Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Every Step of the Way

One of the most defining qualities of the Portland food scene is overlooked by almost everyone in the community except the farmer. That is the proximity of surrounding farmlands to the city markets and restaurants they supply. There are few cities that enjoy such a short drive into town with a van full of fragile, often highly perishable produce. 

One of my primary suppliers drives in from Canby, Oregon, a mere 30 miles from the restaurant in downtown Portland. Sheldon and his wife Carole keep about 12 acres of land productive for 11 months out of the year. His recordkeeping is very thorough, and his planting is carefully planned. One of the most impressive feats of this farm is its efficiency of delivery into the city. Every square foot of the company van is accounted for, with three different dimensions of waxed cardboard boxes tightly arranged according to the delivery route, filling perfectly the 48 inches between the wheel wells. Flats of tomatoes, tomatillos or ground cherries are stacked in the rear, so that all the boxes are secured against tipping and sliding. 

The small farmer has to have a wide skill set. Not just a green thumb, but able to fix machinery,  balance an uneven cash flow, organize their planting and crop rotation, and maximize their delivery space for the trek into the city. It's inspiring to see it all come together. So, next time you are shopping at the farmers market, remember all the hidden efforts and expenses that have gone into their lovely market stall. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

True and False Morels

Several people have asked me about the "false morels" of spring, what they look like and how they taste. This spring has so far produced some great specimens from all the spring mushrooms, so we can take a look at them. Morchella elata, the black morel is pictured on the left. A delicious mushroom that has many different morchella species, ranging in size and color. They are all edible, and easily identified because the stipe connects to the head at its base. 

Verpa bohemica, the verpa is pictured in the center. It is a false morel which some regard as more delicious than the morel, but others regard as inedible, causing stomach distress and flatulence. It is easily identified by its stipe, which connects to the apex of the head. For this reason, it is sometimes called the "thimblecap morel," because the cap can be easily picked from the base.

Lastly, gyromitra esculenta, sometimes called "calf's brain," for its appearance, or "snow morel," for its ability to grow before the spring snows have melted. The Latin word "esculenta," means edible, and this mushroom is often regarded as delicious in Europe. It does contain a known carcinogen, and some regard it as poisonous. However, the true and false morels are often cooked together and equally regarded by some people. 

The best of them all, in my opinion, is not a spring mushroom at all. The gray morel does not emerge until summer. Morchella tomentosa is the largest and most delicious. It is distinguished from other morels by the small velvety hairlike "fur" that covers it. These mushrooms can grow up to nine inches in height, making them absolutely wonderful for stuffing with a variety of flavorful fillings! In our region, they often come from Mount Adams and the wilderness to the east of Mount Hood. 


Opening a restaurant begins a long process of decision making. What kind of tables and chairs shall we have, what kind of oven and refrigeration shall we buy, which computer systems will we use? And of course, what kind of food and service will the restaurant be known for. Raven & Rose intended to draw inspiration from the British Isles, serving rustic yet refined fare that harkens us back to our culinary and colonial ancestry. As a chef, I needed to understand not only what kind of food to serve, but what it would be served on. 

At home, I have a large collection of plates and glasses, especially Japanese plateware. Japanese utsuwa, meaning pottery or vessel, have always been my favorite kind of service ware. There is such a rich and diverse variety of shapes, colors and textures which enhance the pleasure of eating and drinking from them. For many years at Park Kitchen, I enjoyed using them to present all sorts of preparations. For the Raven & Rose project, I definitely needed something with more Anglo-Saxon connotations. 

I have always been a big fan of Heath Ceramics, in Sausalito, California. Their plates were always a leading candidate.  The speckled ceramics popularized by Noma in the Scandinavian countries seems to have sparked a great deal of interest in textured glazes and new shapes. Perhaps that was part of the inspiration for the new Craft Series launched by Steelite, the English plateware company. The moment I saw the catalog for these new plates, I knew this would be the perfect plate for an upscale English farmhouse restaurant. Strangely enough, I have used the Steelite plates alongside many of my Japanese pieces, and there has been a pleasant continuity between them.