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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Taste Greg Atkinson

Our Culinary Soul Captured

A new guide to Northwest wining and dining details this fine moment in time

People in the food and beverage industry are notoriously fleet of foot.

Waiters and waitresses, chefs, even owners tend to bounce from one property to the next like so many particles of salt suspended in brine. So as soon as they hit the press, restaurant guidebooks are often obsolete. But every now and then comes a reference that so perfectly captures a particular time and place that updates are moot. Punctuated with recipes, personal portraits and insightful instructions on how to appreciate certain aspects of life in a particular place, great guidebooks can be more than references; they are treasures. Patricia Wells' guidebooks to France are like that.

Now, in "Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining: The People, Places, Food and Drink of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia," Braiden Rex-Johnson has created a guide that provides a penetrating snapshot of what it means to eat and drink well right now in our little corner of the world. The content is every bit as thorough as the title implies. And undoubtedly menus will change, chefs will come and go, restaurants will open and close, old wineries may fold and new ones spring up, but this guide will endure because the recipes will still matter, because the portraits of the producers will still be accurate, and because people are just going to like this book.

One of the challenges of writing the book was also one of the joys, says Rex-Johnson. "Simply, that there were so many outstanding winemakers, chefs and artisan food makers who could have been included, it was difficult to narrow down the possibilities." Then, once the book was written, fact-checking was a challenge because chefs had moved on, wineries were bought, specialty-food makers increased their product lines and so on. It was really "a reflection of just how swiftly the Northwest food-and-wine scene is evolving."

Indeed, when the book went to press last spring, Jerry Traunfeld was still at The Herbfarm restaurant, and it seemed the perennial Northwest chef might be there forever. But by the time the book was released this fall, Traunfeld had announced plans to open his own restaurant and the Herbfarm had hired a new chef.

In the end, says Rex-Johnson, "I had to realize that the book is a portrait of the Northwest as of April 2007, and changes after that are/were simply out of my control."

Very few things in Rex-Johnson's work are out of her control. Just as her "Pike Place Market Cookbook" and several other works detailed life in that neighborhood, this book covers the entire Northwest, showcasing not only recipes but all the people who spend their lives producing these good things. Those individuals are the heart and soul of this book. And it's clear to anyone who follows Rex-Johnson's work that she is one of them.

Greg Atkinson is author of "West Coast Cooking." He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com.

Recipe: Blue Cheesecake

Serves 12 to 16

The roasted garlic in this recipe can be store-bought or made at home. To roast individual cloves of garlic, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put the garlic cloves in a small baking dish without crowding, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake until the garlic is very tender and easily squeezed from the skin, about 35 minutes.

1 ½ cups water

½ cup medium-grind cornmeal

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 tablespoon dried basil, crumbled (optional)

1 ½ teaspoons herbes de Provence, crumbled

1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt

3 packages (8-ounce) cream cheese, at room temperature

½ pound Oregon Blue Vein, Oregonzola, Gorgonzola, Roquefort or other high-quality blue cheese, cut into chunks, at room temperature

3 large eggs

¼ cup (1 ounce) freshly shredded Parmesan cheese

1 head garlic, cloves separated and roasted

½ cup whole hazelnuts, pine nuts or almonds, toasted

Crostini or crackers, for serving, optional

1. Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Slowly stir in the cornmeal, stirring in one direction to avoid lumps, then add the garlic, basil, if using, herbes de Provence and salt. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until smooth and creamy, stirring occasionally and adjusting the heat as necessary so the polenta doesn't overcook or bubble up and splatter, 12 to 15 minutes.

2. While the polenta is cooking, place the cream cheese and blue cheese in a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs one at a time and mix by hand (if you are very strong!) or beat with an electric mixer until the eggs are thoroughly incorporated. Set aside.

3. Arrange the oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly oil a 9-inch springform pan or spray with nonstick cooking spray.

4. When the polenta is done, remove it from the heat and stir in the Parmesan cheese. Let cool for 5 minutes. With a rubber spatula, press the polenta into the bottom of the prepared springform pan and set aside.

5. Pour the reserved cheese filling evenly over the polenta crust. Tap the pan lightly on the counter to remove any air bubbles. Squeeze the garlic cloves from their skins and arrange them around the perimeter of the pan at equal distances. Sprinkle the nuts evenly in the center of the cheesecake.

6. Place the cheesecake on a baking sheet to catch any drips, transfer to the oven, and bake for 1 hour, or until the cake springs back when lightly jiggled and the internal temperature on an instant-read thermometer reaches 160 degrees. Cool on a wire rack for at least 1 hour.

7. To serve, release and remove the sides of the springform pan. Serve the cheesecake warm or at room temperature, cut into slices as an appetizer or spread onto crostini or crackers for a more rustic look. The cheesecake can be covered and kept in the refrigerator for up to 1 week (its flavors meld and deepen the longer it sits). If serving from the refrigerator, slice and warm it in a 350-degree oven or microwave briefly before serving.

—Adapted from a recipe originated at Paragon restaurant in Portland.

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