it’s not surprising, then, that I really enjoyed most of Fred Minnick’s book, Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker, which is part history book and part tasting guide.

The first part of the book breaks down what’s known about the history of bourbon – turns out the origin stories are a little murky – and puts some of the best known legends around certain brands to the test. (Spoiler: most don’t stand up to even the faintest degree of scrutiny.) Bourbon producers not only stretch the truth (which is putting it mildly in some cases), they’re pretty eager to hide the truth sometimes. Bourbon has survived – and thrived – in part thanks to some pretty shady dealings with things like slavery, prostitution, bootlegging, and snake oil salesmen. Not surprising at all, then, that distilleries make up their own origin stories.

There’s some really interesting myth-busting going on in this book – enough that a more combative person than I am might actually hope for that ill-informed blowhard at the bar to start in on how it can’t be called “bourbon” if it’s not made in Kentucky. (Spoiler: yes, it can.) Me, I’m satisfied just learning the history without needing to incite a riot at the bar.

After all the backstory, though, the most handy (to me) part of the book comes next. Minnick breaks bourbon down into four flavor profiles – grain, nutmeg, caramel, and cinnamon. Most bourbon will have a few (if not all) of those flavors present, but Minnick categorizes several popular bourbons by which flavor is most “forward.” I thought this was particularly useful, especially if you’re looking to pair bourbon or a bourbon cocktail with food, or if you’re looking for the right bourbon for a certain cocktail.

The last third (give or take) of the book was the part I could personally have done without. It’s a series of Minnick’s detailed tasting notes from a variety of bourbons, including space for your own tasting notes should you sample the same bottles included in the book. I once tried to keep a diary of wine tastings, but lost interest so quickly I think I didn’t get past the first page. I’m not a tasting notes girl. If you’re someone who keeps such notes, then this section might be just your cup of tea. Me? Not so much. I skimmed it.

Overall, I found Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker to be an informative, interesting, and quick read. I’ll be keeping it on my cookbook/barbook shelf for future reference in that middle third of the book that I thought was the most useful section. Honestly, I would love that section as a standalone bar reference book or – maybe – a smartphone app. The latter would be even more useful than the book, as it could include many more bourbons than are listed. There you go, Fred, that’s my contribution to your post-book to-do list. You’re welcome.

Did you know September is National Bourbon Heritage Month?

More information:

empanadas

Cooking (& Living) from the Hip

Food

In the 17+ years since I last lived on my own, a few things about me have changed.

Okay, more than a few.

empanadas

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on one thing – my cooking. Back in my early- and mid-twenties, I had barely graduated from dorm cuisine in my first couple of solo post-college apartments when I moved in with two bandmates (and benefited from a bit of communal cooking now and then). Soon after that I moved in with the man I would live with for the next 16 years – a man who loves to cook. I spent all those years thinking I didn’t like to cook, and that I was genuinely bad at it. I loved to eat, however, and thoroughly enjoyed cooking shows, talking with chefs, and learning about different dishes and ingredients both on my travels and in restaurants at home.

So now that I find myself living on my own again, it turns out that I actually do enjoy cooking – and that I’m not so terrible at it.

stuffed peppers

I have a lot to learn about cooking – it feels a bit like alchemy sometimes, when certain ingredients magically transform a runny sauce into something viscous, for instance – but my taste buds spent the last 17 years refining themselves into a decent cooking tool. I’m usually not sure how to proceed on the implementation front, but I almost can’t help myself coming up with ideas for ingredients or recipe tweaks.

Who knows, by the time I’m 50 I might just get the hang of this.

ceviche

Toward that end, I booked two spots at a Hipcooks class for my friend Toni’s birthday, and we spent three hours learning to make a bunch of tapas dishes (and then devouring them) with a dozen or so other people. It was great fun, the food was delicious, and the “from the hip” style of cooking was really accessible. They made cooking seem easy, which was perfect for me. As you can see from the photos in this post, the Hipcooks folks know what they’re doing – I’m looking forward to taking a few more classes from them in the coming year.

Maybe my favorite lesson of the evening was in making aioli. It calls for only the yolks, and the less of the white you can get into the bowl before you start whisking, the better. So, that means not just shifting the yolk from one hand to another, it means rolling the yolk down your arm. You read that right – you actually roll the fragile yolk down your forearm to remove the last traces of egg white. It’s a helluva cooking party trick.

My firstborn Type-A personality may never let me cook completely “from the hip,” but it’s hard to overlook how valuable that attitude could be for the rest of my life, too.

The Best Thanksgiving Side Dish You’ve Never Heard Of

Food

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. It is, after all, entirely focused on food. Not only that, there’s no pesky burden of gift-giving to get in the way of just enjoying the company of family and friends. It’s a bit of a shame that Thanksgiving is between Halloween (with its emphasis on buying too much candy) and Christmas (with its emphasis on buying, well, everything) – especially since the Christmas retail season has bled so far that I’m no longer shocked to see Christmas decorations in October…

At any rate, Thanksgiving in my mother’s house is completely traditional in some ways, and decidedly not in others. There’s family, of course, and also adopted family (there are often 20+ people around the table). There’s an enormous turkey, yes, and also curried fruit – a side dish I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Since curried fruit goes so brilliantly with turkey as well as ham, I thought it was a good time to let y’all know about it. And please fight the urge to think it sounds odd, because once you try it you’ll no longer feel like Thanksgiving is complete without it.

Sara’s Curried Fruit

This is a dish that’s served warm, but it’s actually better if you make it in advance (a day or two before) and reheat it. This gives all the flavors a chance to get to know each other better. Plus, then it’s one less thing you need to do on Thanksgiving, which is always a blessing.

Ingredients

  • 1 large can sliced pineapple
  • 1 large can (or 2 small cans) halved peaches
  • 1 large can (or 2 small cans) halved pears
  • 1 small-medium can plums (be sure to remove the pits!)
  • ½ – ¾ stick of salted butter
  • ¾ – 1 cup brown sugar, loosely packed
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350°.
  • Drain all canned fruit & pat it dry with paper towels. It doesn’t need to be bone dry, you just want to absorb most of the excess syrup.
  • Layer the fruit in a baking dish. The dimensions of the dish aren’t critical, as you’ll just keep layering until the fruit is gone, but you don’t want something too big or you won’t get the layered effect of the fruit.
  • In a small saucepan, melt the butter.
  • Add the brown sugar & curry powder to the melted butter & stir constantly for a few minutes. The mixture should be fairly thick (it won’t be a pour-able liquid). Take care not to burn this mixture.
  • Spoon the butter/sugar/curry mixture over the fruit in the baking dish, letting some of it go between the cracks to the layers below.
  • Bake uncovered for one hour.
  • Remove & cool, then refrigerate (covered) overnight. (Unless you’re serving it immediately, of course.)
  • When you’re ready to serve the dish, reheat it uncovered for one hour again in a 350° oven.

Sara’s Famous Gin & Tonic [VIDEO]

Food

My mother is a level of fabulous that’s hard to explain if you’ve never met her, and it would take me too long in this post to give you reasons why you should think she’s fabulous. You’ll just have to trust me on this one – and accept, for starters, the fact that my mother makes a kick-ass gin & tonic.

She demonstrated her method for making the perfect G&T some years ago, but as I’d already had one of the aforementioned cocktails I couldn’t remember the exact recipe order later on. So this time, I got it on video.

cin-cin

Asparagus Summer Soup

Food

It’s time to remind you about this fabulous summer recipe – one of the few things I actually cook – that will let you enjoy the flavor of asparagus long after they’ve disappeared from the market. Enjoy!

One of the things I used to appreciate most about travel was how the food I focused on was all about the season. Sure, there are supermarkets the world over now, but when I first went to France the best food was the stuff that was in season right then, when I was eating it. It’s a concept that should have sunk in much sooner – eat what’s fresh – but it took me a few more years to really embrace it at home. After all, when you can get asparagus year-round at the local Safeway, what are seasons, anyway?

Thankfully, I know better now.