Friday, October 23, 2009

The Flavors of Fall: Savory Lamb from Skagit River Ranch

Is it just me, or do you all feel inspired to cook more as the days turn chilly and shorter? When it’s cold enough to turn on the furnace for the first time each fall, out comes one of my most treasured possessions—my enameled, cast-iron Dutch oven. What better way is there to celebrate autumn than with a big pot of fragrant, slow-cooked soup or stew?

For a fairly brief window each fall, local lamb turns up at the farmer’s markets and some local grocery stores around the Northwest. But hurry, the season is usually over by November. From what I read, lamb is an especially good source of easily absorbed zinc and iron, and compared to other meats, it contains very little marbling.

(Okay, I need to come clean here. Last spring, I wrote in Lambz in the Hood about my reluctance to eat lamb after being charmed by my neighbor’s baby lambs. Well, I needed more iron and my health care providers wanted me to eat red meat now and then…so I’m over it. If I do eat meat, though, I buy from farms and ranches that raise their animals cleanly and humanely.)

A few weeks ago I stocked up on stewing lamb from Skagit River Ranch at the University Farmer's Market in Seattle and simmered it to perfection in a cabernet franc wine and stock. At Skagit River Ranch, their livestock is born and raised on organic fields, and any grain they use is certified organic. In fact, most of my ingredients came from the University or Ballard farmer's markets from small, organic farms.

So here’s my simple and easy recipe:

I simmered small chunks of stewing lamb in a mellow red wine and chicken stock for a couple hours, threw in caramelized onions,carrots, then garlic from Anselmo’s Farm and, towards the end, some fresh little yellow Finn and fingerling potatoes from Alden Farms. And salt and pepper.

That’s it.

Of course this tasted better the second day. But really, isn’t that part of the point of soups and stews? Leftovers!

Fall Lamb Stew
(I tweaked this recipe from a hand-out at Central Market in Shoreline a few years ago). Serves about 4 to 5. Increase proportions to stretch. I tend to go light on the meat, so you might want to add more meat if you like.

1 lb lamb stew meat or lamb blade steak
flour, salt, pepper to coat
2 cups lamb, chicken, or beef stock (I use free-range, low-sodium chicken stock)
1 cup red wine
1 medium onion, diced
6 medium carrots, diced
6 small potatoes, steamed lightly and cut into chunks (mix it up with several varieties like carola, French rose fingerlings, yellow Finn,Yukon gold, etc.)
2-3 fat cloves garlic, minced

Cut lamb into small cubes, coat with flour, salt, pepper and brown in hot olive oil in a Dutch oven or big soup pot.

Deglaze the pan with 1/2 c. red wine and all the stock, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer on low heat for 2 hours or longer. Test meat for tenderness.

About 20 minutes before lamb is ready, in a separate large sauce pan sautee the carrots and onion in olive oil, first on high, then low, to carmelize (brown lightly). Steam the potatoes separately.

Add garlic to the onions/carrots, sautee for a minute, and the add the rest of the wine, bring to a simmer and add the potatoes. After about 5 minutes simmering, add to the lamb and wine/stock sauce, then simmer it about 5 minutes more to make sure potatoes and lamb are tender. Salt and pepper to taste. Maybe add butter or cream to thicken, but I didn't. Too rich for me.

Serve topped with minced parsely for color, a crisp green romaine salad on the side, and a thick slice of rustic artisan bread for sopping up the sauce.

Buon gusto!

I’ve love to hear your comments below on whether you make this and how it turns out, and any variations you’d make. Or your favorite soups or stews in general. And I’m thinking of posting about a chile verde recipe that I adapted from a friend who grew up in Taos, New Mexico. But after a kayak trip near Deception Pass. Gotta mix up the indoors and outdoors here in the great Northwest.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Whidbey Island Afternoon: Hiking the bluff 'n beach at Ebey’s Landing

I’ve always loved going places I’ve never been before. Don’t you? Sure, I dream of exotic, far-flung adventures. But it could also be something as simple as driving down a different road in my neighborhood.

Even though I’ve lived here most of my life, there are still plenty corners of the Northwest I’ve yet to see. Recently I made my first trip to hike the shoreline bluff at Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve on the westernmost point of Whidbey Island. This wonderful spot on the western edge of Whidbey offers stunning views of the Olympic Peninsula, Strait of Juan de Fuca, San Juan Islands, and east and south to the Cascade Mountains. Best of all, you can do it year-round.

Getting there
On a partly cloudy, breezy Friday, we catch a mid-morning ferry from Mukilteo to Whidbey. After swinging through Langley to fuel up at Useless Bay Coffee, we head up island on Highway 20 (part of the Cascade Loop scenic drive).

Although traffic is thicker on the island than it used to be, it still feels like a trip back to a slower time. We pass through evergreen forests, sweeping vistas, and bucolic farmland. When we arrive at the reserve’s beach parking lot west of Coupeville, one spot is open, just for us. “I have good parking karma,” Shari tells me.

Hiking the bluff
Before we start, I dash to the beach and dip my toes in the breaking waves. Just because. A light but steady, salty sea breeze blows across my face, refreshing and invigorating.

Right away the trail heads up wooden steps through a tangle of native shrubs like snowberry and Nootka rose. Within 10 minutes, we’ve hit the bluff top, which then angles gently upward.

The trail skirts preserved historic farmland and drops off steeply to the beach below.

Like a ghostly mirage, Mount Baker and elusive Glacier Peak float on the eastern horizon above lesser Cascade peaks such as Whitehorse Mountain and Three Fingers. We meander north up the bluff, passing tidy fields of golden grain that roll gently in sinuous waves. Part of the purpose of the historical reserve is to preserve this farmland from development, thus maintaining farming that’s gone on here for over a century.

Another 10 minutes or so up the bluff we enter the Robert Y. Pratt Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property. The whole Ebey’s Landing complex is actually a patchwork of National Park Service, Nature Conservancy, state park, and conservation easement land.

“I especially like this hike because you pass through the interface of four distinct landscapes—the farmland, the bluff, the lagoon, and the beach,” says Elizabeth Davis, a friendly retiree volunteer we meet on the trail. (Elizabeth isn’t crazy about having her picture taken, but she obliges. I think she’s quite lovely.)

After gradually climbing upward along the bluff, we top out at the edge of a mature lowland forest. Some of the Douglas firs here are as old as 200 years. From here the trail winds through tall grasses along the edge of wind-stunted trees.

Several little trails wind into the inviting green forest, but none of them go very far. “Those aren’t official trails and we discourage people from using them. They don’t really go anywhere,” Elizabeth tells us.

Whoosh! A big osprey flies overhead and drops like a stone into the tall grass below me halfway down the bluff. I think of the poor field mouse that probably just met its demise.

Don hikes at a brisk pace, but I can’t keep from stopping often to gape at the wondrous views down to the lagoon, across the Strait, and north into the San Juans. With the bracing fresh air and the lovely, unspoiled setting, I want to linger longer.

As the bluff trails angles downward, we switchback and head down to the lagoon (Perego’s Lake). At Elizabeth’s recommendation, we walk back along the lagoon’s edge instead of the beach just yet.

Brown and white killdeer float in bunches along the water surface. The saltwater lagoon is home throughout the year to lots of migrating birds and waterfowl.

We hop over the driftwood protecting the lagoon and walk the beach the rest of the way back. Several times I almost stumble on flocks of small brown birds that blend a little too well into the sandy beach. Each time they burst upward and fly together in formation farther down the beach, peeping in alarm. We hopscotch together down the beach.

About 2 hours after we started, we’re back at the car. Overall we covered close to 3 miles and got a good stretch of the legs. Now we’re off to Langley for dinner.

When You Go
This Nature Conservancy page has a map and directions to the beach at Ebey’s Landing. We spent a little over 2 hours there, but you could easily spend a few more with binoculars and bird or native plant guide in hand, your camera and tripod, or a sketch pad. Click here to donate to the Nature Conservancy.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The View Point Inn: Not just a pretty view

Sadly, the View Point Inn burned in summer of 2011 and is still closed, possibly forever.

Today I’m taking my mom for a special birthday lunch. We’re dining at the historic View Point Inn, which sits perched high on a bluff near the western edge of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area in Oregon. (For you Twilight fans, this is where Bella and Edward danced together under the stars at the Forks High School prom—about 200 miles from the real Forks, Washington.)

A Discovery

While driving up the old Columbia River Gorge Highway several years ago, I noticed a large gable-roofed building just past the cutoff to Larch Mountain. We stopped and discovered a vacant but charming 1920s-vintage villa. I immediately saw a diamond in the rough; with expansive lawns and steps leading down to an abandoned fountain in the garden, it just needed some polishing up.

I peered inside the multi-paned windows and saw a massive stone fireplace and wood floors. The view from the place was absolutely smashing—the Columbia River stretched west for miles toward the horizon, sprinkled with islands. The bluff below plunged hundreds of feet into a verdant green forest. What a gem!

After doing a little research, I discovered the property opened in 1924 as an inn. For several decades it drew fancy guests such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hollywood stars, and European aristocrats until it closed and fell into disrepair. Now it's on the National Register of Historic Places.

A Fantasy
I fantasized about enlisting my chef friend Ed, fixing the place up, and reopening it as a destination restaurant. (Never mind that my only restaurant experience was a few months at a fish ‘n chips joint as a teenager.) It was set above my beloved Columbia Gorge, and I envisioned exciting possibilities for featuring local food. I even dreamt about it one night. A few years later I heard it finally opened again.

A Meal
So here we are on an early fall afternoon at a window table in the sun porch, overlooking the garden and panorama beyond. A starched white linen tablecloth covers the table, adorned with a sweet little cup of pink flowers and a sprig of rosemary from the garden. To get here we passed through the spacious main room, where a fire crackles in the rustic fireplace and the chandeliers glow warm. It has the feel of the classic old National Park lodges, like Paradise Inn on Mount Rainier, but on a smaller scale.

A glance at the menu shows a focus on local food and flavors. (Great minds think alike, right?) “Are the prawns from the Oregon coast?” I ask our very friendly and personable waiter. “Yes they are,” he replies. We split the prawn cocktail appetizer, the roasted breast of fowl (chicken today) with balsamic-drizzled greens and roasted fingerling potatoes, and order a side of crusty, fresh olive-flecked bread.

Although the chicken entree is quite good, the highlight of our meal is the tender but firm and flavorful prawns. After reading about the nasty environmental effects of shrimp and prawn farms in Southeast Asia, I only order fresh, local shrimp anymore. Fortunately here in the Northwest we can get wonderful wild spot prawns and baby shrimp.

A Walk in the Garden
After we polish off our lunch, it’s time for a stroll in the garden. Since the phenomenal success of the Twilight movie, this is now a regular stop for teenaged girls and other, mostly young women. We see some girls posing for photos beneath a remnant from the movie set in the garden–-a tall black portal that reads Monte Carlo Casino. (Or something like that.)

Lush herbs and flowers line the building, and elegant old concrete pots interspersed along the pathways sprout trailing greenery.

Neon orange carp loll beneath lily pads in the pond surrounding the restored fountain. Catching a whiff of late-blooming lavender, I linger here as my mom enjoys the view from the patio above.

As we’re leaving, a family is checking in for the night. This is, after all, an inn, with four rooms upstairs above the dining room. I want to come back and spend an evening curled up on one of the huge sofas in front of the fireplace with a good book. Thanksgiving weekend perhaps?

When You Go
The View Point Inn is just 22 miles east of Portland (click here for a map and directions). Call ahead for reservations. Although we didn’t have any trouble getting in for lunch on a Saturday, it might be a very different story around the holidays. Check out their special events here. Our lunch came to about $40 with tip, which included an appetizer, an entrĂ©e, a side of bread, and tea.

To make it an even more scenic trip, drive through downtown Troutdale, up the Sandy River Gorge, and through Springdale and Corbett, with a stop at the Portland Women’s Forum State Park (Chanticleer Point) for the spectacular view east up the Gorge. After your meal, continue on down the old Columbia River Highway past numerous waterfalls and stop to hike off your lunch at Wahkeena or Multnomah Falls. Also, the aging historic building still needs preservation work, so click here and scroll down the page to donate a dollar to help out.